Further reflections on a U2 concert, Pittsburgh, 6-7-17

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There’s something about the energy of a world-class rock band playing to a throbbing throng of 40,000 people in a stadium. It’s infectious and a rare opportunity to people watch.

So it was with the Irish band U2 Wednesday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Normally, I would watch them on TV to avoid the obligatory expense and congestion of getting to and from such a huge venue, but the first on-stage performance of The Joshua Tree piqued my interest. It is the 30th anniversary of the time I saw them perform it last in 1987.

It was in Indianapolis and I happened to be there visiting family. I had had just started my career as a junior attending at St. Francis at the time. The event was at the then Market Square Arena that I think might have held about 15,000 souls. U2 was not nearly as famous as they are now and the event was not sold out. I had a good seat.

As a personal aside, at the end of the concert when the lights came up, I happened to turn to face a kid sitting next to me and we caught each other’s eye for a moment. I was 44 years old starting my life and he couldn’t have been more than 18 starting his. We silently connected for a moment, smiled at each other and went on our way. I thought about that encounter all the way home in my car, ultimately to pull out a sheet of paper & pen and write a hasty poem about the encounter, I will provide at the end of this missive for anyone interested.

I loved that album and still do. I think The Joshua Tree is among the top collections of incredible music ever put on vinyl. It transformed a post-punk U2 to a world-class phenomenon where they reside today, but they never matched that album again. U2 is a very unique band if for no other reason that they continue to like and respect each other from the time they started playing together in high school in Dublin. That’s VERY unusual. The never lost the focus that made them great.

But at age 57, the heart and soul of U2, Bono (Paul Hewson) is getting a little long in the tooth for these kinds of gigs. These days, he’s more of a full time social and political activist. He’s always been that way but nowadays, he has a lot more money to plug into it. They’ve been doing this for a long time, not as long as the Rolling Uglies, but long enough to where it’s getting just a little strained. I think that the Foo Fighters, only a few years younger, have ascended to that rarified air maybe gently pushing at them. But, all that aside, so begins my many complaints with this gig.

Firstly, it was expensive. Very expensive to get seats where much can actually be seen live. That’s just the way it is for stadium performances of any stripe. The closer to the podium, the more expensive it got. I was willing to sport for this expense because I really wanted to “see” the band. So perusing the seating map of Heinz field, I selected two seats that would be to the side, closely visualizing the stage at about a 45 degree angle, halfway up. Perfect vantage according to the map.

Then came parking. Oh, you want to park? Maybe somewhere less than a mile from the stadium? Well, those spots are “available” at exponentially increasing prices. So more money outlay, all pretty smoothly from StubHub by the way. Legalized scalping but necessary to get any efficiency in a huge congested area.

Safety measures at the arena were in place of course. No purses over a few inches in length. No full sized cameras. Metal detectors for all. iPhones OK. Close observation of everyone entering. However, once inside, I didn’t see any police. The stadium is exceptionally well laid out, with plenty of bathrooms and food between every entrance to the seating area. A hot dog and small coke $11.25.

Once in the seating area, I found that the stage had been moved forward significantly from where it was supposed to be on the previous map. From my vantage, I was looking at the stage from a 90-degree angle, unable to see the huge screen behind them. The actual performing area was far enough away that no details could be made out. The promoters should NEVER have allowed these seats to be sold, and there were only a few there. No one to my right, even further out. These were terrible seats.

Then to add insult to injury, when the band emerged at about 9 pm, they played their first set from a “B Stage” on the opposite side of the field!! It might as well have been an ant colony from where I was. The people had had less expensive seats on the other side of the field had incredible views and the “standees” were right next to the stage. I was furious. The band should never have allowed this insult to those on the opposite side of the field.

They did eventually move to the center stage to play the Joshua Tree standards but they weren’t playing them the way they were on the album and I know every note on the album. It’s probably impossible to play a complex studio album live anyway but it wasn’t the same and it showed. I was disappointed. The iconic song “Streets with no name” was done much, much better in 2009. Please watch it all the way through. It’s spellbinding.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzZWSrr5wFI

The musicology of the band was pretty well preserved. Bono hit the high notes pretty well, better than Roger Daltrey I think. The Edge (Dave Evans) played masterfully from his guitar effects rig, as complex as a Boeing 747 dashboard. Bass player Adam Clayton was typically reserved. But the really interesting observation was the drummer Larry Mullen Jr. He was the hardest working man on the stage. He was amazing, in constant motion, working all of the skins to perfection. Neal Pert of Rush is considered a “greater” drummer but he has a stage full of drum kit completely surrounding him. Mullin has a “standard” kit and he uses all of it to perfection.

Here’s a passable previous performance of my favorite song off the album: “One Tree Hill”, not as good as the vinyl but showing off the entire band. This is a truly great song; one of the songs that made them stars, I think.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrlmhnBlH0Q

All things considered, I was very disappointed. I think the band is losing its musical edge as Bono spouts some of his political displeasure from the stage and increasing pyrotechnics slowly displaces intricacy. I paid a lot for really crummy seats that the promoters knew were crummy when they sold them. The band favored one side of the arena, stiffing the other side. They surely must have known this in advance.

I give this event a miserable one and a half of five bright lights. Be very careful before you buy tickets to this event. Find out more about seating before you lay a lot of money out.

REFLECTIONS AT A U-2 CONCERT

“Warily we fix each other,
this testament to my immortality and I.
All of fifteen, a shock of blond hair,
jacket collar insouciantly upturned.
I stand a paradox to him.

Similar in garb, but with an air of cynicism
born of war and pestilence,
The burden of human life balanced upon my fragile whims,
and having been to a county fair or two.

When I became a man, I did not put aside childish things.
He weighs this curiosity in silence,
portending a specter of myself in another lifetime,
for now an intruder in his world.

The band dispenses promises of hope and fulfillment;
deafening undercurrents finding common ground within us,
plucking his imagination as it once did mine.
But that was another time, another world.

I thoughtfully study technical nuances.
He conjures revelations of peace and love from nonsense,
and eyes me with curiosity
and rejoins me with an unexpected smile.

Behold my apocalypse,
this child, father to the man, prophesy yet to be fulfilled,
destined to go forth into the darkness, as I have done,
and keep the candle burning”.

David Crippen, MD, FCCM
Professor Emeritus
University of Pittsburgh (Ret)

The CODES: Old and New

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The CODES: Old and New

picture-clippingThe CODES have been playing together for over 10 years. First gig was for a Neurocritical Care Society banquet, November 2006 in Baltimore. We had no equipment other than personal instruments, so we hired another local band “Rockgut” to set up their stuff and let us play as their opener. We created and gave away “Codes t shirts” to anyone wanting one at the gig. I still have mine. We weren’t very good but we had limited time to practice. We got better.

Since then we’ve put out a CD in 2009 and I wrote a coffee table picture book of the photographs taken of us through the years.

https://www.amazon.com/CODES-David-Crippen/dp/1364974150/ref=sr_1_21?ie=UTF8&qid=1488045444&sr=8-21&keywords=David+Crippen

Over the years we’ve played for various medical meeting banquets all over the country, several House of Blues venues, an SCCM symposium, a sleazy back street bar in New Orleans, a Texas Juke Joint and private invites. We opened for a great metal band in Germany and played for a meeting in Manchester, UK.

We were never a band that traded on four doctors playing novelty stuff. Our set list consisted of what used to be called “soft rock”, even “classic rock”. Very listenable covers of numerous famous hits from the 60s, 70s and 80s mostly, I think. We became fairly serious musicians and knew our way around technical arrangements.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYo6QbKKgBQ

But we started getting older through the years and the lives of each member inevitably changed. There were job changes, marital changes, sick kids and limited time to practice as we all lived in different cities. I’m 73 years of age. I haven’t looked at their drivers licenses lately but I’m pretty sure the rest of the group are at or near their 50s now. We’re changing with the times, but in a rather unusual way for our idiom.

We’ve embraced and absorbed a much younger member into the CODES. That would be Dr. Mohan Kottapally, currently assistant Professor of Neurology at the University of Miami heath center in Miami, Fla.

http://uhealthsportsmedicine.com/sports-medicine-team/mohan-kottapally-md

This addition has fomented a fairly radical change for us. It’s pushed toward a much harder edged musical direction.

Mohan is one of those charismatic guys with a stage presence that has changed the way audiences view us. I see his style as a bit of of Prince, I think. He interacts in that manner with the audience, very aggressively. He is in constant motion, flaunting and vaunting. He’s an excellent guitarist; I think a world-class rock lead singer and the woods ain’t full of ‘em. I think we’re lucky to find him and he has changed our world.

He has made my role in the band easier as my age advances and generalized arthritis and deteriorating physicality takes its toll. I can do lead guitar and I have done it in the past but it’s harder for me now, just like you can be sure it is for Eddie Van Halen. The most important base of a rock band pyramid is the drummer, followed by the bass line, then the rhythm. The fingers don’t fly like they used to, but I’m still an OK guitarist and I can definitely hold down a needed and necessary serviceable rhythm floor.

So we decided to re-invent ourselves as a much more modern band, discarding a lot of the material we’d played for years in favor of new material. That material became much more what I would call “hard edged rock”. Not metal or especially death metal, as most of that is simply a cacophony of high volume din that renders the listener eventually hearing impaired.

“Hard-edged rock” is loud but much more technical in its arrangement, a little unusual for guys of our generation to be playing. A lot of it is lead guitar driven which brings me to the subject of one of our songs now. That would be, of course, a hard-edged classic if there ever was one: Sweet Child O’ Mine” (Guns & Roses, 1987). An insane initial lead guitar solo that is said by many critics to have changed the face of Rock drives this song. Check out the lead intro in this amazing music:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1w7OgIMMRc4

CODES lead guitarist Gary Bernardini must have played with effects pedals for weeks before he got the tone nailed down, and it definitely works. Mohan can definitely do Axl. This is an amazing song for us as a band. I was surprised to see how many in our crowd instantly recognized this song and responded vividly to it. Many were kicking the slats of their playpens in 1987. Of course, Guns & Roses, being the volatile mixture they were, imploded after a fairly short period of time.

We played as the headliners for the International Stroke Conference in Houston, Texas on February 22, for a very large group of I believe as many as 300 people. Standing room only in a very big auditorium. We had a huge stage with professional sound technicians doing the auditory honors. We played three full sets over four hours, starting at about 8:30 pm and ending at 12:30 am. Between sets there was a DJ playing songs off his computer, and an “ice sculpture artist” that really entertained the crowd by forming a detailed cowboy boot from two big chunks of ice.

I put together a bit of a slide show to tell some things about The CODES, old and new.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxAIbVyPBBc

Make sure you tick off the High Def option and it’s best watchable on full screen.

 

 

 

What’s in a picture (part 2)

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johndenverOccasionally I’ll come across a photo that really is worth a thousand words, but for which little is written. I reported on such a photo last week.

I came across this after some research on singer/songwriter John Denver who piqued my interest from a really interesting video “The Wilderness Concert” (Google it on youtube). I think some really beautiful, underrated music.

One of the clips from this concert was regarding Denver’s brief monologue regarding someone he knew that was an inspiration for writing a song. Denver, like many other songwriters like James Taylor and Neil Young are famous for writing songs on-the-fly following some kind of otherwise trivial inspiration. Neil Young wrote “Ohio” in a few minutes on a table napkin after hearing the news on a radio about the National Guard shooting at Kent State in 1970. Denver wrote “Leavin’ on a jet plane” while on a ski lift. The inspiration comes, everything stops and songs are written Samuel Taylor Coleridge–style (“Kubla Khan”).

It was the imagery that Denver translated to maybe one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, nearly perfect musicality-wise. Listenable, emotional rhythm and perfect lyrics. He said in an interview that he didn’t understand how these things come to him. It’s a gift he’s very thankful for. I sometimes research these people wondering at such gifts.

At any rate, I really would like you to listen to the song he created from this simple inspiration. I think even Dr. Simmons, who hasn’t listened to a singer since 1950, will appreciate this beautiful song by a very underrated artist he probably never heard of ;-).

Here is part of the explanation he gives for the song.

“I have a friend whose name Mardy Murrie,

and she’s 93 years old… theman who was

her husband, Olaus Murie, passed away

many years ago, The way Mardy kept his love

and her feeling for him alive in her heart was to

commit herself to saving the land they both loved

so very, very She spoke of Olaus always as her

beloved,and they loved to dance, the waltz especially,

and they danced whenever they could, whenever

they felt like it, regardless of the conditions. And I

have this picture of them out in the frozen tundra

of Alaska in each others arms dancing, and no

music except the sound of the wind rushing across

that frozenwasteland, or someplace in a forest or

someplace beneath the full moon. And so I wrote

this song for Mardy.” – John Denver

Photographs of Mardy and Olaus dancing do not exist except in John Denver’s mind somewhere, translated to a haunting interpretation. Enjoy this beautiful music if you have an interest.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_S9IRebElY

 

 

 

Concert Review: “The Zombies” (Oct 14, 2015)

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ZombiesZombies (Oct 14, 2015) Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh

“Pre-British Invasion” group The Zombies arrived in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie and were well received by a full house. I say “pre-Invasion” because they were 19 years old in 1964 when their first song hit the charts and they were invited to play in America as scared kids. They were too deeply imbedded in the trees to see the forest. They had no idea they were the precursors of one of the biggest paradigm changes in popular music. Touring in America when the Beatles were sweating gigs at the Cavern Club in London. In 1965, the band appeared on the first episode of NBC’s Hullabaloo.

You’ll have to spare me a little dry history at this point. The band actually formed in 1961 listening to Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. They played throughout Europe, following the dues paying path also trod by the Beatles (Hamburg). They perfected a very “Beach Boys” style harmony, then hit the charts with “Odessey & Oracle”, recorded at Abbey Road Studio in 1967. (Yes, it was misspelled by the graphic artist that did the cover.)

Odessey found it’s place as a great album in 1969, a year after the band had broken up. Named number 80 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest rock albums of all time. The seminal single, “Time of the Season” was featured in the Robin Williams, Robert DeNiro film “Awakenings (1990)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xjf8F3v18DY

Of the original 60s group only keyboardist Rod Argent and lead vocalist Colin Blunstone remain. Argent remains a world-class keyboardist at age 70, mentioned in the same company as Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Rick Wakeman (Yes), Richard Wright (Pink Floyd) and Ray Manzarek (Doors). Argent went on in 1969 to form “Argent” (“Hold your head up”). The Zombies were nominated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 but were not elected (yet). Lots of great artists are waiting for that nod (Bad Company, Deep Purple, Steppenwolf, Moody Blues)

Interesting to see those who attended the concert. A liberal supply of burned out hippies, shoulder length grey hair, wispy pony tails, clad in classic garb of the 70s. Many younger types arriving to see what the fuss of the 60s was about, covalently bonded to cell phones texting continuously. The guy next to me in the balcony was my age and a walking repository of Zombies history. We both took cell phone photos (prohibited and universally ignored) through the concert.

This was a good gig for these guys troding the nostalgia circuit, all of them over 70 years of age still packing (smaller) venues and still playing world-class music. Both Argent and Blunstone look good for their ages, trim and athletic. Both obviously color their hair. The other members of the band are appropriately grey. Following their extended rendition of “Time…..”, the entire audience gave them an extended standing ovation they very visibly appreciated. “I had an amazing balcony seat right next to the stage. At one point I leaned over the rail and caught Rod Argent’s eye giving him a thumbs up. He saw me, pointed and gave me the thumb back.        Ahhhh…..life is good.

 

 

 

 

“American Pie”, Don McLean (1971)

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donmcclean“American Pie”, Don McLean (1971)

Arguably one of the most important albums in (sort of) Rock Music history, for at least two reasons:

First reason- it contains spectacularly beautiful lyrics and melody not seen very often in contemporary music.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxHnRfhDmrk&spfreload=10

Individuals standing on stage, singing a melody and accompanying themselves with a simple instrument exhibit the most beautiful music, even in the rock genre. Solo artists (James Taylor), duos (Simon and Garfunkel), triplets (Peter Paul and Mary) and simple groups (Cream). Staged pyrotechnics diminish simple listenability and are currently in the process of destroying Rock as an art form.

Don McLean (and James Taylor) emerged as simple but effective troubadours. They understood this was karma and kismet and they would never stray from it. At some point in his career McLean graduated from college and was offered a full scholarship for graduate work to Columbia University in New York that he turned down. He knew what his future was and that it would be successful. He would not rise to his level of incompetence a-la the Peter Principle, and he has been exceptionally successful, continuing to do concerts now at my age.

Second reason- on March 14,1971, the album “American Pie” emerged as a new anthem from the ashes of 60s culture effectively demolished at the Altamont rock concert on December 6, 1969.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQzNtYsf5D4&spfreload=10

The 60’s and its anthem, “Alice’s Restaurant” (Arlo Guthrie, 1967) signaled the emergence of a radical change from the staid, prosperous Eisenhower 50s. The strains of “Are you experienced” from Jimi Hendrix and “When the music’s over” from the Doors wafted through the dorm halls leading to stunned silence. No one had ever heard anything like it before. It was electrifying and it led like the auditory pied piper to the culture that created it. An entire generation wafted into a radical social change that changed our lives and changed the world.

60s social upheaval was irrevocably intertwined with the music of the day. The medium of Rock has always been one of rebellion against conformity and conventionality, and accordingly fit like a hand in a glove with the 60s. Sixties Rock is the stuff of existential anti-heroism, inviting those seeking salvation by immersing their souls in a cathartic media masquerading as social profundity.  The high risk-high gain medium selects for those who actively live the dream. The musicality selects strains and chords evolved to selectively pull resonant strings of the human brain, abandoning order.

Those selected for this cast were drawn in at their peril, with no safety net. Perhaps prior lessons from the existential philosophers, most of who went mad or suffered violent deaths, should have been heeded. Some very talented people discovered those consequences the hard way. Altamont was the final blushing crow pointing out very vividly that when the surface of “self enlightenment” was scratched, what lay underneath was madness and violence.

“American Pie” was an allegorical narrative of what lay beyond Altamont, exploiting the unfortunate plane crash of Feb 3, 1959 that took the lives of the prophetic Buddy Holly and two other minor players. Markers of what was to come in popular music and the culture accompanying it. When they died, a potential culture died with them.

Buddy Holly’s star was rising as the new exponent of what would come to be called “pop rock”, melodic and listenable. His works and innovations inspired and influenced contemporary and later musicians, notably The Beatles, Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones, Don McLean, Bob Dylan, Steve Winwood, and Eric Clapton. Holly was among the first group of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Holly #13 among “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ty31QY5ZGHo

Parenthetically, Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts decided not to pay the US$36.00 fee and didn’t board the aircraft said to have “American Pie” painted on its cowl. J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper), suffering from flu symptoms, coerced Waylon Jennings into giving up his seat. Ritchie Valens beat out guitarist Tommy Allsup on the toss of a coin. These decisions haunted these artists for the rest of their lives.

McLean explored some cryptic predictions:

“I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died”

The literal interpretation of McLean’s lyrics have been a source of continuing controversy for many years. Books have been written about them. When asked what his song meant, McLean famously replied, “It means I’ll never have to work again.” But be that as it may, the album marked the sharp transition to a radically different culture, the 70s.

Although difficult to imagine for many of you, the years 1970-71 were a straight up revolution, exacerbated by the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968 and nurtured by the violent Democratic National Convention also of 1968. An age of violent protest. Nixon Agonistes, the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Faction, Kent State, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (it’s head- John Kerry), Angela Davis and Black Power.

Much but not all of it related to an intensely polarizing President and the unpopular Vietnam conflict that remained in full swing. Virtually every city in the country brimmed with firebombs, looting and the crackle of small arms fire. Business owners sat in shifts with shotguns propped on their toes outside their storefronts nightly.

But I digress. Anyone more interested in the sociopolitical revolutions of the 60s and 70s in more detail should (shameless plug) check out my treatise on it:

http://www.amazon.com/60s-70s-Confessions-Attentive-Observer/dp/1320874401/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&qid=1430056783&sr=8-13&keywords=david+crippen

I have gone over the lyrics to American Pie for years and I think I understand a lot of it because I was there for all of it. It’s a very interesting song on its own merits anyway. Check it out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAsV5-Hv-7U&spfreload=10

Craig Ferguson Live (November 2014)

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Craig Ferguson (Late, Late Show CBS) takes some time off now and again to do stand-up around the country because he likes to do it and it breaks up his Late show routine. I have mentioned before that I think he’s possibly the funniest guy on the planet right now. He has an honest, fast moving, unscripted humor that flows consistently. He likes performing before live audiences and it shows.

He came to the Carnage Library here, a rather small venue not holding very many people. Every seat is a good seat. My problem was negotiating all this with a wheelchair. There was a “wheelchair row” off to the left of the stage but I had better seats, so we had to bludgeon our away around to the other side for our seats about four back from the stage. I had to do several pirouettes but we finally made it to the seats. The couple beside me said this is the third time they’ve seen him in three years and most of those there were Craig veterans as well.

First guy out was the voice of “Geoff” the mechanical skeleton robot that Craig trades quips off routinely. CBS didn’t give him enough money to afford a “sidekick” or much else but a desk, so Craig created living animations to play off. The guy that voices Geoff is really a celebrity voice mime and he’s pretty good. He’s also quick and funny, the perfect foil for Craig. Check out some of their interactions on youtube.

Following this, and a bit of a surprise to the veterans, “Secretariat” the stuffed horse (two guys in a brown cloth horse outfit) came trotting out on stage followed by Craig. They did their little dance together and It was hysterical. The crowd went nuts. Secretariat is a staple on the Late, Late show and plays off Craig as well. The play-offs between Craig and these artificial creatures interact incredibly and always funny. This has never been done before. Craig’s interactions with his guests are never scripted, always completely fresh.

Craig came off as genuinely affectionate with the small audience. You could tell it in his eyes. Basically, his humor consisted of extemporaneous, fast paced storytelling. He paces back and forth along the stage and spins tales pulling it all up as he goes along. The lady sitting next to me says he always starts out telling the audience the best joke ever told, then digresses to the rest of his routine for the next hour and fifteen minutes or so, then to bring up the end, he finally tells the best joke ever told, a joke I will tell you now:

“Two very competitive guys were playing golf and deeply into the game when a funeral procession happened by. One of the golfers stopped in the middle of a putt, took off his cap and stood solemnly as the procession passed. The other golfer was amazed: “Wow, what could possibly prompt you to do this?”. The other golf went back to his putt after the procession passed and remarked: “Well, I was married to her for 35 years”.

Ferguson is a master of grabbing seemingly insignificant daily occurrences and making them funny. Never scripted, no teleprompter or held up signs. He’s alway fresh and always interesting. His last Late, Late show will be December 19 I think and we will lose one of the funniest men on the planet. He admits he has no particular plans for the future.

I would strongly suggest you see his show on CBS after David Letterman 12:30 am. Most TV setups now allow taping. Just tape a couple of shows and watch them earlier. Really one of a kind, his likes probably never to be seen again.

Something interesting going on in American Music. (2014)

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dave-grohlSomething very important to American music is going on right now. A couple of weeks ago there was a preview as David Letterman had The Foo Fighters playing at the show’s end every night for a week with remarkable guest artists. Ann and Nancy Wilson of “Heart”, Zak Brown rendering a thundering rendition of a Black Sabbath song, Rick Nielson of “Cheap Trick”. Each of these productions is simply incredible and predictive of what’s coming next.

Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters are spending a week in each of eight cities, each with a specific musical heritage to absorb the unique vibes, then write a song at the end, the lyrics of which are gleaned using only quips and memorabilia learned by interviewing local musicians during the week. One side of the ledger is things learned, the other side lyrics cut and pasted from the experience. Grohl paired the music and documentary to give substance and depth to the final song, making for a tight emotional connection.

First city was Chicago where the Grohl explored the evolution of Chicago Blues and the legendary Buddy Guy, then the evolution of the punk rock scene that influenced many of the Chicago musicians. For the final song, they’re joined by Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielson to record the first song for “Sonic Highways”.

The second city is Washington, DC, home of most of the American punk scene in the early 70s. Punk band Bad Brains and Ian MacKaye of Teen Idles, Minor Threat and Fugazi, who all recorded at Inner Ear Studios in DC over the decades. Virginia-raised Grohl says that vibe “produced the entire soundtrack of my youth,” and he dwells on the punk scene of each city.

The “Punk” scene permeates all of American music, including early Nashville and Austin, Tx music. The American punk scene was remarkably different from the coincident European punks, a reaction to unemployment. The American punks embraced the concept of absolutely no limits in musical expression. Anyone anywhere could stand on stage and try their luck. By the sheer volume of those playing, a lot of creative music congealed and emerged.

Third city was Nashville and interviews with still productive country greats, Dolly Parton, Tony Joe White, Willie Nelson, and Emmylou Harris. Fourth city was Austin Texas, home of Austin City Limits, as exploration of the ingredients that brought legendary Stevie Ray Vaughn to greatness. Gary Clark Jr. Joins the Foos for the final songs “What Did I Do? And God As My Witness”. This is some of the best music I have ever heard. The final product, four cities yet to go, will be a very interesting interpretation of how environments shape music. This has never been done before.

Dave Grohl believes that all music can eventually be traced to a central origin that nurtures and modulates it and he’s working very hard to explore that path. The best way to explain the concept is to postulate the repository of music as an unstable star in the universe of existence, undulating and straining but not ready to explode just yet, waiting for the right stimulus. Back in the 40s, big band music was simple and staid, feeding upon itself. In the 50s, a fundamental instability began with skiffle in England that created the Beatles In the USA, be-bop and rhythm & blues, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course, Elvis. All of this boiled to the surface to bring the star to an explosive point in the early 60s, setting the stage for the cataclysm that occurred in the second half of the 60s when it all literally and metaphorically went electric. A musical revolution never before dreamed of and will probably never be seen again.

The star erupted sending chunks of musical expression out into the abyss. Lets make a quick & dirty list of just a few the blinding chunks flying forth to change the fundamental nature of music. Hendrix, The Animals, the Zombies, The Kinks, Cream, the Doors, Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Otis Redding, Creedence Clearwater, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkle, Janis Joplin, James Brown, Miles Davis, The Who, Sly & the Family Stone, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Buffalo Springfield, Procol Harum, Paul Revere & Raiders, Hollies, Dave Clark Five, Neil Young, Steve Miller Band, The Guess Who, Roy Orbison, Them, Beach Boys, Steppenwolf, the Temptations, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Marvin Kaye, Jefferson Airplane all at once.

Each of these chunks shone brightly and independently, eclipsing other nuggets in similar situations. But in the end, like real stars, gravity rules and all the chunks were slowly drawn back into the mass of the star by gravitational pull, stabilizing it into a huge mass of encyclopedic, heterogeneous, eclectic sound and tone. There is no more critical mass. The star now allows a solar wind to emit from its surface, a temporary swell of unfiltered music that waxes & wanes in time. Disco, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, “American Idol”,‘The Voice”, any black female singer with ironed hair. They’re all out there wafting around at the whims of the desultory solar mini-eruptions.

The solar wind occasionally allows some bright spots. There’s a lot of incredible music out there and if you seek it, there is one rule. Don’t follow the money. The money will lead you to hype, glitz and an empty box with a Kardashian brand on it. The performers that we’re still listening to pushing 50 years later wandered into Nashville or San Francisco on foot, broke with a Taylor or Telecaster strung over their back and played for five drunks in a dark bistro. They all shared one commitment and that was absolutely no compromise. The music was what it was and would not be altered for any commercial advantage. It was all about the music. They didn’t care if they starved as long as someone was listening.

Neil Young who never compromised a minute in his entire life wrote: “We may not compromise……I may not suit your taste tonight”. Kurt Cobain wrote: “”I’m too stubborn to allow myself to ever compromise our music or turn us into big rock stars,” Cobain said. “I just don’t feel like that.” When Kris Kristofferson arrived in Nashville, Sam Phillips of Sun Records said his shoes were “falling off his feet.”

These are the musicians I want to hear and you want to hear. That’s where the creativity is. The innovation, initiative, inspiration, artistry and vision. The further you get away from money, the better it gets.

Dave Grohl understands this and has explored it for 20 years with the Foo Fighters. A substantial book could be compiled on his formidable abilities as a musician, songwriter and producer since the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994. In “Sonic Highways” Dave digs deep into the musical history of each city and crafts a song for each in hopes of showing the differences. It isn’t perfect but it’s good. A musical map of America. Highly recommended by me:

http://www.hbo.com/foo-fighters-sonic-highways#/foo-fighters-sonic-highways/about/video/tca-trailer.html/eNrjcmbOYM7XLMtMSc13zEvMqSzJTHbOzytJrShRz89JgQkFJKan+iXmpjIXcjIysoGgdGJpSX5BTmKlbUlRaSoAUBcXOA==

All that said………

The one big paradox in American music is the ascension of mediocre talent to big money. No performer illustrates mediocre voice talent more than Taylor Swift. I’ve heard equal voice talent in local bar band singers. As it pertains to the nuts and bolts of voicing, tone and ear worthiness, Ms. Swift cannot stand on the same stage as Sharleen Spiteri of the Glasgow band “Texas”, who in 25 years continues to enjoy only local UK exposure.

Ms. Swift’s latest album of sophomoric personal narratives, “1989” sold 1.287 million copies in its first week, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 and making Swift the first singer act to have three albums sell more than one million copies in a week.

Postulating that talent must (eventually) equal success, it’s difficult to explain how this can be.

The unfortunate reality is that lack of talent does not necessarily equal failure once marketing becomes involved. This is because the ears of the general public are mercilessly commuted by aggressive marketing techniques blending visual images into the mix.

Taylor Swift is an exceptionally attractive blonde young woman with a great body. Savvy marketers have worked this to the max and it’s extremely rare to see her without a full regalia of Avant guard clothing and makeup. Her concerts are full of frenetic flashing lights, glitz and costume changes. This product was created and tweaked by legions of experts to focus on a specific audience; probably teen and especially pre-teen girls (see Britney Spears elsewhere).

Looking at the big picture, selling “millions” of records isn’t that impressive compared to the number of listeners out there, especially ones that don’t purchase records. Recently, Charlie Rose interviewed actor Jake Gyllenhaal regarding his new film “Nightcrawler”. The conversation about a sociopath that creeps around Los Angeles at night photographing violent, salacious activities and selling them to local TV stations. The question of who could possibly be interested in such things arose.

The answer was interesting. Back in the 60s, television news was immune from TV station merchandizing for profit. This changed somewhere along the way and the news section was expected to generate a profit. This quickly produced what we see now on every local TV station in the country. Roving reporters looking for anything that might possibly be of interest to a population of jaded viewers bored with life in general. Weepy mothers decrying their kid shot dead just minding his business in the middle of a high drug exchange area at 3 am. Vivid car accidents. High visibility court cases, especially involving sexual infidelity. This is news? No, it’s entertainment and it draws viewers, which draws sponsors, which generates money. It is an inalterable fact of life.

In section three of Dave Grohl’s monumental HBO series “Sonic Highways” (Friday nights 11pm), Dolly Parton candidly discussed the poisoning of talent by progressive “business” practices fomented by bean counting money experts who have nothing to do with music. Nashville used to be a town where raw talent could arrive, pay their dues and eventually find at least sustenance and possibly fame.

Nashville is no longer about singer-songwriters. It’s about songwriters writing songs for singers who fit the profile for the proper amount of glitz and showmanship to generate money. The song matters less than the milieu of how it’s delivered, passing a gauntlet of financial and marketing experts who know moneymakers when they see them. Dolly opined that if she walked into Nashville today, no one would give her the time of day.

It naturally follows that Taylor Swift started out in Nashville. She worked it for years, plying the potential to make money while delivering at least a serviceable vocal product. For years the mentors gently nurtured her into a product that would fill the bill. None of this had anything to do with vocal talent. It was leaping onto stage from spring loaded boxes, dressed to show her figure as provocatively as possible and warble to the flashing lights and a swell of electrified instruments.

She learned her lessons very well, and as of this week, continues to learn them from the legions of business managers that surround her. In removing her material from Spotify (a realistically priced music streaming site), she remarked: “I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music.” Other critics suggest this move will generate more short-term dollars from fans forced to purchase her new album.

So the new flavors of popular music have quickly moved to sacrifice widespread listeners of their music for a higher marginal price to disseminate each portion of it.

Unclear where this will end if it ever does. In the days of singer-songwriters that strode into town, broke, unwashed, wrote their own music, stood on stage with minimal if any accouterment, played for endless hours for drinks and refused to compromise even a little are clearly over. This is where genius resided. The only environment that can nurture genius. If there are any more Kris Kristoffersons, Willie Nelsons, Steve Earles, Emmylou Harrises, Waylon Jennings we may have to catch a seat at the historic Bluebird Café to see them. There will be plenty of Taylor Swifts for sale.

Just some desultory thoughts while I watch my leg heal.

U2: The little band that could (and did) In Pittsburgh (July 26, 2011)

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U2 came to Pittsburgh for the last American night of their three year “360” tour.  They essentially filled Heinz Field, about 60,000 seats. Of course that meant nearly as many cars trying to get somewhere near the stadium, creating an epic traffic jam. Most stadium parking slots are pre-sold to football regulars so most attendees parked as far as a mile away as downtown parking garages and walked over various bridges to get there. It was a crowd nightmare.

All teenagers at the time, U2 started life as a garden variety Dublin punk band in 1976, but they quickly expanded to many other musical influences, making them one of the most recognizable bands in history, selling 150 million records and collecting 22 Grammies, more than any other band in history. Rolling Stone ranks them 22 in the list of the greatest rock bands of all time. In addition to music, they have campaigned for numerous human rights organizations and political causes.

There is no question that U2 has the credentials to draw 60,000 people to a stadium to watch them perform. The showmanship was simply spectacular (see photos and a brief clip enclosed) I’ve never seen anything like it. When he introduced the band, he said something about Dave Evans (The Edge) that I picked up on. He said Edge “changed the game”. And I think that’s true. The Edge can play both rhythm and lead at the same time like no other guitarist I have ever heard. He changes guitars with every song and he uses very creative digital delay and echo. He’s probably in the top five living guitarists.

All that said, I have some criticism.

I think Bono is letting politics color the musicality people pay a lot and endure crowding to see and hear. He gushes now a little too long, heaping unrestrained praise on the warm-up band “Interpol”, an average house band escapee from a dark New York City club. One wonders why the greatest contemporary band in the world needs a warm up band. He also tends to gush over some other artists without much discrimination, most notably Christina Aguilera, whose only claim to fame after many creative and performance flops is beating out Britney Spears for a Grammy in 2000.  Hardly a stellar accomplishment. I think Bono has been glad handling too many politicians of late and has learned to play the game a little too well.

U2 went pretty far out of its way to point out a list of social inequities in the world that existed long before them and will exist a long time after U2 is gone. Bono is a very personable person with a sense of social responsibility and he has the ear of many politicians involved in these issues. Although a noble gesture, 60,000 people expecting to hear a musical performance are not much interested in hearing about human rights issues in Burma. Bono can be equally effective in addressing these issues as a political personality separate and apart from his music.

I think this was an outstanding one of a kind performance, but I have some reservations.

I give it three and a half 160 foot high alien claws.

I liked Joshua Tree (1987) better.

 

 

 

 

Jeff Beck at the Pittsburgh Carnige Hall 4/23/11

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Some background.

The electric guitar is a radically different stringed instrument than the rest. Technically a percussed string instrument, the piano has 88 frequencies and all sound the same no matter who plunks one, whether it be a 5th grade student or Elton John. The difference is only how fast, how frequently and how many strings can be plunked in sequence. Similarly, acoustic stringed instruments such as the acoustic guitar and cello all have a mostly monotonic quality, broken up by technique. (I expect to get some argument on this)

The electrified guitar (e.g.: a Fender Stratocaster- see photo of mine) has six strings and 23 frets for a total of 138 discrete frequencies, added to which are the nuances of string bending, stretching, muting and position on which they are struck with a plectrum (pick) or the fingers. The guitar can be played like a piano (Stanley Jordan and the late Jeff Healey) or with a plectrum or with the fingers.  The result is a blip on an oscilloscope having frequency and amplitude (loudness) that’s interpreted by the human ear as “sound”.  That sound can then be passed through electronic processing to render echo, delay, distortion, chorus and a host of other effects, generating an almost infinite variety of tone falling on the ear.

The most technically proficient players are not the most listenable. At one end of the spectrum, awesome technicians that can play with all ten fingers at lightning speed (Eddie Van Halen, Satch Satriani, Steve Vai) are interesting for about three minutes than you start getting a headache. Angus Young once commented that EVH sounded like he practiced all the time, implying a lack of natural soul.

On the other end of the spectrum is BB King, a guitar minimalist said to be capable of embodying all human passion in one note. You can listen to BB all day long and ask for more (“BB King live at the Apollo”).

Then there is everything in-between, and that brings into play the concept of soul in rock music. Traditionally, soul (blues) is a medium of emotional pain and protest. Rock is an emotional disturbance that engenders danger and incites anarchy. I saw an audience rip chairs out of the floor at a Jerry Lee Lewis concert in 1962 (much more about JLL when he dies, if he ever does). Cops on Guns N’ Roses wackos like pit bulls on poodles.

The most listenable rock artists are those that combine some measure of soul. Pound for pound, Eric Clapton embodies near consistent perfection in this regard for a very full career. Never-a-day-of-music-training Neil young consistently reaches into a bag and drags out the exact right sound for every song, some chords no one else has ever seen. No one can sit still through Angus Young et al. Led Zeppelin assaults the senses on every level. The list goes on.

A true virtuoso of the instrument, Beck uniquely integrates measured selections from all the above. His knowledge of the fret board is encyclopedic and his ability to mobilize both right and left hand technique is about as good as it gets.  He stands in one place and rarely takes his eyes off the fret board. He plays using his thumb as a plectrum, which is a bit unusual (I can’t do it), but brings other finger style techniques into play, including occasionally tapping harmonics EVH style.

But I’m not impressed that Beck is a soulful player. Beck’s technical ability on the fret board is excellent but not stellar. The thing about Beck is the richness and variety of the tones he can produce. A lifetime of experimenting.

Tone is tempered by the design of the sound pickups, nature of the strings, variety of wood in the body and fret board and whether the instrument is hollow or solid. Then modulated by electronic amplification. Whether the amplifier is tube driven or digital, size and engineering of speakers. Most electric guitarists (including moi) spend years in search of the perfect tone.  My current rig is about as good as I will ever get and it took me 20 years to get there.  I’m on the low end of the spectrum. Dave Evans (“The Edge”) of U2’s rig looks like the cockpit of a 747.

Beck effortlessly creates a huge variety of tone mimicking horns of all variety, organ, and every kind of stringed instrument, virtually anything that creates a sound. He casually walks over to a standard array of effects pedals, tapping lightly and weaving them into exceptionally creative and expressive music. This is Beck’s stock in trade and why he’s still drawing full houses after a career of 46 years plus (~2000 people at the Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh last night).  He got a full standing ovation.

If you appreciate all kinds of guitar music, he shouldn’t be missed.

He gets a full 5 of 5 signature Strats.

Britney Spears from a while back (barf)

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Probably few of you know that the number one album in the country two weeks ago is by a 17 y/o Louisiana female named Britany Speers. Fewer of you have probably heard any cuts from the album, but I did as my 10 y/o (female) came home with the CD the other day and insisted playing it on my car CD player. What I heard brought me back to 1959.

Back then the record industry was just figuring out that teens bought records simply on the basis of artist ambiance. Talent never entered into it. So they searched high and low to find nature’s most perfect teen sex (such as it was) symbol. They came up with a South Philly 16 y/o with slick black hair…..Fabian Forte, a nice looking specimen of a male child. They then schlepped him around to photo sessions for all the teen magazines aimed at females for photo ops, but eventually it was necessary for him to sing.

So into the studio they went for a single……..”Like a tiger”. An overproduced and overdubbed sound track was necessary to partially obscure the fact that Fabian couldn’t sing a single note. But back in those days, they didn’t have the technology to do the job right so the finished production came out the croak of a not-quite-teen male shortly after the first squirt of hormones, accompanied by a reverberation, tremolo driven wall of sound. No matter. No one could hear the voice for the screams anyway.

Teen girls went absolutely nuts. Fabian became the dream of every red blooded American female between 10 and 17. Sales of the single “Like a tiger” depleted the world supply of black vinyl. He was greeted by screams everywhere he went, but the money, of course, went to promoters. Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avlon followed quickly. Then the Beatles hit the shore in June of 1963 and the party was over, but that’s another story. Now it’s 1999 and the ages of kids that buy records have gone into the single digits and technology can make anyone sound like a Spice Girl. The the lyrics are more suggestive, and the average 8 y/o knows exactly what they mean.

Continuing searches for idols turned up Britany, an absolute knockout beauty of a teen that also can’t sing a note. No matter. A digital voice modulator can transform her into Barbara Streisand and digital synthesizers can mimic the Philharmonic. But anyone familiar with those devices can spot them in the first ten seconds. And to a reasonably attuned ear, it sounds like fingernails on a chalk board.

So I complain to my daughter that this is not only pretentious trash, it’s a vision of the end of music as an art form. “Alexa, my middle child………..do your poor old daddy a favor and listen to Eric Clapton “Live in the 70’s” CD. A virtuoso musician at the top of his form, playing a real instrument with a real band, improvising modes and making musical history. Or try Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”, the roots of jazz and rock fusion from the master of all time.