There was something in the air Thursday night in San Diego, as the Wallflowers and this fall’s most photographed rock star, Jakob Dylan, launched a U.S. tour in support of the album Breach, the band’s highly publicized follow-up to the multi-platinum Bringing Down the Horse. However, it wasn’t the spectacle one would’ve expected for the opening night of the group’s first U.S. tour in two years.
Inaugurating the brand-new Jenny Craig Pavilion at the University of San Diego, the band took the stage at 9:20 p.m. to surprisingly little fanfare. No introduction and a half-empty venue (that only holds 5,100 people) greeted the group as it jumped into “Sleepwalker,” the first single from Breach.
So much has been made of Dylan’s role as the reluctant rock star that it seems redundant to mention it, but it was impossible to ignore during the first half of the ninety-minute show, which at times felt more like a rehearsal or surprise warm-up gig than opening night. With his trademark mussed hair, and wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and a pair of Levi’s, Dylan looked less a Rolling Stone cover boy than the frontman of a local bar band. But it wasn’t just his attire that seemed downplayed. After “Sleepwalker,” the six-piece outfit went so quickly into the new album’s ferocious “Some Flowers Never Bloom” that the song was half-over before the crowd had any chance to get into what is arguably the best track off of Breach.
In addition, it was sometimes difficult to tell if Dylan was being bitingly sarcastic or just playfully prodding the audience during his between-song banter. Prior to “6th Avenue Heartache,” Dylan commented, “We’re gonna do some new songs and some older songs, since I guess we don’t have any old songs in your mind,” clearly alluding to the band’s overlooked 1992 debut, Wallflowers. Later, before doing that album’s bluesy “Somebody Else’s Money,” Dylan again played up the self-titled debut, calling it keyboardist Rami Jaffe’s favorite Wallflowers album.
Among his other comments was a call to the audience to not be afraid of the acoustic guitar, leading into Breach‘s “Hand Me Down” and the sweet, jangly “I’ve Been Delivered.”
Seven of the first ten songs came from Breach, with the only exceptions being the aforementioned “6th Avenue Heartache” and “Somebody Else’s Money,” as well as the engaging “Three Marlenas.”
Following a raucous “Murder 101,” the mood began to shift, for both the audience and the band. The transformation in Dylan felt so sudden one has to wonder if even he knows what caused it. But all of the stiffness and awkwardness that characterized the early part of the show dissipated in a matter of seconds. Attempting for the first time to relate with the audience during one of his many pre-song introductions, he spoke of his connection to the nearby town of La Jolla and how he used to spend weekends down there because of the romantic vibe of that community.
The newfound looseness translated to the songs as well, starting with a strong version of the hit “One Headlight,” which Dylan introduced as the band’s favorite “three-chord song.” They followed that with a superb rendition of David Bowie’s anthemic “Heroes,” a song they covered for the Godzilla soundtrack, one of three covers the group performed on the night. The other two were a surprising pair; guitarist Michael Ward and bassist Greg Richling took the vocals for Blur’s “Song 2,” which preceded an alternately stunning and fun-loving interpretation of the Who’s classic “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The musicianship on the latter was very impressive, as was Dylan’s Daltrey impersonation, but he talked over the entire keyboard solo in the middle portion of the song.
Ultimately, despite such flaws as pacing and periodic sound glitches, the band was able to pull off the show for one reason: the songs. Strung together over an hour and a half, Dylan’s songs showed him to be as good a tunesmith as any rock star of his generation; one able to craft smart lyrics and engaging melodies of various tempos. The other memorable aspect of the show was the generosity Dylan showed with his band. Dylan has been the natural focal point of the attention the group has received, but he consistently mentioned the other band members by name, credited them with various ideas and spoke of their obvious musical talents.
Although the Wallflowers did four dates supporting the Who at Madison Square Garden last month, headlining is another story. And while the rust was apparent early and often, it did wear off by the end of the night. There’s an old show-biz axiom that says, “Always leave ’em wanting more,” implying it’s more important how you go out than how you come in. If that’s true, then the Wallflowers’ opening night was a success, albeit a belated one.