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  Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 70

Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 70

7/25/08 Commander Cody, House Concert.  This write-up could begin with a description of when I was listening to Commander Cody’s albums in high school back in the mid-seventies or with a rundown of how I had to arrange for four different friends to lend us audio equipment to make this show possible, but in the interest of time, I’ll fast forward to the day of the show (sorry this is so long, but it was a big deal in my world.)
The band’s rented van pulled into the driveway around 5PM.  Three guys piled out while Cody (at the wheel) remained in the van, making a call on his cell phone.  The threesome (b, d, g) came on in and sized up our setup.  Spencer’s drum kit was set up in the corner, Dave’s bass amp was over by the wall (as was John’s guitar amp) and David’s church’s Roland 1000 electric piano (as per the band’s stage plot) was set up front and center.  After a minute or two, manager/drummer Steve Barbuto said, “we might have a problem here…” 
(bear with me on this technical tangent): Not that I would know, but the Roland 1000 electric piano comes with and without weighted keys (which simulate the feel of an actual piano).  The particular model that we had borrowed did not have weighted keys and was not going to work, given Commander Cody’s trademark boogie-woogie piano style.
A few minutes later, George (AKA Commander Cody) came into the house, looking a bit older than on those 35 year-old record covers.  He now walks with a cane, but is still clearly recognizable as the old commander; he hasn’t gone bald, gray or obese. He seemed somewhat put out as he quickly confirmed that this particular keyboard was unacceptable.  Things weren’t off to a good start and I was wondering if I had made a big mistake arranging for one of my heroes to come play in our modest (if enthusiastic) setting.
Miraculously, Nancy made a quick phone call to her friend/coworker, David who was able to contact the people at his church in Sullivan, MO (about 70 miles away) and borrow an Alesis QS 8 (with weighted keys!).  After George looked over the specs on the internet, things were cool.  He asked about some of my weird artwork around the house and we started talking about architecture school (it turns out both of us started off pursuing architecture before arriving at something more offbeat) and art.  He showed me a bunch of photos of paintings he had recently shown at a gallery in New York.  A couple of shots of tequila also helped to loosen the mood.
Somewhere in there, local steel guitar player (and frequent CC bandmate), Don Curtis showed up and set up his rig.  He and George hung out at the house while Nancy helped the rest of the band check in to their hotel a few blocks away.  Between dealing with the hassles with the keyboards and the hotel, Nancy had a pretty stressful early evening while I had fun hanging out talking art, music and such with Commander Cody.  As is her nature, Nancy was happy for me.
The new set of keyboards arrived just about the time people started filing in to see the show (many wearing Commander Cody t-shirts), so there never was an official sound check.  With the band and crowd all set to go, Cody stood front and center at the new piano.  It took us a minute to troubleshoot why his microphone wasn’t working (the PA wasn’t turned on!).  After pushing the main “power” button, Cody and band jump started things with “Too Much Fun”, an upbeat party anthem from the heyday of Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen. 
Back in the Airmen days, the lead vocals were handled by four different singers…in this current incarnation, Cody sings the lion’s share of the songs, but Mark Emerick (lead guitar…sporting a Cardinals’ t-shirt), Steve Barbuto (drums) and Jimmy Thunder (bass) all took turns on lead vocals.  Early on, we also heard “Riot In Cell Block #9” and “Smoke That Cigarette”, both featuring Cody’s character-rich half sing/half talk vocal delivery.  Mark sang lead on “Truck Driving Man” while Steve sang “Don’t Let Go” and Hoyt Axton’s “Lightnin’ Bar Blues”…they brought things down for a little four-part a capella toward the end of the latter.  Instrumentally, the bass/drums/guitar trio was talented enough…your basic blues-based bar band that probably wouldn’t turn many heads on their own, but they were more than up to the task of backing Cody’s truly distinctive songs, vocals and boogie-woogie piano.  Don is familiar enough with the material that he was never at a loss for just the right steel guitar lick in just the right place.  They closed out set one with “Rock That Boogie”, Cody pounding it out on the (weighted!) keys.
During the break, I talked to the band a bit about mixing the vocals up and the guitars down, but the general response was “hey, that’s rock and roll”.  Set two opened with “House Of Blue Lights”, Cody kicking this one off with some solitary boogie-woogie piano before the band joined in and ran with it.  The vocals were, once again, weak in the mix- I ended up slinking over to the mixing board to turn ‘em up.  Next came “It Should’ve Been Me”, once again highlighting Cody’s trademark boogie-woogie piano and half-talk vocals…we got some nice traded licks between steel and guitar on this one, as well.  Mark sang the “Looking At The World Through A Windshield” (Don getting all 60s dieselbilly on steel) and Steve sang “Midnight Shift” (Cody’s bright piano, front and center), both old CC&HLPA standards.  Somewhere in there, Jimmy sang Delbert McClinton’s “It’s Love Baby” in a deep gruff voice as Mark used a Busch bottle to get that slide guitar effect.
These guys have been doing this long enough that they have the pacing down and loaded the home stretch with a string of fan favorites: “Oh, Mama Mama” (guitar, steel, and piano breaks traded back and forth), “Hot Rod Lincoln” (his greatest “hit”), “Down To Seeds And Stems Again Blues” (Cody kicking this country weeper off with that unmistakable piano line…the chorus featured reworked vocal harmonies, Don with an especially inspired mournful solo) and “Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar” (a balls-out closer, giving each player an extended chance to shine, most notably Cody on piano).  In this crowded room, Cody quickly announced, “thank you, here’s your encore” as the band launched into yet another of their odes to altered states, “Lost In The Ozone” (guitar and steel throwing in that riff from “Steel Guitar Rag”). 
After selling a bunch of CDs and T-shirts, the band was ready to load out for their hotel…just as a huge thunderstorm cut loose.  The tarp we had set up out back collapsed from the weight of all of the water that collected in it. I ended up escorting each band member (and a few guests), one-by-one, to their cars with an umbrella.  I got totally soaked, but I was home and happy.
8/31/08 Cracker, The Duck Room.  We made it downstairs about halfway through the opening set by The Parlor Mob  (b, d, g, g , v).  They do an electric blues-rock thing that invited many comparisons. The lead singer has heard plenty of Led Zeppelin records.  One of their slower ones made me think of Janis’ “Ball And Chain”.  Michele made a Blind Melon connection at some point.
The room was pretty full when Cracker started up.  From my limited exposure to their records, my general impression was: clever lyrics conveyed with a dopey vocal delivery over less than memorable melodies.  Tonight’s set turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Attribute it to the inspired instrumentation (lead guitarist Johnny Hickman, in particular), or whatever, but I enjoyed it more than I would have guessed. 
Going into it, I would have been hard-pressed to name a handful of Cracker songs, but I found myself recognizing (and enjoying) lots of them: “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”, “Happy Birthday to Me”, “Euro-Trash Girl”, “Low (like being stoned)”, “I See the Light (at the end of the tunnel)” and “Mr. Wrong”.  Lead singer David Lowry’s vocals are still plenty dry and dopey.  One song had a “dododododo” vocal that reminded me of Jimi’s “Crosstown Traffic”.  Lowry even reached into the back catalog of his former band, Camper Van Beethoven, do their “greatest hit”, “Take The Skinheads Bowling”…it’s dopey and jokey, but if I’m hearing it for the first time in ten years, I’m smiling and enjoying it.  
Encore number one featured a convincing cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Loser”.  They closed things out with their own country-rock rave-up, “Lonesome Johnny Blues”.
8/14/08 Curtis Eller, Off Broadway.  The only reason I went out to hear these two unfamiliar bands tonight was to meet up with Bob Reuter and wish him a happy birthday.  As it turned out, I didn’t recognize anyone else there.  Bob and I heard a few songs by Pokey LaFarge.  Accompanied by stand-up bass, spoons & harmonica/kazoo, he sang and played guitar in this old-time period-piece vintage blues style that reminded me of Chicago’s Devil In A Woodpile.
Between sets, we went outside to the smoking area and mingled among the young urban hipsters…all strangers to me, but Bob seemed to know about half of them.  Lots of these folks came over to wish Bob a happy birthday and to root through the big box of black and white photos he had with him; the subjects of these photos closely resembling the people looking at ‘em.
There was a respectable crowd inside when Curtis Eller began his solo set at around midnight.  Many people were drawn in and obviously familiar with what he does.  The first thing for the uninitiated (me) to notice is this lanky guy’s physical agility.  As he stood there playing banjo and singing clever, funny, somewhat political lyrics, he would dance about in a very animated fashion, often kicking his leg way up over his head…made my hamstrings hurt, just watching him.  One song was played/sung while he stood on one leg on a chair.  It struck me that this guy was doing something akin to what Los Straightjackets do (they’re that surf instrumental band that plays in Mexican wrestling suits/masks): in order to stand out among a sea others doing approximately the same thing, he’s adopted a visual gimmick.  I left shortly after Bob took off.




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