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Where’s Dave? Three-fourths of Cracker at the Empire State Plaza. Photo by Cassi Suen

New Frank Sinatras
By Erik Hage

Cracker
Empire State Plaza, Aug. 7

On a clear summer night, couched in the giant, surreal wilderness of the plaza—the stern, monolithic towers, the deflated football egg, the inky waters of the reflecting pool—Cracker lit up the audience with their gut-punch roots rock. The group’s lean frontman, Dave Lowery, ever the affable Californian, entered the stage as rural casual: faded jeans, short-sleeve button-down, and blue farmer’s cap mashed down over his ears. Bassist Brandy Wood was off on bridesmaid duty, so the first order of business was a coin toss between Cracker’s youthful, punky guitar tech and their preppy, 30-ish manager to see who would fill in. (An arbitrary exercise, as both would alternate throughout the night.)

The ceremony over, the group tumbled into their oeuvre with “Mr. Wrong,” Lowery thrumming away on his trailer-skirt green guitar and roaring hoarsely down the mike. The evening would see the band not only pulling highly recognizable numbers from the Cracker canon, but also dipping a toe into Lowery’s formative years with that merry band of genre Cuisinartists, Camper Van Beethoven. A distinct highlight came late in the set with “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” a ’60s hit for Status Quo that Camper Van memorably covered on their Key Lime Pie album. Cracker stormed through it with the zeal of recent converts, however, executing a blistering throwdown of crashing guitars, Lowery’s sleazy roar and some nifty psychedelic speaker switching. The band would also dip way back into Camper Van Beethoven history with the whimsical “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”

Lowery claims to work without a set list, and the top-heavy assemblage of tracks seemed to attest to this. A good portion of the Cracker favorites came early on, including the laid-back, twangy grooves of “Euro-Trash Girl” and the lean, barbed-wire attack of “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).” Despite coming out swinging, the band had plenty left, and whipped the initially passive crowd into a froth before mid-set. The audience itself was a nice slice of Americana—a mix between the college-kid crowd, the bemulleted rocker, several cooler-toting families and a large biker contingent, who parked their hogs in a daunting line down Madison Avenue. (If I’m not mistaken, I also spotted the occasional superannuated Camper Van stoner bemusedly pondering that wrinkle in time between college in the ’80s and this evening.)

Cracker’s secret weapon is guitarist- vocalist Johnny Hickman, cofounder of the group and able Pancho to Lowery’s Cisco. The slightly paunchy, black-haired Hickman shone with lead vocals on his trademark number “Johnny Blues,” belting it out with full-throated vigor. Toward the end of the night, Lowery and Hickman’s partnership was at peak synergy, Johnny’s screaming guitar wrapping around Lowery’s raw-throated desperation on the group’s only hit single, 1992’s “Low.” The encore saw the group plowing into a sloppy version of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” belying the hint of Bakersfield that has always haunted certain Cracker tracks (and with lyrics adapted to Albany). By evening’s end, Cracker had left the audience completely wrung out and satisfied with their blend of irony-tinged yet bullshitless rock. Despite the subbing bassists (both of whom deserve kudos), the group put on one of the best shows the Capital Region will see this summer.

Supernova

Super 400, the Brian Kaplan Band
Savannah’s, Aug. 8

Originally, this gig was going to be just the Brian Kaplan Band, which explained why Kaplan and company, who went on first, played for a much longer time than Super 400 did. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the headliners were definitely the band to see.

Savannah’s was mostly full when the Brian Kaplan Band started playing. The erstwhile Conehead Buddhist’s music was less frantic than C.B., an eclectic mix of Dave Matthews Band-style ballads, bluesy rock, and longer, more elaborate jams. It was a little too eclectic for me, but the crowd really loved it. Kaplan brought a number of his horn and reed playing Buddhist cohorts up on stage for a few songs. This was a good thing, because it brought out a feeling of musical looseness and fun.

It was getting late when Super 400 took the stage, tuned up, and did a quick sound check. The soundman was adjusting the vocals, and just when some heavy echo started to creep in, bassist Lori Friday spoke approvingly: “Make it sound like God.” Guitarist Kenny Hohman agreed, immediately adding, with slightly less profound intent, “like Howe Caverns.”

Though it was relatively short, Super 400 played an impressive set that reflected a couple of factors. The first was how much they’ve been playing out, under both their own and other names. The second was their enthusiasm. They introduced three or four new songs (I lost count), including “Green Grass Inn,” which had a catchy hook and great vocal harmonies, and “Say Goodbye,” a dynamic rock song with a compelling march beat.

They were really enjoying themselves. The music reflected the heavy power-trio approach, but the three members were playing off each other like they were a jazz combo. Everyone had their musical say without getting in each other’s way. The sound was heavy in that familiar late-’60s and early-’70s style they love, but their songwriting was incredibly focused. There wasn’t a note wasted.

—Shawn Stone

Indoor Fireworks

Brilliant Mistakes: A Tribute to Elvis Costello
Valentine’s, Aug. 10

There may have been a picture of that other Elvis—the fellow who died while perched on his porcelain throne—taped to some equipment on the stage at Valentine’s, but the evening’s tribute was for the Englishman born as Declan MacManus, aka Elvis Costello. This Elvis has written some of the best songs of the last 25 years.

A benefit for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s Campaign for a Landmine Free World, the show was organized by Albany’s own John Brodeur. If Costello is a genius, Brodeur is some kind of genius saint. The logistics of the show must have been nightmarish, but Brodeur was up to the task; more than 20 artists played songs spanning Costello’s entire career, in an impressive variety of styles, without duplications.

There were solo artists, bands and onetime supergroups assembled just for this performance. Interestingly, most of the solo singers (with guitars) tended to excel with the angry material. Carl Smith sang a biting version of “Green Shirt”; Rob Skane captured the sarcasm of “This Year’s Girl”; Michael Eck spit out the lyrics to “American Without Tears.” John Faye and Cliff Hollis performed together, with Faye singing the ironic, sour “Shabby Doll,” and Hillis the misanthropic “God’s Comic.” Julia Brown tackled the stark “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” and the New York City-based singer commanded everyone’s attention with her powerful performance.

Wendy Ip, a Canadian now living in New York City, sat at the electric keyboard to offer “Sulky Girl” and “God Give Me Strength.” The latter tune, cowritten with Burt Bacharach, is one of the unknown gems of Costello’s songbook; it has the plaintive appeal of a classic 1960s love ballad, and Ip, paying close attention to the dynamics of the song, was great. At the other end of the spectrum, Jason Martin (and his electric guitar) made big wonderful noise on “King Horse.” Martin took special pleasure in hollering the line “between tenderness and brute force.”

The bands were equally superb. Steve Shiffman and the Land of Nod caught the downbeat feel of the war song “Shipbuilding” and the angry edge to the catchy pop of “Next Time Around.” Mitch Elrod and band brought out the pure bile in “Brilliant Mistake,” and found the inner Black Sabbath in an astonishing “Indoor Fireworks.” (Elrod also proved again why he’s the best vocalist in town.) Brooklyn’s Trouble Dolls were fearsome and punk on “Lipstick Vogue”; Harrisburg’s Parallax Project shifted gears from punk to reggae impressively on “Opportunity”; Boston’s Paula Kelly and her quartet were precise and smart on the pop of “I Hope You’re Happy Now”; and Providence’s the Marlowes mined Costello’s country & western side on “Shoes Without Heels.”

After the 20 or so artists finished, the big show still wasn’t over. John Brodeur and the Suggestions were going to perform the album My Aim Is True in its entirety. I wandered downstairs to see what was going on. According to plan, this was where the bands were playing their own material; unfortunately, this was the first time I had thought to check this out. (Hey, I was there to hear the Elvis tunes.) The Marlowes were performing for a handful of people scattered around the bar, and they were excellent: John Larson was singing his heart out, as if the place were packed.

Back upstairs, John Faye was singing “Alison” with Brodeur and company. It was soulful and straightforward, in perfect keeping with excellence of the entire evening.

—S.S.

Living Room Lingo

Al Gallodoro and JoAnn Chmielowski
Caffe Lena, Aug. 10

When hearing a jazz saxo- phonist today, you expect to hear some trace of the Big Influences. At the very least, there will be Coltrane and some Lester Young. There are exceptions: Scott Hamilton bypasses ’Trane in a sound that channels Ben Webster. And Al Gallodoro goes back even further with a sound that’s squarely in the Jimmy Dorsey-Frank Trumbauer camp.

Like Trumbauer, Gallodoro fashions solos that extend the harmonic range of the tune in question without taking you far from its melodic center. Performing last Saturday at Caffe Lena, he and pianist JoAnn Chmielowski ran through a batch of standards and surprises that thoroughly delighted the far-from-capacity crowd. An added bonus was the two numbers in which they were joined by Addie Boyle, of Addie & Olin fame.

Gallodoro opened with a romping “All of Me” that set the pattern for many of the tunes to follow: a fairly straightforward but swinging statement on sax for 32 bars, then a hot chorus in which Gallodoro let loose a torrent of notes that played with the outer reaches of the harmony of the changes. Unlike many post-bop players, he’s not reharmonizing the tunes but rather finding the fun and tension in exploring 11ths and 13ths and such. Next, a solo chorus by Chmielowski with a fluid, often single-line left hand and chord blocks in the right, followed by another piano solo in which she syncopated the left-hand rhythm into something approaching a habanera. And finally Gallodoro wrapped it up with another hot chorus that went stratospheric, typically and improbably ending on a high concert E-flat.

“Daybreak” from Ferde Grofe’s Mississippi Suite worked nicely in a sax-piano reduction; other concert-type pieces on the program were Margarita “Babalu” Lecuona’s “Taboo” and “When Day Is Done,” a long-ago feature of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Caffe Lena offers a small performance space, and Gallodoro and Chmielowski made it feel smaller still by treating it like a living room, with an audience that just happened to stop in to hear a few numbers. Their set list evolved before our eyes, and both engaged in friendly conversation with audience members, who clearly knew at least the standards in the repertory.

Those standards included “All the Things You Are,” Sidney Bechet’s “Petit Fleur,” Earl Hines’s “Rosetta,” “Lazy River” and Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” With former Gallodoro student Boyle on soprano sax, they jammed on “Georgia on My Mind.” Boyle provided a voice that was definitely Coltrane-influenced but which met Gallodoro’s aggressive style head on with exciting results, especially in their second number together, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

And Gallodoro can still give out with hot novelty licks, as he proved in fingerbusters like “Flat Top Special” and “El Cumbianchero.”

There was an exciting sense here of jazz both old and new, featuring a player who’s been there and done it. Gallodoro played with Paul Whiteman’s band, and he played in the NBC Symphony under Toscanini. If he sounds slightly Trumbauer-esque, it’s because Trumbauer was all the rage when Gallodoro was learning his instruments. Gallodoro recently turned 89, and he’s going stronger that ever.

—B.A. Nilsson


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