Both of my regular Todd tour buddies had commitments, so I made the hundred mile trek solo from Boston to Northampton, a great little artsy college town in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. But not without some trepidation. Having just survived an ugly midday blizzard on Thursday, another messy storm was on the way the next day, with snow due to start around midnight, soon after this show.
A TRC forum thread led a number of us to the Northampton Brewery to meet up before the show. Soon I had met a number of members behind the screen names – Mighty Quinn and MiniQuinn from Poughkeepsie, 4Dog from Rochester, BrightMoments from RI, along with various friends and spouses in tow. What a thing it is to walk into a party of strangers where you share one thing in common – your favorite music, and with that half a lifetime of stories, unique experiences, and common references. Within minutes I learned that 4Dog (and Veggiegurl, who missed this show) also sat onstage near me at an adjacent table for the Tiki tour stop at Boston’s Paradise Lounge back in ‘97. What a hoot.
We made our way over to the Calvin Theater, “sharing some crops,” as Todd would later reference, along the way. The theater was just a little more than half full. This is a great place to see a show, as I found out this summer when I came out to see Crowded House. I made my way down to the 4th row, happy to see diehard fans like Kristen and Grady and Lin. I had to wonder… how many of these people were actually from Northampton? It seemed like we all came from somewhere else.
The sound mix was a rare special blend – spot on, just right, and not too loud. I had even bought fancy new earplugs at Guitar Center after reading some of the reviews, but I didn’t even think to bother with them once the entire night. Todd was a little bit drunk for this show, but in a good way. More of an “I’ll have what he’s having,” not at all embarrassing. Unless maybe you have a problem with political rants against neocons, or might shake your head at Todd’s introduction of “Black Maria” by saying “Tonight we’re going to leave some skid marks on the oeuvre.” (He then mused about whether that would make a good album title for his next release.) He was way relaxed, with a hoarseness to his voice that was apparent when he spoke, but not when he sang. And he nailed each number musically, mixing in some leg kicks, sideways shuffles, backbends, big rock faces and lots of sweat.
The set list was the same as previous shows. More than once during the show it occurred to me that this lineup could possibly serve as Utopia Mark III. Jesse Gress, the perfect Todd foil on guitar, is there instead of Roger Powell. (And he’s the new and improved Jesse – this one sings background parts.) Having a 2nd guitar instead of keys actually makes it more of Beatlesque quartet than the second Utopia lineup. Longtime partner Kasim on bass and vocals needs no introduction here, and second-time-around drummer Michael Urbano (TFC is right, we need a nickname for this guy) really brings something special to this gig. He has a chemistry with these guys, and his worth is evident not by the attention he draws to himself, but in how much better he makes everyone else sound. I love Prairie Prince, and Prairie will wow you more with his funky parts, powerful fills, and monster stage presence. But Urbano brings this killer groove, an internal clock that is more than solid time. It’s a master’s tempo with a secret sauce that just makes things taste better. He has a way of finding just the right bit of subtlety to make a song sit perfectly.
A number of songs on this night sounded better than I ever heard them. “Mammon” was a good example. Not my favorite song from Liars, I do enjoy the drama of it, but to these ears it’s a bit of a plodding song. It hits you on top of the head like a 16-ton weight and pounds you into submission. But here it was almost danceable. At first I thought it was because he found a better tempo, just a bit faster. But it’s not that – it’s simply how he played the backbeat, right in the pocket with a little more attention to dynamics.
• In “Soul Brother” Urbano added this quiet little syncopated grace note that was barely noticeable, but really made it swing. (Prairie would sometimes play it too, but not as deliberately. Drummer alert – it’s just before the “and 1” leading into the downbeat.) • Jesse’s guitar on “Tiny Demons” brought out the Halloween spook, and Urbano’s light backbeat made it a little more grounded. Todd said at the end that apparently another one stole his lyric sheet, but I didn’t notice. • “Drive” was a treat, never heard this with a full band before. Love that swelling rhythm guitar break in the solo section. • Even SLUT sounded good. I did not expect this on a song that is really a throwaway novelty, and a bit dated despite Todd’s comment that it’s now gender neutral. They put some lipstick on this pig and played it like it was a long-lost R&B chestnut worthy of respect in the morning. • “Hawking” has now advanced to top-shelf status. What a treat to hear it with this group, with Urbano again setting the tone with a dreamy, behind-the-beat groove.
The crowd was a little sedate, happy to stay seated most of the time. Either that or I stood up too fast a few too many times I guess. Hey, at least Grady was usually there standing up behind me. ;^D But it was an attentive crowd, no chattering and very little heckling. Todd commended them for “not asking for that song that begins with H” and rewarded them with his other 70s hit, “I Saw the Light.”
Don’t look now, but it seems Todd’s got a great new encore triad that may have a long shelf-life. For years they always left us with Couldn’t I Just Tell You / Love is the Answer / Just One Victory. Now we have Hawking, Trapped, and Worldwide Epiphany. One nostalgic rocker, one heartfelt ballad, and one closing anthem with a spiraling shuffle is a sure fire way to go home happy.
And that I did, thankful that the snowstorm held off until the next morning. On the way home I plugged in the ipod, freshly updated with a playlist that matched the set list exactly, something that would not be possible without online tour reviews and live bootleg trading lists. Years ago the local radio station might replay the concert songs in order as best they could for the ride home… now you can do it yourself with a little help from your friends.