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Hair Warning
By Bill Ketzer

Sevendust, 30 Seconds From Mars
Northern Lights, Nov. 23

It could be the Southern roots, it could be their ability to crawl out of the ashes of misfortune and personal anguish with compassion and a throat-punching good live show, but either way, Sevendust have handily solved what for many heavy-hitting AOR bands seems to be a very difficult equation: How to deliver an instantly memorable chorus while pummeling the listener into the Dark Ages, without sounding milquetoast and insipidly predictable. Though not exactly for the diehard Hessian, the band did summon a very colorful gathering of the tribes, perhaps indicative, for better or worse, of the increasing marketability of said new-school metal. A quick scan of the smoky battlefield produced a dazzling and assiduous array of human life, ranging from very earthen, dreadlocked, gauntlet-sporting gargoyles to the three gents in front of me in $300 leather jackets and (wow!) mock turtleneck sweaters, who smoked clove cigarettes and sweated their arses off at the cusp of the pit while remaining very concerned about their earrings. I was more concerned about air and people stepping on my new Chuck Taylors, but we all have our priorities.

With a frank, intimate and disarming delivery, the troupe heaped their stockpile of bombtracks on us, many from 2002’s Animosity CD. I wish these bands would browse the Library of Congress Web site before naming an album (ahem . . . Corrosion of Conformity, PA-267-674: Animosity. Published June 24, 1985, CLNA: Bloody Skull Music, Bug Music), but hey, I guess there’s only so many ways to describe that sentiment. Anyhoo, we got stunning versions of “Shine,” “Praise,” “Trust,” and the heartbreaking “Angel’s Son,” duly dedicated to singer Lajon Witherspoon’s brother, who was shot to death not even two weeks prior. While I’ve been spanked in the past for making such obvious comparisons, it must be noted that, braids and skin color aside, Witherspoon evokes all that was gloriously glowing and incisive about Living Colour’s Corey Glover—only here as an almost ecclesiastical bearer of grace and spirituality over the cutting riff-o-rama doled out by his grimacing henchmen.

In short, these guys have hearts like lions. It is easy to remain unswayed by upstarts who tune all the way down to B, strings flapping on fretboards like laundry in some tenement square in a new, cheap way to sound “heavy” or support piss-poor live vocals. Here, such low keys accompany Witherspoon’s haughty range in a striking fashion as he stalks the limited breadth of the stage in a whirl of bong-wrecking hair. There is no masochism, no pretext, no blatant attempt to engender teen empathy by capitalizing on oversimplified portraits of classic delinquent pathology in live standards like “Denial,” “Waffle” and others. Instead, Sevendust seem to prefer a more responsible focus, committing the listener, through minimalist lyrics, mighty guitars and judicious drumming, to a closer reading before owning a share of this very personal investment.

I was pissed to learn that I missed some of the openers on this lengthy bill, but was privy to the interstellar itinerary of 30 Seconds From Mars, whose unapologetically deafening field of industrial-strength guitar work would constitute a felony in at least 25 less tolerant states. With actor Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club, Panic Room) at the helm, the band’s truncated set was an inspired (albeit formula-driven) process fueled by convergent gravitational forces felt from an enormous dialogue between distortion, electronica and neighboring moons. Pretty eccentric stuff, but more promising than, say, the Democratic Party in 2004.

Rocket to me: Dan Zanes and the Rocket Ship Revue. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

We Are Family

Dan Zanes and the Rocket Ship Revue
The Egg, Nov. 24

Over the past few years, Dan Zanes has successfully redirected himself to a family audience. The key to this success is that he has not forsaken his roots as a justly celebrated rock & roller. Whether he’s playing a mandolin or his diminutive electric guitar, he stands with the same jittering spread-leg stance as when he fronted the Del Fuegos in the ’80s.

At his Nov. 24 show at the Egg, Zanes was dressed in a mustard yellow suit, flanked by Barbara Brousal on guitar and Cynthia Hopkins on accordion (as well as musical saw, melodica and kazoo), both of whom were also bedecked in primary- or secondary-colored garb. Behind them were drummer David Hilliard and bass player Yoshi Waki, who anchored the proceedings with the same supple grounding of any fine band. With Zanes’ hair more idiosyncratically spiked than ever, I was struck by the fact that his audience of mostly pre-reading-age children would be able to communicate something of the event with a couple crayons.

The set drew from his three albums, all of which mix traditional numbers with originals—from “Erie Canal” and “Hokey Pokey” to odes in celebration of thrift shops and amusement parks. Zanes’ friendly manner anchored the performance, with his spoken song intros enlightening his young listeners while never stooping to the cloying sweetness that repels sensible adults. (The only equivalent that comes to mind is a literary one, the books of William Steig.) His gentle manner aside, Zanes is methodically knocking down the barriers that separate the preordained listening habits of various age groups. This truly is music for the whole family, with the aesthetics being guided by musical decisions. Zanes didn’t base the show on children’s entertainment, but rather the classic tenets of theatrical presentation. The course of the show followed the traditional arc of a true revue, with solo spots, band introductions and an appearance by special guest Rankin Don, aka Father Goose.

After the one-hour show—just the right amount of time for the highly charged energy of the young attendees—all six performers spent another 75 minutes meeting their audience and signing CDs (sales were deservedly brisk). It was striking to realize that many of these children were being introduced to songs and melodies that will be with them for their lifetimes. And perhaps, when they get older, they’ll see to it that Dan Zanes’ criminally overlooked 1995 solo album, Cool Down Time, will have its day in the sun, too.

—David Greenberger

Dancing With the World

Olu Dara
Club Helsinki, Nov. 30

Olu Dara’s musical career has been most notably centered in the downtown New York avant-garde scene, where he has appeared and recorded with the likes of Henry Threadgill and David Murray. It probably should also be mentioned that the rapper Nas calls him Dad.

His appearances in Great Barrington, Mass., though, are something else altogether. Dara and his veteran four-piece band play roots music, but unlike many roots bands, they mine a staggering array of styles, and do it with authority, grit, and most of all, bounce.

Wearing a porkpie hat, and sitting on a stool center stage, Dara was the calm in the middle of the storm, speak-singing what seemed to be largely improvised words with a voice somewhere between Gil Scott-Heron, Bill Withers and Lou Reed, nodding and smiling as if his words were unassailable universal truths (and I’m not sayin’ they weren’t), and now and then picking up a tiny cornet and blowing an indelible solo.

This all may sound oblique, if not a little self-indulgent, but that’s not how it came off. Dara wrapped his enigmatic persona around a nonstop riot of funk, jazz and blues styles from around the world. Delta blues begets South African dancehall begets zydeco begets ’70s funk.

And it didn’t hurt that folks came to dance, and what an orgy of dancing there was: frat-boy dancing, noodle dancing, look-I-studied-The-Dance-at-an-expensive-private-school dancing, I-can’t-dance-and-I-don’t-care dancing, and put-a-shiny-pole-in-front-of-me-and-stuff-five-spots-in-my-g-string dancing.

This was Olu Dara’s third stop at Helsinki in the club’s fairly brief history, and one gets the impression he plays there not because it’s a paying gig but more because he likes it. Saturday night, the crowd in the sold-out-to-the-teeth club loved him right back.

—Paul Rapp

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