Canadian samurai-comic chanteuse? k.d.
lang at the Palace.
photo: Joe Putrock
lang with the Albany Symphony Orchestra
Theatre, Oct. 16
k.d. lang’s performance with her four-piece band and the Albany
Symphony Orchestra at the Palace Theatre last Saturday night
was perfectly good. It was often great. But most of all, it
was very funny.
Of all her excellent qualities—you know, the big voice, the
torch singer’s sense of drama, the chameleonlike genre shifting—the
one that comes through strongest in concert is her sense of
humor. The first time I saw lang (a lifetime ago at Proctor’s),
I was shocked that she played the ultracreepy “Johnny Get
Angry,” in which a girl implores her boy to slap her around,
for laughs. I was even more shocked that it was funny.
Though lang performed, wonderfully, tunes from every stage
of her career (“Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Three Cigarettes in
an Ashtray,” “Constant Craving”), she seemed as intent on
making folks chuckle as anything else. She danced eccentrically.
(Style note to lang: If you’re going to perform barefoot,
don’t let the audience see your dirty feet.) She deployed
double entendres at every opportunity. And the audience, large
portions of which seemed to have something particularly
in common with lang, ate it up.
Still, every time the show seemed to be veering too far into
the personal or political, lang would jokingly nudge it back
with a mock announcement: “We now continue with the musical
portion of the evening. . . .” She handled the audience banter
well, too. When a woman yelled “Marry me,” lang waited a beat,
and replied that when her religious certification came through,
she would be happen to marry the woman and her partner.
seemed to be aware that too much of this fun stuff would eventually
sink the evening. So, lang walled off sections of the show
from the comedy. The portion given over to songs from her
latest album, Hymns to the 49th Parallel, was the highlight.
She introduced what she described as an “homage” to her Canadian
heritage, and then played a quartet of tunes by Neil Young,
Jane Siberry and Leonard Cohen with absolute seriousness.
My only semi-negative reaction was, “Where’s Joni?”
Speaking of walled off, the drummer and guitarist were shielded
from the orchestra by an odd-looking Plexiglas screen. Since
the bassist and piano players weren’t, one assumes this was
for the benefit of their sound requirements, not the audience’s.
As for the Albany Symphony, they were pretty much used as
accents to the mix; this was very nice, but it was weird to
see an orchestra reduced to an accessory.
The Adrian Cohen Trio opened the evening. A first-class, hometown
jazz trio on the stage of a major local venue—how in hell
did that happen? Cohen and company mixed originals (“Last
Days”) with standards (“I Hear a Rhapsody,” “ ’Round Midnight”),
and ended with a sly version of the Beatles’ “She Said She
Said.” Very cool.
Jason Ringenberg, Coal Palace Kings
The weather was much kinder to Nashville’s frenetic son as
he rolled back into Valentine’s for an evening of storytelling
bliss. Last time Jason Ringenberg was here, the January mercury
had dipped well into the negatives following a
constitution-battering ice storm. On Saturday he was a more
reserved artisan, but one no less astute, forthright and intense,
as if to be consistent with the more urgent messages of his
latest CD, Empire Builders.
The disc is actually much more folk than country, and some
of the more conservative reviewers have taken Ringenberg to
task for what they perceive to be an anti-American effort.
This is typical of those types. They used lurk about only
at town meetings and school-budget hearings, but now, since
it has become an act of high treason to question American
foreign policy as if you were questioning a person’s very
birthright, they are popping up everywhere, aping the same,
tired, refutable rhetoric and flaccid, ignorant bravado. One
of them sat at the back of the bar and was later verbally
coaxed into a stinking rage by my lawyer and a valued music-industry
consultant. The same old tired defense. The WTC attacks justify
the war in Iraq! Why? They have no idea! Such is the dangerous
blind faith of doomsday cults, Humvee owners and Abba fans.
Thankfully, the hard work of our good former Scorcher reflects
none of these insipid ideologies, instead asking pertinent
questions regarding the act of decision making, weaving magnificent
tales born from those choices. Donning a rhinestone Stetson
that bore his Courageous Chicken label, he dedicated the stirring
ballad “Tuskegee Pride” to the African-American airmen trained
in Alabama during World War II (the squadron had a perfect
record, never losing a bomber to German fighters). “Rebel
Flag in Germany” relayed the strange experience abroad that
gets him into enough trouble in some regions of the U.S.,
what with his claim that he doesn’t even want to “see that
flag in Tennessee.” But even as the pompish “New Fashioned
Imperialist” poked corporate outsourcing in the eye, with
advice that “Chinese convict labor will manufacture this,”
Ringenberg’s solo delivery is assenting and encouraging, losing
nothing from the more complex renditions on record.
But it wasn’t all heavy themes. The interstellar opener “Honky-Tonk
Maniac From Mars” and the mighty maudlin gem “Last of the
Neon Cowboys” placed a much lighter liberty cap on our brows
as he swooned on into the midnight hour, a twirling spitfire,
a hard-wired, well-oiled hopscotch. Diehard Jason and The
Scorchers fans also got their money’s worth when local rocky-tonkers
Coal Palace Kings took their places behind the man and delivered
a walloping mini-set featuring “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Blanket
of Sorrow” and “Pray for Me Mama (I’m a Gypsy Now).” Ringenberg
really kicked it into high gear then, going into his windmill
whack-a-mole shuffle and playfully asking the band to join
him in Europe next month.
And speaking of returns, CPK are up and swinging again—and
mightily—after the surprise loss of longtime guitarist Larry
Winchester. The new lad, Jason “El Scorcho” Hughes, provided
more than ample work-booted fretwork. And while the pedal
steel might have given them some extra texture here and there,
they fare just fine as four horse mints of Albany’s acropolis.
Right on, men.
Top of the World
Usher, Kanye West
Arena, Oct. 12
To describe the concert that superstar Usher put on at the
Pepsi Arena last Tuesday is to say a mere three words: What
a spectacle. Ten costume changes, confetti cannons, pyrotechnics,
glitter, lights, video screens and a stage that looked like
it took up half the arena all served as a playground on which
Usher could frolic. And he knew it. He knew that he was adored
and revered, and boy did he enjoy it. And, to be fair, so
I expected that the heart of the show would be the dancing,
which proved to be absolutely awe-inspiring. Four men and
four women, all possessing utterly flawless bodies, provided
the theatrical and dance support. The women, clearly booty-shaking
experts, were the picture of perfection while their glittery
asses repeatedly became a blur (which prompted my male concert-going
buddy to tell me “I never thought I’d say it, but I’d like
to be reincarnated as a pair of sparkly short-shorts.”) The
highlights of the guys’ performances were periodic stretches
when they’d collapse into extremely impressive breakdancing.
As for Usher’s singing, well, it wasn’t really even necessary.
All Usher had to do was look out at the crowd over his shoulder
and the girls would all start screaming and shuddering like
they were caged animals. When he did choose to sing, the 26-year-old
performer mainly did songs from 1997’s My Way and this
year’s enormously popular Confessions, with a few selections
from 2001’s 8701. I enjoyed hearing the older songs,
but musically, I would have been just as well served had I
just popped the disc into my stereo. This show was all about
the audience interaction, and the glitz.
I won’t get into how much it disturbed me to witness the throngs
of 13-year-old girls wearing their little tube and tank tops
scream while Usher humped the stage, the mic stand, the dancers,
and, well . . . the air. I also won’t get into the wickedness
of the commercials for Samsung phones and the Usher Mastercard
(yes, the Usher Mastercard) that played on the video
screens during the 45-minute set change and how well they
catered to their demographic (“No credit check required!”).
Or how even Usher asked us if we had heard that his face now
appeared on a credit card. Nope—I’m going to leave these moral
quandaries alone, since there’s not enough space to divulge
how appalled I was by them. I definitely enjoyed the show,
but I wouldn’t have had I not been able to philosophically
remove myself from the commercialized reality in which I was
Rising star and insanely talented rapper-producer Kanye West
put on a straightforward, entertaining set against a video
backdrop that played a loop of pop-culture icons. West closed
his 20-minute set with “Jesus Walks,” which turned the audience
into one huge swaying and clapping congregation, eating up
every last word of West’s sermon.