ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 30, 2003
I was feeling just a tad hesitant when setting off to review the Wallflowers’ gig last Friday (January 17). For one thing, the American band’s latest CD, Red Letter Days, hadn’t thrilled me. I knew that chrome-domed guitar ace Michael Ward—who’d provided the fine fretwork on the group’s Grammy-winning Bringing Down the Horse CD of ’96—was no longer in the lineup. I was also aware that lead vocalist and songwriter Jakob Dylan had blown off all his phone interviews for the Vancouver market at the last minute. But it was a Friday night, after all, and the prospect of my trusty best man Ferg shelling out for pricey Coronas was too enticing to pass up.
We got to the Commodore just before the Wallflowers pumped out a version of Horse’s “Three Marlenas”, which Ward’s replacement—an Oasis-lookin’ guy in a stylin’ shiny jacket—had transformed from a mellow acoustic guitar–driven ditty to a crunchy electric rave-up, emphasis on the tune’s “Sweet Jane”–inspired riff. Three songs later the band launched into another Horse hit, “6th Avenue Heartache”, a classy number Dylan has described as his first real song, written near the end of the ’80s during his brief stint at New York City’s Parsons School of Design. But instead of Ward’s tasty slide guitar, as heard on the record, the song’s intro was given an elegant keyboard treatment. And Ward’s laid-back solo on the studio version was replaced by a cranked, Mick Ronson–style Les Paul workout. The arrangement switcheroo didn’t seem to enthrall the sell-out crowd.
Apart from a few die-hards near the front—including a young woman who leapt up on-stage to steal a kiss from Dylan—the audience members were curiously apathetic. Considering it was the start of the weekend, and that most of them had paid $50 to see a multiplatinum act in a small venue, you’d think they’d have gone a little wild. The sound was excellent, the light show superb, and Dylan’s friendly interaction with the crowd a pleasant surprise. During the rousing hit “One Headlight”, he pointed directly at one of his followers up front and proclaimed, “I can see that you can’t wait to sing along to the chorus. I’m ready, are you? Here it comes!”
It’s wonderful when a rock star as famous as Bob’s kid singles someone out for that kind of special attention, but the electricity didn’t translate on a major scale. The new material from Red Letter Days left most of the crowd cold, and one of the tunes even caused my beer-buying buddy to comment that it sounded “kinda like a Barney Bentall song”. My response to that was, “Easy dude, I’m trying to drink here.” If Ferg’s such an expert on Barney Bentall, how did he get to be my best man in the first place?