They arrived to the party after Counting Crows and Hootie and the Blowfish, but before Tonic and Third Eye Blind. They had a few big hits off their debut (“Good”, “In the Blood”), a few pretty decent-sized hits off their sophomore effort (“Desperately Wanting”, “King of New Orleans”), confused everyone with their third album (the highly underrated How Does Your Garden Grow?), then started a bit of a comeback with their fourth album Closer, thanks to the hit single, “Extra Ordinary”.
They’re Better Than Ezra. They’re also better than you think they are… but that’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re constantly touring.
Maybe it’s a New Orleans thing. Like fellow Nawlinz residents (and PopMatters contributor David Medsker’s favorite live band) Cowboy Mouth, BTE—as they’re known to their fans—maintain a rigorous road schedule even when they don’t have a new album to promote… and, lately, that’s been most of the time, since Closer entered stores back in 2001. They haven’t seen new product on the shelf since then, but that’s all about to change, starting with this, their first live album.
Live at the House of Blues - New Orleans would seem to be a sure thing, a document of BTE in their preferred element, at a hometown show…and, to a certain extent, it is. Unfortunately, as with most live albums, it misses the full experience by removing the majority of the between-song and mid-song patter. It’s a fine line when editing a concert album, as evidenced by the recent two-disc Dolly Parton live release; if you lose too much of the band’s character, the diehard fans complain, but if you leave too many seemingly-random comments in the mix, the casual fans are all, like, “Get on with the music, damn!”
The album’s rendition of “King of New Orleans” is probably the perfect example of how fun BTE can be in a live setting. Frontman Kevin Griffin breaks into an intentionally silly-sounding falsetto as he sings, “You gotta break that shit on down,” then loudly bellows, “Rhythm section, ladies and gentlemen,” at which point the band’s drummer, Mr. Travis Aaron McNabb, takes center stage for a brief spotlight. The song isn’t terribly extended from its studio length, but it shows how the band can take one of its standards, add a dash of character, and breathe a little new life into it without alienating the people who came to hear the hits.
As far as the selections on this collection, the majority of the band’s singles are here, which will please both occasional and longtime fans. The only notable omission is “One More Murder”, but one of the longstanding rules of showmanship is to always leave ‘em wanting more, so there you go. Tacked onto the end of the album are two new studio tracks, “Cold Year” and “Stall”; both provide a return to the sound of the band’s debut… which is to say that, unlike on Closer, DJ Swamp is nowhere to be heard… thank God.
In addition to this live album and its companion DVD, the band has a greatest-hits package scheduled to hit stores in mid-March 2005 (there’s a lot of crossover with the live album, as you’d expect), to be followed not so long after with a new studio album, Before the Robots. Its first single, “A Lifetime”, can already be downloaded via iTunes. Live at the House of Blues is a decent enough souvenir of the BTE live experience, but it’s no substitute for the real thing. Given that they seem to be on as much of a never-ending tour as Bob Dylan used to be, take advantage of that opportunity to catch them and see for yourself.