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Marshall Crenshaw And The Bottle Rockets At City Winery, Tuesday, July 8th, 2014, Reviewed

Marshall Crenshaw And The Bottle Rockets

Marshall Crenshaw And The Bottle Rockets

If consistency  is the calling card of the greatest singer songwriters, Marshall Crenshaw must be top of the list. In a career spanning three decades plus, I can’t think of a single clunker. Song after song and album after album, Crenshaw has maintained the highest of standards. On last night’s “requests only” concert at City Winery, that standard of writing only slipped twice, and Crenshaw didn’t compose either and meanwhile he performed two songs, the all too apt “Red Red Wine” and one of the best songs he has ever written, “Stranger And Stranger” and both songs were released within the last year as part of his 6 EP subscription series (“After 6, I don’t know what I’m going to do”).

Yep, but live on stage you can lose that consistency.

The last time I saw Marshall was at BB King’s performing a Beatles tribute and he was excellent, the time before that at City Winery, the last of three nights celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of his eponymous debut and with no less a back up guitarist than Ira Kaplan joining him, Crenshaw wasn’t excellent. I thought he was in a bad mood, and I think that moodiness is part of what you get from Crenshaw. One night at the Bottom Line, I watched him perform an average hour before devastating the audience with a fiery “Fire” for the encore.

I’d watched him perform a solo request show at the Bottom Line in the 90s, and that afternoon,he had one thing he didn’t have yesterday, the ability to play at whim anything he wanted to. With a back up band, even one as good as the certainly estimable Bottle Rockets, to a certain degree he will either be in shambles or working from a preordained set list. Crenshaw actually did both, an hysterical but brave “In The Year 2525″completely off the cuff, with Crenshaw giving directions to the band during the bridges (“down step 1-2-3”) competed with a terrific “You’re My Favorite Waste Of Time”, learnt by the Bottle Rockets during the soundcheck, It worked great. It was a very good show.

The problem with request shows is how do you pace a set? Crenshaw answered it by using the “interweb” for requests and then building it into a set while accepting requests from the floor. The question of pacing hurt the Bottle Rockets brief warm up set, too much time spent asking for songs and playing exactly what you think they would. Brian Henneman is one killer MC and should know better than spend his time ignoring pleas for “Brooklyn Side”. Brian did get his moment last night, a superb solo on “Red Red Wine”.

The Bottle Rockets give Crenshaw the foil he needs, a strong back bone, a place where he is comfortable striking out. The set felt like a loose variant on Marshall at his best. We expected “There She Goes Again” and “Someday Someway” to open, both songs are part of the arsenal, and both are given sterling renditions, with Crenshaw sounding strong and passionate, the years have lost the boyishness but replaced it with a richness and texture. But the third song, a cover of John Hiatt’s “Some Place  Where Love Can’t Find Me” (“If Good Evening had a subtitle it would be”Show Business Ate My Brain”) is where you don’t expect to find Crenshaw. My friend Ken Davis had mentioned that was what he was hoping for, it is a great song, never recorded again, and if not the turning point, certainly the GPS of the evening.

The following 80 minutes were clear sailing with a version of “Wanda And Duane” that cut any one I’ve heard before, a rockabilly Blaster work out that barreled you down and blew you over. It put the lie to power poppers being iffy instrumentalists. Followed by the song Crenshaw performed in “La Bamba”, a “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” which would be hard to be improved upon. The two songs had a timeless quality, their 50s time or influence didn’t infect the songs. Pacing, putting them back to back was exactly what Michael Buble failed to do the night before at MSG. Buble segued from “All You Need Is Love” to “Burnin’ Love” to little effect, the Bottle Rockets muscled both songs and Crenshaw’s guitar break on “Crying, Waiting, Hoping’ was a perfect way to, not rearrange because who rearranges Holly, right?, but swing it from the rafters.

The strength of the evening… actually, it was just a great set. Crenshaw was in fine voice, the band sounded terrific, the song selections very strong, and the wooliness of the set up allowed Crenshaw to go off on tangents. Mishearing a song request, he decided to play Five Man Electrical Band’s 1971 “Signs”. It gave Marshall the opportunity to remember his first job in 1971 and his local radio station in Detroit who had to play a certain number of Canadian songs and played “Signs” constantly one summer.

Inveterate concert goers live for the moments where the evening becomes unique and Crenshaw used the format to do so any number of times. I started by saying Crenshaw was an inconsistent live performer, but watching this set, decades after first seeing him open for Tom Verlaine at the Ritz  on my birthday in 1981 (I was 25!!), maybe I expect too much from one of the greatest songwriters of all times. Towards the end of the evening, Crenshaw played “Better Back Off” and so shall I. A superb set by a national treasure; he is playing again August 6th, don’t miss it.

Grade: A



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