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Dress-up dolls: (l-r) Palmer and Viglione at the Egg.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Willkommen, Kids
By Shawn Stone

The Dresden Dolls

The Egg, April 9

When Boston’s Dresden Dolls arrived on the scene, they seemed too good to be true. Taking their shtick from one of the most overused 20th-century musical-cultural settings, Weimar-era, cabaret-style decadence, they put a fresh spin on it by combining it with—of all things—teenage angst and feminist anger.

It helped that singer-songwriter- keyboardist Amanda Palmer and drummer (and ocassional guitarist) Brian Viglione understood that good Weimar cabaret is showbiz, and showbiz, however decadent, is supposed to be fun. She put on a bustier and snapped on her garters, he hitched up his suspenders and donned his bowler, and they both painted their faces white: good times.

Two years after their debut album made its splash, the Dresden Dolls came to the Egg for a show a week before the release of their follow-up, Yes, Virginia. The kids were ready: A good portion of the audience wore the appropriate Weimar drag, and there was face-painting in the Hart Theater lobby for those who felt left out.

The Dolls did not disappoint. As with another famous duo who create a big sound (the White Stripes), there wasn’t a single moment when another musical component was missed: The keyboard and drums were plenty. Beginning with the sexual sarcasm of “Missed Me,” the Dolls pleased the crowd with old favorites like the salacious (and hilarious) “Coin Operated Boy,” the mopey (but not too mopey) “Good Day,” and the angry mania of “Girl Anachronism.” The new tunes were equally strong.

Some of the encores were strange, and strangely revealing. Palmer explained that their new light designer had convinced her to cover Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” She did a commendable job on it, but the song seemed out of place. Cohen’s sensibility is, well, too mature for them. On the other hand, the Dolls’ version of Carole King’s “Pierre” (from Really Rosie), about a boy whose entire philosophy can be summed up in the phrase (sung here by Viglione) “I don’t care,” was one of the show’s highlights.

It may have taken the popular klezmer-rock band Golem three songs to be presented correctly—neither vocalist Aaron Diskin nor the trumpet could be heard at all at first—but they had the audience with them from the first note of “Black Cat, White Cat.”

Golem are the perfect balance of music and personality. The sound is stripped-down klezmer with elements of rock & roll, but remains resolutely ethnic and beguiling. (Most of the lyrics are in Yiddish.)

Leader Annette Ezekial, who sings and plays accordion, is 15 kinds of charismatic; Diskin is an engaging clown; and Alicia Jo Rabins is a flat-out virtuoso on the violin. When Ezekial introduced one song by noting that it was a “thank you” to one’s parents, the angst-nation audience didn’t respond; when, midsong, Diskin translated a line Ezekial sang as “Mother, thank you for fucking father,” the kids got it. (Even though we all guessed that it probably wasn’t a literal translation.) The Dresden Dolls’ Palmer even came out to sing lead—partly in Yiddish, no less—on one number. She’s game, all right.

Openers Reverend Glasseye favored dirgy waltzes alternated with fast-paced, almost rockabilly songs. They need to bring as bit of finesse to the dirges. Despite their name, the songwriting revealed an unfavorable attitude toward the ideas of Jesus Christ. The five-piece combo set the tone for the evening by also featuring an acoustic bassist in an otherwise traditional rock lineup.

What a Pisser

R. Kelly

Palace Theatre, April 5

We’re not even going to go there. Dave Chappelle already took care of that. If the audience at the Palace last Wednesday had been made up primarily of teenage girls, there would be something to go on, but the audience skewed older. In fact, the only negative points at the Albany stop of Robert Kelly’s hugely entertaining (and funny!) Light It Up tour were its poor pacing (more on that later), and that there wasn’t an official counter logging Kelly’s air-humps (which he must have done at least 50 times).

This was an R. Kelly fan’s R. Kelly show—especially if the fan has a particularly short attention span. Once Kelly made it to the stage (in a suit outlined with lights, but 40 minutes late), he led his four-piece band and three backing vocalists through a barrage of hooks and song fragments that played like a disjointed medley; only after 20 minutes did it become obvious that this would be the tone for the show’s first half. Most songs were abandoned in less than two minutes, which allowed him to touch on nearly all of his hits (including “Ignition,” “Bump and Grind,” “Down Low,” and dozens more) but never totally settle into a groove. But Kelly, who dubbed himself “Mr. Showbiz” for this tour, is a real performer; he kept the show light and entertaining, even when it threatened to stall out. And he was in fine voice, which is very important when you’re singing lyrics like “Girl, I’m ready to toss your salad.”

The first half came loaded with single entendres, a solid hour of songs about fucking, some of the stupidest songs ever written, with the most unsubtle lyrics since Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew. It’s an inspired stupidity, though—Kelly displayed a childlike joy when performing these songs, especially during an a cappella song called “The Zoo,” on which he minted the term “sexasaurus” (he also sang odes to “sex weed” and “Planet Sex”). And he used some of the more ridiculous moments (there were many, mind you) as jumping off points for his unique brand of comic theater—vignettes, if you will, that featured Kelly passing out after a vigorous air-hump, text-messaging a booty call (“The reason why I text you is because I want to call and sex you”—now that’s some greeting-card poetry), and leading his band through a Phantom of the Opera-esque coda on “Feelin’ on Yo Booty.”

It wasn’t all aces, though. Throughout the evening, Kelly would inexplicably leave the stage for minutes at a time, and opening the show’s second half by acting out three chapters off the Trapped in a Closet saga bordered on self-sabotage. It’s obvious, as anyone who caught the commentary track on the Trapped DVD can attest, that Kelly considers it to be his piece de resistance, but the audience response was lukewarm at best. Following that, two female dancers performed to a five-minute medley of current (non-Kelly) R&B-radio hits. By the time Kelly returned to the stage, decked out in a white suit and do-rag for a handful of tamer tunes (“Happy People,” “Step in the Name of Love”), a noticeable portion of the audience was headed toward the exits. Discounting the second act and a few other occasional slow spots, however, Kelly turned in a masterful, hilarious performance—something I never thought I’d say about the composer of “I Like the Crotch on You.”

—John Brodeur

A Modern Crooner

Michael Bublé

Palace Theatre, April 7

“I am an entertainer.”

No one could have summed up Michael Bublé as well as he did himself (albeit while he was explaining why he won’t talk politics). An entertainer, for sure, and a talented one at that. With his boyish egoism and chosen selection of music, Bublé has tapped into two markets that are seemingly on the opposite ends of the spectrum: the young and the old. He’s got everyone from the 20-something female contingency to much more mature audiences wrapped around his little finger. He’s a dreamy Canadian crooner who has tapped into the nostalgia of the big-band and swing musical era. What more can you ask for? Well, I’ll tell you.

While Bublé’s performance was charming, it was obvious that the point was not the music. His voice is silky smooth, and he employs it deftly. He effortlessly rattled through about a dozen or so standards he’s becoming renowned for covering (Google “Come Fly With Me” or “Feelin’ Good,” and you’re just as likely to find Web sites about Bublé as you would Sinatra or Simone), and he did a couple funny, accurate impressions (Johnny Cash and Michael Jackson) and a couple Motown tunes (including Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “How Sweet It Is”). The songs were secondary, though, to, well, him. The way Bublé bantered and grinned and danced (well, shimmied) was impressive, but the actual songs lacked any sort of enthusiasm about the songs. The exception came when he gave a genuine, beautiful performance of his radio hit (which he co-wrote), “Home,” pointing out that though he won’t talk politics, he wanted to acknowledge that many of his fans have written to him about the poignancy of that song during wartime.

Bublé engaged his spectators every step of the way, telling fun jokes, flirting with audience members, tossing sweatrags into the hands of eager girls, and running into the balcony so that the concert goers who couldn’t see him quite clearly enough could get a better look at the wonder that is Michael Bublé. He allowed the audience to do pretty much whatever they wanted: Take pictures (with flash!), dance, rush the stage. . . . And the adoring audience ate it up, along with yours truly.

With all that said about the guy whose name’s on the marquee, let’s move on to the rest of the talent—the amazing array of hand-selected jazz musicians (“the best jazz players in the U.S.,” Bublé boasted). Of course, the introductions of the killer nine-member horn section were less than clear, but I did catch the piano player-music director’s name (who also happens to be the other coauthor of “Home”), Alan Chang. Drummer Robert Perkins also gave a stunning performance—and a good thing, too: His parents were in the audience for the first time.

—Kathryn Lurie

An Old-School Bluesman

John Hammond

Caffe Lena, April 7

In the mid-1960s, a young John Hammond Jr., the son of the famed Columbia Records A&R man, had his sights set on music stardom, but it was not to be. He had a gig at the Café Au Go-Go in his native Greenwich Village fronting a band that included Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, but both sidemen left to become rock icons. Then he hired a hot group out of Canada, the Hawks, consisting of Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm, but as soon as they hit New York City, Bob Dylan stole them away and they later became the Band. After a few further unsuccessful attempts to get bigtime airplay, Hammond returned to his first love: fingerpicking country blues guitar, augmented by rack-mounted harmonica and topped with his incredibly convincing singing. In a brief interview before his late set at a full Caffe Lena last Friday, Hammond, now 64, hinted that he hadn’t made the kind of money he would have had things panned out as he had hoped, but his loss has for decades now been the acoustic-music world’s gain. When he took the stage soon thereafter, he proved once again that he is one of the undisputed masters of the folk blues.

Hammond’s approach has long been one of taking songs from any period of the blues and even rock material (he released an entire album of Tom Waits songs—Wicked Grin—in 2001) and either partially or completely creating his own guitar accompaniments. Thus his cover of an early Rolling Stones tune, “Spider and the Fly,” sounded like it could have been played in the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s. On the other hand, he began his version of a Robert Johnson classic from that time, “Kind Hearted Woman,” by following Johnson’s complex guitar part, and then breaking away to improvise lead lines high up the neck like the rock player he once aspired to be. The results in each case were killer.

The slender, bushy-haired bluesman led off with an ode to an automobile, “Slick Crown Vic,” that he said had been his first original song in 42 years, thumping away on the bass strings while wildly racing around the reeds of the harmonica and then singing like his life depended on it. Next he played a slow blues from the early 1950s by Muddy Waters sideman Jimmy Rogers, “That’s Allright,” setting up some intriguing call-and-response phrasing between his guitar and harmonica by soloing on the harp during the long notes of his guitar part and vice versa. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s funereal “One Kind Favor” was mesmerizing in his hands, as was the Dylanesque imagery in his cover of Tom Waits’ “Gun Street Girl.”

A couple of songs didn’t fare as well, though: Hammond’s hard-driving picking on Blind Boy Fuller’s “Step It Up and Go” overpowered the Piedmont blues classic, and he played Skip James’ ghostly “Hard Time Killing Floor” on a badly out-of-tune steel-bodied guitar. When he started singing, though, those peccadilloes could be forgiven. Hammond closed with a dazzling slide- guitar showpiece, Son House’s “Preaching Blues.”

Opening were Glen Falls bottleneck blues stalwart Mark Tolstrup and also Pat Wictor, who played the acoustic guitar lap-style like a dobro. The pair took turns performing original songs, Tolstrup’s showing a marked Delta blues influence, and Wictor’s ranging from more generally rootsy to contemporary folk.

—Glenn Weiser


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