Still Squeezing Out Sparks: Graham Parker and The Rumour, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, MN, 12/19/12

Graham Parker and The Rumour stormed ashore in the spring of 1976, the vanguard of a new British Invasion that would later include Elvis Costello, The Sex Pistols, and other punk and new wave bands. But Parker and The Rumour were different. Their sound – a potent mix of soul, r ‘n b and reggae, layered over a solid bar band rock ‘n roll foundation – was a throwback to an earlier era, a fulfillment of Parker’s desire for a band that sounded like “The Rolling Stones backing Bob Dylan.”

Despite widespread critical acclaim, a rabid fan base and a string of outstanding records, Parker and The Rumour parted ways after their 1980 release, “The Up Escalator.” GP decided to pursue a solo career and, although various members of The Rumour would occasionally show up on his records, the full band never got back together until earlier this year. Uber-fan Judd Apatow sought out Parker to appear with his old band in his new movie, “This Is 40,” playing the part of an aging rock group (typecasting, I believe that’s called). Apparently, things clicked when the old pub rockers got together and there’s now a brand new Graham Parker and The Rumour CD out, titled “Three Chords Good,” as well as this recently-completed 15-city tour.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being the final date on a band’s tour. On the one hand, the merch table was pretty well picked over. “Nothing left but some very large T-shirts and a few keychains,” Parker quipped. But, we didn’t come for the swag, we came for the music, and on that score the evening was a stunning success.

Opening with “Fools’ Gold,” the last track on “Heat Treatment,” it was clear that the band had worked out whatever kinks there may have been early on in the tour. Guitarists Brinsley Schwarz (on the gold Les Paul) and Martin Belmont (on the turquoise Strat) mixed in complementary fills (and never once switched out guitars the entire night), while bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Stephen Goulding pushed the rhythm, and Bob Andrews added appropriate flourishes on the B-3 and electric piano. Sticking with “Heat Treatment,” the band stepped up the tempo a bit with the randy, rollicking “Hotel Chambermaid.” Graham Parker’s voice was strong, although like many rock singers on the downward side of middle age, he tends to go down register where, on the early records, his voice went up. The camaraderie among the band members was strong and they were clearly in good spirits, exchanging smiles across the stage with each other throughout the evening.

Proving that age has not mellowed his sharp tongue, Parker introduced two songs off the new CD next: the reggae-tinged “Snake Oil Capital Of The World,” and “Coathangers,” a song about . . . freedom of choice, shall we say? Returning to more familiar territory with “I’ll Never Play Jacksonville Again” – an early show highlight – Parker followed that rocker with “Thunder And Rain” from the 1977 release, “Stick To Me.” Before starting that song, however, he told a story about coming to Minneapolis for the first time back in 1976, when the band traveled in a big station wagon “And two of us had to sit looking out the rear window.” He remarked about how cold it was and how they all marveled about how human beings could actually live in that climate. Fortunately for us, he’s never written “I’ll Never Play Minneapolis Again,” and, in fact, he has returned here every summer for the past several years to play a free solo show on or about Bastille Day (that’s July 14, for you non-Francophiles) at a local pub.

Acknowledging that he was in the home theater of A Prairie Home Companion, Parker introduced “Old Soul” from the new album by making a pitch to the audience to petition Garrison Keillor to invite him on the show. “This song would be perfect for the Prairie Home Companion,” he said, half in jest, but entirely truthful, as it turned out. The slower tempo number, with Goulding switching to brushes and Andrews contributing a brief, soulful turn on the B-3, would certainly go over well with the PHC crowd.

After playing the single off the new release, (“Long Emotional Ride”), Parker and the band went back to the roots, launching into the title track to their 1976 debut, “Howlin’ Wind.” Returning to the old song seemed to invigorate Parker and he was more animated during the song than he had been to that point. He twitched and jerked in time to the scratchy reggae riffing of Belmont & Schwarz and the crowd ate it up. Instead of building on that enthusiasm, however, he returned to the new material for the next couple of numbers, “Live In Shadows” and “A Lie Gets You Halfway Round The World.” Good stuff, but we were ready to get back to the classics.

Return they did, starting slowly with “Watch The Moon Come Down,” then picking up the tempo with the trilogy of “Discovering Japan,” “Nobody Hurts You,” and “Protection,” all from 1979’s “Squeezing Out Sparks.” “Stupefaction,” from “The Up Escalator” broke the string, but GP and the Band went right back to the wonderful “SOS” album to close out the set with “Local Girls.”

Encore # 1 started with another new song, “That Moon Was Low,” a country-tinged number that cried out for a pedal steel guitar, with Parker once again plugging it for a spot on A Prairie Home Companion. Returning again to the reliable “Squeezing” release for “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” it became clear that the crowd would not settle for just these 2 songs.

Encore # 2 was, in many ways, the highlight of a very fine evening. With the crowd already on its feet, Parker & Co. started out with the reggae-fied final track from “Howlin’ Wind,” “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” then pounded out a hard rocking version of “Soul Shoes,” followed by the frenetic “New York Shuffle.” Then, just as Schwarz and Belmont began removing their guitars, with the audience howling, stomping, whistling and clapping, Parker called an audible and the band regrouped and launched into their spectacular version of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Where, in prepubescent Michael’s hands, the song is a bouncy, wistful lament about puppy love gone awry, in Parker and The Rumour’s version it becomes the earnest plea of a man who realizes he’s made a terrible mistake and pleads for his lover to return. With Bob Andrews’ glissando slides down the keyboard leading the crescendo to the chorus, The Rumour’s rendition is a much more potent remake than the original. The Fitz was rockin’, the crowd was singing along, and the band was stoking the fire. It was a sensational finale – and it had to be the finale, because anything after that would have been a letdown. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another 32 years for the next Graham Parker & The Rumour reunion tour. Until then, remember: only 205 days till Bastille Day!

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