I recently attended a concert by Katy Perry at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. On a Friday night (before we go any further, yes, she did play “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” from Teenage Dream. I hadn’t seen her perform live before despite a long-standing level of appreciation for her ability to deliver a quality pop song. Pop music often gets a bad rap from a number of “serious critics,” and that is a shame. To create music that has universal appeal is an incredible gift. To do it well is rare. You just need to study and open your ears to hear it. While I do think that Perry’s latest record, Witness, is weak, it is a transitional work at best; I admire her overall ability to craft her art.
Katy Perry’s show is a colorful riot of over the top fun. Filled with props, dancers, musicians and aerial acrobatics, it is spectacle of the highest order. During the nearly two hour show, Perry was in strong voice as she exuberantly lead a crowd of 12,000 through her impressive array of pop songs. Set design was ever changing and reflected the theme of each tune. Neon lit giant dice were employed during “Roulette,” a monster hoop and oversized basketballs were brought out during the recent summer hit “Swish Swish.” At one point, she challenged one of the fathers in the audience to a best of three contest, losing to Luis of Mendota 1-0. The focus of the show was the audience. Perry came to deliver positivity and good feelings. After accompanying herself on acoustic concert for a solo rendition of “Thinking of You” while balanced on a replica of the planet Saturn flying above the heads of the audience, Perry provided the most unexpectedly heartfelt moment of the show.
Spotting an attendee in a candy cane dress across the arena, Perry called on her to come to the stage to wish on a falling star that descended to the stage during the song. The “come on down” music from “The Price is Right” filled the room as the lucky selectee made her way. To Perry’s great surprise it was a grown woman who arrived in front of her. Perry explained that typically, she picks a little girl and the usual things wished for are unicorns and puppies. While unexpected, tonight would be different. The young woman introduced herself as Kelsy, owner of Bluebird Cakery in Faribault and Mankato. The expected discussion of cupcakes quickly followed. Each baked delicacy was augmented with Perry’s squeals of joy. When asked for her wish, Kelsy was quick to mention the employees of her business. Her wish was that every one of them would reach their full potential in life. It was a beautiful and selfless wish. She didn’t call for greater success for herself. She wished for success and happiness for others. It was joyful. It encapsulated the beauty of the evening (I actually shot a video of the entire episode, which you can see by clicking here.) A few songs later, the show was over. I left the home of the Minnesota Wild filled with hopeful wonder. Music can do that. Music can challenge us. It can entertain. It can comfort. I wish every day was like a Katy Perry concert.
I got home late from the show. It was nearly midnight. When I return from a concert it is impossible for me to sleep. Music has an amphetamine-like effect on me. To me, it is the most potent drug there is. Many years ago I once came home from a Dave Brubeck show at Orchestra Hall and my wife later swore that I physically levitated a couple inches above the ground afterwards. But I digress… When I get back from a show, I need to wind down from the experience. I must or there are problems. It generally takes a couple of hours and the ritual must be preserved. I do all the usual things. I check my phone, I watch T.V.
On this night (or early morning), I turned on CNN. Former National Security adviser Michael Flynn had been indicted earlier in the day and subsequently plead guilty to charges of lying to the FBI. That is serious stuff. It has consequences. I expected an update on what may have happened during the hours of my musical departure from the world. I got the speculation on what Flynn’s plea might mean. I saw the U.S. Senate vote on and pass, in the middle of the night, a tax bill that will affect everyone who lives in this country.
A vote while the nation slumbered. I considered what that meant. I wish every day was like a Katy Perry concert. It’s not.
I checked out several corners of the Internet to see what else might be “trending.” Sure, it’s pretty shallow, but I’m trying to find a lighter distraction to soothe my mind so I can sleep. I find that rapper Joyner Lucas has released a new song and video called “I’m Not Racist.” I watch. I am mesmerized by what I see and hear. For those who haven’t seen it, it starts with a white middle-aged man wearing a red “Make America Great Again” trucker hat sitting across a table from a younger black man in dreadlocks. The white man starts the rap. He describes a litany of complaints, observations, & stereotypes he attributes to the race of the young man. It is brutal. He talks about difference in culture. He uses ugly, uncomfortable words. He asserts, “I’m not racist” throughout his rant. He finishes saying “But there’s two sides to every story, I wish that I knew yours… I wish I knew yours.”
Then it is the young man’s turn. He starts by showing his distaste for the race he sees across the table as well. He addresses stereotypes. He gives his point of view. It is brutal. He talks about difference in culture. He uses ugly, uncomfortable words. He asserts, “I’m not racist” throughout his rant. He finishes saying “I love you, but I fucking hate you at the same time. I wish we could trade shoes or we could change lives, so we could understand each other more, but that’d take time.”
Both men stand face to face. Tension is palpable. Then the extraordinary happens. The white man stretches out his arms. Immediately, so does the black man, and the two embrace. After an extended time, their arms fall and you see their unheard conversation continue. Something has changed. The true conversation has begun.
“I’m not racist, but there’s two sides to every story and now you know mine
Can’t erase the scars with a bandage
I’m hoping maybe we can come to an understanding
Agreed or disagreed, we could have an understanding.”
I am deeply shaken by the song and the video. I am a white, middle class man. As much as I hate to admit it, I know that I am a person of extreme privilege. I have always been. I am aware of how truly, deeply fortunate I am. I don’t like it. It is easy for me to say that I don’t see difference among people. Of course it is. I’m a white, straight man. It makes me angry. To me, people are like music. I find them intoxicating. I love the differences. I love the quirky personalities. I love the moods. I love the inconsistencies. I love the simple. I love the complex. I love the unique. I love the weird. I love the generic. I love them all. I really do. I love them all. I really do. At least I wish I did every day. I really do. I don’t always love other people. I wish every day could be like a Katy Perry concert. It’s not.
I am overwhelmed by the sadness I see in how we treat one another. I am sad for the time we waste failing to get to know the music that each of us makes for the world. There are so many different songs to see and meet. So many ways that we each form our own unique and beautiful albums of compositions. So many stories to tell, so much for us to hear. I worry that I am missing hearing them all. I don’t want to waste my life in silence. Of all the things I know, I know that Hell is silent. Completely. Silent.
This is why music is so important to us. Yes, it can challenge us. It can reveal that which is previously unknown. From my point of view, this is why the Katy Perry concert was so rewarding. On the surface, the show could be viewed is disposable fluff. A simple distraction to the events of the day. That would be a mistake. The thing that is not easily seen was the sheer amount of effort and hard work put into the production by the artist. Every set piece, from the goofy left shark that she danced with, to the giant telephone used to call her mother all gave evidence of the imagination and level of detail that Perry put into designing her show. It is like the songs themselves. These may be “pop” songs, but they are incredibly well constructed with a level of skill and care that are the trademarks of a master.
There are serious conversations that our society must have on race, and how we treat each other. Like a pop song, it seems very simple. It is not. It is like a Katy Perry song. It may seem like it has an easy, simple surface, but underneath there is an incredible amount of hard work and higher level of skill that will be needed. You just need to study and open your ears to hear it.
I wish every day could be like a Katy Perry concert. It’s not. But, I wish it was.
Grabbing My Ears:
The more I listen to this album, the more I like it. My first time through it, I was more in the “Meh” camp. Now, I can’t stop listening to it. “Get Out Of Your Way” is just a flat out great song. Sure, Songs of Experience does not represent any new sonic direction for the band in the way that 1991’s Achtung Baby did. That’s OK. I don’t think we can expect that kind of jarring reinvention any longer. What we get with Songs of Experience is a rock solid U2 album. “American Soul” is largely a rework of “Vertigo,” but that’s also just fine. Who would U2 be if they didn’t sound like U2?
The more that this album spins, the more the hooks of the material embed themselves. Play “The Showman (Little More Better)” or “Red Flag Day” first thing in the morning and try to not have them float in your cranium throughout the rest of the day. Go ahead. I dare you. No, to invoke A Christmas Story, I TRIPLE dog-dare you.
Mortality and realization of the shortness of time is the overarching theme of the record. Many of the album lyrics apparently originated from letters written by lead singer Bono Vox to friends and family following a previously unreported serious health issue that occurred at the end of 2016. Following Annie Dillard’s advice to “Write as if you were dying” his lyrics evoke a raw honesty that deepens his body of work. Written for his wife, “Landlady” stands out as one of the more heartfelt, romantic songs in the U2 cannon. There is a simple elegant, time worn beauty to the music. Coupled with Bono’s Dublin street poetry and voice, it is striking in its intimacy. Songs of Experience is an utter, spectacular triumph.
Sometimes you just get lucky. Over the summer I was in Cleveland to watch the Minnesota Twins sweep the Cleveland team at Progressive Field, (or “the Jake,” as the locals still call it) and to check out the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I had a blast. After one particular late night I retired to my hotel room on Euclid Avenue and found myself watching Tavis Smiley on PBS. I really love his show. He has a gift for conducting insightful interviews with fascinating people. They are wonderful, and I generally find myself exposed to artists, ideas and concepts that I hadn’t previously encountered. I always learn something. (editor’s note: Daniel, understandably, wants our readers to know that this was written before the current allegations against Tavis Smiley were made, and before Mr. Smiley was dismissed from PBS)
That night, Smiley was engrossed in a fantastic conversation with a young man from New Orleans about music. My ears perked up. The man was a jazz trumpeter from New Orleans named Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. I loved how he talked about music. He spoke in a language that I understood. He talked about freedom. He talked about technology. He articulated with emotion the importance of taking chances. His personality was infectious and engaging. His playing mixes elements of sampling and electronica to create a new way of looking at jazz. He talked about the history of the genre. When asked if his music might be upsetting to jazz purists, he spoke how jazz is all about looking into the future. All the greats from John Coltrane to Miles Davis had similarly overturned previously held notions in order to advance the form, so why not him? I was hooked. Immediately after the conclusion of the program, I downloaded his new Diaspora album. His personality and words might have first caught my attention, but it was his music that completed the picture.
There is an adventurous spirit throughout the album’s 11 tracks. “Desire and the Burning Girl” has a late-night urban feel that recalls a middle of the night ride on the subway as Adjuah’s strong broad trumpet lines stab through the sonic mist. His playing is emotional and passionate throughout the album and is most notable on the opening title track. He takes a bold, refreshing approach to Jazz and is someone to watch.
America sadly cast Norwegian band a-ha into the “One Hit Wonder” bin after their 1985 hit (and video) “Take on Me.” Fortunately, that is not the case for the rest of the world and this unplugged double album recorded during 2017’s Summer Solstice provides the reasons why. After a 35-year career that spanned ten albums, two hiatuses and a number of solo albums, a-ha now recasts their musical history in an acoustic setting to reveal new colours and emotional poingnancy. Stripping away of the electronic “synth-pop” sheen, the sophistication of the compositions can now take center stage.
Highasakite vocalist Ingrid Helene Håvik adds new shades of vocal harmonies to “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” She builds a harmony a third above Morton Harkett’s peerless vocals on the song’s spine-tingling chorus that plays against the simple piano shadings provided by Magne Furuholmen and Pål Waaktaar’s acoustic guitar. The song climaxes with full strings and drums to make for one of the very best recordings of the year. In addition to past hits, the band also takes the opportunity to debut new material. Of these, album opener “This Is Our Home” is among the finest offered by the band and sets strong anticipation of what may hopefully come next.
Strings are big parts of “Stay On These Roads” and “Hunting High and Low” and allow the songs to emotionally take flight. Harkett’s remarkable five-octave voice is truly a thing of beauty and MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice gives him an occasion to show that the passing of time has done little to diminish his powerful range.
If you know nothing beyond the aforementioned “Take on Me,” I strongly recommend that you give this album a try. You may be surprised at what you have been missing in the intervening years. MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice is certain to add to the band’s over 100 Million worldwide total sales of albums and singles. American audiences would be wise to catch up.
Hells Kitchen rapper Marlon Craft delivers the unexpected Hip-Hop triumph of the year. Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z are going to get the bigger notice, but it is Craft’s deft use of the New York Subway system as a metaphor for the rigged nature of society that sets a new watermark for the genre. His rhymes are inventive, tight and use the album’s concept to make insightful points on American Life in 2017. From the intensity of “Marco Made Me Do It” to the dreamlike intro to “Bad Day Music” the beats, musical settings and characters are as varied and diverse as the album’s city setting. This is the rare release that aims to change the heart and mind. “The Closing Doors (Interlude)” is the most powerful spoken word piece that you will hear this year. The Tunnel’s End is one of the outstanding albums of year and well worth the attention of every serious-minded music enthusiast.
The British quartet unexpectedly released this live album on the 1-year anniversary of their performance at South East London’s O2 complex. Mixing hits with B-sides, the nearly 2-hour performance gives a solid depiction of the band to both casual and obsessive fans while serving notice of the many changes in how the band has been perceived since their first album release in 2013.
For my part, it is pretty personal. I fell in love immediately with their debut album when it came out. I couldn’t stop playing it. It remains in my all-time “Top 10,” so I definitely count myself among the more dedicated segment of their audience. When I first saw them play at First Avenue in May of 2014, the audience was filled with more of the “male, Rock driven” crowd that I consider myself part of. It seemed a perfect match.
Later that same year, a return visit by the band was announced, this time in November at the Myth in Maplewood, MN. I bought my ticket and planned on seeing them in a larger venue. I was pleased to realize the expansion of their audience. When a special acoustic performance was announced in the Rotunda at the Mall of America for the morning of the show, I was definitely all in.
When I got there, I was surprised to discover the place filled with an endless swarm of teenage girls. What? Had I missed something? I didn’t get the memo. So, there I was. Standing awkwardly in a black leather jacket, surrounded by an audience that I would never have expected. I looked around the Rotunda to see about 7 or 8 guys just like me. We all nervously nodded to one another. What had happened to “our” band? Then I overheard the conversations. They all went something along the lines of “Matty is sooooo hot! Do you think he will take a selfie with me?” Ahh…
This is how it works in the world of music. The teenage crowd had now discovered, and determined, that the indelible melodies emanated from four young men they now deemed attractive. Plus, it sounded edgy and they were British. From the Beatles on, that makes for a deadly combination.
So, things have changed for The 1975 and it has had an effect that is subtly notable on this live recording. Nothing about their music, attitude or approach has changed. What has changed is the sound of a young, very large crowd of girls singing along with each and every word sung throughout the album. I think that is great. That’s rock and roll. The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. From Frank Sinatra, to the Fab Four, to One Direction, this audience always seems to find quality first. Same as it ever was.
That’s The Ticket:
Soul Asylum and Har Mar Superstar-First Avenue December 29, 2017
I love Soul Asylum. I am as big a fan of them now as I was during their huge Grave Dancer’s Union era. Last year they released Change of Fortune and it was as good as any album in their catalog. Sure, Dave Pirner may be the only original member from the “classic” line-up, but that hardly matters. Former Prince drummer Michael Bland is the powerhouse hitter behind them on the drums and is the perfect fuel for these songs. I can’t even remember how many times I have seen them play First Avenue over the past 30 years, but I sure as hell am not gonna miss this time either. Tickets are only $25, so what’s your excuse?
Dave Matthews Band-Xcel Energy Center “The Night Before” Concert February 3, 2018
Superbowl LII is coming to “the Sandcrawler” in Minneapolis the weekend of February 3rd and I had vowed to stay as far away from it as humanly possible. I still maintain that stance. As much as I truly do love my city and as proud of it as I am, I am hesitant to have the entire sports world descend on our urban frozen paradise for the week. It all seems like a massive hassle for my fellow citizens and me. Roads are already underprepared to deal with the traffic levels we currently have without a bunch of visitors gunking it up even further. I am pretty sure we will get one of those end of January, sloppy thaws followed by 16 inches of snow to really slush the whole thing together. That’s on the “safe” side. The other possibility puts another “Halloween
Blizzard” in our laps. Yeah, I am a wee bit adamant about some things…
My problem is that I am also a HUGE DMB fan. HUGE. I love going to Alpine Valley to see them play. I think I am up to nearly two dozen times since my first show in 2000. I love the fact that every show is completely different, and the approach they take to their material is different night-to-night and song-to-song. Catch them two nights in a row and you might only have two or three tunes in common between them.
When this concert was announced, I really had no choice. I just flat out didn’t. So, I am drawn into the mess of the Superbowl by the lure of Carter Beauford’s mastery drumwork. There is no way to really guess what will be played, but I am hoping for the unusual. I am talking about stuff like “Shotgun” or “Little Red Bird.” My fear is that, like some past DMB Twin Cities shows, they will keep the focus on “the hits.” Most of all, I am hoping that “I Did It” is nowhere near this event. Honestly, I think I would prefer them covering Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” over that. Well, maybe not, but still…
One Last Thing…
I was shocked to hear of the recent death of Smithereens’ lead singer Pat DiNizio as I finished this column. A songwriter and performer who simply excelled at punkish power pop, DiNizio was only 62. Songs like “Green Thoughts”, “Something New”, “Blood and Roses” and of course, “A Girl Like You” were important hallmarks of the late 80’s/early 90’s. While The Smithereens’ may no longer be at the forefront of “the Music Scene,” they remain an important part of Generation X’s musical chemistry. Billy Joel was right. “Only the Good Die Young.”
This article was edited by Rich Larson
Daniel G. Moir is a freelance writer, musician, part-time DJ and baseball enthusiast. Mostly, though, he is among the most passionate music fans and aficionados of our times. He can be contacted at @DMoir5150.
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