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My Melancholy Baby

By Shawn Stone

Aimee Mann, Juliana Hatfield
Calvin Theatre, Northampton, Mass., Oct. 2

Aimee Mann is generally regarded as one of the great pop songwriters around. Unfortunately, she has been chronically kicked around by record companies and ignored by mainstream radio. Touring with a full band in support of a great new disc, Mann proved last Wednesday that her live chops were the equal to her songwriting skill.

Mann’s latest album, Lost in Space, is probably her strongest—and most unnerving. Naturally, she prominently featured these new songs at the Calvin. Shimmering guitar chords and gorgeous melodies weren’t meant to disguise the dark lure of this material; when combined with discordant backing tapes, odd-sounding electronic samples and, most crucially, fatalistic lyrics, the effect was powerful and, on occasion, chilling. She opened with “The Moth,” in which romantic resignation is recast as a form of self-destruction: “The moth don’t care when he sees the flame.” The other new songs were even less cheerful. The title track, “Lost in Space,” made the alienation of someone like David Bowie or Kurt Cobain seem downright cozy; when Mann sang “I’m just pretending to care,” the detachment was chilling. “Humpty Dumpty” recast the nursery rhyme as a reflection on drug-fueled personal disintegration. Frightening stuff, rendered with a disturbing beauty—complemented wonderfully by a simple-but-effective light show, emphasizing repeating abstract patterns echoing the music.

The contrast with her older material wasn’t that striking: Mann has always had a streak of romantic resignation running through even her best-known songs. Hearing “Choice in the Matter” and “That’s Just What You Are” in this context just underlined the connection. One of her earliest solo tunes—“Amateur,” with its sardonic accounting of a new lover and the chances for a successful relationship (“I’ve been wrong before”)—was a highlight of the night.

Mann owes her higher visibility partly to the Oscar-nominated music she performed for Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling three-hour film Magnolia. “Wise Up” and “Save Me” were prominently featured back-to-back; the result seemed like a mini-concert of its own. (Mann tacitly acknowledged this with her advice to the audience: “Just pretend frogs are raining down on you.”) Just as these starkly emotional tunes were used to make a literal connection between the characters in the movie, they were an emotional bridge between the cynical romanticism of Mann’s earlier work and the bleak anomie of her new songs.

The audience loved her. They gave Mann two standing ovations, and got two encores in return. The ever-rowdy Calvin audience let her know what they wanted to hear. The guy insistently calling for “Superball” went home disappointed, but Mann, surprisingly, responded to the people calling for “Voices Carry.” Mann is notoriously sick of her biggest hit, and ambivalent about the quality of her ’Til Tuesday songs. She responded, with mock anger: “You just wanted to think of the one song that would fuckin’ piss me off.” Then she played it, in an impromptu version that delighted the crowd.

Juliana Hatfield opened with a solo electric set. Hatfield has always been a prickly character, offering up unapologetic emotional challenges (“With a little lovin’/In time you’ll forgive me”). Her gift for pop songcraft is tempered by a taste for oblique imagery, well in evidence in the three songs I arrived in time to enjoy.

Kings of the Bar

Rocky Velvet
Artie’s Lansingburgh Station, Oct. 4

Rockabilly. When a group of young guys do it right and put their own stamp on our musical roots, the past is palpable: It lives and breathes in the present. During a formidable happy-hour set by the Capital Region’s own Rocky Velvet last Friday, the spirits were roused from sleep and swirling joyfully in the rafters. One could almost sense Charlie Feathers, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and a host of others nodding their approval.

The whole evening was just right—dead right. The cans of Bud at Artie’s were crisp, and snapped open with a hearty crack, while at the deep end of the bar the four men from Rocky Velvet, swathed in warm yellow light, turned the place inside out. The Velvets’ roots & roll jumped, staggered and ran atop an iron-clad rhythm section (of Jeff Michael and Jay Gorleski) that knew when and how to swing, with upright bassist Gorleski often getting a chance to showcase his chops. Guitarist Graham Tichy’s Telecaster bursts not only were remarkably supple, but displayed an elegant (and often ignored) sense of tone. Watching him beaming like a baby, his fingers running the frets, folks couldn’t help but shout and smile. Ian Carlton, meanwhile, seemed meant for the stage. Wandering the crowd, he looked slight and friendly, the kind of guy you run into every day. Fronting Rocky Velvet, he was magnetic.

All in all, it was a late afternoon of southbound trains, truck-driving men and kings of the jungle. There were tattooed forearms, joyous shouts, and Elvis and Hank staring out from posters behind the band. There was Graham’s dad John (of Commander Cody fame), who took the stage with the Velvets for several rousing numbers. Later, Carlton dispensed with his acoustic guitar to roar, lumber and shake the very rafters as his once-slicked hair spilled into his eyes. Then, all too soon, seven o’clock came. And I’m pretty sure it was me who turned to someone nearby and said, “I’d see these guys any night of the week.”

—Erik Hage

Guitar Men

Roger McGuinn, John Sebastian
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 4

Before this evening with two ’60s rock icons began, an array of guitars was placed on the stage. It was dead simple to pick out at least one piece of Roger McGuinn’s equipment. Anyone with half an ear knows McGuinn’s trademark, the 12-string Rickenbacker electric. McGuinn didn’t waste any time playing it, either, beginning with his first song—“Younger Than Yesterday,” one of the many Bob Dylan tunes the Byrds made their own.

It’s easy to forget—if you’re not a Byrdsmaniac, that is—how long the Byrds were around. McGuinn played tunes from every era of the group. Early Byrds: “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Hippie Byrds: “Ballad of Easy Rider” and “Wasn’t Born to Follow.” Country Byrds: “Mr. Spaceman” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” “Eight Miles High” was transformed into a stunning 12-string acoustic-guitar showcase. Introducing the song, McGuinn promised a little bit of John Coltrane and Bach. He delivered that, and more: It was a tour de force of dynamics and skill. (And, in contrast to “Tambourine Man” and “Turn!,” I didn’t miss the vocal harmonies of Gene Clark and David Crosby.)

If Roger McGuinn weren’t a Christian, I would swear he had sold his soul to the devil. This is not because of the former Byrd’s guitar prowess—instrumental skill can survive the ravages of time. It’s McGuinn’s voice that is unnerving, and of a quality sufficient to imply a nefarious contract, signed in blood at midnight. Singing 1967’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” McGuinn showed the vocal range and nuance of the kid he was 35 years ago. Aside from the stellar performance of the song—it was the evening’s highlight, at least until “Eight Miles High”—his vocal on “Chestnut Mare” was stunning in its youthful range and clarity.

John Sebastian, frontman of another ’60s group, the Lovin’ Spoonful, played a mess of his old hits, too. This was interesting, because, as Sebastian explained, as often as not he’ll play only jug-band tunes from the 1920s at a solo gig like this. Though he did play some old-time material, he didn’t skip the favorites. Alternating between electric and acoustic guitars and banjo, Sebastian delivered the Spoonful hit parade: “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Younger Girl,” “Nashville Cats,” and “Summer in the City.” Though his vocal range has shrunk considerably, he made up for this with swell guitar playing and genuinely amusing, self-deprecating stories. After all, how many members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will tell you what riffs they poached to create their hits? Sebastian did—for those taking notes, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” led to “Do You Believe in Magic.” Sebastian was just plain likable, and folks responded warmly.

—S.S.


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