August 7, 2012

When You’re Used To Wanting The Best And Always Getting The Best…

I purposely waited a few weeks before I reviewed the opening night of what’s dubbed The Tour – Motley Crue/KISS in Bristow, VA.  Before I sat down to write the review, I wanted to see YouTube clips of both bands and read accounts from subsequent stops on The Tour.  Having let a few weeks pass, I now am ready to write…

I should say at the outset that I have been a KISS fan for 33 years.  They are my second favorite band of all time.  This was the twelfth time I’ve seen them in concert.  They have always been one of the best live acts I have ever seen.  Through the years, the stage shows have varied in their level of theater and the set lists have ranged from a concentration on old songs to new songs to everything in between.

This was my first Motley Crue concert.  They’re a band who I've grown to respect as the years have gone by – in large part due to the Led Zeppelin-esque excesses recounted in their autobiography, The Dirt.  Of the ‘80s Pop Metal bands, they have certainly turned out to be one of the best – both in terms of survival and catalog of songs.  Motley Crue are the bastard sons of KISS….

…How to say this….

Motley Crue blew away KISS.
The Crue came onstage in a procession through the audience accompanied by Medieval Motley Crue flags, stilt walkers, and masked henchmen in orange jumpsuits who unsettlingly resembled Clockwork Orange Droogs ready to perform an evening of Ultra-Violence on the audience.  The stage motif was industrial-warehouse-meets-madhouse-circus-amusement-park-meets-Hell.  From the opening strains of Saints of Los Angeles through Wild Side and Shout At The Devil and Looks That Kill and Dr. Feelgood and Girls, Girls, Girls and other staples, right on through to the Kickstart My Heart closer, the show felt like a fiery rollercoaster gone wild.  About the only time, the Motley rollercoaster let the audience catch their breaths was during Home Sweet Home.  Throughout the controlled and orchestrated mayhem, the Motley Droogs set off balls of flame and fired water rifles, two buxom aerial acrobats gyrated on floor-to-ceiling ropes like strippers on a pole, and two more hotties sang back-up vocals. 

Photo courtesy Jeff Ingenloff
The ringmasters of this circus in hell were lead vocalist Vince Neil, bassist Nikki Sixx, guitarist/Cousin It Mick Mars, and drummer extraordinaire Tommy Lee.  If The Dirt chronicled their years of sloppy, drugged-out excess, then The Tour finds the Crue in the shape of their lives.  What a difference sobriety makes.  Vince hit notes that he never could in tours past.  Nikki maintained his Motley creative puppet master role, brandishing a flame-throwing bass, Mick’s solos were spot-on….and then there’s Tommy…

Tommy Lee deserves a paragraph to himself.  Don’t let the wild man, vapid, Heather Locklear/Pam Anderson/porn star ladykiller history and reputation distract you.  Tommy plays drums like the virtuoso he is.  Even when other drum virtuosos solo, most of the audience takes the opportunity to visit the restrooms and beer counters.  Not Tommy Lee’s audience.  His drum solo was played to a back-up tape of house music composed by Tommy….Oh, and did I mention that his drums are on a circular rollercoaster?  Tommy strapped the wife of a military serviceman with him and took her on a 360-degree ride of her life. 

Motley Crue might just be the best live band to come out of the ‘80s alive.

…Now there’s the thorny issue of KISS…

They descended onstage from a spark-spewing platform on the venue’s ceiling.  The stage resembled a lit-up Las Vegas set of bleachers.  The floor-to-ceiling KISS logo was video projected, and alternated with celluloid close-ups of the band.  There were enough lights, fire, and explosions to awaken and destroy a major American city.  Paul Stanley zip-lined over the audience to a revolving auxiliary stage in the middle of the crowd.  Gene Simmons flew up to a mini-stage atop the lighting rig.  Guitarist/Ace Frehley impersonator Tommy Thayer shot sparks from his guitar.  Drummer/Peter Criss impersonator Eric Singer levitated behind his massive drums.  A confetti blizzard covered the audience like they were in the “Canyon of Heroes” in NYC.
Photo courtesy Jeff Ingenloff
KISS incorporated all the staging highlights of previous tours into one massive bludgeoning feast for the senses.  Yet something was amiss.  Perhaps the culprit was Motley Crue’s stellar set that preceded them, set the bar far too high, and ultimately stole the show.  By comparison, the KISS stage seemed oddly less theatric and – dare I say it – slightly more subdued and lower budget.  No.  The culprit was something far more basic and seemingly insidious.

What most critics and non-fans always missed about KISS was that all the makeup and pyrotechnics was really just icing on the cake.  Behind the circus was a great rock band.  Like the critics and non-fans, on this evening, the members of KISS seemed to forget that as well.  The weakest aspect of their set was what should have been one of their strongest weapons – the songs.  For a band with such a deep well of classic songs, on this opening night, they picked only a handful of their most perennial numbers; padded it with too many mediocre songs; wasted too much time on unnecessary guitar, drums, and bass solos; and worst of all, steamrolled through the songs in an abbreviated set that even felt rushed.  Their other usual strongest link proved to be somewhat less than that as well – Paul Stanley.  Here is one of rock’s greatest singers, yet he only sang lead vocals on five of the thirteen songs in the set.  That might have been fine, but what replaced the songs he could have performed were plodding, mediocre songs by Gene Simmons – not one of rock’s greatest singers.  In an already abbreviated set, there was no reason for Simmons to sing God Of Thunder AND War Machine – essentially the same songs.  I Love It Loud could have been shelved as well. 

There also was some question about the state of Stanley’s voice.  Hardcore KISS fans know that 2009’s Sonic Boom album featured a slightly raspier Stanley.  During the band’s last tour in 2010, Stanley’s voice was very hit-or-miss depending on the night you happened to catch them.  Belying a larger issue, Stanley underwent throat surgery last year.  On this opening night, Stanley seemed to struggle on the vocals in spots.  He didn’t help himself by straining to do vocal gymnastics during his infamous between-song raps.

Perhaps what was most disappointing about the show was the band’s seemingly blatant display of insincerity.  Just before the climactic Rock & Roll All Nite, Stanley announced that they were willing to play all night, but would have to cut their set short because of Bristow, VA’s curfew law.  It was disappointing news to hear at the time because the audience would have liked the party to last longer. However, having seen the band’s set list from subsequent shows, it’s now apparent that the show was not cut short.  They play the same 13 songs every night…and Stanley uses the same “excuse” to explain away their short set.  In fact, it seems like a tacit admission that even they realize that true fans are going to feel a bit short-changed. 

Hey, Paul.  Why not just say good night, and not make it seem like you were going to play more songs, but Johnny Law wouldn’t let you?

Stanley may not be lying, but he does seem a bit disingenuous.

I realize that I sound like an insatiable, spoiled child.  Did KISS put on an elaborate show?  Yes.  Did they play big hits?  Yes.  Did I have a good time?  Absolutely!    However, for the nearly four decades that KISS has been playing, they’ve set their own bar – and the bar of others – so high, that anything short of the moon seems like a letdown.  With Motley Crue reaching and surpassing that same bar, KISS just seemed a slight bit underwhelming and as if they were going through the motions.

Postscript:  Check out the YouTube clips of KISS at their backstage meet-and-greets.  For the lucky few who’ve paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege of an audience with the Pope – er, I mean, KISS – the band plays an unmasked mini-semi-acoustic set of KISS classics.  Perhaps if they’d incorporated those songs into their official set…

May 29, 2012

Hurricane Nikka Funks Up The Hamilton

Nikka Costa delivered a groove-filled set of funky tunes on Wenesday at Johnny D’s.

When I mentioned to a number of people that I was going to see Nikka Costa at The Hamilton in DC, I got the exact same response..."Nikka, Who?" (ironically, an actual Nikka Costa song title)

With the likes of Katy Perry, Rihanna, and whomever the latest Disney Channel alum is littering the Top 10, it’s expected that the average person wouldn’t know Nikka Costa. They should.

I made the mistake of explaining to these same people that “Nikka is sort of the female equivalent of Lenny Kravitz.” 

The Kravitz comparison is selling Costa short. A better description might be: Walk into your Rock & Roll Kitchen and throw the aforementioned Mr. Kravitz, Sly Stone, Prince, James Brown, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and a dash of ‘70s vintage Robert Plant and Mick Jagger all into one sexy-ass cauldron and what would you get? Honeybabysweetiedoll – Nikka Costa!

Backed by a five-piece band, Hurricane Nikka roared onstage in a blur of hair, double-sided tape, disco-era gold lamé pants, knee-high boots, and moves worthy of the Soul Train Dance Line to a cover of Sly’s Dance To The Music. The funk pace rarely dissipated as she ran through hits as well as lesser known songs ranging from Like A Feather to Keep Pushin’ to Everybody Got Their Something to Nylon’s In A Rip to Loving You to Head First. Straying from previous tours, this time around, Costa eschewed the rock of numbers like On And On in favor of single-minded funk.

                         (Live at The Hamilton DC, May 27, 2012)

Coming to this show on the heels of a number of arena shows, I was absolutely steamrolled by the explosive energy onstage just 15 feet away. This wasn’t arena-rock posturing. This wasn’t pseudo-funk by virtue of a calculated minor-seventh chord. There wasn’t any question of whether that’s really her voice, or if they’re using backing tracks. This was funk, this was rock & roll the way it was meant to be played.

If you come to a Nikka Costa party, you better be ready to party. Costa made it clear very early on in the set that if you were the DC douchebag or baguette who was going to spend the entire evening ignoring the music but texting your friends about what a great time you were having, you were going to get called out individually. Call them out, she did. Costa made sure the groove was not confined to the stage, as she demanded that the dinner theater audience participate in the full-contact funk.

To talk about this show and not mention Costa’s band would be criminal. This band unabashedly channels The Family Stone and The Godfather of Soul’s JBs – and succeeds. Most notable was trombonist Elizabeth Lea – Maceo Parker would be proud.

If you ever get the chance, experience Nikka Costa…and leave your cell phone at home (trust me, you’re not that important!).

May 11, 2012

Give I’rrr Away, Give I’rrr Away, Give I’rrr Away Now

Twenty-eight years ago, if you saw a little band called Red Hot Chili Peppers at a club on the Sunset Strip, could you have guessed what they might be like three decades later?   In a word, NO.

At the Verizon Center on May 10, gone were displays of sock couture, drugs, off-key rap/singing, and sub-par P-Funk rip-offs. Instead, RHCP showed how they have evolved into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees who specialize in concise, catchy pop/rock songs; super-tight performances and displays of big-production Arena Rock; and boast a multi-generational audience.  

Unlike most bands of their vintage, RHCPs have deftly managed to avoid being relegated to a certain timeframe or genre of music. This transcendence is most obvious in the fact that new songs were greeted with the same enthusiasm and familiarity as the classic cuts. No one made a b-line to the hot dog or beer stands when they dared to play five songs off their new album. In fact, with the exception of the Stevie Wonder cover Higher Ground, their setlist comprised only songs post-Mother’s Milk. Let’s be honest, it was only beginning with Blood Sugar Sex Magick that the band hit their true stride, both in terms of songwriting and vocals (translation: Anthony Kiedis began singing in key). So it’s no surprise that the band chose wisely to ignore their older material. The audience certainly didn’t seem to mind.

               Red Hot Chili Peppers, Verizon Center, May 10, 2012

The band’s performance was flawless. While even the best of singers seem to lose the vocal fire they had in their youth, Anthony’s vocals seem to have an inverted trajectory - he sounds better now than he’s ever sounded before. Flea and Chad Smith are, hands-down, the best rhythm section in rock, and were also the obvious stars of the show. Their numerous instrumental jams peppered throughout the show were brazen displays of funk-driven virtuosity. New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer ably held his own, both on tracks from their latest, I’m With You, as well as on the more technically- and idiosyncratically-challenging John Frusciante guitar parts. Klinghoffer’s only challenge seemed to be with his guitar sound. Perhaps it was the result of where I was sitting or maybe just acoustic problems inherent in a cavernous hockey arena, but his guitars often seemed to get lost against the mix of the rhythm section. Nevertheless, augmented by a keyboardist and percussionist, the band sounded as fully-realized as they do on their Rick Rubin-produced albums. 

Physically, like most bands that still record and tour 30 years on, RHCP seem perpetually young. They’re still closer to their youthful Simpsons cartoon incarnation, than a group in which three-fourths of the members turn 50 years old this year. Anthony still resembles a young, better-looking Iggy Pop…albeit, with a disturbing mustache and a Kate Gosselin-meets-Hitler haircut. Flea still retains the appearance and physique of Sting’s uglier younger brother, and Chad Smith – recently, of Chickenfoot fame – still remains Will Ferrell’s doppelganger.

…So with the compliments out of the way…

As good as the band was technically, there was just an ever-so-mild sense of super-professionalism, over-rehearsal, and perfection at the expense of fun and feel. In particular, Anthony seemed to exude this vibe. It didn’t help that his banter with the audience was minimal. He seemed to show up, perform his job to perfection, and exit the stage quietly without fanfare before the final jam of the night.  

Next time, perhaps just a bit more cartoonish fun, Anthony?…

April 9, 2012

Van Halen = Smiles + Enjoyment

If smiling is the barometer for enjoyment, then Van Halen’s recent show at DC’s Verizon Center was pure joy.

Whereas their 2007/2008 reunion tour with David Lee Roth had an odd aura of fragile euphoria, this time around it seemed like a reunion with durable, old friends. If there is one factor that makes this go-round feel more comfortable, it’s Eddie Van Halen. Gone is the “fresh from rehab,” but still walking a tightrope vibe, and in its place is a healthy and genuinely happy seeming Van Halen. Having seen Van Halen on every tour since 1986 (well, I did skip the Gary Cherone tour to nowhere…), what was blatantly obvious almost from the opening number – Unchained – was that this was Ed Van Halen at his all-time best. The man was simply on fire (hey, that was a pun!).

Drummer Alex Van Halen was predictably solid and played with his now almost expected thunderous precision. Wolf Van Halen seemed far more comfortable both on bass and background vocals. Unless you’re still sulking that this isn’t really a reunion because Michael Anthony isn’t in the band, you won’t even miss him. Anthony’s most valuable contribution to Van Halen was always his stellar background harmonies, but Wolf and his dad made up for it as they’ve obviously been practicing. Also obvious was that Michael Anthony secretly toured with Van Halen on the last tour…at least his vocals did…

            (Panama - Verizon Center, Washington, DC - March 28, 2012)

The show’s set list was a good mix of material from their first six albums including most of the essential tracks you’d want to hear, as well as some surprise “deep cuts” like Hang ‘Em High, The Full Bug, and Women In Love. Their new album A Different Kind Of Truth also had fair representation with four tracks. If I had to nit-pick their set list, I just wished they played more songs from Fair Warning, my favorite Van Halen album. As for Eddie’s late-set guitar solo, it was a tour de force of everything you’d expect from him all played with maniacal finesse. However, after 20-plus years of playing the same solo night after night – excerpts of Eruption, Spanish Fly, and Cathedral – it might be nice to hear Ed change things up a bit and improvise more. Again, this is all nit-picking perfection.

...and then there’s Diamond Dave…Live in front of your naked, steaming eyes, the man is everything you’d expect and more. The flashiness, swagger, Joker’s grin, irony in spades, and Hong Kong Fooey kicks are all still perfectly intact and present. To anyone in the audience who walked away from this show saying that Dave’s vocals aren’t what they used to be, I say, “You never heard his voice back in the day.” Dave sounded exactly as you’d expect him to sound – a unique mix of vaudeville, rock god, and calculated “I forgot the fucking words.”

If smiling is the barometer for enjoyment, then I walked out of this concert with a permanent-press Muppet grin on my face.

February 26, 2012


Axl Rose, Feb. 23, 2012
For certain fans and critics alike, the original lineup of Guns & Roses is like the rock & roll equivalent of the Jennifer Aniston-Brad Pitt marriage. After all these years, people still fawn over what was, and lament what could have been. I understand your hearts were a-flutter when it was happening.  However, it’s now long over, folks. Get over it!

If anyone is saying exactly what I’m saying, it’s Axl Rose. He’s now moved onto his own Angelina Jolie phase and adopted a motley crue of hired guns who – dare I say! - are technically far more proficient than Jennifer Anist- eh, Slash, Duff, Izzy, Steven, and Matt. 

The band just completed a sold-out arena tour of America. Outside America, they still sell out massive soccer stadiums. Call it a disappointment without probably ever hearing a note of it, but Chinese Democracy sold more than a million copies in America and scores more elsewhere. However, if you’re still fixated sometime between 1987 and 1993, then Guns & Roses circa 2012 is probably not for you anyway. Go perm what’s left of your hair and listen to the old stuff…dude.

                   (Paradise City at The Fillmore, February 23, 2012)

Currently on a brief club tour, the band recently played The Fillmore in Silver Spring, MD, and proved that everything you’ve heard about them is true. The tickets said that doors open at 9 p.m. and showtime was 10 p.m. After an underwhelming 35-minute set by Electric Sun – a band conflicted between their indie-rock pretensions (how indie – a chick keyboard player!), CC DeVille guitar licks, and a Johnny Thunders wannabe lead singer with a Joey Ramone coif – the faithful audience and crew waited and waited and waited for an hour and a half before Axl & Co. finally took to the stage at midnight. 

I finally understand why Axl tests the patience (Ha! Get it?) of his fans nightly. Once he does take to the stage, he puts on an epic show and exceeds all your unrealistic expectations. At age 50, the now Ed Hardy-wearing, multiple hat-sporting, Mickey Rourke lookalike still delivers all the maniacal banshee wails and Axl-isms a la 1988. Opening with Chinese Democracy and segueing right into Welcome To The Jungle and It’s So Easy, the pace was set for the rest of the night (technically, morning) with all the songs you wanted to hear from Appetite For Destruction, the epics from Use Your Illusions I and II, and the highlights from Chinese Democracy

As if to prove that G&R is still a band, each member of the band had his own solo spotlight. Whereas most bands’ solo sections are usually meandering noodle-fests, the solos here were actually concise instrumentals highlighting a particular member with the entire band backing him up. Izzy Stradlin/Johnny Thunders doppelganger, guitarist Richard Fortus jammed to the James Bond Theme; ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson sang Motivation; keyboardist Dizzy Reed performed Baba O’Reilly; Sixx A.M moonlighter DJ Ashba played an original, Mi Amor; the entire band jammed to Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2; guitarist Bumblefoot rocked The Pink Panther Theme; and even Axl soloed with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Someone Saved My Life Tonight

In classic cavalier fashion, Axl played by no one’s expectations or rules. He showed up when he wanted to, played whatever he wanted to, and for however long he wanted to. Case in point: The band ended its official set at 2 a.m. – Silver Spring’s curfew – with back-to-back epics, Civil War and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, and Night Train….and then as his mood would dictate, the band played a 75-minute encore of a funk jam, Madagascar, Better, two acoustic jams bookending Patience, before finally ending the night with Paradise City and a red-confetti blizzard.

If you managed to tell your babysitter, kids, wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, boss that you would get home when you damn well felt like it, and stayed to the end of the show, then at 3:15 a.m. you walked out of the Fillmore with the satisfaction and reward of having just witnessed a band at the top of their game. Sentimentality be damned, Guns & Roses circa 2012 is a better band than the original, wasted and highly erratic legends of 1988. 

All that said, I am salivating at the rumor and prospect of the original lineup of Guns & Roses getting up onstage in Cleveland – even if only to pick up their trophies, and not play a single note – in April at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony. No matter the outcome, it will be high rock & roll drama, indeed.

February 23, 2012

View From The Launch Pad - Ça Va? Magazine

Ça Va? Magazine, debut issue

 Samira Georgi and Amanda Minnie Williams-Vasquez are what you’d call audacious and ambitious.

Together, they have just launched Ça Va?, a glossy, new magazine about arts, fashion, environment, and business innovations. The extent of their audacity and ambition is especially apparent when you consider the corporate-backed competition in similar genres, and at a time when print media is allegedly in the throes of its own slow death.

After attending a splashy launch party recently for the magazine at Ulah Bistro on trendy U Street in DC (and the ladies certainly know how to throw a party for the glitterati), I became interested in learning what sparked their endeavor and where they envision it going – a sort of “view from the launch pad” before the takeoff.

What inspired you to start Ça Va? Magazine?

Before becoming a magazine, Ça Va was a closely-knit circle of creative talents, business innovators, thinkers – any aspiring individual willing to share their our talent, work, and experiences. Getting feedback from people in the same or a different fields helped each of us brainstorm strategies, give and receive advice…but most importantly, feel inspired and energetic about our passions.

We even began receiving requests from people who wanted to be invited to our meetings, and discovered that there are many talented people who want to share their work with the world, but don’t have the platform to do it.

So how does someone become known for their talent, if there’s not anyone to give them a chance to become known?

We decided that we wanted to be that vehicle to promote the ideas and works of talented people – who other publications may have overlooked – with a focus on authentic experiences and insight into any aspect of the human condition, aimed at bettering the spiritual or professional lives of our audience.

Is there a particular niche or demographic that your magazine aims to represent that isn't covered by others (either in print and/or online) - ie., City Paper, Washingtonian, Washington Post Style Section, etc.?

Ça Va? Magazine’s audience is the educated, multicultural individuals who are interested in a variety of subjects and ideas. Our focus is to entertain and inspire readers by profiling not only creators, but also the environment that is being created. The magazine is designed primarily to showcase the diversity of talents among people and businesses in Washington, DC – but also talents from the rest of the world.

According to your Web site, you plan to focus on the arts, fashion, beauty, business innovations, business growth, and environmental and health topics. Can you preview some of the features you're working on for the coming months that can readers expect?

We have a wide range of topics in the works, running the gamut from Holistic Health; Passive House-Energy Efficiency in Buildings; art from Japan; photographers and artists from Washington, DC as well as Russia; a nonprofit organization helping children in Thailand; and event coverage in Washington, DC, and more.

Will you have a core staff or writers, or will the articles/stories be dependent on contributing writers, or syndicated stories?

We have staff writers as well as contributing writers.

Is Ça Va? Magazine going to be strictly print or online as well?

We’ll print quarterly for the first year. However, we’ll place a lot of material on our Web site: Our debut issue came out on January 24th.

In the process of launching the magazine, what challenges have you encountered and how have you overcome those challenges?

There are always challenges in any new project. We encounter new challenges almost daily. We are also learning a lot as we work more on the magazine. Our staff is young and highly motivated. With a lot of inherent determination and teamwork, we’ve been able to overcome every challenge that’s come our way.

February 7, 2012

A Different Kind Of Truth....Van Halen Delivers a Monster

A Different Kind Of Truth©2012 Interscope Records

Comeback albums are always problematic and rarely measure up to vintage material.  Reuniting and recording for financial or nostalgic reasons is not a promising recipe for inspired new music.  Even in the rare instance when the new music is undeniable, for most fans, sentimental legend surpasses objective reality.

Perhaps no band faced this seemingly lose-lose challenge more than the original lineup of Van Halen.  As legend would have it, Eddie Van Halen played Eruption note-for-note while simultaneously doing scissor jumps in an alcoholic mania.  Diamond David Lee Roth did Nadia Comaneci (look 'er up, kids) splits off the drum riser, 13 feet up and 28 1/2 feet across the stage - C'mon Dave, gimme a break!  Michael Anthony drank a case of Jack Daniels during his bass solo alone.  Alex Van Halen played the intro to Hot For Teacher in triple time while he set the gong behind him on fire in between beats.  Then there were the albums:  Van Halen, Van Halen II, Women And Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, 1984...

In the wake of 28 years of Sam Hagar, Gary Cherone, a Diamond Dave cameo, Sam Hagar again (again!!?!?!?), the mostly schlocky Van Hagar catalogue, and a decade or so of alcoholic oblivion, a comeback album that wasn't a cringe-worthy embarrassment seemed a monumental challenge.

As if Van Halen's challenge weren't daunting enough,  there was also the incessant one-man barrage of public sniping from the band's bitter former singer - you know, the current lead singer of ChickenMcNuggets....

Feb. 8, LA Forum - Final Dress Rehearsal

In the face of all the reasons why a Van Halen album should be a collossal disappointment, the band delivers A Different Kind Of Truth.  Very bluntly, "The new Van Halen album is a FUCKING monster!!!!"

A Different Kind Of Truth seems more a sequel to their first four albums than to Diver Down or the pop-infused 1984.  There aren't as many obvious pop hooks, and it's probably a good thing because otherwise these songs might have sounded more dated than classic.

Performance notes:
  • Ed never played guitar with this consistent level of ferocity during their entire tenure with the current lead singer of ChickenBreast. 
  • Alex Van Halen is predictably precise and comfortable in his role as the Modern Day Ginger Baker. 
  • Perhaps it's a bit of nepotism, but Wolf Van Halen's bass is more prominent in the mix than Michael Anthony's was on all the previous albums.
  • Either Wolf Van Halen plays bass exactly like his father plays guitar...or Papa Ed pulled rank on bass on certain tracks.
  • Diamond Dave REVELS in his return throughout the album.  His enthusiasm is so palpable and infectious that you will not be able to help yourself from grinning ear to ear as you listen.  One more thing:  listen to the lyrics.  Behind the distraction of glitter, zaniness, and Joker's grin is a formidable lyricist with a keen sense of observation and irony. 
Tattoo - ©2012 Interscope Records

Track notes:
  • Tattoo - Solid, pop radio-friendly hello, but given the pace of the rest of the album, it's understandable why some may be underwhelmed initially.
  • She's The Woman - prototypically Mean Street, with its relentless funk groove intact.  Currently my favorite song, with one complaint:  it's too damn short!
  • You And Your Blues - Van Halen lost Michael Anthony, but they didn't lose their trademark harmony vocals (although if Mikey were here, the harmonies probably would've been more prominent in the mix).
  • China Town - This Shy Boy of a track lives in the same turbo-beat part of town where Dave lived with Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan when they used to Eat 'Em And Smile.
  • Blood And Fire - Reminiscent of VH-I and VH-II, complete with Dave's wink and nod to the past: "I told you I'd be back.  Did you miss me?  Say it like you mean it!" 
  • Bullethead - Wailing elephant intro segues into an On Fire/Light Up The Sky-style vibe.
  • As Is - Everybody Wants Some-style tribal drums, mammoth-heavy guitars give way to a Sinners Swing verse and a gang-vocal chorus - G-g-g-get out and push!  Indeed.  
  • Honeybabysweetiedoll - Badness bringing up the rear with menacing minor-key guitar riff,  flanged bass, funky drums, and low-end vocals.  
  •  The Trouble With Never - Heavy, driving funk with oohs and aahs of choruses past and a Barry White-meets-Diamond-Dave interlude to boot.
  • Outta Space - We've found the Atomic Punk circa 2012!
  • Stay Frosty - The Ice Cream Man cometh with a whole lotta mystic popsicles.
  • Big River - Heavy-meets-pop with a melodic outro solo that deserves to be turned into a future song all its own.
  • Beats Workin' - Probably the most Van Halen circa 1977 song in the set with a Feel Your Love Tonight sunny vibe.  All that's missing is a Gazzari's wet t-shirt night, bell bottoms, and roller skates.     
Bottom Line:

A Different Kind Of Truth tips its hat generously to past Van Halen classics, but stands toe to toe with any of the band's pre-1986 vintage albums.  It also makes blatantly obvious that what's been missing in Van Halen's music for the past 26 years - something that all the high-end tequila in Cabo San Lucas and all the Olympic vocal gymnastics that go with it could never duplicate - was a larger-than-life, bigger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts, unique-as-a-fingerprint persona and attitude that only comes from a volatile mix of Diamond Dave and Eddie.

This is Classic Van Halen - period.

January 26, 2012

Bastard: An Acting and Directorial Debut Boot-Kick To The Teeth

The German film Bastard is a socially contemporary and topical thriller that’s uncomfortably compelling. Uncomfortable, because to an American audience that’s used to vapid teenage vampire melodramas featuring cute boys with washboard stomachs and their girlfriends with even more dubious acting skills, Bastard is a boot-kick to the teeth.

                   ©2011 Gifted Films (German with English subtitles)

The story is about a disturbingly sullen 13-year old, Leon (Markus Krojer), who kidnaps a nine-year old boy, chains him inside the basement of a public swimming pool, films his captive, and posts the footage on the internet. The video goes viral as the police, led by a criminal psychologist (Martina Gedeck), try to find the missing nine-year old and his kidnapper. Both the psychologist and the missing boy’s parents realize very quickly that Leon is the culprit. He makes no secret of it. In fact, he is tauntingly brazen about his guilt. He is equally cavalier in his manipulation of the German system which states that one must be 14 years old to be responsible legally for any crime.

At first, Bastard is an open and shut case. However, here’s where the story veers into the uncomfortable. Leon’s parents seem alarmingly unaffected, alienated – and accepting – of their out of control son. The missing boy’s mother seems terrified by Leon to such an inexplicable extent that it even exceeds what one would expect as the natural reaction of a mother towards her son’s kidnapper. The missing boy’s father seems like a caged animal rendered powerless by Leon and the German legal system.

…and then Bastard veers wildly into the stratosphere of uncomfortable…

Enter Mathilda (Antonia Lingemann), Leon’s classmate. Mathilda is the daughter of an alcoholic single mother, and whose father died when she was young. At home, Mathilda is forced to be the responsible parent to her drunk mother. Away from home, she is at once a Lolita who exudes jailbait sexuality of monstrous proportions towards Leon and any adult male and a little girl lost. Mathilda barges her way into the lives of Leon, the missing boy’s parents, and the psychologist, and becomes an instrumental complication and diversion to their standoff.

Fifteen-year old Lingemann steals this film. She delivers a spectacularly nuanced star turn with an ease that one would only expect from the best of actors two or three times her age. Lingemann’s performance provokes viewers to simultaneously love, hate, fear, feel sorry for, laugh at, be shocked by, and squirm in supreme discomfort at Mathilda. The fact that a supporting character can have such a profound impact on the movie speaks to Lingemann’s prodigious acting chops, as well as to first-time director/screenplay writer Carsten Unger’s skills.

Without ever seeming overbearing, Unger deftly provides subtle social commentary about juvenile and adoption laws in Germany, the over-sexualization of children, abuse, bullying, and the desensitization of an entire generation as a result of technology. As writer and director, Unger has cleverly taken influences from Roman Polanski, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and A Clockwork Orange to deliver a brash film that is truly his own.

January 24, 2012

Picasso: "Oh, it's just a little something I drew..."

Pablo Picasso
Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"

If you missed last year's Picasso: Masterpieces from Musee National Picasso, Paris, the traveling exhibition of essential works from Picasso's personal collection, then be sure to put Picasso's Drawings, 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition on your calendar.  Many of the 55 sketches from this collection served as "rough drawings" to masterpieces.  National Gallery of Art January 29 - May 6, 2012.

January 20, 2012

Paul Stanley: You Haven't Aged A Bit Since 1974

At the age of ten, I walked into the green shag-carpeted family room of my best friend and flipped through his record collection.  Walt Disney soundtracks, Sesame Street Disco, Village People, and - what the hell was this? 

The album that caught my eye was emblazoned with a red and blue, stylized double lightning bolt S logo and four small pictures of what looked to my sensibilities at the time as comic book characters.  I turned the album around to see the back cover which had the same pictures, only bigger.  There was a pretty man who could very well have been a woman superhero, a cat guy, a spaceman, and a nightmarish sweaty creature with bloody dripping from his mouth and smeared across his face as if he might even be bleeding from his eyes.  I immediately opened the double album to reveal the centerfold - the same four characters on a multi-level Dante's Inferno-motif stage that was consumed with sparks and mushroom clouds of fire.  I was transfixed, fascinated, obsessed, possessed....I hypnotically asked my buddy to put the record on..."YOU WANTED THE BEST, YOU GOT THE BEST...."

To say that my life changed at that moment may seem like hyperbole, but that afternoon during my summer vacation between the fifth and sixth grade was the pivotal moment when I went from being a little kid who listened to music that my Top 40-loving mom liked to an independent-thinking big kid who inadvertently got a taste of something new...rebellion and possibility - and I loved it.

I listened to the songs on the album obsessively and repeatedly.  I learned every single word.  King of the Nighttime World.  Calling Dr. Love.  Ladies Room.  Love Gun.  Rocket Ride.  I had no idea what their lyrics actually meant, but that wasn't important.  I suddenly wanted to read everything I could about these guys, find out when they would next appear on TV, and plot how I would one day talk my parents into letting me see them in concert.

I didn't just want to follow them.  I wanted to be them.  I couldn't look like them because...well, my parents weren't going to tolerate that (although I was the Spaceman a year later for Halloween).  So I asked them for a guitar the following Christmas.  The moment I strapped the guitar around my neck, I wanted one more thing those guys had on the cover of Love Gun...

...A bevy of worshiping, hot, semi-naked women at their feet.  Suddenly, the girl who lived across the street from me..."looked good.  She looked Hotter Than Hell"...

In the ensuing three decades, the music of this band has played in my head like a soundtrack on an endless loop, and motivated me to live out my own rock and roll fantasy - not just in my pursuit of music, but in life, in general...and that grand sense of possibility.

Happy 60th birthday, Paul Stanley!

January 19, 2012

First to Review New Springsteen (Without Bothering To Hear It)

Springsteen Wrecking Ball
The Greatest Springsteen Album Since His Last Greatest Album

I wanted RTunes68 to be the first blog to review the upcoming Bruce Springsteen album Wrecking Ball.  So here it is:

The Boss returns with the greatest rock album since....well, his last greatest rock album.  Bruce really speaks to the everyday man - his concerns, his plight - and...speaks truth to power!  The album is breathtaking, lyrically and musically.  I would bestow the monicker "Bob Dylan" on Bruce if there weren't already a Bob Dylan - that's how brilliant The Boss is.

If there were a Rock And Roll Hall of Fame for members of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce should be inducted now.

I speak for all music critics when I say that our only complaint about Springsteen is that he's too great.

(...See, I've just made all the reviews that surely will inundate the media in the weeks ahead entirely redundant.)

January 17, 2012

Roman Polanski's "Carnage" And Claustrophobia

I confess that I saw Roman Polanski’s Carnage on a whim…and slightly buzzed on pinot noir. Polanski once again treads in a familiar territory as this film is a study in claustrophobia, and the pinot buzz, if anything, heightened the sense of entrapment.

                                                         © 2012 Sony Pictures

In the opening scene, the viewer witnesses a minor playground scuffle where a boy hits another with a stick. The next scene – which comprises the rest of the movie – is the consequence of that one action wherein the boys’ parents meet and are trapped in the tight confines of an apartment to discuss how to resolve what some of them see as a monumentally significant incident. What ensues is biting commentary of the self-righteousness and self-adulation of over-involved – yet, realistically, absentee – parents in an era when playground play and scuffles have been replaced by supervised play dates and adult over-supervision.

When the two sets of parents, played by Christopher Waltz and Kate Winslet, and John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster, first meet, it’s all Upper East Side urbanity and liberal politeness. Yet after more than a few rounds of whiskey and fruit cobbler of questionable quality, all their affected sophistication and civility descends into a drunken display of hypocrisy, phoniness, pettiness, repressed anger, and cracks in the pavement of relationships the size of potholes. In effect, what transpires is the comedic equivalent of what happens weekly on Jersey Shore or Real World (Season 52?). To play along and not blow the sophisticated self-image of the two couples, let’s just say that similar territory was covered in the 1960s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Based on Yasmina Reza’s play, Carnage the film remains a one-scene play. However, without the air, space, and din of a live audience, Polanski’s adaptation forces the viewer to feel like a trapped fly on the wall of an apartment where over-reaction and “carnage” transpires.

If you are the busy parent of playground-age children today, this film may be a bit too close to home to fully appreciate. However, if you’re friends with such parents – or if you’re thankfully a self-aware parent – Carnage is a darkly hilarious movie with several unsettlingly all-too-familiar moments.

The subtle punchline/astute concluding observation occurs during the ending credits…

January 11, 2012

The Girl With The Immigrant Song Tattooed In Her Head

Whenever I hear that someone has covered a Led Zeppelin song, I reflexively cringe.  I've heard many a cover rendered by everyone from nameless bar bands to established stadium-filling mega-artists and almost every one of them falls horribly short of the original.  To paraphrase Robert Plant from Song Remains The Same, "Does anybody remember laughter?" 

Does anybody remember Encomium?  If that officially-sanctioned tribute album proved anything, it was that encomium could be paid to Led Zeppelin, but no one can duplicate or surpass the original...

...Enter Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Karen O....

If anyone had a snowball's chance in Valhalla (does that even make sense?) of doing the Immigrant Song justice, it would have to be someone who approached it over, under, sideways, down.  That's exactly what Reznor, Ross, and O have done.  Rather than replicating the obvious - mimicking Plant's banshee falsetto wails or Jimmy Page's driving guitar riff or John Bonham's trademark drum sound - Reznor, Ross, and O make the song almost a new creation entirely.  All that's left of the original is the pummeling feel - with the drums playing what used to be the guitar riff - and Viking lyrics.

The result is debauched, almost-human, industrial-techno, calculated mayhem that's as dark, stark, and ominous as a girl with a dragon tattoo in the icy-cold winters of Sweden...

Enough with the verbose encomium, check out the song! 

                                                    ©2011 Sony Pictures

January 9, 2012

Max Zorn: If MacGyver Were An Artist

If Banksy's work has become too conventional for you, check out Dutch street artist Max Zorn.  Using nothing more than brown packing tape and light, his film noir-ish portraits and scenes are both innovative and stunning.  You can also stick his work in your city

                                                         Max Zorn 

January 5, 2012

The Soundtrack To Your Next Soul Train House Party

                                               Black And White America
                                           (© 2011 Roadrunner Records)
“The future looks as though it has come around
And maybe we have finally found our common ground”
The line from the opening, title track to Lenny Kravitz’s latest album Black And White America seems to be the manifesto for all that follows. This album could very well have come out in 1978, and yet it sounds every bit 2012, musically and rhetorically. He touches on race in an optimistic way, and rides the “love, peace, and SOUL” train with all the authority and cool of Don Cornelius.

That Kravitz worships at the altar of James Brown, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jackson 5/Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, and Prince is not news. Fact is, aside from the sporadic output of The Purple One, no one but Kravitz makes this sort of music anymore so consistently and so well. So appreciate it for all its rock-star-soul-brother-spaceman splendor.

Black And White America is Kravitz’s most focused, best written, and f-f-f-funkiest effort since 1998’s 5. There is very little fat or filler in this 17-track album. When there is, as when he treads dangerously in the Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson I-believe-the-children-are-our-future waters of The Faith of a Child or Dream, you almost want to excuse him because he does it in such earnest…but let’s not. To the unforgiving, cynical ear, the two aforementioned tracks are the only things getting in the way of making this album flawless.

  • Black And White America – the funky opening version and the acoustic b-side are an insight into songwriting.
  • Come On And Get It – what if Zeppelin, Hendrix, Sly, Super Fly, JB, Prince, and hot girls got in a room together?
  • Liquid Jesus – Maxwell, you ain’t the king of Mr. Lova’ Man music.
  • Rock Star City Life – this should be the theme for Victoria’s Secret’s next ad and runway campaigns.
  • Boongie Drop – close your eyes and you’re in a sweaty Kingston dance hall, as Jay-Z drops by to say “I make that pussy speak patois like Petra, remember hah?”
  • Stand – a brilliant theft of Three Dog Night’s Nights in Shambala.
  • SuperLove – Eh, Maxwell.  It might be time to call it a night.
  • War – a track worthy of Michael Jackson at his Off the Wall finest.

January 2, 2012

Young Adult: Can’t Find My Way Back Home

(© 2011 - Paramount Pictures)

In Young Adult, Mavis (Charlize Theron) is an impossibly beautiful (and she knows it), divorced writer of young adult fiction in her mid to late 30s who lives self-absorbedly in big city Minneapolis, parties too often, drinks too much, sleeps with the TV on tuned perpetually to The Kardashians, isn’t the least bit nice, and yet now wishes she could have done things differently. So she decides to go back to her suburban Mercury, Minnesota roots and try to reunite with her long-lost high school love – the one that got away.

So far, this film has all the makings of a romantic comedy starring the interchangeable Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, or Sarah Jessica Parker. Throw in Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds, or Josh Duhamel and, ladies, we’ve got the perfect recipe for a feel-good movie that you can relate to and walk out of feeling like true love is possible for you too, right?


Young Adult comes from the razor-sharp pen of Diablo Cody (the author of Juno). Her mercilessly cynical writing is immensely entertaining, poignant, and funny…and all too uncomfortably relatable to a generation of women and men who suddenly find all their friends evaporating into an incessantly-self-described state of blissful matrimony and parenthood, while they’re in a suspended state of discontented adolescence. Stuck in such a purgatory, even the strongest willed among us surely have considered doing what Mavis does by going back home and righting the wrongs of the past.

However, as the cliché states: You can’t go back home. Your mirror may deceive you into thinking you haven’t changed, but the people, consequences, and circumstances you’ve left behind have. Mavis returns home, meets up with her old boyfriend Buddy to whom she’s pinned all her hopes and dreams for the future…and hits the brick wall – or street lamp (see the movie!) – of reality.

Theron would be a solo tour de force of nature in this movie if not for comedian Patton Oswalt’s portrayal of Matt, the perpetual loser/geek who was literally scarred for life by high school (again, see the movie!) and who still collects action figures, distills homemade bourbon, and owns a collection of ‘90s indie-rock t-shirts. Mavis may have ignored Matt throughout high school, but now years later, with all the reluctance and disdain of the still-mean prom queen forced to acknowledge the class geek, she grows to rely on him as her confidante, voice of reason, drinking buddy, and more.

While the Mr. Big-dreaming fans of a certain franchise may find this movie and Mavis abhorrent, welcome to the dark and real side of life (or as real as a comedic film gets) and embrace the uncomfortable humor of Young Adult.

Seemingly free of the constraints of Hollywood focus group audiences, America’s Sweethearts, and cliché, Cody has teamed up with the equally talented devil-and-single-women-may-care Theron to produce a wholly unsympathetic character and date movie from hell – and it's a damn good one!