Friday, April 06, 2007

Bucking Frilliant

I went to see Lindsey Buckingham at the Danforth Music Hall last night. Having seen a few camera-phone videos from this tour, I had some idea what to expect, but still went in assuming that it was as likely to be a massive disappointment as a mind-blower.

In the end, it was a perfect encapsulation of Buckingham’s oeuvre, in that around 70% of the night was astonishing and brilliant, the rest either overwrought or simply pedestrian.

Everything he did solo with just an acoustic guitar was shiver-inducing. The eye-rollingly self-referential “Not Too Late” (“Reading the paper/ saw a review/ Said I was a visionary/ but nobody knew”) just bothers me on his new record, but live, as the opener no less, the song came off less as a confessional song than as a genuine confession, an admission of failure as an artist, as if he were just fingerpicking madly and free-associating. I immediately regretted being stuck up in the balcony. “Big Love” was primal, as expected. Even better, and even darker and more primal, was – shockingly – “Go Insane,” which was slowed down and made to both creep and howl. (See this version, from about a week earlier. Watch what happens just before the four-minute mark – there was a lot of that at this show.)

With just a guitar, Buckingham is a master of using dynamics. Whisper-to-a-scream has gone beyond cliché, but when done right, by a performer who can take a room hostage, it sounds like a fresh invention. I mean, obviously, he was shredding his throat on the coda for “Big Love” for the third or fourth time that week, but when he did it last night, he betrayed no sense that this was catharsis-on-cue.

I have fetishized Buckingham’s guitar playing for a long time now – to the point of buying a nylon-string guitar a few years ago, in part because he plays one – so hearing it fantastically loud in a hall for two hours felt like a personal indulgence, despite the fact that the place was packed. (I was was even willing to ignore the frequent onstage displays of ‘Dalai Lama hands.’)

As expected, the Fleetwood Mac material got the biggest reception, but he had the crowd all the way through. There were thick-necked Q107-type guys behind me openly admitting to being floored.

It was only some of the full-band stuff that lost me. The extended freak-out guitar solos went nicely through the roof (there were a couple moments where Buckingham literally starting grabbing at the strings of his guitar with both hands like some crazed monkey). But with the band, and especially the extra guitars, it often felt overdone and even rote. Where the acoustic material had felt like music being freshly created as it was being performed, the band stuff tended to just be an attack. Or worse, a kind of showcase. (There was also a beyond-shameful “funky white guy” drum interlude that more like something you’d here at, say, a variety show aimed at promoting teen abstinence.)

Another thing: as much as I like a lot of his new songs, I think he needs to get bored of playing them in their fixed arrangements and start pulling them apart like he does his older material.

Happily, he ended the show the way he began it, with a solo version of a new song – the vaguely Led Zep IIIish “Shut Us Down,” which I was already sold on from the record, but which came off like another cliché made fresh: the finale that actually feels final, as if nothing more could, or should, be said. It was the kind of show that left me genuinely grateful for the long subway ride home, for having the time to mull it over for a while.

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