Marshall Crenshaw's 30th Anniversary At City Winery, Sunday, May 1st, 2011
This should have been a slam dunk but, in complete contradiction to his song, nothing is easy when it comes to Marshall Crenshaw. So two songs into his eagerly awaited (so much so by me that I ventured out on a Sunday evening) 30th anniversary set at City Winery, I wasn't shocked that he was out of tune on "Starlit Summer Sky" and that the band was too loud.
Marshall looked intense and old (he is 57) and not at all pleased to be there (he screwed up the clubs name) and I was wondering exactly what I was in for. I was in for a great cover of Elvis Presley's "Got A Lotta Livng To Do", with Crenshaw speeding up and Elvisying the end of the verse: "And- there's- no-one-who-I'd-rather-do-it- with-a than you". It was a wonderful impression and the band relaxed and nailed it. The set wasn't plain sailing after that, but it sure was good enough.
An hour earlier I arrived at City Winery -a grape haven on Varick Street in the Village. My first time there and I was very impressed. A touch too pricey but the seats are well placed, the food is good enough, sitelines excellent, and it is just a good looking shop with fair sound.
Half an hour earlier, a half hour compiliation of early (mostly) television performances. bookended by two Letterman appearances, there was Crenshaw on American Bandstand, Entertainment Tonight, Merv Griffin…
So after the Presley cover , Crenshaw took on the classic first from one end to another. The album is superb, every song is a blast. But the "There She Goes Again" we get is not classic and neither is the "Someday Somewhere". Not bad but not classic. Yo La Tengo boy Ira Kaplan has his curly head down and is all business. He smiles once. , Crenshaw looks as though he'd rather be dead in a ditch, and bassist Graham Maby… is a joy to behold in his "A Hard Day's Night" strap bass, and melodic twists and excellent back up vocals.
But I am kinda underestimating what I am hearing. "Rockin' Round In NYC" is the first absolute, no doubt, killer. Crenshaw does smooth as silk run offs before ending up at the guitar bottle top and as the song reaches the end Kaplan reminds us why he has a sonically youthful day job and the entire band is on fire. Now we're getting somewhere. Followed with "The Usual Thing", where all the joy of the out there too is still right where it always was.
Flip the album over? And Crenshaw is singing "She Can't Dance" with the original (I've never heard it before) lyric and he thanks Warner Bros for forcing him to put it on the album. Probably the only thing he has ever thanked WB for. A fabulous "Brand New Lover" with zip rust and a hard rocking blast concludes the album.
So, it was fine. I have seen Crenshaw countless times and so far so good -seen him better -an acoustic solo matinee comes to mind, but it'll do fine. Still, as a huge Crenshaw fan, I woulda liked to delve a touch wider. I got a little whatevery listening to just the one album. And if I had to? Might have chosen Life's Too Short.
Then we get some obscurities, the Don Dixon co-written "Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time)," off what somepeople consider his worst album, Mary Jane And Nine Others. Me? I don't think you can consider an album with "This Is Easy"on it the worst anything and "Crying Time" is stunningly performed. "Live And Learn" less so and "I Don't See you Laughing Now", a new song, is the most ill tempered song i have ever heard Crenshaw sing.
Which leads me to Crenshaw himself. Robert Christgau wrote about Crenshaw in 1989: "Maybe his expectations have diminished so far that he's in that Zen zone where all effort is grace." That was then. Now Marshall appears sick and tired of everything and I don't blame him. What does Crenshaw have to do to get what he deserves? He writes pop-rock classics and isn't popular and he comes across as grumpy and dissatisfied. In the 90s I saw him refuse to give an autograph outside the Bottom Line and though on the occasions I've spoken to him he has been unfailingly polite, I don't think he is very happy. Now he says he will only release new songs on vinyl. Why? It isn't my fault people aren't buying his new stuff, I am. He is still great. Why is he punishing me? Jaggedland had at least two great Crenshaw songs and a cool cover. Me? I loved the album and wouldn't have minded listening to it tonight either. I mean, if it is what he wants to do, I'll be there.
I loved this show, the band was cracker, the songs first rate, but Marshall makes me sad. Crenshaw once said to me, "You can listen to my music and know everything about me". If that still holds truth, I see a middle aged man increasingly frustrated at a future that hasn't arrived.
For the encore there is a Ted Nugent cover that is played like an insane hurricane with Kaplan let loose and followed by an awesome of a Cliff Richards and the Shadows oldie before, finally , "Something's Gonna Happen".
Something did happen. I just wish more people knew it had happened.
Me? I'll still be wherever Marshall snaps his fingers.