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Bah-bye, now: the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Pop, Inside-Out

By Kirsten Ferguson

The Fiery Furnaces

Revolution Hall, Nov. 6

 

The Fiery Furnaces aren’t known for being predictable, or they at least have a restless urge to constantly reinvent themselves, so it wasn’t entirely clear which version of the Brooklyn indie rock band would appear in Troy on Friday night: the hyper-catchy, keyboard-driven pop band of more whimsical releases like Gallowsbird’s Bark and Bitter Tea, the sprawling and inscrutable band of the conceptual Blueberry Boat and Rehearsing My Choir albums, or some other permutation altogether.

At Revolution Hall, the Furnaces had both sides covered, from quirky pop to sprawling rock. The main surprise was their decision to ditch the keyboards—a huge component of their recorded sound—for now. Bandleader Matthew Friedberger, who writes most of the songs and often plays keyboard onstage, hung off to the side, playing only guitar, for a straight-up rock lineup rounded out by drummer Bob D’Amico and bassist Jason Loewenstein (of indie band Sebadoh).

“The easiest thing I ever done was lovin’ and drinking wine/The hardest thing I ever done was paying off a judge’s fine,” sang frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger (Matthew’s sister), on the band’s first song, “Rub-Alcohol Blues,” a quiet and arresting tune that immediately drew the crowd’s attention. Dressed in a black jumpsuit, leather jacket and Euro neck scarf—looking like a ’70s-era punk stewardess—Friedberger had a riveting vocal delivery (and shaggy haircut) that recalled Patti Smith at times, her stage presence magnified by the contrast with opening band Cryptacize, an indie trio from California who put on a similarly idiosyncratic but much less compelling performance.

“We’re not used to being so high,” Friedberger joked, referring to the height of Revolution Hall’s stage, not the band’s state of mind, after “Charmaine Champagne,” a rocking tune, driven by peppy “bah bah” choruses, from the Furnaces’ seventh and most recent album, I’m Going Away. About half the night’s set came from the latest disc, although at times the Furnaces performed their confounding live trick of rearranging and merging various parts from different songs into a jumbled whole, so you couldn’t always tell whether a song was coming or going (most noticeable on a early-set medley of Widow City’s “Duplexes of the Dead,” “Automatic Husband” and “Ex-Guru,” followed by a much abbreviated “Blueberry Boat”).

Throughout, the Furnaces never let any of their pop impulses linger for long, allowing snippets of melody to surface only briefly in between fractured song structures and rapid changeups. By “Drive to Dallas,” the crowd started to seem a bit fatigued, but the band gamely finished out the night, with Matthew Friedberger testifying to the group’s somewhat-local roots (he owns a home in Columbia County, while Eleanor furnished her Brooklyn apartment with Hudson Valley antiques) and offering up a few extra songs beyond the band’s planned set list, including closer “Worry Worry,” the most thoroughly catchy song of the night.

Groovy Tuesday

Brian Wilson

The Egg, Nov. 10

“Albany, it’s great of you to come see the Rolling Stones in concert,” were the first words out of Brian Wilson’s mouth before a momentarily befuddled audience in the Egg’s mostly full Hart Theatre last Tuesday night. “Ah, I’m bullshitting you, here we go,” as Brian and his crack 10-piece band launched into—the “Monster Mash”? In his singularly disarming fashion, Wilson was telling us to sit back, relax and just have some fun for a change.

The ’60s hits came rolling right out of the gate, “Do It Again”, “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Catch a Wave,” all seamless amalgams of Four Freshmen and doo-wop harmonies souped up with a Chuck Berry-inspired engine. As things slowed down for “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room,” Wilson’s young band lived up to their reputation—their re-creations of the Beach Boys’ magisterial harmonies were heartfelt and often bettered the originals (sacrilege, I know). To hear “I Get Around” and “Don’t Worry Baby” on an oldies station is one thing, but in person, performed with the youthful energy they deserve, they become cathedrals of sound.

For his part, chief architect Brian Wilson sat at his keyboard, ceding most of his youthful vocal parts to guitarist Jeff Foskett, but joining in gamely for most of the lead vocals that were of a lower register. Wilson was as much MC as performer, excitedly introducing the next tune with a little back story as soon as the notes of the previous one faded. Some songs were praised for their uniqueness (“Here’s one the Rolling Stones would never be able to do”), while one, “Sloop John B.,” was singled out for derision (“OK, we got that one out of the way!”).

Of course, this was not the Brian Wilson of yore—that once angelic voice disappeared a long time ago. This night was more about celebrating and doing justice to the incredible songs he once wrote, and about looking back on an era in American history. In retrospect, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” sparkle not only because of their musical brilliance; their yearning for wholeness and fraternity has only gained poignancy, and yes, relevance in a country whose divisions have become a bit more set in stone these last 40 years. This is no longer a country where cruising highways connotes freedom. But these tunes mean a lot more than just fun in the sun—there’s something healing about that crazy theremin hook in “Good Vibrations.”

Kicking off a five-song encore, Wilson and band rocked out to “Johnny B. Goode”, Brian strapping on a Fender bass (mostly for show) and Foskett hamming it up with a solo played behind his head. The boomers and their progeny all stood and shook it as all the big carefree hits rolled along: “Help Me Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Brian Wilson sort of shuffle-jogged off during the last bit, a moment that I thought signaled the end of the show— the over-the-hill icon, putting in the time and walking off with nary a word of goodbye. But he shamed my cynical expectations by returning for a tender version of “Love and Mercy” after which he bid everyone a blessing and a safe drive home. I learned a valuable lesson: You don’t second-guess a genius at his work. You just sit back, relax and let him show you how it is done.

—Mike Hotter

Solo Home Run

Marshall Crenshaw

The Van Dyck, Nov. 7

Marshall Crenshaw’s appearance at The Van Dyck last Saturday marked the release of his first new release in half a dozen years, Jaggedland. Playing solo, as has been his format for some time now, Crenshaw also noted that it was nine years ago on that same stage that he first performed sans band.

His one-hour set was a mix of favorites (among them, “Cynical Girl,” “Fantastic Planet of Love,” and “Mary Anne”) and a fine introduction to his latest. Jaggedland is another helping of his familiar, friendly, catchy pop, wherein hummable melodies hold aloft often slyly surprising phrases. He played the album’s first song, which starts with what has to be one of the finest opening lines: “I had a strange dream one time/There was you, Bobby Vinton, and me.”

Crenshaw’s casual stage patter is equal parts droll humor, well-articulated anecdotes and gentlemanly entertainer. He’s clearly at home onstage. With his days as live band leader behind him, he’s developed into a confident solo performer, playing his songs not as an acoustic strummer, but as an electric guitarist who acknowledges the song’s broader arrangements in the chordal voicings. He invited the audience to add percussives—car keys, silverware, pill bottles—to “Mary Anne.” This was followed by a cover of the Johnny Rivers hit “Poor Side of Town” on which the percussion was further bolstered by spontaneous and robust backup vocals from relaxed and happy tables.

—David Greenberger

Smooth Operators

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Nov.1

OK, I have to admit upfront that I was embarrassingly eager to see Herb Alpert in concert. He was a fixture in the pop universe when I was growing up; his Tijuana Brass albums were almost the only music my entire family could agree on in the late 1960s. He’s also a multi-multi- millionaire from his career as a record label co-owner—the kind who endows foundations, and makes the average multi- millionaire pop star seem poor—so, I thought, Alpert must have had something he wanted to accomplish musically by hitting the road again.

I guessed correctly. Alpert and his vocalist spouse, onetime Sergio Mendes frontwoman Lani Hall, performed classic American and Brazilian pop songs with a dazzling small group; his purpose was to present ensemble jazz of the highest order. Which they did.

The show opened with Hall and Alpert sharing vocals on Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” setting the stage for what Alpert said would be a tribute to the great songwriters. And so it was, as they performed songs by Irving Berlin, Lennon and McCartney, Lerner and Loewe, Cole Porter, Meredith Willson, David Raksin and—of course—Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Alpert’s biggest gift, greater than his killer business instincts, the reserved cool of his playing, or his talent as a bandleader, is as an arranger. This band’s arrangements were spot-on. Porter’s “Anything Goes” became a kind of political anthem; the ominous side of Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” was emphasized, but also tempered with an insinuating rhythm. Raksin’s “Laura” is usually presented in a lushly romantic setting; Alpert took it in the exact opposite direction, making it the most interesting choice of the night. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” was romantic, with Alpert contributing an appropriately romantic solo.

Overall, his soloing was spare and to the point. (The person behind me who was sure Alpert would play his hit “Rise” was dead wrong: The dude is 74.) Hall’s singing was very fine, too, especially on the Brazilian numbers; she’s picked up some Broadway-style singing tics, though, that lessened the impact of “Blackbird.” (At least for me—everyone else seemed to love it.)

The group consisted of Alpert on a couple of different trumpets, singer Hall, pianist Bill Cantos, drummer Michael Shapiro and bassist Hussein Jiffry. An excellent band; an excellent show.

—Shawn Stone

Flour Power

Rhonda Vincent and The Rage

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 31

Rhonda Vincent, acclaimed by the International Bluegrass Music Association as Female Vocalist of the Year from 2000 to 2006, brought her mandolin, four fleet-fingered sidemen, and the proverbial “three chords and the truth” to the Troy Music Hall for a debut performance of blue-ribbon bluegrass.

The Missouri-born Vincent began playing in the 1960s as a child in her family’s band, the Sally Mountain Show (her brother and bandmate Darrin also played with Ricky Skaggs), and by the 1970s she had earned kudos as a mandolinist as well as a singer. After an attempt in the 1990s to cross over into mainstream country failed to bear fruit, Vincent returned to bluegrass and with it its top vocal honors.

With her strong, slightly nasal soprano recalling Dolly Parton, Vincent offered songs from both the bluegrass and vintage country repertoires. Her selections often had striking melodic phrases rising high up the notes of a chord, allowing her to showcase her lovely voice and singing ability. The themes of many of the songs dealt, of course, with heartache as a lifestyle: the elderly widow saying farewell at her husband of 60 years’ funeral, the spouse of the departed Kentuckian wondering if “the grass was bluer on the Other Side,” and the extinguished fire of a marriage gone cold.

Wearing a red-and-black gown, Vincent, supported by Aaron McDaris on banjo, Mike Harris on bass, Ben Helson on guitar, and Hunter Berry on fiddle, opened the first of two sets with “Kentucky Borderline” an ode to a train of the famed Louisville and Nashville railroad line which featured a smoldering flatpicking guitar break by the tall, lanky Helson. He also contributed fine fretwork on a Bill Monroe instrumental, “Pike County Breakdown.”

Another standout in the first set was the gospel number, “When I Travel My Last Mile,” in which Vincent and Harris began as a vocal duet, and then, after an ascending half-step modulation, expanded into a quartet with the addition of McDaris and Helson.

Like Flatt and Scruggs before her, Vincent is sponsored by Martha White Flour. During the second set she delivered an obviously obligatory sales pitch for the brand’s muffin mix, which included tossing out Martha White T-shirts to the crowd. It was the first and I hope last time I’d ever seen a performance in an upscale venue thus interrupted.

The band closed with the love song, “When You’re with Me,” and encored with a maniacally fast version of the fiddle chestnut, “Orange Blossom Special.”

—Glenn Weiser

Good News

Rickie Lee Jones

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, Mass., Oct. 30

 

Rickie Lee Jones is touring in support of her new album, Balm in Gilead, but this year is also the 30th anniversary of her debut album. The Oct. 30 concert in Great Barrington, Mass., found her drawing from throughout her formidable back catalog, including two from that first, self-titled release: “The Last Chance Texaco” and “Weasel and the White Boys Cool.” This underscored the strength of her vision as a then 25-year-old. Unsurprisingly, she skipped over her biggest hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love.” (Though there was an audience shout-out for it during the handful of songs she moved over to the piano for. “Well, that’s a guitar song,” she responded.) The danger of an enormous hit right out of the gate is that it can constrain growth. Of course, that danger only exists for those who wish to grow, which is one of the prerequisites for being an artist. Rickie Lee Jones is an artist. Ultimately, that hit gave her a reasonably dependable base of power on a major label, which allowed her to follow her creative impulses over the course of a couple decades. Her sales never equaled what that hit did for her first album, but that’s a matter for accountants. Jones’ fan base found its proper level, acknowledged by the full house at the Mahaiwe.

Jones was accompanied for the two-hour show by a drummerless trio of bassist Rob Wasserman and keyboardists Joel Guzman (also on accordion) and Alan Okuye. The latter two also provided backup vocals and occasional bits of percussion. The lack of a drummer served the songs well, as the rhythms were all present and forceful within the arrangements, giving listeners a further subtle avenue into the songs. Rather than being told the beats, you could feel it. And beats there were, some of them downright funky. The clarity of the sound allowed Jones and her band to play about half of the new album for an audience unfamiliar with any of it (the release date was four days after the concert), an experience that’s all too rare. Being introduced to such high-caliber yet unfamiliar material at a live event made for a bracing night. “The Gospel of Carlos, Norman and Smith,” “His Jeweled Floor,” and “Bonfires” are among her finest songs.

—David Greenberger


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