Concert Review: Bobby Keys & The Sufferin Bastards at the Highline Ballroom in NYC, 3/9/12

Concert Review:
Bobby Keys & The Sufferin Bastards
March 9, 2012
Highline Ballroom, NYC

Is rock and roll dead?

It’s a question that I’ve been ruminating on for many years now.

In one sense, rock and roll can never die, because rock and roll is an attitude as well as a genre of music. It’s the spirit of revolution and free expression. The societal changes that rock and roll both instigated and reflected are now a fundamental part of our culture. In that sense (hey hey, my my) rock and roll can never die.

But the music that we associate with rock and roll has largely lost its relevancy in today’s pop culture landscape. The heavy backbeat and electric guitar-driven sound that we associate with the golden age of rock and roll (roughly from Chuck Berry to The Sex Pistols) was really just a 20-year blip in the music world. Singles have once again displaced the long player album. Rock radio is practically nonexistent, and the charts are consistently ruled by pop, R&B and country.

So, while the spirit of rock and roll might not be dead, the musical style associated with classic rock is certainly on the endangered species list. In many ways, the kids live-tweeting the 2012 Grammys awards said it best:

“Who’s Paul McCartney?”

***

There was not one person in the house on Friday night who didn’t know who Paul McCartney was. It was a room full of true believers, classic rock music fans gathered together for a trip down the Main Street of rock and roll. Behind the wheel was none other than Bobby Keys, Mr. Brown Sugar himself, the legendary sax man behind more iconic bands, songs and riffs than just about anyone else. His credits include everything from Elvis to Dion to Joe Cocker, all four Beatles, and of course, his long-time association as Keith Richard’s best friend and musical foil in The Rolling Stones.

The idea of building a musical revue centered around Bobby Keys’ discography is utter genius in its simplicity; for not only is Bobby an extremely affable performer on stage, but his presence – and the staggeringly gorgeous tone of his sax – render these songs as something more than just cover tunes. Yes, these tunes are famous for being written and performed by others. But Bobby’s role is so crucial that you just can’t imagine them without him.

This is the real deal.

***

Then again, it doesn’t hurt that Bobby’s band is packed with a few ringers. While this is clearly the Bobby Keys experience, Bobby shares the front of the stage with Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites) who really impressed me with both his incredible energy and his vocal flexibility. Imagine being asked to move like Jagger, to bellow like Cocker, to croon like Dion and to crow like Rod all in one evening. That’s a tall order for anyone and Dan really nailed it.

Driving the sound was the power duo of Steve Gorman and Nick Govrik – the Trigger Hippy bandmates – who set a steady beat and deftly moved from fast rockers to jazzy jams. It was great to see Steve in full Charlie Watts mode with a small kit and a big groove. Rounding out the all-star crew was keyboardist Michael Webb and guitar player Chark von Kinsolving, both of whom picked their spots well – knowing when to step up and when to let Bobby and Dan shine.

***

The setlist was a rock nerd’s dream come true with 5 Stones tunes, 2 Cocker songs, 2 solo Beatles numbers, 2 homages to Bobby’s inspiration King Curtis, the aforementioned Faces tune, Dion’s “The Wanderer” and a little honky tonk ditty called “You Look Like I Could Use A Drink”. It was one of those night where you knew every song as soon as the opening bars were played and you were thrilled to hear each and every one of them. And the night got even more special when the great Joan Osborne walked on stage to take the lead vocal on a gorgeous rendition of George Harrison’s “What is Life”. (My only regret is that Joan didn’t sing another song that would have demonstrated her full vocal abilities because, as all of us Beatles Rock Band experts know, the George songs are the easy ones!)

But beyond all of this – the great players, songs and performances – the most impressive thing of the night was the man himself. Bobby was clearly under the weather. You could tell how much of a struggle it was for him to perform. Yet whenever that sax touched his lips it was pure magic. Some form of aural alchemy occurs that allows Bobby to transform his breath into music that literally gives you goosebumps. Have no doubts: the sound of Bobby Key’s saxophone is the sound of classic rock.

And this night was his Michael Jordan game 5 1997 finals “flu” game. You can’t keep the greats down.

***

What more can I say about Bobby Keys & The Sufferin Bastards? They make good old fashioned rock and roll using the original recipe. If you want proof that rock and roll still lives (and it does as long as artists like Bobby Keys roam the stage) then go check them out.

***

(Full disclosure: If I were a real journalist I might be tempted to mention that I have a prior relationship with Mr. Gorman and that we interviewed Bobby Keys on our podcast last year. Rest assured that Bobby probably has no recollection of our talk and it wouldn’t affect my review in any way. Then again, you’d probably enjoy listening to the podcast – it’s a full hour of rock and roll history from the inside. Also, Bobby’s new memoir “Every Night is a Saturday Night” just came out and I’m sure that it’s chock full of more amazing stories.)

***

S E T L I S T (original artist version being covered)

Live With Me (The Rolling Stones)
The Letter (Joe Cocker)
The Wanderer (Dion DiMucci)
Soul Serenade (King Curtis)
Had Me a Real Good Time (Faces)
Sweet Virginia (The Rolling Stones)
You Look Like I Could Use a Drink (Dan Baird)
Brown Sugar (The Rolling Stones)
Whatever Gets You Through The Night (John Lennon)
*What Is Life (George Harrison)
Bitch (The Rolling Stones)
Harlem Nocturne (King Curtis)
Delta Lady (Joe Cocker)
E: Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (The Rolling Stones)

B A N D

Bobby Keys, saxophone
Dan Baird, vocals, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Nick Govrik, bass
Michael Webb, keys, accordian
Chark von Kinsolving, guitar
*Joan Osborne, vocals


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