Graham Parker Draws Capacity Crowd, Lindsey Buckingham, Ryan Adams to L.A. Show (Concert Review)

Chris Willman
The British singer and his beloved late-'70s band The Rumour generate "Sparks" with a thrilling show.

The singer's reunion with his beloved late-'70s band was not just a rumor spread in Judd Apatow's "This Is 40," as the crew played the packed Roxy for the first time in 33 years.

The least credible moment of Judd Apatow’s new comedy This Is 40 comes when Graham Parker & the Rumour stage an L.A. reunion concert after 30-plus years and only about a hundred fairly passive fans show up. The lie was put to that by Tuesday night’s actual reunion gig at the Roxy, which couldn’t have less resembled the shambolic filmic premonition, particularly in its status as the month’s toughest ticket.

True, the deck was stacked by the fact that Parker’s opening acts were Lindsey Buckingham and Ryan Adams -- making for arguably the most potent triple bill the storied venue had ever hosted, not to mention an overcrowded marquee that surely prompted plenty of near-disastrous double-takes on Sunset Boulevard. But even if the show hadn’t been billed as a This Is 40 release party, the promise of Parker reuniting with the bandmates of his late-'70s salad days would have been the draw of the season for rock fans of a certain age -- even if that age would be better suited toward a soundtrack for This Is 50-ish.

The Apatow film makes a big point out of being deprecating toward Parker as well as celebrating him, with plenty of old-age jokes directed by unsympathetic younger characters toward the 62-year-old singer whose career Paul Rudd’s character is trying to resurrect. (Yes, the day has arrived when “gout” gags are directed at your new-wave heroes.) Not just Parker but all the Rumour members indeed returned to the Roxy as gray-hairs -- except for bare-headed bassist Andrew Bodnar -- but the flame still burned as red as it did when the combo last played the club on the Squeezing Out Sparks tour of 1979, when Parker was wrongly but understandably seen as competing with Elvis Costello for pre-eminent Angry Sneering Young Brit status.


Although rightly regarded as one of the great albums of the late '70s, Squeezing Out Sparks was a bit of a blip for Parker, whose influences before and after veered more toward Van Morrison than anything quite as punkish as that album’s sound indicated. But that’s the material fans were most hankering to hear from this crew -- and they wisely saved all those sparkplugs for the Roxy climax, even if the deliberately more subdued first stretch of the set might’ve had a few audience members wondering if they still had it in ‘em.

Of 22 songs played, six came from the band’s new reunion album, Three Chords Good, while 16 dated to the 1976-80 period when the Rumour was backing Parker. That left only one number from the 32 intervening years, a “mid-period” whose material Parker joked was “a mystery” to his old mates. (That was a bit of an exaggeration, since two Rumour members had played on the album that produced “Get Started, Start a Fire,” the lone track that Parker brought out from his so-called solo years.)

PHOTOS: Six Degrees of Judd Apatow

During the 110-minute show, Parker did just enough comic reminiscing to make you believe he could have added some decent improv to This Is 40. He recalled the band’s earliest shows at the club circa 1976-77, one of which had a manager knocking him off his feet with some well-intended Maui Wowee, only to be told as he stumbled onstage that luminaries including Diana Ross and Joe Cocker were in the audience. “Who was here?” Parker asked the crowd. When there was only the tiniest smatter of whooping, he quipped: “That’s good. Young people.”

He also made light of his '80s work, which found him enjoying greater commercial success even as his critical support went slightly south. “As we all know, the '80s were the best period for music. … Even I had half a haircut. And even Bruce Springsteen danced like this,” he added, swaying his arms from side to side in a devastating parody of the Boss’ “Dancing in the Dark” moves.

He had a better evaluation of the new Three Chords Good: “It’s very, very good.” Parker’s right there, though the material improved onstage, where Bob Andrews’ organ didn’t dominate the mix quite so much as it does on record and the twin-guitar interplay of Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont were brought further to the forefront. They added some electric punch to the poppy “What Do You Like,” a This Is 40 soundtrack exclusive that Parker performs with the Punch Brothers on the recording. And the set really found its stride four songs in with the new “Coathangers,” which had all the muscle of the Sparks material (and which, with its pro-choice theme, might have been intended as a counterpart to the similarly abortion-themed “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” an encore).

The early stretches of the show made a good case the validity of Parker’s pub-rock days and currently more prominent Americana influences. But the crowd was there to indulge in the pre-Nirvana nirvana of Squeezing Out Sparks, and the band delivered at the end with a stretch of six songs from that album (interrupted only “Stupefaction,” from The Up Escalator, the 1980 LP that followed), all sounding as fresh as the day they were birthed. Three decades is too long to go without hearing Belmont and Schwarz in tandem, or the Bodnar/Andrew Goulding rhythm section (also famous for providing the bottom end on Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”).

VIDEO: THR's Writers Roundtable: Judd Apatow on the Fights With His Wife That Led to 'This Is 40'

The sweetness of much of Parker’s current material -- like the lovely sing-along “Stop Cryin’ About the Rain” or R&B-ballad flavor of the single “Long Emotional Ride” -- make it clear that fans were wrong to expect the seeming sneer he had in 1979 to remain fixed in place. But, particularly in a set that also made room for his tenderer or more soulful sides, the Sparks stuff was a lovely scowl to go back to.

The show opened with a brief intro from Apatow, who remarked upon the unlikeliness of the triple bill he’d put together and remarked, “This probably shouldn’t even be happening.” Adams’ appearance was a quickie, consisting three of his prettiest acoustic ballads, including the one that puts a capper on This Is 40, though his hunched, seated status ensured most of the packed crowd only saw tufts of hair from atop his head.

Buckingham stood at full alert for his six-song set, which included not just his 40 contributions but “Go Insane” and a couple of his more intense contributions to the Fleetwood Mac canon, packing about three hours’ worth of a normal mortal’s finger-picking into a half-hour. His set would have stolen any other show, and it made many of us wish that, instead of going out on another Mac tour next year, he were going out on another solo jaunt -- one that everyone present would be smart enough to catch this time.

Set List:

Fool’s Gold
Three Chords Good
Hotel Chambermaid
What Do You Like
Get Started, Start a Fire
Stop Cryin’ About the Rain
Long Emotional Ride
Howlin’ Wind
Live in Shadows
A Lie Gets Halfway ‘Round the World
Watch the Moon Come Down
Discovering Japan
Nobody Hurts You
Local Girls

Encore 1:
You Can’t Be Too Strong
Passion is No Ordinary Word

Encore 2:
Don’t Ask Me Questions
Soul Shoes
I Want You Back

Twitter: @chriswillman