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Soul men, back again: (l-r) Hall and Oates. Photo by Joe Putrock.

We’re All in This Together
By Paul Rapp

Kronos Quartet
The Egg, Feb. 28

A Kronos Quartet concert is typically a joyride across time, space and genre. Friday’s show at the Egg was wilder than most, in turns fun and provocative and goofy and dead serious.

The first half of the show featured selections from the 2002 album Nuevo, Kronos’ modern Mexican collection. Any other string quartet doing “modern Mexican” would present a nice but undistinguished collection of neoclassical pieces from some unheard-of pointy-headed composers of Mexican extraction. Everyone would applaud politely and not remember a thing about the concert the next day. Not the case here. Kronos’ set included arrangements of a popular bawdy song from the 1940s; a contemporary folk tune celebrating drug banditos (a waltz, wouldn’t ya know); a prime example of Esquivel’s space-age bachelor-pad jazz, a lovely composition titled “Miniskirt”; the theme song to a long-running Mexican TV show; and a deliciously cheesy orchestral piece that featured a taped solo played by a guy blowing on an ivy leaf. The musical leaf sounded like an old and unstable synthesizer, otherworldly yet unmistakably human.

With oddities and fireworks like this, it’s not surprising that the set stalled only with the more modern, “serious” pieces. Particularly the set closer, a collaboration with the Mexican rock band Café Tabuca, utilizing lots of taped ambient sounds and repetitious string codas, wore out its welcome pretty quick.

The rest of the show was equally eclectic, except that Kronos left Mexico and headed eastward. First up was a cut-and-paste piece by überhip New York composer John Zorn, 90 percent of which was a straight (and deliberate) steal of Carl Stallings’ cartoon scores. Which doesn’t make the piece necessarily bad, of course, just sadly unoriginal. Within the first 30 seconds of the Zorn piece, cellist Jennifer Culp barked like a dog. Later on, the violins and viola traded scratching riffs. Scratching not in the turntables sense, but rather in the bow-against-string fingernails-against-chalkboard sense. It was as unnerving as it was hilarious. A piece involving taped phrases and words from liberal journalist I.F. Stone was too obvious, went nowhere, and continued for too long. Why do people think that words become so much more intensely meaningful when repeated ad infinitum? Most of us do get it just fine the first time, and everything after that is patronizing.

And then came the masterpiece. Kronos performed an arrangement of a simple, dirgelike song by Icelandic group Sigor Rós. With the sound noticeably punched up, the song built slowly over an ascending chord pattern and just flowed off the stage and over the audience. Where the other songs Kronos performed may have been abrupt, this was complete. Where the others were jarring, this was soma. Where the others were provocative, this required no thought. The piece could have gone on for 12 hours and no one would have minded.

Part of Kronos’ genius is their equal treatment of all of the music they play. The same attention, the same respect, the same intensity is bestowed on every piece, be it by Anthony Braxton, Thomas Tallis or Esquivel. There is no showboating, and no playing to the cheap seats, even when one of the players is barking like a dog. The decorum is precisely what you’d expect from a string quartet. Whether this is deadpanning or whether Kronos just believe they are the messenger moving information along is something I’d love to chat with them about.

Kronos relied heavily on prerecorded material, with mixed success. There were extended periods during which the most interesting things happening were coming out of a computer, and not the quartet. Some pieces, perhaps, weren’t meant to be performed live.

To wild rock-show ovations, Kronos encored with works from Indian and Turkish composers, wonderful pieces that reflected both ethnic difference and sublime sophistication, and that underscored some basic premises of the ensemble: that this is one world, and if you go looking for beauty expecting to find it, you will.

For the Love of Live

Hall & Oates
Palace Theater, March 5

What a strange career trajectory these guys have had. Packaged in the mid-’70s as an ultra-hip niche duo (I saw them open for Lou Reed in 1975 in New York City), they surprised everybody by hitting the Top 40 charts hard, and then stayed there for the next 10 years. Then Hall & Oates pretty much disappeared. I understand they have put some things out (remember 1997’s Marigold Sky? Me neither.), but the only time they hit the radar screen was in ads for casino gigs. It seemed only a matter of time before they were stuck in a blue-eyed-soul revival tour with the likes of Kajagoogoo or Rick Astley. A more ignoble fate could not be imagined.

I cringed when I put their new CD, Do It for Love, in the machine. Dropped by their record company, the former hitmeisters had to put out this record themselves. I was expecting a modest effort, something to keep the old fans happy. That’s not what I got. Do It For Love is Hall & Oates’ reclaiming of the blue-eyed-soul mantle from the tepid and manufactured pretenders who have sold so many millions of units to little girls over the past few years. It is a magnificent piece of work. This, kids, is how it’s done. This may be their best recording since Abandoned Luncheonette.

Live Tuesday night they just plain delivered. In front of a muscular five-piece band (including longtime collaborator T-Bone Wolk on bass), Hall & Oates provided a reminder of why they once ruled the charts and why they still should. The hits rolled, one after another, and small oddities (from solo albums, ’90s albums) were stuck in here and there. The biggest punch came from the very earliest works and from songs off the new album; these were the songs that went deepest into soul territory. The ’80s hits tended to sit lifelessly, as the grooves were static, and the songs (which aren’t particularly great songs to begin with) left Darryl Hall no room to do what he does best, which is to wail like some crazed albino preacher about the gospel of love. This didn’t matter much, though, since these hits tended to turn into a big treacly sing-along, relegating the band to the role of animated jukebox.

Hall acted as though there were no place on earth he’d rather have been than on stage at the Palace. He sang with joy and with humor, and with a real soul that belied all the critics who’ve called him just a good technician. John Oates, who has a genius for looking busy, led the band in this stripped-down production, which was devoid of gimmickry, props, costumes, or even elaborate lighting. Maybe the sparseness was due to budgetary constraints, but bells and whistles weren’t needed.

When they came out for the first encore, I looked at my partner and asked, “What hits do they have left to do?” They tore through three of them. Then they came back for a second encore and did two more. God bless ’em.


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