By Jason Shoff
Cover the Crescent shows are normally some of my favorite local shows. Not only do they always help support a great cause, but the performances are always exceptional, sometimes even transcendent (Colorstore’s epic Tom Waits set and the Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra’s mind-blowing performance of Portishead’s “Dummy” immediately come to mind). So when I heard that another Cover the Crescent was scheduled for this month, I was pretty stoked. The fact that all proceeds were going to HALO Animal Rescue? Even better.
Yet what I found really interesting was that the event was originally billed as “local favorites” Politician (who I had never heard of) playing both Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman in their entirety. Why did I find this intriguing? Because The Doors are probably one of the most divisive bands in the history of rock music. And that falls squarely on the shoulders of front-man Jim Morrison, as people seem to fall in one of two camps regarding him: they either think that his poetic, mystical lyrics made him the voice of a generation, or that he’s one of the most pretentious douche-bags to walk the face of the Earth. Thankfully, though, both Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman feature not only some of their most commercial work, but some of their best and most strongly-crafted songs, as they drifted away from the ambiguous and obtuse and to a more direct blues rock style that sounded like they were trying to be America’s answer to The Rolling Stones. Yet still, to base your entire show on a band that can draw such a love and hate reaction was something I found to be quite interesting.
But then, as I went to the Crescent Ballroom’s official page to see if I could find more information about this event, I noticed something on their event page that I hadn’t seen anywhere else: there was also going to be a Neil Young cover set. Now those of you that know me know how much of a Neil Young fanboy I am; he’s one of the best songwriters in rock, in my opinion, for both his amazing way with words and his ability to take simple chord progressions and make songs out of them that are both universal and timeless. Sure, his material of late has been pretty hit-or-miss (don’t even get me started on The Monsanto Years), but his place in the annals of rock music, and his status as one of its great tune-smiths, is firmly secure.
But that left me with a few more questions: why did they not promote this more? For me, Neil Young is a more universally beloved musician than the Doors and promoting this harder could have brought more people to the show. And second, who was “Broken Arrow,” the band that was supposedly playing this cover set? Was this yet another band that I had never heard of, or was this just a collection of musicians that have come together for the purpose of playing this one set?
Well, as they hit the stage last night at around 8:30 to a pretty decent-size crowd, it proved to be the latter. Led by “local legend” (as Crescent’s page billed him) Brent Miles, the band kicked off their set with a rousing rendition of “Don’t Cry No Tears,” the opening track to the criminally-underrated Zuma and a song that would have been a hit in a more just world (I mean take a listen to that melody and tell me it shouldn’t be a classic rock radio standard). And while the band itself did a capable job of recreating that classic Crazy Horse sound, Brent’s voice reminded me more of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers than Young, never quite capturing his high-pitched, nasally tenor. Which normally wouldn’t be an issue, as I never expect anyone to sound 100% like who they’re covering. But on top of this, he never had a full grasp of the lyrics, most painfully so on the following song “Powderfinger,” which is one of my personal favorites (seriously, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that 60-70% of the lyrics were sung incorrectly). Yet the band managed to rebound by playing the acoustic Year of the Horse arrangement of the Buffalo Springfield staple “Mr. Soul,” followed by a more hoedown-stomp version of “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” and the war horse that is “Cinnamon Girl.” And that was it. Just five songs. It left me both underwhelmed and pretty disappointed, and while musically they were pretty on-point throughout, such a short setlist made the fact that there were lyrical mess-ups even more unacceptable.
Hearing such a performance from Broken Arrow made me feel even more nervous about Politician. However, when they came on the stage, it was obvious that this was another temporary musical collective, albeit much more of a local super group, and seeing such heavy hitters as Robin Vining and Michael Krassner gave me some comfort that this would be a solid set. Yet their singer didn’t come up on stage with them, and it got me to wondering: just who was going to handle the responsibility of singing the vocals of one of the most unique voices in rock music?
Then out walked Matthew John Arnold, who looked more like he had just gotten back from a weekend at Bonnaroo (or The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson fifteen years from the future) than someone who was about to sing the music of The Doors. Then once he started singing, he sounded like he had just chain-smoked a pack of Lucky Strikes and drank a half bottle of Jack Daniels. Yet this vocal style was actually very appropriate for their opener, the straight-up blues of “Cars Hiss By My Window,” and the crowd (which by this point grew to be pretty substantial) was eating it up. But I was still wondering just how his voice would sound once he started singing the rest of the material. Thankfully, once he started singing “Love Her Madly,” he adopted more of the husky Morrison tone that we all know and love, while still keeping some of his raspiness to add his own flavor. Even better, the band musically hit it out of the ballpark: if you closed your eyes, you’d have no idea that you weren’t listening to the original recording.
And it only got better from there, as throughout the course of their set Arnold proved to be pretty charismatic in his own way. He read bits of his own Morrisson-esque poetry, told a few stories about his family (including one about his cousin acting as a double for Fred Savage in an 80s film shot at North High School), chilling out on the edge of the stage during “Blue Sunday” and even throwing some of his bottled water onto the crowd (hey, better that than him whipping out his “lizard king”). Most importantly, though, he tackled both the moody, introspective numbers like “Waiting for the Sun” and barnhouse rockers like “Roadhouse Blues” with equal aplomb (and you better believe the whole crowd was singing at the top of their lungs on the latter). Krassner, in particular, also impressed me; absolutely nailing the piercing, liquidy Robby Krieger guitar tone (“I Spy” in particular was especially on-point). Best of all, though, was the set-ending climax of “Riders on the Storm,” where the band truly came together and peaked in a moment of musical perfection. Vining was also given a moment to shine, both with his recreation of the song’s infamous raindrop-sounding organ tone and his aggressive solo. And while the band didn’t play both albums in their entirety as it was billed, the playing was so enthralling and enjoyable throughout that it hardly mattered.
So overall, I have to say that it was a pretty solid edition of Cover the Crescent, and for me two lessons were learned: one, don’t judge a book by its cover, as I did with Matthew John Arnold. And two, don’t forget the lyrics. Ever.