Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Three Days Grace

Probably like most parents, it's not always easy to find common ground with my children's musical tastes. My wife and I took them to their first live concert when we were still in the visiting phase of our adoption process. We saw Paramore at Jones Beach, which they loved. But as they've grown, and their tastes have changed, it's always been a given that they make fun of most of the music that I listen to.

My son listens to a lot of hip hop these days, and I just don't have an affinity for it. But there's always been a part of him that likes good hard rock. He's always liked Aerosmith. He loved Linkin Park (except for their ballad-laden last album), and a few years ago, I took him and his buddy to see them live (again at Jones Beach). He even showed some interest in The Good Rats (and if he hadn't still been so young when Peppi passed away, you can bet I would have taken him out to see them.) And two bands he's always liked (although more so when he was younger) are Skillet and Three Days Grace. So I always keep an eye out for when these two bands are on tour.

Skillet, for whatever reason, seems to avoid the New York metropolitan area like the plague. When they play at all in New York State, it tends to be far, far upstate, like in the Buffalo area. (Hell, I just looked at their schedule as I'm typing this, and they'd sooner play Vladivostock, Russia than play in Manhattan or Long Island.) But once in a blue moon, Three Days Grace comes around. They played Jones Beach last summer, but as the opening act for two bands that neither I nor my kids had any knowledge of or interest in seeing. (I just looked it up. They were Avenged Sevenfold and Prophets of Rage). We talked about going, but it just didn't seem worth it. I knew they'd play about a 30-minute set, and the sound would be all echoey because there would be no bodies in the seats for the earliest set. So we passed.

This year, however, I saw that Three Days Grace was coming to Madison Square Garden, opening for Disturbed. I figured as the opener of two bands, they'd at least get a full set in. And while I wasn't super familiar with Disturbed, I had less objection to seeing them than I did the two Jones Beach bands. I actually thought I was a little familiar with them -- I thought my daughter had one of their albums out in her car. (Once in awhile if my car is in the shop, I borrow hers.) It turns out I was wrong about that -- the band I was thinking about was A Day to Remember. (You can see how my brain works -- I obviously had them filed under "heavy rock bands that begin with the letter 'D'.") But I had recently bought a Disturbed album on my own just to check them out, the band's first album The Sickness.

I asked my daughter if she was interested in going, but she passed. My son, however, said yes.

When I bought the tickets, they sent me three CD copies of the latest Disturbed album, which I thought was mighty nice of them. (This must be a new trend. When my wife bought our tickets to the recent Joe Jackson show, they gave us a free download of his most recent album, too.)

I put together a YouTube playlist last week for both bands that matched the setlists they were playing on this tour, to familiarize myself more with the music. I encouraged my son to listen to them too, because my experience is that live shows are much more enjoyable when you know the songs beforehand. But kids these days ... they never listen.  :)

Anyway, yesterday in the late afternoon, the two of us grabbed the LIRR train at Ronkonkoma. It brought back memories of a similar trip I'd taken with him nine years ago. I was bringing him into the city to grab a train to take him back upstate during the adoption visiting process. I remember a kindly lady offering us some tissues so I could wipe the orange cheese doodle stains off of his little fingers. I remember the look on his face as he got his first look at some of the weird characters who roam through Penn Station on a typical day (especially the guy in the Men's Room who was singing a Bob Marley song at the top of his lungs.) Then on the train upstate, I remember him cheating me constantly, and laughing his little rump off about it, as we played the card game "War". I mentioned that card game to him recently, and he smiled, and said, "I totally won."

As we road to the concert, we chatted a little with fellow concertgoers on the train into the city. But mostly, it was a quiet ride. (Although I did buy him a nice-looking Disturbed shirt from a guy who was selling them on the train.)

When we got into the city, we worked our way upstairs. We got through Madison Square Garden's metal detectors pretty quickly, because I had the foresight to not bring a bag with me. I just had a small book which fit easily into my (huge) coat pockets.

Once we got in, we had to wait in the lobby for fifteen minutes or so, until they opened the doors. When we finally got inside, we used the facilities, grabbed some drinks, and found our seats. Then we watched the crowd filter in.

On the train, there had been some talk about the possibility of a third band. But come 7:30, the lights went out, and a sign lit up that said Three Days Grace.

We were sitting upstairs in section 224. However, this was one of those shows where there were no chairs for the floor section. It was used as a General Admission area instead, where a host of kids stood for the show.

The crowd was a little older than I expected. It included lots of people in their 30s and 40s, and several parents with fairly young kids.

Three Days Grace came out with a lot of energy. The 12-song setlist was essentially the same one they've been doing. It was a good one for fans like my son, loaded with a bunch of their older songs from albums like One-X and their self-titled album. There were also three songs from their latest album, Outsider and only one from Human, the LP before that. It was unfortunate for me, as I happen to especially like Human. I was glad, however, because I really bought these tickets to entertain my son.

My son isn't quite as stoic as my daughter, but at concerts, he's a little impassive. It's hard to tell by his facial expressions if he's having a good time. I could tell he was, though, because when they played some of his favorite songs, he was definitely singing along. This was especially so with "Pain", "I Hate Everything About You", "Animal I Have Become" (which mixed in a little of the White Stripes song "Seven Nation Army") and the set closer "Riot".

The show wasn't a sellout, but I'd say it was about three quarters full. The band seemed psyched to be there, and clearly wanted to put on a good show. I thought that the lead singer, Matt Walst, didn't quite know what to say to the crowd, though. He kept repeating questions like, "How's it going!" and encouraging the mosh pits (which for most of the set, involved two fairly tiny vortexes down in the midst of the rest of the crowd, with about a dozen kids or less involved in each.) But the band played well, and the crowd was definitely involved in the show, clapping and moving along with the music, even if it wasn't quite the wild bacchanal that Walst was clearly hoping for.

The set ended, and people pored down to get their drinks and use the restrooms. At this point, my son turned to me and asked if we had to stay for Disturbed. "You don't want to?" I asked him. He explained that he hadn't been feeling well all day, and that because of a cold he's been sporting for about three weeks, he was having a hard time hearing out of one ear. I'm sure that these things were true, but I also know my son, so I wasn't really surprised by the question. Because he wasn't familiar with Disturbed, he wasn't excited about sitting through their set.

I was a little disappointed -- I'd have liked to have stayed for Disturbed. But this show was really about him, and if his night was more enjoyable with a shorter show, then that was what I'd give him. And as I said, I wasn't surprised -- I'd had a feeling he might want to leave after Three Days Grace. Also, I was pretty tired myself -- I'd been woken up earlier than I'd have liked that morning -- and the thought of not having to fight the concert crowd onto the LIRR train back home wasn't entirely unwelcome. As we started working our way out of the arena, we both noticed long lines at the concession stands, and quite a few people who were already pretty well lubricated. I commented later that I thought this was going to be a heavy drinking crowd for the Disturbed set, and he agreed.

My son dozed for most of the train back home, and I squintily read my book (as I had forgotten to bring my glasses). When we got back to Ronkonkoma, I let him drive, at his request. (He got his license fairly recently). We stopped at Taco Bell, where I got some food for us, his sister, and his sister's boyfriend (who were waiting at home). After we ate, my son and I both went to bed way earlier than usual. It was a decent night, but we were both worn out.

Three Day's Grace's setlist can be found at notmuchofamoshpit.com. And the setlist for the Disturbed show we missed is at sorryimissedyouguys.com.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Favorite Artists, Part 4: About Yes

Yes is a little different from the first three bands I've written about on this list, in that they're as much of a musical collective as they are a band. What I mean by this is that over the years, there have been several core members of this band, and a host of secondary members as well, any combination of which can legitimately be described as Yes. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted them (thanks for nothing!), they had to induct eight of them: Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Steve Howe, Tony Kaye, Trevor Rabin, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Alan White. Over the years, there have been two time periods where two competing versions of the band existed at the same time: The early 1980s, when the Squire/Rabin/White version of the band co-existed with Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe; and the present, where the Steve Howe/Alan White rendition of the band competes with Yes, featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman. Compare this to Pink Floyd and The Who, both of which have only ever had five official band members since the beginning of their recording careers, or Jethro Tull, who essentially consists of whoever Ian Anderson says it does (which has, until recent years, usually included Martin Barre and a host of others).

More than probably any other band I'll talk about in these posts (with the possible exceptions of The Who and maybe Rush), Yes has received more acclaim for their musical virtuosity than any of my other favorite bands.

Also, because the group of musicians at the core of Yes has been so extensive, there are more Yes splinter groups than there have been for any other band. There was Flash (originally featuring Tony Kaye and Yes's first guitarist Peter Banks, although Kaye left after their first album); The Buggles, who basically merged with Yes to create the Drama album, then took another shot at it thirty years later when they rejoined Squire and some of the others for the Fly From Here LP (which was later remixed with Trevor Horn on lead vocal duties as Fly From Here - Return Trip); Asia, which started its career with Steve Howe and Geoff Downes joining together with John Wetton of King Crimson and Carl Palmer (of ELP); and Circa, which began with Tony Kaye, Alan White and Billy Sherwood, among others.

And all of this doesn't even discuss the many excellent solo albums created by various members of the band (especially Rick Wakeman).

So yeah, these guys have bona fides up the wazoo.

I first became aware of Yes in the early 1970s, through The Yes Album. It could have been a gift from my uncle -- I don't remember anymore -- but if it was, it was already an album I'd had my eyes on. Those were heady days for young music lovers like myself, and I can remember spending hours just browsing through record stores, looking at all of the interesting album covers, and imagining what each might sound like. Right about this time, Yes started getting a lot of airplay on my favorite radio station, WNEW-FM. I remember hearing a lot of Fragile on the radio, although it was my younger brother who owned that album and not me, and Close to the Edge, which I bought soon after it came out.

Of course, at that time, there was no internet. So if you really wanted to follow a band fanatically, you pretty much had to buy a bunch of magazines with articles about them, and that was more than I was willing to do. I liked Yes, but there was so much good music out there that they were just one of a number of groups that I followed fairly casually. (I also liked to sing along with my music, and this kind of worked against Yes -- I could sing with Roger Daltrey or Ian Anderson pretty well, but Jon Anderson's voice was just too damned high for me.)

The first time I saw Yes live, it was sort of by accident. A Jack-in-the-Box co-worker who I wasn't even especially friendly with had an extra ticket and asked me if I wanted to come along, and I said, "Why not?" It was a great show. However, I'm embarrassed to admit looking back, I'm pretty sure this was the Drama tour (I seem to remember them playing "Into the Lens"), and my knowledge of the band was so fuzzy that I didn't even realize until years later that it must have been Trevor Horn I saw singing lead that night, and not Jon Anderson.

I think that the point my appreciation of Yes really skyrocketed was a few years after that when Yes split off from Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman Howe (or vice versa). I saw ABWH at the Nassau Coliseum, and it was an amazing show, one of my top shows ever. (I remember being blown away by Bruford's space-age drum kit). I think I also saw the Trevor Rabin of the band at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium around the same time, although I have to admit that I'm no longer sure whether this is a false memory. I know for sure that they played there that year, and I definitely considered getting a ticket. But I can no longer tell if the memories I have of being at being at the Tennis Stadium and watching the band perform their hits from 90125 are real, or constructed after the fact. I do know for sure that I saw the Union tour at Madison Square Garden with the eight-man lineup that was eventually inducted into the Rock HoF.

I lost track of them for awhile after that. I only purchased their albums from Talk through Magnification years after their releases. (And to be honest, I didn't miss all that much). I did buy both Fly From Here and Heaven & Earth when they first came out. And while neither of those projects matches up against the band's best work from their heyday, I enjoyed each of them.

I saw the Steve Howe version of Yes at the Westbury Music Fair last year, and somewhere on this blog is my post about it. They've lost a step over the years, but I still had had a good time. And if the ARW version comes back around on tour, I'll probably see them as well. I skipped them last time around because I'm not a huge fan of Trevor Rabin, but in retrospect, that was a mistake. I have both the CD and the DVD of the Live at the Apollo album, and both are excellent.

So what do I like about Yes? There's a lot. Really, I've always enjoyed how their particular brand of progressive rock blended rock music with various elements of classical. This is especially so thanks to the influence of Wakeman. Their music has always been bright -- the Yin to Pink Floyd's dark Yang. And there's something fantastical about them -- I've always thought that Jon Anderson sounded sort of like an elf or a hobbit. I think that there have been times when they've over-indulged, and maybe gone up their own butts a little -- or maybe I'm just too ADD to appreciate albums like Tales of Topographic Oceans. But when I start to add up all of the hours of musical pleasure that Yes and its various solo-artist projects and splinter bands have given me over the years, I can't even compute them.

I've seen a few of the cranky old codgers on the internet suggest that Yes should just hang it up. But this cranky old codger hopes that they don't. As long as they, in all of their various manifestations keep making music, I'll keep giving them a listen.

Review of Coin's "How Will You Know If You Never Try"

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

Review Summary: "I never leave it unsaid. Why can't I leave it unsaid?" - From "Talk Too Much"

Coin (usually stylized as COIN) is a 4-piece indiepop band from Nashville, TN. They originally formed in 2012. They made a little noise in 2015 with a single called "Run" from their self-titled debut album, which received some airplay on American alternative rock radio. How Will You Know If You Never Try is their second studio album.

I don't have a lot to say about this LP, other than that it's a solid album of alternapop music. There are plenty of jangly guitars and high-pitched vocals throughout. The LP is best known for its extremely catchy lead single, "Talk Too Much", which charted on several of the Billboard charts, including the Hot Rock Songs chart (#28), the Alternative Songs chart (#8), and the US Rock Airplay chart (#16). A second single from the LP, "I Don't Wanna Dance," also achieved limited success, coming in at #43 on the Alternative Songs chart. 

There are a total of eleven tracks here, some of which are quite good, and some of which are kind of boring. Other than "Talk Too Much", the highlight of the album is probably "Hannah", a mid-tempo number which contains the lyric from which the title of the album is drawn. Other solid numbers include "Malibu 1992", a slow, cool track that was originally recorded on the band's 1992EP, and "Don't Cry 2020", the track that opens the album (which sounds like it would have been a better choice for a second single than was "I Don't Want to Dance").

I wish I had more to tell you here, but the truth is, this is a decent, but fairly generic example of the indie pop genre. If you like bands like Foster the People and Walk the Moon (and I do), you're probably going to like How Will You Know If You Never Try. It won't blow you away, but you'll get some enjoyment out of it. If you hate those bands, you probably shouldn't bother with Coin.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Mamma Mia!

Warning: This post contains plot spoilers for the show.

Since closing on Broadway in 2015, Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical written around the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA, has been making the rounds in various theaters around Long Island. I remember they did a production at the Smithtown PAC, and I'm pretty sure they did one a year or two ago at the Gateway in Bellport, too.

And why not? Who wouldn't want to see a happy show full of ABBA music, now that it was being featured in our own backyard?

My family, that's who!

OK, my son doesn't care about any musical, ever. But I've been trying to get my wife and my daughter interested in going with me, with no success at all. I actually think my daughter might like it if she gave it a chance. But she just sees it as goofy, and won't even hear me out when I try to talk to her about it.

As for my wife, if memory serves, I think she might have seen part of the movie version when I watched it on Netflix. And for some strange reason, watching Pierce Brosnan try to croak out ABBA songs did nothing to help my case with her.

So when my daughter, her boyfriend and I saw Pippin at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale last month, and I noticed that Mamma Mia! was their next upcoming show, I tried again, to no avail, to talk my daughter and/or my wife into seeing the show with me. Then I finally said "To heck with it!" (only I said it in a less PG-13 way), and decided that if I got the chance, I'd go and see it myself.

I looked it up on the website about two weeks ago, just intending to pick a potential date to go. But when I saw that there was a Wednesday matinee show with an open aisle seat in the first row of the theater, I immediately jumped on it and bought the ticket.

As it turned out, the snowstorm last week cause me to reschedule a short meeting that had been originally scheduled from last Tuesday to today. However, I was able to schedule it for the late morning, giving me more than enough time to make the 2PM opening curtain.

The last I had seen a weather report, there was snow scheduled for tonight, for much later than the time the show would let out. However, as I drove towards my meeting in Melville, I saw that all of the signs on the LIE warned of winter weather this afternoon. My car drives horribly in the snow, so this was a concern.

When I reached my destination, I checked in with Denise, who told me that we were only supposed to be looking at one-to-three inches. She thought I'd probably be OK. Still I was a little wary.

I left my meeting at a little after noon, and started driving towards Oakdale. As soon as I did so, a light snow began to fall.

I pulled into the strip mall where the theater is, and parked my car as close as I could. I didn't want to be sliding around too much if it was slippery when I came out after the show. Then I parked myself at a Thai/Chinese restaurant a few doors away from the theater, and kept a cautious eye on the weather. I'd eat the ticket if I had too -- it wasn't that expensive. But I really didn't want to. I figured I'd be unlikely to get such a great seat again.

As I sat looking out the window, I saw a van from The Arbors assisted living program pull up to the theater. I laughed to myself, thinking about the group from the nursing home who had only made it halfway through Spring Awakening at the Argyle Theater last week. I thought to myself that Mamma Mia! was probably going to be more to this crowd's liking.

By 1:30, I decided that the snowfall was light enough to risk it, so I moseyed on over to the theater. By this time, the lobby was packed, so I had to hack my way around the crowd to get to the restrooms on the other side. Having taken care of business, I then bought myself a bottled water, and I was ready for the show.

The theater was mostly full. However, the seat right next to me stayed empty, so as the lights went down, I put my coat there.

Now, I've had some problems with the sound in this theater in the past. I remember the sound for Pippin last month as not being too bad. And likewise when my family attended a production of Beauty and the Beast during the holiday season of 2017. But when I saw my niece in a children's production of Peter Pan there, it was pretty rough, and when I saw Jekyll and Hyde there shortly after that, it was a real problem. So I figured that sitting in the first row, I should be able to hear everything perfectly.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Emily Sarra as Sophie started singing the first number, and I could barely understand a word of it! And the couple of scenes that followed, which basically explained the whole plot of the show, were similarly muddled. If I hadn't been familiar with the plot of the show, I would have had no idea what was going on, except that they were planning for the main character's wedding.

As the show went on, the sound improved somewhat, and certain actors were able to project better than others. But it was still a very mixed bag.

I thought that maybe it was me. All of these years of attending loud rock shows without wearing ear plugs has definitely taken a toll on my hearing. And I'm at a point in my life where I tend to always have the subtitles turned on when I watch TV, because my hearing isn't what it used to be. On the other hand, I just saw Spring Awakening last Friday night, and I didn't have any real trouble hearing that show.

At intermission, I leaned over to the couple sitting to my left, and asked them were they having any trouble hearing the show. They both laughed, and said that yes. They explained that this has been a longstanding problem at this theater, and that the theater is aware of it. As they put it, the problem is the theater's PA "sucks", and that as PA's are expensive, they haven't been able to get a new one. I was honestly relieved to find out it wasn't just me.

It's unfortunate, because I really like this theater. It's comfortable, and whoever makes the schedule there seems to pick a lot of shows I'm interested in seeing. Over the last few years, I've gone to see a bunch of them, and there were several more that tempted me. Its also very reasonably priced, and is more conveniently located for me than any other theater on Long Island, except for the Gateway. I'll definitely go back to the CM again. But this sound thing is a real issue that sometimes really detracts from my enjoyment of their shows.

So, onto Mamma Mia! As musicals go, I'll admit it's a bit of a lightweight. I don't think it's as good a show as Pippin, or even as Spring Awakening (although the latter play clearly isn't for everyone.) This is partly due to the fact that although I like ABBA, Mamma Mia! doesn't have nearly as consistent a musical score as the two other shows I mentioned. It's also partially due to the book. As a jukebox musical, the story has been written around the songs instead of vice versa. And more importantly, there are aspects of the writing that just don't work for me. I've always felt like the character of Donna, Sophie's mother, is a little inconsistent. And the ending of the show, where Donna and Sam decide to get married after they only just reconciled about five minutes earlier feels ridiculously rushed, and was clearly only written that way to give the show a happy ending.

Nevertheless, it's not a bad night's (or in this case, day's) entertainment. The Sophie character is delightful, as flawed and immature as she is, and the story of her quest to find her father is realistic and touching. And while some of the songs are a little weak, let's face it -- as a show-stopper, "Dancing Queen" is pretty damned great. (The song was a #1 hit for ABBA almost everywhere in the world). Yes, the show might be filled with empty calories, but if done well, it will probably make you leave a theater with a smile on your face. (I recently commiserated with a fellow musical theater lover on the Sputnik Music website about my family's lack of interest in the show, and his response was "Anyone who can't enjoy Mamma Mia! can't enjoy life.")

So here are my thoughts on the production. Outside of the sound problems, it was pretty good. Emily Sarra's voice is kind of pretty, but a little light -- she was probably the actor I had the most trouble hearing. That being said, she did a lot of things well here. She did a great job in capturing the vivacious and coquettish nature of the character, and in portraying her immaturity and occasional selfishness as well. More importantly, she gave the audience a glimpse of how much Sophie has missed having a father in her life, so that even though some of her actions are a little self-centered, you can see the little girl who dreams about an ideal father-figure at her core. Consequently, she remains a likable and sympathetic character.

Cheryl Fontana as Donna gave perhaps the most complete performance of the show. Her version of "The Winner Takes It All" was one of the highlights of the day. As I stated earlier, I don't feel that her character is that well written -- some of her choices are a bit jarring (such as suddenly deciding that the perfect moment to tell her daughter that she doesn't know which of the three possible men is Sophie's actual father right as she's about to take her wedding vows, after keeping this secret for 21 years). However, the actress did a fine job with the role she was given.

The rest of the cast ranged from capable to very good. I particularly liked Mark T. Cahill as Harry, and I thought that Terry Brennan (as Rosie) and Carl Tese (as Bill) had one of the most enjoyable numbers of the show together with their version of "Take a Chance on Me". And although it's not a huge role, I liked Hans Paul Hendrickson's decision to play Sophie's fiance Sky as kind of an amiable goofball. As for Samantha Rosario and Adrianna M. Scheer as Sophie's two best friends Ali and Lisa, I was kind of sorry that the play doesn't really give them much to do, as I really liked their dancing.

I don't have a lot to say about Patrick Grossman's directing. It was enjoyable show, and other than the sound problems (which had nothing to do with him), there was nothing noticeably wrong, so that tells me he did a decent job.

The music for the show was live this time (unlike the music for Pippin last month). This was good, but it tended to exacerbate the theater's sound problems -- it seems that it's harder to turn down eight or ten exuberant musicians when they're drowning out the actors than it is to turn down canned music.

I liked the set a lot. (So kudos again to Grossman, who is the show's set designer as well.)

And once again, while I'm no expert on dance, I really liked Ashley Nicastro's choreography.

At the end of the show, just as they did in the Broadway version, the entire cast came out for an encore of "Mamma Mia", "Dancing Queen" and "Waterloo", which really finished the day off on a high note. A good percentage of the mostly-full house seemed to be made up of the residents of various assisted-living facilities for the elderly and group homes for the developmentally disabled, and everyone seemed to be leaving the theater in a happy and excited mood. Several young people who seemed to be students enjoying their week off from school talked enthusiastically about how much they had enjoyed the day's entertainment.

Mamma Mia!, which is the first show of the CM Performing Arts Center's new season, continues running through March 23. The next show on their schedule, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, is another show I'm interested in seeing. It opens on April 6.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Joe Jackson

OK, let's see if I can write this one without as much rambling on as usual. (Probably not.)

Denise bought me tickets for us to see Joe Jackson as a Christmas present. I've always been more of a fan than she is, especially of his I'm the Man and Night & Day albums. He wandered off somewhere after that, into jazz, classical and even swing, and I just let him wander. But those two albums, as well as other assorted hits like "Is She Really Going Out With Him" and "What You Want" have always been staples of my music collection.

The tickets also came with a free download of Jackson's new LP, Fool. I downloaded it a couple of weeks ago to get ready for the show, and (much to my surprise), it's actually quite good -- very much in line with what he was doing back in those early days. (I'll probably review it here eventually.)

As I wrote a few days ago, I've been a little under the weather lately. And after coming home from Spring Awakening on Friday night, I felt like I was close to having another attack of vertigo. (I must have an inner ear infection or something.) So I started taking more meclizine, to try to keep from having an attack on Saturday. Thankfully, it worked. I wasn't 100%, but I was in good enough shape to go out Saturday night, especially after a short nap in the afternoon.

So at about 4:30PM, Denise and I started heading into the city towards Town Hall. I was relatively relaxed, even though I've written a million times how I feel about going into Manhattan these days. Part of this is because we left early, because there was a meetup of Denise's WLIR group at a restaurant near the venue. I like the folks in this group. In fact, if I had my own Facebook page (instead of borrowing Denise's whenever I need to use Facebook), I'm sure I'd join it. But mean as it is to say, I also like when there's a meetup, because I know that if we get stuck in traffic, we might miss part of the get-together, but we'll be there in plenty of time for the show. (I'm still bummed that we missed Reed & Caroline at the Erasure show last summer.) I get pre-show anxiety if I think we're going to be late.

The traffic wasn't too bad going into the city. But of course, it being a Saturday night, a lot of people were heading in to attend all kinds of events, and Town Hall is in the heart of the Broadway area. And while the Manhattan traffic wasn't as awful as it might have been, getting around to where you have to go is a bit of a math problem -- our parking garage was on 43rd between 6th and 7th. I'm in NYC so seldom these days, and most of the streets are one way, so we had to stop to think which direction does 43rd St. go, and did we have to go past it and come back while going uptown in order to get there. Denise was driving (I don't think I'll ever drive in Manhattan again. If I need to go into the city without her, I'll take the Railroad), but I probably know Manhattan better than she does. But we did the calculations, and eventually found the garage. We arrived a little before 7, about 45 minutes late for the start of the meetup, but more than an hour early for the show.

The garage was literally next door to the venue, and the restaurant was right around the corner. It was accurately named The Long Room. We found Tim and Mandy and a handful of others from the WLIR group, who were busy finishing up their food orders. The place was nice -- not overly crowded -- and it smelled good. Unfortunately, one of the delights of aging is that I have a variety of stomach ailments these days, and these Manhattan music venues tend to have awful restroom facilities, so I'm usually better off if I don't eat until after a show. So we just had sodas until it was time to head over to Town Hall.

I've never seen a show in this club, but it was a pretty typical Manhattan venue-- sort of like a smaller, less-comfortable Beacon Theater. Before heading to our seats, the WLIR group walked up front and took a photo of ourselves standing in front of the stage holding Tim's WLIR banner. Then we went upstairs.

As predicted, the restroom facilites were pretty limited -- four small unisex one-person rooms -- so the lines were long. But eventually we did what we needed to do, and got to our seats.

(OK, so at this point, I realize I've totally missed my goal of writing a review without rambling on.)

This was one of those shows that Denise bought an extra ticket for, which was good, because the seats were kind of small and cramped. We then waited for about 25 minutes, while the venue played some of the most god-awful shuck-and-jive music I've ever heard, at a painfully loud volume. If I'd have had Joe's cell phone number, I'd have texted him backstage and told him to get his ass out there and start playing in order to MAKE IT STOP! The venue also felt really warm to me, so the combination of the loud swing music and the heat was making me feel kind of woozy.

Finally, at about 8:20, Joe Jackson took the stage, accompanied by a really tight three-piece band, which consisted of Teddy Kumpel on guitar, Graham Maby on bass, and Doug Yowell on drums. He started out with a snippet from "Alchemy", a slow, smoky lounge song that closes the new Fool album. Then, Kumpel suddenly broke in with a raucous guitar riff, and we were off to the races, as the band launched into "One More Time".

I thought the sound in the venue was a little muddy, which was kind of disappointing. But it could have been because we were directly in front of one of the speakers. And Denise said she didn't notice it, so it also could have been me. Also, it got better as the night went on.

Between songs, Joe soon let us know that the theme of the night was Four Decades, and that he'd be focusing on one of his albums to represent each decade. (Joe doesn't count so well, because although he's been playing for four decades, he was really playing off of albums from five different decades -- '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s and '10s. Didn't think we'd notice that, did you Joe?)

He then played a couple of familiar songs, "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" from Look Sharp! (his debut album from 1979), and "Another World" from Night & Day (which was representing the '80s). At this point, I was feeling really dehydrated, so when he started "Fabulously Absolute" (which is my least favorite song from the new album), I took the opportunity to run to the (now-empty) bar to get Denise and I some waters. (One of the advantages of always buying aisle seats, besides the extra leg room, is that you can get in and out without inconveniencing people too much. Unlike that lady sitting on the other side of Denise, who came late, and then kept making us get up so she could go past us and get another drink every twenty minutes or so!). I was back before the song was even finished. This was good, because his next number was "Dave", my favorite song from the new album.

Joe's voice has mostly held up pretty well. However, you could hear him strain on some of the older numbers. And unfortunately, the one he had the most trouble with was one of his best numbers, "Breaking Us in Two". But the crowd kind of sang along (at least I did), so it smoothed out some of flat notes. Joe's two years older than I am, so I know how it goes. And all things considered, he still mostly sounds pretty great.

As the show wore on, Joe waded into a bunch of material I wasn't so familiar with, from Laughter & Lust, his 1990s-representative album, and Rain, which represented the early 2000s. At this point, I was feeling a little lightheaded, and kind of left the building for a while, just sort of floating on a music haze. I knew he had changed his setlist slightly from the show he did the night before at the same venue, and although these songs weren't bad, I thought that maybe we were getting the worst of the change. But when I checked later, I actually think we saw the better of the two shows, at least judging by the song choices.

In any event, he pulled me back in for a little with "Cancer", a song I've always liked a lot for its humorous lyrics, and for his excellent Latin-beat-style piano. (He talked for a little about how artists like Eddie Palmieri and Ruben Blades had influenced him in the writing of this song, and I promised myself to explore their music more when I get the chance.) Then I kind of drifted away again until he brought me back with a pair of songs from the new album, "Strange Land" (which actually is about the confused, hazy feelings some older people -- but not me -- get), and "Fool", the title track of, and another of my favorite songs from, the new album.

Soon, we were moving towards the end of the set, with familiar numbers like "Sunday Papers" (which was OK), and "You Can't Get What You Want", (which was even better). He closed out with a rocking version of "I'm the Man", which got everybody moving.

The band left the stage for a few minutes, before coming back out for the mandatory encore. This began with one of the highlights of the night, as Joe explained that he usually tried to do something a little new every night with his songs, but this time, he and the band were going to try to recreate, note-for-note, the recorded version of one of his most popular songs, "Steppin' Out". This involved Yowell playing along with a 1979 drum machine, Kumpel moving from guitar to second keyboard, Maby moving from bass to xylophone, and Jackson playing the bass line on his keyboard. They nailed it perfectly! They then played "Got the Time" from Look Sharp!, before ending the night with the full version of "Alchemy".

Overall, it was a very good show. I couldn't really complain about the setlist, although I was getting a little nervous about it before he played "What You Want" and "I'm the Man". I could have lived without the covers of The Beatles' "Rain" and Steely Dan's "King of the World" (not my favorite songs by either of those artists). And I was a little surprised that he didn't play "Look Sharp!" (but that's never been one of my favorite Joe Jackson songs) or "On Your Radio" (which I like better, but leaving it out wasn't a deal-breaker). If I could have paid him to do one more song, it would have been "Friday", which I haven't been able to get out of my head lately. But I knew that he hadn't been playing that song for the whole tour, so I wasn't surprised he skipped it. Comparing it to his Friday night show, he left out "Real Men" on Saturday, but substituted "Cancer", which I probably like even better. And Saturday's show included "Dave", my favorite song from the new album, instead of "Big Black Cloud", which I like, but not as much. So I feel like we got the better of the deal between the two shows. And Denise said she enjoyed the concert more than she expected to, which was also good.

Afterwards, we said our goodnights to Tim and Mandy (we didn't see the rest of the group). Then we schlepped back out to Suffolk County, tired but happy.

The setlist for the show can be found at www.IshouldhavedonemoresongsfromImtheMan.com.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A few more random thoughts about Spring Awakening

I didn't want to make the actual review any longer than it is, but I had some other thoughts.

About the play:

1. I think the play would be a little more digestible to a modern English-speaking audience if Steven Sater had updated the character names. I had a hard time following who was who among the minor characters just because the old German names were so strange to me. I couldn't tell my Schnitzels from my Schatzers.
2. Some of the elements of the play seemed to come from out of nowhere. For example, the song between Moritz and Fanny Gabor -- there didn't seem to be any special relationship between them before that number. Even the conclusion seemed weird -- Melchior was about to kill himself because he has nothing left, but then Moritz's and Wendla's ghosts talked him out of it. But he's still an outcast, with not much going on in his life (unless he decides to take up with Ilse, which come to think of it, wouldn't be a bad idea.) And Saber has the character of Thea make it clear that she has a crush on Moritz, but he never does anything with that.
3. Re/Duncan Sheik's score, I want to make it clear that outside of this musical, I'm not really a huge Duncan Sheik fan. I like "Barely Breathing" like most people probably do, but that's about it. (That's what I meant, and not "Wicked Game" like O originally wrote. That was Chris Isaak. Duh!) It's not as though when I first bought the cast album for Spring Awakening, I was hugely biased in his favor. But there are some really good songs here.

About the direction:

1. The thing I was talking about re/the choice to have the supporting actors onstage when their characters weren't even part of the scene -- for example, at some points, they're just standing there as trees in the forest. At other private, intimate moments in the script, they're kind of huddled around the main characters, sometimes right up in their faces, although the actors playing the main characters who are in the scene have to pretend they don't see them. It wasn't bad -- just kind of weird.
2. Some of the sexual choices were a bridge too far for me. It's not like I've never seen an adult film in my life, but somehow seeing fully-clothed simulated sex acts in a theater full of just regular people is way more uncomfortable. I understand that the play is trying to show you how uncomfortable most of us are with sexuality. But it doesn't mean I can't be pissed about it when they shove it in our faces. The scene in act 2 where the director has the reform school boys seemingly masturbate on an unwilling Melchior was just disgusting, and not commensurate with an otherwise enjoyable night at the theater.

About the performances:

1. As I said, I liked David Thomas Cronin's performance as Moritz. But he sort of plays him as an angrier version of Flounder from Animal House. It kind of worked, though.
2. I want to emphasize just how much I liked the scene between Cronin and Emily Nash's Ilse in the second act. The actors made you really wish that these two characters could have brought some comfort to one another, and could have averted the tragedy that followed.
2. I didn't really mention the musical highlights, but there were a lot of them. "Totally Fucked" was perhaps the best song of the night, and got the best reaction from the crowd. I also really liked Ilse's "Blue Wind" and the closing number, "The Song of Purple Summer", which gives all of the characters, even the adults, a happier, more dreamlike ending. The choreography on this one and "Totally Fucked" were particularly good.

About the program:

The proofreader in me couldn't help but notice that you guys listed one of Moritz's numbers as "The Btich of Living". And don't go pointing out any spelling errors I made in this blog post. I write these things pretty stream-of-consciousness, and don't always go back and proofread myself. And if I do, even a year later, I can still fix it -- it's digital media. It's somehow worse when it's in print. (At least that's what I tell myself.)

Friday, February 15, 2019

Spring Awakening

Warning: This review will contain plot spoilers for the show, and due to the nature of the show and its themes, will contain some sexually explicit language and themes.

Long Island has a (fairly) new theater, The Argyle Theater in Babylon. This is almost the end of their first season. I only found out about them a few months ago. Now, Spring Awakening is a musical I've been wanting to see, and although it's played at one or two other theaters on the Island, somehow I've always missed it. (The sales director from the Argyle was quick to point out tonight that they are the first professional theater to perform it on Long Island, and I guess that's true. To the best of my knowledge, the only other two "professional" theaters out here are The Gateway in Bellport/Patchogue and the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport; all of the Island's other theaters are community theaters who use a combination of Equity and non-Equity actors, etc.)

I was interested in Spring Awakening during its original Broadway run, where it won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for a little more than two years. But I don't get to Broadway all that often, so I missed it. I did buy the cast album, though, and I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, so I was as familiar with a show as you can be without having actually seen it staged.

I didn't even try to convince my daughter to go with me this time, because she really likes happy musicals, and this show definitely doesn't fit that bill. I did invite my wife, but she chose (possibly for the same reason) to pass. So I bought myself a ticket for last Saturday, February 9.

Now Saturday was supposed to be a pretty busy for me, involving Weight Watchers in the morning, a trip to Nassau in the afternoon to get together with a bunch of our friends, and the show in Babylon on Saturday night. However, it didn't work out that way.

I suffer from occasional bouts of vertigo. I have for probably about fifteen years now. It's not big a deal, because I've learned over the years that a day's worth of meclizine usually knocks it out of my system. But until that medication takes effect, it's pretty debilitating. I hadn't had a bout in roughly two years, but I had a feeling that I was due, enough so that I recently had my doctor give me a fresh prescription, because the pills I had were well past their expiration date. It's a good thing that I did, because when I got up on Saturday, the room was spinning.

I started taking my medication immediately, but by mid-day, it was obvious that I wasn't going to be in any condition to go out that night. So I phoned the Argyle Theater, and they couldn't have been nicer about it. They let me trade my ticket in for a ticket on Friday, February 16.

So tonight, I headed out well before showtime. I found the theater with no problem. It's right on Main Street in Babylon, just a half a block east of Deer Park Ave.

The theater itself is nice and modern. It has a well-lit lobby with an appealing looking snack bar. It seems a little pricey - a bottle of water is $4 - but they're trying to make a go of it, so I'm going to cut them some slack. (The ticket was also a bit on the expensive side, at $80, but then again, that's in the same price range as the other two LI professional theaters.)

The inside of the theater is quite comfortable. There's some leg room, and the chairs (which I read somewhere were originally from the Beacon Theater in Manhattan) are soft and reasonably wide.

As we approached showtime, I could see why the theater had been so accommodating about letting me reschedule (although, to be fair, they might have been nice about it anyway) -- it was a great deal less than a packed house. (I couldn't see how many people were in the balcony). I bought an aisle seat, as always, and I was the only person sitting on my side of the theater. I guess it takes a while to build a following -- I suspect that a lot of Long Islanders still don't know the theater exists.

As it got close to showtime, a group of very elderly people (we're talking mid-80 year olds) showed up with a younger woman who must have been their caretaker from a retirement home. I heard part of her conversation with the usher, and it sounded as though none of them were familiar with the show. Given the somewhat salacious nature of the SA, I laughed to myself and said, "Yeah, this is gonna go over well." And the usher obviously agreed with me, because when he learned that the caretaker was intending to leave them there and pick them up at the end of the night, he advised her to leave her phone on. To their credit, the old-timers lasted until the intermission with not a peep of complaint. Then they ran (hobbled?) for the hills. Luckily, most of the rest of the crowd was pretty young.

First, about the show. It's based on an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, with a strong rock-music score by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Overall, I like Sheik's contribution more than I like Sater's. The tunes are excellent. The story is more of a mixed bag. It's basically a tale about the dangers of sexually repressing (and over-controlling) your kids. Sater does one thing that I definitely like, which is he writes most of the dialogue in formal and stilted language, but when the kids break into song (and their inner-selves are allowed to break free without adult restrictions), the lyrics are written in modern-day idioms, with titles like "The Bitch of Living" and "Totally Fucked".

I don't know if I'm totally sold on the play itself, though. I can (mostly) deal with its singing and dancing little teen horn dogs, although the various characters display a kind of hackneyed laundry list of possible sexual proclivities and/or histories. There are straight kids and gay kids, an s&m kid and a girl who's being physically and sexually abused by her father (with her mother's consent.) They're all hot-to-trot all of the time (except for the abused girl). Unfortunately, it's 19th century Germany, so they mostly don't know anything about sex, not even that it can get you el-preggo.

Sater mostly manages to make them real characters, and not just stereotypes, which is good. But the hostility the play shows towards all of the adults, who keep the kids uninformed, crush their spirits, physically smack them around a lot, and just generally make their little lives miserable, is more than a little off-putting. And of course, this leads to a tragic ending, where two of our three likable main characters are dead (one by suicide, the other by a back-alley abortion), and the third is just barely talked out of slitting his own throat by their ghosts. You can see why the octogenarians got the hell out of dodge. (I'm pretty sure the simulated male masturbation didn't help any.) My Fair Lady this ain't.

So let's talk about the production itself. I'll get my gripes out of the way first, which mostly have to do with the directing. The director here is a fellow named Matthew Earnest. You know how sometimes directors get a little bored with the source material, so they try to spice it up by moving the play to a different time period, or filling it with anachronisms, or making all of the actors perform wearing shark masks, stuff like that? Sometimes it can work, especially with a play that's been around the block a few times, and could use a fresh approach. For example, if you did a production of West Side Story, and you wanted to change the Puerto Rican gang members to Muslim gang members, I'd see the logic behind it. I'm not sure that Tony singing "Fatima" instead of "Maria" would flow off the tongue quite as smoothly, but it's a matter of taste. However, I don't see the logic here of having one mom run around the stage with a vacuum cleaner, or another dad watching something on TV when his son is trying to talk with him. In fact, it makes me very cross, very cross indeed! Like to the point where I want to smack him sharply on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and say, "Bad director! Bad! What did you do? WHAT DID YOU DO?!!" (I resisted the urge because thankfully, he passed on using the shark masks.) This is especially so because this particular musical is still fairly young in its lifecycle, and lots of us (Me!) have never even seen it performed the way its creators intended before.

There were a few other choices for the placements and uses of actors who weren't actually part of a given scene that I didn't understand, but they didn't really detract from the performance for me. (And having not seen the Broadway version, for all I know, they did the same thing there.) And there were one or two cases of blocking where an actor who wasn't really part of the action was placed upstage in such a way as to block my view of the actors who were part of the action, which I could have lived without. Other than these things, though, the direction was actually pretty good. (I'm not being facetious here. These might sound like major gripes, but the show was well cast and well paced, so that the night was still mostly enjoyable.)

The real strength of the show, though (other than Duncan Sheik's music) is its cast. The three main leads, Alex Joseph Grayson as Melchior, Corrie Farbstein as Wendla, and David Thomas Cronin as Moritz, were all quite good. (I thought that Cronin's performance maybe went a little over the top at the end. But then again, the character at that point has become pretty unhinged, so I think I have to let him have the benefit of the doubt.) Farbstein is particularly effective as the good-natured and amiable girl next door who is completely ignorant about sex (but who soon discovers that a nice thrashing with a birch branch makes her go all tingly inside.) The rest of the mostly-young cast is also first-rate, particularly Emily Nash as Ilsa, the bohemian girl who almost saves Moritz.

The production also features live musicians, who were fine. (I didn't hear any clunkers or anything that distracted me from the plot, so as far as I'm concerned, that's a win.) And I should mention that the choreography for the musical numbers, by Sara Brians, was quite good.

Overall, it was a solid night of entertainment. I will definitely return to the Argyle Theater again.

Spring Awakening runs through February 24th. Then, from March 14th through April 20th, the Argyle will be presenting their last show of their inaugural season, the musical version of The Producers.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review of This Island Earth's "Welcome to the Merry-Go-Round"

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

Review Summary: A little bit of alternative pop heaven.

Musically, the period from 1995 to 2005 became something of a lost decade for me, at least as far as the American national scene was concerned. The nineties had started out promisingly enough, with the grunge movement, and bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam providing a new twist on basic rock. Then Kurt Cobain killed himself, and radio lost interest in grunge. For a year or so, it seemed that Alternative Rock would be the next big thing, and this was fine with me. Unfortunately, it wasn't making enough money for the record companies, so they ditched it after about a year. What followed was a horror show, as record labels decided to go back to an updated version prefabricated pop. It was as if the sixties through the nineties, and the movement toward artists who wrote their own music, never happened. Atrocity after atrocity was foisted upon the public, from The Spice Girls to Britney Spears to the cookie-cutter dorks and divas of the American Idol movement. I retreated in horror, first to college radio and indie music, and ultimately to my own local Long Island music scene, where I discovered that actual good music, music that I liked, was still being created.

Right in my own backyard, I learned that there were artists from a variety of genres who were out there every night, working the clubs and coffee houses, ignoring the national trends and trying to make a name for themselves. A wave of Long Island emo bands, such as The Movielife, started to break through to the national scene on a small level. The next generation of bands of this genre then broke through in a much larger way, including Taking Back Sunday, Brand New and Bayside. This was great to see. But even more exciting for me was that my preferred genre of the period, alternative pop rock, looked as if it might follow the same path. Nine Days scored big in 2000 with their The Madding Crowd album, and it seemed as if there was a talented cadre of Long Island bands mining the alternapop style who were poised to make it right behind them.

One of the best of these bands was This Island Earth. A five-piece group that featured a lead vocalist with a Freddy Mercury-type range, a lead guitarist who occasionally played a Chapman Stick, and a talent for writing, tight, energetic and intelligent pop rock songs, these guys seemed poised to make it big as music moved into the 21st century. Their style was described by some as Beatlesque, but the quirky construction of some of their songs made them sound more like an American version of Squeeze. They released a fine self-titled debut album in 1996, and their 2000 EP Home Sweet Home drew them some music industry attention. One of those who became interested was the producer Armand John Petri, who had previously worked with bands such as Goo Goo Dolls, Sixpence None the Richer and 10,000 Maniacs. Petri then helped TIE to reach their musical zenith with the release of 2002's Welcome to the Merry-Go-Round.

Welcome to the Merry-Go-Round is a bit of alternapop heaven. It begins with "All for Love", which is one of those songs that you feel like you've heard before, but in a good way. (It kind of reminds me of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" or The Cars' "Good Times Roll" in that way.) It's a more-than-solid opener. 

The LP then goes on to deliver a variety of hook-laden rock tracks in a number of speeds and styles. Two of its best numbers share a similar theme, that of non-heroism. The first, "Superman", finds its protagonist disclosing to his love that "I know just what I am/I'm an ordinary man", before going on the explain that the role of Clark Kent fits him way better than does that of you-know-who. ("Hey that's OK/I don't like tights anyway for me/Don't wanna be your Superman"). The second, "Hero (I Don't Wanna Be)", is a raucous and funny track that describes in great detail why its main character would be a poor fit for a career in the military: "Ring, ring, it's 4am/I think I'll punch the alarm and go back to sleep again/I could never get accustomed to all of that reveille/I need some revelry." This one features some rousing slide guitar, and is the kind of an anthem that you just have to clap along to.

There are a number of other treats on the LP. The title track contains a really tasty guitar pattern that foreshadows the song's chorus, and "All the King's Horses" is a fun stop-and-start kind of song that gives vocalist Peter McCulloch a chance to show just how many words can be stuffed into a line of a pop song chorus. "The Girl Upstairs", on the the other hand, is a darker mid-tempo number that brings to mind The Smithereens' "Blood and Roses". And the band even gets the chance to show its sweeter side, with "How Like a God", wherein our hero compares being in love with the worship of a deity, and "Innocent", which declares that "We're all born beautiful/Innocent/After all".

As you can probably guess by the fact that you've never heard of these guys (unless you happen to be a Long Islander of a certain age), this album failed to land the band national fame or a record deal. I don't know why. Maybe the record companies thought they couldn't find a single here. Or maybe the country was just too far gone down the American Idol rabbit hole to ever come back. Either way, it's a shame. Because if someone claimed that they stopped making good pop rock music before the start of the 2000's, I'd be proud to hand them this album any day to prove otherwise.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Monday, February 11, 2019

Review of Steve Hackett's "At the Edge of Light"

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

Review Summary: A disappointing prog-rock album that recycles various elements we've all heard used to better effect in the past.

Steve Hackett's career has been a long and storied one. He became the guitarist for Genesis in 1971, and played on most of their best-loved albums through the Peter Gabriel years. He formed the supergroup GTR with Yes's Steve Howe in 1986. And he has released twenty-five solo albums over the years, beginning with 1975's Voyage of the Acolyte. More recently, his 2017 LP The Night Siren was hailed by many as one of his best, mixing progressive rock with various elements of world music. So the announcement of a new Steve Hackett LP for 2019, At the Edge of Light, was the cause of some hopeful anticipation from prog-rock fans the world over.

Unfortunately, this one is a bit of a disappointment. It seems to be an attempt at a concept album, following the world from our current unsettled political climate through an upcoming battle that leads to hope and triumph. However, while Hackett's guitar work is excellent, as always, the songs themselves mostly misfire, and the album as a whole comes across as unfocused and generic.

It starts promisingly enough, with a decent instrumental intro entitled "Fallen Walls and Pedestals", which leads directly into a slow, creepy number named "Beasts in Our Time". This one sets a horror-film like tone early on, but then goes meandering off into something rockier but much less effective. 

What follows is a sprawling song that is meant to be a kind of triumphant anthem called "Under the Light of the Sun". This track encapsulates much of what is wrong with the album as a whole. It gets off to a good start, with an upbeat driving melody, which then peters out into a didgeridoo segment that sounds as if it was recorded in a cave, before moving back into the familiar theme from the first part of the song. It then wanders off again at the close. The track is supposed to represent the forces of nature, and the "twin extremities of Light and Dark" (according to the booklet that accompanies the CD version of the album). Unfortunately, it just comes across as musically indistinct and unclear in its direction. Incredibly, this 7-minute-long track was released as the LP's first single.

It gets worse. The next number, called "Underground Railroad", is intended as a mix between prog rock and an old spiritual, as it celebrates the freeing of slaves in pre-Civil War America, with railroad noises that make it seem as though the underground railroad was an actual, physical train. This one was also released as a single. I'm sure that Hackett meant well here. But the track is just a little cringe worthy, and reminded me uncomfortably of the Aldous Snow single "African Child" from the Russell Brand film Get Him to the Greek -- a parody of an overblown, excessive and ultimately tone-deaf rock song.

The rest of the album mixes good and bad elements. I've seen some criticize the sitar-based track "Shadow and Flame", but I actually liked that one. Ditto with the poppier "Hungry Years" (which sounds a bit in parts like a slower version of Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army".) However, the latter song actually highlights a couple of other problems with the album. The first of those is Hackett's vocals -- they're not terrible, but they're not great either. And the way that Amanda Lehmann's co-vocals brighten this track up really underscores the nondescript nature of Hackett's own voice. The second is that the album contains quite a few riffs that are "borrowed" or recycled from other, better songs. A quick listen brought to mind echoes of John Entwistle's "Doctor, Doctor" ("These Golden Wings"), Neil Young's "Southern Man" ("Peace"), Queen's "The Prophet's Song" ("Peace again), and even King Crimson's "Epitaph" ("Peace" yet again!). Also, Hackett's use of grand choruses throughout was very reminiscent of the way Rick Wakeman used the same element on albums such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur...LPs. I'm not saying that Hackett consciously stole music. At 68 years of age, I'm sure that he has a lot of song bits rattling around in that noggin of his. What I am saying is that the whole album sounds like something we've all heard before, and done better to boot.

Anyone can have an off album, and given that Hackett's last effort before this was fairly well acclaimed, I think we can all let him slide on this one. Sadly, though, I can't recommend At the Edge of Light, except perhaps to Hackett's biggest fans, and to Steve Hackett completists.

Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars