Monday, December 30, 2019

Playlist November-December

  • Les Amazones D'Afrique—Amazones Power (2020)
  • The Who—Who (2019)
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—Ghosteen (2019)
  • God (Steven Wilson and Ford)—Panic Underneath the Arches (2019)
  • Kurt Vile—Bottle it In (2019)
  • Michael Kiwanuka—Kiwanuka (2019)
  • Marillion—With Friends from the Orchestra (2019)
  • Nils Frahm—All Encores (2019)
  • Swans—Leaving Meaning (2019)
  • The Pineapple Thief—Hold Your Fire (2019)
  • The Watson Twins—Duo (2019), Southern Manners (2005)
  • Pink Floyd—The Later Years - Highlights (2019)
  • Robben Ford and Bill Evans—The Sun Room (2019)
  • Michael Kiwanuka—Kiwanuka (2019)
  • David Byrne and St. Vincent—Love this Giant (2012)
  • Shawn Colvin—Live '88 (2019)

When dead artists are resurrected for a tour

Last month, I attended the joint comeback tour by Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison... holograms.

I wrote a story about how hologram tours are tipped, by some, to be the next big thing. We'll see if that prediction pans out - next year's virtual tour by a hologram of Whitney Houston (backed by her former band) could be the one that breaks this trend wide open. Then again, will a virtual performer be a viable substitute for an actual person on stage?

“There's all kinds of talk about the chemistry that a band has, or even a backing band has to have. It's one thing to be playing along with recordings, which most musicians have gotten used to these days. But it's an entirely different thing when your front man isn’t real,” Jem Aswad, senior music editor at Variety, told me.

That lack of true connection between avatar and the band affects the audience experience, he argues. It’s a poor substitute for a flesh-and-blood show such as when Mr. Aswad witnessed Childish Gambino forge an electric connection with his audience while singing “This is America” at New York’s Madison Square Garden last year.

However, fans of music from an earlier time have to make do with limited options available to them because many of the original performers are no longer alive, David Brooks, Senior Director of the Live & Touring beat at Billboard magazine, told me. That’s why some people are willing to see Queen with Adam Lambert singing instead of Freddie Mercury, Vince Neil performing in place of Glenn Frey in The Eagles, or John Mayer sitting in for Jerry Garcia in the Grateful Dead spin-off group Dead & Company.

“If a fan thinks it's cool, interesting, and they know there's no alternative, they might be interested in that,” says Mr. Brooks.

My take on the show I saw was that while I didn't fall into the uncanny valley - the holograms were, at times, quite effective - I wasn't entirely sold on the experience. After a few numbers the show had a certain sterility to it that the live backing band couldn't be overcome. A live performer interacts with the audience; the hologram just acts. The sound was, however, pristine and the show had a good production standard. I've never been into tribute bands and I don't really see the point of watching an illusion.

That said, I could foresee one exception. At present there are two bands of David Bowie alumni musicians who regularly tour in tribute to their former frontman. I've not gone to see either of them because Bowie's voice is irreplaceable. But if either group were fronted by a David Bowie hologram, I'd be very curious to check it out...

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Playlist Aug/Sept/Oct

  • no-man—Love You to Bits (2019)
  • Lana del Rey—Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019)
  • Opeth—In Cauda Venenum (2019)4
  • Elbow—Giants of all Sizes (2019)
  • Floating Points—Crush (2019)
  • Bat for Lashes—Lost Girls (2019)
  • Bent Knee—You Know What they Mean (2019)
  • Foals—Everything Not Saved Will be Lost, pt 2 (2019)
  • Tool—Fear Inoculum (2019)
  • The Black Keys—Let's Rock (2019)
  • Kurt Vile—Bottle It In (2019)
  • Joseph Arthur—Come Back World (2019)
  • Robbie Robertson—Sinematic (2019)
  • Tinariwen—Amadjar (2019)
  • Sheryl Crow—Threads (2019)
  • Bass Communion—Dronework (2019)
  • Big Wreck—But for the Sun... (2019)
  • Brian Eno—Apollo Atmospheres and Soundtracks (2019 version)
  • David Crosby—Sky Trails (2017)
  • Sarah Jarosz—Follow Me Down (2011)
  • Laura Veirs—Saltbreakers (2007)
  • Eilen Jewell—Boundary County (2006)
  • Low + Dirty Three—Fishtank 7 (2001)
  • Mark Knopfler—Sailing to Philadelphia (2000)
  • Shawn Colvin—Live '88 (1995)
  • The Waterboys—Room to Roam (1990)

Best concerts you've ever seen?

Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy

If you're in New York between now and early January, go see David Byrne's American Utopia on Broadway. He has completely reinvented what a pop concert can be. Find out more by reading my new interview with choreographer Annie-B Parson on how she helped Byrne (who answered my questions via email) to realize his brilliant vision. One of the best shows I've ever seen.

What distinguishes a truly indelible concert from a good one? I got to thinking about that when I answered a quiz circulating on Twitter (see below) about one’s concertgoing history.

First concert: Johnny Clegg (Johannesburg, 1989)
Last concert: Jenny Lewis (Boston, 2019)
Best concert: Kate Bush (London, 2014)
Worst concert: Blondie (Boston, 2017)
Most concerts: Robert Plant (at least 30 times)
Haven’t but wanna: Arcade Fire

In thinking about the hundreds of shows I’ve seen, I came to the conclusion that three qualities truly elevate a show. The first, naturally, is a dynamic performance. I’m thinking of Prince in Los Angeles, 2011. I watched the human dynamo play a three-hour concert in which his spontaneous fifth encore was 15 minutes after the houselights had come on and half the audience had left.

The second ingredient is an unexpected surprise. When Peter Gabriel performed “In Your Eyes” at the Hollywood Bowl, John Cusack ventured onstage – boombox in hand – in homage to that song’s role in the famous scene from “Say Anything.”

The third, perhaps most underappreciated element, is what happens in between songs. Some bands never say a single word to the audience. By contrast, indie-pop singer Feist made an unforgettable 2017 theater show feel like a campfire singalong among friends.

After the audience joined in on a complex harmony, the Canadian songwriter joked, "You're all hired for the band. Tour bus leaves at 10:15 for Toronto. Get your passports. I suppose that would make you defectors!"

At one point, Feist glanced up when my wife did a bird whistle before the start of the avian-themed "Caught a Long Wind." The two began exchanging bird calls.

Isn’t connection the quality we yearn for most in music? It can happen when recorded sounds in one’s headphones make one feel an ethereal bond with artists – together, but alone. But it’s extra-special when hundreds of enthralled strangers join in musical fellowship, like that evening with Feist.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Playlist June through July

  • Thom Yorke—Anima (2019)
  • Eilen Jewell—Gypsy (2019)
  • Jesca Hoop—Stonechild (2019)
  • The Waterboys—Where the Action Is (2019)
  • Calexico + Iron and Wine—Years to Burn (2019)
  • Cross RecordCross Record (2019)
  • Rory Gallagher—Blues (2019)
  • These New Puritans—Inside the Rose (2019)
  • SantanaAfrica Speaks (2019)
  • Ludovico Einaudi—Seven Days Walking, day 4 and day 5 (2019)
  • The National—I am Easy to Find (2019)
  • Radiohead—Minidiscs [Hacked] (2019)
  • Ben Granfelt—My Soul to You - Live (2019)
  • Courtney Swain—Between Blood and Ocean (2019)
  • Marillion—dotcom (2019), en el marquee (2019)
  • David Crosby—Here if You Listen (2018)
  • Elbow—Live at Jodrell Bank (2012)
  • These New Puritans—Field of Reeds (2010)
  • David Bowie—Glastonbury 2000 (2018), Storytellers (1999), Never Let Me Down (1987), Tonight (1984)
  • XTC—Apple Venus, Vol. 1 (1999)
  • The Beatles—Beatles for Sale (1964)

By the time I got to Woodstock...

During a trip to Bethel, New York, to report a story about the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, I met three recent college graduates in the parking lot outside the Woodstock museum. 

They were agog at the difference between that concert and modern-day festivals. It wasn't just the cost of a $7 ticket versus a $300 ticket to today’s extravaganzas, but also the degree of communal openness at Woodstock. 

“You know any of the festivals I've ever gone to, people liked to isolate themselves and kind of set up their own camps with the people that they were there with,” said one. 

“I've definitely seen a lot of pictures where people were like, nude, swimming in the river nearby,” said another, who was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt. “No, I don't think I could imagine anyone doing that.”

“I can't imagine my grandmother having ever been here,” added the first student. “And she was.” 

The story I wrote, all 3000 words of it, was about how the iconic festival shaped a generation - and how that generation both resembles and differs from the young iGen today. 

It's the cover story of this week's issue of The Christian Science Monitor magazine. You can also read it online at this link.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Playlist April

  • Joy Williams—Front Porch (2019)
  • Danger Mouse and Karen O—Lux Prima (2019)
  • Ludovico Einaudi—Seven Days Walking (2019)
  • Peter Gabriel—Rated PG (2019)
  • Jeff Buckley—In Transition (2019)
  • Riverside—Love, Fear, and the Time Machine (2015)
  • The Pineapple Thief—Magnolia (2014)
  • XTC—Skylarking (1986)
  • Cocteau Twins—Treasure (1984)
  • Pink Floyd—Atom Heart Mother (1970)

My new job....

In some personal news, I have just been hired as Chief Culture Writer at The Christian Science Monitor. (I didn't choose the grandiose job title!)

The newspaper, a pioneering bastion of journalism, was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1908. It was as an alternative to the pervasive "yellow journalism" of the day. As the newspaper's masthead proclaims, "To injure no man, but to bless all mankind."  It has won multiple Pulitzer Prizes and renown for its non-sensationalistic, fair, truth-seeking approach. Fundamental journalistic principles that, at the time of its arrival, seemed novel! Perhaps it shouldn't be called a newspaper anymore given that The Christian Science Monitor ceased printing a daily newspaper over a decade ago and moved online. These days it's a daily digital publication but we also produce also a weekly print magazine.

Poke around the website or, better yet, subscribe. It's a publication for thinkers. A focus on stepping back from the news to focus on big ideas underlying the news—a look at trends, understanding others, prevalent modes of thought, and identifying progress in the world (as well as pointing areas that require attention and help). The Christian Science Monitor is also renowned for its truly global focus with international bureaus across the world.

I previously worked at the newspaper from 1999-2009 where I conceived and edited the Weekend Section. I was also a writer at the Los Angeles bureau prior to leaving for a freelance career. I'm thrilled to return to the newspaper. Here's a few articles I've written since my return. (Note, the newspaper allows non-subscribers to read five free articles a month.)

Is the music industry finally facing its #MeToo moment?

Rock on. How biopics are giving rock ’n’ roll new life.

Apple joins the streaming menu, but are viewers already full?

Holy Grail: How can Hollywood get religious movies right?

Bye-bye harassment: Musicians take a stand for festival safety

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Playlist March


  • Loma—Half Silences, single (2019)
  • Foals—Everything Not Saved Will be Lost (2019)
  • Jon Anderson—1000 Hands (2019)
  • Jenny Lewis—On the Line (2019)
  • Kate Bush—Other Sides (2019)
  • The Mute GodsAethiests and Believers (2019)
  • Jack Hughes and the Quartet feat. Syd Arthur—Nobody's Fault but Mine (2019)
  • The Waterboys—Karma to Burn (2005)
  • Sunny Day Real Estate—How it Feels to be Something On (1998)
  • Peter Case—Six-Pack of Love (1992)
  • XTC—Skylarking (1986)
  • U2—Under a Blood Red Sky (1983)
  • Talk Talk—The Party's Over (1982)

Monday, March 18, 2019

Is the music industry finally having its #MeToo Moment?

As assignments go, my latest Culture story for The Christian Science Monitor took a lot of digging to get people to talk.

My lengthy think piece explored whether the music industry is finally having its #MeToo reckoning now that Ryan Adams, R.Kelly, and Michael Jackson are finally being held to account. Over the past half year, groups such as The Orwells, Hookworms, Sorority Noise have disbanded following allegations of sexual misconduct by individual members. Sigur Ros and Real Estate parted ways with band members accused of, respectively, sexual assault and sexual misconduct. Industry titans Charlie Walk, Russell Simmons, and LA Reid have been fired following disturbing allegations.

I wanted to exploring what, if anything, has changed. It seemed to me that there's been a shift in power within the industry. And there's also been a shift in how the public at large views #MeToo abuses. (I took all the Ryan Adams albums I own—above—off my CD shelf and haven't had any desire to listen to them of late, though I will return to them some day. Just not anytime soon...)

And yet, even though the likes of Amber Coffman, Phoebe Bridgers, Lydia Loveless and Julia Holter have used their online platforms to name alleged abusers in the music scene, many others have remained silent about instances of sexual harassment, sexual misbehavior, and even rape. They're often afraid for their careers, especially those who are unknown.

As influential publicist Judy Miller Silverman of Motormouth Media put it to me, "Because the onus of coming out and trying to have a career is difficult because then suddenly you're beholden to male A&R people and label people saying, 'Oh, that's the musician that outed the blah-blah. She's trouble.' To keep your own career safe, you almost have to get to a certain place.  You need to be at a certain level in order to be secure or you're worried that your career is over before it's begun."

Judy also mentioned how difficult it is to be the first person to go on the record to name an abuser, hoping that others follow. "What if no one else comes forward and their accusation is hanging in the wind?" said Miller Silverman.

For my story, I wanted to talk to people in the industry who were victims. I put out numerous feelers via various contacts and...nothing. Well, not quite. I knew at least two people who knew victims but had no success in getting them to talk to me. And then, via a third contact, a woman decided to talk to me about her story. It took her three days to muster the courage. During our 90-minute interview, I think I forgot to exhale. This musician told me one helluva story about a famous rock musician, the full details of which I'm not able to reveal. She asked for anonymity because she's not a famous musician and she feared the "court of public opinion." Even so, she was very brave to tell me her story, one she hasn't told to many people. I only wished I'd had more space to tell the full tale. But you can read her story in my piece.

I have a feeling that there are going to be many more stories about #MeToo abuses emerging from the music industry in the coming months and years. In the wake of the Ryan Adams story, Juliana Hatfield noted in a tweet, "i imagine that a lot of rock star guys are scared right now.”

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Playlist February

  • Dido—Still on My Mind (upcoming, 2019)
  • Tim Bowness—Flowers at the Scene (upcoming, 2019)
  • Patty Griffin—Patty Griffin (upcoming 2019)
  • The Mute GodsAethiests and Believers (upcoming 2019)
  • Jessica Pratt—Quiet Signs (2019)
  • Rustin' Man—Drift Code (2019)
  • Rival Sons—Feral Roots (2019)
  • The Pineapple Thief—Dissolution (2018)
  • Father John Misty—Pure Comedy (2017)
  • Marillion—A Sunday Night Above the Rain (2014)
  • Sarah Jarosz—Build Me Up from Bones (2013)
  • Pink Floyd—More: Original Soundtrack (1969)

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Mark Hollis: A life (1955-2019)

The thing about rock stars is that we somehow expect them to live forever. We often forget that these musical gods are mere mortals. So when they die, we're seldom prepared for the news when it comes.

On Monday afternoon, I saw a tweet on Twitter that Mark Hollis of Talk Talk had died. It wasn't an official announcement—it was something more like a rumor. It seemed hard to believe. He was only 64 years old. But, since Hollis quit his professional music career 18 years ago, he's been so elusive, his life so private, that it's almost as if he had completely disappeared off the planet. No one knew anything about what he'd been up to. I imagine that Hollis was one of the inspirations for Nick Hornby's excellent novel Juliet, Naked (recently made into a movie) about a fictitious musician who mysteriously packed it all in and hadn't been heard of, let alone spotted, for decades.

By all accounts, Hollis was quite humble and quite ordinary in his down-to-earth nature (he wasn't the sort of exotic alien species of rock star like Bowie or Prince). Yet his disappearance and disinterest meant that fans bestowed upon him a mythos, a certain mystique—qualities that also apply to Talk Talk's utterly timeless music. During all those years since Hollis had exited the public square, I held out a faint hope that he'd pull a Kate Bush and announce a surprise shows as a solo artist or with a reunited Talk Talk. I would have flown cross-Atlantic for those shows, just as I did with Kate Bush. (Btw, few people know this but Hollis and Bush briefly tried writing in the studio together in the 1990s but it didn't work out. A shame. That tantalizing partnership remains one of music's great what ifs?) But Hollis was the rare artist who had little interest in returning for a cash-in reunion, writing a memoir, or producing a comeback album for the Spotify generation.

So when word of Hollis's death spread on Twitter on Monday and the confirmations began to arrive, I sat down at my laptop and spent three feverish hours writing a lengthy obituary/appreciation for Under the Radar magazine. (The piece doesn't flow and breathe the way I would've liked but it was a rush job to get something up on the website.)

it was a sad moment for an ardent fan such as myself. The finality of the selfish wish for a return of some sort so that we could have more of his remarkable gift.

...But he'd already given us so much. He endured a torturous experience in making of The Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. (Things were so bad that engineer Phill Brown's wife told him that if he did that if he ever spent that many months locked in a studio again that he could move out.)

So it's best to be grateful to Hollis for those beautiful works he created for Talk Talk and as a solo artist. They include five albums that don't sound dated and whose qualities ensure that they will remain timeless masterpieces.

This week I've swapped emails with several musicians who were as deeply affected by Mark's passing as I was. We all know how special he was. I also emailed Toby Benjamin who runs the Spirit of Talk Talk fansite on Facebook. Several years ago, Toby spearheaded a beautiful and informative book titled Spirit of Talk Talk, cowritten by music writer Chris Roberts (read his tribute piece here) and longtime Talk Talk visual artist James Marsh. (I also contributed some interviews about Talk Talk with Elbow's Guy Garvey, Robert Plant, Glenn Phillips, Richard Barbieri, and David Torn). Toby also put together a Talk Talk tribute album featuring King Creosote, White Lies, Zero 7, Jayson Little, Turin Brakes, Goldheart Assembly, Joan As Police Woman, Duncan Sheik, Nils Frahm, The Acorn, Alan Wilder, and Linton Kwesi Johnson. (Apparently Hollis's favorite track on it was a classical music version of April 5th by Matthius Vogt Trio.)

In my email to Toby, I expressed how much it would have meant to Mark Hollis if he could have seen all the love and affection in the tributes to him. Toby responded, "Mark wouldn't care about any of it. Its a nice thought but he was really beyond all praise and adulation of any kind. He did it and moved on."

Fans such as Toby and myself will find it harder to move on. Thank you, Mark, for creating transcendent art that has affected so many of us inside the most intimate part of our souls.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Playlist January

  • Tim Bowness—Flowers at the Scene (upcoming, 2019)
  • Mercury Rev—The Delta Sweete Revisited (upcoming, 2019)
  • Crippled Black PhoenixThe Great Escape (upcoming, 2019)
  • Toni Childs—The Vault (2019)
  • Steve Gunn—The Unseen In Between (2019)
  • Steve Mason—About the Light (2019)
  • You Tell Me—You Tell Me (2019)
  • Deerhunter—Why Hasn't Everything Disappeared? (2019)
  • Marillion—All One Tonight: Live at the Royal Albert Hall (2018)
  • Shearwater—Low; Heroes; Lodger (live cover versions 2018)
  • Rush—Working Men (live compilation, 2009)
  • David Bowie—Never Let Me Down (1987)
  • Brian Eno and Harold Budd—The Pearl (1984)