Though his music's mellowed (he's now all of 21 years old), the diminutive Kweller has retained Radish's unaffected joy, unleashing spasms of quivering air-guitar exuberance. And though they've sprouted distortion-dripping road teeth since their last Roxy appearance seven months ago, Kweller's blissfully coherent band still show expert respect for Sha Sha's structural undulations, forever hinting at eruption only to creep into intimate crevices, implying implosion, then billowing out harmony-laden hook fests. Even when alone with his guitar, Kweller sulks and soars with heartfelt efficiency, enunciating and inhabiting every word of his acoustic ode to girlfriend Lizzy, the connection only enhanced by his unspectacular lost-boy timbre.
Ben Kweller is a timeless bard who needs no tag line. After being lumped in with grunge cost him Radish, it'll be a travesty if being tarred with nerd-pop's brush once again glosses over the depth and breadth of his potentially universal appeal. (Paul Rogers)
CAT POWER at the Knitting Factory, February 21
The brilliant new album by Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) contains a lyric that confirms rumors of her crippling stage fright. "Last time I saw you, you were onstage/Hair was wild, your eyes were bright, and you were in a rage/You were swinging your guitar around/Because they wanted to hear that sound/But you didn't want to play/I don't blame you." There are rumors of more acute illnesses — schizophrenia, depression, solipsism — but whatever it is, the condition plays out differently show to show. On good nights, it's said to come across as an intense intimacy that's a wonder to behold: She carries you into her fear, and makes you part of it.
"Are you mad at me?" Marshall asked early in this solo performance. The litany of doubt never stopped. "Can't do it . . ." "Is anything wrong?" "It sounds like shit up here, but that's just me." Taken alone, this would've had an awkward charm, but I'd witnessed her previous L.A. appearances. About three years ago at a solo show at McCabe's Guitar Shop, she plinked out piano keys for almost an hour as if she were unfamiliar with the instrument, the tempo varying between molasses and stasis. During last year's All Tomorrow's Parties festival, performing in Royce Hall to a capacity crowd 1,800 strong, she was so unfocused that she couldn't play a single song start to finish. Last Friday fell somewhere between these extremes of melancholy and mania. Her natural talents enabled the music to rise above her quirks. Her voice is a fabulously neurotic instrument, and live it carried all of the emotional resonance and humanity of which it's capable, bringing to mind names such as Nina Simone and Edith Piaf.
Marshall's technique is suspect, however, and accompanying herself on piano and guitar taxed her skills. One part of me wanted to give her performance the benefit of the doubt and see it as sketches in shadow and light (emphasis on the shadow); the other was lulled into exhaustion. I may just give up on her shows and keep treasuring her records. At one point, Marshall sang her new song "Baby Doll" ("Baby, black black black is all you see/Don't you want to be free?"). I had to wonder if she should listen to those records a bit more herself. (Alec Hanley Bemis)
JOHNNY PAYCHECK, 1938-2003
Johnny Paycheck is dead, felled February 18 in Nashville after years of battling emphysema. The original country music rebel and a man with a notorious criminal record (burglary, bad checks, sexual assault, theft, IRS hassles, a 1985 barroom shooting that drew a seven-to-nine-year prison sentence), Paycheck possessed an immeasurable creative genius and a reputation for hell-raising. Born Donald Eugene Lytle on May 31, 1938, in Greenfield, Ohio, he was singing on the street by age 6, left home at 15, cut his first records for Decca as Donny Young in the mid-'50s, and worked for Faron Young, Porter Wagoner and Ray Price; after joining George Jones in 1960, Paycheck played bass and sang harmony on more than 15 albums and countless one-nighters.
Partnered with Nashville operator Aubrey Mayhew in 1966, Paycheck churned out dozens of 45s on their Little Darlin' label. His formula — exquisitely constructed lyrics and fiercely phrased vocal agony — proved irresistible: 18 of his singles made the country Top 10. The deal soured by '69, and Paycheck got lost here in Southern California. After a three-year bender, he was brought back to Nashville and rehabilitated by Epic's Billy Sherrill. In 1978, David Allan Coe's "Take This Job and Shove It" became the biggest record of Paycheck's career. "That one really did it for him," Sherrill said. "I mean, Paycheck was having lunch with Walter Cronkite!"
Paycheck exerted a powerful influence. "Listen to George Jones' records of the '50s, then listen to 'The Race Is On,' and you'll hear that Jones learned his style by listening to Johnny Paycheck," said Mayhew in 1992. An alarming statement, but one impervious to dispute; after Mayhew's argument first appeared in the Weekly, even Nashville's august Journal of Country Music acknowledged Paycheck's influence. Perhaps the single most important — and overlooked — country vocal stylist since 1930s Alabama pioneer Rex Griffin, Paycheck checked out just as his artistry and impact were gaining wider recognition — a final ironic honky-tonk twist in an oft-troubled life.