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Into the son: Sean Lennon at the Egg.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Who’s That Guy?

By John Brodeur

Sean Lennon, Women and Children, Kamila Thompson

The Egg, April 10

Nobody wants to be “that guy.” You know: the superfan, the one who wears the band’s T-shirt to the band’s concert, who shouts out names of obscure B-sides at a concert as if it’s going to win him a merit badge.

And on Tuesday night, at Sean Lennon’s Albany debut, there was a palpable sensitivity to the possibility of being over-reverential—in a fashion. There were the silver-haired 50-somethings who turned up because of a familiar surname. There was the 20-something girl in the Beatles sweatshirt. (“It’s my only sweatshirt!” she promised.) There was guitarist Cameron Greider, whose rig consisted of a very Ed Sullivan-era Beatles pairing: Epiphone Casino guitar and Vox amplifier.

Then there was Lennon himself. On his 1998 debut, Into the Sun, John and Yoko’s kid was in try-anything-once mode, which spoke more to the times than it did to his persona. (To wit: Cornelius was popular that year.) But last year’s follow-up, Friendly Fire, had a more refined sound; a collection of clever, baroque pop in the adult-alternative mode. Lennon’s current sound is most similar to that of the late Elliott Smith—which is to say his sound references that of his dad’s old band. In a strange, nepotistic way, he is “that guy.”

But if anyone’s allowed such a license to homage, it’s Sean Lennon, and he’s developed into a songwriter with a keen sense of what makes a song click. Tuesday, he and his “lovely” band re-created the 10 songs from Friendly Fire (plus a few others) with expertise and nuance, before a mostly full Swyer Theater audience that was polite and, yes, reverential—but the reverence was for the man himself, not the man who made him. The most “that guy” he got was on “Wait for Me,” a scary dead ringer for “I’m Only Sleeping”; that song also brought the most enthusiastic crowd response, with folks young and old clapping along to the song’s buoyant strum—perhaps out of familiarity? (Thankfully, nobody shouted out any actual Beatles titles, although one misguided heckler called for “Listen to What the Man Said.”)

Immediately striking was Lennon’s voice: a high, rich tenor, stronger and more palatable than on record, where it often sounds effete and inconsequential. And the band was top-notch, with Lennon on acoustic guitar (his occasional electric leads were competent and tasty), longtime musical partner Yuka Honda on keyboards (and serving as “musical director”), studio vets Brad Albetta (bass) and Bill Dobrow (drums), and Grieder on guitar. Greider, who played sideman to Freedy Johnston for many years, proved his worth early, turning in a gorgeous slide lick on set opener “Spectacle”; he also chipped in most of the night’s vocal harmonies.

But it was the scruffy, bespectacled Lennon people came to see, and if anyone was hoping for him to emulate his old man, he did—in his handling of the aforementioned heckler, at least. When the drunk in the rear of the theater shouted out an obscure Guided by Voices song title, Lennon, in a soft-spoken, peace-loving-hippie tone, addressed him back: “I think there’s some distance between us. . . . But it’s love. It’s just love, man.”

Kamila Thompson opened the evening with a pleasant 30-minute set, with a voice that sounded like a 50-50 blend of her parents, Richard and Linda. And while “pleasant” is probably what middle act Women and Children were shooting for, they came up with “atrocious.” Their rudimentary instrumentation and simple, plaintive melodic construction had a madrigal quality, but it was presented rec-room style with band members shuffling on and off the stage, a drummer who looked too bored (or stoned, or both) to hold down a beat, and very-pregnant singer Cheryl June Serwa employing an unsettling voice effect that sounded like a harsh autotune. Were they on heroin? Was it comedy? Who cares: If it sucks, it sucks.

The Best Gothic-Chamber-Rock Trio Ever

Rasputina

WAMC Performing Arts Studio, April 9

“You may or may not be able to tell, but we’re well-trained classical musicians. We only play rock music to fit in,” said vocalist Melora Creager. Creager was deadpanning, as usual, but the introduction, to a full-throttle, dual-cello interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll,” is as good a description of her band Rasputina as any. One of the most unique and eccentric bands to emerge out of the alternative-rock invasion of the 1990s, the New York City trio have been serenely flying in the face of conventional music-making and -marketing to follow their own faux-Victorian-era muse, parlaying a quirky hybrid of goth, pop and chamber music that is distinguished by Creager’s bizarrely droll lyrics and stage patter. The band may be an acquired taste, but once hooked, it seems, fans remain cozily within Rasputina’s fold: The trio’s return to the WAMC Performing Arts Studio was another sold-out engagement.

As Creager promised, the hourlong set was composed of old favorites, covers, and newer material. Her longtime co-cellist, Zoe Keating, left the band recently to pursue a career composing soundtracks, but Keating’s replacement, who was introduced simply as “Laura,” was almost indistinguishable in style, ably accompanying Creager on her haunting and occasionally strident flights of melodic whimsy. Among the covers was a sigh-infested rip through “Barracuda”—though not quite as catchy as the band’s early club hit, a storm-tossed reinvention of Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” it did showcase the trio’s fearless versatility. As did their renditions of vintage chamber pieces, especially a beautifully forlorn chantey about heartbreak that included the sassy refrain of “Don’t worry girls, that’s what God made sailors for.”

Speaking of God, Creager is blessed with a voice that is tailor-made for keening cellos and art-rock phrasing: Her lovely vibrato holds up for extended warbling (a haunting “Signs of the Zodiac”) while her eerie upper register easily accommodates the twisty pitches of her more florid songwriting (“Transylvanian Concubine” and “Secret Message”). And her between-songs quips and anecdotes were worth the price of admission alone: “Watch TV” was introduced with a satirical description of a theological “fight to the death in the afterlife” between Michael Landon and Herve Villechaize.

Just as important as the cellos to Rasputina’s darkly lush harmonies was percussionist Jonathan Tebeest, whose subtle drumming atmospherically utilized snares to timpani to wooden cowbells, all the while maintaining a lightly martial backbeat that appropriately evoked a 19th- century promenade. Creager’s fashion sense is also part of the show; she and Laura were fetchingly dressed in elegant approximations of Victoriana paper fashion dolls. Their demure attire, and even more demure posture behind their instrument, added another frisson of absurdity to Creager’s sharp wordplay.

“Perhaps you find us . . . unpredictable?” the chanteuse warmly responded after a round of applause. Unpredictable and, as far as gothic-chamber-rock trios go, utterly unsurpassed.

—Ann Morrow


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