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Get the funk out: (l-r) Flea, Kiedis, Frusciante.

Bring on the Goons

By Bill Ketzer

Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Mars Volta

Pepsi Arena, Oct. 21

A sold-out Pepsi Arena is about as appealing to me as rock salt on road rash. The goons! Their faces a study in intellectual permafrost, the goons shuffled about like Boer goats in a live-animal market, willing to drop a 50-note on a few warm Coors Lights as openers the Mars Volta convulsed nonstop through what I think were two separate movements, both of them orgiastic daggers, improvisational ostinatos of funk, Latin jazz, and psychedelia. They had their appreciators, but the band’s impossibly textured offerings did not translate well into a large arena, the eight-piece cacophony sounding like the Syd Barrett Orchestra tuning up in a poppy field.

The minions detested it and booed them loudly for killing their buzz with, God forbid, something you can’t dance to. As with their weirdly illuminated backdrop (their latest CD art, actually, depicting several Mexican gentleman moving a gargantuan, partially-clothed baby without arms and stumps for feet) the uninitiated couldn’t decide whether this was a strange new species not quite adapted to life removed from Oceania, or some prehistoric life form ripped from the depths, long past its time and utility on earth.

By the time Frusciante, Smith and Flea took the stage as a trio to ease into the night with a saccharine little jam, a sweet and downy smog of dope hovered mid-arena, mingling with the perfume of 5,000-plus ladies who came to par-tay on stilted heels that would prove all too problematic for that walk back up State Street to the Nissan Titan later on (see previous comment about Coors Light). And it was well worth it, because from the moment Anthony Kiedis bounced out to a boiling “Can’t Stop,” the good-time boys simply blew up with one pretty little ditty after another, ripping the latest goods and services like “Hump de Bump” and “Tell Me Baby” to shreds in the-devil-may-care-but-I- certainly-don’t abandon. The notable exception was Kiedis himself, who kept his back to the crowd before finally hitting stride halfway through, stomping out his “Fortune Faded” in rain dances and pinching guitarist John Frusciante’s rear.

Frusciante didn’t need cajoling, for the man was a nonstop pillar of light and sound, channeling the gods over Flea’s rumble and bang, his scrubby chin the epitome of poise and grace, Stratocaster both death-dealer and peacemaker, negative and positive, feminine and masculine, darkness and light, superstition and science, pagan and divine, Punch and Judy. Whether goofing off with Flea (replete in Cirque du Soleil body suit) between songs with Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” or staggering us with some outlandish, soaring not-at-all-like-the-CD solos during wonder stuff like “21st Century” or “C’mon Girl,” the runner was untouchable.

And, of course, we got a slew of hits recent, past and present (insert your favorite pervasive and effervescent radio classic here), but by then all the pleasing scents that emboldened my spirits only an hour before had turned to pure ass, to oxygenated hops, oniony armpits and the sour sorrow of all sorts of other human effluent. But such are the costs of goon warfare.

Where Else are They Gonna Dance the Hora Onstage at a Rock Show?

Matisyahu, State Radio, Moshav

Washington Avenue Armory, Oct. 17

Last time I saw Hasidic reggae sing -er Matisyahu was at Savannah’s in December 2004. He had virtually no buzz at the time—that was all going to start very soon. It was a powerhouse, mesmerizing show, and it was my No. 1 show of the year. In the almost two years since then, Matisyahu has worked the jam-band circuit hard, released a so-so record (Youth), and has slowly but steadily grown a semi-fanatical following—and in some circles is being referred to as a superstar. He took a hard punch from New York Times writer Kalefa Seenah, who wrote a racist, possibly anti-Semitic piece of trash about Matisyahu and cultural appropriation that erased the little esteem I still had for the Times’ popular-music coverage, Jon Pareles notwithstanding.

Last Tuesday I took David Greenberger, who was with me at the first show, and a small posse of 14-year-old girls who dig Matisyahu. David expressed concern before the show that the magic we’d experienced in Savannah’s would be lost in a bigger venue.

It wasn’t. The thick bass (bass player Josh Werner is extraordinary) filled the room with a physical, pleasant presence, and the slightly expanded band (a keyboardist and a percussionist were added to the quartet) filled the larger stage nicely and created a noise that was joyful, infectious, immediate, and not susceptible to ever being captured on a recording. The group sounded fabulous, with steady, dub grooves, played with restraint and fury, as the best reggae always is.

Matisyahu, perhaps the oddest personage in the rock world since Ziggy Stardust, commands the big stage, with confident moves that took him from the lip of the stage to the top of the speaker racks to a perch behind the drummer. His gesturing and the crowd’s response to him suggested the sort of unspoken bond with an audience only a very few performers can achieve. Springsteen comes to mind. So does Ani DiFranco. Halfway through the show, joined by another young Hasidic, he danced the Hora over a rock-steady beat, while the crowd howled in ecstasy. The dancing could have been taking place in a European shetl in the 1700s, while the music was 21st- century electric Jamaican. It was something to see.

Which reminds me to mention the lighting. It was a fabulously lit show, simple but mind-blowing at the same time. The machine-gun pinspots that framed Matisyahu during his ridiculous (that is, good ridiculous) beat-box routine in the encore were simply stunning.

The decent-sized crowd was a fairly even split between collegiate hippies and a multigenerational cross section of the local Jewish community. And everybody seemed ex tremely pleased by the gig, to say the least, from the thoughtful orthodox rabbis to my gaggle of 14-year-old girls, who unanimously proclaimed it “the best show ever.” Go figure.

The first openers, Israeli jammers Moshav, put on a great and tight groove-based set, driven by guest monstro-drummer and fellow Israeli Karen Teperberg. The second openers, Boston’s State Radio, should have gone on first; their apparently politically charged songs (the lyrics were indecipherable above the din) were unremarkable, even a little stale.

—Paul Rapp

A Little Bit of Ecstacy

Wussy, Lonesome Brothers

The Ale House, Oct. 21

Take a band, put them on a well-appointed stage in a classy theater, raise the curtain, and shoot the spotlights through the misted air while a half-dozen crew members tend to monitors, house sound, untuned guitars and any possible breakdown (mechanical, technological or human). It’s a winning formula, ensuring that the concert experience is underscored and elevated in every possible way and that nothing can go wrong. This is intricately choreographed smoke-and- mirrors reserved for those in positions of commercial ascendancy and power.

Wussy, the new band from former Ass Ponys leader Chuck Cleaver, created a night of powerful magic last Saturday, made all the more potent because of the utterly spartan setting in which it took place. The list of what the Ale House in Troy offers to performers and audiences is one word long: intimacy. There is no stage, just tables cleared from one corner and a portable floodlight clamped to the ceiling. These four musicians transformed the room; the rest of the world disappeared and nothing else mattered. That’s how good they are. It’s not about dazzle, rather integrity and commitment. They were more raw than on Funeral Dress, their stunning debut release from last year, which they played nearly in its entirety. Lisa Walker sang most of the songs, and her clean, unvibratoed timbres cut across the luscious din and tumult like a bird flying over a locomotive. Her guitar parts meshed with Cleaver’s for a sound that’s one of the keys to this band’s alluring identity. And when Cleaver would add his harmony to Walker’s voice, it would create moods that slipped between elation and melancholy with mysterious grandeur.

Before bringing the night to a close with a cover of the Beatles’ “It’s All Too Much” (with the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” folded into it), Wussy played the song that also closes their album, “Don’t Leave Just Now.” Its hypnotically prayerful coda, circling ever higher, lifted the room off its foundation, floating us all into the midnight clouds.

The evening was opened by the Lonesome Brothers. The western-Massachusetts trio are built upon the songwriting strengths of guitarist Jim Armenti and bass player Ray Mason. Now in their 20th year, they play with casual authority, making their considerable skills seem as natural as falling leaves. They alternate between the two singers, and the mix is bracing: Country, Merseybeat, rockabilly, swing and blues bubble together into a fine rock & roll combo.

—David Greenberger

Don’t Wait Too Long

Madeleine Peyroux

The Egg, Oct. 21

In the world of pop-culture icono graphy, Madeleine Peyroux is to Billie Holiday as Harry Connick Jr. is to Frank Sinatra. It may seem trite, but comparing them to their progenitors takes nothing away from the youngsters—Holiday and Sinatra never had the instrumental gifts that their contempo versions possess, for one. Connick and Peyroux transcend nostalgia (well, more often than not) by taking a classic sound and striving to make it more than just a well-studied homage.

The 33-year-old Peyroux seems the more adventurous of the two, and her willingness to flout conventional standards helps her stand out from the other supper-club heroines of the day (Diana Krall and arch-rival Norah Jones). She took the Hart Theatre stage looking more like a hippie mama than a jazzer, her voice surprisingly raspier in person (I have the sneaking suspicion that she was baked, but, hey, Holiday loved the weed too). Acoustic guitar in hand, Peyroux and her band (bass, drums and keys) kicked off with the first of three jazzed-up Leonard Cohen selections. “Blue Alert,” with the lecherous lines “Another night of nakedness/You even touch yourself/You’re such a flirt,” paved the way for “Don’t Wait Too Long,” a crafty, swinging original that pleased with surprising but smooth key modulations. Peyroux was feeling frisky, giving grunts of satisfaction while Michael Kanan made like Lonnie Liston Smith, bopping along through well-played but otherwise unremarkable solos on his Fender Rhodes. Peyroux’s voice was strongest on the next two tunes, her usually languid vocals gaining gale force on Bessie Smith’s “Don’t Cry, Baby” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

After a while, when every cover is given the same sort of torch-song reading, a show lives or dies by the songs selected. For every charming or inspired choice, (Chaplin’s “Smile” and Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night”) there were the warhorses that should be put out to pasture (“Walkin’ After Midnight” and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”).

Another aspect of the show that Peyroux might want to work on is her stage patter. She mentioned quite a few times her affinity for Manhattan and Paris with a pretentious “Ah, you wouldn’t understand” air that lessened her otherwise endearingly goofy charm. She repeated “I like upstate New York,” as if trying to convince not so much the audience but herself. At one point, she even pointed out to us that New York is what some people call a “blue” state. If there’s one thing this provincial backwater knows, it’s where our state sits on the politico-culture divide. At least give the country cousins from Upper Appalachia some credit.

—Mike Hotter

A Dull Display

Kronos Quartet

Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, Mass., Oct. 20

First off, you do want to go to the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield to see something. I can only describe it the way everybody else has: a jewel box. It’s gorgeous, it’s tiny (810 seats), it sparkles, and the acoustics are fabulous.

The Kronos Quartet in a place like this? What’s not to like?

Well, a flat performance and a surprisingly thin audience, for two things.

It was disappointing, because Kronos continue, after 30 years, to be a remarkably positive and ground-breaking force in modern music. But Friday night, even in the idyllic, intimate, and newly spiffed-up space, things never seemed to get warm.

Part of the problem was Kronos’ increasing dependence on taped accompaniment for many of their pieces. Especially on what should have been the thrilling banner work of the evening, Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” the prerecorded string parts, played through relatively small speakers sitting on either side of the musicians on the stage, were static and lifeless, and essentially brought the entire piece down.

Part of the problem was the program. The first set featured three selections from Kronos’ latest album, arrangements of songs from the Bollywood soundtracks of Rahul Dev Burman. Interesting on paper, maybe, but let’s face it: These are throwaway songs from throwaway, assembly-line films; snippets of beauty and inspiration, but little more. A stab at 1970s Iraqi pop music wasn’t much more interesting. And all of it was plagued by the use of stolid prerecorded tracks.

Of course, there were fun points. The opening romp through John Zorn’s cartoony “Cat ’O Nine Tails” was exhilarating, and the post-intermission piece, Argentinean-born composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “Tenebrae,” was cerebral and pleasurably pensive.

The encores were the highlight of the evening, never a good sign: a Sigur Rós cover (also the highlight of their 2003 performance at the Egg) and an electrifying reconstruction of Hendrix’s Woodstock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But the bloom had already fallen off the rose, and there was nothing left to do but to go home.

—Paul Rapp

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