Monday, April 26, 2010

Concert Review: The Church, Arts at the Armory, April 21

A funny thing happened on the road to nostalgia for the Church. They took a detour and became relevant.

The initial route was a familiar one. After slowly building an audience, they scored a Top 30 hit, "Under the Milky Way," several albums into their career. The pressure to repeat their success nearly destroyed the band. Last summer they played Showcase Live, a venue at a football stadium's complex whose main selling point to suburban audiences is vast amounts of free parking, key for acts that are just trading on their long-past glories. The typical chain of events for such bands is that, if they even bother to record new material, it is at best forgettable but provides an excuse to tour. At worst, it squanders their legacy.

But that isn't what happened to the Church. The band is celebrating it 30th anniversary with a special tour. They deserved better than the nostalgia circuit room they played in Foxboro last year and got it with Somerville's Arts at the Armory on April 21. The gimmick of the tour is that they play one song from each album in reverse chronological order, starting with 2009's Untitled #23. The surprise to casual fans is that their newer material is worthy of both the band and the audience. Admittedly, the group have winnowed their following, but this was a crowd who was in it for the long haul, not the ones who would be disappointed that they didn't faithfully recreate "Reptile" from its Starfish incarnation.

In honor of the occasion, they provided a program highlighting their career, including a page devoted to each album and concluding with an inventory of their career, cataloging everything from the number of concerts played to the number of overdoses. Combining  their between-song banter, mostly from Steve Kilbey but with the others chiming in, and the written materials about their releases, the full narrative emerged. Their label largely ignored them in the early '80s in favor of acts like Loverboy. They eventually hit pay dirt and sold a bunch of albums, but that same success tore the band apart. They eventually regained their footing as the '90s progressed, with guitarist Peter Koppes rejoining the band, Tim Fowles settling in behind drums and the band finding a new creative freedom, in part from shedding expectations. They've weathered the failure of several indie labels by ultimately creating their own imprint.

It was a journey through their history, but they chose to not necessarily retrace their steps. They billed it as an intimate space, which manifested itself as a very casual atmosphere with no electric guitars. Since two of their albums were built around reinterpretations of their own songs, they were hardly married to their past. For example, they stripped away the layers of "Almost Yesterday." "The Unguarded Moment" felt like a Velvet Underground cover song. "Invisible" took the train theme of its lyrics as the basis for its tempo variations, speeding up then slowing down like a training pulling into the station.

They broke the proceedings into two sets then returned for two encores. For their first encore, they offered up the Smashing Pumpkins song "Disarm" as a thank you and response to their cover of "Reptile." They followed it up with "Space Saviour" from Untitled #23 that was so hypnotic it practically induced seizures and left audience drowning in puddles of their own drool. They wrapped up the evening with "Grind;" Marty Willson-Piper peppered it with Led Zeppelin-worthy fat riffs, but the rendition also lived up the song's own lyrics of "jangled decay." The band proved themselves worthy of the 30th anniversary celebration.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Concert Review: Alejandro Escovedo, Somerville Theater, April 6

Alejandro Escovedo came to town with a just a buddy to upend expectations. Yes, it was just two guys with acoustic guitars, but this was not evening of polite, gentle strumming; it's surprising they only broke one string in the course of the evening. Ecovedo's lyrics suggest that he's a singer/songwriter, but he knows how to rock. To put it another way, he knows how to make a lot of noise, but his lyrics convey genuine emotional complexity. He hits you in the heart, the feet and the brain. I frequently found myself with an irrepressible smile on my face.

The pair were previewing songs from Escovedo's upcoming album, due in June. Although he described it as a rock album with a full band, he was touring unplugged with fellow guitarist David Pulkingham. Their interaction was a paradox, effortlessly spontaneous and organic as a result of lots of practice. They had worked hard to make it look that easy. With a quick exchange of glances they could alter the tempo or intensity, and both clearly enjoyed the freedom they had in working together to make something so beautiful or so raucous.

Boston just isn't showing Escovedo the love he deserves, with the 900-seat venue maybe a third full. Rather than lamenting the poor turn-out (and he didn't mince words about another nearby venue where he'd played earlier in his career), he used the intimacy to his advantage. Especially since no one was in the balcony, the pair stepped down from the stage, away from the microphones, to perform a handful of songs in the aisles among the audience.

Escovedo peppered the set with stories about his family, taking great pride in their musical accomplishments. His father was a musician who bore 12 children, eight of whom went on to become professional musicians themselves. His 17-year-old son Paris is a punk rocker, and Alejandro is amused that Paris dismisses his father's current output at old man music for old people.

Escovedo was once a young punk rocker himself as a member of the Nuns in the mid-'70s. That band is now most famous as the launching point of his eventual solo career. Ironically, he emerged from a genre that disparaged virtuosity through his virtuosity, but the punk spirit still lives in this "old man."