September 29, 2008
Week Of Shows, Episode Two
There’s an old trick concert promoters pull on their patrons to ensure they make money coming and going: they kill the air conditioning to make crowded venues hotter, selling more drinks and saving money on their electric bills as a result.
The sauna-like conditions at On The Rox Monday night, however, were not the consequence of promoter flim-flammery. Instead, it was performer Jimmy Gnecco, front man for the group Ours, who requested the ban on the A.C. in order to favor his pyrotechnic vocal abilities.
Not that it mattered. The victim of a cold which was claiming the furthest reaches of his remarkable voice, Gnecco struggled to hit the notorious screams and upper-register sweet notes of his songs early in his solo acoustic set. The gathered Gnecco devoted, aka The Hush Squad (who will glare and hiss at anyone should they so much as breathe too loud at his performances), continued to observe him with reverence, though it was clear something was lacking.
“Let’s talk about something funny,” Gnecco suggested about a half hour into the night, disappointment lingering on his face after another difficult offering. “Tits. Tits always lighten up a room.”
He then ordered the A.C. to be turned back on. “No reason to torture you twice,” he apologized amidst cheers, effectively breaking the ice and eliminating the wall between performer and audience. Having set a lighter tone for the evening, Gnecco grinned as he launched into “Here Is The Light” off Ours’ debut, Distorted Lullabies.
Gnecco, the once-heir apparent to Jeff Buckley’s otherworldly singing throne, had the misfortune of having that very album arrive in 2001 a market that no longer responded to darkness and angst in pop music. Britney Spears had flooded malls and airwaves and N’Sync was touring stadiums at the same time Ours was slugging it out at clubs and colleges nationwide on an MTV2 Tour. It wasn’t that there wasn’t an audience for Gnecco’s music, it was that an audience was no longer to be found through mainstream radio and video airplay (the eyeliner and PVC bodysuit in Ours’ first video probably didn’t help). Unsure how to break Ours otherwise, Dreamworks Records, who optimistically had signed Gnecco to a firm five-album deal, did what any smart label would: gave him a chance to make good by writing pop songs. When Gnecco failed to comply, it became clear their relationship was not long for the world. With minimal support, Ours’ follow-up, Precious, failed to register on mainstream radar, sonar, lidr, gps or satellite imaging of any kind. A recently released third album on American Recordings (produced by Rick Rubin) has essentially found Ours starting from scratch.
All of which is to say his troubled foray in the record business has made Gnecco a survivor. When Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg’s label sharks have had you in their sites, dealing with air conditioning and a wicked case of the sniffles isn’t such a big deal.
For the rest of the night, the self-effacing Gnecco played gracious host to his crowd, making his evening a communal experience by taking requests, telling stories, jokes and conversing with audience members in the middle of songs. An easy touch, he delivered most of Distorted Lullabies at the behest of the crowd, despite stating earlier he would avoid songs that he normally played with his full band. “I’m sorry I’m not doing that ‘becoming a demon’ thing,” he murmured guiltily at one point.
When he dove into a rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the first of what would be several singalongs, he took a cue from Bono, letting the crowd do the heavy lifting and collectively approximating the high notes well enough to sell the parts that were temporarily beyond his reach. Other covers permeated the night, including impromptu takes on the Doors’ “Love Street,” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Edelweiss.” A-ha’s “Take On Me,” The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” and a heartfelt version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” helped the affair stay casual and not too heavily steeped in the intense brand of sturm und drang that Gnecco’s own compositions tend to project.
Anyone who claims to have suffered ear damage from the piercing wails of tweeners at a Jonas Brothers or Mylie Cyrus concert should have attended Gnecco’s gig for comparison’s sake — keeping in mind that of the 80 or so people present, everyone was at least 21 years of age and lacking the pubescent wherewithal to permanently scar ear canals without some serious effort. This was no more in evidence than when a final, unexpected cover of a portion of Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” delighted the audience to near-glass shattering wails (“I love Jeff to death, but I sound nothing like him,” Gnecco had previously commented). Claiming he had only played “Hallelujah” one other time (at his cousin’s wedding), he sounded almost regretful afterward. “That was just for you guys, not for the world,” Gnecco said.
Nearly three hours from when he started, after performing note-perfect presentations of “Kill The Band” and “Murder,” Gnecco — who was celebrating his birthday and had flow to L.A. just for this date — finally called it a show. However, he stayed on to talk at length with his fans, continuing to share with them a birthday celebration they won’t soon forget.