Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Search of Loss

Yesterday night I went to see the Dark Star Orchestra, a band dedicated to recreating the Grateful Dead concert experience. Though they sometimes create their original setlists made up entirely of Grateful Dead songs, they usually cover complete concerts, from beginning to end. The show they ended up covering was October 2, 1972, originally played by the Grateful Dead at the Springfield Civic Center in Massachusetts, but played last night at the Lowell Auditorium.

It's worth to mention that the Orchestra was without its founding guitar player John Kadlecik because he had just resigned to join Furthur - a band with original Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir - as a full-time lead guitar player. Taking his place for the night was Jeff Mattson (left), who played earlier with Donna Jean Godchaux's band as the opening act. He played capably, quoting Jerry tones and lead lines, building the dramatic solo in "Morning Dew" to a hard peak and running quicksilver Mixolydian scales across multiple octaves in "Playin' In The Band."

The crowd was comprised of mostly baby boomers, some talking about the last time they had seen Donna and some young, wasted people. Most audience members knew all the tunes and could predict the expected high points in some arrangements. But somewhere above the bobbing heads and the Windows '95 light show there was an irrevocable sense of loss.

What were the audience members looking for? Why were so many there, in a cramped auditorium seeing a Grateful Dead cover band? Why were they reacting with such joy and anticipation at familiar opening chords or at expected arrangements? I counted myself as one of those people until midway through the first set. Then profound sadness and a sense of irretrievability sunk in. As my show companion said, "This is a cover band, people. Not the Grateful Dead." And it's absolutely and unarguably true. Mattson tried to play like Jerry and rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton imitated Bob Weir's vocal inflections. In short, every band member put on their Dead suits for the night, and I felt truly sad. Yes, their attention to detail, in "Half Step" particularly, was outstanding, eliminating the jam before the vocal section of the coda since the Dead didn't play that in 1972. But I just couldn't help thinking that the people at the show - and the performers on stage - were in search of a ghost, a ghost that has been long gone, and will be forever lost.

Phil Lesh once said, "Since Jerry's death I get the feeling that a lot of Heads need to confirm for themselves that it was as good as they thought it was." And that's what going to a Dark Star Orchestra show feels like. A bunch of people looking for confirmation that their memories were really as good as they thought they were. Only one idea struck me for the duration of the show: Jerry Garcia is dead. He's gone. Gone. And nothing's going to bring him back.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Who - Live at Leeds

Yes, I know, I'm late to the party. Doesn't make much sense reviewing a record that came out almost 40 years ago, does it? Well, it's new to me and sufficiently mind-blowing to necessitate some exposition.

Word on the street is that Pete Townshend burned all the tapes from a US tour in a huge bonfire and then booked a short British tour for the purpose of creating a live album. This is after The Who Sell Out and Tommy, and before Who's Next and Quadrophenia, literally at the very apex of the band's prodigious powers. It was common for the band to perform Tommy in its entirety in this period, which they did at the Leeds show, and whose performance they included in the Deluxe edition of Live at Leeds in 2001.

To be honest, it doesn't make much sense to include the famous (at this point, infamous) rock opera with a live album that was always intended to sound and look like a bootleg. The non-Tommy music is The Who at their most unhinged; Tommy is The Who at their most structured, relying on story and order rather than combustible energy. For this reason, I prefer the 1995 reissue of the album, which includes the original six songs on the 1970 album, along with eight other tunes (including "Amazing Journey" and "Sparks" from the Tommy part of the set.)

Recorded Valentine's Day 1970, Live at Leeds fucking rocks the house, busts eardrums and roofs and molars and loins. It is HEAVY, intense, and insane. The Who go all Cream on our heads with all three instrumentalists soloing at the same time ("Heaven and Hell"), but bassist John Entwistle (known as The Ox) and drummer Keith Moon are incomparably better than Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. When guitarist Pete Townshend solos he sounds like a rhythm player, and of course The Ox knows this and solos himself as Pete is going off and Moon is just himself - nuts and playing fills and rolls without abandon - while vocalist Roger Daltrey wails his way to goldenlocked rock n' roll glory.

All the unexpected segues ("See Me, Feel Me" and "Underture," among them) in "My Generation" are flawless; "Young Man Blues" is protometal; the two chord pounce after the "Soon Be Home" section in the middle of "A Quick One (While He's Away)" is punk and grunge melodic power at its mightiest. It's incredible how the record sounds both so heavy and loud and yet so spare at the same time. There's a lot of space between the instruments. Perhaps that has to do with the lack of rhythmic accompaniment (either bass, keys, rhythm guitar) to "main" instruments, since all musicians are basically playing lead. Everybody is going at it, it's life or death, jam out or risk annihilation. It's the most rock n' roll record I've ever heard, the most unapologetic, and the most prophetic. Yes, The Who's maximum R&B is highlighted here, but there are also punk, metal, and grunge moments.

Listening to this record makes me wonder why The Who is the most underrated band among the rightly famous British bands - Beatles, Stones, Led Zep - from the golden age of rock. I think their reputation has suffered in the last decade or so because the perceived and acknowledged pretentiousness of Tommy the rock opera. The band's standing in rock's pantheon of greatness will surely be subject of another post, but for now, let Live at Leeds be exhibit A for The Who's immortality.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ray Charles - "Bein' Green"

This is my personal favorite musical performance on Sesame Street. Ray sings with conviction, emotion, and heart, taking a somewhat whimsical tune and making it a soul ballad. It's an incredible performance. The song may sound corny - especially if you're hearing Kermit sing it - but the movement from shame and self-doubt to pride and acceptance is truly touching. "Bein' Green" of course is a metaphor for feeling inferior, for being made fun of or discriminated against for whatever reason (race, disability, religion, social status, anything) and then realizing that you don't need another person's acceptance to feel good about yourself. You need your own. What better lesson for kids to learn than to love and be proud of who they are?

Happy 40th Birthday Sesame Street.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Behold ye DUBSTEP

Dubstep, a British subgenre that derives as much from grime, jungle, and dub, is
the next club music. The slow rolling grooves are punctuated by big bass, computer blips, thick synths, and the insinuation of a dub beat.

Joker's "Digidesign" (see video above) unites a nightstalker tempo to a hip hop inflected reggae beat. The funky come hither melody at times gives way to a dirty synth, who then takes over. The roles reverse before any one melody really has a strong hold. It's an unsettling, paranoid track, and it evaporates as quickly as it came to. It's easily one of the most adventurous tracks I've heard in the last year or so, and certainly deserves more exposure.

Most of the dubstep artists are on the Hyperdub label. A compilation was recently released, celebrating its five years in the genre. The next two videos are by label owner Kode9 ("9 Samurai") and Burial ("Distant Lights.") Hope you dig it.