Coldplay Hot This Summer

Coldplay launched their A Head Full Of Dreams Tour this year in Latin America at the end of March and on September 3, 2016 brought the spectacle to our 49ers (Levi’s) stadium in Santa Clara, south of San Francisco. It was an amazing night of lights, confetti, stagecraft, and music, courtesy of Chris Martin and band. The event marks the group’s seventh full-length tour. Their popularity has grown to the point where they can fill massive stadiums with adoring fans, fans like me.

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Followers of Coldplay take no issue with their often-sentimental lyrics and heartfelt delivery by heartthrob Martin. I’ve read some number of critics who are dismissive of this band and their music exclaiming, “There’s no crying in a rock concert!”. Fair enough, Coldplay’s songs veer towards “adult contemporary,” with few gritty guitar licks, in favor of acoustic guitar and piano. Martin’s heartfelt vocals themselves express a seeking and yearning; lyrics plumb romantic topics of love gained and lost, of self-discovery and change. This is, after all the man who very publicly decided to undergo a “conscience uncoupling” with ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow, then penned a song called “Fun” featuring the lyrical refrain “Didn’t we have fun” to honor what they had together. Very adult. For an older example, from X&Y (2005) take concert favorite “Fix You” and the lyrics

And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

coldplay_fixu_72dpiThose receptive to emotional import can find no better example of an act capable of delivering this kind of material with unabashed reverence. At this most recent show, Martin sang the first half of this staple “Fix You” on the stage walk, lying on his back, and you could hear thousands of young girls, and guys, but yeah, more girls, providing a sweet chorus for the band.

The payoff to all of this, when one is open-minded, is that the music and the band’s delivery can evoke strong emotions and even lead to transcendent moments of peace and inspiration. The messages are strong, the poetry is very well written, the delivery is exciting, and the music is beautifully played in concert. The sometimes overlooked band mates, including guitarist Jonathan Mark Buckland, bass player Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion have each grown in ability and technique over the years and make a fine ensemble. The band also considered “creative director” Phil Harvey a fifth member of the group.

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The set list this time out covered the breadth of their many albums, including a handful of tracks from the new album, but coldplay_chris4_72dpialso their first hit “Yellow” and “Don’t Panic” from their debut, Parachutes (2000), still my favorite. One of the new ones, played on the b-stage, “Everglow” led to a moving video tribute to Mohammed Ali, followed later by a nod to David Bowie with the cover “Life on Mars” performed with the Oakland School for the Arts choir, who also joined for final encore “Up&Up.” These were nice touches that kept interest high through the buoyant 23-song set.

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The tour features design by Misty Buckley, deployed by Stageco Staging Group, just as with this year’s performance at the Super Bowl 50 Halftime show. The gear includes risers, a catwalk, lights and screens that fill 12 big rigs; it’s exceptional staging. Bursts of confetti shaped like stars and butterflies (yes, that’s right!) rain down from above while Martin sprints and spins from the main stage to the mid-stadium mini-stage, plying his trademark athletic performance. Martin draws the crowd in, encouraging all to sing along, coldplay_confetti_72dpiplaying a number of tracks with the band from the b-stage at the far end of the stadium, and popping up near the end of the show on a third stage, far to the rear and side, which along with cloud shaped projection screens, gave even those in the “nose bleed” seats a view. All the while, every audience member was given a wristband that lit up in sync with the songs, turning Levi’s Stadium into a sea of colored lights – no cigarette lighters for this crowd! It’s all part of an inclusive celebratory night of uplifting music and dance, with at least of bit of grit in parts to go with the butterflies, and yeah, a tear or two, or buckets…depends on you.

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Putting on Perfume

My daughter has long been a source of inspiration to me. She has a deep and abiding interest in music, dance, and art, and her tastes have been carefully cultivated. She’s introduced me to many newer bands like Beach House, Warpaint and Mac DeMarco, both of which are now part of my own collection. When in middle school, the kid got very interested in Anime, taking colored pencils to paper to draw her favorite characters, inspired by books and movies, particularly the beautiful, surreal treasures of Hayao Miyazaki. Fast forward to high school and she took to electronic dance music (EDM) expressing her version of artful dance by incorporating lighted hula-hoops. For a graduation present my wife and I played chaperone for her and friends to go to Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) in Las Vegas, where a film crew captured her hooping, placing a row of Vegas dancers behind! Proud Dad, check.

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Perfume at The Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles, CA

I’ve endeavored over these years to support my aijou and join in on her love of all things Japanese and EDM. The concerts are hard for me to appreciate, as it’s difficult to accept the genre when the performer is just triggering deafening pre-recorded content, and no one is actually playing an instrument or singing. However, I’ve tried, and do see where some of the acts rise to the level of art. This even when at EDC I was asked by one young attendee “what are you doing here?!” I will say it’s a lot easier to see EDM events as concerts worthy of attendance when they transcend the repeated “drops” and incorporate dance, lighting effects and stagecraft to improve the level of entertainment.

Perfume_promo_72dpiWhile one such act, Perfume, won’t be everyone’s cuppa, they most definitely rise above the robotic crowd. This group of three young women, all exceptional singers and dancers, hail from Japan, performing their own version of J-pop/techno-pop internationally to great acclaim. But what brought them more to my daughter’s attention was their spectacular use of video imagery, as seen on their many Youtube videos. The imagery is not just lighting and film, but carefully choreographed graphic art and illusions that are projected onto layers of screens, which alternate between being translucent and opaque. As the dancers move in and around the panels, the effect is that they seem to appear and disappear instantaneously while graphics and filmed images take over. It almost defies explanation, but I’ll try: the dancers execute tight moves, suddenly seeming to transport across the stage to new locations, reappearing in unexpected places, or dancing in place encapsulated in or morphed into an image such as a planet, swirling shaft of light or other visual artifact. It’s truly impressive.

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After struggling to find the right sound and approach early in the millennia, Perfume released their major label debut in 2005. By 2010 they performed to 50,000 fans at Japan’s biggest venue, Tokyo Dome. Since then their popularity has grown around the world. The three performers, A~chan, Kashiyuka, and Nocchi are brilliantly choreographed by dance instructor MIKIKO. Their expressive, cute dance moves, combined with perfect three part harmonies, and colorful costumes would be enough to raise interest in a large fan base. But their additional secret weapon comes in the form of visual artist Daito Manabe, who first added his craft to that 2010 show in Tokyo.

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Manabe creates visual art that forges “a tighter, happier relationship between man and machine.” When applied to Perfume’s effervescent electro-pop act, the result is magic, best described on the Japantimes.co site: “The group performs their futuristic electro wearing elaborate white dresses that act as a canvas for a constantly morphing kaleidoscope of digital graphics, which in turn interact with the images being projected on screens behind them.” Actually it’s now “images projected in front of and behind them” as special screens are mounted and mobile, able to be carried by the dancers such that the surfaces themselves can move and change as the dazzling effects play out. This effect must be seen to be appreciated:

Tokyo Dome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVuLrZ8Tyc4

SBSW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZiPIgCtIxg

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Last week, on Friday August 26, 2016 at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, now long into their career, and after multiple international tours, Perfume simplified their show a bit to make it more organic and personal. The stage was massive, stacked three levels high with a series of movable steps that allowed the group to traverse floors, eliciting cheers from the enthusiastic crowd. Extensive graphic effects were saved for just a few points in the show, while the majority of the songs were performed without special screens and effects; the scene at stage level projected above and behind them in real time, more like a basic singing & dancing act. While I would have liked to see more focus on the type of imagery made famous by Manabe, what they did do was joyful and captivating, more human than machine-like. I would have expected their vocals to be performed live – instead both the music and three part vocals were pre-recorded, as has been their way – forgivable really since the dance and visuals are so involving – and much preferable to a guy and a button! The young women haven’t yet mastered English, so their salutations and exclamations between songs were simple and seemingly innocent. At one point they selected an audience member who was bilingual to translate their greetings and admonitions to be happy and dance along together with them – very endearing.

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Check Youtube for videos of the band, and also take a look at some recent contestants on the show America’s Got Talent and elsewhere who have used this same motion-capture and projection technique to create incredible illusions on stage. Besides Perfume and others, what’s possible is probably best seen by viewing performances by Japanese artists Hara and SIRO-A.

SIRO-A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiMhIFgclAw

Hara: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4hmELQSr70

Nosaj Thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_woNBiIyOKI

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Adele Says “Hello”

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Adele brought her current tour to the Oakland Arena August 2, 2016, just after two sold out nights in San Jose. The concert was fabulous in every way, from the production design, to the sound, the band, and Adele herself, who was in great spirits and exceptional voice.

The concert production (featuring creative direction and stage design by Es Devlin) focused appropriately on Adele and her vocal performance. There were no dancers, no special effects. She arrived on a “b stage” placed near the rear of the floor, starting off with “Hello,” and over the course of the concert did several songs from that position. But most of the time, she stood in front of her band that was arrayed within a diamond-shaped stage behind, at times behind a gauzy curtain that could be opaque or translucent, allowing for some nice multiple-exposure visuals via 12 projectors, and some shadow play when the band was lit from behind the curtain. One thing noticeable was how frequently white spotlights were trained on Adele with a lack of color in the rear and front-stage visuals, except for during the James Bond theme “Skyfall” when she and stage were bathed in red light. In one very impressive moment, Adele returned to the b stage for several tracks, ending with the closer “Set Fire to the AdeleRain_72dpiRain” at which point she was surrounded on all four sides by real falling water, giving the illusion of her singing within the rainfall. Then for the encore, graffiti cannons fired away, sending up white strips of paper each adorned with a lyric, or phrase that appeared to be hand-written… my wife and teen girls scooped up tons of it! Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and LD Adam Bassett and the stage design team did her proud, achieving the intended focus on her performance with these elegant touches.

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As to Adele herself, her voice was in perfect shape. The songs she close spanned her catalog sounding as good as or better than the original studio versions. The set list was well balanced, the only cover being a sweet take on Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.” Most were played faithfully to the originals, with two tracks done acoustically, “Million Years Ago,” and “Don’t You Remember.” Adele generally stood in place, whether main or b stage, swaying or turning a bit all while projected on front and rear stage screens to get everyone in the audience a great view.

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What was unexpected for this uninitiated attendee is just how personable and funny Adele is. She greeted fans warmly, even pulling one couple on stage for selfies. She told stories from different points in her career, often in a self-deprecating way that was very endearing. There was a lot of this between song chatter, but it never wore thin, particularly since so many of her tracks are melancholic, a fact Adele herself pointed out, admitting that a lot of her songs are depressing. Yet there were enough upbeat tracks in the playlist, and between those and the banter, there was a celebratory air in the room.

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All in all a wonderful, heart-warming and entertaining evening from this pop megastar, who deserves every accolade.

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Rush Balance Left and Right Brain

Rush_ESLImage_72dpiRush could be described in a number of ways; they are rock gods, storytellers, and virtuosos. They are the rare band that evolved without trading away complexity or progressive tendencies and yet became incredibly successful, their popularity waxing rather than waning in the 1980s and beyond. As most readers will know, there is a question now as to how many more times Rush will play live, whether a one-off or a proper tour, given the status of the three band mates, and the vagrancies of time.

 

I missed seeing Rush in the 1970s and was first introduced to the band by my hard-rocking college roommate Dave Kain, who was a major fan. I really liked parts of Farewell to Kings (1977), and had no exposure to Hemispheres (1978), instead I identified most with the sound and lyrics on Moving Pictures, released in 1981. Here is what I’ve learned while researching my book, on late 70s Rush.

Geddy Lee (bass, vocals) and Alex Lifeson (acoustic and electric guitars) formed Rush with drummer John Rutsey in Toronto in 1968. In 1974, they released their first album, Rush, which sounded a little like Led Zeppelin. It included the first classic Rush song “Working Man.” Rutsey left after the first record and was replaced by ace stick-man Neil Peart. With that, Rush recruited not only one of the world’s greatest drummers, but also one of rock’s best lyricists. By 1977, Rush was bringing their epic songs and instrumental virtuosity to arenas in the US, Canada, and Europe.

Rush_farewell-to-kings-cover-600x600The band’s fifth and sixth studio albums, A Farewell to Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978), are two of a kind. They were both written in the Wales countryside and both contain lengthy compositions on grand themes such as space travel (“Cygnus X-1”) and Greek mythology (“Hemispheres”), and songs inspired by Romantic poetry (“Xanadu”) interspersed with short, intimate pieces (“Closer to the Heart”). The two albums are also connected by one long song in two parts. A Farewell to Kings ends with “Cygnus X-1,” the first part of a two-part epic that lasts 28 minutes. The second part, titled “Hemispheres,” kicks off the next album, Hemispheres.

Rush’s concerts for the two albums were a feast for the ears and eyes. The success of 2112 (1976) had allowed them to buy some shiny new instruments. Peart added a wide array of percussion to his arsenal: a gong, orchestra bells, tubular bells, temple blocks, and crotales. These expanded his sound palette and helped him to become one of the most versatile drummers of the period. In addition, Lee bought some new synthesizers (a Minimoog, an Oberheim polyphonic) and a Taurus foot-pedal keyboard. Lifeson showed his versatility by switching from acoustic to electric guitar, playing foot-pedal keyboard and changing his sound with a wide array of effects pedals. Watching Lee sing, play intricate lines on his bass guitar, and play a pedal keyboard with his feet all at the same time was riveting. No matter how complex and cerebral their albums were, when they played live they were always raw and visceral, and no one ever seemed to make even the slightest mistake!

Rush_HemispheresCover_72dpiThe tours for these two albums were reportedly extremely difficult for the band, not only because of the complexity of the music, but also because of the everyday circumstances of being on the road in the 1970s. They headlined both tours, but, unlike Led Zeppelin, Rush didn’t have a snazzy jet to fly from gig to gig. Driving in a van 300 miles each day across the vast expanses of Canada and the United States to reach their next destination, they dubbed the Farewell to Kings tour the “Drive ’til You Die” tour. These die-hard musicians never wanted to disappoint their fans, playing when they were sick and sleep-deprived, rarely missing a gig.

Fans recall these performances as legendary in great part because of the backing films by Nick Prince, the swirling smoke effects, and the band’s high-powered performances. The wider array of instruments expanded the overall complexity of the material, but the band still rocked hard, wringing emotion from Peart’s two-part science fiction epic. These rock gods embodied the story’s new deity, Cygnus, the god of balance: a perfect blend of Apollo (the logical thinker) and Dionysus (ruler of emotion). Mind and heart united, a balance of brain and boogie… Rush triumphed at the end of the 70s, perfectly positioned for the mega-success the experienced in the 80s.

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Exit … Stage Left (1981)
Replay X 3 box set
Mercury (2006), 59 min., 1.33:1

 

 

 

Although short clips of early Rush concerts have been included in documentaries and as bonus material on DVD sets, the best way to see them during their epic period is to the watch Exit … Stage Left, filmed in Montreal. This concert video is on Disc One of the box set Replay X 3, released in 2006 (each of the three discs from the set is also available separately). Although the concert was filmed in late 1981, after they had released Moving Pictures, the band plays three classics from their epic period: “Xanadu,” “Closer to the Heart” and “The Trees.” Geddy and Alex’s double-necked electric guitar and bass can be seen in action in “Xanadu,” as well as Peart’s wide array of percussion instruments. The sound is a bit muddy and the lighting could be brighter, but it hardly matters in this epic display of creativity.

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Alice Dies Again…

Wakeman2016Cooper_StoneFreeAd_72dpiQuite a weekend just passed at the O2 Arena, London. The Stone Free festival featured a series of bands over two days, June 18th and 19th, 2016 headlined by American rock legend Alice Cooper on day one then on day two Britain’s treasure, Rick Wakeman. It was both a complementary and divergent pairing, Alice heading a list of bands Saturday who are principally heavy rock ‘n’ rollers, such as The Darkness and Apocalyptica, and Wakeman with various progressive rock bands on Sunday including among others Steve Hackett and Marillion. I’ve seen this type of pairing before in Britain, last year’s Ramblin’ Man festival paired The Scorpions opposite Camel, and it’s entertaining just to walk around and people-watch. It’s easy to guess who came to see which bands as the rockers tend to favor adornment of leather, skulls, and crosses, and the proggers, well, they tend to arrive in carefully selected t-shirts commemorating Yes, Genesis, ELP, and so on. I started the weekend by picking up a Wakeman t-shirt so as to immediately declare my allegiance.

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Having said that, I was also very excited to see Alice Cooper on “Classic Rock” day, as it was to be my first time seeing him after all the years I’ve spent in concert halls. For anyone not familiar with the history, Alice Cooper shows have featured dancing skeletons, attacking spiders, an 8-foot-tall Cyclops, broken baby dolls, and fully functioning guillotines all fronted by Alice’s vaudevillian protagonist backed by a rock ‘n roll band that Cooper_DVDCover_3x4_72dpiwould influence rock and metal upstarts for decades. In 1974, after racking up seven albums and countless concert performances, the original ban split. Singer Vincent Furnier legally adopted the name Alice Cooper, and embarked on a long and fruitful solo career. His first album and tour spawned the movie Welcome To My Nightmare that screened in 1975 at my local movie palace. I took to this film immediately, reveling in the clever stagecraft that included dancers appearing to step in and out of a movie.

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Now more than 40 years on, and many solo album releases later, Alice still rocks — the concert was fantastic. As you might guess, these shows are quite well rehearsed now, a bit less anarchy on stage, replaced by more carefully crafted choreography, better lighting and effects. Yet the feeling of spontaneity and naughtiness remains, still aided with stage antics, props and costumes, continuing Alice’s long string of compelling rock ‘n’ roll Grand-Guignol, attended by the faithful and curious alike. The set list was packed with classics, beginning with “The Black Widow,” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” He included several hit singles ending with “School’s Out” and the encore “Elected.” Late in the set list, Alice covered four songs by departed rockers, revealing a tombstone flag for each as he honored Keith Moon (“Pinball Wizard”), Jimi Hendrix (“Fire”), David Bowie (“Suffragette City”) and Lemmy (“Ace of Spades”). Alice’s voice sounded great — he’s kept the growl, but can still deliver a ballad like “Only Women Bleed.” Of all the fine musicians on stage, Nita Strauss stood out for her demonstrative searing leads on guitar. But this show has been and remains about the performance, about making a rock concert interesting by investing the proceedings with theatrics, in this case celebrating all things macabre. And, as is tradition, Alice died once more on the guillotine, guilty as always.

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p.s. oh yeah, and time to pick up some leather, skulls and crosses to balance my allegiences!

 

Don’t Stop Making Sense

One of the most surprising, exhilarating concerts I ever attended was way back on December 6, 1983, at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium at the height of the “new wave” music movement. On that night, my roommate Irene and I arrived to find that the stage area of the cavernous concert hall was nearly empty. The Civic was and still is a hollow concrete shell, built originally to hold 7,000 patrons as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. On this night, there was a stage riser, but only plywood where normally there would be black flooring. A wooden ladder leaned against the dirty white wall stage right, along with a few racks seemingly bereft of gear. There were no lights, no curtains and no equipment save for a single microphone on its stand at center stage. We asked an usher what the hell was going on, and were told to just take our seats.

After some time waiting and wondering what was about to happen, the house lights dimmed, and the man of the evening, David Byrne came strolling onto the stage platform, a cassette tape player in one hand, acoustic guitar strung over his shoulders. He said “I gotta tape I want to play…” and clicked the Play button on the boom box. Then begins a pre-recorded backbeat to an acoustic version of the first Talking Heads hit “Psycho Killer.” As anyone can imagine, particularly if you’ve seen the outstanding Jonathan Demme film Stop Making Sense (1984), which was filmed over three nights in Los Angeles just a week after the San Francisco date, we were in for a one-of-a-kind art-rock performance.

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HOLLYWOOD, CA – CIRCA 1980s: (From L to R) Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads perform at a concert circa the early-1980s in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

We expected the Talking Heads to be avant-garde, to present something unique and different, but accounts of their previous shows all the way back to their first, supporting The Ramones in 1975 at New York’s dank CBGB club suggested to us that the show’s staging would be minimal. What we did hear is that the band would be wound tight, that singer, guitarist and principal composer David Byrne was an eccentric, that he could dance TalkingHeads_CBGB_72dpiand sing while somehow keeping his head straight, or bobbing or moving in some other unnatural way to accentuate the Reagan-era angst of their rock ‘n’ funk songs. We had no idea how far he had developed these skills, that he could truly hold an audience enraptured with every move, and play so effectively off the other musicians, each of whom were accomplished in their own right, dancing together or apart, songs building into manic eruptions of jubilant, rhythmic new wave music.

TalkingHeads_SMSPoster_72dpiWhat we saw that night has remained seared in my memory forever, repeatable to an extent by viewing the film. After the opener, accomplished bassist Tina Weymouth joined Byrne for the song “Heaven.” As she took the stage, road crew members, clad in black, wheeled out a riser for her gear, plugged her into the sound system and exited quietly. During this track the team wheeled out another riser packed with drums, shortly to be occupied by the Heads’ rock-steady drummer, Tina’s husband Chris Frantz. Next up, the fourth member of the core band, Jerry Harrison (guitars, keys) joined in for “Found a Job,” one of the really infectious early Heads tracks. From this point on, additional musicians including guitarist (Alex Weir), keyboards player (Bernie Worrell, of Parliament/Funkadelic), percussionist (Steve Scales) and backup singers (Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt) joined in succession until the entire band was assembled for then hit “Burning Down The House,” from their album Speaking in Tongues (1983). Now assembled, this expanded band drove through a perfect set list that included “Life During Wartime” and “Once in a Lifetime” along with several from the new album, while the rest of the stage was completed with colored lights, video projection screens, and black matting for every exposed part of the stage. The movie does as good a job as possible of giving viewers an idea of what it was like to have a complete stage built out during such an event, but the necessity of focusing on the musicians precludes the ability to capture the nuanced impact of seeing all the rigging happen before our eyes – literally cabling, matting, lights, screens, everything it took to create a modern day concert was erected by the crew while we watched. It was an absolutely fascinating thing behold. It also ruined the band.

TalkingHeads_SITCover_72dpiAfter the experience of staging this massively creative show, the Talking Heads never toured again, despite the fact they went on to record three more albums before officially breaking up, the last including guest guitarist Johnny Marr from The Smiths. The daunting thought of topping the 1983 tour wasn’t the only issue. The band was growing apart, each member working on other projects. Chris and Tina continued on with the Tom Tom Club. David Byrne launched a long solo career. In fact, besides The Smiths’ Morrissey/Marr split, the demise of the Talking Heads was one of the most unfortunate “divorces” of the 1980s.

I was reminded of all this recently, when our art theater The Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco screened a print of Stop Making Sense on one of their Monday concert film nights. The effusive sellout crowd led to a second showing, after all these years. It was a potent reminder of the popularity of the Heads and this angular music in general, as we were, midway through the reign of the punk/goth/new wave 80s.

Stop Making Sense (1983) © Talking Heads Films 1984, 1.78:1, 84 minutes

PrintThis is justly considered one of the greatest concert films ever made. The spectacle of the stagecraft, along with leader David Byrne’s jubilant performance, is emotionally impactful, filling attentive viewers with the lust for life he and the band exhibit. After a theatrical release, the movie was originally made available on home video tape in an extended version that included three additional songs from the actual show that had not appeared in the theatrical release. These tracks “Cities,” “I Zimbra,” and “Big Business” are available as extras on the extended “special edition” DVD which also includes audio commentary, promotional trailer, and other features.

p.s. There is also film of the Talking Heads on the prior tour in Rome, December 18, 1980 taken under bright white lights, when the core band was joined by Adrian Belew (guitar), Busta Jones (bass), Steven Scales (percussion), Dollette MacDonald (vocals) and Bernie Worrell (keys). It’s reasonably good footage of the band at this key point in time, before they took three years off prior to their final tour. The show is also captured in B&W footage from the Capital Theater, New Jersey on November 4th, 1980. Both films will be of interest to fans and collectors, particularly as the lineup at the time included guitar wizard Belew, who added his trademark distorted guitar noise, and who also harmonized with Bryne perfectly given their very similar voices.

 

 

Getting Into The Cure

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Robert Smith, The Cure

I saw The Cure  way back on October 10, 1985 in Santa Barbara, California supporting their smash album The Head On The Door, from that same year. While it was a powerful and emotional show in parts, I was ultimately disappointed with the stoic stage presence of the band. In particular, founder Robert Smith seemed to be napping through long stretches of the set list, only coming alive it seemed for the couple of hits at the end of the concert. In part my California roots drove my perceptions at the time; the gloomy mysteriousness of goth music, while connecting well in gritty San Francisco, was in part lost on the audience in sunny southern California. The band at the time was also right on the cusp of greater stardom, with just a few popular hits like “Let’s Go to Bed” and “In Between Days” overshadowed by darker dirges such as “A Forest.” A standout memory for me was their performance of “A Night Like This,” which bridged the two forms, it’s prolonged menacing prologue leading to a heartfelt reading of the chorus:

I’m coming to find you if it takes me all night
Can’t stand here like this anymore
For always and ever is always for you
I want it to be perfect
Like before
I want to change it all

Smith’s songs while sometimes quirky and playful are most often laden with sadness, relating stories of lost love, unbearable pain, or outright anger and hatred. While that might sound like torture to some, these songs have an ability to access deep-seated emotions in listeners, unlocking these feelings, even allowing for their release. The greatest melancholy music can do this. It can support a bit of wallowing, but a lot of healing as well. The Cure has always walked this line skillfully. That fact was gloriously on full display last Thursday May 26th at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, just south of San Francisco where so many of us first fell in love with the band. I took my daughter Elaina for her first Cure show, and my second, 30 years on. It was everything my first time wasn’t.

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On this night, The Cure took the stage beginning with the bluesy dirge “Open” from Wish (1992). It was clear from the first minutes that Smith was in top form, fronting one of the tightest lineups of his oft-changing collective. Robert Smith has been the only consistent member of The Cure since it’s inception in 1976 and as principal composer and vocalist, its driving force. In addition to some of his punk/goth contemporaries, Smith pioneered a style of guitar playing that drives so many Cure songs, a type of short repeating chord cycle, which relentlessly drives the music forward, allowing the listener to get lost in the sound. Consider the aforementioned “A Forest,” one of the purest examples of the form.

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Smith’s band is now composed of Simon Gallup (basses since 1979), Roger O’Donnell (keyboards on and off since 1987), Jason Cooper (drums since 1994), and relatively new guitarist Reeves Gabrels (since 2012). The rhythm section of Gallup and Cooper were a major part of what made the concert so exceptional. Cooper is able to execute the start-stop hiccups of so many Cure backbeats with precision and endurance. Gallup brings movement to the stage, pinning down deceptively complex bass leads that often drive the melodic force of these songs, ambling about, punk posturing, on fire.

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After the second track “alt.end” from The Cure (2004) the band made this fan a happy man, as they dove into five consecutive tracks from Head On The Door, followed by “The Walk” from the 1983 EP of the same name (and from b-sides collection Japanese Whispers), one of the best tracks of the set. Incidentally this rare track, along with the unexpected rendition of “Kyoto” before it, were two of those songs that showed off drummer Cooper’s ability to execute complex polyrhythmic leads, while “Screw” showed off bassist Gallup’s chunk funky lines.

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The Cure on this tour has been playing crowd-pleasing set lists that change each night, with a core of consistent selections from their most popular mid period work. The band played several tracks off Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987), Disintegration (1989), which included career highlights “Lullaby,” “Fascination Street” and “Pictures of You,” about which my daughter says “If you wanted to play one song to someone who did not know The Cure’s music, this would be it – so sad but beautiful.” Truer words. The other featured album was Wish (1992) from which the band pulled off a most unexpected pleasure, set closer “End.” This raw, psychedelic funeral march was absolutely overwhelming live, a perfect ending that summed up everything I came to love about The Cure. After verses like “I think I’ve reached that point where every wish has come true, and tired disguised oblivion is everything I do,” follows its poignant, desperately sad refrain:

Please stop loving me
Please stop loving me
I am none of these things

Cure_Smith2_140dpiI watched the crowd, many of whom had clearly never heard this coda to Wish, slowly come around as the band cranked up its intensity, realizing they were witness to an immensely powerful moment, joining in the refrain, despite its despairing message. Smith’s uncanny way of putting words to music, making the sum of the two something more than its parts, awakening dread, a cry for help, and ultimately survival, even transcendence is unparalleled. And, fortunately for us, he is a survivor and, as seen last week in concert, he continues to thrive, in apparently good health and surprisingly strong voice. Long may this artist persevere. In the meantime, catch this tour if you can. You might just find a bit of healing yourself, a salve for the ills of this world, a new reason to love this enduring band.

oh, and my daughter Elaina on that night….

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