The couple in front of me at the Suburbs’ show Saturday night at jam-packed First Avenue was holding their young son, who looked to be 4 or 5. After the first song, the youngster in the Suburbs T-shirt asked his dad: “When are they going to rock?”
That was one good question. Others: What was up with Beej Chaney? Was Steve Brantseg, the new guy on guitar, trying to be the new Beej? Why was the show so poorly paced? Have the ‘Burbs, one of Minnesota’s greatest live bands from the 1970s to the 1990s, lost their heart and soul without the late, great Bruce Allen?
Rhythm guitarist Allen passed away in December, and the ‘Burbs, with Brantseg on guitar and new guy Steve Price on bass, played a spirited tribute to Allen in February at First Avenue. I heard positive reports about the ‘Burbs’ summer gig at Lumberjack Days in Stillwater. So things were encouraging for Beej’s return from California for a two-night weekend stand at First Ave.
Saturday’s 85-minute set was front loaded with medium-tempo tunes featuring the vocals of keyboardist Chan Poling, making things seem more cerebral than visceral. Chaney, the band’s other – and more physical-- lead singer, seldom sang and he barely played lead guitar. In fact, Brantseg surprisingly took almost all the guitar leads and carried on like the crazed rock star that Chaney used to be. Brantseg wore a turban, a bright striped coat and day-glo T-shirt, fumbled around with a long scarf and struck guitar-god poses.
As for the Chaney, he looked to be lost in his own zone, for lack of a better description. At one point during an encore of Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd,” Beej stood front and center frozen, his hands folded in front of his guitar and not singing as the rest of the band (with opening act the Suicide Commandos sitting in) performed the song.
To be sure, the singer did a couple of stage dives on the final encore number, singing while fans held him aloft. But that wasn’t enough of the classic Chaney, one of the Twin Cities’ most arresting frontmen . Beej has always been strange in a good way; on this night, however, he seemed strange in a puzzling way.
Despite Beej seemingly MIA, the ‘Burbs had their rewarding moments: “Life Is Like” with Prince & the Revolution drummer Bobby Z sitting in (he produced the song); the always rollicking “Rattle My Bones”; the spirited “Baby Heartbeat” with Hugo Klaers Jr. as guest drummer while his dad stood in front and sang. Said Poling: “Hugo Klaers on drums and Hugo Klaers on vocals. I love cloning.”
In their opening set, the Suicide Commandos, the 1970s Twin Cities punk pioneers, sounded tighter than during their summer St. Paul reunion gig but just as playful and fun. But the kid in front of me had one  question: “Why didn’t they play ‘Burn It Down’?”


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