Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Q&A with actor Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Visulite Wednesday

Fans know actor Kiefer Sutherland from starring roles in Fox’s “24” and films dating back to “Stand By Me” and “The Lost Boys,” but they don’t know him as a singer-songwriter. A lifelong music fan who started the independent Ironworks label with best friend/musician and producer Jude Cole in 2002, Sutherland will release his debut album, “Down in a Hole” in June. The tour leading up to the folk-country release stops at Visulite Theatre tonight. Sutherland spoke to the Observer earlier today about the transition to music.  

Q: So what role did music play in your life growing up?
A: Music was a huge thing. It started when I was very young. I had a brother who 7 years older than me that I idolized. He made a point of playing stuff for me whether it was Jackson 5 or Elton John, songs with lyrics that were quite transcendent to any age. I made a joke I was the only 3rd grader listening to Aerosmith.
I’ve watched my daughters. My youngest is 28 now. They listen to music in a very different way. I remember putting headphones on and taking a few hours with an album. They don’t do that. (For me) it wasn’t an addendum to another activity whether it was being on the set and taking time to play or listening to something that would put me in a good mood. As an art form I gravitate more toward listening to music than going to movies. And I love movies.

Q: Did you absorb a lot through the artists on the label?
A: Certainly as a writer. I watched different artists like Rocco Deluca and Suzanne (Santo) from HoneyHoney. Anything I’d written before that time had been a fluke. I’d play a few chords, I’d find a melody I liked. It was accidental. When I watched these incredible artists it was very specific. I thought, I’ll try that.

Q: It seemed to work.
A: Over the last 8 to ten years I’d written a few pieces and taken them to Jude Cole only in the effort that we’d send songs to BMI or Sony Music and see if their artists would be interested in covering them. He suggested we keep them for myself. I laughed. I was certainly aware of the stigma of an actor doing music and I didn’t want that. He took me out and we had a few drinks and I started to like the idea.

Q: For someone who has played characters, what’s it like putting yourself out there through what’s largely autobiographical lyrics?
A: It’s unlike any experience I’ve ever had. I’ve done a lot of live theater and films and television, but I’ve always been able to hide behind that character. The only common denominator I can find between the two - and its substantial - is I like to tell stories. (Because) I hadn’t thought about it - which I guess is pretty stupid - nothing prepared me for being on stage for the first time and explaining why I wrote a song and this is what happened to me when I was 25. I can’t say it wasn’t a little disarming for me to be that open or honest in front of a group of people. I was lucky that evening. It happened to be a positive experience and we’ve gone forward like that. It probably would have been different if they threw things.

Q: I would think hearing those stories helps audiences relate to the songs.
A: I’ve got a bit of a time concern because I’m doing a show for ABC, “Designated Survivor.” The album won’t come out until June. It’s a big ask to have an audience come to hear songs they haven’t heard before. Explaining where the songs come from and why has helped that a bit.

Q: Did you talk about this project with any actors that moonlight as musicians?
A: I haven’t. It’s not because I’m not interested in what their experience was. It was more of a time factor. There’s this idea that all actors know each other. Outside Kevin Bacon I wouldn’t have known who to call. It was one of those things we’re playing small bars and it was just an experience that I wanted to have on my own.

Q: What can you share about “Designated Survivor?”
A: That’ll come out in the fall on ABC. There’s a part in the Constitution that demands when there is a State of the Union or special event at Congress that requires the government’s attendance, that a member of each party of each cabinet is sequestered in case of a natural disaster or attack. In the case of our show there’s a terrorist attack and the character I play becomes president overnight. It’s about his family, political instability…this show is certainly not “24.” I’m playing the president – yes I’ve gotten that old (he’s 49). I was a huge fan of “The West Wing” and there are aspects of that, and with the terrorist attack, it will have aspects of “24.” 

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Tonight
WHERE: Visulite, 1615 Elizabeth Ave.  
DETAILS: 704-358-9200;    

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: Pumpkins/Phair focus on songs and musicianship Wednesday

Wednesday’s Smashing Pumpkins’ concert at Ovens Auditorium may have not been what some fans expected of the alternative rock band who started its career with blazing psych-rock and ventured into metal, industrial and hard rock over the years. Instead the focus of the band’s Plainsong Tour was often on Billy Corgan’s songwriting, stripping songs like the symphonic pop radio hit “Tonight Tonight” down to its bare bones with just Corgan and an acoustic guitar.

The same was true of opening act Liz Phair, who ran through an all too brief career-spanning solo set with just her voice and guitar. A nervous performer in her early years, Phair’s grown at ease on stage. Her voice was near perfect. She hit the high notes repeatedly, for instance, during her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” She included two new songs in the set as well as “Exile in Guyville” gems “F*** and Run” and “Divorce Song.” Later singles “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I” were boiled down to their simplest, truest form sans the recorded version’s pop production. She sounded great and looked nowhere near 49.

Corgan performed the first four songs of the Pumpkins’ set solo before a beautifully painted backdrop of blooming trees. He and Phair armed with just a guitar reminded me of how most of us start playing music – learning chords and covering other artists’ songs on an acoustic, which gives way to writing original songs in that same way. It’s a format I’m sure some of the audience could identify with and gives a bit of insight into the original form of the songs.

Guitarist Jeff Schroeder joined Corgan for a worthy rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Corgan’s voice is a good match for early Bowie and Schroeder added a flamenco-style spin to the guitar solos. Phair appeared again to sing backup on “Thirty-three.” The other band members, which included original Pumpkins’ drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, Schroeder, and new-ish touring members Katie Cole and Sierra Swan, came and went when needed.

His other band, Zwan’s “Jesus I” and “Mary Star of the Sea” gave way to what Corgan called the “Siamese Suite,” which he said, “Shuts up fans still waiting for the Smashing Pumpkins to come on stage.”

“You know,” he continued with a smile. “I actually wrote some of these songs. And I was in the room when they were recorded.”

It was one of a few self-aware asides he threw out to a sometimes inconsiderate crowd that shouted “Bring back (original members) Darcy and James” and “It’s not very rock n’ roll Billy!” during what was intended to be a quiet, rather intimate affair in contrast to the Pumpkins at Ovens in 2008. That jammy set bordered on metal. It had the crowd on its feet, but didn’t sound nearly as good as Wednesday’s concert.

“Mayonnaise” and a solo organ rendition of “Disarm” that wasn’t much like the recorded version, bookended the portion of the show dedicated to fan favorite, “Siamese Dream.” The changing backdrops and lights enhanced the mood. In fact the light patterns later in the show were innovative in their striking simplicity, illustrating everything doesn’t need to be centered and spotlights.

As relaxed and low-key as the performance was, it showcased a variety of styles from Schroeder’s subtle flamenco and Japanese guitar work to Chamberlain’s jazzy drumming to the more electronic, drum machine-based “Eye” (from the “Lost Highway” soundtrack) and the witchy “Saturnine.”

“1979” drew the crowd to its feet before Corgan turned crooner, dancing and belting songs without his guitar. He let bassist Cole take over lead vocals for “Malibu,” a song he wrote with Courtney Love for Hole’s third album. Her voice added a touch of country to the Southern California vibe. It was one of the night’s lighter moments, although listening to sexist arm chair critics in the crowd debate Cole’s abilities given how “hot” she is set off a debate in my head about the decade that birthed the Pumpkins.

While alternative music gave outsiders a voice in the `80s and gave way to bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins whose mainstream success yanked alt-rock out of the shadows in the `90s, it also associated those acts with bands that fostered a more misogynist bro mentality. That sector of fans obviously hungered for a heavier set Wednesday, but Corgan rose above the critics and his own desire to confront. When one fan yelled a request for a song he’d already played, Corgan smiled, feigned meditation, and admitted: “Old school me would’ve said something.”   

The crowd may have tested him, but he stuck to his guns. The anthemic closer “The Spaniards” came closest to giving them what they wanted – a big, rocking finale. But he abruptly followed it with one of the Rolling Stones’ quieter moments, “Angie.”

While Plainsong isn’t the arena rock spectacle `90s fans might expect, the Pumpkins aren't just a hard rock band but one that also writes beautiful songs. It offered the Pumpkins’ in a different light which isn’t something every band is capable of 25 years into its career.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Nothing compares 2 U - the post I never wanted to write

If ever there was an artist that seemed immortal, it was Prince. Whether it was his phenomenal guitar playing, unmatched songwriting and arranging, ageless appearance, or captivating performances, he seemed supernatural.

Death didn’t seem like it would ever fit into the equation. Someday Prince would simply fly off into space, his Paisley Park compound rising from the earth like the mansion in Rocky Horror, blasting toward the stars.

I couldn’t text my best friend from childhood or my sister when I finally confirmed the news from a reputable source this afternoon (please let it be another internet hoax, I thought). The news was too big. Too horrible. My husband called me before I could call them. Everyone already knew. We were all searching online for something that proved the news false before calling each other.  

I don’t care about the Grammys, the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, or any of the other record breaking stats you’ll find in his obituary. It was his incomparable music that mattered. I could recount pretending to be Wendy and Lisa from the Revolution with my best friend as a kid (I was Lisa); seeing the risqué “Purple Rain” for the first time (mom sent me out of the room during a couple scenes); launching into his “Let’s Go Crazy” intro the year I got a microphone on Christmas morning (much to my sister’s delight); or the insanity and excitement leading up to seeing him for the first (second, third, or fourth) time. But a scroll through Twitter is a testament to the millions of lives, like mine, that he touched. His reach was almost intangible.

Last week when news broke of Prince falling ill after shows in Atlanta, my mom (who almost died in November) gave me a hard time about not taking her to see him there. I wouldn’t have thought about taking her to an out of town show a few months after she was released from the hospital anyway. Now I wish we’d gone. These last shows with Prince and a piano reportedly boiled his genius down in the simplest terms, although there is nothing simple about it.

I also thought about the musicians and employees that work for Prince – some who are Charlotte-based, some that are friends – who are now out of a job, a job that most of us could only dream of. But more than anything, as with the deaths of the Ramones, Lemmy Kilmister, and countless others, I think about the artists my kids will never get to see play live. My 7 year old sometimes asks if an artist is dead before he commits to liking them. There are so many that he’ll never see (that’s one reason I sprung for Guns n’ Roses tickets). But Prince? I always thought there would be time.

I recently made my kids watch a block on VH1 Classic’s “Pop-Up Video” of Prince classics. My 5 year old deemed the video for “When Doves Cry” inappropriate, but remembered “Raspberry Beret” this morning when I shared the news with him. “I like ‘Raspberry Beret.’ I’m sorry you died,” he said, as if dictating his thoughts, thinking I’m typing an email to Prince instead of a blog post. He climbed on top of the metal frame of my mom’s day bed, looked out the window and lamented, “That was a good band.”