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(Above: The Rainmakers perform “Another Guitar,” one of the more subdued moments in a long, rowdy night.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Rainmakers took a packed house all over the map Saturday night at Knuckleheads.

Cities like Tokyo, Omaha, Minneapolis, Boston and St. Louis cropped up in “Downstream,” “Snake Dance” and, of course, “Missouri Girl.” Lead singer and songwriter Bob Walkenhorst implored listeners to “walk on the edge of the world” on “Width of a Line” and to visit “The Other Side of the World.”

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A Missouri native, Walkenhorst also referenced Carroll County, where he grew up, in setting up “Lakeview Man,” and nearby Ray County, the inspiration for “Swinging Shed.”

The four-piece roots-rock band started in the 1980s but took breaks in the 1990s and 2000s. Partway through the night, Walkenhorst mentioned the group’s 25th anniversary reunion show at Knuckleheads nearly four years ago to the day.

“That was intended to be a one-time, thank-you show,” Walkenhorst said. “But there were just too many new songs that kept coming up that needed a home.”

A second batch of songs were given a home late last month on “Monster Movie,” the quartet’s seventh studio album. Early in the show, Walkenhorst thanked fans who had already picked up the new album and promised everyone else a preview.

He wasn’t kidding. The concert opened with “Monster’s first three tracks, and all but two of its dozen songs were played during the night. The new material wasn’t as familiar, but it didn’t take prompting to get fans to sing along to the title song and dance to everything else.

One new song, “Your Time Has Come,” was dedicated to guitarist Jeff Porter’s son, who decided to celebrate his 21st birthday listening to his dad. Two longtime fans from North Dakota who drove in to experience the band in concert for the first time got a shout-out before “Shiny Shiny.”

photo (1)At more than 2 and a half hours and almost 40 songs, the marathon set gained steam as it progressed. The clock was nearing midnight when the band played around with “Drinking on the Job,” incorporating bits of “Going to Kansas City,” “Hey Paula” and “One Toke Over the Line.”

Admitting he had no idea where the song was heading, Walkenhorst, Porter and bass player Rich Ruth then paused for an adult beverage before finishing “Drinking on the Job.” That number went right into a spirited “Hoo Dee Hoo,” which stormed into “I Talk With My Hands.”

That would have been a perfect ending, but the band decided to make the performance legendary. It returned to burn through another four songs, including a monstrous “Big Fat Blonde,” before finally saying good night.

Even then no one, onstage or off, seemed ready to leave. As the crowd shuffled out, it had more to look forward to, because this show will be almost as much fun to relive in memory as it was to experience initially.

Set list: Sh-thole Town; Monster Movie; Who’s at the Wheel; Tornado Lane; The Other Side of the World; Snake Dance; Save Some For Me; The One That Got Away; Miserable; Missouri Girl; Width of a Line; Long Gone Long; Thirteenth Spirit; Your Time Has Come; The Wages of Sin; Reckoning Day; Believe in Now; Another Guitar; Given Time; Small Circles; Dogleg; Lakeview Man; Swinging Shed; Government Cheese; Spend It On Love; Battle of the Roses; Downstream; Shiny Shiny; Rockin’ at the T-Dance; Information; Drinking on the Job; Hoo Dee Hoo; I Talk With My Hands. Encore: Let My People Go-Go; One More Summer; Big Fat Blonde; Go Down Swinging.

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By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

For the first time in more than 20 years, the Pixies rolled into town in support of new material.

The influential college rock quartet has now been around longer as a reunion act than in their initial stint. Reunited contemporaries like Dinosaur Jr. have released multiple new albums, making the paucity of new Pixies material – two songs – even more glaring. That changed late last year when lead singer/songwriter Black Francis dropped four new songs on an EP and followed it up with four more last month.

All but one of those songs were played when the band performed at the Midland Theater on Tuesday night. Toss in the single “Bagboy” and the as-yet unrecorded “Silver Snail” and new material comprised nearly a third of the band’s setlist. The new recordings received a mix reception online, but for the most part they worked in concert.

The appropriately noisy “What Goes Boom” blended seamlessly with the band’s cover of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On.” Later, in a quieter moment, Francis segued from “In Heaven (Lady in Radiator)” to “Andro Queen.” The songs were recorded 26 years apart, but sounded onstage like they were pulled from the same session.

JfDKB.St.81“Bone Machine” announced the band’s presence, and although the thumping bassline that introduced the song was familiar the musician wasn’t. Paz Lenchantin, a veteran of A Perfect Circle and Billy Corgan’s Zwan, filled the gaping hole left when founding member Kim Deal departed last June.

Lenchantin didn’t have any problems replicating Deal’s basslines, but her thin voice was often buried in the mix.The band arrived as if shot out of a cannon, blasting through the first eleven songs in less than 30 minutes.

Doing their best Ramones impression, the band rarely paused between songs and hardly acknowledged the near-capacity crowd before barreling into the next number. The songs were never rushed, but they were definitely urgent.

Some of the best moments were the demented rockabilly of “Brick is Red” and the surf guitar intro to “Ana.” Guitarist Joey Santiago got plenty of time to play with feedback during “Vamos,” one of the few times the band deviated from the recorded arrangement. A medley of “Nimrod’s Son” and “Holiday Song” started with“Nimrod” at full speed before bouncing into “Holiday Song.” A slowed-down arrangement of “Nimrod” closed the medley.

At 33 songs and 100 minutes, the band devoted plenty of time to exhume some deep cuts from its catalog, and deliver most of its biggest songs (including both versions of “Wave of Mutilation”). Francis let the crowd take over the choruses on “Where is My Mind?” and “Here Comes Your Man.” Given the band’s underground legacy, it was odd to see fists pumping in the air with every “chien” on the chorus of “Debaser,” but the quartet definitely knew how to work the theater crowd.

The Pixies first reunion concert in Kansas City was a victory lap. The second concert was a celebration of their greatest album. This third visit was a view of the Pixies as a working band, trying to prove they still have plenty to say. They do.

Setlist: Bone Machine; Wave of Mutilation; U-Mass > Head On (Jesus and Mary Chain cover); What Goes Boom; Distance Equals Rate Times Time; Ilsa de Encanto; Monkey Gone to Heaven; Ana; Brick is Red; I’ve Been Tired; Magdalena; Cactus; Gouge Away; Bagboy; Blue Eyed Hext; Crackity Jones; unknown song; Veloria; Havalena; Snakes; Silver Snail; In Heaven (Lady in Radiator); Andro Queen, Indie Cindy; Greens and Blues; Where is My Mind?; Here Comes Your Man; Vamos; Nimrod’s Son/Holiday Song (medley); Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf). Encore: Debaser; Planet of Sound.

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(Above: Toad the Wet Sprocket perform “I’ll Bet On You,” a new song that would fit comfortably on any best-of collection.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Toad the Wet Sprocket, the ’90s alternative to alternative music, seemed to be the victims of bad timing. Sure, the band scored two platinum albums and a handful of Top 40 singles, but it was too late (and soft) to be considered college rock and too early for indie rock.

The band’s break-up in 1998 didn’t create any waves. There was no critical re-evaluation of its catalog or new fans clamoring to the legend. Toad was just gone.

On Friday night at the Uptown Theater, 16 years after Toad’s last album, the band reminded fans what they had been missing and delivered hope of a promising future as well.

More than half of the 100-minute set drew from the “Fear” and “Dulcinea” albums, Toad’s best and best-selling releases. The sing-alongs came fast and furious, starting with “Good Intentions” and continuing through “All I Want,” “Nightingale Song,” “Brother” and “Fall Down.”

toadNestled among those chestnuts were five tracks from Toad’s upcoming new album. Singles like “New Constellation” and “Bet on Me” didn’t show any of the lapsed time between recording sessions and fit comfortably in the band’s sound. The fans may not have been singing along with these songs yet, but there’s a good bet they will the next time Toad rolls through town.

The old songs sound pretty much like they did two decades ago. Touring guitarist Johnny Hawthorne added nice texture to “Windmills” and “Walk on the Ocean” with his pedal steel. His mandolin was a nice touch on “Nightingale Song” and “Come Back Down.”

Lead guitarist Todd Nichols was given the mic for “Inside” and “Crazy Life.” During “Come Down,” one of the band’s biggest Kickstarter donors was invited onstage to play cowbell.

Singer Glen Phillips seemed as surprised as anyone at the band’s reception. The Kickstarter campaign to fund a new album raised more than a quarter of a million dollars in two months. While the Uptown wasn’t close to full — the balcony was open, but the sparse crowd upstairs could have easily fit among all the empty seats downstairs — Phillips commented on the audience reception several times. Without major publicity, he said, fans have been finding their own way back to the band.

The world may not have been asking for a Toad the Wet Sprocket reunion, but Friday’s show made a strong case for it being a good idea.

Setlist: The Moment; Woodburning; Good Intentions; Crowing; Windmills; New Constellation; Inside; All I Want; Whatever I Fear; Come Back Down; Nightingale Song; Something’s Always Wrong; The Eye; Crazy Life; Jam; California Wasted; Brother; Fall Down. Encore: Come Down; Bet on Me; Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie cover); Walk on the Ocean.
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(Above: John Lydon made his first post-Sex Pistols statement with “Public Image.” “Rise” is one of PiL’s most accessible tunes. Here the reunited band performs them at the 2010 Coachella music festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

There was nothing rotten about the performance John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. delivered Monday night at the Midland Theater. Faced with a miniscule crowd in a minor market on a weeknight, Lydon and the band could have phoned in their performance and few would have known. The four-piece band held nothing back during the high-energy, two hour show.

Public Image Ltd., or PiL, is the band Lydon formed after the Sex Pistols imploded. Although the band carried on for 15 years, its catalog can be broken down into two distinct eras. The first three albums were a conscious deconstruction of the Pistols mythology, filled with long, heavy, experimental pieces. Later work boiled down to Lydon solo projects under the PiL name produced with a rotating cast of musicians (including, incredibly, Steve Vai).

The reconstituted PiL, back together for the first time since disbanding in 1992, drew equally from both eras, and tossed in a couple numbers from Lydon’s 1997 solo release for good measure. Older numbers, like the magnificent “Poptones,” the epic “Albatross” or “Chant” were studies in texture and ambience. As the rhythm section of Bruce Smith on drums and new member Scott Firth on bass anchored the songs, guitarist Lu Edmonds welded huge blocks of sound which Lydon penetrated effortlessly with his shrill voice.

The backing trio clearly enjoyed having the space to stretch out and play with different sounds. Firth and Edmonds sparred on “Flowers of Romance” before Edmonds delivered his first solo of the night on an electric banjo. Firth switched to upright electric bass for several numbers which added extra punch to Smith’s cadences.

Although Lydon was about the same age as his gray-haired compatriots he appeared decades younger. His head was shaved, save long, blonde spikes on top that looked like a mischievous crown. After removing a red vest early in the night, Lydon was clad entirely in black. He kept a lyric book on a music stand near his mic and although he rarely looked at them during a number, he dutifully turned the page after each song. When Lydon was really feeling the music, he would hop up and down or do a robo-monster march, a manic expression plastered on his face.

While the older material was dark and amorphous, the newer songs were bright, poppy and quite danceable. The set opened with PiL’s biggest number, “This Is Not a Love Song.” Later, “Sun” was delivered via acoustic guitar and mouth organ. As Lydon led the crowd in sing-along, the arrangement almost had a klezmer feel. “Disappointed” got the biggest reaction during the main set and had everyone near the stage bouncing. Lydon later joked about the song’s message of forgiveness didn’t quite stand with the cynicism of his other tunes.

During his four decades in the spotlight, Lydon has cultivated a reputation for acerbically speaking his mind, and he didn’t disappoint onstage Monday. “Warrior” contained a political diatribe and a few not-so-kind words for Sarah Palin. Lydon introduced “Religion” as “a song that is 30 years old and as accurate as ever.” He then made a few comments about the Pope that won’t be earning him a Vatican invite any time soon.

The night ended with “Public Image,” the song that most resembles Lydon’s former band, and the upbeat “Rise,” which contains an interpretation of the Irish blessing “may the road rise to meet you.” “Open Up,” Lydon’s collaboration with the techno duo Leftfield, closed the night. As the crowd danced to the heavy bed of looped synthesizers, Lydon’s voice panned and swirled around the room.

As the band waved good night, the punk provocateur let his guard drop with a fleeting moment of sincerity when thanked everyone from the bottom of his heart for coming out. The tiny crowd comfortably filled the first two tiers on the floor, but the third was sparse and the fourth was empty.There were a few dozen people sitting on chairs in the back, but the entire audience could have probably crammed into the Beaumont Club. That venue may have been more size-appropriate, but it wouldn’t have been much fun. PiL had no problem filling the vast Midland, and Lydon’s outsized persona needed – and deserved – a bigger stage.

Setlist: This Is Not A Love Song, Poptones, Memories, Tie Me to the Length of That, Albatross, Death Disco, Flowers of Romance, Psychopath, Warrior, USLS 1, Disappointed, Sun, Bags, Chant, Rise, Religion. Encore: Public Image, Rise, Open Up.

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(Above: The Stooges do “1969” in 2007.)

By Joel Francis

When Ron Asheton started playing electric guitar in the mid-’60s, there were no signs pointing the way he wanted to go. The Beatles were just starting to experiment with feedback and backwards instrumentation on their albums; Pink Floyd was buried in the London underground and Andy Warhol had yet to champion the Velvet Underground (not that many were paying attention anyhow).

The closest things to the sounds in his head were Pete Townshend’s guitar riff on The Who’s “My Generation,” the surf guitar instrumentals of Dick Dale and the dirty blues of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.

By the time Asheton, his brother Scott, and their longtime friend Dave Alexander hooked up with fellow Ann Arbor, Mich. musician Jim Osterberg there were a few more road signs. Home state natives the MC5 had kicked out their jams, and the free jazz freak-outs of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders were regularly released on the Impulse label. But there still weren’t many fellow travelers on the Asheton brothers’ weird road during the Summer of Love. Osterberg, who would soon call himself Iggy Pop, was one hitchhiker they had to pick up.

Four years later, it was mostly over. In retrospect, it’s amazing the band lasted that long. The Stooges two albums, released in 1969 and 1970, were rawer than razor burn, more violent than the 1968 Democratic Convention and as combustible as the Hindenburg. When it was over, Asheton’s guitar work pointed the way that nearly every guitarist since has followed, or at lease acknowledged.

It’s difficult to imagine the furious stomp of the White Stripes and the six-string perversions of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr without the expanded palette Asheton created. The Sex Pistols and the Damned both covered “No Fun” in concert. Heck, the blueprint of the grunge movement was mostly hijacked from the Stooges’ designs.

Of course David Bowie prodded the Stooges to reconvene in 1973 for “Raw Power,” but it wasn’t the same. Iggy’s name was out front and Asheton was confined to the bass guitar by Ig’s new best bud, James Williamson. There was even a piano player! Asheton’s rightful place on lead guitar was restored when the Stooges reunited a generation later for a couple guest shots on Iggy’s solo album, an R.L. Burnside tribute and, finally, an album of their own, but by then they were no longer leaders.

Ron Asheton’s name rarely comes up in “Guitar God” discussions. The music he made nearly 40 years ago remains difficult to assimilate by mainstream tastes. And like his long-overdue adulation, it took people a while to figure out he was gone. Six days after dying from a heart attack, Asheton’s body was discovered in his Ann Arbor apartment.

There was no obituary in the New York Times and little mention on the 24-hour news channels, but somewhere in heaven a white cloud is tarnished with soot and Asheton’s scary noise is driving the harp-plucking cherubs out of their minds. Which is as it should be.

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