June 9, 2014

Leg-Kick Out the Jams

Guided by Voices
Wonder Ballroom - Portland, OR
June 7, 2014
You wanna hear something old school? How does a 56-year-old fronting a 31-year-old band sound? To anyone in the know, and to those at the Wonder Ballroom, it sounded mighty fine indeed. Dayton, Ohio's unsinkable Guided by Voices, now grayer and possibly a tad more moderate than during their 90s/early 2000s campaigns of Miller Lite stockpile destruction, came, saw, and leg-kicked out the jams.

If they had stopped writing new music 10 years ago, GBV would already be wielding a staggering song inventory, but no chance. Ceaselessly creative, mic-twirling dynamo Robert Pollard and his classic-formula GBV (from circa 1992-1996, guitarists Tobin Sprout/Mitch Mitchell, and bassist Greg Demos, along with later-period drummer Kevin March) arrived in town with not one but two new 2014 records, May's Cool Planet and February's Motivational Jumpsuit. If these worthwhile releases demonstrate anything, it's that the state of the GBV union is strong, and fans really ought to be grateful they live in a world where the unstoppable, avuncular Bob still holds court in their local nightclub.

Perhaps GBV never broke big, but the level of fame and adoration they currently enjoy seems ideal. Given the band's working-class-hero fervor at the Wonder Ballroom, their constituents could simply not want it any other way. This strange world of inscrutable song titles and transcendent rock and roll glory belongs to them, after all. Imagine a private club where beer bottles are hoisted in triumph, and nearly 50 songs are dropped in two hours. Presiding over it all is Captain Bob, damning torpedoes of power chords and melody that could lay waste to even the most jaded hipster mind, leaving pretension and PBR cans bobbing on the surface, like so much flotsam and jetsam.

In Portland, catering to every generation of fan like an indie rock Rolling Stones, the quintet broke out vintage tunes (Propeller's hard-charging "Exit Flagger"); fresh material ("Authoritarian Zoo," "Alex and the Omegas," the cleverly self-referential "Littlest League Possible"); Tobin Sprout-sung delicacies ("Awful Bliss"); and, in the "Shocker in Stumptown" given it was conceived by an entirely different membership of GBV, the very welcome mid-period jangler "Fair Touching" from 2001's Isolation Drills.

Pollard noted from the stage that it was the 20th anniversary of Bee Thousand, a peerless GBV classic, and the one with the anthems the crowd was hungriest for. Nine selections from the album were aired, and "Gold Star for Robot Boy" and the riffing, zigzagging gem "Echos Myron" even inspired mosh pits that were not so much violent as they were refreshing, cynicism-free moments of communal joy.

It's telling that so many goods were delivered by GBV, yet so many of their stellar works weren't even played; "My Valuable Hunting Knife," "The Official Ironmen Rally Song," and "Watch Me Jumpstart" were all conspicuous in their absence. It seems a grown-up, get-it-done efficiency and a slight sense of holding back is the new approach of this enterprise, and it's most glaringly obvious in Pollard's reduced alcohol consumption on stage (well, relatively speaking). Rather than continuing to exult in the shambolic, beer-hoisting Bacchanalia like he did in the 90s and 2000s, the frontman has chosen to hand lightly-used bottles of Jose Cuervo and Crown Royal over to the front rows (sheesh, someone's getting mono, bro...), and he even handed over several unopened Miller Lites at the end of the night. It's a bit like throwing a party in your forties. You buy way too much beer, and send the surplus home with your friends.

Has GBV grown up slightly? Gotten older and wiser? Perhaps necessarily so. But to call this evening anything less than a celebratory slice of underdog indie rock heaven would be inaccurate.

March 21, 2014

Mike Check

                                                                                 Photos by Eric Layton
Mike Gordon
Wonder Ballroom
Portland, OR
March 19, 2014
Portland is Phish-starved. It's been 15 years since the band performed in these parts (no, the Gorge, five hours away, does not count), so an appearance by one of the principals is bound to sell out. Sure enough, the Wonder Ballroom Mike Gordon show was just that, packed with grooving throngs quite thrilled to get even a taste of the Vermont jam rock kings.

And that's what this show was, for better and worse: a sample of Phish. By any standard, Gordon is a monster bassist, and really likable. But he's not a terribly ambitious songwriter, nor is he reinventing the improvisational rock music wheel by any stretch of the imagination. But he did bring a road-tested posse of players (guitarist Scott Murawski, keyboardist Tom Cleary, drummer Todd Isler, percussionist and electronic noisemaker Craig Myers) and some fresh tunes.

Sonically, very little transpired at the Wonder Ballroom that was unfamiliar to anyone in attendance. To be fair, Gordon served up six palatable new pieces from his new album Overstep, including the folky, falsetto-accented "Jumping" and the mid-tempo, spiraling "Surface." With 21 songs performed, that's under a third of the music. Covers and other solo material, such as "Green Sparrow," which morphed into one of the night's choicest jams, filled out the set. Quite notably, only two Phish songs were offered (and oddball choices at that: "Meat" and the rarity "Spock's Beard"), a miserly decision that could nearly be construed as a slap in the face to Phishheads, particularly in the scope of a lengthy, two-set concert. Would one more Phish song, heaven forbid even one of his signature favorites ("Mike's Song" or "Weigh" for instance), detracted from the fact that this was Gordon striking out on his own? Unlikely. Would it have sent the night's already high audience energy into ecstatic overdrive? Absolutely.

While a spirited, patchouli-scented debate could emerge about Gordon establishing his own brand and identity outside the leviathan that is Phish, the glaring reality is, the guy's been in Phish for three decades and he's dyed to the marrow, irrevocably shaped by that band's idiom. Not a single note played at this gig (outside of Myers' synth accents) would have been out of place at a Phish show. That said, the entire affair might have been exactly what Gordon intended all along: a casual, fun outing for a musician would be bored silly at home otherwise, waiting for the giant machine of his primary gig to fire up again this summer.

Indeed, several moments at the Wonder Ballroom felt like Gordon had wandered down to his local watering hole and sat in with the Saturday night cover band. Perhaps that's the vibe he was after, and sometimes it worked well (a sharp reading of The Beatles' "She Said She Said" was a nice surprise), and at other junctures, it was totally head-scratching, i.e. the Murawski-sung cover of Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket." 

That's not to say this night was a loss by any means; people danced, laughed, and one young woman even rocked a huge disco wig, apropos of nothing. It was a nifty, positive outing for the Portland Society of Neglected Phishheads, and Gordon was undeniably engaged and sharing his vastly impressive bass skills. Boiled down to its essence, though, this seemed a mere diversion, a tasty appetizer to the larger Phish meal that is rumored to be hitting the West Coast this fall. (Don't despair, phans... Portland and Seattle are both being whispered about as destinations on the upcoming tour.)


Set 1: Jumping, Radar Blip, Jones, Spiral, Spock's Brain, Twists and Bends, Angatta, She Said She Said, Tiny Little World

Set 2: Surface, Meat, Long Black Line, Peel, Another Door, Mississippi, Morphing Again, Hand in My Pocket, Soulfood Man

Encore: Yarmouth Road, Skin It Back

February 10, 2014

The Zappa Never Stops...

Zappa Plays Zappa
Roseland - Portland, Oregon
January 31, 2014
Sometimes, you have to slim down to maximize your power. In the case of Zappa Plays Zappa, guitarist Dweezil Zappa's labor of love honoring his dad Frank, where there were once nine musicians onstage, there are now six (and only one founding ZPZ member apart from Dweezil, multi-instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez). Given the complexity and details of the music being presented, this headcount reduction might have spelled trouble. As evidenced at Roseland, however, less is more: Zappa Plays Zappa is now leaner, sharper, and still confident enough to dive into a dangerous, mudshark-infested catalog that, by any performance standard, is a total "adult swim."

Zappa's a fortunate son. Like his late father, who had a notorious ear for only the finest musicians, he's managed to locate five skilled players game, spirited, and possessed of the needed sense of humor to present Frank's virtuosic, satire-laden music: Gonzales (sax, flute, keyboards, vocals); the easy-to-underestimate Ben Thomas (vocals, percussion, bad dancing); Chris Norton (keyboards); Kurt Morgan (bass); and Ryan Brown (drums). This is a fresh, relatively youthful band, and the momentum and vivaciousness on display at the Roseland was undeniable.

Zappa Plays Zappa, on the road in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1974 Frank Zappa & The Mothers album Roxy & Elsewhere (played in sequence and in its entirety at every tour stop) christened this voyage with the instrumental "Filthy Habits," a track from the minor 1979 record Sleep Dirt. It was an exploration of an especially remote corner of the Zappa universe, but that's so Dweezil. After all, this is a man who has dug up such exquisite truffles as "Latex Solar Beef" and "Chrissy Puked Twice" on past jaunts.

Dweezil and the gang were clearly on a mission to win anew the hearts of hardcore Zappa fans (is there any other kind?). They unspooled the knotty Roxy album deliberately and with seeming ease, from the clowning oddity "Penguin in Bondage" (with Thomas chewing the lyrical scenery and mugging) to "Cheepnis," and all the way to "Bebop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)," which featured an impromptu audience member dance-off onstage.

Fans dancing onstage? What is this, a Flaming Lips show? Careful, Dweezil, some might even slap the label "fun" on all this. Past tours have found D-Zap running through the sets with cool efficiency if not always with apparent enjoyment; on this evening, he seemed to be loose, relaxed, and yet still, crucially, on point. Eight years in, what some dismiss as merely a tribute act has evolved into a pleasantly merciless, shape-shifting venture through difficult compositions, all expressly for a knowing island of misfit fans.

Dweezil's guitar prowess was most strikingly demonstrated at two junctures of the night, first on what was a knockout version of the downward-spiraling phantasmagoria "The Torture Never Stops" and then on "Florentine Pogen," where his soloing was astral and nothing short of commanding. Also deserving extra note is drummer Brown, who pushed through the material with a snappy, flexible energy and held everything together. Gonzales also continues to be a marvel, a quadruple-threat so gifted and in on the joke that she's enlisted to carry the purposefully off-key singing of "I Come from Nowhere" from 1982's Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. And if the faithful weren't into that obscurity, well, there were the perverse pleasures of Sheik Yerbouti's "Flakes" (Gonzales dropping a nice Eric Cartman impression on this one) and "Broken Hearts are for Assholes," boasting what has to be popular music's one and only usage of the phrase "wristwatch Crisco."

Sparkling wordplay, a representative haul of the Zappa repertoire, and most of all, a scholarly son whose ongoing creative self-actualization, compelled by birthright, has given a global fellowship of outsider music fans a most satisfying refuge. The Zappa never stops.

Filthy Habits

"Roxy & Elsewhere":
Penguin in Bondage
Pygmy Twylyte
Dummy Up
Village of the Sun
Echidna's Arf (Of You)
Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?
Son of Orange County
More Trouble Every Day
Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen's Church)

The Torture Never Stops
Teen-Age Wind
Teenage Prostitute
The Black Page #1
The Black Page #2
What's New in Baltimore?
Florentine Pogen
Broken Hearts Are for Assholes
I Come From Nowhere
Cosmik Debris

Don't Eat the Yellow Snow
Zomby Woof

January 23, 2014

Spring(steen)-ing Eternal

Bruce Springsteen 
and the E Street Band
High Hopes
Columbia Records
Times are always tough for someone, and Bruce Springsteen, as durable a lighthouse in rock as has ever existed, is always there to address the struggle and provide reassurance. And when belts are tightened, a "waste not, want not" mentality is adopted. It's this intent behind High Hopes, an album made up of years of outtakes, covers, and live Boss staples refashioned and shined up. This is a refurbished muscle car of sorts, with lightning stripes on the sides slapped on by guitar alchemist/fellow Woody Guthrie and social justice enthusiast Tom Morello. And it's a mostly thrilling and memorable ride, but it can also break down once in awhile.

Two shrill guitar notes are sent out like distress flares at the outset the title track, a cry for help that sums up the thesis statement of the record, as well as the thought behind this widescreen folk rave-up that is the strongest work here. "High Hopes" is a cover from Tim Scott McConnell of the now-defunct Los Angeles-based act The Havalinas, and it's a welcome development that the time-constrained Springsteen is loosening up his controlling tendencies and featuring works by others on a studio album; there are three tunes by outsiders here, including Aussie punk band The Saints' "Just Like Fire Would" and Suicide's meditative "Dream Baby Dream."

Leaning on others is key to hope, and it's also something that happens all over Springsteen's 18th studio release. In a "young man, help me across the street"-type way, the 64-year-old is leaning at practically a 45-degree angle on fretboard pyrotechnician Morello (Rage Against the Machine, The Nightwatchman), featured on no less than eight of the 12 tracks here. It's a good thing that Morello is a mercenary creative force and confident enough to hang with the Boss. He torches, he scorches, he mimics vinyl scratching, he scuffs and squeals, and is given so much leeway in the volcanic, devastating poverty tale "The Ghost of Tom Joad" that Springsteen lets him sing half the verses (to the unsurprising chagrin of some Bruce purists). No matter; this is a torrid bromance forged in the mud of humanism.

Elsewhere, Springsteen lightens the mood, churning out out some let-out-the-slack, "Come on STEVE!" party rock with "Frankie Fell in Love," which could not exist without the shared history and harmonies of his longtime blood brother, mugging TV star/E Streeter Steven Van Zandt. The number is a direct descendant of "Ramrod" and they'd pair exceedingly well together live, just as Bruce and Steve do.

High Hopes demonstrates that Springsteen can still surprise in this late career hour. The pulsating criminal tale "Harry's Place" is a noirish gambit that would have been a terrific theme song to "The Sopranos." Furthermore, it's as Leonard Cohen-esque in lyrics and vibe as Springsteen has ever gotten. Speak-singing like it was a lost track from Cohen's coolly apocalyptic 1993 album The Future, the Boss rasps jaded-wisdom lines like "You need a little shot of something to improve your health/A taste of that one little weakness you allow yourself."

But alas, if only all the material was up to the level of "High Hopes" and "Harry's Place." Buried deep in the middle lies "This is Your Sword," which, for all its encouraging intentions, comes off trite and fit for a singalong children's album, or even better, relegated to a second edition of Bruce's song clearinghouse anthology Tracks

The larger disappointment here is "American Skin (41 Shots)" which fails not in its content but in its execution on record. A condemning, quiet song written in response to New York City police shooting Amadou Diallo in 1999, and finding modern relevance with the Trayvon Martin case, this contemplation of injustice suffers because it's backwards engineered. Debuted live in 2000 and brought out again this past year on the Springsteen concert stage, it breathes best in the live moment, charged with immediacy and distinguished by the experience of others hearing it alongside of you. In interviews for this album, Springsteen has said he wanted certain unrecorded live songs to have more authority by being on an official album, but the opposite has occurred; "American Skin (41 Shots)" needn't have been polished and formalized in this way, as a well-produced recent live version of it would have sufficed and been authoritative enough. Springsteen has deliberated about "selling that which can't be bought" in regards to his booming concert business and what brings people back night after night; it's unfortunate he didn't think through that same ethos in this instance. Past emotions are vibrant and real, but they resist being distilled for longevity.

Springsteen's missteps seem to be forgivable overall, particularly when he drops an evocative work like "Hunter of Invisible Game," a weary, cinematic ballad referencing "empty cities," "burning plains," and "empires of dust." Through it all, his voice is resolute. High hopes, for him, spring eternal.

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, "...you'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