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*" cannot be administered from the low gutter of ignorance and exclusion.

*Update: In September 2023, the Rock Hall rebranded their ceremony as "Music's Highest Honor" (from the original tagline, "Rock's Highest Honor"). This significant change is also now reflected in their Twitter/X bio, although the Hall's website still has the "Rock's Highest Honor" verbiage:

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. 

July 10, 2022

We Are the Robots

Kraftwerk 3-D
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
July 8, 2022

Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is life a dream or an elaborate, predetermined program? Are we more machines than man now? Perhaps it's best to let German robots explain all this.

Those are heavy questions, of course. And while witness accounts of Kraftwerk 3-D may vary, this multimedia presentation seemed intent on exploring universal truths and the challenges of modern human existence. 

Lest you think this whole enterprise sounds uncomfortable  and that, by the end, you'd be imploring HAL 9000 to open the pod bay doors — it was quite the opposite. By way of introduction, the talent onstage is founding Kraftwerk member Ralf Hütter (age 75), along with Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert, and Falk Grieffenhagen. Wearing neon-lined body suits redolent of the movie "Tron," they manned individual, rectangular podiums while an unrelenting spectacle of 3-D-enhanced video played on a giant screen behind them. UFOs violated your airspace, protruding satellite antennas made you duck, sound waves bounced, 8-bit cars sped down the Autobahn. It was a technicolor feast for the eyes, but the subversive Kraftwerk ethos still burrowed into the psyche, going past the optic nerves and straight into the hippocampus and beyond. 

Kraftwerk 3-D
The best concert experiences draw you in, and deliver something unexpected. This futuristic extravaganza certainly did that. Just as the 3-D screen lent a sense of space and depth, the seemingly basic subject matter of songs like "Numbers," "Home Computer" and "Airwaves" blossomed into thought-provoking performance pieces. On a similar note, "Autobahn," "Tour de France" and "Trans-Europe Express" evoked forward movement and human progress, but given our recent history, one could not help but think of another band's theory of de-evolution.

Underneath Kraftwerk's beeps, circular rhythms and cyborgian vocals lies a key question: What happens at the intersection of man and machine? On this night, many answers were possible. "Computer Love," with its lyrics, "I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do/I need a rendezvous, I need a rendezvous" suggests a lot about how people connect in the modern age (and it's quite prescient for a song released in 1981). Elsewhere, the folly of man/machine was laid bare on "Radioactivity," as it called out nuclear-scarred cities and displayed radiation warning symbols onscreen. 

Sobering nuclear outcomes aside, a rapt audience nonetheless sat with cardboard 3-D glasses on their faces while Hütter and crew  relying not only on substance, but resplendent, colorful style  reasserted Kraftwerk's innovation and immeasurable influence. Some of the haunting textures from "The Model" echoed goth-rock, one of many genres Hütter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flür, and Karl Bartos either nudged along or made possible. At other points of the show, robot voices confirmed that things like Auto-Tune and Daft Punk were beamed down from the Kraftwerk mothership. Of course, any musician that ever touched a synthesizer or drum machine after 1970 can thank this quartet. Synth-pop, New Wave, Neue Deutsche Welle, disco, industrial, hip-hop, techno, and a legion of pop and rock acts are all branches of the Kraftwerk tree. 

Masquerading as automatons, the original lineup of Kraftwerk gave their fans much to contemplate around identity and purpose. On this night, the tradition was continued by four men that, for all their amusing stoicism, were still recognizable as living beings. But in a chilling bit of future shock during "Robotronik," four actual robots danced onstage, without a human in sight. It was turbulent and purposeful: a synthetic, sensory-overloading tableau that rattled the cages of our 21st-century souls. It was artificial intelligence reminding us to be human.

March 28, 2022

Indie Rock (and Cuervo) Gold

Guided by Voices
Revolution Hall - Portland, OR
March 27, 2022

"Who do you think you are, Jethro Tull?

This snarky inquiry wasn't from a heckling audience member, but rather, a smiling, self-aware Bob Pollard after a rendition of "Moses on a Snail," a proggy number that culminated in ascendant riffing that found the singer slowly raising his arms and hands in religious fervor. The next logical step might have been speaking in tongues, but fear not, infidels: Uncle Bob picked up his Miller Lite, took a swig and got on with other sacred business.

This Guided by Voices phenomenon is remarkable, and it endures. But what does one make of these Dayton, Ohio indie rock kings in 2022? They're 39 years into their inspirational story, with nearly as many lineup changes, albums and songs as beers consumed onstage. The center of the GBV universe, of course, is Robert Pollard, a former schoolteacher whose unlikely "parachutist into a boxing ring"-level party-crash of the indie rock world in the '90s still feels like a miracle. And there are fewer more reassuring sights than this fully-invested bon vivant joyfully kicking his leg backward, twirling his mic, and doing his signature high kick when his band launches into yet another irresistible anthem. Pollard is white-haired and 64 years old, but time has not diminished him.

Pollard, March and Gillard
When it comes to choosing songs, where does Guided by Voices even start? Pollard and company are on the road, theoretically supporting their 35th album Crystal Nuns Cathedral, but since it's their sixth album since 2020, there's an always-swelling pile of tunes to craft a setlist from (seriously, there are thousands). "Prolific" is the word that is most often attached to Pollard, and justifiably: By his own admission on this night, he's put out 117 albums, if you count GBV and all his solo and side projects. The task of putting together a setlist is enough to drive a bandleader to drink. Luckily, provisions were acquired, and as usual, a cooler sat onstage, and Captain Pollard fished a bottle of Cuervo Gold and endless beers from it. 

Whatever the setlist yields, though, this band's barley soda-guzzling cult is down for whatever, and ready to sing along. The 49 riff-heavy tunes GBV cranked out at Revolution Hall in Portland (a converted high school auditorium) kept spirits high, and the "G-B-V!" chant inevitably made its appearance a few songs in. And the thrill of surprise  for those avoiding the spoilers of previous tour stop setlists, anyway  was very much in effect. For every predictable, "they can't leave without playing that" selection like "Motor Away," "Echoes Myron" or "Game of Pricks," there were plenty of recent tunes and tasteful picks from the GBV/solo Bob repertoires: "Climbing a Ramp" (from 2022's Crystal Nuns Cathedral), "The Disconnected Citizen" (from 2021's Earth Man Blues), "King 007" (from 2017's How Do You Spell Heaven) and "Love is Stronger Than Witchcraft" (from Pollard's 2006 solo LP From a Compound Eye).

There was a welcome middle ground, too, as the less familiar (i.e. newer) tracks were offset by standout gems from across the colossal GBV songbook, including "Your Name is Wild," "Back to the Lake," "I Am a Tree," and "My Kind of Soldier." There is a copious amount of musical gold to dig for in this catalog, of course. But not everything worked: The harmonies on the reflective "Twilight Campfighter" were sloppy compared to the slick studio version (that is just a tough tune to improve live), while "Man Called Blunder" was a case study in the sometimes plodding, mid-set lull that naturally happens during a two and a half-hour show. 

Overall, though, these guys came to play. Having witnessed this band in action since the year 2000, there's no question of its evolution — there is now a sharpness, a rhythmic complexity, and subtle prog-rock elements dovetailing nicely with the power chords and power pop, lifting Guided by Voices to a higher echelon artistically. Many moments of this performance legitimately felt like "next-level GBV." The chemistry and enthusiasm onstage was evident, and one imagines Pollard is thrilled to have a steady, consistent lineup of GBV to go out there with. Axeman Bobby Bare, Jr., bassist Mark Shue, and GBV vets Kevin March (drums) and sharp-shooting guitarist Doug Gillard rocked an array of material in winning fashion. Additionally, it was charming to see Pollard act paternal with the youthful Shue, calling him "Colonel Whitepants" due to his stage attire. 

On a similar note, Pollard's self-deprecating stage banter is a hilarious aspect of any of his gigs; tonight he lamented that the pop act Fine Young Cannibals (!) was somehow a bigger band than GBV (he even sarcastically sung a line from FYC's biggest hit: "She drives me crazy!" to which the audience automatically lobbed the song's "whoo! whoo!" back at him). However, Pollard, seeing the beer bottle as half full, did remind the crowd that Fine Young Cannibals don't have a song as great as the next one GBV was about to play — "Smothered in Hugs." Fair enough, Bob... we can examine that Jethro Tull comparison another day.