Reviews of shows I've been to (and maybe you have too!)

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Concert For Valor on the National Mall (11/11/14)

Concert for Valor

Events on the National Mall are supposed to embody all things America: democracy, patriotism, unity. In reality, they expose the country’s true underbelly: bureaucracy, apathy and a love of anything free. Sadly, the Concert for Valor on a surprisingly balmy Veterans Day was no different. Despite its lofty goal to “honor the courage and sacrifice of veterans and their families,” the show ended up being more about what didn’t happen than what happened.

To start, there wasn’t a lot of honoring being done by the crowd. Like a majority of attendees, I was drawn to the concert more out of an interest in the entertainment aspect than saluting our troops. In spite of the inspirational profiles of wounded warriors that played throughout the show, there was a surprising lack of emotional sentiment in the air (at least where I was sitting). Not even the rotating cast of celebrity MCs could properly rouse the crowd (Jamie Foxx was particularly lame). Even the palpable energy of the shambolic Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity” was lacking.

The scattered musical guests, ranging from a worthless opening performance by British artist Jessie J to a remarkably subdued acoustic set from Bruce Springsteen, did little to help with the sagging levels of inspiration. There were no surprises, no spontaneity (save for a couple of F-bombs dropped by closing act Eminem) and hardly any patriotic displays, other than maybe Jennifer Hudson singing the Star Spangled Banner. Clearly there were strict orders not to rock the boat.

It was unclear if the goal of the concert was to honor veterans or merely entertain them (Rihanna? The Black Keys?) Even potential moments of controversy were neutered. Springsteen’s rendition of the decidedly anti-war (and possibly anti-American) “Born in the U.S.A.” was so quiet and subdued that it almost seemed apologetic. Meanwhile, Metallica, a band not known for their flag-waving sentiments, chose to play their best known (though certainly not best) anti-war anthem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” rather than take the opportunity to make a truly overt political statement. The Zac Brown Band’s performance (along with Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen) of Credence Clearwater Revival’s anti-military screed “Fortunate Son” was enthusiastically received by everyone, including (ironically) the thousands of service members gathered at the east end of the Mall.

The concert brought to light awareness of a number of veterans’ issues and probably raised some money for them. But at the price of subtle censorship and, dare I say it, boredom. God bless America. I guess.

Set Lists:

JENNIFER HUDSON

  1. The Star-Spangled Banner

JESSIE J

  1. Titanium (David Guetta cover ft Jennifer Hudson)
  2. Bang Bang

DAVE GROHL

  1. My Hero (Foo Fighters song)
  2. Everlong (Foo Fighters song)

ZAC BROWN BAND

  1. Yankee Doodle (Violin Solo by Jimmy De Martini)
  2. Free (with America the Beautiful)
  3. God Bless the USA (Lee Greenwood cover)
  4. Chicken Fried
  5. Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival cover ft Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl)

BLACK KEYS

  1. Howlin’ for You
  2. Fever
  3. Lonely Boy

CARRIE UNDERWOOD

  1. See You Again
  2. Something in the Water
  3. Before He Cheats

METALLICA

  1. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  2. Master of Puppets
  3. Enter Sandman

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

  1. The Promised Land
  2. Born in the U.S.A.
  3. Dancing in the Dark

RIHANNA

  1. Diamonds
  2. Stay
  3. The Monster (with Eminem)

EMINEM

  1. Guts Over Fear
  2. Not Afraid
  3. Lose Yourself

St. Paul & The Broken Bones @ 9:30 Club (10/16/14)

The art of a live performance is not something that should be taken for granted. Performers must maintain a delicate balance that manages to keep the crowd engaged and entertained, while keeping (and displaying) their musical authenticity. Any bar band can get the crowd to go crazy playing crappy Bon Jovi covers; it takes a truly special band to win over an audience by playing their own music, especially when that music is unfamiliar. It’s a make-or-break lesson for bands who are just starting out

Thankfully, St. Paul & The Broken Bones seem to have been properly educated. Their show at the 9:30 Club on October 16 was one of the most dynamic, energetic performances that I’ve seen, equal parts concert, dance party and revival meeting. While their music (showcasing obvious Stax and Muscle Shoals influences) isn’t anything revolutionary, the entertainment value of their live show is more than enough to make them worth taking seriously.St Paul and the Broken Bones2

The sextet opened with an instrumental jam that got the crowd in the groove, before frontman Paul Janeway made his appearance on stage. While the rest of the band has the taut musicianship of rugged studio veterans, Janeway is far and away the band’s star. His vocal histrionics, which ranged from high-pitched, Al Green-like squeals to soulful enunciations a la Chris Robinson, were only surpassed by his dynamic stage performance. Working the crowd like the preacher he never became, Janeway carried the show through a roller coaster set list that alternated between up-tempo dance numbers and slower grooves that carried an aroma of sweaty romance.

Regardless of the ambiance, the crowd was transfixed: it was the kind of show that you wanted to see go on forever. My only concern is that as the band develops more material, they will find it increasingly difficult to fit it all into one show; Janeway himself might collapse on stage if they ever cracked the two hour mark. But for now, their riveting white-boy soul show is one the best new things going. Consider me a convert.

Set List?

  1. Intro
  2. Don’t Mean a Thing
  3. Sugar Dyed
  4. Dixie Rothko
  5. I’m Torn Up
  6. Shake! (Sam Cooke cover)
  7. Half the City
  8. Broken Bones & Pocket Change
  9. Let It Be So
  10. Down in the Valley (Otis Redding cover)
  11. It’s Midnight
  12. Mighty River
  13. Grass Is Greener

Encore

  1. That Glow
  2. Moonage Daydream (David Bowie cover)
  3. Call Me

Spoon @ Lincoln Theater (9/4/14)

Live music is great. Much like comedy, music is just that much better in a communal atmosphere. Whether I’m at a giant arena or a tiny club, listening to rock or reggae or jazz or hip-hop, it takes very little for me to enjoy a show. All I need is a slight shove in the right direction to get me there.

What got me to see Spoon at the Lincoln Theater on September 4 was a combination of the large amount of buzz that had been generated by the release of their eighth album, They Want My Soul and the prospect of going to a brand new venue, one that I had walked past dozens of times but never actually been inside.

Because of the novelty factor, this concert became much more about ambiance than music, meaning I was unlikely to walk away a converted Spoon fan (barring a legendary performance). I therefore entered the Lincoln Theater more as an observer than a music fan, analyzing the building’s architectural details and noticing minute features. The Lincoln was clearly designed for plays rather than music, with rows of seats, great sight lines and high ceilings. A semi-rounded stage allows bands to make great use of the building’s killer acoustics and aesthetic capabilities.

Appearing for a third straight night at the Lincoln, Spoon started the show slowly, despite receiving a rapturous reception. Spoon at Lincoln TheaterThe band lurched between ballads and up-tempo raves, showcasing several synth-pop-inspired new songs that failed to excite a real passion in the crowd. The show didn’t properly kick into gear until “The Underdog” was played midway through the set, which finally threw off the bland atmosphere of serenity that had been pervasive throughout the theater.

In spite of the uneven set list, the band displayed a well-honed musical interplay, kept up by numerous instrument exchanges between the individual band members, who bounced between different arrangements on guitars, keyboards and percussion. A vivid, colored lighting display that projected silhouettes onto screens from various angles was just as visually engaging. Meanwhile, the crowd did their best to keep the energy in the venue up, though the theater’s rigid seating setup prevented anything too wild from happening.

Spoon saved crowd favorites like “Knock Knock Knock” and “The Way We Get By” for the two encores, which excited the crowd to the point of dancing up and down the aisles. By the end, everyone seemed satisfied, if not completely exhilarated. Me included.

Set List

  1. The Beast and Dragon, Adored
  2. Rainy Taxi
  3. Rent I Pay
  4. Don’t You Evah
  5. Small Stakes
  6. Inside Out
  7. My Mathematical Mind
  8. Outlier
  9. The Underdog
  10. Everything Hits at Once
  11. They Want My Soul
  12. Don’t Make Me a Target
  13. I Just Don’t Understand
  14. I Summon You
  15. Got Nuffin
  16. The Fitted Shirt
  17. You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb

Encore:

  1. Knock Knock Knock
  2. Was It You?
  3. Do You

Encore 2:

  1. The Ghost of You Lingers
  2. I Turn My Camera On
  3. The Way We Get By

X @ Black Cat (8/20/14)

“Loud as fuck!” exclaimed John Doe during X’s show at Black Cat on August 20. Though more a commentary about the venue’s sound system, to a certain extent his words also served to encapsulate everything that is to be expected from punk rock: anger, aggression, energy. Yet X has always been cleverer than your standard punk band, with their scything lyrics and unique fusion of punk and rockabilly obviating the need for extreme volume on which some of their contemporaries relied. These days, while the quality of X’s music still comes across after decades of playing, a little extra volume seems a good thing, keeping the band from being lulled into a sense of complacency and thereby allowing them to maintain the expected level of energy at their shows.

After reforming their original lineup in the mid-90’s, X, like most reunited groups, have stuck to a standard touring formula. In their case, this means playing material from their first four albums only, so personal favorites like “All or Nothing” and “4th of July” would not be seeing the light of day. Sadly, other personal favorites that do fit the first four album requirement, like “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” and “We’re Desperate,” also failed to crack the set list. That being said, the show did have its share of highlights: “In This House That I Call Home” remains one of the best live songs in their (or any band’s) repertoire, while “Los Angeles” got a typically head-banging, fist-pumping response.

Nearly 40 years into their musical partnership, Exene and John Doe still harmonize beautifully, X at Black Catparticularly on standouts like “White Girl” and “Motel Room in My Bed.” Meanwhile, Billy Zoom remains both an exquisite guitar player and a complete ham, grinning and posing with his guitar for every smart phone pointed his direction. The rhythm section of Doe and DJ Bonebreak did their maniacal best to energize to the band’s songs, while Exene seems to have regained her presence as punk’s leading chanteuse, having battled through a case of Multiple Sclerosis. In spite of punk rock’s tendency to age poorly, the band’s tight performance gave every indication that X is more determined than ever to continue playing as long as they can, whatever it takes.

In marked contrast to X, openers Not in the Face relied on manic stage behavior as their shtick, in particular David Crosby lookalike Michael Anthony Gibson on lead guitar, who spent the set throwing out every rock star move in the book (wild solos, playing on the floor, going into the crowd). Sadly, all of his histrionics failed to impress the crowd. Maybe they should have just turned up the volume instead.

Set List:

  1. The Hungry Wolf
  2. Beyond and Back
  3. White Girl
  4. We’re Having Much More Fun
  5. Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not
  6. Sex and Dying in High Society
  7. How I (Learned My Lesson)
  8. It’s Who You Know
  9. The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss
  10. Los Angeles
  11. The Unheard Music
  12. Year 1
  13. When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch
  14. Breathless (Jerry Lee Lewis cover)
  15. In This House That I Call Home
  16. I’m Coming Over
  17. Poor Girl
  18. Nausea
  19. Sugarlight
  20. Motel Room in My Bed
  21. Soul Kitchen (The Doors cover)

Encore:

  1. The New World
  2. Some Other Time
  3. Because I Do
  4. Devil Doll

Summer Nationals Tour @ Pier Six Pavilion (7/30/14)

The only place from which to truly enjoy a punk rock show is right up front. The energy, the emotion, that feeling of “us versus them”, they just don’t translate over large distances. So the staging of the Summer Nationals Tour, featuring the Vandals, Pennywise, Bad Religion and The Offspring, at the Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore was an odd choice. Even if these bands’ shows have been reduced to nostalgic love fests, without a hint of danger or rebellion, the audience at least still wants to feel like the apocryphal target of the songs remains a target of hate, that revolution is still possible. Pretty hard to convey that feeling with lawn seating and pastoral views.

Show openers The Vandals at least have the type personality and stage show that works well in such a setting, so their set went over perfectly in the setting summer sun. PennywisePennywise then ran through a typically abrasive set, highlighted by a cover of “Minor Threat” played with Brian Baker (formerly of Minor Threat, currently in Bad Religion). However, the contrast of a band singing “Fuck Authority” in one breath, and then worrying about the amount of time left in their set in the next, did seem to crystallize the concert’s paradoxical setting.

After watching the opening sets from far away, we headed backstage before Bad Religion went on, having obtained passes through a work connection. Though the backstage area turned out to be much less glamorous than the mythical status it is normally afforded, our disappointment was ameliorated by a brief meet and greet with Dexter Holland from The Offspring, who was completely down to earth (if not exactly thrilled to be talking with us). He generously offered to let us watch the rest of the show from the stage, an offer we readily accepted.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the acoustics backstage are really quite atrocious. With the speakers and amps aimed at the audience, the only instrument that comes through clearly are the drums, which, given the sound delay coming from the speakers, makes the entire musical performance slightly off-beat. So while Dexter’s gesture to allow us to watch the show from backstage allowed us an amazing experience, one that will likely not be repeated (at least for me), having to listen to the show in that manner was slightly disappointing.

Bad ReligionWe ended up watching the second half of Bad Religion’s set from stage right, where I had a great view of touring guitarist Mike Dimkich and not much else, other than when Greg Graffin decided to stroll in our direction. Strangely, despite the plethora of classic punk band t-shirts I saw, very few audience members seemed to be familiar with the band’s material, with most looking like they were just waiting out yet another opening act. It was nice to see Bad Religion throw in a couple of new songs alongside more standard concert repertoire, including a warp speed run through a cluster of songs from Suffer, while the closing trio of “Infected”, “You” and “American Jesus” were as powerful as ever.

 

The Offspring were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of their breakthrough album, Smash, by playing the entire thing straight through. It was definitely great to hear deep album cuts like “What Happened to You?” and “Genocide” get played live, probably for the first time in decades. Meanwhile, standards “Come Out and Play” and “Self-Esteem” were received as rapturously as they have been for the past two decades.

The OffspringGuitarist Noodles bounded throughout the show from front to back, left to right, while Holland continuously stalked across the stage, playing to the crowd but never losing a somewhat distant, yet authoritative, posture. After finishing with Smash, the band kicked through an uneven second set of some of their best known material, with an unfortunate version of “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” redeemed by stronger tracks like “Americana” and “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid.” By the time they closed with a rampaging version of “The Kids Aren’t Alright,” it was clear that the energy at the venue had finally been raised to a sufficient level, regardless of where you were sitting.

Vandals setlist:

  1. It’s a Fact
  2. Cafe 405
  3. And Now We Dance
  4. Take It Back
  5. People That Are Going to Hell
  6. I’ve Got an Ape Drape
  7. I Know, Huh?
  8. Oi to the World
  9. Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government)
  10. My Girlfriend’s Dead
  11. Don’t Stop Me Now (Queen cover)

Pennywise setlist:

  1. Pennywise
  2. My Own Country
  3. Unknown Road
  4. Peaceful Day
  5. Same Old Story
  6. Restless Time
  7. Minor Threat (Minor Threat cover)
  8. Perfect People
  9. Fuck Authority
  10. Society
  11. Blitzkrieg Bop (Ramones cover)
  12. Bro Hymn

Bad Religion setlist:

  1. Fuck You
  2. Los Angeles Is Burning
  3. I Want to Conquer the World
  4. 21st Century (Digital Boy)
  5. Stranger Than Fiction
  6. Sometimes It Feels Like
  7. Recipe for Hate
  8. True North
  9. Sanity
  10. Wrong Way Kids
  11. Sorrow
  12. You Are (The Government)
  13. 1000 More Fools
  14. Best for You
  15. Do What You Want
  16. Infected
  17. You
  18. American Jesus

The Offspring setlist:

  1. Time to Relax
  2. Nitro (Youth Energy)
  3. Bad Habit
  4. Gotta Get Away
  5. Genocide
  6. Something to Believe In
  7. Come Out and Play
  8. It’ll Be a Long Time
  9. Killboy Powerhead (The Didjits cover)
  10. What Happened to You?
  11. So Alone
  12. Not the One
  13. Smash
  14. Self Esteem
  15. All I Want
  16. You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid
  17. Slim Pickens Does the Right Thing and Rides the Bomb to Hell
  18. Staring at the Sun
  19. Why Don’t You Get a Job?
  20. Americana
  21. (Can’t Get My) Head Around You
  22. Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)
  23. The Kids Aren’t Alright

 

Yeah Yeah Yeah’s @ Radio City Music Hall (9/23/09)

“On your feet, New York City!” commanded Karen O, grabbing control of Radio City Music Hall.  She would not relinquish her hold in any way for the following ninety minutes.  Coming out in what appeared to be a Japanese costume over the melodic notes provided by her bandmates, the captivating lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs stalked the stage like a mannequin as the lights came up to reveal the set: large inflatable eyeballs suspended behind the band, in front of a golden target backdrop.  All eyes in the venue were indeed on Karen O.  The band kicked into a higher tempo song, and O’s costume was stripped away, along with her rigidity, as she started to prowl back and forth like a tiger tempting its prey, engaging and retreating, all the while keeping the audience (especially those in the front rows), fascinated.  O would go through multiple outfits throughout the evening, in the manner of someone who clearly grew up idolizing Madonna, though her stage presence was more akin to Alice Cooper or a Genesis-version of Peter Gabriel.  Unlike most lead singers, she did not engage in a winking interaction with the crowd, coasting through the performance on reputation.  She held the sincerity of her role the entire time, with only a brief crack showing through during a touching encore of “Maps” that she dedicated to all members of the band’s hometown, both familiar and unknown.  In terms of concerts I have attended, only Mick Jagger and Bono showed a comparable command of the stage.

I am not too familiar with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but their musical performance was powerful enough to convince even the faux-hipsters scattered throughout the crowd too mainstream to ever trek to the East Village, let alone Brooklyn.  Jazz-inspired drummer Brian Chase kept a strong beat through waves of drum rolls, reminding me of a mix of Keith Moon and Stewart Copeland, while guitar player Nick Zinner came up with some unique tunings to create an incredibly diverse sound, switching from lush harmonics to straight-forward garage rock, often in the same song.  The band was rounded out by a multi-instrumentalist who played multiple guitars and keyboards (but no bass, a nice relief for these concert-worn ears).

The set list seemed to comprise selections from each of their LPs, and of course all the true fans were amped for every song.  However, Yeah Yeah Yeahs music does not lend itself to sing-a-longs, so even the encore was devoid of a “Free-Fallin’”-like moment of audience participation.  On the other hand, even though Radio City is not designed for freedom of expression, it seemed that everyone we sat near was dancing the entire show, completely engaged in spite of the constraining seating arrangements.  The highlight of the show had to occur about halfway through.  Steam blew across the stage as the song slowly began, Karen O emerging in yet another costume to face the dim blue lighting.  The song built to its crescendo.  The lights began to rise.  Suddenly, confetti came billowing out from canisters on either side of the stage, and roadies released two of the inflated eyeballs into the crowd as beachballs.  The crowd went crazy, for once taking its collective eye off of Karen O.  While these effects served as an entertaining climax to the song, they lingered through the start of the next song, with the beachballs distractingly remaining in circulation for almost the duration of the show.

After a brief encore, the show was over, and Karen O released the audience into midtown Manhattan.  Perhaps because of the crowd, or because of the setting, or perhaps because of the 11 pm curfew, the night did not finish with a rush of energy that normally accompanies a great show.  Fortunately for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the indelible image of their lead singer was certainly imprinted in the dreams of everyone in attendance that night.

Set List:

  1. Runaway
  2. Phenomena
  3. Shake It
  4. Heads Will Roll
  5. Pin
  6. Dull Life
  7. Gold Lion
  8. Miles Away
  9. Skeletons
  10. Soft Shock
  11. Cheated Hearts
  12. Zero
  13. Turn Into

Encore:

  1. Maps (Acoustic w/ strings)
  2. Hysteric (Acoustic w/ strings)
  3. Y Control
  4. Date With The Night

Joe Perry Project @ Starland Ballroom (11/7/09)

What should you expect when seeing a side project? A bunch of songs from the main band with a few from the side project? No songs from the main band? Only lesser-known songs from the main band?  I was unsure what I would get from the Joe Perry Project. In preparation, I had listened to all of Joe Perry’s lead Aerosmith songs (Combination, Bright Light Fright, Walk On Down, Drop Dead Gorgeous), but being unfamiliar with his recordings with JPP, I was entering unknown territory. Before getting answers to these questions, I first had to put up with being entertained by the incredibly Cream-esque openers London Souls. Loud blaring guitar on top of a fantastic rhythm section (backed by a Ginger Baker clone on drums) made for a groovy opening 35-minute set. Hopefully a band I will hear more from in the future.

The show was prefaced by a swirl of rumors and reports that Steven Tyler had left Aerosmith, and that the rest of the band was intending to hire a new lead singer to carry on in his stead. However, the night before, Tyler had made a cameo appearance with JPP to perform “Walk This Way”, tending to silence the rumors. Though I hold out a minute hope that the same scene might repeat itself tonight, this thought is extinguished almost immediately as JPP made their entrance to somewhat muted applause (though I had my earplugs in so I may have missed out on some of the fervor). Joe Perry welcomed the crowd by complaining of his “long day”, and stating his wish to “just play some music”, pretty clear references to the Aerosmith drama. So this might be my best chance to see any version of the band for the conceivable future.

I was surprised to learn that Joe Perry was not the primary vocalist for the group, which instead went to a young Steven Tyler/Jon Bon Jovi clone. His half-assessed histrionics were his best feature, compared to his wailing, high-pitched shrieking. The band opened with “Let the Music Do the Talking”, a JPP song redone by Aerosmith that I slightly recognized, and a version of “Walkin’ the Dog”, which Aerosmith had done on their first album. This pattern of alternating between songs from JPP and Aerosmith would continue throughout the show. Thankfully, Joe indulged the true Aerosmith fans (such as myself) with deep cuts that included “Combination” and “Get the Lead Out”, while also throwing the mainstreamers a bone with more recognizable standards. Perry prefaced one of these songs describing an offer from a cruise company to play on the ship, but only if they played this particular song in a specific arrangement. Having turned the gig down, he then solicited the audience’s reception of the idea by kicking into a reggae-fied version of “Dream On”, the kind of alternate song performance I would love to see Aerosmith actually try. After the final note, he sent a barb towards Steven Tyler by claiming “they would never play that fucking song.” Guess those reconciliation rumors are dead.

Perry was clearly the main attraction for the audience, as all eyes focused on him, especially during solos. More disturbingly was the similar reaction from the rest of the band.  They were completely deferential, even intimidated, as none, other than occasionally the bass player, seemed comfortable playing side by side or even moving from their designated spots. Joe even made his way to the other side of the stage to play off the second guitarist, who quickly retreated, not wanting to share licks with the headliner. Joe took a few lead vocals, including on a couple of blues covers found on his JPP albums. Though the Starland Ballroom was less packed than usual, the crowd was into the show, if not in a frenzy. The only real energy came during the main set finale of “Toys in the Attic”, with some fine audience participation. The brief encore had one JPP song before ending with “Walk This Way” that finally satisfied the meatheads. In the bathroom afterwards, I overhead a guy complaining that “he didn’t play any Aerosmith songs other than that last one!” Though he was quickly corrected by a friend (before I had the chance), his response gave me the answer to my initial question.

Set List:

  1. Let The Music Do The Talking
  2. Walkin’ the Dog
  3. Long Way To Go
  4. Get The Lead Out
  5. Slingshot
  6. Rockin’ Train
  7. Head Kicked In
  8. Do You Wonder
  9. Dream On
  10. Vigilante Man
  11. East Coast, West Coast
  12. Scare The Cat
  13. Combination
  14. Toys in the Attic

Encore:

  1. Stop Messin’
  2. Walk This Way