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Buffalo beat: the Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzenik (l) and Robby Takac at the Palace Theater. Photo by Martin Benjamin

The Goo and the Bad
By Shawn Stone

Goo Goo Dolls, Sensefield
Palace Theater, June 5

The packed house at the Palace was more than ready for the Goo Goo Dolls. Energetic and very loud, people yelled and stomped at the slightest provocation. Last Wednesday was one of the rare hot days of this cool spring, and even inside, with the air conditioners doing their best against the humanity and the humidity, it seemed like summer might finally be in sight. When the Goos took the stage in a psychedelic swirl of light, the crowd really roared.

Launching into the hard-driving “Big Machine” from their latest disc, Gutterflower, the band were nearly overshadowed by their stage set and light show. Disco balls on retractable arms descended from above. Long, gleaming steel ladders of lights on movable tracks rotated in behind the band from the sides of the set. Dozens of individual beams, flashing at seizure-inducing intervals, shot out at the audience. It had a certain industrial aspect appropriate to a band originally from Buffalo, dressed up with glitz required of a big, expensive rock show.

The five-piece band (the three core members plus two ringers on guitar and keyboards) ran through their familiar string of radio hits with energy and verve. “Iris” and “Slide” provoked loud crowd singalongs. “Dizzy” featured a striking synthesizer intro, uncharacteristic for this quintessential guitar band. “Broadway,” which refers to a street in Buffalo, not the more famous boulevard in the city that never sleeps, was dark and gritty.

The Goo Goo Dolls were loving every minute of it. Specifically, bassist Robby Takac and guitarist John Rzenik were irrepressible; the other three musicians stayed in their places, closer to the rear of the stage (doubtless reflecting on their place in the real scheme of things). Takac alternately smiled and leered at the audience, while front man Rzenik moved from one side of the stage to the other, being every bit the rock star, slapping hands with the crowd and toweling off the sweat.

These two distinct personae fit together like a vaudeville act. Rzenik, with his raspy voice pitched perfectly for maximum emotional effect, sings the power ballads and soulful, angst-fueled rock songs. Takac fronts on the fast, more punk-style numbers, wearing the shit-eating grin of a guy who can’t believe his bar band is playing the Palace. If Takac’s songs seemed strategically and obviously placed in the set list to give Rzenik’s voice a rest after particularly strenuous vocal efforts, it didn’t make them any less enjoyable.

Given the highly emotional and often sappy nature of the ballads he sings, Rzenik probably would be unbearable if he took himself too seriously. Happily, he’s as unsentimental as Buffalo in a blizzard. When he screwed up the vocal climax on one hit, he exclaimed profanely, laughed at himself, and did it again, correctly. In the funniest moment of the evening, Rzenik told the story behind the haunting photo of a little girl on the cover of Gutterflower: Apparently, the girl was the kid from Hell, punching the guys in the band and eating the flowers. Rzenik’s fondest memory of the experience was the kid throwing hot soup in her mother’s face.

Sensitive minus a sense of humor defined the music of opening act Sensefield. The guitar band wore their hearts on their sleeves in songs like “Save Yourself,” “Be Here Now” and “The Weight of the World.” In direct contrast to the headliners, Sensefield didn’t let little things like melodies or hooks get in the way of the pure angst pouring all over the audience. Many seemed to appreciate the effort, but just as many were impatient for Goo.

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be

The Box Tops, Lesley Gore, the Association, Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals
Proctor’s Theatre, June 8

Having been born in 1969, I certainly wasn’t the target audience for this kind of showcase. In fact, I didn’t come to the concert for the most altruistic reasons. I was here to catch a glimpse of Alex Chilton, the Memphis enigma who led the Box Tops during their brief career and then went on to front cult power poppers Big Star (and to undertake a long, peculiar solo career). My interest in Chilton certainly put me in the minority at Proctor’s, for the older folks streaming into the venue in perfumes, colognes and pressed shirts were here to be plunged into an inwardly tightening landscape of mid-’60s nostalgia, not to track some mythic cult figure.

The Box Tops were pretty low on the bill and took the stage under dusky lights behind the oldies announcer, with Chilton ambling on last in blue jeans and a blazer. The group’s blue-eyed soul made them sort of a Southern version of the Rascals in their day. And if you were looking for the cantankerous Chilton (who had been known to trash dressing rooms as late as a Big Star gig in Memphis in ’97), you weren’t going to find him here. Rather, he was in soul-man mode, shimmying and throwing in a few halfhearted Temptations moves. The group opened with the hit “Cry Like a Baby” and swung through songs popularized by Sam & Dave and Sam Cooke before the obligatory run through “The Letter.” Chilton’s voice was weak and thready in spots, and those expecting to hear his gruff vocals on “The Letter” were out of luck. (Word is he hasn’t been able replicate that sound since the ’60s.) Chilton introduced the final track with a “Thank you for being so nice to us,” punctuating the fact that there wasn’t going to be any fodder for myth this evening. The innocuous middle-aged guy with the conservative haircut simply vanished after a brief performance—and there was a whole evening of oldies yet ahead.

Lesley Gore (“It’s My Party”) followed with a very cabaret set that involved extended anecdotes backed by musical accompaniment, with her girlishly powerful vocals of the ’60s supplanted by a brassy rasp. But the highlights came with closing acts the Association and Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals, both of whom boasted remarkable multipart vocal harmonies. The Association’s brand of baroque pop yielded such hits as “Never My Love” and “Cherish,” and those and more were rolled out this evening by the band who, decked out in white Colonel Sanders outfits, swung from sophisticated pop to harder-edged early psych-rock. Cavaliere and a group of relative youngsters stole the show, however. Blue-eyed or not, Cavaliere has the pipes of a true soul man, and his swirling Hammond organ and classic originals such as “Groovin’” and “People Got to Be Free” sent me home with the Rascals on my lips and Chilton far from my mind.

—Erik Hage

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