Tag: rock and roll

The Face In The Mirror Won’t Stop

A few nights ago, I watched a special on The Doors that aired as part of the excellent series American Masters. When You’re Strange, written and directed by Tom DeCillo and narrated by Johnny Depp, explores The Doors’ meteoric rise to fame in the late 1960s. The piece featured footage of a bearded, shambolically (and possibly shamanically) hot Jim Morrison bombing through the American Southwest in a badass Mustang as flashbacks of the band’s history and most memorable (and infamous) moments were detailed.

Watching it, I was transported straight back to my teen years, when I worshipped Morrison’s flow of words and The Doors’ peculiar, Weill-tinged, carnival-meets-jackhammer-like sounds. I dreamed of the day I’d go to Pere Lachaise cemetery and throw myself dramatically over his grave, all tears and brandy breath, mounds of black velvet and raccoon-kohl eyes appropriate garb for the sighing romantic leanings of late teen-dom. In retrospect, I don’t think The Doors were meant to last. As Depp intoned in the documentary, Morrison was a “trapeze artist” -one who, alas, couldn’t fly as well as he or any of us (past or present) wished. His military-man father, both shockingly unimpressed by his son’s ascent and strangely prescient of his demise, was launching squadrons of fighter planes in the Vietnam war as people stared at the dark, Greco-Roman beauty that suddenly emanated from the dull, puke-coloured walls of the Ed Sullivan Theatre.

Looking at him in his “later” years (his 27 seemed more like 57), the iconic singer/poet seemed amused by his fame even as he was appalled by it. The constant demands it made -on appearance, as well as creativity -were ones that, in his eager immaturity and self-conscious mythology, were ones he seemed singly ill-equipped to deal with. It’s interesting to note how the doc’s narrator, Johnny Depp, has escaped such notions but, in the process, has also accepted the reality that his grave may very well have “yarrr” scrawled across it. I suppose living in France -the land of Gitanes, good cheese, great wine, and better conversation -probably helps.

De Cillo eschews using talking heads in When You’re Strange and instead opts for narration, unseen archival and personal footage, and basic storytelling. He also has written Depp’s lines in the present tense, so we’re experience Morrison “in the present”, as it were. “Both innocent and profane, he’s a rock and roll poet… dangerous and highly intelligent,” continued Depp, “no one’s had this exact combination before.” True enough. But if Morrison’s sneering rebellion against his fame was to grow a beard and gain a beer gut, it didn’t quit work. It increased the mystique around his quasi-poetic leanings, and as the documentary points out, just before his death, Morrison was ready to return to America to start recording with his abandoned, vaguely churlish bandmates. But it wasn’t meant to be. Jim joined that great “feast of friends” that would include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Keith Moon and John Bonham.

But let’s not be predictable here and place him, leather-panted and head permanently tilted, in the pot-smelling pantheon of the Young-And-Tragically-Dead Rock Stars. Hooey. I think of the late “trapeze artist” the same way I think of Arthur Rimbaud: young, beautiful, dangerous, peevish, stupid, reckless, and damnably gifted. Tom DeCillo’s documentary underlines the leanings to poetry, art, music, and this constant drive to live-live-live even as the trip to the desert ends, the music’s over, the resurrection subscription is canceled. Wherever he is, Jim is smirking: he’s always and forever resurrected, thanks to a million different thrills, from photos to Youtube to the appalling streams of tours with lines of earnest, if absolutely wrong lead singers.

“Nevermore!” cackles Jim from the great beyond, before adding, in that famous woozy baritone, “Is everybody in?

Yes, of course. Some never left. We just got older, an inevitable reality that, like screaming fans, singalongs, and autographs, requires patience, fortitude, and grace.

Dreamy Dub

It’s the end of a long, frantic day. Turn down the lights. Pour a cup of hot tea, red wine, mulled cider. Exhale.

Images: wavy lines, coloured glass, paper stars, blue and green crayons. The smell of cardamom bread. The feel of cold ceramic against wet, bare feet. The bright dance of red oil paint across a linen canvas. The taste of maple syrup and cinnamon.

I experience all of these -and more -when I listen to “The Birth of Bellavista Nights“, the latest creation from Daniel Lanois. Filmmaker Adam Vollick‘s intuitive, Zen-like shooting masterfully captures the dreamy, thoughtful nature of this composition. I’ve always had a magical, sensual connection with art that moves me most, and this is a perfect example. If you want more, check out their live show from the Bowery Ballroom, full of the same kind of magical artistry and intuitive creativity that makes listening to this such a powerful experience.

Lanois was, and remains, a true visionary, and one of my very-favorite artists. Ahhh. That Black Dub album can’t come soon enough.

Pleasing Spectacle

Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… returned to Canadian television in mid-March with a gorgeous music-filled episode that featured Sheryl Crowe, Ron Sexsmith, Jesse Winchester and Neko Case. Sexsmith and Costello performed a particularly affecting version of “Every Day I Write The Book“, with a simple arrangement, two acoustic guitars and voices. Another songwriter-focused episode featuring Richard Thompson, Levon Helm, Nick Lowe, and Alain Toussaint; the season closes with a two-part Bruce Springsteen interview and music session.

That’s a big part of what I so love about Spectacle: its stripping-down of fancy-dancy songs to their bare essentials. Rather like a less-hip cousin to Unplugged (but one with an incredibly good wine cellar), the show features a good slather of intelligent, artist-to-artist chat, discussing woodshed-ish chord-change stuff as well as inspiring books, poems, and places. Simply put, the show is a celebration of musicianship, artistry, and sonic inventiveness, with a good dose of humanity, curiosity, and discovery. These are human beings in Costello’s able hands, not mere superstars. His fascination and respect for his guests shows, and it’s inspiring to watch.

Rounding out the big-name guests on April 3rd will be the repeat showing of the Spectacle taster offered back in December, with Bono and The Edge of U2. I first heard about this episode far before its airing, when the program was taped the week the band were in Toronto last September. My curiosity was stoked, if only because the opportunity to see members of a super-mondo-mega-band in a small venue struck me as a unique opportunity to see taken-for-granted artistry up-close.

Stadium theatrics aside, U2 have always struck me as keenly aware artists. It was good to hear bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! get a mention by Bono as important influences; I sometimes don’t think a band of U2’s stature are given proper credit in terms of their passion for the decidedly non-mainstream sounds that have influenced them. Maybe it’s because those kinds of bands -the stadium-filling ones -aren’t thought of as artists, ergo, they never get asked the kind of artist-focused questions Spectacle specializes in. I’ve always heard a lot of different influences in U2’s work, while marveling at the way such off-the-radar sounds can be re-envisioned and rejigged for mass consumption and appreciation. Is that the mark of true artistry? Or just being clever? I’m still working that one out (though I’m sure longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois would have something to say, being incredible artists in their own right. I’m still waiting for Costello to interview them…).

Whatever the case, friends will probably tell you I have an unusual (bizarre, offbeat -take your pick) appreciation of U2’s creative output. Part of that appreciation includes a song called “Please“, taken from U2’s woefully under-appreciated 1997 album, Pop. I was excited when I heard Costello had opened this particular tune; Mr. Pump-It-Up taking on “Please”? Yes please.

Words, together in some mystical sacrament with music, have always provided a heady, hearty kind of sonic seduction for me, and “Please” is the dark, dangerous lover in the night: imposing, insistent, important, passionate, scary, mysterious, operatic. Oh, and smart. Touching on themes common to U2’s music -God, choice, humanity, a capacity for love, forgiveness, violence and intransigence -the song had, at the time of its release, a particular connection with the Irish peace process. Seeing it live (for the epic PopMart) had precisely the same effect on me as seeing Pavarotti at The Met many years before: it was shattering. “Please” is a very underrated piece of art that is every bit as vital, moving, beautiful, sad and searing as it was when I first heard it. (Also, the video for it is genius. Kudos, Mr. Corbijn.)

When I tuned in to Spectacle last December, I was dismayed to find that Costello’s cover had been cut from the broadcast. I can only speculate the reasons why, but suffice to say it was a huge bummer. But the woe was replaced with a chorus of Hallelujah for the internet: I found another acoustic version of “Please” performed by Elvis Costello in 2000. I can only imagine the audience that September afternoon was treated to something similar.

Years may have etched a few more lines into faces and made hitting those high notes a bit more trying, but time has done nothing to that dark dangerous lover of mine: “Please” is every bit as breathtaking, thrilling, and overwhelming as the first time. Spectacle is so much more than mere spectacle, and sometimes -just sometimes -so are super-mondo-mega-bands.

Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… airs in Canada on CTV and in the U.S. on the Sundance channel.
Check local listings for air times.

Ready Freddie

Yesterday’s memory-post was related to place; today’s concerns music.

As a child, I was exposed to a number of different sounds: opera, classic country, disco, pop-rock, jazz. And then there was Queen. I’ve often said their crazily loud soundtrack to Flash Gordon was my entrance into heavier sounds, and I don’t think it’s gauche to admit it. If it wasn’t for the “FLASH! AH-AHHHH!” I might not have ever gone on to the snarling sounds of punk or the clanging cacophony of metal. Hell, I may not have even enjoyed ballsy, loud blues. I don’t know how many times I made my mother sit through Flash Gordon, but … it was a lot. My friends and I used to literally dance in our seats to the music. Poor mum eventually relented and bought me the soundtrack to the movie, and from there I explored the Queen catalogue backwards and forwards.

Much-loved albums included A Night At the Opera and A Day At The Races (yes, I was a Marx brothers fan too, and immediately caught the vaudeville refence) and I remember borrowing a friend’s (vinyl) copy of News Of The World and listening to it ad nauseum. The cacophony from my bedroom provided good competition to the opera that blasted from the living room -especially on a Saturday afternoon.

Having been exposed to opera at an early age, I was particularly enchanted with Freddie Mercury‘s wide range and spine-tingling tone. He could move from soft and tender to aggressively sinister in a heartbeat. I loved that he did a duet with Monserrat Caballet; it only increased his cool-factor for me. What other rock figure would dare it? Opera was resoundingly uncool at the time, and yet Freddie openly embraced it. Even my mother became a Freddie fan.

I remember seeing clips of Queen live on television –all those hands clapping in unison! -and thinking, “He has something magical.” Freddie was unapologetically operatic in his approach and bearing; walking slowly across the stage at the end of Queen shows to the metal-ized stylings of God Save The Queen draped in velvet cape and crown was certainly among the campiest moments in rock, but it was also brilliant spectacle. In many ways now, looking back, Freddie revolutionized onstage rock presence. Standing and playing your instruments, shaking your hair, and looking only at your bandmates wasn’t enough to him; connecting with your audience and breaking down barriers of acceptability (especially in terms of gender and aesthetic expectations) came to matter deeply, and it shows, even now. Watching him on the telly or the computer monitor, it’s a presence you can feel.

Now, adoring a variety of genres and sounds, I still have to absolutely credit Queen and its magnetic, theatrical frontman for introducing me to the wonders of guitar rock as a child. Craig Pesco understands the magical presence of Freddie Mercury, too. The Australian-born performer is renowned worldwide for his onstage tribute to Freddie Mercury. Pesco seems to possess his own incredible sense of stage presence along with strong pipes to match. Currently on tour with It’s A Kinda Magic, and set to hit Toronto’s Massey Hall tomorrow night (March 19th), the performer knows he has big shoes to fill every time he steps onto the stage. “It’s on my shoulders to fulfill what they expect from Freddie,” he says. Scary? Yes. Thrilling? Probably.

I had the opportunity to ask Pesco about inspiration, singing, and the spooky kind of channeling that goes on with playing the enigmatic, operatic frontman born Farrokh Bulsara live, in front of cheering Queen fans.

How old were you when you first heard Queen? Do you remember the song and your reactions?

The “Bohemian Rhapsody” video I was maybe 6 or 8. I thought Freddie was an exotic Asian woman.

How much of your own music and personality are you able to bring to It’s A Kinda Magic?

I have been a performer for many years prior to this role. My old friends say they don’t see Freddie onstage; they see me. In their eyes I have always been that type of performer, so I guess I’m in there somewhere, though I try to stay true to Freddie.

How much of performing as Freddie is theatre? Do you sometimes feel like you’re ‘channeling’ him, or is it a mask you put away at the end of the day?

I think it’s a little of both, it certainly has a spiritual aspect to it and I forget who I am most of the time. For good or bad, I enjoy being in a dream like state up there. It’s like I’m watching a video of Freddie somewhere in my head, maybe like an out-of-body experience, I guess.

What do you think accounts for Queen’s enduring popularity?

Great songs and production! Also, a revolutionary concert production and a genius frontman who was not afraid to express himself however he felt.

What is your favourite Queen song to perform? Which Queen song have you not performed but you’d like to do?

I enjoy the heavier material. I would love to do “It’s Late” or “Millionaire Waltz”. I love the album tracks much more than the hits.

It’s A Kinda Magic plays Toronto’s Massey Hall on March 19th. The Canadian tour continues through March 29th, before stops in Hong Kong and South Africa this spring and summer. Check the show website for full information.

Black Dub Magic

Olympics? What Olympics?! If I had to award a gold medal, it would go straight to Black Dub.

The super-band is lead by incredible Canadian musician and music producer Daniel Lanois and features the super-charged pipes of Trixie Whitley, daughter of the legendary Chris Whitley. A few lucky souls have already seen them live this year, but Black Dub treated fans and curious music-lovers February 17th by streaming a live broadcast from New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. Together with the multi-talented Brian Blade on drums and bassist Chris Thomas, the concert was filmed by Here Is What Is collaborator Adam Vollick. During the hour-long set, the band covered a good bit of their own material along with some Lanois favorites, and proved why their upcoming release is one of the most anticipated of the year.

Images displayed in the run-up to the show were a surreal, ambient mix that reminded me of the work of artists as wide afield as the Emergency Broadcast Network and Bill Viola to Mark Rothko, and even Antonioni. The zipper of comments that ran along the side of the live feed was filled with impatience, excitement, and even a few hilarious observations from people in the Bowery’s capacity audience (ie: “I can’t see who’s in the VIP section. Granny’s eyesight is bad here.”) Watching the mix of images and reactions, there was, I felt, an truly intimate quality to this kind of live event; with just a cozy room to play in and a friendly crowd sharing thoughts and reactions in real time to Vollick’s every close-up and wide pan, it was the kind of communal, creatively connected experience that nicely reflected the band’s ethos.

“Surely” by Black Dub

As for sound, trying to categorize Black Dub’s music is no easy task. It’s a mix of grinding rock, blues, early punk, and dark rockabilly, with an occasionally eerie, swampy, Waits-like slink and touches of Sunday-morning gospel. Watching them live from the Bowery, this defiance of definition was obvious, loud, and proud. Whether steaming through blues-influenced numbers like “Silverado“, the gospel-meets-blues hip-swaying meditation of “Nomad Knows“, or the earthy, 21st century psychedelia of “Ring The Alarm“, one was continually reminded (whether via rimshots, timbres, key changes, well-placed pauses, or a combination therein) of the magical chemistry at work between these accomplished individuals. Chemistry is a huge key to what makes Black Dub so special, particularly in this era of superstar narcissism, where every American Idol seeks to be a famous icon instead of a real musician. Black Dub turn their collective back on all that, focusing instead on a gorgeous exchange of ideas manifest in sound. In many ways, their work harkens back to jazz, with its focus on group dynamic, interplay, improvisation, and experimentation. The online audience lapped it up, perhaps hungry for a real musical experience that showcased real people playing real instruments.

One of the finest instruments on display was Trixie Whitley’s powerful, soul-searing voice. Moving comfortably from mellow to blasting to soft and pleading, Whitley proved herself a formidable front-woman. In addition to showing her incredible vocal chops, she also showed her musical versatility, bashing along with Blade on her own drumkit, playing a keyboard, strumming a guitar, or providing vocal back-up at points. With her black suspenders, white t-shirt and fitted black trousers, with blonde hair neatly tied back in a pony tail, she cut a stylish, strong figure reminiscent of rock feminist icons like Patti Smith or Debbie Harry in her early Blondie days. Lanois, in knit cap and low-slung jeans, played a few of his own hits, including a grinding, guitar-heavy version of “The Maker” with a shuffle-beat percussive undertow courtesy of Blade, and Lanois’ own effects-laden guitar work lending a virtuosic, woozy counterpoint to Whitely’s acidly sharp backing vocals.

Overall, the evening was a showcase of musical talent that conjured a kind of beauty rarely experienced in live show -whether in-person or viewed online. The balance of instrumental and vocal pieces, of thoughtful and straight rock-out numbers, of give and take between musicians, demonstrated both an awareness of their audience and a courage of creative convictions. Black Dub aren’t out to make sing-a-long favorites, but they are out to create a musical experience for both themselves and their listeners. I got the distinct feeling in watching them that no two concerts are ever quite alike. They’re so aware of their collective talent as a whole but never become arrogant within their individual egos. That doesn’t mean they don’t rock out, however. What a gorgeous showcase of adult rock and roll: real, lived-in, world-weary, and honest, or, as one viewer typed on the live feed, “fuzzy, smoky, and sensual -that’s what I came here for.” It could be the definition for rock in this century, and Black Dub are already ahead of the curve.


Photography by Brad Gilley.

Reason #3 I need to go to New York

Jenny Holzer is at the Whitney. But only until May 31st. Eeek.

Little did I realize, all those years ago as a teenager I was witnessing a wonderous marriage between high art and pop culture courtesy of Jenny Holzer and a little tour called ZOO-TV. There I stood, pie-eyed and mute and entirely overwhelmed, as thunderous drums and crashing guitar lines rumbled through my consciousness, and my eyes attempted to absorb messages like CONTRADICTION IS BALANCE and EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG and ART IS MANIPULATION and (still my favourite) TASTE IS THE ENEMY OF ART. I don’t recall if it was by accident or design that I discovered Holzer’s work that very year, but it was then I started keeping journals of my own observed Truisms -a strange kind of poetic observation that was, depending on my mood, one-part snide to two-parts smirk, or some combination therein.

Years later, I wasn’t a bit surprised when Holzer’s work was chosen to be displayed at the site of the World Trade Center. Looking over the exhibition now on, she seems more relevant than ever.

That’s it. I need to go to New York. Soon.

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