Monday, September 07, 2009

John Fogerty at South Street Seaport 9/3/09

John Fogerty can’t decide whether he’s washed up or not. Live at New York’s South Seaport, he certainly showed all the signs of it. He cranked out the hits as close to the originals as he could manage, he hammed it up as often as possible encouraging sing-alongs, he grinned goofily throughout like a man knowing he’s coasting.

At the same time, he exhibited the desire to remain relevant. He’s still releasing Grammy-winning albums and he gets decidedly not-washed-up stars like Bruce Springsteen to play on them. He’s playing plenty of new material live. And, more telling than anything else, he has made no
attempt to reunite Creedence Clearwater Revival for a lucrative nostalgia tour (the fact that one of the four has passed to that green river in the sky helps).

During his 17-song set Wednesday night he straddled the line, playing just as many songs off his new album as old Creedence hit
s (seven of each). This would deserve praise were the new stuff not so truly banal. In August, John released The Blue Ridge Rangers Ride Again, the follow-up to his 1973 solo disc of country covers. “If you know me at all,” Fogerty said by way of introduction to “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me),” “you know I looooove Buck Owens.”

It quickly became clear we wished we didn’t know him that well. Schmaltz with a capital “S,” these country clichés stripped Fogerty of the rebellious swagger that made him famous. The man who once turned “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” into an eleven-minute tirade of anti-war fury is now telling us about his “Never Ending Song of Love”? Come on now.

The poppier covers exhibited a bit more promise, letting the crowd joyfully sing along to “When Will I Be Loved?” and “Paradise” loud enough to drown out the cheese. The only cut from that ’73 album, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” proved the most successful of all, displaying an unbridled sense of goofy fun missing from the trite new disc.

Stripped down to a three, four, or even five-piece ensemble, even the most moronic of the country material could have had some life. With ten musicians behind Fogerty all trying to be the loudest person on stage though, any soul was crushed by overproduction. In a clear case of too many people with not enough to do, some songs had five guitarists all playing the same part. Next to the numbers singing though this seemed conservative. Factor in a solo-happy drummer thrashing away like he was in a Slayer tribute band and the overabundance of musician onstage crushed any attempt at nuance.

Unfortunately, that held for the classics as well. Creedence did a pretty good “Born on the Bayou” with only four guys; adding six more without a new arrangement proves that more is much, much less. Hits like “Green River” and “Fortunate Son” benefited from the original stripped-back attack that allowed Fogerty’s down-south twang to burst forth in all its fury. The lush wall-of-sound dulled the impact of these hits to such a degree that a crowd wanting hits and only hits grew bored of the half-hearted sing-alongs.

Fogerty hams it up so much he should be a butcher (speaking of cheesy…), but the man has such confidence he pulls it off…sometimes. His constant pointing to the crowd - loopy grin on his face, helmet hair on his head - made him seem friendly and welcoming while touches like a guitar made from a baseball bat on solo hit “Centerfield” were a cute touch.

The cheese went both ways though. Furiously tapping the fret board for a hair-metal solo on “Keep On Chooglin’” made him seem like a Twisted Sister wash-out and his constant need to turn to whoever was soloing like a proud father felt like forced humility. Still, he’s still a dynamite guitar player in spite of himself and ceding so many features of the pedal steel player wasted opportunities to shine.

The man’s voice has lost its angry-young-man edge, but he can produce a pretty good facsimile on old tunes, yelps and voice cracks exactly where you remember them. If that makes him sometimes sound like a karaoke singer trying too hard, it’s hard to blame him for imitating himself.

The inevitable closing trinity of “Bad Mood Rising,” “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary” finally brought the crowd to life. If the first two were hampered by a too-large band, the finale proved what Ike and Tina Turner had taught us decades earlier: “Proud Mary” will rock no matter how many people you throw at it. During the night’s first and only moment of perfect balance, the joy onstage matched that in the audience, the classic song’s riff lost nothing in the wall-of-sound delivery and, best of all, a schooner pulled in behind him as he sang about sailing down the river. For that final song, he settled on nostalgia, and figured out how to do it right.

When Will I Be Loved? (The Everly Brothers)
Paradise (John Prine)
Born on the Bayou
Green River
Lookin’ Out My Back Door
Never Ending Song of Love (Delaney Bramlett)
Back Home Again (John Denver)
Keep on Chooglin’
Change in the Weather
I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me) (Buck Owens)
Jambalaya (On the Bayou) (Hank Williams)
Haunted House (Robert Geddins)
Rock and Roll Girls
Bad Moon Rising
Fortunate Son
Proud Mary

Photos by Chris LaPutt (via BrooklynVegan)

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