the Hold Steady at Valentine’s.
Soaking In It
‘Leaving Portland [Maine] around noon. Sing-along-songs
and brews,” read a recent Craigslist offering of a rare extra
ticket to Tuesday night’s sold-out show by the Hold Steady
at Valentine’s. Tickets to the Albany show, the first stop
on an early spring tour of smaller-sized cities, were snapped
up early by fans from all-points Northeast who didn’t expect
to see the Brooklyn-based rockers hit their own towns. But
that doesn’t mean Capital Region buzz about the band hasn’t
grown since they played Valentine’s in 2006; with four well-received
albums in the past five years, including 2008’s anthem-filled
Stay Positive, loads of critical acclaim and endless
touring (including an unlikely opening slot for the Dave Matthews
Band later this spring), the Hold Steady are blowing up all
and brews” is a pretty apt description of the scene at Valentine’s
as the Hold Steady played a sweat-soaked, 21-song set to a
crowd of lyric-reciting, fist-pumping faithful. Kicking off
the set with a quick burst of handclaps to start “You Gotta
Dance,” a bonus track from Boys and Girls in America,
the band kept up an intense pace for the next 45 minutes,
speeding through feel-good, catchy-chorus-fueled Stay Positive
tunes like “Constructive Summer” and “Navy Sheets,” along
with crowd-favorite “Chips Ahoy!” with its irresistible Badlands-inspired
“whoa-ohs,” and some denser, word-spitting fare like “Hornets!
Hornets!” from the band’s defining second album, Separation
Singer Craig Finn, oft noted to be an unlikely rock hero,
more librarian than rock & roll libertine, punctuated
his hyper-literate lyrics by gesturing his hands furiously,
flapping his arms like a bird, dancing a little jig around
the microphone, and mouthing words silently to the audience
between vocal lines. Somehow he pulls off the difficult feat
of making such word-heavy fare rockable. By the time the band
mellowed the pace, briefly, after a blistering “Sequestered
in Memphis,” Finn’s red plaid shirt was a dark sea of sweat.
At the bar, a couple of attendees debated whether the Hold
Steady truly are the best live rock band in America, as many
critics opine and fans like to say, or whether that designation
belongs to the Capital Region’s own Figgs, known to also rock
a room with high-energy, sing-along tunes. Not surprisingly,
the home team won the debate, but there’s definitely an argument
to be made for the heart, soul, and sheer sweat poured out
onstage by the Hold Steady.
Egg, March 22
The switched date of this show, postponed so Cassandra Wilson
could collect a Grammy for her new album of standards,
Loverly, must have put a hit on ticket sales. It was moved
out of the Hart Theater, and folks were lined up until just
before show time to get their tickets fixed.
The result? The Swyer was packed.
From their opening notes, Cassandra Wilson’s band created
sounds weird and wonderful. A kind of controlled cacophony
from Marvin Sewell’s guitar and Jonathan Batiste’s piano gave
way to the fierce, hypnotic rhythms laid down by bassist Kenny
Davis, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Lekan Babaloia.
This coalesced into something recognizable: the Duke Ellington-Juan
Tizol standard “Caravan.” And then Wilson herself walked on
stage, and sang Irving Mills’ vivid (and corny) lyrics with
her usual combination of sultry wit and stop-on-a-dime timing.
The extended piece felt like a mini- concert; it certainly
showcased the considerable musical strengths of Wilson and
her band. Sewell coaxed all kinds of noise from his ax—at
one point I did a double take when I realized he was mimicking
a trombone, a nice hat-tip to Tizol. And the way pianist Batiste,
in his solo, played against what the others were doing was
stone-cold cool—plunking out the melody with a force that
made you think of a kid wailing on a toy piano.
Wilson spent the last decade and a half bending various genres
to her musical will, covering everyone from Neil Young to
Joni Mitchell to the Monkees and making their music hers.
That’s why her Grammy win was such a surprise: She hadn’t
recorded an album of straight jazz standards in 20 years.
So the audience was treated to chestnuts like “Lover Come
Back to Me” (given a light, breezy treatment) and“A Day in
the Life of a Fool” (lovely and relaxed) and “St. James Infirmary”
(turned into a sharp, funky anthem) and “Dust My Broom” (a
fiery blues, naturally).
Wilson ended the evening with two songs not on the album,
and one that is. “Them There Eyes,” from the Billie Holiday
songbook, was rendered unrecognizable. (In a nice way.) “Sweet
Lorraine” was mostly Wilson and pianist Batiste; “Till There
Was You” was a sweet and subtle way to end the show.
There was no encore; none was needed.
Dean and Britta —13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy
Warhol’s Screen Tests
MoCA, March 28
A guitar squall from indie rock band Yo La Tengo accompanied
dusty footage of furiously mating octopuses during a previous
installment of MASS MoCa’s signature Film With Live Music
series, which pairs rarely seen films with musicians who compose
live music to accompany them. Yo La Tengo’s soundtracking
in 2005 of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé’s vintage underwater
cinematography took an all-instrumental and improvisational
approach, with Georgia Hubley’s drums following the beat of
shrimp as they shed their shells and Ira Kaplan’s guitar freak-outs
corresponding with the escalating fluttering of sea urchins.
In comparison, Dean and Britta’s scoring of 13 Most Beautiful
. . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (now available
on DVD) had a more deliberate and carefully crafted feel.
Commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to accompany
a selection of the director’s four-minute 16mm screen tests
from the 1960s, Dean and Britta matched each of Warhol’s silent
film portraits with original songs written to complement the
mood and mannerisms of the celebrities, anonymous teenagers
and Factory cohorts who occupied the screen.
Dean and Britta—a duo featuring guitarist Dean Wareham and
bassist- keyboardist Britta Phillips, both former members
of the band Luna—may have been the obvious choice to take
on this project. (They were backed at this show by cellist
Megan Sears, keyboardist and guitarist Matt Sumrow, and multi-instrumentalist
Anthony LaMarca.) Wareham’s first band, Galaxie 500, a pivotal
late ‘80s indie rock trio from Boston, were heavily influenced
by Warhol’s Factory-studio house band the Velvet Underground,
while Luna trafficked in a similar VU-influenced guitar pop.
As the first of the night’s 13 screen tests rolled, a distorted
bass pulsed in time to the flickering face of Richard Rheem.
A handsome young star of several Warhol films, Rheem—his face
half-covered by darkness—maintained an impressive impassiveness
as Warhol played games with the light and camera focus. During
the next test, the band’s dreamy keyboard-driven instrumental
underscored the onscreen torment of dark-haired Ann Buchanan,
a member of the Beat poetry set who lived for a time with
Allen Ginsberg. In one of the most memorable Screen Test
moments, Buchanan struggled to maintain a nonblinking stare
until her eyes swelled with water and tears slowly dripped
down her cheeks, a painful-to-watch moment that Warhol later
described as “something wonderful marvelous.”
By the third test, the subjects became more animated, often
asserting their personalities on the screen test “experiment”
in a highly self-conscious, affected way, as Dean and Britta
added fleshed-out songs with lyrics and vocals to the mix.
They accompanied Paul America—an all-American-football-star-looking
guy with a cocky grin who chewed gum with his mouth open—with
a great Wareham-sung pop tune that captured the vulnerable
bravado of a teen rebel (“Rest your head upon my pillow/Put
your hand inside my pants/You can have it if you want it/If
you’d like to take a chance.”)
A gleaming point of light shone from the black sunglass lens
of Billy Name, an artist who painted the Factory building
silver and covered it with foil, as Dean and Britta played
an Ennio Morricone-meets-Velvet Underground tune that summed
up the near ridiculousness of his mystery-shrouded cool. Mary
Woronov, an artist and actor who was in both Chelsea Girls
and Rock ’n’ Roll High School, had a conflicted but
defiant air that Dean and Britta underscored with a wistful
tune highlighting her underlying fragility. And the man himself,
Lou Reed, who spent his four minutes chugging an endless bottle
of Coca Cola, got backed by a cover of Lou Reed’s great “lost”
VU track, “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.”
Wareham did his homework beforehand, and enlightened the crowd
with details about each performer, and many of their untimely
deaths. (The attendee who asked, not entirely seriously, if
Edie Sedgwick shot Andy Warhol—that was Valerie Solanas—got
a mild smackdown.) And although Warhol’s art is often dismissed,
whether because of the artist’s social proclivities or the
perceived superficiality of his concepts, the screen tests—which
do sound simple and stupid in theory—actually reveal interesting
and thought-provoking things about their subjects and how
they respond to their four minutes of fame.