It was songwriters’ night as the Robert Mondavi Summer Music Festival opened its 46th season last weekend.
A pair of talents shared the bill — one bolstered by a career spanning 2½ decades, the other an emerging talent breaking into America’s Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll hierarchy.
Jakob Dylan returned to the valley with a brand new set of Wallflowers — his band was featured at the inaugural BottleRock Napa Valley — and lanky, likable Andrew McMahon unleashed an agreeable new musical concept he calls “Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness.”
While both artists offered tasty sets of tried-and-true and new material, each was nearly done in by sound production. Repetitive feedback nearly blew McMahon off the piano bench and Dylan — who has chosen not to emulate his marble-mouthed father — suffered as his lyrics were swallowed up in a mix that favored guitars, Hammond B-3 organ and drums.
When visiting musicians show up at a venue like Mondavi — which employs a most competent sound and lighting team — why oh why do they let their traveling techies muck things up? It’s a question that probably will not be answered any time soon, at least to this concertgoer’s satisfaction.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1989, The Wallflowers is a straightforward rock band whose only constant member has been singer/songwriter/guitarist Jakob Dylan, the son of folk-rock legend Bob Dylan. The group has released a half-dozen recordings, with a seven-year hiatus between the release of “Rebel Sweetheart” in 2005 and the most recent, “Glad All Over,” which came out three years ago. The group is best known for its hit singles “One Headlight,” “6th Avenue Heartache,” “Three Marlenas” and “The Difference,” all from their second album “Bringing Down the Horse.” All four songs were on last Saturday night’s set list.
Featured near the end of their performance, “One Headlight” is the enduring hit for which songwriter Dylan and the group received a couple of Grammy Awards. Saturday night’s rendition had the song’s architect in his comfort zone.
Another standout the other evening was the band’s rendition of “6th Avenue Heartache,” as it had every member of the team firing on all cylinders. It also gave us our first real look at guitarist Stanton Edward.
A real discovery for most of us, Edward hangs his hat in Nashville, tours with The Wallflowers and works with several other musicians. A guitarist with one of the meanest slides I’ve heard in a long, long time, Edward said in a recent interview that “great music is 50 percent brains, 50 percent guts.” Well, he sure displayed the latter, actually taking the spotlight away from the frontman on numerous occasions. On “6th Avenue Heartache,” he reminded us of Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, at others a Dixie bluesman on a tear. Remember that name — “Stan the Man” Edward, as Dylan labeled him. You’ll be hearing a lot more from this talented young man.
The Wallflowers’ 75-minute show was nearly a carbon copy of their BottleRock gig, including two covers — the Box Tops “The Letter” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” With the solid backing of bassist Steve Mackey, drumme Lynn Williams and Jimmy Wallace laying down a wall of sound on the B-3, The Wallflowers’ set was tight, well performed and — if you didn’t mind missing a substantial chunk of song lyrics — wonderful, good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll.
Indie pop rocker Andrew McMahon launched his career as vocalist, pianist and primary songwriter for the bands Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin. In the past year, the Southern California pianoman debuted his latest project, artfully named Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness.
Not satisfied with limiting his craft to rock ‘n’ roll, he was asked two years ago to write songs for the second season of the Broadway-themed NBC musical drama “Smash,” with three of his compositions incorporated in the show’s storyline. One of them, “I Heard Your Voice in a Dream” was nominated for an Emmy Award.
McMahon released a new CD last fall, and within weeks one of his new songs, “Cecilia and the Satellite” — written just prior to the birth of he and his wife’s first child, a daughter named Cecilia — was climbing the charts. Both it and the CD itself broke into alternative rock’s Top 10.
McMahon’s music is decidedly autobiographical. His songs are built on life experiences — mostly real, some imagined. Using keyboards as the main building block (both he and Zachary Clark cozy up to respective acoustic and electronic instruments), McMahon rocks out while telling a damn good story. Whether it’s taking chances (“High Dive”), carving out a new niche for oneself (“All Our Lives”), regrets (“Halls”) or survival (“Maps for the Getaway”), his songs strike a chord with listeners.
When it comes to survival, McMahon is an authority. He’s a cancer survivor, in remission for nearly a decade. He founded a nonprofit charity, the Dear Jack Foundation, to raise funds for cancer research. The organization’s primary beneficiaries are the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. His focus is helping youngsters cope with cancer diagnosis and recovery, also offering scholarships to students whose families drained college savings accounts in order to pay for medical care.
McMahon is a first-rate entertainer and a songwriting champ. Check out the single “Canyon Moon” — if ever there was a song that deserved to go to the top of the charts, this is it.
Saturday night’s musicfest ended with a super-duper fireworks spectacular, one of the best displays of pyrotechnics ever offered by the folks at Mondavi. A wonderful start to the summer concert season.