Monthly Archives: August 2008

Night of the Hunter . . . James Hunter

British soul man James Hunter’s support set for Chris Isaak at Wolf Trap Thursday night was one of the rare occasions when I get dispatched to review an opening act. (No that I count them or anything, but it was my 100th piece for the Paper of Record.) I hadn’t planned on sticking around for Isaak afterwards, but I did and he turned out to be pretty great, too. He had to be, to avoid being upstaged by Hunter. When Isaak took the stage half an hour after Hunter finished, 30 people remained in line at the top of lawn, sans a view of the stage, to have Hunter autograph their merch. Including my girlfriend, who an hour earlier had never heard of the dude. We’d politely declined when offered backstage passes earlier (which has never happened to me before, actually), but then we ended up standing in line, at Miss Crooks’s gentle insistence, to have Hunter sign the CD I bought and, er, the poster she wanted for her office. This spells trouble, methinks. But $10 for a cool Hatch Show Print poster is a bargain. (Isaak, meanwhile, was charging $10 for glossy 8″ x 10″ photos of himself. And people were buying them.)

I’m way too young, obviously, to have seen Mr. Dynamite in his prime, but I’ve seen Sharon Jones a couple of times now, and I bet Hunter could pull that caliber of show as a headliner, no problem. I worried I might suffer a vicarious groin-pull just from watching him dance during his last number, “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Love.” Hunter does look more than a little like a slightly softer version of the famously flexible Belgian martial artist and actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose brief tenure as a star of films that actually got released in cinemas petered out around the same tim Hunter’s career was taking off. And it’s not like you’ve ever seen the two of them together in one place, is it? I mean, if Steven Seagal can have a career in music . . .

James Hunter at Wolf Trap, Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Setlist

01 She’s Got a Way

02 No Smoke Without Fire

03 Baby, Don’t Do It (Five Royales cover)

04 Hand It Over

05 Jacqueline

06 Don’t Do Me No Favours

07 Talkin’ ‘Bout My Love

The Band

Lee Badau — baritone saxophone

Damian Hand — tenor saxphone

Kyle Koehler — keyboards

Jonathan Lee — drums

Jason Wilson — bass

James Hunter — vocals, guitar

Media Mix XVI: Sweet Sledgehammer

A pair of winners this week. Upcoming: Calexico! Michael Franti! Jenny Lewis! Oasis!

Bruce Is Loose

Bruce Springsteen’s handwritten setlist for his show in Richmond last night reveals we were narrowly spared a performance of “Drive All Night,” a strong contender for the worst song Bruce Springsteen has ever put on a an E Street Band album. The Boss disagrees: As he told a sign-waving fan at the start of the hour of encores in that swelled last night’s show to 185 minutes, “We’re all in agreement [“Crush on You”] is the worst song we’ve ever put on a record.” He went on to say he stole the riff from “Car 54, Where Are You?” and that the band definitely didn’t know the song. He huddled with trusted lieutenant “Little” Steven “Silvio Dante” Van Zandt. “There’s no bridge, right?” he asked.

The version of “Crush on You” (sample lyric: “She might be an heiress to Rockefeller / She’s probably a waitress or a bank teller”) that followed was rough and rowdy and glorious, but Bruce’s exchange with the (apparently non-English-speaking) fan who requested it was just as great, so let’s hear some more: “That’s your favorite song?” Jesus. How old are you?”

“Crush on Yoooouuuu!” says the girl cheerfully.

“Yep. How old are you?”

“Crush on yooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuu!”

It was only the most jaw-dropping example of Bruce’s newfound obsequiousness. Since the Magic tour shifted from arenas to (predominantly European) stadiums this year, the show has morphed away from the sober political lament that Bruce brought to the Phone Booth for two nights last November. Last night’s show was nearly an hour longer than either of the two DC appearances, featured only five numbers from Magic despite its Springsteenian-of-old duration. Twenty-eight songs, something like a quarter of them actually selected by the audience, via those signs: “Stand on It.” “Cadillac Ranch.” “Backstreets.” “I’ll Work for Your Love.” “Crush on You.” “Quarter to Three.” And “Rosalita,” though he appears to have been playing that one already this leg. But still!

I’ve read that Bruce has sometimes become visibly irritated by the presence of the signs on prior tours, but on this final stretch of the Magic run, they almost seemed to be the show’s raison d’etre. Certainly, there was more life in the unscripted portions of last night’s show than in the segments where Bruce eventually steered it back to the Magic template as established last fall.

Bruce usually begins tours with a specific theme in mind. You can expect most of the new record plus a smattering of catalogue tracks, culled with great care from his back pages to support the thesis advanced by the new material. It usually takes a few weeks for the setlist to start to move around more than five or six songs per night. On the evidence of last night’s largely free-form revue, Bruce seems to think the Magic tour has accomplished its mission. Or at least, he’s said what he wants to say about the decline of American moral authority under the Bush Administration.

Whether his audience has heard him, or wants to hear him, is another matter. Bruce’s rap about the litany of disgraces added to “the American picture” at the beginning of “Livin’ in the Future” last night was definitely the most tired section of the show, and it was hard to divine the sentiment of the audience from the chorus of cheers and boos that greeted Bruce’s editorial. Were they boing him, or booing the concept of indefinite detention without charge? Were they cheering the theoretically lawful, human-rights-respecting principles our country was supposedly founded on (finally extended to black people in the 1960s) at the end of Bruce’s speech, or applauding the fact that he had finished his lecture and was ready to rock again?

The high allowance for spontaneity in last night’s show is the kind of thing I normally praise unequivocally, and it did provide the evening’s most riveting moments. The loosey-goosey vibe was the best and worst thing about the performance, contributing both for its funniest moment (“Crush on You”) and its most moving (“Backstreets”), but also occasionally giving the long set a listless quality. A 13-minute version of “Mary’s Place,” easily my least favorite thing the E Street Band has released since Bruce reconvened them in 1999, was interesting for the way it showed Bruce taking a flagging crowd (one comprised mostly of his contemporaries, whose personal trainers are nowhere near as good as his) and demanding that they up their energy level so he could continue to perform.

“I want to go to that river of life,” he roared in the the preacher-voice he began using on the 1999-2000 reunion tour, though he repeated himself an awful lot, as if trying to remember his lines. “You can’t get there by yourself!” This went on for an awkward minute or three (it was, as I say, a 13-minute version of a song that feels interminable in its six-minute studio take), until Bruce said something that suddenly put everything in context: “If you can’t get there, we can’t get there!”

I remember thinking during the first half that this show probably wouldn’t turn out to be one of the three-hour marathons he’s been playing of late, based on the reticence of the audience. But Bruce roused them from their middle-aged slumber, which was something to see and something to feel.

Other Stuff: I was impressed by the abundance of signs for obscure tunes I saw. “Anything from Steel Mill, PLEASE!” read one. “Incident.” “Roulette.” The sign he picked out for “I’ll Work for Your Love” had “Brilliant Disguise” written on the other side, which I would have much preferred — I love me some Tunnel of Love — but it would be churlish to complain. A lot of these people seem to follow the tour from show to show. Bruce pointed out a “friendly stalker” near the front and asked him how many shows he’d seen. “This tour?” the guy replied. “Nineteen.”

Bruce pulled kids out of the pit to sit with him onstage at least twice. One boy looked like he was about 10 or 11, and he was signing and pumping his fist on whatever song it was. Bruce sent him back to his owners with a one-arm hug and what looked like a kiss on the top of the head, which made the boy freak out the way any 11 year old male would faced with an open display of affection from another dude. Later on, he had a girl up there with him who couldn’t have been much older, and he actually picked her up and handed her back down to her parents (?). Wonder if he’d have done that if Patti were there.

One of the other sign-request numbers Bruce did was Gary “U.S.” Bonds’s “Quarter to Three,” which was a number one Billboard single in June 1961, when Bruce was 11 or 12 years old. So it has the same resonance for him that . . . actually, I have no fucking idea what the equivalent would be for me. Prince’s “Kiss,” maybe? I bought The Joshua Tree and Tunnel of Love when I was 11. Simple, danceable pop? Er, I know I had Bryan Adams’ Reckless on cassette. And the soundtrack to La Bamba, with Los Lobos covering the then-30-year-old titular hit. I had a vinyl copy of George Michael’s Faith that I’d got from a WAVA “The Power Station” giveaway before they went to a Contemporary Christian format, and I knew the singles off that one from MTV, though I don’t think I ever played the record.

Damn. What was the of-its-moment pop confection that charmed my 11-year-old self so much that I might still want to perform it (assuming, you know, I had a band and 15,000 people looking at me) when I was pushing sixty? I’ll have to think about this.

Finally, the Richmond Coliseum, while I thoroughly unimpressive, utilitarian buidling with horrible acoustics, is still a more inviting venue than the Phone Booth in at least one important sense: The relatively paucity of advertising. There’s isn’t a flat surface in the Phone Booth that isn’t smeared with some corporate logo, but the Richmond Coliseum (so named because it’s in Richmond; not because someone paid to give it a meaningless, tell-you-nothing-about-it moniker) has few ads, and they’re mostly for hard-to-object to products and entities, like the Richmond Department of Parks and Recreation.

Finally: I thought I might learn something from seeing The Hold Steady and their obvious inspiration each perform within four nights of each other. But I didn’t, really.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, VA, Monday, August 18, 2008

The Setlist

01 Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
02 Radio Nowhere
03 Out in the Street
04 Prove It All Night
05 Lonesome Day
06 Spirit in the Night
07 Stand on It (fan request via sign)
08 Cadillac Ranch (via sign)
09 Backstreets (another sign – “My band just broke up. Please play ‘Backstreets.'” Bruce does, then remarks during the bridge, “It’s tough when your band breaks up.”)
10 For You (Bruce solo piano)
11 Youngstown
12 Murder, Inc.
13 She’s the One
14 Livin’ in the Future
15 Mary’s Place
16 I’ll Work for Your Love (another sign)
17 The Rising
18 Last to Die
19 Long Walk Home
20 Badlands
21 Crush on You (first performance since 1980; via sign; hilarious)
22 Quarter to Three
23 Born to Run
24 Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
25 Bobby Jean
26 Dancing in the Dark
27 American Land
28 Twist and Shout

The Band

Roy Bittan – piano
Clarence “Big Man” Clemons – sax, tambourine
Charles Giordano – keys
Nils Lofgren – guitar
Garry Tallent – bass
Soozie Tyrell – violin, guitar, vocals
“Little” Steven Van Zandt – guitar
Max Weinberg – drums
Bruce – vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica

That Resurrected Feeling: The Hold Steady @ 9:30

Now’s that‘s a rock and roll show.

The Setlist

01 Constructive Summer
02 You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to Dance With)
03 You Can Make Him Like You
04 Chips Ahoy!
05 Sequestered in Memphis
06 Curves and Nerves
07 Massive Night
08 Party Pit
09 The Swish
10 One for the Cutters
11 Chillout Tent
12 Ask Her for Adderall
13 Girls Like Status
14 Lord, I’m Discouraged
15 Yeah Sapphire
16 Your Little Hoodrat Friend
17 Slapped Actress


18 Stay Positive
19 Stuck Between Stations
20 Southtown Girls
21 Killer Parties


22 How a Resurrection Really Feels


My piece on Maria/Stuart, playwright Jason Grote’s new show at Woolly Mammoth, is in the Weekend section of today’s paper of record. Click on the poster above to read all about it.

Virginal, Mobile, Festive


Spent last weekend at Pimlico covering Virgin Mobile Festival 2008 for DCist, and I have little more to say about the experience than what I’ve already said.

Media Mix XV: Hurts So Badde

Move along, folks, move along. Nothing to hear here.

Reckoning: Gnarls Barkley at the 9:30 Club

Usually when you’re going to see an act with a two-album catalogue, the question of “What will they play?” doesn’t come up. Then again, most acts don’t score a massive hit with a pop-soul confection about the sweet relief of relinquishing your sanity. (Google “Crazy,” “Gnarls Barkley,” “2006,” “ubiquitous.”) Gnarls Barkley — vocalist-shaman Cee-Lo Green and aural scenarist Danger Mouse — dutifully checked off “Crazy” at their sold-out 9:30 Club show Tuesday night, but more exciting was their weirdly faithful cover of Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” a late-inning curve in a strong 75-minute show that otherwise couldn’t help but disappoint a little in its ordinariness.

Good-to-great tunes, performed with verve and emotion? Mos def. But where was the bling? If ever a group cried out for bombast — a Mothership, a Mirrorball Lemon, some eyebrow-singeing pyrotechnics, an 18-foot (or 18 inch) model of Stonehenge — it’s this one. Mix Gnarls’ songbook with Coldplay’s A/V committee and you’d really have something.

Gnarls’ tunes (weighted slightly in favor of The Odd Couple, this year’s worthy sequel to 2006’s St. Elsewhere that’s done only a fraction of the latter’s business) sounded raw and powerful performed (apparently) sample-free by a six-piece band featuring tight-lipped “Grey Album” auteur Danger Mouse on keys. Green’s raspy wail felt even more desperate than on record, the palpable road wear further distressing his grimly infectious ruminations on neurasthenic distemper.

“Surprise” had a sunny New Pornographers vibe, and the energy climbed higher with Violent Femmes’s “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Run.” But longish tween-song pauses sapped momentum. Even Gnarls’ sartorial swagger was muted: Green has been known to perform in Roman solider’s togs or an outsized pompadour wig. But he and Mouse could have been in the Temptations with their spangly sport jackets and gold lame ties.

“In in the mood for some old-fashioned rock and roll” Green squeaked before an angular, crunchy “Whatever.” That described much of the evening’s music, but “Transformer” got a downbeat acoustic re-fit, and the main-set closing “A Little Better” was tricked out with off-kilter syncopation.

It rocked, it rolled, it spooked, it cooed. I just wish it had been, well, crazier. Does that make me, um . . . picky? Prob-bab-bleeeeeeeeeeeeee . . .

A slightly abridged version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

Gnarls Barkley at the 9:30 Club, Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Setlist

01 Charity Case

02 Surprise

03 Gone Daddy Gone

04 Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)

05 Blind Mary

06 Just a Thought

07 Going On

08 Neighbors

09 Whatever

10 Transformer

11 (tune I couldn’t identify; lots of wah-wah pedal)

12 Crazy

13 A Little Better


14 Who’s Gonna Save My Soul

15 Reckoner

16 Smiley Faces

The Band

Were not introduced!

Being There: Jeff Tweedy at Wrigley Field

My dad, a Chicago native, brought me to Wrigley a whole bunch of times when I was growing up. We’d usually go to the Windy City to see my Grandma in late June or early July, and a trip to the Friendly Confines was always on the itinerary. I’ve seen the Cubbies lose to the Pirates, the Padres, the Dodgers, the Phillies. I can’t remember if I ever saw them win.

But when Jeff Tweedy conducts the seventh inning stretch, we all win. I can’t believe he hung out on-air afterwards, and actually appeared to enjoy himself.

More on Coldplay’s Balls

They’re called PufferSpheres, apparently, and they’re made by PufferFish Ltd., a firm in Edinburgh. How do I know? I just got a nice e-mail from PufferFish’s Mr. Ben Allan, thanking me for my kind (and kind of juvenile, though he was nice enough not to mention that) words about his remarkable product. (While my verdict on Coldplay was mixed-to-favorable, my estimation of the vidi-balls was an eleven-point-oh.)

I’d post a photo of one of the vidi-balls in action, but despite all of the picture-takers that David Malitz mentioned in his review in the Paper of Record, I can find only photos of the balls glowing in different colors — none that illustrate their unique video-projection properties. You can check out PufferFish’s site for some quality demo reel.

Mr. Allan continues:

And nice ‘balls’ centred punnery too – something for which we have a particular penchant, but not often the balls to go in for publicly!

No, Mr. Allan, thank you. Your balls were unquestionably the best thing about this most entertaining show.

Coldplay Rock the Balls at the Phone Booth

One strives to avoid the wholly predictable, but sometimes you just can’t stave off the obvious lede that fate fairly dangles above your head:

Coldplay grow some balls.

Coldplay deliver ballsy performance.

Coldplay counter critics with raw ballin.’

Viva la Balls, or Death and All His Balls.

(Okay, so what was your brilliant idea, Mr. Christgau? Coldplay Go Globe-al? Weak.)

Retarded puns unretracted, Coldplay’s sold-out show at the Phone Booth last night was all about the balls — specifically, the half-dozen vaguely ominous, economy-car-sized white orbs that descended from the ceiling like Rover, the high-tech balloon-as-border-fence from the trippy 60s British TV show The Prisoner (stick with me, the most of you who have no fucking clue what I’m talking about) and displayed projected video around all 360 degrees of their surfaces. The balls were definitely the newest, most impressive props in a choreographed-down-to-the-second 85-minute performance. No question, the show was state-of-the-art — “the art,” of course, being that of high-tech stage production rather than songwriting, which has never been Coldplay’s long suit, exactly. Indeed, the Phone Booth show had originally been scheduled for a month earlier, and had to be postponed along with the first segment of the tour due to “production delays” — presumably those balls, since every other high-tech trick in the show, while impressive, was familiar from other visually-inventive tours, particularly those of — all togther now, friends — U2, the band Coldplay is most frequently accused of ripping off.

One thing we can say for sure is that while seeing Coldplay perform live — as with any artist that understands intuitively how to connect with an audience in performance — can only increase your estimation of the band’s merit, it ain’t gonna dissuade anybody who thinks of them as merely the best U2 copyists to come along since Radiohead’s OK Computer-era evolution into something much more unique. (If Coldplay were even the least bit worried about the comparison, they wouldn’t have hired Brian Eno, midwife to all of U2’s most successful albums, to produce their latest, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends — winner of this year’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness award for album title that makes you most want to issue a wedgie to the clown who came up with it.) But the likeness is as palpable onstage as it is on record. Chris Martin, Coldplay’s ebullient, charismatic frontman, comes off as a taller, less garrulous Bono, from his loose-limbed, ecstatically reclined dancing to the way he seems surprised and delighted at but also completely at ease with having thousands of people gape at him. He’s a natural showman.

Coldplay’s set last night went heavy on Viva la Vida material, perfomring the album almost in its entirety, along with half of 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head and a lesser sampling from their first and third albums. They certainly played every Coldplay song I needed to hear, and still managed to wrap up in 85 minutes — not exactly a marathon, especially considering that the top ticket price was $97.50. The show was expertly paced, however. The band performed behind a mesh curtain for the opening instrumental wash of “Life in Technicolor,” then slammed into first single “Violet Hill” as the curtain went up. A giant backdrop of the 1830 Eugene Delacroix painting that forms Vida‘s cover was suspended unnecessarily behind the band. Song 3, “Clocks” — the theme that launched a thousand movie trailers circa 2003-4 — brought the laser cannon barrage, and gave us our first glimpse of the video-testes in action.

Actually, ’twere only a single vidi-ball activated for this number, hung dead center of the arena. As the set continued, five more spheres would float down from black chutes in the rafters — the thought of sitting beneath a giant hen was difficult to avoid. Had all the vidi-balls been pressed into service initially, they could have eliminated the unnecessary and distracting video screen stage backdrop that replaced the album cover with the now-obligatory high-contrast black-and-white video footage of the band performing, which was probably much appreciated by the occupants of the 400-level sets but, closer in, competed distractingly with the the band itself. The video balls were a lot cooler during “Clocks,” when they were a replacement for, rather than a supplement to, traditional big-screen video. The removal of the screen would have allowed CP to sell the seats behind the stage, too.

The mid-floor B-stage was another idea Coldplay recycled to great effect (from U2, yes; at least that’s who Keith Richards says the Rolling Stones stole the idea from) performing a rousing “Chinese Sleep Chant.” Pretty funny title for the hardest-rocking song on the album. Accompanied by more laser fire, it sounded echo-y and ethereal and great, even if was so heavily processed it was impossible to tell if any of it was actually being performed live. Next up was a downbeat, whammy-bar heavy number. For a hopeful second, I thought Coldplay were going to show some Eno-love by covering “Life During Wartime” or something else from those great Talking Heads albums that Eno produced back when I was still in diapers, but no such luck — it was a rearranged, sinister “God Put a Smile on My Face.”

A few minutes later, Chris Martin cut whatever watery piano ballad he was playing abruptly off, saying “That’s enough of that” before slamming into “Yellow,” the dumb-but-difficult-to-resist Y2K anthem that put the world on notice that even with their first album, Coldplay had designs on a hockey rink near you. The sepia-color-wash that accompanied the tune sort of made me think of what Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog would have to say about the show. Even so, events took a distinct upward turn when Martin, after botching an acapella coda to the tune apologized, saying, “Some days I don’t know whether I’m trying to be Johnny Cash or Barry Gibb. I hope in 10 years’ time to have the voice of Johnny Cash and the hair of Barry Gibb.” Yo, Chris: We’ll handle the snarky quips about your voice if you don’t mind, or even if you do. But that was a pretty good one.

After a pounding “Lost!”, the four Coldplay-ers lept from the stage and ran across the floor through the audience, slapping hands while enveloped in beefy security guys. (I know you want to ask, and, yes, I have in fact seen U2 do this, too.) But then they did something I’ve never seen anybody do: They performed a pair of tunes, not quite in the nosebleeds, but from some random seats in the 200 level of the arena almost directly opposite the stage.

“So this is what we’re like up-close,” Martin told the lucky occupants of that section. “Not that impressive, right?” His affable banter broke sharply from Bonodom when he said, “I’m going to stop talking because I’m starting to bore myself.” Then came an acoustic take of “The Scientist, “ followed by “The Goldrush / Death Will Never Conquer,” sung by drummer Will Champion, replete with some comments from Martin about the ineptitude of his own harmonica-playing. Though truth be told, he blows harp at least as skilfully as . . . yeah, why don’t we drop that now.

A video-ball clip of Bill O’Reilly dissing Chris Martin gave way to a sort of geopolitical mash up video while the band made their way back to the main stage to bash out a driving “Politik.” The closing sequence of “Lovers in Japan,’ “Death to All His Friends,” and “The Escapist” was accompanied by a storm of glow-in-the-dark paper butterflies, blown aloft my confetti cannons. Perhaps it wasn’t the vidi-testes, but rather the real buttterflies — feral, carnivorous, ravenous — used in early dress rehearsals, that were to blame for the “production delays.” “Oh, God! Not the eyes!” screamed people all around us as the winged beasties flew their hellish, day-glo sorties. Okay, so I made most of that up, but the paper butterflies were there, and people were screaming, albeit in fits of apparent euphoria.

I did hear a few people grumbling on their way out about the sub-90-minutes performance time. Coldplay have shows booked through the end of the year. Then, presumably, they’ll have to find something to do with the vidi-balls they spent so much cash on. I have a few ideas:

1) Both feature-film and TV remakes of The Prisoner are in the works; the TV version is already in production with Jim “Jesus of Nazareth” Caviezal and Sir Ian “Magneto” McKellen in the two leading roles. The 60s version was pretty successful at making viewers afraid of a growling while balloon, but a growling white balloon that showed its victims live video of Coldplay before devouring them would be both topical and scary.

2) Rumor has it this other band will be touring again next year, one with a reputation for eye-popping live shows, chiming E-chord-driven anthems, and collaborations with Brian Eno. Coldplay has been stealing their sound and their stage tricks for close to a decade now; perhaps that other band would be willing at this point to return the favor. Or at least to give them a decent price for a half-dozen gently used vidi-balls.