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They Troll for Thee
By Erik Hage

The Allman Brothers Band
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 20

The Allman Brothers Band live and die by the twin-guitar attack. At the group’s inception, that meant the dual leads of Dickey Betts and the late Duane Allman. In this age, those duties rest with Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. Seen on the SPAC stage last Tuesday, the two men were a study in contrasts. Haynes—scowling brow, potbelly and curtains of hair—looked like he was waiting for a couple of billy goats to trip-trap over his bridge. Placed front and center, he glared down at his guitar and wrestled it to his will, his solos powerfully cresting in the extended codas. The much younger Trucks, meanwhile, had the beneficent bearing of a yoga instructor, his straight blond hair pulled back in a long ponytail. His playing was suppler, nimbler; it snuck up on you and carried you along. Trucks’ entire performance seemed to be one big private moment, his casualness betraying the presence of thousands beyond the footlights.

While the guitars are the certainly the centerpiece—careening off into improvisations flecked with blues, jazz and even classical intonations—they aren’t the only thing under the hood. The omnipresent Greg Allman is still there behind the burnished wood of his Hammond. In these late, sober years, he loped out and took his rightful place at the stool with the bearing of a priest, his trademark locks in a neat braid down his back. He’s still in fine throat, too; early in the set he howled the “Statesboro Blues” like he’s lived them, a Blind Willie McTell montage played on the giant screen behind him (a thankful relief from the psychedelic liquid show of ubiquitous mushroom imagery). The stoic Allman even cracked a few smiles at his bandmates as he coaxed rolls from the keys.

Nevertheless, the endless flights of jam abandon throughout the set became numbing after a while, and the incessant trading off between Haynes and Trucks, while fascinating early on, became almost mathematical (and at times nearly prog-rock) in the wee hours. The brevity of “Midnight Rider,” which came well into the set—and which was burned through in a mortal four-to-five minutes—was a triumphant shot in the arm. But subsequently, when Haynes announced the group were going to do an “instrumental,” one had to guffaw, wondering what a good chunk of the last two hours had been. About an eon into the piece, all but the three percussionists left the stage for a lengthy drum-and-percussion extravaganza. Certainly, the complex, tribal interplay of that section (particularly Butch Trucks) is a key Allmans ingredient, but this was the knockout punch for any sustained (nonchemical) interest—as was the questionable move to follow that prolonged indulgence with some solo bass stylings. The Allman Brothers Band are certainly packed with incredible musicians; nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder if the group has traded up hardscrabble beauty for all this polish and technique.

Cuts Like a Knife

Christy McWilson, Amy Allison
Valentine’s, Aug. 22

A wonderful and telling moment occurred two songs into Christy McWilson’s set last week at Valentine’s. The musician was backed by a punchy trio, and the four of them made for nicely potent raucousness on the small downstairs stage. As this stage normally is not set up for this sort of volume, there were no monitors for her. So, unable to hear herself, McWilson pushed her mike stand 6 feet out onto the floor, stepping from the spotlight and into the shadows in front of the stage. Freed from her audio darkness, McWilson sang and strummed her amplified acoustic guitar with fervor tipping into glee. To hunker down with her band during instrumental passages, she’d twirl around and glide back to them.

The total unpretentiousness of her modified stage solution was in perfect keeping with McWilson herself. Over the past decade she has revealed herself to be a writer of infectiously engaging songs, and a singer of passionate directness. She recorded three albums with her band the Picketts, full of honest playing and songs, but McWilson finally had to throw in the towel when public indifference knocked the sparkle off the dream. Her first album under her own name appeared two years ago, followed by this year’s Bed of Roses, both produced by Dave Alvin, and this two-week jaunt for the Seattle-based musician was in support of the latter. Alas, two dozen people were privy to the simple magic of this dynamic quartet (with former Pickett Blackie Sleep on drums and harmony vocals, Eric Danheim on lead guitar, and newcomer Hugh Jones on bass). From rich balladry to flatout barn burners, the band drew upon rockabilly, country and swing with a casual ease that belied deep and broad chops. If one or more of her songs (among them, “Wishin’,” “The Serpentine River,” and “Weight of the World”) doesn’t reach mass popularity in the next few decades, I’m going to become a bitter old man—mark my words!

Opener Amy Allison braved the unrelenting chatterbox scene to very slim notice—a few patrons, along with McWilson and band, listened intently. Allison’s own releases benefit from fleshed-out arrangements and additional players, which more effectively bolster her reedy voice. Her songs were worthy and thoughtful, but lost in the barroom environment.

—David Greenberger

The Sam & Dave Show

David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 24

This was the high-concept show of the summer. Two former Van Halen frontmen, brought together to rekindle the glories of the 1980s. Both had been at the top of the rock & roll mountain; both were cast down by a vengeful, jealous God (Eddie Van Halen). Unfortunately, summer—or, more precisely, summer temperatures—departed before Diamond Dave and no-nickname Sammy could bring the memories of this long-ago party to SPAC.

The cool temperatures added to David Lee Roth’s challenge. Dave came dressed to party in a copper lamé jacket (sans shirt) and tight checkerboard pants; this must have been chilly. The audience was mostly older, and the cold and damp seemed to slow them down. Still, Roth moved around the stage constantly, kicking and jumping like it was 1984. The meanest Van Halen songs still have all their power: “Mean Streets,” “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Everybody Wants Some,” and, especially, “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love.” Dave strapped on the acoustic for “Ice Cream Man,” and, with “Yankee Rose,” proved that he has at least one memorable tune of his own. He even pulled off one of those jumps off the drum riser for the encore, “Jump.”

Best of all, Roth loves being on stage, and his pure joy is what gave him the edge over Sammy Hagar (their respective bands are more or less equal in skill). When his set was over (Hagar and Roth switch spots on the bill every night), Roth backed off the stage slowly, drinking in the applause and screams. It was almost a religious moment, in a Hollywood kind of way.

Both artists prefaced their shows with videos. While Roth sensibly presented a quick montage of concert shots, album covers, weird art and the requisite buxom babes, Hagar inexplicably produced a full-blown infomercial for his preferred tequila. (I’m not going to mention the brand, but if you were at the show you know you’ll never forget.) There were also, pointlessly, clips of the songs he would be playing, and ponderous interview segments with Sammy talking about Sammy. Hagar was annoying already, and he hadn’t played a note.

Unlike Roth, who really hasn’t had much of a career outside Van Halen, journeyman Hagar has been grinding it out since the early 1970s. He played his most recognizable solo tunes: “Three Lock Box,” “There’s Only One Way to Rock,” “Mas Tequila,” and, of course, “I Can’t Drive 55.” In the preconcert video, Hagar proudly mentioned his gift for songwriting. I don’t know about that, but he has a knack for recycling riffs. Combined with his undeniable enthusiasm, the result was effective, if not inspired. Of course, most of what Hagar played dated from his stint in Van Halen, including “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Right Now,” and “Finish What You Started.”

The music both men played was instantly recognizable as the work of Eddie Van Halen, and seeing them back-to-back accentuated the differences between VH versions 1.0 and 2.0. Roth’s Van Halen was straight-ahead, aggressive rock. It was partying and pussy, with loads of show biz and bad attitude, and no apologies. Van Hagar was softer and more commercial; never mind the hard rock, here’s another love song. (For reasons unknown, Hagar saved the love songs for the last segment of his show.) While David Lee Roth’s heedless hedonism seemed ever more removed from us, his music and persona remained stronger and infinitely more entertaining.

—Shawn Stone

Good Hair Day

Poison, Cinderella, Faster Pussycat
Pepsi Arena, Aug. 20

I work with a guy who listens almost exclusively to British hardcore. He was born in 1981, the same year I bought Ozzy Osbourne’s first solo album, drinking heavily to its somber messages with other future felons at the Forest Park School loading dock in Colonie. This guy—let’s call him Tim, because that’s his name—also has a penchant for heavy metal, in a half-serious, drunken way. We go to shows and his head reels more on the fashion, the behaviors, the sheer essence of the whole experience than the music itself. It’s almost like he is visiting a local museum, eager to learn more about this strange bastard genre of rock & roll. “Dude! Just look at that total Hessian,” he’ll yelp, grabbing my shoulder. “The last fight he lost was to his dad over the last Meister Brau on his front lawn.” Although Tim Dog would not be caught dead at Poison’s alleged Hollyweird Tour, being utterly repelled by lipstick bands from days of yore, it had much the same museum appeal for me. Besides, that was how I was trying to market the event to my friends.

Nonetheless, securing a companion for the evening was impossible. After all, our ilk never bought into the latter-day glam movement as teens, leaning more toward bands named after surgical procedures. If you walked into my high school with a Poison T-shirt, you got pummeled. If the metalheads didn’t get you, the jocks surely would, and even Key Club members could summon up an ample enough degree of disdain to trip you in the hallway. But I tried to spin it up as a sociological event to my closest friend (now also my attorney), who replied, “I am staying home and washing my hair or something. But, please, let me know how few people are there. My bet is one-quarter full. Loser buys me a beer.”

What can I say? He owes himself a beer. The place was surprisingly chock full of raucous guys in muscle shirts and booty-call gals in low-cut jeans, and luckily the bands kicked it out proper, as if it were 1986 all over again. It was astounding to watch. I came looking for sorry, aged, slap-dash monotony but got riser-jumping, floor-humping arena rock instead. Amid an ungodly display of pyro, Poison did come, blasting out the lollipop standards “Talk Dirty to Me,” “I Want Action,” “Unskinny Bop” and a dozen more. I forgot they had so many hits, yet in a horrific testament to the omnipotence of radio and MTV, I somehow knew them all. The freaking crowd went bonkers, flicking lighters, bumping, grinding, even dumping full cups of Bud on their own heads. Frontman Brett Michaels is a skilled ringmaster who plucked heartstrings by dedicating “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” to Sept. 11 victims and his Vietnam Vet roadie cousin. Even more astounding, the band looked . . . good. I call this the “Lemmy effect.” If you looked 40 when you were 20, chances are you won’t look any older when you actually hit decade number four, but with good chops and more day-glo than your local highway department, they wore it admirably.

Penn State emissaries Cinderella fared nearly as well, save the fact that singer Tom Kiefer is locked in a dead heat with AC/DC’s Brian Johnson to see who can grind their voice into compost faster, as if the goal were to sound like the Great Gonzo. Also enjoying their original lineup, Cinderella stuck to the program, twisting and twirling to “Shake Me,” “Gypsy Road,” and all the other tunes that got booted off the charts by grunge. And where do these bands get all this damn gear? There were double-necks, acoustics, semi-hollowbodies, pianos, saxophones, harmonicas. . . . It boggled the mind, but it did little to disguise what were clearly well-worn riffs. As music critic and Fargo Rock City author Chuck Klosterman once said, “No one ever killed themselves listening to Cinderella’s ‘Long Cold Winter’.”

Faster Pussycat, whom I had actually liked because they were disgustingly arrogant and sleazy and readily embraced the twisted roots of American punk, were the biggest disappointment of the evening. Practically immobilized by either age, heroin, poor audience response or herpes, Taime Down and company offered extremely lax versions of “Bathroom Wall” and others that are actually pretty slamming tunes. And the Nazi motif? C’mon. Pink Floyd’s The Wall, anyone? Marilyn Manson? Too bad, although rumor has it they joined Mike Trash’s Erotics onstage for a killer set of covers at the post-show gig down the block.

If this missive seems a little diversionary, it’s because I never dug the music. But if you did, rest assured the genre is alive and well. And I wanted to see it; I wanted the big poofy hair, the cheap cowboy boots, the acid-washed denim—I wanted it all. While I was disappointed in this respect (it’s not Halloween, after all), I learned something. There is still, somehow, a viable market for this music. It has a longevity that I did not expect. People were buying the merch. They brought their kids. And surely even my attorney would have at least stopped washing his hair long enough to ogle the overwhelming bevy of beauties who danced away in the cheap seats.

—Bill Ketzer

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