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Hit Factory 

Not surprisingly, Better Than Ezra's Live at House of Blues New Orleans (Sanctuary) features "Good," and you don't have to listen very hard to hear the crowd singing along to the 14-year-old song. There's no reason not to suspect the audience microphone was pushed up in the mix to make the crowd sound louder -- one of those grand traditions of the "live album" -- but that's how it was during those two nights last year when Better Than Ezra recorded the album. Why should anyone be surprised when the audience sings along with the band's biggest hit? The surprise, then, comes when "Rolling" from 2001's Closer follows, and the singing doesn't stop.

All this sing-along fun suggests a connection between Better Than Ezra and its fans that has seemingly eluded the critics. Over lunch, bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Travis McNabb concede they've never been critical darlings. But when women in the crowd sing along to "A Lifetime," pointing to each other while singing ("And I know I wasn't right / But it felt so good. / And your mother didn't mind, / Like I thought she would."), it's clear that Kevin Griffin is saying something resonant.

"It doesn't feel like a studio record, which a lot of live albums tend to do," Drummond says. "We wanted this to sound like you're standing in the middle of the floor at the House of Blues, and I think we did a pretty good job."

"The crowd was louder than the PA," McNabb says. "The only thing we did have to edit out is, in the live show, we tend to play snippets of covers, but there were copyright issues so there were a handful we had to snip out."

Drummond continues, "We decided we'd go ahead and do them rather than rethink how we play the songs or be overly concerned about the recording going on. Then we approached the various publishing companies afterwards to see what we can do." Unfortunately, a number of the publishing companies -- including OutKast's -- wanted more money than the band wanted to pay to use the songs.

"It's not like we're doing straight covers," Drummond says. "The music's different; it's just the vocals. Kevin sings the melody over our music. To me, it sounds like a different thing, but we've been through two different court battles and we're tired of doing that," referring to legal issues the band had with a former manager and former drummer Cary Bonnecaze.

The band also kept lawyers employed trying to keep from going under when Beyond Records, the label that released Closer, went bankrupt. "We knew they were going to die before they went bankrupt," Drummond says, "so we found a way to get out of that deal, which was basically pay them a lot of money." Still, by doing so, the band retained rights to three or four tracks from the album including the single, "Extraordinary" and what was to be the second single, "A Lifetime."

The live album comes out this week, at the same time as a DVD culled from the same two shows. The song lists for the CD are different, the DVD featuring 22 songs while the album also includes two new studio songs: "Cold Year" and "Stall." "Both are cool songs," McNabb says, "but we don't think they will fit on the new record. With all the music we have right now, they probably wouldn't make sense musically." Both have a wiry urgency that's very different from the lushly pop Closer. The latter song's request for a girl to take singer Kevin Griffin to a bathroom stall isn't something fans of the cuddly Closer might expect.

Not surprisingly, the album also contains the hits. "When you play a show, even though you've played them every night for however long, are you going to not play the singles?" McNabb asks.

"I think we have yet to play a show when we didn't play 'Good,'" Drummond says. "I'd say it's on automatic pilot, but it's not. We're entertainers."

"'Good' or any other song that we play a lot, if we were in the rehearsal space playing it, it would be dull as it could be," McNabb continues. "We're bringing the same thing to the table each night at the show; the thing that's different is that room and those people. When they respond to 'Good' or whatever song, that's what you feed off of."

Since the live project began, Warner Brothers approached the band about releasing a greatest-hits album in time for Christmas, which means there will be some overlapping songs between the albums. "Had we known," Drummond says, "we might have chosen different songs, but probably not." For now, the band's looking forward to the next new studio album, due out in March. The deal wasn't finalized at press time, but Drummond expected it to be any day. "It had better be," he laughs. "We're expecting them to pay for the mixing we're doing!"

click to enlarge "When you play a show, even though you've played them every night for how ever long, are you going to not play the singles?" Better Than Ezra drummer Travis McNabb (center) asks.
  • "When you play a show, even though you've played them every night for how ever long, are you going to not play the singles?" Better Than Ezra drummer Travis McNabb (center) asks.
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