Monday, June 25, 2012

Glen Campbell's Farewell

LAST night, several thousand of us said so long to Glen Campbell. His Hollywood Bowl concert was a kind of cross between a straightforward farewell concert and a posthumous tribute, since the entire first program was made up of other musicians paying homage to various aspects of his work. And the farewell part is not entirely conventional: Campbell is saying goodbye because of an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

Despite a very mixed first half -- more on that later -- Campbell's portion of the program was positively triumphant, and makes clear why we'll miss him and his like in years to come. Some of the highlights included his opening number, "Gentle on My Mind," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," his cover of Hank's "Lovesick Blues," and of course Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman," one of the greatest American songs in any genre. It's hard not to smile hearing him sing "Rhinestone Cowboy" -- his last number before the encore -- though that song is not exactly in the league of the others.

(He's one of the rare figures of the AM radio of my youth whose work stands up really well.)

And his guitar playing, especially his solos on his very twangy Stratocaster, took me completely by surprise. Great, fleet-fingered rockabilly-inspired stuff. Great stage presence too.

The first half was much more mixed, despite fine backing by LA roots combo Dawes. The only major  misstep was putting Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols on the bill -- he's a real lightweight, here out of his vocal range, and didn't bring much to the proceedings. Lucinda Williams sounded a bit tired and under-mic'ed, but she's one of the greatest inheritors of Campbell's era. Kris Kristofferson's voice has become a bit ragged, but it was good to see him and to have him perform one of the best Campbell-penned numbers, "Less of Me." (The Everly Brothers' version of that song is a favorite.)

Part of what made these opening songs feel scattered was the range of styles Campbell has been involved with because of his early years as an L.A. session player -- the pure pop of the Monkees ("Daydream Believer"), the teenage symphonies of the Beach Boys ("I Know There's an Answer"), even Elvis (a whole-group version of "Viva Las Vegas.")

Some of the best stuff had little directly to do with Campbell: Jackson Browne captured the regret of one of his best songs, "These Days,"and Jenny Lewis' ironic and nuanced "Just One of the Guys" reminded us of what a great melodist she can be.

(The indie fan inside me feel the need to mention that GC played not one but two Scud Mountain Boys songs -- Joe Pernice's old band covered both "Wichita Lineman" and "Where's the Playground Susie?")

But all of these memories, good and bad, fled when Campbell himself came out in a rhinestone jacket, guitar in hand, for the show's second half. At 76, he's at the top of his game. For this kind of veteran performer, the words, "and here are some songs from my new album" can be depressing indeed, but even his new stuff sounded great. (Here is a full review by Randall Roberts of the LA Times.)

Let's hope we all can go out with the class and dignity with which Campbell has.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Musicians vs. the Internet

THIS week has seen an exchange between young music fan Emily White and indie rocker David Lowery about how fans consume music these days, and where that leaves the artists. 

So far, the argument between the two has remained civil – and Lowery refuses to condescend to White or her generational peers in his piece -- but the nasty tone of the Web all but guarantees that things will get ugly.

HERE is my piece for Salon on the matter, which dovetails with my recent writing on the plight of the creative class.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Roots of a Theater Company

THIS week my Influences column looked at Ellen Geer, who runs the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. For those many miles from the wilds of Topanga Canyon: This is a theater company, in a very rustic setting, founded by her father, blacklisted actor Will Geer, known to many as Grandpa Walton.
William Holman Hunt painting
inspired by "Measure for Measure"

Ellen Geer spoke to me about her family's struggles during the Red Scare, how she survived them, and about some theater figures who helped inspire her acting and her artistic direction of the theater company.

Here's the story. I'm hoping to check out one of their Shakespeare plays over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Playboy Jazz Festival

ONE of the best things about Los Angeles -- hands down -- is the Hollywood Bowl, and it's become a sign of the coming of summer for a lot of us.

Today I wrote an advance on the 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival, including interviews with several of the musicians who'll play there.

There's a range of good and bad here, as there always are at big jazz festivals. One thing that continues to confuse me, though, is why we call these things jazz festivals at all, since less than half of what's on offer can be called jazz by even the most expansive definition.

The Soul Rebels, from New Orleans
I guess it comes down to, what does jazz mean in the 21st century?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Christopher Buckley at Track 16 Gallery

FOLKS, this Thursday, I'll be interviewing novelist/satirist/National Review apostate Christopher Buckley at Track 16. He may be best known on these shores for his New Yorker humor columns and for writing the novel, Thank You For Smoking, that was adapted into a very good Jason Reitman movie.

His new novel involves U.S. dealings with China and is called They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

Here are the details of the event, part of the Live Talks LA series.

Hope to see you in Santa Monica.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

TODAY The Misread City mourns the death of Ray Bradbury. He was the first science-fiction writer, and the first Los Angeles writer, many people read. I still remember devouring the stories from The October Country and The Martian Chronicles in elementary school.

In a rush of emotion and recollection, I wrote my first piece for Zocalo Public Square on Bradbury's complicated relationship with Los Angeles. Here it is. I may be unusual in preferring The Martian Chronicles to Fahrenheit 451, as important as that novel remains.

Some really strong pieces in the press today.

Here is The New York Times' obit, and here is an excellent LA Times piece by my friend Lynell George. And Ted Gioia wrote a very fine piece on Salon on how Bradbury made science fiction respectable.

Brother Ray's legacy will live on.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Culture and Criticism

TWO of my favorite journalists, film critic A.O. Scott and media reporter David Carr, have gone back and forth about a number of important issues lately. Some of this is analog vs. digital, print vs. Internet stuff.

Some of it has to do with the nature of the press, of DIY/artisanal culture, or the revival of vinyl records. And in this swirl of new and old, they ask, what is the role of the culture critic?

(Cue chin-stroking music, please.)

I wrote about a fading golden age or arts criticism a few years back, in a story -- eventually titled "Critical Condition" -- that drew so many letters, pro and con, that the LA Times added a Sunday letters page to contain them. Norman Lear responded to the article in a speech. That kind of thing.

My piece tried to look back, and to speculate on what was coming next. Here it is.

I'd like to think that what it said has held up pretty well, and that things are, if anything, bleaker than I forecasted at the time. How have things changed since then?

The Roots of Sandra Bernhard

MY Influences column in the LA Times always tries to be unpredictable, but this time I think we've really gotten there.

This installment on Sandra Bernhard -- whose REDCAT show last year was one of the highlights of the season -- begins with John Updike, for instance. The singer/comedian/Letterman mainstay is working a new show at REDCAT this month.

(By the way, in the last two nights I have seen former White Stripe Jack White and New Zealand punk band The Clean. White had the most confident stage presence I think I've ever seen, as well as a hot all-female backing band. But The Clean -- a group I expected I'd never see live -- were transcendent.)