OK, answer this question: Why does Roddy Frame need a backing band?
The boy-genius frontman for Scottish pop band Aztec Camera can put on a terrific live show all by himself and his acoustic guitar. In fact, if he showed up by himself, it's doubtful anyone would mind.For example, take Wednesday night's show at the Fairpark Horticulture Building. Frame opened up by playing some of his more moody pop pieces solo and probably spoiled the rest of the show.
If I had to compare such a move, it would be somewhat akin to eating dessert before the main course - not only is your hunger already satiated, but anything else you eat feels as substantial as an after-dinner mint.
Fortunately, Frame saved one of his best performances, a properly somber acoustic cover version of Van Halen's "Jump" (which he interspersed with other rock covers such as the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane") for the last number and sandwiched more recent upbeat songs alongside the jazzy pieces that gave him initial success.
To be fair, the supporting musicians were more than competent, especially Gary Sanders' sterling guitar support and soulful harmonies, which he got to display (along with actually singing a verse) on the band's cover of the folk-country stomp "Going Up the Country." Sanders also bailed out the performance of the group's "Good Morning Britain" single, which was mangled by Big Audio Dynamite frontman Mick Jones' sour vocals on the recorded version.
Aztec Camera's more recent material hasn't really stood up to comparison with its early magnificently impressionistic pop material, but when performed live, the songs take on more life and don't suffer from some of the awkward and cluttered arrangements that they do on vinyl.
The first single from the band's "Stray" album, "The Crying Scene," is a good example. On vinyl, the song sounds forced and overproduced, while in a live set I started to notice Frame's strong songwriting, especially on its catchy chorus: "You only get one hit, that's the beauty of it/What's the good in crying?/It's always been that way, at the end of the day/You gotta keep on trying/Life's a one-set movie, and I don't care what that means/I'm saving up my tears for the crying scene."
What's startling about such a mature and creative observation is that Frame is still in his early 20s and actually started the band when he was still in his teens.
Equally impressive is Frame's guitar work, which ranges from bluesy electric riffs ("Nottingham Blues") to howling rock squeals ("Somewhere in My Heart") to flamencolike acoustic melodies ("Deep and Wide and Tall"). The latter, in particular, takes a lot of coordination and hand strength as well as determination and training that most musicians nowadays don't have.
Another underappreciated area is Frame's wan singing, which lent emotion and power to the wistful "The Birth of the True" and the lovely "Down the Dip." Though Frame flew into Utah coming off an appearance on NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman" program, he sounded like he'd had a few days rest and relaxation - terrific, in other words.
The current album's title track was one of the standouts of the early set, a fragile and dreamy reminiscence of a former love that sounded superb with the spare guitar accompaniment. A similarly spartan arrangement (subtle electric piano playing by Harry Clark) aided Frame's sensitive "How Men Are" immeasurably.
Opening the show was local quintet Commonplace. Though singer Lara's distinct vocals bear a strong resemblance to those of both Siouxsie Sioux and the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser, the band's sound is more akin to that of the current Reading, England evocative pop movement (popularized by groups like the Sundays and the Heart Throbs).