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by Thomas Hauner

3 Mar 2009


That Toad the Wet Sprocket ended their show singing, “Just memories to hold / That grow sweeter each season / As we slowly grow old” was fitting given the circumstances. They’re playing yet another reunion tour and the nostalgia of early ‘90s alternative pop stardom lingered closely, both for them and their fans. Front man Glen Phillips is the only member with a compelling or successful solo career. But it also wasn’t the catalyst for their seminal break up so hitting the road with Toad—as they’re affectionately referred to—was for pleasure, not business.

Webster Hall—which underwent a “renovation” recently, meaning converting its ambiguously ancient Egypt/Aztec theme into an ambiguously ancient Rome/Medieval theme—was relatively packed with only 35 year-olds. One could still feel the pumping bass of remixes playing in the basement bar. But as this was a trip down memory lane, including trying to reenact past make-out sessions and substance abuses, nothing could deter them. 

It also made me consider a notion I once heard that musical tastes are cemented by age 25. Looking around me it seemed perfectly true.

Finally taking the stage, the band made a few quips about it being great to see everyone “again” and launched into “P.S.”, a song with steady strumming with a beat to match. Supposedly one of the band’s first compositions ever (1986?), it was an appropriate nod to their history together and the first of many during their set.

Classics like “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Whatever I Fear” wallowed in the flannel-cloaked angst of their ‘90s heyday, but the mood was memorializing. Guitarist Todd Nichols’ guitar echoed a brilliant reverb through his Vox, and in tandem with Phillips’ acoustic guitar reproduced their prototypical guitar-drenched sound.

Before “Butterflies” Phillips asked, “who knows the hidden spoken words on Butterflies?” A worthy winner was chosen, Karen, who then got to go perform the song onstage with the band. Though undoubtedly excited, she played it super cool.

“Good Intentions” received some of the loudest cheers during the night, to the point that the show could have been mistaken for a “Friends” cast party.

Phillips complimented how beautifully the crowd aged, then proceeded to mock the very same thing, offering up their mandolin and lap steel player Johnny Hawthorn for parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs—and dates added bass player Dean Dinning. The band’s self-deprecating handling of its reunion played well with the equally aging crowd, leaving a night of reminiscing and old-fashioned alternative rock.

 

by Thomas Hauner

2 Mar 2009


The Watson Twins and Ben Kweller. Both equal parts Nashville and hipster. Both singers and songwriters of heavy harmonies and simplified melodies. But only Kweller, however, came away from Town Hall with a commanding and energetic performance, aided towards the end by a dancing infant.

Starting off with poor sound didn’t help the Watson Twins. What sounded muddled with overwhelming bass drones in the balcony sounded more balanced in the orchestra. But the twins’ vocals got lost in the shuddering bass.

During “Only You”, keyboard played the high-pitched guitar strums that appear during each chorus. But it failed to emulate the electric guitar’s other quavering and haunting holds. Instead a nylon-string guitar was innocuously thrummed. This same guitar didn’t suffice for their popular “How Am I to Be”—during which they suggested shoulder dipping as a substitute for actually dancing; be careful what you wish for.

All this begs the question: Where was the strikingly bright guitar that provides such a pivotal counterweight to the twins’ soaring harmonies?

They floated through the Bill Withers standard “Ain’t No Sunshine”, but as people they’re too sanguine to seem heartbroken or lonely. (Maybe because they always have each other around?) In general their vocals were soft and beautiful, but too light. They exuded no energy in their 45 minutes, leaving behind a pretty banal set.

In contrast, Ben Kweller showed up to play his heart out. He prompted the light tech to turn up the houselights so he could size up his excitable crowd and then pursued a relentless setlist covering all the bases. Charging through old favorites like “Walk On Me” and “Falling” Kweller was urbane and sincere, his voice easily seizing the hall’s wide space.

Buttery smooth, his band (drums, bass, pedal-steel guitar) infused Kweller’s country roots into his indie lyricism and punk ethos to form a powerful and cohesive musical synthesis. Whenever Kweller added throwback vocables to a verse it pointed to a past era of pop.

While Kweller sampled material from his latest fare, Changing Horses, its lead track (“Gypsy Rose”) was surprisingly the best song of the night simply because of its delicate balance and Kweller’s sonorous tenor praising love as the saving grace.

His new song “Fight” was a stellar showcase of his band’s three-part chops and unleashed an unshakable melody during the encore.

I found the ending a little awkward, though, as everyone in the crowd decided to get up and dance for the last three minutes of the show. I couldn’t stop thinking, why didn’t they just get up and dance the entire show? Was the setting too intimidating? Too reserved? But what really stole the show was Kweller’s toddler son, Dorian, upstage, rocking out to his daddy’s big finale at the end.

 

 

by Thomas Hauner

26 Feb 2009


Bad news first; M. Ward seemed only marginally enthusiastic for his quick, first ever show at the esteemed Apollo Theatre and was beset with sound problems all night. The good news; Zooey Deschanel was nowhere to be seen. Thus, any She & Him songs would be less lionized, if M. Ward even felt the need to go there. Which he did, briefly, with “Never Had Nobody Like You”.

In general, M. Ward’s hazy country-infused vocals were equal parts sentimentality and robustness—rustling and gliding over a gently strummed chord (“Lulllabye & Exile”) or guttural and assertive (“Vincent O’Brien”). His band, when summoned, perfectly paralleled his dynamic shifts and expressive gestures, sounding heavy and hard or light and soft depending on the song. Each time their balance and touch was superb.

Tech problems showed up during Ward’s most delicate portion of the set (of course).  During “Oh Lonesome Me” and the solo “One Hundred Million Years”, crackling cables plagued the bubbly flow of his guitar’s twang. Though he tried to overpower the obvious sound issues, even his forceful yet deft finger-picking blues could not defy the jolting crunches of a misconnected mic cable.

Time, and audio problems, practically paused for “Post-War”, as everything seemed to melt into the song’s gentle shuffle and Ward’s exposed baritone. We believed him when he sang, “I know when everything feels wrong”.

Maybe cause something was. Not that I could pinpoint its cause, but my friend and I seemed to narrow it down to the incessant technical errors and an overly belligerent crowd—one that would not let Ward’s tranquil indie-folk rock be and kept demanding requests. Just let the man’s fragile muse work!

This made the set anxious and rushed, clocking in at just over an hour.

On the other hand, the pacing of his set didn’t of come as a shocker. An animated windowpane, projected onto the black backdrop behind the band, gradually progressed from dusk to starry night to dawn, an explicit indicator of where the night was going and when it would end. Conversely, it did give the impression of being included in some sort of late-night jam session with Ward.

Ward was at his best when loudest. The Daniel Johnston cover “To Go Home” (which included hollering Vivian Girls, the opener), “Big Boat”, and encore “Roll Over Beethoven”—during which he summoned his inner Little Richard to play some Chuck Berry—all had an air of indifference and movement that made them potently rock ‘n’ roll.

 

by Thomas Hauner

22 Feb 2009


The epochal South African protest singer and songwriter Vusi Mahlasela played an engaging show before a docile but erudite audience in the sprawling Walt Whitman Theatre at Brooklyn College—a tiny collegiate oasis deep in Brooklyn. The diverse but reserved crowd almost came across as too reverent, passive towards the poet and musician. Only by the end of Mahlasela’s set did they finally muster the courage to indulge in his group’s propulsive polyrhythm and guitars.

Mahlasela will forever be associated with the soundtrack of the anti-apartheid movement. But he is still decidedly a protest singer. (Broadly, that is considered “African folk” music). His defiant, peaceful, and artistic resistance to injustice makes it impossible for him to ignore continuing calamities. However, given the serious subtext of his songwriting and singing his music is not cloaked by the surrounding darkness he endured in the past. Rather the prevailing harmonies of life—love and family—are at the center of his message.

“Everytime”—a track featuring Jem on his 2007 release Guiding Star—was a beautiful flowing song about a devoted lover. Lucid African imagery articulated Mahlasela’s universal sentiments: “Your beauty burns the grass like fire.”

Musically, he and his four-piece band played a brilliant mixture of global sounds, perfectly balancing blues and soul with traditional South African rhythms, melodies and language. “Thula Mama” dedicated to his grandma for thwarting the police when trying to arrest Mahlasela as a young activist—blended scat singing and vocables into a smooth homage to mothers. During the bridge Mahlasela traded a cappella verses as the band perfectly transitioned in-between. Finally the song drifted away in a jubilant, but faint, sing-along: “My song of love / My song of life”.

Purpose is never far from Mahlasela’s mind. It is his guiding principle in life and music, and so everything he does must resonate with a positive and humane message. He took a moment to speak out about the marginalization and forced relocation of Botswana’s indigenous San people, or Bushmen. Remarkably, he never sounded preachy or forceful or hippy-dippy. Instead it was an earnest reproach of an unjust policy, never undermined by segueing into a song introduction. Rather he emphasized his point with a poignant ethical and rhetorical question: Where are they to go?

Mahlasela was not all serious, though. While tuning his guitar he joked, “this is a Chinese song called Too Ning… it’s over now.”

Ending the show with Miriam Makeba’s iconic “Pata Pata” was a well-received homage, Mahlasela spinning, twisting, and shuffling to the song’s rhapsodic refrain.

 

by Matthew Sorrento

9 Feb 2009


The set of this drama defines suburban anxiety: Four chairs, each at a corner of the stage, are centered around a bed. Four characters take their spots, awaiting the looming confrontation. Playwright Craig Wright obviously relishes the benefits of the theatrical medium, which allows such heavy visual allegory. Such a design wouldn’t fly in the even the most stylized cinema.

We know two couples will be finagling before long, as we’ve seen so many times before. I can’t shake this play’s association to We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a 2004 film over-concerned with married folks’ need to stray—so concerned is it with infidelity that the film forgets to develop its characters. The same is true in the new anti-nostalgia film Revolutionary Road, whose lifeforce drains under such weighty thematic grounds. 

Yet, in the opening monologue of Wright’s drama comes redemption, especially as performed by Amanda Grove as Cathy in Luna Theatre Company’s new production (Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5, Philadelphia, through February 14th). We recall that the language is the thing in true stage drama, and the set its mere bag of bones. Cathy recites a letter—if it existed or is imaginary, we are unsure—in words of loss and desperation coming at the end of something. Her spotlight fades, as she takes her seat to see her life unravel. A fade in reveals David (Damon Bonetti) and Beth (Janice Rowland) on the bed (transposed to a motel room), turning us in medias res to the status their affair. At once promising, it is now crumbling at the foundation. 

Regretfully, the drama’s strongest players sit out the first scene. They are Grove and Chris Fluck (playing the wronged husband, Brad), a standby for Luna. When an interviewer perplexed over what exactly makes Gene Hackman such a powerful actor, Woody Allen responded casually: “It’s a reserve of energy.” We cannot call Fluck another Hackman, but he has access to a similar kind of power. His arguments with Rowland in later scenes make the latter seem not to register. Fluck was far better matched against Mary Lee Bednarek in Luna’s 2005 production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, in which he grounded the drama-mystery’s final revelation in pathos as much as fury. 

As a woman about to be abandoned, Grove steals her scenes with Bonetti, who plays her husband moving on and has trouble evening out a Minnesota accent. Grove suggests there is subdued rage behind her character’s inquest, a right to know all as she forces her husband into goodbye sex. Orange Flower Water wears the clichéd cultural archetype of couples mixing like a subversive persona. Blasé anxieties turn visceral, indeed.

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