NEW YORK — Mott the Hoople’s intoxicating, euphoric energy kept audience members on their feet for the duration of a once-in-a-lifetime evening of raw rock ‘n’ roll at the Beacon Theatre, April 10.
From the moment frontman Ian Hunter completed the first song, it was clear that this was not a nostalgia show. It was fresh, current and passionate, and led me to believe that even better concerts may be yet to come from this band.
In a way, the evening felt like a cross between a long-overdue high school reunion and a Bar Mitzvah. The Beacon Bar, situated next to the venue, was teeming with men (and some women) older than 50 debating each other about what songs might be selected, recounting their experiences of seeing Hunter perform, or expressing glee in finally seeing him for the first time. While the city has profoundly changed since 1974 (the last time Mott the Hoople played New York), fans have not lost their love for and excitement about the group.
This sold-out show was the final night of an eight-city tour that celebrated the 45th anniversary of Mott the Hoople’s 1974 U.S. tour, and featured music from the band’s 1974 albums, The Hoople and Live. (The band also played songs from other albums, including 1972’s All the Young Dudes.) Two musicians who were also part of the ’74 tour, guitarist Ariel Bender (aka Luther Grosvenor) and pianist Morgan Fisher, join Hunter in Mott’s current lineup. A U.K. tour begins on April 17.
As part of their ’74 tour, the band performed on Broadway at the Uris Theatre (now known as the Gershwin Theatre). They recorded a set there that became side one of Live; the other side was recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1973.
The Beacon show buttressed the band’s reputation for giving stellar live shows. A 1972 audio recording of David Bowie’s introduction of the band welcomed Hunter et al. as they excitedly walked on stage. This dramatic moment and the band’s demeanor gave the audience an emotional cue about what to expect from this show. This was going to be a night to remember those we have lost (including Bowie and Mott co-founders Dale “Buffin” Griffin and Pete Overend Watts) but also to experience the visceral joy of rock ‘n’ roll.
The evening’s performances reminded me of a line from Bob Dylan’s song, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Hunter, Fisher and Bender have evolved over the years, reinventing themselves in solo endeavors and demonstrating vibrancy. They are not a trio going through the motions. I’ve read a lot of commentary focusing on the band members’ ages and my response is that they are very much busy being present.
The three are joined in the current lineup by five musicians who have played with Hunter as the Rant Band for many years: bassist Paul Page; Steve Holley, who played with Paul McCartney and Wings from 1978 to 1981, on drums and backing vocals; and Dennis DiBrizzi on keyboards and backing vocals; Mark Bosch, who wrings out every ounce of emotion from his guitar; and multi-instrumentalist James Mastro, who is the band’s secret weapon. Mastro gives every song whatever it needs, on sax, mandolin or guitar. This talented ensemble complements Hunter seamlessly.
Hunter’s introspective, relevant and provocative lyrics and his seductive swagger, Fisher’s gorgeous, inventive piano, humor and intelligence and Bender’s theatrics, high energy and fiery leads created a stunning evening. Hunter was in top form, belting out tunes with power and conviction. Fisher entertained the audience by occasionally throwing his champagne on us and dancing onstage. (Anticipating his moves, I wore plastic wrap.)
They burst onto the stage with “American Pie”/”The Golden Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” displaying a thunderous rhythm section and powerful guitars. Hunter has not lost his edge. He’s still a commanding presence with the moves of a rocker and the soul of a poet. With the exception of Fisher’s piano lapel jacket and Bender’s colorful polka dot outfit, the glam costumes were retired. However, Mastro’s red hat and matching guitar added some color.
Writing about the highlights of the concert is a bit like describing your favorite part of the Grand Canyon. It was all majestic. The magic is in the material because it hasn’t grown stale.
Fisher’s evocative classical introduction, “Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major,” to “Rest in Peace” from the Live album created a magnificent, hypnotic moment. Hunter’s voice was sincere and strong, singing words that made me think, once again, of those we have lost since ’74 and how the world has changed. I also reflected in the darkness of the Beacon how New York lost much of what made it a diverse, captivating city in the ’70s. Hunter’s words resonate as we age and mature, and encourage gratitude. He sang, “Oh, if my wheels could take another turn and if my life replaced itself again, wouldn’t want a single thing to change/Oh, it’s been good, though it’s been strange.”
Mastro’s sax punctuated most of the songs, including “Alice” (“you remind me of Manhattan”) and Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” and his mandolin beautifully graced Hunter’s pensive song, “I Wish I Was Your Mother.”
I saw some men standing near me teary-eyed, listening to Hunter sing “Saturday Gigs,” a song that expresses a stirring sense of loss of youth. He sang, “We didn’t much like dressing up no more/Don’t wanna be hip – but thanks for a great trip…See you next time, so long for now.” Indeed, Hunter’s fans had to wait a long time to hear him again. Fisher’s beautiful classical introduction set the tone for the haunting song, and supported Hunter’s evocative lyrics and voice.
I was disappointed that Hunter did not play the understated and beautiful song “Trudi,” an ode to his wife. However, I was grateful to hear a spectacular rendering of “Walkin’ With a Mountain” from Mad Shadows (1970), and “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” from Brain Capers (1971).
We heard classics from the ’73/’74 studio albums, including “Marionette,” “Roll Away the Stone” and “Honaloochie Boogie.” Fisher’s contributions to “Marionette” were stunning, adding depth to the dramatic sound of the song. I was reminded of the tales I have heard that the song inspired Freddie Mercury of Queen, who opened for the band on the ’74 tour, to create his operatic epic, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Hunter sang “Pearl ‘n’ Roy, a song about economic crisis that resonates today. He also sang “Rose” a gorgeous and a touching ballad; he showed his versatility by rocking and then rolling out quiet, personal tunes as well.
The closing medley — an augmented version of the medley from the Live album — was electrifying. Before it, Hunter told the crowd to stand, but then acknowledged that we were already standing. The medley included “Jerkin’ Crocus,” “You Really Got Me,” “One of the Boys,” “Rock and Roll Queen,” “Crash Street Kids,” “Death May Be Your Santa Claus,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Mean Woman Blues,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Violence” and “Cleveland Rocks” (with Hunter adding the phrase “New York rocks”).
Hunter explained that he changed one line from his song “Violence” in response to consciousness-raising inspired by the MeToo movement. The lyrics were originally written as “Violence, violence/It’s the only thing that’ll make you see sense” to “it don’t make any sense.” The song was written during an angry time, with the Vietnam War still raging and many teenagers and activists in the U.S. and U.K. voicing personal and political frustration. It appears that maturity gives us the wisdom to understand restraint. Aging brings us the gifts of perspective and judgment.
Fisher also reflected societal shifts when he changed the words to the song, “One of the Boys,” to include women. He sang “one of the boys and girls.” Thank you, Mr. Fisher.
Hunter closed out the evening with the rousing anthem, “All the Young Dudes,” written by Bowie and released as a single and the title track of the band’s 1972 album. Joined by Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers and Jesse Hunter Patterson (Hunter’s son), Hunter sang this familiar song with backing vocals by the entire audience. I observed many entranced middle-aged men singing as one. (Women were palpably moved as well, but the numbers favored men and my unscientific evidence was the very short women’s bathroom line during intermission.) There was a unity to the room, and I drifted to thoughts of the moment when I first heard that song on my turntable in my family’s Manhattan apartment in the 1970s. I’m sure I was not the only time traveler in the room.
Jakob Dylan opened with a fabulous performance that could have been enough of an evening for me. I particularly loved his passionate performance of “6th Avenue Heartache” from the band’s 1996 album Bringing Down the Horse, drawing us into New York City’s landscape (“Now walkin’ home on those streets/The river winds move my feet/Subway steam, like silhouettes in dreams/They stood by me, just like moonbeams”) and his brilliant cover of the Richard and Linda Thompson’s song “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” I also enjoyed his song of heartbreak, “Letters from the Wasteland” from the 2000 Wallflowers album Breach. He sang: “Now I send back letters from the wasteland home/Where I slow dance to this romance on my own/It may be two to tango/But, boy, it’s one to let go.”
Dylan closed out his set by graciously declaring his gratitude to Mott the Hoople: “Every band in town wanted this gig.” His statement was particularly poignant given his father Bob Dylan’s influence on Hunter’s songwriting and singing. (You can particularly hear it on “At the Crossroads,” from Mott the Hoople.) This comment was interesting in light of my recent interview with Fisher, where he equated Hunter with Bob Dylan: “This (Hunter) is England’s Bob Dylan — why isn’t anyone saying that? This (his music) is bringing me the same kind of thrill that I experience when I listen to Bob. He music is introspective, very real, very human.”
Rock ‘n’ roll is now taught in music history classes in colleges and universities. The curriculum should add a chapter on Mott the Hoople’s poetic lyrics and extraordinary live performances, which are a testament to the power and durability of rock. The volume at the Beacon was cranked up high with two hours of the finest rock ‘n’ roll that I have heard since I was a New York City high school student. The magic of rock — giving voice to pain, love, loss, desire and corruption — was all present at the Beacon thanks to Mott the Hoople’s endurance.
Ian Hunter and the Rant Band will perform songs written and recorded during his solo career at his 80th Birthday Celebration at City Winery in New York, May 31 to June 3. For information, visit citywinery.com/newyork.
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