Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'm not the next McG yet, but he had to start somewhere too

Last Friday night James played another open mic night for the Brooklyn Guitar School at Hank's Saloon in Brooklyn.  Once again I served as his videographer, roadie, and sole groupie. 

He opened his set with "Academy Fight Song" by Mission From Burma:

Next up was his latest original song from the guitar school's songwriting class, entitled "Don't Ask Me Now:"

Having been subjected to a Big Star playlist on a road trip to DC a few years ago, I knew James would either sing a Big Star song or pay tribute to the late Alex Chilton in some way.  He went with "Alex Chilton" by The Replacements.

As he came off the stage I held onto his guitar for a few moments while he found his case.  Later, when another band, the creatively named "The Jailhouse Cocks," needed a spare cable, James lent them one and asked me to collect it when they were done as he had to leave.  It's all part of the job of being a hanger-on for an up-and-coming singer/songwriter.  It also meant I got to stick around to hear The Jailhouse Cocks as well as Postacockalypse and Satan's Scrotum (though I think their real name was The Professionals, and they were a kick-ass ZZ Top cover band).  It was that kind of night at Hank's.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A night at the opera at BAM

I took some time out from watching basketball and enjoying the fantastic weather in New York this weekend to go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for Les Arts Florissants' productions of Charpentier's Acteon and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. It was two operas for the price of one.  How could I say no?

Marc-Antoine Charpentier's one-act opera Acteon opened the program.  Both operas were early Baroque compositions, so the orchestra included a theorbo, a viola da gamba, a violone, and recorders and flutes as well as violins, cellos and a harpsichord.  Music Director William Christie conducted from the harpsichord.  The opera was in French with English supertitles above the stage.  While the production was beautiful to watch and hear, the story seemed too short for even a one-act opera.  It was over before I had a chance to become interested in the action.  It didn't help that the three cups of coffee I'd had earlier in the day started to wear off when I got to the theater, so I nodded off for a few minutes here and there.

Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas was a much more compelling story.  The opera was performed in English so the story was a bit easier to follow.  While both stories are tragic, Dido featured some comic relief in the character of the sorceress's elf, who clowned around during one extended chorus.  The sorceress (who had also appeared in Acteon) also shimmied around on stage with what were clearly modern dance moves. Near the end of the opera, Dido chastises Aeneas for choosing to obey what he believes are orders from the gods and leave her.  When he offers to stay, saying he will defy the gods to be with her, she rejects him.  It may have been a story from Virgil's Aeneid, but the way couples fight hasn't changed much in 2000 years.  Throughout both operas, the singers and musicians of the company were spectacular.  In particular, Sonya Yoncheva as Dido was excellent.  Her aria "When I am laid in earth" at the end of the opera was beautiful and chilling. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The New York Philharmonic with Muti and Repin

I was going to write a review of Wednesday evening's concert by the New York Philharmonic. Then I read the New York Times' review in Thursday's paper. I can't disagree with or add much to anything Allan Kozinn had to say about the performance. My friend Karyn came with me and she's played Beethoven's violin concerto before. She said that the piece is unforgiving in terms of length and technical skill. It's like a Mozart concerto in that it requires precise degrees of intonation and delicacy, but it's so long and monumental that it demands a tremendous amount of stamina from the soloist. Vadim Repin showed that he has the talent to play the work but his intonation wasn't always accurate and the entire concerto sounded under-rehearsed. Though like a good Guitar Hero player who uses “star power” at just the right time to boost his score, Repin won me over with his renditions of Fritz Kreisler's cadenzas in the outer movements.

I've seen Riccardo Muti with the Philharmonic before but it wasn't until Wednesday night that he struck me as looking like a prototypical conductor. He's tall, thin, and has a thick head of gray hair. His gestures are precise and not too syrupy. While leading the orchestra through Franck's Symphony in D minor, he used his baton like a violin bow, shaking it at the strings as they played tremelo notes, or stabbed it at the brass to open the finale. At the end of the concert the audience gave Muti a long ovation, reminding me that he had the opportunity to be the music director here. Even though he declined the job, New York audiences clearly love him and look forward to his guest appearances.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A day at the Big East Tournament

I took the day off work on Tuesday to watch the first round games of the Big East Tournament live at Madison Square Garden.  My friend Amanda suggested that we should go since we're both college basketball fans and neither of us had been to the tournament before.  I did go to the Georgetown-Pitt Big East final game in 2007, but I'd never gone for the early rounds.  Instead of writing recaps of the games, which you can read elsewhere, I'd rather focus on the things I saw that you don't get to see when you watch the tournament on TV.

First of all, the Garden was mostly empty for the 12 PM opening game and the 9 PM late game.  It filled up in the afternoon for St. John's vs. UConn and again in the evening for Seton Hall-Providence, but the teams from the furthest distances (South Florida, DePaul, and Cincinnati) had the least support.  Rutgers played in the last game of the night vs. Cincinnati and by the end of the game only the bands and a few die-hard fans and basketball junkies were left in the arena.  One thing we learned was that tickets for the tournament are only available through the 16 schools in the conference.  That explains why the only tickets we could find online were on StubHub.  And it explains all the empty seats and why we were able to sit in the 200 level for the evening games instead of our proper seats one level higher up.  There were several thousand no-shows for both the day and evening sessions so we were free to take whatever seats we wanted.  But the fans that did show up for the games got into the spirit.  St. John's fans turned out to see their team trounce UConn.  And the Garden really came to life late in the Seton Hall-Providence game when the Friars went on a 29-4 run to turn a blowout into a nail-biter.

Between the first and second games of each session, we saw a little "battle of the bands" action.  The bands from UConn and St. John's and later Cincinnati and Rutgers took turns playing songs while the other band listened.  Sometimes one band played the same song that the opposite band just played, so we heard dueling versions of "Gimme Some Lovin'" or "Hey Baby."  Cincinnati's band played a rousing "Seven Nation Army," and Rutgers threw some dance moves into their version of "Thriller."  As a former band groupie, I was in musical geek heaven.  It was almost a shame we had to watch some basketball.

During halftime of the first three games, the dance teams from each school would come on the floor for a quick dance-off.  That amounted to the entire halftime show.  But for Cincinnati-Rutgers, there were no dance teams.  Instead, the Cincinnati Bearcat clowned around on the court, shooting free throws until a Garden employee asked him to stop.  I should have shouted "let him play!" or at least gotten a few photos, but by the time I noticed his act, the Bearcat had put his ball away.  Then he disappeared for most of the 2nd half and I wondered what had become of him.  Just as I was about to implore my Twitter followers to send out a search party, he reappeared on the court.  Maybe he was just napping.  It was late in the evening.

Speaking of Twitter, we spent the whole day tweeting constantly about the games and as such we had concerns about whether we'd have enough battery power to get through the evening.  Between sessions we left the Garden in search of a bar or restaurant where we could recharge both physically and electronically.  We eschewed the crowds at Stout and the dark, dank Stitch and found ourselves at Houndstooth NYC on 8th Avenue at 37th Street.  The hostess showed us to a table by the window where we found a four-plug wall outlet behind my chair.  We were saved!  And the beer and food weren't bad either.  The next time I'm near the Garden and looking for a restaurant for a pre-game or -concert meal, Houndstooth will be my first stop.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Muse rocks the Garden

I may have covered this before, but I first discovered Muse through Guitar Hero.  "Knights of Cydonia" was one of the final songs on Guitar Hero III, and I'd never heard of the band or the song before.  But when I played it in the game I thought "these guys rock."  I played the song in the game for James at my Super Bowl party in 2008, but he seemed unimpressed at the time.  Three weeks later, he arrived early to cook for my Oscar party and plugged his iPod into the speakers in my kitchen.  He put on some music I didn't recognize, so I asked him what it was.  He said it was Muse's album Black Holes & Revelations, and that "Knights of Cydonia" wasn't even the best song on the album.  I was hooked.  I bought the album the next day and acquired the rest of Muse's back catalog shortly thereafter.  They're a rock band, but with symphonic influences, the occasional turn toward pop music and even some funk now and then.  I'm starting to think they were put here on Earth to cater to all of my musical tastes at once.

Last Saturday I was at Madison Square Garden for a Knicks game.  While there, I saw a "coming attractions" poster and noticed that Muse was coming to the Garden on March 5.  I looked at my watch.  This weekend?!  How did I not know about this?  When I got home I got on Stubhub and looked up ticket prices.  They were steep, but there was no way I was going to miss this show.  On Sunday morning I talked to James, who agreed we had to go, and I got the tickets.

The show was this evening (Friday), and it was everything I could have hoped for and then some.  The stage had three large pillars on it which I assumed was the backdrop for the band on the floor of the stage.  When the lights went down the pillars lit up and became the backdrop for video projections that were reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Rush concerts of years past.  Then the pillars parted vertically to show the members of the band, one on each pillar.  They opened with "Uprising," the hit from their most recent album, The Resistance.  The second song was the title track from the album, and while I was enjoying the show, the songs sounded a little too much like the album versions.  As the second song ended, the pillars lowered the band to the floor of the stage and they launched into "New Born."  And that's where they really started to rock my face off. 

The next two hours were filled with all of the songs I could have wanted to hear and maybe a few I hadn't expected.  (Here's the full set list.)  The crowd had a few too many teenagers and kids in their twenties for my liking, and that made me feel just a bit old.  But I didn't care.  Matthew Bellamy, the lead singer and guitarist, twirled, jumped, and danced around the stage while singing and abusing his guitar.  Bassist Christoper Wolstenholme was a rock, a la John Entwistle, remaining stationary at his microphone and providing the foundation for the band.  Drummer Dominic Howard had the middle pillar to himself and with his drums on a rotating platform he could face the back of the stage and entertain the fans in the obstructed view seats.  While the band played, the video projections alternated between trippy visuals of political protests, buildings collapsing, nature scenes, and of course the band members themselves as they jammed onstage.  The show was well worth the exorbitant price I paid Stubhub for the privilege.  I'd go see it again if I had the chance.

One other note: Muse is the first band I've seen live in their prime since 1992.  My first rock concert ever was Metallica and Guns N' Roses in 1992 at Three Rivers Stadium, and even then GNR was a little overblown.  Since then, it's been a steady stream of "geezer rock," including Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Van Halen, The Who, and even The Rolling Stones in 1997.  I hadn't seen a "modern" rock band in almost twenty years until Friday night.  As my old rock bands are now leaving the stage, I suppose I'll have to find more new acts to see live if I want to remain relevant.  Or I could just keep going to the Philharmonic, where long-dead composers still rule.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

This is the year I follow baseball

I've been getting exasperated at all the baseball talk on Twitter this week.  It's just spring training, for God's sake! The games don't count!  Yesterday I threatened to live-tweet the Steelers' arrivals at training camp and the tackling dummy drills in July as payback.

Then I reconsidered.  Many, many of my friends are huge baseball fans.  And I am not.  Why should I be annoyed?  They're just excited that their favorite sport is back, even if they're playing meaningless games.  Live and let live.

Then a Twitter conversation earlier today about the viability of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2010 roster and their chances for improvement made me think about my own lack of devotion to my hometown team and baseball in general.  I realized that I couldn't explain myself in 140 characters. 

I didn't grow up as a baseball fan.  Johnstown, PA is well within Steeler country and so I became a Steelers fan at an early age.  My parents watched or listened to the Steelers games every Sunday.  I can count on one hand the number of times my dad and I threw a ball in the yard, and most of the time when we did it was a football.  I idolized Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Lynn Swann.  As for baseball, I knew who Willie Stargell was (I even shook his hand once) but I barely knew that the Pirates existed.  I never played Little League.  I never wanted to play and my parents didn't see any need to push me.  Baseball just wasn't on my childhood radar.

In middle school I used to get free tickets to Pirates games from my school in exchange for earning good grades.  (I was a massive geek then, just as I am now.)  My mother would drive us to Pittsburgh on Friday nights after work and with Pittsburgh's notoriously bad traffic we'd usually get to the stadium sometime in the 3rd inning.  Our seats were always in the 600 level, seemingly miles away from the field.  I had only the faintest idea who the players were or how baseball games worked.  Since this was the mid-'80s, the Pirates were rebuilding.  Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Mike LaValliere, and Andy Van Slyke were all playing for the team, but they weren't stars yet.  We saw a lot of crappy Pirates losses.  By the 7th inning the game was already out of hand, my brother and I would be making fun of the morbidly obese peanut vendor in our section and my mother would be ready to leave.  I don't think I saw an entire game from start to finish until 7th or 8th grade. 

By the time I graduated from high school and went to Georgetown in the fall of 1992, the Pirates had become a contender in the NL East and had made two trips to the NLCS.  All of Pittsburgh knew that the the 1992 Pirates were our last chance for a World Series appearance for a long time.  My freshman year roommate was a guy from Atlanta named Mark.  We didn't get along, and the 1992 NLCS between the Braves and the Pirates didn't help our relationship.  Everyone on the 1st floor of Darnall Hall watched Game 7 of the NLCS in the lounge.  When the Braves' Francisco Cabrera got the game-winning hit and Sid Bream scored, everyone in the room cheered for the Braves.  I was alone in my suffering as I watched the Pirates react, unable to believe what had just happened.  To add insult to injury, Mark led a victory parade up and down the hall.  The Pirates broke my heart that night.

Since 1992, the Pirates have given me few reasons to hope for another appearance in the NLCS.  There have been five-year-plans that have lasted for eight.  There have been bad trades and terrible free agent signings.  Ownership has failed to show anything resembling a commitment to putting a winning team on the field.  The Pirates moved into a gorgeous new stadium in 2001, among the best in baseball, yet the product on the field has been mediocre and sometimes atrocious.  I've had no incentive to follow the team.  I even bought a Mets cap a few years ago when they were hot and I went to a few games at Shea.  I considered giving up on the Pirates and going all-in for the Mets.

But I refuse to abandon my hometown team.  I can't deny being a Pirates fan any more than I could deny that I love Mahler's symphonies.  And now that I have baseball writers, bloggers, and fans among my friends, I don't want to be left out of the sports conversation all summer.  So this season I'm going to make a real commitment to following baseball.  I can't promise that I'll love it the way so many of my friends do.  But I'll try to watch games with more than just a casual interest.  I'll keep track of how the Pirates are doing, even if they swoon in the middle of the summer.  And when I go to Pittsburgh in August for a game, I'll know who the players are, how well they're hitting, and what the pitchers' records are.  This much I will do.

OK, baseball: are we cool?  As for the Pirates: don't disappoint me again.  I'm not asking for a World Series ring.  I'll take a .500 season.

What's with all the Knicks photos?

I've been to two New York Knicks games in the past five days.  Before this week I hadn't been to a Knicks game since 2007 and had little interest in the team since they are usually cover-your-eyes terrible.  But a combination of a tweetup on Saturday evening and complimentary tickets for last night's game got me to the Garden twice in a week.  Saturday's game included a halftime show featuring members of the Sugar Hill Gang as part of "Old School Night."  And last night I got to meet Earl "The Pearl" Monroe before the game and get his autograph.  Unfortunately, my knowledge of the Knicks before 1993 is spotty, so I had to re-read Bill Simmons' chapter on Monroe before the game and watch some of his highlights on YouTube so I'd know a few things about him.  Important note: Monroe attended Winston-Salem State University, not Syracuse.

Also, I now own two Knicks t-shirts courtesy of giveaways for the events before each game, which is two more Knicks-related items of clothing than I had before Saturday.  If the Knicks ever become a good team again, I will be able to declare my casual interest proudly and at no cost whatsoever.