One thing about a maturing media like rock and roll is the aging of the artists (and the crowd–don’t remind me). Seeing an artist many times over a period of years really provides great opportunities to compare the quality and energy of a performance. Here are some thoughts and observations on some bands that I have recently seen who have each been performing for at least 30 years.
The Psychedelic Furs
Richard Butler loves, not hates. He twirls 360 degrees but not hurls. He still swings his arm snaps, his fingers and smiles like he did in 1981 when I first saw him. Still engaging and beatific, he embraces his fans. Not quite like the first years where the audience was a bunch of “fools” and the P-furs were full of angst. While this has been the mantra for the band for the last decade or more–for the first time I can recall the band eschewed playing anything from its first album. As long as the Psych Furs play with saxophone whiz Mars Williams there is always enough bravado to go with the dance music and Richard Butler’s gleaming presence. He can’t connect as an angry young man anymore as when I first saw him (in 1981?), nevertheless, he can deliver a song like “All of This and Nothing” cataloging the debris of a vacated apartment and the memories of a terminated relationship with appropriate pangs of bitterness and regret. There is still a lot of emotion to deliver to his audience–and love for it, that keeps his performance comfortable but strong.
When I first saw Roxy Music in 1978, I had never seen anyone with such a magic quality as Bryan Ferry. Long, lean and handsome-when he leaned to the left, women swooned to the left. When he leaned to the right, women swooned to the right. When he danced–everyone danced, and Roxy Music combined glam, prog rock and a little bit of synthetic dance. Today, Bryan Ferry is still one of the best (if not the best) interpreter of other people’s music. Whether its “Let’s Stick Together,” “Like A Hurricane”(with vicious guitar licks from Chris Spedding one of our great British guitarists), ‘I Put A Spell on You”, “Hold On, I’m Coming”, “Jealous Guy” or numerous Dylan songs, he shows respect for the original while amping up the rhythm or emotion as appropriate. Bryan still dresses in style, stays cool and surrounds himself with a Roxy-esque array of diversions and young talent, two female back up singers, a female sax and keyboard player (I missed Andy Mackay or he should have picked up Mars Williams), two guitarists–one young and one the 63 year old Spedding, keyboard/percussion, bass and drums together with live performance footage on psych/soul designs on a back screen. While mired with a bad sound mix for much of the night, Ferry managed to keep the show together, until the sound issues were resolved at a break. Part of his reserved style let him save his energy for a thunderous Editions of You combined with his obligatory Love is the Drug to leave the crowd dancing and hungry.
It was 37 years ago (scary) that I first saw Ray, during the Kinks self-indulgent Preservation stage. One thing about him is that he has never stopped being a ham, self-indulgent, innovative and an amazing songwriter. Even though he has had health difficulties Ray is still exuberant and energetic. Old songs of his like “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” which was written when he was 21, carry on new meaning to a rock and roller at 67 in the Autumn of his years, and his song to his brother Dave “A Long Way From Home” is no longer a song of jealousy and caution but of distance and regret. One thing you have to hand to old Ray is that while he knows how to deliver the goods with his hits, he also can re-invent himself and his songs–not as much as Dylan, but with enough newness to keep things current. His duets with Bill Shanley can countrify a song back to Muswell Hill or come close to his See My Friends sitar sound. His great back up band LA’s The 88 (who sent Ray a demo to be his band) are throwback to Ready Steady Go and other 60’s shows–happy to be where they are. , his work creating chorale-choir versions of Kink songs deserves some respect (though, frankly I am glad I missed his shows with the choir which were on the East Coast). Which I think counts for Ray too, as he prances and shimmies (and leaps, after changing into sneakers after the first part’s leather boots) very well thank you very much. My only serious criticism of Ray is that I wish he wouldn’t edit verses out of his own song. I personally would rather hear fewer complete songs than more incomplete songs. But with a repertoire like Ray’s, he really wants to mine it–and he comes up with relics like his mid-career Misfits and I guess I can’t blame him that much.
A thick lilting two-step like a cool breeze, accordian, violin and zaz–aligned, sometimes with the haunting voice of Sally Timms layered on top, like on Learning to Live, the Mekons are enjoyable to watch, listen and sway to. Sway is short of bounce, dance, pogo or thrash. But being comfortable in their sound is not the worst thing in the world. Just getting the whole band together couple of years has got to be a chore. I have to admit, though, that a certain spark seemed lacking. to me. To say a show is enjoyable would typically be a compliment but for The Mekons, who always seem to bring power, passion and humor to every show–mere enjoyment can be a slight letdown. Jon Langford’s power chords and angst were lost in the complacency. Orpheus–a song of almost unbounded energy–as well as lust and poetry- was is a cut below the power and meaning that they have wielded in the past and hope they can regain in the future. Yet, as grumpy as I can be, I can’t deny the aerial beauty of Sally Timms’ voice, sailing through clouds of Learning to Live over trippy accordian and violin. Maybe that is maturity.
Here is something I wrote in 2005 after seeing Shonen Knife for the first time (yes, I was late to the game) when I saw them and Guitar Wolf simultaneously and tried to decide which band best represented the Ramones.
“This three piece power combo from Japan was much more like the Ramones than Guitar Wolf. Shonen Knife had the punk chords, driving drums and fun feel of the early Ramones (far better than the Rezillos). While Naoko does not speak too much English she was able to say “I would like to play my favorite Ramones song” do one final encore of their favorite Ramones song “I Wanna Be Sedated” at 2:30 am, after the bar had closed.”
Now, in Shonen Knife’s 30th year anniversary, they are touring to support their new Osaka Ramones–Ramones cover album. But what was best about SK’s show was that they did not even mention it. For 90 minutes or so, the girls from Osaka played their simple and happy songs from Naoki’s career (the other two are not original). Each song included smiles and posings from the band, usually fists in the air. Whether the song was “I Like Cats” or “Anime Phenomenon” (about Japanese comic book characters), it really doesn’t matter that much because SK are really about the fun and freedom that rock and roll provides–which is exactly what the Ramones delivered while they were here. So, after a full set of fun jangly punk/power pop, it was a check and raise to the audience that the band came back and did a 5 song, mini-set encore of Ramones songs (Blitzkrieg Bop, Rock and Roll High School, The KKK Took My Baby Away, Beat on the Brat and Pinhead). The crowd went crazy into real happy and friendly/frenzied brownian motion pogoing–really a celebration of everything there is and was of non-intellectualized rock and roll-yay (gabba gabba)!