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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.

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