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What do you people want from me? Richard Buckner at WAMC. Photo by Joe Putrock.

Lost in a Sound
By John Rodat

Richard Buckner, the Kamikaze Hearts
WAMC Performing Arts Center, Oct. 19

OK, kids, hunker down, because the fur’s gonna fly. The lynching that was averted on Saturday by Richard Buckner’s finding himself a discreet place to whet his whistle après-gig may just yet take place, albeit with a well-intentioned critic swinging in sympathetic effigy. See, I think some of you may have missed the point.

Judging from the (not insignificant) number of you who cut your losses and streamed out of the WAMC Performing Arts Center well before Buckner wrapped up last Saturday, there was a pervasive belief that something had gone awry. Even taking into consideration the fact that ample and laudatory preshow press probably motivated a few musically-adventurous-but-uninvested types out for a sample, the dramatic thinning of the crowd during the quirky singer-songwriter’s set had to mean that fans were turned, allegiances dissolved. This informal mathematical analysis was given credence by an equally informal public-opinion poll conducted in the Albany watering holes to which the jaded ticket holders repaired to guzzle away their disillusionment. Man, oh, man, did Buckner piss people off.

The songs lacked definition and just ran into one another in a slushy, undifferentiated mess, they said. He mauled his guitar, virtually date-raping the nylon-stringed thing, the guitarists among them complained. Would a little rehearsal have killed the guy, they inquired. I don’t want to pay to see a performer who doesn’t know the lyrics to his songs as well as I do, they editorialized. All fair gripes; but, in my mind, relevant only to the extent that you buy the notion that Buckner’s a singer-songwriter in the conventional sense of the phrase. He’s not. First and foremost, the guy’s a poet—so cut him some slack.

Mind you, I won’t argue that the criticisms were inaccurate: As a performing musician, Buckner likely dropped the ball on Saturday. I’m just lobbying for a little recontextualization. Buckner’s set felt to me strikingly like the experience of flipping through a full book of verse by a poet whom you knew only passingly before. Some of the poems catch you immediately; some resonate fully due to familiarity or native force; some puzzle you, inviting you back later; and some poke at you belligerently with their opaqueness, their stubborn resistance to public interpretation. Why publish something so self-referential and/or privately coded as to be indecipherable? What’s the fucking point? The point, I think, is the quiver in the air around words like “There must be a time for life and living/But once there was a child who growled and shattered,” and “To my sweet anybody, I have nowhere left to hide/Lost inside a sound, I was never just away” and “He said, ‘I’ll pull you down’/She said, ‘Yeah, I know you will/But I’ve been through worse detours and ambulance traps.’ ” Is the mystery that a writer can fumble a song he must have played now 1,000 times, or that moments later he can blow the back of your head out with one he’s played no less?

Was the momentum of “4 AM,” for example, irrevocably screwed when bearlike Buckner quit midway to ask in his incongruous surfer-boy drawl, “Did I play this one already? God, I’m so paranoid.” Well, if you say so. I found it funny, and in any case, when he sang the chorus—“Wasted and well-spent, taken and once-wrecked/Oh, you’re better than this and that/I thought I was cured of any last chance/Unfastened and floored, now all I want is a little nothin’ more”—I forgave him his performative gaffes. Just ’cause I’m still rolling those words around in my mouth, savoring the feel.

The Kamikaze Hearts opened in fine style, though a curious PA situation had them sounding a little distant and thin at first. The band compensated, though, with deft four-part harmonies, engaging arrangements and instrumentation (Matt Loiacono threw down some sort of multi-instrumentalist gauntlet by playing not only mandolin, banjo and dobro but also a virtuosic plastic bag), and songs so well-written they make you itch with envy.

Coffee Klatch

Ian Anderson
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 15

Some casual observers might not appreciate the difference between a Jethro Tull concert and an Ian Anderson solo performance, given that Anderson is the only constant member in Tull’s 30-plus-year history, not to mention being the band’s songwriter, singer and (especially distinctive) flute player. But Anderson himself has always insisted that he, alone, is not Jethro Tull—since, to his view, it takes stalwart lead guitarist Martin Barre’s participation to muster critical Tull mass. Which makes sense, of course, if you consider that Jethro Tull’s most distinctive riff, from their ever-popular classic rock radio hit “Aqualung,” spins only off of Barre’s guitar.

So last week at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, we had no Martin Barre, and therefore no “Aqualung,” and therefore an Ian Anderson show, not a Jethro Tull concert. Thing was, though, it wasn’t really a solo show at all, since Anderson had four young English players in tow, spent a good chunk of the evening sitting on a sofa talking with radio personality Bob Wolf of PYX 106 (106.5 FM), and actually backed local musician Kevin Thompson on one number—when Anderson wasn’t talking to audience members, that is.

See, Ian Anderson’s show was a “Rubbing Elbows” affair, an apt name both from a standpoint of the intimate chumminess that he hoped to evoke with this oddball kind of approach, and from the standpoint of acknowledging the carpal-tunnel-syndrome-prone Anderson’s preferred method of greeting, in lieu of the traditional handshake.

Does that all sound like it mighta coulda shoulda been a self-indulgent train wreck, from an audience-observation standpoint? It did to me (despite my longtime fondness for Anderson and Jethro Tull alike), and I think it would have been, in the hands of a less genial, thoughtful, and erudite performer. But Anderson managed to make it all work charmingly and effectively, nicely filling two sets over nearly three hours, seemingly leaving the capacity crowd pleased and impressed with what they saw, heard and experienced.

And not just because of the talk, mind you, either, since the music was jolly delightful as well. While we didn’t get to hear “Aqualung” (the song), for instance, we did get to hear the rarely played acoustic hearts and soul of Aqualung (the album) when Anderson and company offered a back-to-back, somehow very poignant and touching twofer package of “Cheap Day Return” and “Mother Goose.”

I can imagine either of those songs surviving and still being performed 100 years from now as representatives of the great folk music of their time, as I could with other tunes offered Tuesday night, like “Up the ’Pool” and “Christmas Song” and even the first edit of “Thick as a Brick.” And that’s because, when you strip away from Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson the concepts behind the concept albums, and when you strip away the flute and the codpiece and even trusty old Martin Barre, then what you’re left with are some truly lovely, truly literate songs that hold up exceedingly well, absent all their usual embellishments.

Good for Ian Anderson for choosing to share these songs—and many others, including a robust selection of primarily instrumental cuts from his solo albums Divinities and The Secret Language of Birds—in such a fresh and interesting format. I can now count him as my first four-decade musical man (having seen him live in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and Naughts), and he’s never bored me, never once, nor have his songs—which are going to live on for years and years after he’s passed the point of sitting on sofas onstage or watching Martin dear Martin play “Aqualung” for the four millionth time. Goody goody.

—J. Eric Smith

The Revolution by Night

Blue Öyster Cult
Northern Lights, Oct. 18

My first Blue Öyster Cult experience was when my mom, of all people, bought me the eight-track version of Some Enchanted Evening, the band’s second live missive. I was 12 years old, but can still remember the annoying way the tune faded out and changed tracks during “Astronomy.” Until last week, more than 20 years later, there remained an equally disconcerting fact: I had never, to the consternation of my more rabid friends, truly seen the band live. I was actually present at the old JB’s Theater in 1986, when they performed under the pseudonym Soft White Underbelly, but a complete and utter alcoholic blackout and other shifty allegiances prevented any real recall in that respect.

Original members Eric Bloom, Allen Lanier and Buck Dharma wasted little time giving us the full skinny, from “Burnin’ for You” to “ETI” to “Joan Crawford,” which evoked striking piano work from Lanier. Fantastic. They are generous and well-seasoned, astutely sweetening the pot of FM favorites with the evocative “Harvester of Eyes” and “Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll.” I immediately took out another piece of gum and crammed it on home. I dropped my pen. The joint smelled sour but sweetly piquant, like the family garage during a New Year’s Eve kegger. “This ain’t the summer of love,” Bloom warned, as if he were reading my mind, and the esteemed locals concurred as the band whaled it up into the song of the same name, and how.

There was a pocket of time, a schism, in the ’70s and early ’80s, where one could stand on the merits of music alone, where five average-looking guys from Long Island could reap the benefits (no pun intended) of rock stardom while looking like the guy down the street who could fix your water heater. This excites me beyond composure (as if I had any), almost as much as did the completely unexpected performance of “Lips in the Hills.” By now I was swooning as Dharma’s fingers danced on his fretboard as effortlessly as summer wind animates thin silk curtains through an open window in the moonlight. “Then Came the Last Days of May,” the AAA itinerary from hell, will do that to you—I drooled, I foamed, I swore! My feeble attempts to vocally acknowledge their indefatigable efforts resulted only in a sharp ray of deluxe oral hygiene, projecting unnoticed into the red pots of light.

Any downsides? Well, several years ago, former Rainbow drummer Bobby Rondinelli took the drum throne for the outfit, and live, his meat-fisted assault at times punctured the veneer of the Cult’s more delicate tunes, especially during the classic “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” More than once Bloom had to signal him to ease off, but for the better part of the gig he and bassist Danny Miranda clobbered us into submission. “Dominance and Submission,” in fact.

By now, it was clear that I belong in an institution and that Cultasaurus Erectus remain woefully underrated and majestically cerebral. Like all fine art, they present complex, harrowing ideas in a remarkably simple manner. Even their latest material is layered thick with metaphor and a preference for the mysterious. Anthropology with no apologies. “Perfect Water,” “See You in Black” and the new live standard “Pocket” each helped BOC remind us that there is a very distinct difference between actual genius and just being touched by one. They speak the ugly, awful truth to power.

New York City’s increasingly visible Antigone Rising pounced into the opening slot, amply treating the early Coors Light crowd to a righteous dose of upbeat ballast. Inevitably, the comparisons to Etheridge or an electrified Indigo Girls arose, but it is clear that they can hold their own. I did, however, overhear someone describe the group as “kind of like an Ally McBeal episode put to music,” which is perhaps a reasonable assessment, but they look a lot healthier. And drummer Dena Tauriello kicks total ass. Gotta love that.

—Bill Ketzer

I Share Myself

Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks
Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., Oct. 20

Since he ambled onto the music scene in San Francisco’s freewheeling ’60s, Dan Hicks has been a compelling anachronism. His original songs and musical stylings showed influences from so many different genres that he could be labeled, if a label were all that important, only as an original. Which makes it hard to drop his records into that all-important correctly defined bin.

His performance last Sunday at Club Helsinki had all the elements that made him unique through the ’70s, with an emphasis on jazz that keeps the Hicks ensemble category-free. There’s a taut, hard-swinging sound to the two guitars; there’s violin and bass reminiscent of the Reinhardt-Grappelli Quintet of the Hot Club of Paris; and there’s an easygoing Bob Wills charm. Then throw in the jive novelty of Slim and Slam and the close harmony of the Modernaires and you begin to get at least the palette.

It may be that Hicks as a performer has undermined the reputation he should enjoy as a songwriter. He’s way too funny onstage. He has a dry sense of humor and manner that wonderfully parodies the luv-ya-all insincerity of many a performer, yet he wields his wit without alienating the crowd—and they love him for it.

But there’s something about a funnyman that discourages serious examination. Songs like “I Scare Myself” are classics (and it was covered by Thomas Dolby), and the Club Helsinki performance reminded us that it’s both the well-crafted lyric and the hypnotic tune that make this such a great vehicle. “It’s theme song of a generation,” said Hicks, introducing the song. “A generation of wiped-out paranoids.”

Hicks kept up a backbone of rhythm guitar and did some picking throughout, but solo honors fell to Tom Mitchell, who set up the Spanish flavor with a single-line solo that gave way to violinist Brian Godchaux’s chilling ruminations on the subject. His long notes doubled and quadrupled until his fiddle was spouting a shivery run of tremolos that very effectively built in excitement. Then bassist Paul Smith changed the mood again with a boppish solo.

“Bottoms Up!” is a superb Hicks original that ought to be in the cabaret-show repertoire: It’s a woman’s lament over a fraying love that has sent her into a bar for a drink. “I don’t mind sittin’ alone/If a move’s to be made, I’ll make it on my own.”

Other Hicks ought-to-be standards also showcased the players, and the vocals included harmony from the percussion-wielding Lickettes—in this case, Chris DeWolf and Robin Seiler. They opened with “Canned Music,” a tribute to the pleasure and peril of a live performance, then dipped into the jazz standards with Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.” Here’s where Hicks revealed what may be most compelling about him as a performer: He’s unremittingly hip. His scat vocal was every bit as inspired as anything from Ella Fitzgerald or Mel Tormé, but, again, it’s in a category of its own.

“‘Long Come a Viper” featured a tongue-twisting chorus, sung in close harmony, while songs like “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?,” “Evenin’ Breeze” and “I Feel Like Singing” were obviously well known to the crowd of fans.

Flat-out jazz emerged in the medley of “Caravan” and Django Reinhardt’s “Swing ’42,” while Hicks’ own “Reelin’ Down” sported a twangy country flavor.

Although there was little new for dyed-in-the-wool Hicks fans, he has the jazz virtuoso’s ability to make the old songs sound fresh. And the show itself couldn’t have been more entertaining.

—B.A. Nilsson

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