KEVIN GRIFFIN at City Winery, Review – Flying Solo

 

Kevin Griffin has been the lead singer of the alternative-rock band Better Than Ezra for over 30 years now. With 8 albums, including a new one released last September, and world-famous hits such as “Good”, “Desperately Wanting” and “King of New Orleans” the band has been constantly busy and continues to tour. In fact, the band just did an amazing concert at The House of Blues last November to a packed house.

 

Kevin Griffin

 

But recently, Griffin has taken time away from the band to tour around the country performing a more intimate solo show. He played to another sold-out house, which included many hardcore fans and newcomers alike, at City Winery on January 25th and fan, or not, no one left disappointed by his performance that night.

 

What is unusual though is that normally when an established artist like Griffin tours solo it’s to either to promote the release of an upcoming new album or even to rebrand himself away from the band, but not in this case. The reasons behind Griffin’s solo show were pure. It was just a chance for him to continue to do what he loves most: playing music for an audience. And I give him tons of respect for that.

 

For Griffin, flying solo is just a chance for him to let loose from the band and play on his own terms. Unlike many artists, Griffin didn’t come in with a prepared set list to play for the night. Many of the songs were done on the spot according to the mood of the crowd. Additionally, performing solo gives Griffin a certain freedom that he doesn’t have when performing with his band on tour. He interacted with the audience more and at certain moments even took song requests.

 

There were also some priceless improv moments that Griffin randomly threw in like jokes about HBO’s True Blood and Game of Thrones. He also did his hilarious spot-on impersonations which included David Bowie, Matthew McConaughey and an all too realistic singing impersonation of Dave Matthews.

 

But perhaps one of the best things about performing solo at a smaller venue is that it gave Griffin a chance to be more interactive and personal with his fans. He gave us the backstories and details as to what inspired him to write many of his songs.

 

Kevin Griffin

 

Unlike Better than Ezra’s performance at the House of Blues two months ago, Griffin tended to play more than his usual amount of soft ballads which resonated well in the intimate environment at City Winery. He gave his beautiful ballad “Porcelain” an extra layer of sentimentality that I’ve never seen him do before. His song “Under You” (which given the lyrics could easily come off cheesy if not sung with intention) was given a deep and tender layer that was actually very moving. In addition, he gave his song “I Just Knew” a gentleness that seemed to be both somber and romantic at the same time.

 

Despite the ballad-heavy evening, Griffin is a charismatic performer with a relatable and easygoing persona who never once let the energy of the evening dissipate. He constantly interjected his own humor in between his slower songs which not only kept us energized, but it made the entire evening lively and engaging.

 

And it wasn’t all ballads. Griffin also provided us with classics like “Good” and “Desperately Wanting”, some rarer up-tempo numbers like “Dollar Signs” and “Get You In” as well as some of his more recent hits like the brainless but extremely catchy song “Juicy”.

 

Performing solo, Griffin didn’t have to push his voice over loud drums and guitars –though one of the bands former members Travis McNabb who now plays for the band Sugarland joined Griffin onstage halfway through to accompany him on drums.

 

Better Than Ezra formed as a roots alternative rock band back in 1988 by four college students at Louisiana State University. The original members at that time were Kevin Griffin, Joel Rundell, Tom Drummond, and Cary Bonnecaze. The band circulated a demo cassette tape (anyone still remember those?) in 1988 called the Chimes Street Demo, which is now a much sought-after item by collectors and in 1990 they released their first album (again only on cassette) called Surprise.

 

But then tragedy struck that same year when the band’s lead guitarist Joel Rundell suddenly committed suicide. The band members initially went their separate ways after the death but by the end of the year they were reunited, moved to LA, and eventually released the indie-labeled album Deluxe in 1993 (it was rereleased under a new record label in 1995) and from there the band went on to immediate success. The song “Good” in particular became a staple of the 90s and was a major radio hit.

 

Better Than Ezra continues to tour even as they write new songs and release new albums. Their latest album All Together Now was released last September.  And just last month they released a holiday single “Must Be Christmas” which included other famous artists such as Lady Antebellum, Neon Trees, Fitz and Tantrums, 311, and many others and all the proceeds went to charity.

 

Kevin Griffin

 

Outside of the band, Kevin Griffin has been an influential songwriter and producer for many years helping to finance and jumpstart the careers of many artists. In 2002 Griffin helped out a young budding artist from Bangor, Maine by the name of Howie Day (he performed at City Winery himself only two weeks ago) by co-writing the hit single “Collide.” Griffin also helped produce Howie’s 2003 album Stop All the World Now and he let Howie be his band’s opening act for many years.

 

In addition, Griffin has also written and co-written songs for many other artists and bands including Christina Perri, Train, Josh Radin, Debbie Harry, Augustana, Daniel Powter, James Blunt, Tristan Prettyman, Hot Chelle Rae, A Rocket to the Moon, the Barenaked Ladies, Megan and Liz, Skillit, Boys Like Girls and Missy Higgins.

 

Griffin has even written for his Nashville neighbor Taylor Swift. Swift herself has been thankful for Griffin’s contributions to her music and she sang Better Than Ezra’s song “Breathless” during a “Hope for Haiti Benefit Relief Telethon” back in 2010 which made sales for the single take off overnight. She has also been known to sing a rendition of the band’s song “Our Last Night” at many of her concerts.

 

Also noteworthy is Griffin’s influence on the band Sugarland where he co-produced their 2010 album Incredible Machine and also co-wrote their best known hit song “Stuck Like Glue” along with the follow-up single “Tonight”.

 

With such a huge tapestry of artists that he has both contributed to and written for over the years I was a little disappointed that he only gave us two songs that he’s written outside of his band while performing solo at City Winery. For those who are wondering, the two songs were “Collide” and “Stuck Like Glue”. Griffin also did some brief mashups and he shared an anecdote about how he recently learned some new guitar tricks by watching YouTube videos over the holidays and he demonstrated it by doing a rendition of Buckethead’s “Big Sur Moon” (a song which is mostly just guitar instrumentals and was not written by Griffin).

 

Now to be fair, the house at City Winery that night was full of Better Than Ezra fans and they were there to hear Kevin Griffin perform the songs that he’s best known for from his band. They weren’t there to hear him sing a Taylor Swift song or a James Blunt song. They wanted to hear his band’s classics. So while I was a little let down that we didn’t get to hear more of his outside work sung by him, I understand why he stuck with his band’s hits. For him it was all about “giving the audience what they want”.

 

For those who missed this performance Griffin let it slip that Better Than Ezra plans to return once again to the Chicago area this summer as part of the lineup at the annual Ravinia Music Festival, though the official lineup has yet to be confirmed.

 

Kevin Griffin

 

City Winery is located in the west loop in Chicago at 1200 W. Randolph. It is a perfect date spot for anyone looking for an intimate night out or for a group of friends looking for a fun and relaxing place to spend an evening. The acoustics in the space are great as everything can be heard loud and clear.

 

A word of warning though: the house wines which are made and fermented directly at this particular location are disappointingly sub-par. And I’m no wine-snob. I’ve been known to get my wine from 7-11 after all. But anyone with taste buds will know what I’m talking about after one sip of the City Winery’s house wines. Thankfully they do offer a variety of other wine selections that aren’t fermented on site. If you’re looking for a red my partner suggested ordering the Hofstatter 2013 (a Pino Noir). And for a sweeter white wine I would recommend the Leitz 2013 (a Riesling). Both were great.

 

Set List at City Winery on 1/25/2015:

1.   “Lifetime”

2.   “I Just Knew”

3.   “Under You”

4.   “Breathless”

5.   “Dollar Signs”

6.   “Extra Ordinary”

7.   “Sublime’s What I Got / Santeria” Mash-up

8.   “Crazy Lucky”

9.   “Desperately Wanting”

10. “Collide”

11. “Get You In”

12. “Big Sur Moon”

13. “In The Blood”

14. “Juicy”

15. “Stuck Like Glue”

16. “Porcelain”

17. “Closer”

18. “Gorillas/Feel Good” Mash-up

19. “Good”

Encore:

20. “King of New Orleans”

 

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