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Anthemic: the Hold Steady at Valentine’s.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

You’re Soaking In It

By Kirsten Ferguson

The Hold Steady

Valentine’s, March 31

Leaving Portland [Maine] around noon. Sing-along-songs and brews,” read a recent Craigslist offering of a rare extra ticket to Tuesday night’s sold-out show by the Hold Steady at Valentine’s. Tickets to the Albany show, the first stop on an early spring tour of smaller-sized cities, were snapped up early by fans from all-points Northeast who didn’t expect to see the Brooklyn-based rockers hit their own towns. But that doesn’t mean Capital Region buzz about the band hasn’t grown since they played Valentine’s in 2006; with four well-received albums in the past five years, including 2008’s anthem-filled Stay Positive, loads of critical acclaim and endless touring (including an unlikely opening slot for the Dave Matthews Band later this spring), the Hold Steady are blowing up all over.

“Sing-along-songs and brews” is a pretty apt description of the scene at Valentine’s as the Hold Steady played a sweat-soaked, 21-song set to a crowd of lyric-reciting, fist-pumping faithful. Kicking off the set with a quick burst of handclaps to start “You Gotta Dance,” a bonus track from Boys and Girls in America, the band kept up an intense pace for the next 45 minutes, speeding through feel-good, catchy-chorus-fueled Stay Positive tunes like “Constructive Summer” and “Navy Sheets,” along with crowd-favorite “Chips Ahoy!” with its irresistible Badlands-inspired “whoa-ohs,” and some denser, word-spitting fare like “Hornets! Hornets!” from the band’s defining second album, Separation Sunday.

Singer Craig Finn, oft noted to be an unlikely rock hero, more librarian than rock & roll libertine, punctuated his hyper-literate lyrics by gesturing his hands furiously, flapping his arms like a bird, dancing a little jig around the microphone, and mouthing words silently to the audience between vocal lines. Somehow he pulls off the difficult feat of making such word-heavy fare rockable. By the time the band mellowed the pace, briefly, after a blistering “Sequestered in Memphis,” Finn’s red plaid shirt was a dark sea of sweat.

At the bar, a couple of attendees debated whether the Hold Steady truly are the best live rock band in America, as many critics opine and fans like to say, or whether that designation belongs to the Capital Region’s own Figgs, known to also rock a room with high-energy, sing-along tunes. Not surprisingly, the home team won the debate, but there’s definitely an argument to be made for the heart, soul, and sheer sweat poured out onstage by the Hold Steady.

A Winning Combo

Cassandra Wilson

The Egg, March 22

The switched date of this show, postponed so Cassandra Wilson could collect a Grammy for her new album of standards, Loverly, must have put a hit on ticket sales. It was moved out of the Hart Theater, and folks were lined up until just before show time to get their tickets fixed.

The result? The Swyer was packed.

From their opening notes, Cassandra Wilson’s band created sounds weird and wonderful. A kind of controlled cacophony from Marvin Sewell’s guitar and Jonathan Batiste’s piano gave way to the fierce, hypnotic rhythms laid down by bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Lekan Babaloia. This coalesced into something recognizable: the Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol standard “Caravan.” And then Wilson herself walked on stage, and sang Irving Mills’ vivid (and corny) lyrics with her usual combination of sultry wit and stop-on-a-dime timing.

The extended piece felt like a mini- concert; it certainly showcased the considerable musical strengths of Wilson and her band. Sewell coaxed all kinds of noise from his ax—at one point I did a double take when I realized he was mimicking a trombone, a nice hat-tip to Tizol. And the way pianist Batiste, in his solo, played against what the others were doing was stone-cold cool—plunking out the melody with a force that made you think of a kid wailing on a toy piano.

Wilson spent the last decade and a half bending various genres to her musical will, covering everyone from Neil Young to Joni Mitchell to the Monkees and making their music hers. That’s why her Grammy win was such a surprise: She hadn’t recorded an album of straight jazz standards in 20 years.

So the audience was treated to chestnuts like “Lover Come Back to Me” (given a light, breezy treatment) and“A Day in the Life of a Fool” (lovely and relaxed) and “St. James Infirmary” (turned into a sharp, funky anthem) and “Dust My Broom” (a fiery blues, naturally).

Wilson ended the evening with two songs not on the album, and one that is. “Them There Eyes,” from the Billie Holiday songbook, was rendered unrecognizable. (In a nice way.) “Sweet Lorraine” was mostly Wilson and pianist Batiste; “Till There Was You” was a sweet and subtle way to end the show.

There was no encore; none was needed.

—Shawn Stone

Sound and Vision

Dean and Britta —13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests

MASS MoCA, March 28

A guitar squall from indie rock band Yo La Tengo accompanied dusty footage of furiously mating octopuses during a previous installment of MASS MoCa’s signature Film With Live Music series, which pairs rarely seen films with musicians who compose live music to accompany them. Yo La Tengo’s soundtracking in 2005 of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé’s vintage underwater cinematography took an all-instrumental and improvisational approach, with Georgia Hubley’s drums following the beat of shrimp as they shed their shells and Ira Kaplan’s guitar freak-outs corresponding with the escalating fluttering of sea urchins.

In comparison, Dean and Britta’s scoring of 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (now available on DVD) had a more deliberate and carefully crafted feel. Commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to accompany a selection of the director’s four-minute 16mm screen tests from the 1960s, Dean and Britta matched each of Warhol’s silent film portraits with original songs written to complement the mood and mannerisms of the celebrities, anonymous teenagers and Factory cohorts who occupied the screen.

Dean and Britta—a duo featuring guitarist Dean Wareham and bassist- keyboardist Britta Phillips, both former members of the band Luna—may have been the obvious choice to take on this project. (They were backed at this show by cellist Megan Sears, keyboardist and guitarist Matt Sumrow, and multi-instrumentalist Anthony LaMarca.) Wareham’s first band, Galaxie 500, a pivotal late ‘80s indie rock trio from Boston, were heavily influenced by Warhol’s Factory-studio house band the Velvet Underground, while Luna trafficked in a similar VU-influenced guitar pop.

As the first of the night’s 13 screen tests rolled, a distorted bass pulsed in time to the flickering face of Richard Rheem. A handsome young star of several Warhol films, Rheem—his face half-covered by darkness—maintained an impressive impassiveness as Warhol played games with the light and camera focus. During the next test, the band’s dreamy keyboard-driven instrumental underscored the onscreen torment of dark-haired Ann Buchanan, a member of the Beat poetry set who lived for a time with Allen Ginsberg. In one of the most memorable Screen Test moments, Buchanan struggled to maintain a nonblinking stare until her eyes swelled with water and tears slowly dripped down her cheeks, a painful-to-watch moment that Warhol later described as “something wonderful marvelous.”

By the third test, the subjects became more animated, often asserting their personalities on the screen test “experiment” in a highly self-conscious, affected way, as Dean and Britta added fleshed-out songs with lyrics and vocals to the mix. They accompanied Paul America—an all-American-football-star-looking guy with a cocky grin who chewed gum with his mouth open—with a great Wareham-sung pop tune that captured the vulnerable bravado of a teen rebel (“Rest your head upon my pillow/Put your hand inside my pants/You can have it if you want it/If you’d like to take a chance.”)

A gleaming point of light shone from the black sunglass lens of Billy Name, an artist who painted the Factory building silver and covered it with foil, as Dean and Britta played an Ennio Morricone-meets-Velvet Underground tune that summed up the near ridiculousness of his mystery-shrouded cool. Mary Woronov, an artist and actor who was in both Chelsea Girls and Rock ’n’ Roll High School, had a conflicted but defiant air that Dean and Britta underscored with a wistful tune highlighting her underlying fragility. And the man himself, Lou Reed, who spent his four minutes chugging an endless bottle of Coca Cola, got backed by a cover of Lou Reed’s great “lost” VU track, “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.”

Wareham did his homework beforehand, and enlightened the crowd with details about each performer, and many of their untimely deaths. (The attendee who asked, not entirely seriously, if Edie Sedgwick shot Andy Warhol—that was Valerie Solanas—got a mild smackdown.) And although Warhol’s art is often dismissed, whether because of the artist’s social proclivities or the perceived superficiality of his concepts, the screen tests—which do sound simple and stupid in theory—actually reveal interesting and thought-provoking things about their subjects and how they respond to their four minutes of fame.

—Kirsten Ferguson


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