Thursday, May 22, 2008

Satire: Tom Waits Fans Respond to Glitter and Doom Ticket Policy

The ticket policy utilized for Tom Waits’ upcoming Glitter and Doom concert tour is receiving mixed reviews among the musician’s more vocal fans. This policy, primarily designed to ensure that scalpers do not have an opportunity to acquire and then resell tickets at butt-puckering inflated prices, limits the number of tickets to two per household per show, requires the purchaser to show both the credit card used and government-issued photo identification the night of the show, and ends with a quick, relatively painless blood donation that would seriously go a lot smoother if you’d just stop squirming and crying and remember this needle can very easily go somewhere else but if you’re good you’ll get juice and cookies.

Many Waits fans feel this is the best way to ensure that his most dedicated and affluent fans have an opportunity to see the musician live, without having to pay exorbitant prices to scalpers that they would willingly pay anyway.

Warner Spencer, a self-confident 45-year old advertising executive who has worked with several high-profile musical legends in co-opting their tunes for commercial use and still uses the word “bro” way too much, stated that he supports the policy. “Just because I like hearing Tom sing about Peoria Johnson, Scarface Ron, and Yodeling Elaine doesn’t mean I want to sit next to those scumbags. This ticketing approach, along with the fact that tickets start at around $70, will keep most of the leeches, mooches, and smelly societal bottom feeders outside the palace gates.”

Spencer added, “I know Tom is vehemently opposed to licensing his songs for commercial use. While that’s very noble – Tom, buddy, pal, homey, bro – you’re missing the boat on this one. "Hoist That Rag" would be perfect for a Lysol commercial. The homely yet still attractive housewife actress has already been cast. We’d just need to clean that song up a bit and get a more conventional voice to sing it. I could have the baksheesh heading you’re way in no time. Call me bro.”

Other fans are far more ambivalent about how tickets were sold for the upcoming tour. Ian Middleton gave a half-smile/half-frown as he expressed what could only be described as a mixture of apathy and confusion: “I easily got tickets for St. Louis but was shut out of Columbus. Now unless I somehow find a sympathetic person with an extra ticket or violently incapacitate someone the night of the show and steal their credit card, tickets, and identity, I’ll only be seeing one show this time around. It sucks, kind of.”

Middleton, a divorce arbitrator who describes himself as a “middle-of-the-road guy, most of the time, for the most part,” ultimately gave the policy a mild endorsement: “You can’t please all the people all the time. So some of the people will be upset part of the time. Which means some of the people will be happy most of the time. I guess you can’t get much better than that.”

Nevertheless, a small segment of Waits fans are very angry with the policy, coupled with the high demand for tickets for a very limited number of shows. “The only way to ensure true fans get a chance at tickets is to sell them at the venue’s box office, where those without wives, jobs, children, or other societal responsibilities can sleep outside for days subsisting only on beef jerky and Swordfishtrombones to snag the first tickets,” said Justin Bukeler of Columbus, Ohio.

Other fans are upset that a credit card is required to purchase tickets. “Some of us have made a conscious decision, assisted by several aggressive and unrelenting credit agencies, one foreclosed home, a giant Samoan loan shark nicknamed "Stumpy," and two separate stints at bankruptcy, to live the aimless, rootless, drunken, quasi-romantic bohemian lifestyle that Tom abandoned sometime in the 1980s,” said performance artist Josh Brokeman. “I only carry cash. I’m very disappointed people like me won’t have the opportunity to con unsuspecting people by selling them magazines for the homeless in order to buy a ticket with their cold, hard, stolen cash.”

With tickets for some shows selling out in a matter of minutes, such as in Phoenix and Columbus, some fans won’t be seeing their musical hero in concert this time around. These fans feel there is a simple solution to this problem: “If Waits really cared about his fans, he’d tour like a beaten one-eyed dog, play 25,000-seat venues in the same city for a week at a time, and reserve a seat each night just for me,” Brokeman offered.

“I’m very disappointed in Mr. Waits,” Brokeman lamented. “I can’t get a ticket and I also don’t have the opportunity to be exploited by scalpers by paying thousands of dollars for one. Is that looking out for your fans’ best interests? I don’t think so. Thanks a lot, Tom.”

Concert Review: Wilco At The Pageant, St. Louis, MO, May 17, 2008

Think of St. Louis and you think of Wilco. Well, actually, think of St. Louis and you think of the Cardinals, the ungodly humid summer weather, people who add the letter R to certain words (it’s Warshington, D.C. here in the Lou), and the Arch.

Further down on the list, you then think of Wilco. St. Louis is undoubtedly a Wilco town; like toasted ravioli, thin crust pizza, and Sammy Hagar (god knows why), St. Louisians love Wilco the way Diane Fosse loved gorillas. Only St. Louisians are more protective than she ever was.

Playing their third show in as many nights at the Pageant (and the final U.S. show of their Sky Blue Sky tour), Wilco delivered a fun and raucous two-hour plus show that was a fitting close to the tour. For those fans who like their Wilco loud and their concerts long, it was definitely a great way to spend a Saturday night in St. Louis.

Yet what tends to be as interesting as the actual band performing on stage though is the sometimes odd (and always entertaining) behavior of some St. Louis music fans. And since no one’s really interested in reading another concert review about how much Wilco rocked man, here are some various observations, ramblings, and fairly shallow and obvious wisecracks:

• Retribution Gospel Choir opened and were farking loud as hell. They made all the windows in the neighborhood shake and, if rumors are to be believed, caused a pregnant woman’s water to break during the third song. Despite some cheesy drumstick finger twirls and several occasions of the power guitar face of pain, they were a solid opening act.
• Wilco seems to attract a legion of massively bearded older men who spend the concert rolling their own cigarettes and stroking said beards (to make sure the beards haven’t left their faces?). The balcony section looked like an army of Confederate generals.
• Despite Wilco’s massively dedicated following, there was a constant audible background of people talking throughout the concert. And I’m not talking about between-song comments (“that sounded good”/”I think he’s on something”/“check out that chick”). Entire conversations could be heard throughout the night, when the music wasn’t loud enough to drown it out. Let’s just say that I know for a fact that some poor sap named Daniel is likely headed for a messy breakup because he’s an “insensitive bastard who doesn’t understand the vagaries of a woman’s mind.” Said, ironically enough, during “She’s a Jar.”
• Most unexplainable slurred conversation of the night. Left Center balcony bathroom, about one hour into Wilco’s performance:
o Person A: “They still haven’t played anything from Pablo Honey.”
o Person B: “Pablo Honey? They aren’t gonna play any Uncle Tupelo stuff.”
• By my count, this was Wilco’s 17,000th show. Maybe it was the fact that this was the tour’s closing night, but the consensus among those I talked to afterwards was that this was one of the most unique Wilco shows they’ve seen. From Jeff Tweedy engaging in a humorous exchange of middle fingers with an audience member, to an unexpected final encore song after the house lights had come on and people had begun heading for the turnstiles, to the appearance of a giant St. Louis Cardinals foam finger onstage, it was a concert of unexpected moments.
• The songs were pretty good also. Although some of the songs never strayed too far from other live versions, there were plenty of nice flourishes – especially with the keyboards, guitars, and the band’s overall stage demeanor – to make Wilco standards like “ELT,” “Shot in the Arm,” and “Airline to Heaven” sound original and interesting.

Toward the end of the show Jeff Tweedy said a few words of sincere thanks to those in attendance for being, well, fiercely loyal and borderline psychotic Wilco fans. For once a musician’s thanks didn’t seem like shameless, WWE-style pandering. Even if the idea of a life-changing concert experience is a silly cliché, Wilco’s tour-ending show felt like one of those rare concerts where the audience knew they were seeing a great band on a special night. That the tour ended in the Lou made it seem all the more fitting.

Book Review: Bad Moon Rising - The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival by Hank Bordowitz

Hank Bordowitz’s Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival chronicles the origins, commercial, and critical successes and failures, breakup, and legacy of CCR. It also addresses the decades-long personal and litigious pissing contests that have sometimes overshadowed CCR’s actual musical output. In fact, Going Litigious On Each Others’ Asses might have been a more appropriate subtitle than the one chosen for this book.

Bordowitz’s book essentially takes a traditional chronological approach in crafting the band’s story, encompassing everything from the band’s early incarnations as the Golliwogs (complete with ridiculous headwear) to their incredible run of hit singles as a shit-kicking quartet. In many ways the band’s story is dysfunctional and remarkably ugly, particularly all the legal battles and potshots back and forth between the band members; Bordowitz’s book at times reads more like a legal history than a band biography.

Bordowitz does a nice job telling the band’s story as impartially as possible; what emerges is a portrayal of each band member that is pretty balanced. Tom Fogerty receives the best treatment, and is essentially portrayed as a gentle soul and music lover who quit CCR to pursue his own musical interests. Though his various chemical addictions, which increased in the post-CCR years, are discussed, Bordowitz clearly views the musician with sympathy.

The depictions of the remaining three CCR members -- Stu Cook, Doug Clifford, and John Fogerty -- are decidedly less flattering. Cook and Clifford, perhaps due to being aligned together in their legal and personal squabbles with John Fogerty, share a common portrayal in the book. Although Bordowitz does show the many cases in which the two musicians were slighted by Fogerty -- and there are many, especially in terms of their musical contributions to CCR -- Bordowitz doesn’t let them off the hook as innocent victims. Without showing any bias, Bordowitz does point out some of the more questionable post-CCR decisions made by Cook and Clifford, including touring sans-Fogerty as Creedence Clearwater Revisited, where they performed the CCR songs entirely written by the estranged lead singer.

Singer, lyricist, and lawyer-in-training John Fogerty receives the most expansive, and perhaps the most unflattering, treatment in Bad Moon Rising. Bordowitz does a nice job detailing Fogerty’s actions without being judgmental; he clearly acknowledges that Fogerty’s CCR output was pretty remarkable, that Fogerty was the driving force behind the band, and that Fogerty’s anger toward and legal actions against CCR’s record label were understandable.

That said, too many instances of Fogerty’s controlling nature, massive ego, and bewildering professional decisions are mentioned to ignore or write off as isolated incidents. Whether it was Fogerty’s stubborn insistence that he was CCR, his lengthy legal battles with both CCR’s record label and Cook/Clifford, or other incidents, there are plenty of ugly actions to go around.

Bordowitz’s book does have one major flaw in that it relies primarily on secondary sources, and contains very few new interviews with the band members. Most notably, John Fogerty’s quotes are culled from previous interviews. This is unfortunate, as it does sometimes create the impression of a one-sided argument.

Each member of CCR, in their own unique way, both enhanced and later dry humped CCR’s musical legacy. Bordowitz does a nice job of revealing the many layers in CCR’s complex story. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that while each band member had their own ideas of the best way to preserve CCR’s place in music history, any discussion of CCR today inevitably turns to the petty squabbles and legal wrangling that are now as much a part of their history as their actual albums.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Music Review: Elvis Costello and the Imposters - Momofuku

After riding a roller coaster for the first time, you’re pumped full of adrenaline and eager to ride it again. After riding it for the second time, you’re a little woozy but still want to give it another go; after all, those carnival tickets weren’t cheap. After riding it for the third time, you still enjoy it but it wasn’t as exciting and unpredictable as you first thought. After riding it for the fourth time, when the carnival’s about to close, the tickets are about all blown, and the stuffed animal you won at tremendous cost is giving your skin a rash, you’re dizzy and disoriented, and that sick feeling in your stomach lets you know that you’re definitely going to upchuck something pretty soon.

Yet despite all this, you’ve enjoyed the ride and know you’ll probably want to tackle that coaster again once the carnival has left town.

That’s pretty much how I feel about Momofuku, the latest offering from Elvis Costello and the Imposters. It’s ultimately a solid album, even if subsequent listens reveal some of the bigger flaws within it.

Without sounding like a Luddite, the album’s best songs are those that feature the traditional patented Costello mix of guitar, drums, and keyboards. One of the album’s highlights is “American Gangster Time,” which prominently features keyboard wizard Steve Nieve on organ. It’s reminiscent of Costello’s earlier work without sounding derivative. Other nice moments include “No Hiding Place,” “Turpentine,” and “Stella Hurt,” complete with enough insults, veiled threats, and wordplay to satisfy those fans who prefer their Costello with a pinch of anger.

The album also contains one of Costello’s most autobiographical songs this side of North. “My Three Sons” is about, well, the singer’s three sons, and is not, despite what anyone might think, the theme song to an upcoming sitcom on CBS that will air immediately after Two and a Half Men. Sure it’s sentimental, perhaps overly so; but it somehow works as part of this album.

Some of the other songs aren’t as engaging. The most distracting aspect I hear in the album is the sometimes too-heavy reliance on background singers (both Costello’s voice and other singers). The most egregious offender is “Harry Worth,” which after a few listens sounds like a cross between Bob Dylan’s Shot of Love and a Bob Marley outtake.

“Pardon Me Madam, My Name Is Eve,” which Costello performed as a stripped-down guitar-only song on his recent solo tour opening for Dylan, seems a little cluttered on the album. Maybe it’s the benefit of having heard the solo outings on Costello’s tour, but the album version just sounds a little too jammed up with background singing.

To paraphrase Moe Green from The Godfather, Elvis Costello was making his bones while the rest of us were chasing after cheerleaders. Whether rightly or wrongly, Costello’s latest albums will always be judged against his late 1970s masterpieces. Maybe that’s inevitable for a musician who’s been releasing albums for that long. While Momofuku isn’t the best album Costello’s ever released (that honor clearly goes to Goodbye Cruel World…wait…), it’s a solid album with some great songs.

Summer Music Festival Survival Tips and Etiquette

You might think that attending a summer concert festival with thousands of other music fans who share your abiding love of a specific band would be enough to make your festival experience enjoyable. You'll doubt that when you hear said band perform their best songs from their best album with the fellow fan while desperately wanting the lines to the porta-potties to just move already.

You might think that several days in the sweltering sun with like-minded music fans would lead to a mystical sense of musical joy and community, and that the person thuggishly shoving his way to the front of the stage won’t step on your head to get a few feet closer to the band.

You’d be wrong.

Simply put, a summer concert festival is Thunderdome, a regular outdoor concert gone gonzo on HGH and the cold, unforgiving Darwinian struggle for survival all rolled into one. With Coachella already in the books and a whole mess of festivals remaining this upcoming summer, a few simple tips are in order to maximize your enjoyment and ensure your survival.

1. Do not be deceived by the "Chill Tent." What looks like an oasis of cold water and available shade from a distance is actually a cruel mirage. Get close enough to the "Chill Tent" and you’ll see what it really is -- a swarming mass of suffering humanity that most closely resembles a Goya painting or a medieval leper colony.

2. You must cheer wildly for the dinosaur act that recently reunited for the festival circuit. Sure the band hasn’t released a decent album in decades. Their waists have gotten wider while the hair has gotten thinner and grayer. Their upcoming album, that’s described as a return to form, will probably stink out loud, but dammit, the band dusted their corpses off for this festival. Applaud.

3. Dress appropriately. The deciding factor for your wardrobe is not the temperature; instead, it’s your favorite musical genre. If you are a Goth Rock fan, and I know the five of you are still out there somewhere, heavy black clothing is required. If you’re an indie rock fan under the age of 30, you must wear a hoody and dark-rimmed glasses. Bonus points if someone mistakes you for Colin Meloy.

4. You are responsible for your pharmaceutical stash. If you get all Han Solo and panic by dropping your goods at the first sign of an Imperial Cruiser, don’t drop them in the lap of the nearest innocent bystander.

5. Ric Flair was your favorite wrestler and that’s cool. The Nature Boy’s a legend, even though his minimalist wrestling attire left nothing to the imagination. Still, use between-song “woos!” sparingly. You don’t need to shout like Flair after every song.

6. You might see people with recording devices. Let them be. They are your friends. Plus, there is nothing worse than an illicit live recording punctuated with “are you recording this? Are you? Really?” during every song.

7. If the natives become restless, the festival starts to deteriorate into an orgy of mayhem and violence, and a random stranger who looks like Beavis asks you to help tip something over or set something aflame, do not accept the offer. Or at least wait for a camera crew before proceeding.

8. Every band has a fan that can only be described as "That Guy." "That Guy" knows the length of every song, can link the band’s latest album to a current political issue, and thinks the band is singing about him in every song. You’ll first meet him buying a beer. Then he’ll be in front of you by what the concert promoters have charitably called the “restrooms.” By this time he’ll consider you his friend, slap you on the back with drunken gusto, and give you a nickname like Johnny One Punch, even though you’re name is Evgeny and you’re from Latvia. Avoid That Guy at all costs.

The final band on the final night is playing the final song. The concert promoters and sponsors are loading their crates of money into vans under cover of darkness. Limbs and legs are strewn over the festival grounds like a Fiona Apple video. You haven’t bathed in 72 hours, your car keys were lost in the Great Unknown, mud and beer have mixed into your clothes to form a potentially fatal epoxy, and your girlfriend’s been backstage for a while and you’re getting suspicious.

But you’re still breathing and have a few musical memories you won’t forget. Survey the carnage and take a deep breath. You survived.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Book Review: The Grizzly Maze - Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears by Nick Jans

Nearly five years after his death, Timothy Treadwell still remains a divisive character among biologists, wildlife experts and novices, and even his closest friends. Treadwell, who had received some media and celebrity attention from his exploits “protecting” bears over 13 summers in Alaska’s Katmai Coast, was mauled and killed by a bear in 2003, along with companion Amie Huguenard. In a bitter twist of irony, the bear believed to be their killer was shot to death by rescuers, as was a younger bear that was possibly showing aggressive stalking behavior.

In the aftermath that followed, Treadwell’s critics used the deaths to reinforce various views that the amateur had pushed his luck too far, had caused more harm than good by interfering with Alaska’s wildlife, and had contributed very little to either a better understanding or appreciation of bears. Likewise, Treadwell’s supporters were quick to portray him as an ecowarrior solely focused on protecting bears from poachers and increasing the public’s appreciation of the animals. The reality probably falls somewhere in between.

All these aspects of Treadwell and his life are examined in Nick Jans’ The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears. Published prior to the release of Werner Herzog’s docudrama Grizzly Man and since updated with a new introduction, Jans’ book is a far more expansive study of Treadwell than Herzog’s artful and controversial film. Whereas Herzog’s film essentially portrayed Treadwell as a man teetering on the edge of insanity -- though it should be noted that Herzog did also show some empathy towards Treadwell -- Jans’ book offers a far more thorough examination of Treadwell’s life, motives, and legacy, or infamy.

The author’s portrayal of Treadwell is largely sympathetic; Jans shows that, despite Treadwell’s lack of any institutionalized education about bears, Treadwell clearly viewed himself as an expert of things ursine. Although Treadwell’s methods ranged from misguided at best to wildly dangerous and blatantly illegal at worst, Jans does a nice job showing how Treadwell used his excursions as a vehicle to advance the cause of ursine preservation, including the oft-noted fact that Treadwell frequently shared his findings and photos with schoolchildren free of charge. For whatever flaws he had, Treadwell did clearly think “his” bears would not survive without his watchful eyes.

Nevertheless, the book is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Treadwell; much of it focuses on the many mistakes he made and plainly idiotic notions in which he clearly believed about his relationship with the Katmai bears. Jans shows how Treadwell either broke or blatantly ignored basic rules when camping in bear habitats, including making actual contact with the bears, refusing to use any type of bear spray or electric fence, and deliberately setting up his camp at some areas highly trafficked by bears. Treadwell also clearly became emotionally attached to the bears, giving them names and attributing to them human emotions that were clearly not there.

Jans also shows how both Treadwell and his Grizzly People organization’s claim that Treadwell’s presence was necessary to discourage poaching was misleading at best and irrelevant at worst. Poaching incidents in the Katmai region Treadwell camped in were non-existent; in addition, poaching was a far larger threat in other parts of Alaska and during the non-summer months, when Treadwell had left Alaska for the year. Jans shows the added irony that by interacting and living closely with bears, Treadwell might have actually made the bears less safe: by making himself a constant presence in the bears’ lives, Treadwell might have caused the bears to be more relaxed around other humans, including poachers.

Whether Timothy Treadwell’s incredible 13-year run of surviving with bears is attributable to some innate sense of bear psychology that he had, or is simply a testament to the high tolerance level of bears toward humans, is open to debate. It would be too easy to dismiss Treadwell as a mentally-disturbed amateur intent on playing grabass with bears for his own selfish reasons. At the same time, the ultimate irony of Treadwell’s tragic end is that both the deaths of Huguenard and two of the bears he so desperately tried to protect are on his hands. Far more balanced than Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Jans’ The Grizzly Maze allows the reader a fuller glimpse into the life, motives, and psychology of Timothy Treadwell.