Monday, May 04, 2009

REVIEW: Fleetwood Mac Live in Houston May 2009

Fleetwood Mac at Toyota Center
By Chris Gray
Photos by Jay Lee

Every night the band goes onstage, Fleetwood Mac faces a concert onus only a handful of other groups need worry about: Are its songs too iconic? Is the rush of watching Stevie Nicks twirl out "Landslide" or "Rhiannon" live any match for the lifetime (or decades, anyway) of memories, associations and emotions those songs bring forth?
Of course not. It's a trick question anyway.

For one thing, only a fraction of Saturday night's nearly sold-out Toyota Center crowd - twenty- to sixtysomething, white as a glass of milk, at least 60 percent female and not nearly as many Nicks dressalikes as Aftermath expected - actually watched those songs. As in, had their eyes open and trained on either the stage or the two flanking video screens.

To this crowd, the opening notes to those songs hardly even qualify as music anymore. They're more like auditory passwords, and the files they unlock in the audience's memory bank caused their eyes to glaze over or close altogether, their lips to involuntarily mouth the words and their bodies to sway back and forth, whether alone or arm-in-arm with their neighbors.

What images hearing "Dreams" or "Gypsy" may cause them to see on the inside of their eyelids is a mystery, but watching it happen to thousands of people at once is both humbling and unnerving. It's like going to a different church, or a sporting event between two teams you don't particularly root for - you're obviously not having the same sort of spiritual experience as the people around you, but you're not entirely immune, either.

Personally, Aftermath likes those songs just fine, but they've never been the ones to soothe a freshly broken heart, never been irrevocably linked to a lost loved one, never been playing at the precise moment he's fallen in love. He supposes they could have been, somewhere in the course of his 34-plus years on this planet, they just weren't.

Luckily, Fleetwood Mac brings a little bit more to the table than that. For one thing, Nicks' status as one of rock's top-tier icons, both musically and visually, tends to divert attention away from the fact that her three bandmates are all monsters on their respective instruments, which was nevertheless plain as day watching them pound out "The Chain," "Tusk" or "Go Your Own Way."

And maybe it's because the band has had such great pop success, but Lindsey Buckingham's name hardly ever comes up whenever there's another list of rock's greatest or most influential guitarists. Or maybe it's because the people who make those lists have never seen him live and assume his sound is some sort of studio creation. It's not.

Buckingham is as technically skilled as any front-rank classical or jazz guitarist you can name, such as Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin or Al di Meola. His blues chops are every bit the equal of Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, which he proved beyond the shadow of a doubt on the jolting "Oh Well" and trance-like "I'm So Afraid," featuring a solo that was about as close to a musician bringing himself (and the crowd) to orgasm as Aftermath has ever seen. Finally, he is also an excellent folk musician, whether chiming out the minstrel-like melody of "Landslide" or the shardlike strumming of much spookier and more harrowing solo turn "Big Love."

As for the rhythm section and sole remaining founding members, John McVie's simple, understated bass lines are as fundamental to the appeal of "Dreams," "Gypsy" and "Rhiannon" as Nicks' crystal-vision lyrics, and he switches roles with Buckingham on "The Chain" and "Tusk," his springy notes acting as lead and leaving texture and rhythm to the guitarist. Drummer Mick Fleetwood, meanwhile, is both gentle giant and pillaging Viking, wispy and ethereal on the ballads, thundering and mighty on "The Chain" and stout Tusk folk-rocker "I Know I'm Not Wrong." His extended solo on "World Turning" should have come with a warning to pregnant women and children under five years of age.

Saturday also saw a visibly moved Nicks walking over to embrace Buckingham during heart-stripping Tusk ballad "Sara," an exotic "Gold Dust Woman" become equal parts dance of the seven veils and narcotic nightmare, and the late synthesizer onslaught of "Stand Back," a breezy, shawl-friendly palate-cleanser after the preceding guitar pyrotechnics of "Oh Well" and "I'm So Afraid."

Furthermore, several songs - "Monday Morning," "Second Hand News" and "Never Going Back Again" chief among them - showed how deep the band has sown its seeds on contemporary country radio. (And it would be that much deeper if the Dixie Chicks were still on there.) There have been rumours (sorry) of a new album in the works, and considering the debt owed by stars from Keith Urban to Taylor Swift, Fleetwood Mac going the Eagles/Bon Jovi Nashville route seems like a no-brainer.

So even if, for some unfathomable reason, someone walked into Toyota Center Saturday night free of any preexisting Fleetwood Mac prejudices or connotations, after those two and a half hours it's downright impossible to imagine they walked out that way.

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