I made you wait an hour for this: Me'Shell Ndege'cello
at the Egg.
Ndege’cello, Joshua Redman
Egg, June 24
This is a show I’d been breath lessly looking forward to for
a couple of months. The Queen B of funk bass, Me’Shell Ndege’cello,
bringing big ’70s-style improv funk band to the Egg? And Josh
Redman’s on the bill, too? Doing a groove-based thing? Where’re
my shiny shoes?
It all looked so good on paper.
opened, fronting his Elastic Band. Among the numerous problems
here was the lack of a bass player. With drummer Jeff Ballard
playing around (to the point of obscuring) the straight-ahead
beat, the lack of an anchor was apparent. Keyboardist Sam
Yahel’s attempts to provide some bottom on a synth with his
left hand, while playing something else with his right hand,
all while reading charts (huh?), didn’t cut it. No definition,
no punch. No nothin’, really. And Yahel’s right hand alternated
between a Fender Rhodes and another synth that generally sounded
like a combination of a Farfisa organ and a detuned Moog,
a dated sound that got dramatically and painfully louder in
higher registers. Guitarist Jeff Parker played a couple solos
that featured choked and missed notes, employing a traditional
hollow-body tone that seemed at odds with whatever electric
hoo-hah Redman was trying to accomplish.
And he wasn’t accomplishing much. Redman was using a lot of
footpedals to alter the sound of his saxes, and the gizmos
often didn’t seem to work, and when they did, Redman looked
surprised at what came out. There were octaves, loops, and
echos, the sort of thing trumpeter Don Ellis mastered with
analog devices in 1971, but Redman seemed tentative and confused
with the technology much of the time. When he just settled
down and blew, he was brilliant, if you could get by the lack
of groove and bottom, and the Return to Forever keyboard
stylings. But the most hyped jazzbo of the ’90s sure seems
to have gotten off-track. This ain’t the future of jazz.
The lingering discomfort built over a nearly one-hour changeover.
While Ndege’cello’s gear was already in place on stage, it
was clear it hadn’t been shaken out, as drums were sound checked
(at 10:30 PM), and a good 15 minutes elapsed while two guys
duct-taped something under the keyboards while two other guys
(and an impatient half-a-house sitting in their seats) watched.
Folks started clapping to their own beat, not in anticipation,
but out of boredom and annoyance.
Finally, with the clock pushing 11, a DJ started spinning
the wheels of steel. Unfortunately, something wasn’t grounded,
and a loud midrange hum nearly drowned out the scratching.
He looked cool, though. The band wandered on stage, three
saxophones (including the great Oliver Lake), a drummer, a
percussionist, and the diminutive Ms. Ndege’cello and her
Fender bass. Something started to happen, sort of. The saxes
played little riffs together and took turns soloing. The sound
was a mess. Ndege’cello’s bass, which was among the things
we had come to hear, remained indistinct, as did she, huddled
in the back of the stage directly behind a large, hyperactive
percussionist. A big and profusely sweating roadie provided
most of the visual excitement by running around and gesturing
wildly to the monitor guy. Three pieces started and ended,
in a fashion, as band members had animated conversations with
each other about whatever wasn’t right up there. To the extent
there was music that could be discerned, there was a nice
Go-Go sensibility going along with some Sun Ra-Henry Threadgill-style
composition in the horns. And the DJ was dropping in Malcolm
X speeches and African celebratory singing.
But it was late, and the evening was already way too long
and annoying. Enough time had been wasted, and the mood was
darkening by the second. Presumably, they got it together
and did something, but I couldn’t wait around any longer to
find out. If I want a late-night club experience, I go to
a late-night club. If you’re gonna play a big stage, put on
a big show.
Theater, Northampton, Mass., June 22
More than any other band of their ilk, Modest Mouse have truly
established a niche. By the time their second (official) album,
The Lonesome Crowded West, was released in 1997, their
sound was already well-defined: a bipolar blend of postpunk
and jam band; one that both rages against the dying of the
light, and placidly explores life’s darkened corners. Since,
they’ve taken what at first glance seemed to be a limited
sonic palette, and spun it into a series of adventurous records,
including last year’s excellent Good News for People Who
Love Bad News.
With time came temperament, and upon the release of the uncharacteristically
upbeat Good News, some fans cried foul, claiming the
band had lost their edge, or that the album was a thinly veiled
stab at pop stardom. (The presence of a few actual radio hits
didn’t help to combat the accusation.) Sure, recent Modest
Mouse output is tame in comparison to early favorites like
“Doin’ the Cockroach,” and their two major-label releases
brim with polish, but that’s a sign of maturity. The fits
of reckless abandon in their music may be less frequent, but
they’ve grown in leaps and bounds as a musical unit.
And what a unit it has become. Once a three piece, the band
ballooned to an eight-man army at one point during last Wednesday’s
performance at the Pines Theater on the idyllic grounds of
Northampton’s Look Park. This older, wiser, and bigger
version of Modest Mouse did not disappoint in their first
perceptible visit to the region in several years. In fact,
it would be difficult to find anything negative to say about
the show, unless you were looking for a set of oldies.
They got things rolling with the Good News standouts
“Bury Me With It” and “Black Cadillacs,” firing up the remarkably
young crowd (was it the last day of high school or something?)
with those songs’ spasmodic bursts of energy. From there,
they delivered a 100-minute set that drew heavily from their
last two full-length releases, plus several numbers from their
Up! Records days.
Singer-guitarist Isaac Brock looked healthier and more at
ease than expected, even when threatening to go into the crowd
if the gigantic toilet-paper roll they’d stolen from the restroom
were to land on the stage. (Kids these days!) His trademark
vocal delivery—off-kilter and bratty—was complemented by singer
and multi- instrumentalist Tom Peloso (of the Hackensaw Boys),
who helped to faithfully re-create the layered arrangements
of songs like “Ocean Breathes Salty.”
The band—no less than five members wide at a time—were strong
and impressive, especially bassist-guitarist-keyboardist Eric
Judy, who beamed a smile whenever the audience greeted a song
with cheers of recognition. The wild disco-Primus rhythmic
textures of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” were dialed in and
held firm by drummer Benjamin Weikel (who replaced the departed
Jeremiah Green last year) and ace percussionist Joe Plummer
(on loan from the Black Heart Procession), while Peloso and
another mystery player (a crew member?) doubled down on upright
and electric bass. It grooved, glided, and pulsed, somehow
both mechanical and full of life at once.
The undeniable high point was an expansive “The World at Large,”
which came roughly an hour into the set. As the last rays
of sunlight disappeared behind the pine trees that framed
the stage, the purple-hued backlighting took over, mingling
natural and artificial light to create an exaggerated dusk.
The band revved up for an unexpected dub-inflected coda, unwittingly
using the venue’s natural reverb to their advantage, making
clear that they’re still willing to challenge themselves and
make unique, invigorating music. They just don’t feel the
need to freak out as much.
Ted Leo + Pharmacists, Radio 4, the Sixfifteens
again you guys really are proving yourselves,” Ted Leo said
at the start of his Friday night show at Valentine’s. I’d
never heard an Albany audience praised for its politeness
before, but Leo seemed surprised by the civil applause, sans
drunken shouting, that greeted his first few songs.
some music,” a guy then heckled, interrupting Leo mid-sentence.
Of course Leo, ever a down-to-earth and humble man, was able
to capture the perfect irony of the moment. “Thank you,” he
said with droll graciousness. “Thank you for reminding me
to play some music.”
The boyish Leo, wearing a navy polo buttoned to the neck Brit-style,
was a perfectionist, pausing in between songs to repeatedly
tune his guitar. The lean power-trio format of his band, the
Pharmacists, serves the songwriter’s brisk, modish-pop well;
however, it’s clearly Leo’s passion and hard work that carries
the weight of the band. Or at least his charisma, as bassist
Dave Lerner, who has wild hair but rarely cracks an expression,
and drummer Chris Wilson both seem content to lurk quietly
in the shadows.
Despite a pledge to play some “midtempo” music, Leo and the
Pharmacists sounded best on the rockers, especially those
from the politically oriented Shake the Sheets, Leo’s
latest album. An impassioned “Me and Mia” had fists raised
in the air, while “Biomusicology” from The Tyranny of Distance
was a blazing tour de force. “Counting Down the Hours” and
set closer “Shake the Sheets” are two of the most politically
potent and invigorating songs to have been written in years.
“Roll out and make your mark/Put on your boots and march,”
Leo sang on the latter, as sweat—partly from extreme heat,
partly from exertion—dripped from his face.
New York City band Radio 4, who combine slinky bass lines
and keyboards with slashing Gang of Four-like guitar and danceable
percussion (bongos, tambourines, shakers), played the night’s
second set. Although certain songs failed to shake the hips
as much as promised by the group’s rock-dance hybrid (which
is still far more rock than dance) the band’s final song,
and biggest hit, “Dance to the Underground,” was undeniably
catchy. Local rock band the Sixfifteens opened with a set
of sprawling guitars, angst-ridden lyrics and raucous drums,
as the band debuted a few tracks from their anticipated, but
not-yet-released, new recording.
Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson
Park, Pittsfield, Mass., June 23
I approached this show with more than the normal amount of
dread. It was the first big music show ever (as far as I can
tell) at Wahconah Park, a grand old baseball park built in
1892, stuck in the middle of a neighborhood on the north side
of Pittsfield. This is the baseball park the people wouldn’t
let the city, the banks and the newspaper tear down a few
years ago, and it’s now slated to be on the national register
of historic places. Could the park handle it? Could the neighborhood?
How were 10,000 people going to get in there?
Newspaper reports described Pittsfield as “bracing” for the
impending “hordes” that would “descend” onto the defenseless
and innocent hamlet. This was the biggest thing to happen
in Pittsfield since GE crapped the bed. The city is just starting
to recover from it in what could wind up being a nice renaissance,
and if this show was a disaster, the whole calculus could
be upset. There was some big money riding here, along with
a truckload of hopes and dreams.
And which Dylan would show up? I’ve seen him a couple of times
before, and found him incomprehensible and frustrating. I
realize that I like the idea of Bob Dylan much more
that the reality. And would Willie be there more than just
I was expecting a soul-deadening experience of traffic, crowds,
and heat. I figured North Street would be backed up to South
Street. I figured I’d get to the show late, tired and dirty,
to deal with a coin-toss show that I was no longer interested
As I drove into town at almost showtime, things took on an
eerie, dreamlike quality. There was, incredibly, no traffic—I
drove right to the front gate of Wahconah Park. Other than
cops directing what little traffic there was, the streams
of people, and a palpable electric hum in the air, this was
just another Thursday night. I parked a few blocks from the
stadium, got my ticket at the will-call window (no line),
went through the turnstile (no line), and grabbed a beer and
found the bathroom (no line, no line). It’s never this easy.
There were tons of folks, normal folks, old and new hippies,
bikers, and nervous-looking overdressed South County swells.
A huge stage was up against the center-field wall, and the
outfield was a sea of people. The grandstand and bleachers
were packed, although they were all fairly far from the stage.
I found a spot and some friends in short right field, just
as a guy came out with a big show-biz intro for “The Willie
Nelson Family Band!” The crowd roared, and then . . . nothing.
Five minutes later, folks started meandering onto the stage—a
perfect Willie moment. Willie ran his hits, ran Kristofferson’s
hits, ran Waylon’s hits. He sang great and actually played
some stinging guitar solos! Longtime compatriots Jody Payne
(guitar) and Mickey Raphael (harp) were both exceedingly sharp.
I don’t care if he phoned it in—the connection was clear.
I was grinning like a monkey. Looking around, I noticed that
about 10,000 other folks were all grinning like monkeys, too.
Even the cops, who had been circling around on the stadium
rock-show beat, were now standing in groups, watching Willie
on a lovely summer evening, and grinning like monkeys.
Dylan just plain rocked. Spending most of the night behind
a piano, wearing a white cowboy hat with turned-up sides,
he led a beefy band through a pile of songs. No matter that
half of them, at least, were unrecognizable versions of songs
you already knew. . . . The revised arrangements were crushingly
tight. Highway 61 was a full-tilt boogie; Chimes
of Freedom was a lovely country waltz. Dylan’s signing,
his phrasing, was alive with passion and urgency; where I’d
seen him before aloof and scattered, here he was focused like
a laser, and going straight for the throat. And 10,000 strong
rocked it all right back at him.