Rufus Wainwright
Imogen Heap
March 31

While there may not be as much mainstream hype associated with this second generation singer/songwriter as there is with a Lennon or Dylan scion, Rufus Wainwright--the offspring of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle--showed the sparse Odeon crowd that his talents are distinctly his own. No living off of Mommy or Daddy's name here. He also made his libido well-known. "I just went to Boston and had an affair," he said. "Maybe I'll have one tonight. I'm such a whore."

Backed by a three-piece band, Wainwright paraded his unique voice out front with his piano a close second. He combines Gershwin and Porter with a pop awareness to paint masterpieces of love and despair. With Wainwright, diversity is the key. The first four songs of the set hopped genres like a Hollywood soundtrack. Wainwright got right to work with "Danny Boy," a piano-laced, crescendo-filled ditty where he hit all of the high notes. The Broadwayish "Matinee Idol" catered perfectly to the singer, allowing him to show off his vocal talents as he cascaded up and down the musical scales with ease.

Up next was the brooding "Damned Ladies," which conveyed an operatic structure over a simple melody. Wainwright, an obsessive opera fan, later quoted Verdi. When's the last time that happened at the Odeon? The quartet of songs finished with the unreleased folk-rocker "California," which actually seemed out of place among the other Tin Pan Alley tracks and ballads.

Wainwright's live sound wasn't masqueraded by strings or production trickery. His performance featured very little sunshine. "Baby" was transformed from an emotional catharsis into an honest glimpse into darkness and uncertainty; the somber "Barcelona" used Wainwright's draining vocals, gentle guitar strumming, and a death-march beat to create a devastating atmosphere of regret.

Opening the show was the young British singer Imogen Heap who, alone with an electric piano, showed the cozy crowd her tender, agitated state of being. Often compared to Kate Bush and Patti Smith, Heap is everything Fiona Apple strives to be: an intelligent artist with the musical aptitude to back it up. Her classically inspired piano playing easily surpasses Tori Amos's, and her sense of melody and strong vocal skills put her ahead of many others in her field. She does need some hair advice. Her Cher-looking 'do was parted in the middle and appeared to be missing something...like a comb.

--John Benson

The Rolling Stones
Johnny Lang
Gund Arena
April 1

For the Rolling Stones, a band that has visited more stadiums than most veteran sportswriters, this counts as slumming: a sold-out performance at Gund Arena, which seats, umm, only about 20,000 for concerts. Charging prices that would make even Streisand blanch, the Stones promised their legions an "intimate" show. No inflatable dolls, no pyro, no Jumbotron screens--just the band, up close and personal, if you've got the jack.

The cynic cries farce. A show at a venue with three decks and Beers of the World kiosks should never be called intimate. The fan reluctantly reads his credit-card number to the Ticketmaster operator. It may be the last chance, he mutters to himself, grudgingly reciting his expiration date. We're talkin' about the Stones here.

After Thursday's show, both the cynic and the fan could justify their positions. The cynic says that the band could have played songs one through eighteen from Exile on Main St., and it still would have been a rip-off. The fan says that he got to watch Keith Richards emerge from the black into the spotlight, strike the coolest pose in rock and roll, and pluck the opening chords of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" with Mick Jagger (oh yeah, that guy) trailing behind. There are worse ways to spike your Visa limit.

On a bare set and with a minimum of distractions, the Stones banged through the high moments of a catalog that stretches 35 years, more of them impossibly good than not. (If you don't think Voodoo Lounge is better than most of the rock records that have come out this decade, you didn't give the album a chance.) The Stones were at their best during the first half of the set, and not because of fatigue or the omnipresent threat of the need for EMTs with vials of adrenaline. After "Jumpin' Jack Flash," the Stones tore through unanticipated tracks like "Bitch," "Respectable," and "Some Girls." No Stones show circa 1990s can exceed expectations, but at least this one wouldn't pander horribly.

They looked great and sounded good. Mick, at 55, showed off a buffer tummy than most guys half his age. He pranced, preened, and executed his little moves--which every other man on the planet would look completely ridiculous attempting. Charlie Watts was dapper and solid behind the kit; I think he even smiled more than twice. Ron Wood, as he always does, gave a lesson in how not to be a dorky sideman. The "intimate" stage forced Keith to be something other than the wise-ass at the back of stage, tickling the horn players. "Before They Make Me Run," played during the requisite Keith portion of the show, was one of the evening's biggest thrills.

The Stones became more of an institution than a band as the night progressed. Must they have surrendered to the quickly weary cliche of a stripped-down mini-stage behind the soundboard? Was "Honky Tonk Women," boosted by a big-bootied black singer, necessary? Do "Midnight Rambler" and "Sympathy for the Devil" carry a whiff of the menace they once did? No, no, and no.

To see the Stones live is to appreciate how splendid they were, despite the drug use and supposed indifference, in the studio. Live, the greatest-hits sampling is impressive, but not especially entertaining. In a perfect world, the Stones would pull a Cheap Trick and host a four-night stand and play their best four albums straight through.

"Start Me Up," played third to last, showed how lasting the Stones have been. Tattoo You is considered a recent work. But it was released the year Reagan was shot--it's as if the Stones have been holding at middle age for eighteen years. Not a bad place to be.

Johnny Lang opened and, given the headliner, was of no consequence.
--David Martin

Jeff Beck
Paul Thorne
E.J.Thomas Hall
March 31

Remember the scrawny oddball loner in your high school and how everyone knew to leave him well enough alone and not pick a fight with him, because, well, he's crazy, and you don't know what he'll do? Cleveland had its thirtieth reunion of sorts with Hall of Fame misfit guitarist Jeff Beck, who showed that he hasn't mellowed a bit through his mid-fifties.

Taking the modestly decorated stage amid a tasteful light show, Beck and his band launched into "Mama Said" from his new album, Who Else? Who else indeed.

What followed was a thorough primer on nearly all of the somewhat underachieving album, complete with some surprising inclusions and omissions. Thrown in this year was an amazingly apropos version of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," with orchestral crescendos replaced by Beck's toolbox of feedback and whammy whinnies; out was the longtime fan favorite "Freeway Jam."

The show's highlight was "A Brush With the Blues"--a welcome respite from the techno-pop of much of Beck's new material--which served as a clinic on how to wrench every imaginable tone and effect out of a Stratocaster, literally with his bare hands (Beck hasn't used a pick in years).

There were also spots where Beck displayed his equally legendary melodic sense, as on the Celtic-sounding "Declan" and on one of his signature pieces, "'Cause We Ended as Lovers." But the biggest applause was reserved for pedal-to-the-floor numbers like the '70s faves "Led Boots" and "Blue Wind," the latter a free-for-all with second guitarist/MIDI controller Jennifer Batten. All the while, Beck looked and acted like a kid in a candy store--a mix of energy, humor, aggression, and showmanship that the crowd expected to see and got in spades. After all these years, the kid is nothing to mess with.

You have to have a good sense of the absurd to accept an opening gig with just an acoustic guitar, but Tupelo, Mississippi native Paul Thorne managed to entertain anyway. Probably had to do with the songs about Viagra, boxer Roberto Duran, trailer-park arsonists, and Jehovah's Witness strippers.

--Bill Gibb

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