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the promise: houston ‘78

Watching this full-length concert from the 1978 Bruce Springsteen tour is something like seeing replays of the Giants’ triumph in the World Series. Yes, I can say, it really happened. The Houston concert was always going to be the first thing I played once the six-disc box set arrived, and I’ve listened to enough 1978 bootlegs over the years to know what I was getting. Yet there was still a bit of concern … since I’ve always said the Darkness tour was Bruce’s best (we saw him three times in ‘78), I felt like my reputation, or at least the reputation of my memory, was at stake. What if it wasn’t all that, after all?

I needn’t have worried. This is a terrific show, adequate in the video, a bit better than adequate in the audio, and superb in the performance, which occurred just one week before we saw him at Winterland. It’s great to hear classic Bruce songs before they became warhorses … every song is still fresh, although they do take “Born to Run” at a remarkably fast speed. The astonishing energy Bruce put out in those days is well-represented … there’s a tendency to forget what he was like in his 20s, because even in his 60s, he has plenty of energy on stage, but it’s a more focused energy, physically, while on Houston ‘78 he is all over the stage, into the crowd, jumping on the speakers, rarely staying still. For three hours, no less. I finally have an official document of the 1978 tour that I can show to anyone who wants to know what it was like, and that’s a big deal to me, since I count those shows as the best concerts of my life.

Clarence is in especially good form. His playing is strong … there is none of the fear that often accompanies his more recent work, when you never know if he’s up to the physicality of the music (his heart is always into it). He also spends a lot of time running around; he really was Bruce’s primary playmate in those years onstage (and my friend Rosalie will find plenty of evidence to support her theories about the relationship between the two).

The set list is a clear reminder of how far we have come, how unadventurous we as an audience are in 2010, and how willing Bruce is to cater to our desires. The Working on a Dream tour was the first that felt more like a nostalgia act than the act of a still-vital artist … he rarely played more than one song from the new album, and the highlights of the shows were when he played requests. The shows were always professional, and Bruce is having a lot of fun, but they aren’t challenging the audience. But in 1978, the challenges were all over the place. Three of the first five songs are from the new album. The sixth song, “Independence Day,” was at that time unreleased (it turned up on The River). It took until the tenth song before he played anything from Born to Run.

What came after the break was even more illuminating. (In those days, he’d split the show into two sets plus encores.) He bursts out of the blocks for the second set with another unknown song that would end up on The River, then followed with “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” Three of the next four songs were at that time unrecorded by Bruce (they had all been given to others, and two were sizable hits: “The Fever,” “Fire,” and “Because the Night”). Then he played a third River song we didn’t know. This is what I mean by challenging your audience. And, of course, one reason he could do this is because we liked it … we weren’t a bunch of geezers wanting to relive the past, yet.

The encores are typical for the time: “Born to Run” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” sandwiched between the Detroit Medley, “You Can’t Sit Down,” and “Quarter to Three.” I loved the oldies he would play during encores, and missed them when, in later tours, he quit playing them, noting that by that point, he had his own oldies.

Houston ‘78 is vital when seen today. It stands on its own. But it also serves not just to massage the memories of those who were there, but offers a great example of what once was to those who weren’t there. There are some excellent live Bruce videos out there … Barcelona has a great crowd, the Seeger Sessions is infectious, and all of the later ones have great audio, video, and musicianship. But Houston ‘78, despite the sound and picture limitations, now stands as the best available document of live Bruce.

wild flag

Got a chance to see the new Portland “supergroup” Wild Flag last night. There is some serious indie wattage in the band, but I have to be honest … I went because Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss are in the group. I was unable to experience Wild Flag without comparing them to two other acts, Sleater-Kinney (obviously) and the Corin Tucker Band, who I saw last month. Neither comparison is particularly useful, though. Wild Flag doesn’t resemble S-K, largely due to the presence of Mary Timony … her sonic experiments on guitar and veteran stage persona both draw attention away from the Sleater-Kinney duo and mark the ways the new band’s sound differs from the old one. (Keyboardist Rebecca Cole will likely do the same on record, but last night, she was mixed too low … or maybe it was just the guitars were too loud … so her impact was not as noticeable.) And they don’t resemble the Corin Tucker Band, not just because their sound is much more gnarly, but also because Corin’s band is exactly that, it’s a leader w/backup, while Wild Flag is a group, with everyone contributing.

They played, oh, I don’t know, a dozen songs or so, mostly originals, but with a handful of covers as well. You can often get a feel for a band by the songs they decide to cover, so, as best as I could tell (again, the sound was often muddy), here they are: “Dirty Water,” “Beast of Burden,” “She’s My Best Friend” (from Lou Reed’s criminally underrated Coney Island Baby album … sung by Janet, and it wasn’t always clear this was the song we were hearing, but I think I’ve got it right), and, as the final song, “Ask the Angels.”

I can’t say much about the new songs … they ran together a bit, due to the poor sound. Timony did a lot of electronic tricks, creating unexpected sounds, and even playing behind her back for a bit. Carrie was Carrie, perhaps more power-chordish than with S-K, and at one point, she ended up lying on the floor, soloing. And Janet (sigh) hasn’t lost any of her power.

I don’t know if it was exactly the high point of the show, which for the most part started with a lot of energy and kept that level going throughout, but “Ask the Angels” was a ferocious closer. Carrie put down her guitar … I'm not sure I’ve ever seen her sing without an instrument before … and she tore into the lyrics, snarling in ways even the young Patti Smith didn’t offer (and not to get all “I was there” on folks, but I saw Patti Smith several times back in the day, and she was always great, and always powerful, but snarling wasn’t her mode). For much of the show, Carrie and all of the band seemed to be having the kind of fun you’d associate with playing a sell-out gig, only the fifth-ever by the band, without an album or anything else other than your reputation to bring people out on a Thursday night. But on “Ask the Angels,” she was frightening. It was pretty terrific.

Other random notes … in keeping with the kinds of things I used to mention about S-K shows, I should note that between the first and second act, Janet walked by me on her way to the merch table. I was star struck as usual, although by now I’ve at least learned from past experience that I can barely talk at such moments, so I said nothing. Carrie walked by shortly after, getting a drink at the bar. Actually, Carrie and alcohol were part of the show itself … when they were about ready to start playing (having set up their own equipment just like in the old days), Carrie announced that she wanted a Jameson on the rocks … then the others in the band said Carrie was serious … but the club was so packed, there was no way to get in or out, so someone bought a Jameson, and we passed it over our heads, from the back of the club to the stage, without spilling a drop. Carrie took a swig, and, satisfied, the band began to play.

Carrie, BTW, seems to have taken lessons from the guitarist in Spinal Tap. She turned her amps up so loud they elicited feedback, and then, rather then adjusting them, she left them at “11” the entire night.

I’ve never thought this before, and I suspect in this case it was a matter of lighting, my position on the floor (Carrie was directly in front of me, although I was maybe halfway back from the stage), and the fact that Carrie had on some pretty substantial lipstick. Whatever it was, there were several times when she looked a lot like Mick Jagger as Turner in Performance.

Finally, there’s the ongoing matter of bass players (or absence thereof) in these bands. Only one of the three bands had a bass player, although Cole’s keyboards served the function at times for Wild Flag. The one band that did have a bass player was Grass Widow, but even there, things weren’t quite as they seemed. Hannah Lew, the band’s bass player, is a marvel, but, at least the way they were mixed, it seemed that she, rather than the guitarist, took all the leads. So even the band with a bass guitar in the lineup didn’t have a “bass” in the traditional sense of “half of the rhythm section.”

There’s a decent review by Ian S. Port over at the SF Weekly website … it’s got a couple of good Carrie pix:

Wild Flag Rocks Our Faces Off

random friday, 2005 edition: r. kelly, "trapped in the closet"

I’m a bit overloaded, music wise … got the Darkness box set, and then last night I was up until the proverbial wee hours at the Bottom of the Hill, seeing the Portland “supergroup” Wild Flag, about which more later. So I don’t have time for much this week. But, let’s face it … with “Trapped in the Closet,” you either write an entire book trying to explain it, or you let it speak for itself. Time constraints lead me to the latter. You know how to use Google and YouTube, the chapters aren’t hard to find.

bruce and tony and jimmy and neil and willow

ong ago … like, decades ago … once it was clear that 1) Bruce Springsteen was going to last, and 2) he’d be part of the lives of Bruce fans forever, I talked to my wife about who might be a comparable figure from an earlier generation that could serve as a model for Bruce in his old age. A lot of Bruce’s attempts to create a career seem to have been driven by the desire to avoid turning out like Elvis … no matter how much youthful abandon we found in Bruce’s earliest work, by the time of Darkness, it was clear he was intent on continuing as an adult.

The model I was looking for would be someone with great talent, of course. They would be someone who managed, for the most part, to stay true to themselves in the midst of the varying taste of the multitudes. They would be someone who, as much as was physically possible, retained their technical skills without fetishizing them. And they would be someone who was both loved and respected, even by those who weren’t necessarily fans.

The person I came up with was Tony Bennett. Now, I came up with this 20 or so years ago, so you have to recall a time when Bennett was out of the public eye more than he is today. But with the help of his son, who turned out to have a flair for management, Bennett gradually worked his way into the consciousness of a younger audience … and he did this without changing his music. (I wasn’t really aware of the serious problems Bennett had for some years prior to his comeback.)

The pinnacle of that comeback was in 1994, when he appeared on MTV Unplugged:


(You know, watching that video, I realize that Bruce is starting to look like Tony, except Tony’s toupee is more obvious and Bruce uses Grecian formula on his.)

(Also, a brief comment on baseball: I wonder when, if ever again, I’ll be able to hear this song without getting choked up.)

Tony Bennett is 84 years old, and he is loved and respected. And Bruce … well, he’s not doing too badly in those areas, either.

Bruce did only one bit of TV promotion for the Darkness box, an appearance last night on Jimmy Fallon’s show. It was fun … that’s the word, fun, Bruce was having fun and, despite his hero-worship, so was Fallon. When The River came out in 1980, I remember hearing the second song, “Sherry Darling,” which we had heard on the 1978 tour … it was a goofy song with frat-boy backup vocals and a feeling of release, and I was so glad … Darkness was as close to my own life as I was living it then as any record I’ve ever heard, but I’m not sure I could take another trip down that road, and my moments of concert transcendence always came with “Rosalita” and “Quarter to Three.” I was happy to know that Bruce could still have fun. Well, that’s what he had on Jimmy Fallon, and especially considering the reason for his visit (to promote Darkness), that fun was unexpected and welcomed. Here is how he made his entrance (there may be an ad before it begins):


I should add a postscript. For all my attempts to remain up to date on popular music, I had never heard “Whip My Hair” before this. I honestly thought Fallon had written it as a faux-Neil song. When I learned that it was a big hit by Yet Another Star Child of Will and Jada, I wasn’t sure what to think … I’ve enjoyed songs by nine-year-olds in the past, I think “I Want You Back” is the greatest Motown song of them all, yet here I wonder about the stage mom-and-dad angle (and it’s not like Michael Jackson’s parents were necessarily the best). Whatever … the hit version is catchy, I can see why it’s popular, and, as I told my son when he encouraged me to take a listen, I’d rather listen to “Tootsie Roll.”

the promise

I’m not going to talk about the music on the gargantuan Bruce Springsteen box set that was released today. I mean, I’ll get to it eventually, but I’m waiting for my package to arrive.

What I wanted to comment on right now is the way things have changed over the years. First, for those who don’t know about this release (not everyone is a Bruce fanatic), the box set features a remastered Darkness on the Edge of Town; a two-CD set of 21 previously-unreleased songs recorded at the same time as the tracks that made it onto the album; a feature-length documentary on the making of the album; video of the band playing the entire Darkness album in 2009; various live footage from 1976-78; and (this is the part I’m most looking forward to), an entire concert from the 1978 tour.

When Darkness came out, I bought it right away, came home, and put Side One on the turntable. Again, there will be plenty of time for me to talk about the music and what it meant to me, then and now. What I’m focusing on here is that feeling of putting the LP on and listening for the first time.

It is now 2010. I await the arrival of my box set. But I am not awaiting for the arrival of the music. I’m listening to the 21-track “extras” on MOG (it’s probably on Rhapsody, too, but MOG is easier for me to load up). I could also listen to the remastered album (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of listening to a remaster via streaming audio), or “Bruce Springsteen – The Classic Interviews” (I have no idea what this is).

It’s funny … I don’t mind listening to compressed and/or streaming audio … it’s pretty much all I listen to anymore (I have lots and lots of CDs if anyone wants them … the pile of “I’ve ripped them to the hard drive” grows bit by bit). But when it comes to video, or the combination of video and audio, I turn into a snob. I bought the Blu-ray version of the box, because it matters to me that the three discs are at the highest possible level. Considering I’m most excited about the 1978 concert, which is taken from the b&w feed to the in-house video screen, you’d think I wouldn’t bother with Blu-ray … I mean, how much better is it going to look, given the source material? I bet is sounds real good, though.

Meanwhile, I’ve been listening to the new/old stuff as I type this, and I like it so far. There’s a fine pop album amongst these songs, one that would be completely different from Darkness.

what i watched last week

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965). A reminder of how much I loved Roman Polanski’s movies in the early part of his career. Not all of them, but the best were very good indeed: Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown, and Repulsion, which I hadn’t seen in decades. For a film with many surreal touches, Repulsion is almost matter-of-fact about the disintegration of Catherine Deneuve’s Carol. Sometimes we watch her, distanced, sometimes we see the world as she does, but the character is never really “explained.” It’s as if someone dropped “The Yellow Wallpaper” into an EC Comic. #360 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010). Pretty animation, decent but unremarkable voice work, standard plot with good message, I guess … I had trouble staying awake. The only thing that really caught my eye was Toothless, the star dragon … he looked a lot like my favorite kitty, Starbuck (and Starbuck is missing a paw, too!).

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1978). A remarkable film, probably more talked about than seen, even since it was re-released a few years ago. For me, it was also a film more easily admired than loved. It was made in roughly the same era as the Ramones’ first album, and cost about as much. Largely plotless, much of the time improvised, with actors who looked perfect for their parts but who also delivered their lines like amateurs … Killer of Sheep doesn’t exactly make a virtue of its cheapness, but neither does it shy away from it. There are scenes of great power, some with great humor, and the entire movie is suffused with a matter-of-face acceptance of the lives of the characters that doesn’t explain them, doesn’t present a solution to their lives … at times, it resembles a French existentialist novel from the 50s. #326 on the They Shoot Pictures list. 8/10.

Flores de otro mundo (Icíar Bollaín, 1999). Spanish film, previously unknown to me, that tells the stories of various women who come to a small town in central Spain, looking for partners for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t blow you away, but it’s not trying to. Writer/Director Icíar Bollaín is content to let the stories play out … they aren’t earth-shattering stories, but there seems to be a bit more room for optimism than existed in Killer of Sheep.

random friday, 2004 edition: arcade fire, "rebellion (lies)"

I’m getting old, and the closer we get to the end of the year (and thus, the closer Random Friday gets to the present day), the more obvious my age becomes. The last three artists featured on Random Friday were aging icons who were about to die. And now here we are in 2004 … I was in my 50s by this point, and I’m pretty sure I’m running out of things to say about contemporary music.

Arcade Fire make an excellent example. They are everything I should love in a band, making expansive indie rock with hints of Springsteen. They make great records. I love them every time they pop up on the radio or in a video.

Yet I’m not really attached to them. I don’t have the energy any longer to put into total fandom … I remarked when Sleater-Kinney broke up that they were likely to be my last true music love, and so far that has held true.

“Rebellion (Lies")” is my favorite Arcade Fire song. I don’t know what it is “about,” which may be one reason I like it … rock and roll has a long history of classic songs where the lyrics fade between intelligible and unintelligible. I know the chorus … “Every time you close your eyes (LIES!LIES!).” I love the chorus. I love the power of the band’s performance. And I want to fall in love with the band, to need to go to all of their shows, to have a greedy desire to devour each album as it comes out.

But I don’t.

Here is the official video for the song:

You can find several great live performances of “Rebellion (Lies)” on YouTube. Here are a few … no need to listen to them all, if I had to pick one, maybe the Much Music Awards, but they are all wonderdul. First, from Letterman:

From Jools Holland:

The Much Music Awards:

comeback again

As an addendum to the previous post, here is what I wrote four years ago about The Comeback:

I can’t say anything about this show without repeating myself … I went looking for earlier posts on the subject, and they were all the same. So I’ll say it one more time. Kudrow is brilliant in the show, playing the kind of self-absorbed character, like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm or Ricky Gervais/Steve Carell in The Office, that is funny, but not as funny as it should be thanks to the fact that the character’s actions are excruciating and embarrassing to watch. Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish is the most unsettling of all these characters, so much so that the show is often very hard to watch (no surprise that it only lasted one season). That unsettled feeling is purposeful … Kudrow said in an interview:

I do believe that TV de-sensitizes us to things like violence, sex and now dignity has gone out the window. Watching a person lose their dignity used to be uncomfortable, and now it's an expected part of the program that we're becoming comfortable with. A loss of dignity can be funny if no one notices it going except the audience. When everyone can see it being taken away, or handed over as payment for fame, it's hopefully uncomfortable.

It is, in fact, very uncomfortable. Many similar characters, like “Larry David,” are clueless. Valerie Cherish knows what is happening to her, knows the indignities she suffers, knows that she’s part of the cause, and yet she goes on.

If the above intrigues, you, though, it’s a pretty good show.

goodbye to rubicon

This post is an example of what to do when you don’t have much to say, but you can’t fit it into 140 characters.

Rubicon has been cancelled. You want a definition of a critical favorite? The number of obituaries for Rubicon from critics that I have read this morning is greater than the number of people I know who watched the show. It was flawed, so the obituaries aren’t as depressing as they might be if, say, Mad Men was cancelled. Some of those flaws guaranteed the series would not find a large audience. Even I, who liked the show more than most people did, won’t often think about Rubicon now that it is gone. (In that respect, it reminds me of Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, a flawed series I loved that only lasted one season, after which I rarely thought of it … it is about to be rerun on the Sundance Channel, if you want to finally catch it.)

When I say goodbye to Rubicon, I feel like I’m saying goodbye to certain connections I have to the outside world. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is my reputation in part is of a middle-aged guy on the older end of the spectrum who still “gets” popular culture. I like quite a few television shows that work the margins … Mad Men is a fine example of a show that gets much lower ratings than you’d think, given how much cultural attention it gets … that’s one way to stay “cool” (hey, that guy watches Mad Men and 30 Rock and Battlestar Galactica). Nowadays, though, I find myself more identified with a show like Rubicon … good show, awful ratings, no cool factor … rather than something like Glee (so-so show, good ratings, extremely cool). I might have spent five years on this blog trying to get you to watch The Wire, and I remain convinced that those of you who have thus far resisted my entreaties will eventually see the light. But Rubicon, admittedly nowhere near The Wire in quality … not only did I never convince anyone to watch it, I imagine most of you have never even heard of it.

And so my taste preferences become increasingly irrelevant in the larger world of the cool-but-marginal. I’ve become Valerie Cherish … and it’s a sign of that irrelevance that I’ve just made one of those references that are meant to establish my cool factor (ooh, he’s pulling an obscure cultural artifact out of his hat, and we get it!) but which only emphasize my irrelevance factor (what the hell is Valerie Cherish).

i've got a good feeling about this

By now, most folks have heard about the woman, Caitlin Burke, who solved a puzzle on Wheel of Fortune after only one letter had been revealed. She was looking at this (+ are the blanks, the apostrophe was included, L was the revealed letter):

+’++ +++ + ++++ +++L+++ +++++ ++++

Chris Jones at Esquire has a fascinating breakdown of the thought process that led Burke to the puzzle’s solution. I’m going to give away the ending, because I think it will intrigue you even more and make you want to read the article.

Burke didn’t need the “L”. She had already solved the puzzle before a single letter had been revealed.