Dan Wilson: Live at the Pantages

RIYL: Semisonic, Better Than Ezra, Gabe Dixon

It may not hit you all at once, but the more you listen to and read about singer/songwriter Dan Wilson, the more you realize just how many cool friends and colleagues the guy has. It’s not that he co-founded rock band Semisonic and had some overnight success with “Closing Time,” or that he won a Grammy when co-writing some tracks from the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 album Taking the Long Way. Wilson has written with or is slated to write with the likes of Josh Groban, Adele, the Bravery, Keith Urban, Jason Mraz and KT Tunstall. But he is as riveting a solo performer as you’ll ever see and hear, based on his timeless songs and instantly recognizable voice.

While he’s between studio albums, fans of Wilson can enjoy the digitally-released Live at the Pantages, recorded in Wilson’s hometown of Minneapolis and featuring songs from his acclaimed Free Life album from 2007, as well as a few of the old Semisonic stand-bys. He begins with a solo acoustic set on guitar and piano and then comes back with a full band set, both with his voice and the songs front and center. You won’t find a live album anywhere this clean, sonically. And the songs are bordering on stunning – in particular when Wilson plays “Honey Please” from Free Life, or “Secret Smile” from the landmark Semisonic album, Feeling Strangely Fine. But here is what separates Wilson from any other singer/songwriter – the two brilliant co-writes her performs here—“All Will Be Well,” with Nashville roots rocker Gabe Dixon, and “One True Love,” written along with the great Carole King and first appearing on Semisonic’s All About Chemistry. If you don’t have goose bumps now, you will when hear Wilson sing the latter. In all, Live at the Pantages is a truly awesome storytelling effort. (Ballroom Music 2010)

Dan Wilson MySpace Page


Carole King and James Taylor: Live at the Troubadour

RIYL: Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash

Like a charity softball game that trots out a pair of aging power hitters for a leisurely stroll around the bases between innings, Live at the Troubadour presents a couple of Hall of Famers revisiting past glories one more goddamn time, sharing a warm nostalgia bath with an audience glad for nothing more than evidence that their heroes – and, by extension, the audience members themselves – are still alive. If you could put this CD/DVD package on one of those old-fashioned sailor’s maps of the world, it’d fall under the heading “beyond this place lie geezers.”

That’s the cynical point of view about a project like this, anyway. And it’s easy to be cynical about Live at the Troubadour — both James Taylor and Carole King have released live CDs and/or DVDs in the last few years, and Taylor has been dog-paddling through a happy period of creative loafing since releasing October Road way back in 2002. Who needs to hear another version of “You’ve Got a Friend,” “It’s Too Late,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” or, God help us, “Sweet Baby James”? No one, probably, and if you skip the DVD part of the program and head straight to the audio portion of this live set, no one will blame you for falling asleep halfway through. As Taylor quips before breaking out “You’ve Got a Friend,” he’s been performing this song every night for most of his life; everything here has been done, and done, and done again. And better, too – King’s vocals remain as warm and honey-coated as ever, but you can hear the first signs of fraying in her upper register. As a live album, Live at the Troubadour is hardly definitive.

But its real appeal doesn’t lie on the CD. Playing one’s hits in an intimate acoustic setting has become part of the creative death spiral of the heritage rock act, but to watch Taylor and King return to their old haunt is to remember not only why “unplugged” became a fad in the first place, but to be struck all over again by the sheer quality of both performers’ early work. You can still hear the sound of barrel-scraping if that’s what you’re listening for, but there’s something undeniably appealing about watching two old friends rifle through their songbooks’ back pages, and you can tell that Taylor and King aren’t just doing it for the applause — they’re doing it for themselves, and for each other. Die hard fans will be thrilled with Live at the Troubadour, and if it’s something less than essential for the rest of us, it’s hard to quibble with songcraft this elegantly (and joyously) displayed. (Hear Music 2010)

James Taylor MySpace page


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