Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review of The Cranberries' "Something Else"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website:


Review Summary: When is a compilation album not a compilation album?

Riddle me this: When is a compilation not a compilation album? The answer is when the band actually rearranges and rerecords their own songs, and maybe throws in a few new ones as well. Blondie did it a few years ago, with their Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux album, which they sold paired up with their new (at that time) Ghosts of Download LP. Jethro Tull did it earlier this year, to tragic effect, with their money-grabbing The String Quartets album. Now the Irish '90s band The Cranberries have done it with Something Else (which if they'd been British, I suppose, would have been titled And Now for Something Completely Different). Just another cynical cash capture, right? Well, I don't know. Whatever the band's intentions, this one might actually be worth it, especially for longtime fans.

Something Else features ten classic Cranberries songs, all softened slightly and rerecorded as acoustic numbers with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, plus three new tracks. In a nod to the band's history, the album recreates the front cover from their 1994 effort No Need to Argue, with the four Cranberries sitting on their trademark sofa in similar positions to those on Argue's cover, this time with a greenish blue backdrop instead of a white one.

So what makes this better than the Blondie or Jethro Tull releases? For one thing, unlike the Tull album, this actually is The Cranberries here, not just the lead singer plus one other band member. And unlike both the Blondie and Tull albums, The Cranberries are a much younger group, and their lead singer Dolores O'Riordan is still in top form here. By the time of Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux, Deborah Harry's voice was starting to fray somewhat, and the less said about poor Ian Anderson's vocal efforts on The String Quartets, the better.

For the most part for the rerecorded tracks on Something Else, the changes aren't jarring. If you listen to them back-to-back with the originals, you'll find some slowed down a little, others speeded up, and maybe a key change or two. And of course, the new versions have the additional strings, etc., which actually blend in quite organically with this material. The one song that seems the most divergent from its precursor is "Zombie", which is considerably tempered here. In this case, the change works -- I won't say the new version is better, but it is a worthy alternative. Where the original track was harsh and angry, the strings here make the new version sound softer and more sorrowful. It's a legitimate re-imagining.

As for the new songs, they're all worth hearing. "The Glory" is a simple, pleasant song wherein O'Riordan asks an old friend to come over and give her some support through a bad time, while "Rupture" is a slow, piano-based number about lost love. The real revelation here, though, is "Why", which has been released as the album's single. This is haunting number built around a strummed acoustic guitar that seems to be a plea to a dead lover: "I will wait for you/Will you wait for me?" The song is vintage Cranberries, and it's one of my favorite songs of 2017.

I won't lie -- when I first heard that The Cranberries had an LP coming out this year year, I was a little disappointed to discover that it wasn't made up of all new material. Nevertheless, Something Else won me over. The three new songs gave me a Cranberries fix to carry me over for at least a little while, and the rest of the album reminded me why I love this group in the first place. Something Else is a worthwhile pick-up for any Cranberries fan, and a decent sampler for people who aren't familiar with the band.


Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Monday, October 23, 2017

Bash & Pop and The Psychedelic Furs

I'm going to try to make this write-up atypically short. Let's see how I do.

So this was a quiet weekend -- just one event, as opposed to the three last weekend. On Saturday night, Denise and I drove into Huntington to see The Psychedelic Furs with a band I never heard of opening, Bash & Pop. Before we went, I was told that Bash & Pop was founded by the guy who fronted The Replacements. Great, I thought, the "That's What I Like About You," guy. Turns out, not so much. That was The Romantics. And now you get an inside look at how my brain works. I have a lot of knowledge about certain '80s bands that I really like, such as Blondie or Eurythmics. But the '80s also had a lot of bands that I really only care about one or two songs from. So obviously, both The Replacements and The Romantics are filed in my head under "3-syllable '80s bands whose name begins with the letter 'R'".

Anyway, Bash & Pop was OK, but they didn't blow me away. They were way more more Americana than I expected -- kind of like a country-ish version of Japandroids. They were definitely OK, but I felt like their sound was more appropriate to open for Poco than for The Furs. The last time I saw the Furs, in Westbury, The Church opened for them, and that was a much better match. Granted, The Church spent a good part of the night fighting with the Westbury Music Fair's sound crew, and with part of the audience, but even that was pretty entertaining.

Bash & Pop had an admittedly hard job -- when their set started, there was only a smattering of people on the floor in the main part of the theater. (We were in the comfy seats upstairs behind the floor, as usual). Lead singer Tommy Stinson appeared to be a little hammered for the entire set, and who could blame him? But the band played hard, and although much of the crowd seemed indifferent, they did win a few people over -- the guy across the aisle from me was bopping like a maniac. And by the end of their (slightly overlong) set, the room had filled out quite a bit, so they got at least some love by the end of the night.

As for The Psychedelic Furs, this was the third time I've seen them. They played with several other '80s acts at a show at Jones Beach a few years ago, and they were alright but not spectacular. Then, at The Westbury Music Fair, they were smoking hot. This set was somewhere in between. Part of it, I think, is that the Westbury Music Fair is a far more intimate setting -- it's smaller, and you're sitting right on top of the band.

This brings me to a quick aside about the Paramount. You've probably noticed, I see more more shows there than anywhere else. It's not because it's my favorite venue -- it's not. It's OK, and the staff there have always been courteous to me. But Huntington is a bit of a haul from Patchogue, and the parking there, especially on a Saturday night, can be a pain in the patooties. And, as I said, the seats are relatively far back -- not as far as I usually sit at Jones Beach, or as far as the seats in The Space in Westbury, but nowhere near as close asthe seats at The Westbury Music Fair or The Boulton Center. But the reason I see more shows at The Paramount than anywhere else -- they get more of the bands I want see, and more consistently, than does any other Long Island venue. They operate at least 3 or 4 nights a week, and get bands of all genres -- in the weeks coming up, they have King Crimson, Howard Jones, Dennis DeYoung, Skid Row, Dee Snider, The Maine (with Night Riots) -- bands from every decade in every style. (And I'm not even talking about their comedy nights). So kudos to them for that -- in the end, I go where the bands I want to see are playing.

Anyway, back to The Psychedlic Furs. I thought that Richard Butler's voice wasn't in its very top form for the show -- not bad, but maybe 90%. But overall, it was a fine night out. They're calling this tour The Singles Tour, and for good reason -- they played every one of their songs that I wanted to hear, including my favorite, "Love My Way," which I consider a perfect '80s song, along with "Heaven", "Heartbreak Beat", "Pretty in Pink", and "Until She Comes," with an encore of "Sister Europe" and "India". (For a full setlist, see https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/the-psychedelic-furs/2017/the-paramount-huntington-ny-63e32ecb.html.)

I won't say it was an exciting show, the way the Retro Future show was a few months back. On the dance floor, there was more swaying than out-and-out dancing going on. But don't take that to mean it was in any way disappointing. I found myself in a pleasant, mellow haze all night, with song after song just washing over me. Even the ones I didn't know went down smooth. The show was in every way worth the price of admission.

So that was my Saturday night this week. Hope yours was good too.

Hmm. Not all that short after all, eh?


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review of The Go-Go's' "God Bless The Go-Go's"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website earlier this afternoon:


Review Summary: This was more likely than not The Go-Go's' last-ever studio album. At least they went out on a high note.


I've written before about it before -- the notion that bands have a shelf life. It happens like this: Say you're fifteen years old, and you've just found your way to this site. Some new band just releases their first LP -- let's call them Nuclear Butt Nugget. It's some cutting-edge shit (no pun intended), and everyone just loves it. More than 3,000 people weigh in, to give the album an average Sputnik rating of 4.5. These guys are amazing! They're your new favorite band. You read everything you can about the album, and talk it about with all your friends. Thirteen months later, Nuclear Butt Nugget II is released, and it's even better than the first one. It gets almost 5,000 ratings this time. These guys are God! You catch them live on the Warped Tour, and it's the best day of your life. Three months later, your girlfriend breaks up with you, and all you can do is lay there in the dark and play Nuclear Butt Nugget II over and over again. It's the only thing that keeps you from killing yourself. You get through these dark days, but by the time the follow-up, Still Butt Nuggets, comes out, you're in the middle of mid-terms during freshman year of college. The band is still pretty great, but you're much busier now -- they're a smaller part of your life.

Flash forward twenty-five years. You hear through the grapevine that the Nugget is back! You download the new album, and they sound as good as they ever did. But things have changed. Nobody's talking about them. You try to play it for your kids, but they look at you with a mixture of pity and disgust. The album doesn't chart. Sputnik Music has long since collapsed -- one day after the site had its usual weekly crash, it just never came back. But if it was still up, the album would be lucky to pull twenty ratings. Nuclear Butt Nugget is a band out of time. They're an oldies act. They still write great songs, but no one seems to care but you. They still draw enough to tour. But when they do, there's no more mosh pit -- somebody would break a hip. And every year, the heads in the audience get whiter and whiter.

You get what I'm saying. God Bless The Go-Go's is vintage Go-Go's. It's every bit as good as the three studio albums they released in their prime. In fact, it's probably better than Vacation. Its one great sin is that it was released exactly twenty years after the band's debut album Beauty and the Beat. And that's enough to condemn it to relative obscurity. Which is a shame, because for Go-Go's fans, it's a welcome addition to the band's somewhat slim discography. Or it would have been, if we'd even been aware of it. But for many of us, when it came out in 2001, we were just too busy living our lives to even know it existed. So here I am, sixteen years later, giving it some belated love. 

The Go-Go's were pop punk before anyone even used the term. They began as a bunch of girls who mostly didn't know how to play their instruments but thought it would be cool to play in a band and get famous. As they got more proficient, their music became known for its driving guitars, for the throaty vocals of lead singer Belinda Carlisle, and for strong harmonies by Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey and Kathy Valentine. It also helped that several of the band members, particularly Wiedlin, Caffrey and Valentine, had a knack for writing catchy songs with strong, recognizable hooks.

All of those strengths are eminently on display on God Bless The Go-Go's. The strongest song, "Unforgiven," was co-written with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. Its core idea is an interesting one, namely if you can forgive someone, you can just as easily "unforgive" them, especially when their subsequent behavior proves that they never deserved forgiveness in the first place. This track was released as a single, and managed to reach #44 on Billboard's "Mainstream Rock" chart (otherwise known as rock for old people).

The album contains thirteen tracks in all, and most of them are at least decent. "La La Land," the song that opens the album, is the band's in-your-face way of re-introducing themselves to their audience: "Hello world we're here again/Living life in lalaland," "lalaland" in this case meaning both a state of unreality, and also, or course, the band's home base of Los Angeles. The theme of forgiveness surfaces again in another of the LP's best tracks, "Apology", although here it's sung from the perspective of the offender, not the forgiver: "My moods they change like the weather/So I ask your forgiveness/While I pull myself together."

Other strong tracks include "Automatic Rainy Day," about that one friend who can always manage to suck all the life out of a room; "Daisy Chain," a slower, more regretful number that Wiedlin and Valentine co-wrote with Jill Sobule; "Kissing Ashphalt", a song about doing both a physical and emotional faceplant; and "Here You Are," a somewhat melancholic musical representation of the old truism "Wherever you go, there you are" (which has been credited by some to Confucius, but I like to attribute to a more modern philosopher, Crocodile Dundee).

One other worthwhile asterisk about this album is the controversy that surrounded the cover art. The front cover for this one featured five individual photos of each of the band members dressed as The Virgin Mary. This led to criticism from a number of different Catholic watchdog groups. It would have probably been controversial anyway, but given The Go-Go's' previous notoriety for drug use and one famous "sex tape" (although the closest thing to "sex" on the tape was purportedly a drug-addled game of hide the phallic object between the butt cheeks of a passed-out male roadie), it's somewhat understandable that true believers might consider this band to be particularly ill-suited for such a pious depiction. 

In any event, although God Bless the Go-Go's did manage to hit # 57 on the American Billboardcharts, it came and went largely unnoticed. In the years since that time, the band has toured on and off, but in all probability, this will serve as their last studio album (especially since they kicked Valentine out of the band in 2013). If that's so, at least they went out on a high note. Sputnikkers should consider giving it some love. Especially since they're ten times better than Nuclear Butt Nugget could ever hope to be.


Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Jekyl & Hyde: The Musical

I have to stop attending all of these shows. It makes me write too much.

So, yeah, Saturday night, Denise and I caught the third part of my weekend trifecta, Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale. I didn't realize it when I bought the tickets, but it was opening night, so the theater was packed.

Now it's been awhile since I've been to this particular theater. In fact, the last time was before it was called the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre. I'm pretty sure the last show I saw my was a children's production of Peter Pan, in which my niece played a few different roles. Prior to that, I think the last adult show I saw there was Into the Woods a few years back.

Some things seem to have changed besides the name. The biggest is that in the back of the theater in the center, there's a section with tables and chairs, so the people sitting there are in a sort of dinner theater setting. (Unless it was just set up that way because it was Jekyll & Hyde's opening night, which is possible, I suppose).

Now I've never seen this show before, although I do have the original Broadway Cast Soundtrack album. But this is one of those shows that the authors never seem to stop tinkering with, so some of the songs are different. (I also own the DVD version, which stars David Hasselhoff, but for some reason, I've yet to watch it -- maybe because of the Hoff.) The play features music by Frank Wildhorn and a book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, and although it was somewhat successful on Broadway, running for almost 4 years, I notice that the show, and the creators, are kind of the Rodney Dangerfield's of Broadway -- they don't get much respect. Perhaps that's because, according to Wikipedia, the show somehow managed to lose money in spite of its long run.

Anyway, I'd rate it as a decent show -- not great, but certainly an acceptable night of entertainment.

Denise and I were sitting in the back left side of the theater, and whether it was due to the acoustics of the theater or my own hearing, except for a few members of the cast, the sound was a little muddy for most of the night. (We sat in virtually the same place, and I had the same trouble, with Peter Pan, but I'm pretty sure that was because most of the kids don't know how to project.) In addition, the play is lit somewhat dimly throughout, which I'm sure was done to set the mood (and rightly so). In any event, I enjoyed the show, but I wish I'd bought tickets on a less crowded night so I could have sat closer to the stage.

Two members of the cast really stood out for me. One was Katie Ferretti, who played Jekyll's fiancee Emma Crew. She had a lovely soprano voice that projected quite nicely, and she definitely made the most of her role.

The star of the show, though, was Casey Manning, who played the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde, and he was amazing. The guy has a powerful and pleasing voice, and he can hold a note like you wouldn't believe. There's one song near the end of the play, "Confrontation", where he basically faces off against himself, going back and forth as his two dueling personalities fight for dominance. It was a ridiculously good performance.

Nicole Fragala as Lucy, the burlesque dancer who loves Jekyll and is victimized by Hyde, has some good moments, but I couldn't understand her consistently, so her performance seemed just okay to me. However, in her defense, I have to say that the audience went crazy for her, cheering wildly after each of her songs and giving her the biggest ovation at the end of the night other than the one for Manning. My wife also thought she was excellent, and seemed to feel that the sound issues were due to a problem with her mic. Denise is a singer and a former theater kid, so I'll defer to her judgment and give Ms. Fragala the benefit of the doubt.

The rest of the cast members were pretty good, but Manning and Ferretti were the only ones I could hear consistently. Robins Phophete, who played the part of Utterson, Jekyl's lawyer and best friend, looked and acted the part perfectly, but he was particularly marble-mouthed. I couldn't understand almost anything he sang.

In spite of these sound problems, it was an enjoyable night of theater. It was well sung, atmospheric and well directed. (I also notice that Ashley Nicastro, whose work I always enjoyed with the Cultural Arts Playhouse, is the theater's new choreographer, which was nice to see). And the musicians were quite good too (which is new to me here. The last show I saw featured canned music).

So how did Friday night and Saturday night compare? It's a tough call. I enjoyed both shows, for different reasons. Man of La Mancha is by far the superior vehicle to my way of thinking, but then again, Jekyll & Hyde, at 20 years old, is by far the fresher play -- Man of La Mancha has been kicking around the local and community theater circuit for a far longer time. Both casts were good. Jekyll & Hyde had less disturbing violence. (Zinger alert!) Anyway, each of the two shows had more than enough good qualities to make them worthwhile.

Jekyll & Hyde is running through November 4, so you have more than enough time to catch this fine show.


Addendum: I just read a review of this performance on Broadwayworld.com, and it seems that unbeknownst to me, the part of Lucy was played by the understudy, Samantha Rosario, on the night I saw the play. (I didn't hear any announcements to that effect, but I'm guessing that Broadwayworld.com has accurate information about this.) So my apologies to Ms. Fragala and Ms. Rosario for getting it wrong.


Man of La Mancha

This past Friday night, I visited the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts with my daughter and my niece, for a performance of Man of La Mancha. We were originally going to go a week earlier, but my niece had a dance at her school that night that she wanted to attend, so we postponed our big night out together. It was mostly worth the wait.

Man of La Mancha is one of my favorite musicals. I first got to know it back in the Stone Age when I was in high school, when my school showed us the film version with Peter O'Toole and Sophia Lauren. They also showed us (I can't remember if it was before or after) a non-musical version of the Don Quixote story that starred Rex Harrison, which, sadly, has never been released on DVD (at least as far as I know). Later on, in college, I became one of the only people I know who hacked my way through an unabridged English translation of Cervantes' Don Quixote (which weighs in at almost a thousand pages long). I even wrote a one-act play based upon one of the episodes of the novel, Governor Panza, and I was lucky enough to be able to direct a live version of the play at Queens College. (Sadly, this "classic" has since been lost to posterity). So, as you can see, I know and love this story, in all of its various versions. And Man of La Mancha is probably my favorite version of the story. I not only own the film version on DVD, I also own several different albums of the music, including the film soundtrack, the original Broadway soundtrack with Richard Kiley, and a particularly bizarre operatic version that stars Placido Domingo as Don Quixote.

There's something about the philosophy of this musical that resounds inside of my soul. (I know that sounds like pretentious bullshit, but it's true). Is he a madman? Is he a hero?  Is he both? Throughout my life, there have been people, and stories, that have forced their ways into my psyche, never failing to touch me in some way or other. (For a different but similar story, I recommend the George C. Scott film They Might Be Giants. Or maybe just read the review I wrote recently of the latest album by The Gangsta Rabbi). I believe that the thing that reverberates with me is this -- when I was young, I was told (not entirely accurately, as it turns out) that the difference between Norse mythology and Greek and Roman mythology was that the Norse gods knew from the beginning that they were destined to lose, but the noble thing was to fight the fight itself, with all of your might, even knowing that you had no chance to win. That, for me, is the essence of Don Quixote's quest: "To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe". When done well, the play can always bring me to tears. (SPOILER ALERT: Don't read any further if you're unfamiliar with the play, and you don't want the ending spoiled for you).

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Still with me? Good.

Because the heart of the play isn't Don Quixote's death, it's the impact he has on the life of Aldonza. The scene where Aldonza crawls back after having been beaten and defiled by Pedro and his men is one of the mist powerful in all of musical theater. She unleashes on the good Don with all of the ugliness she's ever felt about herself, but no matter what she says, he holds fast to his belief that she is noble and good, the virtuous Dulcinea, not the illiterate kitchen slut Aldonza. At the end, when he's been "cured" by his encounter with the Knight of the Mirrors, she comes to him on his death bed. Desperately needing him to remember, she slowly brings him back to his true (and mad) self by reminding him of the words he used to her to describe his "Quest". This affects me every time. Because in that moment, the self-loathing Aldonza is forever transformed -- even after his death, she has been uplifted, and will never again forget the kind, beautiful part of her nature that has been her true self all along. Even listening to the cast album version of this last moment usually causes me to choke up. So, as you can imagine, I like to see my Man of La Mancha done well.

For the most part, the Smithtown PAC version did the trick. The set was excellent, and the cast was good-to-great. My only reservation has to do with some of the choices made by the director. But I'll get into that in a minute.

First, I need to especially call out the excellence of the performance of Brianne Boyd as Aldonza/Dulcinea. Her vocals were beautiful and stunning. As for her acting, she did a great job of bringing out the vulnerability of this hard-boiled (on the surface, at least) character. If there was a flaw in her performance at all, it was that she maybe had a rougher time selling the tough outer shell of Aldonza. But this is a minor fault. In every other way, she did a great job of eliciting the audience's sympathy, and her transformation at the end of the play was both touching and believable.

I also have to praise Stephen Treglia's Sancho. He played the part much in the way the character has traditionally been played (in the theater, at least, as opposed to the somewhat straighter way James Coco played it in the film). Consequently, his singing wasn't always beautiful, but it was certainly effective. And he was thoroughly likable in the role of Don Quixote's sidekick, who proudly explains to Aldonza, "I'm his squire. I'm his friend."

Michael Bertolini as Don Quixote has to carry of the play, and mostly, he succeeds in his triple role (playing Cervantes, Don Quixote and Alonso Quijana). Visually, you couldn't get a more perfect Don Quixote. As for the flaws, I think they mostly had to do with the director. What I mean here is that at the beginning of the performance, the play seemed a little lifeless, which I mostly attribute to the staging. In particular, the song "Man of la Mancha", during which Cervantes the actor transforms himself into the character of Don Quixote in front of the other prisoners of the Inquisition, and should be heroic and dramatic, came off kind of flat. I think this was largely because there needs to be a great deal more movement on the stage. (So maybe I should really be blaming Danielle Nigro, the choreographer here.) The scene should be pulling in the attention (and participation) of the other prisoners and of the audience, but unfortunately, something was lacking. Luckily, as the play continued, and the actors had a chance to draw us in with their characters (and with play's excellent music), it came more and more to life (especially once Ms. Boyd's Aldonza entered the stage). And as the night went on, Bertolini's interpretation got stronger and stronger.

While the rest of the cast members were all good in their roles, I want to give a particular shout out to Wendy Watt as Quijana's beleaguered (and not entirely compassionate) niece Antonia, who displayed an absolutely sumptuous singing voice during her part of "We're Only Thinking of Him".

Now to the directing. I don't want to trash the entire job here -- in general director Kenneth J. Washington was able to bring this play to life and make it an enjoyable experience, so overall, he was more successful than not. I had two problems with him, however. The first, as mentioned, was that the blocking seemed a little lifeless (and awkward), especially in the early part of the play. The other had to do with some of his choices.

Man of La Mancha is a weird duck, in some ways. It's filled, on the one hand, with a certain amount of slapstick comedy, as we see Don Quixote fight a windmill (offstage) to something less than a draw, and vanquish the muleteers (with the help of Sancho and Aldonza) in vintage Three Stooges fashion. But there's also an underlying heroism to the story, especially in the effect the Don has on Aldonza. And in order to reach that effect, there's a certain amount of darkness and violence, including a gang-rape that generally takes place off stage (not to mention the menace of the Spanish Inquisition that always lurks in the distance, and stops the play-with-a-play at various points, bringing the prisoners back to a frightening reality). A director always walks a fine line as to how dark to play these malificent elements.

In this case, the director went a little overboard. OK, maybe more than a little. During one of the little unscheduled play breaks, where the officers of the Inquisition interrupt to seemingly drag off Cervantes but instead grab another prisoner, the director chose to have this prisoner played by a terrified teenage-looking girl who is dragged screaming from the arms of her sobbing mother, presumably to be burned at the stake. Not only were the other prisoners traumatized by this, but the audience was as well.

Even worse is the violence against Aldonza. I get that it's difficult to get this right -- play it too light, and Aldonza's later transfiguration has less impact. But Jesus Christ, man! He begins the fight scene in the courtyard by having Pedro punch Aldonza full in the face (with a terrifying "crack" sound effect). Then, during the rape scene (which is often performed in a more symbolic and stylized fashion), she's absolutely pummeled, punched in the face again, then in the stomach hard enough to knock all of the wind out of her, before she's dragged offstage and raped, all the while screaming. Some of the other kitchen maids, attempting to save her, are throttled also. Then,  in an apparent attempt to atone for this scene of great violence against women (and presumably to appease the more feminist members of the audience), the two other kitchen maids get hold of a rope (or maybe it's Pedro's whip, it all happens very quickly), wrap it around his throat, and viciously choke him death! He does everything but spit and turn purple. I've never seen Pedro killed onstage before, and for good reason -- it doesn't make a lot of sense. Who drags Aldonza off into the desert (or wherever the hell they drag her off to). Why don't the two maids continue trying to rescue Aldonza? Doesn't anyone notice Pedro's large, lifeless body in the courtyard the next morning? It was a jarring scene that was just overdone. Even my daughter (who is a veteran fan of the most violent horror films imaginable) was a little taken aback by it.

Happily, the play gets back on track after that (although poor Aldonza's black eye and other cuts and bruises never let you entire forget it). 

I'm guessing that since Mr. Washington is also the Founder and Managing Director of the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, this review pretty much does away with the possibility of my catching some comps there in the future. But I have to call them as I see them. (And if you don't tell him, I won't, heh heh).

The end of the play still managed to get me to tear up as usual. And I know it had the same effect on my niece, who is a total theater kid, but never saw Man of La Mancha before. I couldn't tell if it worked on my daughter as well, and no matter how much I might ask, she'd never tell me. I do know that both of the young ladies enjoyed the performance, and that for most of the car ride home, my daughter had her 11-year-old cousin giggling with her own interpretation of "Dulcinea" (which somehow consisted of a teenage Don Quixote inviting Dulcinea to McDonald's to perhaps share a few Chicken McNuggets together, and naming his mule after her so that for the rest of the song, every time he sang the name "Dulcinea" he had to clarify, "No, not you Dulcinea, the other Ducinea, go back to your trough!") (I think my daughter might be one of those mad geniuses I told you about).

Anyway, to wrap it all up: Kudos to the whole team involved with Smithtown PAC's production of Man of La Mancha. In spite of all of my bitching, it's still a very worthwhile performance of one of my favorite Broadway shows ever. It's running through October 22, so you have one more weekend to catch it. 




Martin Barre

It's been a bit of a weekend, and I mean that in a good way. I've been at shows of one type or another for the last three nights. Each deserves their due, so I'm going to post about them separately. And it all began this past Thursday night, when I attended a concert by Martin Barre at The Boulton Center in Bay Shore.

For anyone who might not be familiar with him, Barre was the longtime guitarist for one of my all-time favorite bands, Jethro Tull. He was with them for all but their first album, 1968's This Was, and their most recent album from earlier this year, The String Quartets, (which as I explained in my review of it in this very blog, was really a Jethro Tull album in name only.)

Barre was tremendously entertaining, performing with a 4-piece band that included himself plus vocalist/guitarist Dan Crisp, bass player/backup singer Alan Thomson and drummer Dave Schoepke. The band was excellent, as they worked their way through two sets and an encore that included a variety of Jethro Tull covers (some of them completely re-imagined), a selection from Barre's most recent solo album Back to Steel, a pair of Beatles covers and a few blues covers by artists such as Bobby Parker and Robert Johnson. The night was basically a mix of blues and progressive rock.

The night started with a few pieces of minor unpleasantness that were, happily, quickly resolved. The first is that the town of Bay Shore has decided to greedy it up by sucking as much money as they can from someone looking to frequent their businesses -- they've installed metered parking everywhere. As I drove up to the parking lot behind the Boulton Center, I was taken aback to see a group of ruffians congregating at the front of the lot. But when I got closer, I found it wasn't a bunch of hooligans at all, but a group of luckless diners and theater goers lined up up to enter their parking space numbers and their credit cards in one of those annoying newfangled meters. This sucked for them, although I was able to bypass it because at least the town had the decency not to number the handicapped spaces. I always wonder how much this kind of thing hurts the businesses in the area. I know that Port Jefferson did this a while back, and I go there about a quarter as much as I used to because of it.

Now, I've often said the Boulton Center might be my favorite place to see a show. However, when I got inside, I found that the ticket I'd purchased (I was flying solo for this show), that looked like it was on an open aisle on the seating chart, was, in fact, squashed up next to a solid wall on my right side. Once again all was well, though, because although the show was nearly a sell out, the theater was able to find me a free seat with more than enough room to breath by giving one of the seats they'd held for the band that wasn't going to be used. So once again, The Boulton Center proved itself among the friendliest of places. (Next time, I have to remember not to trust that seating chart).

I won't recount the entire show for you, but suffice it to say that it was varied and interesting setlist that included a number of obscure and seldom-performed Tull material along with the obligatory classics. (I've entered the full set list on Setlist.fm at:
https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/martin-barre/2017/boulton-center-for-the-performing-arts-bay-shore-ny-6be3e21a.html ,
or you can view it as a list up on Sputnik Music at:
http://www.sputnikmusic.com/list.php?listid=177648&memberid=1085169

Some of the more interesting parts of the evening included covers of Tull songs such "Nothing to Say" from the Benefit, "Sealion" from the vastly underrated War Child LP, and "Love Story" from Living in the Past. However, my two favorite songs of the night were "Hunting Girl" from my favorite Tull album, Songs From the Wood (which ended the first set), and "Teacher" from Benefit, which ended the second. Unsurprisingly, the encore consisted of a pair of classics from Tull's Aqualung album, "Locomotive Breath" and "Aqualung" itself. I also enjoyed a very Tulled-ed up prog rock version of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby". As for the Barre solo numbers and the classic blues songs, while I'm not the world's biggest blues fan, within the context of this performance, I enjoyed them a lot.

Barre himself was very funny. The stage basically had three mics set up, one for the lead singer, one for the bass player to sing backup, and one for Barre to talk between songs. He entertained us with little anecdotes, such as the confidential revelation that the next item on his playlist read, "Some Beatles shit," and regaled the blues fans with the tales of the legendary blues singer Ironing Board Sam ("He was a great player, but his singing could be a little flat"). One amusing note -- the lead singer was a tall, lean fellow who sounded a little like Ian Anderson, but he squints when he sings so he kind of looks like Robert DeNiro from Raging Bull singing Tull covers.

Anyway, it was a wonderful night of music. Next time Barre and his band come around, I'd definitely recommend that any Tull fan, prog rock fan or blues fan try to catch them.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of Looming's "Seed"

I posted this review just a few minutes ago on the Sputnik Music website:


Review Summary: Looming (v.): Appearing as a shadowy form, especially one that is large or threatening.

When we're talking about the band Looming, let's start with the elephant in the room -- Jessica Knight's voice. For better or for worse, if you listen to this band for even one song, this is going to be the one thing that immediately jumps out at you. Some people like it, and love the band because of it. Others can't stand it. I've seen people for whom I've played Looming's music recoil immediately after just a few notes. And I understand why. There really isn't any other voice that I've heard to compare it to, with the possible exception of the cruelly reviled teen YouTube star Rebecca Black. Picture if you will an alternative pop band fronted by an extremely dramatic version of Popeye's Olive Oyl. That's what you're working with here.

I know that it sounds like I'm making fun of Knight, but I'm not. For whatever reason, I like her voice. It's distinctive. It's passionate. And for the music that this band creates, for me, at least, it just works. But it's a voice that will divide potential fans, because it's definitely the most striking thing about Looming's music.

Now that we've established that, let's move on to the band's new album Seed. This is the second full-length release by this Springfield, Illinois, quintet, following upon their 2015 LP, Nailbiter. It's probably a more mature offering overall, although there's no single track on here that matches the power of the opening track (after the intro) from their debut, "Cotton Tongue". The pleasures on Seed are more subtle, and maybe ultimately a little more memorable.

There's something dark about the music on Seed, something a little grim and foreboding. This isn't in any way, shape or form a collection of happy little love songs. The music is basically medium-to-fast paced, and guitar-driven. Some of the songs are constructed of quickly-played acoustic strums, others from chunky electric guitar riffs. And the band makes interesting use of occasional male secondary vocals that are layered into the back of the mix, all of which serve to push that voice, that strange, breathless, wonderful voice of Knight's to the forefront.

My favorite track here is a slow, insidious number called "Smoke". While "Cotton Tongue" just reached out and grabbed you by the nutsack, this one slides inside of you like tentacles slithering their way into your orifices and working their way up your insides to collectively stab you in the brain. You won't even notice it until it's got its prickly little hooks stuck in your cerebellum. The song has something to do with metaphorically building and abandoning houses. I don't know what the hell it means. But it's kind of sinister, and I like it.

In fact, I can say that about a lot of the album. There are interesting little images, phrases and ideas sprinkled throughout the lyrics of the various tracks which enhance the listening experience -- phrases like "You watch your hands, I'll watch my mouth" in "Queen" (or maybe she's saying "wash", which is even more interesting); or "When you build a house of any kind/You touch all the walls, by and by" from "Smoke"; or the despairing, repeated cries of "For lack of a nail! For lack of a nail!" by the backing singer in Knight's tale of a failed relationship, "Lace". Much of "Tried and True" concerns Knight "begging" her friends to love her, while "Leaves" finds her looking to get back to a place with some nature in it -- "I'm running through the city, but I want to go home right now ... I'm feeling kind of shitty and I want to go home right now." And of course, all of these thoughts, pictures and concepts are coming at you through the vehicle of that voice.

Is Seed an album that I'll still be listening to twenty years from now? I don't know. Maybe. It's not a perfect album -- I have a feeling this band might still have their best work ahead of them. But there's something interesting about it that I just can't get out of head. Not without those pincers tearing up my brain meat, anyway. And even then ... I suspect I'll still be haunted ... by that voice!


Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Monday, October 9, 2017

Review of Procol Harum's "Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music site a little earlier this morning:


Review Summary: "Pailing well after sixteen days, a mammoth task was set/Sack the town, and rob the tower, and steal the alphabet" -- Keith Reid, from "Whaling Stories"

This is a classic live album from the early seventies. It features one of the earlier, and more famous, collaborations between a rock band and a classical music orchestra. Recorded live on November 18, 1971 at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the album finds the progressive rock band Procol Harum performing with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Da Camera Singers. 

The album features five songs in all, four of them being among the band's more epic and theatrical compositions. The recording was quite successful, reaching #5 on the U.S. Billboard charts (although it only got as high as #48 in the UK). It also featured a hit single - the album's re-imagining of the band's song "Conquistador" breathed new life into a heretofore largely-ignored track from their first album. This new live version charted at #7 in Canada, #16 in the U.S. and #22 in the UK.

Within Procol Harum's discography, the album falls between their 1971 release Broken Barricadesand 1973's Grand Hotel. It was the first album released after guitarist Robin Trower left the band -- the lineup here is Gary Brooker on vocals and piano, Dave Ball on guitar, Chris Copping on organ and harpsichord, Alan Cartwright on bass and B.J. Wilson on drums. This particular performance also offered a special of treat -- Procol's resident poet/lyricist Keith Reid, the man responsible for the dramatic stories and imagery of their songs, is captured live here reciting the "Held Close" poem from "In Held 'Twas in I".

The original vinyl release of Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra sported four songs on Side One. Opening with the dramatic "Conquistador", which finds Brooker respectfully contemplating the virtues of a vanquished Spanish soldier from a bygone era, the album moves on to "Whaling Stories", a somewhat nonsensical action tale from the band's 1970 Home album. This is followed by the performance of a pair of songs from their 1969 A Salty Dog album: the nautical title track, and "All This and More", a comparatively quiet, piano-driven, number, which serves as a brief respite before the grandiosity of Side Two.

Side Two is composed in its entirety of Procol's most epic track, the nearly twenty-minute long "In Held 'Twas in I". Described by some as a "rock cantata", this song is the band's equivalent of Lord of the Rings. It's also the one song in their catalog that most cries out for the assistance of a symphony orchestra and a vocal choir. There's danger ("Glimpses of Nirvana"), comedy ("'Twas Teatime at the Circus", crisis ("In the Autumn of My Madness"), climax ("Look to Your Soul"), and a majestic instrumental denouement ("Grand Finale"). What does it all mean? I have no idea, but by the track's (and the album's) end, you feel as though you've just concluded a monumental heroic adventure. You're both satisfied and exhausted.

Unlike the majority of live albums, which are at best a small bonus for a band's devoted fanbase, Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra is actually an essential part of Procol Harum's discography. If you're in any way an admirer of this band, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this album. In many ways, it's the group's most definitive musical statement.


Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review of The Moody Blues' "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour"

I dropped this review on the Sputnik Music website a few minutes ago.


Review Summary: An enjoyable, if middling, progressive rock snack.

The Moody Blues are often credited as "pioneers" of progressive rock, due to their 1967 album Days of Future Passed being considered among the first successful concept albums. In spite of this, in many ways, The Moodies were really kind of a middle-of-the-road prog rock band. Their music wasn't as influential as King Crimson's, or as complicated as Yes's. What they created at their best was a number of melodic prog rock albums with a classical tinge. Their music mixed soft rock sounds with healthy doses of mellotron, orchestral string instruments, woodwinds and keyboards, to create pleasant-sounding songs that were almost as much pop as they were prog rock. Lacking one outstanding lead vocalist to match contemporaries such as Yes and ELP, they made do with four different acceptable lead vocalists (Justin Hayward, John Lodge, Mike Pinder and Ray Thomas), which helped to keep their sound varied and interesting. As to which album was their "masterpiece", I'm not sure they had one. Instead, they had a series of seven albums between 1967 and and 1972 that were incredibly consistent -- if you liked one, chances are you liked them all.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971) is the second-to-last of these. It's as good an example as any of the strengths, and shortcomings, of this much-loved classic rock band. Named after a mnemonic device to help young guitar students remember the order of the notes of the treble clef, the album contains nine songs, all of which are pretty good. Of the nine, two are by Hayward, two by Lodge, two by Thomas, one by Pinder, and two are group efforts. The "single" from the LP, and one of the rockier numbers, is Hayward's "The Story in Your Eyes". However, truth be told, The Moodies were never really a singles band. At the time of the album's release, at least on American FM radio, each of the nine songs received its share of airplay.

The first track, "Procession" serves as something of an overture. It features various sounds, such as howling wind, falling rain, Indian sitar music, etc., to present the listener with a series of changing moods, several of which are punctuated by a "tion" word: "Desolation", "Creation" and "Communication". This comes to culmination (no pun intended) on the album's sixth track, "One More Time to Live", where songsmith Lodge reels off an impressive series of more than twenty of these "tion/sion" words, working his way from a starting point of "Desolation" through the final two, "Compassion" and "Solution". 

For better or worse, this song exemplifies the band's philosophical scope. On the one hand, the lyrics are clever and dramatic. On the other, they're about as deep as a puddle. The profundity of The Moody Blues' belief system basically boils down to this: All you need is love. Or as Pinder puts it in the album-closing "My Song", "Love can change the world/Love can change your life/Do what makes you happy/Do what you know is right". Can I get a "Kumbaya" here?

If it sounds like I'm belittling the band, or the album, I don't mean to. To put out a series of albums as listenable and satisfying as they did from Days of Future Passed through 1972's Seventh Sojourn is no small feat, and of these, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is probably my favorite. Nine songs worth of enjoyment is nothing to sneeze at. I'm just trying to point out that the band had their limitations. But within the scope of these limitations, there's plenty of pleasure for prog rock fans everywhere.

To review: Simple (for prog rock), listenable tunes. Depthless, but well-written lyrics. Acceptable vocals. Gentle, semi-orchestral rock sounds. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour isn't a musical gourmet meal. However, it is a tasty and filling prog rock snack. Enjoy.


Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Review of A Flock of Seagulls' "A Flock of Seagulls"

I posted this review a little while ago on the Sputnik Music website:


Review Summary: One of the seminal albums of the '80s.

A Flock of Seagulls is one of those bands that people don't seem to take that seriously today, except on '80s new wave radio stations. I'm pretty sure it's because of lead singer Mike Score's hair. Forget the fact that today he looks like Michael Chiklis, all of the photos of the band back in their heyday were dominated by his puffy blonde locks, much in the same way Aimee Mann's feathered 'do made 'Til Tuesday seem way more ludicrous than their music deserved. Oh, those silly, frivolous '80s bands! Except that like 'Til Tuesday, Flock is band that was far better than people give them credit for. 

One listen to A Flock of Seagulls, the band's eponymous 1982 debut, will quickly dispel two myths. First, this band was way more than a one-hit wonder. AFoS contains no less than three songs that were reasonably successful singles, and all three still get airplay on '80s-oriented stations today. And while we're at it, all seven of the other tracks on the album's original release were respectable songs themselves.

The second myth is that this is one of those soppy synthpop bands like Spandau Ballet or OMD that was mostly known for their slow dance tracks. (Disclaimer: I actually don't have a problem with those two bands, so please send all hate comments elsewhere). While the synths are definitely important to the Flock, the truth is, A Flock of Seagulls was more of a guitar-driven band than a synth-pop dominated one, thanks mostly to their young lead guitarist Paul Reynolds.

The singles on AFoS are all memorable. My personal favorite is "Space Age Love Song". This is a deceptively simple song dominated by a chillingly beautiful, all-instrumental chorus that features a great example of some driving guitar by Reynolds. The other highlight of the song is the last verse, when the plainspoken lyrics are sung three times over, in-the-round style. I still get a rush when I hear this part of the song today, although it's now 35 years old.

"I Ran (So Far Away)" is another instantly recognizable track, known for its pulsing guitar and its famous chorus of "And I ran/I ran so far away...." This one was the biggest hit from the album in the U.S., although "Space Age Love Song" was more popular in Britain. The third single, "Telecommunication", didn't chart in the UK, although it did reach #19 on the Billboard Dance Club Charts on my side of the Atlantic. This one is more focused on the synthesizer, but is still driven along by a stylish choppy guitar riff. A fourth single, "Modern Love Is Automatic", didn't chart, although it also became popular within the dance club scene.

One thing of note is that this is a band that wasn't afraid to include all-instrumental tracks on their albums. "DNA" is a pretty nifty little number that some radio stations have used as bumper music over the years. There are also a couple of other instrumental songs included on the 2011 remastered CD as bonus tracks.

This leads me to mention that this is another of those older albums for which there are multiple versions. The original U.S. release featured 10 songs, with "I Ran (So Far Away)" serving as the opening song on the album, while the British version added a song called "Tokyo" that wasn't on the U.S. release and reordered the tracks so that "Modern Love Is Automatic" is the first song. I prefer the flow of the American version, but that's probably because it's what I grew up with. (And Flock being a British band from Liverpool, I'm being very America-centric here, as I'm sure the British version must actually be the original, while the U.S. version is the reordered one. Whatever.) Meanwhile, as I previously mentioned, there's also a 2011 remastered version that includes four bonus tracks.

If you're not really familiar with this band's music, but you have a perception of them from things you think you've heard, I promise you these guys are much better than you think. Their first three albums were all good, and this one and Listen (1983) are actually excellent. It's something of a coin toss as to whether A Flock of Seagulls or Listen is the better album, but clearly, AFoS has the greater number of Flock songs you're likely to recognize. And really, you don't have to choose. Why not listen to both of them? That would be my recommendation, anyway.


Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars