Category Archives: reviews

Greetings from the Polar Vortex

photo of icy treesAnd greetings to anyone who might still be following this blog! Yes, it’s true, I’ve been frozen in the polar vortex… we haven’t had it as bad here as folks just a few miles to the north, because when the storm came through on Sunday we skated right on the rain/snow line for quite a few hours. I woke Sunday morning to about two inches of snow, but then it changed over to rain… and sleet… and slush… and snow… and freezing rain… and some big fat white globs that rocketed straight down from the sky and looked for all the world like a giant horde of birds was flying over and pooping on us. Every time I looked out the window, we were getting different precipitation. I fully expected frogs to start falling from the sky at some point.image of radar display showing precipitation

Eventually it started to change back over to snow, and I went outside to clear the 2-3 inches of pure gross slush off my windshield and other parts of the car before it froze solid overnight. That was a very, very smart move on my part. This morning I saw a guy across the street trying to chip about 2-3 inches of pure gross frozen-solid slush off the windshield of a mini-van with what looked like a kitchen spatula. He was also not wearing a hat (the temperature was hovering around 5 below zero at that point), so I’m thinking he might not have been the sharpest snowflake in the tundra. But I felt a little smug as I looked out at the perfectly clear windows of my own car.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late, right?), the temperature dropped below zero shortly after midnight Sunday night/Monday morning, and stayed there until around 11 am on Tuesday. We didn’t get the foot of snow that Indianapolis got, but our roads are covered with bumpy frozen slush, which has its own … er … joys? Campus was officially closed both Monday and Tuesday, which was fantastic, as I am relatively sane and didn’t really want to venture outside in the 30-below-zero wind chill. I have been very, very lucky in that my furnace never gave out on me, I never lost power (a lot of people did), and my pipes didn’t freeze. It was on the cool side in the house even so, but I bundled up in fleece and blankets and enjoyed the heated throw I bought on Saturday for the occasion – as did the cats. I have basically spent most of the last three days underneath various combinations of lap cats. It’s been very, very nice.

3 cats on top of electric blanket

note the box in the background, which has not been opened & contains a brand new space heater bought for the occasion. If my furnace had given out during the polar business, I was PREPARED.

 

High Hopes album artSome people bake cookies when they have a snow day… I apparently write album reviews. If you’re interested in knowing what I think of the new Springsteen album, you can read my review over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. It won’t surprise anyone that I mostly like the album; when I write about music I’m actually less interested in the kind of review that pins the album with a certain number of stars or whatever, and more interested in just delving into it and asking “what’s going on here? what does the artist’s intention for this music seem to be, and does he succeed?” Especially with someone like Springsteen, who’s earned my respect and trust as an artist over the years, I make the assumption that he knows what he’s doing; I am more interested in examining the trajectory of the album and poking at it to find out what makes it tick. I’m not articulating this very well, I think. And I’m not really a music reviewer; to the extent that I have a strategy for doing that sort of thing, it comes more from what I’ve learned about workshopping poetry than from anything else. Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts about the album that didn’t make it into what I wrote, so stay tuned for more, perhaps.

Stay warm and safe out there, everyone – if you go out, wear your hat and mittens and for goodness’ sake clear the snow off of ALL your car windows before you drive! (I shoulda been a mom, huh?)

Leave a comment

Filed under ramblings, reviews, Springsteen

Review: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

Cover art from Ghost Brothers soundtrack album

Tonight I was fortunate enough to see the tour premiere of “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the musical written by Stephen King and John Mellencamp (with musical direction by T-Bone Burnett). I’m not going to write up a detailed review, but I have some thoughts about it. Since it’s a mystery, I’m going to do my best not to include any spoilers.

I’m not particularly a fan of musicals (it’s just a taste I never really acquired), and I’m not that big on mysteries either. The performance was strong enough to overcome my general lack of interest in those genres, though. There were some really fantastic singers on that stage; I was especially taken with Bruce Greenwood (Joe) – who you may know from his acting career but probably didn’t know that he actually has a killer singing voice – as well as Kylie Brown (Anna) and Eric Moore (Dan Coker) but there were a lot of very strong voices. I was completely captivated by Jake LaBotz (The Shape), who played a slimy, funny, villainous, charming, evil, sexy Satan-esque character like it was what he was born to do. Great voice, great movement, incredible stage presence. The songs were terrific, Mellencamp in absolutely top-notch songwriting form, and the band (Mellencamp’s guys – Andy York, Dane Clark, Troye Kinett, Jon E. Gee) was spot-on perfect.

The staging was minimal, but worked really well for me. The idea was that it would be sort of like an old-time radio drama, and there’s even an old-fashioned microphone that serves as a center stage focal point. The set is extremely minimalistic and the costuming is not elaborate. That could, in some hands, make it feel low-budget and amateurish. But because the lighting was very nicely done and the performance was so very good, the staging served to leave room for the audience’s imagination. It was, in a way, kind of like reading a book – you get a certain amount of description but you have to fill in a lot of it for yourself. I liked that very much.

That said, I’m troubled by some things about the show. First, and just to get this out of the way, the women in the show basically existed to serve as pretty prizes for the men to fight over. It really became quite problematic for me. The actresses were great, and they did what they could with the roles, but make no mistake, they were basically high-class props on the stage. It didn’t prevent me from enjoying the show, but it did bug me.

The other troubling thing – and this is troubling in a more interesting way – is that I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to take away from the show. It’s going to be hard to explain this very well without including spoilers, so this may be sketchy. It was quite clear to me that this was meant to be more than just a thrilling ghost story – there are themes of family dynamics and how those repeat from one generation to the next, of the relationship between the living and the dead, of sin and forgiveness, of how lies and secrets can poison the soul.

I think my question about the takeaway is really a question about the theology of the show, oddly enough – and I know even less about theology than I do about musicals, so it’s possible that the gap in understanding is all on me. I guess I’m just not sure, in the end, what position the story takes on the possibility of redemption. The musical finale said one thing and I’m not entirely sure the script was saying the same thing. It kind of felt like when I write a poem that has a bang-up final couplet, boom boom perfect ending, but the couple of stanzas before the couplet are a mess and you don’t really feel like the ending was arrived at, more like I got tired of trying to get to the ending I knew I wanted and so I just gave up and stuck the ending on there. But maybe I’m meant to walk out of the theater asking the question about redemption?

I can’t really go farther than that without spoiling it, and I do think it is good enough to be worth seeing, so I don’t want to spoil it. Go for the very strong performances, go for the great music, go so you can explain to me what I’m not quite getting about the theology thing! It’s playing mostly around the Midwest through early November; I wouldn’t be surprised if it – or possibly a slightly revised version of it – ends up touring more widely, so keep an eye out.

4 Comments

Filed under reviews

A little Jersey in Cincinnati: Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes

Hearts of Stone album coverI’m not sure how a 17-year-old northern Indiana girl in the seventies stumbled across Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, the quintessential New Jersey bar band. I suspect I must have read a review, possibly in Rolling Stone, of their great album Hearts of Stone. The review would surely have mentioned that Bruce Springsteen had written a couple of the songs and that Miami Steve Van Zandt was prominently featured.  I was a big Springsteen fan by then, so that would have been enough to send me to the record store to pick up the album. And I was hooked from the first time I spun that disc. Phenomenal songwriting, impeccable arrangements, passionate performances. I played that sucker over and over, especially “Trapped Again” which was simultaneously propelled and restrained by a super funky bass line, straining against its own architecture.

But the Jukes didn’t get radio play in Indiana, and they didn’t tour here, and I didn’t have any friends who were into them – so I lost  track of them for many years. They never broke as big as they deserved to, and I suppose there are all kinds of reasons for that, few of which have to do with the quality of the actual music they kept making. Personally I think some good rock writer needs to do a biography on Southside Johnny. It would be a fascinating look at the Jersey Shore music scene, and at someone who neither hit it big like his colleagues Springsteen and Bon Jovi nor bombed out completely and quit the business.

Anyway, the rise of social media & my connection with the international network of Springsteen fans put them back on my radar a few years ago. They’ve had a lot of personnel changes over the years, and a lot of cross-pollination with other bands including E Street, Bon Jovi, the Max Weinberg band on Conan O’Brien’s old show, etc. There’s a lot of Jukes and ex-Jukes running around out there, though Southside has always been at the helm. They tour, but hardly ever in my neck of the woods; Chicago now and then, but the dates never quite worked out for me. Plus, to he honest, there are a lot of bands out there touring on their past glory with most of the original members long gone off to greener pastures, and sometimes it is just not a good concert experience. So I was a little nervous about committing a big chunk of time and money to catch a show.

Fast forward to this year. I really, really wanted to make an epic early-autumn road trip out to the Jersey shore. I’ve never been, and so much of the music I love comes from there – plus I just plain haven’t seen the ocean in a few years. I schemed and plotted but between finding a good time to take that much time off & the financial thing, it started to become clear that this wasn’t the year for me and Jersey.

So I started looking around for something I could do on a three- or four-day weekend. Chicago, Louisville, Nashville, Cleveland, St. Louis… Cincinnati. I scoured the tour schedules of every artist I could think of that I liked enough to drive for, knowing that the road trip itself was half the goal. And there it was. Southside & the Jukes, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati on a Saturday night. I dithered and fussed. I tweeted. @msaleski tweeted back that the Jukes were killin’ it on this tour. And whoever runs the Jukes’ Twitter account pointed out:

Which I thought was a very good point.

So yeah. I bought a ticket and booked a hotel room. Decided to stay two nights so I could do a little sightseeing in a city I hadn’t set foot in for many years. I planned my ass off, like I always do, making a Google map and reading endless hotel and restaurant reviews. I spent more time planning than I was actually going to spend in Cincinnati but that is half the fun of it for me.

Bogart's marqueeFinally the weekend came. I enjoyed kicking back in my hotel room Friday night, sleeping in on Saturday (it’s my vacation and I can sleep if I want to), and spending a few hours at the zoo Saturday afternoon. As often happens, serendipity got me to Bogart’s at the perfect time; there were maybe half a dozen people waiting outside about half an hour before the doors were scheduled to open, so I knew I’d be able to snag a great spot on the floor. I chatted with folks as we waited and was pleased to find out I was neither the only one who’d driven in from out of town nor the only longtime fan who’d never managed to catch the band live.

I ended up smack dab in front, leaning on the barrier separating the audience from the stage, not too far off center. Not having people in front of you makes a huge difference when you’re 5 foot 1. I killed time chatting with the folks around me, sharing music recommendations. I love the anticipation before the show almost as much as I love the show itself.

As for the show itself? They flat-out killed it. I was looking forward to the show, but it exceeded my expectations by a fair margin. Very loose, very high-energy. What got played was pretty radically different from the written setlist, with Southside Johnny and former Cincinnati resident Jeff Kazee (who got a lot of the spotlight that night & was clearly relishing his return to his old stomping grounds) kicking into songs and letting the rest of the band catch up. A little ragged at times, but in the best way – and you gotta love an unexpected Elvis medley, not to mention THREE encores.

Southside Johnny and Jeff Kazee onstage

If one were a purist, one could argue about whether the current touring band is really the Asbury Jukes. It’s true that the only guy in this lineup who appeared on Hearts of Stone is Southside Johnny himself. But it’s not like the band was the same core group of guys for decades and now it’s a bunch of ringers; the lineup has always changed frequently. As noted in the Wikipedia article about the band, more than 100 people can claim to have been Jukes. Sure, you can make the case that when they play the older material, the current group is basically a cover band fronted by the original singer. But you know what? These guys sounded GREAT and I pretty much couldn’t stop dancing all night. And to me, that’s what matters. Great music played well, with humor and heart and energy. And you gotta love Southside for putting it all out there on the stage, playing a longer show (I didn’t time it, but definitely over two hours) than lots of guys half his age, leaving the audience sweaty and exhilarated. (One mark of a great rock show, for me: my feet hurt like hell when I got back to my room.)

Horn section

Musical highlights for me: “Till the Good is Gone” (which is just a great great song), “Talk To Me” (featuring a hilarious interlude in which Southside tried to get one of the security dudes at the front of the stage to sing along), and – the third encore, the one song I didn’t dare hope to get that night, one of the cornerstones of 17-year-old Anne’s soundtrack – “Trapped Again.” But really, it wasn’t the individual songs as much as it was the  whole sweaty, exuberant evening, which reaffirmed everything about why I love this music, why I love going to concerts, why it’s worth the 340-mile round trip (would have been less if Einstein here hadn’t booked a hotel way the heck up in Blue Ash, but oh well), and why I need to remember that if there’s ever any doubt I should always, always, always just buy the damn ticket and go to the show.

Southside Johnny and Glenn Alexander onstage

Setlist for October 5, 2013
Bogarts, Cincinnati, OH
(list via Natalie Ellis, as posted on the Asbury Jukes’ Facebook page)

I Only Want to Be With You
Passion Street
Lead Me On
Keep On Moving
I Played the Fool
You’re My Girl
All the Way Home
This Time It’s For Real
Till the Good Is Gone
Help Me
Without Love
Love On the Wrong Side of Town
Walk Away Renee
You Don’t Know Like I Know
Soul Man
Drown in My Own Tears (Jeff Kazee vocal)
Shake ‘Em Down
Don’t Be Cruel
Heartbreak Hotel
Fever
One More Night to Rock
Stand By Me
I Don’t Want to Go Home

First encore:
Talk to Me
Hearts of Stone

Second encore:
Better Way Home

Third encore:
Trapped Again

Band lineup:
Southside Johnny
Jeff Kazee
Glenn Alexander
Tony Tino
Tom Seguso
Neal Pawley
John Isley
Chris Anderson

15 Comments

Filed under music, reviews

Macca’s Magic: Paul McCartney in Indianapolis, parts 2 and 3

Paul McCartney and band onstage

[Read Part 1, in which I experience Concert Ticket Drama and Kerfuffle.]

Part 2: Rock Show

After racing around deciding what to wear (and being thankful that I’d done laundry the night before instead of saving it for Sunday evening as I usually do), printing out my ticket, feeding the cats, getting cash for parking, and gassing up the car, I plugged the Bankers Life Fieldhouse address into my GPS (yes, I’ve lived 50 miles from downtown Indianapolis for many years, but I often get lost enough to make the GPS worthwhile) and was on my way. To my delight, the Indianapolis radio station I listen to most often, WTTS, was playing an hour and a half of Beatles and McCartney music for those of us on our way to the show. I turned it way up. Few things put me in my happy place more than singing along at the top of my lungs while driving to a show, and I was definitely in my very happy place by now.

I arrived at the arena well ahead of showtime, took a few minutes to ogle the shiny shiny tour buses parked outside, went in and found my seat. To my delight, although I was pretty far towards the back of the arena floor, I was dead center and just three rows in front of the soundboard – which guaranteed that I would get the best sound in the place. Sweet! Based on the seating diagram I’d seen on Ticketmaster, the original plan was that Section F on the floor would be split into left and right halves on either side of the soundboard, so my guess is that the board ended up requiring a little less floor space than anticipated and they were able to open up five rows in front of it at the last minute.

I chatted with the folks around me a bit, all of whom had similar last-minute ticket-buying stories. We were all pretty grateful to be there, I think! Finally the lights dimmed, and for the next half-hour we watched a sort of scrolling photo/video collage on the big screens on either side of the stage – beginning with pictures of Paul as a small child and continuing on with photos from the Beatles and Wings days, augmented with painting (if I’m not mistaken, done by McCartney himself). It was really nice, although to be honest I could have lived without most of the DJ’d cover versions of McCartney’s songs that accompanied it…

McCartney and band took the stage about 8:30 to absolutely thunderous applause. Bankers Life (formerly Conseco) Fieldhouse was sold out from the floor all the way up to the rafters, and the audience was into it from the get-go. He opened with “Eight Days a Week” and it could have been the Beatles in Shea Stadium for all the screaming in there. Pure, pure joy.

Musical highlights included:

Paul McCartney playing guitar

“Paperback Writer”

• All of the early Beatles songs – “Eight Days a Week,” “All My Loving,” “Paperback Writer” (using the guitar that was used for the original recording!), “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “We Can Work It Out,” “And I Love Her,” and later on in the encores “Day Tripper,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and of course “Yesterday” (sigh…!). These songs never get old, do they? God, just so brilliant.
• “The Long and Winding Road,” followed by “Maybe I’m Amazed” – two of my favorite McCartney songs, and I will admit that the room got awfully dusty there for a few minutes (sniffle). “Maybe I’m Amazed” seemed a particularly heartfelt performance of the song Paul noted he’d written for Linda.
• “Blackbird.” McCartney introduced this one by saying he’d written it in England with the intention of writing a song for the American civil rights movement. Less than 24 hours after the Zimmerman verdict, still feeling wrenched and heartsick, the song felt especially poignant to me. He played it solo on acoustic guitar, standing on a small platform that rose up as he played until he was standing high above the stage – a neat effect. One of my very favorite Beatles songs, both utterly timely and utterly timeless. I think this was my favorite moment of the show – and one of my favorite concert moments ever.
• That was followed by “Here Today,” which Paul said he’d written in memory of his friend John. “If you need to tell somebody something, do it now, because you never know when it will be too late,” he told us. Such a simple human thing, the sadness of losing a friend before you can say what you need to say – of course when you remember that the friend was John Lennon, and the absolute wrenching heartbreak of his murder and what the world lost, the grief is both personal and public. A lovely tribute to what must have been a complicated friendship.
• After that it was the fun and games section of the set (it really was a very well-constructed setlist overall): “Your Mother Should Know,” “Lady Madonna,” “All Together Now,” and “Lovely Rita.” So lighthearted, so much singing along!
• Another tribute to a lost friend: Paul got out a ukulele, and told us about hanging out with George Harrison and figuring out how to play one of George’s songs on the ukulele. The one he was playing tonight, he told us, had been given him by George himself. He began “Something” solo on said ukulele as images of George played on the giant screen; eventually the band came in for a really, really lovely version of one of my favorite songs of all time. (Sniffle. Again.)
• And there was “Let Me Roll It”! And “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five”! And “Eleanor Rigby” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Band on the Run”! So many highlights. You start to realize after a while just how many incredible songs this guy has written and it blows your mind, it does.
• “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was an absolutely killer performance that had me dancing my butt off. I loved the “FREE PUSSY RIOT” graphic that flashed on the screen for a few moments among all the other Soviet-inspired imagery – and the loud roar of approval it elicited from the audience. Go Paul!
• “Let It Be” was – as always and ever – a religious experience. Something about that song is so completely comforting to me. I know he’s played it a thousand million times, but to hear Paul McCartney singing this song in person is just … it’s something that will stay with me for a long long time.
• And then “Live and Let Die,” a song I’ve always loved, came complete with GIANT JETS OF FIRE and actual FIREWORKS inside the arena! It was just spectacular. You know, I’ve always said that good musical performances don’t need laser shows and pyrotechnics and what-not… but this was SO MUCH FUN. Holy cats, it was fun. Following that up with “Hey Jude,” which gets its own brand of pyrotechnics from the utterly epic audience sing-along… nearly twenty thousand people, every single one of us at the top of our lungs… epic, epic, epic.
• And the encores! Two encores, three songs each – “I Saw Her Standing There” was loose and such a great damn song and SO much fun. The second encore opened with Paul standing alone in the spotlight with an acoustic guitar, singing “Yesterday” – followed by an insanely loud, psychedelic-light-show rendition of “Helter Skelter.” An awkward segue? Maybe, but also brilliant; you realize at that moment that this man has written, not just dozens of the best songs ever written, but both “Yesterday” which is the simplest, purest pop ballad in the world AND “Helter Skelter” which is one of the most furious, manic, heaviest rock songs ever. I loved the contrast.
• And of course, he has to end with “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End.” It’s the perfect ending to the show, and as Paul and band leave the stage we are showered with giant cannons full of red, white, and blue confetti. It’s perfect.

Paul McCartney at piano

“Maybe I’m Amazed”

38 songs. Over two and a half hours of music, by my calculation. (Here’s the complete setlist.) Some of the greatest songs ever written, performed very, very, very well by the excellent band that’s been touring with McCartney for many years. Paul himself has lost very little with age; all evening he kept doing little dances in between songs, grinning and pointing at the audience, clearly enjoying himself immensely. His voice is perhaps not as strong as it once was; at times he faltered slightly and at times he seemed to be singing with a certain carefulness. But that didn’t detract from the performance at all and in fact it made the music seem more precious in a way, just enough of a crack in the perfection to remind us all to cherish this experience while we can. Time eventually takes a toll on everyone – but for now, Paul McCartney is definitely still charming (dare I say, even downright adorable), still jaunty, and above all still rocking as hard as anybody out there.

A couple of other notes. I have read some complaints about the sound in the venue, and I would not be surprised if indeed it was bad up in the rafters – it’s almost impossible to get great sound in every part of an arena that size. From where I was sitting, three rows in front of the soundboard and dead center on the floor, the sound was absolutely pristine – resonant, crisp, and clear. I could understand every word spoken and sung, all of the instruments sounded great, and the volume was perfect (LOUD but not distorted).

The lighting and stage design were a wonder to behold. Like I said, I’m normally not one for a big light show or elaborate staging at a concert – the music should hold its own. Obviously, McCartney’s music needs no augmentation. But the way the lighting and staging were done, it was like we got a completely different stage every so often – the big screen behind the band was used in some incredibly creative ways, and the lighting set so many different moods. I felt like I’d been taken on a journey through a bunch of different places and times, and the lighting made the experience utterly immersive. It was incredibly creative and beautifully accomplished. If anybody knows who’s responsible, please do leave that information in the comments!

Finally, McCartney’s longtime band deserves a mention: Abe Laboriel (drums, percussion, vocals), Paul “Wix” Wickens (vocals, keyboards, guitar, percussion), Brian Ray (guitar, bass, vocals), and Rusty Anderson (guitar, vocals). All four of these guys knocked my socks off with their musicianship and versatility.

Part 3: I Have Seen the Future of Rock & Roll…

Lastly, just a little bit about the crowd. Totally sold-out show, so there was a little of everyone there. Lots of people my age (mid-fifties) and up. Lots of Beatles t-shirts. But also… LOTS of young folks, many there with their parents. I love that! To say the audience was enthusiastic would be a pretty humongous understatement. Everyone was on their feet, all the way up into the rafters, for most of the show; during the encore breaks I took a moment to look around me and saw a gorgeous glittering sea of cellphones being waved. Before the show, such a huge sense of anticipation and excitement. After the show, some of the biggest smiles I’ve seen in a very long time. It was a beautiful thing.

Red, white, and blue confetti in the air.

confetti!

The show ended with a giant blast of red, white, and blue confetti into the audience. Some of us (okay, ME) immediately became little kids and started reaching up into the air to catch the stuff, scooping up handfuls of it to save. I realized as I danced around catching confetti that the young lady a few seats down from me was doing the same thing. I’d noticed her before the show – probably about 14 years old, wearing a McCartney t-shirt, shorts, and Beatle boots, carrying a super cool bag designed from an actual record album and painted with Paul’s face on it. We grinned at each other as we scooped up confetti, and started chatting. Her eyes were shining and then she melted into tears, utterly overwhelmed by how much she loved the show. “It’s life-changing,” she said.

And that, friends, THAT made my already full heart just about burst with happiness and joy. To witness somebody her age falling head over heels in love with rock & roll, with the exuberance and celebration of a show like that – it just gave me a pile of hope that I have been needing, you know? I told her “when I was about your age, maybe a little bit older, I went to my first Springsteen show and it changed my life too.” I know she probably feels like a lot of her peers, the ones who listen to Justin Bieber and One Direction and Taylor Swift, don’t understand the diehard Beatles fan in their midst. I know she probably feels like she’s not quite like the other kids, sometimes. I hope that by telling her that I’d had the same experience, she realizes that she’s on a wonderful journey that will carry her through the rest of her life.

Can music change the world? I don’t know (okay, I do know, and the answer is yes, but we’ll accept that there’s room for argument here) – but I do know for sure, for absolute sure, that it can change a person. And that person can then change the world. All you need is love, and all that. It’s hard to hold on to that level of optimism sometimes, in the face of the really hard things that happen. But then you go to a concert, and one guy stands there alone in the spotlight singing a song he wrote more than half a lifetime ago, and everything somehow makes sense – love, and hope, and belief. And you go home and you go back to your regular life but that song stays with you forever, cradled inside where you can reach in when you need it and hold on to it a bit.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night…

Was that concert ticket worth all the drama and the kerfuffle and the number of dollars that no sane person with my salary would think of spending on one rock show?

Yes. Yes, in fact, it was.

Thank you, Paul McCartney. Thank you, young woman in Section F Row 2, whose name I never got. Thank you, rock and roll. Thank you.

Paul McCartney alone in spotlight playing acoustic guitar

“Yesterday”

2 Comments

Filed under music, reviews

Movie reviewish: “Not Fade Away”

Caveat lector: This isn’t really a proper movie review. I don’t know much about movies, and wouldn’t begin to try to critique a film from an artistic standpoint – I think you have to really understand a genre in order to do that. For a good example of a proper film review, I liked Leonard Maltin’s. This is pretty much just my own personal reaction to the movie; very personal, as you will see by the end.

"Not Fade Away" movie posterGiven that David Chase’s coming-of-age film  “Not Fade Away” is basically a love letter to rock & roll, it won’t surprise anyone that I liked it. Okay, I think it had some issues with pacing – there are times when scenes blow by quickly and I wasn’t really sure whether I had maybe missed something. There were some subplots that were interesting but never got fleshed out – the bit about Grace‘s hippie sister, for example. I was disappointed that the female characters were generally pretty two-dimensional, especially Grace herself; she’s just the pretty but slightly confused girlfriend, and though she’s on screen a lot, we never really get to know what makes her tick. And while I loved the last three minutes or so, the final arc towards the ending (the L.A. part) seemed a little muddled and out-of-place to me.

But you know what, I still loved this movie. I loved it a lot. The soundtrack, as one would expect given the involvement of Steven Van Zandt, is absolutely killer. The Van Zandt original featured in the film, “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” is catchy as hell and just a great song. (You can read my review of the soundtrack album over at Blogness.)  The scenes where the band is learning to play are beautiful; the one where they’re working out “Bo Diddley” in particular made me want to run out of the theater and go start a band. There’s a hilarious cameo by Jay Weinberg (son of E Street drummer Max Weinberg, and until recently the drummer for punk band Against Me) as a drummer entirely ill-suited for the band he’s playing with; for the benefit of those who get it I will mutter here “No junior Ginger Bakers.” The acting is generally very good, especially leading man John Magaro, of whom I bet we will be seeing a lot more, as well as Meg Guzulescu who plays his sister – a tiny role, but she really shines. Anyone who grew up in the sixties will appreciate the attention to authenticity and detail throughout the film; it felt absolutely real. And I dare you not to walk out of the theater humming and/or dancing.

But mostly, and this really isn’t that much of a spoiler, I love that “Not Fade Away” isn’t a success story. It would have been easy to make a movie about a band that makes it big, or for that matter about one that crashes & burns dramatically. But as the lead character’s younger sister says at the beginning of the movie, this band is like most bands – you never heard of them. Does this mean this is a film about failure? No. The message of the film, to me, is that following your dream and doing what you love is not wasted time, regardless of whether you find “success” or “failure” or something in between. More specifically, the movie posits rock & roll as something worth pursuing and holding on to and in fact as the greatest thing American culture has produced.*  You can argue about that latter point, but you can’t argue that the movie and its characters come most alive when they are playing or listening to the music they love. And that has nothing to do with recording contracts, commercial success, or anything else.

As the daughter of a musician who made a modest (very modest) living for a while playing in your basic hotel-lounge cover band, and as someone who took guitar lessons for a while and came close enough to not sucking at it to have some pretty daydreams, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of musical “success.” When you spend hours and hours practicing your craft and you never have the kind of success you daydream about, have you wasted all that time and effort?

I think about that a lot, actually. When my dad got a “real job” teaching psychology at a university and moved us to Indiana, he pretty much stopped playing music. He probably could have found some guys to play with on weekends for fun. But having been good enough to play professionally, I think he recognized that no longer practicing regularly meant that his chops deteriorated quickly, and I think it was hard for him to enjoy playing if he didn’t have the facility with it that he used to have. So he stopped. Like him, I have enough of an ear to hear that when I pick up the guitar to bash around on it now, I kind of suck. I was never a professional-level musician but I was coffeehouse-level good once, and now I can’t even play that well. It’s hard for me to do things just for kicks, without wanting to be good at them. And so, mostly, I don’t play.

And what “Not Fade Away” tells me is, fuck that shit, just play. If it makes you feel alive, it doesn’t much matter if you suck or if you’re good enough to get a record contract. Being good enough to get a contract doesn’t mean you’re going to end up famous anyway. Like all those other bands you’ve never heard of, you probably won’t. You may find yourself in a strange city living a life entirely different from the life you were dreaming of, but on some street corner you might hear music and remember what it feels like to be alive again. And that, this movie says, that is what matters.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have a guitar that needs my attention now. Rock on.

___________________

*At the very end of the movie Evelyn, younger sister of main character Douglas, turns to the camera and says “I had to write a term paper, and I wrote about how America has given the world two inventions of enormous power. One is nuclear weapons. The other is rock & roll. Which one is going to win out in the end?” The question is left verbally unanswered, but Evelyn begins dancing in the middle of the deserted street, a graceful little go-go sequence that celebrates youth, rock & roll, and life itself. I would argue that her dancing answers the question pretty definitively. Rock & roll wins out – if we let it.

1 Comment

Filed under music, reviews

My Lotus Festival

Picture of tent venue at the Lotus Festival

Lotus Tent (exterior view)

I love Bloomington’s annual Lotus World Music & Arts Festival. More than just a music festival, it’s a celebration of the common ground to which music can bring us – across languages, cultures, all manner of divides both geographical and sociological. One of the things I love most about it is that you can have pretty much whatever sort of musical experience you want to have. If you feel like dancing your butt off in a tightly packed crowd (or to stand in back where there’s plenty of elbow room and enjoy watching said tightly packed crowd), you can usually find that in one of the outdoor tents. If you feel like sitting quietly and contemplating something softly acoustic, head for one of the churches. If you want a formal stage and a comfortable seat, go to the Buskirk-Chumley. If you’re in one venue and you find it’s not entirely your cup of tea, or if you’re enjoying it just fine but there’s also another performer you were curious about, it’s perfectly OK to duck out between songs and move from venue to venue. And on Saturday afternoon, you can spread out your blanket in the park and enjoy several different performers along with families, kids, dogs, picnics, and tents housing all kinds of fun crafts activities for the families and kids (not so much for the dogs).

So I don’t think it’s possible to “review the Lotus Festival” – everyone who attends has a slightly different experience with this kaleidoscope of music and culture. This year was apparently my year to enjoy the crowded tents and the loudly rocking music, as all of my highlights fall into that category. Here’s a bit about the performers I especially enjoyed – and I know I missed some other great ones (Fishtank Ensemble, Movits!, Fatoumata Diawara, and Vida are all performers I wanted to see but didn’t get to).

Taj Weekes & Adowa – Hailing from St. Lucia, Weekes brought the sound of the islands to a Lotus tent as Friday evening began. I sometimes forget how much I enjoy reggae, and really enjoyed the band’s mellow groove.

Hanggai performing at the Lotus Festival

Hanggai

Hanggai - I saw these guys the last time they played Lotus and enjoyed them, so made a point of catching their set on Friday night. This Beijing-based group combines Western rock instruments (guitar, bass, drums) and energy with traditional Mongolian instruments and throat-singing, sometimes using Mongolian folk songs. The lead singer definitely has a rock-singer attitude, and although I don’t understand a word of Mongolian, I can understand Hanggai’s music just fine. The music is multi-textured, with drums and electric guitars creating a base for the traditional Mongolian stringed instruments, and the use of throat-singing (you know, that guttural drone you associate with monks or something) adds a really cool dimension. The set picked up intensity as it went on, and when a storm started to roll in and lightning began to flash through the translucent roof panels of the tent, it was pretty much the most heavy-metal moment I’ve experienced at a show in recent years. Utterly exhilarating.

MC Rai – A native of Tunisia, this San Francisco resident blends Algerian Rai music with a Western hip-hop groove to create a blend that is upbeat, socially conscious, and very, very danceable. The foundation of his band rests on a drummer and bass player who both look like refugees from a Led Zeppelin tribute band but played with funk and verve, the bass player bouncing and pogoing with joyful abandon much of the time. MC Rai himself is a superb frontman, reaching out and making a strong connection with the audience. I saw everyone from teenage kids to middle-aged Hoosiers dancing, rocking out, and having a great time. I caught this charismatic performer when he was last at Lotus in 2007 and bought his CD “Raivolution” at that time – it’s pretty great.

Delhi 2 Dublin – This was a wild-card choice for me. I kind of wanted to see Movits!, but I saw them last year and while I knew they were a lot of fun, I was curious about the Indian-Irish mashup of this Vancouver-based band. Plus, they were performing in the tent nearest the parking garage where I’d left the car, and I was feeling a little tired and thought I might leave early and would appreciate the proximity. Well, no, I did not leave early, not at all. Delhi 2 Dublin knocked my socks off! Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve been rocked by a fiery duel between a kilt-wearing Korean dude playing the electric sitar and a phenomenally energetic blonde Irishwoman playing the fiddle, supported by Bhangra percussion and a dynamic lead vocalist named Sanjay. The Celtic-Indian mashup sounds like it would be awkward, but trust me, it’s fantastic – and just goes to show you that music really is a common language, wherever it originates. Plus, I’m partial to musicians who look like they’re having a great time, and these guys were absolutely radiant as they performed, like they almost couldn’t stand how much fun they were having. Maybe they were having as much fun as the audience was – I know we were having a blast and dancing our butts off! This band was definitely my “Lotus discovery” this year and I hope I get another chance to hear them sometime. Their performance was transcendent and honestly, there is no reason why they couldn’t make it as big as, say, Arcade Fire (whose energy they reminded me of, for no reason I can put my finger on) – their music and performance has a wide appeal and I can’t imagine going to one of their shows and not falling in love with them.

Leave a comment

Filed under music, reviews

Richard Thompson in Bloomington

photo of Richard Thompson

photo by Paul Sandy, from Richard Thompson – RT (Facebook)

Bloomington, Indiana isn’t a big city. It isn’t Chicago, or New York, or even St. Louis. So often, when a major musical act announces tourdates, I look at them and sigh because there isn’t even one within 200 miles of me. But … we do get some great stuff nonetheless. And in some ways, we’re even luckier than those big-city folks. Because we don’t have the huge variety to choose from, those of us who have broad taste in music often find ourselves going to concerts by people we might have passed up if we’d had other choices or if we’d been jaded about how many shows were available to us – and those shows are often phenomenally good. (I’m thinking of performers like Janelle Monae, whose show I bought a ticket for in an “aw what the heck why not” moment and who blew my socks off.) And there’s something – there’s a whole lot of something – to be said for seeing a world-class artist in a relatively intimate venue with great sound, with free parking within two blocks of the venue, and a ten-minute drive (if all the stoplights are red and you have to pull over for an ambulance along the way) from home. And that was the kind of show I had tonight.

Richard Thompson has performed in Bloomington many times, going back some thirty years when he played at Second Story (a great, though hardly luxurious, live music venue & bar so named because it was on the second floor of the old Moose Lodge; the first floor was taken up by Bullwinkle’s, a gay bar whose disco music would come thumping through the floor during set breaks and sometimes during quiet songs) very early in his first American tour. I didn’t go to that now-legendary show – in fact I don’t think I was twenty-one yet, so I wouldn’t have been able to get in (you will say that shouldn’t have stopped me, and I will point out that I have always been perhaps too much of a law-abiding citizen for my own good)  – and for whatever reason, though I’ve long been aware of Richard Thompson as one of the great guitarists & songwriters of our time, I’ve just never made it to any of his Bloomington shows.

One thing about having incredibly broad taste in music is that there are a lot – a LOT – of artists I’m somewhat familiar with, and appreciate, but have never taken the time to dive in and become a serious fan of. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that there is so freaking much great music out there that it is just impossible to listen to it all. (Well, not and keep my day job.) Sometimes I get the opportunity to catch one of these folks when they come through town, and I actually kind of enjoy being the casual (but appreciative!) fan in the midst of the serious followers, especially since I know what it’s like to be one of the serious followers. I had that experience at a John Prine show a couple of years ago – I had a really good seat and think most of the people around me had travelled to see the show – and that was the case again tonight when I saw Richard Thompson at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington.

I know a few of Thompson’s songs, and I knew to expect some crazy amazing guitar virtuosity. It was billed as a solo acoustic show, which indeed it was – in fact, he didn’t even swap out guitars, just tuned and retuned the same one for every song. (He did have a few effects boxes though he didn’t seem to fiddle with them much.) One guy and one guitar, creating a wall of sound to rival most bands.

Guitar virtuosity, oh yeah, the guy has got it. But for the most part he doesn’t play just to show off. Like all the greatest musicians (and Jimi Hendrix comes to mind here, since we’re talking guitarists), he gives each song what it needs, whether that means laying back and allowing silence to surround each note, or just playing simple chords while letting the lyrics do the heavy lifting, or playing something so complex, so blindingly fast, and so utterly clean that I can’t quite figure out what hit me.

He’s also funny (early in the show he said something like “This song is from my next album, and so were the first two that I played. The rest of the album is crap.”) and did I mention the brilliant songwriting? What struck me, even though I’m a word person (and his lyrics are great), was the musical brilliance – really cool chords and complex musical structures that went to unexpected places, didn’t always resolve in predictable ways, but were so evocative and fresh. (I have friends – hi, Dave – that are musically far geekier than I and could explain what that’s all about in very technical terms. But this is my review, so you’re stuck with things like “cool chords.” Deal with it.)

I think “Valerie” was the first song that made me feel like I might get blisters on my fingers just from watching him play. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was also a real showcase for him and perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser. “Wall of Death” might have been my favorite; I’ve always loved that song and recall hearing Shawn Colvin do a very good cover of it way back when. But in some ways the emotional heart of the show rested in a lovely and loving rendition of the Fairport Convention classic (named by the BBC as the best folk song ever) “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” It’s one of those songs that, after so many years, has gathered layers of memory and meaning around it – and yet it still sounds fresh. Really a beautiful moment in the concert. And it reminded me that, like Springsteen, Thompson is one of those rare artists who can put together a setlist drawn from three or four decades of music – all of it very much alive and relevant, including the very old and the very new.

Thompson took two encores, buoyed by a very enthusiastic audience (Bloomington has a lot of RT fans!) – and closed the show by playing “The Weight” as a celebratory singalong, dedicating it afterwards to Levon. I was reminded that about a year ago, in the same theater, I heard Mavis Staples and her band performing the heck out of that same song – an equally great, though very different, performance. I walked out of the theater feeling lucky, lucky, lucky to live in a town where we get enough great musical performances to keep us happy, but not so many that we forget to appreciate the magic when it happens.

And now I clearly have got to listen to some more Richard Thompson. So I will happily accept album recommendations in the comments – his catalog is a little overwhelming, to say the least!

4 Comments

Filed under music, reviews

Quick link

The iconic Wrigley Field sign with Springsteen show announcement on it

Yeah, so things got hectic all of a sudden… I swear I’m going to keep this blog up better than I did the old one.

I’m out of town for a bit, so will probably have a longer post in the next few days. Meanwhile, I wanted to share a link. I went to two Springsteen shows at Wrigley Field over the weekend, and had the BEST time – and wrote a post for Blogness on the Edge of Town about my experience. It goes way beyond just a concert, way beyond entertainment. I think I have even more to say about it, actually – Springsteen shows apparently make me HAVE ALL THE FEELINGS and want to WRITE ALL THE WORDS – but since it’s late and I have to get up in the morning, you can go read my review on Blogness. (Feel free to comment there, or here.)

I guess it’s not even so much a review as an appreciation. Which is good, because Tom Morello himself tweeted a link to it and called it “lovely” – serious critics shouldn’t care what the subject of their review might think, and I have to say it completely, totally made my day to get a compliment from Tom Morello. (He was one of the guest performers at the Springsteen shows, Eddie Vedder being the other. Read the review, appreciation, thinger, whatever if you want the details.) And to anyone who wonders why I love Twitter, that right there would be one of the reasons – something like that would NEVER have happened without that particular tool.

Leave a comment

Filed under music, reviews, Springsteen