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Two Outta Three Ain’t Bland
By J. Eric Smith
Photo by Martin Benjamin

Alien Ant Farm, Glassjaw, the Apex Theory
Northern Lights, Feb. 19

So let’s hear it for the power of radio cross-promotion: For the second time in a month, I’ve attended a slam-bam, jam-packed show at Northern Lights, and seen both the Edge’s humvee and the Channel’s minivan parked out front, the two modern-rock faces of Clear Channel’s local radio empire working hand-in-hand to bring out the listeners.

Of course, the heavy, multistation promotion means that the crowds can get too big for a club to handle, so, also for the second time in a month, the evening’s opening act (Earshot, in this case) played while I was still in the parking lot waiting to get in. Grumble-grumble and all that, but, boy, was I sure glad I made it to the front of the stage in time to hear the truly awesome Apex Theory do their thing. I’d never heard nor heard of this band before, but now I’m definitely gonna be in line to buy their first record when it comes out in April, and I don’t think I’m alone in this regard, based on the warm and enthusiastic response that the crowd gave to the band and their music.

The Apex Theory’s sound featured a multirhythmic approach with time signatures jumping here, there, everywhere and back again, sometimes almost approximating free jazz, but never losing the jet-fueled drive that defines the very best of modern metal. Guitar and vocal leads were strong, original and compelling, with interesting shreds of Arabic, Persian and Mediterranean melody creeping in around the edges when you least expected them.

The overall effect was much like System of a Down with a little bit less stridency—so I suppose I wasn’t all that surprised to learn, upon doing a little research after the concert, that three-quarters of the Apex Theory are from the same Armenian community in Los Angeles that spawned the perpetrators of “Chop Suey!” I don’t know what they’re putting in the water out there, but I think I want some of it, and I think that its flavors are going to define modern metal for many years after Slipknot and the other “nu-metal” bands have been (deservedly) forgotten.

Glassjaw offered an interesting spin on forward-looking metal, too, blending complex Tool-flavored slabs of guitar noise with a crushing bottom that would have made Swans cringe with some of the most distinctive vocal warblings I’ve heard in many years, courtesy front man and founder Daryl Palumbo. This is probably too obscure a reference, but Palumbo reminded me of a metallicized analog to Billy Campion, over-the-top vocalist for Vic Thrill and the late, lamented Bogmen. So, lo and beyond, I was amused to find that Messrs. Palumbo and Campion hail from the same part of the world, raised by the sunny, muddy shores of scenic suburban Long Island. I guess I hadn’t realized that singers from the same places sounded so much alike.

Well, maybe I did, since Alien Ant Farm come from the same SoCal climes that have spawned gazillions of other bands, most of whom sound very much like Alien Ant Farm indeed. They were more straight-up, middle-of-the-road metal than I would have expected from their radio play, with the quirks and kinks of their studio work pretty well neutralized in person. The appeal of covering Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” is gonna wear thin pretty soon, too, and I couldn’t help but shake my head at the fact that the hundreds of people gathered at Northern Lights were putting money in the pockets of the scary, creepy King of Pop. Finally, I was dismayed to see the number of really young kids in the audience, brought by their parents to hear the hits—and subjected to a nearly endless and pointless stream of mindless frat-jock spew from the stage. Know your audience, guys, if you want to keep it.

Born on the Bayou

Beausoleil Avec Michael Doucet
Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Feb. 22

Make no mistake: Beausoleil shine when sticking to their musical roots, where the rural flavor of Louisiana’s Cajun parishes is king. Watching the Grammy-winning quintet serve up old-style music was clearly the highlight of Beausoleil’s appearance at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass., on Friday. But the band’s treatment of everything from waltzes to rockabilly tunes proved that Beausoleil’s musical range is wide, a quality that has distinguished the band for the last 26 years.

Beausoleil’s run through the 1920s tune “Shoe Pick” showed that this band can play traditional Cajun music in undiluted style. And by the time they ripped into their second encore of the two-hour show, with the tantalizing “Not About Money,” front man Michael Doucet and his bandmates betrayed a love of the history of Cajun music. That love is as serious as the French lilt that shapes the vocals of Doucet and his brother, David Doucet.

Which is not to say that Beausoleil don’t shine when attacking the patois of other music styles, from Tex-Mex to blues. The concert began with the rousing “Newz Reel,” which revealed one of the many secrets to Beausoleil’s success: the unassuming but intense qualities of a well-stocked rhythm section. Much has been written about the virtuosity of Michael Doucet’s fiddle work and the accordion mastery of Jimmy Breaux. But Beausoleil’s music demands a definitive groove. Al Tharp, who played the stick bass, and drummer Tommy Alesi made the two-step and the zydeco beat look so uncomplicated—a delicious deception.

The gray-haired Michael Doucet proved to be an accomplished a raconteur as well as an expert fiddler. Throughout the show, he seemed bemused to be playing down-home music in a museum setting—as if he feared the concert would end up a fossilized historical document instead of a musical gathering made for dancing. Dancing was nowhere to be seen in the prim and proper concert hall, though there was plenty of movement among the audience.

Despite the diverse offerings, the group managed to bring the musical focus back to the tradition that inspired them—the older rural melodies that recall large parish gatherings, such as the well-known “Mardi Gras.” Michael Doucet sprinkled a mix of Acadian history and humorous Cajun tales during the evening, and he made it clear he’s no adoring Anglophile. Given that the Acadian French of Nova Scotia were rounded up by the British and expelled in 1755 from Canada, the sentiment is no mystery. Many of those expelled ended up near Lafayette Parish, where the Doucets hold court. Perhaps Doucet was right—Beausoleil’s sold-out appearance at the museum may have been a historical document. Doucet’s concerns notwithstanding, though, there was nothing proper, unemotional or academic about the evening.

—Edward Ortiz

Hometown Advantage

John Doe Smith, the Day Jobs, Brent Gorton
The Larkin Lounge, Feb. 22

Friday night’s show at the Larkin was a testament to the fact that Albany’s homegrown talent can not only hold its own, but can set a high enough standard to intimidate traveling bands. John Doe Smith’s singer-drummer summed it up when his band took the stage after the Albanian opening acts—Brent Gorton (of the Stars of Rock) and the Day Jobs—had done their respective things: “It’s all downhill from here.”

Very true, sad to say. Though Doherty’s résumé as a session musician is more than impressive (boasting stints with Frank Black, XTC and They Might Be Giants, among others) his own outfit seemed thrown together and underrehearsed. Ordinarily these are qualities that I enjoy, informality and looseness. But the type of late-’80s-new-wave-influenced radio pop that John Doe Smith trade in—think the Romantics, Matthew Wilder, that kind of thing—generally benefited from slick production values, studio-spawned tightness. Without that musical cohesion, you’ve got to have killer songs to get by. John Doe Smith didn’t.

Their first song had a thick arena-rock riff, but the lyrics were self-consciously silly and ironic-love-songish (I swear I heard something about her “popping the pimples on my back”—yuck); the second number also fell short lyrically (“Wishin’ I looked like Paul Newman, he looks tough and I don’t/But I guess my looks aren’t so bad”); and the next, which had a kind of funky Cake groove, was marred by disharmonious backing vocals. These are all flaws that a tighter band might have gotten away with—Ween, for example, could sing and probably have sung about pimples, and an arch and ironic band like the Waitresses could have gotten away with the Paul Newman thing—but John Doe Smith’s good-natured and casual set just didn’t gel enough to have that kind of punch.

The Day Jobs, on the other hand, wore their own informality well. Though Rich Baldes is well-regarded for his bright pop songwriting (the comparisons have run toward the Anglophilic), the Day Jobs’ newer tunes have a heavier, more aggressive, American-band tone. In one song that Baldes introduced as new, a Nugenty opening riff gave way to a chugging BTO rhythm. The hooks are still there, and Baldes’ lyrics remain sharp and poetic, but bassist Mike DeLano and drummer Dan Bell kicked at the edges of the song, preventing it from seeming pat, predictable or structured in a bad way.

Brent Gorton, holding the mike solo without the support of his fellow Stars of Rock, presented a wide-ranging set spanning the gamut from country-inflected dirge to bouncy indie-pop nugget, interjecting snippets of TV theme songs and ancient amusement-park jingles. The loose, throwaway-set vibe worked very much to Gorton’s advantage, though he mocked it himself: “I was gonna do a whole lot of skits and bits, and throw a monkey in the audience to see what happened, but it didn’t come together the way I wanted.” True, a monkey would have been pretty cool, but when you’ve got the songs, you don’t need the stunts.

—John Rodat

Little Love Affair

Nanci Griffith and the Blue Moon Orchestra, the Cash Brothers
The Egg, Feb. 23

The sold-out crowd at the Egg Saturday night loved Nanci Griffith, and she loved ’em back. With the Blue Moon Orchestra behind her, Griffith performed songs from every stage of her long, wide-ranging and influential career. Familiar opening chords were met with instantaneous applause, and her engaging between-song commentary seemed like a conversation with the appreciative audience. No one went home disappointed.

Musically and personally, Griffith evaded any one genre as deftly as ever. More folk than country, more country than rock, and more genuinely sensitive than anyone who’s so sincere ought to be, she walked a delicate line between seriousness and humor in both her music and her ruminations. She talked about her causes (land mines, Vietnam vets) without becoming ponderous or preachy, and talked about her life without veering off into navel-gazing.

Highlights included “Two for the Road,” a ballad of lifelong love; “The Light Beyond the Woods,” a ballad of lifelong friendship; and “Clock Without Hands,” the title song from her most recent CD. In fact, just about every song was a winner. The only parts of the set I didn’t get were the two Julie Gold numbers. “From a Distance” has always seemed muddled, contradictory and unsatisfying, but “Goodnight New York” was an utter clinker. Griffith’s sincerity only highlighted the crassness and blindness of the lyrics. The 1930s were a time of hope, Griffith sang in “Goodnight New York,” when anything was possible? Huh?

Not so incidentally, Griffith has a great band. When the Blue Moon Orchestra really let loose, whether playing mainly country or mainly rock, the big sound that resulted was mighty effective. “Lost Him in the Sun,” a John Stewart tune, had a rich, full rock & roll feel, with the regret of the lyric and the vocal harmonies wrapped up inside a rolling wave of sound. And when they held back, layering on musical nuance through each chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” as Griffith brought an exceptional feeling to the lyrics, they were even more impressive.

The lovefest could have gone on as long as Griffith wanted to play. She wound up the evening with a rousing version of “If I Had a Hammer,” and encored with a Townes Van Zandt cover, the percolating Texas sound dedicated to the late Van Zandt, and the more recently departed musical outlaw Waylon Jennings and folk legend Dave Van Ronk.

The Cash Brothers, an acoustic duo from the Great White North, opened the night (and won over the house) with their effective two-guitar approach and close, familial harmonies. While Andrew Cash did much of the talking, and showed off a deadpan sense of humor and accomplished delivery worthy of a stand-up comedian, he and brother Peter (ex-Skydiggers) divided the vocal leads evenly. Neither outshined the other, which no doubt makes for a peaceful relationship on the tour bus. Both are expressive, effective singers.

Their best moments were in the snarky, beguiling “Raceway,” the daydreamers’ anthem “Guitar Strings and Foolish Things” and “Night Shift Guru,” a not-so-tongue-in-cheek tribute to those who toil in the service industries. The brothers’ music was as hard to pigeonhole as Griffith’s: a bit folk, a bit country and a bit Springsteen-in-Woody-Guthrie-mode. Not an unsuccessful combination.

—Shawn Stone

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