I need a new notebook . . . this one’s filling up, and I need to stop cluttering it up with worthless drivel. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from noting this down in it. And following the observation with thoughts on the beer I’m drinking while waiting for my photographer – I was supposed to have Lacerda, the Portuguese photographer, on loan from the Sports Desk, but he cancelled at the last minute; luckily Alex was available. My notes on the beer were extensive: “Summit Black IPA pretty solid.” Eventually Alex showed up and we headed inside.
The opener has John Lennon sideburns and glasses with a black Ovation-looking Gibson acoustic guitar. He said his name was Ryan Powers, and I have no reason to doubt this. For some reason I’m feeling very cynical today, and I have to be careful about how acidic I am – you have to differentiate your mood from the talent on stage. And, especially with openers, you have to root for them. These are people who are likely trying to make it, working their asses off, hoping to break out. And some of them are damn good. (That’s how I discovered The Dead Trees, The Donkeys, and The Vaccines.) So I make it a point, whenever I go to a show, to really give the opener a chance.
Ryan Powers’ second song brought a second person onto the stage, the lead guitar player Dan, and carries a nice pop chord progression. “The Juggler,” though, ultimately feels like a mediocre 90s post-grunge acoustic brand. “Standard Blues Number” has a solid lead guitar line – Dan’s clearly talented – but it doesn’t go anywhere unexpected. “I’ve always been a fan of the oldies,” Powers tells the crowd, and it’s clear he’s a student of music history with roots in the 60s though he’s a child of the 90s; but the remark made me chuckle a bit: being a fan of the oldies would seem like a prerequisite to open tonight. As the set goes on, I come to a somewhat odd realization: some of the lyrics aren’t half bad, but they come off as trite – which they ultimately are, but some acts could pull them off anyway. God knows there are plenty of trite songs that work brilliantly, in spite of themselves – or perhaps because of. But Ryan Powers just doesn’t quite make it happen. The song “Be My Baby Tonight” (the title only now reminds me of Bob Dylan), says Ryan, is a “summer song.” And the chorus definitely has a summery feel, but the verses don’t quite make it past “standard.” Throughout the night, the lead guitar is crisp and tight, also standard, but it goes exactly where you’d expect – which is not always a bad thing. Sure, it’s great to be surprised, too, but sometimes you want a song to go somewhere and it’s just damn satisfying when it does. The last track from the opener fits in very comfortably with early Matchbox Twenty, definitely a good way to end a 90s-influenced set.
James McCartney comes on with his band, wispy blonde hair
over a round, balding head, wearing a blazer some might call “sartorially hip” and others simply “tragic.” The group starts off with a tight pop/rock bang until the chorus hits, which is just blah. Immediately you notice James has an odd way of singing, head sort of cocked up so it looks like he’s looking down his nose at the audience. It’s stiffly proper technique – until he starts throatily screaming into the mic, and it strikes me instantly that, honestly, he could do to use the mic better, control the volume himself by, say, leaning back a bit, so the scream-y bit isn’t quite so loud and off-putting. The sound is surprisingly different from his father – discounting the blandness of it. It’s near the end of the song I realize that there’s a gaffer’s tape cross with a star hovering above it on his Stratocaster, black-on-black. The next song incorporates an iPhone Theremin app, so that’s quite exciting.
The following track is something different, and it brings what McCartney is doing into much sharper focus. It’s a beautiful ballad, with elegantly finger-picked acoustic guitar backed by piano and drums. “Hey, baby, don’t please me,” he sings with a great melody and cadence, the song occasionally breaking away into eerie moments. The electric lead guitar that comes in is phased, giving the song an 80s vibe. During the song “Fallen Angel,” which has great drumming and a fantastic rhythm, a scent fills my nostrils that reminds me of an old girlfriend – though I’m not sure which one. Funny how those moments happen at the oddest times. “Denial” is another song that brings the night into focus and begs certain questions: the musicians on stage are all solid, but the fail to innovate or move – the rhythm section isn’t as impressive as Arctic Monkeys’. And James McCartney is really terrible at screaming – some people can really pull it off, but he is not one of them. All of which makes me wonder: does this type of act live on nostalgia? Who is it that is in attendance tonight? Looking around, there are a lot of older people – 40s and 50s, I’d say, old enough to remember The Beatles but too young to have seen them play. The audience is also probably roughly the same size as, though I would guess a little smaller than, the crowd that came to see Glasvegas last year, but it’s nothing compared to the Team Starkid SPACE tour last fall.
A country song follows – no, really – with some really good country-style Strat playing (through a Vox amplifier yet! Although thinking about it, I think that’s what Dwight Yoakum uses). This vibe lasts until the refrain, when same-old takes over. “Listen” is a song inspired by The Cure “and stuff,” and definitely rocks a distinctively Cure guitar line, which is also quite good. The bass is also more impressive during this song. James McCartney follows this song with a straight cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man.” “Old man,” he sings, “look at my life, I’m a lot like you.” Which begs the question: is he? Is James at all like Paul? And the answer is, well, yes and no. Yes, he’s playing music, as his father does, and writing songs, as his father does; he has a knack for the corny and insipid – as his father does. And it’s clear that he got a chunk his father’s absolutely vast musical talent. (It’s been said that McCartney was the only true musician in The Beatles, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.) Paul had those loony, goofy, lame songs – “Obla-Di-Obla-Da” (life goes on, bra!), which is undeniably catchy and also undeniably silly; “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which has become one of the sappier songs in a generation (though I think that’s because of association more than the song itself) but is also catchy and sweet and uncertain; “Yellow Submarine.” (As a side note, the second line of “I Saw Her Standing There” was going to follow “Well, she was just 17” with “Never been a beauty queen,” which is one of the dumbest lines ever, by Paul’s own admission; he said Lennon actually laughed when Paul showed him that – replacing it with a line that makes one of the greatest couplets ever. But I digress.) And that’s the thing: Paul may have had this stupid, silly side, but he was a pop writer to his core and could make even the silly songs catchy as hell. (Let’s disclude Wings here, for everyone’s benefit!) Undeniably, some of that has passed on to his son. But they are different: James’ influences are mainly the late 80s and 90s – which makes sense. He was born in ’77, so his formative music years were, well, the late 80s and the 90s. So he writes a decidedly different type of music than his father. I don’t think it needs mentioning that his father played Shea Stadium and James isn’t even in the Riviera, never mind the Allstate Arena. Of course, my opinion on James McCartney’s music is the reason reviewers should have their age published with every review: how is a 65 year old supposed to trust the taste of a 25 year old? James McCartney does that sort of comfortable adult-alternative music that, frankly, a lot of middle-aged people are into. So never mind me off in the corner sulking with my one-speed and a PBR. (PLEASE NOTE: I do not actually own a fix-y, nor do I [often] drink PBR.)
Jesus! How did we come to all that? Well, I suppose these were issues that needed to be pondered, and I think we’ve done that now . . . .
Following the cover comes another song direct from 1987; the lead guitar skillfully employs harmonics in a technically impressive line, but the drums don’t keep up with the creativity of the guitar parts in the bridge. “Angel” follows, which you may have heard on Letterman a little while back, with great but dated guitar and a very 90s sound all-around. I begin to feel as though “dated” may be the word of the night. This is a very different trip from the Polyphonic Spree, a depressing Boomer Nostalgia Trip with a surplus of animal prints and dyed hair. Taking someone home from a gig like this would likely be a mutually depressing affair – mirroring the gig itself. The last song – pre-encore – is next, called something that sounded like “Nix,” a nihilistic tone that parallels my own. It’s very 90s, definitely a pre-BritPop song, something closer to American post-grunge and 80s-influenced than anything modern. James McCartney is certainly a talented musician, he’s just 15-20 years too late.
The band walks off stage, thanking everybody. During the applause and cheering before the encore, a bald guy in his 30s yells, “C’mon, let’s hear The Beatles!” which sums up the night more than even I care to admit. James is feeding off of the nostalgia for his father, but doesn’t feel beholden to it. Is that right? Certainly I can sympathize – who would want to feel beholden to their parents’ legacy? I mean, of course he doesn’t want to play his father’s songs, he’s not his father, he’s his own person, who’s written his own songs, and has set out to play those. But it strikes me that this is closer to a vanity project than a real band with real songs. Which is to say, he wouldn’t be able to tour without who his father is. The whole night is turning into a very weird experience. For those going to this show to hear The Beatles, why the fuck are you here? James isn’t Paul, he’s not going to be his father, he’s not going to be The Beatles. Something in the pit of my stomach tells me the room is populated with the people who couldn’t afford to buy tickets to see the elder McCartney perform. (I hear he gives a spectacular fucking show, by the way, and would love to see him, myself.) I start thinking of other musicians’ children who tried their hand in the business. It seems like all of The Beatles have kids who participate in the industry, but most of them with very limited success (although Zak Starkey might be the exception, touring as Keith Moon’s replacement in The Who, as well as [and I think more impressively – old behemoths always get talent to play for them, but you’re basically a hired gun] being a founding member of The Healers with Johnny Marr and recording and touring with Oasis). Warren Zevon, arguably one of the greatest songwriters and composers of the 20th century (Stravinsky was a family friend, so he got childhood lessons for free), has a son who released an album with pretty alright songs, but, again, didn’t really make a dent. The only exception I can think of is Jacob Dylan and The Wallflowers. No one ever went to a Wallflowers gig hoping to hear Bob: they kicked ass in their own right, completely independent of who donated sperm to whom.
Hmm, it looks like we went off there again . . . . Well, we can finish strong with the last song of the encore, “Spirit Guide.” It’s good, upbeat pop in a Paul McCartney / Warren Zevon “Excitable Boy” way, but it’s ridiculously feel-good like so many of his father’s tracks. (Contrast that to Zevon’s piece.) It ends up a very Macca piece with regards to melody and instrumentation. But ultimately it sums up the entire act and evening very well: dated, mediocre pop with good but not earth-shattering musicianship. Given the choice – and I mean this sincerely – I’d take Ryan Powers over the younger McCartney any day.
Reviewed by Will Fink on 5/22/12