So the weekend of fun plus my show last night equals a very sleepy girl. I'm lousy with the punctual show reviews though, so I wanted to make sure I wrote about Guster before my mind wandered too far from Saturday night.
Guster is one of the bands that I had managed to never see, even though I've known about them (and kind of been a fan of at least some of their songs) for the better part of the last 8 years or so. I think part of the reason I never paid them much attention was an overly enthusiastic guy I used to know who was so annoying in his attempt to get me to listen to his favorite band, I ended up fleeing to avoid encouraging him. Silly me. It's a good thing I decided shortly thereafter that I would never let boys keep me from good music. But more on that later.
First up was Ray LaMontagne, because my friend John and I arrived too late to see The Fruit Bats. I wouldn't call myself Ray's number one fan or anything, but I definitely enjoy the scruffy-guy-with-a-guitar-and-a-heartbreaking-voice thing that he has going on, and there's absolutely nothing more magical than taking an amazing set of vocal chords and putting them on stage at the Ryman. Transcendent. I'm not very familiar with LaMontagne's recorded work, although I'm sure I've heard his CD a few times, but I did recognize a number of his songs and there were a few that even induced goosebumps.
Of course, John and I had just had a conversation in the car about what makes a live performance exceed the feeling that the CD is just being played on stage, so I have to admit I analyzed the band a little bit more than I might have otherwise. Ray LaMontagne, I'm sad to say, falls into the category of sounding just like a recording. The singer is relatively shy while performing - he rarely speaks between songs and when he does, it's in a hushed voice with kind of awkwardly halting sentences. His band doesn't add much to the equation - while they are obviously immensely talented, they all stay in their places on stage and there's little to no interaction between anyone. Clearly LaMontagne is the focus, and his voice cancels out any real criticism, but I have to admit that while his set was lovely, I would have been dozing had I been standing up. Not that it's a bad thing, necessarily.
The two most interesting points in LaMontagne's set were when he brought Rachael Yamagata out for a new song ("Barfly"?), and when he suffered a mini-breakdown at the end of his performance. I wasn't sure I would write about this, but today I talked to my Aunt Mary about the show (she's headed to see both bands later on the tour) and she thought it was an interesting thing to learn about a performer she was about to see.
What happened was this: at the end of LaMontagne's set, his band left the stage, leaving the singer alone with his guitar and the microphone. He proceeded to sing a gorgeous song in a relatively hushed Ryman - there was a little bit of obnoxious overly enthusiastic random clapping far up in the balcony, but for the most part, everyone was quiet. I was in the front center of the balcony and didn't hear anything on the floor, but LaMontagne stopped in the middle of his song, obviously distracted, and said something along the lines of "someone thinks the blues is funny," indicating a place in the audience fairly close to the stage. He almost chuckled I think, and for a second I thought he would go on with the song, though clearly he was distracted enough to stop in the first place. I believe he repeated that again - "this guy thinks the blues is funny" and strummed a little on his guitar. It's hard to remember exactly how it played out because of the shocker that followed. Then, and this is not a direct quote, but close enough to what he said - LaMontagne once again indicated the same place in the audience, and said, if I remember correctly - "maybe you'd rather be at home drinking beer, waiting for your children to get old enough to rape."
I understand the frustration of someone being disrespectful at a show, especially a sold-out show at the Ryman where people paid a decent price for their ticket. But to completely lose your cool that way, to lash out at someone in the audience in such a completely inappropriate manner (this was an all-ages show, and even if Guster dropped a few f-bombs during their set, it was all in good fun), I think that was inexcusable. Sure, the laughing guy was an ass, and was probably drunk, and maybe his neighbors should have thrown an elbow into his ribs to shut him up. But Ray LaMontagne is a professional, this is what he does, and I don't think he should let these things affect him. If the heckling was worse than I could tell from the balcony, I apologize, and if someone on the floor heard more, please let me know. Still, there are always better ways to handle a situation like this, in my humble opinion. Needless to say, that ended the set, and there was no cover of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Dammit.
Okay, now that the downer part of the review is over, on to more exciting things. Guster was GREAT. Great in a way that made me want to kick myself for going so many years without seeing the band. (I do believe they played a free show at my college, Boston U, while I was in school and I missed it. Clearly I have issues.) First of all, they came out on stage Grand Ole Opry style - completely decked out in suits that they had rented from Manuel. If you're not familiar with the famous designer, he is responsible for "cowboy couture" - the crazy-looking embroidered western-style clothing some members of the Grand Ole Opry made famous. If there was any one thing a band could do to make a great first impression while walking on stage at the Ryman, that was it.
The set was excellent too - although I'll admit I don't know a fair number of the band's songs, I do have three of their albums and definitely have my favorites. And of those favorites, the only one that was missing was "Careful" (which they played the night before AND after - booo!). I did get to hear "Fa Fa," "Barrel of a Gun," "Amsterdam," and a bunch of new material from Ganging Up On the Sun, which I'm enjoying more and more as I continue to listen to it. The songs were a good mix of styles, varying from faster songs to slower, a poppy singalong to a slower, drawn out tune that was as close to a "jam" as the band gets. The lights were also some of the best I've seen at any concert - huge and colorful and varied, and extremely complementary to the music while not being too distracting.
Guster definitely gets the reputation of being a band that appeals to beer-drinking frat guys, and their tours with Barenaked Ladies and Dave Matthews Band I think have made a number of more critical music fans poo-poo on the group. Going into the show, I expected them to be a little bit of a guilty pleasure myself, and was incredibly pleased to find out that they are both extremely talented musicians and extremely talented entertainers. The albums are most definitely poppy and polished, and while the band sounds just as polished on stage, their skills as musicians come to the forefront and you realize how accomplished they really are at what they do (I was particularly impressed by the drummer, who played not a kit but standing up with his hands for most of the set - congas, bongos, cymbals, and even a snare - I can't imagine what his hands look like).
On stage, Guster's personality shines through as well, adding that delicous extra ingredient that really takes a band from good to great. Interaction between the band members was noticeable and almost familiar - they really looked like a group of friends who happened upon a sold-out Ryman Auditorium. Interaction with the crowd was even better - they almost reminded me of Barenaked Ladies in their ability to be silly, to make the audience laugh, to tell random stories in between songs while being incredibly gracious and thankful and respectful of the historical venue that they were playing. I know my tickets were free, but I really do appreciate a band that explains that they and the two openers don't sell millions of CDs, so they are thankful that the audience spent their hard-earned money on tickets to see the show. A dose of humility always goes a long way.
Perhaps the best part of the show was the end, after the encore. The band walked off stage and the audience pretty much bailed, but being the savvy girl that I am (ha ha), I noticed that the house lights weren't coming back on - a sure sign of a second encore. Sure enough, the band came back out, and stood on the edge of the stage, sans microphones and amps, asking the audience to stay quiet for a few moments so they could play a song unplugged. For our silence, we were treated to an excellent acoustic rendition of "Jesus on the Radio," which may be my favorite Guster song now. Almost as amazing as hearing the song in a completely silent Ryman, with the crowd below tightly pressed against the stage, was the deafening, almost heart-stopping applause that followed. Now THAT is a way to end your set.