Neil Young and Promise of the Real, Red Rocks, Morrison, July 8, 2015.
by Tim Van Schmidt
Let’s just say it- the new songs from Neil Young’s latest album release, “The Monsanto Years,” are not classics. The music itself- the chord changes and occasional blow-torch guitar work- is pretty standard for Young and even has a jaunty air of familiarity to it. But since this is a work of ideas and not specifically a work of art, the lyrics are mostly less than artful in their directness.
At least that’s how it sounded at last night’s show at Red Rocks, the first of a two-night stand. The show featured most of the new record and the songs came across with an impressive authority considering Young’s partnership with the band Promise of the Real is brand new. But that doesn’t make the songs longtime winners.
That said, though, I don’t have any problem with hearing sub-classic material, especially when it is new and informs the artist’s passion. In that regard, “The Monsanto Years” is highly successful because Young’s passion for exposing the attitudes of huge corporations like Monsanto and raising general questions about freedom was on full display at Red Rocks.
The good news for Young and Promise of the Real is that there is also plenty of room in Young’s music, both new and old, for some artistry. And at Red Rocks that meant plenty of intense jamming, Young digging in often with that stinging, biting guitar attack of his while Promise of the Real more or less kept up with the old man with flair.
Now, I’ll admit that my favorite parts of the show WERE the old school classics I am familiar with- like “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man. At every concert, you hope to hear at least one great thing that makes the drive worthwhile and at Red Rocks last night, that moment was “Cowgirl in the Sand” which Young and the new band made burn with all its original power.
No matter how you slice it, however, multiple songs that jam Monsanto’s name into the lyrics many times over just don’t always ring true. Singing about agri-business, what’s in the aisles at Safeway and a caustic salvo at Starbucks just has to sacrifice some of the window dressing.
But with the new stuff, Young is actually, despite all the electric trappings, taking on a very old role as a musician. That is, providing folk information to the people.
For that, I’m grateful to Young for pushing the art stuff aside for a little bit and making me listen to some news. Writing about GMOs may not be as riveting as other subjects Young has tackled in years past, but it is a major issue.
That the old man and the boys could also dig in and serve up some nice, juicy electric cacophony along the way made the political lessons much more palatable.
Stevie Wonder, Pepsi Center, Denver, March 17, 2015.
by Tim Van Schmidt
At one point last night at the Pepsi Center, I counted 22 members in Stevie Wonder’s band. No wait- I forgot to count the 10 strings players off to the side of the stage that floated in and out of the music all night. No wait- let’s also add another bunch of singers who crowded onstage at high moments during the show. And then let’s also count special guests like saxophonist Gerald Albright- and then throw in extra special guest keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. The stage was busy indeed for Wonder’s show in Denver.
The occasion was a tour featuring a full reading of Wonder’s 1976 album, “Songs in the Key of Life.” Personally, this was not one of my favorite albums by Wonder. At least, I must have never really listened to it much because I felt like I was traveling in new territory for most of the evening. Sure, I knew super hits like the joyfully buoyant “Sir Duke” and the equally joyful “Isn’t She Lovely,” but I was hearing a lot of this music for the first time.
That brings up a fan’s dilemma. We like to hear ALL of our favorites when we come to a concert, so in some ways, Wonder’s focus on the “Key” album made for a less than satisfying “hits” experience. I even found my mind wandering at times last night. But then again, if it’s really Stevie Wonder the fans are coming to hear, then anything the man wants to play should be just fine. With that attitude, the Pepsi Center concert was an artistic success.
My main discoveries last night from the “Key” album were tunes such as “Partime Paradise,” which struck me as one of the most dramatic songs of the evening, “Ordinary Pain,” featuring hot round robin vocal work from one bank of the backup singers, including Wonder’s daughter Aisha Morris, and “Joy Inside My Tears.”
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t other highlights throughout the two-set, three-hour show. What made that so was the top notch talent Wonder literally surrounds himself with. Everybody from the pair of electric guitarists to the several keyboardists to the platoon of vocalists to, really, everyone else on the stage had chops- brimming over. Whenever the spotlight turned toward anyone in the band, they delivered fully.
Indeed, Wonder has what he described as the “juiciest horn section on the planet,” and the horns proved it often throughout the night, giving the funk and soul music that extra special something you can’t get with electronic instruments. The strings section, made up of Colorado players, also added sweet accents to the show, even including a creative violin solo.
But as Wonder said several times last night, it was his “carpet” and that’s what really kept things interesting. Of all the people on stage, Wonder was the loose cannon. You weren’t sure what he was going to do or say next in between songs as the show progressed.
At times, Wonder seemed maybe a little distracted, or not exactly sure where he was going to take the moment. But the large bull’s-eye on the target remained a message of human cooperation, love and celebration. So, nearly 40 years after Wonder pledged his efforts to “spread love mentalism” in the “Key” liner notes, his mission remains the same.
Now, once the “Key” part of the show was over, Wonder got mischievous, taking on a DJ persona and teasing the crowd with snippets of popular hits such as “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City.” When I say snippets, I mean it- Wonder would crank into one of the hits, the crowd would surge and just as quickly, Wonder would cut the tune off and start fiddling with another one. I guess this served as a creative medley approach, but after a more or less hit-starved show, it got a little frustrating. But, then Wonder delivered a fully rollicking version of “Superstition” to end the night and release was finally given.
If there would be one really pointed complaint I could make about the show it would be “Would someone please get Stevie Wonder a microphone that stays in position!” It was just stupid how often stage crew had to help Wonder with the microphone at his piano. Let’s also mention the occasional sound gaffe like the boss’ microphone being turned off at the end of the show, or the ugly blurbs of feedback once in a while throughout the production.
But let’s sum it up by saying there was plenty of power and action on stage in Denver. Sweetening the pot with the guest appearances by Albright, a Denver resident, and Hancock and Corea, scheduled for a show tonight in Denver with the Colorado Symphony, made it all the better, moments that just won’t happen in other cities on the tour. But then add in a good dose of Wonder’s message of love for inspiration and the goods were more than delivered.
Rosanne Cash, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, January 10, 2015.
by Tim Van Schmidt
There’s a lot to admire in the music of Rosanne Cash. First of all, her voice is alluring and hypnotizing. It’s a full, rich voice that can express a sense of emotion with each minute waver and each swelling moment. Her songs are also crafted with a deep sense of humanity where nothing is particularly black or white, but colored in the many different hues of experience. Then there are the instrumental arrangements that do not overpower the emotion of the voice or the song, but still create a rarified ambiance, warm and polished.
All of this was on full display when Cash and band brought music from her latest release, “The River & the Thread,” to the Lincoln Center on Saturday. Backed by a five piece band that included Cash’s husband, producer and songwriting partner John Leventhal, the two-set show featured a full reading of the new album, then selections from previous works such as “The List” and “Black Cadillac.”
“The River & the Thread” is an “album” of music in the classic sense. The songs all fit together- they belong together. There’s a theme here- songs about the South and about Cash’s roots in that culture. It isn’t a “concept album” in terms of telling a particular story, but rather like a collection of related photographs that tell lots of stories. Indeed, the deluxe edition of the CD is handsomely illustrated with photos of people and places that relate to the songs.
At the Lincoln Center, Cash then added her own explanations about the writing of each song, enhancing the material in a way you just don’t get simply by listening to the product. Apparently, the record is the result of trips Cash and Leventhal made to the South to find old family stomping grounds and places that reflect the unique culture to be found there. It was particularly amusing to hear her recount her efforts to include the song “When the Master Calls the Roll,” written by Leventhal and Cash’s ex-husband Rodney Crowell for Emmylou Harris. Though the info is also included in a notes section in the CD package, it was great to hear it in Cash’s own voice, often supported by some light accompaniment from Leventhal and band.
Though Cash is a formidable artist in her own right, she isn’t shy about using other writers’ material. The original stuff on “The River & the Thread” is augmented with a song each by Townes Van Zandt and Jesse Winchester and they fit seamlessly in with the rest. In concert, Cash did the same by augmenting her own songs in the second portion of the show with tunes by such country stars as Hank Snow. That also included a riveting, spare version of the crossover country hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” played by Cash and Leventhal without the rest of the band.
Of the material from “The River & the Thread,” the most rousing tune of the evening was “Money Road” and a lot of that had to do with the fact that band was let loose to stretch and bring it to an impressive climax. Other favorites included “Modern Blue,” “World of Strange Design” and “50,000 Watts.”
I have seen Cash several times over the years and Saturday’s performance was by far the best. The concert wasn’t just a reiteration of her career, but had a point and that focus tended to anchor the performance, give the artist something to dig deep into and offered the audience an extended chance to get to know Cash better. The Lincoln Center was also a great place to see the show- big enough to feel like an event, but small enough to offer some sense of intimacy with the artist. Cash’s appearance in Fort Collins was a win-win for everybody, especially on a cold winter’s night.
Goya’s War: Los Desastres de la Guerra
by Tim Van Schmidt
It was as quiet as a church at the Colorado State University Art Museum as a companion and I arrived to see the new exhibit featuring Spanish painter Francisco Goya y Lucientes’s etching series, “Los Desastres de la Guerra.” But there was nothing sacred or quiet about what was depicted in the art.
Killing. Torture. Famine. Rape. Depravity. Greed. Disgust. Sorrow. Horror.
All of these things were in full supply in these pieces of art created in the early 1800s, when Spanish rulers abdicated and left their country torn apart by the French. During a six-year period, the people of Spain, and specifically the people of Goya’s hometown of Madrid, were drowned in blood and misery, if the artworks tell an accurate story of the time.
Goya did not publish these images at the time, or even during the rest of his life. It is easy to see why because while the work aims at expressing the hardships of these years of Spanish disaster, it is shocking and revolting. While the artist obviously labored over the images and succeeded in communicating a sorrowful meaningfulness with each one, they were not meant to be placed on the marketplace. There was a deeper, much more personal reason these were made- perhaps to purge the fear and loathing actually living in such an environment would create.
These images come from a different time than our own, when such images were rare. In fact, pictures of any kind were relatively rare, but especially ones such these- scavengers pulling the clothes off of dead bodies; men being chopped in half; women defending themselves against brutal rapists; corpses decorated with signs explaining why they were executed; well-dressed citizens standing next to those dying of starvation.
In our world, we are used to horrible images. We even seek them out as entertainment. And they are everywhere- in magazines and newspapers, on the Internet and our TV screens. Because of this, perhaps some modern viewers might not be bothered by Goya’s art. But Goya was not trying to create entertainment and his expression of the horror that men inflict on other men was not meant to be titillating. That these pieces were shelved, unpublished until some 35 years after the artist’s death, helps explain their dark power.
I did not exit the museum glad I had been able to experience great art. These images are disturbing and even damage the soul. They do not elicit excited chatter or bring forth glowing inspiration. Instead, they creep around in the dark corners of the human heart where the horrible things human beings are capable of breathe heavily, stinking. I imagine that if Goya heard this he would sadly nod, knowing that his work had succeeded.
This isn’t to say that the exhibit is not worth seeing. But after viewing this collection do not expect to go out into the bright Colorado sunshine to continue your day as usual. These images deepen the shadows and call out with a weak voice that all that is human is not well- and it is still not well some two centuries later.