20 Feet From Stardom (Film Review)

20 Feet From Stardom (Film Review)

The best documentary of the past year, according to the Oscars, is 20 Feet From Stardom, the story of the men and women behind the greatest musical artists of our time: the backup singers.

Living in relative obscurity, these (primarily) women are the voices that we all know and love from our favorite records, but know nothing about them, and too often, never give them a second thought. The most poignant and true line of the film is when someone states that the backup singers are so important, to the point that when people hear their songs on the radio, it is the backing vocals they often sing along with, not the lead singer. And this couldn’t be more true. The backup singers sing the hooks, the parts of the song that we love and remember better than anything.

201In 20 Feet From Stardom, we are given the stories of some of the most famous singers of all time, if we only knew who they were. It is absolutely incredible to see and hear the lists of songs that these women sang on, and helped to make great. The film does an incredible job of letting us know how important they were to the great days of soul, R&B, and rock n’ roll music, and giving us their resumes of what they have accomplished over the years. It is also incredible to find out how only a small handful of people were the same ones on hit after hit, songs that we have sung along with on the radio for years.

These women were blessed with some incredible vocal talents, and the innate ability to listen to a song, and figure out what their parts should be, and how to harmonize perfectly along with them. This has created some incredible music, as many of our favorite songs would be nothing without the backing vocals. It is very interesting to see why their careers were as backing singers, and it is for a number of reasons. Some prefer to remain in the background. Some tried to have solo careers, but were victims of timing, or the industry, or bad contracts. Some couldn’t dedicate the time or ego to being a solo artist. The reasons are all over the place, and it is kind of sad to know that some of the greatest talents of our time were stuck singing “Oooh”s behind some of our favorite artists.

One of the more interesting tales is that of the famous Rolling Stones song, “Gimme Shelter.” One of their better songs, it is so inspired due to the wailing female voice that delivers some of the more poignant lines in the song. The story of how it came to be is amazing, and simply gaining an understanding of how important the female voice is to that song is what makes the storytelling in this film so memorable. It does its best to put a name and a face to the voices we all really do know.

As expected, 20 Feet From Stardom is chock full of great music. From Motown, to David Bowie, the Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, it is all there.

This film is an excellent view into the lives of the backup singers. The hardships and the successes, the moments of glory on stage and the great tales of the recording studio. It is very humanizing, and makes us want to hear more from these great vocalists. It does a great job of letting us see behind the scenes in to the music industry, and why none of these women really “made it,” as we would typically describe making it. From the start, it is very interesting, and the movie never really lags in its story. We go from the origins of the backup vocals around the time of Motown hits, to the golden age of rock and roll, where they were given more freedom and leeway. We get to see their reactions to suddenly going from being singers, to being sexualized on stage, to forgotten and replaced by emerging recording technologies. It is a sad story, but one that allows us to see the strength and glory of these women and their accomplishments.

For fans of documentaries, and of music in general, 20 Feet From Stardom is a must-see. You may never listen to your favorite songs the same way again.

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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds in Edmonton (Concert Review)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds in Edmonton (Concert Review)

Wow.

Incredible.

Amazing.

A true musical experience.

There might not be enough superlatives out there to describe the concert put on by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Northern Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton last night (June 28, 2014). There were several moments during the show, when you could truly feel that you were witnessing something absolutely incredible.

To start, this was my first time seeing Nick Cave, and hopefully it won’t be the last. I had never been a massive fan of his music. Not that I didn’t like it, or care for it, but I didn’t really know all about him. Sure, I had dabbled every few years with his music, but then I moved on. With such a long and distinguished career, sometimes it is intimidating getting into an artist that you discover so far along in the journey. I had listened to albums over the years, like a brief obsession I had with Murder Ballads when it came out, and I had even read Cave’s first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, but I wouldn’t call myself a massive fan.

Well, I think that has changed now.

After the opening act (Reggie Watts), a strange combination of comedy and music that was a definite odd choice as an opener, but he had the crowd laughing and questioning what we were really watching, the band took the stage after a brief break. The Jubilee is usually a fancy place, where people sit in their seats with their fancy clothes, and known for its incredible acoustics. Well, the venue is perfect for Cave. The great sound really came across from the very start of the show, and it made the music that much more powerful. The entire bottom section of the auditorium stood for the whole show, and the first few rows rushed up to the stage, where the very interactive lead singer spent most of his time in very close proximity to his fans. Note: if you are looking to go to a show, and want to be right there, try to get seats right up close on the left or right edge of the stage; this is where he spent the majority of the show, often singing directly to a fan or touching them.

nick caveGetting going a little past 8:30 PM, the band played until about 11:00, for a lengthy, two-and-a-half hour set that included a five song encore. In total, they played 19 songs, which is a delicious chunk of music. They varied their song selection from their illustrious career, while playing six songs from the newest album, Push the Sky Away.

Beginning the show with the sedate “We Know Who U R,” things quickly changed, and the first true “Wow” moment of the show came with the second song, “Jubilee Street.” Here, the crowd witnessed Cave at his demonic, rock-god best. The band perfectly played the softness and the beastliness of the song to perfection, Cave oozing with an intense passion, bordering on evil, as the song cascaded upwards, truly mesmerizing the audience. We heard for the first time how loud the band could be, and how powerful that could be in such a small venue. It was nothing short of intense. From the final chords of the lengthy “Jubilee Street,” we knew we were in for something special here. It put the crowd on edge, in the most positive way possible. Nick Cave had taken control of the concert hall, and was going to own us for the rest of the night.

The Bad Seeds are an extremely solid band. Most of the six members would play multiple instruments, and they were incredibly tight for the entire show. Many of their songs are fairly simple, with each taking on a simple part, but together, they are very impressive. Timing, and the often hectic changes between soft and delicate to sonic and menacing always went perfectly, creating the exact mood and tone that they had intended when the song was written. They were able to fill the venue with powerful ambiance when needed, and raw power when required. They were fantastic, and even though they get overshadowed by their frontman, they are a worthy band in their own right.

But let’s be honest: it is Cave himself that people go to see. He commands the audience in such a way that we may be reminiscent of what someone like Jim Morrison could do in the height of his career. He can stand and sway on the stage, singing about darkness and murder, and have the rapt attention of every single person in the theater. In a place like the Jubilee, it is possible to hear what someone on the lower level says, because the acoustics are that good. But during the quiet moments, there was nobody speaking. Everyone was listening to Cave, with rapt, cult-like attention. It was incredible. People were so into the show, that there was significantly less cellphone use than you would normally see at a concert. People were enjoying the show, the strange journey that our leader was taking us on. Cave is a psychotic preacher at times, but as he postulates about passion, death, murder, and lust, we cannot help but listen.

Dressed in a black suit, Cave truly connected with the audience. Twice during the show he wandered well into the audience to sing an entire song. It had people turned in all directions, craning themselves to see the frontman. He controls his voice incredibly well, going from a whisper to a deep baritone scream often, and well. He has mastered his craft, having been doing it since the 70’s (not all with the Bad Seeds, but he’s been going for a long time).

Personal highlights for me included “The Weeping Song,” which comes across with the intense, southern gothic sound that Cave is probably most known for. It was an incredible live song, adding to the greatness of the recorded version. Also, “The Ship Song,” and to close the show (prior to the encore), “Push the Sky Away,” which filled the hall with a haunting ambiance, while Cave controlled us once again, making us feel that there was something important happening. It was an incredible tune, one that could send shivers up your spine.

In the encore, it was all hits. I was happy that they played “Deanna,” as well as one of my favorite tunes, “Do You Love Me?”, which also came across incredibly well live. They ended the whole thing with “The Lyre of Orpheus,” allowing Cave to have a call and answer with the audience. It was phenomenal. There is no other way to put it.

Seeing this concert was one of the greatest I have ever been to. I love the smaller venues like this, and it makes you understand how annoying it can be to watch arena rock. There are no issues with the regular trappings of arena rock, like poor sound, poor sight lines, drunken throngs of people, terrible parking, etc. This is how concerts are meant to be seen.

If you are on the fence about going to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, don’t be. Just go. It doesn’t matter if you know one song, or the words to every single one, you will be in for a treat. An incredible band, led by an incredible singer, will make for a stunning show. I may not have been the hugest fan going into the show, but I was expecting a good performance. And I got more than I bargained for. It was masterful, epic, and something that will be remembered for a long time.

This is rock and roll. It is having darkness mixed with tenderness, all guided by the somewhat vampiristic Cave.

See them. You will absolutely not regret it.

Show info:

Opener: starts at 8, plays for about 30 mins

Nick Cave: starts at approximately 8:30-8:45. Ended at 11:00. (2.5 hour set)

Set List:

1. We No Who U R, 2. Jubilee Street, 3. Tupelo, 4. Red Right Hand, 5. Mermaids, 6. The Weeping Song, 7. From Her to Eternity, 8. West Country Girl, 9. The Ship Song, 10. Into My Arms, 11. Higgs Boson Blues, 12. The Mercy Seat, 13. Stagger Lee, 14. Push the Sky Away. Encore: 15. Watching Alice, 16. Deanna, 17. Do You Love Me?, 18. We Real Cool, 19. The Lyre of Orpheus

Tickets: $40 for second balcony. Good view, great sound.

Will Lorde Save Pop Music?

Will Lorde Save Pop Music?

“I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air.”

In my opinion, the best album that has been released in the past couple of years has been Lorde’s Pure Heroine. It is a fairly simple, electronic feeling album that has something that has been missing from pop music for far too long: lyrics that actually mean something.

Lorde_in_Seattle_2013_-1Lorde writes and sings about our obsession with fame, and materialism, and how too often, we are just regular people trying to live up to the impossible dreams that have been created for us by the musicians that we aspire to live like. Being regular people, who “live in cities you’ll never see on the screen,” we are forced to live our ordinary lives, while we are being told again and again what it takes to be important, or considered successful. We can only live these lives in our dreams, if only because we no other choice but to do so.

All of the songs on Pure Heroine are good. They are catchy, with great hooks, but a deepness to them that is unheard on the radio these days, especially when coming from a 17-year-old songstress. Lorde has demonstrated an apt maturity on this album, that is unparalleled among her musical peers. While Miley Cyrus is singing about being rich and going to clubs, Lorde laments the fact that she can only drive “Cadillac’s in [her] dreams.” She is saying things that an older generation realizes, but becomes dampened every time we hear a teenager say “Swag.” People are forced to live lives that they cannot realistically sustain, and this is an issue. Pop music has become more of a running commercial for fads and trends than ever, with all pop stars becoming more than just singers. They are now forced to become media magnates, with clothing lines, and jewelry, and perfumes, and whatever else they can get their hands on while the irons are hot. The idea of being a sell-out is gone, and it has come to the point where not selling out is a foolish game, because there is not enough staying power in a fast-moving cultural world to make an impact, musically, or historically.

With so many forgettable acts ruling our airwaves for the past decade, we wonder what the legacy might be for these “artists.” Is anyone in their 50’s going to be reminiscing about how “In Da Club” really spoke to them and their place in the world at the time it was released? Will people fondly tune into classic rock radio and feels the waves of nostalgia when they hear a Britney Spears song? Perhaps, and this music has its place in the annals of time, as they were popular hits, and have their moments for people. But are they changing anything, the way pop music always had, since the days of Elvis?

Does this generation have a Nevermind to look back on and say that this was a piece of music that really changed the way they perceived something? That helped them understand the world a little bit better than they had before hearing it?

Perhaps not.

But could Lorde change that?

Ironically giving herself a royal stage name, and then speaking out against the false hopes our celebrities have given us, Lorde actually has something to say, and it is something worth hearing.

But will kids listen? Will they remember?

With everything being designed to appeal to the continually shortening attention spans of a younger generation, will they even recall who Lorde is once her next album comes out? We can only hope so, as she has provided an opportunity for listeners to grow with her, to see the world through her eyes, and to realize, that you know what? She is right about a lot of things. If you aren’t born in Los Angeles, can you still have a successful life, even if you aren’t smothering yourself in diamonds? Sure. But that’s not what the majority of songs are about these days. It is about the need to be materialistic. The need for stuff. This is probably really good for our economy, but is it good for the psyche of a generation?

Visually, Lorde has a different approach from the rest of her peers. She does not release flashy, extravagant videos built on million dollar budgets and ridiculous amounts of skin and glamour. They are stripped down, honest versions of her songs. They hearken back to a time when a simple video like Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” was considered the greatest video around, even though it was just a closeup of her face while she sang a song. There was emotion in it, and it felt like it was something important. Lorde, a feminist, does not prance around in her underwear, singing songs about how it is ridiculous that so many people are singing songs while prancing around in their underwear. It is truly refreshing.

Now, there are the automatic trappings of becoming famous. Lorde is now famous. Will she be duped by the life of fame and money? She does have a line of makeup being released. Is this the first signs of her selling out, when she could stand strong and stick to her message? Or is it a means to an end? A way for her to remain famous until her next message can be passed along to the masses. We can only hope that her fame will not dilute her message, and that she can be savior that a generation deserves, and truly needs. Based on her lyrics, we know that she is smart enough to know that there will be trappings of fame coming her way. But also that she is smart enough to understand that you should not be owned by the things that you buy, that they do not define who you are.

In her song, “Tennis Court,” she speaks to this very thing (I believe this is her best song).

“Because I’m doing this for the thrill of it, killing it.

Never not chasing a million things I want.

And I am only as young as the minute is full of it,

Getting pumped up on the little bright things I bought.

But I know they’ll never own me.”

Lorde is good. At 17, there is a lifetime for her talent to grow and develop. For her to release a ton of albums, and become one of those artists that is remembered for generations because of the impact she has had on people. How she helped change the point of view of millions of kids who have been pointed in a materialistic and shallow existence by their shallow and materialistic icons.

The only questions remains, will the young people still be listening by the time she has something else to say? And will they understand?

Time will tell, but for now Lorde has the makings of an actual impactful, important musician in a time when there are so few.

Concert Review: Black Sabbath in Edmonton

Concert Review: Black Sabbath in Edmonton

Black Sabbath are the originators of heavy metal. There is no doubting that. Without their combination of doom, gloom, groove, and distortion, there would be so many fewer bands who explored and excelled in the genre. Many bands owe Sabbath a major debt of gratitude, for breaking down barriers for decades.

The original Princes of Darkness came to Rexall Place in Edmonton on April 22nd, and they left a loud crowd happy after a rousing set that incorporated most of their major songs, along with three of the newer ones.

Black Sabbath play Rexall Place in EdmontonWhile their latest reunion effort, 13, is a solid metal album, almost picking up where they left off with Ozzy Osbourne at the helm (while we continue to ignore the Dio days), playing only three songs from the album was the right choice. When you see a group of legends live, you want to hear the classics, not only the new ones. There was a noticeable difference in the audience when they would belt out something that has been around forever compared to a new one. The audience gobbled up the hits, like “Iron Man,” “N.I.B.,” “War Pigs,” and “Paranoid.”

To begin the show, crowds were met with incredible lineups outside of Rexall Place. Personally, when I arrived at the show at 8PM, the line was easily 4,000 people deep, spanning from the doors of the stadium, across the long foot bridge, into the adjoining parking lot, where it swerved for what seemed to be an endless line of black-clad, anxious, fans. This prevented us from even getting a glimpse of the opening act, Reign Wolf. He must have been playing to a nearly empty stadium, which is unfortunate, because he would have been worth checking out. Surprisingly, the line moved at a reasonable pace, but it still took 45 minutes to get inside. It was a surprise, as Rexall is home to many concerts, and having a line like that was a major failure on their part.

The plus side, is that once inside and seated, it wasn’t a long wait until Black Sabbath took the stage. They began with Ozzy shouting for some noise, before the gloomy, opening chords of “War Pigs” ran through the arena. And the show was on.

Personal highlights included the constant, heavy, and underrated riffing of the timeless legendary guitarist, Tony Iommi. He brought the thunder on every single song. The sound was perfectly balanced, which is rarely the case in Rexall, and all the elements of the band were easily heard. Too many times had it been difficult to hear the vocals there, or have the guitar be buried under too much low end. But this one was balanced perfectly, and the sonic gloom was resonating through the whole arena.

Most of the songs were hits, and there were very few misses by the band. While the drum solo could have been shorter, the quick bass solo leading into the beginning of “N.I.B.” was pretty cool. The slow, grinding, eponymous song “Black Sabbath” was one of the highlights, and led to a brief reflection on how advanced this band was back in the day. That song is some serious evil, and would have been unheard of for audiences of the early 70’s. Impressive.

As for the lead singer that I love to hate, Ozzy was on his game. Or, at least, on as much game as he has left. He is old. You can’t help but feel bad for him as he shuffles around the stage, hunchbacked and moving like an old woman. He has to be on his last legs, which really is another reason to see this band on this tour. I almost wanted him to stand at his mic stand, because it looked genuinely painful every time he moved.

But the old man can still command an audience. His banter with the crowd is repetitive and canned (it basically consists of yelling to see everybody’s hands, clapping in rhythm, chanting “hey” at the right times, and asking everyone how they are doing over and over), but they always managed to elicit a strong reaction from the crowd. People love Ozzy, seemingly forgetting the caricature he turned himself into on reality TV, and respecting him for what he has done for metal, and for music. While his voice was never very good, it is still the same now as it was decades ago. The songs still sound the same with him singing them. His voice has not disappeared after all of the years of abuse, which so many vocalists can’t say.

Once the band closed with their most famous song, “Paranoid,” balloons and confetti rained down from the ceiling, creating an impressive view from the 200 level, where I was sitting. It may have been a bit odd that such bad ass songsters, known for their darkness, had balloons and confetti, but it looked cool.

This was a fun show to watch. Black Sabbath has so many good songs, that it is worth going to the show. The new tunes may not be too well known, but they are good, and there is such an impressive catalogue, that there were few dull spots in the show. Very well done, by a very classic band.

A couple of quick notes: Sabbath took the stage at about 8:50 PM, and they played about 13 songs (I don’t remember exactly, but it was about that). They were on stage for approximately 2 hours.

See them while you still can.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

I had to debate a fair amount if I should get tickets to Black Sabbath or not. I am still a bit of a metal head, and love that these classic bands are still doing the rounds. I have to say that I was impressed with their latest album, 13, which still maintains a lot of the feel of their old music. But still I wondered if I should spend the money to go, plus endure the inconvenience of having to ever attend something at Rexall Place.

blacksabbathThe largest decision was weighing my dislike for Ozzy Osbourne with the fact that we may never get the chance to see this band again. I was never a fan of Ozzy’s solo career, and his voice is far and away the worst thing about Sabbath, in my opinion. Yes, he gave personality to the band, and he is definitely an iconic frontman, but I never really got on board with his voice or his consistent, follow-the-guitar, vocal rhythms. Plus, the fact that he ended up being little more than a reality show cartoon character really turned me off of him.

But, let’s be honest. This is Black Sabbath. A pioneer band, without whom we would not have seen so many great metal acts follow in their footsteps. They may never tour again, so I am glad to get a piece of it while I can.

Now, I just need to keep my fingers crossed, as they already have been since I developed a taste in music, that there will someday, somehow be a Led Zeppelin reunion tour.