When Marshall Crenshaw released his self-titled debut in 1982, he was a bookish-looking performer with glasses, one who seemed more boy than man. Youthful looks aside though, the then-emerging singer/songwriter exhibited an innate gift for memorably melodic pop-rock. His skill hasn’t diminished a mite in the two decades since then, but he has grown distinctly grizzled and gray.
Before he released that sparkling debut, Crenshaw was a touring member of off-Broadway musical Beatlemania—he played the part of John Lennon. In contrast to his Lennon-esque physical features, however, the inherent sweetness of Crenshaw’s songs align him more with that silly love-song guy, Paul McCartney. Crenshaw referenced his tender Beatlemania days just prior to his set: He recalled that the drummer in the cast advised the New Yorker against worrying about LA audiences—“they’re all just a bunch of schmucks,” he was told. Maybe sometimes, but tonight’s small, devoted audience was comprised of adoring aficionados—not a single schmuck in the bunch.
Dressed in what looked like a green army cap and equipped with a single guitar, Crenshaw played an audience-pleasing set. For those who loved his debut album—and honestly, who didn’t?—it was a pleasure to soak up songs from that record. These hook-filled treasures included “There She Goes Again”, “Someday, Someway”, “Cynical Girl”, and “Mary Anne”. It’s unreasonable to expect Crenshaw to play them all. Still, it sure would have been a treat to hear “She Can’t Dance”, his ode to a clueless music business hanger-on. His cover of “Soldier of Love” was also depressingly conspicuous in its absence.
If you’re not from the Southern California area, you don’t know what you’re missing with a place like McCabe’s. It’s a guitar shop and instrumental lesson stop by day and an intimate concert hall on weekend nights—the ultimate place to catch any talented singer/songwriter. Almost every performer I’ve seen there—and I’ve seen a few big names—confesses to being nervous about playing such a cozy room. It’s not like some big, impersonal stage: here, musicians must entertain in what looks like a quaint living room populated by strangers. While singing, Crenshaw often looked off to his left toward some imaginary concertgoer or other, an indication that he was having trouble focusing on the audience in this miniaturized setting. He broke the ice at one point by saying it felt odd to play a place where the audience could see his shoes.
In addition to revisiting his best tunes, Crenshaw pulled out a new song titled something like “Sunday Blues”. He claimed to have written it just a few weeks prior. And, like a lot of his newer material, this song—about uncomfortable weekend moodiness—carried with it just a touch of jazz. Come to think of it, Crenshaw’s guitar playing, even on much of his older material, leaned toward the jazzy side of things. Maybe it’s his maturation, or perhaps just what happens when the songs are not accompanied by a full rock band.
For those unfamiliar with the man’s music, it’s worth noting that Crenshaw’s most obvious talent is his original sense of melody—as a singer, he’s only passable. This is not to suggest his voice is either rough or awkward. It’s just not as convincing an instrument as it could be, and, tonight, he experienced particular trouble hitting some of the higher notes.
After about an hour of music—with very little conversation between numbers—Crenshaw returned for two brief encore songs. The first was called “Will We Ever” and taken from his recent “What’s in the Bag?. The closer was “2541”,” a Grant Hart tune. Hart, you may recall, was the pop-iest-of-them-all in Hüsker Dü. The song is based around a street number, which is used as a means to ruminate on the musician’s nomadic lifestyle. Hart clearly fell in love with this particular locale, and Crenshaw squeezed out every single ounce of nostalgia from the song.
If pop music fans had fantasy leagues, Mr. Crenshaw’s smart, hooky pop-rock would hold down permanent replay on the radio station in their dreams. He’s a pop-music historian, if you will, and his computer-bank song-history knowledge informs his material. He’s the kind of guy who mainly appeals to folks who watch High Fidelity—the ones who get all the inside jokes and obscure musical references.
Many mom-and-pop record stores—like the one featured in High Fidelity—are closing down these days. Likewise, record-store cognoscenti are fast becoming a hidden, if not endangered, species. So, where will all these music geeks congregate after that last real record store closes its doors for good? Perhaps they’ll plan socials around Marshall Crenshaw gigs.
It also wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a lot of this show’s audience at, say, the next Fountains of Wayne show. Maybe we’re all just melody junkies. But that’s certainly not the worst vice to have. You might say that hummable melodies are our drug of choice, and Crenshaw’s merely a friendly dealer.