What Better Than Ezra is (and I hope most of what they always wanted to be), is a superior brand of college rockin’, party lovin’, good-time havin’ band with a lead singer whose heart is attracted to bittersweetness but whose ear craves candy.
A band can’t cut its teeth in New Orleans without knowing how to make sure you have fun.
Kevin Griffin’s lyrics can be hit and miss, but even in his darker moments, he knows a few drinks, a few power chords, and a few strangers groovin’ to the beat can do a lot of healing. “King of New Orleans” is an uptempo jangly rocker about partiers who beat up a homeless teen. “Alison Foley” is about that hopelessly alluring gal pal who will can’t grow up. “A Lifetime” is about the death of a high school friend on the way to her graduation. Song after BTE song revolves around tough or hard-knock stories, but you come away from them with some strange sense of hope, of gratitude that your story carries on. That’s what I love about them, this romantic approach to What Doesn’t Kill You Makes A Good Pop Song.
Apparently “college rock” is what they used to call “alternative.” By the time Better Than Ezra’s name spread past Louisiana, “college rock” was a dinosaur term, and it’s a damn shame, because BTE is the last of the great college rock bands. I’ve seen them three times in three completely different venues, including once in an open-air festival before the 2005 Final Four in St. Lous, and every time they brought the magic.
Some bands are beloved live because they are up there doing something musically special. Something about the creative energy, or the teamwork, or the sheer talent, that makes the viewer know she is privileged to be a witness. But some bands just make you happy to be alive. At these concerts, you’re not so much a witness as part of the party.
All three times I saw BTE, at or toward the end of their set, they did something that guaranteed I would be a fan.
Many bands pull audience members on the stage for one thing or another. Mostly it’s just to let them stand there and get sung to. Bono regularly does it, and so does Carrie Underwood, but the tradition is older than Prince or Ozzy or the video for “Dancing in the Dark.” But I don’t recall another band who, as their evening in the spotlight is wrapping up, invites an audience member onto the stage to actually play an instrument with the band. But BTE does.
They ask for someone who knows one of the greats from their first album, “This Time of Year.” They hand the guy (or I guess it could have been a girl, but I never saw that) an plugged-in acoustic and let him go at it. And he plays with them the whole song.
It’s not a complicated song. A few picked chords and four strumming chords make the whole song. It’s so simple that it’s one of the first six songs I taught myself to play. And I’m not good. At all.
The first time I saw this happen, I was nervous, for the band and for the guy selected to get up in front of the whole crowd. By the third time, I was confident things would go well, but the act still held its charm. The act is an intentional, symbolic statement by the band that the audience helps determine the quality of a BTE show. It’s a statement that the artists and the fans are in it together, and I love bands and musicians who value their patrons.
Every time I left their show, within 24 hours I’d picked up my guitar and played my trusty six songs until my fingers hurt. Which didn’t take long, ‘cuz I never play much. Not only does a moment like that show Better Than Ezra’s opinions of their fans, but it also reminds the witnesses that the biggest differences between musicians and their fans are blood, sweat and tears.
Do you want it? Then pick up that guitar, kid. It can all begin with four little chords.
G… C… D… Em