Florence & the Machine

If Joan of Arc were reincarnated today, she could do worse than finding herself in the person of Florence Welch, British rocker and star of Florence & the Machine, who performed at the Bowl last night (10/20/15). With barefoot purity, strong voice, handsome face and flowing red mane, Florence overflowed with charisma and could have led her adoring and mostly female audience happily on a crusade. She beseeched with her hands, expressive and politely tattooed, and flew back and forth across the stage and even into the crowd, with a skipping stride that glided weightlessly. Her slightly Gothic spirituality recalled Stevie Nicks in her prime, especially when she pirouetted, but Florence had more substance, both in body and in song. Her eleven backup singers and musicians were all uniformed in black; with a sky blue blouse and scarf that matched her eyes and a white silk vest suit, Florence stood out even more. She wasn’t just a lead singer; she was the show.

Her songs are heavy and generally avoid easy characterization: chanting, soaring, recitative then thunderous. She hit us with her best new song, Ship to Wreck, early in the set, which ended with her biggest hit, Dog Days Are Over. What Kind of Man was the lead encore. I didn’t know most of the others, but they were easy to follow, as most were anthemic and repeated themselves over and over. Her energy never flagged; she looked more beautiful and more powerful as the night went on and her communion with her fans grew. Like Jackson Browne and unlike Jimmy Buffett, to take two recent examples, you felt you were getting much more in the live performance than was communicated on record. If last night marked the end of my concertgoing for 2015, I can give out awards: Best Songs – Jackson Browne; Best Sound – Lord Huron; Best Performer – Florence Welch.

Buffett at the Bowl

[fusion_text]It doesn’t seem fair or nice to describe a Jimmy Buffett concert as “ho-hum,” but that is the word that comes to mind as I look back on his appearance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Thursday night (10/15/15). Jimmy is so ebullient and appears to be having such a good time, you can’t help but sing, and when appropriate dance, along. As a longtime Buffett fan and regular listener to Radio Margaritaville on Sirius-XM, though, I felt I had heard the concert many times before – as, indeed, I had. It was not just that the songs were familiar, it was the arrangements, too. Whereas Jackson Browne made his old songs sound new, Jimmy’s old songs sounded the same.

It’s not his fault: most concertgoers would feel cheated if they didn’t hear Come Monday and Margaritaville. There were also plenty of adherents of A Pirate Looks at Forty and One Particular Harbor, although I am sort of tired of the latter. Five of my top ten Buffett songs were omitted, although I’m not sure how much difference The Weather is Here and Boat Drinks would have made. I suppose each of us could prepare our ideal Jimmy Buffett set, but I suspect Jimmy knows how to please the most people most of the time. New songs aren’t the answer. Workin’ n Playin’, his latest, and Blue Guitar, from 2002, were the only two I didn’t know, and neither had the magic of Fins, Cheeseburger in Paradise or Last Mango in Paris.

I should add that the video accompanying the concert was far and away the best I’ve seen. Three huge screens showed closeups of the performers and the audience that let me put away my opera glasses. Best of all were the shots of lapping waves and boats cruising the harbor that provided the perfect island feel for Jimmy’s songs. We could almost taste the Caribbean trip we’re taking in January. There were also a few shots of Santa Barbara which, along with Jimmy’s local references between songs, made the evening more personal.

In short, I love Jimmy’s persona and I love his music; it’s just that I didn’t love any of it any more after the concert than I did before.


Moussorgsky Lite

[fusion_text]The USC Symphony Orchestra came to the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara to play “Pictures At An Exhibition,” the only classical piece I can hum, not counting those that have been turned into rock songs. The orchestra was fine, so far as I can tell, and the Moussorgsky work remains my favorite. The gimmick was accompanying animation, projected on the Granada’s new, overrated digital screen that descended behind the orchestra. Instead of enlarging the esthetic experience, it diminished it. Our attention was divided. When something funny happened on the screen, the audience tittered awkwardly, wondering if this could possibly be the composer’s intent. Maybe because we are accustomed to seeing first, hearing second, the music necessarily wound up as background to the cartoons, not vice versa. And the cartoons, for all their ingenuity, were never meant to stand alone or even take first place. When great music is played, how much better it is to leave the images to the listener’s imagination.

One note in passing about the Granada’s movie screen, which was introduced with much fanfare this year. We have seen two movies on it: To Kill A Mockingbird and Lawrence of Arabia. First, the screen seems far away, compared to the experience of a movie theater, or even a living room. Second, the sound does not envelop you as it does in a movie theater. There is a feeling of separation; you can study the film, but you don’t experience it.[/fusion_text]

Jackson Browne

“That’s why you go to live concerts,” said one veteran concertgoer after Jackson Browne wound up his second encore – The Load-Out and Stay – at the Santa Barbara Bowl on August 11, 2015. Every song – both the classics and the new – sounded better – so much better – than they do on disc. The sound was louder, of course, but also more propulsive. The rolling rhythm was as relentless as the nearby ocean, and the two lead guitars took turns adding jaw-dropping pyrotechnics that melded seamlessly with Browne’s familiar melodies. The first moment of transcendence arrived in For Everyman, as the drums built to a climax that spread and covered the Bowl.

I couldn’t have asked for a better set list: For A Dancer, Fountain of Sorrow, Running on Empty, Doctor My Eyes, The Pretender, I’m Alive, Looking East, These Days, Just Say Yeah – heavy on the early hits with a single nod to most of the later albums. Browne mixed in six numbers from his 2014 release, Standing in the Breach, but he personalized each one by telling us when and why it was written. This became a bit political, as the songs, apparently written over a five-year period, each spoke to a cause – the oceans, Haitian schoolchildren, democracy – but since the words were hard to hear we could just enjoy the sound. And speaking of words, while they weren’t as crisp live as they are on record, Browne’s voice was full and didn’t have the nasal tinge it does in the studio.

In all, it was a warm, mellow evening that gave me a new appreciation of some of my oldest, strongest musical memories, much more satisfying than the Radio City Music Hall concert I attended on my 40th birthday. For me in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jackson Browne and the Eagles were California. Now, here I am.

Bob Seger – Top 10

  • Night Moves
  • Like A Rock
  • We’ve Got Tonite
  • Against the Wind
  • American Storm
  • The Fire Inside
  • Even Now
  • Hollywood Nights
  • Till It Shines
  • The Famous Final Scene

Lucinda Williams

Who goes to a Lucinda Williams concert to hear how loud her band can be? Neither my friend nor I, so I guess you’d say we were disappointed in her show at the Lobero last night (3/6/15). She got off to a bad start, waiting 35 minutes to take the stage after the 40-minute set by a generic Southern-rock group (named after its singer and lead-guitarist, the tattooed-stomach-baring Kenneth Brian). Even the mellow Santa Barbara crowd had grown restless. Her appearance, if I’m allowed the comment, was unsettling: she has gotten very heavy up top,  her jeans and her jacket struggled to contain their contents. She had paid no more attention to her hair than Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith, and it looked worse, if anything. The sound mix on her first few songs was off: we heard a lot of drums, especially bass, and not much of Lucinda’s vocals. Then her band left the stage and matters improved: we could hear her singing and were reminded of what good songs she has recorded, such as “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.” When the band returned, so did the volume. The mix was better, but Lucinda sang less: a couple times she just watched from the sideline as the drummer and two guitars tested how hard they could rock. By the end,  it was more a typical arena-rock performance than the intimate kind of singer-songwriter concert you’d hope for at the Lobero or the experience you’d expect from her records. And no “Passionate Kisses.”

Three Women Folkies

Three middle-aged female singer-songwriters brought their low-energy show to the Lobero last night (2/20/15) to the pleasure of the less-than-capacity crowd of nice-looking, middle-aged ex-hippies and relationship types. Eliza Gilkyson had the best voice – pure and with just enough character; Mary Gauthier had spiky hair and attitude, in both her comments and her lyrics; Gretchen Peters was the least interesting but strummed the hardest. Their voices weren’t that different and their songs weren’t, either: all sang songs from their “breakup” albums and what was called an “up” song was merely less sad than the others. What killed any possible excitement, however, aside from their appearances – as Eliza commented, “When I was here last time I was standing up and didn’t have glasses” – was the show’s format: they sat on stage three abreast and sang their songs in order, from right to left, going down the line three times before break and three times after, with commentary about each song’s origin in between. There was no group singing, which would have added interest, although Eliza occasionally sang backup harmony very softly. As each sang, the other two just sat quietly and listened, which made us do the same. It felt more like a songwriting master class than a concert. When Eliza “Seegered” us to sing along on her final number, the crowd responded admirably, with pent-up admiration that was never fully fueled.

Patti Smith

Continuing my tour of legendary rock goddesses I went to see Patti Smith and Her Band at the Lobero last night (1/27/15). Arriving 20 minutes before show time at the box office I was able to snag the one seat available in the orchestra, a late release in the handicap-accessible row, H31. Not only was it roomy and close to the stage, it gave me a front-row view of security drama, as half the ushers were parked in the aisle next to me. Patti opened with a familiar oldie – Dancin’ Barefoot   – which prompted the amply proportioned blonde seated behind me to jump up and dance. Told by the ushers that she must sit because she was interfering with those behind her, she protested that no one minded and stated, incredulously, “What, I can’t dance?!” As her conversation with the ushers continued through Redondo Beach, I pointed out that she was, in fact, bothering me. At this point she moved elsewhere, I don’t know where, but three or four songs later there she was in the front row, standing and dancing, much to the amusement of her female companions who had remained behind, but not to the ushers, who raced to the front to remove her again.      A tall woman in white, from out of town, had also purchased an “accessible companion” seat and had befriended the ushers while awaiting the show’s opening. Halfway through, a ponytailed man sat next to her and apparently caused her discomfort. She called over the  usher, and he allowed her to leave her seat and stand in the aisle (otherwise prohibited). Perhaps the man was drunk? A bit later he rose from his seat and spilled money, keys and phone on the floor and shortly afterward was ushered out, with an usher retrieving a paper bag with a bottle from under his seat.    The ushers also brought in latecomers in between songs – two flannel-shirted men even arrived 15 minutes before the concert’s end – but their main responsibility was shutting down iPad owners who disregarded the request not to film the performance. The chief usher, especially, a young tomboyish woman, darted down the aisle, flashing her light with great authority.   All the while, of course, I was soaking in the sounds of Patti Smith, whose distinctive echo-chamber nasal voice hadn’t changed over the years (as opposed to her now-white stringy hair). There wasn’t a lot of range in her repertoire, or in a given song. I would watch the guitar players and for long stretches their fingers on the frets wouldn’t move. I would describe a typical Patti song as propulsive: she starts soft and slow, the engine picks up pace and by the end she is almost shouting. There is also an underlying attitude, a defiance, in her lyrics. We found ourselves in the audience chanting “Gandhi, Gandhi” (I think it was), and she dedicated her encore, “Power to the People,” to the new left-wing government of Greece.   As I  listened to the concert I thought about my previous blog, proclaiming Chrissie Hynde the number one female rock vocalist, with Patti Smith in the back of my mind. Chrissie’s range is greater, her hits more numerous, and I found myself dancing joyously much more often. But essentially, Patti Smith is a punk rocker, great but limited; Chrissie Hynde is rock’n’roll.

Chrissie Hynde

I wouldn’t dare try to rank Greatest Male Rock’n’Roll Singers – how to compare Elvis Presley to Mick Jagger, Van Morrison to Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen to Robert Plant, Little Richard, Frankie Valli, et al. – yet the question of Greatest Female Rock Singer jumped to mind as I watched Chrissie Hynde bring down the Arlington Theater house last week (12/5/14). Yes, there’s Patti Smith, whose Horses is the greatest rock album by a female, but her singing is a bit more idiosyncratic (poetic?) and when I saw her on a comeback tour a couple years ago I was left a bit cold. Pat Benatar and Joan Jett are other names, but their resumes are short. Chrissie Hynde is an out-and-out rocker; her current album, Stockholm, is one of the year’s best, 35 years after her first hit; and at 63 she can hit every note as originally recorded. She snarls, poses with her guitar and interacts with her bandmates, just as a rock star should. Except for one or two ballads, the crowd was on its feet, dancing, the whole night. Unlike some artists, who feel they have to update or fiddle with their classics, Hynde sang every Pretenders hit note-for-note, oozing authenticity and musical integrity. She doesn’t play up the female angle at all. If she has a figure, it wasn’t visible behind her man’s vest and necktie, and the uncombed mop on her head looked like Keith Richards’s on a bad day. (Interestingly, Patti Smith dresses in a similarly androgynous style.) No, she was just there for the rock’n’roll. (As a concession to age, she could have done without the tight jeans, however.) Her backup band rocked (James Walbourne on lead guitar), her between-song comments were on the mark, but what got me were her great songs and her voice.

Bryan Ferry

I experienced one of those transcendent musical moments at the Santa Barbara Bowl Saturday (4/19/14): toward the end of a flawless concert Bryan Ferry segued from the hypnotic “Avalon” into the all-out, high-energy rock of “Love Is the Drug.” The three ladies and one man standing in front of me started bouncing uncontrollably, and we all competed to sing as loud as we could. While I have always liked the song, it was never on my Greatest Hits List, but Ferry’s band, and the Bowl setting, infused it with so much power that I am afraid to hear the song again on record – it will sound so thin and pale in comparison. Ferry himself was all elegant decadence (or decadent elegance), with chiseled good looks, a dark floral dinner jacket and just enough moves for a 69-year-old. His was not an oldies act – in fact he was here between gigs at Coachella – and he was not out of place with the much younger members of his group.

Tremendously popular in the U.K. but always a secondary figure in America, Ferry is part of an amazing cohort bred in late- and postwar Britain: born in the four-year span from 1943-47 were, just to pick out some very individual characters, Mick Jagger, Ray Davies, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie and Elton John, all of whom I have now seen. [P.S. Ferry’s performance of these songs at Coachella the weekend before, seen on YouTube, conveyed none of the abovementioned magic; but at the Bowl, there were 4,300 people there just to see him, in what I assume was a superior setting.]