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A Funny guy: Hay at Club Helsinki.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Not-So-Grumpy Old Men

By John Brodeur

Colin Hay

Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., May 6

Michael Penn

Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., May 3

A wise man once said, “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got.” Or maybe that was the guy that sang the theme from Cheers. Regardless, it’s a stone fact for the career musician: You’re lucky if you get one hit; after that, you could spend the rest of your performing days either chasing another or living it down.

Colin Hay (the “Down Under” guy) and Michael Penn (the “Romeo in black jeans” guy) both visited western Massachusetts this week, separately, with varying takes on their respective histories. But while the past was peripherally present throughout each performance, neither artist was fixed on revisiting the bygone decade that yielded their most successful works; in turn, both delivered terrifically efficient and enjoyable sets.

Hay (who, coincidentally, once sang the Cheers theme on an episode of Scrubs) had a string of big hits with his former band (Men at Work) although none quite matched the pop-cultural ubiquity of the Vegemite-sandwich song. He knows this. To be fair, he did try to hang with a machine that was finished with him through the late ’80s, but he’s been a free agent since 1991—willingly or not. And although he jokes that it’s “not enough,” he’s carved out a living for himself that keeps him working, and happy.

On Sunday at Club Helsinki, to a sold-out crowd, he talked about his unique path. He also talked about his parents. And about aging (he’s 53). And about his old band, America, pot (his old band, he revealed, “liked the weed”), and what it might be like to go to Costco with Bob Dylan. Hay took to the stage with a, er, Dylanesque song called “What Would Bob Do?”, then proceeded to tell stories for close to 10 minutes before getting around to another tune.

This is not a problem. Colin Hay is a funny dude, and he has a deep well of stories to pull from. He knows this. He knows how to pace a live show, too—after doing the song-story-song-story rotation for the first part of his 90-minute set, the evening’s second half settled into a more consistent groove. Hay is easily as funny as Henry Rollins, and has better songs—how come he doesn’t have his own show?

Joined for much of the set by his wife, salsoul bandleader Cecilia Noël, Hay mixed stripped-down revisions of his old band’s big hits—“Who Can It Be Now?” took on a dark, claustrophobic feel; on “Down Under,” Noël mimicked the tune’s signature flute solo with her voice—with tunes from his now-lengthy solo career, all quite good save for the new album’s speak-singy title track, which relied on a forced call-and-response with the audience to get across. Highlights: the wistful “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” (famously issued on the Garden State soundtrack) and the 1983 Men at Work hit “Overkill.” The lift in that third verse, where Hay simply takes his major-scale vocal melody up an octave, is one of the most potent moments in ’80s pop; Sunday, when he bonked one of the really high notes in the song’s final phrases (he was otherwise spot-on), he was met with the night’s biggest applause. All in good fun.

Three days prior, Michael Penn, with keyboardist Jebin Bruni at his right hand, made a rare area appearance at the Iron Horse to review a career that has taken a roundabout path from the majors to DIY and back again. From the subterranean homesick blues of “Brave New World” to the maudlin “Long Way Down,” right up to “Walter Reed,” the standout lead track from his recently reissued 2005 disc Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, every one of the night’s 16 songs (or 17, counting the seemingly made-up-on-the-spot “God Bless the Tillmans”) was consistently well-crafted and engaging.

The 48-year-old Penn was funny, too, although not always intentionally. His first words on-mic, in fact, made him sound downright irritable: “Could we turn the air blower off? My guitar would appreciate it.” But he softened up, and even when he antagonized an audience member (“You’ve broken two rules in, like, a second”), it was done with acid-tongued self-awareness.

Indeed, his idiosyncrasies—bitching about his monitor mix, obsessively tu ning his acoustic guitar, Bush-bashing—played to his personality. Much the perfectionist, Penn has taken an average of four years between releases; miraculously, he appears to have not aged a day since his 1989 debut. (Granted, he does come from a family of actors.)

Bruni, while not bringing as unique a sound and instrument as frequent Penn sideman Patrick Warren and his Chamberlin organ, was a great pleasure to hear, especially on the MP4 gems “High Time,” where his imitated chimes and Mellotron sounds nicely bore out the song’s extended middle passage.

It’s hard to tell if Penn’s big hit is still a bit of a thorn in his side—at the Iron Horse, he saved it for the encore, disclaimed it by saying “Let’s see if I can get through this,” and changed the very final line to “maybe you’re just looking for someone to fuck with”—but with exquisite pop like “A Bad Sign” and “Don’t Let Me Go” on the setlist, he quite honestly could have gone without and nobody would have noticed.

Black Hole Sound

Medeski, Martin and Wood

The Egg, April 25

In the early part of this decade scientists discovered that, far from being a sterile vacuum where no one can hear you scream, the universe is in fact singing, and chock-a-block full of sound, albeit far out of the range of mankind’s auditory reach. Planets with atmospheres, including the Earth itself, have been proven to “hum,” while black holes make the deepest notes, a rumble 57 octaves below middle C, an underlying B flat bellowing out in a chord only the gods can hear.

Last week’s acoustic show by avant-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood was an intense if ultimately exhausting presentation from a group that is game for anything, whether that includes trying to break free of gravity through the sheer piling up of notes or bringing the music of the heavens down to earth with a Promethean improvisatory will. The group started the evening with a free-form improv which resembled Tibetan music, with percussionist Billy Martin playing incantatory bells, Chris Wood bowing ululations out of his upright bass, while chief conspirator John Medeski performed quizzical runs on an archly tuned piano. Medeski then walked over to his baby grand and strummed (yes, strummed) the opening chords to a 12-bar blues. The rest of the band joined in with a groove similar to Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” and for the next couple of tunes MMW stayed in the soul-jazz guise they’re best known for.

But soon, the experimental side of the group flared up. The frenzied nature of many of the night’s jams seemed to suggest that the group’s occasional collaborations with John Zorn have resulted in a losing of their collective demon. Medeski’s demeanor and note choices seemed to suggest, “Why play 100 notes when you can play 1,000?”, and he got a lot of mileage out of Tyner-esque cascading runs and outré, atonal fractals reminiscent of Cecil Taylor. The group has developed an uncanny rapport, and part of the fun was seeing bassist Wood react to whatever was flying out from under Medeski’s ever-flurrying right hand. Wood is the trio’s strongest link, supporting the controlled chaos but never letting us forget the narcotic effect of a tasty bass line.

Much of MMW’s reputation as jazzheads who dig hip-hop rests at the feet and hands of Billy Martin. He can pulse out a fatback beat at the drop of a dime, and one Indian-flavored improv toward the end of the night got me thinking, “Oh yeah, this is some of that ol’ Himalayan funk.” While the sheer amount of notes started to get tiring as the show reached the three-hour mark, when the group built up a head of musical steam for the right amount of time, freaky images would sometimes form out of the collective sound, all without the aid of any illicit substances. MMW were the world’s tears, Godzilla walking along with a gangster limp, water lilies juxtaposed with Hong Kong traffic, and the sun setting over a camel’s hump. Not bad for a Wednesday night in Albany.

—Mike Hotter

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