Almost Famous Again

“I’ve only ever been this far uptown in order to get places further uptown,” said recovering waste case Steve Earle to a sold-out Beacon Theater on Saturday night. He peered over the edge of the stage and pretended to be impressed. “You can fit a lot of hay in here.” Or WFUV listeners. After stints as Nashville’s next big thing, near dead has-been, and bluegrass castaway, Earle is making another play for the big time. Taking a cue from Beacon mainstays the Allman Brothers, his band of New York ringers (ex-dB Will Rigby on drums, No Depression all-star Eric “Roscoe” Ambel on lead guitar) plowed gently through two hours of turtleneck-friendly boogie rock. He didn’t play hard (forget Charo or Gwar—Stephin Merritt could’ve kicked his ass), but he put out, laying down 32 favorites in two hours, pausing only to eloquently excoriate his twin bugaboos, the drug war and the electric chair.

He’s got a big heart, but I miss his spleen. It’s not a drug thing: He was already sober in 1998, when he tore up a SummerStage benefit with blistering Hendrixian Southern rock and nasty jokes about The Garth. The same fire flashed only a few times Saturday—in the shit-kicking “Steve’s Last Ramble,” which he counted off “one, two, fuck, you”; a pounding “Copperhead Road”; an encore of Nirvana’s “Breed” slipped in among covers of the Beatles, Stones, Chambers Brothers, Springsteen, and Steve Earle (at this point in his career, his cheery breakout single, 1986’s “Guitar Town,” counts as a cover). It doesn’t ring right: Like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs, the AOR Steve Earle is too damn sweet to be true.

“As I get older, if I don’t write more chick songs, my audience is just gonna get hairier and uglier—than me,” he explained after the tender “I Don’t Want to Lose You Yet.” Chicks make a lot of hay. —Josh Goldfein

‘Indie’ vs. Indie

“I’ve got the barfs,” declared flu-recovering Moldy Peaches powerhouse Kimya Dawson at the Mercury Lounge last Friday, complete with face paint and eye-obscuring sunglasses à la Star Trek‘s Geordi. Meanwhile, shaggy-tressed guitarist and fellow vocalist Adam Green lolled around looking forlorn in a green felt Robin Hood shift and elfin cap. A child-talent show run amok, with songs like “Who’s Got the Crack” and the affectedly naive vocal delivery of Jonathan Richman (but with lyrics about genitals instead of dinosaurs), the Peaches’ strangely brilliant send-up of “indie” culture is compelling because you suspect that at times the duo is a little bit serious—if not about downloading porn and “sticking it in,” then about the joys of riding bikes and watching cartoons.

White Hassle, in contrast, proved admirably straight-ahead, though singer, guitarist, and harmonica player Marcellus Hall let loose—along with percussionist Dave Varenka—during the amazing “Futura Trance,” a banging-on-pots’n’pans-and-wine-bottles instrumental. Midway through the set of decade-old institution Girls Against Boys, someone appropriately screamed, “Oops . . . I did it again!” “Just fucking chill one minute,” replied frontman Scott McCloud, in intelligent brooding mode, changing a guitar string. McCloud’s saucy sing-speak was mostly drowned out by the heavy wash of keyboards and drums, but during the slower numbers audible lyrics provided pathos. While the sold-out house stomped for more, a serene McCloud sat in the corner of the stage, smoked two cigarettes, drank his Bud, and gazed out at no one in particular. He turned it on for the tight three-song encore, though, and everybody sang along when he played an old one: “In Like Flynn.” That he was. —Hillary Chute

Bring the Paint

“This is a song about bad art,” announced Steve Albini in his signature yelp. It was the appropriate introduction to the first night of a four-show Knitting Factory stint for Shellac, a self-styled “minimalist rock trio” from Chicago. For Albini—a frighteningly lucid music writer, a rock producer, and a musician—is clearly independent rock’s answer to Clement Greenberg. Both are masculine men of the nerdy persuasion and the arbiters of taste for a narrowly defined and antagonistic strain of expression. Albini does for harsh, Midwestern rock what Greenberg did for abstract expressionism: He explains and defends it before a largely unmoved public.

Per the minimalist tag, though, Shellac’s songs carried a tactile sense of materials. Looking a lot like Nosferatu, OK, Bela Lugosi (OK, Peter Murphy), drummer Todd Trainer delivered a relentless, wow-his-eyeballs-are-rolling-up-into-his-forehead pounding. The imposing speaker cabinets of Albini and bassist Robert Weston were capped with solid aluminum amplifier heads that looked like Donald Judd sculptures and made the instruments sound like the epitome of guitarness. Still, Shellac’s music was as much action painting as Judd rock. Albini employed slashing tones as a painter might apply dynamistic drips and brush strokes. And the group teased out sounds and spaces like jazz improvisers trying their hand at muscular arena rock. If, as with AbExers, the emotional tenor seemed one-dimensional at times, at least their angst was leavened by humor. “This is a sad fucking song,” Albini spat at the beginning of “Squirrel Song.” “We’ll be lucky if I don’t bust out cryin’.”

“Does anyone have any questions?” asked Weston during a rest break-cum-Q&A session. Greeted by a flurry of screams and song titles, he responded like a professor trying to maintain order at an AC/DC concert: “No, not requests. Questions.” One lady just kept screaming. Albini retorted with the cheerful misogyny that’s par for the course in hypermasculine artists: “What’s your day job, woman? Siren!?!” —Alec Hanley Bemis