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Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay
By Erik Hage

Eddie Angel’s Guitar Party
The Ale House, Nov. 13

Having lived through such mindless, toothless fare as Happy Days, Grease and Sha Na Na, our culture just might have forgotten what rock & roll really meant to us during its initial Big Bang 50 years ago.

Upon impact, rock & roll gave rise to something latent in us, capturing a previously untapped region of our imagination and giving us a new language. It’s hard to imagine our culture before rock & roll, which delivered on every suggestion of fun, sex, danger—even racial equity. (A not-so-radical notion: rock & roll helped fuel civil rights.) At its rawest, it delivered us, for a perhaps too-brief moment, from square, oppressive, brimstone-spewing America—a region that once again looms ominously large (and red) on the electoral map.

In the early ’50s Elvis crossed the dangerously polarized beams of hillbilly and black music and caused the sparks to fly and the creation to lurch to life. Ultimately, of course, the androgynously pretty, extremely Southern Elvis became no less threatening to moral America than the contemporary black artists—e.g., Arthur Crudup and Little Junior—whose music he had appropriated. But when Elvis caved in and went square too, the Beatles were there, John Lennon’s raw screams and George Harrison’s jabbing guitar paying sure debt to Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

If you’re wondering when I’m going to start talking about Eddie Angel—I am talking about Eddie Angel. Angel was born in Albany in 1953, one year before Elvis’s watershed release of “That’s All Right,” and his life has become one long expression of rock & roll dedication, from the time his big sister took him for his first guitar lesson to his partnering up in the ’70s and ’80s with Johnny Rabb to his current, longtime tenure in masked instrumentalists Los Straitjackets, who were up for a Grammy this year. Angel lives in Nashville now, tours the planet and has a reputation as one of the greatest rock & roll guitarists alive (his infrastructure wired with disparate strands of Chuck Berry, Link Wray and Scotty Moore).

His brief return on Saturday night, in the midst of Eddie Angel’s Guitar Party Tour, seemed the perfect way to locally acknowledge rock & roll’s 50th anniversary. The tour also marks approximately a decade since Angel entered London’s Toe Rag studios to carve out Eddie Angel’s Guitar Party, one of the toughest, coolest guitar instro albums I’ve heard (and featuring Morrissey sideman Boz Boorer on sleazy sax). On a local level, the show was also a bridging of generations, from guitarist to guitarist (Angel to Graham Tichy) and singer to singer (Rabb to Rocky Velvet’s Ian Carlton).

Angel’s set, before a packed room, pulled from various periods of his life: Straitjackets instrumentals, tunes from his rockabilly days with the Planet Rockers, songs from his primitive garage-frat excursions with Johnny Rabb in the Neanderthals (who recently played the Wipeout Festival in Spain) and covers that ranged from the obvious (Elvis) to the not-so (the ’60s garage-raunch of the Sonics).

But even during the most gentrified, twang-toned moments, one could sense the rock & roll primitive that lurks in Angel. “We’re gonna cut Eddie Angel loose,” announced guitarist Mark Gamsjager before piling into a vintage Angel frenzy that featured bursts of squealing rumble, palm slams against the guitar butt (to coax extra notes) and two-handed “dog paddling” on the strings (to induce furious squalls). Angel, unmasked, but in typical Straitjackets garb—black turtleneck, black jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers—seemed to be having the time of his life, exchanging wide grins with longtime friends, phoning his wife in Nashville from the stage to share the noise and taking his guitar wherever the spirit led him.

Early on, several cracks from the stage about the yet-to-arrive Rabb caused him to magically materialize (like Beetlejuice) during the second set. Impeccably coiffed, rock-star thin and exuding his usual blend of decadence-edged charm, Rabb lit it up in the second set, moving from extreme to extreme: The plodding, skuzzy stomp of the Neanderthals’ “Lurch” took a hard right into beautiful, vibrato-drenched balladry on Elvis’ “Any Way You Want Me.” Rabb pretty much commanded the small room.

Tichy, on bass for the tour, also offered energetic, raw-throated vocal turns on “Ready Teddy” (Elvis) and “Justine” (Bill Haley), bringing to mind the dynamic early live bootlegs of the Beatles. Then, another reunion came when Steven Clyde of the Rumdummies—Angel’s ’70s collaborator in the Star Spangled Washboard Band (which morphed into Blotto)—took the guitar from Gamsjager. His highlight came with a spur-of-the-moment decision to do the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud,” with Angel and Clyde sharing vocals.

The night drew toward an end in perfect fashion, with the youthful Ian Carlton (looking shaggy, long-haired and very un-rockabilly) powering into the ominous scrum of the Sonics’ “The Witch” and Huey “Piano” Smith’s joyfully sub-articulate “Don’t You Just Know It.” Carlton quite simply went ape, throwing himself into the most joyfully primitive sequence of the night, whipping his long locks to and fro, hopping ecstatically and attacking the mic. Angel’s big fat grin throughout made him look like an approving (if prodigal) big brother in a large, local rock & roll family.

She’s the One That They Wanted

Olivia Newton-John
Palace Theatre, Nov. 12

It’s hard to underestimate how big a star Olivia Newton-John was back in the day. Think Shania Twain (for the killer commercial instincts and the country-crossover factor) crossed with someone like Hilary Duff (only older, with talent). Newton-John’s girlish phrasing, breathy delivery, peaches-and-cream looks and girl-next-door image moved a lot of product, and won a devoted fan base that followed her from the radio to the silver screen.

And, more to the point, into an almost sold-out Palace theater Friday night (Nov. 12). There was no opening act; the Albany Symphony, joined by her five-piece band, opened with a superfluous “overture” of “ONJ” hits. Though the fan-filled audience didn’t need any prompting to remember them, I did—somehow, in a memory-slip of massive proportions, I had forgotten Newton-John’s pre-Grease career. Yeah, I knew that it existed, but not how successful she was, or how thoroughly her country hits burned themselves into my pre-teen brain. Later, when she did abbreviated versions of her country hits, I realized I knew all the words to every one of these songs: “Let Me Be There,” “Please Mr. Please,” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Go).”

She opened with “Have You Never Been Mellow.” This brought back an indelibly ’70s vibe: Back in ’72, Newton-John was a musical mellower, washing away the extremes of the 1960s like a handful of Valium. I used to think this was a bad thing—and it sure pissed off a lot of critics at the time—but as I grow into full geezerhood I can truly appreciate it.

But that’s not all there was to ONJ’s career, and she touched on its every phase. The glorious pop songs of the roller-disco era (“Xanadu,” “Magic”); the substantially less-than-glorious ’80s hits (“Heart Attack,” “Twist of Fate”); her ’90s cancer-recovery album (“Not Gonna Give In”); and, of course, Grease.

Grease was what the audience was really waiting for, and ONJ craftily saved these songs for the end of her set. With help from her very talented backup singers (both male singers were way better than John Travolta ever was), she ran through all the pertinent songs: “You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted,” “Summer Nights,” and “We Go Together.”

It was a surprise—though, again, it shouldn’t have been—to realize was how well suited her high, slight voice is to Burt Bacharach’s songs. (Dionne Warwick wasn’t exactly Aretha, after all.) She sang “Anyone Who Ever Had a Heart,” which, she explained, she sang 41 years ago to win an Aussie talent contest; she saved “Alfie” for the encore, and it was the show’s high point.

Newton-John is 56 years old; she didn’t look a day over 45. Her voice is as strong as it ever was, and, whether backed with the full glory of the Albany Symphony or just her band, ONJ more than justified the devotion of the wildly enthusiastic crowd.

—Shawn Stone

 

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