SHOW REVIEW: Pearl Jam 24th Anniversary Concert, Denver

Photos by Adam Perry

Photos by Adam Perry

Pearl Jam 24th Anniversary Concert
Pepsi Center, Denver
October 22, 2014
by Adam Perry for Westword

Pearl Jam
‘s 24th anniversary – which the band celebrated last night with a raucous, rarity-filled, tour-ending barnburner of a concert at the Pepsi Center – closed with lead guitarist Mike McCready playing “the Star Spangled Banner” Hendrix-style while the rest of the Seattle quartet sprayed champagne on the Denver crowd.

It began with Justin Morneau (your 2014 National League batting champ) finding his seat as frontman Eddie Vedder said “Welcome to the last night of our tour” and Pearl Jam settled into the euphorically mellow “Release,” which is where the group’s 10-million-selling 1991 debut Ten concluded.

A gigantic bird made of scrap metal and/or, as one nearby fan guessed, driftwood, hung above Pearl Jam. It even started flapping its “wings” slowly during “Given to Fly,” coincidentally also the point when the crowd started not just singing along to every song but enthusiastically moving as well. The amazing “garbage bird,” as my show-mate called it, juxtaposed Vedder’s windmill guitar playing to give nods to Pink Floyd and the Who, two bands whose songs Pearl Jam covered last night.

Vedder (who truly gets a workout jumping around during Pearl Jam shows) did a great job celebrating Pearl Jam’s 24th birthday by celebrating devoted fans (“Thanks for being the wave; we rode the wave”), the rock icons he loved growing up (Tom Petty, Ian Mackaye, etc.) and his band mates.

Basically, it was a love-fest set to music that’s no longer stylistically fresh. But, as the sublime crests of charging rockers like “Porch” and “State of Love and Trust” prove, Pearl Jam’s music – which had the least edge of the four grunge bands (also Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains) that rose from Seattle – remarkably maintains an energy that’s not only vital but uplifting and authentic.

“We didn’t realize until a few days ago,” the outgoing Vedder told the arena audience at one point, “but our first show was 24 years ago today. October 22 [1990] we played our first show; October 23, we went into the studio and recorded eight songs; October 24, I went back to work in the gas station in San Diego; and October 25 I put in my 30-day notice. Sometimes there’s no better feeling than saying you’re never going back again.”

With that, Pearl Jam launched into “Life Wasted” (with its “I’m never going back again” chorus) from its eponymous 2006 album. “Life Wasted” was part of a nine-song second encore that found Vedder, passing the microphone around along with a bottle of wine, deep in the crowd during the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

Speaking of wine, Vedder drank two bottles of it onstage last night, at least once falling drunkenly mid-song. He giddily popped the aforementioned champagne well before the show’s true closer, the “Little Wing”-esque Pearl Jam classic “Yellow Ledbetter,” had ended. But his fixation with wine did produce a few highlights at the Pepsi Center, including the soon-to-be-50-year-old singer’s vow to send a bottle up to “that guy in the white t-shirt, in the very last row.” Vedder asked the far-away man to pour wine all over his shirt so we’d all know the bottle made its way to him; apparently it did not.

Musically, Pearl Jam is as strong as ever, though it has never, in my opinion, found a drummer as dynamic (and fitting) as the creative Dave Abbruzzese, who was kicked out of the band in 1994, reportedly because Vedder found his drumming and his drumkit “too metal.” Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron — who deservedly received profuse tributes from Vedder and the crowd last night — has brought hard, precise beats to Pearl Jam since 1998 but is at times too predictable, sort of a Terry Chimes to Abbruzzese’s Topper Headon.

Regardless, lead guitarist Mike McCready (who, like Vedder, jumps around a lot) was the MVP last night, and really the MVP of Pearl Jam (which most people don’t notice unless they see a concert film or attend a Pearl Jam show). McCready is a vastly underrated soloist who suffers from Crohn’s disease and has come through health scares and substance-abuse problems to really define the term “late-career peak,” running laps around the big Pepsi Center stage as he strummed during “Rearview Mirror”; wowing the Denver crowd with a version of the Eddie Van Halen classic “Eruption” before Pearl Jam dusted off “Of the Earth”; and generally providing the kind of singular lead-guitar voice that can make a rock band a classic rock band.

Rarities and covers (notably a solo version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” by Vedder during a short acoustic set) abound, but no matter the song selection, Pearl Jam’s clear purpose is to keep its inspirational energy level sky-high…and swing giant light bulbs over the crowd until one shatters and the stage crew freaks out. The Seattle favorites succeeded at both last night.

Critic’s Notebook

Personal Bias: My older brother, a longtime Pearl Jam fanatic who incessantly played a cassette version of Ten in his beat-up Honda Civic when the album came out and he’d just learned to drive, texted me throughout the show, my first Pearl Jam concert, letting me know how exciting it was setlist-wise. I’m pretty sure the cassette fell through the holes in the Civic’s floor and was lost at one point.

Random Detail: Vedder, who also cracked numerous legal-pot jokes, correctly, and hilariously, pointed out that the Canadian flag hung in the Pepsi Center is slightly larger than the American flag next to it.

By The Way: According to Performance Environment Design Group, Pearl Jam’s “garbage bird” set piece is “made out of mostly steel tubing with mixed media accents like wood and rope [and] inspired by a bird sketch from the band. The trick was to make the giant piece look heavy and raw while keeping it light and transportable.”


Pearl Jam
10/22/14 – Pepsi Center
Denver, Colorado

Low Light
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Last Exit
Why Go
Lightning Bolt
Mind Your Manners
Setting Forth
My Father’s Son
Even Flow
Present Tense
Do the Evolution
Of the Earth
Given to Fly
Don’t Gimme No Lip

Future Days
Sleight of Hand
Last Kiss

Encore II:
State of Love and Trust
Better Man
Wasted Reprise
Life Wasted
Baba O’Riley
Yellow Ledbetter

SHOW REVIEW: Riot Fest in Denver, Day 2

Mike Ness at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

Social Distortion at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

Riot Fest, Denver 2014 (Day 2)
September 20, 2014
by Adam Perry

“Mother Nature, you are a merciless lighting director,” Clutch frontman Neil Fallon said, half-jokingly, early on in the Maryland funk-metal band’s searing set at the Denver edition of Riot Fest on Saturday afternoon outside Mile High Stadium. Fallon’s face was beet red but, true to the spirit of the festival’s ostensible intent – showcasing diversely crucial alternative music with both energy and edge – the gravel-voiced, middle-aged singer’s bout with sunburn seemed to only further his impressive, eccentric resolve to act as part preacher, part Black Flag-era Henry Rollins, part Tom-Waits-in-a-Black-Sabbath-cover-band.

Other than an emo version of The Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach” by Frnkiero And the Cellebration (yes, that’s the correct spelling) and a few fantastically lo-fi Dum Dum Girls numbers, Clutch’s earth-shaking 45-minute set was the first music I heard on Riot Fest’s second day after biking down from Boulder via the Little Dry Creek Path. Like a lot of what I witnessed Saturday, it took me right back to my high-school days as a punk-rock drummer and music-geek in Pittsburgh.

Clutch has added a startling amount of “Southern revival” soul and blues to the deep, heavy stoner-metal of its landmark early albums, but only a smidgen of what put the quartet on the map in the mid-‘90s – the raw power of funky adrenaline-fueled space-metal like “Escape from the Prison Planet” – has been lost in the transition. Which made Lucero, a Memphis outfit that somehow bills itself as “country-punk,” look downright soft – somewhat like Coldplay following Radiohead – when it kicked off its own 45-minute set the moment on the May Farms Stage – sort of a twin main stage – the moment Clutch finished.

Clutch at Riot Fest (photo by Ada Perry)

Clutch at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

Lucero has lost its edge over the years, even without the pressure of following a world-class heavy performer such as Clutch, and sounded out of place sandwiched between Clutch and Face to Face, another favorite of mine from high school. Singer-guitarist Trever Keith and his band struck gold for a minute in 1994 – during that hallowed time when pop-punk was more punk than pop – with the single “Disconnected,” and fit right in on the Byers General Store Stage, kicking off a remarkable three-band California punk-rock history lesson.

And “Welcome to Punk Rock 101” was exactly what 51-year-old Descendents frontman Milo Aukerman told the huge Riot Fest crowd as the legendary pop-punker took the stage, wearing a backpack and UC San Diego t-shirt and saluting some of his band’s children, who – seated stage left – could rightly be called the descendents of the Descendents.

Aukerman and Co. – whose drummer, Bill Stevenson, lives in Ft. Collins and is the co-founder of its respected Blasting Room studio – blasted off their hour-long sunset performance by playing their 1982 debut Milo Goes to College in its entirety. It only took the Descendents about 20 minutes to run through the 15 songs on Milo, following it with a greatest-hits romp, but for me it felt more like 20 years, which is the time that’s passed since, as a 14-year-old Pittsburgh kid, I played an SST mail-order cassette of the album so many times during freshman year of high school that it literally stopped working.

Even in their 50s, with Stevenson – punk rock’s Keith Moon – sounding more laid-back than ever, the members of the Descendents were admirably able to give me shivers, especially during Bikeage,” which I consider one of the great American pop songs. Aukerman, like Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin, is a PhD, though Aukerman’s songwriting genius delineates romance – somehow turning the rage of heartbreak into something profoundly uplifiting – rather than politics. As the sun set in Denver on Saturday, the seamless genius of Milo Goes to College – which I considered, as a teenager, not unlike Crass’ The Feeding of the 5,000 in its strength as one connected piece of music – was also clear, along with the joyful intensity of Stephen Egerton’s guitar.

The Descendents at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

The Descendents at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

Also notable, with some of the band’s kids seated on the stage to its right, was how Aukerman obviously – and thankfully – nixed offensive lyrics, such as “you fucking homo” and “go away / you fucking queer” from “I’m a Loser.” At the same time, choosing to forego homophobia made the Descendents’ misogynist lyrics more blatant; then again, Milo is an album written when the Descendents were teenagers and I was two years old. Hindsight is always 20/20, and Aukerman had me singing along with every word.

Social Distortion, on the other hand, struck me with the worst case of hero worship I’ve ever felt as a journalist. Standing at Mike Ness’ feet in the photo pit just beneath the stage, between Ness – his trademark gold guitar slung low – and the huge crowd, I felt like I was witnessing punk rock’s Johnny Cash, or the very least its Waylon Jennings. Ness, who was born in Massachusetts but went on to define Southern California hardcore as an iconic underage frontman, somehow seems to have lost not even a half step of his outlaw, Elvis-meets-Joe Strummer charm at age 52. And when he described “The Creeps” as “something I journaled when I was 16” and then launched into the timeless juggernaut, it was as if Ness transported tens of thousands of reverent Colorado punk fans back to a sweaty Orange County basement gig in 1979.

The impact of Social Distortion’s set had the young, pink-haired punk-rock girls swooning and stopped every mohawked guy pushing a stroller past the Ferris wheel in his tracks. On day two of Denver’s edition of Riot Fest 2014, Ness was certainly the MVP outside Peyton Manning’s home field. I even forgot about the $7 slices of pizza and $40 t-shirts for a moment.

The longevity of not just Aukerman and Ness’ talent as frontmen but their unforgettable lyrics and iconic singing styles made me – though decades younger than those two, also a dad whose kid already cherishes Joey Ramone – wonder where the impressive new punk bands at Riot Fest were. Plague Vendor moved me for a moment with music not unlike the Black Angels, or a heavier version of the Doors, but the Los Angeles group’s lyrics were disappointing. It seemed all the young bands I saw at Riot Fest possessed either edge but not songwriting skills or energy but no edge, and when Trever Keith said “This is punk rock time” during Face to Face’s set, I got what he meant. Emo is not punk rock, unless you can revel, as I do, in the emotional inspiration of the Descendents or even Fugazi’s “Waiting Room.”

Plague Vendor at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

Plague Vendor at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

The Used, Utah’s platinum-selling emo gods, made me feel even more crotchety, listening from the press tent as frontman Bert McCracken dished out such myopic whoppers as this:

“Special thanks tonight to all our hardcore fans! I’m sure you know exactly why we’re here, and that’s because we love music! I wish I could move here and be best friends with each and every one of you!”

If it was punk rock, it was punk rock nearly as shill-centric as Justin Bieber, at times sounding like Jars of Clay with distorted guitar, almost unbelievably shallow. And when The Used got heavy, it was nü-metal not unlike Limp Bizkit. Quite simply, most of the young bands at Riot Fest belonged more aptly at what Warped Tour has become – i.e. anything but punk or rock – in the days since I saw NOFX, Pennywise, Rocket from the Crypt, et al there as a teenager.

But I’m not a teenager anymore, which was pleasurably obvious as I stood beside the May Farms Stage on Saturday night watching headliners The Cure expose me as a fraud for letting it take until Robert Smith was just feet away to give the English new-wave heroes a real chance. All these years, even as I studiously adored David Bowie’s entire catalog late in high school, and even as my bandmates in later years told me different, I saw The Cure, and specifically Robert Smith (who always looked like Edward Scissorhands to me), as a farce. “‘Boys Don’t Cry’?” I’d say. “Please.”

But I was struck on Saturday night by the musicianship of The Cure; the craftsmanship of its careful songwriting; the depth and taste of what every instrument was doing; and Smith’s romantic singing, which in person seemed more classically poetic, like a mixture of early Bowie and Paul McCartney (“torn between the light and dark,” as Bowie’s “Quicksand” would say), than something easily lumped in with Flock of Seagulls.

As The Cure masterfully ran through classics such as “Just Like Heaven” and “Fascination Street,” I was hooked. It even dawned on me how impressive it is that Smith’s songwriting, so obviously indebted to 1970s Bowie, took what it needed from The Thin White Duke and then paid the debt back by influencing much of what Bowie has written since The Cure’s emergence.

Before anyone caught me rocking out to “Boys Don’t Cry” I jumped on my bike to reach Union Station in time to catch a midnight bus to Boulder and download The Cure’s entire collection.

SHOW REVIEW: Deer Tick in Denver 8/15/2014 (for Westword)

photos by Adam Perry

photos by Adam Perry

“Strangers Will Buy You Beer When Deer Tick Comes to Town!”
SHOW REVIEW: Deer Tick at the Bluebird Theater, Denver 8/15/2014
by Adam Perry for Westword

People throw all kinds of things at Deer Tick in order to express their love of the gritty rock-and-roll band from Providence, Rhode Island. At the quintet’s sold-out show at the Bluebird Theater in Denver, they threw half-full beers, shoes, even themselves.

Even before the group, led by John McCauley, hit the stage around 10:30 p.m., the crowd was drunk, sweaty and excitable. It was no secret that this would be Deer Tick’s night, a headlining opportunity on the eve of a shorter slot at Red Rocks on Saturday opening for Trampled by Turtles.

A swarm of music lovers, most of them with cans of Pabst in hand, packed in front of the Bluebird stage — between the more dignified, elevated section’s railing and the band — jockeying for position. One tall, visibly excited concert-goer assured those around him, “You’re stressing more than you have to; things are gonna move and it’ll be fine.”

Deer Tick, which focused on crowd-pleasers that included heavy doses of the 2007 breakthrough War Elephant, the first of the Providence outfit’s five LPs, clearly loved the energy in the room.

“We had to cancel a show here back in October” — for medical reasons — “but we’ll make it up to you tonight,” McCauley promised. “We’re gonna do stuff from all our eras. Believe it or not, we’ve been around long enough to have eras.”

The tunes from War Elephant were the most effective, but rollicking classics like “Easy” also highlighted McCauley’s talent for somehow making negativity pleasurable. McCauley is finally approaching thirty (and married Vanessa Carlton last year) but appears to be having more fun on stage than ever.

Early in Deer Tick’s two-hour set at the Bluebird, McCauley – who notoriously used his penis as a guitar pick at the Bluebird a few years ago – played guitar from his knees, drifting backward a la Hendrix. Later he played a dueling solo with guitarist Ian O’Neil (who looks and plays just like Mike Bloomfield circa Dylan going electric) while engaging in a sustained headbutt not unlike young rams lovingly sparring. And just before a phenomenal nine-song encore — well, not really an encore, because McCauley remained on stage while the rest of the band took a breather — the energetic blond frontman played guitar atop Dennis Ryan’s bass drum before leaping off, Pete Townshend-style.

During the faux-metal guitar solo in “These Old Shoes,” McCauley even made a series of faces that suggested he’s seen the recent memes that features everything from slugs to sandwiches Photoshopped in place of guitars while legendary shredders make pained faces. 

photos by Adam Perry

photos by Adam Perry

And those cans of Pabst, raised high over and over, had more of a tendency to shake and spill when McCauley’s giddy showmanship periodically appeared. Jubilant quasi-moshing erupted two-thirds of the way through Deer Tick’s set, to the obvious delight of McCauley, who popped a bottle of champagne on stage and was having such a good time he found time to fit in covers of oldies like “Sleepwalkers” and “La Bamba,” plus teases of “Every Breath You Take” and the theme from The Munsters.

“He looks like Woogie from There’s Something About Mary,” my date hilariously leaned in to tell me at one point. “And the guitarist looks like a cross between Mike Myers and Jimmy Fallon.”

It’s true: Deer Tick is not a handsome band. But women — who made up nearly half the raucous capacity audience — sang along with virtually every word McCauley and his band mates (two of whom did some lead singing themselves) let out, and smiled as big as the musicians, who have clearly bonded something fierce over the past eight or so years of constant touring.

As “The Bump,” which had the Denver crowd screaming along, explains: “We’re full grown men / but we act like kids.” The five members of Deer Tick also act like best friends. And that spirit is contagious: A guy dancing next to us with his girlfriend all night returned from the bar at one point with cans of Pabst for me and my date.

Perhaps the peak of the evening was McCauley’s character-filled two-song solo turn, which turned into a sing-along with the singer/songwriter’s signature Willie Nelson-meets-Pavement tune, “Art Isn’t Real (City of Sin)” and “Something in the Way” by Nirvana, which McCauley famously fronted as Kurt Cobain’s “replacement” in for an April gig in Brooklyn after the grunge legend’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction.

The show was brought to a fever pitch when the rest of Deer Tick emerged to join McCauley for the culmination of the Tom Waits-esque ballad “Not So Dense,” slamming into the song’s screaming “hour after hour” crescendo along with the frenzied crowd.

It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but Deer Tick had me feeling glad be jammed into a 100-year-old, 500-capacity theater on a steamy summer night rather than under the stars at Red Rocks.

SHOW REVIEW: Jolie Holland in Denver (Westword 8/8/2014)


Jolie Holland at the Larimer Lounge, Denver 8/7/2014
by Adam Perry for Westword 8/8/2014

When a music-geek favorite such as Jolie Holland comes to town, the Larimer Lounge on a summer Thursday is pure Denver: tattooed, homegrown punks hanging at the bar and (mostly) transplants — hippies, middle-aged alcoholics, young white-collar music lovers and everything in between — milling around on the back porch waiting for the headliner’s set.

Last night, local duo Plume Varia and the energetic trio Shy Hunters opened for Holland at the Larimer. Having virtually nothing in common with the 38-year-old Holland’s well-known countrified Brooklyn alt-folk (besides the fact that two-thirds of Shy Hunters is also in Holland’s band), the two openers drew only 20 or 30 of the roughly 90 people in attendance into the performance space.

It was a slow night until Holland, who had been sitting on the front patio on her smartphone off-and-on for several hours before chatting with fans at the merch table, started playing guitar over the house music around 11 p.m. That was ostensibly Holland’s cue to the embattled sound engineer that she and her band were ready to go.

The Texas-born singer-songwriter and guitarist/violinist — whose work as a solo artist and with the Be Good Tanyas has memorably traversed blues, folk, country, soul and rock — repeatedly paid tribute to the “loud, drunk crowd,” as she called it, and made no mention of the obvious, which members of her exceedingly youthful band had discussed with me at length outside the Larimer before the show: Her current tour represents a serious musical departure.

Guitarist Adam Brisbin, writing out setlists for the group, told me how the musicians on Wine Dark Sea — Holland’s edgy new album — were generally excited about adding a touch of the avant garde (shades of noise-rock and the Velvet Underground) to Holland’s work.Wine even features a two-drummer experiment (only one of which was present at the Larimer); it’s Holland’s most musically ambitious album.

Flanked by two lead guitarists (the Marc Ribot-esque dervish Brisbin on an eccentric little Harmony and Indigo Street playing clean, articulate blues on a white Telecaster), Holland switched between a gold Les Paul and a violin throughout the night, doing her captivating Texas-meets-Brooklyn thing while her free-flowing band occasionally reached Ornette Coleman-worthy heights of madness.


The dusky new tune “Palm Wine Drunkard” led off the hour-and-a-half set, matched fittingly with a cover of labelmate Tom Waits’ “Who Are You.” Both clearly stated Holland’s current musical intentions, which attempt to juxtapose world-class lyrics and singing with a whole bunch of electric guitars and risky, almost free-jazz drumming that can either take a beautiful song and it make it holy or swallow it whole. The latter, caused not by the drummer alone but by the rest of the band, at times thinking it was playing “Expressway to Yr Skull,” did happen a few times at the Larimer, causing Holland to throw her hands up, but more often than not the bombastic group did come together impressively.

Surprisingly, the highlights of the evening were Holland’s takes on “Do Me Justice,” a tropical dance tune by the late West African musician S.E. Rogie, and the bold ’60s soul number “The Love You Save.” The jazz-rock noise was hit (mostly) or miss, but Holland’s band really nailed the aforementioned sultry covers — one upbeat, one slow and sexy.

Holland’s singularly beautiful singing, to which she’s added a quiver that thankfully moves more like Sidney Bechet’s trumpet than Joan Baez’s voice, is generally more at home inside subtle, confidently graceful music — her stunning original “Do You?” was also a treasure last night — than cacophony. But Holland is just like her heroes — ambitious — and Denver was blessed last night when her ambition, talent and tastefulness met with her band’s virtuosity.

CD REVIEW: Freeman / Gene Ween “Freeman” (East Bay Express 7/16/2014)


Freeman (Gene Ween) Freeman
by Adam Perry for the East Bay Express 7/16/2014

Since forming the oddball alt-rock act Ween with Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween) in an eighth-grade class near Philadelphia, Aaron Freeman (aka Gene Ween) has played very weird and very memorable music (Ween was, in some ways, to Frank Zappa as Phish is to the Grateful Dead) and struggled mightily with drug abuse. Two years ago the malleable-voiced singer-songwriter announced the end of Ween in a Rolling Stone interview, to the shock and rage of not only the band’s fans but also Dean Ween, his bandmate of almost 30 years. Now, the artist formerly known as “Gener” has unveiled an album called Freeman–with a band called Freeman–that serves as a proper solo debut (Marvelous Clouds, an exceptionally strange—but underrated—collection of Rod McKuen tunes, was released in 2012). 

“Covert Discretion,” the LP’s opener, establishes Freeman as the most earnest, or at least outspoken and personal, work by anyone associated with Ween. Written a week after Freeman’s incredibly ugly 2012 onstage breakdown with Ween in Vancouver, “Covert Discretion” alludes to his fight to either keep himself sober or keep making big money, and triumphantly ends with a repeated coda of “fuck you all / I’ve got a reason to live / and I’m never gonna die.” Freeman, which juxtaposes the androgynous operatic rock of Queen and early Elton John with Freeman’s more jangly late work with Ween (see: “Tried and True” and “Spirit Walker”), occasionally grates with religious tales of “wheels of alabaster” and golden monkeys. But its highlights, like the inviting “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man,” with its endearing guitar solo a la “The Stallion Pt. 3,” are a window into how hauntingly brilliant Ween records like White Pepper and Quebec might’ve sounded with a focus more on introspection than Zoloft and cocaine. If only Bill Hicks was alive, he’d have Freeman as proof that sober musicians don’t always suck. 

CD REVIEW: Andrew Bird “Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of…” (East Bay Express 7/2/2014)

Andrew Bird Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of… 
by Adam Perry for the East Bay Express 7/2/2014

It’s common knowledge that Andrew Bird’s genius transcends music. Witnessing a recent performance of his new indie-Americana group Hands of Glory, each time Bird touched his violin, or whistled, I felt unable to stop recalling the times I saw transcendent athletes (Mario Lemieux, Barry Bonds, etc.) in action as a kid. But, as evidenced on Bird’s new album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of… , the forty-year-old violin virtuoso is no Steve Vai. The prolific Bird’s love of irreverent-yet-profound songwriting dates back to his late-Nineties days collaborating with Squirrel Nut Zippers and leading Bowl of Fire. Things Are Really Great Here, which continues with the dusty Americana style Bird undertook with 2012’s Hands of Glory, focuses solely on covers of Handsome Family tunes. The Albuquerque-via-Chicago duo’s darkly enlightened odes to everything from cathedrals that look like spaceships to sad milkmen to poodles who think they’re cowboys fit Bird well. Though the Handsome Family is more steeped in folk tradition (as though June Carter teamed with Stephen Malkmus) than Bird, several sparsely recorded tracks here, like “Tin Foiled” and “Drunk By Noon,” seem more like an evolution of Bird’s sound than covers. Bird’s been known to write about snack machines that dream and clouds mistaken for mountains — and his strong, sweet voice would fit in any era of American music — so these captivating tall tales (“The Giant of Illinois”) and modern American curiosities (“Frogs Singing”) succeed in simply bringing a touch of eccentric country, and almost Gothic wildness to an artist often known for getting by on instrumental prowess and playful lyricism alone.


SHOW REVIEW: Mavis Staples in Boulder (6/25/2014)


Mavis Staples at Chautauqua Auditorium, Boulder

Standing just feet from Mavis Staples as she swaggered through Buffalo Springfield’s classic “For What It’s Worth” last night at Boulder’s historic Chautauqua Auditorium, it was obvious – even as she approaches 75 years old – why Bob Dylan famously asked Staples’ father for her hand in marriage so many years ago.

She’s got moxie; she’s got blues; she’s got style; she’s got class; and she’s got taste. That was clear when Staples and her band – three backup singers, including her sister; drums, bass and guitar – launched into a confident, badass version of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.” Even Stop Making Sense, one of the great concert films of all time, could’ve used Mavis Staples.

“We bring you greetings from the Windy City…but I can breathe much easier in Chicago,” Staples (who, with the Staples Singers, was once considered the musical voice of the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.) admitted at one point. “We come to bring you joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations…enough to last you maybe six months.”

Mixing in other classics (like a spot-on “The Weight” and Staples’ signature “I’ll Take You There”), gospel-tinged tunes, freedom rallies and lonesome-yet-hopeful ballads like “You’re Not Alone,” Staples and her band succeeded even where nearly everyone fails: They got the stilted, virtually all-white Boulder crowd to seem even a smidgen like an old-time revival, hollering “positive vibrations” right back.

“We love you, Mavis!” someone shouted between songs.

“I love you more!” the legend responded.