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Worth All the While
By John Brodeur

Green Day

Pepsi Arena, April 25

Green Day are the biggest band in the world right now. No matter how badly U2 want to lay claim to the title, the Berkeley-bred man-punks are the only non-hiphop act to have sold more than a million records this year; not bad for an album (American Idiot) that hit stores last September. To release the anti-establishment rock opera was a make-or-break move—fans don’t typically react enthusiastically when “fun” bands get “serious”—but Green Day transcended by mixing the message with the madness, and the record restored them to superstar status. In fact, they’re more popular now than they ever were (even in the Dookie days), and during Monday night’s sold-out show at the ol’ Knick, they sure as hell acted like it.

Monday night’s production had all the trappings of a big, big show: big backdrop, big stage, big sound. Big band, even—for the complex (by Green Day standards) material from Idiot, the trio doubled in size with the addition of a second guitarist and two multipurpose fellows who tackled keyboards, percussion, and horns. The spectacle could have been alienating, but the group did everything in their power to draw fans in and keep them interested for the better part of two hours. And that they did, quite well.

Taking the stage to a recording of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Billie Joe Armstrong basked in the fans’ reverence from moment one. Throughout the show, he acted like he was on top of the world, pumping his arms in the air between downstrokes, revving up the crowd with a monster-truck-show-announcer scream, and darting back-and-forth between a 15-foot runway that jutted out into the crowd and several platforms around the stage. His boundless energy was matched only by that of the primarily adolescent throng, many of whom were dressed up (and made up) like their hero.

They set the pace with a sizeable chunk of Idiot, charging through the title track and the nine-minute, several-movement “Jesus of Suburbia” to open the set. The latter served as an early opportunity to point out that Armstrong is only one-third of the reason Green Day are well-loved, as it allowed for brief (as in “about 20 seconds”) solo turns by bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool. Dirnt and Cool are one of the best rhythm sections in rock, and their playing was, as usual, muscular and precise.

“Holiday” (introduced by Armstrong as “A big fuck-you to all the politicians”—no need to complicate the message with any big words), “St. Jimmy,” and “Are We the Waiting” followed. Then, off went the supporting players, and out came the hits: “Longview,” “Hitchin’ a Ride,” “Brain Stew/Jaded,” “Basket Case,” “She,” “Minority.” They could have packed another 10 songs into their set and every one of them would have been just as recognizable as the last. What a career.

Perhaps the most telling reminder of the band’s current good fortune came when they pulled three kids from the audience to come onstage and play their instruments during a cover of Operation Ivy’s “Knowledge.” It’s an old trick, sure—they’ve been doing this at shows for several years—but this time, they actually let the young guitarist keep the guitar. Do the math: Over the course of a 40-or-so-date tour, the Stratocaster budget adds up fast. But they can afford it, so why not give a little back to the fans?

Armstrong revealed that he still has a bit of the class clown in him (the one that started a giant mud fight at Woodstock ’94), as he showed off a Breakin’-worthy backspin and fired an enormous water gun into the audience. The Nimrod track “King for a Day” got sillier as it progressed, eventually morphing into a version of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” with Armstrong humping the stage floor while the band got “a little bit louder now.” The moment was acres away from the quasi-political bent of their newer material—brilliantly stupid, and absolutely satisfying.

What to do for an encore? For one, the ubiquitous “Wonderwall” update “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” plus a (sort of) tongue-in-cheek version of “We Are the Champions,” delivered as cannons spewed their charge into the air. Armstrong closed the show all by himself, crooning another of the band’s megahits to an audience that had clearly just had the time of their lives.

Art for Enjoyment’s Sake

The Bobs

Caffe Lena, April 20

“This is our 20th anniversary,” Richard Bob Greene announced during the Bobs’ recent Caffe Lena show. “We’ve actually been around for 25 years, but for the first five years we sucked.”

A successful a cappella vocal quartet can enjoy no illusions about themselves. Vocally, you’re out there, naked, relying on keen ears and much interpersonal diplomacy to keep the blend as effective as possible. That includes not only vocal technique but also material and programming. And touring is guaranteed to exacerbate any problems.

Fortunately, the Bobs have weathered a quarter-century of changing musical taste and unpredictable commercial forces, occupying, as one of their original songs puts it, a “narrow market niche” treasured by enthusiasts, who packed Saratoga’s intimate café last Wednesday to hear and see the crazy quilt of songs—originals and covers—that this group make uniquely their own.

Like the Golden Gate and Juilliard quartets, membership of the Bobs has changed over the years, and the current show, part of their Build a Bob Tour, showcases newest addition Dan Bob Schumacher, who also is celebrated as the tallest-ever Bob. Sartorial originality also being a group characteristic, Schumacher stayed true to the ensemble’s vision by sporting a kilt.

As the repertory of original songs has grown over the years, the more recent numbers typically have dominated the concerts. This time, however, a number of older songs were effectively revisited. Dating from the group’s original configuration, many of them were co-written by founding member Gunnar Madsen, and reflect his quirky worldview.

Some have to do with physical discomfort and discovery—“My, I’m Large” and “Cowboy Lips,” for example—others, like “Art for Art’s Sake” and “Prisoner of Funk,” offer an endearingly cockeyed view of society.

And then there’s the fabric of sound the singers create. During Madsen’s era, the sound was more abstract, like an instrument in itself. The hypocrisy decried in “Art for Art’s Sake” is reinforced by a plangent, machine-like sound; “Beluga,” the lament of a fisherman’s wife, is sung against the harmonized repetition of the word “beluga” in tones marrying a whale cry with a distant foghorn.

Over the intervening years, the original songs turned outward: Added to the “What’s wrong with me?” repertory were “What’s wrong with you?” numbers, like the delightful “Late-Model Love,” an assessment of the mechanical deficiencies in the world of available men.

Close-harmony singing is best known in its doo-wop, barbershop and gospel forms, all of which the Bobs do superbly. They also add vocal effects and harmonies not common in those realms. Schumacher has taken over the instrumental-effect chair, turning himself into a one-man band while accompanying Greene and the others in “The Crow,” one of Greene’s originals (“See how my feathers steal the light . . . I’m Al Pacino meets Barry White.”)

Matthew Bob Stull, one of the group’s founders, displays an affecting lyricism when he sings lead, making an odd song like Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song” work beautifully. He also is funny as hell, as when he deadpans his way through “Mr. Duality,” which suggests that there can be dullness in being bipolar.

Each of the four is as convincing an actor as a singer, and their between-songs banter is sometimes almost as funny as the funniest of the songs. Amy Bob Engelhardt, who completes the quartet, adds her own level of dry wit, and her singing is superb, whether plaintively soloing (“Beluga”) or sounding arch (“Art for Art’s Sake”) or taking a ferocious guitar solo (a hilarious cover of “White Room”).

Together, they remain dynamic, hilarious, and unclassifiable—and who wants to sandwich entertainment into easy-to-digest categories? Here’s hoping for a return before too long.

—B.A. Nilsson

overheard:“Have you ever had sex with a woman?”

“What?”

“Have you ever been laid?”

(pause, accompanied by dumbfounded expression)

“Well, you’re gonna get laid tonight!”

—Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to a 15-year-old boy picked from the audience to play guitar during Monday night’s show at the Pepsi Arena.


New Band in Town

photo:Rick Marshall

Justin Guerin, lead singer and guitarist for the Raven Society, kicked off the show Saturday night (April 23) at King’s Tavern in Saratoga Springs. The Buffalo-based band made their Capital Region debut on a bill that also included local pop-rockers the Day Jobs and Gobhi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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