Friday, December 22, 2017

The (Almost) Last Jedi

Last night we went to see the latest Star Wars saga, "The Last Jedi." It has received wonderful reviews, apparently, and the kids all loved it. But me? Not so much.

It was fun, no doubt. Plenty of action, the appropriate amount of impossibly close escapes, and more than enough Force wizardry and mysticism -- some of it in forms we haven't seen before -- to last until the next installment. John Williams scored it, we have Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher and Anthony Daniels back in their original roles, and there are several other unexpected nods to the original trilogy. There's even a super-choreographed light saber fight scene with a whole minyan of sacrificial red-shirts, and Rey and Kylo Ren in the Samurai roles. It was light years better than the fight scenes of "The Phantom Menace," but it was also during that scene that I really noticed how overbearing the score was, and found myself wishing they'd just play something lighter. Like "Bad Reputation."

"Rogue 1" was a surprise "little" Star Wars feature that had something to say. "The Last Jedi," not so much. Luke is still cool, Leia is the queen of her ever-diminishing domain, and at least in this movie, women rule. There's even a very brief hint of romance, though it took a particularly ridiculous sequence to get to it. If you're going to put a main character out on a suicide mission, at least have the good grace to let him die!

The lines between good and evil, blurred somewhat in "Rogue 1," are blurred more so here. Characters turning to the dark side, or being tempted, has always been part of the story, but here the ambiguities are up front. The two main characters can join forces in a fight, but once the battle is won they can't make peace. At least, not in this episode.

Weird things happen in space. Ships drop out of hyperspace to a dead stop with a big Dolby thump. Leia goes full Mary Poppins in a scene that has to be seen before cringing. And, finally, Luke answers the age-old question: How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?

I left the movie thinking, yes, I'll watch whatever they come up with for Episode IX, so long as they keep the Porgs in check, more or less. I'd be cool with less in the way of CGI pyrotechnics; bringing back Frank Oz for both voice and puppet was a nice step in that direction. I know it's called "Star Wars," but we don't need to be blowing up entire fleets quite so much. Perhaps that will be less of a problem in IX, now that the fleet consists of one Millennium Falcon and a whole lot of ghostly Force. That should be fun! As Luke said, "See you around, kid!"

Monday, November 20, 2017

Proof of Life - Springsteen on Broadway - November 17, 2017

The set for Springsteen on Broadway. One piano, two microphones. Guitars are off-stage.
At about 8:05pm on Friday, I stopped thinking about the money. Yes, this is worth it.

That was, more or less, the time at which Growin' Up started to fill the Walter Kerr Theater. Bruce Springsteen had taken the stage, spoken the magic word... "Balls!" He'd announced his intent to perform his magic trick, his proof of life. And here we were, just 5 minutes in. In the moments without music, I could hear the silence in the hall. When Bruce was playing, the hall overflowed with the lush noise of Bruce's voice (sounding great) and his guitar.

The Walter Kerr Theater is tiny by Broadway standards, just 960 seats crammed close together. I'd been there once before, and remembered the bar area that was practically on top of the last row of seats. Space in the theater was so limited that a main souvenir stand was located next door at a hotel. The seating was so tight that the very idea of getting up, even for a moment, was unthinkable. The stage set made Our Town look elaborate. All of this worked in favor of an intimate show that felt totally fresh.
The marquee and entrance for The Walter Kerr Theater.
The first part of the show provided musical context to the early chapters of Bruce's biography. Bruce told the audience about his house, his tree, his mom, his pop, the St. Rose of Lima Church and that shithole of a town he grew up in, Freehold, NJ. A town he needed to get away from so much that, by his own admission, he's now living 10 miles away from it.

What stood out to me, was that nothing stood out. Nothing about the people nor the places nor maybe even the times. On these points, especially the last, the narrative of Springsteen on Broadway seemed to me to diverge from that of the book. If you're looking for stories of Bruce's development as a musician, or of the people at any venue from the Upstage to the Student Prince, how the E Street Band came to be, or even of Bruce's personal demons, read the book. There, you'll find great and wonderful and sometimes tragic stories, but the magic trick on Friday evening was more direct.

As Bruce went through his proof of life, one thing in particular stood out to me: If nothing stands out, then really everything stands out. Everything is special, and every person is special. The vivid details, those are our details... or at least, they seem to be for a while. We recognize the symptoms, even if we haven't been there ourselves. That also reminds me a bit of "Our Town." In that town, in that place, magic happens every day.

At roughly the one hour mark, the show shifted from being a narrative with supporting musical selections, to being more of a music performance with selected vignettes. In some respects this could be a bit jarring, as Bruce seemed to go from childhood nearly straight to the bed of Tinker West's truck, leaving New Jersey on a westbound trip, then to Born in the U.S.A. and back around to his experiences at the draft board and the assertion that someone else went to Vietnam in Bruce's place. For me, the 2nd hour was choppier than the first, but it also featured many more musical selections, and who is going to tell Bruce to play less?

Other than bringing Patti Scialfa up to sing duets on Tougher Than the Rest and Brilliant Disguise, this show was strictly Bruce: Voice, guitar, piano. Bruce's voice was strong, showing no ill effects of performing 5 shows a week the past several weeks -- the first 5 days per week job he's even had, per his typically self-deprecating comments.

After quoting Born To Run (the song) in the opening moments of the show, partly to set up one of those one-liners, he didn't come back to it until the very end. When he did get to it, a bit more than 2 hours in, the magic trick was done, and so was the show.

With Bruce's magic show over, I found myself wanting to re-play it, to hear the script again, to feel those moments. And to find my own magic trick, wherever it may be.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Singing in the Dead of Night - Paul McCartney in Detroit, October 2, 2017

Yesterday was an awful day. It started with news of a horrific massacre, and continued with the death of Tom Petty. It was difficult to stand at the brand new Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, just to enjoy a music show, without thinking about people doing virtually the same thing across the country just 24 hours previously, or about a rock icon who surely would have visited this stage soon.

But we create our own islands, sometimes. Walking across Detroit, stopping off at a taco stand, enjoying the warm October day in the plaza outside the arena, we had our island. Inside the arena, mash-ups of Beatles songs and covers of Beatles songs helped prepare for Paul McCartney's concert. Paul was 21 when he first toured the United States, playing shows that didn't even last 45 minutes. Last night, at age 75, he played the last US show of the latest tour, playing nearly 40 songs, and after 3 hours he didn't even look tired.

Paul's voice isn't what it once was, but really, who cares? It's plenty good enough. 
Nor can Paul really do full justice to John Lennon's songs. But who can?

When McCartney hit the stage wearing a jacket with sergeant stripes that looked like he could have worn it in 1967, we were ready to rock and roll. After ripping through A Hard Day's Night, Paul acknowledged the day and offered to try to bring a bit of joy to the crowd. He followed with Save Us, the first of 3 entries from his excellent 2013 album New,  and then straight back to  a song that could be an encore for any other mere mortal, Can't Buy Me Love.

All of McCartney's band members have been with him for at least 15 years, and it shows. The show is at once tight and lighthearted, and those of us who have seen Paul over the past two decades have come to appreciate the reliability of this band. There may have been some Wings memorabilia at the merchandise counter, but this band, featuring Brian Ray, Rusty Anderson, Wix Wickens and Abe Laboriel Jr. is musically the best touring band he's ever had. Not that anything can make me forget the Beatles, far from it. But this band is more than good enough to carry the best of the music that Paul wrote half a century ago.

My favorite parts of the show were the departures from the familiar arrangements of songs. You Won't See Me has one of the most awesome rock bass parts I've ever heard, but last night it was transformed in to a gorgeous acoustic-based piece. A man sitting behind us started insisting that it was a Badfinger song, something Paul had written for them 1968 and had given away. When Mr. Badfinger man kept crowing even after the song as to what a great thing it was for Paul to be performing this obscure song, what could I do? I laughed. Enjoy the moment. For the record, Come And Get It was not performed last night.

Skiffle: In Spite of all the Danger
The setlist spanned McCartney's career, more or less. At least, if the years between about 1974 and 2012 didn't happen (with an exception for Here Today, Paul's 1982 tribute to John Lennon). It's a shame that most of the audience didn't recognize the songs on "New." That includes a song called Queenie Eye, which has a fantastic moon-in-June line, "O-U-T spells Out." Some Japanese fans down front were prepared, with signs saying "OUT." They were eventually invited to come on stage with some of their other signs.

Some of Macca's stage shtick has gotten stale for me. I love Blackbird, and it felt poignant last night but I don't think I need to hear the story anymore; the song speaks for itself. Nor is it really necessary to hear the story of how scared he was during the first recording of Love Me Do, nor do I really enjoy being melted by the pyrotechnics accompanying Live And Let Die. And I could probably do without some of the name-dropping, too. He's already Paul McCartney, after all. That said, his Jimmy Hendrix story was pretty funny.

At the Magical Mystery Tour piano for Hey Jude.
But that's a nit, and more often than not, even the stale shtick was fun. And if that means getting a nice introduction to In Spite Of All The Danger (itself a treat), or to hear Paul take lead on I Wanna Be Your Man, I'm totally good with it. The show culminated with the famous 3-part guitar duel that marked The End, as Brian and Rusty assumed the stage roles of John and George. The closing refrain, "and in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make," didn't seem like much. But in the moment, on our island, it was magic.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Music Everywhere - Jazzfest and U2 in Detroit

All around Detroit this weekend, there was music. Music everywhere. Swinging and swaying and people playing. As Bono said from the stage at Ford Field last night, "Detroit. City of History. City of the Future." The past few days, the River Walk and Woodward and the eateries have been packed, from mid-afternoon until well after midnight. The mood has been festive. It feels like the City Of Now.
Herbie Hancock. September 1, 2017.
Aaron with John Patitucci, September 2, 2017.
The Detroit Jazz Festival has been running all weekend. Aaron came in from Central Michigan University to see the shows. By Friday evening, we were downtown to catch the headliners: Wayne Shorter, then Miles Mosley, and then Herbie Hancock. The stage setup at Campus Martius made it difficult for me to see anything other than the video monitor until the final few minutes of Hancock's set, but the sound was perfect, the audience was grooving, and the music was, as Hancock said to describe Shorter's set, "insanely great."

Beck. Ford Field, 9/3/17
Aaron is a bass player, and it was a pretty big deal to him to see bass headliners like Mosley and John Patitucci, who played on Saturday. Hancock's band also included James Genus from the "Saturday Night Live" band. I'd never seen Hancock play. It was hard to believe that he's 77. His band included drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and "quadruple threat" Terrace Martin on sax/keyboard/vocoder (Martin also plays drums as well, but as Hancock joked, "but I got a drummer!"). Their joy for the music was infectious, culminating in the Hancock song that every kid is sure to know: Chameleon

After a 2nd day at Jazz Fest on Saturday, last night was the biggest night. While Aaron went down to catch bassist Esperanza Spalding play with Shorter, Lori and I made a last minute decision to see U2's 30th Anniversary "Joshua Tree" tour over at Ford Field. We arrived at the will call window at the same time as Bono entered the stadium just a few feet away; we took that as a good sign.

Beck opened the show. He played a solid set that included a brief tribute to Steely Dan's Walter Becker. There were plenty of fans around us who knew all the words to Beck's songs. But of course we weren't there for Beck, and as the minutes ticked away between the sets -- the down-time ultimately lasted a full hour as Beck's equipment was removed and the stage was set up for U2 -- we got the opportunity to internalize a scroll of poems and writings from Walt Whitman, Pedro Pietri, Sam Shepard and Elizabeth Alexander (among the ones I remember). One theme that ran through the writings was a long tradition of great writing exposing and opposing racism, nativism and sexism. Still, after an hour of nothing-but-the-scroll, a friend on the other side of the stadium texted, "I think Juan and his buddies have died 6 times already."

Finally, U2 came on to the so-called B-stage, which juts out on to the main floor. Larry Mullen Jr. came out first, to announce the opening salvo for Sunday Bloody Sunday. The rest of the band followed, giving a relatively quick run-through of some of their best-known '80's hits. No video screen, which meant those of us in General Admission who had taken up spots near the main stage saw very little of it. For this first stop of the tour's third leg, Bono made sure to announce that he understood that he was in Detroit, "City of history... city of the future." One recurrent theme was that of "looking for America," an old Simon & Garfunkel tune re-purposed now both for automobile commercials and as political commentary.
U2 at Ford Field, September 3, 2017.
Bono at Ford Field, September 3, 2017.
Finally, Pride (In The Name Of Love) brought to the scroll the "I Have a Dream" text, with "dream" and other selected words helping mark the transition to The Joshua Tree. The band hit the main stage, the light show came on, Bono did a twirl around the mic stand, and we were off! I remembered seeing the original Joshua Tree tour with a friend from Barcelona, from high in the upper deck of Oakland's Alameda County Coliseum. Now, Adam Clayton strolled the stage walkway and was standing barely 15 feet in front of me. The sound was perfect, the band sounded great, and Bono's voice sounded better than ever. I didn't pay a huge amount of attention to the video show, as I wanted to focus on the band. But there were some really nice touches in there. I particularly liked the Salvation Army brass band backing for Red Hill Mining Town.
"Some songs change their meaning over time... but this one hasn't," Bono said, introducing In God's Country. "It's a painting of a landscape that can change in a person, in a town, in a country, when you're not looking. Even in a magnificent country like this one. Even in God's country." Then Bono sang it out, standing in the spot where Adam Clayton had been earlier in the set. That was always my favorite song on the album, so this moment was basically perfect.
Patti Smith at Ford Field, September 3, 2017.
The best, though, was saved for the album's final song. Bono had gone to the B-stage to sing "Exit" (after a clip from an old TV western about a conman named Trump), I glanced at the center mic, and... Patti Smith was standing there. She'd previously guested during a Paris show in late July, but I hadn't paid close attention to such details, and Smith's presence for Mothers Of The Disappeared in her former home base was a total shock to me. "I am a mother, and my children were born in Detroit. All the mothers. Weep for the mothers!"

Smith's presence and performance elevated the song in to an emotional powerhouse. Flipping the lyrics here, adding her own words there, provided dimensions of reality and foreboding that went well beyond anything I could have anticipated. It was, simply, among the greatest concert experiences I've had.
After Smith's exit, anything further was bound to be anti-climactic. Some people in front of us left immediately upon the conclusion of "Mothers of the Disappeared." The remainder of the show was a run-through of some of the band's singles since 1987.

And then it was over. We walked across dowmntown, past overflowing bars and restaurants, and drove down to where Aaron had caught a post-Jazz festival jam session. The city felt alive, felt like now.

pictures and video c) Matthew Orel

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Chasing the Moon and the Sun - The Total Eclipse in Tennessee

1:29pm. Totality!!!
Living in a mobile country. Sometimes it means that on Wednesday morning I have no definite plans, and just 5 mornings and 580 miles later, I'm sitting by a pool in a Tennessee state park, waiting for the sun to go out. All it takes is the will, a car that can get there, one old high school friend with an idea and another with an extra hotel room and the willingness to let it be used. Oh, and a clear day, too!
11:18am. Still time until the start, but the signs are out: Don't look up without those glasses!
Less than 3 months ago, I didn't even know it was coming. But I always liked the sensation of being in an eclipse. I'd even used a pinhole projector once or twice. But never a full eclipse. I wanted in. I read about the eclipse on various sites. I studied up on how to take photographs of the eclipse, and quickly decided that enjoying the show would be the top priority.

Nashville is about the closest "totality" city to our home, and I had two old high school friends who were going to be in the area. And David... had an extra hotel room!
12:21pm. The partial eclipse has started. The sun as pitted olive.
We left early and got in by dinner hour. Along the way, freeway rest areas were overloaded. We saw cars with rear windows decorated like slogans like "totality or bust!" But traffic flowed easily,  and by early evening we had arrived. I'm sure Nashville is a wonderful city. It has the Grand Ole Opry and many other sights. We went to none of them. Maybe we'll be back someday!

After securing the hotel room, our hardest decision was, "where will we see it"? Some people at the hotel were headed for various events in Nashville. Others to The Hermitage Home. And the large bus group was going to... Memphis??? ok, so not everyone was there for totality.
1:00pm. Crescent Sun.
We thought about Gallatin, where the eclipse would last 2 minutes and 40 seconds. We looked at an event in the hotel's town, where the eclipse would be 2 minutes and 24 seconds, and where I could get a souvenir flying disc (never underestimate the appeal of a souvenir disc to an old ultimate player!). And then there was "The Solar Eclipse Party at the Pool" at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park. At 2 minutes and 19 seconds it would be a bit shorter than the others, but it was in the pool and it would be in the 90s. We went to the pool.

By 10am Monday morning we were poolside, listening to live entertainment from the patio deck. Every song seemed like it could be related to the eclipse somehow, from Ain't No Sunshine to Folsom Prison Blues. Folsom Prison Blues? oh yes:  "I ain't seen the sun shine since I don't know when." I got extra eclipse glasses, borrowed some medical tape from First Aid, and created solar filters for my cameras.

The partial eclipse was due to begin at 11:58am. at 11:57am, clouds rolled in. Where did they come from? Boom, nothing to see here! But 10 minutes later, just as suddenly as they had rolled in, they dissipated. Several people around the pool cheered, realizing through their eclipse glasses that the event had begun. As it was a new moon, there was nothing to track through the sky in advance of hte eclipse; the moon was just there when the eclipse started, and gone when it was over.
1:05pm. More than halfway to totality. Any resemblance to other people from New Jersey is incidental.
Being at the pool meant far fewer people with serious camera gear, and far more families with young children. As the partial eclipse progressed, playing in the pool continued uninterrupted. Looking up without the eclipse glasses, it would be virtually impossible to see what was happening. But slowly, it became clear that it just wasn't as bright around the pool as it had been.

At 10 minutes until the full eclipse time of 1:28pm, a 10-minute warning was given and everyone had to get out of the pool. The lifeguards would see the eclipse, too.

Darkness came slowly, slowly, and then the light dimmed, and then...
1:18pm: Everybody out of the pool for totality.
We are space travelers. we are celestial beings.
And there is a star at 7 o'clock from the sun, in the corona. or is that Mercury?
People cheered. A little child asked, "can we get in the water now?"

Two minutes and 19 seconds, and then the 2nd diamond ring came out, with it's blinding solar light. Within seconds it was list again, as the partial eclipse played out in reverse.

It's hard to explain, but when it comes to a full eclipse there's just no partial.
1:28pm. Totality begins.
We left after the partial eclipse ended, and drove straight in to the two hundred mile traffic backup. Google Maps was totally overwhelmed. The state of Kentucky helped out by having road construction on the north-bound lanes of every major highway in the state, except for the ones with accidents. If rest stops were zany coming down, they were off the charts coming back. In Elizabethtown, the residents of Pawnee Drive got in to the road with flashlights, advising motorists to ignore the hopeless computer programs and directing them back to the main roads. Even so, we'd do it again.

The next solar eclipse that will be reachable is in April 2024. It'll be twice as long as this one was, and it's going to go right through Cleveland...
1:30pm. Totality!