Gordon Lightfoot carries on in Troy.
to Better Days
Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 8
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
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.
Cymbals Eat Guitars
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
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
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.
Letdown for the Letdown
Deerhoof, Xiu Xiu
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
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
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
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?”
Soprano,” she replies.
Xiu Xiu aren’t crowd pleasers. I would have been disappointed
Symphonies to God
Van Dyke Parks, Clare and The Reasons
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
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.