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Canadian samurai-comic chanteuse? k.d. lang at the Palace.

photo: Joe Putrock

Funny Girl
By Shawn Stone

k.d. lang with the Albany Symphony Orchestra
Palace 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.

She 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.

Honky-Tonk Heaven

Jason Ringenberg, Coal Palace Kings
Valentine’s, Oct. 15

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.

—Bill Ketzer

On Top of the World

Usher, Kanye West
Pepsi 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 did we.

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 immersed.

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.

—Kathryn Lurie


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