Interminable guitar solos. Pretentious, pseudo-spiritual lyrics. Questionable personal hygiene. And let's not forget disco. Yes, I'm talking about the '70s. Who in their right mind would want to revisit a time when rock stations spun the same Styx track three dozen times a day? A damn lot of folks, apparently. I know, I know. We're already knee-deep in'80s retro-activity. But the '70s, with their coked-out caricatures and jaundiced jams, are still a major attraction for nostalgia seekers.
Don't get me wrong. I love the 1970s. Hell, I even spent a little time there. Growing up, I worshipped Led Zeppelin's powerhouse timekeeper John Bonham. When my parents backed out of buying me a drum kit for fear of the racket I'd create, I set my sights on the guitar. And I had a pretty good go of it for a few years, playing gigs, booking studio time, and practicing scales in my bedroom. But at a certain point I realized I just didn't have the temperament. Lugging amps around is just not my style. Or maybe I lost my taste for depravity.
Nevertheless, last week I decided to do some firsthand investigation into people's seemingly irrepressible desire to revisit-- or in some cases, reinvent-- the past. Three concerts at Higher Ground allowed me to do just that. Sets by the reconstituted Black Crowes, the girl-power tribute band Lez Zeppelin and the progressive electro-hippies Ozric Tentacles helped me realize a few things about the Me Decade's relationship to the rock of today.
Round One: March 15, Higher Ground Ballroom
Performing under the "top secret" moniker Mr. Crowes Garden, The Black Crowes treated Vermonters to a rare club appearance. Warming up for a full-fledged reunion tour, the band proved their retro strut hasn't lost its charm. Little has changed since they "took a hiatus" in '01-- singer Chris Robinson still looks like an emaciated Jesus, although his version is certainly more stoned.
Robinson's bushy beard was bedecked with a single, blood-red braid, which I suspect was his wife Kate Hudson's handiwork. Brother Rich was paunchy, pale and possibly hung over, while keyboardist "Steady" Eddie Hawrysch's corpse-like visage would probably scare small children. Guitarist Marc Ford has been brought back into the fold after an eight-year absence, despite well-documented drug problems. With his shag hairdo and neatly trimmed moustache, Ford was a dead ringer for Derek & the Dominoes-era Clapton. Still, his licks were searing, and Chris Robinson remains one of the best white-boy blues screechers around.
Blasting through tunes from their six studio efforts, the Crowes veered back and forth between terse, Stonesy rockers and druggy jams. Even though this was an all-ages show, the crowd was a little long in the tooth. It's been a while since the band debuted with 1990's Shake Your Money Maker-- an album that might as well have been handed out at the door of my old high school.
Jam titan Trey Anastasio joined the Crowes for the encore, tearing through hairy versions of The Beatles' "Yer Blues" and the Black Crowes' signature hit "Hard to Handle." Overall, the experience was a lot like watching the movie Almost Famous, only louder. To their credit, the band is extremely well versed in '70s rock, capable of aping the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, the Stones or The Band with ease. All of those groups are fantastic, and it's tough to find fault with an act that emulates them so convincingly.
Round Two: March 18, Higher Ground Showcase Lounge
What to say about the all-female Lez Zeppelin? Positives: No Jimmy Page absconding with doe-eyed schoolgirls to give them a crash course in occultism. It's also fun to watch a guitarist play with a violin bow. Negatives: Their underwhelming musicality and reliance on gimmicks. Slugging their way through the most pedestrian Zep tunes, the band failed to capture the sturm und drang of their mighty namesake.
The crowd was a bizarre mix of snowmobile-jacketed classic rock fans, lesbians and high-schoolers, bonded together in hard-rock rapture. But Lez Zep struggled with tunes any reasonable tribute act would have had down pat. The proto-metal (and pro-Viking) "Immigrant Song" was stripped of its majesty, and the meter-shifting thump of "The Ocean" was marred by the vocalist's off-key mewling and awkward double entendres.
"Dude, that singer is hot," I later heard one "fan" say to another in the men's room. "She's totally got a Shania Twain thing going on." Sadly, it was true. If you ask me, the world's best female-fronted Zeppelin tribute band is still Heart.
Round Three: Same night, Higher Ground Ballroom
English space-rockers Ozric Tentacles have been around since 1984, but their prog-inflected style never really caught on stateside. It's a shame, too-- of the three '70s influenced bands I heard last weekend, they were by far the most satisfying. Their pulsing electronics and metallic crunch were closer to Can or King Crimson than the Dead. Regard-less of their techno-metal leanings, band members sported tie-dyed shirts and dreadlocks. Far-out, psychedelic projections featuring cosmic geography and space aliens loomed behind them, as spiraling lights cut through the dark ballroom.
Frontman John Egan flitted about the stage, playing a variety of odd wind instruments and making incomprehensible asides in a thick British accent. The turnout was smaller than the one at the Lez Zep show, but those in attendance seemed to be having a fine time. I'm not going to make any assumptions here, but I suspect some of 'em were even high.
The latest issue of Rolling Stone -- the one with fallen '70s literary icon Hunter S. Thompson on the cover-- features a few paragraphs on the death of modern-rock radio. Apparently, quite a few major-market rock stations are getting edged out by r&b and hip-hop broadcasters. Is this the final death-knell for guitar-driven music? Perhaps rock is on its way to becoming a museum piece, like bebop, a genre painstakingly re-created for the enjoyment of stuffy academics. Only time will tell.
My question is why, in the rearview mirror of pop culture, some bands remain visible while others disappear? Who conferred the king's crown on Led Zeppelin? Why not Black Oak Arkansas or Atlanta Rhythm Section? Kids in today's '80s-themed groups think the only bands from that decade were The Cure and Gang of Four. What about Glass Tiger? Spandau Ballet?
The fact of the matter is that we tend to remember the bands that were actually good. And, despite hip-hop's ubiquitous presence on the airwaves and television, high school kids will probably continue to carve Zeppelin's Four Symbols into study-hall desks. Hell, I did that, and I bet more than a few of the whippersnappers I saw this weekend have, too. Maybe we simply want to celebrate an era that gave fans something besides cross-marketing and contempt. The first thing I did when I got home from the Friday shows was put on Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. And you know what? It still rocks.