Friday, June 21, 2013

Musical Manifesto

Today’s music sucks.  I know I’m not the first guy to say this and I’m sure many of you disagree with me.  I also understand that there are generational differences and differences in taste.  You younger people are probably sick of us old farts spewing our admiration for Clapton, Hendrix, U2, The Specials and so on,  But I have to say to you young people today, you deserve better than what you’re getting.

Let’s contrast the differences.

I think it is pretty safe to say that lip syncing in concerts today is pretty widespread.  But these “artists” manage to maintain their celebrity.  If this had happened in my day, the marketplace would have shunned these charlatans with extreme prejudice.  If they appeared on a stage again, broken bottles would have been thrown at them.  Nowadays, the lip syncers get their faces on the cover of Rolling Stone.

What about the concert itself?  Almost every band from the mid 60’s to the early 80’s put out a live album.  The concert meant something because the live performance was not an exact duplicate of the studio songs.  It often had more energy and there was improvisation.  Today’s artists seem to lip sync each two and a half minute song from their latest boring CD, collect the gate receipts and head off to party with their posse.  

Another difference between today’s rock concerts and yesterday’s rock concerts is the attitude of the performers.  In the past, the artists were like the hosts of the party.  We all somehow felt we were part of the show.  Today’s artists act like royalty.  The rest of us are just the serfs who should be enthralled with the good fortune to be able to pay $100+ for a ticket to their show.

I would encourage anyone to listen to Frank Sinatra’s “Live at the Sands” or Bobby Darin “Live at the Copa” or The Doors “Absolutely Live.”  Listen to some concert recordings from Frank Zappa.  These artists engage with the audience.  They make jokes about people they see in the audience.  They have banter back and forth with the audience.

What ever happened to the lead guitar?  Musicians of the past were virtuoso’s at their instruments.  Everyone would talk about who their favorite guitar player was.  Was it Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or a more obscure guitarist like Tom Verlane of Television?  It was the same with drummers.  Who was better, Keith Moon of The Who or Ian Paice of Deep Purple?  Who was the better bass guitarist, Jack Bruce of Cream or Jack Cassidy of The Jefferson Airplane?  Today’s bands seem devoid soul.  Their idea of a guitar solo is to strum wildly and jump up and down.

Today’s bands are not very dynamic.  For virtually every band out there, each song sounds exactly the same—only the lyrics are different.  They have the same tempo, same volume, same timbre, same rhythm and the same bushy bearded dingleberry strumming an acoustic guitar.  It’s boring and monotonous.  In the past a band could show several sides.  Sometimes they were loud and fast, other times they were soft and slow.  Other times they were low down and funky.

Today’s artists seem far more focused on what Frank Zappa called, “going for the blow job.”  Basically what he meant was that today’s artists are focused more on their celebrity than they are on their art.  They want to be in People magazine, get invited to all the big Hollywood parties, date the Playboy playmates, blah, blah, blah, etc.  Now sure, that’s stuff’s great for them, but what’s the byproduct for you and me?  Pop pablum.  

Neil Young’s mid-80’s MTV hit, “This Notes For You” put the whole attitude of the time in perfect perspective.  Today’s artists are all too willing to go for the blow job, sell out and play for politicians.

You younger people are probably thinking that I am full of shit by now.  However,  I think you feel exactly the same way but you just won’t admit it.   And I think I have the proof.

Less than a week ago, I saw a TV news story about a survey that said most people who pay hundreds of dollars to attend huge music festivals don’t go for the music.  They go for the drugs, the booze and scamming for sex.  Clearly every time I ever went to a rock concert, the concept of getting loaded and getting laid was a big part of it.  However, the music was one of the top two reasons to go.

As an example of the way things used to be, I want to share this live recording of a Tubes medley recorded in Buffalo, NY.  They play their original, "Proud To Be An American" from their 2nd album.  That is followed by a fantastic Fee Waybill imitation of Tom Jones and then they rally with a roaring rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Blue Rondo a la Turk -- Dave Brubeck

Once in a while someone will ask, “what was the best concert you ever went to?’  Mine would have to be Dave Brubeck at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, MN.  I know Brubeck is Jazz and not Blues, but the two are pretty close relatives, wouldn’t you say?

It was sometime back on a nice cool Fall day back around 1985.  My buddy Jerry and I were roommates at the time.  He came home from work one night and said that he heard on the radio that Dave Brubeck was coming to the newly constructed Ordway Theater in downtown St. Paul and that the tickets had just gone on sale that day.  We looked it up in the local entertainment rag and confirmed he was coming.  However, I paused for a moment when I read in the ad that The Brubeck Quartet was performing with the Murray Lewis Dance Studio.  Suddenly a vision burst into my head.  I suddenly dreaded that the show might end up being some art noise accompanied by crazy modern dance nonsense.  I feared it was not going to be the swinging Brubeck I wanted to see play “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk.”

Jerry persuaded me to quit being a pain in the ass and just get the damn tickets.  Jerry had another great idea.  He suggested we round up a bunch of others to join us.  So we did.  I called the Ordway and ordered 6 tickets--3rd row right in the center!

The night arrived.  It ended up being, myself, Jerry, his girlfriend Jill, our mortuary science friend Craig, my brother Brian and his buddy Chuck.  This was a much more formal affair than I was used to.   At Wilebski’s or Whiskey Junction, it was t-shirt and jeans all the time.  The Dave Brubeck show at the Ordway, on the other hand, was a much finer affair.  For the first time since my confirmation in the Catholic Church, I put on some nice pants, a nice shirt and a sweater.  I looked pretty good if I do say so myself.

We arrived casually early.  I remember strolling the wide concourse of the Ordway with all the other well dressed people.  It was very mellow and comfortable.  There was no bad vibe, there were no big lines at the wine bar and there was plenty of elbow room to amble about.   I bought a wine and just roamed the concourse soaking in every minute of the night before we had to go into the auditorium.  When the time came, we took our seats front and center.  

The lights went low and a slow mellow piano opened from the darkness.  Then spotlights came on and the dancers from the Murray Lewis studio paraded across the stage twirling slowly and meticulously.  My worst fears crept slightly into my consciousness.  Was this going to be some boring dance shit?

My fears were quickly allayed because suddenly the stage lights came on and lit up the Dave Brubeck Quartet as they burst into some swinging Jazz.  The dancers pranced about back and forth across the stage.  And let me tell you something--it was great!  Not only was it Brubeck swinging, but the dancing actually enhanced the whole show.

The show continued like that until intermission.  After grabbing another wine, everyone returned to their seats.  The stage was dimly lit as Brubeck and his band retook the stage.  Nothing had prepared us for the notion that Dave Brubeck and his Quartet were going to have their own segment.  For the next 20-30 minutes it was just Brubeck and his crew jamming.  It was remarkable.

The whole time my buddy Jerry and I were busting inside.  We just wanted to yell, “Yeah, baby!” as loud as we could.  We bottled it up because we weren’t sure those kinds of goings on were allowed at such a formal show.  Then something wonderful happened.  In the middle of one of his jams, Brubeck himself went, “Wooo!”

That was it, the light just turned green.  Jerry and I burst out with our own hoots and hollars.  It wasn’t long before others in the back joined along.

The jam segment of the show segued perfectly as the dancers returned to the stage seamlessly in the middle of an upbeat swinging number.  The crowd just burst into applause.  Eventually, and unfortunately, the show had to end.  There wasn’t a hesitation among anyone in the audience to immediately get to their feet for a standing ovation.

It was a special night that night.  That show at the Ordway was shortly after Brubeck had quadruple bypass surgery.  He must have been fully recovered and happy to be alive, because for a Jazz show, it rocked!  Best concert ever!

In commemoration of that show, here is a great live version of “Blue Rondo a la Turk” which was totally indicative of what we saw that night.  My best case scenario thinking about the concert as it approached was just like this.  Enjoy.