Light and Dark

Warren Zevon - Jill Sobule

Vic Theatre - Chicago, Illinois

November 22, 2000

First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2001, Volume 8, #2

Written by John Metzger


Warren Zevon has crafted a career out of writing intelligent and witty songs that explore the darker side of the human psyche. Though he made his debut in 1969, it wasn't until seven years later that he finally caught the attention of critics and the public. Since then, he has drifted in and out of the mainstream radar. At the same time, however, he also has managed to assemble an awesome body of work, featuring the ponderously satiric lyrics that have essentially become his trademark.

At a concert at Chicago's Vic Theatre on November 22, Zevon zig-zagged his way through his extensive catalog, unleashing his arsenal of bizarre characters with an almost morbid glee. A twisted grin adorned his face after every verse of Excitable Boy, and he set the death-defying Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner to a majestic march of piano chords.

Lest things get too dark and gruesome, however, Zevon broke the tension with a well-placed joke. "It's a pleasure to be sharing one of the great non-moments in American history," he joked of the presidential election, and after the heroin-addled and Desolation Row-tinged Carmelita, he rhetorically asked the audience, "Did you know that Dwight Yoakam can yodel on the word ‘chicken?'"

Selections from Zevon's latest effort Life'll Kill Ya — his strongest outing in years — peppered his set, and their subdued strains served to embellish his thoughtful meditations on the fleeting nature of life and love. Poor, Poor Pitiful Me responded to the foreboding blues of My Shit's Fucked Up, and the somber prayer Don't Let Us Get Sick was downright haunting in its frank vulnerability.

Surprisingly, though, Zevon relied on his newer material far less than one might normally expect. Instead, he succeeded in running through many of his hits (such as a gorgeous Desperadoes under the Eves that was underpinned by a bevy of synthesized strings), several cover songs (such as Dwight Yoakam's Santa Can't Stay and Bob Dylan's Chimes of Freedom), and a newly recorded tale of a hockey player titled Hit Somebody. Yet, he also revisited some more obscure material as well.

The reason, Zevon admitted, was that he was consciously trying to alter his set list from night to night, but he also confessed to the difficulties he was experiencing in doing so. Certainly, he has penned enough songs to suit this purpose, but it seemed that in moving past his older selections, he also managed to lose touch with them — simply forgetting how good they are. In fact, a large portion of the concert appeared to be rather impromptu as Zevon searched for something different, even going so far as to honor requests. So if at times he looked a little hesitant or struggled to find the right key or the right words, one could hardly find fault with his performance. Lord knows, he's hard enough on himself as it is.

After stringing together a stellar trilogy of Frank and Jesse James, Hasten Down the Wind, and The French Inhaler, he deemed it necessary to turn to the audience for validation that indeed he was doing the right thing. They, of course, roared in approval — and deservedly so. At the very least he was taking a chance and shaking things up, and more often than not it worked, despite his own insecurities.

Like Zevon, Jill Sobule used humor throughout her 45-minute opening set to lighten the mood. She ruthlessly skewered religion and politics in her songs, pointing out the hypocrisy of George W. Bush's youthful indiscretions as well as the moral majority's perverse sense of right and wrong. Together, her lyrics and indelible melodies made one wonder just why she was recently dropped by her label and hope that she soon finds another outlet for her music.

Life'll Kill Ya is available from Barnes & Noble.
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