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Semisonic
Remy Zero
Odeon
February 8

Semisonic appears to know it is a card-carrying member of the one-hit wonder club. Tuesday's show at the Odeon was the perfect opportunity for the upbeat trio to show off talents larger than "Closing Time," the 1998 hit that made them wondrous. Unfortunately, they revealed their flaws instead.

Swaying between moments of grandeur and boredom, Semisonic lacked the electricity the band showed at its surprise attack performance opening for the Barenaked Ladies at Gund Arena last October. What's the difference between being an opener and a headliner? A longer set, and Semisonic had plenty of filler to offer.

Singer/guitarist Dan Wilson--a dead ringer for actor/comedian Andy Dick--pulled the band down a safe musical path with his happy guitar riffs. Though the band attempted bluesy intros ("California"), extended jams ("If I Run"), and acoustic-ballad rock ("Completely Pleased"), its Top 40 sound and limited abilities were difficult to overcome. Sure, some threesomes have the ability to sound like a five-piece. But from start to finish, Semisonic was--good or bad--a trio. Multitalented drummer Jacob Slichter often doubled as keyboardist, using one arm to keep the beat while playing a small keyboard adjacent to his drum kit. Although Slichter's abilities are commendable, one might ask if the band wouldn't have been better served hiring an extra musician.

A few tracks stood out--the hypnotic "Secret Smile," the playful "Singing in My Sleep"--the ones that didn't find the band departing guitar pop for new territory. In particular, the loose "Never You Mind," in which Wilson traded his guitar for an electric piano, had a Ben Folds Five covering Todd Rundgren feel. Yuck. Even the inclusion of two covers--Prince's "Erotic City" and Split Enz's "I Got You"--lacked magic. As for "Closing Time," there was little deviation between studio and stage. Straight-ahead simplicity may work in an arena, but it's tedious in an intimate setting.

Opening band Remy Zero filled its set with entangled guitar layers, tribal drum beats, and commanding vocals. The band displayed the intensity of early U2, the orchestrations of Radiohead, and the moodiness of R.E.M. Lead singer Cinjun Tate's majestic voice and his band's self-confidence bode well for the future.

--John Benson

Strangefolk
Granville
Peabody's DownUnder
February 10

Pleasantly accessible these folks were. And not very strange at all. As the band freely admits, Strangefolk finds its models and inspirations in the folk rock of the '70s, with a little jam band-style improvisation and complex chordage thrown in for modern flavor. However, the Me decade was a musically diverse time; there were practically as many styles of rock as there were stations on the radio dial. Not limiting itself to one particular aspect, Strangefolk finds inspiration in much of it. The results were mixed.

The opener, "Elixir," melded smooth, easy melodies and a country-ish sound with comforting unison vocals of guitarists Jon Trafton and Reid Genauer, and bassist Erik Glockler--somewhat like Crosby, Stills & Nash. Another particularly strong, woodsy, folk rock tune, "Alaska," showed off the band at its most confident and tuneful. Unlike many jam bands on the circuit, on tunes like "Alaska" the band kept song structures intact and even bolstered them with organic soloing.

"Alaska" also showed Strangefolk at its not-so-best. A chugging, directionless interlude marred the otherwise enjoyable song and revealed the band's weakness for hard rock excess. At this and other times during the performance, the band threw away the unpretentious, mellow mood it had established and contented itself with drone. A successful album cut, "Roads" in concert was long and winding. A pinprick accent gave other songs a sound not unlike the better, folkier Grateful Dead, but on "Roads" Trafton's wah-wah pedal work rather conjured a quick-inflate Peter Frampton.

The true Strangefolk were the Strangefans. Special recognition to the guy who shared his enthusiastic opinion with me several songs running ("I'm not trying to influence you or anything"), to the drugged-up guys who kept falling off of bar stools, and to the guy who tried to pilfer my notes while I was in the bathroom ("I just wanted to see what you thought of the band"). The concert wouldn't have been the same without you.

Opener Granville shared Strangefolk's interest in the less jammy side of jam bands, often concentrating on the more conventional side of songwriting and performing. The trio, including Len Kastlic on drums, Justin Maynor on guitar, and Tim Polak on bass, showed some promise and generated a few sparks. Nevertheless, their music, heavy in country shuffle and '70s hard rock, had a stiffness to it, revealing the limitations of a band early in its development.

--Aaron Steinberg

The Nields
Finney Chapel, Oberlin College
February 13

A fact familiar to Nields fans: Guitarist David took his wife Nerissa's last name when he married her. An overlooked Nields fact: Not only are there three Nields in the band (David, guitarist/singer Nerissa, and sister/lead singer Katryna), there are also three Davids (the aforementioned, David Chalfant on bass, and David Hower on drums). If it weren't for that core of Nields sisters, the band could just as easily have been named the Davids. A most representative name would have been the David Nields, but it might have gone to his shiny, shaved head.

In any case, three Nields and three Davids converged on stage at Finney Chapel Saturday night, and though they didn't quite add up to six, they added up to more than a great concert. It was representative of a habit Oberlin has developed of late; the college manages regularly to attract some of the best penumbra-dwelling musicians on tour and, once they get them on campus, treat them right. Saturday with the Nields was no exception. By the Nields' own estimation, more people came out to see them than had in all of their previous Ohio concerts put together. And, by the third song or so, a fair number of that significant crowd had given up their seats in favor of aisle and balcony dancing.

Most of the excitement in concert, as on the recordings, is derived from the Nields sisters. On stage, the personalities contrasted--gangly, flaky Katryna strutted about the stage, arms flailing, as stately, sober Nerissa strummed away on her acoustic--but their vocals complemented each other beautifully. A good sound system and just-right acoustics allowed the sisters' distinctive warbling and their yodel-like inflections to shine. Their hummingbird voices darted and converged, swooped and soared.

But don't think the Nields begin and end with vocals. Starting out as a folk outfit, the band began slipping David Nields's edgy electric guitar, Chalfant's heavy bass lines, and Hower's aggressive drumming in under the sisters' vocals and the conversational, appealingly rambling lyrics. In time, the band moved away from conventional folk and developed its signature sound: an upbeat rock/folk hybrid that defies easy categorization, but approaches something like the Breeders on granola. It's the perfect high-energy accompaniment to natural lighting and hardwood floors, back porches, and coffee cups.

The best of all this sounded bigger and better live, as the fivesome fed more and more into the audience's positive reaction. Between jokes and plenty of animated banter, the Nields performed inflamed versions of older songs such as "Bulletproof," "Best Black Dress," and "Cowards." Their latest album, Play, sounds a little submerged compared with earlier recordings, but new songs "Georgia O" and "Snowman" sparkled.

One minor regret: Raging versions of "Check It Out" and favorite cover "Lovely Rita" were played about two-thirds of the way through the set. The concert reached its pinnacle prematurely, despite a not-shabby-at-all encore of "Gotta Get Over Greta" and Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome, I Could Cry." Again, a minor regret.

--Steinberg

Bob Dylan
Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Columbus
February 10

It isn't, you get the idea after a while, about the music anymore. It's about icon worship, and if the music is there, so much the better. A Bob Dylan concert in 1999 is a final outpouring of thanks, a chance to spend two hours with perhaps the most identifiable music figure of the 1960s. Thirty years down the line, Dylan's Buddha-like status can still raise hairs on the back of your neck with the simple enunciation of a line, and he certainly gets mileage out of it. Yet Dylan's (career-long) reputation as a hit-or-miss live performer seemed to matter to few in the packed Vets Coliseum this evening.

The Dylan geeks (and there were many of them on hand) were piping up after the opening "You Gotta Serve Somebody," followed by the unexpected, excellent "Simple Twist of Fate." "He's on tonight, boy!" shouted the office manager-by-day. After so many rancorous, shitty Dylan experiences, he was clueing us in that tonight, you lucky fools, Dylan was about to bestow upon us a rare moment of clarity that brings it all back home. Tonight, he was going to live up to the myth.

In the end, though, the clarity got muddled, and the initial rush--that, by any standards, 1969 or 1999, was smoldering hot--fizzled into a mediocre pile of noodly jam-rock. Among the highlights: "My Back Pages" took on a completely chilling aura, given Dylan's near-senior citizen status; "Girl From the North Country" was only missing Johnny Cash's vocal interludes; and "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," although lyrically contorted at times beyond recognition (as has been his prerogative throughout his live career), surged with a strength and familiarity that made the crowd howl in appreciation.

Although Dylan's stage setup (lead guitar, drums, bass, pedal steel) is a stripped-down thing of beauty in theory, in practice, his band of noodle-ronis destroyed any singular lyrical or poetic power Dylan's songs at one time possessed. (Listening to Dylan's just-released live Royal Albert Hall '66 with the Hawks--later the Band--tends to distort a view.) Dylan's Fabio-esque lead guitar player consumed every available nanosecond with his scorching axemastery; his hackneyed, guitar-store-employee ridiculousness brought on a sense of dread at the onset of every solo passage. Other low moments: Dylan has a long-standing tradition of playing Grateful Dead songs in concert, which is fine, but "Friend of the Devil" is best left to open stages across the world on Monday nights. Not to leave the pandering alone, the Dead-on encore of "Not Fade Away" got long-grieving Deadheads spinning into a frenzy.

Dylan's forgetting of a complete verse in "Mr. Tambourine Man" was a little awkward, but not nearly as bad as the go-nowhere solos that did little more than fill out the contracted performance time (a "Tangled Up in Blue" that lasted nearly fifteen minutes?). For the first time ever, a medley--"hooked on Dylan"--would have been a welcome interruption.

--Jerry Dannemiller

More by John Benson

More by Aaron Steinberg

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