Hot Fun in the Summertime: My Top 5 Shows of the Season

“Man, didn’t summer just fly by?” ‘Tis the season for remarks like this, which people invariably pull out when confronted by somebody they don’t like very much, because better to feign friendliness and move on than have to deal with the fallout of saying “I don’t like you very much.”

Anyways, didn’t summer just fly by? I haven’t posted since way back in those halcyon days of June 2012, when the summer was young and full of possibilities, there was a policeman on every corner, and American families cared about a little something called morals. Also the summer concert season was just getting underway in Western New York. My dance card was pretty darn full with reviews throughout, only two of which predictably turned out to be duds (sorry, Rascal Flatts and Def Leppard, but you’ve earned those reputations). This meant I had to miss some good shows in order to restore my proper sleep patterns – Sleigh Bells and Tune-Yards most regrettably – but as you’ll see in my top 5 list below, this was a wonderfully eclectic time to go check out major concerts in Buffalo.

5. The Beach Boys, June 29 at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center

Speaking of romanticizing a past that was never as idyllic and simple as we’d like to think it was, the surviving members of The Beach Boys got back together for a 50th anniversary tour this summer. And, much like the new LP that accompanied it, That’s Why God Made The Radio, this show was flawed, but still better than it had any right to be. Backed by a battalion of musicians and vocalists, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks made some of the most beautiful and ambitious compositions in pop history sound organic and true. Wilson’s voice was a little shaky, and his stage presence was catatonic, but that’s par for the course – hearing him sing the full-throated plea of “Please Let Me Wonder” was a gift, ditto the impeccably executed suites of “Heroes and Villains.” My only complaint echoes the sentiments of many a Beach Boys fan – Mike Love is a creepy cornball. Way too much of this show was dedicated to the elemental surf-rock ditties that place The Ballcapped One front and center; I understand the need to include “Surfin U.S.A.” and “Surfin’ Safari,” but did we seriously need “Hawaii,” “Catch a Wave,” “Be True to Your School” and the like? 50 years on, the contrast between these tunes and Wilson’s ballads of the same period is striking. The heartbreaking high of seeing him sing “In My Room” was enough to carry me through the stuff I’d rather just pretend didn’t happen (There was no encore performance of “Kokomo.” There was no encore performance of “Kokomo.” There was no encore performance of “Kokomo” …).

4. Feist, July 15 at Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor

Last year, Nitsuh Abebe wrote a great piece for New York magazine called “Indie Grown-Ups,” which posited that artists like Wilco and Feist are our generation’s Sting – a once-unique voice that softened to the point where his music can be piped in at your dentist’s office. I agree with his point for the most part, and as someone who unabashedly loves Ten Summoner’s Tales, I don’t find it all that insulting either. But while Feist does have some of the trappings of middle-of-the-road adult contemporary, her most recent album Metals, and her thunderous set this past June that leaned heavily on its songs, proved that she’s more dangerous than you’d think (unlike Wilco, who completely deserves the AC tag after the comfortable groove they’ve been in for the last five years). Seeing these songs performed live was a revelation – I already liked the album’s more visceral, sinister rhythms, but in concert they bowled me over like an unexpected storm. “How Come You Never Go There” swung hard. “Comfort Me” stomped and swooned. And “A Commotion” was a percussive blast the likes of which you most definitely did not hear at Sting’s Artpark show a few weeks earlier. Feist’s trio of backup singers unleashed powerful harmonies, dressed in what looked like sackcloth and dancing with ritualistic, glassy-eyed abandon. In my review, I compared them to the witches from “Macbeth.” Which might sound silly in the light of day. But in the shadow of the storm, anything seemed possible.

3. Girl Talk, August 23 at the Outer Harbor Concert Series

When you hear an eclectic mix of music, presented with carefully thought-out segues and an uncanny sense of timing, you know you’re listening to a great DJ. And on the Buffalo radio dial, it’s nigh-on impossible to find that kind of listening experience, what with pre-formatted playlists and strict genre-based guidelines (unless you’re close enough to pick up WBNY 91.3, Buffalo State’s student-run station). Which I think is the main reason why Girl Talk’s perpetual sweat machine of a set a few weeks back was just as comforting as it was propulsive. The one-man show of Gregg Michael Gillis – a wiry little guy with more energy than Usain Bolt – officially kicked off the latest new concert series on the waterfront with a non-stop stream of mindblowing mash-ups, cherry-picking riffs and choruses from 50 years of Billboard charts and re-purposing them in intoxicating new ways. He’s clearly a DJ who cares deeply for everything he’s sampling, a man who wants to show us just how good it sounds when Elton John and Biggie Smalls share the same space, reveling in the unpredictability that has become the mortal sin of corporate radio. In the moment, of course, all I knew was that Gillis was making me happy, churning out an irresistible party by the water by using the same fanboy passion that had the teenaged me making mixtapes for anyone who would pretend to listen to them. This kind of thing probably won’t infiltrate the mainstream as much as it should – the second Outer Harbor concert was a radio station festival headlined by Evanescence, that apparently attracted way more people than GT – but for one glorious night at least, it felt like anybody could play anything they wanted.

2. Iron Maiden, July 16 at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center

When I told the guy sitting next to me that this was my first time seeing Iron Maiden, he looked confused. Noticing the grey in my hair and the fact that I wasn’t wearing anything with the Maiden logo on it, he nodded, smiled awkwardly, and turned his head back toward the stage, politely giving me the brush like I was a homeless man singing for pennies. Although I like this band very much, my lack of devotion to it stood out like a nun at a satanist convention. Never in my life have I witnessed a fan base show such lockstep love for its heroes than at this concert, where I was possibly the only person who wasn’t draped in Iron Maiden merchandise, some of it bought that night, much more of it procured over the course of decades of concert-going. Brilliant branding has something to do with it, of course – the band’s mascot, Eddie, continues to be placed in one new, cartoonishly violent scenario after another, resulting in an endless stream of merchandise for fans to crave. But if Iron Maiden wasn’t such a toweringly awesome band, Eddie would have no soul, and not in the cool way. And after 30-some years, these guys still shred like no other, making my Maiden voyage an epic, blisteringly loud, blissfully nostalgic experience. They focused exclusively on classic material, playing most of the 1988 “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” concept album alongside “The Trooper,” “The Prisoner,” “The Number of the Beast” and other crazy-ass crowd-pleasers. Singer Bruce Dickinson wailed like a tortured opera singer and scampered around the stage non-stop, and guitarists Adrian Smith, Dave Murray and Janick Gers soloed like men possessed, the bright smiles on their faces an incongruous delight. Metal is a hip, underground thing these days, leaving Iron Maiden as one of the few true monsters of rock still delivering the goods to adoring stadium crowds. And during this show, it was obvious that their passion hasn’t ebbed one bit. If that doesn’t make you grateful enough to buy a t-shirt, then I don’t know what will.

1. Drake, June 8, Darien Lake Performing Arts Center

After filing my review after Drake’s stunning performance this June, I got turned around a bit on my way to the always-horrible Darien Lake parking lot. During my search for another exit, I just happened to run into the artist as he exited a backstage trailer en route to his tour bus. Unaware that I was watching him, Drake was bursting with post-show adrenaline, pumping his fists and grinning from ear to ear. It was encouraging to see this for a few reasons:

1. As a fan of Drake’s lush, nakedly emotional approach to rap, this private, unabashed display of childlike joy made me believe that he’s not trying to play us, that the feelings he espouses on record are his actual feelings.

2. This was a big star, getting as swept up in his music’s energy as his fans. I’m sure the boatloads of cash don’t hurt, but this sure looked like a guy who loves performing as much as anything else on earth.

I know, I know. I’m reading into this 10-second encounter way too much. But I can’t help myself. After seeing his set, a pristinely executed offering of ruminative R&B grooves and top-flight Dirty South beats, shot into the stratosphere by the emcee’s steady flow and infectious energy, I was thinking about Drake as an Important Artist, somebody who could feasibly keep mainstream hip-hop honest for years to come. Then I saw him celebrating like a kid who just got a bike for his birthday – not your typical, too cool for school Important Artist behavior.  “Hey, great set,” I shared. Drake stopped in his tracks like I’d actually said something he hadn’t heard a billion times. “Thanks, man,” he responded, with complete sincerity. At that moment, I couldn’t have been more of a fan.

An Awesome Show

If you’ve ever watched an infomercial because you thought it was funny, or sat in awe of a bad public access TV show, then the singular comedy universe of Tim and Eric is right up your alley. All of the shows the duo has created for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim late-night programming block (only one of them a cartoon) have been obsessed with the marketing of crappy products, the use of outdated technology and the performances of wildly untalented people. And last night at the Town Ballroom, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim shared their latest stage show with a packed-to-the-rafters crowd of folks who had already taken deep draughts of the T&E Kool-Aid. If you haven’t seen their video announcing the tour, watch it now, and understand why my wife and I had been counting down the days until we could see it.

Mainly, this was a promotional jaunt to support the guys’ upcoming holiday show, airing Dec. 5 – the Tim and Eric “Chrimbus Special” – so the set began with a blast of twisted, fake holiday cheer. Tim and Eric took the stage wearing their gloriously hideous Chrimbus outfits, a mix of horrible wigs, bronzed skin, bedazzled vests and boob-high green pants that make them look like frightening, super-sized oompa loompas. The first skit centered around Eric’s refusal to get Tim a Chrimbus present, after Tim had already spent $279 on a car stereo at Circuit City for Eric’s gift (it lets you set your six favorite FM radio stations!). The bit’s mix of innocence and insanity was an ideal beginning for a night of comedy that was about fostering a sense of community more than anything else.

There’s a quality to the duo’s signature show, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!, that inspires fanaticism, and it’s not just the funny characters and catchy, silly songs. This is comedy with a language all its own – freakish, unibrowed babies are “chippies,” fathers and grandfathers are “pep peps,” the term “for your health” has taken on monumentally hilarious connotations. If you watch Tim and Eric and “get it,” you’re more than a viewer. You’re part of something.

So while this show featured jokes about getting your balls drained, a body suit with flopping genitalia, and a brilliantly sloppy closing set by Tim and Eric’s band Pusswhip Banggang, the pervading attitude was childlike, not childish. When the duo hit the stage to promote their “new movie,” Blues Brothers 2012, they talked about the film’s sponsor, Terminix, more than anything else. Which set the stage for a song that laundry-listed random American brand names, ending with a shout out to The Arizona Jeans Company – “I need my ‘Zona Jeans!” It wasn’t exactly satire, nor was it raunchy, or slapstick – it was silly, random, obsessed with being unstylish, and permasmile-inducing. In other words, pure Tim and Eric.

Denver: Underrated Artist, Overrated Omelet

Saturday night, I reviewed “Country Roads,” a theme concert from the Buffalo Philharmonic that featured a five-piece band performing tunes by John Denver (above, in full Beastmaster mode) and Dan Fogelberg, with the orchestra fleshing things out. Other than reinforcing my feelings about both artists – Denver’s melodies are grand, timeless things, while Fogelberg’s are sopping loaves of Wonder bread – it got me feeling all defensive about one of my favorite country singers. So, here’s a list of reasons why John Denver deserves more cred than he typically gets:

1. His songs are audaciously simple. It ain’t easy to connect with listeners using basic language, and Denver does it as effectively as anybody, injecting warmth and truth into seemingly throwaway sentiments like “Sunshine on my shoulders/makes me happy.”

2. He’s so square, he’s cool. There’s never been anything hip about a guy with an acoustic guitar singing about mountains. Denver didn’t care, singing about dizzying natural highs with a passion that’s as refreshing as a gulp from a Rocky Mountain stream.

3. His love songs are untouchable. Whether it’s the swooning romance of “Annie’s Song” or the tender parental poetry of “For Baby,” Denver’s fusion of simple sentiments with soaring melodies make for unforgettable expressions of love.

4. He makes you sing along. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” could get a monk to break his vow of silence.

5. While hiking in West Virginia, a backwoods mystic (a.k.a. “mountain mama”) gave him an enchanted amulet on a golden necklace. It gave him the power to grow sexy hair and speak with the animals, after which he fell in love with a falcon named Stephanie (above).

Tops never stop, uh, singing you more?

Not only did I have the pleasure of reviewing The Four Tops’ affirmation of a show at the Erie County Fair, I also had the pleasure of meeting the quartet before the gig. As I settled in to have my picture taken with the guys, I mentioned that “Bernadette” gives me chills (I know, I’m a drama mama), to which Lawrence Payton, Jr. responded, “Man, she gives me thrills.” It wasn’t surprising to learn that these dudes are smooth customers – with only one original member remaining (first tenor Duke Fakir), the other three Tops have to ooze personality and chops to live up to the legacy of the Motown legends they’re replacing. Which they did with conviction on this night, flying through one crossover R&B masterpiece after another, the melodies as irresistible as ever, the arrangements still exciting and imaginative, the lyrics simple, sweet and true.

“Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” was a great choice for an opening song – a gorgeous example of the group at its mid-’60s best, but an underappreciated one for sure. Moving forward, though, the Tops knocked down one massive hit after another, with a four-piece band and eight-piece horn section providing the ballast for those achingly good four-part harmonies. “Bernadette” was a total winner, thanks to lead singer Theo Peoples belting every word like a man possessed and keyboardist/conductor George Roundtree leaning into some driving piano chords. And the TLC inherent in the performances of “Baby I Need Your Loving” and the closing “I Can’t Help Myself” made it seem like these guys are somehow not tired of singing them. As the latter’s wonderful bass line kicked in, and the Tops gave the first chorus to the crowd to sing, you got a sense of what it must have been like to experience music like this for the first time. No wonder teenagers were passing out in their seats back then.

I want to believe (in Ozomatli)

Of the myriad of reasons why a hopelessly awkward teen in the 1990s would love The X-Files – the escapist plot lines full of devilish conspiracies, cool monsters and clever humor helping him forget he was still a virgin, at least for an hour – one was that a secondary character was an Ozomatli fan. Richard “Ringo” Langly, one of The Lone Gunmen, Fox Mulder’s go-to trio of hackers and conspiracy nuts, frequently wore the L.A. salsa/hip hop/funk band’s t-shirts on the show. As a result, the show spoke to alien obsessives, will-they-or-won’t-they morons, and Ozo-loving nerds like myself.

And the band’s sizzling set at Thursday at the Square showed that they’re still a party band of the highest order, and as eclectic and energetic as ever – a nifty thing to witness, now that this Ozo-loving nerd is in his 30s. Now a septet, without a DJ in tow, Ozomatli still boasts a hugely syncopated sound, with two percussionists and a drummer throwing rhythmic flourishes all over the solid bass playing of original member Wil-Dog Abers. Justin Poree is their MC these days, and he seemed like a talented guy with a steady flow on Thursday – unfortunately, P.A. troubles meant that pretty much all the vocals were low in the mix, so it was tough to hear any of the lyrics.

As expected, tunes from the 2010 disc “Fire Away” were the order of the day, which was fine. The record is certainly the most easily digestible of all of Ozo’s works, boasting some lovingly polished R&B hooks and some never-before-seen, tender balladry. But to be honest, I would have preferred to see the late-’90s version of the group, with Chali 2na busting out verses over the impeccably arranged funk and salsa grooves of its 1998 self-titled debut. Not a complaint exactly, just a feeling.

Still, this was a fiery, incredibly enjoyable set that touched on all that makes Ozomatli great. Fusing such a wide variety of styles into its hyperactive live show, the band is a sonic melting pot filled with an irresistible, bubbling brew.

If you’re looking for some mind-bendingly great musicians who know how to rock a party without ever resorting to clichés, then thanks to Ozomatli, the truth is out there.

You can check my review here.

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.

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.