The voice is as big live as it is on record. Alanis Morissette's lungs pumped long and loud for her appreciative fans at Gund Arena. Dressed like Juliette Lewis in one of her retard roles, Morissette hammered her demanding material with precision and emotion. No studio trickery with this gal.
No fooling around, either. Between songs, Morissette would say only "Thank you" or "Thank you very much" before ducking back for swigs of Evian. She didn't play much to the crowd; she didn't need to. The woman has hits, and lots of them. The teens-to-mid-thirties crowd was, not surprisingly, ravenous for Jagged Little Pill's monsters like "Hand in My Pocket" and "You Learn." But by stripping down "You Oughta Know" (her best tune, by a kilometer), Morissette drained the song of much of its power. The tougher songs from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, like "Baba" and "Joining You," made some of her Pill stuff sound Strawberry Shortcakey. Dumb of me to think I might escape "Ironic"; alas, it closed her first encore.
Morissette is charismatic, but not a dynamic live performer. Her moves consisted mostly of running to one side of the stage, singing a few verses, running back to the drum kit, singing a few verses, running to the other side of the stage ... Her five-piece band was competent, but comically stationary.
My beef with the show is the same as my beef with her records: her lyrics' obsessive reliance on repetition. An absorbing track like "Thank U" is virtually unlistenable once the "how 'bout"s and "thank you"s start stacking up. Some would say this is her "style"; it strikes me as laziness.
Opener Liz Phair wouldn't be accused of concealing her randier side for the arena crowd. She played some of her most explicit material ("Chopsticks," "Fuck and Run," "Flower") and offered no apologies. Parents escorting their daughters to their first concert must have been scandalized, though no one tore up my aisle, palms pressed against their little one's virgin ears.
Wearing a small red dress and tennis shoes, Phair didn't let the big venue swallow her up. She was more at ease than anticipated in such a large venue, even shedding her guitar at one point to prowl the stage. It has been said Phair has a flat voice, and while chandeliers are safe in her presence, it is a great rock and roll voice: tough on the outside, trembling on the inside. Her material should be sung in deadpan.
Toward the end of the forty-minute set, Morissette and her band came onstage and wrapped Phair and her band in toilet paper as a farewell (it was Phair's last night as a supporting act). Cute gesture. But not as cute as that red dress.
Undoubtedly, the constellations in Sloan's little sky have been named for late-'60s and '70s rock icons like the Beatles, the Kinks, Queen, and the Beach Boys. Whether the band takes these familiar elements and crafts something wholly its own, or whether it's merely a Xerox machine that makes you want to dust off your Sgt. Pepper's and Pet Sounds, that's debatable. At the Peabody's show, the issue didn't really come up.
Taking a different strategy than on its latest album, Navy Blues, Sloan set aside the more mannered pop rock and brought out the big riffs and unadorned melodies. For the better part of the night, it worked. Stripped down to vocals and rumble-chords, songs like "She Says What She Means" and "Sinking Ships" translated into adrenalized, arena-friendly big rock. All the "oh"s and "yeah"s that sounded so silly on the album began to find context. When the liquid latex melted from the faces of Messrs. Wilson, McCartney, Lennon, and Davies, standing there in all their kick-strut glory were Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and even (in the particularly athletic, busy drumming of Chris Murphy) Keith Moon.
"Hey! Where's the heart of rock and roll?" Every time frontmen Jay Ferguson and Patrick Pentland asked, the crowd shouted "Cleveland" on cue. I think they were hedging for Halifax.
The real gem of the night was the other band from our great, retro-rocking neighbor to the north. Toronto-based Deadly Snakes explored the seamier, grittier side of the British invasion, generating their own appealingly sloppy, John Mayal/Eric Burdon-and-the-Animals-influenced blues-rock bombs. A gap-toothed frontman in a stretched white T-shirt slurred his way through vocals as the band drowned out the oblivious horn section and an emaciated keyboardist. The band had personality to spare. Somebody call John Waters.
Openers Paranoid Lovesick's 1-4-5 pop rock didn't really cling to any musical period over the last thirty years, but alluded, perhaps, to the pop of the early '90s. Maybe Matt Sweet. Refreshing, but low-cal.
The advertisements for Thursday's Warren Zevon concert should have read "No earplugs required." Zevon, one of rock's most astute and acerbic social commentators, stripped down the show, standing alone on the stage and accompanying himself first with an acoustic guitar and later an electric piano. The Chicago native took the crowd on a ninety-minute, fifteen-song stroll down his own warped memory lane.
Zevon noted that, for the second half of his life, he wanted to be a folk singer. Unfortunately, he added, he didn't realize there was so much tuning involved. "It's kind of like a kid who wants to be an astronaut. They don't tell you you have to shit through a keyhole," he quipped. Gone was the excitable boy. He was replaced by a mellow, laid-back yet cynical folkie, kind of like a jaded John Denver, had John Denver ever realized that life sucks. Zevon dedicated "Mr. Bad Example" to the president, and several minutes later introduced another song by saying, "It always puts a spring in my step to sing about heroin addiction, poverty, and death."
Because an acoustic show lacks the flash and brash of a rock concert, Zevon had to contend with the crowd's minimal attention span. "I can tell you're having your own crises back there, but you'll like it better if you can hear it," he told the chatterboxes in the back, whose conversations frequently were loud enough to be heard over Zevon's fingerpicking.
Those who felt that buying a ticket gave them carte blanche to talk with their friends missed a good show. Zevon began and ended the night with songs from his 1978 hit album Excitable Boy, opening with "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" and closing with "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." In between, he regaled the five hundred attendees with a variety of tunes spanning his thirty-year career. Besides playing his own hits, Zevon showcased several songs of his made famous by others, including "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" and "Carmelita," both of which have been covered by Linda Ronstadt, and the latter also recently recorded by Dwight Yoakam. He even threw in a cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life." Although he joked that his career has all the promise of a "Civil War leg wound," Zevon demonstrated that he does indeed have staying power.
Thursday's show was a make-up for a late January concert, which Zevon canceled because of illness. He added that he was still a bit under the weather, but when he said that he drove to Cleveland "at great personal peril," the audience roared its thanks. His two-song encore began with "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" and ended with "Werewolves of London," which had everyone on their feet and "ah-whoo-ing" right along.
Opening act Amy Rigby likewise had to deal with the louder-than-thou crowd. While the New York City transplant did not exactly set the stage on fire with her 45-minute, ten-song set, she clearly won over a few converts among Zevon's devotees, most of whom had probably never even heard of her. ("Amy who?" the fellow next to me kept asking.) Rigby, also performing with acoustic guitar only, played material mostly from her new album, Middlescence, although she also threw in a few from her debut, Diary of a Mod Housewife. It was a hot-and-cold set, with her introspective, he-done-me-wrong songs--which constitute about half of Rigby's repertoire--tending to lose the audience's attention, while her uptempo tunes about the hassles of mundane life had them clapping along. Rigby brought new meaning to the term "working musician," as she concluded her set by noting that she had to drive back to New York overnight so she could get to her day job. That's dedication.