It takes a lot of skill and commitment to deliver a high-energy glam rock show without seeming over the top, but The Struts pull it off so flawlessly it’s like part of their anatomy. From the way all four members lay into each and every endlessly catchy song, to the way frontman Luke Spiller’s perfectly tailored raiments swish and shift with him as he glides across the stage, The Struts are a machine so well-oiled you’d swear they were born to do exactly this.
We overheard another concertgoer having heated dialogue about it, echoing our own sentiments: “This guy! This guy!” he exclaimed, “He’s like Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger rolled into one!” It’s true, and he can command an audience just as well. Not everyone can pull off a successful call and response session; or get a sweaty, sardine-packed crowd to jump and clap along. But last night’s fans were emboldened.
I used to talk in my articles about how Cleveland crowds are stoic and not easily impressed. Most bands are lucky to get a half-hearted golf clap after their songs. But not Struts fans. Oh no. These fans screamed, yelled, cheered, sang along at the tops of their lungs, raised their hands in the air, and gave back every ounce of energy the band put out to us.
The Struts took notice, too, declaring it their best Cleveland show to-date. Even new songs off their forthcoming album got the same warm welcome. “Is it good? Or is it shit?” Luke asked. I assure you, it’s every bit as good as anything off Everybody Wants. I certainly can’t wait to hear the rest of the album, and can’t wait to see them again.
Boardman, Ohio loves the arts and gives students amazing opportunities to learn and perform music. Case in point, Boardman High School’s rock orchestra Project Mayhem. Backed by electric and acoustic violins, cellos, bass, drums and more, the band performs rock hits from yesterday and today. Featured artists include Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, Kansas, Styx, Foo Fighters, Imagine Dragons, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Tom Petty and Pat Benatar. The orchestra keeps gaining in popularity and sold out the 1,600-seat Boardman Performing Arts Center. I photographed the show for the second year, and look forward to doing so again next year. Enjoy!
Under the giant, illuminated Goodyear logo located east of downtown Akron, the polished granite, red brick and concrete exterior in the center of the rubber company’s former corporate campus looks fairly unassuming. But after walking through the doors into the Goodyear Theater, it’s easy to see why it’s attracting a diverse array of artists, including The Cult, Jason Isbell, Primus, Smashing Pumpkins and Dwight Yoakam. The spacious main hall and balcony of the latest addition to Akron’s growing musical culture captures the grandiose allure of a vintage orchestra stage hall. The character of this amazing venue was perfectly suited for one of England’s most enduring modern rock bands, Squeeze.
Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford have toured separately and together as a duo in the past, but this tour marks the return of Squeeze as a full band. Drummer Simon Hanson and keyboardist Steven Large have been performing with Glenn and Chris since the most recent formation took shape in 2007, and the recent additions of Yolanda Charles on bass and Steve Smith (from UK electronic remix outfit Dirty Vegas) on percussion helped keep the upbeat energy going between everyone on stage and in the audience.
Squeeze played a finely curated mix of trademark favorites mingled with cuts spanning their entire career. They started their set with Please Be Upstanding, a song from The Knowledge, their 15th studio album, released in October. The songs from the new album continue to showcase Tilbrook and Difford’s songwriting tandem of new wave British Soul, from upbeat pop tunes to heartfelt ballads. The new material definitely has their unique vibe as much as their past libraries of work, and adds more colors to their musical landscape. The country slide guitar on Patchouli, the operatic vocal solos of Rough Ride, and the bongo beat percussion of Albatross show Squeeze expanding and are not satisfied by standing creatively still.
With the second song of the set, they promptly moved into their classic hit, Pulling Mussels (from the Shell). Their set included a majority of songs from their 2010 album Spot the Difference, where they re-recorded their greatest hits in identical detail to the original recording. Squeeze’s live performance lived up to the same perfection with every song. They haven’t lost an ounce of the energy and vibrancy that has attracted music fans for decades.
Squeeze packed the last leg of their set with an all-star lineup of their biggest hits. The rhythm section took to the front of the stage for a rousing rendition of Take Me I’m Yours, with hand drums, marching snares, and accordion that got the crowd out of their seats. They kept the fans on their feet by bringing the show home with a rally of their best songs, including Tempted, Goodbye Girl and Up the Junction, and ultimately building up to the rapid disco keyboard melody of Slap and Tickle.
After a brief rest from their marathon performance, Squeeze returned to the stage to deliver an encore with two more of their most popular hits, Is That Love? and Black Coffee in Bed. During the final breakdown of Black Coffee in Bed, Glenn and Chris took time to introduce everyone in the band and gave them a moment to shine. The entire crowd stayed on their feet and helped end the night with a bright and soulful call and response of the song’s chorus. With a final gathering at the front of the stage, the band joined together for a final bow to Akron’s appreciative and devoted fans. Squeeze hasn’t lost a step in their stage and songwriting game, and the great response from their new material and their memorable catalog will have an incredible and expanding impact on music fans for a long time.
Until the Grog booked Luna for last night’s show — their first time back to Cleveland in about 12 years — I honestly hadn’t listened to their records since 2009. They were lost in the CD-selling purges of my thirties. But conveniently, Spotify has a Best of Luna playlist to refresh my memory. Side note — they’re playlists now, not albums. That’s not to say they have any record I dislike; it’s just they get filed away in the drawer of really catchy indie rock songs.
Music fans like myself compare and contrast bands against their peers. My favorite game to play as a contrarian is to state the greater band is the one with the better catalog. Yo La Tengo are a better band than My Bloody Valentine. Is Loveless a great album? Sure, why not. But Yo La Tengo have plain old done more and therefore reached greater heights, so they’re the better band. People who worship at the altar of meteoric bands miss true greatness.
This is the point where writing about Luna gets tricky. They are both timeless and of a very specific time. Who exactly are their peers? The depth of music knowledge on stage last night went clear back to the Platters or Duane Eddy or my beloved Beach Boys. I like record collector rock. Dean Wareham seems like the kind of guy who has walls and walls full of obscure but totally great vinyl albums. But comparing Luna to either their own heroes or part of a revival is short sighted. It’s not revivalist; it’s syntheist.
Conversely, trying to place Luna alongside their contemporaries in the 1990s “alt-rock” doesn’t quite line up either. Pavement, Superchunk, Sonic Youth got up at the same time on the same stages, but everyone sounds more like each other than Luna sounds like anyone — a loser contradiction their lyrics often hint at. Luna aimed for a different target and hit it. Their success was on their own terms.
So what happened on stage? For one, the guitars sounded amazing. I’m not a gearhead, but a quick look at the stuff wasn’t complicated, but rather the stack of a band who dialed in their sound. The guitars sounded rich and full, with beautiful overtones and carefully sculpted reverb. The shimmering sound I heard probably sounds identical in every room they play. The economy of sound extended into the playing. The solos were similar to their records, and they were written right the first time, so a brief guitar solo (and one bass solo) kept the songs moving. For a band that prides themselves on the consistent dynamics of the rhythm section, the songs moved great.
When I was bullshitting online the day of the show, my friend Pete posted he found the first grey hairs in his beard, even though he’s been balding for years. I saw him later that night, and at age 32, he was one of the youngest people in the room. Luna are not minting new fans, and their setlist played liked it. Hits like Pup Tent, Chinatown, Bewitched. We joked about waiting around for the Velvet Underground cover, but it never came, although they did throw in a Cure cover. Their catalog is enshrined in the memories of their fans, and their fans know their influences well enough that all they had to do was run through the hits, have fun doing it, and everyone walked away happy. BTW Pete’s single.
Do you know the difference between classic rock and oldies? I do, and I bet you do too. Now, if you happen to be a Luna fan, ask yourself where do they fit in? Not do they sound like The Champs vs The Eagles, but are Luna part of a culture that has endured against the ebb and flow of fashion, or are they part of an emerging industry of keeping musicians employed, on the road and somewhat happy? Luna fans have been waiting a decade to see this show, a reasonable amount of time for side projects and time off, and not subject to the diminishing returns of the Pixies reunion. They walked off the stage happy, and their fans felt the same.
When Carl Newman of powerpop outfit The New Pornographers answered my pre-show phone call he responded, “Hey, (Blown Speakers) I’ve got a song by that name.” So if he didn’t already know we were fans from our past shenanigans, our name was probably a good indication.
The band’s most recent album, Whiteout Conditions, is the first album with new drummer Joe Seiders, after longtime member Kurt Dhale left in 2014. It also marks the first album without a single song by Dan Bejar, who was busy making a new Destroyer album.
“Ultimately our schedules just didn’t fit. I’m amazed it was the first time that happened,” said Newman.
While Bejar’s absence on Whiteout Conditions was noticeable, it made for a more cohesive album of only Carl Newman songs. But with seven core members in the band, all spread out over great distances, everyone else managed to put their signature stamp on this album and the recording process remained status quo.
“Working on my songs is a similar process every time. I maybe get it in my head that I want to make a different kind of song, but it’s still just going in there and trying to figure it out. It always feels like a puzzle to me. It’s just a process of trying a lot of things and seeing what works. To a certain degree, a lot of it comes back to being a music fan. I record something and then try to listen to it as if I were the person buying the record. If I think, ‘yeah, I would like this,’ it stays.”
Newman once tweeted out a message that songwriting isn’t easy. During our chat, he elaborated. “There are some parts I find easier than others, like the chord structures and melody and rhythm, and that’s what I start with almost always. And then I have to figure out how to fit the lyrics around this. That’s where songwriting becomes work.”
A few songs on the album, like title track Whiteout Conditions, and Second Sleep deal with common topics in music and art: anxiety, depression and insomnia, but still keep that upbeat New Pornographers pop sound.
“I try to write about things in a hopeful way. It’s about trying to get out of it. It’s about fighting it,” says Newman.
“Then you have songs like High Ticket Attractions that’s less about internal struggle and more about the external struggle of what’s going on in the world. It was 2016 when we were making this record, and the election, and there was that fear that if he won it would be as bad as it is right now. It’s terrifying to me for a number of reasons. It’s policy, but also you realize, ‘Holy shit, he reflects a massive chunk of America.’ I’m sure there was the Russian election hacking, and I’m sure there were nefarious things going on. But even with all of that, there are still tens of millions of people who thought, ‘I’d rather vote for him over her.’ That part is scary.
I think millions of people woke up the next day and thought, “Wait, this isn’t the country I thought it was. We have to readjust. The country we thought was America, it was a myth. This is America now. ”
After tours for Together and Brill Brusiers hit Cleveland’s House of Blues, it was nice to see The New Pornographers return to the Beachland Ballroom. If Neko Case had been there, she would have been happy, after being vocal about her fondness for the venue from the stage and her Twitter feed. In her absence, Kathryn Calder and touring singer/violinist Simi Stone filled in on songs like Colosseums, Champions of Red Wine and Mass Romantic.
The band hit songs from all seven albums with a 21-song set list and minimal between-song banter. All Carl asked of the audience was one simple request:
Don’t call him Hot Carl.