Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beck At Lifestyles Community Pavillion In Columbus, OH: 6/20/14

On June 20th, 2014 Beck performed before a packed crowd at the Lifestyles Community Pavilion in Columbus.  Beck, who came to prominence with "Loser" in the 1990s, has continually produced albums of high quality and varying styles for the past two decades.  

Sean Lennon's touring band "The Ghost of Saber Tooth Tiger" opened up for Beck.  Songs from his new album have a heavy Beatle influence in the style of "Dear Prudence" and "Cry Baby Cry" from the White Album. During his set,  Lennon spoke of his admiration for Beck and even joined him onstage later in the evening with cowbell in hand.

Around 9, Beck took the stage and opened with a rollicking "Devil's Haircut." Five songs were played from his new album of sonic wonders, Morning Phase.  With over a growing song catalog, he split the difference between the old and new.  Five songs from his breakout LP Odelay brought some serious 90s nostalgia to the proceedings.  Heartfelt acoustic performances of "Lost Cause" and "The Golden Age" from the somber 2002 album Sea Change comprised the middle section of the show.  

About midway through things picked up in a hurry as the opening strums to "Loser" hit the spectators.  For Gen X, the chorus "I'm a loser baby/so why don't you kill me" helped express their pre-millennial malaise.  At one point, Beck tipped his hat to his fans and exclaimed,"I'm canceling tomorrow's show, we're just gonna play here again!"

The groove kept going with "The New Pollution" and a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."  For the encore, he ended with the bluesy "Debra" and the essential "Where It's At." Everyone left with the beats still going in their head and I overheard people saying, "best show ever"; Beck easily won over Columbus.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Critical Perspectives on Movie Geeks United

Movie Geeks United is a podcast featuring in depth movie reviews, interviews with guests from the film industry, and lively discussions about the past, present, and future of film. Recently, Movie Geeks contributor Jamey DuVall and critic Tony Macklin, have recorded a series of conversations entitled "Critical Perspectives." The depth and wit both exude in their talks are like a film school in themselves.

DuVall's easy going style serves as a nice counterpoint to Macklin's acerbic take on contemporary movies. From 1965-1977, Macklin edited the scholarly journal Film Heritage. During those years he conducted several interviews with many important figures from Hollywood history such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, and Howard Hawks. The Film Heritage interviews are available online.  They are well worth your time.

In a recent episode devoted to film comedy Macklin and DuVall covered Chaplin, Apatow, and everyone in between.  DuVall tends to favor only high and low humor, while Macklin prefers comedy with melancholy undertones.  Other shows have covered American movies of the 1970s, the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films, and the evolution of film criticism.  

A generation ago movie critics played a crucial role in fostering a vibrant film culture. Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for his film writing in 1975 and inspired many on his television show Siskel & Ebert.  Pauline Kael's reviews in the New Yorker serve as a sort of history of the era and at their best read like literature. And many other critics wrote with passion and eloquence on the art of film.  Nowadays anyone can be a critic, but often the best voices are muted in the cacophony of noise on the web.  Movie Geeks helps keep the spirit of informed criticism alive.

The "Critical Perspectives" series can be accessed at the Movie Geeks United home page and Mr. Macklin's website.  You should check them out.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Concert Review: Jeff Tweedy Performs New Material on Summer Solo Tour

Jeff Tweedy, chief songwriter of Wilco, has embarked on a solo tour this summer in support of his yet to be titled solo album.  Last Wednesday evening he performed at the Brown Theater in Louisville.  The two hour set consisted of all new material with his own touring band (including his son Spenser on drums) for the first part and then an all acoustic collection of mostly Wilco tunes (and other tracks from various side projects).

In an era of fragmentation Tweedy has emerged as a leading voice in American rock music. For the past 20 years, Wilco has garnered a large following by constant touring and an ever evolving sound.  Their music draws upon a multitude of influences ranging from British Invasion, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, The Replacements, and Pavement to mention a few.

Before a nearly packed house, Tweedy opened with a somber collection of songs dwelling on mortality and love.  Performing new material before a live audience always presents a challenge, but a fierce melancholy and passionate delivery carried them along nicely.  His self deprecating humor and banter with the crowd added some levity.  The new songs sounded amazing and carry the promise of a stellar LP. 

The acoustic set opened with "Via Chicago," the central track on Wilco's 1999 venture into pop, Summerteeth.  Then came "I am Trying to Break Your Heart" with the iconic opening lyrics, "i am an american aquarium drinker/i assassin down the avenue" from Wilco's breakthrough 2001 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  Included in the set were some deep tracks such as the whimsical "Pecan Pie" from the Golden Smog project and the irreverent "The Ruling Class" Tweedy recorded with Loose Fur. Two songs from the Uncle Tupelo days also appeared: "New Madrid" and "Give Back the Key to My Heart."  For an encore, Tweedy gave a literally unplugged version of "Misunderstood" and invited the crowd to sing along as a show of respect and appreciation - thus ending the evening on an especially high note.


Friday, May 16, 2014

WTF with Marc Maron: The Art of the Interview

Nothing beats the energy of two people engaged in thought provoking and unpredictable conversation.  WTF with Marc Maron is a podcast that airs twice a week on his website. Undoubtedly, Maron has reinvigorated the art of the interview - a format sadly lacking on television.  Quite simply, the interviews are the best you'll ever hear anywhere.  They are brutally honest, funny, inspiring, and much, much more.

Maron streams two full length interviews a week from his garage in Los Angeles. A veteran stand up comedian since the 1980s known for never quite hitting the big time or getting the same accolades as his peers (a recurring source of humor and angst on the show).  He's been very open about his early days in the mad world of Sam Kinison , struggles with addictions, and the ups and downs of a life in show business. In 2009, after hitting a career brick wall, Maron started conducting interviews with fellow comics in his garage. Now nearing episode 500, WTF is the hippest thing happening on the web or any other medium for that matter.

Each episode begins with Marc delivering a stream of consciousness rant of whatever's on his mind. Then he introduces the interview which usually lasts an hour or two. Maron's interview style swiftly shifts from laid back politeness to relentlessly probing. Since the majority of guests are comedians the episodes themselves are like a comedy school. 

There are countless highlights from the interviews and many stand out. Listening to back to back interviews Marc conducted with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner are invaluable as history, but also very entertaining.  Judd Apatow spoke movingly of finding an escape in comedy as a child to deal with bullying and the pain of his parents divorce.  In a two-part interview with Louis CK, both comics share stories about being friends back in the day and the professional jealousy that poisoned their friendship.  During the interview they worked out their differences.  Conan O'Brien opened up about losing the Tonight Show and making the transition from writing to performing. Another favorite moment came during a long chat with Bob Zmuda, Andy Kaufman's writing partner, who enthusiastically retold the story of Kaufman's strange, almost mythic life. At one point Maron exclaimed, "I feel like you're a blind Homer telling the story of Odysseus!"

WTF is much more than a school of comedy.  Lately Marc has spent more time with musicians, writers, and artists.  Recently, Lena Dunham stopped by and they devoted most of their conversation on nothing less than the nature of great art.  Michael Keaton discussed his beginnings in stand up comedy and then becoming an unlikely choice to play Batman. In another episode, Marc interviewed legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton and achieved something of a transcendence.  

Interviews with musicians range from educational to the sublime.  Highlights from 2014 include Wayne Kramer of the Detroit proto-Punk band MC5 speaking about overcoming drugs, surviving prison, and finding solace in music.  Some of the hidden gems include people who aren't as widely known such as Patrick Stickles, leader of the indie-rock band Titus Andnronicus, who gave a gritty account of his struggle with depression.  John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revivial spoke openly about his influences and his songwriting process. Iggy Pop came in he gave a raw account of the music scene in Detroit and L.A. 1960s and 1970s. Iggy remembered everything.

The art of the interview is alive and well on WTF.  Maron's keeping alive a tradition, while building a priceless record of history, biography, cultural criticism - a document of modern America itself.  More interviews are sure to come and they are all well worth your time.

(The previous 50 shows are available to stream, but for $5 you can gain access to the entire archive at

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: Fight For Your Long Day by Alex Kudera

"Adjunct" Cyrus Duffman, humble protagonist of Fight For Your Long Day, is a nearly 40 year old instructor of English at four fictional colleges in Philadelphia.  We follow him through a day of superficial encounters, painful longings, and existential pain. Through Cyrus, Kudera unveils the maddening absurdities of American higher education and the depressing rhetoric of the "war on terror." Kudera's debut novel successfully pulls no punches on some harsh truths on the economic realities of 21st century America.

"Duffy" is a well meaning teacher trapped in a state of terminal malaise. Part-time instructors are the on the bottom rung of the academic pecking order: low pay, labyrinth commutes, no benefits, nor any chance of promotion.  Early on in the novel, Cyrus teaches a "Business Writing" class at an urban community college with a classroom of diverse students. They range from a well read Afro-Centrist, young white males donning baseball caps who carry thinly veiled contempt for minority students, studious female pupils preoccupied with getting the "A", and a few iconoclasts spewing sophomoric political slogans bastardized from another decade. Readings in Freshman Comp classes tend towards provocative arguments on race, gender, politics, and sexuality. Designed to encourage discussion, they usually have the opposite effect of either indifferent reactions or incitements to Jerry Springer theatrics.  The class devolves into a farce when a discussion on Maslov's pyramid of needs takes a political turn.  A student walks in late and sets a picture of the president on fire and chaos ensues.  Hence his dilemma: students see him as a flunky of the establishment while to those above him he's a non-entity.

Kudera's hard on his protagonist. Much is made of his weight problem, bathroom habits, and recurring moments of lust for his female students.  Plagued by financial problems, Duffy stays complacent about his situation. But that's the newer, braver "corporate" university of cost cutting and outsourcing. Tenured professors get the perks and usually have lighter teaching loads and higher salaries. They teach courses centered around their personal tastes, while the adjuncts face a future of teaching basic composition year after year, decade by decade. In the novel, the CEO presidents of the colleges decide to cut all humanities courses because they are no longer profitable.  Duffy feels, but is unable to express, his outrage at the oligarchical system that makes pawns of the best and the brightest.

Sharp political satire perfectly captures the polarized politics of Bush v. Gore America. The political situation has devolved into a "Which Side Are You On?" atmosphere of liberal and conservative. Those on the right are reduced to simplistic war mongers ready to send out the drones and drop fire on the evildoers at the drop of a hat, while liberals read the NY Times consumed with white guilt and sympathize with terrorists while gulping espresso shots in their coffee shop as Belle & Sebastian play in the background.  The murky politics of the Bush era are captured dead on.  Duffy, a sort of liberal, impotently makes his points, but proves no match for the ideologues and hyper-capitalists.

A dubious scholar of Kafka, Duffy witnesses his own like take Kafkaesque turns as he experiences humiliations of several varieties throughout his "long" day. As a character, he's a great lens from which to view modern America, as the adjunct's dilemma is indicative of the new economy and the passivity it fosters among the populace.  Duffman lets people walk over him and he shows no initiative to change his situation.  Like any effective novel about the injustice of a system such as The Jungle, Fight For Your Long Day succeeds as a call to action and not to just to the underclass of the academy. Will anyone will hear the trumpets calling?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Metal Show, Columbus, Ohio: 4/10/14

Last Thursday I had the chance to attend my first metal concert at the Newport in Columbus, Ohio.  I must confess "heavy metal" has never been my music of choice.  Don't get me wrong like any mere mortal I like to get the "led" out every now and then.  My cultural reference point for metal ends somewhere between Alice Cooper and Guns and Roses.  Nevertheless metal endures as a vibrant genre of rock music with widespread popularity in Europe and Japan.  And for a live show experience, expect an onslaught a loud, brash, energizing assault on the senses.

The first band, ReVamp, hails from the Netherlands.  Lead singer, Floor Jansen, has multi-octave vocal range and a captivating stage presence evoking a Viking queen.    As a Progressive Metal band, their music splits the difference between hard driving metal and haunting melodies - think Abba meets Black Sabbath.  Although their set lasted only 30 minutes, I found their music the most adventurous.

Next came the Swedish band Sabaton, who are known for writing songs about history and war.  Frontman Joakim Broden and the rest of his band, all wore camouflage, flap jackets, and sunglasses making them look like post-Apocalyptic soldiers from the Mad Max universe.  Their 45 minute set had the feel of a victory feast after winning a great battle, right out of Beowulf or The Song of Roland.  At one point, Broden introduced one song as a tribute to Audie Murphy entitled "To Hell and Back." Murphy, the legendary American soldier from WWII, went on to Hollywood to star in war films and westerns, most notably John Huston's brilliant adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage.  I liked the song.

Iced Earth, the headliner, has a more traditional type of metal characterized by intense power chords played at a rapid machine gun fire rhythm.  Their set list combined the hard metal with erstwhile power ballads.  Lead singer Stu Block had a nice connection with the audience and made a special effort to acknowledge his band mates. With a nearly 20 year catalog of material, Iced Earth satisfied fans with songs from their new LP Plagues of Babylon and some favorite tracks from the past as well. Iced Earth answered the challenge of the previous two bands with a blistering, non-stop grouping of songs expressing a wide range of emotions.

Perhaps what separates metal concerts from others is the almost symbiotic relationship with the audience.  Both feed off each other's energy.  The phenomenon of moshing also occurred on a few occasions.  For those who don't know, a mosh pit usually happens in the front center of the audience and consists of crowd members jumping and "slam dancing" into each other.  You enter at your own risk (some bands highly discourage the practice). 

Metal thrives as visceral music, hence it's highly theatrical in nature.  It taps into deep seated emotions of anger, frustration, and hope.  Metal owes much to the Gothic tradition of exploring the dark side of human nature and the mystery of existence itself.  For fans, the music brings self-empowerment and a well adjusted way of viewing the world.  I found the audience respectful of others and polite - making for an evening of exciting entertainment.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollock

Dale Pollock's informative biography of George Lucas provides a glimpse into the man who shaped the cultural imagination of late 20th century. Described as an aimless teenager with limited ambitions, he miraculously survived a car crash at age 17 and resolved to make something of himself.  He cultivated an interest in movies and entered film school at UCLA.

Lucas flourished there and immersed himself in the film making process, with an emphasis on the process. The technical side of movie making fascinated him as he spent hours in the editing room with his own films and even editing for fellow students.  His films were experimental and marked by their minimalism and disregard of narrative.  In 1969, his student film THX-1138 won accolades for its innovative use of sound in an abstract dystopian tale.  During those years he befriended Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius and many others who set the course of American film in the 1970s.

Coppola, a key figure in the life of Lucas (he based Han Solo on him), served as a Socrates to the UCLA students.  He founded Zoetrope, an alternative studio for young independent directors.  Pollock portrays the Lucas-Coppola friendship as one of alter egos: George the quiet, workmanlike artist and Coppola the gifted, but sometimes self-destructive visionary.  Coppola produced THX-1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973).  The success of the latter, gave Lucas the time and funding to write his space epic, originally titled The Star Wars.  

A good portion of the book covers the years 1974-77. Lucas would spend hours in his office trapped in writer's block. He read comic books, fantasy, and science fiction for inspiration.  The story went through an endless series of rewrites and character shuffling. Lucas wanted to create modern mythology set in space while using traditional motifs found in the epic tales of world literature. 

The actual filming proved a harrowing experience as unrelenting pressure from the studio pushed Lucas to the verge of nervous breakdown. The challenges did not end with post-production either.  He created his own special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, to create the effects using miniature sets and motion control cameras. Once the effects were perfected and John Williams had completed the score all the elements of Star Wars started to gel together.  

Released in May, 1977 Star Wars instantly captured the public's imagination. The movie offered a new hope to a generation raised in the shadow of Watergate and Vietnam.  The New Age philosophy of "the Force" captured the zeitgeist as well.  Box office records were shattered and the age of the summer blockbuster began.   

After the success of Star Wars Lucas opted to let other directors and writers to make the sequels, although he retained creative control.  With cohort Spielberg he produced the Indiana Jones trilogy and made some forays into television.  A painful and expensive divorce from his wife Marcia Lucas (a highly respected film editor of Taxi Driver and Star Wars) led to to his absence from directing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Originally published in 1984, Pollock added a chapter covering Lucas's return to Star Wars in the 1990s.  At times, he takes a critical tone towards Lucas for the simplistic morality in his stories, his reliance on action sequences, and an inability to achieve success outside of Star Wars.

Interestingly Apocalypse Now began as a George Lucas project.  He made plans to start shooting in Vietnam on 8mm film as a cinema verite blurring the lines between fact and fiction.  While Coppola's version produced a remarkable film, it is tempting to consider what Lucas had in mind. For years Lucas has spoke of plans to make "art" films no one will care about, but they have failed to surface.  Is he pulling a Prince and leaving a vault of material unreleased?  When looking back at his three films from 1970s THX-1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars one sees an amazing potential to evolve into something more interesting than sequels, blockbusters, and special effects extravaganzas.  

Of the New Hollywood directors, only Spielberg and Scorsese stayed on course. They were always the purest filmmakers and they continue making relevant films in the latter stage of their careers. At the moment, Lucas has settled into elder statesman status.  He spent most of the 90s raising his children and returned to public view with the making of the prequel trilogy of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Last year he sold the rights of Star Wars over to Disney (a sad irony reflecting the times) who will release the much anticipated, Episode VII next year.  

Nevertheless his legacy as a myth maker has shaped modern culture, but also his innovative marketing strategies through toys and comic books have left their mark as well. I only wish we had seen more of the 1970s spirit in his other work.