Monday, August 26, 2013

Concert Review: Sheryl Crow and Dwight Yoakam at the Minnesota State Fair

Sheryl Crow

Dwight Yoakam
Last night I saw Sheryl Crow and Dwight Yoakam in concert at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. The State Fair is a great place to see a concert, even though it was 96 degrees in the Twin Cities yesterday. It was about 90 degrees when the concert started at 7:30, so it was still pretty sweltering. 

I’m a big Sheryl Crow fan, so she was the reason my wife and I went to last night’s show. I saw Crow in concert on her “Wildflower” tour in 2006, back in my pre-blogging days, and I wrote a review of her excellent 2008 album “Detours” here. I’ve heard a lot about Dwight Yoakam over the years, but I don’t own any of his music. I was impressed with Yoakam’s voice and style, but he’s not a very exciting live performer. He was very low-key last night-I think he smiled twice during the show. Yoakam was funny when he talked, but he hardly said anything all night. Dwight was upstaged by his charismatic lead guitar player, Eugene Edwards, who laid down many scorching solos and seemed to be having a ball. Yoakam’s band was excellent, a four piece group that gave his music the proper rockabilly flavor, with some spicy solos thrown in. While the volume of Yoakam’s voice was just fine, it seemed to get buried in the sound mix, as it was very tough for me to understand the words that he was singing. I had the same problem during Sheryl Crow’s set, unfortunately. 

Yoakam performed a 70 minute set that included several of his big country hits and some interesting covers. One of the highlights of the concert for me was a lovely version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” but with a totally different arrangement than Cash’s. I didn’t even recognize the song until Yoakam started singing the chorus.

Sheryl Crow’s set was fantastic, as she had more energy and charisma in her first two songs than Yoakam had in his whole set. Crow smiles all the time while she’s singing, and she seems really happy to be performing. 

Before I became a fan of her music, I had a love/hate relationship with Sheryl Crow. Back in 2005 I was annoyed that her songs were constantly on the radio at work. It became a running joke with me and my co-workers that the day wasn’t complete unless we heard “Soak Up the Sun,” or “Everyday Is a Winding Road.” But I slowly figured out how catchy her songs were, and eventually I realized that even though I was still mocking Crow’s songs, I actually kind of liked them. I was throwing snowballs at the girl I had a crush on. Finally I broke down and bought “The Very Best of Sheryl Crow” and admitted that I had become a fan of her music.

Crow’s band was excellent, providing stellar support all night long. Her band is a 6 piece group, featuring two lead guitarists who were both great soloists. All the members of her band also look like they’re from the 1970’s, which fits her music very well. Sheryl played a lot of different guitars last night, from acoustic to several different electrics, and she even played harmonica on “Real Gone” and “Best of Times.” 

Crow’s set was a mixture of her most famous songs and a number of songs from her upcoming album “Feels Like Home,” which will be released in September. “Feels Like Home” is billed as Crow’s first “country” record, although she’s always had country influences in her music. “Feels Like Home” is also Crow’s first album for Warner Music Nashville, after spending her entire career with Interscope/A&M. Crow has been quoted as saying that her record label “didn’t know what to do with me.” This strikes me as an odd thing for her record company to say. What do you do with Sheryl Crow? Well, just let her make more records the way she wants to. But I suspect that her label wanted her to keep coming up with hit singles. Crow’s last big hit single was a cover of Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut is the Deepest” back in 2003. Her subsequent albums “Wildflower,” “Detours,” and “100 Miles From Memphis” didn’t produce any big hit singles. But those albums still sold well, and all three debuted in the Top 3 of the album charts. Personally, “Wildflower” and “Detours” are my two favorite Sheryl Crow albums. I think they’re outstanding albums from a very talented songwriter. To me Sheryl Crow is more than just someone who produces hit singles, she’s a truly great songwriter, and it’s too bad her old label didn’t see her this way.

Crow has an infectious energy onstage, and she bonded easily with the crowd, saying how much she loves the Midwest. She also said that she “always wanted to be a butter queen.” (A reference to the State Fair’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way, who gets her face carved in frozen butter.) Personally, I think Sheryl Crow would make a great butter queen, with her beautiful wide smile. Yes, I might have a bit of a crush on Sheryl Crow. But she’s beautiful, talented, confident, funny, and has a gorgeous voice-why shouldn’t I have a crush on her? Her versatile voice sounded great last night on both rockers like the opening “Steve McQueen” and “A Change Would Do You Good,” and ballads like “Strong Enough” and the new song “Give It To Me.” Crow would occasionally slightly change a melody line or a phrasing from her earlier songs, which I liked hearing. She still stayed true to the feeling of the song, while keeping things interesting. Crow sang 5 songs from “Feels Like Home,” which I think will be an excellent album based on the songs I heard last night. My only complaint is that she didn’t play any songs from “Wildflower” or “Detours.” I was very happy that she played "Real Gone," her song from Pixar's movie "Cars," as that's one of my favorite songs of hers.

The highlight of the show was probably the ending, as Sheryl sang “Picture,” her hit duet with Kid Rock, which led directly into “If It Makes You Happy.” The audience was on their feet for “Soak Up the Sun,” a perfect song for this hot night, and the closing “Everyday Is a Winding Road.” The encore was also excellent, as Sheryl previewed a new song “Give It To Me,” which showed off her gorgeous, powerful voice. Sheryl then closed the show with a rocking cover of Led Zeppelin’s classic “Rock and Roll.” It was a great show, and just as Sheryl was taking her final bows, the nightly State Fair fireworks started going off, a great ending to a hot August night. 

Sheryl Crow set list:

Steve McQueen
All I Wanna Do
My Favorite Mistake
Callin’ Me When I’m Lonely
A Change Would Do You Good
Can’t Cry Anymore
Real Gone
Best of Times
The First Cut is the Deepest
Strong Enough
Picture/If It Makes You Happy
Soak Up the Sun
Everyday Is a Winding Road
Give It To Me
Rock And Roll-Led Zeppelin 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: "Who Stole the American Dream?" by Hedrick Smith (2012)

"Who Stole the American Dream?" by Hedrick Smith, 2012.

Hedrick Smith
Hedrick Smith’s 2012 book “Who Stole the American Dream?” is a powerful look at the way things have shifted against the middle class over the last 40 years in America. It’s an important book that everyone interested in American politics or economics should read. 

Hedrick Smith is a veteran journalist who worked for The New York Times for 26 years. While he was with the Times Smith was a part of the team that broke the Pentagon Papers story and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971. In 1974 Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his stories reporting from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. His work in the Soviet Union was the basis for his 1976 best-seller “The Russians.” Smith’s other books include “The Power Game,” his seminal study of political power in Washington, D.C., “The New Russians,” and “Rethinking America.” Since retiring from The New York Times, Smith has produced many documentaries for PBS. 

I was an intern in Hedrick Smith’s office during the fall of 2001. While I was there I helped work on Smith’s documentary “Rediscovering Dave Brubeck,” which I would highly recommend to any jazz fan. While I interned at Hedrick Smith Productions, I saw first-hand Smith’s tireless work ethic and his dedication to journalism. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, but he’s not just resting on his laurels.

Smith’s reporting for “Who Stole the American Dream?” is deep and incisive. He weaves the threads of his story together very well, writing in clear prose that is easy to understand. The book covers a lot of ground, but Smith excels in presenting the reader with the most relevant points in each chapter. The book is separated into short sections that make for quick reading.

Smith does a great job of showing how many government policies over the last 40 years have favored the rich at the expense of the middle class and the poor. As Smith writes in the Prologue:

“This book sets out to describe how, over the past four decades, we came to this point-how we became two such polarized and dissimilar Americas, how the great economic and political divide affects the lives of individual Americans, and how we might, through changed policies and a revival of citizen action, restore our unity and reclaim the American Dream for average people.” (Prologue, p. xix) 

In the first chapter, Smith stresses the influence of the Powell Memorandum, which was a call by lawyer Lewis Powell in 1971 for increased activism of business to strength their position and influence within government. At the time, Powell was a corporate lawyer, but a few months later he would be named to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon. The Powell Memorandum was written to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and it was not meant for public consumption at the time. The memorandum said, in part, “Business must learn the lesson…that political power is necessary.” (P.7) During the 1970’s business interests would take Powell’s message to heart as they began to lobby Congress in much greater numbers than ever before. 

Smith then chronicles how the middle class grew and flourished in the decades following World War II, and how the middle class’s earnings have stagnated over the last 30 years. As he writes, “…while productivity was rising close to 3 percent a year, hourly wages of the average worker, adjusted for inflation, were essentially flat, the same in 2011 as in 1978. Three decades of getting nowhere.” (P.73)

But while the middle class has been treading water for 30 years, the wealthy have been getting richer and richer, as compensation for CEOs of companies has skyrocketed over the last 40 years. Smith writes, “In the 1970s, the Federal Reserve reported that chief executives at 102 major companies were paid $1.2 million on average, adjusted for inflation, or roughly 40 times an average full-time worker’s pay. But by the early 2000s, CEOs at big companies had enjoyed such a meteoric rise that their average compensation topped $9 million a year, or 367 times the pay of the average worker.” (P.59) CEOs certainly have a right to be well compensated for their work, but the way their pay has skyrocketed is outrageous. CEO stock options have also skyrocketed in the last few decades. The thought is that CEOs will do a better job of leading the company if they have more of a stake in that company. Which is rather ridiculous, as pure self-interest will keep a CEO doing their job as best they can. The suggestion that CEOs need the extra incentive provided by stock options to do the best for their company is absurd. 

Smith also writes about Congress, and how politicians are more beholden to special interests than actual voters. The reality of politics today is that money buys you access to a politician, and access gets you influence. And since special interests are contributing more to PACs than middle class and lower class voters, the special interests have more influence than ordinary voters. Gun control is a recent example of an issue where the majority of people want action, but Congress was unable and unwilling to do anything substantive on the issue. The will of a majority was thwarted by a powerful minority. 

Smith details how Congress used to work in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as politicians from both parties would frequently work together to craft legislation. Compromise was essential, and there were more moderate politicians in both parties. In contrast, Congress now is extremely dysfunctional, and is barely able to pass any kind of legislation. Compromise has become a dirty word. Filibusters, and the threat of them, have become much more common. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says of the Senate: “In the 1960s, about 8 percent of significant legislation was subject to delaying tactics like filibusters or holds. It is now about 70 percent. Obstructionism is now the hallmark of the Senate.” (P. 322) 

 While it’s true that Democrats have become slightly more liberal, it’s also very true that the Republican Party has shifted steadily to the right since the 1960’s. Moderate Republicans are now an endangered species. One of the key moments in the Republican Party’s shift to the right was the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican candidate for President. Smith and other authors have highlighted this turning point as the moment when the right wing started to take over the party. Even though Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide, it was the moment when the right wing first asserted itself. When moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller was booed by Goldwater supporters at the 1964 convention, it marked the beginning of a huge change in the Republican Party. 

In Part 4 of the book, Smith discusses many of the things that have caused the middle class to lose their wealth, from the subprime mortgage crisis, to Wal-Mart and other companies moving good jobs overseas. There was a time when companies were actually concerned about the welfare of their employees. Now the focus is often only on the bottom line of the balance sheet.

“Who Stole the American Dream?” is a book that should make you angry. It should make you think about what’s happened in the country over the last 40 years, and how the wealth disparity in this country is growing larger and larger. You should get indignant about the status quo as you read this book. My high school Social Studies teacher Mr. Anderson would always say to us “Be indignant!” He wanted us to have a reaction to current events, and Hedrick Smith wants us to have a similar reaction to his book.

In the final section of “Who Stole the American Dream?” Smith focuses on possible solutions to the problem and how we can rebuild the middle class. None of the solutions he proposes are easy, and none of them will be a quick fix. Some of them require direct citizen action. It might not be easy, but there are ways that we can change things in this country and take action to help rebuild the middle class. 

Personally, I think that Hedrick Smith hit the nail on the head with “Who Stole the American Dream?” He accurately diagnoses many of the maladies that plague our country today. He describes how we’ve gotten there over the last 40 years, and what can be done to change it. We would all do well to listen to him.