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Peter Wolf, The Bell House, Brooklyn, NY: Strung out on rock & roll May 29, 2010

Posted by Anton A in American music, Peter Wolf.
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I first saw Peter Wolf’s solo act sometime around 1996, when the Long Line album was released.  Peter did a free afternoon show at South Street Seaport with a great bassist, the exceptional Johnny A on guitar, and a couple of the Uptown Horns if I remember correctly.  I’d seen Peter over a dozen times before that day, as the manic singer in the J. Geils Band who seemed to have learned his dance moves from the Temptations stage show and the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo. The J. Geils Band were one of the best things about the 1970s; Peter’s hyperkinetic performances crystallized their blues/R&B-based music and earned him a reputation as one of rock’s great front men.

The band eventually fell apart in the 1980s. After not seeing Peter for nearly 15 years, I was startled by his appearance at the Seaport gig; out in the sunlight he was gaunt and pale, with stringy hair and skinny as a rail, but he still had the moves and the voice. The phrase “strung out on rock & roll” popped into my mind; I think that’s always been the essence of the man and the reason why his shows are so compelling. He’s another 15 years older now, and still works the stage with consummate craft; he integrates stretches perched on a stool, telling tales of his years in the business, into a set so skilfully, you scarcely notice that he’s regrouping for another frantic boogaloo as he talks.

Friday night, he brought the show to an enthusiastic crowd of a couple hundred stay-at-home Memoriial Day Weekenders in Brooklyn. The gig was at The Bell House, a nice wood-raftered room with a couple of spiffy chandeliers in a converted warehouse at the edge of Park Slope near the Gowanus Canal. Peter and his band gave us two mesmerizing hours that brought the spirits of the legenday bluesmen, 1950s rock & roll & 1960s soul right into the present.

Some performers of Peter’s vintage choose to tap the vitality of younger musicians to energize their stage act. Peter has gathered a bunch of guys who, in addition to being versatile, seem to be pretty much of his own generation. The two guitarists are as adept on acoustics, mandolin, and steel guitar as they are on Strats and SGs. The bassist switches between electric and standup. The keyboardist & drummer, who might have been a bit younger than the rest, are highly attuned to Peter’s songs; they kept the energy and textures right where they should be.

Peter sprinkled seven songs from his new album, Midnight Souvenirs, among a generous selection of songs from the J. Geils era and his seven solo albums. He regaled us with tales of growing up in the Bronx, made us laugh with stories of his meetings with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters as a still-shy teenager (so he claimed; it’s hard to imagine that this exuberant man ever was shy). He name-checked songwriters from Don & Phil Everly to Will Jennings to Willy DeVille. I don’t want to sound pompous about this, but he’s the walking embodiment of nearly a century of what’s best about American popular music, to my ears. Don’t miss a chance to see him.

The opening act was Kenny White, a skilled songwriter / keyboardist / guitarist who has worked closely with Peter on his last several albums and in putting Peter’s bands together. Toward the end of his set, Peter made sure that everybody felt his appreciation for Kenny’s role in this phase of his career.

Peter and the band took the stage around 9:30. The setlist:

Growing Pain
Long Line
Long Way Back Again
Always Asking For You
I Don’t Wanna Know
Serves You Right To Suffer
Waitin’ On The Moon
Cry One More Time
Green Fields Of Summer
Wastin’ Time
The Night Time Is The Right Time
Riverside Drive
Love Stinks
Lookin’ For A Love
All I Need To See Is You

encore set:

Nothing But The Wheel
Then It Leaves Us All Behind
Must Have Got Lost
It’s Too Late For Me
When The Night Comes Down
Start All Over Again
FIrst I Look At The Purse

In the encore set, it felt like they were going to close the show with Must Have Got Lost, but Peter had some hurried consultations with the stage manager and the band, and they kept it going for four more tunes.

I’ll end this review with an observation of what a perfect song they chose to close the show: a cover of the 1965 Contours hit that became a highlight of J. Geils Band shows in their earliest days. If you don’t have it, get a copy of their first live album, Full House, and crank it. Timeless. I was waiting all night for that song, as I suspect a lot of the audience was; the band delivered it like a speeding freight train at just the right time. You knew that Peter had put everything he had left into the song when it was over. That’s how a star ends a show.


Start Me Up May 23, 2010

Posted by Anton A in Start Me Up.
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This blog begins here, at least in one sense.

Posts after this date will contain newly written reviews of rock shows, with occasional forays into other musical genres and non-musical areas that interest me, as they happen.

I’ve been writing concert reviews for ten years.  As time allows, I also plan to post older reviews with the dates of those shows.  This is partly to give readers who may happen by a sense of who I am and how my tastes have evolved,  and partly because I want to preserve these things somewhere for a while.

As you’ll see, I sometimes find that the process of getting to and from a venue is almost as important as the show.  My primary focus is always on the performance – it’s what gets me out of the house – but interesting things can happen along the way and become part of the whole experience.  As Little Steven will tell you, sometimes “it’s the journey, not the destination.”

Ronnie James Dio: RIP May 17, 2010

Posted by Anton A in American music, British music.
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Ronnie’s passing hits close to the bone. Tomorrow, as fate would have it, we’re setting off to Ronnie’s home turf up in Ithaca NY to attend someone else’s funeral.
Ronnie hailed from Cortland, 20 miles up the road. The Cornell – Ithaca College area was a nexus for bands that wanted to work, and Ronnie honed his chops there as the 1960s were revving up. I first saw him as leader of Ronnie Dio & The Prophets, sometime around 1967, a hot covers band that was always playing bars and frat parties. A year later they’d turned on, tuned in and transformed themselves into The Electric Elves. Actually, Ronnie may have kept both bands going at the same time: Dio & The Prophets for gigs that needed pop & soul songs, and the Elves for affairs more in tune with the growing spirit of the times, Maybe it was all the same band with different names and clothes. It was the Sixties, who can be sure of anything 42 years later? In any event, at any event, you could always count on Ronnie & company to generate a good time.
After I left Ithaca, I didn’t hear of Ronnie again for 5 years.  Then I bought the Rainbow album, because one had to see what Ritchie Blackmore was up to, after all. There was Ronnie’s name on the album cover. I couldn’t believe it.

I went to that first Rainbow tour when it hit NYC. I had never seen a band with the vocalist cranked so loud: never, and I’d already seen The Who around 10 times by then.

I remember an interview that Ronnie did around the time of that tour, where he said that he’d migrated to England because so many English bands had this over-the-top attitude that he liked; they’d look at their live act & say “Yeah, there’s got to be a way that we can do that just a little bit louder.” I always wondered if that interview was the genesis of the “Turn it up to 11” bit from Spinal Tap.

So long, Ronnie. You were a force. 

Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Wellmont Theatre, Montclair, NJ: Still havin’ a party May 7, 2010

Posted by Anton A in American music, Southside Johnny.
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A couple of weeks ago I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go see Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes at The Wellmont Theatre in Montclair. I’ve been rained and snowed out of too many shows that I’ve paid for way in advance, so I was holding off for this one. With no major storms on the horizon, I went on line and made the fateful click.

It proved a fine decision. The venue is an easy 20-minute drive over to a town I know well. I arrived early enough to savor a few pleasant minutes at a local cafe just up the hill from the theater, sitting at a sidewalk table with a cup of their superb coffee, checking out the stream of passersby all duded up for Friday night, and watching the sunset colors play across the sky above Bloomfield Ave.

Feeling well refreshed, I strolled down in time to catch most of the opening set by the Bob Polding Trio, who also hail from the current Jersey Shore scene. They are Polding singing his songs and playing acoustic guitar, Peter Wood on guitar, and the very talented Gary Oleyar on fiddle & harmony vocals. Most of the songs seemed to be some variation of G-Em-C-D, but the guitar textures were rich, Polding has a good voice, like a deeper Jon Bon Jovi, and Oleyar kept it interesting. I enjoyed everything they did.

Johnny & the Jukes showed up a few minutes after 9:00. They played for 2 hrs & 20 minutes. It’s impossible not to have a good time when they’re on stage. Some excellent cover tunes – a Solomon Burke number, Walk Away Renee (total showstopper), Up On The Roof, Happy, Hard Day’s Night – were sprinkled among a cavalcade of Southside Johnny classics. There were four new songs, which sound as strong and gutsy as anything in his back catalog. These guys straddle the intersection of 60s & 70s soul, R&B, pop and rock, and add that distinctive Jersey Shore touch (please, don’t even think about the TV show in this context); in the course of an evening they cover a huge swath of our popular musical heritage.

This version of the Jukes is, to my ears, crisper than the group I saw backing him six years ago. Much to my surprise, who should turn up on rhythm guitar but Andy York from John Mellencamp’s band. Fans of the great Ian Hunter know Andy very well. Andy always gets himself into interesting situations when Mellencamp is on hiatus; he also plays on Johnny’s new CD, to be released in June.

A very skilled fellow named Glenn Alexander does most of the lead work, but Andy & the unnamed bassist really anchor the band’s sound. Jeff Kazee, on keyboards, has a strong tenor soul voice. He could easily front his own band; his high harmonies make for some thrilling vocal textures.

An excellent drummer & 4-man horn section round things out. They all get a couple of solo turns as the night progresses.

Johnny paces the stage like a cranky old lion, shakes and quivers when it’s time to squeeze every last drop of emotion out of a lyric, cadges drinks from the audience, brings the band up and down with quick gestures: the quintessential front man with a heart full of soul.

It can seem like a genially ramshackle show. You sometimes get the feeling that Johnny is making up the set list on the fly. It was amusing, watching them trying to get Hard Day’s Night off the launching pad. Andy hit the opening chord & went into the song with Johnny hopelessly off key; they tried that twice. Johnny then said, “No, I’m not finding the key, I’m not like you, I can’t just change the position of my fingers on my throat. You start it off and I’ll follow.” Andy hit the chord a third time and belted out the first lines; Johnny quickly found the key; they delivered a ripping version of the song, complete with terrrific three-part harmonies.

Johnny uses his years of experience and strong sense of stagecraft to lead the band through one crescendo after another. It’s an inspiring show. I won’t wait six years to see them again.

P.S. This is funny: throughout the show I was thinking how much the bassist looks like New York Dolls guitarist Steve Conte.  After writing the above, I went to Southside’s website and learned that he is, in fact, John Conte, Steve’s younger brother.