Archive for the ‘Music appreciation’ category

Ian Anderson at Park West

16 October 2006
Categories: Music appreciation

What a wonderful show. It was so fabulous that I was unable to compile a set list. That’s saying something: ordinarily my left brain has room—while my right brain groks the music—to memorize the list, using mnemonic devices that attach a song title or verse to the song’s number in the order.

Yet all I could do at Ian’s show (Friday, 13 October 2006 at the Park West Theatre in Chicago) was watch and listen and smile until my face hurt. So many of my favourite songs, of course, and played by an extremely talented group… but moreover the music had such a depth of complexity that I found myself befuddled with amazement.

For instance, I’d always known about the influence traditional English folk music had on Jethro Tull’s music—I mean, it’s fundamental—but this was the first time I’d noticed how much jazz played a role. Combine that with an ensemble numbering nineteen (including Ian), and some brilliant arrangements, and you have one excellent show.

Ian’s voice, well… he was just getting over a cold, and of course he’s been singing for quite a while, and the result was on-key but thin… lovely yet wispy, almost ethereal. The good news is that the sound mix was geared for it, so when the band rocked out it still didn’t totally wash out the lyrics.

Backing him was a quality rock combo (guitar/keys/bass/drums), but then also a chamber orchestra of around ten strings plus a handful of winds—including the first bass clarinet I’ve seen in years. They were all from the Boston Conservatory of Music, and Ian swore that the fact that all but one were women was merely the result of the applicant pool.

To be honest, though, the star of the show was the solo violinist, Ann Marie Calhoun. Not only is she disastrously, wars-are-fought-over-less beautiful, but she is an exceptionally talented violinist. She’s also a virtuosa bluegrass fiddler, and introduced a traditional bluegrass tune by saying that before she ever met Ian she had seen a picture of him on an old Tull album sporting his beard “like clouds” I think she put it, and she said she knew right then that Ian had “a little mountain man inside him.”

Anyway, she had consummate stage presence, fearsome violin licks, and, well, to be crass, a killer bod. I couldn’t take my eyes off her as the waves of sound washed over me, smiling with glee the whole time.

Apparently, having at least as much fun as me, was the orchestra. These kids were having the time of their lives. Years of practice and performance in stodgy orchestral concerts had not prepared them for a thousand adoring Jethro Tull fans cheering and swooning and giving multiple standing ovations. Ian mentioned that they had been getting used to life on the tour bus—“a little too used to it,” he said. Whether that’s true or just a wry joke, they certainly were still awestruck at being on tour. At Park West the route from the green room to the stage is a twisted path that passes through a public hallway, so security cordons it off during performer transitions. One of the musicians was overheard to remark how cool it was to have security staff holding back the people for them. It must have been a genuine rock star moment for them—a far cry from a black-suited string quartet.

Never meet your heroes

10 October 2006
Categories: Music appreciation

My friend (and WXRT morning man) Lin Brehmer put out a terrific/funny/astute “Lin’s Bin” this past week, about how one should never go backstage to meet one’s rock star idols. He’s so right, and not just because it’s apparent from his description of backstage itself (“backstage is a boiler room with bad furniture… backstage is the devil’s rummage sale”) that he’s had plenty of opportunity to visit the basement of the Riviera Theatre.

All too often, the chance to meet your favourite rock star will only end in disappointment. My brief meet-and-greet with the gentlemen of Hot Tuna a few years ago is a good example. I wanted to tell Jorma and Jack how godlike I think they are, how they were the musical core around which was built one of the greatest rock bands ever (the Jefferson Airplane), how their music forms so much of the soundtrack to my life. Awestruck, what I managed to blurt out was, “hi, uh, I’m a big fan.”

That’s just if you’re lucky enough to have them actually listening. Most of the time, they’re in the midst of a long tour, distracted, exhausted, moments after pouring it out on stage, and who’s to blame them if they’re barely listening to yet another fan telling them how awesome they are, how “I have all your albums.” And that’s just the nice ones. Truth be told, many of my musical idols are people I intend never to meet, because no matter how much I like their music, on a personal level I have a sense that they’re assholes.

And yet—that’s not always the case.

A couple of years ago Randy Newman came to the Park West for a solo show. It was an excellent performance, two full sets totalling some 32 songs that ranged over his entire career.

I remember hearing “Short People” on the radio as a kid, and when I was in high school his video for “I Love L.A.” got heavy rotation on MTV—but it wasn’t until college that I really started listening to his music, and found a masterful songwriting ability combined with a scathing satirical wit. By now, yes, I have (almost) all his albums… so when I thought maybe I’d have a chance to get his autograph on one or two of the covers, it took some thought to decide which ones. Ultimately, Sail Away and Little Criminals made the cut.

Anyway, after the show I was hanging around the manager’s office, hoping to hand my CDs off to the production manager, when Randy’s tour manager came in and, after a brief conversation, offered to have me meet the man myself. I was hesitant—knowing how these things can go. Plus, I had led myself to believe that in person he’s something of a curmudgeon.

How wrong I could be.

Randy Newman was friendly, and cheerful, and put me at ease while I tried overly hard to be deferential. As he signed my CDs, we got to talking about music, of course. I think maybe the kicker for him was when he asked if I played any instruments and, after the obligatory and self-deprecating mention of sloppy guitar, I said I’d played mellophone in the Spartan Marching Band. His eyes lit up, and suddenly mellophones and marching bands were the subject of choice.

In fact, in the midst of the discussion a couple of VIPs came in, possibly music industry types or the like, escorted by the tour manager for the standard meet-and-greet. I got up to leave, but Randy waved me back to my seat. After a very short back-and-forth with the VIPs, lasting no more than a minute or two, Randy turned back to me and picked up our conversation right where we’d left off.

In all, I was there for around ten minutes—but it’s a memory I’ll keep forever.

Funny thing is, a friend of mine also met Randy that night. This friend is highly intelligent, has the gift of gab, and probably has ten years head start on me in terms of being a fan of Randy Newman. Yet their conversation was brief, perfunctory, and unmemorable. I suppose the fact that my friend could be considered a “music industry type” might have had something to do with it.

Or, perhaps, it’s because he never played the mellophone.

Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie by Peter Kuran

11 May 2006

coverPeter Kuran is a visual effects producer who got his Hollywood start as an animator on the original Star Wars trilogy. He has since worked on dozens of big-budget films as diverse as Airplane!, Edward Scissorhands, and Men In Black, through his effects company, Visual Concepts Entertainment (VCE). His credentials gave him the perfect background for restoring the aging footage of Trinity and Beyond.

Yet an able digital effects company can only do so much with battered copies of copies of copies, so Kuran pursued a massive research undertaking. He found listings of film reels depicting many atomic and nuclear events, the reels locked safely away in government archives and unavailable due to their Classified designation. By researching the tests in question, and locating footage of the same tests that had long been available to the public, he was able to get the keepers of the keys to declassify the clean, low-generation footage.

Then VCE spruced up the images, which despite having been kept safe and virtually unviewed for decades had suffered substantial color fading due to the unstable film stock on which they were printed. To remedy the problem, Kuran invented a new color restoration process that “produces a new intermediate film element with restored color, fine grain and excellent retention of shadow detail.” The result far surpasses what is possible using current digital restoration technology, and was judged worthy of a scientific and technical Academy Award in 2002.

Peter Kuran has thus compiled the finest collection of nuclear test footage ever assembled. The imagery is at once awesomely frightful and achingly beautiful. The narration is performed by William Shatner, who gives an excellent reading and never resorts to the sort of Shatneresque delivery one might expect.

The documentary attempts to avoid commenting on the ethical pitfalls of the subject, not always with success. The lead-in to the footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings uses a faux-newsreel style to present the American government’s reasoning for the bombings, mocking the jingoistic tone of propaganda films and leading one to infer that Kuran might not agree with the rationale. In general, however, Trinity and Beyond is presented as a straightforward factual history, leaving the viewer to contend with the eerie combination of beauty and horror these shots engender.

The best accompaniment for the powerful images, though, is the equally powerful musical score. Composed and conducted by William Stromberg, and performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Choir, the music is appropriately haunting and bombastic, alternately explosive and pensive.

Ironically, despite Kuran’s extensive research and groundbreaking restoration work, Stromberg’s score may prove to be the longest-lasting and most pervasive element of Trinity and Beyond, at least in terms of popular culture. The pull-out-all-the-stops pyrotechnics of “Hiroshima/Nagasaki Requiem” have entirely supplanted Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana in the latest generation of action movie trailers, such as that for X-Men 2. This is no surprise, since the rapid tempo and open-throated chanting of the choir lend themselves well to snap-cuts of flying superheroes.

Of course it figures that the remix for trailer use eliminates my personal-favourite element: the bell-rattling trombone line at the end of the movement that, particularly in the reprise “China Gets The Bomb,” runs so rampant that it staggers on wildly for a few notes beyond the orchestra’s final chords. There’s something so gloriously diabolical about it—to me it seems, in just a brief phrase, the perfect musical embodiment of Mutual Assured Destruction, carrying on of its own accord toward our doom.