Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The dirtiness of the times

On Monday, I went to a lecture titled, "The Dirty Politics of Ancient Israel." The lecturer made various points, not least of which is that modern politics have nothing on the ancients. The key example: The greatest king of them all, King David. David rose to power by ruthlessly having all his political opponents -- real and imagined -- killed. At least, that was the thesis.

There is a story in 2 Samuel 21: "Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites." Never mind who the Gibeonites might have been, or whether David was actually talking to God. But... There was a crisis!!! Do something!!

The story continues: "and David said unto the Gibeonites: 'What shall I do for you? and how shall I make atonement?"

The answer? "Let seven men of [Saul's] sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord."

And with that, David gathered up seven sons and grandsons of Saul, all the ones who could potentially be threats to him as king, and turned them over to the Gibeonites. Now, maybe Saul killed Gibeonites. Perhaps, even, the seven sons and grandsons of Saul participated in, or at least, enabled such killings. The Bible doesn't say.

In any case, the Gibeonites promptly killed the seven sons and grandsons of Saul, thus ending the crisis (!!!) and, oh-by-the-way, consolidating David's power.

There is no mention as to when the famine ended. David probably credited the killings for the rain, when it finally happened.


It's just an observation. But I notice, sometimes, that some things don't really change all that much. Details change. But the themes come back in various forms, over and over again.

So tonight, in a very minor version of the story, Penn State Football Coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier played leading roles in the latest edition of "The Sons of Saul." Yes, there is a very real crime involved, and somewhere there are real stories about those real crimes. But the sons of Saul are deposed, and the people are happy.

Eventually, the crisis at Penn State will subside. After all, they did something.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Good Night, It's All Right (Pittsburgh, November 4, 2011)

Sometimes, you might just need a fix. That was the first of Bruce Springsteen's two shows with Joe Grushecky here in Pittsburgh.

Other times... other times, you might hope for something more than just a fix. You don't quite know what it is, just that you'll know it when it happens. And when it does, you just say, this is what I came for. That was the second of Bruce Springsteen's two shows with Joe Grushecky in Pittsburgh.

Last night, Bruce Springsteen went to a dark and mysterious place, and drew forth something truly stunning. That he was "on" for this performance was evident right from the start, when he guested with the opening act, The Composure, for a hard driving version of "Dancing in the Dark." Unlike the first night, this time the auditorium was mostly full for the guest show. And, as we soon found out, he was just barely warming up.

The show structure was nominally the same as the first night: Guest with the warmup act, short acoustic set, then Grushecky and the Houserockers for a couple of songs, and then Bruce with Grushecky & co. for a mix of Bruce and Grushecky songs, through to a finale after which Bruce would serenade the crowd solo. A solid formula, though at times a bit ragged on the first night. But there's a difference between "solid" and "coming from another planet." Last night was interstellar.

Bruce started the acoustic set with "Your Own Worst Enemy," the song which opened his 2nd show last year. His voice was superb. Then he followed with a request from Joe Grushecky. As Bruce strummed the opening notes of "Incident on 57th Street," a wave of recognition started to sweep the room. But it didn't really hit until the first words. How to describe? Sublime? Perfect? HFS? All of the above? Yeah. That.

The main set was strong all the way through, with more setlist variations than I would have expected. Bruce highlighted "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Adam Raised a Cain," and Grushecky brought out "A Good Life" from his catalogue. The Houserockers were noticeably tighter this night on songs such as "Because the Night" and "Two Hearts," and provided solid backup throughout.

Bruce's guitar playing was stupendous again. I thoroughly enjoyed the jam on "Pumping Iron," though some friends thought it went on too long. But that led to an absolutely monstrous solo passage to open "Light of Day," one of those jaw-dropping "did I just see that?" moments.

At the end of the show, Grushecky's family was invited on stage for renditions of "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Twist and Shout," first Grushecky-style (deliberate, almost salsa) and then full-throttle rock and roll. The stage became very crowded, and as some fans infiltrated, Bruce -- only half-jokingly, I think -- called out for security.

After this, we prepared for the serenade of "Thunder Road" to close this most perfect evening. Except, except, except, Bruce wasn't done. Bruce and Joe were out of songs. But they weren't. Resurrected from last year's show, they dug out "Pink Cadillac," with Bruce putting in some hysterical lyrical changes -- e.g., approximately, "just won't last / over too fast" as the rhyme in the final verse.

And then, the serenade. Only it wasn't a serenade, it was another acoustic mini-set! Although it included "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?," the highlight for me was "Surprise, Surprise," dedicated to a Grushecky family member whose birthday coincided with the show. Bruce opened up a bit, explaining how he wrote the song, and then, to the birthday girl, said, "live every day as if it's your last."

Finally, the show ended with Joe joining Bruce on stage for "Thunder Road." An astonishing evening, completed. Good night, it's all right.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Down the Road Apiece

After a year of no Springsteen concerts, coming to Pittsburgh to see him play with Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers was a bit akin to getting a fix. Everything seemed exciting coming in. The Pennsylvania hills were as beautiful as any landscape painting I've ever seen, and of course the Sailor and Soldiers Hall in Pittsburgh is a gem.

Having seen Bruce play with Grushecky 3 times previously over the past 16 years, I pretty much knew what to expect: Bruce taking lead on most songs, plenty of guitar work and good fun, a bunch of hits, mostly Bruce's, with occasional Grushecky favorites thrown in and perhaps a surprise or two. That, of course, was precisely what the show delivered.

The good news in the show was Bruce's form. His voice was clear and strong, and he shared it happily. I had to remind myself a couple of times that he has passed his 62nd birthday. His guitar work was even better. He took extended solos over and over again. And over again. And then some more. Not just on his own songs, but also on Grushecky numbers such as "Never Be Enough Time" and "Pumping Iron." As for Bruce's songs, when he really decided to rock it, the roof blew off. "Light of Day" was perhaps the biggest highlight, in which Bruce singlehandedly filled the room with his sound.

Bad news? For me, it was that the show offered nothing at all new, besides confirming that Bruce is still in performing shape. A first-time ever acoustic performance of "I'll Work For Your Love" was the closest we came to a surprise in the setlist. That, and a seeming ad lib by Houserockers drummer Joffo Simmons during the band intros portion of "Down the Road Apiece," in which he launched in to The Safaris' "Wipe Out," with Bruce and then the band quickly joining in.

Two other problems were that it was very hot in the hall, and that -- except for during the acoustic numbers -- the sound was pushed way too high, with nothing to deaden it. The effect was of distorted sound literally bouncing off the 110-year old walls back at the audience on the floor. Here's hoping they dial it down a notch or three tomorrow night.