Category: Live review

Review: Kelly Clarkson with Blake Shelton, Reba McEntire at Nokia

Kelly Clarkson performs at the Nokia TheatreOne of the first notes I jotted during Kelly Clarkson’s show at the Nokia Theatre on Tuesday night was, simply, “She seems a little distant.” She and her band had already torn through two of her pop-rock songs, but Clarkson, whose bright, bubbly demeanor is one of her trademarks, had offered little other than a brief greeting and a couple smiles. 

Instead, the 29-year-old pop star and winner of the first season of “American Idol” had concentrated on offering her fans a taste of her stunning soprano and allowing her musicians a chance to warm up. As she sang lyrics from “Hazel Eyes”: “Broken up deep inside/But you won’t get to see these tears I cry,”  the words seemed to hit close to home.

That initial observation couldn’t have been more wrong. Turns out she was just getting situated, finding her balance -- and probably trying to contain her excitement at the evening to come.

By the time she closed 23 songs later with a rolling, riff-heavy version of “My Life Would Suck Without You,” Clarkson had covered Britney Spears ("Till the End of the World"), made the hall roar by shouting, “Who hates the gym?,” complained about a groin injury, shed tears (“I just Dr. Phil-ed myself,” she said, dabbing at her eyes), and pondered the past-tense grammatical construction of the verb “to duet.” 

Oh, and she had been joined onstage by some friends: Fellow first season “Idol” contestant Tamyra Grey, singer/songwriter Michelle Branch, country singer and “The Voice” star Blake Shelton, and the iconic singer/actor Reba McEntire. 

She was, in fact, the opposite of distant. She was wonderful, the kind of performer you want to sit down and have a beer with after the show and tell her how much you liked her. 

Touring in support of her recent album "Stronger," Clarkson’s concert tracked like one of her songs: a slow, tense beginning that gradually finds a groove, followed by some build-up, a hook, a big, inspiring series of climaxes, and goodbye.

That beginning groove arrived in the form of a string of hits stretching back to one of her first, the Max Martin/Dr. Luke produced "Since U Been Gone," which she performed with a rush of emotion. It was early evidence of how different Clarkson is from so many of her contemporaries in her spontaneity and grace, and how, by sheer force of will and a great sense of her strengths as a singer, she's managed to not only survive but prevail over the course of the decade when so many former "Idol" winners have vanished.

Part of it is her spirit. As she welcomed her first guest, Clarkson got blustery when discussing "Idol" peer Grey, whose star never rose the way Clarkson's did. The affection was sincere; you could see it in the way they locked into each others' eyes when singing "When You Believe," the 1998 Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston song from the animated film "Prince of Egypt." These were friends who'd been through the trenches together. 

When she introduced Branch, Clarkson seemed thrilled, and as Branch strummed out the chords to "Leave the Pieces," her hit with country duo the Wreckers, the excitement helped light up the oppressive darkness of Nokia Theatre, whose cavernous, unadorned nature can be a hurdle.

Shelton towered over Clarkson as they dueted (yes, Miss Clarkson, this is grammatically correct) on Jason Aldean's country hit "Don't You Want to Stay." She and Shelton have been working together on "The Voice" -- she's been one of his team's coaches -- and to see them stand alongside each other and sing the words to "Don't You Want to Stay" was to empathize with the temptations arising from the married Shelton singing along with someone as magnetic as Clarkson. 

Onward Clarkson marched, her band -- two guitars, bass, drums, keyboard and background singers -- working the songs without backing tracks, her set list wonderfully spontaneous, both of which are notable only because so many of her pop singing peers rely in concert on a skeletal band and a rigid set list with little variation from night to night. Clarkson's show was the opposite: It felt like a concert because it was a concert, not a production. 

Near the end, Clarkson told a story about singing along to her favorite music in her room, about being inspired while mouthing the words to her favorite Reba McEntire songs, and how that music shaped her. Given the guests who had already surprised us -- "I feel very popular tonight," she had said at one point -- it shouldn't have come as a surprise, but when Clarkson brought her onto the stage, the screeches were as loud as if she'd just introduced Justin Bieber. 

Clarkson and McEntire, separated in age but connected by voice, sang something that appeared first on Clarkson's 2005 album "Breakaway," but which the pair recorded for McEntire's "Duets" album -- "Because of You." The song, a devastating indictment that Clarkson wrote when she was 16 about her parents' divorce, mentions pain, heartbreak and death, and doesn't offer much in the way of hope. It's not, in fact, a song that her label wanted her to record.

But as is often the case with Clarkson, she won the argument, and proved her doubters wrong. As evidenced by Tuesday's show, she's getting pretty good at that. 

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-- Randall Roberts @liledit

Photo: Kelly Clarkson performs at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live as part of her "Stronger" tour on April 3, 2012. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Live review: Abigail Washburn at the Getty Center

Abigail Washburn at the Getty Center

On Saturday night, rain drizzled down on Los Angeles, and millions of invisible text messages, tweets, Instagrams and uploads traveled to and from satellites above. At the Getty Center, singer and banjo player Abigail Washburn and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch stood front stage in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium sans amplification or electricity and shouted and stomped out a gospel song called “Keys to the Kingdom,” about a place far beyond the orbiting marvels on high.

A rural hymn that stretches back nearly a century, “Keys” conveys passages from the Bible about the invincibility of faith — enduring, pre-Internet messages that made it from then to now effectively via human voice. It’s a song that Washburn, 32, knows well: Over the years, she’s recorded it not only as a solo artist but also as a member of the old-time groups Uncle Earl and the Sparrow Quartet (which also features her husband, banjo player Béla Fleck).

Continuing to tour in support of her solo album “City of Refuge” from last year, Washburn proved herself not only a remarkable messenger of musical sounds from the past — most specifically, the claw hammer-style of banjo playing — but also an illuminating entertainer willing to push old-soul ideas into the present. Over the course of the night, her musical partner Welch not only accompanied her on guitar but also added accents of muted trumpet, foot-tapped tambourine, keyboards and a voice sampler that enabled him to create on-the-spot harmonies.

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Live review: Ani DiFranco's show is fierce, tender

The singer-songwriter reveals a consistent vision and integrity in a stirring concert.

Ani DiFranco

Saturday night at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco joked that she'd finally gotten better at writing songs about happiness. But what the 41-year-old really revealed while juxtaposing old material with new was a consistency of political vision and artistic integrity that has only ripened with age.

Despite an ongoing ear infection that had forced her to cancel the previous night's concert, she delivered an 18-song show that was simultaneously fierce and tender.

DiFranco, who strapped on a revolving cast of guitars (one of which nearly dwarfed her slender frame), melded seamlessly with her sole accompanist -- master jazz drummer Herlin Riley. The two performed a set list drawn equally from fan favorites ("Gravel," "Swim," "Nicotine," "Marrow") and material from her new CD, "Which Side Are You On," whose title is drawn from her cover of the iconic Pete Seeger protest song.

Her conversational/confessional lyrics draw equally from folk and punk traditions, deftly straddling sensitive singer-songwriter interiority and snarling riot grrrl explosions. The crisp, clean sound at the Orpheum made it possible to take in the full dynamic of her work so that even new, unfamiliar material was within grasp.

It helped considerably that the packed house, though full of rabid Ani lovers, wasn't as gratingly intrusive as her crowd can sometimes be. Anyone who's been to a DiFranco show knows every pause can be filled with screamed declarations of love and lust that overshadow what's coming from the stage.

This night, though the air was often peppered with shouts of "I love you" and inquiries about the singer's 5-year-old daughter, the reverent largely hung on every word and sank admiringly into every extended jam, which cleared space for the numbers to be appreciated by everyone.

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Live: The Magnetic Fields at the Orpheum Theatre

Sam Davol and Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields

On Friday date night when Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields sang lines such as “I want you crawling back to me down on your knees,” or “No one will ever love you honestly / No one will ever love you for your honesty,” you could almost hear the cheaters in the crowd shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

Paying close attention to the words, in fact, was a wonderfully dangerous thing to do at the Orpheum Theatre, where the pop group, which is touring as a five piece in support of its new album “Love At the Bottom of the Sea,” played 24 songs about love and its many successes and failures -- mostly the latter -- via piano, cello, acoustic guitar, harmonium, ukulele and voice. 

Merritt’s one of the most lyrically adept songwriters of the last two decades, and draws on the history of popular song -- from the classic craftsmanship of Cole Porter to the '70s sticky pop of Abba -- to make smart, literate witty work that is often as biting,  gushing or cynical as it is expertly designed.

The songwriter has been releasing music as the Magnetic Fields since 1991, and is best known for the epic three-volume “69 Love Songs” from 1999 (though if you haven’t heard it, “Charm of the Highway Strip” is a '90s  masterpiece). The work consists of 69 songs about the joy and rush of love, and the desperation and disappointment that often follows. He and the group did nine of these songs, and dotted the set list with picture-perfect work from across the group's 10 studio albums.

The song choice showcased Merritt as a classicist who revels in perfectly symmetrical verses and choruses that capture and illuminate powerful emotions, be it longing, as on “Come Back from San Francisco” (“It can’t be all that pretty”), regret (“Busby Berkeley Dreams”), or obsession (the minute-long “Boa Constrictor”).  It’s this mixture of craft and precise melodic sense that makes Merritt’s work so engaging.

The songs he played from “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” broadened the cynicism and wit to include other themes. “The Horrible Party” featured the great scene-setting opening line, "Take me away from this horrible party and let me get back to mother,” and the vindictive “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre” features the couplets, “I know of a groovy place / Where every girl of every race / Age and bra size and IQ / Goes when she feels broke or blue.” That place, of course, is her husband’s secret apartment.  “Your Girlfriend’s Face” is a revenge fantasy involving a hit man, crystal meth and two dead bodies.  

And on “Andrew in Drag,” one of the best songs on the new album, Merritt described a night at a drag show -- “I don’t know why I even went / It’s really not my bag” -- turned upside down by the sight of a friend dressed as a woman onstage.  

Over the course of eight concisely rhymed verses he described a wealthy, woman-loving man thrown into a tornado of passion: “I’d sign away my trust fund / I would even sell the Jag / If I could spend my misspent youth / With Andrew in drag.” Like the best of his work, it was a novel disguised as a song, so rich with narrative expression that it’d take a volume to completely unpack. 

Though Merritt performs much of the music on his studio albums himself, the live incarnation of Magnetic Fields has long featured Claudia Gonson on piano and vocals, cellist Sam Davol and guitarist John Woo, all of whom where in typically elegant form on Friday. The core group was augmented by vocalist/ukulele player Shirley Simms, whose presence tilted the set list toward songs on which she has appeared over the years, including “Drive On, Driver” and “No One Will Ever Love You.” 

Between songs, Gonson served as the Merritt’s livelier foil. Unlike him, she’s a chatty, personable presence who works to bring out the lighter side of Merritt’s grumpiness. He introduced the song “Come Back from San Francisco” as about a “horrible, dreadful city to the north,” and set the tone for “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” with the description of it as “a horrible, horrible song.” 

Sometimes though his glumness gets tiresome and borders on shtick. Too, Merritt’s songs are occasionally too clever for their own good, and at their most self-indulgent feel like boastful exercises in flexing his lyrical muscle. “Goin’ Back to the Country” crossed that line, an irony-heavy song about escaping city life.

But that was the rare exception. For most of the evening, the Magnetic Fields presented extremely balanced work, both musically and lyrically nuanced. And, despite his protestations to the contrary, Merritt revealed himself to be a helpless, if skeptical, romantic.

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-- Randall Roberts
twitter.com/liledit

Photo: Stephin Merritt, right, and cellist Sam Davol, left, onstage as part of the Magnetic Fields at the Orpheum Theater, on Friday, March 23 2012. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times

Review: Andrew W.K. gets the Avalon to party hard

Andrew W.K. at Avalon
Rock singer, motivational speaker, kid show host and solo pianist Andrew W.K. arrived at the Avalon in Hollywood on Thursday night with a simple message that he relayed early on.

“My name is Andrew W.K.,” he said in a tone that suggested he was introducing himself to the people of Earth for the first time. “This is my band. We came to L.A. to have fun with you. We came from a great distance.”

And, in essence, the New York-based singer has come a long way. Andrew W.K. (a.k.a. Andrew Wilkes-Krier) is a classically trained pianist turned underground experimental noise artist turned 1990s commercial rocker known for headbanging so hard he’d often perform soaked in his own blood. He’s lately been the effervescent host of Cartoon Network’s “Destroy Build Destroy.”

The multi-tasking frontman and his band (which includes four electric guitarists and W.K. on keyboard) were celebrating the 10th anniversary of 2001’s “I Get Wet” by playing the album in its entirety. 

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Live: Drake at USC's Galen Center

Drake at USC's Galen Center on Monday night
Early Monday evening at a sold-out Galen Center on the campus of USC, the Toronto rapper Drake, who moments before had been pacing the stage and checking out the crowd, stopped suddenly in the center of the stage, became as still as a statue, gazed a thousand yards in the distance, and let the loud roar of the thousands wash over him. 

Touring in support of his sophomore full length, “Take Care,” after a long reign as a self-described mixtape legend and underground king “looking for the right way to do the wrong thing,” Drake had a load of rhymes queued in his brain, and standing there silently he seemed to manifest them all. Over two hours of nearly nonstop verbiage, he delivered couplet after couplet, verse after verse, a virtual emo epic poem that featured, as he described in his curtain-raiser, “Lord Knows,” “all the little accents that make me a king.” 

These myriad and often conflicting accents and emotions poured out of him, and they are one reason why he’s one of the most acclaimed rappers working in 2012: Dressed in black and backed by a six-piece band, he strutted stage left to offer language lessons during “Over,” his bumping, bass-heavy hit with Young Money Entertainment labelmate Lil Wayne, by rhyming “in bed alone” with “Rosetta Stone” in an ode-to-joy track about success.

He promised to make the ladies’ legs wobble “like a bridge in an earthquake” during “I’m Goin’ In,” his rough-and-tumble sex jam. On “We’ll Be Fine,” the “always presidential” rapper complained (in a rather unpresidential manner) that “these days the women give it to me like they owe me/but they crave attention, they always saying ‘Show me some.’ ”

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Live review: Sinéad O'Connor at the El Rey

Sinead O'Connor at the El Rey
When Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor walked onto the stage of the El Rey Theatre on Monday for the first of two sold out shows, it was hard not to speculate on the concern that occupied many fans’ minds. The vocalist, 45, hair buzzed short as it was when she rose to become one of the world’s most popular -- and pilloried -- female vocalists of the 1990s, has been in the non-music news over the last year due to her very public search for a husband, a Las Vegas wedding gone awry, and her acknowledged struggles with bipolar disorder. 

As she made her way to the microphone, many were perhaps wondering whether she had endured some sort of breakdown, and if so, how it would manifest itself during the concert. There were probably even a few gawkers in attendance. But as the capacity crowd welcomed her with a collective cheer that seemed filled with compassion, O’Connor flashed a big smile and those dimples shined; her eyes lighted up, and a palpable sense of relief filled the El Rey. She’s OK. Now, can she still sing? 

Yes. Holy mother of God, yes. 

Over the next two hours, O’Connor tore through nearly two dozen songs that confirmed not merely that the only human to ever better Prince on one of his own songs was just fine, thank you, but also that whatever lows she had endured prior to landing on this stage were no match for the tremendous highs she remains able to achieve. 

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Lauryn Hill plays it cool

The singer takes her time warming up to the Palladium crowd, but finally lets loose.

Lauryn Hill
“Aren't you tired of losing our people?” Lauryn Hill asked the sold-out crowd just before singing her last song of the night. “I am.”

“Love your artists,” she continued. “When they falter, hold them accountable. But love them. People are now showing Whitney Houston the love and respect she should have received throughout her career — through all of it.”

Given the constant drubbing she's taken over the years — from the media and from disgruntled fans — it was easy to see that Hill's words were drawn from experience and weren't simply meant to apply to the recently deceased diva.

The commentary was also notable because it marked the first and only time all Tuesday night that Hill engaged the crowd with anything like banter or conversation. The first half of her 90-minute Valentine's evening concert at the Hollywood Palladium was marked by steely professionalism. She and her tightly rehearsed band seemed to press fast-forward as they raced through tunes from her Grammy-winning 1998 solo album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” at breakneck pace.

Trim and gorgeous, wearing a long, flowing black skirt, heavy jacket (that was never removed) and shiny metallic blouse, she initially gave off the effect of being a butterfly in a glass container, wings fluttering energetically but never breeching the protective barrier she'd erected between herself and her fans. There was a cool detachment that prevented the show from really catching fire, though every song was met with thunderous applause.

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Martina McBride: The thorns amid love's red roses

Martina McBride takes a skeptical look at romance in her Valentine's Day show at the Nokia Theatre.

Martina McBride
Martina McBride is an unlikely choice for a Valentine's Day concert. In one of the country star's best-known songs, “Independence Day,” she describes a battered woman who burns down her house, while the “it” in her current single, “I'm Gonna Love You Through It,” refers to breast cancer. Disease, domestic abuse, “teenagers walking around in a culture of darkness” (as she puts it in “Love's the Only House”): Calamity always looms in a Martina McBride song, even — or especially — when the song sounds like it should be about shopping for shoes.

Nevertheless, there was McBride on Tuesday evening at the Nokia Theatre, the main attraction in a Valentine's Day benefit for the PGA Tour Charities. Red lighting bathed the venue's lobby; onstage, a DJ from radio station Go Country 105 FM wondered how many wives had dragged their husbands to the show. Date-night sexy in a pair of shiny, skin-tight trousers, McBride was cheery enough between songs, introducing “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong” as a tune about “good friends and drinking wine” and ribbing her younger brother, who plays guitar in her touring band, for recently getting married — “again.” (“It's OK,” she added. “We like this one.”)

In the songs themselves, though, McBride assumed a series of positions, from sorrow to indifference to outright hostility, that seemed at odds with the occasion. (This was a good thing.) “Whatcha Gonna Do,” from last year's impressive album “Eleven,” warned a hot-and-cold lover to put his priorities in order, but did so in language entirely drained of passion: “You miss me, you want me, you need me / Whatever.” She was similarly aloof in “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong,” one of the peppiest of her would-be shoe-shopping numbers; the wine, it turns out, accompanies some stern advice to a pal recently dumped. “It ain't the end of the world,” McBride sang, “'Cause now that he's gone … you got nothing to lose.”

Other songs contained more emotion but felt no less skeptical of the hollow certitude that Valentine's Day embodies. 

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The Pierces at the Hotel Cafe

 The Pierces at the Hotel Cafe

 “You may know this next one if you’re a fan of teenage murder dramas,” Allison Pierce said Tuesday night at the Hotel Cafe. The darker-haired half of the Pierces was introducing her and her sister’s song “Secret,” and though she was likely alluding to its use as the theme music for ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” Pierce’s comment reminded you that “Secret” has been featured too in “Gossip Girl.” That’s the teen-TV series the Pierces most conjured Tuesday, as this comely New York City twosome took the stage like a real-life incarnation of Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf: One blond and one brunet skewering (if also embodying) the social mores of the young and the restless. Their smart outfits hardly diminished the impression.

Beyond the obvious parallels, the Pierces had a practical reason to invoke the small screen, as television is where their music has found the safest hold of late. (“Dexter” fans might remember “Secret” from an especially bloody commercial for the Showtime series’ third season.) In 2007, the band’s third album, “Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge,” drew enthusiastic reviews but did lukewarm commercial business. And last year, its follow-up, “You & I,” earned release only in England.

That’s set to change in late March, when Mercury Records plans to issue “You & I” in the United States; Tuesday’s sold-out show concluded a brief tour designed to put the group in front of media-capital tastemakers ahead of the new album’s street date. Produced in part by Guy Berryman of Coldplay, “You & I” dramatically expands the Pierces’ sound from its cozy folk-pop origins to something shinier and more sensual, with twinkling keyboard lines and glazed, Lindsey Buckingham-style guitars. It’s a canny reinvention that the sisters (and their four-piece backing band) seemed determined to emphasize straightaway at the Hotel Cafe, where they opened their 45-minute set with the foreboding bass riff of “Love You More.”

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