We made our way from 84th street — the center of Papillion — cutting east toward 72nd to the mall, my brother driving his Honda SUV with confidence. There was no traffic problems, though as we approached the shopping Valhalla I noticed a couple people walking down the highway median carrying lawn chairs — this was a good mile away from the shopping center. Surely parking couldn’t be that bad?
As we turned into the outer reaches of the lot I spied Chris Esterbrooks (Inktank Merch, Virgasound) walking from an adjacent lot and yelled, “Chris, where did you park?” He pointed to a structure west the mall. The angry-looking soccer mom walking behind him grimaced and yelled all cocky, “There was plenty of parking there a minute ago, but it’s gone by now.” My brother called “bullshit” to her and continued to drive right into the mall parking lot. Was he crazy? We start-stopped past Best Buy and Borders, Old Navy and the AT&T store, and sure enough found plenty of spots in front of Penney’s. The B-52s are a big deal, but they’re not that big of deal. As we walked through the lot, I noticed even more parking in front of Bed Bath and Beyond and the Old World Market. Take that, soccer mom!
We were late, but we didn’t care. I like the old B-52s old stuff, but never really cared for the Cosmic Thing album that pushed them over the top. All I wanted was to hear “Rock Lobster,” and didn’t mind if I missed everything else. My brother had scouted out the mall a week earlier — he lives in Papillion. He gave us a brief tour of the “main street” where fountains bubbled outside of Victoria’s Secret, the buildings designed to look like a turn-of-the-century urban canyon, all the while housing swank new Ann Taylor Lofts and C.J. Banks clothiers. This was a shopping Nirvana for someone, a place where you could pick up a Yankee Candle, grab a copy of the new Michael Chabon book at Borders, and choke down a sandwich at Red Robin all in an afternoon.
We had no idea where the concert was being held — the only music we heard was Shania being pumped out the green Bose ground speakers buried beneath colorful, tasteful bits of landscaping. Just as we turned a corner, we were hit by a wall of noise. There in the parking lot outside of Hy-Vee was the enormous stage surrounded by suburban white America. On that stage, the size of ants, were presumably The B-52s belting out another in a series of bland party songs that they’ve become known for.
We made our way through an army of strollers to the other side of the crowd, where the tops of vendor tents pushed through the T-shirted, flip-flop-wearing mob. I hadn’t eaten all day and was dying for something/anything, settling for a pair of $5 Hy-Vee Bratwursts that tasted like the best Bratwursts I’ve ever eaten. From our vantage point a good 150 yards from the stage we were still way too far to be able to see anything other than Fred Schneider’s gay head in front of the black backdrop. Still, even from all the way back there, the sound was painfully loud. Waves of shrill high-end rolled over the sea of 10,000 warm-blooded natural sound barriers who weren’t so much pre-occupied with what was going on on stage as trying to find out where they could find the cheap, plastic First National Bank cushions that were being used as ad hoc flying discs. Schneider, realizing that whatever was flipping through the air in front of the stage was too puffy to be a Frisbee asked, “What are you throwing at each other? Toilet seats?” It was one of those kind of days, a huge family event designed to get mom and dad and baby out of the house at least for one evening to see an old band they remembered from their college days, back when they were still hip. It was kind of like a Memorial Park concert, except no one had spread blankets over the cold hard pavement.
The B-52s sounded as good as I ever heard them on record, ripping through old hits like “Roam” and “Love Shack.” I’ve never seen them live, and can only imagine what they must have been like back in their Athens hey-day in the early ’80s, playing clubs like the 40 Watt — Athen’s version of O’Leaver’s. Now that sounds like fun. A lot more fun than seeing them rip through their AM radio hits while commenting, “Your new mall is so beautiful,” and “Shop safe!” and “There must be a Papillion people out there!”
For some reason, they thought it would be a good idea to announce before every new song that they were going to play a new song. The comment resulted in a chorus of “uhhhs” from in the crowd. These families only wanting to hear “the good songs.” (In fact, after they played “Love Shack” — about three-quarters through their set — a fleet of strollers headed back to their SUVS.) Well, if they liked Cosmic Thing, they didn’t have anything to complain about. The B-52s new songs sounded like they were lifted right from that album. In fact, they’re even more commercially focused then those old singles. You can’t hear a song like “Let’s Get This Party Started” with its roll-call of cities — “Bostons! Houston! Omaha! LA!” — and not think that these guys cashed in years ago. Their new music was created solely to generate marketing possibilities. These days it’s not about writing a hit song, it’s about having your song used to introduce a new line of Pontiacs or a new, improved brand of fabric softner — a form of exploitation that bands like The B-52s do oh so well. Who knows how many Lincoln-Mercury-Plymouth dealers used “Roam” as the soundtrack to their TV ads boasting “0 Percent down, 0 Percent financing”?
After about an hour — which I spent leaning against a light poll — the band buttoned up their set, quickly coming back on stage for their encore, which included the song I came to hear. Yes, they may be commercial hacks. Yes, their ’90s-era music may be cheesy and uninspired, but this band still has it. Schneider talk-sings as well as ever, and the Pierson/Wilson harmonies never sounded better. If ever a band needed someone like Rick Rubin to bring them back to their roots — to the innovative party music heard on their debut — it’s The B-52s. Instead, they’ll be content making a living opening shopping malls (I bet their guarantee was $100k) and playing 4th of July city park concerts, hoping against all hope that Madison Avenue can figure out a way to use their latest release in a toilet paper commercial. “Watch out for that piranha!”
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After the 52’s it was down to The Saddle Creek Bar for The Cripple Lilies, where I was surprised to find about 40 people on hand, a few who were there to actually see the band (and two people — yes, two! — who came on my recommendation). I felt like I disappointed them. The band struggled with the sound system for about 10 minutes before they played, complaining that they couldn’t hear themselves, but eventually saying, “It’s okay, we’ll just sing louder.” Instead of playing songs off their new CD, they played mostly older, alt-country rock-inspired material. They played only three songs off their new record during their brief, 30-minute set. Disappointing. I spent the rest of the evening talking to the band outside the venue, where frontman Chad Bishop explained that they couldn’t play their “mellower” stuff because of the sound system and the feedback on stage, which I guess was only noticeable from the stage itself, because I couldn’t hear it from the floor.
OK, here something that can only be called crazy fanaticism: The band’s guitarist — also from Pensacola — apparently spent the afternoon walking around the neighborhood west of the SCB trying to find Happy Hollow Blvd. He’s a huge Cursive fan and was dying to see the street that inspired their latest album. He’s an even bigger Criteria fan. When I told him that Stephen Pedersen lived only a few blocks away, he practically swooned. He never found Happy Hollow, by the way, apparently giving up only a few blocks away from it. It gave me the idea of perhaps putting together a Star Map of Saddle Creek celebrity homes or buying a double-decker tour bus: “To my left, the home of The Finks — Orenda and Todd. Darn, looks like they’re not home, folks. Over here, the original home of Conor Oberst. No idea who the lucky indie kids are that live there now, but you just gotta believe they’re soaking in the residual creativity… Next stop, ARC Studios and then onto the home of Beep Beep’s Chris Hughes!” Imagine the ohs and ahs.
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Interesting Bright Eyes news. Apparently Conor got some help on the opening gig of his seven sold-out nights at Town Hall in NYC. According to this New York Times review by rock critic legend Jon Pareles, joining him on stage was none other than Mr. New York Rocker himself, Lou Reed, who performed “Waiting for the Man” and “Dirty Blvd.” backed by Conor and Co. Who will be their special guests for the rest of the shows? Paul Simon? Bowie? David Johanssen?
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There’s an interesting little show tonight at O’Leaver’s: Washington D.C. indie band Deleted Scenes with Bear Country and Dance Me Pregnant. Not bad for a Monday night. $5, 9 p.m.
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