Local Rhythms – Greed Bites Babs

ticketbastard.jpgAdapted from an earlier post, from the September 21 2006 Claremont Eagle Times

Ticketmaster, king of the concert cartel and ruiner of live music worldwide, is now in the innocuously named “secondary” market. Meaning that they’ve started carving off their best seats and marking them up ahead of ticket Mafia rackets like StubHub.

They even host a web site for customers to re-sell tickets. Now, instead of fans waiting on line for a chance to see their favorite performers, or cheer on the home team, speculators compete for a chance to hit the lottery. Ticketmaster keeps a percentage of every sale, what Tony Soprano might call a “vigorish,” if he were less cultured.

But apart from big dogs like Streisand, Madonna, Clapton and their ilk, the concert market is actually tanking. Oh, there’s a Dane Cook or two every year, but nothing lasts for long. Ask John Mayer, whose double bill tour with Sheryl Crow this summer played to half-full houses.

You wouldn’t know it from Ticketmaster’s bottom line, but most musicians are learning a hard truth. Ticket sales are falling while total revenue is climbing. There are big shows, but fewer of them, and going to see live music has turned into a trip to Disney World for most people. Sadly, that experience now has about as much to with music as Jack Sparrow does with naval history.

Barbra Streisand invented this kind of gouging back in 1994, when tickets to her MGM Grand shows passed a then-unprecedented 100 dollars. It seems like most shows have cost north of that forever, but Babs opened the floodgates.

Conservatives hate Streisand for her politics; I despise her for that.

Now she’s out on tour, for one last cash grab before her pipes sag along with everything else. But it’s not 1994. Her die-hard fans are, to put it as gently as possible, dying.

Worse yet, it seems that Barbra’s also losing her money mojo. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that with $750 face prices, “sales have been slow, with excellent seats going unsold in Atlanta, Columbus, Ohio and other cities. This, in turn, has undercut Ticketmaster and Ms. Streisand’s efforts to sell some of those seats at auctions for even higher prices.”

Streisand and Ticketmaster passed the century threshold by rationalizing that if scalpers were getting big money, they were entitled to some too. Now they’re marking up marked-up tickets, and whining when no one wants to buy them. Meanwhile, some performers have a hard time selling seats at any price.

Tom Petty was right. Thank god for the clubs, where real music, not money, is still king:

Thursday: Richard King & Friends, Sunapee Coffeehouse – Still in their temporary quarters at the Knowlton House, this area resource is putting the call out for community support. Without it, their last show will be November 9. Tonight, it’s a mix of oldies and folk, with a few originals as well. Cosy Sheridan, a well-known and talented folksinger, is due October 12. Interested supporters should call 603-763-2668.

Friday: Spiral Farm Band, Sophie & Zeke’s – Named after their Putney, Vermont farm, this group deftly channels “O Brother Where Art Thou.” They’ve become so popular at this downtown Claremont restaurant that the third Friday of the month is now theirs for the playing. The music starts at eight, and it’s such a hit that reservations are recommended if you want to sit close to the band.

Saturday: Stonewall, Heritage Tavern – Former Ingrid’s Ruse drummer (and famous organ donor) Shamus Martin has been working with Stonewall on a new album, as well as putting the finishing touches on his former band’s first and last CD. There’s a Ruse release party scheduled at Heritage October 21. Tonight, it’s straight up rock from a great three piece band.

Sunday: Chris Smither, Higher Ground – This should be a special show. Opener Ollabelle worked with Smither on his latest CD, so the chemistry should be right. But the best reason to see this show is Smither, who’s making the best music of his career right now. The man’s living proof that there’s life after 60.

Tuesday: Aerosmith/Motley Crüe, Tweeter Center – A major double bill like this is a certain sellout, right? Nope. There’s still tickets left, even though each of these bands once had the star appeal to fill larger buildings all by themselves. Steven Tyler had some health scares earlier this year, but his singing at the Hatch Shell last Fourth of July was entertaining, though a bit surreal.

Wednesday: Thomas Dolby, Iron Horse – Here’s a fun fact: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first clip aired on MTV, was originally recorded by Bruce Wooley & the Camera Club, Dolby’s first band. Later, Thomas managed to get his own stuff on MTV, and be a mystery keyboard guest on Def Lepperd’s “Pyromania.”

Elton John – The Captain and the Kid

captainandkid.jpgFor six years starting in 1969, Elton John released no fewer than nine albums of original material. His latest, “The Captain and the Kid,” is an autobiographical echo of those heady times, a follow-up to the most successful record of he and lyricist Bernie Taupin’s run, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” which entered the charts at number one in 1975.

“I see no brakes just open road and lots of gasoline,” Elton sings as the journey and album begins on “Postcards From Richard Nixon.” The rest of the record proves there’s plenty left in the tank. There’s much nostalgia contained here, from the bemused “Old ‘67” (“Honest, it’s amazing/that we can get together at all”) to the title track’s take on their explosive success (“I’ve seen it growing from next to nothing/into a giant eating up your town”).

The revved-up welcome-to-LA boogie of “Just Like Noah’s Ark” rocks with his best work, and also takes ownership of their history: “we wrote it as we saw it from the centre of the stage… the truth is never quite the same as what the papers say.” “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way (NYC)” recalls another ode to New York, Honky Chateau’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.”

In a first, Taupin is photographed with Elton on the album’s cover, and most of the record is viewed through two sets of eyes. At times, it’s eerie how well Elton’s thoughts are articulated through Taupin’s words. “And The House Fell Down” describes his battle with drug addition (“I’m more paranoid with every little sound…Three days on a diet of cocaine and wine”); “Tinderbox” looks at the highs and lows of a 40-year working relationship.

“Blues Never Fade Away” is the centerpiece of “Captain and the Kid.” When he asks, “how did we get so lucky?” it’s both a question and a lament for the many friends lost to drugs, disease and assassin’s bullets: “and there’s marble markers and little white crosses/along the beaten path/and I’ve spread their ashes on the wind/and I miss John Lennon’s laugh.”

Musically, this is Elton John’s strongest record since 1988’s “Reg Strikes Back,” but it stands shoulder to shoulder with his best mid-70’s work. It’s extraordinary – at a time when nostalgia tours and greatest hits retrospectives are the norm, that the duo has something so strong to offer at what should be the end of the line. Elton John recently told a journalist that he doesn’t expect to release any more hits. The mantle, he says, has been passed to a younger generation of talent.

If he keeps making records like “The Captain and the Kid,” he could be forced to eat those words.
Five Stars

Chris Smither – Leave the Light On

smither.jpgFor much of his career, Chris Smither’s had a reputation as a musician’s musician, a polite euphemism for toiling in relative, if comfortable, obscurity. He’s best known for giving Bonnie Raitt “Love Me Like a Man.”

That may not change with his latest, and it’s a shame. “Leave the Light On” is packed with wry wit and rugged charm. It’s full of touching moments like “Father’s Day,” where he arrives at a beautiful understanding of tenuous, yet enduring family love, along with passages of buoyant optimism.

The record’s tone is set with the leadoff track, “Open Up,” which melds a bemused sensibility to a jaunty Texas swing beat. He sounds a bit like John Prine when he reports “I don’t think for pleasure/it’s just hard not to do/my thinking is a measure of how much I need a clue.”

“I’m still flying blind,” he continues, but if that’s true, he still sees quite clearly.

Smither faces his own dark history on a few songs. “Shillin’ for the Blues” revisits his alcoholism and the resentment it fueled, while “Seems So Real” plunges him deeper into the abyss, as he sings, “if down were up you couldn’t get much higher.”

He also covers Lightnin’ Hopkins “Blues in a Bottle,” but with 21 years of sobriety, most of the record is a hopeful look forward rather than a ruminating backward glance. In the title cut Smither wishes he’d noticed “the taste of endless time,” but makes it clear he’s more concerned about what’s left to be gained when he sings “I’ve got plenty left I’ve set my sight on/don’t wait up, leave the light on.”

David “Goody” Goodrich’s stellar production and backup playing propel the disc. Enlisting help from Americana darlings Ollabelle, along with string wizards Tim O’Brien and Sean Staples, he gives “Leave the Light On” plenty of texture, but doesn’t bury Smither’s earthy essence beneath it.

Anita Suhanin, who’s done session work with Goodrich before, shines on “Cold Trail Blues,” her wind-tossed soprano the perfect counterpoint to Peter Case’s sad song of romantic loss. She also enlivens the title track.

On other highlights, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” is transformed into a waltz to surprisingly good effect. “Origin of Species” is a hilarious send-up of the intelligent design movement, and “Diplomacy” is perhaps the most good-natured protest song anyone’s written in years. With his latest, Chris Smither proves that age and experience are reliable incubators of artistry.

Five Stars

More info: Chris Smither performs Thursday, September 21 at the Somerville Theatre and Saturday September 23 at the Iron Horse Music Hall

YouTube/Cingular Deal – That’s More Like It

you.jpgAs I’ve written elsewhere, the YouTube/Warner Music deal will likely the cause the reverse of its intended purpose. On the other hand, the buzz-rich, cash-poor web site looks poised to leverage their cool factor with YouTube Underground, the battle of the bands announced earlier today.

YouTube’s strength is viral; marginally talented, attention-starved kids, weaned on reality television and rap lyrics with more brand names than verbs, upload their personal “American Idol” auditions to YouTube and pray that someone, anyone, will care. Out of the millions, a few lucky ones creep to the top.

On the other hand, the YouTube revolution has breathed new life into a dying art form, the indie band video. The most ironic moment of the 21st Century thus far has to be the appearance of OK-Go! on the MTV Video Music Awards. The band NEVER HAD A VIDEO AIR ON MTV before that night. OK-Go! owes most of its success to YouTube.

YouTube Underground promises that kind of cult explosion to an unknown, unsigned band. Of course, keeping true to irony, the winner will play on ABC’s Good Morning America.

I’m noticing a trend here. Large media outlets, be they record companies, TV networks, publishers or studios, can’t seem to tap the underground on their own. They’ve lost the ability to locate and nurture new talent. So they wait for talent to nurture itself, and for hordes of cash, pick the low-hanging fruits of someone else’s labor.

Somehow, that doesn’t seem like a viable business model. At some point, these artists will raise their price too high, or decline to share their bounties altogether. But what do I know? I’m just a blogger.

YouTube, like MySpace and other online communities, is simply a great host who demands very little from its guests – and everyone wants to come to the party.

YouTube Underground is the perfect vehicle – original, undiscovered talent flowing like cream to the top.

Contrast that with Warner Brothers. By hoping to collect copyright royalty fees from vain teenagers, they’re preparing to shoot fish in an empty barrel.