Sunday, May 24, 2009


Fleetwood Mac's chatty journey through the past
The band revels in revealing stories behind the songs for first tour in five years.

They're calling it Unleashed: Hits Tour 2009, this latest Fleetwood Mac outing, which stopped Saturday night at a packed Honda Center in Anaheim and returns next week to play Staples Center, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and San Diego Sports Arena. But that billing is a misnomer two ways.

Unleashed? Well, yes and no. If by "unleashed" you mean "free to do as we please," then sure, there's a touch of the Mac unbound here – especially as the continuing "Rumours" lineup (sadly, still without Christine McVie) is touring for the first time with no new album to promote, theoretically opening the door for them to Jack FM this thing and play what they like.

Of course, when I hear "unleashed" I think of fearless, mercurial, untamed, electrifying musicianship – not exactly what anyone has thought of Fleetwood Mac since Peter Green split at the turn of the '70s. But, again, there's a kernel of truth in their advertising. Check the Stones and the Who for proof: Hall of Famers start performing differently once they reach their 60s, as everyone but Lindsey Buckingham has. (He'll hit six-oh come October; Stevie Nicks turns 61 on Tuesday. Mick Fleetwood is 62 come June and John McVie is six months into his 63rd year.)

There's a looseness that sets in when bands cross that threshold. Partly that's a natural result of aging, as stars start to slow down, move more deliberately (even in the sort of platform boots Stevie favors these days) and tweak material to fit vocal registers that don't range as high as they used to. But more so it's a case of returning to the sort of devil-may-care attitude that fuels so many future rock icons when they're younger.

It isn't that Fleetwood Mac has stopped caring how they sound. It's that they've stopped caring so much about how they sound – whether they've slurred this lyric or blurred that riff or botched a harmony. At some point meticulousness became an albatross. Now, instead of failing to be what they were, they've chosen to perform in the moment and not worry about living up to a rusting ideal. "Let's just go out and have fun," Lindsey put it with uncharacteristic succinctness.

Consequently, as with peers and forebears still making a hearty racket, the result is a new kind of ramshackle fierceness. Not to suggest that a group as relatively mellow as Mac is suddenly roaring like Page and Plant reunited, but Saturday night there was noticeable punch and kick to just about everything – which was anticipated on behemoths like "Tusk" and "I'm So Afraid" (bolstered by another scorching solo from Lindsey) yet proved surprising on swampier fare like "The Chain" and "Gold Dust Woman" and sleeker stuff like "Rhiannon" and "Gypsy."

But getting back to the tour title … "Hits," they say? Again, yes and no. And whose hits, for that matter? As with the Eagles, the Mac has taken to including solo fare: Stevie's chugging "Stand Back" late in the game, Lindsey's "Go Insane" early on, accompanied by mutating ink-blot visuals.

True, the majority of the band's 23 selections on this tour (the set list never changes) remain indestructible classic-rock staples – in addition to the ones I've already named you can add "Go Your Own Way," "Don't Stop," "Second Hand News," "Big Love," "Landslide," the positively dreamy "Sara." Yet even out of that list not everything was a "hit," per se, while numbers like "I Know I'm Not Wrong" and "Storms" (the latter chosen because it had never been played live before) don't even qualify as old-school FM radio gems the way "World Turning" or the evening-closing "Silver Springs" do.

It's also difficult to stage a best-of show when a tunesmith as formidable and essential as Christine McVie remains retired. Expectedly absent were "Over My Head," "You Make Loving Fun," "Little Lies" and "Hold Me." "Say You Love Me," however, was dusted off in tribute, with Stevie (in unflattering makeup that made her look wasted much of the time) and Lindsey (constantly wearing a post-euphoric expression resembling Bill Murray) capably providing McVie's melody.

Also, late in the evening, as Stevie exited once more for a costume change and potty break, the rest of the band served up a plenty raucous (if never quite ripping) rendition of the pre-mega-Mac standard "Oh Well," a fine homage to the group's roots in heavy blues-rock.

Otherwise this satisfying revue was precisely what it should have been called: "The Stevie & Lindsey Show," with all the hoary melodrama and esoteric between-song ramblings that you'd expect from such a program. Kicked off with "Monday Morning," the first track on the first album (1975's "Fleetwood Mac") Buckingham-Nicks appeared on, the performance often felt like a "Storytellers" session, and though it played well to a full house, it arguably would have come off better across several nights at a venue half the size – say, the Greek.

Some tales were illuminating and insightful, particularly Stevie's reminiscences of those heady San Francisco days in the '60s that led her to pen "Gypsy." Other comments, especially from increasingly self-satisfied Lindsey, tended to bog things down. Revealing the roots of a song is one thing, but to drone on and on in pseudo-profound fashion ("Los Angeles has a way of drawing you in on your own terms," good grief) ultimately saps strength and kills momentum. It's a bad habit of his, developed from small-theater solo touring where more ardent fans are willing to indulge his rambling yet haltingly paced thoughts. In an arena, however, it's often best to let the music do the talking.

Personally, I appreciated the telling little moments. The way old flames Stevie and Lindsey entered hand-in-hand, for instance – that was obviously sentimental, OK, but it also established the night's theme with sweetness. Likewise, the acoustic pairing of "Landslide" and a considerably slower, almost theatrical "Never Going Back Again" spoke volumes about the "complex and convoluted emotional history" Lindsey referred to earlier in the set.

An even more compelling (if utterly fleeting) glimpse of the real Mac, however, came nearly at the end – when Mick Fleetwood, looking more and more like Tolkein's Gandalf, strode gallantly across the stage, eyeing the crowd the whole time … and, as he approached John McVie, extended his arm for a job-well-done handshake without so much as looking at the bassist.

That's the Fleetwood Mac bond in a nutshell. They just know now – it's all instinctual. "Every time we get together it's different," Lindsey mentioned. True enough. But the core never changes.

Main set: Monday Morning / The Chain / Dreams / I Know I’m Not Wrong / Gypsy / Go Insane / Rhiannon / Second Hand News / Tusk / Sara / Big Love / Landslide / Never Going Back Again / Storms / Say You Love Me / Gold Dust Woman / Oh Well / I’m So Afraid / Stand Back / Go Your Own Way

First encore: World Turning (plus Mick Fleetwood solo) / Don’t Stop
Second encore: Silver Springs

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