Live: Gene Ween Gets Somber And Silly At Brooklyn Bowl
Saturday, December 3
Better than: An acoustic show directly under the J train.
They don't come much more underrated than Aaron Freeman, who performed a solo show under his usual nom de plume, Gene Ween, amid the clatter of falling pins at Brooklyn Bowl on Saturday with the accompaniment of Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz and cellist Jane Scarpantoni. Near the end of his two-hour set, Freeman brought out his teenaged daughter, Anna, to join him for "Happy Colored Marbles," from Ween's 2003 album Quebec. "Most people are not okay," the father and daughter sang in funny-voiced unison while the older Freeman plunked at a keyboard.
Freeman has been singing in cartoony, nasal voices since the mid-'80s, long before Joanna Newsom and her ilk made it fashionable. If a rock fan might accept the hardcore affects of, say, Fucked Up's Damian Abraham or the hobo-gargle of Tom Waits or the snarl of Mark E. Smith or anybody else, then why not Gener? Because Freeman sometimes seems to pathologically play the voices for laughs, and because of his raving post-jamband fanbase, he is all too easily dumped in the alt-rock novelty bin. But stripped of the powerful and genre-hopping Ween name and left supported by his unfussy acoustic guitar, as he was on Saturday, the funny voices became by turns tender, deeply personal, and very rawbut also hilarious and entertaining, the jokes cutting deeper.
The trio opened with Roger Miller's "Kansas City Star," and Freeman transformed into Gene Ween almost instantly, going into the funny voices as he scatted though the first available solo break. In the uncomfortable game of having to guess at a songwriter's mental health, the 42-year old Freeman looked pretty good, though only after a scary series of weight fluctuations and rapid hair-graying, at least one stint in rehab, and a more recent YouTube'd trainwreck at Ween show in Vancouver earlier this year.
Especially owing to the combination of Scarpantoni's cello and Dreiwitz's drumless bass, there was often a somberness to Freeman's songs not frequently found at Ween shows, the most recent of which had them dressed as sailors on Halloween at a sold-out Hammerstein Ballroom. Which isn't to say Freeman didn't bug out his eyes constantly and unfold a bunch of half-ironic classic rock moves during songs with titles like "Demon Sweat," and "The Stallion, Pt. 4" with dudes in the front row pumping their fists into the air. "The sky dripped with demon sweat the night you left," Freeman sang on the former (from Ween's 1991 album The Pod), playing a spare keyboard, the first part being really the only remotely funny line in the song. Even within the genre hops, there are surprising and deep turns. During "I Don't Want To Leave You On The Farm"from 12 Golden Country Greats, Ween's 1996 country albumthere is a minor-key bridge. "Days go by and I'm still high, but you know I'm thinking about you," Freeman sang, an Elliot Smith-like change of deep and unblinking sadness.
Though Ween themselves have slowed down a bit in recent years, Freeman has remained active, and the 25 songs represented a slice of a much vaster songbook. The songs moved from Pink Floyd-affected ballads like "Stay Forever" to faux-folk like "The Chancy Boys" and crowd sing-alongs like "What Deaner Was Talking About," in reference to absent Ween brother Dean, nee Mickey Melchiando. But over and over the appealing thing wasn't Freeman's funny voices or his silly lyrics, but the songs themselves. He is a fantastic writer, melodies tying to sentiments that dance the line between accessibility and abstraction in a way that a listener might connect to deeply and easily and happily.
During the encore, Freeman played perhaps his greatest song, 1990's "Birthday Boy" (sung obscured through a flanger pedal for its official release) and invited back his daughter Anna, as well as opening act Peter Stampfel out for the demented shanty "Polka Dot Tail." Stampfel, of the '60s folk destructors the Holy Modal Rounders and legendarily the first songwriter to use the word "psychedelic" in a recorded lyric, is an obvious forerunner to Ween, likewise never fully accepted by the general pop culture's firmament because of his unapologetic commitment to half-cosmic goofery.
But it was with the first song of his encore, Neil Young's "Needle and the Damage Done," that Freeman revealed another heroYoung, a funny-voiced progenitor so obvious that it's a wonder that fewer critics didn't permanently laden him with the comparison 20-some years ago. "I went to the City and lost my band," Gener sang, "I watched the needle take another man." It was a bold choice. But Aaron Freeman has never had problems with boldness.
Critical bias: Haven't seen Ween in a year or two and was seriously jonesing for a show.
Overheard: "No, that was from the second set of Quebec outtakes."
Random notebook dump: Gener needs to do a whole album of standards sung in the style of that version of "Mr. Sandman" he was doing a few years back.
Kansas City Star
Mountains and Buffaloes
Ooh Va La
Flutes of the Chi
I Don't Want To Leave You on the Farm
The Stallion, pt. 4
She's Your Baby
Happy Colored Marbles (with Anna Freeman on vocals)
Right To The Ways and the Rules of the World
Oh My Dear (Falling In Love)
It Don't Come Easy
What Deaner Was Talking About
The Needle and the Damage Done
Birthday Boy Polka Dot Tail (with Anna Freeman on vocals and Peter Stampfel on fiddle)