80s Retro Concert Week: Violent Bunnymen Edition

One night after seeing Pat Benatar and Rick Springfield, Greg and I journeyed into DC, this time along with Katie. The objects of our attention this time were two bands with considerably less US chart success, Violent Femmes and Echo & the Bunnymen.

The venue was The Anthem, a club on the Southwest Waterfront, not all that far from the Jefferson Memorial.  It opened just over nine months ago. There’s very limited seating: a few banked rows in the very rear, and then two balcony levels along three walls. The open floor is very large, easily big enough for a few thousand. We were among the first to arrive, close to ninety minutes before showtime, so we planted ourselves at the very front of the room. By show time, the place was fairly packed. No complaints about acoustics—it’s a very nice place to see a show.

First up were the Femmes. My main previous experience with them came while I was in college, probably junior and/or senior years—friends of mine across the hall blasting the eponymous debut album with decent frequency. I never bought Violent Femmes, though maybe James did eventually?  I totally get that it’s a classic of its genre, though—many bands never come remotely close to recording anything so fresh and vital. It’s remarkable to me that Gordon Gano, the vocalist and songwriter, is less than a year older than I.

VF put on a fab show. Great energy, playing with flair, goofy guest backup singers/musicians (they call their instrumental support The Horns of Dilemma)—they came out ready to entertain, and succeeded. It’s almost certainly true a good percentage of the enjoyment came from being so close to the action.

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Since they’re not a band I sought out back in the day, I recognized maybe a third of the songs they played (set list), maybe all but one of those from the first record; the one I wished they’d done was their cover of T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.” That quibble aside, it was pretty much all you could ask. A solid 9/10.

I knew even less about the E&tB going in—most of my exposure has come via 1st Wave on SiriusXM the last three or so years—so my comments will be much more limited.  I will say that they were much more serious and business-like about the enterprise. That’s cool—every act has to do it their way. Lead singer Ian McCulloch was clearly the main focus on stage. They did the four or so numbers with which I had a passing familiarity; they’re not completely my style but it was all done with care and reasonable precision.

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I couldn’t get a picture with all six members of the band—there’s another guitarist off the right edge of the frame.

It’s pretty obvious (IMO) that their best song is “The Killing Moon,” and that was a high point. McCulloch’s voice wasn’t in the best of shape—this was the last show on the tour—and the crowd really came to his rescue on the final go-round of the chorus of “Moon,” singing in unison, loudly, for an extended period when it looked like he might not be able to hit some of the higher notes.  Greg and I—both around six feet tall—made the day for a few rather short women who were clearly Echo fans (they seemed to be roughly our age), letting them slide in front of us for the last few songs of the set. I give it 7.5/10.

It’s hard to compare the two concerts—both had great moments.  It was super fun to see them with friends and share reactions. I’ll be on the lookout for shows that might get Greg out to KY sometime.

Yes, the Femmes had a xylophone on stage just for this song, and yes, bassist Brian Ritchie played it:

 

I have to feature the Bunnymen’s best tune:

80s Retro Concert Week: Andrzejewski/Springthorpe Edition

Two weeks ago I was in NoVa visiting my friends Greg and Katie. It’d been a few years since we’d gotten together; the nominal reason for my trip was to go to a couple of concerts, but really, I mainly wanted to spend time with them and their boys (plus, the timing was excellent on my end).  Both shows featured two 80s acts, and even though I’m not overly good at the critiquing thing, I’m filing reports on them. Today, it’s Pat Benatar/Rick Springfield up for examination.

We’ll start with the good half. I’ve not written much at all about Benatar in this space to date, but it might well be the case that from 80 to 82 she was my overall favorite rock act. So many of the singles from her first three albums struck me just the right way during my late high school years, and I just plain adore the chorus of “Shadows of the Night.” My interest in her tailed off a bit during college, but I generally remained a fan.

I’d not seen her live before, and she did a more than creditable job. Obviously her voice doesn’t have the range it did and isn’t as supple as it was during her commercial peak, but it’s clear that she’s taken care of it. I was impressed that she nailed all the high notes in the chorus to “We Live for Love,” but later in the show she did take some things down an octave. As one would expect, she largely focused on big hits. At one point, she made reference to “the holy fourteen,” a/k/a the songs that fans expect to hear at a PB show. I’d venture to say she sang 9 or 10 of them—definitely missing were “Fire and Ice,” “Shadows of the Night,” and “Treat Me Right,” and I would have loved also to have heard “Little Too Late” and “Le Bel Age.”  Husband Neil Giraldo—who received dual billing with Benatar—was masterful (it was cute to hear her call him “Spyder,” and him call her “Patty Mae”), the bass player totally nailed it, and while the drummer is no Myron Grombacher, he was mighty fine. The set was maybe just a tiny bit on the short side, but the mashup of other songs with “Heartbreaker” in the encore was good fun.  For the curious, here’s the set list. My insta-score of the performance was 8.5/10, which after further reflection is fair.

Rick Springfield’s opening set, on the other hand, left much to be desired. Greg and I both had the feeling that he mailed several songs in; oddly, he regularly pulled away from the mic mid-phrase (the worst of this sort of thing occurred on the second song, “I’ve Done Everything for You”—I just don’t think he interested in doing it). He’s recorded a couple of albums in the last two years, and understandably he wanted to feature some tracks from them, but he (jokingly?) badgered fans when they appeared to be hitting the restroom when a newer song was starting. Springfield’s birthday comes up in a few weeks, and he had the crowd sing to him for it.  About mid-show he did a medley of mostly minor 80s hits. This was overall a good choice, as songs like “Bop ‘Til You Drop” and “Don’t Walk Away” feel pretty slight now. I’ll give him credit for going out into the crowd a couple of times, though, when it was time for “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and “Human Touch.” On the former, he passed a second mic around and members of the audience sang the title phrase (usually pretty badly) over and again for maybe close to five minutes.  The backup band was solid, also covering on vocals when RS took a line or phrase off.  Songs I wish he’d played: “Celebrate Youth” and “Love Somebody”—either would have been preferable to “Affair of the Heart” or a cover of “Wild Thing” (Troggs, not Tone Loc).  Set list here.  I’ll stick with the initial score of 4.5/10—amusing and crowd-pleasing in certain respects but disappointing in plenty of others.

The venue was the theater at the MGM National Harbor, a casino complex on the Maryland side of the Potomac. It’s a multipurpose room, not overly intimate. We sat in the front row of the balcony, which was farther away than I might have expected, though screens on either side of the stage helped. The acoustics were okay but nothing special.

As critical as I’m being, I’m definitely glad I went. The following night, we went to another show, in a different spot—expect a review on Thursday!

We’ll wrap up today with a song from each from Benatar and Springfield, tunes I was very glad to hear live.

 

 

 

Dare To Be Weird

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

A week ago Monday, my family and I went to see “Weird Al” Yankovic at the Opera House in Lexington. It was our first time to see him. When we bought the tickets in the fall, we were warned that Al would be concentrating on the non-parody part of his oeuvre. While that was a little disappointing, we figured the opportunity to see him was too good to pass up. It wasn’t the best show evah, but we’re glad we went.

My familiarity with Al goes back to high school, when “My Bologna” got a touch of airplay in Cincinnati. The next year, Q102 played “Another One Rides the Bus” a lot, but they altered the name of the artist in an all-too-predictably-juvenile way, christening him Ivan Yankinoff.  “Bus” is quite the low-fi gig, but the immense promise shows through. I was dimly aware of “I Love Rocky Road” and “Ricky” early on in college, and in the spring of my sophomore year, Al blew the lid off with “Eat It.”  James bought In 3-D and Dare To Be Stupid, so those got play in the dorm and on WTLX. The parodies of the early 90s such as “Smells Like Nirvana,” “Bedrock Anthem,” and “Headline News” were epic, but I guess I thought things started slipping a bit around the time of “The Saga Begins.” It wasn’t until Mandatory Fun was released almost four years ago that I really gave Al renewed attention—it’s not a coincidence that Ben was then old enough to be interested himself. He bought that album and we listened to it quite a bit that summer. It’s got some great stuff on it; “Word Crimes” is my favorite.

On to the concert, though. Emo Philips was the opener. He did a 30-minute set. I laughed some and I cringed some. He certainly structures a number of jokes well. After a short break, Al and his band came out.  They played about 15 songs from across his career, with Al occasionally interjected a bit of commentary/humor. Because I don’t have experience with a lot of album cuts, many were new to me. Most of the pastiches I found thoroughly enjoyable: Don Henley (“When I Was Your Age”), Rage Against the Machine (“I’ll Sue Ya”), and especially Talking Heads (“Dog Eat Dog”) were definite highlights. The other thing that really stood out was the reinvention of some better-known pieces. After saying they would be playing the Devo-inspired “Dare To Be Stupid,” the band performed it with a completely differently arrangement. At the time I would have called it blues bar band. The morning after the show I perused set lists from other stops on the tour and saw it referenced as Grateful Dead style, which on further reflection sounds right—think of a kinda-sorta “Truckin’” version. Total genius. They closed with a medley of parodies, but performed almost none as originally conceived; the best one was doing “Eat It” to the setting of the unplugged “Layla” (come on, you know you can totally hear that in your head now).

On this tour they’ve been starting the encore with a different classic (non-Al) hit in each city. In Lexington, he came out and asked the audience for a request, allowing each of us to shout out his/her favorite. He said, “Okay, it’s pretty obvious. We’ll play what you want to hear.”  And with that, the keyboardist, followed by the guitarist, put on their best Skynyrd impersonation (we were on the other side of the house from where this was shot). A woman in the row in front of me opened the cigarette lighter app on her phone and waved it around. While I’m glad they didn’t do the whole fourteen minutes, they did play enough for Al to have the chance to shout, “How ‘bout you?” That led directly in to a rousing rendition of “Yoda.”  Fantastic ending.

I do have some quibbles, though. The acoustics were lacking—the music regularly overshadowed Al’s voice, which was also somewhat fuzzy. A little less volume would have done wonders (yeah, I’m getting to be an old grumpy man). And while it’s really cool that he’s not doing the same show every time—it looks to me that he’s picking from among forty or so songs, with little overlap from night to night—the selection of tracks at our venue reminds one that Al tends to go to some wells lots of times (but I knew that from watching his videos over the years). Three of the first five songs referenced internal or vital organs. And it wasn’t really necessary to play two songs (“Why Does This Always Happen to Me” and “Good Old Days”) that feature Al the Psychopath.

Nonetheless, well worth it. One of my colleagues is a veteran Al concert attender, and he thought it was the best one he’d seen. It really is amazing that Al’s outlasted just about everyone he’s taken on; I’m curious to see if any new material is in the offing.

Al has been an inspiration to aspiring parodists and satirists for over thirty-five years, including yours truly—I’ve got a couple of pieces I wrote in college that I no doubt will share at some point. But here’s a video from a wannabe Al, for one of the songs I heard last week. It’s a worthy homage to a master, particularly the last 20 seconds.