|Photos by Wild Don Lewis|
BOB DYLAN, MERLE HAGGARD & THE STRANGERS
at the Pantages, March 21
In the middle of Bob Dylan’s Monday show last week (the first of a five-night
stand), heavy red curtains parted, “stars” bloomed on a dark backdrop, and the
band played “Moonlight” (from Dylan’s 2001 “Love and Theft”
) — accompanied by Dylan’s firecracker fiddler, Elana Fremerman, in a knee-length
dress. Jesus Christ, this guy’s a soft touch — and, as demonstrated by his recent
book, much more effective when he seems to let his guard down a bit, allowing
us to observe our seduction.
In any case, the song’s ragtimey feel and nocturnal lyrics brought to mind a
young Hoagy Carmichael — who once sat on a wall at night, thunderstruck with
the melody to “Stardust.” Thank God Dylan wasn’t overpowered by his band on
this song, and we could hear the lyrics in all their dangerous beauty. I won’t
nag about Dylan’s voice or occasionally hilarious phrasing — at moments during
“The Times They Are A-Changin’, ” his staccato delivery felt like gangsta rap.
It was even okay that he played keyboards the entire time — kind of a nice change,
actually. My problem with most of the show was that I couldn’t understand a
goddamn word, a frustrating experience comparable to seeing a Picasso exhibit
with dark sunglasses on. The band, while really, really good — precise, aggressive,
sexy, fun and versatile — was just too loud. However, they did bring fresh energy
to diverse arrangements — Donnie Herron plays pedal steel like a frustrated
metalhead; “Highway 61” became a reggae number; “Summer Days” showed off Dylan’s
lindy-hop potential. Obviously, Judas has never been afraid of tainting his
own music, but the overall sound here — a glossy amalgam of country, jazz, blues,
folk and rock & roll — felt polished, even cold at times. Fortunately, Dylan’s
harmonica cut through the mix, and during numerous solos — especially his beautiful-ugly
turn on “Just Like a Woman” — gave a peek into a fully realized inner world:
that emotional wellspring that knows no age, where playfulness, subtlety, romanticism,
outrage and willful dissonance live beneath words. He closed with two covers,
sort of — a nod to Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Sing
Me Back Home” by opener Merle Haggard. Haggard’s set was entertaining as hell
— or troubling: full of false starts and stage banter, forgotten lyrics and
a libertarian streak, just one beat away from rock & roll. As Haggard confessed,
he and Willie have smoked so much, they can’t remember a damn thing.
ALICIA KEYS, JOHN LEGEND
at Kodak Theater, March 16
Some singer-pianists are born to be “legendary”; this night we saw two. The
first Legend was John, his casually comfortable attire setting the mood as he
crooned, “Relax, let me move you.” He got a bit naughty on “She Don’t Have To
Know,” a song about cheating. Then he told the story of a call from Snoop Dogg,
complete with Snoop impersonation: “Nephew, you gotta write a song about changing”;
Legend’s response was the soulful “I Can Change.” When he sat down alone and
hit the silky piano intro to “Ordinary People,” the women screamed in unison.
We were lifted.
On a Cotton Club–style set, Alicia Keys looked like Billie Holiday in white
heels, white pants, and a white top that showed more flesh than fabric and feathers.
The hot, hot “Heartburn” had her dancing and shaking her behind “like a Polaroid”
before she played a nice medley of “If I Was Your Woman” and “Walk On By.” “I
usually don’t sing this song,” she said, and delivered the R&B-flavored relationship
statement “Wake Up” from under a white fedora. “It’s time, it’s definitely time”
— time, she meant, for the sultry “Diary”: “Your secrets are safe with me.”
Keys turned into Gypsy Rose Lee — glittery headgear, silky white dress, long
matching gloves — for “Fallin’,” and then got the couples slow-dancing with
her “Baby, baby, baby” on “You Don’t Know My Name.” During “If I Ain’t Got You,”
Keys and piano rose high into the air above the crowd, all white, like a cloud.
Entertainment or dream?
at the Troubadour, March 19
MAXIMO PARK, GOLDIE LOOKIN CHAIN
at Cinespace, March 22
LOUIS XIV, THE DEATHRAY DAVIES
at the Troubadour, March 23
In South by Southwest season, L.A. is swarmed with acts who use that Austin
schmooze-athon as an excuse for a mini-tour.
Graham Coxon has outgrown his “ex-Blur guitarist” tag over his five solo albums,
which have gotten increasingly accessible and include some audience-acknowledged
minor classics. The further Coxon gets from Blur, the closer he gets to the
pop instincts that he brought to that band: While his early lone forays were
perverse reactions to Blur’s sing-along stylings, his latest, Happiness in
Magazines, is a comfortably shabby songwriting manifesto. Coxon’s
laddish, sub-Cockney yap and his slightly stooping demeanor — an odd offspring
of Rivers Cuomo, Paul Weller and Michael Caine — add a lovingly lived-in visage
to his eccentric little chapter in Britpop’s story.
Cinespace’s tiny stage hosted the week’s most incongruous pairing, Maximo Park
and Goldie Lookin Chain. In terms of songwriting charisma, Maximo are the most
vivid of the current flock of U.K. guitar bands; their mélange of the Smiths,
Buzzcocks and the Undertones takes melody and melancholy on irreverent twists
into poignant splendor. Front man Paul Smith, soldiering through a fever, channels
mucho Morrissey into his sensitive-young-man-adrift-in-a-grim-northern-town
shtick, and both he and keysman Lukas Wooller have the Ian Curtis electro-shock
shuffle nailed. But Maximo’s sonic poetry outweighs their rather self-conscious,
besuited presentation. From unfashionable Newport, South Wales, Goldie Lookin
Chain — already cover-story stars back in Blighty — are to rap what the Darkness
are to classic rock: a semiparody. Yet their Ali-G take on wannabe Brit gangstas
strangely resonates with the very Chav hordes it ridicules. With their leisure
suits, headbands and faux-bling, these pimp-pretenders are much funnier if you
can picture them in sleepy Newport. Out of context, GLC are eight Welsh blokes
jumping around to backing tracks.
Dallas’ the Deathray Davies, possibly America’s hardest-working band, seem to
play more L.A. shows than some local outfits. At the Troubadour, aside from
a couple of theremin?-spiked whack-attacks, the ’Rays seldom overwhelm; instead
you’re seduced by their understated charm — like gradually realizing you’re
falling for that quiet, interesting guy from math class. Channeling ’60s Brit-invasion
sensibilities through the Replacements’ ragged pop, their new The Kick
and the Snare is perhaps their definitive statement.
Louis XIV’s buzz sold the Troub out weeks in advance, and their swaggering arena
potential is obvious. Their tunes are musclebound heartbreakers — expertly executed,
but too T-Rex?-tinted, too faux-Anglo-affected, to be credible. Worthy, but
not worthy of the dribbling hype.
For a day of Idol-atry
see A Considerable Town.
at the Great Western Forum, March 23
With midgets, motorcycles, scantily clad dancing girls, deafening explosions,
porn on the jumbo screens, fireballs, fireworks, fire-eaters, clowns, a “tittie
cam,” and a woman who bent over and made sparks shoot from her crotch, you wouldn’t
think to describe this sold-out Mötley Crüe performance as lacking much, but
sadly, it was.
Yes, despite the solid set churned out by the original members of the Crüe —
whose first LP, Too Fast for Love, came out 22 years
ago (!) — there was something missing at the heart of the show. Not any of the
sideshow attractions, nor Tommy Lee flying from two airborne drum sets high
above the stage, nor Mick Mars’ flawless guitar work, could hide the truth:
Instead of a celebratory return to the notorious group’s hometown, the show
was the same old arena-rock situation we’ve all seen before — devoid of any
passion, recklessness or actual danger.
That said, the Crüe easily ground out the hits, and from the opening strains
of “Shout at the Devil” to the entirety of “Looks That Kill” and the urgent
sugarmetal of “Dr. Feelgood,” the aging quartet evoked memories of their golden
days — especially extreme-makeover survivor Vince Neil. Yeah, he flubbed some
lines, and just didn’t sing little portions of others. But when he did belt
it out, the act seemed as natural as raising one’s hand to form the horns of
A special moment was realized when Gunner Sixx, the teenage son of bassist/mastermind
Nikki, joined the band on rhythm guitar for a cover of “Helter Skelter.” The
poor kid was frozen stiff, totally terrified — which proved that rocking out
in front of tens of thousands of fans isn’t as easy as it looks, and also delivered
a human element to the otherwise (over)polished night.