Between the two of them, New Jersey singer-songwriter Pete Yorn and Jimmy Gnecco, the golden-voiced frontman for earnest New York modern rockers Ours, have probably hogged up a good fifty percent of MTV2’s summer airtime. Given the heavy rotation afforded their debut videos, “Life on a Chain” and “Sometimes,” respectively, a more appropriate tag-team for the self-consciously edgier MTV sister station’s inaugural Handpicked Tour would be hard to come by. But as proved on the second night of a sold-out two-night stand at Stubb’s in Austin, Texas, the two acts have precious little else in common.
It’s fallen to Ours to do the opening honors on this tour, playing “special guests” to headliner Yorn. Judging from Tuesday night’s show, however, the distinction is a formality. While Yorn certainly commanded headliner respect during his set, it was clear from the get-go that for many in the house Ours were the main attraction. And not without good reason.
Go ahead and knock Gnecco for treading familiar ground; he’s going to need to get used to it, if he isn’t already. Should this castratti-voiced waif of singer (think Prince, recast as the kind of fragile, pensive poetic type every sixteen-year-old goth girl would love to take home to mother) ever cure cancer with his music, he’ll still be dodging comparisons to the late Jeff Buckley. But that’s only scratching the surface and doesn’t even begin to do his voice justice. When Gnecco sings, he conjures not only Buckley but U2’s Bono, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, like a one-man “We Are the World”-style choir of some of the best modern rock singers of the last twenty years.
Gnecco’s melodies trigger deja-vu, too, from all the above same sources, but they’re often so damn beautiful you don’t care where you heard them first. You’re just happy to be hearing them again, in that voice. Nor does it matter that half of his words are lost, either in the violet swirl of the music (characterized by a bed of pounding drums pierced by spirals of ringing guitar) or by his own over-the-top operatic screams. Most of the hardcore fans crammed up at the front of the stage clearly already knew all the words to songs like “Drowning,” “Fallen Souls,” “Dancing Alone” and “Bleed” (the last of which bled into an epic jam), while those just waiting to hear the single “Sometimes” were not disappointed. It came early — four songs into the set — and sounded like the best Radiohead song written by U2 that Jeff Buckley never sang. In a word, fabulous.
On the surface, Ours would seem a tough act to follow, but it didn’t take Yorn long to demonstrate why he’s the one in the driver’s seat on this tour. For all his vocal and melodic tricks, the immediate familiarity of Gnecco’s music leaves the impression that he’s hasn’t got many more surprises tucked up his tight-fitting black sleeve for the future. Yorn, by contrast, came off as a much more promising but not-yet-fully formed superstar songwriter — nay, a full-fledged rock & roll star — waiting to happen, his songs just rough enough around the edges to suggest his best material is yet to come. He also generously dipped into a store of rumpled, roguish charisma the somber-to-a-fault Gnecco should consider stealing from before the tour wraps up.
Almost from the very beginning of Yorn’s set, people were shouting “Springsteen!” — and it wasn’t just the Jersey connection and all the denim on stage. Yorn’s songs seem to draw as much inspiration from the Boss as Gnecco’s do from Bono and Buckley, but he pulls it off without ever sounding derivative. Even backed by a loose-limbed, four-man band boasting a crack keyboard player (but no sax) throwing off E-Street worthy sparks, Yorn was never content to peddle in the second-hand. It’s not the gorgeous melodies or even the structure of Yorn songs like “Strange Condition” and “Just Another” that bring to mind Springsteen; it’s the sense of craft and quality that holds them together.
But unlike Ours’ “Sometimes,” Yorn’s best known song, “Life on a Chain,” seemed a little anti-climatic coming at the end of his main set. Yorn’s strengths seem best exemplified over the course of an entire show, not any one song. Sure enough, this crowd was not about to go home happy having heard the hit, and loudly called for an encore. When Yorn returned to the stage, the Springsteen chant had been replaced with shouts of “Pete! Pete!” Visibly moved, he responded with a big ah-shucks grin, a warm “thank you” and a lovely pass through “Atlantic City.” But only the first verse, mind you — he had his own song to sing.