Monday, December 6, 2010

The Posies/Brendan Benson concert review

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register and can be viewed at the link below:
Photo by Julian Ochoa, courtesy of Rykodisc

Since Club Nokia opened two years ago, I’ve only been to a few high profile concerts. So it came as a surprise to see the 2,300-capacity L.A. Live venue less than half full on Dec. 3. The impressive lineup including The Posies, Brendan Benson and Aqueduct attracted a crowd that probably would’ve fit inside The Roxy.

The Posies – an acclaimed Seattle band whose power pop-leaning, 1990 major label debut Dear 23 drew prominent airplay on MTV and alt-rock radio (they were part of the first KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas show) - found even more success with the aggressive follow up Frosting on the Beater at the height of grunge. through breakups and long stretchers of inactivity, when members toured with Big Star and R.E.M., they’ve retained a decent cult fan base in America and Europe.  

Blood/Candy is The Posies’ first studio album in five years and easily one of the best. A sonically adventurous effort, it features guest vocals by Hugh Cornwell (ex-Stranglers), Lisa Lobsinger of Broken Social Scene and Kay Hanley from Letters to Cleo.    

Maybe the sparse Los Angeles turnout was due to competition or simply wishful thinking on the promoter’s part. Regardless, the quartet put on a rousing and often ragged performance that was akin to hanging out together in a rehearsal space.

There were plenty of humorous and musical asides between co-songwriters Jon Auer (vocals, guitar) and Ken Stringfellow (vocals, guitar, keyboards). The latter musician worked up quite a sweat jumping all around the stage, but expelled so much saliva, it eventually became a distraction (I felt sorry for the Nokia maintenance crew). Sometimes his antics proved detrimental to the set when Auer would laugh mid-song.  

Getting off to a shaky start with “Plastic Paperbacks,” the first of several new Blood/Candy tracks, Stringfellow played piano and sang in a strained, quavering voice. The group quickly rebounded on “Flavor of the Month” and “Please Return It,” both chuck full of driving guitars and feedback.

Some of the most memorable moments came when Auer’s warm, burnished voice took the reigns and the guys’ trademark harmonies shined (“So Caroline,” the wah wah guitar-infused “Glitter Prize”). Unfortunately, early hit “Golden Blunders” (covered by Ringo Starr on 1992’s Time Takes Time) was a bit messy and their vocal pipes didn’t mesh well.  
Taking a serious turn, Stringfellow told the story behind “Enewetak,” inspired by the coral atoll – and 1948-1958 nuclear testing site - in the Marshall Islands. Marked by Auer’s wailing guitar lines, the tune boasted some sweet Beach Boys-styled harmonies (I would’ve loved to see them actually segue into a Brian Wilson number there).

Right in the middle of “Throwaway,” from 1996’s Amazing Disgrace,” bassist Matt Harris (also supplying welcome backing vocal assists) briefly traded places with Joe Skyward, one his predecessors who had been watching from the pit area.

Finally, The Posies capped the main set with an audible from the audience: “Burn & Shine” off Frosting. Auer said it was the song’s American tour debut. An exercise in controlled chaos, the calm vocals eventually gave way to a frenzied electric guitar freak out worthy of Neil Young & Crazy Horse.  

Auer and Stringfellow also played in Brendan Benson’s backing band – an idea hatched earlier this year after the three performed together at an Alex Chilton (Big Star) memorial tribute in Memphis. The Posies members helped lift Benson’s already blissful singer/songwriter tunes further into the alt-pop and classic rock stratosphere (think McCartney & Wings, Todd Rundgren).

The Raconteurs member acknowledged as much by enthusing about the pair onstage. Benson’s solid 55-minute set delved into each of his under appreciated albums, dating back to the mid-‘90s, and concentrated on 2002’s Lapalco (“Tiny Spark,” “Metarie,” “Folk Singer,” “Good to Me”).

Last year’s brilliant My Old, Familiar Friend – one of my top 10 picks of 2009 – was barely represented though (the Motown-esque strains of “Garbage Day,” triggered by Stringfellow, Elvis Costello-ish “A Whole Lot Better”). Still, everyone was obviously having a good time onstage and the crowd responded enthusiastically.

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