Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

News Flash: Genesis to Re-Form?

Not a joke. Not a rumor. Not a hoax. And no, we are not in the Matrix. Contact Music article!

Un-flipping-believable. If I had to make a list of bands I thought least likely to re-form, Genesis would be at the very top. But apparently there's going to be an announcement in Los Angeles some time today--today!--that Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, and possibly Steve Hackett will be re-forming to record a new album and tour. This announcement comes just three months after the terse notice on the band's official website that not only is this not happening, but that nothing even remotely like it will be happening for at least twelve months.

So here's the real issue. Genesis reunion: good or bad ideamu?

Old prog-rockers don't have the best track record of recapturing the 1970s magic.

Yes had a very nice re-awakening in the 1980s with Trevor Rabin and "Owner of a Lonely Heart." 90125 is a great album by any standard, progressive or pop. But the efforts since then have been spotty, at best. Big Generator is largely forgettable, and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and Union have a couple really nice moments. Everything since then is completely uninteresting to my ears. Open Your Eyes is 18 bucks I'll never get back, the studio material from Keys to Ascension just bores me to the point of pain, and The Ladder has exactly one song I like: the title track. And how many times has Rick Wakeman quit and re-joined the band? I swear, he's like a yo-yo with twelve fingers.

Rush have their devoted following, but I haven't bought an album since like 1991. "Show Don't Tell" was a good song, but I have no idea what happened to them afterward.

What the heck ever happened to Renaissance? Annie Haslam recorded a couple neat covers on some Magna Carta tribute albums in the 1990s (Yes' "Turn of the Century" and Genesis' "Ripples"), and her voice is still gorgeous, but where did she go?

Emerson, Lake and Palmer have been a shadow of their former selves since about 1977, and apparently Emerson's hands are so damaged that he can't play any more. That just breaks my heart in pieces. For the record, I really liked Black Moon.

King Crimson is, well, King Crimson. Their albums post-1980 are all vastly more interesting and listenable than anything of theirs from the 1960s or '70s, but their rebirths have been less about recapturing old-school magic than about pushing the envelope past the shredding point. Actually, they may be the most artistically honest and successful continuously-recording prog-rock band ever; they're so prog that it's not even rock anymore. But they're broken up. Again.

The one really notable exception is Kansas, who have not only retained a faithful cult following (particularly in Pittsburgh), but who reunited the entire original lineup for a magnificent Kerry Livgren-penned album called Somewhere to Elsewhere a few years ago. For the record, my brothers John and Peter, whom I was sure would love this album, absolutely hated it. I think it's the band's best album, and the one time a band from the '70s has actually been able to recapture the magic of their heyday while still showing that they've grown in the meantime.

(Incidentally, you want to hear some really good prog rock? Dream Theater are the heirs to everything you loved about Yes, Genesis, and ELP in the '70s, but they're even better musicians. Mike Portnoy may be the best drummer I've ever heard. Do yourself a favor: go out and get Octavarium and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence right now, today. Caution: it's very very loud and heavy.)

Which brings us back to Genesis, a band with one of the weirdest stories ever. After years of plugging away, they finally hit mega-stardom with 1974's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, only to have their frontman leave, resulting in... far greater mega-stardom, strangely enough. Peter Gabriel's solo career speaks for itself; album after album of innovation and brilliance culminating in 2002's long-awaited Up, which I consider to be his masterpiece. Guitarist Steve Hackett has evolved as well, releasing magnificent prog-guitar works and symphonic pieces, achieving UK fame that US audiences haven't a clue about.

Paralleling Gabriel's and Hackett's uncompromising nonconformism, Genesis became more and more mainstream, churning out multi-platinum albums like Genesis, Invisible Touch, and We Can't Dance, gleefully sacrificing the prog purists for new generations of pop fans--and more power to them; no judging here. While Mike Rutherford had modest success with Mike and the Mechanics and band MVP Tony Banks toiled in solo obscurity, Phil Collins became the biggest star of the five of them, releasing a series of drum-heavy pop albums ornamented with unasked-for closeups of his face on the covers. Actually, Face Value and No Jacket Required are as imaginative and progressive as anything Genesis was recording at the time, but it is often difficult to distinguish between Genesis and Collins solo tunes from the 1978-84 period. "The Roof is Leaking" sounds like it should be on Duke, and "Paperlate" is rather Hello, I Must Be Going.

It's very hard for me to imagine this reunion working at all. Gabriel and Collins have remained close friends, but their recent styles are very different. I'm not just talking about songwriting styles, I'm talking about Peter Gabriel taking ten years to record Up, much of which was spent "assembling sounds." (No fooling, that's a quote from PG's website around 1999: the album isn't close to being ready because they're still "assembling sounds." I think Collins released sixteen albums between 1992 and 2002. Gabriel was "assembling sounds.")

Meanwhile, Banks and Rutherford seem to be the spine of Genesis, but they tried releasing an album without Collins in the mid-'90s called Calling All Stations which was the biggest flop since Hudson Hawk. (A movie I really liked, by the way. What does that say about me?) Hey, guys: calling all stations! two-fifths of Genesis isn't really very much of Genesis. Maybe they should have called it And Then There Were Two, and had Rutherford sing.

Hackett may be the most enigmatic of the bunch, and his releases have been the most classic-Genesis-like of all. He even recorded a "Genesis Revisited" album in 1996 called Watcher of the Skies, featuring an unrecorded Hackett-Gabriel song from 1973, two new instrumentals, and loads of old Genesis stuff seen through fresh eyes. Some of the recordings on Watcher approach or even surpass the originals, in my opinion, including the definitive recording of "The Fountain of Salmacis" and a moving pure-pop "Your Own Special Way" sung by the amazing Paul Carrack.

While I love the idea of Hackett and Gabriel re-connecting, I'm having a really hard time getting a mental picture of what a 2006 Genesis reunion album would sound like. And I'm having an even harder time imagining Peter and Steve, so accustomed to the complete control of solo stardom and so unaccustomed to being in a band, being effective collaborators. Collins, Rutherford, and Banks haven't worked together in a few years, but at least it's been somewhat recently. Maybe I'm excessively pessimistic, but the sonic image in my head is much closer to the bad songs on The White Album than a unified piece like Selling England by the Pound.

Of course, I'm still going to buy it the day it comes out, and I'm already putting money aside for concert tickets...

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Concert Review: Jonah Werner

Nothing on stage but little, unshaven Jonah Werner, one guitar, one mike, and a roomful of stories and personality. And it's more than enough for a whole evening.

Jonah appeared at Christ Church Episcopal in Richmond, VA at 6:30 on Sunday, March 12, booked hastily by youth minister Jake Womack and well worth coming out on a Sunday evening for. His show ran just under ninety minutes, a non-stop hour and a half of songs and stories, upbeat and funny, peppered with pop culture and just enough evangelism to give it spice.

Jonah's style is a genre-defying acoustic folk-pop, often reminiscent of Barenaked Ladies at their best, extremely wordy and almost--almost--too smart. He squeezes his eyes shut, turning his face toward the ceiling and singing with the pure joy of getting to be a professional musician, then turns his eyes on his audience and bares his life for you with keen insight and flawless comic timing. From tracing the stages of adolescent romance ("friendationship" through "elationship" through "communicationship" and years past that long-regretted breakup), Jonah progressed into stories about his girl's spiritual awakening, into college, and back into childhood.

There's a thread of silly adolescent romance throughout his repertoire, a bit like Reggie and the Full Effect unplugged. Yes, Jonah's a Christian, evident throughout the show but not imposing, intimidating, or insistent. I'm sure he gets criticism from more conservative religious critics for the largely secular-comic nature of his show. He even has the gall to comment on the fact that a guy might like to watch the way a woman looks and moves--scandalous! But his largely teenaged audience relates, and the older audience members can remember what it was like.

As a budding acoustic guitarist myself, I noted Jonah's constant use of capo and unusual tunings, techniques I've always thought of as "cheating." I've been capoing every other song for a couple years now, and Jonah's got me thinking about tunings anew. His musicianship alone is worth coming to see him. Jonah coaxes, connives, and finally pounds an entire ensemble out of that little instrument: bass, drums, rhythms, and melodies emerge singularly or together, often while Jonah is telling a joke at the same time. The chord progressions start to get predictable and repetitive, and I craved a song or two of a more introspective nature, and the structure of the evening seemed a bit scattershot. But the similarity of the songs and consistency of the tone made for a remarkably even and theatrical set. Frankly, I can't fault Jonah for not being the kind of artist I would be in the same position. And when he started tapping the strings like Phil Keaggy, I was entirely sold.

Here at the PRM Command Center, we have no hesitation in promoting products, services, organizations, or people we approve of. Jonah Werner is such a product, a guaranteed home-run for the high school-college Napoleon Dynamite-Homestar Runner crowd, and delightful for their parents as well. Book him for your youth group. Now. But stretch out your face muscles before you go to the show, though: you're gonna be smiling and laughing a lot.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Award shows are the anti-art

What is it about an artist's work that makes it superior to another artist's work?

Is it the amount of time and effort a director pours into his project, evidenced by lost weight and grey hair?

Is it the level of research a designer does into a time period and the amount of fine detail?

Is it the complete transformation an actor makes into her role?

Is it critical acclaim, the amount of enthusiasm with which thumbs were raised?

Or is it the bottom line: box-office receipts?

Well, it's Oscar season, and my fellow performing artists are going to be staying up past their bedtimes tonight, giddy with anticipation and wondering which of this year's uber-politically-correct-films-that-most-Americans-didn't-see will win. As for me, I'll be sleeping when Brokeback Mountain wins its big award, or possibly reading old issues of Thunderbolts while listening to Dream Theater.

Why all this vitriol, or at least disinterest? Because artistic award shows offend me as an artist. That's right, I said "offend," a word I don't use very often, but which I throw down here with no hesitation.

Art is not sports. There's no "winner." In fact, it's pretty obnoxious to say someone's art is "better" or "worse" than someone else's at all, much less claiming their work to be "the best." (For the record, Pat's the best.™) Different artists make different choices, they have different agendas, and they have different tools to work with. Is the The Garden of Delights better than the Last Supper? Is Rodin's Burghers of Calais superior to Michaelengelo's David? They're all trying to accomplish different ends through different means, and presuming to deduce which is the "best" is absurd at best and profoundly arrogant at worst. Every artistic endeavor is inherently different from every other one, and there is precious little objective "quality" to be described.

Even if there was an objective standard by which individual art could be defined, it would be impossible to separate performances from their context. Every effective acting performance I've ever seen has been the result of an ensemble of other committed actors, most have been made possible by a sophisticated script, all have been profoundly influenced by a strong director's crafting, and most have been assisted by the environment of setting, costume, and makeup. I'm looking at you, Sean Astin in Return of the King. At least the SAG Awards have a "Best Ensemble" award. Contrarily, how many fine actors (Natalie Portman) have been hung out to dry by directors for whom the acting is a low storytelling priority (George Lucas)? The Golden Globes and Academy Awards seem to think you can take the elements of filmmaking and separate them from each other like a scientist dissecting a dead rat to see what killed it. "And the Oscar for Best Spleen goes to..." Every performing-artistic endeavor is the result of collaboration and environment, and cannot be separated from its context for individual judgment.

This is all, of course, ignoring the biggest problem with the Oscars, and with almost all awards shows: the means by which awards are given. Who are the members of the Academy to be determining whether or not someone's art is successful, much less superior? The film wasn't made for them, it was made for the audience. All art is made for the audience, and only the audience has a right to judge its merits. Did the funny movie make you laugh? Did the tragic movie make you cry? Did the musical make you leave the cinema humming? Did the sci-fi-extravaganza make your kid beg for action figures and playsets? Then it was a success. At least the People's Choice Awards have the right people voting, and use the word "Favorite" on their honors.

The Oscars are unbelievably disingenuous: artists voting on which artists are the best, then charging millions of dollars for corporations to advertise in the middle of this mass-back-patting intellectual superiority festival while hyping it up for millions of audience members to watch. Hey, at least the audience got a little taste of the transaction at the back end there.

This year's Oscars are among the worst in recent memory. Not a single film up for Best Picture of the Year is even sniffing the upper eschelon of box office receipts for the year. Many of this year's nominees only played in large markets, where the most intellectually enlightened urbanites half-filled the art houses where they were screened. Not that this is easy to discover; the studios are very close-vested about releasing the numbers for several of these films. Hollywood doesn't want anyone knowing that Brokeback Mountain isn't the massive commercial crossover hit the Today show makes you think it is.

As a final note, how much money was spent on that dress? How many people could that money have fed today? Can we please take all this Entertainment Tonight / People Magazine attention and put it someplace that actually benefits someone who isn't already a millionaire?

Here are the movies from the past couple years that really moved me, that made me smile and feel warm, that made me cry, that made me angry, that lifted my heart: The Lord of the Rings, Napoleon Dynamite, Amelie, Spider-Man 2, The Road to Perdition, Sin City, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom of the Opera, The New World, Garden State, The Incredibles, Seabiscuit. Of these, my current favorites are probably Amelie, which made me laugh and cry with delight, Spider-Man 2, which was the most moving film I saw in all of 2004, Napoleon Dynamite, which restored my faith in youth, and The Lord of the Rings, which is without a doubt my favorite movie ever.

Yes, I know The Return of the King won 11 Oscars. But I wasn't watching. And I won't be watching this year.

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