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The keys to our hearts: Randy Newman. Photo: John Whipple

Go On and Love Me

Randy Newman
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 1

By Shawn Stone

Randy Newman may be creep-ing ever-closer to cashing that first Social Security check, but his recent performance at the Troy Music Hall found the legendary singer-songwriter approaching his sixth decade with caustic wit and angry social conscience intact. It’s a good thing, too: Someone has to keep the fires of misanthropy burning bright.

At this point, you may be inclined to protest, “But what about those nondescript, chipper little ditties he wrote for a decade’s worth of Disney movies?” Indeed. Mad TV’s Will Sasso did a devastating parody of that Randy Newman, noodling on about smiles, friends and sunshine. And “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from Toy Story—which Newman performed—remains irritating.

The old Newman, who sang about racism, greed, and emotional cruelty, never completely disappeared, however. He was in full effect on his last nonsoundtrack album, 1999’s Bad Love, an unjustly neglected disc that radiates angry wit. Newman proudly referred to Bad Love as possibly his best album, and performed a half-dozen songs from it, including: “The Great Nations of Europe,” a bleakly humorous two-and-a-half-minute history lesson on Western imperialism; “I’m Dead (but I Don’t Know It),” an audience sing-along about an aging rocker unable to face the fact that he’s grown stale and useless; and “The World Isn’t Fair,” in which a Newmanesque antihero (a “froggish” older man with a young wife) explains to Karl Marx why communism failed. He didn’t spare himself or his family, either: “I Miss You” was a love song to his first wife, written while married to his second. Whether that’s brave, cruel or simply honest is left to the listener.

Newman didn’t look like a troublemaker; he didn’t even look like a headliner. Walking onstage in a nondescript shirt and slacks, he looked like he was supposed to move the piano, not play it. It was just Newman and the Steinway all night, which was probably for the best—some of his albums were sunk by too-heavy rock arrangements. (Newman himself joked, midsong, that “I’m too cheap to hire a band.”) He shifted the mood by alternating comic songs with more sensitive numbers, accented with a light show that was fascinating in its technical crudeness.

He played two sets, divided by a not-
too-long intermission, and sang songs from every stage of his career. His between-song stories were very funny, whether complaining how he could never get a compliment from his father (even when the Oscar nominations started rolling in), or explaining how certain songs came to be written. Newman’s own view of the effects of his social criticism could be comically self-mocking: He noted that before he started writing songs about American racism, “black people had a really hard time in this country.”

Speaking of which, Newman drew heavily from his Southern magnum opus, Good Old Boys. “Rednecks” remains, unfortunately, an apt indictment of Northern-white racial hypocrisy; “Louisiana 1927,” about a flood of Biblical proportions, was dryly moving; and the supremely weird “A Wedding in Cherokee County” was the obvious highlight of the evening. (With the opening couplet, “Her papa was a midget/Her mama was a whore,” how could it not be?)

Though he didn’t soften “Rednecks”—the chorus “And we’re keepin’ the niggers down” was as shocking as ever—“It’s Money That I Love” did get a moral makeover. That song’s protagonist now extols the glories of being wealthy enough to buy “a half-pound of cocaine and a 19-year-old girl”; the girl was 16 in the original lyric. Maybe this was because Newman has a daughter of his own now.

Newman still seems puzzled that folks don’t always get his sense of humor—it’s a kind of innocence. After all, he wrote “Lonely at the Top,” which was one of the encores, for Frank Sinatra, and was surprised when Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t appreciate lyrics like “Listen all you fools out there/Go on and love me, I don’t care.” The worshipful audience at this show did, however—my friend and I were nearly run down by a guy rushing to the front of the stage in search of a handshake—and Newman seemed genuinely pleased.

The Art of Noise

Mission of Burma
Pearl Street Nightclub, Northampton, Mass., Oct. 3

Mission of Burma became one of my favorite bands in the world in 1985. It was a little odd, because they had been defunct since 1983, and I had never heard them play a note. My adoration was sparked by a review in Musician magazine of the band’s posthumously released live album, The Horrible Truth About Burma. Not only were the band’s and the album’s names great, but the description of the work—really, a eulogy to the band—floored me. In a nutshell, it was described as ferocious art—and I wanted that. I was almost frightened to listen to them for fear they couldn’t possibly live up to that testimony.

But they did. And, even now, some 20 years since their heyday, they still do.

Though the band’s original tape manipulator, Martin Swope, has ducked out of the band’s reunion, the format is much the same as back in the day. And in the hands of the onstage trio of guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott, the effect is much the same as well. (The comparatively subtle tape effects were provided from the soundboard by producer Bob Weston.) Over Conley’s elastic and melodic bass, Miller layers sheets of metallic noise—always impeccably placed. It’s as if he starts with raw ingredients of blister, crackle and volume and shapes them with his hands and his instrument, using the guitar like a palette knife. (At times his playing evoked the squirrelly weirdness of Adrian Belew.) I’ve always thought guitar solos in punk music were contradictory to the form, and maybe Miller agrees, because everything he played was in service of the mood of the songs: celebratory, textural, violent, pretty and looouuuuud.

So loud, in fact, that to protect himself from the tinnitus that led to the original disbanding, Miller wore a pair of runway headphones throughout the show, and Prescott was stashed behind a Plexiglass sheet to muffle his onstage battering.

But as Burmaphiles know, this isn’t formless arty noodling. The band were revered not just for their powerful live performances, but for their songcraft. Burma wrote anthems so good, even a post-
Springsteenian can use the word comfortably. “Academy Fight Song,” “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate,” and “This Is Not a Photograph,” all are howl-along brilliant. And, of course, there’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” (which many folks best know thanks to Moby’s bland remake). All of which we’re performed with youthful gusto, if not flawless precision: After a false start on “Revolver,” Miller quipped, “It’s a new song, give us a break.”

Burma also unveiled a handful of truly new songs, to be included on an upcoming album, and though there were some stylistic surprises—one had a decidedly Hollies-like feel under the racket—it felt like 1985 all over again.

—John Rodat

From Bearsville to the Basement Tapes

The Jayhawks
Bearsville Theater, Oct. 4

“I have a quiet little voice,” Gary Louris explained to the audience member who yelled for more vocals early on in the Jayhawks’ set at Bearsville Theater (an unnecessary request, as Louris could be heard just fine). More accurately, Louris’ voice is a honeyed purr, all high and cottony, like Neil Young’s warble with all the apocalyptic, accusatory edges sanded down. It’s a tragically comforting instrument, and essential to the sound of the Jayhawks, who have established themselves in the first echelon of all-time roots-rockers throughout a 15-plus-year career (during which only Louris and bassist Marc Perlman have been constants).

The Minneapolis group had spent the previous two nights opening for Lucinda Williams at the Beacon Theater in New York City, and came northward to headline Woodstock radio station WDST’s sold-out benefit for the fight against breast cancer. And it seemed the perfect place and night for the Jayhawks. The polished blond-wood interior of the Bearsville Theater (which is not unlike a really cool barn) seemed the perfect place for the group’s ruralized brand of pop rock. In fact, it seemed as if we were all lodged in the heartwood of some quintessential Americana experience for the night, Louris’ ghostly little voice fluttering skyward, the music a whirlpool in the rafters.

To cap the experience, legendary singer-drummer Levon Helm of the Band, who lives nearby, was in attendance, though not as a performer. During Ollabelle’s wonderful opening set of sultry gospel-blues (his daughter Amy sings for the group), Helm stood behind a speaker in a baseball cap, keeping it low-key and doing that rapturous, funky little head groove you’ve seen him do a hundred times behind the kit in the Last Waltz movie. Not far away, Louris’ trademark horn-rims shone spectrally in the dark, the circle far from broken. (Onstage, Louris even pointed to the fact that the Jayhawks took their name from the Band’s old moniker, the Hawks.)

In this town known for its legendary American music, the Jayhawks got off a real good one. (You half expected to hear the distant whine of circa-’66 Dylan on his motorcycle, an archetypal phantom restlessly tooling the wooded roads in tribute.) Louris—all 6-foot-3 lank with longish curly hair—was in great form, unleashing some inspired bursts of guitar (most don’t realize what a virtuoso player he is) and offering well-deserved praise to sponsors WDST. “Not too many like that, anymore,” he said about the station, and then, too genteel to outright curse, “Fluck [sic] Clear Channel.”

At times, he came off like a bookish Jimmy Page, standing at the stage lip and bending out peals on his SG to those in the front row. He peppered the primeval opening crunch of 1992’s “Waiting for the Sun” with all kinds of newly inspired episodes, then changed up to a flying-V guitar for a couple of tunes from the dark, brooding landscape of 1997’s Sound of Lies. He strapped on a Rickenbacker for “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” tapping into a pristine stream of sound that has coursed its way through decades from its source in the Byrds. Tim O’Reagan was a huge asset (and my favorite singing drummer since, well, Levon Helm); he’s not only a fine vocalist-songwriter in his own right, but summoned up spot-on imitations of former co-leader Mark Olsen on the older tracks.

Speaking of older stuff, the group’s harmonies shone on the Jayhawks’ near hit, and most recognizable song, “Blue” (whose opening lick—a sweet, lazy little slide out of A—was scalded into cultural memory as theme riff for the nascent VH-1). And as the three voices sailed together, sliding into respective spots in the lifting harmony, you couldn’t help but think that this was another generation’s “The Weight.”

—Erik Hage

Bluegrass Breakdown

The Nashville Bluegrass Band
The Egg, Oct. 2

Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe once described himself as nothing but a high-tenor farmer with a mandolin—but he brought complexity and drive to simple Appalachian ballads, and created a distinguished American style, unrestricted and accessible. The Nashville Bluegrass Band brought that Southern tradition to the Egg’s Swyer Theatre on Saturday, upping the ante on old-time bluegrass with good humor and foot-stomping roots protocol.

These guys are the scariest of Music City’s scary-great session folk, whose résumés are fortified with the approval seals of John Starling, Vernon Oxford, John Hartford, Béla Fleck, Dolly Parton, Sting and the Dixie Chicks, to name a few. The Grammy-winning quintet are particularly keen on storytelling, and in doing so awarded us the courtesy of reinterpreting not only old genre standards like Monroe’s ripping “Wheel Hoss” and Bill Dale’s solemn “Luckiest Man Alive,” but also some early, sweat-and-soil Southern gospel. They slugged away at African-American string-band classics like the Alabama Sheiks’ “Travelin’ Railroad Man” and DeFord Bailey’s “Evening Prayer Blues,” and even added the freaky Pentecostal snake-handling ballad “Signs Following,” which I believe is actually more contemporary. Then, just when they have you making mental notes to find your King James so you can look up the Old Testament parable that begat the bad voodoo, they plunge into a batch of what guitarist Pat Enright calls “killin’ songs.” Fiddle man Stuart Duncan made short work of the Done Gone Band’s “The Ghost of Eli Renfro” and so many others, carving that piece of wood like a Thanksgiving turkey a day late and a dollar short.

But there was something amiss. Alan O’Bryant, for example, seemed quite out of sorts, both on the banjo and in the vocal department—singing off-key and looking generally pissed off for much of the night. I was waiting for some lightning there, but much of it was generated by Duncan and mandolin player Mike Compton, whose creative cadence also seemed a little less than peak even during his own “Pretty Red Lips.” His picking style, the way he hears rhythm breaks, reminds me of the way one would beat down a jembe to a Tito Puente LP. I’m serious. But he too seemed a mite uninspired. He blamed it on green eggs and ham (“They told me it was dead when I ate it,” he said), but who knows? Could have been the weather. Could have been the fact that the band had to red-eye bassist Missy Raines in from Nashville to replace Dennis Crouch at the last minute. She even had to borrow clothes and a bass (a crappy one, at that, with a very poor high register) until her own stand-up arrived for the second set, but she shone just the same, taking solos during the Sheiks’ tunes and nailing everything down like only a true pro can. I don’t want to give the impression that they sucked (you get up there and hammer out the 2/4 for two and half hours after eating bad ham and see how well you fare), but from what I’ve heard they are typically more of a barnstorming live act than what we saw.

The magic of bluegrass has always been its simplicity, which oddly enough has been emulated even by the punkers. Entire songs are structured around a single run—verse, chorus, breaks and all. As was the case with Monroe, Earl Scruggs and scores of others, the workshop has always been the stage, not the studio, and NBB explore the fertile, dynamic plains of blues and jazz with high, lonesome sounds the only way they know how. Although it was a frazzled, jet-lagged performance of sorts, every now and again it is reassuring to know that while industry “entrepreneurs” like Russell Simmons build slick commercial empires and haphazardly insert themselves into political-policy arenas to exploit a choke-chained American media for cheap PR, real musicians are still out and about, busy making real music, feeling shitty sometimes like the rest of us.

—Bill Ketzer

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