Paisley Park: A country megastar hits Darien Lake

Over the course of my concert reviewin’ tenure, I’ve been assigned several country shows that I wouldn’t have considered buying a ticket for. For each of these, I held an outside hope going in – that what I was about to experience would erase my prejudices about contemporary country music, that I would finally get why so many people love the junk. Each time, the stereotypes proved true. The music was uninspired, super-glossy pop with a fiddle thrown in. The lyrics were about beer, sex, small towns, America and beer-soaked sex in small American towns.

So when I took in Brad Paisley’s smart, inspired set last weekend at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, the feeling was of excitement long-delayed. With the exception of the poppy twang of his tunes, and his cowboy hat n’ blue jeans, Paisley’s performance was a completely unexpected joy. First, the guy’s an incredible guitarist, shifting from muscular Southern rock licks to lyrical pop passages with ease, and soloing like a madman without ever seeming masturbatory. And when he reached his guitar down to the outstretched arms of the crowd, letting them strum the final chord of a song with a beaming grin on his face, you could see that he was having as good a time as everyone else.

Then there are the songs themselves, which embody that sense of unpretentiousness and self-abasement that other country artists always talk about having. Tunes like “Online” and “Celebrity” may sound dated in a decade, but for now, they effectively lampoon our plasticine culture in endearingly silly ways. Paisley’s love songs, on the other hand, are undoubtedly timeless. The ballad “She’s My Everything” makes good on its title, with lyrics tender and true, and not trying to double as poetry. Paisley injected some soul into the cut, injecting a handful of inspired solos in between the verses.

And “Waitin’ On A Woman,” with its accompanying video depicting Andy Griffith waiting for his wife in the afterlife, floored me. After writing my review, I ran to the car to avoid the traffic, and sped home to be with the woman I love.

A little bit country, a little bit ukulele-folk-pop

Until last night, all I knew about Ingrid Michaelson was that she contributed a likable, sweetly romantic tune to an Old Navy commercial a few years back. My wife was a fan of the song, called “The Way I Am,” and given that it depicts a woman loving her man while he gets old and bald, I dared hope that she’d actually stay with me forever (so far, so good). But at last night’s Thursday at the Square show, I realized that Michaelson is a pretty big deal – with the youngsters, at least. Swarms of people crowded the stage and yelled their asses off when the singer/songwriter emerged. Fronting a solid, vocally talented five-piece group, Michaelson’s light, chirpy voice and ukulele strumming went over like gangbusters. Honestly, her style is a little too precious for my taste, but this set was fun, with more than one melody standing out – her performance of “You and I” made me want to hear the recorded version.

On a more introspective, less shiny-happy-people tip, opening act A.A. Bondy dished out a slew of beautiful, country-psychedelic-indie ballads. It didn’t seem to be the crowd’s cup of tea, but standing by the stage with a handful of hardcore Bondy fans beside me was a fairly breathtaking experience. On top of the mysterious elegance of his music, there was the recently salved burn on the singer’s upper arm and his bandaged left hand – Bondy didn’t mention the reasons for either injury, making him seem all the more like a silent, tortured troubadour.

Read my review, if you dare.

Kiss my grits.

Last Saturday night, I reviewed the annual tween screamfest known as “Kiss the Summer Hello.” Like the previous events I’ve endured that were organized by our local “hit music station” – whose DJ “Kev Diddy” is pictured here – it was a parade of slick R&B singers, bland pop-punk bands and rappers. But unlike the KTSHs and “Kissmas Bashes” of yore, there weren’t any surprisingly good performers that made the rest of the night somewhat bearable – The Ting Tings and Sean Kingston having given me those merciful reprieves in the past. Spose, a wise-ass rapper from Maine, and Shontelle, a Beyonce-ish R&B belter, were the high points, if only because neither could be described as obnoxious. Of course, I’m not the target demographic for stuff like this, and the kids in the crowd went nuts for the whole thing, screeching and clamoring with such unending fervency, I couldn’t believe their vocal cords were still functional.

Clearly these youngsters were hearing a frequency in this music that I couldn’t pick up on. Which only supports my theory that kids are like dogs.

And I’m guessing that Kev Diddy enjoyed the show, given that he lists “Chippewa” and “Tony Walker” as two of his favorite things about Buffalo.

Hungry for more Kiss-related crotchetiness? Check out my takes on Kissmas Bash 2009 and Kissmas Bash 2007.

The Album of the Year, so far

Janelle Monaé – The ArchAndroid

After seeing Janelle Monaé last summer – when she was the relatively unheard-of opening act on No Doubt’s reunion tour – and being thoroughly blown away, I scampered over to the merch tent and picked up her Metropolis: The Chase Suite EP. After writing a review in which I compared the R&B singer/songwriter/bandleader to James Brown (which is no hyperbole), my wife and I listened to the EP on the ride home, hoping for an onslaught of funky adrenaline comparable to her live set. And while it’s a very good record, Metropolis’ complicated sci-fi storyline and uneven production values couldn’t live up to the lofty expectations of that moment. Monaé’s debut LP The ArchAndroid, on the other hand, would’ve most certainly extended our post-concert high. A nearly flawless mix of stomping R&B grooves, richly produced pop ballads, twisted Latin rhythms, jazz crooning and orchestral suites, this is a dizzying accomplishment that puts Monaé on a short list of artists who can push the envelope and cross over in the same supercharged breath.

After an over-the-top cinematic intro, complete with booming brass, whispering woodwinds and ominous string passages, Monaé breaks into “Dance or Die,” an Outkast-meets-Gloria Estefan barnburner that’s a great example of what she does best – laying into a simple groove in a way that makes it more than the sum of its parts. This segues into “Faster,” an equally propulsive dance floor cut on which Monaé confesses she’s “shaking like a schizo” over sped-up jazz guitar licks.

But The ArchAndroid is an 18-track concept album about cyborg clones, time travel and futuristic psycho wards – it can’t get along solely on the funky stuff. Hence some deftly sequenced moments where Monaé slows things down and shows off her range, doing her best Lauryn Hill impression over the Willy Wonka strings of “Neon Valley Street,” dipping into some English folk melodies on the solemn “57821” and delivering a romantic pop masterpiece in “Oh, Maker.” And when certain songs fall short – which is bound to happen on such a long record – they’re still drenched in the same unflagging creative spirit as everything else. Even though the out-of-place Of Montreal collaboration “Make the Bus” temporarily derails things, you’ve got to respect its boldness.

“So much hurt/On this earth/But you loved me/And I really dared to love you too,” Monaé sings on “Oh, Maker,” over a light-as-air arrangement that sprinkles back-up vocals through the verses like so many raindrops. As the sonic equivalent of raising your eyes to the heavens and enjoying what you see, this track is the centerpiece of The ArchAndroid. Because like one of Monaé’s inspired live sets, this album’ll knock you on your ass like a bolt of lightning hurtled by the gods.

Cheeky Monkee

At one point last Friday evening, my wife and I were sitting in the third row of the very intimate Bear’s Den Showroom (within Seneca Niagara Casino), and Davy Jones was on stage with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, caressing one of his rather pert bosoms in his hand. “When I was a kid, I didn’t know about man boobs!” the ’60s teen idol exclaimed, inspiring a mix of riotous laughter and uncomfortable stares from the crowd. It was possibly the most surreal live concert moment I’d experienced, beating the previous one by a mile (seeing Live singer Ed Kowalczyk get hit in the head with a shoe). It’s also a bit of a microcosm of what this show was like – loads of funny, awkward comedic moments crammed in-between carefree renditions of Monkees classics. Jones isn’t a comic genius by any stretch, but he is a sparkling personality – coming from him, lame one-liners (“We’re getting lots of requests tonight, but we’re gonna sing anyway!”; “I have three daughters, all girls.”) became endearingly silly things. And the music was great – sunshiny hooks, connect-the-dots lyrics and big, boisterous harmonies. From the ’60s pop classics to those 64-year-old moobs, it was a feel-good night all around.

You can read my review (which avoids mention of the Jones boobage), if you so wish.

Everything I review, I review it for you.

I reviewed Bryan Adams for the second time in three years last night, doing pretty much the same thing he did the first time around – presenting stripped-down, acoustic versions of his hits. It made me think about how MTV needs to bring “Unplugged” back, because when it’s the right artist, a look at the skeletons of their songs can be revelatory. Bryan Adams isn’t one of those artists, of course (he did do an “Unplugged” set in 1996, regardless). His songs are simple, sugary pop numbers beefed up with punchy guitars and that strong, sandpapery voice – when you strip away the window dressings, there ain’t much left. Except for lyrics like “It’s so damn easy making love to you” and “Let’s make a night to remember/From January to December.” Adams needs the trappings of ’80s rock stardom for his music to make sense; the intimate acoustic thing just isn’t meant for him.

While doing a little research before the show, I stumbled upon a video of Adams’ performance with Nelly Furtado at the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies. It’s a huge, lip-synced mess (if you don’t believe me, check out Adams missing his backup vocal cue around 32 seconds in).

My last review of this guy inspired some vitriol from the Adams faithful. I’ll let you know if the sequel gets them just as riled.

An evening both Phosphorescent and Gray

Things have been a little crazy in my world lately (I just gave birth to my seventh child and haven’t been able to track his father down anywhere! Plus I started a killer new job at friggin’ Travers Collins & Company), so it’s taken me a while to post about last week’s David Gray show. As you’ll see in my review – because you will read it, goddammit – it was a glowingly received performance by the beloved Brit. ‘Twas his first-ever Buffalo gig, and judging by the often-rapturous response he received – we’re talking dudes giving standing ovations and devil horns – it was a long-awaited event.

I wasn’t one of those folks hotly anticipating Gray’s safe, sensitive modern rock in a live setting, but the guy performed admirably, laying into the big hooks and pretty chord changes of his tunes with real fervor. The guy’s never going to blow your mind, but he ain’t gonna get on your nerves, either.

The opening act, on the other hand, was a revelation. Phosphorescent’s blend of country, psychedelia and shoegaze was a total crowd-husher, overflowing with ghostly harmonies and lyrical imagination. I picked up their 2007 record, Pride, at intermission – it’s a gorgeous thing, but I was slightly bummed that it contained none of the tunes I just saw them perform. I impatiently await their next release.