Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Concert recap: Rosanne Cash, Maroon 5, Jónsi, Macy Gray

Jónsi photo credit: Kim Kinsler

Have I been missing in action? Of course not. I've been busy covering shows for The Orange County Register and even writing a couple of concert previews as well as shooting new episode of "Music Worth Buying" with TJR so I haven't posted in a bit. Sorry. But while I think of something interesting to share, why don't you check out my four latest concert reviews posted in the Soundcheck blog at the Orange County Register site. They are re-published below for your daytime or evening reading pleasure...

Macy Gray eclectic as ever at the Mouse House
Originally posted on Soundcheck on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

Few singers have a voice as distinctive as Macy Gray’s. But that raspy instrument wouldn’t mean much if the celebrated singer didn’t have solid material to put those pipes to good use.

Throughout a strong 100-minute concert Tuesday night at House of Blues Anaheim, the 43-year- old Ohio native delivered songs incorporating every far-flung influence in her past, from pop and alt-rock to blues and soul, R&B and jazz, even reggae. The power of her voice, a solid backing group (five musicians and two backing singers) and an easygoing rapport with fans made the mix of styles flow together exceptionally well.

Evidence of that came early on, when Gray and her band offered up a rocking yet nuanced take on Radiohead’s “Creep.” Her idiosyncratic personality and gruff vocal resonance couldn’t be more different than Thom Yorke’s, but the version offered up at the Mouse House was no gimmick; there was a sense of power and emotion that really made the remake memorable.

Better news was that the bulk of this set came from Gray’s new disc The Sellout, her fifth full-length effort (and first for Concord Records), an outstanding collection full of authentic material written or co-written by the singer. It proves how after a decade of consistently interesting work — built on the emotion inherit in the very sound of her voice as well as the wealth of influences she has amassed — Gray has become a master at mixing together the classic with the contemporary.

On “Kissed It” Tuesday night, she wrapped her straightforward lyrics of romantic rejection around a ’70s-styled rocker anchored by a heavy drum beat. Elsewhere she used slow soulful grooves (“Stalker”) or modern dance styles (notably during “On and On”) quite effectively.

And throughout the night, she and her band would blend her own songs with bits of classic rock that added texture to her performance, while simultaneously exciting the crowd as well. Yes‘ “I’ve Seen All Good People,” Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” (which morphed into a hearty version of her own “Oblivion”) and Queen’s “We Are the Champions” were all infused into Gray’s wide-ranging set in Anaheim, before she brought things to a convincing close with a rousing rendition of her breakthrough hit “I Try,” followed by her latest single, the shimmering feel-good anthem “Beauty in the World.”

Jónsi captivates at tour kickoff in San Diego
Originally posted on Soundcheck on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010

Jón Thór Birgisson — better known to an ever-increasing number of devotees as Jónsi – kicked off his second tour of the U.S. this year with a dazzling, adventurous performance Friday night in San Diego. The Icelandic singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who normally fronts the ensemble Sigur Rós performed with all the zeal he showcased at Coachella six months ago, yet this time his songs and singular, indie-rock-meets-world-music style were bundled with a theatricality that impressed throughout a 90-minute show delivered before a capacity crowd at 4th & B. (He plays again Sunday at the Wiltern in Los Angeles and Monday at the Fox Theater in Pomona.)

As ambitious as it was artistic, Jónsi’s concert included emotional reworkings of most of the material on his wonderful solo debut, Go, along with many new songs. Whereas the two Sigur Rós performances I’ve seen played out like a perfect fusion of rock and symphonic music, Friday night’s set, backed by an outstanding four-man group that includes his partner Alex Somers, offered an equally ideal blend of modern alt-rock and musical theater.

After opening with a new solo acoustic song (“Stars in Still Water”), things moved quickly with a nature-minded storyline showing a conflagration destroying a taxidermy shop during the emotive “Hengilas.” High-tech projections of animation, 3-D artwork positioned on stage and dancing lights all around resulted in birds and butterflies taking flight, a deer and wolf battling in a forest, ants marching, rain falling and a storm raging. All the while, the buoyant “Boy Lilikoi,” the exuberant “Animal Arithmetic,” the joyous “Grow Till Tall” and the contemplative one-two punch of “Kolnidur” morphing into “Tornado” challenged the traditions of what a rock ‘n’ roll concert should look and sound like.

Whether seated at a piano, playing his acoustic guitar or simply standing in front of a microphone, Jónsi’s soaring tenor and falsetto were used to bring depth and power to every moment. The show didn’t reach its zenith, however, until Jónsi held the last note of the show-closing “Grow Till Tall,” the echos of his far-reaching voice and vision resonating in the collective crowd as people slowly made their way out of the music hall. It was truly a concert free from cliche: no band introductions, no pleas for fans to get on their feet and participate, no frivolous sing-longs. Indeed, Jónsi said very little, preferring instead to let the power of the concert, the lights and this celebration of nature challenge and excite the audience. It worked.

Opening these shows is Mountain Man, a female trio spotlighting original songs from its recently released debut, Made the Harbor, each track constructed around their unique vocals. At times, MM’s sound evoked Americana and Celtic folk, notably on the set-ending “Sewee Sewee,” but other original songs, like “How’m I Doin,” showcased their blended voices alone or, as on “Follow the Tracks,” against the backdrop of a lone acoustic guitar. All of it defied easy categorization, yet the performance from Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath was an ideal way to kick off a night of unique music-making.

Jónsi, with Mountain Man opening, plays again Sunday (Oct. 17) at the Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles ($47.20-$62.45) and Monday (Oct. 18) at the Fox Theater, 301 S. Garey Ave. in Pomona ($32.65-$43.65). All prices include fees.

Maroon 5 fires up a party night at the Greek
Originally posted on Soundcheck on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010

Anybody who has caught nostalgic acts at Pacific Amphitheatre during the OC Fair can attest that no matter how talented the performers, no matter how good the show, music-making ultimately takes a backseat to nonstop crowd chatter, bumping and shoving as people head out for frequent beer runs, and a general lack of interest in anything beyond a simple singalong.

It was sad to see that same vibe at the near-capacity Maroon 5 concert at the Greek Theatre on Saturday night (Oct. 9, 2010), the second of two shows from the popular L.A. quintet staged there this weekend.

Whereas bands like Hootie and the Blowfish, Styx and Duran Duran enjoyed their biggest successes decades ago, and thus largely attract party people who talk and talk until they hear a hit they love, Maroon 5 is one of the most popular mainstream groups right now; its newly released third disc, Hands All Over, was one of the biggest-selling albums the week of its release late last month, and a new single from it, “Misery,” currently sits atop the Hot AC (adult contemporary) chart. You’d think these guys would get more respect.

It was an energetic version of “Misery” that kicked off M5’s 90-minute set, with the outfit’s talented frontman Adam Levine on a mission to lead these hometown tour stops via an energetic stew of funk, rock, soul and R&B. To its credit, no matter how many distractions took place in the crowd, the band was determined to reward longtime fans with a solid and memorable concert.

Maroon 5 struck successfully with a mix of its best-known hits (“Harder to Breathe,” “This Love,” “Makes Me Wonder”), slices of sublime pop-rock (the infectious “Won’t Go Home Without You”), expressive ballads (“Secret,” “She Will Be Loved”) and perhaps most remarkably a wonderful cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

Although Levine’s impressive vocals, notably his pleasing tenor falsetto, have become the most obvious part of M5’s sound, this show also spotlighted tight and reworked arrangements from the rest of the group, often bolstered by the strong guitar work of Levine and James Valentine. Of the newer material played on Saturday, the upbeat “Stutter” and “Give a Little More” were standouts.

It would be a stretch to credit Maroon 5 as having reached the artistic heights of an Arcade Fire (another band that just delivered two shows in L.A.), but there’s nothing wrong with a group that can write and perform commercial material that is both accessible and well-crafted. But by the end of the band’s energetic show, I had grown weary of trying to listen amid the ceaseless commotion and banter around me, and was happy the show was over. I don’t often say that about a perfectly solid concert on a beautiful night under the stars in Griffith Park.

In a brief but obviously crowd-pleasing cameo, actor-musician Jason Segel performed a couple songs before Maroon 5 took the stage, playing his “Dracula’s Lament” (from Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and adding his humor and piano-pounding talents the night’s party atmosphere. I’m pretty sure he was kidding when he screamed out about “bringing on the greatest band (Maroon 5) in the history of rock ‘n’ roll,” but on a date when most of the world was recalling the 70th birthday of the late John Lennon (who was definitely a member of the world’s greatest rock band), that was definitely pushing the envelope of his comedy.

Even for casual fans of modern music, OneRepublic’s familiar material was a solid fit here as another opener. Singer-keyboardist Ryan Tedder led his L.A. band through its best-known material (especially “Apologize” and “Stop and Stare”) along with more forceful rock stuff like “Marchin On” and “Waking Up,” all delivered with zeal. But the real ace in the band’s arsenal is the cello playing of Brent Kutzle, whose work added real substance to the introspective “Good Life,” among other songs.

Those wondering if any of the artists on the bill would pay tribute to Lennon hopefully arrived early. When first opener Ry Cuming took the stage at 7 p.m. the Australian noted that he wanted to dedicate his first song, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” to the Beatle. His sparse version, his vocals accompanied by his own guitar and his band’s keyboardist, ultimately proved to be one of his best selections across a half-hour set of mostly original material.

Rosanne Cash gets deep at the Grammy Museum
Originally posted on Soundcheck on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010

It has taken Rosanne Cash most of her adult life to both escape and embrace comparisons with other members of one of country music’s most celebrated families.

The eldest child of Johnny Cash, now 55, has released a dozen albums over the last three decades while more recently establishing herself as a talented author, thanks to her compelling short stories and essays, plus a popular book for children, Penelope Jane: A Fairy’s Tale, from 2000. A decade later, her profile has risen once more via both her deeply affecting memoir Composed, which arrived in August, and her latest disc, The List, a selection of reworked Americana gems taken off a list her father hand-wrote for her in 1973.

Tuesday night (Oct. 5, 2010) at a packed Clive Davis Theater at the Grammy Museum, Cash showcased that two-tiered attack with an hour-long discussion, conducted by the museum’s executive director Robert Santelli and including a reading from her new book, before performing a poignant acoustic set with her husband, acclaimed guitarist John Leventhal.

Cash may well have been content to just remain a songwriter, if not for the loss of her singing voice for two years while suffering with vocal polyps. But it’s the deaths of June Carter Cash and her father in 2003 and then her mother Vivian Liberto two years later — as well as her own life-threatening brain surgery in late 2007 — that provided the dramatic events to help her complete Composed and come to grips with being a member of such an esteemed family.

“I feel sorry for my daughter, who is a musician,” she said when asked about performing in the shadow of her late father, one of the most beloved American artists of the 20th century. “It’s a challenge and requires a lot of grace. I didn’t have that until I was 50 years old. At the same time it is my family.” She’s been recording since the late ’70s, of course, but here she pointed out that “I don’t think I could have done it fully until after (her dad) died.”

Before performing a set focused on her two most recent releases, Black Cadillac (featuring original material) and The List (which tackles seminal songs by Bob Dylan, the Carter Family, Hank Williams and more), Cash recalled how her latest project germinated, starting when she was 18 and on the road with her father. One day Johnny Cash asked his daughter about one song; she said she hadn’t heard of it. He asked her about another one; her reply was the same.

“Off the top of his head — no Google,” he said of how her father immediately sat down and devised a list of 100 essential songs she should hear. “I saved that list all these years,” noting that it included country music, Delta blues, soul, folk and gospel selections. Whittling it down to the dozen she covers on The List, however, wasn’t as difficult as it sounds: “Some didn’t make sense for me to sing, like (Johnny Horton’s) ‘Battle of New Orleans.’”

But Cash’s biggest confession of the evening had nothing to do with her musical ancestry or the big names who duet with her on The List, which include Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright. A member of the audience asked what she thought of country music today: “Don’t know anything about it,” she said as many in the audience erupted in laughter. “I still love old country music — still love my old Merle Haggard.”

Noting there are no quality country music stations in New York City where she has long lived, Cash quipped: “I hadn’t heard Taylor Swift until this year.” Of course, when she and Leventhal began to perform, it was clear that Cash continues to have much more in common with her late father and the Hag than the prefab and mass-marketed modern country brandished by Swift.

The six-song set was a blend of her own choices (including the beautiful “Sleeping in Paris” and the autobiographical “House on the Lake”) plus several reworkings featured on The List, among them a haunting “Motherless Children” and the more traditional “Sea of Heartbreak,” with her husband handling Springsteen’s sparse harmony effectively. They closed the night with a beautiful “Good Intent,” an original named after the ship that brought her ancestors from Scotland to America in the early 1600s.

Throughout her set, Cash reminded how she has the depth of emotion and range as a singer to fully carry forward the musical birthright of the Cash name. If Tuesday night was any indication, the best may be yet to come.

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