Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Patti Smith Fascinates, Intrigues, Uplifts Austin - Stubb's, 4/30/13

For the past 40 years, Patti Smith has been the essence of the rock icon, and punk rock icon more specifically. She naturally fell into the perfect job for her - she doesn't pay a second of thought to what others think, while at the same time sharing her incredibly poetic, personal music with the world, a dichotomy which only serves to amp up the power of the messages in her music.

Patti's live show is the definition of simplicity and old school rock: there are absolutely no visuals on display (unless you count Patti's darting, witchy eyes), and she doesn't need opening act. This was one of the few shows on the Stubb's outdoor stage I've seen that was actually not sold out, which created a refreshing amount of personal space in the venue, while still buzzing with diehard fans. A line formed an hour prior to doors as concert-goers hoped to secure a spot mere feet away from the songstress herself.

While Patti doesn't tour often, she hasn't been gone from Austin for too long. Her show with long-time guitarist/pianist Tony Shanahan at the Paramount in October 2012, which featured acoustic songs along with passages from her acclaimed book, Just Kids, was a transcendental affair, so you can bet Austin was excited to have her back for a full-band show.

At Stubb's, she didn't disappoint, delivering a 20-song tour de force set filled with classics such as "Redondo Beach" and the always amazing "Pissing in a River." Four selections from her latest album Banga also received a warm reception, with "This is the Girl" making the most impact (her tribute to Amy Winehouse). She took a moment to honor the memory of recently-deceased legend George Jones, requesting a minute of pure silence before launching into a stellar version of "Beneath the Southern Cross."

The audience even got a CBGB-era anecdote about hanging out in the alley of the legendary rock club with Tom Verlaine of Television and seeing UFOs, which served as the introduction to the rarely-played "Distant Fingers," a song which she claimed Shanahan blackmailed her into playing at the show.

Ms. Smith's voice only seems to improve with age. While she may seem more reserved now than in her early New York days, her years of wisdom have brought an interesting mix of levity and gravity to her deeper vocals. She also has an excellent band backing her up. Lead guitarist Lenny Kaye took the reins mid-set for an energetic medley of covers that pushed the energy level in the venue to the next level.

Patti was beaming throughout the entire show. She seemed to be enjoying every moment of playing for her fans, not going through the motions. In a music scene completely inundated with up-and-coming artists dying to make a name for themselves - and willing to sell-out to the next car company for some exposure (even Iggy Pop is doing insurance commercials) - it's utterly satisfying to be able to enjoy a timeless artist such as Patti who refuses to compromise brilliance in any way.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Elton John - Live at Toyota Center in Houston, 3/28/13

Elton John is one of those acts that I just had to see while he is still touring and going strong. His catalog is the definition of classic piano-based rock, his songs have weaved their way into the fabric of American music, and he still receives rave reviews for his live show despite his ripe age of 66. Elton's Thursday night show in Houston was the only Texas date to be announced, so I didn't think twice about the 340-mile round-trip drive to the show on a weeknight. It was completely worth every penny and ounce of exhaustion.

The 'Madman Across the Water' hit the stage ten minutes after 8pm, and he barely stopped for a drink of water until he finished impressing Houston after nearly three hours of non-stop hits. Elton's voice has grown deeper over the years, and he's not quite as visually dynamic as you might see in some of his television performances from the 70s. None of this matters.

In fact, the argument could be made that Elton's current vocals are stronger and better suited to his songs than ever before. His nimble piano playing demonstrated that he's not slowing down or letting his age get the best of him (at least 25% of the shots on the big screens were close-ups of Elton's fingers), and his flawless band and four female backup singers provided further support in the energy department.

The Houston crowd showed Elton a lot of love in between songs, but I've never been to an arena concert where I felt the majority of the crowd was as uninterested in having a good time as at this show. There's something seriously wrong when Elton John and his band are jamming out to 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' and only one out of every ten people on the arena floor is standing up and/or singing along. Chalk it up to aging boomers perhaps, but seriously, do they not have enough energy to stand up for more than an hour? I honestly felt bad for Elton. He deserves so much more from his fans.

  1. The Bitch Is Back
  2. Bennie and the Jets
  3. Grey Seal
  4. Levon
  5. Tiny Dancer
  6. Holiday Inn
  7. Believe
  8. Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
  9. Philadelphia Freedom
  10. Candle in the Wind
  11. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
  12. Rocket Man 
  13. Hey Ahab
  14. I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
  15. Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
  16. Take Me to the Pilot
  17. All The Young Girls Love Alice
  18. Sad Songs (Say So Much)
  19. Daniel
  20. Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
  21. The One
  22. Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
  23. I'm Still Standing
  24. Crocodile Rock
  25. Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting

  26. Your Song

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Green Day @ SXSW, ACL Live 3/15/13

Green Day
has been through a lot lately. Drugs, alcohol, in-concert breakdowns, rehab...but you can read about that elsewhere. This post is about their comeback show at SXSW Music on March 15th at ACL Live in Austin after 6 months off, and it turned out to be a hugely successful and triumphant return for the band.

The high-energy vibe in the venue was visible as opening band Stickup Kid got the crowd pumped up for the main course. By the time Billie Joe Armstrong hit the stage with Green Day, I was happy to be safely in a front mezzanine seat, because the general admission floor immediately turned into a frenzied bouncehouse. I've been to dozens of shows at ACL Live, and this was the first mosh pit (actually, more than one) I've seen there.

The band opened with "99 Revolutions" and kept the knob turned up to 10 for most of the two-hour show. From start to finish, Billie and company had the crowd in the palms of their hands, eating up every moment - and Billie was beaming the entire time, clearly ecstatic to be back in business. He was also extremely playful with the crowd, blasting them with a water pistol, t-shirts, and toilet paper. To be honest, many of their songs start to sound very similar after a while, and they don't deviate from a few basic templates. I wouldn't really call any member of Green Day particularly impressive with their instrument. But this show made it clear to me precisely what makes Green Day special; it's definitely their ability to engage, pump, and energize a crowd nonstop. My concert partner deemed it his favorite show of the year so far. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the crowd felt that way, too.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sound City Players at SXSW - Final Performance, Live at Stubb's, 3/14/13

Other than Prince, this year's official main SXSW Music attraction was Dave Grohl. The former drummer of Nirvana and leader of Foo Fighters, Grohl was invited to give the keynote speech during the Music portion of SXSW, joining such rock icons as Bruce Springsteen, Robert Plant, and Smokey Robinson. Not only did Grohl give a great speech, but he also brought his most recent music project, Sound City Players, to an exclusive show at Stubb's that featured Grohl on guitar and drums for over 3 hours as he paid tribute to music history. The show included seven sets that each showcased one or more musicians in a roller coaster of genres.

This was definitely a special show: the Sound City Players project is probably short-lived and has only included a handful of performances in small venues. The SXSW show is likely the last one, according to Rolling Stone. 

Starting the show off with an engaging performance by The Meat Puppets was an excellent choice by Grohl, as the aging rockers included in their set the several songs of theirs that were featured in Nirvana's unbelievable Unplugged performance, such as 'Lake of Fire'. It was a good night to arrive early, because both The Meat Puppets and Sound City Players started their sets around 30 minutes earlier than had been announced on the schedule, leading to a much earlier finish time (midnight) than we expected (2 am) - always a nice surprise on a weeknight of a multi-day festival.

Grohl came out and gave a short introduction into the purpose of the show, which was inspired by the Sound City documentary he produced that details the history of the famous California recording studio, before launching into a rocking set with Alain Johannes of Queens of the Stone Age with some killer guitar solos.

The obvious highlight of the show came sooner than expected, as Stevie Nicks' set was moved from its prior position as the final set to the second slot of the show, surprising more than a few huge fans who were really there to see her. I'll be the first to admit I am a huge Nicks fan, so I'm biased here, but her mere presence seemed to take the show to another level. Her hit-filled set produced the most sing-alongs, including a beautiful duet of the classic duet 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around' with Grohl on Petty's part, and a show-stopping, full band blowout of 'Gold Dust Woman' to finish her set.

Anticipated sets by John Fogerty and Rick Springfield met the mark, but did not deliver much of anything particularly memorable, other than a 2 minute guitar solo by Fogerty and a solid 'Proud Mary'. The strangest performances of the night featured Lee Ving of Fear, which may not have been the best fit for this crowd, though I suppose you could say he pulled off what he set out to accomplish.

Major props to Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters for his flawless drum work across the evening, and even letting himself be pulled in to a duet of Cheap Trick's hit 'I Want You to Want Me', with Corey Taylor of Slipknot (with Rick Nielsen on guitar, of course). This alone explains the "cool" factor that transcended the entire show. And the ribbon that tied it all together was the pure joy Grohl was experiencing on that stage with all of his guests.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Muse @ Toyota Center in Houston, 3/12/13

Muse's tour supporting their most recent album, The 2nd Law, has been mostly a success to this point. During a tour of a couple dozen European markets in the winter, Muse announced they would be bringing the tour to North American shores in 2013, to much excitement from their fans.

The shows have been earning rave reviews, not only for the band's incredible stage with a moving and constantly contorting "pyramid" of LED panels, but also for their spectacular musicianship, showmanship, and energy. They brought it all to Toyota Center in Houston last Tuesday, March 12, 2013 to what seemed to be a nearly sold out crowd. The floor was packed full of devotees who would show their love for their band with an all-out sing-along to Time is Running Out.

This was my second Muse show, as I was about 50 feet from the stage for their 2010 headlining set at Austin City Limits Festival. While that show featured perhaps a stronger connection with the crowd, this tour proved that Muse is truly a global class act when it comes to shiny, pretty things on stage. Guitars were lit up with LEDs. Lyrics flashed across lead singer Matthew Bellamy's sunglasses at one point, reminiscent of a stock ticker. These are things you don't see every day. It's frankly impossible to be bored at a Muse concert. Just wait 30 seconds and something interesting will light up, implode, or shoot out of a cannon.

That being said, they've earned their fair share of criticism for the direction the band has taken with the last two albums. Playing with direct references to Queen-like bravado (United States of Eurasia), classical music (Exogenesis: Symphony), and oh-so-of-the-moment dubstep (The 2nd Law: Unsustainable), Muse continues to question its own sound, while at the same time defining and pushing it further into something unique. Perhaps it's the fusion of all their influences that will continue to make the band interesting in the years ahead. Regardless, any Muse song translates better live in concert, whether we're talking about an old classic, a rarity, or a new wordless abstract piece. They've learned to walk a very fine line of performance grandiosity and clearly-visible talent.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Mary J Blige @ Moody Theater, 2/27/13

Mary J Blige. The mere mention of her name brings many things to mind. She was a popular radio presence 10-20 years ago, at times. She had a hard early life involving a runaway father and sexual abuse. She's frequently included in all-star tributes to other artists on television. But most of all, she's arguably the last great soul/R&B diva. And Mary put that diva-tude on full display at the Moody Theater at ACL Live last Wednesday, Feb. 27th.

Right from the start, Mary kicked things off with high energy. Taking the stage in an all-white outfit and black knee-high boots, Mary was all over the stage for the entire night, and the crowd ate up every moment. An early 'Family Affair' got almost everyone singing along with Mary, something she ate up for most of the night. At one point, she showed off her pipes by slowing things down and singing while sitting still for a couple songs.

However, it's Mary's ability to fuse her innate performer magnetism with true emotion full of sorrow, heartache, challenge, and regret, that makes her a special artist. Standing just feet in front of Mary, I found myself constantly trying to stop smiling in sheer joy of what I was witnessing, and display a connection with the emotion she was laying out all over the stage. At times, she looked like she was about to break into tears. But then the song would end, the crowd would go absolutely mad, and she'd be beaming once again.

At an abrupt 75 minutes, including a one-song encore, the show was a dazzling display of talent, if a bit too compacted. I guarantee that everyone left the building that evening fully impressed, though.

Mary J Blige at ACL Live Moody Theater