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.]

The Soulless Midtown Men

The Midtown Men are four actors from the original cast of Jersey Boys, which they reminded the audience in the program and every time they talked. If you’re good, I’ve found, you don’t have to tell people you’re good; when that is the only thing you can talk about, then perhaps you aren’t. On the screen behind them as they sang were still photos of the MM rehearsing, quotes from rave reviews, the MM logo over and over, and the men on a bus featuring their ad. They also bragged about how many shows they had done. Their chatter was totally canned – so much so that when they mistakenly described “Build Me Up Buttercup” as a Marvin Gaye song, I took it not as ignorance but simply someone forgetting his lines. Even so, you’d think a show of ’60s rock music would overcome such quibbles. Unfortunately, all their performance did was ruin some good songs. The worst came first: the lead singer for the Four Seasons songs (who portrayed Joe Pesci, not Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys) sang in a hiccupy, nasal style that was, as they say, a bit “pitchy” except when in falsetto. All you could think was, how much better these songs were in the original version. The other songs were uniformly belted out in overly loud, harsh fashion, sacrificing the magic many of these songs contained. I say “many,” because the set list included some songs, notably “Happy Together,” that I didn’t need to hear again. This was ersatz rock, without an authentic note. I perhaps shouldn’t lay blame on the Granada, but I can’t imagine performers like the Midtown Men taking the stage of the Lobero – and coming a week after the disastrous Shen Yun “classic Chinese dance” I have to wonder who is the booker minding the store at this grand dame of Santa Barbara. (Full disclosure: we left halfway through the show.)

Avetts at the Bowl

Just as I discovered Dawes, hearing “Time Spent in Los Angeles” on The Current, I became aware of the Avett Brothers when that station played “I And Love And You.” Other songs followed; I came to recognize the sound and the distinct lyrics. Both bands seemed worthy followers of Wilco in that particular genre of my music appreciation. For confirmation I went to see Dawes perform at First Avenue this summer and listened to their latest album, Stories Don’t End. There was nothing on the record that jumped out – indeed, The Current’s efforts at pushing “Most People” struck me as the wishful thinking that produced airplay for Semisonic after “Closing Time.” Sadly, the live show only confirmed my fear that Dawes had peaked and perhaps exhausted their creativity. Still, if “A Little Bit of Everything” remains their peak, it’s a pretty good one, and when that closed the show I was close to tears.

I hadn’t mined the Avett Brothers as thoroughly when I went to hear them at the Santa Barbara Bowl last week (10/10/13), although I had been very impressed with their latest album, The Carpenter. My only reservation was that their singing seemed a little bloodless. Boy, did their show dispel that concern! Scott and Seth Avett commanded the big stage in their skinny-jeaned black outfits, with Seth’s scissor-kicking left leg and Jesus hair bounding up and down nonstop. They traded lead vocals seamlessly, their voices eerily similar and harmonizing wonderfully (think Everly Brothers). But best of all was their music: unlike the slightly monotonous sound of Dawes, the Avetts mixed soulful ballads with hoe-down fiddle, call-and-response, Latin (not so good) and heavy metal. Energy was high throughout and the four supporting cast members blended in gracefully (I especially enjoyed Yo-Yo Ma rocking around, cello on shoulder). By the time “I And Love And You” closed the show, it was a high point and a relief, a well deserved hit, but not all the Avett Brothers could do.

The Concert for 12.12.12

The “greatest rock lineup ever assembled” was, above all, a study in rock star aging. It also made you realize, if you ever forgot, what a great decade for rock the ‘70s were. Forty years later, when important people wanted to raise millions and millions of dollars for storm relief, where did they go but to stars of the ‘70s who sang songs from the ‘70s. They also sang some later songs, and there were some later acts, but none, with one exception, packed the same punch.

The biggest disappointment, if only because so much has been made of their current tour, was the Rolling Stones. Keith Richard seemed to exist in a haze, and Mick Jagger, who is almost a parody of himself, was wizened. It is amazing that he can move as well as he does, but Jumpin’ Jack Flash had no bite and overstayed its welcome. Their two-song set was the shortest of the night, and I wasn’t sorry to see them leave. Steve Buscemi’s following riff with the “Graybeards” – retired first responders from Long Island – was more enjoyable.

The Who, arguably as great as the Stones if not as long-lived, were represented by Pete Townshend, a true rock god, and Roger Daltry, who embarrassed by acting like he was 25. Their song selections, Pinball Wizard and Baba O’Riley, could not be faulted. Nor could Roger Waters’, presenting The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon in short form. Having Eddie Vedder alongside for Comfortably Numb was delightful. Waters himself has aged appropriately, unlike Daltry.

Eric Clapton, by contrast, appeared ageless, with glasses and preppie good looks. His songs were forgettable – at least, a day later I have forgotten them. Paul McCartney, on the other hand, was memorable specifically for singing such forgettable songs – Helter, Skelter, Live and Let Die, My Valentine and something from Wings. If ever I needed evidence that the Beatles were overrated, I could point to Sir Paul’s set.

American rockers may have been outnumbered, but they were clearly not outclassed. (In this comparison I am scoring a draw for the duet of Chris Martin and Michael Stipe. Both did what they do perfectly.) I am tempted to say Bruce Springsteen is in a class by himself, except he was given a run for his money by Billy Joel, who played the most numbers and is as identified with Long Island as Bruce is with New Jersey. Only the Good Die Young got us dancing, but Born to Run (with Jon Bon Jovi) made me cry. As much as the critics continue to admire the Boss’s new releases, nothing in the last 20 years has emotionally attached itself to me, including Wrecking Ball, a prominent part of his performance. Billy Joel didn’t dilute his tribute with “new” material; he stuck with the oldies we love.

For the sake of completeness, I should say that I skipped Alicia Keyes and Kanye West, both for lack of familiarity and lack of interest in their styles.  I think that only leaves Jon Bon Jovi. I find his stage presence a little grating, but his TK was the one exceptional post-‘70s song, a rousing anthem that was well worth Bruce’s reappearance on stage.

Song of the Year

Announcing a new category: Song of the Year. The first winner, for 2011, is Dawes, A Little Bit of Everything. For 2007, if I’d started this sooner, it would be Plain White T’s, Hey There Delilah. Also retrospectively, for 2009, the honor goes to Michael Franti & Spearhead, Say Hey (I Love You). I’ll fill in other missing years as and if songs of sufficient merit come to mind.
I was introduced to Dawes when The Current began playing Time Spent in Los Angeles before it was available on iTunes. (I know because I tried to buy it.) The clean, somber, thoughtful sound seemed anchored in the best part of L.A. When I next heard A Little Bit of Everything I was blown away, and the more I listened, the more it hooked me. It starts with a simple piano playing the tune and you can almost hear the piano singing the words. When they do come, they paint a picture and tell a story that is specific and intelligent, rhyming ‘San Francisco traffic’ with ‘join a demographic.’ An Andover classmate committed suicide this way (I think it was the Bay Bridge, not the Golden Gate, whichever bridge is in the song). The despair in these lyrics is palpable, but not so extreme that you can’t relate.
The song, however, doesn’t linger – it moves into an old folks’ home, and the places where our mothers now live come immediately to mind, even if they don’t have a buffet line. The old man, too, is sad as he looks back on his life; but for him, “a little bit of everything” is how he copes. By this time, too, a drum has been added to the lone piano, building momentum. In the instrumental break, a guitar begins to wail. We have been sucked in; now we are committed.
Then comes the capper: a young couple planning a fall wedding starts out as one more bit of sadness. “Baby,” the groom-to-be says, “you don’t seem to be having any fun at all.” Bride-to-be, however, tells him off and issues an affirmation: “Love is so much easier than you realize/ If you can give yourself to someone, then you should.” Out of hopelessness, hope. We pare down again to the simple piano notes. And amid some elliptical but deep-sounding phrases we are given a little bit of philosophy at the end, telling us, “Hey – don’t overthink everything”: “It’s like trying to make out every word when they should simply hum along.”
Of course, the fact that Serin and Marc were planning their wedding – albeit for August, not September – when this song came along, made it that much more personal. Three verses, three stories I could relate to. And the song ends, leaving you wanting more. Rhythmically, when Dawes sings “little bit of everything” there are two empty beats where you expect the phrase to end.

Fiona Apple

The single highlight of Monday night’s (July 16, 2012) Fiona Apple concert at the Orpheum came in the opening act, when Fiona’s lead guitarist, Blake Mills, performed ‘Sleepwalk,’ one of the great instrumentals in rock history. He gussied it up some with his wonderfully expressive guitar, but the song’s essence remained the same. The memories of slow-dancing in a basement rec room in 7th grade were only a part – well, maybe a big part – of the pleasure this performance gave me. Just as thrilling was the recognition that ’50s music sounds just as good 50 years later, and that a guitarist for one of the most challenging and lauded artists of 2012 can make it his own today. There was, however, one little time bump: rather than acknowledge 1959 as the original date for the Santo & Johnny hit, Blake recalled the song from the 1987 movie La Bamba.
As for Fiona Apple’s performance, she was a dynamo. I only knew one of her songs, “Criminal,” and it’s not a favorite, but you had to admire the ferocity with which she projected her music and, with her sprite-like body, controlled the stage. The musical highlight, coincidentally, was another oldie: she sang Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” for her encore, showing off every bit of her vocal range and power.