Butch Walker & The Black Widows
Live at the Magic Bag
There was a moment sometime last fall when I began to wonder if Butch Walker, one of my two musical Gods and one of the guys who I've followed for ages, was past his prime. He'd released I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart (his weakest record, by miles) earlier that year, and I'd seen him live for two phenomenal nights that May, but since then, Butch's record had fallen out of my regular rotation, replaced by any number of last year's great albums, and the live shows, as unbelievably unforgettable as they were, were merely memories. For the first time since I'd become a fan, Butch did not claim my album of the year title (though he still clung to my number three spot, a position he might not still possess if I re-assessed the list now), and I was wondering if Butch would ever write a record as emotionally moving as Letters or Sycamore Meadows, or as much fun as The Rise & Fall or Left of Self-Centered.
Fast forward a year, and Butch is as safe and sound at the top of my favorite artists list as he's ever been. On the tails of a terrific rock and roll record (The Spade, which just gets better with every listen), he's on tour again with his band, the Black Widows, and last Friday night, he returned to the Magic Bag in Ferndale, Michigan for his third consecutive tour. Ever since I first saw him (back in August of 2006, also my first live show ever), I've always thought of Butch as the benchmark against which live shows should be measured: the energy, emotion, and charisma he puts into every show make some of my very favorite bands (Jimmy Eat World, Third Eye Blind) look almost amateurish in comparison. If you go to a Butch Walker show, whether you're a die-hard fan or a newcomer, whether you get all of your setlist wishes or none of them (I was probably closer to the latter, on that one), you are guaranteed to have a great time. I've heard stories of people who'd never heard of him leaving his shows as converts, as fans that will come back to see him time and time again, and that's one of the coolest parts of a Butch Walker show: his fanbase is small, but extremely loyal, and my brother and I recognized more than a few faces in the audience on Friday night.
Butch has always done a pretty good job with the acts he chooses to bring on the road with him. At my first show, it was a dual opening of As Fast As (a terrific, glammed up rock group that has sadly disappeared) and Boys Like Girls (a pop-rock outfit that became pretty famous a year or two later). The second time, the openers were the Films, another glammy group, half of whose members make an appearance on this tour as well, one as a Black Widow (bassist Jake Sinclair, though he played every instrument at some point in the set), the other as part of an opening band. Last year, Locksley, a Beatles pop-esque group opened. This time around, Butch let his band members (all of whom have their own projects outside of the band) warm up the crowd. After three of these, Shovels and Rope, a country-rock project consisting of Films lead singer Michael Trent, who's helped Butch write songs on these past two albums, and Cary Ann Hearst, a wailing country singer. The two traded off on vocals, guitar and percussion, and played an entertaining (if a bit overlong) set, converting many in their hour of playtime, judging by how many albums it looked like they were selling at the merch table after the show.
It was 10:30pm by the time Butch finally sauntered out and began to sing "Cigarette Lighter Love Song," the last song his previous band, the Marvelous 3, ever recorded or performed together, almost completely a cappella. I've heard this song live two or three times, once where the full band came in near the end, and once where Butch delivered the whole thing from the piano, but this performance might have been the most stunning of all, offering a perfect showcase for Walker's vocal talents and emotional performing spark. He sat down behind the piano to finish the song, and then bantered with the crowd for a few minutes before launching into a pair of Sycamore Meadows cuts, "Passed Your Place" and "Atlanta." While I preferred when Walker's piano set (a live show staple, usually consisting of two or three songs) was near the end of the show, these songs both sound terrific live, though my brother and I are in agreement that both of them should be retired for awhile, since he opened the show in a similar manner on the past two tours. Complaints were silenced immediately though, as Walker got up and grabbed his acoustic guitar. "Freebird!," someone shouted from the crowd (because it's not a live show without that request), and Butch actually began to play it, before cycling through a few well known songs from Detroit-hailing artists, a perfect example of Butch's ability to take control of a live venue quickly, and to never let it go.
Butch strummed the first chords of another Marvelous 3 song, "Every Monday," which immediately earned a big roar of approval from the crowd. Not every person in the venue was familiar with the music of Walker's former band, but the die hards in the front (where my brother and I were positioned), were ecstatic, and sang every word of the song while Walker sat down on the stage, playing his guitar with a huge grin on his face as the audience sang a song he wrote over 12 years ago. It was the same routine with "Grant Park," a gem from Marvelous 3's 2000 record, Readysexgo!, which Butch led from the microphone, jumping in to sing the bridge and the last verse. "I might as well play some old stuff now, since they don't know it!" he said, referring to the band, who had yet to take the stage. "Race Cars and Goth Rock" and "Going Back/Going Home" followed in their acoustic arrangements. Both are songs I've seen him play several times before, but both are among his best, and are welcome additions to the live set. Walker's solo acoustic/piano sets are so good that I would have been fine if he'd played the entire show by himself, but soon, the Widows took the stage (accompanied by the music from their ridiculous Spade promo video) and launched into "Summer of '89," whose huge "woah-oh" hook and catchy, singalong chorus, immediately made it the highlight of the night.
"Pretty Melody" and "She Likes Hair Bands" offered tonight's only foray into the Black Widow's last record, as the set very clearly revolved around material from The Spade, from which the band played nine of the ten tracks (leaving out "Bullet Belt," which was the one I most wanted to hear and probably Walker's most obvious live showstopper ever, but alas...) The band played a snippet of "Come On, Eileen" in the middle of "Synthesizers" (I called the song a rewrite of that 80's hit in my original review of the record, so this made me chuckle), while rhythm guitarist Chris Unck joined Walker at center stage for "Every Single Body Else," a song he co-wrote. Lead guitarist Fran Capitanelli delivered scorching guitar lines all over "Bodegas & Blood" and "Sweethearts," the two songs on the record he earned songwriting credits for, before Walker played an acoustic guitar lead in for the gorgeous country-folk ballad that is "Closest Thing to You I'm Gonna Find," another highlight of the night. The band clustered around a single mic to delivered a gloriously harmonized version of "Dublin Crow," an Irish folk-esque tune, and the formation recalled an Irish street performance. These two tracks, which, along with "Summer of '89," are the only songs from The Spade which Walker earns sole writing credit for, but those three are easily among the best, both on the album and in the live show, and support my thought that, as cool as it is to make a true full band album again, he's still better when left to his own devices.
Butch delivered one of his most emotional performances of the night on "Day Drunk," a deceptively upbeat track that he wrote for his ailing father, singing about how nothing in life lasts forever. It's a track I've liked since the first time I heard it, but one that only really hit me when I saw Walker sang it live. An extremely familiar guitar intro heralded the arrival of main set closer "Best Thing You Never Had," the one song Walker has played every single time I've seen him live, and always at this place in the set. As has become customary, the band members traded off the vocal line until the bridge, where Walker takes command. Throughout the song's tremendously emotional build, Walker delivered his trademark performance of the song, jumping all over the stage, wailing the song's cathartic climax at the top of his lung, climbing on top the drum set and abusing the hell out of his guitar, breaking all the strings and letting it fall to the floor for the song's closing bars. This song has always been absurdly over the top, to the point of being almost ridiculous, but after seeing it half a dozen times, I think I'm ready for Butch to retire it for awhile (preferably in favor of "Bullet Belt.") Still, for a first time concertgoer, I'm sure the performance is as exciting and as viscerally moving as it was for me the first time I heard it. Watching him wail the refrain of "you never had" towards the end of the song has always been a highlight of the Butch Walker live experience for me. Sometimes, the whole thing feels like a big show, like Walker is engaging in sheer theatricality for the hell of it, but during that segment of the song, I always have felt like it was purely emotional, like Walker could still get to the emotional core of this song, to the place he was when he wrote it, every single night like nothing else he's ever written, and if that's true for the whole song, then he has no reason to retire it.
Walker returned to the stage moments later with a different acoustic guitar (since he completely decimated the other one during "Best Thing") and quickly strummed the opening chords to "Closer to the Truth and Further From the Sky." The song, which used to be the full band entrance in the first part of the show, works even better near the end, closer to its roots as a penultimate track (one of the best in that function I've ever heard). "3 Kids in Brooklyn," another track from Sycamore Meadows, has become a live staple, and I'm quite fine with that, as it's one of the most fun rock songs in Walker's entire catalog, while "Suckerpunch," the closing track from The Spade, became both the set closer and the trademark song for Butch's foray into the audience, a role previously filled by "Hot Girls in Good Moods" and "Lights Out. Butch leaped off the stage, grabbed my shoulder to steady himself, and then made his way further into the audience for a game of call and response, with a small snippet of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" thrown in for good measure ("Bigger than any song I did here tonight, for sure. God dammit! That bitch is good!" he exclaimed). He came back and sang a few lines right between my brother and I before returning to the stage for one last guitar duel with Fran to close out the song, and the show. "When the Canyons Ruled the City" was on the setlist, but was not played, leaving both The Rise and Fall and Left of Self-Centered entirely unrepresented in the set.
By the time my brother and I finally made it back to our car, it was 12:40 in the morning (we had a 2+ hour drive back to his place in front of us, but we're not going to talk about that). I was tired, physically, mentally, and vocally, from singing along with every single word, but I didn't regret a minute of it. "I don't know how the hell he does that every night..." my brother remarked, and he's right; this guy gives his heart, body and soul to every minute of every show he ever does, playing rock and roll, drinking onstage, and just partying with his audience into the early hours of the morning, and then gets up the next day and does it all over again. And yet, every time I see him, he sings better and sounds more completely involved in his songs than any other artist I've ever seen live, with the possible exception of Mr. Bruce Springsteen himself. If there's a better act still touring the club circuit, I don't know who they are. This guy is a God onstage, he treats his fans well, and his entire band plays like they've been together (and been best friends) for years. Everything about his show has been a thoroughly unforgettable experience each time I've seen him, and Friday night, whether I was hearing songs I've loved for years or soon-to-be fan favorites from The Spade, I was always having a ball. With probably the best show I've seen this year (even next to U2, which was an amazing experience as well) and the current number two slot on my album of the year list, I can rest easy knowing the Butch Walker still is (and probably always will be) my favorite artist of all time, and I'll keep going to see him live as long as he continues to tour. I just hope that's going to be for a long, long time.
1. Cigarette Lighter Love Song
2. Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought of You
4. Every Monday
5. Grant Park
6. Race Cars & Goth Rock
7. Going Back/Going Home
8. Summer of ‘89
9. Pretty Melody
10. She Likes Hair Bands
13. Every Single Body Else
14. Bodegas & Blood
16. Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find
17. Dublin Crow
18. Day Drunk
19. Best Thing You Never Had
20. Closer to the Truth and Further From the Sky
21. 3 Kids in Brooklyn