Show Review: Barenaked Ladies at Wente Vineyards, 7/20/10

by Gordon Elgart on July 21, 2010

Why do I get the feeling that something's missing here?

The Barenaked Ladies are playing just about everywhere they can in the Bay Area this week. On Monday night, they were at the Mountain Winery and tonight they play at The Regency Center (with discount tickets available on Goldstar), but last night they were at the Wente Vineyards in Livermore. With a ticket price hovering in the $200 range, the audience mainly seated at tables for their catered dinner, and a charity auction before the show bringing $3000 for a single autographed bottle of wine, I had concerns that the show might feel an awful lot like dinner theater. And when they played “If I Had a Million Dollars,” and asked folks to sing along, my friend leaned in close to me and said, “I think a lot of people here HAVE a million dollars.”

What wasn’t mentioned on stage, but I’ll be talking about, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. This is BNL’s first major tour since the departure of founding member and co-lead singer Steven Page, best known in my circles as “the guy you look like.” You probably know him as the voice behind such fan favorites as “Brian Wilson,” “What a Good Boy,” and “Break Your Heart.”  I was holding out hope that the band would skip these songs, but somewhat curious about what they would do if they did decide to play them. Who’d sing his parts? Would he get mentioned? Would they thank Steve for writing these songs and for being an important guy in the band for all those years?

On the mentioning and thanking aspect, no. He’s been airbrushed from the band for all intents and purposes. Barenaked Ladies is a four piece, and if you had never seen their videos or never seen them live before, you might not know better. As this was my 12th time seeing them, I can tell you that the stage looked and felt a little empty without him. When they did do “If I Had a Million Dollars,” rather than the 10-minute improvised insanity I was used to, Kevin Hearn sang the Steven Page part completely straight (although they did bring back the long-lost dance routine to the end of the song.)

And that example points out what’s the most off about the new Barenaked Ladies experience: Ed’s the only funny one. When he gets into improv or comedy mode, there’s no good foil for him. He’s on an island of comedy, and it doesn’t work quite so well. Because of this, the goofiness has been dialed back, and the whole experience is a lot more serious. The band featured several songs off of their newest album, All in Good Time, which is a fairly humorless affair. They practically ignored their earliest material, playing only two songs off of Gordon, none off of Maybe You Should Drive, and one from Born on a Pirate Ship. They’re making it clear that they want to move into a new place in the band.

The stuff that worked, though, worked well. They did riff effectively off an announcement that was made before the show started: “The views expressed by Barenaked Ladies do not necessarily represent the views of Wente Vineyards.” This became the mantra for the evening. They said it after asking people to dance on the tables, fit it into an improv number about the vineyards itself; it was pretty much the punch line for the evening. Musically, the group is as tight as ever. The vocals were all spot on, and Tyler Stewart and Jim Creegan are an excellent rhythm section.

The crowd pretty much sat at their tables drinking their fancy wine until Ed Robertson sang “It’s been …” Then everyone got up to their feet, and stayed there through the rest of the set and the encore. Even the two somewhat down key songs that started the encore didn’t get people to plop back down; everybody was finally engaged. I admit I didn’t expect this to happen by this point, and I was wondering if my fears of an evening of BNL as dinner theater were going to be realized. Thankfully, the patrons of Wente Vineyards showed some life, and the energetic end made the somewhat dull middle section a faded memory.

When the show finally ended with “Brian Wilson,” I got to see what I would feel about the new vocals on an old song. Ed did his best Steven Page imitation, and frankly, my own singing along drowned out his vocals, and I tried closing my eyes to imagine Steven Page singing the song. It didn’t work. While we count the years before the inevitable reunion, it’s good to know we can still enjoy the songs, even when the performance of them is a couple of notches below what it once was.

For years, I was trying to convince people that BNL weren’t a joke band, that they wrote serious songs with serious themes. And now that a lot of their playfulness has gone away, what’s left behind doesn’t sparkle in the same way. It just feels like adult contemporary music, and it’s a far cry from their zany beginnings. I guess those days are long gone, at least until the year 2017 brings the 5-piece reunion shows.

Barenaked Ladies set list for 7/20/10 at Wente Vineyards, directly from the sound board:

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ben July 21, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Best seats I ever had: literally front row center at the Somerville Theater for their Maybe You Should Drive tour. Remember that time we drove to see them in some park in CT? I wish Stephen Page the best but BNL without him is a bit like a hamburger without ketchup. It’s still pretty good but something essential is missing.

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