Saturday, August 15, 2015

Big bands: Zappa and ELO

Two classics for you in a short post before time's up for the current theme:

I've posted more than once here about FZ and still - 40+ years on - revere the irreverence of Overnight Sensation. Zappa led a band large enough at most times to qualify for our theme's (6 or more band members) limit. And more. The man composed/orchestrated for the band. I've read that he could write musical score as fast as it came to his head - I imagine a scene from Amadeus where Mozart is scribbling away as he explores harmonic options. Yes, a certain amount of drivvel emanated from Zappa's musical mind. (Sheik Yerbouti maybe?) At any rate: Big Bands idea number one: my favorite Zappa orchestral work, from Hot Rats - well, not this version.
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As I postponed, delayed and thought through the Big Band theme possibilities, I found myself wandering back in the disco '70s. Alongside Fleetwood Mac and Steve Miller, there was the Electric Light Orchestra. Aka Jeff Lynne's ELO. Like many other Big Band candidates, ELO varied in size from year to year, with wind and string instruments/musicians in addition to Lynne, Roy Wood and Bev Bevan as staple/founding members.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Big Bands: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band--Land of Hope and Dreams/Born to Run

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[purchase the Live in New York City version]

I was on vacation in Nashville last week and was mulling over another possible post on this theme, when my wife, daughter and I watched Jon Stewart’s last show as host of The Daily Show. The broadcast ended with a performance by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band of “Land of Hope and Dreams” which segued into the triumphal end of “Born to Run.” As I was watching, I realized that there were a lot of musicians up there playing and it became clear what I was going to write about.

First, a confession. For some reason, I didn’t start watching Jon Stewart until probably the end of the second Bush administration, and I have no real excuse. I was in the habit of watching the local news at 11, which I came to find awful, mostly fires and dumb stories, with sports and weather that I already knew from the Internet. I’m pretty sure that my wife suggested that we start watching The Daily Show, and I became hooked. Stewart, whose brother was a college classmate of mine, but who I didn’t know, and who was a bartender at the great Trenton punk club City Gardens after I stopped going there, was brilliant. Also, he is a soccer fan (and former player).

I’m not going to try to give a serious critique of the show, but it was funny, smart, and ruthless in pointing out hypocrisy, stupidity and bias in the media and politics. So many nights (and occasionally the next day, when we fell asleep during the show and watched it on our DVR), my wife and I would remark about how incredible the show’s researchers were in finding exactly the right clips to make someone look foolish, disingenuous or worse. Or how Stewart had cut directly through the crap to get to the truth. The guy legitimately changed opinions, opened eyes and held feet to fire. Whether or not you like the current office holder, when the President calls you a “national treasure,” it is pretty amazing, and not at all hyperbole. Beyond that, Stewart surrounded himself with talented performers, most, if not all of whom showed up for the finale. As a number of commentators have noted, The Daily Show alumni are exceeded in talent and success only by former Saturday Night Live performers.

Ending the show with Springsteen, a fellow Jerseyite and liberal, was perfect. On stage that night, other than Bruce, were his wife, Patti Scialfa on acoustic guitar and vocals, original E Street Band bass player Gary Tallent, long-time members Max Weinberg on drums, Roy Bittan on keyboards and guitarists Steve van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, saxophonist Jake Clemons (nephew of original member Clarence), violinist Soozie Tyrell and keyboard player Charles Giordano. That’s 10 members, a pretty big band.

The choice of songs was also right on point. “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which Stewart requested, is a song of optimism, hope, and inclusion, a vision of a better place, filled with sunlight, hope, dreams, where everyone--saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores, gamblers and lost souls—have a place. And just when you thought it was over, the band kicked into the end of “Born to Run,” Springsteen’s signature song, which, even 40 years after its release, is still moving. As Springsteen has said, “The song transcends your age and continues to speak to that part of you that is both exhilarated and frightened about what tomorrow brings. It will always do that – that's how it was built." Stewart was, at heart, an optimist, who used his brashness, sarcasm and biting wit, in an attempt to argue that the greatness of America (and the world) can be realized when informed citizens pay attention to those who want to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes so that they can take advantage of the darkness.

One article about the finale noted that Stewart brought to the show “a sense of mission. And, very simply (and hopefully), that mission was to make things better.” The article further pointed out that the finale was able “to convey that feeling of optimism without sacrificing the show’s central idea that the mission isn’t over, all in the shape of a joyous party.” But prior to the party, and the Boss, Stewart concluded the substantive portion of the show with a final rant about “Bullshit,” mostly the “more pernicious bullshit. Your premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract.” The type of bullshit that Stewart clearly believed led people away from the hope and dream of the best country or world that we could be. The rant concluded with Stewart admonishing his audience to be wary—“So I say to you tonight, friends, the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.”