December 1, 2013

Lightning in a Bottle

Pearl Jam/Mudhoney
Moda Center - Portland, OR
November 29, 2013

What happens when reluctance gives way to longevity? Despite early struggles with success, at 23 years in, Pearl Jam, Seattle's veteran purveyors of emotionally resonant, cathartic rock are still making albums. Still on the road. Still selling out arenas. It's as if they're compelled, that they not only believe in the saving graces of music, but also, as such forefathers like Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney are currently demonstrating, that it absolutely doesn't have to be a young man's game. And moreover, they've clearly embraced the notion that pleasing yourself is just as important as pleasing those that love you.

Pearl Jam (still-impressive wailer Eddie Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, touring keyboardist Boom Gaspar) arrived at the Moda Center armed to the teeth with a vast songbook, and make no mistake, friend, they are not afraid to use it. For the casual fans in the house, there were hits that might be construed as "we'd rather not play this anymore but we know you want to hear it" concessions ("Even Flow," "Alive"), nonetheless well-played with an almost offhanded ease that was evident throughout the concert. For the segment of fans in the middle (aware of the deep cuts, and relatively happy to hear them), nuggets like the rhythmic tilt-a-whirl "Deep," the simmering "Rats," and the anthemic "All Those Yesterdays" were welcome bust-outs. For those so profoundly invested in Pearl Jam's live repertoire that they probably need professional help or a side job as a statistician, well, here's a cover of the Velvet Undergound's "After Hours" (only the 4th time ever played!); here's R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck and a reunited Sleater-Kinney helping out on Young's "Rockin' in the Free World"; and here's Riot Act's "You Are," not performed since 2011. In the latter, Vedder sings, "'re keeping me strong/rolling along with you," a nice summation of Pearl Jam's symbiotic relationship with their audience.

Lightning Bolt, the quintet's latest record, hit the music world in October with a reasonable splash and mixed reviews. An accessible if not overly remarkable entry in the scope of their discography, it was supported on this night with readings of its title track, the hyperactive "Mind Your Manners," and the lighter-raising "Sirens," an official single that has received some legitimate FM radio airplay, which seems to be increasingly rare for these guys. But if any act out there deserves listeners, it's Pearl Jam, with its hand-on-heart conviction and dead-serious approach to the art form. In a perfect universe, it wouldn't take a power ballad to grab ears, but the renewed attention is a welcome development for these craftsmen of songs born of internal dialogue turned inside out, and then forged into high-octane vehicles that can speed, do the speed limit, or simply park and gaze at the sky, however the muse dictates. 

Longevity in this strange and fickle music business, though, requires survival, balance, and the conquering of hearts and minds; nowhere was this more evident at the Moda Center than at the start of the second encore with the all-voices-on-deck singalong of "Better Man." To paraphrase the song, "We need them/That's why we'll be back again."

In a case of totally justifiable nepotism, Pearl Jam brought along their hometown brethren Mudhoney to open the show. Punked-out, thrashing and never blessed (cursed?) with the type of mainstream success enjoyed by their benefactors, singer Mark Arm and his crew howled and heaved in the grand tradition of the MC5 and The Stooges, with a bit of the tortured Puget Sound mixed in. Check their papers—these guys might be from Detroit.

Low Light
Interstellar Overdrive (Pink Floyd cover)
Lightning Bolt
Mind Your Manners
Even Flow
You Are
Given To Fly
After Hours (Velvet Underground cover)
Spin The Black Circle
Last Exit

The End
Yellow Moon
All Those Yesterdays
Just Breathe
Mother (Pink Floyd cover)
State Of Love And Trust
Why Go

Better Man
Wasted Reprise
Life Wasted
Rockin' In The Free World (Neil Young cover)

April 21, 2013

Rush Hour

28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Nokia Theatre, Los Angeles
April 18, 2013

"RUUUUUUUSH!!!!" yelled an inebriated heckler from the balcony of the Nokia Theatre during Harry Belafonte's thoughtful, whisper-quiet induction comments for Public Enemy. Ugh. As if there were any question which artist in this year's Hall of Fame induction class attracted the most fanaticism and the most faithful to the Nokia Theatre. The Toronto band's long-overdue induction likely provided some relief, too, to the relatively non-transparent Hall of Fame organization; by finally inducting this pesky Canadian trio, the years of exhausting, squeaky-wheel complaining by the Rush army could finally cease. All this tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth, clearly, was on the part of the fans, and not the band, but even jaded musicians seem to eventually grasp the significance of the honor being bestowed on them come induction night. Perhaps revered Rush drummer Neil Peart summed this up best in his acceptance speech: "We've been saying for a long time, for years, that this isn't a big deal. Turns out it kind of is."

Rush's deserving induction was a watershed event, to be certain, it's just regrettable that some of their supporters used the occasion as an excuse to double-fist 24-oz beers repeatedly, get drunk, act out, and treat what in essence should be a relatively classy event into something of an animal house. This is one unintended side effect of the Rock Hall's otherwise laudable decision to make their ceremonies more accessible and open to the public: boorish concert behavior. There is definitely a friction between the decorum of an industry event (imagine the Oscars being open to the public?) and the anything-goes atmosphere of a beer-swilling, fist-pumping rock show many of these dudes obviously expected, vs. the nearly 5-hour proceeding that transpired, and which was also about other artists that were not Rush (horrors!).

Disrespectful loudmouths who evidently fail to grasp the intelligence and grace of Peart's lyrics aside, this year's induction class for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was exceptional in its curation and diversity. From prolific producers Lou Adler and Quincy Jones, to powerful rockers Heart and Rush, to the late disco diva Donna Summer, to blues giant Albert King, to polar-opposite genre rebels Randy Newman and Public Enemy, this was a truly vintage collection.

As is the norm for this annual event, which was being held in Los Angeles for the first time in 20 years, the living inductees invested themselves fully onstage, and in some cases, collaborated memorably with peers and/or those they influenced. Randy Newman belted out a punchy version of "I Love L.A." with the estimable assistance of Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, and John Fogerty, each of whom took a verse. Public Enemy's Chuck D and Flavor Flav were joined by original DJ Terminator X as well as Professor Griff (not to mention their stone-faced, camouflaged security detail The S1W) for booming, confrontational takes on "Bring the Noise," "911 is a Joke," and "Fight the Power," the latter prominently featured in induction speaker Spike Lee's classic film Do The Right Thing.

Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson played "Crazy on You" with their original 70s lineup (some ex-boyfriends of the Wilson sisters in that mix, so props to them for putting differences aside for the sake of the event), then performed "Dreamboat Annie" as a duo before closing with a knockout, heavy-riffing version of "Barracuda" assisted by their reverential induction speaker Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) and fellow Seattle guitarists Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) and Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains). Rush inducters/Foo Fighters Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins donned white kimonos and wigs to humorously imitate Rush's questionable past fashion choices as they cranked out the instrumental "2112 Overture," which closed with the original trio falling in behind them. Apparently no one is allowed to breach the sacred musical partnership of Geddy Lee, Peart, and Alex Lifeson, so the holy trinity offered up their representative tunes "Tom Sawyer" and "The Spirit of Radio" in their normal power trio configuration.

On the posthumous side, disco queen Summer, an undeniably controversial choice for the Hall given her perceived lack of "rock n' roll" credibility, was inducted with sharp wit and reverence by Kelly Rowland (Destiny's Child), and by the time Summer's husband made a gracious, heartfelt speech flanked by his and Summer's daughters, the choice felt justified (hey, Madonna's in, right?). On an equally image-bolstering note, John Mayer's well-observed oratory on King, enhanced by notes he played on an amplified electric guitar to demonstrate the inductee's style, came off better than expected. Austin blues hotshot Gary Clark, Jr. did the musical honors for King, bending strings on "Oh Pretty Woman (Can't Make You Love Me)" and, with Mayer, "Born Under a Bad Sign."

Then there were the producer honorees, Lou Adler (hilariously inducted in a bit by old business partners Cheech and Chong) and Quincy Jones (inducted by none other than surprise speaker Oprah Winfrey, whose connection with Jones was that he cast her to star in the movie "A Color Purple"). "You just have the most generous soul of anybody I know," beamed Winfrey of the 27-time Grammy winner. Jones' soul isn't only generous; his gift of gab was also immense, as he spoke, rambled, and expounded on his undeniably profound experiences in the music business for a whopping 16 minutes, exhausting the patience of nearly everyone in the room. But hey, the man did produce Thriller, so all is forgiven.

The traditional, night-ending all-star jam, this time on Cream's "Crossroads," must have looked like a cacophonous trainwreck on paper, but it actually sped down the track and took its place as one of the best ever. Rush, Heart, Grohl, Hawkins, Chris Cornell, Fogerty, and even Chuck D and Run-D.M.C.'s Darryl McDaniels (rapping "The blues gave birth to rock and roll!") collectively summoned the power and the glory, and were accented by Tom Morello's signature record-scratching guitar dynamics, which triumphantly fused the worlds of rock and rap together. It was almost midnight, and several new stars had been installed in the constellation of rock and roll. Yes, even RUUUUUUUSH.

April 1, 2013

Analog Men

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band/Joe Walsh
Rose Garden Arena
March 30, 2013
The first indication may have been the stage. Simple risers, a few lighting rigs, a couple of modestly-sized video screens. No frills, no apparatus on the stage jumping out as a  potentially showy production element that would be a source of modern arena spectacle. There was even a huge drum sitting curiously by itself, looking quite lonely on the highest riser behind the drum set. Basic. Solitary. But man, could it resonate.

Also resonating on this night were two old lions of 70s rock, Detroit's own Bob Seger and affable guitar wiz/class clown Joe Walsh. A more precisely curated concert duo representing the halcyon days of FM radio is tough to imagine, and on this warm Portland evening, they turned up the heat and turned out the hits (and more) to impressive effect.

Walsh took the stage first, laying into the James Gang's rhythmic, insistent hit "Walk Away," enhanced by three backing singers and a band boasting two drummers and a percussionist. With his witty between-song banter and comically sparkly disco shirt, the easiest-to-like Eagles member was so charming, even that universally feared "here's our new song" moment was eaten up by the crowd. It helped that "Analog Man," the title track to Walsh's 2012 album, is a cutting meditation about the world's intractable free fall into absolute digitalism. Hearing a codger lament about advancing technology while audience members captured it all with their digital toys was a delicious slice of irony indeed. The singer-guitarist performed just seven songs, yet made a strong impression, effortlessly knocking out his signature classic "Life's Been Good" and the heavy-riffing, talk box-inflected "Rocky Mountain Away." 

Seger's two-hour show for this "Rock and Roll  Never Forgets" tour was put into motion with the thesis statement of "Detroit Made," a John Hiatt rocker that would be the first of five covers he and his longtime troupe the Silver Bullet Band would dole out. The second song, Otis Clay's "Tryin' to Live My Life Without You" was rendered with soul and was a reminder of how many truly familiar, American songbook-ingrained tracks Robert Clark Seger is responsible for. It's surprising how many covers he performs on one level (even the Night Moves album's saucy "Come to Poppa" is a Willie Mitchell tune), but then, he's made so many of these songs his own that the lineage of the music takes a back seat to the feeling being put across.

Age 67, utterly white of hair and beard, and donning a jet-black athletic headband that only highlighted his apparent wholesale rejection of Just for Men, Seger nonetheless commanded his band and the Rose Garden with a smile, a fist-pumping verve, and a Vegas entertainer's graciousness. The well-calibrated presentation oddly felt like something that would fit in Vegas, with its middle-aged backing singers, graying drummer, and grand scale (14 people onstage). That's not to say it was corny or phoned-in, as Seger truly shined and struck deepest when he sat center stage with an acoustic, delivering "Mainstreet," "Against the Wind," and "Night Moves" with the Silver Bullet band fleshing out the sound behind him, perhaps most notably longtime sax player Alto Reed (who, as it turns out, has not at all eschewed hair color enhancement).

Seger, like John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen, has always been a blue-collar hero, a populist Midwesterner singing about, and spiritually connected to, hard-working regular folks. "Like a Rock" was dusted off for this tour for the first time in 17 years, and though it unavoidably recalls the Chevy truck commercials it provided the soundtrack for, its intrinsic message and meaning still managed to break through. The middle section of the show flagged a bit with "Beautiful Loser" and "Roll Me Away," as well as Seger's over-reliance on having the crowd sing his choruses for him, but a rebound wasn't far behind with the surprise cover of Ike and Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits," the reliably haunting "Turn the Page," and the roof-blowing "Katmandu." 

"All the Roads" was the one new original that Seger offered. Reflective lyrically and definitely in line with the Rock Hall of Famer's admission that he will stop touring in the near future, it was a sentimental if slight piece. But no matter; at this point, few Seger fans are looking for anything new from this living legend. Most are looking for a trip down memory lane, a reason to hoist a beer and experience songs that remind them of gloriously lost American nights, lost American dreams, and full-on American redemption in the form of a carefree, rocking Saturday, which was so resoundingly offered here.


 Detroit Made
(John Hiatt cover)
Tryin' to Live My Life Without You
(Otis Clay cover)
The Fire Down Below
Old Time Rock & Roll
All the Roads
Like a Rock
Travelin' Man
Beautiful Loser
Roll Me Away
Come to Poppa
(Willie Mitchell cover)
California Stars
(Wilco cover)
Nutbush City Limits
(Ike & Tina Turner cover)
We've Got Tonight
Turn the Page
Sunspot Baby
Against the Wind
Hollywood Nights
Encore 2:
Night Moves
Rock and Roll Never Forgets

Walk Away
(James Gang song)
Analog Man
Funk #49
(James Gang song)
In the City
(Eagles song)
The Bomber
(James Gang song)
Life's Been Good
Rocky Mountain Way

December 3, 2012

Bound for Glory

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Rose Garden Arena
November 28, 2012

(Top and bottom photos by Mary Layton, center photo by Eric Layton; click to enlarge)
"I said this train...dreams will not be thwarted...this will be rewarded!" assured Bruce Springsteen in his concert opener, "Land of Hope and Dreams." In a world where trials, tribulations, and loss are too commonplace, this New Jersey hero and his music continue to summon a gravitational pull of encouragement. There have been inspirational figures throughout history—beacons of light that remind us to persevere. It's in this archetypal position that Springsteen finds himself; as his legend deepens over the years, and as newer generations are drawn to his communal uplift through strife-scarred yet hopeful anthems and songs of unabashed joy, it is difficult to name a peer of his not only doing what he does, but doing it so smashingly. At the Rose Garden, facing another screaming multitude that is just another day's work, "The Boss" lived up to his almost saint-like expectations, delivering over three hours of hope, reflection, and fun.

Touring in support of their new album Wrecking Ball amid an election year, the Jersey Shore-devastating hurricane Sandy, and continuing economic turmoil, Springsteen and the E Street Band (guitarists Stevie Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan, bassist Garry Tallent) honored their mission and recognized their fallen brothers, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici. And as Springsteen's lyrics often remind, no one walks alone, so 11 additional musicians were on hand, including Clemons' talented sax-playing nephew Jake, to help raise spirits and the roof.

With the large head count onstage, not to mention the high amount of energy exchanged between the audience and the performers on this night, it must be observed that Springsteen's concerts, taken historically, just don't achieve parity with this 2012 show. That's not at all to say this is the best tour he's done, it's just that the current Springsteen live experience is a vastly different, more immense animal than in the past. It is a more frequently joyous communion now, in contrast to earlier periods where the reliable rock n' roll party was often acutely tempered by a purposeful, singular, and serious vision being telegraphed from the stage: there was the prove-it-all-night, walk-on-tables seaside bar band era; his redemptive mid-1970s arena takeover after Born to Run; his college auditorium tour for Darkness on the Edge of Town, an album born out of creative and legal struggles; his mercenary Born in the U.S.A. global takeover; his dark, contemplative solo tours behind Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust; his E Street reunion tour/rock n' roll revival of 1999-2000; his solemn post-9-11 trek forThe Rising; the Seeger Sessions Band folk hoedown; and the late-2000s Magic tour which, while expectedly euphoric at turns, at certain points dutifully referenced stacked bodies of war dead and "the bitter fires of the devil's arcade."

In 2012, Springsteen could have understandably turned the gloom dial to 11 in response to our times, and particularly due to the landscape-altering death of the larger-than-life Clemons, whose absence onstage, and how Bruce would address it, weighed mightily on every fan as they anticipated the E Street Band's future. An answer to this came on this night during "My City of Ruins," a gospel-tinted number where Bruce asked us all to remember our dearly departed, and, to stirring effect, he turned the Clemons-referencing lyric from another song, "The change was made uptown..." into a brief mantra. Ultimately, a pair of spotlights shone down on empty spaces that both Clemons and Federici once filled. It was a heart-rending moment that urged healing and gave both the entire Bruce juggernaut and his audience permission to live on and move on, if for nothing else to honor the dead.

Indeed, life and movement were in order here, with many exhilarating sing-alongs (a brisk "No Surrender," the swelling, horn-driven "Spirit in the Night," the insistent "Badlands"), fresh new material (the punchy reminder "We Take Care of Our Own," the Irish folk stomper "Death to My Hometown"), and the pensive, solo-Bruce highlight "If I Should Fall Behind." The Wrecking Ball ballad "Jack of All Trades" found Springsteen singing "There's a new world coming, I can see the light/I'm a jack of all trades, we'll be alright," lyrics that distill the man's entire ethos in short order.

And any air of separation between fans and artist? Left at the door. Springsteen crowd-surfed during "Hungry Heart," and when he wasn't literally playing Santa Claus and wearing a red hat (the seasonal imperative has them playing "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"), provided Santa-like wish fulfillment to several lucky fans by heeding song request signs (The River-era songs "Drive All Night" and "Loose Ends" were the finest of these) and by pulling a virtual Courtney Cox dance troupe onstage during "Dancing in the Dark"; it's a safe bet that Cox could have never predicted that her awkward dancing with Bruce in a music video would still be reenacted 28 years later.

The E Street Band origin story "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" ended the show with the Boss on a center-arena catwalk and a dramatic pause/video tribute to Clemons prior to Springsteen's famous shout-out, "When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band..." Big Man is no longer onboard, but this train is still racing toward glory.

October 10, 2012

Furthur Satisfaction

McMenamin's Edgefield
September 28-29, 2012

(Top photo by Eric Layton, bottom photo by Roy Cevallos; click to enlarge photos)
It's been a long, strange trip, but even seen-it-all Deadheads may not have expected the Commodores lyrics: "Shake it down, shake it down now!" Sung by the Furthur collective during a punchy, bass-propelled "Shakedown Street," it was a fun, whimsical moment that set the upward mood and energy level for this second of the band's three nights at the rustic McMenamin's Edgefield amphitheater.

An easy observation to be made about the Grateful Dead scene 17 years after the death of its talisman Jerry Garcia is that it's smaller—fractionalized by attrition and time. The Deadheads of 2012 are still loyal, though, and the environment to witness Dead music played by any of its original members is a much more user-friendly, enjoyable experience than battling the stadium-sized multitudes of the 80s and 90s. That positive condition was only enhanced at the Edgefield over these two nights with clear sound, balmy temperatures, and a woodsy outdoor setting ideally suited for Furthur's spirited romp through one of rock n' roll's deepest catalogues.

Furthur, founded in 2009 by singer-guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, is given a welcome jolt of Garcia-esque lead guitar and vocal energy by John Kadlecik, formerly of Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra. (Also rounding out the band are drummer Joe Russo, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and backing singers Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson.) Where erstwhile post-Garcia projects have vacillated between rewarding (The Other Ones) and conceptually off (gritty Southern rocker Warren Haynes filling the Garcia spot), Furthur is consistently rewarding, offering up a leaner, meaner version of the two-set extravaganzas the original band knocked out for decades. Where there was once improvisational bloat, there is now economy and briefer, percolating jams; where there was once the psychedelic, two-man "Drums/Space," there is now simply one virtuoso drummer.

What hasn't changed is Lesh's booming bottom end and Weir's eccentric yet compelling rhythm guitar and voice. Friday, September 28 ignited in the first half of Set 1 with the singalong "Jack Straw" and a flowing, harmony-laden "Crazy Fingers," and then the fire dampened a bit with Weir's lonesome-me ballad "Looks Like Rain." However, the best one-two punch of these two nights came next with an unexpectedly strong "Doin' that Rag" and a spry cover of The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," complete with Weir mugging and acting out the distress of the lyrics with wild hand gestures. It seemed they were just getting started, and yet Set 2 never quite reached the peaks of Set 1. Although it featured "Viola Lee Blues" with a hypnotic jam, and a forceful "Let It Grow" (which wound down nicely with descending notes evoking a feather floating to the ground), a reading of "The Wheel" felt a bit perfunctory. Thankfully Kaclecik invested some Garcia mojo into the heartfelt "Comes a Time," while Russo's polyrhythmic drumming was remarkable during "Slipknot."

Saturday's show got off on the right foot energy-wise with the "I'm outta here" kiss-off "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo" and a rocking "I Need A Miracle," two audience favorites. Covers were then the order of the night, as Johnny Cash's "Big River" was a rollicking treat, followed by Lesh howling out Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." And while it is customary for "One More Saturday Night" to be held as an encore on this day of the week, the president-referencing barnburner was saved for the last number of the first set, preceded by the more outwardly political "Throwing Stones," spiked with the timely lyrics "The radical, he rant and rage/Singing someone got to turn the page/And the rich man in his summer home/Singing just leave well enough alone..." It must be an election year.

After unfurling "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire On the Mountain," Set 2 continued the evening's theme of pure musical joy and farewells, with "Playin' in the Band" and "Uncle John's Band" topped off by "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad." Finally, Furthur brought the three-night run in for a soft landing with the a cappella benediction of "And We Bid You Goodnight" as well as the delicate "Attics of My Life." By then, the kids had shook it down, and the current generation of Deadheads streamed happily into the night.