Saturday, November 10, 2007

Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie is working without a band for the first time in several years -- the tour is called, with typical wryness, "The Solo Reunion Tour: Together at Last!" -- and if Wednesday night's performance at the Birchmere was any indication, the band might think about looking for new work.

Dressed in jeans, a fuchsia shirt and a black vest, with his snow-white hair pulled into a short ponytail, the 60-year-old folk singer genially ambled through his 42-year-old songbook, playing a few of the expected staples on acoustic guitar and piano. But far more satisfyingly, he also played numbers he doesn't usually perform in public.

A Dave Van Ronk instrumental, a Cowboy Jack Clement ballad and "Freight Train" by Washington's Elizabeth Cotten were worked into a mix that also included a 35-year-old, still-unnamed ragtime original and a new song about the pitfalls of digital photography.

There were no "songs in the 'key of me,' " as he said, declaiming most efforts by contemporary singer-songwriters. This was a seminar on how to engage an audience with insightful anecdotes, fluid melodies and unyielding enthusiasm for songs he has performed countless times.

Noting that this is the 42nd Thanksgiving since the inspiration of "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," Guthrie nonetheless delivered the 18-minute story-song without rushing it, and it was as hilarious as ever. Similarly, on Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," he played the anthem on piano as if it were fresh material instead of a hit from 1972.

-- Buzz McClain

Dr. Dog

The '60s. The Beatles. The Beach Boys.

Those words are bound to appear sooner rather than later when talking about throwback rockers Dr. Dog, so might as well get them out of the way at the beginning. The Philadelphia quintet's sound is heavily -- almost entirely -- rooted in the blissful psychedelic-pop collisions overseen by those all-time greats roughly 40 years ago. Predictably, nothing Dr. Dog played Wednesday night at the Rock & Roll Hotel came close to the best work of the legends they emulate, but the band's enthusiastic take on those classic sounds made for a better evening than simply sitting at home and listening to "Revolver" for the thousandth time.

Fuzzy guitars, multi-part harmonies, bouncing bass lines and big-time hooks were the norm throughout the hour-long set. The band's playing was ragged but never sloppy on songs such as "Ain't It Strange" and "Worst Trip," and in an odd way the complete adherence to sounds of the past made the whole thing seem more sincere. There were no grandiose stabs at high art. It was simply a group of friends playing a bunch of songs that sound a whole lot like some of their favorites.

Guitarist Scott McMicken and bassist Toby Leaman traded off vocals to nice effect. McMicken's squeaky voice worked well on the most psychedelic material, while Leaman's gruff howl, which evoked Joe Cocker on standout "Die Die Die," gave things a more down-home feel. The Band was another obvious reference point: When Leaman sang "The dog is barking out back/He thinks he's in the band," on "Alaska," the double meaning was impossible to ignore.

-- David Malitz

'Zappa Plays Zappa'

The death of Frank Zappa in 1993 (at the absurdly young age of 52) left a hole that few other musicians would even try to fill.

At least until now. Zappa's son Dweezil, 38, an actor and accomplished guitarist in his own right, has been reviving his father's inventive, subversive and uninhibited music with a new production called "Zappa Plays Zappa," which he brought to the Warner Theatre on Wednesday night. It's clearly a labor of love; for close to three hours, the younger Zappa led his seven-piece band on a fast-paced tour of the Zappa legacy, including classics like "Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy," "Pygmy Twylyte" and "Brown Shoes Don't Make It."

It's all music of ferocious complexity, lurching between styles, shifting meters on a dime and spitting out whatever was hurtling through the composer's mind at the moment. But Dweezil has clearly done his homework; the entire band (which included Ray White, a guitarist and singer who toured with Zappa) brought the music off with painstaking professionalism and often note-for-note accuracy.

Maybe it didn't have the wild edginess of Zappa's own performances, but that's to be expected; the biting lyrics of 30 years ago sound a little dated today, and Dweezil, for all his gifts, didn't really inherit his father's live-wire persona.

But as a tribute, this was probably as good as it gets. Dweezil displayed some spectacular guitar chops, but kept the focus on his father -- even wearing a Frank Zappa T-shirt throughout the performance. And one of the high points came early on, when Dweezil launched into the signature song "Cosmik Debris." A video of his father materialized above the stage, and for the next 10 minutes the two traded solos and seemed to beam at each other across time -- a moving, if slightly eerie, father and son moment.

-- Stephen Brookes

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