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The Sonic Limit
By Bill Ketzer

Great Day for Up, We’re All Gonna Die, Small Axe

Valentine’s, Dec. 16

If given the choice between deafness and blindness, most would choose blindness. But the journey into deafness can be so sweet. Great Day for Up, with screamer Mike Langone and guitarist Mike Vitali at the helm, pluck deafness from the vine and devour it, the juices running down their bestubbled profiles as the band’s overpowering display of amplification, stripped and writhing, makes the ringing of my telephone the following day sound like someone drawing a bath.

Friday night saw the celebration of GDFU’s astounding Flores de Sangre CD, and indeed this show was for all in need of heavy sport, a perfect example of all that is correct, astute and white-hot in this fair city’s small music community. Not one for acrobatics, Langone simply clasps the mic and howls, his body merely a vessel for each neural blast, clamoring before a force large enough to cause a cranial fissure, jumbling the electrode sequence to allow the volume to be that much more fragrant in all those special cavities of the flesh we covet like ramen during natural disasters. It’s a buzz, a grinding richness that habituates the senses even as they are threatened with extinction by the deadliest rhythm section they’ve ever known (bassist Brendan Slater and new drummer Jim Feck). These fellows have been known to implement dynamics at times, subtle interplay that lends a sort of poetic stoner credibility to their ability to move purple mountain majesty with their might, but the set on Friday was just one big continuous crescendo, flawlessly executed until it became physically impossible for Vitali to continue, the stings of his poor axe plucked free from the neck and dangling like spent willows. The new disc was played almost in its entirety, with “Deme Su Coolo,” “Check This Out” and “To the Limit” being the outstanding takes of the night, in addition to classics from last year’s split with Solace.

Speaking of beards, Boston’s We’re All Gonna Die look like ZZ Top on steroids, but what you get is a more fierce propulsion, a fiery rumble of unapologetic rawk from the Big Dig. Singer-guitarist Jim Healey knows that loud pipes save lives, and his are surprisingly akin to Chris Cornell’s piercing, harmonious resonance, but in the form of a cry from a man being mashed to scrap by the Death Star’s trash compactor. The high end of his voice goes hoarse at all the right times, lending a sense of urgency to an already fast-moving train. Staggering breakdowns and a swollen infusion of hardcore make this the stuff of legend. And the sound is clean. “Evil Red,” and the awesome “Paper Asshole” were like gleaming carcasses picked spotless by wild dogs on the African veldt, subsequently blasted into the cosmos by direct meteor strike. This fine trio are brought to us from Underdogma Records, who are also responsible for bringing the unsuspecting and terror-filled minions the likes of Roadsaw and Alabama Thunderpussy.

Small Axe have always been successful at traversing a sort of threadbare tightrope between disjointed, quixotic hippy-sheen rock and a bombastic dedication—however unintentional—to the Detroit-style rock of the late ’60s to early ’70s. They aren’t easily pigeonholed, and they can electrify the right crowd on the right night, while causing disbelievers to make a beeline for the door a la Struction. There is power in this capability, but this night the performance (especially that of guitarist D. J. Miller) was somewhat flat and uninspired despite a great selection of tunes. Interestingly, the band played very little from the new Public Thief CD, opting instead for the early quirky greatness of “Stealing Oxygen” and the apotropaic “Confess.” What little gas the band had in the tank burned up during a 15-minute delay when Kelly Murphy’s bass head blew. A shame all around, because Murphy is a splendid addition to the band.

I missed the opener, Grey Sky Sunday. But frankly, my cochlea would not have withstood yet another heinous pounding. I heard they were good. Apologies. I used to hate when reviewers did that to me. I have become the enemy in so many impossible ways.

This Shit Was Bananas

Gwen Stefani

Turning Stone, Dec. 14

One of the more audacious transformations in the last year was married, 30-something Gwen Stefani reinventing herself as a teenager. There was the ubiquitous—and superfantastic—cheerleader chant “Hollaback Girl,” which brought the schoolyard beatdown back to pop music and proved, again, that any song with a marching band is automatically great. More to the point, her debut solo album had not one, but two songs about backseat banging.

Judging from the audience at Stefani’s recent slam-bam concert in Verona, she convinced the kids; the teenage (girl) contingent enthusiastically accepted her as one of their own. Backed by a five-piece band featuring bassist-singer Gail Ann Dorsey (who’s played with everyone from Bowie to Jane Siberry to Donny Osmond), and accessorized by the four Harijuku girls, Stefani obviously enjoyed herself as she performed a couple of new tunes, every song on Love.Angel.Music.Baby—and nothing from her decade in No Doubt.

The hiphop crossover hits (“Luxurious,” “Rich Girl”) coexisted peacefully with the ’80s-music smorgasbord this quintessentially ’80s girl loves. There was the New Order clone “The Real Thing,” poptart-perky “Cool,” and the hard- rocking, Siouxsie-esque “What You Waiting For.” The André 3000-penned ode to racial tolerance, “Long Way to Go,” was as unmoving as it is on disc, but “Bubble Pop Electric” kept its herky-jerky charm, and “Crash” had a Lauper-like swagger and sense of sexual urgency.

This was good, old-fashioned fun music, though the often rank side of contemporary girlpop did raise its self-hating face: It’s doubtful that Siouxsie Sioux would ever refer to herself as a “stupid hoe.”

For showbiz enthusiasts, Stefani and the Harijukus did the requisite number of costume changes. “Love,” “Angel,” “Music” and “Baby”—yes, the four Japanese girls were creepily introduced by their fake names—were good dancers, but were upstaged by the head-spinning, breakdancing dudes. (As noted, Stefani loves the ’80s even more than VH1 does.)

“Hollaback Girl”—what else?—was the one (and only) encore. Dorsey, the drummer and two keyboardists strapped on assorted marching-band percussion and led the parade, followed by the pom-pom-shaking Harijuku girls and Stefani in a sexed-up drum-major uniform. Joined by a select group of girls from the crowd, they created an instant, and ecstatic, high-school pep rally: “b-a-n-a-n-a-s,” indeed. The arena shook, and whatever gods watch over cheerleaders looked down from the bleachers in the great gymnasium in the sky, and were pleased.

Ciara, accompanied by a DJ and a complement of dancers, opened. The dancing was, as expected, professional. Maybe if Ciara wins one of those Grammys she’s nominated for, her label will spring for a band next time.

—Shawn Stone

For the Ladies

Bon Jovi

Pepsi Arena, Dec. 12

Bon Jovi, in what are likely their waning years (more on that later), are on a quest for relevance. How else to explain their recent reach for the teen-angst crowd? “It’s My Life,” a P.C. variation on “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” and the recent, identical “Have a Nice Day” are what we’ve come to expect from the veteran rockers: moderate pop-rock, with the edges sanded down and buffed to a ProTools shine. But those songs have been successful at attracting an audience that would otherwise have known Bon Jovi only from throwing up to the sound of “You Give Love a Bad Name” at frat parties; in that, they’re more relevant than, say, Pearl Jam.

Of course, this band never had a problem filling arenas, because they’ve retained a vital segment of their original fanbase: women. As long as that hair is perfect and those teeth are still white as snow, there will be asses in the seats. So, at the Pepsi Arena last month, overlooking a sea of frosted hair, Jon Bon Jovi made a direct appeal to those responsible for his band’s longevity: “Women rule the world,” he smiled, explaining away the can’t-live-without-you tune “Novocaine.” It was a game attempt at riling up the audience; they were already very much in the palm of his hand.

The vast majority of the sold-out crowd shouted back every word on both the classics (the titular Bon Jovi, whose voice has suffered in recent years, barely had to sing a note of “Livin’ on a Prayer”) and the newer “Complicated” and “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” both of which sounded an awful lot like the aforementioned classics. Maybe that’s why Bon Jovi are still relevant: They’re still the same guys, writing the same songs they wrote 20 years ago, songs about stuff people can relate to. Anyone who’s ever had a hard time scraping together rent money can identify with Tommy and Gina. Jon’s just like any one of us: When the world gets in his face, he says, “Have a nice day.” Then, he gets on his helicopter.

But, again, this tour looked and sounded more like a victory lap than a manifesto. Three auxiliary members—including a second keyboard player!—were on hand to beef up the band’s sound and vocal presence. This allowed for maximum showboating, up close and personal, from the main man. (Richie Sambora, one of rock’s great foils, opted to let his underrated playing do the talking.) Small groups of adoring females pawed at Bon Jovi’s gold trousers from railed-off areas at stageside, and for “Blaze of Glory” and “Bed of Roses,” he even sang from a small platform near the arena’s center. The latter number should have been a low point—it’s weak as Bon Jovi ballads go, and the yonic rose on the screen behind the rest of the band was laughable—but, for the lucky ladies who were able to steal kisses as Bon Jovi worked his way up the aisle, it was heaven.

Speaking of heaven, long-running local act Wetwerks opened the show with a well-received 35-minute set of tight, alternative-radio rock that alternately resembled Hoobastank (bad) and the poppier side of Cave In (good).

—John Brodeur

Overheard

“Only the roar of Kong is louder.”

—scraggly, anonymous patron at the Great Day for Up show with a Newcastle Brown in hand.


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