Review & Photos by David Sason
Although their recurring "Face 2 Face" concert is by now one of the biggest grossing tours of all time, it's still impressive to see Billy Joel and Elton John onstage together. Piano-playing pop stars are still a rarity, and these two icons showed Oakland on Saturday night why their joint jaunt is such a smash (and one of the few tickets worth the hefty price).
Starting a little after 7:30 and wrapping at 11pm, the marathon run was a nonstop extravaganza of HITS, HITS, HITS. From opening classic "Your Song" through "My Life" and "Rocket Man"– which led the mostly middle-aged crowd excitedly rushing the stage – it was difficult to find a good bathroom break (even the album cuts were from their most celebrated albums). Joel & John traded couplets back and forth in a seamless survey of Billboard hits of the '70s and '80s. Nearly EVERY song of the night was instantly familiar from decades of radio and video play, and the sellout crowd gleefully sang along all night.
While classics like "Bennie and the Jets" and 'Tiny Dancer" suffered from Elton John's aged, deeper voice, his catalog undoubtedly shone the brightest that night, even forgotten 1980s numbers like "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues". The crowd compensated for the high notes anyway.
While his discography has never approached the sublime melancholy of "Daniel" or "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", Billy Joel's showmanship was astounding. Unlike John, he actually engaged the crowd with jokes, revolved his piano in an egalitarian gesture, and worked a snippet of Vallejo's own "Dance to the Music" into the middle of "River of Dreams". He also apologized for postponing the show originally scheduled for last November before celebrating the serendipitous Valentine's Day Eve replacement date. The throngs of lovers in the house cheered in agreement.
But even Joel can only do so much while sitting down. To really connect, Joel picked up a guitar downstage for a faithful "We Didn't Start the Fire" and tried his best mic-stand acrobatics for the perennially relevant "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me". Joel also introduced each member of his backing band throughout his set (something else Elton John sadly forwent, even with longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone bopping alongside him).
The showcase ended as it began, with John & Joel alone, sans backing band. The appropriate closer "Piano Man" brought a final frenzy with its slightly modified final verse: "You're a pretty good crowd for a Saturday, and the manager gives me a smile; because he knows it's been me you've been coming to see, to forget about life for awhile."
Mission accomplished. Thanks, guys.--David Sason
SETLIST (Thanks to Jim Harrington)
Billy Joel and Elton John:“Your Song”“Just the Way You Are”“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”“My Life”
John:“Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”“Levon”“Madman Across the Water”“Tiny Dancer”“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”“Daniel”“Rocket Man”“Philadelphia Freedom”“I’m Still Standing”“Crocodile Rock”
Joel:“Angry Young Man”“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”“Allentown”“Zanzibar”“Don’t Ask Me Why”“She’s Always a Woman”“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”“The River of Dreams”“We Didn’t Start the Fire”“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”“Only the Good Die Young”
Joel and John:“I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”“Uptown Girl”“The Bitch is Back”“You May be Right”“Bennie and the Jets”“Candle in the Wind”“Piano Man”
A New Perspective on Clouds, the Circus and How to Throw a Party (Grammy Weekend in L.A.)By Linda Ferro
So, I thought it would be nifty to take advantage of my membership with the Recording Academy and buy some tix to attend the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards in L.A. (Folks in the industry refer to the Academy as “NARAS,” which stands for the “National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.”)
I was completely and utterly (which is a lot) sleep-deprived on the day I was to fly down there, since I had to set my alarm for 4 AM to make a 6:30 flight. As a musician and life-long nightowl, I’d much rather stay up till 4 than rise at that time.
Once in the plane, I was in a dreamy state from the droning sound of the engines (uh, propellers). Just after we climbed up out of the blanket of cloud-cover (one of my favorite things to do), I had a moment with a cloud. Yes, I did. There was a moment when I was flying eye-to-eye with this random piece of fluff. I pondered this perspective in metaphysical detail, and realized that I’m only accustomed to looking up at clouds or down at them when a plane rises above them. This whole thing really entertained me for a lot longer than it should have, and because I am prone to excessive anthropomorphism, I also assumed this cloud was traveling to L.A. just as I was!
As we flew on—me in an early morning stupor and the pilot hopefully not—I saw the most magical scene outside my porthole: Behind the plane was the almost-full moon in all its splendor and ahead of the plane was the muted crimson aura of a sunrise about to happen. I had trouble deciding which show to watch. (I probably looked like I was watching a tennis match!)
The rest of the flight was uneventful, until I got scolded by the fight attendant for not putting away my laptop quickly enough as we prepared for landing. In my defense, I had just bought my new Mac Pro and it was literally about the second time I had done a power-up/down. I hardly knew what I was doing, in terms of closing screens, making sure I had things saved, and navigating my way around the touchpad. The worst part about this mishap is that the attendant scooped up my coffee cup with my last sip that I was looking forward to. I know this doesn’t sound like such a big deal, except that I stopped drinking coffee a year ago and treated myself to just this one cup, so I’m thinkin’ that I had a pretty pathetic look on my face as the cup dropped into the garbage bag never to be seen again (at least not by me).
Fortunately, I soon had something else to ponder as the plane started to make the most incredibly steep bank to the right (my side of the plane) which, of course, made my head tilt accordingly, and as I looked out my window down at the ground, I was pretty sure that the entire perfectly symmetrical grid of square blocks of houses was dangerously close to sliding right off the face of the planet. Probably a good thing we’d be on the ground soon.
Maybe if I’d had that last sip of caffeine I wouldn’t have dropped the handle of my luggage as I was wheeling it to the baggage claim area. It kinda slammed down dramatically, my sleepy hands letting go while the bag stayed on the floor behind me, a pace or two back. Good thing I wasn’t trying to look cool or anything.
Got my bags without incident. Found the shuttle to get to my hotel. Also without incident. After the driver stopped to pick up more passengers, I got a little sampling of just how musical this weekend would surely be. One of my co-passengers began to whistle. That part was ok, except that the radio was on, and try as I may, I couldn’t find any of the notes he was whistling to be anywhere within the song on the radio. Couldn’t tell if he was indeed trying to whistle along to that song (the one we all heard), or if he had another one in mind. My ears gave up and I resolved to be happy for him that he was so cheery at 8 AM.
I had the rest of the day to scout around, get some requisite pampering, find a cool café, and meet up with producer/engineer friend Lenise Bent. Spent that last part of the evening enjoying my 12th floor corner window room, writing and pretty much resting-up for the BIG EVENT the next day.GRAMMY DAY: (sounds like some holiday for parents of parents….)
The Pre-Telecast Awards started in the afternoon and were presented in the West Hall of the L.A. Convention Center. It was an exciting and beautifully-produced awards ceremony, which featured nominations in 99 categories not covered during the telecast! It was in this room during this part of the Awards that Taylor Swift accepted her first Grammy of the evening. Most of the “big stars” didn’t come to receive awards here because, as we were told, they were preparing for the events later that evening. One of the presenters in particular was certainly hoping Beyonce would appear to receive her awards, but sadly, that was not the case.
After the 3 hours or so of the Pre-Telecast awards, I made my way over to the adjacent Staples Center. I was not happy to discover that the monitor for the section I was seated in was completely blocked by one of the main stationary cameras. So, I have to say this: If you watched the Grammys on TV then you got a better view than I did. Alas, next year I will pay even more to get better seats, because it is definitely worth it to be down closer to the action.
That being said, the entire evening was an incredible, almost overwhelming display of pulsing/flashing/glowing neon, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and thumping live audio that I can only refer to as “galactic.” Sensory overload. It’s almost impossible not to get a thrill when so many favorite artists walk out onto the stage and are present. It was truly magical to be in the same room (if you can call the Staples Center a “room”) with such a glorious roster of entertainers. I absolutely loved watching the actual production of the show, seeing the awesome camera-folks racing around for the best angles, and watching the over-the-top set changes (one of the advantages of being up higher in the arena).
Where else but at the Grammys could you observe a dazzling pop star twirling and dripping water high above, listen to a dashing blind Italian tenor and a New Orleans Jazz quartet, and witness 5 award-winning bandmates confess to being wasted on national TV – all under the same roof? Nuff said.THE CELEBRATION: (The After-party, Which You Didn’t See On TV)
After the last award was presented at the Staples Center, we all headed for the exits and were corralled down the sidewalk back to the West Hall, where the Pre-Telecast awards had been presented. We all mooed and/or marched toward the entrance, drawn by the enticing glow of neon and the unmistakable sound of this party gettin’ started.
During the time that guests had been inside the Staples Center, the airplane-hanger size West Hall had been transformed into a dazzling 3-ring circus. Hard to imagine I had just been in this same building. I feel like I’m about 6 years old – like the “child within” really needed to go to a circus!
At the entrance, I am greeted enthusiastically and invited in (with full drama) by a circus “barker” sweeping his arms around in wide gestures and calling out from high above on his brightly lit platform.
A full-spectrum of color had been splashed everywhere since I had last been inside. Enormous “big top” canopies arched high above, creating a colossal carnival vibe. In the performance rings, which were strategically located, were clowns, aerial artists, weighted oversized hoop artists (I’m sure there’s an official name for this amazing performing arts form, but sadly, I know it not), contortionists and mimes in action.
Roaming about this insta-circus, are people-creatures hopping about on all fours, classic stilt-gents, as well as various an’ sundry rogue, rambling characters of all designs. (I learned later that this fabulous journey thru whimsy was designed and produced by “Along Came Mary Productions.”)
Somehow, I hadn’t managed to eat before the Awards ceremony and didn’t want to leave while it was still going on, so I’m now on a mission to find food. Don’t have to look far! There are so many banquet tables set up that the lines for this multitude of partiers aren’t long at all. The lavish, organic foods of Asian, New Orleans and American flavor have all been prepared by chef extraordinaire Wolfgang Puck. (Dang! What a gig for him!) Serving-dish upon serving-dish filled with fresh, organic delectables, too many to mention. However, what MUST be mentioned are the two 8-ft banquet tables in the building that are literally piled high with fresh cracked crab and prawns, all chillin’ on a bed of ice. Gotta take a picture of this. Crab is truly beautiful, although I must admit I prefer to see my crustacean brothers and sisters whole and swimmin’ rather than chillin’. (Speaking of parts of food, you’ll be happy to know, as I am, that all unused/leftover food would go to “Angel Harvest” in L.A., distributed through various programs. That’s beautiful and so right.)
With all the sensory stimulation I’m succumbing to, I’m not surprised that I am compelled to respond in Pied Piper fashion to a booming voice announcing the arrival of performing artist Ne-Yo to the main stage. We’re talkin’ R&B sensation, here: three-time Grammy winner. The Gentleman. He’s absolutely mesmerizing, sliding along from one side of the stage to the other in a flash. Workin’ us – workin’ the band. Being real.
He asks the audience: “So, any couples out there tonight? You know, like boyfriend/girlfriend, or husband/wife?” He looks out at us, and seeing the small show of hands, he responds with a wry grin: “Oh right. This is L.A.” He is so defining “smooth.”
Jamie Foxx just happens to be in the neighborhood and joins Ne-Yo onstage, reminding me that the former can really SING. (Definitely worth checking out YouTube postings of this show if they’re out there.) Jon Batiste Band, Soul Legend and Grammy winner Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave – you know, “Soul Man” and “Can’t Turn You Loose”) were so polished as they delivered hit after hit. I feel honored to get to hear such an iconic performer such as he, and his voice is still simply amazing.
The band is, well…let me say that at one point I’m lookin at a six-piece horn section, and seven keyboards, so you get the picture.
So guess who else happens to be in the neighborhood? Brenda Russell comes onstage and puts her heart out there singing with Sam and then performs the song she co-wrote: “None of us is free! (when one of us is chained).” So powerful!
Now then, here’s where the people-watching fun begins:
I’m on the dance floor moving and writing and all caught up in the production – mind and body transported by the music – when a gal next to me taps me on the shoulder, points and says with alarm, “That guy is PEEING!!”
Sure enough, Mr. “Bad apple” is standing right up at the base of the main stage right below Sam Moore and he decides that this moment, with glamour-gals dancing all ‘round, is a really great time to pee. Or, more likely, he didn’t think at all. Seems like the gal next to me and I are the only lucky ones to witness this. I decide right then and there that there should be some word much stronger than “disgusting.” Okay, it’s Grammy night. “It’s L.A.” Anything can happen.
Fortunately, I can get over it, and as the show is ending, Sam Moore’s manager calls out to him, ‘They want some more Sam Moore, Sam Moore!”
After the encore, I decide to walk off the pulsing dance floor (okay, the floor wasn’t pulsing, but the sound was bouncing off the walls, and so were the dancers. Ok, maybe they weren’t….)
I venture out into the hallway to check out the adjacent Petrie Hall venue that is turned into an authentic Jazz Club ala clown fun-house. So slinky and smooth and classy. This is definitely an alternate form of feel-good. Had a nice chat with a gal who was going skydiving the next day.
I check out the dessert table, and, lo! and behold, of all the awesome forms of sugar offered, my hand automatically reaches for the Rice Krispy Treats. Had to text my son Dave in Portland who had given me a Rice Krispy Treats cookbook for Christmas. (My addiction to them is legendary.) I am in my happy place with one in hand on the way to mouth.
After enjoying the Jazz and the vibe, I return to one of the performance rings in the main building. In the center of the ring, I see a forlorn-looking clown dressed in brown rag-clothes. He is on his knees looking up longingly at the nymph hanging by her ankles by long cloth ribbons hanging from the suspension apparatus high above. (I have heard this referred to as “Aerial Silk.”) The clown rises to his feet and with grand, exaggerated arm movements, throws fairy dust up at her as though he just might be able to transform himself into her celestial world, or bring her to him. Alas, he resigns himself to following her around the arena, fanning her with giant white feather plumes – worlds apart.
I turn away from the clown for a few moments to try to see what the crowd at another ring is cheering about. When I look back at the clown, he is suspended just a foot or two above the ground on his stomach, held around his midsection by the draping cloth cradle. He is flapping his wings furiously, trying his best to impress us. The look on his face tells me he knows he’s failing miserably. Just a shtick, but it was actually pretty poignant. (Or the Passion Martini was kicking in.)
As is usually the case at any event, there is never a shortage of entertainment provided by the people watching the show. Case in point: Across the ring from me, a pretty young brunette just grabbed both her breasts and lifted/shifted them. Looking down at herself, she seems pleased with the results.
I wander over to the Hard Rock Café memorabilia tent, and host Carlos sees me taking notes. He shows me around a little. My eye catches a most dramatic entry on display: a custom-made blue and white feather outfit worn by Charles Neville during 2 Mardi Gras parades in the 90’s. Then there’s a display case housing a black shirt worn by Jeff Beck “during many stage performances.” Oh, and a light blue jean shirt worn by James Taylor.
Moving from famous shirts to no-shirts, I wander over to one of the other performance arenas and see a half-naked, whole-graceful young lad hanging from his ankles by the silks. He has sparkles all over his body. Even his feet are sparkling! I absolutely can’t help but stare at his body (which, of course, I’m supposed to do). I notice a tattoo on his ankle and try to figure out what it is. Can’t tell. Looks like a blue blob. Have to go look at it when he dismounts from his perch. I CAN make out the prominent rather large star tattoo on his back, which flexes with his twists and turns. Every muscle in this young man’s body knows precisely what to do. Every one of mine hurt just watching him!
As he dismounts, I walk over and ask about the tattoo on his ankle. He shows me a planet earth (that explains the blue blob I saw) in its galaxy. How perfect for a guy who sparkles and flies around in the sky.
Okay, so not everyone is having a good time here. I am staring at an older woman who is slouched in her chair, arms hanging limply at her side, chin to her chest and deeply asleep. I imagine snoring, but can’t hear anything over the booming music bouncing around the room. I remember that I saw her just like this quite some time ago. She’s having a very nice nap not more than twenty feet from the stage.
In stark contrast to the apparently comatose figure in the chair, I see a vibrant woman in a wheelchair spinning around and being spun by her friends on the dance floor. Pam is simply radiant and full of joy. When she wheels back over to her table, I follow her and give her a high five with a big appreciative grin. She holds onto my hand briefly, and we wordlessly communicate about our perspective on life in that single moment. I tell her she is beautiful. (She senses, accurately, that I am not drunk!) She tells me that I am beautiful too and bids me farewell with “God is great!” I notice that she is holding a lavender hydrangea from the gorgeous floral centerpiece on her table. Pam tells me I should pick a rose out and take it home with me, which I will do.
When the bands are finished, DJ extraordinare Mick Boogie relentlessly stirs the dancers up into a frenzy. Or a froth…or something like that. I flail around for a while myself, but then decide that it’s time for another sampling of spirits. I find a table and a final snack. It is right there and then that I decide that I could die happy here, if I could just freeze-frame this moment when I have music in my ears, mango margarita on my lips and fresh cracked crab under my fingernails.
Absolutely, without a doubt, the best party ever!
Leaving the circus, it seems fitting that at the end of the evening, I should offer a report from the ladies room. I just closed the door on the stall and the next thing I know, an earsplitting, panicky young voice screams, “Where’s the f_____ toilet!” Nuff said about that, too.
Me, I’m just grateful to be in good-enough shape to remember which little round silver floor-number button to press in the hotel elevator….
Once in my room, I have a moment of panic as I realize that I had needed help from a housekeeper to zip-up my dress earlier that evening. I am truly grateful I can still feel my fingers, and hope that I could actually exit from the dress on my own. Mission accomplished. Soon, I’m more than ready to turn out the light, pleased to see one more time, on the nightstand, the circus-colored rose from Pam’s table.
Photos & review by David Sason
A couple days before my first Toots and the Maytals concert experience, a friend told me "when you see Toots in concert, you forget he has so many good songs; you hear a song and you're like, 'oh yeah!'". For me, this moment occurred halfway through the show, when the 63-year-old Jamaican legend and his crack band launched into "Sweet and Dandy", the divine Harder They Come soundtrack classic. Needless to say, I – and the sold-out, packed-to-the-rafters, all-ages crowd – went apeshit. Thus went the entire brilliant show, which kicked off with the apt "Do the Reggay" and the soulful and (synth) horn-heavy "Pomps and Pride", before leading into the especially timely "Time Tough". Though the group hasn't been "The Maytals" since 1981, the concert was a testament to the enduring talent of Mr. Toots Hibbert, from his rhythmic acoustic guitar mastery in tracks like 2007's "Don't Bother Me" to his pristine voice, which still packs enough gruff (an incendiary "Funky Kingston") and grace (a spot-on rendition of Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember") to record those classics all over again, and wielded an endless series of Freddie Mercury-worthy call-and-response moments. While he didn't move around onstage much, Hibbert's stage presence was enthralling, with a formidable positive energy that kept him smiling widely and professing love to the crowd non-stop throughout the 90-minute performance. A touching moment was when Hibbert – who is widely credited with coining the term "reggae"– invited a boy/girl middle-school band onstage during the encore. They were too shy to approach the mic, but Hibbert beamed like a proud grandfather when he announced "They play reggae music!", which was met with warm applause. Thankfully, so does Toots.––David Sason
For more info on some of the most SOULFUL, life-affirming music ever made, visit www.tootsandthemaytals.com.Setlist
Do the Reggay
Pomps and Pride
Reggae Got Soul
Don’t Bother Me
Take Me Home Country Road
Sweet and Dandy
Never Get Weary
[You got me feeling?]
Encore: I’ve Got Dreams to Remember
Love Gonna Walk Out on Me
54-46 That’s My Number
The crowd was hushed and somber as we entered the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Joni Davis sat at a piano, her voice washing over the audience like a piece of warm red velvet, as she swooped through the last song of the Reverent Sister's set, a new project made up of Davis and Faun Fables' Dawn McCarthy. Definitely an act worth getting to the show on time to see, which I unfortunately did not. Hopefully they will be around these parts again sometime soon!
After a short break, we took our seats before a stage that resembled a child's playroom. A Fisher Price pull-a-tune toy, tiny handmade guitar, sticks, rocks, a pink plastic microphone, an old record player and a vinyl copy of "Solitudes," are just a few of the artifacts that surrounded local composer Jesse Olsen as he sank into a set of songs inspired by and recorded during a year-long sojourn in the high desert of New Mexico.
The high desert is a notoriously elusive environment to capture in tangible form. Thomas Merton, Georgia O' Keefe, N. Scott Momaday and Sherwin Bitsue are only a short lists of artists, poets and writers who have attempted to encapsulate the mythical/mystical sensation of that landscape.
Olsen's artistic interpretation, described as "fragmented songs, minimalist soundscapes, and lo-fi tape experiments," is an intriguing addition to that canon. A bit Gastr del Sol at moments, the thoughtful jerky turns of expression, the playful interaction between words and silence made for a thought-provoking and emotional night of music. Alternating between guitar, casio keyboard and music-box, Olsen played sweet little bubbles of pop loveliness like the song "Snow Day" and followed them with forays into meandering repetitive lullabies, odes to desert sunsets and studies of the interplay between silence and expression. On "Riperian Habitat," he sang about "relaxing into the cottonwood and sage," later singing "I would be substance," with the ethereal yearning that long stays in the desert seem to inspire, as one truly begins to feel the reality of being a tiny speck in a humongous universe.
Later in the set, Olsen was joined by Peter Bergquist, Maxwell Church and Ben Gustin, for rollicking songs like "Buckeye Jim," which could have been taken straight from a late nineties Will Oldham album, all galluping fun country rock sing-a-long. The addition of mandolin, piano, and horn to the set added a welcome liveliness, a reminder that even in a sparse landscape, life still breathes and pulses.
By the end of the night, the floor was littered with the children's toys, microphones, sticks, musicbox, cotton cloth and even a pair of socks that the barefoot Olsen discarded early in the set. There is a sense of catharsis in the crowd, as though we have all been on a journey into another place, and now back, we are surrounded by the collected detritus of the trip. It is a lovely feeling, a reminder of the ancient existentialism of certain environments, the strange hope that comes from realizing that in the scheme of it all, we are nothing but a collection of socks and sticks.
Well, the envelopes have been ripped, the gold record awards distributed, and it's time to announce the winners of the fifth annual North Bay Music Awards!
Thanks to all who came out to the Hopmonk Tavern last night and made it such a sweet evening, and thanks especially to the George Marsh Quartet, Arann Harris & the Greenstring Farm Band and Body or Brain for playing; to Noah D for keeping it live on the turntables; to Ricky Watts for doing live painting and helping raise hundreds of dollars for Face to Face and Food for Thought; to Brian Griffith and Bill Bowker from the KRSH for presenting; and to the Hopmonk itself for having us back for another great year.
This year we had over 2,000 people vote in categories that were sometimes very, very close. We're lucky to have such a wealth of talent in the North Bay, and we salute everyone—winners, nominees and non-nominees all—who continue to enrich the breeding ground of excellent music in the area.
Without further ado, then. . .Blues / R&B
SoulShine Blues Band
Volker StriflerWinner: Volker StriflerCountry / Americana
Aaran Harris & the Greenstring Farm Band
Poor Man’s Whiskey
Stiff Dead Cat
Trailer Park RangersWinner: Poor Man's WhiskeyDance / DJ
DJ Noah D
DJ Rob CervantesWinner: DJ Noah DFolk / Acoustic
Serf & James
Way-to-Go JoesWinner: Mr. DecemberRap / Hip-Hop
At All Costs
TruthliveWinner: At All CostsJazz
Wesla WhitfieldWinner: Jason BodlovichIndie Rock / Punk
Baby Seal Club
Body or Brain
Litany for the Whale
Not to Reason Why
Semi-Evolved SimiansWinner: Baby Seal ClubRock / Metal
The ThugzWinner: The PulsatorsWorld / Reggae
Zydeco FlamesWinner: Zydeco Flames
By David Sason This week the Beatles get an illuminating polish, while Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan re-ups with way too many people around.
While there’s no dearth of Beatles coverage this week, there’s only one question that matters for many: How much better does the remastered music sound? Well, in layman's terms, holy shit! What a tremendous upgrade not only in volume but in dynamics and details, from mop-top gems like “Things We Said Today” (which suddenly gains a melodic jangly rhythm guitar and expert hi-hat tapping by Ringo) to denser, later productions like “Something” (which gains Paul's sprightly bass accompaniment & whose strings bloom like never before). The vibrancy of the songs have always transcended any technological limitations anyway, but now they sound simply incredible.
The stellar remastering of the canonical recordings is no surprise to recording veteran Allen Wagner, co-founder of Turn Me Up!, a non-profit seeking to preserve dynamics in music recording. “Allan Rouse at Abbey Road studios and his team have taken great pains to ensure they don't encroach upon such a timeless piece of music history,” he says. “They are being careful to not even add any equalization where it's not absolutely necessary, or a truly positive addition to the tracks.”
Thankfully those entrusted with the job of all remastering jobs are also mindful of Turn Me Up!'s mission. “I've had the chance to work with Abbey Road as a music mastering house and they refuse to participate in the so-called "Loudness Wars",” Wagner says. “If you request to have your songs mastered in that manner, they will politely tell you to go somewhere else.” You MUST hear for yourself.
Before exemplary TV show The Wire, we had Raekwon’s 1995 masterful opus Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, a chilling & expansive chronicle of the inner-city drug game that remains the best hip-hop work to draw heavily from the Mafioso/Scarface aesthetic. It rivals only GZA’s Liquid Swords as the most celebrated Wu-Tang solo release, but the amount of people wanting to be involved with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…PT. II, which finally got released this week, is the album's biggest problem. Whereas the RZA’s cinematic production on the original added dramatic heft and cohesion to the songs (and foreshadowed his film score work), the sequel’s consistency suffers from its varying producers (Dr. Dre, the late J. Dilla) and non-Wu-Tang guest rappers (Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss).
Still, most tracks are high-quality tunes further exploring the facets of the criminal life. A highlight is “Cold Outside”, a standout track courtesy of Icewater’s wailing movie-horn production and an intense verse from Ghostface Killah, whose Tony Starks alias is actually a more memorable presence throughout than Raekwon himself, especially on the anxious “Penitentiary” and the hilariously brutal “Gihad”. PT. II’s eclecticism ultimately makes its 22 tracks reach tedium before Slick Rick’s clever hook on “We Will Rob You”. The biggest letdown comes with the RZA-produced “Black Mozart”, which squanders a keyboard interpolation of the Godfather theme song on an average joint with Inspectah Deck instead of a worthwhile & lengthy posse cut. The verdict: PT. II has some good songs, but the album as a whole is inessential.---David Sason
By David SasonHow the hell did Jay-Z get to be so revered? The Blueprint 3 offers clues into the Great Hip-Hop Swindle.
Although barely 40 years old, Jay-Z continues his strange midlife crisis this week with the release of The Blueprint 3, which goes backwards from the grown-up depth heard on 2006's Kingdom Come. It's the third installment in the milking of his highly acclaimed 2001 record (following the Blueprint 2 and 2.1). While no thematic link exists among the series, the new record reveals Jigga’s new-found humility (the down-to-earth “Thank You”) and a matured perspective on opener “What We Talkin About”, whose professional handling of the Damon Dash issue makes it the anti–“Takeover”.
Thankfully Jay’s trademark swagger, smooth lyrical flow, and top-notch backing beats are still there, especially potent on the Justice-sampling Swizz Beatz banger “On to the Next One” and the guitar-and-horn frenzy of No ID’s “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”. But while both songs decry the overuse of the trendy production technique, everything about the Blueprint 3– from the familiar hit-making producers (Neptunes, Kanye West, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz), to superstar guests like Rihanna & Young Jeezy, to the sometimes clever boasting about his success – is pretty much the same old safe shit.
Jay-Z hypocritically complains about the stale state of hip-hop music but doesn’t have the guts to do something novel about it like Kanye, whose polarizing 808s and Heartbreak album (ironically, an auto-tune orgy) was at the very least a courageously bold move. Combine this with his still-elementary lyrical content – and the fine line he walks between tribute and biting – and it’s clear why Nas won that battle at the start of the decade with the eviscerating “Ether”.
Jay may have the beats and the fluid vocal delivery, but not the weight and substance to justify his self-importance and authoritative scolding. “99 Problems” and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” are delightful songs, but will they inspire anyone like Nas’s “The World Is Yours” or “I Can”? Commercial success aside, how impressive is Jay-Z’s decision to not split the American Gangster soundtrack for iTunes when compared to Nas’s ambitious big-statement event albums like Hip-Hop Is Dead or Untitled (originally titled Nigger)?
On Blueprint 3, Jay compares himself repeatedly to Frank Sinatra, which is accurate due to his refusal to innovate. Jay-Z is not an artist but rather a businessman, whose very success makes up the bulk of his lyrical subject matter. In “Reminder”, he catalogs his sales figures & longevity, even ingratiating himself with the Beatles and Rolling Stones. The big business of the Stones, though, is based on their art – not only self-aggrandizement. Jay name-drops Obama throughout the record (even calling himself “a small part of the reason the President is black”) but he never mentions a specific political or socioeconomic goal.
It’s still a mystery how the singles-focused Jay-Z came to be mentioned as one of “the greats”. He puts so little of his genuine self into his purely reactionary & self-conscious lyrics, and he's never reached the level of empathy with his audience that 2Pac or Biggie Smalls had. Even the critically beloved original Blueprint was a mixed bag, with only a few standout tracks. Is hype really all that matters anymore? If an artist survives nine gunshots (50 Cent), or just happens to have a good memory (Lil Wayne), or releases a few great songs every couple of years while compulsively reminding everyone that he palled around with Biggie (Jay-Z), does this trump the merit of the art itself?
Nevertheless, the fact that the Beatles are sharing so much coverage this week with The Blueprint 3 is a testament to Jay-Z’s marketing prowess. While certainly not the best rapper of all time or best alive, Jigga just might be the best self-promoter of all time; he never really stopped hustling. He’s even surpassed Oasis at making people believe his own hype. No wonder Def Jam gave him the keys for a while. He unwittingly labels himself best at the album’s start: “The only rapper to rewrite history without a pen.”Download these: “D.O.A”, “On To The Next One”--David Sason
Neither rehash or rebirth, Whitney Houston’s new album becomes a wake for one of America’s greatest voices. Whitney Houston’s comeback campaign – announced two years ago by benefactor Clive Davis – has arrived today in the form of I Look to You, her first album since 2002 and since ending her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown. Of course any Tina Turner comparisons would be inaccurate, and it’s clear from bouncy opener “Million Dollar Bill” that Houston differs from Turner in another important way: sadly, Whitney’s voice did NOT survive the marriage.
Gone is her distinctively clear timbre, appearing slightly rougher and even nasally at points, as if she’s holding back from full projection. Houston fares better on piano ballads like the R. Kelly-penned title track, which could sound like an old Bodyguard soundtrack outtake if not for her muddled lower register (thankfully, her sweet falsetto cooing is in tact).
This is definitely a sad moment for American music, considering the influence of Houston’s talent on everyone from Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera. Since her stellar 1985 debut, Whitney’s forceful voice and its range transformed decent pop songs (let’s face it, much of her 80s output could’ve fit Celine Dion as well) into still-enduring classics. Can you imagine “The Greatest Love of All” or “I Will Always Love You” without her vocal acrobatics? Since she was never a songwriter (she co-wrote only two songs on what will certainly be touted as her most personal album), her gift was her voice, and for years she was the best around. She even turned the national anthem into a hit single.
The forced production doesn’t help her comeback bid either. A slew of producers from David Foster to Swizz Beatz place her in bad situation after bad situation, from an ill-informed duet with Akon (the latest in a long time for Houston) on the vocoder-using “Like I Never Left”. She very well may be dating the much-younger Ray J, but the 46-year-old sounds awkwardly out of place throughout the uber-trendy thumping dance tracks.
Houston is a product of the pre-hip-hop age, where pop songs didn’t require a strong beat (check the AM-radio, soft-rock arrangements of her first few records). Her rich, soulful voice transcended the pop confines early on, but didn’t exactly fit in after the age of “New Jack Swing”. (Although she couldn’t swing a transformation like Mariah, Whitney’s My Love is Your Love was tastefully done.) She’s always occupied a strange realm in between the pop world and urban music world. In 2009 the two are indelibly linked, but for Whitney it just doesn’t work. Ironically, the production of her sincere bubblegum songs like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” would’ve fit in much better, what with Lady Gaga and Katy Perry selling like hotcakes.
While the piano-driven, gospel-themed songs make the record listenable, the confessional lyrical possibilities are squandered since hit makers like Alicia Keys to Diane Warren wrote the words. We don’t learn anything about Whitney herself on this album, despite its shamelessly suggestive exploitation of her personal struggles. (If that album cover doesn’t scream “rebirth”, I don’t know what does.)
The rehabilitation/coming-out-of-the-dark theme grows wearisome by mid-album because it’s done in such a forced, clichéd, impersonal way. By the time you reach the closer “Salute”, which desperately tried to emulate Mary J. Blige’s genuine survivor aesthetic, you’re sick of Houston mentioning “haters” or people who think their “shit don’t stink”. When she quotes LL Cool J (“Don’t call it a comeback / I’ve been here for years”), you hope she hasn’t replaced one toxic male influence (Bobby “Humpin’ Around” Brown) for another (Clive “out of touch” Davis).
These days, singing well isn’t a prerequisite for superstardom (take the lovely yet limited Beyonce, for instance), but that particular feature comprised Houston’s musical identity more than anything. Without that vocal fire that made the beautiful couplets of “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” sound downright effortless, Whitney needs a new game plan. One reason “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” is easily the record’s best singing performance is because it hints at the possibility of a flinty-throated new direction for her. In the meantime, I’ll cross my fingers & revisit my copy of The Greatest Hits. Perhaps Whitney should check out some late-era Billie Holiday.---David Sason
UPDATE: Whitney Houston's Voice Cracks at Comeback Show, She Blames Oprah (Video & article on Huffington Post)
Photos &Review by David SasonMos Def's Oakland stop on his Ecstatic Tour got off to an awful start Friday night, with an hour delay and a sophomoric and at times annoying opening set from Jay Electronica, Erykah Badu's current beau. The New Orleans rapper spent about 10 minutes just talking to the crowd. He went from a lame black vs. white noise-off, to sincerely thanking the Bay Area for opening its arms to the displaced from his native New Orleans, to asking the crowd for weed & lighting up the joint he received on stage – all before his first song. His spoken-word, mostly acapella post-Katrina tales show promise, but his poor showmanship overshadowed his chilling work.
His lady Ms. Badu, on the other hand, is an expert in that field, and had the crowd in the palm of her hand from the moment she strolled onstage in her red summer dress, introduced by way of Lil Wayne's name check in "A Milli": "Where is Erykah Badu at?" Surrounded by a potent and unique band set-up – with seven (yes, 7!) DJs with laptops and turntable, each playing a synthesized band part – Badu worked her way through a surprisingly up-tempo set that all but shattered her former image as Afro-centric "Queen of Neo Soul", from opening anthem "The Healer" off last year's brilliant apocalyptic album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War).
Badu enthralled the crowd – who danced & sang along throughout, seemingly supportive of her artistic growth and eclecticism – by singing, rapping, twirling her dress, posing, and playing her own drum pad, which started off an accelerated 808-beat version of old mellow favorite "Apple Tree", a highlight of her set. During a rousing version of "Soldier", Badu poignantly spoke of the documentary The Fourth World War, which inspired her album's concept and whose portrayal of peaceful Zapatista protesters in Mexico touched her deeply. After an inspired call for the audience to scream their own names aloud, Badu ended the show with a thought-provoking question mark: "Remember: One smile can cause a million..." [then the Lil Wayne joint again to take her out: "A milli, a milli, a milli, a milli..."].
After such an amazing performance, headliner Mos Def had his work cut out for him, especially since the cult figure has even fewer well-known numbers than Badu. But Mos Def is such a charismatic performer (as evinced by his numerous, equally successful careers) that he didn't need hits – or more than a DJ – to rock the crowd (albeit a smaller, thinned-out one). Opening the show from behind a drum kit (a real one, this time), Mos Def proceeded to (simultaneously) rap, sing & James Brown-dance his way through a few songs off his new album The Ecstatic, including his Middle East-themed Slick Rick collaboration "Auditorium"."Let's give it up for 'the ruler'," he yelled, as he danced gleefully to Rick's recorded voice, which perfectly encapsulated Mos's success as a performer; he's a hip-hop fan like the rest of us & he's having a blast. Everything was a tasteful tribute to his musical heroes, from his song "Close Edge" (a reworking of the classic Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five song "The Message"), through his riffing on Run DMC's "Down With the King", to his dazzling performance of "Billie Jean", moonwalk and all. The latter made everyone sing and dance along, and its spirit somehow cut through all the recent Michael Jackson media over-saturation.
The loafers & visible socks he wore in tribute to MJ were the flashiest thing about Mos's visual aspect, which featured one DJ, a blank t-shirt, and of course the persistent red lights referencing The Ecstatic's album cover. This in itself was a bold move considering the impeccably dressed sneaker-heads comprising the audience, but that's what makes Mos Def one of the realest around, and proof that hip-hop can succeed without all the flash & aggression. His confidence and skills – apparent without any pomp whatsoever – were nothing short of inspirational.“All you chest-thumpers, just stop it and be grateful," he told the crowd at one point. "I'd rather be a genius than a gangster." Hopefully, the Bay Area's next generation of rappers were listening.---David SasonMos Def’sThe Ecstatic and Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) are available now.
This week, EMI reissues the first 21st-century album worth canonizing.
The well-respected rock-snob “indie” website Pitchfork Media just named its top 500 songs of this quickly fading decade, with the overrated Outkast’s “B.O.B.” inexplicably topping the list. Sure, this intentionally left-field hipster move is irritating, but at least they had sense enough to give a top 10 spot to Radiohead’s “Idioteque”. This song from the year 2000 is truly deserving of commemoration, as does the whole Kid A album, which is reissued this week in a Collectors Edition. While nine years seems a short time, the premature repackaging is fitting for the polarizing record, which more than any other work reflects our accelerated age.
Much like Nirvana’s Nevermind was the symbolic musical kickoff for the 1990s, the landmark Kid A heralded the dawn of the 21st century. Everything about it is firmly entrenched in the modern age: Its homogenous, genre-defying blend of rock instruments, jazz, ambient instrumentals, orchestral arrangements and sampling/programming reflected a new heterogeneous mash-up culture. And Kid A was the first major release to be plagued by Internet leaking (via the original Napster a month before its release).
I’ll always remember Kid A’s online leak and the intense buzz it created on campus at the start of my senior year in college. There were descriptions like “spacey” floating around, theories that the title denoted a concept album about cloning, and the rumors that the British quintet had made the (best case scenario) Sgt. Pepper or the (worse case) Metal Machine Music of my generation.
Neither narrow assumption turned out exactly right, but Kid A’s importance is tantamount to Dylan going electric in 1965. Just as the rise of rap music drew a cultural line on the sand (It’s safe to say that those who didn’t grow up with hip-hop anywhere at all on their appreciation radar are decidedly “old”), Kid A’s use of electronics and sampling in what’s essentially still a rock record reflected a social shift toward accepting electronic and sample-based music as valid tools for creating aural art.
The importance of their status as the most widely recognized “saviors of rock” since the grunge era cannot be overstated. At the time of its release, with hip-hop’s new commercial dominance and the late-90s electronica craze in modern rock (not to mention rave culture’s pervasiveness), Radiohead was one of the few vital western bands still creating traditional rock music, most notably on 1997’s OK Computer, the prog-rock-ish critical smash. Kid A was definitely reactive to their new status (like Nirvana’s consciously rawer In Utero), but showed that computers could be trusted, not just as flourishes here and there, but as the basis for a 4- or 5-minute rock song. It’s a big reason groups like LCD Soundsystem, Justice and Thievery Corporation get a fair shake these days from rock fans & critics alike. The aforementioned “Idioteque” is actually one of their most melodic and “rocking” compositions, despite its sparse, taut production and instrumentation comprised of only programmed beats and keyboard chords (taken from pioneer Paul Lansky).
The rest of the album is just as compelling as ever, from the free-jazz coda of the throbbing “National Anthem” to the awkward yet accessible rhythms in the organ-driven “Morning Bell” to the more traditional guitar-based songs like “Optimistic”. Musically, the set seems to encapsulate the whole of modern music throughout, from jazz to arena rock.
The vocals remain just as impressive, especially how entrancing & catchy Thom Yorke’s odd vocals are. His robotic voice has, dare I say, soul throughout. The surreal, repetitive vocal loops spew catch phrases that were personal or universal, at times vaguely political or socially didactic, but always thought-provoking (“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” / “Release me” / “Cut the kids in half” / “Women and children first” / “Big fish eat the little ones” / “Ice age coming” / “This is really happening” / “I’m not here, this isn’t happening”). Lyrically, a sense of confusion, panic, distress & horror appears throughout, which, as writer Chuck Klosterman pointed out, makes the album seem eerily tailor-made for the impending post-9/11 world.
While these lyrics make the strangest arena sing-alongs ever, that’s just what happened the following spring, when they embarked on their American tour shortly after my graduation. The bonus disc and DVD, which both feature live performances of the tunes, are actually fortuitous in their riches, giving an accurate portrayal of the band’s live show, the other triumph. The question at the time was if the electronic songs would be enjoyable live, but the most experimental songs from Kid A (and companion album Amnesiac) have endured in their live repertoire, especially “Everything In Its Right Place,” which comes alive with an insistent beat and live vocal looping/TV news sampling by Jonny Greenwood.
2001 was their peak, as far as I’m concerned (they haven’t released a uniformly great album since Amnesiac). I’ve seen them live a couple times since, but their June 2001 show at the Shoreline Amphitheatre is by far the best. They were on fire. Pick a cliché: they still seemed hungry, still had something to prove, & still were trying something entirely new for them. This was years before even Kanye West was in awe of them. I remember the lawn packed to the rafters, standing room only, and everyone jamming just as jovially to the unusual songs as they did to the few conventional numbers like “Fake Plastic Trees”. The thousands in attendance even enjoyed the cover of an obscure Can song, which is no easy feat for any band. Through Radiohead’s albums and show, the entire arena rock-show audience unwittingly became more adventurous.
This is, perhaps, Kid A’s most important victory. They’re currently the most beloved “indie” band in the world, although they were never on an “indie” record label. They went backwards, starting out “mainstream” and gaining credibility, which is the way it should be. Their rep was built on the integrity of the music itself and their staunch belief in it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all musicians, well-known and subversive, could transcend their pigeonholing in such a way? It’s funny but kind of fitting – in this unimpressed, post-everything age we live in – that I didn’t fully realize just how special Radiohead was at the time. Wow.The “Collectors Editions” and “Special Collectors Editions” of Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief are available now.