Category Archives: Concerts: 2012 – Present

6:00 On a Christmas Morning – Dream Theater at Their Best

Bryan Morey on my favorite Dream Theater album, AWAKE.

Progarchy

Dream Theater, Awake, 1994

Tracks: 1. 6:00, 2. Caught in a Web, 3. Innocence Faded, 4. Erotomania, 5. Voices, 6. The Silent Man, 7. The Mirror, 8. Lie, 9. Lifting Shadows Off a Dream, 10. Scarred, 11. Space-Dye Vest

1993dream-theater-awake-delanteraSome might say that I am unqualified to discuss a twenty-two year-old Dream Theater album, especially since I’ve only been listening to the band for three years. Indeed, I’ve received similar comments on the negative review I wrote of the band’s most recent piece of… er… album. However, I believe my recent discovery of the band allows me to bring a fresh perspective to their catalogue.

I was introduced to the band through their self-titled 2013 album, which I happen to enjoy. I think it is their best “Mangini-era” production. Furthermore, I see that album as being in a special category of Dream Theater’s heaviest albums, alongside Awake and Train…

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On the Edge of 30: U2’s THE JOSHUA TREE

Brad Birzer’s musings on one of the most important rock albums ever made, The Joshua Tree.

Progarchy

u2-joshua-tree Originally released March 9, 1987

Thirty years ago this month and next, U2, Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois were putting the finishing touches on what is arguably one of the greatest rock albums ever written, THE JOSHUA TREE.  That “the album wears well,” even three decades later, would be a tragic understatement.  Frankly, though I have listened to it repeatedly over the past 29 years, THE JOSHUA TREE sounds as fresh at the end of 2016 as it did in the spring of 1987.  It’s possible that nostalgia—“the rust of memory,” as the great sociologist Robert Nisbet once proclaimed it—clouds my judgment, but I don’t think so.  Other albums from that time that meant almost as much to me then sound dreadfully tinny and dated now.

So, my continuing and continuous awestruck response to THE JOSHUA TREE can’t be complete nostalgia.

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The Cult @ The Paul Paul Theater, Fresno CA 10/07/16

It’s pretty cool when an international rock group of this caliber and history does a date like Fresno or Bakersfield. Like a friend of mine had mentioned, it keeps us from having to fork out the extra money and time spent traveling to a primary market like LA or San Francisco. Gigs like that are usually a 3 hour drive for most people in this area. Fans in the Central Valley have to pick and choose wisely when it comes to pricey out of town “big” gigs like that. And these days it seems like EVERYONE’s touring. To be more accurate, there are more options to choose from, with groups hitting the road with more frequency even without new material to support, flooding the market with an overwhelming amount of live options. The Cult, at least, were still touring in support of Hidden City, a worthy offering of new material featuring the rocking “Deeply Ordered Chaos.” The Cult have been called the hard rock version of U2. I don’t really see the comparison, but for me, the Cult are a mixture of post-punk hard rock infused with blues and dark wave. Think of bluesy hard rock like Led Zeppelin, plus the baritone of Jim Morrison, the psychedelic mysticism of The Doors, with a dash of Joy Division and early Cure. It was an early set, beginning around 7:15pm with no opener. The energy level in the venue was ok but not quite up to Cult standards. Ian Astbury was engaging the crowd and playfully remarked “tomorrow you will get Country annnd Western. But tonight, you will get Rock n’ Roll.” Numbers-wise, it was a strong turn-out. From what I could see the venue was at least 3/4 full, which is great considering the area and minimal promotion. The Central Valley is a hot spot for country, big name pop and urban acts. The unfortunate reality of a well known rock group touring in a secondary market (especially a rural secondary market) is that you’re going to get an audience of mostly casual fans. Support for rock artists in this area is difficult to assess or even describe. There was a healthy sized crowd present and they were appreciative, but it appeared that most of them were only familiar with the group’s mainstream period of work, albums like Love, Electric and Sonic Temple. Sure there were die-hards present, rocking out, singing their lungs out to the majority of the live set, but from my position at least, they were few and far between. Astbury commented that the group would be performing 3 new selections, and in a playfully self-deprecating move, said “Don’t drift away now, come back, come back, it’s not like we’re in Fresno every week…get it while it’s hot!” 

The performance was mostly good. For most of the set, the group played ferociously. John Tempesta’s drums thumped and rumbled along while Billy Duffy’s guitar smoldered. Damon Fox of Big Elf was recently added to the touring line up, handling keyboard and rhythm guitar duties. Grant Fitzpatrick on bass is another recent addition to the lineup, rounding out the rock solid rhythm section. The live renditions flew over with power. Stand out performances for me were “Wild Flower,” “Rain,” “Fire Woman,” “Deeply Ordered Chaos,” “Love Removal Machine” and “Sweet Soul Sister.” Frustratingly, what was an otherwise very solid set tanked with “She Sells Sanctuary,” one of their most beloved and widely-known numbers. The vocal delivery was uninspired and lacked effort. Astbury was phoning it in. The first verse was practically spoken word. The rest of the vocal performance was just as disappointing, picking up only at the outro. I had waited the whole set to hear this song in particular and upon hearing it live, I thought “what the hell!?” I don’t know if Astbury’s short winded vocals made the rest of the band sound bad, but on SSS, Billy Duffy’s guitar tone wasn’t as magical and John Tempesta’s drumming sounded restrained and tame compared to his playing on the rest of the set. It was like the energy level got dialed back down when there should have been a climax. Pardon the analogy, but it’s like we got blue-balled. The group rescued the set when they returned for an encore of “Love Removal Machine.” It was a good ending to the show but I was still bummed about the lackluster rendition of “She Sells Sanctuary.” Still glad I was able to catch The Cult at a local venue, makes me wonder what the gig would have been like in Oakland or LA.

Coldplay @ Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara CA 09/03/16

There’s only one way to adequately describe this gig: It glowed. The visuals, the music, the vibe…it all GLOWED. This was one of the most gratifying live sets we’d ever experienced, beginning to end, and it was miles beyond what we experienced at the 2003 show. The live set was generous, greatly entertaining, and emotionally satisfying. This tour was in support for their latest colorful offering, A Head Full of Dreams. The tour also served as the proper tour for Ghost Stories as well, released 2 years prior with only a handful of promotional concerts booked. We couldn’t NOT see this concert, as my wife and I were big fans of the previous 3 albums, and it had been over a decade since we last saw Coldplay in concert during the Rush of Blood Tour. Chris Martin had said in an interview that Coldplay was finally at a stage in their careers where they could construct a more than solid setlist. “I think we’re just about at the point in our career where we can get through a concert without playing anything shit. Only now. If we put all our amazing songs together that covers about 20 minutes. Then fill the rest with just pretty good ones.” I think he was still downplaying the quality and staying power of their material, because almost all of those 22 selections were anthemic, emotional rollercoaster sing-alongs. There were several points where we were either misty eyed or fully wept like sissies. Only Morrissey has been able to do that to me in a live setting. These sentimental songs and this stage production were made for stadiums. It was a big show, yet intimate, refreshing, colorful, vibrant, and kaleidoscopic. It’s like we were bathed in color throughout the whole show. It had all the bells and whistles of an riveting outdoor gig. Add energetic yet earnest performers, plus 2 hours of emotionally and spiritually satisfying music and you’ve got a unforgettable concert, easily in my top 3 gigs of all time up to this point. To those with little familiarity with this group, what is the music of Coldplay you might ask? Imagine hugging someone you care for. It feels comforting, warm, secure and serene. Corny as it may sound, for my wife and I, that’s the music of Coldplay.

Levi’s Stadium in Canta Clara, near San Jose and San Francisco, is a gleaming venue and new home of the San Francisco 49ers. It’s shiny, gigantic, posh and state of the art. Max capacity is listed at 75,000 when all space is fully utilized. I’d venture to say this crowd was around 70,000, as there was no 360 degree seating. It was a sell out and we got the full effect of a sell out stadium crowd at night with the xylobands in full use. The xylobands are the wristbands handed out to every audience member. Different colors and blinking sequences are activated according to song selection. It was impressive and breathtaking, it was like a sea of blinking color rising up into the sky, a tsunami of colorful LEDs. By sheer luck we scored seats at the club level and fairly close to the stage, row 7 in section 135, perpendicular to the main stage (thank you, Amex pre-sale). We had a nice side view and up close. We were going to see fireworks, figuratively and literally. The group utilized three stages in total: the main stage, the b-stage with a runway connecting to the main stage. And finally a tertiary stage at the rear of the venue. “A Head Full of Dreams” was the first number in the set, preceded by an extended synth intro and a recorded speech by Charlie Chaplin. It’s an excerpt from the film The Great Dictator. The excerpt goes “…we all want to help one another. Human Beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness. Not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good Earth is rich and can provide for everyone. That way of life can be free and beautiful but we have lost the way…”  and the group began the familiar rhythmic rumble and soaring melody. The sequence opened the show with celebratory and explosive bang, complete with vibrant color patterns on the video screens along with synched fireworks and confetti. The explosions from the confetti and fireworks rattled us, we could feel it in our chests. The Chaplin monologue and the song made for a cathartic opening. The song bounced it’s way along and the group and the acoustics sounded GOOD. We couldn’t help but look at the stage, up and all around the ginormous venue and smile. At the close of the song, the crowd continued the ‘ohh oh ohhhs’ of the outro as the group burst into a vibrant version of “Yellow.” Martin strummed along on an acoustic guitar while the stadium followed along ‘…look at the staarrrrrs…look howww they shiiiine forrr yoooouu..’ Martin grinned as the group continued to play and the crowd kept up the euphoric sing-along. At song’s end, the stadium dimmed to pitch black, and then the opening keyboard lines to “Every Tear Drop is a Waterfall” began, and the stadium slowly flickered on, the Xylobands were activated and a sea of blue-violet LEDs materialized throughout the stands. Neon violet trim outlined the stage and Martin began to sing ‘I turn the music up, I got my records on, I shut the world outside until the lights come on, maybe the streets alight, maybe the trees are gone, I feel my heart start beating to my favorite song…’  and the energy level continued to rise as the xylobands increased in intensity, becoming brighter and more numerous as the song progressed. The song gained momentum and hopped into action, bouncy and exuberant. Will Champion laid down a thumping 4 beat on the bass drum and the song thumped and chugged along. The sing-alongs continued throughout the chorus. Chris Martin was going at it full power, loud open throated singing and easing into his falsetto. A cluster of violet fireworks and a fiery burst of pyro ended the song in a triumphant crash. The energy level was brought down for the delicate and sentimental “The Scientist.” The xylobands took a rest and the main stage was illuminated with house lights only so the crowd could see the group with none of the flash, frills or gimmicks. Martin sat at a colorfully decorated upright piano and the sing-along continued as the crowd filled in during the entire song, especially the ‘nobody said It’d be easy’  part. The added twist was the addition of a section of “Pure Imagination” from the Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory film, in honor of the late, great Gene Wilder. Our son’s favorite Coldplay song, “Birds,” was next. The video screens flickered on, showing an animation of a flock of birds as the intro played. The intro was adorned by a section of “Oceans” off the Ghost Stories album. The song was uptempo and more anthemic, providing an energy boost after “The Scientist.” At song’s end, the stage lights came down, pitching the venue into darkness again as Johnny Buckland began strumming the intro to “Paradise” on his Telecaster Thinline. Martin joined in on the upright and the xylobands were once again activated and the venue became bathed in shades of blue. The intro was guitar and piano heavy, with the string section removed for this live intro. The crescendo kept building as Martin pounded on the keys with greater intensity and Buckland’s volume increased, and then Will Champion and Guy Berryman joined in on the downbeat and the song was off to a dreamy start. That’s one of their newer offerings that gets us every time. As a music piece it’s lush and angelic, those strings kind of whisper their way into the world and then rise and fall, the piano following along with those delicately fingered melodies. And then there’s the lyrics. Those lyrics mean so much to so many people, ‘Life goes on it get’s so heavy, the wheel breaks the butterfly. Every tear a waterfall, in the night the stormy night she’ll close her eyes.’  For a song that can be so melancholy, it’s still uplifting and comforting. The crowd filled in wonderfully on the ‘oh-oh-oh’ sections and the serene brit-pop continued to hit us. To change up the tempo and the mood, the song switched gears and melted into the Tiesto remix for the final few bars, providing an EDM flavored outro. This closed out the first portion of the show on the main stage. The next string of songs took place on the B stage in the middle of the field. More poignant numbers were presented during this portion of the set. Ghost Stories songs were presented, with “Always in my Head” and “Magic” performed spot on close to the original versions. Then a tender and stirring version of “Everglow” was performed. “Everglow” was performed with vocal and piano only. Described as a song about “giving love,” Martin sat at a baby grand piano on the B stage. The stripped down arrangement made it even harder to listen to than usual. It was more melancholy, yet sweeter in a way. I still prefer it like this in it’s purest form, just piano and voice, over the studio original. The song was followed by a video tribute to Muhammad Ali. The excerpt goes ‘God is watching me. God don’t praise me because I beat Joe Frazier. God don’t give nothing about Joe Frazier. God don’t care nothing about England or America as far as we’re aware of. He wants to know how do we treat each other, how do we help each other. So I’m going to dedicate my life to using my name and popularity to helping charities, helping people, uniting people. We need somebody in the world to help us all make peace. So when I die, if there’s a heaven, I want to see it.’

The band transitioned back to the main stage for the next sequence of songs. “Clocks” began the set with the crowd bathed in red light, the xylobands flickering on. The arena lights plus the xylobands made the crowd look like an eerie sea of red, complete with red tracking lazers. “Clocks” sounded like the studio original but with more power from Will Champion, we could feel the kick drum and the power in his snare strokes, and it sounded better than it did during the 2003 show, no excessive sustain from the piano. A section of “Midnight” off Ghost Stories followed, providing a breather and leading to the joyful “Charlie Brown” off Mylo Xyloto, with the xylobands in full swing again. The vibrant groove, “Hymn for the Weekend” followed, getting the audience to shake it and sing along on the “so high” sections. The grooving funk-pop of “Hymn” ended and once again gave way to another breather in the set: the keyboard intro to “Midnight” appeared once again, acting as a kind of bookend. The surprise occurred when Martin began singing the opening lines of “Fix You” over Midnight’s electronic intro, ‘When you tryyy your best and don’t succeeeeeeed.’  “Fix You” has been called the lynchpin song of the X&Y album. It’s ethereal and cleansing, with that church organ intro on the studio original and plaintive lyrics. For this tour, the intro has been reworked. Gone is the organ intro and the first verse is sung an octave lower than usual. It’s a different interpretation, but the same vibe. Chris Martin stepped out from the main stage and onto the runway leading to the B stage. He laid down on his back on the runway and sang the opening lines like that. He went back into his higher register for the chorus, ‘lights will guiiii-ah-iiiiii-ah-iiiiide you hoooome, annd igniiiii-ah-iiiii-ah-iiiite yourr booones…’  Martin quickly popped back up and the group went into the crescendo, leading to the bridge and final chorus. The audience joined in loudly on the final “lights will guide you home” section, ending the song with an elative sigh. A surprise cover of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” followed with guest accompaniment. The Oakland School for the Arts Choir joined in and provided background vocals, powering the song along with stirring harmonies. It was a stirring and convincing cover song with several Bowie fans singing along. This sequence of tracks ended with the lush and up key “Viva La Vida” and the funky “Adventure of a Lifetime,” which also happens to be my daughter’s favorite Coldplay song 🙂 After the final ‘woo-ooos,’ the band then made their way to the C stage toward the very rear of the venue. There they presented stripped down, acoustic versions of “In My Place,” “Don’t Panic” and “Till Kingdom Come.” The stripped down take on “In My Place” worked, with Jonny Buckland’s lilting electric guitar melodies ringing throughout the stadium. “Don’t Panic” was the second and final song from Parachutes to be performed, and it featured a hilarious backstory from Chris Martin who recounted Coldplay’s beginnings, and Jonny Buckland’s train wreck of a date (tuna salad) that led to this song. Band introductions continued, with Chris Martin teasing bassist Guy Berryman about his “Loreal advert skin and Colgate smile, sponsored by Pepsi.” Berryman had this classic, sheepish grin, bashful and somewhat embarrassed. The group introduced the final song of this sequence as the Instagram dedication. A fan made a video request, expressing that “Till Kingdom Come” embodied and symbolized her feelings for her husband. I had never really paid much attention to TKC in the past, but this performance was great and very touching. The group returned to the mainstage for the final, anthemic numbers of the night, closing the show with the trio of “Amazing Day,” “A Sky Full of Stars” and “Up & Up.” Sky Full of Stars was so appropriate, the clear Norcal sky opened up and provided a natural backdrop for the track, the starry sky appearing like pinholes in the curtain of night. The vocalists from the Oakland School for the Arts rejoined the group and accompanied them on “Up & Up,” their voices fleshing out the choruses and expanding the palette of sound. The combined voices and uplifting quality of the track made for a quasi-religious experience. It was positive and purifying. The whole gig was an amazing experience and worth every penny and then some. Underneath all the technology and glitz, the common denominator remained the music. I personally feel that the group could have performed on a flatbed truck with house lights only and they still would have enthralled the audience. They grabbed us with the music. Touched us with the connection. And blew our minds with the show. Coldplay gets mocked much in the same way U2 gets mocked. Both groups have loquacious and sometimes overbearing lead singers, and to many they’re inherently uncool because they wear their hearts on their sleeves. But I/we have no problem professing love for both groups (yes, you can love both). And there’s something especially charming about the way Chris Martin speaks to the audience. He’s a natural talker with a good sense of humility: personable, witty and engaging, making a stadium gig even smaller and more intimate. It was like he was having a casual conversation over coffee at arms reach. We’ll be returning for the second leg. Thanks, Coldplay. Anyone catch the Highlander reference?

Duran Duran + Chic featuring Nile Rodgers @ Irvine Meadows, Irvine CA 07/30/16

Chic were the perfect opener for Double D, a treat for the ears not to be missed. Personally selected by Duran Duran as their openers, Chic featuring Nile Rodgers rocked the early birds to full attention. Nile Rodgers said it himself, “we’re here to make you move!” and they did just that. Chic opened their set with a trio of 70s classics, “Everybody Dance,” “Dance Dance Dance” and “I Want Your Love.” Kimberly Davis on lead vox powered through those funk and r&b classics with flair and grace. She was on key, soulful, and soared above the band with elegance and power. Folami Ankoanda provided additional supporting and lead vocals, fleshing out the diva harmonies while making it sound like there were several women up there doing backgrounds. Davis and Ankoanda weren’t the only high quality talent, everyone in that group shined, from the horn players to the keys, to the rhythm section. Their drummer and bass player were unstoppable and the grooves were infectious. Chic was always known for having a powerhouse rhythm section. The legendary Tony Thompson and Bernard Edwards held the drumkit and bass positions with Chic during their heyday. Post Chic, Tony Thompson would go on to perform with Power Station (a Duran Duran related side project with Robert Palmer on vocals) as well as Led Zeppelin, Bowie, and Diana Ross, amongst many others. Bernard Edwards would become a prolific writer and producer, like Nile Rodgers, and go on to work with Debbie Harry, Norma Jean Wright, Sister Sledge and Diana Ross. Sadly, both legends passed away before their time due to illness: Thompson due to Kidney Cancer and Edwards due to Pneumonia. Current drummer and bassist, Ralph Rolle and Jerry Barnes, are bad-ass performers themselves, moving the Chic train along with an unrelenting rumble. Section by section, the crowd at Irvine Meadows got into the groove and the venue became one huge dance party, with the ultimate house band providing the beats. If you weren’t dancing or singing along, then you were at least smiling or wondering “what the hell’s going on?….this is cool!” At the close of the trio of Chic classics, Nile Rodgers explained that he had written and produced a number of Diana Ross tracks and they were going to launch into a medley. The group pulled off bitchin’ renditions of “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” then melting into Sister Sledge classics “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family.” It was cool seeing so many people respond to these 70s classics, showing those songs are just as vital and relevant now as they were when they were first recorded. The crowd surprised Rodgers before “I’m Coming Out.” Rodgers prepped the audience by teaching us the chorus, but the crowd beat him to it, singing the “…I want the world to know, got to let it shooow” part. Rodgers was all smiles.

The part of the set that sold me and made me a fan was the group’s soulful and devastatingly awesome version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” This track was originally sung by Pharell Williams. Kim Davis and the rest of the group laid down an especially moving and funky version of the song. Russell Graham began the song on keyboards, delicately laying down the opening chords, whole notes, while Rodgers introduced the song and shared his cancer experience. Rodgers began his story with a polite “I don’t mean to bring you down…” as he shared his story about his cancer diagnosis over five year ago. It was an aggressive form of prostate cancer with a very poor prognosis. His physician advised him to “get his affairs in order.” Rogers expressed that for him personally, getting his affairs in order meant writing, recording, and touring more than he’d ever done before, including the session with Daft Punk and Pharell Williams. Rodgers said “So after that series of wonderful phone calls, we wrote this song called “Get Lucky,” and I feel like the luckiest man in the world tonight because I’m here with you and five and half years later, I’m cancer free…and we’re STILL funky. So every song that we play in our set is a song that I’ve written, and produced, or whatever, with somebody else or another artist, every one of these songs that you hear is a song that I’ve done. We are not a covers band, this is all my music. However, however there is one little catch, when we play these songs we always play ’em CHIC style, because, we are an R&B, funk, disco, dance band, and that’s just what the Hell we do. We wanna make you move! So we put a little extra soul into everything we do. Kimberly…show ’em what we talkin’ about, girl…” And then Kim Davis softly croons the opening lines “Like the legend of the Phoenix…” Many in the crowd were likely misty eyed or shed a tear. It was a powerful moment and Kim Davis continued to soar higher and higher, taking the chorus up an octave, singing from the gut, outsinging Williams’ performance on record. And the rest of the band joined in and delivered a thumpin’ version complete with horns and a keyboard solo by Graham. THIS was the way the song was meant to be performed, full of heart, with a female vocalist that could sing the hell out of this tune, plus a drummer with a killer backbeat. The previous numbers were good, great even. But this was the WOW moment, the moment we realized we were witnessing greatness. The next WOW moment came when Rodgers introduced his drummer, Ralphe Rolle, and shared that he had the pleasure of working with David Bowie in the early 80s. To those who don’t know, Nile Rodgers produced Bowie’s Let’s Dance album and Tony Thompson performed much of the drum work on it. Bernard Edwards played bass on “Without You.” Rodgers shared that he walked into a bar (he was with Billy Idol), and they found Bowie sitting in a corner. They talked shop and eventually got together for the Let’s Dance sessions. Rodgers added that live, he normally gives the responsibility of singing the most difficult song to the new drummer. Rolle said hello to the audience and the group tore into a perfect rendition of “Let’s Dance,” with Rolle drumming and providing lead vocals, successfully channeling David Bowie’s baritone. He even did those 8th notes on the woodblock during the pre-verse sections. The horns added extra color and funk and the crowd stayed on it’s feet. Chic’s set just went into the stratosphere. And it didn’t stop there! After a blistering Bowie song, the group launched into the Chic standard, “Le Freak.” And I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Toy Story 3, where Ken is trying on outfits for Barbie..ahhhh FREAK OUT!. And then the holy sh*t/WOW moment came when the group slid into their final number, “Good Times.” Keep in mind that the rhythm track to “Good Times” is the foundation for Sugar Hill Gang’s hip-hop classic, “Rapper’s Delight.” That bass line is one of the greatest hooks ever. If you’re not familiar with the tune, think back to that scene in The Wedding Singer where the little old lady (Ellen Albertini Dow) is rapping with Robbie Hart’s backing band. THAT’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Chic performed a very funkilicious version of “Good Times” which led to a bass solo by Jerry Barnes and a call and response section by Rodgers i.e. ‘woo-oooh, woo-oooh, now everyone screeaam!!!’ And then the keys, guitar and vocals rested, leaving only Barnes to play that bass hook with Ralphe Rolle backing him up on drums. Rodgers said “Feeeeel that old school grooove!” The duo continued for a couple bars. I turned to my wife and said “Ok, someone needs to start rapping.” Two more measures later and Rodgers busts out with “I said a hip..hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip hop, you don’t stop a rock it” and the crowd went freaking nuts. I was joyfully cracking up, not really believing what I was seeing. Rodgers and the group continued for a good while, it was an awesome spin on “Rapper’s Delight,” and people joined in on the rhyming. Kim Davis even did the “saaay whaaaaat?”part. And then the group transitioned back into “Good Times,” with the keys, slinky guitar and female vocals pulling the song back together. Holy f*cking shit! And so ended Chic’s stellar set. The group received a standing ovation. They gave so many people so much joy this evening. My mom was a teen in the 70s and she loves this stuff. I thought to myself, “Wow, my mom’s music is pretty damn cool.”

  1. Everybody Dance
  2. Dance Dance Dance
  3. I Want Your Love
  4. I’m Coming Out/Upside Down/He’s the Greatest Dancer/We Are Family
  5. Get Lucky
  6. Let’s Dance
  7. Le Freak
  8. Good Times/Rapper’s Delight/Good Times reprise

It was great to finally witness Duran Duran live. They were freaking DURAN DURAN. Video pioneers, pop giants, fashion icons, etc. etc. And they at one time had one of the greatest guitar players in their lineup, Warren Cuccurullo. I was too young to experience the Duran Duran mania of the early and mid 80s. What sold me was The Wedding Album in the 90s, “Ordinary World” in particular. I had been wanting to see Double D since around 2000. I REALLY wanted to see them around 2005 when all 5 original members reunited. The classic lineup reunion was short-lived and a session guitarist, Dom Brown has filled in on subsequent albums and tours. Dom Brown isn’t a bad guitar player. But what’s missing is that bitchin’ Andy Taylor tone and his knack for executing his guitar parts with style and flair. Watch the Live in London DVD and you’ll hear what I mean. Personally, I would have begged Warren Cuccurullo to come back as the 5th member of the group. But no, we have Dom Brown, and I suppose 4 out of 5 original members ain’t bad. Fast forward to early July 2016, the band announced that founding member, Nick Rhodes, would be taking a temporary leave from the group’s touring schedule to attend to family matters. Nick’s fill-in keyboard player would be MNDR, a Mark Ronson collaborator and adventurous singer/songwriter/producer in her own right. Damn it. Now we were down to 3 original members. It could be worse, but for me, the gig had lost a bit of its luster. Now what made this gig and this tour great was the fact that Duran Duran were on the road in support of the very well received Paper Gods. Nile Rodgers himself had a hand in the production of the album. Red Hot Chili Pepper alumnus and melody master John Frusciante played some guitar on the album! The band brought it with this release, and the tour showed that they weren’t a nostalgia act living off past glories. Duran Duran was earning critical praise on every tour stop, proving they could construct a set that represented their new musical chapter while showcasing their storied history, without an over-reliance on classic material. It was the perfect combination of new and old, and the new stuff complemented the older tracks astonishingly well. The set itself was around 90 minutes in length, 18 songs or so, with 4 of the new tracks off Paper Gods included.

While DD is often remembered as a “keyboard group,” their secret weapon is their rhythm section. Bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor are the groove masters of the band. They are tasteful dance-rock/funk players with an excellent ear for hooks and signature parts. And then of course there’s the voice. Simon Lebon is a crooner in a league of his own, a golden, signature voice. Simon’s sweet spot is the range he uses for songs like “Wild Boys” and “Notorious,” it’s that silky tone with a bit of raspiness to it. The group was in good form, festive, and joyfully laid down their parts. It was a very good performance, but I unfairly compared it to their performance on the Live in London DVD, they were firing on all cylinders on that gig and I rather naively expected the same kind of fireworks at this show. I forget that they’re short 2 original members and that London gig took place a decade ago, yikes. It was still a very strong performance and we were thrilled. It was a potent set around 100 minutes long. The selfish, rabid fan in me always hopes for more, but this set time was just enough to introduce the audience to the new music while showering us with some classics without losing the fans with short attention spans. Of special note were the performances with Nile Rodgers on guitar. He came out to play on “Notorious” and “Pressure Off.” A tribute to David Bowie was included midset. The group inserted a section of “Space Oddity” into “Planet Earth,” making for a very cool and musically appropriate medley.  A snippit of “New Moon On Monday” was included in “Reach Up For the Sunrise.” Several key tracks from the group’s back catalogue were represented, including “A View To a Kill,” “The Reflex,” I Don’t Want Your Love,” “Wild Boys,”  “Girls On Film,” “Come Undone,” “Ordinary World,” and three tracks from the Rio album including the title track and “Hungry Like the Wolf.” The final song of the night was “Save a Prayer,” also off Rio. Before the group began “Save a Prayer,” Simon LeBon addressed the crowd and said “Now every week we hear these tragic horror stories, things that go on, I mean France has suffered very badly in the last year, what with the truck at the market in Nice, and the Bataclan in November….the Charlie Hebdo office terrorist attack, as well as the things happening in Germany…and never mind the awful stuff that’s happening in Syria and Iraq, innocent people being killed. And we are fed a lot of this stuff and it gets quite depressing at times, and it takes a lot of strength in yourself to hold onto your sense of optimism. Now I know that you guys are optimists and believe in good. I know that because the other kind of people don’t come to rock concerts, music is something that brings people together, it crosses the boundaries of race, sex, color, religion, money! Music is something which makes people feel better about themselves.” Simon dedicated their last number, “Save a Prayer,” to those who believe that good will win.  “Save a Prayer,” LeBon referenced Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” as the song drew to a close. I hate to admit it, but months later I’m still thinking about Chic’s set. They had completely won me over and I still fondly think back to their performance. DD wasn’t bad at all, but for some reason their set didn’t resonate with me like I’d hoped it would. Maybe it had to do with Nick Rhodes’ absence. The other lacking ingredient was John Taylor’s backing vocals. The group employed female backing singers for this tour and they took over most of the harmonies. Usually, it’s John that fills in on the harmonies but he took a break from this set, focusing on his bass playing. I missed that voice. It was still a wonderful night out and I’m thankful and grateful that we got to see two of the greatest pop-funk groups in the business. Later I found out the group performed “The Chauffeur” at the Las Vegas gig. Damn it.

 

Buckethead @ The Tower Theater, Fresno CA 06/23/16

One of the weirder gigs I’d ever attended (weird in a good way), and definitely the most unique rock guitar instrumentalist I’d ever seen. Seriously, who is this guy!? Buckethead, better known to the IRS and his immediate family as Brian Patrick Carroll, is a sight to behold. He’s a lanky white guy with a mop of curly hair, with a Michael Myers mask and white bucket atop his head. He’s like a ghoulish apparition but with a gorgeous alpine white Les Paul Custom in his hands. Buckethead uses his own signature Gibson, a unique beauty with white pickups, no fret markings and red “arcade style” kill switches. It’s like there’s arcade buttons on that guitar. He’s a prolific recording artist and very well regarded within the guitar world, with connections and collaborations with acts like Iggy Pop, Bootsy Colllins, Guns N’ Roses, Serj Tankian of System of a Down, Mike Patton of Faith No More and Les Claypool of Primus. He’s released over 250 albums (!!!!!!) and composed and performed music for various films including Saw II, Ghosts of Mars, Last Action Hero, the Mortal Kombat movies, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers??? In short, Buckethead is…something else. And definitely jaw dropping.

Watching him onstage, he’s a cross between a ninja assassin, a robot dancing wiz, a guitar virtuoso…and Santa Claus. Not only can buckethead shred, but can do so while doing the robot. It sounds silly as hell at first. But seeing it in person just adds to the man’s funkiness and gloriously weird stage presence. And then there’s the nunchuk portion of the show. A martial-arts fan, Buckethead went into an impressive nunchuk routine while EDM music blasted in the background. Just like his guitar playing, Buckethead is a master at fluid motion and efficiency of motion, making his dance and nunchuk routines appear elegant and gravity defying. It was like watching an emotionless mannequin come to life. His fret work was just as fluid and precise, even at blazing speeds. Definitely one of the fastest players ever, Buckethead’s style of playing is more accessible, more groove oriented than the likes of Vai, Satriani, Gilbert or Petrucci. His guitar lines grooved, rocked, went up to the stratosphere, and came back down for lovely, soulfully melodic playing. The epitome of that magical combo was “Soothsayer,” prompting hoots, hollers, devil horns and a standing ovation at the end. That song slayed. It began with a gentle groove and a lovely arpeggio, then picked up momentum and went into a fist pumping groove and shred fest. But it wasn’t simply a rock instrumental. It was also an emotionally satisfying piece of music. Other tracks performed included Jowls, Gory Meat Stump, Jordan, Lebrontron, Buckethead and Friends, Giant Robot, as well as sections of John Williams’ Star Wars Theme, Hendrix’s Purple Haze and Pure Imagination from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The set was around 100 minutes total and included surprises like the audience coming up to the front to demo the kill switches on the Gibson. At another point in the show, Buckethead and a crew member pulled out a sack and handed random gifts and stuff to audience members. As far as the stage production goes, the man has little to no overhead. There’s no backing band, no elaborate light or video show, just the artist, the backline rig, and one guy with a pony tail. Buckethead’s the show, what more do you expect or need. The crowd was very diverse. I enjoyed chatting with the guy to my right, we talked about Santana and how he’d seen a show at the Fresno Fair Grounds back in ’88. It’s always cool to see the different t-shirts at shows like this, you get to see the love for other artists. I spotted tour shirts by Megadeth, Mastodon, Godsmack, Rush, and of course I wore my Dream Theater Astonishing Live shirt. About the venue, the Tower is essentially a seated concert hall with no balcony, classic movie theater set up with a moderne art deco design. The Tower Theater is a historical landmark and it’s the visual and symbolic anchor for the Tower District itself and surrounding neighborhood. It seats around 750. It was tough to say how full the venue was, not a sellout but there was definitely a strong turnout, impressive for this kind of niche artist, musician’s music as some have said. At $35, attending this show was a no-brainer.

Mega 97.9 Summer Jam @ Selland Arena, Fresno CA 06/17/16

This show was fun for a mess of reasons. The nostalgia, the beats, the booty shaking, etc. etc. This was an old school hip-hop/electro package. It was an evening filled with Roland 808 drum beats, new wave synths and classic grooves. We’re not exactly hip-hop fans, but there are some songs that for one reason or another became a part of our youth and make-up, just as any other important memory or experience would. As for this tour, every once in a while these 80s/90s packages roll through the country, usually billed as “old-school parties” or “Old School Jams.” Some packages lean heavy towards freestyle artists while others focus on classic hip-hop acts. This particular bill featured 90s hip-hop hit makers Sir Mix-A-Lot, Coolio, Tone Loc, and headliner Vanilla Ice, with classic acts Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmasters Furious Five, Rob Base, JJ Fad and Newcleus in support. Each group was allotted 20 minutes each or so. Newcleus opened the show for the early birds. 7:30 had rolled around and the crowd was incredibly sparse. The audience continued to fill in by the time Newcleus closed their set with the infectious “Jam On It.” Try NOT to sing that opening bass line. JJ Fad, the all-girl rap combo from Rialto, was the second act to go onstage. JJ Fad were connected to NWA and their manager Jerry Heller. They’re considered THE first successful female rap group. Eazy E’s label, Ruthless Records, owes its financial beginnings and first success to JJ Fad and their first single, “Supersonic.” Supporting JJ Fad on the turn tables was none other than Arabian Prince, one of the founding members of NWA. Arabian Prince was introduced to the audience and it was at that moment that he began spinning Eazy-E’s “Boyz N’ Tha Hood.” The place went nuts. The group did a verse and a chorus before going into “Supersonic.”

Grandmasters Furious Five and Sugar Hill Gang were the next two acts on the bill. Man oh man did they transport us back to the 80’s with tracks like “The Message,” “Apache” and “Rappers Delight.” It was also at this point where the volume went through the roof. I’d never gotten a headache at a gig before, well besides a Heaven & Hell show, but it got pretty damn loud. It was still awesome to hear these songs performed on stage like that. Tone Loc was next up and we witnessed full versions of “Funky Cold Medina,” “Get Low” and “Wild Thang.” And damn if they sounded just like the studio originals. Loc’s baritone sounded spot on. Crowd response was good and we were having a great time hearing this stuff live. The man was sweating like it was 100 degrees in the venue, the lights and valley heat were getting to him, and the heat wave hadn’t even hit yet. Loc’s set went over well. Rob Base soon followed. Out of all of this night’s performers, Rob Base has the sole distinction of being the only true crooner. Rob is one half of the classic duo that was Rob Base and DJ EZ-Rock. Sadly, EZ-Rock passed away years ago of a diabetic seizure. He was only in his forties. His set was brief and featured a medley of old school covers plus “Joy & Pain” and ending with “It Takes Two.” The man has a very good singing voice and the festive mood continued. Then came Coolio. Oh shit, Coolio’s set bordered on catastrophe. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Props to Coolio for being the only act with an actual backing band. However his guitarist/vocalist had a tough time initially but finally got his shit together by midset. His guitar player’s vocals were off key and lacked power, especially during the opening medley, “All the Way Live” and “Fantastic Voyage”. Those backing vocals made us cringe and his harmonies just weren’t coming together. Things got worse for Coolio during “C U When You Get There.” What should have been a soulful ballad turned into a unintelligible, distorted, bass-heavy mess. We couldnt understand any of Coolio’s lines, it was just a shitty mess of low end and the crowd wasn’t responding. Coolio may as well have been performing to an empty room, and his frustration was visibly increasing. Erica was worried that he was going to pull out his piece and start capping chubby hoochies, simply because there were so many of them, easy targets. It wasn’t until the sax solo leading into “1,2,3,4 Sumpin New” that the group was able to pull the audience back in. That’s when everything jelled and all the players including Coolio recomposed themselves and brought their A game. I’m convinced the sax player saved their set. It woke everyone up and hypnotized the crowd, and then the momentum picked up and the group finally received a spirited audience response. The backing vocalist pulled off the choruses to “Gangster’s Paradise” with power and soul. Glad that Coolio and his backing band were able to get it together.

In comparison, Sir Mix-a-lot brought it. He had to be the most appreciative of the Fresno crowd and was best able to identify with the audience. He recounted his first gig in Fresno at the old Wilson Theater (it closed and reopened as a church). Wrongly dismissed as a one hit wonder, Sir Mix-a-lot opened with the track that first brought him to the Central Valley, “Posse On Broadway,” and looked back on that show, how he set up in the alley behind the building and was paid $350 for the gig. He performed complete versions of “Posse On Broadway” and “Put It On the Glass,” telling the audience that he knows we didn’t come to here medleys and cover songs. And then the moment came when all the ladies lost their shit. “Baby Got Back” was next and it got LOUD and the bodies really started moving. Sir Mix-a-lot had one of the best responses of the night. Final act to go on was headliner Vanilla Ice. Ice’s set was the most abrasive and ventured into rap-rock territory. His vocal delivery was aggressive, with a style and attitude similar to Kid Rock and Insane Clown Posse. Ice was the only act to incorporate a true stage production with his own props and light rig. Ice also had his own scary clowns on stage doing dance routines and tossing water on the audience. The first few numbers were hoppin but it reminded me more of a rock show versus an “old-school” hip-hop show. Vanilla kicked off his set with “Dirty South,” “Turn It Up” and”Hit ‘Em Hard.” A brief drum solo was performed by Ninja Keith. Some blasts from the past were next. Portions of “Play That Funky Music” and the “Ninja Rap” were next, and finally came the Queen sampled bass line. The audience went ape-shit and Ice was all smiles, seeing the crowd react like they did. The group went through a version of “Ice Ice Baby” fairly close to the original and Ice spit his lines like what’s found on record. The set wrapped up and we got the heck out of Fresno pretty quickly. There were 9 acts total on the bill and we had very good seats for $45 each. We had to do one of these shows at least once, glad we caught it and had fun like we did. The people watching was an added bonus 🙂

Paul McCartney @ Save Mart Center, Fresno CA 04/13/16

A Beatle. A Beatle came to Fresno (that’s the part where my head explodes). Like a local reporter had written, Fresno received the royal treatment from Sir Paul back on April 13th. Almost 3 hours of live music, 37 songs. 37 songs!! Not 17 like most groups, not 21 or 22 like some of the more generous acts, not 24 like U2 on their most recent tour, but 37!!! Back in the mid 60’s when the Beatles still did live shows, they could get off the stage after 20 minutes. Then the group broke up and George Harrison started hanging around with Led Zeppelin – Harrison saw them perform 3 hour shows and said “3 hours, fuck me!” Inspired by Zeppelin’s stamina or not, McCartney is generously performing a TON of music spanning his entire career, including piles of songs from the Beatles and Wings catalogue, and at 71 years of age with no sign of slowing down. He still has passion, energy, and a zest for performing live. I often say that “I’m blown away” at various concerts, but McCartney’s set in Fresno was on a totally different plane, a higher level, and I still get excited thinking back on it. The combination was just right, a legendary yet down to Earth performer, a wealth of timeless songs, elaborate and entertaining production, and a wonderfully grateful crowd that made a 10,000 seat arena feel like an intimate little concert theater. It wasn’t just mind blowing, it was gloriously life affirming. My dad and I felt like we witnessed a once in a lifetime event. Initially when I had heard that McCartney would be playing Fresno (not just playing Fresno, but OPENING the One On One Tour in Fresno), I was in disbelief and I might have started seizing. while I’m not the biggest fan of McCartney, The Beatles or Wings, I still had respect for the man, he’s a global treasure and The Beatles provided a pop/rock blueprint that all others have followed. My dad and I couldn’t NOT see him. The show. Wow, THE SHOW. It’s a finely tuned indoor show with just about every arena trick imaginable. Elaborate lighting, video, lazer, pyro, elevating platforms, they used just about everything.

About song selection, I’ve heard repeat McCartney concert goers complain about what has become a static set. For a repeat customer, ok, I can see how hearing the same material live would get old. For first timers like me and my dad, the set was tremendously awesome. So you can either have 3 hours of material or variety in the set from tour to tour, not both. For the price of the tickets, 3 hours of Paul is fine by me. McCartney was so engaging and playful. He was talkative, witty and happy to be performing. After the first couple selections he paused so he could survey the audience and said “I just want to take a little minute and drink it in for myself.” The Fresno audience was beyond ecstatic and joyously welcomed their legendary hero. The variety of music was impressive. Just like McCartney had mentioned, we’d be receiving old stuff, new stuff, and a bunch of stuff in between. A Hard Day’s Night holds the distinction of never being performed by McCartney as a solo act. There were plenty of offerings from the mid 60’s material. The band was in ass-kicking form. Mutli-instrumentalist Paul Wickens has been with McCartney’s solo band since the late eighties. He plays keys, backing guitar, banjo, as well as accordion and harmonica. He’s been in McCartney’s solo band the longest. Axe-men Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson as well as drummer Abe Laboriel have been performing with McCartney since 2001/2002, and they inject a fiery amount of energy into the live performances, electrifying the songs. McCartney’s voice has held up well, though it is evident that he’s put on quite a few miles, with some mild trouble occurring during the ballads. He sounds like an older guy on some of those ballads, well, because he’s an older guy. He can still make those songs work, but I’m surprised they haven’t altered the keys to some of those songs to better accommodate his current vocal range. In spite of his decades of experience, he can still thrill and entertain. Surprises for me occurred when McCartney did a tribute to George Harrison, performing Something on ukulele, with the band joining in midway. Other sweet, touching tributes occurred for John Lennon, Linda McCartney, current wife, Nancy, and his children. The video show was very well done, footage from various stages in McCartney’s career was tastefully used, the most sentimental and heart rendering being the footage of his family and his time in The Beatles. The show was more than phenomenal. And my dad and I were taken aback, floored by how McCartney can still amaze even after all these years.

  1. A Hard Day’s Night
  2. Save Us
  3. Can’t Buy Me Love
  4. Letting Go
  5. Temporary Secretary
  6. Let Me Roll It
  7. I’ve Got a Feeling
  8. My Valentine
  9. Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five
  10. Here There and Everywhere
  11. Maybe I’m Amazed
  12. We Can Work It Out
  13. In Spite of All the Danger
  14. You Won’t See Me
  15. Love Me Do
  16. And I Love Her
  17. Blackbird
  18. Here Today
  19. Queenie Eye
  20. New
  21. The Fool On the Hill
  22. Lady Madonna
  23. FourFiveSeconds
  24. Eleanor Rigby
  25. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite
  26. Something
  27. Ob-la-di Ob-la-da
  28. Band on the Run
  29. Back in the USSR
  30. Live and Let Die
  31. Hey Jude
  32. Yesterday
  33. Hi Hi Hi
  34. Birthday
  35. Golden Slumbers
  36. Carry the Weight
  37. The End

Dream Theater @ The Fox, Oakland CA 05/07/16

I hadn’t been this close to the stage since the Touring Into Infinity Shows back in 1998. To say that I was geeking out would be an understatement. We had seats at stage right, between Petrucci’s and Labrie’s positions. We sat down in disbelief, we were in the 5th row and I seriously considered pinching myself. A fan made his way ahead of us and said a cheeky “man, these seats suck!” We cracked up, mock agreeing with the statement. We looked up, behind, and all around. We couldn’t help but marvel at the lovely, ornate facades inside the Fox. It was a majestic house and probably the nicest venue my friend and I had ever encountered. It shined. This venue was rich with history and culture. It stood out like a little jewel in the odd mix of buildings in downtown Oakland. It was a cool venue and very appropriate for the band’s ‘production.’ This album, The Astonishing, was akin to a play, the way the story unfolded and the manner in which the music was formatted. The music dripped with classical references and operatic vocals. It was heavy with piano, strings and acoustic guitar. The group even utilized the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra for parts of the album and bagpipes are featured in “The X-Aspect.” Vocalist James Labrie performed multiple roles and sang in character, changing his tone and delivery accordingly. For the live show, the group employed slender, cascading video screens that brought the story to life in CG form while the band performed. The light show was elaborate and helped to give the visual story on screen more drama and spatial effects. Add a venue appropriate for a Broadway production and you have THEE rock opera. The group is called Dream Theater, after all. If I had to criticize anything it was the confusing audience configuration.

This was a seated gig, including the pit area (again, like a play). And as the gig progressed, it was hard to figure out what kind of behavior was appropriate at this kind of show. Can I hoot and holler like a standard DT gig? Can I be all raised fisted and devil horned? Can we stand up…at least during the aggressive and heavy parts?? It was hard to figure out how to support our group. It wasn’t until “Hymn of a Thousand Voices” that we were prompted to stand. Throughout the set, James and John would periodically approach the edge of the stage and they encouraged a response from the crowd, but what kind of response? We went crazy (as much as we could) while seated, but it was weird and limiting in frustrating way. Although I hadn’t been too exposed to the new material, it was still an excellent concert. It was vastly different from the previous tours and there was the complete absence of older material, but it was still a compelling and entertaining show. As a fan, stamina and patience are definitely needed if you’re still not familiar with all 2 hours of new material. A portion of fans have decried this tour because of the exclusive focus on the new. I’m still not sure how people missed the memo, but it was always my understanding that this tour would feature the new material only, in its entirety. Fans living under a rock and expecting “Pull Me Under” would be sorely disappointed. This reminds of the Tales From Topographic Oceans Tour that Yes put on in 73/74. I for one enjoyed the focus of this tour, but truthfully I’m spoiled in that I’ve attended over a dozen shows on previous tours – I can see how the DT concert newbie would be frustrated at the current set. Performance-wise, each band member was in excellent form, but what’s new? Hands-down, the performer of the night had to be vocalist, James Labrie. James was on his game. Labrie isn’t just another metal singer. He’s a melodic singer with classical voice training, incredible lung capacity and a diverse tonal palette. Vocally, the new album is like a marathon. It’s two hours of demanding vocal acrobatics. Labrie is all over the place on that album, crooning and sighing on delicate ballads and gradually brining up the energy and on the anthems and heavy rockers, all while changing his delivery and approach to stay in keeping with the individual characters of the story, including a woman (Faythe) and a young boy (Xander). It’s like he pulled out everything in his bag of tricks. And Labrie executed the parts live, pacing himself and heading back for sips of hot water and honey throughout the show. One of Labrie’s recurring criticisms, especially pre 2012, has been his grating tone when singing/shrieking in the upper registers. However, the last couple albums including The Astonishing have seen vocals lines that appear to be written to better accommodate Labrie’s midrange – upper midrange register, what I consider the creamy spectrum of his tone, smooth and rich sounding. Backing vocals were piped in during some of the songs to flesh out the harmonies. Petrucci has a microphone set up so he can contributing backing vox, but I’m not sure how much of him we’re actually hearing.

The light show and video screens augmented the music in an awesome way. It wasn’t exactly like there was a movie playing in the background while the band performed. But it was just enough to pull the listener in and help to visually deliver the story that is The Astonishing, a geeky mash-up of all dystopian sci-fi stories imagineable (just think Star Wars, Hunger Games, The Hand Maiden’s Tale…and 2112, all thrown into a blender), but fun nonetheless. My favorite moment of the show was the triumphant “Our New World,” a grooving anthem that will MAKE you join in on choruses. It’s one of DT’s most concise songs ever, flying over in just under 4 minutes and featuring some of John Petrucci’s finest soloing, and in a 7 beat…at least I think it’s a 7 beat. All in all, it was a different but very good concert. Now that the group would listen to me, but I’d make changes regarding the seating configuration. While I can see why the seated arrangement up front was used, I think it takes away from the crowd energy and just confuses a hell of a lot of people. And now imagine if they added an encore. I think a fitting closer would be “A Change of Seasons.” The group would probably pass out by show’s end…

Spring Fling: Cage the Elephant/Silversun Pickups/Foals/Bear Hands @ Save Mart Center, Fresno CA 03/11/16

MAJOR props to the promoters and KFRR New Rock 104.1 for bringing the Spring Fling to the Central Valley, and for an amazingly reasonable price too. We enjoyed excellent reserved seats for around 40 bucks each. The Fresno Save Mart Center is the newer arena in the city. Most people are familiar with Selland Arena downtown. Save Mart Center is the more modern facility situated near the Fresno State University campus, home of the Bulldogs. It’s a 10,000 seater but the upper deck was curtained off for this show, and it seems to be the trend for most rock artists that roll through there. I’m estimating that left the ticket pool to around 6,000. From my perspective, the floor and lower level were mostly full by the time the headliner took the stage. Consequentially, curtained off area made the arena appear a bit cavernous. Some have called Save Mart Center an odd choice of venue (many feel that it’s more appropriate for pop and country acts), but I think it’s the only venue that can accommodate such a large floor GA crowd while offering reserved seating too. I personally prefer this arena to Selland, however, Selland offers a bit more leg room in the seated areas. This was an alternative rock quadruple bill. While this package featured 4 alt-rock artists, an impressive amount of variety could be found with each group. The first opener was Bear Hands from Brooklyn, NY. This group is one those new beacons of light in the genre. They have a wealth of critical and fan support online, with many bloggers and columnists hailing them as one of the new heroes of Indie Rock. Dylan Rau’s voice and the group’s quirkily accessible songs have given Bear Hands a unique identity in the Alt-Rock world. Personally, my only exposure to this group up to this point were the singles “Agora,” “2am” and the breakout “Giants.” Ted Feldman’s guitar part was the first thing that grabbed me about “Giants,” the group’s first single off the Distraction album. It was a quirky but catchy tune – it was like the group put a bunch of (seemingly) unrelated musical ingredients into a blender and out popped this tasty indie flavored brew. There was the rhythmic electronic intro, choppy, staccato-like vocals, an ODB name check, a funky bass hook, spacey keys, and a guitar riff that took me somewhere…where, I’m still not sure, but damn it was cool. Live, it was even more enthralling. I wasn’t the biggest fan of “2am” when it was first released but it translated well in a live setting, that throbbing bass groove was so cool, something to chill out to, smoke out to, etc. The group played a very convincing set, setting the bar pretty high as openers. The group’s set was a brief 30 minutes but they were talented and entertaining. I wished I’d caught a headlining show at Strummers a year or so ago. This set was a great appetizer.

Next up was Foals from the UK. The group rocked it, their atmospheric yet hard hitting music struck a deep chord with the audience. I keep seeing Facebook posts from attendees saying “Foals killed it,” “bring back Foals,” “Foals were awesome, we had no idea who they were,” etc. etc. While Bear Hands provided more traditional indie stylings, Foals offered a more sophisticated and musically proficient set (with a bit of bounce). Of all the groups performing this night, Foals boasted trickier arrangements, dramatic stops/starts, changing dynamics, catchy keyboard hooks, celestial guitar sounds, longer song lengths, a passionate singer, and one hell of a drummer…while incorporating sick bass grooves and dance rhythms (just check out “My Number” and try NOT to move to it.) It was like hearing the best of new wave, alternative and progressive rock. Their singer, the Greek born Yannis Philippakis, had one of the most compelling voices: gentle and melodic at times, low and brooding on other occasions, and then that scream that comes out of nowhere. Damn. Back to their drummer, which I love, it’s refreshing to see a talented drummer who can play tightly while also being able to groove. Technically proficient drummers have the bad habit of sounding boring. More isn’t always a good thing. Not Jack Bevan, who can lay down challenging parts while keeping a heart pounding and memorable groove, “Snake Oil” and “Inhaler” for example. Best snare sound of the night also goes to Jack Bevan, high pitched and full sounding without that metallic tinny quality. The entire kit sounded so focused with great attack, it had to be a Tama Starclassic Birch set, very hi-fi sounding. And that snare, wow. It had cut as well as tone. Regarding their set, “My Number” had won us over, but the center piece of the set, and pretty much the moment that FLOORED Erica and myself, was the mesmerizing “Spanish Sahara.” It was more like a music piece, rather than a song in the traditional sense. The alt-rock epic was like a slow burning flame, growing ever brighter and more intense. The song was also very cinematic, the sounds took you to a place, mentally. And the slow building tension rose up like a wave while Yannis delivered his plaintive, sorrowful vocals. When I think of “Spanish Sahara” I also think of songs like U2’s “Bad,” King Crimson’s “Starless” and Radiohead’s “Exit Music.” Slow building, sentimental and dramatic. It grabs you and it’s hard not to pay attention and become enveloped by the sound. The entire set was impressive, with other standouts being the key track “Mountain At My Gates,” as well as “Providence,” “What Went Down” and the emotional “Give It All.” At the close of their 30 minute set, much of the crowd chanted “WE WANT MORE, WE WANT MORE!” as the techs hurriedly tore down the band’s equipment. There was little chance the band would come back out given the tight time schedule, but I hope the chanting brought smiles to the guys in the band. We would love to see these guys again. I can see how they make festival crowds go nuts.

The third act onstage was the Grammy nominated Silversun Pickups. Honestly, I was still trying to figure out why so many people have so much love for this group. To me, this group writes underwhelming music. I should like it, I mean they have obvious similarities to 90s alt-rock icons like Smashing Pumpkins, but I still wasn’t convinced. I initially didn’t have high hopes for this Spring Fling gig after a lackluster performance I saw as openers for Muse in 2011. That performance wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t necessarily good either. Sure they were in Muse territory, but the group still appeared listless and uninspired, like they were barely trying. Brian Aubert just stood there and the rest of the group didn’t leave an impression. This time around, the LA based group cranked it up a few notches and delivered an entertaining and spirited performance. Brian Aubert was having a great time. He strolled up and down the stage, interacted with the crowd and laid down his guitar parts with soul and sang with a ton of heart. He was all smiles and delivered a quality performance. The other band members also laid it down. Nikki Monninger on bass was a unique sight to see, her glittering dress acting like a shiny human shaped mirror ball. She provided backing vocals, additional keys and percussion while also trading lead with Brian on the spellbinding “Circadian Rhythm.” Joe Lester on keyboards played it cool, laying down his parts with an elegant and gentle flair. Chris Guanlao on drums was like a one man show onstage. His drum kit was unique, with his main crash positioned super high, well above his head and at a flat 180 degree angle. He also used multiple snares on his setup, with the main snare being lower in pitch with loose tension on the snare wires, making for a more rattley sound that blended well with the other band members. It was cool seeing Guanlao so into the performance, his mop of hair wildly thrashing around while pounding out his drum parts. The band had fun, with Aubert teasing Nikki Monninger before they eased into “Circadian Rhythm,” saying ‘Ok everyone, pay attention to Nikki on this one, you’re going to wanna watch her…ok Nikki, don’t fuck up!’ Silversun’s set was lower key in comparison to the first two groups, however they performed their brand of alternative rock with conviction and passion. They were very well received by the crowd, even filling in on the ‘We want it!’ sections of “Night Light.” They won my respect and I couldn’t help but feel like I witnessed something special this time around. They performed for an hour and stand out performances included “Panic Switch,” “Night Light,” “Latchkey Kids,” Wild Kind,” and “Lazy Eye.” I was looking forward to hearing “Bloody Mary” but it didn’t make the set this night. Great set and a great addition to this quadruple bill. I’ll never bad mouth Silversun Pickups again.

The final group on the bill was Cage the Elephant, also Grammy nominees. The band hit the ground running the moment they jumped onstage, opening with a trio of high energy rockers “Cry Baby,” “In One Ear” and “Spiderhead.” Singer Matthew Schultz constantly grooved and slinked across the stage, barely stopping to rest. I have no idea how the man can move like that and still have good breath control, but he pulled it off and made the audience crazy. It was a very cool surprise to see how commanding the group was and how rabid the fan reaction was, proving themselves more than worthy of the headlining slot. CTE is touring as a 6 piece with additional help on keyboards. Nick Bockrath is playing lead guitar and pulled off his parts with ease and looked very much like a confident, capable lead player. The whole group had great stage presence and were having a great time, especially the Shultz brothers, while bassist Daniel Tichenor enjoyed the show from his position with a laid-back coolness. Jared Champion’s drum performance was very unassuming, very reserved, but those aren’t bad things. He laid down his parts, no frills and bull-sh*t free. With music like theirs, Champion has to keep the train rolling and he did so without a single clam. Hailing from Kentucky, CTE’s style was loose, bluesy, funky, with a grittiness that set them apart from the three previous groups. Theirs was a raw sound with a Southern vibe kind of in keeping with early Kings Of Leon, but with a lot more swagger. You could hear classic rock in the vein of Skynyrd and The James Gang in there too, with a bit of punk and glam. They reminded me of a LOT of different groups, even The New York Dolls and Bowie. This hodge podge of sound made CTE uniquely versatile, in a way much different from say, Foal’s sense of versatility. They used a twin guitar formula, perfect for sweaty romps like “Aberdeen,” “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicket” “Shake Me Down,” Sabretooth Tiger” and “Mess Around.” Even deep into their live set, Matthew still had a super human amount of energy. To say his performance was energetic would be a massive understatement. The group played a massive headlining set, around 20 or 21 songs in length. They were relentless. And while they could pound out rockers and punk inspired numbers, they could also effectively dial things back and perform a gentle piece like my favorite song of theirs, “Cigarette Daydreams.” Matt’s vocals are so soulful on that number, with this sweet vulnerability. You think his voice is about to crack while crooning those sentimental lyrics, but he keeps it together, sweet and honest. This was a surprisingly awesome package tour. I knew it would be good but underestimated how great it could actually be. There’s nothing like being there and the music becomes something else in a live setting. We enjoyed the show and were fortunate enough to catch it that Friday evening. Several fans posted on KFRR 104.1’s Facebook page, applauding the station for helping to get a show like this to our little area. So long as people go and support this kind of thing, hopefully the same acts and similar groups will make a stop in Fresno and the Central Valley.

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