Monday , April 15 2024
How I almost missed the best concert of the summer.

Concert Review: Guster & Ray LaMontagne with Fruitbats, Birmingham, AL July 23, 2006

Before The Fruitbats took the stage Sunday night for a pleasant, if forgettable, performance, I was reminded of two important life lessons.

Lesson 1:  Take nothing for granted.  Be prepared.

Lesson 2:  There really are more good people than bad.  Don’t let anyone tell you any different.

This column was nearly “The Review That Wasn’t.”  I have no idea how I got Murphy’s attention.  I guess a soul is easily distracted when all it has to look forward to is an eternity in Hell with a hot poker crammed up the ass.  Whatever the case, ol’ Murph managed to get my name somehow removed from the guest list to the show. 

As my heart sank, anger led to hatred and hatred led me closer to the Dark Side.  It was time for another showdown between me and ol’ man Murphy.  I thought I could hear Satan tuning his golden fiddle in the background, but it might have been “Dueling Banjos” to account for the current state of Murphy’s arse.  Either way, the music in Hell is atrocious, which ought to make anyone want to repent.

As I reflected on the situation while preparing for my battle, I realized it was my arrogance that managed to tweak the man with the law named in his honor.  I was sure I would be on the list and everything would be fine so I did not bother to print out the e-mail confirming this and including a phone number to call if there were any problems. 

It’s not that the Murphy fellow does not have a right to be bitter – being buggered by a flaming salad fork is enough to make anyone a little grumpy.  Keeping me from seeing Guster just seemed a little on the completely unreasonable side.  I have written about them twice in my Confessions of a Fanboy series (Vol. 6 with Mark Saleski and Vol. 7 on my own), and Saleski and I have discussed them on the BCRadio Podcast more than once.  Guster and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have shared the role of “Musical Obsession of the Moment” for the past couple months.  Missing this show would have been horribly unfair.  The stakes were high and my asscheeks were clenched mightily.  The moment of truth was upon us.

Fortunately, Lesson 2 came to the rescue and I was able to continue my reflections while seated in a plush, red velvet seat inside the historic Alabama Theater.  I never did catch the name of the outstanding member of Team Guster who pulled the string and got me admitted to the show.  I got to thank him before and after and I thank him again, here.  The 90 minutes I drove to Birmingham would have sucked only slightly less than the 90 minutes I would have had to drive home having not seen anything. 

I knew nothing about the Alabama Theater when I arrived and would never have learned the small pieces of trivia I now know had everything gone smoothly.  I read about its construction in 1927 and near demolition in the ’80s because I was standing on the outside, looking in to see if I was going to get a ticket or not.  The theater is now a protected landmark and it really is wonderful. 

It would sound pretentious to declare, “This is what a rock show should be.”  So, I won’t.  I will instead say it is what a rock show can be.  There are a few dickless killjoys out there who will try to convince you that you cannot have fun at a show with serious music and if the music is not serious, it sucks.  Scan the radio and it is easy to understand how these snobs came to this boneheaded conclusion.  Guster is antidote for that kind of thinking.  This is a band that can write songs about something or nothing and deliver it without being oppressively bleak in sound or outlook.  The sincerity and quick wit of frontman Ryan Miller is part of the fun of a Guster show – and make no mistake, fun is a crucial ingredient of their concert experience.

The highlight of the evening was “Ruby Falls.”  It is the best song on their new album, Ganging Up on the Sun.  The performance was stellar up to Adam’s “adventurous” trumpet solo (Miller’s words, not mine) at the end of the song.  The trumpet solo was not bad and it seemed obvious Adam was more interested in having fun with it than faithfully recreating the jazziness of the part as heard on the album.  The spontaneous eruption of applause (started by a very objective member of the new media) after one of the many moving passages during the song suggests others in the audience were impressed as well.  The songs from GUOTS (eight of them were played and, somehow, first single “One Man Wrecking Machine” was not one of them) sounded best, notably “Satellite” and the aforementioned “Ruby Falls.”

Some Guster purists will likely hate my other highlight of the show.  The new, full-band arrangement of “Airport Song” blows away the version on the album.  It is almost a different song than the version that first appeared on Goldfly.  The song has been extended, the arrangement expanded.  The psychedelic freakout caused the guy sitting next to me to ask if he was having a flashback.

As with last week’s show, I brought my reporter’s notebook (I was not completely unprepared for the evening) with the intention of jotting down pertinent details for this review.  I found myself barely able to keep up the setlist during Guster’s performance.  I was having way too much fun enjoying the music and the performance to sit and make stodgy notes.  In fact, I didn’t sit.  Once.  During the entire set.  I can tell you what songs they played and I can tell you I sang along with them and got a lot of the words right.  I recognized everything, even if I had to look some of the titles up the next day.  I found out I know Keep it Together and Ganging Up on the Sun pretty well but could stand to brush up on my Lost and Gone Forever

I was sure the band would return after playing “I Spy” at the end of their encore because they had yet to play “One Man Wrecking Machine.”  I was right, but for the wrong reason.  They did return, but not to play “Wrecking Machine.”  I would have lost money before the show because I never dreamed they wouldn’t play it. 

I would like to have heard it and was shocked they didn’t play it, but the two songs at the top of my wish list for the evening were “Ruby Falls” and “Jesus on the Radio.”  When I saw Joe carrying his banjo as the band walked to the front of the stage, I knew my second wish was about to be granted.  They played “Jesus on the Radio” sans microphones, asking the crowd to be perfectly quiet as they gave one more song before leaving. 

Murphy, you got served.

Ray LaMontagne’s set drew heavily from his 2004 debut, Trouble.  He is slated to release the follow up to Trouble on August 29, 2006, and he did perform a pair of songs from the upcoming release.  For one of the new songs, he brought out Rachel Yamagata to sing backing vocals and also performed the new set’s title track, “Till the Sun Turns Black.”

That twit Taylor Hicks may run around calling himself the Soul Patrol (or some stupid thing like that), but he cannot hold a candle to LaMontagne when it comes to pipes.  It is not, perhaps, the most obvious comparison, but the first moment I heard him sing on stage, it jumped immediately to mind.  People are falling all over themselves to embrace phony, wannabe soul while an artist like LaMontagne is on a different trajectory entirely when it comes to commercial success. 

His music is genuine, almost to a fault.  It sounds, to me, like coffeehouse music.  I don’t mean that dismissively at all.  He is a talented singer/songwriter and his performance was intense and evocative.  The world seems so much more romantic in his universe.  It just wasn’t a whole lot of fun and that makes the pairing with Guster more than a little odd.

And it showed during the performance.  It’s not that Guster fans were rude to LaMontagne, but I am not sure they knew what to make of it.  There were a handful of people in the audience who turned out to sit and watch LaMontagne but most of the crowd came to party with Guster and the between-song catcalls were embarrassing. 

Repeatedly, fans called out for him to play “Trouble” as if he was going to skip the title track from his only released album.  At one point, I saw him whispering to his bandmates and even though I did want to hear the song, I was privately hoping he was telling them to skip it – or perhaps telling them he wanted to play it now and shut everyone up.  He maintained his composure and worked his way through the set, occasionally mumbling a word of thanks to the crowd. 

And yes, he played “Trouble.”

Guster Setlist:

  1. Careful
  2. Barrel of a Gun
  3. Ramona
  4. Satellite
  5. New Underground
  6. Come Downstairs and Say Hello
  7. Manifest Destiny
  8. Long Way Down
  9. Airport Song
  10. Ruby Falls
  11. Captain
  12. Center of Attention
  13. Hang On
  14. Amsterdam
  15. [Happy Birthday to drummer Brian “The Thundergod” Rosenworcel]
  16. Happier
  17. Lightning Rod
  18. C’mon
  19. I Spy
  20. Jesus on the Radio

About Josh Hathaway

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