Sunday, September 27, 2009

Elvis Costello's Spectacle with Bruce Springsteen 9/25/09

Elvis Costello filmed the second season of his Sundance interview show Spectacle this past week at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, culminating in a Friday night session with Bruce Springsteen. Thanks to a generous giveaway via Springsteen fan site Backstreets, I was able to attend the taping with about on hundred other fans.

Due to the televised nature of the event, no pictures or video were permitted (not even crummy cell phone pictures), so until the show debuts in January these words will have to suffice.

The events kicked off with massive applause. Nothing unusual about that at a concert. The difference is, the audience was applauding for no one. Rather, the producers wanted to pre-tape applause of various volumes to use during transitions. The crew scampering around onstage must have thought they were the most popular stage hands ever.

When we were all but applauded out, Costello’s three-piece band the Imposters entered the stage (the audience mustered a bit more clapping). Brief introductory instructions from a producer preceded Elvis himself hitting the stage, thanking various people and giving the crowd a few last minute tips.

Things kicked off with an untelevised cover, as these recordings often do, to warm up the band and crowd. Costello has never publicly performed Bruce’s “Point Blank” before, but the distorted squall through one of the Boss’s lesser-known slow songs sounded like a concert staple. Costello made his guitar shriek and mode, wah-wahing for his life while his off-kilter voice twitched and jerked around the melody. Even the most hardcore Springsteen fan there had never heard this River tune sound so aggressive. It’s a crime this performance will not be aired.

Costello then introduced special guest Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band. He explained that his relationship with Nils predates his Bruce connection though; when Costello was performing covers in Liverpool bars he often played one of Lofgren’s original tunes as a crowd-pleaser. This was the point where Nils was touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his opening band, so Costello’s familiarity with his songs should be no surprise.

The song Costello used to sing was “Take You to the Movies,” a beautiful ballad that Lofgren dutifully performed with the Imposters while Costello stepped off. He wasn’t gone for long though, soon returning to lead the band (plus Nils) into “She’s the One.” The crowd had been warned that this was not a regular concert; things might stop and start. Stop they did here, as it took the band five or six attempts to get things running right.

When they did they knocked out a ramshackle version of the first verse before vamping while Elvis went into a beatnik rant by way of introduction to Bruce. His words came out a bit garbled in the theater, but a reference to the “Great Emperor of New Jersey” was made before the Boss himself quietly wandered out, applauding politely while the band finished the song.

Stools were set up center stage while Bruce and Elvis got comfortable. The ensuing interview covered Bruce’s early struggles, his sudden success with Born to Run, his songwriting process and transition into maturity, his kids’ musical taste (the Gaslight Anthem and Against Me!) and everything in between. The program took four hours after all.

The first bit of music performed by Bruce was his early rarity “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” by special request from Elvis. Bruce talked about the fear he had of carnivals as a kid and his constant desire to see behind the scenes, under the ringmaster’s clothes so to speak. Nils and Bruce’s pianist Roy Bitten joined him for the acoustic performance (the latter on carnival accordion). I was expecting old standbys like “Thunder Road” or “Born in the U.S.A.” to dominate the evening, but most of the performances were rarities.

Things then turned political, Costello inquiring about the public stoning that occurred when Springsteen wrote “American Skin (41 Shots)” about the brutal killing of. Police thought a condemnation of one action was a commendation on all of them, they freaked out, booed his concert, announced boycotts, etc. Stupid stuff. Springsteen’s acoustic performance was powerful and effective, the blaring choruses and pounding drums stripped away to a man telling a broken story.

The next performance didn’t need so much reworking. Costello talked about seeing Bruce on his solo Ghost of Tom Joad tour in ’96 (their past interactions were a frequent topic for reminiscence) and Springsteen performed “Galveston Bay” from that time with Bitten on spacey synth. “We gotta pick things up before this crowd kills themselves,” he joked after the second depressing tune in a row.

An impromptu jaunt through Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” did the trick, Costello and Bruce dueting up until the bridge, and which point Bruce forgot the chords. He didn’t forget about his stint singing on the Orbison tribute Black and White Night, for which Costello played rhythm guitar, claiming he actually gets asked about that performance more than any other (seems hard to believe). Costello said that was the best night of his life. A spontaneous verse of “The River” followed soon after, the audience groaning audibly when Bruce cut the performance short.

The common musical heritage discussion continued with a debate over whether Sam Moore of “Soul Man” singers Sam & Dave would have been a solo star. Mumbler Springsteen was at his most eloquent describing how the two needed each other so Sam’s voice could soar to the heavens while Dave’s stayed rooted in the dirt.

To prove his point, Bruce took Sam’s part while Elvis snagged Dave’s for “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” with the full ensemble. The two had just praised classic band leaders, but they both seemed a bit lost without their guitars, standing off to the side of the stage instead of taking the center and demonstrating the balls-out frontman power they had been praising. Still, the vocal delivery was knock-out, rousing the audience to a frenzy after two and a half hours.

Then: Intermission.

Part Two began with the comedy stylings of Springsteen. Clearly he’d been building up a baudy surplus in his normal all-ages shows, as for this all-ages crowd he let loose with a zinger so filthy it got audible gasps. I won’t go through the whole thing, but the punch line was, “You’ve been eating grass for the last ten minutes.” You can fill in the rest.

That proved an awkward segue to talk about Bruce’s romantic life. Costello praised his wife Patti Scialfa’s musical ability for what seemed a strangely long time until he put his music where his mouth was, covering her “Black Ladder” with Nils and Bruce accompanying. This show was as much about Elvis as Bruce, so he followed it up with a raw performance of Springsteen’s treacle-fest “Brilliant Disguise,” a voice ravaged after a week of performances adding a welcome grit to the sappy tune.

More chit-chat followed before the night wrapped up with three songs that would have been worth the trip along. The band came back out and kicked off the finale with “The Rising,” a concert staple that has been boring fans who’ve heard it way too often for years. With the Imposters backing though, this song rocked out in a brand-new way. The crowd rose to their feet and it has taken off as the go-to topic of discussion on Springsteen boards. Costello took backing vocals on this brash version of the hopeful hymn, leaving the audience floored. “Bruce needs to take the Imposters on tour,” the fan next to me muttered.

Recent concert staple “Seeds” solidified that claim. The E Street Band rocks this out as hard as they got, but the Imposters gave even the already balls-out tune even more kick. Bruce played for all his was worth, thrashing at his guitar like you’d never see him during his energy-storing performances, unleashing the hungry 18-year old still inside him.

The band vamped while Elvis did another introductory rant – he said they could wind up using this one to kick the show off – before blasting into “Radio Nowhere.” It rocked hard, like it always does, before getting an extra kick with a segue into Costello’s “Radio Radio” reminiscent of the classic Saturday Night Live fuck-up. Bruce clearly got a kick singing this one into the mic with Elvis.

Then, just like that, the lights went up and the band left the stage. Four hours after we had first sat down, the crowd stumbled out onto 125th St, exhausted and agape. The only question that remained: how in the world will an editor cut that down to an hour?

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 clich├ęs 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)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

David Bazan at Pianos 9/2/09

"Can you save my soul?" one unruly audience member shouted out during David Bazan's private press gig Tuesday night at New York's Pianos. The reply was curt and unsmiling. "No."
An ugly duckling in the homogeneous world of Christian music, Bazan has never been about saving souls. In his band Pedro the Lion he would preach questioning to the choir, forcing the faithful to reexamine their (and his) beliefs. He swore onstage, criticized God and Christians, and generally probed deeper than the "Our God Is an Awesome God" crew. A devoted group of Christian rock kids adored him; the rest were convinced he was traveling the road to damnation.
Today Bazan is farther from soul-saving than ever. Pedro the Lion is no more and with it has vanished what little faith Bazan had left. A July article in the Chicago Reader detailed the rocker's fall from grace on the occasion of him playing the Cornerstone Christian music festival as an, if not nonbeliever, at least a skeptic. His newest and best record, Curse Your Branches, details his journey from certainty to doubt. At his first full-band show at Pianos Tuesday, he let the songs do the talking.
"With the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo," he sang in "When We Fell." "I was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths / that eventually had the effect of completely unraveling / the powerful curse put on me by you."
This leads into the song's pivotal question: "Did you push us when we fell?" (the lyrics on Bazan's website are all presented in lower-case, perhaps to avoid the thorny issue of whether to capitalize the name of a deity he's no longer sure exists). That line encapsulates Bazan's struggle -- he no longer believes in God, yet he is still talking to Him, blaming Him for his nonbelief.
Bazan played through the entire record at Pianos sans one tune, "Harmless Sparks." One song after another artfully described his upbringing in a fire-and-brimstone brand of Christianity that left him too scared to ask the important questions. "Too full of prophecy and fear to see the revelation right in front of me," he sung in "Bearing Witness." "So sick and tired of trying to make the pieces fit / That's not what bearing witness is."
This sort of poetry could quickly become stifling were it not for the rocking four-piece band behind him, channeling U2 guitar echoes on "Lost My Shape" and Fountains of Wayne poppy crescendos on "The Devil Is Beating His Wife," one of two tunes not off the new album. Bazan's powerfully melodic voice glided over the songs' stop-start rhythms, hardly needing the microphone in front of him even when he leaped into a powerful falsetto cry.
Bazan's a singer, songwriter, and top-notch bass player to boot. Though the focus was on lyrics, he was content to delve into extended jams such as the fuzzed-out intro to "Hard to Be" or the rolling drum duel in "When We Fell." If Bazan's earlier material (and that of just about everyone else labeled a "singer-songwriter" these days) has a failing, it's that without a catchy musical underpinning his lyrical density crosses over into dreariness. Not so on his newest work, which rocks as hard as it ponders, adding hummable hooks to his confessions of confusion.
As has already become all too obvious, it is difficult to resist the temptation to lyric-quote ad nauseum when reviewing Bazan, and for good reason. Since Curse Your Branches cements his reputation as one of the most thoughtful, most poetic lyricists working today, please indulge me one more quote.
"I might as well admit it," he sings in "In Stitches, "like i even have a choice / The crew have killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice."
Whether God exists or not, Bazan is right about one thing: the introspective thinking-man's Christian rocker (ex-Christian rocker?) has no choice. He has spent the past ten years chronicling his faith, why should he not do the same for his doubt?
Hard to Be
Bless This Mess
Please, Baby, Please
Curse Your Branches
The Devil Is Beating His Wife
When We Fell
Lost My Shape
How I Remember
Bearing Witness
Heavy Breath
In Stitches

(photo by Kurt Christensen)