Monday, May 26, 2008

Billy Joel in Uncasville, CT 5/23/08

Billy Joel gets a bad rap in the “serious music lover” world. The fact that his best songs were hits seems to make him lose all street cred that songwriters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen maintain. Bruce Springsteen’s the only widely-respected songwriter I can think of with massive hits, but then again if you “know your music”, you wouldn’t be caught dead with Born in the USA on your favorites list.

However, since I was young Billy has been a favorite of mine, but due to ticket prices and distances a concert had eluded me until this weekend. I’m thrilled I finally caught a show…but am in no hurry to see another.

The show was Nostalgia with a capital N. Just about every hit was played and, with a guy with so many hits, that was basically the whole setlist. They’re excellent songs, to be sure, but the sing-a-long aspect began to wear after a while (especially with a crowd too busy preparing for their post-concert drunken casino binge to actually do much singing).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with faithfully-performed renditions of the big hits. Lest us in the music-blogging world forget, that’s how most bands operate. With Billy Joel, howeve
r, that was all there was, little tangible movement or excitement on stage available to enliven the proceedings. Being the “piano man” is clearly limiting, confining him to a stationary seat where his guitar-playing counterparts can strut around. The band, however, seemed so desperate not to upstage Joel that they were equally boring, wandering forward for the occasional solo, but looking remarkably uninterested besides. The exception to the rule was guitarist Tommy Bynes (also by far the most obviously talented musician up there), who looked like some more friendly character from the Sopranos letting loose in his weekend bar band.

If the band was unexciting, one aspect of the show almost made up for it: the lights. Joel could have performed twice as well and the lighting designer still would have been the star of the show. Every moment of the concert had some coordinated lighting system, colors and shapes cascading across the stage and around the arena. The blue lights during “Downeaster Alexa” set a rolling sea mood, and the swirling colors in an extended “River of Dreams” invoked both images in that title.

There were highlights, though, and Billy Joel certainly is good at what he does. Decades since he rose to fame, his piano-playing is still top notch, as seen in a frenetic “Angry Young Man” and the lively Diddly-beat intro to “Don’t Ask Me Why”. Even better, though, was when he ditched the piano completely, going mano-a-mano with the microphone during “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll To Me”. Roger Daltry may be famous for throwing his mic up in the air and catching it, but Billy throws the whole damn stand! More moments like that would have given the show some much-needed energy.

Speaking of energy, a review of this show would be remiss without mention of the cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” sung by roadie Chainsaw. And it had plenty of energy, to be sure. Too bad it was the sort of energy you might get from a drunk uncle singing lewd songs at your wedding. An absolute embarrassment, it’s inconceivable why Joel had this guy came up unless he owed him a favor or something. If you need a break from singing, Billy, play an instrumental, take a set break – hell, just clap into the microphone for five minutes, and it would still be preferable to Chainsaw’s incoherent yelling.

At least that changed the show up a little bit though, in a concert that became stagnant quickly. Good for the one-time casual fan, but not much content there for anyone in search of something deeper. Though I will say this: hearing “Piano Man” in concert with a few thousand people is an experience that can’t be replicated.

Prelude/Angry Young Man
My Life
The Entertainer
Downeaster Alexa
New York State of Mind
Movin' Out
Keeping the Faith
Don't Ask Me Why
She's Always a Woman
Captain Jack
River of Dreams
Highway to Hell
We Didn't Start the Fire
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
Only the Good Die Young
Piano Man

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bob Dylan in Lewiston, ME 5/17/08

In Brief:
Tonight was different than last night in just about every way. The venue was terrible, a mini-barn of a hockey arena, the setlist was stagnant…and the perform
ance was fabulous. The difference was most noticeable on the songs repeated from the night before, bland blues songs like “The Levee’s Going to Break” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” getting new life from Bob’s delivery, as he concentrated on each line and avoided the growl that plagued Friday. DOWNLOAD BELOW.

The Long Version:
The Androscoggin Bank Colisee encompasses all of the charms of Lewiston: dirty, grey, industrial, run-down. The home of Bates College, the pretty campus is about all the city has to offer, except when Bob comes to town. A stage was set-up at one
end, with just a black curtain (no eye logo for a while), Dylan's Oscar and Mardi Gras beads in place, and the crowd filled less that half of the floor (likely that was because of capacity restrictions as much as anything).

Once again, the boys were prompt, coming out ten minutes after the show start time. This time, though, they waited for th
e intro music and speech, giving the crowd some anticipatory time to get excited. If the crowd were full of me’s though, you would have heard a collective “yech” when “Watching the River Flow” began. A real stinker, as I mentioned in yesterday’s review. However, as would turn into the trend of the night, my initial groans were soon silenced by the performance. From the first note, Bob was in fine voice. Gone the gruffness plaguing the Worcester show, replaced by forceful singing that didn’t miss a word. He closed the first song with the best harmonica solo of both nights.

Having “Lay Lady Lay” up next made for about the most awful one-two punch I could imagine, but my hatred for this song was once again almost overwhelmed by the beauty of the singing. The band didn’t do a lot, leaving this song to sound like the same country-emo as always, but Dylan put his heart into every poorly-written line. For a song that a notorious energy-drainer, tonight showed the potential for something more.

This post is going to get repetitive fast, as “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is yet another song I don’t like, performed spectacularly. It seems a setlist does not the show make. The band was equally impressive on this though, multi-instrum
entalist Donnie Herron catching hold of a new mandolin riff and substituting it for the regular end-of-the-line plonk, grinning each time at Bob like a child who just took his first dump on the toilet. Dylan eventually returned the smile, and the playful and engaged mood he seemed in continued throughout the song, putting the anything-goes delivery that’s needed on such bland blues songs.

Up next was the first nice setlist surprise, a serene and supple “Shelter of the Storm,” quiet organ and plucked guitar providing the lush backdrop for some focused vocals.
It was no Comstock ’06, but listen to the way he sings “fighting to be born” to see why this concert was starting to look special. It’s just one of those songs that takes on a whole new meaning hearing him sing it thirty-years later, like an old man looking on at the most beautiful but fleeting memory he has left.

Keeping the “Levee” trend alive, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was just as, if not more, enthusiastic. Dylan sang the first line of each verse straight, then mixing up the second one in classic 12-bar tradition. And for one of few times, guitarist Denny Freeman did an interesting solo on a fast song.

For only the second time of
the year, Bob took us back to 1963 with “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” one of his “finger-pointing” songs that hasn’t diminished with time. In comparison to what had come before, this one seemed to drag a bit. In tonight’s context, that means it was still performed well, just not any more memorable than that. When Dylan’s vocals are pedestrian, you hope the band will step forward to keep it interesting, but these guys rarely do.

The new “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” blitzkrieg came out again tonight, throwing a few punches then ending before most knew what hit ‘em. Denny’s badass punk solo break makes this the best this song has sounded in years and if you don’t like it, well, you don’t have long to wait.

With “Mississippi” up next, it looked like Bob was headed to just play Love & Theft straight through. Alas he didn’t, but this choice selection of what most consider the best song of the album was performed carefully, as always. The band seemed a little more forceful that usual on this one like someone turned the instrument volume knob a little too high. If it didn’t quite fit the lyrics, it was at least an interesting change of pace.

“There is no way to make ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ sound different than it does every other night” many might think. Wrong. True, every other time I have seen it performed (which is many), it is basically the same, but tonight was different for one reason: the drumming. George “Chuckles” Recile pounded shit out of that kit like I’ve never seen him do before, cracking up to the bassist about how crazy he was going. It doesn’t come through in the recording, but this was a performance not to be believed. Recile like a man possessed and earned himself the loudest band member applause of the night,

an’s Blues” has replaced “Nettie Moore” as the Modern Times performance-to-beat, being stellar every night on both the old lyrics and new. It doesn’t change much from night to night, but it doesn’t need to.

Tony Garnier picking up the double bass indicated to me the show would soon be ending, but “Summer Days” was still far off in a succession of stand-up bass songs. First up was “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a song that has added and dropped rearrangements in the past couple years, now sounding like the bastard child of them all. Herron’s banjo adds an earthy touch, but otherwise it seems somewhat directionless.

The fourth repeated Modern Times song from last night, “Spirit on the Water” showcased some more seductively pointed singing over that infectious jazz riff. The guitar work was Freeman at his finest, improving upon the nice album solo with extensions and new octave-spanning leads so good Bob just let him keep going and going.

A song that doesn’t do too much on paper, you need to hear “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” performed like this to get the full impact. For the first time ever, I saw Freemen pick up an acoustic guitar, laying down slide riffs over Herron’s banjo melody. It would have been good enough as an instrumental, but Dylan’s vocals were the most focused of the night – with no instruments able to solo, he had to be on from beginning to end. The non-stopping cascade of verses just built and built towards their inevitable deadly conclusion, a terrifying story that kept you praying Hollis wouldn’t do it, but knowing he would. The uncontested highlight of the night.

A musically average performance of “Summer Days” was a different story visually, a laugh-fest among the band about some shared joke we the audience were not privy too. Dylan rarely smiles this much in a show, which either means he’s doing great, or drunk. Glad it was the former.

Having gotten “Ballad of a Thin Man” last night, I was prepared for “Masters of War” next, but Bob wasn’t about to let himself get that predictable. Instead, he opted to close the main set with “Ain’t Talkin’” for the first time ever, and my first personal debut of the night. It’s hard to imagine him butchering a song this good, and I’m pleased to say that will have to stay in the imagination. Denny’s quirky riffs wound around Dylan’s word-perfect vocals to quiet an audience hanging on every word.

The usual first encore song, “Thunder on the Mountain” had the added benefit of the eye curtain drifting down behind the band during the first notes, raising a loud cheer from the crowd. A shockingly talkative Dylan said it was “about time I introduced the band onstage” and did just that before going straight into the last number.

After seventeen shows, this was in fact my first “Blowin’ in the Wind” and was more than welcome as a result. Hearing him sing it now as the self-avowed abandoner of protest is a little strange, but clearly he thinks it is once again relevant. Herron played violin, which unfortunately inaudible from where I was standing, but it sounds great in the recording. Other than that, it was nothing special, but a nice quiet ending to the best Dylan concert I’ve seen in several years.


Bob Dylan in Worcester, MA 5/16/08

In Brief:
A chance to see Dylan
in a 2000-person club is never something to pass up, especially when he’s opening the newest leg of his “Never-Ending Tour” there. The opening night-ness of the show was apparent however, for both better and worse. On one hand the show was loose and ragged, fun and, to use a clichéd Dylan term, freewheelin’. However, Bob’s voice proved itself out of practice; he took half the show to cough out the family of frogs in his throat. The setlist was something special indeed though, featuring the first performance of “Tryin’ the Get to Heaven” since ’05, and the ultra-rare “Can’t Wait,” so it is a shame Bob did not make the most of these choices. As the evening progressed, however, the performance improved, culminating in a beautiful banjo-driven “John Brown.” DOWNLOAD BELOW.

The Long Version:
The crowd at the Palladium had barely gotten themselves settled when 8:00 hit and Bob, perhaps hoping for an early bedtime, scurried out with the band almost immediately. With such an underwhelming entrance, the crowd had no time to react when the lights went down and the intro began, Dylan already on stage wandering around aimlessly. Instead of “oh boy he’s coming!” we thought, “oh yeah…there he is…” Small criticism though, compared to the fact that after a year of playing the opening songs on guitar, he went straight to the keyboard, and stayed there to whole show.

The advantage of sticking with the keyboard is that lyric sheets there let him mix up song choices a bit. He took advantage of that, presenting the first time he’s broken out of a three-song rotation of opening songs since last August with “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”. It’s never been a fan favorite, but a stark rearrangement breathed extra life into it, with a stop-and-start structure that lets guitarist Denny Freeman’s frenetic solos break out on their own. Probably the best feature though was that before anyone had a chance to get sick of it, it was over, lasting under three minutes.

“Girl of the North Country” has become a rare song these days, and it was a perfect choice for the second slot. However, vocal problems masked by the volume and speed of the opening number were on full display here. Dylan was at his growliest for the first half of the show, sounding like he was hacking up a hairball as his voice cracked back and forth. For those who dislike Dylan’s voice normally, you can only imagine how it would sound on a bad day. He was engaged in the performance, but with the voice like that he could only do so much.

The syrupy country riff opening “Watching the River Flow” w
as a sign for those in the know to sigh, a song that isn’t very good to begin with, and always performed about the same. Country Bob is my least favorite variety, and with lyrics like “People disagreeing everywhere you look / Makes you want to stop and read a book” this is a real stinker.

A personal debut for me of “Can’t Wait,” it featured a swampy ascending riff from Denny and loud organ blasts from Dylan. This sort of deep bluesy worked better with his gruff voice, to a degree.

“The Levee’s Gonna Break,” as a twelve-bar blues song, needs special delivery to not become boring. Tonight it didn’t have it, and Dylan’s blues-lyric clichés were certainly not interesting enough to stand on their own. By the seventh time he sang a verse beginning with “If it keep on raining, the levee’s gonna break” I hoped it would, just so he’d shut up.

However, the most exciting setlist choice of the night was up next, a personal debut off of my favorite album, Blood on the Tracks. “Simple Twist of Fate” was instantly recognizable from the intro that could draw tears before Dylan sang a line. The singing almost did make me cry, but for a very different reason. One of his most notorious singing techniques has been coined “upsinging” by fans, a tendency to sing the l
ast word of every line an octave higher than the rest of the line. Used sporadically it could be one of a handful of cool vocal tricks, but its overuse apparently compensated for lack of creativity in the desire to sing it differently. It had all but vanished in recent years until now, but every line that he used it on make me cringe. I cringed a lot.

Another generic blues song, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” suffered from many of the same problems as “Levee”. Rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball playing acoustic gave it an interesting sonic depth, and was certainly better than the slide Denny was playing, as during his solo breaks – and these days with Bob, any solo break is a Denny Freeman solo break – he mostly just played the chords even louder. I used to hate the guy, and though he’s coming into his own as a lead guitarist,that's only on the slow songs. On the fast ones he plays like a moderately talented rhythm guitarist with his instrument tuned up too high in the mix.

“Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” is where the night began to turn around. My third personal debut of the night, and the
first time this one has been performed since ’05, Dylan reworked the tune to hold out a long note and the end of every other line. For instance, “When-I-was-in Missooouuuuri, they would not let me be / I-had-to-leave-there-in-a huuuuuurry, I only saw what they let me see.” As you might gather from that punctuation, the downside of this new trick is he had to race through the beginning of each line, sometimes not quite making it. Regardless though, it was cool way to sing the song. Whether it was a one-night thing or a semi-permanent rearrangement remains to be seen. Denny capped it off by a curt solo, each not cropped for maximum effect, staying close to the melody line, but throwing plenty of spice.

Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron picking up the banjo can mean one of only half a dozen songs is on the way, and tonight it was anti-war outtake “John Brown”. Some more upsinging popped up occasionally, but on the other lines Dylan put enough passion in to make up for it, enunciating each lyric more clearly th
an he had all night as Donnie picked and plunked in the background. Dylan had finally warmed up, and the reprieve from Wolfman Bob allowed the full force of the delivery to come through.

“Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” was the first song of the night from Bob’s sixties tr
ilogy, and had been slowed down to substitute the fury of the original for a more funky acoustic take. The arrangement was generic, but Bob’s delivery made up for it, using some of that “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” technique and some descending vocal riffs.

The first decent Modern Times song of the night, “Spirit on the Water” was pretty as always, but otherwise unmemorable. He sang it a little less straight than he has in the past, which kept it fresh, but didn’t happen to stumble across anything revelatory as he often does. The “You think I’m over the hill / You think I’m past my prime” has become an audience participation number, everyone yelling “No!” in response to both claims. Cute.

“Highway 61 Revisited” is always fun and rocking for new show-goers, but for veterans it’s more hit or miss, depending as much on your mood as anything. Tonight was a miss for me in the sense that it was perfectly fine, but bland. The band played it like they usually play it, loud and fast with plenty of solos, but that was about it. As for the vocals…wait, is that the same “Heaven” vocal trick again? Ok Bob, it’s getting old.

Another Modern Times gem, “Workingman’s Blu
es #2” started off its career dazed and confused, but since has become a dependable show highlight. It did not disappoint tonight, sweet sensitive playing by the band staying far enough back to let Dylan’s vocals shine through. Every line dripped with resigned emotion, a tragedy from his tone alone. If listening carefully, you’d notice quite a few revised lyrics, impressive in a song not yet two years old. “In the dark I hear a songbird call / The hills are rugged and steep / I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall / If I told you my whole story, you’d weep.” Try to find that in the official lyrics.

Tony Garnier grabbing the upright bass is always a symbol that “Summer Days” is coming up, as it has every show for years. Recently it’s moved from the final slot of the main set to the penultimate. I don’t think it makes much of a difference, to be honest, as the song has sounded the same forever.

Donnie practicing the trademark riff on his lap steel signale
d that “Ballad of a Thin Man” was up next, a song that seems underappreciated in his live cannon. Sure, it sounds a lot like the original, but when the original sound and arrangement is so perfectly suited to the carnival lyrics, I don’t see that as a problem. If Tom Waits wrote a Dylan song, this would be it.

“Thunder on the Mountain” is the “Summer Days” of the new album: a song performed every night that sounds pretty much the same. The lyrics come too fast for Dylan to do anything very creative, but he put his all in them tonight, minor vocal inflections and clear diction keeping a mediocre song fresh and lively for even the most jaded.

Bob doesn’t mix around the final song a lot, so I wasn’t real surprised to hear “Like a Rolling Stone.” It seemed a more mellow arrangement though, the subdued guitars and prominent organ replacing the fury of the original with the attitude of “Yeah, I feel bad for you, but there’s nothing I can do.”
The problem with this song live is that Dylan is so adamant about avoiding a singalong that he doesn’t sing the chorus at all, but just shouts out the lines as fast as possible to preempt anyone trying to join in. Needless to say, it doesn’t sound particularly good. A slightly anti-climactic end to a concert that started off rough, but built to have been pretty good by the end. Nothing compared to the next night however…


Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Roots in Burlington 5/7/08

As someone who does not listen to a lot of hip-hop, I am perhaps not the most qualified to put The Roots in their proper musical context. On the concert stage, however, any music fan could tell that they are in a class by themselves.

Making up a date from last month, The Roots left out current tour partner Erykah Badu for the stop in Burlington. A shame, as I’m assuming that at the other shows she reprises her memorably soulful hook on The
Roots’ “You Got Me.” From the moment the band came onstage till they left almost three hours later, however, no one complained about one fewer performer. The band (yes, it’s a rap band) entered one at a time. Guitar virtuoso “Captain” Kirk Douglas led the way with a soulful riff and each member added his own instrument to build into some loud funk. Finally MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter entered and the song transformed into “I Can’t Help It” off of the week-old release, Rising Down.

The medley feel of the show became apparent from the beginning, as they quickly mashed this one up with a cover of War’s “The World Is a Ghetto” with snippets of “Rising Up” thrown in for good measure. The music rarely stopped, one song turning into the next as testament of the band’s comfort playing with each other. Drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson guided proceedings, even taking over vocals at the end of the show when Kirk's microphone broke. Band members looked to ?uest for transitions, but it mostly seemed second-nature. Songs like “Star” and “Step Into the Realm” came and went in an perfectly-coordinated barrage of music.

Unlike much hip-hop, The Roots are a live band with no turntable or samples, and that helped this attack of music keep from being monotonous. Guitar solos, bass solos, funky keyboard breaks, and non-stop antics by sousaphone player “Tuba Gooding Jr.” kept the sound diverse and the crowd jumping for hours. You won’t find many other hip-hop groups whe
re the rapper is not the star of the show, but Black Thought’s rhymes were just another instrument in the mix to come and go as the music demanded.

With the medley feel of this show, a definitive setlist is hard to come by, but highlights can be extracted. They did a medley of covers known as “Hip Hop 101”, squeezing dozens of lyrics, hooks, riffs, and references into a fifteen-minute torrent, with everything from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to “SexyBack” to Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” thrown in at some point. Every transition and mash-up was so smooth you could only catch a fraction of the wait-I-know-this references.

That however, paled with what came next: Douglas, Tuba, and ?uestlove performing one of the greatest Dylan covers I’ve ever heard, a version of “Masters of War” that may have broken the twenty minute mark. It’s hard to describe, invoking everything from the National Anthem to Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” to Taps without becoming a medley, so here is a recording. Long guitar solos, a longer drum solo, and Kirk and Tuba jumping into the crowd and running around while they played.

The Roots are a hip-hop band for the jam fan, rap music putting live music first in a way that spinning samples never can. The Roots have plenty of street cred in the hip-hop world, but appeal to a broader range of music lovers with their elements of funk and rock (“Masters of War” did not have one rapped line in its twenty-minute span) and musicians who are true virtuosos at their instruments, something you wouldn’t expect from a hip-hop crew. That’s because the non-rapping Roots aren’t a backing band, but the main show, a cohesive unit of artists that push everything from hard grungy beats to swinging pop hooks.

To give you an idea, here is a recording of a show a month earlier with a similar s
etlist. Not being familiar with all of their music, the only difference I can say for sure between it and mine was that “Criminal” was performed in the Burlington encore.


SETLIST 3/31/08
World is a Ghetto [War]/I Can't Help It
Rising Up
Long Time
Step Into the Realm
RIP J Dilla
Mellow My Man/ Jusufckwths
Love of My Life
Hip Hop 101
Masters of War [Bob Dylan]
I Will Not Apologize
You Got Me (incl. My Favorite Things)/Con Safo [The Mars Volta]
Get Busy/Jungle Boogie [Kool and the Gang]
Don't Feel Right/The Next Movement
75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)
Rock and Roll Part 2 [Gary Glitter]
The Seed (2.0)
Move On Up [Curtis Mayfield]
Men at Work [Kool G Rap & DJ Polo]