Live review: Rocket From The Crypt – Live at The Button Factory, Dublin, Saturday December 7th, 2013

Originally published on State.ie. To read the original, please click here.

San Diego rock band Rocket From The Crypt

IN WHAT CAN HARDLY BE DESCRIBED AS A CASH- INRocket from the Crypt reunited in December 2012, beginning their first dates of their reunion tour in April 2013.

Championed back in the 90s by the likes of Dave Grohl – who is consistently linked to on/off rumours about producing Rocket from the Crypt’s comeback record- the San Diego band showed oodles of promise when they signed to Interscope in the mid-90s, even cracking the top 20 in the UK with ‘On a Rope’ and appearing on Top of the Pops; unheard of for a band borne out of the west coast hardcore scene of the 80s/early 90s. Their 1995 breakthrough record, Scream, Dracula, Scream!, sounds as fresh and vital, today, as it did back then.

Tonight, there’s no shortage of greying rockabilly quiffs and RFTC t-shirt-clad fans who would probably claim to have bought the original, red-coloured vinyl – deleted immediately after release – of 1995’s once ultra rare, though since reissued, Hot Charity. The band’s set caters, mainly, to those loyal and fervent fans of the band, playing cuts from Scream, Dracula, Scream!, as well as 1998’s RFTC and 2001’s Group Sounds, all of which are well represented tonight. In fact, many of the songs from each album are performed in the same sequence as the records: ‘Straight American Slave’ and ‘Carne Voodoo’ from Group Sounds open the set, while the highlight of the night is a groove in the set created by ‘Middle’, ‘Born in ‘69’, ‘On a Rope’ and ‘Young Livers’, which elicit the loudest cheers of the night from an otherwise reserved audience. An incredible version of ‘I’m Not Invisible’ is a reminder, like the best cuts from Scream, Dracula, Scream!, of the band’s ability to write instantly catchy songs that get the audience on their side from the get-go.

Clad in black shirts featuring Chinese dragons, the band members look like a gang and, in 2013, they must seem an anomaly among younger bands, now, that lack the uniformity and that sense of identity that was has been central to Rocket from the Crypt as a unit. Unfortunately, the central problem throughout tonight’s set, however, is the sound. What set Rocket from the Crypt apart from any other American rock band of their time was their use of a brass section in the form of saxophonist Apollo 9 (Paul O’Beirne) and trumpeter JC 2000 (Jason Crane), both of whose instruments are far too low in the mix to have the impact that they have on record. Similarly, frontman Speedo’s vocals are slightly shot from previous gigs on their recent tour and, again, his vocals are consistently overshadowed by the guitars and by the drums.

An extended version of ‘Come See, Come Saw’, again, lacks the punch and power of the brass section, though the band use the recurring bass riff as an opportunity to loosen up the set and make it seem loose and unpredictable. Speedo interacts with the audience in irony- laced showbiz theatrics, including directing the audience into dance routines.

Eschewing such bravado, Speedo salutes the audience for one last time during the night. “Thanks for not forgetting about us”, he says as he parts from the stage, somewhat confirming the band’s status as 90’s rock survivors. And if rumors of a Grohl- produced comeback album do come to fruition, it won’t be the last time Speedo is saluting his audience from the stage.

John Mayer – Born and Raised

Born again: John Mayer’s fifth studio album, ‘Born and Raised’, is a return to form.

Having almost successfully recovered from his disastrous and downright bizarre February 2010 Playboy interview, removing himself from Hollywood’s A- list party circuit and selling his bi- coastal homes L.A. and New York in favour of a self- imposed, frugal lifestyle in Bozeman, Montana, John Mayer has spent the ensuing time eating humble pie; nowhere is this more evident than on his fifth record, Born and Raised, his most focused, mature, honest and fully realised album to date.

On opener ‘Queen of California’, Mayer sets out his stall; this is an album in the vein of the big, era- defining folk albums of the 70’s, such as Neil Young’s Harvest, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James and the debut solo records of Stephen Stills and Paul Simon. Mayer’s subtle finger- picking and references to Neil Young (Looking for the sun that Neil Young sung/ After the gold rush of 1971), Blood on the Tracks– era Bob Dylan (If you see her, say hello) and Joni Mitchell (Joni wrote Blue in her house by the sea/ I gotta believe there’s another color waiting on me) all convey a move towards the confessional, folk song- writing that defined Mayer’s career with 2003 hit ‘Daughters’ but was subsequently sidelined in favour of the audacious blues chops he displayed on 2005’s live album, Try!, and the more restrained, soulful blues playing of 2006’s Continuum– arguably his best record- which earned him a place on Rolling Stone’s New Guitar Gods, with the nickname “Slowhand Jr.”- a favourable nod to that other blues guitarist who crossed over to popular, mainstream audiences.

Throughout Born and Raised, Mayer shows an astute understanding of styles and forms. Like ‘Queen of California’, ‘Something Like Olivia’ uses that most humble and honest of all song forms; 12- bar blues. ‘Something Like Olivia’ finds Mayer attempting to resolve his devil- may- care, man- about- town- urges of old, with his newly found moral order and conduct. This, of course, turns out to be a theme at the heart of the record; that one person’s redemption can only be achieved by progressing past life’s ill- judged choices and by chalking those mistakes down to life experience. Mayer illustrates this best in ‘The Age of Worry’, a simple, AB- form song, which is laden with forceful, Dylan- esque rhetoric (Know your fight is not within/ Yours is with your timing/ Dream your dreams but don’t pretend/ Make friends with what you are).

Flagship single ‘Shadow Days’, the style and sound of which is clearly influenced by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, is certainly the most colourfully arranged and produced songs of the first side. It is, however, the album’s title track, with harmonies courtesy of Graham Nash and David Crosby, which is one of the strongest songs here and might just be one of the best songs that Mayer has yet written. The gorgeous harmonies, Mayer’s soulful vocal inflections and the acceptance and honesty of his lyrics all melt fluidly and strongly to conclude the first side.

The second side finds Mayer embracing slow- tempo numbers that, again, tip the hat to his many song- writing influences. Despite its- frankly- awful title, ‘Love is a Verb’ is exactly the kind of song that Mayer needs; a slow burning, breezy, ‘Wonderful Tonight’- mode Clapton song. This is followed by ‘Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967’, a song, which in its rhymes, its unusual, intriguing, opening saxophone arrangement and narrative- driven lyrics of hope and aspiration owes much to Paul Simon. Darkness reigns over the brooding ‘Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey’, the chorus of which recalls Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’.

After showing restraint and subtlety in his playing throughout the record, Mayer finally lets himself off the leash on ‘A Face to Call Home’ with some of the most operatic playing on the record that, temporarily, shifts away from the Americana sound that dominates Born and Raised, for a delay- laden, stadium- rock outro, reminiscent U2’s The Edge.

The recurring theme of identity and the inevitable dichotomies- born and raised, folk and blues, fame and anonymity, the public self and the private self- that dominate Born and Raised culminate in ‘Born and Raised (Reprise)’, an alternate version of the title track, which, here, is treated as West coast folk ditty that is as enjoyable to hear as it must have been to record.

Despite going “Americana” and producing his strongest set yet, Mayer might be too divisive a figure in contemporary music to appreciated by fans of Neil Young and Ryan Adams; too unfashionable to persuade those music fans that he’s anything other than a Berklee College of Music- educated pretty boy, who is molly- coddled by his major label and who is more famous for his appearances in TMZ, People magazine, US Weekly and many other celeb gossip magazines. On Born and Raised, however, Mayer does do enough to prove that there is substance in his song- writing and guitar playing; that mainstream American radio and television- now more than ever- needs a major label, Billboard Top 100- topping song- writer and performer of Mayer’s talent and substance to enrich and subvert a mainstream that is dominated by vacuous, auto- tuned, shock and awe value, pop- tarts. The John Mayer of Born and Raised might even appreciate this dichotomy.

Paul Buchanan – Mid Air

Walking on air: Blue Nile singer- songwriter Paul Buchanan is back with his debut solo album, Mid Air.

In his essay ‘The Blue Nile: Family Life’, Marcello Carlin observes that “On every Blue Nile album there is a moment where time is literally stopped and emotion laid open and bare”. Eight years on from The Blue Nile’s previous- some say last- ever- album High, Paul Buchanan, the bands singer- songwriter, has finally delivered the solo album that many long- time fans of The Blue Nile have anticipated. Buchanan’s Mid Air is an album of thirteen, three- minute, piano- led songs and one instrumental, all of which get to straight to the heart of Carlin’s astute observation.

Recorded by Cameron Malcolm (son of long- time Blue Nile producer / engineer Calum Malcolm), the success of Mid Air is largely down to the compression and brevity of Buchanan’s songs, which are as condensed and companionable as short lyric poems. The minimal arrangements that adorn each song eschew the sometimes too slickly produced, glossy feel of later Blue Nile records. Mid Air‘s opening title track features a beautifully restrained vocal from Buchanan, underpinned by light, electronic, orchestral strings. Like Tom Waits- whose common influence of Frank Sinatra looms large on Mid Air– Buchanan delicately croons and plays simple, elementary scales to stunning, emotionally intense effect, most evidently so on album highlight ‘Cars in the Garden’.

Originally given the working title of Minor Poets of the 19th Century (after a book that Buchanan bought in his local Oxfam) Buchanan’s literate lyrics recall Larkin (‘Wedding Party’), Plath (‘Two Children’) and Yeats (‘My True Country’). Prior to recording Mid Air, a close personal friend of Buchanan’s passed on; no surprise, then, that, lyrically, the tone and mood of Mid Air is elegiac. Buchanan, however, extends the elegiac tone beyond bereavement; ‘Newsroom’ is a lament to the last days of print journalism (Last out the newsroom/ Please put the lights out/ There’s no- one left alive), while ‘My True Country’, featuring one of Buchanan’s most impassioned and convincing vocal performances, celebrates an imagined paradise. The portrayal of urban loneliness in the full glare of neon signs during the night- time hours- a central and defining characteristic of a Blue Nile song- is mostly absent on Mid Air, save for ‘Half the World’ and the sublime album- closer, ‘After Dark’.

In Mid Air, Buchanan has crafted an accomplished collection of beautiful, honest songs that, like Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Tom Waits’ Closing Time, rely heavily on the strength of their lyrics, their modest arrangements, and humble, delicate, fragile, convincing vocal performances. A Mercury Music Prize nomination must, surely, be mid- air.

Also available on State.ie

Nick Lowe – Live at Vicar St., Dublin, February 15th, 2012

All- time Lowe: Nick Lowe is one of the world’s greatest living songwriters.

Finishing up the European leg of his tour, Nick Lowe saunters on stage, solo, with his acoustic guitar in front of a reservedVicar Streetaudience, seated at round tables on the ground floor. No longer happy to drift on the nostalgia of his 70’s heyday, Lowe has long left behind his career as producer and mentor to the most successful exponents of British New Wave (Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Squeeze) and, for almost 25 years, has entrenched himself in American roots music.

Opening with ‘Stoplight Roses’ from his latest release, The Old Magic, Lowe’s warm, mellow voice and austere instrumentation cut an arresting presence. It’s clear that, like Richard Hawley, Lowe draws from a songwriting well that projects a romantic view of loneliness; mainly American country songwriters and performers such as George Jones, Ray Price and Patsy Cline. A stunning, styled rendition of ‘Heart’, a song by Lowe’s former band Rockpile, concludes Lowe’s two- song solo set. As Lowe starts into ‘What Lack of Love Has Done’ from 1998’s Dig My Mood his band, including support act Geraint Watkins on keys, make their way on stage, which makes for a smooth change in dynamics early in the set.

The sheer breath of Lowe’s songbook comes into full force in the middle section of the set when ‘I Read A Lot’, a sombre, slow- burning number from The Old Magic is followed immediately by ‘Cruel To Be Kind’, Lowe’s first big pop hit, which he recently performed withUS tour- mates Wilco. The chemistry of the band is most evident on the big pop numbers, namely ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ and ‘When I Write the Book’.

After the encore, Lowe and Watkins return on stage for a duet of Watkins’ ‘Only a Rose’ and a powerful performance of ‘When I Write the Book’, which, like ‘Cruel to Be Kind’, is when the band are at their most loose and playful. As if to further emphasize that he is not enslaved by the New Wave sound that he helped to define, Lowe’s acoustic, slow- tempo version of ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ carries just as much weight on Lowe’s acoustic guitar and finds its place among his roots- influenced songbook and the youthful exuberance of the original studio version is side- stepped in favor of a version which casts Lowe as wiser, more mature man than the angry young man who originally wrote the tune.

It is, however, Lowe’s second encore which provides the night’s highlight. Walking on stage, solo, with his acoustic once again, Lowe performs a beautiful, measured version of ‘Alison’, a song produced by Lowe which was written by his former protégée, Elvis Costello. In a sense, it encapsulates Nick Lowe’s songwriting style and model; the well- worn Englishness of Ray Davies’sEnglandset to the American songbook of folk / country / soul music. The old magic, indeed.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Live at The Olympia Theatre, Dublin, October 23rd, 2011

High flyer: Noel Gallagher, back on live duties and back on form.

Between his debut solo album topping both the UK and Irish albums charts which, after only one week of sales, is already outselling Beady Eye’s Different Gear, Still Speeding – and opening his first ever solo tour in his ancestral hometown of Dublin, Noel Gallagher has reason to swagger on stage at the Olympia Theatre. Add to this the result of the Manchester derby and the former guitarist and chief songwriter in Oasis has no reason not to be in great form.

Indeed, Gallagher is in playful mood tonight, initiating banter between audience members, despite his advance warning in press interviews that he was an uncomfortable and inexperienced frontman. He opens the set, confidently, with an Oasis B-side, ‘(It’s Good) To Be Free’, the title and chorus of which, alone, carry symbolic and rhetorical weight to the nature of the night’s event and is, no doubt, a gift to the red-tops who are still generating stories and interest from Oasis’s messy split two years ago. During a successive run, half a dozen or so songs in, of ‘Everybody’s On The Run’, ‘Dream On’, ‘If I Had A Gun’, ‘The Good Rebel’, ‘The Death Of You And Me’, and a heavy, early Kinks-sounding untitled new track, one realizes that Gallagher has not only the tunes, but also the backing band to go the distance. Mike Rowe, who played keyboards during Oasis’ Be Here Now world tour, is a key player in the band, skillfully negotiating the middle eight of ‘The Death Of You And Me’, which on record features a New Orleans-style marching band, but tonight is convincingly replaced with the twinkling sound of a bar-room piano.

What work best tonight are the dynamics, a sign of the old stager that he is. After a blazing run through the first eight songs with his full band, he brings the feel of the set down a couple of gears and reduces the line-up to just himself on acoustic guitar, drummer / percussionist Jeremy Stacy and Rowe. Together, they run through a rejuvenated ‘Wonderwall’, in which Noel blends hallmarks of Ryan Adams 2004 cover version of the track with his own distinctive tenor voice. This is followed by the most surprising song choice of the night; an acoustic version of Oasis’ 1994 debut single, ‘Supersonic’, which lends an insight into how it might have sounded when he first wrote the song on an acoustic guitar all those years ago in his Manchester flat.

There’s no question that Gallagher is playing to a home crowd of dedicated Oasis fans, some of whom may have attended and may have distinct memories of Oasis’s December 4th & 5th nights in The Point Depot in 1997, when Noel took over lead vocal duties from a missing-in-action Liam. Tonight, however, the songs which elicit the loudest cheers and sing-alongs of the night aside from ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, which appeal to casual fans and die-hard fans alike, are those B-sides that are held in such high regard with Oasis devotees such as ‘Half The World Away’ and ‘Talk Tonight’.

The night ends, somewhat predictably, with a definitive, three song encore of some of Oasis’ most successful stadium rock anthems. An acoustic-led ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, an excellent band performance of ‘The Importance Of Being Idle’ and ‘Little By Little’, which, when played tonight, feels close in sentiment and style to some of the tracks on Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and satisfy Oasis fans even if ending on those songs threaten to eclipse his current solo songs. However, it’s a mark of the wealth of material that Gallagher can draw from over the past 18 years that many of his band era songs, such as ‘Sunday Morning Call’, ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong’ and ‘Let’s All Make Believe’ – all of which would have gelled well with the sound and feel of his current solo material – are sadly omitted from the night’s set. But with Gallagher’s falsetto hitting all the notes, a versatile and ambitious backing band and a set list of choice cuts that successfully tie together a broad and prolific songwriting career, it’s not a bad way to open his live account at all.

Originally published by State.ie

©  Philip Cummins. All rights reserved.

Setlist for Noel Gallgher’s High Flying Birds – Live at The Olympia Theatre, Dublin, October 23rd, 2011

  1. (It’s Good) To Be Free
    (Oasis cover)
  2. Mucky Fingers
    (Oasis cover)
  3. Everybody’s on the Run
  4. Dream On
  5. If I Had a Gun…
  6. The Good Rebel
  7. The Death of You and Me
  8. Freaky Teeth
  9. Wonderwall
    (Oasis cover)
  10. Supersonic
    (Oasis cover)
  11. (I Wanna Live in a Dream in My) Record Machine
  12. AKA… What a Life!
  13. Talk Tonight
    (Oasis cover)
  14. Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks
  15. AKA…Broken Arrow
  16. Half The World Away
    (Oasis cover)
  17. (Stranded On) The Wrong Beach

Encore:

  1. Don’t Look Back In Anger
    (Oasis cover)
  2. The Importance of Being Idle
    (Oasis cover)
  3. Little By Little
    (Oasis cover)