The Strangely Normal Tour - Phil Joel, Earthsuit, V*Enna & Katy Hudson

Feb 22, 2001 (Updated May 6, 2003)

The Bottom Line Earthsuit was the main reason I came, and they didn't disappoint, despite certain band members being drowned out. I look forward to seeing them again on their own tour.

Note: This review has been placed here for two reasons: There is currently no section for "Phil Joel concert reviews", and Earthsuit was the main reason I came out to this show.

Performers: Phil Joel with Earthsuit, V*Enna, and Katy Hudson
Date of Concert: Wednesday, February 7, 2001
Location: The Glass House, Pomona, CA
Ticket Price: $10 (General Admission)

This was definitely one of the strangest concerts I have ever been to. My girlfriend and another good friend of ours fought L.A. rush hour traffic on a Wednesday evening with me to make it out to the ridiculously tiny Glass House (which seems to be a more underground concert venue in downtown Pomona) to see the Newsboys' bass player Phil Joel headline his own tour. All of us had heard and somewhat enjoyed Phil Joel's solo album, but what intrigued us was the bizarre lineup of opening acts that he had brought along on the tour, one of which was Earthsuit, a rap/rock/reggae band from new Orleans that I haven't stopped raving about since their first album released last summer. Once we bought our tickets at the door (general admission, by the way, and the show didn't sell out, so it was dumb of me to try to go through Ticketmaster for this one) and wedged our way fairly close to the stage, we stood waiting to see who would come on first, already slightly disappointed that another of our favorite bands (Luna Halo) wouldn't be playing that night even though they had been along on the tour (this was also true of brother/sister duo LaRue, who I like, but my friends aren't really into). That left three opening acts (which is still too many, in my opinion) - Katy Hudson, V*Enna, and Earthsuit. I'll cover each in a distinct paragraph, giving the most focus to Earthsuit of course, so you're welcome to skip down to the appropriate paragraph!

Katy Hudson came out on stage (after some brief crowd-cheerleading from a concert promoter with a thick New Zealand accent), her jean jacket and glittery eyeshadow giving away her young age (she's 16) and making her look somewhere between Jennifer Knapp and Miss Angie. We weren't sure whether to expect lay-your-soul-bare folk tunes or bubblegum pop; it was mostly the latter, since it was just Katy and her guitar (once again, much like Jennifer Knapp's humble beginning in the world of Christian music). She only got to play three songs, but they were a memorable three songs - perfectly displaying her budding songwriting skills and her impressive vocals. Throughout the concert, the three of us kept leaning over and whispering to each other that we detected another influence in her vocal style - Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Christina Aguilera, and once again, the inescapable comparisons to Ms. Knapp. Her ballad "Search Me" would have been right at home on an album by the Kansas folkster, although her charming between-song banter with the audience gave away her Los Angeles valley-girl roots. Her album is due out in March, and the demos I've heard are quite a strange blend of teen pop, folk, and modern rock (to start with), but I think this girl will go far, because when all the production is stripped away and it's just her and a guitar, she can please a crowd who's never heard of her before.

V*Enna, the half-American, half-British female dance pop duo, came out next. Along with two fly boys, they wowed the audience with their ability to dance around with jerky, robotic motions, act like they were interested in singing the same three songs that they have to do at every concert, give not-so-subtle motions to the sound guy to crank the bass up even higher, and thrill the audience with brilliant lyrics like "V-E-N-N-A, we're gonna make you rock today." In other words, they sucked. I'm sure the prepubescent girls in the room were eating it up, but this whole teen pop thing makes my stomach turn. I spent most of the evening trying to get a few of their annoying refrains out of my head. I'll hand it to them - they can dance. It reminded me of a similarly embarrassing performance by Raze when I saw them open for Delirious? But at least Raze had a real band. V*Enna was stuck with tracks, and barely enough room for any real lateral movement. I can't say I felt sorry for them.

Earthsuit was up next after a brief intermission (one nice thing about this show is that there was a quick turnaround between performances, but that may be due to the fact that V*Enna required no real musicians). As expected, these five guys rocked out and had a lot of fun doing so, getting the most out of their six-song set (and it was a shame they couldn't go on longer). They got right to it, opening with their recent radio hit "Osmosis Land", which made for a great showcase of their talent, being full of guitar fuzz, reggae-like keyboards and vocal crooning, and a rough-and-tumble rap/chant in the middle. Lead singer Adam LaClave wasn't exactly the type of frontman I expected - he looks so serious on the album, but he was hardly recognizable in his knit cap and sunglasses. He came off like a cross between David Spade and the silver dancing robot guys you might see out on the streets entertaining people for change in certain cities. This wasn't a bad thing - just weird. Keyboardist Paul Meany did his double duty quite well, handling all of the rap verses and backing Adam up on the vocals (since there are so many overlapping vocal parts on the album). Their next song, "Against the Grain", which is my favorite on the album due to the diatribe it offers about the hypocrisy in the church, rocked in a very creepy sort of way, as Paul took a break from the keyboards to pace back and forth across the stage, ranting his rap verses into the microphone and looking rather menacing, but making sure to return to his keyboards in time for the jarringly jazzy bridge. Though it was hard to make out much tune over the drums, bass, and rapping at some points, the band did a great job of duplicating the harder songs on their album. One of their softer, more inspirational tunes, "Whitehorse", came off a bit rowdier than it does on the album, with the guitars more prominent and an extra rap verse added in (once again by Paul). It was interesting, but I think my girlfriend was a bit disappointed that they didn't seem to want to calm down and do a few of their mellower songs. Of course, in between songs, most fans were yelling for their mega-hit "One Time", to which Adam responded: "I don't know no song by that title... but I do know one called Schizophreniac!" That got a good response from the crowd (which is good, because I think it's dumb to waste your energy requesting a song that you know they're gonna have to play at some point). Before launching into the song, Adam gave a quick explanation of its origin - it deals with him as a new Christian, getting fired up about his faith at youth group meetings and youth camps and so forth, but putting on a different face for the crowds at school and work and everywhere else he interacted with non-Christians. He added rather humorously, "I hope it blesses the crap out of you", and then the song got underway with its creepy keyboards and mean, fuzzy bass line. Being one of the hardest songs on the record, it's also largely dominated by Paul, and I have to wonder how he gets through a concert without losing his voice. From there, they transitioned into one of their older songs from their indie album, "Noise for Your Eyes", as Adam went around to introduce the band members, cleverly working each of them into a rap verse. As with all band intros, this dragged out a bit long, and used up time that could have been devoted to one of their more melodic songs, such as "Wheel", "Wonder", or the lovely ballad "Said the Sun to the Shine." As it was, they only had time for one final song, and of course that had to be their big breakout hit, "One Time". It's a party song in its nature, so of course it got the crowd moving, and though I don't like to dance, how could I not get into such a groove? I was singing/yelling along with the mile-a-minute lyrics and basically looking like a total idiot. I didn't care - it was fun. I was disappointed that they didn't have time for more, but I plan on seeing the band at Spirit West Coast, where they'll be a main stage act and definitely have time for a fuller set. I have a feeling that their live show is usually better and the elements of their sound are more clear and distinct, given the high praise they've received from such industry veterans as Michael Tait (dc Talk) and Martin Smith (Delirious?). So I can still confidently recommend that all of you go see them live while the songs on their stellar first album are still fresh.

Phil Joel (or "Fool Jewel", as his New Zealander buddy pronounced it) came out after some more set up time and a very brief sales pitch for the children's hunger charity WorldVision (who can get a little overbearing at these concerts, though it is obviously for a good cause). This tour had been advertised as the "Strangely Normal Tour with a Strangely Abnormal Band", and though I didn't detect much wackiness on the part of the band, they were top-notch as far as bands assembled for a solo artist go. They came out on stage as some amusing video images were shown on the screens that surrounded them, including a childhood picture of Phil and some random shots of the New Zealand coast where he grew up. They opened with the perkiest, cheesiest song on the album, "Be Number One", complete with the lyrics being scrolled across the screen in various manners, as if to say Phil was not at all ashamed of this simple song that he wrote as a teenager. With such a solid band, I appreciated this song a bit more than I do on the album (this held true for almost every song that they performed, since the production on his album is way too poppy). They continued almost immediately into another bouncy anthem about following Jesus called "Tonight (Not Fading Away)", which has a thankfully more modern sound to it. Then came a mellower, funkier song called "My Generation" - the lead guitarist really nailed the seventies-style guitar line that runs through this song, and Phil Joel's explanation that it was a song about his old surfing buddies helped it to make a bit more sense to me. Unfortunately, the drums were a bit overpowering on this one, and nobody who didn't already know the words could tell what he was singing about his long lost friends. The video footage of people surfing was also a bit distracting - it would have worked better with a faster song. From there, Phil gave a brief speech about the inspiration behind his first solo hit "God Is Watching Over You", even though it's not really a hard song to figure out, and turned out a predictable rendition of the song (they had to keep from embellishing it, because they were synching it with the song's music video). Next up was another ballad, "El Salvador", inspired by a mission trip Phil went on a few years ago. I expected the obvious tie-in to his support of WorldVision, along with possibly a long guilt-tripping sermon on how we're not doing all we can to support every charity we possibly can and people are dying because of us, etc. (I've been jaded by one too many Christian concerts), but honestly, Phil did an excellent job of just saying what was on his heart without taking forever or resorting to emotionally manipulative preaching. (That takes effort when you've been hanging out with the Newsboys - and I love you guys, but that drove me nuts at your concert. End of aside.) "El Salvador" really is a moving ballad that packed a lot of power when performed live, but once again... could we turn those drums down just a notch? I'd like for people to know that there's a story underneath that beat. Next up came an infectious montage that I really wasn't expecting but made perfect sense - a cover of Blur's infamous "Song No. 2" that segued into a version of the Newsboys' "WooHoo" (get it?). Phil Joel wrote the majority of "WooHoo", which is really quite an intelligent song despite its name, and since he sang it on the band's album, this particular rendition was pretty close. I got the feeling that the band hadn't worked this one out as fully - perhaps they were just having fun in practice one day and decided to make it part of the act. After that came Phil's current radio hit, "Author of Life", a gentle but upbeat pop tune that he described as his least favorite on the album, because it always challenges him to let God be in control. (What? You mean he's not a super-Christian to whom obeying God always comes second nature? I'm so crushed!) Somewhere in there were the band intros (perhaps during the "WooHoo" montage) - including adorable childhood pictures of each band member. We met Phil after the concert, and he explained to us that he had borrowed some players who had been on other major tours with dc Talk, Jars of Clay, etc., but I can't recall who any of them were at the moment. Sorry. In any case, he finished up his set rather abruptly with "Together", the final track on the album (and a personal favorite of mine and my girlfriend's). Here, the drums weren't as intrusive, because the percussion is strong and steady on the album version, and that doesn't detract from it being a wonderful, romantic song about missing home and longing for Heaven. Good note to end on.

Of course, he had to come back for an encore, since he couldn't really get out of performing the songs the tour was named for! "Strangely Normal" capped the evening on a high-note, being about as high-energy as Phil's solo material gets. They played a little bit with the lyrical structure of the song, but other than that, the band's delivery was fairly standard, and before we knew it, the lights were on and people were slowly oozing out of the building. (I was a little disappointed that he didn't play "Fragile", my other favorite on the album.) The three of us waited around in a half-hearted attempt to meet a few artists and get signatures (I had actually run across Earthsuit's bass player working the merchandise table before the show, but I was characteristically unobservant and didn't realize it), but the Earthsuit guys didn't really make an appearance (at least not until after we left). It would have been nice to chat with Katy Hudson, since I always appreciate a talented young songwriter, but there was no way I was gonna fight the crowd of young girls mobbing her and V*Enna. As I mentioned, we met Phil Joel and had a few words with him (his accent was thankfully a little easier to understand than the evening's MC). He signed a few of our Newsboys albums and chatted with us about the band, pointing out a few Newsboys tracks that we hadn't realized he sang lead vocals on. He was friendly and appreciative - he obviously cares about his fans and is perhaps a bit surprised that his solo venture has been so well received.

So, in summary, the evening was worth the $10 a piece we paid to get in (yes, even considering that we had to put up with V*Enna). The tour should still have a few cities left to hit - catch it if you enjoyed Phil's solo album or if you're really into Earthsuit. You might get lucky and catch LaRue or Luna Halo on a few of the tour dates as well.

My Ratings:
Katy Hudson: 5 stars
V*Enna: 1 star
Earthsuit: 4 stars
Phil Joel: 4 stars
Concert overall: 4 stars

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