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3 Stars Movies Music

Blue Man Group: The Complex Rock Tour Live

This blogger may have to burn his Rock Snob card, for I just watched and enjoyed the Blue Man Group concert film The Complex Rock Tour Live. I’d long assumed that the Blue Man Group’s seemingly permanent residency on Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan was some kind of tourist trap like Mars 2112 or Jekyll and Hyde, but now I’m wishing I had looked closer.

For any others that may also have prematurely dismissed them, the Blue Man Group is equal parts performance art collective, percussion ensemble, and, well, blue. The Complex Rock Tour DVD captures the group live in 2002, with a show that is at once both an actual rock concert and an ironic commentary upon one.

I had to fight the suspicion throughout that a blue-clad trio of catburglars had slipped into my apartment and raided my cd collection. As I watched, I started to compile in my head a list of artists that must have been influences:

  • Emergency Broadcast Network. Now defunct, EBN was a trailblazing multimedia performance group that fused McLuhan-esque media theory with techno, all in the style of a television news broadcast from hell. Their caustic and aggressive social commentary is a far cry from The Blue Man Group’s squeaky clean naiveté, but it’s hard not to watch footage of their live performances without seeing an ancestor of the Complex Rock Tour’s ironic infographics.
  • Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave concert film (1986). All the ingredients are here, albeit in artier form: film, performance art, mime, masks, dance, etc.
  • Peter Gabriel and Robert LePage’s Secret World Live and Growing Up Live tours were as much theater as rock concerts, utilizing simple yet hugely symbolic shapes and props: a tree, an egg, the moon, etc.
  • Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense concert film (1983), for all the same reasons as Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel above.
  • King Crimson. Some of the Blue Man music bears more than a passing resemblance to the polyrhythmic tuned percussion King Crimson employed in the early 1980s with tracks like “Waiting Man” and “Neil and Jack and Me.” Not only that, one of the members of the Blue Man band can be spotted played the Chapman Stick, popularized by Tony Levin.
  • Rock Snobs might be surprised to hear traces of even more modern music in the Blue Man Group repertoire. I caught snippets of the instrumental so-called “post-rock” of UNKLE, Battles, and Explosions in the Sky.
  • And finally, the one influence the Blue Men actually namecheck with a (brief) cover version in their show is Devo, but I don’t own any of their music! Maybe I should take this as a recommendation.

As humorous and toe-tapping as the Complex Rock show is, the Manhattan-based Blue Man Group end the proceedings with “Exhibit 13”, a haunting piece incorporating footage of actual World Trade Center debris that showered over Brooklyn only a few months prior. The piece is available online at Exhibit13.com

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4 Stars Movies Music

U2 in a state called vertigo: U23D

U23D is actually a fairly traditional concert movie, a mostly straight-up filmed record of a representative show of a single tour. U2 had already produced one theatrical feature film about themselves (1988’s Rattle and Hum), and released countless productions on video and DVD before and since. So what could have been just another video of the world’s most overexposed band needed to differentiate itself somehow. Turns out the latest 3D technology filling a 40-foot screen consuming your peripheral vision is more than enough to justify its existence.

3D has come a long way from what I remember as a kid, watching Creature of the Black Lagoon on TV with red-and-blue cardboard glasses. At first, the degree of depth is disorienting and headache-inducing, but before too long the brain and eyes adjust. Your perspective is not that of the audience but as if you were standing right on stage with the lads. Sometimes I felt as if I should have been holding a tambourine!

U23D
In a state called vertigo

The old songs I’ve memorized from thousands of plays on LP, tape, CD and now iPod are still great. The martial drumbeat to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” still sends chills down my spine, and I have to admit I even choked up a little during “Pride (In the Name of Love).” I was disappointed by the relative lack of songs from the band’s 90s “postmodern irony” trilogy Achtung Baby / Zooropa / Pop, but I now have a new appreciation for “Love and Peace or Else,” a new song from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that hadn’t quite made an impression on me yet.

U23D
One blind Bono sez: Coexist or else

I’m a longtime fan that has never seen U2 live. There was a frustration at every opportunity; if they weren’t sold out, I was too broke, sans car, or all of the above. So U23D made a kind of stopgap pilgrimage for me. U2 must be one of the only rock bands to ever preserve the original personnel for so long; here’s hoping they stick together long enough for another tour so I can see them for real.

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4 Stars Movies Music

Everything You Know is Wrong: U2: Zoo TV Live From Syndey

If I could build a time machine to take me to see any band in history, it would be a trip to the early 90s to catch U2 at any point along their legendary Zoo TV tour. New to DVD, Zoo TV: Live From Sydney documents the lads’ performance in Sydney during the aptly named Zoomerang leg. Rewatching the event in the 21st century is interesting; on one hand, it’s almost shocking how far ahead of the curve U2 was in 1993, preaching a pretty weighty post-modern, ironic kill-your-television thesis in front of thousands of rock ‘n’ roll fans each night. But on the other hand, the fixation on cable and satellite TV now looks rather quaint. True cultural desensitization and alienation via media oversaturation came, in the end, from the internet. “Everything you know is wrong”, indeed.

Zoo TV was less a rock concert than a carefully choreographed theatrical event. Bono donned multiple costumes and personas throughout each show: a drunken rock star clad in leather and flay shades, a paramilitary in fatigues, a gold lamé cowboy hat-wearing megachurch televangelist blasting millions of U2 bucks into the audience, and finally emerging as MacPhisto, a kind of washed-up wasted devil tired of life but still up for a good time.

U2 Zoo TV Sydney
I’d hate to see the band’s utility bill at the end of this tour…

Regardless, what’s amazing is that despite all the high-mindedness and avant-garde video art contributed by Brian Eno and Emergency Broadcast Network, U2 still managed to put on a truly ass-kicking rock concert and get millions of people around the globe to come and love every second of it. And for me to buy the DVD.

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5 Stars Music

Joseph Arthur live at Bowery Ballroom, New York, 2006

I hope to post my reactions soon (the five stars should give a hint as to the general tone), but in the meantime, here’s some coverage of the show on the web: The Tripwire’s review features excellent photographs by Erin Chandler. Billboard also reviews the show and posts a video of Joseph’s duet with Michael Stipe on "In the Sun."

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4 Stars Movies Music

Yo La Tengo perform live to Jean Painlevé’s Science is Fiction in Prospect Park, 2006

Hoboken institution Yo La Tengo performs a live score to several of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé‘s underwater documentaries. Interestingly, English subtitles indicate the films were apparently not silent in their original form, with narration and perhaps scores of their own. So not only is the audience’s experience of the films filtered through a spoken-French-to-written-English translation, but also by Yo La Tengo’s contemporary score.

Most of the films concerned the mating rituals and birth cycles of sea creatures ranging from octopi to mollusks. A rare intrusion of a human hand is seen during the dissection of a pregnant male sea horse. Without seeing the films in their original form, it’s hard to judge if they were clinical or artful in tone. Only one film was clearly intended to be abstract: a series of images of vividly colored liquids crystalizing, evoking the “Beyond Infinity” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Yo La Tengo’s musical interpretation transformed nearly every sequence into a dreamlike, non-literal cinematic experience.

I’m curious… was the band influenced by the original soundtracks? To what degree was the performance planned and/or improvised?

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3 Stars Movies Music

Drew Thomas’ 2006 documentary Coachella

I don’t normally review music dvds in this blog, but since Coachella received a theatrical release in Europe, I thought it deserved a mention. It’s a rare concert film that is as interested in the concertgoers and the character of the event itself as in simply capturing the performances.

Favorite moments: Thom Yorke actually smiling before Radiohead rips into Planet Telex, the unexpected sight of a crowd grooving to Squarepusher’s difficult arrhythmic beats, The Flaming Lips‘ furry freakout, and The Polyphonic Spree joyously heralding the sun Sunday morning. Scariest moments: Iggy Pop‘s return of the living dead, and Fischerspooner dressing up in fright wigs and fishnet speedos.

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Music

A Brief Word on R.E.M.

Being an unapologetic iPod/iTunes addict, I’m not too ashamed to announce I just finished ripping all of my R.E.M. cds. So this is blogworthy exactly how, you ask? Well, I was moved to post here because, all told, it amounts to over 28 hours of music. 28 HOURS! Isn’t that amazing? On second thought, I suppose one could say that a day’s worth of songs isn’t that much considering the band’s recording career is at least 20 years and running. But I’m sure there’s a completist out there with every soundtrack, b-side, and bootleg whose pile o’ R.E.M. MP3s reaches into not days but weeks.

Part of my iTunes obsession involves rating every track (seeing as how I’m constantly ripping more cds, it’s also a sisyphusean Big-Dig-type job). So a quick glance at my track-by-track ratings betrays my favorite albums, in rough order: Document, Life’s Rich Pageant, Up, Monster. Least favorites? The two most recent: Reveal and Around the Sun. What happened after Up? I know that album isn’t well-regarded, but personally I love it for its flaws and honestly, its weirdness. It’s their first album after drummer Bill Berry left the band, and it shows them reaching for a new sound. Perhaps the touches of electronica are a bit dated (Bowie and U2 have also left much of that behind by now), but I like it. Unfortunately, the identity they chose is to follow up on the tone set by the most bland song on Up, Daysleeper. It’s the sort of jangly ballad R.E.M. can dash off in their sleep. It lets the album down, and it’s a real bummer for the next two whole albums to share that feel. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll buy the next one to see if they jump off the cliff again.

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3 Stars Movies Music

Nick Broomfield doesn’t know what to believe about Kurt Cobain in Kurt & Courtney

A documentary by Nick Broomfield about the controversy surrounding the apparent suicide of Kurt Cobain.

Not yet knowing he himself will become part of the story, Broomfield holds his cards pretty close to his chest throughout. It’s not until fairly late in the film that he begins to describe his own feelings. His interviewees cover an entire spectrum of responses to the death: all the way from unambiguous suicide to unambiguous murder. Some on each side are credible, some are… to say the least, not. The only thing that seems clear is that Love is a monster, and the question becomes not “did Cobain commit suicide or was he murdered?” but rather “did Love drive him to suicide or have him murdered?”

A thick soup of inconclusive opinions, recollections and possibly lies leave Broomfield not knowing what to believe (as he reveals in a despairing voiceover). He finally comes across a journalist willing to go on the record with several recorded death threats given by Love and, dishearteningly given that he was apparently a gifted, sweet, and loving person, Cobain himself! At last, some concrete evidence. Even then, Broomfield doesn’t quite reveal his feelings. So it comes as quite a surprise when he makes a guerilla attack upon Love at an ACLU event. Of course it’s an atrocity that she’s even there, given her documented behavior towards journalists (with whom of course Broomfield personally identifies), but his sudden and very public attack is powerful and shocking. Even his cameraperson couldn’t hold the camera still.

Here’s the confessional part: I never really liked Nirvana. An interesting point about the film: unless I missed something, the word “grunge” is never spoken. Instead many individuals confidently describe Nirvana as simply “punk.” And you saw this coming: I never really liked punk. I think I have an intellectual understanding of it: the significance of its arrival and the wide-reaching spread of its influence. All true, but I don’t chose to listen to it.

So I came to the film without a full knowledge of the music and the band’s history, and without the preconceived notions of Cobain and Love fans are likely to have. So for me, the film is not really about any of those things; its larger theme really has to do with how one can lose the big picture (to use a cliche without being able to think of a better term at the moment) the closer you look, and the finer your focus. And not to mention the disturbance your gaze can cause if you press it in too close.