Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson & Maroon 5 at Jones Beach, 8/11/13

Sunday night, my wife & I went to see a double-billed concert, Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5 at the Nikon Theater at Jones Beach (in a fit of corporate sponsorship, this is billed as the “Honda Civic Tour”). As far as current pop music goes, this is about as good as it gets: Clarkson is, in my oft-stated view, the best thing in pop today, and Maroon 5 has for some years now been the best pop band that’s still played regularly on mainstream pop radio, notwithstanding my disappointment with the direction of their recent releases. On the whole, it was a good show – but not as good as it could have been.

The Setting

Jones Beach is easily the most beautiful concert venue I’ve seen, and is a convenient place to see a show, with good acoustics for an outdoor venue. It’s a good size, as well, providing seating for a sizeable crowd without any bad seats or the impersonal feel of a stadium show. (The picture above is spliced together from two shots I took during the show, giving a sense of how each side of the stage looks before sunset).

The crowd was…really pretty terrible, one of the worst crowds in which I’ve seen a show. Maybe worse because it was a Sunday night. There was clearly a mixture of longtime Maroon 5 fans, a smaller but vocal contingent of Clarkson fans, and a chunk of people who seemed only familiar with Maroon 5’s most recent radio hits. Demographically, I wasn’t nose-counting that much but it was a varied crowd by age, almost all white, and I was able to waltz past acres of empty urinals in the men’s room while the lines for the ladies’ room looked like the last helicopter out of Saigon.

What bothered me, mainly during Clarkson’s set, was that nobody but a small coterie on one side of the stage seemed to be standing up. Sitting down is no way to enjoy a concert unless you’re 90 years old or in a wheelchair, but at my age (41) I’m not bold enough to stand up alone if everybody in my section is resolutely sitting, which they were (you need the front row up or nobody else budges). It was seriously lifeless and embarrassing to be a part of. The crowd got up sporadically during Maroon 5’s set, mainly during the more recent radio hits, but there were still people sitting down or bolting for the exits during the encores. To say nothing of people walking to the bathrooms in the middle of songs.

We arrived too late to see the opening act, Rozzie Crane, although she did come back onstage to sing with Maroon 5 on “Wake Up Call” (a really odd choice of song to add a female voice to, plus like most female singers her voice is deeper than Adam Levine’s falsetto), and thus while I can’t judge her material, she does have a good voice and a lively stage presence.

Kelly Clarkson

This is the third time I’ve seen Clarkson in concert – she joins Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and the Saw Doctors as the only acts I’ve seen three times – and I wrote up previous reviews after seeing her at the Hammerstein Ballroom in October 2009 and at Radio City Music Hall in January 2012.

When I saw Clarkson at Radio City, she was touring in support of her fifth and arguably best studio album, Stronger (the album won a Grammy and the title track was a ubiquitous hit single), and coming off yet another of her periodic controversies for saying she liked Ron Paul. She has kept busy since then, singing at the 2012 Super Bowl and President Obama’s second inaugural, starring as a judge in Duets, ABC’s ill-fated Summer 2012 entry into the singing-show sweepstakes, doing a joint tour with The Fray, releasing a Greatest Hits album, a pair of country singles (one a duet with Vince Gill), and a Dallas Cowboys ‘theme song’, recording a big-band/country/blues/rock Christmas album due out late this fall, and getting engaged. Her upcoming wedding will marry her into country music royalty: her fiancee is the son of her manager, the stepson of Reba McEntire, and is himself the manager for Blake Shelton.

Clarkson, now a veteran touring act at 31, particularly made a name on her last few tours by doing “fan requests” – songs requested by fans on Twitter. She’s not the only artist to do something like this; Bruce Springsteen, for example, plays songs from his back catalogue requested by sign-holding fans at his shows, sometimes even songs he hasn’t played in decades or has never played live. But in Clarkson’s case, only a handful of the fan requests have been her own songs; it’s been the covers of other people’s songs, generally only rehearsed the day of the show, that have cemented her reputation as a one-woman walking iTunes. She’s covered everyone from the classic rock gods (the Beatles, the Stones, Springsteen, Dylan) to modern rock (the Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Kings of Leon, Florence and the Machine) to 90s-to-present pop-rock (the Goo Goo Dolls, No Doubt, Gavin DeGraw, .fun) to country (Tammy Wynette, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack) to the big-voiced pop/R&B divas (Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston) to the little-voiced pop tarts (Madonna, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna) to the blues (Etta James) and the pop standards and show tunes (songs from Funny Girl and Grease) to even a respectable hoodie-and-all stab at rap (Eminem; the cover met with the approval of Eminem’s brother who was in the audience). Entertainment Weekly collected fan-shot YouTubes of the whole tour’s worth of covers here and here. The fan request covers offer something unique about each show and showcase the versatility as an interpreter of songs across genres that made Clarkson a star on American Idol in the first place.

The setup for this tour, with Maroon 5 as the de facto headliner, called for Clarkson to go on first, with just an hourlong set compared to her usual 90 minutes. Given her breadth of material (Clarkson didn’t even have room for all her top-10 singles on her Greatest Hits album) and need to promote her current singles while making room for at least one cover, that left a lot on the cutting room floor, including – unfortunately – the fan requests. She played a series of her biggest signature hits, from the opening “(What Doesn’t Kill You) Stronger” to the closing “Since U Been Gone” to her first really big pop hit, “Miss Independent,” but also worked in her most recent pop single, the Lady Gaga-ish “People Like Us,” a solo version of her hit country duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her wedding-themed current country single “Tie It Up,” and a cover of Aretha’s “Never Loved A Man.”

The planning of her set was well-designed: she brought a 3-man horn section, a highlight of her 2009 tour, and presented a number of her songs (particularly live favorite “Walk Away”) with new instrumental arrangements heavy on the horns. “People Like Us,” the next to last song, featured some of the visual effects and costume changes Clarkson has eschewed with past tours, including fluorescent outfits for her and her band. But the execution had one flaw.

Clarkson’s voice in concert is ordinarily such a marvel, and coming from such a tiny person, I’ve compared it to watching Pedro Martinez pitch. But the analogy holds up further, because Sunday night her voice was in such rough shape it was like watching an ace pitcher take the mound when he doesn’t have his A+ fastball: she was straining and falling short of a lot of the big notes and booming volume she customarily produces with ease. Like an ace pitcher, though, she knows how to compensate: she dialed up the soul on the Aretha cover, relied more heavily on her backup singers, was even punchier than usual in her goofy in-between songs banter, and constantly urged on the crowd to sing along with her, trying to get audience participation to step in where she couldn’t go. You can see this from the closing number, “Since U Been Gone”:

The reason why Clarkson sounded so ragged was obvious: when she tours on her own, she insists on not scheduling back-to-back shows to reduce the strain on her voice. But the Jones Beach show was the joint tour’s third straight night in three different cities, and she was audibly out of gas. Still, she gamely soldiered on, and even at partial strength is still an entertaining and energetic performer and a master interpreter of songs (if you’d never heard what she sounds like live you might not have realized this was not her best). Clarkson’s a trouper; last summer she badly sprained her ankle but refused to cancel a July 4 show at Fort Hood, at which she performed some of her more uptempo hits while bouncing on one foot with the other in a cast.

But she was engaging as always. Clarkson commented on how well Jones Beach had been rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy (it was not as hard-hit as Coney Island or the Jersey Shore). She also waved around her engagement ring and gushed about being engaged and the importance of finding someone who lets you be yourself; for someone whose public persona and musical personality was built over the past 9 years around breakup songs and loneliness, it’s a sharp turnabout that she clearly relishes.

Maroon 5

This was the second time I’ve seen Maroon 5 live, the first being a Jones Beach show on the same day in August 2010. Like Clarkson, Maroon 5 has seen its share of ups and downs in a decade-long career in pop music. There’s been personnel turnover – they replaced their drummer in 2006, and one of the keyboard players has been on leave from the band this year. Their first two albums, 2002’s Songs About Jane (which hit it big in 2003-04) and 2007’s It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, were both great successes, selling millions of albums and launching #1 singles, but they waited three more years to release their third album, Hands All Over, and it launched poorly after the modest success of the lead single, “Misery.” It sold badly out of the gate, and the other singles disappeared without a trace. Hands All Over was a good album, mostly in the vein of their first two albums but with some Def Leppard-ish touches added by veteran producer “Mutt” Lange (best known for producing the best-selling albums by AC/DC, Def Leppard and his then-wife Shania Twain). Unfortunately for Maroon 5, their old sound was out of step with what radio stations were playing by 2010, and a pop band can’t really get away with releasing an album every three years. They looked like they might be yesterday’s news – but then lead singer Adam Levine joined The Voice, the hugely successful NBC singing show, and teamed up with equally flagging co-star Christina Aguilera to record “Moves Like Jagger,” an insipid piece of fluff that replaced Maroon 5’s signature “pop/rock with a touch of disco” sound with “disco/disco with a glob of more disco.” “Moves Like Jagger” was a colossal worldwide hit, the band’s career was saved (Hands All Over was re-released with it added and went platinum) and a monster was created. Later in 2011, Levine had another #1 hit appearing on the Gym Class Heroes’ “Stereo Hearts,” lending a melodic chorus to an otherwise fairly dreary hip-hop song.

That brings us to 2012’s Overexposed, which sent its first three singles to #1 on the Top 40 chart, starting with “Payphone,” another catchy, frothy melody weighed down by the appearance of rapper Wiz Khalifa. Overexposed featured a lot less rock, even the light rock of the band’s earlier albums – you can barely hear a guitar until well into the second half of the album, not coincidentally the point where guitarist James Valentine gets his first writing credit in place of hitmaking producers like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder (both of whom have also worked with Clarkson in the past). A few of the songs are good but several are terrible, and most are more like “Moves Like Jagger” than like the band’s first three albums: overproduced machine-made goo with few real instruments. The best track is the last one on the deluxe version of the album, a 7-minute long cover of Prince’s “Kiss” done in the style of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Few of the new fans flocking to Maroon 5 these days would recognize the musical reference.
Valentine is a legitimately outstanding guitarist, and he’s also Levine’s musical anchor, what keeps the band from floating away into a sea of mechanized pop fluff; just as Clarkson often presents her songs live as more ‘rock’ than the studio versions, Valentine’s guitar was a distinct improvement on the Overexposed tracks, which if performed in their studio arrangements would have entailed Levine singing while the rest of the band just twiddled their thumbs. (This Billboard puff piece on the show runs through the various covers and part-covers that dotted the show, most of them just quick musical interludes).

The band came out bouncing; Levine sweated clear through most of his shirt within 20 minutes of taking the stage (it’s an accomplishment to outdo Clarkson, a famously sweaty live performer, in this regard), leading to screaming demands from women in the crowd to strip off his shirt (he eventually got down to a tank top). He nodded as well to the difficulty of getting a Sunday night crowd to participate when he raised a sing-along to “She Will Be Loved.” In a clever touch, they released glowing beachballs into the crowd for “Lucky Strike,” at least one of which ended up in the drink:

Levine is aslo recently engaged (Clarkson cracked on Twitter that they should call it the “Off the Market tour”) and is typically a little funny and a lot full of himself; I used to follow him on Twitter until I tired of his politics. Between songs at this show, he was much less of a wiseass than at the previous show; he went on about how grateful he was to the fans, how much the tradition of Jones Beach shows has meant to him over the years, and how the band’s first appearance there was playing in the parking lot before a Sheryl Crow show in 2002. Perhaps at 34, settling down and having bounced back from the commercial low point of Hands All Over, Levine was in more of a mood to contemplate the limits to how long his band would remain near the pinnacle of the pop music scene.

In a way, that meshed well with Maroon 5’s set. Stripped of some of the studio production, the emotional core of songs like “Daylight” and “Payphone” as well as older Maroon 5 songs like “Won’t Go Home Without You” – the lyrics, the music and even the technology references in “Payphone” and “Stereo Hearts” – is a nostalgic wistfulness for relationships slipping away. That’s where Levine is at his best. I actually got a little bit of chills from the opening of “Daylight,” which naturally closed the show (it’s one of the few songs off Overexposed I really like, and its theme of holding on until the morning and then slipping away makes it a perfect show closer):

If you enjoy quality pop music, or what remains of it circa 2013, I heartily recommend seeing this tour or either of these acts while you can – but ideally, not on a night when they’ve been going a few days straight without a day of rest.

Continue reading Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson & Maroon 5 at Jones Beach, 8/11/13

Concert Review: The Killers at Madison Square Garden

Checking off the top act remaining on my current “gotta see live” list, I went with my wife to see The Killers in concert at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night. While there were a few bumps in the road, on the whole the show was a reminder of why they are possibly the best rock band still in their prime today.
The Setting
I’ve previously described The Killers as “[t]he best young (under-40) rock band, period” – the main competition right now being Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – and their 2006 album Sam’s Town is arguably the best album of the last 15 years, so I was eager to get to see them live while they’re still at the top of their game, ten years into their career and touring in support of their fourth studio album. Lead singer Brandon Flowers is 31, and the rest of the band is in their mid-30s; Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci released solo projects before their latest album came out, Flowers with a solo album (Flamingo) and Vannucci with his own band, Big Talk (Big Talk). The concert had originally been scheduled for a Friday night in December, but was cancelled when Flowers came down with laryngitis, so our wait for this show had been a long one.
MSG is generally regarded as a great arena to see a show – it’s not as scenic as Jones Beach, as perfect acoustically as Radio City or as impressive as a stadium show, and it’s very loud, but for its size it’s a good venue. And, of course, given the proximity to Penn Station it’s about the easiest concert venue there is to access by mass transit.
I would estimate that the bulk of the crowd was in the mid-20s to early 30s range, which would be people who were in high school or college when the band hit it big almost a decade ago; there were a fair number of people around my age (41) or a little older, but few of the fifty/sixtysomethings you’d see at, say, a Bruce Springsteen concert. There were clearly some college kids but I did not see a whole lot of teenagers, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the band’s current album, Battle Born – their only studio album since 2008 – hasn’t sold especially well in the U.S. compared to their prior albums or received a ton of radio attention. Every single person I saw at the show was white, a fact that speaks to rock’s demographic problem going forward. There was a fair amount of singing along, and the first few rows of general admission in front of the stage were a fist-pumping lot, but otherwise it was your basic crowd of adults on a Tuesday night. A number of people near us bailed out during the last song to head downstairs, presumably to catch trains at Penn Station. On the other hand, this was the first show I’ve been to in a while where there was really a lot of noticeable pot smoke around us, and on the way out two guys near us started jawing and came to blows.
The opening act – originally planned to be Tegan and Sara when the show was first scheduled – ended up being a New York-based band called The Virgins, and their opening set must have been short; the official start time was 8, my wife and I arrived at 8:30 from an event at my son’s high school and they’d finished their set already. The Killers went on at 9:10, and played until a little after 11pm.
The Show
The show opened with an unusual twist compared to most of the concerts I’ve seen: The Killers just walked onstage without fanfare with the house lights still on and launched right into an energetic rendition of ‘Mr. Brightside’, their biggest radio hit and still arguably their best-known song. Playing with the house lights on made the Garden feel less like The World’s Most Famous Arena and more like an oversized high school gym, all the better to foster a little less distance between the band and the fans.
The second song was ‘Spaceman’, and that was one of two songs on the night – the other being ‘Somebody Told Me’, much later in the set – that had real audio problems, as there was a lot of rumbling feedback that made it difficult to hear Flowers’ vocals. ‘Spaceman’ has a lot of electronic background production on the album, and I suspect perhaps there was a backing track playing along with the band on those two songs that didn’t work all that well. But the sound problems wouldn’t be an issue for the rest of the show, as vocals and instruments were both crisply audible.
The set also seemed a bit minimalist at first for a band that’s always put a lot of thought into its music videos and other visuals, aside from the band’s lightning-bolt logo front and center; the one video screen was mounted behind the stage and a bit hard to see from further up. But the laser light show worked well for ‘Shadowplay’ and the fireworks and confetti as the show reached its conclusion were good visual touches.
Flowers talks less between songs than most frontmen; after an early apology for cancelling the original concert date, it was pretty late in the show before there was a break between songs at all, although he did introduce the extremely Springsteenish ‘Dustland Fairytale’ with a little talk about growing up in Vegas and ‘When You Were Young’ by talking about being nervous recording a followup to Hot Fuss. There were two other musicians besides the 4-man band onstage, and he completely failed to mention them when introducing the band midway through the show, and ended up re-introducing everybody during the last song.
Flowers’ quavery, emotional voice isn’t really the type that you’d expect to hold up well in concert, but after a bit of a rushed start over the first two songs, he was solid and about 95% of how he sounds in the studio. He’s exceptionally skinny – the man has the lower body of a 15 year old – and his stage presence is that of a teenager performing alone in his room with the stereo cranked to 11; rather than try to control his nervous energy, he just channels it into his performance, hopping on and off the risers at the end of the stage and exhorting everybody to clap and sing along with him. He demanded that the fans forget it’s Tuesday and put on their dancing shoes for ‘From Here On Out’, a rockabilly number from the latest album that is fun but not really something you could dance to.
Musically, there were not a lot of departures in how the band played their songs, unlike a band like Grace Potter & the Nocturnals that leaves a lot of room in the setlist for extended jams; seeing how sharply executed their songs were and how closely they hewed to the studio versions was a reminder of quite how tightly constructed The Killlers’ songs really are. They just seem to have put too much thought into every note of the melodies already to mess with them. Vannucci’s drums are the real driving force behind most of their songs, but Dave Keuning’s guitar work is just remarkably precise. (Bassist Mark Stoermer has the low-key role, as bassists usually do).
Overall, the 20-song setlist was pretty evenly divided and reflected the astonishing depth of quality music for a band with 4 studio albums: 5 songs from their 2004 debut Hot Fuss, 4 from Sam’s Town, 3 from 2008’s Day & Age, and 5 from Battle Born, plus their cover of Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’ from the 2007 Sawdust compilation and 2 covers. They couldn’t hit every single one of their good songs (‘Bones’, for example, really requires a horn section), but they got close; my only real gripe with the setlist was the omission of the best song on Battle Born, the driving uptempo anthem rocker ‘The Rising Tide,’ while playing the less inspiring title track as a show-closer and the somewhat disappointing ‘The Way It Was’ as the third song of the show.
The more fun of the covers, which the band has been doing this tour, is one of my favorite guilty-pleasure pop hits of the 1980s, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, originally by Tommy James and the Shondelles but more famously covered by Tiffany in 1987 – it’s a pop song that resonates for my generation (I had just turned 16 when the song hit the airwaves, and it was sung by a 16-year-old singer, and they played it in such heavy rotation on Z100 at the time that you could hear it 3 times in an hourlong school bus ride), but I’m not sure how well-recognized it is by younger rock fans, let alone the Tommy James original (Flowers, with a nod to his own band’s pervasive U2 influences, introduced the song by saying, “Tiffany stole this song from Tommy James and the Shondells. Tonight, we’re stealing it back.”).
The other cover was ‘New York, New York,’ which Flowers delivered well enough in the traditional tempo and arrangement. Which brings up an odd point about The Killers. Some of my favorite musicians – from Bruce Springsteen to the Irish band The Saw Doctors to pop star Kelly Clarkson – give off a strong sense of geographical rootedness, of being from and of a particular place (respectively the Jersey Shore, Galway and Mayo Counties in the West of Ireland, and Texas). The Killers are from Las Vegas, Nevada, and since Flowers discovered Springsteen before recording Sam’s Town (named after a Vegas casino) he’s made a point of making a lot of references to the band’s home town, from the desert motifs of ‘Dustland Fairytale’ and ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa Claus’ to ‘Battle Born’ (named for the Nevada state motto) to his solo track ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’. In the intro to ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Dustland Fairytale,’ Flowers seemed intent on talking up New York (partly, no doubt, in an effort to flatter the local audience) and about how “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is a lot more inspiring than “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Something in that echoed one of the (fair) criticisms I’ve seen of Flowers’ recent writing: that he may be from Vegas but he’s not really of Vegas and doesn’t really get the city’s gamblers-and-stale-booze culture. He is, after all, a Mormon family man, and his favorite band growing up was the Pet Shop Boys, an influence you can hear in Hot Fuss, an album that sounds more English than American and has no references at all to Vegas or Nevada. As earnest as they are, Flowers’ efforts to claim his home town always seem a little forced, forced in the same way as singing ‘New York, New York’ just because you’re in New York.
With a touring hiatus and half the band making solo albums before they reuinted for Battle Born, and then the less smashing commercial performance of the album, fans of The Killers can be excused for worrying if their future as a band may be a little uncertain. Battle Born itself might have benefitted if a few of the weaker songs had been replaced by the best songs on Flowers’ and Vannucci’s solo albums. Even the crowd did not seem all that into the new material beyond the two singles, ‘Runaways’ and ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ (the latter is a ballad, and while it’s grown on me, we saw in the ballads on Battle Born why The Killers have rarely recorded ballads). But for now, in concert, they remain at the peak of their game, playing both the old and new material with enthusiasm and skill. It’s a very fun show and very much worth seeing if you care about rock & roll.

Continue reading Concert Review: The Killers at Madison Square Garden