A rhythm-and-blues prodigy, George Benson was first known for his voice. He later honed his guitar chops to the point that singing became window dressing, the music of his youth a footnote.
Not that Benson hasn't made peace with that bargain decades ago, but his performance at Cain Park Monday night was a case of addition by subtraction. Gone (largely) were his recordings of any era but two decades ago. Any pretensions to "serious" jazz, such as interpretations of approved standards or subtle brush strokes and less-obvious accents, were not to be found. In its place was an alchemy of butt-wagging, sing-along song choices that pulled nearly exclusively from a five-year period when Benson felt less conflicted about reconciling his peerless instrumental talents with the relatively trivialbut no less funaspects of pop music. To his credit, Benson seemed to have enjoyed the compromise.
No fan of George Benson the pop musician could have failed to enjoy the show's set list, and the overflow crowd lapped it up. Opening with a "What's Goin' On" rhythmic recasting of "Breezin'," he led his tight six-piece band through such favorites as "Love X Love," "Turn Your Love Around," "Give Me the Night," "The Greatest Love," and "This Masquerade."
It should be mentioned that Benson is still one of the greatest jazz guitarists in history, and throughout the good-natured mugging and hamming it up he proved it, effortlessly improvising and scatting at a level that is still a veritable textbook of the genre. Some might quibble about the setting, but a diamond is still a diamond.
Ever the showman, Benson whipped on a pair of Ray Charles shades for "Georgia on My Mind," and later did a spot-on imitation of Nat King Cole doing "Unforgettable" followed by an impression of Natalie Cole performing the same song. Coming back out in a black smoking jacket for an extended version of "On Broadway" as an encore, he had to know that he was sending the crowdwhich included a four-foot-something, white-haired lady, swaying in her pantsuithome happy. Heck, even she got it.
Openers One Wish entertained the incoming audience with a Kenny-Spyro-Rippingtons set of empty calories. It was pleasant enough, but not sufficient to keep most listeners from conversing among themselves or downloading their day into a cell phone.Bill Gibb
Elvis Costello referred to his appearance at the Nautica Stage as "a little show." It was little only in the sense that Costello is traveling with one musician: Attraction Steve "Nieve" Nason on the keyboards and piano. Everything else was big. Costello and Nieve played a lengthy set that ended with an almost-as-lengthy encore. Elvis's voice was expansive, cradling the ballads and splitting the rockers. Hearts were big, too, as Costello displayed a tenderness for the material andegad!his audience that never bordered on schmaltz.
Costello's recorded output of recent years may be schizophrenic, but onstage he swung effortlessly between crooner and punk. While Costello dug deep into the Burt Bacharach songbook ("This House Is Empty," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"), it was an Elvis show. After an extended run through Burtland, Elvis introduced the next batch as "songs we wrote when we were young and impetuous." Elvis shed his acoustic guitar to sing a lovely version of "Temptation"; his right hand cut through the air on the accented notes, as if he were conducting himself. "Every Day I Write the Book" sounded as sweet today as it did in the '80s.
Fans of the angry, skinny-tied Costello might have looked at the spare stage with disappointment. His trademark Fender Jazzmaster was nowhere in sight. Actually, the acoustic setting seemed to liberate the rocker within. Costello turned "Uncomplicated" into a bluesy rumble, while encore numbers like "Watching the Detectives," "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding," and "Pump It Up" were not sagging nostalgia trips.
Bitterness, Costello seems to have learned, is a wasteful emotionand especially unbecoming in a 45-year-old man. Toward the end of the show, he joked that Pink Floyd, the Stones, and U2 like to tour with giant inflatables and television screens. All he ever wanted were sequined backup singers. "As for me," he said, "those girls still haven't showed up."
No, but he certainly did.David Martin
Wilbert's Bar & Grille
Before the show, a photographer snapped pictures of the shiny red, black, and white guitars posed on stage, ready to play, like action figures with swivel grip. Before long, Adrian Belew cut through the robust crowd and took the stage. Wearing a McDonald's drive-thru headset, a bright red baseball cap with the pony tail strung through the back, and an aim-to-please smile, the rocker looked like ballast dropped from the back of the Beach Boys' endless summer tour bus. Grabbing for the electric right off, Belew cut into a five-minute-long explosion of guitar histrionics somewhere between Eddie Van Halen's technique-laden masturbation and formless abstraction. Belew grinned and squinted. Belew rocked and bent at the knees. Belew made his guitar sound like a guitar superstore exploding.
Despite his somewhat marginal standing in the world of pop and rock, Belew has kept himself more than busy. In between his stints with other musicians and bandsBowie, Zappa, Laurie Andersen, and King Crimson, among themBelew churns out a steady stream of solo projects ranging uneasily between indulgent rock-rooted experimental tangents and uncomplicated, late '60s style rock. At Wilbert's, a solo Belew tried to pack in a bit of everything: tidy pop rock, King Crimson material, and more of that exploding guitars bit. It made for a schizophrenic, unsatisfactory night.
Belew devoted a fair portion of the concert to his half-baked experimental tunes, which seldom consisted of more than extended noodlingthe musical equivalent of weight lifting in the mirror. Though it filled out the sound, the addition of bland loops and drum machines only wrestled to the ground what little of Belew's tune was left standing.
Belew's proper songs ranged from banal ("117 Valley Drive") to the not bad at all ("Fly"). He even opened the set up for requests. A friendly gesture, though it did nothing to change the overall feel of the showan experience not unlike listening to a giant album of studio scraps and B-sides. Belew's technique was never in doubt, and in concert he showed what makes him such a valuable addition to other people's music. Unfortunately, he showed little else.Aaron Steinberg