Songbook Tour Critique: What Happend?

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What I am about to say is out of love, love for all things Blitzen Trapper and for the great music they have made over the last 16 years or so.  In just two short years, Blitzen Trapper has become one of my favorite bands.  I had a great time seeing them perform in Los Angeles in 2014 at the Troubadour, and in 2015 at the Teragram Ballroom.  

When the "Songbook: A Night of Stories and Songs" tour was announced, I leapt at the chance to get a ticket for the October 23rd show at L.A.'s Bootleg Theater.  My imagination ran wild as to what a "Songbook: A Night of Stories and Songs" show would be like.  I mean, "A Night of Stories and Songs" must be really special...and something very different for the Trapper, a show that would be quite different than the shows I had seen in years past.  It had to be different, otherwise why else would they call it "Songbook: A Night of Stories and Songs"???

As I found out on Sunday evening at the Bootleg, "different" did not mean better, nor even different!  I thought maybe the whole show would be intimate, perhaps in MTV Unplugged style.  Nope.  Eric had his classic Gibson SG out to play more often than not, and Erik was not shy on his electric.  Brian's playing was toned down a turn, but not by much.  Mike and Marty both played on their electric instruments.  

As for the stories?  Well, Eric came off as a reluctant storyteller.  I never got the sense that he enjoyed telling stories about this or that song, and several songs were played with no story at all.  So the "stories" part was not what I had hoped it would be, and ended up being a minor part of the show.

As for the songs, well let me first say that I couldn't help but notice that BT played longer and more adventurous setlists in other cities, which was a bummer (though great for the cities in Colorado and Oregon).  In addition to that, 35 percent of the show I saw featured the same six songs they always play at every Los Angeles Blitzen Trapper show.  Aside from "Fletcher," each song was played the exact same way they always play it. Worse, extended jam-standards like "Thirsty Man" were shortened down to to the nub (a far cry from the epic version I witnessed at the Troubadour in 2014).

Another 30 percent or so of the concert focused on songs from last year's "All Across This Land" album, which is fine.  No problem with that.  What irked me is that Blitzen Trapper used the remaining 35 percent of the show to play cover songs.  Now, I am all for bands covering material from other artists.  Bruce Springsteen is a master of it.  Yet for a short, 17-song set, six cover songs felt like overkill to me.

For some reason,  I thought "Songbook: A Night of Stories and Songs" meant BLITZEN TRAPPER songs, not Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Gillan Welch, Elliot Smith, and Phil Collins songs.  Those artists are all great, for sure, yet so is Blitzen Trapper.  Forgive me, yet I wanted to hear more Blitzen Trapper songs.  That's the reason why I went to the show, arrived early, waited out in the rain to get in, and then waited over two hours inside for the band to hit the stage.  

If the show was, I don't know, 20-30 minutes longer, with more BT tunes, the six cover songs wouldn't be such an issue.  Yet with these covers actually taking the place of say...the great "Destroyer of the Void" material that was played elsewhere on this very same tour, or "Stolen Shoes and Rifle" (also played elsewhere on this tour), it seemed all wrong, and perhaps unfair to the loyal fans who appreciate ALL of Blitzen Trapper's material, past and present.  

As much I do love the grunge bands, I didn't understand at all why BT bothered with the Grunge Melody.  It felt like an acknowledgement of some sort to the 90's music they loved, but musically it offered nothing but the band faithfully playing a minute or two of each band's song, then moving on to the next one.  Again, it felt very much like cover band overkill, which is a shame for a band like Blitzen Trapper, who has such a rich, and diverse catalog of music.  
 
I will say this, the Blitzen Trapper's version of Gillian Welch's "Miss Ohio" that evening was pretty f*cking awesome.  Eric, Marty and Brian's harmonies were so very beautiful with the song, inspiring me to check out the original.  So, at least that.  "Miss Ohio"was one of the few highlights in a night filled with disappointment.  

Eric, Marty, Brian, Erik, and Mike...you are terrific guys, and great musicians, yet I left the Bootleg Theater on Sunday night very angry, and down.  "Songbook: A Night of Stories and Songs" ended up being a night of few stories, and an overabundance of non-Blitzen Trapper songs.  The name of the tour was misleading, and I felt mislead.  It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I wondered if I would ever go to a Blitzen Trapper show again, especially in Los Angeles.

Hope I have not caused any offense to anyone, yet I am a passionate man, and am speaking from the heart, out of my love for the band, and for the great music that continues to move, inspire, and surprise me.  Despite my criticism, I still love Blitzen Trapper, and look forward to what the band has to offer in the future...even if, from now on, I am forever banned from your concerts.

Sincerely,

plTRAPPER
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Well, to each their own.  I gotta say, I appreciate your keeping a respectful tone with your post.  It's nice to read a critique that isn't a rant.

For what it's worth, when the tour was announced there was mention of the band playing some of the songs that inspired them, so your issue with all the non-Blitzen Trapper songs kind of surprises me. I totally agree with you that I can never get enough BT, but I felt the show I saw was pretty much what I expected from the tour advertisement (although with some treats: I never knew that BT playing Nirvana was something I wanted but it sure was fantastic).

And I agree that "Miss Ohio" was absolutely amazing.  

But yeah! I loved the Nashville show, and am sorry you didn't have a similar experience.  
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I appreciate the searching tone of this critique - all too often, I find fans that have even the slightest issue with something a band has done bring on harangues and diatribes and vows never to listen to another record (the Springsteen boards are full of those). 

I respectfully disagree with the critique, however. I was lucky enough to see five shows from this tour, and I found it lived up to the hype and then some. It was advertised as songs from BT's catalog as well as songs that inspired them in a more intimate setting. Every tour, I'm excited to see what covers the band will bring out; the Abbey Road covers on the last tour were particularly thrilling, because I'm a huge fan of Eric, Marty, and Brian harmonizing. I found that changing the placement of the musicians on the stage (with Brian right up front, for harmony vocals and his occasional lead vocals) was akin to Springsteen rearranging the placement of the E Street Band on the Tunnel of Love Tour. It was intimacy by way of engagement, not necessarily exclusively going full acoustic. 

There was also the technique of how the band came to the stage, with Earley coming first to do a few songs solo, then bringing Brian and Marty on for harmony vocals and light instrumentation (the way the band often does songs on radio shows), then Mike and Menteer rounding things out after a few more songs. I interpreted it as the way a song is created in the studio, with Earley at the fore, then slowly bringing in the other musicians to round out the sound in his head. In this capacity, we're watching Earley build a song, a moment, a movement, live and in real time. I thought it was a real visual and aural treat to witness such a bold deconstruction and then reconstruction of sound. 

Then we come to the songs themselves. Destroyer of the Void doesn't get as much love in regular shows as it probably deserves. However, in this context, songs from that record (which feels as personal to Earley as Pinkerton was to Rivers Cuomo; he underscored this with his story of an addict friend every night) are given time to breathe and come to life. I don't know if you got "Below the Hurricane" in your show, but hearing the band create a thunderstorm on stage with actual instruments was a spine-chilling highlight. My second-favorite song from All Across This Land, "Nights Were Made For Love," was a shimmering slice of nostalgia pop on the album and the subsequent AATL tour. Here, it's a journeyman tale that feels more lonesome than celebratory; it's the difference between Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again" and Warren Zevon's aching cover. Then there's the change in the band's most famous songs, particularly "Furr": gone are the special effects, and the deep booming drum on the clap-along portion. For a song already pretty acoustic, hearing "Furr" like this stripped down to its bones - like you'd play it around a campfire - was in itself a gratifying enough moment to justify this all-new experience.

And the cover songs, oh man. After they released Harvest Live, I've been clamoring for more cover albums. I wanted a whole Abbey Road. What I got here was genius. I had never heard of Gillian Welch, and their take on "Look at Miss Ohio" had me running out to buy the original. Of course their Neil Young stuff is top-notch, but who knew they could do a full on grunge medley? Acoustically? (To your earlier point, this definitely felt like an MTV Unplugged segment.) And Brian's take on Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" where he actually plays guitar (and, because he's not behind the kit, they had to come up with some creative string techniques to make that drum solo sing) is a Top-Five BT Concert Highlight.

As for Earley's stories - I also wish some had been more in-depth, but I loved finding out that "Stolen Shoes and a Rifle" had its genesis in an actual pair of shoes he stole, for example. And the story of Marty and Eric going to see Neil Young, Pearl Jam, and Blind Melon (Brian was there, and almost died) was fantastic. 

I completely understand your frustration with the particular show you saw, but I assure you that the majority of the shows on the tour were much more in what you might have wanted. I felt that the two shows I saw at City Winery were way too short, but because I was seeing two shows in one night, it didn't bother me much. Do yourself a favor and seek out some of the Archive recordings of the shows (the 9/27 Sinclair one is stellar and ends with "Big Black Bird") - my hope is that you'll find something on the audio that you didn't find live. 

In any event, your passion for the band comes through, and if there's one thing we need more of in this world, it's passion for Blitzen Trapper!