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Who’s the boss? Josh Ritter at MASS MoCA.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Four Of A Kind

By Mike Hotter

MASS MoCA Fest

MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., Aug. 15

 

As the audience for popular music gets divvied up into ever smaller subdivisions, the inaugural MASS MoCA Fest served as a compendium of those young artists who still approach the American music heritage as one varied but contiguous stew. Coming as it did during the ubiquitous 40th anniversary weekend of Woodstock, one couldn’t help sense that this was the most fitting celebration, facing the future instead of rehashing past glories.

Openers Elvis Perkins in Dearland found something new by digging deep, especially on selections from their forthcoming Doomsday EP. In their adept hands and creaky voices, the old folk tune “Gypsy Davy” was something ominous and haunted, even beneath the 90-degree sun. “Weeping Mary,” from the Sacred Harp songbook, turned into a gospel rave-up, while new original “Stop, Drop, Rock and Roll” had people nodding their heads with its revamped rockabilly energy. Elvis Perkins knows a thing or two about loss (his famous father, actor Anthony, died of AIDS; his mother was aboard American Airlines flight 11 on 9/11), a theme treated masterfully on the tunes “Shampoo” and “While You Were Sleeping.” But in Dearland, hope is never far off, and by the end of the set, people were literally flying circles on the ground, instructed by guitarist-keyboardist Wyndham Boylan-Garnett to run in a big circle with arms outspread while the band closed with “Doomsday.” It was a wonderful sight.

Kaki King, who I have praised previously in these pages, came across at turns as childish, uncomfortable, and out of her depth. A guitarist of the highest order, she still is quite literally finding her voice as a performer, only singing one song while filling the rest of her set with alternately impressive and numbing displays of virtuosity. To be fair, her nominally sensuous mood music is best heard in the environs of a dark club at night, not outside at the peak of a summer day. If she would give more credence to her vocal instrument, she would find a better way of connecting with her audience. Her set was the disappointment of the day.

28-year-old Ben Kweller, who surprised a few of us by not being Australian (that would be Ben Lee), had quite the contingent of teenagers in the audience ready to hop up and down to his extremely well-written tunes. He impressed us older folks with the preternatural ease of his singing and his apparent mastery of classic pop songcraft. He’s currently in his country phase, which seems only natural since he grew up in California and Texas. “Things I Like to Do” and “Wantin’ Her Again” had some of the ramshackle grace that we value Tom Petty for, and there was an unmistakable tip of the hat to the Burrito Brothers in many of these tunes. But once Kweller took a seat at the electric piano, we were in for a real treat. New tune “Sawdust Man” is one that should deck the halls at the Grand Ole Opry, while “Falling” (written at the ripe old age of 20) would have been a Top 10 radio hit had it been released in a previous decade. Then it was on to some more kid-friendly “boy meets girl” tunes to close out the set, but if this is what some youngsters are listening to for fun, the future of pop music is not as bleak as I once thought.

Josh Ritter’s last full-length release, 2007’s The Historical Conquests of . . ., was one of those increasingly rare albums that sounded classic even upon first listen, so I had high hopes for his much-vaunted live show. Ritter did not disappoint, taking us through a journey of his best tunes with a well-oiled machine of a band, topping the night off on a rousing high. Ritter is a music critic’s wet dream: words infected by a literary lyricism that constantly reference either history or present-day occurrences, songs with an offhanded catchiness that could conceivably get played on the radio if the media machine wasn’t broken, all delivered with real grace and excitement. While space only allows a list of the night’s best songs (“Girl in the War,” the tear-jerking “Temptation of Adam,” “Monster Ballads”), rest assured, Ritter is the real deal. When the Boss is ready to retire, we have someone who is starting to look perfect as a replacement.

So Much to Say

Phish

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 16

Among an incidental group of strangers huddled under a soggy blanket to endure the sudden, torrential pre-show downpour, it was determined that the band had to open with “Divided Sky” or “Water in the Sky.” Later, when Phish started their final show in a triumphant ’09 summer tour that found them healthy, creative, and in command of a new era that some are calling Phish 3.0, it was, instead, with “Llama.” But the fan ritual of guessing the opener, and the band’s habit of defying these expectations, were two signs (among many) that the Vermont band’s return is more than some nostalgic reunion of the group Rolling Stone famously declared the most important act of the ’90s. While set lists from the early summer indicated that the band had regained their precision in executing the long, multi-dimensional staples that they’d lost around their collapse in 2004, it took until the last few nights of the summer for them to revisit the more arcane annals of their beefy catalog. Just miles from where guitarist Trey Anastasio lived under house arrest in the aftermath of his drug addiction, SPAC served as a proper homecoming, proof of an averted rock cliché, and forum for a night’s worth of surprises.

Now, indulge me while I geek out on the first set. In a peculiar second slot, “Momma Dance,” the epitome of the band’s dark, funky late-’90s era, arrived even before the sun had set. “Guyute” was the first sign that this one was going to be something special, though. One of the band’s great compositional epics, it came as an early treat, and gave Anastasio the chance to limber up during the ornate Aaron Copland-esque middle section. The late-era ballad “Anything But Me” allowed the band to catch their breath, but it also represented a turn the band has made in recent years toward more straightforward songcraft and conventionally imagistic lyrics—a turn that hasn’t worked out so palatably with other tunes of its ilk.

Keyboardist Page McConnell wasted little time bringing the energy back up with his organ calling-card “Cars, Trucks, Buses.” And, not to be outdone, Anastasio answered back with his rock-guitar showpiece “Chalk Dust Torture.” The explosive improvisation was a fine reminder of why Phish have always been deserving of something more than the reductive “jamband” qualifier. Quite simply, few other acts can work a simple rocker into such a lather. And, while some would say the refrain “can’t I live while I’m young?” hasn’t aged well, the glow-stick war on the sold-out lawn said otherwise.

“Golgi Apparatus,” a coy ode to the parts of a cell, set a humorous tone for “David Bowie” (the irony of simply chanting “David Bowie” and “UB40” hasn’t diminished since the late ’80s), the band’s second big composition of the night. The magic of this one is always in the way the song’s middle improvised section must crest with enough tension for the band to pull off the manic coda. At this point in the set, Anastasio’s chops were warmed up enough to stick the fleet arpeggios with ease, as Chris Kuroda (celebrated fifth bandmate and perhaps the only fan-recognized light man in the biz) expertly illustrated the changes.

An hour into the show, this would have been an apt place for the band to take a break, but four more songs stretched on for another half hour. Patience is a rule of thumb among Phish fans, such that those who can’t hang with the band’s more meandering moments rarely come around for more. The same might be said for this account, so in the interest of sparing casual readers further torment, the review will be continued on the Metroland blog (metroland.typepad.com). Therein find a parade of animals, Velvet Underground and AC/DC covers, one extraordinary rarity, and a middle-aged man in a dress singing about kissing a girl (and liking it).

—Josh Potter


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