Larger Than Live

I don’t go to as many concerts as I used to, but still, by the standards set by many of my friends and peers, I was never that rabid of a concertgoer to begin with. Don’t get me wrong — I love a good live show. But I was never the type to spend multiple evenings per week hanging around the Paradise or TT the Bear’s, and I also have never been particularly inclined to see a band live more than once unless I was particularly fascinated by or obsessed with them.

There are a couple acts, however, where I will almost automatically buy a ticket to see them no matter how recently I saw them last or whether or not they have any new material. And while I am huge fans of their work, their music is really only part of it. Thanks to the scheduling gods, I was able to see both of those acts in the past week.

IMG00372-20090927-0115One of the acts in question is Mike Viola — of Candy Butchers fame, one of the lesser known statesmen of power pop who is now quietly making his mark producing albums by the likes of Mandy Moore and Rachael Yamagata and writing music for movies like “Walk Hard.” I am not sure how I first heard of Mike Viola, but I remember seeing his major label “flop” “Falling Into Place” in Nuggets’ infamous $2 room week after week. At some point I snagged it, and over time I picked up the rest of his catalog, including some hard-to-find EPs. But it wasn’t until a few years ago when I first saw him live, in the intimate environs of the Lizard Lounge.

Mike Viola is an incredibly gifted and prolific songwriter. He spits out pop gems like most of us change our socks. So hearing him pick through a repertoire that stretches back to his years as a teenage phenom from Stoughton playing the hot clubs in Kenmore Square is a treat enough. But the reason why I will go see Mike Viola rain or shine isn’t just for that repertoire. It’s for the repertoire he creates on the fly — jokey songs like “Nashville is for Losers” (about frequent collaborator Kelly Jones’ imminent move south) or a ditty pleading that the audience members he just asked to keep quiet don’t throw a dart at his neck. It’s also for the the atmosphere, as if we’re all friends in the living room sharing the same inside jokes. Last week’s concert was no different. Someone brings out a birthday cake because it’s Mike’s birthday. Mike offers the crowd his e-mail address so we can bug him for some old recordings. He demonstrates for us, with open reverence, the chords to the chorus of Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy,” and he asks us to sing along to “Rocket Man” and “Purple Rain.”

I think part of it is Mike’s genuine enthusiasm for performing — you get the sense that he is showing you a real part of himself, not a front. He comes off as unembarrassed and unrepentant, yet accessible and not aloof. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen him use a concrete setlist. He just plays what he feels like it, for as long as he feels like. The show last Saturday? Lasted three hours and fifteen minutes of solid, un-intermissioned Mike. It just makes you feel good. I might enjoy other concerts, or perhaps feel inspired, energized or enlightened. Mike Viola shows just make me feel comfortable, relaxed — good. Like spending time with friends. It’s hard to explain, but even harder to bottle.

A close second, though, is Girlyman. Girlyman, it would seem, is a band outside of my normal indie bailiwick, falling more in the folk category. But when my friend Lis introduced me to them, I fell in love with their harmonies and their compelling songwriting. Little did I know that I hadn’t seen the half of it.

IMG00379-20091001-2140The members of Girlyman — they are a trio, two women and one man — are some of the funniest people I have ever encountered. Their sense of humor doesn’t often come through in their songs, but on stage is another story. Stage banter is a dicey proposition for any live performer — far too often, musicians will attempt to banter with each other or with the audience and it will fall painfully flat. With Girlyman, though, it is nothing short of comic gold — in a completely authentic, unforced way.

A standard of Girlyman shows are the “tuning songs,” often penned by Nate while Doris or Ty are tuning their guitars. On their live album, they saw fit to include a number of these tuning songs, some of which devolve into “Hava Nagila” while others pick up on some joke made at an earlier point in the evening. (In this week’s show at the Somerville Theatre, the band talked about touring in Canada where milk comes in a bag. This led to several “bags of milk” — or udder — references for the rest of the evening.) A lot of times, during a live show, the audience can become restless between songs if there are delays for tuning or adjustments. At Girlyman shows, you actually look forward to them.

Whether they are joking about (and actually improvising) a “dance remix” of their plaintive ballad “Viola,” interspecies love, things that are only “funny in the van” (and not funny on stage), or developing the idea for “Therapy: The Musical,” this band never fails to amuse. When you consider that these moments are just blips in a stream of completely stunning songcraft, you wonder how you became fortunate enough to be sitting there, taking it all in.

In my experience, you can have bands that perform well live, bands that are good at cracking jokes and carrying the audience through a set even between songs, and bands that simply hypnotize the audience into complicity by virtue of their aura or status. But to have acts like Mike Viola and Girlyman that can almost effortlessly entertain and engage, bridging the gap between audience and stage with each wisecrack and anecdote, all while sharing windows into their most personal moments or tragedies — a wife dying of cancer; a good friend’s suicide — is rare and special. I feel particularly privileged to, in the span of a single week, have seen them both live for the umpteenth time. And all I can do is wonder when they’re coming back to town.

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4 responses to “Larger Than Live

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these shows. I’m a huge Girlyman fan, and you captured the essence of their live show perfectly.

    In the process, you’ve now made me want to catch a Mike Viola show, badly. Well done! 🙂

  2. Thanks for posting the link to Girlyman. You had mentioned them to me before, but I just finally checked out their website and I like them a lot.

  3. Pingback: Take Five Returns « Safe Digression

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