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Rrrick’s all right: Cheap Trick’s Nielsen at The Egg. Photo by John Whipple.

They’re Tight
By John Rodat

Cheap Trick
The Egg, April 22

In fifth grade, the happiest place in the world to me was the Edgewood Acres trailer park, where my friend Paul lived with his mother and sister. Paul’s mom worked during the day, leaving the trailer—like a very low tree house—open for use as a base of operations for undisciplined 11-year-old boys. We’d fill up on Froot Loops (sugared cereals were forbidden in my house), and then follow his sister, Tracy, and her boyfriend out to the bare patch in the woods surrounding the trailer park. There, we’d harass them until they would either chase us off with threats of violence, or bribe us with headspinning hits off Marlboro reds or a can of his Budweiser. Thus supplied, we’d bolt back to the trailer, where we’d attempt to blow out the speakers of the record player in his mom’s bedroom. One late afternoon in 1979, along the muddy path back from the clearing, we found a moldering record jacket containing a warped LP: 10 tracks of the greatest rock & roll the world has ever known (briefly distorted beyond recognition every two seconds or so, as the stylus hit the bent plastic), Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokon. Fiercer than the Beatles, less clownish than Kiss (the previous staples), Cheap Trick reinvented rock for me.

I had, therefore, some ambivalence about seeing them at the Egg: Follow a dirty path from a grotto in the trees to an unsupervised trailer, all sugar-high and spacey from cigarettes and half a can of beer—that’s the way you see Cheap Trick. “I’m just gonna feel so old,” I feared. Exactly the opposite proved to be the case.

It’s hard to say that anyone in rock & roll has aged gracefully, exactly—rock & roll being a less than graceful enterprise in itself. But Cheap Trick have aged very, very well. Maybe it’s because no one in the band has been knighted, maybe it’s because whatever dependencies and/or excesses they had in the past were not indispensable to their output—who knows? But Cheap Trick rocked the Egg like they rocked the master bedroom of Paul’s trailer at the Edgewood Acres in 1979. Rick Nielsen’s guitar work is still a whole lot of melody dressed in a suitable snarl; bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun. E. Carlos still provide rhythmic support of simple force and appropriate (never show-offy or posturing) exuberance; and—most amazingly—Robin Zander has still got pipes.

There was, perhaps, a touch more reverb on his voice than in years gone by, but Zander easily went from the high notes of the late-career hit “The Flame” to the belting of each sustained “awaaaaaaay” in the well-loved “Surrender” without a hitch or gasp. The consistency of his voice over the years really is remarkable. Zander is who Axel thought he was.

Of course, it helps that Zander has the songs of Rick Nielsen as material. You can say that nothing after the first four albums lived up to the quality of good-time, top-down, balls-out rock of those years, and you’d be right; but four straight albums of that caliber buys you some forgiveness for later lapses. And the band pleased mightily with the rockers of yore—“If You Want My Love,” “Heaven Tonight,” “Dream Police,” “Ain’t That a Shame”—and threw in some strong later numbers, such as ’88’s “Never Had a Lot to Lose” just to remind us that it wasn’t all decline after Budokon. The audience—significantly gray as it was—appreciatively crowded the stage’s edge, fist-pumping and hell-yeahing like folks a third their age.

So, if the newest songs didn’t pack the punch of the faves, if there were dry patches, it was probably just as well. If it had only been the old songs, some of us might have broken hips.

Hidden Treasure

Michael Hurley, Gideon Freudmann
Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., April 24

Michael Hurley, now in his early 60s, has been creating his singular body of work for nearly 40 years. His is a career that’s ambled along with the languid pace and bemused curiosity of a 19th-century hermit dropped into the 20th century. His songs celebrate pork chops, neon signs and a fractured but eminently poetic sense of the romantic in its every guise.

Hurley now lives again in Oregon—he’s drifted from state to state with a mix of nomadic restlessness and bohemian necessity, with extended stays and actual postal addresses over the past decade in Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont and Ohio. His appearance last week at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, Mass., while sadly underattended, found him clearly enjoying the setting and attention, as he performed for a hefty hour and 40 minutes. Hurley played the first few songs on banjo, settling into his guitar for the bulk of the performance, and closed with a few numbers on the fiddle. He plays all three instruments with economy and casual ease, slyly embedding his own invention into the proceedings with nary a hint of fanfare or dazzle. In fact, lack of fanfare is a trait found in every aspect of Hurley’s music. His songwriting eschews big bangs, just moving along with its own unique metabolism, getting where it needs to and then simply stopping, no big finales.

Last year saw the release of Hurley’s new Sweetkorn and a reissue of his 1964 debut, originally called First Songs and now retitled Blueberry Wine. That these two works sound like they could be sitting side-by-side enjoying a beer together is a testament to his unflagging vision and artistry. Free of pretense and artifice, Michael Hurley is an unassuming national treasure. He sings his songs to whatever size audience shows up, releasing records whenever some small label knocks at his door. However, his are the songs that will be the durable standards, able to traverse the decades and centuries with their character intact.

Gideon Freudmann opened the show with his solo cello performance. A facile player, he uses digital delay and loops to create layers of his own playing. Alas, these groove-oriented improvs quickly fell into a tiresome sameness. A weak singer and genre-bound writer dependent on forced cleverness, he’d be a great addition to an ensemble where his obvious strengths as a player could be better utilized.

—David Greenberger


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