American Songwriter - Dave Stewart El RayDave Stewart and Vavoom Rock & Roll Circus
El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA

Captain Dave brought his rock & roll circus to the El Rey in L.A. Friday night. It was exhilarating. It was deeply musical – as opposed to recent shows so loud you can’t hear anything but an incessant roar – but also irrepressibly joyful. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, and has several shows of amazing material he can do. And on this night he chose about 15 of his finest new and old, plus some great and unexpected covers, and set the old city glowing. People I know who haven’t danced since “Little Red Corvette” was on the charts tell me they’re still dancing.

Not only is he the great collaborator (having written songs with Dylan, Bono, Jagger, Petty and so many more), he’s also become the essential showman. The genius behind Eurythmics, where he was content to support the great Annie Lennox, he proved again what those in the know already know: he’s a spectacular front man. Because Annie sang all the leads, mostly, people assumed that Dave was a great guitarist but not a vocalist. But as his recent spate of solo albums has proved, the man is a gifted singer, often echoing the frisky phrasing of the man who dubbed him “Captain Dave,” his pal Bob Dylan. ??He’s reinvented a rock show as a dynamic, multi-dimensional circus of rock, roll, rhythm and soul, with goodly portions of burlesque and vaudeville, verve, whimsy and joy. With a hand-picked band of some of the finest musicians making music these days (especially Dave’s old pal, the great Jimmy Z on sax and harp), the music was tight and vigorous throughout.

Dave’s been doing his Ringmaster TV show, a circus variety burlesque extravaganza that he films in the Bitesize-TV Studios right on Hollywood Boulevard, for some time now. Co-hosted by the great Rita D’Albert, and peopled by her phenomenal La Lucha Va Voom circus dancers and acrobats and clowns and other performers, it’s a wild and chromatic show each time, always including friends of Dave, such as the great Orianthi as well as Ringo Starr, Billy Ray Cyrus and many others. The message is one of unity. And it’s a good one to receive, as this industry necessarily segregates musicians into different bins for maximum marketability. But all musicians are one, and that unity pervades all of Dave’s work, as he includes great classical musicians such as Ann Marie Calhoun, with masters of the blues and beyond. His spirit looms large; he seems to be friends with everyone there is, not unlike the late great Doc Pomus, from musicians who have been famous all our lives, to the hottest and greatest new artists on the scene – and everyone in-between.??So this concert was a treat for his local fans, an expansive and theatrical version of The Ringmaster, and with Dave – the Man in the Black Suit under the top-hat – at the very heart of this circus, conducting all of it effortlessly from behind his electric guitar.??It started on this night, as shows used to start every night in the heyday of Vaudeville, with a burlesque. A beautiful woman came out, liquid in the rhythm of the driving music, sensuously stirring up the crowd solo with luxurious grace, doing a slow and hypnotic strip-tease. Well, okay. ??Then out came a giant white screen held aloft by two clowns, and on it emerged the silhouette of another burlesque beauty, this one undulating in that secret place that speaks so much of Hollywood – behind the eternal screen, the timeless scrim between magic and reality, between Hollywood and everyday. The shadow danced iconically, beautifully. And then with violent slashes of a shiny blade she cut through the screen, connecting two worlds violently, and broke through, the dynamics of her dance slid from infinity into focus. She became a chanteuse, singing and joking in French, the beautiful Mona Soyuc.

Then from the back of the theater came the sound of a big bass drum being pounded, and through the crowd we spy The Ringmaster himself in white-face (another Dylan link), pounding on a giant parade drum, leading a wild cast of characters – clowns, dancers, musicians – down through the crowd and up to the stage. ??Big drum exchanged for an electric guitar, Dave launched into one of Dylan’s most raucous and celebratory songs, “Rainy Day Women #12 and #13” with its famous “Everybody must get stoned!” refrain, which the crowd happily refrained. Clowns danced, babes swung, a happy looking devil cavorted, and this was just the first song.

Dylan called Dave “fearless,” and that fearlessness was infectious throughout the evening, as Dave sang and hosted and played inspired guitar solos throughout the night, ripping off virtuosic leads with seeming effortlessness. He and Jimmy Z on harp locked horns several times, and it was invigorating. Not only does Dave have classic rock chops, he has a whole lot of authentic soul. Deep-pocket delectable grooves abounded all night, with rock solid soul.

Tom Petty said that unlike himself and other famous songwriters who have a hard time with celebrity, that Dave enjoys fame. And it seems to be true – but not in a shallow way. He seems to be a guy who finds joy in every endeavor, and rather than allow his circumstances to be a burden, he embraces them. Yet he remembers well the madness surrounding Euythmics gigs, similar to Beatlemania, where fans so swarmed them it became impossible to get from hotel to limo, often. That dual nature of fame lives inside “Beast Called Fame,” from Blackbird Diaries, the second song of the night. It is a beast – not a house-pet – this thing called fame. Yet the man has a circus – and taming beasts has always been inherent in this thing, as has a calm acceptance of fate, not unlike a veteran gambler: “We roll the dice, hope for the best/We were lucky, baby, yeah we were blessed/ We’ve spun the wheel of rock and roll/We stuck together trying not to lose control…”??Because the visuals all night long were do surreal and dizzying – crazy clowns on stilts, happy devils dancing, acrobats spinning, burlesque beauties surging – it’s impossible to contain any of it easily, not unlike trying to recall a dream – but this was the one, I am reasonably sure, in which two beautiful identical twin burlesque dancers, each with short, dark hair and dancer’s delicate poise – emerged behind the drums to mirror each other gently at first, before they began to tangle – and soon were having a full-out brawl. Throughout which Dave purred the lyrics and grooved with his band.??Rita D’Albert is the beautiful blonde bombshell and host of La Lucha Va Voom, the legendary Angeleno burlesque circus troupe with which Dave has teamed. She’s his beautiful co-host on each episode of The Ringmaster. Yet who knew she could sing? A revelation to be sure, as this woman contains more multitudes than we already knew, in addition to her pure sumptuous vivaciousness. She belted out “I Got Love” with Dave and danced up a happy storm. First of many surprise stars throughout the evening.??Then came another one of his more recent and beloved songs, “The Gypsy Girl and Me,” which echoes Dylan again, especially Basement Tapes Bob, having fun, playful with rhyme and location: “She asked me for some cigarettes/I gave her my per diem/She bought a pack of Gauloises/ And we headed to the Coliseum…” Joy.

Dave and Annie teamed up recently to honor the Beatles, performing “Fool On The Hill” on the CBS-Grammys Beatles show last month. On this night Dave teamed up with another great vocalist on a Beatles song. This time it was his daughter, Kaya – who is all of 14 but sings like a seasoned pro – who came out in flowing threads to sing a majestic “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” resplendent in circus magic. Though Lennon, of course, explained that it was never an intentional LSD song, its psychedelic visions forever mirror that realm, and Kaya surfed sweetly on its dreamy melodics.

It was the perfect introduction into another of Dave’s recent revelatory solo works, “Drugs Taught Me A Lesson: [from Lucky Numbers], a song of warning, a lexicon of lessons learned and not to be repeated. Dave’s been there, and unlike many, emerged unscathed. Lessons learned, and expressed with much pointed clarity. ??Also unlike some of his peers, who run from their own legacy, Dave merges new material with classics from his Eurythmics life – all co-written with Annie Lennox – naturally and with much infectious joy. Into the anthemic “Here Comes The Rain Again” we were launched, the heroine beautifully portrayed by  Grace Potter (of Grace and the Nocturnals). A classic.

An abundance of highlights abound: The band on fire on Dave’s great “Satellite,” Rita returning with a sexy, sweet and brassy rendition of “I Need A Man,” evoking countless volunteers to rush stage. The blazing Vanessa Amorosi, a fireball of sensual heat with a voice like Janis Joplin, emerging into the pure histrionic heat of “Shakin’ What My Mama Gave Me,” before cranking it up a whole other notch, belting out the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” as Dave became Keith to her Mick, electric on the blazing famous riff. More joy.

Like a perfect Stones show – which revs up the heat as high as it can go, and then lifts it even farther, unexpectedly – Dave delivered Kaya back into the stream. This time she came out dressed like Sinatra after a night out with the Rat Pack – black & white tux with bow-tie undone – and simply blew the roof of the old place with the Eurythmics classic “Missionary Man.” Dave and Annie were, obviously, expert at constructing a song like this – which is pure soul R&B rave-up tension simmering and boiling over and bursting into its killer chorus, always a show-stopper for Annie, who could always take this to the toppermost. Kaya was simply revelatory, belting it out with great power, but with perfect control – and a great on-stage presence, like she’s been singing in arenas since she was a little kid. Well, actually, she has. But the kid has real presence, and undeniable pipes. A star for sure.

After the show, I quizzed friends and fans alike for their reviews, and many answered with one word only: Kaya. ??Dave then brought out the entire circus, all the stars, the singers, the clowns. He was in his element, and launched his most famous riff, the magnetic opening of “Sweet Dreams.” Everyone on their feet. Hypnotic soul meets rock and roll ecstasy. It was a party. ??And a party no one wanted to end. Encores of the “Would I Lie To You,” pure soul unchained, starring Vanessa, and then Rita bringing the best “Cherry Bomb” ever.” The circus spilled out into the crowd, and into the streets of L.A., down Wilshire past the old La Brea Tar Pits, where even the dinosaur bones still stuck in ancient tar rolled with the rhythms of rock on this happy night. If Dave Stewart brings his circus to your town, don’t miss it. In a time of much darkness and cynicism, the Ringmaster gave us a reason to rejoice.