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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Jack White shreds — his guitar and his songs — in show that’s basically all over the place

Maybe there’s something to be said for zigging when everyone wants you to zag.

Case in point: Jack White’s third solo album “Boarding House Reach” easily has been the most critically derided of his career, delivering musical and lyrical “What is he thinking?” moments every few minutes in what could be interpreted as a willing attempt to challenge as many fans as possible.

Jack White performs Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, at the Austin Music Hall. Matthew Danser/For American-Statesman 2015

And yet, the Detroit native is at probably the most commercially successful point in his career, playing to packed arenas and amphitheaters around the country on a tour that looked close to selling out Austin360 Amphitheater on Wednesday night. Rather than turning away, White’s fans appear to be embracing his “We’ll try anything” approach, which has grown unchecked since retiring the White Stripes and saying farewell to his once-promising side projects.

If White’s fans were seeking a musical mystery tour he comfortably wore his captain’s hat on Wednesday, letting the material from his three solo albums squeal and sprawl all over the place and dramatically reworking material from the White Stripes’ catalog with a four-piece backing band that at times rendered the songs unrecognizable.

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The degree to which White was willing to bend and reshape old material was teased early, with a medley that featured snippets of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the Raconteurs’ “Broken Boy Soldier” and early White Stripes favorite “Astro” swirled in noise, feedback and a cloud of other effects from his two keyboard players.

That those came after two new cuts – “Over And Over And Over” and “Corporation,” which itself is more a musical idea than a full song – provided a contrast that would remain for the bulk of White’s 100 minutes: The new stuff is pretty far out there and won’t get messed with too much, but everything else is getting chopped and shredded.

It’s worth saying that as adventurous as White was on “Boarding House Reach,” it contains a flat-out great rock song (“Connected By Love”) and a synthy thought experiment that was a somber highlight Wednesday (“Why Walk A Dog?”) that should keep their places in the meaty upper middle of his songbook. If they have to share a set with the rapping misfire of “Ice Station Zebra” and complete mess that is “Hypermisophoniac,” well, sometimes we’ve just gotta pay that freight as an audience.

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It helps that White was able to regularly follow the curiosities with moments of delight, such when the instrumental guitar shredding of “Battle Cry” gave way to a honky tonk reimagining of “Hotel Yorba” that chugged atop a new upright piano feature, with a mostly straight playing of the easy pop nugget “My Doorbell” providing a welcome 1-2 punch of familiar but not rote material.

By the time the send-‘em-home-happy riff of “Seven Nation Army” rang out, with the audience overhead clapping to the tribal stomp of White’s most defining song, both artist and fans celebrated the moment and the journey. A Jack White show is certain to be chock full of moments unexpected, with enough of the familiar favorites to keep both coming back again and again.

Set list:

Over And Over And Over
Corporation
I Wanna Be Your Dog/Broken Boy Soldiers/Astro (medley)
Battle Cry
Hotel Yorba
My Doorbell
Hypermisophoniac
Blunderbuss
Missing Pieces
I Think I Smell A Rat
Why Walk A Dog?
Astro (reprise)
Trash Tongue Talker
Love Interruption
Little Bird
Connected By Love
Slowly Turning Into You

Encore:

Sixteen Saltines
Ice Station Zebra
We Are Gonna Be Friends
Lazaretto
Seven Nation Army

Waxahatchee makes us feel — a lot — on final night of Levitation Fest

You can’t call it a disconnect. But it was certainly an odd juxtaposition to watch couples embraced and swaying back and forth in reverie Sunday night at Mohawk while Waxahatchee front woman Katie Crutchfield spent a good chunk of her hour on stage reliving the tales of romance crashed on the rocks that fueled her latest album, “Out In The Storm.”

Waxahatchee. Photo contributed by Michael Rubenstein

It says a lot about the power of Crutchfield as both a singer and live performer that she’s able to connect with her audience and stir their own emotions so deeply. And it helps that she seems to have put some emotional distance – or maybe just time – between herself and the parties on the other end of her “What went wrong?” lyrics. Her songs aren’t open wounds so much as scars that provide character and memories of things best left in the past.

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Sunday’s concert – the band’s last of a tour with Hurray for the Riff Raff – came on the final night of this year’s reconfigured Levitation Fest, which put a few dozen shows in clubs all over downtown over four days.

With the festival’s expanded scope in recent years after its start roughly a decade ago as Austin Psych Fest, hosting distinct shows in different venues made it possible for a night of female-fronted pop-rock bands to seem of a piece with other Levitation attractions like industrial legends Ministry or Austin’s Black Angels.

Starting the night alone on stage with her acoustic guitar, it didn’t take long for Crutchfield’s versatile and arresting vocals to take the spotlight. Whether in a solo and sparse setting or cutting through the swirl of melodies provided by her bandmates for the majority of the show, the singer has one of the most distinct and impressive vocal instruments in music right now and she puts it to maximum use.

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New songs like “Recite Remorse” and “Sparks Fly” seemed to shine the best – Waxahatchee’s latest 2017 is its most sturdily produced, feeling at times like the best possible marriage of Neil Young songwriting heft with Sheryl Crow’s pop ear – but there wasn’t a duff note on the evening.

Over the course of 60 minutes the band showed a strong, fluid control of the material and framed Crutchfield as a performer who should be regarded as among the best of her peers. And it didn’t hurt that she closed the night as she began; solo and acoustic, with a kinda raw run through “Fade” giving the lovebirds in the crowd one more chance to hold tight, to their partners and the moment they were sharing.

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.”

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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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It’s a Deal: We will follow wherever the Breeders want to go

There’s a decent argument to be made that Kim Deal has had one of the most free range, “do what I want, when I want” careers in music.

The Breeders perform Saturday, April 21, at Emo’s in Austin. Kyser Lough/For American-Statesman

From a late ‘80s/early ‘90s string of classic records with the Pixies to soon after finding fame at the height of MTV’s infatuation with college/indie/alternative rock – that thanks to out-of-nowhere hit single ”Cannonball” with the Breeders – Deal has spent much of the past 20 years proudly and weirdly going her own way.

That could mean fans would be given sporadic, odd side projects such as the Amps, a Breeders record at completely unpredictable intervals, or the occasional Pixies reunion that was good for nostalgia and shoring up its members’ bank accounts.

Out on the road in support of the characteristically odd but charming album “All Nerve,” Deal and her bandmates – sister/guitarist Kelley Deal, bassist Josephine Wiggs, drummer Jim Macpherson – took to the stage at Emo’s on Saturday exuding a carefree, shaggy sort of energy that quickly meshed with the crowd who viewed the Deal sisters as heroes who have turned a try-anything spirit into a multi-decade career.

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That meant kicking things off with a salvo of standout cuts – “New Year,” “No Aloha,” “Divine Hammer” – from career peak album “Last Splash” within the first 15 minutes, moving a near-capacity crowd into singalong ease while Kelley Deal bended her guitar tones with a slide and joined Kim Deal on vocals that switched from a coo to accusatory angst in a flash.

A few words here about Kim Deal’s voice as a featured instrument: It’s distinct, in the most nontraditional way possible. Breathy and distant yet captivating, Deal succeeds at using her voice as a distinct element of sound and as the means to communicate the many vagaries and joys of this human existence. The question becomes whether the songs she uses them to frame hold up, and occasionally on a mid-set tune like “Safari,” it felt like the band was performing a self-important art piece rather than a thoughtfully recorded song.

The Breeders perform Saturday, April 21, at Emo’s in Austin. Kyser Lough/For American-Statesman

Those moments were spare, thankfully, and on the whole the band’s compact 85-minute set was high on energy, confidence and veteran savvy. So much so that running out “Cannonball” in the home stretch before the encore felt like a perfect move. Why save it for later ? Just have fun.

Watching the band zooming all over its catalog on Saturday night, making creative left turns in their pacing and style almost at random, one gets the feeling that Kim Deal and company feel almost no pressure to live up to anyone’s expectations, which is exactly how they kept the whole room bubbling with effervescent energy the whole night.

After doing her own thing for this long, there’s no reason to change course now.

Set list:
New Year
Wait In The Car
All Nerve
No Aloha
Divine Hammer
Huffer
Glorious
Dawn: Making An Effort
Safari
Drivin’ On 9
Walking With A Killer
Fortunately Gone
S.O.S.
Off You
I Just Wanna Get Along
Cannonball
Happiness Is A Warm Gun (Beatles cover)
Skinhead #2
MetaGoth
Gigantic (Pixies cover)

Encore:
Do You Love Me Now
Nervous Mary
Saints

UPDATE: This post has been updated because the Breeders did do a tour several years ago where they played “Last Splash” from beginning to end, including an Austin show.

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Review: ACL Live isn’t ACL Live without St. Vincent

By Bryan Rolli, special to the Statesman

“There is no place in the world I’d rather be than right here in Texas,” Annie Clark — better known by her stage name, St. Vincent — said three songs into her Thursday night ACL Live set, beaming as the audience applauded wildly.

Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, plays Thursday, Feb. 22, at ACL Live. ERIKA RICH/For American-
Statesman

I, on the other hand, would have preferred she move 6 inches to the left.

A moving curtain obscured three-quarters of the stage for the first several songs of Clark’s 90-minute performance, blocking many viewers’ lines of sight. Not exactly the best way to build momentum, but if the show opened with a smolder instead of a roaring flame, it also served to represent Clark’s metamorphosis into a live solo artist. The avant-garde pop star’s decision to perform without a backing band on her Fear the Future tour has polarized some fans, but her steely determination and cacophonous outbursts proved so captivating that, by the time the curtains opened completely to reveal the singer in a pink leather bodysuit and matching thigh-high boots, it was clear St. Vincent would be running her own show. (She plays a second show Friday night.)

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Clark has divided her current tour into two acts, the first a chronological romp through her first four albums: 2007’s “Marry Me,” 2009’s “Actor,” 2011’s “Strange Mercy” and 2014’s “St. Vincent.” As the demure pop leanings of her earlier material gave way to more abrasive sonic textures, the author lost herself amidst the explosive beats and disorienting strobe lights. She wrung dissonant slabs of noise from her signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitar and spat off the stage during “Cheerleader,” swishing the lyrics around in her mouth before delivering them with a sneer: “I don’t wanna be your cheerleader no more.”

She wasn’t. We were all hers.

Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, plays Thursday, Feb. 22, at ACL Live. ERIKA RICH/For American-
Statesman

Moments like these showed Clark’s penchant for vintage arena rock largesse, but she displayed pop star candor when she unstrapped her guitar and sat down in the center of the stage to sing the vulnerable alt-ballad “Strange Mercy.” Artists often use their stage personas to build a wall between themselves and their fans, but Clark eagerly engaged the audience between cathartic performances.

“We all know the world is on fire right now and everything is insane. We’re at a crucial arc in human history,” she said before playing electro-funk banger “Digital Witness,” whose “What’s the point of even sleeping?” refrain sounds like Prince’s “1999” updated for disenfranchised millennials. “But you know what? There’s always something to dance about. There’s always something to be joyful about. So let’s (expletive) go!”

Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, plays Thursday, Feb. 22, at ACL Live. ERIKA RICH/For American-
Statesman

Clark devoted act two exclusively to her latest album, October’s “Masseduction.” A close-up of the singer wearing a stupefied expression swelled on the video screen behind her and gave way to the album’s crackling opener, “Hang on Me.” Surrealistic videos of crumbling telephone cakes, bandaged women receiving plastic surgery and hyperspace time travel accompanied other songs, and Clark hurled herself into the material with such vigor that an already-spirited act one turned out to be merely a warm-up. She ripped tasteful solos on the hypnotic “Los Ageless” and the sensual “Savior,” and she silenced the room with the spellbindingly melancholy “Happy Birthday, Johnny.”

Before playing the yearning, towering “New York,” which solicited the loudest applause of the night, Clark thanked the audience for their enthusiasm and boasted that she had “been to at least two keg parties here when my sister was at UT.” She buttered them up further by changing the song’s opening line — “New York isn’t New York without you, love” — to something more geographically appropriate: “Austin isn’t Austin without Texans.”

“It’s a little bit of circular logic, but just go with it,” she deadpanned after the ad-lib. And go with it, we did — because ACL Live isn’t ACL Live without St. Vincent.

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Roger McGuinn guides Austin audience through a six-decade musical journey

By Wes Eichenwald, special to the American-Statesman

In recent years, there probably haven’t been too many reviews of Roger McGuinn’s solo concerts that fail to mention either his age – currently 75 – or the enduring clarity and versatility of his tenor voice, which helped define 1960s commercial folk rock via the Byrds, the group he co-founded in 1964 with Gene Clark and David Crosby.

Roger McGuinn. Photo contributed by John Chiasson

Dressed largely in black and gray, with a rakishly tilted hat, McGuinn spoke and sung his way through a nearly two-hour account of his six decades in the music world on Saturday at the Paramount Theatre.

Alternately standing and playing, and sitting in a chair amid potted plants, three guitars and a banjo – the instruments seeming as organic in this setting as the plants – McGuinn, in a self-directed interview of sorts, conversed easily about his early life in Chicago, becoming inspired to perform from hearing Elvis on the radio (upon which he sang a few bars of “Heartbreak Hotel”), and spun tales of his eventful life, from his early days with folk groups the Chad Mitchell Trio and the Limeliters and pop singer Bobby Darin to later encounters with Bob Dylan and the Beatles. McGuinn spun a hypnotic mood in his stories-behind-the-songs tour de force, weaving a connecting thread between the likes of “Rock Island Line” and old sea shanties and gospel hymns, through to the Byrds hits “Mr. Spaceman,” “Eight Miles High,” and “Chestnut Mare.”

Roger McGuinn’s simple stage design for his solo concert tour. Contributed by Wes Eichenwald

With the precision of the folk-music archivist he’s been for over 20 years, McGuinn noted that he’d last played the Paramount in May 1991 and said some kind words about the efforts to preserve and maintain beautiful old theaters. McGuinn knows something about historical preservation, archiving a large number of traditional folk songs on the “Folk Den” section of his website and recording a four-CD set from the archive.

If McGuinn was at the right places at the right time to ride the waves from the cresting folk scene at the dawn of the ‘60s through his glory days with the Byrds, he also made clear he was willing to throw twists and turns into his musical career – as when, refusing to have the Byrds be pigeonholed as either folk rock or psychedelic, he related how they went to Nashville in 1968 to record the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album, helping to pioneer country rock in the process.

McGuinn showcased his vocal versatility on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” singing it first much as Dylan did in the original version, then as McGuinn reimagined it with an ear to radio airplay, with the help of Bach and his inner Beatle filter (from the first time he heard the Beatles, McGuinn recognized folk chord changes in the songs and realized the potential of “Beatleizing” songs with folk bones).

The audience of mainly graying baby-boomers ate up McGuinn’s clinic, rising easily for more than one standing ovation. Yet it wasn’t just a nostalgic exercise, it was a compelling journey to the still-beating heart of ‘60s folk, rock, and assorted creative exercises from the mind, throat, and hands of a master musician.

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