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ROUGH AROUND THE EDGES

The Wallflowers/Union County Performing Arts Center, Rahway, N.J./Dec. 29, 2012

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The Wallflowers have regrouped with yet another new lineup and impressive album after a seven-year recording hiatus, but an awkward moment during their recent show in New Jersey seemed telling with regard to how the band is faring at melding its past and present.

Singer/guitarist Jakob Dylan completely blanked on the second verse of the new track “Misfits and Lovers,” and while the band played on, he asked the audience to help provide the lines that escaped him. Apparently no assistance was forthcoming, and Dylan moved on to the chorus.
After the song ended, he playfully chided the crowd for failing to bail him out, saying, “It’s not so easy when the spotlight’s on you.”

As it turned out, there were numerous not-so-easy moments for The Wallflowers during the nearly two-hour performance. Granted, the lyrical flub was minor, but it did raise the possibility of whether the band’s ambitious material from the new Glad All Over album is a bit too busy; much of it finds the group incorporating the new wrinkle of loops and other effects, and a few such numbers, “Misfits and Lovers” included, have lyrics that amounted to a mouthful for Dylan to handle, and he had difficulty projecting over the jumble of sounds. The new approach clearly served The Wallflowers well in the studio, but in this setting it cluttered the mix more than once, particularly in such a stately old theater that seemed to favor more acoustic sounds.

It wasn’t just a handful of the new tunes that sounded a little rough. Throw in Dylan’s tendency to treat older offerings with off-kilter vocal phrasing, the fact that he is the rhythm guitarist yet barely touches his Fender Telecaster during many songs, and new drummer Jack Irons‘ sometimes scattershot time-keeping, and the result was a clunky rendering of “Sleepwalker,” which, when executed well, is the closest The Wallflowers get to straight-ahead, glistening guitar pop.

There were positives to speak of, particularly when it came to older selections. “6th Avenue Heartache,” a 1996 hit that Dylan has said dates to 1988, was given a new sheen, thanks to an accordion solo from keyboardist Rami Jaffee and a guest spot from violinist Gina Romantini of the precocious opening act, Trapper Schoepp & The Shades. Later, a note-perfect version of “One Headlight” was an undeniable crowd-pleaser. And while Dylan came off as alarmingly stiff at times, his lack of energy was more than offset by the whirling Jaffee, who was either bouncing around behind his organ or crouching into a karate-like pose and attacking the keys with sideways jabs.

Still, the strongest portion of the set was the most understated. Midway through, a succession of lesser-known ballads, all at least a decade old — “Closer to You,” “Witness,” “Baby Bird” and “Josephine” — formed a melancholy sequence that risked alienating casual fans. But the mellower numbers allowed breathing room for Stuart Mathis‘ subtle, colorful ripples of electric guitar, and for Dylan’s smoky rasp to be clearly audible, providing a reminder that his is the instrument that has always best defined The Wallflowers’ sound.

— By George Henn