April 28, 2005

Joe Jackson & Todd Rundgren at the Beacon Theater

Yeah, I know, I've been to the Beacon twice in less than a week. As our common sense seems to be inversely related to our age, Jim and I made the trek into Manhattan on a work night (well, for Jim at least, since I had the foresight to take the day off) to catch a show. Remarkably, we made good time getting into the city, parked in a cheap, well-situated garage on West End Avenue (I use Icon Parking almost exclusively because of the ease with which you can find parking spots and prices via their web page), and had lots of time left over to have a casual dinner and a stroll before the show.

So what can I say about the Joe and Todd show? Well, for starters, I really didn't know what to expect. We're both Joe Jackson fans and have seen him live before, so he was clearly the draw for us. Apart from "Hello, It's Me" and a couple of his other more popular hits (Jim even has the Nazz on vinyl somewhere in the basement), you could put what I know about Todd Rundgren in a thimble and have some room left over. I had read very little about the shows beforehand so had no preconceived notion of what they might do - I knew there was an opening act called Ethel, but that was about it. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the evening. Ethel, as it turns out, is an amazing string quartet. The two men and two women who comprise this group played a wonderful array of contemporary music with a passion that would put a lot of rock musicians to shame. After their set, Joe Jackson walked onto the stage with no introduction and no fanfare and took his place at the piano. He accompanied himself through a set consisting of a number of songs spanning most of his lengthy career, and included one that hasn't been recorded yet (I'm hoping this means there will be a new album in the not-too-distant future). The audience seemed to consist of two groups of people - the ones who came to see Joe, and the ones who came to see Todd. Joe's fan base is small but loyal, and he left the stage to a standing ovation at the end of his set. After a brief intermission, Todd Rundgren came onstage. I had no idea he would be so loopy and so much fun. He was dressed as if he had just escaped from some psychedelic institution; the patter he kept up between songs was funny, and his voice was good. He did a few numbers accompanying himself on the guitar, and then did a few at the piano. Truth be told, I didn't recognize anything he played until he went to the piano and sang "Hello, It's Me", but the Todd folks sure seemed to be appreciative of everything else, and I was happy to be along for the ride.

At the end of Todd's set, Joe and Ethel rejoined him on stage for a really rocking finale and encore that included "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Black Maria" (hey, I recognized that one, Todd). All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable evening. We had a nice walk back to the parking garage and got home around 1:00. The clock struck midnight as we were driving along the Cross Bronx Expressway in a torrential downpour, and Jim sang "Happy Birthday" to me; it was a pretty nifty way to get another year older, and I was really happy not to have to get up and go to work this morning.

April 24, 2005

Elvis Costello & The Imposters at the Beacon Theater, April 22, 2005

Elvis was in the building Friday night, and the sold-out crowd at the Beacon Theater was eager to see him. Costello, nattily attired in a three-piece suit and accompanied by the Imposters, was clearly just as happy to be there when he took the stage at 9:00 and opened his two-hour set with a rousing “Welcome To The Working Week”.

The show was opened earlier by young Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche, who sang several appealing tunes, accompanying himself with some very fine guitar playing. His comfortable stage presence, even in the face of the few boors who needed to reaffirm for him that they were there to see Elvis, endeared him to the rest of the audience. He ought to be heard from in these parts more often, and after Friday night, he likely will be.

Given Costello’s long (and still flourishing) career and his own omnivorous tastes, a setlist for any show is always interesting, and not something you’d want to bet the farm on beforehand. This evening’s was no exception, and while the current tour (entitled The Monkey Speaks His Mind) is in support of his most recent release, The Delivery Man, the two-hour show had Costello dipping deep into his own musical past and included some really well-done covers that Elvis has stamped indelibly with his own musical sensibilities. His onstage performances are invested with so much energy and so much engagement with his material that even his oldest songs sound fresh and immediate. While his fans don’t always appreciate the musical detours his career has taken, it’s impossible to question his dedication to his work and his determination to give his fans their money’s worth. Both he and the Imposters worked hard and were in fine form throughout the evening.

Not surprisingly, the packed house was enthusiastic in its embrace of such crowd-pleasers as “Watching The Detectives”, “Radio, Radio”, “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” and “Pump It Up”, and there were some nice surprises in the form of “Mystery Dance”, “Kinder Murder” and “Clown Strike”. While Costello has never been known as a guitar virtuoso, his playing skills have really developed over the years and were displayed to good advantage during a long version of “Clubland”, which was one of the highlights of the show for me. The newer material was nice to hear in live performance and the tracks I like the best off the album were good here, particularly “Bedlam”, accentuated by Pete Thomas’s frenetic drumming, “Needle Time” and “Monkey To Man”, in which Costello invited the rest of us to sing along.

About two-thirds of the way into the show, Costello introduced blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who accompanied him on “Hidden Charms”, a song once recorded by blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, with whom Sumlin played for many years (and which was covered by Costello on Kojak Variety), and featured a little bit of a playful Elvis singing into his guitar pickups.

Costello had cancelled a show because of illness a couple of weeks ago, and towards the end of the evening, his voice was showing signs of hoarseness, made more visible by his idiosyncratic vocal delivery, but he held on through a rousing finish that included a terrific version of Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” (which Costello frequently pairs with his own “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” but which stood on its own this evening), “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” and Nick Lowe’s “Heart Of The City”. He has taken to closing shows on this tour with “The Scarlet Tide”, a lovely ballad that he wrote for the soundtrack of the film, Cold Mountain, and which is also the closing track on The Delivery Man. He sings the last verse off-mic, a stillness falling over the audience for the first time all evening.

The monkey will continue to speak his mind throughout much of the summer – if you manage to catch a show, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

The setlist:

1. Welcome To The Working Week
2. Uncomplicated
3. Clown Strike
4. Radio, Radio
5. Country Darkness
6. Bedlam
7. Needle Time
8. Next time round
9. Either Side Of The Same Town
10. (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea
11. Clubland
12. Our Little Angel
13. Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down
14. The Poisoned Rose
15. Kinder Murder
16. In The Darkest Place
17. When I Was Cruel No. 2
18. Watching The Detectives
19. The Delivery Man
20. Monkey To Man
21. Hidden Charms
22. Mystery Dance
23. Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?
24. Pump it Up
25. Mystery Train
26. You've Really got A Hold On Me
27. (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?
28. Heart of the City
29. The Scarlet Tide

You can read this review and a lot of other good stuff at Blogcritics.

April 05, 2005

Morrissey: Who Put The 'M' In Manchester?

On May 22, 2004, Morrissey celebrated his 45th birthday onstage in his hometown of Manchester, England. Highlights of this concert, which took place shortly after the release of the sublime You Are The Quarry, are preserved for posterity in this DVD, which was released simultaneously with a live CD from the tour entitled Live At Earl’s Court.

Morrissey’s lyrics, which can be almost painfully personal, are braced by a mordant wit and buoyed by pop melodies that keep them from descending into bathos. This is displayed to full advantage in a live performance, where Morrissey is able to deliver the lyrics with both a figurative and literal nod and wink to the audience, which is in on the joke from the beginning. The singer in his middle years looks fit, and his beautiful, distinctive voice sounds good at the outset and just seems to get better as the show goes on. He starts out nicely with “First Of The Gang To Die” and is still going strong by the end of the show, which he closes with “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, accompanied by the requisite audience sing-along. In between, there is some more Smiths material, and some of Morrissey’s older solo stuff, but, not surprisingly, the concert is heavy on selections from You Are The Quarry, which is his most successful solo effort to date. For anyone who has achieved a measure of success, performing for the hometown crowd is undoubtedly a matchless experience. Throughout, Morrissey is both engaged and engaging, and the mutual affection between the singer and his fans is apparent. On several occasions, he crouches at the front of the stage to touch hands with fans who are being intercepted by security guards, both the yearning and the connection being sharply felt. If Morrissey the songwriter wears the mask of the alienated outsider, he is unmasked here.

I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing Morrissey perform live, and I clearly need to rectify that in the future. Technically, this DVD looks good and sounds great. In addition to the nineteen tracks from the Manchester concert, which opens and closes with plenty of fan commentary, there is bonus material consisting of five live performances from the Move Festival (Manchester, 2004), four music videos, and a PETA film entitled Meet Your Meat, which depicts the life cycle of animals raised for food and is narrated by Alec Baldwin. In an effort to bolster my belief that meat actually comes packaged on little Styrofoam trays, it’s the only part of the DVD I haven’t watched.

You can also read this review, and lots more stuff, at Blogcritics.