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While my guitar gently giggles: Richard Thompson at the Egg.. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Cryin’ on the Inside

By John Rodat

Richard Thompson, Julian Coryell
The Egg, March 21

First, just to give you context, I’ll confess: I am a sentimental sap. I am the kind of guy who cries at commercials. You should see me around Christmas, when McDonald’s and Kodak unleash their “lonely old man befriended by concientious neighbor kid” spots—I’m a mess. More than one holiday season, they’ve had to use the Jaws of Life to get me out of the fetal position. Weirder still, I actually enjoy the vicarious misery. (My old classics professors would call it catharsis; my shrink has a different word for it.)

So, the first time I saw Richard Thompson live—which was only six or so years ago—it was a perfectly miserable, or vice versa, evening. He was playing the Tarrytown Music Hall, a grand and theatrical old place, and was accompanied by longtime collaborator Danny Thompson (no relation) on stand-up bass. The combination of venue and support lent additional gravitas to Thompson’s sadder songs, the best of which are absolutely heart-throttling. The fact that I was in the company of a real-soon-to-be ex-girlfriend may have had something to do with the overall down mood, as well. I mean “down” in a very good way. I mean beautifully devastating. By the time Thompson got to his poignant “Bee’s Wing” that night . . . what? I suppose you don’t even cry at Brian’s Song, huh?

So, now, when I tell you that Thompson’s show on Sunday was fun, you have a sense of how that might be vaguely disappointing.

Only vaguely though. As I learned the first night I saw him, no recorded version of Thompson touches his supple power on stage. Even his slight and silly songs—Sunday’s “Dear Janet Jackson,” for example—are elevated by his stellar guitar work; and Thompson’s voice is a rich and consistent pleasure. And, in fairness, Thompson’s first five songs were as moody as I could have hoped.

“We’ll get to the jokes in a minute,” he promised the crowd, right before the fifth, “Outside of the Inside,” which he described as a “fundamentalist’s view of the world in two and a half verses.” For the sixth, he launched into a brisk, jazzy tribute to the many (exaggerated) accomplishments of Alexander Graham Bell, much to the appreciation of the crowd.

It would be unfair to say that the show remained silly from there on in, but, somehow, that song seemed to inform the rest of the night. Thompson performed darker, more reflective songs—“Gethsemane,” “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Uninhabited Man,” “Cold Kisses,”—but they all were tinged with that earlier briskness. Thompson didn’t seem to quite connect with the depth of sadness in his songs, as I have seen him do in the past. He chatted with the audience in a friendly way, but seemed slightly distracted—pulling faces as if searching for words. At one point, he gently chided a fan, who for several songs had been trying to make some kind of obscure joke: “This is my show. You’re interrupting my show.”

That being said, I would rather listen to Thompson phone it in then suffer through the second-rate sincerity of a whole slew of other balladeers. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t wring out any tears for the evening’s closer, “Bee’s Wing.”

Opening act Julian Coryell (Larry’s son) endeared himself to the audience with a self-deprecatory acknowlegement of his parentage—“I know there’s at least one guy in the audience thinking, ‘Ah, man, this is bullshit. I thought he was gonna play jazz like his dad’”—and with a solid set of ambitious pop ballads. He is a decent guitarist; his textural soloing with loops and pedals was a high point, but his stronger songs were performed on keys. While standing at his synth, Coryell sang confidentally, revealing quite a pleasing set of pipes (his guitar compositions dipped out of his range at times). Consider him a grittier Duncan Shiek, or a less queeny Rufus Wainwright.

Weir Havin’ Some Fun

Ratdog
Palace Theatre, March 21

“I hate balloons,” my wife exclaimed with a harrumph as one bopped her in the head after it gingerly floated down from the balcony and scared the bejesus out of her. I thought this was a particularly austere remark for a lifelong Deadhead to make, but since both of us were in a rather foul mood from lack of sleep, social malfeasance and poverty, I didn’t reply. And while the ever-growing Vicodin meathead factor at these shows fills me with a hatred usually reserved for circus clowns, I found it great fun to watch as wave after wave of poofy-lidded scrubs sashayed their way down the aisle toward the front only to be directed to promptly sashay back up by security.

I am one of those Dead fans for whom the music has always been ideologically inconsistent with the sociology of the live experience, and tonight was no different. You get this beautiful venue like the Palace and these teen mooks are incoherently grinding cigarettes out on the brand new carpet. A sticky river of pee (I’d like to say it was cheap beer, but no) oozed down the floor’s natural slope under the venue’s plush new seating, and a svelte, buoyant KFC captain gassed out a whole orchestra section with his rotten-egg emissions. And what’s with all these guys in capes? But alas, the theater administrators have to actually pay for the renovations they continue to make at the landmark, and indeed, the catch-22 is that in order to procure said dough, you gotta bring in the bands that can draw this kind of humanity. I guess.

Bob Weir has undergone a bit of a transformation, in more ways than one. He is still all khaki shorts and Birks, but sporting an enormous salt-and-pepper beard, he kind of looks like the Jerry Garcia skeleton in that “Touch of Grey” video, only vitamin enriched. In fact, the set list was rife with Garcia-Hunter fodder, including “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugaree,” “Uncle John’s Band,” and a really smooth “Deep Elem Blues.” Hell, Weir even opened the evening with a burlesque, slow-tempo “Truckin’,” but perhaps he was just missing his longtime compatriot on this ridiculously freezing cold spring eve.

Also obvious is that he is no longer the henchman that he was in the Dead, the guy with the right tools filling voids and making adjustments when personnel changes challenged the band. A good example of this was when Donna Godchaux left the band around 1979 and he was assigned all the high harmony vocals. Now, he keeps it in the lower register and lets guitarist Matt Karan take the ball-ticklers, which has made a remarkable difference in his vocal capabilities.

Further, Weir now works the stage primarily as an almost-Zappaesque conductor, albeit a frustrated one on Sunday night. He would gesture for dynamics that his troupe would deliver, but at times telltale smirks made it obvious that he was dissatisfied with their reaction to his cues. I can understand. The guy played with the same band for 30 years, after which time one forms an unshakable telepathy with his brethren. Like those damn geckos sticking to your wall on a sticky Florida night, looking right through each other—what are they thinking? But since Ratdog maintain the rogue Dead tradition of playing different set lists every night, maybe Bobby should put himself in their shoes. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t having trouble himself, douching the words to songs like “El Paso,” that should be so burned in the folds of his cranium that even Stagger Lee couldn’t erase them.

Ratdog are a solid unit, even without longtime bassist Rob Wasserman batting down the hatches with salty licks. Weir is the consummate rhythm guitarist, taking the art to a sublime level—he’s almost like a low-register lead guitarist, but he keeps it boxed in to the time signature, so that if you’re not looking you don’t notice. There were decent extended jams during the powerful-but-delicate “Samson and Delilah” and the surprising “Brown-Eyed Woman,” which practically demanded Jeff Chimenti’s vibrant key strokes and Kenny Brooks’ swanky alto sax (which, by the way, was bigger than freakin’ C-3PO on steroids). There were some spotty points in all this harmonious guesswork, but that is the inherent risk of improvisation.

The Jazz Mandolin Project opened up the night with a remarkable intercontinental coalition of players who, in an anti-Ramones fit of elation, performed a 25-minute jazz-rumba that just plain smoked ass in berry season. They also served up a cool rendition of the Zeppelin classic “Going to California” and even joined Weir and company onstage several times for jams, but sadly, mandolin player Jamie Masefield wasn’t present for “Ripple,” the evening’s only encore and the only tune that actually requires a mandolin, in my opinion. But then again, my opinion has gotten people arrested.

—Bill Ketzer

This Charming Man

Al Kooper
Club Helsinki, March 20

Al Kooper is one of those seriously legendary rock guys, starting with late-’50s pre-bubblegum kiddie popsters the Nashville Teens (“Short Shorts”) then becoming an early ’60s New York production-line songwriter, a session ace (Dylan, Stones, Hendrix, etc.), a recording artist (the Supersession albums, Blues Project, the first incarnation of Blood Sweat & Tears), then a celebrated producer (Lynryd Skynyrd, the Tubes, the Zombies). Kooper hasn’t done much of note since the late ’70s, but with a résumé like that, he’s allowed.

His super-intimate (and packed-like-sardines) solo show at Helsinki Saturday was short on celebrity name-dropping and long on charm and heart. Things started slowly and with a whiff of melancholy as Kooper, dressed in black with his trademark shades, sat and sang generic bluesy numbers into a headset accompanied by automated drums and garish, overgrandiose keyboards. He grabbed an old Jazzmaster and riffed on Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and the Blues Project’s signature “I Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes.” It was a bit sad, sort of like the mad professor wearing no clothes, and 15 minutes in it looked like this was going to be a long night indeed.

But things got fun. Kooper provided snapshots of his life, including his musical awakening, at age 12, from watching a gospel sermon in New York after sneaking into the projection booth of a black church. He played a song he wrote in 1962 for the Shangri-Las titled “Junior Was a Heavyweight,” which shamelessly aped “Leader of the Pack,” albiet with boxing gloves. The Shangri-Las mercifully never recorded the song, but to hear the 60-something composer sing it (complete with the bathos-riddled spoken interlude) was fall-down funny. He played his song “This Diamond Ring” as originally written—a funky doo-wop tune intended for the Drifters, and hilariously described his horror at first hearing the white-bread bastardization of the song by “Jerry Lewis’ kid,” whose version then went straight to No. 1 in 1964. He described how R&B producer Jerry Wexler changed his favorite lyric to “More Than You’ll Ever Know” for Donny Hathaway’s cover of the song, because according to Wexler, “Everybody knows a black man could never be president of General Motors.”

Then there was a Delta-blues take on a Skynyrd song, a tribute to Elvis guitarist Scottie Moore (Kooper admitted that he was too embarrassed to introduce himself to Moore when given the chance, because, as he said, “I’m not worthy”), and the brilliant, sprawling works from BS&T’s Child Is Father to the Man: “Just One Smile,” “New York City (You’re a Woman),” “I Can’t Quit Her,” and of course “More Than You’ll Ever Know,” all sung with that reedy, vulnerable voice that doesn’t always get to where it wants to go, but always makes its mission passionately clear.

—Paul Rapp

Main Man

DJ Toast’s 15th Anniversary Celebration
The Hudson Duster, March 20

For a DJ to last 15 years at a college radio station is no small achievement. Saturday night’s lineup at the Hudson Duster in Troy was an anniversary celebration for DJ Toast, whose popular Friday night hiphop show The Main Event has broadcast on WRPI 91.5 FM airwaves since 1989. For historical reference, that’s three years after the commercial breakthrough of Run-D.M.C. and a good four years before Dr. Dre let loose with The Chronic. DJ Toast’s decade-and-a-half allegiance to hiphop has earned him shout-outs from big names like the Pharcyde and Funkmaster Flex, as well as the respect of the local 518 hiphop scene. So it was no surprise that Saturday’s party was a well-attended, festive affair.

True to DJ Toast’s varied playlists, the bill featured nods to the underground—the headliner was up-and-coming New York City rapper C-Rayz Walz—while referencing hiphop’s “golden age” with a set by Craig G, a member of the legendary 1980s Juice Crew. The rest of the show was dedicated to the area’s undersung hiphop talent, with worthwhile sets by Poughkeepsie native El Gant (a four-time battle champion on MTV’s Direct Effect) and several 518 acts. Local DJs C-Nyce and Kutt Masta Supreme laid down backing tracks and spun music in between sets; area hiphop booster Sev Statik provided feel-good energy in his well-worded performance; rapper JB had a barbed-wire, urban sensibility; and boisterous duo Fund the Mentals warmed up the show with coarse humor that verged on obnoxious, yet sufficiently roused the crowd.

With a bill so packed, it was nearly 2 AM before headliner C-Rayz Walz appeared on the stage. (Actually, it was a balcony, which meant the visibility was good but the neck suffered.) Fortunately, the Bronx native had the energy to keep people engaged at that late hour. Walz records for New York City’s Definitive Jux, an artist-owned independent hiphop label that has fans among rap purists as well as college-age indie rockers. During his set, Walz covered much of the material on his 2003 Def Jux album, Ravipops. A renowned freestyler and battle MC, Walz spat out words in a dense jumble of quick-witted metaphors that referenced everything from pop culture to mythology. (In “The Essence,” he manages to name-check Gandhi, Godzilla, Persephone, Jay-Z and Jabba the Hut alongside low-rent catalogue retailer Fingerhut.)

Walz is the son of a murdered drug dealer, and his rhymes often touched upon the gritty realities of urban life (“We live where heavy metal ain’t a rock magazine/Where children get shot down by Glock magazines/We live where there’s no God in the sky/But we live because we can’t die”). Yet even the grittier numbers were informed by a refreshing positivism, particularly when Walz rapped about his dedication to his children (“Protect My Family”). And his moves were fun to watch, whether he bopped across the stage like a jester or playfully pressed his face against the bars of the balcony railing as if imprisoned by the Hudson Duster.

—Kirsten Ferguson


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