Freakin' at the Beacon
They were quite a couple. Like a pair of Octopi in heat. First, he was grabbing her ass. Then he had his hands up the back of her shirt. Then, up the front. Then he had his hands down the back of her pants. Then, down the front. Both hands and about half of his forearms. Her only reaction was to smile, swoon and stick her tongue in his mouth. I'm damned impressed that she was able to keep her clothes on during this determined assault upon her New Jersey virtue. Best of all, during this entire spectacle, they were simultaneously kissing and falling down at the same time. Groping does not begin to get what was happening in my section on Thursday night at the Beacon Theatre.
Now, the six or eight beers they each sucked down in rapid succession certainly had something to do with their uncontrollable urges, but I have to say that I’ve never seen anyone this horny drunk at an Americana show before. Or any show for that matter. I mean these two were damn near knocking boots right there. I knew if a bra flew over my head, it was time to git. The whole time I was standing right behind them and it was like I was invisible: they never saw me. Or heard me laughing. It was pretty classic, I have to admit. A little live porn with my Woody Guthrie covers, I’ve got no problem with that. The fact that they didn’t go down [ouch!], as in falling [oh], was a minor miracle. Who says rock concerts ain’t what they used to be? A little pot smoke wafting by and it would have been 1977 all over again.
What’s billed as The Big Surprise Tour, is in reality four likeminded acts, all in the Americana/Altcountry sphere, who are touring together, joining in on each other’s sets and clearly having a very good time. Justin Townes Earle is clearly the star. Blessed with the uber confidence to schmooze from the stage&3151;or as he mentions in a song about his father, no ability to shut up, Earle is a talent on the rise. Channeling Hank Williams as well as many of the masters of ceremony who have kept things running at the Grand Ole Opry over the yearsthe late Porter Wagoner comes to mindEarle, who is Steve’s oldest child, was dressed adorably in a bow tie, plaid jacket and striped shirt. The only problem was that he opened this four band show, and to my ears was probably the best act on the bill. A tough act to follow as they say. Perhaps the highlight of the entire evening was Earle’s version of Paul Westerberg’s “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which originally appeared on the `Mats Pleased to Meet Me but was first attempted in the sessions that led to the band’s major label debut, 1985’s Tim. The bluegrass picking of Earle’s version brings out the tune’s wonderful melody. I’m a sick `Mats fan but even those who aren’t will agree that this is one of Westerberg’s most transcendent tunes and also that Earle’s prescient cover is extremely clever and inspired.
One act that will never be accused of looking ahead, or even being fun to see and hear is David Rawlins and Gillian Welch. They are the most BORING act to ever take a half wild crowd and turn them into a line at the bathroom. In my opinion, those two could suck the life out of anyone, anytime, anyplace. Everyone sitting around me at the Beacon decided en masse after about two songs of their set, that it was a good time to pee or get another round of weak, overpriced drinks. They dragged down the emotional tenor of the evening and sent a lot of folks to the bar. Or the doors. The major problem is that those two cannot stay away from sadness. Ballads. Big, mournful ballads. That’s all they want to sing, all they want to do is sing those samey ballads over and over again. After a half hour of their whining, you want to buy a drum kit. A couple of tunes and you get exactly what they are trying to do in its entirety. They really haven’t changed a lick over the 15 years they’ve been performing together. As much as David, in his straw cowboy hat and big goofy grin was trying to be one of the boyz, he and his wife constantly returned to their natural groove which is dirges; same harmonies, same singing range, same basic song structures, same, same, same. Those two need to get a gig in some East Tennessee mountain music repository or something. Some place where they can sing sad songs in a historical context and where draining the energy out of rooms might be looked upon less egregiously as a good thing. Their presence on this tour presents yet again the old dilemma when it comes to these two: if you have four bands on a bill as this show did, where do you put their Captain Bring Down act. Not first and certainly not last. Best to bury them in the middle where their braying can do the least amount of harm.
One very pleasant surprise at Thursday night’s show at the Beacon was the presence of one Benmont Tench, who played keyboards, on and off, all night and added much to the proceedings. His B-3 work was especially apparent on the set by the Felice Brothers. If you haven’t heard the tale, the Felice boys are a hairy, testosteronedriven tribe from upstate New Yorkas in poverty stricken, middleofnowhere upstate New Yorkwho squatted in Brooklyn for a time before finding themselves and becoming a band. I use the word band very loosely here. Watching them live is a train wreck to behold. My God, they are everywhere and nowhere onstage, running to and fro, mouths open, banging on guitars, jumping around like it’s their first gig ever. Imagine if someone filled a garage full of musical instruments of all kinds, and let a bunch of rowdy as hell teenagers go at it. Harmonies which is supposedly a strength between brothers right?are non-existent. Everyone just launches in, in whatever key they feel like.
But what they lose in musical raggedness, they make up for in enthusiasm and a big, loveable spirit. They are one WILD act. There’s a stream of this kind of thing out there today. The Avett Brothers have it as well. It’s family bands who play a cross between The Band and Bill Monroe in a slambang style. The Felice Bros were fun to watch, charging around, bouncing togetheraccordion, fiddle, electric guitar, acoustic guitaron every downbeat. They all had Yankees shirts on to salute their competition for Thursday night’s entertainment dollar, the Red Sox/Yankees game up at Yankee Stadium. By all accounts, big bearded James Felice is a teddy bear sweetheart. And brother Ian, clearly the rock star of the group, also represents the Rico Suave side of the family. With his arm around some woman’s shoulders, he passed my friend Traci and I in the aisle between sets and without even a blink cracked, “Hey beautiful” to Traci. Ahhh, rock stars…is there anything they won’t say?
Old Crow Medicine Show was the evening’s closer and clearly the favorite amongst the crowd members. The lusty couple in front of me knew every word of the songs, which they began immediately singing every time their lips unlocked for a minute or two. The Nashvillebased act has the advantage of having writtenor is that borrowed? Or collaborated?on a anthemic tune called “Wagon Wheel” which seems to have come from a Bob Dylan outtake that band member Ketch Secor heard and sort of made his own. He and Bobby Z. signed a co-writing agreement on this song a couple years ago and it has now become a singalong favorite. OCMS has built themselves a jam bandlike fanatical following. One of these fans even boomed out his preference of them over Justin Earle during the second song of Earle’s set. Justin, much to his credit, swatted it away easily like the pro he is becoming, informing the loudmouth that they’d get to the band he wanted in due time. By the end of their set, the crowd was literally howling, after which everyone joined them onstage for a mass ending jam session. To their credit they do have singers who can sing and players who can play. And by the time guitarist Willie Watson was doing his best Chuck Berry across the front of the stage you could color me semiimpressed. I may not be a full blown fan yet but they’ve got my attention.