Photo by Ryan Murphy
at the Universal Amphitheater, September 13
“I went to school with your uncle? That hurts!” groans diminutive Beastie Adrock, bending to catch comments from the front rows. But, yes, it’s been 23 years, over which Beastie Boys have morphed from the most flippant of hip-hop jinglers (once attributing their entire creative output to “smoking pot and playing video games”) to outspoken champions of worthy, worldly causes.
Mix Master Mike whips up the crowd with a display of turntable histrionics that stands as the most flamboyant performance of the night, then the three Beasties jog on in matching, straight-outta-Wal-Mart B.B. sweatshirts and jeans. Their swelling social conscience proves no burden to Adrock and Mike D’s nasal chatter and MCA’s increasingly husky ciphers — smart-ass witty yet rarely revolutionary, resorting to a handful of trademark tricks (a favorite: one B.B. takes a line, and all three unison its final word).
Though the recent To the 5 Boroughs is a largely pedestrian affair, its best material can stand next to the staples in quality if not in audience recognition. “An Open Letter to NYC” is lyrical cheese saved by rhythmic meat, and the Beasties bravely close their set with “Ch-Check It Out,” another newie. But the tone-destroyed, mechanically psychedelic “So Wat’cha Want?,” the rarely performed (and supremely annoying) “Brass Monkey” and the encore signature sample of “Intergalactic” are what animate the faithful. A midset interlude featuring the Boys in tuxes, as three-fifths of a live band, appears as much a “look, we can play actual instruments” reminder as an artistic statement.
Beastie Boys’ show is thick with humor and keg-party appeal, yet despite gaudy big-screen imagery and much to-and-fro prancing, they rarely overwhelm the senses. Perhaps that’s the point of their stripped-down approach: Essentially this is still three friends in their bedroom with a boombox — just louder.
at the Greek Theater, September 18
Aretha Franklin returned to L.A. after 21 years determined to do it all, and naturally she did. Everybody was up and shaking for “Respect,” “Think” and “Freeway of Love” — it could not have been otherwise. The real meat for meditation, though, came from witnessing this woman’s range. Tonight, Franklin claimed title to universality and timelessness; for every artist who lives long enough, that’s the grail.
Always queen of the slow burners, Franklin reached back 30-plus years for “Sweet Bitter Love” and “Ain’t No Way,” squeezing the blood out of our hearts and stretching the latter’s structure until the flow of pleading honesty was almost entirely improvised. She connected that link to the jazz tradition more explicitly with a swooping flight through “Cherokee,” launch pad of choice for saxists from Lester Young and Don Byas onward. And a pair of suggestive duets with the Temptations’ Ali Woodson —
“Hey, I’m over here,” Franklin teased — smoked with
the flavor of a 1945 saxophone battle, two masters challenging, intertwining and all-out entertaining. With auxiliary strings and horns, a hard-grooving core band, red-draped backup singers, and a wiggling and flipping crew of hip-hop dancers to spell her when she needed to catch her breath, she threw a spectacle that was pure Vegas (her next tour stop) in scope, while somehow sidestepping the neon cheese. Good trick.
Franklin may have raised the heavens for Jesus on a gospel praise-up augmented by 40 white-robed singers, but we really saw God when she went to the opera, spieling out Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” with all the gravity and soul expression you’d expect. Her pitch-perfect voice was more transparent than in her youth, and she’s added onto the low end what time has subtracted from the upper. “If you don’t hear the high note,” she advised, introducing the song, “imagine it.” When she got to that pinnacle in the melody, she just shut her mouth and pointed to the sky. And we heard it.
at the Derby,
The correlation between ability and accolades in rock & roll is hazy, and in the musician magnet that is L.A., many wonder bands glisten beneath recognition’s radar. Hence we find the effortlessly gifted Drag performing their serrated, aching Pixies pop to a couple dozen people (albeit at a last-minute show) on a Thursday night.
Three-piece groups can be sonically and vocally two-dimensional, but Drag, who boast both iconic ex-Delphines bassist Dominique Davalos’ fallen-angel inflections and guitarist Kevin Darish’s falsetto-crowned, finely textured timbre (not to mention the spooning cadence of their harmonies), cover great swaths of emotional territory despite the limited crew. While Drag are a convincing visual presence, Darish’s late-night Los Feliz suave and Davalos’ post-make-over riot-grrl allure are but window dressing for their mega-mart of tunes and taste, interpolating turn-of-the-’90s post-punk influences with sufficient melodic adventure and songwriting identity to escape strict retro shackles. The undulating throb of “Poison” offsets a Davalos vocal that flirts with hysteria and hints at the menace laid bare by the stalker-journal lyrics and siren guitars of “Me.” On “Both Ways,” a bouncing Bauhaus bass line floats a sarcastic Siouxsie Sioux verse vocal before being unexpectedly de-gothed by a Q&A chorus of Cheap Trick sensibilities. Throughout, Darish’s guitar is in true conversation with the melodies, both as support and foil, and when he takes the spotlight to sing the delicately obsessive, heavenly-harmonied “Dear,” Drag’s twin stars are blinding. As in all great pop bands, Drag’s spine is economical yet impassioned drumming, Kevin Caetans coming on like a cowboy Clem Burke.
Drag display the relaxed enthusiasm of an act who know they have it, and make the sparkling interband eye contact of a mutual fan club — when are the rest of us going to join?
THE EX, HAN BENNINK, ELECTRELANE, THE MAE SHI
at Spaceland, September 19
Terrie Ex and Andy Moore’s chalky guitar-scrabbling has a clear source in the Gang of Four, and vocalist G.W. Sok can recall Mark E. Smith with a lifetime subscription to Marxism Today, but the Ex have never allowed their sound — or politics — to freeze into an early-’80s post-punk snapshot. Tonight’s set emphasized the immersion in African rhythms evident on the new double-disc Turn, opening with “Huriyet,” an Eritrean freedom anthem (with Sok on huge wooden clappers) and closing with a jam inspired by the Congolese-Angolan group Konono No. 1.
What the band have drawn from the improvised-music scene of their Dutch home base was equally clear — and not only when countryman Han Bennink hurled a snare solo into the encore. Double-bassist Rozemarie, the newest member, grounded the agitfunk numbers as powerfully as any electric player, but also flew off into wild, up-the-neck bowing. On “The Idunno Law,” she channeled the late cellist Tom Cora (a key ’90s Ex collaborator) as Terrie held a transistor radio to his pickups, tuning in a real-time collage of pop, talk and noise: a reminder that the world doesn’t stop spinning because some band — even a great one — is playing in some club.
Bennink’s well-received solo set ranged from shoe-on-snare pitch-bending to masterful ’30s-swing brushwork — techniques you might tire of if you could see him any week in Amsterdam, but fresh to this crowd. Though local openers the Mae Shi have gained in instrumental control since a U.S. tour, they’re still working out a live pace for the sharp-edged song shards on their 33-track Terrorbird. In between, bassist Rachel Dalley of the much-hyped Electrelane collapsed midset; under the circumstances, it would be unkind to chalk up their failure to lock in on the five songs they did manage to anything but physical fatigue.
(Photo by George Dubose)
Sad to See You GoJohnny Ramone, 1948–2004
Johnny Ramone was a guitar hero who hated
guitar solos. He’d go entire decades using only two barre-chord formations in concert, up and down the neck with curt precision, slipping in a sneering half-second string bend every few years. The guitarist, who died at his Los Angeles home September 15 after a battle with prostate cancer, didn’t even play most of the scattered licks — they were too short to be called solos — that were overdubbed on the Ramones’ 14 studio albums. Yet his morbidly relentless down-stroke philosophy — just a Mosrite strummed impossibly fast, plugged into a fortress of Marshall stacks — instigated virtually every other punk rhythm guitarist, and acted as the louder-faster starting point for countless aggro-rock and metal groups, from Bad Brains and the Misfits to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica.
Born on Long Island, John Cummings eventually replaced his teenage-hoodlum tendencies with the guitar, encouraged by the swaggering, anyone-can-do-it simplicity of Slade and the New York Dolls. He took the hardest power-chord elements of the Stooges, the Who, the Stones and the early Kinks, sped them up and basically ditched everything else. Although Johnny Ramone was an admittedly limited musician, he was the primary architect of the Ramones’ mesmerizing wall of sound; most bands need two guitarists to approximate the endless sea of distortion he churned out with such deceptive nonchalance. His militaristic approach to touring, rules and dress codes may have frustrated lead singer Joey and main songwriter Dee Dee when they wanted to go in different directions, but Johnny generally had the band’s best (and most punk) musical instincts. He recognized that there were a million great tunes hidden in that mind-clearing blur of fuzz; you just had to keep ’em to jukebox length.