Sunday, June 11, 2006

He Wrecked Us: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Live at Nissan, 6.10.06

Tom Petty is the author of so many songs woven into the fabric of my life, I almost forget how great they actually are.
Until he plays them right in front of my face, that is, and then I remember all over again what made me love them in the first place.
Petty is taking his Heartbreakers out on the road this summer for what he says could be the last big-top road trip of their longstanding careers. If so, it’s a shame, because as he proved Saturday night at Nissan Pavilion, there’s nobody out there quite like the Mad Hatter. He’s a showman without being cheesy, a craftsman without being rote, and, even after 30-plus years, can still put on one incredible show.
It’s truly amazing the depth of this man’s work when five of the first six songs Saturday night were the following: “Listen to Her Heart,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Falling,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” That lineup could CLOSE a show and bring the house down, much less open it! But, as Petty said, “We’ve got a lot of music for you tonight.”
After a trio of excellent cover songs (well, does a Wilburys song count as a cover?), Petty brought out a surprise special guest: Stevie Nicks, who he described as his “soul sister.” Look, I don’t even own a Fleetwood Mac album, but this was still pretty cool, if nothing else than for the shock value. And it was easy to tell the two of them were having a great time, both on the beautiful, quiet duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and the uptempo “I Need to Know.”
Up next was “Melinda,” a song Petty’s never recorded but remains nonetheless a longstanding concert favorite. The song showcases something else about this band that you might not expect—they love to jam. Nearly every song is stretched beyond its original borders with an extra coda, an extended intro, or, as is the case here, long jams in the middle, this time courtesy of keyboardist Benmont Tench. Petty doesn’t rush through anything. The lights go down at the end of each song, punctuating the quality and meaning of every entry in the set. And when such care and attention is given to everything he does, it makes Petty’s two-hour set feel more like three.
Petty slowed things down a bit with a trio of quieter tunes, highlighted by one of two new songs unveiled Saturday off his forthcoming “Highway Companions” album. Both were fantastic, including the acoustic “Square One” (destined to be a classic) and slow-builder “Saving Grace,” which fit nicely into the set’s opening sextet of power chords.
After a big singalong during a slowed-down version of “Learning to Fly,” Petty & Co. revved up again to close the set with three more classics. Each of these were played with so much power and passion, I thought they all would end the set. It’s hard to beat the trio of “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Refugee,” and “Running Down A Dream.”
So, let me pause here to mention the awesome stage setup for this tour. There are four large video screens at the back of the stage which, at various times, move up and down and have either a live shot of the band or images that complement the music. Meanwhile, a series what I can only assume are LCD screens hang in rows from the ceiling, made to resemble cabaret-style lights. These, too, are movable, and are often synchronized with the scenes from the four big screens. The production summarizes Petty perfectly: Just enough show to make you sit up and take notice, enough to add a little umph to the performance, but never distracting. Sensible, judicious, … perfect.
The band closed the show with a fine trio, “You Wreck Me,” “Mystic Eyes” (which I believe is a Van Morrison cover), and the staple “American Girl,” which also closed the group’s first album way back in 1976.
I know Petty says this tour is the final major hoorah for his beloved highway companions, but I just can’t believe it. At 55, the iconic frontman looks as spry as ever, spinning and prowling around the stage like it’s 1976, not 2006. If this truly is The Heartbreakers’ last big go-round, then we’ll all be missing a little something in summertimes to come. Because this band and this show are flat-out phenomenal.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Nissan Pavilion
Bristow, VA

Listen to Her Heart
You Don’t Know How It Feels
I Won’t Back Down
Free Fallin’
Saving Grace
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
I’m A Man (Yardbirds cover)
Oh Well (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Handle with Care (Traveling Wilburys)
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (w/Stevie Nicks)
I Need to Know (w/Stevie Nicks)
Square One
Insider (w/Stevie Nicks)
Learning to Fly
Don’t Come Around Here No More
Running Down a Dream

You Wreck Me
Mystic Eyes (Van Morrison cover)
American Girl

Running Time: 2 hours

•••And a note about opener Trey Anastasio***
I’m certainly no Phish-head, but this guy has totally won me over. I highly recommend his latest solo album, “Shine,” and I am THERE whenever he comes this way again as a headliner. Saturday’s 50 minutes wasn’t nearly enough.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Move Over Tony, There’s a New Sheriff in Town

Now that HBO’s “The Sopranos” has finally stumbled to the end of its worst season (by far), the once-scintillating series makes way Sunday night for its successor as not only the best drama on HBO, but arguably the best show on TV, period: “Deadwood.”
If that moniker rings a bell, it’s probably from one of myriad reports about its crass surface. Various media outlets have relished blaring headlines with the number of f-words or c-suckers uttered per episode (I don’t know the actual figures, but the total is surely in triple digits over the course of an hour). If you can get past the profanity, though (and, I guess, the random violence, nudity, and various other forms of depraved “adult content”), “Deadwood” slowly untangles its own complicated storylines to reveal a truly remarkable show. While not as hyped or acclaimed as “The Sopranos,” it’s just as good—maybe even better. The final episode of Season 1, for instance, is one of the best hours of entertainment I’ve ever encountered.
Created and produced by David Milch (who also created another controversial series, “NYPD Blue”), “Deadwood” is set in the late 19th century in the Dakota town of Deadwood, just prior to its annexation into the United States. A camp with no laws and lots of gold, Deadwood draws prospectors from all ranges of society—New York dignitaries to prostitutes, legitimate businessmen to entrepreneurs as corrupt as they come.
And then there’s Seth Bullock, a former lawman from Montana who was so worn down trying to enforce order in the Wild West, he went to the one place he thought he could escape it and live a quiet, unassuming existence. Unfortunately for Bullock, a deep-rooted sense of justice isn’t so easily shaken, and it wasn’t long before he was setting wrongs to rights in Deadwood, no matter how reluctantly. When he stalks down the thoroughfare in fury, eyes ablaze, it gives me chills.
Bullock is played to sizzling, righteous perfection by previous bit-player Timothy Olyphant, who conveys more in one baleful glare than most men could accomplish with a lengthy monologue. Not that there aren’t plenty of monologues in “Deadwood” to go around. In fact, other than the extreme content, another factor in the series’ relative lack of accessibility is the Shakespearean style in which the dialogue is written and delivered—right down to the soliloquies and asides (this aspect of the show is worthy of unabating praise all by itself—the writing is just fantastic).
Perhaps that’s why veteran stage and character actor Ian McShane took so well to his role as saloon owner/proprietor Al Swearengen (an apt name if ever there was one), a wolf in devil’s clothing. Holding court in his second-floor office like the king of England, Swearengen epitomizes the looking-out-for-number-one mentality needed to survive in Deadwood. He’s a complicated man whose deft political machinations are as lethal as his knife, and whose loyalties shift to whomever can serve his purposes best. He’ll fight to the death in one episode, then shake his former combatant’s hand in the next. And, yes, he’s masochistic and just a little bit crazy. But he commands attention, nonetheless.
“Deadwood’s” first 24 episodes are way too complicated to summarize here (in fact, they require such mental effort to watch, I can only take two at a time). Suffice to say, Milch sets these two alpha males—the reserved, honorable Bullock and the over-the-top, profane Swearengen—not only against each other, but against the encroaching (and equally corrupt) United States government; the only thing they hate more than each other, apparently, is someone from outside trying to move in on their territory. Olyphant and McShane are so terrific in these roles, when they share the screen the electricity generated is reminiscent of Pacino-de Niro in “Heat”—and, no, that’s not an exaggeration.
And they’re just two members of a spectacular cast. Brad Dourif (“The Lord of the Rings”) shines as the troubled town doctor; Robin Weigert earned a well-deserved Emmy nod for her alternately touching and hysterical portrayal of Calamity Jane; Paula Malcomson investigates every inch of the mentality of prostitute Trixie; and Molly Parker demonstrates the difficulty of being a woman in a man’s world through the dignified, yearning widow Alma Garret. (It’s also interesting to note that a series as misogynist as “Deadwood” could feature just as many strong female characters as male.)
Look, “Deadwood” certainly isn’t for everyone, otherwise there wouldn’t be a question about whether it’s going to be cancelled after this season. Its Aaron Sorkin-esque political minutiae can even be wearisome to the most dedicated of fans. But if you can somehow cope with the brutal violence and rampant curse words (all necessary to effectively set the atmosphere and realism, mind you (and McShane turns use of the f-word into an art form)), what you’ll find is a remarkably humane series with a heart of gold. Unlike “The Sopranos,” "Deadwood" is populated with plenty of people to love.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

‘X-Men: The Last Stand’

I didn’t think any movie could disappoint me and betray a loyal fanbase as much as the “Star Wars” prequels or the "Matrix" sequels, but “X-Men: The Last Stand” now takes its rightful place on this Mount Rushmore of infamy. It’s a shame this abomination is making so much money, because no studio should be encouraged to release something this bad.
I knew it, too, I just didn’t want to believe it. But as soon as I heard Bryan Singer had left the franchise after two excellent installments and was replaced by Brett Ratner (whose claim to fame is directing the two “Rush Hour” movies), there was nowhere to go but down. Why did it have to be Ratner? Anyone would have been better than this popcorn jockey, because he’s delivered arguably the worst mega-blockbuster of all time. I mean, this is “Matrix Reloaded” bad.
Worse, he and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn trample over the first two films. After watching “The Last Stand,” immediately try to forget it. The “creative” team behind this film can only drum up dramatic moments by killing off three major characters—and not in a good, meaningful way. I got the impression they just couldn’t figure out how to write a better story and went for cheap emotional payoffs that come up bankrupt.
And as for the remaining key characters that somehow avoided the chopping block, gone is every ounce of wit, humor, and genuine emotion found in the first two films. Instead, they’re reduced to spitting out every action-movie cliché in the book, effectively killing their personalities anyway. (Alan Cumming looks like a genius now for not reprising his role as Nightcrawler. These buffoons couldn’t have handled the complexities.) You want to know how awful this movie is? Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is actually BORING. There are several scenes of dialogue so bad, I can’t believe the actors didn’t stop everything and demand a rewrite on the spot. You know, the scary thing is, maybe they did, and this is the best Ratner & Co. could come up with.
Ratner’s only saving grace in “The Last Stand” is his full-on exploitation of all the awesome mutant powers at his disposal. As bad as it is, if you’re planning on seeing this film at all, you should see it on the big screen to get the full effect of the action, because there are some genuinely cool moments (Iceman vs. Pyro comes to mind); if you wait until DVD, though, all the mutant powers in the world probably won’t keep you from hitting the eject button before you’re even halfway through. Of course, let’s remember Ratner is actually just benefiting from the bankroll Singer spent two movies building.
The only other good thing about “The Last Stand” is Kelsey Grammer as Hank McCoy, a.k.a. The Beast. This is an inspired selection, and ol’ Frasier is spectacular in his first foray into big-budget territory.
Still, that only means this film is barely watchable at best; at worst, it destroys the X-Men franchise. Let’s hope this really is the last one—unless they can pry the reins out of Ratner’s ham-fisted hands, that is.
Grade: Special effects/mutant coolness A, everything else F. Overall: D+

Friday, June 02, 2006

You Say You Want A Revolution? Pearl Jam, Live in D.C., 5.30.06

My Red Hot Chili Peppers fandom essentially ended on March 31, 2000, the first and last time I saw them in concert.
That year the Peppers were touring off their spectacular comeback album “Californication,” with the Foo Fighters as special guests. So I hoofed it to Columbus with a bunch of friends to see them, only to find out when we arrived that Dave Grohl was “sick” and the Foos wouldn’t play. Disappointing as that was, I consoled myself with the hope that the Chilis would probably play longer as a result.
No such luck.
Instead, openers Muse played an extended set (not bad, mind you), and the Peppers made us wait for more than an hour before playing through their standard 80-minute set.
Needless to say, I was pissed. They could—and should—have done the right thing and at least tried to make something positive out of the evening. Think of how impressed I would have been had they acknowledged our disappointment by promising to try and take the edge off with a special performance. Nah, instead they took our money and ran.
I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve listened to them since then—and I LOVED “Californication.”
As Bill Cosby would say, I told you that story so I can tell you this one …

• • •

Giddy shouts of joy reverberated through Pearl Jam’s little corner of the Internet this month when it was revealed the band would play a set for VH-1’s “Storytellers” on May 31. Fans were buzzing over the opportunity to ask Eddie & Co. about their songs and get to hear the stories and themes behind them straight from their mouths—some of the songs, presumably, explained for the first time.
Except me. Why? Because I already had tickets for the D.C. show the night before, and I feared the worst: A set cut short by the necessity of traveling from Washington to New York City in time for an early call the next night. A conserving of energy, holding back on a few thousand people in order to look good for the millions certain to watch a televised performance. All adding up to, by Pearl Jam standards, a subpar outing.
What was I thinking? Pearl Jam never—I repeat, NEVER—mails it in, and I should have known better.
Tuesday night’s show was scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m., but Ed hit the stage at 7:25, guitar in hand, for a gorgeous pre-set cover of Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” (is there anything this guy’s voice can’t sing?). Openers My Morning Jacket then jumped onstage right away and played a brief 25-minute set, clearing out well before 8:00 and leaving Pearl Jam plenty of time to do their thing. Which they did, gloriously, for nearly two and a half hours.
They could have said screw it, we have an important gig tomorrow night and that’s all there is to it. But, no, they did the right thing, the honorable thing, and made the most out of what could have been a bad situation, because every night is important for this band. This is what makes PJ great. This is what separates them from the pack. It sounds trite, but I truly believe this band cares deeply about its fans and goes out of its way to protect that relationship. Cut a show short? Uh-uh. Not on your life.
And, man, what a show, clocking in at 29 songs and 2:25 (yes, it’s insane that those figures are considered shorter than usual), Pearl Jam simply trimmed off the fat. This, my 10th show, was perhaps the most well crafted, focused setlist I’ve heard in person.
Look no further than “Release,” one of the band’s best songs and without question the best concert-opener in Pearl Jam’s entire catalog. Man, I love this song—you’ll never convince me that a show opened with “Release” isn’t great. From the very first note (instantly recognizable for many of us), it sets a definite tone—we’re not screwing around here.
That vibe continued with a stellar run of all-out rockers to kick the show into high gear. Hit single “World Wide Suicide” actually translates extremely well live and has truly won me over, with Ed somehow managing to spit out all those lines without missing a beat or veering off track. “Severed Hand” melts my face it’s so raw and powerful, and makes good use of the band’s new light show. There is a rainbow arc of lights across the back of the stage, then another bank high above their heads that at times can shimmer and sparkle similar to U2’s “light curtain” from the Vertigo tour. And all of this is complemented by “laser lights,” essentially a series of spotlights located at the rear of the stage facing out into the crowd that can be wide or narrowed to a thin beam. Mostly used on the new material, it’s not distracting, but not entirely necessary, either. I liked the rainbow arc, but the rest didn’t do much for me.
By this point in the show—yes, just three songs in—the only thing you really need to see is Mike McCready, already going crazy and running in circles on his corner of the stage (always a good sign). And why not? The opening moments of this concert were a showcase for his guitar heroics, with big solos in “Severed Hand” and the old warhorse “Corduroy,” which still bowls me over.
After a rousing “Animal,” Ed spoke for the first time with these magic little words: “We’re just gettin’ started,” leading right into that killer opening riff to none other than “Do the Evolution”—it just reaches out and grabs you by the throat. While this is probably my favorite Pearl Jam song, I’m not so biased that I can’t admit it doesn’t always come off well live. Even though they’ve played it literally hundreds of times, “DTE” is so tight, it requires maximum effort to pull off live. When trotted out late in a show (the second encore, for instance), they typically don’t have enough energy left to play it to full potential. But here, in the No. 6 slot, it still roars, leading wonderfully into the always-magnificent “Given to Fly,” another major piece of the catalog that deserves the early-set treatment.
So Eddie lasted seven songs before delving into politics, albeit lightly (for now). After mentioning what a good time he had in the area on Memorial Day and how happy he is that summer is here, he dropped in a line about “hopefully we can end the war before summer’s end,” leading into the first shocker of the night: “Lowlight,” a beautiful track from 1998’s “Yield” that I had yet to hear in person.
“Lowlight” served as a dividing line between the opening thrills and the meat of the first set, which turned out to be one heck of a stretch. It didn’t hurt that this section began with “Unemployable,” one my favorite cuts off the new album. But follow that with “Grievance” → “Even Flow” → “I Got Shit,” and I need a moment to catch my breath. So, right on cue, here’s “Present Tense,” a highlight of any show and seemingly growing more powerful with age. It’s a little faster, a little harder these days, as Matt sneaks in earlier than before on drums. With Ed allowing the crowd to take over in the chorus—goosebumps, galore.
In another new twist (and I think this was a first), Ed also reworked the beginning of “Betterman” for Booooooom to start the song off on keys; while it makes for a nice change, I still prefer letting the crowd start the whole thing off a la Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” but I’m never going to complain about innovation—and we still got to sing the chorus.
Up next was “Inside Job,” a nice transition into the crescendo that closed the main set. I won’t go into my love for this song again (just find my review of the new record), but it’s so good—and has the potential to be even better once they figure out how to really pull it off live (it seems to be the most difficult piece of all the new songs). Right now, the opening section is played on electric guitar instead of acoustic and it’s a little more uptempo, which somewhat deadens the impact of that BIG shift to all-out rocker in the second half. Still, overall, I wouldn’t have traded this song out for anything.
“Wasted Reprise”/”Life Wasted” picked up on the momentum and took it up several notches, because, let me assure you, “Life Wasted” is already at the top of my list for favorite live songs. It fits the band’s strengths perfectly—taut, intense, hard-rocking, and a great segue into a knockout punch of “Why Go” (complete with the traditional drum solo intro) and “Rearviewmirror” to close this section of the show on a huge high. (Ed did a little vocal vamping during the “RVM” bridge, by the way, which I also think is new—and very cool (and, while I’m at it, let me mention the bridge was much harder and faster this time around than any version I’ve ever heard, which, again, is a big improvement).) I can’t stress enough how well this opening set flowed—it was basically pitch-perfect, with none of those awkward “Lukin” into “Wishlist” transitions Eddie has been known to throw in. Each song seemed to complement the previous one and lead gracefully into the next, building and lessening intensity as needed. It was Pearl Jam at their absolute best. And we weren’t close to finished, even on a “short” night.
Over the past couple years, Pearl Jam have fallen into a delicious habit of treating their first encore like an acoustic/soft mini-set. The crew drags some stools onstage and the band takes a load off for a few quiet songs, and it’s just great—makes a show feel even longer than it actually is. Tuesday night’s encore opened with “Man of the Hour,” a wonderful little song Ed wrote for the “Big Fish” soundtrack. That led into Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” which maintains Pearl Jam’s legacy of taking another artist’s song and making it completely their own (a la “Rockin’ in the Free World”). “Masters” has evolved quite a bit over the years, now played mostly electric and with more raw power than previous incarnations. It’s lost none of the bile, though, and was a much better political statement in the nation’s capital than any mumbling rant from Ed.
“Small Town” was the only song in the set I would have replaced, simply because it’s rather boring for me at this point. I’d much rather hear “Nothingman,” “Hard to Imagine,” or “Off He Goes” in this slot, but I know it’s a big crowd-pleaser, so I understand why it’s trotted out so much. And, hey, “Come Back” was next, so I can’t complain. This song, yet another highlight on “Avocado,” is just brilliant live. It gave me chills and stuck in my brain more than any other song after the show was over.
Back in October, after attending a classic PJ night in Philly, I wrote that the band plays “Alive” with hope now, rather than bitterness and anger as it was originally intended, and that has made it a highlight of any show. Well, I’m proud to say I was half right. During Wednesday night’s “Storytellers” taping, Ed confirmed this song has changed over the years, but not exactly the way I thought. He said the fans—not the band—made the difference, lifting his personal curse embodied in the writing of this song; our reaction to it changed the way they play it and contributed to Ed’s personal healing process. That’s a stunning revelation from a very guarded person, but I guess not surprising if you stand in a crowd during any rendition of “Alive.” Tuesday night, as we pumped our fists and chanted “Hey!” over and over as one, Ed picked up on our cue and started singing along to us. It’s one of my favorite parts of any show, looking around at the crowd during this song. Although not in my personal top 20, it is nonetheless essential to understanding Pearl Jam’s core—catharsis and release through a shared musical experience. The lyrics may be dour, but the music, the ability to share that pain, fills everyone with hope and turns tragedy and struggle into transcendence.
But enough of that mushy stuff. “Comatose” opened the second encore and absolutely blew the roof off the building. This new album is something else, ladies and gentlemen, and these songs (hopefully) aren’t going anywhere for a while. And then there’s “Leash,” which disappeared for more than a decade before a lame fan “campaign” coerced the band into pulling it out of the attic where it belongs and into the set. It debuted in Boston last week and has been played at every show since—a little “you wanted it, you’re gonna get it,” courtesy of Pearl Jam. The song does nothing for me, but it’s not bad live (certainly better than “Glorified G,” a clunker inexplicably making regular appearances in this slot these days), and it allowed me to check another track of my “to hear” list, so fine.
Ed just couldn’t let the night slip away without taking a few more jabs at the Bush administration, but at least he did so with humor. Dick Cheney gave him a call the other day, he quipped, and made a request for Tuesday night: Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up,” Cheney’s “favorite song,” with the “Why do I keep FUCKIN’ UP” refrain. “He listens to it every morning when he wakes up,” Ed said. Politics aside, this is one of Pearl Jam’s best covers and a welcome addition to any show I ever attend.
So with the 11:00 hour approaching, it was time for PJ to say goodbye the way they love best, one last scorching Mike solo to close “Yellow Ledbetter.” Mike’s famous for working well-known riffs into his last moment in the spotlight, but this has got to be my favorite. As the song started, Ed said, “We’ll see you again, because when the revolution comes, it’ll be in your back yard.” We may disagree on just about everything, but I think we’re both—and much of America—looking for something better in our nation’s supposed leaders. Democrats, Republicans—who can tell the difference anymore? So it was fitting Mike played “The Star Spangled Banner” almost in its entirety to close the night, a reminder that hopefully there’s more uniting us than dividing us.
A revolutionary thought, indeed.

Pearl Jam
Verizon Center
Washington, D.C.

Don’t By Shy (Ed solo)

Main set:
World Wide Suicide
Severed Hand
Do the Evolution
Given to Fly
Even Flow
I Got Shit
Present Tense
Inside Job
Wasted Reprise
Life Wasted
Why Go

First Encore:
Man of the Hour
Masters of War
Small Town
Come Back

Second Encore:
Fuckin’ Up
Yellow Ledbetter/Star Spangled Banner

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

***And one final note about D.C. crowds***
Washington-area crowds have a bad rap nationwide for being lethargic, and I don’t understand why. I’m not about to compare us with NYC, Boston, Philly, or Chicago (in that order), but I was proud to stand amongst the upraised voices both here and at the Springsteen show two nights earlier. In fact, a reviewer from favorably compared the Nissan show to a night in Europe. Now that’s some high—and long-deserved—praise. That singing through the encore break moment is one of my all-time best concert memories. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, there were multiple lines around the block waiting to get into a Pearl Jam show that had, hello, reserved seating. Don’t tell me we don’t get up for a show. Next time around, let’s play two!