YR15 in review, pt. I
Night one: Thursday, Oct. 11
Leading up to YR15’s opening night, I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly its organizers planned to fit seven bands into the evening, without keeping a work-night crowd up all night. After opening act Jukebox The Ghost stretched its polished fusion of Ben Folds piano-rock and lite-prog to an hour, only then to be joined by a local youth choir for a finale, my wondering turned to worrying.
In hindsight, the evening didn’t really start until after Jukebox the Ghost had finished playing, M.C. John Wesley Harding had given his introductions, and the youth choir had sung its rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” That’s when Eleni Mandell, the first of five solo performers, began her set of retro-tilting folk-pop, songs she said were written about her crazy ex-boyfriends. (And to which one audience member who had apparently not heard many female musicians before in his life quipped, “I like it when girls don’t sing like Sarah McLachlan.”)
Her set, it’s worth noting, was followed by a hilarious ad-libbed interlude from comedian Eugene Mirman, whose sarcastic crowd-work made for an early highlight.
The sets that followed Mandell’s offered variations on the theme. Chuck Prophet stripped down songs from his latest, Temple Beautiful. Dave Alvin invited Christy McWilson of The Guilty Women to join him onstage for an acoustic set that showcased Alvin’s dexterous guitar playing and booming baritone far more than McWilson’s brassy twang. Both Prophet and Alvin seemed a bit out of their elements, however, without the full-band backing that often accompanies their work. It was the job of English elder-statesmen Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Lowe — and Harding with a couple between-set interludes, including the hilarious “Making Love to Bob Dylan” — to make the songwriter’s round format successful.
Hitchcock and Lowe have both seen late-career resurgences as Yep Roc artists, both through reissues of classic catalog material and new works. And this night, both showed veteran poise and adaptability as they met the solo-acoustic challenge. Hitchcock’s droll banter and upbeat pop songs were a worthy complement to Lowe’s set, which drew elements of rockabilly and early R&B from classic cuts like “I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock & Roll).”
Though Lowe and Hitchcock had been advertised at the top of the bill, it was the Nashville surf-rock band Los Straitjackets that closed the evening. Clad in their iconic black suits and flashy luchador masks, the band opened as a foursome, with guitarist Greg Townson in the place of founding axeman Danny “Daddy O Grande” Amis. Townson held his own, maintaining the band’s reputation as one of the premiere contemporary intstro acts, but the set kicked into overdrive when Amis strolled out from backstage.
Amis had left the band upon his diagnosis with Multiple Myeloma in 2010, but rejoined in time for the band’s latest album, Jet Set. In their new three-guitar lineup, Los Straitjackets roared with alarming volume, cutting sharp leads through disorienting reverb. While Amis, Townson and Eddie Angel swapped licks, the evening got a welcome shot of adrenaline as the witching hour approached.
Finally, the parade of songwriters who’d performed much shorter sets than would usually be customary, returned, one by one, to offer two more, backed by the masked men of Los Straitjackets. Mandell’s turn posited her as a sultry lounge singer before Prophet commandeered the stage for his rowdy bar-rock. Hitchcock and Lowe sang together, meeting Los Straitjackets halfway with song selections that united English pop with American rockabilly. The most obvious collaborative choice, Alvin and McWilson, returned to perform The Rivieras’ “California Sun” and The Blasters’ “Marie Marie” with Los Straitjackets.
The songwriter’s circle plus house-band medley proved a capable format for the stacked bill, but after seeing Los Straitjackets’ incandescent pre-guest set, it almost felt like a misstep. Lowe and Hitchcock excelled when they commanded the audience alone. And Prophet might have benefitted from his own Mission Express band. Still, as a showcase of Yep Roc’s stable of adaptable veterans, night one set a high bar for the two nights to follow. —Bryan C. Reed