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It’s a fine line between clever and stupid: Andrew WK at Northern Lights. Photo by Martin Benjamin

Big Dumb Fun
By Kirsten Ferguson

Andrew W.K., Apex Theory
Northern 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 face.

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 self-important seriousness.

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.

Where the Boys Are

The Gentlemen
Valentine’s, April 20

What 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.)

With 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.

—Erik Hage

First, Empire State Plaza . . .

Habana Sax
The 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.

—Paul Rapp

Workingman’s Live

Fairport Convention
Caffe 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.

—David Greenberger

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