John Common & Blinding Flashes of Light, Achille Lauro, Danielle Ate the Sandwich Casselman's Bar & Venue Saturday, January 16, 2010 Better Than: Martinis and Red Wine
John Common is too old for the slog of rock and roll. In this week's feature, he talked about giving it up before he met Jess DeNicola and started his newest project. She was the piece he needed, in music and, evidently, in life, and he found a way to do things his way. Which, as we learned Saturday night, means embracing his aging crowd with seats and soft lighting. Music aside for a moment, it means acknowledging creative expression that isn't music by asking visual artists and filmmakers an opportunity to respond to his latest album and featuring that work at the release show. Common himself has left the door open for moving to other sorts of art someday.
It is important to note that I am not his target market these days. So while I didn't so much care for the unique touches to this show, it was hard not to appreciate how effective John Common & Blinding Flashes of Light are at creating an event. In a music world where practically every other show is an album release, this one felt special. Little things set it apart: Including a copy of Beautiful Empty with the price of admission, which makes it feel more exceptional than simply giving the thing away (though that is always welcome), hiring an emcee, giving everyone a free drink, wearing roses, projecting thematic photography -- these things made it an Evening To Remember.
John Common's two openers are just beginning their careers. Danielle Ate the Sandwich is preparing her third album now, but it will be her first not recorded singlehandedly in her apartment. She and bassist Dennis previewed a new song, and during it I made a note that it sounded like she was moving toward telling our stories rather than hers. Then the song ended, and she said it was about the moon landing. Serves me right.
She is ever more confident onstage, so sure of her material, her charm and her voice now that she adds little wrinkles just to keep herself entertained. Especially on "Rich Girl," with which she has the sort of love/hate relationship where she can't stand the song anymore, but it always gets people fired up. So she flattens a note here, stutter steps into the chorus and generally bats the thing around like a bored cat with a slow mouse.
Achille Lauro was next to the stage. I honestly can't recommend this band strongly enough. It doesn't matter whether you are the sort of person who likes music to fuck your mind or body - Achille Lauro can do both. Often on the same song. The band's influence is impeccably culled from just about anything you can imagine. It is tiny cuts of this and that to create music without a wasted note en route to the sort of stuff you first shake and hum to, and only later realize how good the construction is, how the cash register sample is timed just so to create a sort of echo with the drum set.
Matt Close embodies all the coherent weirdness of the band perfectly. His falsetto is strong enough to carry Top 40, as we learned during sound check, but sort of desperate enough to give it distinctiveness. Luke Mossman seems sort of like the glue here, carrying the melody whenever Close isn't, manning the little extra, whether it's guitar, keys or computer. Jon Evans is a mesmerizing bassist, equal in charisma to Close and breezy on his instrument. Ben Mossman is a straight ridiculous drummer. It's like he plays two rhythms at the same time: One to keep the beat and another to color the song. He hits his notes exactly where they belong every time, which is a big part of how polished this young band sounds. They're headed bigger and catchier with each show, and the upcoming album promises to blow people away.
John Common & Blinding Flashes of Light emerged through smoke dressed to kill in black and red and goggles. From the second they took the stage until the second they left it, they played with the sort of blind joy that will make you believe in whatever they're doing, simply by virtue of their conviction. That first song they played like the house band in some utopian bar, and after that Common took off his jacket and literally rolled up his sleeves. In front of his guitar he had set up a wooden table with a bottle of Jameson and a bunch of mini-bottles, also of Jameson. He, and the rest of the band, played with red flowers on their lapels or, in the case of DeNicola, in her hair.
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When she wasn't singing, DeNicola could not stop smiling, laughing, moving around the stage as though the sheer emotion coursing through her prevented standing still. When she was singing, she jutted her lower jaw forward, closed her eyes, and sang through tight lips, as though only willing to uncork herself a tiny bit at a time. Not that she held back. No, her voice is an arrow, unmistakable and full of personality. Common's voice, by contrast, is steady and broad. It swallows you.
His band, composed of his choice of local talent, is of unmistakable high caliber, each capable of holding a song by himself. But this is John Common's music, or maybe Common and DeNicola's music. And they are punch-drunk on whatever they have, for better and for worse. So it's pure passion and happiness, but it's also still water in many ways.
Still water, here, means, many songs that could soundtrack the end credits of emotional movies of all stripes. These songs are written from the vantage of resolution. They are wise and measured but the tension has long since dissipated, and this makes John Common's newest band exceedingly safe. This is not to say that the music lacks emotion: "In My Neighborhood" is heavy with life's bitter pills. It's just that this is all rearview mirror stuff.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I am of the belief that there is no room for cushions in rock and roll. Let's just say John Common probably knows something I don't, and I'll probably really like his album when I'm fifteen years older. Though "Walter Whitman" is awesome right now. Random Detail: The Common Box Project, where artists from around the continent were given Beautiful Empty and a small empty box and told to use it to respond to the album, was on display Saturday. It, along with the film series where filmmakers also responded to the album, offered an interesting way to contextualize the music. By The Way: It must be said that the crowd at the end was markedly smaller than the crowd when Common took the stage. Granted, the sort of show where people sit down is also often the sort of show where people have to get home early, so that may well have simply been a reflection of the clientele.