Fred J. Eaglesmith
The "Fred Heads" -- a boisterous collection of rough-hewn suburban music fans -- were out in full force Tuesday night at Jammin' Java: Canadian roots-rocker Fred J. Eaglesmith was in town and in a mood.
Eaglesmith didn't disappoint, although his support sometimes did. His between-song verbal bitterness was a bit more entertaining than his new-ish band's ragged playing, save for the reliable mandolin and vocals of singer-songwriter William P. Bennett -- the Willie Nelson of Canada -- who pollinated each tune with sprinkles of old-time country and haunting backup vocals.
For his part, Eaglesmith, sporting a straw 10-gallon hat and looking like Sting's troubled-cowhand little brother, played enough of his familiar favorites and new tunes from his latest CD, "Dusty," to appease the head of the record label: himself, as revealed in an anecdote that illustrated Eaglesmith's career-long disconnect from the music establishment.
And so his terrific tunes are destined to be heard only by die-hard Fred Heads and the occasional listener to satellite radio's roots-rock streams. On Tuesday he performed a bunch of them -- "Rev It Up," "Freight Train," "Time to Get a Gun," "Carmelita," hits all in a parallel alt-country universe -- but he was most trenchant in his banter, much of which was political ("I'm a liberal myself, but by and large I hate them").
His comedy, spoken and sung, inspired one audience member to describe Eaglesmith as a combination of Toby Keith and Jack Black. That about gets it, but it doesn't explain the plaintive ballad "Spookin' the Horses," the penetrating examination of celebrity called "Alcohol and Pills," or the gorgeous tear-jerker "Crowds," as in "I still look for you in crowds."
-- Buzz McClain
Aaron said the crowd was nice, and thanked it for the applause, but other than that, the Neville Brothers didn't have much to say to the audience at the Birchmere on Tuesday night. This reticence allowed the Louisiana family to cram an impressive amount of music into its set, creating a relentless night of scorching New Orleans funk.
Soul standards such as "A Change Is Gonna Come" and any song with "bayou" in the title brought the loudest hoots and hollers from die-hard fans. Neville neophytes were more reserved and seemed disappointed that the brothers didn't perform their version of Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole," the theme song for the HBO series "The Wire."
Tracks from the group's first studio album in five years, "Walkin' in the Shadow of Life," provided just as much voltage as the more familiar fare. The wailing, funkadelic "Your Life (Fallen Soldiers)," for example, was a standout. But the most raucous of the cuts from the new record was a remake of the 1970 Temptations hit "Ball of Confusion."
The most electric moment of the show came toward the end as Aaron Neville crooned "Amazing Grace." Though he has been singing for decades, the sight of the muscle-bound, tattooed guy emitting that falsetto never fails to astound.
-- Sarah Godfrey