Show Review + Setlist: Hayden at Blueberry Hill, Thursday, September 25, 2008

If anyone would have been surprised to hear that Hayden's next album was to include a series of country-tinged toe-tappers, certainly such a potential surprise would dissipate after attendance at Thursday night's Duck Room show.

No such announcement has been either made or confirmed in any of the obvious outlets for an announcement on a new album, but the punctuation of last night’s set with a few unreleased songs bordering more on a country sound is an exciting prospect for fans both of Hayden and the broader genre.

Backed by fellow Canadians and label-mates Cuff The Duke -- one of three acts, including Hayden himself, on Hayden’s own label, Hardwood Records -- the five emerged from the backstage area to minimal fanfare and only scant acknowledgment.

The stage was decorated with autumnal red and orange lights reflecting of the art direction of Hayden’s most recent release, In Field & Town (the cover of which also served as backdrop). Hayden and Cuff The Duke seemed to become the crowd's focus only as the lights and house music went down. Like a vaudeville showman of yesteryear, our leading man wore formal attire -- collared shirt and necktie underneath a gray vest.

A slower version of "Home By Saturday" from 2004’s Elk-Lake Serenade heralded the arrival of Hayden and his more-than-able protégés. Following up with the title track from Hayden’s newest release, he immediately warns for us to "take it easy." It's an easy suggestion to take when in the presence of Hayden's typically mellow and unassuming wintry compositions.

Directly in line with the hushed optimism so closely associated with Hayden was "More Than Alive," also from In Field & Town. Long-time observers of Paul Hayden Desser’s career were rewarded next with the urgent and driven rocker (or at least about as close to one as Hayden typically gets), "The Hazards Of Sitting Beneath Palm Trees" from 1998’s The Closer I Get.

Where Hayden's music and lyrics often seem depressing, his stage banter bends toward the downright hilarious -- perhaps indeed because it's the sedate songsmith engaging the crowd so fully, if maybe a tad shyly. During the course of one song, Hayden turned to organist/guitarist Wayne Petti to mouth that he was "out of tune," realizing after a confused look (and what Hayden called some slightly more joyous ivory-ticklin’) from Petti that his message was perhaps misconstrued as "I love you."

"Dynamite Walls," an early track on 2001's Skyscraper National Park, delighted with the contrast between its somber minor-key verses and upbeat major-key choruses, highlighted by equally contrastive lyrics: "Miles away/Just up ahead/It doesn't matter what/Any of us is looking for/We'll never find it because/It's not even there."

"Where And When," an upbeat number from the new album for which Hayden solicited the audience's help as a "clap, clap, clap-clap-clap" (think "Let’s Go Cardinals") rhythm section and Paul Lowman pounded out the staccato bass beats.

One of the aforementioned country-colored unreleased tracks, "Let’s Break Up!" (the exclamation point comes straight from the band’s own set list), followed next and proved Hayden once again the master of disparity -- a somewhat humorous title with ostensibly sad subject matter to match.

No doubt owing to his tendency to play smaller venues, Hayden never seems to be without a variety of humorous stories from the road, as well. At this point in the show, he told of a nauseating couple seen days before who shared with Hayden that they'd first made love to his music. Lacking anything better to say, and always polite to a fault, his reply was "which song?" to which the man responded "it was actually a whole album."

Annie Zaleski might be interested to hear some tales told of a recent show in her former home of Cleveland, wherein one gentleman was standing two feet away from guitarist/metallophonist Dale Murray and loudly shouting inquiries as to what kind of guitar pick was in use by Murray. A lady at the same show, apparently more sheets to the wind than were numerable, first stood with her back to Hayden and her neck craned to look up at him, and later lay down right on top of his pedal rack.

Apologetically and not without regret, Hayden's response was to leave her be and work around her, until an accidental brush by her breast provided humiliation enough for her to get up. "Only in Cleveland," he quipped before moving on.

Hayden changed to keyboards for In Field & Town's closing track, "Barely Friends," a lilting requiem for a relationship gone awry at some juncture that was as telling a showcase of drummer Corey Wood's vast talents as any song played over the course of the evening. The follow-up, and one of only a few songs onIn Field & Town not directly indicative of lost love, was "Lonely Security Guard," the kind of twist-ending ballad into which Hayden has been known to delve at least once per album. This one, the tale of an origami-folding, seemingly oblivious security guard of a store in a bad neighborhood, disappoints none on that front, and upon his announcement that he'd be playing it next, a particularly animated section of the crowd offered their approval. The forlorn confusion of "Did I Wake Up Beside You?" also from the new album, followed.

A quick move back to guitar, and thereafter perhaps the closest Hayden has come to a radio-friendly pop tune, complete with "La-la-la's," "Hollywood Ending," led into yet another “La-la-la"-oriented tune (this time, even more complete with sing-along), with Skyscraper National Park’s "Carried Away." Between the two, Hayden lamented his having put two "La-la-la" tunes in a row on the set list, but to end the first set with two such upbeat and engaging cuts was indeed a solid, if unintentional, decision.

After a short break, Hayden returned from backstage alone. Re-donning and re-tuning his guitar, he began with "Bad As They Seem," whose original lyrics, "Girl of my dreams/Things are as bad as they seem/She is only sixteen/That's why she's only a dream/Woman of my dreams/Lives right down my street/Has a daughter who's sixteen/That's why she's only a dream" were augmented such that "twenty-three replaced "sixteen" because, as Hayden identified, in the 13 years since the song’s original release on Everything I Long For, the lyrics had become "creepy" (though by his own admission, they were only less creepy by a marginal amount, now).

Cuff The Duke’s return to the stage was halted and reversed by Hayden, who decided last-minute to play the short but sweet Stem," from the same album, as requested by some of the more vocal audience members. When Cuff The Duke returned for real, another unreleased and country-influenced song, "The Place Where We Lived," began, followed by "Trees Lounge," from the soundtrack of the same name and co-written by Steve Buscemi (who also directed the film.) A concert favorite, it closed out the encore.

As winter descends upon us, don’t forget your Hayden, and remember that, like winter, even the most dark and depressing songs can carry with them an impending luminosity.

Setlist: 1. Home By Saturday 2. In Field & Town 3. More Than Alive 4. The Hazards Of Sitting Beneath Palm Trees 5. Dynamite Walls 6. Where And When 7. Let's Break Up! 8. Barely Friends 9. Lonely Security Guard 10. Did I Wake Up Beside You? 11. Hollywood Ending 12. Carried Away

13. Bad As They Seem 14. Stem 15. The Place Where We Lived 16. Trees Lounge

- Robert Severson

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