Archive for December, 2017

pat dinizio, 1955-2017

Pat DiNizio.

The Smithereens always relished being a band of splendid essentials, embracing a love of pop songcraft while remaining very much a rock unit.

That’s why their best known songs – “House We Used to Live In,” “A Girl Like You” and the signature hit “Behind the Wall of Sleep” – were built around that most pivotal of rock ‘n’ roll components, the mighty guitar hook. From there, the band drew upon pop blueprints from the 1960s (the Beatles, the Byrds and the Kinks were the most detectable influences) but there was also a mildly dark cast, a studied distance, within the singing of frontman Pat DiNizio. It was as though he was the stern but very loving guardian of a pop tradition encompassing styles and sounds that would bounce about in Smithereens songs.

You could spot one of their tunes in a heartbeat by the hooks, by the vocal solemnity and by the tight-as-a-drum rhythmic drive.

The Smithereens never claimed to be the most innovative band to hit the stage. The guys stuck to basics and knew the structure of an elemental pop-informed rock ‘n’ roll tune inside and out. They could also deliver the goods earnestly, without frills, in performance. The band’s cover of the 1966 Outsiders hit “Time Won’t Let Me” was always a favorite. It revealed everything that made their original compositions so much fun: great hooks, great melodic structure and an unwavering rock ‘n’ roll spirit.

The news arrived this morning that DiNizio had died at age 62. With many focused on results of the highly publicized special election for an open Senate seat in Alabama, his passing was easy to overlook. But then, so were the Smithereens. For over three decades, they were as unfashionable and they were reliable. Trends came and went, but the Smithereens, resistent to change, proudly rocked on.

“In the old days, when we were lucky enough to become successful, we were living on a bus 300 days a year,” DiNizio told me in an interview prior to the band’s 2014 performance at the Christ the King Oktoberfest. “That lasted for about 10 years. The fact that we survived that and everyone is still alive and everyone is still friends says a lot. But we come from a certain dedication, a certain set of ideals, a certain aesthetic, if you will. There is a spirit of brotherhood here that says we’re all on the same page.”

in performance: kneebody

Kneebody. From left: Ben Wendel, Nate Wood, Adam Benjamin, Kaveh Rastegar and Shane Endsley.

Did anyone purchase candy for the show?”

That was the query of bass guitarist Kaveh Rastegar late into an engaging, inventive and refreshingly unassuming performance by Kneebody last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. No one raised their hands, but the crowd brought something far more complimentary to the 90 minute concert – a host of appreciative ears for this modern thinking jazz troupe from Los Angeles.

Though terms like “prog” and “fusion” have regularly been affixed to Kneebody’s music since the band formed in 2001, what the quintet displayed last night came across as more of a cross-generational jazz summit.

In the front line of tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel and trumpeter Shane Endsley, the band had a strong traditional base. Both teamed for a host of appealing, jointly designed melodies, be they through the riffs that triggered “Profar” or the way the two bounced crisp lyrical phrases off each other during the intro to an encore version of “Nerd Mountain.”

In drummer Nate Wood, Kneebody had a potent core source for most of the material to work from, whether it was the rhythmic chatter scattered throughout “Carry On” or the crisp, rocking groove to “Uprising.” And in keyboardist Adam Benjamin, the band had the engineer of a vintage fusion sound rooted in leads and colors produced from a well worn Rhodes piano. But with a variety of accompanying pedals and effects, Benjamin also supplied the Morse code-like opening to “Unforeseen Influences” as well as the more ambient cosmos that served as a backdrop for Endsley’s playing during “Carry On.”

That left Rastegar, who was the efficiency expert of the band, to supply a foundation for all kinds of orchestrations – especially the solemn but soulful groove that anchored “Mikie Lee” and a subsequent bass solo that, with the help of a modest percussive drive supplied by Wood, emphasized groove over flash.

In short, this third performance in the inaugural Origins Jazz Series (and its first presentation of a national touring act) showcased an ensemble sound that followed the layered arrangements of Kneebody’s recent “Anti-Hero” album but with a density that was considerably more organic in design and execution.

Who needs candy when you have those kinds of treats working for you?

in performance: janet jackson

Janet Jackson. Photo by YuTsai.

Janet Jackson got down to business the instant the lights went down last night for her first Rupp Arena concert in over 16 years.

First up was a newsreel-style montage of images underscoring a world riddled by racism, violence and environmental strife. Then a screen lifted just enough for the singer, decked out in layers of matronly black, a cane and a steely glare that was projected large enough for all of the 4,000 patrons gathered at Rupp to see. Such a stance made Jackson seem less like a pop star and more like a headmistress. Similarly, the lesson she imparted was “The Knowledge,” one of the many socially charged meditations from her 1989 album “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.”

“Get the point?” she asked the crowd. “Good. Let’s dance.”

That little interlude was from “Rhythm Nation,” too, as did the following “State of the World,” which gave her current 56 city North American tour, of which Jackson is two weeks away from completing, its name. But by this point, the social vibe had already morphed into the first of four distinct sections that made up the concert – specifically, an intensely physical groove party that covered most of Jackson’s initial hits from her 1986 breakthrough album “Control.” The singer didn’t shy away from the physicality the segment demanded, either. At 51, Jackson moved, danced and strutted with the tireless vigor of an artist half her age.

The second segment calmed things somewhat and presented Jackson sitting alone onstage to sing more pop-inflected works from the early 1990s, including “Where Are You Now” and “The Body That Loves You.” The dance team that initially helped her set the show in motion eventually returned, but the mood and rhythm was purposely less frantic. In fact, one of the program’s most arresting moments came when Jackson and her dancers sat on the lip of a stage platform for the 1997 tune “Together Again,” displaying a cordial, communal atmosphere that was refreshingly casual.

The mood turned rockish for the third segment as guitar squalls eventually led to a brief cameo by the singer’s late brother Michael Jackson by way of the 1995 video for “Scream.” But the groove quickly reassembled for sister Jackson to close out the set with the still-affirmative title song to “Rhythm Nation.”

The fourth segment was the encore section that allowed the singer to loosen up long enough to introduce her band and dance squad before zeroing in on the more modernistic groove of “Dammn Baby,” the evening’s most commanding entry from her newest album, 2015’s “Unbreakable.”

What worked through all this was Jackson’s still beaming performance profile. She remained a compelling presence onstage through all the various emotive stages that made up the concert. She proved a formidable dance chieftain and social commentator but also a sisterly companion for her onstage entourage during the show’s lighter moments.

What didn’t work was the singing. Whether it was the program’s often fearsome ensemble sound, its reliance on groove over lyrical play or simply the delicate nature of Jackson’s voice, it was tough to make out much of anything that came out of her mouth. Given the show’s reliance on near constant movement, it was almost as this was an accepted loss from the onset.

Also, it was a little disappointing to hear so many of Jackson’s vintage hits sliced into truncated versions and shoehorned into medleys. Granted, she has 30-plus years of material to fit into a program, and, yes, we’re all still part of the Rhythm Nation. But maybe chilling just a little to let at least a few of these still vital songs to play out a bit more would better service everyone – artist and audience alike.

in performance: trans-siberian orchestra

the trans-siberian orchestra performing last night at rupp arena.

Spending an evening with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is akin, in many respects, to over indulging at the dinner table at holiday time. Everything is inviting and offered in abundance, so you readily accept. But the food never stops coming, so those partaking do so far past the saturation point. The result: a feeling that surpasses mere satisfaction and soars straight into gluttony.

Transfer that kind of feast into a concert presentation and you had the makeup of what TSO offered last night for its annual seasonal performance visit to Rupp Arena. With about 9,800 dinner guests in attendance, the ensemble poured it on thick, both visually – via an onslaught of lasers, pyrotechnics and screen projections – and sentimentally, where original compositions by the late Paul O’Neill came sugar-coated in pathos and individual performances were bolstered by a litany of rock star postures.

Overblown? That doesn’t begin to describe it. Like past Rupp outings, this TSO show was spectacle for spectacle’s sake – a presentation that tied an anchor as well as a bow around conventional holiday cheer and tossed the whole gaudy package overboard.

Before going any further, it should be noted that the audience ate it all up – the Spinal Tap-like excess, the Kiss-like flamboyance, the WWE-level of sheer physical stamina. And why shouldn’t they? In terms of technical design and execution, the show was a marvel. Few were the moments when stage platforms didn’t bob up and down or shift with the aid of remarkably clear screen projections that shifted the look of the set from a movie theatre to a cathedral to a winter snowscape in mere seconds. Similarly, the lighting design, from dancing lasers to showers of computerized effects, was beyond dazzling. The production was even climate controlled, with huge rows of flames shooting from the stage one minute and dancing suds of makeshift snow falling over the arena audience the next. In short, this was a production and-a-half, even by TSO’s theatrically intensive standards.

But at the same time, there was hardly an instance – especially, in the first half of the 2 ½ hour program, which was built around a stage recreation of the band’s 1999 television film “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” – that wasn’t choreographed to the point of claustrophobia or delivered with an excess that made even its sweeter emotions – like the ones summoned during the Pachelbel-inspired “Christmas Canon Rock” – seem coerced.

Curiously, the most human element of “Ghosts” was reflected in segments shown of the original film that featured the late Ossie Davis. The 18 year old clips didn’t allow Davis to utter a word, yet they reflected a subtle warmth and grace the rest of the program bulldozed over.

The concert’s second half was looser, owing less to the production piece structure of “Ghosts” and more to TSO’s non-holiday material. But by the time the show hit a seemingly inevitable “Carmina Burana,” the bombast was back to stay.

Again, the quibbles here are largely with the overall framework of TSO’s productions and their unrelenting pageantry as opposed to the performers and performances igniting them. And, again, the audiences fully appreciated the feast being served, even if it seemed less like a holiday gathering and more like an alien invasion.


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