Florida Times-Union — Ben Harper is the missing link between human and mix tape, a shuffle button that can walk. His set is the jam-band counterpart of the menu at the Cheesecake Factory: nearly every style is readily available (as long as you don’t feel like anything too weird), and if you think you can trump it, you just haven’t turned enough pages. Feeling like reggae? Try the “Steal My Kisses/Pressure Drop” medley, wash it down with a crisp Red Stripe. A little wah-wah funk? Might I suggest the “Excuse Me Mr.” Some sensitive-guy singer-songwriter stuff? Ah, the “Another Lonely Day” is excellent tonight. A review of Harper’s sold-out show at the Florida Theatre.
Tag Archives: Music Writing
At worst, Queen + Paul Rodgers comes off as an adequate cover band, one made only a little less creepy by the participation of two original members. At best, it comes off as a marginally more- than-adequate cover band. This is Queen like I’m Lou Rawls. A review of the band’s sparsely attended Arena gig.
“We’re not gonna look too much like old men [on stage],” says Queen drummer Roger Taylor, of the band’s first tour with Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers and without, notably, Freddie Mercury. “Thankfully we still have our hair and are not enormously overweight.” (It is important to note that talking about bands who still have their hair carries extra weight when said band includes Brian May.) Taylor on why Queen wants to continue to rock you.
Florida Times-Union — I drive a Honda mini-SUV, couldn’t pick Tony Stewart out of a crowd of two and never once had anyone find my tractor sexy, and I’m still about twice as country as the fantastically popular Keith Urban.
Only the music business’ obsessive need to fragment itself puts Urban anywhere within miles of country; bizarrely, his meat-and-potatoes rock n’ roll no longer has much of a place on rock radio, MTV or VH-1.
The only safe harbor for a guy of his constitution – equal parts Seger, Garth and the Goo Goo Dolls – is the land of Music Row, where the word “rock” does not automatically conjure up thoughts of Nickelback.
But country is in desperate need of a personality and star-power transfusion, and Urban provides it to remarkable degree. Here’s an Australian dude who woos Nicole Kidman, whose shows possibly boast country’s lowest hat-to-section ratio, who covers Tom Petty and who arrives on stage to a friggin’ Jesus Jones song.
Supporters say those are the sounds of country’s long-standing walls being torn down. But a more cynical sort might say they’re the sounds of maximum crossover appeal, and that Urban is just merging marketable styles from all decades, authenticity be damned (watch how often the word “covers” appears in this review). iPods play Jesus Jones next to George Jones, so why can’t he? Somewhere, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash do loop-de-loops in their graves, while somewhere slightly warmer, accountants do them in corner offices.
Urban’s sound is pure comfort food, musical fuzzy slippers, a sonic Super Target. His titles go like this: Days Go By, Better Life, These Are The Days, But For The Grace Of God. His riffs soar where eagles dare. He’s obsessed with the images generally attached to conservativized country — blue jeans, blacktop, sunshine, ol’ buddies at the corner bar – but, as usual, they prove little more than stock art (when Urban sings Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’, you get the sense his emotional investment ends after the first verse, the one about the girl who’s crazy ‘bout Elvis, before all the bad stuff happens). He’s Bon Jovi with an occasional banjo and, somehow, fewer emotional gray areas; he sees a million faces, and gently rocks them all.
But all that said, Urban proves a performer of irrational likeability. Sure, Urban strains for the maximum potential audience (look at ya with the Sweet Home Alabama cover, ya big lug), plays crowd-yelling games and congratulates himself on his extended set times (Keith, I like you, but lots of bands play two hours, buddy). But his easy charisma, anthem-ready voice and above-average guitar chops make him an unfailingly engaging fella, even when he’s indulging in plodding monster ballads like Rainin’ on Sunday, his cover of Garth Brooks’ cover of Billy Joel’s You May Be Right, or You’ll Think of Me, a massive hit about breakups that clones much of Bruce Springsteen’s One Step Up. The end result is often potent but strangely detached. The place is packed and jumping when the lights go down, but plenty of folks scoot by encore time to beat traffic.
This is country in 2006 – pure, easy accessibility.
One of country’s biggest superstars never wears a hat, spins Prince on the P.A., covers Brooks and Dunn and grants himself a solid Eddie Van Halen-sized guitar solo 15 minutes four songs in. Lays down on the floor and everything. The ladies text dreamy notes to their friends, the guys nod appreciatively. Urban’s out to take mass appeal to new heights, and it’s working.
Florida Times-Union — Coming soon to Jacksonville: Queen, Sort Of! And INXS, In a Manner of Speaking!
Both acts are household names, both were superstars in their respective eras, and both are curiously enjoying lively tour schedules in 2006 despite the fact that their original singers have, for years now, been dead. “Brian [May] and I were not expecting to go on the road at any time,” said Roger Taylor, original drummer for Queen, which hasn’t toured the States since 1982. “It’s hard for anyone to walk into a wealth of history and experience that we’ve had,” INXS drummer Jon Farriss said of replacing Hutchence (who’s been replaced in the band and photo illustration by the improbably named J.D. Fortune).
And yet, in just a few weeks, you can welcome INXS — or whatever they are. And Queen has re-emerged to totally rock you. A Sunday feature on how some bands have fared with replacement parts. And a sidebar that breaks bands down into cold hard numbers.
Florida Times-Union (2.06) — If rock ‘n’ roll has always been the soundtrack to restless, confused adolescence, Craig Finn and The Hold Steady have taken its most romanticized elements — escapism, nervous love, frequent bursts of lively panic — and put a killer twist on them.
A storyteller whose words stream out in sentences rather than verses, Finn writes stories about growing up with as much sharp-eyed nostalgia as the Beach Boys, Replacements or Bruce Springsteen. In fact, though he represents the suburbs of Minneapolis, Finn proves himself a devout Bruce disciple on Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, and its 2005 follow-up, Separation Sunday. Both are layered with variations on youthful, Boss-ian themes, both below the surface and well above it (from Charlemagne in Sweatpants: “Tramps like us, and we like tramps”).
But if Springsteen’s legacy is in perfecting the rock-as-redemption thing, Finn’s may be in hanging it upside down by its heels and shaking out its change all over the boardwalk.
“There’s a lot of teenage nostalgia in rock ‘n’ roll, and Sunday is a teenage album,” Finn said last week. “And it’s a suburban album. When I was 16, I was able to get my driver’s license, and growing up the suburbs, that means you suddenly have this amazing new freedom.”
Sunday also boasts more overt Catholicism than any secular album in recent memory. Finn, who was brought up Catholic and attended Boston College, doesn’t go to church, but he can’t consider himself lapsed, either. “When people used to say, ‘Are you Catholic?’ I’d say no,” he said. “But then I thought that might not be entirely accurate. I certainly do not go to church, nor do I subscribe to some of the beliefs of the Catholic church, but it was such an important part of me becoming who I am that it was a big part of the genesis of the record. Redemption, salvation, forgiveness — those are beautiful, profound things you can always come back to.”
That said, despite never once advocating Satanism or gayness and assigning a starring, reverent role to the big man, the crises of faith conveyed in Sunday may alarm anyone who put forth any effort to, say, cancel The Book of Daniel. “I’m sure there are Catholic priests who would find it really blasphemous, but the chances of them hearing the Hold Steady record are slim to none,” he said with a laugh.
The Hold Steady formed in 2000 from the ashes of Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler’s previous outfit, Lifter Puller. It now includes bassist Galen Polivka, drummer Bobby Drake and keyboardist Franz Nicolay. The band spent much of last year absorbing accolades (including dueling love letters from the New Yorker and the Village Voice) and materializing on most of the known world’s year-end Top 10 lists. “I feel critically acclaimed,” Finn said. “But we still haven’t sold that many records. A huge step in being in a band is getting to the point that you have actual fans. I think that’s where we’re at, which is exciting.”
But if those fans see Finn as the ignition, the Hold Steady’s fuel is its arena-ready sound, which probably gets closer to Aerosmith than anyone who’s ever recorded under the vast indie umbrella ever has. Kubler sounds like he’s scanning the want ads for openings in Thin Lizzy, and Nicolay’s piano gets positively jump-swinging on tracks such as Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night. In two albums, they’ve captured the Replacements’ sloppy swagger and Warren Zevon’s gift for being at once graceful and dust-mouthed and sort of sad.
“People assume that songwriters are talking about personal experience, but no one ever thinks of a filmmaker in the same way,” Finn said. “The record is certainly influenced by my life, but I write songs as a cinematic means of telling a story.”
Stories that have proven accessible both to the kids still inhabiting various personas in search of one that fits, and the older folks who haven’t forgotten how hard that is to pull off.
Like the saying goes, you don’t have to be a Bruce Springsteen fanatic to appreciate his current tour — but it helps.
Springsteen’s current solo Devils and Dust trek is designed as a sprawling, contemplative look at the Springsteen catalog, particularly its quieter back pages. It’s billed as an acoustic tour, but last Friday’s show in Tampa found him hopping between six-string, piano, electric guitar, pump organ, electric piano and ukulele. Familiar songs are certainly played, but he’s not out to simply strip down his anthems. No, he’s out to revisit the dustier corners of his catalog, and he does it with subtle, startling power.
- Bruce Springsteen – Reason To Believe (7.31.05 Columbus, Ohio)
- Bruce Springsteen – Dream Baby Dream (7.31.05 Columbus, Ohio)
This was the case once before when Springsteen hit the highway behind an acoustic record. Like 1982’s Nebraska and 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils is a bleak, character-driven disc; also like Joad, it’s set in the dust-and-poverty choked Southwest. It co-stars prostitutes, amateur ultimate fighters, immigrants who died crossing into Texas.
But as was the case on the Joad tour, funny things happen when Springsteen brings Devils’ downcast songs to stage. The Tom Joad tour began as two hours of character sketches of permeating bleakness, and ended over a year later as a fundamentally different show, full of older tracks, personality and surprise (and culminating in sex puns and a song about a mall Santa in a strip club). The show becomes a sprawling and contemplative career overview., punctuated by humor and personality and the sense the Springsteen couldn’t be more pleased bringing these songs out.
First, he quickly moves away from his source material. In Tampa, Springsteen performed 26 songs but just five from Devils. And in many cases, the older songs are rebuilt from scratch. Reason to Believe got a Howlin’ Wolf treatment, with Springsteen roaring the vocals into a distorted bullet mike (think a dying CB radio ratcheted up to 11); it was all disorienting antagonism instead of somber reflection.
Springsteen has been flying without a net all through the tour, monkeying with arrangements and digging into crates — he’s done something like 130-plus songs. Still, the smorgasbord of rarities last week raised the eyebrows of even the online setlist hawks at places like the invaluable fan site Backstreets. The 1980 ballad Fade Away opened on electric piano, along with a veritable suite from The River — Fade’s B-side Be True, I Wanna Marry You, Two Hearts and a heart-clutching Wreck on the Highway on electric piano. There were two from Tunnel Of Love — Ain’t Got You (which he wrote as a smirking answer all those who ask “what it’s like to the Boss”) and the plaintive One Step Up. And two from Nebraska, including the pitch-black State Trooper.
In addition, and this is the fun part, Springsteen starts to get chatty, like the wine’s starting to kick in or something. He sets up rim shots that could be swung home in the Catskills, riffing that his relatively lame Human Touch is considered a masterpiece in Norway, or that the uber-wordy Blinded By the Light explains why he never did drugs, although he’s “looking forward to doing them soon.” Springsteen led off Jesus Was An Only Son, a Galilee-set lament solely interested in the relationship of Jesus and Mary, with an extended monologue on his Irish/Italian roots, including a line about Catholicism being a religion of great beauty and faith, as well as “abject horror and terror.” Springsteen even stopped the song mid-stream to bring home some of its points, giving, or at least indicating, access to the machinations behind his songwriting.
But the latter doesn’t even come into play on the show’s biggest dice-roll: Dream Baby Dream, a track originally recorded in 1979 by NYC synth-drone duo Suicide, that closed the night and is one of the most bizarre things he’s ever brought to stage (a dancing Clarence Clemons notwithstanding). It’s little more than a mantra — a sea of phrases like “Come on, dream baby dream, I just wanna see you smile, dry your eyes” — that on paper sounds like a recipe for goodwill-slaughtering disaster. And indeed, it’s either a revelatory moment of thematic unification or a head-scratching snooze, depending on how you felt about the preceding two hours.
Indeed, this show probably split a certain chunk of the ticket-buying crowd; I heard at least one guy walking out lamenting that Springsteen didn’t play “more old stuff,” by which he almost certainly meant anything with some combination of the words “Glory” and “Days” in the title. No, this one’s for the longtime fans, the majority who sat in reverent politeness and not those who couldn’t keep their giggles and “whooooos!” contained within their comfortably appointed skyboxes. This is Springsteen rebuilding, refocusing, putting the spotlight back on his songwriting and reimagining what it’s like to be the Boss.
Florida Times-Union — Scattered and broken, the musicians of New Orleans are in the first days of their new lives, a shapeless time period that has no end in sight. Some have already returned to the city; some don’t intend to return.
Most, like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, have maintained their pre-Katrina touring paces, not just as a way to keep their livelihoods, but also to keep their focus. “It’s overwhelming,” said Roger Lewis, saxophone player and founding member of the Dirty Dozen. “The city’s dead, man. It is dead.”
From his temporary home base in Vicksburg, Miss., Lewis said last week that the band plans to “keep on keeping on” — indeed, it was just a week or so after the levees broke that they were back on stage in Baton Rouge, La. “Being from New Orleans, we play under all kinds of conditions, birthdays or funerals,” he said. “The show must go on, you know?”
Any list of the most definitive contemporary Big Easy bands must include the Dozen, an institution that dates to the late ’70s, when Bourbon Street, like the rest of the country, had fallen victim to a considerably less tasty musical gumbo of disco and country. That’s when trumpeter Gregory Davis, saxman Roger Lewis, tuba player Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen and others came together to re-grasp that old brass-band intensity, weaving in modern jazz, funk and rock ‘n’ roll for good measure.
Three decades on, the Dozen are on call for any festival with the words “jazz” in it, and have played with Dizzy Gillespie, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews, Modest Mouse and the Black Crowes.
But things are different now. Lacen died a few years ago, commemorated by the Dozen’s 2003 disc Funeral for a Friend. And now, this.
“It has an effect on you mentally,” Lewis said. “New Orleans is a beautiful city — there’s so much history. Some stuff can be replaced, and some stuff can’t be replaced, you know what I mean?”
Lewis has been back to the city twice, most recently a few weeks ago to retrieve some of his instruments that were “salvageable.” He said his house at its worst was flooded with 4 or 5 feet of water.
“My wife’s a pianist, she lost her piano, keyboards. Well, we lost everything,” he said. “Everybody’s got a different horror story to tell.”
Still, there’s comfort to be found, he said, in being able to help a little, to raise a little money as well as keep the sound alive.
“I’m a musician. My job is to bring peace and joy and happiness. The beauty is to be able to provide some entertainment and raise money to help people who really need to be helped,” he said.
Lewis said that crowds at Dirty Dozen’s post-Katrina gigs are equal parts sympathetic and “[ticked] off” about the relief efforts. But, he added, there’s a lot of love being shown, too.
“New Orleans is a strong city. Its people are strong people. It’s coming back,” he said. “But it’s gonna be different. You’re gonna lose a lot of the history. It ain’t gonna be the same New Orleans you used to know. Maybe the Lord has something in mind.”
Billboard — Six albums into a career that has mobilized and polarized the indie rap underground, the Minneapolis rapper Slug, one-half of acclaimed Rhymesayers duo Atmosphere, is finally stepping outside himself.
Something of a superstar in that indie-hip-hop galaxy and possibly the least likely teen-girl idol currently producing popular music, the 33-year-old Slug (Sean Daley, to his parents) has spent years airing out his journal entries on wax, rhyming at length about what sounded like a couple hundred therapy sessions’ worth of lady-friend problems and harvesting a large female fan base in the process.
But Atmosphere’s sixth and most accomplished record, “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having,” includes a few choice couplets that seem designed to make some longtime fans do a double-take and punch the back button on the iPod. Like this one: “I’m returning this bleeding hearts club membership card,” Slug raps in “Say Hey There,” “because I want no motherf***ing part of it.”
It’s not that Slug has reached some sort of sun-splashed plane with the ol’ personal life — “she’s drama, I’m drama, we’re drama” the newly mohawked rapper admits from a Detroit tour stop, with the sighing-but-not-unpleased resignation of someone who’s cool operating under that definition for the time being. It’s just that everything isn’t necessarily filtered through the holes in a broken heart anymore.
“And I don’t know why that is,” Slug admits. “In the past, I wrote so much about myself because I didn’t want to project. I wanted it to be: If you’re gonna hate the story, then hate me. But I’m learning it’s OK to project as long as I’m offering at least a closure, or an opportunity for [listeners] to dialogue with friends. With where my life has gone, I’m able to tell these stories without putting them through the relationship factory. And I’m happy about that.”
In a speed-talking interview that manages to reference Billy Joel and folk songwriter Shawn Phillips, Slug is, as his hip-hop persona would indicate, wide-open and stream-of-consciousness chatty. But he’s writing now with the grounding of someone who’s got some miles behind him, and nuggets of aged-sounding wisdom and self-awareness creep into his monologues.
“It never was about ‘Look at me and my self-centered world,'” he said, “But I found a path of writing where I was able to personify any problem I saw as a relationship problem. So what happened was I was making all these songs about dysfunctional co-dependent relationships, when the song was about George W., or how I feel about the gentrification of [Chicago’s] Wicker Park, for Chrissakes.”
Slug attributes that externalizing to two factors: the severe reduction of his “self-medicating in general” and his adoption of a slightly more distanced role in his writing. “I’ve always been sitting in the watchtower observing,” he said, “But now I’ve totally climbed into the observer mode, as ‘This is my job.’ I watch people, and form ideas and bulls*** opinions about people, but I never wanted to come off as that guy on the soapbox preaching to the choir, because for so long, the kids that come to my shows are the choir.”
Between Slug’s lyrical stretches and Ant’s melodic, big-beat production, “You Can’t Imagine” represents Atmosphere’s best shot at breaking out of that underground to date. Not that it’s anywhere within shooting distance of mainstream — tracks like “Little Man,” a generation-jumping look at father-son relationships, are still more likely to pop up on NPR or a blog than radio. But “Watch Out” bangs like old LL Cool J (who gets a glancing lyrical half-shout) and “Get Fly” cribs a joyous gospel sample to underwrite its cautiously sunny worldview: “I can’t fight your war until I’m finished with mine.”
“I do think this is probably our darkest release, but, you know, it goes hand in hand with these being probably the darkest two years of my life,” Slug said. “I’d have to say that Ant, even probably more, had duress on his shoulders over the last two years than normal as well.”
But, he added, they never set out to make a dark-soul-of-the-night kind of record, or anything more than their usual “concept” of “following this guy Sean around.”
“[Ant and I] get together on Sunday and Saturday and have a great time making new songs about having a bad time,” he said. “It’s a really odd situation. And we sit around and laugh and try to make each other react to what we’re doing and when we’re finished we look at it and go, ‘It was a lot more fun to make that record than it is to listen to it.'”
“Panic Attack” bears that out — it’s a shuffling, fuzzy beat about America’s desperate overrealiance on medication. “Say Hey There” has a sing-song-y hook and verses in which Slug tries to step out of the image he’s created for himself. But the album’s best evidence of that is “That Night,” which opens sounding like a club banger and turns into a thanklessly tragic tale about the 2003 murder of a teenage fan after an Atmosphere concert in Albuquerque, N.M.
“When [Ant] sent me that beat, I said, ‘What do you want me to rap about? This is a dance song. I can’t come in here and be all aggressive.’ And he literally told me go and write a song that you’re not supposed to write, and that was the one song I’ve been afraid to write for two years now. I didn’t know I’d be able to write a journal about it, much less a song.”
It came together quick. “I went home that night, wrote it, took it back and said, ‘Here’s what I got.’ It’s the first time in my life that a song was only alive for under 24 hours and still made the record.”
Still, Slug, true to his hip-hop persona, is quick to launch praise for helping structure the record, from its old-school-tinted beats to its unmistakable sense of trying to find a balance.
“His deal was to be careful to always make sure to throw some lightness on, especially on some of the darkest songs,” Slug said. “Instead of being on some like ‘The world’s gonna end and we’re all gonna die’ s***, he’ll bring a pop sensibility to the music. That he thinks like this is amazing to me. To me it’s like, ‘There’s the beat, dog. Rap.'”
But Slug’s also got the unmistakably shifting priorities of a guy who’s getting older. “My son’s 11,” he says, “and last night in Chicago, there were kids that couldn’t have been old enough to have a learners’ permit. And now I think I’m growing in my position and I want to do the right thing with it. Maybe in a room full of 1,000 kids, I might just be able to divert two of them from becoming future frat-boy date rapists. And I think that’s why a lot of my writing has naturally refined itself. That’s kind of where I wanted to be all along — I just never knew it.”
Florida Times-Union – Sitting in with the UNF Jazz Ensemble 1 this weekend, it’s drumming legend and, as Bruce Springsteen would say, the star of late night telly-vision: the mighty Max Weinberg.
Weinberg, a 30-year resident of E Street and emperor of the most excellent Max Weinberg 7 on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, stands among the most visible and rock-solid drummers in the business — and, it should be noted, has proven himself an incredibly game comedic straight man as well (let’s just say one-liners like “I’ve found that reindeer will lick just about anything you put in front of them” weren’t something that popped up a whole lot on Born in the U.S.A.).
But he’s also an in-demand guest speaker who logs regular appearances at colleges around the country with his one-man multimedia show, An Evening With Max Weinberg. And the chance to cameo this weekend with UNF’s acclaimed jazz ensemble provided an opportunity too good to miss, he said.
“I’m thrilled to be playing with the great stage band at UNF,” Weinberg said from New York last week. “They’re wonderful musicians down there.”
Weinberg does these kinds of jazz and jump-blues-leaning shows somewhat regularly and said that such gigs, as well as his work on Conan, help him pad out his musical resume even more. “I think at 54 I’m playing with more versatility and finesse and polish than I ever have,” he said. “We’ve done a cross-section of music on the show — not just rock ‘n’ roll.”
Indeed, he’s keen on trumpeting that cross-section — jump-blues, big-band jazz and swing — to schools as well as the folks in TV land.
“One of the main requirements for being a drummer is to be able to convincingly play any kind of music, or you end up not working,” he said, laughing. “Certainly with Springsteen it’s all rock, but on TV I wanted to play all types of music. The jump-blues is something I started back in the ’90s, and that led me into the big-band era update that we do now, music downsized for a seven-piece band instead of 17 or 18.”
But, he added, some of his newest interests are a couple of decades ahead, closer to the era spotlighted by bandmate Steven Van Zandt on his Underground Garage radioshow. “Lately on the show we’ve been redefining ’70s music, and I find that some of that earlier punk — Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash — was more melodic than the punk played in the last 10 years,” he said. “Like ‘Sheena Is a Punk Rocker’ — that’s a good melody that can be adapted to sax or trumpet, so that’s what I listen for. The drums are basically high-energy rock ‘n’ roll.
“Though,” he adds, “it seems to funny to play a Clash song wearing a suit and tie.”
For Saturday’s concert, which is free, Weinberg will sit in with Jazz Ensemble 1 for a number of handpicked tunes, including “one of (his) favorites: our version of Come Fly With Me inspired by the Count Basie recording,” he said.
He’s also lined up numbers by Buddy Rich and Henry Mancini, songs he does regularly with a seven-piece that he can now flesh out for a crowd more than double that. (Weinberg added that during his set he’ll play alongside UNF’s drummer. “I don’t like to leave anybody out,” he said.)
After the show, which benefits the ensemble, Weinberg will take questions from the audience “across all topics,” and stick around for autographs.
This fall’s found him busy in Bruce-land as well: Weinberg contributed interviews and insight to a 30th anniversary edition of Born to Run coming out on Tuesday, Nov. 15, which includes a DVD of a previously unreleaed full 1975 concert. “Thirty years ago,” Weinberg said, “Yeah, that really brings back a lot of memories. And that concert is really something outrageous.”