Anderson East can sing the IKEA catalog and we will listen

Artists like Anderson East, an Alabama rock-and-soul singer with a voice so startling and strong that it seems like the product of Greek mythology, are so singular that you almost have to grade them on a different curve.

Anderson East records an episode of “Austin City Limits” on Friday, June 22, at ACL Live. Scott Newton/KLRU-TV

For parallels, think of names like Whitney Houston or Amy Winehouse or Freddie Mercury; singers with pipes coated in brass, polished with velvet and powered by Tesla coils. You’d drop everything to listen to them read assembly instructions to an IKEA catalog, so the songwriting behind their creative works could be so-so and no one would put up much of a fuss.

East – born Michael Cameron Anderson – has channeled his vocal talents in a heartland direction and at this early stage of his career is in a vein something like what we’d get if Joe Cocker had more finesse and was aiming for the lyrical style of early Jason Isbell. Which is not a bad place to be.

East kicked off his “Austin City Limits” television performance Friday with his cover of Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” a move that drew a distinct picture of where East is coming from stylistically. East’s interpretation turned Nelson’s sparse and forlorn playing into a more tortured picture of a singer turned inside out by his missteps, with backup singers and horns adding color and a church revival atmosphere.

Anderson East records an episode of “Austin City Limits” on Friday, June 22, at ACL Live. Scott Newton/KLRU-TV

From there much of East’s set kept with the white bread church singer feel, even if the lyrical themes dominated by romance realized and lost was firmly secular. Whether leaned back and roaring or bending forward for a smooth croon, East’s pure vocal power and control were the highlight early on while he mostly played the empty-armed romantic looking for The One.
Another highlight throughout the night was piano player Philip Towns, who grabbed the spotlight several times with colorful layered solos, including three of them alone on “Learning,” a song that stretched to nearly 10 minutes and proves the band would acclimate well in the jam band world if so moved.

The most thematically interesting turn of the 80-minute performance came in the last third, when a pair of minor-chord songs – “Girlfriend” and “All On My Mind” – saw the mood turn sinister and East taking on the role of the other man in a love triangle and a lover who knows he’s mixed up with a quintessentially bad girl. With a string quartet on hand to add even more dramatic tones, those songs saw East playing something of a villain or bad boy, showing even more swagger and confidence.

That change of tone made the night’s final few songs – especially a tune like “Satisfy Me” that is is an airtight example of how a rock-meets-soul song should be constructed – feel more human, like they were coming from a performer who can exhibit and embrace the light and dark of the human condition.

And, lest we forget, has the kind of voice to make just about anything work.

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Queens of the Stone Age start loud and then turn up the volume at Austin show

For most the past 20 years Josh Homme has managed to cultivate one of the more consistent and readily identifiable sonic imprints in modern rock music. While he shifted creative gears with occasional side projects such as Them Crooked Vultures or a recent collaboration with Iggy Pop, Homme’s main gig as lead singer/guitarist of Queens of the Stone Age finds him and his bandmates locked into a brand of hard rock where their guitars slither and grind far more often than they rumble and pummel.

Troy Van Leeuwen, guitarist for Queens of the Stone Age, performs at the Austin360 Amphitheater on April 24, 2018, in Austin, Texas. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

That sound was on full volume display Tuesday night at Austin360 Amphitheater, despite an often frustrating sound mix in portions of the venue not directly in line with the stage. But the real fun came later in the evening, when the band’s encore saw Homme shifting into the heavier sounds of his time with stoner metal pioneers Kyuss, which he helped found in the early ‘90s with long-dismissed former QotSA bassist Nick Oliveri.

Returning to the stage after roughly 90 minutes that saw the band venturing all over its catalog, Homme introduced the song “Regular John” as being the first song played at the band’s first show at Emo’s 21 years ago. Whether that is true or not – online concert archives don’t show the band playing Austin in 1997 or 1998 – it was a nice bit of myth-making as a way to ground the three-song finale in a far heavier and aggressive sound that showed the contrast and growth the band has managed over the course of its career.

The earlier portion of the two-hour performance was grounded in what has become the band’s signature sound, with Homme delivering bad boy come-on’s on songs such as “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar But I Feel Like A Millionaire,” “The Evil Has Landed” and other material from the recent album “Villains.”

GALLERY: More photos from Queens of the Stone Age

Such consistency is admirable but can turn into a wash after too long without a creative roundabout.

The John Theodore drum solo on early years highlight “No One Knows” was a nice detour, and the confessional, soulful tone with an extended crowd singalong outro on “Make It Wit Chu” felt like the most revealing portion of the night. One does wonder if a fun mid-set run through the drug reference-laden “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” – admittedly a quick goof of a song, but one that does its job very well – would have been a savvy move.

In all it was a thoroughly professional, consummate performance. Just one where the more revealing changes of pace and odes to the band’s earlier stylings provided some very welcome contrast.

Josh Homme, singer and guitarist for Queens of the Stone Age, performs at the Austin360 Amphitheater on April 24, 2018, in Austin, Texas. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

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The Monkees ride new wave of popularity to Paramount Theatre

By Wes Eichenwald, special to the American-Statesman

The Monkees, featuring original members Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork, play the Paramount Theatre. Matthew Danser for American-Statesman
The Monkees, featuring original members Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, play the Paramount Theatre. Matthew Danser for American-Statesman

The year 2016 has thus far brought many things, many of them tumultuous, disturbing and horrid. But there’s been at least one pleasant surprise: Against all odds, 2016 has also been the Year of the Monkees.

Or at least it’s shaping up as one of their best years since the 1960s. Amid so many other 40th and 50th anniversaries of cultural landmarks, you’d assume that the so-called Prefab Four’s golden anniversary tour (their TV show premiered in 1966) would have been a slam-dunk in any case, in which a crowd-pleasing heritage act jogs through a victory lap in one last nostalgic go-round for their aging fan base.

But add to the mix their new, surprisingly delightful hit album, “Good Times!” — which avoids the disappointment of their other post-‘60s recordings and is winning general acclaim as their best since their swingin’ heyday — and you’ve got something special. Like their contemporary Brian Wilson, the seventysomething trio of Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith – reduced at the Paramount last night to the duo of Dolenz and Tork plus backup band, because Nesmith played what was billed as his last show as a Monkee earlier this month – found new life collaborating with younger musicians who had grown up on their early work and knew how to craft new variations on their distinctive sound. Songs by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), who also produced the album, Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Andy Partridge (XTC) blend seamlessly with compositions from Boyce and Hart, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Harry Nilsson. The album deftly bridges the decades, as if 1968 was followed directly by 2016.

That was much the case at the Paramount, too. Dolenz’s 71-year-old voice has held up remarkably well; close your eyes and you could imagine the decades melting away. The show wasn’t dissimilar from their 2013 Long Center concert. A movie screen still showed scenes and images from the TV show, often in sync with the song being played. But there were a few differences: Along with Nesmith’s absence and the new songs, instead of the band inviting an audience member onstage to sing “Daydream Believer,” the late Davy Jones appeared onscreen to provide the vocal as Dolenz and Tork accompanied him, along with a good portion of the transported audience.

SEE MORE A-LIST PHOTOS FROM THE MONKEES AT THE PARAMOUNT THEATRE

The Monkees started out, of course, as comic entertainment, and Tork, a wizened if still spry elf with the soul of the Greenwich Village folkie he was, isn’t afraid to go for laughs by telling occasional bad jokes and cavorting. Old showman Dolenz, affable as ever in porkpie hat and vest, relied on tried-and-true shtick like donning a replica ‘60s poncho for “Randy Scouse Git.” He also mentioned to cheers that his mom grew up in Austin and attended UT, “and told me many stories about doing unspeakable things at Barton Springs.”

Like any successful veteran band, the Monkees can call on both the hits they have to play (“Daydream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “I’m A Believer”) but also the decidedly more minor-key deep cuts favored by longtime fans. One of the better moments was “Shades of Gray,” again using Jones’ recorded vocal, with Dolenz facing the screen in contemplation. Musically, the Monkees were always more quirky and experimental than casual observers gave them credit for, with their fusion of pure ‘60s bubblegum pop, the still-underrated Nesmith’s early country-rock fusion, and entry-level hippie psychedelia, not to mention the casual anti-establishment tone of much of the TV show and their 1968 plot-free cult movie “Head.”

The band powered through the set with panache like the seasoned pros they are, rocking harder in the post-intermission set. If the mostly mature (45 to infinity) audience sat puzzled by the psychedelic excursions of “Circle Sky” and “Porpoise Song” from “Head,” with some of the oldest fans driven early to the exits, they roared their approval of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” famously covered by the Sex Pistols; Tork stuck his tongue out at the finish in a seeming acknowledgment.

They’re not saying it’s their farewell tour, but it’s hard to imagine the Monkees reaching a higher point than they’ve achieved in 2016. In a year when so many musical bright lights have gone dark, it’s reassuring to realize there are still a few good times left in, of all things, an occasional touring band that began as a fake rock group on a silly TV show and existed as such for only two years, a very long time ago. Along with helping to move the culture forward – and oh, yes they did, via pioneering rock videos, the indirect influence of “Head” on avant-garde cinema, and providing millions of kids with a gateway to the counterculture – they’ve also provided us with more than a fair share of inspiration. Talk about keeping it weird.

Against all odds, the Monkees abide. Hey, hey, indeed.

 

 

 

 

Laura Marling brings a little ACL to her Central Presbyterian show

Fresh off a tribute to Townes Van Zandt at the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame ceremony Thursday, British folk singer Laura Marling took to the sanctuary of Central Presbyterian Church for the fifth time Friday to lead her own flock.

Marling, who also made a splash at SXSW this year in support of her album “Short Movie,” cannot be accused of lacking distinction in her styling. She possesses an otherworldly tone that she elastically stretches from Joni Mitchell warbles to dry, sing-songy asides. Her signature cadence at once evokes the folk building blocks of Bob Dylan yet is wholly unique (and consistent). Opening with a shadowy one-two punch of “Howl” and “Walk Alone,” Marling set the moon-bathed tone of the evening early, nestling into a melancholy, heart-worn space that she made her home for the evening.

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Laura Marling and a cross.

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Ever the lyrical diarist, Marling’s words of self-exploration and self-confession complemented the sacred space, as Austin church shows often do. On “David,” she preached that “wasted love is a long regret.” On “Rambling Man,” she testified, “Let it always be known that I was who I am.” She also shared communion with her audience, telling them that she wrote “Once” in the halls of Central Presbyterian on a previous visit.

Perhaps the greater show of Austin fellowship was Marling’s cover of Van Zandt’s “For the Sake of Her Song.” (In her announcement of the cover, Marling insisted that the Texas country hero deserved more than the modest clap he at first received.) Marling’s reverent rendition, which brought a little ACL to Central Pres, successfully roused the applause she expected the first time around.

After a few more tunes, Marling said she doesn’t do encores. Her emotionally distressed performance of “How Can I” gave the night a proper benediction: “I’m going back East where I belong.”