THE HOLD STEADY, THE URBAN LOUNGE, Monday, July 14, 9 p.m., $22
Few bands are as revered in my household as this crew. I even have an autographed poster from a long-ago show in Montana hanging on the wall of my living room. For the past decade, The Hold Steady’s straightforward rock sound and frontman Craig Finn’s incredible ways with lyrical narratives have combined to make them critical favorites and one of the best live bands working today. The band formed in 2003, and my own fandom started in 2006 when the Brooklyn crew released their album Boys and Girls in America. It was a brilliant collection of songs that referenced everything from Jack Kerouac to rock festival medical tents to Finn’s Catholic upbringing. Seeing the band play live the first time was an eye-opening experience, as Finn channeled Bruce Springsteen’s rock and roll evangelist stage persona at an indie-rock, club-sized level. Now entering their second decade as a band, The Hold Steady released a new album earlier this year called Teeth Dreams, the band’s sixth overall. It’s a more guitar-oriented, raucous affair than the band’s past few efforts, at that’s a good thing. Cheap Girls open the show.
Everything about the Avett Brothers has gotten bigger since I last saw them at their rain-soaked Gallivan Center show in 2011, and that was obvious watching their sold-out gig at Red Butte Garden Wednesday night.
The band’s set was super-sized, reaching nearly 30 songs by show’s end. Their sound has expanded beyond their acoustic roots into even more bombastic, electrified rock (at times). And that increasingly epic sound is made possible by the addition of three extra musicians to the core Avett Brothers four of Seth and Scott Avett, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon.
The inclusion of a full-time drummer, fiddler and pianist/organ player to the touring Avett Brothers lineup allowed Seth and Scott to inhabit their co-frontmen roles to the nth degree Wednesday night. The Avetts have always been an insanely energetic live show, and that energy feeds a frenzied fanbase that has also increased in size dramatically the past few years. Now, with seven musicians on stage and a large catalog to draw from, Seth and Scott reveled in dancing around the stage, exhorting the crowd to sing along and goading their backing musicians to let their own showmanship shine.
Wednesday’s show built from an acoustic foundation early on–via show opener “Live and Die” and songs like “Paronia i n B Major,” “Go to Sleep” and “Down with the Shine”–into a cacophonous ending of songs like old fave “Kick Drum Heart” before the band even reached the encore.
Sidenote: the rain held off through the entire show, literally until the band left the stage just before the encore. I was packing and running for the exit when the band’s first encore song offered one of the best surprises of the night–a cover of Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in Line (Shake Shake, Senora),” a tune Danny Elfman joyfully adapted for the Beetlejuice soundtrack. Another fun surprise was a verse of The Jeffersons theme song when opener Nicole Atkins joined the Avetts on stage toward show’s end.
The Avett Brothers don’t spend a lot of time chatting up the crowd, aside from the requisite “thank you” and “we’re glad to be back” kind of stuff, but that certainly doesn’t detract from their shows–all the more time for music. The crowd was rapturous from the start, staying on its feet as the band veered from delicate balladry to roadhouse stompers, touching on a range of genres along the way.
The highlights were numerous. “Pretty Girl from Chile” early on was beautifully done. “Paul Newman vs. The Demons” got the band into full “rock” mode for the first time. “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” from the band’s I and Love and You album was a epic performance, as always. “When I Drink,” “I Killed Sally’s Lover,” “Love Like the Movies” and “Slight Figure of Speech” all killed.
Things got a bit sloppy at show’s end, both on stage and among the drunken crowd suddenly facing a rainstorm. But there’s no denying both band and fans walked away happy from what is sure to be remembered among Utah Avett Brothers as probably their best show here to date. It was definitely the “biggest,” in myriad ways.
BOB WEIR & RATDOG, RED BUTTE GARDEN, Thursday, July 10, 6:30 p.m., $55
You don’t need to be a Grateful Dead fan to appreciate the scene that has supported that band and its members’ various side projects. When Jerry Garcia died, those projects became the primary means for the surviving members to keep playing music, and for the fans to keep their connection to the Dead alive. For singer/songwriter/guitarist Bob Weir, the primary outlet has been Ratdog, a remarkably skilled clan of players who join Weir for songs old and new, including some mean cover tunes. Suffice to say, Red Butte Garden will be a serious party zone Thursday night when Weir and Ratdog take over for a full night under the stars–no opener necessary.
LAURYN HILL, PIONEER PARK, Thursday, July 10, 7 p.m., $5
One of Salt Lake City’s signature summer events kicks off this week as the Twilight Concert Series returns to Pioneer Park Thursday night. And this year, the series opens with one of the most enigmatic artists of American popular music in Lauryn Hill. Hill started her career as a member of The Fugees. And in 1998, she released a solo album that turned her into a global superstar, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, that mixed up classic soul sounds with hip-hop beats and ended up selling more than 8 million copies. At the 1999 Grammy awards, Hill won five trophies, including “Album of the Year” and “Best New Artist.” One could easily make the case that “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” is one of the best albums made in the past 25 years. She’s only released one set of new music since 1998, a poorly received “Unplugged” collection back in 2001. But in recent years, Hill has started playing festivals and special events, including a show at the Sundance Film Festival. Fans still flock to hear Hill’s hits from the late ‘90s, and you might want to do that, too. Thundercat opens the show.
It was pretty much guaranteed that Sunday night would not be a typical Punch Brothers show when frontman Chris Thile announced at the onset that fiddler Gabe Witcher would not be on hand due to the impending birth of his baby.
Throw in the remaining members’ discovery of High West distillery’s Double Rye whiskey before the show (not to mention enjoyment throughout), and the result was a gig that might not have been all it would have been with Witcher on hand, but also one that hardly seemed to lack in showmanship, outstanding playing and strong songs.
Mandolin ace Thile and his fellow Punch Brothers–guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert and banjo man Noam Pikelny opened with the sprawling Josh Ritter tune “Another New World,” stretching in myriad directions while each of the players took a solo to loosen up after Thile compared not playing with the full lineup as “sort of like camping. We’re missing some of those essential comforts, like a roof.”
Bouncing between instrumental jams and songs with Thile on vocals, as well as between new songs just recorded for a new album and older favorites, the Punch Brothers cruised through nearly 20 songs over the course of a perfect evening at Deer Valley. Songs like “This Girl” and the rapid-fire instrumentals got the crowd going early, and the energy stayed high throughout.
A cover of Elliott Smith’s “Clementine” was a nice surprise early on. Same goes for brand new songs like “Charleston” and “Heaven is a Julip on the Porch” later on.
“I am really feeling the love from this whiskey!” Thile announced before taking another sip and leading the band into “Patchwork Girlfriend,” easily one of the show’s highlights. Another was when Eldridge took over on lead vocals for “Through the Bottom of the Glass.” Appropriately, Punch Brothers ended the set with their tune “Rye Whiskey” before a brief encore.
Opener Willie Watson was a late addition to the bill, and his solo folk/country set was a winner as well. A former member of Old Crow Medicine Show (thanks for the knowledge, Dan and Kiki Buehner!), Watson delivered several tunes from his Folk Singer Vol. 1 album, including “Rock Salt and Nails,” “Keep It Clean,” “Stewball” (which he managed to turn into a singalong) and his cover of “Midnight Special.” A talented guitarist and banjo player, Watson also proved a distinct vocalist during his 40 or so minutes on stage. Well worth seeing him next time he comes around.
PUNCH BROTHERS, DEER VALLEY RESORT, PARK CITY, Sunday, July 6, 7 p.m., $40 lawn, $55/$75 reserved
I’m sure I’m not alone in being drawn to the Punch Brothers via the presence of mandolin master Chris Thile–best known as one-third of acoustic stars Nickel Creek. When that band went on hiatus for nearly a decade, Thile was the member of the group I was most curious to follow, and he didn’t disappoint in his choices. He made some interesting music with the likes of Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. He won a MacArthur “genius” grant. And he started this intensely skilled and highly entertaining group, Punch Brothers, along with guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjo man Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher. Together, they might look like a bluegrass crew, but they are incredibly skilled musicians capable of delving into any number of styles. They do just that on their three albums, as well as projects like contributions to the Coen Brothers’ most recent film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Hearing them in the outdoor setting of Deer Valley seems a pretty ideal way to end a holiday weekend.
Saturday’s Voyeur, Salt Lake Acting Company’s annual skewering of Utah culture and a major fundraiser for the theater company, always relies on the news for inspiration.
Happily, writers Nancy Borgenicht and Allen Nevins were handed a heaping plate of Zion-inspired “news of the weird”-type headlines in the year since last summer’s Mitt-centric version of the show. With gay marriage arriving in Utah, Sen. Mike Lee working to shut down the federal government, the push for the priesthood from some women in the Mormon church and a Riverton beauty queen busted for making bombs, the two had plenty to work with in addition to the typical silliness always delivered by the Utah Legislature and their leadership, ie. Gayle Ruzicka.
The 2014 version of Voyeur brings back some characters from the Mormon church office building featured in the past couple years, giving Voyeur regulars reason to cheer for the hilarious returns of Nephi Jensen (Austin Archer), the swinging proxy-baptism executioner, or Elder Marriott (Just Ivie), the Fox News-loving closeted worker bee who, along with Fletch (Alexis Bague), is putting together a Modesty and Values pageant in honor of Sen. Lee (Eb Madson). Also back is the partying Moroni (also Madson) who lives in the basement along with the ghost of a church docent (Jenessa Bowen).
Plot is always secondary to saucy one-liners and big production numbers, and that’s certainly the case across the three acts of Voyeur 2014. There were some fun running gags of people trying to break into a version of “Let It Go” from Frozen before being shouted down, or Pharrell’s almost-as-ubiquitous “Happy.” Several of the songs provided highlights through the actors’ voices and choreography tackled by director Cynthia Fleming. I particularly liked “Yellow Air Alert” (sung to the tune of “Yellow Submarine”), “Life Before Gays” (sung to “Those Were the Days”) and “Rockbusters” (think “Ghostbusters”) sung to commemorate the Goblin Valley rock-tippers.
The energy of the actors is always undeniable during Voyeur shows, and this year is no different. Newcomer Olivia Custodio deserves special notice for her role as the liberal Mormon Sister Marriott, and the interactions of Ivie as Elder Marriott and Bague as Fletch were consistently hilarious. Hayden Warzek and Jaron Barney got a lot of mileage in their roles as gay cast members of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon who take jobs at the church office for the health insurance, and Leah Hassett is winning as Miss Riverton, Kendra.
This year’s Voyeur is stronger than last year’s. And while some of the Mormon jokes went over my head as someone with little knowledge of the faith’s history or theology beyond what I’ve picked up just living in Utah, much of the proceedings are rooted in news events familiar to anyone at least halfway paying attention to life in Utah in 2014. Saturday’s Voyeur remains a vivid and fun reminder that the conservatives that seem to run the state aren’t the only ones living here.
Saturday’s Voyeur runs Wednesdays through Sundays at Salt Lake Acting Company until Aug. 31. Visit SLAC’s website for showtimes, tickets and more information. Photos courtesy of Salt Lake Acting Company.