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Live Review: Smashing Pumpkins at the Phoenix Theater

Posted by: on Sep 9, 2010 | Comments (1)

Well, color me impressed. Over the course of an immersive, nearly two-hour Smashing Pumpkins show last night at Petaluma’s Phoenix Theater, the ageless Billy Corgan unreeled a nonstop stream of gauze-soaked distortion, a generously crowd-pleasing handful of the band’s hits—and said barely a word at all to the crowd.

To those who caught the band’s residency at San Francisco’s Fillmore last year, pockmarked by long, self-centered rambles from Corgan and obscure, calm material, the Smashing Pumpkins on stage last night might have seemed like an entirely different band, and that’s for the better. Simply put, the Pumpkins kicked ass, and then kept kicking ass, and didn’t cease kicking ass until the final feedback-laden tones of the long set closer “Gossamer” came to an abrupt halt and the strobe lights finally stopped pulsing. Even the band’s new material sounded great last night, which was almost as strange as being at the Phoenix Theater and seeing hardly any teenagers.

The sold-out crowd, nearly all in their 30s, went crazy for hits like “Today,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Cherub Rock” and a solo version of “Disarm” that had hundreds of camera phones hoisted in the audience and Corgan singing karaoke-style to a backing track. Not that Corgan, the only original member of the group, rested on his laurels. Instead, he culled from the classic rock trick bag with a Hendrix-inspired “Star-Spangled Banner,” played by his teeth, and a foray into Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” followed by a long drum solo by new recruit Mike Byrne punctuated with the obligatory crash of a gigantic gong. For “Ava Adore,” he unleashed pure Stratocaster pyrotechnics; during “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” he gestured in an actual cage of lighting scaffold and two giant windmills; and throughout the set screeched his trademark growl like a bonafide rock star.

All of this—plus cock-rock openers Big City—showed that Corgan’s intentions have always lied in arena rock and not, as the 1990s painted him, as “alternative.” The Smashing Pumpkins’ best moments seem to happen when Corgan reconciles the two. Last night, the nonstop barrage of lighting and fuzz couldn’t have been described as “accessible,” yet the continuous unease seemed to clear a space for the band to actually enjoy playing radio hits they’ve played thousands of times. After the line “No matter where you are / I can still hear you when you scream,” from the Singles soundtrack single “Drown,” the Phoenix crowd erupted in a scream, and if you were watching close enough, you could see Corgan allow himself a sly smile—still, after all these years.

Set List:

Astral Planes
Ava Adore
Drown
As Rome Burns
A Song for a Son
Today
Eye
Bullet With Butterly Wings
United States
My Love Is Winter
Cherub Rock
That’s the Way (My Love Is)
Stand Inside Your Love
Tarantula
Tonight, Tonight
Disarm
Freak
Gossamer

Live Review and Photos: Lauryn Hill at the Harmony Festival, Santa Rosa, CA

Posted by: on Jun 14, 2010 | Comments (8)

The long-hoped-for resurrection of Lauryn Hill, a dream seeming to slip further away with each year and each incoherent concert, took a giant step closer to fulfillment tonight at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa.

We may never know what exactly has plagued Hill these last eight years, forcing her to shirk the limelight, cancel tours and sabotage her reputation, just as we may never know how she became capable of triumphantly returning to the stage in 2010. One thing is evident: in Santa Rosa, of all places, the 35-year-old singer finally showed she craves dearly to be taken seriously again. Reinvigorated with enthusiasm, she inhabited the music, conducted the band, belted improvised shout-outs and thanked the crowd—all in the first song. “I love you,” she exclaimed to a field of fans. “It’s so good to see you.”

If it weren’t for the harlequin outfit, bulky hoop earrings and heavy metal guitar solos, it was almost like seeing the Lauryn Hill of old.

Outwardly struggling with fame, Hill has long evinced a complete dread of pleasing the public (see: Unplugged 2.0), but in a 75-minute set of Fugees classics and Miseducation tracks in Santa Rosa, she refreshingly aimed to do just that. From breakneck set opener “Lost Ones” to the slam-dunk closer “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Hill showed a genuine desire to again fulfill her talent.

It started rough. Scheduled to go on at 6pm, Ms. Lauryn Hill, as she requires to be billed, came onstage only after her DJ bored the crowd with a half hour of clunky, unblended snippets from the likes of “Purple Haze,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Pass the Dutchie” and “Bam Bam.” The presence of two large teleprompters at the foot of the stage, for lyrics, added to the slowly mounting despair. By 6:29, when instructed to make noise for the umpteenth time, the teeming crowd could only wonder if Hill would arrive at all.

But grandly arrive she did, in an ’80s multicolored full-body jumpsuit that was only moderately silly in light of the get-ups donned by the average Harmony Festival attendee. “Lost Ones” set things straight in a ten-minute version that twisted through five different arrangements, and Hill’s recently-faded voice showed rejuvenated form with “When It Hurts So Bad.” By the beautiful “Turn Your Your Lights Down Low,” the crowd was in the palm of Hill’s hands, and comeback was in the air.

“We gonna do some old stuff,” Hill proclaimed, “but, but, but, but… there is a ‘but’… we gonna do some old stuff kinda new. Is that okay with you?” A medley of Fugees tracks followed, with Hill even taking over some Wyclef and Pras verses and singing OG sample material (“I Only Have Eyes For You”). And despite a generation’s collective memorization of the album versions, reworked songs with reggae and hard rock elements electrified Hill, who nailed every segue and spat out lightning-fast lines quicker than the crowd could sing along.

There were, sadly, two immediate drawbacks. One, Hill clearly has no concept at all of how live sound operates. Both between and in the middle of songs, she constantly complained about the stage and house mix, chiding the soundman to keep turning up every instrument and microphone according to her fleeting whims. The result was a washed-out din.

The other problem was that Hill is perhaps now too eager for public approval. From the ultra-fast tempos which, even with the teleprompters, she at times struggled to keep up with; to the claustrophobic arrangements for two guitars, two basses, two keyboards and three backup singers; to the “whooooo!”s and the “yeeaahhh!”s and the hasty leg-kicking, the concert had the effervescent taint of a Vegas show.

Realizing that Hill is simply giving people what they want—in preparation for her Rock the Bells dates, no doubt—is a blessing and a curse. She admirably tried for a time to break from fame’s mold, but it only resulted in bad music and psychological deterioration. With this greatest-hits set out on the road, her old fans are certainly satisfied, but what about staying true to one’s muse?

The question was forgotten each time Hill eagerly jumped into each song. “Pop this one, c’mon, let’s go!” she told her band, and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” set an entire field of festival goers aflame. “Thank you so much,” she said, as a sea of arms applauded wildly. “Thank you for your patience with us. Good to see you. Hope to see you soon.”

Lauryn Hill hasn’t made fans’ patience an easy task these last eight years, but let’s hope we see her in this kind of form again soon. Her emancipation might still not fit some people’s equation—I’ve already heard from people who were disappointed with the show—but the trainwreck curse is over and the resurrection is afoot. Now the fine-tuning begins.

Set List:

Lost Ones
When It Hurts So Bad
Ex-Factor
Turn Your Lights Down Low
How Many Mics / I Can’t Stand Losing You
I Only Have Eyes For You / Zealots
Fu-gee-la
Ready or Not
Zimbabwe
Doo Wop (That Thing)

More Photos Below.

Live Review: Gil Scott-Heron at Yoshi's

Posted by: on Mar 18, 2010 | Comments (2)

It had to happen. Not five seconds after a smiling, lanky Gil Scott-Heron ambled onto the stage at Yoshi’s last night, someone shouted for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Scott-Heron, rail-thin and in a too-big jacket and flat cap, ignored the request. But he also completely ignored his acclaimed comeback album, I’m New Here—indeed, he played nothing from it. Instead, the singer, poet and musician delivered a joyous set of classic older material, providing a treat for longtime fans and a nearly two-hour introduction for newcomers who just heard about him last month on NPR.

“This has been a very eventful week,” Scott-Heron said, opening the show. “We been reading stuff about us we never knew. You get to have another life when you’re an artist like me—the one you live and the one they write about. I read, for example, that I had disappeared. I thought about adding that to my live act. You come to see me, and poof! I’m gone.”

To understate, Scott-Heron possesses a gift of gab. After 15 minutes of patter about dwarfs, encyclopedias, Winston Churchill, Black History Month, the radio, the news and his home state of Tennessee—all of which might seem self-obliging if not for his sharp, acerbic wit—Scott-Heron finally sat down at his Fender Rhodes and nestled his well-worn throat into “Blue Collar,” as autobiographical a song as any for the legend who’s recently spent time in prison for cocaine charges:

I been down in New York City, that ain’t no place to be down
I been been lookin’ at the faces of children, you see we’re lookin’ for higher ground

You can’t name where I ain’t been down
‘Cause there ain’t no place I ain’t been down

There is gravity in Scott-Heron’s voice—the kind of voice they don’t make anymore. It’s in shockingly fine form, a low bass, rich and full of purpose, flowering at the end of lines into breathy vowels. Take “Pieces of a Man,” for example: a song Scott-Heron’s sung countless times, and still a searing pain overtook it last night, as if he were experiencing the subject for the first time.

This is the most valuable aspect of Scott-Heron’s newfound rebirth. Unlike others who’ve fallen from grace and bestow the world with rote, financially-rewarding tours, Scott-Heron is a true original who appears incapable of going through the motions. Seated at his keyboard, head thrown back to the ceiling, he spent the set running through a catalog full of emotional intensity to a sold-out crowd.

Yes, it would have been better with a fuller band. And yes, some long vamps went on past their bedtime. But an energized Scott-Heron also fought the house lights and came back for an encore while even more patrons waited, lined up out the doors for the late show, clutching LP copies of Midnight Band. Waiting to be close to a legend. Wondering how the show would be. Wondering if Scott-Heron truly had come back.

The answer is yes. May his reemergence last.

Live Review: Green Day at the Fox Theater – Oakland, CA

Posted by: on Apr 15, 2009 | Comments (6)

Sometimes you just gottta believe.

As expected, the Internet was flooded with sleazy offers for tickets to Green Day’s last-minute show at the Fox Theater in Oakland last night, and unless you’d been quick, the situation looked grim. Luckily, between the irritating online postings asking for either $300 or for Asian girls to “send photos,” there came perpetual signs of hope on Craigslist. “Just bought 2 GA tix on Ticketmaster!” read a typical post. “Don’t pay the scalpers! Keep trying!”

Throughout the day, the faithful were rewarded with sporadic releases of tickets to the third of Green Day’s “secret shows”—all of them announced at the last minute, selling out instantly and premiering the band’s new album 21st Century Breakdown in its entirety.

I scored two quick-release tickets at noon yesterday, and drove frantically through rush-hour traffic with my wife to Fremont to pick up my niece. We got to the theater right at 8pm, bought one of seemingly plenty of extra tickets outside on the sidewalk, and voilá—I was suddenly standing with some people who’d flown in from Massachusetts, six rows away from a band I’ve loved since I first saw them opening for Nuisance, All and MDC in 1989 at the River Theater in Guerneville, CA.

Obviously, much has changed in Green Day’s world since 1989. At that first show in Sonoma County, they made jokes about handing out hundreds of joints to the crowd, sold hand-silkscreened tuxedo shirts stolen from their high school marching band for $3, and had just one record—a fantastic Lookout 7” called 1,000 Hours that my friends and I listened to obsessively. (We weren’t alone—just a month later at the Los Robles Lodge in Santa Rosa, crowds stormed the stage to sing along haphazardly with “Dry Ice.”)

20 years later, bouncers now keep an eye on pot smoking, T-shirts are now sold for $35, and Green Day, of course, now have plenty more than one record out. But the key magic is still there. As evidenced in their two-hour-plus show last night, Green Day is among a small handful of bands who have navigated the waters of success with a clear head and, in spite of the rigors of fame, have only gotten better over the years.

Case in point: the new album premiered last night.

At the doors of the beautifully restored art-deco Fox Theater, patrons were handed a Playbill-like program detailing the three acts of the new record, complete with author credits and libretto, while a large tragedy/comedy curtain hung over the stage. It’s hard to assess an album on only one listen, but 21st Century Breakdown is, as expected, a sister sequel to American Idiot. It loosely follows a story about being disillusioned with modern life in America, with recurring characters and themes. It’s pensive, it’s angry, and it unabashedly swipes snippets from the great catalog of rock ‘n’ roll and parlays them into anthems for the disenfranchised.

Judging from last night’s impassioned performance, at least four songs are utterly dumbfounding in their greatness (“Before the Lobotomy,” “Last of the American Girls,” “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” “Last Night on Earth”), and several, like “¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl),” toy with completely new styles.

There are echoes of Green Day’s past: “Christian’s Inferno” starts with a rant straight out of the bridge to “Holiday,” “East Jesus Nowhere” cribs the chorus from “Welcome to Paradise,” and at one point Green Day stone-cold lifts the outro to “Brain Stew.” At the same time, the album makes musical and lyrical reference to Van Morrison, Gogol Bordello, the Who, Screeching Weasel, Barry McGuire, Wilco, John Lennon, P.I.L., the Ramones, Frank Sinatra, the Replacements, Tom Petty, Rancid, Otis Redding, the Misfits and Francis Scott Key.

One thing the album is missing, sadly, is a sense of fun. American Idiot was written and recorded quickly when the master tapes for their “real” album were stolen, giving it a spontaneous immediacy. 21st Century Breakdown took five years to make, and it shows. It is labored and serious, full of dramatic pauses and piano segues, and it teeters on the pretentious. I wish it didn’t. During a ’70s soft-rock piano ballad complete with falsetto vocals, an audience member held up a homemade sign reading “Play at 924 Gilman,” and it was painfully obvious how far the band has “grown” since their constant presence at said club. (Billie played there last year with Pinhead Gunpowder; read about it here.)

A drastic explosion in the excitement level came after the short intermission, when Green Day played older songs for another hour, and I got blissfully lost in the sweaty fray of people. “American Idiot” turned the stoic crowd into a swarming tornado; “Jesus of Suburbia” was dedicated “to everyone down at Gilman Street,” and “Going to Pasalacqua,” “She,” “Longview” and “Welcome to Paradise” thrilled longtime fans. The band was obviously making the set list up on the spot—during “Minority,” Billie asked, “I don’t know, should this be the last song?”

It wasn’t, of course. The show’s final song, the epic “Homecoming,” came with a warm explanation from Billie about the East Bay. Clearly, the band was happy to play for a hometown crowd (including Jello Biafra!), and at the end, he stood at the front of the stage, repeatedly opened his arms to the audience, and mouthed the words “I love you, I love you, I fucking love you!” over and over.

The feeling was mutual.

More Photos Below.

Live Review: Outside Lands Festival – Day One

Posted by: on Aug 27, 2008 | Comments (3)

Even before entering the park, the publicity begins: “Hey, are you guys here to see Radiohead?” asks a too-cheerful girl in jeans and suede boots on the dirt path behind Lloyd Lake. “Do you want a free download card? Do you want to be photographed for their fan gallery?”

Then there’s the Crowdfire tent, brought to you by Windows, where festivalgoers are asked to upload their photos from the day to be projected onto digital screens around the festival grounds (“and while you’re at the pavilion,” says the 100-page festival program, to anyone who’s been asleep for the last ten years, “stop by the Windows Experience, to see how Windows brings your digital life together, from your PC to your phone to your living room!”). The whole idea feels overwhelmingly like a ruse for ticket-buyers to also do work and provide free web content, but it’s not nearly as insulting as the tent nearby, called the “Social” tent, “brought to you by Heineken.”

There’s a Visa Signature tent, a Dell Dome, a PG&E booth. Even at 5:30, the lines for the bathrooms are long and the lines for the ID Check are longer. Official-looking people are running all around. Black Mountain plays the Twin Peaks stage while hundreds of people wait in the Will Call lines. In one 30-second span, four golf carts pass by me. It’s not getting off to a very promising start.

Then Manu Chao plays, and I remember why we’re all here: because music is fucking awesome.

I’ve been stoked on Manu Chao since Clandestino, and although I knew he fronted the raucous world-punk band Mano Negra years ago, I’d always figured his performances these days would lean towards the blissful, kicked-back groove of tunes like “Welcome to Tijuana” or “Je Ne T’Aime Plus.” I prep Liz by telling her that his music is the unwatered-down version of all that Putumayo stuff that Starbucks plays.

When the show starts, I realize that I couldn’t be more wrong. Chao hits the stage with a fury, leaping all over the place in an “Africa Unite” T-shirt and throwing his fist in the air in time to the band. Did he hire these guys from the Dropkick Murphys?

It’s easy to see why Chao is a star the world over, and it’s thrilling to see a crowd of Americans, who’ve been jockeying for position for Radiohead, held as a captive audience and won over by his energy. He’s been at it for so many years that his blend of reggae, punk and world music is as natural as breathing, and his disregard for borders (anyone have one of his “No Work Visas” tour shirts from the Greek Theater?) and understandable disgust for George W. Bush make him a right-on dude in my book.

Chao is killing it, pogoing in unison with his band and firing up the crowd, when I hear the noise of something falling on the ground at my feet. I look, and it’s a 22 oz. can of Budweiser. Seconds later, another one comes flying over the fence and lands on the grass. Then four hands clutch the top of the fence, and while it buckles under the weight, the struggling faces of two hopefuls come into view. One guy makes it over by sliding head-first into the grass, and the other guy throws himself over in a sideways roll. By this point, a small group of onlookers has gathered, and they all applaud while the guys grab their cold ones and run off into the crowd.

Damn, I think. Those guys just saved themselves $170—and they got a standing ovation for it.

 

Lyrics Born has just made an album I don’t like all that much, but that’s fine—he’s a great performer that I’ve seen time and again, and he never disappoints. I was sold on Lyrics Born long ago, in 1999, during a Latyrx show at the Justice League on Divisadero. Lateef and Lyrics Born utterly devastated the room, and it helped that they had a guy from Arizona named Z-Trip as a guest DJ.

Not long afterwards, Quannum Spectrum came out, “I Changed My Mind” was a sleeper hit, and everything changed for Lyrics Born. He’s a soul singer now, albeit in a certain Bay Area fashion that’s inimitably his. And he’s still a great performer.

Backup singer Joyo Velarde worked the stage in a pink-striped jumpsuit and heels, throwing her hands back and forth while Lyrics Born elevated his live band to various climaxes. (Funny thing: last time I saw Joyo Velarde was at Max’s Opera Café on Van Ness, where she was working as a singing waitress.) They played all new stuff, but it was good to check in on the old dog again and see that he’s still teaching new tricks.

 

What’s there to say about Beck other than he’s fallen off a log into a stinky-ass pile of Scientology-ridden algae?

I guess there’s also this to say: he forces every photographer to sign special waivers allowing his management final say over photos to be used for publication. Actually, we don’t really have any idea what the waiver says. It could be an enlistment form into a deranged science-fiction cult, for all we know. But the upshot of it all is that we bring you this photo, from one of the digital screens, instead of a true-to-life, up-close photo.

Not that anyone can get anywhere near the stage. First of all, the corral between the Polo Fields and Lindley Meadow is jam-packed and moving at a snail’s pace. To make matters worse, a guy stands guard over the cluster of people, sitting on top of pallets full of bottled water.

Second of all, the stage sinks down into the landscape, meaning that if you’re not in the front 15 rows or so, you’re stuck behind the sound booth tent with no visibility. The sound itself isn’t much to write home about either, and Beck is playing drab new songs. I recall reading an interview with him, post-Odelay, where he articulately explained how he was compelled to write happy, uplifting music because he’d had such a brutal home life as a child. It made a big impression on me then, as did his music. When I saw him on the Sea Change tour in 2001, I was struck at how he flipped the equation; he was completely at home with depressing songs like “Paper Tiger,” and awkwardly going through the motions for “Where It’s At.”

But now, it seems the knee-jerk is working in a diagonal direction—the question isn’t ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ anymore. It’s as if he’s reacting to his charmed life in the spotlight by imposing bland music on his fans. We trek back through the narrow corral, moving at about ten feet per minute while others break through the fence and trample the foliage, cringing at each new song Beck starts. Oh well. Hope he snaps out of it someday.

 

Before Radiohead plays, the jumbotron comes alive with a shot of a girl straddling someone’s shoulders in the crowd. As soon as she realizes she’s onscreen for all to see, she immediately throws up the devil horns with both hands and sticks her tongue way out, down to her chin, in the universal sign of “I am a brain-dead idiot with no creative thought in my head whatsoever.”

I like Radiohead and all, but I’m confounded at the suggestion that they’re the world’s most popular band. It simply can’t be true. Their music is way too weird for the average person, like the devil-horn girl, to honestly enjoy. The crowd estimate tonight is 60,000, and of that, I’d wager to say that 20,000 truly love Radiohead. The rest are here because they feel, for some reason, like they should be. Maybe they’re afraid to be apathetic about Radiohead lest they appear unintelligent, or unsupportive of “art.”

I’m also aghast at the comparison that Radiohead is the next U2. My friend Kim puts it best: “They managed to get really big by not doing anything except for playing bigger places.” Which means: No giant lemons. No vacuous dance-club albums. No pompous charading. Just sticking to the guns, making the music that seemed most interesting at the time, and against all odds watching the world go crazy falling all over itself for it.

Before Radiohead comes on, I overhear two guys talking. One of them says to his friend, “I like Beck, but live, he’s not that good. But this, this is going to be great. It’s like my highlight of the year. And I love the weed smell. San Francisco’s so cool.”

During the first couple songs, a very drunk guy topples over the front barricade and into the photo pit. He’s out cold, just completely unconscious, crumpled on the ground. A public-relations girl working the festival runs over and motions security to join her, and they build a wall around the poor guy, making sure that no photographers can snap a photo of him.

There are glistening moments in Radiohead’s set where, for a brief passage or chorus, they still seem like that scrappy little band who sat down and made an mind-shattering album called OK Computer. The sense of discovery is still there; the feeling of urgency hasn’t been lost. It’s like watching David Murray, or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, or Rakim.

Then, I look out across the field and wonder what in the hell is happening, and just how on Earth so many people can possibly be passionate about what is obviously a very weird orchestration of sound. I suppose this is a familiar sensation for people who’ve listened to Radiohead in their bedrooms alone for years and then go to see them for the first time, but outdoors in Golden Gate Park, it’s especially bizarre.

In fact, the defining moment of the band’s set is when I come out of an air-conditioned bathroom trailer, walk down the steps, and look up at the back of the concrete Polo Fields bleachers. There’s a beautiful old architectural arc pattern, reminiscent of a church cloister hallway, and Thom Yorke is wailing out the final stanzas of “Karma Police”—“For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself. . .” Horse stables are to the left, and a big blue glow fills the sky to the right. It’s surreal, and I can’t explain why. But it fits in nicely with the fact that the last Polo game actually played on the Polo Fields here wasn’t by actual Polo players on horseback, but by a bunch of guys on Segways.

During “Airbag,” the sound goes out. It’s back on after 40 seconds or so, and it’s not really that much of a big deal, even though it’s all anyone is going to be talking about the next day. It goes out again a few songs later. I like it. It lends an air of unpredictability to the experience. Plus it forces Thom Yorke, looking like a decomposed rubber walrus, to actually address the crowd. “I don’t know what the fuck’s going on,” he says. A wasted guy next to me screams, “Me too! Me and Thom Yorke have so much in common!”

We walk around after a while, noticing the hordes of people who’ve scaled the Port-a-Potties to get a better view. For my money, Radiohead’s best album is The Bends, and luckily, they play two songs from it. During “Fake Plastic Trees,” I’m sitting, staring at the trees surrounding the Polo Fields. They’re lit up by huge, colored lights, and they look synthetic. It’s beautiful.

Set List:

15 Step
Reckoner
Airbag
There There
All I Need
Nude
Talk Show Host
National Anthem
The Gloaming
Videotape
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Idioteque
Karma Police
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Just
Exit Music (For a Film)
Bodysnatchers

Pyramid Song
You And Whose Army
Paranoid Android
Fake Plastic Trees
Everything In Its Right Place

 

Photos by Elizabeth Seward – Lots More Photos After the Jump.

George Michael at the HP Pavilion in San Jose

Posted by: on Jun 24, 2008 | Comments (1)

Early on in Thursday night’s show in San Jose, George Michael thanked the rapturous crowd for sticking with him for 25 years. “Lord knows it’s not always easy being a George Michael fan,” he admitted, a self-deprecating statement which could be taken a number of ways—as either a reference to repeated tabloid scandals, or to his lingering reputation as a boy-toy manufactured pop star, or to the fact that he hasn’t toured in America since 1991. For me, the only thing hard about being a George Michael fan is the fact that the hands-down greatest singer-songwriter of my youth has made nothing but totally dull music in the last 15 years. Face it—after Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, it was all downhill.

But the stuff from that album and prior—including almost everything that Wham! did—represents, to me, a special pinnacle in pop music. Admittedly, my opinion is largely due to the fact that I was about 10 when Wham! was at their peak. I went to the Faith tour at the Shoreline Amphitheater in 1988, and as I grew up, George Michael was one of the first pop stars that I watched grow up, and get “mature,” and assimilate other sounds and attitudes into their music. Witnessing the ceremonial torching of his pretty-boy image in the video to “Freedom ‘90” coincided perfectly with my discovery of the Dead Kennedys and the idea that the mainstream music industry was actually a completely corrupt system.

But ultimately, George Michael has written more perfectly constructed pop songs and conveyed more complex sorrow and joy than any pop star on the charts since his relative disappearance thereof in the early 1990s. In his day, George Michael’s accomplishments put him in a category all his own; a star with an inimitable voice who brought a great deal of credibility to pop music.

So back to America Michael came roaring, and during a two-hour show, he gave his patient fans what they wanted. After opening appropriately with “Waiting (Reprise),” Michael tagged onto the end of “Fastlove” a brief portent of total and complete disappointment. By interweaving a murky techno version of his Wham! hit, “I’m Your Man,” onto the end of the dance number “Fastlove”—and then ending it after the first verse—it seemed early on that we’d be treated to an all-too-common occurrence in concerts of has-beens who perform shittier versions of their old hits in medley form. It was worrisome.

But only for a second. “Just kidding!” laughed Michael, and with that, the enormous screens exploded with black & white images from old Wham! videos. The 10-piece band and six-member backup choir erupted into the original version of “I’m Your Man,” and the packed arena became a huge party of huge, beautiful, ridiculous joy. I’ve never seen so many hella frumpy-ass Oprah fans losing their minds at once.

“Pretend it’s 1984!” Michael shouted. “Look at the person next to you and imagine them with five times more hair!”

The extended version of “Everything She Wants” continued the arena-wide sing-along, and the back-to-back renditions of “One More Try” and “A Different Corner” were like a wrenching emotional slaughter. After a 20-minute break, “Faith” kicked off the second set, and against all odds, it’s wasn’t actually the most unnecessary song of the night—that dubious honor would go to a cover of the Police’s “Roxanne,” which no one in their right mind ever wants to hear again.

During the second set, Michael turned more towards his post-Listen Without Prejudice dance numbers. “How many people here are from San Francisco?” he asked, relating that the first day he landed in America, he’d turned on the TV and seen same-sex couples getting married. He then announced that “this song is for my partner, Kenny,” and performed “Amazing,” a dippy reminder of how contented happiness and artistic decline can go hand-in-hand.

But the dance numbers ebbed during the perfect encores, which included a stripped-down version of “Praying for Time,” an obligingly true-to-form “Careless Whisper,” and a rousing closer in “Freedom ’90.” Driving home the two hours back to Santa Rosa, it was hard to imagine being any more satisfied. We’ll see if George Michael sticks with his promise to never perform in public again after this tour is over, but if it’s actually the case, then his concert in San Jose was about a fine farewell as anyone of his fans could imagine.

The only way it could have been better?

If Deon Estes were there.

More photos and set list after the jump.

The Cure at the HP Pavilion in San Jose

Posted by: on Jun 1, 2008 | Comments (1)

We started taking bets on what the Cure’s opening song would be. “‘The Kiss,’” I said, “it’s gotta be ‘The Kiss.’ Can you imagine how awesome that’d be?”

When the lights went down and faint chimes tinkled over the stage, I knew I’d guessed wrong. The bells, the chimes, could it. . . would they. . . oh my God, for real? Like an avalanche, the Cure laid down the opening chords of “Plainsong,” the first song off Disintegration, and I squeezed my eyelids shut, balled my fists, and let out an ecstatic cry of release. And I pretty much didn’t stop until the end of the night—37 songs later.

Until Wednesday night’s show, I was never a total superfreaky Cure fan. Over the past 20 years, I’ve loved them incrementally—album by album, song by song—but never signed up as one of the fully obsessed. That’s all in the past now. Show me where to sign. On Wednesday night, during a staggering three-hour and fifteen-minute set, the Cure was even more than a great band: they were the greatest band in the universe.

Superfreaky fans abounded, that’s for sure. Around us, there was The Reciter, who blankly spoke every lyric back to Robert Smith as if it were scripture; The Dancer, who occasionally made his way out into the aisle to do some ’80s prom dancing before being shown back to his seat; and The Hoochie, a girl who kept the ticket stub stuffed in her very-exposed cleavage and who at one point stripped down to her bra, singing wildly.

As for me, I stood in awe and sang along to an onslaught of fantastic song after fantastic song—for over three hours! Take that, Bruce Springsteen!

More photos and set list below.