Thursday, October 29, 2009

Andrew McMahon (Jack's Mannequin) show review

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register. Photo courtesy of

Andrew McMahon

Where: House of Blues Anaheim
When: Oct. 27

For Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate fans, seeing those bands’ singer/pianist, Andrew McMahon, do a rare acoustic show on Tuesday night was a welcome treat – something that is typically reserved for encores.

McMahon has embarked on a short cross-country solo tour in conjunction with screenings of the Dear Jack documentary, which recounts his 2005 battle with leukemia and subsequent stem cell transplant (the film will be shown at the Landmark Theater on Pico in Los Angeles today; tickets are sold out).

DVD and downloadable versions will be available next Tuesday via stores and iTunes, in addition to a new “Dear Jack” EP with four previously unreleased tracks (iTunes only) and a limited edition art book (through

The Anaheim concert was sold out. Downstairs, the general admission floor was filled with people in rows of chairs. McMahon’s extended family, plus high school and college age enthusiasts packed the balcony area.

Former Orange County resident McMahon - currently sporting a full beard – walked out on the House of Blues stage to circus type music. Without saying a word, he held up several placards with greetings and instructions for the audience (“no requests,” “you can get up and dance,” etc.).

Then he sat down at the black grand piano center stage and began the stirring 105-minute set with “Hammers and Strings (A Lullaby).” Sung and played softly, it was the first of several selections from last year’s excellent Jack’s Mannequin album The Glass Passenger. The band’s Bobby “Raw” Anderson joined McMahon on acoustic guitar and backing vocals most of the evening.

One test of a song’s strength is how well it holds up in stripped down form without excess instrumentation and studio effects. Black Eyed Peas or Lil’ Wayne tunes, for example, would come across even more inane acoustically.

Not so with McMahon’s heartfelt compositions, which tend to be demoed on piano. Even the rockers from his early ‘00s days in Something Corporate (“21 and Invincible,” “Punk Rock Princess”) worked like a charm in this format. The latter gained a haunting quality, with slowed down tempo and whispered vocals.

“It’s good to be home. I don’t get to play OC as much as I’d like to,” McMahon noted before “Dark Blue,” which retained the original version’s upbeat syncopation. He gave background info behind many of the tunes, making the proceedings seem more intimate. When he’d pull out something older, like the seldom played tender ballad “Walking By” (from Something Corporate’s 2001 EP Audioboxer) or “She Paints Me Blue,” I could hear gasps of excitement coming from the teenage girls behind me.

Often the alt-pop tunes sounded just as buoyant as on the albums. “La La Lie,” “Crashin’” (which McMahon said was about having writer’s block) and “Holiday From Real,” with another loud audience singalong, were key examples. Anderson got a solo turn on his own pleasant “Olive.”

Two surprising covers spotlighted both ends of McMahon’s vocal range. A quiet, tempered take on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” was breathtaking and recalled Billy Joel in his mid-‘70s prime. “Moon River” (popularized by Jerry Butler in the 1961 hit and movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s) was delivered in dramatic fashion a la Rufus Wainwright.

Later, McMahon said “this room has a lot of special meaning for me.” Certainly the same held true for fans during this illuminating show.

Setlist: Hammers and Strings (A Lullaby)/Dark Blue/As You Sleep/Crashin’/Holiday From Real/Annie Use Your Telescope/The Resolution/She Paints Me Blue/Spinning/Walking By/Just Like a Woman/Olive/21 & Invincible/La La Lie/The Mixed Tape/Moon River/Bruised
Encore: There There Katie/Punk Rock Princess/Swim/The Astronaut/Bloodshot

The Bravery interview

My story originally appeared in IE Weekly. The band plays Stinger's Bar and Nightclub in San Bernardino on Friday and House of Blues Anaheim on Sunday.

Talk about Halloween synergy.

New York City alt-rock band The Bravery, whose ominous third release Stir the Blood drops on Dec. 1, headlines X103.9 FM’s Haunted Masquerade Ball. Fittingly, the title comes from a new track called “Jack O’Lantern Man.”

“It’s an expression that means ‘get your passions going,’” vocalist Sam Endicott explains from a Florida tour stop. “For us, this album felt like an infusion of energy. We had this really creative environment going on – sort of a new beginning. Some songs are darker with a little violent undertone.”

Endicott enlisted John Hill (Santogold, M.I.A.) - his collaborator on such side projects as the recent Shakira hit “She Wolf” - to man the studio boards. It was partially recorded inside an abandoned church located in upstate New York.

“We wanted more ambient, dreamier sounds. We used the church acoustics to manipulate the keyboards and guitars in ways we hadn’t done before. John is a mastermind with that shit. He brought a lot” to the table.

For 2007’s polished Brendan O’Brien-produced The Sun and the Moon (featuring top 10 alt-rock hits “Believe” and “Time Won’t Let Me Go”), the band was influenced by classic rock and utilized string sections. Blood was just the opposite. “We listened to everything current.”

The gauzy atmospherics of “Sugar Pill,” where Endicott sings in a deep baritone, is an intriguing departure.

“On the first album, everything was like a party,” he says. “The second one has some of that, but we tried branching out a lot. There’s even acoustic songs. This one is more of a return to the [beginning] with upbeat, dance rhythms. ‘Sugar Pill’ and ‘She’s So Bendable’ are good examples of slower songs we couldn’t have done when we started.”

They channel Seventies disco production master Giorgio Moroder (Blondie, Donna Summer) on a dirty, synth-driven “I Have Seen the Future,” the hazy, melodic “Slow Poison” recalls Love & Rockets and the yearning sensuality of “I Am Your Skin” has a distinct early ‘90s Depeche Mode vibe.

After graduating from Vassar College in the late ‘90s, Endicott immersed himself in the NYC electroclash scene and assembled The Bravery in 2003 through mutual friends and a local music paper ad. The quintet built a local following, posted some songs on their MySpace page/web site and got airplay at alt-rock radio stations. BBC Radio 1 in London immediately playlisted the Goth-looking guys’ tunes, while the NME spotlighted their hard partying ways. A successful European tour and EP followed.

Endicott grew up in the D.C. area and was inspired by D.I.Y. ethic of Dischord Records’ post-punk groups. The Bravery’s self-titled debut was recorded at his apartment for $7000 using an old iMac. Island Records put out the new wave-leaning effort in 2005. “An Honest Mistake” reached the top 10 in the U.K. and U.S. Modern Rock charts.

Opening for U2 and Depeche Mode provided a glimpse at what the future could offer The Bravery. “To see bands like that putting out really good songs over 25 fucking years is really impressive,” Endicott says. “It’s not like they had one golden period making music - [more like] three or four.”

That timeframe also saw The Bravery making IE appearances at Coachella (they appeared in the 2006 compilation DVD) and KROQ Inland Invasion. A high profile slot at England’s Glastonbury Festival made headlines there after bassist Mike Hindert stripped naked onstage and hurled himself at the drums.

“He used to get onstage and drink like a case of beer. He’s a lot more creative now and doesn’t do that shit as much anymore.” Not only did Hindert handle lead vocals on the dense, Jesus & Mary Chain-leaning “She’s So Bendable” off Blood, he also crafted the creepy first video for “Hate Fuck.”

“He’s in a much more creative space, which is good.”

The grainy, black and white clip comes across like a low budget 1940s horror movie. People wear gas masks and continuously pour mysterious liquid into a bathtub before one scantily clad lady apparently commits murder (view it at

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Roxy Music DVD review

“Imagine being a teenager and seeing aliens arrive on [singles chart TV show] Top of the Pops,” jokes Bono at the start of More Than This, an excellent hour-long documentary on Roxy Music that was originally broadcast by the BBC last year. The first performance clip (“Virginia Plain”) shows why the British art rockers’ garish glam look must have seemed other-worldly in the early ’70s.

Siouxsie Sioux, Duran Duran’s John Taylor, Sex Pistol Steve Jones, Goldfrapp, Nile Rogers of Chic and others provide insight into Roxy’s influence on dance music, the New Romantic movement and even punk. Fresh interviews with founding members Bryan Ferry, Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson unveil details on how they combined crooner vocals, experimental sounds, sophisticated style and sex (ladies—some nearly naked—adorned the fashionable album covers; 1982’s sleek Avalon is widely regarded as one of the top make-out albums of all time) into a unique package.

Bonus DVD features include extended interviews, recent studio footage of Eno and Roxy Music, plus three previously unreleased live London tracks from 2006 (“Both Ends Burning,” “Editions of You,” “Do the Strand”). Overall, a worthy primer for fans and newcomers alike.

The Story of Roxy Music: More Than This, Eagle Rock Entertainment. 94 min. List price $14.98.

Roger Daltrey concert review

My review originally appeared in the OC Register

Photo by Armando Brown, for the Register

Roger Daltrey
Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles
Oct. 17

To keep a machine running smoothly, you need to lubricate the chassis from time to time. The same is true of the human voice.

That’s the impetus behind the Use It or Lose It Tour, Roger Daltrey’s first solo North American concert trek since an orchestral outing in 1994. Now 65, the Who’s singer wanted to stay in shape until the band returns to active duty next year, as music partner Pete Townshend is reportedly writing songs for a new project that might become another Who album.

So Daltrey assembled a live group, including guitarist/vocalist Simon Townshend (Pete’s younger brother and a regular presence on Who tours since the Quadrophenia run of 1996) plus guitarist and musical director Frank Simes, bassist Jon Button, keyboardist Loren Gold and drummer Scott Devours. All were consistently impressive Saturday night at Daltrey’s not completely sold-out stop at the Orpheum Theatre.

As for their leader, well, let’s just say it took a while for the old engine to warm up. And though these guys have been playing together for a week, this L.A. gig often felt like a tour opener, with kinks still needing to be ironed out.

Daltrey appeared alone onstage with a ukulele (below right) to launch the nearly two-hour set with “Blue, Red and Grey,” a graceful tune from The Who by Numbers (1975). He joked about the instrument’s size and said, “I love this song. I’ve been trying to get Pete to do it for years.” Barely a minute in, however, nothing was going right and Daltrey abruptly stopped. Later he’d quip, “We know we’re rough ‘n’ ready. This isn’t the (freaking) Madonna show.”

The musicians first appeared for a fiery take on “Who Are You.” The five-man backing harmonies were truly sublime during another rarely played Who tune, “Pictures of Lily,” yet Daltrey struggled to be heard during the full-bore rocker “The Real Me.” Complaining that the drums were too loud, he told roadies to remove the plexiglass barrier surrounding Devours’ kit.

Yet why bother with note-perfect Who renditions when Pete isn’t around? If a singer is finally unchained from the constraints of his main band, it’s more daring and creative to shake up arrangements of big hits.

The veteran Brit also would have been wise to delve deeper into his seven solo albums and movie music work. We got three total from those categories; personally, I would’ve enjoyed hearing anything from 1985’s AOR radio staple Under a Raging Moon or The Lost Boys soundtrack.

Another attempt at “Blue, Red and Grey” failed, but a half-hour in Daltrey’s gravelly voice finally came to life. The sparse ballad “A Second Out” (a demo that never found a place on a regular studio album) featured his quiet harmonica work and passionate vocal. Two of the evening’s highlights came from Daltrey’s last solo work, 1992’s “Rocks in the Head”: the folksy, buoyant “Days of Light” (prefaced by an anecdote about pre-Who days working as a sheet metal worker) and the groove rocker “Who’s Gonna Walk on Water.”

A couple of acoustic Celtic-tinged numbers from Largo –- an obscure 1998 all-star concept album helmed by the Hooters (!) –- also fared well. Simon ably took over lead vocals on “Going Mobile,” originally sung by his brother on 1971’s Who’s Next. Both electric guitarists totally tore it up on Mose Allison’s sizzling “Young Man Blues” as Daltrey did his trademark microphone-cord lasso moves and proved that his blues chops remained intact. For “Baba O’Riley,” though, he sounded taxed.

Third time was the charm for “Blue, Red and Grey.” As the concert wound down, Daltrey honored a fan request for “Without Your Love,” his biggest solo single from the 1980 film McVicar, apparently never performed live before. With Simon on mandolin, the idyllic ballad was enthralling.

A tribute to Johnny Cash (“the guy who inspired me as much as Elvis”) came in the form of an iffy “Ring of Fire” before the evening was capped off with a pair of winsome Who rockers, “Naked Eye” and their version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”

Despite some misfires, pacing issues and lack of special guests (in Seattle, Eddie Vedder joined in), it was still a treat to see Daltrey in a small venue fronting another top-notch band.

Set list:
Blue, Red and Grey (fragment) / Who Are You / Pictures of Lily / The Real Me / Blue, Red and Grey (fragment) / Behind Blue Eyes / A Second Out / Days of Light / Freedom Ride / Gimme a Stone / Who’s Gonna Walk on Water / Going Mobile / I Can See for Miles / Young Man Blues / Squeeze Box / Baba O’Riley / Blue, Red and Grey / Without Your Love / Ring of Fire / Naked Eye / Summertime Blues

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hall & Oates box set review

Daryl Hall & John Oates
Do What You Want, Be What You Are

Despite an amazing decade-long run, when they enjoyed a stranglehold on the pop charts, Hall & Oates weren’t considered the coolest hit makers of the 1970s and ‘80s. To some, the Philly duo was considered a guilty pleasure. Not anymore. Rappers sample them, Brandon Flowers and Ben Gibbard offer praise in interviews, while internet parody series “Yacht Rock” and’s animated “J-Stache” - where Oates’ once-iconic bushy mustache fights crime - have given the music a hip cache for younger music fans. Recent film “(500) Days of Summer” even featured a dance sequence set to “You Make My Dreams.”

Do What You Want, Be What You Are, the blue-eyed soul singers’ first box set, does a good job at surveying their career, from rare 1966 singles in separate R&B groups to a 1972 piano ballad (“Dreamer”) Hall discovered and recorded this past summer. Most Hall & Oates pop hits and studio albums are represented (except Beauty on a Back Street, Marigold Sky and Our Kind of Soul; a few of the latter’s solid remakes would’ve been worthy inclusions) amid the four CD, 74 track retrospective.

No remastering was done (there are a couple remixes), but the oldest tunes sound fine. Diehard fans will be drawn to 16 unreleased songs. Half are live (a smokin’ 25-minute set is culled from a 1975 London gig), with the remainder made up of demos (Hall’s poignant “Have You Ever Been in Love,” popularized by Celine Dion) and outtakes off Private Eyes, Change of Season and Do It For Love. The 60-page booklet includes unseen photos, an essay, detailed annotations and testimonials by the likes of Gibbard, Patrick Stump, Rob Thomas, Gym Class Heroes’ Travis McCoy, De la Soul’s Pos, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, Todd Rundgren and a dozen others.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Manic Street Preachers concert review

My review originally ran in the OC Register Soundcheck blog

Manic Street Preachers
Avalon Hollywood
Sept. 25

Manic Street Preachers emerged with their brash full-length debut Generation Terrorists in 1992, right as the Britpop phenomenon was gestating. Initially inspired by the Sex Pistols, the young Welsh glam/punk upstarts specialized in political themes and sloganeering. Sarcastic song “You Love Us,” aimed at the slavish music press, was first in a long line of U.K. top 20 singles.

When the band did it Friday night before a reverent and packed crowd at Avalon Hollywood, the title refrain’s meaning felt more along the lines of we acknowledge your adulation and it is reciprocated.

American fans have waited an eternity for the Manics’ live return to the States (the last area gig was exactly a decade ago – September 1999 – at the much smaller Troubadour). Three studio efforts and a retrospective came in the interim, but few had U.S. label distribution. Until now.

"Journal for Plague Lovers," produced by Steve Albini (Nirvana), came out last week. Raw and frequently aggressive, the lyrics were written by founding member Richey Edwards. The rhythm guitarist gave his bandmates notebooks filled with song ideas and poems before mysteriously disappearing in 1995. Edwards’ car was found abandoned on an English bridge, but a body was never discovered (he was finally declared dead last year). Manic Street Preachers went on to become one of the biggest rock groups in Europe, routinely selling out stadiums and racking up multi-platinum albums there.

At Avalon, the trio (augmented by a second guitarist and keyboardist on backing vocals) launched the supercharged 90-minute, 21-song set with “Motorcycle Emptiness,” from Terrorists. Singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield played the glorious, careening notes with abandon. Flamboyant bassist Nicky Wire, clad in white sailor hat and jacket, stood behind a mike stand festooned with bright feathers, grinning from ear to ear. Two fans near the front of the stage waved large Welsh flags around.

Bradfield thanked the audience for their patience before the ominous “Peeled Apples,” the first of four potent songs off Plague Lovers. The pop-inflected, orchestrated rocker “Your Love Alone is Not Enough” (originally a duet with The Cardigans’ Nina Persson from 2007’s solid "Send Away the Tigers") came across fantastic live with four guys on harmonies.

“Here’s a perfect example of how bad my French is,” joked Bradfield, before doing insanely catchy early hit “La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh)” about Vincent Van Gogh’s suicide note. The singer had no trouble hitting those falsetto notes of yore and showcased some impressive chops on his axe during a solo. Bradfield jumped all around the stage all evening; Wire was no slouch in this department either.

The new “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time,” which revolves around religion and infidelity and bears a rare humorous Manics chorus (“Oh mummy, what’s a sex pistol?”), was driven by Sean Moore’s precision beats and clarion call guitars.

Wire told a brief story about how bemused he was to find their British Airways flight audio guide had recommended Plague Lovers, but deleted the profane selections. Later, he and Bradfield would each slag Coldplay.

The five-piece band was extremely tight throughout the set. Bradfield wailed vocally on the sweeping Phil Spector-esque drama of “Everything Must Go” and instrumentally during the reverb squalls on “If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next.” Everyone left the stage so Bradfield could do a couple acoustic numbers and fans were in such rapt attention, you could almost hear a pin drop.

Other standouts included the haunting “Little Baby Nothing,” with passionate group vocals and fiery, punky “Motown Junk.”

More rousing anthems came courtesy of “You Stole the Sun From My Heart” and concert closer “A Design For Life.” No encores, though (Bradfield warned they didn’t do them, but thanked everyone again for waiting and promised they’d be back for the next album). This gig was a testament to the Manics’ staying power, a welcome return and ranks among the best I’ve seen this year.

Motorcycle Emptiness/No Surface, All Feeling/Peeled Apples/Your Love Alone is Not Enough/La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh)/Jackie Collins Existential Question Time/Let Robeson Sing/Faster/Everything Must Go/This Joke Sport Severed/From Despair to Where/If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next/Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky/This is Yesterday/Send Away the Tigers/You Stole the Sun From My Heart/All or Nothing/Motown Junk/Me and Stephen Hawking/Little Baby Nothing/You Love Us/A Design For Life

Pet Shop Boys concert review

Photo by Kelly Swift
My review originally appeared in the OC Register

Pet Shop Boys
Where: Greek Theater, Los Angeles
When: Sept. 24

Pet Shop Boys must be obsessed with boxes.

During the last tour in 2006, the stage design revolved around stacked, translucent, multi-functional cubes. It was quite a sight to behold at the marvelous Wiltern gig I witnessed.

Three years later, the veteran London synth-pop duo returned for the theatrical “Pandemonium” concert jaunt with the same show director in tow. The result? More boxes.

On Thursday at the Greek, hundreds of large, white cardboard ones were aligned in rows - ready to be climbed or toppled in dramatic fashion a la Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Lead singer Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe, plus two backing singer/dancers marched onstage to start their performance wearing robot-style costumes, faces obscured by colored cartons.

“Heart” opened the 90-minute proceedings with a dense, bass-heavy sound that was par for the course. Otherwise, the new Stuart Price (Madonna) show mix didn’t seem all that different than album versions, except for a few minor tweaks.

Pet Shop Boys’ latest studio effort “Yes” is one of their strongest in years, containing buoyant dance-pop tunes strategically tinged with Tennant’s trademark melancholy lyrics. Produced/co-written with young in-demand production team Xenomania (Kylie Minogue, Cher, Saint Etienne), the collection features Johnny Marr on guitar/harmonica and was the group’s highest debut since 1993. First single “Love, Etc.” topped Billboard’s dance chart.

A joyous “Did You See Me Coming” was the first of six “Yes” tracks in the L.A. set. Most meshed well with ‘80s and ‘90s hits. The stomping “Pandemonium,” bearing a slight Motown vibe, was an early highlight.

Percolating call and response tune “Love, Etc.,” about superficiality and success, had a deeper resonance in this venue near Tinseltown as Tennant and company sang “don’t have to be a big bucks Hollywood star” and “you need more than…a chauffeur driven limousine on call.”

While the visual presentation kept with Pet Shop Boys’ stylized aesthetic, watching the four singer/dancers’ in box head garb got old really fast. Scampering about in cardboard Empire State Building cutouts for “Why Don’t We Live Together” was akin to a junior high play. Thankfully, they “broke out” occasionally to do normal routines. A lovers spat during “Jealousy” was particularly effective.

Several songs bore snatches of other PSB songs (“Domino Dancing,” “Opportunities,” “Can You Forgive Her?”). Not quite medleys, they confused a number of fans that started singing along and realized it was actually something else. The absence of soulful singer Sylvia Mason-James (a regular on previous tours) was definitely felt in the weak backing vocals at the Greek.

Tennant, for his part, came across fine, even without electronic enhancement. Music partner Lowe stoically stood at the banks of keyboards and banged on electronic drums. He emerged for a rare mini-dance routine (!) before the group’s spirited take on Willie Nelson/Elvis Presley hit “Always on My Mind.” The crowd – largely made up of gay men – were whipped into a frenzy and continued on party hearty, hi-NRG “New York City Boy.”

Diehard followers were treated to some old gems (the Kraftwerk-styled “Two Divided by Zero” from 1986’s “Please,” the elegant “Do I Have To”). The last half hour found Tennant and Lowe elevating the intensity level with the rousing “Suburbia” and a trio of life-affirming tunes: “All Over the World,” tropical “Se a Vida e” and surprising thumping dance cover of Coldplay’s “Vida La Vida,” with Tennant clad in robe and crown.

“It’s a Sin” proved to be a vibrant and sizzling main set closer; the somber “Being Boring” was an unusual choice for encore, followed by the remixed No. 1 hit/PSB signature song “West End Girls." A mixed bag, the show didn't quite measure up to previous SoCal appearances.

Heart/Did You See Me Coming/Pandemonium/Love, Etc./Building a Wall/Go West/Two Divided by Zero/Why Don’t We Live Together/Always On My Mind/New York City Boy/Left To My Own Devices/Do I Have To/King’s Cross/The Way It Used To Be/Jealousy/Suburbia/All Over the World/Se a Vida e/Viva La Vida*/It’s a Sin
Encore: Being Boring/West End Girls

*Coldplay cover