When there are 10,000 of them, what's the difference, give or take one maniac? In the case of 10,000 Maniacs, it's obvious. It appears the Buffalo, New York, band still hasn't gotten over the departure of Natalie Merchant. About an hour into its set, I had to remind myself I wasn't watching a cover band; this was supposedly the real thing.
You have to give the Maniacs credit for continuing, even though Merchant jumped ship (their second album without Natalie is due out next month). However, their lack of exploration and maturation since her departure is despicable. Sure, new female lead Mary Ramsey can sing, but she often sounds more like Merchant than Merchant herself--with a potent, soothing voice that jumps between cajoling and pacifying.
The addition of Ramsey and original Maniac John Lombardo--he quit in 1985 and eventually formed a duet with Ramsey before returning--has neither added to nor subtracted significantly from the band's lite-rock stylings. Lombardo's mostly acoustic guitar playing was spineless, as was the majority of the band's performance. Lombardo's stage presence resembled actor Peter Lorre experiencing an epileptic seizure.
While the set mostly included newer Ramsey material, such as the languid cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This" and the stiff "Rainy Day," the band did satisfy the crowd with Natalie-era hits. "Candy Everybody Wants" and "These Are Days" were played verbatim from the disc. Anyone not in attendance--150 die-hard fans showed up--didn't miss a thing. The same simple strumming guitar, barely audible organ, and tight rhythm section that the Maniacs so delicately captured on disc constituted the stage show. Packed neatly behind Ramsey's voice, there was very little room for solos, extended jams, or anything else. For those who wondered whether Merchant was the band or vice versa, this lackadaisical performance placed Natalie in the driver's seat and the rest of the band clearly in the back.
The night began with the local Mike Farley Band, which put on an incredible set of southern-based acoustic rock. Farley's clear, pleasant voice was backed by a potent band that hit the driving melodies, electric Allman Brothers-lite solos, and precise backup vocals associated with bands like Sister Hazel. The set was marred by frequent cliches--"She's walking right out that door"--as the band bounced between ballads and rockers. But as far as local talent is concerned, a focused Farley could go some distance.
Up next was the wrong-place, wrong-time Jeannie Stearns. Along with an electric guitar player, Stearns offered up haunting folk songs while strumming her acoustic guitar for a crowd that couldn't have cared less. She sang gentle notes, which sounded more like moans, and her introspective stage presence took the concentration of a chess master to follow. The set was disrupted by the bartender, who constantly rang his cowbell. Don't tip the bartender at Peabody's if you want intimacy.
Cleveland Music Hall
Rusted Root, the best thing to come out of Pittsburgh since, well, ever, brought its musical melange to Cleveland Music Hall Friday night. It was less a concert, though, and more of a big family reunion, with 2,700 members of the tribe, as the band calls its fans. Leading off with the rhythm-heavy "Laugh at the Sun," Rusted Root set the tone early on, with four of the band's six members playing percussive instruments, promising an evening of dance beats. The band held up its end of the bargain, as the energetic hour-and-45-minute show had everyone on their feet for nearly the entire night. Well, some of the tribe elders remained seated. But they've earned the right.
Rusted Root drew mainly from its 1994 Mercury debut, When I Woke, although a number of songs from its latest album, Rusted Root, also made their way into the set. The band rarely made direct contact with the audience. Heck, frontman Michael Glabicki didn't even say hello until after the sixth number. Instead, the band let the music do the talking. And it was eloquent, with several members frequently switching between rhythm, string, and wind instruments. In fact, it almost became a contest to see who could play the most instruments. Flautist John Buynak won, contributing on the penny whistle, flute, guitar, mandolin, and various rhythm instruments; guitarist Liz Berlin gets extra credit for playing a washboard and spoons.
Principal songwriter Glabicki--who looks like, and at times sounds like, the late Michael Hutchence of INXS--handled most of the lead vocals, although Berlin and bassist Patrick Norman took their turns as well. Along with their own kinetic tunes, the band showcased the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which, with the addition of road crew members Jeff Lawrence and "Flappy" John Stovicek, featured a five-guitar front. They also slipped Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" into the middle of "Cat Turned Blue."
The band closed out the set in dynamite fashion. They led off with "Back to the Earth," which had the tribe joining in on the haunting Native American-sounding "He-ey-ah" chant. That song melted into a ten-minute drum solo, which made use of, among other things, two aluminum trash cans. Norman scampered around the stage, first joining percussionist Jim DiSpirito at his kit, then lending a hand to drummer Jim Donovan. Glabicki then rejoined the crew for a rousing "Martyr."
The audience called the band back for what proved to be an unusual encore, beginning with an acoustic number, "Extreme," sung by Donovan. The solemn mood continued with "Beautiful People," which ended with the lights dimming to the a cappella fade-out. Rusted Root then closed the night with its biggest hit to date, "Send Me on My Way," which proved to be an apropos send-off.
Nicholas Payton Quintet
Cleveland Museum of Art
Nothing too fancy from Mr. Nicholas Payton: He and his quintet shot straight and from the hip. Sticking mostly to material from previous albums--primarily from the recent Payton's Place--the group didn't play anything all that far out--with the possible exception of Wayne Shorter's "Paraphernalia." But in the case of Payton--who makes no excuses for his traditionalism--the sheer excitement of his group made the concert more than worthwhile.
Already a top trumpet man at age 24, Payton has had plenty of time to branch out, and he showed a bit of new growth on his reworked Stylistics tune "People Make the World Go Round." Still very recognizable, the song held up well to Payton's subtle chord trade-ups and reworks. That '70s excursion was the temporal exception. For most of the night, Payton slipped between the sounds of the '30s, '40s, and '50s with considerable skill. On the opener, a Payton original titled "Zigaboogaloo," Payton and tenor player Tim Warfield rode out a bounding piano and hopping bass, just like a vintage Hank Mobley/Lee Morgan summit. In hard-bop heaven, they left no room for squares; Payton's horn blazed, and then Warfield's, like Mobley's, contrasted with the foggier sound.
Payton impressed most on the ballads, where his breathy tone took on a pastel sound. He growled and half-valved his way through a particularly fun version of Armstrong's "Wild Man Blues" and kicked around the warhorse "Stardust" with long opening and closing cadenzas.
Payton outdistanced the slightly phlegmatic Warfield for most of the night--up until the final few tunes. Warfield's penchant for solos with slow, staggering beginnings took a bit of getting used to, but, like his solos, his performance built to a terrific crescendo by the end of the night. His squawking, Lester Young-style horn work could not be contained. Quickly thereafter--the last tune--Payton closed the gap, trading incendiary twos and fours with Adonis Rose, the testosteroned drummer, but Warfield edged him out with his 32 bars of true grit.
Special mention to Rose, who looked a little like a young Tony Williams, but sounded more like Art Blakey. His unabashedly assertive, cadence-and-march-style drumming gave the group the occasional classic Jazz Messengers likeness, especially on "Whoopin' Blues." His contributions, every bit as much as Warfield's and Payton's, defined the group's New Orleans neo-trad sound. Unfortunately, sound problems troubled the concert. Between the two frontline horns and the up-front drumming, Peter Martin's bright piano and Duane Burno's bass lines sometimes got lost in the din.
By the time Mephiskapheles hit the stage, Inspector 7 had already turned the Grog Shop into a sweatshop. Any energy lost during the set change was quickly regained when the band rocked and bopped the crowd-pleasing "Bumble Bee Tuna Song." From there, the rapid-fire, one-two-three, punk-style sonic assault of "Two Trains," "Break Your Ankle Punk," and "Rank and File" kept the energy going, the feet moving, and the bodies surfing. Throughout its set, Meph flexed considerable musical muscle; the sounds pogoed and moshed with punk, grooved and flowed with ska/reggae, and ripped and churned with heavy guitar riffs--sometimes all in one song. Even a Latin/salsa vibe worked its way into some songs, but everything was grounded by the tight rhythm section.
Lead singer the Grand Invidious (a.k.a. the Nubian Nightmare) kept the between-song banter to a few shout-outs ("Yo, what's up Grog Shop?!"). Singing along with the dedicated souls at the front of the stage, he seemed to enjoy himself. He did seem a little detached, but I guess if you're members of a satanic ska band, you're allowed to have other things on your mind. The music was loud, fast, aggressive, melodic, funky, and, well ...good.
Opening act Inspector 7 hit the stage with some band members wearing S&M masks and black stockings over their heads. "Sleeping With the Enemy," "Sharky 17," and "H.C.S. (Hub City Stompers)" were greeted with pumping and inebriated, heartfelt shouts of "Oi!" The band did a brilliant cover of "One Step Beyond" by Madness. The highlight, however, was when Skooch, the tenor saxophonist, performed "Stiff Proposition," a hardcore porn song about, well, his cock. His half-joking attempt to seduce female groupies unfortunately failed; he did get a guy to flash him.
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