Thursday, June 26, 2008

Year of the Gentlemen

As a big fan of popular music, it's always a kick to watch an artist grow before your eyes. Today's R&B has been struggling for the past few years, generally seen as a poor cousin of (the not totally robust) hip-hop, relegated to thick robotic drumbeats, guest rappers, indistinguishable melodies and forgettable lyrics.

Of course there are those artists who break through, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott and John Legend are among those who have strived to breathe new life into the tried and true traditions of the best of R&B. One of the more interesting newcomers is Ne-yo, a young twenty-something writer/singer/producer who's made hits for a galaxy of artists and embarked on a solo career a couple of years ago. Blessed with a clear tenor, a great sense of melody and hooks for days, Ne-yo has shown the potential to be a memorable artist if he could get out of aping Michael Jackson like a religious experience. All of that changed with the 2008 BET Awards.

I hadn't been to an awards show in several years, generally finding them tedious with more concentration on spectacle than music and performance. I went to the BET Awards this year largely because Al Green was being presented with a lifetime achievement award and was due to be serenaded by Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton and the unannounced return of Maxwell. Alas, Jill struggled, Anthony did 'Tired of Being Alone' proud and Maxwell missed an opportunity, with a lackluster interpretation of 'Simply Beautiful'. Al Green hopped onstage and performed loud, off-key versions of 'Let's Stay Together' and 'Love and Happiness'. It wasn't one of his best nights, but he had so much energy and enthusiasm, the crowd embraced him with a lot of love and appreciation.

Earlier in the evening, Ne-yo was introduced by host DL Hughley and he performed 'Closer', the new single from his upcoming album, 'Year of the Gentleman'. Smartly attired in a hat, three piece suit and gloves, Ne-yo was in great voice, the song was melodic with a clean, uptempo dance beat and a hard to forget hook.

Throughout the performance, Ne-yo upped his dance game, leaving (for the most part) MJ behind, and carving out a more sophisticated but still funky dance style that he confidently executed all over the stage. When the tune was over, Ne-yo got one of the evening's few standing ovations and staked a claim as most improved performer of the year.

The album is due August 5th, and focuses on more of a pop sound that marries the beat and rhythm of today's R&B , with a rare understanding of song construction. For my money, 'Year of the Gentleman' is the album that I'm expecting to send Ne-yo to the front ranks of today's popular artists. Even if he comes up a bit short, he's making big strides in the right direction.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Best Concerts Ever!!: The First Five

Recently my Mac guy and friend, Max Miller, was at the house fine tuning my new MacAir and my lemon like iMac. We usually enjoy kicking around cultural conversations, movies, music and comics. Max is opinionated, well read and very smart, which guarantees a lively and enjoyable chat. On this particular day, he asked me a question that provided the topic for this post:
"What artist alive or dead, would you want to see in concert and what era?". It didn't take me long to answer: Sam Cooke, circa 1964.

A couple of years ago, I read an outstanding biography on Cooke, called 'Dream Boogie', by Peter Guralnik. It's probably the best music bio I've ever read. Guralnik was so skilled that I felt like I was at the recording sessions or on the road with Cooke, Bobby Womack and Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. Sam Cooke has been a touchstone for both R&B and rock music for decades (ask Al Green or Rod Stewart) for a variety of reasons. One of the first artists to segue from the church to the secular world, Cooke was also a a gifted songwriter and one of the first artists to own his masters and create a label that was more than a vanity project.

I picked 1964 because that was the height of his popularity and he'd recently recorded the classic 'A Change Is Gonna Come'. Reportedly there is only one filmed performance of the song by Cooke, on the Tonight Show, but the footage looks to be lost.

Following the answer to that thought provoking question, I started thinking about my favorite concerts, and came up with a top 20 list. Here are the first five. Except where noted, don't hold me to the order.

The Jacksons Victory Tour, Cincinnati Ohio, 1981
I must admit, I saw this show reluctantly. The last time I'd seen the Jacksons, they'd gone Vegas, with nine year old Janet doing a creepy Mae West impersonation. Even though I enjoyed Michael's solo success with 'Off the Wall', as well as the Jacksons 'Triumph' album, I had no hopes of a good, let alone great concert. Boy, was I wrong.

Stacey Lattisaw opened the show, sung her hit 'Let Me Be Your Angel', and was outta there. Then it was time for the Jacksons. A screen rolled down and showed a video of 'Can You Feel It', that led to a real life Randy Jackson onstage in a suit of armor with a flaming torch screaming 'Can You Feel It'. The next thing I knew, metal risers were lifting the stage, and when the smoke cleared, the Jackson were standing stock still, letting the audience scream until they broke into 'Things I Do For You'.
For the next two hours, I witnessed one of the two greatest concerts I've ever seen.

In one fell swoop, the Jacksons Victory tour outdid former leaders of the R&B pack, Earth Wind and Fire in every area: song selection, pacing, special effects, all mind-blowing. But the biggest special effect was Michael Jackson. All of the signature moves and gear (white socks, one glitter glove), was brand new. It was all being debuted on this tour. Michael was in great shape and excellent voice, a whirling dervish across the stage for nearly two hours.

It was live performance at its best, and I'll always be grateful for the opportunity to witness it in person.

Prince Dirty Mind Tour, Royal Oak Michigan, 1980
Saw Prince open for Rick James at the Toledo Sports Arena in 1979. He was touring behind his second album 'Prince', and the hit was 'I Wanna Be Your Lover'. Prince and his band came out and smoked for 30 minutes, leaving the scorched stage for Rick James, who couldn't get the crowd back. That weekend I saw Prince totally dismiss Dick Clark on American Bandstand, and lip-sync 'Lover' on The Midnight Special, the night before. Running around in bikini briefs and leg-warmers, Prince was serving notice that he was a new kind of fool, either immensely talented, or incredibly insane. With the release of 'Dirty Mind', it was clear that he was the former, with a sprinkle of the latter.

In March of 1980, me and three college buddies drove up to a suburb of Michigan and watched one of the early performances of the 'Dirty Mind' tour. No opening act, Prince and band played for two hours. No props, no effects, just straight ahead music. Prince constructed a tight, specific set, but one that left room for improvisation and audience participation. He rarely spoke to the audience, but when he did, he was greeted with a happy roar, and he tried to hold back a pleased smile, but was unable to.

In addition to the purity of his falsetto, Prince also served notice that he was a wicked guitarist, fast and tasteful at the same time. Over the years, I've found a few unreleased DVDs from that tour, and each time I watch it, I enjoy it as much as the first time. It was spectacular to see a new artist who was clear about the type of show and image that he wanted to convey and to see him execute his plan perfectly. I flip-flop often between this and the Jacksons Triumph show, in terms of which was the best ever. I've never had a clear answer for myself, and doubt that I ever will. It's a good problem to have.

Jill Scott Who Is Jill Scott Tour, Los Angeles, California 2001
I find it to be a rare occurrence these days to see a debut artist perform live with a compelling, well thought out show, that is still organic and alive. Shows today are so tightly choreographed, based on songs that have no emotional content, like R. Kelly's 'You Remind Me of My Jeep'. It's even more rare to see an artist who has those skills but is still open and enthusiastic enough to be genuinely touched and inspired by an audience's reaction to his/her performance.

Jill Scott embodied both of these traits in her Los Angeles debut at the House of Blues on Sunset. Her first album had been out about a month and she was winning praise for the maturity and inventiveness of her lyrics, as well as her wide ranging voice and commitment to the groove.

Jill performed her entire debut album, 'Who is Jill Scott?', with style and sophistication, but the moment that stays etched in my mind is her reaction in the midst of the first song 'A Long Walk', when the entire audience started singing the chorus in one big, joyous voice. Her face and the entire countenance of the band lit up with a look of surprise and appreciation. She kicked off her shoes, the band punched up the tempo and the whole house was elevated. The show stayed in that rarefied air all night.

D'Angelo Voodoo Tour, Los Angeles California,2000
I saw D'Angelo's debut show at the House of Blues in support of his first album. While musically accomplished, it was a boring show. D'Angelo spent the majority of the show glued to the seat of his keyboard and kept a steady, loopy groove that while catchy, never really caught fire.

With the long awaited release of his second album, 'Voodoo', he returned to the House of Blues for a warm up show. This was no replay of the earlier performance. Dressed in long leather trench coat, D'Angelo never got behind the keyboard. Following the opening song 'Devil's Pie', he tore off the trench to reveal a ripped, musclebound physique and a newfound grace and fluidity as he danced across the stage for the next three hours.

Unlike the somewhat sombre, low-key performances of a few years past, D'Angelo was full of energy, smiling all night and engaging the crowd. Ringmaster for the band was The Roots ?uestlove, who was also the heartbeat of the band, keep the rhythm tight via a big set of drums. Also in the crackerjack band about a year before his solo career took off, was Anthony Hamilton, dressed like an Indian, complete with war paint and feathers.

D'Angelo performed every song on the 'Voodoo' album, most of 'Brown Sugar' and he threw in a few covers for good measure. He reveled in the skill of his band, leaving plenty of room for vamping and jamming. By the time the show was over, everyone was tired an for good reason. Never before have I seen an artist completely reinvent himself as a performer with such smashing success.

BeBe & CeCe Winans, Los Angeles, 1990 or 91
Back in the early nineties, there was a monthly industry gathering called 'R&B Live' that took place once a month at a few different clubs in Los Angeles. The brainchild of entrepreneurs Ramon Hervey and Bill Hammond, R&B Live featured a band comprised of top notch studio musicians, who would back up an unbelievable roster of artists. Al Jarreau, Earth Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder are just a few who rocked the small house of no more than 300 people.

I had been aware of the music of Bebe and CeCe Winans for a few years by this time, and had gotten to know BeBe by a common interest in movies and fashion. I enjoyed their music, but never gave it much thought beyond it being a pleasant diversion. BeBe and I were due to meet for lunch at Roscoe's the day after they did a couple of songs at R&B Live, and I was wondering what I'd tell him after I seeing what I expected to be a competent but uninspiring show.

I don't remember what they opened with, but when they went into 'Lost Without You'- on record, a nice but relatively sacchrine ballad dedicated to the Lord, I saw one of the greatest single performances I'd ever been privileged to witness.

BeBe took the four minute tune and turned it into a 15 minute dramatic odyssey of the soul. Following the second verse, CeCe literally soared as she sung 'don't ever go away' over and over. With a soft but insistent backback and a soothing but urgent chorus of 'hallelujah', by their sisters Angie and Debbie, BeBe proceeded to orchestrate a multi-part scenario that sung of the depth of God's love as he 'holds you in the midnight hour' and 'rocks you through the stormy weather'. Part preacher, part witness, part ringmaster, BeBe Winans unveiled a command of the stage that most performer can only dream of. When the song finally concluded, there was testifying, tears and release.

The next day, I met BeBe for lunch and insisted on buying. He asked why. I told him I felt like such an idiot for having no idea just how potent a performer he was. He chuckled and said, 'I do what I can'.

A quick footnote: CeCe is no slouch, a beautiful, powerful voice with control and taste, she's also one of the nicest people I've ever met. Also, BeBe's older brother Marvin (former lead singer of The Winans) is a brilliant singer and mesmerizing performer. But the kick is, their dad, Pops Winan, is stronger than all of them. He can go from the smooth falsetto of Sam Cooke to the rough tenor of Otis Redding and make you cry at the same time.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Virgin No More!

My first published writing in a comic book hits the stands today. Issue 3 of Ed Brubaker's popular crime series 'Criminal' is released and features an article that I wrote on the Sydney Pollack film 'The Yakuza', starring Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura.

If you're interested, the article itself is available on this blog, about four or five posts back.

'Criminal' is a labor of love for Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, focusing on the seamier side of the underworld, rich with character development and moody artwork. In addition to the main story, each issue has a feature in the back of the magazine that focuses on a particular crime film or genre'. I've been introduced to several films that I was unaware of because of these profiles.

A few months back, I had dinner with Ed as we were discussing a project (that will be revealed soon) and the conversation turned to movies. To my surprise, he'd never heard of 'The Yakuza'. As I started telling him about it, he asked me if I'd like to write an article on it, and here we are.

Years ago, I used to write for a British film mag called 'Impact', that focused on action films. That was fun and ever since, I've been interested in critical writing, but from more of a fan's perspective, than a scholarly one. 'The Yakuza' piece is the first article that I've written in a long time and I don't think it will be the last. And to have it included by the writer of my favorite comics for the last several years is especially satisfying.

Thanks for the hook up, Ed!