Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Something In The Night

I am so done with stadium rock concerts. Even with a nice afternoon of tailgating, complete with home-made burgers and cajun shrimp, plus a few baked clams courtesy of some nice folks a few cars down the line. What is the purpose of going to a show if you can't hear it? Chance are pretty good when you bought your ticket you knew you were not going to see it, but hear it? - you would think that should come with the price of admission. If you get stuck underneath the seats above you, what you are hearing sounds like it has been swirling around in garbage can ... which is a pretty accurate description of the Meadowlands and hopefully among the reasons that a new stadium is being built to open in a few years.

But there I was, once again, in New Jersey to spend a good two hours or so with The Boss.

Right off the bat, Danny Federici is sadly and sorely missed. Any true fan of the E Street Band will tell you that it's just not the same - and that part of the magic is gone forever. His replacement, Charles Giordano, is a solid musician and definitely is paying tribute to Danny - for now. Sooner or later he'll have to start working up a little magic on his own.

Clarence was not looking - or sounding - too good last night. He was pretty amazing at the Nassau Coliseum show last March - all the reviews seemed to pick up on the fact that he was blowing as strong as ever and Bruce pulled out all of the big sax songs as to take advantage of that fact. Last night, just the opposite. He was honking all over the place and Bruce pulled "Backstreets" from the setlist.

For the record it was a good show, probably a great show if we had better seats. There was an interesting mix of songs, including some that haven't been played for a while. Which brings me to Bruce's latest bit of schtick - taking "requests" from the audience who have been bringing handmade signs and banners in an attempt to get him to play their favorite song. Bruce ran back and forth across the stage collecting the signs which he dumped in a big pile on stage. He would walk over to the pile and pretend to decide which one he would play - I say pretend, because most of the "requests" he played were on his handwritten set list! What a con artist! Still it's all great fun for those involved - it is kind of cool when he reveals the choice to the crowd. Plus, in a few cases he truly pulled one out the bands collective ass - "Held Up Without A Gun" was a blast - Bruce duly noted that his lyrics are more in sync with the times now than when he wrote the song in the late 1970's.

Even some of the songs that were on the setlist gave the band a challenge - "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City" started off with a spirited discussion on what key the song was in. "Drive All Night" from "The River" got big cheers from the long time fans. Quite a few covers made the set including "Summertime Blues," "The Detroit Medley" and "Twist And Shout" which went on way too long. The audience was completely insane - even towards the very end they got as loud as I ever heard a group of people get - and when Bruce was asking them to sing "a little bit softer now" during Twist And Shouts little LaBamba side trip, it was pretty cool hearing about 50 thousand people whispering together.

The kids got in the act as well. Bruce daughter came on stage with a bunch of her friends and basically just jumped around on Twist and Shout, and Max's son came out to play drums on "Born To Run." He definitely is not as stiff as his dad, and rocked the song really hard. It made hearing that one for the 200 plus time actually more exciting than usual. Yes, it still is exciting no matter what.

There is so much talent on this stage, including the wonderful bassist Gary Tallent of course. Steve Van Zandt, when he's not clowning around with Bruce, is a truly masterful guitarist - one of those guys who makes it look way easier than it is. When you have a moment be sure to check his Underground Garage website. On the other side of the stage Nils Lofgren gets the spotlight once a night - last night it was on "Because The Night" - and he never fails to bring the show to a new level. His solos soar, higher and higher and just when you think he's peaking, he brings it on even more. Plus now he's tumbling while he solos! Its only a matter of time before the trampoline comes back. Nils has a new CD - a collection of songs from his old boss, Neil Young, called "The Loner - Nils Sings Neil."

I kept feeling that there was some sort of farewell vibe to this show. That's not been hinted at anywhere and I can't pinpoint my exact reasons for feeling those feelings. No doubt, he could do this forever - fill these stadiums and give them their money's worth (including the $20 hit for parking!) To my eyes there were too many drunk yahoos who just kept shouting "YEEEEAHHH" into each other's face, too many fan boys and girls who had seen it all too many times and pick songs for their bathroom breaks, too many people who thought his last CD was Born In The USA, just too many "too manys." He needs to scale this thing back, play the theaters, get the excitment back. Let everybody hear the words. Tell a story or two. Deal with the changes, the ones that have come and the ones to come. I love this guy, I really do. I have followed him through it all - almost from the very beginning. It's time to bring this thing back home - and I don't mean back to New Jersey.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Not So Good Vibrations

Lizz and I recently attended a Brian Wilson show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC. The concert, which was billed as "An Evening With Brian Wilson And Friends" was a benefit for cancer research. It was apparently part of series of shows taking place around Manhattan but it was very hard to get any other information regarding who the "friends" were. The show was never even listed on Wilson's official website, though the message board there was ripe with all sorts of rumours as to who would be appearing - the biggest buzz around a possible "ex-Beatle" hitting the stage. I didn't really care too much about all of that - as you may or may not know, I am a huge fan and try to see his show whenever it comes to town. Since Brian has been back I have enjoyed everyone of his concerts, the last one at the Beacon with Al Jardine in tow was an absolutely stellar evening. Because this was a benefit, ticket prices were pretty high, so I went for the cheap seats at a hundred dollars a pop, expecting to have a great time for a good cause.

For those who haven't seen Brian Wilson in concert, the experience can be a bit shocking. His band - based around a group called The Wondermints and featuring ex-Beach Boy Jeffrey Foskett - is flat out incredible. Super musicians, excellent vocalists - most who double (and triple) on a variety of instruments allowing them to truly deliver Wilson's music in all its sonic majesty. Brian sits center stage behind an unplayed piano. Sometimes he rocks along to the music, other times he just sits there staring off into space. If it weren't for a number of interviews where he has stated that he is enjoying his return to the concert stage I would be creeped out by it all - but if he is having a good time, I'm all for it. His voice has gotten stronger over the past few years, though he occasionally flubs a lyric or two.

I had read on the message boards that a few of the band members were not going to be at the show. It's a big band, with a big sound and I wondered how they were going to deal with the changes. The regular drummer (there is also a second percussionist) and bass player were not going to be there, as well as the 1st keyboardist and the one lone female member who sings - as does every member of the band. Wow! How did they pull this off? Simple! The second keyboardist - who usually gets behind the drum kit at the end of the show for the big "rock and roll" medley - played drums. The guy who plays almost every instrument during the night was on bass for the evening. Although two strong vocalists were lost for the evening, the band more than covered all the harmony parts. Like I said, this is an amazing group of musicians.

Even so, it was obvious that some things would have to be dropped from the set and that meant sticking to the hits for the night. Even so there were a few gems, including a great verision of "Add Some Music" from the "Sunflower" album, a spot on take on "In My Room" and two new songs from the upcoming "That Lucky Old Sun" release, which could be the first truly great new release from Wilson (if you don't count "Smile" as new). The band compensated for the missing members with a high-energy performance - almost manic - blasting through the songs almost Ramones-style. Brian, who had been ill for the last few shows, looked great and was more animated than I had ever seen him - sometimes almost giddy.

Our $100 seats were majorly suck-ass. Practically in the lobby, when I looked to my right I noticed that we were actually behind the merch counter! After a few songs I noticed that the security seemed pretty lax, so Lizz and I got up and made our way up front where a bunch of people were dancing and listening on the side, unhindered by any ushers. We stayed there for the rest of the show - worked for us!

As the show progressed I began to think that there wasn't going to be any "friends" showing up. Then Brian introduced Joan Osborne who sang a verse or two of "God Only Knows" with him. She was fine, but certainly not "ex-Beatle" fine. Usually this is a show stopper of a song. This time it sounded a bit unrehearsed and definitely missed all the horn parts that the full band usually covers. Then Brian introduces Al Kooper. Al Kooper? They proceeded with a nice version of "Caroline No" with Al doing a soulful turn on a verse and that was that. Sheesh - I have better "friends" than that! Well, maybe not, but I know Brian does. Guess they were busy doing nothing.

Soon - and it seemed a bit too soon - it was time for what is Brian's standing show ender - a full song medley of "Barbara Ann," "Surfin USA," and "Fun, Fun, Fun" - where they strap a bass on him - again, unplugged - and he makes his exit, always uncertain of which side of the stage to leave from. Then the encore, which traditionally had been "Love And Mercy" now replaced by the beautiful "Southern California" from the new release. Lizz and I bolted out to catch the train back home.

It was different than all the other shows I had seem him do, definitely a bit less magical. But it was Brian Wilson and that was good enough for me. However it apparently wasn't good enough for some others.

Negative reviews began to circulate on Brian's website and other blogs. People were complaining about the bad seats, the sort set, the missing band members and the lack of "Beach Boy rarities" in the show. Not for nothing, it was a 75 minute show with at least 17 songs, all preformed well by a kick ass, if somewhat truncated, band. Plus it was a benefit!

Then the most unexpected thing happening. Brian's wife Melissa posted to the message board on the site, saying that Brian was upset to hear that he may have disappointed some fans and in order to keep it "cool" he was going to offer a refund to anyone who wanted one.


Now it is easy to say he's out of his mind when speaking of Brian, as for all intents and purposes, he is. But to offer a refund to dissatisfied concert goers? This is some serious shit. I have been attending concerts all of my life and there have been plenty of times when I felt I didn't get my money's worth - especially in the past decade when ticket prices climbed to record rates. Imagine if I could have asked for a refund if I felt that the performance wasn't up to snuff? Or if they didn't play my favorite song or I didn't like my seat? On Van Morrison shows alone I would have saved enough to make a car payment or two!

This whole thing will most likely fade away quickly - the original post from Melinda Wilson is no longer on the board - but it would be interesting to see if anyone else picks up the gauntlet and does something similar. Did I consider sending in my tickets for refund? Not for a second, but I did wonder if I would get a check signed by Brian back in return.

Hmmmm ...

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Me And My Elvis Robot

Time was when I would have spent $300 on a talking robotic Elvis head but when I saw this pop up a few years ago I took a big pass. After all I'm a big boy now. It's been over a decade since the last real Elvis party and people have finally stopped giving me Elvis junk for my birthday and Christmas. Then one day last week there it was in the daily email from Buy.com - the WowWee Alive Elvis at $59.99. Signed, sealed and delivered. I couldn't get out my credit card fast enough.

Lizz was mildly amused and obviously relieved that I planned on taking it to office. Liam, who admitted to being "a little afraid" at first, warmed up quickly to the King's quirky movements and spent the rest of day talking to him expecting answers.

I can't even describe this thing. It kinda sorta looks like Elvis - it actually looks more like k.d. lang. I was disappointed to find out that it wouldn't move it's mouth along to any outside sources - you can connect a microphone or an iPod - and it seems as if the infared sensors do not work, but hey, it is a 60 buck chinese talking robot head. Buyer beware has never been more applicable. The whirring noise he makes is pretty disturbing until you realize that its the same noise you've made forever whenever you pretended you were a robot! If you don't know what I'm talking about, well that's the difference between me and you.

After I finally read the instruction manual, I got him to sing a few songs and tell a few stories. You can have him just spout out random statements, along with moving his head from side to side, raising his eyebrows and yes, the occaisional classic Elvis snear. My favorite bit of information from the user guide: "Should Elvis perform an unexpected function, please switch him OFF then ON again to reset him." Unexpected function? Like what - lunge for a hambuger? Start cursing? Cry? If only!

This morning I threw my Elvis robot head into a box and into the back of my topless jeep to take him to his new home. As I was enjoying the morning sunshine and fresh air, I couldn't help but think that it would be kind of funny if the robot king bounced out of the car and onto the windsheild of the car behind me. Would the fact that it was Elvis smashing into your car make you feel any better? If it happened to me, it would be a story I would tell for the rest of my life. But that's just me.

I had a great space picked out for him in the office where I can look up from my desk and keep an eye on him. We had a nice pair of classic shades for him which helps make him look more like ... him. He certainly does get people's attention and the word that seems to come up more often than not is "creepy." While I doubt that is what WowWee had in mind I have to admit that it really does sum it up.

My Elvis robot head came with only one cartridge that has about 8 songs and a dozen or so little stories. I am guessing that there won't be any more forthcoming. His hair, which looks excellent on the box, is misbehaving. I also was hoping that he would "auto activate" when sensing motion, but that's not the case. Instead he shuts off after 10 minutes and you can't turn him on from the remote. Maybe in the next version.

We have some plans to either find a body for him or make it look like he is trapped in the floor. We are also thinking of wiring him into the office PA system. There have been some interesting modifications detailed online. Whatever happens I am going to enjoy my status as the only owner of an Elvis robot head that I know for as long as it lasts.