Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Favorite Venues: In Praise of the 9:30 Club

9:30 Club, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

It's rare that a gritty club in a gritty part of town could attract the likes of Bryan Ferry, The Hives, Neil Finn, Jurassic 5, Dolly Parton, Wilco, Liz Phair, Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, etc. It's also rare that a gritty club in a gritty part of town could induce folks from all over the surrounding countryside to brave the road rage-inducing tourist traffic of our nation's capitol.  But attract and induce it does.

In fact, I can think of no place I'd rather see live music. Truly.

Why? The room. When the crowd is light, the room never feels empty. When a show is sold out, it never feels claustrophobic. And in either case, the sound is phenomenal. I mean phenominal. The sound team seems equally at home with acoustic acts featuring hard-to-hear instruments like stand-up bass, as well as the heaviest riff-rocking guitars, and hip-hop's human beatboxes and turntables. You never strain to hear, nor do your ears ever bleed. But it doesn't end there, oh no! If you're not a fan of standing on the floor, or you're sick of being too short behind a wall of 6-footers, there are many options. Head on up to the balcony for a view down over the crowd and have a beer at one of the bars. Or pull up a bleacher seat along the side walls upstairs. You'll always be able to find a good view. And even up in the back balcony, you'll still feel as if you could reach out and touch the band. Optical illusion? Optical delusion? Who cares?! All I know is it's good.

Why? Musicians love playing there. Despite having a smallish stage (Bryan Ferry's band and back-up singers looked positively squished), every last band I've seen there seems to be having a fab time. Maybe the soundman is particularly adept at giving them a good monitor mix. Who knows? But every last one of 'em that I've seen has seemed to be kicking  proverbial butt and enjoying themselves more than usual. The interactions with the crowd are personal and the encores long. I think it must be the close proximity to the crowd. I imagine that for many artists used to playing huge venues to tens of thousands, playing at the 9:30 Club is like returning to your roots. Calling it "intimate" kind of falls short of the mark. Getting in touch with your fans can literally be achieved, as Neil Finn proved when he pulled a fan up on stage to lead the room in singing one of his songs, while he accompanied on guitar. It breeds such "special moments" like warm, fuzzy tribbles.

Why? Atmosphere. The 9:30 Club doesn't have to try. It just has that special something without all sorts of decor or theme-y posturings. It has just the right mix of tattoos and big, scary bouncers to make it feel like an equally great place to see hard core as hip-hop. And then there's the afore-mentioned proximity of the crowd to the stage. At about hip height, you can walk right up to it and determine if that's a Gretsch or a Gibson hollow-body the guitarist is playing, and read the set list taped to the stage floor. You can make eye contact with the band. You can hang out in the rafters and still feel as if they're singing just to you. That ever elusive quality of "intimacy" that so many venues strive for seems effortless here. It kind of feels like home to me now.

The numbers don't lie! The concert industry reports that the 9:30 Club is the single most popular club-size venue in the country, with the highest $$ earned and the greatest number of tickets sold. It's that magic combination -- musicians love to play there, and music-lovers hanker to head there.

Can you think of a better way of summing up the 9:30 Club? Post it here!  Or check out what the AOL CityGuide Editors had to say, and find out why they ranked it as the City's Best Place to See Live Music. Then find out who's playing next at 9:30!

Thursday, July 8, 2004

Breaking News: Morrissey

This just in from a press release from Morrissey's PR people...

"On Saturday, July 17th, Morrissey will perform at Chicago's House of Blues. This is likely to be his only US show this summer, and as such, tickets for the performance sold out in less than two minutes."

Why wouldn't he resched all his Lollapalooza dates with replacement solo US dates, you ask?  It's a mystery. 

Ben Folds, Guster & Rufus Wainwright at Wolf Trap

Ben Folds is The Man. I'm talkin the MAN.  THE man. 

Having gotten that brief observation out of the way, I'll start at the beginning...  

Last Tuesday night, I had the magic combination: Mix 3 parts superb performances, 1 part phenomenal acoustics & 1 part perfect weather. Shake it with a sold-out crowd, garnish with 10th row seats, and you'll get the divine cocktail I knocked back last week.  I had mysteriously stumbled across the ingredients to love potion number 9. Or the stairway to 7th heaven.  

Up first: Rufus Wainwright -- Rufus has been one of my favorite discoveries since he opened for Tori Amos at DC's DAR Constitution Hall 2 years ago. Rufus is a phenomenal songwriter with a knack for hummable melodies and deep-delving, often wickedly funny lyrics. I'm always impressed by young artists who can stand on a large stage all by themselves and hold a crowd with confidence. We were with him through the whispers and the crescendoes -- old fans and virgin ears alike. I love that he wears his alternative lifestyle proudly on his sleeve with aplomb. And his between-song banter is hilarious. (How rare is that?! Usually we just want singers to shut up and sing, am I right?)  

Some highlights: One of my favorite songs from his first album, Poses, "One Man Guy," originally recorded by his famous father, Loudon Wainwright. The kicker: the guys from Guster came out as his backing band and helped Rufus sing the four-part harmonies. Brought the house down. Keeping it all in the family with his musical mom, Kate McGarrigle on piano, he introduced the next song by saying that he started out his career performing it with her when he was nine. We all just about died when he busted out "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." What could have been shlocky dreck just for the laughs turned out to be a highlight of the show. Those who had only heard of Rufus through the Moulin Rouge soundtrack were thrilled when he played "Complainte De La Butte", sung entirely in French. Not a tall order for this native son of Quebec. I only wish he'd sung the Beatles' "Across the Universe" from the I Am Sam soundtrack. *sigh*  But all told, a divine performance, couldn't have asked for more.  

On second: Guster -- I'd never seen Guster before, nor had I owned any of their CDs. Suffice it to say that I am now the happy owner of two, count 'em, two Guster CDs. Plus, it kind of felt like old home week, as I remember them from the Boston music scene -- they formed at Tufts University. I must say, I'm a sucker for the bongo man. He took jangly folk rock and made it grooveable. Not that they'd be bad without the bongos. He just adds quite a bit to the mix. As does the multi-instrumentalist who swapped from guitar & pedal steel to piano and assorted noisemakers. I was surprised how many songs I recognized. I realized these guys have saturated pop culture far more than I gave them credit for.  The highlight of the set for me: They invited Ben Folds out to play piano and sing a tune.  Are you sensing a trend?  

Last, but not least: Ben Folds -- Did I mention that Ben Folds is THE MAN? Ahem. If I had ever at any point thought twice about including him in my Top 10 Shows of All Time list (I've never thought twice about it, but if I had...), his place in the pantheon was reconfirmed that night. If you ever, EVER have the opportunity to see Ben Folds within a three hour driving radius, DO NOT MISS HIM. He fills up the house with his personality within seconds of setting foot on stage. I've often wondered just what it is about Ben that puts his fans in rabid fits of rapture when he plays. I think it must be the hilarious lyrics that tell tales of a self-proclaimed misfit nerd making his way in the world. He's the everyman everyone wants to go have a beer with. Yes, that, plus his melodies are immediately hummable and the songwriting indulges in campy, rafter-rocking anthems. He held us in the palm of his hand (whenever it wasn't otherwise occupied pounding away on the piano).  

Highlights: Have you ever seen a lone artist on stage get an audience to sing in three part harmony?  He conducted us, standing on his Steinway. Did I mention that he also got the audience to divide into a horn section and sax section, to fill in for the backing band that wasn't there?  I'm not kidding!  It doesn't stop there. He brought Rufus out to help him sing a poignant rendition of "Careless Whisper", by, you guessed it, George Michael.  I loved the freeform jam he popped on the Guster boys without warning, giving them only "Key of D" as an indication of what was to come. He proceeded to sing as if he was possessed by the soul & pipes of Ronnie James Dio. They had a blast, and so did we.  Run, don't walk, to your nearest Ben Folds concert right now.

Inspired? Get tickets to the tour!