Tag Archives: Beck

Echo in the Canyon: A 12-String Serenade to the California Sound

21 Jul

A few months ago, I saw a trailer for Echo in the Canyon, a documentary focusing on California’s Laurel Canyon-based musicians who turned folk music into rock legend in the mid to late 1960s. And, for a brief few seconds, I saw my dear, departed Tom Petty on screen in a guitar store talking shop. I realized it must have been the last documentary project he ever did, so, with wistful anticipation, I planned to see it when it came to metro Detroit.

Thankfully, my partner saw it was playing at the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak on a hellishly hot afternoon when all any sane person would want to do was sit in an air-conditioned theater with an artisanal chocolate bar and iced black tea. I hustled over to catch a matinee.

The billed “star” of the documentary is Jakob Dylan, Bob’s fourth born and the lead singer of the middling Wallflowers. He and director Andrew Slater chose to focus on the prolific years of 1965-1967 to support their 2015 concert featuring stars of the 1990s and 2000s singing key songs by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys.

That is great material hobbled by a lousy premise. As much as I am glad Fiona Apple can still get a gig, the cover versions do nothing the originals didn’t do a thousand times better. Jakob has the sturdy timbre, diction and tone his father could never muster, but he is a passionless performer. He is stone faced during each recording session; he ably hits the notes and plays guitar, but there is no warmth or grit to hang your eardrums on. Additionally, no one benefits from Jakob’s staged conversations with Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Beck jammed together on a couch next to a coffee table piled with LPs. These talented, eccentric musicians say nothing about how the albums they hold in their hands affected their personal or professional lives. It’s a missed opportunity.

What Jakob does have is connections, and that’s where the documentary earns its cred. While it’s not stated, I imagine he has known many of these legends from childhood, and they easily open up to him. He gets Stephen Stills to admit he “booked” when the cops showed up one night, leaving Eric Clapton and others to get handcuffed for pot possession. Michelle Phillips, now a bright-eyed grandmother, gleefully shares how her dalliance with band mate Denny Doherty was the impetus for her husband (also a band mate) John writing, “Go Where You Wanna Go.” Brian Wilson jokes that Jakob and his backing band are playing “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in the wrong key. Ringo confirms that George Harrison sent Roger McGuinn a note that he had based his opening riff in “If I Needed Someone” on McGuinn’s “The Bells of Rhymney.” Even Neil Young shows up, although he is only seen playing behind glass in a studio toward the end of the film without comment.

And, thankfully, Jakob’s dad’s brother Wilbury, Tom Petty, gets significant opportunities to be the consummate rock historian he was. He sets the record straight from the start: it’s Rickenbacker, not “Bach-er,” that made the 12-string guitar at the heart of the Byrds’ shimmering sound. Throughout the film, he provides the perspectives only he – as a lifelong fan, a musical beneficiary and a peer of the featured acts – could share. (I so miss that guy.)

Echo in the Canyon illustrates three years of pop music innovation and collaboration, nurtured by the woodsy Laurel Canyon culture where you could drop by your neighbor’s pad and noodle around on a song that would become rock and roll canon. It’s worth hunting for whenever you need a break from the heat while still enjoying the sunshine.

See you on the flip side …

I think I’m in love but I’m getting kinda nervous to say so: Beck at the Fox

2 Jul

This is going to be the best concert summer EVAH!

While my friend at Every Record Tells a Story revels in seeing every great band under the sun in a matter of days at the Glastonbury Festival, I will be able to spread my joy out from June through September right here in Detroit … and stay quite a bit drier. (What is it about rock festivals that attracts precipitation?) Five concerts in ninety days, plus a couple of Major League Baseball games tossed in, has made me Ticketmaster’s best customer. I, as the kids say, am stoked!

The Fox Theatre in all its gaudy glory (Photo by Lois DeBacker)

My concertpalooza kicked off on June 28 with Beck at the Fox Theatre. For the many times I’ve seen shows at the neighboring Fillmore, I had never set foot in the Fox before – and it is a show in itself. Built as a movie palace in the 1920s, it is in full regalia after being fully restored in 1988. Ornate does not begin to describe the interior; even the festooning has been festooned. Everywhere you turn, there’s something to gawk at: vermilion columns on all sides; a gilded elephant’s head at the center of the proscenium; the glass-jeweled chandelier, which weighs a literal ton and looks like Auntie Mame designed it for her Christmas tree. The elevator still requires an elevator operator; the ushers are black-blazered and helpful. Even the bar – with the plastic cups labeled “$7.00 Wine” – seems to be from a more civilized era.

All of which makes it a strange place to see a rock concert … and the perfect place to see Beck.

beck-scratchedBeck is a musical collage artist, assembling samples, riffs, hooks and lyrics from any number of sources and genres like so many pieces of broken colored glass and scuffed bric-a-brac. He may be best known for the nonsense rap of “Loser” and the jokey soul of “Where It’s At,” but as his current album Morning Phase proves, he is just as adept at creating songs that are rich, melodic and moving. No slouch as a musician, he’s a gifted guitarist and solid vocalist and can play a mean harmonica when he wants to. For this tour, Beck surrounded himself with six equally versatile musicians who moved easily from dreamy country & western to electronic beats to total noise.

About 45 minutes after I and my newly anointed concert buddy Lois settled into our seats in the center of the back of the top balcony, an announcement came over the PA that due to unforeseen circumstances, the (unnamed) opening act was not going to be able to appear. I thought this was just a joke, but apparently not. The opener was to have been Ghost of a Sabre Tooth Tiger, fronted by Sean Lennon, and there were problems at the Canadian border.

Beck: blue and blurry from the balcony

Beck: blue and blurry from the balcony

As a result, Beck opened for himself with a 40-minute acoustic set followed by a second act of his up-tempo pop hits: more songs than he’s played at most gigs on this tour. He was good-natured throughout the evening, dancing like no one was watching when the mood struck and playing and sounding great.

I haven’t been to a fully produced rock show in a while, and it was a treat not only to hear such great music performed so well (while sitting down, no less) but also to bask in the incredible lights and video tailored to each song. “Waves,” a somber song from Morning Phase with a chorus of the word, “isolation,” pinned Beck in a spotlight between columns of red light washing up the gold latticework on either side of the proscenium. I had chills.

If you wrote off Beck as a slacker rapper back in the Nineties because of “Loser,” you’re missing out on a lot of great music, no matter what your musical druthers. Here’s just one of many examples for you to enjoy:

See you on the next stop on the concertpalooza tour: Queen + Adam Lambert at the Palace of Auburn Hills on July 12

The Next Day

4 Mar

None of us are getting any younger, and this has to be the plague of a rock star’s existence. In addition to hip replacements and grandkids and whatever other worries they share with the common folk, they also have to make peace with the fact that they aren’t who they were when they became famous. An image of themselves at the peak of fame – young, leather-clad, sexy, invincible – must stare back at them like a mournful ghost every time they look in the mirror.

David Bowie did himself a huge favor by 1) being a musical and marketing genius 2) making well-publicized overhauls to his performing persona over time so he didn’t get stuck in one he couldn’t maintain and 3) being comfortable enough with himself to stay out of the limelight until he had something he wanted to say.

Bowie The Next DayHe waited until his 66th birthday last January to release “Where Are We Now,” the first single from his newest album, The Next Day.  This took pretty much everyone – fans, the press – by surprise. Since a serious on-stage heart attack in 2004, he’d kept a low profile and hadn’t made public that he was recording new material.

The album artwork is simply brilliant: a clean white square obscuring one of his most iconic images, the cover of his 1977 release, “Heroes.” You can’t see his two-tone eyes or his youthful glamour or his stunning black hair. That’s past; that’s been done; you can’t access it anymore. It’s time for something else.

I am just beginning to absorb the album, which will stream on iTunes until it’s available for purchase in a few days. I’ll leave it to the critics to  put it in its proper place in Bowie’s musical canon, but I truly like it. It’s got a great deal of perspective and depth without being inaccessible or arty. While I appreciate his more recent albums, especially Heathen, The Next Day seems warmer, more compassionate. Bowie – a performer who specialized in putting a dramatic distance between himself, the characters he portrayed and his audience – connects to the listener in a very human way.

Always fond of  his visual impact, it’s no surprise that two of the songs have been released via video. “Where Are We Now” is rather strange and subverts his glamour from the get-go: he appears only as a distorted face projected on a two-headed doll. (It’s David Bowie singing mournfully about Germany … what else would you expect?) The other, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” mangles his past identities into a freaky Mobius strip that turns fame in on itself. He’s supported by kindred spirit Tilda Swinton – who, by being in the same room as he is, proves they really aren’t the the same person after all – and a couple of  young doppelgangers:

(It must be noted that there is some half-naked carryings on in this film … but if you look carefully you’ll see that the only one naked to the waist is a man … isn’t he?)

As a man and a musician, David Bowie makes us hopeful. We have more than one chance; we have any number of lives to live, full of discovery and challenge, unbounded by age yet informed by history. Each next day gives us a clean white page on which to begin anew.

Added bonus: In case you haven’t seen the Lincoln-sponsored web ads, Beck produced a remarkable concert version  of Bowie’s “Sound + Vision.” He employed an impressive bank of more than 150 musicians–gospel singers, electric guitarists, strings, percussion, even a yodeler and a singing saw–standing in a ring around the seated audience. There’s a whiz-bang 360-degree video experience, which (if you have the bandwidth) uses your computer’s webcam to follow your eyes as you focus on any element of the concert you wish. Or you can enjoy the standard definition version shot more like a typical concert video–which is still pretty nifty. Grab your earphones and give it a listen and don’t worry: no one’s half-naked in this one.

See you on the flip side …

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