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Hey Kids, Let’s Put On a Show
By Erik Hage

Save the Sound System
Valentine’s, March 12

It was one of those fitting ironies that, on the first night of the Valentines’ Save the Sound System benefit, a whole bunch of Capital Region bands pushed the old system, and a few tympanic membranes, to their outer limits. The eve drew a diverse cross section of loud local bands to both levels of the Valentine’s multiplex—from the bleak, cathartic complexity of eN~DoR~PHiN to the melodic, guitar-fueled love rock of Brian Bassett. Those were the poles; filling out all the spaces in between were the Erotics, the Sixfifteens, 5 Alpha Beatdown, Tolmantown and Crookshank.

Which points to the great thing about these shows: You can catch a wide swath of very different local groups. But, the Stairmaster-worthy burn of running up and down the stairs all night aside, the overlapping sets mean you’re bound to miss something. (I wasn’t able to catch enough of Tolmantown and Crookshank to put words to them. I also wish I had caught a whole lot more of eN~DoR~PHiN, whose dense atmosphere of organic and programmed sounds and whirling rumpus of a performance were impressive.)

Bassett made a rare appearance with a full band to roll out a bunch of numbers from his remarkable CD Rock and Roll. Ryan Barnum (formerly of the Wait), whose production touches and musicianship were all over that album, joined Bassett on guitar. The two musicians have great chemistry, and their guitar interplay—a roiling, melodic wall of crunch, snarl and grumble—was a highlight. (They’re both really nice guys too.) The Swiss Army-like John Brodeur (he does it all) sat in on drums. He should have “the ubiquitous” before his name; this cat is everywhere. Bassett and company offered up a moving set of welling, straight-up rock, particularly shining on “Grow Up,” “NYC” and a new balls-out rocker that may or may not be called “Damage Control.”

The Sixfifteens followed, and simply killed (with abandon), throwing their collective shoulder into a powerful set of tweaked-out, art-damaged, guitar-ringing thunder that dwelled in a noise-meets-melody region somewhere in the neighborhood of Mission of Burma, . . . Trail of Dead and Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Bob Carlton was a dynamo, attacking it like Frank (not Jack) Black on guitar and vocals, while his old Dryer bandmate Joel Lilley threw fierce drum batteries up against Carlton’s and Jeff Fox’s guitar onslaught. They are a band to watch . . . and watch again. (Carlton says their debut album will be out in April.)

The end of the night saw 5 Alpha Beatdown from, um, Iceland sharing time with their upstairs counterparts the Erotics. (Eager to see both the Erotics and this new, supposedly Icelandic group, I went anaerobic on the Valentine’s stairs.) The Erotics were as glorious as ever: sleazed-out, decadent and dead cool. Mike Trash took a shot from a plastic cup, pulled on a beer and muttered offhandishly, “Who wants to hear a song?” Other times, he put on the guitar heroics, sometimes laying deep into the wah-wah. A goddamned rock star, I tell you, poised somewhere in the tentative abyss between Johnny Thunders (the dead) and Nikki Sixx (the kinda living).

As for 5 Alpha Beatdown, from, er, Iceland: They pulled off a fun, loud set of guitar-fueled quirk. Apparently, Luke Wilson’s sweat-banded, sunglassed tennis garb in The Royal Tenenbaums is all the rage in this band’s “homeland.” But it would be journalistically irresponsible not to point out that, when their leader announced, “This solo’s for you” before laying one down, his accent came off less Icelandic than . . . Capital Regionish. As for the mystery drummer (with winged mask, a la Los Straitjackets), he certainly hit them in a distinctly ubiquitous Albany style. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of this fun, great group—despite our distance from Iceland.

Keeping in Tune

Kate & Anna McGarrigle
The Egg, March 14

Let’s see if I got the story straight. A guy in the Egg audience brought some 29-year-old pictures of Kate & Anna McGarrigle to the show. The pictures, the sisters deduced, must have been taken the same day the photos were taken for their first album cover—they were wearing the same clothes. The package of photos were apparently left in the glove compartment of Kate’s Audi, which, after the divorce, became Loudon’s Audi (as in Wainwright III). Loudon sold the car at some point, and the photos passed to another person, who passed them to “Greg,” who returned them to the McGarrigles Sunday night.

A common cliché regarding the Egg’s Swyer Theater is its “living-room intimacy.” Kate & Anna McGarrigle really made it seem like we were just hanging out with them at home as they told stories—like the one just related—and played. This had some great advantages, and some weird, slightly annoying disadvantages.

The McGarrigles made beautiful music with their five-piece ensemble. Their Quebecois-flavored rock-folk-blues hybrid was consistently haunting, whether the undertone was mournful (“La Vache Qui Pleure,” about a cow mourning its lost calves) or wry (“Petite Annonce Amoureuse,” in which a woman advertises for a 5-foot-3-inch man but settles for a fellow who is 5-foot-2). A traditional blues they’ve decided to call “Red Rocking Chair” (others call it “Honey Babe”) had a bracing hint of bitterness, and a cover of “All My Trials” was quietly powerful.

The adept McGarrigles changed instruments from song to song, playing guitar(s), banjo, piano and three or four different accordions, while the three guys alternately handled the fiddle, guitar, bass and drums. Of course, this meant that the guitars and, especially, the (goat-skin) banjo kept going out of tune. This necessitated a lot of long, between-song tuning. While this gave the sisters a chance to be funny, by the second half of the show—they played two sets, with no opening act—even they seemed to be tiring of it.

That said, if you want to see a completely seamless folk-rock show, with a roadie preparing a properly tuned guitar for each song, you have see some millionaire doofuses like Crosby, Stills and Nash. And I wouldn’t trade 5 seconds of one McGarrigle sister for that.

—Shawn Stone

Straight from the heart: Bryan Adams at the Palace. Photo by: Joe Putrock

I Do It for Albany

Bryan Adams
Palace Theatre, March 10

Despite the fact that I have never owned a Bryan Adams album, I often find myself in the seemingly indefensible position (from a “hip” perspective) of defending my admiration for his music. Truth be told, I have always liked Bryan Adams. He’s always been there, and has always been solid, like a peanut-butter sandwich and cold glass of milk when you’re a kid. (Not your favorite, but it sure goes down right when you reach for it.) He’s a Canadian whose muse seems sprung from some wistfully unsophisticated American heartland rock tradition, like Bruce Springsteen or John Fogerty without the barbed edges—an earnest purveyor of populist rock, offering up endlessly melodic sketches about being young, being in love and getting laid. (Who else could sell the sentiment “It’s so damn easy making love to you” without a touch of irony?)

My old boss and friend, rock critic Ira Robbins—whose “cool” credentials as one of the prime chroniclers of the ’70s punk explosion in NYC are impeccable—has a much more burning love for the music of Bryan Adams. A Psychedelic Fur accompanied Ira’s nuptials with a lounge version of “Heaven.” (This is the same wedding at which Yo La Tengo was the reception band.) A few years ago, he defended his stance in a CMJ article: “The music editor at Rolling Stone thought I was kidding when I pitched a cover story on [Bryan Adams]. The guy at the Sunday New York Times sneered and said they wouldn’t spill their august ink on such an inconsequential pop figure, not when there was another Mesopotamian flute quartet to chronicle. My writer friends think it’s willful perversion, like my lack of love for Gram Parsons. . . . My co-workers won’t stop teasing me. You’d think I picked Karen Carpenter over Keith Moon as rock’s greatest drummer.”

My own editor, God bless her, had a similar reaction when I pitched the idea. (To quote her e-mail warmly and accurately: “Heheheeeeeeeeee.”) But Ira’s unabashed love for Adams, despite slings and arrows, struck a chord with me—gave me the courage to come out as a fan. So the only thing left to do was to see Adams live, to stand in the second freaking row of the Palace Theatre with my wife (not our assigned seats mind you), pump my fist in the air and lose my voice to the “na-na-nas” of “Cuts Like a Knife.” I did that, and, man, I loved it. Adams’ performance last Wednesday did nothing to dampen my admiration: He was a class act, and an attentive and rocking performer. He put on a great, great show.

Adams is a little guy; at the Palace he looked thin and ultra-fit, decked out in a tight black T, baggy jeans and workboots. He carried himself like an athlete, back ramrod-straight and always kind of on the balls of his feet—springing off to receive another guitar here, running to the opposite stage end to please a new pocket of fans there. In fact, with his short blonde crop and slightly scarred face, he came off like an Irish bantamweight boxing champ.

He tailored much of his show to Albany, remembering that back in ’81 he played his first stateside show at the late J.B. Scott’s. At one point, after an impromptu huddle in the middle of the stage with his band, Adams explained, “I was just thinkin’ I should do a song from back in the day when I first played here.” Then he tore into “Lonely Nights,” from his debut album (a song that, in a different context, could be a power-pop anthem to rival Big Star’s “September Gurls”). And in truth, the best songs were his rockers. His bread and butter in the United States has been the schmaltzy ballads, but the concert sailed on the weight of his upbeat fare. Surprisingly, one of the best songs of the evening was “Only Love,” which you’ll probably remember as a duet with Tina Turner. Sans Turner, and on the strength of Keith Scott’s primal guitar crunch and wah-wah, it was a thunderclap.

Another highlight came when Adams, by way of tradition, pulled a fan from the pit to sing Sporty Spice’s part on 1998’s “When You’re Gone.” He’s done this during most shows over the past couple of years, but I don’t think he was quite ready for how prepared Sarah from Glens Falls was. She waved off an offer of the lyric sheet (“You sure you know the words, girl?” asked Adams) and then pretty much threw herself into her part with beguiling commitment, rubbing asses with Adams and singing her off-key heart out to the beautiful Palace rafters with the commitment of an American Idol finalist. (Throughout, Adams exchanged incredulous looks with his drummer and beamed uncontrollably; seems not every fan makes the most of the opportunity.) Sarah charmed Adams and the whole Palace. Afterwards, when Adams asked her who she had come with, she replied, “My friend Christy. She’s pregnant, but not as pregnant as the woman next to her.” (Audience members say the darndest things.)

The only misstep seemed a rushed version of “Heaven.” Otherwise the show was a great, great time, with a lengthy, multisong encore capped off with a solo acoustic version of Adams’ early hit “Straight From the Heart.” Before the tune, Adams thanked Albany and pointed out that, when he started the night, a lot of people were still sitting. “Now look at you,” he said to the standing, cheering crowd. Then most of the audience sang every damn word in unison, something they’d been doing all night. (You could just hear them better now.) Adams was a class act. The whole night he made it clear that he knew he wasn’t in just another city. He was in Albany.

—Erik Hage

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