Thirty years after the original four members of Winston- Salem powerpop mavericks the dB's knocked it on the head, they can't stay in tune during one of Pete Holsapple's classic songs, "Lonely Is (As Lonely Does)'. Robert Ross of The Punchline whispers to me, "Chris is all over the place and Chris is throwing him off". The kiss of death? Not that bad but not that good.
It is a strange phenom and the dB's are too smart not to know that they don't sound very good from time to time, but they play so well as a unit, and, as Steve Crawford noted, in his review of Falling Off The Sky yesterday, the band has gone from Alex Chilton obsessed popsters to psychedelic pop band with a case of the shakes, it doesn't kill em dead the way Girls tunelessness did a coupla years ago at Webster Hall. The musicianship -which was kinda hidden, under the surface, comes right to the front in 2012 They were Brit Invasion inverters, they are now elder statesman masters of pop pomp. On "The Adventures Of Albatross And Doggerel", a psychedelic multi-part symphonic pop off their new album plays itself in swirl after swirl of guitar interaction. And then hits a drift with a pitchy Stamey vocal. "She Won't Drive In The Rain Anymore" -an anchor at the end of the album is given an intense and beautiful landscape but is hurt by the singing.
The set opens with a new truly great Holsapple song, "That Time Has Gone" -it is like shards of notes being thrown at you and piercing your heart. Nothing like classic dB's but absolutely undeniable. And with the exception of a psychedelic jam on "Happenstance", there is nothing to do but marvel at the greatness that is Will Rigby and Gene Holder until a good "Love Is For Lovers" half an hour later. Holder is the most stoical man in rock and roll: he stands to the corner seemingly oblivious to holding the middle and hold it he does, the playing isn't in question, joining the band for the concert organ player is more preposssing, but you gotta ask yourself, why is the band tight while the harmonies a shamble?
Drummer Will Rigby is the other reason. While I coulda done without his solo turn on the iffy "Write Back", he is easily the best thing about the night. Rigby is a great, great drummer. He is every where, filling up every hole, very stylized, very smart: on the classic dB songs he is a steadier bottom, on the new stuff, he comes completely into his own. Every time your mind wanders from lead singers Chris and Pete, it wanders back to him. I've only seen the dB's live once before and even then I was enthralled by the man. Do they mix him high? He keeps even the slowest numbers moving, and from Holsapple's opening glance at him during the first song count in, to the blistering "Neverland" echoing echos at the other end, he is absolutely astounding.
Chris Stamey is the most purely gifted musician around, strange, experimental: like Lennon if Lennon and Phillip Glass had a baby with a Big Star jones. But he didn't bring it last night and I prefer him solo than I do with the dB's. His mix with the band was always off, maybe that was the point. It undercut Holsapple's sweetness with a harmolodic dischord. But his songs just weren't doing it Friday night, "Before We Were Born" which starts like Blur's "Country House" before morphing into the Bee Gees "Words" and falling apart with the chorus, is typical.
Which leaves us with Peter Holsapple, who has lost his upper register and can't sing "Black And White" anymore, and wobbles whenever Stamey harmonizes and, as a pop spng writer, lacks consistency. And is still one of the great songwriters of his generation, and if he is a bit cool on stage, assume he is too cool to hawk the product.
After all this cavilling, the four song encore was superb, breathtaking, everything we had been waiting for: suddenly the set caught fire. Robert considers "Nothing Is Wrong" as Alex Chilton-ish but I think it is the great lost Lennon song. They botch the harmonies but play it so well, I didn't care that much. "If And When" was not just Stamey's best moment, but the bands crowning achievement: all zoom lens guitar flicking in and out of focus, and Stamey completely inflamed vocal cascading into the coda, "I'll be hot". Followed by "Amplifier" followed by "Neverland".
Before I close up this review, I didn't give Robert Ross credit for some of the thoughts here. His interview with Holsapple is the standard bearer, check it out: : http://www.caughtinthecarousel.com/ . As long I am name checking, Peter Gerstenzang's interview with both Stamey and Holsapple (Stamey comes across difficult) is a must read one music.com.
Look at it this way:the dB's were never who we really wanted them to be, they always essentially went their own way. And they still are not what we want them to be. I have problems with the album and I have problems with the concert. But of the first three songs on the new album two, one by each, are great, and of the last four songs at the concert, all four are great. The grade is better than the review because, 30 years later, I still love the band.