Paul McCartney Mamma Mia!
May 1, 2002 at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan
At the very beginning, Paul set out to prove that despite his reputation, there's a lot of artsy flakiness left in him. Unfortunately, my fellow concertgoers did a lot to ruin the effect. Despite repeated announcements that the show featured performers coming up the aisles so you'd better be seated at showtime, at least a third of the seats were still empty when costumed oddities began appearing in the corridors. Because of this, the house lights were left up for much of the introductory programme, dampening much of its mystical quality. To the accompaniment of an extended electronic piece that moved from the sound of galloping hoofs into a minimalist synth repetition groove into pounding white noise, dancers (who doubled as roadies later in the show) dressed in costumes evoking Renaissance commedia dell'arte, circus performers, and even Louis XVI fashions cavorted in odd dances and physical feats. I was most impressed by the contortionist who popped out of a cake box and turned her legs backward, and the man in the bird costume who walked on top of a rolling ball. After about 15 minutes of this, the stage cleared, the music swelled, and we saw on the stage curtain a silhouette of a man with a Hofner violin bass. The crowd went wild.
The show opened with "Hello Goodbye," and several things were immediately noticable. The first is that Paul McCartney's voice, at nearly 60 years old, is in excellent shape much better than on his 1993 tour, if I remember the videos. Later it became apparent that he was lowering the keys of some songs, but he still had amazing range, power, and clarity. The second is that keyboardist Wix Wickens has much more sophisticated emulators than before; those violas sounded like the real thing. The third is that Paul's band was incredibly good at recreating the arrangements of the records. Throughout the evening, there wasn't a lot of variance in the arrangements, but neither were there many missed cues. It was extremely professional.
"Hello Goodbye" wrapped up with a double false ending, and "Jet" was next. I like the record, but hearing it live made much more sense. The song is intended as a powerhouse, sending massive waves of sound at the audience, and in this setting it was monumental, like something from Strauss.
The mood was broken a little as Paul, sounding just like the Scorpions' front man, said, "Hello Detroit, tonight we are going to be rocking you." The odd patter like that continued through the evening, although there were several funny and touching stories, too. The most affecting part of Paul's stage presence was that he seemed genuinely modest at the moments when the crowd was most exuberant, he seemed a little embarrassed by the attention, and even stuck his hands in his pockets. Once, after a performance he obviously considered subpar, he even waved off the applause.
"All My Loving" showed off another odd trait of his band: lead guitarist Rusty Anderson can knock off exact duplications of anybody's solo, and in this case he nailed George's twangy spotlight. Yet, he's terrible when making up his own parts, screechy and often off-key.
"Getting Better" found Paul on guitar, and rhythm guitarist Brian Ray switching to bass (Ray played bass through about half the set, but one didn't miss Paul's bass playing too much, as the mix, although otherwise very good, lacked clarity on the bottom end. Still, considering he was playing in a basketball arena, the sound was excellent.) It was a pleasure to hear one of my favorite Sgt. Pepper tunes, but it showed itself as a study creation, as some of the nice moments, like the sitar drone and the congas breaks, made their absence felt (perhaps I've just listened to that record too many times.)
The biggest improvement of the night's arrangements was "Coming Up", a song that usually irritates me. But Anderson played a tight funk groove on guitar, and Ray turned in a more Beatlesy bass line than Paul did originally, while drummer Abe Laborio Jr. knocked into a disco groove, and the whole song lifted off. Paul's vocal was great, too, full of gusto and even a few screams.
"Let Me Roll It" was a companion piece to "Jet", simply overwhelming the audience with the massiveness of its sound. Paul had a great moment as he was doubling lead licks and then played a brief fuzzed out passage that looked like it was going to start a solo. Disappointingly, it didn't, but Wix's organ came in just then to push the whole song over the edge.
Paul modestly introduced the next three songs from his new album, Driving Rain, and while the audience was appreciative, they didn't excite any frenzy. "Lonely Road" suffered a bit from an overly energetic introduction which wiped out the dynamic tension, but "Driving Rain" was sped up a little and delivered with a lot of vocal relish. "Your Loving Flame" had a luscious vocal from Paul, now at the piano.
Paul then took the stage by himself, with just an acoustic guitar. "Blackbird" was a nice moment, with Paul singing an octave lower than the record but still sounding sweet. His other solo choices struck me as odd, and not really suitable for the style (especially when there are lots of others I can think of that would be appropriate). "Every Night" had a great vocal (high notes and all) but missed the bass line, and "We Can Work It Out" sounded extremely sketchy. (This has always seemed to me to be the most misunderstood of all Paul's songs: it has a reputation as a pro-compromise ditty, but he's really saying, "See it my way because your way is wrong.") "Mother Nature's Son" found Wix joining him on accordion, which was a low-key touch that lent a nice warmth to the arrangement, which tacked on a new coda, repeating the title four times. Paul sounded just a bit winded there, but recovered on "Vanilla Sky." I thought the song was underwritten when I heard it on the Oscars, but Paul apparently added extra verses this time around. He made a funny comment about spitting on Randy Newman.
The worst song of the evening was next. Paul sat down at an upright piano (he had both a grand piano and an upright on stage - the latter had a nice psychedelic paint job) and butchered "You Never Give Me Your Money" - forgetting words, rushing through transitions, losing his timing. He didn't miss any notes in the melody, but it was mediocre (especially considering the high standard he established throughout the night.) He medleyed it with "Carry That Weight" as a bridge, and returned to the famous missing third verse. "The Fool on the Hill" was better, with Wix supplying all the wind instrument sounds from his synthesizer.
Back on acoustic guitar, Paul started to talk about telling your loved ones how you feel, and I got hopeful he was going to play "This One", one of the nicer moments on Flowers in the Dirt (he hadn't done anything "obscure" all night), but he turned in "Here Today" instead, and his falsetto was absolutely gorgeous; I admit it moved me. Then out came… a ukulele. There was a funny story about George Harrison's love of the ukulele, and Paul sang "Something" while playing the ukulele (a gift from George). The arrangement lacked a bit of dynamic interest, but Paul sang it well, and it was a nice moment.
The band rejoined him to sing harmonies while he played acoustic guitar and Wix provided a string section for "Eleanor Rigby." The match of guitar and strings didn't work all that well, and again Paul's vocal, while strong, lacked rhythmic definition. "Here, There and Everywhere" was nicer, with a brushed snare drum and smooth harmonies. Abe the drummer turns out to have a great high tenor, which is odd since he's a very menacing looking man, bald with a long beard and about 250 pounds.
"Band on the Run" followed in full-throttle mode, but a couple moments were rushed in the transitions between sections, and the group didn't find its groove until about halfway through. "Back in the USSR" was, to me, slightly off-putting. The song's subversive value has dissipated with the decades, and the rote arrangement (every last guitar lick exactly like the record) made it seem like a mere exercise in nostalgia (most of the rest of the concert seemed like more, as Paul gave so much to the performances.) Making up for it was "Maybe I'm Amazed" (Paul on piano again), with Paul slightly modifying the lyrics ("maybe I'm amazed at the way I miss you") and taking some daring chances with his piano breaks flipping the beat inside out, attacking with both hands slightly out-of-sync.
Jessica and I were probably the only people to burst out laughing when Paul lurched into the piano intro for "C Moon", but it was hilarious because we had been discussing all the possible songs he could do and, as a joke, voting for "C Moon." But he did it, it was as dumb as ever, and the band handled the groove with aplomb. Fortunately for all concerned, no glue appeared in anyone's hands.
"My Love" was dedicated to Linda, and came off excellently except for an atrocious guitar solo. Back on bass, Paul did "Can't Buy Me Love" with added harmonies to enliven the chorus, which helped (it's never been a favorite). "Freedom" followed, with Paul exhorting the crowd to stamp feet and clap hands; I'm glad everyone enjoys their freedom, but I wish Paul had something useful to say about it. Next was "Live and Let Die," which featured several explosions and pyrotechnic displays. Aside from a sloppy middle section, Paul did it well (although thirty years of criticism have not persuaded him to correct his grammar), but for those of us who remember the event that led him to write "Freedom", the loud scary displays seemed a tad insensitive. "Let It Be" closed the show, and even Paul seemed to be tired of it (both Jessica and I are). His timing on the vamp wobbled quite a bit, and he seemed to lack enthusiasm.
Much hooting and hollering later, the band came back and Paul kicked off "Hey Jude." His vocal performance was incredible, smooth and rich. He asked us to sing along, but I was reluctant, because I felt embarrassed to even lend my voice to such a fantastic rendition. Sounds corny, but it's true. "The Long and Winding Road" had a jazzy introduction, and the drummer sang a high harmony on the last verse that was a great touch. The first encore ended with "Lady Madonna" and "I Saw Here Standing There", both extremely faithful to the records.
Yet more yelling ensued, and Paul emerged to play "Yesterday" with a keyboard string part that, for the first time all evening, sounded fake. This song seems less good than it is famous, and Paul's rendition was fine but nothing spectacular. While Paul switched to electric guitar, the drums kicked off the "Sgt. Pepper Reprise" while segued into "The End". The drum solo took some chances, and so did the rounds of guitar solos (no bassist on stage for this song, just three guitars). The energy in this performance was incredibly high for a group that had played 35 songs (!), and they slayed the audience.
Paul McCartney can still put on a show, boy, and while one might quibble with the set list (it definitely was aimed at the "casual" fan, as it only included big hits and left off his entire career post-1980), it's hard to deny that this was one of the best-performed shows I've ever seen. Paul's been good to his voice over the years (contrast Dylan's sad croak) and delivered an amazing show.
At first blush, the idea of a musical built around Abba songs has some merit. Abba’s songs are quite a bit more sophisticated than your average pop/rock tunes, with genuine melodies and structures that are more complex than verse/chorus (notice how there’s always a couple bars of melodic twist when you think the verse ought to be over). And what the heck, it’s not like musicals have a lot of narrative structure anyway.
Surprisingly, though, Mamma Mia! wasn’t quite the hoot I hoped it would be. Part of it, I guess, is that a large part of Abba’s charm lies in the recordings themselves. That Europop production, tempered with real acoustic piano and guitar, puts the heart into the material. Despite having four keyboard players, the Fisher Theater orchestra couldn’t reproduce the songs just right. Having the lyrics delivered in normal American accents only served to highlight that they were written by Swedes, and the book did have to work extra hard (and not always successfully) to provide a rationale for singing, say “Super Trouper” or “I Have a Dream”.
Despite the conceptual flaws, the show was pretty entertaining. They are lovely songs, and the female leads, Gabrielle Jones and Chilina Kennedy, were respectively awesome and winsome. The male leads were a sorrier lot with the exception of Michael DeVries, these guys couldn’t hit a note with a hammer. Worst of all was Gary Lynch, who adds not acting well to not singing well.
I admire Bjorn and Benny for having the baller to think of making a musical out of their songs, but I think a purpose-written set of material (like Chess) is the better route. Mamma Mia! is fun but not nearly as cohesive is their talents deserve.
Chapstik and Snorkelhead Hullabaloo Laith Al-Saadi Band
You may wonder, what's a family man doing out past 10 on a Tuesday evening in a seedy bar? Well, it just so happens that my friend and erstwhile Knowl-Tone Jason Bickford has a band, and I was willing to brave the secondhand smoke to catch them. While waiting for Snorkelhead, I caught the last few numbers from Chapstik, a Texas-based three-guitar and drums group (no bass). Unfortunately, they don't do anything with the three guitars: all of them play the exact same line. But at least they were all using Gibsons (two Les Pauls and an SG) so the sound was pretty nice.
Snorkelhead features Jason on guitar and vocals, with Greg on bass and Keith on drums and vocals. Their style is aggressive metal-punk, but with a melody on top. Greg was particularly impressive, with funky chops always pushing the beat, but Jason surprised me with his guitar ability (he played bass in the Knowl-Tones). His songs have a strong chord-based structure, within which he plays lots of fills and licks, for a much more accomplished sound than most of the punk bands featured at the Elbow Room. "Padlock" was particularly impressive with a palm-muted ringing riff that I could have sworn came from a sequencer. A fun night out, and I didn't get stabbed!
In 1998, I played bass for a week in a classic rock cover band called Rhythm Jones, before they booted me reasons I never learned. Anyway, when I saw singer E.J. Vasicek has a new band called Hullabaloo, I wanted to see what I’d missed out on. It turns out he’s put together a great blend of old-fashioned ska, salsa, and a rocking horn section. I didn’t recognize all the songs, but he always had toes tapping.
Despite looking like he came to stage directly from a round of golf, Laith Al-Saadi is rocking soul, with a charmingly gritty voice and liquid guitar tone. Unfortunately, he also thinks that if “Hallelujah I Love Her So” is a great two-minute song, it will be four times better as an eight-minute jam with solos for everyone except (thank God) the drummer. If you’re going bludgeon the audience like that (14 songs in a 90-minute set), you’d better know more than a half-dozen licks.
Chapstik and Snorkelhead
Laith Al-Saadi Band
-- I have played golf only once in my life and work full time as a musician.
-- " Hallelujah I love her so" is far longer than 2 minutes on the original recording, and the bassist didn't take a solo on that as well as the drummer (leaving 3 solos) . Heaven forbid that a group of jazz musicians that grew up on rock and roll might want to improvise!
-- each member of my band from TOP has a degree in music and knows far more than "licks"...
in fact, they understand how to make cohesive, narrative statements with their solos. It is not my fault that you clearly have no appreciation for the art form of improvisation.
--Your one paragraph review made no mention of the original material presented that evening (which constituted about 75% of the set). In fact all it seems to do is rip on my personal aesthetics and the fact that I let my band stretch out... which you consider a bludgeoning of the audience. Your review reads like that of a five year old's account of a jazz concert. Instead of giving valid criticisms you instead show plainly that you just don't get it!
I hope you get some taste in the future... and I'll be sure to do my best not to have you reviewing my future endeavors.
Youth Talent Show, Ypsilanti Heritage Festival
There's a lot of talent among our under-10 set; I especially enjoyed the fiddler who did a patriotic medley while his friend waved flags, but didn't appreciate as much the kids who put on their favorite CD and sang along. The highlight, of course, was one Abraham Knowlton, who wowed the audience with his rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." He didn't win, but he got a $10 consolation prize, which is more than his dad made at most shows.
Youth Talent Show, Ypsilanti Heritage Festival
Vote for Change
We were planning to give some money to the effort to kick the rascals out this year (but not to kick the Rascals out – heck, they’re not even on the charts, let alone in the administration, although I’m sure Dino Danelli would be a fine chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities), and when we found out we could hear my man Bruce Springsteen (plus R.E.M. and Bright Eyes [who?]) play a show to raise funds for the cause, we bought tickets the first day.
Although we didn’t get to our seats until a little after 7:00, the show’s advertised start time, the Arena was still half-empty, and the Dixie Chicks were appropriately playing on the PA. Later, Edwin Starr’s “War” came on. This gave Jessica the chance to show off her amazing skill at changing her shirt (to put on the concert shirt she bought) under her jacket. Probably the most impressive thing all night. The stage was set for all three bands, with rows of instruments in three configurations. This didn’t give the openers much space to work with, but it was still at least as big as most clubs. In a nice gesture, Springsteen came out to announce that Cobo Arena tonight was a “no ‘Bruce’ zone” (his fans are known to yell his name which sounds a lot like “boo” during other acts’ shows), and introduced Bright Eyes.
I had heard some not-very-complimentary things about Bright Eyes, but he wasn’t completely wretched. For one thing, he handled what must have been a very nerve-wracking moment, opening for R.E.M. and Springsteen, with little visible anxiety. You’ll forgive me for not getting the song titles right, but I am completely unfamiliar with his catalog. He opened with just his guitar, singing “Walk Away”, which is a nondescript melody over a nice folkish guitar pattern, which then opened up with a full band (drums, bass, two electric guitars, keyboard) – the keyboard player pulled out a trumpet and played a solo that was the highlight of the set. “They Go Wild” was described as a song about a previous protest Mr. Eyes attended, and he did a nice job of screaming in tune on the chorus. Unfortunately, that seemed to blow his voice, as he get less and less tuneful as the night proceeded. The waltz “Stay” provided little of interest in tune or arrangement. A slow march-like beat make “Since I First Met You” even more mawkish than the painfully angsty lyrics (apparently he can’t get over being a teenager) demanded, and by this point he had lost most of the sparse audience, who were talking amongst themselves. A fast shuffle with one of the guitarists on pedal steel followed, and highlighted the band’s biggest problem (aside from uninteresting material): the rhythm section were stiff and unimaginative all night, and never really developed a groove, with the drummer particularly to blame. Another tuneless ballad, something about a yellow bird, dragged out the set, but he tried to end things on a peak with a driving song he introduced (after indicting the administration’s “fucking bullshit” – now why didn’t Kerry use that in the debate?) as “The Most Comfortable Place.” Bright was clearly agitated, but his band didn’t have the chops to carry the song over the top, and when he collapsed in a heap it was more sophomoric than cathartic.
After a long break (the reasons for which will become clear later), R.E.M. was introduced by Springsteen as “one of the great American bands.” In contrast to Bright Eyes and his band, who appeared to have come to stage directly from bed, R.E.M. were nattily dressed, particularly Michael Stipe in a crisp white suit and matching shoes. They kicked off with an intense “The One I Love,” and Stipe surprised the hell out of me with his amazing frontmanship. In interviews, he comes across as a bit shy and awkward, but on stage he’s dancing, grooving, interacting with the audience – it’s a great show. He has a particularly cool shimmy move. Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck were accompanied by a drummer, second guitarist, and keyboardist. Unfortunately, the mix at Cobo was terrible all night. The vocals were boomy (and Mills was inaudible throughout the show), bass was hardly heard, and everything except the lead guitar got smushed into a big wad of midrange.
Mills switched to a fretless bass for “Work It Out” (again, I’m not completely familiar with R.E.M.’s collected works), but it turns out R.E.M.’s not really the kind of band that fretless bass is good for. “Exhuming McCarthy” followed with a fantastically tight groove and a perplexing middle section in which Stipe held up a tape recorder to his microphone but we couldn’t hear which it was playing. “Leaving New York” is a new ballad that has an absolutely hypnotizing guitar line, while “Feel” just exploded off the stage, with a downright nasty guitar solo from Buck. A foreboding feeling emanated from “Tell Me Why,” while “She Just Wants to Be” turned into a surprising jam, with some very pretty guitar passages at the end. After a couple minutes exhorting us to bring our fellow Michiganders (which struck Stipe as a funny word) to the polls, they brought out another new song, “Love and Lust” which has a prominent bouncy piano line – it felt like a Dave Clark Five song.
The crowd was now about ¾ there (thinking I don’t understand: you pay for a Springsteen show, and you also get to see R.E.M., but don’t bother), and a great roar went up when the first mandolin notes of “Losing My Religion” were played. It was a hair faster than the usual, but Stipe handled the vocal with ease. He was in great voice all night. The next number (something about a bag of rocks) had a gigantic throbbing beat that was quite impressive. Springsteen joined the group for the last two numbers, “Count Your Blessings” (in which Stipe played a mercifully brief harmonica solo) and “Man on the Moon,” for which Bruce took the second verse. I was completely shocked at the crowd reaction to “Man on the Moon” clapping along on the verse, shouting out the choruses it doesn’t seem like that kind of number. At any rate, the set was absolutely rousing and those idiots who skipped it should be kicking themselves. I had no idea R.E.M. was so good in concert.
Then following a long break in which we attempted to go to the bathroom. It turns out the brilliant architects of Cobo Area (capacity 12,191) put exactly one bathroom on the entire upper level (at least half the seats). Instead of queue, there was simply a gigantic stampede. It took us five minutes just to give up and turn around! Anyway, Bruce opened his set by playing the ringiest 12-string guitar available for an instrumental “Star-Spangled Banner,” during which almost everyone stood up and sang. Then without a pause the band launched into “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Badlands,” “No Surrender,” and “The Ties That Band,” smoothly segueing into each new songs with no breaks. The performances were all very similar to the recordings, with the exception of an added fiddle part by new band member Soozie Tyrell. Springsteen was in fine voice and his guitar leads were fiery. Bruce give a great, charismatic performance, but the most amazing thing was the enthusiasm of the audience. On “Badlands,” for example, a sea of fists punched the air on the title phrase, and on the famous “poor man wanna be rich” bridge, the voices singing along nearly overpowered the band.
For “Johnny 99”, the band broke into a hoedown, with Garry Tallent on double bass, Nils Lofgren on dobro, and Danny Federici on accordion. With solo spots all around, it was a hoot. A powerful “Youngstown” followed, with a long, furious solo from Lofgren.
Then Springsteen introduced John Fogerty and the place went wild. Playing a dorky baseball bat-shaped guitar, Fogerty launched into “Centerfield” (and I noticed how much the intro to that song sounds like “La Bamba”). He was in fine voice as well, and the E Street Band had a sprightly touch that surprised me. Fogerty strapped on an acoustic guitar for his new, hookless song “Déjà Vu All Over Again” that seemed to turn off the crowd. But a raging “Fortunate Son” (driving even harder than the Creedence version) brought the crowd into the song again, and Fogerty finished his set by duetting with Springsteen on “The Promised Land.”
”The Rising” followed, but it didn’t have the dynamic tension of the record just bashing out the song straight through made it fall flat. But when Stipe joined the band for a duet of “Because the Night” (they sang the Patti Smith verses, too), they seemed to find their groove again, which set up the best moment of the night: “Mary’s Place.” Kicking off with some gospelly call-and-response, the band played a tight but laid-back groove while Bruce did his patented fake-preacher schtick (which has frankly grown a bit wearisome), but then he sang the song beautifully, and at a high point in the arrangement, he wet down his pants and slid across the stage on his knees. It was a rousing performance of a great song.
Then the rest of R.E.M. came on stage to play “Born to Run.” (I joked with Jessica that now that Bruce is close to 60, perhaps it should be “Born to Re-evaluate My Portfolio.) Regardless of the moldiness of the song, the by-now gigantic group (5 guitars, 2 basses, etc.) handled this ungainly arrangement with a minimum of galumph, and the lights dimmed as the crowd went wild.
A fun fact of modern life is that with so few smokers around (I didn’t catch a whiff of doobie all night), people have to use their cell phones to signal an encore request. As the dim green glow filled the arena, everyone (including Bright Eyes and his trumpet player) trooped on stage to launch into a Fogerty-sung “Traveling Band” which actually cruised along nicely. Then Springsteen, Eyes and Stipe took turns on the verses of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”, in Elvis Costello’s arrangement. Finally, the Dixie Chicks (who played another Vote for Change show across town at the Fox Theatre) came out and we were treated to and endless rendition of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” The best part was watching Bright Eyes dance: imagine your most awkward moments at the high school mixer, but onstage in front of 12,000 people. Fun!
I’m not sure any minds were changed, as the politicking was kept to the minimum, and Springsteen didn’t do a lot of his most ideologically charged songs, but I’m sure a lot of money was raised and the pleasure of watching three great artists and one underfed teenager collaborate was worth the price.
Vote for Change
My Chemical Romance
Thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump.
You’ve spent countless hours mastering your instruments; you’ve poured heart and soul into your songs; and now you have an adoring audience of thousands screaming for you. So naturally, it makes sense to play so loudly that the audience can’t make out a note except for a relentless buzz and the insistent throb of a bass drum so powerfully amplified that it literally knocks the wind out of the listener. For all your fans can tell, you’re up there miming to old P-Funk records, or rehearsing a Rachmaninoff etude. Or maybe a roadie is just beating a deflated basketball into a microphone backstage. But we know it’s really you ‘cause you stop to call us “motherfuckers” every few minutes.
Thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump.
My Chemical Romance
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