Past and present collide on a practically hourly basis at the Essential Noise home base. I may have an iPhone, a Twitter handle, and this here blog, but I also share space with LPs, DVDs, over 1,000 CDs and not one but two VCRs. This seems to be the case with my musical consumption as well; I’m just as likely to be listening to an artist I discovered last week as one that I discovered before I was old enough to vote. This was evident one recent Saturday, when I used live music streaming website StageIt – shameless plug: www.stageit.com – to watch a Better Than Ezra concert.I’ve been a fan of Better Than Ezra – that’s BTE to the hardcore – since 1995, when their single “Good” propelled them into the pop charts. I’d known of them long before, though. Better Than Ezra has called Louisiana their home for almost their whole career, and they came through Shreveport from their hometown of New Orleans pretty regularly. I was too young to check them out at a bar in those days, but I remember seeing their band fliers all over town. Who could forget a band name like that one? Then came “Good”, and the clock started ticking on BTE’s national 15 minutes. From talking to my California friends, it sounds like the band didn’t really make a dent in the rest of the country beyond “Good”, but back home in Shreveport, they enjoyed a ton of airplay and a steady stream of hit singles from 1995’s album Deluxe and 1996’s follow-up Friction, Baby: “In the Blood”, “Rosealia”, “King of New Orleans” and “Desperately Wanting” are all well-known in the South.
My fandom led to a strange, but cool, encounter. I’d struck up a friendship with the elderly woman who lived across the street from my family’s house, and somehow, one day the topic of Better Than Ezra came up. Turned out, one of her dearest friends was the mother of Ezra’s bassist, Tom Drummond. The next time Tom’s mom visited, I was invited over and regaled with stories of young Tom and the band’s early years, complete with a tour of a box full of artifacts and souvenirs saved by a proud mother. Oh, how I wish I’d borrowed that cassette of the “Surprise” EP she had! That thing sells for crazy money on Amazon. I left that day with an autographed promo photo – though strangely, one signed not by Tom Drummond but by lead singer and general example of yumminess Kevin Griffin.
In 1996, my friends and I saw Better Than Ezra in concert for the first time, when they played Louisiana Tech University in nearby Ruston. We were blown away. So much energy, charisma, choice covers and straight up musical chops. Kevin Griffin tried to pull a Pete Townsend-style guitar maneuver and ended up clocking himself in the head with his axe. One lame band-aid later, the band performed a killer rendition of “Let’s Stay Together”; Griffin dedicated the song “from the bottom of my heart, and the pain in my left temple.” My friends and I made up a goofy interpretive hand dance for the chorus of “King of New Orleans”. Set ’em up, raise your hands up, pointer fingers side by side, palms down; let ’em fall, lower hands back down in same position; turn ’em over in your hands, turn hands palms up, raise and spread to shoulder-length apart.
I remember all of this from a concert I saw nearly 16 years ago, and I have seen a truckload of concerts.
Impress me like that once, and I’ll follow you anywhere. We saw Better Than Ezra at every given opportunity. At the Strand Theatre in Shreveport, where one pal nearly started what we nicknamed “the Rosealia riot” when she accidentally bum-rushed the stage during that song. In Baton Rouge, where I was thisclose to catching the BTE logo-emblazoned football that the band would always chuck into the crowd during the Deluxe song “This Time of Year”, coinciding with the lyric “There’s a football in the air”. Stupid tall frat boy. In Monroe, where we finally met the band after the show and I got my copy of rarities CD Artifakt autographed. Even after they fell out of the limelight, even after getting dropped by Elektra due to low sales of 1998’s underrated How Does Your Garden Grow,we still held the Ezra torch aloft. The last concert I saw in Shreveport before I moved to California was a Better Than Ezra show, the night before I hit the road for good. The first concert I saw in Los Angeles was a Better Than Ezra show, at the House of Blues on Sunset. I saw the band so many times in 2002, I memorized their pre-show music mix. It helped that many of my favorite artists were on it, like Nikka Costa and Gomez. Beck’s “Hollywood Freaks” still makes me think of the anticipation of a Better Than Ezra show.
BTE has a small but devoted fan base in Cali, but understandably, they don’t make it out here very often. All the same, I’ve done my best to keep up with their career, snapping up new releases before hearing a note of them. This was perhaps a mistake. I’ve had diminishing returns on Better Than Ezra releases ever since their underwhelming 2005 CD Before The Robots – though that album yielded a minor radio hit (even in California!) with “Juicy”. 2001’s Closer may have been their career-best record. Sadly, the label that released it went under shortly after Closer came out, diminishing their retail momentum – I noticed Best Buy no longer carried BTE albums after the snafu, though I did manage to buy Closer from there – and sending the record out of print for years. Since then, they’ve mostly self-released, including 2009’s Paper Empire, an album from which I could hum you maybe one song. And yet, if they’re in concert, I keep coming back. Even if Kevin’s voice isn’t as high as it used to be. Even if the band does a variation of the same breakdown on “King of New Orleans” they did a decade ago. Even if they’ve changed drummers. Twice.
BTE may break it, break it, break it on down on “New Orleans” as they always did, but I sat here in front of my computer two Saturdays ago and did my little interpretive dance from 1996 to the same song. I was alone. This was about the time I realized what kept bringing me back to Better Than Ezra in concert: I like the feelings of nostalgia a BTE show brings. The memories of road trips across Louisiana, of inside jokes (Kevin Griffin’s crunchy guitar solo on “In the Blood” was dubbed “the Griff Riff”), of the unbridled joy of that first concert. Every time I see BTE in concert, it doesn’t matter where I am or who I’m with: it’s 1996, I’m at Tech, and I don’t really expect new enlightenment. I don’t do this with other bands. A Neil Finn concert brings memories of the first time I saw him live, in 1998, but I don’t go to every Neil Finn show expecting THAT show. Granted, he’s bringing the same quality he brought at that first concert. Better Than Ezra is not, at least not in my opinion. I’m sure a lot of devoted fans in New Orleans would beg to differ with me.
Regardless, if the albums and the live experience aren’t that great anymore, I should rightly walk away. Because what else is left? I don’t attend concerts because the band, or a band member, is good looking; that’s what bad movies are for. Yet somehow, I think I’ll be the last fan standing, watching them play whatever hole in the wall Los Angeles accepts them at in the future. (And this fate could be a long way away; they STILL were playing at the House of Blues when I saw them in ’09.) Concerts should be devoted to making new musical memories, not to clinging onto the ones already crafted. But damned if I don’t keep trying to hold on. It’s not you, Better Than Ezra, it’s me. Except maybe it is you. OK, fine, one more chance.
Anyone else have this problem? Who are the artists you keep following, even though it defies logic these days? Maybe we can start a support group.