Hall & Oates Play Baltimore's Ram's Head Live
Monday, March 9, 2009
Hall & Oates don't have to maintain an image. In fact, the blue-eyed soul duo -- which dominated commercial radio throughout the '80s -- is in many ways immune to the anxieties that vex successful pop musicians.
This is because Hall & Oates are not cool.
When Daryl Hall and John Oates hit the stage with a five-piece backing band Friday night at Baltimore's Ram's Head Live, they created a coolness vacuum -- a squares-only zone that extended all the way from the drum riser to the lip of the stage. The jelly-legged percussionist knocking his knees while he tapped at a set of bongos: not cool. The purple-suited saxophone player with the foot-long gray hair of a mad scientist: definitely not cool. And the songs: generally not that cool either. The sports metaphors that fuel "One on One" are, admit it, pretty cringe-worthy. John Oates's mustache -- a thick paintbrush that squatted on his upper lip all through the duo's heyday -- used to be sort of cool, but he shaved it off.
Yet, Hall & Oates possess a rapidly growing list of contemporary admirers who are, arguably, very cool. Brandon Flowers, frontman of the synth-rock outfit the Killers, has heaped praise on the duo's 1977 hit "Rich Girl." Ben Gibbard of emo-rock outfit Death Cab for Cutie compiled a list of his favorite Hall & Oates songs for the music Web site Pitchfork Media. Hip-hop prima donna Kanye West sampled "Grounds for Separation" not once, but twice.
So, what gives?
The truth is you can't stay cool forever, but a catchy song can endure throughout the ages. And Hall & Oates have plenty of those. They have so many humongous songs, in fact, that they were able to open the show with hits ("Maneater" and "Out of Touch") and close the show with hits ("Kiss on My List" and "Private Eyes"). Those hits have, for the most part, aged pretty well. Performed by an organic backing band -- and therefore divorced from the dated '80s production that plagues the original recordings -- songs like "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" still soared.
Gibbard should be so lucky.
There were still, of course, all of those uncool elements. The extended quiet-storm sax solos, in particular, got a bit overwrought. Same with Hall's improvised scatting (although you have to hand it to him for being able to hit those high notes at 62 years old). But there are benefits to being unburdened by the cruel yoke of style. In particular, it's hard to feel self-conscious about dancing along to the nerdy doo-wop of "You Make My Dreams." Or about swooning along to the smooth Philly soul of "She's Gone," for that matter. That kind of effusiveness must be pretty enviable to young bands struggling with relatively somber fans.
Hall & Oates isn't cool, but being cool isn't everything.