Sunday, August 24, 2014

Steely Dan, Sony Centre For The Performing Arts, Toronto, August 23

To celebrate a recent marriage milestone, my wife and I indulged an increasingly rare impulse, and drove in to the city for dinner and a concert — Steely Dan. Not only does she credit me with bringing a love of The Dan to our marriage, she claims this is a good thing. Win-win!

Obligatory crappy phone-shot.

This was a first for us, in fact. Beyond videos (shadows on the wall, really) I'd never seen them play — their concerts here inevitably coincided with family events in the prairies (some years ago when I played best man to my friend the groom, an attendee at the wedding greeted me with, “You're not at the concert!”). This year was exceptional, so there we were.

The Bobby Broom Organi-Sation — a trio of guitar, electric organ and drums — opened, with a set of slyly tweaked and infectious selections from the Boomer Soundtrack, plus a little Fats Waller. I've gone and added Broom to my Saturday/Sunday morning soundtrack.

Then it was on to the headliners. This is, in the main, a band that has been performing together for the last 15 years. “Tight” was surely a given, but I was not expecting the energetic pow! that followed and carried the evening to a satisfying conclusion nearly two hours later. Donald Fagen has famously groused that his audience is increasingly geriatric, singling out Toronto as particularly moribund. While he and Walter Becker are unquestionably producing primo grade Dad Rock, last night's audience included no shortage of daughters several decades removed from their cohort kicking up a fuss in the aisles — until house security shooed them back to their seats (fire regulations, I'm guessing).

There isn't a member of the band that doesn't deserve a massive shout-out, but drummer Keith Carlock was a particular revelation. The norm for the session drummers of most Dan (and Fagen solo) albums is to take a deep cleansing breath, then settle in to the business of holding down the back-beat. Carlock brings an energetic muscularity to the music, attacking his kit with Gene Krupa-like vigour. “Aja” is the acid test for drummers — Steve Gadd's imprint on that track is singularly deep, but Carlock ably walks the high-wire, pulling off a performance that acknowledges the source without succumbing to pallid imitation.

Similarly guitarist Jon Herington has the unenviable task of producing solos which have to be recognizable enough, while adding some element of surprise or revelation to keep the performance fresh — to take what a host of others have carved out, and somehow make the entire mash his own. Formidable task, but damned if Herington doesn't have the chops and the attitude to pull it off with aplomb.

All in all a swell night. No disappointments to speak of, though I would have enjoyed a few more inclusions from their two latest albums (judging from the slightly muted response to “Janie Runaway,” Fagen & Becker might well have taken note from past Toronto dates and steered the playlist predominantly to their 70s catalog). Also, Fagen was clearly fighting some laryngitis-type bug, but what are you gonna do? Dude gave it his all in the “Kid Charlemagne” encore and somehow squeezed out “Yes, there's gas in the car!” — the highest string of exclamatory notes all night. I'm amazed he wasn't pulled off the stage in a stretcher.

Alright, here's the setlist, cobbled together in recollection some hours later, as written, with corrections footnoted (I've likely got the order botched, particularly the middle numbers, but not the song titles):

- band, unknown (Mancini?*)
- Black Cow
- Aja
- Hey Nineteen
- Black Friday
- Bodhisattva (order could be off after this)
- Janie Runaway
- Dirty Work (girls sing)
- Daddy Don't Live In That NYC No More (Becker sings)
- Green Earrings
- Rikki Don't Lose That Number
- Josie
- Peg
- Babylon Sisters
- Showbiz Kids
(unknown — Ike Turner?**)
- Reelin' In The Years
- My Old School


- Kid Charlemagne
- band, theme from The Untouchables

*”Cubano Chant,” Ray Bryant
**”I Want To (Do Everything For You),” Joe Tex

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Not-Pining For The '90s

When I first read James Wolcott's sniffy disdain for '90s Nostalgia a couple of weeks ago, I thought, This is a put-on. There is no “'90s Nostalgia.'” Then, right on cue, The Onion AV Club launched their '90s Nostalgia series.

Back when I was living out the '90s, I wondered if it wasn't the decade I'd be nostalgic for. I was getting my adult feet under me, and wearing a decidedly youthful bod (and mane of hair). Thanks to WIRED magazine, I finally discovered the internet. Rock music was still cool. So were the Simpsons.

Get a haircut, ya bum.

Oof. Good riddance to all that — yes, even the body. All that youthful energy, directed into youthful anxiety, and youthful aggression, and youthful expressions of a self best left to percolate and age into something just a tad wiser — and kinder — before expressing anything.

No, I'll happily (for the most part) wear the extra flab as the softer self that I sometimes wish had been more present in the '90s. The concern being, of course, how best to be present in the here and now — which I'm already nostalgic for.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy: After Atheism: New Perspectives On God And Religion

A recent 10-hour drive gave me the opportunity to binge-listen to podcasts, particularly CBC’s Ideas with Paul Kennedy (link). And more particularly, the five-part series, After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion by David Cayley. Cayley surveys and interviews five fellas with provocative deep thoughts regarding the contemporary state of the religious mind: Richard Kearney (Anatheism: Returning to God After God), John Caputo (on Jacques Derrida), William Cavanaugh (Migrations of the Holy: God, State & The Political Meaning of the Church), James Carse (The Religious Case Against Belief) and Roger Lundin (Believing Again: Doubt & Faith In A Secular Age).

If any of this is ringing bells of vague familiarity, Kennedy and Cayley are the same guys who brought us The Myth of the Secular, the entirety of which receives an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Yours Truly. Said I about that: “Every time I’d nod my head in agreement with someone’s sentiment, another would follow to provoke thought in an unexpected direction. And who among us couldn’t stand a little more of that?”

Yeah — what I said.

At the moment the entire series is still available for download at iTunes. You can also stream After Atheism here.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Mark Heard

When Mark died, I wasn’t prepared for how deeply it would affect me. I’m not inclined to be sentimental about death. I have a sort of easy-come easy-go attitude, generally speaking. But there was a small group of us that cared very deeply about Mark’s presence on the planet. It wasn’t a question of his personality . . . It was the fact that he was there doing the quality of work and the kind of songwriting he was doing. And known by so few people. [For] those of us who did know him, it seems like he provided a sort of link among a group of us. And when he died, there was a sort of hole there. Bruce Cockburn, reflecting on Mark Heard.

I dropped in on the Christian Humanists last week, and their July 7 podcast on Mark Heard caught my eye. I have a little history with Heard, so I gambled a stamp and gave it a listen.

Los Tres Humanistas do their usual jolly shtick. Their treatment of Heard and his music is thoughtful and engaging, not just laudatory but also critical and even a bit cheeky, without ever succumbing to the dis — in the main an entertaining and commendable job.

I did, however, think it a shame that Matthew Dickerson’s bio of Heard was not read in preparation for the podcast. Then I went online to check availability, and discovered used copies selling for upwards of $50. I guess Mark Heard has finally become a lucrative property, albeit in the out-of-print bio business. (Yo, Matthew: you have this in PDF format, no? Nudge, nudge.)

Anyway, I reread my copy (not for sale, sorry) to see what elements, if any, might have brought a little more depth to the Humanists’ discussion.

Heard was quite the character, as anyone who listens closely to his music can probably guess — idiosyncratic in the extreme, dogged, determined, critical of and entirely impatient with superficial thinkers, fools and phonies. 99% of the Christian entertainment industry falls cheerfully into all three of those last categories. That’s the scene where he cut his teeth, of course, and even when he finally got his feet underneath him as an independent he was never too far removed from the church basement as a performance venue. Needless to say, his creative efforts were beset with endless professional frustrations.

Yet what struck me in this recent reading was just how much latitude Heard was given by the industry to make his music. When he first signed on with Larry Norman, the plan was to market Heard as a down-from-the-mountain, folky James Taylor type. And Heard was originally amenable to that, showing up for concerts and photo-shoots in his hiking boots, jeans and oversize sweaters, and cooking up the Taylor-saturated Appalachian Melody.

Heard’s restlessness expressed itself early, though, and when he skipped to Chris Christian’s label he strapped on an electric guitar and adopted a blues-based style that didn’t really sound like anyone — certainly not anyone who was selling a lot of records. The Humanists (and others) reach for Tom Petty to describe Heard’s sound, but if he’d sounded anything at all like Petty his label would have covered it with whipped cream and maraschino cherries, and broken out the champagne.

No, the truth was he sounded resolutely like Mark Heard. Give “One of the Dominoes” (Heard’s first single for Christian) a spin, and you’ll quickly spot what made Heard unique — and uniquely difficult to market. Melodically it’s a slightly upbeat song in a major key, but the backbeat drags a bit too long to fit either the AOR or rock mode. Nobody is going to dance to this, in other words. And nobody should: the song is a lamentation — worse: a religious lamentation. We’re screwed! And I’m an intractable part of the problem!

But this was what Heard was set on writing, and that’s how he was set on performing it. Which brings me to the other remarkable characteristic evident in Dickerson’s bio: when Heard entered a studio to record, he was 100% intent on cracking the code and breaking out into the mainstream. And when it was in the can, he was 100% certain he’d finally done it. Indeed, one of Heard’s professional frustrations with Chris Christian was Christian’s perceived reluctance to market Heard outside the religious scene.

For Christian, that would have been throwing good money after bad. Heard’s music was always a niche within a niche. His lyrics were too pointedly overt, and his musical leanings maddeningly counter-intuitive. Overindulging the latter inclination led Heard to produce his first independent album, Tribal Opera — a shiny, synthy mess that achieved immediate obscurity (consult Grooveshark at your own peril).

Heard’s was never a particularly sunny personality, and the epic failure of Tribal Opera threw him into a dark stretch of years, when he occasionally intimated he was through making music. Industry folk kept knocking on his door, though, offering production work. Sam Phillips enlisted him as subdued strummer side-man for her travelling show. Phillips’ hubby T Bone Burnett gave him the occasional nudge. Buddy and Julie Miller dropped by. As Cockburn’s comment indicates, the people who cared for Heard, cared deeply.

Mark with Sam Phillips at Maxwell's, 1988.

Finally Chuck Long, an old musician friend who became a trained anesthesiologist to pay the bills, approached him with cash in hand, and Fingerprint Records was born, with a renewed Heard entering the studio to record and produce his last, and best, three albums.

Do these albums “crack the code”? Did Mark lay down something that could, and ought, to bring him mainstream recognition?

He has his moments, particularly on the intimate and understated Second Hand: “Nod Over Coffee,” “Worry Too Much,”* “Look Over Your Shoulder,” are examples of the poetry and anxiety of everyday adult life, and have — or ought to have — a deep, universal appeal. It remains an album I regularly reach for, and the one out of all of his that I recommend without reservation.

As for the other two, I’m not so sure. They are both heavy with Heard’s jeremiads, some of which have aged better than others. They are, for the most part, well-served by his characteristic shift of focus to the personal. But I suspect their appeal, deep as it is, reaches to the hearts of listeners who are intimately familiar with the tradition he comes from: we who consider ourselves Post- or recovering Evangelicals.

I wish it were otherwise, but there it is. I still miss the guy something fierce. Come August 16, it will be 22 years of wishing he were still alive to say something about these seemingly entropic times we live in.

*Buddy Miller's cover is highly recommended.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Recent Viewing

I recently watched Escape From Tomorrow, in which a straight American middle-class male plays out his mid-life crisis within a Boschian theme park.

"Arms inside the vehicle at all times."
At the time of its release, there was some concern that the physical feat of the movie — shooting the bulk of it on-the-sly at Walt Disney World, inviting censure from Disney's lawsuit-happy copyright trolls — would eclipse what filmmaker Randy Moore was actually hoping to achieve with the film. From the looks of Metacritic and the (increasingly-suspect) Rotten Tomatoes, that fear appears to be well-founded.

"All that sneaking around. And for what?"
I loved it. Moore's surrealist aesthetic brings to mind early David Lynch, and the later, more accomplished films of Guy Maddin. Like Lynch and Maddin, Moore draws narrative tension by exploring the chasm between the deepest and darkest desires of a man, and the object(s) of said desire, framed within an environment seemingly manufactured to inflame, subvert and potentially ruin the protagonist.

So yeah: Lynch, Maddin. But the film I found myself most frequently drawing comparisons to wasn't by either of those guys. No, the film that came to mind was Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder

"Wait a minute: what's that you say?"
In fact, I re-watched the latter, just to see if I was off-track. I'll acknowledge it's a bit of a stretch, but not so far as one might think.

"Where we goin'? Who knows?"
But that will have to be a post for another day, as the usual summer distractions are keeping me from the keyboard. Please stay tuned.