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Safety dance: VHS or Beta at Jack Rabbit Slims.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Burnout

By Mike Hotter

VHS or Beta, Tigercity

Jack Rabbit Slims, April 6

It turns out nice boys do play rock & roll, they just play it to a constant disco stomp and a lot of wah-wah guitar. Louisville, Ky. (birthplace of such barefoot rock progeny as My Morning Jacket, Slint and Will Oldham) now has VHS or Beta serving as their dance-punk ambassadors—and I say meh.

Not that the band are totally without merit, for they make quite the impressive wall of sound, employing Daft Punk electro-funk and classic house-music surges that could serve as the soundtrack to the climactic level of some cosmic game of Sonic the Hedgehog. As Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (and, um, Gorillas in the Mist) unfurled on the big screens behind the bar, lead Beta Craig Pfunder wielded his Gibson SG like a Jedi, his space-age guitar tone laying waste to hordes of baddies at the gates (i.e. all those Lynyrd Skynyrd look-alikes who messed with him in high school). “Burn It All Down” seemed an impressive call to arms to all the Donnie Darkos in the world, Pfunder pleading in his Robert Smith way to “Burn the streets/Burn the trees/Burn the lessons.” But me, I like my dancepunk with at least a touch of humor in the mix—sure, we can dance while the world burns, but getting all pouty and self-righteous about it is bound to please no one but the 16-year-olds who get all decked out to dance in front of their bedroom mirrors with your hot new EP blaring in their earbuds.

VHS or Beta impressed the most when they stopped the bleating and stretched out the sound. One instrumental foray found them treading into the murky psychedelia of Hendrix’ “1983” and Miles Davis’ Pangaea. But that soon stopped; the drummer bashed into another four-on-the-floor stomp and we got more early U2 retreads shot into hyperdrive.

Opening band Tigercity, a New York City four-piece fronted by charmingly flamboyant singer Bill Gillim, had the sense of fun that VHS or Beta missed by miles. The backing musicians looked and attacked their instruments like a Vanilla Fudge tribute band, but the sound that came out was fresh, unique and nostalgic all at once, a mixture of Chic, Erasure and a touch of seminal underground NY bands like ESG. Gillim was a nonstop falsetto machine, getting so wrapped up in his delivery and his mic cord that I thought some sort of auto-asphyxiation thing was going on for a second. If you ever wished that the New Romantic movement could have lasted just a few more years, then Tigercity may be your dreamboat.

A Good Pick

Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet

The Egg, April 6

The lanky, well-dressed man working the elevator buttons at the Egg shortly before the show last Sunday night evidently seemed so unassuming that a fan asked him if he could get him backstage to meet the band. Speaking in a hoarse whisper, the man politely said he would see what he could do.

Tony Rice never let on that he was sharing top billing with Bill Monroe’s former rhythm guitarist Peter Rowan that night, leaving the fellow to realize it only when the preeminent flatpicking guitarist (Rice no longer sings, owing to a throat ailment) strode onstage along with Rowan, Rickie Simpkins of the Tony Rice Unit on mandolin, and former Del McCoury bassist Mike Bub to serve up two scintillating sets of bluegrass and Rowan’s characteristically Western-themed songs at an nearly full Swyer Theater. If their picking could have been any better, it was hard to see how.

The foursome opened with “Panama Red,” the paean to the personification of pot Rowan is best known for. When Rice’s solo came around, the dapper but expressionless North Carolinian looked down at his right hand and watched as the first of several intricate, mesmerizing guitar solos that night curled out of the soundhole of his dreadnought. Rowan, wearing jeans and a tan sports coat, was in excellent voice, and the entire quartet gracefully pulsed along like an antelope on the run.

After “The Hobo Song,” during which Simpkins delivered a dazzling mandolin break, the band offered “Land of the Navajo,” a Dylanesque tale of a one-eyed trader and his Indian friend. Rowan demonstrated his weird, yodel-like Navajo throat-singing in the middle of the song, and then the group played the acoustic equivalent of jam-band “space” before extended, brilliant improvisations by Rice and Simpkins over Rowan’s alternating E minor and D major chords.

Almost anytime a bluegrass dignitary comes to town, Saratoga Springs mandolin master Frank Wakefield gets invited onstage to pick and clown for the crowd. This time El Loco Virtuoso joined in first on “The Walls of Time,” which Rowan co-authored with Bill Monroe. Rice, who had been looking poker-faced up until then, watched Wakefield solo with visible interest and exclaimed his approval.

Rowan and Rice’s flawless performance at the Egg could easily go down as the Capital Region’s best acoustic show of the year.

—Glenn Weiser

Eighty-Eight Keys to Heaven

Brad Mehldau Trio

Skidmore College, April 6

Rather than feeling put-off by the fact that I was nearly denied admission to this sold-out, standing-room-only show, regardless of my press arrangement, I was thrilled to have to shoulder my way through a (dare I say) frenzied crowd to see one of the few great contemporary jazz vanguards. Artists like Brad Mehldau deserve this kind of demand, and sore legs ought to be the price of admission for his caliber of musicianship.

Mehldau and his longtime trio of Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums) are a force to be reckoned with. Working well within the tradition of piano jazz, the three have kept the form not only relevant but at the forefront of modern jazz, famously blending standards with forward-thinking original material and reworked pop tunes by the likes of Radiohead and Nick Drake. Having already cut his teeth with the masters, Mehldau, with with 2002’s Largo, earned street cred with an upcoming generation of jazz musicians and positioned himself on the bridge between these two worlds.

The evening opened in homage to Thelonious Monk with “Work” before giving way to a series of unnamed originals. Beneath an extraordinarily delicate touch, the band quickly conjured molten finesse. Mehldau’s playing was characteristically lyrical, but many of his compositions seemed to function more as rhythmic vehicles for Ballard’s fine drumming. Drawing on a vast musical vocabulary, Ballard exhibited rigid angularity that would either contain swing or emerge from it. Hip to the current proving ground for jazz musicians to play very straight (with sensibilities more akin to robots than rock musicians), his solos took the form of digressive polyrhythms without ever being showy.

Clifford Brown’s “Brownie Speaks” was a deeply swinging romp that proved the band’s bebop mettle. With Gershwin’s “My Ship,” they carried energy into a ballad as few musicians can. It was here that Mehldau stole the show. Via sweeping chromatic passages, the virtuoso stitched emotive blues phrases into a truly gorgeous offering.

The standing ovation that followed the show-closing Brazilian tune “Aquellas Cosas Todas” seemed a fitting climax, but it only served to herald in a proper dénouement with Nick Drake’s “River Man” as encore.

—Josh Potter

Perfect Sound for Shredders

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

MASS MoCA, April 4

Stephen Malkmus looks exactly like the smart-ass indie rocker he was 15 years ago: same shaggy art-school haircut and bony frame under a baggy T-shirt. Doesn’t look like he’s aged a day since the early ’90s, when his former band Pavement were in their indie-rock glory. Musically, Malkmus has changed—somewhat. Pavement, for all of its ambivalent, lo-fi charm, were prone to disintegrating onstage at any given show (part of their considerable appeal). Malkmus’ current band the Jicks, who played at MASS MoCa last Friday with opener John Vanderslice, are a more disciplined, muscular outfit, especially with former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss now hammering away on the drums.

Something else has taken over Malkmus’ musical soul of late. The catchy melodies and “bah bah bah” choruses are still there, although they appear much less often, and Malkmus retains the same ability to take a semi-baked couplet and turn it into clever poetry. But a lot of that has been subsumed lately by Malkmus’ inner guitar geek. You could see it during the opening song, “Dragonfly Pie,” which leads off Real Emotional Trash (Malkmus’ latest album: his fourth post-Pavement and the second credited to the Jicks, his band with Weiss, bassist Joanna Bolme and keyboardist-guitarist Mike Clark).

“Of all my stoned digressions, some have mutated into the truth,” he sang to start the tune, which leads off with a “Sweet Leaf”-esque riff before devolving into an extended guitar jam that made Malkmus smile inwardly and the largish crowd—all primed to hear the new material—cheer. Much of the set, filled mainly with songs from the new album, was like that—lots of lengthy guitar digressions infected with a ’70s prog-rock virus. Sometimes enjoyable, but sometimes just tiring. The crowd seemed to really dig it, though, especially a guy near me who was entranced in a head-banging, air-guitar-shredding sort of dance.

“Play ‘Iron Man,’” yelled a voice from the back of the crowd. “It’s the new ‘Free Bird,’” Malkmus joked back. “You can get a laugh from that out here in western Massachusetts.” He was engaging like that, whether bantering with the crowd about his recent interview on Fox News (“I was the liberal wacky slow talker”) or pretending to do a shred-off for the “Guitar Olympics.” And there were some more confectionary moments for those who prefer his considerable pop songwriting talents to his shredding abilities: “We Can’t Help You” and set-closer “Vanessa from Queens” were short but sweet, rife with the sort of wistful nostalgia that Malkmus does even better than impersonal exercises in riffage.

—Kirsten Ferguson


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