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.

Reflections at a U2 concert:

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Reflections at a U2 concert:

I went to a U2 concert in Indianapolis sometime in the early 90s and on my way back I had an epiphany regarding an otherwise mundane experience there. I pulled out a scrap of paper and wrote it as I drove home on the Interstate. Here it is:

“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”.