Seven years have passed since Garbage graced the world with their distorted pop craft and I’m not sure we could survive another seven without them. Roaring back to life last week with a few shows in California, the band arrived at The Pearl in Las Vegas fresh and in fine form. Opening with “Supervixen”, the band ripped through the best of their catalog and added three gripping songs from the upcoming album Not Your Kind Of People. Shirley Manson took control of the night early and never let go of the crowd. The boys in the band crafted the sonic landscapes around her and she punched through them time and time again. “Metal Heart” sounded ferocious but turned out to be just a small dose of the power that followed soon after with “Why Do You Love Me”. The band nailed the breaks as Manson strutted in circles behind them constantly on the move. Even for a fan of the band, the sheer quantity of classic Garbage tracks stuffed into one night was mind blowing. For a band about to release only its fifth studio album, there was barely room to fit all the favorites into the twenty song set. New tracks “Blood For Poppies” and “Man On A Wire” offered no respite from the sonic onslaught and sound every bit as exciting as the more familiar hits. Emotionally struck by the crowd’s love, Manson thanked the fans time and time again for sticking with them over the years and added a third new track to the end of the encore. For Garbage fans eagerly anticipating the new album, ending the night by looking at what lies ahead made for a perfect evening.
Thirty years have slipped right by since Duran Duran’s debut single “Planet Earth” introduced the Fab Five to the world via dance clubs and later, MTV. On Friday night at The Joint in Las Vegas, the band took the stage with a confident swagger. Their latest album All You Need Is Now represents another career peak for a band that withstood years of 80′s backlash only to return stronger than ever. The strength of the new material created a seamless music experience where nostalgia drenched classics like “A View To A Kill” flowed into new tracks like “Girl Panic!” without any loss of momentum. Dropping some notable hits like “Girls On Film” and “Save A Prayer” to make room for the new songs is a risky move but the band pulled it off wonderfully. The band’s early interest in disco and R&B, particularly Nile Rodgers and Chic, was celebrated on “Safe” as mirrored balls spun on the large video screens that adorned the stage. John Taylor’s bass guitar throbbed brightly throughout the night and Roger Taylor’s drumming adds a unique dimension to the band’s sound that was lost in the years that he was absent from Duran Duran. Simon LeBon’s voice, often the band’s weakest link, sounded stronger than ever especially on the soaring “Ordinary World”. While the packed venue erupted for “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “Rio”, it was “Careless Memories” that packed the biggest emotional punch for long time fans. The second single from their 1981 debut, the song stalled on the charts at the time but sounded more alive than ever. The same could be said for the band. Introducing their music to a new generation at this year’s Coachella and the critical acclaim for the new album is making 2011 one of Duran Duran’s best years in music. Tonight’s live performance provided a powerful reminder of the band’s lasting impact on music and, even better, was a ridiculous amount of fun.
The Joy Formidable are the best live act in rock and roll. Two shows at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas left no doubt. When this band takes the stage in support of Foo Fighters later this year, their sonic assault will establish them within the music world and these small shows in front of a few hundred hungry souls will dissipate into the ether. Those who have caught these early rumblings on U.S. soil will treasure the memories, the set lists, and most of all, the massive wave of music delivered in such small spaces. The band’s music is born for stadiums where the nuclear blasts of noise can be witnessed best.
Opening both nights with ‘A Heavy Abacus’, Ritzy Bryan wastes little time winning over the curious in attendance and the push towards the stage swells. Rhydian Dafydd’s bass runs through a maze of pedals to create sticky fuzz under Bryan’s diamond bright guitar notes. The sheer madness of Matt Thomas on the drum kit drives the music ferociously forward with unbridled joy. Unintentional, the choice of the band’s name feels apropos when you witness the interplay of the three musicians on stage. On the second night, the crowd keeps clapping along as ‘Austere’ winds to a close and, smiling, the band exchanges glances and fire off a few more minutes of music with punkish glee.
The Saturday set list offers up two changes and both are brilliant additions to the set. ‘The Magnifying Glass’ tightens the band’s sound into a small fist that seeks out your gut while ‘I Don’t Want To See You Like This’ is a sprawling horizon dotted with multiple pop hooks and electrifying breaks. Upon arriving in Las Vegas, the band’s first stop was a local radio station where the songs were stripped down to two acoustic guitars and a few small drums. For all the attention the band’s huge sound receives, it is the songs within the noise that make The Joy Formidable a special outfit. Intelligent songwriting can survive in any climate and the band weaves together influences like Elvis Costello and the Beatles before layering it in their unique blend of distortion and mystery.
Both nights end the same with unhinged takes on the band’s most popular single to date ‘Whirring’. Bryan and Dafydd spin into each other and instruments become weapons of sound as they fall to their knees and tweak every knob on the intricate pedal boards at their feet. The droning notes continue to pulse as the band says goodnight and leaves the stage in disarray. The eight songs fly by in a little under an hour each night but the power of the performance leaves the crowd exhausted and ecstatic. This is rock and roll.
The Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas wrapped up their summer of 80′s concerts with synth-pop icon Howard Jones. Hosted by original MTV VJ Nina Blackwood, the series was executed extremely well and brought the likes of Wang Chung and Men Without Hats to the streets of downtown Vegas. Ending with Howard Jones was a smart move as his songwriting and innovative use of technology set him apart during MTV’s best years. Opening with fan favorite ‘Pearl In the Shell’, Jones displayed a lighthearted attitude towards the festival setting. Finding the right balance between nostalgia and art can be almost impossible for an artist that most in attendance remember for one song (‘No One Is To Blame’). His red zippered ‘Beat It’ style leather jacket and sparkling pants certainly played to the expectations of those who remember the 80′s as a shiny decade of ridiculous fashion. However, throughout the set, Jones’ music rose above the setting and offered more to those willing to listen. Digging deep into his early albums, ‘Look Mama’ from 1985′s Dream Into Action was dedicated to his mother who is losing her memory. The tale of a young boy fighting for emancipation from his parents was re-cast as a poignant tribute be a man grown wise with years. Pulling extensively from his stunning debut Human’s Lib, Jones delighted old fans with rare tracks such as ‘Conditioning’ and ‘Equality’ nestled between the obligatory hits like ‘Life In One Day’, ‘What Is Love’ and ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. While other 80’s synth-pop acts are fondly remembered (everybody wants to do the safety dance), Jones floats under most radars and the reason was easy to spot on Saturday night. His catalog of smartly written synth-pop music cannot be laughed at or enjoyed with a wink by those starved for nostalgia. These songs have held up over the years and if you dug through the garages of many of today’s indie-pop bands, you’d certainly find some Jones cassettes. Returning for his encore, Jones delivered a few verses of The Killers’ ‘Human’, a fitting tribute to a Vegas band, sure, but also a band with synth-pop hooks that bear his influence. Those who came to sing along with ‘No One Is To Blame’ went home happy but Jones steered clear of the nostalgia drenched, theme park performances Hugh Grant delivered in Music And Lyrics. Finding the right balance as an artist and enjoying the performance can be difficult years after commercial success but Jones was more than game to continue what he started in 1984.
My Chemical Romance concluded their World Contamination Tour of North America in Las Vegas before a sold-out crowd at the House of Blues. The killjoy inspired fashion of their fans hinted at the evolution of the band’s music since becoming emo icons in 2002. The first signs were embedded on their 2006 rock opera The Black Parade where T. Rex inspired guitar riffs on songs like ‘Teenagers’ added a fuzzy glam to the darker gothic tones of the band’s earliest work. With 2010’s Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, the band took a risky artistic leap forward with a focused rock and roll sound that embraces everything from punk to arena rock. Delivering on the promise of the new album, My Chemical Romance tore into ‘Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)’ with a vengeance and played an unrelenting set that was leaner and meaner than anybody might expect. The audience began jumping and singing with the first line and Gerard Way had several thousand voices joining him the entire night. The adoring audience erupted with each teenage anthem from ‘Welcome To the Black Parade’ to ‘Helena’ while older songs like ‘Vampires Will Never Hurt You’ were received with almost as much enthusiasm. The songs from the latest album best fit the band’s new aesthetic and the stadium worthy ‘Sing’ sounded huge in the confines of the small club. Perhaps no song reflects the band’s streamlined rock and roll sound as well as ‘Summertime’, one of the strongest tracks on Danger Days. The song offers up a taste of what classic rock and roll will sound like on the radio in 20 years and needed no theatrics to get its message across. The decade of growth in the studio and on stage has produced a tight rock and roll outfit ready to inject modern music with some fun and energy. The Las Vegas concert was everything a fan of the band or just a fan of rock and roll could hope for. Opening act The Architects played straight up punk that sounded so good, members of My Chemical Romance started joining them on stage to jam. It looked like it might be a perfect night of music. Almost. In between the two bands, Circa Survive played one of the worst sets I’ve ever seen live. Thankfully, My Chemical Romance took all of three seconds to erase the pain and start kicking ass.
Elvis Costello & The Imposters’ Revolver Tour featuring the Spectacular Spinning Songbook arrived at The Palms in Las Vegas sans their spinning wheel. A Friday the 13th in Las Vegas was more than enough novelty though and Costello tore through a versatile and eclectic set list. Ripping into ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’ and ‘Heart Of the City’ to open the night, Costello’s punk spirit sounded intact and no less alive than when he first arrived on record in 1977. Without the spinning wheel, the band kept the focus on his endless songbook from the classic ‘Everyday I Write The Book’ to ‘A Slow Drag With Josephine’, an acoustic gem from 2010’s National Ransom which could have easily been mistaken for a lost classic from Tin Pan Alley in 1921. Costello worked his way through an exquisite collection of vintage guitars while The Imposters brought new life to even the most heard Costello classics. The crowd returned the energy and stayed on their feet most of the night as Costello roamed the front of the stage engaging them with his guitar licks as the sweet swirl of the Hammond B organ filled the theater. Returning to stage later in the night, and always the showman, Costello lamented the missing spinning wheel but joked there’s an app for that. On cue, an i-Pad appeared on stage with a camera trained on its screen as his attractive assistant brought a medley of women on stage to spin the little computer program. I Can Sing A Rainbow was chosen and the band obliged with color songs ‘Greenshirt’, ‘Red Shoes’, and a joyful sing along on Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ while the women danced happily around Costello. Closing with the favorites ‘Alison’, ‘Pump It Up’, and ‘Peace Love & Understanding’, the atmosphere felt like a party as a few more fans took the stage to dance and sing. One of the finest songwriters to ever play rock and roll, a deep set list, and a spirit of adventure turned the concert into an inspiring celebration of music for both the band and the audience.
Having received positive feedback at SXSW, a glowing review in NME, and with a Coachella appearance on the upcoming calendar, The Joy Formidable’s ferocious Colorado performance at the Larimer Lounger delivered on the promise of their recent debut album, the aptly titled The Big Roar. Catching this tour might be the last chance to see The Joy Formidable perform in smaller venues as their music and stage presence is set on epic.
Opening with ‘The Everchanging Spectrum Of A Lie’ (they also do song titles big), the band attacked the stage and never relented. The blistering, brief ‘The Magnifying Glass’ followed and contrasted the layered, soaring chorus of the opener with a succinct dose of confident punk. Singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan and bassist Rhydian Dafydd are a perfect pairing on stage constantly bouncing off each other and drawing energy from the crowd. Bryan’s charisma lies in her charming eyes that shine with delight as the band whips audiences into a fury. ‘The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade’ excitedly grew into a stadium-sized chorus while the post-punk darkness of ‘Buoy’ took a different path to an equally massive sound.
Holding together the swirling supernova of Bryan and Daffyd, drummer Matt Thomas adds a healthy dose of metal to the band’s noise by firing off the double bass pedal like a machine gun. On the massive closer ‘Whirring’, the thunder from behind the kit sounded like Lars Ulrich backing My Bloody Valentine as wall upon wall of distortion hit the audience while Bryan and Daffyd set about twisting every knob on their effects pedals while abusing their guitars. The guitars were tossed down on the stage and the band waved goodbye. After only eight songs, The Joy Formidable had conquered another club on their march towards greatness.
Describing Jake Shimabukuro as a ukulele player is sort of like calling Jimi Hendrix a guitar player. Revolutionizing the four stringed Hawaiian instrument, Shimabukuro’s success as an artist has taken the ukulele from kitsch to cool. In doing so, his music brings attention to a rich Hawaiian musical history that runs much deeper than Don Ho and ‘Tiny Bubbles’. Taking the stage alone with his ukulele in Henderson, NV, Jake sprinkled stories between each song to shed light on his originals while explaining the reasons behind the covers he ambitiously tackles each night. A Van Halen inspired ‘Bring Your Adz’ ignited the crowd as his fingers flew up and down the tiny neck of the ukulele employing techniques that would make Steve Vai blush. A few songs later, he turned his attention to traditional Japanese music with a gently plucked ‘Satura’. Using the ukulele as a percussion instrument on ‘Me & Shirley T’, Shimabukuro displayed the flair and dynamics of Rodrigo y Gabriela while again lifting the ukulele to new heights never thought possible. While he remains best known for a sparkling cover of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, his new album Peace Love Ukulele contains his most ambitious rock and roll cover to date. Taking Queen’s masterpiece ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and bringing it to life with the limited range of an ukulele is nothing less than brilliant and the crowd agreed. After the show, a line of aspiring ukulele players, young and old, stood in line to meet Jake and get their instruments signed. The visionary artist who inspired the musical evolution of the ukulele into mainstream music appeared more than happy to spend the rest of the evening talking music with the fans. That spirit of aloha towards fans might be even greater than the unattainable heights he reaches on stage.
The Hard Rock Cafe on Vegas Strip brought together two distinct bands on Saturday night with AM Taxi offering up a modern punk rock take on all things Springsteen while the legendary Saw Doctors rocked their way through twenty five years worth of material. AM Taxi are slightly less retro sounding than Gaslight Anthem but the heart on the sleeve passion makes them equally refreshing in music today. Having recently walked away from a disinterested major label, the band finds itself independent again or as singer Adam Krier told me last night, “we’re nothing now!” Their high energy performance makes you think they won’t be unsigned for too long. Music needs more bands like AM Taxi.
Going into the show, I was naive about The Saw Doctors. A few hours singing and dancing with their loyal fans certainly changed that. The band’s Irish sing-a-long’s are full of choruses that you know after just a single listen. The band displayed a warm hospitality to the fans and dug up lost treasures from their catalog that had the fans wildly excited. The slow ballads came along at just the right time and the crowd was happy to dance together as strangers became friends through the bond of music. When AM Taxi joined them during the encore, an impromptu ‘Hey Jude’ broke out with the crowd overpowering the band. Sensing the moment, the instruments were laid down and everyone sang together with glasses raised.
Eric Clapton’s 2011 tour rolled into Las Vegas on Saturday night and the legendary guitar player burned up the MGM Arena with a passionate set. Opening with ‘Key To the Highway’ from his Derek & the Dominos period, the set list headed deep into the blues and avoided a lot of the mainstream selections that the aging audience probably expected. Rather that another run through ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, Clapton dusted off the Cream classic ‘Badge’ and attacked it like a young blues musician looking to earn his stripes. Avoiding ‘Layla’ might have incited a riot in the audience but the live version was one of restraint, opting for a jazzy acoustic feel. The upbeat ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ inched further away from its reggae roots without losing it’s infectious vibe. Clapton’s voice, more weathered and tired than in his early years, better compliments his material. Like a quality wine, Clapton’s blues are aging to perfection.
The highlights of the show were the more obscure tracks including ‘Old Love’ and Bo Diddley’s ‘Before You Accuse Me’ from 1989′s Journeyman. Clapton’s guitar work on ‘Old Love’ might be one of the most memorable live moments I’ve witnessed to date. The smoothness of the fretwork allowed each note to deliver an emotional punch with his talented backing band leaving plenty of space for Slowhand to operate. With a tip of the hat to the bluesman who first inspired him, Clapton offered up two Robert Johnson covers including the popular ‘Crossroads’. It was the lesser known ‘Little Queen Of Spades’ that carried the most bite. Like Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and countless other blues musicians who plug into an amp in tiny bars every night of the week, Clapton plays for the love of the blues. On this tour, the set list shelves a few popular favorites but the rewards are great for both Clapton and his fans.