She & Him; Brett Dennen

Took flyers on back-to-back live shows by singers I’d heard, but not seen: She & Him at the Arlington, Brett Dennen at the Lobero. “She” is Zooey Deschanel, and from  “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”  her voice was shrill and over-mic’ed, unpleasant to listen to from the seventh row. As there was nothing going on besides her voice, it became a long night very early. M. Ward, the “Him” of the team, played a jazzy guitar accompaniment but remained in the shadow. Not as much as the background singers and musicians, who were 20 feet behind Zooey and poorly. She ran though a collection of Christmas standards listlessly, perhaps recognizing that Christmas was still a long 23 days away. After a short on-stage interlude that passed for conversation, She & Him shifted to their “catalogue,” which was bouncier and seemingly of greater interest to the performers. The voice was still hard to take, which was a problem, as Zooey’s voice, and persona as a chanteuse, is all that was on sale. Perhaps to avoid unfavorable comparison, the opening act, comedian Pete Lee, didn’t sing at all.

The opening act at the Lobero managed to top Zooey for loud and shrill, and since she didn’t believe in melody either we waited out her set on the plaza. Brett Dennen, finally, came on with some personality, and the vocal Lobero audience kept a fun conversation going. He played by himself, which muted some of his songs, but his lyrics were clear, his tunes catchy and his rhythms engagingly syncopated. I like the three or four songs they play on the radio, and they sounded good live. Everything he sang was at least “good,” although there was little that made me want to go home and start streaming. Mostly, I enjoyed his engaged storytelling; and the fact that he lives in Ventura and had a lot of friends in the crowd made it a pleasantly relaxed evening.

The Wallflowers

Jakob Dylan was frustrated that the Lobero crowd was responding appreciatively but politely to his group, the Wallflowers. “We’re a rock’n’roll band!,” he pleaded. Finally, before launching into “One Headlight,” his biggest, if not only, hit, he pointedly commented, “It must be awfully tiring just sitting in those seats,” and on cue the crowd rose as one and started gyrating along with the music, and we stayed on our feet for one more song and two encores. Was it masks that kept the excitement level down, the mature age of the audience, the stately character of the theater, or the good-but-not-great quality of the music? When the Wallflowers’ appearance in Santa Barbara was first advertised, I bought a ticket and started listening to their new album, ” Exit Wounds,” which I thought surprisingly good. “Surprising,” because it had been 25 years since their breakthrough album, “Bringing Down the Horse,” and I hadn’t heard or thought much about them since then. One-third of their concert featured songs from “Exit Wounds,” including my favorites, of the album and of the night: “Roots and Wings,” “The Dive Bar in My Heart,” “I’ll Let You Down (But Will Not Give You Up),” “I Hear the Ocean (When I Wanna Hear Trains),” although the harmony of Shelby Lynne that lights up the record was missing from the performance. It was good rock’n’roll, but it didn’t bring back enough memories or cause enough chills. And Dylan himself seemed stuck in an off-base persona–not really Bob, but not really something different. I guess in the end, the audience was a reflection of his enthusiasm.
The opening act was a band called Ragged Glory, which, I learned from the program, reconvenes once a year to recreate Neil Young’s songs from 1969-79–”Hello Cowgirl in the Sand,” etc. I loved their songs, although they never matched the originals; but what I loved most was the fact that here in 2021, musicians were paying homage to music, my music, from a half-century ago. Two days later I was back at the Lobero for music from 55 years ago, and it was quite a contrast. Jan and Dean’s Beach Party featured 81-year-old Dean Torrence (Jan having died) and four replacement/studio musicians who, we were told, regularly play with the Beach Boys’ various touring groups. This was strictly an “oldies” show, with canned patter, rote performances and more repetition than conviction. The songs–more Beach Boys than Jan and Dean, as was appropriate, with a couple of strays–were of course memorable; but the quality of play and lack of inspiration or imagination left a lot to be desired. They made me appreciate Ragged Glory, who tried to make it their own, not just copy what someone else had done.

J.D. Souther

J.D. Souther’s songs are all pretty sad, and you almost felt sorry for his life, too, after hearing him in solo concert at the Lobero last night. He frequently name-checked artists more successful than he, while mentioning that he was a music teacher, could read music, could play a song in any key. When someone allegedly asked Glenn Frey why J.D. wasn’t more famous, Glenn said, “John David keeps giving away his best songs.” Whenever he played a song made famous by the Eagles, he would preface or postscript it by saying it was on “the best-selling album of all time.” He also bragged about “Faithless Love” – a song I’d never heard – as one that was covered by many artists but sung best by Linda Ronstadt, who was living with him when he wrote it.

Someone suggested maybe he was drunk. I didn’t think of that, and never having seen J.D. drunk or sober wouldn’t know. He did repeat one story and couldn’t remember whether he had played a song already. He started the set by playing four songs straight, without pause or comment, which would have been a good way to get into the swing of the show if he was impaired. And he didn’t take the stage until 8:15, which is unusual for the Lobero. Still, in all, I quite enjoyed the evening. I could hear his lyrics and the songs, with one exception, were mellow, even when not overtly sad. The lone rocker was from his Eagles catalogue: “(There’s Gonna Be a) Heartache Tonight” – not an especially good song. His other contributions were also relatively minor additions to the canon of Eagles’ greatest hits, although I do love “The Sad Cafe.” When I checked the writing credits for J.D.’s songs, I noted that not once was he given sole credit. Don Henley and Glenn Frey were also credited as co-writers, as was Bob Seger once and Joe Walsh. Perhaps they added arrangements or perhaps, like his career, J.D.’s contribution stayed in the background while others soared.        2/27/20

Session Musician All-Stars

The Immediate Family was formed in 2018 by four of the best, and best-known, session musicians from the ’70s: guitarists and a drummer who played behind Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carole King, various Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Phil Collins, on and on. I knew the names Waddy Wachtel, Danny Kortchmar and Russ Kunkel, although I couldn’t have recognized a one; and the liner notes said that bass player Leland Sklar, an unfamiliar name, had played on roughly 2,600 albums. Rounding out the group was a relative youngster, Tom Petty look-alike Steve Postell. Age, however, does not seem to have diminished their rock’n’roll chops, which were on full display in two  45-minute sets at the Lobero last night (4/2/19).

One unusual feature of the group was the absence of a keyboard or, for that matter, any instrument beyond one set of drums and four guitars. The guitar playing, especially by Wachtel, was masterful, and every song had a great rock’n’roll beat, you can’t lose it. Wachtel, Kortchmar and Postell were all quite competent singers; it always impresses me that a great instrumentalist can also sing so well. I’m also impressed when I find out that a beautiful woman is  a great actress – there’s no reason the two should go together – but here there was no trifecta of leading man looks. I even wondered if Wachtel’s strange looks had kept him from a solo career of his own.

The band kicked off the show with Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” – a song that Jackson Browne interestingly covered at his show last summer – which introduced their set of half originals, half covers, although they pointed out that they were actually “covering” songs they themselves had written. Unfortunately, although I longed to hear familiar tunes, the songs Kortchmar had penned for Don Henley were not my favorites: Dirty Laundry, All She Wants to Do Is Dance, New York Minute and something from the Perfect Beast. Ditto a James Taylor number, Machine Gun Kelly. My two favorite numbers were original compositions: High-Maintenance Girlfriend and Not That Kind of Guy.

Still, it was great to see old-timers doing what they love: rocking. I wonder and worry, once again, will this music die when our generation is gone?

Beach Boys 2018

I risked my rock’n’roll cred by attending a concert by Mike Love’s Beach Boys at the Granada Theater last Friday (9/21/18). Although not actually billed as such, the tour seemed at least a commercial endeavor, at worst a vanity project, by the former lead singer, who was the only actual original Beach Boy in the nine-person ensemble. Not that a much larger contingent was possible after the deaths of Carl and Dennis Wilson, the peculiar private journey of Brian Wilson and a history of disputes/litigation involving rights and trademarks among the survivors. Still, it was a bit tacky to watch the intermission video endlessly looping ads for Mike Love’s latest album and recent memoir. His in-concert comments included nice tributes to the deceased, but the only acknowledgements of Brian came when Mike announced he had written songs – “Good Vibrations” and “Be True to Your School” – with Brian. And Al Jardine never factored.

Love’s performing style was singularly inauthentic, incessantly pointing with bogus bonhomie at different members of the audience – the kind of thing you’d never see at the Bowl or the Lobero but seemed consistent, somehow, with the Granada. Not surprisingly, Love doesn’t have much of a voice at 77, but what was surprising was the total lack of charisma among the seven younger backup musicians, including Love’s son, Christian. It was as if Love was careful to pick plain-vanilla performers who wouldn’t upstage him. All the energy had to come from Love in front, which meant there wasn’t that much.

Montecito’s own Bruce Johnston, an almost-original Beach Boy, was stationed up front with Love, but I couldn’t hear his voice until late in the proceedings. He stood behind what looked like a toy keyboard, which he may have been playing, although someone was at a much larger keyboard behind him. He, too, was careful not to get in Love’s way, although a couple times he waved the crowd off their seats, which was welcome, if not spontaneous. All the while video of earlier Beach Boy performances played on a screen stage rear, along with shots of California surfers and some flashes of the Beatles. This was suitably nostalgic, although a bit amateurish, as the same scenes kept reappearing.

What saved the night was the Beach Boys’ incredible catalogue. No matter how sketchy Love’s lead vocals were, the backup harmonies were competent and on the more difficult numbers the other musicians did the singing.  Not counting the token song from Love’s solo album and the encore as we left of Barbara Ann, there was nary a clunker. Surf songs – Surfin’ USA, Surfin’ Safari; hot rod songs – Little Deuce Coupe, 409, Don’t Worry, Baby; ballads – Surfer Girl, God Only Knows; girl’s name songs – Help Me, Rhonda, Wendy; wistful adolescent songs – When I Grow Up to Be A Man, Wouldn’t It Be Nice – they were all there, one after another, almost nonstop.  You can hate the man, but still love the music.

 

Leon Bridges

In order to understand why he is given so much airplay on Sirius-XM’s Spectrum as well as to keep my mind open to new sounds, I went to see Leon Bridges at the Santa Barbara Bowl September 13. He is a good dancer, although no Michael Jackson or Prince (or maybe Bruno Mars), he has an appealingly gruff voice and more than adequate stage presence. His 7-piece backup band and vocalists kept the energy high and beat throbbing. The Bowl was full, appreciative and knew the songs; so it’s clear he has a following. I recognized a few numbers from the radio play, but it’s not like their melodies were any catchier in person. In short, Leon Bridges seemed to me a competent r&b performer, with nothing new or terribly exciting. I’ve seen him, but two days later can’t remember a thing.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg

If history, as they say, is written by the victors, it may also be written the survivors, and in this musical at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles the Temptations’ story is told by the sole surviving original Temp, one Otis Williams. They are all equal contributors, of course, but David Ruffin is a diva, Eddie Kendrick a hothead, Paul Williams an alcoholic – it is only Otis that, after founding the group, keeps it together, handles the business and ensures the legacy. It so happens I’d never heard of Otis Williams and wouldn’t mind his hogging the spotlight because I’d come for the Temptations’ music, not their personalities. That was the first problem, starting with the opening number: the singing just wasn’t as good as the original, and while the songs brought back wonderful memories, they left me wishing I could hear the actual Temptations. There was no need for the actor playing David Ruffin to jazz up the lead on “My Girl”: he wasn’t going to improve on perfection. Most of the numbers, furthermore, were truncated, giving us their flavor, not their power.

The book was a cliche: boys picked up off the street, become a huge hit, success goes to their heads, make a comeback, fall apart in individual tragedies. No issue was much more than one or two lines of dialogue deep, whether it was a heroin habit, a fiery romance, competition with The Supremes or a neglected son at home. As a result, there was no emotional pull, just waiting for the next number. All the good songs -my opinion – came before 1967 and fell in Act I, which left me doubtful about Act II. That dealt with the more serious side of life, and their music. I didn’t think much of late Temptations – “Ball of Confusion,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – but mercifully the second act was shorter and you could always feel we were heading toward the end. Amazingly, with all the great classics by the Temptations, the show never has a knockout musical moment, and when we do get to the end we are serenaded not with a Temptations hit but a song made famous by David Ruffin’s brother Jimmy, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” A later version of the Temptations apparently sang a poorer version of this song 40 years after the original hit, but few, if any, in the audience will know that, and it is a strange note to close the night with.

I will say it was fun to see the actors in full Temptations suits performing the smooth dance routines that were so much a part of the Temps’ appeal. After a while, though, it got a bit monotonous. When the lead singer does a split for the first time, you go ‘wow.’ The third time he does it, though, you go ‘really?’ The songs by other performers were well done, less predictable and refreshing – “Gloria,” “Shout,” “Speedo,” “You Can’t Hurry Love” – and made me wonder, how was this show different from “Motown: The Musical”? That, at least, got to Broadway. I doubt this will.

Jackson Browne

An Appreciation

Jackson Browne was my favorite singer/songwriter of the ‘70s – The Decade of the Singer/Songwriter – and both he and his songs have aged well, as his sold-out concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl on August 3, 2018 proved again and again. I can’t think of ever having a more comfortable and pleasurable concert experience.

Part of the evening’s special character was the artist’s identification with his audience and venue. Although he lives out of town, up the coast, he treated Santa Barbara as home, reminiscing about playing in the Bowl back in 1969 and suggesting that the audience was full of high-school friends. Wearing glasses and casual clothes, with long hair that hadn’t recently seen a brush, he was mellow and we were mellow, and oh so appreciative.

There was nothing casual about the set or the seven supporting instrumentalists and singers. Jackson switched effortlessly between guitar and piano, and his voice was strong and warm. He moved through his catalogue, almost half of the 23 numbers dating to the ‘70s, and only one new song, the topical The Dreamer. He went onstage right at 7:00 and warmed us up with good, not great, songs as the crowd settled in and the sun went down: That Girl Could Sing, You Love the Thunder, Sky Blue and Black. For his eighth number he went back to his eponymous first album, which we all mistakenly called Saturate Before Using, for Doctor My Eyes, which got everyone on their feet, dancing (as Paul Thorn had done last month at his Lobero concert). These Days, For A Dancer and For Everyman followed, powerfully, with the drum crescendo of the last sending us off to intermission on a high.

The break was 15 minutes, exactly as promised, and we started rocking again with Somebody’s Baby and it didn’t stop. Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money was an unexpected treat, but you knew what you were getting when he sat down to play The Pretender and then brought down the house with Running on Empty. For his encore he said, “I first heard this song just like you did, on my car radio. Let’s all sing it loud enough for Glenn to hear…’Well, I’m running down the road, trying to loosen my load’…”

What memories!

 

Death is always sad, but when you’re in your 20s it has an epic, even Romantic edge. James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly – lives cut short – and then there is your high school classmate who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. What is it all about?

When Jackson Browne lost a friend in his early 20s, the first death he’d felt personally, he expressed these emotions in one of his greatest songs, “For A Dancer.” Forty-five years later, he still regularly sings the song and, as he did at this concert, tells about his friend David, who was a wonderful dancer – and also a tailor who made his own clothes.

He so briefly makes his friend a real person in the first verse: “You were always dancing in and out of view…Always keeping things real by playing the clown.” He then comes right out with the honest declaration: “I don’t know what happens when people die/Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try.” He addresses the uncertainty of life: “You never know what will be coming down. Perhaps a better world is drawing near/And just as easily it could all disappear…Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around.” The final lines are, to me, among the most thoughtful in rock: “And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go/May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know.”

I still don’t know. But when I go I want the funeral home (?) to play a mix of songs that have meant something to me over my life. This will be one of them.

 

 

Natalie Merchant

From the moment she started singing at the Bowl Saturday night, you knew Natalie Merchant still had one of the greatest, if not the greatest, female voices in rock (not that she admits to being a rock singer). With the power of a foghorn, the timbre of an oboe, her voice is a musical instrument; and the inclusion of a string quartet in the second half of her program reflected her own recognition of that comparison. (Her scheduled appearance with actual symphony orchestras on a 2011 tour, including a performance I was scheduled to see in Minneapolis until a lockout canceled the Minnesota Orchestra season, was even greater evidence.)

Unfortunately, her personal appearance and performance, like that of an orchestra cellist, didn’t add much to the sound. No longer young or sexy or waiflike, she dressed like a librarian and her moves, mostly twirling around, made me think she thought she was Stevie Nicks, but she wasn’t.

Her song selection was mostly pleasant, only occasionally stirring, and could have used more 10,000 Maniacs material, which is what the crowd was anticipating. On too many songs there were long bridges between vocals, which left us to watch her wandering around, instrument-less, onstage. In addition, she had a self-described “summer cold,” and the sight of her snorting nasal spray between songs was a bit of buzzkill. Spontaneous joy was in short supply, provided mainly by her guitarist, Gabriel.

In sum, the show was a good listen, but I never found myself caught up in the crowd’s enthusiasm.

[Santa Barbara Bowl, July 15, 2017]

Joan Baez

What a privilege to spend 90 minutes listening to Joan Baez from the second row of the Arlington Theater (thank you, UCSB Arts & Lectures)! With appropriate song and still-beautiful voice and brief but intimate introductions, she took us back to 1959 coffee houses in Harvard Square and before, up through the draft-resistance and anti-war movement and into the present with her black T-shirt that read “Nasty Woman” on the front and “No DAPL” [Dakota Access Pipeline] on the back. The musical itinerary covered Paul Robeson and a Marian Anderson spiritual; Pete Seeger and a Woody Guthrie anthem relevant today (“Deportees”); her own Prison Trilogy and Diamonds and Rust, both also still relevant; nods to modern songwriters Tom Waits, Richard Thompson and, less successful, Josh Ritter; classics she has made her own, House of the Rising Sun and The Boxer; and never far away, Bob Dylan, here in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, With God on Our Side and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. Just imagine all we have seen and all she has lived through, a person of principle never far from the action, injecting grace and art into sordidness, not least the campaign season we are suffering through.

In person she was charming, with her good looks aging but attractive, her trademark-sexy pixie haircut in place and, despite 75 years, the ability to stand and sing with nary a break and only an occasional sip of tea. Her retinue could not have been more down-home and honest: her “co-singer” was her personal assistant, short and heavy, underdressed; her roadie was a young woman in flats and a complementary white “Nasty Woman” T; her band, the “Bad Hombres,” consisted of her middle-aged son Gabe on percussion and a wizard instrumentalist who played banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, accordion and piano with equal virtuosity. He also happened to be the stepson of Joan Hartman, who is running for 3rd District Supervisor in Santa Barbara County; his request for our votes made the political subtext of the concert that much more real.

Baez’s voice has inevitably lost range from the days of her early ballads, but she knows better than to push it. She left guitar theatrics to her sideman but handled her own accompaniment, starting with the opening Love Is a Four-Letter Word, with remarkable ease. She was always comfortable with what she was singing and she made us comfortable, and more.