Richard Thompson – Electric

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Another Richard Thompson album, another immersion into things gone wrong.   Let’s see, we have, in order:

    • An old man hot for an old woman.  No luck, fella.
    • Waking up after an amorous night, alone in bed.
    • A down-and-out’s resentment of the (politically) powerful
    • A career laborer who sees his job being phased out
    • Letting go of hate after a failed relationship
    • Good Things Happen to Bad People.  And that’s the title.
    • The woes of life on the road
    • The fond memories amongst the bitterness of a broken marriage.
    • A temptress destined to leave a broken heart
    • Given the above, why risk the hurt?

(and, finally)

    • A man who leaves behind wrecked relationships finally commits.

Thanks for the cheery send-off!

Electric is a solid set of songs, possibly Thompson’s best since 1999’s Mock Tudor.  Nashville’s Buddy Miller does a fine job producing the set, limiting the aural mix at a level of sparseness and austerity appropriate to Thompson’s themes, if not his lengthy folk legacy.  The music and the lyrics fit together to form the brightest blend of pessimism possible. 

I’m not being fair.

Thompson isn’t known for bright sunny tunes.  He cuts the flesh, he cuts to the bone, and occasionally he cuts until he’s funny as hell (try “Dear Janet Jackson”). Still, there’s the matter of the overly familiar.  It’s the same tunes, sung the same way. 

Meanwhile, there’s still much to like.  “Stuck on the Treadmill” is a focused observation of the economy, “Straight and Narrow” (for better or worse) has a keyboard line straight from Smash Mouth, and the finale, “Saving the Good Stuff For You” is excellent throughout.  The problem is that it’s all been heard before, and there’s little in these songs to differentiate them from the past generations of the witty and wry.

Still, he’s always worth a listen.  If there are two things that muster more appeal, it’s the relative confinement of the accordion and the introduction of a female background singer on roughly half the songs.  It brightens each otherwise gloomy day. 

There’s also the matter of his guitar.  Expert, as always.  It can’t be said that Thompson is going through the motions.  He writes very well.  But bring along the feminine element, throw in some more of the Americana magic to add some instrumental diversity, and, for goodness sake, don’t feel pressured to cap a song at 5 minutes.  Let’s hear the man play

As it is, this is a very solid CD, but, like too much of his catalog, it has a limited shelf life.

Suggested tracks: “Stony Ground,” “Good Things Happen to Bad People”

3 of 5 STARS

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Iron Man 3: Movie Review

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Could Robert Downey, Jr. have nailed the Iron Man/Tony Stark role if his career hadn’t derailed with drug abuse?  Maybe.  He certainly had ample winning credits.  But there’s a looseness to his attitude that, scripted puns or not, makes me think these movies are for more Downey, Jr. than Marvel character.

Anyway, I place this movie as second best in the franchise, if franchise is the proper term to capture the essence of “world currency.”  As of yesterday, it had taken in one million dollars.

Excuse me, one BILLION dollars.

The movie is essentially a star vehicle for Downey, Jr., because it cannot achieve expectations without him (as opposed to the many failed Batmans).  The guiding theme of the movie is whether the man makes the suit or the suit makes the man.

  • The movie benefits from a number of things:

    More screen time for Pepper Potts. I hope she returns with a super power of her own.
  • Great special effects.
  • An adversary who isn’t played by Mickey Rourke.
  • A plot that keeps its tension but takes its time.
  • A great, great performance by Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin, benefitted by great writing.
  • Special effects... but that’s kind of expected, even if the studio did think of going cheap on this one before going all in.
  • Robert Downey, Jr., who I’d imagine is impossible to insert into any film going forward without stealing any scene.

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The negatives?  Depends on your viewpoint.

  • I prefer that Iron Man actually fly inside his suit.  It makes sense if he doesn’t have to, but it risks making the action scenes a shell of what they used to be.
  • Wasting The Mandarin character as a joke, including the ten power rings that gave the comic character his source of power (plus a tie-in to the Avengers’ alien plot track).
  • It might help if the movie started with Iron Man kicking butt, like a James Bond intro, before falling into the particular miseries of the plot.
  • Stupid special effects.  I’m sure those that want their movies in 3D really enjoy the sizzle, but exploding extra Iron Men suits to provide a fireworks display, literally, is the nadir of 3D aspirations.

Sometimes I like to find moral takeaways from action flicks.  There were none to be found here.

So, what the kid inside of me liked, and probably what every pre-teen boy liked, was the notion that if you’re a kid and help someone, maybe they’ll fill your room with all sorts of high tech goodies in gratitude.  That stuff only happens in movies, though.  That’s why I opt for reality.

 4 of 5 STARS

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The Arbiter of Goodness

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There’s always enough bad news to go around.  No one needs major events like the Boston Marathon bombing or the West, TX fertilizer plant explosion to find something gone wrong.

At one moment, everything seems fine.

And then, something happens.

That something causes pause.  We seek to understand, process, and move forward after a reflection pointing to the oughtness that should prevail in the world.

It doesn’t take large scale disasters, though.  A conversation arose with friends recently where terminal cancer and a pending divorce were respective  weights. 

“Everything happens for a reason,” it was said.

Well, yes.  A coin toss will result in a “heads” or a “tails” is often said to be caused by chance.   But chance is powerless.  It’s just the mathematical probability of known outcomes.  The particular coin flip, however, depends on the mass of the coin, the inertia with which it’s sent upward via arm and hand movement, the force applied to the thumb a certain distance from the coin’s axis that causes it to revolve, gravity, the resistance of air, the particular point in its descent when it’s caught, and whether or not it is flipped from palm to the back of one’s hand before viewing.  That’s the cause.

Things don’t happen by chance.  They happen for reasons, which is why the young Boston Marathon bomber will be plied so that people can understand the madness, illness, and/or misplaced convictions that led him to an evil action.

Everything doesn’t happen for a good reason, but the phrase “everything happens for a reason,” when uttered, is linked to the hope that good will come from the bad.

It may.  It may not.

When such statements are made, there’s an implied appeal to a greater being or force, that is an arbiter of goodness, or, at minimum, of fairness.  Maybe it’s trust in karma.  Unless you’re on the wrong side of it.  What options are there?  Ask the Greek, Roman, or Hindu pantheon of Gods.  Maybe they’ll help.  Buddha makes no such promises.  Or, trust in your lucky stars.  I assume horoscopes still make into newspapers who need guidance spelled out to them.

Upon hearing the news of the Boston bombing, I don’t have and will never have means to count the number of people who said “Oh, my God” or “Jesus.”  I once had a co-worker who dropped this phrase when a pencil lead broke, never mind for more metaphysical consideration.  Isn’t it interesting how the call to a greater power, all but spat upon in today’s Western public discourse, arises by so many at the time of need?

Is it because we all want a parental unit to make it feel better?  Or is there something wired within us that cries out for justice and mercy to a being with the authority to see it through?

In context to my friend’s cancer, I followed up with a revision to the other’s rather hopeless “everything happens for a reason.”

“... in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’” (Romans 8:28)

To which my friend, fully accepting the promise and the promise maker, replied, “Amen.”

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Tinsley Ellis – Live at Variety Playhouse

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Capping off “concert week” was Tinsley Ellis, a local and long-time blues guitarist.  A coworker turned me on to him years ago.  Each city seems to have a “favored bluesman” who rises above those who don’t play beyond local clubs but still fall short of the recognition and earning power of the “big name” players.  So, Ellis falls within the journeyman category, playing some traditional blues as well as straightforward blues based rockers, usually of his own.

This particular weekend, Ellis ended up competing with the first Shaky Knees Festival, a two day outdoor event nearby featuring a variety of good artists likely to draw a crowd.  As the weather turned out, they might consider renaming the event “Mud To Their Knees Festival.”  The fortunate result for me was that this resulted in a discount as Variety is a pretty good sized venue.  With my wife, kids, and my son’s friend, Chase, in tow, off we went.

Chase’s observation:  “We’re like the unicorn in the crowd.”  That would be the handful of not just 20’s and under, but 30’s and under, at the show.  Ten or less in my estimation, amongst maybe 500.  And three of them I brought with me.

Dean and Ewbank opened the show with a more traditional approach to the bluuntitled-1-2es, given the acoustic bass and style of singing.  Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and Led Zep’s “Going to California” were standouts for crowd appeal, converted to the trio’s sound (drums, bass, keyboards).  “Only a Matter of Time,” concerning a crow’s patient interest watching a squirrel crossing the road, was nicely introduced and succeeded in carrying through on its promise of humor.

With my wife and daughter comfortably situated in the balcony, we guys then headed for the stage front, with no competition for the prime viewing real estate.  All the old fogeys were comfortably seated.  Alas.

A local blues DJ, Black Jack from 89.3 introduced Ellis and encouraged others to get off of their seats, and some did.  We still had elbow room at the stage.

After that, it was a tale of two shows.  Standing literally feet away from Ellis, it was an amazing sight to watch him alter the knobs on his Gibson, not just for each song, but constantly between the verse and solo runs.  As it turns out, there’s enough of a pause when playing the blues where he seemed to have all the time in the world to either 1) remember what sound he wanted next or 2) determine what sound he wanted next.

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This was Ellis’ first gig with his new band, whose names I didn’t note.  The drummer, though, seemed to be the happiest drummer ever.  Teeth smiling, with happy eyes.  Chase, my on the scene reporter, commented, “He was so happy it smacked me in my face.”  Something like that, but it was clear he was having a good time.

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The sound mix was good, but the bass seemed to rumble indistinctively or was too loud at times.  The lighting, as always at Variety, was excellent.

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But Ellis is the show, and he alternated some of his back catalogue with blues oldies and a few instrumental tracks from his latest retro instrumental album.  I hung around through several acoustic songs on his resonator guitar, which were great, then retreated to the balcony.

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At which point, it was a different show, and not because Ellis opted for the Stratocaster for his remaining songs.  Up close, as I heard a woman say nearby to a friend she was inviting to join her, “This is sooooooo cool!”  The technical wizardry, combined with his personality easily witnessed up front, won me over.

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From a distance, all that was lost, and it was left to the music.  And the music was good, but not nearly the same experience as watching him closely.  That's the magic of live performance, the expression in the music and in the artist.  The biggest negative was that he didn't play "Pawnbroker,” my favorite of his songs.

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As a side note, my son took the below with his iPhone 5.  He captured a moment, perfectly, but... c’mon Apple.  Help us concert goers out with a better lens.

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Riverside – Live at Vinyl, Atlanta

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After Steven Wilson, Renaissance, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) in a little over a week, my concert spree continued with Riverside.  Admittedly, this was a “I know my son would like to see them, and I might like them too” trip.  The price ($15) was right, but it was a work night and the venue was, well, non-smoking, anyway.  Still, it’s yet another progressive rock band, one that I had heard good things about and whose latest CD I had listened to once on Spotify while distracted with other things.

Arriving, I knew I was in the right place.  The crowd could be defined as a bunch of middle aged guys wearing black T-shirts.  Rush. King Crimson.  Porcupine Tree.  Dream Theater. Marillion.  Prog-rockers, all.  My son noted a Leprosy (“Brutal Death Metal” genre, which I didn’t know existed) shirt, and that all fits together.  To be fair, a surprising number brought dates.  Who knew?

First up was Jolly.  For an opening act, they were unique in that they had far more merchandise for sale than the headliner, and with a decent eye for graphic design even.  I’d have to imagine that the name came from lead singer Anandale’s passing resemblance to Capt. Jack Sparrow > Jolly Roger > Jolly. 

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In any case, they had knowledgeable and appreciative fans front and center.  Jolly played a varied set stylistically, and are difficult to categorize as they can move towards metal and follow it up with a syrupy something.  No, not like ABBA, but still rock with a much more melodic touch.  They didn’t make me a fan, per se, but I’ll check out some of their recorded work.  Of note, this New York band went with Riverside to the Braves game the evening before and joked about the Tomahawk Chop.

Vinyl, as a venue, is challenged.  It seems an afterthought use of space, built into the much more agreeable Center Stage building.  The stage area is small in width, with audience areas compact up front before expanding to the sides further back.  The lights are positioned behind and in front of the band it what might be called “in-your-face” position.  They change colors, but that is about all that can be said for them.  The sound is okay, and was actually better than my last two trips there.  And, they do manage a good bar. 

But it’s an awkward venue.  And, in my state of naivety, it’s a curious choice for a band that certainly has a large following in Europe, and, I think, a good one here as well.  I had expected a bigger crowd.  Maybe it was a weeknight.  Maybe it was college students studying for finals.  But for size, Vinyl was the correct choice. 

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Riverside is a Polish band, one who lead singer Mariusz Duda joked in self-deprecating mode, has been coined to be the Polish version of Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, and now Deep Purple.  Funny stuff, but the comparisons are out there. 

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It took two songs to get the feel of the band, both from their latest CD.  Somewhere in the third song, I was “all in.” 

After the precise, controlled feel of the Steven Wilson concert and the disinterested presentation by BRMC show, it became apparent that this band wanted to connect with the audience and were surprised to find that the audience wanted to connect in return.  It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been to a show where that has happened.  There’s usually a lot of posturing by performers accompanied by fanatic enthusiasm for basically what is expected.

This was so much more.

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And the size of the venue certainly helped.

But so does great music.  I can’t point to a specific song, but based on looks, the lead guitarist, Piotr Grudzinski, might be expected to play metal throughout.  He can certainly do that, but he plays many styles, and he feels what he’s playing. 

The keyboards added great vibe and color, and even had the opportunity to be heard soloing from time to time.  The sound was good enough that they didn’t get edged out by the other instruments, as sometimes happens.  The drumming pounded and enhanced, full of confidence and taste.  

Bassist/singer Duda ruled the night, though, as the stage focal point, with his perfectly suited voice, and interactions with the audience.  When the engagement is such that you can pull in an altered version of the Tomahawk Chop “Ohs” for an audience sing along in a progressive rock song... yeah, it works.  In short, for a band that’s often compared to others, they bled authenticity.  This is really a great band.

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So, some hours later, I walked away with an autographed CD and the first tour T-shirt (black, of course) I’ve purchased in quite a while.  At which point my son observes that the band had last played at a bar in Isle of Palms, SC (located just outside of Charleston).  I’ve been there.  What the huntitled-1-8ell is the promoter thinking?  Charleston is steeped in the doily crowd, elitists who attend readings, plays and operas.  To put a European progressive rock band with a metal edge there?  Really?

I asked the guitarist about it, who basically agreed it was a pretty place but no one came out. 

And so it made sense, the band and the audience coming together in Atlanta. During the show, we learned that this was the band’s first U.S. headlining tour (otherwise here for festival appearances), and Duda had mentioned that it seemed like they were starting their career over again.   A beach gig will do that. 

I hope that they return.

Set List:

New Generation Slave
The Depth of Self Delusion
Feel Like Falling
Driven to Destruction
Living in the Past
We Get Used to Us
Egoist Hedonist
Panic Room
Escalator Shrine

Encore:

Left Out
Conceiving You
Celebrity Touch

5 of 5 STARS

 

 

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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club-Live @ Masquerade

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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is the band name, not a place.  The Masquerade is a place, not a band.  In case you’re trying to make sense of it...

For a while, I’ve been wanting to go to a straightforward rock concert, and BRMC fit the bill.  Even better, it included my (less regular than he used to be) concert buddy and a former co-worker who was in town.   I shouldn’t fail to mention our perfect pre-concert burger and beers and The Book House Pub, located only a block away from the venue.  We also wisely parked near The Masquerade, in advance of the crowd.  And... we timed our entrance just right, skipping the first two bands, which equates to a second fine beer at the above mentioned pub and less sore backs by the time the evening was through. 

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The show was upstairs at the venue (“Heaven”), which is a larger space than the downstairs venue (“Hell”).  I  have yet to make it “Purgatory,” which exists there somewhere.  We arrived to find a good crowd already on hand, yet one that yielded fairly easily to get us into the front third of the standing area.

BRMC is currently a three piece band.  I’m not overly familiar with their music, other than a few older songs that I know pretty well and their new CD thoroughly, which I’ll get around to reviewing.  As it turns out, they played to my strengths, playing 10 of 12 of their new songs.  It seemed the crowd was somewhat familiar with the songs, but the older ones got a higher share of “hell yeahs!” and such.  Still, I thought the newer songs played well in the set, though the encore, which included two new ones, was a bit of a disappointment.

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For the band, I’ve decided that a suitable description is a tight-lipped performance.  Drummer Leah Shapiro was hidden in the shadows, but not so much that I didn’t notice that unless she was singing, she never opened her mouth.  Drumming requires energy, and for two hours, she banged away, all but expressionless and... tight lipped.  Respiratory capabilities aside, she and her band maters were, for the most part, fairly stoic, each to their corner of the stage triangle.

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And, that’s okay.  The drums are key to the band’s sound, which thrives on the low end of the sound spectrum, whether it be the bass drum, bass guitar, or some guitar leads.  The band’s essence lies there.

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Meanwhile, bassist Robert Been and guitarist Peter Hayes have eerily similar voices, both which reach consistently above their instruments.  This is quite good on record, but particularly in concert, because they’re easily heard.  Both were in excellent voice, and it was refreshing to hear a band play to their own sound rather than the fleet-fingered theatrics that are more common today.  Control of tone, slide guitar, pounding bass... it works today just as well as it did in yesteryear.  Add in some riffs that hit hard on the treble, and they’re built for rock ‘n roll. 

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The leather jackets fit the band’s name and their image, just as Been’s James Dean coiffure and Hayes’ Wolverine lamb chops, but the jackets didn’t survive the venue’s heat.  They came off after a few songs.

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But tight-lipped also applies to the band’s interaction with the audience, which was sparse.  We were the biggest crowd they’ve had in Georgia.  Okay.  They’re from California.  Okay.  Nary a song introduction, a stab at humor, a plug for their new CD... just about nada.  I don’t know if the audience minded or not.  Pabst Blue Ribbon ruled the evening, and the music was good.

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By the way, see what I mean by hidden between the lights?

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In fact, the aural experience was surprisingly good, as was the ever changing lighting.

Each of the leaders had turns at acoustic songs, both of which were very well received... by those listening.  It was oddly apparent without the weight of the music how many “fans” were chatting – it reverberated through both songs.

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One of the more esoteric observations was the use of LED lights.  They blind like any other, but they leave behind honeycomb imprints rather than just bright spots.  It’s kind of a funky after image.

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Below is the view from near the back.  Standing in a crowd and taking pictures are both reminders of how tall people tend to flock to the front and women, particularly, seem to suffer throughout the show, stretching and bending, hoping for a glimpse of the band above someone’s shoulder.

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My concert buddy spied the incontrovertible set list when we first arrived.

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All in all, it was a good show and a great night out.  They’re not one of my favorite bands, but I enjoyed the both the song selection, especially as I was most familiar with their latest CD.  I think the audience would have preferred something quite opposite, their own tight lipped restraint apparent.

3 of 5 STARS

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