Saturday, October 26, 2013

‘Happy Birthday to … Us!’: Pearl Jam, Live in Philly, 10.22.13

Pearl Jam and I both celebrated anniversaries Tuesday night in Philly. For the band, it marked 23 years since their very first show back on Oct. 22, 1990. For me, Tuesday night was my 15th PJ show in 15 years, a journey that began across the river in Camden back in 1998 and has seen me visit this city four times to see this band play. I've never come close to being disappointed. 

So in honor of the occasion Pearl Jam was understandably in a celebratory mood Tuesday night. By the end of the three-hour show Eddie was working on his third bottle of wine and had popped the cork on champagne that he shared judiciously with audience members in front of the stage. Pearl Jam tends to have two moods when it comes to live shows: fun or intense. Both have their own charms, but I prefer the latter. Tuesday night’s performance was the former. Like I said, it felt like a celebration.

After constructing setlists basically the same way for two decades, Eddie’s been changing it up a bit this tour—“experimenting,” as he puts it. Instead of opening with one quiet/mellow number that leads into a run of uptempo rockers, the shows are building slowly, with three or four softer choices to start off. I’m actually not a big fan of the change as I think it keeps the audience pent up for too long, but I can’t argue with the choices Ed made Tuesday night other than first song “Pendulum,” off the new record. When the band walks onstage, you want the first note of the show to be instantly recognizable … an a-ha moment. The opening strains of “Release,” “Long Road,” “Sometimes,” and all the others they typically use as openers have this effect. “Pendulum,” though, sorta drifts into existence; it doesn’t work well to grab you right out of the gates.

After that, though, the show really took off. “Wash” is one of my all-time favorite PJ songs (and was used as the opener to the epic show I saw in this same building back in October 2005). And then “Nothingman” provided the first goosebump moment of the evening, as toward the end Eddie stepped away from the mic to let the crowd sing and the lighting guy bathed the floor in a warm glow; from my perspective sidestage, it was a beautiful thing to behold. 

The energy picked up another notch with “Lightning Bolt,” the title track off the new album. This one is growing on me quickly; I don’t like, again, how it sorta meanders into existence (I much prefer PJ songs make bold statements with strong riffs right off the bat) but the song really picks up steam as it goes along, culminating in a four-guitar attack by the end that sounds like the song “Marker in the Sand” should’ve been. The final couple minutes of this track work really well in the live setting.

The new songs were a mixed bag, overall. Lead single “Mind Your Manners” suffers the same fate as its older cousin, “Spin the Black Circle”: The band has a real hard time reining in this careening animal—it’s almost too fast and rambunctious for its own good (still a killer track, though). “Infallible” is a nice cut on the album, but it doesn’t work as well in person, as it just kinda does the same thing over and over and doesn’t go anywhere; it reminds me of “Rival” in a lot of ways. “Sirens” is another song I like more and more every time I hear it, while “Yellow Moon” was much better live than on the record, showing a lot more soul. “Future Days,” meanwhile, didn’t do a whole lot for me. 

The band really swung for the fences with the setlist, playing at least one song from every album along with plenty of b-sides and a couple covers. Other than the glaring misstep of “Amongst the Waves,” the rest of the main set was fantastic, mixing rarities like “Satan’s Bed” and “Untitled” with strong rockers like “Hail, Hail,” “Do the Evolution,” “Corduroy,” “Got Some” (still sounds as good as it did on the Backspacer tour), and “MFC.” 

Two songs really stood out, though: For whatever reason this felt like the best version of “Present Tense” I’ve ever heard in person; Eddie, in particular, really ramped up his intensity in the second verse, which sparked the band as they start to pick up steam heading into the climactic instrumental jam. And then “World Wide Suicide” was given one of the best intros I’ve ever seen: Ed mentioned that a U.S. soldier who served in Afghanistan had sent them a letter and a gift, and how special it was to them; somehow the guy was sitting close to the front sidestage and got Ed’s attention, so Ed leaves the stage, walks up into the crowd and hugs the guy, and I think signs an autograph for him. It was a real special moment leading into one of the band’s best songs from the past decade. 

They’ve been doing mini-acoustic sets to start the first encores for years now. In theory this sounds great, but it can sometimes hurt the buzz of the crowd a little bit when they come out and sit astride stools and play a bunch of slow songs. I know they’ve done this before in the encores and I’ve liked it, but for whatever reason it just didn’t work that well Tuesday night. Maybe it was the song selection, with two new ones sandwiching “Come Back,” a song I love but one that can feel too long sometimes. Perhaps instead they should just do an entire acoustic set combining the choices from the opening set and the encore. 

All that was wiped away in a heartbeat, though, as they abandoned the stools and ripped into the one-two punch of “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust.” Ed introduced “Breath” by saying back when they first started playing their sets were only 11 songs long, and this one was usually No. 10. For them to play those two epic b-sides from the “Singles” soundtrack back to back floored me and was without question my favorite moment of the entire night. 

The first encore closed with a great combo. I’m shocked by this, but “Unthought Known” has aged quite well since the Backspacer tour. This is one of my lesser-favorite PJ songs, but I have to admit it went over huge Tuesday night—much better than I remember from a few years back. And then … “Porch.” Wow. Twenty-two years on and this song is still just as powerful and amazing as ever. This performance was memorable for the band playing with the lights hanging from their rig high above the stage; during the song the lantern-looking fixtures dropped down to stage level and the band started pushing them around, getting them swinging back and forth during the mid-song interlude. And then as the final chorus ramped back up, Ed jumped on one and started swinging back and forth on it as "Porch" and the first encore crashed to a close. It’s the 49-year-old version of climbing into the rafters, I guess (and also reminiscent of Bono swinging on his lit-up mic during “Ultraviolet” from the U2360 tour). (Note: At some point in the encores they asked the crowd to join them in singing happy birthday to themselves; it sounds self-aggrandizing but it really wasn’t—it was quite fun.)

In a callback to the 2005 Philly show, the band opened the second encore by once again going around to the rear side of the stage to perform “Last Kiss” for those sitting back there. For anyone who hates on this song, I say: Get over it. The rest of the encore was basically what we’ve come to expect from the close of a PJ show. I would’ve preferred the previous night’s “I Believe in Miracles” or “Sonic Reducer” to our “Leaving Here,” but let’s not get too picky. The final combo of “Alive” into “Baba” into “Yellow Ledbetter”—all with the house lights on—sent the crowd home ebullient, myself very much included. 

Seeing Pearl Jam in Philly is always a good idea; Ed mentioned during the show how much the band is still in awe of their bond with cities along the East Coast and how much they love playing here. I was also glad to be in the building to finally see one of their anniversary shows, and they went all-out in trying to deliver a memorable experience. There is no such thing as going through the motions with this band; they wouldn’t even know how to do it if they wanted to. 

And that’s why they’re still selling out 18,000-seat arenas 23 years after they started playing these songs. 

Pearl Jam
Wells Fargo Center

Lightning Bolt
Mind Your Manners
Amongst the Waves
Hail, Hail
Satan’s Bed
Even Flow
Got Some
Given to Fly
Present Tense
World Wide Suicide
Do the Evolution
Better Man

Yellow Moon
Come Back
Future Days
State of Love and Trust
Unthought Known

Last Kiss
Leaving Here
Baba O’Riley
Yellow Ledbetter

Show Time: 3 hours

Sunday, August 18, 2013

'She’s Got the Medicine that Everybody Wants': Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Live at Wolf Trap w/Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, 8.15.13

Grace Potter and Trombone Shorty set the night on fire at Wolf Trap

When Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews left the stage Thursday night after his hour-long opening set, I thought: How do you top that?

I got my answer 20 minutes later when Grace Potter sauntered out from the wings in her Dolly Parton heels and a sheer, shimmery white frock with a split so far up her left leg it would’ve made Jessica Rabbit blush. “I’ve got the medicine that everybody wants,” Potter cooed into the microphone, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. At that moment, every red-blooded male packed into Wolf Trap’s Filene Center had to agree. 

In an online chat last month with, Potter addressed her changing look over the first decade of her career, saying it hasn’t been part of some nefarious corporate makeover, but rather a reflection of her band’s expanding and evolving musical direction. Over the course of Thursday night’s two-hour set in the woods of Northern Virginia, Potter showcased all facets of that evolution. 

She opened the show in her sex kitten demeanor, prowling the stage like a tigress on a mission to seduce the entire crowd (which, she kinda did). But within a few songs she was at her organ/piano setup stage left, tearing into the emotional catharsis of “Apologies” in her full country/blues glory. At the end of a spectacular “Treat Me Right,” Potter stripped off the strappy shoes and pitched them across the stage to a roadie like Springsteen tossing a guitar. From there on out, we saw an even different Grace Potter. 

This one channeled the youthful, tenacious spirits of Mick Jagger and Robert Plant as she whirled and twirled around the stage in her bare feet, at times tapping into that otherworldly power that the best band leaders seem to conjure at will. At one point toward the end of the set she was so caught up in the moment, lost beneath that shock of wild blond hair, that the same roadie who earlier caught her shoes had to tap her on the shoulder to give her the guitar he was holding out for her in preparation for the next song. 

Wolf Trap’s Filene Center is a medium-sized outdoor amphitheater with a rather small lawn in the back, but this was likely the largest headlining gig Grace Potter & The Nocturnals had ever played; certainly the largest in the D.C. area, anyway. Far from being overwhelmed by the moment, the band grabbed the opportunity for all it was worth and played one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. It certainly didn’t hurt that I’d scored seats in the second row of the orchestra pit, dead center; with the band going full tilt to project and connect with such a large venue, their energy washed over me in waves. 

There were several highlights, but I’ll just mention a few here. 

• The band’s cover of Hank Williams’ “Devil’s Train” reminded me of Springsteen’s Seeger tour, as the entire band stood in a line on stage as a folk troupe; they then stayed there for the first part of the next song, “Big White Gate,” before melting back into their traditional instruments and locations midway through (something I’ve seen Wilco do before).

• My all-time favorite concerts always include a moment where a song strikes me in a way it never has before on record. Thursday night, that was without question “Stop the Bus,” a track from 2007’s “This Is Somewhere.” On the album, the track is a slow-burner, but a little subdued. In person, “Stop the Bus” transforms into this transcendent example of pure American rock and roll in the mold of Tom Petty. If I had to pick a favorite type of song, this would be it—a solid, midtempo stomp with big chords and a healthy groove (something The Hold Steady does very well, for instance). I was blown away by this song, and after going back to the recorded version, I realize it was something you had to encounter in that moment to fully understand.

• “Paris (Ooh La La)” was probably my favorite Nocturnals song heading into Thursday’s show, so when Potter brought out my man Trombone Shorty and a couple sax players from his Orleans Avenue crew to polish off the main set, I just couldn’t get enough. 

• To open the encore, Potter came out by herself with an electric guitar strapped over her shoulder and launched into “Nothing But the Water (I),” without question one of her best songs. On the record it’s this hymnal a capella track; here she turned it into a fire-breathing tour de force. Online reports say she tagged a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” into this song, which ordinarily would’ve brought me to my knees. But I unfortunately missed it because Potter was playing the guitar right in front of me at the edge of the stage; she was so close, I could literally here the actual strumming of her strings without the amp, so I was a bit, uh, distracted. 

I first came across The Nocturnals in January when I came across the “Storytellers” performance they filmed last year. It was one of those kick-to-the-head moments where, after the episode ended, I went right upstairs and ordered all four of their albums on the double. They combine so many aspects of various types of music I love—pure country, heartland rock and roll, blues, folk, and just enough pop to make a great catchy hook. Potter is utterly captivating, evoking the likes of everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Chrissie Hynde to Patty Griffin, with a voice of such power that few can match. 

So while I’ve been getting to know the band over the past eight months, I am by no means an expert on their music or their live performances. That being said, I would find it hard to believe they’ve ever been better than they were Thursday night. Combined with an absolutely killer opening set from Trombone Shorty, this was without question one of the best nights of music I’ve been a part of. 

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Wolf Trap’s Filene Center
Vienna, Virginia

Never Go Back
Toothbrush and My Table
Ah Mary
Treat Me Right
Stop the Bus
Devil’s Train (Hank Williams cover)
Big White Gate
The Divide
White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Paris (Ooh La La) (w/Trombone Shorty)

Nothing But the Water (I)
Nothing But the Water (II)
Paint It Black (Rolling Stones cover)
The Lion the Beast the Beat

Show Time: 2 hours

Saturday, July 06, 2013

My Favorite Movies of 2012

I wrote this around Oscar season and never posted it. Shame to let it go to waste, I guess.

I saw a lot of movies last year, and here’s how I rank them …

31. “Snow White & the Huntsman”—Kristen Stewart (who I like very much) was miscast and laughable as a “warrior princess,” while Charlize Theron wildly overacted. The only redeeming part of this dreck was budding superstar Chris Hemsworth.

30. “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”—Yep, the Hollywood marketers put one over on me; the trailers made it look like this was gonna be a rom-com a guy could love, a la Judd Apatow, with the collection of male comedians stuck on babysitting duty. Instead, they were barely in it and all their scenes were in the trailer. Call it the “Inglorious Basterds” of chick flicks.

29. “Taken 2”—Awful. Just … awful.

28. “Lockout”—Guy Pearce was fun (nice mini-comeback year for him, by the way), but the rest was utterly forgettable.

27. “Dark Shadows”—All the best parts were in the trailer.

26. “Ted”—Like all Seth McFarlane humor, the same joke over and over again wears out quickly. And this was a lot longer than a 20-minute episode of “Family Guy.”

25. “21 Jump Street”—Could qualify for Pleasant Surprise of the Year. Much better than I’d ever thought possible.

24. “The Expendables 2”—As a whole, this was a better movie than the first one; but it was just missing that over-the-top, laugh-out-loud action factor. Jean-Claude van Damme was awesome, though.

23. “Pitch Perfect”—Fun movie that’s already gaining cult-status. How can you not love Anna Kendrick?

22. “This Is 40”—This is not Judd Apatow’s best work. It’s the type of movie where if you think about it afterward, you can come up with any number of little complaints. But it was never so annoying that I ever wanted to turn it off, and I was engaged all the way through.

21. “Moonrise Kingdom”—Perhaps Wes Anderson just isn’t for me. This movie was too cute and clever by half.

20. “The Hunger Games”—Up until the last 15 minutes of the movie (which were way too rushed), this was as good an adaptation of the book as I could’ve hoped for. Jennifer Lawrence … wow, what a great year she had.

19. “Wreck-It Ralph”—The first half was some of the best animated work I’ve seen in years; it was exactly what I hoped for out of a movie celebrating the history of videogames and hit all my tickle spots. Unfortunately, the second half drifted off into standard kid’s-movie fare. Still, overall a good experience.

18. “Skyfall”—Yeah, that’s right: I liked “Twilight” better than “Skyfall.” This movie is a train wreck compared to the other two Daniel Craig films. It drops everything the first two built and goes off on a tangent that goes nowhere. I don’t want to see a self-conscious, unconfident, mopey James Bond. This is the type of movie that gets worse and worse the more you think about it. Craig, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem are so good they salvage it from being utter rubbish, but it’s nowhere near the level of the other two.

17. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2”—Snicker and snipe all you want, but these movies did exactly what they were supposed to, and they’re much better than anyone gives them credit for. Looking back on the series, the only one I didn’t like was “New Moon,” and that’s basically because that book is nearly un-adaptable. “Breaking Dawn—Part 2” was a perfectly enjoyable two hours at the movies, and the filmmakers did well by these characters in the end. Just like the rest of the films in this franchise, the beginning was a little shaky and stilted, but then it hit its stride and the conclusion was engaging and rewarding. Well done.

16. “Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike”—Everything about the second installment was better than the first, except perhaps Samantha Mathis as Dagny Taggert. But Jason Beghe more than made up for her with his sparkling turn as Hank Rearden.

15. “The Bourne Legacy”—Matt Damon, who? Jeremy Renner rules.

14. “The Amazing Spider-Man”—I couldn’t have been more down on this movie going in, but it won me over almost immediately almost purely through the remarkable work of star Andrew Garfield. He is a better Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire, and the rest of the movie supported him nicely. Really, except for that cheesy crane scene and a bit of the been-there-done-that vibe, this was a fine entry in the franchise.

13. “Lawless”—Tom Hardy had himself a year, huh? He’s magnetic here as the elder brother in this clan of young moonshiners. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but two very specific things held it back: Guy Pearce’s character was just too over the top evil, and the climax was overdone and didn’t stay true to the rest of the movie. Otherwise, it’s a really good flick.

12. “Argo”—With this one Ben Affleck proved his great directing skills aren’t limited to movies set in Boston. Has there ever been a bigger surprise behind the camera than Affleck? I’d given him up for dead long ago, but now he’s debuted with three straight excellent directorial efforts. “Argo” is my least favorite of those, but it’s still a really good movie; it just never hit that “next level” for me for some reason. Bonus points, too, for the purely coincidental timing of “Argo” and the Benghazi disaster.

11. “Looper”—Every year needs a good, noir-ish, dystopian, sci-fi thriller, and that was “Looper” in 2012. Great performances by Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a smart script, and superb art direction mean this movie is built to last.

10. “Act of Valor”—I don’t want to hear about the acting. I just don’t. Of course the acting wasn’t great; those are freakin’ Navy SEALs up there on screen. This movie is all about the action sequences, and they are some of the best I’ve ever seen. That scene where the gunboat comes around the corner of the river … that alone was enough to put this in my top 10. “Act of Valor” is a movie college kids are gonna watch in their dorm rooms at 2 a.m. 10 years from now.

9. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”—The comparisons to Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy are inevitable, but perhaps unfair. The source material isn’t nearly as grand for this trilogy as the last; “Hobbit” is more whimsical, and Jackson captures that essence quite well. I thought the movie dragged a tad in the middle, but the first and final acts were everything I could hope for; the key scene between Gollum and Bilbo was as wonderful as any filmmaker could hope to accomplish. And Martin Freeman was the absolute right choice as Bilbo; he and Richard Armitage (as Thorin) carried the movie on their backs.

8. “Marvel’s The Avengers”—Though it gets off to a rocky start (stilted dialogue, etc.), Joss Whedon turns in what has to be considered one of the best superhero movies of all time with this massive ensemble extravaganza. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark anchors the whole thing, but everyone else is good, too (particularly Scarlett Johannson). And the climactic battle was as thrilling a sequence as anything I saw all year. Plus, you know, Hulk smash.

7. “Silver Linings Playbook”—I was not prepared for what a hard-hitting, emotional punch this movie packs. All of the Oscar nods are more than deserved, as every actor in the film is brilliant. It is a remarkable examination of mental illness and what it takes to recover and heal.

6. “2016: Obama’s America”—This may have been a notch or two higher had it actually cost Obama the election, but credit Dinesh D’Souza for doing what the media still refuses to do—examine Barack Obama’s history to find out who he is and what he believes. D’Souza doesn’t go muckraking; he simply pores over Obama’s own written words and then puts them into true context, as opposed to the sleight-of-hand Obama used in the authoring of those books. Unfortunately, D’Souza’s work here went unfulfilled in 2012.

5. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”—This will be the movie from 2012 that everyone wonders, “How did I not see that?” Much more than just another coming-of-age teen drama, “Wallflower” is an insightful look at the damage done to innocent children. And yet, it is also filled with hope and love and humor, with brilliant performances by all the leads. Go watch this movie.

4. “End of Watch”—This is the most thrilling, captivating, intense cop movie since “Heat.” The documentary style lends immediacy to the experience, but that would’ve gone nowhere without the charisma between Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal; I’ve never been a big fan of the latter, but he won me over here, and I’ll probably watch everything he does from now on. “End of Watch” is the anti-“Crash,” showing you the best and brightest of what police officers can and should be.

3. “Zero Dark Thirty”—I really wanted to hate this movie. I couldn’t have gone into it with more negative expectations. So it should tell you what an amazing piece of work this is that it beat all those pre-conceived notions and turned into one of the best movies of the year. Tremendous performances, incredible sustained tension, and a climactic action sequence I will never forget. Bigelow did our nation proud with this one.

2. “The Dark Knight Rises”—With the completion of his Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan has set a new bar for what “superhero movies” can and should be. “Rises” has more layers than can possibly be detailed in this short space—from the redemption of Bruce Wayne to the arc of Selina Kyle’s character (and, wow, Anne Hathaway …), to the evisceration of Occupy Wall Street, to the thrilling action—but what I was struck most by was how effectively Nolan drew the character of Wayne. By the end of “Rises,” you almost forget that he dresses up as a bat; or, more appropriately, when he does don the cape and cowl, you think of him more as Bruce Wayne than as Batman. That is an amazing achievement.

1. “Django Unchained”—I went back and forth between this and “Rises,” trying to figure out which one I truly loved more. I ultimately settled on “Django” because I cannot find a single flaw, or come up with a single thing about it I don’t like. It is perhaps Quentin Tarantino’s perfect movie. The performances he draws out of the actors here you get the feeling only Tarantino could get. He takes the best of the revenge and spaghetti Western genres, mixes in his own flair for both gut-busting humor and gut-twisting sadism, and throws in a romance for good measure. And no one—and I mean no one—knows how to make a “hero shot” like Tarantino; Jamie Foxx just basically has to stand there, or walk through smoke, or reach for his gun, and Tarantino does the rest. Even the soundtrack is awesome (as per usual). “Django Unchained” has it all.