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

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Faith No More @ Merriweather Post Pavilion (8/2/15)

Unlike paintings or sculptures or films, music presents a unique chance for artist and audience to connect face to face. The success or failure of a concert hinges on that connection, something that Faith No More’s show at Merriweather Post Pavilion on August 2 provided a glaring example of.

Having reformed in 2009 after 10 years apart and touring sporadically since, Faith No More started off the show as if they had never left, wading into a powerful version of “The Real Thing” before slamming through a solid half hour of some of their strongest material. Lead singer Mike Patton’s vocals were in top form, the thudding rhythm section of Billy Gould and Mike Bordin were locked in, and keyboardist Roddy Bottum and current guitarist Jon Hudson provided the deliciously singular hooks and melodies that have defined Faith No More’s unique sound.

But this initial burst of momentum eventually petered out, for reasons that were not entirely obvious: the band seemed comfortable and the playing was still solid. By the end of the main set, the energy in the venue had dipped noticeably, to the point that keyboardist Roddy Bottum actually asked the crowd, “Are we connecting?”

Faith No More at Merriweather Post PavilionMaybe Bottum was worried that the docile stage setup, complete with flower baskets and the band dressed in all white, was too disconcerting or tame or confusing for the audience. Maybe he was concerned that songs from the band’s 2015 release Sol Invictus were not going over as well as those from their “classic” late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s period. Maybe he was worried they had been upstaged by Dennis Lyxzén, lead singer for show opener Refused, who spent his band’s entire set pulling out every rock star move in the book (dancing, shuffling, throwing the mic, at one point even wading into and through the pit to sing from within the crowd), to enormous success.

Nevertheless, once the connection between band and audience had been severed, it was gone. Even the encore, featuring the first performance of the power ballad “RV” in 20 years, disappointingly failed to bring it back. People left the show satisfied, but not energized.

And maybe that’s our fault, for expecting the band to rekindle some feeling of nostalgia that would have made the show epic (pun intended) instead of just ok. The audience was ready to revert to their youth and channel the kinetic energy that the band’s music had inspired, but the band refused to pander or settle for clichés (such as playing “Epic” as the show closer). Faith No More should be applauded for trying to earnestly re-establish themselves, even if their quirky, insouciant approach made it tough for band or audience to truly connect. Ultimately, blame for this failure lies with both performer and audience. Patton sang it best: “Without me, you’re only you.”
Set List

  1. The Real Thing
  2. Land of Sunshine
  3. Caffeine
  4. Evidence
  5. Epic
  6. Sunny Side Up
  7. Last Cup of Sorrow
  8. Midlife Crisis (with Boz Scaggs – “Lowdown” interlude)
  9. A Small Victory
  10. The Gentle Art of Making Enemies
  11. Easy (Commodores cover)
  12. Separation Anxiety
  13. Matador
  14. Ashes to Ashes
  15. Superhero

Encore

  1. Rise of the Fall
  2. RV
  3. Just a Man
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TV on the Radio @ Echostage (5/19/15)

All I wanted to hear was one moment. That breakdown at about the 2 minute mark of “Shout Me Out.” You know, where the song turns from mid-tempo groove into frantic headbanger. That point where I could lose my shit and feel the simmering energy in the venue boiling over. So that whenever I listened to that song again, I would remember that moment, that excitement, that feeling, that one thing I walk away from the best shows with.

And it didn’t happen. No real buzz. No amazement. No peak.

Instead, what I ended up walking away from TV on the Radio’s show at Echostage on May 19 with was a palpable sense of disappointment. Sure, it was a good show. There were moments, flickers when the crowd got going. The highs were most definitely high: “Wolf Like Me” got a huge reception, and it would be impossible to resist “Staring at the Sun.” But nothing rose to that ecstatic level of energy and excitement that makes a truly great show indelible.

Maybe it can be blamed on a set list consisting primarily of “new” songs from their 2014 album, Seeds. Maybe it was the fact that the Tuesday night show ended after barely an hour had passed. Maybe it was because opening band, Japanese import Bo Ningen, had filled their set with so much posturing and rock star clichés that TV on the Radio, despite the manic stylings from lead singer Tunde Adebimpe, had nowhere to go energy-wise but down.

Or maybe it was because they didn’t even play the song.

Set List

  1. Ride
  2. Lazerray
  3. Golden Age
  4. Happy Idiot
  5. Could You
  6. Winter
  7. Wolf Like Me
  8. Careful You
  9. Trouble
  10. Blues From Down Here
  11. DLZ
  12. A Method

Encore:

  1. Young Liars
  2. Staring at the Sun

Gershwin Prize Ceremony for Billy Joel at DAR Constitution Hall (11/19/14)

13 top-ten hits. Over 150 million albums sold. Six Grammy awards. A monthly sold-out residence at Madison Square Garden. Billy Joel certainly is worthy of a tribute. But judging from the ceremony honoring him as the 2014 recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall on November 19, it was difficult to discern how much actual impact his music has had.

Joel’s legacy rests on a self-deprecating, everyman persona that makes his music, much like that of Tom Petty or Steve Miller, impossible to hate. Think of “Uptown Girl” or “Only the Good Die Young,” and of course “Piano Man,” his show-closing bar-band homage. His middle-of-the-road appeal will have fans singing his songs until the end of time. But does that really qualify Joel as influential as previous honorees like Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon?

Billy Joel Gershwin PrizeSimilar to the Yoko Ono tribute I had attended back in 2009, the Gershwin Prize Ceremony featured a star-studded lineup paying homage to the guest of honor by performing their songs. Yet while it was easy to draw a (nearly) straight line between Ono’s irreverent musical recordings and visionary art to the aural experiments of Sonic Youth or Bette Midler’s deliberately gaudy performances, identifying the connection between Joel and his tributees was not nearly as straightforward.

This isn’t to suggest that there was anything lacking in the performances themselves. Boyz II Men did a great rendition of “The Longest Time,” but it’s hard to believe that they looked to Joel when they were first developing their unique brand of Philly soul. Gavin DeGraw had the entire arena energized with a rocking version of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” though the power of the performance ultimately derived from the song itself, not its B-level performer.

Josh Groban (“She’s Always a Woman”) and Tony Bennett (“New York State of Mind”) gave the most powerful performances of the evening, belting out the standards in a way that made it seem that Joel had written the songs specifically for them. Meanwhile, Twyla Tharp presented a pair of energetic dance routines from her Joel-inspired Broadway production, “Movin’ Out,” that added a unique bent to the night’s proceedings. The only performer to completely miss the mark was John Mellencamp, whose version of “Allentown,” performed as a lifeless, Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen protest dirge, utterly failed to move anyone in the crowd.

Interspersed between songs were interviews and concert clips from throughout Joel’s career, along with congratulatory clips from celebrities including Paul McCartney, Barbara Streisand and James Taylor. Once the tributes had finished, Joel himself appeared on stage. After being introduced by Supreme Court justice Sonia Sontamayor, Joel (flanked by House leaders Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy) said a few words before kicking into a mini-set of some of his crowd favorites. The crowd went wild for “Movin’ Out” and “You May Be Right,” as well as for the predictable finale performance of “Piano Man” (featuring a surprisingly agile Kevin Spacey on harmonica). As usual, everyone was singing along at the top of their lungs. In a way, that might be the ultimate tribute.

Set list:

Library of Congress Chorale

  1. Everybody Has a Dream
  2. Two Thousand Years

Boyz II Men

  1. The Longest Time

LeAnn Rimes

  1. Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)

Gavin DeGraw

  1. It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me

Josh Groban

  1. She’s Always a Woman

Natalie Maines

  1. She’s Got a Way

John Mellencamp

  1. Allentown

Tony Bennett

  1. New York State of Mind

Billy Joel

  1. Movin’ Out
  2. Vienna
  3. Miami 2017
  4. You May Be Right
  5. Piano Man

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