IN TUNE: Reunion tours are dicey propositions, at best. For every stellar Pixies or X performance, there are a dozen or so Sex Pistol swindles. Not so with Graham Parker and the Rumour.
Parker, who has played New York-area venues regularly since he split with his former bandmates three decades ago, was in fighting shape, as always, belting out familiar tunes, stalking the front of the stage – even swiveling his hips and striking rock-star poses with his Telecaster – driving a sold-out crowd at Manhattan’s New York Society for Ethical Culture wild.
And the Rumour? The best backing band this side of the East Streeters or Petty’s Heartbreakers was tight-tight-tight.
They had good reason, too: Although you don’t see it in the trailers, GP & the Rumour are principal characters in “This is 40,” Judd Apatow’s new film. They play a once-popular band being plugged by a promoter for a reunion, a role that requires more than a touch of arch contempt for the music industry.
Who better, really?
Execution doesn’t always meet expectation in rock and roll. Last night, however, expectations were exceeded.
Nice opening with “Fool’s Gold” (although Parker didn’t return to “Heat Treatment,” his second album, the rest of the night).
Sweet to follow with “Nothing’s Gonna Pull It Apart” from the 1976 debut, “Howlin’ Wind,” and, a bit later, “Watch the Moon Come Down,” from the vastly underrated “Stick to Me” (1977).
From there, it was a combination of songs familiar even to casual Parker fans, along with some catchy cuts from the entire group’s first album together since 1980, “Three Chords Good.”
It’s difficult to knock a show for the selections (“Stupefaction,” “Get Started, Start a Fire”) when each and every one was knocked out of the park. Trickier still is not hearing the band through nostalgiac ears.
Having caught them together a few times before – and Parker solo dozens of times since 1979 – these ears heard the same performance the raucous, adoring throng did.
Parker, who turned 62 two weeks ago, still commands a stage, a band, and an audience, with a soulful swing possessed by few performers not named Morrison, Sexton or Johnson, along with plenty of piss and vinegar left from the days when he was the angry yet erudite young man — a basher (with apologizes to Nick Lowe) of all things hypocritical.
Guitarist Brinsley Schwartz, who, with Lowe, created pub rock nearly 40 years ago, ripped off licks like he’d never put the guitar down; bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding were crisp and muscular as ever; and Bob Andrews on keys and vocals was Parker’s Paul Shaffer, hamming it up when he wasn’t adding flourishes.
Ironically, the giant Martin Belmont was the least conspicuous aurally, not doing do as much on the flying Fender as he had in years past (If you ever have the opportunity, listen to the band’s 1976 official bootleg, “Live at the Marble Arch”).
The Rumour, in its day, was a vital a part of Parker’s sound and presence (For an outstanding account of his history, see this past Friday’s New York Times piece: His Perfect Role: Rocker of a Certain Age ).
Since then, he has produced some outstanding work, going from bar to club to coffeehouse – as well as living-rooms — with his just his guitars and harmonicas, sometimes busting it up with the Figgs (last night’s letter-perfect opening act) but more often flashing his songwriting and story-telling skills.
Still, whether the prolific Parker likes it or not, his work with the Rumour defined him.
It also legitimized what would become the biggest pop-music phenomenon from across the pond since the British Invasion.
Together, Parker and the Rumour first delivered “Howlin’ Wind,” an eclectic collection of soul, rock and reggae that still holds up more than 35 years later, as well as the explosive “Squeezing Out Sparks,” a runaway hit album that established Parker’s place in New Wave — and set him up for one of rock-and-roll’s historic tumbles.
Good for them, then, that “This Is 40” holds the possibility of bringing the kind of widespread attention they missed, along with more than the “trickle” of income that Parker says “has a bump now and then.”
Parker never reproduced “…Sparks,” and that’s a good thing for some of us. After a couple of mainstream stumbles (having Springsteen guest on a track, adding synths and other forgivable missteps), he settled into producing deep cuts to somewhere, on stellar albums such as “The Mona Lisa’s Sister,” “Struck By Lighting,” “Don’t Tell Columbus,” and “Deep Cut to Nowhere.”
Although constantly at work, Parker never settles for fluff. His songs remain thoughtful and expansive, enriched by experience. Parker will poke at corporate greed on one track, then gently prize one of life’s gifts, including his young daughter, on another. With a catalog that continues to expand, there’s no telling what songs will make up any given night’s set.
Wise, then, that Parker began “bootlegging” his own shows (Check out: “The Art Vandelay Tapes 1 & 2”), with an output that would make some record labels blush.
It’s no stretch to anticipate a recording from this mini-reunion tour not turning up too late, to go with the anticipated successes of both “This Is 40” and the soulful, rocking “Three Chords Good.”
The new album’s songs fit neatly into the GP & the Rumour oeuvre. “Long Emotional Ride,” the album’s centerpiece, swings softly, sentimentally, in much the same way as “It’s Been a Long Time,” written by Springsteen for Southside Johnny.
But there’s also a nod to the ska influence that propelled the earliest pub rock in “Snake Oil Capital of the World” (guess what that one’s about?) and some pile-driving rock and roll that recalls early GP&R shows.
“Three Chords Good” also displays pub rock’s greatest virtues — as dance music you could think to.
That their choice of Manhattan venue would be the Society for Ethical Culture on Central Park West – and not, say, Town Hall – only underscored the point.
Using “…Sparks” as a base, Parker and his mates delivered jackerhammer versions of “Discovering Japan” and “Nobody Hurts You,” as well as a funked-up, snarling take on “Protection” that grew tighter and more intense by the measure, with Parker teleporting the cathedral-like concert hall 35 years into the past as he punched the lyrics:
“It ain’t the knife through the heart that tears you apart
It’s just the thought of someone stickin’ it in.”
On the first encore, accompanied by only Bodnar and Andrews, Parker dished up the abortion message of the seemingly delicate “You Can’t Be Too Strong” as powerfully as ever.
Then came a truly arresting turn on “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” which proved its point before floating softly to a close.
The band went from a whisper to a scream for the second encore with the punk-staccato of “New York Shuffle” before closing the night not with the expected “Soul Shoes” but with “I Want You Back (Alive).”
Parker and the Rumour frequently dropped soul covers into sets back in the day (The Tramps’ “Hold Back the Night,” for instance). “I Want You Back (Alive)” caught on after it was released first as the B-side of “Mercury Poisoning” and, later, on most of a half-dozen or so compilation sets.
For what became a massive love-in at the SEC’s impressive hall, “I Want You Back” was a clever nightcap, a clear exchange of emotion between a legitimately great band and its still-loyal fans.
( Special thanks to Antone DeSantis for this clip: )