Central Park SummerStage (New York, NY – July 13, 2004)

Central Park SummerStage New York, NY – July 13, 2004

 

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On a soggy New York City weekday afternoon, a horde of teenagers and early-twentysomethings crowded the muddy Astroturf of the gated area of Central Park called SummerStage. Rain clouds overhead threatened to dampen the entire evening, but most chose to beat the weather by soaking themselves with overpriced cups of Heineken (the oft-mentioned sponsor of the evening’s events) and sneaked-in bottles of Jagermeister. The crowd was young and boisterous, and one particularly drunk teen was making yours truly look like a no-fun-having old coot, what with her overbearing explanation that she’s from Jersey and her gratuitous grinding against anyone standing within five feet. Complete with hovering TV cameras, obnoxious MCs opining the greatness of “the arts,” and a play in three high-priced acts that didn’t get very exciting until the conclusion, the show began. Sal Cinquemani

Guster. Guster offered a hesitant opening performance, matched in reluctance by the crowd. Perhaps both parties spent their set worrying about the possibility of rain, but a good dose of hedonistic rocking could have driven this buzzing crowd into a flurry of rain-dancing mirth. Instead, Guster executed a solid but uninspired set, showing little interest in showmanship or style. The crowd showed up to sing on the well-known hits from Lost and Gone Forever like “Barrel of a Gun” and the “Fa Fa” encore (with a pre-announced appearance by Ben Folds, which spiced things up a bit). Older jams like “Airport Song” retained a bit of the old edge from the days of jammy double acoustics, but most of the set saw tighter, more intentional songs, not to mention some frequent exchanging of electric guitars and bass, acoustics, keyboards, and a banjo. Aaron Scott

Rufus Wainwright. Just before Rufus Wainwright took the stage, a radio personality from Fordham University’s WFUV inquired (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Before Norah Jones, how many piano-playing singer-songwriters were there?” She was strongly implying that—Ben Folds be damned—Rufus had sparked the trend. Apparently she forgot about Tori Amos…and Billy Joel…and Elton John…and Little Richard…and Jerry Lee Lewis! I’ve never been a huge fan of Rufus, but last year’s Want One brought the singer’s opulent poperas and lush ballads to a whole new level of unabashed pageantry, a ballsy mix of cabaret and rock romance. Thanks in part to producer Marius DeVries, Rufus’s music finally and fully matched his self-imposed over-the-top image. Trouble is, none of that translated to the stage. He mixed it up, dragging Guster back on stage for back-up during one song, dueting with his sister Martha on a tribute to their father Loudon Wainwright III, threw in some covers (an abysmal version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” a pitchy cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by way of Jeff Buckley), and kept the idle chitchat to a minimum (something Guster couldn’t manage to do). But most of the set felt like a stint at Duplex or some Midtown piano bar, with Rufus whining away in front of his grand piano for renditions of “Pretty Things,” “11:11,” “Vibrate,” “Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk” (one of the night’s better performances), and “Gay Messiah,” from Want Two, expected by year’s end. The monotony left room for plenty of side conversation, like “Is Rufus Wainwright the only semi-successful gay male artist right now?” and “Why do you think Rufus Wainwright appeals to so many young straight females?” and “I wonder what the backstage groupie situation is like for him—they should do a documentary on that” (for some reason that lead to a brief discussion about members of Kiss fucking groupies in the back hallways of concert arenas). All of this adds up to one thing: Rufus Wainwright live is a big snore, but I can’t wait for Want Two. SC

Ben Folds. Dusk was falling on the stage, and the tangible excitement grew with the illumination of the evening lights. When Ben Folds emerged, someone nearby giggled and said what we all were thinking: “He’s such a dork.” Black-rimmed glasses, an unassuming haircut, and a collared fleece zipped up to his chin, Folds is the impressive everyman to this young crowd, and they showed their admiration with wild cheers. With his anecdotes of acid trips and his willing potty mouth, Folds is the old guy that teenagers don’t mind hanging around at the party. He acknowledged this early in his set, noting his backstage conversation with one of the Guster boys, who compared Wainwright’s polished flamboyance to Folds’s “shit/fuck” carelessness. Folds demonstrated how a little brash vulgarity goes a long way in a new anti-consumerist tune indicting the SUV-crowd with the simple chorus, “They give no fuck.” On “Not The Same,” he owned the crowd with a guided audience-participation three-part harmony that threatened to fall flat but lifted into the night air with a startlingly haunting and on-pitch chord. While Wainwright preened, Folds mugged, deliberately pushing his frames up the bridge of his nose in the middle of many a one-handed riff. This duality played out nicely when Wainwright returned to the stage for a duet of the somehow apt Wham! song “Careless Whisper” and the two exchanged compliments, Wainwright claiming that Folds was a superior piano player, and Folds returning that the Gay Messiah was “much better-looking.” Neither denied the compliment, and the crowd was simply giddy to have them onstage together. Folds made the most of his guests, with a sweet drum vs. bongos competition with Brian Rosenworcel of Guster, and he proved Wainwright right with many a diversion into alternately jazzy, jammy, and rockin’ piano breaks in his own songs. The climax of the set came with “Army,” Folds’s story about declining to enter the service. He one-upped Wainwright’s casual suggestion that “Bush should leave” by seamlessly sneaking the lyrics, “On the eve of John Kerry’s election!” The crowd, being young, drunk, and surprisingly sensible, responded with complete and wild agreement, and we all left feeling a little better about the summer…and the fall. AS