Of all the shows I’ve seen, my favorite remains Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the old hockey rink in Buffalo, on the Arc/Weld tour of 1991.
Neil and the Horse played sloppily and louder than Christ, which is the only way they know. But underneath the energy was a strength and fire that had little to do with volume, and a wisdom built on 20-plus years of marvelous songwriting. Age met spirit, and the results were explosive.
Tonight’s show by Graham Parker and the Rumour at Bethlehem’s Musikfest Cafe wasn’t quite as earthshaking as Neil and the Horse were, all those years ago.
But it was very, very, very good, and another potent reminder of what can happen when experience, spirit and smarts come together on equal footing.
Which is a good thing … because when you’re Graham Parker and the Rumour, it ain’t just about hitting the right notes.
The albums the British singer-songwriter and his band recorded between 1976 and 1980 crackled with energy, emotion and soul — not “soul” in a literal-minded, let’s-make-this-sound-just-like-Otis-Redding way, but soul nonetheless.
(Not for nothing is their best-known album called Squeezing Out Sparks, nor one of their rallying-cry signature tunes called “Passion Is No Ordinary Word.”)
For a reunion tour to work, it would have to be about something besides the box office. It would have to embrace the power of the past, and summon it in the present.
Parker and his five-man backing band ain’t getting rich off this tour: I guesstimate the Musikfest Cafe holds 500 people, and it wasn’t sold out.
But if this first show of the tour is any indication, they’re more than fulfilling the artistic part of the equation. The two-hour show abounded with energy, good humor, and a commitment to putting across a classic set list of songs with wit and emotion intact.
Parker and company played at least four songs from last year’s reunion album, Three Chords Good — one of them, the sardonic “Last Bookstore in Town” (complete with kazoo solo), for the first time onstage.
From the sound of it, the new songs hold their own with the classics. One, “A Lie Gets Halfway ‘Round the World,” featured Parker riffing on the local color: “Bethlehem, the Steel City … they replaced steel with plastic … and that sucks.”
The classics, meanwhile, are in good hands. “Discovering Japan” and “Howlin’ Wind” and “Local Girls” and “Watch The Moon Come Down” and “Lady Doctor” and “Soul Shoes” (which got a stomping honky-tonk take as the final encore) and, yes, “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” felt strong and biting, familiar without being rote.
“Howlin’ Wind,” in particular, had an ominous strut, just a tiny bit different from the record, that makes me wish they were still playing it and I were still listening to it. This short clip (which could stand a fade-in, fade-out, and other sweetening I don’t have time to give it) conveys a tiny, tiny bit of it:
Oh, yeah — late in the show, just when I’d forgotten how very much I wanted them to play “Stupefaction,” they played it, and it was brilliant, as scornful and fed-up as it was in 1980.
The 30 years between the original breakup of the Rumour and Three Chords Good got their due too, with the band rocking through a selection of tunes they didn’t originally play on, but did justice to anyway. (I now have a whole bunch of Graham Parker albums I know I need to catch up on.)
Parker and the Rumour will be on tour in the Northeast for the next three weeks or so, playing such humble venues as The Met in Pawtucket, R.I. (Did I mention they’re not getting rich?)
If you can catch ’em, do it. If you can’t, cross your fingers and hope that the band’s rediscovered rock n’ roll soul is enough to keep it together for a while longer.