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Jazz Explosion:
Will Downing
Gerald Albright
Vesta
Phil Perry
State Theatre
February 28

While jazz may not have been on anyone's mind--least of all the musicians--sex certainly was. Just about all the lyrics all night had to do with love or gettin' busy or something in between. And the music, often nothing more than syrupy synthesizer pop, almost always stuck to a strangely orgasmic structure. It goes like this, baby: The band sets an easy rhythm; a groove gets going; you work through a chorus, and things start to heat up. But then . . . stop. (Why you gotta tease me like that, baby?) The drummer hits a rim shot, the bassist slips back in, and everybody takes a deep breath. Here comes the groove again. And then the chorus. The heat's back and now so is the chorus; it keeps on going and going. Then the backup singers take over for (insert singer here), and you know it's just about over, 'cause someone's moaning and howling like a cat who missed that one special trip to the vet.

Of all the performers, sort-of headliner Will Downing was the least compelling moaner of them all. The other performers--working in the corner of urban contemporary (a music meant to be unobtrusive, smooth, soft, and low) as they do--seemed to have a better idea of what they needed to do in a live setting. They know that the reason people like their music is because it fills out the background with sexy sounds. But in concert, people face front. They're in public, and they can't take their clothes off. The music has to do more than just set a mood--it has to entertain. Of that, Downing did little.

Awash in synthesized orchestra swells and weighed down by soporific backbeats and his bedroom voice, Downing's music varied little from faceless '80s electro-pop. In fact, the instrumental intro to his first tune sounded like a lost Toto single. Only the occasional blue chord and melisma-heavy vocal delivery would clue a blindfolded concertgoer in to the fact that he might be at a late-'90s urban contemporary concert.

Downing's best moments came with the addition of Gerald Albright's sax. Albright assisted Downing on several songs, but also took a set for himself. During his turn, the concert came closest to an honest-to-goodness jazz threat--that is, not very. Albright's sax was, nevertheless, the most animated sound all night. The man showed some skill, mixing uptempo runs with squawks and the occasional tongue slap. And behind him, the everpresent band (which backed every performer) showed some life, pouring funk and recognizable gospel into the pop swamp. In the end, though, his playing was a disappointing triumph of style over substance. His acrobatics never amounted to much beyond showboating, and he never attempted to solo over anything but simple chordage. He rode his riffs so long and hard that they collapsed beneath him. He had to shoot 'em at the riverbank, still two days' ride from Kansas City.

Vesta's set plumbed the depths of '80s pop as fervently as Downing's, but she kept the audience's attention with vocal histrionics and a between-song stand-up routine. On "Somebody for Me," Vesta's throaty voice hung out in the lower registers, where it probably belonged. On "You Still Do It for Me," a high-volume bass shook the buttons off of shirts and pants, as Vesta forced her piercing, shaky voice into the upper register--not a particularly pleasant moment. She did manage a great Tina Turner impression and joked about her hair weave. It was a short set, but you got a few laughs and learned everything you possibly needed to know about Vesta's love life.

Opener Phil Perry may not have had the stand-up routine, but he did pack more falsetto into his eye-blink set than could a convention of eunuchs.

--Aaron Steinberg

Stacey Earle
Hillbilly Idol
Wilbert's Bar & Grille
February 24

On her promotional poster, Stacey Earle stands in the doorway of a peeling-paint shack, a big old suitcase in one hand, screen door in the other. Wearing dirty boots and a plain Jane dress, her hair pulled back and a searching expression in her eyes, Earle looks like a fried-green Martha Quinn--the kind of girl you would like to go back in time and date in high school. You didn't know how cool she was--now she's an alt-country princess, and you're an accountant.

Earle shattered that image with one line. Getting ready to perform her song "Simple Gearle" (the song that lends its name to the tour and album), she said, "This [song] ain't about girl power or nuthin'. It's about the simple things." As advertised, the song did stick to the simple things, as did most other songs. Just enough ambulatory bass lines and drawled vocals kicked the folk material over the country line. And, with a voice as pretty as hers could be, there certainly was appeal. But the down side was that there wasn't a dark side. Her music was harmless, lacking in edge, missing immediacy. Absent was the no-good, stinky, tragic hero who lives at the core of most good country and folk songs. Her comment set an agenda of uncomplicated, nice music. Those boots of hers were false advertising.

Earle's music superficially resembles that of Nanci Griffith--they both lend the same acquired taste, pinched soprano to finger-picked, acoustic guitar songs, and they both have a stronger tolerance for maudlin than most. But what set Earle apart from Griffith, or any of the really compelling folksters and country types, was an unhindered bounce to her music. All good intimate music makes the best of that intimacy and has a storyteller's eye for detail. It makes us feel sweaty, emotional, susceptible, fallible, human. Earle's somewhat introspective, plastic-red-and-white-checkered-tablecloth music seemed more appropriate for a hardwood-floored, naturally lighted house with a good security system. No one's gonna break in, and the counter's been sanitized--what's the problem?

Cleveland's Hillbilly Idol made sure that no alt slipped into their country. The band's whiskey-sippin' country sound didn't stay far from what's been recorded thousands of times, but in concert, Hillbilly Idol couldn't be beat. The five-man lineup (lap guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, and drum kit) must have spent plenty of time in lonely bars, because they sure know what it sounds like. They did get a little syrupy on the ballads, but the stompers like "When It Rains, I Get Wet" and the country-fried Beatles "I Feel Fine" really sparkled. Garth Brooks knows not the apocalypse he hath wrought. Praise be to foot soldiers of the revolution. Viva, neo-trad country!

--Steinberg

The Offspring
Ozomatli
The Living End
CSU Convocation Center
February 24

While they've been ostracized from the punk scene for being so-called sellouts, the hard-rocking, somewhat-punk Offspring showed the Convocation Center crowd that it didn't really care. Even though the band members may be punk orphans, their stage presence and song delivery reek of the old school--twenty songs in less than an hour and a half. As appealing as lead singer Dexter Holland's distinctive voice is on CD, it's more so live. His unassisted vocals--along with the power chords of Noodles's guitar--captured the heart of the Offspring sound.

"Americana," the band's social indictment of American complacency, and the old-school track "Session" provided the perfect opportunities to compare pre- and post-mainstream-success Offspring. Both songs possessed a similar structure--quick guitar barbs with slicing vocals--and neither was datable. Albums sold don't make a band a sellout; contrived songs do.

In rapid-fire succession, the band showed little regard for live interpretation or deviation. The anthem-like "Gone Away" was the first of the many radio-friendly tracks to be played. With the crowd yelling lyrics along with Holland, it was apparent the Offspring's appeal may be in its unadorned simplicity--they're not industrial, techno, or alternative; they just rock.

For those lucky enough--or unlucky, depending on your height and weight--to have general admission pit access, the mosh area clashed with enthusiastic fervor.

Australian trio the Living End launched the evening with its punk-rockabilly hybrid. The band captured the energy and electricity once associated with Green Day. Lead singer and guitarist Chris Cheney showed off his guitar chops and appeared to have won over a few new fans along the way.

The highly touted Ozomatli was next. While the group has much to offer--a combination of salsa, rap, acid jazz, and reggae--this was not the venue to display its talents. The hard-rocking crowd, while tolerant at first, quickly turned on the band. (It didn't help when the band members antagonized the audience with their middle fingers.) With their earthy drums and world beats, Ozomatli would do much better opening for Phish.

--John Benson

More by John Benson

More by Aaron Steinberg

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