The duo the Bird and the Bee released an album Friday that imagines what happens to the catalog of Van Halen, as guitar-centric a band as ever walked the earth, if you take out all the guitars. Not to mention what happens when you have a woman with one of the lovelier voices in pop, Inara George, reiterating vintage David Lee Roth lines like “You’ll get some leg tonight for sure!” with a figurative straight face and a literal smile. In “Interpreting the Masters, Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen,” they’re out to find the synth-pop, jazz fusion, cabaret and classical influences in the band’s music… oftentimes where none existed, and that’s okay.
At the John Anson Ford Amphitheater Friday night, though, where the Bird and the Bee were playing a release-day show, the ensemble sounded — or at least felt — suspiciously like a rock ‘n’ roll band, despite the best efforts of George and her musical partner, Greg Kurstin, to deviate from the path. It turns out that if you enlist Dave Grohl to play drums, as they did for this one-off, it becomes rock with a capital R anyway, no matter how far Eddie’s Frankenstrat has been banished.
Making a much shorter guest appearance was actor Randall Park, playing the role Beck did on the new album, of the title role in “Hot for Teacher,” with the same sophomoric jokes about turning to page 69 of “Moby Dick.” (Park did add his own contribution: “All right, class, your assignment for tonight is to log onto Netflix and watch a movie called ‘Always Be My Baby. Tomorrow there will be a quiz.” Even with the genders switched so that it’s a young woman, George, doing the “Ohhh my gawwd” lusting, “Hot for Teacher” is still a brave choice to revive in the #MeToo era, though it will be surely be grandfathered in for as long as there is a classic rock format. Hearing Kurstin play a perfect jazz piano solo in the middle of it, and then seeing the group’s trio of female backup singer-musicians come out to join George in some choreography in front of Grohl’s power drumming, only heightened the absurdity about which year, genre or era of wokeness we were in.
There was plenty of other mirth to go around during the 100-minute set, including snippets of “Funkytown” and, yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” briefly sprinkled into the VH material. But George’s and Kurstin’s respect for the material was meant to be implicitly clear — and, near the end, as a safety precaution, George made it explicit. “There’s no snarkiness at all,” she said. “Not that you thought that. We just wanted to make it clear that we love these songs.”
And yet they couldn’t resist pulling off one other good high jink. As “Jump” seemed to have come to an end, George handed the mic to Grohl, who launched into a lengthy monolog as Kurstin played the introductory instrumental bed of John Lennon’s “Imagine” on the piano underneath him. “You might not imagine that a drummer like me would play with a band like the Bird and the Bee, but I think herein lies the message,” he said. “It’s a message of togetherness and love hope and kindness for one another … and so I thought it would be appropriate to throw this song in the middle of the set just so that we can all celebrate that same love … If we all sing this song together,” he promised, that idealism could be crystallized, “and maybe we can even make it last forever.” With that, he started growling not “Imagine,” but a reprise of “Jump,” set to the tune of “Imagine.” “F—in’ jump,” he commanded, as the anthemic ballad version wound down, for inspirational emphasis.
(This musical-comedy bit of Grohl’s was pretty substantial for a guest drummer who came on board, George claimed, because “we put an ad in the Recycler and this guy called back, so we were like, okay.”)
There was more earnestness in some of the other songs. George has said she appreciates the sensitivity to the female gender that Diamond Dave brought to “Jamie’s Cryin’,” for instance. But even in the songs where there is more of a built-in ironic distance between whatever sensibilities George brings to the material as a seasoned mother of three and whatever Roth had on his mind as a barely post-teenaged king of the Gazzarri’s scene, she was clearly, as she said, not out to take the piss out of the material. If anything, it was a chance to put the piss back in, lending some mom’s-night-out swagger to the proceedings with her heightened physicality, as well as finding the existential sensitivity therein on an “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.”
George said she “wanted to talk about how many similarities Greg and I have to Van Halen. I can think of, like, two. We both grew up in L.A. We both play music. They like jazz, right? David Lee Roth and I have a similar style … but I’d say on a day-to-day basis, probably not,” she bragged/confessed. Actually, there was at least one doppelgänger tendency on display — Roth used to like getting his martial arts-style kicks on stage, of course, and so, Friday, did George, who at one point had a roadie bring a board out on stage for her to snap with her raised foot (she got it on the second try).
They do have maybe one other tangible thing in common, which is being lyricists of some wit, as George reminded everyone with a brief show-closing segment of actual Bird and the Bee material, including the estimable “F—ing Boyfriend,” plus “Diamond Dave,” the song they wrote about Roth a decade ago that presaged all this late ’00s love. George sang that with just Kurstin’s piano as accompaniment, cocktail jazz-style, and “You’re a Cad,” too, a swell Cole Porter-style tune from 10 years back that she said they’d never done in concert before. During these brief moments as an actual duo, without the horn section and multiple synths, you could wish these two had never become famous and had a simple, local act we could all go check out every week at the Dresden Room.
But that would neglect the glory of the analog synthesizers that Kurstin brought to the John Anson Ford to alternate with his jazz piano chops. The general musical m.o. of the Van Halen tribute, on record and in concert, seems to have been to avoid sounding like the original records but also not to introduce any sounds that couldn’t have been produced during the original VH era in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And so “Jamie’s Cryin’,” in all its newfound electronic glory, didn’t sound updated for the EDM era nearly so much as it sounded like it would have if Gary Numan had covered it. Parts of the show were about giving Van Halen extra dollops of Steely Dan chords and charts, and parts were about seeing how Moogy Kurstin could go in his arrangements — all topped by questions about the male-versus-female gaze in popular music that can be saved for another thinkpiece.
Kurstin isn’t going on the road for the rest of the Bird and the Bee’s national August tour; being a superproducer has apparently put the kibosh on following the life of the touring musician, even for a month. But he seemed to be enjoying himself so much on stage at the John Anson that you wondered if he might be regretting that. Adele or Elton or McCartney or some other celebrity client may be calling, but are any of them going to allow him to indulge his Bill Evans fantasies in the middle of a retrofitted hard rock song? Anyway, all will be forgiven for bypassing the tour if they take less than 10 years between “Interpreting the Masters” volumes, as they did this last gap. There’s got to be another appropriately inappropriate catalog crying out for their touch.