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Yes, I made you wait an hour for this: Me'Shell Ndege'cello at the Egg.

photo:Joe Putrock

Spirit Lost
By Paul Rapp

Me’Shell Ndege’cello, Joshua Redman

The 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.

Redman 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.

Grown-Ass Men

Modest Mouse

Pines 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.

—John Brodeur

Marching Orders

Ted Leo + Pharmacists, Radio 4, the Sixfifteens

Valentine’s, June 24

“Once 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.

“Play 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.

—Kirsten Ferguson

Above and Beyond

Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson

Wahconah 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 in body?

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 in.

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. Ever.

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.

—Paul Rapp

 

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