George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Dickey Betts &
Palace, June 27
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
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
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.
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.
The Shore, Gerling, the Pleased
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
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.