Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Carl Smith
“Skinny jeans, vasectomies, memory loss. I mean, who are we?” were the first words that Stephen Clair sang last Saturday night.
Back in the ’90s, Clair (aka Steve Ferguson) was a major mover ‘n’ shaker on the Albany music scene, playing in a variety of bands (Glaze, Cactus Loveseat, Wag, Sabotage & the Wrecking Crew, to name a few), publishing books of poetry, editing and publishing the audio-cassette magazine Talk Work, running the Central Avenue music venue Godfrey’s and more.
After rumbling around the country, he finally settled just downriver, where he’s ignited a vibrant music scene in Beacon – not only as a musician, but also as a concert producer (as Local 845) and music school founder/teacher (Beacon Music Factory).
Last weekend, when Clair returned to Albany for his first concert in recent memory, he was almost unrecognizable as he stepped out onstage at the Steamer No. 10 Theatre. But, yes, that was him wielding his guitar under underneath a wild-maned, electric blue woman’s wig.
No, he hasn’t gone glam…
“So they should have never turned us loose in the costume room,” he admitted somewhat sheepishly after the opening volley of “Love Makes Us Weird,” the title track of his new album.
Of course, the Steamer is best known as the home of children’s theater productions, and the theater’s upstairs costume shop doubles as the dressing room for concert events. The out-of-the-ordinary options are almost irresistible to musicians with even a modicum of imagination and free-spiritedness, as evidenced by the rather unusual look of Clair and his Millionaires bandmates. Drummer Todd Giudice sported a derby and a bright red scarf, while bassist Christopher Peifer (who you may also know as the bass man with Guy Lyons’ Blockhouses) was thrumming up a storm beneath a British Bobby’s helmet.
With a new album and a new band, you might expect that Clair would be in a hey-this-is-what-I’ve-been-doing-lately mood in front of his hometown fans, and indeed, SC&M served up more than half of the pointed, personal, powerful tunes from Love Makes Us Weird. But he also dug deep into his catalog (all the way to his 1997 album, Altoona Hotel, for the expansive “Open Window”) and all points inbetween.
For a shorthand description, Clair’s vocal delivery and acute songwriting talents fall into the realm of James McMurtry-meets-Ray Davies-with-a-dash-of-Lou Reed, but that really doesn’t explain it all. He served up perhaps his smart, closest-thing-to-a-hit “Jen in Her Underwear,” the rockabilly boogie of “Following Orders,” the superb and deceptively simple-sounding “Lemonade,” the twang-laced drawl of “The Wild Goose” and the impossibly forlorn “How Am I to Know” (featuring lyrics culled verbatim from the letters of Franz Kafka). Obviously, Clair is not your typical indie rocker…
Soul-rockin’, loop-happy, falsetto-gifted Bryan Thomas opened the show with a 50-minute, solo-on-electric guitar, all-too-rare performance that proved once again that he’s still simply the best singer-songwriter in the Local 518. Period.
If any more illumination is needed, I’ll add that Thomas hasn’t released a new disc since his marvelous 2011 EP, Smash to Pieces, and that’s just criminal. And more to the point, his eight-song set at Steamer No. 10 consisted of eight stellar new songs. New, as in written within the past 18 months. You can find videos of his opening “Down” and his stunning, looptastic, doo wop-meets-gospel, a cappella closer “When,” but the rest of his Steamer repertoire – which delved unflinchingly into such thorny issues as race, personal relationships and the pretty moms of Delmar – is apparently unrecorded.
Will somebody please tell this guy how Kickstarter works? I’m ready to pledge a $100 right now…
NOTE: Stephen Clair & the Millionaires are slated to play at the Falcon in Marlboro at 7pm on Saturday, December 6. Bryan Thomas is scheduled to perform at Saratoga City Center at 6 & 9pm on Wednesday, December 31 as part of Saratoga First Night.
STEPHEN CLAIR & THE MILLIONAIRES SET LIST
Love Makes Us Weird
Jen in Her Underwear
Lucky As Can Be
Long Lost Friend
Coney Island Sugar Cane
The Wild Goose
Don’t Give Me That look
How Am I to Know
I Like the Way We Fight
You Don’t Talk to Me
I’m Coming Down