The band was still Television and often as not, still magnificent.
By Brett Milano
If you saw the recent movie CBGB — which you should definitely not do — you at least got a glimpse of how an early Television soundcheck, circa 1975 might have looked: The band is brainy, dour, and unduly obsessed with getting every little sound just right. They’re already reaching for transcendence even though they’re quite literally in the gutter. At least the otherwise-silly movie got that part right.
Still inscrutable after all these years, the band hit the Paradise this week on one of its rare tours (They’ve maintained an on-off existence in recent decades, though when they actually broke up or reunited is anyone’s guess). And for the first time since 1975, when founding member Richard Hell jumped ship, there’s been a personnel change: Co-lead guitarist Richard Lloyd, whose interplay with frontman Tom Verlaine is arguably the key to Television’s sound, is now out of the lineup, replaced by Jimmy Rip (who served in Verlaine’s solo band before doing sessions with Mick Jagger and others). Even for those who’ve seen Lloyd perform solo in recent years, and know how erratic he’s become onstage, sending Television out with a ringer looked like sacrilege.
Not to worry, however: The band was still Television and often as not, still magnificent. As always the band operates in its own orbit, always playing in a state of intense concentration — no stage patter at all, and not enough stage light to give you a clear look at anyone’s face. The two-guitar sound remains austere, with open space practically being part of this lineup. The celebratory moments still connect — “See No Evil” is the great rock anthem that never was — but they come in between the headier stretches. Rip was given the night’s first solo (on “1880 Or So,” the sole contribution from 1993’s self-titled reunion album) and lived up to his name: He plugged nicely into Lloyd’s role as loose-cannon soloist, offsetting Verlaine’s more elegant leads. And they managed the old Television trick of merging two guitars into a single, shimmering one.
Save for the ‘90s opener, everything in the set was either very old or very new. They’ve lately toured Europe playing the 1978 debut Marquee Moon in its entirety and while the album wasn’t done in order at the Paradise, all but one song was played along with “Little Johnny Jewel” (originally a two-part, pre-album 45), also done were two songs from an in-progress album (and contrary to tradition, no closing cover tune). And the set was overall more improvisational than the last tours with Lloyd, including a trio of 15-minute epics in “Marquee Moon,” “Little Johnny Jewel” and the new, heavily abstract “Persia.” In these cases it wasn’t about recapturing a heyday, but seeing where the songs could be taken on this particular night. It was exploratory, and that’s a word you almost never get to use about a 35-year-old-band.
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, the performing alias of singer/songwriter Aly Spaltro, has earned some fairly passionate local fans (including the late scene booster Billy Ruane), and at the Paradise she was confident enough to do her first song in the dark and a cappella. Though she’s not big on obvious hooks or choruses, her spectral voice draws you in, and she’s good with poetic images (like this from an otherwise upbeat song about a walk through the woods: “The trees look like my grandmother’s hands/ When she took off her wedding band”). But as she always performs on electric guitar without a band, the only question is whether a full-length set would prove as compelling as a tight 25 minutes were on Monday.
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.