Friday, February 25, 2011

Concert review: Gang Of Four, Auckland, February 24

OK, so this week was pretty much a disaster I'd like to forget. The terrible earthquake, more dismaying family sickness news, lots of quake-related stress at work of course, and to top it all off my car got broken into in our own driveway last night; $300 worth of damage for the sake of about $2 in change.

About the only thing that saves this week from a total write-off is a cathartic, phenomenal show last night by post-punk pioneers Gang Of Four at the Powerstation. Ninety minutes, two encores of high-octane, lacerating guitar and bass and a frontman who seemed to be channeling David Byrne and Iggy Pop's illegitimate child. Some nights, you need to be in a row full of people jumping up and down and singing "To hell with poverty / we'll get drunk on cheap wine."
Gang Of Four, to my mind, are an unfairly overlooked pivotal late '70s act who combined punk and funk to make political rock you can't help but dance to. Bands from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Franz Ferdinand and LCD Soundsystem owe them big. Their debut, 1979's "Entertainment!," is one of the signature postpunk albums, all coiled angst, bass that twangs away like a gong, shrieking, staccato guitar and chant/sung lyrics. Frontman Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill are the two founding members who lead the group today, and it's their drive that feeds the push-pull of grinding rock with highly political subjects -- "At Home He's A Tourist," "Natural's Not In It," and "I Love A Man In Uniform," one of the most sneeringly witty anti-war songs ever written. This is the band Rage Against The Machine always tried to be (and failed to quite live up to, but that's just my opinion).

Gang Of Four's songs are often accused of being chilly, with gloomy lyrics like "this heaven / gives me migraine" or the awesomely snide "Love'll get you like a case of anthrax / And that's something I don't want to catch." But live, King threw sweat, gymnastics (a headstand!) and microphone-stand twirling energy into the Gang's songs, adding a whole new dimension to their work. King was fantastic, swirling, shaking and gyrating like a man 20 years younger. At one point he sat out for a song played by Gill and I worried he was having a mild heart attack downstage. Meanwhile, Andy Gill had approximately one facial expression for the whole show but let all his emotions out with his scorching guitar work, which places its focus on bursts of tone rather than showy solos.

For a group that's got a rather serious reputation, I was pleased at just how much joyful fun Gang Of Four are live. Bass man Thomas McNeice, looking like a Lenny Kravitz impersonator with his swaying dreadlocks, was terrific at playing all the classic songs, sending out resonating bursts of corded sound that stabbed right through the audience. Gang Of Four played most of Entertainment! plus a selection of their other tunes and some from their really solid comeback new album Content. We had the seething blast-furnace fury of "Anthrax", "To Hell With Poverty" became a raucous mosh pit singalong, and "I Love A Man In Uniform" was an encore delight, while "Damaged Goods" closed out the set. Good show, mates.

Here's Gang Of Four on David Letterman recently performing their new single "You'll Never Pay For The Farm." Jon King in full effect!

And a recent take on "To Hell With Poverty":

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Earthquake. Again.

Photobucket Today's awful earthquake appears to make the dramatic earthquake of last September look like a mild tremor. It's only been four hours since the quake struck here as I write this, but already the scenes are horrific -- entire buildings down, unknown fatalities. We basically got off lucky in September, with not a single death. But that quake was at 4am, and this one struck in the middle of the lunch hour, and was far shallower.

Grim times, and terrible to see Christchurch suffer so much. One of our sister newspapers down there had their roof fall in on them. We visited Cathedral Square, shown here today, back in 2009 -- and to see that massive icon cathedral tumbling like a set of children's blocks is humbling and frightening in equal measure.

It'll be some time before we know just how bad this was today. All my thoughts, and all New Zealand's thoughts, go to the people of Southland today.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

'The Art of Peter Siddell' takes flight

PhotobucketSo Thursday night finally marked the official launch of my father-in-law Sir Peter Siddell's massive coffee table art book of his life's work, The Art of Peter Siddell.

It is no exaggeration on my part to say my father-in-law is one of New Zealand's most respected living painters. I chose a good family to marry into, as both of Avril's parents and her sister and brother-in-law are all acclaimed artists. I remember when I first met my wife's father more than a decade ago now and I was telling him I thought a big book of his paintings would be wonderful to see sometime. It's been very good of the kind folks at Random House to work so diligently to bring this project to fruition. It's a highly handsome tome -- hey, it's even got paintings of my wife and son in it (and a photo of some disreputable blogger/journalist American expatriate in the introduction as part of a family portrait). The book's been getting some very kind notices and press (special kudos to Beattie's Book Blog which has given it multiple plugs).

PhotobucketThursday night was special, because nearly 100 people came out to the invitation-only event for Sir Peter at Parson's bookshop, longtime family and friends.

It's no hyperbole to say it's been a rather rough couple of years for our family down here. I've written, sparingly and out of respect for the family's privacy, of Sir Peter's battle with a brain tumour he was diagnosed with in 2008. He is still with us, perhaps slower than once before, but doing far better than anyone would've predicted more than two years ago when we got the diagnosis. But my wife's mum, Sylvia Siddell, has also had an extraordinarily hard time of it lately with her own cancer diagnoses, including multiple painful surgeries. She was actually in hospital just this week for a spell and got out just in time to be able to attend the book launch. Even Sir Peter's sister, my wife's aunt, has been ailing and in hospital (at one point this week my wife's mum and aunt were in the same hospital ward opposite each other). At times like these when you start to feel like a plague of locusts might be around the bend, the support of so many friends and supporters of Peter's art is a mighty thing.

PhotobucketSeek out the book if you get a chance -- it's an impressive testament to one artist's imagination, vision and peerless skill over nearly 50 years of work. And I'm not just saying that because he's my father-in-law.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Peter Sellers Saturdays #2: The Party (1968)

PhotobucketHere's the only time Peter Sellers collaborated with director Blake Edwards outside of the "Pink Panther" series. Like those films, Sellers plays a clumsy foreigner with a goofy accent, but 1968's "The Party" has a distinctly different tone than the Inspector Clouseau capers.

The story: A bumbling Indian actor is fired after botching a big Hollywood film, but ends up accidentally invited to a glamourous party at his producer's house. Hijinks ensue.

Who's Sellers? Hrundi V. Bakshi, a kind-hearted but highly accident-prone Indian actor in Hollywood. Now, Sellers playing an Indian is the biggest problem in watching "The Party" today. You couldn't really get away with a white actor slapping a bunch of makeup on and playing a minority in 2011; even 40 years ago it was probably a bit tacky. So there is that uncomfortable squirm element to watch "The Party" today, as Sellers comes close to racial caricature. But yet, despite the "brownface" factor, I found Hrindi a sympathetic character -- Sellers, whose impersonation of an Indian is pretty remarkable, tries not to make him a total stereotype. Part of the fun of "The Party" is watching this shy, courtly, repressed outsider find his bliss.

PhotobucketSo how is it: Amusing as it is, "The Party" takes a little while to truly get going -- but director Blake Edwards clearly means the stilted, dry early party scenes to contrast with the unfettered anarchy that spills out in the final act. A dull mogul's gathering turns into a freaky happening. There's a lot of funny gags here (the drunken waiter manages to upstage Sellers in several scenes), yet "The Party" is really lacking in plot or character development. Sellers makes Hrindi likeable, but we know next to nothing about him other than that he's a bad actor from India. His "love interest," a French singer, is even less developed. It's a series of skits strung together with a loose structure. The plot swerves hard when a previously unmentioned daughter of the film producer and a gang of the cleanest-cut hippies you've ever seen storm the house in the final scenes.

Yet what I really liked about "The Party" is how successfully in its early scenes it captures the feeling of being the only outsider at a party, of being the aimless guy shuffling about trying to find a conversation to get into. This stillness is where Sellers really excels, that outsider sensation compounded by Hrindi's foreignness. And as an example of that distinctly '60s film genre -- uptight squares get their hippie-fried comeuppance -- it's a fun if slightly awkward time capsule today.

Grade: B+

Quote: "Birdie num num?" (Of course!)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Mix Tapes I have Known #2: 'More Damn Music,' 1997

...So where were we? Last time around in my excavation into my box of mix tapes of ye olden pre-iPod days, I looked at a tape from 1992. The thing about mix tapes is -- usually -- you made them fervently trying to impress some gal/guy you were all emo about. Usually, of course this didn't work and the tape ended up a monument to your own insanely overwrought passion of the moment. This tape from 1997 didn't end in tears, though - two years later I ended up marrying the recipient. Mix-tape score!

Photobucket The tape: More Damn Music from your California Hippie Dude

Year created: 1997

Who it was for: My future wife Avril, all the way over in New Zealand. Around this time, fall 1997 or so, I'd gone and abruptly moved away from Mississippi back to my native California, got a job at a tiny newspaper in the San Joaquin Valley, was living in a concrete bunker of a back-alley apartment with psychopath rednecks in the front unit, and in just a few months time Avril would get a green card and come from New Zealand to live with me. So a rather transitional time, in other words... I think this tape, one of many we exchanged back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, was a kind of long-distance reassurance and valentine if you will, in hopes that after many years living far, far apart we two might finally get to try out a proper relationship...

Track listing:

1. #1 Crush (Garbage)
2. Normal Like You (Everclear)
3. Amy [Amphetamine] (Everclear)
4. I Will Buy You A New Life (Everclear)
5. Boogie Chillin' (R.L. Burnside)
6. Heaven Beside You (Alice in Chains)
7. I Do Not Want This (Nine Inch Nails)
8. Sappy (Nirvana)
9. Mystifies Me (Son Volt)
10. I Turn Around (Elvis Costello)
11. Bloody '98 (Blue Mountain)
12. The Passion of Lovers (Bauhaus)
13. Sheet Kickers (Guided By Voices)
14. License to Confuse (Sebadoh)
15. Life Worth Living (Uncle Tupelo)
16. Talk Show Host (Radiohead)

1. Fire Maple Song (Everclear)
2. Glycerine (Bush)
3. Devil's Haircut (Beck)
4. My Son Cool (Guided by Voices)
5. Motor Away (Guided by Voices)
6. My Valuable Hunting Knife (Guided by Voices)
7. Positive Bleeding (Urge Overkill)
8. What Goes On (Velvet Underground)
9. Try (Michael Penn)
10. Chottie See (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)
11. Who You Are (Pearl Jam)
12. Find The River (R.E.M.)
13. Something's Out There (Freedy Johnston)
14. Feel So Different (Sinéad O'Connor)
15. Short on Posters (Guided By Voices)

What this says about my musical tastes at the time: It was the waning days of grunge, and I was mightily into Everclear and Guided By Voices judging from the four Everclear and five (!) GBV songs I included. The music of your late college years is pretty much the music you will always love, and very little here embarrasses me overly 14 years on.* Neither Everclear nor Guided by Voices have ever really equalled their mid-1990s peak, though.

What was I thinking? *OK, well, except for the Bush song -- the bargain-rate version of Nirvana, they were pretty lame even when they were cool for about 10 nanoseconds. If you couldn't find Nirvana, couldn't find Stone Temple Pilots, you got these guys.

This song could totally be taken the wrong way:
"He'll keep you in a jar / And you'll think you're happy" - Nirvana.

Aw, that's sweet: "Why must it always be the less I see of you, the more I care?" - Elvis Costello

Clever left-field choices: There are some more obscure acts here -- I always have loved alt-rock also-rans Urge Overkill, who I think were very underrated, and Michael Penn continues to be one of the most unfairly ignored singer/songwriters out there.

Totally obvious choice: Well, like I said, it was the age of grunge. I might as well have made the tape case out of flannel, this is such a totally 1997 sort of production.