Monday, May 29, 2006

‘A Night for Dancin’ and Singin’’: Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band, Live Near D.C., 5.28.06

Bruce Springsteen’s fifties have been very, very good to him.
Approaching his 57th birthday this fall, consider the wide range of work he’s produced just since the turn of the millennium. First came 2002’s “The Rising,” a stirring meditation on Sept. 11, backed by his beloved E Street Band for the first time since the Reagan era. Next up: 2005’s “Devils and Dust,” a solo album that proves a satisfying—and, in points, fantastic—deviation into Springsteen’s solo work.
And now, seemingly out of thin air, arrives “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a thrilling tribute to folk troubadour Pete Seeger that Springsteen recorded in just a few weeks from the living room of his New Jersey farmhouse with a motley bunch of 16 other musicians. He may not have written any of these songs, but from the opening moments of “Old Dan Tucker,” that unmistakable growl and howl make them Springsteen’s own. A welcome ramshackle change of pace from one of the most obsessive artists in rock and roll, "Seeger Sessions" is exhilarating for both musician and listener, a tremendous accomplishment for a guy who, we thought, had seen and done it all. And if you think this wasn't a risk, you're dead wrong. You know all those "BRUUUUCE" heads at regular shows clamoring for "Rosalita"? Well, a lot of them aren't even showing up this time around (not that that's a bad thing).
So touring off his first album of pure covers, the man they call The Boss is in the midst of an artistic renaissance—and, somehow, out to prove himself all over again. Never was that more apparent than Sunday night in Bristow, Virginia, when Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band (now expanded to TWENTY!), stormed the stage at Nissan Pavilion for an all-out hootenanny. I’ve seen a show from each of these three albums, and this one is without question my favorite of the bunch—come to think of it, this was the most pure, unadulterated fun I’ve EVER had at a concert.
You can say the words “20-piece band” and just gloss right over exactly what that means, because nothing quite prepares you to actually see that many people up on stage with Bruce Springsteen. And he knows it, too. Throughout the night, the lights would go down after every song, spotlight on whichever player was taking the lead to start the next one, and then the lights came up—WHAM!—when the full band kicked in—it’s a breathtaking sight (and sound) just about every time. I know this is folk music, but it’s folk music through the filter of one of America’s greatest rock and rollers, so these songs, too, absolutely rock in their own way.
There’s so much going on up there it’s hard to take it all in. Springsteen, for one, is juking and jiving like a man half his age—dripping and flinging sweat, he literally never stops moving and spends seemingly as much time away from the mic as he does hollering into it, alternately directing his band on the fly and just dancing around having a good ol’ time.
Sunday night, he opened the show with the stellar one-two punch of “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “John Henry,” which effectively established a party atmosphere for the entire show; when Springsteen and seven other string players walk up to the front of the stage as a group and just wail away, you can’t help but smile and boogie. This would prove an excellent tactic throughout the night, always a crowd-pleaser. My particular favorite came during “Jesse James,” when Springsteen called the horn section down front from their riser in the back, letting the trumpet, trombone, sax, and tuba get their due.
To fill out a 21-song set that is now stretching toward the three-hour mark, Springsteen has reworked some of his own material and sprinkled them throughout the show. The only one even remotely recognizable is “If I Should Fall Behind,” the quintessential love song that allows Springsteen to share a microphone with wife and fellow luminous E Streeter Patti Scialfa. The rest, though, are like entirely new songs, especially “Open All Night” from 1982’s “Nebraska,” which Springsteen has transformed into an uptempo scat-fest boogie-woogie, spitting the lines out so fast he lost track of himself Sunday and had to stop and catch up with the band a few bars later. In the encore, “Ramrod” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” turn the Seeger Sessions Band into a ragtime group straight out of New Orleans—and it’s blow-your-hair-back fantastic.
Speaking of NOLA, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina came up at several points during the show, from the rather tepid reading of “We Shall Overcome” (the only boring song of the night) to “My Oklahoma Home” and “When the Saints Come Marching In,” the latter a remarkable take on a classic spiritual, allowing Springsteen’s surprisingly still-full voice to shine through in a quiet musical moment.
Springsteen was also mercifully mute politically, a surprise given the relatively close vicinity to the White House. Thankfully, he allowed the songs to speak for him, which is all I ever ask of musicians in the first place. The Irish folk lament “Mrs. McGrath” was an elegiac highlight of the night, and probably my favorite track on the album, too, despite Springsteen’s altering a line to slam President Bush (at this point, I can’t stand Bush any more than the Democrats, so who cares?). He’s also started adding Seeger’s Vietnam protest song “Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)” as the encore opener. Again, no speechifying—just a simple comment that this is a song in honor of Memorial Day.
Political moments are just a small part of the show, though, because the Seeger Sessions Band is all about a rollicking great time. “Pay Me My Money Down” perhaps best summarized the vibe of the entire night, as Springsteen and the band wander offstage leaving only drums, tuba, and a crowd that sang the chorus all the way through the break until Springsteen came back onstage to shut us up (I’ve never been a part of something like that before).
Originally, Springsteen was only going to tour a limited number of shows with his new mates, but over in Europe he promised to see them again in the fall. After taking in this show, it’s not hard to see why he wants to keep going—he looks like he’s having an absolute ball up there. Even his song intros are hilarious (for “Jesse James”: “Most of this is bullshit, but it’s accepted bullshit”; on marriage advice prior to “Fall Behind”: “If Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy”; before “Erie Canal”: “The only love song written for a mule”). And, the best part is, with such a dynamic frontman shimmying and cavorting all over the stage, the fun is infectious. Although he had to urge a few “Virginia asses to get off those Virginia seats,” those of us down in the pit needed no encouragement. By the end of the night, my feet hurt from stompin’, my hands hurt from clappin’, my throat hurt from hollerin’, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The record is great. The show is inspired. What can he possibly do to top this?

Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band
Nissan Pavilion, Bristow, Va.

O Mary Don’t You Weep
John Henry
Johnny 99
Old Dan Tucker
Eyes on the Prize
Jesse James
Cadillac Ranch
If I Should Fall Behind
Erie Canal
My Oklahoma Home
Mrs. McGrath
How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
Jacob’s Ladder
We Shall Overcome
Open All Night
Pay Me My Money Down

Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
When the Saints Come Marching In
Buffalo Gals

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Sunday, May 28, 2006

'Mission: Impossible III'

From the start, “Mission: Impossible III” was, for me, always about J.J. Abrams, not Mr. Placenta Eater. And in that respect, it’s pretty good for the “Alias”/”Lost” creator’s feature film directing debut.
With skills honed through several years of managing the superspy television series that made him a star, Abrams makes the most of his new toys (read: HUGE budget) in “M:I III”. I didn’t think by-the-numbers action movies could surprise me anymore, but there are some genuinely jaw-dropping scenes in this movie (I won’t spoil them for you, don’t worry).
Sometime in 2005, though, Abrams must have thought, “What have I done?” It wasn’t exactly the best year of Tom Cruise’s career, what with all the cradle robbing, couch jumping, and all. Plus, Abrams had to figure out how to make us care about yet another derring-do special agent, when there are already so many better ones out there—his own Sydney Bristow from “Alias” and Jack Bauer from “24” leap to mind.
So Abrams (along with fellow “Alias” scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) spend the first 15 minutes or so of the latest “Mission: Impossible” installment forcing a “humanizing” setup down our throats, with the hope that we’ll actually, you know, care what happens to Mr. Freaky Grin. In a plot device straight out of an “Alias” episode, the film opens with a torture scene, cuts to the main title, then flashes back a few days to show us how we get there.
Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has left field work behind to become merely a trainer for the super-secret IMF, because he’s found a reason to have a regular life—Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who thinks he works for the Department of Transportation. Trouble is, one of Hunt’s trainees has been kidnapped and he’s asked to go get her.
Thus begins a series of events that gets Hunt’s lady kidnapped, which supposedly builds tension. “M:I” was never meant to be a story with much heart—it was all for kicks, if not quite the tongue-in-cheek action of James Bond, then pretty close. Plus, Cruise has been so oversaturated, it’s really difficult to separate his persona from his character (amazing how things change, because I had no such trouble with 2002’s “Minority Report”). The humanizing elements are a facile attempt at damage control, and it doesn’t work.
But that’s the bad stuff. There’s plenty to enjoy in “Mission: Impossible III.”
Abrams delivers a straightforward action thriller that, once it gets going, never slows down. Cruise must have had a ball filming this one, because he’s swinging from skyscrapers, firing guns, dodging missiles (yes, MISSILES) and generally causing mayhem the entire time. There’s also plenty of high-tech wizardry on display, including an excellent scene where we finally get to see how they make those lifelike masks and another where Hunt’s buddy Luther (a typically solid Ving Rhames) gets to fire a batch of machine guns using computers and a bunch of track ball mice. Sweet.
Speaking of Rhames, the supporting cast is superb, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a sublimely sadistic villain. Showcasing some of his darker side that escaped in 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” Hoffman steals every scene he’s in—including those in which there are TWO of him onscreen (long story). With a cool-as-a-cucumber seethe reminiscent of John Malcovich, let’s hope there’s more—and bigger—bad guy roles in this chameleon’s future (he’s not in the frame nearly enough here).
Overall, “Mission: Impossible III” was better than I thought it would—or could—be, but I should have expected no less from the man they call “Jaybrams.” As popcorn flicks go, it’s certainly solid; unfortunately, this one tries to be one of those “action movies with a heart” and doesn’t carry it off. Still, it’s meant to be seen on a big screen and utilizing a booming sound system, so I would definitely recommend it for a fun evening out.
And I can’t wait to see what Abrams can do with a movie without quite so much baggage.
Grade: B

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

‘Pearl Jam’: The Album Otherwise Known as ‘Avocado’

The most surprising aspect of Pearl Jam’s eponymous new album is that it’s so full of surprises, not the least of which the fact that it must now be considered in a conversation about the band’s best work. After 15 years, I didn’t think they could shock me anymore—and then they go and deliver their hardest rocking, most consistent release since “Ten,” way back in 1991.
Oh, I was so prepared to hate this record. Between 2002’s lackluster “Riot Act” and 2004’s hypocritical Vote For Change tour (wasn’t Ralph Nader on the ballot this time, too?), I had had about enough of Pearl Jam. I didn’t even listen to the band for the better part of a year and a half (which, for me, is a really, really long time) and had resigned myself to seeing them live and that’s about it.
But from the crunching lead riff of opener “Life Wasted” through the gorgeous, sweeping chords of finale “Inside Job” nearly 50 minutes later, this album (which fans nicknamed “Avocado” due to the ridiculous cover art) is nearly perfect. It’s a pinnacle release, one I didn’t think Pearl Jam was capable of anymore and that almost guarantees this band will be viable and relevant for years to come.
Whether intentional or not, “Avocado” is easily divided into three acts, beginning with a five-song assault unparalleled in the Pearl Jam catalog. The aforementioned “Life Wasted” sets both the musical and lyrical tone for the entire album, with its driving beat, killer guitar work by Stone Gossard, and images of a person fed up with himself and the world around him and looking for escape, release, and change. Eddie Vedder says this is not a concept album, per se, but nearly all of the record’s 13 tracks deal with this notion in one way or another.
Speaking of Eddie, he is both the most to blame for “Riot Act’s” relative failure and deserves much of the credit for “Pearl Jam’s” success. On the former, his mush-mouthed, world-weary vocal delivery drags down nearly every track; on the new album, he’s back to “Vitalogy”-era form, growling, howling, and stomping his way through the first five songs and taking flight on its second half. His bandmates readily admit Eddie’s the one that brings everyone together onstage, and the same could be said in the studio—whether he likes it or not, Vedder sets the tone, and the tone here is incendiary. Pearl Jam, contrary to popular belief, would probably argue they never went anywhere. Regardless, “Life Wasted” sends a clear signal right off the bat—no slow build to this record: We’re back.
Which brings us to “World Wide Suicide,” Pearl Jam’s most successful radio hit in years that occupies the No. 2 slot on “Avocado.” This song was a definite grower on me; when I first downloaded the single two months ago, my reaction was, and I quote, “meh.” I still would rank it at the bottom of this record, but its bouncy melody fits in perfectly with the uptempo vibe of Side 1 and thus, taken in context with the rest of this album, “World Wide Suicide” benefits tremendously and dutifully keeps the momentum going.
With the most obvious attack on the Bush administration on the entire album (“Medals on a wooden mantle. Next to a handsome face./That the president took for granted./Writing checks that others pay.), “Suicide” is as good a point as any to discuss the problem nipping at my heels when listening to this album: Politics. It’s no secret what side of the aisle Pearl Jam rolls with—and it hasn’t been a secret since the band’s inception. Eddie is the same guy now as the 20-something who stood on a stool in 1992 and wrote “Pro-choice” on his arm in big black letters during the taping for “MTV’s Unplugged”; this is the same band that played multiple Voters for Choice shows in the mid-’90s; the same frontman that stumped for Nader alongside Michael Moore in 2000; and the same band that once included an article by Noam Chomsky in its fan club newsletter. For those of us red-staters out there, who are we kidding? They’re not going to change who they are, and expecting them to is moronic.
No, the problem arrives when the message overrides the music, as it did for much of “Riot Act”; thankfully, that is largely not the case on “Pearl Jam.” If raging against war and President Bush yields these results, then so be it. I do find it ironic, though, that the most overtly partisan songs on the album (as in those that use the word “war”) are also the least interesting musically—“World Wide Suicide,” “Parachutes,” and “Army Reserve.”
Still, there’s enough on this record for everyone to find something. If nothing else, I can relate to this soundbite from Eddie during a recent interview: “It feels like the end of the world … and we’ve got a good seat.” More than liberal politics, this is the driving force behind “Pearl Jam."
Now, with that out of the way …
“Comatose” occupies the third slot on “Avocado” and it’s another of those “wow” moments. This is as punk-rock as Pearl Jam gets, and it’s a total punch in the gut, akin to “Spin the Black Circle,” “Blood,” or maybe what “Lukin” would sound like if it ran more than 62 seconds.
Up next is “Severed Hand,” one of the best songs on the album. A musical cousin to “Porch,” this could turn out to be one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs of all time, especially the final minute when Eddie straps on a guitar and adds to the clamor. Written soon after the 2000 Roskilde festival where nine people were crushed to death during the band’s set, “Severed Hand” gives voice to that inner demon that wants to say “screw it all, let’s get hammered.” Not exactly an uplifting message, I’ll grant you, but one everyone can relate to—and one that fits this aggressive song perfectly.
When the opening chords of “Marker in the Sand” kick in, at this point it seems impossible that the band could keep this momentum going for such an extended stretch. “Pearl Jam’s” opening quintuplet goes by in one furious blink, and before you know it you’re halfway through the album already. “Marker” finds Vedder trying to make sense of—and finding no answers in—the war of ideas between sides professing Christianity and Islam, yet demonstrating none of the tenets of those religions. In some of his most overtly spiritual lyrics to date, Vedder calls out to God, angry and pleading at the same time. What's really special about “Marker,” though, is the abrupt changes of pace between the tight verses and the more airy, lilting, Springsteen-esque chorus—again, more of those surprises that mark this entire record.
“Marker” is a signal that things are about to change on “Pearl Jam.” As the first act comes to a close, the quiet, acoustic “Parachutes” serves as its own marker, a transition into mellower territory for most of the remaining songs.
The second act could be heard as its own trilogy, the story of a man struggling to survive in a cutthroat world. In the fantastic R&B rocker “Unemployable,” the man with a “big gold ring that says ‘Jesus Saves’” has just been fired after a lifetime spent sacrificing “to a stranger’s bottom line.” “Unemployable” may have been the official b-side for “World Wide Suicide,” but this song is second to none. The lyrics go straight to the short list of Eddie’s best efforts, as anyone who’s ever worked a dead-end job for scumbag supervisors will want to put “Unemployable” on repeat. Consider this beautiful second verse, sung in a unique and infectious staccato rhythm:

“Well, his wife and kid are sleeping but he’s still awake
On his brain weighs the curse of thirty bills unpaid
Gets up, lights a cigarette he’s grown to hate
Thinking if he can’t sleep, how will he ever dream?”

But there’s a silver lining in this cloud. Getting fired has left him “scared alive,” so he seeks solace in the ocean scenes of “Big Wave,” Vedder and bassist Jeff Ament’s big hug to the surfing community (this song is destined to grace the soundtrack of some future beach movie). In this fun, throwaway rocker (similar in feel to “Gods Dice,” Jeff’s contribution to 2000’s “Binaural”), it’s not a stretch to think the character from “Unemployable” spends a day in the ocean to try and get his head straight before returning to town for the events of “Gone,” a song that mixes the theme of “MFC” with the soaring melody of “In Hiding,” two standout tracks from 1998’s “Yield.” Here our troubled soul has made up his mind:

“For the lights of this city
They have lost all feeling
Gonna leave em all behind me
Cause this time
I’m gone”

By this point in the album—Song No. 9, for those keeping track at home—it’s almost hard for me to believe what I’m hearing. “Gone” would be a standout cut on any of the band’s previous albums, and here it’s almost buried by the flood of highlights before it and those that are about to follow it. And thus, “Gone” may just be the song that makes this entire record.
“Wasted Reprise,” is an organ-infused coda to the opening track and doubles as a fitting end to the previous trilogy, highlighting the sense of hope on this record and establishing a solid break for the last three songs on the album.
“Army Reserve” is without question my least favorite track on “Pearl Jam.” As the title suggests, it tells the story of a mother and child waiting at home for a father they hope will return from the war. Lyrically, this song is reminiscent of Springsteen’s “You’re Missing,” a poignant, heartbreaking cut from 2002’s “The Rising.” Although “You’re Missing” could obviously refer to a loved one lost in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, one of Springsteen’s gifts is turning the specific into the universal and thus his lamentation never sets itself so firmly in a time and a place as Vedder’s “Army Reserve.” With that comparison so indelible in my mind (“You’re Missing” is one of my favorite Springsteen songs), “Army Reserve” will always suffer. Not to mention the fact that, musically, it’s the least-interesting song on the album, the only track that sheds momentum in its chorus. This reminds me of “Cropduster” from “Riot Act”—not bad for the first couple listens, but it just doesn’t hold up. It’s one more protest song on a record that already has enough.
Thankfully, “Pearl Jam” concludes with the best one-two punch to end any of the band’s eight albums; on subsequent listens, these two songs just pull me all the way through to the end of the record, compelling me not to press stop. For a record chock-full of tremendous vocal performances, “Come Back” could be Eddie’s best, as he drifts into this twangy ballad that fits his baritone like a glove. Some have speculated this song was written for the late Johnny Ramone, a dear friend of Ed’s (and a staunch Republican, I might add—if he can get along with Ed, certainly I can, too), but THIS is universal writing at its best. From start to finish, “Come Back” is simply beautiful, on a level with “Black” and “Off He Goes.”
But on an album of surprises, “Pearl Jam” saves its best for last in the form of Mr. Michael McCready, who dominates this record from start to finish not only with his trademark soloing, but his (until this point) woefully untapped songwriting ability. On “Avocado,” his credits include “Comatose,” “Marker in the Sand,” “Unemployable,” “Come Back,” and “Inside Job,” which now rivals “Release” and “Indifference” as the best closer on a PJ album.
“Inside Job” starts out slow, with Gossard (I’m guessing) on rhythm acoustic guitar and presumably Mike or Eddie wielding an e-bow on an electric guitar. It’s dark and moody—and when keyboardist Boom Gaspar comes in on piano at 1:25, it becomes epic. McCready’s battle with alcohol and drug addiction is well documented; here, after finally winning that battle, he gets to say his piece with the first credited lyrics of his Pearl Jam career. Ed dons a voice similar to Springsteen’s Oakie persona to deliver the first two verses, as McCready shares what it means to live as a recovering addict:

“Underneath this smile lies everything
all my hopes, anger, pride and shame

Make yourself a pact, not to shut doors on the past
Just for today, … I am free”

And then, as McCready describes his reemergence into the “human light,” Matt Cameron kicks in on the drums at 3:39 and the music shifts into monster guitar chords (Mike’s favorite) and a heavenly vocal from Ed. While maybe not stellar in its individual parts, “Inside Job”—taken in context—adds up to one of Pearl Jam’s best songs and closes the band’s self-titled album on an unbelievably high note.
It’s impossible to say, at this early stage, where “Pearl Jam” will eventually rank in the group’s deep resume. Will it prove to have the perfect trifecta of “Given to Fly,” “Do the Evolution,” and “In Hiding” like “Yield”? Will its more experimental moments still sound as good a decade later like “No Code”? Will its uptempo rockers still get the blood flowing like “Vitalogy”? Will it fade into mediocrity with time like "Riot Act"? Regardless, this I know for sure: For now, “Avocado” sounds great at any time, in any situation (home, car, plane, office). Pearl Jam spent a decade tearing down the success they built so quickly; if they’re looking for a way to get some of it back, this record will do it or nothing will.
And, in typical Pearl Jam fashion, they cut no corners and give no quarter. What a tremendous achievement—not bad for a bunch of 40-somethings.
Grade: A

Thursday, May 04, 2006

'Live on Letterman: Pearl Jam'

This isn’t supposed to happen. These guys, that would be the five (or six) members of Pearl Jam, are not supposed to be getting better after 15 years together.
For those unfortunate enough to miss it, the band played a once-in-a-lifetime gig this evening at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City as part of a “Late Show with David Letterman” appearance. After the taping ended, Pearl Jam stayed onstage for a blistering nearly hour-long set broadcast free online, the first time any such thing had ever been done at “The Late Show.”
If you closed your eyes, you could believe it was 1991 again. That’s how visceral this performance was—even via a warbly Internet broadcast, no less! For a second I thought Ed was going to climb into the rafters or something.
The setlist was front-loaded with new material (duh), now that the band’s new album, “Pearl Jam,” is in stores. But the last four songs were older material, including the one-two final punch of “Why Go” and “Porch” (the latter with that sweet jazzy intro that showed up for a little while in 1998). I’m still digesting the new album and this isn’t my official review, but it’s definitely a winner. The new songs sound right at home up against these old warhorses; particular new favorite “Severed Hand” even seems, musically, like a cousin of “Porch,” while “Comatose” instantly ranks among the band’s best punk rockers of any era (think “Go,” “Blood,” or “Spin the Black Circle”) and “Gone” is highly reminiscent of the classic “In Hiding.” (Ahh! Stop! This is not my review!)
Here’s the point: This band, armed with this great new batch of songs, is ready to blow the doors off buildings once again this summer. Every time I think they’ve hit their peak, they somehow manage to raise the bar again. If you don’t go see them, you’re out of your mind. Nobody’s better.

Setlist from “The Late Show with David Letterman”

Life Wasted (for broadcast)
World Wide Suicide
Severed Hand
Marker in the Sand
Present Tense
Do the Evolution
Why Go

And a side note to those derivative morons holding up the “Leash” signs: Enough already. This is not 1998, and “Leash” is not “Breath.” Yes, we pay Pearl Jam a lot of money to watch them play (but not as much as other bands), however that does not make them human jukeboxes. Not to mention the fact they go out of their way to make each and every night special and more than worth the money. Ed held up his own sign that read: “LEASH Will Not Be Played.” Let it go. This stupid “campaign” is only going to piss them off, and when they’re playing like this, irritating them is insane.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Vito, You’re No Don

Since when did “The Sopranos” become a bastion for political correctness? Oh, wait: About three weeks ago, when Vito skipped town fearing for his double life.
See, this is why David Chase wanted to end his show many moons ago—because if you hang around long enough, you become “Brokeback New Jersey.”
Last week’s episode was almost perfect, too, what with demonstrating how the old ways of the mafia are just about over. And that fantastic scene between Tony and A.J. (maybe the best in the history of these two characters’ interaction): We got A.J. dealing with being a Soprano kid (the overriding theme of the entire series, in my opinion), Tony showing some genuine love and affection for his son, and then Tony finally living up to his marital commitments—and hating himself for it.
And then Vito had to rain on the whole parade.
For those that don’t know, captain Vito Spatafore is hiding out in New Hampshire because it was discovered (in a classic, hilarious moment, I’ll grant you) that he is, in fact, gay. (Justifiably) Fearing retribution, he bolted for the hills, biding his time in a quaint country town.
Joe Gannascoli, who plays the oh-so-put-upon soldier, has stuck his face in front of any reporter he can find to pat himself on the back for the character he’s developed. To hear him tell it, Gannascoli came up with the homosexuality thread and encouraged Chase to develop it into a major story arc.
What a huge mistake.
The best thing about “The Sopranos” has always been its lack of political correctness. Until it became such a cultural touchstone, this show was under fire from just about everywhere, with its sex, drugs, violence, and its creative use of curse words.
There’s been plenty of the latter in recent episodes in light of Vito’s revelation, as the series’ typically solid writers have gone to excessive lengths in demonstrating the mafiosos’ bigotry through homophobic name-calling. Yeah, I got the point three seasons ago when Meadow brought home a black kid from school. This is just one example of how this season has sacrificed artistic integrity for blatant proselytizing. You want some more? How about Meadow’s talking-points rant against the Bush administration or Tony mispronouncing Sen. Rick Santorum’s name a few weeks ago? Man, just once I’d like to be “entertained” without being preached at. I thought I was at least safe with “The Sopranos,” but no such luck.
This Vito storyline is an absolute waste of valuable screen time, not to mention derivative (isn’t this exactly the same setup from last season: Phil wants somebody dead and Tony is handing it “his way”?). Even if Chase & Co. wanted to make a point about homophobia, they could have knocked Vito off in one episode and accomplished that goal. But, no, it’s more than that. This long-winded examination of the troubled homosexual has dragged on and on, delving into the minutiae of his life to show how awful it’s been for poor Vito living his life in the closet. “Sometimes you tell a lie so long, you start to believe it,” he mutters, oh-so-soulfully to his new boyfriend in New Hampshire. Well, boo hoo. I’m sorry, but am I supposed to sympathize with Vito’s plight? Because that’s the only justification I can think of for all this face time (which, on a side note, has reduced my favorite character, Christopher, to nothing more than a court jester). Let’s not forget whom we’re dealing with here: Vito is, hello, a MOBSTER. His life, until this recent foray into antiquing, anyway, consisted of lying, cheating, stealing, extorting, robbing, and/or killing anyone and everyone to make a buck. This is the same guy that put a bullet through the back of his cousin’s head!
They’re all criminals. We’re not supposed to be rooting for them, regardless of sexual orientation. This show has always been about the intrinsic strength of its characters, which makes Vito—a bland nobody—stand out like a sore thumb. There's no way this guy deserves to have not one but TWO of the last three episodes named after him.
Here’s the ironic thing about where I see “The Sopranos” going in this stretch run, though. Now that Tony has a new post-shooting-in-my-enormously-fat-stomach lease on life, he may be heading the way of one John “Waterworks” Sack. Wouldn’t it be great if, by trying to be a better person, that change of heart leaves him vulnerable, less vigilant, eventually leading to his downfall? Talk about sweet justice.
But for now, I guess we’re stuck with poor Mr. Spatafore. Vito, do us all a favor and just die, already.