By Mike Finkelstein
Last Tuesday night, a good old-fashioned triple bill pulled into town at the Greek theater, a triple bill headlined by Barenaked Ladies, and supported by the Violent Femmes and Colin Hay. It seems that in recent times, acts don’t interact much on stage during one of these tours. They simply go onstage in their respective bubbles and do their shows. This was happily not the way things would play out Tuesday night. Members of all three acts came and went throughout each other’s sets and there was clearly camaraderie between them. This made for a very entertaining night of shared music.
The evening began early, at 7 o’clock with Colin Hay, whom most of us who were listening to radio in the 80’s will remember from his days with Men at Work. There is something reaffirming about watching one guy with an acoustic guitar an hour before sundown playing masterfully to an audience that would only be accurately described as sparse. It didn’t matter to Colin, he sounded great and the audience dug it, giving him a standing “O” at the end.
A song like Men at Work’s “Overkill” works beautifully as a solo acoustic number. Hay has a very warm way of stroking the right blend of vocals and guitar to bring out the essence of a tune. His last tune, a fine little folk song named “Next Year People,” featured an appearance by Barenaked Ladies’ Kevin Hearn on accordion, and worked the theme of overcoming metaphorical drought. Hay’s set was short but sweet and he definitely earned that warm reception.
Next up were the Violent Femmes. There were shirts being sold at the merch stand, which advertised that the Violent Femmes have been making American music since 1981! Thirty-four years of longevity, even with a hiatus or two in there. Their backline and instruments were in place during Hay’s set and one really couldn’t help notice the humungous saxophone, a B flat tubax, located center-stage, wondering how it was going to figure in with the VF’s show (it sounded so low that it became a bit obscured in the mix). Sitting there so mysteriously, it had to be close to 8 feet tall looking like some sort of machine from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
The Femmes hit the ground running with their most popular tune, “Blister in the Sun,” and with that, they had the rapidly expanding crowd on it’s feet and in the palms of their hands. The vibe onstage was a lot like one of those times where a group of street musicians has attracted a huge throng of people and are just killing it for the folks. At different times there were anywhere from six to ten players onstage, including the ubiquitous Kevin Hearn on accordion. Because the stage was arranged with all the stations next to each other, their were several different pockets of activity to swing the focus to. The VFs feature three unorthodox yet super-engaging instrumentalists in bassist Brian Ritchie, drummer Brian Viglione, and saxophonist Blaise Garza. All three performed with a lot of motion, but it always looked natural, not a put-on for the big stage. Ritchie is a tall guy with a big hat, a huge stage presence, and he usually plays an acoustic bass guitar, (a bass with a much deeper than normal body). Viglione plays a drum kit full of not-so-ordinary drums and he does it vigorously while standing. Garza was all over the stage and was never far from that towering tubax.
The 45 minute set blew by. Perhaps the best tune of their program was “Gone Daddy Gone.” The chords to this tune are pretty much “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone,” played backwards and forwards, but the VFs put their style all over the bare bones. Brian Ritchie had to play marimbas to give the song its signature sound, which allowed for Barenaked Ladies’ bassist Jim Creegan to come out and play Ritchie’s bass part like a champion. At the end of the marimba break, Ritchie reached dramatically over the whole set of marimbas to peel off the last run. It was a necessary move but it looked mighty cool, and it made for fine showmanship during a great song. And, of course, Kevin Hearn was up there with his trusty accordion.
Barenaked Ladies were top billed Tuesday night, though on this particular occasion the Violent Femmes may have had as many fans in the house and could have easily have pulled off headlining. BNL turned in a crisp set punctuated with clever little tidbits of between-the-tunes banter. Several of their songs I recognized, although I never knew it was them before. Before the night was over there were a whole string of tunes I wanted more of. “The Old Apartment” is a great tune, a 4/4 rocker with a weave of crunch, jangle, and open space about the powerful memories in a home from the past. The next tune was “Odds Are,” which built on the same quick strummed acoustic guitar sound but with catchier hooks and a near rap delivery of the verses. If it sounds good, use it.
Barenaked Ladies have two very engaging players in bassist Jim Creegan, and keyboardist/lead guitarist Kevin Hearn. Creegan was probably their most compelling figure. He’s all long legs, arms, and fingers and with his long antelope strides, he covered a whole lot of stage surface. Creegan also spent much of the evening playing a rockin’ style of standup bass. To get that much motion while tethered to such a large instrument is a bit of true showmanship. Hearn, for his part, pushed the tunes along on keys but when he played lead guitar he shined the brightest. He took “Pinch Me” to another level. And, considering that Colin Hay was already onstage singing with the boys, an already great song went a little higher.
The BNLs also like to deliver their lyrics in raps when the mood strikes them. And when they splice it together with a catchy guitar riff, the result is a fun song like “One Week.” Moments like these, when a familiar song becomes something bigger live, are the payoff for going to see live music. The show wound down with an off the wall medley of everything from the Cars to Queen and even a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” But, before this started they played their own wistful-yet-kinda-silly “If I Had A Million Dollars.” This song is so pretty in its simplicity, and with an exemplary sing along chorus, that it couldn’t help but satisfy.
In the end, I had the opportunity Saturday night to see two bands I’d always meant to catch up with, and one singer/songwriter whom I’ll always be up for seeing. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a Violent Femmes’ or Barenaked Ladies’ tune or two at the next campfire I happen to. The tunes are that good.
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