Friday, May 23, 2008

American Idol finale Pt. 2

Let's hear it for the rocker, David Cook!

It's about time a non-R&B, non-female, non-pop singer won. I figured Archuleta's legion of teen and tween admirers had made him a shoo-in. Wasn't even close. What a surprise.

I have to admit this year's "Idol" finale was far better than 2007, as well as "Idol Gives Back" a month ago. I actually liked most of the special guests, from Seal, OneRepublic and Jonas Brothers to Bryan Adams, ZZ Top, Donna Summer and George Michael.

Now if only they could have cut the extended promo for Mike Myers' new movie and the doctored Gladys Knight & the Pips TV clip from the '70s (a more subtle movie tie-in for the summer flick starring Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller).

At the top of the show, Ryan Seacrest announced the winner had bested his opponent by 12 million votes - surely the result of several news organizations' grousing about how "Idol" producers never make the final results public during or after an elimination.

And all that irrelevant talk about how "Idol" was down in the ratings this season (like most shows were after the writers' strike)? The finale was the third highest watched ever.

Someone wrote an article earlier in the week about how there was no drama and no interesting characters this season. I'm sorry, but I'd rather watch talented singers than a "character" like Sanjaya who gets by on his supposed dreaminess factor. Jason definitely filled that role.

Another writer groused about the older mentors like Neil Diamond and Dolly Parton and suggested all the mentors be whoever is at the top of the charts. Gwen Stefani sure didn't have much to say a season or so ago. Mariah Carey wasn't much better. Like one of the producers said, not everyone has a varied body of work that can be mined by multiple singers.

I hope Cook has a successful career a la Chris Daughtry. He definitely has that in him - that is, unless Clive Davis of J/BMG Records makes him too pop. We'll see.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

American Idol: The Final Showdown

Welcome to the Boomtown! Ever since The Davids were announced as the final two on "American Idol," I couldn't help thinking about "Boomtown," a mid-80's hit by David+David.

All the boxing metaphors last night got a little old after about 10 minutes. Talk about padding the hour with nonsense. How about getting rid of that stuff, sell fewer commercials and actually let the contestants sing a song in full? What a concept!

Among the songs they picked, Cook really nailed U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," while Archuleta was just so-so on Elton John/Bernie Taupin's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me.

The kid (no, he's not quite a man yet, despite Seacrest and others' descriptions of "these men") needs to get his emotions in check. I thought he was going to pass out while listening to the judges' critiques. What is he going to do if he wins tonight?

Contrary to the judges opinions, Cook also did a wonderful job on Collective Soul's "The World I Know." A nice touch when he played guitar.

As expected, Archuleta (or his domineering father who was banned from backstage a few weeks ago) conveniently excised the lines "Imagine there's no heaven/It's easy if you try" on John Lennon's "Imagine." Why? Apparently because he's from Utah and a Mormon. Well, if you get to choose your own song and object to the lyrics - DON'T SING IT AGAIN! The arrangement was wretched and he keeps ignoring Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's advice to open his eyes while singing. I hate it when I watch a performer and their eyes are closed most of the time.

I have a feeling all the teenage girls are going to lead Archuleta to a win tonight. No matter, all the top 12 contestants usually end up with a record deal anyway. Someone who didn't even make it to the Hollywood round got signed by Warner Bros. recently.

Wonder who the special finale guests are going to be and whether they'll be some awful pop fluff...

Friday, May 9, 2008

American Idol song choices

I discovered today that David Cook's choice of the Duran Duran song on "Idol" came from the RnR Hall of Fame's list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll," not the inductees. I wasn't even aware of the list until I read it on the rock hall's web site.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A popular art installation at Coachella 2008

As Death Cab for Cutie's Indio set wound down on April 26, I had a chance to talk with Christopher Janney about his audio architecture - one of many fascinating art installations at the recent Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

After walking through the gates to the Empire Polo Field grounds, I was immediately struck by Janney's Sonic Forest.

Making its West Coast debut after previously gracing Bonnaroo and England's Glastonbury and Download music festivals (2005-2007), the "forest" consists of 16 blue poles (each with four sensors) in four rows. Each one had a white light on top and a place marked for people to put their hands over a hole. Once they did, a variety of nature and percussion sounds emanated at different speeds.

Trained as an architect and jazz musician, Janney started the PhenomenArts multi-media studio in 1980. He has created permanent interactive sound/light installations and performances that attempt to make architecture more spontaneous(Harmonic Runway, Miami Airport; REACH: NY, 34th St. subway, New York) and music more physical (Heartbeat:mb, Mikail Baryshnikov).

A book on his work, "Architecture of the Air," was released in February 2007. Beatles producer Sir George Martin called Janney's designs "a revelation. He straddles the worlds of architecture and music as though they compromise a single sphere."

While seeing concertgoers try to figure out how the forest worked, Janney explained the piece had a "day sensibility and night sensibility. At night, it gets wilder and more raunchy."

"If one person walked through, you'd only hear a bell," he explained. "The more hands there are, sensors tell the computer (a MacBook Pro) it's a crowd and is going to get busy." Then the sounds (birds, wolves, loons, cows, drums, marimbas) expand.

A toddler gleefully runs through the installation as his mother waits patiently.

"It's a communal musical instrument," said Janney, as we watch them. "My goal is to put things in dense urban conditions where you'll find total strangers interacting in places like subways and convention center parking lots."

The sounds run in a cycle. It goes into bell mode during bands' sets, then breaks off into different instruments between sets.

Why paint the columns midnight blue?

"Picasso said, 'when I run out of red, I use blue.' It's intuitive. The design started in yellows and reds, but got too muddy."

When the forest travels to Zaragoza, Spain for the World's Fair next month, it will be colored silver.

"They said they didn't want it to be blue."

The columns are "built mostly out of aluminum - it's gotta be real-world sturdy. We had it at the Donnington Download (Metal) Festival in 2005." Those people "wanted to break it and kick at" the installation. "If it can survive that, it can get through anything."

When musicians were rehearsing for Coachella, Janney said Jack Johnson and his band came over and tried out the forest. "It expands people's horizons...and creates a painting in your mind to where you think you are."

American Idol results show

Hallelujah! I didn't think Jason Castro (or as I referred to him - this year's Sanjaya) would ever get cut from the "Idol" competition. Simon was right Tuesday when he said, "I think you'd better start packing your bags."

After the viewer call-in question about what has been the biggest challenge this season came in, Castro answered, "getting the brain working." That just said it all, didn't it?

The more I hear David Archuleta speak in the "Idol" taped segments and chats with Ryan Seacrest, the more I think he's immature for his age (17). The "Idol" producers are going to have to put him through major interview training if he makes the top 2 and before he goes on the summer tour.

Archuleta has a good voice, but apparently his overbearing father pulls some major strings on this puppet.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

American Idol Watch 2008

First up, I have some overdue comments about last week's "Idol" shows.

As much as I enjoy Neil Diamond's music, I don't think he was the best mentor to the contestants. That honor would have to go Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who I anticipated being a boring mentor. Yet he actually gave the performers some good advice (telling David Archuleta to open his eyes more while singing, for example) instead of just "I think they'll do just great."

Jason Castro
should have been cut last week (actually this mediocre singer deserved to go home several weeks ago and is skating by on looks and some kind of charm alone). I must be the only one who thinks white guys looks ridiculous in dreadlocks (the bassist in Nada Surf, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers).

Brooke White was iffy on "I'm a Believer" and her take on "I Am, I Said" didn't fare much better. So she was justfiably cut. Why everyone is so down on Syesha Mercado is beyond me. I think she has a good voice and stage presence.

Now onto this week.

Having the contestants choose songs from the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame was a little vague. Obviously they weren't relegated to inductees. I'm a huge Duran Duran fan, but they haven't been inducted yet (they were eligible in 2005 and I feel will have to wait a long time considering most members' disdain for New Wave).

So David Cook choosing Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" was a bit puzzling. I loved the subtle edge he brought to it though. Tackling The Who's "Baba O'Riley" was more of a challenge (especially whittling down the original's 5:00+ running time down to 1:30) and he did it well.

Syesha also aquitted herself fine on Sam Cooke and John Fogerty (via Tina Turner) covers.

Archuleta did a good job on his Ben E. King and Elvis Presley songs.

Castro flubbed the lyrics on Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" was awkward at best. He NEEDS to go home this week.

Finally, a pet peeve of mine: Ryan Seacrest wouldn't have to rush things so much when everyone does two songs in an hour if there weren't so many darn commercials.

Last night, the judges bantered more than usual when Syesha strangely started crying over the sentiment in "Change is Gonna Come." Then Ryan said, "guys, we need to wrap it up, 'Hell's Kitchen' is about to start." I got a good laugh out of that. Going to a break after each singer is totally unnecessary. And if there were fewer commercials, maybe they could actually sing an entire song. Imagine that - a 4:00 song on "Idol"!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Stagecoach Country Music Festival 2008 review

Yesterday I was back at Empire Polo Field for Day 1 of the Second Annual Stagecoach Festival. The crowd skewed older than Coachella. People tended to bring their whole families (kids and grandparents too). Some stayed overnight in RVs for the entire event. There’s reserved seating in front of the Mane Stage and folding chairs are allowed inside the grounds. It’s an altogether different, more relaxed vibe.

Shooter Jennings provided the musical equivalent of a shot of whiskey with his potent outlaw country tunes on the Palomino Stage. Waylon’s son moved from guitar to keyboards during a 35-minute set highlighted by a fiery “This ‘Ol Wheel” from latest CD, “The Wolf.”

The smell of the BBQ Cook Off wafted through the air as I made it back to the Mane Stage for Coachella Valley resident Shelby Lynne’s bizarre performance. Apparently no one told her there was a large reserved VIP section located directly in front of the stage (price for all three days of Stagecoach: around $500). She was ticked off at the sea of empty seats at 5 p.m. (VIPs always arrive fashionably late), raised a middle finger and said, “F*** Stagecoach.” Now distracted, the rest of Lynne's sedate set suffered. Tunes from her current Dusty Springfield covers collection (“Breakfast in Bed,” “I Only Want to Be with You”) proved pleasant, yet unassuming. The band picked up the pace at the end for “Jesus on a Greyhound.” By then, it was too late to salvage things.

Trisha Yearwood was a complete contrast. Gracious to be at the event, she exuded class all the way. Her honeyed voice was in fine form whether it was belting the title track to latest disc “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love,” big country hit “She’s in Love with the Boy” or “How Do I Live” (from the film “Con Air”). Unfortunately, hubby Garth Brooks didn’t appear for a duet.

Taking the Mane Stage 15 minutes late, John Fogerty concentrated on CCR material as well as a handful of lively solo songs. The energetic performance saw the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer working the entire stage and doing some impressive guitar licks. His excellent backing band was anchored by veteran drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp), guitarist Billy Burnett (Fleetwood Mac), a fiddler and backing singers. Among the many standouts: “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Proud Mary,” “Fortunate Son,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” “The Old Man Down the Road” and optimistic new tune “Don’t You Wish it Was True” (from last year’s “Revival”). Fogerty got a rousing response from the totally inebriated crowd.

Earlier this year, The Eagles (pictured, above) won their first country music Grammy Award and scored their first country hit with “How Long.” Appropriately enough, the band opened with it on Friday night. More new songs from successful 2007 comeback album “Long Road Out of Eden” frontloaded a nearly two-hour set (“Busy Being Fabulous,” “I Don’t Want to Hear Anymore,” “Guilty of the Crime”).

The crowd went nuts when “Hotel California” was dispatched early (ousted guitarist Don Felder was sorely missed on the double neck). Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh proved those heavenly group harmonies have remained intact, especially during “One of the These Nights,” “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

There were several strong numbers from “The Long Run” - namely the title track and “Heartache Tonight.” Walsh's rock chops were prominently displayed on "Life in the Fast Lane." As in the tour stop I caught a couple years ago in Anaheim, I would have traded the solo material from Henley (“Dirty Laundry,” “The Boys of Summer”) and Walsh (“Life’s Been Good,” The James Gang’s “Funk #49”) for some deep album cuts, more hits or yes, even more from the new double album. Henley capped the night, as usual, with a heartfelt “Desperado.”

Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival 2008 review

Last week, I survived the California desert heat at another Coachella Festival. I’ve attended seven of them, either in full or part, since the first in 1999 (it wasn’t held in 2001). Although this trip to Empire Polo Field in Indio wasn’t quite as memorable as previous years, it still boasted plenty of highlights. Here’s a rundown…

Day 1:
Redd Kross, a power pop/punk band championed by KROQ’s Rodney on the Roq since their teenage beginnings in 1980, put on a fun and lively afternoon set in the mid-sized Mohave Tent. Steve & Jeff McDonald excelled during “Switchblade Sister” and “Janus, Jeanie and George Harrison” (from 1987’s “Neurotica”).

Laid-back, afro-beat/rock stylings of buzz band Vampire Weekend impressed, especially on the audience participation number “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” They went down a storm with the large crowd - so large in fact, that people packed in tightly behind me near the soundboard. Between songs, singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig, clad in bright Bermuda shorts, related several songs’ meaning to Southern California or the desert (even if they weren’t written with those locales in mind).

The National put out one of the 20 best-reviewed albums of 2007 (according to with “Boxer.” The Brooklyn-based indie rockers drew a medium-sized audience at the Outdoor Theatre (competition included Goldfrapp and Raconteurs). A setting sun added another dimension to their dark and atmospheric tunes. Matt Berninger’s low vocals recalled Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. He was a riveting presence, bounding around the stage and roaring the lyrics like a madman. The National easily lived up to the hype.

Back together after a nearly a decade apart, The Verve took the main Coachella Stage right before headliner Jack Johnson. The British quartet still possessed the power to enrapture fans with such grand pop and psychedelic-tinged alt-rock songs as “The Drugs Don’t Work” and hit “Bittersweet Symphony.” Leader Richard Ashcroft sounded great (even if he did come off a bit aloof at times like fellow Mancunian Liam Gallagher). And Nick McCabe’s spiralling guitar work was a wonder to behold.

I caught some of the Breeders’ endearingly sloppy set (apparently the jovial Deal sisters forgot to rehearse) on the Coachella Stage. “Divine Hammer” was the only tune I recognized; unfortunately “Cannonball” played as I dashed to another stage.

Another set of twins, the Quin Sisters of Tegan and Sara, followed. Usually, I can only withstand the Canadian duo’s music in small doses due to a tendency to veer into histrionics. But their acoustic-based folk/rock was inviting, especially on radio hit “Walking with the Ghost.”

Jack White and the Raconteurs kicked out the jams on the Coachella Stage, nearly veering into Led Zep territory at times. Yet their songs aren’t nearly as memorable.

Day 2:
“We’re not used to this kind of heat,” said former Clash guitarist Mick Jones (pictured above), as he took off his jacket on the Gobi Tent stage. Then he and Carbon/Silicon proceeded to do a sizzling and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon performance revolving around debut disc “The Last Post.” Jones had a blast joking around with fellow guitarist Tony James (the pair were in the short-lived combo London SS together in the 1970s before Jones went off to the Clash and James joined Billy Idol in Generation X). Jones told humorous stories behind the garage rock-meets B.A.D.-styled songs (“Magic Suitcase,” “War on Culture,” “The News”) - including his family trip to Disneyland a few days before. He called an audible on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and segued into The Clash’s “Police on My Back” during the extended raucous closer, “Why Do Men Fight.”

It was quite a hoot seeing Dwight Yoakam performing Buck Owens covers from his latest CD “Dwight Sings Buck” on the Outdoor Theatre stage. Yoakam and his band were even clad in colorful Nudie suits.

British producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson’s rotating crop of guest vocalists (The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson) during the evening on the same stage definitely made his old time revue style set stand out from the pack. Too bad Amy Winehouse couldn’t make it.

Electronic music pioneer Kraftwerk proved mesmerizing with its old school visuals and sounds straight out of ‘70s Germany. I loved the songs where both German and English words were projected on the main stage’s large screens (“Vitamin,” “Tour de France,” “Man Machine”). It was like being in high school language class.

Prince went on a half hour later than scheduled (no surprise there), then annoyingly began the first 25 minutes of his main stage set showcasing songs he’d either written, produced or sung with others. Morris Day & the Time did “Jungle Love” and Sheila E. sang “The Glamorous Life.” Then it was onto his takes on “I Feel for You” (Chaka Khan) and “U Got the Look” (Sheena Easton). Finally, as midnight approached, he delved into an extended version of “Controversy” and a slowed down “Little Red Corvette,” fell a little flat. Apparently, Prince played for another half hour or so, but I dashed out early to beat the traffic mess.

Other Saturday acts worth noting: Cold War Kids, Portishead (some of the new songs were downright scary; excellent visuals), Death Cab for Cutie (their quiet intensity is better suited for indoor venues), Devotchka (best known for the “Little Miss Sunshine” film soundtrack; I’ll definitely seek out their latest CD).

Underwhelming: Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks (his dry wit was engaging; the jam-style rock, less so - and I was a big Pavement fan).

Day 3:
A good chunk of the audience must have partied down the night before because people were slow to trickle in Sunday. Austin TV opened the main stage with some enticing rock en espanol.

Perennial Coachella act Perry Farrell was back at the fest, this time singing with an electric guitarist, some pre-recorded beats/samples and his sexpot wife on backing vocals/suggestive moves. It wasn’t far removed from his Satellite Party group. Farrell threw in some cool dance-oriented takes on Jane's Addiction (“Stop!,” “Been Caught Stealing”).

Scandinavian alt-pop group Shout Out Louds were pure bliss with music that recalled Belle & Sebastian and mid-‘80s Cure. Highlight #1 of the day.

Nineties British shoegazer group Swervedriver also reunited after a long absence. But numbing guitar squalls and zero stage presence left me cold.

Spiritualized main man Jason Pierce played acoustic guitar in the Mojave tent. He was accompanied by an all-female string quartet and gospel trio and a pianist. It was quite charming once numerous sound problems were ironed out. One Coachella couple even got engaged as a romantic tune was playing.

A difficult decision loomed as dusk approached: take in the always mind-blowing My Morning Jacket and indulge in the spaced out hippie jams or experience Love & Rockets for the first time?

After I watched MMJ’s Jim James & Co. (with M. Ward guesting on acoustic guitar) for half an hour on the main stage (the reggaefied “Off the Record” rocked in supreme fashion as usual and the new songs were very soulful), I dashed over to the Outdoor Theater for Love & Rockets.

The English trio got off to a strong start with their popular cover of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and later treated fans to such radio faves as “No New Tale to Tell” and “No Big Deal.” In between, the attention level waned. I needed to find a decent place to view Roger Waters’ closing extravaganza and split during an extended number featuring dancing animals onstage. Don’t know if they ever did “So Alive.”

Waters’ big production was just as amazing in the huge confines of the Empire Polo Field as it was last summer at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine: stunning visuals, a crisp surround sound mix that startled people around me and a large top-notch band (props to guitarists Snowy White and Andy Fairweather-Low) that gave each Pink Floyd tune a well-deserved richness. “Set Controls to the Heart of the Sun,” “Pigs” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” were tops. Once Waters’ announced a brief intermission before launching into “Dark Side of the Moon,” I made my desert escape.