Friday, April 05, 2013

Robert Plant - Sydney Entertainment Centre

Last week the offer of a couple of tickets to Robert Plant at the Entertainment Centre came my way.  As the only Led Zeppelin song I know is that stairway one (an neither honestly have I been all that grabbed by his recent excursions into Americana which is more in my wheelhouse) so I didn’t jump at the chance.  That is until I later read that his touring band the Sensational Space Shifters included Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara.  The albums they have put out as a duo have made my year end favourites list over the last couple of years and once I ascertained they weren’t doing any JuJu sideshows I backtracked on my ambivalence and went.   

While I’ve explored many of the musical byways of the 70s – even if just out of curiosity and context seeking – Zeppelin isn’t one of them, I don’t actively dislike what I’ve heard but it edges out of my primary interests, just that other side of hard rock.   So seeing Plant put me in a unique position (for me) of seeing a major act, with the word “legendary” frequently and justifiably prefixing their name, in a large venue .... but about whom I was completely neutral.  I just don’t fork out that kind of money for anything less than my personal icons, and I reflected before the show that usually at that point outside the Entertainment Centre I am a mass of anxiety and excitement and a million adrenaline fuelled expectations and thoughts (if I’m not already inside camped on the rail.)    This was a whole different experience – big name, big venue but also a detachment and the height of my emotion was mild curiosity.   

I was seated on the stage right side rise, about a third of the way up and about in line with the last row of the seats on the floor.   Those big sheds always look smaller when you’re in them than you imagine so the view was fine, and the big screens were there as usual for closer detail.   One thing it gave me a good view of was the “gold reserve” floor seating which is my natural habitat. Even though they were wearing an array of Zeppelin shirts instead of Dylan or Bruce ones, it was sort of like having an out of body view of myself.  Baby I've been here before. I've seen this room and I've walked this floor – I surfed the night on their second hand electricity in a certain kinship.   Of course everyone was sitting with many desperate to stand, but kept in the seat by the gravity of our prevailing concert etiquette.   On recognising an opening rift (foreign to me but obviously meaningful to long time fans) a few would leap half up fists pumping before sinking back down again. I could see the seat area rippling with people bouncing in their chairs as much as they dared, like the meniscus on a glass of water arcing but not quite breaking.    Obviously there are excellent reasons people do not want to stand and many are not able to do so which should be respected but it’s clear to me the seated front section at rock shows works neither for the fans in general or, importantly, for the artists.  Plant made a few sarcastic comments about people sitting passively as did Bruce the week before (and he had a standing GA pit – night two in Sydney’s riff on “bums” and “asses” versus “arses” was particularly hilarious. Wish it was on YouTube.)  When Dylan played Centennial Park a number of years back I clearly recall Chuggy coming out, ciggie in hand, to yell at the people sitting on the grass in front of stage to go back to their seats  and Bob wouldn’t come out until they did – which is how you know he was bullshitting since Bob has made it known he likes people up the front rather than having to send his performance out into a cavernous void.    The encore brought everyone forward and the difference in atmosphere was noticeable.    I did have a bit of a detached feeling of observing but I had that same feeling a bit when I was in the nosebleeds for Leonard Cohen,  I think I’m just made to be down the front and the further away the less I’m acted on by the forces from the stage and around me.

Juldeh didn’t come out to join the band until the third song and I was concerned he was sick or something, but came on stage for some songs and off for some (surely they can find a triangle for him to play or something like Clarence did when he wasn’t needed on sax ....)  When he was there I loved his contributions, of course his interaction with Justin Adams was immaculate but it also gelled with the rest of the band and with Plant.       

Songs are like your neighbourhood, when you first move in and walk the streets the joint looks totally different than after you’ve lived there a few months or years and so since I was hearing most of songs for the first time I can’t pick out much about them individually except to say I enjoyed them and the band is definitely hot. He basically still has the voice.  It was very rock oriented naturally, but with a good smattering of slower, more acoustic numbers.   Unsurprisingly the ones that stood out to me (and still do a week later)  were the two blues covers which I certainly did know, “Spoonful” and “Fixin’ to Die” – the latter with particularly fantastic work from Justin Adams.   

He made a comment about it being “spot the tune” and that and other reviews have made clear how he has twisted and rearranged the original Zep tunes quite radically from the originals. He namechecked Bob Dylan here as someone else who makes the audience play spot the tune.  He then said however that Bob doesn’t take the piss out of himself like Plant does on which point I do disagree. An example is available from this show in fact.  The band was announced on stage by a voice over the PA listing all RP’s legendary achievements and status (six time Grammy winner etc etc) which I noted at the time was similar in structure to the intro Bob has had for years ( “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen — Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!” ) but much more earnest.  Dylan’s is definitely a piss take, of himself and of the Random Dylan Cliche Generator media that follows him(1). Planty’s intro, in contrast, played very straight to me.  So for all your rakish English lord gone to seed charm Robert you are behind the other Robert in the piss take stakes, I’m afraid.

Another thing that occurred to me was how seldom I see acts where the lead singer is not also playing guitar (or banjo or mandolin, or accordion, sometimes piano. Occasionally something else. Or it’s the kind of music, like jazz, where the vocalist can get away with just swaying a bit in ways golden gods of rock may not).   My first thought about was how awkward it seemed, reminded me of trying to find something to do with your hands when public speaking, and how the mike twirling and whatnot was faintly silly. My second thought immediately thereafter was probably Robert Plant popularised or perfected that kind of stagecraft in the first place and its all the imitations since that have made it cliché.   So I enjoyed it without irony.   

So a very enjoyable night and a little more of my musical mindmap filled out.

(1) It's actually a direct quote from a newspaper article about him Bob has just lifted straight to mock. Comedy gold!!

Monday, January 07, 2013

More Favourites 2012

Without fail every year I leave off my Favourites list one of my favourites. This year it was Ray Wylie Hubbard whose The Grifter’s Hymnal definitely deserved its place in the original post. Sorry, Ray. ;-(

Here are some others .....

Dr John came up with his best album in years, Locked Down.

Gregory Porter seems to have really broken through with his second album, Be Good.

"Birmingham" - Shovels & Rope.  I haven't heard the album this is off yet (though it made a lot of year end lists) but I do love this song.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Books 2012

I got a Kindle late in 2011 and it really gave a shot in the arm to my reading rate, that and re-engaging with Goodreads.  I still read a lot of paper books (indeed some I only want to read on paper, particularly nonfiction as fiddling with leaping forward and back to look at endnotes is somewhat of a pain on the basic Kindle.  It’s a lot easier though on the iPad where you can just touch the number and have it pop up without need to leave the page) but for the most part the mental drift to seeing e-books as an acceptable choice, in fact my first choice in most cases has been completed.    I’m kicking off 2013 by revisiting my childhood with a slew of Star Trek novels, cherrypicking the ones I remember reading and reading as a kid because they focused on my favourite character (McCoy) and as many as I can find from this i09 list of essentials.  

Here are some of the highlights.

Naturally (naturally if you are a sad politics junkie anyways) in a US presidential year I read a few on related topics.  Two essentials here, one from 2012 and one 20 years old.    The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era by TIME mag’s Michael Grunwald  about the Recovery Act  (stimulus package).  The subtitle makes it sound a bit fanboi-ish but from following him on Twitter I’d say Grunwald would see himself as a “centrist” rather than a liberal (and perhaps a further to the right on some economic questions, for instance when the issue of ending public broadcasting  funding came up during the campaign, he was for it) – but he just happens  to accept evidence-based economic and climate change policy, and finds Obama’s much maligned stimulus package to have been an impressive achievement in both areas.   Detailed in the behind the scene DC machinations and the weeds of how you actually deliver such a huge outlay without excessive waste and corruption but he’s a magazine writer by trade so easy to read and to the point.   Can we have something similar about the Australian stimulus experience, please?       

What it Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer was published in 1993 but remains relevant, and a cracking and somewhat quite profound read – plus I got it in a Kindle sale for $1.99 and its over a 1000 pages long so pixel for pixel  The book follows the 1987/88 D and R primaries through the lives of contenders Joe Biden, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, George H.W Bush, Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt.  They are listed in the order of how interesting I found them; although the copyright page was more interesting than Gephardt. This isn’t a criticism of Cramer, you can only work with what you’ve got.  It’s not your usual insidery, exhaustive, journalistic account of the race – a key part of the Democrat story that year,  the surging candidacy of Jesse Jackson for instance is barely mentioned as, as Cramer explains in the forward, he couldn’t get the access to the Rev which would have allowed the story to be told on an equal footing with the rest.  It is deeply subjective and presents the candidates as they see themselves attempting to answer the perplexing question: what kind of person voluntarily puts themselves through the miserable trauma that is running for President of the United States?

Other 5 stars in nonfiction (from this year where noted): Nine Lives (2012) by Dan Baum following a range of New Orleans residents from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 through to Katrina,  The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount by Gershom Gorenberg,  Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (2012) by Rachel Maddow , Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre by Heather Cox-Richardson (one of the best books on the American West I’ve read  because of how it carefully ties events on the ground to economic forces and distant political machinations back East),  Columbine by Dave Cullen (upsetting as you’d imagine but necessary and definitive)  and The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon (2012) by William M. Adler.  

The Nordic invasion in crime fiction rather let me down in 2012.  After loving his first book, I eagerly awaited the next Jussi Adler-Olsen translation from Danish to drop, but  Disgrace was a disappointment.  (And the much vaunted Snowman by Jo Nesbo was rather kind of ... not good?)  Luckily, North African crime stepped up to the plate in the form of The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal (who writes “literary fiction” by his birth name Jamal Mahjoub) Makana is a former homicide detective in Khartoum now living as a refugee at the bottom of society in Cairo. One day one of Egypt's richest men hires him to find a missing person and so Makana is plunged into a world of gangsters, shady businessmen, wannabe film stars and all manner of social, political and personal corruption. It is not written in a hardboiled style at all (there is quite a bit of humour) but the story has definite modern noir overtones, kind of "'Chinatown' in Cairo." Makana himself has demons and there are flashbacks to the situation in Sudan that lead to personal tragedy and then exile.  I'm not an expert on Egypt by any means but I worked there for a few months and have taken an interest in reading about it, and I thought aspects of the place were beautifully evoked in the writing and characters. It's not just "generic exotic location" but specific and knowing.  The Golden Scales is set in 1998 and I gather is to be a series taking us up to the present day so I look forward to the return of Makana in another book.  

I loved Wolf Hall and have Bringing up the Bodies queued up to go but so has everyone else, so I’ll instead plug my other favourite novel I read this year:   Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka.  You don’t have to be a cricket fan to enjoy this book, although some of the biggest laughs for me came from the more geeky references but you don’t have to be which should be stressed because the cricket-averse might then not read this wonderful book.      It may even give a shot to your interest in the current Lankan tour, although I imagine the protagonist W.G Karunasena would have some choice words about the brittle performance of his team.

NB: I got those GIFs off tumblr from people who took them off people who took them off people so I don't have anyone to originally credit, soz.