Showing posts with label Music Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Music Review. Show all posts

June 16, 2017

Midnight Oil Is Back with a Vengeance

Midnight Oil performs at Webster Hall in New York City on May 13.

There’s a unique sense of anticipation that comes right before a band hits the stage. You can just feel it in the crowd, especially in a more intimate space. That excited mood was on full display last month in New York minutes before the return of Midnight Oil to the stage. Fans had waited nearly 15 years for the five Aussie guys to reunite after their abrupt end in late 2002. Standing in the throng at Webster Hall, I couldn’t believe this moment was going to happen. My favorite band was back, and they would prove once again why they’re the best live act on the planet.

Way back in 1990, I visited a local record store with my brother as a 14-year-old that was just getting into music. I’m not sure why, but I picked up a cassette copy of Blue Sky Mining from Midnight Oil. Maybe I’d seen the video for the title track on MTV, but the reasons are fuzzy. Regardless of how it happened, I was hooked on the politically charged music of Peter Garrett, Jim Moginie, Rob Hirst, Martin Rotsey, and Bones Hillman. Within the next few years, I’d snatched up their past work and become a devoted fan. I caught them live in 1993 at the Riverport Amphitheatre in St. Louis as part of a local radio station’s festival. They sounded great, but the giant venue (and some unexcited friends) made it a less satisfying night.

During the 1990s, Midnight Oil spent more time in Australia and slipped out of the mainstream here in the States. They kept releasing albums but didn’t return for an extended tour until 2001 and 2002. I caught them at six club shows around the Midwest during that time, and the concerts were so much fun. During the last few concerts in mid-2002, I did notice that the guys weren’t as excited by the experience. I wasn’t shocked when they decided to call it quits later that year. With Garrett immersed in politics, it seemed unlikely they would officially reform again. The guys might play a few benefit concerts in Australia, but a full tour was a pipe dream.

The marquee for the Midnight Oil concert at Webster Hall in New York City.

The Announcement

February 17, 2017. Sydney Harbour. Midnight Oil had offered hints about an overseas tour, but we didn’t know if it would be extensive. Sitting on a boat in front of local media, the guys revealed The Great Circle Tour — an ambitious trek around the world that would occupy most of the year. Here in Missouri, I could barely hold back the anticipation as I watched the live online feed on my phone. Where would they play? I knew the guys wouldn’t make it to St. Louis, but would the tour dates work for me? I was determined to attend multiple shows if possible, but I’m not in a phase of life for a long trip. With young kids at home, this would be a quick weekend trip to get as much of the Oils as possible in that short time.

My plans crystalized when the band announced a second show in New York. I could fly there and catch two concerts on back-to-back nights on May 13 and 14. I also have friends in the area that had never seen the Oils live, so it was an easy sell. I bought the tickets just a few months away from the concert dates. Questions were flying around in my mind. Would the Oils still be at the top of their game? Garrett is 64, and the other guys are just a few years younger. What songs would they play? I knew it would be fun, but I was trying to keep expectations in check.

The acoustic set for Midnight Oil playing live in New York City at Webster Hall.

Night 1 – The Power and the Passion

Any doubts about the Oils’ return were gone before they even hit the stage. The female trio BOYTOY opened with a solid 30-minute set, and the anticipation just built during the break. When “Waru” from the legendary Warumpi Band blared through the speakers, the impact of this moment really hit me. Without much fanfare, the guys strolled onto the stage to a huge roar. They blasted into “Sometimes”, the type of song that would normally close a set. This choice set the tone for the night; the Oils were going for broke right from the start. The night’s third song was “Don’t Wanna Be the One”, a fiery anthem from 1981’s Place Without a Postcard album. The oldest tune of the evening, this performance hearkened back to the Oils’ early club days.

After a significant career in politics, Garrett is well into his 60s. Even so, you could barely notice as he lumbered all over the stage throughout the night. There were a lot of smiles from the guys, who clearly enjoyed playing together again. Garrett threw some barbs at Trump (including “dumpster”) as expected, but the general vibe was quite positive. He even took a shot at the difficult range needed on “Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something”, which the band hadn’t played live since 1988. Songs like this one built the sense that anything might get a turn in this set.

Hirst grabbed a drum and moved to the front of the stage for an acoustic middle set that lost none of its power. In particular, a stripped-down version of “My Country” made that track from 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon even more powerful. The bass-heavy “When the Generals Talk” morphed into a dance tune while retaining its cynical look at world leaders. The appearance of B-side “Ships of Freedom” also made an impact with its timely look at the plight of refugees. The Oils have a rare ability to discuss complex, tough issues with catchy rock melodies.

The main set closed with a joyous run through some of the band’s hits. After a refreshing “Arctic World”/”Warakurna” combo, Hirst started hitting the water tank and signified the funky “Power and the Passion”. Easily one of my favorite Oils tunes, the early gem included an incredible solo from Hirst as its centerpiece. By this point, the crowd was full of adults in their 30s and 40s (if not older) bouncing up and down like teenagers. Even critic David Fricke from Rolling Stone was singing along and swaying up in the balcony. It’s hard to beat the massive sing along at the start of “The Dead Heart”, but the guys tried with a closing trio of “Blue Sky Mine”, “Beds are Burning”, and “Dreamworld”.

Standing on the floor in the middle of the action, I loved looking up at the balcony to see people losing their minds and singing along. What could be better? In the encore, the Oils even recalled their 1990 Exxon Protest show in New York by covering John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!”. The night closed with the epic call-and-response of “Best of Both Worlds” from Red Sails in the Sunset. How could they top this show? Heading into night two, I hoped the band could at least match this intensity. Amazingly, this was only the warm-up for an even better concert.

Setlist: Sometimes, Bullroarer, Don’t Wanna Be the One, Bedlam Bridge, Stars of Warburton, Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something, Now or Never Land, My Country, When the Generals Talk, Ships of Freedom, Luritja Way, Arctic World, Warakurna, Power and the Passion, The Dead Heart, Blue Sky Mine, Beds Are Burning, Dreamworld. Encore 1: Instant Karma!, Sell My Soul, Forgotten Years. Encore 2: Best of Both Worlds

Peter Garrett and Bones Hillman of Midnight Oil perform in New York City at Webster Hall.

Night 2 – A Dream Setlist

It’s a challenge for me to write about seeing the Oils live without just saying words like “awesome” and “incredible” over and over. It’s even more difficult when describing the second New York show. The first night included eight songs from Diesel and Dust, the band’s most successful album. Even so, I still loved it because they incorporated a variety of eras. Going into this show, I had a mental list of other songs that I hoped to hear. They played all of them. “Progress” and “Redneck Wonderland” were part of that group, and they opened the night. The former was also a key part of the Exxon Protest, while the latter is a scorching title track from the band’s 1998 album. Both set the stage for a more intense and varied performance in night two.

Amazingly, the Oils began their second concert with nine songs that hadn’t been played during the previous night. A highlight was “No Time for Games”, which occupied the early career spot of the show. That song includes a guitar solo from Jim Moginie that was possibly the pinnacle of the entire show. “Only the Strong” and “Read About It” rank among the band’s most powerful anthems, and both appeared during the early segment. The slower Blue Sky Mining tracks “Shakers and Movers” and “River Runs Red” offered a short break from all the mayhem.

The acoustic set again included “My Country”, but it deserved another play given our current political climate. That song connected well to “US Forces”, a stinging 1983 tune that remains so relevant today. This portion closed with everyone singing together on “Kosciusko”, which shifted back to the full band in the middle. It was another example of how the Oils didn’t take the obvious route with songs that already worked. This didn’t feel like a money grab or stale greatest-hits performance. The power emanating from the stage never slipped, and the many setlist changes just added to the impact. The result smashed my already high expectations.

The final run began with “Put Down That Weapon” and “King of the Mountain”, which weren’t played on the previous night. Both could easily anchor a set and show just how deep the Oils’ catalog extends. The last four songs matched the previous night (in a slightly different order), but the hits seemed even stronger on their second appearance. The encore began with “Whoah”, another deep cut that hadn’t appeared live since 1994. A welcome appearance of the more recent “Say Your Prayers” followed, and the classic anthem “Forgotten Years” closed the first encore. I expected the Oils to return for one more song, and I hoped to hear “Hercules”. Amazingly, the guys played exactly that to close the evening. It was that kind of night.

Setlist: Progress, Redneck Wonderland, Tone Poem, Truganini, No Time for Games, Shakers and Movers, Only the Strong, River Runs Red, Read About It, My Country, US Forces, Kosciusko, Put Down That Weapon, King of the Mountain, The Dead Heart, Beds Are Burning, Blue Sky Mine, Dreamworld. Encore 1: Whoah, Say Your Prayers, Forgotten Years. Encore 2: Hercules

Peter Garrett, Rob Hirst, and Martin Rotsey of Midnight Oil perform live in New York City.

Just Getting Started

During the February press conference, the Oils hinted that a new album might happen down the road. After seeing them live, I have no doubts that it could happen. They seemed thrilled to be together on stage once again. More tour dates keep appearing on their schedule, and the variety in set lists has been astounding. It feels similar to the reunion tour for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in 1999 and 2000. Following that glorious run, they entered the studio and recorded The Rising. I could foresee a similar approach for the Oils, though likely on a smaller scale.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying we “need” the Oils because of the awful situation in the Trump era. A recurring theme of their music is the idea that history repeats itself and we must have a short memory, to quote their classic song. The Oils’ message connects in any era where governments and corporations take advantage of people and destroy the environment. I also hesitate to pigeonhole the Oils as a political band. Their songs are powerful statements, but they aren’t just educational pieces.

In simple terms, the Oils are the best live band that I’ve ever seen. The second concert in New York stands at the top of my concert rankings, and I’ve seen hundreds of shows over the years. The power and the passion still rings true 41 years after the band initially formed in Sydney. Four of the five original members remain, and Hillman has been with them since the late ‘80s. The catchy hooks, soulful harmonies, and singalong lyrics come together in a potent mix. Midnight Oil has no equal on the live stage, and there's still more to come very soon. I can't wait.

April 30, 2014

Top 20 Bruce Springsteen Songs

Compiling a list of 20 favorite songs from most artists would be no problem, and many barely deliver enough choices. Bruce Springsteen is something else entirely for me. Tracks might rank below the top 50 yet still are favorites that I can’t wait to hear. Popular singles like Hungry Heart and Radio Nowhere didn’t make it, and even such thrilling deep cuts as Thundercrack and Back in Your Arms fell short. Where could they fit in such a short list? It’s difficult for me to separate studio versions from the live performances, so these picks are impacted by how they play on stage. That’s where Springsteen really shines and finds new ways to enhance familiar tunes. Despite the challenges in formulating this list, it was a blast to give a close listen to so many classics while preparing it.

20. The Rising
Come on up for the rising
Despite having great success with the reunion tour, Springsteen hadn’t released a true studio album with the E Street Band since Born in the USA. This song was a signifier that he wasn’t planning to ride the wave and just play the hits on tour. I grew a bit weary of all the 9/11 connections after the album arrived in every news story, but the title track remains one of the more powerful songs from his latter career.

19. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny
One of Springsteen’s early live scorchers, Rosalita still packs quite a punch in the live setting. It’s a classic party song that captures the essence of what made their ‘70s shows so incredible. Clarence Clemons’ saxophone joins the guitars to take the journey towards greatness in love, or at least with the record company. If hearing this tune doesn’t make you want to dance, you have no soul.

18. Incident on 57th Street
We may find it out on the street tonight, now, baby
On a different note, this ballad is another epic from 1973 with great emotional depth to it. There’s an intense sadness to the story, yet the characters retain hope that something better can happen. They’re heading out in the streets to figure it out, one way or another.

17. Youngstown
My sweet Jenny I’m sinking down, here darlin’ in Youngstown
Beyond having lyrics with the name “Danny Heaton”, this song makes the list because it works so well in its very different studio and live forms. The original from The Ghost of Tom Joad is spare in the vein of that album, but it comes alive on stage. It was a staple of the reunion tour, and the blistering solo at the end is always a highlight.

16. Because the Night
They can’t hurt you now, they can’t hurt you now
This pick is totally about the live performance, which brings such ferocity to a song that came to prominence in a different variation by the 10,000 Maniacs. The piano opening sets up the rousing chorus that remains one of Springsteen’s most emotionally charged songs. It also includes yet another killer solo, which gives Nils Lofgren a chance to really shine.

15. Drive All Night
I’d drive all night again just to buy you some shoes
This is one of Springsteen’s most melancholy songs about a guy who’s lost his love. The character’s willing to do anything to get back with his girl, and the imagery conveys that desperation. Another great Clemons solo supports this mood and delivers quite a gem.

14. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out
From the coastline to the city, all the little pretties raised their hands
Easily one of the most quintessential E Street Band songs, Tenth Avenue Freeze Out is a straight-up dance song that gives everyone a chance to shine. It gained added relevance after Clemons’ death and allowed Springsteen (and us) to come to terms with this loss.

13. Kitty's Back
Ooh, what can I do, ooh, what can I do?
I’m filling the back half with epics from The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle. While I wouldn’t list it as a favorite album, its highs are way up there. Kitty’s Back is a great slow burn tune that ends in a crescendo of excitement. Seeing it live is quite a treat.

12. Racing in the Street
I wanna blow ‘em all out of their seats
Following Born to Run's success, Springsteen was embroiled in a lawsuit with his former manager and wasn’t able to record. The effects of this experience permeate through Darkness on the Edge of Town, and there’s a real sadness to the material. A prime example is Racing in the Street, which offers a gloomy look at a guy struggling to stay afloat.

11. No Surrender
We made a promise we swore we’d always remember
Despite only placing one song in this main list, my appreciation for the Born in the USA album has grown considerably over the past few years. It’s such a great pop album filled with anthems that incorporate Bruce’s rare talents. My favorite track is No Surrender, which nearly didn’t make the final cut. It’s a rousing sing-along that’s a nearly perfect driving song.

10. The Promised Land
Mister, I a’int a boy, no, I’m a man
We’re rolling through the classics at this point, and few rouse up the crowd more than this choice. The harmonica fits perfectly with this mid-tempo tune, which describes the frustrations of a working class hero. The imagery is some of Springsteen’s best, and the character stays upbeat despite the challenges.

9. Backstreets
Stranded in the park and forced to confess to hiding on the backstreets
While the attention goes to the hits from Born to Run, the secret weapon of that album is Backstreets. The fourth track comes right before the title song and delivers a less promising take on the future. The narrator describes exciting times in the dark of the night, yet there’s sadness in every line. The piano melody and Springsteen’s emotional vocals say all we need to know about where this story is heading.

8. The River
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?
Inspired by the life of Bruce’s sister, this somber tune feels so personal. The intimate story of a teen couple whose lives are changed by a pregnancy is brutally honest. When family takes over and the economy goes bad, the excitement of youth is just a fond memory.

7. Out in the Street
Baby out in the street, I just feel all right
One of the most inspiring performances of the Live in New York City special was seeing the entire Madison Square Garden crowd pumping their fists and singing along to this upbeat song. Few things are more fun than joining a mass of strangers to shout “when I’m out in the street!” at the top of our lungs. No matter what’s happening during the work week, we’ll all be stars once the weekend arrives.

6. The Promise
Every day it just gets harder to live, the dream you're believing in
There are many versions of this gem floating around, including the full band song on the Darkness set. My choice is the solo piano song on 18 Tracks. Written during Springsteen’s legal battles in the ‘70s, The Promise is filled with disappointment. It references the more hopeful Thunder Road, yet there’s little sense that good things are on the way.

5. Atlantic City
Everything dies baby that’s a fact
Many fans believe Nebraska is Springsteen’s best work, and it’s hard to argue too strongly against that idea. Even so, only a few individual songs rank up high for me. Atlantic City is an exception and works brilliantly in the full-band format. The raw feelings of the original recording are still there, but they spring to life with the wider instrumentation beyond it.

4. Born to Run
Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run!
What more can I say about Born to Run? I’ve seen it performed in concert so many times, yet I still pump my fist and sing along like it’s the first time. Springsteen took his shot at greatness and made it, and this song was his ticket to the big time. Watching him tinker with producing it in the documentary Wings Over Wheels is fascinating and shows how much he realized its importance. The result is one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

3. Thunder Road
It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out here to win!
Here’s another song that embodies what makes him legendary. It uses his classic imagery of cars, young lovers, and the hopes that life will get better. The harmonica opens this tale and bring a classic feel that eventually gives way to a full-band crescendo of greatness.

2. Badlands
I want to find one place, I want to spit in the face of these badlands!
This Darkness opener comes alive in the live setting. Springsteen plays it at nearly every show, and it can crank up the energy at the start or bring the house down at the end. It remains one of his most engaging anthems despite the hardships in it. No matter what obstacles he faces, the narrator is going to push until he take charge of his life once again.

1. Jungleland
The hungry and the hunted explode into rock'n'roll bands, that face off against each other out in the street, down in Jungleland
Born to Run remains my favorite Springsteen album, and it closes with an epic tale that contains everything that I love about his music. Its ambitions are off the charts, yet it hits right at the heart and doesn’t feel pretentious. When Clemons’ solo takes over and leads us into the final verse and chorus, it’s such a rousing finish to a record that is essentially perfect. This song is number one by a mile.

Here are 10 other worthy contenders that just missed the cut from his massive catalog:

Adam Raised a Cain
Born in the USA
Brilliant Disguise
Candy's Room
Dancing in the Dark
Prove It All Night
Reason to Believe
She's the One
Streets of Philadelphia
Wrecking Ball

What are your favorite Springsteen songs? Where did I miss with this list?

April 23, 2014

Icons: Springsteen & I (2013)

If there was a way to design a movie directly for me, a collection of homemade fan videos about Bruce Springsteen would be high on the list. When you add those clips to exciting live footage from his extensive career, it pushes the project into the stratosphere. There’s little chance that I could analyze Springsteen & I like a normal movie. It would be impossible (and disingenuous) for me to separate my fandom and try to consider Baillie Walsh’s documentary in the normal fashion. Instead, I’d rather discuss it from the perspective of an avid fan that can’t get enough of Springsteen’s music. His resilience in a fickle industry has been remarkable, and he’s showing few signs of slowing down at age 64.

This film includes fan-made clips describing their experiences with the Boss and what’s attracted them to his music for so many years. A middle-aged guy breaks down in tears while even thinking about what those songs have meant to him. It’s clear that people are connecting with the music on a different level, and I can sympathize with that relationship. Men and women of all ages describe a personal bond with Springsteen despite never having met the guy. A young truck driver sees herself in his songs and takes inspiration that it’s okay to do the job she loves despite having a master’s degree. It’s easy to get cynical in the face of such heart, but there’s a genuine love within each participant. 

A connective part of each video is listing three words that describe Springsteen in the fan’s mind. While many cite his genuine demeanor and working-class roots, those wouldn’t make the cut for me. It’s true that his affable personality sells the music on a different level, but it’s impossible for me to know the true guy behind the image of “Bruce Springsteen”. My choices would be “relentless, powerful, and consistent”. What the studio cuts of his songs don’t convey is the ferocity that comes across in the live setting. The songs take on a life of their own, and that soul has developed so many hardcore fans. Some tread the line into obsessive territory, but there’s warmth that helps to mostly avoid that stigma. 

When I think back to my all-time favorite concerts, two from Springsteen would definitely make the list. I was a late arrival to the E Street train and didn’t become a huge fan until after the reunion tour in 2000. That interest was cemented in 2003 by an incredible show at Milwaukee's Miller Park. It was the second time I’d seen them on The Rising tour, and they had such a loose feeling near the end of that run. I had a similar experience in St. Louis near the conclusion of their Magic tour. They played nearly four hours, took many requests from crowd signs, and maintained the momentum throughout the show. Any band can play a long set, but few can keep the fans right there with them for the entire running time. It’s a skill that takes years to master and explains Springsteen’s continued relevance. 

Some of Springsteen & I’s highlights depict impromptu moments on stage that show why he’s charmed so many people. An Elvis impersonator known as “The King” recounts getting the chance to perform “All Shook Up” on stage with Springsteen in Philadelphia. We catch the video of this fun moment while he goes through the surreal feeling of actually singing with his idol. What makes this conversation special is the guy’s wife, who has so much pride in seeing him realize his dream. Another memorable story talks to a man who was dumped right before the concert. He channeled this sorrow into a sign to play “I’m Going Down” and ended up getting a hug on stage from Springsteen. This nightly connection with regular people may seem transparent and part of the act, but it feels surprisingly natural. 

Walsh was wise to include performances that energize the low-key home videos and give added relevance. A couple dances in their kitchen to “Radio Nowhere”, and then the perspective shifts to Springsteen playing the song to a stadium of fans. The older footage shows the rawer side of his work in the ‘70s when the E Street Band was coming alive. When combined with the more recent concerts, it presents a through line from the idealistic rocker to the giant we know today. One participant talks about the power of those early shows, when Springsteen wasn’t a giant face on a video screen. The audio recordings from the late ‘70s are truly remarkable and reveal such promise from a guy who took his shot and won. It’s fitting that the film closes with “Born to Run” with live clips from the past five decades. It may seem corny for everyone to return and thank Springsteen for his music, but that simple message connects so many of us. We’ve bonded at concerts and in our cars over the songs that just never seem to fade no matter where we are in life. Thank you, Bruce. 

July 3, 2013

That Was a Rockin' Show!: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Live in New York City

Bruce Springsteen wows the fans in New York City

There are few bands that I’m willing to spend gargantuan prices to see them live. Those top acts have ticket prices that can go well beyond $100 for seats that aren’t even that close to the stage. I’m more comfortable spending $20 for a club show and having more fun with the experience. The one exception is Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. I’ve seen them seven times as a band and also caught his solo act during the Devils & Dust tour. I was late to the party on Springsteen and didn’t really catch on until after the reunion in 1999. I owned a few albums and his greatest hits, but I didn’t recognize his mastery of the live setting. The turning point happened with the HBO film Live in New York City, which presented 14 songs from shows on June 29 and July 1, 2000 near the end of that tour. The tracks were edited together to feel like a complete set, and it was clear that I wasn’t giving Springsteen enough credit. His four-guitar attack with Nils Lofgren, Steven Van Zandt, and wife Patti Scialfa delivered a sound that expanded so much on the studio versions. The chemistry among the band was remarkable, and I watched my VHS recording off the network repeatedly. When the concert was released as a two-disc DVD, it only enhanced my enjoyment to see this performance with better sound and visuals. It created this obsessive fan almost immediately, and my enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the past 13 years.

Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt sing "Two Hearts"

The big difference between this group and bands like The Who is that they’re not coasting on past glories. Reuniting after more than a decade, the E Street Band is re-invigorated and ready to deliver a house party. The set begins with “My Love Will Not Let You Down”, a B side that's comfortable among the classics. Max Weinberg’s drumming has lost none of his power, and the opening showcases his ability to set the mood. It’s followed by fan favorites “Prove It All Night” and “Two Hearts”, which show the chemistry between Springsteen and Van Zandt. These guys are kindred spirits and work better as a combo. The most interesting early song is a re-working of “Atlantic City” from the Nebraska album. The acoustic recording is expanded into a full band song and works surprisingly well. It’s followed by “Mansion on the Hill”, a more contemplative tune from that record. That tone continues for a remarkable performance of the “The River”, which opens with a mournful solo from Clarence Clemmons. It’s one of Springsteen’s most personal songs and feels relevant in this much-different structure. This willingness to shift from the expected sound brings surprising vitality to even the most recognizable melodies.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band

The centerpiece of every reunion tour show was a four-song blitzkrieg that took it to new heights. The interesting part is that several were not the showstoppers from the band’s heyday. The fun begins with another full-band expansion of an acoustic song. “Youngstown” from The Ghost of Tom Joad becomes so different and includes an incredible solo from Lofgren. Along with having a lyric that mentions a “Danny Heaton” in the opening verse, this song has new life. It’s followed by the old B side “Murder Incorporated”, which the band re-recorded for the Greatest Hits. This guitar-heavy rocker readies the crowd for the fan favorite “Badlands”, which never seems to get old despite appearing at nearly every show. Everyone’s singing along at full force, and that doesn’t stop with the wonderful “Out in the Street”. I dare the cynics to watch these two performances and not be converted. Springsteen has the crowd in the palm of his hand, which makes it the perfect time for an ultra-long version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”. He introduces each band member with major fanfare and turns the concert into a near-religious experience. This may seem like hyperbole, but I can’t stress enough how well it works on stage.

Patti Scialfa in Bruce Springsteen Live in New York City

Live in New York City is remarkable, yet there still a few issues that make it less complete. The DVD release does not include the full concert and provides 11 unreleased bonus songs. Fans had hoped to see the entire July 1 show presented in the proper order, so it was disappointing. When you add this omission to the strange edits in his Live 1975-1985 box set, it makes you wonder what Springsteen is trying to hide. I’m a huge fan but think he missed a wonderful opportunity with this release. The extra tracks are great, particularly the piano song “The Promise” and the emotional “Lost in the Flood”. Another strange aspect was the late addition of “Born to Run”, which feels awkward when placed right after “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”. Up to this point, the set has skipped a few songs but has felt pretty cohesive. It’s a Springsteen classic and a strong performance, but the appearance in that spot reminds us that we’re watching an edited TV presentation.

Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons

This film closes with two songs that were brand new for the reunion tour. “Land of Hopes and Dreams” ended most of the shows and matched the theme about everyone joining together. The repeated uses of “this train” put everyone on board for the future. It’s become a live staple and sets just the right mood for the end of a Springsteen concert. We leave with the controversial “American Skin (41 Shots)”, a mournful tune inspired by the Amadou Diallo shooting. This song premiered during this final run in New York City, but it’s about more than a single event. Springsteen uses the killing to talk about this country, and it’s a stunning track. Its placement in the actual show was much earlier, but the move to the end makes sense. It stresses the importance of this performance and concludes the celebration on a somber note. Even though we’re having a house party, we can’t forget the challenges that exist as this country enters the 21st century.

June 28, 2013

That Was a Rockin' Show!: Midnight Oil – Black Rain Falls (1990)

Peter Garrett in Midnight Oil - Black Rain Falls

“If you’ve been trapped in your building all morning, with a window that never opens, come and stand under this tree and understand what this argument is all about…” – Peter Garrett

When I’m asked to name my favorite movie, it’s a challenge because there’s no clear answer. My response can change depending on my mood. This isn’t the case with music. There’s only one band that stands as the king of the mountain. That group is Midnight Oil, five guys who are so much more than a protest act. This incredibly talented Australian rock band is unfairly given the dreaded “one hit wonder” label. Peter Garrett, Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey, and Bones Hillman are household names at home but have a smaller but devoted following overseas. They released a long string of great singles during a career that lasted more than 25 years (ending in 2002). Midnight Oil’s most popular tune is 1988’s “Beds are Burning”, but it was hardly their only hit. That classic song made them famous worldwide because of radio play and the popularity of MTV. The powerful image of bald-headed Peter Garrett dancing in the Outback left an impression on viewers who didn’t care about their politics. It pushed Midnight Oil into the spotlight and introduced them to a much broader spectrum of fans. Instead of just participating in rallies at home, they had the chance to speak out around the world.

Following the success of their Diesel and Dust album in the late ‘80s, Midnight Oil released Blue Sky Mining and embarked on a successful world tour. During a visit to New York City, they grabbed the opportunity to protest one of the biggest environmental catastrophes of our time. The Exxon Valdez spill happened in March 1989, and the cleanup did not go well. Angry about this disaster and similar issues, Midnight Oil took to the streets and played a concert in front of Exxon’s New York Headquarters. This show took place on May 30, 1990 and was chronicled in the film Black Rain Falls. Shot in black and white, the footage shows the power and passion of Midnight Oil’s music. They also deliver a killer set that includes some of their best work. The six-song concert offers a perfect example of why I love Midnight Oil and is worth checking out even if you’re unfamiliar with their music.

Rob Hirst and Bones Hillman of Midnight Oil in Black Rain Falls

The set begins with “Dreamworld”, a rocker that takes a bleak view of our future. It’s a signature Midnight Oil anthem that combines sharp hooks with hard-hitting lyrics. The chorus proclaims that “your dream world is just about to end”, and that’s hardly a positive thing. They’re telling us to wake up and realize what’s happening to our natural world. Next up is “Blue Sky Mine”, which provides a biting take on a dire situation for mining workers. Garrett’s harmonica opening is a sharp cry towards the injustice caused by a profit-minded corporate entity. It’s another melodic song, but the resounding question of “who’s gonna save me?” brings a haunting feel. It’s one of Midnight Oil’s best songs and remains poignant several decades after its original release. The surprise inclusion is a rare cover of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” in the middle of the set. Garrett’s singing doesn’t really compete with the original, but there’s enough power in the chorus to compensate for it. Rotsey and Moginie bring the power on guitar and deliver a memorable performance.

Peter Garrett belts out "Sometimes" in Black Rain Falls

The film’s title comes from the lyrics of “River Runs Red”, a somber look at environmental destruction. The slower tune paints a gloomy picture of places we take for granted succumbing to industrial ruin. This leads to the highlight, a raucous version of “Progress” that blows its studio version out of the water. Driven by the phrase “Some say that’s progress, I say that’s cruel”, the song represents the band's mission statement. Technology is moving at a rapid pace, but is it really a good thing? This question is more essential today than it was 23 years ago. The set closes perfectly with “Sometimes”, one of Midnight Oil’s greatest anthems. Garrett takes a tumble while trying to climb up a large speaker, and it perfectly fits with the song's message. “Sometimes you're beaten to the core/Sometimes you're taken to the wall/But you don't give in”. Supported by fast guitars and Hirst’s booming drums, these words deliver an inspiring anthem that injects hope into this experience. It won’t be easy, but perseverance can lead to great things.

Environmental destruction in Black Rain Falls

Black Rain Falls includes the concert along with interviews with the band. It also contains footage of the devastated environment because of the disaster. Even so, there’s a sense that we can save our land if we speak out against this type of wrongdoing. The early ‘90s was still an optimistic time, and that carried into the heyday of the Clinton administration. It seems that even the most idealistic among us has grown resigned to the dire fate of our environment. Despite some minor improvements in recent years, the warning signs remain that we may be irrevocably destroying our planet. President Obama just gave a passionate speech at Georgetown University that pushed for a new focus on the environment, but I wonder if it's too late. Midnight Oil performs in front of a banner stating that “Midnight Oil makes you dance, Exxon makes us sick”. It’s a simple premise and conveys the idea that music can make a difference and change our views. Is that still true today? I’d love to say that’s the case, but it’s probably an overly positive outlook.

Midnight Oil supported Blue Sky Mining with an extensive world tour that left them exhausted when they returned home. Mark Dodshon’s biography of the band ― Beds are Burning: Midnight Oil, the Journey ― describes the toll that stardom placed on the group. They continued to play together for 12 more years and released another four full-length albums. Even so, they never pushed as hard to obtain stardom. I was thrilled to catch them six times during their last U.S. tour in 2001 and 2002. They played clubs and delivered incredible performances that matched their glory days. They didn’t resemble a band heading for their end. Garrett’s political career ultimately sealed their fate when he won a seat in the Australian government. The remaining members have continued to play together, with the core of Hirst, Rotsey, and Moginie forming the surf group The Break several years ago. They may not have the same recognition of acts like U2 and REM, but Midnight Oil deserves to be in the conversation. The guys never strayed from their beliefs and delivered stirring anthems that have lost none of their power to this day.

December 21, 2012

Top 5 Albums of 2012

Putting together any year-end list is tricky because it only represents your exact thoughts at the time. This is especially true with music, where my interests are constantly shifting based on my mood. Last year, I picked Wild Flag's debut as my favorite album of 2011. While it's a great rocker, I've hardly listened to it in a while. Other artists from that year have gained more traction with repeated listens. This year, it's tough because I've yet to hear some of the most highly praised releases like Frank Ocean's Channel Orange and Kishi Bashi's debut. I've tried my best to catch up with the most interesting new music, but there's never enough time to catch it all. With that in mind, here are my favorite 2012 albums that I've heard so far. They're coming from a limited bunch but are all worth checking out.

I'll start with five honorable mentions (listed alphabetically) that just missed the top group:

Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
One of the most prolific artists out there is Andrew Bird, who's released five albums since 2009. His latest is his most engaging record since Armchair Apocrypha and picks up the pace more than other recent efforts. Recorded in his home studio, Break it Yourself mixes catchy anthems with the beautiful charmers that are his signature. Great songs like "Eyeoneye" and "Danse Caribe" stand alongside his best work.

Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
I'm not a huge fan of Fiona Apple, though I've admired her style over the years. I saw her in concert back when she just hit it big, and it was clear she had a lot more talent than most alternative darlings. This album is stunning and shows off her voice and unique approach. The highlight is "Hot Knife", where her vocals take over and create a spellbinding tune.

Guided by Voices - Let's Go Eat the Factory
Bob Pollard got the old band together and reunited Guided by Voices for a triumphant return this year. The anthems and throwaway gems match the feeling of their early '90s heyday. This album doesn't quite reach the status of GBV's best, but songs like "Doughnut for the Snowman", "The Unsinkable Fats Domino", and "Spiderfighter" are right there. GBV! GBV!

Imperial Teen - Feel the Sound
The sweet pop sounds of Imperial Teen might sound like they're coming from a young band, but they've actually been playing together for more than 15 years (with some breaks). Feel the Sound is their first album in five years, and it's been worth the long wait. "Runaway" is one of the classic sing-along songs of the year, and that energy pervades the entire album. It's a bit top-heavy yet keeps the pace moving enough to make it an exciting listen.

Passion Pit - Gossamer
Judging by the fact they're headlining the local "alternative" radio station's big anniversary concert in February, Passion Pit have definitely hit it big. Their new album is more accessible than Manners but retains the pure joy of that exciting debut. Michael Angelako's voice is the star, but it only works with the right beats. It's clear from the start with "Take a Walk" that the sound is smoother yet has the general feel of their past work. The tunes have great pop melodies but never feel like they're pandering to the masses.

5. Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
Some albums grab you and never let go after the first listen, while others take longer to really grab hold. When I first heard the Alabama Shakes, I enjoyed their retro-soul approach but wasn't blown away. The more I listen to Boys & Girls, the stronger it gets for me. It's a great album to throw on in the background at home and just enjoy. Brittany Howard's voice pulls from a variety of familiar sources, but it stays unique because there's so much power from the vocals. From the first few notes of "Hold On", it's clear that Howard is baring her soul for the music. While this sounds like a cliché, she rarely strikes a false note and elevates their Stax-inspired sound to a different level. When the band slows down, her voice really shines and keeps us engaged before they drive into another scorcher.

4. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Since he reunited with the E Street Band in 1999, the attention on Bruce Springsteen has mostly focused on his incredible live performances. Few list The Rising, Magic, and others among his classic records from the '70s and '80s, yet all have excellent songs that stand out at his concerts. The same is true of Wrecking Ball, which includes a strong core of great tunes. The title track is one of Springsteen's best in years, and selections like "We Take Care of Our Own", "Death to My Hometown", and "Shackled and Drawn" are right there with it. There are a few less memorable songs that bring it down a bit, but there's still plenty to enjoy. The live staple "Land of Hopes and Dreams" sounds re-energized in this studio version, and everything really comes alive in the concert setting. I caught up with the E Street Band in Kansas City in November, and it was one of their most impressive shows that I've seen.

3. Bob Mould - Silver Age
I haven't kept up with Bob Mould's solo career recently as he's veered into different territory. I picked up his latest album on a lark and was stunned to discover how much I enjoyed it. While it resembles Sugar albums like Copper Blue, there's a vitality that's missing from many rock albums. The blistering opening trio of "Star Machine", "Silver Age", and "The Descent" sets the stage perfectly for a very catchy release. Getting support from established players like Jon Wurster doesn't hurt the this superb record. Mould is using a take-no-prisoners attitude and blasting the guitars at their highest levels. The result is a sharp collection of foot-stomping tunes that keep their energy on repeated listens.

2. Metric - Synthetica
Like much of my list, it's easy to dismiss the latest record from Metric as a '90s alternative throwback. I recognize its connection to that sound, but few other 2012 albums make me happier than Synthetica. I keep throwing it back on and letting the 12 songs roll. Starting with the slow build of "Artificial Nocturne", it barely lets up right to the end. The highlight is "Breathing Underwater", an upbeat pop song with a chorus that sticks in your head and won't go away. The melodic vocals from Emily Haines combine with a hard-hitting new wave sound that feels surprisingly modern. Their Canadian heritage brings a slightly different approach that seems effortless while delivering the goods. I'm really kicking myself for missing them when Metric played here this fall. Their anthems are suited for a stadium while maintaining enough fire to work in a small club. Give Synthetica a try and put it on repeat!

1. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
This is one the best fist-pumping albums that I've heard in a long time. It's impossible to hear the anthems from this Vancouver duo and not sing along. The eight songs clock in just beyond 30 minutes, but it's the right length for this collection of rock anthems. It's not the most ground-breaking music, and I just don't care. These guys bring such energy to the entire record, especially "The House That Heaven Built" and "Adrenaline Nightshift". There isn't a clunker in this bunch. Despite its upbeat style, there's a sense of loss within this material. The lyrics give a feeling that the speakers are beaten down by life and need rock 'n' roll to stay alive. It's on par with early '90s Superchunk while still retaining a modern feel. So let's hit the club, get close to the stage, and holler til' our lungs have nothing left!

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. What 2012 albums should I check out? What are your favorites? You should check out past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

December 26, 2011

Top 5 Music of 2011

Wye Oak

This week, I'm throwing out the typical format and covering my favorite things from 2011. Along with movies, I'll be presenting the music, books, and TV shows that I enjoyed during the past year. We're starting the week looking at music that has received constant play on my iPod. The pool for consideration is only 36 albums, so I know there are many great records that I haven't heard yet this year. The biggest example is The Roots' latest album Undun, which I plan to acquire in the near future. I'd love to hear your suggestions for bands that I need to check out in the near future. Let's look at the picks!


Honorable Mention: Wilco - The Whole Love
Highlights: "Dawned on Me", "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)"
I've been a fan of Wilco since I saw them live just prior to the release of their first album A.M. in 1995, but I'd soured a bit on their music recently. Their last few albums were solid, but they fell short of the stunning run from Being There to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Wilco had become predictable. I wasn't that excited to hear this album, which is why it's such a refreshing surprise. Even straightforward tunes like "Dawned on Me" and "I Might" regain the emotional punch that I've always loved about their music. The album closes with one of my favorites, the epic "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)". The 12-minute tune has a repetitive melody but is a fascinating closer to this resurgent collection.

The Joy Formidable

5. The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar
Highlights: "Whirring", "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie"
I was late to the party with Wales natives The Joy Formidable, who've been building a major following over the past few years. They've released several singles and toured regularly, but this year's The Big Roar was their full-length debut. The album title is an accurate description of their big sound, which uses slowly building guitars mixed with rousing choruses to deliver serious power. From the start with the epic "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie", the album barely lets up through 12 convincing tracks. It all comes together in the hit "Whirring", which retains the distorted sound but adds melodic hooks and vocals to the mix.


4. Destroyer - Kaputt
Highlights: "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker", "Song for America"
I originally knew Vancouver's Dan Bejar from his work in The New Pornographers. I was aware of his work on Destroyer but wasn't prepared to like this album this much. Incorporating the smooth, relaxing tones of '80s pop with a modern lyrical sensibility, Bejar's created one of the most infectious albums of the year. The nine songs glide along for 50 minutes and perfectly grab the feel of hanging in the city late at night at a coffee shop or night club. From the lush opener "Chinatown" through the excellent combo of "Song for America" and "Bay of Pigs (Detail)" to close the album, it's a spellbinding experience.

Bright Eyes

3. Bright Eyes - The People's Key
Highlights: "Shell Game", "One for You, One for Me"
Similar to Wilco, I'd grown less interested in Conor Oberst's last few albums since 2005's I'm Wide Awake This Morning. They were still decent releases, but I didn't feel inclined to listen to them very much. Appearing early in 2011, it was a great surprise and has remained in heavy rotation on my iPod all year. It's still less blistering than his early work, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The spoken word between the songs initially seems like a gimmick, but it actually combines well with the tone of the entire record. Upbeat rockers like "Shell Games" and "Triple Spiral" combine well with slow tunes like "Ladder Song" to deliver an intriguing album that works very well as a complete listen.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

2. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
Highlights: "Belong", "Heart in Your Heartbreak"
I'm surprised that more year-end lists didn't include this stunning follow-up for this excellent New York City band. Their self-titled debut sounded like early Velocity Girl but showed a knack for writing catchy hooks. Belong takes their sound to the next level without losing the pop sensibilities of the first record. Flood produced this album, which is more accessible but in the best way possible. I was able to catch them live earlier this year, and their sound nicely expanded in the club setting. They've already released two great albums, and I can't wait to hear what comes next.

Wild Flag

1. Wild Flag - Wild Flag
Highlights: "Romance", "Future Crimes"
Welcome back, Carrie Brownstein! I was a big fan of Sleater Kinney, so it's refreshing to see Brownstein and former band mate Janet Weiss playing together again. Helium's Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole from the Minders round out the excellent foursome. They may have a great indie pedigree, but does the result live up the hype? The answer is a resounding yes. Wild Flag's self-titled debut is one of the year's great rock albums and barely lets up during a brisk 40 minutes. It's a '90s throwback, but that's a positive because of the group's excellent chemistry. It's a blistering album that keeps rolling right to the end.


More Albums That Just Missed the List (Arranged Alphabetically)
Putting together a list of the best music of 2011 is really difficult, even with the limited selection of what I've heard this year. These albums could easily make my list depending on my mood on a given day.

Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch the Throne
I didn't catch most of the big hip-hop releases this year, so it's likely that I've missed some better albums. Either way, the collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West works because it combines their talents effectively. West's sharp production ear meshes well with Jay'z's rapping skills to provide an entertaining ride.

Moby - Destroyed
You don't hear much about Moby these days, which is too bad since he's till creating great music. This album depicts the lost feeling of countless airports and hotel rooms while traveling, and it's a cool experience.

The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck
John Darnielle continues to kick out excellent albums every few years, and All Eternals Deck continues that fine tradition. "Damn These Vampires" is a classic opener and begins a solid group of 13 songs that falls just short of his best work.


Merrill Garbus' style isn't for everyone, but I found plenty to like with the tUnE-YArDs' second album, which includes bass from Nate Brenner. On interesting songs like "My Country" and "Bizness", they deliver an original sound that's even more impressive live.

Wye Oak - Civilian
For their third album, the Baltimore-based duo Wye Oak deliver hypnotic tunes that make great use of Jenn Wasner's sharp vocals. On "Holy Holy", the title track, and others, they deftly mix dreamy melodies with heavier guitars to deliver a series of memorable songs.