Monday, October 24, 2005

Debuting in the Journal tomorrow

Tomorrow (Tuesday) I have my first piece in the WS Journal. It is an “Off The Beaten Track” column in the Personal Journal section about bike riding in Beijing. It is a very dense 350 words and certainly not my most poetic effort, but I am excited about it.

I have so much more to write about, but it is getting late and I don’t quite have the juice to give it a go today. But I need to go into a little discussion about the ethics and logistics of being a professional critic. It is prompted by a few things, but primarily the righteous anger of my good friend, Art Rummler. Art and his wife Claire went to see Paul McCartney last week and loved the show. They picked up the Chicago Tribune the next day and saw that reviewer Greg Kot was less than enthused. Art wrote him the following letter:

Twenty-thousand people go to a show. The artist gives them what they came for and more. Generations of fans sing, dance, laugh and cry. 19,999 leave happy. One leaves with a chip on his shoulder. Thanks for nothing, Greg Kot. Your review made the garbage instead of my scrapbook.

Cutting edge? McCartney was cutting edge when you (and I) were in diapers. Ragging on him for giving the fans what they want; what point is there to that? Do you really think that anyone in the audience (besides you) thought the show was boring? Or did we just need someone of your "talent" to tell us what we
eally saw and how we should really be feeling?

You missed the story completely. McCartney is 63 years old, played for 3 hours and demonstrated the same skills that made him a superstar some 40 years ago. The show transcended generations with kids, parents, even grandparents coming together to see and hear a living legend. His music has entertained and inspired musicians around the world. But yet, you choose the contrarian view.

My guess is that years of free tickets, A/R freebies and back stage passes has jaded you to the point of extreme ennui. Too bad. Maybe you need a break, become a regular fan again, or in the words of Paul, "Get back to where you once belonged."


Take that Greg Kot. Don’t mess with Mr. Loud!

Kot actually responded to Art, as such:

On the contrary, years of concertgoing has helped make me a better listener. it's also raised my expectations of what an excellent show should and can be. I get paid to draw on that experience and offer my opinion. it's just an opinion, and it's not formed out of spite or malice or ill-will. I think McCartney is a brilliant musician and performer. I think he gave a brilliant show in 2002 at the united center. overall, I've seen him six or seven times, and I know quite well what he's capable of, when he's "on" and when he's on cruise control. he can put it on cruise control, and still please the fans who love him and love the songs. again, it's my opinion, and it's not intended to, nor should it, detract from the experience of those who attend. but i am obligated to write what i see and hear, whether it pleases the fans and the performers or not.

Now, this is an interesting dialogue to me. I've seen the Allman Brothers band at the Beacon Theater dozens of times, for instance, so I have a wider source material to draw from in assessing how good a show was, for instance. But if I review the concert for a general audience, is it realistic to hold it up in relation ot he best I've ever seen? I don't think so, though it would be for an allmans fanzine.

I am actually being somewhat attacked by some GW readers for being too nice in a current review of Trey Anastasio’s solo CD. If you don’t know, Trey as the frontman of Phish, the band with phantical fans which he broke up last year. This is his first CD since then and it has been more or less met by dismay by Phish fans, whom I would say are just out for blood because they consider Trey their John Lennon and Yoko Ono all rolled up into one – the hero as well the villain in terms of the breakup.

So some of these guys online, on the GW message board are questioning me about what the hell I was thinking more or less. So it did make me stop and think, “Was I hyped? Was I a Pollyanna? Or is this a good album?” Now, I do think I started listening to it in a positive frame of mind for two reasons. I had interviewed Trey about something else briefly and got his take on what he was trying to do. And I discussed it with Brad Tolinski, who heard the CD before me and was very positive about it. And Brad is highly critical. So I would say I got the CD ready to like it. But now 6 weeks later, I pulled it out and listened again – and I still like it. Whew.

If you’re interested, here’s the review, which is in the Holiday issue of GW, on newsstands now.


***1/2
Trey Anastasio
Shine
COLUMBIA

On his first album since disbanding Phish over a year ago, Trey Anastasio has left behind many of the more cerebral aspects of his old band’s music, including an emphasis on sheer musicianship and odd time signatures. He instead invests his creativity into packing relatively compact songs with interesting, subtly subversive elements. The result is a mainstream rock album with depth, focus and a subtle late-era Beatles fascination. While it lacks the excitement and adventurousness of early Phish –how could it not? – Shine also avoids self-parody and bloat, both of which were a constant danger in Anastasio’s famed jam band, especially in recent years.

Faced with establishing his own identity and voice after being the face of Phish for 20-plus years, Anastasio opted to go truly solo. Producer Brendan O’Brien is the only consistent partner, playing keyboards, bass and some drums. Drummer Kenny Aronoff powers seven tracks and a few other people help out, including some members of Anastasio’s touring band, 70 Volt Parade. But Shine is clearly Trey’s show. The result is a strongly personal statement that avoids the one-man-band pitfalls of sterility and stiffness.

Writing all his lyrics for the first time in his career, Anastasio largely favors optimistic, relatively straightforward messages about shining lights, liberating love and sweet dreams. He sounds fully invested in every word he sings, which lends the music urgency and intimacy and helps make Shine the most polished and complete collection of songs Anastasio has produced since Phish’s ‘96 album Billy Breathes. Nothing sounds like a snippet of an extended jam or a hurried studio composition, as did many songs on latter Phish projects, and only “Black” fails to lift off. The rest of the songs move inexorably forward, energetically propelled from one to another, often connected on an almost subconscious level by a driving acoustic guitar track.

There are few guitar fireworks on the album, with Anastasio’s crisp and tasty playing serving more as seasoning than the main course. You will certainly recognize his fretwork on tunes like “Black,” “Wherever You Find It” and “Come As Melody”, which explode in orgasmic solos. Elsewhere, however, the guitar tends to serve the song as a foundation rather than a centerpiece, with lead lines popping up as fills and fade outs, rather than leading the charge from chorus to chorus. And that’s fine; Anastasio doesn’t have anything left to prove in the guitar hero department.

The CD blasts off with the hard-strummed acoustic of the title track, a toe-tapping blast of gospel-tinged aural sunshine, which was derided as fluff by Phish phreaks almost as soon as Anastasio introduced it in concert last summer. No wonder he felt like he needed a new start; with friends like that, who needs enemies?
“Tuesday” follows, kicking off with a lattice work of guitars working counter to a pumping bassline before opening up into a catchy, straight-ahead rocker fueled by chiming guitars and a surging chorus, which fades into the delicately fingerpicked acoustics of “Invisible,” a swirling soundscape of vocal tracks and guitar lines. Nine songs later, when the CD fades out with the last swaying chords of “Love That Breaks All Lines,” it’s hard not to think that Anastasio is precisely where he should be right now. Given his restless energy and prolific nature, where he goes next is anyone’s guess. But Shine provides ample reason to keep paying close attention.