Saturday, August 13, 2011

Not to be missed: Spectacle with Elvis Costello

The first season of Spectacle features 13 amazing interviews and performances.  Elvis Costello is cast perfectly as host.
If you love music raise your hand. Yep, just as I thought, everybody.  Oop, Mr. Gingrich, you'll have to leave, and Dad you'll need to go with him.

If you are a music lover you must watch Spectacle with Elvis Costello.  Produced by British and Canadian television, Spectacle premiered during the 2008/09 season with 13 episodes and followed the 2009/10 season with seven shows.

 Spectacle's first season is available on Netflix streaming.  I'd heard about it from friends a couple of times, and seen a brief allusion to host Elvis Costello's transition from musician to talk show host in a review.  I was intrigued.  After the first episode, I was hooked.

Each episode begins with Elvis performing, usually something out of the musical guest's songbook.  Look, you either like Elvis Costello's singing or you don't.  I do, but I'm a longtime fan. He's an acquired taste.
Elvis with the members of the Police.  From left to right: Elvis Costello, Sting, guitarist Andy Summers, and drummer Stewart Copeland.  Perhaps the best of all the episodes.
What follows is a mesmerizing conversation between the artists, Costello and his guest.  Taking place in a performance hall, sometimes the Apollo Theater in New York, on a well equipped, but comfortably appointed stage, Costello leads a fascinating discussion of the guest's musical influences, experiences, and style.  This is not the Tonight Show, Letterman or Conan O'Brien.  The multi-faceted Costello is comfortable talking with Elton John about his long career, with She and Him about song-writing, or Bill Clinton's musical experiences without seeming star-struck, or worshipful.  The discussions are in the nature of two musicians talking shop, whether it is Elvis and James Taylor talking about the latter's North Carolina roots on his songwriting, or a discussion with ebullient Police drummer Stewart Copeland about the difficulty of working as a team, or  Renee Fleming's explanation of how she changes her singing style from her work for the Metropolitan Opera to her popular music projects.
Sir Elton John sits in for Elvis Costello to interview his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall. The British Columbia native explained her influences and gave a superb performance.
Punctuated with lots of music, guests performing alone and with Costello, it is 49 minutes (per episode) well spent.

The thriteen episode are as follows:
1.  With Sir Elton John.  Lots of great discussion about John's career.  To be truthful, he is the show's executive producer, but given his long, success as a songwriter, performer, his struggle to come out as a gay man to an unforgiving public.  It was great conversation with solid musical performances.

 2.  Episode 2 with Lou Reed.  Again memorable conversation about Reed's roots, the Velvet Underground, and his unique style.  Filmmaker Julian Schnabel joined Costello and Reed to discuss Reed's music and life.

 3.  Episode 3 with Bill Clinton.  The only non-performer on the guest list, Clinton, as might be expected, was still fascinating.  The conversation mostly focused on the role music played in the ex-president's life, and how he chose politics over music.  Interesting show, very little political discussion even though it happens during the 2008 campaign season.

 Episode 4 with Tony Bennett was quiet good.  The crooner has aged well and could still get his formidable voice around a few of his best known songs, including "The Way Your Look Tonight," one of my favorites. Lots of interesting conversation about Bennett's second passion, painting.

 Episode 5 with the Police was one of my absolute favorites.  It didn't hurt that Elvis had just come off tour with them, so knew them well.  Costello interviewed each of the band members individually, which was hilarious. Drummer Stewart Copeland comes across as the real rebel, with guitarist Andy Summers as the professional guitarist, while Sting is the erudite, long-suffering band leader.  The musical performances were superb including interesting performances between Elvis and Sting. The show closes with a rollicking interview with the three together and a fun performance with Costello, performing "Watching the Detectives," "Walking on the Moon," and, of all things, Cream's "Sunshine of My Love."   If you have to choose one episode to watch, this might be it.

Episode 6 with Smokey Robinson was also excellent.  Filmed at the Apollo Theater, we learn a lot about Smokey and the Miracles and how they signed with Motown.  Robinson shares his experience as a musician as well as a songwriter for the Detroit label.  Riveting stuff.

 Episode 7 with Rufus Wainwright was nothing I expected.  I had heard of him, and knew him to be the son of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, but I'd never heard his solo stuff.  Figuring him to be a folkie, like his parents, I was surprised to learn he was not like any popular musician I'd ever heard.  Influenced by the Great American Songbook, I admired his distinctive, beautiful voice.  The conversation was also incredible and I grew to admire his experience and struggle as an out gay performer.  The episode ends with a performance with Costello and Wainwright's mother.

 Episode 8 with Jenny Lewis, She and Him and Jakob Dylan focused mainly on the art of songwriting.  Though I knew Dylan from his work with the Wallflowers, I didn't know the other artists at all.  The discussion, as always, was interesting, and I found the music interesting too.

 Episode 9 was among the more unique episodes as the guest was Costello's wife, jazz pianist/vocalist Diana Krall.  I'd hear snippets of her work before, but not much.  Her performance was lovely and I've gone right out to the library to grab up as many discs as possible to download.  To give a unique twist to the show, executive producer Elton John conducts the interview rather than Elvis.  Sir Elton fills in admirably.

Episode 10 jazz pianist Herbie Hancock focused on his emergence with the Mile Davis group in the early 60's, as well as his style and technique.  For those, like me, who know little about jazz it was insightful, informative and the music was wonderful.

 Episode 11 with Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash and John Mellencamp was one of my favorites.  Promoted as an old fashioned "guitar pull" from Nashville, I was most intrigued with Rosanne Cash.  I thought it most interesting that Kristofferson, Mellencamp and Cash all performed solo, Jones was relegated to the role of uninterviewed back-up singer.  Come Away With Me indeed.

 Episode 12 with James Taylor again focused on songwriting, and as one of the iconic figures singer/songwriter era Taylor had a lot to talks about.  Some great songs as well, closing with one of my favorites "Sweet Baby James."

 Episode 13 was a fascinating interview with opera soprano Renee Fleming.  While Fleming did perform an aria from Tosca, she also focused on her forays into popular music and was quite well.  The special treat was Rufus Wainwright's return to the Costello's stage also belting out a song from his own opera about to premiere in England.

I know that if you've gotten this far you've read a lot.  I'd really like to emphasize the important role of Costello the interviewer. He seems richly suited for this role and he performs it very well.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Review: A Well Paid Slave

When I was in junior high I remember an issue of Sports Illustrated with the 1967 World Champion Cardinals on the cover. There was third baseman Mike Shannon, outfielder Lou Brock, some guy named Julian Javier, and manager Red Schoendienst.*  A smiling Bob Gibson, which was unusual.  There was also a fairly small, very handsome center fielder, Curt Flood.
Sports Illustrated cover October 7, 1968.  The cover is entitled "Manager of the Money Men," about Red Schoendienst's management of the world's best paid team.
Flood's fight to overturn his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies, and hence baseball's reserve clause is the subject of Bryan Snyder's 2007 book, A Well Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports. Snyder tells a pretty grim story.  He traces the story of Flood's determination to undo the trade, and subsequent impact the highly publicized litigation had on his life.  He also focuses on the legal trajectory of Flood vs. Kuhn and the actors who influenced the outcome of the case from its hearing in federal court to the arguments made before the Supreme Court.

 Snyder portrays Curt Flood after the end of the 1969 season as a ballplayer who had enjoyed considerable success in the major leagues.  His '69 season was one that was not his best, and at age 31, today sabermetricians might view it as the beginning of his decline years.  (We'll never no, because for all intents and purposes he never really played the game again.)  A great defensive center fielder and an effective singles hitter, we might reasonably compare him to Ichiro Suzuki without the drop dead arm. Flood, paid $90K, a lot for his time, experienced a trade in his minor league career from the Reds to the Cardinals.  He felt like property, and was sent to play in the segregated south, where he endured racial taunts and threats, separation from his white teammates in dining and accommodations.  He vowed it would not happen again.
August 1968 SI cover of a fabulous Flood grab at the wall.  Well-compensated for the times, Flood was paid for his glove and less for his bat.
 When he was traded along with teammate Tim McCarver to the Phillies Flood proceeded down the path that would lead to the Supreme Court.  His life would never be the same.  Snyder paints him as a regular drinker, and a womanizer who abandoned his family.  The stress of being out of baseball would push him over the edge into alcoholism and bankruptcy.  Flood fled the country for the solace of Denmark and Spain where his life continued to spiral downward.  Eventually, upon returning to his Oakland origins, with the help of friends in and out of baseball, Flood got sober, resurrected his self respect and enjoyed a connection with the game until his death from cancer in 1997 at age 59. At the time of his death, baseball players were beginning to recognize the debt they owed him for their freedom of movement and the riches they earned.
Flood and Player Asssociation president Marvin Miller.  Miller, a smart hard working representative for the the players, told Flood he didn't believe he could win his case.
Just as interesting as Curt Flood's story is the story Snyder tells of the progress through Flood's case through the courts.  Perhaps the most interesting character outside Flood is Players Association representative Marvin Miller. Miller had connections to former supreme court justice and U.N. ambassador Arthur Goldberg, who agreed to represent Flood, and by association the Players Association, who paid the legal costs of the trial. Unfortunately Goldberg was ill prepared to argue this case effectively.  Caught up in a disastrous New York gubernatorial campaign, his attention was elsewhere, while more enthusiastic and knowledgeable litigators were left on the sidelines. Another interesting aspect of the judicial side of the case is the roles of the arbiters hearing the evidence.   Federal court trial judge Irving Ben Cooper and associate Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun appear starstruck by their association with major league baseball and its history.  Beholden to the game's rich history and tradition, they are ultimately transfixed by baseball's mythology, the status quo and the owners' position that the reserve clause is vital to the success of major league baseball.
After he regained his sobriety, friends in and out of baseball helped Flood find his self-respect and rebuild his finances.  One job he held was as commissioner of the short lived Senior Baseball Association 1989-90.
A Well Paid Slave is a great story well told.  Snyder portrays Flood sympathetically without resorting to sentimentality.  He tells the story of the legal case honestly and lucidly without unduly complicating the issues.  It is a book I can highly recommend.

*Please, no letters.  I know Julian Javier was the very talented 2nd baseman with the Cards, and the father of former Mariner outfielder Stan Javier.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Future of Popular Music: Spotify

 My son has been on me the past couple of weeks to try Spotify.  Spotify is an online service that allows users to stream music over their computer or other devices.  It comes in a few different permutations.  I have the free version which doesn't allow unlimited streaming and features commercial messages from Spotify.  A monthly fee of $4.99 buys you unlimited streaming and no commercial messages.  $9.99  enables phones and other mobile devices  to use your account.

 Spotify bridges the chasm between legally owning music and illegal downloading.  First, it is a legal service, authorized by the major record labels.  Artists receive a fee each time their music is played, so everyone in the music business food chain receives legal compensation for the play of their work. Second, there are millions of titles here.  This morning I listened to Adele's 19, the late Rory Gallagher's eponymous album, and Soundgarden's Bad Motorfinger. There are many, many more selections I want to explore. You don't own the music you play, rather Spotify is to music what Netflix is to movies.  You have access to the entertainment, but you can't call it your own.  Unlike Netflix (unless you stream your movies,) you can easily access your music whenever you want at the touch of your mouse or mobile device.

Spotify also accesses your iTunes and allows you to access these songs from the Spotify desktop.  That's handy.  It also allows you to network with any of your Facebook friends, if you wish to do so. This is a great feature and allows the legal sharing of music back and forth between friends.  Several of us have long sought a means of sharing music in the form of a music club.  This pretty much serves that purpose.

 Spotify is not perfect.  The commercials are annoying.  Another problem is that, as you can imagine, some artists are not participating.  You can't stream the Beatles, Led Zepplin, and others aren't available.  The Stones have a lot of their stuff, but not their original London albums.  That's a drag, and I hope it will get worked out. Some of the collections aren't complete.  Most annoying of all is that many of iTunes purchases are DRM (Digital Rights Management) and can't be shared between the two formats.  I hate that.  I'm also curious how my time on Spotify will be limited.

 Nevertheless, I've been messing around this for less than 48 hours, and so far I'm having a good time.  I can't wait to share my favorite Toad the Wet Sprocket songs with son Pat (he hates them!!)  I like to think of it as revenge.

Soundgarden at the Gorge: Super day in the Superunknown

When Soundgarden announced in the Spring they would be touring again, and included a stop at the Gorge to wrap up their circuit, I was intrigued.

I'm a bit older than Soundgarden's target demographic.  But I came by my interest in their music honestly.  When my son Patrick was growing up, we talked music constantly.  The grunge movement/Seattle sound was all the rage in the mid-90's and so its only natural that Pat was attracted to it, so we talked Nirvana, the Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, and of course Soundgarden.  As Soundgarden became big enough to be played on mainstream FM radio, it was clear to me they had a lot in common with my '70's rock heroes, their big guitars and big vocals.  I got to know their best-known album, Superunknown, pretty well, and listened to some of their other tracks too, though I confess I don't know their catalog well.

When Pat and Lorri presented me with a ticket to the concert to the Gorge concert for Father's Day I was thrilled, if a bit disconcerted.  I wasn't expecting it, and wasn't sure what to expect for the show.  I felt I might be a bit out of my element.  There was a great line up of supporting bands-the Meat Puppets, Mastodon, and Queens of the Stone Age-but I really didn't know their music.  I felt I wasn't quite prepared. 

 Turns out I really didn't need to be, I just needed to enjoy the music.  Queens of the Stone Age was great, and as Soundgarden took the stage near dusk, it was clear the large crowd was stoked.  It was also clear many had some herbal boost to their enthusiasm, but not in an obnoxious, unruly, or disrespectful-to-their-neighbors way.  Frontman Chris Cornell quickly announced to the screaming faithful that this was going to be a getting reacquainted concert.  The setlist would be old favorites, and new songs would come on a future tour.  Needless to say, the crowd roared its approval. Soundgarden played for a solid two hours and they sounded great.  Vocalist Cornell hit all the right notes, guitarist Kim Thayil played that trademark sound, and drummer Matt Cameron seemed like he never left the band.  All my favorites were well played and a great time was had by all.
As if the great tunes weren't enough, the boys from Seattle brought a bit of a light show with them.

 And then there is the Gorge itself.  My second trip after last year's Tom Petty concert.  It is always amazing.  The weather was just right-probably high 70's-and the backdrop scenery is just amazing.  We arrived at 6:00 with the Columbia River winding its way sluggishly through the landscape.  The sunset low over the western tableland is a perfect beginning to the main act.  The night closes with an amazing starscape we just can't appreciate in the suburbs.  The only drawback is the long drive back to Puyallup that ended, mercifully at 2:30 AM.

The Gorge at Dusk

With the sun setting, Soundgarden explodes on to the stage.