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I Love Lucille
By Bill Ketzer

B.B. King Blues Festival
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 30

Someone once said to me, “Bill, there are three things you need to do at least once before you die for a well-rounded life: Visit a foreign country, go to jail, and see B.B. King in concert.” Having done the first two, I figured I’d best get on over to SPAC to see the King of the Blues ’fore I get hit by a train or something, which could happen at any time now.

The event was billed as a festival, but with only four bands, it was more like a “testival.” Hailing from just over the border in Williamstown, Mass., Albert Cummings treated the early arrivals with a quick, stripped-down set of traditional Stratocaster blues. Respectful, poignant and sporting a ridiculously loud orange shirt, this big-shoe fella took advantage of the venue’s sensitive acoustics to deliver a refreshing, albeit fleeting set of traditional goodness.

Speaking of goodness, let’s get one thing perfectly clear: The Fabulous Thunderbirds never needed Jimmie Vaughan. These guys are monsters. New axman Troy Gonyea hammered home all the fingerpicking pitch bends you could stand. Singer Kim Wilson was a veritable Goliath on the mouth harp, literally trouncing out beats as if he were stepping through tires in an invisible obstacle course. They gave the audience its due with the familiar rocker “Tuff Enough,” but ignored other hits to truly shine in the extended, caffeineated boogie-woogie cannonball “Early Every Morning” and an outstanding version of the Willie Dixon standard “Hoochie Coochie Man.” You might want to pick up a copy of their phenomenal live CD, thoughtfully entitled Live. I sure as hell did.

In 2000, Susan Tedeschi was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Artist by the National Academy of Recording Artists. But I gotta tell you, hers was the sleeper set of the evening, and I mean that literally. This nondynamic, consistently midtempo country-flavored candy seems to have found a niche in contemporary blues, but offered little to truly diversify the bill or bring the house to its feet, except for the dude on the lawn who kept professing his undying love for her. The band certainly didn’t suck by any means, but the melodies seemed a little too borrowed—you wanted her to own those licks, to really taste that jam that can be spread awfully thin if you’re not careful. Maybe I just expected something different.

Then, as they say, the saints came marching in. You know seasoned veterans of the Mississippi Delta when you see them, and here they were, strutting out into the spotlights to season the pot for the indefatigable B.B. King, who shuffled out to center stage and got right down to business with “Let the Good Times Roll.” At 76 years old, the man now sits down to holler (“My band says I’ve earned the right,” he told the smiling minions), but his fingers remain strong, warm and precious on Lucille’s maple neck, and the gravel in his voice is unhampered by age or tribulation.

“I’m from the old school. Sometimes I like to shake a little somethin’!” he cried, and the troupe kicked into “Bad Case of Love,” “I’ll Survive” and the gut busting “Caldonia.” Basically, we received a greatest-hits ass- kicking, but one of the sweeter moments of the set was a musky instrumental version of “Summertime,” featuring bold horns hearkening back to the days of Ella and Louis. Still playing more than 200 shows a year, King manages to bring an unbridled energy and enthusiasm to even the most familiar pieces. “The Thrill Is Gone,” the crossover standard that brought his music to white audiences in the mid-’60s, could have been written only yesterday.

While I am on the topic of white audiences, it must be said that this would have been a far different show should it have taken flight from the Palace Theatre on Clinton Avenue. For example, I saw the Temptations there last year and experienced a more authentic culture, where there were big, poofy hats and dancing in the aisles, and everything had that kind of Baptist, testifyin’ feel to it. On Friday, the amphitheater was packed with a lot of well-off, white-haired white guys just kind of nodding heads and sheepishly tapping feet, while the Clear Channel police made damn sure no one snuck a pretzel into the reserved seats. What a sham. I’ll still die happy, they tell me.

Beat on the Brat: (l-r) Skalicky and Dennis Grabowski of the Beatings. Photo by Joe Putrock

Indie Go Home

The Beatings
Valentine’s, Aug. 31

Prior to the Beatings’ show at Valentine’s on Saturday night, the advance buzz about the Boston indie-rock quartet (not to be confused with the same-named London garage combo or the Baltimore glitter-punk band) was promising, with the band’s Web page boasting solid—even raving—reviews from respected sources such as The Village Voice, The Washington Post and the All Music Guide.

In most cases, the reviews compared the Beatings to 1980s-era indie-punk pioneers like the Pixies, Mission of Burma and Hüsker Dü—hyperbolic comparisons, to be sure, but not entirely uncalled-for. Judging by the Valentine’s show, the Beatings do have a sound that is unmistakably rooted in the not-so-distant past. Ten or more years ago, when the indie-rock bands of the day (Slint, Polvo, et al.) reveled in anguished vocals, dynamic tempo shifts and distorted guitars, the Beatings would have fit right in.

Unfortunately for the Beatings, the band’s sound is either 10 years too late or 10 years too early. Angsty indie-rock is not in great favor these days, as evidenced by all the former indie-rock fans I know who are still trading the genre in at local CD stores. Nor has enough time passed for the sound to seem remotely fresh again. Even Frank Black (aka Black Francis of the Pixies) has exchanged much of his vitriol to lead his current band the Catholics on shambling, country-rock paces. Bob Mould, former frontman of Hüsker Dü, just made an electronic-influenced album, for Chrissakes.

Even with better timing, the Beatings may have fallen to the middle or back of the indie-rock pack. At their Valentine’s show, the band did possess an admirable ability to rock out; I can’t deny that their harder- hitting numbers packed an energetic wallop, and the crowd seemed to like them. My biggest beef, I guess, was with the vocals. It’s tough, though possible, to pull off a consistent sound in a band with three separate vocalists (in this case, bassist Erin Dalbec and guitarists Eldridge Rodriguez and Tony Skalicky all took turns at the mike). Dalbec was the most listenable singer of the bunch, but she fronted only a few tunes. Skalicky’s vocals were shakier, but tended to complement his winsome, more melodic numbers.

Rodriguez’s singing, on the other hand, was not really singing. Screeching, more like it. Perhaps the Beatings’ sadomasochistic name should have provided some warning that there would be pain in store for attendees of this gig. “I’d be coughing up blood,” remarked an audience member as Rodriguez shrieked his way through one of his strangulated, glass-shards-on-larynx tunes. Some people were impressed, I think, with Rodriguez’s ability to withstand such shrill vocal outbursts. I was just pained.

—Kirsten Ferguson

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