John Gorka kicked off his two-hour performance at the Highland Theatre with "New Jersey," a song that had the best chance of being recognized. Afterward he explained that he always starts off with that song for the "new people."
"You know, the people who might not have come here of their free will, maybe to placate a loved one," he said, and the audience roared.
But then, the song has a special appeal here, because of the line "I'm from New Jersey/It's like Ohio/but even more so."
"I like to come to Ohio because it seems like people work for a living here and they make things,"he said. "I go to other cities and see all these great buildings but I always think, 'What do they actually do here.'"
Gorka is a master at plopping chunks of raw meat and potatoes into the soup of sentiment, as in one of his songs inspired by becoming a dad, an experience he shared freely with the audience: "He looks just like an angel when he's sleeping/But he looks like Charles Bronson when he cries."
Gorka had no set list, saying he was taking "mental requests" through telepathy. This new style was a compromise between two failed experiments: "For a while I had all my songs rehearsed before the show, but that got too slick and Las Vegas," he said. "So I went too far the other way into chaos. I played songs I didn't know, or songs that I wrote but didn't remember."
The audience had reason to be satisfied with the number of "hits" he played: "Semper Fidelis," a poetic ode to his father; "Where the Bottles Break," an angry cry against gentrification; and "St. Caffeine," a "religious" song about giving one's mind over to the legal stimulant. The only disappointment was the absence of "Italian Girls" and "You're Out of My Mind."
Midway through the concert Gorka sat down at the keyboard and went back to songs that were more in the protest tradition of folk, lacking the irony he apparently gained with wisdom. "Milltown," from his first album, was a somber portrait of urban blight, and "Houses in the Fields" a dirge to farmers who were forced to sell to developers.
"Those two really evoke the party atmosphere for which my music is known," he said as he returned to his guitar.
Gorka ended with a treat: a duet with second-billed Dee Carstenson on the seasonal "Gloria in Excelcius Deo" and "Feet Don't Touch the Ground." Carstenson's beautiful soprano complemented his resonant baritone.
Carstenson was received as enthusiastically as Gorka, and she deserved it. With a crystal-clear, soulful voice not unlike Sarah McLachlan's, she sang poignant ballads about love, heartache, and inspiration. Carstenson and her twelve-string guitarist and conga drummer played a spirited but soothing 45-minute set. Alternating between a hammered dulcimer and a Celtic harp, she proved herself as adept a musician as a vocalist. Both musicians sang background, harmonizing beautifully.
WKSU-FM's collaboration with the Highland for the show was an undisputed success (the crowd of 800 well-exceeded expectations) that, God willing, will lead to more concerts in the future. Although the house was designed for showing movies, the acoustics were more than adequate, and the seating was so comfortable you felt like you were, well, at the movies.
While the lobby and concession stand might be a rock concert disaster (bags of popcorn were being sold), they were perfect for the NPR crowd.
--Sarah E. Tascone
Dana 60 and the Pistol Grips
It's been almost five months since Unwritten Law played Nautica as part of the Vans Warped tour. The packed Grog Shop is a step down from the thousands that attended that event; it was a step up from the band's Cleveland gig before fifty people at the Euclid Tavern two years ago.
Unwritten Law's brand of SoCal punk, combining razor-edged guitar riffs, clockwork drumming, and addictive lyrics, packed enough energy to power a small town. Die-hard fans sang along with every word as if they wrote the songs themselves. How young was the crowd? A cover of the Clash's "Guns of Brixton" left all but a few knowledgeable souls to stare and wonder if this was a new song.
"This is the last night of our tour so we'll play anything you want. We don't give a fuck!" belted anxious singer Scott Russo, "We'll play for five hours, we don't give a shit!" Russo later added. The band didn't play for five hours, but it strayed from the set list and played several requests from the audience, among them "Superman," the band's unofficial hit.
At most punk shows, the band's musical styles are such that by the end of the evening your ears are worn and all the songs mesh together. Not the case here. Kent's Nimrods took the Lookout! Records style and gave it a twist with songs about self-gratification, a cover of Kiss's "Rock and Roll All Nite," and the popular "I'm Too Lazy For Anarchy." Dana 60 and the Pistol Grips' hyper-speed reflects an earlier, less mainstream punk. Canton's Spare Change? kicked off the evening with three chords, catchy lyrics, and good songs--quite possibly the best thing to come out of Canton since you know who.
Metal Symphony of Darkness
As my companion and I pulled into the parking lot of the small Lorain nightclub Flying Machine, I could somehow sense trouble. "No offense to this club," I remarked as we turned the headlights off, "but a band like Enuff Z'Nuff has to have a tough time coming here when by all rights they should be headlining the Gund."
There are nights when you don't want to be proved right.
Akron's Shock Cinema opened festivities with a nine-song set of wave-your-mane pop metal that barely escaped the basement practice room. Next up were Metal Symphony of Darkness, whose musicianship (particularly the new drummer) was far superior but who ultimately sounded like someone who'd commandeered open mike night at a Metallica karaoke gig.
Last up was Akron's way of saying, "We don't make tires or decent rock and roll anymore," Wycked Heart. Its stupid, pandering, profane set of rock retreads was rewarded with absolutely no audience reaction--despite the lead singer's assurances of how "we're gonna fuckin' party tonight!"
Around 1 a.m. Enuff Z'Nuff took the stage. The illicit love child of Van Halen and the Beatles, the alchemy of peace, love, whimsy, Marshalls, and spandex, it was the closest thing to owning a fixed lottery ticket for fans of hard rock and pop.
Then it changed.
Whether it was lead singer Chip Z'Nuff's decision to react to an unsatisfactory cover version of "Time to Let You Go" or his sudden career decision to bring ball juggling to the stage, it became obvious that whatever he'd ingested prior to showtime was starting to kick in and the rest of the evening would be a crapshoot under Vegas rules.
It started innocently enough, as a rocking version of "Ain't That a Shame" segued into a snippet from "Your Baby Loves You" and laid in wait during cool versions of "I'm Stoned" and Beatles covers "Come Together" and "In My Life." What became inescapable to the audience was evident far earlier onstage as guitarist Jon Monaco held a sign, vividly referring to Z'Nuff's mental state. What followed was a spitting and baiting contest between Z'Nuff and Monaco. Z'Nuff alternated between surprisingly strong (under the circumstances) performances and vulgar beratings of the audience.
The other guys in the band tried to shepherd Z'Nuff off for the night, only to have him state that he's playing something solo. He launched into a woozy take on "If I Lose You" and was rejoined by his now long-suffering bandmates for the Zeppelin-like "Coming Down" and "High on a New Thing," which had to have reminded him of better times at the beginning of the decade.