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.

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
Speedway to Nazareth
Telegraph Road (Dire Straits)
Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits
My Shangri-La
So Far Away (Dire Straits)
Going Home (Theme from Local Hero)

Friday, July 18, 2008

!!! in Cambridge, MA 7/17/08

Though an lesser known musical genre, “dance-punk” is straightforwardly named. Part electronica, part in your face rock, no band better deserves the label that !!!.

For those not in the know, that’s not a typo, it’s the band’s name, pronounced by saying the same sound three times in a row (for exactly “bam bam bam,” or “quack quack quack,” or “tiz tiz tiz”). Common practice has them pronounced “chk chk chk” though, and they’ve exploded in the blog world with frenetic dance songs, loud guitar combined with louder beats. They’ve gotten a reputation for explosive sweat-drenched live shows, and the tiny Middle East seemed the perfect place to experience this.

First the crowd, already tired from an unexplained two and a half hours between door time and the show’s start, had to endure the noise-attack of Dragons of Zynth. A clear Mars Volta knock-off, they were loud and unpleasant, lacking any of the latter band’s sense of nuance and tension. Instead, the Dragons just seemed to be playing four unpleasant songs at once, creating a shrill cacophony that seemed to have no purpose other than irritate. The band seemed disinterested; even when the lead singer moved around the stage, he appeared to be going through the motions and getting no more enjoyment out of his music than the audience. With the headliner band all about danceable fun, why they brought a grating noise band along is anyone’s guess.

Energy-wise, !!! could not have been more different. In their hour-long set, the seven-member crew jumped and danced around as much as they played. Lead singer Nic Offer is a character in his own right, rocking a pair of 80’s short shorts and neon tee as he yelled his way through one breakneck song after the next. Like Devo for the 21st century, sax solos and synth samples gave the group enough momentum that traditional “tunes” were rarely necessary. When mohawked singer Shannon Funchess joined them though, she proved she had talent beyond just nonstop dance moves, belting and rapping in turns. New songs were mixed with old and, if they all kind of sounded the same, that was the point. It was a dance show, and too much experimentation would just kill the vibe.

The vibe, however, wasn’t doing so hot on its own. The frenetic dancing onstage did not inspire the hot and tired crowd beyond a few token jumps and claps. Even when Offer danced through the packed floor, no one seemed too inclined to follow his lead. The band gave it their all anyway though, laying out disco beat after break beat – many created by up to four drummers – to try to generate a rock rave. With enough energy it could have been the party of the month, but unfortunately the Thursday night crowd did not give back the love they got.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Alejandro Escovedo in Boston 7/10/08

Though Alejandro Escovedo has been around for two decades, it took Springsteen bringing him up on stage a couple months ago to bring him to my attention. For others similarly in the dark, Escovedo’s been rocking away in Austin since the 80’s, starting off in band like The Nuns and Rank and File. He slowly earned himself a local reputation as a songwriter par excellence, so respected by his peers that when he needed money for Hepatitis C treatments in ’03, famous friends like Steve Earle and Son Volt recorded his songs for a tribute album. With his newest release Real Animal and big shot manager Jon Landau behind him, he’s making a legion of new fans and brought his Texas rock to the tiny Paradise Rock Club Thursday.

Local band Tulsa, however, got the evening off to a very boring start. Though the songs might have been good, the onstage delivery was so dreary the crowd fought to keep from falling asleep. As every midtempo angst ballad sounded like the next, it was a power trio with no power, and lead singer Carter Tanton’s nasal drawl sounded like he was nodding off himself.

Soon after they mercifully left the stage, Escovedo came out with a five-piece band. Unexpected in a rock show, two of those pieces were violin and cello. Immediately proving why they belonged, the two began a dissonant intro, soaring and grating simultaneously with either real or well-simulated distortion. Instrument upon instrument joined until with a drum crash the band roared into “Put You Down.” For the rest of the night, Escovedo strutted the stage like a rock star, giving a stadium-sized show for the tiny club. His guitar was tight and aggressive, channeling Joe Strummer (who he name-checked) with a windmill or two thrown in for good measure. And when he put down the guitar for “Real as an Animal,” he prowled the small stage, mic stand trailing behind as he barked out the Iggy Pop-inspired lyrics.

The band picked up on Escovedo’s focused energy, and channeled a balls-out performance themselves, the Sex Pistols’ drive combined with Springsteen’s technical perfection. The guitarist’s frequent solos were focused, improvised but never jammy, eliciting cheers from the audience each time. The strings fought their way to make a similar impression, dissonant and schmaltzy in turns, but always fitting in to even the most guitar-based songs.

Song selection drew heavily from his recent album, including soon-to-be fan favorites like “Always a Friend” (the one he sang with Bruce) and “Sister Lost Soul.” “Chelsea Hotel ‘78” rocked the hardest though, breaking down to just vocals and drums before a build-up that rivals “Jungleland.” The most driven moment of the night came in set-closer “Castanets,” however. A song President Bush listed among his favorites, Escovedo was so insulted he retired it for three years, bringing it back now only with a tirade about how he’s going to build a fence around Texas to stop Bush from coming back (“Chicano homeland security”). Needless to say, the Massachusetts crowd approved.

Older songs showed greater musical diversity however. The stunning mini-suite flamenco of “Juarez” and “Rosalie” featured beautiful nylon-stringed plucking that perfectly matched the lead-in story about Escovedo’s father’s immigration. A break from all the rock, the sorrowful soul of this slow mariachi medley brought the crowd to a standstill in the emotion that seeped through every word and guitar flourish.

For anyone still unimpressed, Escovedo’s encores proved a lesson in crowd-pleasing, two covers that had everyone shouting and swaying along. “All the Young Dudes” was faithfully performed, but the extended take on “Beast of Burden” how to rock in middle-age without embarrassing yourself. Mick, take note. Escovedo may not be a household name, but the passion he performs with makes you wonder if he should be.


Put You Down
Always A Friend
Everybody Loves Me
Sister Lost Soul
Chelsea Hotel '78
Deerhead On The Wall
Juarez > Rosalie
Sensitive Boys
People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)
Real As An Animal
All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople cover)
Beast Of Burden (Rolling Stones cover)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Rosewood Thieves in Cambridge 6/30/08

A rootsy Americana night at the Middle East, with indie underdogs the Rosewood Thieves playing their first Boston show. Not having brought their own support, they had three local artists kick things off.

First up was singer/songwriter Dave Godowsky, who seemed to be doing everything in his power to pull off a young Bob Dylan look: acoustic guitar, neck harmonica holder, scruffy curly hair, and shy, awkward banter. The songs fit the image, as pseudo-profound lines cascaded around, some missing the mark, but others sounding great. “It ends in a coffin and it starts with a cough / The past is a debt you can never pay off” is straight out of the “To live outside the law you must be honest” school of songwriting, and “Take a look at the world / It’s an oyster with no pearl” sounds like Tom Waits at his most pessimistic. Though his melodies were bland and energy nil, clear delivery helped keep the small crowd focused on his lyrics, which proved to be enough.

Currently living in Cambridge herself, Alice Austin can’t have had far to walk tonight. A good thing too—the knee-high platform pumps she wore can’t have been comfortable. Image, though, is clearly something Austin takes seriously. Like an edgy Dolly Parton, her cascading blonde hair contrasted sharply with her miniskirt and glittered electric guitar. If the look was conflicted, the music matched. Country torch songs played loud and fast, she touched on casual sex and road kill in her thirty-minute set, backed only by a bassist similarly attired. She showed punch, attitude, and sass, though the affected rural twang grew tiresome.

Cultivating a similar style as Godowsky, Ben Pilgrim looked more like an Urban Outfitters Dylan, complete with newsboy cap and spunky four-piece band. His songs veered from generic anti-war protests to livelier numbers like the “Beatles sequel,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand Again." His voice harmonized with his female back-up singer for some catchier call-and-response numbers, but it was the cover of Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” that really shook things up. Moving closer to punk than he had before, it attacked, dark and aggressive, lines like “You were meant for me” sounding not joyful, but obsessed.

By the time Rosewood Thieves came on, the crowd had doubled…to about thirty people. If it bothered the group though, they didn’t let on, letting their thumping drums and jingle-jangle guitar lines do most of the talking. Singer Erick Jordan expressed every love-lorn lyric with expressions and gestures so anxiety-ridden he looked like a lover about to jumping off the bridge. The voice matched the physical contortions, pretty but anguished, sounding like hickory and leaves (I don’t know what that means exactly, but it fits).

Not a group with a lot of pedals or instrument changes, the Thieves blasted through their roots rock with energy and spontaneity. If they’ve got a standard song formula – Jordan plays choppy guitar chords while lead guitarist Paul Jenkins plays slick, serpentine fills between lines while drum thumps propel the whole thing forward– they have honed it well enough that each song seemed sharp as the back porch axe, but loose as the county barn dance. A group of city kids, they’ve incorporated the mountain ballad sound just enough to give things a folksy twang, but not enough to lose their relevance and hipster edge. Missing their organist though, they had to leave "Diamond Ring" off the setlist. Don't worry Grey's Anatomy fans; "Los Angeles" made an appearance.

Keeping it vague, the songs exist apart from time. Their vaguely-mythic quality could situate them in Victorian England or contemporary New York, depending on your perspective. Occasional maracas shakes or foot stops accentuated bluesy tales of heartache and despair, livening things up enough so it never got too dour. Though they must get their share of The Band comparisons, they took on a more unlikely artist to align themselves with: soul singer Solomon Burke, covering two songs off their upcoming tribute album. Though few knew the originals, the tunes fit their sound seamlessly, showing that they wouldn’t be out of place doing sets of blues-rock covers in local pubs. Though the world has yet to discover the Thieves, they have just the sort of Cold War Kids appeal that could well see them making the blog rounds soon.