Justin Hayward

From “Tuesday Afternoon” through “Question” and “Nights in White Satin,” Justin Hayward gave us a retrospective of the Moody Blues’ greatest hits at the Lobero last night (June 20). What was different was his backup: instead of Graeme Edge, Mike Pinder, Ray Thomas, John Lodge and, perhaps, a full orchestra, he had a lead guitar, a synthesizer and a flute. No bass, no drums, no pounding rhythm section. The songs went from mellow to ethereal; we were surrounded, not assaulted. Of course it helped that the Moody Blues were my favorite group of the ’70s, and I lived by their first seven albums (and bought the next three as well). Their later hits rock more and are probably played more today: “Your Wildest Dreams” and “The Story in Your Eyes” brought the audience to their feet. The three or four standing ovations mid-show were three or four more than I saw at the Bowl for Daryl Hall. For me, the happiest surprise was Karmen Gould on flute. I don’t remember the instrument playing such a big role in the Moodys’ music: here it was beautiful, as was she, and my spirits rose every time she picked up her flute. Julie Ragins resembled a blonde Joan Jett as she stood behind the Mellotron and added background vocals. Again, the female voices replacing the all-male Moodys resulted in a different, slightly softer sound. The long-haired Mike Dawes played a rather inconspicuous guitar for a self-proclaimed virtuoso: he opened the set with twenty minutes of acoustic guitar solo and hawked a nine-hour guitar clinic available on thumb drive. But with so few people on stage, each was a personality we came to know. Unlike Elvis Costello’s band, they were all a generation younger than Justin, who is my age and married 53 years. His voice showed some age, but he hit the notes and charmed us. The music is just as good today as it was a half-century ago.

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello and the Imposters put on a B+ show at the Santa Barbara Bowl last night and Daryl Hall (formerly of Hall & Oates) put on a C-, or maybe D+ show. For some reason–political, financial, or era–Elvis’s 75 minutes came first, accentuating how flat Hall’s following 75 minutes were. Based on comments Costello made, I think more concertgoers had come for him than for Hall, even though his heyday was more ’70s while Hall was ’80s.

Costello pleased the crowd by playing his most familiar songs–Pump It Up, Watching the Detectives, Everyday I Write the Book–amid a dozen I liked but didn’t know, then brought down the house with an encore of (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding and concluding with Alison. His voice left something to be desired, though not in volume, but he won us over with his enthusiasm and 70-year-old energy. His backup band was spare, but each of the four was a personality. My guess is that two or three have been playing with Elvis for most of his career, and the only “youngster” was Charlie Sexton, a semi-headliner in his own right. My accidental seatmate Dave, a rock guitarist around town, knew and admired the band’s musicianship.

By contrast, he referred to Hall’s larger ensemble as “like a wedding band.” The guitar player was good, he said, but as a group they disappeared along with the music. For starters, there aren’t any Hall & Oates songs I really love, even had they been featured more frequently (my favorite, She’s Gone, was missing). Whereas Costello knocked us out with his encore, when Daryl came back, in response to polite applause, he introduced a song of his new album–not why any of us was there. When he did play a familiar song, it regularly morphed into a 5-10 minute jam of little interest. A number of his songs were slow and boring, not the rockers we were primed for after Elvis. Nor did Hall have the edgy persona of Costello. He never lit a fire. In all, it was about the least interesting concert I’ve attended at the Bowl

Sierra Ferrell

I’d never heard of Sierra Ferrell before Arts & Lectures added her to the program, and her one album I could find on Spotify didn’t excite me; so I worried that skipping the Oscars broadcast to attend her concert might be a mistake. Instead, both Siri and I were blown away. Her set was tight and her band was tighter. That they wore matching outfits and Sierra dressed outrageously was a tip-off that this was a performance. The songs, all of which were on either her first album or the one being released March 22, were every one a gem, polished by the tour that was ending in Santa Barbara. And they were all good. Sierra played the guitar, but her voice was her instrument, slightly nasal with a West Virginia twang. She didn’t speak much, but that wasn’t what the crowd was there for. And it was quite a crowd–young, enthusiastic, sold-out. A lot of people were turned on to Sierra Ferrell, even if I wasn’t. The next day I listened to her album again. The songs, familiar now, sounded better but still gave no hint of the way they came across live. I hope that some day we can say, we saw her when.

Cat Power Sings Dylan

In 1966 when he performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Bob Dylan was the greatest songwriter of his (and my) generation. He was not, however, the greatest singer. Or even a very good singer. Nor did he seem to want to be. (He singing had much improved by the time he released Blood on the Tracks in 1974, if not before.) Cat Power (Chan Marshall) is a very good singer–a strong, throaty voice, jazz inflected with a rock base. So when Cat Power recreates Dylan’s ’66 concert, song by song, as she did at the Lobero on March 6, it is a marriage for rock history heaven.
The first half of Dylan’s set was performed acoustically and Cat followed suit, accompanied by a single guitar player and occasional harmonica. It opened with “She Belongs to Me” (‘She’s got everything she needs/ She’s an artist, she don’t look back…Bow down to her on Sunday/Salute her when her birthday comes’). By the time CP started meandering through “Visions of Johanna” my eyes were closed and I dreamed along. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Desolation Row,” “Just Like A Woman” (‘But when we meet again, introduced as friends/Please don’t let on that you knew me when’) and finally the familiar refrain of Hey, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”  The second half, Dylan went electric, and Cat Power brought out drums, keyboard and electric guitars for the rest of the night. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (‘I started out on Burgundy/But soon hit the harder stuff’) and “Ballad of a Thin Man” (‘And something is happening here/But ya’ don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?’) were powerful, but nothing compared to the evening’s finale: “Like A Rolling Stone” brought the dedicated crowd to its feet, dancing and singing along. The best song of the ’60s is just as good today.

Dar Williams

At last night’s concert Dar Williams sang but one song from her latest album. It was about going to Berkeley in the ’80s, “looking for the ’70s.” I think a lot of the audience, like me, was primed for the nostalgia she evoked. Peace, love, possibilities, a better world. Despite putting out seven albums this century, her playlist came almost exclusively from the ’90s, which was fine as it included perhaps my two all-time favorites: “The Christians and the Pagans” and “The Babysitter’s Here.” I was initially shocked by her troll-like appearance, a small figure on a big stage with only a keyboard accompanist, but she filled Marjorie Luke Theatre with her masterful guitar playing and clear, ethereal voice. She must have told her stories a zillion times, but her patter between numbers was disarming, as much a part of the Dar Williams experience as the songs. I couldn’t have asked for more.
But “more” I got, in the persons of the Amy Ray Band. If Dar is folk rock, Amy is country rock, reflecting her Georgia roots. I didn’t know any of her songs, but they were all melodic, mostly rocking and easy to follow. It took courage, or generosity, for Dar Williams, basically a solo act, to cede the opening gig to a seven-person band that played, as Dar did, for a full hour. They performed their encores together, which made Dar look even smaller, but left a final good-feeling community vibe in the evening air.
(Who produced this show?  There was no name on the program and almost no advertising. And during intermission between the acts, the Amy Ray bandmembers including Indigo Girl Amy, all had to come back on stage to dismantle the wiring and collect their sound system. The whole thing seemed more appropriate to a junior high auditorium, which this was, than a professional theater.)

Rock Cantatas

I don’t know what a “cantata” is, or what other term to use, but hearing “Jungleland” twice in one day on E Street Radio made me think of all the long-form rock songs that define an artist and elevate the genre. Many have a key change and/or tempo change or maybe seem to but are just long. They are not just a melody but a journey. They demand to be listened, not danced, to. (In fact, a defining criterion is you can’t dance to them.) I will list them in no particular order, giving me a place to come back to when another one comes on the radio and augments this category.

“Jungleland,” Bruce Springsteen
“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” Billy Joel
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf
“Taxi,” Harry Chapin
“Low Spark of High-heeled Boys,” Traffic
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby, Stills & Nash
“American Pie,” Don McLean
“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who
“Magic Carpet Ride,” Steppenwolf
“Question,” The Moody Blues
“More Than A Feeling,” Boston
“Come Sail Away,” Styx

Van Morrison

At 79, Van Morrison is a living legend and, as expected, he took advantage of that to give his fans at the Santa Barbara Bowl the show he wanted, not the songs they surely would have preferred. Never known for his warmth onstage, Morrison’s night was epitomized for us when we saw his car pull away while his band was still performing the final number. That his final number was his first hit, “Gloria,” only reminded us of all the music we didn’t get to hear. With 44 albums to his credit, he had a lot of unfamiliar material to choose from; but of the dozen records I’ve listened to, often extensively, I recognized only “Into the Mystic,” and even that I barely recognized as he twisted and turned it around.
I will say that he kept the show moving, with one uptempo number after another, none lasting too long, and his backup band and singers were impeccable. His 80-minute set was unusually short: every other act I’ve seen ran right up to the Bowl’s 10 p.m. curfew; Van drove away at 9:15. His voice was remarkably intact, but his barking style came across as unfortunately harsh in the arena setting. Also unusual was the lack of  live video which made me glad, given Van’s diminutive stature, that we were seated close to the stage. I guess we were lucky to be graced with his presence, but I would have rather shared some “Tupelo Honey,” “Domino,” “Bright Side of the Road,” or even “Three Chords and the Truth,” not to mention “Brown-Eyed Girl,” instead of “Cotton Fields” and the dozen other traditional and cover songs that filled the program.

Cowboy Junkies

Kudos to the Cowboy Junkies for staying together for 35 years, putting out records consistently along the way. Their sound hasn’t changed, a credit to Margo Timmins’s 62-year-old voice. As expected, their live show featured more up-tempo and louder songs than their best records, which can mellow you almost to sleep. They may be a cult taste, in which case much of their cult was in attendance at the Lobero. A pleasant evening, nothing sensational.

Graham Nash

Graham Nash brought two hours of musical memories to the Lobero Theater last night, from “Bus Stop” with the Hollies to “Better Life” from his 2023 release, Now. I give great credit to an 81-year-old who is performing five nights a week on a tour through the U.S. and the U.K., hitting the high notes and performing as rock star, not a nostalgia act. (And his new record is not at all bad.) But it was nostalgia that carried the night. With two exceptions, however, the songs were never my favorites. In fact, one of the crowd-pleasing highlights, which also lifted my spirits in comparison, was Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With,” which I hated at the time for its cynical message. One common thread of Nash’s own songs, which I had not noticed, was their narrative nature. They told a story or had a message–no “moon/June” or breakup tears. A highlight of the evening was Nash’s introductions, telling stories about how he came to write each song. As for the two numbers that count among my favorites, “Wasted on the Way,” a 1982 CSN hit, was damaged by the over-amplified or poorly mixed sound system. Instead of the clear voices and fine harmonies one expected, the first half of the concert, especially, was raucous and muddy. When called back for a second encore, Nash and his two backups did a sweet a cappella rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” and then, as I wished and predicted, ended with “Teach Your Children” from 1970.  More exactly, they let the audience end the evening by singing the final lines, “And know they love you.”
July 17, 2023

Diana Ross

At 79 her voice is still clear, crisp, loud and silky smooth. Diana Ross’s “Legacy Tour” was truly devoted to her legacy, with videos of her earlier career and Motown contemporaries filling the screen in place of any shots of her current self performing. Diana was in the full diva mode she rose to within the Supremes, then leaving them behind, as we were treated to four costume changes in the course of the 1:45 performance. I was never a fan of her post-Supremes music, but most of the sold-out Santa Barbara Bowl clearly was, singing along with The Boss, Endless Love and the equally endless Upside Down. For the wife and me, the first set made the evening worthwhile: Baby Love, Where Did Our Love Go, Stop! In the Name of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love and Love Child (note a theme here?) sounded better live than on the radio, a demand to dance, which we did. Her new album, Thank You, is not bad, at least in the non-disco numbers, and the title track served as a memorable encore, something I hummed all the way to our car. You have to respect what she has accomplished as a Black woman in the music business, and we glimpsed her human side when she brought seven of her eight grandchildren onto the stage, which made us think this concert was special for her too.