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Laughing through rock hard times: Stephen Colbert and Mark Oliver Everett

31 Aug

The stereotypical great artist is a tortured genius. He or she rages against the pain of life with art as the only means of survival. That screaming into the darkness has created swirls of starry nights, howls of poetry, scores of beautifully painful rock songs … and, sadly, way too much substance abuse and death by suicide. The bleakness overtook them.

Stephen Colbert GQYet there are many other great artists out there who, in the face of unfathomable tragedy, not only make great art but use it to illuminate how tragedy feeds grace and gratitude. As I recently caught up on my reading, I learned more about two such geniuses: Stephen Colbert and Mark Oliver Everett, who performs as Eels.

Colbert – one of the most talented, quick-witted comedians ever to hit television – is gearing up for his September 8 debut as host of The Late Show. Over the summer, he’s done a number of quirky videos to keep his hand in while he and his team develop his new style as the talk show host Stephen Colbert, as opposed to the vainglorious idiot “Stephen Colbert” he portrayed on Comedy Central for nine years. For instance, the world got to know the town of Monroe, Michigan just a little bit better thanks to Colbert taking over as host of the public access TV show, Only In Monroe. (Believe me when I tell you, not all Michiganders eat muskrat … although some most certainly do.)

Colbert also sat for an intensive cover story interview for GQ with writer Joel Lovell. Despite being a typical PR opportunity to promote the new show, it is one of the most moving pieces of journalism I’ve read. With Lovell as a guide, Colbert connects faith, comedy and humanity in a way few artists dare to in this cynical, agnostic age.

Colbert grew up in South Carolina as the youngest of eleven children in a devout Catholic family. When he was ten, his father and the two brothers closest to him in age died in a plane crash. The only child still living at home, he buried himself in books (particularly Tolkien, to the point where he speaks passable Elvish). A haphazard student, he transferred from Hampton-Sydney to Northwestern, found his way into Del Close’s improv sphere, joined Second City – and the rest is comedy history.

But Colbert never became an angry comic, or bitterly ironic, or one who used comedy to whistle past the graveyard and distract himself from despair. Instead, his mother, guided by their Catholic faith, helped him “recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity.”

Things the Grandchildren Should KnowI’ve talked about Everett before and have gotten more familiar with his Eels catalog; his Shootenanny is currently one of my favorites. He published his memoir in 2008 when he was 45 – and if anyone should write a memoir at such a relatively early point in life, it’s him. Otherwise, no one could comprehend how the poor guy survived so much relentless heartbreak.

When Everett was 18, his father died of a heart attack, and young Mark was the one who found the body. A few years later, his troubled sister committed suicide while he was touring for his first big album. Within a year of that loss, his mother died of cancer. Later on, he lost a first cousin who was a flight attendant on one of the planes that crashed on 9/11, and his roadie ODed. (When Everett mentions becoming friends with Elliott Smith, I nearly shouted out loud, “Don’t do it!”)

Like Colbert, Everett had an unbidden, compulsive attraction to making art (creating alternative rock music, in his case) – and though he’s far from religious, Everett shares Colbert’s optimism. As he writes,

I had an epiphany. While I was thinking about all these tragic circumstances, I pictured a blue sky in my head and I suddenly felt greatly inspired. I realized that I had to write about what was going on … And the blue sky told me that there was a way to do this that was something different. That it wasn’t all bad, that there was a bright side, even to this. For me, the bright side was knowing that I was going to learn things from all this, and also just the fact that I could be inspired and could do something positive with all of it …

Reading this book puts Everett’s music into a totally different light. When he sums up being in love with a beautiful girl in the same verse as falling on the floor crying your guts out by saying “Hey man, now you’re really living,” that’s exactly what he means. He’s not being sarcastic. He’s being truthful.

Read Colbert’s GQ interview – it’s gorgeous, and excerpting it doesn’t do it justice. Then read Everett’s memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Everett’s own story of finding hope existing in tandem with tragedy is surprisingly eloquent, too.

See you on the flip side …

The Break a Leg Tour: Foo Fighters at DTE Energy Music Theater

26 Aug

Foo Fighters curtainAt last, four years after I’d seen them for the first time at the Palace, nine months after spending three of the coldest hours of my life waiting in line for tickets, the big day arrived: The Foo Fighters returned to Michigan, fronted by the indefatigable Dave Grohl.

Grohl has more than earned his reputation for being the biggest bad ass in rock and roll this summer. Back in June, Grohl pitched off the stage during a concert in Sweden, dislocating his ankle and breaking his leg before getting back on stage to finish the show. As he told Entertainment Weekly,

[T]he doctor said, “Your ankle’s dislocated and I have to put it back into place right now.” They put this roll of gauze in my mouth and I screamed and bit down on it and they put my ankle back into place and then everyone was quiet for a minute. The Foo Fighters were onstage playing a Queen song or something and I looked down and said, “OK, can I go back on stage now?” Because it didn’t hurt. My paramedic doctor said “I have to hold your ankle in place,” and I said, “Well, then you’re coming on f—ing stage with me right now.” And he did.

Dave Grohl and Dave GrohlOnce the adrenaline ebbed, the pain took over, and the band had to cancel the rest of their European dates. However, Grohl was determined to return to the road for the American leg (ahem) starting with the Foo’s 20th anniversary concert on July 4th in Washington D.C. While in the hospital – high as a kite due to painkillers – he designed a movable chair with speakers and a smoke machine built into the base and a huge red logo surrounded by guitar necks and “lazers.” Sitting on his throne, he could prop up his leg and still thrash through three hours of music. His crew constructed the contraption and the tour was saved.

As gruff as he comes off during a concert, he’s a fan first and foremost, knowing what it’s like to brave the weather, inflated ticket prices and a weary day at work the next morning to see a show. Promising to pack as much time on stage as the local ordinances would allow, Grohl kicked right into “Everlong” and didn’t let up for two and a half hours. This is a guy who usually runs from one end of the stadium to the other, so staying seated had to be tough. Although he’s graduated from a hard cast to a boot (which he used as an ersatz bow for his guitar for one number), he stayed on his throne, singing, screaming and headbanging per usual.

Dave Grohl in red

He’s also running for Coolest Dad on the Planet. A few times he called to the wings for some water, and out trotted Violet, his six year-old daughter, sporting noise-canceling earphones. (Five year-old Harper came out toward the end; probably his toddler was asleep on the bus.)

The crowd was up for anything as long as Dave was at the helm, and he was ready to acquiesce to our demands. He brought a fan on stage to make good on his poster board request to share a beer in honor of the guy’s 50th birthday. During his introductions of the band, joking that they knew “the first minute of every rock song ever written,” he capitulated to the crowd’s demand to play all of Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City.” More than once, he left it to the audience to decide if the next song would be a Foo Fighters song or a classic cover, clearly favoring the former. (Despite a compelling version of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” the Foos really aren’t that great of a cover band.)

There are so few honest-to-goodness rock bands left these days, much less those with band members under the age of 60. Grohl carries the torch for a lot of us who, despite kids, jobs, infirmities and changing times, never want the show to end.

See you on the flip side …

Concertpalooza 2015: Mariachi El Bronx, Gogol Bordello & Flogging Molly at Meadowbrook

15 Jun

MEL GB FMWhoever came up with this bill was a genius.

The three groups have a lot of similarities:

  • a sizable line up of musicians
  • a violin/fiddle player
  • a good chance of having an accordion player
  • a female musician who plays more than just a tambourine
  • ethnic roots
  • punk approach
  • a good beat you can drink to
  • rabid followings
  • music that just won’t allow you to stand still

Months ago, I got tickets for my whole family to see this show, with Gogol Bordello as the main draw. Since my son and partner have not ranged the rock-and-roll show circuit as much as my daughter and I, I prepped them by taking them through as many contingencies as I could think of. “Bring a jacket. Use bug spray. Get some earplugs. Charge your phones. Be ready to wait in traffic longer than you spent watching the show. Watch out for knuckleheads who want to crowd surf.” It was like I sending them to Rock Band Day Camp. I did everything but write their names in their t-shirts.

At present, my partner is recovering from a total hip replacement. While we had pavilion seating at the Meadowbrook Music Theater, it’s a good half mile from the parking lot to the amphitheater, and it was supposed to rain (because it always rains at outdoor rock music events). Thankfully she was able to score a handicap parking permit. We were whisked to a small lot next to the bathrooms (!), the beer distributor (!!) and the seats (!!!). With all the time saved in getting onto the property, we even had enough time to hobble up the hill to the merchandise shed before the first note was played.

(While I hope you never have to obtain a handicap sticker, if you do, I highly recommend buying concert tickets shortly thereafter.)

Mariachi El Bronx

Mariachi El Bronx

I saw Mariachi El Bronx four years ago as an opening act for the Foo Fighters at the Palace in Auburn Hills and was blown away by how they embrace the traditional style completely. It was a surprise because these Angelinos (many of them non-Latinos) also perform as The Bronx, a hardcore punk act. Yet they play brilliantly and respect the form – the galloping waltz time, the tempos that can go from languid to rapid-fire, the glorious trumpets.

Their brief set wasn’t all it could be, sadly. Before they got on stage, a bizarre pulse filled the venue like a strobe light made of sound waves. It was a cool effect for about 30 seconds, but it went on and on until it was way too annoying and disorienting. Then, once the sound stunt stopped and the band began, the bass and percussion levels were set way too high so they overwhelmed the rest of the musicians. It was too bad that my family had a poor first impression; I still bought their t-shirt.

Eugne Hutz and Gogol Bordello

Eugene Hutz and Gogol Bordello

Then on to the band we were waiting for: the gypsy punk troubadours, Gogol Bordello. After seeing them last year in an indoor venue, I hoped an open-air environment wouldn’t diffuse their magic. Not to fear: Eugene Hutz and the rest of the international gang were in fine form. My daughter and I had a bet that Eugene wouldn’t be wearing a shirt: while I lost the bet when he entered, I won it about 15 minutes later when he’d worked up enough of a lather to toss it into the wings. They’re the kind of band that will get you singing along, even if you don’t know the words – since they could be singing in any number of languages, it doesn’t matter what comes out of your mouth as long as it’s in tempo.

Given how many green t-shirts – and men in kilts – there were in the audience, it was clear the bulk of the crowd was there for Flogging Molly. I had never heard any of their music. I assumed they were direct competitors with the Boston-based Dropkick Murphys, but their brand of Celtic punk is less screamy and and more folky, with fiddle/flute/banjo instrumentation and songs that could be heard closing down a pub at 2 a.m. This was a bit of a hometown gig for the LA-based band, as the fiddle/flute player Bridget Regan is from Michigan. (Her Irish husband, lead singer and guitarist Dave King, made a point of extolling the beauty of his mother-in-law from the stage.)

Floggin Molly - 1

Bridget Regan and Dave King

King is a charming showman: bearded, goofy, bounding around the stage barely time for a breath and a swig before starting the next number. My daughter described him as looking like a great dad. The guys in the audience who had been amping up their anticipation with the help of a few tall beers sang along to every song at the top of their lungs. We, the uninitiated, had our fill after an hour and left before the encore, slipping out of the handicap parking lot without having to hit the brakes once.

I talk about tribalism a lot when it comes to rock music. You go to a show to be with those like you, fellow fans who love a bunch of musicians enough to pay the ridiculous Ticketmaster fees and put up with the knuckleheads just so you can breathe the same air, sing the same lyrics and throb to the same beat. Putting these three tribes together was not only brilliant cross-promotion. It opened our ears and widened our circle to include even more like minds and hearts.

See you on the flip side at the next Concertpalooza gigs: the Violent Femmes on June 20, and the Heartless Bastards on June 21

The “Summertime Sadness” of Lana Del Rey

9 Jun

Concertpalooza 2015 got off to a terrific start on May 31, thanks to the generosity of our friends who had tickets to Lana Del Rey they couldn’t use. Off to the rain-sodden DTE Energy Music Theater we went, my younger daughter and I, thrilled to see one of our favorites from the fourth row.

Lana Del Rey - 2

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

Lana Del Rey used to perform under her given name, Lizzie Grant, but changed it to be more in line with the noirish Hollywood image she cultivates. Her look is very feminine: chiffon, liquid eyeliner, long hair and nails. Her multi-octave voice juices her ethereal, whiskey sour sound. In most of her work, she chronicles a doomed combination of attraction and danger when it comes to men. “Off to the Races” is a love song sung from a jail cell to a seedy older guy with a gambling habit and a “cocaine heart.” She excerpts The Crystals’ “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” in her lyrics for “Ultraviolence.” She even gives over to her boyfriend’s passion for Springsteen and video games.

It’s as if Carole King scored David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

The staging for her Endless Summer tour amplifies this, with the singer framed by two listing skyscrapers towering over a sign spelling her name in high-watt bulbs. The video footage on screens around the stage – of flowers, a car wreck, even Del Rey herself – shifted between black and white and the burnt rust and ocher of the cover of a pulp novel. Smoke furling around them, she and her four-piece band were mesmerizing.

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

I appreciate her daring disregard for what a modern woman is supposed to express. Her persona survives more than lives, loving whatever her boyfriend loves without question, molding herself to whatever shape her lover demands. She also appreciates her fans a great deal, to the point of stopping the show twice to go into the general admission area to pose for selfies and sign autographs. This struck my daughter as sweet, although it made me wonder why she couldn’t have just sung a couple extra numbers and stuck around after the show instead.

However, Del Rey’s obsession with death and “Summertime Sadness” raises concern and criticism in the press. (This is someone whose two big albums are Born to Die and Ultraviolence, after all.) When she capped her admiration for Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain to a British interviewer last summer by saying, “I wish I was dead already,” Frances Bean Cobain challenged her, saying “the death of young musicians isn’t something to romanticize.” It doesn’t help that Del Rey comes off as a bit flippant, making me shake my head as she considers feminism as merely being able to do what you want to do as a woman and otherwise “not an interesting concept.”

Clearly I don’t know her personally, so I don’t know whether she’s dealing with personal demons or shrugging off philosophical discussions to focus on her music. I also have to ask myself if quotes like this get hyped in the press because she’s a female singer who doesn’t do shiny, wildly costumed and choreographed pop.

Setting aside what may or may not be her personal foibles, Lana Del Rey is uniquely engaging because she isn’t out to be a role model, or empowering, or even fun, which isn’t what many would expect of a young female singer.  That’s what makes her appeal equally to jaded concert-goers like me and upbeat, well-adjusted young fans in flower crowns like my daughter:

See you on the flip side …

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