Music » Echo

Tool to be Kind

Two of music's most esteemed live acts justify their reputations.


When Laura Cantrell says she's going on at 7:30 sharp, she means it. The charming chanteuse started her October 9 set at the Midland Theatre right on time, with an abrupt, intro-free ditty that made it seem as if she'd timed her entrance to the second.

If only fans of headliner Elvis Costello could have been so punctual. The audience filed in loudly and obtrusively throughout Cantrell's performance and even during Costello's opening songs, disrupting the pitch-dark venue's reverent ambience. Undaunted, Cantrell unpacked her twangy voice and tangy hooks, and country-craving listeners found themselves, to borrow a phrase from the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Nashville native, "pleased as punch."

Costello appeared with much more fanfare, including an alarmingly yodeled version of the Lone Ranger theme song and a seizure-inducing light show. Just in case the audience remained unaroused, Costello and his backing trio, the Impostors, pumped it up, pushing paces past their breaking point and letting electric guitar dominate the proceedings. Playing nearly every track from this year's impressive When I Was Cruel, the band displayed a fresh sense of passion that hits tours just can't inspire. Meet the new Costello, same as the old, old Costello: plugged in, pissed off and profoundly powerful.

After he'd voiced all his Cruel intentions, though, Costello slowed to a crawl during encore renditions of old hats such as "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and "Watching the Detectives." Some innovations thrilled, such as a nod to the other Elvis' "Suspicious Minds"; other alterations, such as lengthy, Asia-style keyboard solos, lagged.

But all was forgiven when Costello concluded the concert with "I Want You," his guitar occasionally erupting as he narrated a dizzying emotional downfall. Keyboards appeared like ghostly apparitions, haunting briefly with miserable melodies. Costello's guitar erupted occasionally, voicing violent distress until uneasy calm was quickly restored. Most impressive, though, was Costello's voice, which boomed with amazing potency even when he took a few steps away from the microphone to belt the tune's final lines. Noisy crowds, skeptics who dismissed his past few efforts -- Costello still shouts them all down, even without the aid of amplification.

On October 16 at Kemper Arena, Meshuggah proved an apt opener for music's most contradiction-ridden act. A howling beast from Sweden (land of chocolate-covered pop), this five-piece unveiled its solos during slow segments instead of giving its drummer a head start and making the guitarist sprint to keep pace. It arrived at metal's usual destinations -- glass-gargling growls, lead-encased low-end thump, squealing leads -- but it took interesting routes, including abrupt U-turns, noisy crashes and graceful recoveries from the wreckage.

Tool fans accept no less -- but they also demand significantly more. For starters, singers must maintain tuneful accessibility, no matter how perturbed their tone. Maynard James Keenan cowered in shadow at the rear of the stage, never stepping into the path of the band's extravagant light show, but his rich, robust bellow still dominated the proceedings.

Tool fans also demand spectacle, and the group delivers like no other. From mysterious hovering orbs to liquid-skinned ghouls to coal-eyed creeps with raw meat under their dust-gray skin, Tool introduced a riveting cast of characters, all of whom moved in a cyclical fashion that coincided note-for-note with its compositions. The band even turned electrical cords into an asset, lighting up segments while activating a zapping noise to simulate flaring live wires.

Tool's central paradox is its popularity. How can jittery, cracked rock junkies applaud a group that opens with a ten-minute variation on dull industrial noise, then eschews an encore in favor of another static instrumental accompanied by a filmstrip of skin melting on and off an animated skull? How do troglodytes who yell "Tool!" as if they're Quest for Fire extras discovering the first hammer comprehend, let alone appreciate, some of the most sophisticated compositions to grace America's arenas?

When Tool stored its self-loathing and searing social protest in accessible four-minute eruptions, its crossover appeal made sense -- it's the riffs, stupid. But this show was devoted largely to Lateralus, the band's latest and most inscrutable effort, full of slow-developing sagas and precarious progressions with high degrees of difficulty. Still, sheer power remains rock's great equalizer. Tool speaks to a broader spectrum than any other active band, proving that eggheads and meatheads alike can be appeased with the right blend of loud noises and pretty pictures.

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