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Gingerly: Visqueen at Valentine’s.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Making Contact

By Kirsten Ferguson

Visqueen

Valentine’s, May 18

We brought rain, sorry,” said frontwoman Rachel Flotard at the beginning of Visqueen’s Tuesday show at Valentine’s, on a night when the rock fans with extra scratch were at Neil Young’s pricey acoustic show. With a light crowd and an early start time, the Valentine’s show was a fairly low-key event for a high-wattage Seattle rock band on their first tour in five years to the East Coast. But if the evening was anything less than expected, Flotard—as cheery and charming as they come—didn’t show it, and she and her band put on one of the most engaging and enjoyable performances at Valentine’s in recent times.

Flotard, a New Jersey native who’s toured and recorded with Neko Case, shares the alt-country singer’s vocal and songwriting prowess, flaming red hair, and salty down-to-earth humor. But her band is pure power-pop, sharing the exuberant hooks and sing-along harmonies of Case’s New Pornographers and fellow Seattle bands the Muffs and the Fastbacks. After a number of lineup changes since forming in 2001 (including the departure of the Fastbacks’ Kim Warnick, their first bassist), Visqueen currently are touring as a trio with bassist Cristina Bautista and former Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin (whose drum set sported a cheetah with an eye patch, the iconic image from the band’s T-shirts and most recent album).

Martin and Bautista added the right amount of oomph to anchor Visqueen’s high-energy hooks and Flotard’s powerhouse personality, and the trio launched their set with “Hand Me Down” and “Summer Snow,” two instantly memorable tracks from their latest album Message to Garcia (on Flotard’s own independent record label, Local 638 Records). One of the best—if largely unheard—albums from last year, Message to Garcia was inspired by the singer-songwriter’s experience caring for her terminally ill father, a former New York City steamfitter. The album’s hook-laden songs are still more joyous than sad, and after the first song, Flotard cranked her guitar way up and traded her spot on the stage for a place on the floor—two moves that magnified Visqueen’s punchy sound and Flotard’s approachable appeal.

“My contacts just went to the back of my head. So we’re going to Helen Keller these last two songs. She was a tough broad too,” a sight-impaired Flotard joked at the end of Visqueen’s too-short set, which hit highlights from Message to Garcia and two earlier albums. It was over too fast, but hopefully Visqueen will come back to Albany sometime soon.

 

Journey Through the Past

Neil Young, Bert Jansch

Palace Theatre, May 18

For local Neil Young devotees, last Tuesday’s night concert was significant in two major ways. For starters, it was the rock legend’s first visit to the area in nearly seven years, when Young and Crazy Horse played a July 4th show at SPAC that was as memorable for its interminable first act (centered around the middling Greendale album) as it was for its scorching (and crowd-appeasing) second set. Secondly, this week’s show served as the kickoff for Young’s Twisted Road tour—and by the sound of things Young has hit another career peak, showcasing a batch of new tunes that hold up admirably against the beloved warhorses.

Being a tour opener, there had to be some bumps in the road. These started right out of the gate, with Young having two false starts because of pesky acoustic-guitar feedback issues, before finally settling into “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).” Next were two more early gems, “Tell Me Why” and “Helpless.” Removed so far in time from when they were first written, lines like “Still, the searcher/Must ride the dark horse/Racing alone in his fright” seem like hard won bits of poetic wisdom now, while “Helpless” has moved beyond poignancy to become a part of our shared history, especially with a theater full of strangers singing along.

Young switched to a baritone guitar for a stretch of new tunes that, although dealing with familiar themes like war, loss, love, and the fragility of nature, had a vitality and freshness that has been absent in Young’s material for the past several years. He then strapped on his iconic black Gibson Les Paul for a bracing pass through “Down by the River,” followed by “Hitchhiker,” a hard-rock extravaganza that detailed Young’s past experiments with hash, amphetamines and a slew of other drugs. A crunchy version of “Ohio” preceded a stellar spell of Young at the keys, the culmination of which was Young looking all wizardly at a pump organ while singing a transporting version of “After the Gold Rush,” updated to include “Look at Mother Nature on the run/In the 21st century.” After a similarly angelic take of “I Believe in You,” Young returned to the electric guitar for another new one, an environmental storm warning that had Young singing of a rumbling in the ground, mimicking the effect sonically with his heavily phased guitar literally shaking parts of our old beloved Palace.

After a shout for “Old Man” from someone in the audience (to which Young quipped, “64, and there’s so much more!”), Young rounded out the night with truncated but powerful versions of “Cortez the Killer” and “Cinnamon Girl.” An encore featured one more new song before the night was bookended with “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” the words of which reminded me that, while it may not be true that rock & roll will never die, Young has always done his part to make sure it doesn’t happen on his watch.

Acoustic guitar innovator Bert Jansch opened the evening with a set that included stellar versions of the traditional song “Katie Cruel” and the iconic “Blackwaterside” (an “interpretation” of which was made famous by Jimmy Page on the first Led Zeppelin album). It was at Jansch’s fingertips (and guitar tunings) that Page, Young and Nick Drake (among many others) learned to meld Celtic and Indian tonalities with American blues. But Jansch’s music is a contemplative sort that was unfortunately lost on some in attendance who were too deep in their cups to give the proper respect due to such a talent.

—Mike Hotter

 

This Is Not a Punk Band

Public Image Ltd.

Pearl Street Nightclub, Northampton, Mass., May 16

“My Name is John. This is PIL,” punk-rock legend John Lydon explained on Sunday night, sounding like a professor beginning his lecture. “Get your musical ears on. You will need them.”

It had begun. Lydon’s long-running post-Sex-Pistols experimental gig, Public Image Ltd., were really playing live in front of an audience, combining dance, punk, prog, and Krautrock into a nasty sound like a knife cutting through steel and digging into flesh. It felt sort of weird. The Sex Pistols reunion was a no-brainer for Lydon and his bank account, but a PIL reunion seemed impossible at best. Yet here we were.

Lydon had a few questions for the crowd. “Where am I?” The crowd shouted back: “Northampton.” He continued: “Where are the lesbians?” A shriek went up in the air. “This song is for you!” he said as the band launched into “This is Not a Love Song.” Scott Firth’s bass line pulsed huge through the room, and the electronic contraption guitarist-multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds played sent sonic shrapnel spraying across the room.

Johnny Rotten was all snarl and sassafras as he shimmied around the stage like a broken robot, wearing a light- colored suit with no undershirt, sporting a bit of a middle-aged bloat. He had the attitude down: a load of sneering superiority, a sense of entitlement; he clapped for himself before the crowd could to remind them they should be clapping for him. If the audience weren’t responding with his desired level of enthusiasm, he would snidely instruct them how: “All happy faces and clappy clappy now.”

It was not surprising to see Lydon’s cantankerous, sarcastic misanthropy on stage. What was surprising—and pleasantly so—was that his vocals were absolutely thunderous. He hit the highs and the lows in a triumphant manner, demonstrating why he was the sneering voice of the punk revolution. “Albatross,” off of Metal Box, was a particularly nasty treat.

Edmonds delivered shrill riffs, sometimes on a Fender Telecaster, other times an electronic baglama or oud. Drummer Bruce Smith pounded away at repetitive dance beats as well as drum machine samples. Combined with Lydon’s distorted howl and Firth’s robotic bass lines, it was a reminder of how the band helped to birth the industrial genre. “Tie Me to the Length of That,” “Poptones” and “Death Disco” felt fresh, relevant and biting.

But there were unfortunate moments as well. “Warrior” felt terribly dated, with Huey Lewis vibes spilling all over the place and Rotten announcing, “I’m a warrior!” And “Religion,” Lydon’s token anti-organized-religion rant, sounded so hokey that it was a living, breathing rock cliché. (He made up for it with a token Lydon tirade. “Is the pope a Nazi?” he demanded. “Answer: Yes, the pope was a Nazi!”)

The encore delivered the goods in spades. “Public Image” felt so timeless thanks to Lydon’s delivery that pudgy Lydon faded from the stage, and there stood the original motherfucking, sneering punk god himself. It continued through “Rise” and ended with a pulsating head trip on “Open Up.”

Lydon had one more set of instructions for the crowd before leaving the stage. “Connecticut, don’t you dare vote for Sarah Palin!” he demanded, imploring audience members to buy her book and make her rich. “But don’t make her a real politician.”

—David King


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