Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Concert Review - Guster @ Kresge Auditorium, Interlochen, Michigan

Tuesday, July 25 @ 9 PM

Another Guster concert, and another great show. I was especially excited for this show for a couple of reasons. First, it followed the release of the new album, "Ganging Up On The Sun", that was released on June 20. And second, the opening act was Ray Lamontagne (click here for my earlier post, a review of his album Trouble).

The venue was very cool. Interlochen is a performing arts academy located a few miles southwest of Traverse City. Kresge Auditorium is an outdoor pavilion located right on the water at Green Lake. The setting sun over the lake on a fair summer evening provided a magnificent back drop for the show.

Another band , The Fruit Bats, were on first. I hadn’t heard anything by them before, but I enjoyed their set, and I am looking forward to getting some of their music for further listening.

Ray LaMontagne was next, and as you probably know by now through my lauding of his debut album, I am a big fan of this artist. I was curious as to how his music would translate to a live performance, but any reservations I may have had were immediately erased with he started singing. For me, the highlights of his set were the unaccompanied encore (yes, he did an encore as an opening act) of “Burn” and the full band version of “Hold You In My Arms”, with emphasis and power added by heavier percussion in the chorus.

Guster opened rather unassumingly with “I Spy”, but don’t take that to mean it was unimpressive. That’s the thing about Guster. When they play it straight ahead, it’s great. And when they alter it or try something new, it’s better.

Here’s the set list:
I Spy
Barrel of a Gun
Airport Song
One Man Wrecking Machine
Ruby Falls
Manifest Destiny
Great Escape
Hang On
Fa Fa
Beginning of the End
Come Downstairs and Say Hello

I was getting nervous that my favorite Guster tune wasn’t going to make the list, but I was relieved to hear the opening bars of “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” as the last song of the evening. If I am ever forced to make a list of the only 5 songs I can listen to for the rest of my life, “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” would be on it, and coming from a guy with almost 14,000 songs in his iTunes library, that’s a powerful endorsement.

I love the new album, and the new songs did not disappoint. For the trumpet solo at the end of “Ruby Falls”, Guster invited a student from Interlochen to play the part, and I gotta say, the kid nailed it. “One Man Wrecking Machine” was better than it was in Cincinnati back in April, I think maybe because they had some more time to work on it. I felt a sense of encouragement during “Hang On” that I hadn’t gotten from the CD. “Captain” was a little heavier than the album version, and I liked the difference.

Hearing a Guster CD is always cool, but seeing them live really gives you a feel for what the songs are supposed to be like. I always hear the songs differently after a show, and to me, the hallmark of a great band is one that can not only offer something new in a live performance, but can also change your perception of the song while doing it.

Guster. Great on CD. Greater in concert.

I’m out-

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Album Review - Ray LaMontagne, "Trouble" (2004)

First off, why am I reviewing an album that’s been out for 2 years? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, I was only recently made aware of this remarkable record a few weeks ago, and second, his new album will be released August 29, 2006, so I thought it timely.

So, how did I chance across this album? I was purchasing tickets to see Guster again (see this earlier post about their show at Xavier) and I saw that Ray LaMontagne was the opening act. I had never heard of Lamontagne, so I did some research to try to hear some of his music before the show. What I discovered was not only an amazing album, but an even more amazing story.

LaMontagne was working in a shoe factory in Maine and awoke one morning at 4 AM to the sounds of “Tree Top Flyer” by Stephen Stills. It proved to be a strange epiphany, because even though he had never played or sang or wrote music, he was so moved by the song that he quit his job to begin a music career. He taught himself to play and sing (”from the gut” he says, and “not through the nose”) and recorded a demo tape. One thing led to another, and he ended up in the studio where it took just 2 weeks to record Trouble. Click here for the full story about Ray.

The opening title track sets the tone with phrases like “trouble been doggin’ my soul since the day I was born” and “worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone”. Life isn’t perfect, and even when it seems like it is, worry has a way keeping a check and balance on you.

“Shelter” tells of the power of love to hurt as well as to heal, as in these phrases:

“It’s not like we planned it
You tried to stay, but you could not stand it
To see me shut down slow, as though it was an easy thing to do”


“I left you heartbroken, but not until those very words were spoken
Has anybody ever made such a fool out of you
It’s hard to believe it , even as my eyes do see it
The very things that make you live are killing you”

Instances of pain, which are then followed by a promise to persist and overcome in these words:

“Listen, when all of this around us’ll fall over,
I tell you what we’re gonna do
You will shelter me my love, I will shelter you”

“Jolene” delivers the emotional knockout punch, the lament of a man who endures detachment through his own faults and his reluctance to be vulnerable.

“Been so long since I seen your face,
or felt a part of this human race,
A man needs something he can hold onto,
a nine pound hammer or a woman like you,
Either of these things will do.
I ain’t about to go straight, it’s too late,
Still don’t know what love means”

The music is pure. LaMontagne doesn’t rely on studio tricks and post-mixing to create his sound. The sound is reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Moondance album, or the early Stills albums that served as his inspiration. There are string arrangements, as well as a guest appearance by Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, that add to the sound without ever being more than just noticable. But the voice is the highlight here - always strong, even when quiet, and never out of control or beyond his range. There is a pain in his voice that suits the melancholy of the music, and when combined, create a truly unique and remarkable listening experience.

The appeal of Trouble is that it’s real. It’s believable. It isn’t full of hollow gestures and empty promises like “forever” and “till the end of time”, because those things aren’t possible. Sometimes life deals a bad hand. Sometimes love ends, and sometimes it’s your fault. The songs tell stories of things that can happen to people, and more than likely, have happened to you.

The songs on Trouble draw from the difficult experiences of his life, wrought with emotion and honesty. The words are deep, and the music is complex, but the songs - hearing them is pure and simple intimacy. I must recommend a “beginning to end” approach for initial listening, because the appeal lies in the power to capture you for 45 minutes, and remains in the lingering of the notes in your mind long after the quiet ending of the final track. Revel in the silence that will follow “All the Wild Horses” to appreciate what you’ve just heard.

I’m out-