November 29, 2023

REVIEW: Depeche Mode's Memento Mori Tour

Depeche Mode
Moda Center
November 28, 2023

"Remember you must die," the translation of the Latin phrase memento mori, is not as bleak as it might seem. As deployed by Depeche Mode, it's an inspiring call to action: live your life. 

Weighty stuff, especially in light of the synth-pop legends' recent history, having lost founding member and keyboardist Andrew Fletcher at age 60. Fletch's sudden 2022 passing found longtime creative brothers Martin Gore and David Gahan without a tiebreaking vote, and bereft of a mediating, good-humored figure in the room. Still, it was a motivating event. The duo carried on, creating the 2023 album Memento Mori, their 15th studio effort, and their first involving an outside songwriter, Richard Butler (Psychedelic Furs). Life looked different, but it went on.

The show must also go on. Touring the globe is what Depeche Mode does best. At their Oregon tour stop, their 72nd (!) show on the Memento Mori World Tour, Gore and Gahan were in fighting shape, bringing longtime colleagues Peter Gordeno (keyboards/bass) and Christian Eigner (drums) along for two hours of surging catharsis. Fletch, given a moving tribute during "World in My Eyes," would have approved.  

A mysterious pendulum of joy and pain, getting through this thing called life. While they've always operated on a grand scale sonically, lyrically and emotionally  Depeche Mode's ethos may best be described as "widescreen"  it seems these Basildon, England lads David (61) and Martin (62) recognize the stakes more than ever now. 

Fletcher's departure clearly heightened Depeche Mode's sense of duty, and it permeated every moment of their two hours onstage. Gahan, deeply invested, was a strutting/posing/spinning live dynamo, and with his red vest and slicked-back hair, he recalled both the Emcee from "Cabaret" and Bono's Zoo TV tour character Mr. MacPhisto. Inimitable and magnetic as he floats around the stage, the frontman somehow appears both earthbound and weightless, striding about and waving his arms — he's like an inflatable air dancer outside a car dealership. Meanwhile, Gore, with his signature blonde hair and sleeveless look, was a reliable anchor, alternately hunkered down behind synth banks, playing guitar, and singing. Here are two lifelong friends and collaborators, still at it, still concerned with style and substance.

Attending a Depeche Mode concert is akin to being a light bulb — by taking your seat, you're twisting into a socket, and awaiting the Gore-Gahan power company to turn the current on. Performing in front of a giant, incandescent "M" with a high-def video screen, the quartet delivered that high voltage repeatedly. There was the adrenalizing triple-shot of "Walking in My Shoes," "It's No Good" and "Policy of Truth"; the reverberant, gothy "Black Celebration"; and Memento Mori's "My Favourite Stranger." The latter is a nasty bit of post-punk business, and found Gore and Gordeno forcefully playing guitar and bass, while Gahan and Eigner joined them in what felt like sonic Joy Division cosplay.

For all the varying intensity, Depeche Mode also found opportunities to loosen things up and have fun: they switched places (more on that below), added patient intros that initially obscured certain songs' identity, and extended classics like "Enjoy the Silence" with rhythmic breakdowns that kept the party going. As members of a world-beating, stadium-filling juggernaut, these guys could easily be aloof, but they truly came off like gracious dudes throwing a party for 20,000 people.

The charismatic Gahan is naturally Depeche Mode's focal point, but Gore had some top-shelf moments in the spotlight. The first was his lead vocal performance of "Strangelove" while Gahan was offstage on a quick break (a nifty role-reversal that underscored Martin and David's equal footing in the band). The second was a perfect rendition of "A Question of Lust"; when Gore crooned "It's a question of not letting what we've built up crumble to dust," that lyric held more meaning than ever before.

On the subject of Gahan and Gore, they were chummy throughout, interacting in a way that should reassure fans about Depeche Mode's future. They even high-fived each other at one point with both hands (is that called a "high ten?"). The most touching moment between them, however, was their duet on Violator's "Waiting for the Night." Standing together at the end of the ramp that jutted into the crowd, they serenaded the crowd as much as each other, and embraced at the end. One could imagine Fletcher observing this tender display from another dimension, smiling down on it all.

Depeche Mode's now 43-year tenure has found its principals well-versed in the art of performance and setlist construction. New material from Memento Mori was given proper due with four of its tracks performed, including the hypnotic, industrial "My Cosmos is Mine" and the existential meditation "Wagging Tongue" ("Everything seems hollow / When you watch another angel die," sung Gahan on the latter). Unavoidably, death is a motif that pervades the new album and tour; it was referenced in such visuals as the revolving skulls during "Enjoy the Silence" as well as video of a black-robed Gore and Gahan playing chess during "Ghosts Again" (think Max von Sydow vying against death in "The Seventh Seal").

Speaking of motifs, other keywords crop up repeatedly in Depeche Mode's universe of sin, desolation, and redemption. The words "angel" and "pain" are two examples — "John the Revelator / All he ever gives us is pain," proclaimed Gahan on one of the surprise deep cuts of the evening, and this, a mere four songs after belting out "A Pain That I'm Used To." Still, perseverance and transcendence exist within the group's worldview. Arriving mid-show, "I Feel You" from 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion brought such messages as "Your heart it sings" and "I am whole." In the encore, "Just Can't Get Enough" lifted spirits to the rafters with its carefree, joyous propulsion. Contrary to some beliefs, desire doesn't always have to bring suffering. 

"Just Can't Get Enough" was, well, not quite enough. Unfinished business remained that any self-respecting Depeche Mode fan knew was coming, but still relished the idea of. The band launched into "Never Let Me Down Again" (an epic movie in song form, if there ever was one) followed by "Personal Jesus" to close it all out. The shuddering walls of sound washing over the audience during this end piece demonstrated the singular power of Depeche Mode — an immersive, soul-cleansing baptism by synthesizer.

Yes, we must die. But first, more life-affirming experiences like this, please.

November 4, 2023

REVIEW: The 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

Rock Hall induction ceremony 38 is now in the books. What worked? What didn't? What should the Hall improve upon for future dispensations of "Music's Highest Honor?" It's time to unpack all that transpired during last night's gala at Barclays Center.


  • Every ceremony comes loaded with the possibility of that lighting-in-a-bottle "wow" moment, and the unannounced appearance of Jimmy Page performing "Rumble" for Link Wray was exactly that. The increasingly reclusive Led Zeppelin guitarist apparently couldn't resist paying tribute to his hero Link. And sly move, Rock Hall, having Page in the video package for Wray, with no expectation, necessarily, that there would be any performance (for category honorees, there is no certainty of "full induction treatment"), only to have him appear in the flesh. One truly wonders if it's the last public appearance Page, 79, will bother making (hopefully not). Further, one hopes the Hall has learned their lesson: Relegating guitar legend Wray and "Rumble" into the now-defunct "Singles"category back in 2018 was grossly insufficient given his impact. Honoring him in this way under "Musical Influence" was a classy, corrective masterstroke.
  • Quite simply? The production value of the staging. The hyper-real video screens they are using now as backdrops (deployed with a regal, gold color chromatics during L.A.'s 2022 induction) looked impressive on the Disney+ livestream. Dynamic colors and shapes, gleaming blue pyramids that evoked the museum in Cleveland, a colorful, hovering UFO as Missy Elliott's show-stopping musical performance began... well, no expense was spared on these huge visuals. Live music events are now competing against the MSG Sphere in Vegas, so the Hall leveled up. (Maybe a Sphere ceremony is in the Hall's future? Vegas, baby!)
  • The video packages were informative and engaging as always. These mini-documentaries on each honoree are an art form unto themselves, and provide a window into inductees' lives and career trajectories. The packages also capture artists like Kate Bush and Rage Against the Machine in their searching, brazen youth, their souls aflame and ready to knock the earth off its axis. Bush admitting her perfectionism, and shown treating her music and visuals as high/confrontational art — while decked out in full regalia in her music videos — suggested her influence on an artist like Björk. Elsewhere, seeing grainy video of Rage Against the Machine playing their first gig at Cal State Northridge in October 1991 suggests they arrived fully formed; lying ahead of them after Northridge, hundreds of stances to take, endless Molotov cocktails to light, and to paraphrase their song "Wake Up," scores of fascists to bomb a left on like they were Cassius.
  • Speaking of "full regalia," Sia bears mentioning. Technicolor-attired, with a huge pink-bow atop her boxy, rainbow wig-adorned head, the singer was top-heavy and seemingly wheeled out as if she was a parade float. Sia donned all this garish armor to sing "I'm Every Woman" with Chaka Khan, and this get-up may just go down in history as one of the most playful and exotic visuals at any Rock Hall ceremony, ever.
  • Among various emotional moments on this evening, Queen Latifah and Elliott's deep love and respect for each other, evidenced by their interactions onstage during Elliott's induction, was touching. Missy doing the "I'm not worthy" bow to her friend and hero, while Latifah discarded prepared teleprompter dialogue to give Missy a needed "catch your breath" moment was a real moment of support and friendship. Latifah, a major influence to Missy and countless others, should also join the inductee ranks. 
  • Musical Influence honoree DJ Kool Herc's rise from his seat and trip to the stage to accept his honor, while breaking down in tears, underlined that, when the Rock Hall does the right thing (hint, hint) and immortalizes undeniable pioneers, long overdue, it means something. Amid the Rock Hall's slow-changing, often perplexing realm, a place where it's easily justifiable to be cynical and lament inequality, representation imbalances, and the seeming implausibility of real progressive change, there remains the potential of justice coming to pass. The Herc induction is one of those times, and was the first deeply emotional moment of the night; he wept through his speech, calling out people that are no longer here, such as James Brown and 2022 influence inductee Harry Belafonte. Cindy Campbell, Herc's sister who threw the famous rec room party where Herc started the hip-hop movement with two turntables, stood by his side and also said a few words. That a Rock Hall induction can mean so much to someone is why it's worth fighting for, why it's worth calling out when the Hall falls short. This pioneer's tears should inspire every Rock Hall executive to energetically fix what's wrong, and achieve the "stretch goals" of overall institutional excellence. 
  • Miguel's sterling take on "Careless Whisper," for late Performer inductee George Michael (inducted by his Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley), reminded viewers of the magic that is summoned when a guest performer is well-matched with the material (Jake Clemons on sax was a welcome surprise here, too). Carrie Underwood's reading of the rising-and-falling "One More Try" demonstrated that she also understood the assignment. Same goes for St. Vincent's mesmerizing take on Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill," pop phenomenon Olivia Rodrigo trading verses with Sheryl Crow on "If It Makes You Happy," and New Edition's joyful, serotonin-rush performance of Spinners classics. The Spinners segment, complete with a "Soul Train" logo dropping down and dancers recreating the visuals and energy of that TV show (the program's impresario, Don Cornelius, was also honored on this night) was exhilarating, and did right by the overdue, four times-nominated R&B vocal group. (One genuinely wonders if most people watching realized New jack swing legend Bobby Brown was onstage, performing with New Edition). 
  • The triumph of the elders was a leitmotif last night, and it was downright heartwarming. "It's a dream come true," said surviving Spinners member Henry Fambrough (85) via video, accepting the award. Erstwhile Spinner member John Edwards (78), who sang with the group from 1977-2000, also appeared by video to accept. It's funny how time slips away: Willie Nelson, 90 years young, was seated throughout his time in the limelight at Barclays center, but hey, he made it. And speaking of the Red Headed Stranger...
  • You have to tip your cowboy hat to American treasure Willie. His induction segment started with Dave Matthews' heartfelt acoustic performance of "Funny How Time Slips Away," followed by Matthews' speech. Nelson career milestones were noted, such as Patsy Cline recording "Crazy" and how the country icon has recorded 72 albums. Also included in Dave's prepared words were mentions of the Outlaws and the Highwaymen, two groups Nelson was in with Waylon Jennings, as well as Nelson's Farm Aid concerts. (And is is this first rock hall speech that's ever quoted comedian Bill Hicks?) Matthews' breathless, rambling speech that was nonetheless endearing (and may just get Dave Matthews Band on the ballot for a second nomination). Nelson's video package showed him with Johnny Cash, and detailed his overall journey and the "Nashville Sound" that he wanted to move past. In a key move, Nelson moved back to Texas, grew longer hair and became the artist he wanted to be (one might also call this the George Carlin trajectory). Musicians in video include Chris Stapleton (he mentioned how normal people, hippies and cowboys all gathered around the Willie campfire), the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, the late Ray Charles, and Norah Jones (she had high compliments for "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain"). In his acceptance speech, Nelson talked about working with with Ray Charles, Leon Russell, and Booker T. Jones, and plugged Jennings and Kris Kristofferson for Rock Hall induction. His relatively brief words led into his performance of "Whiskey River" (backed by a snappy band including Stapleton and Don Was), "Crazy" with Sheryl Crow, and the inevitable "On the Road Again" with Matthews, Crow, and Stapleton. This "On the Road Again" performance might be about as "countrified" as the Rock Hall induction stage has ever been. Cowboy hats, beards, Willie's headband... some CMA Awards-type stuff. 
  • Non-inductee (!) Peter Frampton joining Sheryl Crow on guitar for "Every Day is a Winding Road" was a welcome sight. Double inductee Stevie Nicks also sang on the number, remaining onstage after dueting with Crow on "Strong Enough." Oscar winner Laura Dern did the induction speech for Crow, making this the second consecutive ceremony where a Hollywood actor spoke for the first inductee of the evening (Robert Downey, Jr. took this slot in 2022, ushering in Duran Duran). 
  • Chaka Khan's induction portion was uniquely memorable, even beyond the Sia wardrobe. Her inductor was R&B talent Jazmine Sullivan, who said that Khan was celebrating her 50th year in the business (inadvertently emphasizing how long it took the singer to be honored by the Hall). Khan's video package featured no less than Michelle Obama, Joni Mitchell, H.E.R., and Grace Jones, and noted the Black Panther rallies Khan attended as a young person. It also showed Khan performing with Whitney Houston, Miles Davis, Prince and Rufus (the latter group frequently nominated with Chaka in her earlier, failed nominations). "She's just leaving it all on that stage in every performance," H.E.R. beamed in the video. Speaking of performance, Khan offered a medley including a terrific duet with Common (covering the Melle Mel rap portion) on her breakdance-worthy Prince cover "I Feel For You." Elsewhere, H.E.R. played guitar on "Ain't Nobody" and stayed onstage for Rufus' "Sweet Thing." Finally, the Sia rainbow appeared for "I'm Every Woman." During her speech, Khan noted that without Rufus, she would not be where she is today, and brought out Rufus guitarist Tony Maiden. Khan's induction was a long time coming, delayed justice after seven nominations. 
  • While Ahmet Ertegun award honoree Don Cornelius' segment was among the briefest of the night, the question of why "Soul Train" was important was answered in no uncertain terms. In Cornelius' video package, Questlove called the show "a religion," going on to say that it was a depiction of black joy. Also appearing in the video were Lionel Richie, Chaka Khan, and Aresenio Hall. "This was our classroom," noted Richie.
  • Al Kooper's acceptance, via video, of the Musical Excellence honor was particularly gratifying. He's a retiree and 79 years old, and it seemed he was really savoring this recognition. In an unusual move, Kooper narrated his own video package, which chronicled his astonishing collaborations, including Bob Dylan (Kooper played the organ intro to "Like a Rolling Stone"); Jimi Hendrix (he appeared on Electric Ladyland); guitarist Mike Bloomfield; Blood, Sweat and Tears; and Lynyrd Skynyrd (he discovered and produced them). "It's been quite a long run for me," Kooper said, adding that it all began in 1958. (The great studio pianist Nicky Hopkins would be a fine choice in this slot next year.)
  • Public Enemy's enthusiastic Flava Flav was thankfully on camera several times, resuming the bouncy cheerleader role he originally took up amid the expensive tables at the 2013 ceremony.
  • Morello's impassioned acceptance speech as the lone member of Rage in the house was a keeper. "The world is not going to change itself... the world is changed by ordinary people that have had enough," he declared. Inductor Ice-T, who did his speech with no teleprompter, shared a great story: "We gotta go on after them?!" he recalled about an early gig where Rage opened up for Body Count (he said Zack de la Rocha started that show by leaping 5 feet into the air). He later added, "If you wanna go down in history, you gotta either make something or break something." 
  • Missy Elliott's sensory-overloading extravaganza at the end of the night was outstanding, and it came complete with a UFO landing, a hologram and a high-energy, backing dancer-loaded medley of "Get Ur Freak On," "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," "Work It," "Pass That Dutch" and "Lose Control." How great is it that Jimmy Page was watching all this?
  • Finally, "Go Bernie Taupin" (and not just for suggesting Merle Haggard for induction). Someone had to say it, since the Hall (unlike Rolling Stone magazine, which made a statement and has published follow-up articles) despite rapidly ejecting Hall co-founder Jann Wenner from its board, has not followed up with even a simple, closure-giving statement of how they will go forward following recent controversy (sparked when Hall co-founder Wenner told a New York Times interviewer that he didn't feel that women and black artists were articulate enough to be included in his new book The Masters). Taupin, accepting his Musical Excellence honor, chimed in when no one else did: “I guess you could say my being inducted is a paradox, perhaps, but either way, I’m honored to be in the class of 2023 alongside a group of such profoundly articulate women and outstanding articulate Black artists along with all of the other music masters here tonight.” Indeed, for the Rock Hall, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word." 

  • This was a four and-a-half hour show (last year's was 5.5 hours), and it ran relatively seamlessly (Elton John loitered at the mic a little too long prior to his Taupin speech, waiting for a cue), but speeches by Matthews and Morello came off rushed. There must be visible countdown clocks, as is often the case with these awards shows, but some participants clearly interpret those as stressors, and it shows. No one wants long speeches, but there is a fine line and maybe some finesse due in the area of letting the podium pilots breathe a little.  
  • Teleprompter issues evidently threw Kate Bush induction speaker Big Boi off a bit. Stumbling over mixed-up words on the prompter he stammered, then jabbed, "Who the fuck?... Did you go to class?!" Other podium issues included microphones that were too low. Some technical issues are par for the course, but if this thing will now be streamed live, it's time to tighten it up.
  • Speaking of the Disney+ streaming user experience, some folks on social media reported frustrations finding/seeing the Rock Hall livestream due to the app's parental controls being on. Mickey Mouse and Ice-T, an unholy combination, to be certain. 
  • No way to fix this, but the Hall's gamble that Rage would reunite and blow the roof off of Barclays Center did not pay off. It's too bad, but where Morello sees Rage's induction as a mass communication possibility, perhaps his singer perceives it as compromising with corporate entities. If one looks at the optics of a Disney+ and ABC-broadcast show, and then considers de la Rocha's lyrics in Rage's song "Bullet in the Head" it makes a bit more sense: "They load the clip in omnicolor / Said they pack the nine, they fire it at prime time / The sleeping gas, every home was like Alcatraz / And motherfuckers lost their minds...  Just victims of the in-house drive-by / They say, "Jump", you say, "How high?"
  • Ice-T is an artist that has flipped off the establishment in myriad, dramatic ways, which makes him a terrific choice to induct Rage. But it would have been even better if Body Count had tackled a Rage song, in lieu of an actual Rage performance. As hard as it would be to rap Zack's vocal parts, maybe the Hall still could have enlisted Body Count, or another substitute performer in this case. (That said, Ice-T's walk out music, Body Count's "There Goes the Neighborhood," was tremendous. There are specific songs one never expects to hear at a ceremony, and that would be one, with 2022's "Rico Suave" being another.)
  • Ending an induction ceremony with an acceptance speech, as happened last night with Elliott, is a weird way to bring these dazzling annual events in for a landing. It's like they pack the ceremony with constant fireworks, only to have no "grand finale." It's possible something was cut at the last minute. An all-star jam around the 50th anniversary of hip-hop is possibly something that was in the works.
  • That brings up an issue around how the showrunners structure the artist induction segments; music performances, induction speeches and acceptance speeches were shuffled around in a chaotic, variable order. This not only resulted in the Elliott speech being the end of the night (and this, after her off-the-charts performance that felt like the "thrilling conclusion"), but Crow performing one song, which led to speeches, which led to more performances, etc. At past ceremonies, there was an induction speech, an acceptance speech, and then the performance, which may not make for the most enthralling television sequence, but it prevents the awkward scene of an out-of-breath inductee who just sang, danced and/or played guitar having to run over to a podium to accept their trophy. A tricky problem, admittedly, but one that should be worked through. 
  • Resource allocation is tricky with so many stars involved, and yet, it seemed a bit like blatant overexposure to have Crow appear for a third time for The Band's "The Weight," performed after the In Memoriam segment in tribute to Robbie Robertson. Especially when that number included the amazing vocal power station Brittany Howard, who might have taken an extra verse instead. Sometimes less is more, even at a jam-packed extravaganza such as this. Crow did great, and it's no dig at her talents, but this thing is packed with potential participants and other individuals might have been better slated in for that (Rodrigo, even? Get that cross-generational vibe happening). 
  • Robertson will be sorely missed. He was a titanic musical talent, a member of The Band, a Scorsese film score maestro, and notably, a longtime member of the Hall's Nomination Committee. The music tribute to him was appropriate enough, but it's tough not to think of other options related to the dearly departed that, all due respect, might have happened instead. ("The Weight" is practically a cliche at this point; your drunk uncle is probably singing it at a coffeehouse open mic as we speak.) There is precedent for doing a musical tribute to late musicians that are not inductees (Exhibit A: Jerry Cantrell and Ann Wilson did "Black Hole Sun" for Chris Cornell at the ceremony in 2018), so, just putting this out there: What about Howard singing "Nothing Compares to You" for Sinead? Perhaps Matthews sings a Jimmy Buffett tune ("Come Monday")? Or, if there is to be fidelity to inductees, what about Frampton peeling off some stately Jeff Beck licks? So many possibilities.
  • Overall, this ceremony paled a bit in comparison to the 2022 edition. It's tough to say why, but with Bush and Rage members conspicuous in their absence, it makes 2022 moments like Judas Priest's appearance and Eurythmics' commanding reunion feel even more special. Dolly Parton and Rob Halford, opposing electrons drawn to center stage together singing "Jolene" ...well, there's no parallel moment like that in the 2023 show (for sheer jaw-drop quotient, Page's high-voltage "Rumble" comes closest). Like wine, these ceremonies are akin to vintages; some taste better than others, and others age more gracefully. It will be interesting to see how history treats the 2023 ceremony, but this was an intriguing mosaic of inductees, and the induction of the first female rapper in Elliott means a glass ceiling was finally shattered. 
  • Finally, a note around matters of institutional identity. The Rock Hall has now branded induction into its ranks as "Music's Highest Honor" This is very close to the Grammys' tagline, "Music's Biggest Night." It seems minor, but it also could be construed as a step toward competing with the Recording Academy to a degree. The Rock Hall ceremony up to this point was an elusive, prerecorded music awards show, edited for later broadcast on HBO/MAX that, in 2023, jumped over to a Disney+ livestream, with a trimmed, three-hour version to air on major (Disney-owned) network ABC January 1, 2024. There were specific moments in last night's ceremony that felt spiritually similar to a Grammys show, such as the George Michael performance (no dig on it, it was mostly excellent), with its tandem of Miguel, Adam Levine, and Carrie Underwood. When you have Elton John, Chris Stapleton and Sheryl Crow onstage singing together, that feels Grammys-esque, too. It's not that it's "bad," it's more of a subtle, abstract thing. There's a certain smoothness and a drift to the middle. The Hall should study what the Grammys are doing, and locate incremental ways to distinguish its own tentpole event a bit more. As these inductions get bigger, more expensive, and put in front of more eyeballs, it should not be lulled into becoming "safer" and Disney/ABC-ready. It should have a touch of danger and a lot of attitude... that's rock and roll, after all. 

September 24, 2023

No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn: Ahead of its Ceremony 11/3, the Rock Hall Has Serious Work to Do

In light of the Jann Wenner controversy this past week, it must be said: As Rolling Stone magazine has done already, the Rock Hall — as an institution, and the second-most conspicuous monument to Wenner's ambition and "vision" — needs to issue a statement to clarify its current position, distance itself, and re-establish some semblance of trust with its employees, donors, members, and ceremony ticket buyers. It's time for the Hall to meet the moment, especially with the looming inductions at Brooklyn's Barclays Center this November.  

To quote George Costanza, it may be time for the Rock Hall to reject its first impulses, and "do the opposite." Apologies and humility, as with Hall co-founder Wenner, seem as scarce as the women and people of color in its inductee ranks. The arrogance displayed by Wenner when his ignorance was exposed by writer David Marchese in last week's New York Times interview was stunning. Arrogance is a trait that's palpable, too, in the Hall's public relations approach, which seems to toggle between diversion and denial. The "ignore it and it will go away" gambit works sometimes, but neither the Hall, nor Wenner can wish this one away. It's the equivalent of a cash deposit bag exploding a dye pack on a fleeing bank robber. 

On September 16, amid a reported atmosphere of "urgency and rage," a vote was held by the Rock Hall foundation, and a statement was released saying that Wenner had been ejected from its board. (Also that day, the New York Times reported that president and CEO of the foundation, Joel Peresman, contacted by phone, "declined to comment further.") In an e-mail from foundation member Troy Carter to Wenner that leaked, words were not minced: 

"It's mind-blowing to hear you imply that women and Black artists lack the intellectual articulation to be philosophers of rock, considering the significant contributions they have made, not only in terms of creative output but also in articulating the cultural, political and social aspects of their work. Artists like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday used their music to tackle pressing issues of civil rights and social injustice. They spoke eloquently about the purpose behind their music. Robert JohnsonLittle Richard and Chuck Berry laid much of the groundwork for what rock and roll would become, both musically and conceptually... 

... You have every right to your opinion, whether or not I agree. But as a member of one of the most important music institutions in the world, your opinion is hurtful to all of the women and Black artists who hold the RRHF in high regard. While you have a storied history in the music industry, that story also includes a long history of racial bias and bigotry... 

... Nina and Joni would run circles around you on their worst day. It’s always difficult when a board removes a founder, but in this case, it’s easy. Kick rocks, buddy."

One gets the sense that Wenner was probably relieved that catapults are no longer in popular usage. 

Carter's e-mail represents a close-up perspective, but if one zooms out and takes a holistic view of the Hall, an unavoidable question emerges: Why does it seem that it's only when there's a four-alarm fire — when the Hall's hand is absolutely forced by bad optics and/or external pressure — that it is spurred into action? Yes, the Hall is a complicated, committee-laden bureaucracy. Yes, this thing's ideological concrete was set on a slant. Yes, the rotten tomatoes lobbed at the Hall on social media in one week could sustain Heinz production for a year. But is this a fire department, or a globally-recognized cultural institution? 

The concept of being proactive, instead of constantly reactive, would seem to be a common-sense strategy for any public entity of this scale, particularly one that involves the preservation of culture and aspires to pantheon-building. Preventative maintenance and crisis management are two areas the Hall ought to explore with fresh vigor, especially after this past week. Specific phrases from Ice Cube's 2016 induction speech ("Rock & roll is not an instrument, rock & roll is not even a style of music. Rock & roll is a spirit.") are repeatedly parroted by Hall officials, but something else Cube once said should also be taken to heart by the institution: "Check yo' self before you wreck yo' self."

The Rock Hall foundation's leadership presides over a world where women comprise only 8.63% of inducted members; where an insulted Alanis Morrissette unexpectedly leaves a ceremony rehearsal, blaming sexism and incivility; where hip-hop legends such as Eric B. & Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest languish with nominations but no inductions; where a host of funk, soul, R&B, and disco acts are still on the outside (the Meters, Patti LaBelle, Luther Vandross, Kool & the Gang, Pointer Sisters, 11-time nominees Chic); where punk, prog, hard rock, and metal lodestars struggle for recognition (no Bad Brains, no Jethro Tull, no Thin Lizzy, no Iron Maiden); where scenery-chewing weirdos sit on the bench (Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Grace Jones, the Cramps); where superstars of reggae and Afrobeat are missing (Peter Tosh, Fela Kuti); where Los Lobos gets a single nomination (2016), and never returns to the ballot; where iconic bassist Carol Kaye (88 years old) has never been honored; where god-tier pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe isn't honored until 2018; where Cleveland-born Tracy Chapman has zero nominations; where Chaka Khan has to endure 7 fruitless nominations across 11 years (with and without Rufus) before finally being honored in 2023. To put it lightly, this is a world in need of radical change. As Chapman once sang, "Talking about a revolution."

The Rock Hall, now estranged from Wenner, yet associated with him forever, is in rough waters. At a time when they'd rather be touting their upcoming, $135 million museum expansion, as well as the the Brooklyn inductions six weeks from now, they're forced to navigate a spiraling public relations crisis. Past controversies have dogged the Hall, of course (everyone should know the name Dorothy Carvello), but the Wenner expulsion arrives on the heels of yet another embarrassing situation: Just last year, they had to suspend Craig Inciardi, a long-tenured museum curator and director of acquisitions, after he was criminally charged, with others, for trying to sell handwritten notes and lyrics Don Henley claims were stolen from him. The trial is reportedly slated for this fall. 

Rock Hall drama and malfeasance is nothing new — for years now, the noble, fact-based work of essential watchdogs such as the website Future Rock Legends and author/educator Evelyn McDonnell have provided a checks-and-balances system and conscience that the Rock Hall, with its unsavory associations and perplexing actions, often seems to lack. Along the same lines, Hole singer Courtney Love entered the conversation earlier this year with a series of impassioned Twitter posts, as well as a guest piece in The Guardian, perceptively calling out the same sins of exclusion at the Rock Hall that Wenner just inadvertently exposed in himself. 

The 2023 induction ceremony is coming up fast, and the entire vibe and success of this annual gala truly depend on which key actions the Hall takes next. If Hall leadership wants to win back hearts and minds, it should trade stonewalling for pragmatism. It should release a public statement of contrition and renewed purpose to communicate its priorities and propel itself beyond the Wenner narrative. Further, several rounds of hat-in-hand diplomacy with 2023's inductees will be required to convince them to a) still believe in this thing, and b) show up. Mission-critical artist negotiations occur in advance of every ceremony, but Wenner has certainly made that task a lot tougher this time around.

Indisputably, Wenner co-founded this institution and has had an outsized influence on shaping what it is today. Suggesting that new leadership in recent years, as encouraging as it is, somehow erases Jann's fingerprints from the Hall is short-sighted and not in line with the facts. It's hard work to change, but change, the Rock Hall must. Another part of Carter's e-mail says it all: 

"We can't change what was said, but we can learn from it and take steps to ensure that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is an institution that truly honors the breadth and depth of contributions to music." 

It's time to take those steps. Ultimately, "Rock's Highest Honor" (the Hall rebranded it as "Music's Highest Honor" this month) cannot be administered from the low gutter of ignorance and exclusion.

June 2, 2023

Shadows and Light: The Cure at Moda Center

The Cure
Moda Center
May 31, 2023

The Cure’s music, elemental and potent, holds a certain magnetism. It was the final day of May, the outside air balmy and pleasant, yet the faithful spirited themselves indoors. There was darkness to reckon with.

The shimmering, fractured beauty of the Cure was on florid display throughout their 29-song presentation. Powerful yet delicate, drifting between eccentric and accessible, the setlist was culled from albums going back as far as 1980 (no selections from the band’s debut Three Imaginary Boys made the cut this night). Robert Smith, a most gracious host for nearly three hours, exhibited a vocal and physical durability that was astonishing; at age 64, he might even be called goth rock’s Springsteen.

Early on between songs, Smith was self-deprecating, speaking about the compressed nature of time and betraying a self-consciousness that, somehow, he’d worn out his welcome in this city. The truth of the matter is, the Cure hadn’t touched down in the region since 2016, and they hadn’t set foot in this specific arena since 1997. Humility of this ilk can be a motivator, and it might be part of what’s fueling Smith as he reliably carries the Cure legacy forward. His colleagues (bassist Simon Gallup, keyboardist Roger O’Donnell, keyboardist/guitarist Perry Bamonte, drummer Jason Cooper, guitarist Reeves Gabrels), who conjured a gathering storm of atmosphere and sound, seem to be on the same page.

These guys mean business, but there’s a distinct benevolence in the Cure machinery. Professionalism, immaculate live sound, and giving the customer their money’s worth are all apparent Cure standards. Even the t-shirts in the lobby largely sold for $25, a striking departure from the $40-50 per shirt most artists charge. Fan-friendly? You better believe it. The industry needs much more of this. 

For all the respect and deference Smith gives to his supporters, recent history suggests that on the business side, he’s more than willing to dole out the “and find out” part of the equation when an entity like Ticketmaster offers their “f*ck around” nonsense. This past March, Smith went toe-to-toe with the ticketing behemoth, and negotiated lower prices and fee refunds for his ticket buyers at a time when few (if any) of his peers were willing to take up such a fight. In this case, good guys wear black.

But on with the show. This night with the Cure was christened with the sounds of thunder booming from the speakers, foreshadowing the tempest the audience was about to be swept up in. Far from a nostalgia trip and devoid of cynicism, Smith and his crew knocked down a lofty stack of songs. Overall, it was less fan service than an exercise in pure artistic integrity, a total “come with us, you won’t regret it” invitation. Sometimes, you have to just give yourself to the storm.

Bookending the main set were the striking new works “Alone” and “Endsong.” In between, and later in the encores, this West Sussex, England act led a mesmeric journey through 44 years of their recorded history. Fans experienced a full spectrum of emotions alongside their high-haired talisman: They reflected on lost love during “Pictures of You”; imagined a bed of flowers during “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep,” and were time-warped back to 1994 and memories of Brandon Lee during “Burn.” They also felt defiance and disorientation, respectively, in the rhythmic Seventeen Seconds tandem of “Play for Today” (key lyric: “Tell me I’m wrong/I don’t really care”) and “A Forest” (“The girl was never there/It’s always the same”). Elsewhere, “Shake Dog Shake” found Smith adding extra hot sauce, with some bonus “Sh- Sh- Sh- Sh-” vocal punctuation. He was having the time of his life.

A pair of encores were more like additional mini-sets, with “I Can Never Say Goodbye” a heart-rending standout in the first of these two smaller frames. About Smith’s late sibling Richard, “Goodbye” features the devastating lines “Something wicked this way comes/To steal away my brother’s life.” Three songs later, the chiming “Plainsong” offered some solace and counterpoint, as its keyboards surged with a wounded majesty.

The human condition requires us all to face darkness, but life is about balance and realizing that there is also levity and light. In the second encore, after Smith warbled on “Lullaby” that “the spiderman is having me for dinner tonight,” the vibe shifted to something resembling joy and even whimsy. The frontman played a miniature keytar on “Six Different Ways,” offered up the smash hit “Friday I’m in Love” (“It’s a wonderful surprise/To see your shoes and your spirit rise”), and roamed the stage during the percolating gem “Close to Me.” The twirling, upbeat “In Between Days” was another serotonin boost, and the evening drew to a close with “Just Like Heaven” and “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Fealty to the Cure and similar acts is akin to cave-dwelling; some really like it down there. But before one slips too deep into darkness, along comes Robert Smith, holding a torch and summoning them back from the ledge. He may be a purveyor of gloom, but, to quote some other Smiths, his band’s music is proof that there is a light that never goes out.

December 31, 2022

Just Stand Back: Remembering Mimi Parker

"Here comes the knife 
You better just stand back
I could turn on you so fast"

Those lyrics, from the Low song "Just Stand Back," resonated anew last month. On November 6, the Duluth, Minnesota indie act's Twitter announced that its co-founder Mimi Parker had passed of cancer at age 55. Hers was a life lived, along with husband-collaborator Alan Sparhawk, in the service of uncompromising art. Parker's voice, woven with Sparhawk's, was a glowing beacon amid ominous yet mesmerizing music.  

Like a viper lying in wait, "Just Stand Back" strikes the listener about a third of the way into the dense and jarring thicket of the 2005 album The Great Destroyer. It's an admittedly obscure corner of their musical legacy, but in line with the majesty and mystery of their overall body of work, it captivates just the same. 

The guitar chords of "Just Stand Back" scuff and jangle as the song begins. Sparhawk, with his dry yet pleading voice, invites you in ("It's a hit / It's got soul," he sings). But once Parker joins in to harmonize with her partner, the shimmering magic of Low is revealed: "Just Stand Back" blossoms into an eerie campfire song. It churns and burns, seemingly daring the listener to interpret what lyrics like "Here comes the knife" and "I could turn on you so fast" mean to them. "With a swing like that / You better just stand back" is delivered by Parker and Sparhawk with such co-conspiratorial confidence, it both inspires awe and telegraphs danger.

Like Minnesota's countless lakes, "Just Stand Back" is just one place to dip into when it comes to Low's music. There are 13 studio LPs, and The Great Destroyer is just the seventh. It's an expansive songbook of cathartic noise, experimentation and abject sonic bravery. Parker co-created hymns for the struggling and the painfully alone, her voice and drums tossed like lifelines to anyone needing them. 

Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk of Low
In the realm of indie rock it's easy to become cynical and write off bands like Low as cult entities or just another Pitchfork-approved act of the week. It would be inaccurate to say they're easily accessible or widely known; the phrase "musicians' musicians" comes to mind. Tagged as slowcore, they've been heavily acclaimed in some corners, particularly for their last two albums, Double Negative (2018) and HEY WHAT (2021). Both of these releases garnered Low some of the strongest notices of their career, remarkably for work awash in digital distortion and static. Transgressive? Boundary-pushing? Avant-garde? All of the above, and then some. 

Low did see an unlikely cheerleader emerge from the rock world. Their songs "Silver Rider" and "Monkey" (both from The Great Destroyer) were covered by Robert Plant on his 2010 album Band of Joy. And the day after Parker's death, Plant performed "Everybody's Song" and "Monkey" at his concert in Glasgow, Scotland. Elsewhere, tributes poured in from admirers including Sigur Rós, Tool's Maynard James Keenan, Will Sheff, El-P of Run the Jewels, and producer Steve Albini. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy even shared a cover of Low's "I Hear... Goodnight" on his Substack newsletter page. Onstage in South America November 8, Father John Misty talked about how important Low was to him, and performed a cover of the band's "In the Drugs." And this month, Phoebe Bridgers and Storefront Church released their take on the 1994 Low song "Words."

The marriage and creative partnership of Parker and Sparhawk has precedent in popular music, but it should be noted that they stayed together and thrived artistically until the end. In this one aspect, they're more like Johnny and June Carter Cash than say, Richard and Linda Thompson or Jack and Meg White. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, as well as the War and Treaty (Tanya Trotter and Michael Trotter, Jr.) are current examples of couples doing terrific work together. It all just underlines the inherent sadness and sense of loss when one half of a creative duo leaves this earth. 

Parker's voice dispelled the darkness. In joining her husband on songs of emotional turbulence matched by their music's noisy commotion, she shared her gift to magnificent effect. A phenomenal artist, gone too soon. 

November 18, 2022

The Super-Sized 2022 Rock Hall Ceremony

We're not at the Waldorf-Astoria anymore.

In light of the dazzling, genre-diverse spectacular that went down at the Microsoft Theater two weeks ago, it's worth reflecting back on the original location of the Rock Hall ceremony, held in New York City starting in 1986. 

Ah yes, the glitzy, champagne-drenched Waldorf-Astoria, home to a whopping 23 private inductions over the years. The event did escape from New York at times—it landed at L.A.'s Century Plaza in 1993 (still private), and in 1997, the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel had the distinction of hosting the first public ceremony. After a second public induction in Cleveland in 2009, the Waldorf-Astoria hosted two more closed-door ceremonies. Finally, in 2012, the walls came tumbling down, making this largely closed-off event open to everyday music fans. 

Ten years later, so much has happened. There's been Rock Hall Foundation leadership and committee turnover (most notably, John Sykes in for Jann Wenner), the pandemic (which herded the 2020 inductees into a pre-packaged, documentary-style HBO program), and an erratic three-city rotation. This year, inductions returned to La La Land (or, in Alex Lifeson parlance, "blah-blah land") for the first time in nine years. 

This was a big one. Super-sized. It will put the "Max" in HBO Max this weekend. In a first, there were even bleachers onstage packed with fans. This was Sykes' first Los Angeles ceremony, and the iHeartMedia President and co-founder of MTV (along with the foundation and production team) wasn't leaving anything to chance. "Delivering the goods" appears to be the key methodology of 2020s-era Rock Hall ceremonies. Cleveland next year? Or Brooklyn? No matter where this event lands on the map, it would appear that state-of-the-art production and God-tier rock star power will be on tap. Last year, McCartney. This year, Springsteen. 

The 37th annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is getting a 4-hour window for broadcast on HBO. At the Microsoft Theater, it spanned five and-a-half hours (7:15 p.m. to about 12:45 a.m.). Having been in the room for ceremonies that ran about that long, but felt longer due to speeches and near-comical staging delays (looking at you, 2015), it must be said that apart from Duran Duran's brief sound collapse early on, the show mostly cruised along, with just a few plodding segments along the way. The final edit will likely jettison some of that excess baggage. 

The baggage isn't limited to the show itself. The Rock Hall ceremony is an exhilarating bubble to be in, but it remains peculiar due to various tensions. Maybe it's the mixing of industry and commoners, and maybe it's the feeling that the Hall, with its obvious inductee backlog and well-documented failures of committee-think, has a lot to make right; the fans showing up are carrying both expectation and indignation. 

If the show runners understand this, and they hopefully do, they'll work harder to find a balance between crowd-pleasing musical nirvana (knockout performances, once-in-a-lifetime moments) and the manner in which they recognize amazing individuals such as Harry Belafonte, Sylvia Robinson and Elizabeth Cotten. Those three inductees received only video packages, with no one onstage to even briefly announce their induction. In the late Robinson's case, her son Leland and granddaughter were there, so to not have them quickly accept the award on their mother's behalf was a mistake. Time truly must be made in these instances. Yes, it's a long show, time is of the essence, but some judiciousness was needed here.

And that's the problem with "big." Small, nuanced things get trampled upon. It's a vexing problem with shows of this scale, and with the Hall specifically. Much is done well, and much seemingly gets ignored. But flawed as it may be, the institution appears to be steering this colossal ship in the right direction. Vocal, intelligent observers have raised their voices for more women, more metal, more inductees, etc., and it would be inaccurate to say the Hall isn't listening. That said, Cleveland truly needs its first female hip-hop honoree, and hopefully 2023 brings that and much more.

But back to the ceremony. iHeartMedia boss Sykes is a different captain than Wenner, and there is an ambitious, new-look Rock Hall era upon us. With its 14 honorees and top-shelf list of special guests, the highly-produced 2022 edition could be split in half, and two ceremonies could be made from it. Goodness gracious, there were even two all-star jams, for all intents and purposes. (It seems the days of 5-7 inductees are a thing of the past.)

Speaking of Sykes, the inductions these last two years seem to parallel, in subtle ways, the genre-diverse, mainstream tilt of iHeartRadio Music Awards shows. In line with Sykes' references to "the sound of youth culture," there are several household names crossing over, and back, between that event and the Rock Hall ceremony (J.Lo! LL Cool J! Ed Sheeran! Olivia Rodrigo!). It's fitting, too, that SiriusXM looms so large in this annual affair (from backstage interviews to broadcasting audio of the ceremony), because its panoramic music station menu echoes the genre-inclusive approach that, at its best, the Hall manifests with its inductee slate and ceremonies each year. Where there is Dolly Parton, there is also Rob Halford. Where there is Eminem, there is also Steven Tyler. 

Started at the Waldorf-Astoria and now we're here.  

November 3, 2022

The Rock Hall Triumph of Judas Priest

"We don't accept defeat, we never will retreat..." - "Freewheel Burning"

Tough as leather, armed with a steely resolve, and road warriors to this day, Judas Priest finally enters the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this Saturday, November 5. It's a triumph for these metal gods, and for the heavy metal faithful across the globe. 

It's also an exceptionally overdue honor, and one that unfortunately required special intervention by the Hall to even happen. Judas Priest, upon their third nomination this year, still didn't earn enough votes from the official Rock Hall votership to be counted among the Class of 2022's seven "Performer" honorees (Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo, Duran Duran, Eminem, Eurythmics, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, and Carly Simon). As a result, they are being given the Award for Musical Excellence.  

Ian Hill, Glenn Tipton, Rob Halford, K.K. Downing, Les Binks
Ultimately, the Hall arrived at a solution. Some observers are OK with it, some are not. But the institution had to take action. How could they continue to snub Judas Priest, arguably the second-most significant metal band after Black Sabbath? If Hall voters continue to reject this genre (Iron Maiden was on the ballot last year, another swing and a miss!), measures need to be taken. Maybe it's not perfect, but as Winston Churchill once said, perfection is the enemy of progress.

In many ways, this "other" honor is quite appropriate, and one truly hopes the Priest camp fully embraces and understands it. These guys wear their outsider status on their studded sleeves, and have soldiered through their career on their own terms. They are the embodiment of heavy metal, which is not a path for the faint of heart  these guys had to have wanted it. Officially formed in 1969, with their debut LP Rocka Rolla released in 1974, the group has overcome daunting challenges: label woes; personnel changes; world tours; a 1990 court trial where they were accused of putting subliminal messages in their music; and Rob Halford's difficult decision, as a gay man, to stay in the closet during Priest's most successful years (he came out in 1998). More recently, guitarist Glenn Tipton was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2018, leaving him unable to perform full shows, though he still performs encores with his mates, and will fortunately be present at this week's ceremony. Despite everything, Priest have delivered on their vision for over 50 years, making thunderous, exhilarating music for hardcore fans and mainstream rock audiences alike. 

Musical excellence? They've excelled indeed, from the sonorous vocals and haunting riffs of "Victim of Changes" to the revving, concussive "Hell Bent for Leather" to radio/MTV hits like "Breaking the Law" and "You've Got Another Thing Coming." On 1990's Painkiller album, they pushed the limits of speed and thrash metal to gloriously punishing effect. And these high points are just the tip of the iceberg — at 18 studio albums, the Priest discography is rewarding and vast, with 2018's Firepower earning rave reviews as a thrilling return to form. A new album is due in 2023.

Priest's induction feels rather special; there's a definite "triumph of the underdog" narrative here for both the band and its disciples. Suddenly, a worldwide community of marginalized metal believers, angry with the Hall for years about this snub, finally feel seen. For generations of lost souls and high school rebels, Priest has been a sanctuary. Their music is a rite of passage, sure, but it's also a lifelong companion. 

Judas Priest represents so much. They are the smoking kids on the corner outside your high school. They are every Eddie Munson with a Dio backpatch. They are the rowdy denizens of heavy metal parking lots where zebra-striped shirts get soaked with beer and sweat. They are the sound of a teenager's bedroom door slamming after a fight with a parent. They are a backwoods kegger, where bonfires rage and bad choices are made. They have been there, reliably, to offer their faithful catharsis, community, and the credo "One life, I'm gonna live it up." And that's why they belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by any means necessary.