by Sir John Reid Hatchporch
The Troubadour is the most intimate venue I’ve ever been to, and possibly my favorite. It was here that I first saw They Might Be Giants play in the summer of 1994 - my first major rock concert, as it were. (See my review of the San Diego show for details). This is one of the few venues I know of where you can have a decent view no matter where you stand, and you always feel like the performer is right there in your living room.
I popped in during the opening band, Robot, who was quite disappointing, considering their moniker. I was expecting a neo-new wave band. Instead I got a cheap version of Nada Surf (read: I like Nada Surf). They probably should have been named Hair, considering the interesting 'dos that all four members sported. The frontman’s hair was so out of control that at times he resembled Cousin It from “The Addams Family.”
There were only about 50 people in the venue at this time, but during the half hour break between sets, a dozen or so more people came in and the group tightened up a bit. I still had plently of leeway to wander around and take pictures, but we’ll deal with that later.
A happy looking Linnell comes out accompanied by The Statesmen: Dan Miller on guitar (sporting a snowcap), Mark Donato on drums and Mark Lerner on bass. “Every song on the record is named after a state” Linnell says, and into “The Songs Of The 50 States” they go - a boisterous rock number with a serpentine, baroque melody in places. This song is quite entertaining live, but could possibly be the only blemish on the album. It’s as if Linnell felt he had to explain why he recorded the album to people who may not be familiar with his style of writing.
After that, Linnell plays the crashing piano chords signalling “South Carolina,” one of the finest songs on the record. This was to be the single from “State Songs,” but proved to be too lengthy (Rounder Records planned to release the single on die-cut vinyl shaped like the United States.) “South Carolina” features a unique groove akin to The Ad-Libs’ “The Boy From New York City,” and surreal, clever lyrics about someone who has just had a bicycle wreck. The song’s lyrics seem to be from two voices; the crash victim and his neighbor:
“Other day my neighbor had a dented
Second day he called me from intensive care/
Said he needs a picture of the dented bike/
For the evidence of what a wreck he had.”
The song is filled with typically clever wordplay:
The back wheel’s O is now a letter D/
I was an I and now I am a V”
But the most fun part of the song is the bizarre finale, which mixes the voice of a square dance caller with the neighbor who is witnessing the accident:
“Move arounds folks, push ‘em back there,
Show's over folks, let ‘em breathe, step lively.”
Maybe it’s just my own little twisted fantasy, but if this song had a video, I picture a bunch of paramedics and policemen doing a line dance around the crash victim in the street of an “Edward Scissorhands”-like neighborhood.
But I digress.
After that it’s into the fetchingly melodic “Maine,” which also features quasi-introspective and typically obtuse lyrics like “Give me back my evil heart so I can see you as you are.” The sound of the song is a swung rocker, with a constant, percussive triplet keyboard figure. The frolicking vibe of the song perfectly matches the groggy mood of the lyrics.
“Glazed with carniferous green/
Glazed with excitement and dread/
Exhausted from oversleep/
Awake but still in bed.”
Afterwards, Linnell takes a moment to make a disclaimer. “None of these songs are actually about states. So if you feel you’ve been personally slighted, you haven’t, I guess is what I’m saying.”
Next comes what is arguably the highlight of the evening, the gentle, somnambulating, funky “Idaho,” based on a story about John Lennon, who apparently became so high on LSD one night that he stayed up for hours “driving his house.” The groove the band hits is perfect, and the song sounds as full as it does on record. Dan Miller has put down his guitar in favor of a shaker, and soon becomes the center of attention in this song. In the bridge he pulls out a tape recorder and plays the car alarm “solo,” which is a truly surreal moment.
Once Linnell’s vocal comes back in, the crowd launches into the obligatory soloist applause. After the song is over, Linnell jokingly says “Mr. Dan Miller ladies and gentlemen!” The performance proves to be - dare I say it? - the most They Might Be Giants-esque moment of the entire night.
Next up is the first cover of the evening, a Johnny Horton song called “North to Alaska,” a fun, galloping number. The most fun part of the song is Linnell’s mutant scream of the word “north!” In the second two choruses, I can’t help but interject a question before them.
“Way up norrrrrrrrrrth/
Way up norrrrrrrrrrth...”
The song is also helped out by Mark Lerner’s subtle repeated commands of “mush!” during some of the verses.
Two sluggish crashes on the drums signal the intro to “Utah,” a surprising choice. On the record, the song's sole accompanying instrument is a huge band organ, giving the piece a haunting, carnivalesque feel. (The band organ songs required Linnell to notate the piece and send it away to a company for a roll to be cut, much like a player piano.) Tonight, Linnell dons his famous accordion for this number, and surprisingly, the result is no less thrilling and majestic than the recorded version.
Linnell captures the band organ sound on accordion for "Utah."
After that it’s into another band organ song, the bittersweet “New Hampshire.” Linnell explains “This state has no nickname, as far as I can remember. It’s not ‘live free or die’ ‘cause that’s not a nickname. That’s a motto.” This song sports a very intriguing lyric. It tells the story of a strange man who is “longing to be asked inside” a store, peering in through the window at two women. One of the women inside lets him in, though “scared to death.”
“Woman wonders ‘who’s your itchy friend?’/
Woman says ‘I thought he was with you?’/
Woman says ‘I thought he was with you?’/
They slowly back away from him/
At best, he’s very interesting/
His brushes with success were just an accident/
No one likes New Hampshire man.”
This song sounds a bit too heavy tonight, especially when compared to the amazing version he and Mark Lerner performed alone at Storyopolis. Tonight, Linnell has made it into more of a standard rock song, with a steady drum beat, which is a shame.
Dan Miller jumps over to the keyboard for the next number, the slow soul instrumental “Mississippi,” and proves to be pretty proficient at slamming out the chords, while Linnell covers the melody with the accordion. I always thought this song should have sported lyrics: just the word “Mississippi” repeated over and over, ad infinutm. It works really well if you just add a “yeah” at the end of every line.
Again, I digress. The next song is the slow, beautiful ballad “Arkansas,” about a ship that’s designed to be the “exact dimensions and the shape of the state whose name she bore.” The band takes the tempo very slow for this number, probably about 5-10 BPM slower than the album version. Mark Lerner and Dan Miller play the part of the voice of the ship. Dan Miller looks like a little boy when he’s singing, bobbing his head from side to side, camping it up. Meanwhile, Mark Lerner sounds *uncannily* like John Flansburgh.
Sorry it's so huge, but it's our favorite picture of the evening.
Before launching into the next song, Linnell gives another disclaimer. “This is the controversial one. It’s called ‘Oregon is bad. Stop it if you can.’” Linnell adds “the song that Californians love,” to the delight and applause of the audience. “But I’m not gonna get mixed up in that. That’s not my scene.” This song features just Linnell and Lerner. The most remarkable moments are probably in the last two choruses, which on the record, are sung by a trio of harmonizing Linnells. Here, it is just Linnell, who opts for simply singing the melody an octave higher. Linnell belts the high F in his chest voice, and at the word “bad” you can see every vein his neck pop out. It’s a classic Linnell moment, as his voice cuts through the audience. Linnell possesses one of the only voices in rock music that can be clearly audible amidst the falderol of the other instruments, no matter what the size of the venue. Everything goes quiet in the bridge, as Lerner creeps up the chromatic scale on the bass. Linnell seizes the opportunity to belt his vocal when he comes back in, cutting the silence like a chainsaw. “Ooooooooooooregon is baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!” Again, at the end of the song, Linnell amusingly congratulates his cohort. “Mark Lerner on the bass, ladies and gentlemen!”
At this point, someone in the audience yells out “Do you know any other Johnny Horton songs?” Linnell replies “Johnny Horton did one other state song. Unfortunately it was also about Alaska.” Instead, Linnell pounds the keyboard, emitting a rather monstrous sound, which soon proves to be the intro to “Iowa.” (His attempt to replicate the sound of the band organ on this one was not as succesful as other endeavors). But the groove is impeccably funky, and the vocals are haunting. The premise is that Iowa is a witch. How do we know this? Because Linnell tells us this, over and over. The bridge of the recorded version features a classic Linnell spoken non-sequitur:
“And if that broom don’t fly/
I’m gonna buy you...a dustbuster.”
This is of course accompanied by the sound of a dustbuster. However, in the bridge tonight, Linnell keeps the keyboard vamp going while drummer Mark Donato belts out a very impressive harmonica solo.
After this it’s into an almost Residents-like rendition of the discordant and brief “Pennsylvania.” Linnell plays the melody on accordion while The Statesmen - Dan Miller in particular - twitter away in the background, which causes Linnell to remark afterwards “Do you guys remember what we rehearsed?” The song has always amused me because it sports no true lyrics. Linnell sings “la” to the melody and then adds, almost as an afterthought, the word “Pennsylvania” at the very end. It is probably the most random song on the record.
Linnell takes his accordion off and starts out the next song a cappella. He gives it a shot but then has to play the chord on the keyboard to get his pitch again. It’s a great rock song called “Nebraska,” which Linnell later reveals is a Bruce Springsteen song. “Some people say that’s the only Bruce Springsteen song we like. In fact some people on this stage think that. I won’t name names.” At any rate, the band gives a great, rousing performance. At times, Linnell - with his hands free - conducts the band, a-la TMBG’s “Spy.”
Before going into “Montana,” Linnell gives the obligatory spiel on the special 12” die cut single that has been released, shaped like the 50 states. “It’s a really cool thing...apparently, is what they’re telling me.” Linnell still has not even seen the single. “Montana” is truly an enigma. It sports the most overt pop sound on the entire album, yet, in the words of Linnell, “the person singing it is delusional.” The narrator is singing from his hospital bed and has just come to the revleation that Montana is “a leg.”
“From the beginning there was something
about it staring me in the face/
I should have guessed it right away/
When it started with a feeling that ended in a leg/
And it seemed to me Montana was a leg/
Now I get it!”
Whenever Linnell sings the words “a leg!” - a high F#, for you music majors out there - he makes a face comparable to his “bad” face in “Oregon.” This time, he’s helped out by drummer Mark Donato who provides some fine backing vocals.
By the end of the song, the narrator feels as if he’s been cured and can give up the “electric folding bed” and “tiny pill cups” and can “finally go.” In typical John Linnell fashion, he leaves the song feeling unresolved, as he sustains the word “go” on the 2nd note of the scale. Maybe our narrator has died. We may never know.
Linnell closes by thanking everyone for coming out - sounding almost surprised that so many people had showed up - and launching into the fight song pastiche “Michigan.” The way this song was performed live almost sounded like “The Famous Polka” by Linnell’s proper band They Might Be Giants, which caused me to “oi!” on the downbeats for a while. Of any song on the record, this one sounds the most like a proper state song. That is, except for those lyrics:
“Oh Michigan, exemplar of unchecked
Oh Michigan, oh Michigan, the tank the fishes are in/
Expansionist in spirit, in letter borders obtain/
Don’t hold us back, don’t hold us back/
We must eat Michigan’s brain!/
Now grow back Michigan, we miss you again.”
The result is a fun, rollicking and surreal closing to the first set. But I figured Linnell had more in store for us.
After what seems like three minutes of constant applause and cheering by the crowd - the people in the balcony were even stomping their feet - Linnell returns to the stage and straps on his accordion. He gives a touching - but brief - performance of a real state anthem, “Maryland” (“the tyrant in the song is Abraham Lincoln”) which suffers only because his mic seems to be shorting out. The song is sung to the tune of “O Tannenbaum.” (Note: the set list slates “Ohio” as the first encore.)
He re-introduces The Statesmen and they go into my favorite song on the record, “West Virginia.” The opening rock organ riff is not dissimilar to The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” and the rest of the song hits a serpentine groove akin to “Blood and Chocolate” era Elvis Costello and The Attractions. This song also features some of the brightest lyrics on the entire album:
“You’ll continue to be constantly a
part of you/
You’ll never part/
And you will be the party who will be partial to you.”
All in all a very laid back show in a great intimate setting. Unlike his shows with They Might Be Giants, Linnell clearly didn't feel the need to put on an elaborate show. There were frequent pauses between songs while he chatted with the audience a bit, which made for a great, intimate experience. The "State Songs" tour arose so quickly that the band was clearly a bit under-rehearsed, which resulted in a couple of instrumental flubs during the evening - mostly by bassist Mark Lerner. But on the whole everyone was quite tight. I managed to grab a set list after the show, which I seem to be getting quite good at.
"State Songs" is more than just an album...it's an event. I feel fortunate that I was around to experience this very rare John Linnell solo performance of some wonderfully enchanting songs. If you haven't picked up the album yet, it's well worth checking out.
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"And I can finally go..." | "...home."