Sunday, October 12, 2014

That’s Damn Rock & Roll


Eric Church in Pittsburgh



When musicians and their team sit down to start planning a new tour, one of three things will result: either the show they stage will be basically the same show they’ve run before using the same stage set-up and basic set list to reduce everyone’s time, money and stress (think Tim McGraw); the show will employ the same technology and set-up that has become the standard for such tours (big back screen, big amps, some kind of multi-level stage arrangement) (think Rascal Flatts); or they will completely go out on a limb and reinvent how an audience can see the show (think Brad Paisley). In recent years the difference between acts who invest thought into their lighting and screen imagery and those who don’t has become clear; the latter use random geometric patterns or old video footage to play alongside the live action, while the former design and incorporate the screens for a more encompassing and tightly synched audio-visual entertainment. This can be especially big issue if a band returns to the same audience pool year after year with the same old show — it looks and feels tired.

When Eric Church sat down to design this tour, someone must have said something along these lines: instead of erecting our set behind a big curtain while the crowd waits after the opening act leaves the stage, and then turning the house lights out when the band goes on for a splashy POW moment, why don’t we just clear off the opening act’s equipment and leave a completely empty stage? The crowd will be puzzled at first, and then grow massively excited trying to figure out how on earth the band will get on stage!

And then someone else must have said: OK, let’s do it.

The Inky Jukebox is here to say it worked. Church and his axe men strode out to mics, while the drum kit and drummer lowered from the roof of the arena to a pretzel-type stage set amidst the audience at one end of the floor. What this set-up allowed was for a dazzling array of lighting effects to go into effect – both from the stage itself and from above, in a series of lights that were raised and lowered like giant cage bars made of translucent color. The screen, such as it was, and speakers sat above the stage, small and four-sided, so everyone could get a view.

The result was a dynamic and exciting set. The only drawback was for the fans seated in the arena’s upper decks, for whom the small screens were mostly obscured, resulting in our not being able to see any of the performers in any detail at all — they remained tiny figures for the entire show. At least big screens can let those fans see a singer’s face once in a while. And while we’re at it, the multi-direction speakers delivered a lot of muffled sound that appeared to pick up and incorporate echoes due to its central location; anything less than very clear enunciation got lost. While this aspect wasn’t so bad for Church himself, it was a disaster for Dwight Yoakam, whose style didn’t lend itself to this set-up at all. Mostly he sounded like someone who doesn’t know the lyrics making speech-like sounds in their place, which is surely not the case.

About Church’s show: suffice it to say that it was, as he promised, “the shit.” Church is practiced enough of a performer to deliver a tight, loud, musical, crowd-pleasing entertainment package as anyone you will ever see. The addition of Joanna Cotten to provide her inimitable backing vocals and duet services is a delight (girl can wail).


Also: Church played “Carolina,” a song The Inky Jukebox never thought she’d hear him sing and had all but given up on. SCORE!

The Inky Jukebox has just a few observations, this being her fifth Church show.

1) Church played all the usual suspects form his back catalogue EXCEPT “Love Your Love The Most,” which is also conspicuously missing from his live album. What gives?

2) It would have been great to hear some songs from The Outsiders which are possibly AMAZING live, such as: “Roller Coaster Ride,” “Like A Wrecking Ball,” and “The Joint.” What gives?


3) While it is cute and possibly dangerous to commit to play a song an audience member picks, it can backfire spectacularly, and not in the way you might expect: sure, you could forget the words or someone could pick a lesser-known song from the Caldwell County EP — or someone could pick their own personal favorite song, which also happens to be a song you’ve played a ZILLION times at every show. The crowd, which has the possibility of a delightful surprise ahead of them (what will he play? Something obscure? Something he doesn’t usually play and which I’ve never heard him do live?) can grow disgruntled if it seems like a wasted opportunity (as it was in Pittsburgh last night). What gives?

4) Encores. Audiences expect them. Towards the end of a show, the audience will start thinking about what song(s) they are going to be treated to as an encore. Sure, ending with “Springsteen” makes for a good show-ender (it was what he ended the last tour with), but with no especially different treatment than any other big hit, and no indication that this would be the last song, it is a bit confusing when the house lights go on signaling, unexpectedly, the end. No band introductions? No particular thank you to the crowd? No take-a-bow? What gives?


All of this being said, Eric Church is an artist at the top of his game, and puts on a hell of a show. See him at all costs.

SET LIST (In no particular order)

Sinners Like Me

Sinners Like Me
Pledge Allegiance to ht Hag
Before She Does
These Boots
Guys Like Me

Carolina

Carolina
Lotta Boot Left To Fill
Smoke a Little Smoke

Chief

Country Music Jesus
Jack Daniels
Springsteen
I’m Getting Stoned
Homeboy
Drink in my Hand
Creepin’
Over When It’s Over

The Outsiders

The Outsiders
That’s Damn Rock and Roll
Dark Side
Devil Devil
Give me Back my Hometown
Talladega
Cold One

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sheryl Crow Rocks



The breakout star of last night’s Rascal Flatts show at Burgettstown turns out to be someone who’s already had, in her own words, “a long career.” While the Flatts put on their usual slickly produced modern country / aw shucks revival spectacle, it was Ms. Crow’s opening hour-long set which made the price of admission seem cheap. By the time she came onstage, the sun’s last glow had all but dropped from the sky, and the massive crowd was in place, tailgating having wrapped up early due to the drizzle. If Crow thought “this is a perfect opportunity to blow the lid off this joint,” she was right. And she did.

It is no secret that Sheryl Crow has given up the pretense of being anything other than a country singer in recent years. Perhaps this is because country music has expanded to include her kind of sound in its ever-widening definition of the genre. Listening to her deliver classics from deep in her catalogue last night made The Inky Jukebox hear them in a new light, where they sounded fresh and relevant — the sing of a good song if ever there was one. In particular was an exquisite version of “Redemption Day,” which likely only those as old as Crow in the audience will recall from her early work, but which was recorded by Johnny Cash late in his life and only recently released. His vocal made an appearance for a verse, and it didn’t seem at all forced or sentimental. It was during this song that Crow also demonstrated one of what would be many subtle examples of her experience and professionalism as a performer, when she gentled the song down to whisper-level, the crowd completely rapt, before ramping it up with emotion once again.


It was this display of utter confidence as an entertainer that impressed and surprised The Inky Jukebox the most. Crow treads the stage with aplomb, and lets her astounding range and vocal acuity free to improvise the way good singers know they can, the band completely behind her. She plays a mean guitar, but a meaner harmonica. Oh Lordy, can she wield that thing like a blues master — at one point breaking “Best of Times" down into one long rollicking harmonica-driven train ride hurtling the song and the crowd down tracks to who knows where; no-one cared; it was great.


Crow appeared to really be having fun up there, and the crowd was on its feet dancing and applauding loudly after each song. She looked in fine form physically and stylistically too; many a younger female singer could take a page from her book. When she re-appeared later on to perform two songs with Rascal Flatts, she added a bit of much-needed sexy spark to what always feels a bit over-rehearsed when it comes to their “ad-lib” sections.


If you have the chance to go see her, do. She’s better in person that on record, which is saying something.



Monday, July 28, 2014

The Grabby Problem (and Mr. Velvet Hands)

A fan grabbing some ass. Looks like she’s married too. 

So you spend a small fortune on a concert ticket in the pit next to the stage — why? You won’t be far enough from the stage to get a good look at it; your entire view will be of the legs of the performers, and a severely telescoped look at their heads. Your view will be impeded by a forest of hands holding up phones. The sound will not be engineered to resonate well at this distance. You will not be able to sit down. You will be squashed. You do it for proximity: the opportunity to make physical contact with the star.

Everyone on the economic end of the concert experience knows this; it’s why the star will devote considerable time during the show to slapping hands with those in the front rows. Some will even sit down on the edge of the stage to sing a song or two, legs dangling perilously among the fans. Stages are designed to facilitate this, with their promontories stretching out in configurations allowing for maximum front-row exposure.

And if you weren’t quite close enough to shake hands during the show, or just missed by an inch? Then if you hang around afterwards, chances are the star will too, staying to sign autographs as the house lights come up and the crowd files out.

It’s one of the big perks of the ticket price. But has the expectation of physical contact become so de rigueur that it seems a right to those who pay for the privilege? If you’re an excited, perhaps tipsy lady with a powerful crush on the star, where do you draw the line between being satisfied with the momentary hand touch and a full-on grope? What if you have the opportunity, and could reach the denim-clad crown jewels, say — the bull’s-eye — would you? And if you’re the star, how close do you let the ladies get to your wedding tackle? The Inky Jukebox has seen phone footage of the crotches of singers so close to the lens that surely, surely, such an opportunistic grope would have been not only possible, but possibly invited.

Some entertainers have reached a point in their careers where this sort of thing — the grabby problem — is a known issue. Tim McGraw, for example. There was the famous incident in which his wife, Faith Hill, freaked out on a grabby fan after she groped him onstage. There was a mixed reaction: on the one hand, folks thought Faith was being a tad Mama Bear in going after the fan; on the other, folks wondered why Tim himself didn’t respond in the same way.


Skip forward a few years, and here we are again: some woman makes a grab for McGraw’s well-muscled leg (and more?) — but this time, his wife isn’t around to kick ass, so he swats the offending  intrusion away. The trouble is, he makes contact with the woman’s face instead of her hand. And all hell breaks loose. Did he intend to slap a bitch? Of course not. He’s in the middle of a song. Did he do what he felt was immediately necessary to extricate himself? Yes. Case closed. The woman, however, is gunning for revenge (or an apology and cash), for the humiliation. Let’s get this clear: she reached for him, first, not the other way around. Case closed.


Tim McGraw is a veteran performer; he never fails to tell the audience this, as if anyone in the crowd didn’t already know. He is fully aware of what the ladies want. They want to touch his crotch. They want a “Real Good Man.” They do not want “Truck Yeah” or “Mexicoma” to make a set list ever again.

The Inky Jukebox has witnessed McGraw interrupt a show to ask fans to remove their beers from the stage. He cited safety reasons. The fans at McGraw shows are humped so close to the stage upon which he struts that there is nowhere else for them to rest their beers.

Does this mean Tim McGraw must now push his stage back to create distance between him and his fans? Does it mean no more hand-slapping during shows? Or does it mean that people need to respect the basic social boundaries that prevent us from grabbing at what we want whether we're in the front row of a show or at the supermarket?

Sometimes, an iPhone crotch-cam close-up has to be enough to satisfy. Gentlemen: take heed. Except Luke Bryan. Dude already has that angle covered.


(And Justin Moore: don’t stop. OK, you play bigger venues now, and have three kids. But still.)

Whoa, lady! What you grabbin’ at? (Picture cropped.)






Thursday, July 17, 2014

Rascal Flatts (A Little Too Fabulous!)

Come hither. Moody. Smoldering. Cock your pinkie. Forget the camera’s there. Or not. 

Rascal Flatts are known for making crisp, impeccably arranged country pop songs of a squeaky clean nature. The trio can play and can sing. They are consummate musicians. Every now and then a song of theirs will hit every single target on a made-for-radio cheat sheet: melody, lyric, composition, emotion, catchiness, punching the money notes, and their secret weapon: Gary Le Vox’s ability to skewer the sweet note right in the gonads at just the right moment so that it rings in your ears and brain like a temple bell. These are not notes a normal mortal person can hit; nor are they merely notes on a scale. They are the note plus the right timbre. What Rascal Flatts doesn’t need is studio tweaking (even though their recordings sound as polished as glass).

And yet someone thinks that what the group lacks in musical polish they need to make up for in visual buffing. Case in point: the liner notes for Rewind.

We’re just casually sitting here, legs akimbo, pondering this shotoshoot.

The album is liberally decorated with artfully arranged shots of all three men assuming poses that would not be out of place in a 1970s swimwear catalogue. If there’s a chummy male smoldering look they haven’t gone for, it doesn’t exist.

Three beefcheeses on a leather sofa on a riser just hanging out the way men do. 

Dudes don’t usually adopt these stances, and when they do — on a dare, say — and the results captured on camera and then shown to other people, they die of embarrassment. Gary, Joe Don and Jay all vie for the cringeworthy crown — with Joe Don leading the field due to his hair game, meticulously and impossibly coiffed and highlighted in such a way that his chin bristle struggles to remind us he’s a man. Don’t even mention the teefs.

The wonders of Photoshoppe made this “group” shot possible! 

Look: The Inky Jukebox loves the Flatts — they are essential when it comes to singing along loudly in your car — but Good Lord, Big Machine: lay off the Photoshoppe (misspelling intended), and hire a less flamboyant Art Director will ya? (Even if that means firing your wife.)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Luke Bryan’s Great Show Overshadowed by Trashtalk

Trashgate 2014: Oh, the Humanity! 


This is what the stadium looked like BEFORE the tailgaters filled the stadium

On June 21, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Lee Brice and Cole Swindell rolled into town looking to party —and party they did, delivering a rippingly entertaining evening of music to a record-breaking crowd of happy fans. This was Bryan’s first stadium show as a headliner, and as such promised to be something memorable: what would he do, given the enormity of the venue and occasion?

Luke Bryan with rally cap on

Rise up out of the ground astride a stuck? Punctuate hit songs with fire works? Invite each one of his opening acts onstage for a special duet? Yes to all of the above. As far as The Inky Jukebox is concerned, pretty much every one of the 53,000 fans had an awesome time. Did a few get drunk? Why yes they did. Had many been holding their own parking lot parties all day? Why yes they had.

Luke Bryan doing a little drinking of his own

The only thing you’ll hear or read about the concert is the furor generated by the trash left in the pre-paid lots in a city still reeling, apparently, with high dudgeon over last year’s Kenny Chesney show. The trash, however, is not what should be causing outrage here: it’s the complete loss of journalistic integrity and ignorant bandwagon-jumping by people who ought to know better and who weren’t there.

Lee Brice, Mr. "Parking Lot Party"

The Inky Jukebox is appalled to find that some of her fellow Pittsburghers and online friends of friends have gone so far (into their own sense of moral outrage) to call for a ban on drinking and concerts in the city, a special tax on anyone entering the city, and for country music fans to leave town. Can you HEAR yourselves, y’all? Seriously? The only shit that needs to stop RIGHT NOW is this nonsense.

Dierks Bentley, Mr. "Drunk on a Plane"

Here is a list of considerations the Trash-Talkers have failed to educate themselves about concerning this concert.

The notion that plenty of concerts are held at Heinz Field (home of the Steelers), and only country music fans desecrate the parking lots.

Actually, Heinz Field has only seen five concerts in the past three years: Kenny Chesney (twice); Taylor Swift (twice); and Luke Bryan. As far as The Inky Jukebox can tell, all of these acts are Country. I don't recall people complaining about Taylor Swift tailgaters. 

Only people not from Pittsburgh attend these shows. Only people from Pittsburgh attend these shows. No Steelers fans attend these shows.

All three are dead wrong. The summer shows at Heinz Field attract an enormous fan base for country music that stretches from Philadelphia to Columbus, Cleveland and down to West Virginia. Not all stadium acts perform at other venues. The crowd consists of people who have driven a LONG way to be here; sailed up and down river to be here, and include a large proportion of Steelers fans. Many of these fans appreciated the tribute to the late Chuck Noll that Bryan thoughtfully included in his show.

This was a run-of-the-mill show.

No it wasn’t: it’s the only show at Heinz field this year (Chesney and Swift aren’t touring, and it was the biggest-ever crowd Heinz Field has EVER had for a concert. It was also Luke Bryan’s first EVER stadium show, and therefore of some historic significance that drew an unusually large crowd from far afield.

All the parking lots in downtown Pittsburgh and which service the stadium were completely trashed by reckless, irresponsible rednecks.

Not so. Only the PRE-PAID stadium lots had a trash problem; they were the lots designated for TAILGATING, a great American tradition engaged in not only by country fans, but by concert-goers and sports fans EVERYWHERE, including STEELERS FANS AND PANTHER FANS AT HEINZ FIELD IN THE FOOTBALL SEASON. In order to manage the inflow of traffic from 53,000 people in a city with Pittsburgh’s topography, it makes sense to designate parking lots for those who are coming from afar and who pay for the privilege of parking in advance with their ticket. These lots open at 9AM, and come with rules which fans are made aware of. They include directions about trash collection, and specifically close in time to allow workers to begin trash clean-up during the show. Parkers are not only invited and expected to tailgate, but they are told that the parking lot authorities will be cleaning up.

Concert-goers have no idea what to do with their trash, so, not caring, they leave it everywhere.

Pre-paid Lot parkers are given two garbage bags when they enter the Lot: one for recyclables, and one for garbage. These they leave by their vehicle when they enter the show, so that the crew can take them away. However, the crew have nowhere to put them, because dumpsters – or enough dumpsters - have not been provided. Therefore, they pile up near the exits. When cars leave, they run over bags, splitting them, and scattering trash.

Concert-goers are riotous drunken rednecks who should not be allowed near a civilized city.

Tailgaters are there to party. They grill food; they drink beers; they play games. They listen to music. They have fun. This is what tailgaters of every stripe do. The tailgaters at Luke Bryan’s show (and Kenny Chesney’s shows) have been there since 9AM when the Lots open, partying. By the time they have to leave the Lot at 8PM, they have been at it for 11 straight hours. People generate a lot of trash in confined spaces over 11 hours. They drink a lot of beer.

Country music fans urinate everywhere like pigs.

If you have been drinking beer for 11 hours, wouldn’t you have to pee? Even if you’d only had one beer, or a glass of lemonade, or even water — over the course of 11 hours, wouldn’t you have to pee? No matter how old you were, wouldn’t you have to pee? And where would you go? The Lot authorities didn’t provide enough port-a-johns to service 53,000 people. That’s a fact. Lines were long and the average wait was 45 minutes. Hold it for 45 minutes and tell me you wouldn’t pee wherever you could. Ten arrests were made for public urination. Only ten!!!!

Drunken country music fans got fisty.

True, several fans got into fights. Hey; they’d been drinking. The same can be said of any football game on any given weekend.

Why didn’t these hooligans transport their own trash home with them?

There is no room in the trunk for bags of trash after you’ve put the folding table and chairs in your trunk, and the cooler and the grill. Leaving sticky bags of liquid and food garbage in your locked car for several hours in the midsummer heat won’t make your car smell nice when you drive home.

Surely there is room in an RV for trash.

RVs weren’t allowed in the lots. Only passenger cars.

The Police were there to help.

There was a huge Police presence at the show. The Inky Jukebox spent an hour after it ended watching them stand around doing nothing to assist a horrible traffic situation caused by people trying to exit lots into the highway entrance lanes, causing gridlock. This caused people in trucks to circumvent the exits and drive over trash bags in the dark.



It was Luke Bryan’s fault.

Get real.

Dierks expresses how we all feel

Also bear in mind that, as the Mayor admitted, all of the lots were cleaned “spotless” by 10AM the next morning, by workers paid to do so. The stadium lots are not themselves in residential neighborhoods; who was inconvenienced? I am sure the tax-paying city workers who earned overtime were glad to make a bit of cash. I am sure the City itself was glad of the fee it charged the promoter to host the concert. I am sure Heinz Field vendors made bank. I am certain the bars and restaurants in the area all did smashing business. The Pittsburgh Parking Authority cashed in on all that downtown parking.

I know that no-one to whom this post is aimed will likely read it, but someone has to offer a counterpoint to the crazy-ass blown-out-of-proportion incendiary and utterly biased reporting (and posting, and re-posting) that’s going on out there. Get it together, Pittsburgh.

The End.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Eric Church: The Outsider Who Came in From The Cold




At exactly the one-minute mark of the song “Broke Record,” perceptive listeners will notice Eric Church’s inside joke — the record skips. Deliberately. Of course, it isn’t a record and cannot skip; the glitch has been built in digitally. But look at the song’s title — perfect.

It’s just this sort of smart musicianship that makes The Outsiders, his wildly adventurous latest album, a mind-blower that rewards both those fans who have followed his particular brand of musical expression since the beginning, as well as those persuaded to check him out because he’s become Rolling Stone’s country darling.

If there’s anything that even a first listen of this album will tell you is that it’s not business as usual. It transcends genre, for one thing. Sure, Church is unabashedly a country artist — but the independence he’s insisted on during his career has paid off in having the cajones to release a record who pays dues to no-one. Notice is given immediately in the opening title track, which rattles with metal guitar riffs and overlays, soaring after a particularly sexy guitar rip that practically says “we ain’t done yet, no sir.”


“Wrecking Ball” delivers heat through a vocal track high on reverb, complete with a Hammond C-3 accompaniment which strongly recalls Procol Harem’s “White Shade of Pale.”

"Roller Coaster Ride" includes pure synth touches and ugly low-key piano before lifting us up on a rise that pops your stomach the way a real roller coaster does. 

There’s a spoken word intro to “Devil Devil,” a cautionary tale, which was recorded in a parking lot on a phone.

Any song titled “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” requires a kick-ass female voice wailing in the background, and this one has it in Joanna Cotton’s gutsy vocal. The Rock & Roll featured here is reminiscent of glam rock in the best possible way.

“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” “Dark Side,” and Talladega” are all classic acoustic Eric Church songs whose storytelling and exquisite guitar playing are beautiful.

“Give Me Back My Hometown” is an obvious single which seems to pay homage to U2’s big anthemic sound.

The last track, “The Joint” is about as close as you can get to David Essex’s iconic 1973 hit “Rock On” as it’s possible to get without paying royalties. This album goes beyond Chief’s “Smoke A Little Smoke” / “Jack Daniels” ethos by actually taking us into that woozy cloud. The way-slow reggae trombone is a touch of genius. Listen on headphones.

One of the best compliments The Inky Jukebox can pay this album is that it sounds like no other. It forges completely new ground. It is transcendent. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Grammys 21014 Recap

Grammys 2014

The Grammys can be a mixed bag when it comes to live performances: with such a large stage, some acts really go all-out and create unforgettable and even career-building moments, while others aim a little too high and crash and burn. Complicating the mix is the production, which might cut your performance short or juxtapose you with an entirely unrelated genre.

Last night's Grammys were no different. The great performances were great; the awful performances were awful; and in-between there were real duds performed by surviving Beatles who really ought to demur and gracefully turn down the self-indulgent airtime. McCartney is no longer writing good music. Let it be, eh, Paul?

First, the duds: Lorde looked ghoulish and her herky-jerky dance style made it look like she was always on the verge of tossing her cookies. Ringo sang the extremely tired "Photograph" while doing what looked like a circulation-stimulation shuffle at the Old People's Home. It's Ringo, people. And Madonna looked like a hobbling cautionary tale all gaudied up in her suits and hats and pimp cane. What happened to British Madge? Wigger Madge ate her. Shiver.

Now the stars: Because this is the Inky Jukebox, we'll focus on the way Country represented, and boy, did they. Keith Urban showed all the haters why it's good to have real musicians who know about music as American Idol judges. Now, all he has to do is work on his sad hair situation, pronto.


Hunter Hayes showed the young'uns what a genuine talent is — including stage presence — and he didn't even pick up a guitar! Rolling Stone dissed him for the trite quotations that loomed large in the background, but that might not have been his idea, y'know?


And we don't care how much people make fun of Taylor Swift — girlfriend can deliver a performance like this in a ballgown and heels, y'all. Apart from winning the Red Carpet in her sparkly gown, she also reminded us that this is a concert, and got up and danced. Ain't no lip-synching here (Beyonce).


Kacey Musgraves was cute as a button in her throwback rockahillbilly outfit and neon cacti, but we wonder who was still watching as her spot fell hard upon Imagine Dragons's supersonic set. Congrats, by the way, on that whole Album of the Year thing. A very Grammy idea of country music.


The Willie / Merle / Kris / Blake quartet was quite lovely too — even if it rolled out the same old tired notion that a genre named "Country & Western" still exists and is populated by old men in cowboy hats and bolero ties called "Highwaymen."Eric Church — wherefore wert thou? 

Finally - can we persuade John Legend to try Nashville?