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Where Hip Used to Be
By John Rodat

Marshall Crenshaw
The Larkin Lounge, March 15

Martin Benjamin

A friend of mine—an enthu-siastic and discriminating fan of a wide variety of pop and rock music—used to have a code phrase he employed to describe a particular genre of music for which he had nothing but great, face-twisting disdain. Actually, as near as I could tell, it was a genre that he concocted himself, one which I’ve never heard referred to specifically, excepting those occasions when he would bitterly dismiss a particularly offensive ditty with the summation, “You know, it was one of those ‘I’ve-got-the-radio-on’ songs.”

Hair metal was, of course, rife with that kind of stuff, and he would kind of sing the line with a Axl-like rasp, but strangely, metal didn’t bug him. Classic rock, too, had its share of simpleminded, party-hearty, these-are-the-best-of-times anthems, but, by and large, he was a fan of classic rock (Skynyrd, and the like). Honestly, I’ve never been able to figure out the real fine points of what the hell my friend responded to so negatively (though he would leave any room playing anything by Bryan Adams, Asia, Shania Twain or Oasis); I suspect it had something to do with sincerity. And I suspect that the audience gathered at Marshall Crenshaw’s show Friday night has a lot of it in their CD racks.

No offense intended to Crenshaw, who has always been a sure pop tunesmith, and has proved himself to be—more importantly—an evolving and maturing musician. Crenshaw’s guitar playing, for example, has progressed over the years and now rivals his much-vaunted compositional skills. But the sedate, late-show crowd at the Larkin was a nostalgic one there for the hits, even those that no longer seem quite so well-suited to the now-almost-50-year-old singer.

“Someday, Someway,” from Crenshaw’s 1982 debut, for example. It’s a great song, admittedly, but with the new, almost- bluegrass picking style, it sounds crowded. “Cynical Girl,” from the same album, was similarly busy, but the crowd didn’t seem to care. They recognized the words, and they dug it—though Crenshaw’s introduction of the song gave some evidence that he himself has, perhaps, grown distant from the jokingly jaded tune: “You know, when I wrote that song I think I used that word correctly to mean someone who was suspicious of mass culture. I used to hate 77 percent of mass culture; now it’s up to 99 percent.”

Crenshaw’s newer tunes, however, are for the most part more accommodating of his expanding stylistic palette. “Television Light,” off the 1999 album #447, is one of his most compelling. The noirish song has a weathered feel to it; though as smartly constructed as earlier tunes, it feels more burnished than bright. “Dime a Dozen Guy,” too, with its jazzy inflections, highlighted Crenshaw’s ability to work boy-gets-girl-loses-girl clichés into fresh and listenable shapes. And “This Is Where Home Used to Be”—written, Crenshaw said, just three weeks ago—was infused with a poignant and convincing sense of loss.

This is not to say that Crenshaw has wholly abandoned his earlier idiom of ’50s-inspired fun and heartbreak at the soda fountain, though, to my ears, the earlier idiom has gathered some dust: Introducing “T.M.D.,” also from #447, Crenshaw asked rhetorically, “So this is the late crowd, this is the hip crowd, right?” With little noticeable response from the hip crowd, he then launched into the number, which contains the line, “I love to be downtown, that’s where the good times are.” I’ve got the radio on, indeed. I just didn’t believe it—and I didn’t believe that the audience believed it either, though they applauded. You do not have the radio on, you fibbers, you haven’t had the radio on in 15 years, and you live in Clifton Park. This is the first time you’ve been downtown after dark since Vonda Shepard was at the Pepsi.

The real high points of the show for me were Crenshaw’s covers. The guy’s got absolutely impeccable—and laudably inclusive—taste in tunes, and plays them both respectfully and idiosyncratically. “Endless Sleep” by Jody Reynolds, the novelty song “When I’m Cleaning Windows” by George Formby, “Wanda and Duane” by Dave Alvin, Hüsker Dü’s “2541,” and “I’m Only Sleeping” by the Beatles all sounded somehow more like Crenshaw’s own than some of his own—and all received the same polite response from an audience content to have heard 1982’s “Cynical Girl.”

Brian’s Songbirds

Leading Ladies & Uduboy
The Egg, March 13

The patchwork shirt that Brian Melick wore at the Egg on March 13 was symbolic of the evening’s fare. In a program titled Leading Ladies & Uduboy, the percussionist performed duets with eight women who have utilized his considerable talents in the past—and just like Melick’s garb, the evening was a patchwork, featuring everything from simple folk tunes to introspective songs with Hebrew lyrics to quiet classical music to explosive flamenco. It was an impressive showcase for Melick, to be sure, but it also was a celebration of how many different forms musical expression takes in this area.

Each of the distaff musicians performed one song alone and one with Melick, and by alternating solos and duets, Melick ensured that concertgoers never got tired of seeing him onstage. Not that they were likely to do so, because the chameleonic player slid into the background of soft songs, then took forceful (and sometimes comical) stances when appropriate. The “Uduboy” nickname of the program’s title refers to an African clay drum called the udu, but Melick also performed on a full percussion kit, bongos and even a wood contraption that looked like a birdbox. Seeing which device Melick would choose for each noisemaking session was part of the fun.

Two Adirondack folksingers, guitarist Bridget Ball and harpist Martha Gallagher, lent rustic flavor to their numbers. Ball contributed the night’s poppiest passage by belting the Mike Nesmith chestnut “Different Drum,” and although Gallagher often drifted into sticky-sweet, new-age triteness, her comic tune “Mud Season Waltz” was funny and warm. Both folksingers enjoyed spirited interplay with Melick, but the real fireworks came from other performers.

Zoe Zack’s Hebrew lyrics and ominous melodies, played on piano for one song and accordion for another, had an inarguable spiritual quality, even if her intensity sometimes seemed overdramatic. Still, the nocturnal vibe of her tunes added a welcome counterpoint to some of the evening’s brighter sounds. Jazz pianist Peggy Delaney’s “My Tuna” was perhaps the most arresting of those brighter sounds, a jaunty melody loaded with snap and spunk. Melick played two large bongos during “My Tuna,” and he very nearly leapt out of his chair while conjuring rapid-fire fills and rolls on the drums to keep pace with Delaney’s dexterous keyboarding.

Maria Zemantauski’s flamenco guitar work opened the evening, and whether she was hurtling through a fiery burst of notes or plucking through a romantic interlude, she was dazzling. At times, it seemed as if she had extra hands, and clever touches like rolling her fingers against the body of her guitar to create castanet noises proved that Melick wasn’t the evening’s only resourceful percussionist. When Melick played with Zemantauski, he created robust rhythmic surges that added even more heat and flash to her pyrotechnics.

Pyrotechnics of a different kind sparked whenever violinist Sarah Milonovich—one of Melick’s bandmates in the McKrells—was onstage. Although still very young, Milonovich has a dexterity and grace beyond her years, and the clouds of rosin that rose off her instrument when she charged through intricate Celtic pieces reflected the passion inherent to her artistry. Also mining the heartache of Celtic music was singer Siobhán Quinn, whose a cappella “Oh My Donald” was among the most haunting selections of the evening; Quinn’s vocals were as supple and evocative as the fluid notes Milonovich drew out of her violin.

But the most striking performance of the evening came from Monica Wilson-Roach, a cellist who splits her time between the Capital Region and New York City. After bowing her way through an elegant Bach piece for her solo, Wilson-Roach joined Melick to play a somewhat avant-garde-sounding tune that blended classical and jazz intonations. The watery, eerie sounds that Melick slapped and stroked and patted out of an udu merged alchemically with the descending figures, energetic rushes and sharply plucked notes that Wilson-Roach conjured.

The evening closed with Melick’s solo—a spellbinding display featuring his hands dancing across four udu drums—and the solo merged into a final number during which the eight women took their instruments and, for a change, accompanied Melick. Reflecting the tasteful, nuanced musicianship for which Melick is known, the nine players all managed to exercise restraint: Even with four udus, two guitars, a piano, a harp, a cello, a violin, an accordion and Quinn’s voice all going at once, the gentle harmoniousness of the evening wasn’t lost.

—Peter Hanson


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