Jessica Simpson at Nissan Pavilion
Music was hardly the most important thing at Jessica Simpson's Nissan Pavilion show Saturday night -- for starters, she's merely an average vocalist. Rather, it was a night to celebrate everything lovable about America's blonde-of-the-moment. From clips of her and hubby Nick Lachey's reality show, to a Q&A with a group of fans who got to watch the concert from the stage (nope, Jess won't be a mom anytime soon) to a video montage that took our gal from cradle to stardom, it was a full-on dose of everything Jessica.
To Simpson's credit, the 90-minute show featured nary a bare midriff, over-choreographed legion of dancers, come-hither pant or overly trashy outfit. She aimed instead to endear herself to her fans (who themselves handled the evening's midriff-baring quota) with a performance that balanced her current ditzy persona with her roots as a contemporary Christian balladeer.
If her barrage of ballads weren't so hard to tell apart -- only "Underneath" and a cover of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" were at all distinctive -- the songs might have actually been the focus. But it took up-tempo romps like "I Think I'm in Love," "Irresistible," and a lighthearted poke at Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money" to get the audience (a decent turnout, but nowhere near capacity) energized.
A musical knockout wasn't really in the cards anyway. It was enough that Jessica was there and funny and just seemed like, so totally, a real person. Or whatever.
-- Patrick Foster
Aimee Mann at 9:30
At the 9:30 club on Saturday night, singer Aimee Mann announced that she had recently taken up boxing. That may be an unusual sport for someone as scrawny and non-intimidating as Mann (who joked about a posting on the Internet that she is "not a very robust specimen"), but she packs a more powerful punch in two lines than most songwriters can in an entire tune. "You look like the perfect fit/for a girl in need of a tourniquet," began "Save Me," from the film "Magnolia" -- as she said, the song that "lost an Oscar."
Many of Mann's compositions deal with such dark subject matter, comparing a new flirtation to a moth drawn to its death in a flame ("The Moth") or bemoaning a troubled friendship ("Deathly"). Despite their often-gloomy sentiments, her songs are rarely dirges, and on tracks from each of her four solo albums, she channeled the desperation of her lyrics into musical energy, augmented by her four-piece band.
Indeed, Mann's humor charmed the crowd. Her encore started with "The Other End (of the Telescope)," co-written with Elvis Costello, but she stopped several times because of forgotten lyrics. "I could just go on -- that would be the professional thing to do," she said, laughing. "But it would bug me all night!" Her ever-supportive fans prompted her at each fumble, and she chose a less complicated route for her next song, a mellow version of "Voices Carry," the biggest hit for 'Til Tuesday, the band she fronted in the '80s. With Mann's songcraft as a solid foundation, her performance and endearing stage presence held the audience at full attention all night.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
DKT/MC5 at the Black Cat
The four guys who ambled onstage Friday at the Black Cat didn't look much like the MC5: no gold lame jackets, no shaggy hair, no closed-fist salutes. One musician even wore a hat that evoked the '40s rather than the '60s. Yet when it roared into its opening song, "Tonight," the DKT/MC5 sounded remarkably like its influential predecessor, a rabble-rousing Detroit quintet whose last gig was in 1972.
The original MC5 was three acts in one: A blues-based garage band, a spacey-jazz improv outfit and a group that prefigured punk by recording an album of streamlined '50s-style rockers with up-to-date protest lyrics. The DKT/MC5, featuring the original band's three surviving members, couldn't quite juggle all those aspects. After all, DKT stands for (bassist Michael) Davis, (guitarist Wayne) Kramer and (drummer Dennis) Thompson, a lineup that doesn't include a lead singer. The current ensemble's fourth member, popster Marshall Crenshaw, sang the first song and joined in on a few others. But Crenshaw -- the one in the hat -- spent the show proving himself as a raucous punk-rock rhythm guitarist.
That left most lead vocals to guests Mark Arm (of Seattle grungers Mudhoney) and Evan Dando (once of Boston's pop-punk Lemonheads). Although Dando was certainly suited to such speedy, tuneful numbers as "Shakin' Street," Arm was more versatile and intense, a worthy heir to the 5's vocalist, the late Rob Tyner. Arm, Dando and Crenshaw all sang the band's signature anthem, "Kick Out the Jams," which was introduced by an ebullient Kramer with the suggestion to "kick out the president." But it was Arm who handled the hard stuff, including the politically pointed (and still relevant) final encore, "The American Ruse." For those in the crowd who never saw the original band play live -- which was quite possibly everyone -- such moments came impressively close to the real thing.
-- Mark Jenkins
Five for Fighting at 9:30
Five for Fighting's John Ondrasik would have been huge in 1975. In the era of "Chevy Van" and Neil Diamond, the California singer's radio-friendly melodies would surely have been packing the Cap Centre. Stuck in 2004, however, he had to settle for a nearly sold-out 9:30 club Friday night.
The lack of a huge arena throng didn't stop Ondrasik from performing like he was in front of one, whipping through an hour-plus of adult-alternative pop-rock that was melodic and crisply played, yet still coming across as utterly faceless.
Ondrasik did prove an adept stylist, leading his lithe four-piece band through pieces that not only recalled the heyday of rugged-yet-sensitive guys like Jim Croce and Dan Fogelberg, but cannily adding elements that easily appeal to fans of John Mayer, Dave Matthews and Ben Folds.
Songs like "The Devil in the Wishing Well" and "Bella's Birthday Cake" could only have come from a writer with a long-standing love of Elton John, while "Angels and Girlfriends" took a snappy folk-rock stroll. The danger in so much genre-smearing, of course, is that you must possess a strong musical personality to make it work, and even with his elastic and powerful voice, Ondrasik simply doesn't.
During the strongest part of the set -- the triad of "Disneyland," "Superman (It's Not Easy)" and "Infidel" -- it was a shame that his commanding voice was tied to material awash in self-absorbed generalizations. But that's just the way it went for an artist who seems born too late.
-- Patrick Foster
McLusky at the Black Cat
Since McLusky employs only guitar, bass, drums and two voices, you might expect the band to strain to fill a room the size of the Black Cat's main stage, where it performed Saturday night. In fact, the Welsh trio makes a colossal noise, yet also leaves lots of air in its sound, with Andy Falkous's guitar or Jonathan Chapple's bass sometimes dropping out altogether. Open space was such a prominent musical feature that it seemed almost normal when Falkous -- an inveterate string breaker -- interrupted one stop-start tune long enough to switch guitars.
Despite such moments, McLusky's performance was a little less frenzied than the one the threesome played at the same venue about a year and a half ago. The trio's music has not calmed down, however. An off-kilter mix of the primal and the self-conscious, songs such as "Alan Is a Cowboy Killer" contrast gut-rattling bass and drums with falsetto yelps and bursts of churning, trebly guitar. The lyrics were alternately angry and absurdist, and often profane. (Even the motto on the band's latest T-shirt is unprintable.)
Although the set frequently seemed to flirt with chaos, it was actually well controlled. McLusky began to play precisely at midnight and concluded -- with the "your heart's gone the color of Coca-Cola" chorus of "Whoyouknow" -- exactly an hour later. When the crowd called for an encore, the band's roadie grinned and shook his head. McLusky's assaults are perfectly timed, and this one was over.
-- Mark Jenkins