There were a few things Basilica Block Party attendees couldn’t complain about on opening night: the weather (it was all sun with often a nice breeze); the beer and food selection (Lift Bridge’s Farm Girl and varieties of Goose Island were added to the offerings, as was Andrew Zimmern’s AZ Canteen food truck), and the size of the crowd (with about 12,000 there in the end, which left a nice amount of elbow room).
Alas, there were plenty of things for a music critic to find fault with Friday night. To be fair: In most cases, I saw only about half of each performer’s set, as is the nature of simultaneous staging, but it seemed like enough in each case.
Click here for the recap for Saturday's newspaper and photo gallery. Here’s a rundown of how the performers fared.
BEST SET OF THE NIGHT: The best was saved for last, and it seriously might’ve been one of the hardest-rocking sets in BBP history. Headliner Grace Potter and her sturdy band the Nocturnals showed their true colors at the Basilica’s big Sun Country Stage, after coincidentally opening for Kenny Chesney at Target Field this time last year (Chesney was at the ballpark again Friday). The Vermont-bred, sandy-blonde, Melissa Etheridge-style singer, 30, sang some sweeter, lighter tunes earlier in their set that sounded perfect for BBP sponsor Cities 97, highlighted by “One Short Night.”
For the second half, though, Potter strapped on a Flying V guitar over her wide-sleeved, Obi-Wan-Kenobi-esque wrap dress and got heavier and heavier musically, starting with the Zeppelin-esque “Nothing But the Water” and culminating in a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” That might be a first: Sabbath at the Basilica, although the song in question actually suits Christian teachings (promoting peace). The only time Potter lightened up was a heavy moment. She started her encore by dedicating her tearjerker ballad “Stars” to the daughter of late BBP concert promoter Sue McLean (Lily, age 12), and to other people who “might find hope in the song.” Lovely, and perfect.
WORST OF THE NIGHT: It was hard to find anything redeemable about Matt Nathanson. The edgeless Boston area pop-rocker headlined the Church Stage and had a large crowd there, though not quite as much as ZZ Ward did one set earlier. A good chunk of his audience – mostly women -- sang along, which is pretty easy to do, given that his baby, baby, baby-style of songwriting is simplistic and formulaic. The pre-recorded hand claps in “Mercy” sounded like something out of a boy-band concert. He even proudly boasted that fans could sing along to his hit, “Laid,” saying, “You basically just have to sing vowels.”
Talk about pandering to your crowd: Nathanson introduced his Bryan Adams-bland rocker “To the Beat of the Noisy Heat” as “a song of female empowerment” (bravo, of course, but it just sounded trite). He also made a play for local fans by dropping in part of the Replacements’ “I’ll Be You.” Unlike a lot of the night’s F-bomb-dropping performers, Nathanson played to his nice-guy image by cleanly describing his duet with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles as feeling “like two people getting together to play an intense game of Scrabble” (presumably, he describes it more explicitly at other shows). He didn’t have to soften the edge of his sexy rocker “Kill the Lights,” though. Even at his bawdiest, Nathanson rates a PG-13 at best.
Mayer Hawthorne was a close runner-up for worst. The Michigan singer seemed to be filling the shoes of repeat BBP favorite Fitz & the Tantrums, with Hall & Oates-style throwback soul-pop, but he was nowhere near as entertaining or believable. Groovy songs like “Get to Know You” sounded like light fluff compared to the Tantrum’s livelier, sexier fare, and there’s nothing worse than a young, white hipster dude talking like an old black soul man between songs (“Is it awright if we slow it down and get intimate wit y’all?”). But then, Hawthorne didn’t fare too well in the white rocker department, either, as he mentioned being raised on AC/DC, Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine before his “rock” song “The Stars Are Ours.” It sounded Billy Joel-heavy at best.
ODDEST & MOST BLASPHEMOUS: Father John Misty was a quizzical booking for the block party from the get-go. For one, he’s squarely an 89.3 the Current artist and not property of BBP co-organizer Cities 97 (he even taped a special for the Current prior to Friday’s show). He also frequently refers to Christianity in his music -- starting with his holy name -- often in too vague a way to call it blasphemous. There was nothing vague about his stage banter on Friday, though. After unthinkingly dropping a “g.d.” expletive, he coyly apologized to an “antiquated religion.” Among his other nervy dialogue, he also joked, “If [God is] so powerful, why do I need a first-aid kit so close to me here?”
I’m all for artists being provocative and uncensored, but in the case of the real-life Josh Tillman, he sounded like a dim-witted rocker who takes a big payday but then speaks out against the sponsor who signed the check. He shouldn’t have taken the gig if he didn’t like who puts it on. It was also the second local show in the row where he seemed snide, disrespectful and too-cool-for-school toward the crowd.
When he shut up and sang, though, Tillman’s performance was a winner. He seemed more animated than usual in dramatic songs such as “Everyman Needs a Companion,” and he performed the set climax “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” with a vengeance, as if sensing the tension and trying hard to make it a memorable set. Too bad a lot more fans were on the other side of the party watching ZZ Ward.
THE SURPRISE HIT: Ward clearly should have been on the big stage, and she undoubtedly will be there when she (undoubtedly) returns to the BBP. The rising Los Angeles songstress was a good fit for Potter’s crowd, being a similarly soulful and vaguely bluesy rocker, though with less developed pipes and weaker songs. It seems she’s another block party alum who already counts the Twin Cities as one of her top markets, too. After her rousing opener “Put the Gun Down,” she gushed about her prior gig at the Varsity Theater, saying, “We were blown away by your city.” Sounds like the start of another enduring friendship.
The Church Stage’s opener, Family of the Year, also went over surprisingly well. The co-ed, hippie-punk-looking Los Angeles band attracted pretty nearly everyone at the party under the age of 25 to their set – the musicians themselves are still babyfaced, too – and sparked some giddy dancing with their folky, get-together-style rockers such as “In the End.” In more ways than one, they were reminiscent of prior BBP breakout act the Head and the Heart.