a fine line between clever and stupid: Andrew WK at Northern
Lights. Photo by Martin Benjamin
Andrew W.K., Apex Theory
Lights, April 16
To truly enjoy Andrew W.K.’s set at Northern Lights last Tuesday
night, as I did, it helped to have an opening band who provided
some perspective. Andrew W.K., as you may or may not know,
is something of an overnight sensation in the music press;
he’s all over the British music rags, anyway, lauded as the
latest savior of rock & roll.
Partly it’s the guy’s unique visual appeal. A widely distributed
photo shows him sporting long, stringy dark hair and his now-trademark
outfit of obscenely filthy white jeans and T-shirt. With his
tall frame slightly hunched over and his arms folded across
his muscular chest in vaguely menacing fashion, Andrew W.K.
looks caveman-like and, well, a bit intriguing. Then there’s
the attention-getting photo that appears on the cover of his
new debut album I Get Wet: an almost gruesome headshot
that shows a mass of scarlet blood streaming down his impassive
Of course, the seeming rapidity with which Andrew W.K. has
caught the attention of the press will turn some music fans
against him from the get-go. And some have called the rocker’s
music—admittedly overhyped—derivative and dumb. But as I said,
a little context might be necessary to appreciate Andrew W.K..
At Northern Lights, he shared the bill of an MTV 2-sponsored
show with Apex Theory, a band who managed to combine the worst
elements of several rock music variants, including hardcore,
metal, prog-rock and white-boy rap. The baseball-hat-clad
singer exuded a bad vibe, whether beating his chest in aggressive
macho posturing or baiting the clubgoers who chose to hang
by the bar. He could also be cheesy. “This is a song about
an angel,” he actually declared at one point, with a certain
After enduring Apex Theory’s painful set, the sight of Andrew
W.K.’s gnarly roadie, who looked far more like a Motörhead
guitar tech than a frat-boy chunderhead, filled me with hope.
Hope turned to anticipation when I saw Andrew W.K.’s lineup
onstage: Count ’em, three grizzly guitarists (plus a bassist,
drummer and organ player), with impressively frizzed-out heavy
metal hair. When Andrew W.K. came onstage—in the dirty white
get-up, of course—he was almost a scary presence. The guy
is huge and seems to possess the wildness of a human being
raised among wolves. My initial gut fear of him dissipated
as soon as it became apparent that he was onstage for one
reason: to revel in the joy of big, loud rock & roll.
The band cranked out blisteringly loud songs—“I Love NYC,”
“She Is Beautiful,” and “It’s Time to Party”—whose shout-out,
fist-pumping choruses were as dumb as it gets. Of course,
as we know, it can take smarts to write music that’s exceptionally
simpleminded (e.g., the Ramones). As a frontman, the perpetually
grinning Andrew W.K. possessed a kinetic energy that was hard
to look away from: He whipped his long greasy hair around
in opposing angles to his flailing limbs, conducted the band
with his microphone like a demented Leonard Bernstein, and
executed midair leg splits like an insane aerobics instructor.
Despite his slightly threatening appearance, Andrew W.K.’s
personality proved to be more akin to a lovey-dovey raver
on a perpetual ecstasy trip. His constant concern for the
crowd, who had been bouncing off each other all night, seemed
genuine. And it was hard not to like a guy who could say things
like “Please sing along and don’t be afraid to dance,” and
sound completely earnest. “This is a fun night,” Andrew W.K.
declared happily as he tossed water over the front rows to
cool off the crowd. Even if Andrew W.K.’s music is derivative
and stupid, you can say this much: He knows enough to extract
the right elements from hard rock music.
the Boys Are
Alex Chilton is to Memphis, Mike Gent is to the Capital Region.
And when the prodigal son returns, the waters of the Hudson
tremble and lap nervously at their shores. This time, the
Figg man brought along his other unit, the Gentlemen, whose
muscular rock pretty much torched the upstairs at Valentine’s,
once again reinforcing the fact that Gent has quietly become
one of the great voices in non-mainstream rock. (The term
“alternative” having long been absconded by Ritalin cases
in long shorts.)
a new album and a crack unit that matches him with three-fourths
of New England’s Gravel Pit, Gent made no bones about being
happy to be back home. And when he said “My hometown” and
raised his hand in a jokey salute, one got the sense that
it was also heartfelt. The locals were glad to have him back
as well, with a strong clutch of audience members proving
to be in good throat at every enticement to sing along. Like
most reunions, it was also a time to catch up with old friends:
“The first time I saw you in gym class, you were wearing that
shirt,” remarked Gent from the stage to a hirsute fellow named
Phil down front.
The Gents kicked off with the Stones-on-steroids crunch of
“Sour Mash” and then launched into the amphetamine rock of
“Speed Baby.” The songs represented the first two cuts from
their 2000 debut, and the night was an exhaustive stroll through
the band’s catalogue. Let’s not forget, though, that the Gentlemen,
as their moniker indicates, are first and foremost men, and
the place was pummeled by testosterone-laden blasts. Gent,
guitarist Lucky Jackson and bassist Ed Valauskas wore their
Gibsons like gunslingers and breathed fury down the mikes
while Pete Caldes was pure granite at his low kit.
The Gentlemen have three singer- songwriters in Gent, Jackson
and Valauskas, and each one upped the ante with coiled vitriol
directed at nameless women who did them wrong and countless
bands who, well, suck. And sometimes, in metaphor, the two
themes met: “You should be rockin’ with a rock-and-roller/But
you’re gigging with a session man,” spewed Jackson with raw-throated
fury in “Show Me How You Rock ’n’ Roll.” Other times, things
were more clear-cut, as when Valauskas, in “It’s Phony Rock
and Roll,” offered some constructive criticism to would-be
rockers: “Not a sincere bone in your body/I would like to
break every one of them.” At the end of the evening, I bade
Valauskas farewell and mentioned the track, but he brushed
it off modestly: “It’s a stupid little song.” For those of
us leaving Valentine’s all wrung out and fulfilled, however,
it wasn’t. And I sense Valauskas knew that too.
Empire State Plaza . . .
Egg, April 20
Oops. They did it again.
Last year, for their first American concert, and the first
show of a three-date U.S. tour, Cuba’s Habana Sax obliterated
a small, unsuspecting audience at the Troy Savings Bank Music
Hall. Back for a full-fledged tour, the as-yet-unheralded
ensemble performed their magic on a sizable crowd at the Egg.
The show started, like last year’s, with a jaw-dropping hard-bop
ensemble piece, all four saxophones blazing through an impossibly
dense and cacophonous composition, with drummer Francois Zayas
beating, counterbeating and holding the short blast together.
The show ended, two hours later, with the five members at
the tip of the stage doing an intricate percussion number
featuring nothing but clapping hands.
In between, Habana Sax played two sets of music that was brilliant,
varied, challenging, and always fun. The uniqueness of this
group is their ability to play music as complex and sophisticated
as anything you’ll hear anywhere (somebody after the show
mentioned to me the obvious Ornette Coleman influence) and
spice it up with conventions a little easier on the ears (someone
else mentioned to me the obvious James Brown influence), and
the whole time be aggressively and charmingly entertaining.
Songs switched gears constantly; the band members switched
instruments constantly. A typical number would start with
a quiet flute-sax duet, morph into a Crusaders-like funk,
turn to something approaching free jazz, then barrel into
a screaming hiphop number, complete with lightning-speed Spanish
freestyle rapping, then back to the flute. Some songs seemed
to encompass the past 400 years of Cuban music in one five-minute
shot. There was classical music; the son dance music
recently revived by the Buena Vista Social Club; there was
Bo Diddley and Gershwin. And there was silliness galore, interspersed
with music as serious as a heart attack.
Drummer Zayas is simply a monster. His kit playing created
the sound of an entire Latin percussion section, and he played
with a groove and with the chops to rival any Latin fusion
drummer on the planet. His bongo and maracas solos simply
brought down the house.
After the show, the band came into the Egg’s lobby to meet
and greet and sign CDs. An astounding number of middle-aged
fans formed long lines to shake hands and talk to the band,
despite the fact that none of the band members speak English.
It was, apparently, more than enough to be near them a little
while longer, before they set out to conquer the world.
Lena, April 22
In 1968, 17-year-old Simon Nicol was happily playing rhythm
guitar and contributing some backup vocals to the recently
assembled Fairport Convention. In an incredibly short time,
they evolved from fanciers of American music into musicians
who drew on the centuries-old traditions of their own United
Kingdom forebears, and they began to showcase the stunning
songwriting of both Sandy Denny and guitarist Richard Thompson.
Now, 34 years later, the legacies of both Denny and Thompson
continue to loom over the band’s history.
For a band who had difficultly maintaining a consistent lineup
from release to release in their first decade, they’ve become
a very stable entity indeed. Nicol is the only original member,
but bass player Dave Pegg and fiddler Ric Saunders have both
been on board for half of the band’s life. Rounded out with
drummer Gerry Conway and mandolinist -fiddler-singer-songwriter
Chris Leslie, the band are in the midst of a U.S. tour, celebrating
the release of their new CD, XXXV.
Fairport Convention have become a dependable blue-chip stock,
pleasing fans with a recipe that has served them well since
the mid-’70s. They mix effective, if unspectacular, originals
with a variety of traditional jigs, reels and ballads, along
with important songs from their own history.
At Caffe Lena on Sunday, they opened with “Walk Awhile” and
closed with Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” and the
delightfully sprawling “Matty Groves.” The rest of the 90
minutes offered the full house generous portions of their
new album and hefty dollops of droll British humor. Their
longevity is well-deserved, and they’ve nurtured it wisely,
coming across as working men doing their job, glad to hobnob
with a relaxed candor that’s engaging and genuine. They reserve
flash and flair for their playing, whose effortlessness belies
their prodigious skills. Their three-part harmonies come across
as flawless but, thankfully, without the airbrushed high gloss
of other vocal groups. Nicol handles most of the lead vocals
(with Chris Leslie singing the rest), and his is a voice of
simple richness with an everyman sonority tempered by confidence
and honest directness.