Photos by Wild Don Lewis
MUSIC FOR RELIEF
at the Wiltern L.G., January 17
Besides writing compelling anthems about The Rock, Tenacious D
also give good tsunami benefit. In fact, of the countless tsunami fund-raisers
held recently, the D’s was surely the most fan-effing-rockotastic. Jack Black
and Kyle Gass — who emceed, and performed the finale — understand that nobody
wants to hear funny fat guys get serious in a situation like that. And all the
performers grasped their roles implicitly: Eddie Vedder tongue-lashed Bush;
Dave Grohl was funny; Beck was nerdy; Chris Rock joked about fucking white chicks
up the butt on MLK day. When fans are paying good money for a good cause, that’s
what you do.
The comedy was fine (including Will Ferrell’s Coldplay spoof),
but music was the star, presented with a hootenanny intimacy that celebrated,
in a non-depressing way, the grunge generation’s contribution to rock.
Josh Homme did Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows”
alone, just to be a sport, and a gorgeous new song with Cobainesque melodic
turns. (Even outside the studio, this guy’s got a falsetto to fucking kill for!)
I thought he’d stolen the show until Vedder turned up, at which point the night
unfolded its wings. Through his poetic take on everyday tragedy, it became possible,
for a moment, to actually grieve. (“The ocean is full ’cause everyone’s
crying/The full moon is looking for friends at high tide.”) His covers
were stunning: “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” got the whole theater
singing together; Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” silenced everyone — even
the jerks at the bar. I mean silence. No treacle, no showing off, just
this weird guy, and a moment of musical alchemy tapping a great well of loneliness
among a couple thousand strangers. As Dave Grohl lamented after, “I’m real
glad I had to go on after Eddie Vedder!” Grohl’s song written that
morning featured a nifty arpeggiated Joe Walshy riff, and “Everlong”
was heartfelt. (Love the theory it’s about Kurt; wouldn’t he have enjoyed being
called a “she” in song?) The D’s set was hooky, funny and righteous
(with a salute to Queens’ “Flash”!). Traditionalists to the core,
Tenacious finished the show supergroup-style — Grohl on drums; Homme on bass;
Vedder, Beck and the D on guitar; and Ferrell on cowbell — performing a medley
including Zep’s “Good Times Bad Times.” By giving this rock fan the
chance to see Grohl play John Bonham, his idol and only superior in rock drumming,
Tenacious D proved they really do know how to fuck a girl gently.
THE ARCADE FIRE
at the Troubadour, January 15
Every pop-art collective has that one member who doesn’t quite
carry equal weight, yet perfectly personifies the group’s idiosyncrasies — good
and bad. In the live version of this moment’s premier buzz band, the Arcade
Fire, that person is percussionist Will Butler, brother to singing bandleader
Win Butler and, judging from this show, the member most likely to have enjoyed
performance classes in art school. Willfully eccentric as he beat the hell out
of every surface surrounding the stage, Butler continually lost control, at
one point breaking not just his cymbal but also his cymbal stand, which cracked
one audience member’s skull — in between songs where he literally did nothing.
It was mosh-pit choreography disguised as artistic intensity, a needless side
act to a show that did not need one.
Because without all the art-school accouterments, the Arcade Fire
would still offer plenty of tradition-minded tangibles for the New Sincerity
seekers. But with a twist. Live, it is a familiar folk-rock-anthem-making outfit,
under the spell of Conor Oberst’s bright-eyed, big-hearted collectivism (especially
evident in Win’s voice), with mid-’80s U2 as a musical road map, especially
in the lyricless melody moans, which offered hope (eight people singing does
that), and choppy Edge-like guitar runs, which spelled action. That action comes
with beats — half the octet played percussion instruments over the course of
the night — and it is this love of rhythms, coupled with the audience’s desire
to move to those rhythms (often disco high hats or tambourine shakes) that separates
the Arcade Fire experience from most indie rock. Besides being earnest, Arcade
throws a rock & roll dance party. And this too has much to do with Will
Butler, whose spotlight-hogging energy did not just aid and abet bonus grooves,
but transformed those grooves into an invitation, making him invaluable after
at the Echo, January 11
Opening a set with a cover tune can be a dodgy business, but when
local new wavers Midway kick off with Styx’s legendary audio folly “Mr.
Roboto,” it makes for an appropriate calling card that betrays many of
this quintet’s pre-existing passions: insistent, often unison melody; 1980s
kitsch; ironic humor; Jetsons-jocular futurism. Though not without moments of
discordant blunder, they deliver “Roboto” faithfully (Vocoder and
all), and most of the Echo’s sizable crowd knows Midway well enough to take
this flippant red herring as exactly that.
Then it’s off into their own Blondie/Devoesque, keyboard-candied
material, including most of their ’03 Fist Full of Quarters EP: the bleak,
semispoken Debbie Harry–isms, Elastica guitar stabs and Radio Shack synth of
“Shadows”; the carny keys and brainwashed chanting of “Electricity”;
the Berlin-for-beginners verses of “Space Station”; and the bizarre
lost-in-translation alienation of “Tabe Tai.”
But rather than the songs themselves, it’s the overwhelming euphoria
of Midway’s performance that lingers. Beaming, always-about-to-giggle vocalist
Theresa Espineli, a living anime heroine, is apparently permanently in the act
of opening her favorite gift ever. Rarely was a band so action-figure ready:
While the robotic-spasming Espineli’s the focal point, the brows-raised hamming
of bald ’n’ bearded keysman Kevin Fisher (please tell me this bloke’s day job
is children’s magician) is a cartoon-completing foil. Midway interact like long-lost
best friends, and this authentic joy glosses up (or glosses over) material that,
on disc, can become a rather rigid, Asteroids-era pastiche.
Midway’s collective charm could melt icecaps, and the twinkling
Espineli’s a few vocal inflections away from being an absolute fucking star.
If they can bottle their irresistible stage aura in the studio and personalize
their stylistic template before America’s ’80s obsession sinks for a second
time, Midway might yet grace lunch boxes everywhere.
THE LUCKMAN JAZZ ORCHESTRA, “MOSTLY DOLPHY”
at Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Fine Arts Complex, January 15
It’s a heroic challenge to interpret the protean jazz of the late
L.A.-born windman Eric Dolphy. But conductor James Newton had the orchestra
and the passion, and emerged from the panther’s cave relatively unbloodied.
“I’m excited — I feel like a little kid,” Newton admitted
before plowing into the night’s most successful excursion, “245,”
a wandering blues arranged by Newton with Mingus-like ebbs and surges, lit by
a Dolphy-like full-throated, jungle-gibbering alto solo from Charles Owens.
Newton further milked the Dolphy-Mingus connection with Mingus’ “Fables
of Faubus,” shading and reshading the persistent riff while tuba player
Bill Roper, draped with a hangman’s noose and a wild burnoose, celebrated Martin
Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a provocative historical-political monologue.
Duke Ellington’s gorgeous “Come Sunday” flashed back on a 1963 duet:
a loose, melody-soaked Lanny Hartley portrayed a piano version of bassist Richard
Davis, and Owens’ soprano ranged from hymnlike beauty to Pentecostal testifying.
A concluding dense, intense workout on Oliver Lake’s ambitious “The Dolphy
Suite” drained band and audience dry.
Less impressive was Newton’s stiff take on the jerky “Straight
Up and Down.” Though filibustering trombonist Isaac Smith’s kaleidoscopic
orchestration demolished Mal Waldron’s giddily paranoid “Fire Waltz,”
Smith redeemed himself with a blaring, then soothingly dignified orchestration
of “The Prophet.” Universally stellar musicianship got especially
bright when Jack Nimitz sculpted an elegant baritone solo or percussionist Alberto
Salas tingled a crystalline triangle, and reedman Bennie Maupin demonstrated
throughout exactly how to pay honest tribute while maintaining a sense of personal
proportion. When Newton finally snatched up his flute to join Maupin’s bass
clarinet in a torrential duo . . . damn, these men understand.
Wheelchair-bound scene father Buddy Collette received a nice presentation
at intermission. “We wouldn’t be here without you,” said Newton. Amen.