Air, is the French duo who have been steadily releasing exceptional recordings since 1995. Best known for the electronica-infused 1998 release “Moon Safari“, which spawned the single “Sexy Boy”, their work has been featured in the films “Virgin Suicides”, and “Lost in Translation” among others. Their brand of electronic music has been inspired by and could be compared to several synthesizer-driven brands of “space rock” and pop including Jean Michael Jarre, Tangerine Dream and even Pink Floyd. Their live shows transcend the studio recordings and emphasize psychedelic jams such as “Don’t be Light” from 2001’s “10 000 HZ Legend“.
After a 3 year hiatus, Air returned to the bay area to back their 2009 release “Love 2“. Now touring as a trio on keyboards, bass, and drum, they delivered another superior live performance for a packed house at the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA. From early lounge tracks such as “La Femme d’Argent” to the current vocoder-driven track “Love” they alternated between electronica, space, and pop influences keeping the set tight and powerful and very different from most bands from the last dozen years.
For many who may have heard early recordings by this duo, their more recent albums and live experience would come as a pleasant surprise. Any fears that the show might be too languid or dull would be shattered by the reality that this band stages very compelling concerts. Air is carrying the torch of quality music today and is highly recommended.
In the rock business, there is a fine line between “rock ’em” and “hokum”. The 70’s classic rock band Styx always rode that thin line tightly, alternating between melodic, symphonic “prog-ish” flavored tracks alongside more hard rocking southern-rock infused works. Never striding out as close to the edge as Yes, Genesis, or other English bands, they were more in line with American counterparts Kansas, Boston, Journey and Foreigner. Singer keyboardist Dennis DeYoung tended towards the softer and sometimes more progressive side, penning hits such as “Babe”, “Lady” and “Come Sail Away” while singer guitarist Tommy Shaw composed the harder edged tracks typified by “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man”. Additional guitar player composer James Young fit comfortably in the middle. In general, the enthusiasm and sincerity of this band sold their theatrical presentation to those skeptical of their hard rocking credentials, many of whom had been drawn in by the band’s 1977 masterwork, “The Grand Illusion“.
I saw the band at their peak in 1978, on the tour supporting “Pieces of Eight“. They put on an incredible show, with the three main composers sharing center stage, balancing their varied styles and themes. But by the time of their concept album “Kilroy Was Here” in 1983, the “hokum” arguably outweighed the “rock ’em” and songs such as “Mr. Robato” were widely parodied. After that release and subsequent tour, Tommy Shaw left the band. There have been several reformations and versions of Styx since that time, led by Dennis or Tommy but seldom reuniting both. I did not see the band perform again until this month at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco some, ahem, 30+ years since the first time.
Styx have been back at it led by Tommy Shaw for the last ten years, and performing at a level that in many ways tops their younger incarnation. Without Dennis, this version of the band is free to focus on their harder rocking side, focusing on Tommy’s aforementioned hits, and well as going deeper into the back catalog to play authentic guitar driven gems from their mid-70’s releases. They are exuberant, enthusiastic, tight, and all in the great physical shape it takes to deliver such a show. A bit of that unrestrained theatricality is still there, particularly in the pianist who covers Dennis DeYoung tracks while spinning his keyboard and striking poses worthy of the best rock-disciples. But with virtuoso level playing, accurate four part harmony’s, and overall delivery, this band is delivering shows absolutely worth checking out. See them as headliners, rather than packaged for the sheds, and see for yourself!
Quick note to say that Devo celebrated their 1980 release “Freedom of Choice” by playing it all to a packed house on November 7, 2009 at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. We attended this show rather than that of the prior evening when they played “Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo“. We picked the second show given that “Freedom” was a more popular work, including hits “Whip It”, “Girl U Want” and the title track, all of which would be more familiar to my companions. The show was brief but very tight. The show began a bit oddly as three videos from the album were projected before the band took the stage. This did serve the purpose of reminding many of us about the original days of music video and MTV – I wondered how many of the younger members of the audience had spent any time seeking out videos by their favorite bands these days. After the final track, the band did a quick encore consisting of a few more tracks ending with “Beautiful World.” At this stage you can’t blame the band for losing a bit of it’s edge live in terms of the tight synchronized movements of the past, particularly since the music and vocals are still spot on. Given the number of folky-emo bands out these days, the chance to catch a classic act blasting through three minute power-pop was a welcome respite! Recommended.
When bands determine to tour complete works from their prime creative period, we are sometimes offered a rare chance to reacquaint ourselves with an original artistic vision, and a band in truly top form. Such was the case last Thursday night at the Fox Theater in Oakland as Echo & The Bunneymen returned to the bay area to deliver their seminal work, “Ocean Rain” complete with backing orchestra. The original studio recording of Ocean Rain in 1984 was a product of a band at the peak of their artistic brilliance. It included lush orchestral arrangements that perfectly fit the dark, jaunty jigs and gothic avant-garde excursions that alternate through the album. It’s an eclectic work that while not exactly a concept album, hangs together and is best appreciated from start to finish. Hits “The Killing Moon” and “Seven Seas” well represent the overall record and are the most recognizable tracks. At the time of its release, “Ocean Rain” certainly met a new standard for what was possible from the goth-rock movement that included such acts as “Siouxsie and the Banshees”, “Bauhaus”, and “The Cure” who by the mid ’80’s were pushing their artistry far beyond early punk roots.
As presented at the Fox with live orchestra, “Ocean Rain” was a revelation, from the first track, “Silver” to the last. The orchestra was integrated perfectly into the mix and was much more prevalent than on record. The strings, horns, and percussionists propelled their sound forward, accenting the drama of every song. Singer Ian McCulloch’s voice was in great form and has aged like fine wine. Guitarist Will Sergent brought out his rare assortment of guitars and accented the music with his unusual, attentive and precise playing. We were treated to every track, including the decidedly non commercial, brooding wonders “The Yo Yo Man” and “Thorn of Crowns” which Ian introduced by asking “are you ready for this?”. The whole ensemble brought the house down with the final titular track “Ocean Rain” arguably one of their greatest works and a fan favorite in concert since it’s release over 25 years ago. Echo got this all perfectly right – it was brilliant to go about presenting this powerful album with strings, winds, and added percussion making this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After an intermission, the band carried on without the backing orchestra, as a five piece, cranking through hits such as “Rescue”, “Bring on the Dancing Horses”, and a cover of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”, ending their encores with “Lips Like Sugar” at which point Ian was clearly exhausted! Also included were some tracks from the last few excellent recordings, including an equally great new song released this month. This second half of the show was as good as, and in parts better than, any of their prior tours during the last 20 years. The band favors minimal lighting, in deep blues and purples, as they labor away in the darkness delivering stellar performances that should remind one and all patrons that this is one of the most important bands in rock. And how can you argue with a lyric like this on a crisp October evening:
Flames on your skin of snow turn cold
Cold is the wind that blows through my headstone
Okay, summer recess is over. Time to reopen my twitter account (maybe), dust off my blog (definitely) and get back to it! Lots of bands out on the concert circuit made the summer enjoyable – I wrote about most of the summer series – from Foreigner (with replacement singer), Yes (with replacement singer), Pink (no need for a replacement singer), Yeah Yeah Yeahs (sounds like Siouxsie anyway), and Porcupine Tree (awesome vocalist)
Final show before the fall was U2. Was planning to go to Boston this fall, and was able to time it so as to see the U2/Snow Patrol show. It’s billed as the U2 360 tour and sports a massive stage resembling a space ship. Though there was tons of technology on display, the band seemed in their element – relaxed and unforced, in as fine a form as ever, highlighting new and old material and even breaking out the seldom played title track from “Unforgettable Fire“. Best track – “Stuck in the Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” acoustic which seemed appropriate for these times. The material from their latest release “No Line on the Horizon” came off better live than on record, with a stirring rendition of “Moment of Surrender” showing one and all that Bono remains a superior statesman for rock-n’-soul. We can all use of bit of surrender to “vision over visibility” – see if you can catch the flight when U2 comes near.
p.s. only complaint? we completely missed Snow Patrol as it took 2.5 hours to drive from Boston to the stadium, some 30 miles away – awful – if that date’s opener had been Muse I would have “blown a gasket” sitting in that traffic.
The last few weeks brought several shows to the San Francisco Bay area which were all fronted by powerful female vocalists. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs with vocalist Karen O at the Fox Theater, Oakland were up first. Next was the entertaining show by Pink with opener The Ting Tings, fronted by singer Katie White at the HP Pavilion, San Jose.
I think of all of these bands as pop entertainment – a good night out to see a show and have fun. In this regard, Pink came on as the most advanced entertainer. Between the time I first saw her after the breakthrough second album, “M!ssundaztood“, released in 2001 until this tour for the 2008 release “Funhouse“, Pink has matured into a first class performer. She’s confident, sassy, talented, athletic and tough. There were lots of highlights to this show, and several of Pink’s original compositions and collaborations were superior, but one of the most memorable moments for me was when she and her very skilled backup band, singers, and dancers performed a note perfect version of Queen‘s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I saw Queen perform this in 1977 in Los Angeles on the “News of the World” tour, and they left the stage during a pre-recorded middle operetta. Pink and co. conquered the whole track live and brought back some great memories in the process. This show overall reminded me of the spectacular Christina Aguilera show last year. Both of these singers have now made the transition from performer to world class entertainer.
The Ting Ting’s opened the evening with a fun set of their danceable pop. Several of the tracks from their debut album were performed with great energy and enthusiasm. One of their biggest hits, “That’s Not My Name” had the crowd on their feet and it was impossible not to catch the hook. Keyboards and bass were pre-recorded, and the duo would benefit from a larger band…next time…one to watch.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs played to a packed house of devoted fans at the Fox. Singer Karen O is fine at the front of the stage and consistently propels the music forward with her emphatic dance moves and delivery. I was reminded of a happier version of singer Siouxsie Sioux, but the band really needs to step up their game to support the proceedings at the level of the Banshees….next time…one to watch.
Went to see Foreigner last week at the Mountain Winery, Saratoga, California. I knew that the only original member of the band present would be guitarist Mick Jones and that they had a “replacement” vocalist for Lou Gramm but I was curious to see how the show would be. And…it was really great – surpassing my expectations, which got me thinking about why it was so special. A fair amount of it was nostaligia – for a tight ’70’s classic rock sound, and for a band that was popular when I was in high school. But a dominant factor was the new vocalist, Kelly Hansen, who took the mantle of lead rock vocalist and delivered a flawless performance, hitting all the notes, sounding every bit as strong as Lou back in the day.
This phenomena of bands employing replacement singers shows no signs of abating. Besides drummers (wink), vocalists seem to be the first to “retire” from a band. Sometimes this is to pursue a solo career, or due to personal issues within the group, but as time goes on it is often true that there are health issues and the assertive vocals just aren’t presentable anymore. For various reasons, we have more youthful vocalists fronting Boston, Foreigner, Journey, Yes, and Alan Parsons – all solid acts from the 70’s. Each of these acts rely on the singer to deliver the message, to dance or strike postures, engage the crowd and to be an entertainer. It’s a critical role and the show ends up being a disappointment if the vocalist cannot meet the challenge – particularly daunting for those whose core work relied on emotive, forceful vocals.
In fact, the trend of touring with new crew does not stop with the vocalist. At this show for instance, Mick was the only original member of the band. The other core original member, Ian McDonald (keys, winds) has been out this decade with an assortment of ex-King Crimson players covering early tracks by that band. Several acts I’ve seen recently have only a one or two original members still wailing away. Eventually, we end up with “tribute” bands being the only way to experience the music live, and I’ve seen some great tributes including The Musical Box (Genesis), and The Australian Pink Floyd. Tribute bands for 80’s artists are now following suit.
Some decry the advent of rock musicians still pushing their wares past age 50 or 60 and it clearly is important that the band be able to deliver as great a show as possible. My experience has been that more often than not, these shows have been well played and entertaining. Heart and The Rolling Stones are examples of bands that have been solid this decade with their original vocalists. Artists from the 80’s like Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, and Echo & The Bunnymen have similarly put on amazing shows. As time goes on, tribute bands will step in to recreate and interpret the work of these original artists. We can now see that rock and it’s variants should be able to endure just as classical music has, to be recreated and experienced by new generations into the future. To me, either within the band, or as a tribute, these foreigners are most welcome.