Monday, August 29, 2011

Late Summer Solstice

The Beast will be taking a brief, two-week hiatus to go & get married.
Wish us luck!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Summer of....Poorly Constructed Festival Stages

(Ottawa Bluesfest, Canada, 7/17/11)

(Brady District Block Party, Tulsa, OK, 8/07/11)

(Indiana State Fair, 8/13/11)

(Pukkelpop Festival, Hasselt, Belgium, 8/19/11)

Friday, August 19, 2011


PART IV: 1987-1981
40. Laurie Anderson – “The Day the Devil” (4/19/1986)
Downtown NYC avant-garde weirdness comes to 8H. (Tony Danza was the host -- how avant-garde can you get?) Anderson sings this song like a jeremiad from a Baptist Preacher ("Everyone...please riiiiise!!"), with her voice electronically mutuated into a disturbing low growl. Then she bounces out among the audience, handing out what looks to be religious pamphlets: "'Cause in heaven, you get it all back! Here ya go!"

39. Al Green – “Going Away” (1/25/1986)
Since SNL never had Green on during his mid-1970s Willie Mitchell-produced heyday (one of their most glaring omissions), we had to settle for the Reverend's dull mid-80s, back-to-Christ output -- but you'd never know it from this bouyant and effortless performance. Love watching Green's hand gestures, as they demonstrate that being a great frontman involves how you move them to puncuate a line.

38. The Replacements – “Bastards of Young” & “Kiss Me on the Bus” (1/18/1986)
Rolling Stone once called this a "smoking shoot-out of a performance," and the 'Mat's certainly leave a lot of sweaty, beer-sozzled bar-band stink in their wake. For "Bastards," bulb-nosed punk Paul Westerberg frequently walks away from the mic in the middle of a line a la Keith Richards; for the impossibly lovely "Bus," the boys switch outfits -- save for late guitarist Bob Stinson, who wears bell-bottomed clown pants. Right after they finished their second song, Lorne Michaels banned them from returning to the show. Elvis Costello would have been proud.

37. Tina Turner – “What’s Love Got To Do with It” (2/02/1985)
Like Al Green, if you want to study how a great front(wo)man commands a stage, look no further than Ms. Anna Mae Bullock's little yelps, shimmies and wink-wink vocal inflections. Sex incarnate in leather hot pants. Meanwhile, Ike watched this from the prison lounge.

36. The Honeydrippers – “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (12/15/1984)
More an ad hoc Xmas jam than a performance from the actual Honeydrippers: spastic pianist Paul Shaffer and tattooed axegrinder Brian Setzer sit in for Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Nile Rodgers. (What a show that would have been.) They pull out a full doo-wop crew for this memorable track made famous by Elvis and Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You. Setzer smokes on his bluesy solo.

35. The Cars – “Drive” (5/12/1984)
Of course, watching this now is a bit of an eerie experience, owing as much to bassist Ben Orr's untimely 2000 death as his weirdly beautiful tenor on this lush ballad, probably the best song The Cars ever recorded. His bland good looks are given a strange angelic-metrosexual sheen with too much makeup.

34. Stevie Wonder – “Overjoyed” & “Go Home” (5/17/1983)
In his memorable hosting gig (the notorious "Kannon AE-1" ad, f'rinstance), Lil' Stevie pulled out two of the best songs from an album that wouldn't be released for another two years. This album was In Square Circle, most known for the excreble "I Just Called To Say I Love You," which cemented his late-period career as the world highest paid wedding singer.

33. Joe Jackson Band – “Another World” (10/30/1982)
Jackson's Night and Day is a song cycle about New York and chasing the Ghost of Gershwin, and this opening number to that 1982 record is the limey emigre's stunned first glimpse of the Empire City set to a persistent Nuyorican beat. Best part: Jackson's minimalist band -- no guitars! -- anchored by the great "Greek-Rican" percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos on those shimmering timbales.

32. Queen – “Under Pressure” (9/25/1982)
The late, great Freddie Mercury -- in full gay-bar-moustache form -- sings both his and David Bowie's parts. Come to think of it, who even needed Bowie in the first place?

31. Sparks – “Mickey Mouse” (5/15/1982)
WHO booked these guys? And why? Was the network asleep that week? UK-by-way-of-LA brothers Ron and Russell Mael turn in more of a performance-art piece -- check out the unprecedented "host introduction" done by Danny De Vito. A booking like this would never happen today.

30. Daryl Hall & John Oates – “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” (2/27/1982)
Our biggest heartbreak. When Comedy Central used to run SNL reruns from ALL seasons back in the day (not just the newest ones, where the cloying Justin Timberlake seems to be in every episode), we saw this performance and were shocked at how funky it was. H&O's best song has since become sampled by everyone from De La Soul and 2 Live Crew to Girl Talk and Simply Red. So, in a way, we were watching history -- LOST history, as we have no been able to track down a video of this online. If anyone out there knows where to find it, you know where to find us.

29. Lindsay Buckingham – “Trouble” (2/06/1982)
Our second biggest heartbreak: we once had this on VHS tape but lost it during a move. Was this the same guy who stood at the forefront of the sensitive, self-obsessed California rock of the 1970s? Buckingham's jarring metamorphosis from Me Decade yippie to twitchy New Waver came on the heels of this masterful dream-pop classic -- his only hit as a solo artist (not counting "Holiday Road" -- and who ever would?) He could be a frontman for the Fabulous Poodles for chrissakes!

28. Jennifer Holliday – “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (1/30/1982)
The Great White Way had a bit more of a presence in earlier days of SNL. The cast of The Pirates of Penzance, "anti-mime" Bill Irwin and ironic juggler Michael Davis were some of the acts brought over from Broadway. Jennifer Holliday's star-making performance of this rageful yawp from Dreamgirls is now preserved for posterity in case anyone brings up the name "Jennifer Hudson."

27. Billy Joel – “She’s Got A Way” (11/14/1981)
The first time Billy Joel appeared on SNL back in 1978, he had to cancel his high school reunion in order to make his first live-TV gig. This time, SNL came to him. Joel sang two ballads from his quasi-live album Songs in the Attic in a darkened loft studio blocks away from 8H. We surmise that back then, this was seen as the pinnacle of broadcast technology. This song, of course, is one of his gems.

26. Fear – "I Don't Care About You," "Beef Bologna,"
“New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones” & "Let's Have A War" (10/31/1981)
L.A. puke-punk brought to your parents' living room courtesy of John Belushi and Michael O'Donoghue, this infamous pogo rally led by a gaggle of nihilistic shitheads (who, interestingly enough, were shipped up from the D.C. hardcore scene) is all over the Web, more often than not voted "the best-ever live performance on SNL" by those of the post-everything generation. Not for the first time, Angelenos will knock Gothamites on their Brooks Brothers bee-hinds (see also: Beck, Fishbone). Producer Dick Ebersol was reportedly so incensed that he cut the cameras and booted a metal folding chair into the second-tier bleachers.
25. The Kinks – “Art Lover” (10/10/1981)
How many times was the Beast almost moved to tears by an SNL performance? This one. Ray Davies, at his British music-hall best, tells a song-story about what first appears to be a creepy, Aqualungy old dude who ogles little girls in a park. Then he reveals why he's really there. Cue heartstrings.

24. Junior Walker & the All-Stars – “Shotgun” (4/11/1981)
After the disatrous Jean Doumanian dominion of 1980-81 season, producer Dick Ebersol retooled and re-rallied SNL for one more show, hosted by old standby and collossal prick Chevy Chase. Walker simply showed up and did what he'd been doing since the mid-1950's: blowing the roof off the mutha, both with his sax and his eloquently gritty voice.

23. Prince – “Partyup” (2/21/1981)
Say what you want about Miss Doumanian, her brief, bloody reign at the show yielded the best crop of eclectic artists who hadn't yet seeped into the mainstream. Case in point: the Kid from Minneapolis. Even at 22 years old, he commands his band of Victorian-laced funk freaks like James Brown at his peak, with little points and arm twirls to signal the band to get nasty. Best part: Prince's pants, which aren't really pants. BTW: This was also the episode where cast member Charles Rocket said "Fuck" on the air. Prince got off scot-free!

22. The Funky 4 + 1 More – “That’s The Joint” (2/14/1981)
Bronx-bred hip hop in its dirty, scruffy infancy. Once again, someone on the SNL music-booking team was way ahead of the curve. And the fact that the song performed became one of the most influential and sampled songs in the pantheon makes this clip one for the time vaults. Note how they put the DJ in front of the MCs. How quaint!

Monday, August 15, 2011

What "Breaking Bad" Does Badly [*UPDATED]


"Man, Milli Vanilli have really let themselves go downhill."

Someone finally wrote it, and it finally dawned that we should jump on this bus. The Beast wonders why it can't watch a single episode of AMC's Coen-Brothers pastiche Breaking Bad without fast-forwarding through at least half of it. We certainly find some story arcs (Mike & Jesse, Gus, the Diablo Twins) more fascinating than others (Skylar & Ted, bullet-headed douchebag Hank & his kleptoholic wife Marie). But it has come down to individual scenes, and what the impossibly tall shadow left by David Chase's monumental The Sopranos has done to television writing.

As Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz wrote today: "This is one of the central paradoxes of long-form TV storytelling: the nature of the medium lets filmmakers explore the details and texture of day-to-day problem solving, the very stuff of life, with scope and depth; and yet any show that seizes that opportunity risks boring its audience."

Wordie Worderson. What all of AMC's prestige-laden, post-Mad Men AMC ensemble dramas like The Walking Dead seem to have hit upon was the mistaken examination of daily minutiae as an excuse to draw out tension and pad the plotless black holes. Case in point: the rightfully frustrating The Killing, where a couple's grief over the death of their young daughter is drawn down to such an agonizing snail's pace (each episode takes place on sequential days) that it does what Clint Eastwood's Hereafter did for the subject of Death: it makes it boring. (The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin has also written about this peculiar quirk.)

There are time when this works spectacularly, most noticeably in BB's masterful opening and closing sequences of each episode: the day-in-the-life montage of the motel hooker whom Jessie Pinkman corrals for a lame murder plot; or the balletic, Sergio Leone-cribbed running gun battle in an Alberquerque parking lot. Seitz cites Walt and Jesse trying to dispose of the bodies of the two dealers in Season 1, the Season 2 episode where they were held hostage by a lunatic drug kingpin, this season's grisly "Box Cutter" sequence as successes in this vein, and on that I would add Jesse's hallucinatory standoff with a couple of scumbag street dealers and "fixer" Mike's calm, military-style assault on a cartel meth lab. (The veteran beady-eyed tough guy Jonathan Banks should get an Emmy for his portayal of doting pappy Mike, who is basically Anton Chigurh with a no hair and a weary sense of humor.)

Where it doesn't work? Seitz points to last night's episode: "Jesse-and-Mike in the desert sequence is a much less defensible example. It surely could have been compressed, beyond the music montage, to get to the important part: Jesse shaking off his torpor and throwing himself into the new job he's been assigned." I would add to this list the interminable scene where Walt and Skylar try to work out their "Gambling Addiction" story, and even that nasty box cutter scene could have been trimmed for maximum impact. Even Jessie's shooting of the weird meth chef Gale Boetticher just went on and on and on...

BB is frequently cited alongside Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Weeds, Big Love and Boardwalk Empire as one of the beneficiaries of The Sopranos redrawing of the scripted page. One of the innovations of that series was the unpredictable staging and scene length. Free from having to cut to commericals, Chase & Co. had more time to let their scenes breathe, to expand them past where the average TV viewer, brainwashed by the bite-sized quick edits of network TV, would say, OK, here's where we cut away to something else.What The Sopranos did brilliantly -- besides rendering dramatic interplay between characters with such complexity that you can still catch small subtleties you missed the first 50 times -- was taking this extra time and, quite simply, doing something with it. There are many examples, but our fave is defintitely the scene where Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) drops by the home of Ralphie Cifarello (Joe Pantoliano) for breakfast and winds up murdering him on the kitchen floor. The scene is around 6-7 minutes long, last time we checked -- but it's like a mini-play in three acts: Tony drops by on a lazy Sunday morning and greets Ralphie, comforts him on his son's recent hospitalization, they go inside, Ralphie in his pajamas cooks eggs with sour cream, everything is calm, then the tensions starts, backs off, then rises again, finally exploding in a death struggle. Utterly unpredictable and a scene you'd never see on NBC.

*UPDATE (10/14/11): Okay, they FINALLY got it right: the breathtaking 13 minute playlet at the end of this season's episode "Hermanos", where the mundane ("We offer a number of side orders...") mixes eloquently with the nightmarish ("You did this to him."):

Thursday, August 4, 2011

So Long, Brick

The Last Man Standing has finally sat down: columnist Phil "Brick" Wahl, of "Brick's Jazz Picks," has finally stepped down from his singular post as the L.A. Weekly's jazz columnist. Here's what he told Don Heckman of the International Review of Music:

A few days ago we received a missive from Brick Wahl telling us that he had ended his association with the L.A. Weekly. “Brick’s Picks has left the building” was the way he put it. A bit later we discovered that his continuing problems – “micro-editing,” “rewriting” – with a new editor had driven him to end the tenure of his widely read “Brick’s Picks” column.

“I walked,” he said. But it’s hard to understand how the Weekly could have allowed Brick’s departure to take place. No one has done a better job of covering the Southland jazz community. His intelligence, skill, musical insights and whimsical humor were immensely valuable – if, obviously, underappreciated– assets to the Weekly. And it’s their loss.

In honor of Mr. Wahl, here's one of our favorites from BJP, written in 2008 for Jazz Appreciation Month:

by Brick Wahl
The table was so close, it abutted the stage, and when Azar [Lawrence] blew that soprano of his you could look straight up into its innards and almost see the frantic rush of notes coming out all harmonized. It was that close. So close that you could feel the rhythm section, Lorca Hart’s pounding toms and John Heard’s thrumming bass and Nate Morgan’s jagged chords vibrating through the stage and through the table and into our bones. They had a groove going, a monster jazz groove, and it was unstoppable. Even Azar gave into it, left the stage to let the groove whirl itself senseless, turning and turning, ever widening. Morgan’s fingers were completely mad, pounding and pirouetting insanely intricate melodies out of Monk and McCoy and the blues and Chopin. Lorca, laughing, was all motion and whirring sticks.

Yet things did not fall apart. Because holding down that center was Heard, just his second night back at Charlie O’s after a long, scary illness. He leaned into his instrument and laid out a perfect lattice of bass notes that held everything together as it propelled it all forward. No mere anarchy, this. This was an infinite groove. This was a happening. This was jazz in all its overwhelming power, deep black music played white hot. Nothing else mattered. Not the whole crass music business, not the manufactured pop and rock and hip-hop that passes for American culture anymore, not a music press that pompously elevates mass-produced trash into art. None of that mattered, not an iota. This was a Sufi moment, all the horrors of the world dispelled by the twirling monster groove. No one slouching nowhere. When at last it came to a stop, the audience, spent, exploded with applause and rushed the stage to congratulate the players like they’d won the Stanley Cup.

But then if you dig jazz you’ve been there. Moments like that don’t happen every time; if you see enough jazz you’ll experience them. It’s one of the very last things in America, this battered America, that can take a sick and tired you and make you feel like you touched the sun. It still does what the American music industry has destroyed in almost every other music. It remains real, unpackaged, spontaneous. It’s immune to marketing campaigns and image consultants. They may have killed rock and pop and the rest, sucked them dry, but they haven’t touched jazz. Certainly not that night at Charlie O’s ... for if there had been any A&R people in the audience that night, as Lee Ving once said, they certainly went and died...That’s jazz appreciation. (published in LA Weekly, April 25-May 1, 2008)