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Socialist: Tim Mcllrath of Rise Against.

Photo: Julia Zave

Not Older, More Experienced

By David King

Rise Against, Alkaline Trio, Thrice

Washington Avenue Armory, Oct. 9


At 26, I am closer than I ever thought I would be to becoming old. Not that I talk about plot points and loudly clear my throat during films at the Spectrum, and not that I tuck in my shirt and hike up my pants far above my belly button. No, I feel I’m getting old in a much more frightening manner.

Last Thursday night at the Washington Avenue Armory I encountered bands I did not understand, bands whose allure completely went over my head. The sad thing is, I was trying to get it. I was trying with all my will. I’ve never had to try before—even with things I didn’t love, I could at least understand their underlying appeal (except for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones).

But when penultimate act Alkaline Trio took the stage, I became despondent and numb, and not because of their overwhelming gothness. Alkaline Trio’s staggeringly average pop-punk songs were painted with gothic flair by two annoyingly dull lead singers. Songs blended into each other while the two produced different takes on the clichéd oh-oh-oh-oh goth-punk vocal style.

The pre-set music featured Joy Division and some old-school punk selections, giving an old-school goth like myself hope of finding some connection with the band’s music. But their own music had none of the emotion, despondency, or rage contained in the music that seems to have influenced them. It was like listening to a set of tunes penned by the Hot Topic house band. (Sample song title: “Calling All Skeletons.”) The most popular band on the bill, judging from fan response, Alkaline Trio have a devoted cult following. But then again, so do Insane Clown Posse.

Thankfully, headliners Rise Against delivered a gimmick and a message that I could understand perfectly: Rise Against are the pop-punk generation’s answer to Rage Against the Machine. After a quick romp through crowd favorite “Bring It All,” lead singer Tim Mcllrath told the crowd that the country has been going in the wrong direction, and reminded them that “we are the next generation” and have the opportunity to change things. Seconds later, Mcllrath had the crowd thrusting their fists into the air chanting “rise, rise, rise,” as if the energy and vitality in the room could change things right then and there.

Mcllrath mentioned between songs that, while at a local coffee shop earlier in the day, he overheard a local couple discussing the “angry young kids” hanging out in front of the armory. But he told the audience at the armory that he didn’t think they were angry, but instead there to have fun. And that’s what I was missing all night long: Bands in my day didn’t have much of that fun thing.

Later, a tall, shirtless, sweaty, longhaired teen made his way onto the stage and grasped Mcllrath. Mcllrath looked at him curiously and asked if he knew the lyrics to the next song so he could sing along. The smiling teen indicated he did not. In my day any self-respecting lead singer would have punched the kid in the face for such an insult, or at least pushed him back into the crowd.

Instead, Mcllrath encouraged the kid to stage-dive when the song peaked.

It’s not clear anyone got the band’s message—it was too hard to make it out over the poppy sweet choruses and surprisingly well-harmonized shouting. Damn, they were catchy . . . and everyone had fun except for old, bitter me.

Inspired, But Tired

The Black Crowes, Howlin Rain

Palace Theatre, Oct. 11


When they first broke onto the nat ional rock-music scene 18 years ago, the Robinson brothers and friends were a welcome (if vaguely familiar) change from the tarted-up hair-metal bands and teenybopper acts clogging the airwaves of mainstream radio and MTV. Sure, their Faces-meets-early-Stones aesthetic brought them scorn from some quarters as rip-off artists, but what was commendable about the Black Crowes was their rocking, back-to-basics formula (along with their inadvertent boost to the legacy of Otis Redding byway of their still-ubiquitous cover of “Hard to Handle”). After many years in the wilderness trying and failing to find another melody as seductive as their best song, “Remedy” (years also marked by a tabloid-fodder marriage for singer Chris Robinson, and a lengthy dormant span earlier this decade), the Crowes seemed to have something to prove with the release of Warpaint earlier this yearnamely, that they were now elder statesman of, and in some ways forerunners to, the roots-conscious (and frequently stoner-friendly) type of music that has enjoyed a period of vogue for much of this decade.

Last Saturday evening’s return to the Palace found the band in confident if far-from-risk-taking form, kicking things off with the new tune “Evergreen,” Chris Robinson bouncing a bit to the beat to intone something akin to “Let me kiss your rose petals.” Rolling on through the Zep-funk of “Gone” (from 1994’s Amorica) and the heavy-blues drag of “Walk Believer Walk,” Chris Robinson generously shared spotlight time with Luther Dickinson and his supple lead-guitar tones. A virtuoso rock guitarist on hiatus from his own brother band, the North Mississippi Allstars, Dickinson was given lots of room to roam. While possessing a faultless technique and a soaring sort of solo style, one did miss the rough-around-the-edges spark of previous guitarist Marc Ford—without it, the Crowes tended to meander, becoming, in effect, tamer and more than a tad boring.

There was a curious midsection where the Crowes decided to give a bit of a musical history lesson: After a well-oiled homage to Delta blues giant Robert Johnson, guitarist Rich Robinson did a fair approximation of Richard Manuel for a version of the Band’s “Rockin’ Chair.” Dylan and Gram Parsons songs followed soon after, and while the remembrances were well-played, the Crowes have embraced whole-hog the nostalgia tag they’ve often bristled against. What I was most impressed with this evening was the light show, but if it’s just all about conjuring up some of that Almost Famous vibe while the world changes in massive ways outside the concert-hall doors, well, I think we’ve all got more valuable ways we should be spending our time right now.

I had high hopes for California openers Howlin Rain, and while I found the energy and breathless bravado of lead howler and guitar shredder Ethan Miller fascinating (I consider his previous band, Comets on Fire, to be one of the decade’s best heavy rock bands), packing your songs full of words that one can’t even decipher through the napalm and screech mars what could be a very powerful rock & roll experience.

—Mike Hotter

Amazing in Socks

Andrew Bird, Sandro Perri

The Egg, Oct. 9

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which moment during Andrew Bird’s mind- boggling performance at the Egg on Thursday night was the Chicago songwriter’s most charming. Maybe it was the moment a few songs in when Bird kicked off his zippered Beatle boots to better work a phalanx of effects pedals with his toes, revealing a pair of orange-striped socks. Or when he introduced each of his custom-built horn speakers—which towered behind him like an army of giant mutant gramophones—by name. (“There’s Spinney,” he said of one speaker that rotated while amplifying one of Bird’s several violin channels.) When he left the stage sock-footed after the encore of “Weather Systems,” carrying, slung over his shoulder, his boots and his toy mascot—a strange stuffed doll that looked like a cross between a sock monkey and the Claymation character Wallace from Wallace & Gromit—that was charming too.

On paper, it all sounds a bit too self- consciously quirky. But in person, Bird’s sheer musical virtuosity was awe-inspiring, while the occasional crazy quirk was more like an entertaining sideshow. Bird’s solo recordings, as clever and melodious as they are, don’t quite prepare a person for the whirlwind that is his improvisational one-man-band. The art-pop performer (and one-time swing-jazz purveyor during his tenure with the Squirrel Nut Zippers) is also a classically trained violinist and an uncommonly good whistler.

On “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” he juggled violin (played with bow and also plucked with his fingers) and electric guitar, spinning the guitar behind his back when it got in the way, using his toes to record the various parts live and then looping them back though the gramophone army until they formed a wall of multilayered orchestral sound. He even found time to jerk his head, tic-like, when the lyrics demanded it.

“You may have noticed there’s a natural-history theme,” Bird explained while showcasing songs from an upcoming album, Noble Beast. “They were heavily influenced by the Planet Earth series.” A riff about the Texas salamander episode led into a story about chickens that were devoured by raccoons on his farm in northern Illinois, the inspiration for a bittersweet new song “Natural Disaster.” Only on “Action/Adventure,” an older tune, did Bird let the teeming layers of sound get away from him. “That started getting too improvisational,” he apologized before starting over. “I got lost. Under normal circumstances it might not be a big deal, but I’m feeling a little impaired.” We didn’t notice.

In Toronto songwriter Sandro Perri, Bird found an opener who looked and sounded a bit like him. So much so, actually, that my friend and I were briefly confused as to whether Bird had started performing early, since we had never seen him live before. But the less descript Perri, who played quiet, somber songs mostly on acoustic guitar, turned out to be just the warmup for Bird’s musical tour de force. Lucky for all of us.

—Kirsten Ferguson

The Doctor Is In

Dr. Dog, Delta Spirit

Revolution Hall, Oct. 8

The fact that Dr. Dog have out-grown their early Pitchfork hype and graduated into a bona fide national-level rock outfit should come as no surprise. It has become something of a critical cop-out (albeit an accurate assessment) to talk about the band’s debt to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but just as the aforementioned popmasters built hooks to angle mass appeal, so have Dr. Dog.

This is not to say the band are on course to commercial mediocrity. Wednesday’s show spoke much to the contrary in both energy and attendance. The manic performance to the half-full room proved that the band’s early underground status virtually precipitated a blowout breakout album (Fate, from which most of the show’s material was drawn), and that Dr. Dog have many fans yet to win.

The quintet took the stage in a black-lit cloud, produced from a perfectly overactive smoke machine. Orange day-glo tape clashed with wreaths of fake roses and strings of toy elephants in the kind of aesthetic discontinuity that permeates the band’s music. This is not a form of dissonance, mind you—the vocal harmonies on the band’s opening tune “The Old Days” underscored the fact that they strive to be muisically agreeable.

The song was both eager and upbeat, the kind of mini-anthem that had guitarist Scott McMicken leaping back and forth across the stage as much at the mercy of the song as the audience was. In sunglasses and a fedora, McMicken is a baby-faced Ferris Bueller who seems at first to be putting everyone on but soon proves earnest and joyful enough to hijack a parade with an impromptu rendition of “Twist and Shout.”

It is this approach to performance that has truly pushed Dr. Dog to the level they’ve achieved. There was jumping, yowling, flailing headstocks, and all the trappings of a punk show without irreverence, transgression or nihilistic demolition. This, paired with bassist Toby Leaman’s uninhibited vocal leads, begged a comparison to ecclesiastical freak-folkers Akron/Family in terms of sheer spectacle. It’s a sort of all-encompassing, post-everything, trans-ironic approach that can pair shooby-do-wops with Barry White-style spoken-word interludes, and come off totally convincing.

McMicken and Leaman shared center stage with equal ease, but if an award were to be assigned for “most charismatic,” it would have gone to Leaman with his mid-set doubleheader of “100 Years” and “Worst Trip” from 2007’s We All Belong. It’s songs like these that remind one of pop music’s greatest strength: to pack pathos into an easily digested pill. Without ever erupting into brazen instrumentalism, each song included a tasteful, democratic buildup before resolving to the song’s melody. “The Ark” paid less-than-subtle homage to the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” but was probably the only time when the band’s influences came untucked. One could make the same claim for the following tune, “My Old Ways,” which wouldn’t have been possible without their having listened to Brian Wilson, but the song’s so damn catchy that it can’t be taken as a demerit.

San Diego quintet Delta Spirit opened the show with an equally agreeable set of nostalgic pop. For them, Bob Dylan, John Prine, and Bruce Springsteen were the forces to be reckoned with. Reckon they did, with harmonicas, maracas, a trashcan lid, and enough instrument-swapping to make Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned proud.

—Josh Potter

Truly Underground

Jack Rose, Michael Chapman

Helderberg House, Oct. 8

Jack Wingate, Albany purveyor of underground music via Flipped Out Records and his own flipped-out band, Burnt Hills, has been known to host quite the doozy of a basement show from time to time, usually on the psychedelic/noise side of the fence. An altogether gentler but no less intense vibe suffused the recent visit by hallowed British folkie Michael Chapman and esteemed Philadelphia-based guitarist Jack Rose to the surreal confines of the Wingate cavern. What occurred was an evening of acoustic-guitar playing par excellence that could not go unreported.

Seated near a grinning, electric pumpkin head, a cup of Maker’s Mark near at hand, Rose played a mesmerizing set of instrumental set pieces that melded Eastern and Western musical styles with a thrilling and virtuosic ease. The 30-something Rose dove headlong into what could only be described as a raga, his perpetually moving picking hand creating the swirling drone of a sitar as he picked out notes seldom heard on a Western flat-top guitar. Halfway through this first tune, the melodies wandered westward to Israel, perhaps a reference that Yom Kippur had started a few hours earlier on in the evening. Rose followed with a tour de force of fingerpicked blues that seemed to take up where Mississippi John Hurt and the ragtime guitar of Blind Blake left off. Rose finished his set with improvisatory forays that seemed to try and reconcile the disparate heritages of European and Middle Eastern classical music—an inspiring and extremely difficult feat.

Michael Chapman, while far from a household name, comes from the same school of guitar and songcraft as his better-known peers Bert Jansch and Roy Harper. A wizened but robust raconteur with a wreath of white hair framing a friendly, grandfatherly face, Chapman was touring the United States for just the third time last 30 years. Setting up his songs with backstories that were simultaneously revealing, poignant and funny, Chapman gave relaxed and masterful versions of the recent “After All This Time” and the comparatively ancient “Little Molly’s Dream.” Recalling a dinner party with the late folk giant John Fahey and his wife while on a visit to his home in East L.A. (it involved the host getting completely naked while still at the dinner table), Chapman followed with a tribute of sorts, “Fahey’s Flag”—“a pastiche, which is French for a piss-take.” Like Rose, Chapman looked beyond the borders of the West with a tempestuous instrumental influenced by Indonesian gamelan music, before ending on a simply revelatory pass through “Winter in Memphis,” a bracing account of a dark night’s travel through the American South.

The intimate nature of a person alone with just their voice and their instrument is often lost in more open spaces; the basement setting served each of the performers on this memorable night by focusing one’s attention on just what a wonder the melding of mind, body and soul can be, especially with artists of such dedication and integrity.

—Mike Hotter

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