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Debris: Gordon Lightfoot carries on in Troy.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Here’s to Better Days

By Glenn Weiser

Gordon Lightfoot

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 8

 

Discovered in 1964 by the folk duo Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot’s music so impressed Bob Dylan that he famously said that when he heard one of the Canadian balladeer’s songs, he wished it would last forever. At a full Troy Savings Bank Music Hall last Friday, Lightfoot proved to a true-blue crowd that his superbly crafted hits have lost none of their luster. But due to an impressive history over the years of health problems both unsought and self-inflicted, the once rich, resonant baritone voice that delivered those songs so memorably is, sadly, almost completely gone.

Lightfoot, 71, has survived Bell’s palsy, a stroke, some years lost to the bottle, and a six-week coma in 2002 following a ruptured aortic aneurism during which he underwent a tracheotomy. None of that, especially having a hole punched in your throat to open an airway, does your pipes any favors. Although he can still sing on key and without much strain, his vocals have badly weakened. That, unfortunately, made listening to him not much fun.

Wearing an indigo velvet jacket, grey slacks, and white dress shirt, Lightfoot stepped onstage accompanied by his lead guitarist Terry Clements, drummer Barry Keane, bassist Rick Haynes, and keyboardist Michael Heffernan. The slender, craggy-countenanced songster began the first of his two sets with the title track of his 1968 album, Did She Mention My Name. From the first line, the erosion of his once robust vocals was evident—he simply had no power left. Worse, I couldn’t make out most of his lyrics owing to his practice of breaking up his syllables, and he also had a disconcerting habit of often grimacing as if in pain when he came to either the end of line or a high note.

Lightfoot’s sidemen were all highly competent musicians, but neither Clemens or Hefernan did enough soloing to offset the singing deficit. If the show had a saving grace, it was that not even Lightfoot’s star-crossed voice, garbled delivery and occasional dropped or scrambled verses could kill the beauty of his songs. “Sundown” was still a sexy, menacing look backwards at his former dissipated lifestyle, the melody of “If You Could Read My Mind” sparkled as ever, and “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” stood as a tense tale of tragedy spun out in finest ballad tradition.

It was heartening to see the loyalty of the many fans who turned out for the show. Maybe that’s what keeps Lightfoot going. Tattered though his singing was, they kept applauding anyway. My hat’s off to them.

 

Static Clang

Cymbals Eat Guitars

Valentine’s, Oct. 12

Some bands grow up and it is good; other bands grow up and you get No Code. It’s still hard to say which way the maturation of Staten Island’s Cymbals Eat Guitars is going to go. Their set, in front of a sparse crowd at Valentine’s on Monday night, was made up largely of songs from their forthcoming album which, to put it lightly, were dull compared to their older material. The new songs had a certain mood that felt serious, but it felt like it would take repeated listens to decide if they were anything more than straightforward moody guitar songs.

The material off their first album, however, does not require multiple listens for it to jump out at you—maybe to understand its progressive shifts, but not to enjoy it. “ . . And the Hazy Sea,” from the band’s self-released Why There are Mountains, opened with a freak-out, with Joseph D’Agostino shouting whoa-oh, whoa-oh over feedback, the warm keys of Brian Hamilton, and the kind of indie guitar shredding you would expect from Dinosaur Jr. The song then mellows out, riding a wave of organ until it seizes out again big and bold. Loud-quiet dynamics can get old pretty quick, but Cymbals pull it off by keeping you on your toes, and knowing how to shred. Unfortunately D’Agostino didn’t seem to be able to keep his voice under control. The band’s early work could easily be compared to Dinosaur Jr., but with the weathered voice of J. Mascis replaced by the fast-food kid from The Simpsons.

D’Agostino plays sexy Jazzmasters, Jaguars and other Fender sweets like Mascis and company. And he usually uses his guitar in a similar way, clean tone into nasty guitar spasms. But the newer material abandons that for something more straightforward—Hamilton’s keys feel more at home on the new songs, but where Mountains felt like the perfect road trip album to due unexpected highs and lows, the new material never ramps out, or hits a release. It just stays glum. And yet D’Agostino still slips from sweet off-key indie-boy signing into odd shouted lines seemingly out of the blue, with songs ending abruptly. There is something more going on with the new material than could possibly have been grasped on a Monday night in Valentine’s, and that is why I truly wish the band had just tore through older material with D’Agostino choking piercing high notes, feedback and distortion from his guitar until my ears bled.

—David King

 

A Letdown for the Letdown

Deerhoof, Xiu Xiu

Pearl Street Nightclub, Northampton, Mass., Oct. 10

Deerhoof was chirpy, happy and perky on Saturday night at Pearl Street, and I wasn’t. They put on a wonderful performance, but I don’t care, so you don’t get to read about their performance. You get to read about how an amazing set by Xiu Xiu got cut short.

It begins with an old guy with a Just For Men-colored goatee who couldn’t shut his fucking mouth. “That roadie is wearing a varsity jacket that says ‘die’ where his name should be,” says one of the trio of hyper-observant grey-hairs standing behind me as Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu takes the stage.

The banter continues. “I can actually see the stage.” “There’s no reefer smoke fogging things up.” “These kids these days don’t know how to do it.”

Suddenly I am in high school again, a misanthropic goth alienated from myself and everyone else. Xiu Xiu does that to me, but the feeling is accelerated by the inane commentary.

Stewart takes to the mic with a sleek Gibson SG. His partner, Angela Seo, stands over a keyboard (which the gentleman behind me refers to as a gizmo) and between two cymbal stands. He’s got a Game Boy. “I don’t think he is the roadie,” the peanut gallery continues. They are half-right; the proper name for what Stewart carries is a Nintendo DS. You can play Tetris on the one, while the latter actually features a few neat, music- creating programs.

While Stewart in performance is like an open-heart operation, just emotional gore and raspy oppressive singing, his music can at times be extremely delicate, with Smiths-like guitar work over soft beats, whistles and percussion. He’s a master of the ways of misanthropy, his voice like a collision between the sound and inflection of Morrissey and Ian Curtis.

As the set continues the songs go from fragile to contorted, gnarled, but more solid and driven, focusing on Stewart’s powerful, tortured vocals accompanied by distorted beats and magnificent synth lines. I’m hoping for “Dear God I Hate Myself,” a fairly straightforward song for this eccentric and experimental act, which features an emotionally shocking chorus that conveys Stewart’s self-loathing.

The chatter is ongoing. “They just flashed the ‘Deerhoof go on at 10:45 sign,’ ” one of them says, interrupting the opening notes of one of Xiu Xiu’s best songs, “I Love the Valley, Oh.” Stewart breaks out the Nintendo and fucking rocks it like it’s a Flying V, sending violent, robotic synth lines crashing against eardrums. Another song, one that’s less mopey murder and more perky suicide, is called “Chocolate Makes You Happy.”

Then a member of the sound crew tells the band they have one song left. “No,” Stewart shouts, “you guys were late. We have two left. Do your fucking job.”

It seems almost like a setup: Stewart, the fragile anti-everything pushed around by a captain-of-the-football-team type while in the middle of a soul-revealing set.

Xiu Xiu make it through one more song, and I am holding out for “Dear God I Hate Myself.” At this point it would feel like a release, a fuck-you to everyone who’s just here to comment on what a proper rock concert looks like. “Is this still on?” Stewart asks. The mic goes out mid-sentence. “If we come back we won’t play in this shithole!” Stewart says. “The only thing we can do in times like these is tell these guys, you suck!” The crowd chants it while Stewart flips double birds towards the sound crew.

Afterward, I approach Seo at the merch booth. Sorry, but I have to ask. “What was the last song going to be?”

“Boy Soprano,” she replies.

Xiu Xiu aren’t crowd pleasers. I would have been disappointed anyway.

—David King

 

Old-Age Symphonies to God

Van Dyke Parks, Clare and The Reasons

Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., Oct. 1

This past June I was at the Iron Horse on the day they filled a portion of window with about a dozen identical fliers of Van Dyke Parks’ face. So unexpected was this announcement that it felt like I was seeing things, or was in a dream. But there it was: Van Dyke Parks would be appearing on the Iron Horse stage four months later. That bit of news added an air of giddy anticipation over the course of the summer that came and went.

Last Friday’s show was everything I could have wanted in a life-enriching experience. Backed by three string players (the violin-cello-guitar trio who were also the Reasons), Van Dyke Parks played piano and visited selections from his idiosyncratic catalog, along with a few songs by contemporaries with whom he worked. While the group was smaller in scale than the 18-piece ensemble that accompanied Parks on what became his live Moonlighting album in 1998 (the final of his half-dozen albums recorded for Warner Brothers over the course of three decades), his orchestral sensibilities are present even when he’s playing piano alone.

Parks is 67 and this is the first time he’s ever toured. While he was sometimes out of his comfort zone being in the spotlight, he was clearly enjoying the experience, referring to his youthful bandmates with their boundless energy as Young Moderns. Each song was so resonant that it wasn’t a set of assorted high points, but one remarkably full moment after another on a stroll through one of the finest musical hearts and minds in the last 40 years of American music.

They opened with the first three tracks from Jump!, Parks’ 1984 song cycle based on Uncle Remus tales. The wistful “Orange Crate Art,” with one of his finest bits of wordplay (“hobo hop on”) was followed by tributes to Phil Ochs and John Hartford. The arrangement of “Night in the Tropics” by 19th-century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk was an elegant rendition that added a further glimpse into the music that moves Parks. Though marred by the night’s only technical issue (feedback followed by poorly matched mic levels), Clare Muldaur joined the group to duet with Parks on the set- closing “Heroes and Villains.”

Clare and the Reasons were the impetus behind this tour and it’s understandable why Parks would have taken to the proposal. The songs by Clare Muldaur (one of Geoff’s daughters) and the arrangements by her French husband, Olivier Manchon are very much from the musical world that Parks calls home. The quartet of multi-instrumentalists mixed pop, cabaret, European art songs, folk and classical into something all its own. Clare’s singing was expressive and confident, moving easily between emotional depth and lighthearted bounciness. With all three of the Reasons contributing backing vocals, the total effect was full and complete. Never overplaying, every musical flourish was tied to the needs of the song, nothing was ever gratuitous or superfluous. Their album Arrow from last year is one of the finest works to appear this decade. Stylish and unforced, every song had moments that made anyone who loves music grin uncontrollably. Magic occurred, made all the more potent because at the end of each song, these four youthful musicians turned back into mere mortals. Van Dyke joined them for the last number in their opening set, a heartbreakingly beautiful version of Nilsson’s “He Needs Me,” which Parks had originally arranged for the movie Popeye.

—David Greenberger


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