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Awesome and awesomerer: Wainwright and Thompson at the Egg.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Pair-Shaped

By David Greenberger

Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III

The Egg, Oct. 18

Billed as the Loud & Rich show, Sunday night’s performance at the Egg found Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson sharing a stage they’ve both played on their own many times over the years. (The tour name actually has its roots back in the mid-1980s when Wainwright was living in London and Thompson produced a couple of his albums.) Thompson is turning 60 next month, and Wainwright is a few years ahead of him. Both men began releasing records under their own names around the same time in the early ’70s. They’re similar in so far as they’re both songwriting guitarists. In addition, they each intersperse humorous anecdotes and asides between their songs. Other than that, they’re as different from each other as any two fully formed artists, well past the midpoints of their careers, can be. Thompson joined Wainwright for a couple songs in his set, and the reverse was done to bring the evening to a close. This was simply a night of two old friends (or “chums” as Thompson referred to their relationship), each playing a set. While Thompson, as a guitarist, has played sessions on an enormous number of albums over the years, Wainwright, a capable guitarist, plays almost exclusively in service to his own songs.

Each man played an hourlong set, and some curious similarities were to be found. It was not unexpected to hear songs off their newest releases, but both of them revisited their second albums, playing not one, but two songs from them. These second albums were released in the years that they each turned 25. Wainwright’s alternately lustful and aching “Motel Blues” and his world-weary “Old Friends” were from Album II (1971). Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974) was the first of six they made together, but Richard’s second album. The title track was a low-charting single and it remains a charming rollick. But it’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” that was one of high-points of the night. Played as an encore, it was the one original that they delivered as a fully committed duet.

Wainwright has built a career based on examining his own life, in often nakedly forthright terms. Thompson, on the other hand, is a highly controlled traditionalist, putting his own observations and feelings into the form of a created narrator (and while there are shifts from song to song, a worldview is clearly in evidence). The common denominator of the night was man-and-guitar. That the two men have each created such singularly identifiable bodies of work using the same raw materials is a testament to the enduring potency of their work.


Recurring Dream

Silversun Pickups

Northern Lights, Oct. 18

The Silversun Pickups are like a comfortable sweater: just right on certain nights when the mood for warm, cuddly and familiar things strikes. Of course after a while, when things get hot and intense, they can get a little overbearing—sort of itchy and too familiar.

Even if you don’t know the Silversun Pickups, you have probably heard their songs before, and possibly filed them away as the work of another certain band. All together now: Smashing Pumpkins, Smashing Pumpkins, Smashing Pumpkins. Even the Pickups’ hardcore fans can’t deny the band’s Siamese Dream-era sensibilities. But they’re mostly the good ones: warm, distorted guitar, with psychedelic hooks galore, that build from quiet and cascade into wicked tantrums.

Thankfully, Pickups singer-guitarist Brian Aubert’s nasal whine is a little bit more in the sweet and shy mold of Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, not quite the scalded-baby shriek patented by Billy Corgan. Like Gibbard, Aubert likes singing about breakups. He rasps that sweet, wispy style around words and phrases like “we,” “mystery” and “can’t you see,” and they swim over his buzzing guitar work. It sounds something like a young child with a Cheshire-cat smile on their face ever so sarcastically assuring their parent, “Yes, mother, I’m listening.” You almost want to slap him, but then he explodes in an all-out shout, breaking your concentration.

While their debut full-length, Carnavas, provided them with three solid radio hits and some filler, their follow-up, Swoon, is the kind of solid worth-the-entire-listen rock album that establishes a band. And it was the success of that album that allowed the Pickups to headline an absolutely packed club on a Sunday night in Clifton Park. Songs like “The Royal We” and “It’s Nice to Know You Work Alone” were the impressive backbone that allowed the band to spring their radio hits on the crowd like conquering rock gods.

“Well Thought Out Twinkles” and “Future Foe Scenarios” churned up the crowed, but it was a sprawling “Lazy Eye” that got the crowd bopping up and down. Aubert played up the song’s tension and eventual release like a true showman, pausing to shoot fractured, distorted guitar dissonance at the crowd while they waited eagerly for him to deliver the ending.

The band clearly are developing their full-on rock swagger, but the members seem in no danger of losing themselves to egomaniacal self-love. On Sunday night, the Pickups just seemed sincerely happy, and a bit surprised to see so many faces in the crowd. “We haven’t been here before,” noted Aubert in awe of the massive crowd. Aubert surveyed the audience, asking, “How many of you are from Clifton Park?” Few raised their hands; shouts of Connecticut, Vermont, Buffalo, Massachusetts and, of course, Albany rang out through the room. “We’re just glad you came,” Aubert said.

—David King


Computer Love

STS9

Revolution Hall, Oct. 18

In the world of hair metal and electronic dance music, it bodes well for an evening’s entertainment when the band have to park their 18-wheel tractor-trailer right in front of the medium-sized rock club. After a decade of touring the country with a miniature Burning Man in tow, STS9 certainly have figured out how to roll (carbon-neutral to boot), but, like any live act, it’s not what’s inside the truck that counts. For a band who pair the animalistic spectacle of a rock show with the alchemical séance of a rave, it’s all about what those fancy gadgets can make an audience do.

It’s a curious prospect, then, to review a dance band, when the success of such a project is so easily ascertained. The short version reads like this: After two hours, the sold-out crowd was sweaty. If you danced, the band did their job. But STS9 are interesting on another level, as they may be one of the last electronic acts of an era when analog instrumentalism was a necessary musical asset.

The five-piece centers around the trio of guitarist Hunter Brown, bassist David Murphy, and drummer Zach Velmer, whose manic energy on the kit has helped the group hold their own against drum-and-bass DJs for years. As Velmer charges forward, occasionally using a double stick for speed on the high-hat, Brown and Murphy move through riffs and changes that, since last year’s Peaceblaster, are beginning to sound more like emotional post-rock than icy trance. It’s the laptops, however, in front of the four harmonic musicians that are largely responsible for the band’s depth.

The orbital nature of what the rhythm section does, cycling, constructing, and dissolving themes, provides a perfect foundation for electronic trickery, so, with a truck full of speakers, burrowing grooves opened into twinkling melodies, vocal samples emerged from clouds of synthesizer, and seismic sub-bass rumbled listeners’ stomachs up into their throats. Peaking house beats gave poi-spinners plenty to play with, but there were also subtle washes of ambient downtempo. Velmer aside, it could be difficult, as with any laptop act, to figure out who was controlling which sound, but in the heat of a post-apocalyptic tribal dance party, the issue is insignificant. STS9 have always distanced themselves from “jambands” in the sense that there are no “solos,” very little is improvised, and all that heroic wankery is traded for patient interplay, so the spectacle of the performer (often simply pressing buttons) gives way to the collective energy of the room, whereby the sound just as well might be coming from the lights or the person dancing next to you.

Although STS9 do occasionally play laptop-only sets and generally aim for a holographic sort of futurism in what they do, their rock-centric instrumentation allows for proggy complexity and live energy unique to bands of organic build. The future of electronic music might reside behind an LCD screen, but for now it’s nice to need a semi.

—Josh Potter


Saw, Seven

Asylum Street Spankers

The Linda, Oct. 17

The tall, bearded guy manning the merch table last Saturday at the Linda Norris Auditorium knew the story behind their name: The now successful Americana band had started out in the mid-1990s busking along Guadalupe Street in Austin. That’s the main thoroughfare running through the University of Texas campus, and it passes an administration building that once housed the state’s lunatic asylum. Drawing on blues, early country music, Tin Pan Alley songs, and pre-swing jazz, the Asylum Street Spankers have since put out 10 albums of rootsy charm featuring knockout vocals, brisk picking, and some rather raunchy originals (appropriately, on sale along with the usual CDs and T-shirts were red bikini panties bearing on their rears the invitation, “Spank me”).

For the release of their new gospel album, God’s Favorite Band, the septet—Christina Marrs on guitar, tenor banjo, ukulele, vocals, and musical saw; Nevada Newman on guitar; Shawn Dean on fiddle; Mark Henne on drums; Morgan Patrick Thompson on upright bass; David Long on mandolin and guitar; and a singer, harmonica and washboard player known only as Wammo (don’t ask)—offered a fabulous, two-tone show consisting first of material from their latest CD, and then tunes celebrating worldly pleasures. The English poet William Blake came to mind here; this performance was truly an American edition of his 1794 volume Songs of Innocence and Experience.

The Spankers opened with the antebellum spiritual, “Wade in the Water.” With Marrs’ robust singing over the band’s murmuring background harmonies, the vocals were faithful to the classic black gospel style. In a bluesy original, “Right and Wrong,” the flamboyant Wammo drew laughter when he sang, “I ain’t got no problem with Buddha, he’s a huge Nirvana fan.” But the peak of the holy half of the concert was their ne plus ultra cover, also sung by Wammo, of George Gershwin’s slinky repudiation of Biblical literalism, “It’s Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Salvation dispensed with, the spotlight swung to sin and secular humanism. First was “PBR,” an ode to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sung by Wammo, who while onstage downed a good half-dozen brewskis himself. Marrs, accompanied by bass and guitar, amazed the house with a performance on musical saw of Camille Saint-Saen’s 1886 composition “The Swan,” famously recorded by cellist Pablo Casals in the 1920s. Her intonation lacked Casals’ accuracy, but that was entirely forgivable. She shined again with her lusty vocals on the risque Bessie Smith classic, “I Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl.”

Roots fans who miss the Asylum Street Spankers the next time they’re around ought to be committed. Or spanked.

—Glenn Weiser


Journeymen

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

Red Square, Oct. 15

Keyboardist Brian Haas has spent half of his life at the helm of a band he and his friends jokingly named after a Spinal Tap bit. But when longtime bandmate and celebrated bass virtuoso Reed Mathis parted ways, Haas was left as the band’s sole original member. For a band of lesser vintage, operating in any other genre, the turn would have been crippling, but Haas has always lived according to the ingrained volatility of jazz. Having recruited three young players, he’s simultaneously breathed fresh life into his project and established himself as an Art Blakey-style mentor to a brand new generation of progressive, post-jazz improvisers.

It seems like an increasingly rare phenomenon, as jazz gets compartmentalized further and further from the mainstream, but few musical experiences are as exciting as watching a band of friends challenge one another in the heat of improvisation, and Haas’ crew is a cutting team. Last year’s addition of drummer Josh Raymer gave the band a much-needed kick of rock pugilism, and upright bassist Matt Hayes has grown into the space between Haas and Raymer with syncopated ease. Lap-steel guitarist Chris Combs, however, has been this incarnation’s most masterful addition, simultaneously parroting Mathis’ up-octave bass explorations, while offering a clever country touch to the band’s Okie-jazz sound.

Much of last Thursday’s show featured tunes from the new EP One Day in Brooklyn, but there were plenty of even newer gems thrown in, proving that this group can write as proficiently as they improvise. “Country Girl” displayed Raymer’s controlled power on kit and proved he’s learned to swing as well as he can pound. Like progressive jazz drummers before him, he’s absorbed the rhythms of the day and is liable to drop something from the playbook of Aphex Twin or Radiohead as soon as he can shuffle. As a result, the band’s free-jazz deconstruction of the song’s middle portion was as climactic as it was devious. “The Imam” was a sort of contemporary update of the mid-eastern-tinged standard “Caravan,” redolent of burning oil fields, Dubai super resorts, and wars on terror. It was here that Haas took his first great solo on his signature Rhodes. Considered by some as the contemporary heir to Thelonious Monk, he drove his angular phrases and bobbing gaze far outside the pocket like a cat tracking something in that dimension only cats can see, until he arrived in some parallel chord progression that might have sounded like a sweet children’s ditty had the whole song not been oriented otherwise.

“Drethoven,” a proggy reworking of a classical theme, has come to represent the new band’s sound, but by the time a thrashing rendition came to close the show, it followed new tunes by Hayes and Combs that already surpass it in ambition. Only once did the band revisit a tune from a prior era. The Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” was a calling card cover from 2006’s The Sameness of Difference, one of this decade’s seminal progressive jazz records, and when Haas layed out for Combs’ soaring lap steel solo, it was officially clear that he’s kept the JFJO top spinning.

—Josh Potter


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