There's a big difference between being a good musician and a good performer. It's not that you can't be both (Craig Finn of the Hold Steady is a great example or a little-known guitarist named Bruce Springsteen), but they're two different skills.
You're not going to find a review of Jack's Mannequin on most music snob media like Pitchfork or Stereogum. But while Jack's Mannequin may not make the highest quality music out there, they're some of the best performers I've ever seen.
That intro makes them sound like they're dressing up in crazy costumes like Kiss or doing Flaming Lips theatrics, but that's not the story here. Lead singer/songwriter/pianist Andrew McMahon is just a very charismatic person that loves what he does. He's not that old of a guy--just 27--but he's been performing on major stages for a decade now as the frontman of punk rock band Something Corporate and then as his "side project," the more tamed-down Jack's Mannequin. He said on Friday night that he and his bandmates tour some 200 days out of the year. "I've been doing this for a f***ing decade," he said, sounding incredulous at the longevity, then went on to explain that there's absolutely nothing he'd rather do (excuse the explicitness. He has a very...colorful...vocabulary).
Maybe that's what makes a great rock performer: someone who is actually having fun and grateful for his fans.
One more background anecdote, then I promise I'll review the concert. Maybe Andrew is grateful for his fans and his chance to make a career out of music because he almost lost it all. Not just drama within a band or record label--he almost lost a battle with cancer just a few years ago. After two very successful (in the punk rock genre and crossing over into pop) albums with Something Corporate, he took a break to record songs for his new side project Jack's Mannequin. Three months before the first album, Everything In Transit was due out, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Just 22 at the time and the most popular he'd ever been musically, it nearly killed him and kept him off the music scene for nearly a year.
This is the time when a band would be touring on a new album, but Everything In Transit sold itself without those tours. Throughout all of this, Andrew instead became a champion for raising money to cure leukemia (and he still does a ton for the cause with his own nonprofit the Dear Jack Foundation).
So he's more than just a punk rocker. Five minutes into a concert, you can tell that this guy has something to prove and something to live for. He's grateful for his life, music and every single one of his fans. And it shows.
Not to mention, the second and latest Jack's Mannequin album, The Glass Passenger (2008) is thematically nearly entirely about the joy of being alive. In "Swim" he sings:
"You gotta swim,
Swim for your life
Swim for the music that saves you
When you're not so sure you'll survive."
In "Caves," he even sings directly about being deathly ill:
"Beat my body like a rag doll
you stuck the needles in my hip
Said 'we're not gonna lie
Son, you just might die
Get you on that morphine drip, drip.'"
When he's playing these songs live, you can see that he really means these lyrics. I'm honestly amazed that he can get up on a stage in front of a thousand strangers every night and sing about such personal issues, but he knows that he was made to be a musician and to tell his story.
Friday's show was a mix of old songs and new songs. Andrew said that this tour served "to put The Glass Passenger to bed," but he played an equal mix of new and old. I'm partial to the first album, so I was happy about this.
I must say that I think the first time I saw Jack's three years ago, he put on a slightly better show. It could be because I was in the front row last time, or maybe he just likes Portland more than Kansas City (although unlikely because he was raving about this audience), or maybe he was grateful to be on one of his first tours since recovering. In 2007 he played a fantastic mix of Jack's songs, a cover or two, and quite a few Something Corporate songs, which was an anomaly at the time since the band was in a hiatus. He's also brilliant at relating to the audience and honestly telling stories about where the songs came from and any history of the music. There wasn't quite as much banter this time, just high-energy music.
And no Something Corporate tunes, which he explained was because the band will be reuniting for a few shows and a couple days in the studio revamping old songs late this spring. That's all good and well, but I was hoping for another live version of "She Paints Me Blue" transitioning into "Dark Blue" like the 2007 Roseland Theater show.
He still related to the audience so much, even taking a request for "Miss California." He said they're picky about requests, only taking those they want to play, but he was in the mood to play this song about his home state. He also did his traditional stamping on the Baldwin grand and jumping into the crowd--he is a punk rocker after all.
One of the best comments of the night was when Andrew was talking about how he'd been watching the Olympics out in his tour bus before his set. He turned on the tv, excited to see what sport was on, and it was ice dancing, which he wasn't too keen on (I second that one as I turned on the tv tonight to the third night in a row of ice dancing). He talked about how the Russians were getting good scores, so he proceeded to dedicate the next song, "Crashing," to them. Well played.
The crowd was really energetic and into it all night, but they shut up when the band launched into a cover of U2's "New Year's Day." There were quite a few younger kids there, but come on, I wasn't alive when this song came out and I know it. Plus, the audience wasn't that one-sided age-wise. Jack's played a fairly good version of the classic, and Bobby Anderson even kept up with the Edge's crazy guitar licks.
The opening bands also held their own--first Vedera and then Fun. Vedera was alright, nothing too special, but they deserve great thanks because as a Kansas City band, they're probably the reason the Sing for Your Supper Tour (it's formal name) even stopped here instead of Omaha, St. Louis, Tulsa, or the countless other options within a couple hundred miles.
Fun was...wait for it...fun. Cliche, but really that's the best way to describe them. This branch-off from a former Format member put on a very high-energy performance, showcasing their classic pop songs. I'll be looking into them more now that I've seen them live.
I started this post by saying that Andrew McMahon is a great performer and differentiating that from being a great musician, but I don't want to discredit his musical talent. He's not the most talented musician I've seen in concert by any means, but he is quite a pianist. The piano is an instrument frequently ignored or downplayed, so to bring it to the forefront, especially in the punk genre, is admirable. And he does it with great skill. Not to mention, he's also a brilliant writer of pop songs, something easier said than done. I'm not a huge punk fan anymore, but I can still respect his music and definitely his performances. And long live any modern pop pianist (i.e. pretty much just him, Ben Folds, and a few Coldplay songs. Ok, that's harsh, but pianists aren't hit-makers these days).
Here's a bad-quality clip of "Holiday From Real" off of the Everything In Transit album:
And the U2 cover, "New Year's Day":
And while we're a this video-embedding business, here's the preview for the video that Andrew recorded exposéing his battle with cancer. I haven't seen it, looks pretty intense. I admire the guy just for wanting to tell his story though.