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(Above: Pete Yorn and his band are still living “Life on a Chain” at the Voodoo Lounge on Feb. 20, 2011.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Pete Yorn and Ben Kweller delivered a two-hour clinic on rock songwriting in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge on Sunday’s night.

Kweller’s 45-minute opening set revealed his debt to the singer/songwriter movement of the early ‘70s. Alternating between acoustic guitar and piano, Kweller delivered several fan favorites, including “I’m On My Way,” “Thirteen” and “Penny on the Train Track.” Stripped bare, his songs could have slipped comfortably on the AM radio dial next to Carol King, James Taylor and Bob Dylan.

Highlights included the country folk of “Fight,” the luscious piano ballad “In Other Words” and a big moment on “The Rules” when Kweller stomped on a surprise pedal and turned his acoustic guitar into a snarling, distorted electric beast.

Although the low-key set initially underwhelmed the bar patrons, Kweller eventually won them over with his combination of good-natured banter and strong songwriting. By the final note the room was his.

If Kweller’s showcase was a bare-bones, how-to session, Yorn’s full-blown, full-band set delivered lessons on layering and arrangements.

After opening with three songs from last year’s self-titled album (his fifth overall), Yorn reached back to his debut, 2001’s “musicforthemorningafter.” “Life on a Chain” got the crowd fully engaged while “Just Another” showcased Yorn’s sensitive side.

Written almost entirely with major chords, Yorn’s songs are like a self-affirmation clinic with guitars. With a full workweek looming, Yorn sprayed sunshine on the unsuspecting crowd with a barrage of optimistic lyrics such as “seeing is believing” (“Murray”), “convince yourself that everything is alright” (“For Nancy”) and “life’s been great to me” (“Future Life”). A wistful look back at childhood (“Velcro Shoes”) was especially sepia toned, but none of it seemed particularly over the top.

The only exception to this was a solo acoustic reading of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Before playing the song Yorn told the crowd it was the first song he ever played before an audience, at age 15. He added that the lyrics didn’t fully sink in until he performed the song a few weeks ago at Carnegie Hall. This newfound understanding clearly weighed heavily on Yorn. The mournful, down-tempo arrangement was delivered with a sense of doom.

With or without his band, Yorn stayed primarily on acoustic rhythm guitar, so it was up to second guitarist Mark Noseworthy to provide different textures. The band’s not-so-secret weapon, Noseworthy played a mean slide solo during a cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “I Feel Good Again” and a delicate countermelody on “On Your Side” that helped the song swell like a poignant lump in the throat.

The brief 70-minute setlist was split nearly evenly between songs from Yorn’s first and newest releases, but Yorn seemed just about as tired of playing the old songs as the crowd was of signing them. Which means when he inevitably rolls through town again soon, everyone will enjoy one more cheerful romp.

Pete Yorn setlist: Precious Stone; Badman; Rock Crowd; Life on a Chain; Just Another; Velcro Shoes; I Feel Good Again; Rockin’ in the Free World; Burrito; Strange Condition; Future Life; On Your Side; Closet; For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is). Encore: For Us; Murray.

Keep reading:

Review: James Taylor and Carole King

Review: Jack Johnson

Review: Bob Dylan

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(Above: “Jefferson Jericho Blues” is one of several new songs Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been regularly playing on their tour this summer.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The sets Heart and Sarah McLachlan delivered back-to-back at last week’s Lilith Fair were studies in contrast. Sure their styles are wildly divergent, but each act presented three new songs during their one-hour sets.

Heart was proud of their songs, delivering them in succession. They may have gone one song too far, but the crowd responded positively. McLachlan, on the other hand, apologized for performing new songs. She sprinkled them throughout her hit-laden set and express regret before and after each one. She needn’t have bothered – the audience enjoyed them anyway.

Beloved songwriter James Taylor has only released one album of original material this decade.

Nostalgia is the single most lucrative element in the music industry today. Fans are wiling to shell out more than ever to see legendary artists in concert. Paradoxically, those fans are loathe to hear anything outside of the sacred catalog. This is a closed cannon. With a few exceptions, anything after two dozen hit singles or 10 successful albums is off limits. Some artists, like Billy Joel, are fine with this. Joel hasn’t written any new pop material in nearly two decades. Others, like Fleetwood Mac, shuttle most of their new music to individual projects (although the band did deliver a new album in 2003, their first in eight years).

Solo performers have fewer options. Paul McCartney and Elton John have bravely soldiered on, each releasing four albums in the past decade and highlighting his latest release in concert. James Taylor and Paul Simon have slowed their output to a trickle; both have only released one or two albums of original material in the new millennium, respectively.

Guitarist Junior Marvin and the Original Wailers have been playing material from their upcoming album alongside Bob Marley's classic material.

Then there are the rare established artists whose fans salivate over new material. In 2007, Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic” hit No. 1 on the album charts. Despite a Clear Channel missive not to play any of the new material on its stations, Springsteen performed the majority of the album on his sold-out tour. When “Working on a Dream” appeared just 18 months later, it featured heavily in setlists as well.

The Original Wailers face an even more daunting task. Their catalog is not only the most popular and indelible in reggae, but Bob Marley, their frontman and songwriter, has been dead for 30 years. When the band performed in Kansas City earlier this year they boldly mixed many original songs from their upcoming album in with Marley’s classics. Surprisingly, the new riddims didn’t stop the dancing for a moment.

Artists have three choices onstage: ignore performing new material, apologize and play a couple new songs, or deliver a block of new material. None of these are optimal. (Quick caveat: the songs in question should be worthwhile additions to the catalog, not a cheap excuse to trot out the same tired hits yet again.)

Overconfidence in new material may send fans fleeing for the bathroom and bar. I’m confused why any artist would ever apologize for the music they perform, especially if it is something they have written or hold dear. Ignoring new work reinforces the same message as apologizing: I’m not proud of this material. If they’re not proud of it, why should fans bother?

Despite their perceived authority and glamor, artists have little power over how their music will be marketed, sold and received. Going onstage is as close to complete control that they will ever have. Songwriters should own all of their material, especially the latest and least familiar. Don’t be afraid to surprise. Weaving new material in with the old not only freshens the setlist, but shakes some dust off the favorites by placing them in a new perspective and context. It tells the fan “if you liked this then, try this now.” Remember: Today’s new songs are tomorrow’s sing-alongs.

Keep reading:

Review: Lilith Fair

Review: The Original Wailers

Review: Bruce Springsteen

Review: James Taylor and Carole King

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(Above: James Taylor and Carole King are accompanied by Leland Sklar (bass) and Russ Kunkel (drums) on “Ellen” in 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

For more than 30 years, James Taylor and Carole King have been writing the type of songs that fans want to hold close and wrap around themselves like a blanket. When the pair announced their joint tour, the material and musicianship were beyond question. The biggest hurdle lay in translating that intimacy to large spaces.

Taylor and King had no problem transforming the spacious Sprint Center into a cozy club for their two-and-a-half-hour performance Friday night. The stage set the mood. The raised white platform was situated in the middle of the floor, and surrounded by three rows of nightclub tables, each outfitted with a warm, glowing lamp.

The ambience was cemented when the duo entered through the crowd to take the stage. Taylor’s chair was positioned in the curve of King’s grand piano so the two could have constant eye contact while they played. Even when Taylor eventually stood up and King stepped away from the piano, the chemistry and closeness was evident.

The atmosphere was such that when someone shouted a request, Taylor picked the oversized setlist off the floor, pointed to the number and told them they’d get to it eventually.

Both singers were chatty, but Taylor had the better banter, cracking wise about calling the onstage seating “raised seats” because “high chairs” wasn’t right and “stools” sounded dirty. His wry sense of humor was also on display when he tried to set up the common theme between “Beautiful” and “Shower the People.”

“Here’s another song,” Taylor started. “I know that’s a surprise. ‘Oh, they’re going to play another song.’ Well, here we have two in a row that … I guess they’re all in a row. We tried doing them all at once, but it didn’t work.”

The sold-out crowd (although both of the end sections up top were curtained off), devoured every syllable, musical or otherwise. Each song was greeted with thunderous applause that threatened to overwhelm the performance at times. When the band joyously performed the Motown classic and Taylor hit “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” they seemed to be singing to the appreciative audience as much as themselves. The response definitely surprised the performers, particularly King, who took the stage for the encore looking at the crowd in wonder, mouth agape.

King’s reaction was genuine, but she shouldn’t have been so shocked. The setlist included all but three songs from King’s masterpiece “Tapestry” and nine of the 12 cuts on Taylor’s best-selling “Greatest Hits” collection. This night wasn’t about introducing new material, but to reunite with longtime musical friends.

“Fire and Rain,” “So Far Away,” “Country Road,” “Crying in the Rain.” Nearly every number could have been a defining moment. The biggest moments were the small ones, like Taylor’s exquisite harmony on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” on the line “when the night/meets the morning sun.” Or the way Taylor and King traded verses on “You’ve Got a Friend.”

During “Smackwater Jack” and “I Feel the Earth Move” the 68-year old King bounced around stage like a teenager. Not to be outdone, the 62-year-old Taylor strapped on an electric guitar for the crackling “Steamroller.” After blowing a harmonica solo, he duck walked across the stage. The blues song was out of Taylor’s normal dynamic, but the audience response was so great Taylor should consider cutting an album on the Alligator label.

Before the third song, Taylor introduced the band so the audience could fully appreciate the accompanists. Bass player Leland Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Danny Kortchmar are collective known as The Section.

The three defined the mellow, Los Angeles sound of the 1970s singer/songwriter movement, appearing not only on “Tapestry” and “Sweet Baby James,” but several records by Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Jimmy Buffett. Sklar and Kunkel’s playing was tasteful and understated, with every note or beat serving the song. Kortchmar relished the times he could cut loose with a solo, like on “Smackwater Jack” and “Jazzman.”

The Section was augmented by a trio of backing singers and keyboard player Robbie Kondor. Singer Arnold McCuller took the crowd to church with his Gospel delivery during “Shower the People” that was the first big moment of the set. It made for a hard song to follow, but King pulled out one she wrote that was made famous by the Queen of Soul, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” When the chorus hit, everyone in the arena became part of the ensemble.

The evening ended with the quiet “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Accompanied only by Taylor’s guitar, the two sat side by side, King staring into Taylor’s eyes as she harmonized. As the last note rang out, she briefly rested her head on his shoulder before the two rose and strolled off, hand in hand.

“This reunion has been waiting to happen since the early ‘70s,” Taylor had said earlier. But for the fans present the question isn’t “What took you so long?” Rather, it’s “When are you coming back?”

Setlist: Blossom, So Far Away, Honey Don’t Leave L.A., Carolina On My Mind, Way Over Yonder, Smackwater Jack, Country Road, Sweet Seasons, Mexico, Song of Long Ago > Long Ago and Far Away, Beautiful, Shower the People, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Intermission. Copperline, Crying in the Rain, That Sweet Old Roll (Hi-De-Ho), Sweet Baby James, Jazzman, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Steamroller, It’s Too Late, Fire and Rain, I Feel the Earth Move, You’ve Got A Friend. Encore: Up on the Roof, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), You Can Close Your Eyes.

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roadrunner

Jr. Walker and the All-Stars – “(I’m A) Roadrunner,” Pop #20, R&B# 4

Not to be confused with similarly titled hit by Bo Diddley, or the great pre-punk anthem by the Modern Lovers, this “Roadrunner” is a pure Holland-Dozier-Holland confection. Jr. Walker has clearly overcome his earlier trepidation with the microphone to confidently deliver this paean to the open road. Answering his vocals with stinging sax lines, Walker proves to be his own best all-star. The elastic guitar lines show Shorty Long’s blues influence on the label, while the organ buried in the mix is the subtle glue that keeps the performance together.

The song isn’t even in the Top 5 of Walker’s biggest hits, but it’s held up better than better-charting songs like “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”

Walker’s ’60s sax rival King Curtis was the first to cover the song, but the enduring number was also covered by a post-Peter Green, pre-Lindsey Buckingham Fleetwood Mac, Jerry Garcia, Humble Pie, Peter Frampton and, most recently, James Taylor in 2008. – by Joel Francis

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