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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Nowadays Fest (Arts Quest at Steel Stacks), Starring Caveman, Jukebox the Ghost and Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr

A long time ago Bethlehem, PA served as the backbone for our country's thriving steel industry.  The times when, ya know, we made stuff and sold it to others for handsome profits.  China/Shmina.  We were a real economic powerhouse who made the rules and dictated the World's economy (in a positive way.) Much like many Northeastern towns from say, 1980 on, Bethlehem has seen some hard times.  In reality, 6 miles of property was abandoned when Bethlehem Steel closed its doors in 1995.  This was a  company, for the record, that had outfitted several US warships and revolutionized the now ubiquitous "I" beam.  140 years or so of literally creating our urban landscape.  Now a mere memory.  6 miles of industrial blight along with its hundreds of lost jobs.  Think Flint when the auto industry left.  Or Columbus or Dayton, OH when industry was not needed as it once was.  Erie, PA and Rochester, NY.  Wilkes-Barre, PA and Charleston, WV.

How then do you rebuild a City?  How then do you bring in jobs and commerce?  Can a once great City make a comeback??

Who knows?  And, not that it needs to be written,  those questions are intended for greater minds than this authors.

But I do know this.  When you build a major arts center among the ruins of an old steel mill the results are quite impressive.  And they signal things are going to be just fine.  In fact, Bethlehem's Arts Quest Center at Steel Stacks is a wonderfully conceived and impressive entertainment destination.  Only an hour or so from NYC and Philadelphia this spot is well worth the drive.  But the questions remains if you build it will they come.

4 stories of new construction devoted solely to art, film and music.  3 outdoor concert spots.  4 stages for music.  It was hard to keep score.  And, during day 1 of this weekends Nowadays Fest ( there is the feeling I saw very little of what this space has to offer.  More reason to head back, and fast.  For more:

This weekends festival touts 20 bands over 2 days.  The acts on the main stage last night made the drive even more palatable.  NYC's Caveman opened with another blistering set.  Hard to fathom they precede Jukebox the Ghost and Detroit's very talented Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr.  But they did.  And they once again rocked the house.

Their debut album CoCo Beware plays so well live.  Their abundance of live shows is clearly paying dividends too.  Their song "Decide" had a jazzier feel to it not felt before.  Their closing "Vampirer/Old Friend" continues to be an impressive feat of sound, melody and volume.  Not sure exactly how the record industry machine works, nor will I ever be.  But it continues to amaze me how even the alt world has its hierarchy.  An act like Lana Del Rey gets lambasted by the alt World and cast aside as so much candy.  Yet the controversy surrounding everything other than Del Rey's music only served to fuel her record sales.  Meanwhile bands like Caveman, and many, many others, get overlooked in their quest for listeners.   Take a look/listen:

Does that kind of US Weekly hype explain the incredibly low turn out at last nights event?  Maybe we prefer the spoon fed stuff?  Is that the kind of attitude that led to the steel mills closing?

Again, conversations and talking points for people more qualified than I.

I am, however, adept on planning evenings and executing flawless evenings of dining and music.  Arts Quest in Bethlehem, PA is now very much in the mix.  It need not take a backseat to Terminal 5 in NYC.  Or TLA in Philly.

Caveman need not take a backseat either.  Or Jukebox the Ghost for that matter.  They gamely played a Ben Folds-esque/inspired set without their drummer (who left town earlier in the afternoon due to a family emergency.)  These guys were so damn positive and jubilant it was hard not to like them.  Although there were many in my group who wanted to.  The 17 year olds danced and dug it just fine.  I will have to be grade it an incomplete on my report card.  The skinny jeans are a definite demerit though.  Men, this column strongly enforces the NO SKINNY JEANS rule.   For more:

Detroit's Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr have two things going for them.  First, their name is brilliant.  They come from the Motor City (as demonstrated by their Tigers jackets) and pay homage to a race car driver.  They also bring it.  The indie pop duo Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott has a high energy vibe that translates well on stage.  Simple grooves.  A good mix of guitar and synth.  These kids have a ton of potential.  For more:

I will not mention the burlesque/magician/comedy act that played in between sets.  It was unnecessary, obnoxious and beyond out of place for last nights event.  Oh, was it just mentioned?  Sorry.  It sucked.

Arts Quest at Steel Stacks:


 Jukebox the Ghost:

Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Van Halen in Atlantic City

Roger Ebert, the great movie critic, says that when he writes a movie review, he reviews the movie they actually made, not the one they should have made.

So for snark about David Lee Roth's strained voice and dance missteps, Wolfgang's portliness, Eddie's intermittent sobriety, or tequila hawker Sammy Hagar's sour grapes comments about backing tracks, I'll ask you to look elsewhere.

If you are of a certain age, Van Halen has a indelible place in the soundtrack of your life.

Like The Doors, they are sui generis --- they bring a mix of elements together that is not quite like anyone else. Even their covers of other artists hit songs, like Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman", Martha and the Vandellas "Dancing in the Streets", and The Kinks "You Really Got Me", are original. Music critics can argue about the relative quality of remake to the original, but I think you can make the case that Van Halen made these songs their own. They sound like Van Halen songs.

Speaking of being a certain age; Van Halen, as presently constituted, is a nostalgia act, and they, and we, are totally cool with that.

To me, music at its best is a shared communal experience, not just a consumer exchange of a ticket for 2 hours of entertainment. Gathering at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City for the purpose of a shared experience is more than just hearing a band play. A generation or so ago, folks engaged in the now lost art of the sing-a-long. Today, with our entertainment spoon fed to us via wire and Web, going to a concert where every song is part of your youth, and every lyric is known by heart, and every 40 to 50 year old in the Hall is singing along with you, fueled by memories and huge cups of beer, is a richly evocative and sublime event.

For some, like my wife, it is a corrective emotional experience. Having been told in 1984 that she was "too young" to go see Van Halen, with the promise of being able to see them "in a year or two", only to suffer the "Van Hagar" dark ages for over two decades, my foul-mouthed, Jersey Girl wife had tears in her eyes as David Lee took the stage.

Our two companions, friends made in adulthood and therefore without shared youthful experiences or memories, were right there with us, recalling cruising down whatever  "the strip" was in their respective hometowns to "Running With the Devil", playing air guitar to "Eruption", drunkenly singing "Ain't Talking 'Bout Love" at a parents-away kegger, and  sotto voce reciting "Hot For Teacher" in reaction to a shapely high school substitute. And so was the rest of the crowd; suburban dads raising fists and bull's horns above their greying and balding heads, and soccer moms in their vintage black T-shirts, teasing that hair way, way up for the first time in decades.

Whether you call it the soul, the spirit, memory, or the unconscious, there is a part of us that is heedless of time and its passage, that always just "is", both a repository and source of our experience. Sometimes its a smoldering ember. Sometimes its a roaring flame, if we let the wind blow across us and fuel it. In our younger, less responsible days, that flame roared, and losing ourselves for a few hours with others lets us find it, briefly, again.

P.S. Kool and the Gang was the opening act- However, due to an adolescent appetite for beer combined with a middle-aged bladder, other than a joyous, energetic "Celebration", I missed most of their 25 minute set!

Set List below:

Headed "Home"

Abandoning the big City and headed West tomorrow for the Nowadays Fest: MORE INFO HERE!!!  Turns out Bethlehem, PA has a new venue and is hosting this 2 day gathering or art and music.  Having gone through their most notable collection/assembly of song, the over-crowded drunk-fest they call Musikfest, there is some trepidation.  Could this be midfield at the end of a Lehigh/Lafayette football game?  Drunken frat boys wilding and assaulting each other in a cathartic orgy of testosterone?

Doubt it.  Thinking more along the lines of emo-inspired hipsters out to show the World not-caring is the new black.

Tomorrow NYC's Caveman and the talented trio Jukebox the Ghost support headliners Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr.  A step both out of my comfort zone and a return to roots.  There is a contentment about the moments spent back "home."  Coming in as a tourist is nice accent to the already special visits made to my family.   It was always my contention that Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton, PA should be a major cultural hub (like a poor man's Austin, TX or Nashville.)  The same can be said for the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton area where I attended college.

These places both have tremendous beauty and absolutely wonderful people in and around them.  Over recent years they have, by some accounts, bounced back a bit from awful financial ruin.  Serious musicians are finding time to swing by for concerts (at venues like the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre. ) Minor league sports teams have faired pretty well.  Legalized gambling has rolled in and the casinos that were built report steady business.

Gotta love a place that invests some money in the entertainment dollar.  We can't take it with us, can we?

And where there is gambling, drunken concert going, depravity in general...  doesn't that mean that prosperity is nearby?  Work hard, party hard.  Right?  Go out and get yours.  If you cannot this weekend please give these songs/artists a try.

Temper Trap "Need Your Love"  Dougy Mandagi's voice is as strong as ever.  Good energy and good hook on the Aussie's first release from their upcoming LP.   Very much anticipating this record and sorry the timing of their NYC shows was poor.

Silversun Pickups "Bloody Mary"  Another LP that is long overdue is the LA bands 3rd effort, Neck of The Woods.  They have been consistent since their 2006 debut.  Every 3 years they produce.  And this single is a bit of a departure.  A lot more melody and some long instrumental build up.  It is trippy and rocking at the same time.  Still very much guitar driven but with a lot more cool vibe.  This bodes well for the entire record.

Tanlines "Brothers"  Interesting for several reasons.  First, is is directed by Weird Days (who did the campy and funny video for Real Estate's "Days."  Second, the song is terrific.  Another bit of 80s nostalgia full of synths, twang and emo heavy vocals.  Finally, it is the second song named "Brothers" that I dig this year.  War on Drugs has the other:  Terrific live version can be heard/seen here  Give Brooklyn's Tanlines and Philly's War on Drugs a moment of your time.  They deserve it.

Santigold "Disparate Youth"  Santi White, er, Santigold, has Philly roots too.  And one heck of voice!! This trippy, dance groove from her upcoming sophomore LP hits all the right notes.  Easy to detect she recorded this in Jamaica.  Reggae beats and harmonies under a catchy keyboard line.  Then, the voice.  Sultry, sexy and confident.  A perfect pop song.  While you are at it catch this track from her debut album.  It has that Dale Bozio thing that is quite pleasant:  L.E.S. Artistes

Cloud Nothings "Stay Useless"  Neo Punk rock from Cleveland rockers via Case Western University.  Young, a little angry and a whole bunch of fun.  They made waves at last weeks SXSW and are surely headed for alt glory.  Go on, enjoy.

Caveman "Thankful"  Their first official video and the opening track of their debut record CoCo Beware.  A strong drum beat drives this great song.  Simple and effective.

Jukebox the Ghost "Schizophrenia"  More Philly in the house!!  Piano fronted trio with their eyes firmly on melody and tempo.  They get compared to Ben Folds a lot.  Makes sense.  And that is some lofty comparison, "The Sing Off"not withstanding.

Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr "Simple Girl"  Detroit indie pop duo.  This track is pleasant and silly.  Same for the video.    All very familiar but worth the trip nonetheless.

Hey all...  join the discussion here!!

Melikes when you likes:  Facebook and/or Twitter


Final Four picks= Who cares???  They are all detestable!!  Where have you gone Butler???

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Believe the Hype, Gotye at Terminal 5

There are times a song, or video, become so popular the artist or performer gets lost in the shuffle.  LMFAO have become a goofy novelty act since they started party rocking.   Teen sensation Rebecca Black had last years most viral vid with "Friday."  Do you remember that?  Had you ever heard of it/her?  Exactly.

Australian singer Gotye has such a viral video with the wonderfully simple, yet inventive "Somebody I Used to Know."  To date some 128 million folks have watched, and one would presume listened, to this breakout/smash hit.

To suggest Gotye is a one hit wonder would be unfair, unjust and, as he displayed to a sold out Terminal 5 Sunday night, just plain laughable.

First, let's consider Gotye's  (born Wouter "Wally" De Backer- Gotye is the French equivalent of Walter and far cooler) 2011 LP Making Mirrors is his third release.  His second record, Like Drawing Blood,  was a smash in his native Australia where it was voted as #11 in Austalia's Top 100 Records of All Time(Full list here)!!  Remember, Men at Work, Little River Band and AC/DC all got their start here people!!!

Second, let's examine Making Mirrors  minus the huge (and now overplayed) "Somebody That I Used to Know."  He opened the set with "Eyes Wide Open."  It is a big, bold, rhythmic pop song with his soaring falsetto setting a defiant tone to the evening.  Sweet twangs poured out of guitars as Gotye himself moved easily between vibes, synths, drums, microphones and whatever instrument was within his reach.  "We walk the plank/With our eyes wide open" he roared as drums pounded behind him.   The lyrics very much emblematic of the performer himself.  He has a fearlessness and joy even in the face of uncertainty and doom.  Here, the unforgiving and challenging acoustics of Terminal 5.

His banter was limited between songs, but he did mention how he was struggling with the sound.  No wonder.  You cannot blame the artist for wanting to play to as many fans as possible.  And credit must be given to Gotye's sound men for making the cavernous venue in check.  Whatever problems Gotye was having on stage were not apparent to the crowd who ate it up like cool lemonade on a hot summers day.

The cautionary tale "Easy Way Out" and bluesy/haunting "Smoke and Mirrors" were notable highlights.  As was the reggae tinged "State of The Art" which plays like a voodoo meditation.  The singer uses an effect/microphone that is both creepy and fun.  The slow build eventually gains a momentum with wonderful harmony help from Gotye's supporting cast.  There are no wasted moments.  There is the sense that each note is rehearsed and well thought out.  Yet, the flow has an incredibly improvisational feel to it.

The sing-along "Save Me" engaged the crowd further.  Let the record state Gotye's singing voice is so similar to his LP tracks it is scary.  The fact that he brought such delicacy to Term 5 is amazing.  He even got the kids to quiet down for "Bronte."  He politely asked for silence for this lovely little ballad sung in hush tones.  Aside from a few drunken outbursts the crowd held up there end.  And we were all rewarded.  "We will be with you/When you are leaving.  We will be with you/When you go.  It hurts to let you go."

And, now 48 hours after the event, the hurt is apparent.  He is missed.  Gotye was that impressive.  And he should be on your radar for FAR more than his viral hit (which he did to perfection with opening act Kimbra mid set.)

His first encore was the gospel tinged "I Feel Better."  Indeed, we are all better for having met him.  And we look forward to our next meeting with "Eyes Wide Open."

Post Script:

A special thanks to Gotye's managment/publicity team who provided this reviewer with VIP seats.  My 9 year old has become smitten with the tall drink of water from down under.  As more of an after thought I reached out to his team wondering if there was a chance they had 3 seats upstairs for her (us) to get a better view.  She would have never made it on the PACKED standing room concert floor.  Doubt us old folk would have either (even though the crowd was very civilized.) No more than 24 hours later did I receive a response informing me 3 upgrades would be waiting for me at the box office.

One, the response time in itself was remarkable.  Here is one music'  hottest commodities getting an email from some nobody off the street.  Not only did they take the time to respond...  they responded favorably.

This kind of positivism is contagious and speaks to the artist himself.  If you surround yourself with good, kind people it speaks to your integrity.  And the way Gotye handles himself on stage (affable, easy going, kind) I would expect nothing less from his staff.  Well done all around folks!!  You succeeded in making a young girl very happy (and surely provided a memory of a lifetime.)  Oh, and her geeky parents too.  Check that, geeky dad.  Her mom is a rock star in her own right.

Opening act Kimbra has a nice, although at times repetitious act.  Her voice is strong (as evidenced by her work with Gotye.)  It was on full display Sunday night.  Part of the New Zealand movement (see Flight of the Conchords, Naked and The Famous, Earthquakes) Kimbra has something of a New Zealand Sound Machine thing going for her.  Think Gloria Estefan with a punk/jazz feel.  She has an album coming out in May that bears looking into.  But, in her early 20s and very much getting her feet wet, the jury is out on her live act.  A good voice is one thing...  content married to voice a much taller task!

Check this out:

Gotye 'Eyes Wide Open'  These visuals played to great effect on the giant screen located behind stage.  Nice display of slide guitar/pedal steel and steady percussion.  A nice way to start the show.

Gotye "State of The Art"  Odd, but more than effective live.  Groovy reggae beats with voice altering vocals.

Gotye 'Bronte"    More Anime, also used on projector screen Sunday.  Bon Iver-esque lullaby and one of the more satisfying moments from the show.

Gotye "Smoke and Mirrors"  The irony of the show.  Singing about deceiving yet all he does is bring it, right in your face.  Another stand out from the live show.  So.  Bloody.  Groovy.

Gotye, featuring Kimbra "Somebody I Used to Know"  For the one person who has not seen it.  Started writing this piece with 128 million views...  it now has 129 million.  150 million before weeks end for sure.  This is good viral.

Kimbra "Samaritan"  Video taken from the show Sunday night.  Notable for how good the quality of the video and her dress...  which was crazy. 

They play a sold out Webster Hall tonight and are sure to come back around soon.  Get on board!