Sunday, August 27, 2006

Journey and Def Leppard concert

Last night I went to a Journey / Def Leppard concert with my mom and had a good time watching two bands I have listened to a lot during my lifetime. The concert was at the Shoreline Ampetheatre in Mountain View with slightly cool weather. I've been a huge Journey fan for many years and have seen the band live about four times (twice with Steve Perry, twice without). Def Leppard I saw in 1988 at the Shoreline Ampetheatre. All of the shows I have seen with both bands have been great in the past.

The first person to sing was the opening act, a guy named Stoll Vaughn. He sounded a bit like Bruce Springsteen and performed with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. His songs had the folky heartland sound Springsteen had perfected a long time ago, but I found his performance enjoyable in that vein. He had a few other musicians join him for the last song before he left the stage.

Journey came out next, I was very interested in seeing this show to see their interim lead singer Jeff Scott Soto. The bands' current singer Steve Augeri developed medical problems which have placed his singing career in jeopardy. Soto, who had played with Journey members Neal Schon and Deen Castronovo in a short lived band called Soul Sirkus signed on as the temporary replacement.

Guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain opened their set with an instrumental of "Star Spangled Banner" with Schon's blazing guitarwork. After the patriotic intro, the set list I remember was:
Stone In Love - Ask The Lonely - Wheel In The Sky - Edge Of The Blade - Keep On Running- Who's Crying Now - Escape - Dead Or Alive - Open Arms - Chain Reaction - Lights - Any Way You Want It - Lovin', Touchin' Squeezin' - Faithfully - Don't Stop Believin'
Encore: Separate Ways

Journey started playing with about a fourth of the audience having not arrived yet, it seemed to be a very Def Leppard crowd. This may explain the set list, which has a heavy emphasis on the rock side of the band with minimal balladry. Neal Schon was on top of his game for most of the night and was creative with his guitar solos and fills, not content to simply repeat what is already on the albums. Keyboardist Jon Cain doubled on guitar for a few songs adding to the rock edge, even on the usually synthesizer driven "Chain Reaction". This was the first show I had heard "Edge Of The Blade" and "Dead Or Alive" live, so I was very into those songs.

But, the big question of the night was how would Jeff Scott Soto perform? The bits I had heard of Soto's voice before which sounded promising, but this would be the first time I had really seen or heard him. The end result? Sort of a mixed bag. In his favor, Soto's voice is more soulful and in line with Steve Perry's vocal style than recent singer Steve Augeri. This is important because Journey's music tends to sound a little stiff without that bit of soul interjected into it. Soto is also a showman, taking the opportunity to lead the audience in sing alongs or swaying arms whenever he could. He also interacted with all of the band members on stage and displayed constant energy with his dance moves.

In spite of these positive factors, Jeff Scott Soto had a few negative ones as well. What started as a plus is that Soto seems to know Journey's music intimately and was able to closely mimic Steve Perry's vocal style exactly as they are on the albums. I was impressed at first, but as the show wore on I started wishing he would add more of his own vocal style despite the obvious Perry influence. Soto's voice is a bit lower than Steve Perry's, which made it painful in some spots to watch him strain his voice to hit and sustain high notes. Some fans have talked about the songs being played in a lower key, but after seeing Soto struggle to hit those high notes I don't think that's likely. Hopefully, Soto won't blow his voice out trying to copy Perry as Augeri seems to have.

Another negative is Soto's stage presence. Jeff Scott Soto's shaggy appearance and poserish dance moves made me feel as if I had accidentally tuned in a rerun of Fame on my tv set. It wasn't that his performance seemed insincere, just a little overdone. I was surprised at how much appearance could play a factor in that because Augeri "looked" like Steve Perry, I found it easier to accept him as a new singer. Still, Jeff Scott Soto's stage style is actually closer to Perry than Augeri's in his constant shout outs to the audience for applause and sing alongs.

The final negative against against Jeff Scott Soto really isn't his fault, but on the three ballads drummer Deen Castronovo took over lead vocals. Deen Castronovo sounds more like Steve Perry than either Jeff Scott Soto or Steve Augeri. Castronovo has a naturally higher voice than either lead singer and also seemed raised on Perry's style. In many ways, Castronovo is the best Journey vocalist currently in the band. The problem this posed was that there wasn't one but two people emulating the Steve Perry vocal style in the same show. It gave the effect of watching 'Steve Perry Karaoke night" with a live band instead of an actual concert.

In the end, last night caught Journey in a state of flux. The band remains poised to deliver their greatest hits live to their fans, but have to keep switching singers in order to achieve this goal to the point it hurts their creative credibility. Hopefully, should Soto stick around, the band will drop their songs to a lower key to allow for more consistent vocals. Also, if they can remove some of the Fame dancer style from Soto's stage presence will help as well. Journey's segment was good, but I ultimately felt uninvolved from much of their set.

On the other hand, Def Leppard came in as the apparent headliners and delivered a fine set which included:

Let's Get Rocked - Let It Go - Rock Rock (Til You Drop) - Bringin On The Heartbreak - Hysteria - Foolin' - Twentieth Century Boy - Rock On - Rocket - Photograph / Armaggedon It / Animal - Rock Of Ages
Encore: Love Bites - Pour Some Sugar On Me (I assume because we left)

Def Leppard began their set standing on a classic metal stage with a black and yellow striped floor and steps surrounding a huge drum riser. The band had mics set up on top of their amps as well. True to their past, the band worked the stage like pros with the proper amount of movement and rock poses to drive their set. I got a big thrill out of hearing "Let It Go", one of my favorite Def Leppard songs. "Hysteria" reminded me of my wife as I had butchered the song singing it to her recently.

Guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell still had "it" as they played off each others guitarwork. Collen is still one of the top "shred" guitarists around while Campbell displayed a blusier phrasing in his playing. Vocalist Joe Elliot's voice is a little shot, a shadow of what it once was. However, with the assistance of a lot of reverb on his voice Elliott was still able to have an impact. Actually, everyone had reverb on their voices because when the echo machine stopped during "Foolin" the dry voices sounded very unharmonious.

The audience was practically sold out during Def Leps set. The dueling guitars during "Rocket" was awesome! Also, the nonstop triple play of "Photograph/Armageddon It/Animal was fantastic. I enjoyed their set a lot and hope they are able to stay on a roll with their performances.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Rabbit Proof Fence and a few others

Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

Being on vacation right now, I have time to catch up on my tv and movie viewing. One film that stood out to me recently was Rabbit Proof Fence. The movie is about the true story of three Austrailian Aborigine girls who are selected for assimilation by the Australian government as part of their project to bring Aborigine people into modern society. The conditioned aborigine's become housekeepers or manual labor. Despite the terminology used by the Australian government, their project amounts to slavery which is illustrated in this movie.

The three young girls (the oldest is 14 or 15) are taken to a camp by force where they are taught the western Christian way of life. The three escape the camp and try to make it home by following a "Rabbit-Proof Fence", a fence that extends across Australia to block rabbits.

The movie is shot in a straightforward, realistic style and is unflinching in its depiction of slavery and the human need to be free. It's not big on torture scenes like "Roots", but brings across its oppression more subtly by showing the children's struggle. Three non actors were chosen to play the children, a move that pays off with unvarnished and convincing performances. The children live on the run from authorities while looking for food and searching for their true path home. What makes the movie frightening is how recent this took place (it's set around the 40's or 50's but continued into the 70's). It may not seem as hard to believe in light of current world events, but this movie makes you feel its pain. I would definitely recommend seeing this film.

There are a couple of other movies I've seen lately that have taken on well worn, cliched themes but have injected them with enough style and feeling to make them worth viewing.

A History of Violence (2006)

Viggo Mortensen (Lord Of The Rings Trilogy) plays a small town diner owner and family man who heroically fends off murderous thieves. In the ensuing publicity Philadelphia mobsters come to the small town insisting Mortensen, who embodies god fearing family values living small town America, of being a ruthless mobster. Is he a good person caught up in mistaken identity or is he a cold blooded mob killer? I'll try not to give away the ending in this review.

Structurally, History is an action movie as Mortensen uses martial arts and expert gunplay to protect his family and others. Normally, movies of this type portrays the main character as a true hero overcoming the odds with the support of his family. Directed by David Cronenburg (The Fly, Dead Ringers), the movie has a tone of menace and dread shadowed with doubt. The action while thrilling isn't glorified and much of the story is about the effects of violence on people beyond the physical act. When is violence justified, is killing something to be revered or feared and will every act of violence taint your future. Maria Bello (ER, Auto Focus, The Cooler) shines as the loving wife who begins to question if she really knows her husband.

The Chorus (2004)

A new teacher arrives at a school for troubled youths and inspires them through stern kindness and extracurricular attention. Tons of movies have been made like this, so I went into this French film with reduced expectations. The teacher (supervisor, actually) arrives at the school which is functioning under a harsh punishment system and teaches them to sing. The students become inspired and start behaving better, one of which becomes a famous classical music conductor. It sounds so boring when I type it, but the movie is heartfelt and moving. No special tricks here, just solid direction and good acting raise this movie a cut above After School Specials.

Ong-Bak:The Way Of The...I forget the rest of the long title (2005)

In the Big 80's, action films and stars launched left and right. The illustrious list of B level action stars included Governor Schwartzenegger, Stallone, Mr. Racist-I mean Gibson, Seagal, Van Damme, Norris...the list goes on. In the 90's, action films fell out of favor and the number of action stars slowed to a trickle. Jackie Chan and Jet Li, that was about it. Now, comes the next big name in action: Tony Jaa.

Who? This guy comes out of nowhere with a form of martial arts I haven't seen before (they said what it was called, but I forgot that too). This style of martial arts involves a lot of lunging with elbow and shin blows, a style with a little more offense than usual. Also, Jaa is extremely acrobatic and will take to the air at a moments notice. There's a serious Jackie Chan influence in the high risk maneuvers he takes to (jumping through barb wire hoops, plates of glass, running on top of peoples shoulders) and a sense of speed and balance not seen since Brandon Lee.

The plot? I can't remember nor do I care. This movie is all about this Jaa guy kickin' ass and the movie serves it up with multiple camera angles and slo mo replay. Good stuff, look for this guy to own the direct to video action circuit in the near future. It may not sound like much, but when I was a teenager the B action movies were everything to me. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Tom Petty & Number 78

I'm a late comer to being a fan of Tom Petty, to be honest for much of his career I didn't get what the big deal was. Petty's voice is not what I would consider to be great, the guitarwork was never flashy and he doesn't fit neatly into a category or genre. I always liked "The Waiting", but past that his music seemed plain and a little retro to me.

But, as I got older I started to looking for other elements in music for enjoyment. It was no longer about the highest pitched vocal, the fastest guitar solo or the most anthemic chorus. I started enjoying the more basic elements of rock music, the "art" of it, where personal experiences could be conveyed with more specific lyrics, emotional guitar playing (as opposed to technical playing) and a sense of the performers personality.

In the mid 90's, I found out Tom Petty through a copy of his Greatest Hits disc that he embodied these other aspects I was looking for. I became a big fan of his after that point.

Petty has released a new CD, Highway Companion, which I have been listening to for a week now. So far, I've found it much more enjoyable than his previous CD, The Last DJ. The Last DJ was a relatively weak concept album about how greed has taken over the music industry. Despite a few good songs (I loved "Money Became King" with it's story of a faded rock star going through the motions to sell tickets to the Golden Circle crowd) it was a dud commercially and artistically. I was a little apprehensive when I heard this would be a concept album about mortality, as I felt being tied to a theme weakend Last DJ.

I'm pleased to say the theme doesn't bury Highway Companion. My first impression of this album? Strummy! Accompanied by Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and producer Jeff Lynne, this disc is filled with strumming guitar riffs and creamy, consise guitar solos. Tracks like "Saving Grace" features a ZZ Topish riff while "Big Weekend" recalls Creedence Clearwater Revival. Lyrically, there is a concilatory tone of Petty making amends with the past ("Down South") while preparing himself for the future ("Square One"). The music and lyrics fit together nicely on this album, conveying a feeling of moving through time with an eye on the end of the road.

The only weakness of the disc is the songwriting hooks, which is strong but there's nothing on the album quite on par with his classic work. Two exceptions are "Flirting With Time" and "Ankle Deep". "Flirting With Time" is a Byrdsy tune with a catchy chorus where the beat picks up doubletime. "Ankle Deep" has a bit of that "I Won't Back Down" feel even though the lyrics don't make any sense to me.

Overall, Highway Companion is an album of modest but palpable accomplishments. It effectively conveys its theme and is pleasant to listen to. There are rumors this may be the last Tom Petty album (or is it tour? I get it confused). If this is the last Petty disc, then all I can say is there are worse ways to say goodbye. I give this disc a 7 out of 10.

A recent band that recalls a bit of the past in Number 78:

Los Lonely Boys (2003)

I'll never forget when I saw Los Lonely Boys for the first time, they were a featured video on CMT. It seemed so strange, three hispanic men on the Country music channel playing Christian rock (the song was "Heaven"). I saw the video on CMT quite a bit, so I knew it wasn't a mistake. I was also impressed, the song had a feel that echoed bluesy classic rock and Spanish music. A few months later, I decided to check them out.

Los Lonely Boys turned out to be everything they were advertised to be. Three brothers who grew up playing together with a sound that pulled from Spanish music, blues rock and three part harmonies. The musicanship, particularly that of fluid guitarist Henry Garza and muscular bassist Jo Jo Garza, shone throughout the disc. Drummer Ringo Garza holds his own but was less impressive. Together, they mined the past on tracks like "Crazy Dream" (Stevie Ray Vaughn style blues) , "Onda" (like Santana in full "Jingo" mode) and "More Than Love" (reminiscent of Richie Valens' "Donna"). As blatant as the influences were, their performance had a lived-in feel that made it seemed earned.

My favorite track is "Velvet Sky", a breezy song with a relaxed harmony vocal and smooth, tasty guitar fills. The hit, "Heaven", also won me over with its strong guitarwork and plesant melody.

My wife has often said this band is a one-trick-pony and from what I've heard from their recently released second album, she may be right. Nonetheless, I have found their debut disc to be very enjoyable and see a lot of potential in this band. As it stands, this is one of my favorite discs.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

About a week ago, I went to see the movie Little Miss Sunshine. I had read good reviews about this movie and there wasn't much out worth seeing, so I decided to check it out. Sometimes, small movies of this type can be overhyped to the point it diminishes what's good about it (Lost In Translation comes to mind, I liked this movie quite a bit but did it meet its hype? No). Fortunately, Little Miss Sunshine lives up to its early buzz as a fun, heartfelt comedy about a dysfunctional family trying to enter their little girl into a beauty pagent.

The story and characters aren't terribly original, although there are enough distinct touches to them to keep it from being entirely generic. A dysfunctional family on a cross country trip with a lot of mishaps has been done before and I found myself thinking about National Lampoon's Vacation a lot during this film. But, the writing and a strong cast deliver excellent performances. The cast includes Greg Kinnear (Talk Soup) as a failing motivational speaker and father, Toni Collete (Muriels Wedding) as the frustrated level headed mother, Steve Carell (40 Year Old Virgin) as a suicidal intellectual and Adam Arkin (like, every movie made in the 1970's) as a coke addicted, harsh but caring grandfather. I can't remember the actors who portrayed the depressed, vow of silence teenager and the peppy daughter who wants to win the Little Miss Sunshine pagent, but they are perfect in their performances as well.

What truly makes this movie work is the tone. Shot by two directors, this film strikes the perfect balance between realism and comedy by giving the characters and actors room to express themselves fully. The humor doesn't come from biting one liners or outrageous situations but from the characters personalities interacting and their reaction to outrageous situations. For example, while in their van the grandfather loudly advises his grandson to get laid as often as possible with the small daughter sitting in front of him (listening to a walkman) and the father protesting. The situation itself is a generic sitcom setup, but instead of just delivering the raunchy joke the scene takes time to allow the audience to see the grandfather's genuine (if misguided) concern, the disaffection of the teenager, the obliviousness of the cheery daughter and the father's genuine (but annoying) concern over the content and his lack of control over the whole situation.

With a keen eye for character development and a wry sense of humor, the film becomes increasing endearing as the plot becomes less realistic towards the end. But at that point, I was sold on these people and was rooting for them to succeed. Little Miss Sunshine is a fun comedy that I would recommend to anyone. I give it a 9 out of 10.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Random Movie Selection

I've seen a couple of movies on television recently and decided to put a few comments out on each of them:

The Island - Michael Bay, king of the 30 second shot, strikes again with yet another movie that is high on style and low on substance. This movie puts on airs that its intellectual sci-fi about a society rebuilding itself after an apocalypse. The Island steals bits from all sorts of sci fi, but mainly pulls from Logans Run and Minority Report. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johanssen play the suckers-I mean lead actors in a movie that doesn't call for much acting as much as running. For some bizarre reason, Ewan McGregor's mole on his forehead gets more prominent lighting than anything else in the movie. I mean, I've seen the mole in other movies of his but in Michael Bay lighting the thing takes on a life of its own. Some sci fi themes come up but are quickly dropped in favor of chase scenes and explosions. If you have a chance to see this...don't.

The Dreamers - Bernardo Bertulucci loves to make movies about people in isolated and emotionally damaged states having a lot of sex, The Dreamers is no exception. A movie about an American student in 1960's France hooking up with a twin brother and sister who play sex games and obsess on new wave cinema. The main reason I watched this was to see Eva Green, who will be the Bond girl in Casino Royale. Green gives a good performance as a sexual tease head case, I'm looking forward to seeing (probably less) of her in Casino Royale.

The Upside Of Anger - Joan Allen gives a terrific performance as a wealthy wife and mother of four daughters whose husband leaves her for the secretary. Allen delivers a full performance, bringing across a character who feels like a real person with different moods. She is unafraid to show the ugly side of her characters anger and bitterness, but doesn't overplay it to the point of caracature. Other actors and stuff happens but none of it matters, it's all Joan Allen on this one.

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Tim Burton gets his whimsy on in this almost pointless remake of the Gene Wilder classic. Teaming up again with a Michael Jacksonish Johnny Depp, the movie plays fairly close to the original except for the oddball style that Burton has patented. It's an OK movie, I just didn't think it beat the original.

Red Eye - At the time of its release, it seemed like the girl-in-danger-on-a-plane movie with the lesser pedigree (I think Jodie Foster's Flightplan came out around the same time). But where Flightplan took it's implausible plot seriously, Red Eye deliberately throws logic out the window. A heroic Rachel McAdams fends off the terrorist leanings of a villianous hitman played by Cillian Murphy. The first half plays out like a Lifetime movie of the week, with Murphy psychologically and physically terrorizing McAdams. But when McAdams physically fights back, the movie's kitch factor kicks into high gear. None of the actual movie makes much sense, but watching these two battle it out on a mental and physical level makes it very watchable. For a wannabe Lifetime movie without the bad courtroom ending, it's pretty good.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Picking up where I left off, I recently bought the CD to the band Wolfmother. I heard the song "Woman" and was impressed by the proto-Zeppelin riff and Robert Plantish wail. I couldn't believe a band would be that retro in this day and age, I hadn't heard such lavish imitation since the Black Crowes broke out. I heard a second song, "Mind's Eye" which echoed early Pink Floyd's style of haunted balladry. Both songs had a strong presence in them which motivated me to check them out.

It took me a little while to digest this album, because like The Darkness before them it's hard to get around the derivitiveness of it all. Yes, this band rocks hard like its 1972. Yes, they are influenced by many of the great hard rock bands of the early 70's. Yes, I like this album. But, why don't I love it?

As much as I enjoy Wolfmother, it comes down to the fact that this music is more a concept than a group right now. Aside from the blatant Led Zep influence, bits of classic rock are strewn across the album. The Bad Company riff used on "White Unicorn", the Dylan lyrical nod in "Joker & The Thief" and the Rush like song titles ("Vagabond", "Dimension" and "Colossal" to name a few) are dead give aways.

This made the album easier to enjoy in parts instead of as a whole. The first two songs you hear at any point in the album will impress with its heavy classic rockness, but after that the predictability of the album becomes a little boring. I think this band has a lot of potential, but right now I'm giving them a 6 out of 10.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Number 79

It's been awhile, so to get the ball rolling here's Number 79...

Fleetwood Mac - The Dance (1997)

One of the first bands I was ever a big fan of was Fleetwood Mac. I became a music fan in 1982 and I was infatuated with Stevie Nicks. I thought she was one hot witchy woman chick! I had a Fleetwood Mac poster the size of my wall. And I respected her talent, I liked her singing and songwriting as well. I had my best friend record a Fleetwood Mac concert off his bootlegged HBO and I was hooked.

Fleetwood Mac became THE band to me for awhile. The combination of three distinct singer / songwriters, the soft harmonies, the finger picked guitar and tight rhythm section sounded amazing. Plus, they had Stevie Nicks and that "Gypsy" song I couldn't get enough of. I thought all bands should sound this way, I bought Rumours at a local Payless and received Mirage from Columbia House records.

I couldn't wait to see them in concert, but after 1982 Fleetwood Mac just died off. No announcement, no final tour, no anything. Just a string of solo projects to keep hope alive. That hope paid off in 1987, when the Mac reformed and released Tango In The Night. They were set for a major tour when Lindsey Buckingham quit. I saw Fleetwood Mac post-Buckingham, they were competent and tight but the magic wasn't there. I never thought I would see Fleetwood Mac live again.

So it was with great surprise that Fleetwood Mac did reunite in 1997. Probably inspired by the amount of bank their soft rock contemporaries The Eagles made, Fleetwood Mac set aside their differences for a reunion tour. The concert was almost everything I could hope for (except Stevie Nicks seemed a little tired), the band ran through classic hits like "Dreams", "Go Your Own Way" and "You Make Loving Fun" like it was 1977 again. Stevie Nicks let out a big wail on "Gold Dust Woman" that you could feel all the way to the back of the ampetheatre. There is a chemestry when the five members of Fleetwood Mac play, an edgy tension that livens up the soft harmonies and supple rhythms that mark their classic sound.

The Dance is the live album which the tour supported. Musically, it's a handicapped album with more backup band members than actual card carrying members. But the thrill of hearing classic Fleetwood Mac played by the original performers is awesome. In addition, the rearranged numbers like the acoustic "Big Love" or the banjo & brush drum driven "Say You Love Me" freshen up the procedings. I've got to admit, I don't care for the USC band assisted "Don't Stop" but not every track can hit as hard as the rest. The Dance marks a time I thought would never come and the fond memories pushes this one to Number 79.