Let me say that after seeing two shows back-to-back (this one and Portland, ME), I think this very well may be Todd’s best live band ever. Of course it’s debatable, and in the end matters not... but they are playing like it, Todd is pushing them, and they pushing him back in ways I wondered if I would ever see again. Prairie, Jesse, and John have been playing with him since 1991 -- 13 years -- and of course Kasim has been with him on and off for more than 25. Kasim has long played the McCartney role to Todd’s Lennon. No dig on Willie Wilcox, but give me the never-lonesome Prairie any day. Jesse Gress, who at first seemed like a Todd clone back in 1991, has come into his own as not only a credible music educator and sideman, but as a unique player who shares Todd’s tendencies for melodic invention and sonic variety with a musical sense of humor. His guitar may not weep as gently as Todd’s, but he’s never sloppy, never fooled, and always at ease. While John Ferenzik is not as flashy as say, Roger Powell, his restrained, precise approach is more fitting. His backing vocals blend well with Kasim, I loved the intro he did to “God Said,” and he could clearly solo for a quite awhile before he or the audience noticed what time it was... as Kasim did, jokingly pointing to his watch after John’s extended solo during “Born to Synthesize.” Go see them and let me know if you can think of a better group of players Todd has brought out on the road. For those longing for Utopia – it is here, no need to wait another year.
This tour was not thrown together in a fortnight. There is lots of detail, and much of it is brand new... from the LED lighting grid, with the arched mini-stages, through two full costume changes with variations night to night, to the laptop preamps and earbud monitors... all designed to put forth two sets of music with breaks for the band members but no rest for the audience. Very impressive, and all done on a budget likely less than any name-your-favorite-American-Idol. Of course none of it would be worth a damn without the new music from a CD that is equally impressive in its conception, in its reach, and in what it delivers -- a true journey that leaves you thinking different two hours later.
Up near the front with my friend Jon, the sound suffered in some ways, mostly from the lack of Jesse’s guitar. An unintentional by-product of the ampless stage set... but oh, how cool it looks to see Jesse’s laptop teetering on an old four-legged cushioned barstool! It was not optimum sound night. Others have commented about the drunk who stormed the stage a few times... at least once he yelled “It’s too dis-TOA-ted! Get a new sound man!” It wasn’t the sound man, buddy... it’s the nature of things when you squeeze a rock show into a dance club. If you check the various reviews, the small theatre shows always mention far fewer sound problems than the dance club / extended bar venues. Other shows I’ve seen at the Roxy were equally muddy.
Which is unfortunate, because this is challenging new music, and surely many people had not heard the new CD prior to the show. They did not need more challenges from a bad mix. Still, you will always have fringe fans who blame what they hear on bad song selection or some other random element. It is fascinating how many fans who once reveled in the challenges of Todd’s music, who loved the fact he was almost anti-commercial, now just want another coat of paint from his old musical canon. While the sound was questionable, the effort was not, even though Todd did not have his "A" voice on this night. Oh yeah, the show... “Truth” sounded like it was made for this club, even if raving techno is not something this forty-something crowd put on in the car on the way home. It is a great opener, gets the heart pumping, and sets the theme well, with Todd in his robe and the lights full strobe. Then “Buffalo Grass” -- Todd is taking a stand on his new music, meaning not just “Liars,” but also his other recent records. Then into “Mammon,” which had to have some older fans wondering what was up... (OK, three songs already, and nothing from “Back to the Bars” ... let’s get a beer.) While a little heavy-handed, this song echoes much of Todd's past work -- progressive, orchestral, with a message as subtle as his wiggling squat on the line "When your ass is too fat to fit the pearly gates."
“Fascist Christ” proves that Todd’s foray into rap was not some worthless trip. It fits perfectly with the new material thematically, and just plain rocks. Todd holds his nose while singing “Come to the rescue,” Jesse plays some devil guitar, then they bring it down with a soulful dynamic, with Todd taking the final solo. Nice arrangement. At first I thought the muted guitar chunking was a poor substitute for the DJ-scratching on the record, but that's only because it's not as precise rhythmically. Somebody took our god away, but gave him back by the end of the song.
“Unloved Children” and Harrison’s “Weeps” make it clear Todd came to play some geetar on this tour. At least in this first set he did... then he changed pace, focusing on voice for “God Said,” and “Liar,” the one song where any undecided fans either got off the pot or jumped on the bandwagon. What intensity... I don’t think you’ll see many punk rockers leaning and screaming into the mike at age 55 like Todd does on this one.
Then the tender love ballad, “Beloved Infidel,” to cleanse the aural palate, and into “Lunatic Fringe,” making it three songs in a row with terrorist themes. Funny, years ago I used to hear Todd fans referred to as a lunatic fringe audience. Well, at least he knows we’re still out there. I would like it more if the band did it. Yeah yeah, the costume break... which is not a bad thing, as the soul brother suits arrive to give the night a fresh start. “Green Onions” serves nicely as a vehicle for Prairie to do some groove soloing, though I was looking forward to hearing “Loosen Up” by the Nazz as in earlier shows. I head to the rest room and cross paths with Todd’s wife Michele, and she stops to chat. I tell her how cool it is that she is doing a comedy stop at the American Legion in Somerville next Friday, and that I wish I could make it, but will be out of town. “Tell your friends” she says, so you have been warned!
“Soul Brother” grooves into “Sweet,” and this is clearly “the easy side” of the two sets, with Todd smiling and more relaxed. Kasim smiles too, as he does so easily, with high voice and low bass... the guy is ageless. “Past” for me is the best live song from the new record. Until he starts doing the oft-requested “Stood Up,” which I don’t expect anytime soon. Not all the songs on Liars were recorded with a live band arrangement in mind. “Past” sets forth a new musical center, as Todd takes us back, and then reconnects us to the present, repeating “It’s all gone...” and then waking himself, and us, from oblivion. Some may never have returned.
“Born to Synthesize” was good fun, with nice solos from John and Jesse. Todd traded scats with Jesse, extending the phrases longer and longer, then waving his hand like an applause-o-meter over his head while the crowd swayed and shouted. “Feel It” rocks with Prairie’s persistence, and he plays that offbeat half-time groove like he wrote it. “The Want of a Nail” fits just fine, and the sound is full and soulful. “Hello” typically delivers, and “Just One Victory” is worth the price of admission alone. What relief to hear that again, and I still can hear another 8 bars of solo guitar at the end.
Good to see Sue, and Gene, and to meet Prairie lingering on the floor later. Todd is workin’ it on this tour... really going for it, with what could be his best live band ever. It may not always hit everyone, but it hit me like a train at the Roxy.