Concert Review: Dead & Company with John Mayer, 12/28/15


Dead and Company 2

I went to see this concert with an old friend and fellow veteran of Grateful Dead shows. You know, the ones that occurred when Jerry Garcia was still alive. I had seen several of the post-Jerry lineups over the years and it always seemed more like a party featuring Grateful Dead music than an actual Grateful Dead show. So my expectations for this concert were tame, perhaps in part because it seemed a bit odd to pair John Mayer with the Grateful Dead.

These things can get very subjective, like when you think you’ve just seen an excellent Grateful Dead show and your friend standing right next to you the whole time deems it mediocre. But for me, personally, this was the best post-Jerry show I’ve seen.

John Mayer is a revelation. As a guy who’s best known for radio friendly pop rock, it was weird to see him immersed in Grateful Dead music. And when I say immersed I mean he hasn’t just drunk the Dead cool aid, he’s soaking in the damn vat. Welcome to the club, buddy. John Mayer is a total deadhead. Who knew? Visually, it was like the high school quarterback joined the hippies smoking in the parking lot. Here’s your hot new Grateful Dead guitar hero, but with better hair and pretty boy looks. The thing is, Mayer is so into it, he so “gets” the whole Grateful Dead thing, that it works. He injected a youthful energy that you could sense was picked up on by the rest of the band, especially Bob Weir.

As lead guitarist, Mayer had to perform the trick of filling in for Garcia when old school Grateful Dead fans might feel a bit protective of their Garcia memories and view any attempt to “out do” Garcia as sacrilege. How to give it your all in that role while respecting the original guy? The answer, for me, was the most surprising thing of all. It seemed, at times, like the band was tapping into the cosmic flow that you sometimes got at the best Grateful Dead shows. There were moments where the music seemed to take control away from the individual band members, like they’d all done the Vulcan mind meld and were playing as a single entity and channeling the music in from some transcendental parallel universe. Right out of the gate they played one of my favorite songs, The Music Never Stopped, and went into an extended deep space jam during the rhythm breakdown, then snapped back into the groove so quick you didn’t hear it coming.

Mayer also did a good job on vocals, especially sharing with Bob Weir on fan favorite Franklin’s Tower. John didn’t try to mimic Jerry on his vocal parts, and that is a good thing not only to avoid the sacrilege problem, but also because Mayer is a vocal stylist in his own right and actually added some nice fresh phrasing that honored the music while adding his own signature to it. Also, there was this interesting thing he started to do toward the end where he was scat singing a la Ella Fitzgerald. It complimented the music really well.

There was also quite a bit of humor in the second set on the outro to The Wheel, with Mayer leading the band into a gently mocking melodic parody of the song itself, until it morphed into something like the soundtrack to a gaggle of clowns hamming it up at a circus. And there was also quite a bit of what I call metamigorbickle improvisation, with the soundscapes becoming so abstract that they differentiate the Grateful Dead from all the other so-called jam bands; pure improvisation without any melodic or rhythmic underpinnings to fall back on.

The other guest musicians were bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who also recently performed with the Grateful Dead at their supposed farewell shows. I’d seen Chimenti a few times in other configurations and he was in fine form, but I’d never seen Burbridge. He’s an incredible bass player and filled the void left by original Dead bassist Phil Lesh very well.

The show was so good that it made me wonder what will happen when the rest of the original members retire or pass away. Will this thing actually keep going? With Mayer in the drivers seat I think it’s a real possibility. The question would be whether people would still see the shows, but one interesting thing to consider is that many of the people I spoke with at the show or overheard had never seen the Grateful Dead while Garcia was alive. Think about that a moment. The show was sold out and many of the fans had never even seen Garcia live. The music is still there, coursing through the ether, waiting for someone like Mayer to tap in.





Film Review: Star Wars, The Force Awakens

Kylo Ren

This is a spoiler-free review.

I asked my 14 year old daughter if she wanted to see the new Star Wars movie and she said that she didn’t because she hadn’t seen any of the previous ones in the series. I don’t know if that’s a sign of bad parenting on my part or a measure of the cultural schism created by age, but it shocked me to think she’s been blissfully unaware of something that was a part of my growing up. Anyway, I went to see the new film by myself. And she was right in the sense that you really need to have seen at least the first three films in the series to have a fair chance of fully enjoying this most recent entry. That’s in part because the film makers assumed that everyone who will see The Force Awakens is already aware of certain plot points, like Darth Vader’s familial relationship with the series’  original hero, Luke Skywalker. So, there’s quite a bit of exposition left out, or mentioned only in passing.

That having been said, The Force Awakens is sure to satisfy Star Wars fans, though I suspect that the extent to which they love this film will depend in part on their expectations going in. In my opinion it is the third best entry out of the lot, exceeded only by The Empire Strikes Back and the original Star Wars, which was subsequently titled A New Hope. My opinion may change after repeat viewings. One thing for sure is that it is orders of magnitude better than all the prequels, and that is due in large part to the casting. There are two new heroes, a disenchanted Stormtrooper named Finn, played by  John Boyega, and a scrappy scavenger named Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. There are also old friends brought back from the original series, with a stand out performance by Harrison Ford reprising the role of space scoundrel Han Solo. But the best thing about this film, in my opinion, is the performance by Adam Driver as the villain Kylo Ren. Ironically, his performance is the emotional heart of the film and packs the most punch. There is also a new droid character named BB-8 that is a fine addition to the series.

The plot echoes the original film, which seems like a conscious compromise intended to ground it in Star Wars lore so the stage is set for subsequent installments. It will be interesting to see whether the next film can break out and offer something fresh.

Viewers may be struck by the same feeling I had of consuming the film as comfort food, rather than a fine but perhaps more palette-challenging gourmet meal. There is a lot to like in the visuals, with fantastic vistas and complex battle scenes that seem more real than other installments due to less reliance of computer generated images. There’s also the pitch perfect score by John Williams, which complements the action and keeps things moving along. It also struck me that this film gives itself permission to have fun and pierce the seriousness that over-saturated the prequels.

Another thought I had watching the film is the seeming difficulty the film has creating a sense of dread and menace when it comes to the bad guys, who in this installment are called The First Order. They are presented in a Nazi motif reminiscent of a Nuremberg rally, but in the context of recent events they seem quaint by comparison. Not to say that the Nazis weren’t menacing, but there is a certain lack of explanation as to what is driving their actions, other than a will to power. The film plays more on the eternal balance between good and evil and those forces being functions of each other; one not being able to exist without the other. My guess is that the next film will explore that theme more deeply, but what do I know.

If you like action adventures this should be on your list for holiday viewing. Have fun and may the force be with you.






Road Trip, Part 4


I’m getting close to a wrap on this series of posts about my trip to Canada last summer. This photo is of a monumental cowboy sculpture at the Calgary Stampede, which is probably the best known rodeo, or what is otherwise billed by the promoters as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” It’s sort of a combination of a rodeo show, a massive county fair and a Canada-centric display of regional pride.

The rodeo itself is a daily competition with the usual events, such as roping and riding, but with one addition that sets it apart from many other such events. The Calgary Stampede includes wagon races, which harken back to the wild west. The wagon races begin with the team, which includes two on the wagon and outriders on horseback, putting away a kettle in the back of the wagon to represent cowboys breaking camp. The wagons then weave around barrels before racing around the perimeter of the rodeo grounds. It’s a charming evocation of rural western culture.

For most people the highlight is the bull riding, which is brutal, impressive and dangerous. I’m quite sure that we saw one young rider suffer a serious shoulder separation getting thrown from a bull. An interesting cultural twist is that some of the best bull riders are from South America, which has a cowboy culture all it’s own.

In the evening there is a stage show with music, dancing and singing. I don’t know if the theme changes each year, but the show we saw was focused entirely on all things Canadian. I actually learned some things about Canada that I didn’t know. For example, which of the four major professional sports was invented by a Canadian? Nope, not hockey. It’s basketball. Ironically, there is only one NBA team in Canada, which is the Toronto Raptors. On the other hand, Canadians represent the second most non-American NBA players in the league. A highlight of the show was the inclusion of aboriginal tribal leaders dressed in traditional costumes. So, cowboys and “indians” all around.

Aside from the rodeo itself, the grounds include lots of other activities you might find at a county fair, and a lot of barbecue. There are several stages with musical acts to keep things lively. It’s definitely worth seeing if you plan on visiting Alberta. A lot of good, clean fun, and a noticeable lack of over-celebration when it comes to alcohol. Oh, and while you’re in Alberta, be sure to go to one of the steak houses. The Alberta beef is fantastic, if you enjoy a good steak.



Until the End of the World

Bono Paris

This is a photograph of Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, performing in Paris on December 7, 2015. U2 was originally scheduled to perform in Paris in November, with the concert to be broadcast on HBO, but the band had to postpone due to the terrorist attacks in Paris, which included an attack on a rock concert featuring the California band The Eagles of Death Metal.

The rescheduled concert was broadcast on HBO the evening of December 7th and I watched it and recorded it for repeat viewing. Of course, the terrorist attacks upped the ante for the rescheduled show and created, at least for me, an expectation that it would be in some way more meaningful, especially given the band’s tendency to wade into political matters. So I was anticipating a great performance, but was also a bit cynical about the prospect of these wealthy rock stars getting paid a ton of money to play a show and thinking they could somehow convey something more than the pleasant buzz one might associate with popular musical performances.

The show started out quite serious, with a mix of new and old material and plenty of seemingly heartfelt pronouncements, such as we are all Parisians tonight. A standout was the U2 standard Sunday Bloody Sunday, which evokes the period of Irish troubles deriving from religious and political conflict between north and south. The band had the good sense to have the members line up at the front of the stage, with the drummer playing a shoulder-hung drum like in a marching band. The visual was like something out of Les Miserable; the revolutionaries pushed up against the barricades.

Then things became even more serious, with Bono explaining the genesis of the material on the band’s new album and drawing a loose connection between experiences the members had growing up during the troubles and current events. This part of the show ended with Bono imploring a higher power to bring comfort. At this point I was thinking that the show was doomed to linger in a tone of sadness and maudlin pomposity. But then a curious thing happened. A full on rock concert broke through the gloom.

The band’s guitarist, known as The Edge, launched into one of my favorite U2 songs, Until the End of the World. The opening lyrics are as follows:

Haven’t seen you in quite a while
I was down the hold just passing time
Last time we met was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time
Except you
You were talking about the end of the world

The implicit message was that despite all that had happened, it wasn’t (isn’t) the end of the world. During the guitar break, The Edge was performing behind a scrim, onto which Bono was projected larger than life, drinking water from a bottle and seeming to spray it out of his mouth onto The Edge. He says, “I’m sorry, Edge.” Then he says, “No, I’m not sorry.” A moment of humor that pierced the sanctimony. The song continued, until the final verse, which goes:

In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You…you said you’d wait
’til the end of the world

That line: I reached out for the one I tried to destroy. It was a transcendent moment; at once a battle call and a moment of tenderness.

I’ve been thinking for a couple days now whether this concert was important. It occurs to me that the terrorists thought it was important to kill a lot of people at another concert, and not because they were pissed off that the band made money off it. Maybe that’s because they realize that music does have meaning beyond the business side of things. On that note, U2 struck a blow for the good.

Road Trip, Part 3


This is a cliff in southern Alberta, Canada that is called the Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump. It is a bit off the main highway and I never would have thought of going there but for the nice lady at the visitors center in Cardston, Alberta. We had stopped there to ask about roadside attractions and a fellow traveler and her husband recommended it. By the way, Cardston has it’s own attraction near the visitors center called the Remington Carriage Museum that houses a fine collection of meticulously restored horse drawn conveyances of every size and description. It’s worth a stop if you’re driving through. But the buffalo jump is on a whole other level, seeing as how it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The native people (or what the Canadians refer to as aboriginals) who inhabited the area before the arrival of Europeans used the cliff to harvest buffalo as an alternative to hunting them. There is a great museum built into the side of the cliff and your visit starts with a short film that explains how they did it. It turns out that buffalo have poor eyesight, which, combined with their tendency to protect the youngest of the herd and to stampede when faced with a perceived threat, allowed the aboriginals to trick the herd into running over the cliff.

The methods used by the aboriginals were precise and involved a fair amount of danger to the participants due to the necessary proximity to the stampeding herd. The preparation started with the construction of lanes made of rocks and plants to form a visual barrier that would guide the herd toward the cliff when the stampede began. The tribe would stand outside of the lanes to reinforce the barrier by making noise. Two braves would dress in animal skins; one disguised as a calf and one as a wolf. The “calf” would stray from the herd in the direction of the cliff while the “wolf” would approach from the other direction. The herd would move toward the calf as a protective measure and stampede when frightened by the wolf approaching from behind. This worked because buffalo have poor eyesight, but also because the braves disguised their scent.

Once the stampede began the brave dressed as a calf would jump outside the lane to safety, but as you can imagine the timing wasn’t always perfect and a brave would get trampled to death on occasion. But that’s not how the place got its name. The name comes from a story of a particular brave who waited at the base of the cliff during one of the harvests, thinking that he could view the event in safety behind the waterfall of buffalo. But as the animals piled up at the bottom he was crushed and later found with his head smashed in.

The museum is dedicated to the pre-European culture of the aboriginals who inhabited the region, which existed for thousands of years. It is the one museum I’ve attended with my child that held her attention longer than it held mine. Learning occurred. For me, the most profound insight is that the aboriginal culture was based entirely on the buffalo. Almost everything used by the people was made out of buffalo, including clothing, housing, weapons, ornaments, you name it. Of course, the buffalo also provided the primary source of food. Once the herds of buffalo disappeared after the arrival of the Europeans, the culture of the aboriginals was destroyed. The saddest part of the story is that most of the buffalo killed by Europeans were killed for sport and hides. Most of the buffalo was wasted, in direct contradiction to the aboriginal way.

I recommend visiting Head Smashed-In if you happen to be in Alberta. It’s well worth leaving the main highway.

Speaking of stampedes, our next stop is the greatest rodeo on earth, the Calgary Stampede.