MUSIC

ALBUM REVIEW: “FUTURE NOSTALGIA” – DUA LIPA

Dua Lipa’s latest release, the cleverly titled Future Nostalgia, came on a wave of hype, as the Grammy winning English pop sensation has been responsible for some of the most irresistible and inescapable hits of the last three years. Predictably, Future Nostalgia not only lives up to its hype, but actually exceeds it.

On Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa asserts her bold, assertive and unapologetic femininity in a way in a series of tough, punchy dance floor anthems bristling with clever, often biting and hilarious lyrics and complemented by dazzling production values. From the opening infectious title track, Lipa immediately establishes herself as a dominant force to be reckoned, as well as clarifies the intent behind the album’s contradictory title:

You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game

Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way

I know you like this beat ’cause Jeff been doing the damn thing

You wanna turn it up loud, future nostalgia is the name.” *

If her goal was to create an album of songs that are indisputably rotted in modern times while incorporating iconic sounds and production values of the 1970s’, ’80s, and beyond, she achieves it, especially on tracks such as the dreamy “Levitating” and the lush “Love Again,” both of which sail on a caressing wave of 70s’ R&B tapestries, with the latter also incorporating the more pointed New Jack Swing beats of the early 1990s’.  

Specific artists are also recalled, either consciously or consciously; the fantric, pulsating beat of “Physical” recalls the similarly suggestive pacing of ABBA’s edgy “Lay All Your On Me” and Madonna’s early classic “Burning Up,” among others. The appropriately hypnotic “Hallucinate” pays homage to The Fame era Gaga without sounding derivative, while the album’s best song, the irresistbly raunchy “Good in Bed” combines the brassiness of TLC, the lyrical bite of Lily Allen (as pointed out by other critics) and the raw, upfront sexual bravado of Lizzo, as well as echoing Prince’s similarly graphic and spiritually gratifying portrayal of sex during the days of Dirty Mind.

The album’s closer, “Boys Will Be Boys,” is a blunt condemnation against toxic masculinity as well as the idea that it’s on women to protect themselves rather than on men to behave appropriately; it’s not the first song tackle these subjects, but the song’s lyrics are laced with a formidable combo of defiance, resignation, and even humor. Its serious pedigree may seem jarring, but in reality it’s a culmination of all the non-apologetic femininity Lipa presents throughout the album, and establishes her as an artist capable of serious depth and thought and offers a great conclusion.

With its smartly constructed songs, soaring and diverse production values, and Lipa’s charismatic vocals and personality, it’s going to be very tough to top Future Nostalgia as one of, if not the, best albums of 2020. Be on the lookout come Grammys time, whenever that will be.

* Lyrics credited to

 

 

MOVIE REVIEW: EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE

DIRECTOR: Vince Gilligan

CAST: Aaron Paul, Robert Forster, Jesse Plemmons, Matt Jones, Charles Baker, Scott MacArthur, Scott Shepherd

Breaking Bad, the legendary series about a chemistry teacher turned empirically successful, unforgiving ruthless meth kingpin, is a show whose impact is still felt today. Vince Gilligan’s ballsy series set a new vanguard for episodic storytelling across several mediums, leading way to some of the great drama series of today that employ similarly daring character choices, plot lines, and atmospheres.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, coming four years after the show’s breathtaking finale, was designed by Gilligan and star Aaron Paul, who played the conflicted partner of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, Jesse Pinkman. Pinkman’s arc ended on a cliffhanger, one that many fans wanted to see completed. After various hints and teases from both on social media, El Camino hit Netflix and select theaters on October 11.

El Camino picks up right where the series finale of Breaking Bad left off, with Pinkman speeding away from the compound from which he was held captive, bruised, bloodied but free. Of course, Jesse is not really ‘free’: the police are hunting him down, his exploits with Heisenberg plastered all over the evening news, and there’s a very good chance those associated with his now deceased captors are looking to finish the job on him. Pinkman winds up turning to the only people he can trust (that are still alive): Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt L. Jones), both of whom assist in helping Pinkman clean up and avoid capture. With his incriminating car off his hands, Pinkman sets out to retrieve the cash owed to him by his former partners turned captors, breaking into Todd’s (Jesse Plemmons) apartment to retrieve over a million dollars’ cash. Unfortunately, Jesse is not the only one looking for the money, as several other associates from his past make it much harder for Jesse to start over, most notably vacuum salesman Ed Galbraith (the late Robert Forster in his final onscreen performance), the ‘cleaner’ who helped Walter White form a new identity and escape from his (for awhile, anyway). This leads to a somewhat predictable but totally satisfying ending to Pinkman’s arc, and it’s hard to imagine any fans of the show will be disappointed by it.

El Camino does not have the constant high velocity twists and turns of Breaking Bad‘s more intense episodes; as a film as opposed to a tv show, it’s much more reserved and dynamic, which makes the more explosive moments all the more effective once they hit. The inter-cutting of Jesse’s present day dilemma with flashbacks to how he got to where he is now help immensely is tightly incorporated into the flow of the film and compliments the main story perfectly. It also leads to some great cameos, including one from Plemmons where his sociopathic killer character is almost humanized as he takes Jesse out for the day to give him a break from his constant torture sessions. I won’t spoil the rest (some you can see coming from miles away), but each one was a character it really felt good to see again and remind you just how brilliantly acted the series was as a whole.

Paul is absolutely mesmerizing as he revisits his signature character, adding new nuances and depth to the character; there are long stretches of the film where he barely utters a complete sentence, acting totally with his eyes and body language, that totally capture the anger and regret over Jesse’s past actions, as well as his ambitions to start over. It’s as good an acting performance as I’ve ever seen, and hopefully the upcoming awards season will recognize it a such. The rest of the cast compliments him nicely, especially Forster, who as Jesse’s most tormenting antagonist here despite posing no physical threat, gets to put one last notch on his belt of fine, fine performances throughout his career. You ride a roller coaster with his character, hating for him on being so stern in his one requirement to help Jesse, and yet respecting how he holds his own against Jesse’s still smug, arrogant attitude. Their scenes together are among the very best part of the movie for me, just two great actors matching each other’s passion, intensity, and craftsmanship.

If you have yet to watch Breaking Bad, you will find El Camino slow, laborious, and predictable. If you watched it and loved it, you will be smiling ear to ear at its conclusion. Vince Gilligan did 100 % right by his fans, giving them the perfect post script to this groundbreaking series.

MOVIE REVIEW: JOKER

DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips

RATING: R

CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Zazie Beetz

Genre: Drama / Thriller

The media hype as well as scrutiny leading up to the release of Todd Phillips’ Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the legendary Batman villian, was as unavoidable as it was controversial. Marketed as a Joker origin story, one in which the character is a well meaning but mentally ill man who is tired of getting beaten down by those better off than them and as a result completely snaps, many felt it echoed too closely the mindframe of mass shooters and incels who take their own personal insecurities and resentments out on the public. Its supporters, on the other hand, felt it would open a door to a new conversation about mental illness, how to recognize signs of suffering and empathize with those afflicted, and help us realize the warning signs of a potentially homicidal break before it’s too late.

With such a burden on its back, Joker couldn’t afford to be a failure, and it certainly isn’t; in fact, Joker fully accomplishes what it sets out to do, to the point where you can almost consider it a masterpiece. It’s not an easy watch: it’s bleak and disturbing. You will sweat and your knuckles will turn white while you’re watching it. Depending on who you are, it will frighten you how much you relate to the main character’s sense of hopelessness and rejection from an unforgiving society. I personally don’t know if I can ever sit through it again.

Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a lonely, disturbed man who lives in abject poverty while taking care of his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur has a mental illness that causes him to laugh hysterically and uncontrollably even in the most inappropriate moments, which is why the only work he is able to find is a professional clown. Despite his belief that his purpose is to “bring laughter and joy to the world” and aspirations to become a successful standup comedian, Arthur makes everyone around him, from his social worker to the other professional clowns he works with, deeply uncomfortable with his constant laughing, nihilistic outlook, and generally unsettling demeanor. Eventually, one of his co-workers devises a plan to get him fired, which works and sends Arthur on the course that eventually turns him into the beloved (feared?) Clown Prince of Crime.

Joker is relentlessly unnerving, constantly challenging the limits of your empathy as the titular character descends further and further into psychotic madness. As a person whose had his own struggles with mental illness, it absolutely terrified me how much I related to the character early on; only when he actually started killing his antagonists did I thank God for a stable, supportive family, a good job, and impulse control.

The film muddies the waters further by making his victims increasingly despicable in their own right: three ‘well to do’ preppies who antagonize both Arthur and a young woman on the train, a seemingly well meaning co-worker who gives Arthur a gun under the guise of protecting himself but then gets him fired for possessing it, and a smug, faux-genial late night talk show host (Robert De Niro, hamming it up in one of his best roles in recent years) who belittles Arthur’s attempts at standup on the show without his consent, then pays the price when he invites Fleck on. Even Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who’s not a victim of Fleck’s crimes, is portrayed as far less heroic and sympathetic than he is in other iterations. The movie ultimately winds up with no character as a moral center; while this is certainly off putting too many, it fits seamlessly with the film’s narrative and provides a perfect contrast to the entertaining but predictable formulas of your average superhero movies. 

People have said that the movie has no real goal, but I left with the impression that Phillips wanted us to make our decision on what to take away from the film; if you came away thinking that he wanted to make a pointed statement about the socio-political climate and wealth disparity in today’s America, an unflinching condemnation on our treatment and often rejection of the homeless, mentally ill and other groups seen as undesirable, or just a violent origin story for a beloved villain, it’s futile and perhaps impossible to say you’re wrong.

While Joker is tightly written and beautifully filmed, the reason for its success is Phoenix. It’s no secret that Phoenix is an actor of the finest vintage, but he outdoes himself here. He plays Arthur in such a dynamic, nuanced way that the aforementioned sympathy you have for him early on is totally valid. His performance acts as a road map for the viewers’ feelings of the character, from the way his signature laugh becomes more abrasive and obnoxious to the subtle changes in facial expressions and general mannerisms that paint as vivid a picture of insanity as any. Arthur Fleck, for me, comfortably takes his spot alongside Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, John Doe from Se7en and any other legendary cinematic antagonist you could think of.

Visually, the film is stunning; Phillips creates by far the eeriest live action imagining of Gotham City to date. Whereas Tim Burton’s had a gothic beauty to it that felt appropriate only because it was Tim Burton, and Nolan’s felt like a normal city getting being terrorizes, Phillips’ is a grey, desolate hellscape with no relief to be found at any corner.

Simply put, Joker is a brilliant movie. I feel comfortable using the word ‘masterpiece,’ even. While I’ve ‘enjoyed’ other films that came out this year more, they did not leave the mark on me that Joker did. I can’t recommend it for everyone, but if you enjoy being challenged by a film, Joker is a winner in every way.

GRADE: A

REVIEW: THE ROLLING STONES, METLIFE STADIUM, EAST RUTHERFORD NJ. 8/5/2019

IMG_0301“This could be the last time,

This could be the last time,

May be the last time, I don’t know.”

The Rolling Stones did not play that 1964 hit at their show last night at MetLife Stadium, yet it was the one running through my head as I decided to purchase tickets as well when I arrived at the venue.

I’ve been a Stones fan since the riff of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” seared its way into my brain when I was about five or so. I’ve seen them twice before, once in 2003 at Madison Square Garden and again in 2005 at Giants Stadium (aka the old MetLife). I still consider them the best pure hard rock band of all time. And yet, I entered the stadium with a feeling of trepidation.

Many an unfunny joke has been made about the band’s increasingly advanced years, along with the prognostication that every tour since 1997 could be their last. Having heard some recordings of shows within the last year or so, I thought age had finally caught up with the band: the tempos dragged, Jagger sounded labored, and Keith wasn’t churning out riffs with the same verve and power he’s renowned for. For the first time in their life, the Stones really sounded like what they are: very old men playing rock and roll.

As the opening riff to “Jumping Jack Flash” jolted the stadium crowd onto their feet, any misgivings I may have had were erased. The band attacked the song, with Keith firing off power riffs, Charlie pounding the drums while keeping perfect time and tempo, and Mick strutted and prowled with the confidence and energy he’s always had.

From end to end, the band sounded virile, tough, and engaged on every song. There was no sluggishness, no dull moments, no sense of them going through the motions. They left all they could on that stage. Mick had the crowd in the palm of his hand as he led them through the singalong chorus of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and his banter was equal funny, witty, cheesy and sincere, acknowledging it was the 90th time they’ve played Jersey and how they love playing the Northeast more than anywhere else in America.

The set list speaks for itself: to name a few, “Tumbling Dice,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Miss You,” “Start Me Up,” “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” are some of the most important songs in all of rock and roll, and hearing them in person always feels like you’re experiencing a little bit of history. “Sympathy” and “Gimme Shelter” both felt especially potent in the wake of the current political atmosphere, and they played each with intimidating purpose.

While the set was heavy on the hits, the band was more than accommodating for hardcore fans craving deep cuts. Early on, they busted out their hit cover of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” for the first time since 1990; in theory it’s not a song I love, but between the novelty of it being not done for so long and that they nailed it so well, it was one of the highlights of the evening. They followed it up with the sinister Let It Bleed track “Monkey Man,” the result of a four song online fan vote that beat out “Rocks Off,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” and “She’s So Cold.” An acoustic set done at the foot of the stage brought forth the raunchy title track from “Let It Bleed” as well as the darkly humorous Sticky Fingers gem “Dead Flowers.” After the band introductions, Keith took vocal duties for two songs, contrasting the gentle, ‘rocking chair’ swing of “You Got the Silver” with the raw grit of “Before They Make Me Run.” 

The biggest highlight for me was when Mick returned to the stage to a rousing “Miss You,” followed by the two best songs of the evening: a powerful “Midnight Rambler” featured an incendiary extended jam with Ronnie and Keith trading riffs as smoothly as passing someone the salt, and Mick delivered his best vocal of the night, really leaning into the menacing titular character to a point that was almost scary. They followed it up with the song I most wanted to hear, a thunderous “Paint It Black” with Charlie at the helm, driving its signature Moroccan beat with brute force. The song’s bleak, nihilistic outlook has even more pathos today than it did 53 years ago, as the world has indeed grown darker and more chaotic, and Mick seemed to draw on that as he delivered another robust, passionate vocal.

Outside of the music, the band’s stage set up was a stunning spectacle of sight and sound. The sound system was phenomenal, with a punchy and dynamic sound that allowed for every instrument to be heard perfectly and every word Mick sang ring clear as bell. Each song had specific lighting and accompanying visuals, where it almost felt like each song was literally unfolding before your eyes. Finally, there was a pyrotechnic display at the end of “Satisfaction” that could only be appreciated (or perhaps even pulled off) in the vast, roofless stadium.

The Stones have a stellar group of supporting musicians led by longtime sidemen Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Bernard Fowler on percussion, and the great Darryl Jones on bass; Leavell’s coda to “Honky Tonk Women” and Jones’ solo during “Miss You” in particular were two of the evening’s biggest highlights instrumentally. Backing vocalist Sasha Allen was a charismatic and sexy presence throughout, letting Mick bump and grind on her during “Miss You” and absolutely nailing the iconic bridge of “Gimme Shelter.”

All in all, I feel confident in saying this: The Rolling Stones played a perfect show last night, bolstered by a wild crowd who stood up and sang along all night. They continue to defy expectations brought on by age and the abuses each of their bodies have taken over the years. They are still the best at what they do, and what they do is fucking incredible.

Setlist

Jumping Jack Flash

You Got Me Rocking

Tumbling Dice

Harlem Shuffle *

Monkey Man **

You Can’t Always Get You Want

— acoustic set —

Let It Bleed

Dead Flowers

Sympathy for the Devil

Honky Tonk Women

You Got the Silver +

Before They Make Me Run +

Miss You

Midnight Rambler

Paint It Black

Start Me Up

Brown Sugar

Encore:

Gimme Shelter

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

* first since 8/25/90

** online choice

+ Keith Richards on lead vocals, Mick offstage

The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger – lead vocals, guitar, harmonica, percussion

Keith Richards – guitars, backing vocals

Ronnie Wood – guitars, backing vocals

Charlie Watts – drums, percussion

Additional musicians

Darryl Jones – bass

Chuck Leavell – keyboards, backing vocals

Sasha Allen – backing vocals

Karl Denson – saxophone

Tim Ries – saxophone, keyboards

Matt Clifford – keyboards, percussion, French horn, show introduction voice

Bernard Fowler – backing vocals, percussion

 

“MY FUNNY VALENTINE” IS THE “BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE” OF VALENTINE’S DAY SONGS.

For the last several Christmases a debate is had as to whether the evergreen “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a relic of a bygone era in which plying women with alcohol in exchange for a romantic physical encounter was totally acceptable. With what we know about rape culture and the advent of the #metoo movement, it’s become a sore point with many culture historians; some say it is indeed an encouragement of such behaviour, others think it was quite progressive for its time as the woman manages to come to her own conclusion and exercised her own autonomy in the end. Others say it’s just a song.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, I have taken it upon myself to tear down another standard associated with the holidays, Rogers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.”

Originally in the classic Babes in Arms, “My Funny Valentine” has been described in the past for being progressive in that the male lead assures his love that despite not fitting conventional beauty standards:

“My funny valentine…
Sweet, comic valentine…
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable, unphotographable
yet you’re my favorite work of art
Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak,
are you smart?”

While this may read nicely at first glance, let’s reconsider the context: this is the male basically telling his lover that she’s chubby and stupid in a coy but obvious way. The next verse compounds this:

“But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine
Stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day.”

There are several things wrong with this passage. It reads as not only condescending, but possessive and controlling. His affection totally hinges on whether she chooses to change anything about herself. Whereas “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a playful back-and-forth by an ultimately consenting couple, “My Funny Valentine” is an entirely one sided account of a relationship.

Look, I’m all for destroying conventional beauty standards and women embracing who they are, but “My Funny Valentine” doesn’t do that, try as it might. It serves, instead, as a monument to the toxic, controlling side that permeated male culture in the 1930s and 1940s. Be gone, vile song.

WOODSTOCK 50: A WISH LIST

On the weekend of August 16-19, thousands will be truckin’ up to Watkins Glen, New York, for the 50th anniversary of the most well known music festival of all time, Woodstock.

For those who don’t know, Woodstock was basically the amalgamation of everything that made the 1960s’ the 1960s’: hippies, drugs, the promotion of peace and love as the ultimate virtues, and some of the best damned music ever made. (There was also mud and nudity. Lots and lots of mud and nudity. Also, one dude got run over by a tractor.) For three days, a crowd of 500,000 flower children tripped their collective balls off to the music of Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who and numerous other iconic acts of the era. Some performances, such as Hendrix’s searing instrumental version of “The Star Spangled Banner” and Joe Cocker’s cover of the Beatles classic “With a Little Help of My Friends,” are some of the most significant moments in rock and roll.

Woodstock has taken an almost mythical status in popular culture, and it’s served as the catalyst for Coachella, Bonnaroo, Warped Tour, and numerous other multi-big name annual festival events that have taken place since. There have been two formal anniversary celebrations since, one in 1994 for its 25th and again in 1999 for its 30th. The first one was pretty good; Bob Dylan atoned for not playing in 1969, and Aerosmith, Green Day, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blind Melon, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and an all around eclectic lineup of well known names turned out for a respectable, if slightly hollow, celebration of the original.

Woodstock 1999 is infamous as probably the worst major musical festival in music history. Marred by various acts of violence, destruction of property, and a lineup that seemed to have been decided by throwing a bunch of darts at names and booking whoever was landed on (how else would James Brown and Limp Bizkit be in the same vicinity?), it served more as anniversary for Altamont than for Woodstock.

According to original promoter Michael Lang, the 50th anniversary will not make the same mistakes as the 30th anniversary and will try to recapture the spirit and message of the original festival, and also feature an eclectic mix of iconic acts ranging from legendary classic rock acts to modern hip hop and pop artists. This all sounds promising, but

Dead & Company

The latest (and best) incarnation of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead seems like a no-brainer; the band still embodies the free spirited values that the original lineup promoted, and with John Mayer fronting, younger audiences will have a big name to latch onto and ultimately introduce classics like “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” and “Dark Star” to a whole new generation. Plus, it would serve as a mea culpa of sorts for the surviving members, as the original band notoriously put on one of the worst sets of the original festival. Just no hologram Jerry Garcia.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan wasn’t living too far from Yasgar’s Farm in 1969, but was too wrapped up in his newfound laid back family life to perform at the original festival. He eventually performed at the 25th anniversary in 1994, putting on a memorable set, and the ultimate voice of the 1960s’ counter culture would seem to be an essential choice to have on board for the seminal 50th. Just one caveat: ditch all those Sinatra covers and play “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and numerous other anthems that defined the generation.

John Fogerty

The Creedence Clearwater Revival legend is one of the major surviving participants of the original festival, so it would be disrespectful to not extend him an invitation. At 73, Fogerty’s voice is still in great shape and he puts on a hell of a show. With songs like “Proud Mary,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” and “Bad Moon Rising” in his repertoire, Fogerty will no doubt be a highlight who’ll have the likely thousands strong crowd singing along with every note.

Neil Young

Another notable survivor of the original lineup, Neil Young has not only cemented himself as one of rock’s most vital and influential singer songwriters, he remains one of its most exciting live acts. Constantly reinventing his own classics as well as writing great new material, a hypothetical set by the Canadian troubadour will no doubt be one of its most memorable. Whether solo acoustic or full band (or both), Neil will absolutely bring it if asked.

Foo Fighters

Even at almost 25 years into their career, the Foo Fighters still command a fresh, contemporary sound and have won the respect of not only younger crowds but of the old guard as well. Frontman Dave Grohl has cemented himself as a rock legend as much as anyone else on this list, and with an ample set list of crowd pleasing anthems, they’ll bring a youthful vitality to the festival while still maintaining the spirit of the original lineup.

Pearl Jam

Another band nearly thirty years old that somehow still feels almost contemporary, the last standing core grunge band of the early 1990s’ still packs stadiums and has amassed some of the most powerful classic rock anthems of the 1990s’. The thought of 500, 000+ naked people on acid singing along to “Betterman” already gives me chills.

Bruce Springsteen

The Boss is another legendary musician who made his mark post-Woodstock, but he’s in the same rarified air as Dylan, Young and other trailblazers in the singer-songwriter arena. At 69, he still has a seemingly endless supply energy, still putting on four hour shows with his equally spry E Street Band. Even if playing an abbreviated version of his marathon concerts, Bruce will give everything he’s got, leaving the crowd wanting more. Plus, Bruce has a history of disobeying curfews, so we’ll probably get a four hour show anyway.

The Rolling Stones

People can mock the aging rock gods as ‘relics’ and ‘dinosaurs’ all they want, they still pack ‘em in night after night and play the hell out of their hits. With a new album in the works as well as the 50th anniversary of “Let it Bleed” on the horizon, the self proclaimed ‘Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World’ has the opportunity to introduce a wide berth of material to a whole new crowd.

Kendrick Lamar

If hip hop is gonna be represented at the festival, it’s proclaimed king will need to be present. Lamar is already pretty much cemented as a legend in hip hop with two classic albums and several hit singles under his belt, and he is also an incredibly dynamic live performer. His rebellious, often politically charged lyrics mirror the attitudes of the anti-Vietnam sentiment that fueled much of the original festival, and with a similarly frought political landscape emerging now, we can expect something comeplling and controversial from him.

The Who

The only one of the core British Invasion bands to perform at the original festival, The Who’s surving members, lead singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend, are still going strong. With a new tour and album announced, they’re another band who’d benefit from debuting a wide range of material to a crowd of which many are hearing them for the first time. Also, there’ll be no Abby Hoffman to raid their set this time, so Pete Townshend won’t need to literally beat someone off the stage.

Lady Gaga

10 years ago, the idea of Lady Gaga appearing on the same stage as any of these artists would have sent everyone reading this into a flurry of blind range. However, ten years later, Gaga has solidified herself as one of the better pop artists ever. She now has wide ranging catalog of classic songs of various genres, her voice is at its zenith, and her sonic palette is wide enough to appeal to most everyone young or old. Having covered Zeppelin and the Beatles quite successfully in the past, there’s a good chance of her collaborating with any of the older artists on this list for a truly memorable cross-generational performance.

Paul McCartney

By 1969, The Beatles hadn’t performed live in three years and were on the verge of breaking up, so they too missed out on Woodstock. However, no band from the era has made a more lasting impact than The Beatles, and to not invite Sir Paul would be a travesty. He’s near 80, his voice isn’t what it used to be, but the soul and spirit are still there, and with a crowd who will no doubt know the words to every song anyway, the limitations of his age will be an afterthought.

The musical guest list is only one element of making the event a success; there also logistical factors and other components that are crucial in making it go off without a hitch. Here are just five:

  1. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT LET ANY PERFORMERS USE FUCKING HOLOGRAMS. If I see Hendrix or Jerry Garcia or John Lennon out on that stage, I want it to be because of some good fucking acid, not cheap technology.
  2. Security: it’s a festival, shit happens. People get drunk, high, or just lost in whatever the moment seems to bring about. Hire security that is going to be vigilant and fair with festival goers. However…
  3. No Narcs. It’s a festival. People are gonna do drugs. People are gonna drink alcohol. Someone smoking a joint, swigging cheap vodka from an Evian bottle, or even doing a line in the confines of their camper, isn’t inherently going to harm anyone.
  4. A diverse lineup. Don’t make it a lineup of just classic rock acts and mainstream pop stars. I know, my list is exactly that, but I confess to not listening to a great deal of modern music. With three non-stop days of music, there is plenty of room for indie acts, current megastars, and elder statesmen to peacefully coexist.
  5. Bathrooms. For the love of God in Heaven, have a humane bathroom system. I’m not digging a hole.

All in all, I have no reason to doubt that Woodstock 50 will be at the very least enjoyable, but it has every chance in the world to be a spectacular gathering of the vibes to honor an era whose spirit still lingers brightly today.

We Can Forgive Our Favorite Characters for Saying Awful Things. Why Can’t We Forgive the Same Behavior in Reality?

maxresdefaultA few months ago, Kevin Hart became the latest celebrity to have a series of very old social media posts come back to haunt him, as several homophobic tweets from 2011 forced him to step down from hosting the 2019 Oscars. Hart responded by issuing a confusing and arrogant non-apology where he called out our culture for being too sensitive (an excuse that turns out to not be exclusive bitter white male Trump supporters), and also stated:

“I just got a call from the Academy…they said ‘Kevin, apologize for your tweets of old or  we’re going to move on and find another host…I chose to pass. I passed on the apology.”

Hart later tacked on a half assed apology to the LGBT community, but it was too little, and way too late. He was persona non gratta, at least up until yesterday, when he was interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres ostensibly to promote his new movie, The Upside; however, America’s most well known openly gay celebrity wasn’t afraid to confront him about his statements, forcing Hart to issue his most sincere and self reflective apology to date. Whether he meant it or appearing on Ellen was just a PR move, it worked: the Oscars have re-opened the possibility of Hart hosting, and

What Kevin Hart said was wrong; even in 2011, the attitudes towards the gay community had already been rapidly progressive and stating that he’d beat his son if he were gay is horrifying. Hart deserves the consequences he’s facing, not just for what he said, but for the arrogance with which he approached his response.

Before Hart, we had Guardians of the Galaxy franchise director James Gunn get fired from helming future installments for a series of posts in 2009 in which he made off-color tweets about child molestation that were apparently intended to be funny, although not a single one had a discernible punchline. Gunn’s tweets were disgusting, but unlike Hart, he approached the issue with a sincere apology and acknowledgement of how his words were offensive. Gunn was still fired.

In the days before social media, we had Mel Gibson’s infamous homophobic and racist rants against the Jewish, LGBT and African American communities. Gibson became persona non grata for nearly 10 years and still bears the mark of Cain from his actions. However, even Gibson did his damndest to rehab his image by meeting with members of these various communities and tried to gain an understanding of how his actions and words were so hurtful.

I’ve been watching The Office a lot lately – a bizarre segue, I know, but hear me out. These days, Michael Scott is a beloved icon whose progression from insensitive jackass to good friend and father figure to his employees is seen as one of the best instances of character development in any sitcom. I love Michael Scott, too, but let me remind you all something: Michael was a fucking jackass until about the end of Season 4. He made comments that were racist, homophobic, fat shaming, and sexist. The ‘Diversity Day’ episode alone would have been reason for Michael to never land another job had he existed in our objective reality. At the end of day, Michael really just went from a hopelessly clueless, offensive idiot to a far more self aware but still slightly clueless and offensive idiot.

Now, Michael Scott was not a hateful bigot. He was just ignorant and wanted to be liked. It’s well established that he loves standup comedy, and it can be argued that he approaches his jokes with the same intent as Mel Brooks or Don Rickles – to point out how absurd prejudice is and that we all need to laugh at ourselves. Of course, Michael doesn’t have the edge or intelligence of either those characters, as his “jokes” lack a punchline and dive right into the puddles of ignorance. Still, if someone in the office called Oscar a f***ot or Stanley or Darryl the n-word, he’d likely recognize why those words are wrong and defend his employees is his own ridiculous ways (that actually would’ve been an interesting episode – how Michael would confront actual prejudice in the office).

Going back further, there’s maybe television’s most famous example of the loveable social ignoramus, Archie Bunker. Of course, Archie was deftly written and portrayed, to the point where we all knew we were supposed to be laughing at him and not with him. Still, Archie ultimately was a protagonist, who learned to love and respect those who were different than him, albeit begrudgingly.

So, if we can forgive our fictional characters, why do we find it so hard to forgive real life figures? Is it because there is a controlled narrative where the creators can dictate their redemption in exactly the right way? Do we just find it easier because they are not real? I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a repentance process – they do need to really show that they’re sorry. And there are some transgressions that are unforgivable (Weinstein, Cosby, etc.) But we are so quick to demonize for an indefinite period of time that we lose sight of the fact that a person can evolve and realize their errors. A few months ago, Samantha Bee interviewed former neo-Nazi’s who committed to changing their lives around and advocating against white supremacy. The social media outpouring was largely positive, as many were genuinely moved by the segment, including myself. Still, why can we forgive people who at one point openly advocated violence towards minorities and may have even committed such violence themselves, but we struggle to forgive mere words stemming from immaturity and lack of experience and self-awareness?

I’m not trying to speak for the gay community on this issue; their anger is valid and there have been far more eloquent points made about why Hart should continue to face a certain level of scorn. I’m genuinely curious as to why we seem to have a double standard when it comes to fiction vs. reality, and if the endless news cycle of revealed transgressions of beloved figures guilty of far worse has made us cautious in that if we forgive people for mere words, they feel they can get away with worse.

I wish I knew the answer.

REVIEW: Elton John at Madison Square Garden 11/8/2018

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A wave of emotions and memories flooded my mind as Sir Elton John sang the final chorus of “Your Song,” his signature hit that grew from a simple love song to a touching benediction to his fans over the years:

“And you can tell everybody this is your song
It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done
I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

How wonderful indeed. Perhaps more than any artist I’ve loved over the years, Sir Elton has been a constant in my life almost since birth. I remember growing threw my parents’ cds when I was three or four and being transfixed by the album cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and immediately wanted to see what was inside. I remember listening to each song while reading the lyric booklet, with its corresponding animation that made them come alive before my eyes (imagine a four year old visualizing “Sweet Painted Lady” – or don’t). My appreciation for Elton grew over time, and he was the first concert I ever saw when I was eight years old.

Last night’s show could not have been more different than my first show. The 1999 show was Elton alone at the piano, with no band, with a set list largely featuring deep cuts from his lesser known albums and rearrangements of his biggest hits to accommodate the setting. Last night’s show was ‘wall to wall’ hits, with Elton backed by a six-piece band that included longtime sidemen Davey Johnstone on guitar, Nigel Olsson on drums, and the most animated tambourine player in the world Ray Cooper on percussion.

The show kicked off with the familiar thump of “Bennie and Jets,” and closed with a 1-2 emotional gut punch of “Your Song” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” In between, we got “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Rocket Man,” Daniel,” and about a dozen more classics that anyone who’s owned a radio for the last 45 years would know in an instant. On paper, it looks like a pretty boring and predictable show; in execution, the exact opposite.

This is Elton’s farewell tour, and these are the songs worth saying goodbye to: the ones with which he forged a bond with his fans, and the ones that have stood the test of time and become of the cultural fabric. Almost every song had a little something extra, whether it be an extended intro, improvisational jamming, or Elton just putting a little extra embellishment in the vocals to show how much fun he was having. In the case of the night’s best song, “Levon” was given a barnstorming coda that turned the gospel tinged ballad into a searing rock and roll assault with Elton tickling the ivories  with the energy of a man half his age, while Davey Johnstone displayed why he is one of the most under-appreciated rock and roll guitarists.

The few times Elton went off the beaten path with the song selection were all very well received, and did nothing to quell the momentum of the show. Early on, he dedicated “Border Song” to Aretha Franklin, who covered it shortly after its release on Elton’s self titled American debut in 1970. A few songs later, the ultra rare “Indian Sunset” brought the stadium to a haunting silence, as Elton performed the song largely solo except for some thunderous percussion from Ray Cooper during the song’s intense instrumental breaks. In addition to its four biggest hits, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was represented by arguably its two most well known non-singles, the sapphic rocker “All the Young Girls Love Alice” and its epic opening suite, “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding.” Last but not least, the “Tumbleweed Connection” favorite “Burn Down the Mission” served as the night’s other musical highlight, with Elton hitting the keys of his piano on the ‘burn down finale’ as if each one owed him money.

While he’s toned it down from the feathered boas and glitzy outfits of his heyday, Elton still has flare for lavish production, and the show was as much a visual spectacle as a musical celebration. Each song had a corresponding collage of visuals to fit the mood, and for the most part they were tasteful and unobtrusive (though the Asian Target ad during “Philadelphia Freedom” was…something); the best was during “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” which featured fight scenes from various movies ranging from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Airplane!,” culminating with Elton’s own showdown with a bumbling henchman in 2017’s Kingsman sequel, “The Golden Circle.” Also of note was “I’m Still Standing,” which fittingly touched on Elton’s many career highlights over the years, featuring everything from legendary concert appearances to his cameos on “The Muppets” and “The Simpsons.”

The whole show truly felt like a celebration; Elton John has never been subtle, and he’s not going out quietly. I’m so glad I got the chance to see this show, both for how exciting it was in the moment and for the flood of memories it brought back. It’s a powerful reminder of the best of what music brings out in us best: a sense of community between artist and audience, as if we knew the former as much as we know ourselves. Each song felt like a conversation with an old friend; I just wish it didn’t have to end.

Setlist:

Bennie and the Jets

All the Young Girls Love Alice

I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues

Border Song

Tiny Dancer

Philadelphia Freedom

Indian Sunset

Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to be a Long Time)

Take Me to the Pilot

Someone Saved My Life Tonight

Levon

Candle in the Wind

Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding

Burn Down the Mission

Believe

Daniel

Sad Songs (Say So Much)

Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me

The Bitch is Back

I’m Still Standing

Crocodile Rock

Encore:

Your Song

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

MOVIE REVIEW: CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

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DIRECTOR: Marc Forster

CAST: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Matt Gattis, Jim Cummings (voice), Brad Garrett (voice), Peter Capaldi (voice), Nick Mohammed (voice), Toby Jones (voice), Sophie Okonedo (voice)

RATING: PG

GENRE: Family

I was both excited for and nervous for Christopher Robin, director Marc Forster’s new, live action take on the classic world of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Winnie the Pooh and his friends are my favorite out of all my childhood characters, so my girlfriend and I both approached the film with open minds, and were absolutely delighted by what we saw.

Ewan McGregor stars as a grown up Christopher Robin, a World War II veteran who is now a prominent executive at a company that designs suitcases for the wealthy. He has become so wrapped up in his job that he has neglected time with his family, wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). He is successful and respected in his firm, but his home life has suffered greatly due to his gruelling schedule; his concern with Madeline going away to boarding school just as he did has taken precedence over her having fun and developing her imagination, and his relationship with Evelyn has grown cold and distant. Only when tasked with the job of having to make a 20 % cut to his company’s budget by his boss, Giles Winslow (Matt Gatiss) do we see that Christopher Robin hasn’t grown entirely chilly and cynical, as he wrestles emotionally with the idea of having to fire the employees who love and respect him.

Meanwhile, back in the Hundred Acre Wood, there is a darkness since he broke his promise to never leave his friends behind; the weather is a persistent fog of rain, and the presence of heffalumps and woozles always seem to lurk in the shadows. One day, Pooh ventures out to find that his friends cannot be found; while in search of them, he transports himself into modern day London, where he and Christopher Robin meet for the first time in years. Pooh, saddened by his friend’s newfound stoic and bitter persona, sets out to help him bring joy back into both their as well as his own and his family’s lives, through a series of hilarious misadventures and heartwarming gestures that have long defined the series.

The characters themselves look and feel authentic; they lose none of their warmth in the transition from animation to live action. They move and speak fluidly and look absolutely beautiful. The voice cast is outstanding across the board; I don’t need to give Jim Cummings an introduction as he is his usual perfect Pooh, but Brad Garrett and Toby Jones are inspired choices for Eeyore and Owl, respectively. Garrett, in particular, delivers some of the film’s best one-liners.

The live actors are equally delightful. McGregor is perfectly cast as the adult Robin, and one of the great joys of the film is watching him interact with the characters. You can tell he had a blast making the film, and his performance has depth and nuance. I loved watching his initial frustration with Pooh’s eternal absent-mindedness grow into a newfound fondness for his kindness, and the scenes where he embraces his inner child by fighting an imaginary monster with an umbrella is irresistibly endearing. Atwell is fantastic as Evelyn, providing a commanding yet sympathetic presence as his forsaken wife, and Carmichael is charming as Madeline.

The film manages to hit all the right notes without being overly mawkish; Robin’s transition over the course of the film feels very natural and believable (or as believable as a man talking with living stuffed animals could be), and doesn’t try to reach for an emotional pull that’s not there. It’s the perfect film to escape the current turbulence of the outside world, briefly transporting you back to the most magical moments of your childhood, renewing a sense of wonder we’d all do well to hold onto.

MUSIC IN THE AGE OF DRUMPF, PT. 4: THE TEMPATIONS’ “BALL OF CONFUSION (THAT’S WHAT THE WORLD IS TODAY).”

The late 1960s’ is remembered for being a most turbulent period: race riots, Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, and the subsequent election of Richard Nixon all had cataclysmic repercussions that reverberated throughout the country. It was the age of protests, with young men and women rising up to assert their desire for equal rights and to not be used as expendable pawns in a war with no moral basis.

By 1969, The Temptations had moved on from the sunny pop sounds of “My Girl” and “Get Ready” to a grittier, edgier sound that was reflected in records such as “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Cloud Nine,” and “Runaway Child (Running Wild).” The sound was known as ‘psychedelic soul, combining traditional R&B backbeats with the effects laden, spacey guitar sounds pioneered by Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. In addition to a headier sound, the lyricism of their songs had moved towards a more social conscious mindset, best exemplified in their 1970 single “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today).”

Written by the legendary team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “Ball of Confusion” is one of the most meticulously constructed records I’ve ever heard. The thumping bass and swirling guitar line that spirals out of it in the beginning of the song feel like a breaking news story: urgent, out of nowhere and demanding of your attention. Your gripped from the first few seconds of the song, and you know you’re in for a dark ride.

It begins with an observation on racial inequality in housing and the general permeation of racism in facets of everyday life:

People movin’ out
People movin’ in
Why, because of the color of their skin
Run, run, run, but you sho’ can’t hide

Right away, it’s very easy to draw parallels between 1970 and 2018; just last week, Trump’s own HUD dept. (led ironically by an African American) voted to kill the significant Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, not to mention the lawsuits filed against him and his father in the late 1970s’ for discriminatory practices.

One of the most striking aspects of the lyrics is that “Ball of Confusion” is a largely apolitical song; it does not take a liberal or conservative stance, in fact it speaks to indecision or disillusionment with both sides insofar as who truly has their best interest in mind:

An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
Vote for me, and I’ll set you free*

The concept of populism in politics – appealing to a specific demographic with outlandish, often unattainable or unfulfilled promises – obviously rings true with Trump, but if you are operating from a more conservative mindset, you might apply the same criticism to someone like Barack Obama or even Bernie Sanders.

A creeping dread sets into the music as we build towards the chorus, frustration growing at the rampant inaction beyond those who are obligated to act:

Well, the only person talkin’
‘Bout love thy brother is the preacher
And it seems,
Nobody is interested in learnin’
But the teacher*

The song’s rapid fire crescendo by Dennis Edwards is a white knuckle, teeth grinding affair, his voice filled with the tension as he lists a myriad of various social ills:

Segregation, determination, demonstration,
Integration, aggravation,
Humiliation, obligation to our nation*

The instrumental explosion that hits the chorus feels like a release, like being let off a roller coaster.

While almost all of “Ball of Confusion” feels eerily relevant today, the song’s second verse is the where most striking comparisons can be drawn:

The sale of pills are at an all time high
Young folks walkin’ around with
Their heads in the sky
Cities aflame in the summer time
And, the beat goes on*

Air pollution, revolution, gun control,
Sound of soul
Shootin’ rockets to the moon
Kids growin’ up too soon
Politicians say more taxes will
Solve everything*

With the epidemic of illegal prescription drug abuse, the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, global warming and the controversy over the recent tax reform bill, this passage bowled me over in how frighteningly prescient it is. We’ve seemed to have learned nothing in 50 years. Our collective indifference is summed up at the end by these four words:

And the band played on.

Eagle eared listeners may recognize this as the title of a famous play about the inaction towards the AIDS crisis.

There’s still a lot to unpack in the song’s final verse:

Fear in the air, tension everywhere
Unemployment rising fast,
The Beatles’ new record’s a gas
And the only safe place to live is
On an indian reservation*

In the wake of the Dakota Pipeline controversy at Standing Rock, I derived a great deal of irony from the ‘indian reservation’ line, as even those are no longer a safe haven today.

Eve of destruction, tax deduction
City inspectors, bill collectors
Mod clothes in demand,
Population out of hand
Suicide, too many bills, hippies movin’
To the hills
People all over the world, are shoutin’
End the war*

The mentioning of the Beatles and fashion trends represent the skewed priorities and distractions we build for ourselves. Replace them with Lady Gaga and Twitter and you basically have today’s mirror image.

The mention of suicide was one I had often glossed over until last week, with the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. We tend to think of suicide as such a personalized issue, that the reasons leading to it are insular to the person’s personal experiences, without considering the overall impact of the overall social climate at large.

Amazingly, “Ball of Confusion” ends on a relatively quiet note, circling back to the opening bass / guitar tandem that opens the song. It’s almost like a resignation; there’s no solution to this madness.

Though there are many great protest songs from this era that still resonate today, few feel as ominous as “Ball of Confusion.” More than any song I’ve written about thus far, I feel a sense of exhaustion when I break down how well it aged, for all the wrong reasons.


*All credit goes to Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management US, LLC