Donna Summer @ Meadowbrook

Donna Summer
Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavillion
Gilford, New Hampshire
July 8, 2008

Disco diva Donna Summer hasn’t heard the news, apparently. The album is dead, the song is king – or in her case, queen.

Performing the eighth show of her U.S. tour, Summer devoted more than half the night to selections from her first CD of new material in 17 years.  She’d warned in a recent interview that she planned to use her big hits, like “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance,” as chips sprinkled in a freshly baked cookie of new music.

It’s a safe wager that the mostly-female crowd would have gladly skipped the carbs and gone for the whole chocolate bar.  If that was the case, they weren’t letting on, and to Summer’s credit, she knew when to deliver the sweet stuff.

Dressed in a sparking blue ballroom gown and arm-length matching gloves, she began the show with “The Queen Is Back” from the new album, and quickly segued into “I Feel Love,” followed by an energetic “Dim All the Lights.”

“I’m A Fire,” another selection from “Crayons,” featured a thumping bass line that recalled Summer’s disco days, and was the first new selection to get the crowd standing.

The tepid “Sand At My Feet” soon had them sitting again.

She brought a five-piece band, with two backup singers and three dancers (who wore themselves out with costumer changes).  She used several electronic panels spread across the stage to good effect, providing moment-to-moment visual cues with every song. “On the Radio” evoked nostalgia for a bygone age with graphics of radio dials, morphing into pulsing disco lights.

Just before intermission, Summer played two of the best tracks from “Crayons” – the bouncy samba “Brazil” and the title song – the latter, a ska-infused romp.   The first set closed with “Mr. Music,” which included a wistful montage of Summer’s record covers over the years.

“Enough is Enough (No More Tears),” her empowering 1979 duet with Barbra Streisand, kicked off the concert’s second half, and like a lot of the evening’s selections, the beat was noticeably (and unnecessarily)  faster than the original.  She followed that with another hit – one of the oddest disco cover songs of all time – “MacArthur Park,” which showed off Summer’s operatic singing range to great effect, and was one of the evening’s highlights.

The middle of set two slumped a bit.  Summer seemed to have difficulty with her self-described “diva moment.”  Her attempts to explain a ‘was this all worth it?’ epiphany were drowned out with “you go, girl” cheers, shouts and song requests. She did another new tune, “Be Myself Again,” touted as new album’s centerpiece, but it’s more than a long shot that anyone will ever hear it again after this concert (unless they buy “Crayons” – another dodgy bet).

Likewise, “Slide Over Backwards,” featuring the fictional Hattie Mae, proprietor of a mock New Orleans bar, fell flat when Summer left the stage for a costume change and let one of her backup singers solo for a song.

She recovered from this small disaster with a one-two-three punch of “She Works Hard For the Money,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” – the last given a modern sheen with Randy Mitchell’s screaming lead guitar work.

She encored with a not-so-subtle bow to David Bowie (‘Fame (The Game)”), augmented with a photo montage of Billie Holliday, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon, along with head shots from Hollywood’s golden age.

“Last Dance” was, appropriately enough, Summer’s final bow of the night, and provided the first glimpse of that ubiquitous Seventies icon, the disco ball. Tellingly, the mirrored ball fragmented into several pieces behind Summer as she wrapped things up, gave a half-hearted wave and shuffled off the stage.

She’d played most of her familiar songs (“Love to Love You Baby,” “Sunset People” and “The Wanderer” were among the missing), but in the end it still felt frustrating.  The sad fact is today’s fans attend one or two shows a year; they expect the hits, not a musical sales pitch.

For its part, the Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion is the concert venue equivalent of a scrappy Indie rock band, working harder and delivering better than the competition.  They sell their own tickets with reasonable service charges, don’t charge for parking, have a friendly, engaging staff, and a wide array of affordable food and beverage choices.

The acoustics are excellent for an outdoor facility and they even make a top-shelf margarita that puts a few Mexican restaurants to shame.

Local Rhythms – Business May Suck, But Music Is Fine

As the New Year dawns, it’s safe to say that the music business is nursing a big 2007 hangover. 

It’s not just the declining compact disc market, which has dropped steadily since Napster arrived on the scene in 1999.  Nor is it simply the perceived cost of illegal downloading, which can’t be sued out of existence.

Even the concert business took it on the chin last year, down almost 17 percent from 2006.  This despite big tours by the Police, Justin Timberlake and Hannah Montana 

The industry, when it wasn’t launching lawsuits or layoffs, responded with a grudging acknowledgement of the inevitable.  EMI stripped copy protection from its iTunes songs, and last week Warner Brothers did the same with web partner Amazon.

Now even Led Zeppelin can be bought on the Net and played on any portable player – but it may be too little, too late. 

So the business is hurting – does that mean music itself is doomed?  Hardly.

Bands like Radiohead and the Eagles made headlines by taking business matters into their own hands, self-releasing albums or crafting lucrative independent deals.  But for every superstar like Madonna (who formed what may turn out to be a dubious alliance with promoter Live Nation) there were hundreds, if not thousands of artists bypassing the historic control of record companies to do it, by varying degrees, their way. 

All the while, they quietly and tenaciously reshaped the world.   With computers, music is easier to make; with the Internet it’s simpler to share.

As David Byrne points out in an excellent piece he wrote for this month’s Wired: “the future of music as a career is wide open.” 

To Byrne, who knows the business both as a performer (Talking Heads) and label honcho (Luka Bop), the record companies aren’t good for much more than up-front money.  Packaging, marketing, distribution and the overhead required to maintain them represent more than half the cost of a CD.

In these days of digital delivery, such services are unnecessary.  The businesses that provide them are worse than in trouble – they’re irrelevant.   

More to the point, with bands no longer paying for jewel cases, warehouses and shelf space, making music is cheap enough that giving it away isn’t crazy, it’s shrewd.

Case in point: many bands mentioned in Local Rhythms offer free songs on MySpace and the web. You listen and, curiosity piqued, go see them play live – no record label required.  

Here are just a few:

Thursday: Bang Camaro, Pickle Barrel – Winners of this year’s Boston Music Award for best band and song, this group strips away the excess from hard rock.  No, wait – they remove everything BUT the excess, and the results make Queen, Skid Row and G n’ R fans quiver.  Often accompanied by a 10-plus member “choir,” theirs is a big sound indeed – positively monstrous.  How ever will they cram themselves onto the tiny Killington stage? 

Friday: Jason Cann, Bistro Nouveau at Eastman – A talented troubadour with a fine collection of covers by the likes of James Taylor, Van Morrison and even Tracy Chapman (his surprising take of “Fast Car”).  I’m most impressed with his many original songs – none of which, alas, is posted on his web page.  If the world knew about Jason Cann’s talents, he’d be much more than a mainstay at local clubs like Elixir, Skunk Hollow and Bistro Nouveau.  Check him out.

Saturday: Squids, Salt Hill Two – Brian Kennell’s band of merry men (and women – vocalist Leslee Glidden) are the ultimate party band.   Every song they cue up is a favorite, and they play with love and affection.  That’s the reason anyone should make music, and it surely explains why Brian lends a hand with a few other area bands when he’s not thumping bass for the Squids.  Salt Hill Two, I should add, is a local treasure as well as a great bar. 

Sunday:  Fogey Mountain Boys, Canoe Club – When it comes to side projects, this one is definitely the topper.  Every musician in this outstanding roots/bluegrass band – Mike Gareau on fiddle, mandolin player John Currie, Pete Gould singing and playing guitar, bassist Lisa Rogak, Ford Daley on dobro & Steve Hennig picking the banjo – works solo or spends time with at least one (usually more) other area band.  We have a rich local music scene, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.  I love this stuff.

Wednesday: Mars Volta, Higher Ground – Pushing the musical envelope, this is not for those craving melodies.  They’re at times near industrial, reminiscent of Pere Ubu, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, then veering off into a hybrid of speed metal and Captain Beefheart.  But what do I know?  Their uncompromising approach, which can be equally punishing and rewarding, has a huge, international following. 

Is Paramore The Future of the Music Business?

With a successful CD and sold-out national tour, Paramore is the band of the moment. Their only area show attracted minivans brimming with teenaged girls and their wary chaperones, all prepared to stand in line for hours in subfreezing weather for the best seats. 

Most everyone went home happy, as the band played a solid set of punk-influenced pop-rock.   If Paramore is to become more than a TRL flavor du jour, their Worcester Palladium show Saturday proved a good start. 

Though unused to headlining (it’s their first time out topping the bill), lead singer Haley Williams and her mates were more than comfortable in the spotlight.  Their material doesn’t break much new ground, mainly contemplating love – lost (show opener “For a Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic”), found (“Born for This”) or stolen (“Misery Business”).

Plenty of things set Paramore apart from the emo band crowd, however.  They write clever, dagger-sharp lyrics, as when the boyfriend thief in “Misery Business” snarls “I’ve got a body like an hourglass/ticking like a clock,” then claims humbly she “never meant to brag.”  They mix it up musically, too.  “Let the Flames Begin” was a particular highlight, featuring deft key changes and furious guitar solos. 

More than that, they took the stage with a professionalism that could have worked as well in a hockey rink as it did in the dilapidated former movie house.  Flanked onstage by oversized lithographs, with a jumbo screen above them punctuating their set like an MTV video back in the day, Paramore was both visually arresting and musically challenging.  It’s easy to imagine them on the same arc as No Doubt and Evanescence, two other female-fronted bands that made the move from the bars to the big houses.

Lead singer Hayley Williams is a seasoned performer at the mere age of 17; she bantered easily with the audience, and made acrobatic stage moves. It’s worth noting just how well behaved the crowd was.  Burly security guards at the edge of the stage picked up crowd-surfing fans and set them down gently, like they were stacking boxes of dishes at Target.  The whole experience was safe enough to ease parental worries.  The show’s sponsor, Helio, was more than likely gratified to see hundreds of glowing cell phone screens, as Mom and Dad sent and received text messages from their moppets in the front rows. 

Paramore pulled off a difficult balancing act. They’re not as daring as Fall Out Boy or the Disturbed, but they’re definitely not Disney material either.  With any luck (and Hayley Williams’ not-inconsiderable charm), their fans will grow up with them. 

One had the sense that Saturday’s crowd hadn’t been to very many shows by other bands.  Paramore is indicative of a trend in the business.  Niche performers court fans by putting together competitively-priced package tours with other like-minded bands.   

Saturday’s show featured two such groups, though they were unfortunately victimized by a bad sound mix.

Most of their vocals were drowned in a wall-of-guitar sonic fury.   The Almost showed the most promise – Kenny Bozich’s drumming was quite impressive – but neither his band nor the Starting Line managed to rise above the noise. 

Many in the audience, however, were obviously in tune with both opening acts, singing along to songs they’d heard online (the Almost claims over ten million MySpace plays alone) and buying t-shirts and CDs at the break.  They may have come to see Paramore, but they paid attention to everything going on at the concert.

That’s in direct contrast to most arena shows, where whatever happens before the headliner is lost in the din of ushers and beer vendors.  Such nights are always about the headliner.

It was reminiscent of a time when casual fans went to more than one or two shows a year.  Outlets like OzzFest and the Vans Warped Tour (which gave Paramore their first big national boost), are spawning hundreds of shows at places like the Palladium, Higher Ground in Burlington and Mark’s Showplace in Bedford.   

Good music at a fair price – if this is the future of the music business, then it’s definitely encouraging.

Local Rhythms – Rick Rubin May Save The Music Business

rickrubin.jpgThere might be hope yet for the record business – and I’m talking about the folks who sell the music, not the ones who create it.

As a producer, Rick Rubin has made and re-made many performers. He practically invented commercial hip-hop, launched the Red Hot Chili Peppers to stardom, and introduced Johnny Cash to a new generation of fans.

He’s a music man, through and through.

Now he’s running Columbia Records, the label that discovered and built artists like Dylan, Springsteen and Billy Joel. But they’ve strayed from what matters.

“So many of the decisions at these companies are not about the music,” Rubin told the New York Times last weekend. “They are shortsighted and desperate.”

At Columbia, he aims to change that.

“What’s important now is to find music that’s timeless,” he said, speaking to the hearts of true fans everywhere. “I still believe that if an artist gains the belief of the listener, then anything is possible.”

Rubin also thinks that the best route to profitability is making lots of music available.

He likes the subscription model, which he envisions as “a virtual library … accessible from your car, from your cell phone, from your computer, from your television – anywhere.”

“The service can have demos, bootlegs, concerts, whatever context the artist wants to put out.”

Do that, he says, and the industry will grow exponentially.

I’m glad someone still thinks artists are capable of good decisions. Don’t get me wrong, Rubin’s ears are legendary, and he’s not afraid to share his opinion. He’s gotten rich being a straight shooter in the studio, where he’s sent more than a few performers back to the drawing board.

But he’s a guru, not a general. Unlike his new corporate bosses, he knows it’s the music that matters.

“I’m not sure they realize that they are selling art,” he says of the label. “Right now they could be selling any product.”

It may be too late, though. They may only succeed, he says, in becoming “the best dinosaur.”

Whatever happens, Rubin’s right about one thing. “Too many people make and love music for it to ever die,” he says. “It will never be over. The music will outlast us all.”

Rick Rubin is the kind of lunatic I want running the asylum.

All right, what timelessness lies ahead this weekend?

Thursday: Carr, Merrill & Rose, Burdick’s – Their gourmet chocolates are popular with movie stars and glitterati around the world; Burdick’s dining room is a local treasure. On the first Thursday of every month, the Walpole landmark adds smooth jazz to their tasty mix, beginning at 6. Tonight Jesse Carr sings and plays the saxophone, backed by Bob Merrill on piano and Genevieve Rose on bass.

Friday: Al Alessi, Sophie & Zeke’s – Typically the A-Man duets with Bill Wightman, but tonight he goes solo with guitar and harmonica. Al’s voice is something of a local legend; he interprets everyone from Hoagie Carmichael to Van Morrison with natural, effortless savoir faire. He’s not a half-bad guitarist, either, though he might chuckle to hear me say that (it’s true).

Saturday: George Jones/Pam Tillis, Vermont State Fair – The fairgrounds in Rutland is the place to be for country music fans this weekend, with relative newcomer Chris Cagle performing Friday. Saturday it’s Jones, who’s had his ups and downs over a long career, but is still the gold standard for crooners. Opener Pam Tillis (the daughter of legendary C&W star Mel) is worth the price of a ticket all by herself.

Sunday: Fiddlers on the White River Flyer, White River Junction – This is a big weekend for trains in WRJ, with Saturday’s “Glory Days of the Railroad” celebration, featuring the Don Campbell Trio, the Stockwell Brothers and jazz from Gerry Grimo, along with a few opportunities to ride the train to Norwich. Sunday, the White River Flyer travels round trip to Bradford, with musical accompaniment from some fine local fiddlers.The journey commences at 11:30.

Tuesday: Nick Motil, New England College – College has resumed, and with it the frequent stops of up and coming talent at the Charter Coffee House in Henniker. Motil’s music is a tasty David Gray/Bob Dylan cocktail; he’s enjoyed success as an opening act for the likes of Jason Mraz, Duncan Sheik and others. Selling thousands of CDs at his shows, the singer/songwriter is one of the many DIY success stories conspiring to make the big labels obsolete.

Wednesday: Sonya Kitchell, Iron Horse – She makes a pretty convincing claim for the title of “whiz kid” – voice lessons at 7, jazz club bum at 9, and touring musician as a teenager. Of course, none of this would matter were it not for the fact that Sonya Kitchell delivers the goods, with a voice somewhere between Janis Joplin and Diana Krall. Musically, she can go either way, jazzy minx or balls-out rocker.

Local Rhythms – Maybe Music Really Does Want to be Free

magic_648.jpgTime was, I found new music via the car radio, but those days are fading fast. The Point and WEQX are two local exceptions, but their signals can be hard to tune in. Now there’s news of the latest shake-up at Rock 93.9/101.7.

For the moment, the station is 100 percent outsourced. Program director Steve Smith and midmorning DJ Liz Fox are gone, and the smart money is betting that the former Clear Channel outlet will move to an all-talk format.

“I spent 10 years with Clear Channel,” Smith said in response to my blog post about his firing, “and 3 months with [new owner] Great Eastern Radio. I liked the first 10 years the best.”

When a perennial corporate radio villain becomes emblematic of the good old days, we’ve officially entered Bizarro World. Weirder still, it’s pretty much left for WFRD, a very grown up college station, to be the last best hope for new music around these parts

I can’t really blame a station for switching to talk radio. It’s all about margins, and as a business model, the format is reality television for the ears. It’s cheap, with plenty of volunteer talent waiting on hold for a chance to be the next caller.

But that means music will have to find another way to reach an audience.

Which leads to the question that’s most troubling me: who will play the new Bruce Springsteen song?

The answer is, apparently … you.

“Radio Nowhere,” an advance track from the Boss’s forthcoming “Magic” CD, hit the streets the other day – in the form of a free iTunes download. One of the biggest rock stars of all time can no longer rely on the airwaves. “This is radio nowhere,” moans Springsteen – “is there anybody alive out there?”

Prince recently gave away a million copies of his latest CD in a one-off deal with a British newspaper. And of course there’s SpiralFrog, Universal Music Group’s just-launched web site dedicated to the dissemination of free music.

What’s the world coming to?

In 7 years, we’ve gone from record companies suing Napster out of existence to the major labels being the biggest backers of free music around (with the possible exception of a few million of MySpace bands).

While they figure it all out, there’s plenty of good listening here in your own backyard:

Thursday: Sylvia Miskoe, Lebanon Farmer’s Market – As we move towards September, the nights cool down and the selection improves at farmer’s markets in Lebanon, Claremont and Bellows Falls. That’s the upside of autumn, I suppose. Miskoe plays accordion with a Scottish sensibility – she’s also a member of the Strathspey & Reel Society of New Hampshire, a Celtic music collective. Here’s a good excuse to dance a jig and sip a little cider.

Friday: Billy Rosen Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s – Of all the jazz combos to play in downtown Claremont, this is my favorite. One of the genre’s best elements is its spontaneity, which can make a song you’re heard a hundred time sound completely new. It takes seasoned talent and musical telepathy; this band has both. They can be both smooth and spirited, and always scintillating

Saturday: Chad Gibbs, Salt hill 2 – An area mainstay with a loping style reminiscent of Dave Matthews. He can make an acoustic guitar sound more plugged in than a Stratocaster. Tucked in the corner of downtown Newport’s upstairs room, he’ll mix blues, rock and funky folk, and make all of it sound bigger. I really like his original stuff, too. You can listen to it on Chad’s MySpace page.

Sunday: Bow Thayer with Dave Clark & Jukejoynt, Lyman Point Park – Check out mountain man Thayer on Middle Earth’s YouTube space to get a sense of his burly sound. It’s a treat. Jukejoynt is the most original of Dave Clark’s many musical manifestations. With help from Rich Meijer, Terry Diers, Jed Dickinson and Bobbie Gagnier, the joynt will be rockin’.

Monday: Bread & Roses Festival – Labor Day is about working people, and every year this festival commemorates one of the most significant labor actions in American history with music and history where it happened – Lawrence, Massachusetts. There’s Zydeco from the Pine Top Boys, folk from Amy Gallatin and Stillwaters, along with traditional music, poetry and living history. Go – you might learn something.

Wednesday: Meat Puppets, Pearl Street – Punk was growing more intelligent in the early 1980s, but this Phoenix band was having none of it. Making records for the SST label, they never succumbed to self-importance, even after backing Nirvana during their MTV Unplugged performance. They did, however, give punk a much-needed twang, and made some pretty good psychedelic music besides. This is the first re-grouping of the original lineup in 11 years.


Local Rhythms – The New Gilded Age

A little over 100 years ago, Thorstein Veblen published “A Theory of the Leisure Class,” and introduced a new term to the popular lexicon. “Conspicuous consumption,” wrote Veblen, happens when rich people spend their money simply to get attention.

That pretty much sums up the big concert market, where idiots routinely drop 500 bucks on tickets, and then spend most of the show sending cell phone videos to their friends who couldn’t get in.

Then there are the foie gras-gutted hedge fund managers attending the London/Liverpool Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, jamming at Abbey Road with Jack Bruce and Bill Wyman – for a mere 16 grand.

Travel’s not included, but of course the souvenir DVD is.

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, along comes Social@Ross, a series of five concerts set for this summer in East Hampton, New York

“Everyone’s a VIP here,” coos the ad. Seats are limited to 1,000 for each performance by Billy Joel, James Taylor, Dave Matthews, Tom Petty and Prince, and sold only one way – in blocks of five, at an unheard-of $15,000 each.

Talk about staying one step ahead of StubHub.

The web site talks vaguely of “social consciousness,” but with a background of Porsche grilles and polo players clad in bicep garters, it’s hard to believe such charity is anything more than bringing the leftover hors d’oeuvres to the local soup kitchen after the party.

The promoter has made it clear that he’s in it to raise money for himself. One only hopes that the musicians believe their payday is worth the price of their integrity. That a guy like Petty is participating is nothing short of appalling. He once refused to let MCA release “Damn the Torpedoes” because they wanted to raise the list price by a dollar. Now this?

Of course, the rest of the hoi polloi will pay prices that are a little closer to earth when these artists come to the football stadium – if we want to. I sure don’t.

$15,000 only buys proof that you’re stupid (or rich) enough to waste that kind of money, not intimacy or credibility.

You want to get up close and personal with rock and roll? Jump into a Hexerei mosh pit sometime, or hit the dance floor when the Gully Boys start to jam. That’s real- as is this:

Thursday: Battle of the Bands Finals, Shenanigans – I took a bit of heat for supporting this club’s decision to switch up their live music, but still stand by my words. Tonight three bands compete for a cash prize and a bigger payday as Saturday’s headliner. Word is that there’s another competition planned for June. More local music – that’s my priority. You can read what the people who disagree with me think on my blog. It is, after all, a free country.

Friday: Blue Monday, Salt Hill Pub – To inject a little heat into the cold winter, the Tuohy brothers began offering a Monday night blues jam last January. The chemistry of those eveninigs led to the formation of this band, which includes members of other area groups. Next Thursday, the weekly sessions begin anew at Salt Hill. Here’s a taste for those who can’t wait.

Saturday: Joe Stacey & Ezra Veitch, Boccelli’s – A founding member of Ingrid’s Ruse and a permanent fixture at the Windham when it was open, Ezra tried to leave town last year. Fortunately for area music fans, Arkansas didn’t agree with him, and after nursing a hand injury that sidelined him for a bit, he’s back playing local stages. Stacey’s a fine songwriter who has performed with Ezra going back to 2001, so they should click nicely.

Sunday: Memorial Day Picnic, Heritage – Ten dollars buys some great barbeque and performances from three of the area’s best bands. Stonewall (who may be a bit winded if they win the Shenanigans battle mentioned above), Sun King and erstwhile local champs the Highball Heroes all play. Hopefully, the sun will shine, as it’s an outdoor affair. The Charlestown restaurant will raffle off prizes, and probably hand out a few free beer cozies.

Monday: Strange Creek Campout, Greenfield – Big fun for the tie-dyed. This three-day event begins Saturday, with an array of talented jam bands like Max Creek, Strangefolk and the Ryan Montbleau Band. 42 performers for 85 bucks – take that, Tom Petty. There’s a little bit of everything for everybody.

Wednesday: Colin McCaffrey, Canoe Club – His band, the Stone Cold Roosters, just celebrated a CD release party at Skunk Hollow last Friday, and Colin kicks out the jams with his Zydeco combo at Middle Earth in a couple of weeks. But tonight, the KUA grad strips things down their essence, playing songs from his solo efforts. Fans of Tom Rush and James Taylor won’t be disappointed.

Defiling Bill Graham’s Memory

billgraham.jpgWhen he was alive, Bill Graham had a framed note hanging in his office, that someone had sent him when the Fillmore West closed in 1971.

It read, “Bill Graham may be an asshole, but he gave me some of the best years of my life.”

The guy who wrote it obviously had his tongue in his cheek, but these days the concert business really is run by assholes – deluded ones at that.

Now comes word, via Lefsetz, that LiveNation bought the rights to name two venues (one in New York, the other in Philadelphia) after Graham’s brightest legacy. But calling a building “the Fillmore” won’t make it 1967 again. Hell, it won’t even make it 1997. The only comfort, I suppose, is that these two concert facilities won’t be named after a bank, a computer maker or a cosmetics company.

But tickets will still cost too much, and LiveNation won’t stop treating their customers with thinly veiled contempt, inventing charges for services that don’t exist and overcharging for those that do – like parking – and scalping, er, auctioning all the good seats.

Tickets are commodities, they say. It wasn’t that way in the world I came from, and I doubt Bill Graham would be a TicketMaster kind of actor were he alive today. The business he invented is so far in the past now that it may never come back.

I grew up believing that everybody presented live rock and roll like Bill Graham. He was a class act, even when he was wrong about something. For example, when a Who concert at the Cow Palace sold out in 1974, Graham let the San Jose Box Office sell marked-up tickets. I wrote him to complain that this was scalping, a deplorable (and in those quaint, pre-EBay days, illegal) practice.

He wrote me back with a thoughtful defense of why he allowed it. It was 33 years ago, but his position then could serve as a mission statement for StubHub today. Making these tickets available legally lessens the chance that people will be sold bogus tickets, he said. He believed he was protecting fans. I didn’t agree – I still don’t- but I always admired him for taking the time to write me and say so, when he could easily have blown me off.

These days outfits like LiveNation rip off fans because they can, and could care less what anyone thinks. It’s business, they say.

Graham was different. Here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry that I can verify is true:

For all his competitive nature and fiery disposition, Graham was recognized as an expert promoter who genuinely cared about both the artists and the attendees at his concerts. He was the first to ensure that medical personnel were on site for large shows and was both a contributor and supporter of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which he often used as medical support at events. He also loved putting together groups onstage from different ethnic backgrounds—many of whom were ignored by other promoters—and he had an eye for pleasing his audience, while making an effort to educate them in styles of music they would otherwise not have been exposed to.

When I was 14, I saw Howlin’ Wolf open for Alice Cooper at the Berkeley Community Theater; it was my first exposure to the real roots of American music. I ‘d paid to see a heavy metal show that ended in a hanging. Later the same year, blues guitar master Albert King was the middle act for a T.Rex concert; the Doobie Brothers opened that show.

I had many more such revelations in the 20 or so years I attended Bill Graham Presents concerts. In these times of packaged tours that almost never happens.

Every night at Winterland, or the Cow Palace, or later Shoreline Amphitheater, provided an opportunity for discovery. I’ve lost count of the albums in my collection made by performers who were opening or middle acts at BGP events. Loggins and Messina, Lynyrd Skynyrd, STEVIE WONDER (at the 1972 Rolling Stones show) were all on the bill below the headliner at Winterland shows.

Even when there wasn’t music on the stage, Bill Graham took care of the fans. One time, I waited in line all day for a Winterland show (Steve Miller and ZZ Top, I believe); it was bitter cold, so Graham opened the doors two hours early to allow fans to warm up inside, where we watched videos of past concerts and Betty Boop cartoons. Graham could definitely be a hard ass, but we’d cut him some slack when that happened. Besides, he usually had a good reason.

Such decency is a quaint memory. Bill Graham is dead, and the concert business is whored out to a disgusting mutation of Tony Soprano, Arthur D. Little and a cyborg. The only pure music environment these days is a dank, dusty club.

Concerts haven’t been fun since Bill’s helicopter crashed in 1991. But if he knew the Fillmore name was being sold out to LiveNation, I bet he’d kick some ass.

I miss you, Bill.

More RIAA Stupidity

ggrillz.jpgAs control of the major labels passed from music professionals to money managers who view a melody as no different from a pork belly or a silver ingot, the discipline of record promotion basically died. So it’s unsurprising that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reacts to innovative forms of artist promotion instigated outside their plastic bubble in the only way they know how – with lawsuits.

Police arrested DJ Drama, purveyor of Gangsta Grillz, one of the most influential mixtape studios in the country. Via the New York Times:

On Tuesday night he was arrested with Don Cannon, a protégé. The police, working with the Recording Industry Association of America, raided his office, at 147 Walker Street in Atlanta. The association makes no distinction between counterfeit CDs and unlicensed compilations like those that DJ Drama is known for. So the police confiscated 81,000 discs, four vehicles, recording gear, and “other assets that are proceeds of a pattern of illegal activity,” said Chief Jeffrey C. Baker, from the Morrow, Ga., police department, which participated in the raid.

Even though he operates with the enthusiastic blessing of every performer of all the material used for his discs, despite the fact that, as Times reporter Kelefah Sanneh writes, “Rappers often seem proud to be considered good enough for a “Gangsta Grillz” mixtape,” and perhaps most importantly, with a complete disregard for the free promotion DJ Drama’s artful creations give their music.

It also seems clear that mixtapes can actually bolster an artist’s sales. The most recent Lil Wayne solo album, “Tha Carter II” (Cash Money/Universal), sold more than a million copies, though none of its singles climbed any higher than No. 32 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. That’s an impressive feat, and it’s hard to imagine how he would have done it without help from a friendly pirate.

Music that doesn’t get played on the radio, doesn’t chart through conventional channels, yet sells platinum – PLATINUM. It only happens because of the underground.

It’s like technology companies who put hackers in jail, when they should be hiring them.

Grammy Bloat

grammy.jpgWhat would happen if all the entertainment award shows took their cues from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences? One shudders to think. Instead of a single Best Picture award, an Oscar each would go to a drama, comedy, musical, sex farce, dramatized biography and a roman à clef.

If you don’t believe it, then consider the 2006 Grammy nominees. The ballot alone is 56 pages long. There are 51 different fields, comprising 108 separate awards.

Looking over the voluminous document, some questions immediately spring to mind. Why is Hawaii the only state with its own category? There’s an award for Tejano, but that’s Tex-Mex, which is not the same as Texas. Besides, there’s also a Best Mexican Music award, which doesn’t seem fair.

Perhaps it’s payback for all that 700-mile fence talk.

Another burning mystery – just what is a “pop” record, anyway? That catch-all field includes one prize each for male, female and duo/group vocals – in addition to collaborations and instrumentals. The Big “Pop” Tent includes everyone from Bruce Hornsby to the Black Eyed Peas, Pink and Enya.


The real trick, it would seem, is NOT getting nominated for one of the things, right?

Hardly. Take, for example, Record of the Year and Song of the Year; four songs are nominated for BOTH awards. One of those, “Taking the Long Way” by the Dixie Chicks, also has a shot at Best Country Song. The Academy was apparently unaware that nobody, least of all the Dixie Chicks ,considers them a country band anymore.

What’s most offensive about this year’s Grammy class is that, with thousands of possible picks for 540 nomination slots, the same names keep coming up over and over. Emblematic of this sorry state of affairs is Sheryl Crow’s Best Female Pop Vocal nomination – for a cover of an old James Taylor song (“You Can Close Your Eyes”) included on a record which can only be bought at Starbucks coffee stores.

Anybody wondering about the music business’s elitist snob image need look no further than this. Crow, by the way, also picked up a Best Pop Vocal Collaboration nomination for her duet with Sting (“Always On Your Side”).

I expect that “Best Duet With Sting” will eventually become a standalone category.

Peter Frampton, who Grammy pretty much ignored during his Seventies heyday, is nominated for an instrumental cover of a Soundgarden song. I suppose that’s better than the Best Heavy Metal nomination Pat Boone got a few years back.

Gnarls Barkley is up for Record of the Year, and is also nominated in the R&B category. But the kicker is that the band’s infectious hit “Crazy” is in line for Best Alternative Album.

Alternative to what?

Bob Dylan’s roots-fortified “Modern Times” disc gets an out-of-place nod for Best Rock song (“Someday Baby”), where he keeps company with Beck and John Mayer, along with a Neil Young protest song and a Tom Petty record that no one outside the industry has even heard.

More just for Dylan, perhaps, is his nomination for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana album. That category is full of many “don’t know what to call them, but they deserve a statue” contenders – like the Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris collaboration (“All the Roadrunning”), Rosanne Cash’s meditation on family and death (“Black Cadillac”) and insider darling Guy Clark (“Workbench Songs”). Jackson Browne rounds out the list with a career retrospective (“Live Acoustic Volume 1”), but after ignoring everything from “Doctor My Eyes” to “Running on Empty,” why does Grammy bother?

That’s the Academy’s biggest sin – they’re always at least one or two years behind the curve. There’s a record nominated (“Travelin’ Through”) that lost an Oscar bid nearly a year ago – in other words, a song made in 2005 is being considered on a 2007 awards show.

That they try to compensate for their myopia by puffing up the ceremony with awards for things like for box set design, liner notes and “Best Spoken Word” release – a euphemism for books on tape – only makes things worse.

It’s utterly fitting that this year’s show, to be broadcast February 7, 2007, will be hosted by faux newsman Stephen Colbert. Colbert, of course, coined 2006’s “word of the year.” That word, in case you didn’t know, is “truthiness” – defined as “something that seems true because an individual wants it to be.”

The reality-battered record industry must love the notion that there are 108 deserving artists on this year’s pathetic list of nominees, and surely believe that all that precious metal is a harbinger of strong times ahead.

The whole idea reeks of truthiness.

Middle Earth – It Ain’t About The Money

chrisjonessml.jpgIf I were a decent guitarist (not even close), I’d probably be like my friend Brian, who spends his every spare minute playing in a band. Most of the time, though, he’s helping people select lumber or providing counsel on paint and caulk selection at the local building supply store.

That’s his day job. Damn near every musician I know has one.

I write about music, an avocation with a time-to-dollar ratio that’s likely on a par with the money my friend makes on the coffee house/private party circuit. Computer software consulting pays my bills, but music stokes the bank of my soul.

Looking at box office receipts from bands like the Stones and Aerosmith, it would appear that the music business is a no-brainer road to catered backstage parties, with overflowing bowls of brown M&M’s everywhere. The truth is that most musicians are like my friend Brian, playing for love and barely breaking even after expenses like gas, meals and guitar strings are tallied up.

Thus, I was amused when someone asked me recently why Chris Jones, the embattled owner of Middle Earth Music Hall, seemed content to operate at a loss.

“What kind of person,” he mused, “is proud that he’s never made money?”

He was no doubt referring to a Valley New story where Jones admitted that the club had “never been profitable.” Jones went on to say that he viewed Middle Earth as a refuge for people who’d “given up on the bar scene” but still wanted to listen to good music.

Interestingly, the person asking the question about the club’s profitability is affiliated with an ostensibly charitable organization. He, of all people, should know it’s possible to think of “profit” in non-financial terms. Chris Jones got into the music business for an altruistic reason I can entirely appreciate. In an interview, he told me:

We were at a show one weekend and I liked the band. It was the New Nile Orchestra. I wanted to see them in Bradford, so I asked around and found a way to book them myself. We did it in a 300 seat auditorium. One thing led to another, and every two weeks I’m doing shows in the auditorium.

Eventually, he had to move the shows from the auditorium (Bradford’s town hall), and opened Middle Earth in order to have a permanent location. In the last four years, he’s presented some wonderful, often unheralded, talent to music lovers everywhere.

To my mind, it’s as much a church as a club. What emanates from it cleanses the soul.

Via Lefsetz, Al Kooper weighs in on a career that’s been satisfying for him in spite of the way it worked out financially:

FYI, I don’t get any artist or producer royalties for Child Is Father To The Man, Super Session, Live Adventures, I Stand Alone, (They didn’t even give me a friggin’ gold record for Oddesey & Oracle). No royalties for Free Bird, Sweet Home Alabama, Gimme Three Steps, etc. Obviously I didn’t come into the biz for the money. I came in for the love of music and when the sharks smell that, you’re through financially.

It ain’t about the money, it’s about the music. People who are passionate about it understand. People who aren’t don’t – or worse, as Kooper indicates, they’re in the business of screwing money out of people who are.