Anyone who goes to see Fleetwood Mac or Rickie Lee Jones in 2013 knows what to expect, at least in terms of repertoire. Paying for a ticket — neither admission price being what you’d consider inexpensive — is like striking a bargain: I’m going to come hang out with you for a couple of hours, and you’re going to play a bunch of songs I recognize, and there aren’t going to be more than a few surprises (arrangements might change, some songs may be more passionately rendered, vocal keys are adjusted for age, that kind of thing). This implied deal is a trap that the artists find themselves in, especially at the Fleetwood Mac level. Walking into Madison Square Garden, I was reassured that the band had no current album to promote (turns out they have recorded new music, and shared one song from the sessions), because if you go into the house of Lindsay and Stevie, you want to watch that dynamic play out with the script you know: it’s like a revival of Death of a Salesman or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with the text (and in this case, the cast) locked in place and only the staging and performances the unknown factors.
The problem with Fleetwood Mac 2013 isn’t that the band is slack or uninspired — those rock songs from Fleetwood Mac, Rumours and Tusk crackle (“Go Your Own Way” is one of the best singles of the ’70s), and Nicks still twirls girlishly on the spacier songs, and Buckingham squeezes out sparks on guitar — but that there’s a central character missing. Without Christine McVie, there’s nothing to bring the band down to earth, no calming moments, no soulfulness, really, and no “Over My Head” or “Say You Love Me” (or “You Make Lovin’ Fun,” or “Over & Over”). Everyone loves Stevie Nicks — the young women jump out of their seats and sing along with every note of “Landslide” and Rhiannon,” songs that they hold close to their hearts — but she was the third-best writer in the group, and on the numbers where she isn’t throwing ambivalent darts at her guitarist, she can be a bit much, slinking around the stage in her wardrobe of scarves.
A couple of nights later at City Winery, Rickie Lee Jones faced an audience similarly inclined: they came to reminisce, primarily, although they paid homage by buying the new CD (of cover songs, it should be noted) at the merch table. Jones’ impressive debut album came out in 1979, the same year as Tusk, on the same label, and it’s probably a safe bet that not a small number of the post-boomers at both shows own Rickie Lee Jones and at least Rumours, if not its complicated follow-up. Backed by a guitarist and a cellist, Jones tossed off her hit “Chuck E’s In Love” early on in the set — get that out of the way — and eventually made her way to the piano where she locked into “Living It Up” and “We Belong Together,” two songs from her second album Pirates, and that was where the show lifted off. She wasn’t bound by the original arrangements, and couldn’t have recreated them under those musical conditions anyway, so she found the centers of them, and re-sculpted them. But what if there were a new album of new songs? Would the audience get fidgety? That’s part of the trap. The Devil You Know(nice title) visits The Stones, Tim Hardin, Donovan, Neil Young, “St. James Infirmary,” so she could throw a few of those into the set without disrupting the flow, but this new generation of oldies artists also wants to stay vital, and how do they manage that?
For a few minutes, everyone was saying how good the new David Bowie album is, and they’re right, but I listened to it once, just to check in, was pleased that it shows some vitality, and then filed it away (not literally, since I didn’t purchase a hard copy, but mentally). If he does tour, how much of it could he get away with, in arenas where people are paying hundreds of dollars to see him? He’s not alone. What if Tom Petty album put out an album of new songs before storming the Beacon Theater for a week, and used those shows to hype it? And it doesn’t matter so much whether Tempest, Psychedelic Pill, Wrecking Ball and Old Ideas are ok, disappointing or great Dylan, Young, Springsteen and Cohen albums: they aren’t going to convert many new fans, and if there are new fans to be made, each of those artists has at least ten albums that are more essential entry points. I’m seeing a lot of pre-publicity for new Elton John and Rod Stewart albums, each being called a return to form, or something like that, but honestly, does anyone believe that either is going to deserve to sit alongside Tumbleweed Connectionor Never A Dull Moment? Or that it’s going to mean much if, by some bolts of inspiration, they do? We all know which Elton and Rod songs are going to get people on their feet at Madison Square Garden.