I don't go to a lot of shows anymore—not after spending years being forced to go to a million clubs to check out a zillion crappy bands as an A&R guy, and not in the midst of the new golden age of episodic TV, which makes the living room my primary entertainment destination (Big Love and Mad Men rule). But last weekend, I decided on a double shot of live music, and I didn't have to twist Peggy's arm, cuz the prospects were too good to pass up: spend a weekend freeloading with our friend Cindy on the Mesa in Santa Barbara, and heading over to the impossibly picturesque County Bowl on consecutive nights to see Crowded House on Saturday and Wilco on Sunday.
Formed a decade apart and half a world away from each other, Crowded House (Auckland, 1985) and Wilco (Chicago, 1995) turn out to have a whole lot in common. Both bands are led by supremely talented, disarming and charismatic writer/singer/guitarists in Neil Finn and Jeff Tweedy, both sport sounds rooted in the 1960s and ’70s, and both enrich songs that would be memorable presented with just a vocal and acoustic guitar with intricate detail, while always leaving space to stretch out, particularly in live performance, at which both excel.
This outing would take place just two weeks after I made my first amphitheater foray of the summer to see Squeeze with Fountains of Wayne at the Greek, an experience recounted in the previous entry—an IM exchange with sometime fellow Music Snob Roy Trakin. We’d disagreed about where to put Squeeze in the rock firmament; remembering Andrew Sarris' useful categories for filmmakers, I’d said Far Side of Paradise might best describe the band's status, and I later added that I'd probably put Crowded House (who remind me of Squeeze in terms of their roots in the Beatles and their inventive melodies and chordings) on the same level of significance.
But after seeing them Saturday night, I'm tempted to make a claim for the band’s bona fide greatness. The fact that they have a real grower of a new album in Time on Earth enabled CH to sprinkle the setlist with new material without disrupting the flow. It’s no small thing that recent songs like “Nobody Wants To,” “Heaven That I’m Making” “People Are Like Suns” and the epic “Silent House” (written with the Dixie Chicks, who recorded it on their latest LP, Taking the Long Way).
I’ll confess that I’d forgotten how staggeringly good Crowded House has always been at elevating Finn’s songs to godhead onstage. And that has never been any more deliriously evident than it was on a gorgeous Saturday night, under a nearly full moon and wispy clouds, with this new lineup. From the opening number, “Private Universe,” which the band turned into a withering anthem in the manner of Neil Young & Crazy Horse at their best, it was dramatically evident that this was far from the mellow, tuneful pop band most people imagine when they think of the group’s records—on this night they reached for, and sustained for two hours, all-out majesty.
American keyboardist/guitarist Mark Hart, who was on hand for the final phase of CH’s first incarnation, plays a truly essential part now, expanding the band’s sound with deftly executed accents, including some tasty forays on lap steel, singing spot-on harmonies and taking flight alongside Finn as he elevates the solo sections into the stratosphere. Even more surprising was the virtuosic muscularity of new drummer Matt Sherrod, an Angeleno best known for his work with Beck, who drove the band's forward movement onstage with the chugging mass of a locomotive—and looks like he's having a blast while he's at it, which adds to the momentum and helps make CH as fun to watch as to listen to. Afterward, Cindy said, "Geat show," just like that—she italicized it. Peg and I seconded that emotion. We practically levitated back to the car.
What stunned me was that Crowded House’s set turned out to be even more memorable than Wilco’s, though both bands put the pedal to the metal in the rarefied dimension they share—stretching out the songs and taking them somewhere truly magical and previously unexplored (which is how Deadheads view the live experience, I imagine). That’s not to disparage Wilco, who were transporting as well once they warmed up after a slow start—apparently looking for a way to connect with the mellow crowd (they live in paradise, after all), like boxers feeling each other out. The first four or five numbers were beautifully played but distant, and the crowd sat passively, as if watching a recital.
That changed when they launched into “Impossible Germany,” the extended three-guitar symphony that is the sublime high point of the band’s latest opus, Sky Blue Sky, with Tweedy and the versatile Pat Sansone playing Allmanesque harmony lines while the alarmingly gifted Nels Cline danced around them like a punk Nureyev. The moment of explosion that takes climaxes the song was also the moment when people in the crowd not only got to their feet but started moving toward the stage—and that was all Tweedy and company needed to take the performance to another level of intensity. From that point onward it just kept getting better, and, as with Crowded House, the drummer quaterbacked the coordinated rhythms of the other players. Glen Kotche proved to be a force of nature, soaked to the skin on this cool night, his hair flattened against his skull, sweat flying off him, grinning like he was exactly where he wanted to be in the universe. It was a sheer joy to watch him.
The rest of the set was as rocked-out as it was disciplined, and a bunch of the irresistible highlights came off the new album, like the Cline showcase "Side With the Seeds," a rhapsodic "On and On and On" and "Walken," which seemed to contain all the best parts of my record collection, from the Beatles to Kings of Leon. They topped off by a raging workout on “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which gave these focused players a chance to really let it all hang out in what has become a signature fusion of control and abandon.
They had to encore with “California Stars,” which seemed to have been designed especially for this lovely spot on this glorious moonlit evening.
For a compare and contrast, click here to read Roy's thoughts about Wilco's show Wednesday night at the Greek (you may need to do a ridiculously simple registration). It's on the site we jointly edit (so to speak), hitsdailydouble.com. I get up early to do the morning shift; he stays up late going to shows three or four times a week, so he takes afternoons. We like to think of it as a synergistic relationship.