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All-American: Tom Petty at SPAC. Photo by Martin Benjamin

Rebel Rebel
By Kirsten Ferguson

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Brian Setzer Trio
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 5

Watching Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers thrill the packed amphitheater at SPAC on Friday night, it occurred to me that the pale-haired Petty may be the quintessential American songwriter around today—as American, perhaps, as the July Fourth fireworks display that filled Saratoga’s Congress Park with plumes of acrid smoke the day before his show. So many of Petty’s staunchly individualistic songs are about freedom—albeit the personal, not the flag-waving, kind. A vein of rebellion runs through his work, and Petty has an uncanny ability to conjure that fleeting period of adolescence when independence was something to be fought for, and being “bad” was often a prerequisite for having fun.

Judging by the legions of raucous, substance-addled young fans who partied in the SPAC parking lots before and after the show, Petty still strikes quite a chord with the pre-adult, “being bad is so much fun” crowd. For the rest of us, Petty’s recap of his 25-year career provided a heady dose of nostalgia. The show got off to an exuberant start, as the pallid Petty opened with two feel-good songs from his 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever: “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” a blissful testament to the freedom and promise of the open road, and “I Won’t Back Down,” Petty’s die-hard declaration of independence.

“I guess I should introduce us. I’m Tom Petty—these are the Heartbreakers,” Petty announced, in his typically understated fashion, as the crowd roared in response. He wore the humble rock-star persona well. Other times, he acted more like the crowd’s party director, whether yelling hello to the masses out on the lawn or leading the audience through a call-and-response of the decadent, marijuana friendly lyrics to “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Rousing renditions of other hit songs (“Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers”) filled much of the show’s first half—offering an even better testament to the longevity of Petty’s career than his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction did last spring.

Mid-show, the set’s tempo ratcheted down a few notches during the soaring, spacey “It’s Good to Be King,” during which Petty riffed out an extended, epic guitar solo of Neil Young proportions. “Lost Children” followed, a promising sounding rocker from Petty’s forthcoming album The Last DJ. There were acoustic versions of “Rebels” and “Learning to Fly,” but the highlight of the stripped-down set was “Yer So Bad,” which found Petty gleefully spitting out the song’s terse it’s-you-and-me-against-the-world lyrics. On “Refugee,” Petty conducted the Heartbreakers by waving his arms like a runway worker on an airport tarmac. He encored with “Free Fallin’ ” and closed with “American Girl,” a song that hordes of fans waiting to cross the bridge to the Route 50 parking lot were still singing long after Petty had left the stage.

Opener Brian Setzer’s Web site has dubbed this tour “Rockabilly and the Refugee.” Still blond and baby-faced, and wearing an electric blue shirt that was emblazoned with an image of Elvis across the back, the former Stray Cat sounded as fresh and vital as ever. He and his band (drummer Bernie Dresel and stand-up bassist Johnny “Spaz” Hatton) drew three standing ovations during their well-received set. On “Hell Bent,” a demonic, hot-rod tour de force from Setzer’s last solo album, Ignition!, the singer flaunted some amazingly nimble guitar work; “Stray Cat Strut” received a jazzy, lounge treatment before ending in a brash, rockin’ fashion; “8-Track” featured Setzer’s limber-lunged yodeling; and on “Rock This Town,” Hatton wildly slapped his bass and kicked his feet while lying on his back across the stage.

The Easy Way

Steve Earle
Park Playhouse, July 8

Steve Earle hit the Park playhouse stage with little fuss under waning daylight. He always looks like you’d expect Steve Earle to look; rooted to the spot, straight-backed and burly, he appears to have been carved out of the base of some great tree. He’s always got an anecdote or 20, and like the good, environmentally conscious baby boomer that he is, he’s bound to recycle a tale here and there. His yarns frequently start by geographically locating you either in or near a prominent Texas city. (And notice how, having traveled the world and even owning a house in Ireland, he rarely kicks off a story with “I was hitchin’ down to Limerick one time . . .”)

But when Steve Earle takes the stage he comes gift-wrapped in myth, having been mentored by such vaunted troubadours as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and having survived the wages of heroin addiction and jail. So suffice it to say that anytime there’s a Steve Earle show within range, I’m off like a prom dress to see it (as the artist/author/label owner himself would say in his aw-shucks-I-ain’t-no-entrepeneur vernacular). “Free” is the pivotal word here, for when you receive something for free, you have to forfeit a few standards. Therefore, there’s no reason at all to mention the too-modest volume or the ubiquitous twentysomething girls chatting on cell phones (though one’s assertion, “Like, I just don’t know what to do with my life,” commingled in an interesting, nearly postmodern fashion with Earle’s country blues at one point). There’s no cause to even notice several sunburnt, barely clad gentlemen clutching Rolling Rocks and howling “‘Guitar Town!’” regularly during quiet intervals.

Rather, I’ll say that one of my favorite sounds in the world is Earle’s voice, which can narrow to a tomcat snarl or drip around the edges with country sleaze. And on Monday night there were flashes of that mastery, but overall he seemed to walk through the performance. Granted, a Steve Earle walk-through might eclipse many other artists who dare hit the boards with only acoustic guitar and harmonica, but it was hard not to notice, for example, how “Now She’s Gone” seemed to drag at the edges. And anyone who’s seen Steve Earle before has heard the anecdote that precedes “Hometown Blues” delivered note for note (and with a bit more verve).

The Earle standard “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” provided a highlight, however, with a good portion of the crowd taking over the vocals. Before “You Know the Rest,” Earle aired out his watertight liberalism, punctuating comments about a book on the Lewis and Clark expedition with the assertion that Manifest Destiny is “bullshit.” (Really, Steve? The decimation of entire Native American cultures should be condemned? That’s a new one on me.) “Someday,” from 1986’s now legendary Guitar Town album, was a great shot in the arm, opening with enthusiastic, bottom-heavy guitar and sailing on the back of Earle’s woody pipes. Meanwhile, a drawn-out, luxuriant “Goodbye” held the crowd fairly rapt (with the exception of the cell-phone girls). And as the skies got inkier, and the stage lights pulled the familiar, burly figure with the harmonica around his neck into sharper focus, it was comforting to have Steve Earle in town. I just wish we had gotten a little more of him.

—Erik Hage

Idol Hands

Ben Folds
The Egg, July 5

All alone, Ben Folds held a sold-out crowd in thrall with his appealing, idiosyncratic pop tunes about lonely people in a lonely world. Folds’ persona—a wisecracking, brainy smartass—contrasted sharply with his songs. This clever combination of teen angst and cocky attitude isn’t new. However, instead of going the usual neo-punk route (think Violent Femmes), Folds served up big, drippy romantic chords, in the tradition of Paul McCartney and Elton John, on a grand piano.

Folds has quite a gallery of characters left alone with their unique unhappiness. In “Fred Jones Part 2,” it’s an angry newspaperman on the eve of retirement, raging against his mortality. There’s the man who can’t adjust to being home again in “Missing the War,” and Sara, driven to despair in “Zak and Sara.” In the diabolically catchy “Army,” it’s a kid whose epic view of his problems contrasts comically with their mundane essence. Even “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” as smug and unsympathetic a song as Folds has ever written, grants a small measure of humanity to its despised narrator, a hack teen idol.

Humping the piano like Elton John, and embellishing his considerable chops with grand, silly gestures, Folds was an accomplished showman. Vocally, he wavered in and out of tune more than one would have expected. (The live album Folds is compiling from this tour, which he chatted about with the audience, just might need a bit of studio tweaking.)

As for his aforementioned attitude, Folds was alternately sincere and smarmy, heartfelt one moment and deadpan the next. His cover of McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers” was almost touching, and his own “Not the Same” (with which he ended the evening) sounded ethereal. In contrast, there was the goofy instrumental medley he delivered mid-show, which incorporated classical flourishes, “Miserlou” and “Chop Sticks” in a successful (yet pointless) effort to show how well he could play.

It can be useful to mention the composition of the crowd, especially if it’s particularly homogeneous. For example, at an Eddie Money show at Northern Lights a few years ago, there wasn’t a soul in sight who didn’t know the headliner from his early 1980s heyday. Folds’ audience was overwhelmingly young, suburban, white, and worshipful. (Typical audience comment: “You’re a God.”) With letter-perfect accuracy, they knew the lyrics, the harmonies, and even the odd instrumental fills that, missing from the solo piano arrangements, they themselves spontaneously provided, without prompting, with their voices.

Ben Folds played them perfectly. If their voices were helpful without prompting, when Folds coached and conducted the crowd it was almost choirlike. The Egg was Folds’ church, and the flock gave him their devotion.

—Shawn Stone

Buy Local

Pretty Boy Floyd, the Erotics, Nogoodnix
Valentine’s, July 2

Alas, it’s the murderous summer swelter in the Capital Region again; no better time to indulge in some bawdy, unapologetic punk rock at Valentine’s, possibly the only venue left on the planet where you can drink Schaefer beer, watch the Mets and listen to Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight all at once. There are worse fates, indeed.

Area punks Nogoodnix hit the stage around 9:30 PM to a sparse but appreciative crowd, although judging from the heat pitched from the band’s awe-inspiring adrenaline, you’d think they were headlining Donnington or Vans Warped. This is a mark of greatness: Whether in the company of angels, devils or no one at all, you’re still damn good company. Front man Duane Beer takes a ham-fisted pleasure in invoking the Spirit of ’77 all over again (but with pot o’ gold bravado and more pub-crawl brawn than Brendan Behan at last call), leading the charge into the ale-splattered “Untimely Blessings” and other gems off their 2000 debut, Pub Punx Unlimited. The quartet whirled into “Donavan McGuirk,” the stunning “Bridget Let’s Go” and other showstoppers, filling the dancehall with a plush mix of original tunes, traditional Irish fare featuring axman Tom Howard’s mandolin, and covers courtesy of the Clash, Sham 69 and Billy Idol. These guys are cigarettes, guts and vignettes, and they know how to hoist a glass. Fast.

Speaking of toasts, Erotics founder Mike Trash told me early in the evening that he was ready to check himself into detox, but as fresh shots of Cuervo were chucked into gaping chops, it was clear that there is plenty of fight left in the guy. Fresh off a successful West Coast tour, Trash has finally found a stable of fine young n’er-do-wells to proudly supplement his obsession with booze, war atrocities and sexual deviance. The celebrated pony show remains, but now appears more (OK, I’ll say it) mature, and shot through with an almost relentless purpose. “Banged Up” and “It’s True,” from the band’s most recent effort, 21st Century Son of a Bitch, coupled with a slew of brand new stuff, spewed forth a guttural shout-out to the heydays of glam and punk, respectively. Timeless ditty “Helen Keller” and the shameless “Slip It In” harked back to the days when the band couldn’t play anywhere without instigating hand-to-hand combat. For my money (about eight bucks), I couldn’t envision a better evening of rock & roll: two of the finest bands in the Capital Region pumping out well over two dozen diaries of comic-book fantasy, black eyes, heartbreak, liver failure and conditionless camaraderie.

And then, sadly, came Pretty Boy Floyd, who were a mere asterisk in the encyclopedia of hairspray metal even in its prime. As the new millennium finds anyone who ever tucked a pink bandana in their back pocket on tour, tired of painting houses and washing dishes, most have wisely advanced a more hardened, conservative, Harley Davidson motif. But not these guys. Appearing in between shows on the road with Poison, after enduring pointless legal battles over a song no one remembers, Pretty Boy Floyd are heartbreaking examples of fifth-generation boilerplate glam. A band whose 1989 debut LP on MCA, Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz, was released during the final nauseating phase of the genre, when talent scouts exploited the category until a certain militia from Seattle violently plucked the final feathers from the turkey and stuffed it in a Graffix water pipe. While glam continued to produce a trove of significant artists, these poor fellows offered nothing but cheapened holograms of already well-worn clichés, right down to the stage banter.

“Let me see your hands!” screeched singer Steve Summers to a dwindling audience, turning to croon into a video camera obviously wielded by a girlfriend. Curiously, he blathered on about Albany’s smothering humidity while dressed like Jay Mewes of Clerks fame, complete with ski cap! This was actually one up on bassist Lesli Sanders, who came prepared as Marilyn Manson’s understudy, with one exception:

“My god, that face,” my girlfriend stammered. “It’s . . . It’s . . . Joan Cusack!”

And so it went on until the bitter end. “Rock and Roll Outlaw,” “I Wanna Be With You,” “48 Hours,” “Junkie Girl”—one immediately realizes they’ve heard it all before, and 10 times better. That said, the young stallion they chose to replace original guitarist Kristy Majors wielded his Telecaster like a medieval truncheon, and to be fair, theirs is not an altogether sloppy unit musically. Just unnecessary, like a boob job, and entertaining only in the same manner as pro wrestling.

Chalk one up for the locals.

—Bill Ketzer

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