(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.
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.
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.
The sunglasses every artist wore onstage at Thursday’s Lilith Fair were more than a fashion accessory – they were as vital as the instruments.
For five of the festival’s eight hours of music, performers played directly into the sun. Singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson summed up the misery.
“It’s so hot out here I felt sweat dripping down my legs, and for a second there I thought I pulled a Fergie,” she said, referring to the pop star’s onstage pee incident.
The performers had it easy compared to the fans. After their 40-minute sets they could retreat to cooler confines. Fans had fewer options. Many ditched their seats and scrambled to whatever shade they could find. This made an already undersold Sandstone Amphitheater look even emptier.
All facilities past the second section of seating were closed. Drivers expecting to park in the main lot at the top of the hill were directed to the auxiliary lot. Fans with lawn tickets were upgraded to second-tier seats, while those with second-level seats could move down. As the sun shrank the crowd grew, filling most of the seating, but it was rough going for the early bands.
Vedera fared better than most acts. Sequestered to a tiny side stage, several hundred dedicated fans crowded into the awkward space to hear the local band deliver new gems like “Greater Than” and “Satisfy” in their half-hour set. Vedera was the last of three local acts, which also included singer/songwriters Julia Othmer and Sara Swenson.
Metric was the first band to appear on the main stage, and red flag the fact that holding an all-day event in a venue with little no cover was a poor idea. The relentless sun rendered moot any lighting or special effects. When it was finally dark enough for these tricks to emerge, the video screens captured a static image of the Lilith Fair logo, meaning fans in the back had no close-up view of events all day.
The four-piece indie band’s dark synth pop isn’t built for daylight. Sound problems plagued the first couple songs, but what the atmosphere didn’t kill the temperature did. When you’re sweating just standing still, it’s hard to be convinced to dance. Singer Emily Haines did a robotic dance to the Big Brother-esque lyrics of “Satellite Mind,” and prefaced “Gimme Sympathy” with a bit of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My.” Their set was heavy on last year’s “Fantasies,” but surprisingly did not include their contribution to the latest Twilight film, “Eclipse (All Yours).”
Michaelson had better success connecting with the sparse crowd with her jangly pop. Backed by a five-piece band, Michelson bookended her set with ironic covers, incorporating Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” into her own “Soldier” and closing with Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” which featured everyone onstage in a synchronized dance. Both moves drew big cheers. In between, she delivered her hit “The Way I Am,” which recalled Regina Spektor’s quirky vocal phrasing, the bouncy “Locked Up,” and new song “Parachute.”
Halfway through the Court Yard Hounds’ set, Emily Robison found herself in trouble.
“This is a quintessential chick song,” she said, intending to introduce Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight.” The chick the crowd knew, however, was Robison’s main gig with fellow Yard Hound and sister Martie Maguire, the Dixie Chicks. The unexpected burst of delight flummoxed Robison for a moment.
“No, no, not that chick,” she said, trying to recover. “I mean a hippie chick.”
Robison and Maguire released three Dixie Chicks albums before singer Natalie Maines arrived and turned the group into superstars. When Maines bowed out of making new music, the sisters soldiered on. Their sound hews closer to Americana and roots music than the Chicks’ pop country, but suffers without Maines’ feisty spirit. “It Didn’t Make A Sound” featured a nice honky tonk piano solo, and “The Coast” was a pleasant tribute to the sister’s native Texas beaches, but it was too gentle to engage the crowd.
Conversation ceased, however, when the sisters unleashed a furious bluegrass instrumental that had fans on their feet, clapping and stomping along. The set ended with a moment out of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” when Maguire’s 6-year-old twin daughters joined the ensemble, tentatively playing percussion alongside their mother.
Emmylou Harris is the Mother Maybelle Carter of her generation, collaborating with everyone from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Ryan Adams and Lyle Lovett. The artists everyone else on the bill respect as legends, she calls contemporaries. Yet even her distinct, wonderful voice wasn’t enough to sway the crowd. As with most artists during the day, the audience was divided between hardcore fans, politely curious listeners and everyone else, waiting impatiently for their act to appear. The ambitious and diverse bill ended up leaving everyone out at some point during the day.
Harris and her four-piece Red Dirt Band leaned heavily on her 1999 album “Red Dirt Girl,” mixing in the good old country of “Wheels” and “Born to Run” (a Paul Kennerly song, not a Bruce Springsteen cover). The most riveting moments were the a cappella gospel arrangement of “Calling My Children Home” and Harris’ own hymn, “The Pearl.”
Harris also shared the day’s best musical moment when she joined Sarah McLachlan on “Angel.” These multi-artist bills should have more of this synergy. Witnessing Harris and the Hounds collaborate on a Bill Monroe bluegrass number, or Haines join McLachlan on “Possession” would have been special events fans would treasure long after they had forgotten the heat and the ticket price.
It wasn’t until Heart took the stage at 8:45 that the fair had its first galvanizing musical moment. The raucous blast of “Barracuda” eradicated the gentle sway of the afternoon and invigorated a crowd that had traded the sun for the moon and was finally ready to move. Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson delivered a heavy slab of ‘70s rock that had fists pumping and hips shaking. Guitarist Nancy Wilson concluded her acoustic intro to “Crazy On You” with a scissor kick, cueing the rest of the six-piece band. Singer Ann Wilson was in top form, belting the refrain from the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” during their own “Even It Up” and easily finessing the dynamics of “Magic Man.”
Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan closed the day nearly eight hours after the first act appeared. The Vancouver native congratulated the crowd for braving the heat and rewarded them with many of her biggest hits, including “Building a Mystery,” “World On Fire” and “Adia.” She needlessly apologized before playing each of her three new songs, but the crowd responded well to those numbers as well.
Here’s a tip to established artists trying to introduce new songs: If you act proud of your new material, fans will be more likely to embrace it. Today’s new song is tomorrow’s sing-along.
The night ended with the gentle lilt of McLachlan’s “Ice Cream” before most of the day’s artists -– including Swenson, who shared a mic with the Court Yard Hounds -– joined together for a joyous romp through Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.”
Metric – “Twilight Galaxy,” “Satellite Minds,” “Help I’m Alive,” “Gold Guns Girls,” “Hey Hey, My My” > “Gimme Sympathy,” “Dead Disco.” Ingrid Michaelson – “Soldier” > “Pokerface,” “The Way I Am,” “Parachute,” “Maybe,” “Locked Up,” “The Way I Am,” “Toxic.”
Court Yard Hounds – “Delight (Something New Under the Sun,” “It Didn’t Make a Sound,” untitled new song, “Then Again,” “Fear of Wasted Time,” bluegrass instrumental, “The Coast,” “Ain’t No Son.”
Emmylou Harris – “Here I Am,” “Orphan Girl,” “Evangeline,” “Wheels,” “Born To Run,” “Calling My Children Home,” “Red Dirt Girl,” “Get Up John,” “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Shores of White Sand,” “The Pearl.”
Heart – “Barracuda,” “Straight On” “Even It Up/Gimme Shelter,” “WTF,” “Hey You,” “Red Velvet Car,” “Alone,” “Magic Man,” “Crazy On You.” Encore: “What Is and What Should Never Be.”
Sarah McLachlan – “Angel” (with Emmylou Harris), “Building a Mystery,” “Loving You Is Easy,” “World On Fire,” “I Will Remember You,” “Forgiveness,” “Adia,” “Out Of Tune,” “Sweet Surrender,” “Possession.” Encore: “Ice Cream,” “Because the Night” (with most of the day’s perfomers).
(Above: Stefani Germanotta goes gaga for John Lennon.)
A few random thoughts for this mid-week blog entry.
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
I’m looking forward to catching my first-ever Lilith Fair tomorrow night, but must admit I have several reservations. It’s never a good sign when Sarah McLachlan, the tour headliner and organizer, admits that ticket sales have been “soft.” Several dates were cancelled, and a quick glance at the temporarily unavailable TicketMaster instant seat locator showed that many of the remaining dates had vast sections of available seats. I don’t know how to fix the sour ticket industry (eliminating “convenience” fees and lowering prices spring to mind, but I’m sure it’s much more complicated), but I think Lilith hasn’t done itself any favors. Many of these problems could be fixed by paying more attention to the Lilith Fair Website.
Fans should be able to see where each artists performs without having to click on every date. Clicking an artist’s name brings up a highlighted list of her cities, but without dates. This is needlessly complex. Furthermore, the schedules for each city are missing. Eleven artists will play at Sandstone Amphitheater tomorrow night. Performances will start in the mid-afternoon. Approximate schedules should be posted weeks before each stop so fans will be able to make plans and adjust to be in place for their favorite performer. Each of these issues have easy solutions. Judging by the Website, it appears as if everyone threw in the towel long ago. These shows may be a loss, but fans still need to be cared for.
Lady Gaga and John Lennon
My little brother cracks me up. With very little coaching from me, he has become a huge Beatles fan. His Facebook posting the other day reminded me of something I would have written as his age. He was outraged that the “freak” Lady Gaga had covered “Imagine,” “the magnificent song by John Lennon.”
I can’t recall any Beatles covers drawing my ire, but for a brief period I grew very upset when rap producers (I’m looking at you, Diddy) were too reliant on the source material. “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Feel So Good” seemed like glorified karaoke to me. The kicker came when Jimmy Page and Tom Morello, two guitarists (read: “musicians”) I greatly respected helped Diddy rework Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for “Come With Me.”
I have mellowed over time. Now when I hear Gaga’s cover of “Imagine” I’m glad she has good taste and that someone is keeping Lennon’s music alive, however the performance rates.
In another lifetime, in another era I would have been a great producer at Rhino Records. I love scouring the catalogs of artists, unearthing gems from dismissed albums or periods. Much of this ends up in multi-volume anthologies, but these treasures also work as nice garnishing in a playlist.
The other day I was working with a friend who took great delight in all the solo Pete Townshend material I had sprinkled into a Who playlist (there were Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle solo offerings as well). He thought it was hilarious that I would venture beyond “You Better You Bet,” the band’s final classic single. I think he’s missing out. “Slit Skirts” and “Give Blood” may not be the second coming of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Substitute,” but they’re easily as good as anything that came after “Who By Numbers.”
This leads me to Ringo Starr. Obsessive that I am, I created anthologies for all the fallow periods in the solo Beatle catalogs – except Ringo. The Fab drummer’s 70th birthday last week caused me to reconsider this stance. So I dutifully investigated all of his albums. The critics weren’t wrong – there’s more bad than good. That said, there’s always at least one keeper on each album, and if I hadn’t been so dedicated I would have completely missed out on Ringo’s first two fantastic albums.
Ringo’s third solo album, 1973’s “Ringo” soaks up all the love but “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” are just as good, albeit for very different reasons. Both albums came out in 1970, and both clock in around 35 minutes. Both the brevity and timing work in Ringo’s favor. 1970 was both the best and worst year to be a Beatles fan. Sure the band broke up, but on the other hand fans got “Let It Be,” “McCartney,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Plastic Ono Band” and the aforementioned Ringo platters.
Although they hit shelves only six months apart, “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” couldn’t be more different. Both albums are genre exercises, but the big-band swing of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” is both geographically and generationally separated from the country twang of “Loser’s Lounge.” Yet Ringo’s enthusiasm and personality shines through both project, making them an infectious and irresistible listen.
Neither album will replace “Abbey Road” or “A Hard Day’s Night,” but they easily trump “Red Rose Speedway,” “Extra Texture” or “Some Time in New York City.” Better yet, they can be found easily and cheaply on vinyl. Do yourself a favor and grab ‘em next time you haunt the bins.