Monthly Archives: November 2007

It’s Irish Genius Week in my Clip File!

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po-faced [poh-feyst] – adjective, Chiefly British. having an overly serious demeanor or attitude; humorless.

And U2 Week in the Style section at the Paper of Record, apparently, what with yesterday’s gushing front-page profile of Bono, my review of the 20th Anniversary reissue of The Joshua Tree in today’s paper. Maybe I’ll post a longer version of that review here. Or maybe I’ll just say “enough is enough” and get on with my life, too much of which has already gone to cutting that thing down to the not-ungenerous length at which it ran. Verily, writing about your sacred cows can be a tricky business.

The other Irish genius of whom I speak would be Samuel Beckett. The National Theatre of Great Britain Production of his 1961 Happy Days starring Fiona Shaw is at the Kennedy Center’s Terrance Theatre for a short run of concluding the day after tomorrow. I reviewed it for DCist. Not exactly light entertainment — for that, there’s A Christmas Carol 1941 at Arena, which I took my parents to the following night; DCist review forthcoming — but, you know, thought-provoking, imaginative, ballsy. Beckettian, I guess.

This Just in: Dude Likes Chick, Chick Music, Ireland

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When the Swell Season — essentially Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech songstress Markéta Irglová— played U Street’s beautiful Lincoln Theatre last December, they nearly upstaged headliner Damien Rice. But returning to the Lincoln Sunday night, the Swell Season were deservedly the main attraction, riding a wave from the sleeper hit movie Once, wherein Hansard and Irglová basically play less famous versions of themselves, falling in love (kind of) as they wander Dublin composing songs together.

The movie and the duo’s songs share a bittersweet hue, but Sunday’s concert was purely celebratory. Performing in various configurations — Hansard solo, Hansard/ Irglová duo, and as a five-piece with cellist Bertrand Galen, violinist Marja Tuhkanan, and Frames fiddler Colm MacConlomaire — the ensemble conjured up forceful-yet-intimate readings of songs from the Swell Season’s sole album and the Once soundtrack, Frames favorites, and well-chosen covers of songs by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and, um, Michelle Shocked. (Don’t snicker. The rave-up of Shocked’s “Fogtown” that closed the main set was one of the evening’s highlights.)

But the lovesick ballads featured prominently in Once — “Falling Slowly,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” and the title track —drew the biggest cheers from a rapt audience that mostly stayed quiet enough during the performances let these haunting, fragile compositions resonate.

Onstage as onscreen, Hansard and Irglová’s chemistry is palpable. He’s a furry-faced motormouth who can’t introduce a song without revising himself three times; she’s a no-nonsense siren whose voice ends all debate. But whenever Hansard indulged his cutesy tendencies — joining, for example, the already treacly Frames number “Star Star” with “Pure Imagination” from that deathless “Willy Wonka” movie — you knew the 19-year-old Irglová would have the next song, using her “If You Want Me” to pull the 37-year-old Hansard back from the twee abyss.

Truly, theirs is a match made in Heaven. Okay, Ireland. On this night, it was close enough.

A truncated version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

The Electric Version

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. . . of my Georgie James review from today’s Paper of Record.

Retro-pop duo Georgie James are a cinch for the short list of DC’s most promising bands: Their full-length debut, “Places,” is so addictive a confection it ought to be covered by the Controlled Substances Act, and their concerts have been hailed far beyond the District. So the notable awesomeness deficit of their headlining set at the Black Cat Friday night is a bit of a mystery.

Call it “A Homecoming, Sort Of.” At what doe-eyed, honey-voiced singer/keys player Laura Burhenn said was their first hometown gig since their album’s September release, the band — core members Burhenn and singer/multi-instrumentalist John Davis, plus live ringers Andrew Black (drums), Paul Michel (guitar, vocals), and Michael Cotterman (bass; also a Washington Post employee, we must tell you) — served up 45 affable minutes of 70s-inflected sonic sunshine, ably recreating the Paul McCartney-esque hooks, Paul Simon-esque harmonies, and Paul Weller-esque grooves of their record. But there was no added urgency, or humor, or grit, or any of the qualities that, when present, make a live show superior to listening at home.

To be fair, the largely (and typically) indifferent Black Cat crowd might not have been seeing their local heroes at full strength: Last month, the band cancelled 10 shows due to illness on Davis’s part. That said, both halves of Georgie James were in fine voice; Burhenn, especially, showing off a becoming vocal huskiness that gave “Cake Parade” and “Long Week” a smokier feel than their recorded incarnations.

For all their unber-hummable tunes and irreproachible chops, Georgie James were at a disadvantage, going on after Aqueduct, a Seattle-based novelty act that can’t begin to approach the Davis/Burhenn partnership’s level of songcraft, but could teach them a thing or four about how to rock a crowd. Maybe they can give each other lessons.

Reports of my influence . . .

eagles.jpg. . . would doubtless be greatly exaggerated if they existed at all. Repent, Ye Sinners, because it can’t be long now: The Eagles’ stunningly craptacular Wal-Mart-exlcusive double album Long Road Out of Eden sold 711,000 copies its first week, which in this waning era of the traditional record business qualifies as a massive hit.Let’s put that in perspective: Bruce Springsteen’s Magic, released four weeks before the Eagles opus, sold 77,000 in its debut frame. The Eagles album is an abomination, a heinous crime against taste, and also the best-selling “rock” album of 2007. Henley, Frey, & Co. were the beneficiaries of a rule change at Billboard that that allowed Long Road to be included on the Billboard 200 chart even though it’s not available from all retail outlets.Previously, exclusive releases had been barred from the Billboard 200, which is why Britney was supposed to win the week, having moved not quite 300k units of her “comeback” disc. One can’t imagine that the bafflingly positive tenor of the reviews (save for mine, The Guardian‘s, and the Sound Opinions guys’) had much to do with Long Road‘s popularity among Wal-Mart shoppers, though the $11.88 price tag probably did. After all, that’s a bargain, right? Twenty new — okay, kind of new, not counting the lead-off single from 1972 and the Joe Walsh song from the 1995 soundtrack album to RoboCop: The Series — for under $12. You can’t afford not to buy it!I especially like the paragraph-three quote in the LiveDaily story from Gary Severson, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of Entertainment, about notifying the RIAA immediately to certify the album’s “multi-platinum status.” Yo, Gary: 711,000 does not equal two million. I’m sure they’ll get there the day after Thanksgiving if not before, but you’re jumping the gun a little, Pal. (Check their excellent values on guns in the Sporting Goods section, by the way.)

A(nother) Night of Music and Passion with the Boss

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Just back from Night Two of the Boss’s two-night stand here in Our Nation’s Capitol. I was in a better position tonight, on the floor instead of Section 116 behind the stage, which wasn’t bad either — I actually like seeing the performers’ perspective, that sea of hands and smiling faces. But the sound was much better from in front of the stage, and the band’s overall energy was higher tonight. I thought Night One’s setlist was more interesting, however, featuring the rarely-performed title track from the single most underrated album in the cannon, Tunnel of Love, the still-not-appearing-regularly Magic tune “I’ll Work for Your Love,” and of course the extended encore featuring the uber-rare two-fer of “Growin’ Up” and “Kitty’s Back.”

Tonight’s set was one song shorter than last night’s, and featured five songs not performed the first night: “The Ties that Bind,” “Jackson Cage,” Patti’s “A Town Called Heartbreak,” “Backstreets,” and — it’s hard to believe this one is an alternate tune instead of an every-nighter, though I like that Bruce is giving one of the standards a rest — “Thunder Road,” dedicated “to Jann [Wenner, sez my associate J. Freedom du Luc, whose review of Night One appears in tomorrow’s Paper of Record; though I saw him at tonight’s show, too] and Pat.”

I have no idea who Pat is.

Five out of 24 set-changes ain’t bad, but I thought there might be a few more: “Lonesome Day,” “Workin’ on the Highway” and even, though it pains me to say it, “The Promised Land” all felt like the could be candidates for rotation. Some of the other tunes I know have already been performed this tour that I was hoping to hear tonight are “Brilliant Disguise” (again from the unfairly shunned Tunnel of Love) and “Be True,” a Tunnel B-side. Yeah, I love me some Tunnel, even if the production does sound quite dated now.

“Last to Die” was dedicated “to John” tonight. Yeah, that John, whose testimony before Congress in the 70s inspired the title.

My overall take on the Magic tour as I’ve experienced it these last two nights is that it isn’t as thematically cohesive as either of the E Street Band tours I’ve witnessed firsthand. The 1999-2000 tour was about reintroducing the band and was possibly the least nostalgia-reliant reunion tour ever. The 2002-3 The Rising tour was about reaffirming America’s benevolent strength after the trauma of 9/11. In the years since then, the “benevolent” part of that phrase has become seriously questionable, and even the “strength” part has been eroded by a series of . . . well, you don’t need me to tell you.

Magic reflects the darker times we’re living in, and Bruce has been playing a big chunk of the album this fall: nine songs of its 11 last night and eight tonight. The balance of the set is about exposing some worthy classics that haven’t been played to death since the E Streets got back together in 1999 (“She’s the One”), rearranging and reconsidering other tunes (“Reason to Believe,” now a bluesy stomp), and reprising the worthy new song from the Seeger Sessions tour, “American Land.”

So if the Magic setlists feel like a bit more of a grab-bag than the prior two tours’ programmes, well, it may be because they kind of are. Bruce continues to wrestle with how to serve both his muse and his loyal fan base, who are there mostly to hear old tunes. (I was one of the youngest people on the floor at tonight’s show, and I am, um, not young.) That said, Bruce is more courageous in this regard than any other artist at his level of popularity. Even U2 don’t have the balls to play nine songs from their newest album anymore. And the crowd at the Phone Booth the last two nights have responded to the new songs more enthusiastically than I would have expected, singing along to “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” and “Long Walk Home” and listening in quiet reverence to “Devil’s Arcade” and “Magic.”

On a more specific note about the music, I wish there were more singing. Patti and Steve sang backup throughout both shows, and Soozie Tyrell sang, too, but “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” particularly, and “Kitty’s Back” both suffered from a distinct lack of harmony. Maybe it’s because I just saw the New Pornographers two weeks ago, but I wanted more of that. There are plenty of decent singers among the E Street Band, so let’s hear ’em!

Also, I miss the lengthy, funny band introductions from the prior tours. Bruce just ran through everyone’s name quickly near the end of “American Land” this time. No “star of late-night television” for Max or Little Stevie, no “professor at the university of musical peversity” for Roy Bittan, no “come on up for the rising” for Patti. It’s a chance to inject a little more humor and warmth into the show. Bring it back, Boss!

“Welcome to the Andy Summers Show!”

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The King of Pain gets some impressive hang time in this band-approved publicity shot not from the Phone Booth show here in DC.

. . . howled Sting, ageless, serene, and in perfect (if lower) voice at Verizon Center Monday night, altering the original “So Lonely” lyric (“welcome to this one man show”) to salute the Police’s prodigious guitarist. Now a determined egalitarian, he did the same for percussionist Stewart Copeland on a subsequent verse.

Retired schoolteacher Gordon Sumner’s newfound magnanimity is the major difference between the Police circa nineteen-eighty-whenever and the Police v. 2007. Having made at least three albums as a solo artist that are arguably the equal of anything he did with his old band, Sting is willing, nay, eager to cede the spotlight to his two mates, granting the 64-year-old Summers, in particular, License to Shred in way he never did during the Reagan Era.

Fortunately, Summers is not just a brilliant axe man but a disciplined minimalist, never allowing the crunchy, angular fills he contributed to “When the World Is Running Down” or “Driven to Tears” more sonic real estate than necessary to achieve maximum sweetass yield. And while Sting did what little talking there was in the 100-minute show, Summers appeared to call the shots, bringing “De Do Do, De Da Da” to a halt with a two-handed “cut” sign just as it threatened to congeal into Christopher Cross territory.

Copeland, too, was agreeably unleashed, leaping between a drum kit and a sort of cage made of seemingly every device ever designed to make a melodic sound when struck with a blunt object, tossing his sticks (or mallets) over both shoulders every time he bolted between stations. He made “Wrapped Around Your Finger” a spooky tour-de-force. His bulging eyes framed by big glasses, a headband, and a headset mic, the Alexandria native needed only a dental retainer to complete the picture of a geek done good. But you couldn’t doubt the rock. You could, however, wonder why Sting kept inviting the audience to mess with his dense polyrhythms by clapping. Less passivity with your aggression, please, Mr. Sumner!

The setlist was a rewind of their headlining Virgin Festival appearance last August, Sting’s banter included, save for a welcome pair of additions from the earlier, crankier end of their catalogue, “Hole in My Life” and “Truth Hits Everybody.” Sting introduced the latter as “a song from our second album, from 1875.” King of Pain? King of self-deprecating laffs, more like!

Was it better than their enervated V-Fest set? Uh-huh. Do we say so because this one wasn’t preceded by a 10-hour stand-a-thon in skin-melting heat? Er, maybe.

A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Washington Post.

My Girlfriend Was a Jailhouse Witch!

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It’s true! Yesterday afternoon, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company brought their production of the Bard’s best and only occult-tinged Scottish tragedy, MacBeth, to the Patuxent Institution, an 800-inmate, maximum security prison in Jessup, MD. Miss Crooks plays Witch #2, barely visible in the background at left in the photo.

The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun both ran stories today; I’ve linked to both. The Post’s coverage, in particular, looks great in today’s Metro section, with lots of big, bold photos. William Wan’s story isn’t too shabby, either.

It’s all a little reminicsent of “Act V,” Jack Hitt’s superb This American Life story from 2002 about a production of Hamlet at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, rehearsed and staged by the inmates. Though I guess this is more like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, or even better, Johnny Cash at San Quentin.

CSC is a solid company whose productions have been growing steadily in quality and ambition for several years now. The other venues on their current mini-tour of MacBeth have been tony private schools; here’s hoping the publicity from the prison show will help them get to perform in front of kids who don’t already have plenty of opportunities to experience Shakespeare.

Tickets for performances of CSC’s MacBeth at the Howard County Arts Center are available here.