(Above: The re-tooled BoDeans cover the Boss at a recent stop on their American Made tour. This is the band’s first outing without founding member Sam Llanas.)
By Joel Francis The Kansas City Star
The urgency in Kurt Neumann’s voice was so strong that he repeated the phrase twice before ending the show: “Buy ‘American Made’ and we’ll come back and play for you.” Translation: we need you to buy our new album to keep going.
Neumann has a lot pushing against him right now. His band, the BoDeans, had a handful of near-hits and big opportunities in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Neumann is determined to be something more than a nostalgia act.Sunday’s 90-minute concert at Knucklehead’s was a defiant statement. Neumann confidently mixed songs from “American Made” with the band’s classic. Most importantly proved he could carry the BoDeans without founding member, songwriting partner and stage foil Sam Llanas.
Llanas may have been missed on the setlist – there was no “Feed the Fire,” “Far Far Away” or “Runaway” – but the fans flooded to the dance floor for “Texas Ride Song” and kept it crowded for most of the night.
The setlist bounced between four decades of work, but the songs all carried the same earthy rock feel that defied time. The new group of players Neumann assembled in the wake of Llanas’ departure brought a freshness to the material and were playing with something to prove.
Percussion player Alex Marrerro enhanced Neumman’s lead vocals with his high harmonies. The interplay between Warren Hood’s violin and longtime member Michael Ramos’ accordion and organ often recalled the roots/zydeco sound of John Mellencamp’s heyday. During “The Ballad of Jenny Rae,” guitarist Jake Owen slipped in a tribute to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord.
Between songs, Neumann was chipper, explaining how a snowstorm in Montana inspired “Idaho” (the title state provided an easier rhyme) and plugging new single “All the World,” which is getting some airplay on CMT. The introductions to the Johnny Cash-inspired “Flyaway” and “Paradise” revealed similar themes of a positive mindset as the ultimate freedom.
Neumann was smart enough to know that the road to the future will be paved with his past, closing with four fan favorites that got everyone on their feet. He called it a night with “Closer to Free,” the song that served as the theme to “Party of Five” and landed the band in the Top 10. As the audience sang along, it’s hard to imagine the message didn’t resonant with the players onstage as well.
Set list: Stay On, Texas Ride Song, Good Work, Flyaway, The Ballad of Jenny Rae, Tied Down and Chained, Paradise, Idaho, All the World, Angels, American, Fade Away > Good Things. Encore: Still the Night, Closer to Free.
Several years ago and less than a quarter mile from the gigantic Farm Aid stage at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., Willie Nelson welcomed Bob Dylan onto the stage. It wasn’t that big of a surprise – the pair was playing minor league ballparks together for the first time that summer – but it was incredible to watch the two titans collaborate.
Despite Farm Aid’s star power, Saturday’s nearly 11-hour musical marathon/fundraiser didn’t feature any similar big-name collaborations but that’s about the biggest disappointment that could be leveled at the day.
The first of 16 artists went onstage at 1 p.m., but it wasn’t until Hearts of Darkness, Kansas City’s Afro-beat ensemble, came out a half hour later that the stadium started feeling less like a dress rehearsal and more like a concert.
The first half of the day was heavy on folkies and country music legends. Ray Price, 85, looked frail, but his deep baritone voice is immortal. His delivery on songs like “For the Good Times” and “City Lights” still pack the same emotional punch as it did when they were recorded nearly 40 years ago. Billy Joe Shaver proved to be spry at 71 as he hooted and scooted his way through “Wacko from Waco,” “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Honky-Tonk Heroes.” It would have been great to witness either Shaver or Price duet with Nelson – Price and Nelson have recorded a handful of albums together – but with mid-afternoon sets, the two were likely well-settled in their hotel rooms by the time Nelson ended the day several hours later.
Robert Francis and British actress Rebecca Pigeon (the only female performer on the bill) each delivered 30-minute sets of fine folk music, but the only performance that stood out was Francis’ cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”
The final acts before the headliners could have filed under nepotism, but provided some of the daytime’s strongest moments. With a singing voice eerily similar to his dad’s, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real married Texas blues with the Allman Brothers Band’s Southern boogie. Backed by former Wallflowers pianist Rami Jaffee, Jakob Dylan delivered several of his old band’s biggest hits, including “Sixth Avenue Heartache,” “Sleepwalker” and “One Headlight.” At times, the pairing of Dylan and Jaffee recalled Tom Petty’s more delicate work with Heartbreakers ivoryman Benmont Tench.
The unfortunate dud in this stretch came unexpectedly from Jamey Johnson, who despite getting an assist from Lukas Nelson and a solid six-piece band filled his time with too many mid-tempo numbers that failed to ignite both onstage and in the crowd.
Taking the stage shortly before 7 p.m., Mraz faced the biggest crowd of the day so far and drew more applause than any of the preceding acts. Mraz got an assist delivering his bouncy acoustic folk/pop from longtime friend Toca Rivera on percussion and backing vocals. Their jazzy version of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (a.k.a. Mr. Roger’s theme song) drew a big reaction.
Several of his songs fit well with the day’s themes. Mraz said he wrote “Frank D. Fixer” for Farm Aid about the first farmer he knew, his grandpa. The second verse, ending with the line “what happened to the family farm?” was especially poignant.
Primed by Mraz, Dave Matthews fans were more than ready for their hero. Matthews – with help from guitarist Tim Reynolds – didn’t disappoint. His 45-minute set was packed with sing-alongs “Crush,” “Where Are You Going?” and the set-closing “Dancing Nancies.”
The crowd was ready for more singing when John Mellencamp emerged with his five-piece band, but Mellencamp played on his own terms. Detours through “Walk Tall,” “Death Letter Blues” and “If I Die Sudden” confused an assembly clamoring for the hits, but they were ultimately rewarded with a spectacular performance of “Check It Out” along with Farm Aid anthem “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town” and “Pink Houses.” A quiet reading of “Jackie Brown” performed only by Mellencamp and violinist Miriam Sturm was another highlight.
Neil Young needed only a harmonica and acoustic guitar to take the title of the day’s best set. He only played six songs, but the first three were a murder’s row of favorites: “Comes A Time,” “Sugar Mountain” and “Long May You Run.” Attention spans may have wandered during Young’s sermons against corporate farms and a pair of songs from last year’s excellent “Le Noise,” but he easily won the audience back with the opening chords of “Heart of Gold.” This was the fourth time I’ve seen Young but my first with him in coffeehouse mold. Experiencing these songs in such an intimate way was powerful and emotional, leaving me with goosebumps and a lump in my throat.
After Young’s transcendental set anything would be anti-climatic, and Willie Nelson drew the short straw for ending the day. While neither Mellencamp nor Young emerged beyond their appointed times, Nelson worked the stage all day, opening the concert, accepting checks and thanking people. Understandably fatigued, Nelson’s set was light on his biggest songs – “Whiskey River,” “Still is Still Moving” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” were the only chestnuts delivered.
He turned the mic over to his son for a blistering version of “Texas Flood” and the family tribute “Fathers and Mothers.” Blessed with a second wind, Willie Nelson serenaded the host city with “Kansas City.” Several backing musicians from the previous bands came back out to help with a trio of gospel numbers that wove through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light” before ending bizarrely on “Roll Me Up,” a brand new Nelson song with the refrain “roll me up and smoke me when I die.” The subject was incongruous, but the music stayed in the same jubilant spirit.
Nelson’s herb of choice may not be a crop farmers can plant, but it was fitting end to a day focused on agriculture.
(Above: Big Head Todd and the Monsters burn down the house with the mellow, jangly “City on Fire.”)
By Joel Francis The Kansas City Star
Less than four months after swinging through town in their rootsy Big Head Blues Club guise, the Colorado quartet Big Head Todd and the Monsters delivered a full-on rock show Saturday night at Crossroads KC.
February’s show at the Midtown was a tribute to Robert Johnson, complete with guests like celebrated blues sidemen Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton. Although the most recent show didn’t have all of the former’s trappings and production, it still felt like an upbeat homage to the blues and the Monster’s influences.
The 100-minute set featured a couple Johnson numbers, both rearranged to the point that it’s doubtful that Johnson’s ghost would recognize them as his own. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” rested on a loping bassline until the end. The band seemed to change its mind at the coda and switched to a more traditional arrangement that served them well.
The best numbers were the ones that traded the band’s effortlessly smooth sound for chutzpah. Frontman Todd Park Mohr showed surprising grit and gravitas tackling John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. It is no coincidence that the show’s two highest moments pivoted on the readings of “Smokestack Lightnin’” and Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” and “Boom Boom.”
Several numbers, such as “Sister Sweetly” and “Back to the Garden,” mined the electric organ and wah wah guitar sound of Parliament/Funkadelic. “Neckbreaker” combined the lyrical style of Jimi Hendrix with the chaotic bridge from “Whole Lotta Love.”
Other surprising facets of the band’s sound included John Mellencamp on “Dinner with Ivan” and Bob Dylan and the Band on the excellent “City on Fire” and “Rocksteady,” which used the same chord progression as “All Along the Watchtower.” Keyboard player Jeremy Lawton frequently channeled Steve Winwood or Ray Manzarek. His beefy parts helped the lofty choruses soar even higher.
The Monsters work hard, but their sound is so polished that even when Mohr is powering through a solo the overall performance still sounds laid-back. It’s hard to be offended by the band’s understated pop melodies, but it’s also hard to get too excited about them. Ergo, the lawn at Crossroads was barely a third full, at best. Everyone there was either a die-hard fan, or didn’t have anything better to do.
By the time the house lights briefly came on before the encore, it seemed everyone who wasn’t a big-time fan had long moseyed to the exit. Those who remained, however, were treated to two of the band’s biggest and best numbers, “Broken Hearted Savior” and “Circle.”
Setlist: All the Love You Need; Sister Sweetly; Come On In My Kitchen; Dinner With Ivan; Bittersweet; Last Fair Deal Gone Down; Neckbreaker; Smokestack Lightnin’; Cashbox; Helpless; City On Fire; Back to the Garden; Under A Silvery Moon; Dirty Juice; Conquistador; Boogie Chillen/Boom Boom; It’s Alright; Rocksteady. Encore: Broken-Hearted Savior; Circle.
(Above: John Mellencamp tells the story of Jackie Brown at the Midland Theater in Kansas City.)
By Joel Francis The Kansas City Star
Friday night’s sold-out John Mellencamp show at the Midland Theater was the tale of two concerts. For the first 90 minutes, Mellencamp used his vast songbook to explore the nooks and crannies of American music. Opener “Authority Song” was stripped of its big country riff and rode bare bones on the spare bass and drum line. Later in the show, “Jack and Diane” was given the same treatment, with Miriam Strum’s violin shouldering the melody.
“No One Cares About Me” resembled prime-era Johnny Cash with a boom-chicka rhythm section and guitarist Andy York doing his best Carl Perkins impression. “Deep Blue Heart” sounded like an outtake from Bob Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind.”
While there weren’t any jump-to-your-feet, hands-in-the-air climaxes during this part, there were a few goose bump-inducing moments. The smallest moments were the biggest, like Mellencamp’s poignant solo, acoustic delivery of “Jackie Brown,” where he was joined by Strum at the end.
A subdued “Check It Out” had the wistful air of someone watching their grandchildren play in the yard. Later, the entire theater clapped and sang along as Mellencamp sang “Cherry Bomb” without his band or his guitar.
It was clear, however, that the crowd wasn’t expecting a low-key evening. The chatter from the bar downstairs floated into the balcony during the quiet “Longest Days.” Story/songs “Right Behind Me” and “Easter Eve” lacked a traditional chorus and struggled to captivate the crowd.
After the beautiful violin/accordion duet of “New Hymn,” the full drum kit that had been tantalizing the crowd all night was finally put to use. Starting with the heartland hymn “Rain on the Scarecrow,” Mellencamp and his six-piece backing band cut loose and delivered 30 minutes of the expected energetic sing-alongs. With each song, the band raised the volume and dropped formality. Singles like “Pink Houses” drew the biggest responses, while the band seemed to relish trotting out album cuts “The Real Life” and “No Better Than This.”
In a way, Mellencamp served as his own opening act. As the audience found their seats an hour-long documentary played. The film showed Mellencamp on tour and as he recorded his latest album at Sun Studios in Memphis, the San Antonio hotel room where Robert Johnson once recorded, and First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga.
Mellencamp recorded the album using a single microphone to capture the entire band in one take. The approach may puzzle some fans, but it’s clear from the first half of the night that his songwriting chops are as strong as ever. The struggle will be to win fans over to new arrangements and sounds that don’t resemble the long-loved radio hits.
After a little more than two hours, the house lights were up, and Mellencamp was safely shuttled to his Airstream trailer parked behind the building. A large portion of the crowd lingered, whistling and clapping in vain as the stage was cleared. The evening wasn’t a complete success, but it was enough to leave them wanting more.
Setlist: Authority Song; No One Cares About Me; Deep Blue Heart; Death Letter; Walk Tall; The West End; Check It Out; Save Some Time To Dream (solo, acoustic); Cherry Bomb (a capella); Don’t Need This Body; Right Behind Me; Jackie Brown (solo, acoustic); Longest Days; Easter Eve; Jack and Diane; Small Town (solo, acoustic); New Hymn; Rain on the Scarecrow; Paper and Fire; The Real Life; Human Wheels; If I Die Sudden; No Better Than This; Pink Houses; R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
Earlier this week, Billboard reported the booklet in the new Mariah Carey CD will contain “lifestyle ads.”
The 34-page “mini-magazine” will be co-produced by Elle magazine and house ads for Elizabeth Arden, Angel Champagne, Carmen Steffens, Le Métier de Beauté and the Bahamas Board of Tourism. The booklet will also contain Carey-centric articles with the enticing titles like “VIP Access to Her Sexy Love Life,” “Amazing Closet,” “Recording Rituals.”
Evidently the music wasn’t enough.
Annoying as the ad campaigns may have been, there have been no Chevy ads in Bob Seeger or John Mellencamp albums. Other artists have been less scrupulous about whoring their album space, but were never this brazen. Master P turned the booklets for all his No Limit artists into mini-catalogs, and Outkast frequently squeezed ads for their pit bulls alongside lyrics and musician credits. At least those performers had a stake in the products in question.
Carey’s move is more egregious on several levels. First, retailers have already found ways to cross-promote. According to the Billboard story, Walmart will display Carey’s album next to her Arden fragrance Forever, which has an ad on the back cover of the CD booklet. Even more disturbingly, Island-Def Jam, Carey’s label, has eyed Rihanna, Bon Jovi and Kanye West to follow suit if the initial venture is a success. Carey has never been a bastion of artistry, but if the major labels can turn a buck from this experiment, expect ads in CD booklets to become the norm.
“The idea was really simple thinking: ‘We sell millions of records, so you should advertise with us,’” Antonio “L.A.” Reid, chairman, Island Def Jam Music Group, a unit of Universal Music Group, told Billboard.
Fans who buy the album digitally through iTunes or Amazon will also be subjected to the advertising. The ads will also be included in the electronic PDFs accompanying download sales. The only way to circumvent the booklet blights is the easiest and cheapest solution: ignore Carey or steal the music. Until the major labels start respecting the listeners, there is absolutely no reason to respect them.