Sunday, October 23, 2005

U2 and MCI: Wide Awake in the Nation’s Capital, 10.19.05//10.20.05

My general rule regarding two-night concert stands in any given city is simple: Always trust the second show. No matter the band, the first night is typically the standard, straightforward set the group has been perfecting the entire tour. Night 2 will usually have more variety, and the band tends to pull out the stops—and rare songs. So, give me the second night.
Unless, of course, I can go to both.
I was lucky enough this week to see U2’s two shows at the MCI Center. After purchasing general admission floor tickets for Night 2 way back in March, I managed to scoop up a single for Night 1 day of show through Ticketmaster (not a scalper), something I’d never tried before. Let’s be honest: This has basically been U2005 for me, and I didn’t want all that built-up angst and anticipation to ride on one night. And as this stop in the nation’s capital proved, it’s amazing how the vibe can change from one show to the next. Those little differences—they’re everything.
U2 has been at this playing live thing for a quarter century now, so they know their way around a venue. You could probably count the “off” nights for an entire tour on a few fingers—and we’re talking, what, 100-plus shows in 2005? That’s some feat. The band is always in search of the “perfect” setlist, with a precise placement of songs in order to create an overall theme and flow that sums up exactly where U2 is at this point in their career. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave much room for improvisation, the “tour debuts” so sought after by hardcore fans.
Wednesday night’s outing was essentially the “basic” Vertigo 2005 show, which is not a complaint. “Basic” by U2’s standards is what most bands could only hope for on their best-of-the-best days. From my stellar seat (20 rows up on Edge’s side at what would be center court for a Wizards game), I had a perfect vantage point for all that makes up this tour: The lights, the movement, etc. The stage setup is very similar to 2001’s Elevation tour, only this time the catwalk that extends out from either end of the stage into the center of the floor is rounded off rather than heart-shaped. (As a side note, this setup is pure genius on so many levels. It allows Bono—whose persona is too big for the venue, much less a stage—freedom to roam and spread his wings. Also, it breaks up the mob on the floor and relieves some of the pressure by essentially creating twice as many front-row “seats.” And it gives everyone something interesting to look at other than just lights and four guys standing on stage.)
Night 1 was standard U2 excellence. Bono’s voice really has undergone an amazing resurgence in the four years since the band toured in support of 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”; in fact, his voice actually gets stronger through the course of a show. Bono believes it was his father’s dying gift to his son, and who am I to argue? The visuals are great, with chandelier-style light fixtures hanging from the rafters alongside curtains of lights that drop periodically and are also capable of showing images. Meanwhile, the main stage has a bull’s-eye-type light pattern and the catwalk also has running lights. All in all, U2 has perfected their live presentation, combining elements of both the stripped-down early years as well as the glam ZooTV and PopMart shows into one healthy whole that summarizes their entire career and at the same time, with the addition of the catwalk, pushes them forward into new territory. As with the Elevation shows, here the production only enhances the music, rather than overwhelming it.
Since walking out of MCI Thursday night, the song I’ve listened to most often isn’t even from U2—it’s “Wake Up” by The Arcade Fire, which has got to be one of the best walk-on songs I’ve ever heard. The Fire’s riff blares out from the speakers as the house lights go down and the chandeliers light up in red, crowd going absolutely berserk. The eye is drawn to the stage, obviously, as Edge, Larry and Adam walk in and strap on under spotlights; however, who is that little man in sunglasses at the point of the ellipse? Oh, yes, there’s Bono, arms upraised in exultation as confetti drops from the rafters and Edge kicks into the opening strain of “City of Blinding Lights,” one of the best songs from U2’s latest album, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” When I first saw way back in the spring that U2 was using “City” as an opener I really didn’t understand why. It has a slow build and a spacious, “epic” quality that seemed suited more for a slot late in the first set, a la “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Of course, stupid me didn’t remember U2 used to open with “Streets” as well, and after seeing the way they choreograph their entrance, I can’t think of a better hello than “City”—everybody screaming “Oh! You look so BEAU-TI-FUL tonight!”
From there the show rockets into the stratosphere with a succession of uptempo rawkers. “Vertigo” is in the No. 2 slot, and it absolutely blows the doors off the building—one of the group’s best live songs, hands down. Couple that with another crowd-pleaser, “Elevation,” and back-to-back tracks from U2’s first album, “Boy” (wow, tagging the Who’s “See Me, Feel Me” at the end of “The Electric Co.” is a goosebump moment!) and I’m not sure how they can keep this pace up.
Turns out, they can’t.
The band takes a breather with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which is probably necessary after that initial missive (remember, these guys aren’t kids anymore), and serves the dual purpose of giving the audience a song everyone can (and does) sing along to. But the energy picks up again with the next couplet: the now classic “Beautiful Day” and its cousin from “Atomic Bomb,” “Miracle Drug.”
Here Bono ventures back out onto the catwalk for one of my personal favorites, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” dedicated to his father and one of the only songs in which the singer removes his trademark Bulgari sunglasses. This is one of the best moments in the entire show, because there’s always a bit of anxiety about whether Bono will actually be able to hit the operatic “SIIIIIIIIIIINNNNGGGG” during the climax. After staying off to the side of the ellipse for most of the song, Bono makes his way down to the point for this part and it seems as though he has to twist his whole body up and then explode outward in order to hit it, but somehow he does.
Bono is without question the most magnetic, dynamic frontman I’ve ever seen. His outsized personality makes a 20,000-seat venue feel like an intimate club; I’ve heard stories of people sitting at the top of MCI behind the stage who were still moved by the show. There aren’t many in this business who can make that happen, but Bono is the best of the best. You simply cannot take your eyes off him the entire night, because there’s no telling what he might do, and you certainly don’t want to miss anything. Is that symptomatic of an egomaniac? Sure. But without that, U2 certainly wouldn’t be what it is today.
Never is that more apparent than the next song in the lineup, “Love and Peace Or Else,” which features Bono and Larry—yes, Larry Mullen Jr.—at the point. Larry wanders out to play a simple drum-and-cymbal setup while Bono rips through the song. Midway through, Larry retreats to his comfort zone behind the big kit at the back of the main stage, while Bono grabs the sticks at the ellipse and attempts to beat the living crap out of the drum to end the song; it sounds stupid secondhand, but it’s another of those Bono moments that you just have to be there to get.
“Love and Peace” is the first of this tour’s anti-violence suite, completed by two warhorses, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and a rarity that has been enjoying the spotlight lately, the beautiful “Miss Sarajevo.”
It’s interesting, though, that the latter, in which Bono nails the opera section originally recorded by Pavarotti, also signals the beginning of what ultimately proves Vertigo 2005’s fatal flaw. As “Sarajevo” concludes, the video screens broadcast the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but it leads to what feels like a 20-minute public service announcement with, oh yeah, a few of U2’s best songs thrown in.
On paper, the trilogy of “Pride,” “Streets” and “One” seems almost overwhelming in its power. But, like “Bloody Sunday,” Bono has reimagined these three songs as part of his drive for debt and AIDS relief around the world—especially Africa. He makes that point abundantly clear during Vertigo 2005.
It’s no secret Bono is prone to “speechifying” (his word)—that’s who he is. Without his passion for world issues, he wouldn’t be the man and the musician he is, so U2 fans have always taken his preaching with understanding. Bono has been speechifying in concerts for his entire career, some people just don’t know it. That’s why “Rattle and Hum” is the band’s worst received effort to date; critics were turned off by, among many things, Bono’s anti-apartheid speech during the bridge in “Silver and Gold.” I wasn’t a fan back then, but I’m guessing fan reaction to such criticisms was something like, “Uh, duh. That’s just Bono.”
But nearly two decades later, everyone—and I mean everyone—agrees: Bono! Enough already.
These three songs that close the main set are overrun by speechifying, and the concert’s momentum and power suffers for it. From a certain point of view I’m OK with it, because it’s a credit to the quality of the songs that they can be adapted—20 years later, in the case of “Pride”—to meet new times and convey new meanings; this actually seems necessary, in certain respect, because I’d rather Bono reimagine his songs than simply blow through them like some kind of Irish jukebox. But I just don’t need an image of Africa up on the light curtains during “Streets.” And I certainly don’t need a 10-minute speech about Bono’s ONE campaign leading into the organization’s namesake (and one of my favorite songs of all time)—the rambling was so long Wednesday night, Larry actually put his sticks down and started timing his singer. It was ridiculous and excessive and overshadowed the music—and at these ticket prices, that’s a crime.
Thankfully, they totally salvaged the show with the encores.
The final six or seven songs of Vertigo 2005 get fans all jumpy, because this section of the show is most open to improvisation and surprises. Wednesday’s first encore began with an acoustic version of “The First Time,” a quiet gem from 1993’s “Zooropa” that until this fall 2005 leg had only been played nine times in the band’s history. It’s just Bono and Edge for this one; they start from opposite ends of the catwalk and meet in the middle to begin the second acoustic song, a fantastic version of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” I hadn’t particularly liked this song four years ago (I dubbed it “momentum killer” during the Elevation tour), but then I heard the acoustic version recorded for the “7” EP released exclusively through Target stores, and it totally won me over. Stripped down to its essence, “Stuck in a Moment” is a gorgeous song, and this version was no different, as Larry and Adam snuck onstage toward the end to finish out the number as a full band. This intimate first encore concludes with “With Or Without You,” deceptive in its epic qualities. It starts out small—with Bono bringing a girl up out of the crowd onto the catwalk for a personal dance/serenade—but by the time he returns to the main stage and Edge kicks into the full-on final solo, it’s an enrapturing moment.
The second encore begins on an up note with “All Because of You,” one of the rockers from “Atomic Bomb.” An acoustic version of “Yahweh” follows, another instance of instrumentation and production killing a song on record. “Yahweh” is just OK as the closer for “Atomic Bomb,” but played this way, it’s heartbreaking.
Finally, a highlight for any U2 fan, “40” closed Wednesday night’s show. After serving as the finale for every U2 concert from 1983 to 1990, the hymnal “40” essentially disappeared among the band’s irony-laden shows of the 1990s, making only a handful of appearances during PopMart. “40” resurfaced on the Elevation trek, but only as a snippet, typically finishing off “Bad.”
But the classic is back in a big way during Vertigo 2005, and it’s a welcome return. Everything is the same—Bono leaves first, followed by Edge and Adam, leaving Larry alone on stage for his final drum solo, an arena full of people screaming “How long to sing this song!” The chant continues long after Larry’s left the stage, ending only when the lights are finally turned on and everyone wanders out of the venue, stunned and exhilarated at what they just saw.
And that was the lesser of two shows in D.C.
While Wednesday night was really, really good, Thursday’s show was, well, nearly transcendent. Nearly.
I don’t know if it was because he had some really good meetings on the Hill, or maybe because of the politically-charged atmosphere of the nation’s capital, maybe it was that old second-night theory of mine, or maybe it was just an illusion because I was standing among the throngs on the floor three feet from the catwalk (Adam’s side). But U2 stepped their game up to another level Thursday, not merely playing but attacking their songs, turning the standard into exemplary.
The buzz was there from the beginning, an indescribable feeling of power and energy, cemented during “Electric Co.” when Bono—only about six feet from me—steps out onto the barricade between the crowd and catwalk and, hanging on to fans’ hands, balances perfectly while gyrating on one foot and singing into his mic. It’s a surreal experience, being that close to the band, which is why the catwalk is such a great invention. This is the second time I’ve had floor seats (Chicago IV in 2001), and I continually found myself not believing, after all the times I’ve seen these guys on TV or video or listened to them on CD, they are actually RIGHT THERE TWO FEET IN FRONT OF ME.
The first audible for Thursday night was a dream-come-true situation: “Out of Control,” which Bono introduced as “our first single.” I absolutely love this song, and even though Bono garbled the lyrics a little, it alone was worth all the money, all the waiting outside shivering in the cold before the show, all the defending my spot in the crowd before the show. It was worth it all. And little did I know what was to come.
The rest of the main set was the same as the previous night, but again, there seemed an extra edge to the performance—a little extra umph (maybe it was because Condoleezza Rice was sitting off to the side of the stage). The speechifying was back, as it has been every night of the tour, but it was thankfully trimmed back a little from Night 1. Still, on a night like this, these breaks were momentum killers and broke the spell of what a U2 concert can be. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also not going away this tour—it’s built into the setlist, so I just deal with it and move on.
And move on we did, this time to another fantastic acoustic duo to open the encore: “Walk On” (a favorite from 2001) and the ultra-rare “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” from 1991’s “Achtung Baby.” Leading into the latter, Bono, standing with Edge at the point, tells us they’re going to try something a little different tonight. “It’s fun, right Edge,” he jokes, getting a big laugh from the crowd (it’s one of my favorite little moments of the night). Well, they absolutely NAIL this song, making me wonder where it’s been all this time.
And instead of closing with the quiet “40,” U2 decided to send us off in a full-throated roar, pulling out what is without a doubt one of their best songs and one of my all-time favorites of any band, much less U2: “Bad”
This is the song that put U2 on the map back in 1985, when Bono went out into the crowd during Live Aid. This is the song that requires mandatory repeat viewings on “Rattle and Hum.” And this is the song that, during Vertigo 2005, anyway, U2 is saving only for special occasions. There’s no better way to close a show, and Bono let it all rip, hitting all the notes and closing the show with a howling “Wide awake! I’m wide awake!” like he was 25 instead of 45. Aside from giving a couple shout-outs to members of Congress (Why, Bono? Why? I’ve been waiting to hear this song for so long! Don’t talk about politicians!), this was a transcendent moment, complete with an excerpt from Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” (yeah, a little cheesy, but you had to be there), and the crowd knew it.
There’s another theory out there (I can’t take credit for it, though) that your favorite band really isn’t your favorite band if they don’t piss you off every now and then—you have to really care about a group in order to care enough to get mad at them. Did Bono piss me off with his excessive rambling and spell-breaking speechifying? Yes.
But in the hours and days since leaving MCI Center Thursday night, it’s the music and the power of its presentation that sticks with me and keeps me bouncing through my life on an emotional high. I don’t know when exactly it’s going to wear off. I don’t really want it to. This is U2, good, bad and annoying, and they’re unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

MCI Center, Washington, D.C.

City of Blinding Lights
I Will Follow
The Electric Co./See Me, Feel Me
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Beautiful Day
Miracle Drug
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Love and Peace Or Else
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Bullet the Blue Sky
Miss Sarajevo
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Where the Streets Have No Name
Ol' Man River

First Encore:
The First Time (acoustic)
Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (acoustic)
With or Without You

Second Encore:
All Because of You
Yahweh (acoustic)

City of Blinding Lights
The Electric Co./See Me, Feel Me
Out of Control
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Beautiful Day
Miracle Drug
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Love and Peace Or Else
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Bullet the Blue Sky
Miss Sarajevo
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Where the Streets Have No Name

First Encore:
Walk On (acoustic)
Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses (acoustic)
With or Without You

Second Encore:
All Because of You
BAD/People Have the Power

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Southern Charm

I believe it’s impossible (okay, nearly impossible) for Cameron Crowe to make a bad movie. He loves his work too much to let that happen.
But there are times when an artist can be so infatuated with his material, his idea, his method, he drowns in it. That almost describes Crowe’s latest film, “Elizabethtown.”
It’s a meandering picture, and I don’t have a problem with that. Too many filmmakers do half-baked rush jobs of their movies, so I don’t mind someone taking his time to tell a story. But right about the time Susan Sarandon is tap dancing on a stage during a memorial service for her dead husband, I had just about had enough.
Then the film enters its final act—more of a coda, really—and totally redeems itself.
But first things first.
“Elizabethtown” is Crowe’s first movie in four years, a follow-up to the critically reviled “Vanilla Sky” (which I happened to really like). It stars Orlando Bloom as Drew Baylor, a rising star athletic shoe executive who’s just flamed out on a billion-dollar bust of an idea. Thinking his life is literally over, things take an even steeper turn for the worse when Drew returns home from being fired only to find out his father has died in his boyhood home of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Now the only man of the family, Drew has to go “take care of things.”
On the plane flight to Louisville, Drew meets spritely flight attendant Claire Colburn, played to ethereal perfection by Kirsten Dunst, who seems never to disappoint these days no matter the material. Claire’s profession brings her in and out of contact with thousands of people, spinning into their orbits for a few hours at a time. There’s something different about Drew, though, and she does her best not to let him get away.
When he first arrives in Kentucky, Drew is overwhelmed by his father’s large, loud Southern relatives. But as the movie rolls on (and with a little help from Claire), he begins to see why his father loved them so much, and how they helped shape the man his father became—even if he did move to the West Coast with a woman who, gasp, didn’t grow up in Kentucky. Crowe treats these people with respect, writing about them out of love, not mockery. Where most scripts use a token gun-toting, beer-swilling Southerner as a punch line, Crowe gets us to laugh with them, not at them. He has a way of writing and shooting a movie that is unlike anything else you’ve seen—sort of out-of-left-field funny and tender at the same time. Like I said, he loves his material.
And what would a Cameron Crowe movie be without a killer soundtrack? During an ingenious scene where Drew and Claire get to know each other by pulling an all-nighter via cell phone, Ryan Adams’ beautiful “Come Pick Me Up” blasts through the speakers. A song about wanting—and needing—someone to blow your world apart just so the two of you can put it back together again is simply perfect here.
“Elizabethtown” is a movie a lot of people are going to hate—just read the majority of the reviews (by the way, nearly all negative ones had the word “mess” in them—did the nation’s critics have a conference call I missed or something?). Sarandon is miscast, an actress too “big” for such an intimate film; her scenes are rather painful, and not in a good way. Bloom stumbles in spots as well, but proves he can play a part that doesn’t require a sword or medieval dress.
Just stick with this movie through to the end. “Elizabethtown” is like a Bruce Springsteen song: Full of romanticized hopes and dreams, yes, but hopes and dreams that make us aspire to reach for the unreachable and in so doing, maybe improve ourselves just a little bit. It has a lot to say about taking time out (away from work or anything else we deem “important”) to love someone and live life. And it does so in such a way as to show us how lucky we are to live in this beautiful country, with all of its hidden quirks and charming people.
Who doesn’t need that reminder now and then?
Grade: B+

Saturday, October 15, 2005

“Look at all the junk that's on TV”

Somebody needs to let Joss Whedon make more movies, because “Serenity” is so much better than I ever thought possible.
A little background (to get the most out of this movie, you’re gonna need it):
For the uninitiated, Whedon is the creator/writer/director/general guru of two cult TV hits, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spinoff, “Angel.” However, back in 2002 he released a little-seen series called “Firefly” on FOX, which lasted less than half a season before the network canceled it (the same network that didn’t even bother to run each episode in the correct order).
“Firefly” combines two classic genres—Western and space opera—into one swashbuckling rollercoaster adventure ride. In this back-to-the-future scenario, the population of earth grew to the point where humanity was forced to seek out new worlds and “terraform” them to our specific set of living conditions. We humans discovered new planets and new solar systems, all of which eventually fell under the oppressive unified control of a new government, the Alliance.
Such overwhelming control of course led some citizens to rebel, forcing a war between the Alliance and the “Independents,” which the Alliance won, of course. The Independents (also known as “Browncoats”) scattered like sand in the wind, retreating to the ends of the galaxy to find their own ways of life separate from (and often in opposition to) the government.
Here’s where Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of miscreants come in. Reynolds is a former Independent sergeant forced to go underground when he lost the war. Essentially a Han Solo for the new generation, Reynolds’ life revolves around the life of his ship, “Serenity,” which he uses to try and make his way in the galaxy, however he can (smuggling and mercenary work, mostly).
Like Whedon’s other two series, “Firefly” is over-the-top in its action and oversized characters, yet grounded in genuine emotion; this gained the show an instant cult following, devotees who were very disappointed when the show was so abruptly plucked from the broadcast schedule.
Under those circumstances, “Serenity” is like a blown kiss from Whedon to his fans. All of the major characters are back, and in two hours Whedon tells a story that ties up several loose ends left hanging by the original series while maintaining the show’s inherent sense of fun and adventure. It actually delivers on what 1998's "X-Files" movie merely promised—"Serenity" is more than just a TV episode on movie studio steroids.
But the film brings up an interesting contrast between two rival, yet similar, mediums: television and cinema. TV has a bad—and well-deserved—reputation as a melting pot of all things soul sucking and mediocre. Just look at any of the new batch of “reality” programs that force people to endure degrading situations to win a few bucks. Or how ’bout the latest moronic sitcom or over-sexed drama?
No, it’s Hollywood where the true “auteurs” reside, right? If the Academy Awards is for the court of kings and queens, the Emmy glitterati are merely dukes and duchesses.
In reality, though, television has a unique ability to tell stories the average movie can’t come close to matching (which is why the first two “Godfather” films remain the industry standard—and exception). It’s a simple matter of screen time, really: The average TV drama gets about 16 hours a year to explore its characters, where a movie gets, what, two and a half hours at the most? Whedon came up against this problem when writing the script for “Serenity”; according to an Aug. 16 Entertainment Weekly article on the film, the writer/director’s first draft was a massive 190 pages that Whedon said was essentially the entire second season of “Firefly” he had swimming around in his head. He had to boil it down to a two-hour space-chase thriller (making this movie’s success even more stunning).
That’s why “Serenity” received only decent reviews and probably won’t do as much for newbies who wandered in off the street—these are fabulous characters, but it’s impossible to get to know them well enough in the first few minutes of a film. To fully appreciate this movie, you have to watch the original 13 episodes of “Firefly” (out on DVD and airing on the Sci-Fi Channel). You have to see Mal and Wash tortured by a sadistic “businessman”; you have to learn the backstory between Wash and wife/soldier Zoe, as well as the star-crossed love between Mal and classy prostitute (excuse me, companion) Inara; you need 13 episodes to get to know the series’ pivotal character, the government experiment gone awry River; you have to get used to the way Whedon’s dialogue mixes Old West, Chinese, and brand-new curse words (it’s unnerving at first, but by the second episode, it’s charming and funny). Shows such as “Firefly,” “Smallville,” “Alias,” “Lost,” and the granddaddy of ’em all, “The Sopranos,” demonstrate TV—when done well—can offer a much deeper entertainment experience than film.
By the same token, though, there’s no way Whedon could have told this final chapter of his story so compellingly on the small screen. “Serenity” washes over you with kinetic energy and overwhelming images in a two-hour rush that leaves you, well, drained at the end. Even this film’s modest budget of $45 million still meant millions and millions more money than any episode of “Firefly” would have received, and Whedon (in his feature film directing debut, mind you) made full use of his newfound financial freedom, letting his imagination run wild—especially in some fantastic space battles. (On a side note, Whedon is signed on to direct a "Wonder Woman" movie, set for a 2007 release. I'm sure it will be the second of many.)
Where does that leave us, then? For those interested in seeing “Serenity,” I would obviously recommend watching at least a handful of “Firefly” episodes first. For those who already love the show, this movie delivers time and time again. It’s a gem.
Grade: Without “Firefly,” B; with “Firefly,” A

Monday, October 10, 2005

Can a Loss Really be as Good as a Win?

Now that the pain of Washington’s heartbreaking two-point loss on the road against the Denver Broncos has faded a bit, the reality of the situation has set in: Ol’ Joe’s done it—the Redskins are a good football team again.
Yeah, it would’ve been nice if Mark Brunell had completed that two-point conversion pass to David Patten and sent yesterday’s game to overtime, but those things happen. The Redskins made too many mistakes throughout the course of the game and it finally caught up with them. Denver is a playoff-caliber team, and it should win at home (one of the toughest places in the league to play, by the way).
However, there are several positives for Redskins fans. For starters, the offense racked up nearly 450 yards against a rather stout defense. Brunell continues to look like he’s back from the dead, this time going for 300-plus and two touchdowns. Clinton Portis ran well against his former team with 103 yards on just 20 carries for a crisp five yards a tote. Also, except for two bonehead runs, the defense continued to play well despite more injuries in the secondary. (Please, can we put the LaVar Arrington talk to bed? Sure, I want him to play, but the “D” doesn’t seem to miss him that much. I’ll trust Gibbs and Gregg Williams over LaVar any day. When they feel he’s ready, then he’ll play. Until then, everyone, enough already—shut up.)
And, most importantly, Washington proved yet again that it is never out of a game—no matter how much time is left on the clock and how long the odds. If someone had told me a year ago that this season the Skins—with No. 8 under center—would be able to go 95 yards for a touchdown on their final drive and nearly pull even with the Broncos, I would have thought that person was crazy.
But after five weeks, get this: The Redskins are eighth in the league in offense and fifth in defense. … OK, now that you’ve picked yourself back up off the floor after that shocking realization, here’s another: There’s absolutely no reason the Washington Redskins shouldn’t make the playoffs.
Just look at the rest of the conference: The Redskins have already beaten the best team in the NFC West (Seattle); they’re certainly better than any of the four teams in the dreadful NFC North; they should be able to hold their own against either Carolina or Atlanta from the South; and, oh yeah, the Skins are still in first place in the East.
Brunell and Gibbs seem to get more and more comfortable with their surroundings week by week, and the improvements have shown on the field. There are several should-win games on their schedule, including San Francisco, Oakland, St. Louis and Arizona. If Washington simply goes .500 in the rest of its games, that gives the Redskins 11 wins this year. Hello, playoffs.
Sure, we’re only four games into the season and a lot can happen over the next three months. But after Washington’s first three “lucky” wins, everyone was still skeptical and wondering whether this team is for real or not.
Consider that question answered. Just ask the Broncos.

Franz Ferdinand, “You Could Have It So Much Better” (Actually, I Don't Know If They Can)

On first blush, I actually thought Franz Ferdinand’s new album, “You Could Have It So Much Better,” was actually better than the British group’s eponymous 2004 debut.
OK, so I went back and listened to the latter and remembered why it’s an A+.
But even with that mark to live up to, this quartet of Glasgow guys said screw you to the sophomore slump and—in a little more than a year, mind you—turned out another stellar, stellar album.
The “IT” band of 2004 is back in a major way in 2005, vying for record of the year honors for the second year in a row—which is basically unheard-of in today’s music scene.
“So Much Better” grabs right from the beginning with “The Fallen,” a killer opening track that is as good as (or maybe better than) anything on the band’s previous album—yes, even the omnipresent “Take Me Out”—and sets a tone for the onslaught to come. Turn-it-up-loud-captain moments continue essentially for the rest of the album, as Franz Ferdinand take a breather only for a moment on the lilting, McCartney-esque “Eleanor Put Your Boots On,” which serves as a nice piano-infused bridge between sides A and B.
Forced to choose, other favorites would include “Do You Want To” (just wait for the main melody to kick in and tell me it doesn’t give you a shiver), “Evil and a Heathen” and “I’m Your Villain,” but if you put these 13 tracks up on a wall and threw darts at them, you’d hit a bull’s-eye every time.
Make no mistake, though. The members of Franz Ferdinand are not out to save the world—a truth they readily admit. I haven’t spent any amount of time trying to figure out what any of these songs mean, because they’re too much fun in the first place (keep throwing me lines like “what’s wrong with a little destruction” and I’ll keep coming back for more). They are, however, masters of catchy, infectious hooks and tunes; this is the definition of pop/rock, hearkening back to the 1960s when good music was still played on the radio.
Really, the only thing separating Franz Ferdinand’s first two albums is the group’s own success, because “So Much Better” feels like the work of a band that has benefited from extensive touring—this album is even more crisp and refined and musically solid than the last. The only drawback is that the group’s first batch of songs was so good and they’re so ingrained in my head, it’s hard to supplant them. You might as well consider this Side Two of the same record.
No wonder they originally considered not giving it a name.
Grade: A

My 20 Favorite Bands, as of Oct. 10, 2005

This is an ever-evolving topic that never seems to get old—or complete. I have a hard time adding some bands to my list, because I tend to go for longevity, or at least long-lasting, over anything else. I mean, At the Drive-In didn’t last long, but I still listen to their albums four years later, so that’s longevity in my book. Saves The Day, Alkaline Trio, Dave Matthews Band, etc., are still together, but their newer music is not to my liking, so where do they fall on the list? Anyway, here goes …

1. U2—Why, you ask? Maybe because the past year has felt like all-U2-all-the-time, but I think more than anything else, it was addition by subtraction. U2 was one of the only bands I truly love NOT involved in that ridiculous Vote for Change Tour, which is when this switch may have occurred. Nothing can ever compare to the excitement of seeing a Pearl Jam concert live, simply because of the surprise aspect, but U2’s most recent studio effort is way better than “Riot Act” (shut up, I know you hated it, for reasons I have yet to hear and probably wouldn’t agree with anyway). Christianity also plays a major part in this. After I see U2 in October, it should be about time for PJ to be rolling out their new record and tour, so this could change. But for now, there’s been no bigger band in my life for the last year than U2. No question about that. There are times I think Bono may actually have superhuman powers (and I’m not joking about that). And, man, “Sometimes” is one incredible song.

2. Pearl Jam—I think the above basically covers where I am on this. PJ has been the de facto numero uno for the last decade, so this is kinda a big thing. I honestly think U2 and PJ will continue to battle it out for my top spot for some time. Like I said, it probably depends on who’s recording and touring at the time.

3. Led Zeppelin—An oldie but a goodie. I don’t listen to the mighty Zep much these days, but this band single-handedly ushered a stupid pop-loving child into rock and roll, and all it took was the riff from “Black Dog.” I’m forever grateful.

4. Bruce Springsteen

5. The White Stripes

6. Dashboard Confessional—I can still listen to “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar” any day, all the way through (especially since I include "Vindicated" from the "Spider-Man 2" soundtrack in the third slot—my fave Dashboard song). Can't wait for the new album.

7. Wilco—But they could be fading fast if the next album is even more impenetrable than the last.

8. PJ Harvey—Splendid, just splendid. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way she can ever surpass “Stories.”

THE REST (these are in no particular order)

9. Pink Floyd
10. Ryan Adams
11. Smashing Pumpkins
12. Ramones

Here the list gets a little hazy. I can’t come up with bands that deserve a spot alongside these others. It’s more like bands I really like, but do they stand up to U2 or Pearl Jam? No. Plus, it’s not a good sign that I had to go out and look at my CDs at this point, right?

13. Flogging Molly
14. Franz Ferdinand
15. The Who
16. Otis Redding/Al Green
17. Coldplay—The show was good enough to keep them up here
18. Sleater-Kinney
19. Rage Against the Machine (but they’re barely hanging on—“Renegades” is just too good)
20. At the Drive-In

And then there are those staples that don’t deserve a spot on the list but I just couldn’t live without. It’s more like I acknowledge how good they are and love their music, but it doesn’t reach out and grab me the way it does others.

The Beatles
The Rolling Stones
The Clash
The Sex Pistols
Bob Dylan
Neil Young
Green Day (man, oh man, is “American Idiot” not the most unbelievable album you’ve ever heard, minus the political disagreement I have with it? And, yes, that’s an exaggeration, but you know what I mean)

And, finally, there’s Dave Matthews Band. Always a place in my heart due to the fact it basically sparked the relationship with the woman I’m married to, but I just can’t get past the last four years.

Later tonight I’ll remember some bands that I should have put on this list and kick myself. That’s the way it goes, I guess.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

2005: Year of the DVD

One of the most overblown entertainment-section stories of 2005 is the box office “slump.” Every Monday all summer long we had to endure the latest installment of “The Sky is Falling in Hollywood” as weekend returns continued to “disappoint” and fall well behind the pace set by a record-breaking 2004. The theories have all been out there: too many entertainment options, the rise of DVDs and home theaters, etc.
It’s all garbage—much like this year’s offerings at the movie theater.
2004 was a great year for movies because several of the movies were—gasp—great (check out my February entry for further review). 2005, on the other hand, has been absolutely awful. Dreadful. Terrible. Stinking out the joint.
Hollywood, I guess, believes people will just wander into a theater like glassy-eyed sheep no matter what schlock is thrown up on the silver screen. And to some extent, that’s probably true; after all, “The Longest Yard” made $158 million.
But at some point moviegoers will actually demand good movies, which have been in very short supply this year. Consider the top 10:

1. “Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith,” $380.2 million
2. “War of the Worlds,” $233.3 million
3. “Wedding Crashers,” $206.5 million
4. “Batman Begins,” $205.1 million
5. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” $204.5 million
6. “Madagascar,” $193 million
7. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” $185.8 million
8. “Hitch,” $179.5 million
9. “The Longest Yard,” $158.1 million
10. “Fantastic Four,” $154.1 million

Wow, isn’t that a lively bunch? I’ve seen half the titles on that list, and only two (“Batman” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) were worth my money. Now, let’s compare this sad group with last year:

1. “Shrek 2,” $441.2 million
2. “Spider-Man 2,” $373.6 million
3. “The Passion of the Christ,” $370.3 million
4. “Meet the Fockers,” $279.3 million
5. “The Incredibles,” $261.4 million
6. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” $249.5 million
7. “The Day After Tomorrow,” $186.7 million
8. “The Bourne Supremacy,” $176.2 million
9. “National Treasure,” $173 million
10. “The Polar Express,” $162.8 million

Actually, there is no comparison, which is why there is a two-pronged answer to why 2005 has been an “off” year at the box office. More than just this year’s lineup being not worth watching, there may not be another year like 2004 in a long, long time (come on, three of those films are in the all-time top 10!). It’s ridiculous to think back-to-back years of such stunning success were even possible. That’s why this “slump” is so overblown, even by today’s mainstream media standards. (All is not lost, of course. The fall/winter schedule is chock full of films I want to see. Whether they will be box office hits or not, I'm not sure.)
The pundits are right about one thing, though: DVD is a viable alternative. I love going to the movies, but since this summer was so bad, I turned to one of those mail-order rent-from-home programs to fill the Friday night void. I don’t have the energy to write full reviews for each and every one, but just in case you’re curious, here are the grades for everything I’ve seen on the home screen the past few months:

“24: Season 1” A
“Before Sunrise” B
“Before Sunset” B+
“Coach Carter” B
“Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season 2” A-
“Elektra” D
“Entourage: Season 1” B
“Firefly: The Complete Series” B+
“The Forgotten” F
“Hard Day’s Night” B
“Hitch” B-
“In Good Company” B+
“Kung Fu Hustle” A-
“The Longest Yard” D
“Man on Fire” B
“Mr. 3000” C+
“National Treasure” C
“The Office: Season 1” A-
“Sahara” C-
“Searching for Bobby Fischer” A-
“Smallville: Seasons 1-4” A-
“The Sopranos: Season 5” A
“The Upside of Anger” B+

Due Diligence

Just in case anybody's wondering, "Lost" had a somewhat return to form this week. One major question (The Hatch) was answered—sort of—and just about every scene involving Jack (Matthew Fox) was superb.
One worry remains, however: This was the second straight weak flashback. I'm not going to say this is a trend, yet, because the season opener look at Jack's past was one of the best of the series. Two steps up, one step back, I guess. Here's hoping ...

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

‘Unbelievable’: Pearl Jam in Philly, 10.3.05

Why do I keep going to Pearl Jam concerts? Because when Eddie Vedder walks out with the opening band and rips into a dead-on cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” (including a note-for-note perfect harmonica solo), you know it’s gonna be one heck of a night.
Pearl Jam was at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia Monday night for the finale of its brief 2005 North American tour. No new album (yet), no overt political agenda (thank goodness); these guys just love playing live and wanted to get out and stretch their legs a little. Well, a lot.
On Monday night, the band continued to stake its claim as the most adventurous live act in the world. The way Pearl Jam goes about its concerts (Eddie writing up a new setlist out of his head in the moments leading up to the show), every night is special because nobody sees the same set twice. And then there are those occasions—and nobody can predict exactly when or where they’ll come—when the band somehow kicks it up yet another notch. Dates such as 7.11.95, 9.11.98, 11.6.00, and 7.11.03 (to name just a few) need no explanation in the diehard fan community; they are shows where something so extraordinary happened, the numbers alone hold significance.
Add 10.3.05 to that list.
The length and breadth of the show alone was stunning. Three hours, 34 songs, including a set Ed said was comprised of “songs we don’t play that often” (hello, dream come true). He started everything off on a high note by absolutely nailing “The Promised Land” (one of my favorite Springsteen songs) with openers Sleater-Kinney as his backing band. S-K went on to play an excellent set, including this shocking finale: they brought out EVERY MEMBER OF PEARL JAM to play a cover of Danzig’s “Mother,” with Ed videotaping the whole thing before jumping on Matt Cameron’s drum set (which I don’t even think was miced) to help finish the thing off. It’s always a good sign when you already feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth and the band hasn’t even “officially” hit the stage.
The surreal experience continued with PJ’s set, as they opened with “Wash,” an all-time favorite that I had yet to hear in person. They’ve pulled it out every once in a while during tours past, but it’s usually rough around the edges. Not this time—they’ve obviously been practicing.
From there it was one of the most breakneck opening sets I can remember (in person or otherwise). By the time they kicked into “Brain of J” in the third slot, Mike McCready was already literally running around the gear on his side of the stage—again, always a good sign. Mike continues his evolution as a showman and one of the great guitar heroes of all time; he was on fire all night long, jumping on and off amps, playing behind his head, waving his arms in the air to pump up the crowd (like we needed any encouragement). Other than a few quick comments from Ed about how much the band loves playing Philadelphia, the first hour went by in a blink with a blistering 12 rockers in a row to open the night. They took a collective breath with “Betterman” (the opening singalong now one of my favorite PJ concert moments) and “Nothingman,” then tore into “Once,” “Bleed for Me” (a new song, so I’m guessing on the title here; it actually wasn’t that great, but I’m not going to worry right now about whether the new album will be any good or not), and “Blood” to cap off the main missive.
A longer-than-normal encore break meant something great was on the way; the more time Pearl Jam takes to come up with an encore set, the better the sets usually are. This one was no exception, as the band came back out with the ultra-rare “Around the Bend,” a beautiful acoustic song that closes 1996’s “No Code.” Follow that with Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” a new addition to PJ’s cover catalog, and we’re off to a great start. And then, WHAMMO! “Hard to Imagine,” a legendary b-side that, until this tour, has made far too few sets. But wait: WHAMMO, WHAMMO! “Crown of Thorns,” the amazing Mother Love Bone song that Ed told us is reserved only “for special occasions.” This is something so unthinkable, it didn’t even rest on my “wish list” (sorry, pun not intended). OK, I can go home now.
Yet that amazing double-dip leads into “Crazy Mary,” which held its own special point in the evening. Just as Ed finished the “L-O-I-T-E-R-I-N-G” line, a loud burst of distortion blasted out of the speakers, bringing the band to an abrupt halt. Ed seemed genuinely spooked and said he didn’t want to finish the song (much to the crowd’s chagrin). But Stone Gossard apparently convinced Ed to press on, so they pick up right where they left off and finish with a stunning solo duet from Mike and keyboardist Boom Gasper, while Ed wandered around the front of the stage sharing his wine bottle with fans up front.
“Alive” closed the first encore, a song that has undergone a major reshaping over the years. One of the band’s biggest radio hits, it had become cliché by the end of the 1990s. And then nine people died while Pearl Jam was onstage at a 2000 European festival, and “Alive” went away; really, how could Ed stand in front of another crowd and scream, “I’m still Alive!”?
The band retired “Alive” until the final show of the 2000 tour, the aforementioned 11.6.00 concert in Seattle, seemingly at peace with the tragedy that struck earlier that year. Since then, the pathos behind “Alive” has changed. Originally, the song was cynical; now, the band plays it with such a sense of hope that the song has returned as a highlight of any show.
With such a dream-come-true encore and running time already at two hours, the concert really could have ended right there. But PJ wasn’t done by a long shot, finishing the show with an amazing eight-song finale. “Last Kiss” led off with the band all gathered behind Matt’s drum kit playing to the behind-the-stage crowd—a nice little “thank you” to those who were just glad to be in the building.
It seemed the band was actually ready to call it quits a few songs later (boy, I’m glossing over “In My Tree,” “Do the Evolution” and “Sonic Reducer”? Yes, this show must have been legendary) with “Rockin’ in the Free World,” but Ed asked the crowd, “Do you want one or two?” Uh, do you really have to ask? So they rip into “Leaving Here” first, then turn the house lights up for the trademark extended jam of “Free World.” Ed was running all over the stage at this point, throwing tambourine after tambourine into the crowd and dancing with S-K’s Corin Tucker. Two songs became three, though, as Ed walked to the mic once again and told us, “Mike wants to say good-bye,” and of course it’s “Yellow Ledbetter” to finish the evening.
Here’s the scary thing: nights like Monday’s show in Philly are actually becoming more, not less, common in Pearl Jam’s concert resume. Typically bands start to wear down as the years roll by and age starts to add up. Not PJ. As these Gen-Xers all hit their 40s, they seem to only get better, with more “special” nights than ever as they continue to challenge their own history and break their own rules. They’ve gone from averaging 90 minutes to 2 hours to now 2 ½ hours per show; main sets that used to be 15 or 16 songs are now 18; encores that used to be two or three songs apiece are now stretching into five and six (or eight!).
Pearl Jam have become so good at their craft, “show” may even be a misnomer at this point. Last night was more like rock and roll catharsis, a truly communal experience between artist and audience. It’s a vibe they are able to deliver because they are so willing to take chances and create a new experience each and every time they take a stage. As Pearl Jam and Sleater-Kinney linked arms to take a group bow at the end of the night, I got the sense they really and truly enjoyed themselves as much as we did, and the rock and roll cliché of “respecting the fans” really does apply in this case. It’s that authenticity that continues to compel me to see them again and again.
I’m done trying to compare one Pearl Jam show to another, because it’s pointless. This band gives its all and gets it done time and time again—they never disappoint. As I said to my brother as we dropped back into our seats, physically exhausted and emotionally drained: “Unbelievable.”

Pearl Jam
Wachovia Center, Philadelphia

The Promised Land (Ed w/Sleater-Kinney)
Mother (Pearl Jam w/Sleater-Kinney)

Main Set:
Hail Hail
Brain of J
Spin the Black Circle
Given to Fly
Even Flow
Green Disease
Not for You
Bleed for Me (new, unreleased song)

First Encore:
Around the Bend
Harvest Moon (w/Sleater-Kinney)
Hard to Imagine
Crown of Thorns
Crazy Mary

Second Encore:
Last Kiss
In My Tree
Do the Evolution
Sonic Reducer
Little Sister
Leaving Here (w/Sleater-Kinney)
Rockin’ in the Free World (w/Sleater-Kinney)
Yellow Ledbetter

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Rush of Blood to the Head: Coldplay at Nissan Pavilion, 9.30.05

I had absolutely no expectations for this show—after all, I bought my first Coldplay CD only three months ago. It’s not like I can quote each song chapter and verse.
We had cheap seats on the lawn (thanks to the band dropping prices as a benefit for Live8), and I wasn’t even in a hurry to get to the venue and run to the front. I just wanted to take it easy and enjoy the show as it unfolded.
Well, despite my relative apathy, Coldplay managed to win me over.
Playing live is the make-or-break moment for any band. Putting out a record is nice, but if you can’t take that music out on the road and play it right in front of me, I won’t have much use for you. But playing before a packed field (lead singer Chris Martin seemed a little overwhelmed by what must have been a near-capacity crowd), Coldplay took possession of the scene for 95 solid minutes of entertainment.
I was surprised to find goosebumps pop up when the band actually hit the stage (after nearly an hour after openers Rilo Kiley—that’s way too long of a wait) and ripped into “Square One,” the uptempo rocker that also leads off Coldplay’s latest album, “X&Y.” The band has a rather intricate light show that more often than not makes the band itself almost invisible; it’s a nice way of taking the spotlight off the men themselves and put the focus on the music.
After the opener, Coldplay unveiled a power trio of “Politik,” “Yellow” and “Speed of Sound,” keeping the zealous crowd up. This band may never have imagined it would be playing such a large venue, but these three songs alone proved the group has that certain “big” vibe necessary to capture an audience of that size.
Unfortunately, Coldplay’s “wall of sound” style also requires a lot of help on stage. I’m pretty sure there was more coming out of the speakers than met the eye; at one point, Martin’s voice was warbling repetitiously toward the end of a song and he actually talked over the music—two Martin voices at the same time. At another spot he actually said, “Stop the tape.” Not a good thing. But, to be fair, it wouldn’t be the first time a band needed a little extra help to pull off its live show (U2 essentially had a pit crew during the ZooTV tour, adding little bells and whistles where necessary, while Green Day and Nirvana both have recruited extra musicians for the road that technically aren’t “in the band”). There’s no doubt Coldplay is actually playing live, but with all the added techno-wizardry incorporated into the show, that doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity—they play essentially the same exact show every night.
So if a concert is going to be this carefully orchestrated, it at least better be good, and this one certainly was. Even though 95 minutes seems a little on the short side for a band with already such a deep catalog of hits, Coldplay seemed to give its full attention to each number—the band didn’t just blow through any of its offerings, making the overall show feel longer than it actually was. There was also an excellent ebb and flow to the whole thing—building and lessening intensity gradually from song to song with no jarring transitions.
Martin proved to be an excellent frontman in concert. It’s hard to capture a large audience sitting at a piano, but somehow he managed it. And when not playing the keys, he spent much of his time twirling about the stage, at one point running up an aisle of the pavilion to the soundboard to finish “In My Place.” (On a side note, I was also pleasantly surprised that Martin’s nasal voice held up well live; I was worried he wouldn’t be able to consistently hit notes that require such precision in the studio, but I noticed no glaring errors the entire night.) One of my favorite portions of the show, however, was his intro to “Everything’s Not Lost,” a quiet piece that he said didn’t go over too well the last time Coldplay played in D.C.—at the 2000 HFStival. Martin mentioned how nobody at that show wanted to particularly hear his band play—they were more excited about headliners Limp Bizkit, apparently. It seems strange, he said, to five years later have everybody cheering for it. It was a witty little barb that I appreciated—sort of a thank you to those who appreciate his music and, at the same time, a screw you to any of the posers that happened to be at that HFStival five years ago and now all of the sudden “love” Coldplay. Martin even improvised an entire first verse to the song about this experience, including a shot at Limp Bizkit. Pretty cool.
A great version of “The Scientist” then led into a mini-acoustic set of three songs, including a nice cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Coldplay started to lose people a little during this stretch, I think, but, once again, the band had a plan. After three quiet numbers, they ripped into what is certainly the showcase of the evening: “Clocks.” Sure, maybe it’s cliché, but this is my favorite Coldplay song and it did not disappoint in person (the light show is mesmerizing). This led into “Talk,” one of the best songs off “X&Y,” to close the main set on a manic high. During the climax off this song, Martin asked everyone to get their cameras ready and then told them to “shoot” at the same time the band’s lights went crazy with strobes; sure it’s a little forced, but it came off to a nice effect.
Martin opened the encore with the quietly beautiful “Swallowed by the Sea” before kicking into two more stone-cold faves, “In My Place” and “Fix You,” to finish the show, the latter building to an epic close that fittingly sent the crowd out on a high.
There’s something about Coldplay that doesn’t quite reach me—a few too many chinks in the armor that I know will prevent this band from cracking my top five (this was the last show of the U.S. tour and yet no surprises?). But last night, they simply got it done. There’s a certain gravitas to their music that allows the band to spread its wings across such a huge venue and not be overwhelmed, and that’s saying something. In a seemingly rare instance these days, at least this band actually lived up to the hype.

Nissan Pavilion, Bristow Virginia
Square One
Speed of Sound
God Put a Smile on Your Face
White Shadows
Everything’s Not Lost
The Scientist
Til Kingdom Come
Ring of Fire
Green Eyes

Swallowed in the Sea
In My Place
Fix You