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21st-century metal messiah: Jonathan Davis of Korn. Photo by Joe Putrock

Be Here Now
By J. Eric Smith

Korn, Puddle of Mudd, Deadsy
Pepsi Arena, June 23

If you spend as much time reading, writing and talking about music as I do, you get pretty well accustomed to people regularly, blindly bitching about the quality of music in their own time, preferring instead to look back over their shoulders to lift up yesteryear’s tunes as the ones that really mattered, man. But I’m starting to get a point in my appreciation for modern metal where I’m inclined to lift up the early 21st century, right here, right now, as an era when not only were great metal bands making great metal music, but they were actually getting popular while they were doing it.

Last year’s (deserving) critical and commercial chart toppers were System of a Down, and based on what I’ve heard of Korn’s new album, and based on what I saw when the Cali-bred quintet dropped a down-tuned bomb on the Pepsi Arena Sunday, I’m thinking that Jonathan Davis and company are gonna be the (equally deserving) banner holders for metal that matters in 2002. They’ve done it, in part, by astutely distancing themselves over their past two albums (the new Untouchables and 1999’s Issues) from the puerile musical masqued maggotry of the Slipknot/Mudvayne side of the metal house, and the equally odious rap-metal cock-rockery of Limp Bizkit and their legions of imitators.

In short, Korn sound like Korn—and nobody else. And that’s become a really, really good thing as the group have honed their chops and taken their low-riding seven-string-guitar-driven sound into all sorts of interesting new directions, none of them wanting in the least in the wallop department. Jonathan Davis has grown, too, managing to get both his low-range bellow and his high-pitched warble to work well for him, sometimes in the same song—or even the same line of the same song.

Davis was in fine voice Sunday night, with a look to match as he stalked the stage like some sort of modern Rasputin, decked out in black dreads, a fuzzy sort of long-sleeved sweatery-looking thing, and a fabulous floor-length caftan-cum-skirt. He was anti-fashion and anti-lookist to the Nth degree, and was deliciously compelling for it, as he stalked and twitched and raged through a generous selection of fan favorites from throughout his band’s career, with “Falling Away From Me” and “Trash” from Issues, “Here to Stay” and “Thoughtless” from Untouchables, and “Faget” from Korn’s eponymous debut standing as the most vocally impressive of the lot.

Which is not to say that his bandmates weren’t impressive themselves, mind you. Guitarists James Shaffer and Brian Welch (the latter of whom also doubled up excellently on backing vocals) have finally dragged me, reluctantly, to the point where I can begin to accept the seven-string guitar as an instrument worthy of admiration, in large part because of what they did with the top end of their axes, instead of just grinding away on the extra low string. And that was cool, since bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu defined the bottom down just fine on his own, holding his bass in a unique, nearly vertical position as he played deeply percussive patterns around which drummer David Silveria rumbled and clattered. When it all clicked, it was nothing short of awesome.

As opposed to, say, Puddle of Mudd, this year’s frontrunners in the Nirwana-be sweepstakes, and Sunday night’s middlin’ middle act. The straightforward rock quartet have got three tunes in regular rotation on regional rock radio—all of them the kind of nondescript songs that don’t make you change the station, but also don’t make you turn the radio up louder when you hear them. Ho hum, but still the high points of a quickly forgotten set. Deadsy (featuring Elijah Blue Allman, spawn of Cher and Gregg, on vocals and guitar) were much more intriguing during their opening set, creating a powerful Marilyn Manson-meets-Swans sound, capped with noisily neat synth-guitar and keyboard horrors. Allman’s got a pretty compelling baritone voice that makes his material sound more interesting than it probably is, but I’m certainly willing to be sucked into his rock star fantasia with him if he and his bandmates can build on this impressive first taste of their fare.

Little Boy’s Night Out

Jonathan Richman
Valentine’s, June 24

On Monday night, Jonathan Richman could do no wrong. At least, the many fans who packed the downstairs of Valentine’s, enduring the stifling heat, thought so. They laughed and cheered nearly every time the wide-eyed troubadour sang a witty lyric or uttered a blatantly corny joke. In fact, all Richman had to do was throw off his acoustic guitar, flash his lopsided grin and swing his hips like a burlesque Latin playboy, and the crowd erupted with yelps of approval. Really, I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw an Albany bar crowd exude such unconditional love.

He doesn’t appeal to everyone, but those who like Jonathan Richman seem to adore him. Although he’s over 50 now, the former leader of the influential ’70s band the Modern Lovers still looks like a perplexed, lost little boy when he furrows his brow and fixes the audience with his never-blinking, plaintive stare. It’s a downright endearing expression, sad, knowing and goofy all at the same time. Similarly, Richman’s songs encompass simplicity and juvenilia as well as maturity and worldly sophistication.

It’s hard to imagine another performer who could get people singing and dancing along to not one, but two crowd-pleasing numbers about visual art. “Did you see the last paintings of Van Gogh? Did the sorrow show?” Richman sang during his ode to the color-saturated canvases of the troubled modern artist. Backed by drummer Tommy Larkins, Richman then launched into the infectious opening strains of “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar,” as three women whooped and shimmied in a conga line up to the front of the stage. With the women egging him on, Richman put down his guitar, let the crowd chant the chorus, and danced merrily like a puppet that had lost its strings.

“I read this children’s book and it made me sad, ’cause there’s this whole kind of animal that’s not here no more,” Richman said in his thick Boston-accent-cum-speech-impediment, as he filled, on the spot, a fan’s request for “I’m a Little Dinosaur.” That song led seamlessly into a quartet of crowd favorites: the rejection-phobic “Affection,” the comical “Here Come the Martian Martians” and the Modern Lovers classic “Pablo Picasso.”

The set was not without its quiet moments (“True Love Is Not Nice,” “Lonely Financial Zone”), but Richman ended on a rousing note. Fans boosted Larkins’ percussion by hand clapping to “You Can’t Talk to the Dude,” and then shouted along to “Vampire Girl,” on which Richman confessed to finding the female Goth look irresistibly intriguing: “Does she cook beans? Does she cook rice? Does she do ritual sacrifice?” The crowd responded to this last song with such a hearty chorus of cheers and cries for more that Richman almost looked moved to tears. Despite the oppressive heat, he acquiesced and played one more: “Walter Johnson,” his testament to a kindhearted baseball player.

—Kirsten Ferguson

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