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Play it like you mean it: Jonny Lang at Northern Lights. Photo by:Joe Putrock

How to Package a Prodigy
By Erik Hage

Jonny Lang, Ari Hest
Northern Lights, June 15

Jonny Lang’s popularity in the late ’90s sailed on the novelty of him being a teenage blues player with an unnervingly mature voice and blistering guitar chops. Now, after a five-year album hiatus, Lang is a young man in his 20s; his age is no longer compelling context, and at Northern Lights it seemed high time to question whether the young emperor had any clothes. There’s a yes-and-no answer.

After enough time to bring out a president or pontiff, a black-T-shirted Lang finally hit the Northern Lights stage still looking mighty young—certainly devoid of stubble and possessing a youthful leanness—and tore into the title track of his new album, Long Time Coming. Couched primarily in blackout with some flashing backlit blue (the light show throughout was arena-worthy), it was certainly an impressive entry and statement of purpose after his long hiatus. The howling number was also one of the few nods to traditional blues over the course of the evening; by and large, Lang’s blues is more late-period Clapton than anything else, a sort of poppy, power-ballady, yuppie blues.

The song also gave him an opportunity to launch one of his inspired guitar bursts. Lang, a zealous Christian, often looks like he’s in the throes of some rapturous religious experience when soloing: teeth bared, eyes kind of rolled back and occasionally wobbling his head back and forth. Whatever he’s channeling, it works: His guitar- slinging was a highlight of the night.

Early on, however, his voice seemed a bit buried. It wasn’t just the mix, but a lack of vocal power on Lang’s part (he has a great vocal sound, but not a lot of “oomph”), especially when cast across the thick, loud bed of music. (His band included a second guitarist, a multi-instrumentalist and rhythm section.) At any rate, Lang seemed to have warmed up his cords by mid-set and offered some impressively impassioned vocals later on. Lang also has an interesting, delicate demeanor, kind of shyly smiling at the audience at one point and in estrogen-laced tones, saying, “We love you . . . thank you very much!”

The problem with the show, however, is that in order to completely buy into what Lang is doing, you need to buy into the songs—and I don’t. The tunes themselves are often bland AOR fare—the Stax-by-way-of-’80s-radio new tune “Red Light,” for example, or “Wander This World,” a soulless blues rocker that wouldn’t be out of place on Gregg Allman’s overproduced, underwritten solo album from ’86.

It also seemed that A&M had thrown a lot of money at making sure that Lang had a nice cushy bed (and expansive safety net) for his “comeback”; his band comprised ace hired hands (well his senior), and the production value (lights, crew, etc.) seemed well over the top for this milieu. The second guitarist, who unleashed his own inspired solos, looked like he could carry a band on his own.

It was also hard to find the beating heart and the spirit at the center of the performance. The packed house of 30- to 50-year-olds seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves (aging fraternity brothers cracking bottles and hugging on each other, etc.), but I’d be interested to see Lang in a more stripped-down, less House of Blues context. In the ’70s, Neil Young often defended his choice of Crazy Horse as a band by saying that, despite their instrumental shortcomings, the spirit was dead right when they got together. Watching Lang flash his teeth to sell the polished, well-executed songs (and frequently caught like a deer in the glare of the showy backlights), I understood what old Neil was on about.

New Columbia signing Ari Hest, who is loosely in the John Mayer vein, opened the show. (Though, thankfully, Hest is devoid of Mayer’s updated-James Taylor, preppy- stoner, we’re-all-so-groovy vibe.) With just his acoustic and with an electric bass player at his side, Hest pretty much reached out and grabbed the initially distracted crowd from the moment he hit the stage. He has appealing, hooky tunes and a strong, perfectly-pitched voice that he’s not afraid of pitching into amazingly controlled falsetto gymnastics.

A “Roxanne” interlude during one of his tunes underscored the fact that, if there’s one ancestor that most of the pseudo-jazzy, acoustic-guitar-wielding singer-songwriters (Dave Matthews, Mayer, etc.) seem to share, it’s Sting. Hest finished off with a beautiful take on the Leonard Cohen (popularized by Jeff Buckley) tune “Hallelujah.” But he had the command and the strength to make it his own, and the audience burst forth ecstatically at the end of his set. Hest’s album will be out in a couple of months, and he’s one to watch.

Grand Angst

Simon & Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers
Pepsi Arena, June 10

Their voices aren’t shot. What else do you need to know? Oh, and there was no name-calling or thinly veiled reference to deep-seated resentments left festering for years. No slap fights. The boys played nice. And that about wraps it up, right?

Well, no, of course not. But when talking about Simon & Garfunkel—a veritable institution of American pop music—finicky parsing of the minutiae of a performance seems beside the point. If you like Simon & Garfunkel—and they don’t hit the stage tanked up on horse tranquilizers or something—you like the performance. If you don’t like them . . . well, if you don’t like them you wouldn’t have bothered to shell out the $50 for crap seats (much less the jaw-dropping $186 for a prime location).

It’s true that Garfunkel’s voice has lost a little of its once almost preternaturally glossy sheen, and a slight fraying could be heard when he sang long passages unaccompanied by Simon. But the pair still harmonize flawlessly; if there are notes they can no longer hit, they wisely skipped the attempt, singing perfectly appropriate and attainable notes instead. In overall effect, no loss was noticed.

As to the setlist, the phrase “greatest hits” would hardly do justice to the evening’s selections. Simon’s compositions have gone beyond the status of hit: For a certain segment of the population—a segment not exclusively defined by generation—they’re virtually integral. With (almost) every song, the first notes kindled the audience as if they themselves were the device on which the songs were to be played: From “Hazy Shade of Winter” through “Kathy’s Song” and “The Boxer” to “Homeward Bound” and “Mrs. Robinson,” these are songs that have taken hold, taken root, in listeners. (And not always with the permission of the listener.) To give the man his due, Simon is a helluva songwriter.

Which, frankly, makes the popularity of the songs a little mysterious. During “My Little Town”—a song from Simon’s solo album Still Crazy After All These Years—I was struck by the bleakness of the chorus: “Nothing but the dead and dying/Back in my little town.” It’s a bleakness not at all uncommon in Simon’s lyrics. So, how on earth did he sell this stuff to the American public? By immediately following that song with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” the set suggested an answer, but an unsatisfying one. Simon’s earnestness, his self-concious pose as poet, his dabbling in undergraduate anomie and angst is virtually—dare I say it?—almost French. He’s like the anti-Springsteen. Yet, the crowd sang along to lyrics like “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls” as if they were every bit as rousing as a “highway jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.” (Yes, me included; but then I’ve never denied my Continental affectations.)

Simon’s compositions are not as fey and bookish as his lyrics, true. He’s got a penchant for, shall we say, less-than-subtle arrangements. (If you want to know when to really start paying attention in a Simon song, listen for the toms: “boom-boom-bap . . . ‘Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike . . .’ ”) Musically, Simon is not above playing to the cheap seats—not that there were any of those. And it works, that balance of busy grandeur (the duo were backed up by six musicians on about a hundred different instruments) and sentimental lyrical ambition. Thankfully, for this analysis, Simon & Garfunkel skipped “Punky’s Dilemma” altogether, instead closing their second encore with the tolerably silly “59th Street Bridge Song.”

The evening’s special guests more than lived up to the bill: The Everly Brothers were brought on stage a few songs into Simon & Garfunkel’s set for an all-too-short set of their own, which included “Wake Up Little Suzy,” “Dream,” “Let It Be Me,” and “Bye Bye Love,” with Simon & Garfunkel joining in on the last.

—John Rodat

Mr. Mandolin Man

Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen, Slaid Cleaves
The Egg, June 13

When Chris Hillman hits any stage, he carries the weight of musical history. With the Byrds in the ’60s, he was the George Harrison figure in one of the most influential American groups of all time, quietly emerging as a formidable songwriter in the shadow of towering personalities Roger McGuinn and David Crosby (and early on, prodigal songwriting force Gene Clark). That alone is enough to place him the annals, but he would team up with Gram Parsons to carve out a country-rock archetype, first on the Byrds’ perhaps-overestimated Sweetheart of the Rodeo (’68) and then with the Flying Burrito Brothers (particularly the astounding Gilded Palace of Sin). To name a few other accomplishments: He led Parsons to an unknown Emmylou Harris (many falsely credit Parsons as her initial discoverer), was in Manassas with Stephen Stills and led the Desert Rose Band to the country music Top 10 in the ’80s.

But the arc of Hillman’s career has consistently brought him back to the country/bluegrass mandolin player he was before he picked up the bass in the Byrds. And that tendency has often led him back to old friend Herb Pedersen (with his own impressive resume), whom Hillman has known since the early ‘60s and who was in the Desert Rose Band. The duo offered a moving set of acoustic numbers, drawing tunes from many phases of both men’s careers, including their most recent collaboration, Way Out West. The 59-year-old Hillman—looking tanned, youthful and remarkably domestic in moustache, cargo pants and dusted-gray hair—was in fine voice. Early on, he paid tribute to two late friends with the heart-piercing “Wheels” (which he co-wrote with Parsons) and “Tried So Hard,” from Gene Clark’s lamentably obscure solo canon.

Other tunes that stirred the audience were an original folk version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and an encore of the Byrds’ psych-classic “Eight Miles High.” The latter was a daring move for an acoustic duo, but the two pulled it off, Pederson thumping out Hillman’s memorable opening bass romp on his low E-string and Hillman echoing McGuinn’s John Coltrane-inspired leads with some uncanny mandolin bursts. Throughout, Pedersen’s and Hillman’s harmonies blended in pure vocal manna. They left the audience wanting much more than the allotted hour.

Americana darling Slaid Cleaves was put in the unenviable (and puzzling) position of following Hillman. He and his full band moved through a solid set of country-folk, but things got “samey” after a while; Cleaves has a Jackson Browne-like smoothness that doesn’t provide too many peaks and valleys. But no one can deny his way with a melody and lyric, which shone on versions of “Broke Down” and the sterling “One Good Year.” He also unleashed some remarkable yodeling on Don Walser’s “Rolling Stone From Texas.” Cleaves, who has an endearingly aw-shucks humility, was ably backed by Jeff Plankenhorn’s cinematic accents on dobro and electric guitar and Ivan Browne’s high harmonies and bass. All in all: a good night of roots music in the Swyer’s ideally intimate, acoustically rich confines.

—Erik Hage

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