Thursday, March 04, 2010
The Music of the Who at Carnegie Hall 3/2/10
The Who have been enjoying a career resurgence in the last few years, without really trying. They’ve been honored by Pres. Bush at the Kennedy Center and played the Super Bowl, all without putting out a new album or touring. Last night they were the inspiration for a 2.5-hour tribute concert at Carnegie Hall. Though Townshend apparently declined his invitation to appear (Roger Daltrey is off on tour with Eric Clapton) and the Pixies’ Frank Black canceled at the last minute, 21 artists picked up the slack, including a surprise performer who always seems to turn up at these things.
Sex Mob trumpet player Steven Bernstein opened the show with, appropriately enough for the venue, the Tommy Overture. He played very little though, turning the heavy lifting over to house band Rich Pagano & the Sugarcane Cups and the Music Unites Youth Choir. The subtlety of the Tommy score doesn’t exactly come through when belted by forty overly enthusiastic teenagers, who went so far as to sing the electric guitar part of “Pinball Wizard” (“dun-duuuuunnn”). Pagano’s bongo solo didn’t help.
Living Colour came out looking like an old episode of Family Matters, but the soul-funk veterans ripped into the lesser-known “Eminence Front” (off the Who’s decidedly non-classic It’s Hard) with a wall of guitar and seemingly nonstop bass soloing by Doug Wimbash. The Afro-pop sound suited the song’s many parts, as the band hopped and bopped around.
Norway’s Sondre Lerche came out with just an acoustic guitar – rarely a good sign. However, his guitar playing on “I’m a Boy” paid obvious homage to Who virtuoso…Keith Moon? Lerche’s guitar playing owed more to Moon’s drum attack than Townshend's windmills, attacking the chords with a stop-start rhythm that traded big chords for rhythmic fills, including an instrumental break that sounded like a drum solo plus melody.
Thanks to that youth choir, Kaki King performed only the second-worst “Pinball Wizard” of the evening, feebly approximating the guitar part as if she wasn’t entirely sure how it went. Reedeming the performance somewhat was a partner playing some sort of feedback machine, squalling out noises that filled Carnegie Hall and all but drowned out King. Not that that was a bad thing.
When I interviewed the Postelles a few weeks back, they spilled the beans that they would be performing “I Can’t Explain.” From a band that takes such obvious influence from the British Invasion, picturing this cover was not a challenge. Give them credit for being the first band of the evening to actually sound like the Who though, roaring through the band’s first single with obvious delight.
Israeli songwriter Asaf Avidan made the bold choice of ignoring the Who’s catalogue completely and instead imitating Melissa Etheridge strangling a cat. Wait...the program says that was “Naked Eye” off Who’s Next? Could’ve fooled me.
Mose Allison continued the one-two punch of awful, paying tribute to himself with “Young Man Blues.” Yes, I realize the Who covered your song countless times when they were younger, but if you’re not even going to play their version it’s just bragging. And following it up with a recent sequel “Old Man Blues”? Tacky.
Count on Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü to get things back on track. What the program listed as a The Who Sell Out medley was mainly just “I Can’t Reach You,” complete with a windmill or two on his roaring sky-blue guitar.
Nicole Atkins' gorgeous voice tried to soar on “The Song Is Over," but the Sugarcanes’ leaden backing kept dragging her back to earth. Throughout the evening they proved better on the early punkish Who than tackling the grander orchestral scope of the band’s later years, where it seemed to be all they could do to just hang on.
This made “Love Ain’t for Keeping,” also off Who’s Next, a particularly poor choice. Muddy sound didn’t help their case as, after an introductory speech comparing Keith Moon to Levon Helm, Pagano proved that unlike the legendary voice behind “The Weight” he could not competently drum and sing at the same time.
Judge Raul Madón’s performance by the applause: polite as he entered the stage, thunderous (and standing) as he exited. This blind guitarist turned “I Can See for Miles” into a flamenco rave up, tapping on his guitar like Rodrigo y Gabriela as his beautiful tenor reached the Carnegie rafters. The gorgeous faux-trumpet solo made people strain to see the instrument; no way a sound this pure was simply coming from his vocal chords. It was.
Bobby McFerrin, the man behind “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” continued the world-music vibe with an a cappella “My Generation.” Accompanied only by his hand thumping his chest, he half-scat, half-beatboxed his way through one of the most creative interpretations of the night. The song hit its peak as he riffed through John Entwhistle’s classic bass solos though, otherwise, it seemed this approach might have been better suited to a different tune, something off Quadrophenia perhaps.
The Who drew on the blues for much of the earlier work, but that side got little notice Wednesday night. Only college rock veterans the Smithereens hinted at the bloozier side of the band with their choice of “The Seeker.” Pat DiNizio roared through a punked-out version that tacked on the “Sparks” outro from Tommy after, blasting like a rocket.
Another unexpected high point came with Matt Nathanson’s “The Real Me,” delivered primarily on acoustic guitar, strummed spastically while a bass drum thumped away in the background. Nathanson attacked the microphone like a python, darting towards it and back away.
Pete Townshend has said soul legend Bettye LaVette brought him to tears with her version of “Love, Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors. Where there she had the benefit of a full band though, at Carnegie it was just her and pianist/arranger Rob Mathis performing an arrangement that the louder it got, the more fragile it became. The woman’s voice deserves a Carnegie Hall tribute itself and if she milked the vocal riffing a little, blame the lack of drums to keep things in time.
The Sugarcanes were back to support ex-Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell on a pedestrian version of “Behind Blue Eyes.” As often happens with this tune, it didn’t really take off until the bridge (you know, the “When my fist clenches, crack it open” part).
A Beatles tribute band? Did the people scheduling this thing sink so low? Maybe they knew something the rest of us didn’t, because the Fab Faux (who, to their eternal credit, didn’t dress like or otherwise really try to imitate the Beatles) performed the hell out of the longest cover of the night, ripping through the entire “We’re Not Gonna Take It” from Tommy. The problem with these tribute shows is that only being on a couple minutes no band has time to establish a mood or repartee with the audience. Not a problem if you play for ten minutes, building the repetitive “Listening to you” bit at the end to a crescendo they rode all the way to the finish.
The energy continued with Willie Nile, an upstate rocker who never got the notice he deserves despite a long friendship with Bruce Springsteen. He hobbled onstage with a crutch, but his performance made it unclear whether it was a prop or he was defying doctors orders as he played air guitar on it, lashed out at the audience with it, and threw it across the stage on several occasions. Doing “The Kids Are Alright” with the Sugarcanes (the best they played all night), this seemed appropriate. Bonus points for a quick “Happy Jack” outro.
Harvey Danger frontman Sean Nelson and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye joined Robyn Hitchcock onstage where, after Robyn rambled for a few minutes about the “loser culture,” they began to sing: “Her man’s been gone nigh on a year…” Fantastic! Were they really going to do the entire ten-minute epic “A Quick One, While He’s Away”? Sadly, no they were not. This tease went into a take on “Substitute” that, while thoroughly competent, just came off as a disappointment. Don’t promise what you can’t (or won’t) deliver.
The Gaslight Anthem made no such pretensions. Guitarist Alex Rosamilia turned the synth intro of “Baba O’Riley” into a fast-and-furious guitar part before Brian Fallon Joe Strummer-ed his way through it. The band didn’t blow minds like they sometimes do, but it was still an excellent choice to close the show.
Except…who was this onstage now? All the scheduled performers had finished, but Carnegie had one more surprise in store: Patti Smith. “Carnegie Hall, forgive me for what I am about to do” she said before ripping through her punk-as-hell “My Generation,” a song she played in the early ‘70s, light on melody and heavy on feedback. “I don’t need their fucking shit!” she spat. “Hope I die because of it!” A beat poetry message about taking the world back from the corporations followed, delivered to the tune of her ripping the strings off her guitar.
The night ended, as these nights always do, with the inevitably all-star jam. The song was “Won’t Get Fooled Again," the only major hit not yet performed (no, "Boris the Spider" does not count). It sounded terrible, as these things always do, but was an absolute blast to watch. Willie Nile and Bettye LaVette took charge as most people just danced around or sang in the background. Nicole Atkins appeared for the Daltrey-worthy scream before disappearing in the background while Patti Smith decided she didn’t care about all this and just leapt into the audience and danced. A suitably irreverent way to end the evening.
Steven Bernstein & Music Unites Choir – Tommy Overture
Living Colour – Eminence Front
Sondre Lerche – I’m a Boy
Kaki King – Pinball Wizard
The Postelles – I Can’t Explain
Asaf Avidan – Naked Eye
Mose Allison – Young Man Blues
Bob Mould – I Can’t Reach You
Nicole Atkins – The Song Is Over
Rich Pagano & the Sugarcane Cups – Love Ain’t for Keeping
Raul Midón – I Can See for Miles
Bobby McFerrin – My Generation
The Smithereens – Sparks/The Seeker
Matt Nathanson – The Real Me
Bettye LaVette –Love Reign O’er Me
Jason Isbell – Behind Blue Eyes
Fab Faux – We’re Not Gonna Take It
Willie Nile – This Kids Are Alright
Robyn Hitchcock – Substitute
The Gaslight Anthem – Baba O’Riley
Patti Smith – My Generation
Everyone – Won’t Get Fooled Again
(photos by Saed Hindash, via the NJ Star-Ledger)