Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Time Warp Wednesday: Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining

In the mid 1980s to early 1990s, there were some politically minded bands that helped pave the way for the alternative rock movement of the 1990s. Some are still around today, such as R.E.M. and U2. Others, such as Australia’s Midnight Oil, are no longer together. In fact, lead singer, lyricist, and harmonica player Peter Garrett has gone all the way political—moving from rock to Australia’s House of Representatives in 2004 to Minister for Environment, Heritage and Arts in 2007.

Midnight Oil first gained major attention in the US in 1987 with the single “Beds are Burning” off the record, Diesel and Dust. The song is about granting lands rights to Indigenous Australians. By the time Blue Sky Mining was released in 1990, America was ready. And from the first sound of Peter Garrett’s harmonica on the title track, Midnight Oil laid out their views through the great songs on the record.

While Garret was one of the great front men of the 1980s and 1990s, the guitar work of Martin Rotsey was really key to the band’s sound. What a great, blistering player. At a time when The Edge and Peter Buck were defining guitar playing for the 120 Minutes crowd, Ratsey had his own sound and style.

Politics were key to Midnight Oil’s core—who can forget their playing on the back of a flat-bed semi-truck with a banner reading, "Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick", in NYC to protest the Exxo Valdez oil spill. However, without the killer songs it would have been for naught. Tracks such as the aforementioned “Blue Sky Mine,” “Forgotten Years,” and “One Country” still hold up today, musically as well as topically. And really that is what a great record should do. Yeah, and they were also great live as you can see below.


Monday, May 26, 2008

State Theatre Plans a Stellar Season

This post originally apeared in the May 26 edition of the Tompkins Weekly.

It will come as no great surprise to anyone who has been reading my columns that I'm a great enthusiast for what has happened at the State Theatre since Dan Smalls took over as Executive Director. The shows have connected better with the community, ticket sales are up (way up), and the feeling of the State’s impending demise is really starting to lift. There’s a real buzz and enthusiasm about what’s happening in that beautiful theater on State Street.

So it was with great anticipation that I received my invitation to the State Theatre’s press conference to announce their 2008-2009 season. And I have to say I knew there would be some good choices and shows to get excited about. But the lineup Dan Smalls laid out is truly great. It also made some serious efforts to creating a diverse collection of performances reflective of Ithaca’s many communities. They’re also the kind of world-class performers the State Theatre deserves to have in the year celebrating its 80th birthday.

I got a chance to ask Dan a few questions about the new season after the press conference last Wednesday.

Tompkins Weekly: Are there any differences in your programming philosophy between your first and this your upcoming second year at the State Theatre?

Dan Smalls: Remember that I did inherit a bit of what happened last year so that may explain some of the differences. I think I followed the same general theme of more of what worked and less of what did not. We have a very educated town, culturally and especially musically. You cannot pull a fast one on an Ithaca music fan. Artists must be the real deal and I think this season’s acts fit that description to a t. I did take a few calculated chances—like Cassandra Wilson or Citizen Cope—but upon investigation, I believe that our audience will figure out who these acts are and decide they are worth their time and money. I hope that I am building trust among our concert and show going public and that they’ll occasionally take a chance on what I program.

TW: How about lessons learned from the first year?

DS: We certainly learned from the first two years that we are not yet ready for large scale theatrical productions. Our stage housing just isn’t there yet. I do want these to be staples of our seasons to come, but from past attendance and production difficulties, we just cannot take those risks or losses at this time. Its fiscally motivated, purely. I also think we learned that people are willing to pay higher prices for higher notoriety artists. Lyle Lovett proved that and I believe Crosby and Nash will follow suit.

TW: You talked about adding diversity to the 2008-2009 season, how did you go about making your choices?

DS: My history in Ithaca teaches me that our educated and diverse community will support extremely diverse programming. There has always been a huge world music scene here. College diversity helps, but educated people like educated music and I think some of the African acts really embody that. With diversity being such a hot button topic in Ithaca recently, we had to address that. I think the African Children’s Choir and their message and work with underprivileged children will ring true here. Plus it will be an amazing show.

TW: Can you talk about making personal taste versus market choices?

DS: The biggest mistake in this business is booking with your heart and not your pocketbook. Luckily, some of the shows I personally get excited about are also what have proven to do well here at the State. Aging punkers settle into the mainstream and become Alt-country and Americana fans. Steve Earle is a no brainer for Ithaca with his political leaning and incredible songwriting. Most people already know that. They’ll also see that in Billy Bragg and Citizen Cope. They realize that all music grew from gospel and field hollers, and the Blues Journey show starts that trip. The show from The Kennedy Center tells that story to kids and families. They’ll appreciate the throwback sounds of Sharon Jones and her incredible band. Even Andrew bird, and indie darling, is rooted in serious music. It may seem music heavy or too current at first glance, but everything this season is rooted in serious and historically important eras. There are also some serious selections here, like the 5 Browns and Ailey II. I hope we’ve found something for everyone this year. If not what’s announced, know there’s plenty more coming . . .

So as they say in show business: With out further adieu here is the State Theatre’s 2008-2009 line up. The season kicks off with comedy on September 4 and NBC’s Last Comic Standing Live tour. This is connected with the NBC series that just premiered on May 22. This tour features some comics from last season’s shows. Second City, Josh Blue, and Kathleen Madigan round out the comedy series.

September 11 is the beginning of what can only be described as the core of what makes the State Theatre arguably the most important venue in Ithaca: the music. Left of center political roots/county rocker Steve Earle will hit the stage with wife Allison Moorer to kick off the year of great music. It is pretty hard to top Steve Earle, but the music offerings are top notch for the whole season. Citizen Cope, afore mentioned Andrew Bird, Billy Bragg (another lefty musician who has been described as a one man version of The Clash), David Crosby and Graham Nash who need no introduction, soul revival band Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Cassandra Wilson who is arguably the most important jazz singer performing today, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and the Flatlanders represent some more of the talent that will hit the stage. The Soweto Gospel Choir, Taraf de Haidouks, the African Gospel Choir, and Habib Koite and Bamada featuring local favorites the Sim Redmond Band will represent the world beat front. There will also be a classical performance by the 5 Browns, a group a piano playing siblings. Lastly, is the amazing combo performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Blind Boys of Alabama. The concert, billed as Down By The Riverside, will combine jazz and gospel music from these luminaries in their respective genres.

Other highlights during the 2008-2009 season will be the always-fabulous Light in Winter Festival that holds two performances at the State Theatre—Abracadazzle from the illusionist Jeff McBride and the PUSH Physical Theater. The Family series is returning featuring the Golden Dragon Chinese Acrobats, Haunted Illusions, Blues Journey, and the very popular Galumpha dance troupe. And certainly in the last but not least category is Ailey II from the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, coming as part of the Classics Series. Celebrating its 50th year, Alvin Ailey has been one of the preeminent American Dance Companies of the last half-century.

If you like what you are seeing, subscriptions go on sale June 9 and single event tickets go on sale July 14. It is important to note that this does not represent the entire season. As they State Theatre did this year, they will be adding many more concerts and comedy performers during the year, so keep reading the Tompkins Weekly to learn about what’s coming at the State Theatre.

Check out videos clips of some of the performers below.

Steve Earle with Allison Moorer

Billy Bragg

Cassandra Wilson

Blind Boys of Alabama

Andrew Bird

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

Taraf de Haidouks


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ode To My Timbuk2 Messenger Bag

So every once in a while I pop out a non-music post. The other day on the bus to work I got talking to the only other person who carries a Timbuk2 bag on the bus. When we were talking I said something like, "You know this bag is 11 years old and I have used it almost everyday since then." Then I thought to myself, "Wow, 11 years and really not any wear to speak of." So thanks Timbuk2 for making a totally kick a** product. And just so I am not totally non-music related here, my iPod and noise-canceling headphones live in this bag. Here is a little picture of my bag.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Time Warp Wednesday: Radiohead's I Might Be Wrong

This inaugural post for Time Warp Wednesdays comes to you courtesy of my son, The Young Man. On the way to dropping him off at school today we were listening to Radiohead's live EP I Might Be Wrong. This 8 song live record features tunes from Kid A and Amnesiac. It also contains one of my favorite Radiohead songs, "True Love Waits." This song is just so incredibly beautiful and melancholy. " And true love waits / In haunted attics / And true love lives / On lollipops and crisps." And it is "True Love Waits" that really connected with my son. I think we listened to it 3 or 4 times before we got to school. For me, this song reminds me of my grandmother, since my grandfather died a few years ago. She still feels his presence and knows they will be together again. True love waits.

The rest of this album is a reminder of how great the band is live, and how well Radiohead are able to translate their recorded output to the stage. I Might Be Wrong, in my opinion, is a must have in every record collection as it captures Radiohead in all their live glory. Check out a few live samples below.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Album Review: R.E.M.'s Accelerate

It might be overly sentimental to say that bands I have listened to for a long time are somewhat akin to old friends. R.E.M. is certainly a band I would put in this category. I have written before about how they are one of my Musical Touch Points. So it was with great anticipation that I started listening to REM’s newest album (their 14th), Accelerate. It was definitely a, “R.E.M.—Holy Sh*t—Welcome Back” moment because as with some old friends R.E.M. and I had drifted apart. Their recent music wasn’t really speaking to me. But from the first notes of the opening track, “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” you now that R.E.M. is on and I was welcoming back an old friend—remembering why I loved them so much in the first place.

Accelerate is definitely an apt title. It seems like during the four years between their most recent albums it was time to put the rock and roll gas pedal to the floor and create a truly great record. While I totally dig the whole record, a few standout tracks include “Houston” a beautiful song about Hurricane Katrina, "Hollow Man," and “Accelerate.” But the closing track, “I’m Gonna DJ” says it best, “music will provide the light / you cannot resist / you cannot resist / you cannot resist, yeah.”

Check out R.E.M. live from the SXSW festival.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Not Excited

Have you ever felt that you’re supposed to be excited about a new album coming out, but you aren’t? Such is the case with me and the soon to be released new album from Death Cab For Cutie, Narrow Stairs. Early reviews have been positive, but I’m just not feeling it, even though I haven’t heard a note. Certainly, Ben Gibbard’s annoying article in the usually excellent Paste Magazine didn’t help the band’s case with me. I mean did I really need to read his near stream of consciousness/adolescent journalesque ramblings about Jack Kerouac. I think if I were 22, I might still be anticipating the record and I more than likely would have liked his article, because I think that’s when I was reading Kerouac. But, I’m 37 with a wife and 2 kids and it just didn’t do it for me. I liked Death Cab For Cutie’s last two records. In fact, I listened to them a lot. But now, I just don’t know.

Tell me if this has ever happened to you.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Album Review: The Slacker's Self Medication

The Ska, Reggae, Soul, Rockabilly, Punk fusion of The Slackers has been kicking out the great sounds for about 15 years now. For the record, the band describes their sound as Jamaican rock and roll. And given how good their latest album, Self Medication is—and how much they tour—to be cliché, they don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. And that’s good news for fans.

One of the elements of the band that makes their music particularly sound like their own and stand the test of time and survived the pop-ska craze of several years ago is the use of the organ. Together with the horns, this really provides a soul(ful) underpinning the Jamaican rhythms. “Estranged” from the new album is a great example of this. Another standout is the lead track, “Every Day Is Sunday.” I dare you to try and resist the overwhelming desire to pogo that this track induces. And wow, “Stars” is a kind of Ska-ballad. Very lovely and another reason these guys have got it going on. It takes a lot of guts to throw a slow song into the mix.

Beyond the aforementioned three songs, Self Medication is strong from beginning to end and is definitely found a home on my current regular listening. If you haven’t listened to The Slackers before, this new Album is a great place to start. And if you get the chance to see these guys live, word on the street is you should do so.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Album Review: Portishead's Thrid

Portishead has just released Third, their first album in a decade. And jumping back into Portishead’s world ten years on, three things are immediately clear. The first is, I’ve missed them more than I realized. Secondly, the band’s music has been incredibly influential. Lastly, they still sound amazing. And this sound—this combination of voice, samples, and live instruments—has an elemental power that makes their music elegiac at the same time it’s thrilling. A major key to this is Beth Gibbons’ voice. It has this wonderful fragility at the same time it has power and a unique sound and approach. She’s sort of a trip hop Billie Holiday.

Third is certainly going to be on by best of 2008 list. It will also be a top contender for best comeback (though I hate the phrase). The track “Machine Gun” with its automatic weapons beats is the first single. The lyrics on the album are pure Portishead as well. The song “Hunter” is a relationship song full of insecurity and doubt. And when Beth Gibbons sings, “And if I should fall, would you hold me? / Would you pass me by? / Ooh, you know I'd ask you for nothing, / Just to wait for a while” you are right there with her, teetering on the edge.

Check out the video for “Machine Gun” or the song live on Later with Jools Holland below.