Amidst continued record label tribulations and frustrations, New Orleans trio Better than Ezra continue to do what they know best and do so very well: bring their yearning pop melodies on the road.
Still touring behind last August’s Closer, and relegating themselves to mainly festivals over the summer, this show on the New Jersey shore alternative Dewey Beach was a chance to see the band in a more intimate setting. The Bottle and Cork, located just one block from the ocean, continues to draw national acts to a club that holds just about 1000 beachgoers. Calling itself “The Greatest Rock and Roll Bar in the World,” the moniker seemed fitting in the wake of Better Than Ezra.
Getting started with the infectious “Oh yeah/ all right"s of “Misunderstood” before launching full tilt into their biggest radio hit to date, “Good”, it was obvious that the Southern boys were going to take full advantage of the small surroundings. Singer Kevin Griffin, clad in tight dark blue jeans and a white v-neck t-shirt with his gold Les Paul dangling from his lanky yet muscular frame, led the band through the cool night before the summer solstice. “Rosealia”, “At The Stars”, and “Desperately Wanting” had the audience singing the words to songs that read like a late-nineties modern rock play list.
Making their Elektra Records debut in 1995 with Deluxe, Better Than Ezra had a string of hits over the next few years before being cast into afterthought land by the label. “We were the priority for Elektra for awhile,” said drummer Travis McNabb after the show. “But then, promises are unfulfilled and the promotions push turns to bands like Third Eye Blind. It happened so many times at Elektra to so many different bands it was whatever suited them at the moment.”
Leaving the label after the stellar How Does Your Garden Grow? was basically ignored by the label’s promotions department—despite a bevy of possible hit singles—Better Than Ezra signed with Beyond Records to release Closer. Last summer, the single “Extra Ordinary” dominated Top 40, showcasing some of the humor that’s become a staple of the groups’ live show. Beyond then fell into its own tailspin of transition, one that sees many solutions, none of which leaves a clear future for its roster of artists. “We’ll just keep playing,” says McNabb. “That’s the way we know best to get out music out there.”
Putting all of the label history and the uncertain road ahead aside for the evening, Better Than Ezra kept the the mood light at The Bottle and Cork. Whether it was throwing a football from the stage during “This Time of Year”, or throwing down shots, the aim of the evening was to celebrate.
“We never heard of the Dewey Devil before tonight,” said Griffin of the infamous and mysterious shot of choice among the locals. “Now, Tom is going to do one!” Bassist Tom Drummond backed away, shaking his head as Griffin produced the murky concoction. Unwavering, Griffin got the crowd behind him, and despite one last pleading but futile look towards the audience; Drummond downed the shot. “I’m sorry Tom,” said Griffin as he looked at his band mate with mock disappointment, “That was serious peer pressure and you caved.”
Revealing his penchant for covers, Griffin weaved verses from other well known hits liberally within the groups’ own songs in the set. Many were tongue in cheek (“Don’t Fear the Reaper” during encore closer “In the Blood”), or seemed to fit perfectly in context (“Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” during the pop culture referencing haven of “Extra Ordinary”). One though, fit only because the songwriter lived so close by. “I’m sorry,” began Griffin as he slipped out of a gravelly Bruce Springsteen imitation, “We’re on the East Coast, I’ve got to give props to the Boss.” He then segued back into a verse of “I’m On Fire” from the native son of nearby New Jersey, which the audience was only too happy to encourage by singing along.
Taking away the pain represented in the songs is what delving into the covers essentially does for the band. That and an upbeat affront makes lyrics like, “And I miss you and the things you do/ The love you fake, the heart you break,” from “Sincerely, Me” easier to sing—no, shout—along to. Better Than Ezra may be one of the only bands out there that can convey deeply broken hearted and lovelorn sentiments with such a cheery delivery.
Later in the night, after a few local beers, and checking out a demo version of the since shelved Rage Against the Machine/ Chris Cornell project, someone asked Tom Drummond how he thought the show went.
“Good,” he enthused without realizing the implied irony.
It was good. Here’s hoping that it keeps getting better.