Face, Nick Lowe and Set Lists
days ago, I fulfilled a half-lifelong quest, and finally saw a live performance
in Los Angeles from the Missouri power pop band Fools Face. How did they
sound? Freakin' brilliant. The quality of their singing and playing was
simply awesome. To think that these guys play just a few gigs a year is
astounding. Moreover, this wasn't some 80s band doing a nostalgia
trip and I mean that in more than one way.
Sonically, the band sounded as rocking and sharp as any band I've seen
this year. Yet they retained the central sensibility of what made their
first three albums great. Their power pop just became more powerful. It's
to their credit that they did not sound dated far from it.
They opened with "Inside Out", the lead track from their eponymous
2002 album. They alternate equally amongst their four songwriters on vocals.
So they followed the first tune with three more tunes from the new disc.
Then a fifth, at which point I turned to a friend who was unfamiliar with
the band, but had proclaimed that he was impressed, and I told him that
they hadn't played a single old song yet. And he was all the more impressed.
This wasn't a trend. It was the reality of the set. Twelve songs, three-quarters
of the new album that was the set. They only reached back to the
past for the two encore songs, finally giving what a lot of the audience
was shouting for, their 1981 Tell America classic "L5".
Goddamn did they nail it, throwing in some spectacular harmony singing
to close the song.
I came away from the show incredibly impressed and entertained. Yet there
was definitely a tinge of disappointment. Since I love the new album so
much, I certainly wanted to hear those songs live. But I also wanted to
hear more old tunes, the tunes I missed out on because I was 17 years
old my freshman year at Southern Illinois University and couldn't get
into the Carbondale bars they frequently gigged at. No "Whatever"?
No "Even Angels Cry"? No "Here to Observe"?
I talked to a confidante to the band, and she explained that the band
didn't think that anyone wanted to hear the old stuff. I don't know why
they thought that, but that explains the set list. And since this was
an International Pop Overthrow set, it's not like they were playing for
the big bucks.
Should I have been disappointed? I'm sure if I could have seen them during
their early-80s heyday, I would have been less chagrined at not
hearing the classic old material. Moreover, does a band have any obligation
to trot out the oldies? On the plane back from Los Angeles, I read Behind
The Muse, where Bill DeMain, music journalist and leader of Nashville
soft-pop band Swan Dive, interviews famous songwriters from the 30s
to today to talk about their work and how they work. In this book, which
is a real nice read, by the way, Don McLean responds to rumors that he
refuses to play "American Pie". McLean explains how a throwaway
remark to a pesky reporter soon was repeated as fact. McLean states that
he always plays the song, because he's there to entertain the paying public
and they want to hear him play it.
Now, Fools Face doesn't have an "American Pie" , though I'd
rather hear ANY of their songs than that overplayed tune. And it's not
like they play out enough to have an audience, particularly away from
their fan base in Kansas City and Springfield. They played a set that
satisfied them why wouldn't they want to play the new songs. They
are justifiably proud of the fact that after an 18 year hiatus, their
quality hasn't dropped one iota. I'm being selfish, though that's also
justifiable, considering their great back catalog.
Are there any expectations or obligations when a band plays a set? Recently
the White Stripes came through Chicago, with their $24 tickets and the
hype and a guitar and drums. They played a fairly short set, including
some covers, but ignored their smash "I Fell in Love with a Girl".
Should they have played it? Yeah, I think so. I realize that having a
hit is anathema to the indie crowd. Still, are The White Stripes such
exalted artists that they couldn't find a way to squeeze that tune in
their set? Considering that many of the folks who came to see them (they
played the 1,100 capacity Metro in Chicago for two nights, by far more
people than had ever seen them in The Windy City), it becomes a form of
musical bait-and-switch. Generally, I don't consider a rock concert to
be an artistic endeavor as much as pure entertainment. Usually, there
is an obligation.
Now to contradict myself, I saw Nick Lowe the other day. He's touring
by himself, a voice, a guitar and brilliant, classic economical songs.
The set concentrated on the tunes from his three most recent albums, where
he has shifted to a more spartan sound. He did commingle chestnuts from
his worthy past. About midway through the set, he broke into his sole
U.S. Top 40 hit, "Cruel to be Kind". He played it a bit faster
than the recorded version. It got some of the loudest applause of the
Nothing wrong with him playing it. Quite frankly, however, it may have
been the weakest song he played all night. That's how good his newer songs
are. This illustrates how subjective the expectation game is. Maybe artists
should just check with me before drawing up a set list...
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