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Neolithic: Queens of the Stone Age at Northern Lights. Photo by John Whipple

For Openers
By John Rodat

Queens of the Stone Age, Turbonegro
Northern lights, March 27

The selection of an opening act is a tricky thing: You don’t want someone who’s going to show you up, but you do want someone capable enough to establish an appropriate tone, and to—well, duh—warm things up. Twenty minutes after the Queens of the Stone Age show, I would have told you that the headliners had done a perfect job selecting their advance men; now, I’m not so sure. Upon reflection, Norway’s Turbonegro were something of a poison pill.

Turbonegro were on the bill at the specific request of the Queens of the Stone Age, and the former’s over-the-top, semiparodic Spinal Tap-meets-the-Dead Boys approach seemed a brilliant choice, at the time. They were loud and brash and prone to comic rock & roll overstatement and stagy antisocial posturing. As evidenced by songs with titles like “Selfdestructo-bust,” “Death Time,” “Are You Ready (for Some Darkness)” and “I Got Erection,” Turbonegro work the worn—not to say completely depleted—veins of nihilism/hedonism that constituted the better portion of late-’70s punk-rock and proto-glam thematic material. And they throw in a little laughable theater as well: Frontman Hans Erik Husby (“Hanky”) aped an early Alice Cooper routine (with top hat, walking stick and face paint), and the other band members were all similarly gussied up in some sort of silliness. I overheard more than one audience member remark that they looked like a needle-park version of the Village People.

And that was all in good fun. But musically, Turbonegro were repetitive—repeating not only themselves, but earlier, better practitioners of the form. Easily three or four songs evoked “Sonic Reducer” specifically, and one song so resembled Hanoi Rocks’ “Mental Beat” that my hopes for a cover were blissfully high for a full measure. Then the vocal kicked in and it proved to be just another derivative song.

So it was a great relief when the Queens finally hit the stage and wasted no time with theatrics or banter, getting right into it with obsessive-compulsive intensity. The furious downstroke heaviness, the controlled feedback-squeal accents, and the clever addition of sparse vocal harmony provided for an intro that displayed everything that Turbonegro lacked: ferocity, technique, arrangement, drive, seriousness of purpose. By the second number, “Do It Again,” the crowd was already fist-pumping and call-and-responding in sweaty unison.

Throughout the set, the enthusiasm continued unabated as the Queens plowed through numbers from their sophomore album, Rated R, and their newest one, Songs for the Deaf; personally, I felt a bit gypped that the self-titled debut was so underrepresented (as in, not at all), but the appearance of Mark Lanagen at the mike was a pleasant compensation. The former Screaming Tree has been collaborating with the Queens on the last two albums—lending songwriting skills and a voice like whiskey—and he was in fine rasp on Thursday. He brings an ominous and deep-woodsy tone—like impending bad weather in the Pacific Northwest—to the Queens drugs ’n’ desert vibe, and the juxtaposition of climates was something to hear. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but Lanagen makes Metallica’s James Hetfield sound like a fucking Muppet. The three songs Lanagen sang provided a textural variation that would otherwise have been missing from the Queens’ set.

Not that anyone in Thursday’s crowd would have cared. Singer-guitarist Josh Homme more than held his own without Lanagen, adding a different type of tension—and the band aren’t really about variation, or pomo stylistic cross-pollination, or any such stuff anyway. They’re about guitar-heavy, melodic stoner rock, and they delivered it unfailingly with precision and energy. Currently, as compared to much of the slick and shallow stuff with which they share the airwaves, they’re bracing. But as Turbonegro made clear to me, particular styles of heavy music have short shelf lives and often are best defined in opposition. Out of context or chronology, they can seem unambitious or, worse, jokey. I just can’t help picturing a sad and faintly ridiculous Josh Homme on the county-fair circuit in eight years, plying a type of aggro that won’t distract even the meekest kid from his Skee-ball—and I blame the Norwegians.

Raga ’Round the Clock

Zakir Hussain with Shankar and Gingger
The Egg, March 23

The Egg is a very comfortable place to catch a show, no two ways about it: wide cushy chairs, lots of leg room, good climate control, no smoke, tasty snacks and beverages available at intermission. All pretty sweet. But, even so, at the show on Sunday afternoon featuring tabla master Zakir Hussain and double-violinists Shankar and Gingger, I was pining for something even comfier, something I could really sink into—like a bean-bag chair or a papasan in a finished basement. See, decorous fellow that I am, I’ve got hang-ups about completely trancing out in public.

The lengthy show’s program consisted of four ragas—well, three ragas and an extended tabla solo—over two sets. If you’re a Westerner not down with the concepts of Indian music, a raga is an improvised melody, often paired with a supporting rhythmic element (the tal). The Sanskrit word raga means “color, or passion,” and has therefore lent a poetic interpretation of the raga as a musical coloring of the mind of the listener with a particular emotion. This sensitivity to mood and atmosphere can also be seen in the fact that, traditionally, ragas have been associated with certain times of day (one of the trio’s numbers was, in fact, introduced as an “afternoon raga”). Though the raga is essentially an improvised form, there are patterns, based on the seven notes of the Indian scale, the swar, and the 10 possible modalities, the that, those notes allow. If all that means anything qualitative to you, you are either Indian or way smarter than me—or both.

The pieces performed by Hussain, Shankar and Gingger were technically overwhelming, the skill with which each player handled their instruments enormously impressive—but the real force was in the emotion conveyed. Succinct figures in low buzzing drones and throaty amphoric tones were passed from musician to musician, repeated and/or altered subtly, building tension and drama. (It was interesting to note that the audience, which was largely Indian, cheered passages at their tensest moments, prior to resolution—a real ear-opener for someone used to the Western emphasis of the tonic.)

The interplay of the two double violins, double necked instruments with ranges running from the double bass to the violin, was mesmerizing: It was orchestral minimalism with deft flourishes and cunning tasteful detours. The moods ran from celebratory to deeply contemplative, without ever resorting to empty pyrotechnics or introspective chill; and the trio kept it all immediate without being dogmatic or too leading (excepting, perhaps, the jokey moments of Hussain’s virtuosic tabla solo, during which he plucked basslike notes out of his larger drum to play a fragment of The William Tell Overture while thrumming out hoof beats on the smaller drum).

It’s easy to understand the attraction of rock and pop bands to the musical idiom of Northern India: Its exuberant force, which relies on command of dynamic and phrasing rather than sheer volume, is affecting and deep in a way that can only be shabbily and shallowly referenced with Physical Graffiti and a fattie.

—John Rodat

And Then There Were Three

Marshall Crenshaw
WAMC Performing Arts Studio, March 29

The last couple of times Marshall Crenshaw has played in the area, he played solo. Saturday’s show at the WAMC Performing Arts Studio was a nice return to combo dynamics, as he expanded his presentation to a trio. Jason Crigler on electric guitar and Ben Rubin on string bass added the perfect frame around Crenshaw, with a deep and woody resonance creating a solid foundation and wiry birdlike melodic lines darting in and out of the clouds.

They opened with Buddy Holly’s “Reminiscing,” Crenshaw having played him in La Bamba (about which he remarked, “Everybody should be in a movie once in their life.”). Holly—and Holly filtered through the British invasion bands—informs much of Crenshaw’s sense of dynamics and propulsion. In fact, the drummerless trio lacked not at all for rhythmic identity, relentlessly rocking when the song called for it. Crenshaw has so internalized all of his influences that he never sounds like he’s aping any of them—one of the hallmarks of an artist who has succeeded with both his craft and vision.

The 16-song set (and the additional pair brought forth for the encore) drew from throughout Crenshaw’s career, from his debut album’s “Cynical Girl” to a handful from his most recent studio album (1999’s #447), including the perfect “Dime a Dozen Guy.” A few new songs—slated to be a part of an album due out this summer—also were played. Crenshaw is a fine songwriter, and the years have found him deepening as a singer. He’s always had a friendly and convincing voice, but it has grown in subtle, nuanced ways, no doubt in part because he’s played numerous solo shows over the past decade.

I’m also happy to report that the level of the venue’s stage has been raised, making visibility fine throughout the room. Now if they can just get rid of the extraneous light. Audiences thrive on the anonymity of being in the dark, in contrast to the glowing and spotlit stage. This creates the proper hierarchy in the auditorium and lets performances move beyond perfectly reasonable, good, great, or fun—and into the realm of magic.

—David Greenberger

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