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Hangin’ tough, again: NKOTB at SPAC.

Photo: Julia Zave

Fear and Loathing in Saratoga Springs

By Josh Potter

New Kids on the Block

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 16

A few years back, The Onion ran a (characteristically) wry op-ed called “I’ll Try Anything With a Detached Air of Superiority.” It pretentiously heralded the joys of bowling, attending a football game, going to see a conventionally crowd-pleasing movie. If not a direct attempt to declare an end to the age of irony (as others, at the time, were), it at least poked fun at the hipster’s credo of taking self-conscious pleasure in pedestrian, lowbrow activities. Now, I’m all for honesty and directness, but there’s a difference between a post-ironic society and one that fails to recognize its underlying tenet. So long as the New Kids on the Block—the original corporate, test-tube boy band—are touring in front of British Invasion hysteria, this world is a deeply ironic place.

I truly do not mean to sound judgmental. It’s just that the degree of seriousness with which the “band” and its crowd take themselves demands analysis. Twenty-five years after their inception, the band’s branding hasn’t changed much. The $45 T-shirts (with complimentary tote bag) still bear the same kooky font and dreamy airbrushed headshots. The dude with the oversized-collectible-button-spangled denim get-up differs only slightly from the hordes of women with personalized tank tops declaring their love for Donnie, Jordan or Joey, in that he might also be cool on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In the age of retro dance parties, neon sunglasses and fanny packs, it’s hard to tell if the average showgoer is genuinely nostalgic for this stuff and NKOTB just timed their return perfectly, or if the whole thing is one brilliant, zen-like send-up of itself, in which everyone is unabashedly psyched on the perfectly manicured spectacle. Either way, it’s the kind of scene that makes you genuinely crave Dippin’ Dots.

Oh yeah, and there was a show. After entertaining ourselves by texting messages to the jumbotron that read things like “JORDAN GIVE IT TO US!! CIRCA 91! OWW!!!” and “WHALBERG BROTHAS 4 EVA!!!”, a group called JabbaWockeeZ took the stage. Dressed in jumpsuits and creepy Eyes Wide Shut masks, they were ostensibly a dance troupe that performed all the hits (“The Right Stuff” and “Ice Ice Baby,” natch) in a style that was somewhere between the Blue Man Group and those sidewalk living- statue guys. Kinda cool, actually.

Then, when the house lights went down, there was the shrillest cry of delight I’ve ever heard. Childhood photos scrolled by on an overhead screen, momentarily recapping the band’s storied career, and when a giant lighting rig lifted to the ceiling—oh my God!—there they were. Golly, did they ever dance and sing. The stage had a set of risers and a rotating mini stage on top, as well as ramps leading out to platforms where Donnie could better make eyes at the girls and fling his brow-sweat into the crowd. There were flashing lights, blinding pyrotechnics, sexy dancers, a gnarly backing band, and a screen that displayed song lyrics as a helpful reminder. I’m happy to report that Jordan and Joey still have their prepubescent falsettos, but, as Paul Rapp recently pointed out, it’s probably unimportant if bands like this are, you know, actually singing. The show was entertainment for entertainment’s sake and seemed to work insofar as it made the viewers actually feel like they were in a music video. Highlights: Danny’s stiff “breakdancing”; costume changes that progressively accentuated each member’s distinct personality; Jon’s systematic ostracization (he didn’t get a single solo all night); “The Right Stuff,” duh; Donnie’s blustery recap of his 1990 injury after falling through a trapdoor onstage (at the Saratoga Raceway) and how “it’s gonna take more than that to keep this mofo down.”

In the end, it seems that the New Kids on the Block have shock-and-awed their way to a brand of success that will last as long as there are genuine swooners, curious nostalgics, and self-conscious spectacle seekers. Did I enjoy the show, though? Let’s just say that, for those who doubt how close I was to Donnie when the band suddenly materialized on platforms in the crowd, my cell phone has pictures to prove it.

An American Band

Session Americana

Caffe Lena, June 13

All hail Session Americana! I shall go on to detail my praises for this band, but must first thank them for bringing a blistering acoustic version of the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” to Caffe Lena last Saturday night.

Sitting in a semicircle around a small cafe table, the six members of Session Americana and their multitude of instruments filled the tiny stage. Their movements, during and between songs, were so sympathetically meshed that no one bumped into anyone else as they passed guitars and mandolins back and forth overhead like one satisfied, many- tentacled creature.

While seated pickers and singers can bring to mind campfire singalongs and hootenannies, banish those comparisons from your mind. These are seasoned veterans of the Boston music scene (and geographic points farther afield): Jim Fitting, Ry Cavanaugh, Dinty Child, Sean Staples, Jon Bistline and Billy Beard. With the exception of drummer Beard, all of them are songwriters (and for all I know he may compose as well, but given that he’s the supple and undulating pulse of the band, he needn’t do anything else to be appointed King of Session Americana). This ensemble elevate the format by dint of their skills as players. Their own songs, as well as those they cover, are at the center of the endeavor, but they also know how to trust the underlying foundation of the song and turn their attentions to one another, listening and playing off whatever transpires. With them all sitting on chairs, the sight creates a stunning series of surprises as their performances are filled with more pizzazz than many of their standing and leaping brethren.

As is their custom, the band invited a local musician to join their ranks for a couple numbers. Sarah Pedinotti of Railbird took a seat around the table for a song of hers, followed by Tom Waits’ “Clap Hands.” Regarding the former, its resonant bearing and poetic narrative would have been left more magically intact had it not been preceded by her telling how she came to write it. The song spoke perfectly well for itself. Pedinotti is a talent to watch; she just needs the confidence to not behave like a mother continually combing her child’s hair before a school photo is taken.

The only aspect out of place with Session Americana is their name. It conveys an identity that says “project,” but this is a band through and through. Their camaraderie and interplay are very real, and there’s no shortcut to that: You get together, play for a couple years, and voila: a world-class outfit.

I’d give them 100 miles. That is to say, if they’re playing anywhere within 100 miles of your home, you drive there and are grandly rewarded for your effort.

—David Greenberger

Off He Goes

Eddie Vedder, Liam Finn

Palace Theatre, June 8

Nope, he didn’t play “Alive.”

He didn’t play “Daughter” or “Better Man. Nor did he play “Even Flow” or “Wish List” or “Jeremy.”

And he didn’t have to. For much of last Monday’s show, the opening date of a monthlong solo tour that takes him from here to Honolulu, Eddie Vedder didn’t even need to play his own songs to stir the audience into a fervor. Vedder is the leader of Pearl Jam, after all—one of the flagship bands of the “grunge” era, the closest thing to a classic-rock band that generation produced, a touring juggernaut. The band haven’t come up short of selling out a show in almost as long as they’ve existed; naturally, an opportunity to see the mythical Vedder in a solo setting was in high demand. But would this solo tour be a simple cash grab, a staid run-through of Pearl Jam hits? Or would the singer be a completely different animal without Mike McCready’s incessant guitar soloing?

A big hint lay outside the stage doors on North Pearl Street: Three buses and a tractor-trailer suggested this would be more than just a standard “unplugged” set. And sure enough, Vedder’s stage set was as elaborate as one-man-on-a-stool rock show could be. A few suitcases and tables, a reel-to-reel tape machine, a few old tower PA speakers, and other knickknacks dotted the stage floor; several full-scale backdrops were lowered for an added visual element.

Such distractions were out of convention, though; it’s not like anyone was looking at the scenery when the performer was onstage. Vedder’s iconic baritone was the star of the show, and he wrapped it around an eclectic and wonderfully chosen series of songs, accompanying himself on acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, and ukulele.

Opening with Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow,” Vedder touched on few deep cuts from his band’s catalog (Ten staple “Porch”; a bunch from 1996’s No Code, including the punk-spirited “Lukin”), a few hits (“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” “I Am Mine”), and a series of brief tunes from last year’s Into the Wild soundtrack. It was the Wild tunes, he said, that brought him here, and their deployment as a block mid-set was probably an attempt at emphasis. Still, Vedder seemed more comfortable trying on his heroes’ clothes: He dug into Springsteen’s “State Trooper,” a pair of Dylan tunes, and his hit cover of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” with as much, if not more, conviction as his own material

There were some opening-night speed-bumps: Vedder botched lyrics to a few of his own tunes; the sound mix onstage gave the singer some visible trouble. But these missteps felt akin to the night’s overall off-the-cuff, almost whimsical vibe. Song intros approached non sequitur (he was admittedly a little, shall we say, enhanced); he told a slightly off-color story while sitting in a feet-shaped chair (a photo would help here); he sang a song about Albany (rhyming it with “you look so tall to me”). The whole affair was a lot more entertaining than most standard guy-with-guitar fare—if these solo shows are Vedder’s attempt to foreshadow a post-Pearl Jam second act, more power to him.

Liam Finn, along with vocalist-instrumentalist Eliza-Jane Barnes, delivered a jerky, energetic opening set that had the bearded New Zealander bounding around the stage, building songs with guitar loops and punctuating them with bombastic drum fills and J. Mascis-like solos. While the performance was fun to watch, it seemed to emphasize arrangements over songs. Those songs, from Finn’s excellent I’ll Be Lightning album, may have actually deserved less—though the gadgetry was redeemed when the duo reached a Zappa-like wave of cacophony on their last song.

—John Brodeur

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