Saturday, November 26, 2005

I’ll Show You a Magic Trick: Grading the Potter Movies

Don’t listen to critics and don’t pay attention to reviews—good or bad—when it comes to the Harry Potter movies, because they’re impossible to judge. There’s too much going on, and I’m not just talking about wizards and Muggles, here.
Go look at Entertainment Weekly’s “Critical Mass” chart that rounds up critics’ grades for various movies and you’ll find “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” received a “B” from seven out of nine critics polled. That’s hogwarts. The Potter films are such cultural touchstones, some of the only surefire blockbusters in the business, they’re either going to really succeed or really bomb (and that’s got nothing to do with box office numbers); most critics just don’t know what to make of them, I believe, so thus you get a bunch of “B’s” (and I should know, since I gave 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” a “B+” (check the June 2004 folder to find that review)).
No matter who is at the reins of these films, that person has essentially an insurmountable task. How do you condense several hundred pages of text into a workable movie under, I don’t know, four hours? And how do you condense said material without enraging an absolutely rabid built-in fanbase? And how do you then make said condensed text relatable and, most important, understandable to the Muggles who wander in off the street?
The answer is, you don’t. You simply make the best of an impossible situation.
But that’s what makes reviewing the Harry Potter movies so difficult, because they are so different from "normal" films; you have to throw out any typical “scale” by which other movies are judged.
In the year and a half since “Azkaban” hit theaters, I’ve finally read the first two books of the series. So when I sat down to see “Goblet of Fire,” everything on screen made a little more sense to me and had a lot more emotional impact; even though I hadn’t read this particular installment, I knew the characters much better through the books than the previous three movies, and I brought that deeper relationship with me into the theater experience.
And, as it would happen, this was my best time at a Harry Potter of the four by far. But would I feel the same had I not read a few of the novels? I’ll never know, and therein lies the rub.
“Goblet of Fire” is extremely entertaining—but here’s another problem for reviewers: Is it the source material or the filmmakers that make it so? Or is it simply because the series’ actors are all getting older and better?
It’s even difficult to compare one filmmaker’s work to another within the series. Sure, the first two Christopher Columbus-directed installments stunk (to this Muggle’s eye), but maybe he would have handled the more mature subject matter better than the lighter fare of the early novels. Then again, those that followed Columbus don’t even get to pick their own cast!
The only way to really judge the Harry Potter movies, then, is much different from your average screenplay-to-silver screen production. You have to determine how well the filmmakers successfully captured the essence of the written words in moving pictures. No one is going to be entirely happy—critics are always going to slam the films for following too closely to the text (although Columbus was ridiculously slavish), but critics aren’t the ones spending $100 million on opening weekend. Fans are always going to complain about leaving things out (from what I understand, there are significant chunks removed from “Goblet of Fire”), but a four-hour movie is simply untenable. The answer, then, is finding that delicate balance and creating a movie that will essentially stand on its own but gives more to those who know the source material well.
Given that extreme set of circumstances, “Goblet of Fire” director Mike Newell (“Pushing Tin”) and his predecessor, “Azkaban” director Alfonso Cuaron (“Y tu mama tambien”) succeeded where Columbus’ first two films in the series did not. I favor Cuaron’s directorial style above the others, but Newell’s “Goblet of Fire” is probably my favorite of the four based on overall excellence—even though it contains the series’ darkest material to date, I laughed out loud more this time around, too, and that’s an achievement.
Grade: A- (But this is one time I’ll tell you not to take my word for it)

Friday, November 25, 2005

'Alias': R.I.P.

Well, I hate it when I'm right, but it's official: ABC announced this week that "Alias" is calling it quits in May, when the show completes its fifth season.
I can't say I'm surprised, because I actually think last season's finale (WARNING: Spolier Alert!) felt like a great way to end the series, until Syd and Michael's little car-crash coda. I know I speak for a majority of "Alias" fans that killing Michael off at the beginning of this season was not a welcome—and, I believe, unnecessary—choice. I think everybody would have been happy to finally see our two favorite agents drive off into the sunset, but I guess Syd's life has been too harrowing to work out perfectly. (We'll see, though, because on "Alias," no one is ever quite as dead as they seem.)
Anyway, even though it was more a critical than popular hit, this show has to go down as one of the best action/dramas in TV history, featuring certainly one of the best lead characters to come down the pike in a long, long time. It's made Jennifer Garner a superstar, turned J.J. Abrams into a Joss Whedon-esque cult figure, and provided four years of spectacular, witty, fun, emotional entertainment (and if you think it's easy to mix all of those into one bag and still get your show on the air, you're crazy—just ask the cast of "Firefly"). The jury's still out on Season 5, but I have to give major credit to Abrams and his writing team for rolling with the Bennifer Pregnancy so well. This season is definitely a step down, but only by "Alias" standards. I can only wonder what was on tap for this year had Jen been able to control herself, but I guess we'll never know.
I'm going to hold off on a full-fledged series retrospective until sometime next summer, after I've had a chance to digest all that's in store for this fabulous show's stretch run. The network is promising it will go out with a bang; the last four season finales have been so phenomenal, I can't even guess what in the world the writers/producers have up their sleeves. But the writing's on the wall for "Alias," and I'm glad Abrams and Co. had the sense to shut it down before we reached an "X-Files" type meltdown.
It's been fun, Ms. Bristow. You'll be missed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

An Amazing Day

This is a personal-story post that I want to avoid in this space, but this was just too cool to pass up.
On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to spend a day at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which I will be writing about for March's issue of FUNWORLD. It is almost beyond description how incredible the aquarium is, which is problematic since it's my job to, hello, describe it.
Anyway, here are a few pictures from Saturday, with more to come. The first is me standing in front of a recreation of a coral reef. The other two are taken from inside the "tunnel" that literally goes through the aquarium's six MILLION gallon tank.
I recommend everyone go to this place at some point in their lives.

Monday, November 21, 2005

‘Walk the Line’

I haven’t been a Johnny Cash fan for very long. I’m ashamed to admit it, really, because his catalog has always been one of those holes in my CD collection that I know is there but have no idea where to start filling it in. His career began in an era where “records” were singles, not “albums,” so there are so many different collections of his work, it was too overwhelming to go out and pick one. So I only have “American III,” “American IV,” and “Live at San Quentin”—and, of course, I love them.
But after seeing “Walk the Line,” I must have much, much more, because this movie is so stunning, it must be considered one of the greatest movies about rock and roll of all time.
It all starts with Joaquin Phoenix, who spent a year and a half in vocal training to sing like Johnny Cash. Yes, he does all his own vocals and the results are unbelievable. Phoenix disappears into the character, not only through Cash’s throaty inflections in both singing and speaking voices, but also the way he holds the guitar and attacks the microphone onstage. He commandeers the same commanding presence that only a person dubbed the “Man in Black” could manage. There are times in this movie—much like Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison in 1991’s “The Doors”—that just listening to the music, it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s actually Cash. It’s a shame that Jamie Foxx won an Oscar last year for a similar role (albeit an inferior performance, compared to Phoenix), because I doubt the Academy would give back-to-back awards for a music biopic, no matter how deserving.
But as good as Phoenix is, the emotional center of “Walk the Line” is actually found in Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter, the woman who would eventually become not only the love of Cash’s life, but his path to salvation, as well. Witherspoon also does all her own singing and is equally as fabulous in this role, unarguably the best of her career. When she and Phoenix take the stage for the first time, the screen crackles with energy that sustains the rest of the way.
Everyone knows Johnny and June went on to get married and spent the second half of their lives essentially inseparable. “Walk the Line,” directed by James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted”) and with a script approved by Cash himself, shows us how they got there.
It opens with John as a young boy who can’t tear himself away from the radio, much to his father’s chagrin. When tragedy strikes the family, John takes the brunt of his father’s drunken, abusive anger (played well by Robert Patrick). From there we jump ahead to John’s early adulthood, as he struggles to make ends meet with a wife (Vivian, played by Ginnifer Goodwin) and children. The first great scene in the movie comes when Johnny and his two buddies audition for label-owner Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), who helps Cash find his real voice and starts him on the road to superstardom.
(On a side note, "Walk the Line" also highlights pop music in its infancy, when the unbelievable lineup of Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and many more all toured on the same bill, traveling from hall to hall in a caravan of cars. In an era when you have to choose sides between "sellouts" or indie "cred," it's so refreshing to look back on an era when music was just about talented artists wanting to put their work in front of the public and entertain them. Where did it all go wrong?)
Trouble finds Johnny early and often on the road, as childhood guilt and access to fame, fortune, women, and, most importantly, drugs lead him on a self-abusive path to near-destruction. Life on tour shreds his marriage and his career, leaving June—who no matter how many times she was hurt never quit seeing the good in him—to pick up the pieces. The film’s climax is Cash’s legendary performance at Folsom Prison, which is filmed so well, you’d swear it was a documentary. This film is meant to be turned up loud.
People’s real lives don’t lend themselves to making great movies, because nobody’s story ever has an actual dramatic arc to it—especially one that can be boiled down into a couple hours. That’s why biopics are so hard to pull off—inevitably they become just a series of scenes, rather than a seamless whole (see last year’s “Ray” or “The Aviator” for proof).
But that challenge is what makes Mangold’s work here such a triumph. John and June’s story is so transcendent and the performances so brilliant, you don’t have to be a Johnny Cash fan to love this film. It’s the best thing I’ve seen this year.
Grade: A

ZooTV 2005: It just keeps going, and going, and going …

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” and what a calendar it’s been. Over the past 363 days, the band has sold several million copies of its latest near-masterpiece, played 97 concerts (all sellouts, with two more tonight and tomorrow at MSG) to rabid fans in Europe and North America (and soon the world), released a DVD to commemorate the Vertigo//2005 experience, pushed Apple’s iPod into uncharted territory, and been featured on television too many times to count.
It’s the latter that has me all worked up this morning. U2 was on CBS twice last week—they participated via taped recording in a Johnny Cash tribute special Wednesday night and then were featured in a lengthy story for “60 Minutes” on Sunday.
For the Cash show, the band pulled out “The Wanderer,” closing track from 1993’s “Zooropa” which featured the Man in Black himself on lead vocals. For this performance, Bono took Cash’s part, and I am continually amazed at the resurgence in his voice after essentially a decade of decline. This was the first time “Wanderer” has been played live (that anyone in the public’s ever heard, anyway), and it made me wonder where it’s been all these years. The rendition was absolutely brilliant and a fitting tribute to Cash, whose life story is currently on silver screens all across America in the fabulous biopic “Walk the Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
The “60 Minutes” piece was similarly outstanding in that I was surprised I could learn anything new from a U2 interview at this point, what with all the media saturation they’ve received in the past year. But I was literally laughing out loud right off the bat when Bono was asked, “Do you still want to be the biggest band in the world?” and he replied with a classic, “Want? What want? Line them up!”
He then went on to talk about the Beatles and had the guts to say they had “their heads up their arses” in the late ’60s, allowing the most important group in rock and roll history to implode because of ego and money. Kudos.
Bono also praised the Bush administration and conservative Christians for their roles in making AIDS relief in Africa a reality. Meanwhile, he slammed the French for being the world’s biggest snobs (priceless); Adam talked about why they fled Britain (where the Irish weren’t looked upon with favor, to say the least) and found solace in the arms of America; Larry discussed what it was like growing up in a country where you feared for your life on a daily basis; and The Edge tried to explain how they manage to keep a level head in a world where they live like (or better than) kings.
Usually I tape U2 stuff on TV, but, unfortunately, I didn’t set the VCR last night. I honestly thought to myself, “I’ll have heard all this stuff before, so why bother?” Now, of course, I wish I could watch that interview again. It stuns me that U2 is still capable of stunning me every time I see them.
But let me get back to the album that started all this madness. In my review of “Atomic Bomb” (click the November 2004 link on the right side of this page to find it), I wrote it would take hearing the songs live before making final judgment on where this collection stands in the U2 pantheon. Little did I know it would be nearly a YEAR before I got my eyes and ears on the band, but it was certainly worth the wait. (In case you missed my obscenely long review of U2 in D.C., click on the October 2005 link.) As far as the new songs went, Vertigo//2005 was everything I could hope for, because all of the “Bomb” songs I heard came off not just well, but great, including “Yahweh,” which should have been arranged acoustically on record, the same way it’s performed in concert.
For the recent (enormous) interview with Rolling Stone, in a bit of genius, Bono was asked to review all of his own albums. What he says about “Atomic Bomb” puts into words much of what I, too, feel about the record: “It’s the best collection of songs we’ve put together [I don’t agree with this, though]—there’s no weak songs. But as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, and it fucking annoys me.”
I would argue “Atomic Bomb” is a second-tier U2 album, behind only “Achtung Baby” and “The Joshua Tree,” and right alongside “Zooropa” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Do U2 have another masterpiece in them? At this point, with the Vertigo tour already slated to extend well into 2006 (there have been rumors of a North American stadium leg over the summer), it will probably be 2008 at the earliest before even the possibility of a new album—more likely 2009. By that time all of the boys will be nearly 50-year-old men, and it will take a Herculean effort to maintain relevance in a world skewing younger and younger all the time (although, I said the same thing about this record). Bono believes his band hasn’t done its greatest work yet. If that’s true, I believe that in order for them to find another “masterpiece,” they won’t be able to try and recapture and reimagine the sounds of their youth. Instead, the next album will have to be something from left field, something so completely different and thrilling, something un-U2 and U2 at the same time, that it shakes everyone up—for, what, the third or fourth time?
U2 have already done more in rock and roll as 40-year-olds than any of their predecessors—ever. If they are somehow able to stay relevant in their 50s … well, I guess I shouldn’t put anything past them at this point.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Shot in the Arm: Jeff Tweedy, solo and acoustic, at Messiah College, 11.12.05

In a recent Billboard interview, Jeff Tweedy, founder and frontman of Wilco, said he loves occasionally going out on solo tours simply for the freedom. During a typical Wilco show, he can’t pull any old song out of his head because he has the rest of the band to think of. On stage by himself, Tweedy can play anything he wants.
Maybe it’s time to dump the band.
Okay, of course that’s an exaggeration. But solo Tweedy is a refreshing change from the new-millennium Wilco, the band now tinged with too much Sonic Youth-esque “experimentation.” The group’s last two albums make you work to find the melodies and great songs are hidden behind layers and layers of ambient noise and sound effects.
I’ve come to love Wilco’s now-legendary “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” from 2002, the record that cost the band its original record deal because they refused to tone it down in search of a radio-friendly hit. As chronicled in the 2003 documentary “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” Wilco stuck to its guns and made the album it wanted, even if it took an extra year for the set to find record store shelves. With that kind of stick-it-to-the-man backstory, “Foxtrot” was overhyped by critics, the majority of whom were crawling over top of one another to be the first to call the album a masterpiece.
On first listen, I simply didn’t hear it. Nor did I get it the second time through, or even the third. No, it probably took six months or more before I finally “got” it. My friend and I now use the album as a label for other similar albums. Yeah, that new PJ Harvey album is a “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” situation, we say. And I still skip a few songs with regularity.
Things only got more inscrutable with Wilco’s much-anticipated follow-up, 2004’s “A Ghost is Born” (I refuse to use the pretentious lowercase style on the cover). There are some good songs on there, but they’re either surrounded or buried by even more masturbatory noodling than the previous set. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is a fabulous riff hidden amongst 10 minutes of filler—and that’s not even the longest track on the album! “Less Than You Think” clocks in at an untenable 15 minutes, which concludes with 12 minutes of atonal beeps, squawks, and squeals.
“Ghost” is actually the culmination of the musical journey Tweedy’s been on for more than a decade, dating back to his days with the glorious alt-country band Uncle Tupelo (they basically invented the genre back in the late ’80s, paving the way for Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, and many more before calling it quits in the early ’90s). It’s my feeling Tweedy has always considered himself more than just a lowly rock and roll singer—he’s an artiste who refuses to be pegged into something as awfully mundane as “alt-country.” You can hear it written all over the Uncle Tupelo songs; just listen to the differences between songs like “Graveyard Shift”—fronted by Tupelo co-founder Jay Farrar—and Tweedy’s “Gun.” On the surface, they sound basically the same, but “Gun” (a great song, mind you) has some choppy, melody-killing moments that are precursors of what Wilco would become. Farrar, on the other hand, went on to embrace his genre in new band Son Volt; Tweedy would spend the next decade moving as far away from alt-country as possible. Ironically, neither may quite be as good apart as they were together (Son Volt certainly isn’t as good as Wilco). You could call them the McCartney (Farrar) and Lennon (Tweedy) of alt-country.
Trouble is, Tweedy’s been moving away from what he does best. Never was that more apparent than Saturday night during his solo set at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
I’m thinking specifically of one song that illustrates this whole point: “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” the opening track from “Foxtrot.” On the album, this song is so choppy and overwhelmed by bells and whistles, it’s almost a non-starter and it’s to blame for keeping me from getting into the album back when I first heard it. “Break Your Heart” sets the tone for the entire set—and it’s off-putting.
Played live with no band getting in the way, however, this is one great song. The stripped-down acoustic version allows Tweedy to let the melody roll along, highlighting a stirring lyric about admitting how stubborn, stupid, and irrationally hurtful we can be, even in the face of true love. It was one of my favorite songs of the night.
But I’m getting ahead of myself—and the setlist.
Everything about this setup is perfect for the type of vibe Tweedy is trying to create: He walks on stage with no fanfare whatsoever (other than a roaring crowd), steps into a spotlight that never wavers for the entire main set (no light show, just a bare bulb for the first 1:15), and walks up to a single microphone on a stage that allows the huddled masses to get within arm’s reach of their low-key troubadour.
Tweedy’s battle with drug addiction has been well publicized and, thankfully, he seems to have finally kicked all of his bad habits (he mentioned this several times throughout the night), including cigarettes. It’s all done him good, because it’s apparent right from opener “Sunken Treasure” that his voice is as good or better than it’s ever been. His gravelly baritone still breaks and cracks in all the right spots (sometimes flaws can be the biggest strengths), but when he wants to, he can now nail high parts with crystal clarity. For anyone who’s seen the version of “Treasure” on the documentary DVD, the version he’s now capable of pulling off is so much better, there’s really no comparison.
Tweedy was quite chatty throughout the show, and some of it may be attributed to nervousness at playing his second Christian campus in less than a week. After “(Was I) In Your Dreams,” he began what would be a rather lengthy discussion of religion that stretched across the next two songs. I never had any illusions that Tweedy is a Christian, and that notion was confirmed Saturday night; he did say he was flattered to be asked to play the campus (he was the headliner for a two-day conference on Christians engaging popular culture), and he “admires” Jesus Christ and “respects” anyone of faith. It’s typical pap I’ve heard from countless other people who are too gutless to make a choice, but at least he did appear genuinely reverent. The whole thing was rather bumbling, though; there’s a reason why musicians write songs instead of speeches—I haven’t known many that are particularly eloquent orators (Bono’s about the best of the bunch, and even he’s not that great).
Tweedy then played a new song (believed to be on the next Loose Fur album (a side project)) that has Christ giving up drug use; yeah, I don’t get it, but Tweedy said it’s how he relates to Jesus, and it really wasn’t disrespectful in spirit. After that, though, he continued to discuss religion for a minute (“I feel like I need a pulpit,” he quipped) before going into “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” which he said he felt he “needed” to play to balance out the previous song.
Once the elephant in the corner was finally out of the way, Tweedy seemed to settle down and really get into a groove.
The Woodie Guthrie cover “Remember the Mountain Bed” and “Please Tell My Brother” were the emotional high points of the next block of songs, the former now possibly one of my favorite Tweedy songs of all time after hearing Saturday’s performance.
The mellow intensity led into a string of favorites to close out the main set, starting with “Heavy Metal Drummer,” another fantastic reworking of a “Foxtrot” song (complete with closing line, “Playing Uncle Tupelo songs/Beautiful and stoned” that drew rousing shouts) leading into “Break Your Heart.” After making good on his promise from a few songs earlier with Uncle Tupelo’s “Black Eye” and the quiet “Someone Else’s Song,” Tweedy closed the set by offering up two rollicking old stand-bys: “ELT” and “Someday Soon” (with plenty of crowd participation on both).
For the encores on this tour, Tweedy has been bringing Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche (a percussionist extraordinaire who’s also been opening for Tweedy) out on stage to close the shows in rock-out fashion. Saturday was no exception, starting the encore with “Not for the Season,” a great Loose Fur song. Another Tupelo favorite, “New Madrid,” appeared in the second slot, followed by another trio of personal favorite songs: “A Shot in the Arm,” “War on War,” and possibly my No. 1 song from “Foxtrot,” “I’m the Man Who Loves You.”
The show seemed to be over with “The Late Greats” (also the closing track from “Ghost”), especially when the house lights began to flicker on. But this truly was one of the best crowds I’ve been in, aside from the requisite idiots yelling out requests and other stupid comments during between-song breaks. Overall, though, most everyone was quiet and respectful, and Tweedy seemed to realize that, too, because he came back out for one more solo song, “Acuff-Rose,” to close a 1:45 set and a great night in the hills of Pennsylvania.
For all the negativity I’ve felt about Wilco—and Tweedy, in particular—over the past couple years, Saturday night went a long way to redeeming his recent work and keeping me hooked for the future. He could have come out and tried some sort of awful avant garde solo performance art—I actually half-suspected this would be the case, honestly. Instead, I was on the receiving end of some old-school honesty.
Again, this is why I go to concerts, folks: Nothing beats live music. With this great show floating around my head, I’ve already gone back and listened to (most of) “A Ghost is Born” more in the past few days than I had in the 18 months since it was released.
Rock and roll may not be my savior, but it continues to change my life—in big and small ways.

Jeff Tweedy
Messiah College
Grantham, Pa.

Main Set:
Sunken Treasure
Airline To Heaven
(Was I) In Your Dreams
New song
Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
Blue Eyed Soul
Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard
Remember the Mountain Bed
Sugar Baby
Lost Love
Please Tell My Brothers
Heavy Metal Drummer
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Black Eye
Someone Else’s Song
Someday Soon

First Encore (with Glenn Kotche on drums):
Not for the Season
New Madrid
A Shot in the Arm
War on War
I’m the Man Who Loves You
The Late Greats

Second Encore (solo):

Sunday, November 06, 2005

‘I’ll Always Remember the Sound’: Dashboard Confessional at Washington College, 11.5.05

In the past four years, Dashboard Confessional has had two hit records and three hit songs. They’ve been all over MTV and probably made more money than anyone in the band ever thought possible.
So it’s nice to know lead singer Chris Carrabba and Co. can still get on a barebones stage in a middle-of-nowhere gymnasium and play their hearts out like nothing’s changed.
Dashboard’s follow-up to 2003’s “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar” isn’t due out until early next year (hopefully), but Carrabba can’t seem to stay off the road for long. So this fall, he and his band have been playing random shows across the country, raising money for hurricane victims (Carrabba lives in Florida and has raised more than $150,000 for the relief effort).
Low-key is probably the best way to describe Dashboard’s stellar set of nearly two hours Saturday night at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. After all his success, Carrabba still seems as humble and fan-friendly as ever—if this aw shucks sincerity is an act then, well, he’s a really fine actor. The stage was basically a platform at one end of the gym, with two simple banks of lights and an eponymous wall hanging at the back. Refreshingly unspectacular.
And it was fitting that one of the nicest moments from Saturday night’s show was Carrabba’s down-to-earth plea for hurricane relief. In one of his frequent between-song chat sessions, he mentioned Hurricane Wilma had ripped off the roof of his Florida home. “I can afford a new roof,” Carrabba said quietly, “but there are plenty of people who can’t, so anything you can give to the Red Cross would help.” No political statement. No extended message. No posing as some sort of world savior. Just short, sweet, and to the point, with no strings attached.
The night began with Carrabba sneaking onstage to play backup guitar for his friend and opening act, John Ralston. Carrabba spent most of the set nearly off the back of the stage noodling on electric guitar, only occasionally sidling up to a microphone to help out on vocals. Again, no fanfare, no spotlights, no special treatment. You get the sense this guy is trying to keep his life as simple and normal as possible, even though circumstances around him have changed dramatically.
I’ve seen Dashboard three times now on three different tours. The first was back in the summer of 2002, just as the band was starting to make waves on MTV2. They opened for Weezer that year, and the 45-minute set was basically “Dashboard Confessional Plays Their Hits.” In the fall of 2003, they headlined a club punk tour featuring Vendetta Red, Brand New, and MxPx; for that show, D/C played a high-energy set of about 70 minutes, ripping through their more uptempo, fan-friendly numbers in order to stay with the show’s overall vibe.
Now, I finally feel like I’ve seen the show Chris Carrabba really loves to play.
On Saturday he opened with the standard rollicking “Am I Missing” but quickly slowed things down for 45 minutes of mellow yet intense acoustic numbers. Highlights were everywhere: After “Missing,” the band went into three of the four songs off the “So Impossible” EP played back-to-back-to-back; that trio led into “A Plain Morning,” a song off D/C’s debut album (back when the “group” was just Carrabba and a guitar) that had been retired for a few years.
After a relaxed “As Lovers Go” (featured on the “Shrek 2” soundtrack), Carrabba strapped on his Spider-Man-looking electric guitar, mentioning how he likes the quiet songs but now he wanted to pick the energy up a bit. That led to “Rapid Hope Loss,” a great rocker that blew me away when I heard it for the first time in 2002 and hasn’t lost any steam.
Dashboard’s trademark singalongs then went into full effect, as six of the next seven songs were from the band’s breakthrough 2001 album “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most.” We’re talkin’ home run after home run here, with “The Good Fight” leading into “Saints and Sailors,” “The Brilliant Dance,” “Screaming Infidelities,” and “Again I Go Unnoticed.”
With the crowd now in full-throated frenzy, Carrabba capitalized on that energy for the debut of a new song, “Don’t Wait,” which he said will be on next year’s record. If this is any indication of what’s to come, now I really can’t wait for this album. “Don’t Wait” is in the same vein as much of the band’s recent work, and—at least when played live—it has the epic quality of a song like “Several Ways to Die Trying.”
Following “Don’t Wait,” the rest of the band retreated behind the stage, leaving Carrabba alone in the spotlight to close the set with “The Swiss Army Romance,” a tale of college insecurity that seemed all the more appropriate given the setting. Carrabba doesn’t invoke the crowd participation as much as he used to (which is a good thing), but this D/C classic will always be a two-way street, and Carrabba still walks to the front of the stage, away from the mic, and lets the crowd close the song with him.
After a brief break, he was back onstage by himself again to open the encore with “The Best Deceptions,” another winner from “Places.” So with time running short, Carrabba closed the night with undoubtedly two of his best songs, “Vindicated” from the “Spider-Man 2” soundtrack, and “Hands Down,” originally released on the “So Impossible” EP and reworked into an electric anthem for “A Mark, …”.
“Vindicated” is without question my favorite D/C song, and the band NAILS it live. Carrabba roars into the mic like the vocals are coming up from his toes, defying logic that such a huge sound could come from such a tiny body.
“Hands Down” is like Dashboard’s version of Pearl Jam’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” For the finale, Carrabba invited Ralston and the rest of his band onstage so there were six guitars (I think) wailing away. With his mates alongside him, Carrabba has extended the ending of “Hands Down” to allow a little more jam time, but eventually everyone else slips away to leave him alone again to close the show and say good-bye amid raucous applause.
I know in my heart that Dashboard Confessional won’t go down as more than a footnote (if that) in the history of rock and roll. But they’re a nice band with an earnest, charismatic lead singer that puts on a quality, heartfelt show every night—and I happen to love their music. There’s a lot to be said for making the most out of what you’re given and not letting success go to your head. As such, Chris Carrabba is the most unlikely rock star you’re ever likely to meet (which I have, twice).
And, hey, “Vindicated” just RAWKS.

Dashboard Confessional
Washington College
Chestertown, Maryland

Main set:
Am I Missing
The Sharp Hint of New Tears
For You To Notice …
Remember to Breathe/The Moon is Down (Further Seems Forever cover!)
So Impossible
A Plain Morning
Carry This Picture
As Lovers Go
Rapid Hope Loss
The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most/California (Phantom Planet cover)
Ghost of a Good Thing
The Good Fight
Saints and Sailors
The Brilliant Dance
Screaming Infidelities
Again I Go Unnoticed
Don’t Wait (new song)
The Swiss Army Romance

The Best Deceptions
Hands Down