Champagne & Reefer: Rolling Stones Shine a Light

Martin Scorsese’s long history with musical documentaries and concert films includes working as assistant director and editor on Woodstock (1970), directing an account of The Band’s final concert as The Last Waltz (1978), executive producing and designing the shots for Peter Gabriel’s concert film PoV (AKA Point of View, 1987), directing part of the massive The Blues television documentary series (2003), and crafting the definitive Bob Dylan and George Harrison documentaries No Direction Home (2005) and Living in the Material World (2010).

Shine a Light is a little of all the above, but mostly just a straightforward concert film featuring the Rolling Stones in a benefit concert thrown at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 2006. The Stones are joined by special guests Christina Aguilera, Jack White, and Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy (watch the DVD bonus features for the entertaining story behind that moniker). It was originally released in IMAX, and no doubt loses something in translation from 50-foot theaters screens to small televisions. U2 did them one up by releasing U23D in 3D IMAX the year before.

Martin Scorsese and The Rolling Stones in Shine a Light
Are you sure you want to see these faces in 50-foot-high IMAX?

Like Gimme Shelter (1970), a documentary account of the fallout following the killing of a fan at a Stones concert in Altamont, Shine a Light is sometimes less than totally flattering. Mick Jagger is seen to be so ruthlessly single-minded that he will not deign to collaborate with Scorsese. Even when meeting no less than Bill Clinton, he only wants to talk about whether or not the lighting will distract from his performance. But to be fair, The Rolling Stones hit the big time long before either Scorsese or Clinton, so perhaps Jagger’s vanity may be partially excused. Let it not be said that the old codgers in the band don’t embrace new technology; witness as Jagger strikes classic poses for fans in the front row to capture on their mobiles.

Keith Richards and Buddy Guy in The Rolling Stones Shine a Light
Keef jams with Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy

Scorsese is famously a fan, utilizing Rolling Stones tunes in his soundtracks so often that Jagger now jokes that “Shine a Light was the only film of his not to feature the song Gimme Shelter.” I like The Stones well enough, but I’m not a huge fan. Here’s what a similarly casual listener might learn of them based on Shine a Light:

  • Charlie Watts, also a successful artist and jazz drummer outside of the Stones machine, comes across as quite distracted, almost to the extent of appearing senile (or maybe even more drug-addled than Keith Richards). He behaves the same in vintage interviews scattered throughout Shine a Light, so perhaps it’s just his natural demeanor. But there’s no doubt he can still rock his stripped-down drum kit.
  • Mick Jagger still has the body of a preteen girl, albeit one with impressively ripped arms.
  • Everybody knows the legendary Keith Richards has abused his body to such an extent that he has no business still walking this earth. He jokes in the film that he must come from hardy stock, but maybe he is in fact already dead, seeing as how he barely notices a kiss from Christina Aguilera. He still has chops, though, beyond going through the highly rehearsed motions of a typical Stones spectacle. In a telling moment, the camera catches him alone, playing some moody blues licks to himself as the rest of the band hobnobs.
  • Ronnie Wood comes across the best, reminding fans that although Keith Richards may have co-written many of the most popular and enduring rock songs of all time, he’s the one that plays all the solos.

Scorsese includes himself as a character in his own film, appearing at least twice in a characteristic tracking shot that caps the film: following the Stones offstage and out of the theater, and flying up into the night sky over New York. The world will have to wait for Scorsese’s true documentary on the Stones to equal No Direction Home and Living in the Material World as a true fan’s deep look into some of the world’s most interesting celebrities.

A Tall Tale: Taking Woodstock

Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, that purports to be the untold story of how the Woodstock music festival came to Bethel, NY, in August 1969. Tiber claims he was the crucial go-between that introduced the festival’s organizers to Max Yasgur, owner of the farm that became the site of the famous three days of music, peace, love, mud, brown acid, and traffic jams.

Even if only a portion of Elliot’s tall tale is true, it’s incredible that it has not been dramatized before now. In his version of events, an ordinary, meek kid becomes the accidental midwife of one of the biggest cultural events in modern history. Mix in most of the hot-button issues of the time — the hippie vs. square culture clash, gay awakening, anti-semitism, the mafia, and fallout from the Korean and Vietnam Wars — and you end up with what should have been a richly definitive movie dealing with the era.

That Tiber’s account of the festival is vigorously disputed by almost everyone involved (and sober enough to recall events now) is beside the point. The story is a good one, but the film never seems to capture the joy, anxiety, or excitement of the moment. So what if it isn’t true? We already have a supposedly objective documentary on the festival (but more on that below).

Demetri Martin and Liev Schreiber in Taking Woodstock
That’s a man, baby!

The biggest problem is Demetri Martin, who despite his success as a comedian and contributor to The Daily Show, possesses approximately as much star charisma as a plank. To be fair, his character is written to be repressed and buttoned-up, but the kid remains boring even after what ought to have been a transformative number of enlightening experiences, including his first gay kiss, first acid trip, and betrayal by his mother. Emile Hirsch appears in a small role as a psychologically scarred vet, and clearly would have been better in the lead role. Even Elliot’s parents are both more compelling characters than he. His father’s (Henry Goodman) interactions with the burgeoning counterculture awaken him from the virtual coma his life had become, and his mother (Imelda Staunton) is a self-destructive hoarder, which the film links to Holocaust survivor’s guilt.

Lee’s visuals are fairly straightforward, making it rather jarring when split-screen sequences visually allude to Michael Wedleigh’s documentary Woodstock (1970). Taking Woodstock supports Wedleigh’s thesis that the mostly harmless hippies that sought a weekend of peace and music instead found hostile locals and a combative, condescending press. But other moments in Taking Woodstock serve to undercut the original documentary, such as when Wedleigh is seen coaching a trio of nuns to flash the peace sign. If that iconic image was staged, what else might have been false or exaggerated? Taking Woodstock may be a tall tale, but it also makes clear that Wedleigh’s film isn’t necessarily reliable either.

Taking Woodstock ends with organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) about to mount another free concert featuring the Rolling Stones. The Woodstock festival may have been chaotic, but it was successful insofar that it proved people could gather in massive numbers and celebrate positively and peacefully. Lang is energized by what he achieved, but the mood is not so optimistic for those of us that know how it all turned out. The chaos and murder of the Altamount debacle that marked the end of the Summer of Love would be documented by The Maysles Brothers in Gimme Shelter (read Matthew Dessem’s excellent take on the film at The Criterion Contraption).

Demetri Martin in Taking Woodstock
One of the most famous traffic jams in history

Just as Taking Woodstock never quite takes off, Elliot never actually makes it to the concert. The fact that we never see it, and barely even hear it, is part of the point. Many of the 400,000 attendees probably never got any closer, either. And even those that did may have been too altered to recall much.

Random observations:

  • There are puzzling hints that Lang’s assistant Tisha (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter) is significant, but her character is ultimately superfluous. The role is not significant enough to match the notable casting.
  • Like contemporaries Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle, Ang Lee seems determined to never make the same film twice. Seen in that light, Taking Woodstock is a refreshing break in tone from his grim, thoroughly nonerotic Lust, Caution.
  • Further, it’s also worth noting that Eliot’s homosexual awakening is much more successful and fulfilling than that of the tortured cowboys in Brokeback Mountain.

The Ultimate Six-String Summit: It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud indeed, when three generations of rock guitarists convene for the ultimate six-string summit. Jimmy Page (representative of 1970s stadium rock and, with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, part of the canonical trinity of guitar heroes) joins The Edge (child of the punk/new wave era but also paradoxically a bit of an egghead) and Jack White (student of Americana and freewheeling blues-rock of The White Stripes and the Raconteurs). The three had no doubt crossed paths before now, but probably never had a chance to pick each other’s brains, let alone trade licks and jam.

Director Davis Guggenheim also made the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the soccer drama Gracie, but the core concept came from Thomas Tull, producer of Batman: The Dark Knight. As White quips in one of the DVD bonus features, he thought Page would make a fine Joker.

The Edge in It Might Get Loud
U2’s The Edge is a child of the punk/new wave era but is also paradoxically a bit of an egghead

Throughout, White is considerably more witty and spontaneous than the others, both verbally and in his effortless improvisation. In comparison, The Edge sometimes seems reticent and comparably tongue-tied. Considering his notoriety as the man that introduced cod-Satanism and Tolkien into Led Zeppelin’s lyrics and iconography, Page is quite the dapper English gentleman. He arrives in a chauffeured Rolls, while White and even The Edge drive themselves to the set.

Jack White in It Might Get Loud
Jack White, of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, keeps it real

While Page and White share a background in the blues, The Edge comes from somewhere else altogether. He’s long been more interested in sonics and textures than in impressing audiences with fleet-fingered technique. Page was, for a time, one of the biggest rock stars in the world, but of the three, The Edge has enjoyed persistent fame the longest. He states with total conviction that This is Spinal Tap was, for him, not funny at all: “it’s all true.” A deleted scene answers a question I’ve long had: U2’s nicknames date back to their childhood, and now even The Edge’s mother now no longer calls him David.

There’s no need for an onscreen interviewer when no one else would know better what to ask these three men than each other. When guitarists get together for gabfests, a natural topic is to wistfully reminisce over their first instruments (The Edge and White still own and play theirs). Their conversation is interspersed with short animated sequences and priceless early footage, with relics including embarrassing very early footage of U2 as gawky teenagers.

All three have enjoyed comfort and success for quite some time, so it comes as a rather awkward shift in tone when they are called to reflect on times of crisis in their careers. None were instant stars. Page’s early anxieties are the most interesting; he became a highly successful session guitarist fairly early on (working largely in the now-forgotten musical genre of Skiffle), but realized he was looking at a creative dead-end. He found release in The Yardbirds, a fertile cauldron that famously also included Beck and Clapton at various times, and arguably invented hard rock. The hair came down, the pants flared, and the cello bow came out. Multi-instrumentalist White recounts a childhood sleeping on the floor in a room too crowded with drums to leave room for a bed, and founding his first band while working the lonely job of furniture upholsterer. The Edge recalls the contemporary political turmoil of Ireland as a backdrop to his anxiety over being “just a guitarist” and possibly never a songwriter. From this crisis of confidence came the politically charged U2 standard “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” His substantial contributions to U2 were deliberately obscured by the unusually democratic band; it’s only recently that they have begun to talk more openly about their internal division of labor (generally, Edge demos the music, Bono supplies the lyrics, Larry works alongside the producer, and Adam is resident sartorialist).

Jimmy Page in It Might Get Loud
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is now quite the dapper gent, but was once an infamous 70s bad boy that introduced cod-satanism and Tolkien to stadium rock

The natural wish is for the three to strap on their guitars and jam. So as each is celebrated as much for their songwriting as for their chops, they take turns teaching the others one of their signature tunes. The Edge’s chiming “I Will Follow” riff fails to take off, but Page’s “In My Time of Dying” provides a bed for some fantastic slide-guitar solos from all three players. The climactic closing tune is ill-chosen; The Band’s “The Weight” is without a doubt a great, classic song, but not much of a guitar showcase.

Scratching in the Dirt: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

As a Peter Gabriel fan for over two decades, it’s difficult to admit that I find myself struggling to appreciate his first new album in years.

There have always been three core things to love about Gabriel’s work: his literate songwriting, meticulous soundscapes, and emotionally expressive voice. Behind the creepily organic album art, Scratch My Back is an experiment in subtraction. It finds Gabriel covering other artists’ songs, accompanied only by solo piano or orchestra (the oddly defensive marketing pitch “No drums, no guitars” says it all). That leaves only the voice. Soulful and gravelly even as a teenage cofounder of Genesis in 1967, Gabriel’s voice should be more than enough to justify anything, so my pat reduction here is not totally fair. Gabriel and John Metcalfe clearly labored over these orchestral arrangements, but I miss the complex sonics of the rock and world music instrumentation that has characterized most of his music for over 40 years.

Gabriel did very nearly the opposite a decade ago, when his high-concept millennium project Ovo made a point of casting Paul Buchanan and The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to sing his songs. The most recent collection of his own songs was 2002’s Up, followed in 2009 by the collaborative project Big Blue Ball. Casual fans of his music might not be aware that Gabriel is an active humanitarian, particularly as cofounder of Witness and The Elders, so the temporal gap between his musical ventures is not entirely explained by chronic procrastination (although he would probably be the first to admit he’s easily distracted). Gabriel has stated that he hopes to work on more song-swap projects in the future, but first plans to work on some of his own songs. How long until he prepares a new album over which he can claim sole authorship?

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel told the New York Times:

“I was trying to make a grown-up record […] This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I’ve courted the lowest common denominator before, but there’s a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn’t present on this record.”

He is presumably referring to the media satire of “Games Without Frontiers” and “The Barry Williams Show”, the randy sex romps “Sledgehammer” and “Kiss That Frog”, and the vaudeville silliness of “Excuse Me” and “Big Time”. Gabriel is one of the few musicians that I first listened to as a teenager, but whose music has aged with me. So I would have expected myself to appreciate an album of him covering many songs that I know and love well (particularly David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elbow, and Talking Heads), but I find that I don’t know what to make of Scratch my Back even after repeated listening.

Many songwriters lose their dark edge as they age (case in point: Pink Floyd’s once tortured, prickly Roger Waters is now a big smiley softie), and by all accounts Gabriel should have been following that track too. After leaving Genesis in 1975 to deal with family issues, his first four solo albums were increasingly dark and sinister. But 1986’s So marked a noticeable turnaround in tone and an apparent psychic healing. Now reportedly still pals with his old Genesis cohorts, aging gracefully into a potbelly and gnomish goatee, remarrying, fathering two new sons, and reconciling with his two daughters from a previous marriage, he seemed to be transforming into a cuddly grandfather figure. A trickle of releases over the past decade showed him favoring directly-worded songs for children, including the Oscar-nominated “That’ll Do” (from the movie Babe), the unsubtle “Animal Nation” (from The The Wild Thornberrys Movie), and “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E).

Suddenly, he appears to have reversed back into depressive territory. Nearly every song chosen for Scratch My Back has been transformed into a mournful dirge. Especially when listened to in one sitting, I find many of the interpretations to be too depressing, and I actually like depressing music. My favorite examples along these lines are Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cry-your-guts-out cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (from the movie Donnie Darko), and Elbow’s agonizingly heartrending version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” (from the War Child benefit album Heroes).

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel’s version of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” has apparently become something of a sensation on YouTube, licensed in television shows, and played at celebrity weddings. Perhaps I’m coldhearted, but it does absolutely nothing for me. Songwriter Stephin Merritt says his version was sarcastic, while Gabriel’s is deadly serious:

At first I thought, How hilarious, he’s got a completely different take on the song. But after a few listens I find it quite sweet. My version of the song focuses on the humor, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humorist.

Did Gabriel just plain miss Merritt’s point, or did he intentionally transform it into something sentimental, singing the same words but altering the instrumentation and delivery? All that said, something to cherish in Gabriel’s cover is the presence of his daughter Melanie on backing vocals.

Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is one of the most ravishing love songs I’ve heard. Elbow remixed Gabriel’s “More Than This” in 2002, providing a more organic rock structure to Gabriel’s perhaps over-processed studio original. But Gabriel does not return the favor here, turning their gorgeous love song into a depressive bummer.

The once case where Gabriel’s bummer-o-vision may have actually been appropriate is with Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”, which actually does have very dark lyrics.

The original recording of David Bowie’s “Heroes” boasts an unforgettable lead guitar line from Robert Fripp, which by his own rules Gabriel must subtract. He sings Bowie’s Berlin-inspired lyrics in cracked, anguished tones, not an emotion I associate with the song.

The one song I liked immediately was “Listening Wind”. The original is one of the odder tracks on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and Gabriel rather amazingly draws out a catchy melody embedded in the experimental song.

The Special Edition includes a second cd with four bonus tracks: a cover of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and alternate versions of “The Book of Love”, “My Body is a Cage”, and “Heroes”. It might have been interesting to also include some of Gabriel’s past covers, including The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joseph Arthur’s “In the Sun”. I would have also very much liked to hear instrumental mixes of some of Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements.

MGMT live in Brooklyn, July 1, 2009

The electronic/disco/pop/rock group MGMT has made a huge splash, earning spots on tours with no less than Paul McCartney and Beck. The wildly catchy “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids” (the latter featuring a truly deranged music video) are not out of keeping with the rest of their repertoire in terms of style and instrumentation, but the infectious hooks do stand apart from the forgettable rest. At their Celebrate Brooklyn concert in Prospect Park on July 1, they debuted a few new songs set for their forthcoming sophomore album that didn’t immediately grab me either.

MGMT live in Prospect Park
MGMT live in Prospect Park

For a band called “synth-hippies” by Pitchfork, they all looked rather clean-cut to me (but they evidently have a very young and boozy audience – one kid passed out and literally collapsed on our feet only a few songs into the concert). Their sound may be very electronic and a throwback to disco, but their live instrumentation is very rock guitar oriented. The only exception being “Kids,” for which the band put down their analog instruments and let the synthesizers and sequencers take over, even recreating a live fadeout.

California Guitar Trio & Tony Levin’s Stick Men, live at the B.B. King Blues Club, New York, June 22, 2009

The California Guitar Trio may not actually be from California (they actually hail from Belgium, Japan, and the US), but there are indeed three of them and they each play a guitar. In a way, that tells you everything and nothing you need to know. As designated spokesman Paul Richards explained during their June 22nd show at The B.B. King Blues Club in New York City’s Times Square, they met as students in one of Robert Fripp’s early Guitar Craft courses. The promising pupils became members of the touring outfits The League of Crafty Guitarists and The Robert Fripp String Quintet, and formed the CGT to present their original repertoire interspersed with well-chosen progressive rock and classical covers. As a King Crimson fan, I’ve wound up seeing them live no less than three times, all without having specifically meant to. The 1992 R.F.S.Q. show in Philadelphia still stands in my mind as one of the best concerts I’ve attended, and I recall their opening sets for King Crimson in 1995 (also in Philly) and The Trey Gunn Band in New York in 1997 going over great with audiences (during most concerts I’ve been to, audiences can’t be pried away from the bar during the opening act). Richards also told the crowd they had been recording and touring the world for 18 years, long since deserving to cease being described as former students of Fripp. (but a little namedropping never hurts!)

California Guitar Trio

Monday night’s concert was also an unmissable chance to see Tony Levin‘s Stick Men, a new band formed with fellow stick player Michael Bernier and drummer Pat Mastelotto. The droll, genial Levin is one of the world’s greatest bassists, a fan-favorite (listen for the inevitable moment when crowds go wild as Peter Gabriel introduces him on any live album he’s released in the past 25 years), and not to mention one of the world’s longest-running bloggers. Mastelotto is a powerhouse, a true drum demon obviously enjoying himself enormously on his array of acoustic drums plus various electronics a drum geek would have to identify (comments below, please). He shattered a stick at one point (startling Bernier as a bit of shrapnel flew in his direction), but deftly swapped the casualty for a new one. I’m not familiar with Bernier’s music, but as if his talents weren’t obvious on Monday night, Levin gave him props as a player who influenced his own technique (meaning a lot coming from the legend that helped pioneer the Chapman Stick instrument in the first place). Also, Bernier’s got a little bit of a Hugh Grant thing going on.

California Guitar Trio
California Guitar Trio & Tyler Trotter perform Tubular Bells

Generally speaking, the Trio gave a mellow, contemplative show, while the Stick Men came out blasting with some very dense, funky, mostly instrumental prog rock. They were really, really loud – very glad I brought my earplugs – and even chased a few people out of the venue. I’m shamefully behind on my CGT and Levin album-buying, so I wasn’t familiar with much of the later repertoire of either trio. I only own the first three CGT albums (including what I think is a rare copy of an eponymous cd I purchased at the R.F.S.Q. show, that isn’t even listed on their official site). Copies of their latest are on order from Amazon as I write, but I picked up a pristine-sounding live recording available for sale right after the show. Here’s the set list according to Hideyo Moriya’s Roadcam, along with some of my subjective comments:

  1. Punta Patri
  2. Unmei – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony rearranged by Moriya in a 1960s surf guitar style that totally, unexpectedly works.
  3. Cathedral Peak
  4. Tubular Bells / And I Know / Walk Don’t Run – A condensed version of the album-length progressive rock epic by Mike Oldfield (perhaps more famously known as the theme music from The Exorcist). Their sound guy Tyler Trotter joined the band on melodium.
  5. Portland Rain
  6. Andromeda
  7. TX
  8. Moonlight Sonata – Richards briefly described Fripp’s Guitar Craft lesson of “circulation” as a key technique that has stuck with them. Here they’ve distributed the notes among three guitars, passing single notes from one to another. I’m not an expert, but when it comes to classical music, Bach in particular seems well-suited for the guitar.
  9. Echoes – Longtime Pink Floyd fans (myself included, I must admit) recognized it from the first note, but when the major melody appeared, the audience went nuts, even more so than when some King Crimson covers appeared later in the evening! The CGT version includes a gorgeous ambient interlude, stretching the bounds of what an acoustic guitar can do when connected to all sorts of electronic devices.
  10. Eve – Levin joined them for this ballad, sounding a bit like his own “Waters of Eden”
  11. Melrose Avenue – A great, terse rocker. With Levin & Mastelotto.
  12. Blockhead – With all three Stick Men. One of my favorite CGT tunes, but they omitted any kind of solo (Fripp himself plays a stunner on the R.F.S.Q. album The Bridge Between). Amazingly, they started circulating power chords.

The Stick Men stayed on stage for the next set, which included the following (and a lot more):

  • Sasquatch
  • Red – The classic King Crimson barnstormer, which Levin modestly identified as “we didn’t write that one.”
  • Indiscipline – Sung by Bernier.
  • Soup (or Superconductor?)
  • Encore: Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II – An effortless-seeming version with the CGT. King Crimson fans will know what I’m talking about when I say here’s another possible interpretation of the “Double Trio” concept.

Levin congratulated an audience member in the first row for consuming a slice of cheesecake during one of the rockier numbers. He also described their recent, greatly meandering European tour, which sounded very exciting to someone with a normal day job. No doubt a professional musician will quickly counter that that much traveling and border-crossing is grueling. But if there’s time for even a few days off along the way, it sounds to me like a great way to see the world. Or maybe it’s just hell.

Tony Levin's Stick Men
Tony Levin’s Stick Men

Thanks for reading, and I invite anyone to please comment below. And finally, if anyone cares enough to have read this far, one last thing: fellow New Yorkers might know what I’m talking about when I say that some days New York is more New Yorky than usual. Monday was one of those days, and the nutters were out in force. On my way to the venue, I was blessed (or cursed, maybe, I’m not sure) but a green-clad street preacher wielding a cross made of twisted wire. Minutes later, the guy sitting next to me in Starbucks got an earful from a totally different preacher. And then, in B.B. King’s, one audience member in the back near me was obviously stoned; not on something relatively harmless that merely makes you stupid, but rather on the sort of thing that makes you manic and insane (cocaine? speed?). He couldn’t stop loudly babbling for the entire concert, and was almost literally bouncing off the walls. I kept hoping the management would toss him out, but no luck.

Nine Inch Nails & Jane’s Addiction live at Jones Beach, June 7, 2009

STREET SWEEPER SOCIAL CLUB

Street Sweeper Social Club, the new band formed by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, opened. Their badass cover of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” was a highlight.

NINE INCH NAILS

It felt wrong somehow to see a band as moody and dark as Nine Inch Nails play while the sun was still up. But clouds soon moved in, obscuring a sunset that would have been impressive over the water, making everything suitably gloomy and very, very cold as NIN chased summer away. This stripped-down four-piece version of the band played a great cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” the best song Nine Inch Nails could have but never wrote, and ended with the overwhelmingly sad “Hurt.” Surprisingly omitted was “Closer,” what I would assume to be a requisite entry in any NIN set list (but the end theme did feature in a short instrumental jam). Speaking of, said jam was one of only two instrumental portions of the set (the other being The Fragile’s ambient interlude “The Frail”). A little disappointing, given that Trent Reznor has been becoming more and more musically experimental and adventurous of late, with whole chunks of The Fragile and the entirety of the massive two-disc Ghosts being instrumental. Personally, when it comes to Nine Inch Nails, the music (not so much the gloomy lyrics) is where the action is for me.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York

JANE’S ADDICTION

All thanks to Reznor for playing peacekeeper in reuniting the notoriously fractious and unstable Jane’s Addiction, at least for the length of the NIN/JA tour. Basically a funk/prog/metal power-trio fronted by the antics of Perry Farrell, a… unique individual whose ego (he once re-released a raft of Jane’s Addiction songs under just his own name on a solo greatest hits album) has often created conflict with bassist Eric Avery. The full moon peeking out from the clouds probably only added to Farrell’s lunacy. They opened with their magnum opus “Three Days,” an epic featuring more discrete guitar solos by Dave Navarro than I could count. Honestly, where do you go from there? They kept finding high points to hit, however, including “Ocean Size” and the closer (what else?) “Jane Says.” It only took a few songs for the ageless Navarro’s vest to disappear (he must have one heck of a personal trainer, not to mention a chest hair waxer), and Perry’s shirt followed shortly thereafter.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York

THE FUTURE

Reznor has made vague noises about Nine Inch Nails coming to some kind of end following this tour. It remains to be seen whether he means retiring the name in favor of solo work, starting a new band, or simply ceasing to tour for a while. He’s reportedly been clean & sober for some time now, and engaged to be married, so more power to him. If he retreats now, he’d be going out on a high note. I hope the original lineup of Jane’s Addiction manages to keep it together to continue working in some form or another. With only two studio albums to their credit (I’m not counting the awful Strays, written & recorded without Avery’s inimitable bass), the world needs some new songs from them.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York

GETTING THERE AND BACK

I had a little unexpected adventure on the long trip from Manhattan all the way out to Jones Beach. Met a few fans on the Long Island Railroad as we debated the various ways of getting there, all of which suck. Thanks to Kim & friend for the impromptu car ride to the venue! But I didn’t have the same luck on the way back, an ordeal that included waiting a full hour for a LIRR train to arrive. Picture dozens of hungry fans, shivering atop an elevated platform in the middle of nowhere.

THE VENUE

Blech. Surrounded on three sides by water, Jones Beach sounds nice in theory, but in person it’s cold. Never mind if you’re going to a show there during the summer; dress warmly. Also, for a music lover used to all kinds of venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, it’s in the middle of nowhere, with no food or water for literally miles. The exorbitant concession prices are, let’s be honest here, graft. Just to keep from dehydrating and getting a migraine from all the second-hand pot smoke, I reluctantly paid $6.50 for a bottled water, which I certainly hope the venue recycled. Also, the sound system is kinda crappy. Jane’s were noticeably louder than NIN, but Farrell’s mike sounded pretty muffled, especially on the first and last songs.

THE AUDIENCE

The audience was a weird mixture of goths, metalheads, and graying thirtysomethings like me. Although NIN has remained extremely relevant for some time now, the original Jane’s lineup has been out of action for more than a decade, and both bands date back to the late 80s / early 1990s, when I was in high school. The black-fingernailed loners didn’t surprise me, but I didn’t really expect so many headbangers. I even saw a middle-aged, bearded, fat dude in a skirt, a look I thought fizzled on arrival in the mid-90s. In retrospect, I shouldn’t really have been surprised, but I come at Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction from a different angle. Listening to NIN is an extension of my appreciation for electronic and progressive rock, and Jane’s viscerally filthy, slightly sleazy rock owes more than a little to Led Zeppelin (who were also arguably a bit prog).

Mogwai live at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, April 2009

The Scottish instrumental rock outfit Mogwai earned their reputation in part for sheer volume, like My Bloody Valentine and The Who before them. Their music is also notable for exploring the kinds of extreme dynamics you usually only hear in electronica or progressive rock, wholly unlike the fatiguing constant loudness of most pop, punk, and metal.

My teeth are still resonating. This was far and away the most viscerally physical concert I’ve ever attended. In all seriousness, I believe it would be possible for a deaf person to enjoy a Mogwai show. I don’t mean to be offensive to the deaf community here; I felt the waves of sound as much as I could hear them.

This concert, part of a three-night stand at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, was filmed and might appear on a future DVD.

Lou Reed, Antony, and Julian Schnabel Dance the Rock Minuet in the Concert Film Berlin

Lou Reed‘s 1973 album Berlin is a concept album relating the tale of a doomed woman named Caroline living in the eponymous city. The term “concept album,” then and now, invokes immediate condescension from fans and critics alike, calling to mind the progressive rock excesses of 1970s megabands The Who (Tommy and Quadrophenia) and Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans). The poet and arty downtown Manhattanite Reed might have better served himself by referring to Berlin as something more fancy-sounding, perhaps a “song cycle.”

Reed’s previous album Transformer was a great commercial success, debuting the enduring hits Satellite of Love, Perfect Day, and Walk on the Wild Side. To follow it up with something like Berlin may have been loaded with artistic integrity, but was asking for trouble in terms of making a living. I recall reading that enough material was recorded for it to be a double-lp, but it was edited down to a single disc before release (I can’t find a source for this factoid online, but I believe it was related in the liner notes of his 1992 retrospective boxed set Between Thought and Expression). Produced by Bob Ezrin (whose concept album credentials also include Pink Floyd’s The Wall), it was a commercial disaster at the time. So, cursed from the beginning, the full studio version has apparently never been released.

Lou Reed Berlin
“Caroline says / While biting her lip / Life is meant to be more than this”

In retrospect, Reed now seems to have been compelled to flee from commercial success, or at the very least was bound and determined not to repeat himself. Reed’s other infamous commercial disaster Metal Machine Music was another deliberate provocation: even the most open minded musicologist might charitably characterize it as earsplitting noise. But Berlin is different, hated more for its tone and subject matter than its sound. Several of the songs are lovely, but wow is the complete work depressing, full of anger, venom, resentment, death, despair, and guilt. The song “The Kids” is especially harrowing, ending with a tape of children wailing.

Over time, the album was eventually rediscovered. One of those reappraising Berlin was no less than artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. So it came to be, that 33 years after its release, Schnabel proposed to Reed that Berlin really ought to be a film. Schnabel is obviously attracted to artists dedicated to their work with utter conviction: revolutionary New York Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the eponymous biopic, the gay poet Reinaldo Arenas in Castro-era Cuba in Before Night Falls, and the paralyzed writer Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Berlin’s DVD bonus features include a brief conversation with Reed and Schnabel on Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle, in which Schnabel describes his attraction to the cinema from the perspective of a painter: he reverently refers to the canvas-like movie screen as “The Rectangle.”

Something that only people who’ve seem him live would know is that Reed is a great guitar player. He’s also visibly in surprisingly good shape for a former junkie (sorry, but it’s true). Does he practice yoga? Reed in performance is supremely cool and detached, but some startlingly real emotion comes through in his vocal delivery; he spits out the lines “they took her children away” from the song “The Kids” with real venom.

Lou Reed Berlin
Antony dances the rock minuet

Original guitarist Steve Hunter rejoined Reed for the Berlin tour, and can barely contain his pleasure, despite the grim subject matter. Bob Ezrin conducts with great enthusiasm, but oddly, he seems to be facing the drummer, away from the choir and woodwinds. One of my favorite bassists, Fernando Saunders, doesn’t really get to shine, but perhaps it was my sound system that couldn’t do him justice. Julian Schnabel’s daughter Lola directed film clips projected during the performance, starring Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline.

So Reed finally got a chance to present Berlin live, as a whole. Now the once-denigrated work has become a world tour, a theatrical feature film, a live album, and a DVD. Reed is now considered a New York deity, not the erratic heroin addict he was back in the day. His career is far from over and there’s plenty of time for more drama, but could this be his ultimate revenge?

The encore includes a special treat, a lovely version of Rock Minuet sung by Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) in his otherworldly voice. Rock Minuet was not from the original album, but a special request from Schnabel, who rightly felt it belonged. But it’s followed by a bummer: a desultory performance of the Velvet Underground standard Sweet Jane. It’s a letdown that after the emotionally intense proceedings, that Reed seems truly bored here and just walks through a song he’s probably played hundreds if not thousands of times.

Sigur Rós Comes Home to Iceland in Heima

Dean DeBlois’ documentary film Heima (meaning “coming home” or “at home”) follows the band Sigur Rós on their summer 2006 tour of their home country Iceland. The tour consisted of mostly free, unannounced concerts, and with the band in three basic configurations spanning the continuum of the purely acoustic to the fully electric. The four core members Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson, Georg “Goggi” Hólm, Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson, and Orri Páll Dýrason perform several acoustic songs just for the camera. The extended band (including string ensemble Amiina) is also seen performing outdoors, fully unplugged, at a concert protesting an environmentally destructive dam to be built by the Icelandic government. Finally, in contrast, we also see the full band in indoor concerts with dramatic lighting and video effects.

Sigur Rós Heima
Sigur Rós live in concert

Most Sigur Rós songs are sung in an invented language called Vonlenska (“Hopelandic”), adding to the universality and international appeal of their music. For the uninitiated, Sigur Rós are a key representative of the musical genre “post-rock,” which generally refers to highly evocative, cinematic, largely instrumental music sometimes compared to movie soundtrack composition. Other notable bands working in roughly the same idiom include Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and Múm. In this Dork Reporter’s opinion, you can trace the genre’s heritage back to the progressive rock of Yes and King Crimson.

Sigur Rós Heima
Sigur Rós live in concert

Interview clips and stunning landscape images punctuate the film, making it almost as much about Iceland itself as the band. The most incongruous clip is from the avant-garde band’s unlikely appearance on the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. They discuss being unprepared for the business side of a career in music (lawyers, contracts, etc.), but understand that they have to think of the future.

The second disc of the two DVD set features full uninterrupted performances, but with no two songs played in sequence, let alone a full concert. The fragmentation of both the main documentary film and the supplementary features is mildly disappointing. However, as reported in Pitchfork, the band has plans for a full concert film directed by Vincent Morisset.