Tag Archives: The Band

So ya thought ya might like to go to the show?

24 Jun

It’s taken me more than two weeks to recover from watching Roger Waters’ The Wall at the Joe Louis Arena, and not just because I finally shook off the contact high from the pot-laced stogie the guy sitting in front of us was passing around to his buddies throughout Act II.

The show was thrilling, eye-popping, visceral and awe-inspiring. The animation, both from the 1982 film version and the new stuff, was sharp and ominous. At 68, Roger Waters is in fine voice and in full command of the piece. And even though it took two men (Dave Kilminster on lead guitar and Robbie Wyckoff on vocals) to fill in for David Gilmour, the overall sound was as dense and dramatic as the original recording.

When the show came to the Palace of Auburn Hills last fall, by the time I looked into getting tickets they were well above our price point. “The only way we’ll be able to afford it is if I sell a kidney,” my teenaged daughter lamented, adding, “and it would have to be a kidney full of heroin.” Given that Mr. Waters made a gazillion dollars on the 2011 leg of the tour – fans having ponied up numerous kidneys full of heroin, no doubt – he saw fit to cross the US again this year. This time, Santa Claus got us tickets as our big present last December.

Sting in 1979 … attractive even when you can’t see his biceps

Opera, rock or otherwise, usually bugs me. No matter how beautifully performed or lavishly staged, the story rarely makes any logical sense and so the emotional wallop evades me. As much as I love to listen to Tommy, thematically it’s a mess. Its symbolism is either trite or opaque: what exactly was pinball supposed to mean anyway? Quadrophenia works a lot better for me because it wasn’t so symbolic and I could follow the basic thread of the story, with a little help from Wikipedia. It’s not as audacious as Tommy, though, so I’m not sure it would benefit from being staged. (Never saw the 1979 movie version, even though it was Sting’s film debut.)

The Wall, however, has never failed to fascinate and unnerve me in all formats. When I bought it in 1979, I’d shoo my parents out of the living room where our stereo system was so I could memorize the double LP with the door closed and the lights on. When I saw the film in college, I was so freaked out by it I spontaneously shrieked on the way home to my dorm. Even the Scissor Sisters’ doomsday disco cover of “Comfortably Numb” is unsettling.

Roger Waters accompanies a 1981 film of himself singing “Mother” as it’s shown on The Wall behind him

It started as Waters’ statement about alienation in the face of stardom. Now it’s morphed into alienation in the face of pretty much every aspect of modern life: totalitarianism, warfare, politics, marriage, education, commercialism, even helicopter parenting.

Thirty-three years after it was released, the music of The Wall is still scary, still alluring and still incredibly beautiful. It encompasses why rock music was invented: to rail against what is and demand that there be something better.

Now, please enjoy a snippet of the 1990 concert version of The Wall, staged in the former no-mans land where the Berlin Wall had stood eight months earlier. Waters and his Pink Floyd bandmates were on the outs, so he was the only one of the four to appear. He more than made up for it by casting an eclectic and inspired cast of musicians, including Sinead O’Connor and three-fifths of The Band, who performed “Mother”:

See you on the flip side …

A time I remember oh so well …

19 Apr

Levon during his days with The BandLevon Helm, the drummer and one of the three singers of The Band, passed away after a long, long struggle against throat cancer. I’m taking this news harder than I would have expected. The guy’s voice just made me feel at home.

My first awareness of The Band’s music was through Joan Baez’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Even as a six year-old, I thought it was a strange song for a woman to sing. I knew full well she couldn’t be Virgil Caine and she couldn’t be a “working man” like her father. But she was so pretty and she performed it with such sunniness, I loved to sing along – especially since she mentioned Richmond, my home town. Wow, I lived somewhere famous!

A few years later when I heard the original version, my first reaction was that those Band guys turned a great Joan Baez tune into a real downer. My misunderstanding of the meaning of the song continued through high school, where I played clarinet for our school’s Marching Rebel Band.  When our team got a touchdown, we’d play “Dixie” and wave the Stars and Bars. When we lost, we’d sing “Dixie” as a dirge on the long bus ride home, followed by a reverent version of Ms. Baez’s boppy tune.

As they say, ignorance is bliss.

I was born and bred in the Confederate capital city, and the Civil War is Richmond’s place in history. The gigantic statues of Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and the rest up and down Monument Avenue are immovable symbols of a lost and ignoble cause. I know full well that what we used to coyly call “the War Between the States” was a battle to preserve slavery. Waving the Confederate Flag as a symbol of school pride, as we did every Friday at our football games, was at best naive and at worst, racist.  It’s difficult to think about as an adult because I feel like such an idiot in retrospect.

That’s why I understand the import and feel the impact of The Band’s song so deeply. The art of Robbie Robertson’s lyrics and Levon Helm’s delivery is that it strips the Civil War of its romanticism but not its humanity. Virgil Caine’s story is one of futility and loss: “You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.” Heavy stuff for a hit record; bittersweet, beautiful and necessary for this Southerner to hear.

Rest in peace, Levon, and thank you.

See you on the flip side …

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