BoDeans at Ram's Head review: Still rockin' after all these years

Not reinventing the wheel and that is fine.
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“You feel like doing a sing-along?” BoDeans frontman Kurt Neumann already knew the answer when he posed that question to a crowd of 300 in the L-shaped room at Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis, MD on Wednesday night. The crowd had been singing along pretty steadily through the 90-minute set the boys from Wisconsin had been playing.

Neumann, the only member of the original band left standing, began the show by saying they would be covering close to six decades of music during their two sets. That’s true as far as it goes, but in reality, Neumann stuck overwhelmingly to the crowd favorites from the early years. Sixteen of the nineteen original songs came from the BoDeans’ first five albums, released between 1986 and 1993.

One of the mysteries of the ‘90s is what happened to the BoDeans after their fifth album, Go Slow Down, yielded their biggest hit, “Closer to Free.” In hindsight, it seems like they couldn’t deal with finally living up to the hype they had been receiving since their excellent debut Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams in ’86. It would still be many years before an ugly split between Neumann and co-founder Sammy Llanas would radically change the band’s direction, but the writing appeared on the wall in the mid-‘90s. The BoDeans' time had come and gone.

BoDeans do not reinvent the wheel and that is just fine

But don’t try telling that to the crowd at the Ram’s Head. Neumann, along with his new touring band – James Hertless on bass and backing vocals, Brian Ferguson on drums, and long-time collaborator Stefano Intelisano on keyboards and accordion – put on an energetic show worthy of savvy vets who know how to sell their product.

They opened with “Fadeaway,” one of their best-known songs from their debut album, and followed it up with the only new song in the set – “You Gotta Go Crazy,” a strong rocker from Neumann’s solo project, 2022’s 4 the Last Time. They filled out the remainder of the first set with older songs, from the swampy blues of “The Ballad of Jenny Rae” to the ‘60ish vibes of “Angels.”

One of their very best rockers, filled with fuzzy blues riffs and tremolos, “Good Work” turned into the first impromptu sing-along. They closed the set with “Dreams,” and took advantage of its rhythmic similarity to Modern English’s “I Melt With You” to interpolate a bit of the new wave classic into their tune.

In the middle of it all, Neumann did offer two relatively new songs from 2012’s American Made, the band's first album after the split between Neumann and Llanas. When introducing “Flyaway,” Neumann explained that he had wanted to write a prison song ever since he heard Johnny Cash singing “Folsom Prison Blues” as a kid. He finally got around to it.

He noted, much to the older crowd’s amusement, that growing up in the 1970s, he had the best technology ever. The transistor radio was a far better handheld music machine than today’s phones because it gave you lots of great music, and you didn’t have to pay for it.

Here’s the thing to understand about the BoDeans. Kurt Neumann is not a world-class songwriter. Nor is he a virtuoso on the guitar. His current rhythm section is very good, but never blows the doors off the venue. Intelisano is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist but rarely shows off during a performance.

However, Neumann is very good at what he does. And he is fully capable of writing the occasional truly great song, as he did with “Idaho,” which opened the second set. “Idaho" comes from the same album that produced the Party of Five theme “Closer to Free.” It is not as infectiously catchy, but it is the BoDeans' best song.

And the band knows how to bring their shows home. They closed out set two with a dynamic trio – the perfect sing-along “Still the Night,” rolling into a rumbling, tumbling “Texas Ride Song,” and finally the marvelous rockabilly of “Good Things,” which had Neumann strolling through the crowd while pounding his guitar.

After “Good Things,” the band took off their guitars and said their good nights. But they did not leave the stage. Neumann explained that when he was younger, he would leave before returning for the encore. At this point in his life, he didn’t see the point, and besides, he was trying to conserve his steps. He asked if we wanted a few more songs and got a loud and overwhelming answer. They went out with their only cover (aside from that brief Modern English snippet), Dobie Gray’s iconic “Drift Away,” before a rousing version of “Closer to Free.”

While listening to the crowd chanting along and screeching out their approval, I couldn’t help but recall Baltimore music critic J.D. Considine’s acerbic and mean-spirited dismissal of the BoDeans as “specializing in the sort of roots-rock twaddle beloved by those who like having new albums to buy but desperately hate new music.” Considine wrote that prior to the release of Go Slow Down, though I doubt his opinion would have been seriously changed.

But he clearly undersells the band, who may not break much new ground, but is light years away from “twaddle.” And he undersells that audience, who may be fully capable of enjoying new music while also occasionally preferring a trip down memory lane, hearing six decades of music served up by a band that knows what it’s doing.

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