Some years back, I saw guitar god Bill Kirchen play a remarkable mid-song medley that included riffs by everyone from Buck Owens to Chuck Berry, Merle Travis to Iggy Pop. It's still one of the greatest examples of The Random Interconnectedness Of All Thing that I've ever seen, and it's a lead-pipe cinch Kirchen will fire it up again when he plays a Fourth of July show in Carrboro next week. For details, see the preview in Friday's paper.
As party tricks go, this is pretty great: 60 years of rock history as told by 100 famous guitar riffs from Chuck Berry to St. Vincent, played out over about the length of an average Phish song. Alex Chadwick renders them all instantly recognizable, and he even changes tunings on the fly as he goes. There are a few head-scratchers -- "Pictures of Matchstick Men" is Status Quo, not Camper Can Beethoven (although the latter did cover it) -- and I'd quibble with some of the selections. Still, anybody who can segue from "Blitzkrieg Bop" to "Barracuda" without missing a beat is a genius. And it's all one take, no edits.
By David Menconi
DURHAM -- Over the decades, I've been happy to follow Elvis Costello's many detours down tangential musical byways, from country stringbands to classical string quartets. I've admired, respected and enjoyed most all of it. But I must confess that what still gets my heart beating fast are the rage-steeped poison-pen songs from his old revenge-and-guilt period -- especially when played by a loud-and-fast quartet like the one he brought to Durham Performing Arts Center Sunday night.
It was a spectacular show with three-dozen songs clocking in at just under three hours, played by a band featuring longtime Costello veterans Steve Nieve on keyboards and drummer Pete Thomas bashing away. The set drew heavily from the old days, too, starting with "I Hope You're Happy Now" and ending with an encore including "Clubland," "Pump It Up" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
Yet it was hardly one-dimensional. Instrumentation featured everything from Theremin to ukulele, and the wide-ranging song selection included covers by the likes of Buck Owens, Chuck Berry and Booker T & the MG's. As always, Costello offered a veritable musicology lesson about his own catalog. At one point as the band vamped on Booker T's soul instrumental "Time Is Tight," Costello noted that he had turned that riff into his 1980 song "Temptation" -- and sang it to demonstrate.
Sunday's show was vastly different from Costello's previous Triangle appearance in 2009, when he brought a six-piece country band to Cary's Booth Amphitheatre and played an Englishman's take on Americana. This band was stripped down and so was Costello, who appeared slimmer and fitter than he's been in years.
This was the final U.S. date of Costello's tour featuring "The Spectacular Spinning Songbook," a great onstage gimmick. The setup included a go-go dancer, a television showing static ("As you can see, we keep the TV tuned to Fox News at all times," Costello quipped), a high striker and a huge wheel of fortune with several dozen song titles, topics and themes.
Four songs in, Costello put on a black tophat, took up a cane and went into a carney rap as the band played Blood Sweat & Tears' "Spinning Wheel." That was the setup for audience members to come onstage, spin the wheel and determine the next song.
You'd think that might result in a set with no sense of flow or transition. But it was hugely entertaining, in part because of the canny structure of each spin suggesting groupings of songs. One audience member (who brought along two vinyl albums he made Costello sign onstage) spun to "Happy," and the band obliged with three songs from Costello's "Get Happy" album.
Mostly, though, the format worked because Costello is a terrific and witty showman, and he kept things moving right along. His song introductions were as entertaining as the performances, especially one story about meeting Johnny Cash and another about playing "No Particular Place to Go" for an audience including Berry, Keith Richards and Leonard Cohen.
One audience spinner was a young woman in a red dress that appeared to be spray-painted on, and she did an impressive dance routine in the go-go cage along to "Veronica." Another young woman requested "My Funny Valentine," which appeared to just melt her; she sat onstage quietly weeping as Costello played it.
Costello was the band's sole guitarist Sunday night, and he put in plenty of six-string heroics. Nieve and Thomas also played well, although the keyboards didn't seem loud enough in the mix for much of the show. And bassist Davey Faragher's backup vocals were on-point and just-right throughout.
Even with the spinning-wheel format, few of Costello's standards went missing. By the end of the night, he'd included "Alison," "Watching the Detectives" and "Everyday I Write the Book." He made 'em all sound brand new.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat
Into each life, some schooling must fall. This week brings schooling for us worker bees here at Thee Olde Reliable -- computer-training for a new publishing system we're to start using next week. It's, uh, not the most exciting stuff. But as is usually the case, Chuck Berry has the perfect song for the occasion.
(Yes, Carole, this was posted during a class break.)
Click through for an amusing account of Mr. Berry sweeping into downtown Raleigh on Friday, leaving a trail of pork ribs in his wake.
Thanks to all the umbrellas in the crowd, you had to do some contortions and crane your head at just the right angle to see him; but Chuck Berry put on a pretty dynamite performance on a soggy Friday night at Raleigh Wide Open. If I ever get within shouting distance of 82 years old, I hope I'm in half as good shape as Berry. Same as always, he busted out his signature duck-walk move on "Johnny B. Goode," and the crowd went nuts.
"It makes my heart flutter -- well, all it does anymore is flutter -- to see you standin' in the rain out there to see a li'l ol' boy like me!," Berry crowed afterward.
Of course, the set only lasted about a half-hour and Berry's relationship to details like pitch and tuning was casual at best (more than once, his backup band looked bewildered at what he was trying to do). But that didn't matter. It was cool just to hear him fire up those guitar riffs you've heard a zillion times, and want to hear a zillion more.
ADDENDUM (9/10/08): Lots of pictures from the show here.
Well, Tropical Storm Hanna is playing havoc on the outdoor-live-music portion of today's Raleigh Wide Open celebration. One change in the schedule is that Chuck Berry's headlining set at the Fireworks stage has been pushed ahead to 7:30 tonight, to try and finish before the storm's heaviest rains are expected to hit.
What this means for the rest of the schedule is still not clear. Annuals are scheduled for 8:00 at the Cherry Bounce stage, and I hope they'll be able to play. Funny piece of timing, though, I just heard from Annuals' publicist, who sent along the cover to their upcoming album "Such Fun" (coming Oct. 7). It's a landscape by the late Bob "The Joy of Painting" Ross:
This weekend brings Raleigh Wide Open to downtown Raleigh, with a bunch of free music. Click through for some explanatory verbiage.
The Durham Performing Arts Center isn't the only under-construction building announcing concerts today. The new Raleigh Convention Center is set to open with "Raleigh Wide Open," a three-stage event featuring some three-dozen acts playing free shows around downtown the weekend of Sept. 5-6. And the most intriguing booking is the great and venerable Chuck Berry, in his first performance around these parts in eons (near as I can tell, he's not played here in the 17 years I've lived in Raleigh). We'll see if the man can still duckwalk at age 81.
The other headliners include hometown buzz band Annuals; a couple of Raleigh Downtown Live alumni, '90s-vintage hitmakers Soul Asylum and Arrested Development; and '70s rock dude Lou Gramm. Bunches more support acts should be announced soon.
ADDENDUM: Unrelated to "RWO," but another cool upcoming downtown event: Magnetic fields at Meymandi Hall Oct. 18.