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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I'm with the Drummer

Some 30 years ago, a new family moved into the cul de sac where my family lived. One of the four kids, Matt, was a couple years younger than me and ended up being the kind of playmate whose phone number is still lodged in your brain decades later. He was your average kid - until he got his drum set. Then he became that guy everyone knows will make it big - the guy who will be the celebrity at his high school reunion, the guy whose name will be dropped by people writing entries in personal blogs.

Oh, Matt isn't a household name, but he sure plays with one. In 2001, after a stint with Blondie, he became a technician for Rod Stewart, eventually turning that into an onstage gig as a percussionist and drummer. In the last decade, Matt has logged hundreds of nights all over the world supporting rock music's most famous gravelly voiced icon. However, at Kansas City's Sprint Center on July 28, 2009, there was a sizable crowd gathered for more than just Rod. One need only look at the 30 or so people gathered afterward to go backstage as Matt's guests.

Matt and I recently did the reconnect on Facebook thing, but before tonight I'm not sure when I last saw him. However, seeing him tonight was a wonderful treat. On stage, the highlight of the evening was when Matt and the other drummer, Dave Palmer, got their spotlight during the "Downtown Train" drum solo (or, I guess, drum "dual"). It was the most emotionally moving moment I've ever had at a concert. I heard this guy playing drums in his basement as a kid!

However, this wasn't just about bragging rights to say "I knew him when." This was about the powerful experience of seeing someone do what he loves, what he's been dedicated to for years, and seeing him reach the level of success he deserves for his passion and dedication.

Matt doesn't just deserve to be where he is because he's good at hitting things. When my brother and I and the rest of the "Matt groupies" chatted with him afterward, he was gracious, humble, and appreciative. You gotta figure the Blondies and Rod Stewarts and anyone else on his resume are there because of those skills as well as Matt's talent. Bravo to you, Matt. You've come a long way from a basement on Baltimore Ct. - and deservedly so.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Steve Howe Show

After watching Steve Howe & Co. perform for three hours at Kansas City’s Uptown Theater, I know two things – Steve Howe is neither the centerpiece of Asia nor Yes. He may have been the most technically proficient performer of the night – he certainly has the most impressive resume – but rather than trolling the stage like any good classic rock axeman should, he stood guard over a square foot patch left of center. He occasionally bent his knees or lifted a leg in the air; hell, I think he jumped in the air once; but mostly his frail frame looked in need of a walker to prop him up. I swear he was leaning against the wall during the encore.

Okay, okay, I shouldn’t go to an Asia and Yes concert if I’m looking for young, energetic performances. Oh, wait, there was that, too – however sadly out of place. Unfortunately, Yes’ longtime frontman Jon Anderson was laid up by a respiratory illness and, in true dinosaur band fashion these days, the other members perused YouTube videos scouting out lead singers for Yes tribute bands until they found a guy young enough to date their granddaughters. In this case, Canadian Benoit David drew the lucky lottery ticket and figured if he pranced about enough on stage, the audience might forget he was a nobody. Let’s face it, though, other than Queen’s Freddie Mercury, no other rock singer has ever pulled off prancing. On top of that, David sported a mostly white outfit that certainly recalled the ‘70s – it just had the misfortunate of reminding one of Saturday Night Fever more than Yes’ dinosaur prog-rock.

Based on my tirades against Howe and David, one might think that I was dragged to this show against my will. Not the case. I went eager to appreciate these Gods of Prog. They kickstarted the genre forty years ago. They are the grand masters at stripping a record of every last bit of commercialism and leaving ten minutes of instrumental prowess behind. Howe’s guitar is still at the forefront of every memorable Yes song – and was highlighted midway through Yes’ set with a two-song solo – although Howe still wasn’t physically center stage.

And for all of David’s gyrations, give props to anyone who can tackle Jon Anderson’s vocal gymnastics. Add Howe and Chris Squire as a triple threat on the mike for gems like “I’ve Seen All Good People.” Speaking of Squire, he made a great case, at least in Anderson’s absence, for being the true heart of Yes (he is, after all, the only member to survive every incarnation of the band). His hulking figure towered over Benoit and, despite what seemed a perpetual fan blowing his wispy white hair, he appeared to be the only performer to break a sweat, drenching his shirt by the end of the night.

Anyone looking for Yes music from the last 25 years was out of luck. Their only post-1980 song was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and, judging by the lukewarm response, they could have jettisoned it. In fact, other than “Owner” and a pair of songs from 1980’s Drama, perhaps the band’s low point yet well received in this concert, this could have been a tour to support 1972’s Close to the Edge album.

While Yes represented the original prog rockers, opening act Asia symbolized the next wave. Exploding on the scene in 1982, the members’ resumes included Yes; King Crimson; and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but instead of the second coming of prog rock, Asia delivered their brand of ‘80s corporate rock – slick, commercial, and arena ready. Here’s where my musical roots reveal themselves and I commit sacrilege – I enjoyed Asia more than Yes. Trot out all the 40 Year Old Virgin jokes you want, but there’s no denying one’s first musical love. I was born in 1967 and after surviving disco, was just grateful for pop radio hits that actually featured guitar solos. I would later become a classic rock junkie, but bands like Asia were still my gateway drug.

Seeing the original Asia lineup of John Wetton (vocals, bass), Steve Howe (guitar), Carl Palmer (drums), and Geoff Downes (keyboards) was more satisfying than a Jon-Anderson-copycat-fronted Yes lineup. And if we’re going to have a drum-off, Palmer would embarrass Yes’ Alan White, as the solo on “Fanfare for the Common Man” would attest. Then there’s the matter of keyboards. As the only man to play on every Asia album, Downes deservedly took his place near mid-stage. Rick Wakeman was featured as the keyboardist on nearly every Yes album, but his son Oliver takes the reigns here – and promptly fades into the background so much that they could have just put up a cardboard cut-out of Pops and piped in the music over the speakers.

Since the original Asia lineup lasted for only two albums (and last year’s 2008 reunion album Phoenix), they mixed in songs from the various members’ pre-Asia days. Palmer delivered the show’s highlight with the aforementioned “Fanfare,” which he’d previously done with Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Downes got a showcase with “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which he’d done with the Buggles. Wetton whetted the prog-rock crowd’s appetite with “In the Court of the Crimson King,” a 1969 gem from King Crimson, who Wetton joined four years later.

That may well have been the theme for the night – songs that had been made famous long before some of tonight’s players got their hands on them. Still, even with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman stand-ins, Yes championed the durability of their catalog. And even if Asia was largely forgotten a quarter century ago, they earned their title of super group, proving that sometimes the same players, such as a Steve Howe, can figure prominently in the story of two genres of rock and roll.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Birth of Rock and Roll - Not Quite So Black and White

A new book by Elijah Wald sports the instant-get-you-up-in-arms title How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’N’ Roll. An online Kansas City Star review (7/11/09) by James Brinfield (http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/story/1315616.html) asserts that the book "traces the strands of intermingling influences of black and white cultures upon popular music filtered through the marketplace." Brinfield says that "Wald's insights destroy one myth after another," most notably that "popular music was race-based." How the Beatles destroyed rock, as explained through Brinfield's interpretation of the book, appears to be a marketing issue. That is, the Beatles began to push their work as albums and the predominantly white critics began to accept that as the new direction for rock music.

It is not my intent to refute Wald's premise that the Beatles destroyed rock music. I'm sure I can bash that rant out in a blog after actually reading the book. For now, I am compelled to address the nagging question of "Daddy, where does rock and roll come from?" The Cliff Notes version of the birth of rock and roll purports that white and black music were mutually exclusive entities, growing, if you will, in separate gardens divided by a fence. It was only when whippersnappers like Elvis hopped the wall, stole some R&B goodies, and replanted them in the white garden that the masses gobbled them up.

Such an account gives a handful of artists too much credit for discovering what was already there and overlooks those who planted the original crop. Of course, musical genres are also not so tidy as to fit nicely into garden plots with R&B over here, country over there, and so on. Elvis didn't become the King of Rock and Roll because he did anything new or even because he was the best at doing it - his mix of crops simply was the best marketed.

My guess is that Wald doesn't hold the Beatles responsible for the destruction of rock and roll any more than Elvis should be crowned the undisputed father of the same genre. Wald's book needed a provocative title that would attract the widest possible audience, hopefully generating controversy for those focused only on the condensed version of the tale. The beginning - or end - of rock and roll just isn't that black and white.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Black Eyed Peas Knock Themselves from #1: July 11, 2009

Originally posted July 11, 2011.



From April to July of 2009, the Black Eyed Peas spent an amazing twelve weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Boom Boom Pow”. The song finally slipped to #2 the week of July 11, 2009 - succumbing to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”. The Peas became the ninth act in the history of the chart to accomplish the feat. JW They also became only the fourth group in history to hold down the top two spots in one week.



Even more impressive is what “Feeling” went on to do. It spent a whopping 14 weeks in the pole position, making it one of the biggest #1 pop songs in U.S. chart history. On the Hot 100, only Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day” with Boyz II Men spent more weeks at the peak (16). Prior to the Hot 100, Francis Craig’s “Near You” lodged 17 weeks on top and during the 1990s when some big hits never saw official release as singles, the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” racked up 18 and 16 weeks respectively.



The combined 26-week run of the two Black Eyed Peas songs also made them the only act in history with as many consecutive weeks at #1. Only Usher spent more weeks on top within one calendar year – 28 weeks in 2004 – but it took four songs over non-consecutive weeks to do it.

Both of the Peas’ songs have other distinctions worthy of boasting. Both songs make the Dave’s Music Database list of the top 100 songs of 2000-2009. Both also secure spots on the list of the world’s top 100 best-selling songs of all-time. Both also have bragging rights to “song of the year” titles. “Pow” took the honor from Billboard while “Feeling” secures the spot from the DMDB.



Resources and Related Links:



Monday, July 6, 2009

Michael Jackson - Icon or Ick?



Michael Jackson, 1958-2009


So are you on the fence about how to feel about Michael Jackson’s death? Sure, you tell yourself, he was a musical icon. He was arguably this generation’s Elvis. However, the King of Pop possessed enough eccentricities to make The King of Rock and Roll’s quirks look positively bland. Peanut butter and banana sandwiches? Hah, that’s nothing compared to sleeping in a hyperbolic chamber or buying the Elephant Man’s bones. Bloated and looking goofy in a jumpsuit? How about applying Ted Turner’s controversial movie colorization technique to one’s own skin? Or letting plastic surgeons carve up your face so bad that it looks like your nose was taken out of a Mr. Potato Head set? Shooting television sets? Oh, please. MJ topped the list of celebs not to hire as babysitters. And here’s something Elvis never did – parade a sham marriage to another musical icon’s daughter in front of the world declaring, “nobody thought this would last” – less than two years before proving that exact statement true.



MJ’s fans and staunch defenders would immediately cry fowl to the accusations above. He didn’t really sleep in that chamber or buy those bones. He had a skin condition. Plastic surgery is one’s own business. He really loved Lisa Marie! He was never found guilty of those child molestation charges.

It is all irrelevant. Well, except the stuff about sleeping with the pre-teen set. Did he do it? Did he not? He paid tens of millions of dollars to try to make that problem go away and still went on TV saying he didn’t see anything wrong with it. That behavior made him downright creepy. It showed really poor judgment at best and, at worst, well, it would mean the man who sang for our sympathy in “Childhood” may just show up as the villain in some other future pop star’s lament about his lost youth.

Michael did, in fact, sing for our sympathy. He also sang “Leave Me Alone” and “Beat It” and, in general, begged and pleaded for the tabloids to back off. They never did and, even in death, will still hound him. In the weeks and months to come, astonishing nuggets will explode all over the news that make the MJ we knew in life look tame compared to the one we will come to know in death. And we’ll have no idea what to file under fact and what to toss as fiction.



Toss out or keep what you wish, depending on your blind devotion or abject disgust with the man. But here’s what we can file under fact - MJ was an icon. He taught us the “ABC”s of how to become a child star, showed us how to be “Off the Wall” and still make great music, and taught us that being “Bad” is sometimes just “Human Nature.” There was an ick factor to MJ the man, but MJ the musician more than earned the title of King of Pop. Whether it makes you sad or relieved, there will never be another like him.




Resources:
  • Michael Jackson’s DMDB page
  • Michael Jackson’s DMDB music maker encyclopedia entry