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Bad boy gone good: Ryan Adams and the Cardinals.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Taking Flight

By Mike Hotter

Cardinals

The Egg, Sept. 25

The fact that Ryan Adams wanted this show billed solely as Cardinals speaks volumes about the esteem with which he regards his newest set of band members, and though the act may, at least at first, smack of false humility, any objective listener at last Thursday’s concert could recognize that Adams couldn’t achieve the vast rock vista that this band conjure all by his lonesome. The tour kickoff found the group playing an expansive two-hour-and-20-minute set that moved gamely from strength to strength, from the expected alt-country bromides on the roughness of romance to Relix-friendly three guitar jams that spun off into old Bay Area psychedelia. There was a healthy (and surprising) dose of Interpol-ish anglophilia interspersed throughout as well, new songs like “Cobwebs” and “Natural Ghost” displaying a muscular take on Adams’ Morrissey and Bono jones.

Adams’ notoriously vast catalog was pared down primarily to the forthcoming Cardinology (an album entirely cowritten among the band members), 2005’s epic Cold Roses, and everybody’s favorite, 2000’s solo release Heartbreaker.

Swinging for the fences with the night’s second selection, the Oasis classic “Wonderwall,” Adams unleashed what would be a number of startlingly good vocal performances—along with all its other benefits, Adams’ sobriety has made him a stronger and often mesmerizing performer. His facility on guitar is another unsung portion of his talent; he sometimes banged out rapid guitar lines on his Fender while singing along like George Benson trapped in the body of Christian Siriano’s straight older brother.

True to the billing, many of the highlights of the evening concerned the other Cardinals, chief among them stellar guitarist and harmony vocalist Neal Casal. With Casal, Adams has found a musician who can stand on equal footing with him, a confident stage partner who can put Adams at ease when he gets rattled by the shouters who tend to show up at these alt-country affairs. With Casal unleashing a falsetto from time to time, songs like “Cold Roses” transformed into spine-tingling hymnals. Jon Graboff filled in the empty spaces with his pedal-steel playing, which at times cluttered up things a tad too much, but when he hit the right notes, Graboff carried on the proud tradition of psychedelic country initiated by the late “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow.

Adams’ longtime drummer Brad Pemberton and bassist Chris Feinstein held down the bottom end in a powerful manner throughout. New tune “Magick” came across like Grand Funk Railroad circa “Bad Time,” while older solo tunes like “Bartering Lines” became exercises in Crazy Horse-patented mountain funk. When “Magnolia Mountain,” a Pandora’s box of tumbling guitar riffs fashioned into song form, came along near the end of the set, all appetite for guitar heroics was quenched. I’ll be purging with a steady diet of Thelonious Monk and Erik Satie for at least the next couple of weeks to detox from the six-string.

Guitar overload notwithstanding, what one came away with from this show was a renewed admiration for Adams as a songwriter. “Everybody Knows” and “Easy Plateau” in particular stood out as shining examples of almost perfectly constructed tunes that find their way into your head hours, sometimes days, after you’ve last heard them. While the stage banter suggested that Adams still is a bit of the irritable wunderkind (what is rock stardom if not a sanction for prolonged adolescence?), the Cardinal has decided to dwell more on the positive, all the better for the talent he’s long showed for recognizing beauty and capturing a portion of it in the confines of popular song.

Good, Stinky Funk

Porter Batiste Stoltz featuring Page McConnell

Revolution Hall, Sept. 24

The concept of “pocket” is one that musicians could debate at great length. It’s something like rhythmic tightness or maybe more like looseness, depending on whom you talk to. It’s precise but relaxed, focused yet unconscious. In the end, it seems, pocket isn’t a concept at all; it’s really more of a phenomenon—something that can only be experienced. Like the ivory-billed woodpecker, anyone can speculate about its existence, but few can proffer tangible (and in this case danceable) proof. Lately, purveyors of pocket have found themselves on the musical endangered-species list, foisted from their nostalgic roots by the hyphenating throngs. But there are some, like George Porter Jr., Russell Batiste Jr., and Brian Stoltz, the backbone of the classic New Orleans funk outfit the Funky Meters, who have remained deep in this mytho-musical realm, less to buck trends than for the fact that they’re some of the few who can actually do it.

Most in attendance last week were, however, there to see the man behind the keys. Barring one lukewarm solo disc, Page McConnell has remained more reticent than his fellow Phish band mates. The test for the evening would be whether he could find his place in a new quartet.

In true New Orleans fashion, the show began with an unapologetically forthright groove—one that demands you raise your drink in the air, even if you haven’t yet made it to the bar. Drummer Batiste clearly led the charge with a heavy foot and flamboyant fills. It was the kind of playing that would come off as showy if it weren’t so consistent. It’s this same consistency that has made bassist Porter a legend on his instrument. The man never played one extraneous note all night, but added flourishes into the high register at precisely the proper moments. Due to this rigid backline, the band allowed themselves to take certain tunes at daringly slow tempos. The chunky, patient grooves were proof positive of that quality all funk bands aim for: a pungent insistence that wrinkles noses and moves feet.

For the bulk of the first set, McConnell relied on his strident piano chops and percolating organ. He’d passed the first test and seamlessly entered the mix, but a new question presented itself: whether or not he’d be able to offer the dexterity and adventurous soloing his fans had grown accustomed to.

Fortunately, the second set offered more-familiar terrain. Rather than the party-hardy classics of the first set—tunes built for dancing, not rhythmic deception—a string of abstract instrumentals followed. Through red-light-green-light compositions, guitarist Stoltz was allowed to explore a bit more in the tension-and-release manner of soloing that came to define Phish. Behind Stoltz, McConnell finally found his comfort zone. While Stoltz blew his top, McConnell offered colorful swells, utilizing the oscillation of his Leslie speaker cabinet as much as his lyrical phrases. The effect worked in the opposite direction as well: From McConnell’s abstracted harmonic canvases, Porter and Batiste could push the rhythmic boundary of the pocket.

A strange turn came late in the show when McConnell stepped to the mic for a ballad. While not unprecedented in his career, the lounge act was always a touch more tongue-in-cheek with the Phish guys. A bit off-putting, the change of pace did set the tenor for what would have been a blindsider when the band closed the show with Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.” Putting any final doubts to rest, the band emerged for a McConnell-led encore that climbed as much as it burrowed and left the crowd all the more sweaty for it.

—Josh Potter


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