Singer-songwriter Steve Young, a fine soloist but perhaps more famous for writing Waylon Jennings's "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" and the Eagles' "Seven Bridges Road," once told me something profound about songwriting and popular music in general. "People aren't looking for something completely different," he said. "They want something like what they're used to with a little twist."
The truth of that declaration was proven at two wildly disparate shows on July 20. At the Vans Warped Tour, Boston-Irish folk-punkers Dropkick Murphys drew one of the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds of the day while playing their version of traditional Irish songs from a time long forgotten. Later that day, Norah Jones -- a young woman with a fresh voice and an old soul -- enthralled a sold-out Hobby Center with her patented mélange of country, blues and jazz. Same venerable songs, but with brand-new twists.
Seven-year-old Racket Junior accompanied me to the Warped Tour date, and as it turned out he was a little young for the event. He was wearing a Yu-Gi-Oh T-shirt and toting a Scooby-Doo backpack, crammed full with an album containing his entire collection of Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards. He also deemed it wise to bring a small toy telephone. Since he was so laden down and because the event was in a Reliant Center parking prairie and the heat index was well into the triple digits, he complained a lot. Racket tried to sell him on the event -- didn't that guy with what looked like a black agave plant on his head resemble a sort of anime character? He wasn't impressed.
Nor was he stirred by the skateboarders whirling in the air or the rock climbers -- nothing except the PlayStation booth caught his fancy. There, some kids were playing the Guy Ritchie-like smash-'em-up caper game The Getaway. "Is that the game where you steal cars?" he asked. Racket told him he was confusing The Getaway with Grand Theft Auto. "Yeah, Grand Theft Auto," he gushed. "That game's so cool. You run through these trees and kill lots of people."
Where does he get this stuff?
He wasn't knocked out by the bands either, so our trip was destined to be short. "I don't like crazy parties" was his verdict on the outing. He'll thank me one day
While the legendary parties surrounding punk's origins were a much-needed reaction against corporate rock, it remains doubtful that this attitude has filtered down to today's suburban youth. Many of the Warped acts may have cussed a lot on stage and hollered about hacking your own way through the dense thicket of corporatism that is Bush the Younger's America, but off-stage that militant aspect was all but gone. Witness the expensive food and drink and myriad booths flogging everything from video games to shoes. All that was needed was an army recruitment booth to complete the illusion of a shopping mall sans air conditioning and dorky old folks' shops.
Luckily for Racket, because of the Warped Tour's lottery system that determines each band's showtime, the Dropkick Murphys took the stage at 2 p.m. The Reliant Center parking lot was hardly an ideal venue to catch them. Their anthemic, working-class Southie rock jarred with the tatty Sun Belt backdrop -- a Luther's and a Comfort Suites loomed just over the chain-link fence backstage. As they ripped through a rave-up of the venerable Irish folk ballad "Black Velvet Band," it occurred to me that it would sound and feel so much better in a dim and cool bar paneled with lots of dark wood, some place where there were only a couple of beers on tap, and Tullamore Dew and Jameson's the only hard stuff. Instead, they were on a prefab stage in a sweltering lake of concrete, where vendors peddled $8 light beers and banana-mango smoothies.
Not that many people seemed to care. The Murphys drew a vast horde of kids waving banners, crowd-surfing, swaying with their arms in the air and singing along. Dropkick Murphys aren't about shirking your responsibilities -- they're more in the Springsteen vein of working hard for an honest dollar and having as much fun as you can when you can. They aren't the McDonald's-vandalizing type -- instead, they're the guys down at the union hall changing the system from within. Their populist sympathies recently got them on the list (Wilco and Billy Bragg are two others) of current bands tapped to adapt Woody Guthrie lyrics by the late folkie's estate. It's a natural. What was Guthrie but America's first punk?
Speaking of, Woody would have been briefly proud of and then sorely disappointed by a scene Racket witnessed on his way out of the event. Some kids were refilling their Dasani water bottles from the Reliant sprinkler system, which was inanely watering shrubbery that evidently hadn't gotten drenched enough in the recent hurricane.
Now this was punk. The kids were alright. Go to it, dudes! Stick it to the man! Go spend that five bucks you just saved on some antiestablishment clothing or something.
A Reliant employee had other ideas. "Y'all quit drinking that water!" he hollered. "That stuff's not drinkable. It comes from a uh a pond!"
Onlookers laughed, but not at the lameness of this obvious lie, this plain bid to deny free water to thirsty people on a scorching day. With chortling, Butt-head-like finality, an onlooker muttered, "Those people are drinking pond water."
"Punk's not like it was 20 years ago," Murphys front man Al Barr recently declared to a Canadian reporter. "It was never supposed to be big, but it is what it is so let's move forward from there and get over it already! The days of watching Wattie from the Exploited pull a tab of acid out of his vomit so he didn't lose it that's fuckin' punk, but it's not gonna happen. Those people that bitch just shut up and don't come."
All right, then
It is likely that few of the close to 3,000 Norah Jones fans at the Hobby Center expected the Dallas-bred chanteuse to sift through her vomitus in search of LSD. They were after a gentler brand of thrills, and Jones delivered them steadily for more than an hour.
Jones's Come Away with Me was like a shot of cool, cool morphine into the bloodstream of an anxious America, and in winning eight Grammys and selling more than seven million CDs, she was even better compensated than a top anesthesiologist for this soothing work of musical mercy.
All the songs on the CD are in the same key and many share similar tempos, but her show was much more of a varied affair. Her stage presence still needs some work -- when she banters, she seems to be talking to herself. Jones had her funniest moment when her band left the stage en masse after one song in the middle of the set. She simply watched them leave and shrugged one shoulder, but then ruined the moment by saying, "Maybe they're going to the bathroom or something." She should have left it alone.
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So Jones's stage presence is still minimal, but maybe "minimalistic" is a better word, since she seems to deflect the concept of the show being about her to it being one about her as part of an excellent band. The string wizardry of Kevin Breit and the drumming of Andrew Borger were highlights from the sidemen, and each band member contributed songs to the show. There were also covers of Boudleaux & Felice Bryant's "Sleepless," made famous by the Everly Brothers, Gram Parsons's "Juanita" and in a duet with opener Richard Julian, John Prine's "That's the Way that the World Goes 'Round." They also played almost all of Come Away with Me and a few tunes off the upcoming record, and if Jones's bluesy/ churchified electric piano and the band's funky grooves on these are anything to go by, Jones is seriously into some Donny Hathaway right about now.
Excellent band aside, still the star was Jones herself. Her voice -- flawlessly captured by the Hobby Center's perfect acoustics -- sounds a tad huskier live than it does on record, but it remains an instrument of relaxed beauty, pure, sparkling and yearning. She has a world-weariness beyond her years, one that conveys wisdom rather than shallow hipster cynicism. It's hard to believe she's as much as a decade younger than many of the snarling snot-punks on the Warped Tour.
Back in the day when nicknames like the Velvet Fog and the Godfather of Soul used to hang on our stars more easily, she would have been called the Caramel Magnolia or some such, so languid and sweet is her voice and so scented is it with Dixie perfume. (If -- and this is a horrid thought -- there was ever to be a musical of Gone with the Wind, Jones would be a natural for Scarlett O'Hara.) Writers have compared her to everybody from Billie Holiday to Tori Amos, Nina Simone to Bruce Hornsby, the range of which just goes to show you the foolishness of the whole comparison game. She's the first Norah.
And her fans love her for it, sometimes too much. While thankfully there were no cell-phone interruptions, no Nokias interruptus, as it were, there were a few dorks in the crowd who felt compelled to holler out lame crap. There was the usual toe-curlingly embarrassing "We love you, Norah," and when Jones said she hoped the audience would like one of her new songs, some doofus yelled, "I'm sure we will!" When Julian opined that the audience in New Orleans the night before had been stoned, somebody (and Racket could swear it was the same guy as the other two times) said, "Yeah! I'm sure no one's stoned in Houston!" Stoned on dweeb-weed, maybe. C'mon, if you're gonna be a part of the show, bring your best game.