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Tuesday, Feb 10, 2009

Much like the songwriters’ circle episode from a few weeks back, tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) boasts multiple guests, and as a result, more music than talk. Costello is joined first by M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, who released their collaborative debut, She & Him, last year. Ward describes his predilection for music that blurs the distinctions of time and place—a “healthy confusion”, as he calls it. Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) follows, and emphasizes Ward’s “timeless atmosphere”, a feeling that she chased after on last year’s Acid Tongue. Though She & Him deliver a solid “Change Is Hard” and Lewis shines with “Pretty Bird” and “Carpetbaggers”, the best performance of the episode’s first half is “Go Away”, the final (and strongest) track from Costello’s Momofuku.


Costello chats and performs with Jakob Dylan for the second half of the show. Dylan, after speaking a bit about resisting the desire to distance himself from his father’s influence, performs some acoustic renditions of Wallflowers and solo songs—a plaintive reading of “One Headlight”, in particular, allows Dylan’s sandpapery voice to expand. A somewhat bumbling performance of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” follows, before the entire cast reunites for a stomp through “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding”. There are so many musicians on the stage for this final number that it moves a little too close to a Hall of Fame jam for its own good.


Still, none of these performances can touch Costello’s opening run through Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids”—as Pete Thomas and his daughter Tennessee provide a double-thunder backbeat, Costello lays down a dirty fuzz-wah guitar solo and impassioned vocal, lifting the song up to a primal pedestal.


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Tuesday, Feb 10, 2009
Will the myth hold true as merger between giants is announced?

Will the myth hold true as merger between giants is announced?


Woke up this morning to this potentially game changing news in the concert promotion industry. Ticketmaster and Live Nation have announced plans to merge. In a Financial Times.com story appearing this morning, Michael Rapino, CEO of Live Nation and the proposed CEO of the merged group, said the combination would produce “measurable benefits to consumers”, noting that “current inefficiencies in the system result in higher costs and confusion over access to seats”. 


These two giants in the concert promotion industry could potentially have a stranglehold on venues, artists, and ticket buyers. According to the piece there are still a lot of particulars to work out but it will be interesting to see how this plays out.


A recent conversation I had with a source in the concert promotion industry, said advance ticket sales for premium seats at venues are sagging considerably. Perhaps this merger is designed to shore up ticket sales in a bad economy. Will this also mean an increase in 360 deals, a trend started by Live Nation. I’m sure much more will be written about this in the coming months.


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Tuesday, Feb 10, 2009
In North America, T.Rex has long overshadowed the brilliance of Bolan's acoustic incarnation of the band: Tyrannosaurus Rex.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, I somehow heard Devendra Banhart before I heard Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Of course I’d heard T.Rex and their glam hits “Get It On” and “Metal Guru”, but I had no idea about Marc Bolan’s past as folk-pop crossover genius, I only knew him as the “Electric Warrior”.
Upon first hearing Banhart I thought he was amazing; such a grasp on melody and not afraid to do semi-hippy folk-pop, such a distinctive voice – I thought it was incredibly original.  When I heard Tyrannosaurus Rex’s “Debora” I quickly dismissed Banhart as the flakey shameless Bolan-aper that I still believe him to be.


Perhaps most people were luckier than I and were somehow exposed to Bolan’s early period as the folk-pop duo of Tyrannosaurus Rex rather than his glam period as T.Rex, and were able to get their tastes in order accordingly – but for those who’ve led a Tyrannosaurus Rex-less life, get ready to get excited.


Though championed by John Peel and having a number of hit albums that charted in England, in North America Tyrannosaurus Rex has been largely overshadowed by Bolan’s glam incarnation: T.Rex.  Full of Tolkien-imagery, beautiful and original vocal melodies, fast-paced bongos and madly strummed guitar, the first two Tyrannosaurus Rex albums are folk-pop gold – probably the best it’s ever been done.


After Bolan left his first band, John’s Children, he enlisted the help of percussionist Steve Peregrine Took (he took the latter part of his


name from a hobbit), and the two set out as a folk duo, playing concerts and busking around London.  Thanks to a huge push from John Peel and his BBC show, they gained national attention with their 1968 debut, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows.  All of the mysticism and majesty that the title suggests is represented on the album.  The album follows in typical Bolan fashion by swinging wildly from the otherworldly to American banalities – from “Dwarfish Trumpet Blues” to “Mustang Ford”, from “Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love)” to opener “Hot Rod Mama”.


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Monday, Feb 9, 2009

The Grammys: our window into the corporate music world. A sprawling three-hour-plus event featuring remote possibilities of: copyright lawsuits on stage, sentenced criminals performing, performers (possibly) giving birth, artists guarding against the unfortunate live music swears, and the usual array of winners.


I think you have to take the Grammys for what they are worth and move on. As MTV channeled music award producing to a more successful platform, the Grammys were sloshing through poor attempts at being like the Oscars. However, the Grammys are taking a stand and producing unexpected moments for TV drama. A reality show of sorts; made up of mash ups between performers, wacky musical numbers, odd costumes, and fastening to whatever is legendary for these times. Yes, the Grammys want you to believe they are living on the edge!


The 51st Annual Grammy Awards took place in the Staple Center in Los Angeles to a host of music big wigs and celebrity glitz. Chief amongst these celebrities was the rapper M.I.A. The story goes that she is nine months pregnant and, in a Grammy moment that will live on for some time, she performed one simple verse from her internet turned radio hit “Paper Planes” before turning over the reigns to the Queen Latifah named “Rap Pack”: Kanye West, T.I., Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne (in honor of Dean Martin who was being honored with a lifetime achievement award) and their performance of “Swagga Like Us”.


To say M.I.A. is proud of her pregnancy is the understatement of the year. The woman flashed a polka dotted meshed “Preg-kini” during the entire performance. The act was decent with the apparent disgust between Kanye and Jay-Z in full display on stage as they jockeyed for the home court advantage (NOTE: there are financial dealings to be worked out for the four rappers). Kanye was smooth; he’s always smooth. And, Lil Wayne…didn’t swear. T.I.? Didn’t go to jail either. I guess the performance went off without a hitch. I don’t know, maybe the Grammys wanted the swear, the baby, and the walk to prison during the performance?


Coldplay was easily the early show’s ‘on-air’ (NOTE: only 10 of the actual Grammys were awarded on air) winner. Their album Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends won two on air awards for Song of the Year for the self titled track “Viva La Vida” and then later for the Rock Album of the year. All the while the beats of Joe Satriani’s lawsuit against the band for copyright infringement danced in the heads of the band and their audience. Their performance of “Lost” featured Chris Martin on piano and Jay-Z doing freestyle rap; it was a fine early moment of the evening. The boys, in what they termed were their Sgt. Pepper’s Suits, finished the set with their hit “Viva La Vida” from an album that later won the Rock Album of the Year. Funny: the title track from the album featured timpani, a giant bell, electronic strings, and no guitar. Carrie Underwood rocked harder than these guys!


The performance hits of the night were easy to spot. Radiohead absolutely stole the night. Playing “15 Step” from their latest album In Rainbows was a fantastic moment for the band. They brought with them a portion of the University of Southern California band to perform percussion and some brass. With the help of the deeply moving guitar of Johnny Greenwood, Thom Yorke flailed and jerked through the performance. The visual and sonic fills by the USC Marching Band were jarring and added another dimension to a song filled with so many that it’s hard to keep track.


A nod also needs to go to Lil Wayne and his performance with Allen Toussaint and Robin Thicke. The performance of Lil Wayne’s “Tie My Hands” as a dedication to New Orleans was trumped only a moment later by Allen Toussaint’s performance of his song “Big Chief” with the New Orleans’ brass outfit the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the aforementioned Lil Wayne. It was a spectacular moment that bridged the musical landscape of New Orleans. A humbled Lil Wayne only gave a small thanks to his family and fans a moment later when he received his award for Rap Album of the Year. I believe there is no coincidence to the idea that he just was accepted in the New Orleans’ musical heritage. Playing with Allen Toussaint and other New Orleans’ musicians gives Lil Wayne credibility beyond the hip-hop community


But in the end, the big awards went to Allison Krauss and Robert Plant. They won on air awards for “Rich Woman” in the Pop Collaboration with Vocals and their album Raising Sand won Album of the Year. The awards were not a shock and although their performance was solid, I was taken by Robert Plant’s assertion that “In the past this would be considered selling out, but it’s just a nice Sunday.” upon receiving the Album of the Year award. I guess when you win, it’s not selling out.


To borrow a phrase from former Arizona Cardinals’ head coach Dennis Green, “They (The Grammys) are what we thought they would be.” Now, honestly, I hope no one lets them off the hook for delivering to us another year of produced unexpected moments packaged as an award’s show. In the end, the show lacks any sort of punch. But this is what you get when you consistently shoot for the middle. Occasionally you will hit a winner (like Radiohead), but most of the time you will reward stage space to guys like Kid Rock whose awful performance of what seemed like three separate songs and a throw in of the “Sweet Home Alabama” rift was awful in execution. Good thing for Kid Rock that after the commercial break, the Grammys threw on stage Katy Perry’ terrible working of “I Kissed a Girl”. Terrible not so much for the overdub and lip sync, but that it featured some of the worst excuse for performance dancing of the night. Oh. Ironically, Katy didn’t kiss a girl in the performance (which I would have thought would have been something Ms. Perry would have wanted to do after singing about it 50 times in the song).


In the end, the Grammys are industry slop. When Neil Portnow, President of the Recording Industry and Chief Grammy guy, arrived on stage to announce that he “wants to get all performers compensated for their performances” while desiring Barack Obama to appoint a cabinet level position called “Secretary of the Arts”. I’m wondering if this guy really understands the economic situation of the country. Trillions of dollars in debt and Mr. Portnow wants to have a government official to provide oversight to stop grandma and 13-year-olds from downloading songs from the Internet. The fact that Mr. Portnow gave his little speech the segment immediately after Radiohead, the anti-industry superstars who made a ton of sales and money while thumbing their noses at men and women like Mr. Portnow, is an irony that everyone but Mr. Portnow seemed to be aware of during his speech. I suppose the Captain doesn’t think he’s sinking into the ocean while we all saw the iceberg from miles away.


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Monday, Feb 9, 2009
Relaxing before the big game.

Relaxing before the big game.


This is shaping up to be a very busy year for Los Angeles based the Soft Pack (formerly the Muslims). They recently signed to Kemado Records, are about to embark on their first European tour—where they were invited to play England’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, being curated by the Breeders (whom the band toured with this past year)—are recording their debut record for their new label, and will be touring the US extensively opening for Friendly Fires and White Lies.


This is all the more remarkable considering they have only been in existence for two full years. The buzz is deserved, after witnessing them open for the Ravonettes recently at Bimbo’s in San Francisco, I saw plenty of converts by set’s end. The set was blistering; showcasing the wit, intelligence, and musical economy, that make them a band to keep your eyes on in the coming years.


I ran into the founders of the Soft Pack, singer/guitarist Matt Lamkin and guitarist Matty McLoughlin, at a bar up the street. They were relaxed, focused, and truly genuine. After bonding with McLoughlin over our fanatical devotion to the Replacements, he agreed to an interview with me.


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