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Posted by on Apr 25, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews, Personal | 0 comments

An Evening with Al Pacino

 

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Writer’s Note:  Back in January 2017, I penned this article after seeing Al Pacino interviewed onstage in a two-hour career retrospective.  I’m publishing it here for the first time on the occasion of Pacino’s 80th birthday — April 25, 2020.

 

Few can command a room just by being inside it.  Al Pacino is such a man, with an undeniable command presence.

That was my instant takeaway the moment when the spotlight hit the iconic film actor who was introduced to a Saturday night crowd of about 800 loyal fans at the Opaline Theatre inside the Palazzo.

Pacino had arrived in Las Vegas for an exclusive one-hight-only, one-man engagement.  Think Pacino unplugged.  Aside from the somewhat nameless and faceless interviewer who tossed Pacino plenty of softballs to smash out of the theatre, this was Pacino totally in the raw, mostly unrehearsed and unscripted.  While some of the questions asked were repetitive and maybe even a few of the answers were orchestrated for maximum impact, the intimate setting was also loaded with plenty of spontaneous moments and edge-of-your-seat recollections for classic movie lovers.  Most satisfying of all, Pacino seemed to sincerely enjoy the trip down memory lane, with pit-stops where you’d expect them on his 50-year-career.  He was a much better storyteller than one might have anticipated.

Indeed, Pacino personifies what it means to be a movie star.  He made the Godfather’s fictional character Michael Corleone into someone who’s real to millions, forever embalmed into cinema’s collective consciousness.  When we hear Serpico, we think of Pacino.  Sonny, the bisexual bank robber based on a real incident, is Pacino.  Scarface.  Dick Tracy.  Frank Slade.  Carlito.  Lefty Ruggiero.  Shylock.  Richard III.  Phil Spector.  He even played Dr. Kevorkian.

I was surprised by my own reaction, that Pacino’s best moments weren’t the highlights of his superstardom, but rather the low moments and the struggles, both personally and career-wise.  We can forgive but he can’t forget, and Pacino carries the burdens of pain from his childhood, though no amount of talking about his early life could quite remove the lingering sting of loss all these years later.

He talked about growing up in East Harlem (and later the Bronx), born into a lower-class household, raised by a single mother at a time when single mothers were widely viewed social outcasts, especially in Italian-American culture..  Pacino’s father abandoned the family when Al was 2.  Interesting factoid from the show:  Pacino was mostly raised by his grandparents who were immigrants from….Corleone, Italy.

Pacino seemed the most unlikely heir of what was to become his ultimate destiny.  He worked as a messenger, busboy, janitor, and postal clerk in between acting jobs consisting mostly of small roles in stage productions.  There was even a period when he was unemployed and homeless.  Sometimes he slept on the street, in theaters, or at a friend’s house.

In the 1960s, leading men cast in movies did not look and talk like Pacino.  Smallish.  Way too New York.  And way, way too ethnic.  By age 30, even though he’d studied at the famed Actors Studio under the tutelage of mentor Lee Strasberg (who would later play the legendary role of Hyman Roth in Godfather II),  his acting career was going nowhere.

However, everything was about to change, including public tastes and mass audiences’ demands for authenticity combined with Hollywood’s own methods of casting prompted by a new age of writers and directors.  New movies would need smallish actors, with New York accents, who were genuinely ethnic.

Pacino’s role, playing a heroin addict in his first film The Panic in Needle Park (1971) caught the attention of movie director Francis Ford Coppola, who had just won an Oscar for screenwriting Best Picture winner, Patton.  Coppola took a big risk and cast Pacino as Michael Corleone in what became a blockbuster film, The Godfather (1972).  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and even Robert De Niro tried out for the part, but Coppola insisted on Pacino, to the dismay of studio executives who wanted someone better known.

The stories of phone calls between Pacino and Coppola during the tense negotiations were told here, presumably, versions heard by the public for the first time.  Neither knew of the monumental tidal wave that was to come engulfing both of their lives, totally reshaping the careers of both men.  Now, Pacino remained every bit as appreciative of that loyalty, noting that no other film director would have gone to bat with such steely determination, especially given that Coppola was also relatively young and didn’t have total control of casting decisions.

As one would expect, there wasn’t nearly enough time to tell all the stories.  Even Pacino’s most obscure film roles elicited some hysterical recollections about on-the-set disasters and even the actor’s own missteps.

Pacino had clearly done this before, and his experience as an amiable storyteller showed onstage.  Yet, the actor’s occasional gaffes were among the most endearing moments.  When absorbed in stories, he’d often get excited and would sometimes even ramble off on tangents.  A few times, the moderator had to steer Pacino back on track.  This wasn’t annoying at all.  It gave the presentation a genuine sense of spontaneity, that we were privileged to be sitting in an audience sharing Pacino’s recollections of what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling.  I should add that not having any film clips, props, or other supporting materials actually helped the format.  Midway into the retrospective, everyone in the audience seemed to feel what a special moment this was and we were lucky to share it.

Las Vegas might be known for gambling, but it usually leaves nothing to chance.  The odds are known.  Most shows are the same, night after night, year after year.  Pacino’s recollections, though imperfect and incomplete, was in a sense the acrobat performing without the net — no notes and no script.  While other celebrities have done one-person stage shows, with mixed results, most of those efforts look way too contrived, even manipulative.  Not so, with Pacino.

Pacino has crafted a reputation based on playing tough guys in movies.  But his first love is stage acting and theatre.  After taking about 25 minutes of questions from the audience (most of which were terrible — thankfully, Pacino was gracious and answered questions he’s undoubtedly been asked hundreds of times and anyone with access to IMDB can lookup), the legend paid homage to Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil, and Noel Coward.  It seemed Pacino wanted to talk more about stagecraft.  Unfortunately, the interviewer cut off some of the evening’s most passionate thoughts from Pacino.

The final few minutes included a short glimpse of what was then Pacino’s next major upcoming film project.  That night, he’d recently signed a deal to play Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

Was it enough?  Was it worth paying $80 to listen to a film icon talk about his life and career?  Was this a show to recommend?

The answer is simple.  Hey, it was Al Pacino.

Enough said.

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Posted by on Jan 26, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

The 20 Most Baffling Grammy Award Winners of All Time

 

 

Since the awards were first doled out in 1959, the Grammys have translated into little more than a rubbernecking exercise for millions of watchers baffled by what’s happened to popular music.

Now in its 62nd year, the annual presentation is a proverbial dumpster fire of clashing musical genres and a twisted assemblage of conflicting generational tastes.

The latest chapter of chaos combined with curiosity will be written on Sunday night, at 7 pm CST with the CBS live telecast of the Grammy Awards.

The mish-mash of generational rivalries, wandering attention spans, and awkwardly pigeon-holed acts crammed into misnamed categories have produced many inexplicable (and undeserving) winners.

What follows are my picks for the most outrageous Grammy Award winners of all time, along with my correct choice as to who should have won the award instead for that year.

Dishonorable Mention (11-20):

 

(20) “Moon River,” by Henry Mancini winning “Record of the Year” in 1962, instead of The Dave Brubeck Group for “Take Five.” Mancini was a wonderful composer and “Moon River” became a huge hit as the accompanying soundtrack to the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But “Take Five” stood the test of time far better and it remains one of the best jazz recordings ever.

(19) “Use Somebody,” by Kings of Leon winning “Record of the Year” in 2010, instead of Lady Gaga for “Poker Face.” It’s not that “Use Somebody” isn’t a well-executed and deserving song. It’s just that Lady Gaga’s exemplary effort was far more innovative and globally infectious — both then and now.

(18) “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” by Bobby McFerrin winning “Record of the Year in 1989, instead of Michael Jackson for “Man in the Mirror.” Somehow, an annoying bubble-gum song with a terrible message (don’t worry, be happy? really? seriously?) topped the far more serious and deserving monster hit by one of the greatest artists in pop history (before his personal scandals). The only explanation for this egregious mistake was that voters must have been suffering from Michael Jackson fatigue, as he pretty much dominated the 1980s music scene and by then some rivals were bitterly tired of him.

(17) River: The Joni Letters, by Herbie Hancock winning “Album of the Year” in 2008, instead of Amy Winehouse for Back to Black. For more than three decades, Hancock has given the world a lot of great music. But this was far from is best career effort. Winehouse was the edgier, far more interesting, crossover-pick for her throwback R&B style and extraordinary vocal interpretations on what remains a flawless album (one of my favorite compositions of the last ten years).

(16) “You Light Up My Life,” by Debby Boone winning “Song of the Year” in 1978, instead of “Evergreen” performed by Barbra Streisand and composed by Paul Williams, which was the only tie in Grammy history. Boone’s embarrassingly cheesy ballad now comes across little more than a wide-lapelled polka-dotted fashion statement and a throwback to a gutless period in popular music dominated by coked-up disco queens and the vanilla saccharine of Barry Manilow. It’s hard to believe nominees the Eagles, Carly Simon, and Glen Campbell all lost to this sappy feather-haired nobody. My two choices would have been either Stevie Wonder (“Sir Duke“) or the brilliantly-composed “Star Wars Theme,” by the great composer John Williams.

(15) “Games People Play” by Joe South winning “Song of the Year” in 1970, instead of anything else from the rich catalog of popular music recorded and released not just within the rock genre, but the golden era of Motown, as well. Even prolific composer Burt Bachrach, who had two nominations in this category (canceling each other out, most likely) was a far more deserving choice. Has anyone ever heard of Joe South since he walked on stage that night, beating out Diana Ross, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Jackson 5, Neil Diamond, and B.B. King (“The Thrill is Gone” was eligible that year — how did that not win?).

(14) “Roseanna,” by Toto winning “Record of the Year” in 1983, instead of Willie Nelson for “Always on My Mind.” What an awful song and a regrettable pick. A disgrace. An embarrassment. Disreputable. Utterly baffling. Insane. Voters much have been smoking some of Willie Nelson’s weed. “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, “Sweet Dreams” by The Eurythmics, and “Beat It” by Michael Jackson all came out that year. “Roseanna” won over those songs? How?

(13) Two Against Nature by Steely Dan winning “Album of the Year” in 2000, instead of anything else released that year. Give it to Radiohead, Eminem, Paul Simon, or Beck — all who were nominated and then bypassed for the best album that year. Not Steely Dan. My picks would have been Garth Brooks’ live double album or Christina Aguilera’s self-titled debut best-seller.

(12) Hootie and the Blowfish winning “Best New Artist” in 1996, instead of either Alanis Morrissette or Shania Twain. No brainer. Enough said. No excuse for this oversight. Even at the time, anyone could see Morrissette and Twain’s natural talent and staying power as potentially volcanic forces in popular music. Not Hootie. Not the Blowfish.

(11) “Kiss from a Rose,” by Seal winning “Record of the Year” in 1996 instead of TLC’s “Waterfalls.” TLC was a wonderfully gifted R&B girl group, and this was their biggest crossover hit. But that didn’t matter. Seal’s overwrought and melodramatic torture of a song “Kiss from a Rose” won, mostly because the flop from two years earlier got remixed into the Batman movie soundtrack, and then quickly shot up the charts. That wasn’t even Seal’s best song released from that epic album. “Prayer for the Dying” was. Listen to the two songs. It’s no contest.

And now, the worst, least-deserving, most outrageous ten winners of all time:

The Top/Bottom Ten

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(10) Milli Vanilli — “Best New Artist,” 1990

It’s easy to see a much clearer picture now, rather than back then, when these two pop music Grammy winners from Germany faked and lip-synched their way to a scandalous victory. Fortunately, their careers ended up on the ash heap of music history, which gives us all hope that the same fate could ultimately befall all the Autotune frauds and phonies. Milli Vanilli was exposed and discredited, their Grammy award was stripped away, and their careers mercifully ended, delighting those of us whose ears still painfully echo with the horrors of stolen music.  Using session musicians (and taking the credit) is problematic for any Grammy winner.  But committing fraud is another.  Good riddance.

Who Should Have Won — Indigo Girls

(9) “Winchester Cathedral” (The New Vaudeville Band) — Best Contemporary Song, 1966

In an astonishing year in music that produced timeless classics including — Born Free, California Dreamin’, Summer in the City, Strangers in the Night, Wild Thing, Good Vibrations, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, The Sound of Silence, Homeward Bound, Wipeout, Land of 1,000 Dances, If I Were a Carpenter, Zorba the Greek, and Yesterday (this is only a partial list!) — guess what song ended up winning the “Best Contemporary Song” Grammy that year? Answer — “Winchester Cathedral” by those rock legends, The New Vaudeville Band. Urgh!

Who Should Have Won — The Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”)….or maybe not, since all the Beach Boys recordings were really done by The Wrecking Crew.

(8) Burl Ives (“Funny Way of Laughin”) — Best Country and Western Song, 1963

Burl Ives doesn’t get his historical due.  He was a multi-talented songwriter, musician, and actor — one of the few to be nominated for both an Oscar and Grammy. He performed folk songs, played villains in movies, did voiceovers, and was even blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Yet, he is perhaps best known today for his iconic song and self-portrayal in the annual “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” television program shown every Christmas season. Ives won a Grammy in 1963 for a song that’s since been forgotten, which wasn’t even a country song, edging out the iconic voice and life of George Jones, someone who would prove to be a giant influence in country music for the next five decades. Jones, then a breakout artist with one of his very first hit recordings, deserved the Grammy.

Who Should Have Won — “She Still Thinks I Can,” By George Jones

(7) Starland Vocal Band — Best New Artist, 1977

Look up the Starland Vocal Band sometime, if you want a good laugh. The group recorded had one lame hit, the wickedly torturous “Afternoon Delight,” the epitome of a musical bologna sandwich and a fitting soundtrack for the decline of Western civilization. Even the rock group Boston, which was nominated in this category, lost to the trifling trio. This was a very bad year for popular music, arguably the worst ever as rock was phasing into disco and (later) new wave. And punk was still considered an oddity, if not outright musical anarchy.  Note:  This very well could be ranked #1 as the worst, most undeserved Grammy Award ever given, and if you doubt this, check out THIS VIDEO.

Who Should Have Won — The Clash

(6) “Most High” (Jimmy Page and Robert Plant) — Best Hard Rock Performance, 1999

Every rock n’ roll and blues fan reveres the music of Led Zeppelin. That said, this was one of the two frontmen’s weakest efforts, no doubt brought about by the opportunity of a potentially lucrative reunion album and tour, however brief that lasted. Meanwhile, Marilyn Manson, Metallica, Pearl Jam, and Kiss were each overlooked by voters in this category. The Grammy voters got it wrong in Led Zeppelin’s heyday from 1968-1978 by not giving them any awards, and then committed and even more atrocious act by bestowing upon them what amounts to an apology award more than two decades later, long after their musical and cultural relevance was over.

Who Should Have Won — “The Dope Show,” by Marilyn Manson

(5) Eric Clapton (“Layla”) — Song of the Year, 1992

It’s painful to include master songwriter and performer Eric Clapton on any “undeserving list.” He’s one of the greatest guitarists in popular music in history and probably deserves far more official accolades. But his 1992 Grammy win for a re-worked acoustical version of a song initially recorded in 1970 made no sense whatsoever, especially given the force the musical force that Nirvana was at the time. The song that should have won instead defined a new sound and an entire generation and continues to receive praise as one of the most innovative rock songs ever recorded. It’s on virtually every “greatest” list of songs.

Who Should Have Won — “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana)

(4) A Taste of Honey — Best New Artist, 1978

Disco was certainly king during the late 70s, and this honor was a mirrored ball tossed to a manufactured cookie-cutter musical group that ultimately became a one-hit-wonder, with that timeless classic “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I don’t know it either. A Taste of Honey disbanded soon thereafter and would be a historical footnote were it not for their mystifying victory as the music industry’s “Best New Artist” in a year with far better nominees.

Who Should Have Won — Elvis Costello

(3) Bobby Russell (“Little Green Apples”) — Song of the Year, 1969

How could voters ignore the Beatles masterpiece “Hey Jude,” which was easily the most deserving song of the year? A landmark achievement, the self-composed track was the first single ever released on Apple Records and was recorded in the summer of ’68 following the group’s return from three-months in India. That turned out to be a gargantuan year for the Fab Four, with several hits coming off the Magical Mystery Tour sessions, followed by the stellar double-disc release only months later, known as The White Album. Oh, and then there were two other popular hit singles, “Revolution” and “Lady Madonna.” Breaking with tradition, “Hey Jude” wasn’t even included on any album collection (until after the group’s final breakup in 1970). The song spent a staggering nine weeks at number one, then a record — this in the midst of an explosive era when society was rapidly changing, racial and cultural barriers were coming down, and so much extraordinary music was being recorded — from rock n’ roll to Motown. “Hey Jude” shattered conventional formulaic radio-friendly thinking at the time, clocking in at more than 7 minutes. What begins as a slow piano-laden ballad with a single voice becomes an orchestral tour-d-force, finishing off with the memorable sing-a-long, “na, na, na — na, na, na, na.” Never has anything so simple sounded so amazing, as this live appearance in the U.K. on The David Frost Show reveals:


So, what won that year, instead? Chew on this. Bobby Russell’s mostly forgettable sleepy lullaby “Little Green Apples,” performed by O.C. Smith. Remember that one? I didn’t either. So, I had to look it up. Here’s the “Song of the Year” winner for what was arguably the greatest year of popular music in history.  And besides, the song was recorded by not less than three singers, also released as a single by Patti Page and O. C. Smith on separate occasions that same year.  What makes the Bobby Russell version special?  Answer — nothing.  Russell didn’t even write the song!  Outrageous.

 What Should Have Won — “Hey Jude” (The Beatles)

(2) Jethro Tull — Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, 1988

Jethro Tull….heavy metal?  Indeed.  British rock group Jethro Tull floored the audience and shocked the music world in 1988, winning a Grammy in a category they had no business even being nominated in. The flute-infused rock act dusted off cobwebs from the early 1970s by winning the “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” honor, kicking far more deserving Metallica off to the curb. This incomprehensible oversight caused a major shakeup in the way musical genres were classified from that point forward. Two years later, Metallica, which was at the height of their creative peak, did indeed win a Grammy. The metal group took to the stage and famously quipped, “First thing we’re going to do is tank Jethro Tull for not putting out an album this year!”

 Who Should Have Won — Metallica

(1) Vaughn Meader (The First Family) — Album of the Year, 1963

Chances are, you’ve never heard of this artist or this mostly-forgotten album, which inexplicably won “Album of the Year” in 1963. In fact, this became one of the fastest-selling albums of all time and racked up with more than 7 million total records sold. Vaughn Meader’s entire act consisted of doing his impression of President John F. Kennedy, lampooning the famous Kennedy mystique, and mocking political events of the day. The first family reportedly hated it, which probably drove up sales even higher due mostly to curiosity. Strangely, way back then “Album of the Year” wasn’t just reserved for music. Comedy was also eligible for consideration (recall Bob Newhart’s landmark win in this category in 1961, which was probably well deserved). However, Vaughn’s off-the-wall album wasn’t even the best comedy performance of the year. That title most certainly should have gone to Lenny Bruce, then at the height of his popularity and in the news constantly at the subject of major controversy. Meanwhile, Vaughn Meader’s one-trick-pony career went into the tank after the terrible events of November 1963, since no one wanted to laugh anymore about dead President. All that’s remembered now is that this album should go down as the worst Grammy Award winner of all time.  Here’s the far better choice (here’s what a real singer sounds like without Autotune):

Who Should Have Won — I Left My Heart in San Francisco by Tony Bennett

 

Most Bizzare Five-Time Grammy Winner of All Time — Christopher Cross

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Guess who has more Grammy Awards than the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Diana Ross, Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Who, or Tupac Shakur — combined?

Answer — Christopher Cross.

This milquetoast music maven won a whopping five Grammys in the year 1980 for his breakthrough debut album, which produced a quick flurry of hit singles. But his syrupy one-dimensional ballads ended up as pop music’s equivalent of pet rocks and beanie babies. In fairness to Cross, he didn’t fit the ideal profile of an MTV-friendly artist, an 80s-era detour, which was entirely based on appearances and superficiality. Within a few years of a smashing debut and five fuddled acceptance speeches at that year’s Grammys, Cross had all but disappeared from the charts. His last Billboard appearance was way back in 1985.

Meanwhile, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Diana Ross, Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Who, and Tupac Shakur have never won a Grammy Award.

 

NOTE:  READ MY COLUMN ON THE 2020 GRAMMY AWARDS HERE.

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Posted by on Nov 5, 2019 in Blog, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews | 2 comments

Willie Nelson (Concert Review)

 

 

Willie Nelson Concert Review (October 25, 2019 at The Venetian, Las Vegas)

 

No one can say for sure how many more Willie Nelson stage performances remain now that he’s weathered and wrinkled in the final twilight of an astounding musical journey that first began in 1956.

So, when the opportunity arose to go see the 86-year-old country music outlaw, I viewed my surprising good fortune at getting last-minute tickets not so much a passive performance but a personal pilgrimage.  This was the chance to revere and pay tribute.

Nelson is indeed on the road again, currently in the midst of his 2019 American Tour.  This latest show was held on Friday, October 25th, the first of a six-night engagement at The Venetian Theatre, in Las Vegas.

First and foremost, Nelson remains a uniquely gifted songwriter.  But he’s just as well known as a singer, guitarist, and stage performer.  And a film star.  And a political activist.  And so much, much more.

At a time when live musical authenticity has become exceedingly rare, it wouldn’t have mattered had Nelson taken the stage, forgotten some lyrics, and missed a few notes during the show which clocked in at a racy-fast one-hour and twenty minutes.  No one in the crowd of perhaps 1,800 witnesses arrived on this night expecting to see Shotgun Willie.  Instead, most of the sold-out crowd came to pay homage.  Many wanted to see Nelson a first, or one last time.

The show began promptly at 8 pm with a warm-up act — Tennessee Jet.  I knew nothing at all of Jet, who played an acoustic guitar solo for about 30 minutes, with no other musical accompaniment whatsoever.  This was a stripped down show to the very extreme, no doubt intended to create a mellow atmosphere for what was to come later.  Jet wasn’t going to be Garth Brooks.  This was a soft-spoken man on a stool, plucking notes, singing songs, and telling stories.  Jet was perfectly fine in this role, and just the right length of time as a warm up.

Following a short intermission and some sound adjustments, Willie Nelson entered from stage left to rousing applause.  He was joined by five other musicians.  Behind Nelson and his band, a giant red, white, and blue Texas State flag the size of an Olympic swimming pool served as the backdrop.  Two large in-house television screens provided excellent visuals for everyone in the house to watch Nelson, who would be the exclusive focal point for the remainder of the evening.

Immediately, Nelson took his guitar and launched into “Whiskey River,” a surprising breakout hit from 1972 when the singer initially transitioned from an awkward-looking, hopelessly out-of-place third-rate performer into a long-haired bandana-wearing hippie who no longer attempted to hide his twangy rough-sounding nasal-driven voice.  The rebellious honky-tonk tune brought the crowd to its feet, proving again that Nelson still has the ability to work a room, even in glitzy Las Vegas.

The tight set list included 17 songs, including a mix of new material, a few familiar hits, and (surprisingly) many songs by other fellow country legends.  Spontaneity wasn’t part of this act.  This was a meticulously-scripted show from start to finish, intended to deliver Nelson not so much as a nostalgia act, but an artist who very much remains at country music’s creative apex of past, present, and future.

“This one’s for Merle,” Nelson said to the audience as he gave a solo rendition of “Reasons to Quit,” the 1983 hit he co-wrote with Haggard who passed away a few years ago.  Nelson also paid tribute to the late Waylon Jennings, his fellow Texas outlaw.  Decked in a cowboy hat during the first third of the show, he also sang the old Hank Williams’ chestnut, “Hey, Hey, Good Lookin’.”

Nelson’s vocals were remarkably strong, especially for an octogenarian.  But it was Nelson supurb guitar work that was most impressive and the biggest stunner for those unfamiliar with Nelson’s pedigree and skills as an artist.  Strumming and plucking “Trigger,” his hopelessly faded and beat up wooden guitar that was the only personal belonging salvaged from a 1970 house fire that marked his final goodbye after struggling for years as a songwriter in Nashville, the braided troubadour proved his can still bend the strings and pick notes.  In fact, Nelson’s guitar work was, there’s no other word for it but — exceptional.  Many musical icons can rely on younger backup stage performers to carry the heavy load and fill in details during a performance.  Not Nelson.  He plucks and picks every single lead melody of the entire set himself, and his finger work on the frets could easily be seen on the giant screens.  This was truly amazing to watch.

Given Nelson’s surprising guitar prowess, one of the evening’s highlights was the show’s only instrumental number, “Stardust,” the title song off of his 1982 best-selling masterpiece that once showed an alternative side to Nelson’s songmanship.  However, Nelson’s finest moment came when he performed the crossover 1970 hit, “Yesterday When I Was Young,” written and sung by Roy Clark off his Shades of Country album.  When Nelson with his heavy nasal vibrato sang the song’s final stanza, one could have heard a pin drop:

There are so many songs in me that won't be sung
I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue
The time has come for me to pay for
Yesterday, when I was young.

To say Nelson’s band was restrained would be an understatement.  His backing accompaniment had no drum kit, only brush sticks with a single snare.  One sideman played harmonica.  Another plucked a stand-up bass.  Someone else in the band played soft acoustics.  A big black grand piano took up much of the stage, but never overwhelmed Nelson, the clear frontman conducting the entire performance from beginning to end.  No doubt, the singer-songwriter who’s composed more than 1,000 tunes himself, including 40 top country hits, and knows a great many more classics committed to memory, took understandable comfort in having a small screen monitor directly beneath his feet teleprompting the lyrics.  However, it appeared Nelson didn’t need the visual crutch very often.   He didn’t miss a note, not a lyric.  May we all be so mentally astute when we reach his age.

For those expecting to see and hear more of Willie the unapologetic political and social activist who participated in countless progressive causes over the years, including the annual Farm Aid concert to help support America’s farmers, that particular silo didn’t make an appearance on this night.  His show was remarkably apolitical.  One suspects Nelson might be determined to keep some would-be critics at bay, by not speaking to the crowd about controversial topics, despite the great political and social divide throughout the country.  Alas, this was a moment of reflection and unity.

Forty minutes into the show, a large American flag was unfurled and replaced the Texas flag as the band’s backdrop.  Was this a statement?  Not sure what the point of this display was, perhaps to self-identify himself with Americana, or just to prove to his audience that pot-smoking liberals can be patriots, too.

The evening’s most amusing moment came in the 16th song of the set when Nelson, an avowed proponent of marijuana use and legalization, sang “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”  Even though the song might not be as well known as his other hits, most of the crowd could be seen and heard singing the catchy chorus along with Nelson, everyone willing to enjoy the free-spirited celebration.

The show did have some gaps.  One major disappointment was Nelson not performing an encore.  After what turned out to be his final song, “Still Not Dead,” off the 2017 God’s Problem Child album, the band returned to the stage and it seemed Nelson would answer the standing ovation for an obligatory curtain call.  However, the auditorium lights then came on and the show was over.  It’s uncertain whether Nelson was simply fatigued, or the 10 pm hour right on the nose marked a preset termination time.  Given this was the first of six straight nights of shows — probably the former.  Nelson would be justified preserving his energy and voice, and no one in the crowd seemed to mind.  But for $120-a-seat tickets, one final song and a hearty farewell from the country icon would have been the perfect closer.  It was only a small blemish on an otherwise wonderful experience.

Curious to learn more, I discovered that Nelson has been forced to cancel some performances in recent months due to his tireless travel and associated bouts with fatigue.  Performances are likely to be inconsistent, from now on.  But at least a few things are certain:  Willie Nelson can still sing and perform just as well as during anytime in his illustrious career, and there won’t be many more chances again to see a legend of this stature who given us so many wonderful songs for more than 60 years and invented an entire genre of music.

You’d be “crazy” not to go and see Willie Nelson if and when you still can.

 

Note:  Thanks to Dan and Sharon Goldman for the show tickets.

 

 

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Posted by on Mar 5, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 2 comments

Is Michael Jackson’s Legacy Ruined Forever?

 

 

After HBO’s devastating documentary “Leaving Neverland” exposed the late Michael Jackson as a serial pedophile, what should we make of his legacy?  Might everything associated with him now become toxic?  Or, will the Jackson epochal circus roll on and continue bringing in the cash?

 

Michael Jackson was bad.

Any lingering shreds of confidence in the icon’s self-proclaimed innocence were obliterated by a devastating four-hour documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” which aired on HBO.  It was the equivalent of smashing a crystal vase with a sledgehammer.

For the first time ever, two of Michael Jackson’s child-victims were interviewed on camera.  They appeared not only to be thoroughly credible.  They also produced physical evidence of what happened to them at the ages of 10 and 7, respectively.  Their recounts of sexual abuse were corroborated by an unmistakable timeline of events.  Moreover, the repeated acts weren’t just an aberration or a drunken fling.  The abuse was ongoing.  It was deliberate.  It was planned.  It was explicit.  It was nauseating.

The two victims, now young men in their early 30’s, bravely described countless sex acts with the late entertainer in excruciatingly graphic detail.  I couldn’t help but admire them for speaking out and for their willingness to share such painful memories in front of millions of viewers certain to watch the show.  Their testimony should be a final calamitous blow to Michael Jackson and everything associated with his legacy.  Deservedly so.

Or, will it?

Michael Jackson reportedly earns more dead than alive.  The deceased entertainer’s boundless business empire remains insanely lucrative, having acquired the rights to a vast catalog of music and the beneficiary of innumerable licensing agreements worldwide which continue to rake in bundles of cash for the use of Michael Jackson’s iconic image, his songs, and his creative endowment.  Here in Las Vegas, there’s even an entire Cirque du Soleil show devoted to Michael Jackson.

There was Elvis.  Then, The Beatles.  Then, Michael Jackson.

So, what happens now?

How are we to react both individually and collectively speaking when one of Michael Jackson’s songs gets played somewhere out in public?  What’s the appropriate reaction to seeing a Michael Jackson impersonator perform onstage?  Does any major company now want to be associated with a serial pedophile who performed hundreds of sex acts with elementary school boys in the closed confines of Neverland, which now appears to have been devoted entirely to intoxicating children into a vulnerable state?  The giraffes, the merry-go-round, the chimp — they were used selfishly by Michael Jackson to lure boys into the bedroom.  Neverland is like the Playboy Mansion, only for a pedophile.

The entire place should be bulldozed.

Indeed, Michael Jackson deserves to be pegged someplace in-between Harvey Weinstein and John Wayne Gacy.  Say what you will about Weinstein’s petty perversions, who pursued his greedy fantasies with mostly younger women of adult age.  And say something else about Gacy, who was gay and murdered lots of young men, also of adult age.  Jackson not only had a sick thing for little boys, he selfishly pursued his perversions, manipulated his victims, and shamelessly used is power and privilege to bed kiddies.

Anyone with any association to Michael Jackson should be in hyper-crisis mode right now.

How the mega-MGM corporation, which owns Mandalay Bay can continue to rake in profits from a show which essentially pays homage to Michael Jackson is baffling.  It will be quite interesting to see what action, if any, the entertainment conglomerate takes after revelations have now been corroborated that the gloved weirdo with his image plastered across 30 floors of a hotel skyscraper probably deserved to be locked up behind bars for life for his crimes, if he was still alive.

I don’t want to hear any of Michael Jackson’s music, anymore.  At least not now.  I don’t want to see his face or his silhouette.  I won’t buy any products which use his music or his image.  I don’t care how fucking talented he was, or how much money he makes for unscrupulous morally-indifferent investors.  Michael Jackson and his legacy deserve to be shunned and treated as poison.

Then and now, given the gravity of his influence upon generations of adoring worshippers, it may be impossible to totally ignore Michael Jackson as a musician, performer, and monumental titan of influence.  But we must try.

We can’t put Michael Jackson on trial and lock him up for his terrible crimes against children because he’s dead.  However, one thing we can do is treat him as persona non grata.  A castaway.

Justice demands it.

__________

 

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Posted by on Jan 30, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews | 2 comments

Going Ga Ga Over Lady GaGa

 

 

Lady Gaga arrives in Las Vegas at the perfect moment for both the city and its newest star.  Let’s hope she shakes things up.

 

Lady Gaga seems intent on being all things to all people, and if her previous track record of success is an indication, she might very well have the gravitas to pull off what would be impossible for anyone lesser.

No singer-songwriter-performer-actress-influencer-icon on the planet is hotter at the moment.  So, it came as quite a shock to find out Lady Gaga is making Las Vegas her temporary residency.  Let’s be honest here — the Las Vegas Strip isn’t the usual first choice for a performer who could sell out any football stadium in the world within mere hours.

Indeed, casino showrooms have typically been the last whistle-stop before being tossed into the heap of the CD bin at the discount dollar store.  It’s where once-great but now-old performers go to die; it’s where one-hit wonders come to make one last fat paycheck before retiring and fading off into artistic oblivion.  Sure, most headliners make Las Vegas a mandatory concert stop on any national tour.  But the prospect of doing dozens, perhaps even hundreds of nightly shows isn’t just excruciatingly repetitive for cutting edge performers.  It’s always been a dead end.  For just about everyone here who’s turned into Wayne Newton, it’s been a set of golden handcuffs — lots of sweet guaranteed money, but with a heavy price.  Las Vegas has always been a creative graveyard.

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