Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Grand Imperial Emperor of New Jersey

September 25, 2009

10 years ago this weekend, I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play a pair of shows in Philadelphia to mark Bruce's 50th birthday. Tonight, Bruce joined Elvis Costello onstage for a taping of Elvis's show "Spectacle," at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Not so much to mark Bruce's 60th, but to have an evening of talk and music in an intimate setting.

First things first: The Apollo is as magnificent in person as its reputation. Beautiful theater in great shape, and with amazing acoustics. It felt like an honor just to be in the building -- a good thing, considering that my seats were in the last row all the way to the side.

"Spectacle" is Elvis Costello's talk/interview show. Apparently -- I don't have Sundance Channel so I have not seen it -- it is a one hour show, culled from a taping session that can last as long as 4 hours. Tonight's session came in just under 4 hours with a brief intermission, which I suppose would make it among Bruce's longest public appearances.

After some preliminary notes from a TV hostess about how to clap and behave for TV, Elvis Costello came on. He said some preliminary remarks, then brought on the Imposters and went in to an intense version of "Point Blank." A good start for the audience, though Elvis said that it wouldn't be airing. Then Elvis brought on the evening's first "surprise" guest, Nils Lofgren, and they played one of Nils's songs (alas, I no longer recall which one). Finally, as means of introducing Bruce, Elvis launched in to "She's the One" with a rap, but both Elvis and the band were sloppy with it, and it took probably 6 takes until they had it good enough. During the rap Elvis said many things about Bruce, including -- if I recall correctly -- the title for this note.

The interview... Well, let's face it, not many people were really there for the interview. Of all the talking, and probably close to 3 hours was talking, there was all of one question that produced a remotely interesting response, and that was when Bruce confessed that he had never been in the Apollo before, even as an audience member. Most of the interview covered ground that has been covered in many other interviews, often far more coherently. Elvis came across as stumbling -- despite huge TelePrompters that presumably were there to help him stay on point. When not merely rambling, he was often hopelessly gushing or begging. Not that it was a total loss; Bruce took a few openings to squeeze in one-liners, float a couple gentle rejoinders at Elvis for past things that Elvis said (but only what Elvis said about Bruce, and not, say, what Elvis once notoriously said about James Brown, not even when Brown's name came up in conversation). In one instance, Bruce worked in one of his hoary off-color variations of guy-meets-girl-in-bar jokes. Elvis did have an opportunity to say a few nice things about Patti.

The questions, such as they were, often focused on some concept of "social justice." Too often, Elvis would start a question topic and not really wait around for an answer -- on the obvious topic of literary influences, for example, the name Steinbeck wasn't uttered once (they did moderately better with movie influences). I'd like to report that Elvis asked Bruce penetrating questions about the creative processes of writing, rehearsing or performing music, or even about specific songs, but he didn't. On the rare occasion when such a topic appeared to be coming, Elvis often talked right through it without giving Bruce opportunity to respond (or worse, put in some gaffe that might end up being a 10-minute traverse so that Bruce could eventually give a gentle correction; this happened most humorously when Elvis goofed on the timing of the "Nebraska" album).

Case in point: In one sequence, Elvis talked about times he had played with Bruce, mentioning the Black & White Night with Roy Orbison, and the Grammy Award show performance honoring Joe Strummer. This meandered in to a recollection of another Grammy Award show in which The Weavers received a lifetime achievement award. From there it went to former Weaver Pete Seeger, a mention of The Seeger Sessions, and finally to Bruce playing with Pete before the inauguration. Though Bruce did manage to get in a word here and there (e.g., recollecting fan reaction to Black & White Night and even doing -- with Elvis -- a portion of "Oh Pretty Woman"), Elvis asked nothing about Strummer, nothing about The Seeger Sessions. The question ended up being, essentially, how old is Pete, and how awesome was it to play with him? It wasn't quite as cringe-inducing as the Jon Stewart debacle earlier this year, but it was definitely more yawn-inducing.

The music, on the other hand, more than made up for the interview's weakness. During the first set, when Elvis went on about how much a fan he'd been of the first two albums, Bruce played a spirited acoustic version of "Wild Billy's Circus Story," joined by Nils and also by Roy an accordion. Yes, I missed Danny. But it was still wonderful, with the stage bathed in green and orange lights as they played. Though Elvis's early interview seemed to trace through Bruce's early career and on to "Nebraska," the next song selection ended up being "American Skin (41 Shots)." This one took multiple takes, but Bruce was in fine voice and it ended up coming off great. "Galveston Bay" was a pleasant surprise, as well, and Bruce did an impomptu segment from "The River" that had the audience so wrapped up that there was an audible groan when he aborted. To close off the first half of the show -- and it was now 10:30, or nearly two and a half hours in -- Bruce and Elvis joined forces with the band to perform Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up for Sitting Down," a song that Elvis had covered nearly 30 years ago on the "Get Happy" album. Bruce made a point of claiming Sam's part for the song, after also explaining why he thought Sam & Dave made such a good pair musically (maybe the highlight of Bruce's spoken bits; Bruce also made a point of rejecting hypotheticals when Elvis asked how big a star Sam Moore might have been solo).

During the show's 2nd half -- which didn't start until nearly 10:45 -- Elvis paid tribute to Patti. This led in to one of the better discussion segments, wherein Bruce spoke of family, children and music (the music part mostly coming later on in the show). But it also led to a georgeous version of Patti's "Black Ladder," with Elvis on lead vocal, accompanied by Bruce and Nils. Later in the 2nd half, Elvis took lead on "Brilliant Disguise," a song he covered several years ago. Bruce played a nice bit of backing guitar for it.

At the end, the band came out. With the 4 Imposters, and Bruce, Roy and Nils, it was a 7 piece band. They tore in to "The Rising," and absolutely smoked it. THis wasn't off-the-cuff; the arrangement was somewhat different than Bruce's standard for the ESB, and it was tight and fast. It was almost a shock, as in, "there is a rock song in there!" Then, "Seeds," and finally, a medley of "Radio Radio" and "Radio Nowhere" that had a few jaws dropping. It rocked. hard.

By then, it was pushing midnight, and I was almost thankful for the show to end; it was a race to make the last train back to New Jersey. Despite Elvis Costello's weaknesses as an interviewer, the show was great fun. And it was great fun without a single song from "Born to Run" or "Darkness on the Edge of Town"; of the songs played, only Bruce's first ("Wild Billy's Circus Song") was from the first portion of his Columbia career. Look for the performances when the show airs on Sundance.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Beatles for Sale

I was about to call this one, The Beatles are Coming!!, but considering the prices involved, "Sale" seemed so much more appropriate. The links below show some -- not all -- of the major releases of Beatles stuff today. (Yes, the links all work, please use 'em to buy your Beatles stuff from Amazon!!). There are also various combinations involving t-shirts and even "collector's crate" editions (I linked one of them, just for laughs).

Of course, with the depressed state of the current CD market, the Beatles releases are utterly dominating Amazon right now, occupying 10 out of the top 11 positions (only Susan Boyle at #6 spoils a clean sweep of the top 10). All 16 new music releases are in the top 21. And this may well be the first time ever that the top two positions at Amazon are both multi-hundred dollar box sets. And, of course, the Wii and Xbox versions of "Rock Band" have the top 2 positions in the Video Games chart.

So... yes, I broke down and ordered the mono box today. YES, IT IS OVERPRICED! And, yes, it means some other indulgences that won't be had this year. But it is also a bit of a holy grail of sorts. Mono was how The Beatles intended. Not that it was so apparent to me growing up, when it seemed so cool to have that German pressing of "With the Beatles" with the "true" stereo of "Money" to close it out. When the original CDs came out in 1987, and the first 4 were mono only, it was a big disappointment. So much so that when a bootleg called "Ultra Rare Trax" showed up not too long thereafter, I quickly snapped it up in substantial part just to get its sizzling stereo version (yes, with the voices on one side and the instruments on the other side) of "I Saw Her Standing There."

It wasn't until about 3 years ago, when reviewing notes for Dave Marsh's book The Beatles' Second Album (Rock of Ages) and listening to playbacks, that I fell for the mono versions. I listened to that same song, "Money." The stereo version was nice, but... not all that. The fakish stereo by then available from the Capitol record on The Capitol Albums Vol. 1 was a nice enough curiosity. But the mono... when John screams out "I WANT TO BE FREE!!!" and John and George trill away in response, it smacked right between the eyes. Even with the dead sound of the original "With the Beatles" CD. So I wanted to have it fresh. And I want -- finally -- to have "Revolver" and "Rubber Soul" as the band intended. As some old ad copy once said, a splendid time is guaranteed for all... but Mr. Kite isn't topping the bill.