Sting, Gabriel Balance Light and Dark

StingGabriel_Promo2_72dpiSting and Peter Gabriel set out this year on a tour together, delivering a set list of hits and core tracks from each of their respective careers, in much the same way as Billy Joel and Elton John have done in the past. They brought the show dubbed “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to San Jose’s SAP arena on June 14, 2016. For this long time fan of both artists, I had mixed feelings about the event; my conclusion is that the show overall while entertaining and well staged was not quite greater than the sum of it’s parts.

StingGabriel_Pik1_72dpi

Gabriel’s approach to performance is to draw audiences into a dark world, a place where deep emotions are explored, even disturbing emotions, the lonely, the outcast, and the criminal and mentally disturbed. Songs like “No Self Control” represent this aspect of his work. The journey takes patience; time to invite the audience in, to dig into that place, to StingGabriel_Promo1_72dpifeel a bit of the sorrow, of the anger, fear or loathing felt by his characters. Importantly, Gabriel always lifts listeners out of that place, shines light in that darkness, taking all attentive guests on a sort of journey through the soul. Gabriel alternates darker and lighter songs, but the palette between them is complementary and all but the most commercial concert tours from this artist have expertly charted this territory. It can be emotionally overwhelming on the best nights, exhausting but completely satisfying.

StingGabriel_Promo3_72dpiIn this setting, there wasn’t time for this kind of excursion as the artists alternated songs on stage – for instance, the dramatic Gabriel opener “The Rhythm of the Heat,” led directly to the joyful, buoyant Sting hit “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” – it was a bit of emotional whiplash. Sting’s sound is happy and soulful, and even when exploring darker themes, like “Invisible Sun” the music and lyrics are infused with hope while major tonalities trump the minor. His best concerts are celebrations of life; they do include social commentary, dire warnings, yet nearly always with a call to action, and a celebration of life and vitality that lifts the spirits. A centerpiece of his shows are the sing-along moments, the times when the audience gets in on the song, where there is a call/response whether reggae style yodeling, or lyrical refrain. One leaves his shows similarly spent and smiling. Again in this setting the chances for audience participation were there but more limited than Sting’s typical concert.

StingGabriel_Pik2_72dpi

But to be fair, setting aside a bit of the “seen ‘em 5 times” rabid fandom, the concert was surely excellent entertainment. Both performers were in fine voice, and they sound great together in harmony. The band, which was culled from both artists touring troops, was fantastic. The audio and video quality was top notch. An enthusiastic crowd at the SAP arena greeted the ensemble warmly and stayed engaged throughout the three-hour set.

StingGabriel_Pik3_72dpi

As to the set list, it met expectations with a few surprises. I was taken by how many Police songs Sting included, given the breadth of his solo catalog. Songs like “Driven to Tears,” Message in a Bottle,” “Walking in Your Footsteps,” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” sounded fresh, and were precisely played, which is an enduring attribute of his solo tours. Gabriel’s relatively lighter tracks were featured, including “Kiss That Frog,” StingGabriel_Pik4_72dpi“Big Time,” and “Sledgehammer” along with frequent set closer “In Your Eyes.” In one chilling moment that made the whole event worthwhile for this fan, Sting sang the opening verses to the Genesis prog classic “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight,” opining the this was fitting given current events in his homeland, “selling England by the pound…” Gabriel himself hasn’t played a note of music from his former band in decades, though just as this article went to print, he stepped out to do this refrain instead of Sting, a rare moment that lit up social media fan networks. In addition, the times when the guys played and sang on each other’s tracks were well chosen, adding to rather than detracting from the original works. I was concerned about this aspect of the show given the terribly melancholy readings Gabriel was giving on the “Scratch My Back” tour, but worry wasn’t needed, this aspect of the show was wonderfully played.

StingGabriel_Pik5_72dpi

Ultimately a very nice evening, one that while maybe not leading to a sum greater than the parts, left me and I imagine most audience members pleased and intent on seeing each artist again on future outings.

StingGabriel_Pik7_144dpi

Set list, as shared on the very helpful website Setlist.fm

StingGabriel_RPS_Ad_144dpi

 

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.

Rush_ESLCover_72dpi

 

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.

Rush_FilmStripCaptions_72dpi

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Wakeman2016Cooper2_72dpi

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.

Wakeman2016Cooper1_72dpi

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.

Wakeman2016Cooper3_72dpi

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