Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Morning Jacket at the Chicago Theater 12/28/08

Having seen My Morning Jacket’s four-hour show at Bonnaroo, one ranked as Stereogum’s third best concert of the year and one of Entertainment Weekly’s best entertainment events of the year, one would predict a run of the mill tour stop to be slightly less impressive. And were the two Chicago shows played on the fall tour as scheduled, perhaps that would have been the case. However, when frontman Jim James injured himself, the October dates were pushed back to a December two-pack to warm the Jacket up for their New Year’s Eve extravaganza at Madison Square Garden.

After a few months off the road, MMJ had to bring their A-game to these theater shows. Seeing the precision with which they perform their country-metal though, I doubt they have any other type of game. At their second of the Chicago Theater dates (James noting that the venue looked like the inside of a brain), they zoomed from the Byrds to Black Sabbath and back, hitting their most steel-guitar croon-ey on cuts like “Thank You Too!” and their most balls-out rock with “Remnants” and “Run Thru.” There exists no tighter band, equally at home swaying to acoustic rhythms as head-banging to electric thrashing. Along the way they even touched on some funk, on the epic “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” and the grunge-funk “Highly Suspicious,” coming complete with a throbbing strobe light show to match the distorted yelling.

Though they stayed away from the covers marathon of Bonnaroo, Sunday’s show spanned their five-album discography, giving early Americana albums like At Dawn as much play as their later electronic Z. The centerpiece, though, was Evil Urges, which the local DJ who introduced them aptly noted was one of the best discs of the year. They hit eight out of the thirteen tracks tonight, from the distortion falsetto of the title track to a solo acoustic “Look At You” to open the encore. Mixing the songs in with older fan favorites and back-catalogue rarity, they proved the new material could match their best, no matter how bizarre it got (see “Highly Suspicious”).

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour show the band’s energy never flagged, whether it was James doing other-worldly falsetto cries on “Wordless Chorus” or Patrick Hallahan giving the drums an unrelenting pummeling on the set-closer “Run Thru,” where lights, volume and passion propelled a ten minute riff marathon while the band flailed and jumped around. Everything came together one last time for their best-known song “One Big Holiday,” so known because of its blaring live performances, the band headbanging as hard as the crowd. Their “Born to Run,” it left the crowd gasping for breath as the band left the stage. They’re ready for New Year’s.

SHOW RECORDING COMING SOON

SETLIST
1. At Dawn
2. It Beats 4 U
3. Evil Urges
4. I'm Amazed
5. Gideon
6. What A Wonderful Man
7. Golden
8. I Will Sing You Songs
9. Lowdown
10. Sooner
11. Thank You Too!
12. Anytime
13. Remnants
14. Lay Low
15. Highly Suspicious
16. Off The Record
17. I Think I'm Going To Hell
18. Smokin’ From Shootin’
19. Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Pt.2
20. Run Thru
-encore-
21. Look At You (Jim James solo)
22. Nashville To Kentucky
23. Steam Engine
24. Cobra
25. Wordless Chorus
26. One Big Holiday

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best Concerts of 2008

As I prepare my inevitable album-of-the-year list to add to the growing stack, here's a teaser of my ten favorite concerts of the year. Out of the dozens of shows I saw, these stand high above the rest. For the sake of not giving me a nervous breakdown, I've excluded the two major festivals I saw, Bonnaroo and Farm Aid, though several of those sets certainly would have made the list (Levon Helm, Gogol Bordello, My Morning Jacket, Neil Young...). Those aside, here are the top ten.

#10
Alejandro Escovedo
Paradise Rock Club - Boston
, MA
July 10th
Review

#9
Radiohead
Comcast Center - Mansfield, MA
August 13th

Review

#8
Sigur Rós

Bank of America Pavilion - Boston, MA
September 19th
Review

#7
Unlimited Enthusiasm Expo
Middle East - Cambridge, MA
June 25th
Review

#6
Bruce Springsteen
XL Center - Milwaukee, WI

March 17th
Review

#5
The Hold Steady
Paradise Rock Club - Boston, MA
June 26th
Review

#4

The Raveonettes
Double Door - Chicago, IL
March 18th

Review

#3

The Roots
Higher Ground - Burlington, VT
May 7th
Review

#2
Tom Waits
Orpheum Theater - Phoenix, AZ
June 17th
Review

#1
Wilco
Tanglewood - Lenox, MA
August 12th
Review

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Brian Wilson in Boston 11/19/08

As legends go, it doesn’t get much bigger than Brian Wilson. For years the man wrote for, arranged, and fronted the Beach Boys, transforming them from an early boy band singing about surfing, cars and girls to the group that created Pet Sounds…while still singing about surfing, cars and girls. After decades of mental illness and drug abuse during which he barely left his room (check out the Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson”) his star is currently the highest its been since the 60’s. Having finally released the long-delayed SMiLE in 2005, and an even-better follow up this year in That Lucky Old Sun, Wilson is riding – or surfing – high.

Having toured behind That Lucky Old Sun for a couple years now, Wilson’s first
remark upon entering the stage (at 7:30 exactly – the guy’s got a bedtime) was about how tired the group was. Though undoubtedly true, no sign of exhaustion came across in the performance. Though late November in Boston is hardly the ideal setting for Beach Boys songs, the Orpheum Theater was up dancing from the opening chords of “California Girls” through the “Good Vibrations” theremin that closed the first half. Called “the best touring band in the world” by Paul McCartney, the 10-piece backing group cluttered the stage with keyboards, guitars, mics, and more keyboards. Though Brian’s voice has aged over the years, preventing him from hitting those dog-ears high notes he once did, the gorgeous voices of the group more than made up, each member adding to harmonies that sounded even more complex than on the original recordings.

Most of the hits out of the way, in the second half Wilson charged into a full performance of the new album. Though I’m sure some people were hoping for more sing-alongs, the crowd seemed respectful and appreciative throughout the performance of his latter-day masterpiece. Wilson proved any doubters that he could still make you want to take your best girl to the dance floor with “Good Kind of Love,” then make you tear up with “Midnight's Another Day.” At the same time, Wilson expanded his repertoire beyond crooning harmonies and bouncing keyboards to tackle mariachi on “Mexican Girl” and unaccompanied quasi-rap in “Live Let Live.” Even the spoken-word pieces received the full band treatment, accompanied by cute animated videos projected behind the band. Wilson’s ode to L.A., That Lucky Old Sun proved that years of absence did not destroy the man who wrote Pet Sounds and sales of the album at the merch table afterwards appeared the be brisk.

After the elaborate presentation and thematic song landscapes of the second half, jumping back to such lightweight material as “Barbara Ann” and “Surfin’ USA” for the encore seemed a little abrupt, but seeing Wilson snap on his trademark bass for the first time of the night (he'd been behind a keyboard up until then, only touching it rarely) made a few more oldies worth it. After five songs and a bow, the bad reemerged a second time for “Love and Mercy,” the first non-Beach Boys song of the night (minus the new album of course) to close things out on a more serious note. Wilson proved himself more than the nostalgia act many expected, having assembled an ace group of musicians to bring his elaborate musical wonderlands to life.

SET LIST
California Girls
Girl Don't Tell Me
Dance, Dance, Dance
Surfer Girl
In My Room
Salt Lake City
All Summer Long
Please Let Me Wonder
Add Some Music To Your Day
The Little Girl I Once Knew
Do You Wanna Dance?
Do It Again
Sail On Sailor
Marcella
I Get Around
Wouldn't It Be Nice?
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations
-intermission-
That Lucky Old Sun
-first encore-
Johnny B. Goode
Help Me, Rhonda
Barbara Ann
Surfin' USA
Fun, Fun, Fun
-second encore-
Love and Mercy

Dar Williams at Dartmouth 11/18/08

Not too far from her Amherst roots, Dar Williams must have felt right at home among this elite New England crowd. Too bad the size of said crowd was so pathetic. 150 people sat scattered around an auditorium built for 1000, and were quiet enough that you’d hardly notice they were there.

Opener Stephen Fiore gave it the old college try though (pun intended), and mildly entertained the audience with his awkward-guy-at-the-dance persona. He sang about - what else - lost love, backed only by his guitar as his pleasantly lazy voice wafted through the auditoriu
m. Introducing the songs with self-deprecating banter, he scored crowd points by talking about the inspirations behind songs about sharing milkshakes and seeing himself from an ex-girlfriend’s eyes.

To the surprise of anyone who had seen the cluttered stage in the campus’ newspaper advertisement, Dar Williams came out alone. From western Massachusetts, and she looks the part. The spitting image of hippiedom, her flowing hair matched her flowing skirt and, in case you didn’t get the point, she spent her first five minutes talking about hippies. And talking to the moon. As she drawled about everything from to corporatization of water to the Milgrim experiments (wikipedia it) the audience politely laughed along but seemed impatient for the next song.

For those unfamiliar with Williams, her voice can be a little jarring. Lilting but bold, it takes a while to figure out if she’s even in tune. As she sang about witch hunts and rain, each song got a cheer as the rapt audience recognized another favorite. Her dynamic guitar playing gave some structure to the wandering narratives, whether she was performing a crowd favorite (“Christians and Pagans”) or a Hedwig and the Angry Inch cover (“Midnight Radio”). One of the new faces of folk, Williams keeps her cult following riveted to each hippie tale and may just hit the mainstream someday.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nine Inch Nails in Manchester 11/8/08

Currently living far away from a major city, my concert choices tend to be tried and true acts, favorites I’m willing to drive for. Every now and then it’s nice to have a whim concert though, a concert you go to just for the hell of it. Though I only knew two Nine Inch Nails songs, “Closer” and “Hurt” (and the latter only from the Johnny Cash cover), this review so intrigued me I decided, why not. Even if the music scared me, the light show sounded incredible.

Health’s task of opening a show filled with belligerent fans who just want to see Trent Reznor was admittedly unenviable, but their attitude of acting like the audience wasn’t there didn’t he
lp make a good impression. Gyrating around and making seemingly random noise, the music proved academically interesting but not aurally appealing. Most of the audience seemed not willing to even grant them that though; after a “song” or two the boos, heckles, and middle fingers began flying. One band member earned himself an extra dose of scorn by rarely playing an instrument or singing, instead spending most of his time humping the drum kit and amplifiers. To their credit, they stuck it out, but made no effort to get the audience on their side as the scene threatened to turn ugly.

If Nine Inch Nails frontman, songwriter, and lone permanent band member Reznor erred in choosing them to open, that was about the only mistake he made tonight. Not a concert of spontaneity and freedom, this concert was a carefully choreographed assault on all your senses, the sonic charge matched only by the visual. Because Marcel was not exaggerating on the light show; this was a concert a deaf person would love. Pages would be needed to do justice to the many effects they used, but they all revolved around three stage-length screens that rose and fell, two behind the band and one in front. Not normal screens though, these were metal mesh, allowing images to be projected on them or the band to be seen through. Or both, as in the effect where the screen filled with static, parting periodically to let a band member be seen before collapsing back in on them (see the picture). Or the effect where the band seemed to be playing in a sea of electric fire at their feet and above their heads. Or the effect where static (lots of static in this show) filled the screen, only to be slowly erased by Reznor using some flashlight. Or the…

You get the idea. There were barren landscapes, crowd cameras, a sea of strobe lights perfectly calibrated with the music, a wall of lights behind the screen perfectly programmed to look like the whole wall was bending and warping as the lig
hts turned. Careful not to blow his load too early, Reznor brought out new effects throughout the two-hour show, never ceasing to amaze with the next optical trick or visual explosion. Though perhaps not up to the level of Radiohead, who truly broke new ground in their vertical columns (review), Nine Inch Nails worked within more traditional confines to assault the audience’s eyes with majesty.

The incredible light show didn’t come as a big surprise to me; it was the main reason I was there. What truly stunned me though was how well it all coordinated with the music, each enhancing the other to make even the least industrial type there (me) rock along with every heavy distortion crunch and stuttery beat. Though I don’t know enough to match the visuals to the songs, suffice to say they synced to perfection, drum thumps controlling the static and wavery instrumentals shifting as slowly as the apocalyptic clouds projected above the band.

Trent took the band, featuring longtime collaborator Rob Finck rocking a hairstyle that was part dreadlocks, part faux-hawk, and a little bit of skinhead on the side, through songs spanning the band’s twenty-year career, leaning heavily on the new material (of which there is lots – four albums released in the last three years). Where many audiences would resent such a oldies-light set though, that seemed to be what this crowd looked forward to the most. New tracks like “Discipline” and “Echoplex” got rapturous welcomes, whereas many seemed bored during “Closer.” Perhaps this out-of-the-way venue attracted only the die-hards following the tour (the Boston fans had their own show the following night), but you could feel the deep knowledge in the arena before you even noticed the many t-shirts from previous tours.

For “Hurt” though, no matter how many times everyone had seen it live, people knew enough to quiet down, hold lighters aloft, and stand enraptured as Trent sang, pulling back on the visuals for the only time in the evening. More than a few eyes glistened as his voice wavered over one of the most unhappy songs ever written. Though another tune followed, that proved the emotional end, a meditative close to a loud evening. Angst-ridden industrial may not be everyone’s music of choice, but Trent Reznor is an artist in every sense of the word, going all out to deliver a concert experience his fans will remember forever.

SET LIST
999,999
1,000,000
Letting You
Discipline
March of the Pigs
Head Down
The Frail
The Wretched
Closer
Gave Up
The Warning
Vessel
Ghosts 5
Ghosts 21
Ghosts 19
Ghosts Piggy
The Greater Good
Pinion
Wish
Terrible Lie
Survivalism
Ghosts 31
Only
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole
-encore-
Echoplex
God Given
Hurt
In This Twilight

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Decemberists in Boston 11/6/08

To hell with the fact that they’re now on a major label – when I think “indie,” I think Decemberists. Though as a definition the term is all but meaningless these days, The Decemberists embody all the vague associations I still have with it. Quirky sensibilities that seems blissfully oblivious to the current Top 40, a focus on melody and tunecraft, a do-it-yourself fan-friendly attitude. I discovered The Decemberists long ago, and they were first band I thought of as “indie rock.”

I first got the chance to see them in ’07 at Bonnaroo (review here). Though they put on a great show, the clear highlight being them joined by gospel legend Mavis Staples for a cover of “The Weight,” being baked by the sun after three days of camping is not the ideal environment in which to see anyone. The Orpheum Theatre however, much better. Though it’s a bit of a dive, with no leg room and poor ventilation, the fairytales of shipwrecked sailors and chimney sweeps had room to blossom in the dusty hall.

No fairytales blossomed during openers Loch Lomand unfortunately. Like Decemberists Lite, they failed to pull off similar lilting ballads that didn’t couldn’t muster quite the panache of Decemberists songs. As xylophone vied with the lead singer’s chirpy falsetto for prime annoyance, the two girls whose gorgeous harmonies proved they should be front and center were relegated to background singers. Their set proved its worth however upon the delivery of one classic line: “The sound of children laughing make my eyes bleed.”

The Decemberists soon gave Loch Lomand a lesson on how to do alt-folk-rock right, entering the stage to lots of drum pounding and guitar thrashing, building up to their lesser-known “Shanty for the Arethusa” as the crowd exploded. The energy didn’t let up for two hours, songs of wayfarers, wharf rats, and engine drivers presented grandly and theatrically.

Though they touched on all their albums during the set, the focus, and the reason for the tour, was the singles series Always the Bridesmaid they’ve been slowly releasing this fall. Throughout the night they performed all the original songs off that, and though most of the audience was unfamiliar with them (3 out of the 5 had not yet been released) they more measured up to the older material.

Also drawing four songs from their most recent standard release The Crane Wife, the Decemberists turned two ten-minute-plus tunes into the highlight of the night. “Islands” and “The Perfect Crime #2” have been fleshed out over a year of constant touring to be different beasts on stage, the former in particular going through movement after movement, instrumental after instrumental, excursion after excursion as it slowly built.

Unquestionably the star of the show, Colin Meloy proved himself a charismatic frontman as well, venturing into the audience to sing and gallivant down the aisles and telling anecdotes about his adventures with his girlfriend’s mother along Boston’s Freedom Trail.

More than anything though, the topic on his mind was Barack Obama. If tonight was one thing, it was a concert, but if it was two things, it was also a political rally. Needless to say he was preaching to the choir, but time and time again he extolled the change coming to America, always in his humorous self-deprecating way. “Yes we can!” chants broke out periodically, some initiated by Meloy (“When I say ‘Yes we can!,’ you say ‘Yes we did!’”), others not. Meloy avoided complete punditry with a sense of humor though, introducing “The Chimbley Sweep” by saying this was the text of Obama’s recent speech on Fox News, interspersing side commentaries as the sing progressed. Michelle even got a verse of her own, sung by the band’s token XX chromosome, Jenny Conlee.

The most powerful political statement though was the one left unspoken. Upon the encore the band finally obliged the shouted requests for “Sons and Daughters,” taking the audience one step further by inviting them onstage to sing along. Seeing the mass of young people crowding a stage singing, “Here all the bombs fade away” in unison proved more inspiring than any speech.

SET LIST
Shanty for the Arethusa
July, July!
Valerie Plame
O New England
The Engine Driver
On the Bus Mall
The Island: Come & See – The Landlord – You’ll Not Feel the Drowning
The Perfect Crime #2
Days of Elaine
Record Year for Rainfall
Dracula’s Daughter
O Valencia!
The Culling of the Fold
The Chimbley Sweep
16 Military Wives
-encore-
Raincoat Song
Sons and Daughters

Monday, October 27, 2008

State Radio in Burlington 10/25/08

Burlington’s Higher Ground club looked like a UVM frat house on Friday night, sweet-dude backwards hats rivaling the husky-man beards for attention. Though various anti-war groups vied with the merch table for space, patrons seemed to ignore both in their anticipation of State Radio, current project of ex-Dispatch frontman Chad Urmston.

Before the crowd could collectively bro out, however, they had to get bored out (of t
heir skulls) by Zimbabwe four-piece Bongo Love. If a group of ethnically dressed musicians playing smooth bongo jams sounds like your idea of hell, you would have been in good company among the glazed-over crowd. Music as ethnically authentic as anything you’ll hear in your local Starbucks or high-rise elevator, it was one soft midtempo blur, the Kenny G of percussion. I claim no expertise on Zimbabwean music, but anyone in the crowd could have been forgiven in thinking this rasta-esq melodies were from Jamaica, and the band’s bland “No Woman, No Cry” cover didn’t help matters. Though the performers seemed to be having a blast onstage, indulging in the occasional dance move, and being admittedly proficient at their instruments (which also included cowbell and – shudder – steel drum) texture and tone did not make up for content.

All was forgiven upon the arrival of the State Radio threesome, however. A jam band for frat dudes, they rocked out in a controlled way that kept the crowd with them on every note, reggae verses leading into punk choruses. If most songs sounded the same, it wasn’t for lack of energy as the bassist played busy lines and a badass drummer never passed up an opportunity for a furious fill. If Urmston’s talents were overshadowed, however, so too was his previous band. Though many in the crowd were presumably Dispatch fans back in the day, they proved no less devoted to this new group, singing along with every State Radio song without a request for “The General” to be heard. Bringing Bongo Love out for the tour-closing encore proved misguided, but the crowd’s admiration was willing to forgive a little anticlimactic jamming in their support of Urmston’s collegiate rock.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Randy Newman at the Calvin 9/28/08

Having played at Northampton's Calvin Theater only a year before (I was there), Randy Newman didn’t quite have the panache to pack it a second time. For those who did dot the theater’s seats, however, Newman performed his acidly satirical songs as if for the first time there or anywhere, peppering tales of racists, perverts, and murderers with witty quips and rambling anecdotes.

Those who know Ne
wman only from his Disney/Pixar work such as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and the Oscar-winning “If I Didn’t Have You” miss the truly different aspects of his songs. Much is made of his use of the “unreliable narrator,” singing from the perspective of generally unlikeable characters. When he sings about “keeping the niggers down” or that “short people got no reason to live,” few groups rise up to protest the most bigoted songwriter of our time. Instead, his biting satires poke holes in the very arguments he’s making, pointing out the fallacies in such outdated positions as “Let’s drop the big one, see what happens.”

Though he sometimes performs with an orchestra, as when I saw him in Milwaukee last March, tonight a lone piano sat onstage. Though the Steinway has probably been used for Mozart concertos and Beethoven sonatas before, for two hours from the moment Newman scuttled over to it it banged out acidly sarcastic pop tunes from throughout Newman’s career. His better-known songs were all in attendance, including the ones quoted above ("Rednecks," "Short People," and "Political Science") and ones that have been big hits for others ("You Can Leave Your Hat On" and "Marie"). With ten studio albums to pick from, however, he chose his cuts carefully, sprinkling in lesser-known gems like "It’s Money That I Love" (“They say that money can’t buy love in this world / But it’ll get you half a pound of cocaine and a sixteen-year old girl”) and "God’s Song" (“I burn down your cities – how blind you must be / I take from you your children and you say, ‘How blessed are
we!’ / You all must be crazy to put your faith into me / That’s why I love mankind”). It’s not every day you have God talking shit to humanity.

If the set list had a leaning, however, it was to songs off his new album Harps and Angels, his first in nine years. Playing eight out of the ten tracks, Newman touched on themes closer to home including, on songs like "Potholes," actually singing from his own perspective to tell an embarrassing Little League story. Most notable about the new songs were how much better they sounded than the overblown album version. "Korean Parents," chintzy on the album with a novelty Oriental orchestra, worked far better with just the piano, keeping its bouncy Asian rhythms but pushing the lyrics to the fore. Though I’ve heard the original many times, I was always too distracted by the production to realize how funny it is. “Who’s at the head of every class? / You really think they’re smarter than you are? / They just work their asses off – their parents make them do it.” Likewise, New York Times hit “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” fares better in its original youtube arrangement, just Randy and the ivories, instead of the string-heavy power ballad he tries to make it on the album.

If the songs were funny, the between-song banter got the biggest laughs. No matter how serious the song that followed, there was always time for Newman to throw in an irreverent quip about it. He introduced “I Miss You” as “a song I wrote for my first wife while married to my second,” and went on a whole routine about how “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do” was his “We Are the World” that left the audience in stitches (“Josh Groban would come in here…or maybe Michael Jackson himself,” and later “Everybody holds hands and starts swaying.”) Or he reversed the process, calling the dirty old man jingle “You Can Leave Your Hat On” “the saddest song I ever wrote.”

A showman to the end, Randy Newman needs to theatrics or gimmicks to bring across his short slices of life in concert. Though he played thirty-four tunes, his acerbic wit and old-man charm kept the small, older crowd riveted through gems new and old. If his song “I Want Everyone to Like Me” is sincere, he needn’t worry.

SET LIST
It’s Money That I Love
My Life Is Good
Same Girl
Short People
Birmingham
Marie
Korean Parents
The World Isn’t Fair
I Miss You
Laugh and Be Happy
A Few Words in Defense of Our Country
Losing You
Potholes
You Can Leave Your Hat On
I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)
Political Science

Intermission
Last Night I Had a Dream
Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)
In Germany Before the War
You’ve Got a Friend
Baltimore
Living Without You
I Want You to Hurt Like I Do
A Piece of the Pie
Harps and Angels
Dixie Flyer
Louisiana (1927)
Rednecks
God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)
I Love L.A.
Sail Away
I Think It’s Going to Rain Today

Encore
I Want Everyone to Like Me
Feels Like Home

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Farm Aid in Mansfield, MA 9/20/08

Farm Aid’s first appearance in New England was met with perfect conditions for a festival about the outdoors, sunny but cool, making the generally shitty Comcast Center (formerly Tweeter) feel a little more down-home. Local farmers dotted the walkways and open spaces, teaching people to grind corn, plant seedlings and ride tractors, all the while shilling their locally-grown food. The typical concert food scene had been revamped to offer exclusively local, organic foods to festival-goers. Instead of hot dogs, fresh peaches; instead of fries, corn on the cob. Having given up on humanity to buy local foods because it’s the right thing to do, Farm Aid’s trying to entice people to do so because the food tastes better. And booths and stands were all packed with the knowledgeable and naïve alike, so maybe Farm Aid did make some think a little more about the little guy.

Where everyone found the time to visit all th
ese stands would be a good question though, as the day’s nineteen bands were packed in at a relentless pace. Packed in so tightly, in fact, that most groups had 8-15 minutes. A far cry from Bonnaroo, where even the most obscure group gets a 65 minute set. Hell, the headliners here only got 45. Farm Aid clearly needed a second stage, and one wonders why the opportunity to play two or three songs is even worth the effort for the bands.

Two is how many we got from a personal favorite, The Elms. Well-chosen though, “Nothing to Do With Love” kicked things off in high gear, the Indiana foursome (from Mellencamp’s hometown) hard rocking around the stage, unafraid to indulge in the rock’n’roll excesses with big drums and bigger guitar solos. Like Springsteen meets Zeppelin, they’re securing a place in the rock revival helmed by The Hold Steady and, more recently, The Gaslight Anthem. “Bring Me Your Tea” followed, marking them as a group to watch.

Nashville trio One Flew South followed, their beautiful three-part harmonies needing only the most basic acoustic strumming to propel them along. Though they recalled classic harmony groups
like Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Beach Boys, One Flew South added a strong gospel flavor to their country tunes about whiskey and crying. Though songs with titles like “My Kind of Beautiful” are not very lyrically impressive, the message is not in the words but the sounds, their voices meshing perfectly to wash over the small crowd.

Though popular in the jam scene, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals offers much more than mindless noodling and ambient experimentation (scroll down to moe. for that). Though they only did one song, their energy and experimentation made the fifteen minutes of “Nothing But the Water” fly by. Potter started it off a cappela with a gospel holler, her banging tambourine keeping the beat. The band came in after a few minutes when Potter switched to swirling organ, but all instruments were soon again abandoned for a gathering around the drum set. Like a hippie drum circle, but with talent, all four whaled on the kit for quite a while before they brought it back to the song. A thumping four-man solo, the drum jam got the small and hot crowd really into it for the first time that day. A little more of the whole “playing instruments” things happened before the band ditched them yet again to line up at the edge of the stage for some audience clap and stomp along. Though the song was certainly jam-length, the soul swagger kept the faux-medley together, separating of them from the legions of aimless Grateful Dead knock-offs whose association does the Nocturnals a disservice.

The flipside of the ja
m coin was provided by moe., a band so unexciting they can’t even muster a capital letter for their name. Their cult following showed up in the crowd, a select few going nuts while the rest of us tried not to nod off as them grooved endlessly.

Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody, came out to continue his family affair with his son Abe on keys and grandson on drums. “Alabama Bound” kicked things off, a strange choice for a state that would have had more empathy with ‘The Hamptons Bound.” “City of New Orleans” got big cheers however, though with the absence of Gordon Titcomb on pedal steel the piano arrangement felt a little stilted, like “The Long and Winding Road” without the strings. Guthrie’s nasal singing sounded a parody of itself, but he was clearly having so much fun onstage a grating delivery could be forgiven. An early high point for the crowd came with his humorous satire of big corporations, “I’m Changing My Name to Chrysler.” This time, though, it was a little different: “I’m changing my name to Fannie Mae / I’m going down to Washington DC / I’ll be glad they got my back – It’s what they did for Freddie Mac! / It’ll be perfectly acceptable to me.” The crowd was in stitches, but it might be time to update the update a little more.

Though I’d never heard of Jamey Johnson, the program billed him as an upcoming singer-son
gwriter blazing his own trail, yadda yadda yadda. Turns out he’s pretty generic, a county bad boy in the vein of Merle Haggard, songs mostly about pot and Jesus. His deep Nashville baritone was pleasant, but coupled with the acoustic guitars and pedal steel it became a little too “Gone Country.”

An actual country rebel, Steve Earle endeared himself to the crown by pointing that he had only missed a couple Farm Aids, “and one of them I was in jail.” At the ones he was at though, he probably played the same three songs: “Christmas in Washington,” “Devil’s Right Hand” and “Copperhead Road.” Even if there were no surprises, Earle’s playing was angry and percussive, slamming the guitar strings behind his aggressive vocals. Though he’s sung the songs a thousand times, he seemed to relish each line, enrapturing an easily-distracted audience with just a guitar and harmonica.

Willie Nelson came out to introduce Nation Beat, a Brazilian-cum-Brooklyn septet. More surprisingly though, he stayed on, gamely strumming along his guitar to their dance rhythms. Highly energetic like world music peers Grupo Fantasma or Orchestra Baobob, the music was largely percussive, though a shit-hot violinist stole the show by providing most of the riffs and solos. Willie didn’t add much on their songs, but took over lead vocals on two Nelson staples: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The band made them their own however, loud and brash, the latter sounding more celebratory than lonely.

Abruptly killing the party vibe, Jakob Dylan and the Gold Mountain Rebels came on after a brief intro by the frequently-showing-up-uninvited Carson Daly. Dylan’s midtempo mumbling (must run in the family) sounded ready for adult-contemporary radio, but proved
appealing for a crowd ready to sit back and watch the sun set. Songs from his new record filled the short set, including “Something Good This Way Comes,” “Will It Grow,” and, to appeal Wallflowers fans, “Shy of the Moon.”

Getting the opportunity to see Jerry Lee Lewis live is second only to seeing Elvis himself, and the crowd knew it, turning the twenty minute concert into one long standing ovation. Though sound problems led to him getting frustrated with postponements as he sat impatiently at his piano (“One minute?” he told a crew member. “I’m ready now!”), from opening “Roll Over Beethoven” to the inevitable closers “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and “Great Balls of Fire” he proved that age (73) hadn’t slowed him down. Sure, his enunciation was unintelligible, but his tenor proved as strong as ever, showing amazing lung power for his age. And though he wasn’t throwing his stool back or playing with his feet, he hit the ivories as strongly as ever, his basic chord slams as rocking as ever. On “You Win Again” he held long notes without wavering a bit, looking like your befuddled but lovable grandfather in an ill-fitting leather jacket that he managed to make look awkward yet still cool. Though Neil Young unfortunately didn’t join him like he did at the Bridge School Benefit last year, Lewis proved he doesn’t need a vanity duet to keep a crowd half his age dancing and shouting for more.

The Pretenders, unfortunately, haven’t aged as well. Chrissie Hynde is with a mostly new band and the songs, not that good to begin with, sounded stale and dated played by a middle-aged crew trying to look younger than they were. The mix was strange, with “Boots of Chinese Plastic” leading into “Maybe Tomorrow” but, shockingly, no “Brass in Pocket.”

The venue’s teenage girls, hidde
n among the old folks until now, suddenly made their presence known when Kenny Chesney took the stage. Ohmigod, Kenny! When they finally shut up enough to let him perform, you hoped they’d pick it back up again to drown him out. Country nothing that for some reason legitimate artists like Dave Matthews and Willie Nelson have taken a liking to. The latter in fact joined him onstage for a couple songs, “10 with a 2” and "Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” which proved to be highlights of an otherwise painful set. Most songs were about growing up in the middle of nowhere, and tales of Chesney’s down-home childhood wore out their welcome fast. If he was added to bring the youth demo to the festival though, he certainly succeeded.

The frat guy vibe continued with Dave Matthews, the first headliner/board member. For his “solo” performance he brought along friend/longtime collaborator/guitar god Tim Reynolds, who easily stole the show. As Matthews drawled on about whatever, Reynolds provided acoustic licks, runs, and effects that, if they couldn’t quite bring utterly bland songs to life, at least gave them a couple jolts of the AED. Dave, however, seems not to have a humorous bone in his body, proving downright exhausting with all that sincerity. Why so serious? His between-song rambling was just as pointless, his incoherent pleas about family farmers surprisingly inane for someone running the festival. Nevertheless, his set too got a warm reception with college-kid hits like “Ants Marching” and “Where Are You Going.”

Bob Costas came out to introduce the Heartland Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp. With a big band pounding out unabashed rock’n’roll choruses, the confusion with the Boss would be easy to make. However, Mellencamp showed himself worthy of them company as he roamed the stage, encouraged audience participation, and went through crowd-pleasers like “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song” (though, second big surprise of the night: no “Jack & Diane”). Even when the band left him for a short acoustic set, he was alive and engaging, slamming his guitar with his sleeves rolled up in true workingman fashion as he told us way more than we needed to know about his “Small Town.” The band showed him at his frontman best though, fist-pumping, prancing about, and at one point talking on the phone to some audience member’s boyfriend (Mellencamp had to assure him that the girl was not too drunk). He’s never been an innovator or pioneer, but even if his whole persona is derivative of Bruce, Mellencamp proved able to live up to his more-famous peer.

With little fanfare Neil Young and his band took the stage and, before the crowd quite knew what was going on, broke into “Love and Only Love.” Looking like a farmer himself, or maybe a lumberjack, Young ripped into his guitar like he was seeing how much it could take, slamming out distorted solos and spastic runs while jerking and gyrating around. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Powderfinger” followed, the contrast between Young’s fragile falsetto and his tough-as-nails guitar playing creating music of breakable beauty that seems like it could come crashing down at any moment.

Young moved over to the pump organ for “Mother Earth,” a neglectable tune given some life by the stripped back arrangement, organ swirling endlessly around the more pointed vocals and harmonica. He continued his quieter side with an acoustic “Old Man,” cramming both his rocking and mellow side into the short 45-minute set.

After "Unkown Legend" and “Get Back to the Country,” he played some opening chords that seemed very familiar, but not from a Neil Young song. Hey, isn’t that… Yes, it was “A Day In the Life.” Where the Beatles original was beautiful, orchestrated, and moving, Young’s cover was loud, violent and angry, exploding through the chords while laying his plaintive wail overtop that just about broke your heart. The noise and fury built and built as the song progressed, the crowd singing every word and even taking the lead on the “ahhhh” part, until by the end Young and the band reached their peak, creating their own wall of sound that was much less orchestrated, but just as powerful, building the distortion to monstrous levels as Young hammered his guitar’s pick-ups, hit it against the amp, and finally pulled out the strings one by one with a ferocious tearing sound. Young kept the reverb going as he stormed off stage. Though Willie Nelson was on next, that proved the night’s perfect end for me.

DOWNLOADS
moe.
http://rapidshare.com/files/150443773/moeFarmAid.zip.html

Arlo Guthrie
http://rapidshare.com/files/150444240/ArloGuthrieFarmAid.zip.html


Jakob Dylan and the Gold Mountain Rebels
http://rapidshare.com/files/150446777/JakobDylanFarmAid.zip.html

Jerry Lee Lewis
http://rapidshare.com/files/150557726/JerryLeeLewisFarmAid.zip.html

The Pretenders

Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds

John Mellencamp

Neil Young

Sigur Rós in Boston 9/19/08

For the uninitiated, Sigur Rós may seem a little alienating. They’re from Iceland, but often sing in a made-up language. They play conventional instruments, but they make airy, floating sounds unfamiliar to the ears. Their music is brash and bold, but in interviews they’re quiet and shy. Their song titles have mostly unpronounceable names and it’s all but impossible for the average fan to keep the tunes straight. Yet for all their idiosyncrasies this strange, beautiful quartet is one of the best acts around.

Playing live at Boston’s seaside Bank of America Pavilion, they were opened by Parachutes, a group so derivative of Sigur Rós that it was a good while before I realized it wasn’t Sigur themselves up there (in my defense, I was also far away). Also from Iceland, their songs are supposedly in English, but the vocals are so spacey you’d never know it. A big group featuring a blaring trombone, their similarity to the main act overshadowed their admitted talent. A poor man’s Sigur Rós, they’d be better on their own.

Because the real thing is tough to beat. I’d seen Sigur Rós at Bonnaroo this year (read my review here), but this incarnation was stripped-down to just the four. No string section and, though I kept expecting them to make a surprise appearance, no brass either. The foursome did a great job covering the gaps, but the music of angels loses a bit without strings, the wall of sound effects a little harder to pull off with only four performers.

Nevertheless, Jónsi Birgisson led the crew through cuts spanning most of their discs, all ethereal, majestic, and all those other words everyone always uses to describe them. His falsetto soared about the songs, wordless and worldless while his bowed, reverb guitar swirled and soaked into the music, creating a cacophony of beauty that made up for lack of strings. Playing like one person, the other three ebbed and flowed as they switched instruments, so together you forget the individuals up there as you are drawn into the sounds they create together. The songs are differentiable when one gets familiar with them, but the differences are negligible next to the mood they create together. Sigur Rós is the rare breed where you could attend a concert, not recognize one song, and have an experience just as good as someone who could sing along.

That’s not to say the tunes blend together or sound the same, however. The concert was marked by sonic peaks and valleys, from Georg Hólm using a drumstick on his bass for “Hafsól” to most of Parachutes coming out with bass drums to give “Gobbledigook” the gallup it needed, accompanied by flashing lights and shooting confetti. Then just when you thought you had them figured out, the band came out with acoustic guitars to play a quiet, folky “Illgresi” for the second time ever, fragile and pure.

All these words mean little to describe a sound the unfamiliar have to experience to understand. Hopefully the recording below will help.

DOWNLOAD

SET LIST
Svefn-G-Englar
Glósóli
Ny Batteri
Fljótavík
Við Spilum Endalaust
Hoppípolla
Með Blóðnasir
Svo Hljótt
Heysátan
Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása
Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur
Sæglópur
Hafsól
Gobbledigook
-encore-
Illgresi
Popplagið

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Radiohead in Mansfield, MA 8/13/08

Radiohead concerts are generally acknowledged to be one-of-a-kind concert experiences, visual, aural, and emotional. For many of the die-hards who drove from Boston to the Comcast Center (formerly Tweeter) last night though, the concert started on a bad note before Thom Yorke and co. even hit the stage. For those who even were lucky enough to see them hit the stage, that is. Traffic was backed up so far along I-93 that many waited hours to get in, missing opener Grizzly Bear completely and often some of Radiohead themselves.

My motley crew (an interesting story in and of itself; read another member’s account here) at least made it before Radiohead. From the first notes of “Reckoner,” the thing most immediately apparent were the lights. Sure, the music was good and all, but the visual show alone was worth the ticket price. Dozens of long florescent lights hung from the ceiling, many going all the way to the floor, creating elaborate patterns and effects choreographed to each song. Not your mama’s florescent lights though, each one could light up as a whole, in sections, in dots, or any other pattern, like a long thin video screen. A youtube search for “Radiohead Mansfield” should show you exactly what I mean.

Anyone who predicted that they would eventually run out of ideas for that set-up was proven wrong. During the “It should be raining” line of “The Gloaming,” simulated blue rain drizzled over the stage. As Yorke opened “Videotape” singing about the pearly gates, glowing pillars shimmered into shape behind him. The lyrics and chorus to “Everything in Its Right Place” jerked across the lights in warped
lettering (though, one critique: they spelled it “it’s” right place. For shame, Thom.)

Throughout all this two long horizontal screens flashed images behind the band, the lower one doing colors and effects while the upper showed split two-tone images of the band, too effects-heavy to be all that useful to those far away. No traditional stage lights could be seen, the band bringing their own environmentally friendly fixtures that looked like a fly’s eye, small beams dancing across the stage, interacting with the vertical rods. Taken as a whole, the visuals would have overwhelmed the music if the two weren’t so perfectly in synch.

I should preface the actual music analysis by saying, though I consider myself a fan, I was probably less so than 95% of the people there. The show was hit or miss for me musically, fascinating at times, headache-inducing at others. After the excellent “Reckoner,” the show got off to a slow start as less-than-memorable songs comprised the first half hour. Though inherently lively, “15 Step” seemed performed with minimal energy, as if the band was too tired to really get into the spastic rhythm and falsetto thrashings. “Kid A” into “Nude” was yawn-inducing, but “All I Need,” a song just as slow, finally picked things up as the band created a supple background that gave Thom nothing to hide behind. From there on, the energy and commitment to the playing never again faltered, as Yorke did his loose-limbed marionette jig across the stage, guitarist Jonny Greenword created his swirling dissonance without ever acknowledging the audience, and Phil Selway’s innovative drumming propelled along the quirky beats and jerky tempo.

An unlikely trilogy formed the set’s first high point. As the lights flashed red noise waves, the band thrashed out “The National Anthem” starting loud and building before crashing into dissonant meltdown, accompanied by a static break-down on the screens. Though all but impossible to stay on beat, the crowd tried, dancing and jumping around as the band did likewise. It collapsed into Yorke, on a piano snuck center stage doing the seizure light show, playing the irresistible “Videotape” chords, hypnotizing himself with the lullaby melody. The band finally averaged its spastic and melodic tendencies with “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” using the more conventional structure to bounce along as Thom built his faux-raps into a howl. After a run through the mediocre “The Bends,” an older song that sounded downright mainstream in the company of all the others, Greenwood took center stage to assist Yorke in a chiming acoustic guitar “Faust Arp,” Yorke cracking the night’s only smile when he flubbed a line.

The concert continued to cruise along on a pretty-high note from there. The lights were fun to watch, the band was focused, the sounds were strange but soothing. An encore came and went, but Thom came out for the second alone, sitting down at piano again for a song from his solo project The Eraser. Though many were not familiar with it, “Cymbal Rush” was an immediate highlight, the stripped-down sound a breath of fresh air after the intricate madness of the previous couple hours. If confused looks greeted that one though, a communal roar followed for the opening strains of “Karma Police.” Everyone quietly sang along to this rarely-played hit, swaying yet riveted to the stage. The mood abruptly ended as “Idioteque,” one of their best fast songs and a fan favorite, closed the night out in typical herky-jerky fashion. Though not my favorite band, Radiohead’s show combines music and the spectacle for a concert experience hard to rival.

DOWNLOAD
http://rapidshare.com/files/137420288/Radiohead_Live_In_Mansfield_8_13_08.zip.html

SET LIST
Reckoner
Optimistic
There There
15 Step
Kid A
Nude
All I Need
The Gloaming
The National Anthem
Videotape
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
The Bends
Faust Arp
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Everything In Its Right Place
Exit Music (For A Film)
Bodysnatchers

ENCORE 1:
House Of Cards
I Might Be Wrong
Paranoid Android
A Wolf At The Door
How To Disappear Completely

ENCORE 2:
Cymbal Rush
Karma Police
Idioteque

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wilco at Tanglewood 8/12/08

Though the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood is nowhere near the city. Nestled in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts, the small open-air amphitheater features a huge lawn where friends could play Frisbee, families could picnic, and couples could cuddle while the music washed over the field. A picturesque setting that fit the music perfectly.

First up: indie-violinist Andrew Bird. Combining orchestral swirls with noisy feedback, his poppy tunes went over well as he switched from violin to guitar and back, often all in one song. Though you might expect the violin to be the most unusual element of his performance style, Bird one-ups himself by soloing on…whistling. He bills himself as a “professional whistler” and his tone is so pure and expressive you believe it. Though violin and whistling could come off as novelty, he incorporates both so fully into his music that they become essential ingredients to his strange tales. Several oversized phonographs behind him broadcasted the tunes, spinning occasionally for a weird reverb effect and lending the stage the vintage-chic atmosphere his music demands.

Wilco came out dressed for the occasion, looking dapper in lounge-cowboy suits. Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman: “We were up all night sewing. As usual.” Though show started out quiet, the band was tight and focused, much higher energy than the laid-back show
I saw at Bonnaroo. “Either Way” kicked things off, Tweedy’s voice strong while the band jammed in the background, leading into a “Hummingbird” sing-along. Kicking of a show with four slow songs is not something many bands could pull off, but the pretty melodies and together-but-loose background instrumentation kept the crowd focused until halfway through “You Are My Face” when a Nels Cline guitar solo finally kicked things up a notch. The band’s secret weapon, Cline’s guitar alone would have made the show enjoyable. Whether playing chiming intros (“Summer Teeth”), blazing-hot solos (“Impossible Germany”), offbeat distortion freakouts (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), and beautiful steel guitar (“Remember the Mountain Bed”) in turns.

Though never known for their fast songs, Wilco brought out their hardest rocking side, keeping a crowd accustomed to sitting for the orchestra on its feet the whole two hours. Though they performed six songs from Sky Blue Sky, the band’s most recent, most country album, they pushed the energy level up on them all to avoid the snoozefest they generate on record. The night’s clear high point, “Poor Places” into “Spiders (Kids
moke)” was twenty minutes of building distortion-jam bliss, the band controlling the dynamics and mood like a seasoned conductor as Cline and Tweedy traded blistering atonal solos.

Helping with the overall energy were the Total Pros, a three-man horn section from Chicago that pumped up the funk on songs like “Hate It Here” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” Though only around for several songs in the main set, they dominated the encores until Tweedy finally let it all out on “I’m a Wheel” with his best nasal scream. After a highly-regarded series of shows in Chicago last winter where the band went through their entire back catalogue over five nights, Tweedy retained his interest in revisiting his earlier work, every album being represented in the set list except A.M. Not just a grab bag though, the songs were chosen for pacing and style, hits mixed in with long-forgotten nuggets with seamless transitions.

Known for being someone of a recluse with a history of depression and painkiller addiction, Tweedy played the master of ceremonies with confidence and charisma. No matter how self-deprecating he may be about his status as frontman, he’s an excellent one, cracking jokes and delivering the line of the night in response to a heckler: “Do you guys shout requests at the BSO? [In drunk fan voice:] Mahler! Maaahler!”

Though their records are a mixed bag, the excellent (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) alternating with the boring (Sky Blue Sky), as a live band Wilco gives a gimmick-less performance, not needing to rely on fancy lights of visuals like Radiohead to keep the crowd engaged throughout. Seeing people get as much out of the songs they didn’t know as the ones they did is unusual, but even the most staid classical subscriber walked out a convert.

DOWNLOAD
http://rapidshare.com/files/137576903/Wilco_Live_at_Tanglewood_8_12_08.zip.html

SET LIST
Either Way
Hummingbird
Remember The Mountain Bed
Muzzle Of Bees
You Are My Face
Impossible Germany
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
A Shot In The Arm
What Light (w/Total Pros horns)
California Stars (w/Total Pros horns)
Pieholden Suite (w/Total Pros horns)
Handshake Drugs
Pot Kettle Black
Summer Teeth
Jesus, Etc.
Poor Places
Spiders (Kidsmoke)

Encore 1:
Can't Stand It (w/Total Pros horns)
Hate It Here (w/Total Pros horns)
Walken (w/Total Pros horns)
I’m The Man Who Loves You (w/Total Pros horns)

Encore 2:
The Late Greats (w/Total Pros horns)
Heavy Metal Drummer
Monday (w/Total Pros horns)
Outtasite (Outta Mind) (w/Total Pros horns)
I'm A Wheel

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gogol Bordello in Hampton Beach 8/7/08

Few bands can match the high-voltage energy of Gogol Bordello. Though I’d seen them twice before (well, one-and-a-half times) at Bonnaroo 2007 and 2008, I had yet to see them at a concert proper. But for their first concert in New Hampshire they hit the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom – unusual in that there is no casino. The venue website says the word casino comes from the 19th century word for “gathering place,” and since it was founded in 1899, I guess the explanation holds. Regardless, there’s plenty of more legal gambling along the boardwalk in the form of arcade after arcade, giving the tourists something to do on rainy days.

The venue seemed far from full, but those who were there – many, like myself, having driven up from Boston – were diehards. They jumped, moshed, crowd-surfed and, most importantly, sang along to every word. Well, once Gogol Bordello came on they did. First they had to endure an hour of Pedro Erazo’s meandering DJing, where the Gogol Bordello hype man (more on him later) seemed even more bored than the audience. One vaguely ethnic song was played after another as roadies soundchecked over them, eliciting cries of “You suck” and “Go home” from an increasingly restless crowd.

When he mercifully ended fifty-five minutes later than he should have to let the band come on, the crowd immediately perked up. And by perked up, I mean, went absolutely insane. Gogol’s songs are tailor-made for participation, with ready-made shout-along parts like “TAAAAAAA…taran…taran…tata!” in “American Wedding” and the title line’s endless repeats in “Not a Crime” and the crowd used every line as an opportunity to yell, every beat as an opportunity to jump.

The energy on the floor was only matched by that on stage. Seeing my second show this summer, you realize much of the onstage fun is highly choreographed. When lead singer and wild man Eugene Hütz drums on a bucket, it’s at exactly the same time he did so at Bonnaroo, and likewise with any holding the mic stand out to the audience or jumping into the crowd. However, enough of him and various band members running around the stage, trying to get every corner of the place jumping, is spontaneous to keep it interesting for a second-timer. With band members from the Ukraine, Ethiopia, Russia, Israel, Ecuador and, oh yeah, America, the “gypsy punk” stayed off-beat enough to be interesting – violin and accordion on every song – but mainstream enough to keep a driving jump-along beat.

They were assisted in their efforts by the three people whose musical contributions were negligible, but on-stage antics contributions enormous. The Asian component of the international mix, Pamela Racine and Elizabeth Sun spent most of the show sprinting around the stage, only to stop for the occasional dance move, like forest nymphs with more elaborate costumes. Their enthusiasm was only rivaled by hype man Pedro Erazo, whose percussion duties were secondary to his attempts to keep the crowd excited – something he seemed to have no interest in his DJ guise.

The songs they chose could all have been expected, but were featured enough passion onstage that mostly faithful versions were nothing to complain about. Quasi-hit “Start Wearing Purple” loses appeal fast once the novelty wears off, but they mixed it up by beginning it with Pedro singing the chorus in Spanish, confusing audience members who tried to sing along in English. They went through many of the tracks off their 2007 release Super Taranta!, which I declared best album of the year here, kicking everything off with “Ultimate” and hitting such gypsy anthems as “Wanderlust King” and “Your Country” along the way. Many high points were their older material, however, particularly the 15-minute “Undestructable” that closed the show, following one false ending with another as the crowd practically frothed at the mouth. Though the band may do basically the same show from one town to the next, few this side of the Boss can match the take-no-prisoners energy of Eugene and his crew of international misfits.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Mark Knopfler in Boston 7/19/08

A cavernous tent on the Boston Harbor surrounded by more beer vendors than patrons, it’s tough to make the Bank of America Pavilion feel intimate. Mark Knopfler did his best Saturday night though, commanding audience attention without even playing many of the Dire Straits hits he’s known for. Concentrating on his much more delicate solo material, Mark's sea shanties and love ballads wooed a crowd smart enough not to drunkenly yell out Brothers in Arms requests.

Instead, what they got was a very different sound, pensive and archaic; no saxophone, but plenty of violin and accordion. Knopfler’s solo songs sound like rural 19th-century Britain, with scaffolders and hill farmers plying their trades day by day, weathering the small ups and downs of life. The song selection seemed carefully chosen to continue these themes – no “I want my MTV” tonight – with pensive ballads like “Sailing to Philadelphia” being aided by the ocean smell wafting through the crowd. Knopfler’s acclaimed 2007 album Kill to the Get Crimson seemed somewhat neglected however; on the tour bearing the album’s name, only two songs were played: “True Love Will Never Fade” and “The Fish and the Bird.” Even the Dire Straits songs seemed chosen for the more subdued mood. Fast hits like “Money for Nothing” and “Walk of Life” were nowhere in sight, as the few hits played seemed to be of the slower, more romantic variety.

This isn’t the say the concert was a yawner, or low-key by any means. Mark’s quiet energy pulsed through the crowd with every guitar fill or drawled lyric. Though he’s never been prone to traditional guitar heroism, his solos were jaw-dropping as usual, cementing his place among the best guitarists ever. Dropped casually and with little fanfare, he went on long solo jaunts when the song called for it and held back when it didn’t. Not just going through the motions, he reworked the “Sultans of Swing” solo – good enough to be a song by itself – hitting the classic points but fiddling around with many of the parts. His hollow-body work was equally astounding, and that iconic metal guitar from the Brothers in Arms cover became the show’s main prop when, during “Speedway to Nazareth,’ a circular cloth replica descended over the stage, surrounded by lights, for a showy light show that complemented the solo fury of “Telegraph Road.” Though completely at odds with the intimate atmosphere, the nod to stadium shows of the past got the crowd on its feet and proved a fun diversion.

The band, however, provided as much non-Knopfler entertainment as was needed. A phenomenal group of musicians, they proved more than a backing group churning out the hits. A six-piece group, the two organ and piano players joined the rhythm section to provide the backdrop for John McCusker’s violin lines and solos. A man of many talents, he also played lute and cittern during the show, but the violin work propelled many of the songs around. Knopfler seemed to love watching him as much as the crowd, doing subdued guitar-violin duels on several occasions and giving him plenty of space to work. Though Mark was the focus of the show, McCusker gave him a run for it.

In the encore, people finally got the heavy Dire Straits fix they’d been hoping for. As stars covered the backdrop, Knopfler gave a mournful “Brothers in Arms” and, after a trick ending following "My Shangri-La," went back to his guitar for “So Far Away” and the can’t-get-out-of-your-head Irish instrumental “Going Home.” A fitting closer to the night that proved the Mark is more than just a has-been ex-frontman, but a solo artist just a vibrant in a newer, quieter sound.

SET LIST
Cannibals
Why Aye Man
What It Is
Sailing to Philadelphia
True Love Will Never Fade
The Fish and the Bird
Hill Farmer’s Blues
Romeo and Juliet (Dire Straits)
Sultans of Swing (Dire Straits)
Song For Sonny Liston
Marbletown
Speedway to Nazareth
Telegraph Road (Dire Straits)
-encore-
Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits
My Shangri-La
So Far Away (Dire Straits)
Going Home (Theme from Local Hero)