Saturday, October 30, 2010

Concert review: Paul Weller, Auckland, October 29

PhotobucketThere's a reason Paul Weller was dubbed 'The Modfather' of British pop. From his early days with the short sharp punk attacks of The Jam to leading the way for "Britpop" in the early 1990s to his modern soulful experimentation, Weller has been at the vanguard of British music, combining his idols The Who and the Kinks with his own fierce music and bittersweet passions.

He's never been huge in the US, but Weller's albums consistently top the charts in England; the whole country and its thick, living history and class culture are his muse. For my money, Weller's as vital as he's ever been -- this year's album "Wake Up The Nation" is a barnstormer, one of the best of 2010.

He made it to Auckland this weekend in a series of three sold-out shows at the Powerstation, his first appearance in New Zealand ever. From the moment he took the stage, clad in black and chatty in his thick accent, Weller did a fine job surveying his 40-year-career, mixing the old Jam and Style Council classics with his superb more recent work. (This guy apparently thinks Weller should have played nothing but Jam tracks, but I disagree -- the man's got a rich and diverse catalog, why not explore it?)

PhotobucketI actually really discovered Weller with his solo albums, particularly 1993's rich, soulful "Wild Wood," and only came to the Jam belatedly some time later. As he's aged Weller has weathered and seasoned like a fine old oak, into a peerless singer/songwriter who evokes a timeless mood tinged with that old punk anger. The best comparison I can make is to another old angry young punk, Elvis Costello, who's lasted far longer than anyone might have guessed by constantly changing his approach.

Weller showed off all his sides during the show -- highlights included a storming, psychedelic jam through "Pieces of Dreams" from his latest album, or the sweeping, eclectic "Trees," which crams together several different songs into one powerful mix. The "Stanley Road" classic torch song "You Do Something To Me" got a loving take, while "Echoes Round The Sun" (written with Noel Gallagher) was a feedback-laced gem. The old Jam classics could be counted upon to get the crowd raving, such as a bouncy bass-driven "Start!" (smashed together with the brand new "Fast Car/Slow Traffic" in a sterling medley) and a massive fist-pumping singalong take on "Eton Rifles," or The Style Council's poppy "Shout To The Top."

Over nearly two hours and two encores, Weller swerved from piano-led balladry to crunchy guitar anthems without missing a beat. It's good to see The Modfather is still full of plenty of steam and I can't wait to see what he does next.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mix Tapes I Have Known #1: YO YO MA, 1992

PhotobucketAh, the mix tape. The lovely artifact of the 1980s and 1990s where you painstakingly, pre-digital, grafted together a dozen or two of your favorite songs into some kind of deeply deep emotional statement that was, most typically, aimed at showing the subject of said tape how awesome you were.

Now that we slackers of that generation have grown up these have become the object of fetishistic nostalgia galore , and why not? They're snapshots of the person you were at the time you made it. Often, I tried to make copies of the mix tapes I made for people because they made awesome car listening, so now I can scavenge out our one remaining cassette player and listen to them on occasion. Here's the first of a trawl through my aging, decomposing Mix Tapes.

The tape: "YO YO MA"

Year created: 1992

Who it was for: "Yo Yo Ma" (I think I just liked the oddball sound of that cellist's name as a tape title) was made for one of my California friends, either John or Sun; unfortunately 18 years on I'm not entirely sure who for but I think this one was for John. Many of my tapes were sent from my college home in Mississippi to my old high school chums out West, cries from the heart of Dixie aimed at showing off what I thought were my impressive tastes; these were vaguely homesick missives, from a stranger in the South to the place he came from. Good god, I'm just as pretentious now as I was then.

PhotobucketTrack listing:

1. Hello, I Love You (The Cure)

2. Little Earthquakes (Tori Amos)
3. The Fly (U2)

4. Progress (Midnight Oil)

5. A Campfire Song (10,000 Maniacs)

6. Anchorage (Michelle Shocked)

7. We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful (Morrissey)

8. Only You (Yaz)

9. Getting Better (The Beatles)

10. The Boxer (Simon & Garfunkel)

11. So. Central Rain (REM)

1. Strange Angels (Laurie Anderson)
2. She Goes On (Crowded House)

3. We Are The Champions (Queen)

4. Mayor of Simpleton (XTC)

5. I Can't Dance (Genesis)

6. Dome (The Church)

7. Tomorrow (Morrissey)

8. My Finest Hour (The Sundays)

9. Always On My Mind (The Pet Shop Boys)

10. In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel)

11. Songbird of Love (The Hurlettes)

What this says about my musical tastes at the time: This is a pretty middle-of-the-road selection of early 1990s alternative rock standards -- The Church, Tori Amos, The Cure, etc. At the age of 22 or so, I was fairly proto-emo at the time, hence the TWO Morrissey songs included here. I did have what I like to think were some cool choices even back in '92 -- Laurie Anderson, XTC (who remain one of my favorites today) -- mixed in with the requisite U2 and REM stuff.

Totally obvious choice: Like 99% of mankind, I used Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" on a mix tape. In fact I used it on several of them. It is an awesome song and deserves its mixtape stardom, though. Most disturbing is that this song of everlasting love and devotion is on a tape that I made for a dude.

Clever left-field choices: The Sundays were a short-lived and delicate girl-alt-pop band back in the day, and "My Finest Hour" is a lovely little number. "The Hurlettes" were a made-up band from a snippet of an old high-school play I put on the end of the tape, so you can't get much more obscure than that.

What was I thinking?: Now, I'll stick up for Genesis any day, even Phil Collins-era Genesis, but why on earth I chose the goofy try-hard novelty number "I Can't Dance" from one of their worst albums is beyond me. And I also like Queen, but the insanely overused "We Are The Champions" wouldn't be in my top 20 Queen songs at all.

Hasn't dated so well: The mawkish earnestness of 10,000 Maniacs, whom I only occasionally listen to today; ditto Tori Amos, who put out an utterly superb debut album with "Little Earthquakes" and has faced diminishing returns ever since then.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Into the TARDIS with two Doctor Whos

PhotobucketI've been to several big old American comic-book conventions like the ChicagoCon, so really, compared to them, New Zealand's Armageddon Expo is rather small. But it's still a decent size and a lot of fun to while away a day at -- a couple of hundred booths of stuff for sale and show, celebrity guests, tons of bizarre costumes to gawk at and the usual kind of overcrowded, sweaty, adrenaline-filled rush of stimuli you get at conventions.

PhotobucketBut the big draw for me this time was the chance to see TWO former Doctor Whos appear -- the "seventh Doctor," Sylvester McCoy, and the little-known "eighth Doctor," who only appeared in one 1996 TV movie, Paul McGann. Both appeared for photos etc as well as in panels. I always find these kind of panels quite fascinating, a bit of a peek behind the curtain at what an actor's life is really like. They have to put up with a lot of inane fans, but I appreciate it when an actor takes the time to talk to the crowd. McCoy played the seasoned old showman/raconteur, rambling off into oddball and amusing stories about shoving ferrets down his pants in his circus days (I kid you not). He's had a long and varied career (and is apparently going to play a role in "The Hobbit" movies if they even actually get made) and was quite comfortable playing to the crowd.

PhotobucketMcGann was a bit more wistful and down-to-earth (and I think jet-lagged). I've just watched the 1990s "Doctor Who" movie he was in, and while it was a mixed bag story-wise, I really liked McGann's portrayal of the Doctor, half Victorian dandy, half imperious alien. It's a shame he didn't get to play the Doctor more (although he has done a ton of audio-only adventures.) McGann isn't a household name but he's been in some good stuff, notably as the "I" in the Brit cult classic movie "Withnail And I," and he also waxed rhapsodic about his appearance in, er, lower-brow flicks such as "Lesbian Vampire Killers." He seemed like a good bloke, basically, and both he and McCoy had a lot of fun geek tidbits into "Dr. Who" history which I found fascinating, as a relatively novice Who-vian who really only got into the show starting with the new 2005 series. (McGann mentioned that during the casting for the 1990s "Doctor Who" would-be revival, one actor's name came up repeatedly for the part of the Doctor -- Monty Python's Eric Idle. While I do love the Python, I suspect that would've been a bizarre misstep indeed.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's a change of Hobbit

PhotobucketIs The Hobbit leaving New Zealand? Sure sounds like it. I honestly don't know enough details about these labour woes to weigh in too much on whether the actors union is in the right or wrong here, but I do think it's a bloody debacle if the Hobbit movies end up being filmed elsewhere than New Zealand as a result of them.

The Lord of the Rings movies were a huge boost for New Zealand and its image overseas, and that kind of image and impression is simply priceless. The idea that Devonshire or Australia might be hired up to substitute for New Zealand in the next films is mind-boggling, especially since Kiwi Sir Peter Jackson will be back as director. This production has been hugely troubled (witness the loss of originally signed director Guillermo Del Toro, who would've been a great fit).

I sure hope that a resolution to this situation might be found, as it's just a horrible look for New Zealand to lose The Hobbit. The movies are good for the country's economy, image and the national sense of pride, and labour complaints shouldn't derail them. Frankly, I'm wondering if these movies will ever really get made. My precious!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Superheroes I Love #6: Vanth Dreadstar

PhotobucketOne of the nifty bits of geek-related loot I picked up in California was reassembling my set of Jim Starlin's Dreadstar comic series from back in the 1980s. Like a lot of things, I used to own these comics, got rid of them for some reason and then years later experienced deep remorse. Starlin's "Dreadstar" run from #1-40 is vintage high-octane space opera, with a lot of the deeper themes about mortality and power that Starlin has explored in his other work like "Warlock" and "Captain Marvel."

It's the story of Vanth Dreadstar, who's caught between two evil warring empires and attempts to take them down with the aid of his friends. It's a bit of a riff on "Star Wars" and other such sagas but done with a visceral spin -- people die bloody deaths, and the evil here is a lot more sinister than Darth Vader. The murderous Lord High Papal, the series' main villain, is a genocidal religious maniac without pity.

Who: Vanth Dreadstar, the last survivor of the Milky Way galaxy who ends up fighting in a war between two empires.

What: Dreadstar is not strictly a "superhero" in the traditional sense of the word (even though he dons a rather garish spandex outfit at one point), but more of a soldier, a rebel who finds himself in a series of never-ending wars. A mystical sword of power and other abilities lead him into conflict with those who would oppress billions. Reprints include the early "Metamorphosis Odyssey" storyline and the first 12 issues of "Dreadstar" in trade paperback if you can find 'em.

PhotobucketWhy I dig: Dreadstar is a kind of King Arthur figure, one surrounded by unimaginable pain and tragedy (at one point, Dreadstar helps to wipe out the entire Milky Way Galaxy; in another, an entire city is nuked by the Lord Papal just to get at him). Starlin surrounds this figure with a good mix of supporting characters (the blind telepath Willow, the cat-man Oedi, the disfigured sorcerer Syzygy). He makes you believe this scrappy band of rebels could take down a massive power. Dreadstar is racked with guilt over his deeds yet also a kind of righteous anger that you rarely see in "good guys" (there's a sequence in #10 where he basically tortures a villain to death; no matter how much the dude had it coming you still sort of cringe at the intensity). Now, in the 1990s, this kind of bloody anti-hero would be commonplace, but in 1982, Dreadstar's darkness was startling.

Starlin's run on the series wound down with an extremely dark coda set post-revolution, where Dreadstar awakens from a coma to find a world where all his struggles seem to have been for nothing. It's a very grim way to go and hard reading, as old characters die, corruption is everywhere and Dreadstar himself even contemplates suicide. But it's also a clear, stinging statement by Starlin that war is never neatly wrapped up (which seems very relevant today in the "War on Terror" era).

As a series, "Dreadstar" isn't perfect, in retrospect -- the first 15 or 20 issues are the best, and Starlin way overdoes the recaps each issue, which are very jarring reading it all in a sitting. The final revolution seems to come a bit too quickly and neatly to be believed (the same could easily be said of "Return of the Jedi," too). Ignore the later issues of the series written by Peter David, which while amusing space-action fun, really lack the emotional power and weight of Starlin's work and rely too much on goofy humour to succeed.

But Starlin's original "Dreadstar" work, nearly 30 years old now, still is terrific reading and as flawed, blood-stained and arrogant as he is, Vanth Dreadstar remains a compelling character.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I left my heart in San Francisco

Photobucket...Yeah man, I'm back down under, after several groovy weeks in California. It was my second trip back for a visit since we emigrated in 2006, and it is always a bit strange trying to cram so much into two or three weeks. Not to mention rather exhausting being the single-dad with the 6-year-old boy while Mom stays in New Zealand. There's the meet-ups with old friends, wedged into everyone's busy schedules, where you get an hour or two to play speed catch-up of the last four (or even 20) years of your lives. There's trying to show your son all around the area you grew up in, trying to ensure quality time with the grandparents and the uncle, and trying to get some American-style shopping in there. Somewhere you also attempt to "relax" on this "vacation" some.

Highlights of this year's journey --
Photobucket• The places that are etched in my mind from childhood and onwards, all wonderful to see again -- the high, dry foothills of the Sierra Nevada where I grew up; the sweeping lonely casino-filled vistas of Reno and Western Nevada, both tacky and epic western at the same time. The sweeping blue expanse of Lake Tahoe, where I spent much of the late 1990s, the grand granite-lined canyons of the Yuba River, the finest place in the world to while away a hot summer's day. And of course sweet San Francisco, which still has the same kinetic effect on me it did the first time I saw it back in the 1970s -- Coit Tower, North Beach, Chinatown, the giant Sutro Tower (the "monster tower" of my childhood), the candy-box spectacle of the houses stippled up and down the hills, the sweeping Golden Gate Bridge, foreboding Alcatraz hunched in the harbour -- I do love that place.

• The climate really knocked me for a loop, though. I'd forgotten that late September is peak allergy/pollen season and that, combined with the staggering dryness of the climate after being so used to humid New Zealand, left my sinuses feeling like a barometer the entire time. It's a shame I love an area yet hate the atmosphere.

• One thing that struck me is how battered and cynical the American "mood" seemed. A liberal like me thinks it's the hangover from 8 years of colossal failure by Bush and the impossible expectations laid on his successor. Far as I can figure the Tea Party folks are against nearly everything being done these days but I have yet to really figure out what they'd do about it or why they didn't speak out during the wild government expansion of the Bush years. It's nearly Election Day in the US and while I hope people aren't dense enough to give the party that screwed everything up for 8 years ANOTHER chance at the House or Senate, my feelings are that the American people just love being fooled by big promises and vague platitudes, from either side of the aisle. The failure of the two-party system -- if we don't like the guy in the White House, we'll just vote against EVERYTHING he proposes -- is manifest. While NZ politics are far from perfect, the minor parties here have a much stronger chance of actually getting their views shown and making a difference through coalition governments. In general politics here seem a bit less shrill, less polarized. I really am starting to fear the American system is terminally broken, no matter who's President.

• The recession that hadn't quite happened last time I visited in summer 2008 was in clear evidence -- vacant shops from Sacramento to Reno, several friends who've lost jobs/money in the past two years. The newspapers I once read have all shrunk into near-nothingness -- thanks to narrower "web widths" (reducing print costs) and staff cutbacks. I remember when the San Francisco Bay Guardian, say, was a thick monster of a free weekly tabloid you could kill a cat with, whereas the one I picked up last week was a wee thin thing. I know my industry is changing and it has to change, but it is a shame to see the newspaper so withered in size and influence.

Photobucket• As always the sheer SCALE of everything in America dazzles after a few years away in a small, small country. Mega-malls the size of small New Zealand towns, spreading silently over the countryside that once contained nothing but fields; more big box stores than you ever imagined existed; giant cars everywhere. Theme restaurants that serve more food on a plate than one man can decently eat; a "large" cup of coffee that is at least twice the size of one you'd find down under. All of this exists in some form or another in NZ, of course, but just "less" of it.

* On the flip side of course is how cheap anything and everything seems in America compared to NZ -- as usual I stuffed my suitcases to the brim with things like books, CDs, toys, over-the-counter medicines and blue jeans, all far more costly down here. Found several wonderful things to jam in the bags such as the "Nuggets II" CD box set, a great "Art of Brian Bolland" coffee-table book I didn't even know existed, lots of awesome Beat literature at the wonderful City Lights Books in SF, and much, much more. It's a good thing we only get back to the US every couple of years as my wallet and bookshelves really couldn't handle more often.