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