Paul Heinz

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Springsteen on Broadway

You gotta hand it to Bruce Springsteen.  The guy can compose a great tune, his stage performances are unparalleled, his autobiography is one of the best I’ve read by a musician, and now he’s completed a sort of companion piece with his autobiographic Broadway stage show, no small feat for this aging rocker.  I looked forward to checking out the Springsteen on Broadway release on Netflix a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, I’m thankful I didn’t shell out $500 to see it in person, and it’s unlikely that I’ll view it again.

Pulling off a two and a half hour stage show with extensive narration is impressive, and the sheer volume of prose Springsteen had to memorize and deliver with conviction is to me no less admirable than, say, the one-man show on Hemingway that I saw Stacy Keach perform last summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  I couldn’t tell by watching the film whether or not Springsteen used a teleprompter, but it wasn’t apparent, and aside from some initial narration that seemed a bit canned and rehearsed, he does a fine job of delivering the material as if for the first time.

It’s the first hour or so of the show that’s particularly hard to watch for me, and I found myself ready to press fast forward through some of the moments that felt routine and self-serving, as of course an autobiographical show must be.  It takes a tremendous ego to think people want to hear your story, but it takes skill to mask that ego enough to appear relatable, and there are times when Springsteen fails at this tightrope act.  Fortunately things begin to turn about mid-way through the show, as if the Boss needed a little time to gain his footing and truly immerse himself in the material, and I found his soliloquies on Vietnam, his father and mother, and the current political climate to be the strongest parts of the show.

His narration would hardly be a matter of critique if Springsteen’s musical performances – there are something like sixteen songs in all – provided their usual redemptive force, but absent the E Street Band, Springsteen’s pedestrian musicianship is glaringly obvious.  Bruce is not an accomplished guitar player, even less so as a pianist, and it’s woefully apparent throughout the show, as his three-chord songs provide no variation or upward lift in the hands of a limited instrumentalist.  Like Melissa Etheridge who I saw perform in Waukegan last month, Springsteen is a great songwriter and gifted lyricist whose music is bolstered by the skills of surrounding musicians, but alone is a strum and hum performer with a limited musical palette.  The Boss also sabotages his own works by reinventing the melodies in uninspiring ways, pausing and slowing things down at times when the song requires lift and momentum, and insisting on singing in his faux-western voice that he’s grown accustomed to using during the past decade and a half or so, summoning his inner Arlo Guthrie that some may find endearing and heartfelt, but I find to be as artificial as his blue-collar lyrics, which he refreshingly admits early in his show, “I made it all up.  That’s how good I am.”

Three songs do rise to the occasion: his stripped-down, dour take of ”Born in the U.S.A.” and the two songs performed with wife Patti Scialfa: “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”  Having a partner to harmonize with and – perhaps more importantly – to play off of, is exactly what the show needs.  Springsteen has made a career out of interacting with his fellow musicians – the joy and sweat shared between his comrades on stages is half the fun of watching him perform – and it’s lacking for most of this Broadway show. 

Still, I can’t think of many artists who could pull off a relatively sincere theatrical show for 236 performances, sell the hell out of it, and still have demand to showcase it on Netflix.  I’m glad it exists, and it isn’t a bad legacy for the old man to leave behind – that of a great storyteller with love for his country and its people, and concern for its future.  I wish there were more artists – and hell, more people  - like the Boss.  Check out the entire show on demand on Netlfix.

The Last Eleven Albums I Can't Live Without

Fifty down with another eleven below, capping off my list of albums I can’t live without at sixty-one. As a reminder, this list is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen.

Rush – Permanent Waves (1980). I’ve written extensively about Rush’s catalog before, but I’ll quickly say that Permanent Waves is their best album.  It’s such a fresh and positive collection of songs, with just enough prog-rock elements to keep things from getting stale. 

Sting – Mercury Falling (1996).  One of the best-sounding albums ever, Sting was at his peak here, creating sonic moods, telling compelling stories (“I Hung My Head” and “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”) and deftly encapsulating feelings (“Let your Soul Be Your Pilot” and “All Four Seasons”).  The album preceding and succeeding this release are good too, but this is Sting’s best solo recording, and while I could certainly make an argument for the Police’s second and last albums, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I rarely turn to those aside from the title track of the former and the title tracks of the latter.

Genesis – Duke (1980).  It came down to this or the following year’s Abacab, but ultimately I can’t say no to the thrilling bookends to the album and “Turn it on Again,” among my favorite tracks ever.  Once again, Tony Banks contributes a few killer tracks in “Heathaze” and “Cul-de-Sac,” and Rutherford even adds a terrific “Man of our Times.”  Collins disrupts the genius with “Please Don’t Ask,” but oh well.  It’s still a fantastic album, and at 55 minutes in length, you can skip that one track and still have a ton of Genesis leftover to enjoy!

Yes – Tales from Topographic Albums (Sides 1 and 2).  Look, I know that The Yes Album, Fragile, Going for the One, Drama and 90125 are all great, but in the context of the other albums I’m selecting, having the first few sides of Tales is a really satisfying addition, a set of rich and mysterious tracks that still mesmerize me after all these years, having purchased the album used in Milwaukee back in 1981.  If I made a top 100 albums, I’d probably include many of the aforementioned albums.

Toto – Toto (1978).  This is another one I might get crap for, but doggone it, it’s such a solid album from front to back, with terrific hooks, crafty musicianship, and a killer lead-off track, it’s hard to resist.  Employing not one, not two, not three, but four lead singers, the album alternates between solid rock and jazz-tinged pop, and with Jeff Porcaro on the drums, it’s as tight as can be.  It you like some of the later hits off of Toto IV, check this album out and be amazed.

Indigo Girls – All That We Let In (2004).  This duo is so fricking good I could have chosen another three albums, but this one made the cut, an extremely solid album from start to finish.  The Indigo Girls is another band that really benefits from having two singers with two distinct voices and two distinct writing styles, Emily Saliers’s sweet and Amy Ray’s edgy, and the way they intertwine these voices gives them a distinctive sound. Ray’s songs on this effort are particularly strong, which isn’t always the case, and songs like “Perfect World” and “Tether” work perfectly alongside “Fill it Up Again” and “Come on Home.”  Just beautiful.

The Beatles – The Beatles, sides 1 and 3 (1968).  You knew the Fab-Four would have to be represented somewhere on this list.  It’s not easy to stay excited about songs you’ve heard a thousand times, but The White Album still grabs me, particularly side one.  I love the rising guitar motif at the end of “Dear Prudence,” the juxtaposition of “Glass Onion” and the quirky “Wild Honey Pie” surrounding “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” and Harrison’s best composition, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but its Lennon who really shines on this album throughout.  Sides two and three are tossups, with Lennon’s beautiful “Julia” almost giving the former the edge, but I love how the band rocks on side three in sharp contrast to the rest of the album (also, “Don’t Pass Me By” is on side two – which is unfortunate).  The band’s next album, Abbey Road, is probably the most complete Beatles release, and it’s second side is among the best album sides ever recorded, but I’m no longer intrigued with “Come Together” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”  With the White Album, it’s not the individual tracks that lead to greatness, but the collective whole.

Pat McCurdy – The Big, Bright, Beautiful World of Pat McCurdy (1997).  Some may categorize this Milwaukee artist as a novelty act, but I argue that there’s a lot more going on here than cheap laughs.  McCurdy, whose songwriting prowess is apparent, has a penchant for memorable melodies, social commentary and satire, with an occasional touching moment.  The song “Thankless Bastard” was a regular sing-along song for my children (which tells you something about their father), but the whole album is well-done, with a few live numbers to heighten the energy and give it jovial feel.  Yes, this album harkens me back to my nights watching McCurdy at The Celebrity Club in Milwaukee when I was young, poor, drunk and obnoxious, but I think it holds up on its own merits.

Utopia – Utopia, sides 1 and 2 (1982).  When I saw the Todd Rundgren-led Utopia open up for the Tubes on my eighteenth birthday, they didn’t leave much of an impression on me except that they were really, really weird.  I didn’t pay them any attention for the next thirty-one years, but then a record-collection friend of mine encouraged me to check out their self-titled 1982 release, and my oh my, what a superb power-pop album.  Funny and witty, melodic and complicated, mixed moods, tight harmonies.  This collection has it all.  It’s not unlike some of XTC’s best stuff, but whereas I have trouble digesting more than twenty minutes of the latter’s music, this album goes down nice and easy.

U2 –The Joshua Tree (1987). U2’s seminal release took place during my freshman year in college and the album was everywhere.  Hard-core U2 fans prefer one of their first four releases, but I’m not really a hard-core U2 fan.  The album does lose steam on the final two tracks, but it would have been a lot to ask that the heightened ecstasy be sustained beyond the album’s first nine songs.  “Where the Streets Have No Name” is the perfect opener and was quite the splash at the Super Bowl in 2002, and “Red Hill Mining Town” has always been a favorite of mine.   I’ve sadly never seen them in concert because their ticket prices are usually ridiculous.

Sarah McLachlan – Surfacing (1997).  I recall purchasing this album and 10,000 Maniacs’ Love Among the Ruins in Allentown, PA with my friends Scott and Todd.  I wavered holding Surfacing in my hands, and Scott said, “You should get it.”  I did, and happily absorbed this album as part of soundtrack to my first year of parenthood.  What I dig about this album is the alternating between darkness and heartbreakingly beautiful, with neither side winning.  The song “I Love You,” is pretty terrible, but it’s the only song I consistently skip on this release.  The opening track packs a punch, as does “Sweet Surrender,” and then we get to probably the most forgiving and empathetic breakup songs ever, “Adia,” with beautiful vocals skating on top of a tasteful guitar and piano arrangement.  A lovely album.

So there you have it! Sixty-one albums. There are undoubtedly another thirty or forty that I might have chosen at a different time, but this collection would serve me quite nicely if I were forced to downsize my collection to a paltry sixty-one. In a week or two I’ll do a recap, with a graph of years represented and some of the albums I considered that didn’t quite make the cut. Happy New Year!

ELO in Chicago

An early morning email from a friend opened the door for me to attend Jeff Lynne’s ELO concert at the Allstate Arena in Chicago on Wednesday night, a show I’d toyed with going to until I saw the ticket prices, but leapt at the opportunity to attend last-minute for a more reasonable price.  ELO's music was a significant part of my childhood, and while I kept up with the band through the early 80s, I certainly can’t be labeled as anything other than a casual fan, unlike many of the thousands who attended last night’s show, which ran a little over an hour and a half.  The number of recognizable songs performed in such a short span was amazing.  Just when I thought, “I think that about covers it,” the band would break into yet another gem from the mid-70s.

Dressed in dark pants, a black shirt and grey blazer, 70-year-old Lynne masked his age with a beard, curly hair and sunglasses, and while his mid-range voice sounded strong and pure, he wisely relegated much of the higher vocals to his stellar backup singers, who added the animation that Lynne lacked and enabled the band to stick to the original keys for most (if not all?) the songs.  Twelve musicians joined Lynne on stage, including three string players and three keyboardists, one of whom spent the entire show doubling the string parts, allowing the arrangements to cut through the mix and sound much fuller than three strings could accomplish as a trio. 

The nineteen-song set strayed none-too-far from ELO’s first greatest hits album, including nine of the eleven tracks from that LP and only one song post-1980, “When I was a Boy,” a 2015 recording whose strong melody and nostalgic lyrics fit in nicely among the evening’s other songs.  There were a few other surprises, including the debut song off the band’s first album, “10538 Overture,” and “Wild West Hero,” among my favorite tracks from Out of the Blue and one that I played incessantly thirty years ago.  One song that was surprisingly absent was "Fire on High," which surely would have brought the house down and to me would have been a far better opener than "Standin' in the Rain."

Lynne didn’t engage his audience with storytelling the way James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other aging rockers do, but he still gave off an appreciative vibe for the audience, thanking them several times in a way that appeared heartfelt.  Lynne's music director, Mike Stevens, took the reins to introduce the large cast of musicians.

During the performance of “Handle with Care” from the Traveling Wilburys, the crowd cheered during the second verse, and while I couldn’t see the screen from my vantage point, I knew that they were most likely reacting to a photo or video of the departed members of that band.  The last time I saw this song performed live was at the Vic Theatre in 2003, when Tom Petty dedicated it to those who had gone.  Though Roy Orbison had died a long while back, it had only been a year and half since the death of George Harrison and a still-raw two months since Petty’s long-time bass player, Howie Epstein, succumbed to heroin addiction.  Here we are a decade and a half later, and it’s comforting to see Lynne and Bob Dylan still standing and still playing music.

As fans of aging rockers, we need to embrace these moments while they last.  Last night at the Allstate Arena, the fans of ELO surely did.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Memoir

My favorite reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber is Elvis Costello’s lyrics from his 1989 song, “God’s Comic.”  He writes of God:

So there he was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette
Listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Requiem

He said, before it had really begun
"I prefer the one about my son

I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk
And wondering if I should have given
The world to the monkeys"

For whatever reason, Webber is a composer that musicians love to hate.  Non-musicians, too.  I recall an episode of a short-lived 1990’s sitcom called The Single Guy, in which the lead character is mocked for having purchased tickets to Cats.  (Robert Russo has an excellent summary of Cats and why some people hate it.)

But love him or hate him, Webber has had the kind of success that warrants a memoir, in this case a 480-page book called Unmasked that puzzlingly only covers the author’s life up through the year 1986, when he was on the cusp of what some claim to be his crowning achievement, The Phantom of the Opera.  No details about Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and School of Rock, which is a shame, because I would have loved to have read less about Webber’s first forty years and more about his last thirty.  The author admits, “my verbosity got in the way,” and that is an understatement.  The details with which he describes the meetings, compositions, rehearsals, trials and tribulations of productions are sometimes interminable.  As a musician, I got some of the name-dropping references, but there were hundreds of other details that ended up muddling up the narrative.

Details aren’t Webbers only problem, unfortunately.  It’s good that he went into composing rather than writing, because as an author his prose is often cumbersome, filled with choppy sentences, unnecessarily convoluted similes and obscure references, not to mention questionable punctuation (he seems averse to the use of hyphens).  When I actively chose to read faster, I found myself having to slow down, as the narrative lacked flow.  Consider this sample from page 86: 

“EMI had such a postboy.  His name was martin Wilcox.  I don’t know if he ever blagged his way into the top honcho’s offices.  But he did get as far as Tim Rice.”  This choppiness makes reading 480 pages very laborious, indeed.

Which is too bad, because Webber has had a hell of a career.  Like many professionally successful people, he risked it all, leaving Oxford after only a year to pursue writing full-time with Tim Rice, the type of decision that often separates the wanna-bes from the real thing, and the accounts of Webber’s struggles to get productions like Evita and Cats off the ground are inspiring.  The former opened to terrible reviews in New York but still ran for over 1500 performances, and despite the jokes sometimes directed at Cats, it was the longest running musical on Broadway until another musical broke the record: The Phantom of the Opera.  So there you go

Webber wisely addresses his personal life sparingly, thankfully admitting to transgressions without dwelling on them, and referring to his past wives with respect.  He delves a bit deeper into various professional rifts he’s had over the years, but usually only slightly, often referring to a heated topic only to conclude, “It’s best left at that,” but on occasion he quotes unflattering letters he’s received from the likes of Tim Rice and Ken Russell, effectively settling old scores by using his wrong-doer’s own words against them.  Nevertheless, Webber’s decision not to write a tell-all book is refreshing, as is the modesty he portrays at various points, and I don’t get the sense that he’s feigning for the benefit of posterity, though I could be wrong.  He writes in detail about which sections of his Requiem are subpar, and he admits to being in over his head when composing Variations.

I’ve only seen two Webber musicals on-stage:  a traveling production of Aspects of Love in 1993; and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when my girls were toddlers.  Other than that, I’m only familiar with a handful of tunes.  Go figure.  I do wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music will have the staying power of, say, Stephen Sondheim or Richard Rodgers, but as a musician, it was interesting for me to gain a little insight into the creative process and how melodies composed for one purpose were resurrected for other stories, and Webber also does an admirable job of covering the business side of the industry, describing financial difficulties and concepts like grand rights in an accessible manner.

He also shares a few tidbits he’s learned over the years from people he admires.  After seeing Webber’s failed musical, Jeeves, Hal Prince wrote to Webber, “Remember, you can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it.”  And a meeting with Richard Rodgers led his conclusion that no one can take in too many melodies in one listening, a fact that often leaves me scratching my head after a musical crams two hours of new material down patrons’ throats with no melodic reprises.

All in all, I’m glad I read Unmasked, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend it except for the most ardent fan of musicals in general, or of Webber’s specifically.

My Half-Year of Streaming Music

Denying for years to join the 21st Century, I indulged as recently as last summer in purchasing CDs, pulling the trigger on albums by Esperanza Spaulding, William Shatner, Bright Eyes, Paul McCartney and Field Music.  But last November I took the plunge and joined a streaming service – first Napster, whom I was told paid artists more but whose service I determined was inadequate, and then Spotify, a company vilified by some and praised by others.  Since then I’ve delved into scores of albums I’d never taken the time to investigate before, and for this reason alone, music streaming has a new fan.  I still love having physical CDs in the car, where I can immerse myself into an album and listen the way I used to, but for hanging out at home and investigating unexplored musical territory, streaming services can’t be beat.

I’m not much into playlists and haven’t utilized this aspect of Spotify more than a handful of times.  Instead, I’ve listened to albums and bands I hadn’t given attention to in the past.  Since November, I’ve fallen in love with the following albums:

  • Manifesto, a brilliant release by Roxy Music, surpassing what some claim to be their crowning achievement, Avalon.
  • Underneath the Colours, the debut album by an almost unrecognizable INXS.  Angry, edgy, melodic.  Fantastic.
  • Sit Down Young Stranger (or, alternatively titled, If You Could Read My Mind) by Gordon Lightfoot, heartfelt folk-rock from start to finish.
  • Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies, an amazing album recorded around the same time as St. Pepper, but – in my mind – surpassing it in some ways.
  • Grand Hotel by Procol Harum, a collection of wonderful melodies with gravitas

I've delved into so much more that I never would have done without the aid of a streaming service.  I checked out releases by Cat Stevens, Van Morrison and James Taylor.  I finally listened to the Rolling Stones of the 1960s, and concluded that aside from Beggar’s Banquet, much of it falls flat for me (and that Their Satanic Majesties Request may be among the worst albums ever recorded).  I learned that I’m not as fond of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions as I am of Lloyd Cole’s solo work, and that I'm not as fond of Jethro Tull and King Crimson as I am of other prog rock bands.  I discovered that early Chicago albums are padded with really bad, lengthy tracks, and that each of Esperanza Spaulding's releases are worth my attention.  I gave the last half-dozen releases by Elton John a chance, concluded that Aimee Mann continues to put out quality material, but without the punch of her first three releases, and that the J Geils Band is a great party band with some standout tracks, but ultimately doesn’t grab me.

I also listened to classical guitar by Ryan Walsh, Latin music by Natalia Lafourcade, Mansieur Perine, and Vicente Garcia, fusion by Snarky Puppy, jazz by Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and newer releases by Empty Pockets, Young the Giant and Lake Street Dive.

And on and on.

Now, the question remains: can artists make a living making music when people only use streaming services?  That remains to be seen, but for a guy in his 50s who sometimes has difficulty keeping up on music, streaming can’t be beat.

Of course, of the five albums I highlighted above, I’ve purchased four of them on vinyl. 

So yeah, I’ve still got the disease.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved