Monday, September 20, 2010

long time fans great review of this show

by Josh Chasin
Sheesh, where to start?

For me, going in this show was all about Healing. Todd (the album) was one of the records I listened to a ton when first discovering Todd's (the guy) work; it was one of the records my college girlfriend and I used to spin to death. But over time it just hasn't aged well for me. Part of this is that I haven't yet heard a CD version that didn't sound tinny and shrill, whereas I just don't remember the vinyl that way (similar experience with AWATS, by the way.)

"Healing" the song may well be my absolute favorite 20 or so minutes of Todd's recorded catalog, and it has been, since 1981, my personal Holy Grail for what material I most wanted to hear live. The song and album is heavily synthesizer-based, and since in 1981 he was touring with new wave posters Utopia, the material didn't really lend itself to live performance; I think they did "Healer," "Time Heals," and "Compassion" off it on the camouflage tour, and that was it.

But in concert I was delighted to rediscover the giddy silly fun of Todd. Overall, across the two albums performed, I generally found that the songs I like best were indeed the highlights for me. And I think for Todd (the guy) as well.

Anyway, first the band. I think this may just be the dream ensemble for performing Todd's back catalog live. Jesse is a great technical player, and he can flawlessly cover the formal guitar parts (the riff in "Golden Goose," for example), freeing Todd up to sing or solo. When Jesse did toss in solo work, it was always tasteful and, I'm tempted to say, discrete—where Todd sort of sprays all over the song, Jesse lays out judicious lines that color the song while leaving it intact. Except of course for "Spark of Life," where he got to go bonkers leading up to "No, no, no, a little more humanity!"

Oh man, Greg Hawkes. I was never a big Cars fan, they were always a radio band for me (or, it being the early `80s, a video band) but his synth sound—is it his style, his equipment? I don't know, but it is perfect for this vintage, trippy, electric swirly music on Todd and Healing… Meanwhile, Bobby Strickland might be, if Hawkes isn't, the MVP; both these records have a lot of reed work, and this guy just totally nailed every bit of it. Prairie, I know there are mixed feelings on him, but his bashing style sounded right at home especially on the Todd material…

I read some of the complaints about the mix on the live webcast, and I went and listened to it after the show, and I can tell you, in the room—at least where I was, 4 rows behind the soundboard, dead center—it was a different story. I was blown away right out of the box, it sounded unbelievable. Clear, crisp, loud, dynamic, and at the best sonic moments (e.g. "Pulse") the room sounded like headphones, the music coming from all around. And I much preferred the staging of this show to AWATS (and I find AWATS and Todd to be musically similar); last year Todd performed in front of the band; here he performed with them. I felt like he was more a part of the band, as opposed to the costume-changing lead singer…

The opening "How About a Little Fanfare?" and "I Think You Know" immediately put a smile on my face. The Todd record is really, to me, one album's worth of songs, fleshed out with a whole lot of playful if indulgent synthesizer noodling that was awesome when I was 21 and wasted, but that perhaps hasn't aged quite so well. But it was great fun to hear live; "Spark of Life", the first such indulgence, set the tone for the night (or at least the first set), Todd backed with tapes (I think) and live playing, synthesizing his own voice as a lead instrument.

And Todd's keyboard playing! I never thought I'd say this, but it was really solid! Set up center stage, with Jesse and Kaz to our left, Greg and Bobby to our right, he had obviously been practicing. This was the most keyboard I've ever seen Todd play at a show, by far; and the first time in over 30 years of shows that I've seen him play keyboards in a band context (usually it's him solo playing "Too Far Gone" or "Compassion" or something.)

I noticed too that for the songs he's regularly played live—like "A Dream Goes On Forever"—he stuck to the studio rendition, not the live rendition that has evolved. On the first line of the vocal to that song, there's this ringing synth exclamation point, and there it was, right on cue. "Drunken Blue Rooster" was great, Todd's playing as the centerpiece to a wobbly band rendition. "The Last Ride" was killer, hewing again closely to the recorded version. I always thought this was a highlight when 4-man Utopia pulled it out, and here I missed Kasim's backing vocals—he either wasn't singing, or was mixed way down-- but I realized that his voice is strong and distinctive, and his singing would have colored the performance differently than on the original. And of course where I was expecting a guitar solo mid-song, Strickland stepped up for a sax solo (like on the record) and blew the top of my head off, followed by that trademark incendiary Todd guitar soloing.

I've always been partial to side 3 of Todd. "Number One Lowest Common Denominator" was as scalding as you'd want and expect, and "Useless Begging" was one of numerous laugh-out-loud fun songs, thanks to Prairie's tap dancing solo interlude, which was somehow inexplicably perfect. Then "Sidewalk CafĂ©," more synth indulgence but leading to the unbearably poppy, transcendent "Izzat Love." More laugh-out-loud feel goodness; long a favorite song. Todd nailed it—nailed it!—his voice was spot on all night, and man, I just wanted this one to go on and on (I have resolved to learn it on ukulele.) It took me a good half of "Heavy Metal Kids" to stop luxuriating in "Izzat," but once I did, man, that was pretty ripping.

Wisely I'd say, Todd excised "In and Out the Chakras We Go" (yet another bit of synth-foolery) and fell right into "Don't You Ever Learn," what I'd call a drunken blue version. Full, lush, great sounding, and the perfect set closer; the omission of "Sons of 1984" at the end was telegraphed a mile away (not least by the people outside handing out the lyrics for the encore sing-along.)

If Todd is a synthetic psychedelic romp, best illuminated with colored laser, then Healing is a deeply profound and ambitious work, a far better exhibition of song craft, and all about the white light that shines from within (and, of course, a glorious white light featured prominently in the staging in place of set one's dancing laser.) In fact I had trepidation that this material wouldn't translate live, and I was wondering if maybe I wasn't better off with the recorded versions living in my consciousness.

I needn't have worried.

To me the important songs on Healing are "Healer," "Pulse," "Shine," and of course "Healing" (these, as well as the two off the inserted single, "Time Heals" and "Tiny Demons," are the ones on my iPod.) "Healer" tells of a visitation and a calling ("you will be a healer") that is clearly evocative of the Christ myth; "Pulse" is about the healing energy flowing from some other realm through your own heartbeat. "Shine" is a vital and underrated song, with the message that there isn't one healer; we are ALL healers (or at least 10 million of us; 10 million saviors, angels of man. "The healer is not alone." Eyes that have seen, or in this case ears that have heard.) Then "Healing" is an actual meditation that takes the listener inside, walks you through the process referenced in "Shine," turns on your light, takes you out the other side, healed.

But back to the show…

To put over the rich layers of vocal work on this record, Todd used a chorus; "Healer" was brilliant, glorious, beautiful, all bells and voices. Sublime layers of joyous sound washed over us. Then "Pulse." Unbelievable. The woman sitting next to me was obviously on the same page as me; we were audibly gasping, laughing and remarking on the same songs, and this was one of them. "Pulse" is pure ear candy on headphones, and it was put over in an even richer fashion live.

I never much liked "Flesh," but it was surprisingly robust live, and I may have to put it into the pantheon of the record's important songs (and on my iPod.) "Golden Goose" is a silly novelty song, and unlike the rest of Healing, Todd played it that way. In this concert I heard a direct lineage from "Elpee's Worth of Tunes" to "Golden Goose." "Compassion" is a fan favorite, I know, but again, not one of mine; a nice rendition but the house liked it more than I did.

Then "Shine," which was dramatic, dynamic, chilling, exquisite. More than once I let out an involuntary exclamation of joy. The chorus, mixed perfectly, provided the layered vocal arrangement of the record, and the strong female presence in the chorus brought a nice freshness to the sound. Hawkes's synth was great, and at the end when Todd stepped up for the outro solo, it was pure shining white light.

I was wondering where Todd would put the two extra songs; when I used to put this record on cassette, I placed them between the two sides. That's where "Tiny Demons" was, a full band version, with Jesse handling the guitar part. Out of "Tiny Demons," the ringing intro to "Healing," and then the thumping heartline bass.

I'd been waiting 29 years to hear this piece live. I read where someone thought it wouldn't work in a concert setting ("who wants to meditate at a concert?") but I'll tell you what, for me the most memorable, rewarding concert experiences of my life have been the ones that have been transformative, spiritual, healing, ecstatic, bordering on religious. The thing that keeps me coming back for more live music is the possibility for the music to seep into my heart, turn my metaphysical frown upside down. That's why I like improvisational music (the Allmans, the Dead, jazz, even the blues); because the creation of music in the now creates opportunities for moments of magic.

So here we have an extended piece, played for the most part precisely as composed and arranged, but specifically designed to provide that sort of transformative healing experience. Todd put it on record as an experiment; performing it live was really a whole new level of experimentation. I know that as much as I love watching the Allman Brothers play, when they launch into "Dreams," a transformative piece, I almost never keep my eyes open; the music takes me on a journey within and I have to close my eyes and take the trip.

So I was ready to go with the musical flow. The transition from the first to the second movement was sublime, and that movement, all ethereal synth lines and heavenly voices, took me slowly down the river of life. I especially appreciated that Todd, a renowned goofball, treated this material with the reverence and gravitas I thought it deserved… then the chiming that summons you back, Todd announcing "Here we go!" and the final movement of "Healing.: it was pure unadulterated joy, a seven minute Snoopy dance, Todd singing "Welcome home!" again and again. When that transitional chime first sounded I wondered for a moment if we were going to stand; then I actually said out loud, "of course we stand!" and up I went, happy Snoopy dancing like a big ol' fool. It didn't take long for the rest of the crowd to get into the act, dancing, shining, basking, healing into the night…

Todd strapped on the Fool guitar and took the band from the cascading outro of "Healing" into "Time Heals," a great song that I've always loved, and loved live. I think this was a great placement for the tune and the only logical way to get out of "Healing." Still, it couldn't help but be anti-climactic; how, after all, do you follow a Snoopy dance?

The inevitable "Sons of 1984" encore was more light and joy. I've never been super-fond of it—in part because I think the recorded version on Todd is of iffy fidelity—so this was actually the best rendition of the song I've ever heard. The band actually faded out at the end (a live fade?) and the curtain closed on them, to a well-deserved ovation; then the crowd kept singing, the fanatics in the first couple of rows exorting the rest of us to keep it going. I don't know how long we all sang—it felt like a good ten minutes. Finally the lights came up and we were done. The one track cut from the Todd album's running order, "In and Out the Chakras We Go," played over the house system as we filed out, providing some arcane closure.

It's been almost a week now, and I think I have things in perspective. I liked this show better than the AWATS show. It may have been the best Todd show I've been to, and it was one of the best concerts I've seen. I wish I could see it again. I wish I could have hit Morristown the next night, but work called.

Of course my take is entirely subjective; it's largely a function of my fondness for the material, the quality of the performance, and the fact that this 51-year-old was able to reconnect with my own younger self in the process. In Shamanism there is a thing called "Soul Retrieval," wherein using the tools of shamanism you journey within, confront some trauma or unresolved issue from your past, and bring back a piece of the soul that you've lost over the years as a result of that trauma or issue. You are, to coin a phrase, whole. That's what this was like for me; a joyous, spiritual, religious musical experience, one from which I emerged tangibly energized.

And also, my ears were very, very happy.

1 comment:

--josh-- said...

Thanks for posting, Mike.