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Concert Reviews

Reviewed on this page:
2010 and later
2005 to 2009
2000 to 2004
1999 and before

You bought the album, you read the book, now go to the concert... or should you? In our continuing mission to be your infallible guides in all aspects of life, we've reviewed concerts we've attended by artists covered on our record review pages. The only trouble here is that we're cheapskates, and won't usually go to a show unless we're pretty sure we'll like what we hear, thus skewing the ratings upwards. On the other hand, the average rating would be higher if I reviewed every Prince show I've attended, so it balances out somewhat. (DBW)

Oh, and there's another reason for the weird selection of artists: we will not review shows by cats we're not that familiar with, or shows that we saw a long time ago. So the list of shows that we did witness but aren't going to review is really quite long. (JA)

Alexander Abreu y Havana D'Primera, Havana, 20 December 2014
If you've seen a timba band live, or even heard about one, you know that they typically skip the ballads and stretch the dance songs to at least twice the length of the studio versions, building intensity through several gear shifts until they whip the audience into a frenzy. Well, that's exactly what Havana D'Primera did the night I was lucky enough to hear them: they've got wonderful slow songs but didn't play any of them. Though most timba groups have multiple lead vocals, Abreu sang every song himself while continually exhorting the crowd and keeping up with the dance moves of his much younger backup singers - that meant he didn't play his horn, but the two trumpeters were as superlative as everyone else in the band (I couldn't hear the guitarist so I'm just assuming he's at the same level). I kept expecting the energy level to flag, but the band just moved from strength to strength for about nintely minutes until I could barely stand up, and I headed back to the hotel while the band was still wailing. In my defense, the sound at Casa de la Musica was painfully loud, and navigating the densely packed, extremely outgoing crowd was draining - the only two drawbacks of a magnificent experience. (DBW)

Tori Amos, NYC, 12 October 2007
On her current tour, Tori Amos is her own opening act, first playing a short set as one of the characters from 2007's American Doll Posse - this night she was Santa - then reappearing as herself after a short intermission. It's a novel way of getting deep into the new album, as well as mixing up the song list, and set the tone for the evening: energetic, a bit silly, and unpredictable. Amos has one of the most devoted fan bases around, and it's not hard to see why: she takes care of them, with frequent tours performing fresh material as well as old album tracks, B-sides, and oh, yeah, a few hits ("A Sorta Fairytale"; "Precious Things"). So even if you know her work fairly well, you may be scratching your head while she's entertaining the faithful with justifiably obscure tunes like "Summer Haze" and "Carbon," but by the same token you will hear some great songs you weren't expecting ("Baker, Baker"; a dramatic rendition of "Doughnut Song"). The three-piece backing band did a fine job of riding her many tempo and dynamics changes - longtime drummer Matt Chamberlain was also adept at crafting unique grooves for each number - though their unvarying instrumentation (not even a mandolin on "Cornflake Girl") left several of the midtempo numbers sounding undifferentiated ("Bouncing Off Clouds," part of a generous two-part encore). (DBW)

Anthrax/Megadeth/Slayer/Metallica, NYC, 14 September 2011
The loudest oldies tour around, in the largest venue in town (Yankee Stadium). Though each of the Big Four of Thrash Metal has been around for nearly thirty years, everyone hit the stage as if they had something to prove, and played focused performances. Local boys Anthrax seemed to be having the most fun, exemplified by recently returned vocalist Joey Belladonna running around in a Native American headdress during "Indians" and guitarist Scott Ian rubbing salt in Mets fans' wounds. They don't have many top-shelf songs, but at least they're aware of that, opting for a couple of covers ("Caught In Time"). Though mainman Mustaine's health issues resulted in an abbreviated, comparatively low-energy appearance, Megadeth was as precise and thrilling as one could hope for ("Sweating Bullets"). Slayer's stage show is as unvarying as their song catalog, with one headbanging, punishingly fast guitar barrage after another - which is exactly what their fans love about them - and they have some undeniably great tunes ("Mandatory Suicide"). Metallica's two-hour set was routinely terrific, along the same lines as the shows I've previously reviewed ("Orion" being the only atypical selection). Members of all four (not to mention Exodus, whose Gary Holt is filling in for ailing Slayer guitarist Tom Henneman) tore through a Motörhead encore that not only sealed the night's historical importance but also affirmed Charlie Benante as the best drummer of the bunch. (DBW)

Arch Enemy, NYC, 11 May 2008
Yes, that forty-year-old dude in the mosh pit was me. I didn't intend to be, but once Swedish melodic death metalers Arch Enemy hit the stage the entire club went nuts, and I was tossed around like a ragdoll for a while before I found my footing toward the edge of the crowd. The band's aggression is indeed cathartic, but anyone who wasn't slamming into people like an out-of-control bumper car was rewarded with a very musical show. They plundered a seemingly bottomless catalog of unpredictable, jagged riff tunes, with enough meter and dynamics changes to keep the interest level high without veering into prog boredom: they dug deep into the new album starting with the opener "Blood On Your Hands," while also reaching back to past triumphs like "We Will Rise." The Amott brothers tackled a range of intriguing lead guitar styles apart from the usual shredding, ranging into jazz fusion and a dueling solo that sounded like a tribute to "Funeral For A Friend." Frontwoman Angela Gossow has a commanding stage presence, though her cheerful between-song patter was an odd contrast with her intense screamed and grunted vocals. Put it all together, and Arch Enemy is a bit better in concert than you'd expect from their records. I missed the first two openers, Firebrand and Divine Heresy; Swedish five-piece Dark Tranquillity relied too heavily on muddy, thudding material from their 2007 release ("Terminus") - the crowd responded much better to their more melodic older stuff. (DBW)

Joan Armatrading, NYC, 12 June 2007
There's an old Sufi saying: "He who knows the world abstains from it, and he who knows Joan Armatrading goes to see her in concert." (Actually, I'm not sure the first part is really a Sufi saying.) After thirty-five years of recording, Armatrading still has the same powerful raspy voice and intensity she started out with, and is thoroughly convincing across the spectrum, from the mildest ballad ("Willow") to the most rambunctious rocker ("My Baby's Gone"). Touring to promote her excellent Into The Blues, she handled all the guitar work herself, shining on numbers like "Something's Gotta Blow," and making it clear she'd wasted her money hiring lead guitarists in the past. Calling her three-piece backup band polished understates the case - the drummer busted out a sax solo on "Love And Affection"! - and they rode smoothly through the leader's stylistic and mood changes. Armatrading delivered hits from her classic 70s albums ("Show Some Emotion"; "Tall In The Saddle," reimagined as a rock/jazz/blues suite), and two 80s numbers sounded better in the simpler setting ("(I Love It When You) Call Me Names" and "Me Myself I"). I found myself wishing she'd played more songs from the new album - when's the last time you wished that? - and perhaps if the free show hadn't gotten off to a late start due to inclement weather, she would have. (DBW)

The Band, Tucson, 10 May 1996
The new six-man lineup is touring these days, playing medium-sized venues like the Rialto Theatre in Tucson. Here the opening act was John Wesley Harding, a witty English folk singer who doggedly won the audience over during his brief set. The main act was a disappointment: the acoustics were terrible, the crowd was full of rowdy, drunken baby boomers, and the group had a tendency to rock so loudly as to obscure any subtleties. They also confusingly avoided their own material throughout the first half of the set. Garth Hudson's creepy old man antics on organ, synth, and several varities of sax were entertaining, but musically oblique. Rick Danko and Levon Helm plugged along gamely, with Helm alternating between drums, bass, mandolin, and vocals. The three new players were low key: the pianist almost inaudible, the second drummer/singer generic, and the lead guitarist an extraordinarily competent blues player who only took the spotlight on one number. Despite all this the show was often a heck of a lot of fun, especially when old warhorses like "The Weight" and "Chest Fever" got dragged out. But with Robertson not there, I have to admit that it seemed pointlessly morbid. (JA)

Beck, Santa Barbara, 19 July 2005
Okay, so I could have done without the gangly male dancers on stage. I also don't think Beck is the world's most brilliant songwriter - sorry - but he's accessible, and he can be pretty funny ("Debra"). It helped that he delved into each of his albums for at least a couple of tunes, he delivered his key hits ("Devil's Haircut"; "I'm A Loser Baby"), and he didn't get too carried away pushing his new album Guero - actually, it seems pretty good ("Girl"; "Missing"; the sing-along "Clap Hands"). The first half focused on his heavier, percussion-driven, hiphop-influenced, more danceable material, with Beck only playing a Danelectro guitar and other incidental instruments. Oh the excitement. Then on to a solo acoustic mini-set that spotlighted his powerful baritone, including his "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" donation "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime." As Beck crooned, the band sat at a table for a "meal," and eventually joined in using the dishes as percussion instruments. No really. The encore was just two tunes, but they were fun ("Where It's At"; "E-Pro"), and bringing half the audience on stage to dance was rather droll. Not my favorite 90s artist, but the guy has talent. Autolux, the first opening act, is a pretty unremarkable, super-loud three-piece rock band - tons of feedback and distortion, minimal vocals, repeated riffs masquerading as songs. Gimmicky, techno-influenced, all-girl trio Le Tigre, a group of B-52's revivalists, were a lot better, but hardly worth seeing: everything was carried by pre-recorded bass and drum tracks, so they merely played some loud, basic rhythm guitar and traded off vocals. That wouldn't be so bad, except that only leader Kathleen Hanna is a powerful, professional singer. Their campy tunes and carefully practiced dance moves are all thin, if amusing. But at least their in-your-face queer politics are admirable. (JA)

Jeff Beck, Los Angeles, 23 February 2001
The ultimate air guitar exposition - 90 minutes of non-stop soloing at the Universal Amphitheatre by the legendary Jeff Beck, who still has all of his guitar hero chops more than one-third of a century after his groundbreaking Yardbirds singles. But by now he's got nothing to say. Literally. He not only doesn't sing but doesn't even do his own band introductions. And he's gotten so loud, harsh, and unmelodic you'd think he'd come down with attention deficit disorder - he seems obsessed with ear-splitting techno beats and synth lines. He also blew off the 60s and early 70s. Admittedly, he did often dive back into his mid-70s catalogue, and also picked out some of the better stuff from his 1999 release and closed with an intriguing arrangement of "A Day In The Life." And Beck's technique is inimitable: total command of the whammy bar, volume control, harmonics, feedback, etc., hour-long sustain, and (surprise!) slide guitar effects like nothing I've ever heard anyone else create. But the new stuff is all repetitive riff tunes, and most of the old songs got truncated ("Goodbye Porkpie Hat") and/or heavy-metalized to death ("Head For Backstage Pass"). Rhythm guitarist Jennifer Batten's enthusiasm meant nothing because she so consistently stayed out of the way, and likewise for the rhythm section and keyboard player (not sure who it was, but not Tony Hymas). Batten also over-emoted badly on the one vocal number, an unimaginative rewrite of "Crossroads." All of this was balanced by the brief opening act, solo acoustic singer-songwriter Willie Porter. Porter's wide-ranging, super-professional tenor, thoughtful lyrics, and dextrous folk guitar picking - shades of Michael Hedges, Joni Mitchell, and even Robert Fripp - were a breath of fresh air. But his bad-boy stage patter was hammy and arrogant. Definitely an act to watch out for. (JA)

Jeff Beck and BB King, Santa Barbara, 3 August 2003
Reduced this time to an opener, Beck also reduced his band to just two players. Drummer Terry Bozzio was fun, but keyboard player Tony Hymas was inaudible, and his oddly tentative fills really didn't make up for the lack of a real bass player. Surprisingly, Beck's far too brief hour-long set emphasized his mid-70s work ("Freeway Jam"; "Led Boots") and his more lyrical, low key tunes ("Angel (Footsteps)"; "Nadia"; "Goodbye Porkpie Hat"; the encore "People Get Ready"). But even in first gear, Beck's heavy-handed current style didn't always serve the material well. Still, his technique is so amazing that I can't recommend seeing him too strongly if you're a lead guitarist wannabe. King too was a mixed bag. He blew way too much time on schtick ("Rock Me Baby"): band introductions, jokes, storytelling, audience participation, wasted air space taken by his second-rate guitarists. And the set list of blues standards ("Key To The Highway") was uneven. But at 77, he's still a blues guitar master, with awesome timing, phrasing, and tone. He even still can rock out ("The Thrill Is Gone"). Again, you should catch him while you still can. I missed first opening act Mofro. Galactic, the second, was a dull blues-rock-plus-sax jam band, with a mediocre guitarist. (JA)

Adrian Belew, Santa Barbara, 15 July 1999
There's no accounting for taste, especially in Santa Barbara. On this night Adrian Belew's solo act couldn't even fill half of a local supper club, and by the end, just a handful of diehard fans were left. Was $16.50 too much to hear one of rock's most brilliant writers and performers? But it was partially his fault: he played several noisy art rock pieces (the improvised opener; the new, aptly named "Madness"; a variation on "I Am What I Am"), and there just wasn't much older material. Still, the few classic tunes were picture-perfect and stuffed with virtuoso guitar playing, either from solo albums ("Lone Rhinoceros"; "Fly"; "Peace On Earth") or from his work with King Crimson ("Dinosaur"; he closed with "Three Of A Perfect Pair"). His "Beloops" technique of laying on multiple guitar parts, his huge variety of effect pedals, and his sporadic use of prerecorded rhythm parts all worked. And the new stuff (from forthcoming solo pop, rarities, and experimental guitar albums) was solid, including an amazing synthesized African percussion piece. An entertaining question/answer session devolved into some interesting requests: "Matte Kudesai"; an extraordinary Paul McCartney imitation on "Blackbird," which fell apart when a string broke. The opening acts were uneven: local pop-rockers Whatever lived up to their name with consistent mediocrity, despite some interesting, digital delay-enhanced rhythm guitar playing; but Belew proteges the Irresponsibles seemed ready for prime time with fine vocals, solid instrumental work, thoughtful songwriting, and unsurprisingly Belew-like rockabilly and mid-60s pop-rock influences. Unfortunately, Belew's presence also highlighted their lack of breadth, virtuosity, and avant garde attitude. (JA)

Little Richard/Chuck Berry, Westbury, 7 June 2008
I'll admit, I went to see this with the thought that I owed it to these two legends to finally catch them live - "If they can still tour, the least I can do is buy a ticket" - rather than the anticipation that they would actually put on a great show. Berry has long developed a reputation for desultory, unrehearsed live appearances, and Richard had sounded bored with his early hits as far back as a 1967 live album. So I was pleased and a bit surprised when both artists came out determined to rock the aging Long Island crowd: Richard went on first, and his ten-piece band (full horn section) provided solid, energetic backing for his still-powerful voice and unpredictable stage patter. He was adept at his own frantic hits, of course - from "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Lucille" to "Bama Lama Bama Loo" and "Keep A-Knockin'" - but shifted gears for more pensive readings of Fats Domino's blues "Every Night About This Time" and signature hit "Blueberry Hill," and a heartfelt tribute to the recently departed Bo Diddley ("Bo Diddley"). Though the Bronze Liberace complained about leg and back pain, otherwise he showed no sign of his seventy-five years. Time is weighing a bit more heavily on Berry, as he occasionally seemed to forget what he was playing and brought several of his tunes to abrupt conclusions. But his cheerful attitude never flagged, every note he played on guitar was worth hearing, and because he never stuck too long to one song, he squeezed in a huge number of tunes, from huge hits like "School Days" and "Roll Over Beethoven" to "Mean Old World" and something I didn't even recognize. Berry's three-piece band was solid - particularly the keyboard player - but more laid back than Richard's: with due respect for all parties involved, it would have made for a better show if Chuck had gone on first. (DBW)

Ladies First: Missy Elliott, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Nassau Coliseum, 10 April 2004
She should be absurdly young and successful for a career crisis, but Alicia Keys seems conflicted: she wants to be a showperson like James Brown or Prince - both of whom she covered - with glitzy outfits and hip hop dancers (even essaying some steps herself) on uptempo fare like "Heartburn." But she comes across much better - and seems more natural - playing melancholy tunes on the piano: her slowed-down solo versions of "The Right Time" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" were wonderfully moving, the night's most pleasant surprise. By contrast, Beyoncé - who's roughly the same age - is if anything too professional... She seems able to put together an entertaining set blindfolded, keeping the audience on their feet, and covering for her numerous costume changes with dance routines, video and a brief DJ set. She played only brief excerpts from Destiny's Child hits, which left her to rely on her one weak solo disc, and considering the paucity of material, she did pretty well. (Start times were prompt: I missed first act Missy Elliott by arriving at 7:45 for a 7:00 start.) (DBW)

Mary J. Blige, NYC, 12 October 2010
Gee, MJB has put together a deep catalog over the past eighteen years: she ran through about thirty songs in a hundred-minute set - thanks to brisk pacing and some mini-medleys - while overlooking some big hits ("Family Affair") and many of my favorite album cuts ("Roses"; "Ultimate Relationship"), but still delivered wall-to-wall winners. Blige wrung every ounce of drama out of unexpected numbers like "Seven Days" and "Your Child," while the crowd sang so loud on classics "I'm Goin' Down" and "Sweet Thing" she barely had to. The key to Blige's success - the reason she's so easy to look up to - is that she combines superstar talent with untouchable Everywoman relatability: when Blige sings "I ain't sayin' I'm the best - but I'm the best" it may not make sense, but she's not wrong. The six-piece band (plus three vocalists) cranked out a wall of sound that was often too much of a good thing: because she trades on her rawness, her humility, and her huge voice (not necessarily in that order) Blige has less need of a loud, flashy stage show than any other artist I can think of. The point was driven home when she brought the volume down for a riveting acoustic version of "Take Me As I Am" that had me hoping she'll soon record a whole album that way. Lackluster opener Jazmine Sullivan reappeared at encore time with Swizz Beatz for a sloppy run through her current single "Holding You Down (Goin' In Circles)" - Blige seemed almost apologetic afterwards, though she quickly recaptured the audience before closing with "Be Without You." By contrast, El DeBarge's earlier "special guest" spot was a blast: running through his biggest 80s hits and introducing new single "Second Chance," he exuded showmanship and an infectious joy at being there. (DBW)

David Bowie, Washington, D.C., 12 October 1997
David Bowie has it all: the voice and looks of a 20-year old plus the self-confidence and wizened wisdom of a veteran. You might detest his mannerisms and theatricality, but he's the only rocker of his generation still keeping up with the times while pursuing a unique artistic vision. Unfortunately, his latest tour showcases his one major shortcoming: eclecticism so daring that it's occasionally unlistenable ("V2 Schneider"). At this show things started out marvelously, with Bowie banging away on a 12-string ("Quicksand") and adding grit and emotion to old hits and cover tunes (the VU's "Waiting For The Man" and "White Light/White Heat") - especially Jacques Brel's operatic "My Death." But by the end guitarist Reeves Gabrels had lost all control, throwing off slabs of noise like a musical butcher gone mad; Mike Garson shamed him with a few utterly tasteful piano solos, while bassist/singer Gail Ann Dorsey brought the house down with a cover of Laurie Anderson's "O Superman." Gabrels was particularly atrocious on the new cuts - most of Earthling surfaced ("Little Wonder"; "Looking For Satellites"; "Seven Years In Tibet"; etc.), but only the angry "I'm Afraid Of Americans" really sank in. Still, Bowie did deliver a parade of rearranged oldies that, of course, barely scratched the surface of his catalog ("The Supermen"; "Look Back In Anger"; "Panic In Detroit"; "Under Pressure"; "Moonage Daydream"; "Stay"; "Fame"; "Fashion"; "All The Young Dudes"). That made it the most head-banging show I've seen in years. There was no opening act, but the generous two-hour plus performance more than made up for it. (JA)

Bill Bruford & Tony Levin, Alexandria, Virginia, 15 April 1998
King Crimson's rhythm section is so good that it's worth seeing on its own. That said, the show I saw was the musical equivalent of a race car running on a circular track: breathtaking speed and awe-inspiring technology that led absolutely nowhere. All of the fault was guitarist David Torn's. Showing amiable disdain for musical conventions, he blasted away with inscrutable, if uniquely crafted guitar feedback and throbbing, improvised tape loops. He only played recognizeable tunes (on electronic lute and slide guitar) a couple times. The band's youthful and sensitive trumpet player Chris Botti was completely drowned out by all of Torn's genteel noise. It didn't help that there were no vocals other than throat-singing by Levin on one tune, and that all the material was from the assorted band member's recent solo and collaborative albums; the closest thing to a hit was Levin's inadvertent lifting of the "Kashmir" synth line on one song. Given all that, the only option was to ignore the frontmen and concentrate on the stars - which was well worth the trouble. Levin's techniques have to be seen to be believed: bowed electronic standup, tapped 12-string stick, and a standard bass that he slapped mercilessly with two sticks attached to his fingers (!). Meanwhile, Bruford's blinding speed, precise mastery of his tuned acoustic drums, and amazing ability to handle even the most obscure time signatures proved once again that he has no match in the rock world. In total command from start to finish, they tossed off one groove after another that defied any facile categorization as rock, jazz, or modern classical. This tour is a must-see for Crimson fans and connoisseurs of the avant-garde, but a must-miss for anyone else. (JA)

Buckethead, Irving Plaza, NYC, 9 April 2004
It's hard enough to get and hold an audience's attention, but harder still when you cover your face with a mask and don't talk. Buckethead compensates with bizarre robotic dance moves, and plastic props including a chicken and a severed head, which might make him sound like Gallagher with a guitar, except that 1) his moves are clumsy enough to be endearingly goofy; and 2) he's such an incredible musician. Performing solo - mostly to prerecorded drum and bass tracks - he careened though his solo catalog, leaning more toward his metal side ("Jowls") though he played at least one mellow tune ("Whitewash"), jumping from power chord crunch to impossibly complex, abstract runs. Alas, he only played for forty-five minutes because he was opening for Particle, a four-piece, ten-minutes-per-chord-change jam band with the ostinato, chorused synth typical of electronica. I will say for them that they were enjoying themselves - particularly keyboardist Steve Molitz, who seemed to be having a set-long orgasm - and the enthusiastic audience clearly knew what to expect. (DBW)

Mariah Carey, NYC, 18 September 2003
Billed as "one intimate evening," and if this is what Carey considers intimate I'd hate to see an arena show: she had three video screens, a Moulin Rouge-themed set, a dozen dancers, and seven costume changes. Fortunately, she didn't let any of that get in the way of her singing, as she belted, whispered and hit loads of her patented ultra-high notes. She still has to put her hand to her ear every time she goes to the top of her range, but hey, it beats going out of tune. The setlist was the usual formula - five or six songs from the latest album, surrounded by earlier hits - with a good balance between dance hits ("Fantasy," "Make It Happen") and ballads ("My Saving Grace" went over huge with the crowd). The evening's one dead moment was the Busta Rhymes hit "I Know What You Want": Carey had to change into an outfit, sing her one verse, then change again, so we spent three minutes watching a video and only forty-five seconds watching her sing. Carey's sung, half-improvised introduction of the band was a lot of fun; players included longtime associates Trey Lorenz and guitarist Vernon "Ice" Black (who took a lengthy solo at the end of "Bringing On The Heartbreak"), and guest Da Brat rapped a verse from the "Heartbreaker" remix. The opening act was a horrendous "comedian" - he repeated his name often enough, but I managed to expunge it from my memory. (DBW)

Chicago/Earth, Wind & Fire, Holmdel, 25 June 2004
Not just co-headlined, the two megaplatinum 70s bands from Chicago were basically merged during this three-hour show: they opened and closed on stage together, and guests popped up on each band's separate sets. It's a great match, as Verdine White's manic stage presence livened up Chicago's staid presentation while Chicago's pockets of loose improvisation were a nice contrast with EWF's tightly choreographed parade of hits. In a way it was like cannibalizing parts from two busted cars to get a single smooth-running one - Phillip Bailey contributed his spectacular falsetto to "If You Leave Me Now" (which he sings better than Peter Cetera ever did), while Robert Lamm filled in for the no-longer-touring Maurice White here and there - but rather than an act of desperation, it sounded like a joyous mutual admiration society, particularly on the high-energy finale which ran from "September" through "25 Or 6 To 4." Chicago avoided most of their late ballads (though they did play the hard-to-listen-to "Hard To Say I'm Sorry") in favor of brassy favorites like "Make Me Smile" and "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"; EWF's set was predictable to a fault, touching on all their biggest singles (except "After The Love Has Gone") and virtually nothing else ("Jupiter" was the closest thing to a surprise). An astonishingly egoless venture, considering that each act could fill an entire set with Top Ten singles, and well worth checking out. But I hope you get to see them someplace better than the PNC Arts Center: the sound in the half-covered arena was very muddy, so that often all you could hear were the horns and the booming bass drums. (DBW)

Les Claypool, NYC, 2 June 2007
Claypool serves two masters, eccentricity and virtuosity, so you can always expect to hear some great music if you can wade through the weirdness. This tour features a guitar-less five-piece unit - Mike Dillon, marimba/percussion; Gabby La La, electric sitar (plus theremin and ukelele on one tune each); Skerik, sax; and I think Paulo Baldi, drums. The leader himself most often pounded out funk licks on electric bass, though he also broke out a six-string fretless, a stand-up, the one-string whamola (his own invention) and even a bass banjo ("Iowan Gal," an encore); he also wore a variety of headgear including pig and monkey masks. The disparate elements occasionally failed to gel - La La's sitar lacked tonal variety and came across better on solos than as accompaniment, while Skerik spent too much time using distortion pedals to sound like a rock guitarist - but the solid rhythmic foundation kept most of the tunes together even during extended jams ("One Better"). Claypool eschewed Primus and C2B3 material, drawing mostly from last year's excellent Of Whales And Woe and the Frog Brigade's Purple Onion, plus a cover of "Thela Hun Ginjeet." The new-ish Nokia Theater in Times Square has lots of snazzy amenities, including a piped-in sound system so loud you can hear the band perfectly when you're in the john or (more to the point, I suspect) at the bar. The unintended consequence is that there's no way to escape a dreadful opening act: the rickety, mannered, pseudo-poetic guitar/drums duo Two Gallants is best known because a policeman stormed the stage and Tasered them during a show, and I can understand why he did. (DBW)

George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars, Tuscon, 14 March 1996
There were a bunch of technical problems with this show: the band had transportation problems and showed up very late (actually the club was afraid the crowd was going to get ugly), and then played an abbreviated set, just over two hours, before the club pulled the plug on them. As usual, the backbone of the show came from P-Funk's late 70s heyday: "Flashlight," "Not Just Knee Deep," "Night Of The Thumpasaurus Peoples." Most of the tunes turned into long jams, often mixing riffs from different songs in unrelated keys, sometimes giving the impression that the group's whole back catalog is just one big funky groove. Several of the band's stalwarts were missing, including guitarist/singer Gary Shider, but the quality of the performances didn't suffer noticeably: the P-Funk horns in particular were in top form. It was almost a pure funk set, although lead guitarists Michael Hampton and Blackbyrd McKnight each had one rock feature, and Belita Woods gave a mannered but enjoyable rendition of Otis Redding's "I Love You More Than Words Can Say." (DBW)
I enjoyed this too, and I'm not a P-Funk fan. But the volume was excessive, some of the grooves were exhausting, and Belita's voice is downright irritating. (JA)

George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars, NYC, 4 July 1996
Billed as the "20th Anniversary of the Mothership," this show put Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell on stage together for the first time in many years. Given that, I wish Bernie had gotten more time in the spotlight -- he didn't get a solo feature and often you couldn't hear him at all. Bootsy got a brief solo spot, and was brilliantly goofy as usual, although didn't bang on the bass much. Actually, the main thing missing for me about this show was that there were so many guest stars there wasn't much momentum, almost like a parade of solo artists: Belita Woods, rapper Cal Jason, Hampton, Blackbyrd, guests De La Soul, Bootsy - although the show ran a full 3 1/2 hours, there wasn't the maximum dose of P-Funk power. Clinton himself was more intense than usual, giving an high-voltage performance of the political "US Custom Coast Guard Dope Dog," and getting really angry at one point. The P-Funk horns were always slipping in something bizarre, and "Skeet" Curtis was admirable holding down the bass. Despite the problems, I was screaming by the time the Mothership landed from the top of the stage, and you will be too if this show comes anywhere near you. (DBW)

Bootsy Collins and Funk U-Nity, New York City, 26 June 2011
Bootsy Collins is on tour with several old hands - Frank "Kash" Waddy and Joel "Razor Sharp" Johnson from the original Rubber Band, Blackbyrd McKnight and Bernie Worrell - playing his greatest hits ("Stretchin' Out"; "Bootzilla"; "Pinocchio Theory") plus the biggest P-Funk numbers ("Flashlight"; "One Nation Under A Groove"). Cornel West appeared for an impromptu vocal on "Don't Take My Funk Away," the only tune from Bootsy's 2011 release. As a nostalgia trip goes it's tough to beat: the stageful of backing musicians (including three singers and the Cincin-Nasty horns) flesh out the sound, and everyone - young or not-so-young - brims over with enthusiasm. There was a pacing problem mid-set, though: Bootsy disappeared to make room for a fiery "Purple Haze"/"Red Hot Momma" medley led by T.M. Stevens and Bernie and spotlighting McKnight, but then he didn't come back for another twenty minutes or so as the band meandered through a pointless Family Stone tribute and the crowd grew restless. Opener Freekbot - bassist Freekbass and a DJ - played an excruciatingly boring set offstage, visible only on the club's video screens; a group of contest-winning kids from P.S. 83 then put them to shame with a rocking version of "Gimme Shelter." (DBW)

Roxy Coss Quintet, New York City, 4 June 2011
An unusual record release party, in several respects: Roxy Coss's debut has been out for more than six months, most of the band at the show didn't play on it, and about half the songs performed weren't from the album anyway. Pretext aside, I recommend you hear Coss whenever she's leading a combo, for three reasons: She's full of ideas, both as soloist (mostly on tenor this evening, with a side order of flute) and as a composer (the four new tunes ranged from the dramatic, downtempo "Recurring Dream" to the boisterous "Push"). As a result, she attracts phenomenal, like-minded musicians: the broadly entertaining Roy Assaf (piano) and the urgently melodic Scott Colberg (bass) stood out the most this evening, but Wayne Tucker (trumpet) and Dan Pugach (drums) more than held their own. As a result, the music frequently transcends mere performance and becomes communication, perhaps even communion. (DBW)

Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Santa Barbara, 10 January 2005
You know, I waited for a quarter-century to hear these guys, and I guess I got my money's worth (well, for $62.50 you almost can't get your money's worth). Stills' voice is completely shot - he can barely carry a tune. But I really didn't care. His loose, unpredictable acid rock guitar solos were just fine, he wasn't really on stage too much anyway, and Crosby and Nash harmonized brilliantly ("Guinnevere," with the two of them alone). The eight-piece band wasn't really intrusive, and the set list was pretty good. Predictably, they recreated about half each of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Deja Vu, and the other oldies were big crowd-pleasers: "Love The One You're With," "For What It's Worth," even "Military Madness" (from Nash's Songs For Beginners). Otherwise about a quarter of the set was drawn from Crosby and Nash's latest record; the tunes ranged from wimpy ("Jesus Of Rio") to mediocre ("Milky Way Tonight") to preachy ("Don't Dig Here") to pretty darn good (James Raymond's "Lay Me Down," a single). They also did Stills' apparently unreleased, starry-eyed anthem "Feed The People (Let The Peace Begin)." But apart from "Southern Cross," you'd think that the band had beamed right in from 1971 - which is just what the crowd, rising to its feet and singing along repeatedly, clearly wanted. Helped to see the band in an old movie palace instead of a bigger venue (they were doing a benefit for a local grade school). Hey, nostalgia isn't all bad. The band was Raymond (piano) and Jeff Pevar (guitar) of CPR, Mike Finnigan (Hammond organ), David Santos (bass), an Joe Vitale (drums). (JA)

Melinda Doolittle, NYC, 21 November 2009
Playing a hotel supper club (the comically overpriced Feinstein's), Doolittle was relieved of any commercial pop considerations and gave free rein to her lounge side, delivering a set of standards and show tunes with only pianist Ray Angry for accompaniment. Though she'd performed most of these tunes before on either American Idol ("I Got Rhythm," "Home") or her solo debut ("The Best Of Everything"), and she had sounded perfectly natural and comfortable in those arenas, the songs themselves seemed like they belonged in this room. The format gave her plenty of space to showcase her personality as well as her pipes, and she took advantage with offhandedly humorous, humble yet assertive stage patter. Meanwhile, Angry didn't disappear into the background but stepped up with some striking reinventions ("My Funny Valentine"), though without diverting focus from the vocalist. As a performer, Doolittle doesn't so much reconstruct any song or style as much as show you how good the original construction can sound, and that's what she did for the old dependable nightclub piano and vocal act. (DBW)

Bob Dylan, NYC, 1 November 1998
Just in case you don't know what to expect, Dylan in concert severely abridges his songs to fit more into a short set and seems to revel in his incomprehensible diction, while his country-rock band obliterates the distinctions between songs, using a one-size-fits-all tempo and arrangement for everything. Dylan's been on the road so long his set list doesn't change much from show to show: nearly everything is from his 60s ("Don't Think Twice," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues") and 70s ("Tangled Up In Blue," "Joey") heyday. The stadium crowd was enthralled from the opening chords, which indicates either that his usual show is even worse, or that his fans are so happy to see him they're thankful for any crumbs he throws them: a big cheer went up whenever he made any movement, or played a rudimentary guitar solo. The opening act was roots-rock act Dave Alvin and His Guilty Men; Alvin (formerly of the Blasters) played manic lead guitar, and the band's intensity and attention to detail put the headliner to shame. (DBW)

Fairport Convention, Santa Barbara, 1 October 2002
Being England's greatest folk rock band is all fine and good, but if you're going to build a record and a tour on the fact that you've been around 35 years, don't expect much of a crowd on a Tuesday night in California beach town. Only two of the group's classic-era members remain: bassist Dave Pegg and singer/rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol. But "new," entirely gray drummer Gerry Conway can still thwack plenty hard; fiddler Ric Sanders is soulful, dextrous, and ever-so-slightly experimental; and new singer/writer/mandolinist/fiddler/bouzouki player Chris Leslie has a strong, clear tenor that harmonizes well with Nicol's solid baritone. The set was tightly performed, but the material was erratic, with too much stuff from their new album (the ballad "My Love Is In America"; rehashes like "Portmeirion") and some concert staples that are merely functional ("The Hexhamshire Lass"). The closer "Matty Groves" got a revved-up, reggae-ish rearrangement that sapped away the song's mystical power, and the traditional everyone-sing-this-all-together encore "Meet On The Ledge" seemed rote. However, some of the new tunes are fun ("The Happy Man"; "The Crowd Song"), and good use was made of the Richard Thompson-era goldmine ("Banks Of The Sweet Primroses"; "Crazy Man Michael"). Best of all, 70s band member Jerry Donahue materialized out of nowhere and proceeded to show off his marvelous country-western style picking on four early 70s songs ("Rosie"; "Who Knows Where The Time Goes"). Opening act Equation, a young English folk-rock group that's more-or-less Fairport-like, has a good female singer/flautist (she guested on "Who Knows") and a meaty two-guitar attack. But they did edge toward a glossy pop sound much of the time, at the expense of both the folk and the rock. (JA)

Sammy Figueroa and Sally's Tomato, Miami, 6 March 2009
We here at Wilson & Alroy have always had a soft spot for the unsung studio musician, and always root for them when they front their own bands (well, okay, Toto's an exception). So I was pleasantly surprised on a recent vacation to see that self-effacing conga-playing dynamo Sammy Figueroa was leading a combo at a small club in South Beach. Dedicated to playing the music of Cal Tjader, Sally's Tomato is almost all percussion: congas, bongos, timbales, vibes, piano and bass. As he did on so many 70s and 80s records, Figueroa stays in the background, leaving the extended soloing to others (notably the timbalero, pianist and of course the vibraphonist). But his leadership was clear in the band's cohesive, rock-steady groove and good-humored, ego-free intensity, while Tjader's tunes left plenty of openings for both harmonic and rhythmic explorations ("Mambo Mindoro"). It's not every day you can walk into a bar and hear live music with both sophistication and visceral power, without a cover charge or even a drink minimum. Figueroa also records with his Latin Jazz Explosion; I've reviewed their latest disc. (DBW)

The Flaming Cauldrons, Rhode Island, 21 September 2002
The first live appearance of this Wilson & Alroy side project was hotly anticipated: rumor had it that the band's roots rock, funk-aware, thoroughly unrehearsed jam band/power trio nature would lead to a musical journey of unguessable direction and unfathomable impact. And few in the pleasantly plastered audience were disappointed by the value-priced, five-song set that somehow seemed much longer than it was. First they paid homage to key Cauldrons influence Kiss with a blistering version of inspirational corporate anthem "I Wanna Work For Chuck All Night (And Whitney Every Day)" featuring thunderous vocals from John "I'm The Axe Man" Davis and rock-steady drumming from Jack "Sticks" Fockler. They continued with a rollicking romp through Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" with an impromptu bass solo in memory of the recently departed John Entwistle. Then, in a special surprise, FC turned the microphone over to David Wilson for a warmly received neo-punk update of the Foreigner chestnut "Cheap Stocks Hero," highlighted by Fockler's near-telepathic ability to ride the song's unexpected tempo changes. Their arsenal of parodies depleted, the Cauldrons were supplemented by a small army of "Choo-Choo Girls" for an encore rendition of "Sympathy For The Devil," spotlighting Davis both on lead guitar and vocals. After the crowd demanded a rare second encore, Wilson switched to keyboards as an unidentified special guest handled bass chores on an admirably ragged, Mats-like take on the Aretha Franklin number "Jumpin' Jack Flash." I honestly believe that the band will never play a better show than they did that one magical night in a humble converted country club: no opening act, no fancy dressing rooms, no groupies, just a pure ear-shredding will to Rock. (DBW)

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Tucson, 28 May 1998
God's gift to the banjo, Béla Fleck also happens to be one heck of a performer. With a revised band lineup that now sports saxophonist Jeff Coffin, the Flecktones have enough depth for each of the performer's solo numbers to fully engage the audience: electronic percussionist Future Man delivered an interesting, extended acoustic solo matched with taped snippets of World Music vocals ("Prelude To Silence"); his brother, bassist Vic Wooten, performed an impressive cut off of his solo album that showcased his singing and wry lyrics; Coffin led the band on a respectable jazz jam; and Fleck himself played a sequence of short, stylistically varied, and utterly brilliant improvisations on his acoustic banjo. Most of the material was drawn from their new album Left Of Cool, including some excellent instrumentals ("Throwdown At The Hoedown"; "Big Country"), the record's highly commercial single ("Communication"), and a piece featuring Fleck's impressive "sitar banjo" technique ("shanti") that was matched with a completely convincing interpretation of "Within You Without You." Almost none of the performances dragged, the band's camaraderie and self-effacing humor were charming, and they delivered a generously long pair of sets. Catch them on tour if you can. (JA)

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Los Angeles, 6 April 2001
Augmented by two additional musicians, and playing this time to an enthusiastic but unruly and disrespectful crowd of bubble-headed Hollywood thirtysomethings and fragrant, gyrating Phish fans, this time the Flecktones' showmanship just wasn't enough. Fleck's solo acoustic performance sparkled, with fine interpretations ranging from Bach to the Peanuts theme; the band's encore performance of "Hoedown" was fun; his usual two-set, no-opening act format was generous; the material, largely drawn from the group's latest album Outbound, was decent - one tune saw him experimenting interestingly with digital delay; and the Wiltern is a comfortable venue. But the large-band format drowned Fleck out and often led to lengthy, relatively conventional jazz jams, lacking the stylistic versatility that marks the Flecktones' best work. Both Coffin and clarinetist/saxophonist Paul McCandless were tasteful but generic, with Coffin getting far too much airspace; whereas Paul Hanson (bassoon) demonstrated remarkable technique and a flashy array of effect pedals, but got only one spotlight. Victor Wooten's spotlight was a fine instrumental that he chose to break up with an interminable, highly percussive, and completely abstract improvisation. Futureman's usual second-set-opening solo was cluttered by his switching between tape loops, a conga, assorted cymbals and tom toms, and the simple wooden box he plays so well, and as usual his "drumitar" (an adapted synthaxe) lacked the dynamic range of a complete acoustic drum kit. Worth seeing if you haven't experienced Fleck's live act before, but sub-par. (JA)

Aretha Franklin, NYC, 20 September 2003
Franklin's touring with a full orchestra, four backup singers, eight dancers, and two tamborine players, but they stay out of her way except when needed. She only played two songs from her new release, relying mostly on hits and album cuts from the late 60s and 70s, and her voice was wonderful, better than it's sounded on disc in ages. She seemed most comfortable with slower material - a wrenching "Try A Little Tenderness" - which makes me wish she would record a low-key standards album a la Diana Ross's Stolen Moments, rather than the mediocre overproduced trend-riding efforts she's been releasing lo these many years. The high points - Franklin sitting at the piano for "So Damn Happy" and "Dr. Feelgood"; a gospel duet with Reverend Someone-or-other - were matchless, but the pacing was a serious problem. She strictly alternating slow numbers ("Ain't No Way") and dashed-off uptempo ones ("Think"), so the show never built up momentum - the audience was constantly standing up or sitting back down. When Franklin took a break in mid-set, the dancers performed to Nelly's rap hit "Hot In Herre," which was incongruous to say the least. And she massively dissipated goodwill at the end of the set, as the band vamped endlessly on "Freeway Of Love" while she pointed out an endless series of Arista employees in the crowd and insisted every single one rise and take a bow. By the time she finally started singing the song I was ready for the show to be over, and that's never a good sign. (DBW)

Graham Central Station, Minneapolis, 10-11 December 1997
What Larry Graham's calling Graham Central Station these days is himself on bass (the only original GCS member), Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini from the Family Stone on horns, 's guitarist Kat Dyson, and unknowns on drums, keyboards and lead guitar. They're an unabashed nostalgia act, and the hard-hitting 45-minute set was mostly Sly's greatest hits: "Dance To The Music," "Family Affair," "Thank You," "Everyday People" etc. Graham's still got amazing technique, as he demonstrated during a lengthy solo/audience participation number, and his bouncy energy effectively recreates Sly's good-time vibe. I saw this show two nights running opening for , who's still playing basically the same show I reviewed in July, only even heavier on dazzling acrobatics, old fan favorites, instrumental soloing, and crowd teasing - in other words, the best show you're ever likely to see. (DBW)

Guns N' Roses, Philadelphia, 6 December 2002
I'll admit I went to this show primarily to hear guitarist Buckethead and only secondarily to see how frontman Axl Rose (the group's only original member) would sell GnR's enviable but perhaps poorly aging catalog of hits. Comeback album Chinese Democracy still hadn't come out, but a new incarnation of the band was touring to make the point that Axl and Guns N' Roses were BACK!!! Unfortunately, after keeping us - the whitest crowd this side of Fenway Park, split evenly between teenagers and folks in their thirties - waiting for a few hours, a sheepish stadium announcer intoned that the concert was postponed due to "health issues." Anticipating this eventuality, the venue had stopped selling beer two hours prior, but there was still enough unconsumed alcohol on hand to rain from the upper deck on those of us below. But security didn't overreact, and after blowing off some steam at Axl - somehow no one suspected that he was truly ill, or that any other bandmember was the cause of the cancellation - the audience filed out of the stadium without incident. I missed the first opener, local rock band Cky, but Mix Master Mike's DJ set - jumping between classic rock (Rush's "Tom Sawyer") and rap (House Of Pain's "Jump Around"), with plenty of scratching and other turntable heroics - was suprisingly well received for the first forty minutes or so: when he was forced to stall for time, the crowd picked up the vibe and turned ugly. The show could rate one star because the headliner didn't perform, but on the other hand for virtually no cost I got to have a classic rock and roll concert experience: a mercurial lead singer stirring up strong feelings in a sellout crowd that alternately threw beers and burst into tears. (DBW)

Herbie Hancock Quartet, NYC, 26 August 1996
Hancock's made a number of recent acoustic appearances promoting his album The New Standard; this was a free concert in Washington Square Park with a pickup band including Dave Holland on bass. The sound system was a disaster; the technicians fussed with it for quite a while as the band got antsy, then just gave up and said the system couldn't generate enough volume. The band started with a disjointed version of "Maiden Voyage," but things really got rolling as they did the two best tunes on New Standard, Prince's "Thieves In The Temple" and Stevie Wonder's "You've Got It Bad Girl" - both turning out better than the studio versions, with stunning solos from the leader and Greg Handy on sax. They continued with another Hancock standard, "Canteloupe Island," and they nailed that one too - by now most of the curiosity seekers had wandered away, and the audience was predominately appreciative jazz fans. They also did an encore; not counting the dead air, they played for about two hours, which is damn good for a free show. If he comes to your town he'll probably have a different band, but he's not lost anything on piano, and is worth checking out. (DBW)

Emmylou Harris, Santa Barbara, 27 September 2005
Harris, the undisputed queen of high-brow country-western heartache, is a compelling singer and a respectable songwriter. But a little dull in concert. All of her stately acoustic strumming and woeful wailing grew somewhat tiresome long before she finished with her score of well-crafted tunes. Singer-songwriter Buddy Miller, her only accompanist, threw in a lot of eerie, atmospheric licks powered by light distortion and reverb. But without a rhythm section, it just didn't provide enough interest. Apart from a few exceptions ("If I Could Only Win Your Love"), the material was consistently downbeat, and even the tasteful covers seemed indistinct (Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl"; Townes Van Zandt's "Poncho And Lefty"; Dylan's "Every Grain Of Sand"). Still, the Parsons-era "Love Hurts" remains a classic, there were plenty of solid tunes like "Michelangelo," and Harris presented two interesting collaborations with the McGarrigle sisters ("All I Left Behind" and "I Will Dream"). You can't knock Harris' sincerity, integrity, and ability to reach fans who otherwise don't like country music, but nothing short of utter brilliance could have justified the outrageous $50 - $70 ticket prices. Miller opened with a moderately long solo set, mostly acoustic and mostly respectable (apart from the Christian drivel of "There's A Higher Power"), that showed off his wide-ranging voice, full of country yodelling and that sort of thing. But he's much more interesting on electric guitar, which he mostly stuck with through Harris' set. Surprisingly, Santa Barbara resident Tom Rush showed up to play one song ("No Regrets") at the beginning of the brief encore, the remainder of which was the outstanding Parsons tribute "Boulder To Birmingham." (JA)

Isaac Hayes, Atlantic City, 8 May 1999
An Oscar winner reduced to playing casino ballrooms could easily feel depressed or demeaned, but if Hayes was anything less than elated to be playing the Trump Marina, he sure didn't show it: his high spirits were evident as he bantered with the crowd, asked for requests, shook hands - he even stayed on stage during extended solos by the percussionist and the drummer. The near two hour set was mostly greatest hits - "Joy," "I Stand Accused," "Shaft" - plus two standards demonstrating his stylistic range: the Broadway tune "My Funny Valentine," and a stomping version of "The Blues Is Alright." He also found time for some engaging song-opening raps ("By The Time I Get To Phoenix"), and played some fine piano solos. The band - which included three backup keyboardists who handled the horn and string parts - held its own through the lengthy arrangements; longtime guitarist Michael Toles shined on his feature, "Walk On By." In fact, my only complaint is that they spent so much time on each song, the set list ended up very short. But Hayes in concert is a commanding presence: after alienating a large portion of his audience with a brief rendition of the South Park tune "Chocolate Salty Balls," he had them eating out of his hand again during the very next number. (DBW)

Robyn Hitchcock & Grant Lee Phillips, West Hollywood, 20 June 2000
A frustrating exercise in artistic generosity and pseudo-authenticity, Hitchcock's mostly-acoustic, stripped-down tour isn't going to win him any new fans. Despite having a quarter-century of prolific songwriting under his belt, he chose to play hardly any of his best stuff. Instead, he (a) pushed weak material from his new solo album - a mediocre love song ("I Feel Beautiful"), a flippant satire ("Gene Hackman"), par-for-the-course nonsense ("Antwoman"; "Mexican God"); (b) left out his better new tunes ("Jewels For Sophia"; "The Cheese Alarm"; "No, I Don't Remember Guildford"); (c) ended the set with a long series of jokey covers - a dull "Across The Universe," and solid but tongue-in-cheek recreations of "Sound And Vision/Ashes To Ashes" (the excuse for some silly Bowie-style posturing), "Satellite Of Love," "All The Young Dudes," and even the Everly's super-sweet "All I Have To Do Is Dream"; and (d) alternated tunes with singing partner du jour Grant Lee Phillips. Maybe Hitchcock is just wowed by Phillips' immense vocal range, over-the-top, extroverted stage patter, and substantial commercial and critical success. But the guy is a total drag; his tiresome stage-hog antics contrast bizarrely with his dreary, melodramatic, unintelligibly enunciated country-folk balladry. Hitchcock's stream of neo-Zen nonsense was crystal clear by comparison. It's all a damn shame, because his vocal and instrumental performances were fine, the few old numbers were rousing ("Queen Elvis"; "Birds In Perspex"; "Trams Of Old London"), and sidekick pianist Jon Brion added some interest ("All The Young Dudes"). With no rhythm section, no opening act, and such a thin set, this was on the verge of being a $15 ripoff. (JA)

John Huss Moderate Combo, NYC, 26 September 1998
Huss in concert is pretty much like Huss on record: engaging, low-key, and laugh-out-loud funny. He did all the singing and songwriting, except for one throwaway number ("Rock And Roll Art Show") delivered by bassist John Greenfield. The Combo played a bunch of hits from the current CD, plus several fan favorites (a song about Delaware I don't know the name of, "Project," "Lapland"). J. Niimi on drums kept solid time, and Greenfield's bass lines were enjoyable if a bit busy. An effective advertisement for the CD, and fun even if you already have it thanks to the several non-album songs included. If you get the chance, check out the Moderate Combo. (DBW)
I saw Huss (sometimes with the Moderate Combo) several times during the early 90s, and I always thought his performances were first rate despite his technical limitations - the man has genuine stage presence. Highly recommended. (JA)

INXS, Washington, D.C., 14 September 1997
Oh to be a rock star. Michael Hutchence had the act down pat. Backed vocally by two go-go dancers in silver lamé miniskirts, he pulled out all the standard rock idol gimmicks: wading into the crowd, climbing on speakers, sniffing a female fan's proffered undies, pouring water down the bass player's back, gradually strip-teasing away most of his black three-piece suit, and inciting the audience with obscenities and sprays of bottled water. Bizarre elements were numerous, from flag-waving Australian embassy workers to random friends of the band who wandered on stage. And the band was brutally loud and awesomely tight, zipping through a 100 minute set of about 50% huge hits ("New Sensation," "Mystify," "Baby Don't Cry," etc.) and 50% new or obscure stuff. But after a while INXS' weaknesses became too obvious - thin song material and an overemphasis on rhythm playing. When "Suicide Blonde" started up at the end of the encore I literally thought they were replaying "Bitter Tears," and you know a band's in trouble when the sax player is the one playing the guitar solos. Opening act the Honeydogs performed nobly; a melodic, mid-tempo four-piece rock band from Minneapolis, their material was clever and enthusiastically performed, and just loud enough to have some teen appeal - they used some harmonics, feedback, and slide guitar, and their lanky singer/songwriter/guitarist had a good command of dynamics and a disarming geekiness. Too bad it's all been done a million times. (JA)

Janis Ian, New York City, 14 March 2006 (second show)
It's not often I get exactly what I'm expecting, and it's even less often I'm thrilled to get it. I'd love to see Ian with a band someday, but this solo show delivered everything you go to see her for with a minimum of distractions: her dramatic stage presence (a breathtaking, echo-assisted "On The Other Side"); her self-deprecating humor; her admirable guitar chops ("My Autobiography"). Most of all, her sharply etched songs, delivered crisply and without fuss. As you'd expect, Ian focused on the excellent new album ("All Those Promises") and her biggest hits ("At Seventeen"; "Society's Child"), but she also worked in some offbeat choices: "Here Comes The Night" from Night Rains; the posthumous Woody Guthrie collaboration "I Hear You Sing Again." The pacing was ideal, never leaning too heavily toward the singalongs ("Folk Is The New Black") or the "reach for your Prozac" reflections ("Between The Lines"). No opening act, no stage show, no prisoners. (DBW)

La India, New York City, 27 August 2007
There's a word for singers who put their listeners and backing musicians through extraordinary trials - arriving at the venue just before showtime, changing the set list on the fly, going into lengthy digressions and meandering improvised songs - but you're happy to put up with it because they have incomparable voices. But instead of that word, I'll use the more polite term "mercurial" to describe India, because 1) it was a free concert, so why gripe? and 2) she really does have an incomparable voice, full and fluid (the encore "Vivir Lo Nuestro"). Raised in the Bronx, India has had most of her success singing in Spanish (the set was composed mainly of Llego La India and Dicen Que Soy tunes) but seems more comfortable in English: she reeled off impromptu versions of her early dance hit "I Can't Get No Sleep" and the Salsoul tune "Runaway" (catching her band off-guard), and indulged in frequent, lengthy speeches about her "realness" and status as a New Yorker. Also, some of the band's jamming was excessive ("Mi Primer Rumba"), and her fine 2006 album was inexplicably overlooked. But just when you think she's lost her train of thought, she'll knock your socks off with a flawless rendition of a Celia Cruz medley. Similarly, just when you think her belting is verging on overbearing, she'll switch to charming subtlety and touching tastefulness ("Ese Hombre"). During a given evening, as with her career as a whole, you can never count India out: she's just got too much going for her. (DBW)

Rick James, New York City, 4 January 1998
Like him or not, Rick James wrote several of the funkiest riff tunes in history, and when he stuck to that material, this show was surefire entertainment. But while he kept the funk numbers short and sweet, he indulged himself with several lengthy renditions of ballads wherein he demonstrated his sexual technique using himself as the model: much of the audience was visibly embarrassed, and it was hardly a prudish crowd. His instrumental chops seem to have deteriorated badly; he tackled bass, guitar and keyboards at different points, but was barely able to play simple changes - fortunately, his Stone City Band covered for him proficiently. The evening's highlight was Mary Jane Girl JoJo McDuffie's two-song feature, as she demonstrated she hasn't lost any of her vocal talent (or sex appeal). This was a straight-up greatest hits set; not only did James play nothing from his 1997 release, he played nothing written after 1985. The opening act was comedian Mike B; I've never understood the logic of opening a concert with a comic, but for what it's worth, he was pretty funny even though he covered very familiar ground (e.g., ever notice that white folks and black folks talk differently?). (DBW)

Elton John, New York City, 28 November 2001
A dream come true for fans of the early period: Elton hauled out so many old album tracks - "Gotta Get A Meal Ticket," "Country Comfort," "Holiday Inn" - he lost a good chunk of the lethargic, middle-aged crowd (which, until the grand finale, rose only to congratulate themselves during "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters"). He also played 2/3 of his new album, and live performance gave the material ("Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes," "Wasteland") a welcome roughness. But he still managed to hit all the best singles ("Daniel," "Crocodile Rock," "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues") by playing a very long 27-song set - no breaks - and by skipping all the non-Bernie Taupin material: nothing from The Lion King or the early 80s. Elton doesn't even try to sing falsetto anymore, which takes quite a bit away from songs like "Bennie And The Jets," but he compensated by playing lots of first-rate piano solos ("Take Me To The Pilot," "Rocket Man") and keeping constantly on the go. The classic band was represented by Davey Johnstone (who rocked out on the opening "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding") and Nigel Olsson, plus Bob Birch (bass), Guy Babylon (keyboards) and John Mahon (percussion). (DBW)

Rickie Lee Jones, New York City, 7 November 2003
Rickie Lee Jones welcomed the Town Hall crowd with "I've got a new bra: it's gonna be a good night." It certainly was... maybe it was the bra, or her upcoming birthday, or maybe all her shows are this good. The sharp eight-piece band gave her a lot of flexibility - one guitarist doubled on harmonica and vibes; the trumpeter also played violin and mandolin; the keyboardist whipped out an accordion - and Jones took full advantage, recreating the L.A. studio vibe of her early 80s work while ranging far into bluegrass territory on material from her current release The Evening Of My Best Day (title track; "Lap Dog"). The new songs went over well enough - though the message of "Tell Somebody (Repeal The Patriot Act)" was blunted because most of the words were indecipherable - but they were straightforward melodies lacking the drama and unpredictability of her best work. It wasn't just nostalgia that kept the audience captivated during her piano set (she spent most of the evening on guitar): you really can't do better than "Living It Up" or "Coolsville" (the showstopper) when they're delivered with intensity and urgency. Though most of the material was either brand new ("Mink Coat At The Bus Stop") or very old ("Pirates"), Jones also worked in songs from The Magazine ("It Must Be Love"), Traffic From Paradise ("Altar Boy") and Flying Cowboys (title track, a one-song encore). Oh, bonus points in the frustrating expectations department for not playing "Chuck E.'s In Love." (DBW)

Paul Kantner and Jack Casady, Tucson, 29 March 1996
Kantner's an odd fellow; he's the kind of big-time rock dinosaur who will play an occasional small-club show in backwater towns like Tucson, padding his way to the stage wearing slippers and tights just because he feels like it. Most of the hundred-odd fans were fortysomething types trying to recapture their salad days, and Kantner didn't seem to mind. He used the name "Jefferson Starship Acouster Explorer," but from all appearances Casady had been talked into joining him at the last minute: he just improvised as Kantner sang and strummed on 12-string guitar. They didn't even have a drummer, much less other backing musicians (apparently at other shows they did have a keyboard player). But they did bring along a young, technically gifted singer named Diana Mangano, who delivered a very credible "Lather" and seemed happy to share the stage with them. Quite a few other Airplane tunes also surfaced, including "Wooden Ships," but Kantner more often went with obscure folk tunes. He also broke things up with a few extended, politicized monologues. Despite the sloppiness and the shortness of the set, I thoroughly enjoyed it; Casady's rumbling, free-form playing is a wonder to behold, and it's hard to beat the magic of standing almost within arm's-length of two musical heroes from days long gone. p.s., thanks Jeff. (JA)

Chaka Khan, NYC, 25 September 1998
At this point Khan was touring with and Larry Graham, both of whom are playing essentially the same sets I reviewed in 1997. Khan's set is only about 45 minutes long, but it's powerful: the energy level started high with "Once You Get Started" and never flagged, with non-stop hits mostly from her 70s and early 80s heyday ("Sweet Thing," "You Got The Love," "I'm Every Woman," "I Feel For You"). But the audience - which sang along with every song, loudest on the ballads - was also receptive to "Spoon," the one song from her new album. The musicians didn't vary from the album arrangements except for Khan, who used her jazz experience to vary tempo, pitch and phrasing without losing the emotional rawness that has always set her apart. The one surprise in the set was a cover of Steve Winwood's "Higher Love" (Khan had sung backing vocals on the original) redone with a reggae feel. It's easy to criticize , but anything that gets Khan out into large halls where we can see her is good by me. (DBW)

KISS, NYC, 23 November 1998
The time capsule show of the year, KISS looks and sounds exactly as they did twenty years ago: full original lineup, makeup, fireworks, leather, fake blood, endlessly catchy rock repertoire. Paul Stanley, who sang most of the leads when he wasn't flying above the crowd on a wire, has enough energy to shame frontmen half his age, a surprisingly agile and flexible voice, and a stage presence that manages to be macho and unassuming at once. The band played two forgettable songs from their latest, Psycho Circus, but otherwise focused on 70s material: "Black Diamond," "Love Gun," "God Of Thunder," even their disco hit "I Was Made For Lovin' You." Ace Frehley got two lead vocals (though unfortunately we didn't get to hear his solo hit "New York Groove"), and Peter Criss (whose voice hasn't aged as well as the others) delivered the inevitable "Beth" to kick off an extended encore that pushed the show's running time over two hours. Gene Simmons somehow managed to pound out the bass lines while bellowing and wagging his tongue at everything in sight. Don't expect anything original or challenging, stay out of fights with the aging-biker crowd, and you'll have a great time. The opening act, which I think was called Carmeline Crush, had loads of energy but nothing else: the scarecrow-thin front man was incomprehensible, the musicians had no stage moves other than agressively nodding their heads, and their thrash tunes lacked any variety. (DBW)

Labelle, NYC, 26 February 2009
As a general rule, if Ashford & Simpson are sitting three rows ahead of you, you've come to the right place. Labelle's reunion tour after thirty-odd years apart was not recession-priced (as LaBelle mentioned during one of her many engaging monologues) but it was magical. Though as solo acts Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash have ranged from gospel to electro-pop and back again, the group Labelle only does funk - their slow songs ("Without You In My Life") aren't pop ballads, they're funk ballads; their fast songs ("Get You Somebody New") aren't rock, they're uptempo funk - and in the process they show how emotionally rich and varied funk can be ("You Turn Me On"; a lengthy, spellbinding "(Can I Speak To You Before You Go To) Hollywood"). Wisely, they didn't head out on tour until they had a new record (2008's fine Back To Now) to promote: the best way to avoid sounding like an oldies act is to break out great new material like "Candlelight" and "Superlover" next to all the 70s gems ("Messin' With My Mind"; "What Can I Do For You?"). And as before, Labelle has a wild professionalism that's contained but untamed: the arrangements were tight enough to fit twenty songs into a two-hour set (a short break showcased the six-piece band and backup singers), yet kept a loose feel, leaving room for detours and even a Q&A session; meanwhile, Hendryx and Dash milked their backing vocals without getting in LaBelle's spotlight. In the past I've written that I didn't understand why Patti is so revered by her fans, but now I get it: in person she's funny, lovable, magnetic... and that's before she starts singing. Comfortable with themselves in their early sixties, the trio simultaneously came across as larger than life and down-to-earth, and the Beacon Theater became one big lovefest. (DBW)

Gojira/Machine Head/Trivium/Lamb Of God, NYC, 22 March 2007
Four bands - three of them very good - for twenty-six bucks: that's value for your heavy metal dollar. Openers Gojira, a four-piece from France, didn't have much going for them apart from volume and a hyperactive bass player: their tunes weren't memorable, their frontman lacked charisma, and the lead guitarist didn't play anything special. I'd never heard Machine Head before, but the California quartet's half-hour set was impressive: they combined the driving groove of metalcore ("Imperium") with the technical playing of thrash or classic metal (dual harmony leads on "Aesthetics Of Hate"), and every song came across. Up third, Trivium delivered their melodic post-thrash with extraordinary precision: frontman Matt Heafy delivered the only comprehensible vocals of the night while guitarist Corey Beaulieu played the most technical solos and growled out the death metal sections ("To The Rats"). They hit most of the high points from 2006's extraordinary The Crusade ("Unrepentant") without neglecting their previous disc ("Like Light To Flies"). But most of the sold-out crowd was there to see Lamb Of God, and started moshing like mad the second the five-piece Virginia outfit hit the stage. The band's raw power was mind-blowing (and fuse-blowing: a mid-set power outage delayed the show by ten minutes), and while their compositions can lack subtlety, in concert they stick to sure-fire winners like "Walk With Me In Hell" and "Eleventh Hour." About half the set came from 2006's Sacrament, while the rest covered every album back to their 1999 debut as Burn The Priest ("Bloodletting," a tuneless thrash exercise which was the anti-highlight). Onstage the band presents an amusing visual contrast, as vocalist Randy Blythe is easy to mistake for an average skateboard kid while long-haired, bearded guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler look like they're auditioning for the Gregg Allman Story. While metal fans are famously sectarian, the bands don't appear to be: Blythe jumped onstage during Gojira and Machine Head's sets, and Heafy came back out to deliver the chorus of LOG's "Redneck." (DBW)

Living Colour, Santa Barbara, 24 November 2003
An aggravating $25 ripoff: no opening act, a late start due to technical problems, an abruptly truncated eight-song, 45-minute set, and no encore. The band's excuse was saving Corey Glover's voice for a show in Hollywood the next night - what an insult to the local crowd (which I admit was very thin). On the plus side, the band's ear-splitting hard rock sound hasn't changed very much since it last recorded together in the early 90s; Vernon Reid can still shred like a maniac, and Doug Wimbish's slappin' and tappin' was fun to watch. The set list wasn't bad, with "Type" getting an amusing reggae arrangement, "Funny Vibe" and "Love Raises Its Ugly Head" being well-performed, and a new protest song ("Operation Mind Control") sounding a little catchy. But "Middle Man" was sonic sludge, the closer "Cult Of Personality" seemed rote, and two other new Collideoscope songs just didn't seem to gel. Plus Glover's typically overenthusiastic vocals were undermixed. I spoke to one long-time fan after the show and he seemed bitterly disappointed - I shared the feeling. (JA)

Pedrito Martinez Group, NYC, 31 January 2015
Conga is a tough instrument to stand out on: Generally confined to a narrowly defined support role except when you're expected to bust out an explosive solo, even the biggest names - Barretto, Ponce, Sanchez - can be hard to recognize. So the fact that Cuba-born Pedrito Martinez has made such a splash in as big a city as New York tells you he's either got an incredible hype machine, or he's really something special. Once you see him live, it's immediately clear that it's the latter: his regular-guy manner and ensemble-first approach (at the show I saw, he didn't play a single solo until the set-closing version of "Guayaba" with Rubén Blades sitting in) are the opposite of self-promotion, but his talent brims over anyway. The Group's current configuration - bongo, bass and piano, with Martinez doubling on untrained but musical lead vocals - leaves plenty of breathing room, and though the pianist takes up the bulk of the solo space, all the players are constantly putting something new into the mix while remaining connected (a smoking rendition of "Pastorita Tiene Guararey"). We don't review movies, but if you happened to see Whiplash and you need a reminder that music is about a bond among the musicians and also between the musicians and the audience, a visit with the PMG is just the ticket. (DBW)

Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi, Alexandria, Virginia, 11 March 1998
Who says old guys can't rock? Dave Mason actually sounds better now than he did in the 70s, when he let his pop leanings get the better of him. Both he and Capaldi played and sang with authority at this show. Mason was out front most of the time, and he went with bread and butter solo hits like "We Just Disagree," "Only You Know And I Know," "World In Changes," and "Sad And Deep As You." Capaldi actually slowed things down when he strapped on an acoustic guitar to take the spotlight on "Love Will Keep Us Alive"; a new, but corny love song written with George Harrison; and an unusual arrangment of "Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys." Still, though, his drumming was ferocious; they worked well together on "Pearly Queen" and "40,000 Headmen"; and things only got better with the closer, an ecstatic take on "Feelin' Alright," and the encore, lengthy versions of "All Along The Watchtower" and "Mr. Fantasy" with wildly distorted Mason guitar solos. Their first reunion in years, I grant that this tour would have benefitted from the participation of Traffic cofounder Steve Winwood (they seemed embarassed to admit that he had turned them down); but this way you get to see them in smaller theatres - the crowd this time was fewer than 500 graying yuppies - and that makes the experience entertainingly intimate. Plus the fill-in band was more than competent (Alex on bass, Steve on keyboards; I have no idea who they are). Opening act Al Stewart (another 70s pop veteran) played a fun acoustic set that belied his reputation as a lightweight, ending, of course, with "Year Of The Cat." (JA)

Meat Puppets, Hollywood, 14 October 2000
Old folks are supposed to mellow out and retire their overdrive pedals. Not Meat Puppets leader Curt Kirkwood, who's trying to lead a comeback with a newly recruited "Puppets" backing band that couldn't be louder or less subtle. Waves of howling distortion obliterated almost everything, right down to the handful of choice 80s and early 90s Puppets tunes Kirkwood chose to resurrect ("Up On The Sun"; "Lake Of Fire"). The new album's material seems fine, but it often veers into ear-blasting, unoriginal rap-rock and hardly ever shows off the humor and psychedelic weirdness of the original band's best work. Bassist Andrew Duplantis is sharp, but second guitarist Kyle Ellison sounds so much like Kirkwood that he adds little interest, and drummer Shandon Sahm (Doug "Sir Douglas" Sahm's son) is a brutal heavy metal meathead. Nothing could make my nostalgia for the old rhythm section any worse. With the rowdy, drunken crowd getting in Kirkwood's face all night and even stealing one of his pedals, it's hardly a suprise that the band played barely over an hour and refused to come out for an encore. Ironically, seven-piece country-punk opening act Wiskey Biscuit still has the sweet shambolic innocence of the 80s Meat Puppets, crunching away with two- and three-chord vamps and staggering between heartfelt cowboy serenades and noisy, primitive garage rock. Quirky and quasi-competent, the act will probably never make it out of Southern California but is a joy to watch. (JA)

Daniela Mercury, NYC 26 July 1997
Daniela Mercury is just about the hugest pop star in Brazil, a country that loves huge pop stars. Accordingly, the audience at her New York concert was packed with devoted fans who cheered her every move and only sat down when she asked them to. And she is an exciting, tireless live performer, who kept singing while she and her two dancers executed an endless series of steps. Mercury started out by playing half of the tunes from her latest release Feijão e Arroz, then turned up the heat by reinterpreting her biggest past hits with the more traditional percussion-and-horns approach of her new album. The energy level never flagged, as she avoided most of the slow tunes in her catalog and did her costume change during a percussion solo. The band was a downsized version of her usual entourage, with only three percussionists and two horn players, and though they were perfectly capable they couldn't quite reproduce the denseness of the album arrangements. The problem came at the end of the show, when apparently the Avery Fisher personnel decided it was time to go, and turned up the house lights in the middle of a song. The crowd's increasingly angry entreaties for an encore were ignored, and finally Dani came back to stage to tell us she wasn't allowed to continue because it was too late. Would Avery Fisher treat classical performers this way? I think not. As for the opening act, Albita, let's just say she lives up to her billing as "The Diva of Miami," with all that implies. (DBW)

Meshuggah, NYC, 19 February 2009
It's not often the opening acts are so good I feel like I've gotten my money's worth before the headliners even hit the stage, but The Faceless and Cynic delivered terrific sets: Cynic covered most of their wonderful 2008 release and a couple of Focus favorites ("How Could I"), with authority and understated confidence (frontman Paul Masvidal didn't even address the audience until five songs in). The Faceless play similarly versatile technical death metal, but with even more dramatic and abrupt shifts between mellowness and brutality, and engagingly weak stage presence - they came across like kids practicing in their basement, but in a good way. So it was only mildly disappointing to find out that Meshuggah's hyperintense math metal doesn't really come across live: the fascinating cross-rhythms led by drummer Tomas Haake were hard to hear and harder to follow, the guitar lines were similarly muddy, and dynamics changes were downplayed. Frederik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström play eight-string guitars, but the middle four strings might as well not have been there, since they mostly played ultrabass rumblings - making bassist Dick Lövgren redundant - with occasional treble snatches of melody. Meanwhile, frontman Jens Kidman followed the same script on every tune: roaring, raising his arms to cue the guitarists' headbanging, roaring some more. If you go to a metal show to mosh, you'll be fine; if you go to listen, you may want to head for the exits after Cynic. (DBW)

Metallica, Hempstead, 20 April 2004
Thrash begins at forty. Two decades into their career, these guys play as loud, fast and heavy as you could possibly want, running around the stage-in-the-round so much that I got tired just looking at them. In one respect it's probably their best tour ever: they're continually mixing up the setlist, drawing from their entire catalogue, so apart from eight fixtures you never know what you're going to get on a given night. They played two or three songs from each studio album - wisely not delving deeply into 2003's St. Anger - and everything sounded powerful and fresh, monster hits ("Sandman") and twenty-year-old obscurities ("Metal Militia") alike. Recently rehabbed frontman James Hetfield seems more comfortable these days, poking fun at himself when he forgot some words in "Holier Than Thou," but had no problem dredging up menace when the material demanded it ("Creeping Death"). The mostly younger-than-me crowd was extremely enthusiastic - at one point Hetfield joked that we weren't allowed to be louder than the band - staying on their feet all night and singing along; the headbanging only stopped when the lighters came out during a couple of slow tunes ("Fade To Black"). Opener Godsmack played the same loud midtempo rocker eight times in a row, or so it seemed, preferring to bang out one chord in simple syncopated rhythms rather than construct actual riffs; although the crowd seemed to know the songs they didn't get much of a reaction, and I frequently had to remind myself that it's very impolite to scream "You suck!" at a band that's doing their best. (DBW)

MetalSucks Festival, NYC, 5 November 2011
I've never read MetalSucks (though I dig their "Reign In Blog" tagline) but they put together a richly varied, bargain-priced two-day festival. On Day Two, I missed the first five acts and still got my money's worth: how often can you say that? Obscura is an intriguing mix of 80s Eurometal and 00s tech-death: Their harmonized lead guitars (and their long-haired, lean look) recall the Scorpions, but their knack for shaping experimental rhythms and syncopated licks into head-banging mosh material is remarkable. The band 3 (try searching for them online) is farther from the metal mainstream, using acoustic guitar as a staple rather than a side dish, plus Bon Jovi-ish emoting from frontman Joey Eppard, but their formidable skill and unwavering commitment left no doubt they belonged on the bill. I've written enough about The Red Chord and headliners Cynic before: Cynic's set seemed detached and antiseptic this time, which is more or less in line with the smoother, mellower sound of their new EP. (DBW)

Joni Mitchell, NYC, 1 November 1998
In 1998 Mitchell played her longest tour since 1983, and for many a fan (myself included) who'd never seen her live, this show was mandatory. But unlike her touring partner Bob Dylan, she doesn't act like her living legend status relieves her of the obligation to deliver an entertaining show: she played a great deal of 70s material, including a few hits ("Big Yellow Taxi," "Free Man In Paris") and more album tracks ("Harry's House," "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," "Just Like This Train"). She's even performing a couple of covers: Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" and the Billy Holiday standard "Comes Love," and only one tune from her just-released Taming The Tiger ("Crazy Cries Of Love"). Mitchell performed a few tunes solo; most were with her band (Brian Blades on drums, Larry Klein on bass, Chris Botti on trumpet and Greg Liesz on second guitar). Four big factors that may impede your enjoyment of the show: 1. Her voice is a distant echo of its former self, necessitating lots of melody changes and making those long drawn-out notes at the end of verses a thing of the past. 2. The computerized electric guitar she uses in every song to obviate the need for retuning narrows the gap between quiet acoustic numbers and footstomping singalongs: it's all neither here nor there. 3. Co-headlining with Dylan, her set was only about 75 minutes long. 4. Perhaps worst of all, in such large venues there's no intimacy: she's more distant and inaccessible on stage than when you're listening to her records at home. (DBW)

Janelle Monáe, NYC 18 September 2010
I didn't want to write a review about the opening act blowing the headliner off the stage... so I left before of Montreal's set. (The joke was on me, though, when she emerged at the end of the evening for some Michael Jackson covers.) Janelle Monáe has so many more tools than any other performer of her generation it's almost unfair to compare her to anyone else: yes, you could picture Christina Aguilera singing that stripped-down "Smile," or Immortal Technique spitting "Dance Or Die"'s high-concept couplets, but surely not the other way around. Though many of her strategies are familiar - the James Brown cape ploy; descending into the audience during an encore ("Come Alive"); strobe lights and video screens - they're rendered flawlessly, and backed by solid musicianship. Similarly, the arrangements stuck close to the album versions (backing vocals in particular were suspiciously identical) but her three-piece band - especially the drummer, though guitarist Kellindo got all the solos - teased out new wrinkles as they went along. Though she skipped many of ArchAndroid's best tracks - "Oh Maker"; "Say You'll Go" - it hardly mattered, as her stage presence and conviction sold every song she did play ("Mushrooms & Roses"). The weakest part of the show was the intermittently appearing backup dancers, who skulked around the stage in a random assortment of odd costumes - gas mask here; nun's habit there - in an unwelcome distraction from the intensity of Monae's performance. Too bad the two guys in the crowd rocking homages to Monáe's coiffure weren't invited up. (DBW)

Mother's Finest, NYC, 16 January 2011
Mother's Finest is far from the only doggedly touring, long-out-of-the-limelight 70s band, but they're one of the few that sounds as good as they ever did - if not better. They've assembled four members of their classic lineup, and at least three of them are performing at peak levels (Glenn Murdock didn't seem quite up to par). Wyzard kept a masterful groove on bass, and frontwoman Joyce Kennedy had her charisma, crowd-pleasing patter, and vocal prowess - though she said she was having a harder time getting the notes out than she used to, it wasn't audible to me - in perfect working order. I wasn't a big fan of Gary "Moses Mo" Moore's work on his first tour of duty, but he made a convert of me, with ferocious solos, tasty rhythm playing, and loose-limbed dance moves. Rounding out the quintet were a second guitarist and Kennedy's son on drums, who kept an admirable pocket: he's a candidate for the drum chair in the Second-Generation All-Star Band. With no keyboard player, the band relied on the hardest rocking portion of their catalog (not playing "Give You All The Love," let alone "Love Changes," though they did slow things down for "Thank You For The Love"). The set list covered plenty of 70s material ("Give It Up," "Baby Love") with a healthy helping of recent stuff ("Flat On My Back") and a couple of covers: "Rock Me Baby" (appropriately, since the show was at B.B. King's) and an encore of "The Train Kept A-Rollin." Whatever the source, though, each song had so much energy and enthusiasm the audience was enraptured. Opener The Funky Knights played jokey, tongue-in-cheek funk which was nearly unbearable, until their bizarrely spot-on cover of Vanity 6's "Nasty Girl" nearly redeemed the whole enterprise. (DBW)

The Music of Prince at Carnegie Hall, NYC, 7 March 2013
More a roast than a tribute, this charity event seemed almost designed to offend the honoree by ignoring his post-1987 output, focusing on his now-disowned salacious material (Bilal's over-the-top "Sister"; spoken word bits by Sandra Bernhard and Chris Rock) and featuring artists who've squabbled with Prince in the past: Elvis Costello, still miffed at being barred from covering "Pop Life," crooned the 1982 outtake "Moonbeam Levels"; half of The Family, performing as fDeluxe due to Purple legal action, ran through "High Fashion" and "Mutiny" as Susannah Melvoin strutted the stage as if possessed by Steven Tyler. Most of the evening's reinventions fell flat (Kat Edmonson's Depressive Pixie "The Beautiful Ones"; Bhi Bhiman's affectless "When Doves Cry," wasting his magnificent voice) - though Diane Birch's countrified "Raspberry Beret" vocal (backing Booker T.) was splendid - making the best performances the ones closest to the original recordings: Talib Kweli's "Annie Christian"; The Waterboys' "Purple Rain"; D'Angelo's closing "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night"/"1999." So you might say Prince had the last laugh. (DBW)

NG La Banda, NYC, 22 July 1997
NG La Banda finally made its US debut because of complications related to the US embargo of Cuba, but they'd been a big hit at music festivals all over the world, and they have their act figured out: the same monster grooves, precision arrangements and jazz-based soloing as on their albums, plus a team of hot (male) dancers and hilarious, breathless, frequently incomprehensible patter from the leader, José Luis Cortés. They have a huge repertoire, and when playing in Cuba usually debut new compositions, but this time they stuck with big hits from 1993 or earlier, except for a tossoff rock and roller, and an extended instrumental that was the foundation for excellent solos from Cortés and sax player Rolando Pérez. The arrangements stuck very close to the album versions (except for Feliciano Arango on bass, who played what amounted to nonstop solos), and the concert was short (a little over an hour, not counting the opening act), but it was consistently exciting - they work hard up there. They'd better, if they want to stay ahead of the competition in Havana: opening act Bamboleo didn't have soloists to compare to the headliner, but their arrangements were even more surprising and challenging, two of their lead singers (Haila Mompie and Vannia Borges) are terrific, and they rocked a concert hall full of people who'd mostly never even heard of them before. (DBW)

NRBQ, Santa Barbara, 19 April 2002
A manic, hard-rocking show that played to the band's middle-aged cult following. Johnny Spampinato's savage, Eddie Cochran-style roots rock guitar work energized louder numbers like "Wild Weekend," and bassist Joey Spampinato's vulnerable, regular-guy vocals added just enough sincerity to their old-timey ballads. But the band's self-consciously juvenile prankster antics were distracting, if audacious. Drummer Tommy Ardolino's creepy rendering of the theme from "Welcome Back Kotter" was downright demented, and Terry Adams was so busy with his spastic, Jerry Lee Lewis-style posturing that his clavinet and piano parts ended up sounding disconnected. At one point Ardolino and Adams even whipped out ventriloquist dolls made up to look like themselves, and they led the group in a raucous percussion jam that ended the set. The camp value was significant, but it's not the kind of thing you want to see more than once. The set's brevity and the thin encore also were frustrating. But in concert the group is much louder and more focused on its super-authentic rock 'n' roll, and the Spampinato brothers just ooze professionalism and talent. Opening act the Stiff Pickle Orchestra, a veteran local bar band, dished up an amusing but toothless stew of sedate Dixieland jazz and mannered Delta blues, with some surprisingly anarchic slide guitar being the main attraction. (JA)

Mark O'Connor, John Patitucci & Julian Lage, NYC, 7 January 2010
If you're in the mood to really listen closely to a musical performance, try to catch this free-form, acoustic string trio. (Which is not to say that you can't appreciate their swing and good humor in a casual way.) I can caricature their style by saying they do jazz improvisation on folk/bluegrass melodies, or that O'Connor (violin), Patitucci (bass) and Lage (guitar) each stretch from their comfort zones - bluegrass, post-bop and Django-style folk/jazz respectively - to meet somewhere in the middle. There's some truth in those generalizations, but they don't convey how rigorous and yet joyful the process is, or how the players continually play off each other. Not to mention the rarity that all three principals solo and comp with equal zeal - Lage's often rubato soloing was the least conventional, but all three were astoundingly inventive. Plus, all the extemporaneousness didn't overshadow the compositions, which were full of unexpected turns and flourishes; the only tune I recognized was the ancient "Arkansas Traveler" (which you may know as "Bringing Home A Baby Bumblebee"). (DBW)

Opeth, NYC, 26 May 2009
I approach rock and roll (and everything else, I suppose) from a blues/jazz standpoint, so I expect pockets of improvisation and day-to-day variations depending on where a band is at, but I'm finally starting to get the idea that European metal bands have an approach that's more like classical music: The compositions are the compositions, solos included; the musicianship comes through in how they play and sing the written notes; and the audience is there to experience that rather than hear something being created on the fly. On those terms, Opeth does a heck of a job: Mikael Åkerfeldt does everything from clean singing to death grunts to lead guitar to folk picking; drummer Martin Axenrot rolls adeptly through the barrage of time signatures and mood changes; the whole band careens through one ten-minute song after another without losing intensity. The set list included too many songs from the current release for my taste ("The Lotus Eater"), and they played the obscure "Karma" rather than a crowdpleaser like "Deliverance," but they did bust out goodies like "Godhead's Lament" and "Wreath," and the crowd energy sold me somewhat on the new stuff. The crowd was split between enraptured devotees and standard-issue metal fans: though both groups headbanged during the loud parts, the metalheads stood around confused during the quiet segments while the Opeth fans clapped along (albeit usually out of time). I only saw half of opener Enslaved's set, but based on that - and one listen to their 2008 disc Vertebrae - they seem to be reaching for the same combination of power and subtlety as Opeth, but without the precise touch and ear for melody to make it work. (DBW)

Eddie Palmieri Octet, NYC, 7 July 1996
After more than thirty years in the business, Palmieri is a known quantity: you know he'll have top-flight musicians, you know he'll play swinging jazz-inflected salsa with plenty of room for soloing, you know he'll play mind-blowing, idiosyncratic piano. This time, he was using the jazz horns from Palmas and Arete together with a vocalist, and the combination worked very well; the singer kept the energy level from flagging while the soloists kept the groove from getting tired. Most of the tunes were very old ("Qué Lindo Yambu," "Muñeca"), with one instrumental from Arete. I heard that this was Palmieri's best show in quite some time - to me he sounded like standard Eddie, not at his most inspired, but still riveting. (DBW)

The Pixies, Santa Barbara, 24 October 2004
It's weird, you'd think you'd gotten in a time machine and landed in the George H. W. Bush era. The audience was dominated by twentysomethings instead of people who would have been twentysomethings back in the day, and more than a decade after breaking up, the band sounds much the same as it does on record: extremely heavy, very well rehearsed, and somewhat tuneless, with Frank Black's dark, twisted, often obscene lyrics and Kim Deal's repetitive, simple, and hard rocking bass lines setting them apart. Lead guitarist Joey Santiago has some chops, but he was often content to dish out squalling feedback tweaked with digital delay, even taking a long "solo" in which he propped his instrument on a stand and simply played with pedals while it throbbed. About half the tunes were straightforward punk and the rest were loud rock songs with unexpected structures and arresting dynamics. I'm not sure the punk songs really helped: they have minimal structure, they all kind of sound the same, they don't make much use of Santiago, and Black's raging, monotone vocals obscure his range. They really did better with the down-tempo stuff, which has good dynamics, shows Black to be an authoritative singer, and works especially well when Deal sings counterpoint - her creepy, girlish voice is really compelling. The tour is a must-see if you can still recite the band's lyrics, like half the audience seemed to do. Dublin's the Thrills, the opening act, came off like J Mascis singing with a generic 70s soft rock band. Keyboard-driven and excessively polite - thanking the audience after every song - the band features two utterly ordinary, strumming rhythm/bass guitarists, doesn't have a soloist, sings pretty but minimal harmonies, and crafts accessible but lightweight tunes with dull romance lyrics. I can't fathom why contemporary rock audiences are excited by their pre-punk sound. (JA)

The Posies, West Hollywood, 9 July 2001
A rock and roll epiphany: dayglow-crowned Ken Stringfellow spits and thrashes and bashes in classic Who style; angel-voiced Jon Auer works the guitar-god act with comparative cool, downing shots of tequila, busting strings, and dripping beads of sweat; ear-blasting distortion and feedback ring out in waves; brand-new bassist Matt Harris amiably rides along, a deer in the headlights; the crowd throbs and bobs and chants PO-sies, PO-sies, forcing the group back on stage for a second and even third encore. The frontman duo seems immortal, doling out 22 tunes that prove their five-album catalog to be a goldmine - they knock off "Dream All Day" as their second number, blow off "Golden Blunders," hardly even touch their excellent fifth album Success, pay no price for shoving in a couple of weak songs from their new EP ("Matinee"; "Chainsmoking In The USA"), pull off Big Star co-founder Chris Bell's "I Am The Cosmos" so well it sounds like an original, and even save "Everybody Is A Fucking Liar" and "Different Door" for the second encore. Drummer Darius Minwalla is no Brian Young, but he's good; and the piles of effect pedals, distorted open tunings, and long crazy solos are like nothing on record - "Coming Right Along" in a quarter-hour or so, I guess! The best show of anything I've ever seen - long live rock. Opening act the Actual, a solid Hüsker Dü-influenced hard rock band, is generic but promising; the group's frontman Matt is a huge Posies fan himself, though that's hard to hear. Second on the bill was vain, tedious wimp rocker Anna Waronker, a must miss. (JA)

, NYC, 13 July 1994
How often does a major star do an entire show of new, unreleased material? That's what did here, playing a benefit concert at the Palladium nightclub (where the sound wasn't very good, at least up in the cheap seats where I was). Most of the tunes he played ended up on either Come or the Gold Experience, but at the time they were completely fresh to us and he really threw himself into them: he opened the show with "Gold" and had the place captivated instantly; the still-unreleased funk jam "Days Of Wild" and the somber "Papa" were also highlights. The NPG band members stayed out of the limelight, and the stage setup was minimal; Mayte did some of her trademark dancing in skimpy costumes, but mostly attention was focused on the main attraction. He played a lot of guitar, no keyboards, and didn't talk to the audience much. Guests included Nona Gaye singing "Love Sign," and both Lenny Kravitz and Vernon Reid sitting in on guitar during the traditional "Mary Don't You Weep" - unfortunately, Reid was inaudible. (DBW)

, Jones Beach, 23 July 1997
He may keep changing his name, but he's finally gotten comfortable with his relationship to his back catalog: rather than the rote tossoff of previous hits he's done before, the skinnier-than-ever MF plunged enthusiastically into a few of his biggest singles, plus neglected album tracks and even a B-side. He did all the high-energy tricks from the 80s - spins, splits, screams, humping the piano - but with a new relaxed attitude, as if he's finally enjoying it. He got in several striking guitar solos, one keyboard solo, and an extended bass workout on "Face Down," one of half a dozen tunes he played from Emancipation. The band was solid, with Rhonda Smith shining on bass, and Rev. Mike Scott adding nice lead guitar touches to several tracks, though the band's solo feature ("Do Me Baby") wasn't a high point. Of the nine shows I saw him give from 1986 to 2002 - none of which were bad or even mediocre - the shows from this tour were the best, and judging from the crowd's reaction, I'm not the only one who felt that way. (DBW)

Prince, NYC, 9 April 2002
Absurdly overpriced, but brilliant: Prince is looser and more upbeat than ever, which took the preachiness out of songs from his latest spiritual rebirth LP, The Rainbow Children, and still newer material like the anti-Abraham Lincoln "Avalanche." He blew off all his hits except for "Raspberry Beret," "Purple Rain" and a snippet of "Diamonds And Pearls," relying instead on fan favorite album cuts - "Adore," "Strange Relationship," "The Other Side Of The Pillow" - and covers: "Love Rollercoaster," "A Case Of You," "Sing A Simple Song" highlighted by a Larry Graham walk-on. With Prince handling all the guitar parts, Maceo Parker and Greg Boyer on horns, and new keyboardist Renato Neto adding a bizarre mix of sounds and styles, it's the most musical Prince show I've seen. And that's my only criticism: he was so focused on playing, he didn't have time for any of the splits, microphone juggling or running around the stage that used to make his live performances so exciting. I assume that's a conscious choice, since he certainly has the energy for a more physical show: the same night of the concert he played a ninety-minute soundcheck and a two-hour aftershow, both of which were outstanding. (DBW)

ProjeKt Two, Washington, D.C., 1 May 1998
The most disappointing concert I've ever seen. "ProjeKt Two" is a King Crimson spinoff that features both of the band's leaders (guitarists Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp) and none of its strengths. The show was a $25, one-hour, no-opening act ripoff that made the Bruford-Levin tour seem like a bargain by comparison: if Bruford and Levin were like a race car going in circles, ProjeKt Two was like a blind man driving a bulldozer through a shopping mall. In a bizarre act of self-indulgence, Belew played electronic drums throughout the two half-hour sets, abandoning his usual guitar and vocals - there wasn't even a microphone on the stage. The group not only eschewed Crimson hits in favor of lengthy improvisations, but refused to play anything resembling a solid tune; most of the ten-minute pieces were cacophonous and inscrutably atonal. Belew's quirky palette of synthesized percussion sounds failed to conceal the fact that he's just not a first-rate drummer, even though the drums were his first instrument. Fripp tossed off speedy riffs and hauled out one startling synth effect after another, but his playing was utterly abstract; and stick maestro Trey Gunn soloed almost continuously, taking on none of the responsibility for keeping down the rhythm. Things were a little better during the second set, with a couple of down-tempo pieces that had some haunting beauty; and the band really seemed to enjoy its free-form jamming (especially Belew). But any fans who claim to have enjoyed the whole thing must be kidding themselves. (JA)

The Red Chord, South Hackensack, NJ, 12 March 2010
Weirdly enough, the band behind 2009's best record is playing a package tour hitting places like the School of Rock East in South Hackensack - moreover, they're sharing top billing. The venue had the size and ambiance of a high school gymnasium, which seemed to match the age of most of the attendees, many of whom were more interested in scoping out the moshers than the bands. Local openers Dr. Acula played tongue-in-cheek nü metal you might call "kandy Korn," while Those Who Lie Beneath's deathcore and Chelsea Grin's metalcore foreshadowed the two headliners. The Red Chord has standardized on short hair and beards, looking a bit like bodybuilding yeshiva students, and their between-song demeanor can border on goofy, but once the music starts they're all brutal, brain-battering business. Since the band's downsized to a single guitarist, "Gunface" McKenzie uses a loop pedal to capture a rhythm track he can solo over later; usually I'd consider that a crutch, but because their songs switch gears so often, it probably raises the degree of difficulty, and either way the heaviness of the sound came through in spades. They careened through their four-album catalog in an intense set that packed more music than you'd think possible into thirty-five minutes; even so, the short duration was my only gripe. In the past I've lived to regret leaving shows before the closer came on (I left after Living Colour but before Soul Asylum in 1988, and after Sun Ra but before Sonic Youth in 1992) but I split before Christian metalcorers MyChildren MyBride. (DBW)

Lou Reed, Washington, D.C., 13 August 1998
Some people just can't seem to get used to being rock icons. Lou Reed's Velvet Underground catalogue is so strong that he could have filled out his set with it, and ditto for his early 70s solo work. But this time around the audience had to settle for exactly two Underground tunes: Reed opened with a drab rendering of "Sweet Jane" and closed the encore with "Pale Blue Eyes." In between he offered just a few 70s numbers, not even bothering with his biggest hit ("Wild Side"). Most of these oldies were subjected to dramatic rearrangements that mutilated the huge hooks Reed used to be so good at writing, and only occasionally added genuine musical interest ("Vicious"; "Satellite Of Love"). Not surprisingly, the rest of the set dwelled on obscure and second-rate 70s, 80s and 90s material ("Kicks"). 1996's Twilight Reeling got more than its due; "Egg Cream" was worth hearing live, but the title track and other selections ("Hang On To Your Emotions") weren't. Reed's voice and guitar playing were as impressive as ever, and his veteran band (Mike Rathke, rhythm guitar; Fernando Saunders, bass; Tony "Thunder" Smith, drums) played nearly hard enough to bust their instruments. But none of them dared to risk upstaging Reed's grinding hard rock hooks with hints of melodicism or flashes of virtuoso bravura. You can't deny a world-famous artiste his right to experiment, but for nearly $30 I was hoping there would be a bit more entertainment value. (JA)

Kurt Rosenwinkel Quintet, NYC, 31 August 2017 (early set)
Rosenwinkel is a jazz musician's jazz musician, which is not always a compliment: In his quest to advance the art form, he eschews the harmonic cliches of bebop, the freedom of modal jazz, and the R&B-based pleasures of fusion, instead piling up unrelated chords and inscrutable melody with abandon, often in unusual time signatures ("Jacky's Place," ostensibly in 5/4 though it sounded more complicated). So it's hard to understand and even harder to play, but will you enjoy listening to it? Personally I can hear the structure but I don't feel it: it's rather like listening to a professor lecturing in a language I've never heard before. All that goes double for tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, who has an enviable technique, no matter how good your technique is, but roughly 99% of the time I have no idea what he's trying to do. Assuming the fault lies in my lack of erudition, I still object to guitarists who make their instrument sound like a synthesizer - not even a synthesizer should sound like a synthesizer - which Rosenwinkel did on two of the five tunes, while "Chico And Harriet" meandered inexcusably in a medium-slow tempo at a medium-soft volume. The rhythm section each took one old-fashioned solo that took the audience with them - they either didn't completely buy into the aesthetic, or simply took pity on us. (DBW)

Rush, NYC, 18 August 2004
Rush has covered a lot of territory in the past thirty years, and they want you to know it: every era gets its due on this tour, from 70s prog through 80s synth through 90s retro rock... I think 1989's Presto was the only album they didn't hit. As a consequence, they skipped a number of radio hits like "Distant Early Warning" and "Closer To The Heart"; the audience didn't seem to mind, but did reserve its biggest reactions for full-length, note-for-note renditions of 70s extravaganzas like "Xanadu" and "La Villa Strangiato." Geddy Lee is a relaxed, cheerful and enthusiastic frontman, bouncing around the stage like a skinny bass-playing marionette, and his endearingly weak voice is a welcome respite from the band's imposing technical perfection. Lifeson didn't move much but displayed extraordinary brand disloyalty, switching all night among Les Pauls, SGs (one a doubleneck), Paul Reed Smiths and a Telecaster. But let's face it: the crowd, seemingly all drummers, was there to see Neil Peart, and his lengthy solo was followed with rapt attention. For some reason they also covered some 60s rockers, none of which particularly suit the band's strengths (Lee's no replacement for Roger Daltrey on "The Seeker"), and I'm sure most of the crowd would rather have heard "Freewill" or "Fly By Night" or even "I Think I'm Going Bald." But when three guys in their fifties play their fingers off for three hours, it doesn't seem right to complain about what they didn't play. (DBW)

Salt-N-Pepa, Newark, 20 February 2011
Legends of Hip hop isn't the first hip hop nostalgia tour, but it is the first one I've seen, and yes, it did make me feel old: other than a snippet of DMX's "Party Up (Up In Here)" all the music was from the pre-Tupac era, and NJPAC's high culture setting - complete with tuxedo-clad ushers - intensified the "unfrozen caveman" feeling. And I would have rather heard more from the headliners and less from the hypemen and DJs. But within those limits the show succeeded: Salt and Pepa (Spin' stayed in Dallas where she's working as a radio personality) were in high spirits, and gamely ran through most of their hits ("Shake Your Thang") with just a couple of detours (a verse from "Sucker MCs"). Salt's born-again churchliness - presumably the reason "None Of Your Business" and "Let's Talk About Sex" weren't on the set list - led to some amusing clashes with Pep, who maintains her former sex-positive stance: Salt testified about marriage and sticking through the tough times before bringing out her husband; Pep then proudly proclaimed her single mother status before introducing her ex, Treach; the kids came out as well and everyone performed "Whatta Man." (Treach then brought out Naughty By Nature compatriot Vin Rock to run through a couple of tunes, which was entertaining but weirdly timed.) The tour is opened by a rotating cast of old-school rappers; due to a commuter transit issue I missed Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee (on the bright side, I now know how to walk from Harrison to Newark). Doug E. Fresh wasted about 90% of his stage time with cheap pop culture coasting (having us sing the theme to The Jeffersons, "Conjunction Junction," and such) before unleashing his still-phenomenal beat boxing, after Kurtis Blow showed us how it's done with a lean set delivering showmanship, humor and classic tunes ("The Breaks"). (DBW)

Sleater-Kinney, NYC, 22 May 2000
You can tell the band plays terrific, economical rock tunes with intriguing, thoughtful lyrics just by picking up any of their albums, but you have to see them in concert to find out how much fun they have doing it. Lead guitarist/second vocalist Carrie Brownstein broke into a huge smile every time she saw the mostly young crowd go wild on the floor (which happened on every single song), and she's also perfected the art of jumping up and down completely out of time with the music she's playing. Lead vocalist/rhythm guitar Corin Tucker is more low-key but no less intense, spitting out lyrical challenges or cooing sweet melodies, though her stage show is limited to an occasional eye roll, a knowing smile and (on "Milkshake And Honey") a little hip grinding. Janet Weiss stuck to her drums except for some backing vocals - her adorable black bangs were pinned back, but I guess I'm not supposed to mention stuff like that. On this tour they're playing most of their current release (All Hands On The Bad One) together with the best-known tunes from previous albums ("Call The Doctor," "Words And Guitar"), with the slowest tune in the set being a midtempo cover of the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," and the adrenaline was exhilarating. For twelve bucks this was a great value, though there were no real surprises and the show ran barely an hour, not counting the two enjoyable opening acts. Arkansans-turned-Washingtonians The Gossip had manic energy and rag-tag outcast appeal, from the Buddy Holly-but-nerdier guitarist to the gold hoop earring-wearing, bosom-heaving frontwoman to the bassist who never picked up her instrument, preferring to dance spasmodically through the band's battery of 90-second garage rockers. The three-piece Butchies, up from Durham, have a remarkably charismatic lead singer/guitarist, Kaia Wilson, who made Cris Williamson's "Shooting Star" rock, and the cocky confidence that screams "rock star," while drummer Alison Martlew won over the crowd with a poetic recitation of Journey's "Faithfully." (DBW)

Sleater-Kinney, NYC, 27 February 2015
It hasn't really been fifteen years since I saw S-K - somehow I never reviewed the shows I saw in 2002 and 2006 - but it has been a while, and not only does the recently reformed unit show no sign of rust or irrelevance, they're actually performing better than ever. Brownstein still does the high kicks and the Pete Townshend windmill, but she's added a panoply of other rock star moves - plus, while jamming on "Let's Call It Love" she got remarkable mileage out of the "steel drums" sound all of us have on our guitar multieffects boxes but none of us can use musically. The occasional presence of keyboardist/guitarist/percussionist Kate Harkin freed up Tucker to perform lead singer theatrics on "Gimme Love." Weiss was already perfect, of course, but her combination of power and crispness - not to mention her backing vocals and, on "Modern Girl," harmonica - is even more effortless-sounding and smooth. As usual, the band is playing almost all of their new album - every band should do this, because if your new songs aren't good enough to play live you shouldn't put them on the record - and a changing assortment of old hits ("Get Up"; "Turn It On"; "Entertain")... The night I went they only played one song from All Hands ("Youth Decay") but I was lucky to get two from the oft-neglected Call The Doctor ("Good Things"). Almost uniquely, Sleater-Kinney never asks the crowd to sing or clap along, put their hands in the air, buy the new album or visit the merch table - they know we're all going to do those things anyway. It's another sign of their confidence that they aren't afraid of being upstaged by phenomenal opener Lizzo, whose rapping, singing and everything in between (backed by DJ/hypeperson Sophia Eris and a drummer) captivated the crowd as she rocked most of her debut LIZZOBANGERS - tossing baked goods into the audience on the hit "Batches & Cookies," cute as it was, is the kind of gimmick performers fall back on when they don't have Lizzo's skills. (DBW)

Slipknot, NYC, 5 February 2009
Well, now I understand why Slipknot has nine people in the band: while the lineup is redundant on record, on stage it gives them enough personnel to whip the crowd into a frenzy without messing up their hypnotic, thudding brand of metal. The guitarists, keyboardist and real drummer (Joey Jordison) mostly stay put, banging out the low-end riffs and pulsing rhythms, while the two auxiliary drummers and DJ spent most of their time clambering around the post-industrial stage set, running into the audience, and generally causing a ruckus. Frontman Corey Taylor tied both of these subgroups together, criss-crossing the stage and riling up the crowd while also directing the musicians and switching between rapped vocals, singing and screaming as the situation warranted. The setlist reached back to their 1999 debut but relied heavily on their top-selling 2008 release - though I didn't much care for the album, I was sold on the songs in concert, which is about as good a recommendation for a live act as you can ask for. And the band deserves credit for bringing along two quality support acts: though neither sounds anything like Slipknot, both Trivium and Coheed & Cambria delivered solid sets and managed not to get eaten alive by the impatient, relatively surly crowd. (DBW)

Sonic Youth, West Hollywood, 24 July 2000
Now that it's been two decades since anything in rock music could conceivably be surprising, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Sonic Youth has cycled back to predictable, relentless high-volume avant gardism. I was half-expecting them to have mellowed out even more in their creaky old age. Not. Making it seem like it was still the mid-80s when I saw them last, they spent more time painting aural landscapes with waves of electronic noise than they did delivering anything resembling a tune. They performed almost all of their latest album (NYC Ghosts & Flowers) and little else. It's just another record for them: when they rock out drummer Steve Shelly usually fabricates a solid, danceable beat; their chiming, dissonant piles of guitar riffs are entrancing; and although I don't get much out of any of the vocals - Kim Gordon's disturbingly girlish punk delivery is as good as they get - at least the lyrics are plenty bizarre. The band was also clearly having a lot of fun, with de facto leader Thurston Moore improvising some mutual bashing of guitar fretboards at one point. But over and over again they got sucked up in those ear-splitting, aimless, marathon feedback experiments. Maybe I'm deaf or something despite my careful use of earplugs, but I also don't hear a big difference now that they've added third guitarist, bassist, and electronic squiggler Jim O'Rourke - except that he frees Gordon to play guitar on some tunes (she sounds just like Moore and Lee Ranaldo, who incidentally got in a couple of remarkably normal-sounding vocals). The worst part, though, was the blindness-inducing light show, consisting of unpredictable high beams aimed straight at the audience. If I'd wanted to spend a couple hours staring at oncoming traffic I'd have driven up and down I-10 during rush hour instead. The opening act was a dull, unoriginal beat poetry-meets-art rock combo that sounded like Captain Beefheart devoid of any particular humor or musical ability. (JA)

Sonic Youth, Brooklyn, 12 August 2011
Celebrating their 30th anniversary at the Williamsburg Waterfront, SY were even more comfortable with themselves than usual. They dredged up lots of early 80s tunes ("Kill Yr Idols"; "Death Valley '69"; "Men Are Running"), got current with three tunes from 2009's The Eternal ("Sacred Trickster"), and still saved room for crowdpleasers from their commercial peak: "Eric's Trip"; "Drunken Butterfly"; "Sugar Kane." (They generally avoided the Jim O'Rourke years, which was fine by me.) Along the way, Lee and Thurston delivered their usual guitar-bashing craziness, with drumsticks, screwdrivers, and even - during a frenetic "Flower" - a waterbottle, which exploded its contents all over Moore; Kim Gordon occasionally abandoned her axe to twirl at center stage as if she were Stevie Nicks. Mark Ibold and Steve Shelley looked on with serene smiles, as if they were just enjoying the spectacle rather than anchoring it. Two opening acts demonstrated different aspects of the headliner's legacy: Kurt Vile's turgid, urgent drones validated the continuing appeal of the cooler-than-thou urban outsider; Wild Flag - as keyboardist Rebecca Cole increasingly integrates herself into their already formidable sound - showed you can work any kind of music you care about into an indie show, and have fun doing it. (DBW) (DBW)

Sly & The Family Stone, NYC, 7 December 2007 (first show)
Sly Stone has been called many things over the years, but "consummate professional" isn't one of them. Known for sporadic concert attendance even during his early 70s heyday, he spent the next thirty-some years in virtual isolation and only reformed a touring band late this year. At the first of two scheduled shows on this date, Stone appeared late, left the stage a few times, and finally vanished after a forty-minute set, leaving his shocked and confused bandmates to work up a shambling, twenty-minute encore on their own (including an instrumental take on "In Time" and back to back renditions of "Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin" and "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa"). The musicians themselves were not exactly tight - the guitarist mangled Freddie Stone's lead on the opening "Dance To The Music," while the bassist (who was very sharp on his instrument) had nothing approaching the bass vocal range for the Larry Graham parts he essayed - and only Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini represented the classic Family Stone lineup. So from a value for money perspective, the show was an overpriced fiasco, and much of the crowd was grumbling or booing as they headed for the exits. I wouldn't have missed it for the world, though... I'd never dreamed that I would get the chance to see Sly onstage, and I was glad to pay him back a little for the many hours of joy his music has given me. Plus, when Stone was actually performing he was magical: his richly expressive voice was unchanged, in both high and low registers, and his troubles only added resonance to lines like "To stay here I've got to be me" and "All I have to hold on to is a simple song at last." By the time "Everybody Is A Star" came around, he was nowhere to be found. Out of the great artists of my lifetime, Sly Stone is certainly the one who got the least out of his talent, but does that mean he let us down, or that we let him down? Both? Neither? (DBW)

Richard Thompson, Santa Barbara, 22 January 1999
Thirty bucks? To hear some old geezer sing a bunch of folk songs and bang away on an acoustic guitar? It was worth every penny. Any fan already knows about Thompson's amazing guitar work, rich song catalog, and venomous vocals. But you've got to see him live to appreciate his baffling chord progressions, his elaborate picking technique, and his biting standup shtick, with the barbs most often being hurled right back at the audience. Despite his reputation for egotism, he delivered a solid, professional set: a couple of Richard & Linda standards (an interestingly rearranged "Shoot Out The Lights"; "Wall Of Death"), one old Denny/Fairport number ("Genesis Hall"), several songs from his upcoming album that's due out in May ("Sights And Sounds Of London Town"; "The New Me"; "Long Miles Home"; "Bathsheba Smiles"), and a lot of stuff from the 1990s ("I Misunderstood"; "I Feel So Good"; "God Loves A Drunk"; "The Ghost Of You Walks"; "Razor Dance"; and the crowd pleasers "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and "Jimmy Shands"). Oddly, he mostly ignored his recent collaboration with Danny Thompson, his 80s solo records (apart from "Two Left Feet"), and 1994's Mirror Blue (apart from "Beeswing"). And playing without a band made it difficult for him to take extended guitar solos or replicate the rich arrangements on his 1990s albums. But all of the material was strong, and seeing an artist of this stature without any distractions is something not to be missed. The two openers both did the same kind of acoustic solo folk thing: Barbara Cohen displayed a powerful voice, but Ana Egge proceeded to blow her away with emotional subtlety, folksy humor, impressive guitar work, and great songwriting. (JA)

Richard Thompson, Santa Barbara, 15 March 2000
On tour to promote Mock Tudor, Thompson brought along most of his current group (son Teddy was off recording a solo album). He's certainly much different in a band setting, indulging in lengthy, adventurous, and often head-banging electric guitar solos. Meanwhile, the sidemen were well-worth hearing on their own: drummer Michael Jerome was intelligent, powerful, and one of maybe three black people anywhere in the building; acoustic bassist Danny Thompson took only a couple of solos but dished out a remarkable, Jimmy Page-like bowed part on "Ghost In The Wind"; and Pete Zorn stole the show, switching off on acoustic guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, bass flute, baritone sax, alto sax, sopranino sax, penny whistle, percussion, and backing vocals. The lack of an opening act probably helped, leaving enough time for 16 tunes plus a generous six-song encore. But Thompson's choice of material was iffy: nothing from the Fairport era, a handful of 90s numbers ("The Ghost Of You Walks"; "Put It There Pal"; "1952 Vincent Black Lightning"), several from the mid-80s ("Tear Stained Letter"; "Valerie"; "Al Bowlly"), a few predictable Richard & Linda tunes ("A Man In Need"; "Wall Of Death" "Bright Lights Tonight"; a solo acoustic "Dimming Of The Day"), and an exhausting eight of Mock Tudor's 12 tracks, excluding "The New Me" and including pedestrian stuff like "Uninhabited Man" and "Cooksferry Queen." Worse still, some Mock Tudor songs were diluted by the full band arrangements ("Bathsheba Smiles"; "Walking The Long Miles Home"). Thompson's unreleased comic relief cover tune "Hamlet" was a nice distraction, his enormous stylistic range and devastating virtuosity were well-displayed, and you can't argue with (say) his current single "Crawl Back" or eternal favorites like "I Feel So Good." But a writer with such a great catalogue could have indulged the audience a bit more than this. (JA)

Richard Thompson, Santa Barbara, 18 September 2004
Hey, it's not my fault there's nothing to do around here other than see Richard Thompson shows. Every four years. Another solo acoustic performance, with the first half concentrating on newer material I mostly could have done without (I think "Watch Me Go" and the hysterical, not-quite-finished "Hots For The Smarts" are unrecorded; not sure what the dull "Far Away On The Rolling Sea" is; Mock Tudor's "Bathsheba Smiles," "Crawl Back," and "Cooksferry Queen"; Old Kit Bag's "Outside Of The Inside" and "A Love You Can't Survive"). A couple older tunes were pleasant surprises (Amnesia's "Waltzing's For Dreamers" and "Pharoah" ;"Crazy Man Michael," unfortunately the only Fairport tune). But when he finally started taking requests the selections were things I'd seen him do before ("1952 Vincent Black Lightning"; "Wall Of Death"; "Don't Sit On My Jimmy Shands"; "Beeswing"; "I Feel So Good"), except for "Hokey Pokey," which didn't do much for me; the still unreleased "Hamlet"; and the heart-rending "Cold Kisses." And the encore was weak, with vocalist Judith Owen coming on to provide dull, distracting harmonies on the poor Kit Bag tracks "One Door Opens" and "Sight Unseen" and another song I think is called "Words Are Still In My Heart," despite wowing the crowd with a completely incongruous diva performance of the jazz standard "Cry Me A River." Thompson's chordal soloing, array of tunings, propulsive picking, and from-the-gut vocals were as impressive as ever, but I think he's hit a dry stretch. Opening act Brian Joseph, another acoustic singer-songwriter who brought along a female backing vocalist and a country lead guitarist with a cool Gretsch, seemed only quasi-professional compared to Thompson, but delivered some humorous, entertaining lyrics that completely won over the audience. (JA)

Glenn Tilbrook, Washington, D.C., 16 September 1997
Oh to be a friendly, humble, well-adjusted rock star. I wasn't expecting much from Squeeze front man Glenn Tilbrook, but by the end of the unaccompanied, all-acoustic evening he'd won me over with disarming patter, impeccably good taste, better-than-expected guitar ability, and a near-total lack of ego; he invited the audience to sing backups and suggest tunes, and even had a starry-eyed, mandolin-playing fan join him on stage. He did deliver a bunch of Squeeze standards ("Annie Get Your Gun," "Up The Junction," "Some Fantasic Place"; but not "Black Coffee," "Pulling Mussels," "Cool For Cats," or "Hourglass"). But the real focus was covers, ranging from the Hollies ("King Midas In Reverse") to Oasis ("Wonderwall"). He pulled off a very credible "Voodoo Chile/Angel" medley, and "Daydream Believer" took him strolling through the small club's enthusiastic crowd. Not to mention sweet renditions of "And I Love Her" and "Sunny Afternoon." Despite being a relaxed "gift to the fans" performance, Tilbrook's raw talent made it worthwhile for the uninitiated. And the contrast with 80s contemporaries like INXS couldn't have been greater. Opener Nick Harper displayed awe-inspiring guitar technique, solid song-writing ability, and a piercing tenor, which nearly matches Tilbrook's. His set was too short, but he did join Tilbrook for a few numbers later on in the evening. (JA)

Trouble Funk, Washington, D.C., 6 July 2013
Big Tony Fisher pulled out all the stops at Trouble Funk's 35th anniversary show at the Howard Theatre, bringing back nearly all the group's original members, programming a lean set of the band's greatest hits ("Don't Touch That Radio"), opening with a one-song dance set from alter egos "Tilt"... He even busted a bass string, prompting a jam that was the evening's loosest moment. Original drummer Emmett Nixon and percussionist "Tee Bone" David may not have the stamina they once did (stepping aside for current players L.T. and Geronimo after fifteen minutes or so) but had as much punch as ever; guitarist Chester Davis held a rhythm guitar clinic while continually working the stage. (James Avery's keyboards were inaudible for most of the evening, the one disappointment.) And while only a couple of songs were unfamiliar to the skewing-older-but-not-as-much-as-I-expected crowd, Derrick Ward's sung vocals added color. Because go-go has traditionally brought in material from a variety of sources, it's easy to forget that Trouble Funk always wrote most of their own material, and for just over two hours they rolled out one masterpiece after another: they pumped us up, they took some time out to get close to the ladies, they put that thing in fourth gear, they told us 'bout the number three, they said "What?!," they got small, and you better believe they dropped the bomb. (DBW)

Wayne Tucker, NYC 15 January 2011
I caught Tucker's pianoless quintet because I wanted to hear tenor Roxy Coss, but the self-effacing trumpeter - he credited other musicians for inspiring each composition, and used his between-song time to promote his bandmates and friends rather than himself - is worth checking out on his own merits. Tucker's music is omnivorous post-bop, drawing on jazz history as well as idioms from around the world (the final song, the name of which I didn't catch, was inspired by Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen). His songs are rich, usually using a porous multipart structure to incorporate a range of feelings, slipping easily from pockets of improvisation to ensemble passages, from dramatic flourishes to subtle contemplation ("Journey To Mordor"). Coss and guitarist Tom Larsen emulated the leader as they rode the shifts, playing with fire or calm insistence as the occasion demanded. My only complaint was that they had to leave so soon to make way for the next act, but I credit Tutuma Social Club for making their modestly sized room open to new music in the first place. (DBW)

tUnE-yArDs, New York City, 19 September 2011
Purely on a technical level, what Merrill Garbus does at a tUnE-yArDs show is impressive: She starts each song by recording drum parts and harmony vocals - rapidly layering three flawless vocals on top of each other, in most cases - with loop pedals, then manipulating the pedals while playing ukelele and singing lead, supported only by a bass player and (at times) two saxophones, to navigate through complex arrangements. While that kind of virtuosity can sometimes lead to sterile performances, this small-venue appearance was anything but: Garbus swept through the emotionally varied material with as much authenticity as command, giving the impression that she does so much of the playing as an inevitable consequence of inhabiting the song material so wholly. It helps that she's an uncannily good songwriter - I think she played every single tune from W H O K I L L (in addition to earlier work like "Fiya"), and I was happy to hear each one - with a phenomenally adaptable voice. Instrumental guitar/sax/drums (and sometimes organ) trio The Suite Unraveling opened; their long tunes based on a succession of simple grooves are pretty weak, honestly... Kenny G gets deservedly mocked for poor intonation and relying on cheap melodic figures (remember "Songbird"?) - I see no reason to cut these folks slack for the same faults on "indie" grounds. (DBW)

McCoy Tyner Trio featuring Pharoah Sanders, New York City, 24 September 2006
Everyone should have the Blue Note experience some time: the most famous jazz artists in the world play there, on a small stage right in the midst of an enraptured crowd of jazz freaks and tourists. An integral part of the Blue Note experience is getting ripped off, which is one reason I hadn't been there in twenty years, but I hadn't seen Tyner in almost as long, and I wasn't about to miss him paying tribute to John Coltrane with fellow Trane sideman Pharoah Sanders sitting in on tenor sax. Sanders has moved sharply toward the jazz mainstream and away from the avant-garde squawking he focused on forty years ago, and he did a fine job of sounding like Trane when stating the opening and closing themes ("Naima") though his solos were generally unimpressive. I couldn't hear Tyner as well as I wanted to, because we were seated on the other side of the stage behind drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt, but his percussive chording and dramatic approach were as vigorous as ever - only his weak voice betrayed a recent illness. Bassist Charnett Moffett stole the show, playing heady vamps and unexpected accents with constant manic energy, and pulled out all the stops on an extended solo during "Mr. P.C." that featured bow and even a wah-wah pedal. Anyway, despite the positives, I did get ripped off, as the band left the stage after playing for barely an hour. I don't know if you're supposed to tip on the full amount including the $45 music fee, but I did: after all, I only have the Blue Note experience once every twenty years, might as well make the most of it. (DBW)

War, Washington, D.C., 30 August 1997
War was the last great 70s group I ever expected to see turned into a one-man show; they'd always been a communal effort. But singer/keyboardist Lonnie Jordan has his act down so thoroughly that it hardly matters. A series of skit-like song intros mostly worked, including an able demonstration that Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" was ripped off from "Slipping Into Darkness"; and the six-piece band was energetic, hard-hitting, and immaculately practiced. Plus Jordan knows his audience; almost the entire set list was dominated by classics like "Me And My Baby Brother," "Low Rider," "The World Is A Ghetto," "Spill The Wine," "Summer," and of course "Why Can't We Be Friends." The veterans weren't too much missed thanks to the presence of harmonica pro Tetsuya Nakamura, a first-rate flautist/sax player, an entertaining, dreadlocked "bassist" who played his lines on synth, and an extraordinary young Brazilian guitarist who got in some fluid rock solos. I even enjoyed the obligatory percussion and drum solos. Still, though, the entire event had the artificial air of a nostalgic musical documentary. Opening act EU, one of DC's legendary go-go bands, was a total disappointment; they sleep-walked through self-described old hits and lacked any original members other than singer/bassist Sugarbear, who indulged in some egotistical and distracting monologues. (JA)
I saw the same gig and agree with Alroy: I love EU, but they put on one weak show, and War was fun if not revelatory. (DBW)

Paul Weller, San Francisco, 8 February 2003
Paul Weller has toured for two decades without drawing on the remarkable catalogue he wrote for the Jam. Recently, though, he's started including some Jam tunes in his set, which I suppose has helped ticket sales. Unfortunately, this time he delivered just enough Jam songs to prove how much he's gone down hill, but not enough to keep the audience really engaged: a groggy but effective "In The Crowd," a punchy and pointed "That's Entertainment," and a set-ending, sing-along "Town Called Malice." The rest of the proceedings were unimpressive, although the band rocked hard on punkish numbers like "Peacock Suit" - there was hardly any sentimental balladry or faux jazz a la the Style Council, and indeed most of the tunes were from his last few records. In the end, though, hardly any of the new stuff was really accessible, with the few exceptions including "Can You Heal Us (Holy Man)," from 1993's Wild Wood. At least he gets credit for professionalism and showmanship - he switched Gibsons constantly and also made use of acoustic guitar, keyboards, percussion, and cigarettes (whenever the drummer took a solo). Opening act Mellowdrone was basically a one-man-band, plus a drummer who sat in for the set's second half. The schtick was vaguely Radiohead-like lead vocals and guitar over looped techno-ish drums, rhythm guitars, and backing vocals, technically impressive but not unique - J Mascis does the same thing - and musically marginal, with unfocused songwriting. (JA)

Wild Flag, Brooklyn, 5 March 2011
A Pacific Northwest indie supergroup, formed from 2/3 of Sleater-Kinney (Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss) and Helium jefa Mary Timony, plus Rebecca Cole (The Minders) on keyboards and backing vocals. The result is the full-band rock and roll sound that Brownstein probably always wanted: while the space jams were my least favorite part of S-K's repertoire, they work a lot better with Timony's lead guitar theatrics in the mix (the driving setcloser "Racehorse"). Though neither Brownstein nor Timony is a dynamite vocalist, the band works within their limitations: strong main themes are embellished with crafty breaks ("Arabesque"), winning backing harmonies, and endless good cheer. Most of the standout tunes are Brownstein's (though Timony's quasi-psychedelic gumdrop "Glass Tamborine" is a blast), which may eventually be a source of tension in a band they functionally co-lead. Opener Yellow Fever is a duo from Texas whose detached, awkward demeanor sugarcoats terrifyingly precise songcraft, prickly guitar lines and smoky, soulful vocals - all of which comes across better live than on their latest EP. (DBW)

Holly Near & Cris Williamson, NYC, 26 April 2002
Holly Near is the archetypal commie folkie - achingly sincere, frequently sanctimonious - who most people either love or hate. I'm somewhere in the middle - her voice is quite nice, she doesn't write many songs but she chooses well, and she does have a sense of humor - but it was frustrating to have her consuming so much stage time at the expense of a major talent. Accompanied by pianist John Bucchino, Near frequently verged into lounge lizard territory (Cole Porter's "Our Love Is Here To Stay"), and she stuck around for a greatest hits medley with Williamson that made the latter's solo set seem a bit anticlimactic, particularly because the only songs the crowd seemed familiar with were from lesbian-indie blockbuster Changer And The Changed. Still, Williamson's voice was commanding, her voice richer and more flexible than ever. She mixed material from her brilliant new release Ashes with a couple of 80s obscurities ("Peter Pan") and providing amusing commentary on each tune. However, she avoided anything resembling a rock number, either because there was no band or because she was afraid to ruffle the audience's composure, which meant there was nothing to contrast against the stately piano ballads ("Cry Cry Cry"). Maybe my expectations were just too high, but I think she's capable of a much more exhilarating performance - if I get the opportunity to see her again, I'll take it. (DBW)

Cris Williamson, Montclair, NJ, 27 May 2005
Touring on her own, at the low-key Outpost In The Burbs, Williamson is much more approachable - I walked right past her on the staircase en route to my seat, and she stuck around after the show to sign autographs and chat - and relaxed than she'd been in 2002. Williamson performed about half of her middling 2005 release Real Deal ("True Story/True Blue"), and livened up the material with audience participation and amusing, entertaining monologues introducing each tune... sometimes the introductions got so long I wasn't sure if I was watching a singer or a stand-up comic. She also dug some chestnuts out of her back catalog ("Blue Rider"; "The John Deere Song") including just one song each from Changer ("Waterfall") and Ashes (title tune). Williamson was in fine voice throughout, vigorous on piano ("Strange Paradise"), competent-plus on guitar, and I can't rate her on the three-string, banjo-sounding "strumstick" ("Mercy") because I've never heard anyone else play the thing. Opener Vickie Russell is a singer/songwriter with a strong voice and a sound recalling early 70s Joni Mitchell (particularly with James Krueger adding some Jaco-style bass), but her refrains were obvious and she miscalculated by starting the set with her strongest melody, "Sunset In Aberdeen," leaving her nowhere to go but down. (DBW)

Brian Wilson, Santa Barbara, 22 September 2000
Like a Disneyland of rock, Brian Wilson's nostalgia-drenched live act was almost perfectly tailored to the fifty-something, 99% white, well-heeled Southern California crowd. And just three days before I'd been practically the oldest guy in a sold-out mob of Moby fans... The Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra opened with a superfluous and irritatingly rushed half-hour instrumental Beach Boys medley - I'm not surprised that Van Dyke Parks arranged it - and everything was up hill from there. Backed by an expanded ten-piece lineup of the Wondermints (a pop rock band with a separate career), Wilson started with a 45 minute set that authenticated his reputation as a songwriting genius. He jammed in an amusing opening tune (the Barenaked Ladies' goofy "Brian Wilson"), a cover of Phil Spector's "Be My Baby" (Wilson's favorite song), some newish material ("Lay Down Burden"; "Your Imagination"), some forgotten late-60s marvels ("Add Some Music To Your Day"; "'Til I Die"; "Darlin'"), and of course a few mid-60s classics ("In My Room"; "Please Let Me Wonder"; "Kiss Me Baby"; "California Girls"). The orchestra then returned to fill out an almost creepily exact recreation of the entire Pet Sounds album, followed by three encores: "Good Vibrations," also precisely performed; a mini-set of surf rockers ("Surfer Girl"; "Help Me Rhonda"; "Barbara Ann"; "All Summer Long"; "Do It Again"; "Surfin' USA"; "Fun, Fun, Fun"); and the appropriately hymn-like, feel-good anthem "Love And Mercy." Wilson needed help from band leader/second guitarist Jeff Foskett on the higher falsetto parts ("God Only Knows"); he mostly hid behind a keyboard he didn't actually play; and he occasionally missed a lyric, ran out of breath, or just seemed to zone out. But those are all quibbles; his voice was surprisingly strong ("Caroline No") and he was cheerful, funny, and obviously excited by the attention. Few artists in rock approach Brian Wilson's stature, and it's a privilege to still be able to see him perform so sharply in the year 2000. (JA)

Wing, San Francisco, 21 August 2007
You've heard Wing's online clips, you've seen her on South Park, but you're wondering: can she pull it off live? After catching the only stop on her Wing Over America tour, I can assure you the answer is "Yes." She recreated the unusual note choices ("I Want To Hold Your Hand"), timing ("In The Ghetto"), warble ("Hell's Bells")... the whole package. The appreciative crowd was riveted from first note to last, thanks to her gracious stage presence. The set list, which Wing very politely announced in advance, hit most of the high points of her recording career (her outré version of "Make It Happen"), though it might have been nice to have a little less AC/DC and one more show tune. After her fifty-minute set, she stuck around for autographs and pictures with her adoring "Wing Nuts," who are no doubt hoping she won't leave them waiting as long for a return engagement. I've never liked the concept of a comic opening for the singer, but the opener (a last-minute replacement) put over her generally familiar material thanks to a genial delivery. (DBW)

Stevie Wonder, NYC, 24 January 1995
For his first US tour since 1988 (I think), Stevie took his usual band (bass, guitar, two keyboards, drums and percussion) plus vocal group For Real on backups, and a full orchestra. The orchestral arrangements were clever and unobtrusive, and Stevie was in very high spirits, making a lot of jokes, doing funny voices, etc. The set list was basically the same as the show documented on Natural Wonder, plus one a capella number featuring the backing vocalists. No break, no intermission, no encore. My only complaint was that Wonder hardly played his harmonica, except on the ballad "Ribbon In The Sky." His audiences really love him in a way I've never experienced with any other performer - it creates an incredible warm atmosphere. If you're a fan, you definitely owe it to yourself to see him live. (DBW)
I've seen Stevie live twice, and the man has hardly lost a step over the years. The bad news is that wherever you see him, you'll be lucky to see him, because he draws such massive audiences and surrounds himself with so many superfluous backing musicians. (JA)

Stevie Wonder, NYC, 17 November 2007
The fourth time I've seen Wonder live, and somehow he's gotten better each time. The "Wonder Autumn Night" tour - a tribute to his recently deceased mother - focuses on the almost flawless early 70s period (six tunes from Innervisions; five from Songs In) with only a couple of earlier ("My Cherie Amour") and later ("Overjoyed") songs. So nothing new from a composition standpoint, but Wonder kept it fresh with an audience participation bit on "Ribbon In The Sky," and a partially improvised vocoder set in which he briefly covered "Give Up The Funk," "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" and "We Are Family." His voice was terrific, his stories were funny, and his sermons (particularly during an extended "Visions") were moving. Bassist Nathan Watts was the only familiar name among the eight players, but they were sharp - the lead guitarist distinguished himself with a couple of highly technical solos - and kept a nice balance between loose and tight; backing vocals came from longtime associates Keith John and Kimberly Brewer plus Wonder's eldest daughter Aisha (who dueted on "Love's In Need Of Love Today" and "How Will I Know"). I was already getting the feeling that this was the best show I'd ever seen before Wonder brought out an astonishing assortment of guests: Tony Bennett performed a duet version of "For Once In My Life"; a young blues harp player came out for a spectacular dueling harmonica solo on "Boogie On Reggae Woman"; and Prince brought down the house adding guitar to "Superstition." I would have loved a few more overlooked tunes - though it was great to hear "Too High" and "Lately" - but that's like complaining about a sunset because you were hoping for more purple. (DBW)

Neil Young with Beck, Santa Barbara, 28 September 2000
An amazingly overpriced show, with Young again proving that he hasn't lost any energy or talent as a performer, but not making much of a case for his songwriting over the past two decades - of the newish tunes, only the romantic "Harvest Moon" really stood out. You'd expect him to mix assorted 70s hits with a short set from his latest album. But the record seems weak (the lame, nostalgic single "Buffalo Springfield Again"; the lyrically uninspired country-western ballad "Daddy Went Walkin"; the disjointed "Razor Love"); a couple of unreleased songs should stay that way (the corny blues-rocker "Fool For Your Love"; "Bad Fog Of Loneliness"); and he jammed mercilessly on key tunes like "Words (Between The Line Of Age)," the creepy set-closer "Tonight's The Night," and especially the ear-shattering 20-minute "Cowgirl In The Sand," which demonstrated the difference between volume and excitement. Elsewhere, he often dragged out minor stuff from albums like Tonight's The Night ("World On A String"; the dull encore capper "Mellow My Mind"). At least there were solid selections from After The Goldrush ("I Believe In You"; "Don't Let It Bring You Down") and the late 70s ("Motorcycle Mama," slightly marred by the screeching shared lead vocals of sister Astrid and wife Peggy; "Powderfinger"; "Walk On"). And an enthusiastic CSNY's "Helpless" was a nice touch. The all-star band of Spooner Oldham, Duck Dunn, and Jim Keltner mostly stayed out of the way, although wizened slide/rhythm guitarist Ben Keith was fine. Beck opened with a 35-minute set of monotonous cowboy tunes that failed to satisfy either his own fans or Young's inattentive and narrow-minded Boomers. Keyboard player/drummer Jon Brion was inaudible, the lead guitarist just noodled, and a bassist was the only other player. At least Beck's closer "Nobody's Fault But My Own" was twice as arresting as anything Young did. (JA)

Enough of this ranting. Take me back to the records.

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