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This thing's on: the Figgs with Mike Viola at Valentine's. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Keeping the Pace
By John Brodeur

The Figgs, Mike Viola, the Rudds
Valentine’s, May 7

There’s a point in nearly every Figgs show when, no matter how the set began, the feel of the set shoots off in one of two directions: inspired mayhem or repetitive tedium. They’ve been known to play for quite a while—often close to or in excess of two hours—so if they’re running on fumes, it can be pretty draining. However, on those nights when all three members are on the same plane, the Figgs are just about the best band on the planet. This is no exaggeration: They can navigate big-as-life arena pop, scuzzy Lower East Side garage rock and sphincter-tight Stax/Volt R&B with equal power and grace when they’re “on.”

You can bet they were “on” last Friday at Valentine’s, and the throng of die-hard fans gathered at the front of the stage certainly didn’t hurt matters. When singer- guitarist Mike Gent broke his guitar strap during “Something’s Wrong” early in the set, the crowd dutifully took over on vocals without missing a beat. The decision to have this show on the club’s downstairs stage was a smart one, too, as the fans were able to get belly-to-belly with their heroes.

The Figgs are plugging a soon-to-be-released double—yes, double—album (Palais, named after Pete Donnelly’s recording studio, which is named after the Albany bar), and Friday night’s song selection was heavy on material from that and other recent releases, with only “Supreme Fashion” and a jivey reinvention of “Blame It All Senseless” representing the first half of the band’s existence. They set the celebratory tone with Palais’ lead track (“Step inside, let’s have a good time”), and fired off a good handful of great new songs in a row, including the garagey “I Brought Kicks,” the two-chord bliss of “We’ll Be Doing Time” and “Simon Simone,” which looks to be their obsessed-fan song. (It’s about time they had one of those.) Mike Viola joined the band on keyboards for “Please Hold On,” which sounded something like the Cars being raped by Spoon, and the synthy freak-out “Inside the Disco” turned into the Crue’s “Looks That Kill.” Drummer Pete Hayes took his turn out front for “Bon Jour” and “Come on Tonight,” while singer-bassist Donnelly delivered his exceptional new song “Something Happened” in a voice that sounded better than it has in years.

A great Figgs show runs something like a road race: There’s a strong beginning, followed by a lengthy pacesetting period, with a brilliant burst of energy for the last stretch. It’s right around that energy burst where the mood usually changes, and on Friday, it was positively chaotic for the latter portion of the set. By the time former Figg Guy Lyons hopped onstage to sing “Said Enough” and “If That’s What You Want,” both the band and the audience were loose and loaded and ready to rumble. Lyons wore the shit-eatingest grin while watching Hayes bash away at his kit, and even though he was obviously out of practice vocally—he probably hasn’t been onstage in more than two years—his excitement was palpable and infectious. By night’s end, the band members had swapped instruments and jammed through the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Don’t You Lie to Me” and the Kinks-y new song “She’s Walking Away.”

Mike Viola has been on the road with the Figgs for the past month or so in support of the latest Candy Butchers release, Hang On Mike. Friday night saw the debut of a new Candy Butchers incarnation, with Donnelly on bass and a surprisingly adept Gent on the drumkit. Viola offered a disclaimer early on, noting that the “new album is kind of toned down and kind of hard to do.” Instead, the newly minted trio revisited all four Butchers records, including Play With Your Head’s “My Monkey Made a Man out of Me” and a churning vamp through “Dogmatic,” which momentarily morphed into the Figgs’ “Reject.” They did play a few songs from the latest LP, including “Nice to Know You” and the album’s title track (a clever nod to Lennon’s “Hold On John”), but for the most part, the set was a playful romp through Viola’s brilliant catalog; an excellent match for the Figgs’ wild ride.

Albany expatriate John Powhida and his new group, the Rudds, opened with an Budokanian set of late-’70s-informed power pop, mostly drawn from their self-titled Sodapop Records debut album. Brett Rosenberg played Rick Neilsen to Powhida’s Robin Zander, often leaping from the stage to the floor of the club to kick out his guitar leads. And just to show that he hasn’t forgotten his roots, Powhida called up his old Staziaks, Rich Baldes and George Lipscomb, for rollicking runs through “Rock World” and “Oh Delilah,” before closing with the priceless “downtownfreddybrown.”

Roaring Rapture

King’s X
Northern Lights, May 7

King’s X have always enjoyed a diverse fan base, which includes ardent audiophiles, the steadfastly religious, career felons, and the average joe. As usual, this cross-section of said constituents was available in lofty Clifton Park environs last Friday to spill drinks on me and scream for songs the band have never played, like “Far, Far Away” from their 1988 debut Out of the Silent Planet (although they did hammer out the intergalactic “Visions” from that disc). It’s the only rock show in America where people clutch their breasts in rapture, even the felons. A little frightening for sure, but you get used to it.

As always with the Texas trio, theirs was a modest, stripped-down act with many time-tested staples in the set, like the Baptist revival call-and-response of “Over My Head” and the brutish “Dogman,” but we were blessed to hear other nuggets like the heart-wrenching “Picture” and a flock-step “Mr. Evil.” There also were some complete deviations from the norm, as the band sat down to deliver a semi-acoustic set that included, among others, “(Thinking and Wondering) What I’m Gonna Do,” “A Box” and “The Difference” from the infamous Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, which I don’t ever remember hearing them perform in concert. The crowd went as apeshit as a bunch of spiritual understudies can go on a Friday night. It was refreshing, actually. No mosh pit, no hulking jealous boyfriend stupidly taking his ass-tattooed honey to the stage front and then getting infuriated when someone bumps into her. But I digress. For the most part, the “plugged but unplugged” set was well-executed, but certain songs . . . you know? They just sound better with that Godzilla-taking-a-dump-on-downtown-Tokyo rumble. I spotted bassist-vocalist Doug Pinnick walking with a cane after the gig, so it may well be that the sit-down was added on this tour to relieve an injury of some sort, or maybe after more than 15 years in the business, they needed to break things up a bit. No matter.

Pinnick himself, despite his apparent affliction, was in top form, with the sinewy body of a common junkie but with a golden sheen to his hide and that rich, salacious voice, like the high priest of some alien order, the thought-finder, upheld by guitarist Ty Tabor’s Sgt. Pepper harmonies. Drummer Jerry Gaskill triples the vocal score in the din as strings flap on fretboards in some ridiculously low key and you’re at the abyss, in the muddy pit one minute, the next pillowed by ecclesiastical brilliance and light and sheer volume, the kind that forces people against their will to love their neighbor and donate large sums of money to charitable purposes. I think what I love the most about King’s X is their practically inborn need to play every song to the same specifics as recorded on CD. Even Gaskill provides every fill in every pocket exactly as it was originally played. They are meticulous without sounding forced, seemingly spellbound by their own supersonic roar while maintaining an attitude of genuine appreciation for those who show up to see them time and again. I have seen this band live five times since 1990 and they still wear the same expressions of awe at the fact that so many show up to bear witness again and again.

Songs from their latest release, Black Like Sunday, shone through brilliantly. While I do not own the album, I am advised by my attorney that stuff like “Finished” and “Screamer” are much more powerful in live format, as much so as your standard duty “Sometime” or “Summerland,” which even in its limited acoustic encore format demanded attention. Experts agree. King’s X are possessed with a life-giving gospel gratuity inscribed with messages for an unshakeable foundation for living, star-crossed with a rumbling, seething heaviness courtesy Ampeg and Mesa Boogie engineering that causes older, less firm mammals to release their bowels and gallop into the foothills, wondering where it all went so horribly wrong. And because they choose self-sufficiency over the corporate high-interest loan, they work day jobs off tour while shit bands like (I’ll say it) Good Charlotte showcase their Beverly Hills getaways on Yo! MTV Cribs. Go figure. Another friend of mine (not an attorney), in from the Southern Tier to catch the band, summed it up nicely as he stood there drinking on the sticky floor before the stage as hands were shook and lights flickered on: “My face hurts from smiling,” he said. “I needed that.”

—Bill Ketzer

Will This Save Her Soul?

Palace Theatre, May 10

The Jewel who played at the Palace Theatre Monday night was not the same Jewel I was introduced to when her debut album, Pieces of You, came out when I was just 15. Although her lyrics didn’t really impress me, even then, I was smitten with her girlish voice and folkie sound, and instantly became a fan.

Over the years, Jewel has succumbed to the pressures of celebrity: In an age where the young blonde pop divas reign, Jewel conformed. However, she must have realized that she had neglected her original fans with her most recent album, 03/04, the blonder, poppier, dancier turn she took last year. Her current acoustic tour is a fairly transparent attempt at redemption.

But, though she tried to cover it up with her beautiful voice and acoustic guitar, the Jewel who played at the Palace on Monday was still the new, commercial Jewel. Her hair was a bright, platinum blonde, a testament to her recent signing with hair-color company L’Oréal Feria, and her legs were barely covered, possibly due to her contract to push the Schick Intuition Razor. (And, wouldn’t you know it, at the end of the show, a razor was bestowed upon every member of the audience.)

Jewel started her almost-two-hour set by delving into an extended version of “Near You Always” off Pieces of You. She took the notes up higher, held them longer, and took the audience back to the early days of her career, when she first became our darling. By the end of the song, the singer had her listeners in the palm of her hand. It was a joy to watch and hear her stretch her powerful, expertly controlled voice.

The redemption process seemed to get away from her somewhat when she tried to be a bit too pleasing, asking the crowd, “What do you guys want to hear?” Of course, the crowd became zealous in their shouting: “Foolish Games!” “Morning Song!” Jewel obediently played the songs shouted at her. (Even the ones she didn’t know so well: When asked to play “I’m Sensitive,” she borrowed her own liner notes from a very pleased member of the audience, and then signed the booklet before giving it back.) For one adamantly requested song, “Emily,” Jewel was reduced to more amatuer days: She couldn’t remember the words, so she hummed and strummed to herself for a few minutes, working it out in her head. This was half-charming, half-annoying. However, her slow version of “Intuition,” the song that marked her crossover from folk sweetheart to wanna-be pop diva, made me cringe.

When Jewel finally seemed to reach her vocal limit, she ended her set with a fun version of “Who Will Save Your Soul?,” complete with a scat interlude. Shortly after, the singer responded to the crowd’s vigorous applause with an impressive two-song encore—an a cappella operatic piece and, to end the night, a yodel.

I caught only the tail end of opener Susan Greenbaum, who seemed simply thrilled to just be able to perform for us. Her style was sentimental, but it did let her exploit a commanding voice.

Dallas-based Ryan Cabrera, a cutie not unlike many young, popular male singer-songwriters in his lyrics and style, mixed it up a bit by using a Boomerang pedal as a mechanism for humor, as much as for providing himself with three-part harmonies and guitar parts. Cabrera did one cover, which happened to be the high point of his set—a very lovely version of Paul Simon’s “Call Me Al.”

—Kathryn Lurie

The Whiz Kid

Sonya Kitchell
Justin’s, May 7

Last Friday night, Sonya Kitchell proved her versatility. Though her timing is jazz-based, and her phrasing clearly influenced by the pop-soul divas who have ruled the radio since before she was born, Kitchell sang with equal skill four styles of music. She can probably tackle more than four, but her ease with blues, ’50s-style jazz, funk-pop and post-Natalie Merchant folk-rock was sufficient for one evening.

Mostly, she performed originals. “Cold Day” and “Flyaway” were perfectly fine folk-rock. “Why” was funky. “Romance” was jazzy.

Of her 12-song set at her 9:30 performance (she played an earlier set at 7 PM), there were only a few covers. “Fly Me to the Moon” did just that, thanks to her uncanny—and happily restrained—scat singing, and some inspired soloing by guitarist Jason Ennis. The ominous guitar intro to “House of the Rising Sun” sent chills up my spine, mostly because it’s such an easy song to muck up. But Kitchell didn’t screw it up. The arrangement was clever in its use of dynamics, and she proved she can find her way around a blues.

This all seemed a little scary, since she’s just 15 years old.

Word has been getting around about this Massachusetts-based musical prodigy. She’s recorded a live CD and an EP. She and her first-rate combo have played such notable venues as the Iron Horse in Northampton, Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, and, now, Justin’s in Albany.

And no wonder. Mostly critics talk about her amazing voice, and make bizarre comparisons to folks like Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell. (You figure that last one out; Kitchell sounds nothing like either.) Her range is more akin to someone like Sandy Denny, and her jazz singing is more minimalist than Fitzgerald’s was. It’s easy to understand why folks are so confounded by this amazing kid, though: Her brain is as formidable as her voice.

How else to explain someone under the age of, say, 50, coming up with this lyric: “I have been a fool for love/Damn that turtledove.” Has anyone under 50 ever heard “turtledove” mentioned in a song? Or compose something like “Romance,” which won Kitchell Down Beat magazine’s student competition for best original song. “Romance” is crafted in the tradition of American pop standards; it may not be exactly Lorenz Hart, but it’s artful, nonetheless.

It will be interesting to see which musical direction Kitchell follows. (Jazz is her greatest strength—at least it was at this performance.) It’s not like she doesn’t have years to figure it out, though.

—Shawn Stone

Killing Me Softly

The Magnetic Fields
Calvin Theatre, Northampton, Mass., May 7

It would be hard to define Stephin Merritt as an unwilling pop star: He’s got at least four still-current band projects going, and he contributes to film scores and soundtracks as well. So, the tag would be a hard sell even if his most reknowned release—under the rubric of his flagship project, the Magnetic Fields—hadn’t been 69 Love Songs, a three-disc epic consisting of nothing but . . . well, 69 love songs. The man’s productive. And, on paper, anyway, it seems apparent he’s got ambition and a penchant for the grand statement. But, during his performance at Northampton’s Calvin Theatre on Friday, there was something reluctant—almost withdrawn—about Merritt, and something minimal about his band’s performance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In fact, there was nothing at all wrong with it. Merritt—and his backing band of Claudia Gonson on piano and vocals, John Woo on guitar and banjo, and Sam Davol on cello—offered a performance that was wry without being caustic, intimate without being cloying, and stunningly musical without being pretentious. The positive press that precedes Merritt consistently calls attention to his affinity for the Golden Age of American Songwriting, and rightly so. Merritt’s compositions fit far more squarely in the tradition of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and the like, than with any of his contemporaries, even others who have garnered such comparisons—Rufus Wainwright, say. Seated on his high stool behind his music stand, Merritt looked more the theatrical director than leading man—a role that was suggested even more strongly when, in response to Gonson’s somewhat loose lead vocals on one number and subsequent suggestion that she had provided an “interpretation” of Merritt’s work, the man himself said quietly, “I’d be interested in hearing you defend your interpretation.”

Songs from the latest release, i, were punctuated by the surprised and delighted laughter of the audience at almost every couplet: A particular favorite of mine, “Evil Twin,” which could best be described as Cole Porter meets Nick Cave meets Droopy Dog, deserves to be quoted at length: “I wish I had an evil twin/Running ’round doing people in/An evil twin to do my will/To cull and conquer, cut and kill/Just like I would, if I weren’t good/And if I knew where to begin.” Older songs, particularly those from 69 Love Songs, were greeted with enthusiastic cheers from the first chords.

Incredibly, as the show progressed, it got quieter and quieter—and, believe me, it started hushed. (Gonson pointed out that Merritt has a “sensitivity” in his ears, though she needn’t have, as every time the audience cheered Merritt winced visibly and shot his finger to his left ear.) So, by evening’s end, the effect was almost whispery—which is, by far, a better way to sell the mordantly comic than by playing to the cheap seats. For example, contrast that annoying Meat Loaf boy-girl song with the alternating male-female dialog of “Yeah, Oh Yeah!” Gonson sings, “Are you out of love with me?/Are you longing to be free?/Do I drive you up a tree?” to which Merritt responds—underplaying with theatrical sureness—in a creaking, cracking soft baritone, “Yeah, oh yeah!”

—John Rodat

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