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Toadies Rock With Age-Defying Precision at New York's Gramercy Theatre
Toadies perform at Gramercy Theatre on Oct. 18, 2017
The Facebook status said it all. "16 year old me is having a coronary. Watching the Toadies LIVE!!!" the man standing next to me at New York’s Gramercy Theatre excitedly typed in the middle of the alt-rockers’ 80-minute set on Wednesday night (Oct. 18).
The Fort Worth, Texas foursome delighted a healthy crowd of several hundred with a set list that traversed three decades and inspired spirited singalongs, from fans old enough to have actual opinions on the first (H.W.) Bush administration.
"We are the Toadies. We're gonna play a show for you tonight, that's what I'm told,” lead singer and guitarist Vaden Todd Lewis told the crowd at the beginning of the night. His wry delivery foreshadowed an evening of minimal stage banter and relatively stoic stage presence; only a few times did the frontman begrudgingly clap his hands during instrumental breaks and bid the audience to join him. Instead, Lewis & Co. contented themselves to rip through 20-odd songs with age-defying precision, particularly Lewis’ show-stopping high notes at the end of "No Deliverance."
That’s all the audience needed. The Toadies were never “rock stars” in the traditional sense anyway. Their 1994 debut Rubberneck went Platinum off the strength of single “Possum Kingdom,” which hit No. 4 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart despite its grisly, folkloristic lyrics about a self-immolating cult member who scours the Possum Kingdom Lake in North Texas in search of a partner. The group toured incessantly in support of Rubberneck, but Interscope Records rejected their follow-up album, halting their momentum and leading to several extended periods of inactivity.
Yet after years of lineup changes and albums released to virtually no fanfare, the Toadies returned with September’s remarkably strong The Lower Side of Uptown, which rocks with the same sinister abandon as Rubberneck did 23 years ago. The band wisely drew on their bookending records for the majority of their Gramercy Theatre set, sounding equally visceral across all the material. The rumbling, bass-driven strut of “Polly Jean” sounded right at home next to the lurching blues-grunge grind of “Backslider,” and their penchant for anthemic rock riffs shone on the self-deprecating “Broke Down Stupid.” (An audience member started singing Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” over the song’s intro; it fit unnervingly well.)
Perhaps the Toadies’ unwavering confidence in songs both old and new explains why they dispensed “Possum Kingdom” just halfway through their set, much to the delight of audience members who hopped in place and shouted, “So help me, Jesus!” in unison. Some fans jetted to the bar upon the song’s conclusion, but for the most part, the band commanded the room’s rapt attention for the rest of the night.
The group wordlessly ambled offstage at the end of their set, returning for an amusingly unceremonious encore that included an incendiary version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Lewis handed guitar duties to Scott Lucas of Chicago grunge-rockers and openers Local H, as he stalked the stage and unleashed searing, tuneful howls that spurned the audience to chant, “TOA, DIES! TOA, DIES!” He responded with his own droll shouts of “YOU, GUYS! YOU, GUYS!”
Ribbing aside, Lewis enlisted the crowd to sing backing vocals on their set closer, a reverent cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Breakdown." "It's way the fuck up there, and it's on all of you to do it,” the frontman said of the rock classic’s octave-scaling chorus. “If you don't comply, it's all gonna fail."
The audience answered the call dutifully, if not tunefully, while the band lagged slightly, ending their set with a fizzle rather than a thunderclap. But after a barrage of muscular riffs and outsize hooks, the Toadies earned the right to pay tribute to a fallen hero. And 23 years after "Possum Kingdom" put them on the radar, both band and audience earned their night at the Gramercy Theatre together. So help them, Jesus.