Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Toad the Wet Sprocket, Grant Lee Buffalo concert review: Santa Ana, Calif.

photo by Miguel Vasconcellos
A version of my review originally appeared at 
Before Toad the Wet Sprocket started insanely catchy current single “New Constellation” on Sunday night at The Observatory, singer/guitarist Glen Phillips wondered whether anyone in the audience had obtained the upcoming companion album early through Kickstarter.

Several hands went up. Then he asked, “was it worth it?” to many cheers.  

The popular Santa Barbara rock band used the crowd funding site for New Constellation, their first all-original studio effort since 1997. Fans’ pent-up demand for fresh music helped surpass the goal amount (over 500 percent) in a mere 20 hours.

All four musicians began touring again on a semi-regular basis in ‘06. A few years later, bassist Dean Dinning told me everyone was raring to make music again, but were waiting for Phillips’ availability.   

Eventually the right time arrived; New Constellation is due out Oct. 15 via Toad’s own Abe's Records. Easily one of their strongest albums to date – not to mention 2013 - the songs mix finely crafted adult rock and burnished folk sounds with some of the same compelling pop smarts that made fear and Dulcinea platinum-sellers during the height of Nineties grunge.  

During a highly satisfying 100-minute set in Santa Ana, the barefoot Phillips’ easygoing manner and humorous asides almost made this feel as if you were witnessing a living room performance. And most fans at the just over half-filled venue were enraptured. The front man even joked at one point, “this is like one of those quiet Japanese audiences.”

Bolstered by tour member Jonathan Kingham’s fine lap steel, mandolin and keyboard work, the songs ranged from sublime to mildly rocking. Older tunes even benefitted from added sonic textures.

Toad the Wet Sprocket opened with the Crowded House-esque “The Moment.” Revolving around life’s possibilities, it was the first of four new songs performed. “Good Intentions,” the beautiful “Crowing” and lead guitarist Todd Nichols’ solo vocal spotlight “Crazy Life” all benefitted from prominent organ.

Phillips emphasized his enunciation and really belted out some of his vocals, particularly on the seething rocker “Fall Down” and cerebral “The Eye” (containing self-described “geeky references”). Big hit “All I Want” was dispatched relatively early, while the rich harmonies of the band’s other major charter “Walk on the Ocean” was saved for the final encore.

Other high points of the evening included “Fly from Heaven” (where Phillips goofed on the lyric), the ebullient “Brother,” “Nightingale Song” (Dinning and Nichols’ backing vocals really stood out), the aggressive “Come Down” and ringing guitars during “I’ll Bet on You.”

Although Phillips sheepishly apologized for the band’s inability to rock out, the reality was just the opposite: Toad did so whenever needed, particularly on a surprising encore cover of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” The singer invited opener Grant-Lee Phillips (no relation) onstage to trade verses and stood back in awe as his guest proceeded.
Glen even praised the current venue owner, saying it was good to finally have someone running the place that gave a damn.

photo by Miguel Vasconcellos
Grant-Lee Phillips and his group Grant Lee Buffalo enjoyed minor success during the mid-1990s with their dreamy Americana rock and notched two top 20 modern rock hits. They broke up in ’98, like Toad, but the original lineup reunited in 2011 for select shows.

This past spring, “Live at the Royal Festival Hall” - recorded in London amid that initial return jaunt - was released as a digital album.  

In O.C., Grant Lee Buffalo launched the solid hour-long set with a frantic “The Shining Hour.” Phillips’ falsetto was still in glorious form, bassist Paul Kimble played like a man possessed and drummer Joey Peters seemed to be having a blast throughout the dozen songs.

Back in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Grant-Lee Phillips was known for his acclaimed freewheeling solo shows at the old Largo in L.A. Getting amazing tones from a hybrid guitar, he was just as enjoyable here.
The trio excelled during the dramatic “Jupiter and Teardrop,” mid-period U2-ish “Demon Called Deception,” sinister “Drag.” Glen Phillips joined his fellow Largo compatriot during an enchanting “Honey, Don’t Think” and bantered about Phil Collins.

Grant-Lee Phillips wryly introduced the stunning hit “Mockingbirds” by saying “I want to play a sad and melancholy song, but we only have satanic numbers. This was recorded in the ‘90s. You remember [MTV personality] Tabatha Soren?”

Later, a cake was brought out in honor of the front man’s 50th birthday on Sunday and everyone sang. All told, a welcome return by both acts.
Toad the Wet Sprocket at Observatory, Santa Ana, Aug. 26, 2013
Main set:The Moment/Woodburning/Good Intentions/Crowing/Windmills/New Constellation/Fly From Heaven/All I Want/Whatever I Fear/Come Back Down/Nightingale Song/Something’s Always Wrong/The Eye/Crazy Life/Jam/California Wasted/Brother/Fall Down
Encore:Come Down/I’ll Bet on You/Ziggy Stadust (David Bowie cover)/Walk on the Ocean

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