Sunday, March 11, 2012

Van Halen: 1 March 2012 - Live at Madison Square Garden, New York

Originally published by PopMatters on March 9, 2012 with photographs by Sachyn Mital

If you want to be annoyed by David Lee Roth, there’s plenty to work with. The mincing, preening, gurning original and most recent frontman for Van Halen is one of rock’s most mercurial figures, a court jester in a fallen kingdom. But for all the hits of the Sammy Hagar era – a period Van Halen circa 2012 would rather pretend never happened, thank you – there is no one more perfectly suited to serve as a foil to Eddie Van Halen’s legendary guitar pyrotechnics than Diamond Dave.

At a sold out Madison Square Garden on Thursday, March 1 – the band’s second such show on their tour in support of A Different Kind of Truth – Van Halen blasted through many of the touchpoints of their golden era, weaving in seamlessly four songs from the new album, their first with Roth back in the fold.

The tension between Roth and the Van Halen brothers, Eddie and drummer Alex, has become a long, cautionary folktale, an awkward and terrible period stretching over two decades that’s only worth bringing up again for the umpteenth time because of its total absence on the stage at Madison Square Garden. Eddie always smiled on stage anyway, but he’s positively beaming these days. It can’t hurt that the band’s new album – its first since 1998’s grim Van Halen III, with vocals by Extreme’s Gary Cherone – has been heralded as a genuine return to form. And, sure, it’s hard to imagine anyone not grinning like a loon playing a second sold out show at “the world’s most famous arena” in the early stages of what promises to be a very profitable tour. But there’s also genuine warmth on the stage, so much so that it even manages to break through old stone face Alex.

Another awkward truth which can’t be overlooked is that for all the esprit de corps in the Van Halen camp these days, they’re still trolling through the past without the mystical mullet of Michael Anthony, the band’s original bass guitarist whose vocal harmonies were an integral part of their signature sound for all those years. As with almost anything involving the history of Van Halen, the relationship was fraught with acrimony, and Anthony is nowhere to be seen or heard. Filling in on bass and backing vocals for the past few years is Eddie’s son Wolfgang, an official member of the band. Wolfgang clearly has the chops to perform with Van Halen, and he appeared comfortable in front of nearly 20,000 fans in New York City. Weeks shy of his 21st birthday, Wolfgang has been an official member of Van Halen since his mid-teens, a time when most fledgling rock musicians are fumbling in the garage through a haze of low grade weed and acne medication. To Wolfgang’s credit, he’s not only in his element on stage, but does nothing to deserve any criticism from Anthony purists longing for a “true” reunion.

Being a support act at Madison Square Garden is no picnic, as the vast arena looks empty until it’s close to full. Kool & the Gang, performing without singer James “J.T.” Taylor, might seem a curious choice as a tour opener, but aside from a few ardent rock fans who sit, arms crossed, in protest, they do their job by getting the crowd in a celebratory mood.

Then came Van Halen, with a performance that mostly sounded like it might have back in 1978 or 1984. But let’s get the bad news out of the way first. After a night where proficiency matched energy, they closed with “Jump”, which topped the charts in 1984. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal choice for a finale, and after mostly killing all night it was a total mess, with none of the musicians able to secure a toehold with the song’s signature keyboards, played here as a backing track. It was a disappointing end to a terrific show, and all the confetti and grand prix flag waving couldn’t obscure it.

There were also three solo moments for the band’s old timers. It was inevitable, of course, but also unnecessary. Midway through the set, the rest of Van Halen left the stage so Alex could prove he’s still got it. There is no greater primal thrill in rock & roll than his tribal drums in “Hot For Teacher”, and as he demonstrated later, he’s still more than capable of pulling its complexities off on stage.

Eddie’s solo, incorporating elements of “Eruption” and “Cathedral”, was also undeniably skilled, and probably even more appreciated by the crowd. But at the risk of committing heresy, it would have been perfectly fine being passed over, especially with his incendiary work on songs like “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Everybody Wants Some” still hanging in the air.

Diamond Dave’s solo bit was predictably more puzzling, an acoustic run through of “Ice Cream Man” with pauses to narrate home movies about his dogs playing on the massive HD movie screen at the back of the stage.

But in the end, these are minor gripes, and what the night was really about was those fantastic songs and the performance. Van Halen was always about blending style and substance, and even as they’re older now than they were then, they’ve still got it. Eddie still shreds, Alex still destroys and Dave…Dave is still Dave. His voice is terrific and he’s in unbelievable shape, not only wearing his ass-hugging fancy pants with his version of dignity and grace, but also capably, acrobatically performing every strut, spin, split and kick we all remember from the “Jump” video.

The crowd ate it up with a spoon. Women with overly frosted hair and the dudes evenly split between old rockers, guys who want to be low-level mob enforcers and guys who consider Jason Statham a fashion and lifestyle template. Everybody wants some, indeed. And even 40 years after they first got together in Pasadena, California, Van Halen can still give it to them.

The tour winds across the U.S. and Canada through the end of June.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Kaiser Chiefs: Start the Revolution Without Me

Originally published by PopMatters on March 7, 2012

The path that led to the new Kaiser Chiefs album, Start the Revolution Without Me might not have been fraught with the same corporate tension as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or the threats of legal action and long periods of lethargy as the Stone Roses’ Second Coming, but it’s still every bit as winding.

Kaiser Chiefs have lived inside a Britpop bubble since their debut album, Employment, arrived on the scene in 2005. It wasn’t the first go-round for the Kaiser Chiefs, of course. They began life as Parva, a short-lived incarnation given a quick burial after their record label folded. The band regrouped with a host of impossibly catchy terrace anthems and found themselves the heroes of those who either missed or lamented the loss of the mid-‘90s English aesthetic.

The band has stuck with the formula ever since, tweaking it here and there but ultimately relying on the strengths and weaknesses of their wry pop-craft. In the UK, the plan has seen relatively diminishing commercial returns come the Kaiser Chiefs’ way: 2007’s Yours Truly, Angry Mob was the high water mark on the charts, with both the album and its lead single (“Ruby”) hitting the toppermost of the poppermost. But it sold fewer than a third the amount of EmploymentOff With Their Heads, the band’s 2008 album was produced by Mark Ronson, but did little to stop the precipitous slide.

And so the Kaiser Chiefs responded with a hiatus of sorts; as with many young bands who settle into a record-tour-record-tour rhythm, they found themselves in need of a breather. It lasted more than two years, but was over before anyone realized it might be. Which brings us to mid-2011 and the beginning of the Start the Revolution Without Mesaga.

With little advance fanfare, the Kaiser Chiefs returned with a grand scheme, uploading 20 new songs to their website in early June of that year and allowing fans to create their own albums comprising 10. Other fans would be allowed to peruse those creations, and if purchased, the initial compiler would receive a royalty of one British Pound Note. Members of the band contributed their own compilations, with their royalty going to charity. A few weeks later, an official 13-track release was issued as The Future Is Medieval.

The Kaiser Chiefs had attempted to make inroads in the U.S. before their break, hoping a tour supporting Green Day would bring them legions of new fans. But then they disappeared and the momentum failed.

The Future Is Medieval wasn’t released on this side of the Atlantic, and so with a North American tour looming – including high profile appearances at SXSW and Coachella – the Kaiser Chiefs reassembled some of the 20 songs from 2011 again, added one new one and called the albumStart the Revolution Without Me.

If your album is going to share its name with a film, you could do worse than the 1970 historical parody starring Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland. Loosely based on events surrounding the French Revolution, Start the Revolution Without Me predated the ‘80s rash of switched-at-birth flicks by over a decade and in addition to giving a boost to the powdered wig industry also gave Orson Welles a chance to flex his narration muscles. Whether we’re meant to draw a connection between the film and the album is unclear; it’s tricky enough to consider the songs here without comparing them to prior releases, so contemplating where Charles and Claude Coupé fit into the picture is unlikely to yield rewards.

Listening to Start the Revolution Without Me and forgetting The Future Is Medieval is easy enough because it has the feel of an album proper. The Kaiser Chiefs have sometimes been dismissed as lightweight pop wusses, to which I’d reply, “So what?” Though the radio often tries to convince us otherwise, pop songs don’t necessarily have to feature vocal histrionics or lazy guest appearances from Busta Rhymes. And that’s where the value in a band like the Kaiser Chiefs really lies. Their songs, for the most part, are difficult to not sing along to, no matter how unpopular that might make you during the morning commute.

Start the Revolution Without Me draws its title from a lyric to “Cousin in the Bronx”, a song which opens like the Charlatans’ Clash-lite ode to the city before it, “N.Y.C. (There’s No Need to Stop)”, with the sounds of the streets and police sirens. The song arrives midway through Start the Revolution Without Me, often the refuge to space fillers on other albums. Here, it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks, with the sort of chorus one can imagine a stadium full of faithful fans singing along with, and with a slinky guitar possibly turned up to entice the U.S. market.

On previous efforts, the music of Kaiser Chiefs has seen the message delivered with the smirking vocals of Ricky Wilson and the quirky keyboards of Nick “Peanut” Baines. Start the Revolution Without Me doesn’t get rid of those features, though the guitars of Andrew “Whitey” White and the drums of Nick Hodgson are generally higher in the mix than before. It’s not an unpleasing result, as on “Problem Solved” or “Little Shocks”, which served as the first official taste of theFuture Is Medieval material last year.

Hodgson also emerges here as a lead vocalist, singing the anthemic “Man on Mars” and the heartachy “If You Will Have Me” with enough weedy Lennonesque pathos that the notion of a solo album by a drummer wouldn’t be the worst idea ever. The newest track, “On the Run,” was worth waiting around for, a Frankenstein’s monster created from all the strengths of the Kaiser Chiefs.

If they can’t make a dent in the U.S. market in 2012, the Kaiser Chiefs can’t blame the quality ofStart the Revolution Without Me, a collection that manages to overcome the cobbled-together history of the material to become one of the band’s most complete-sounding collections sinceEmployment. It’s very British with enough American influence in the grooves that it’s worthy of comparisons to other bands who wore that mantle in the past like the Kinks and Blur.

8 out of 10

Paul McCartney: Kisses on the Bottom

Originally published by PopMatters on February 7, 2012

Let’s get the good news out of the way first: Paul McCartney’s new album of old standards isn’t quite as disappointing as Rod Stewart’s “Songbook” series.

Kisses on the Bottom, a… well… cheeky title taken from the lyric of the collection’s opening number, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, originally popularized by Fats Waller and possibly a song which made the young McCartney giggle like a loon when he was a wee lad in Liverpool.

To his credit and sometimes also to his detriment, McCartney has been unafraid in the past of publicly flogging his personal playlists. Never mind that the Beatles often covered rock ‘n’ roll, soul and show tunes alike, but Macca’s solo canon includes two albums of raucous versions of tunes that supposedly made him put grease in his hair and pick up a guitar as a teenager. Here, McCartney is in crooner mode, backed by Diana Krall and her capable band and sticking almost exclusively to the microphone, pictured in the album’s artwork as one of those old-timey models that hangs upside-down and is encircled by a fancy bit of metal wire and was probably caked with Dean Martin’s booze breath.

McCartney has often been tagged as a purveyor of schmaltz, a reputation that he’s at least partly responsible for earning with numbers like “My Love” and “Ebony and Ivory”, the latter a duet with Stevie Wonder so corny it makes Macca’s “Pipes of Peace” seem like a work of great insight and importance by comparison. Wonder is here as well on “Only Our Hearts”, one of just two McCartney originals on the album; the Motown legend doesn’t sing, but instead plays a harmonica solo so uncharacteristically abrasive, I almost used it to file my nails.

Elsewhere, the music is so inoffensive and gently wrought that it’s difficult to generate any enthusiasm in either direction. It proved challenging to accentuate the positive in the cover of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, because it sounds as though it was hastily performed to test the mics and was accidentally included in the final mix. “My Friend the Milkman” has McCartney doing a probably-unintentional Carol Channing impersonation and is possibly even weirder than that looks in print.

It’s hard to completely knock Kisses on the Bottom because McCartney is in love and as history will tell us, McCartney in love makes for a flowery broth. Indeed, some of the songs themselves are quite good. “My Valentine”, a McCartney original featuring tasteful guitar from Eric Clapton, is one of the album’s genuinely captivating tunes. “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)” is also quite good, a lush orchestral number arranged by Johnny Mandel with a breathy McCartney vocal that’s just about as perfect as it’s likely to get here.

McCartney is clearly enthusiastic for the project, wearing the velvet lapels and smoky ambience with a natural comfort. And maybe he saw what Stewart’s done over the past decade-plus and thought he might as well take a crack at it and move a few units in the process. If there’s even a whisper of commercial ambition here, it’s at least a toned-down version. The guest stars are few—Wonder and Clapton, but most importantly Krall—and their contributions seem less a sales gimmick than they could. Yes, the intentions seem mostly pure, and if buoyed by love of the music and of how it expresses McCartney’s own fondness for romance, and if that all sounds way too saccharine sweet for your tastes, it probably is.

As musical interpretations of romance go, Kisses on the Bottom may only get you about halfway there, flowers in hand wondering whether a second date is on the cards, unsure if that’s even what you want at all.

6 out of 10