Modern Man: A Night With Stanley Clarke

timthumbLast night the wife and I went to a local music/dinner club called The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. It’s a great venue with a great reputation that books acts ranging from jazz greats to blues masters to Americana roots rock. You walk in, grab a seat at a communal table, order over-priced but decent dinner fare, and watch the artists perform to a room full of attentive spectators.  It’s a music club for people who don’t mind sitting down while watching music. It offers you the ability to enjoy an artist without the distractions that come with most rock clubs.

That is why I was somewhat amazed last night on a few levels. We went to see the legendary (and way too under-appreciated) Stanley Clarke. If you don’t know who he is, well, go find out. Before the show I knew of Stanley Clarke, “heard of him” but never actually listened to any of his music knowingly. He’s done work on movie soundtracks, played with some of the all-time jazz greats, and is generally well-regarded in the musical community. He’s a bass player that transcends classification. A true “artist” of his craft. Funk, jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, salsa, etc. etc. etc. Stanley Clarke has played it and played it better than 99.99% of anyone else that ever has.

What amazed me first and foremost during the show was his scaled-down band: Stanley on bass, a drummer, and a piano player. I thought, “Ok, this is going to be ‘good’ but probably end up repetitive and boring as the set goes on. I mean, how much can you do with a trio like that?” Of course I was wrong (it’s happened before and depending on whom you ask the numbers vary). The drummer was 19 and the piano player (from the Republic of Georgia) was 17! Let me say that again: 17! (As of this posting Stanley Clarke is 62).

I think it’s pretty wise for an old-timer like Clarke to select young, extremely talented musicians to surround him. They brought an exuberance that helped keep the set fresh and improvisational. They were both spectacular at their respective instruments. The drummer’s arms on some of his solos looked like humming birds wings and the piano player played with a passion and soul you seldom find in someone so young. They both received more than one standing ovation.

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Over Three Decades of Springsteen

As a young teen, one of my earliest musical influences (by a non-musician) was by the classic “Sister’s college boyfriend.” Darryl Walter, delivered to me by fate via Kent State University, is the one who first turned me on to Bruce Springsteen with his vinyl bootlegs of legendary E Street Band shows from the Agora in Cleveland and Winterland in San Francisco. As those same fates, and perhaps Springsteen himself, would have it, we are still friends. So who better to serve as a guest contributor, reviewing the recent Bruce Springsteen concert in DC. 

By DARRYL WALTER

We’re guessing our correspondent paid more than $10.50 per ticket to see Bruce Springsteen this year.

Back on October 6, 1980, when many readers of this blog weren’t even alive yet, I saw my first Bruce Springsteen concert at the Coliseum, built in the lovely cornfields between Cleveland and Akron. As a 16-year-old rock and roller growing up with the greatest radio station ever, WMMS, I had a great appreciation and knowledge of music and, outside of the 1-95 corridor, Cleveland was the first city to embrace Springsteen.

Fast forward to September 14, 2012 and I am attending yet another Springsteen concert. Between that first show in 1980 and the show I witnessed last night, I have lost count of the number of times I have seen Springsteen. I would guess it is around 25-30 range. For some that is a low number, for others that is bordering on fanatic.

So, who would have guessed that 32 years ago, when I arrived at the concert in a rusted Datsun B210 I would now be driving my wife’s Mercedes Benz R-350 (wow does that make me sound like a total dick) with my wife and three kids. The cool thing (at least for me) is that my daughter Hannah was wearing my Springsteen baseball style concert shirt from the 1980 River Tour and that my other daughter was wearing a black Springsteen T-shirt from the same tour when he returned in June 1981. My son Kyle had a bootleg T-shirt that I bought outside of Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium following a concert in the summer of 1985 Born in the USA Tour. My wife Jane had on a long sleeve jersey she got from The Rising Tour, and I was wearing a Vote for Change Tour Shirt from 2004. Jane and I went to the Vote for Change shows in Cleveland and Washington, great shows but awful election results.

At the 1980 concert, Bruce opened with “Prove It All Night” and last night, he again opened it with the “Prove It,” but with the ’78 intro. I still remember the 1980 concert with Clarence hollowing on that first solo and last night his nephew Jake didn’t let him down.

Following “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” Bruce played two songs from The River, “The Ties That Bind” and “Hungry Heart.” I am sure the folks coming down from Baltimore were happy to hear the shout-out for Charm City.

Next came a trifecta from Wrecking Ball: “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Wrecking Ball,” and “Death to My Hometown.” Bruce then went old school with with “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded By the Light.” With “Spirit,” as he was sitting on the edge of the stage with Jake, he had a momentarily lapse and had to remember what verse he was on.

The horn section really shined on “Johnny 99.” Using the same horn arrangement that they played during Jazz Fest back in April, the E Street Horns transferred Nationals Park back to the Fairgrounds in New Orleans.

At this point, the concert was kicking into high gear. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” one of my favorites from The Rising followed “Shackled and Drawn.” Following “Waitin’” was the inspirational “The Promised Land.”

Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land

On a side note, that line from my Rabbi Bruce Springsteen was used when I gave a speech to my son at his Bar Mitzvah.

Next was “Racing in the Street.” Bruce gave a shout-out to wounded warriors from Walter Reed Hospital that he was hosting. As I told my son, it seemed a lot more sincere than when the Nationals do it during a baseball game.

This is what it looked like during the show.

“The Rising,” “Badlands,” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” concluded the set. Following a brief moment, the E Street Band returned for their encore with “We Are Alive” and “Thunder Road.” The lights slowly came on during “Born to Run” and then came one of my favorites, “Detroit Medley.” While I would have preferred the longer ’78 version circa Winterland, this version rocked the house. “Dancing in the Dark,” probably my least liked Springsteen song ever recorded was next. I realize it was a pop hit, I guess that is my problem with the song, it is such a pop hit.

During “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” when it came to the part where “the Big Man joined the band,” the crowd cheered for a few minutes as a photo montage of Clarence was displayed. The night concluded with “American Land” and donning a sailors cap, Bruce did an Isley Brothers-style “Twist and Shout.”

Leaving the 3-1/2 hour concert, I told my twin 14-year-old daughters that I have ruined their concert-going experience. Nothing they ever see will top what they just witnessed.

Roger Waters Performs The Wall in Washington DC

That’s my fucking pig!

If you were to judge by the chatter I heard around Chinatown last night after Roger Waters performed The Wall at the MCI Verizon Center then you would conclude that most people just witnessed one of the greatest rock concerts of their lives. “That is how a concert is supposed to be!” my friend said to me post-show. It was hard to disagree.

If you want your concert experience to include explosions, fireworks, flying pigs, puppets that drop from the ceiling, wild animations, flashing lights, surround sound systems that thunder in your ear, impeccable musicianship, and songs performed from an album that sold about 789 billion copies than The Wall did not disappoint in any fashion. Never one to short change his audience (at least when it comes to giving them a great show) Roger Waters produced the most fantastical, spectacular rock concert I have ever been witness to. It was Cirque de Waters.

If the punk rockers in the mid-70’s were back-lashing against the excess’ of their classic rock band brethren then this show would be the poster child for that movement. But isn’t that exactly what we, as an audience, want from The Wall? To this day, I still don’t understand how such a gloomy record became a staple of rock radio and embedded into our common musical collective. Songs about war, love lost, isolation, anger, madness, and megalomania don’t exactly jump off the shelves, eh, I mean, get downloaded in today’s market. Yet, when I looked around the arena I saw 65 year old tucked button down shirt into the shorts with socks and sandles on rocking out next to 16 year olds lighting up their first public joints. I saw metalheads and hippies, meatheads and squares, young and old all brought together by music that, when at it’s most uplifting moments, perhaps will get you to tap your feet a little bit. This is not Paul McCartney singing love songs or The Foo Fighters post-punk angst. It’s Pink Floyd‘s music as mass consumption. And it works brilliantly in this setting.

The note-for-note band (let’s face it, we want this album played note-for-note. Do you really want someone improvising the solo on “Comfortably Numb”?) was incredible and Waters can still hit all the notes. Was Gilmour missed? Perhaps, but the solid musicianship on exhibit made you quickly forget that this piece of music isn’t necessarily about the performers themselves. I would love to see this executed by high school theater groups around the country. Were there some overwrought moments? Yes. Do I really want to watch Roger Waters singing with mic in hand, bassless, roaming around the stage and “acting” out the lines from songs? Did the audience “understand the music” or the overall anti-war message? Were the loud claps for the Mercedez Benz logo dropping from a B-52 bomber pro or anti the company? I know Waters stance, but does his audience grasp what he is trying to say?

You know what? Who gives a fuck? People, including myself, went to this show to see one of the all time great pieces of music performed by it’s original author. Something you will probably never be able to do again on this scale. The show delivered in all aspects of the word. I was not going to see my favorite indie band shoegaze at The Black Cat. There is a time and place for that. This is one of those rare performances that you prefer to see in a large setting. I don’t want to see a pig flying around the 9:30 Club (but it would be quite cool). Floyd, whether they liked it or not, were eventually built for large audiences, large arenas. Though I still can’t fully understand how such a “weird” band became so mainstream I do understand why people loved this show so much.