The BoDeans Reinvent Themselves at City Winery
It never hurts to reinvent yourself, especially if your band’s been around for practically thirty years, as is the case with heartland rock legends the BoDeans. In this particular instance, that became a necessity in the wake of the departure of longtime co-frontman Sam Llanas. Last night at City Winery, this new version of the BoDeans led by lead guitarist Kurt Neumann proved to be a potently tight, road-tested machine, methodically churning out a mix of old concert favorites along with new songs from their recent album American Made. That there are four additional band members in Llanas’ place – returning original keyboardist Michael Ramos, fiddler Warren Hood, second guitarist Jake Owen and percussionist/harmony singer Alex Marrerro – speaks volumes to his role in the band.
From the opening notes of the catchy yet enigmatic anthem Stay On, Neumann set the tone with his signature terse, echoing, sustained lead lines, providing an example that his new bandmates followed with a mix of rigor and inspiration. Yet as strong as the playing was, there was something missing. Neumann’s sardonic, often distant persona was always balanced by Llanas’ dark, earthy charisma and wry sense of humor, and those elements went lacking, most audibly when Neumann reached for the bottom of his vocal register as the show reached a high point with the big crowd-pleasers Fadeaway and Still the Night. Much as he tried, Neumann never loosened to the point where he could evoke the mix of longing and ectasy that Llanas so effortlessly conjured, especially in concert.
But Neumann remains a strong songwriter, in more of a rock/powerpop vein than the country-influenced Llanas. Choosing such a traditional, rootsy lineup to play Neumann’s big, often atmospheric anthems turned out to be a strikingly original and effective move. The new songs were generally strong, notably the Johnny Cash-influenced Flyaway – which Neumann described as being “about finding liberation in incarceration” – and the new depression narrative America, a plea for solidarity that serves as the new album’s title track. The older material often benefited from this treatment as well. The fiddle in tandem with the accordion revisited the original rustic quality of older favorites like Dreams and Angels, and gave the sarcastic suburban narrative Paradise a welcome rawness. Other reinventions weren’t as successful. Trying to turn Llanas’ brooding Ballad of Jenny Rae into a straight-ahead anthem lost the haunting quality of the original, and reprising the Texas shuffle beat of Texas Ride Song several times throughout the show became tiresome quickly. And Idaho, the allusively alienated narrative that’s perhaps Neumann’s finest song, lacked both the crushing subtlety and tongue-in-cheek exuberance that Llanas would bring to it.
Yet this band succeeds on their own terms. As they wound up the set with a rustically tinged version of the 90s sitcom theme Closer to Free, the surprisingly young crowd responded with a boisterous enthusiasm seldom seen at shows by acts of this vintage. That Neumann, now fifty but not showing his age, would remain such a vital presence is something to be grateful for.