Anyone who didn't realize how hateful the Loser's Lounge tribute to Neil Diamond was only has to refer to Saving Silverman. The Losers' idea of a night spent goofing on Diamond?which was already a tired concept by 1994?was made a doubly bad idea when Jack Black showed up doing the same on the big screen. The Lounge's "Hot December Night" shows were easily the most painful and awkward evenings in the Losers' previously proud history. Even worse, the schlock-ridden concert was one of the first that christened the Losers' wonderful new venue at the Westbeth Theater Center. The spacious new setting was almost enough to make a few Lounge veterans swear off forever?until the announcement of the Roxy Music Tribute Night. If the Losers were going to screw up and become our enemies for life, then at least it should be over an act that means something to hipsters on a personal level.
So there was the midsized audience on opening night, with many expecting enough rope for a high-tech lynching that would make Clarence Thomas miss the good old days. Hipsters are wrong about many things. That's why it kind of made sense when the Roxy shows turned out to be the most perfect Loser's Lounge dates yet. It may very well be that being a Roxy Music fan is now slightly less cool than really being into Jethro Tull. Still, it's to Roxy's credit that their catalog seamlessly fits into the timeless sentimentality of the Loser's Lounge roster.
Bryan Ferry wouldn't know that the Losers have been making some pretty big stretches in their definition of timeless songwriters. Purists have long had good reason to suspect that the Losers were more interested in filling seats than fulfilling obsessions. Still, Ferry is one of the few important rock figures who could honestly fit in the Loser ranks of Jimmy Webb, Henry Mancini and Paul Williams. (The Losers haven't actually saluted Williams yet, but the idea suddenly seems like a possibility again.) It's also to the Losers' credit that enough of their regular cast are properly reverent toward Roxy Music and the collateral solo work of Bryan Ferry, Andy MacKay and Phil Manzanera?and Brian Eno in an obligatory music nerd nod.
A list of the show's highlights is pretty much a list of the evening's program. Even the stabs at straight imitation served a purpose. Since Ferry sings like an angelic goat, it was fun watching a few singers attempt straight vocal impersonations. Josh Tyler and Joe Budenholzer pulled off the best faux Ferry, but it was left to Leif Arntzen?in his normal voice?to capture the sex appeal of Jerry Hall's ex-boyfriend. The guy could put on a white dinner jacket and be working the mainstream tribute circuit. Or maybe he should be working the rich-older-woman circuit, which is probably more lucrative.
Even the stabs at comedy were restrained and artistic. Music for Airports looked like an awful idea on the program, but the backup crew of Sean Altman, Connie Petruc and Tricia Scotti created the funniest and most topical poke yet at ambient music. Somebody also deserves a nod for the backup's outfits, which were both historically accurate (within the Roxy world) and good for laughs (within the low-rent glam world). The only joke that really fell flat was Justin Bond's cornball "To Turn You On." She's the kind of drag queen who brings her purse onstage; the prop was the only suggestion that she really wasn't paying tribute to John Hurt.
Otherwise, though, it was a good night for the ladies?especially since Roxy's biggest femme advocate until now has been that dame from Concrete Blonde. Robin Goldwasser nearly played it straight with her very sweet take on "Dance Away," while "Really Good Time" was actually improved upon by Jenni Muldaur's gorgeous voice. In contrast, Debby Schwartz dared to go all Ethel Merman over the traditionally crooned "2HB"?which, for the record, may have been the first time a tribute song to an actor was covered during a Loser's Lounge tribute night.
Musical director Joe McGinty didn't comment on that interesting fact, but he still got off the evening's best gag during Sean Altman's reminiscing about Avalon as the perfect album for dormitory sex. Introducing "More Than This," Altman discussed timing the album's arc through foreplay, heated action and a warm afterglow just as the pizza delivery arrives. "Remember that, Joe?" asked Sean. "I was the guy delivering the pizza," McGinty replied. Maybe it was rehearsed, but that line was still worth repeating for the next three nights.
While the neglected shining Loser?the Eddie Jobson, if you will?was Julian Maile, McGinty had the evening's big production number with "Mother of Pearl." The song's crazed disco prelude had much of the cast onstage for what looked more like a Laugh-In tribute, with McGinty shouting and twisting away. Then the somber song proper began, and it was obvious that we were watching a music video that's been playing in McGinty's brain since around the age of 15. Honestly, the moment was downright touching. McGinty's performance invoked the fannish reliance that's captured in the finest moments at the Loser's Lounge. The ghost of Neil Diamond still lingered in the room, but he was at least silenced until McGinty's DJ stint on Valentine's Day.
Slaid Cleaves Harlem Compound (February 2)
Slaid Cleaves' performance has to be an early contender for one of the best shows of the year, if only because of its perfect purity, its capture of the freshness and intimacy that a fan listens to this music to hear. Part of this had to do with Slaid himself, who is coming off a big year. His record Broke Down made a splash on the triple-A circuit and booked him so solidly he has by his own admission only written one new song since it came out.
Despite his success Slaid agreed to hold a tiny concert for only 30 people. Because the space was so small most of us were practically sitting in Slaid's lap. No amps, no mics, just the glorious cliche of a singer and his guitar. Under these circumstances the warmth and appreciation of the audience were palpable. It felt as friendly as an old-time bring-your-own-bottle pickin' party.
Slaid's friend and sometime cowriter Rod Picott opened the show. This was itself a revelation: Rod's voice, somewhat rougher than Slaid's, brings a new dimension to the songs he and Slaid worked on together, and he is a fine musician in his own right. Oliver Steck provided what sounded like improvised support on harmonica, accordion and trumpet.
At one point in the show Rod leaned over to me and said, "This wouldn't work at other shows." I can't even remember what occasioned the remark, but it could have been any number of moments: when amid all his storytelling Slaid asked the audience if we had any stories to tell; when the owner of the venue called up from out of state to see how things were going and Slaid picked up the phone to ask if she had any requests; or maybe it was when Slaid called out for everyone to join in on the chorus, and he really meant it, and everyone really did.
The Residents Beacon Theater (February 15)
The Rolling Stones are a boring dinosaur act. That's not news. So is Kiss. And David Bowie, the Allman Brothers and all those others who insist on touring and putting out new records long after they have anything new or clever or remotely interesting to say.
Yet strangely, the Residents, who've been around almost as long as or longer than those other musical acts, are not.
For the past 30 years, the Residents have always been among the first to take advantage of new technologies?reel-to-reel video in the early 70s, MIDI in the 80s, CD-ROM in the 90s, with a half-dozen others in between. And in many of these experiments, the Residents have used the advent of these new technologies as an opportunity to reinvent themselves?and rarely so clearly than in the case of their new DVD, Icky Flix.
In the hands of any other band, the DVD would've been nothing more than a collection of old videos slapped together on a disc and hawked at Tower?but the Residents, being the Residents, decided to go weird with it. All the old videos are here?the videos that are now part of MOMA's permanent collection, considered the world's first true music videos?and a double handful of new videos, created around old songs specifically for the disc. But along with the original music, the Residents also added a second soundtrack?reshaping and rerecording all the songs?even the most recent (from 1998's Wormwood).
It was with the Wormwood tour, actually, that they returned to a more traditional band format for the first time in a long time?guitar, bass and drums, along with their trademark electronics. It's that rougher, more immediate sound that marks most of the new recordings on Icky Flix. And solely as a "package," I gotta say?I have a mountain of DVDs piled around my television, and none of them comes close to the beauty and brilliance of this one?as they did with CD-ROM, the Residents have imagined the potential of these discs far beyond what anyone else has dared yet.
As the great Percy Dovetonsils would say, "It's full of clues."
The Icky Flix tour?only their fifth in three decades?was patterned, in a way, after that (comparatively) old tradition of providing contemporary live soundtracks to silent films?the Philip Glass Ensemble did it, as did the Penguin Cafe and Club Foot orchestras. Tricky thing here was, since they would be performing live to their own videos projected behind them, their timing had to be perfect, or close to it?and it was.
After a tuxedoed, eyeball-headed Resident walked onstage, produced a remote and clicked on the DVD (displayed on a screen at the back of the stage) things were under way?and they didn't stop?no banter, no "How ya feelin' out there tonight?"?for the next 90 minutes.
The band, this time around, was a six-member outfit playing mostly behind a series of translucent nylon screens?four musicians in black bodystockings, tuxedo jackets and bug-stalk lightbulb eyes, the female singer doing a Nancy Sinatra in a pink wig, green sunglasses, a slinky red dress and yellow galoshes, and ol' Mr. Skull in a white tux jacket?the skull mask this time a glowering, misshapen wonder with powderpuffed stalks sprouting from the top (reminiscent of the mask he wore during the 13th-anniversary tour).
Beginning with a dark and savage new version of Third Reich 'n' Roll's medley of 60s hits, the band?as tight as I've ever heard them live?hopscotched their way through the new disc's menu, playing 15 of the disc's 17 tracks (skipping only "Jelly Jack" and the 20-minute soundtrack to Vileness Fats, perhaps their earliest film project).
Despite the incessant and bellowed song requests from the knuckleheads in the audience, the Residents put on a sharply orchestrated show, the male and female vocalists moving out from behind the screen to sing and/or dance, quietly returning to their spots at the end of each number.
The only break in the music came around the halfway point when, as a series of Icky Flix's bizarre and disturbing three-second video bumpers were projected on the screen, all the Residents left their instruments, wandered to the middle of the stage and just sort of hung out for awhile, chatting on cellphones, drinking water, milling about for a few minutes, paying the audience no mind at all. Then they resumed their positions and started playing again.
The trickiest number of the evening was probably "Constantinople," from the 1978 album Duck Stab. I say tricky because it was the only video in which synchronizing live vocals with an onscreen mouth was an issue?but again, they pulled it off, even allowing Mr. Skull to add a rare (and quite wonderful) alto sax solo in the middle.
The screen stayed dark for the encore, as the band pulled three non-video oldies out of their top hats, turning "Blue Rosebuds" into an angry duet, transforming Freak Show's "Benny the Bouncing Bump" into a mini-opera, and finally closing with the melancholy and spooky Freak Show outro ("We are only equal in the grave and in the dark...").
As Residents shows go?and granted, there aren't many to judge by?it was a relatively low-key one?the simplest of "sets" accentuated by a remarkable light show. It was mostly just a greatest-hits show, the set list drawn from 10 different albums, without the intense philosophical and sociocultural focus of The Mole Show, Cube E or Wormwood. But even given that, the Residents have proven once again that, however long they've been around, they remain one of the most fascinating and fun acts America (or anyone else) has spawned.