Better than Ezra may be more than a hardworking, nice-guy band permanently fated to be overshadowed by more significant artists.
By Brett Milano
One weekend from now (on May 3), New Orleans rockers Better Than Ezra are playing a coveted, headline-hour slot at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Here’s the catch: They’re directly opposite Bruce Springsteen, the slot of death for a meat-and-potatoes rock band. That about sums up the way I’ve always seen the Ezras: As a hardworking, nice-guy band permanently fated to be overshadowed by more significant artists.
But maybe it’s time for a re-think, if their show at the Paradise in Boston this week — part of a mini-tour before the New Orleans splurge — was any indication. The hardworking nice-guy part still stands; you don’t often see a band hanging out onstage to shake hands for three minutes after their encore finishes. But the audience was bigger (sold out), younger and more fervent than you might expect for a band that had its radio hits more than a decade ago. It was the kind of night where the right material (the three or four memorable songs from each album), the right sound (power chords plus melody) and the right spirit turns a perennially okay band into…well, better than okay.
Guitarist/singer Kevin Griffin also shed some light on the band’s little-known Boston roots; turns out that he and bassist Tom Drummond lived on Commonwealth Avenue for awhile after graduating from Louisiana State University; he was a valet at Davio’s on Newbury and the band played a few times at the Rat and the Channel. He recalled seeing the band James at the Paradise in 1989 before covering their hit “Laid”; also covered on Thursday was the Proclaimers’ “500 Miles.” No remotely trendy band would dream of covering these songs, which is why it was a kick to hear them.
And two things about this band are flat-out great. One is their drummer, Michael Jerome. A fairly recent addition from 2009, Jerome stands out in a few ways: They’re white and he’s black, they’re competent players and he’s a virtuoso. Jerome’s played with some of the best, namely Richard Thompson and John Cale, and he used his considerable chops to toughen up the Ezras: He drove them forward on the rockers and on the moodier numbers, he used tambourines and woodblocks to play drum machine-like parts with a real groove. If a band’s only as good as its drummer, the Ezras took a quantum leap when they added this guy.
The other ace up their sleeve is their greatest hit, “Desperately Wanting,” the final encore on Thursday. For an angst-ridden, post-grunge ballad it’s up there with Buffalo Tom’s “Taillights Fade” — Both songs are about failed connections and missed opportunities, both have expressive vocals and melodic hooks that ooze with yearning. It’s the perfect vehicle for Griffin’s earnest voice and he sang the hell out of it Thursday, stretching it to ten minutes without overstaying its welcome.
To their credit, they haven’t made any attempts to clone that song. On Thursday they played a few tunes from their next album (All Together Now, due in July) and all were lighter in tone, dealing with grown-up concerns of family and long-term relationships. One song, “Insane,” was downright goofy, with Prince-style helium-high vocals, and with Griffin quoting Enistein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So there’s no insanity in Better Than Ezra: For them, the same old results will work just fine.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.