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.”

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review: Duran Duran honors its heroes, but doesn't rely on nostalgia

In the shadow of House Bill 2, which has seen touring acts opposed to North Carolina’s recent legislation opting to cancel NC shows or play them as benefits or forms of protest, Duran Duran played its scheduled show at PNC Music Pavilion Saturday. Frontman Simon LeBon announced early on that it would be a mostly politics free night. It wasn’t until the encore that he encouraged concert goers to sign the Equality NC petition to demand the repeal of HB2. The petition will be presented to the general assembly on April 25.

Before that moment Duran Duran simultaneously honored its dance and rock heroes and played up its current album “Paper Gods.” The latter meant, as bassist John Taylor indicated in his interview with The Observer a few weeks ago, that some hits would be sacrificed (that left “Union of the Snake,” “The Reflex,” “Skin Trade” and the minor late `90’s hit “Electric Barbarella” out of the set).

The theme of coming full circle kicked off when Nile Rodgers and Chic jump-started the party as the support act. The uber-producer and guitarist (who pops up doing both on “Paper Gods”) not only led his group through its own disco-era hits, but touched on some of the biggest songs he produced for other artists. Rodgers instructed NC to sing louder than crowds in other states during Diana Ross’ "I’m Coming Out." The crowd erupted. "I'm Coming Out" kicked off a medley that included “Upside Down” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” The group later launched into David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” to honor another artist Rodgers worked with.

It ended its set with Chic’s biggest hits “Le Freak” and “Good Times.” For the latter around 30 fans, who were pulled from the audience based on their enthusiasm and dance skills, lined up with the band to help put an exclamation point on the set.

Chic may have been a support act, but its finale was met with a wave of screams  that could rival those at a Taylor Swift or boy band concert (imagine a giant flock of birds from “The Birds” coming toward you).

In its youth Duran Duran were a “Tiger Beat” pin-up favorite, but its audience is largely forty and over now (although its crowd Saturday started at about age 6).

Original members LeBon, Taylor, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, and drummer Roger Taylor (now having been back in the band longer than he was the first time around) took the stage to the title track of its latest album “Paper Gods” backed by a handful of additional musicians and two very active leather-clad backup singers who added soulful power to “Come Undone” and “Danceophobia.”  

It front-loaded the set with crowd-pleasers “Wild Boys,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and “View to a Kill” (complete with a bloody, risqué video reminiscent of the banned “Girls on Film”) before zipping back into new material with “Last Night in the City.” There wasn’t really a lull when the group jumped into recent material, which is normally reserved for beer runs and bathroom breaks. The 40-something women in front of us knew all the words to the new songs too.

Rodgers, having changed from white to a baby pink jacket and beret, joined Duran for “Notorious” and 2015’s “Pressure Off.” It was here that the group’s joy – especially evident in the expressions and body language of Taylor and LeBon – swelled. It took that momentum into “I Don’t Want Your Love” and its cover of Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s “White Lines,” which together may have weirdly been the performance’s highlight due to the band’s energy.

Like Chic, Duran Duran paid tribute to Bowie seguing into “Space Oddity” via “Planet Earth” with a photo of `70s Bowie projected behind it.

LeBon, who struggled slightly during “View,” had stretched his vocal chords enough throughout the set to tackle the high notes on “Ordinary World” with ease. 

He and Taylor sported actual Duran Duran graphic tour t-shirts with black light catching trousers, while Rhodes and Roger Taylor chose more subdued black suit pieces with sparkles.

It ended the set “Girls on Film,” which wasn’t an exact replica of the old single, but a slightly redesigned version.

LeBon began the encore with his anti-HB2 speech, encouraging Carolinians to sign the online petition. Given that Duran Duran’s music – like a lot of the acts that emerged from early MTV (Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna) – has never been confined by color, gender, or any other lines, his plea was fitting as was the choice of “Save a Prayer.”

But the seriousness was short-lived as it ended the set with “Rio” beneath the image of that first album cover. With references to its biggest `80s hits, influences like Chic and Bowie, its withstanding non-discrimination message, and a heavy portion of the set devoted to newer material, it was a well-rounded show that truly encompassed who Duran Duran was and is. Now if only it could have fit in a few more oldies.