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  Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 6

Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 6

10/16/03 Emmylou Harris, The Pageant. Buddy Miller opened the show. Backed by Brady Blades on drums and an acoustic (not stand-up) bass player, he went through a set that displayed his expressive voice and guitar playing. His vocal phrasing does the same kind of thing that you’d expect from people like George Jones or John Anderson- a decidedly southern drawl bends and sometimes breaks on its way to conveying whatever tone a given song requires. The same sense for phrasing can be heard in his guitar playing. Lots of guitar players can hit all of the right notes, but it’s Miller’s subtle touches that cast each song in its own unique light. "Midnight And Lonesome" and "Little Bitty Kiss" were especially impressive. His sidemen left the stage as he delivered a plaintive reading of Tom T. Hall’s "That’s How I Got To Memphis", just Buddy and his acoustic guitar. Near the end of his brief set, he covered Jesse Winchester’s "A Showman’s Life". About halfway through the song, Emmylou Harris quickly made her way alongside Miller to lend harmony vocals. Needless to say, this was well received by the crowd. Harris’ contribution notwithstanding, this song doesn’t do much for me. With a few exceptions, I came away liking Miller’s voice and playing more than the actual songs he was applying them to.

After a short break, Miller and Blades, plus bassist Tony Hall (collectively known as Spyboy) backed Emmylou Harris for a nice long set covering songs from all periods of her considerable career. I think I’ve seen her about ten times over the past fifteen years or so, with a number of backing bands, so it’s interesting to witness how this current lineup treats her classic material. Having heard the instrumental lead to songs like Gram Parsons’ "Wheels" rendered by Frank Reckard of The Hot Band and Sam Bush of the Nash Ramblers, I’m now witnessing Buddy Miller’s searing lead bringing the feel closer to the way Sneaky Pete Kleinow laid it down on the original in 1970 (or so). Other reinterpreted classics included "Two More Bottles Of Wine", "Aint Livin’ Long Like This", "Together Again", "Leavin’ Louisiana In The Broad Daylight", "Born To Run", "Sin City" and a version of Townes Van Zandt’s "Pancho And Lefty" that moved me like the first time I heard it.

Even though I’m a lifelong fan, I never cease to be blown away the moment Emmylou begins to sing. The range of her voice is slightly more limited these days, but since her strong suit has always been conveying real emotion (quite often heartbreak and loss), working with this slight limitation may actually make her singing better than ever. All the glowing praise I had for Buddy Miller’s guitar playing in his opening set apply to what he did during Emmylou’s set, plus I liked a much greater percentage of the songs. As considerable as the talents of this pair is, it’s strong praise to say that the drumming of Brady Blades also stands out as something special…it’s like his arms are spring-loaded, or something- they snap down with such force while remaining articulate. He also does that cool thing where he taps the side of his floor tom (I think). During the home stretch, Buddy and Emmylou left the stage for a few minutes, allowing Blades and Hall to go off on a little rhythm section jam.

I was wondering if she would dust off one of her Johnny Cash covers- nothing doing, but she did introduce a new original as being about Johnny and June. "Wayfaring Stranger" and Bill Monroe’s "John" were done up differently than on record, the latter sounding like a variation of "Who Do You Love?". Other songs I remember: "Orphan Girl", "Red Dirt Girl", "The Maker" and "Every Grain Of Sand". The final song of the encore found Emmylou with just her acoustic guitar doing John Lennon’s "Imagine", her expressive voice sweetly conveying this song’s weary, yet hopeful tone.

3/17/03 Pete Yorn, The Pageant. Family stuff precluded me catching Nadine in the early slot; I walked in just as Pete went on stage…the band (B, D, G, G, K/G & Mr. Yorn on guitar and vocals) was accomplished and played hard, but the overall sound felt generic and not especially innovative…pleasant enough, maybe like The Gin Blossoms or what Soul Asylum evolved into as they slowly moved from the edge to the center. The songs had distinctive enough melodies, but somehow most of them just didn’t grab me. It’s not like Pete needs to worry about whether I liked it; the place was packed with lots of people in their early twenties… about half of the crowd was female- a rarity at a rock show. His lengthy locks and muscular physique probably had something to do with this. Lots of people were singing along to most of the songs.

Pete’s voice can be deep and dramatic like…Leeza came up with Creed as Angie said "Eddie Vedder". On a slower song, a more world-weary waiver came to his voice, along the lines of Bobby Bare, Jr., Pete’s harmonica adding to the mood. Songs I remember: "Pass Me By", "Strange Condition" (a big crowd favorite), "For Nancy" and a slower contemplative one that he wrote on the day Jeff Buckley died.

10/21/03 Captured! By Robots, The Rocket Bar. Sorry this is so long, but there was a lot going on…The brief blurb in the RFT was enough to get me to come out to this show: one eccentric musician/mechanical tinkerer who plays rock music backed by a handful of homemade robots filling out the sound. Since I occasionally make weird little music-related mechanical contraptions myself (I’ll show them to you sometime if you’re interested), I had to go check this out.

Human robot-master, J-Bot, portrays himself as subservient to his creations, and on some levels, that’s pretty accurate- this passion certainly has taken hold of the dude. There’s a website: www.capturedbyrobots.com that provides photos, videos and a better description than I could ever give, but briefly, the primary players in the "band" are:

1. A seven-foot tall guitar-playing robot. It’s flying vee guitar body has both a guitar neck and a (3-string) bass neck attached, with pneumatically activated mechanical "fingers" that actually strike the strings which can be dampened at any pre-programmed fret position by automated levers. This one, named Gtrbot, features a row of six guitar-tuning keys for teeth and an exposed spine made of threaded rod that continues downward below the pelvis to provide the suggestion of a penis.

2. Drmbot, who is basically a mask suspended above a drum kit that is hit by pneumatically operated sticks, while the high-hat claps up and down.

3. An arrangement of drums and cymbals turned upward, to face the audience as the requisite mechanical arms whap it good. It’s called Automatom.

4. A 3-piece horn section of robots, all of whom move in unison, by way of a horizontal bar that controls them, while a pneumatic tube blasts air through the truck horns that each mannequin is holding to its "face".

The sightlines to the stage at The Rocket Bar are pretty lousy. It wasn’t until I wrangled my way to right up front that I could actually observe all of this; from further back, things were much less interesting.

There are a number of ways Mr. J-Bot could choose to express his talents as an accomplished mechanical engineer and guitar/keyboard (the latter attached to the former) player...he could do some kind of revue of classic covers, showcasing selected aspects of rock music history ala "School of Rock", complete with inside jokes and clever references (or something like that), but he ambitiously chose to wear yet a third hat, writing and performing a heavy-metal rock opera based on the struggles of the Jews as they fled enslavement by the Egyptians. Of course- why didn’t I think of that?

Simultaneous to the goings-on onstage, the movie "The Ten Commandments" was being silently projected onto an adjoining wall in all its black and white glory- the parting of the Red Sea, Moses with the tablets, the whole bit…meanwhile J-Bot is crunching out the metal chordage to songs with lyrics like "Let my people go…" and so on. He was decked out in a robe and beard like Moses, and made frequent trips into the audience, tablets in hand, as he boldly pronounced each commandment…all backed by his ensemble of musical robots. At some point, there was a mechanical malfunction that required an awkward five-minute "pit stop" in the proceedings, but since this juggler had a lot of balls in the air, the occasional slip-up was excusable.

About the music- it struck me as fairly unspectacular mid-to-heavy metal that I wouldn’t have much interest in, were it not presented in such a unique and ambitious manner. But as it was, it was one of the more interesting and innovative things I’ve seen in a while. Definitely the finest heavy metal rock opera, based on the Old Testament, performed by robots I’ve ever seen.

10/24/03 Robbie Fulks, Off Broadway. I got there in time to hear the last few songs by Ten High, doing more of their alt.country thing. They once again did the song that reminds me of UT’s "Flatness", as well as "Five Dollar Winstons" an original about fighting a losing battle against nicotine addiction- it’s pretty convincing. Apparently one of the songs I heard was a Two Cow Garage cover, but I didn’t recognize it.

Robbie Fulks and band went on fairly late- well after 11:30, opening with Tim Carroll’s "Every Kind Of Music But Country", instantly reacquainting me with all of the elements I like about this guy: his confident, casual delivery, his expressive vocal phrasing and his great sense for classic country songs. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, so it was pretty refreshing to get a good dose of these guys. His lead guitar player had all the country style chops down and traded leads with Robbie on acoustic (I had forgotten what an accomplished flat-picker he is) a time or two. The drummer would tap on the drums’ rims on certain songs producing that clicking, spoons-like rhythmic accompaniment.

Fulks’ song selection included a few new songs as well as a scattering of songs from all of his previous albums- from Bakersfield send-ups like "She Took A Lot Of Pills And Died" and "Can’t Win For Losing You" to more fifties and sixties hard country ("Cocktails", "What The Lord Hath Wrought", and "I’d Be Lonesome") to the bluegrass-influenced "Cigarette State". The procession of artists paying tribute to Johnny Cash continued tonight with a more raucous and vengeful reading of "Cry, Cry, Cry".

He managed to play most of my favorites, too: "I Push Right Over", "Tears Only Run One Way", and "Let’s Live Together", before ending his set with the decidedly un-country, but ultra-catchy, "Let’s Kill Saturday Night", causing me to momentarily make a fool of myself on the dance floor.

The encore opened with all four band members sweetly adding vocal harmonies to a gospel-sounding song with just Robbie on guitar. He then introduced the next couple of songs as being from his forthcoming album of all Michael Jackson covers (with Robbie, you can never be certain he’s joking). What followed were snappy tongue-in-cheek versions of "Goin’ Back To Indiana" and "Black Or White". Fun, but not what I like best about him. That’s OK; I got plenty of the good stuff, as things wrapped up at 1:15, or so.

10/25/03 John Prine, Touhill Performing Arts Center. We took the Metrolink up to the UMSL North station and found ourselves right next to this brand new, state of the art venue. Sightlines, sound and lighting were all exceptional. They weren’t really set up to accommodate this casual crowd- beer lines were twenty minutes long and you couldn’t bring your beer into the theatre space- kinda like The Fox, that way. On the plus side, once seated inside, everyone is there to listen- no obnoxious louts yakking about where they parked, etc.

Todd Snider opened the show. He had the crowd of maybe three thousand captivated with his clever lyrics and clean acoustic guitar playing- attributes that you’d expect to win over this bunch that came to see John Prine. "Statistician’s Blues" and the one about the Tillamook County Jail stood out in particular. The latter featured some clean acoustic blues picking patterns like you might hear on Mississippi John Hurt or Taj Mahal records.

After the break, we made it back to our seats in anticipation of the set by John Prine. I’ve seen him a bunch of times before, but not at all in about twelve years. During this time he has gone through a few albums, another divorce, apparently, and treatment for throat cancer. His voice is a bit worse for wear, but it’s still clearly recognizable, like an old friend who’s that much older. And like catching up with an old friend, it was comforting to hear him sing and play- a certain reassurance that no matter how weird or sad things can get (and they certainly do in a lot of his songs), there are ultimately more reasons to smile.

He and band (a guy who alternated between stand-up & electric bass and a lead electric guitar player) came out and opened with "Spanish Pipedream". The lead player reminded me of Don Rich (Buck Owens’ guitar player) in just about every way- his slim-fit suit, his Conway Twitty style haircut and especially the playful leads he ran off on his telecaster. His playing cast a refreshing, new tone to this familiar classic, while remaining faithful to the happy-go-lucky feel of the original…he even snuck in the trademark tag to the "Buckaroo" instrumental toward the end.

A couple of more contemplative songs followed: "Souvenirs", featuring Prine’s trademark penchant for picking patterns and "Six O’Clock News", a harrowing tale of deception, alienation and ultimately, suicide. It’s songs like these that serve to counterbalance the happier, sillier songs- this aint no full-on, feel-good John Denver type show. Another early song was "Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Any More", a song that might actually be more relevant now than when he wrote it in 1968.

I’ll stop short of commenting on every song, even though most offered plenty to enjoy and think about. Prine’s speaking voice is now a harsh croak, but his humble and personable song intros were charming and endearing. He dedicated a Carter Family cover to the memory of Johnny and June. I think it was called "Americans"(or something like that) and was given an upbeat, electric treatment. Although most of the songs were from 10 to 33 (yow!) years ago, he did manage to add in a few new ones that didn’t disappoint- "I’m just Gettin’ By" and one about a guy who mentally takes leave when his wife hollers at him, stood out.

Prine’s sidemen left the stage for a while in the middle of the set, allowing for a mini-set of just John and his guitar. Somewhere along the way he got a chance to get to some of his lighter, simpler songs: "Fish And Whistle", "Dear Abby", "Please Don’t Bury Me" and "That’s The Way That The World Goes ‘round" were scattered among more poignant ones like "Angel From Montgomery", "You Got Gold", "Late John Garfield Blues", "All The Best", "Sins Of Memphisto", "Sam Stone", and "I Aint Hurtin’ Nobody". "Grandpa Was A Carpenter" received the same rumbling electric guitar treatment as on record. Spooky textures were applied by bowed upright bass and e-bowed guitar on "Hello In There", enhancing the loneliness of the lyrics. The set ended with "Lake Marie", a song that mixes American history with popular culture, while alluding to some cryptic and sordid events…all delivered in a somehow life-affirming tone.

The encore began with a couple more solo acoustic songs- "Christmas In Prison" (I was never able to telepathically convince Johnny Cash to cover this one) and "Illegal Smile", which turned into an audience sing-along ("Well, I went to court and the judge’s name was…Ashcroft"). The very last song was "Paradise"- the band was joined by Todd Snider on mandolin and Billy Prine on guitar (and lead vocals on one verse). Billy’s a pretty average singer, but it was great to see how much it meant to John to be playing onstage with his "baby brother", who had made the trip over from Indiana.




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