Friday, August 14, 2009

DVD of the Day: David Bowie VH1 Storytellers

Okay, so there really won't always be a DVD of the Day every single day. But today's DVD is the recently released "David Bowie VH1 Storytellers." The show on the DVD comes from 1999, so don't get too excited, fellow Bowie fans. Why it took 10 years for it to come out, I have no idea. But since it's been nearly 6 long years since Bowie's last studio album, 2003's wonderful "Reality," I will take pretty much any leftover Bowie product! And this show is really great, Bowie has always been one of the most charismatic rock stars, and to watch him work a small venue is awesome. The stories he tells are interesting and funny, and he does many different funny voices as he talks. And he looks terrific, rocking a hooded sweatshirt in that way that only David Bowie can. My theory is that clothes that would look ridiculous on anyone else just look great on David Bowie. I think he made some kind of deal with the fashion gods.

So, how about the music? Well, he starts with a beautiful version of "Life of Mars?" surely one of his greatest songs. Although he leaves out the first verse and starts with the second. Bowie's voice has aged really well, in fact, it may have been the best it's ever been on his last few tours. He can still hit all those high notes on "Mars." Wow! Bowie plays two songs from his then-latest release, "Hours," the singles "Thursday's Child" and "Seven." These were two of the best songs from that album, and they're well-performed here. Bowie throws a curveball into the mix when he performs his very first solo single, from 1965, "Can't Help Thinking About Me." It sounds very much like an early Who song, and this odd choice actually points the way to where Bowie would go next. His next project after "Hours" was the unreleased "Toy" album, which saw Bowie re-recording some of his songs from the 1960's, along with a couple of new pieces written in a similar style. Some of the finished tracks trickled out as B-sides when "Heathen" was released in 2002, but sadly the full album never saw the light of day. "China Girl" gets a nice, moody opening here before Bowie launches into the more familiar arrangement. And the show ends with two fairly obscure songs from the 70's, "Drive-In Saturday" and "Word on a Wing." Lyrically, "Drive-In Saturday" continues the theme of "Life of Mars?" of people escaping from reality through movies. "Saturday" takes place sometime in the future, with the narrator looking back and trying to "get it on like once before/when people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored/like the video films we saw." "Word on a Wing" is from the "Station to Station" album, and it is a cry for help from Bowie's darkest days, as he was in the throes of a crippling cocaine addiction. Despite this, "Station to Station" is one of his best albums. It's a beautiful song, and it's very much like a prayer.

On the DVD, we also get four bonus performances, although sadly, no more stories from David. There are two more songs from "Hours," the lovely "Survive" and "If I'm Dreaming My Life." (The four songs he performs on the show are definitely the four strongest from "Hours.") There's also a stripped-down version of Tin Machine's "I Can't Read," which offers proof that Tin Machine could create things of beauty. (Also see "Amazing.") And finally, a track from "Low," one of my very favorite Bowie albums, "Always Crashing in the Same Car." It's given a different flavor here, with Bowie's acoustic guitar carrying the song along. It's fantastic.

David Bowie's music has meant a great deal to me over the last 10 years, and he's one of my all-time favorite musicians. The two Bowie shows I've seen in person are two of the best shows I've ever seen, and they will remain forever locked in my memory banks. I really wish that he would record another new album, as his last two, "Heathen" and "Reality" are two of the finest he's ever made. But until that time, I'll have to make do with what's already out there, which is a significant chunk of the greatest rock music ever.

Concert Review: Ramsey Lewis

Last night I saw Ramsey Lewis at Orchestra Hall with my Dad. It was a great show, Ramsey proved that, at age 74, his piano chops are as good as ever. The theme of the evening was "Singin' the Blues," but Lewis didn't play just straight blues. His music has always been filtered through many different influences. Obviously, blues is a huge part of jazz, but Lewis played piano at his church as a teenager, and has always loved classical music as well, so those influences are there to be heard as well. The centerpiece of the evening was a medley of gospel songs that lasted close to half an hour! Lewis's trio was in fine form, with Larry Gray on bass and Leon Joyce, Jr. on drums both getting ample room to solo. Joyce's propulsive drumming really fired the crowd up. Ramsey started off the concert with his version of "Wade in the Water," which was a big hit single for him in 1966. In Lewis's arrangement, it becomes a stomping soul-jazz number, similar to his biggest hit, "The In Crowd." Lewis played several newer pieces that he has written, including a song he wrote for the Joffrey Ballet. These pieces were beautiful and quite lovely, I hope Ramsey keeps writing more originals. His newest album, which is due out in September, features all original compositions, it's called "Songs From the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey."

The crowd at Orchestra Hall was enthusiastic, and very responsive. I've been a fan of Ramsey's music for the last 10 years, and I don't think he's ever played the Twin Cities, so I was pretty excited to see him. His trio recordings from the 50's and 60's are just brilliant, I wish more of them were reissued on CD. And my Dad has been a fan of Ramsey's since the 1960's, when he bought albums like, "Barefoot Sunday Blues," and "Live at the Bohemian Caverns." It was a real treat to see a jazz legend who is still performing at an extremely high level.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book of the Day: 1776, by David McCullough

Welcome to another new feature I'm starting on this blog: Book of the Day. Okay, so I can't read a book a day, but I will occasionally write some shorter pieces about what I've just finished reading. Today's book is 1776, by David McCullough. As the title no doubt makes clear, this book focuses solely on this defining year of the American Revolution. But McCullough focuses the book even more narrowly than that. Specifically, he follows George Washington and the Continental Army throughout the entire year, as they move from a triumph in Boston to disastrous defeat in New York City, to a final victory at the very end of the year at the battle of Trenton. It's fascinating to read about the challenges Washington faced in such detail. The only thing I don't like about the book is that really no attention is paid to Congress. The writing of the Declaration of Independence is covered in about two pages. So you'll have to go to another book to get more of the story of 1776, which just shows what a momentous year it was.

In reading 1776, one of the things that amazed me was how many times the Continental Army came so close to being utterly destroyed, yet still managed to survive, through Washington's savvy and occasional British ineptness. There are so many times when things could have turned out very differently for the rebels, and one wonders what the fate of this country would have been. 1776 also makes the reader realize how incredibly lucky this country was to have George Washington in charge of the army. Granted, Washington made some huge tactical blunders during the war, which 1776 does not gloss over, but he was ultimately the right man for the job. He was able to inspire his troops at exactly the right time, and he was utterly selfless in his devotion to the revolution. His importance to the founding of this nation really cannot be overstated. For much of his public life, George Washington was America. He was the living, breathing symbol of this country.

As 1776 drew to a close, I found myself thinking, "Okay, at the end everything will be fine." And then I would remember, "Nope, the war goes on for 5 more years!" McCullough is truly a gifted writer, he knows how to tell a story, and he knows how to capture the reader's attention. He relies on a lot of primary sources, which gives the narrative an immediacy, and really paints the picture for the reader. I feel like I know a decent amount about the American Revolution, but I learned many new things by reading about one year in such detail. For anyone who wants to know more about America's struggle for independence, 1776 is a must-read.

Album of the Day: Intermodulation, by Bill Evans and Jim Hall

I'm starting a new feature on this blog, it's called, "Album of the Day." No, I probably won't be updating every single day with a new album, but I want to write some shorter pieces about things I've been listening to recently.

Today's album is "Intermodulation," by Bill Evans and Jim Hall, from 1966. So just who are Bill Evans and Jim Hall, you might ask? Well, Bill Evans is one of the most highly-regarded jazz piano players of the last half-century. (He played on "Kind of Blue." Need I say more?) And Jim Hall is a well-known jazz guitar player, who played with Paul Desmond on several albums in the 1960's, as well as recording numerous titles as a leader. Evans and Hall are the only musicians on the disc, and "Intermodulation" was actually their second collaboration. "Undercurrent," from 1962, was their first, and is a classic album. "Intermodulation" might not be quite in the same league, but it is an enjoyable listen. Evans and Hall's playing styles fit together very well, which is why a piano/guitar duet album actually works. Both had quiet, understated approaches, but both musicians were also incredibly technically gifted.

The songs on "Intermodulation" are mostly laid-back, slow-tempo ballads, which act as showcases for their styles. The only real swingers on the album are the opening song, "I've Got You Under My Skin," and "Jazz Samba." Evans and Hall each contributed one original song, Evans's gorgeous "Turn Out the Stars," and Hall's "All Across the City." If you like "Undercurrent," you should definitely check out "Intermodulation." Also, if you're a fan of either one of these musicians, or if you just like hearing two great musicians who have great chemistry together, take a listen.