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(Above: Ryan Adams improvises a song about his pet badger at the Music Hall in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 1, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

In a night that covered more than two hours and comprised 21 songs, including hits, rarities and fan favorites, the most memorable song may have been the one that didn’t even exist when the concert began.

Mistakenly hearing a fan’s song request as “My Badger,” singer/songwriter Ryan Adams immediately composed a song about his new pet badger “Admiral.” Containing references to the USS Enterprise, Mariah Carey and “Glitter” and the perils of domesticating wild animals, it was the “Iliad” of improvisation. The song contained four verses, a chorus and whistled bridge. It probably would have featured a drum solo if Adams weren’t the only performer onstage.“My Badger” wasn’t the only spontaneous song during Wednesday’s performance at the Kansas City Music Hall. The off-the-cuff material provided a nice contrast to Adam’s less-than-uplifting lyrics and allowed the singer to poke fun of himself as well. g.”

In the past, detours like those could have easily turned into wormholes that derailed the performance. This current solo/acoustic tour is an artistic showcase. Everything in the carefully crafted song arrangements and selections is designed to display Adams’ songwriting abilities. While Adams is a divisive performer and personality, there’s no question he has chops. A beautiful “Oh My Sweet Carolina” set the mood perfectly. Later, Adams gave a stripped down reading of his post-9/11 hit “New York, New York” on the piano, placing the familiar song in a new context.

For most of the evening, Adams was seated on a chair in the center of the stage with two red, white and blue Buck Owens-style acoustic guitars within arm’s reach. A notebook of song lyrics lay on a monitor at his feet. The low red lighting kept most of Adams face in shadows as he bent over his guitar, delicately finger-picking and strumming.

The setlist contained as many songs from Adam’s first solo album, 1999’s “Heartbreaker,” as his most recent, last year’s “Ashes and Fire.” In a way, the night had the same flaw as the album. Taken individually, every song was exquisite, but together they started sounding similar.

Varying tempos would have helped, but even upbeat numbers like “Firecracker” were slowed down. The songs that best fit the mood were the gentle “Please Do Not Let Me Go” and haunting reinterpretation of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” The sole number from Adams’ days in Whiskeytown, “16 Days,” was another standout.

Although stacking mid-tempo numbers created a steady stream of fans in and out of the theater, those who remained were pin-drop quiet during each song. Between numbers they shouted requests and egged on the singer’s eccentricities. There was nothing that would have converted an undecided listener, but after experiencing two frustrating concerts previously at the Uptown Theater over the years, the devoted finally got what they came for. And then some.

Setlist: Oh My Sweet Carolina; Ashes and Fire; If I Am A Stranger; Dirty Rain; My Winding Wheel; Sweet Lil’ Gal (23rd/1st); Invisible Riverside; Everbody Knows; Firecracker; Let It Ride; Rescue Blues; Please Do Not Let Me Go; English Girls Approximately; Two; Lucky Now; Wonderwall (Oasis cover); New York, New York; 16 Days; Come Pick Me Up. Encore: When Will You Come Back Home?; Sweet Illusions.

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Edwin Starr – “War,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.

Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.

Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.

Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.

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(Above: U2 encourage America to “Walk On” in a live appearance broadcast less than two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.)

By Joel Francis

U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” had been out for nearly a year the morning two planes slammed into the World Trade Center, another collided with the Pentagon and a fourth flight was forced into the Pennsylvania farmland.

Following the trend of “The Joshua Tree” the first three songs were released to huge acclaim as singles. It was the fourth cut, though, that found the greatest resonance. By the time “Walk On” came out in November, 2001, the song had become an unofficial anthem of hope.

When the quartet performed the song live on the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” special just 10 days after the attacks it was prefaced with the first verse of “Peace On Earth.” Written about an Irish terrorism attack, the lyrics were poignant: “Heaven on Earth, we need it now.”

The words that didn’t make the broadcast, but ended most concerts on U2’s then-current tour were just as affecting. As pictures of missing loved ones were plastered on every available surface in New York City, and the names of the departed rolled up the video boards in arenas each night, Bono sang “They’re reading names out on the radio/All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know.”

I had only been to New York City briefly at that point. On our way to Cooperstown, N.Y., to watch my childhood hero George Brett get inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, my dad and I saw Kansas City,Mo.-native David Cone make his first start in Yankee Stadium after throwing a perfect game. He got shelled and after driving in that afternoon for the game we slept at a hotel in New Jersey.

At that time, I didn’t know Battery Park from Battery Island. But listening to Bono sing “New York,” I felt like an honorary citizen. Songs like “When I Look at the World” and “Grace” spoke to my feelings of grief and confusion. Several months later, when Bruce Springsteen released “The Rising” my soundtrack was expanded. That album ended with “My City of Ruins,” the most poignant performance on the “Tribute to Heroes” telecast. As the first anniversary of the attacks rolled around, “Into the Fire” and “You’re Missing” helped quell all the resurfaced sentiment.

If the Big Apple was largely unknown to me, the Middle East was a greater enigma. The only images I had of the region and its inhabitants were those pumped over the news. Surely that wasn’t right. Not all of these people were monsters. They were regular Joes and Janes like you and me, trying to do whatever it was they did to make ends meet and survive, right?

“Passion,” Peter Gabriel’s 1989 soundtrack to the uber-controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” was filled with music from the Middle East and Africa meant to evoke the time of Christ. The instrumental album was my way of relating to the people of Afghanistan and the region that gave birth to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

These albums were my balms in 2001 and 2002. Starting the album when I backed out of the driveway, it took me exactly four cuts off “The Rising” to reach the first anniversary 9/11 memorial service in downtown Kansas City. For more than an hour, Christians, Jews and Muslims celebrated and mourned together. We weren’t three sects, we were one collective.

And then it all seemed to evaporate. The services and events of Sept. 11, 2003 weren’t quite as elaborate. Within a couple years it seemed the only experience available away from the crash sites was a prayer breakfast or moment of silence. In 2007, the day was marked by rapper 50 Cent’s boast that he would sell more copies of his new album than Kanye West. He didn’t.

I have no problem with an open marketplace on national holidays. Johnny Cash’s final album, “American V: A Hundred Highways,” came out on July 4, 2006. I can think of no artist better suited to that day, but his record was merely a window-dressing to the occasion. Heck, I made time on Sept. 11, 2001, to pick up Bob Dylan’s new release, “Love and Theft.”

I take issue, however, when ephemera overshadow history. No one cared about 50’s album. All of its singles had vanished from the charts by Thanksgiving, yet the competition he invented to sell more records eclipsed the anniversary. This year the other artist to release a masterpiece on Sept. 11, 2001, Jay-Z, was going to put out the third installment in his “Blueprint” series on Sept. 11. (Because the album leaked the date was pushed up to Sept. 8.)

A proud New Yorker, Jay-Z appeared at the Concert for New York benefit in October, 2001, and is donating all profits from his Sept. 11, 2009, concert at Madison Square Garden to the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. If anyone gets Sept. 11, it’s Jay-Z, yet on his new album, he reduced the events to a crude metaphor for his prowess:

“I was gonna 9/11 them but they didn’t need the help
and they did a good job, them boys is talented as hell,
so not only did they brick but they put a building up as well
then ran a plane into that building and when that building fell
ran to the crash site with no mask and inhaled, toxins deep inside they lungs”

A friend recently reminded me that American culture doesn’t handle history very well. It can market the hell out of nostalgia, but history is another matter. Dec. 7, 1941, the Day of Infamy, has been reduced to a scratchy FDR soundbite. Memorial Day is for mattress sales. On top of that, the events of Sept. 11 are awkwardly unresolved. Victory has been declared, but not achieved. Were it to happen, no one in America or the Middle East has any idea what it would look like. There are no holidays, my friend said, marking the Tet Offensive or the charge at San Juan Hill. Additionally, Sept. 11 has become so politicized any organized event tied to the day is instantly and cynically scrutinized.

If record sales and a proposed day of community service aren’t the answers, perhaps the best solution is subtle one that’s somehow gone underground and survived: prayer. After all the speechifying, 8:46 and 9:03 a.m., EST, are always observed with a moment of silence. Each Sept. 11, take a moment to converse with whatever Supreme Being you believe in. Spill your guts, pause and listen for twice as long as you spoke. It might not change the world, but it could change your day.

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(Above: Elton John and John Lennon at Madison Square Garden, 1974.
All photos by George Kalinsky, courtesy of www.georgekalinsky.com.)

By Joel Francis

In his 34 years as Madison Square Garden’s official photographer, George Kalinsky has forgotten more games, concerts and events than many people could see in several lifetimes.

Kalinsky, who estimates he has shot more than 8,000 events, can be forgiven for having no memory of Bob Marley’s next-to-last performances in 1978, because what he remembers more than makes up for any lapses.

“November 28, 1974. Don’t ask me how I remember that, but I do,” Kalinsky said with a laugh. “Elton John was playing the Garden, and he surprised everyone by having John Lennon join him onstage. Those three songs they did together turned out to be the last time John Lennon performed before he was shot. The moment I captured won’t be there again.”

Several of Kalinsky’s favorite moments are on display for a current exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “Live From Madison Square Garden: From the Lens of George Kalinsky” opened May 1 in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall and will run through January 2010.

“I’ve always tried to paint with light,” Kolinsky said. “Shooting against a plain black background is not the most creative, but it’s what you usually see. These performers spend millions on lighting and effects. I always try to capture that as part of the atmosphere of the performance.”

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The atmosphere for the Rolling Stones’ Garden concert in 1969 was a frenzy. The show was one of the first arena rock concerts and the pandemonium was captured and released on the Stones’ great live album “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out.”

“That was the first time I saw a buzz, a reaction like that in the audience. Everyone wanted to be onstage and the crowd started gradually pushing forward,” Kalinsky said. “I went under the stage and went on in the back and got some amazing shots.”

Getting the audience’s reaction to the band was the key to recording the moment, Kalinsky said.

“I think a huge part of the story is the people and how they react,” he said. “There may not be too many pictures in this exhibit of the crowd, but I always try to include them. Every audience is different, just as a circus is different from a track meet and hockey is from basketball. The audience is a reflection of the performance.”

The crowd at a 1974 Bob Dylan performance played a key role in a shot Kalinsky called one of the top two or three photos he’s taken.

“Dylan is Dylan, the hair, the body language, all of it connecting and seeing the audience reach out to him is beautiful and telling,” Kalinsky said. “With him, the words are so important; when I look at Dylan I try to capture the aura of the man.

“I want to get a little closer to see what his face looks like,” Kalinsky continued, “and how it shows the years, not in terms of getting older, but the years of performing with the audience and how that bond grows stronger and stronger.”

fullscreen-capture-562009-35709-pmbmpDylan played a key role in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at the Garden. Shooting both of those shows not only taught Kalinsky that music was the true universal language, but showed him how far the Garden’s stage extended.

“I was in a cab recently and the driver was from Bangladesh,” Kalinsky said. “He couldn’t have been more than 35 or 40 years old, but he said in the hearts of his family and friends in Bangladesh they would never forget Madison Square Garden. They weren’t there (at the Concert for Bangladesh), but they’d never forget because that’s where people learned to help his country and family.”

Events at the Garden, Kalinsky said, “become part of our culture and part of our world. It wasn’t long ago we had 9/11 and that concert. Even if you weren’t there, you were there because everybody in the world tuned in to the Concert for New York City.”

What stands out in Kalinsky’s mind from that show isn’t the defining performances from Paul McCartney, the Who and artists with ties to the Big Apple like Jay-Z and Bon Jovi, but a moment backstage with Billy Crystal before he was about to go on.

“I asked him how does he project his talent when the audience is in tears and police and firefighters are holding up pictures (of their missing loved ones)?” Kolinsky said. “He said the hardest thing to do was be funny in the face of an audience who had lost so much.”

Although Kalinsky’s relationships and reputation allowed him backstage that day, he acknowledged access has been almost completely shut down from the early days when he would take pictures of Elvis Presley in the dressing room before his first Garden concert or Sly Stone’s groomsmen getting ready before Stone’s onstage wedding in 1974.

And just as backstage has become more restrictive, the window for taking performance photos has been confined to the first three songs. That doesn’t bother Kalinsky, though, because digital technology and automatic lighting systems within the camera let him do as much with those three songs as he could in an entire show in the days of film.

“However, in terms of taking pictures it always comes down to the eye and the moment,” Kalinsky said. “You have to recognize the moment and snap the picture. This is the most important aspect, whether you are shooting a concert, sporting event or portrait setting. It’s what I’m always looking for.”

Kalinsky’s duties have also given him a window on the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, Knicks games, scores of the world’s top athletes and personalities. This diverse shooting background has provided enough photos to fill eight books and exhibits from the Museum of Modern Art to the baseball and basketball halls of fame.

“The Garden stage, whether it’s Muhammad Ali, the Pope or LeBron James, brings out the best in every performer,” Kalinsky said. “Every day I walk into the Garden I say what a privilege it is to be part of this arena and the best stage in the whole world.”

(Below: A recent portrait of the Red-Headed Stranger.)

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