Touring behind "The True False Identity," his first solo album in 14 years, T Bone Burnett sauntered onstage last Thursday in New York looking like an old-time preacher, clad in a long black jacket and high-collared white shirt, a curvy lock of hair flopping down onto his forehead. After the briefest of introductions, the rangy Texan began teasing out the gnarled guitar riff from the new album's "Zombieland" -- as the rest of the band lurched behind him in eerie approximation of a reggae groove. The song, all foreboding lyrics ("We're gonna stomp that devil beat down in zombieland"), unsettling guitar and keyboard ambience, marked the rest of the evening's course in thick, dark lines.
Burnett's portentousness sometimes resulted in songs that dragged on a minute or two past the point of effectiveness or lyrics that felt a tad overworked ("Phyllis would thrill us, then grill us, then kill us with bacillus"), as if he wanted the audience to get lost in the muck and mire of his music. But more often than not, Burnett and Co. (Jim Keltner on drums, Marc Ribot on guitar, Dennis Crouch on upright bass, and Keefus Ciancia on keyboards) avoided bogging down as they continually reached into the music and pulled something out that throbbed with a spooky power, be it guitarist Marc Ribot's broken blues soloing on "Palestine, Texas," or Burnett sinisterly warning that "it's a mortal cinch, we didn't build this place to last forever" during "A Poem of the Evening: Hollywood, A Mecca of the Movies" -- Keltner's drums meanwhile rumbling like distant jungle thunder.
Though he shies away from saying anything explicit, both in concert and on record, Burnett's music strikes a consistent tone of indignation. He offered some clues to the source of that feeling on "Blinded by the Darkness," when his adenoidal croon cut through the carnival creep-show atmospherics of the music to ask, "Do we want to inject the concept of sin into the Constitution? Shouldn't sin be left to the laws of god and to the laws of nature? Should we trust this to the legislature?"
Though the night's music was rife with suspicion, accusation and condemnation, Burnett let some light shine through during the latter stages of the show -- "River of Love" being a particularly bright spot, its loping country-rock groove shimmering in the warmth of Ribot's crystalline guitar lines. Burnett closed the concert with the old New Orleans chestnut "Bon Temps Rouler," a slice of sultry, sinister swamp funk, which gave off some much-needed heat.
-- David Marchese