Live Review: Joe Pernice, Philadelphia, PA, Aug. 8, 2009

joeperniceliveFor starters, you had to respect Joe Pernice for the degree of difficulty of the tour he is attempting. Working without the safety net of his crack Pernice Brothers cohorts was the least of it. Lots of singer/songwriters do that. But Pernice’s show at Philadelphia’s Tin Angel was advertised as part reading of his new novel and part set of the cover songs he released as a “soundtrack” to accompany the book.

It is with great relief that we report the selections from It Feels So Good When I Stop were entertaining and compelling, both in content and in Pernice’s delivery. There was none of the awkwardness that stifles some author readings or the raging egotism that spoils others. Pernice read with the same keen ear he brings to singing his gorgeous and literate pop songs. He read two sections, both funny and sharply observed. One related a drunken conversation about Hitler’s mustache, the other a fictional (ahem) interaction with Lou Barlow during a gig at Brownie’s in New York.

The best gauge of Pernice’s reading: When he said he was finished reading from the book, none of the 75 or so in attendance cheered in that let’s-get-on-with-the-music tone that would have changed the temperature of the whole performance.

The second part of Pernice’s gamble paid off, as well. You don’t generally go to see a songwriter of Pernice’s caliber to hear him sing other people’s songs, especially oddities like “Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins or Sammy Johns’ ’70s hit “Chevy Van.” But the twist here worked. These are songs that figure in the novel, and they’re in the novel because they affected the author in some profound way during his formative years (mostly).

So it turned out that Pernice playing covers with an acoustic guitar is a wonderful idea. His passion for the songs came through, and they were transformed by his airy, ethereal voice and songwriter’s sense of dynamics. Highlights included Barlow’s “Soul And Fire” and James And Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet” and, yes, Pernice’s heartbreaking take on “Chim Cheree.”

Pernice capped the evening with a short set of his own songs, selected, he said, because they worked best without the lush pop arrangements of the recordings. “Amazing Glow,” “How Can I Compare” and “Pisshole In The Snow” felt more immediate and direct in this setting. And “Bum Leg,” from way back on the Chappaquiddick Skyline album, was a perfect downer of an encore.

There’s no way to know whether Pernice will focus on writing fiction or making records from here on out. This project takes a step in a new direction with the book while standing firmly on familiar ground with the CD. For a night, at least, Pernice made the two pieces fit perfectly.

—Phil Sheridan

Live Review: Count Five, San Jose, CA, Aug. 2, 2009

count_five2Count Five, the San Jose, Calif., garage-rock legends who hit the top of the national charts in 1966 with “Psychotic Reaction,” returned to the scene of past glories at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. An unseasonably temperate 75-degree Sunday in August should have drawn more than the 50 or so curious souls who wandered in to plop down onto plastic patio chairs for a ripping good 90-minute set of ’60s smashes. It was hard to believe this was the same venue that once drew mobs of the faithful for Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin—all at the top of their game—for the Northern California Folk-Rock Festivals of 1968-69. That’s because things have changed dramatically since then.

With its archaic concrete bleachers demolished years ago and dwindling attendance since then, the local county fair pretty much went out of business for a while. Now it’s back on a very scaled-down basis (free admission, free parking), but if the skimpy Sunday-afternoon crowd is an accurate barometer, the basic operation is still on life support. The big chips this weekend were no doubt riding on the success of a Sunday-evening show in a newly opened mini-arena: an all-’80s event that featured Missing Persons, Naked Eyes, A Flock Of Seagulls and Tommy Tutone at $25-$35 a pop.

The jury is still out on that one, but Count Five sounded amazing, playing for a crowd you could have wedged into a 7-Eleven. Harmonica-wielding singer Kenn Ellner has become an even more dynamic entertainer than he was in the band’s early days, now very comfortable with the Keith Relf-like vocals on Yardbirds staples “I’m Not Talking,” “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You.” And the razor-sharp leads of original guitarist John “Mouse” Michalski (who once made American Bandstand‘s Dick Clark smirk, “Yeah, the big guy is always called Mouse,”) is still the closest thing going today to his readily apparent six-string hero, Jeff Beck. Matched with the band’s original bassist, Roy Chaney, the effect is devastating.

Kicking things off with a rousing version of the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” Count Five cherry-picked a superb set of ’60s gems to flesh out their short list of band originals (“The Morning After,” “Double Decker Bus”). Ellner recalled the night the band opened for the Dave Clark Five at San Jose Civic Auditorium, then blew the place up with DC5’s “Glad All Over,” dynamic enough for a ponytailed blond in a pink and lavender sun dress to skip and pirouette in all the right places as she walked by.

Just as ardent, if not quite as winsome, was the shirt-less Charlie Manson look-alike who shook it down in front of the band nonstop, from the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now” to Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right.” Most of the rest of the sedentary crowd managed to get up and shake something to the grand finale, a tree-defoliating runthrough of “Psychotic Reaction.” It’s an anthem that once caused notorious rock writer Lester Bangs to rhapsodize about purchasing Count Five’s only album, then fantasize about a non-existent string of follow-up LPs, detailed in his posthumous, Greil Marcus-edited compendium Psychotic Reaction And Carburetor Dung. You could almost feel the presence of the revered other gonzo journalist this afternoon, rumbling, bumbling and stumbling through the clouds in pure ecstasy.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Mark Eitzel, Philadelphia, PA, July 28, 2009

eitzel350bAs the leader of American Music Club and a solo artist, 50-year-old Mark Eitzel has toured with numerous configurations and players during the past two-plus decades, from a full band to solo with guitar. This night in Philadelphia was the penultimate stop on a small tour mostly confined to the Northeast corridor that featured a new arrangement: just Eitzel and a piano player, Marc Capelle. Billed as “Mark Eitzel Performs American Music Club,” this “kind of a Tony Bennett thing I guess,” as Eitzel wrote on his blog, gave him the freedom to concentrate solely on singing—and his hilarious stage antics. Eitzel has always been a mix of stand-up comic, self-deprecating curmudgeon who constantly apologizes for his “stupid songs” and confident showman. And with just a microphone in his hand, here Eitzel was free to fully indulge in a sad-clown lounge-act persona that fit him well.

Hopping onto the stage at Johnny Brenda’s in a trucker hat and baggy chino pants, a bearded Eitzel fidgeted around the whole set, repeatedly sitting down on a chair, then getting back up again (often during songs), all while alternately beaming to the crowd and shying away. After saying hi, he talked about getting a new career, such as cleaning toilets, but only for “people who are sanitary.” Then, on a dime,  he started singing and sent the crowd from loose laughter to arrested silence with a longing cover of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and his own wrenching “Mission Rock Resort.”

This pattern would happen throughout the show. Eitzel would crack jokes about his life, his age, Roberta Flack, other shows on the tour, former band members, Facebook, and then casually launch into poignant laments such as AMC tunes “Decibels And Little Pills,” “The Thorn In My Side Is Gone” and “Nightwatchman” (Eitzel got choked up at one point during this one) that just inspired awe with their bruised lyrics and Eitzel’s room-filling voice. He may have the most human voice in rock music. It is all of this at once: sad, defiant, wounded, sentimental, understanding, hopeful, resigned. Big as the biggest adjective and commanded with elegantly flawed grace, Eitzel’s voice can make your ears cry. The way he draws out syllables, the way he pulls back from the microphone to sing unamplified and then leans loudly back in. Astonishing.

On a few tunes, including a beautifully rendered “Last Harbor” and one from a musical Eitzel recently wrote with British playwright Simon Stephens, Capelle would start the song and Eitzel would immediately ask him to slow it down. “Slower, slower, slower,” he said at one point, walking over to the keyboard and coaching Capelle’s fingers down to a lilting crawl.

If you have seen Eitzel live, you know he sometimes can’t seem to wait to get off the stage and has a tendency to abort songs and end sets abruptly. On this night, he never seemed to want to leave. After taking a bow together following the main set, Eitzel and Capelle treated the crowd to two encores. The first featured a cheeky reading of “Me And Mrs. Jones” with the “Mrs.” changed to “Mr.” For the second, Eitzel offered a choice of either “Blue And Gray Shirt” or “No Easy Way Down.” The fans shouted competing preferences. So they played both, the piano floating just perfectly, unobtrusively, under that wondrous voice.

—Doug Sell; photo by Lea Bogdan

Live Review: The Weakerthans, San Francisco, CA, July 23, 2009

weakerthansIt doesn’t take long for Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson to size up what kind of a crowd he’s been dealt in San Francisco tonight. When his tongue-in-cheek announcement of a local curling tournament (that bizarre sport most U.S. citizens notice only during the Winter Olympics that involves sliding a heavy polished stone, shuffleboard-like, down an icy pitch) gets a pretty good response, he’s home free, preaching to the choir for the rest of the evening. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Manitoba quintet, with a topnotch set list of folk/rock songs with plenty of power-pop flourishes, is playing to a sold-out house that seems at least half full of transplanted Canadians, ready to sing along in between trips to the washroom to offload the Molson. With guitarist/pedal-steel whiz Stephen Carroll, bassist Greg Smith and drummer Jason Tait (along with an unnamed utility man who aptly handles keyboards and trumpet and a female French horn player in for a couple of tunes), the Weakerthans are easily the best Canadian band seen in these parts since Vancouver’s Pointed Sticks played their fabulous Stiff Records debut single “Out Of Luck” to a pogoing crowd at the Mabuhay Gardens three decades ago.

Samson, in his mid-30s, is blessed with a perpetually innocent, Holden Caulfield kind of voice, one perfectly suited to the final line of “Relative Surplus Value,” a song about the alienation of a young man at a faraway business convention: “Could you come get me?” This stuff couldn’t be sung more convincingly by the peach-fuzzed trio from Superbad. On the other hand, the stylish lyrics, well worth a read on 2007’s Reunion Tour, at times are worthy of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. High praise indeed.

Halfway through the set, as the rest of the boys go take a pee, Samson delights the crowd with a stripped-down version of the frostily titled “One Great City!” It’s an homage/wrecking ball swung with love in the direction of the Weakerthans’ hometown. (And former base of operations for a chart-topping rock band and an NHL franchise.) “The Guess Who sucked, the Jets were lousy anyway,” warbles Samson as he urges the throng to join in on the song’s tagline: “I hate Winnipeg!” They readily oblige with a roar that might have been heard all the way back to Manitoba. “Civil Twilight” and “Confessions Of A Futon Revolutionist” are roaring anthems that still leave plenty of space to peek through sheer curtains, like some night-stalking Peeping Tom, at the occasional neurotic episode inside. Carroll found time to unholster what looks like either a styrofoam bullwhip or an oversized cat’s toy; swung overhead at different speeds, it makes a couple of notes that resemble the quirky electronic throb of a theremin.

The populist leanings of the Weakerthans are put to the test when they pull some kid in a black ballcap out of the crowd to play the guitar solo on “Wellington’s Wednesdays,” a ripsnorting number that also poaches a bit of New Order’s 1982 single “Temptation.” “It’s in the key of E,” says Samson as he hands over his guitar. The kid does just fine, to the crowd’s delight. The fans are so into it tonight, someone even calls out for “Elegy For Gump Worsley,” the heartfelt, spoken-word tribute to the Hall Of Fame goalie who won four Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens in the mid-’60s. When another devotee shouts out, “Weaker than what?” Samson, to his credit, turns a deaf ear, refusing the stock, Marlon Brando-like  reply: “Whaddaya got?”

—Jud Cost

“Sun In An Empty Room” (download):

Live Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, IL, July 18 And 19, 2009

flaminglips

The weather was mostly pitch perfect for the weekend at Chicago’s Union Park, insignificant showers on Saturday, 70 degrees on Sunday. The audience, as usual, was informed, committed and up for anything, but the aptly named Fucked Up gave some of its fans more than they bargained for when they leapt from the Aluminum Stage with their guitars. Rapper Daniel Dumile (a.k.a. MF Doom) was one of few carrying the hip-hop flame this year with his stage mask, wild camouflage attire and massive dreadlocked sidekick—not to mention his relentless, articulate flow. Beirut’s Zach Condon blended Balkan brass music with French chanson, doubling on trumpet and ukulele in front of a fresh-faced seven-piece band that featured accordionist Perrin Cloutier. Although the National headlined Saturday, it was on the Balance Stage at the south end of the park where most of the action was happening. Something of a Scandinavian enclave, this stage hosted Norwegian mixmaster Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Danish rockers Mew, but it was the manic pop duo of Matt And Kim followed by the insurgent Black Lips that set that side of the park alight. The Atlanta-based Lips hit like extras from Pirates Of The Caribbean, storming onstage with abandon. Almost immediately, Ian Saint Pé made matchwood of his guitar, and later the band urged the crowd to surge and worry security. Despite their reputation as hell-raisers, the rest of the set was strictly business, an outlaw stew of garage punk, busted well beyond the garage.

Still, it was the Flaming Lips and their wacko costumed characters that won out with an impossibly arty finale. Topping off a Sunday night that included Grizzly Bear, Vivian Girls and the Walkmen, the Lips’ Wayne Coyne made perhaps the safest crowd surf of the festival in his trademark plastic bubble, subsequently bestriding a giant gorilla head. Coyne’s between-song patter was surprisingly inane, but as night descended, the spectacle became as trippy as a close encounter, with streamers and giant balloons festooning Union Park. Coyne largely obliged Pitchfork’s “Write The Night” demand, including confused-machismo anthem “Fight Test,” “Enthusiasm For Life Defeats Existential Fear” (from the band’s Fearless Freaks film) and the wishful “Bad Days,” closing out with 1993’s “She Don’t Use Jelly.” The Lips’ psychedelic orange-clad tech crew had worked since 7.30 a.m. setting up for this big send-off, much to the amazement of Pitchfork staff, who are probably still clearing the park after the awesome rain of confetti at this otherwise recycle-conscious event, now firmly entrenched as one of the hippest in the Chicago calendar.

—photos and text by Michael Jackson