“He’s dead, Jim”

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Even to a non-Trekkie, there has to be a sense of wonder that what was clearly sci-fi in the 1960’s was realized on a mass basis in the 2000’s – namely the “communicator.” 

It’s easy to forget that at the time, we were tied to the handset by a spiral cord that always got twisted, and it wasn’t uncommon for there to only be one phone in the house.  For a time, my family had a “party line” which meant we shared a phone number with another family.  Shocking, eh?

40 years makes a difference.

image

 

For laughs, someone has gone to the trouble of mimicking the communicators for the iPhone

Spiffy, eh?  If that doesn’t work for you, try the Bluetooth Communicator for a few extra pizazz points.

Fiction then, reality now.

Well, how about the Tricorder, the gizmo that “Bones” McCoy used to detect health signs?  Or that Spock used to detect life form readings or elemental composition?

Well, we’re not quite there.  Yet.  But progress is being made, including using handheld ultrasound devices to test for foodborne pathogens and, with high intensity ultrasound, to wounds.  Cool stuff.

 

The units are not entirely remote, but Vscan is a darned interesting product, which you can see if you have patience to watch the videos.

 

 

I think to some degree we’d all like a device to wave over our bodies and tell us what isn’t working, or, and perhaps more encouragingly, everything that’s working well.  Especially if it can done quickly, without a doctor’s appointment, and without accompanying copays or 3rd party rationing.

We’ll see.   Research continues on other Star Trek “technologies” as well.  So, which would a 21st century technophile choose first?   Nanotech enabled cloaking, painless injections (hyposprays), transparent armor (deflector shields), or a Type II phaser sold at your local Wal-Mart?  Hmm.

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Laugh Tracks

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When I watch TV, and there’s a funny moment, I have two possible responses. 

1) Laugh out loud.

2) Don’t laugh. 

Some might consider the second option to be “not laughing.”  But here’s the thing, if someone is in the room with me, I’m much more likely to laugh out loud.  If I’m alone, I already know it’s funny. So why bother vocalizing it?

I’ve noticed lately that I tend to laugh during The Big Bang Theory.  Courtesy of the DVR, I watch this as often with someone as I do without.  In both cases, I laugh out loud.  Have I changed?  Is the show just outrageously funny?  Or do I laugh just to startle the cat from his couch back slumber?

Remember Happy Days, All in the Family, Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy?  Among other shows, these were sort of the Golden Age during which I watched a lot of TV.  These were pretty darned funny and played for multiple seasons.  My generation, in some ways, grew up with them. Something that they all shared were laugh tracks. 

In the early days of television, laugh tracks were added to situation comedies to recreate the live theater audience experience. A laugh track, sometimes called “canned laughter,” was placed in the recorded program following a joke or a funny scene to prompt the home viewer to… yep, laugh.

I do wonder about the psychological influence of these insertions.  Do laugh tracks make the viewer think the moment is funnier than it actually is?  Do they cover up lame writing?  Do they make you feel more certain about your sense of humor because a crowd is laughing with you?   Or, have the studios so “dumbed down” our ability to appreciate comedy that we have to be told when there is a moment that we should have found to be funny? 

As the present TV lineup is heavy on forensics, police/legal dramas, sci-fi, reality cauldrons, or “I Wanna Be a Star” competitions, there are precious few opportunities for laughs.  The Big Bang Theory makes up for that.

I normally don’t do this, I hope you’ll understand.  But for the purposes of this blog, I counted the laugh tracks in their most recent episode, “The Justice League Recombination,” admittedly a pretty funny episode.  I’d say the following statistics are accurate +/- 2 per segment.

  • Opening segment – 28
  • First segment – 56
  • Second segment – 58
  • Closing – 4 (although, very lengthy tracks)

That’s an astounding 146 laughable moments.  From CBS’ own site, this particular episode is 20:29.  (Thank you, again, DVR…).  Okay math fans, that works out to:

7.12195122 laughs per minute!

(extra digits provided for the satisfaction of fans of the show)

Further analysis is demanded.  Just how funny is this?

One laugh per 8.42465753 seconds!

Where else are you going to find that kind of comedic value?  You shouldn’t be able to watch this show and not find something that’s funny!  And, with a minimum investment of time.

It took me an episode or two to warm to this show, but, yeah, now I look forward to it each week.  But with all this preoccupation on the viewer side, it’s interesting to see how this impacts the actors, who have to be that funny and that fast, whether by dialogue or animations.  And then, the practiced crew has to anticipate a laugh track before continuing on with each scene.

Yeah, give it a try.  It’s not the same episode and probably not as funny, but I’ll take what I can find.  You be the judge.  Where’s the humor?

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Ryan Bingham – Lucky Star

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I generally like artists who record for Lost Highway Records, a label that tends towards alt-country, Americana, folk derived music.junky-star  I also like airplanes.  And, I like highly discounted CDs at Best Buy.  “What the heck?  I haven’t taken a blind stab all year, and it’s only $7.99!” 

Four months later, I’m finally writing a review.  Bingham won an Academy Award for his theme song for The Weary Kind, which also won Jeff Bridges an Oscar last year.  That credit aside, Bingham is not a household name, by any means (You apparently have to appear on “American Idol” for notoriety in the 21st century).  Junky Star, his third solo release, immediately put me off a bit.  It had the cool cover picture, and it had the credit of being produced by T Bone Burnett, who excels at capturing music and presenting it on a worn plank stage somewhere in Appalachia.  But I wasn’t prepared for Bingham’s voice. 

Call it raspy.  Or grizzled.  Or ragged.  Or, perhaps raw… open-sores-in-the-throat raw… and add a few shots of Jack Daniels.  And the music?  Capable… appropriate, even.  But not exactly foot tapping or adrenaline rousing stuff from the backing band known as The Dead Horses.

Junky Star is a study of the understated.  Despite the… I’ll use jagged… edge to Bingham’s voice, he uses the resulting… pop and hiss? … to provide more than a little atmosphere to each of his fairly dark, hard-lived narratives.  Tales of being shot dead, living amongst junkies and stars on the Santa Monica Pier, being societally invisible as the losers in the fortunes of life… it’s road house stuff.  All is not bleak, but even where hope is found (“Depression,” “Yesterday’s Blues), it’s among ample difficulties.  But don’t equate this to a study in despair; while there isn’t redemption to be found, hope and perseverance play throughout.

“Direction in the Wind” channels a societal shift ala Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, at once not as compelling as those artists but far more authentic than Springsteen could ever muster beyond his “Glory Days.”

I’m at the point where I like this CD a good bit.  Bingham’s voice wears (appropriately…) on you, as the nuances of the echoing bass, the occasional cutting harmonica, or, the rare insertion of an electric guitar with attitude entangle the listener with each tale.  Delayed gratification can be a very rewarding quality to music.

Still, like another T Bone Burnett production, Jakob Dylan’s Women + Country, what’s lacking is something to change the pace.  There are different tones, to be sure, but there’s not an adequate release from the weight of it all.

Recommended Songs: “The Poet,” “Hallelujah,” “Yesterday’s Blues”

3 of 5 STARS

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Harry Potter – The Deathly Hallows Part 1

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I’ve read the books, and I’ve enjoyed the movies, despite the necessary abbreviation of the plots .  The Harry Potter series will never challenge The Lord of the Rings for translating literary fantasy into screenplays, but they’ve been decent overall.

I’ll review this movie in two ways:

1) Visually:

The latest chapter to me, can be summed up with the below picture:

Yep, that’s Harrison Ford captured back when he was still relevant to popular culture.  Episode 5 - The Empire Strikes Back (were the later movies really worthy of being listed as episodes 1-3?) was a great movie, wasn’t it?  We tackled Imperial Walkers, met Yoda and Boba Fett (before he was unnecessarily edited into the revised Episode 4 years later), flew through the cloud city above Bespin, found out that you’re born into a family rather than choosing them… wait, I’m reviewing the wrong movie! 

But you know the story…  It picks up not too far later than the original Star Wars movie, then moves forward with a straightforward narrative that keeps us engaged because the Dark Lord of the Sith was last seen spinning through imagespace in his Tie Fighter – Advanced x1. And, at the end, Han Solo gets the ice treatment.  The result? We, the audience, are also put on ice until the next episode arrives.

Now, see the similarity to HP-DHP1

The Empire has stricken back.  Good guys are dying.   And like the Jedi, there’s precious few of them.  Bad guys hold positions of authority.  And worse, Darth Vader just gained the upper wand.  There’s no corbomite, but we’re just as much on ice at the “conclusion.”  Don’t you hate it when a movie doesn’t have a clear ending? 

Fear not, because below I’ve included a sneak peak from the final chapter where Hermoine has managed to gain the trust of “he who should not be named.”

2) Musically:

Look around the theater before the movie starts.  After all these years of Harry Potter was first introduced in 1997, it’s conspicuous that there are no longer any small children in the audience

Those children who were began this saga are now young adults.  That little girl enjoying The Chamber of Secrets is now a freshman at Ga Tech.   LIkewise, the actors have grown.  Long gone are the “gee whiz” discoveries about magic and and coming of age in the wizarding world.  It’s a dark and challenging time, when Harry’s heroes are being killed and friendships are few and tested.

When hiding from the evil powers that be and without a clear direction about what they should do, Harry and Hermoine draw strength from each with a dance, carving a single carefree moment.  It’s not a pivotal scene, but it reflects a tension that defines this chapter in the saga.  They’re adults, and the weight of the world has fallen on them.  Now, how do you put music to that?

Curiously, and very successfully, the director chose Nick Cave, an artist who tends to strike dark, gothic tones with lyrics about sin, death, violence and salvation, yet also about love.  His repertoire sings to an adult audience.  The song chosen for this scene is “O’Children,” written in 2004, which captures perfectly the mood of the moment… and this difficult chapter in the series.

"O Children" – by Nick Cave

Pass me that lovely little gun
My dear, my darting one
The cleaners are coming, one by one
You don't even want to let them start

They are knocking now upon your door
They measure the room, they know the score
They're mopping up the butcher's floor
Of your broken little hearts

O children

Forgive us now for what we've done
It started out as a bit of fun
Here, take these before we run away
The keys to the gulag

O children
Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

Here comes Frank and poor old Jim
They're gathering round with all my friends
We're older now, the light is dim
And you are only just beginning

O children

We have the answer to all your fears
It's short, it's simple, it's crystal dear
It's round about, it's somewhere here
Lost amongst our winnings

O children

Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

The cleaners have done their job on you
They're hip to it, man, they're in the groove
They've hosed you down, you're good as new
They're lining up to inspect you

O children

Poor old Jim's white as a ghost
He's found the answer that was lost
We're all weeping now, weeping because
There ain't nothing we can do to protect you

O children

Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
And the train ain't even left the station

Hey, little train! Wait for me!
I once was blind but now
I see Have you left a seat for me?
Is that such a stretch of the imagination?

Hey little train! Wait for me!
I was held in chains but now I'm free
I'm hanging in there, don't you see
In this process of elimination

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
It's beyond my wildest expectation

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
And the train ain't even left the station

Okay, but what does it sound like?

4 of 5 STARS

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Shannon McNally – Western Ballad

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Recently I received the above listed CD towards the release of which I made a small contribution through Kickstarter.  So, let’s get to it!

The CD starts off almost as well as I could hope.  “Memory of a Ghost” combines a great tune, great singing, and a playful musical mix that suits the lyric well.  If there’s a complaint, it’s that her collaborator’s (Mark Bingham) voice, playing the role of the ghost, is a bit muddied in the mix.  Next is “High,” a reverb soaked song about, well, feeling good, but more from joy rather than from indulgence. 

“When I Am Called” moves towards an Americana/folk style that contrarily holds fast to the guitar reverb.  Again, it’s a vocal showcase, though not a one blessed with a particularly deep lyric.  “Western Ballad,” the title track, is an Alan Ginsberg poem that invites speculation on the loss of love and the loss of life, punctuated by a military snare.  It’s not particularly cheery, and it’s an interesting choice for the album title, though not textually misleading as her style mixes folk, Native American elements, and, to my regret, Country (or as it used to be known, Country & Western).

And that’s the musical style that we find ourselves with “True Possession,” which seems to be about finding strength in oneself.  I think, anyway, as lyrics were not included.  Nevertheless, it’s a song that I’d be interested in hearing with a more aggressive rock or blues attitude.  The over-the-top country guitar licks at the end of the song subtract.

McNally Letter

Next up is “Tristesse Oubliee,” which is sung entirely in French.  As the CD was recorded in New Orleans, I’m certain it has a personal meeting, possibly a forgotten sadness if Google was any help at all.   Despite its merits, I’m just one of those people that runs when I hear pedal steel.

“Thunderhead” would be my favorite song on the CD were it not for an unworthy refrain.  It’s a lilting song with a vocal style similar to Richard Ashcroft (of The Verve); it just needs a musical hook.  Perhaps she’ll revisit this styling in the future.  “Rock and Roll Angels,” despite its promising title, is a rather plodding C&W affair.  The timbre and nuance in McNally’s voice is suited to a number of styles – this one just doesn’t appeal to me. 

When I see “Toast,” I can’t help but think bread with butter… maybe some grape jelly if there’s time.  It might help if this song were titled “A Toast" or “I Toast” just to clear the expectations for people like who get preoccupied when 1 + 1 fall just short of 2.  It has fairly straightforward pop appeal and is an enjoyable song.

The militia snares return with collaborator/producer Mark Bingham’s “Little Stream of Whiskey,” … with a sort of C&W “good times” feel to it.  The best part of this song is that it stretches McNally’s voice to lovely effect.  The nuances when she descends to a speaking voice harken back to “The Hard Way” off her fantastic 2005 release, Geronimo.   Though, well, there’s that pedal steel again…

The CD closes with “In My Own Second Line,” a song which her producer says “reflects the affliction of madness to the degree that the singer is truly in their own world and in their own marching parade.”  I don’t quite pick that up, but it’s a suitable notion to close an effort that finds McNally delivering a more cohesive, relaxed, and enjoyable performance than when last heard on 2009’s uneven Coldwater

I don’t know that Western Ballad will win new fans, but it has a number of very good songs to strengthen her repertoire.   She certainly plays to her strengths, with a spacious acoustic landscape that lets the inflections in her voice be heard. I remain a fan, but admittedly hope that she finds a producer who will collaborate less and demand a bit more.  And, of course, one who doesn’t advocate pedal steel.

Recommended Songs: “Memory of a Ghost,” “HIgh,” “Thunderhead”

3 of 5 STARS

 

 

Not an official video release, but it features the best song on the CD

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Zoltar Lives!

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new york photography nyc blog nat ma zoltar

You never know what will happen when you mess with palm readers, spiritualists, or, in Zoltar’s case, automated fortune tellers.  Zap!  It’s magic, and you just lost your childhood. 

Hey, it happened in Big.  It could happen to you.

We’re talking about spiritual forces here - God, Satan, jinn, angels, demons, gastrointestinal hiccups, or other inter-dimensional type cosmological forces.

All this is available to you for a low, low cost of… opening a Chinese fortune cookie.  A nickel.  A Ouija Board.  $20.  Your soul.  I’ll leave it to you to name what you’re willing to pay for a little magic in your life.  But people do, because Zoltar, in all his forms, (apparently) delivers.

Driving through Woodstock, GA on Hwy 92, it’s hard not to notice a particular billboard that pushes back at the night sky.  It gives me the creeps.  No, it’s not for a car dealership, and no, it’s not for a “gentleman’s club.”  It’s for a lawyer, and not just any lawyer, but a lawyer that promises magic.  He has a catchy phrase, but I’d prefer not to pay to defend my right to free speech.  Anyway…

Look at him… the flawless skin, the arched eyebrows, the blinding white of his eyes, the penetrating stare, the smug confidence imagein the set of his jaw, the forward incline of his head.  Yes, you see it too.  He wants to control your thoughts.  And he’s speaking to you. 

Now slowly cast your eyes in a clockwise motion around the perfectly spread deck of cards.  They’re amazing, aren’t they?   They’re even sorted by suit.  In order.  Now continue, but just follow the colors. Good, now again.  Good…  Keep listening to my voice.  You’re starting to feel very… sleepy.  Good...  And now you’re at rest, and… you trust me.  Listen carefully.  I’m here like magic.  And if you have a legal problem, I’ll make it disappear.  Remember that in your hour of need.  Now, when I count down from three, you’ll wake up.  Be calm and relaxed as the patrolman who is walking up to your car taps on your window.  He’s wondering why you’ve ignored the traffic light for the last two cycles.  Whatever happens, it’s okay.  You know who to call.  I’ll make your troubles… disappear! Three… two… one…

I’m not sure if the Supreme Court quite anticipated the evolution that marketing would follow when they determined that attorneys had the right to advertise (Bates vs. State Bar, 1977).  But when you’re in need, who ya gonna call?  Ghostbusters?

Of course not.  You’re going to call an attorney.  Given that most people rarely need a lawyer, how does an attorney attract your interest and pull you in as a client?  Clearly, Zoltar was inevitable.

And it’s not like my local Zoltar was first.  Other mesmerizers have preceded him.  See below?  Now, look deep into his eyes… and make that call.

*No representation is made that the quality of the legal services to be performed is greater or worse than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.

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Robert Plant – Band of Joy

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For those out of the know, Robert Plant was once Led Zeppelin’s lead singer.  His career afterwards began with a more polished radio friendly approach, which has since yielded in the past decade to include a mix of originals and covers.  While including rock and blues, he has increasingly pursued an “Americana” influence – mandolins, steel guitar, pedal steel, etc.  Or, roots music, of a sort.  Within that vein, 2007’s Raising Sand, a collaboration with Alison Krauss, won multiple Grammy’s but, to my ears, remained a dour affair due in part to the lyrics of the chosen songs.

Where to go then?

Band of Joy elevates Buddy Miller, a long time collaborator with Emmylou Harris and who was featured on the Plant/Krauss tour, to the role of producer and lead guitarist.  Instead of sharing vocal space with Krauss, Plant enlisted Patty Griffin to assume a backup role, adding a welcome vocal depth and another instrument, if you will, to the mix.  The ensemble is indeed a band of joy as they tackle the material with a consistent sound, yet tailored to the needs of each song.

What results is a much richer interpretation of obscure songs than Raising Sand.   Among the artists covered include Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt, and an English band, Low.  The Low songs are the most striking in this set, with fuzz -heavy, reverbed guitars and a vocally nuanced delivery that might someday be background music for, oh, a movie scene that explores the psyche of a serial killer. 

All is not so dark, however.  “You Can’t Buy My Love” comes across as a respectable mid-60’s send up, and “Falling In Love Again” is a harmless song that might blend into a lengthy commercial free radio segment, regrettably without calling much attention to itself.   Still, it’s beautifully crafted. 

Elsewhere, the songs demand attention in one way or another, whether it’s the changing moods, Miller’s outstanding guitar, a helping of mandolin, Griffin’s backing vocals, or, of course, Plant’s vocals.  The only song that doesn’t quite deliver in execution is “Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday,” but its selection may be the root problem.   The closer, “Even This Shall Pass Away,” is also not entirely successful, though an interesting venture in setting a 19th century poem to music.

As a listener, I don’t know where Plant’s influence ends and Miller’s begins.  Both deserve credit for a very thoughtful approach to each song.  I can’t help but think that the music was built around the way Plant chose to sing each selection, because there are many possible tones to interpretation.  While plant continues to reach for higher notes, he’s become practiced at using less to affect a more intimate narrative than his 70’s bombasts would ever allow.  A comparison of the opposing themes of “Monkey” (or, better, “Darkness, Darkness” from 2002’s Dreamland) to “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” proves Plant has interpretive range.

Is this an oldies album?  No.  This is a vibrant, winning effort from a musician who understands the combination of subject matter and the accompanying mood that the music should strike.  And he delivers. 

Recommended: “Harm’s Swift Way,” “Monkey,” “House of Cards”

4 of 5 STARS

 

 

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Badly Drawn Boy–It’s What I’m Thinking, Pt. 1

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It’s been four year’s since Badly Drawn Boy’s (Damon Gough) last release, Born in the U.K.  Prior to that release, he had admitted going through a period where he lacked inspiration.  As that album gathered only passing interest, might the interim between releases suggest he has recovered his inspiration or collected, over time, a superior set of songs?

Alas, no.  As it turns out, his latest album came from a creative period during which he rushed to the studio to capture his inspirations, rather than refining good ideas later when he risked being flat.  This works for some, certainly.

BDB gained notice with his first release in 2000, Hour of Bewilderbeast, which remains one of my all time favorites.  If not a steady decline, his subsequent albums were comparatively a distant shadow of his first work.  Either the lyrics were ho-hum, the melodies sub par, or the instrumental mix too forced, but each paid homage to his greater work while falling noticeably short.  Both the critics and his audience noticed.  Even still, there were a few nuggets from album to album which pointed to a hope for something better next time.

It’s What I’m Thinking (Part One: Photographing Snowflakes) is a title that seems apt.  The lyrics do not seem to be overly word-smithed and read as if they might be an extenuation of whatever thoughts he had entering the studio.  They’re not embarrassingly shallow nor particularly enriching.  They might qualify as observational but not rising to the philosophical, or conversational without any intent of ever being spoken.  Lyrics are included in the CD, but they don’t really matter, because…

… they all fade away in the mist.  Or, rather, as soon as each song ends.  Why?  The first two songs are a fine example.  They can be viewed a couple of ways.  The charitable would suggest that BDB is restraining himself from his over-produced and over-complicated past errors, and this CD reflects a more mature approach that strips away the eclectic assault of any and all instruments in a studio.  Those opposed might offer that his vocal range is limited, he’s prone to use one of about 3 phrasings in all of his songs, and that the sparser instrumentation (keyboard orchestration and piano, mainly) only highlights the absence of memorable melodies. 

There are some decent melodies, and several decent songs (listed below) but when it’s all said and done, none of them fill an emotional need, echo any particular personal meaning, or strike the auditory nerves in such a pleasing manner that demands repeating.  Only “You Lied” might be considered a musical departure from the tried and tired, but, it too, doesn’t resonate.  The iPod doesn’t beg for anything here.

BDB has indicated that the next two phases of this proposed trilogy are likely to include a larger number of collaborators/artists.  That may help, or it may hinder. What he needs to focus on is finding the musical enthusiasm he first shared on Bewilderbeast.

Suggested Songs: “Too Many Miracles,” “I Saw You Walk Away,” “This Electric,” This Beautiful Idea”

2 of 5 STARS

 

 

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Street Preachers

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I’m constantly amazed at how music is intertwined with so many aspects of my life.

Recently, as I was entering the venue for what turned out to be a fantastic Jeff Beck concert, I was confronted by several zealous proselytizers shouting that I and everyone else will be going straight to hell.  Unless we repent.  They had accompanying signs, of course.

A friend was angered, resentful of being judged and found wanting.  I didn’t like it either, and I’m a Christian.  And I said as much.  But this incident keeps coming to mind, and, well, here’s my forum.

Regardless of religion, political fervor, or other dogmas, I do respect those who believe what they believe strongly enough to take a stand, regardless of whether or not I agree with them (the caveat is that those actions do no harm to others).   I get more frustrated with people who do not seem to think fairly deeply about the things that should matter in their lives.  In sorting the existential questions of origins, morals, meaning and destiny, I find my faith to be quite a reasonable thing, but “evangelism” such as this does not resonate as an engaging method of persuasion.  For me, at least.

My reaction, then and now, is that this type of confrontational “witnessing” does far more harm than good.  To give credit, such people do put themselves in positions where they risk very adverse responses.   It is notable that the Greek root for “witness” is “marturia,” from which the word “martyr” is also derived.  While my reaction, I think, lies within the majority, it’s at least worth asking why street preachers do what they do.  

For those acquainted only with the bumper stickers of the Christian faith, they should understand that churches are full of sinners.  There is no magic “belief” button that changes a person to be a good, virtuous person.  Over time, people who truly believe in Jesus are supposed to “grow in the faith” and sin no more, but it’s granted in the Bible that even believers will continue to sin.  The central belief is that God loves us enough to provide a way out of the many ways we fall short of His expectations, and once received, our response should be an attitude of gratitude.  Those who are forgiven much should likewise forgive.  Much.

On topic, how does shouting at passersby fit within a reasonable context of an abiding faith, or of a faith that anyone would want a part?

It doesn’t.  And yet it does. 

Watch any pro football game on TV, and there’s usually someone holding john_3_16a John 3:16 sign (curiously, usually in the end zone).  Great verse. If you aren’t familiar with it, Google it.  It promises the good news of Christian belief. 

As often, there are signs that read, “Jesus Saves.”  The question that should arise is, “from what?”  The next several verses in John (and in other contexts and places in the Bible), point out that we (all humans) are judged already – our hearts are far from God or anything to do with Him.  It’s not a matter of a scale of justice where we hope the good outweighs the bad at the end of lives.  It’s a pervasive condition.  In about everything, we’d much prefer to do things our own way, thank you very much.  Adam and Eve take all sorts of ridicule by pundits who scoff at the simplicity of the story but miss the moral point.  A more straightforward story for demonstrating our desire to be autonomous (or a law unto ourselves) would be difficult to find.

Regardless of the Christian doctrine of God, many have their reasons for turning away from anyone’s “God” idea.   A few common objections include the presence of evil and suffering in the world, lack of visible miracles or presence, “believers” who are judged to be hypocrites, rejection of any notions of ultimate accountability, etc.  My suspicion though, is that most of these are secondary to an innate understanding that if there is a God, then he/she/it may actually have some obligations upon the way we live our lives.

For the Christian, this is okay.  God holds us accountable because we count.  In the grand scheme of things, I find that comforting.  I am not, however, a believer because I simply find it preferable to the implications of the great nothing to come.

Faith is life changing.  The Christian cannot boast of being a believer.  If it were not for God’s grace, we would never turn our hearts towards him.  His grace is in the little things – nature, the birth of a child, the coincidences of life that speak to love, charity, goodness, and the scriptures if they’re studied – that call us to recognize that something larger than our DNA is at work here.  Why do we have a conscience?  Why should anyone struggle with guilt for a transgression against another person?  Why does physical matter (humans) seem to be born with a built in moral compass?

Any truly held beliefs grow.  They have costs in some regards and benefits in others.  For Christians, faith grows, and it abides and ultimately becomes life changing.  And, at some point, it demands to be shared. 

Many get very frustrated with Christians who “witness” to them, regardless of the manner.  Some are just as offended when a friend mentions their faith casually as when they’re subject to the more confrontational curbside condemnation. 

The apostle Paul proclaimed the gospel publicly in the streets, but that was the customary method of the day to introduce and debate philosophies.  And Jesus?  The only judgmental attitude he demonstrated was for the self-righteous.  Otherwise?  He showed love and compassion for those in the lowest rungs of society and those who had moral failings, the same people that were shunned by the religious leaders.   Most modern churches have not forgotten this, but those that have make the news, in a bad way.

If faith (or any belief or non-belief system) is to be spread, it has to be talked about.  It has to be shared.  It’s not a burden, but rather a natural outworking of belief.  If the devil is in the details, it’s in the how.  St. Francis of Assisi said, “Witness at all times, and if necessary, use words.”  That’s not a biblical imperative, but the point is that no one should be surprised to find out when a person they know says that they’re a Christian.  Why?  Because the Christian message is best shared relationally and by actions, not at loud volumes to passing strangers.

But, you ask, who am I to judge the effectiveness of shouting the “saving message” of hell and damnation?  I would wager (not biblically approved, I know) that the corner “preachers” would consider it well worth the aggravation, the time, the derision, the stress on their vocal cords, civic fines and whatever other costs they incur if but one person is drawn towards their message.  Because they believe.

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The Beatles at the Washington Coliseum

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Reports today indicate that since becoming available on iTunes last Tuesday, Nov. 16, the Beatles have sold over 450,000 albums and two million individual singles worldwide.  That probably makes the whole advertising blitz worthwhile, but there were also comments that, by releasing their entire catalogue at once, sales might have been muted by too many spending decisions.

If you’re a Beatles fan, or if you have just a passing interest, I’d encourage you to go to iTunes while this opportunity lasts.  The banner features The Beatles, so go ahead and click on that.  On the next screen, shown below, is a link to a viewable movie at the left – “Live at the Washington Coliseum, 1964.”

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It’s free to view and well worth the time.  After all the fairly shoddy performances trotted out over the years (the horrible audio/video from The Cavern club in England, or the over worn Ed Sullivan show appearance, or the mass hysteria of the Shea Stadium recordings) it was quite a surprise to find that a complete performance had been captured, with excellent video quality (for the time), and as good an audio quality as can be expected.  It runs 41 minutes long, which includes an introduction before getting to the good stuff.  Added bonus:  It’s unedited.  It’s not just the music, but everything that happened between the songs.

My takeaways? 

1) McCartney was much more of the band leader, for this show at least, than I would have been led to believe based on various biographies that generally attribute that mantle to Lennon.  It’s surprising he relinquished virtually all of the audience banter to McCartney.

2)  Sure, there’s some cloying postures and practiced delivery, but there is more at work than playing because it’s a big moment or due to built up expectations.  They’re enthusiastic about what they’re doing, and it shows.  They wrote and sang great songs, and the commercial packaging certainly played a huge role in building their celebrity.  What packaging?  How about in-the-round staging (a boxing ring) and professional recording - of their first American concert?  But beyond all the interview quips and the “long” hair fascination, if they came off as being inauthentic or unlikable, they would have been a footnote in music history.  Watch.  They’re having fun.

3) Ringo has a very basic drum kit, and he may not have been the most imaginative drummer through the subsequent years, but I gained some respect watching him perform.

4) To see The Beatles move their stage equipment around wasn’t expected, and it certainly may have been borne of necessity.  But, they played for years before making it big, usually in dumps.  Their suits notwithstanding, you know they’ve done this before and they’re not above doing it again.  Beyond that, there’s a sense that they really wanted to give a great show to everyone, regardless of where they sat.

5) How can they play so well when they can’t hear?  In addition from the audience noise, they rarely have their stage monitors set to where they can hear them. 

6) There is more than a little irony of playing “black music” to a very young, all white crowd (“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Twist and Shout,” “Long Tall Sally”).  It’s well known that McCartney’s vocals borrowed quite a bit from Little Richard.  His delivery of “Long Tall Sally” seems beyond his years.  Attention establishment:  You tried to contain Elvis.  Give it up.  Rock and roll is coming, and fast.

7) It’s no wonder that a generation of teenagers went out and bought guitars.  With that kind of energy, and that kind of fan response, would you rather be a pop star or go work in the factory? 

8) Fans had cameras.  I like that in a concert.

More about the concert, including the set list, can be found HERE.

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John McLaughlin – Live at the Rialto Center

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This was my first trip the Rialto Center for the Arts, a performance venue at Georgia State University.  The 833 seat theater literally does not have a bad seat in the house, and the acoustics are wonderful.  But, it has more going for it than just that.

As compared with the sterility of ordering tickets through Ticketmaster, the Box Office personnel were very helpful in recommending the best seats – on the wings down low left of the stage, or towards the middle but a good number of rows back?  My concert buddy and I were very pleased with the 4th row seats in the wing, which, as advised, had no site line issues at all to see the depth of the stage.  That said, we likely would have been nearly as happy anywhere in the venue.

The Rialto is also to be commended for their volunteers.  Their greeter was warm and friendly and made eye contact with us entering and leaving, and if very short impressions can be trusted, seemed like a very genuine person happy to be there and happy for you to experience the venue. 

But wait! There’s more!  The Rialto even provides complimentary parking arrangements in a nearby deck – a rarity in downtown Atlanta, or other places where there are bucks to be made. 

The lobby features some artwork as well as photos and information on songwriter Johnny Mercer.  As expected, the souvenir table was provided for T-shirts, CDs and DVDs, but, rather unusuallyJohn McLaughlin - Godin Guitars, McLaughlin’s guitar (likely a backup) was also on display.  It’s obvious that he’s promoting the Godin brand to anyone who who favors his playing and sound, and it was a beautiful guitar.

The only off-putting element was the ban on cameras… which, for once, I respected.  This was the type of venue where LCD screens are visibly distracting to others and just not appropriate. 

Oh yeah, this is a concert review, not a venue review.

John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension opened on time and played for two hours.  This has been a very fortunate year in that my interest in McLaughlin started years ago upon the release of “Saturday Night in San Francisco,” featuring McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco Delucia on very fleet fingered acoustic guitars.  Thirty years later, it is somewhat ironic to have finally seen both Di Meola and McLaughlin in the same year. 

McLaughlin is not a household name.  His career became highly visible in the late 1960’s with key contributions to Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson, among others.  He went on to contribute in significant ways to the “jazz fusion” form and has heavily influenced many other guitarists.

McLaughlin delivered pretty much what I expected – tremendously fast guitar technique and utter control over the sound of his instrument.  The music was what I had expected, as well.  Intelligent, versatile, complex, challenging and largely inaccessible to someone not schooled in music theory.  His beautiful guitar lived up to its looks, rigged very much for a rounder jazz tonal quality as opposed to the higher pitched expressions found in rock.

McLaughlin usually plays with his eyes focused on nothing, very intense on… method? math? leaps between scales?  I don’t know.  He visibly finds emotion in what he and his band mates are doing, but it doesn’t translate as well to someone who favors a melody for its sound rather than for its potential transitional directions.

And I suppose that is what jazz, in its higher forms, imageis all about.  Even though the music itself didn’t translate well, watching talented artists is always a pleasure.

Bassist Etienne M’Bappe was a treat.  There were no basic bass lines to be heard.  His fingers were, like McLaughlin’s, a study in movement.  Better, they were highlighted by wearing black gloves which, against the lighter wood of his 5 string electric bass, looked like an equalizer graphic.  He had some great solos.

Gary Husband played keyboards, primarily.  He provided texture to the band’s overall sound, and as much as anything, gave McLaughlin a break.  Again, in the absence of identifiable tunes, he’s obviously very gifted but, like the band leader, fails to keep a recurring tune in favor of too many notes.  Why too many notes?  Because they can.

Primarily coming to see a guitarist, I walked away with the greatest appreciation for drummer Mark Mondesir, who has played with many artists of whom I’ve heard.  He was a study in fluid kinetics, a seemingly effortless drummer who was both the anchor for what the band was doing and, I think, an inspiration. 

Keyboardist Gary Husband also plays drums and settled in for two extended drum jams with Mondesir.  His style was much more aggressive and labored, but these were the highlights of the night as they competed with variations of rhythms, sounds, and styles.

It was obvious that others in the crowd were more in tune with live jazz and music theory, as heard by various laughs, giggles, or affirmative nods through the performance.  For me, it was an enjoyable evening to watch amazingly talented musicians do their thing – a good night, indeed.

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Roger Waters – The Wall Live, Atlanta, GA

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“Music to get stoned to.”  This was a friend’s answer to my English teacher’s question when asked to describe Pink Floyd’s The Wall, way back in 1980.  I have never been stoned, but if I was, I don’t know that the resulting “trip” from listening to this album would necessarily put me in a better place.  Themes of control, isolation, anger, exhaustion, repression, infidelity, withdrawal, androger-waters-wall-tour-2010-logo insanity (I won’t pretend to have deciphered them all) are challenging enough with a clear mind, never mind any artificial sweeteners.  In any case, The Wall, primarily an introspective outworking of singer/bassist Roger Waters’ mental breakdown, certainly invites interpretation.

And it has.  First was the 1982 live action/animated film starring Bob Geldof, followed by a live performance in 1990 in Berlin featuring cameos by other notable musicians.  Thirty years after its release, Roger Waters has determined that the time is right to reinterpret the work, again.

My first observation upon entering Philips Arena is that it’s unusual to see binoculars offered for rental ($10).  As a relatively modern arena, coupled with the technological sophistication available to concert producers (ex. Backdrops for videos for zooming in on band members), the question would be, “Why?”

The second is that while the ticket says clearly My HipstaPrint 0“no cameras or recording devices,” the sign upon entering the seating area (long after passing “security”) were “no flash photography.”  Aha! That is very much of a relief to those of us, and there were many, who brought their cameras anyway.

The third observation is one that I frequently ask: “Who chooses the pre-concert music?”  In this case, I’d wager that Roger Waters had a hand in it, as John Lennon’s “Mother” and “Imagine” both have themes which relate to this music more than tangentially.  Another inclusion, Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit,” I doubt would be risked by anyone without some authority, as the lyrics again relate but risk being politically incorrect anywhere, hopefully including Atlanta.  Not that anyone was listening.

To say that I’ve seen “The Wall” in concert would be misleading.  Rather, I have seen it performed live.  There are minimal nods on Waters’ part towards playing the role of himself in the songs, but the artistic reinterpretation is literally on the wall itself. 

Before the show begins, elements of the wall, large white bricks with presumably a lightweight plastic structure, form a foundation at the outer wings of the stage.  As arenas are not duplicates, one wonders about the art and mechanics of making stage parts fit correctly from venue to venue.

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The Wall is played in its entirety, with extended musical sections.  The band opens standing behind the line formed by the bricks, with video projection on a circular screen above them.  That circular screen does not, however, offer any views of band members.  It is used solely for visual effects tied into the subject matter of each song.  The wall, which is gradually completed through what is Warning: Do Not Fly Planes IndoorsDisk 1 on either LP or CD, becomes the defacto backscreen for the creative elements of the entire performance. 

Oh, except for the explosion.

This is quickly apparent on “Another brick in the wall (part 1),” where the lyrical focus on the loss of Waters’ father in the war is expanded to include a virtual wall of remembrance as pictures of combatant and civilian casualties are displayed.  On Waters’ website, he invites people to send photos of “Fallen Loved Ones” to be exhibited during his performances.  In addition to armed conflicts, this also includes the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

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At this point and elsewhere, visuals are tweaked in an anti-war (but refreshingly non partisan) commentary that fit the lyrics, though not as originally intended.  Waters moves beyond the war sentiment to social justice, reflecting on a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.

Visually, still images of faces projected onto the bricks was impressive, but this was only the beginning as the wall took larger form, showcasing five synchronized video projectors on a “screen” extending an estimated 150’ wide by 25’ high.  Amazing and wonderfully entertaining, to the point of you hardly notice the band.  Performance, yes.  Concert… not really. 

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The wall continues to be built during the songs, often providing just enough room for the intended graphic projections.  At the end of “Goodbye Cruel World,” the IMG_3781wall is complete, the band is hidden from view, and Intermission is declared… just long enough for one to use the restroom, buy a drink, or buy a souvenir (choose one).  

The opening of Disk 2, “Hey You” has to be one of the more ironic experiences in concertdom.  Sure, the band is playing, and, yes, Waters is singing, but darned if you can’t A wall closet, with functioning TV.see anything except a completed wall looking like a completed wall.  Still, it’s louder than you can play the music at home, and that’s something.

Shortly thereafter, the band migrates to the front side of the wall, and we arrive at “Comfortably Numb,” a great song featuring what is likely the fan consensus for “Favorite Pink Floyd Guitar Solo.”  The guitarist copied almost note for note the famous Gilmour licks, but… yeah.  Those $10 binoculars might have been a good option.  There were no frets to be seen from where I was sitting, or, as he played from atop the wall, likely anyone’s.

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The last quarter of the performance included many graphics from “The Wall” movie.  This is okay but was somewhat disappointing following the highly imaginative and fresh graphics for what preceded.  Still, some of the Nazi-ish symbols IMG_3857remain relevant for oppressive elements, and The Wall wouldn’t be the Wall without some familiar icons. That said, the trial and insanity segments were a bit stale unless, of course, you’ve never seen them before.

It all builds to the deconstruction of the wall, which after some graphic trickery earlier in the show, literally collapses suddenly.  Funny how I didn’t notice all the band members and their instruments disappearing from the stage, so I guess the “old” animations must still hold interest.  It was another mechanical marvel as the tumbling bricks fell on both sides of the wall, but none appeared to even come close to falling forward of the stage.  Well done.

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After now having examined my many pictures, the ongoing filming of the performance by many cell phones, cameras, or video cameras is quite conspicuous by LCD screens scattered throughout the crowd… to which I contributed.  However, given the enormity of the set, I’ll be interested to see how Waters chooses to capture the graphic backgrounds, which change very quickly at times, whilst keeping some attention on a band which really wasn’t to be seen, but heard.  A tour Bluray/DVD is inevitable given the production costs involved (the local newspaper referenced $60 Million).  Ouch.

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Many additional photos can be viewed by Clicking Here.

If you have an opportunity to see Roger Waters perform The Wall

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5 of 5 STARS

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Paul McCartney – Band on the Run

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Pessimism begets cynicism.  I know, it’s a strange sentiment with which to begin a CD review.  My pessimism results from the retreat of physical music media in favor of digital media, from whatever sources.   Apple announced today, after years of negotiations, that they would begin selling The Beatles’ songs through i-Tunes.  I suppose that’s a good thing.

My cynicism is that it should be no surprise that the details have been worked out a year after the spectacularly remastered Beatles’ catalog has been available on CD shelves.  It is indeed the perfect time for artists to remaster their older works for a final push on cashing in on CD sales... 

….before they go the way of the 8-track tape.

Which brings us to Paul McCartney, who recently re-released Band on the Run, his 1973 album now digitally picked apart and rebuilt with the same meticulous care recently given to the work of his previous band.  For those that have an earlier CD version, is it worth buying a new copy?

Well, if you’re a McCartney fan, the answer is “yes.”  Whether you buy “just” the remastered album, the Deluxe edition (extra CD and DVD), or the box set (a book and other goodies), there’s enough to whet your appetite varying with your desire to part with money.

If you like his songs but haven’t tried one of his albums, again “yes.”  If you’re in any other category… of course not.

Those who have compared the new CD to the remastered 25th anniversary edition generally give this version an edge.  Whether it’s a noticeable one depends upon the equipment that you play it upon and how closely you listen.  I have an earlier release from when it was first converted to CD, and the sound is vastly improved.  Each of the instruments is more vibrant with fuller, richer sounds.  As expected.  And I’m very pleased. 

But, I can’t let the opportunity pass to comment on the contents themselves, as was an album that I frequently played, which may not seem like much, but I had plenty of options from which to choose.

Much has been written around the circumstances of the recording of Band on the Run(recorded in Nigeria, the drummer and lead guitarist quit before the recordings, the demo tapes were stolen…), and it seems that whenever someone mentions this album as McCartney’s finest hour, these factors are pulled into the equation…  overcoming adversity, that kind of thing.  Well enough.

The fact was that George Harrison and Ringo Starr were having more commercial success than either Lennon or McCartney after the Beatles ceased, the latter of which were handling their post-Beatles careers differently.  Lennon was political and bitter, and McCartney was lacking a partner or a band to give him honest feedback and save him from his saccharine tendencies.  He retreated from fame, and he underwhelmed. 

His initial release, McCartney, was an intentionally informal affair with the outstanding “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the very good “Every Night,” and a couple of nice tunes.  RAM was a fully produced affair, but one which didn’t satisfy expectations for hit songs (but one which I’m very much looking forward to in remastered format).  Wild Life was the first Paul McCartney and Wings album, and although it does have its charm, it remains a footnote in his catalogue (one critic called it “an audition”).  Red Rose Speedway featured the syrupy #1 hit “My Love” and elsewhere had an abundance of tunefulness, McCartney stressing his vocal chords in all the right ways, and some of the worst lyrics ever heard from a major songwriter.

Band on the Run, then, finally met public expectations with three hit songs, strong vocals, and passable to good lyrics.  It remains a prime example of why I fear the loss of albums in favor of “single” downloads.  Radio stations, back when they had DJs who played what they wanted rather than what they were told to play, often had “deep cut” hours when they would play the gems that were never intended for radio airplay. 

Band on the Road is loaded with these.   It’s one of those albums where the listener grows in affection for the “other” songs or the entirety as a set.  “Mrs. Vanderbilt,” surprisingly played on McCartney’s recent tours, packs a great tune, “Let Me Roll It” is a slow rocker, and “Bluebird” is a less poetic but worthwhile cousin to “Blackbird.”   The only suspect lyrical casualty might be “Mamunia,” but despite it’s title (an African word? Or nonsense?), the song is good and is a favorite of many. 

But my favorites are the final two tracks.  “Picasso’s Last  Words” puts together a hodgepodge of musical ideas to good effect, an aural translation of Picasso’s fragmented painting style.  The closer, “Nineteen hundred and Eighty Five” doesn’t exactly shine lyrically, put it remains a great example of McCartney doing his thing.  Beginning with perhaps “Hey Jude” or “Oh Darling,” Band on the Run had numerous examples of what he seems to have been working towards, an unleashed vocal showcase.  Unfortunately, from this point on, his recorded vocals would settle into Top 40 temperaments, with the good or bad that may imply.  (It should be noted that in concert, he continues to push his voice as far as it will go.)

If you should buy the Deluxe edition, an accompanying audio disk includes “Helen Wheels,” a popular single which was included on the US version of the album, plus songs from a TV show/studio performance, One Hand Clapping.  The songs here are stunning in that, compared to the current era of lip-synching and digital embellishments, McCartney nailed the vocals live.  The treat, though, is “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five,” a jaw-dropping version where McCartney plays solo piano for the first half and lets his vocals rip.  If only his later solo work carried that enthusiasm…

5 of 5 STARS

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