Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Fall Arts Preview 2000

Chaos Theory

Pop music isn't designed for the ad-driven journalistic ritual of the fall preview, and good for pop music. Bitch all you want about TicketMaster extortion and four megacorps squeezing the art out of the biz they dominate. Or take the opposite tack and mock the young temps and old warhorses who make their if-you-call-that-livings faking orgasm with songs they know too well. The former are usually obscene, the latter pathetic. But don't get all indignant about music's brute capitalization or rote rationalization until you compare the book industry, where lists of highly intermittent literary merit are drawn up a year in advance, or Hollywood, where release schedules are laid down for months of Fridays, or Broadway, where the lowliest flop costs too much time and a million bucks, or classical music, where at this moment superstar draws are contracted into 2002.

I don't mean to be too unilateral here. Of course independent films can still sneak up on us, or Yo-Yo Ma make magic on a given night. But if surprise is of the essence in artistic pleasure, then the seat-of-the-pants m.o. of popular music's concert and club circuit (at it is called, though in New York it's as mazelike as the streets of a medieval city) could have been designed to provide it, in part because the m.o. wasn't designed at all. The simple fact is that we can memorize the engraved-in-granite schedules of the competively prebooked arenas and the tentative advance sheets of the bigger clubs and not have any idea what the most exciting show of the week of October 15 is going to look like on October 8, much less whether it will fall on its face when the night arrives. The Go-Betweens reunion is the rock event of the fall from this desk. It should hit Gotham after Thanksgiving, when Sleater-Kinney will also be touring, so that Corin, Carrie, and (sigh) Janet probably but not definitely won't be Grant and Robert's backup band. Either way, it could be a rebirth--or it could never fully jell.

You never know. Black Uhuru's reunion with with Sly & Robbie looked equally exciting, only the so-called original members turned out to include not Michael Rose nor Puma Jones nor even the unoriginal but effective Junior Reid. Caveat emptor. Will Tina Turner's valedictory prove a final triumph or reinforce the testimony of her recent records, which is that she should have retired when the movie came out? Will Barbra Streisand's rare and concomitantly priced concert epitomize diva drive or diva doo-doo? Will Emmylou Harris's equally rare cabaret appearance end up hand-crafted intimacy or in-group zoo? Will trouper-songwriter John Hiatt's acoustic turn accentuate his melodies or hide his inability to support a band behind vocal contortions? Will we access John McLaughlin the noodling jazzbo, John McLaughlin the self-abnegating mystic, or (would it could be) John McLaughlin the godlike electric improviser?

None of these questions are rhetorical, because in pop, you can never fully trust an old pro. Freshness and energy impact the music so decisively that younger pros like the cresting Moby and the indefatigable Ani DiFranco are paragons of reliability by comparison. But the young generate their own kinds of questions. Will the up-and-coming Le Tigre strive to stage a show as nonstop as its pleased-as-punch CD? Will the been-and-gone Bettie Serveert finally achieve a musicianship worthy of their musicianly concept? Will Robyn Hitchcock take his lithium? Will Mark Eitzel take his Zoloft? Will the Tragically Hip blow Travis out of the zeitgeist? Will Hanson? And most important, what band or crew or DJ or singer-songwriter we've forgotten about or never knew existed will materialize one crisp autumn night and render all such speculations into the dust they are surely destined to become?

Date and venue TBA

We are assured this will be a band, not just Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, solo acoustic or with backup--a ploy just a touch song-dependent even for postpunk's greatest songwriting tandem. Except perhaps for Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, who along with superdrummer Janet Weiss played with the Go-Betweens on the forthcoming Friends of Rachel Worth, but will not, it appears, on this tour. Which is sure to generate the huzzahs they always deserved, and almost sure to earn them.

September 16 Jones Beach Theater, 1000 Ocean Parkway, Wantagh, Long Island, 516-221-1000

Renowned as blues' greatest showman for 40 nonstop years, King is permanently delighted with his own wondrous shtick. He never stints on openers, either, and this bill is more impressive than most. Many would call the rough-voiced, fast-fingered Guy our greatest living bluesman period. As for young electric guitarist Tedeschi, she gets more respect than any woman ever to venture into this man's man's man's man's world.

September 25 and 26
Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey Street, 260-4700

They're turning into road animals, braving the most unavoidable and dangerous of all musical challenges. The May show I caught seemed just slightly flat, but I've seen them peak, and sane reports from the next night were transported. Passionate Corin Tucker we knew about first, defiant Carrie Brownstein next. So listen hard to Janet Weiss and try to imagine them without her. Betcha can't--even though they made two great records without her.

October 1
Nassau Coliseum, 1255 Hempstead Turnpike, Uniondale, Long Island, 516-794-9300

Though her voice retains considerable luster and her legs are as famous as Betty Grable's, the living icon has elected to quit while she's way ahead, at 61. She says this is the last chance to see her live, and she's too proud not to try and amaze you. Support act Cocker, for whom luster has never been an issue, is only six years her junior, yet is guaranteed to seem both more ravaged and more immature.

October 24
Maxwell's, 1039 Washington Street, Hoboken, New Jersey, 201-653-1703

Conceived as something between a one-off and recorded performance art, Kathleen Hanna's latest band was an instant smash among sympathetic souls who loved Bikini Kill only in principle. With guitar thrash subsumed in keyb trash and the humor more pronounced and arty, the enthusiasm of the speedy tempos no longer betrays the slightest desperation. On this second try, we'll find out whether they have the will and spirit to make their live show cohere as magically.

November 3 and 4
Hammerstein Ballroom, 311 West 34th Street, 564-4882

She's gotta run out of juice eventually. But after 10 years of building an audience her way, from coffee houses and college rec rooms to two nights at the Ham, she shows no signs of giving up, slowing down, or repeating herself. Old fans who believe she's lost excitement have simply outgrown her as she matures into a uniquely jazzy shade of folk or folk-rock and carries her many righteous messages to bigger and bigger audiences.

Village Voice, Sept. 12, 2000