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  Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 41

Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 41

4/10/06 Centro-matic, Off Broadway. Dave and I showed up in time to catch the last few songs by Great Lakes Swimmers. They got a gentle strum thing going and the lead singer is in the upper register, along the lines of my limited notion of Ben Harper.

After the usual between-set socializing, Centro-matic took the stage, once again opening with something moody and mid-tempo. For as long as I can remember, these guys have been a cult favorite, adored by a devoted, if small bunch of fans. Don’t expect them to become the next big thing, but the cult is slowly growing; they managed to put around a hundred people in the room on a Monday night, many singing along. As always, Will Johnson’s melodic and dramatic songs were delivered in a higher-register rasp that is an acquired taste (certainly not insurmountable; I’m just sayin’). All instruments were impressive- lots of swapping around between Scott and Mark: guitar, bass, keyboards and violin. A few scattered song titles I’m remembering the next day: "Patience For The Ride", "The Fugitives Have Won" and "Flashes And Cables" (the one that goes "Ba Da Da Da Da").

Two Cow Garage played first on this bill, but we arrived long after they had come and gone from the stage. Even though I didn’t hear them tonight, it was fun to see these three guys front and center, jumping up and down and singing along to Centro-matic’s songs. There was a contagious sense of joy watching these guys having just as much fun on the receiving end of the live music experience.

4/18/06 Eef Barzalay, The Duck Room. As the frontman for the band Clem Snide, Eef has written and recorded some of my favorite songs of the past five years…his best songs are an inspiring blend of memorable melodies and quirky, heart-on-the-sleeve observational lyrics. I’m convinced that the biggest obstacle to his music being embraced by more than a devoted cult (there were right around 100 people here on a Tuesday night) is his quirky, off-kilter (and often off key) vocal delivery. In certain songs there are passages where another songwriter might opt for a guitar lead or harmonica break, but good ol’ Eef chooses to lay on a quirky falsetto "la la la" chorus. He’s one eccentric dude…not a huge surprise for a guy named Eef.

This being a solo acoustic show, things were much less musically dynamic than his outings with his band (duh). Song selection mixed a few songs from Eef’s current solo CD, ("Let Us Be Naked", "The Ballad Of Bitter Honey" and "Well") with a scattering of songs from all over the Clem Snide catalog: "African Friend", "I Wasn't Really Drunk", "Fill Me With Your Light", "Beautiful" and "Jews For Jesus Blues". My personal faves from tonight’s set were "All Green and "I Love The Unknown" (done up tonight with a reworked tempo and melody…apropos for the song’s subject matter). The set ended with a cover from an unlikely source: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Simple Kind Of Man"; I know it mostly from that Busch commercial. The only song I’m remembering from the encore was the charming story/song "Mike Kalinsky". Eef has transformed it from a mostly spoken word thing into an actual "song" with strummed bar chords and a melody.

4/20/06 Bob Dylan, The Fox Theatre. I decided to go to this show at the last minute and was lucky enough to find a (relatively) cheap ticket out front. I found my twentieth row seat about halfway through the opening set by Merle Haggard. He and his band (g, d, stand up bass, fiddle, steel, horns & backing singers) were doing a Bob Wills song, Merle on fiddle. Through the better than average PA, Merle’s rich and unmistakable voice could be heard loud and clear. He hopped stylistically from this Texas swing number to the old standard "As Time Goes By". His original, "Are The Good Times Really Over For Good?" somehow seems more relevant today, given the current state of affairs. "Mama Tried" ended the set and was given the full Bakersfield twangy Telecaster/playful drum treatment. The band shifted into an instrumental coda before Merle returned from the edge of the stage for a one-song "encore": his greatest hit, "Okie From Muskogee". These days, he delivers it more as a curious cultural relic than as the serious counter-counterculture anthem it once was…appropriate enough, when you’re opening for Bob Dylan.

After the traditional squeeze into the huge line for $7 beers, I got to catch up with a few friends before settling in for Bob Dylan. Where do I start? I knew from recent experience that I wasn’t likely to be blown away, but I couldn’t not go to this show…after all, this is Bob Dylan. Bob and band (b, d, g, g, steel and Bob on keys/harmonica) opened with "Maggie’s Farm". You gotta hand it to the guy for trying new arrangements- this current incarnation is a blues-based rock thing…along the lines of those recent Lucinda Williams or Los Lobos tours. Bob’s keyboards had a high, surging sound that had a sixties, slightly psychedelic garage feel to it. I was also impressed by the steel guitar. The crowd was a mix of old hippies and new hippies, many of whom were shaking it in a way that seemed more suited for a Grateful Dead concert.

I love Bob’s songs from many time periods and stylistic settings, but "blues-based jam band" was never high on my list. Lots of people seemed to like it, but relative to the gritty, vital way his classic songs were once delivered, they felt somehow, well, less vital. Lots of slow-to-mid tempo stuff tonight; "She Belongs To Me" was given a distant, reflective tone delivered via Bob’s gravelly wistful whisper. "Highway 61 Revisited" got an electric blues treatment and "Girl From The North Country" was done up more quiet and acoustic-based.

Bob is such an icon in popular music/culture that it’s impossible to assess what you’re seeing/hearing right now without tying it to his considerable history. Lots of people in this crowd of (mostly) baby boomers seemed to view this show as a love-fest to Bob’s lifetime achievements. Whenever he would dispense a casual blast on his harmonica, it was met with a rousing round of applause, as if he had just unleashed the most inspiring virtuoso solo. Bob’s slow and dramatic readings of his more classic material gave things a weighty tenor, as if we were to be in awe by the mere presence of these profound words. "Queen Jane Approximately" is, of course, a lyrical masterpiece, but I found this reverential vibe was a bit self important…especially because the music was striking me as fairly average. His stylized raspy vocals were an impediment to making out specific lyrics (the Merle Haggard fan next to me couldn’t understand a word all night), but most folks were familiar enough with lines like "even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked" and "you’d know what a drag it is to see you" that these lines got huge ovations, even if they weren’t actually audibly discernable tonight.

My own pre-existing baggage seemed to work in the opposite direction- here’s a guy who has taken me to the highest of heights at many points of his career, and tonight he didn’t. Maybe if I heard this same set done up by a bunch of strangers, I would have found more to like about it, but in measuring it against Bob’s high points, it fell way short. I really wanted to like it (especially considering the ticket price), but it just wasn’t happening for me tonight. The two-song encore ended things with a "rock concert" treatment of a couple of "greatest hits": "Like A Rolling Stone" and "All Along The Watchtower", the latter was clearly influenced by Jimi’s version. In comparing notes with a few friends, it turns out that opinions ranged from high to low on this show…your mileage may vary.




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