By Mark Guarino
He still sleeps on Star Wars bedsheets, he told his audience. And Jay-Z, he said, told him age 30 is the new 15.
Which is good news for Sean Lennon.
“I’m 31, I’m still a kid,” he said.
Who needed reminding? At the Park West Tuesday, innocence and experience were the competing strands in the songs Lennon performed with four bandmates. Dressed like a frumpy graduate student in a coat, tie, wily beard and glasses, Lennon fussed between songs like a microbiology major trapped at the microscope’s eye.
Yet the songs he played were gentle and dreamlike, with fingerpicked guitars and fragile piano chords that sounded like they emanated from a child’s music box. They were angry songs that did not sound very angry. Instead, they were somber but perfectly crafted chamber pop. On “Falling Out of Love,” the first song played, a slide guitar was played to sound like it could be melting atop the music, while a bass line, chunky and loud, would not let it dissipate completely.
The people crowding the lip of the stage who tried to engage Lennon in one-on-one conversations are undoubtedly the price paid when you are the only son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The Beatlemaniacs were there, as they always are at these sorts of things, but this was the rare time when the legacy did not dominate. If the last name on the album was not Lennon, the songs on “Friendly Fire” (Capitol), would still stand out for their impressive pop craftsmanship and sobering introspection.
Despite a musical upbringing that included stage time with the Beastie Boys, the electronic-pop band Cibo Matto and his mother in her noise rock trio IMA, Lennon’s music was studied and compact. The show — scant at 58 minutes and 10 songs — did not step outside the lines. Lennon’s band carefully recreated almost the entire new album. When he complained that a throat infection would not allow him to hit the high notes on one song, his accompanying guitarist did the job for him at no great loss.
“Friendly Fire” is Lennon’s second album since his 1998 debut. “Mystery Juice,” the one song performed from that time, showed his growth between the years. While his new album is concise and big on melody, that song was a noisy blur.
By comparison, songs like “Spectacle” sounded luxurious. Lennon’s voice, ethereal on this side of nasally, gave them a dreamy feel, complimented by three-part harmonies and elegant touches. While there were many instrumental flourishes of a band coalescing, Lennon stood alone with an acoustic guitar for “Tomorrow.” Singing its bittersweet lyrics in his high, winsome voice, the song could have doubled as a lullaby.
The sleepiness was shattered when Lennon turned “Would I Be the One” into an epic guitar solo. Still restrained, he slid into the upper frets with strength and vitality, injecting flecks of the blues and demonstrating that a famous kid can still be his own man.