Thursday, July 26, 2007

The White Stripes Live in Boston 7/23/07

The first impression I had of tonight's concert was how bizarre the Agganis Arena seating arrangement was. In addition to all the sections with chairs around the side, the floor was divided into two sections, for no obvious reason, one up front and one that had a barrier halfway down the floor. That ended up working out well for me though, as I got there an hour before the show and ended up second row, dead center. If we'd reach, I almost could have shaken Jack White's hand. The first floor section wasn't near full though - if I was in the second I would have been mad with 30 feet of empty floor space in front of me.

Dan Sartain was fun once again. He mixed up the setlist a bit, but it was nice to sort of know some of the songs. He also added another guitar in addition to the hollow-body, a standard electric. The three songs I remembered to find later were Flight of the Phoenix (turns out it's Finch), Panama City Beach, USA, and one with a chorus of hoo-hoo-ha-ha-hoo-hoo-ha-wellcomeon. Still working on identifying that last one.

He got off at 8 so I assumed the Stripes would be on at 8:30, but it was almost 9 before they took the
stage. The first nice surprise was that the audience didn't move. No pushing to get to the front, no shoving anyone out of the way, no moshing at all. Some people have called the crowd lame as a result, but it worked out great for me. Much quicker intro today, straight into Dead Leaves followed by When I Hear My Name. The latter seemed significantly longer than yesterday's, extended with a few flailing solos.

From there he grabbed the white acoustic and went into another fast version of Hotel Yorba. The crowd didn't seem as into it as in Portland though, and that lack of overall energy was reflected in the performance as well. Jack then grabbed the hollow body and went into my first new song of the night, 300 mph Torrential Outpour Blues. And what a song it was, Jack channeling his inner Robert Johnson with some great acoustic slide work and funky rhythmic breaks. A song that didn't do much for me on record, it exploded live. The Stripes perform plenty of blues, but they should do more quieter ones like this.

Grabbed the Airline guitar again for a familiar riff, Cannon (sounded like Dead Leaves at first). A absurdly high-energy version during which hen jerked and flailed all over the stage of this led into another great I'm Slowly Turning Into You. It was about the same as last night, but just as fun, and the crowd loved it just as much. The techs weren't quick enough picking up after him though, and his guitar cord kn
ocked over all his other guitars when he came down from the second level. Jack neither noticed nor cared.

Next came an early highlight of the night, an incredible cover of Blind Willie McTell's Lord, Send Me an Angel. They've covered it life frequently over the years, and even released a promo single of it in 2000, but it hasn't lost any of its life. Loud, but unusually beautiful for them. It featured a lot of Jack vocals about himself ("These Boston girls won't let Mr. Jack White rest!") that got enormous applause each time.

From there it was another one I saw last night, Catch Hell Blues. He seemed way more into it tonight, really wailing for all he was worth before leaping back into that little picking part. He hit the keys again for a song I associate with last night's Mother's Heart, Same Boy You've Always Known. The take was very focused, with vocals fluctuating between straight and banshee shriek seemingly uncontrollably. Then into another In the Cold Cold Night, about the same as last night's. The one difference was that Jack seemed more into is - when Meg played the riff on organ, instead of playing the same thing he did some loud chords soloing of his own.

I'd thought Apple Blossom yesterday was a surprise, but apparently not as he played it again today. It lost a little something as the crowd around me wasn't as into it as they were last night, but a nice little song regardless. He ended over by Meg's kit and went straight into Hello Operator, an old song I'd never seen before. It was loose, sounding on the border of falling apart, and turned out better for it.

About this time something interesting happened. This really loud fluctuating noise almost like an air raid siren started. It didn't sound like feedback exactly, and Jack moving around didn't fix it. He went over to Meg and loudly yelled "What?", to which she just shrugged. It didn't stop, so he knelt down and crossed himself. A pretty funny scene, but he might have been frustrated as the set ended pretty abruptly soon after. Not before Icky Thump though, which featured him grabbing the hand mic on the back amp for the "you're an immigrant too" line, before throwing it over Meg's drum kit halfway through the verse.

The last song of the set was the perennial audience favorite (and one he played live with Bob Dylan in '04) Ball and Biscuit. I always want to like it more than I actually do though, and tonight was no exception.

The main set was excellent, but the encore was really where it got interesting (for better and worse). The break beforehand was exceptionally long. I saw one of the stagehands hurriedly whisper to another after a couple minutes and he scurried off setting up the bass! So I knew what was coming as Jack grabbed it and went into My Doorbell. This may be one of the most drastic reinventions they've ever done, from catchy little piano ditty to distorted bass screecher (the first time Jack's even played the instrument no less) and the general consensus is sucks. I was pleased to hear it, and one of the reasons I love the band is that they take risks, but this one was a swing and a miss. In a big way. The bass could be cool on other songs (a slower Blue Orchid comes to mind) but coupled with the bouncy melody he's singing here it sounds absolutely ridiculous. By the end I was laughing at how bad it was.

They didn't let that slow them down though, as from the worst song of the night they quickly transitioned into the best song. Or should I say songs. Lots of them. Without a setlist, they fly off the cuff, but this took it to a new level. Jack played the riff to I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself once, then played the I Think I Smell a Rat riff once. Back to Myself, to Rat, and back and forth, leaving the audience guessing which song he'd end up singing. It turned out to be Rat, but he didn't stay there long as he quickly switched to singing Screwdriver. A verse or two of that and he was suddenly playing the Rag and Bone riff as intensely as I've seen. Never actually sang it though, as after a verse of that riff he was back into Screwdriver. And then back to I Think I Smell a Rat to close ouit the medley. and as if that wasn't enough, there were chunks of Dead Leaves, Cool Drink of Water, and some line about gasoline thrown in there for good measure. So basically, seven songs in one, maybe more. Ridiculous.

Seven Nation Army was mostly the same as yesterday (though the stop/start arrangement was gone), but Boll Weevil was much more fun, for one reason...the monologues. As he began he talked about how great it was to play Boston and how they'd be back soon and before the third verse he talked for quite a bit. Something along the lines of "Well this last verse is about myself, a topic you've already heard way too much about to night. But if you'll just indulge me this one last time that would be grand. And at the end we'd like everyone out there, you, and you, and you, to sing a long with us. That would make Meg and I ever so happy. If you do, we might even come clean out your garage for you, right Meg? The words are, he's looking for a home." One verse, two choruses, one bow, and they were gone.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The White Stripes Live in Portland 7/22/07

After seeing a good, but not great, Stripes show at Bonnaroo, I wasn't exactly sure how they'd stand up on their proper tour. After a string of dates encompassing every Canadian province and territories (yes, even the obscure ones) combined with a secret 50-person show each afternoon, the American tour that started in Portland seemed to be anti-climactic news-wise at least. Within their first notes at Portland, however, they proved that, though all the extra stuff was gone, the show itself had all the energy it ever had.

First up, however, was Dan Sartain. I had never heard of him before, but he blew the crowd away. Playing an old hollow-body, his three-piece group raced through song after song of what can only be described has half surf-rock, half grunge, with a little Elvis Costello thrown in for good measure. Sort of like the Beach Boys, if the Beach Boys were demonic vampires. If that helps at all. The two nights I saw him he apparently had a special guest drummer Ben Blackwell. Blackwell is the Whites Stripes official archivist, roadie, website manager...and Jack White's nephew. A damn good drummer too, very loose and fluid, keeping the beat without being constricted by it. Sartain cruised through songs like Flight of the Finch and PCS Beach USA that people were singing along to be the end, even throwing in a little bit of scat-beatboxing at one point. Definitely an artist I'd see again.

The break before the Stripes seemed to take forever, but the crew (all in black and red three piece suits with matching feat
hered fedoras) did have a lot to set up. Such as Jack's regular mic, Jack's piano mic, another pair of mics that would each only go to one channel, left or right, and a distortion mic on the back amp. And that's just so the guy can sing. The stage and backdrop was all solid red, including three stairs to a second level that they hadn't had at Bonnaroo.

Eventually they came on. Seeing shows in Portland is always an interesting experience, because the people are somewhat starved for big name groups, so they get very excited. A little too excited, as the pit quickly became dangerous, with people getting injured and everyone on the verge of falling down. I'm all for energy, but when it takes away from enjoying the show it becomes too much. Anyway, Jack was wearing all red, only broken up by a shiny red and white belt buckle proudly on display while Meg had black pants, and red and white stripes shirt, and a little sideways necktie thing that made her look like a very fashionable pirate. They stood ready to go, but the intro music didn't stop. So Jack started stomping his foot, ready to go, but the music kept playing. No acknowledgment of the audience though as they eventually decided to overpower the music and went into...noise. Lots of it, that eventually turned into Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground. They've opened most shows this tour with it and it's always enjoyable, though not hugely memorable compared to what was to come. Seemed a little faster than it is on record.

Another classic second song, they raced through When I Hear My Name at breakneck speed, going through the whole thing (including a solo) in under two minutes. Unfortunately, we were in a bad spot (or his mic was too low) because Jack's vocals
were very difficult to hear. His deranged-man falsettos were barely audible. What was cool, however, was the lighting. Bonnaroo had been outdoors, so lights weren't an option, but that missed out on a lot. The blank red screen behind them was filled with their 40-ft tall shadow as they played. Watching Jack (which is where your attention is most of the time) with an enormous Meg behind him was a great view, but not as cool as his shadow. He looks insane enough in person, but a 40-ft tall silouhette made him look like Edward Scissorhands on guitar. Kind of creepy actually, but in a good way.

I expected Icky Thump next, and was pleased to hear the intro to the Dolly Parton cover Jolene. He played around with the riff a little, keeping it only barely recognizable, but otherwise it seemed a pretty standard rendition. After it was over he introded himself and his "big sister" Meg and mentioned this being their first time in Maine (not true for him though, as his band the Raconteurs played in Portland last November - see the review here) and then tried a little rhyme. "The Maine...falls....mainly...on...the stage?" Long, long pause where he looked confused and scratched his head. The longer he didn't do anything, the louder the audience got. "Repeat after me. The Maine...falls..." Another long pause (all for dramatic effect, my guess would be, and well executed at that). A few more times of this and then he got it right. The audience repeated and...

Bam, right into Effect and Cause, the song I was most hoping to hear off the new record. The guitar, a gorgeous white acoustic with a pick-shaped hole, was much louder and more jarring than on record, but it worked well. Unfortunately this was the first time of many I was distracted by the insanity of the audience and missed my favorite lines, "I'm not saying I'm innocent, in fact the reverse, but if you're headed to the grave you don't blame the hearse."

Just saying the name of Hotel Yorba got a h
uge response from the crowd, who pogo-sticked frenetically during the whole song. He switched to Meg's mic for the "4, 5, 6 ,7" part then switched guitars and played a riff so overwhelmed with distortion and feedback I couldn't make it out. When I finally did, I realized it was my favorite song, I Think I Smell a Rat. Only played the riff though, as he immediately transitioned into an old song on a new record, Little Cream Soda. This song was invented at an Ohio concert in 2003, but not put on record 'til 07. It was killer live as Jack rocked the songs memorable riffs for all they were worth.

Next up was another new song, one that had been a low of Bonnaroo. Tonight, however, it was far and away the highlight of the night, I'm Slowly Turning Into You. He started on organ, using his fist to cue a huge "YEAH" from the audience after every line which he seemed to love. After a verse he switched to guitar and started the chorus over by Meg's kit. He soon stopped singing and just went to the front of the stage letting the crowd belt the chorus. And then it really got going, with a solo that took him all around the stage, on top of the front amp and, finally, up those stairs to the second level. He walked across the platform with jerky stomps and each time his foot hit the floor a puff of smoke (baby powder I'm guessing) would shoot up. An awesome effect, soon enveloping his feet in smoke that exploded with each step. As he walked his guitar cord got tangled in one thing after another, leaving the crew to sprint around fixing it before it screwed Jack up. That also gives him the effect of being completely out-of-control, as every time he throws over a microphone or kicks a guitar he's got people in suits running around fixing it as he keeps playing, seemingly oblivious.

As he picked up the hollow body and the slide I thought Death Letter was up, but it turned out to be the third new song in a row, Catch Hell Blues. His slide work was amazing as always, but other than that the 12-bar blues wasn't too memorable.

Unfortunately my memory of the next two songs isn't great as I was distracted by some doped-up guy causing a disturbance next to me. We eventually got him ejected, but not before he'd ruined Do and The Hardest Button to Button. Button seemed to have lost most of its signature riff, but I might just have missed it amidst the commotion.

My favorite song off the new album was up next, A Martyr For My Love For You. Didn't have the memorable lead-in of two people being engaged as it did at Bonnaroo (read about that here), but everything else was just as good. It's a very complicated song, musically as well as lyrically, with a flamenco tint to it. Definitely a high for the group, and played to perfection. Even had some almost-complicated drumming.

Jack was sweating bullets by this point, so I wasn't surprised to see him give himself a bit of a break by playing In the Cold Cold Night. He went back and sat behind Meg's drums as he played, letting her come front and center to sing. Though exhaustion may have also been a factor, sitting almost out of sight and relinquishing the spotlight to her was a classy move. She gets a lot of flak for being a bad drummer, and certainly doesn't have the charisma JAck does, but the White Stripes couldn't exist without her any more than it could without him. She has a better voice than I remembered. It might get irritating after a while, but for only a song or two it's very nice.

Some bouncy little keyboard chords led into a song I never expected to hear (though apparently it's not rare this tour), Apple Blossom. This poppy little jingle made for a nice break from all the loud distortion, and it sounds much better with the keys than the original acoustic guitar. The show could have used a few more changes of pace like this.

Jack played a slow bluesy riff over and over again that I didn't recognize. When he started singing though, I couldn't believe it, a super-slow version of the originally frantic Astro. He only did one verse of it, but it was still a highlight before hitting that weird one-note-at-a-time keyboard thing for Icky Thump. I'm not a huge fan of it on the album, but it was much more enjoyable tonight. It might have been that that awful keyboard was quieter though, I don't know. He switched over to Meg's mic for the "white America" line though, which the audience cheered for. Those Maine liberals.

After a short encore break, they came back out and went right into Blue Orchid, the first song off of Get Behind Me, Satan they'd played. Songs from that album haven't been played that much this tour, but that's ok with me because at my first show in '05 they played the whole thing live. The rendition was as high-energy as ever, but even more memorable was the lighting, in which they seemed to unleash every trick they had. The stage darkened and a huge disco ball threw rotating flecks of red light everywhere. Then the started switching it between red and white flecks, then they strobed em. You could watch it on mute and it would have still been awesome.

From there right into the second Satan song, The Denial Twist, which Jack sang over by Meg's kit. Only a couple verses of that though before he threw that guitar down and grabbed the acoustic. I thought it would be We Are Going to Friends, a song I have no idea why is so popular as, but it turned out to be the super-rare Sugar Never Tasted So Good. It was very enjoyable, extended with a lot of solos, but I only vaguely knew it so I wasn't as excited to see it as I should have been.

Dammit, turns out I hadn't avoided Friends after all. Everyone loves that song, but it seems incredibly stupid and obnoxious. The crowd was so into it though that it was bearable, especially as Jack let us sing half the lines. From there, though, he went into another major highlight of the night, I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart on keys. Very similar to the album version, but a rarity that was well performed and well appreciated.

He then picked up the hollow-body and I knew it was almost over. Seven Nation Army featured an unusually long intro though, as he would play the famous riff, then just stand there stomping his foot for a while before playing it again. This long pause shows up again before the third verse. Though they do play it every show, it's nice to see them changing it up a little.

I hoped that wasn't the end (as it often has been recently), but luckily he went over and grabbed his Flyer guitar for one of the all-time great show closers by any band, Boll Weevil. The song was originally by Leadbelly, but has largely been rewritten. He did the standard long intro about "This is the last song, and it's about a creature that destroyed people's homes" and then encouraging the crowd to singalong before the "verse about myself" in a typically odd Jack White way. Needless to say, the "If anyone asks you people, who sang you this song, you tell em it was Jackie White, he's done been here and gone" got a roar of approval and from there Meg just pounded the drums while he led the audience in singing. One more loud chorus and it was over, with a brief bow from the two on the front amps, and then they were gone. Til tomorrow night.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Randy Newman at the Calvin 7/15/07

In the list of underappreciated songwriters, Randy Newman has gotta be right near the top. He’s probably more known for his pithy little Pixar soundtracks than anything (not too pithy though, he did win an Oscar), but his non-movie songs exhibit his real talent. Seeing him at in Northampton, we heard about topics from unrequited love to the failure of Marxism, stopping at a traveling one-man circus and the history of the European military along the way.

Dressed in a drab Hawaiian shirt and khakis, he looked like the aging frumpy tourist as he loped on stage at the Calvin Theatre. After taking a perfunctory bow, he headed to the piano, the night’s only instrument. He kicked it off with a typically ironic (we hope) song, It’s Money That I Love. Opening the set by singing about how he’s only here because he’s getting paid…oh Randy. Yellow Man, an early song complete with "an authentic Chinese intro for all you musicologists out there" led into the first serious song of the evening, Living Without You.

That somber note didn't last long, however, as he banged out the intro to his biggest hit, Short People. It's a funny little song, but gets old after you've heard it enough times. Apparently the same was true for him, as he hurried through it without much energy. That out of the
way (and the crowd pleased with the first song that everyone knew), he went into another one of his big number, Birmingham. This was on my short lists of songs I was looking forward to and, even with the spare piano arrangement, it kept it's melodic core. Don't know what the city did to deserve that praise (which I don't think is ironic), but apparently it's the "greatest city in Alabam' ".

With the next song the show really got rolling. . Half the fun of the show was his hilarious song intros and anecdotes. This one was about how he was thinking near the end of the century about the inevitable lists of "Greatest Whatevers of the Last 100 Years" that would be coming. He knew they would because he "remembered it from the last time". He realized unless he wrote a truly epic song he wouldn't on the list. So out came The Girls Of My Life Part 1, about as epic as it sounds. "Was a girl, maybe five-foot-two, had the cutest little feet, made my heart go tweet tweet." Clearly an anthem for the ages.

A brief jaunt through a school's parents orientation supplemented with a look at Marxism in The World Isn't Fair led into my second favorite song of his, the painful I Miss You, "written for my first wife while I was married to my second." He performed it with the dignity it deserved and the audience responded in kind, with not a noise or movement anywhere. The stillest I've ever seen a crowd as they sat enraptured.

A couple songs later we got what had to have the biggest reaction of the evening, his newest release A Few Words In Defense of Our Country. This was originally published a few months back as an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, then as this video. Almost spoken word with piano background, the anti-regime lines got the expected cheers but the whole song was met with laughs and wild applause at the end. I don't want to give away the funny bits, so just watch the video. Humorous, but also dead accurate.

A few songs I didn't know later (and one I did, but have no idea why it was a hit covered by Tom Jones, You Can Leave Your Hat On), he announced that the next song would need audience participation. I crossed my fingers that it would be the one song I was hoping for the most, the song that comes pretty close to home describing many of my favorite artists, I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It). I guessed correctly, and it proved another highlight of the evening as he had the audience sub in for the record's backing singers. Some pretty elaborate instructions for a crowd of people who may not know the song, but he conducted it like a pro. Though the original is about as rocked-out as Randy gets, it seems to work just as well in the spare arrangement, the parts rearranged slightly so as to prevent the audience from screwing up the singing. He could have ended there and I would have been happy.

But it was less than half over. Next up was a song I recognized...I thought. Turns out Losing You is a new song, scheduled to be released on next year's record. If I thought I'd already heard it, it can't be very original, but I'll give it another chance when it comes out. Another shoulda-been hit Political Science closed out the first set on a high note, though the "let's drop the big one, see what happens" mentality is a little too relevant thirty years down the line.

He didn't open his first set with Mama Told Me (Not to Come), so I thought for sure that would start the second. Nope, I didn't even know the first song at all, one only released as a demo version on his box set. Laugh and Be Happy was fun though, and got a good reaction at the line "don't let the bastards grind you down". Next up was a song I like well enough on record, Last Night I Had a Dream, but it didn't do a lot for me live. I don't
know if it was actually slower, but it seemed to plod along.

Saying the next song was about a murderer threw me off, cause I'd never thought if In Germany Before the War that way before. Is the man by the river supposed to be Hitler or something? Interesting. The next song, though was a real highlight for the intro alone, all about seeing the We Are the World video in the 80's and wondering why he wasn't among the list of A-List performers there. He decided that he needed to write a similarly do good, save the world sort of song and he started out..."I ran out on my children, I ran our on my wife." Throughout the song he listed the performers who'd be signing each part, leading to the chorus, sung to his son, which Sting and Bono would duet on: I Want You to Hurt Like I Do. A funny song in its own right, made so much better by the context.

The concert hit a bit of a stall at that point (though the fact that I didn't know many of the next half dozen songs didn't help), starting with Baltimore. That was another song I was looking forward to, but it loses a lot without the soaring strings of the original. Paired down it loses the crescendos and emotion. Skip ahead a few songs (including another biggie, You've Got a Friend In Me from Toy Story, which is about as insipid as it sounds) to another geographically-themed song, Louisiana (1927). Amazing how accurately he wrote about Hurricane Katrina in 1974. I guess the Calvin Coolidge parts a little
different, but other than that it's pretty much the same.

Next up was another favorite, a song I'd been hoping he would play but completely forgotten about during the show itself. Another sing-a-long about an old guy too, this time about him propositioning his trophy wife/obsession to come back to him, Shame. The audience sang the "shame, shame, shame" parts as he responded with "I don't what you're talking about," "you're right, I've sunk pretty low" and finally, halfway through our chorus "shut up!" Not very often that a performer asks you to sing along and then yells at you when you do. He sure has some memorable characters.

I Love LA was the one song I'd been hoping for in the second set and it was mostly up to expectations. Another rocker, it doesn't work quite as well in the piano context as I'm Dead, but well enough. He seemed to realize this problem though, ending it early after two verses and a chorus. I would have liked to hear more, and if he'd gotten the audience to do the backing vocals again it could have been stronger (and lasted longer). The last song of the set was the beautiful I Think It's Going to Rain Today, a song that I can't imagine in any context other than solo piano. Very different lyrics from him too, about "scarecrows dressed in the latest styles with frozen smiles to chase love away". A complicated song, very sad despite lyrics about how "human kindness is overflowing." The way he sings it, that sounds like a bad thing.

I knew he'd play Sail Away, another song that is more popular than it deserves. I do love the line about being "as happy as the monkey in the monkey tree" though, so that alone made the performance worth it. Feels Like Home was a pretty bad choice to end the show with, a sappy song with plenty of "if you knew how much this moment means to me" stuff. Weak, Randy.

Otherwise, however, it was one of the best concerts I've seen in a while. He rarely tours - this was the last show of a half dozen this year - and hasn't released an album since '99, but if he ends up having a new one next year it should be worth checking out.

It's Money That I Love
Yellow Man
Living Without You
Short People
The Girls in My Life Part 1
The World Isn't Fair
I Miss You
Red Bandanna
A Few Words In Defense of Our Country
Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear
Bad News From Home
You Can Leave Your Hat On
I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)
Losing You
Political Science
Laugh and Be Happy
Last Night I Had a Dream
Love Story
In Germany Before the War
I Want You to Hurt Like I Do
Real Emotional Girl
You've Got a Friend In Me
Jolly Coppers on Parade
Dixie Flyer
Louisiana (1927)
I Love LA
I Think It's Going to Rain Today
Sail Away
Feels Like Home