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The Original Badass
By Erik Hage

George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Dickey Betts & Great Southern
The Palace, June 27

‘Buh-buh-buh-Bad. Buh- buh-buh-Bad.” George Thorogood’s trademark tune is one of those American cultural touchstones—a pseudo-comic monstrosity that, over the years, has grown all out of proportion from hit status in the ’80s to a sort of litmus test for Middle American culture. “Bad to the Bone” is the Fluffer Nutter sandwich of songs. It is the dirt-track racing of tunes. It is the Mr. T of compositions.

In TV, in movies, in casual conversation or at pro-wrestling events, it is the indigenous soundtrack for “the badass.” (A shot of dusty boots entering through the saloon doors, then a pan upward, a dirty slide-guitar burst and then “Buh-buh-buh-Bad . . .”) It’s almost reflexive: If someone says “Bad to the Bone,” you’re bound to blubber the lines, even if only inwardly: “Buh-buh-buh-Bad.”

So when George Thorogood and his sometimes caricaturish meld of Chicago blues and rock & roll boogie came to the Palace, one could certainly expect the old radio hits: “Bad to the Bone,” “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” “I Drink Alone” and Hank Williams’ “Move It on Over” (which Thorogood has transmuted into something purely his own). And he certainly delivered these with gravel-throated verve.

But there’s also a whole other side to a Thorogood performance. Yes, he has made a career on songs that pitch dangerously across the novelty line. But he and his band are also tough as hell, brewing up an impressive, bottom-heavy storm of guitar rumble on the stark, no-frills stage setup. Before the group entered, the P.A. song, Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” gave way under dark to a sinister symphonic intro and then Thorogood and his gang hitting the planks to an ecstatic roar. (I had no idea that he had such a rabid fan base—the Palace was packed with followers, including a large clutch of middle-aged men in tropical-patterned, Jimmy Buffet shirts.)

The first track, “Hello Little Girl,” was a dense blast of rockabilly-on-’roids, with Thorogood, clad in black with a bandanna wrapped around his brow, getting a heavy, heavy tone out of his hollow, one-horned Gibson (which, when not sliding, he plays without a pick, thrumming and picking with thumb and fingers). This was no novelty, but music you wouldn’t want to meet in an alleyway, the rhythm section laying down a thunderous bottom. Thorogood put the cap on the opener by anointing his devotees, ceremoniously laying his guitar head on many rapturous, upturned foreheads in the front row (except for the guy who didn’t get it and kept trying to touch the guitar).

The third song, “Who Do You Love,” underscored the influence of Bo Diddley on Thorogood—and not just with its bad-mutha, self-declaiming lyrics. Like Diddley, Thorogood favors fat, fuzzed-out bedrock guitar rhythms (often leaving the nimble leads to guitarist Jim Suhler). The primitive chug of “Who Do You Love” dissolved into a hypnotic, single-chorded drone, the drummer rolling out a dark, tribal pattern with the thick ends, the sax player bleating sleazy colors, and Thorogood whipping up the neck for molten bursts. This was a Thorogood & the Destroyers I didn’t expect—an outfit who have nearly fashioned their own genre of pugilistic, roadhouse booze-boogie. (Thorogood’s stage presence is both tongue-in-cheek and dead serious, oozing sleazed-out sexuality and coiled intensity).

In many other places, he lapsed into easily palatable, fist-pumping, working-class pleasers (“Get a Haircut,” “American Made” and his admittedly fun radio hits); he knows his crowd and works them well. It pays the bills, and those bills seem to be getting paid on time: His current greatest-hits collection is selling steadily (debuting at No. 55 on the Billboard 200 and at No. 1 on the Billboard blues chart), and Thorogood and band travel with a well-appointed fleet of roadies and buses. Thirty years in, he may be riding on the success of old hits, but he’s riding high. And the fact that he puts on a blazing show clearly has a lot to do with his success.

Longtime legendary Allman Brother Dickey Betts and his band, Great Southern, put on a solid opening set, though the mix took a while to tweak. Betts, in fine throat, showcased his distinctive skittling rhythm chugs, ringing leads and slide work on guitar (that you’ve heard on numerous Allmans classics). Allmans standards such as “Statesboro Blues,” “Blue Sky” and “Ramblin’ Man” (the latter two written by Betts) packed some of that raw, rural punch that has been missing from recent Allmans Bros. shows. But as the group dissolved into more spacey, jammed-out segments, interest waned. Nevertheless, at one point, guitarist Dan Toler’s leads perfectly echoed Betts’ deft fretwork figures, the two guitarists combining into one long, glowing strand of chemistry.

Hippie Girl Forever

Melanie
New York State Museum, June 25

Showmanship. Too many venues forget all about it; they collect your ticket and give you a chair to sit on. (Or not.) The folks at the New York State Museum, however, understand showmanship in a way that could almost be called cute. And I mean “cute” in the best sense.

Showmanship was on full display in the venue’s first-ever concert last Friday, an evening with Melanie. The ushers, a friendly mix of seniors and students, wore colorful tie-dyed shirts. A psychedelic light show swirled on the ceiling of the museum’s Clark Auditorium. Bongs were set up at the entrance of each row. All right, I’m lying about the bongs. But you get the idea—the museum created an atmosphere.

So did Melanie, by the way, who opened the evening with this rueful reflection, which brought down the house: “I can’t believe I’m finally playing in a museum.”

The singer, whose fame was more-or-less born at the original Woodstock, played two warm, friendly sets. Joking with the audience, making light of certain technical problems—more about those later—and relating anecdotes, Melanie was the hippest original hippie I’ve ever seen. (And believe me, I’ve seen quite a few, including a horrible Jefferson Airplane reunion show that scarred me for life. I can still hear Grace Slick singing about the plight of the panda bear.) Even better, she still has that husky, unclassifiably idiosyncratic vocal style that owes as much to pop music as folk.

Melanie mixed her hits and fan favorites with some pleasingly strong new tunes. The best of the latter included “And We Fall,” a song about fickle teenage love (written for her daughter) that was both sympathetic and knowing, and “I Tried to Die Young,” a witty (and self-explanatory) reflection on life.

Especially refreshing, however, was the way she presented her signature songs. “Brand New Key” ended the first set. Before she sang it, she gave the audience a little background info. Apparently, she originally wrote it as a slow, sexy Cajun-flavored blues. By the time her record-producer husband and other hands worked on it, however, “Brand New Key” became the “cute”—her word, not mine—international smash we know. “Creative” and “control,” she lamented, are two words that just don’t go together—even if, as she did then, have her own record label.

Even better was “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma.” Melanie went into a long routine, midsong, about an imagined movie version of her life. The dramatic climax of the movie, she explained, would be her onstage breakdown in the middle of this song—and she promptly illustrated this by wandering towards the first row in mock-horror, crying “Where am I?” Then she finished the song. She killed.

She played it straight on the anthemic “Lay Down,” her bluesy cover of “Ruby Tuesday,” and the moving “Rainbow Race.” It was an entertaining and convincing performance; Melanie may be the last genuinely convincing hippie on the planet.

The concert was the first in a series being offered in conjunction with the exhibit Spirit of the Woodstock Generation: The Photographs of Elliott Landy; there were a number of opening night technical glitches, but nothing fatal. Upcoming concerts will feature such other Woodstock survivors as Arlo Guthrie, John Sebastian and Country Joe McDonald. They’ll have to go a long way to top Melanie, however.

—Shawn Stone

Empty Pleasures

The Shore, Gerling, the Pleased
Valentine’s, June 23

In recent years, Valentine’s has consistently won accolades in these pages as the best-booked club in the area; if you want to be in the close presence of national acts that have thrived on critical acclaim (rather than radio success) and pounded the frontier on grass-roots missions in small vans, Valentine’s is the place to go. And it’s wonderful to see, time and time again, the locals coming out for left-of-the-dial acts. (A healthy Monday night crowd showing enthusiastic support for the Pernice Brothers and the Long Winters, for example—or the packed downstairs bar flush up against the stage, chanting the lyrics right back in the face of prodigal hometown heroes the Figgs.)

Many of the indie/cult idols of today—Jonathan Richman, J. Mascis, Mike Watt, Robert Pollard, even Nikki Sudden—have passed through the Valentine’s doors. So it’s a real shame when an interesting package tour of new acts comes through town and hardly anyone shows up, especially when two of those bands put on a great set. (One deterrent was that the Shore’s and Gerling’s new albums aren’t due until August.)

The Shore, from Los Angeles, are on Maverick Records (Madonna’s label), and play a melodically potent brand of modern rock with clear nods to Brit acts like the Verve and Oasis. (Imagine Oasis’ Gallagher brothers growing up in a California suburb—without anger issues—instead of in the bleak, postindustrial funk of Manchester, England.) Rock-star-thin leader Ben Ashley even has Liam Gallagher’s long shag haircut, circa 2000, and a keening rock drawl pitched dead between Gallagher and former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft.

The group mustered up a tight, great set at Valentine’s, with one of the best sound mixes I’ve heard in the upstairs room; unfortunately, few beyond their fellow travelers heard it. The deep, bruised, psychedelic groove of “Hard Road,” with its slouches of slide guitar, was particularly strong, as was the wheeling, snarling, stinging guitarplay of “Firefly.” But the highlight was “Everything We Are”—a gorgeously rich, uptempo slice of heart-throbbing love rock. Peppering their set with a few jokes about the largely vacant room, the Shore pulled off an affectingly melodic set bolstered by a plush wall of guitars. The show inspired me to listen to their debut album with renewed interest.

After the Shore’s relatively classicist approach, one had to engage a different part of the brain to appreciate Australia natives Gerling. (“They love us in Sydney . . . really,” muttered a member at one point.) The group offered a compelling electropounding tumble of beats, sample bursts and three-piece rock aggression. Plastering spiky ’70s punk and angular, noised-out postpunk atop prerecorded digital pastiches, they sometimes came off like Mission of Burma striving for a dance-club hit. (Gerling have actually recorded a Down Under club track with Kylie Minogue.) Gerling weren’t as immediately accessible as the Shore, but put on a strong, fun set. The closer, “Ghost Patrol,” was an epic (and epically loud) blast of counterpointing guitar shards that called to mind, in deadly intent, (late ’80s) Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine.

As for closers, San Francisco’s the Pleased, to put about as much effort into describing them as they put into their brief, listless set: They were kinda psychedelic, the lead singer sounds like Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCullough and has Jimmy Page/Jim Morrison-like long locks.

That having been said, let’s hope that Valentine’s keeps bringing us great acts from left of the dial, despite an occasional crowd disappointment like this.

—Erik Hage


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