Monday, November 16, 2009

Music with the Masters

Note: this is a massive post that took a long time to write, so it'll be our only one this week because now we have to do all of the other work we ignored while writing this massive post.

Bob Dylan, Fox Theater, Detroit MI: Nov. 6, 2009

Metallica, Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids MI: Nov. 9, 2009

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Palace, Auburn Hills MI: Nov. 13, 2009

Last week, the WB ministry of culture had the incredibly good fortune to see three legendary rock performers in the space of nine days. And although each show was radically different from the other two, all three were overshadowed by a nagging sense that this might be the last time any of these acts would be on tour. Rock is a joyful noise, but because of the possibility of "never again," each of these shows was enveloped in an unspoken sadness.

First, Bob Dylan. The folk maestro from the 1960s and musical chameleon through every decade afterward portrayed himself as a member of the band and nothing more. Tucking himself far back at stage right, leaving his lead guitarist to play front center, Dylan slurred and mumbled his way through some terrific reworkings of his greatest hits including "Desolation Row," "All Along the Watchtower," and "Like a Rolling Stone." The new versions of these songs were so different from their originals that some had gone on for several minutes before audience members began turning to each other and asking, "Is this what I think it is?" (Since lyrics were mostly unintelligible, it was the faint hints of familiar chord structures that eventually triggered the a-ha moments.)

The band was tight and followed its cues flawlessly, and Dylan's harmonica playing was energetic, but he only picked up a guitar (electric) for one song, and for most of the night he hid behind a keyboard that stayed mixed too low throughout the show and was easily drowned out by the other instruments - three guitars (including slide, which like the keyboards could barely be heard), bass, and drums. There was no interaction with the audience, who felt like voyeurs watching a private rehearsal from outside a window, and combined with Dylan's well-known refusal to enunciate, the whole show felt cold. This was only reinforced when, precisely at the two-hour mark — almost to the second — the 68-year old murmured deggoomavenns (thank you, my friends) and walked offstage with his band. House lights came up, curtains opened, a swarm of stage hands appeared, and the trucks backed up to the suddenly visible loading dock.

"I guess it's over," one man said a few rows back, but actually, it was pretty clear that for Bob Dylan, the show had been over for several years already.

After taking a couple of days off to rest and prepare, we headed to Grand Rapids, Michigan, the wholesome headquarters of Amway and home of the Gerald R. Ford Presidental Museum, to catch the biggest band in the world — again. WB began 2009 with a Metallica show in Detroit and thought it only fitting to catch another one on the other side of the state, at year's end. Our review of the Detroit show captures most of what Grand Rapids offered as well, with some key differences:

First, while big scary Detroit allowed fans to enter the arena through any of dozens of doors, the Van Andel Arena in little safe Grand Rapids forced fans to line up for four city blocks in order to be patted down by security guards and then let in through one entrance door. Maybe this is what makes a little safe town stay safe, but it also forced 80% of the crowd to completely miss the opening act, the Danish band Volbeat. This was unfortunate since the overriding theme of sidewalk conversation during the four-block crawl tended toward "I'd like to see that band from Denmark, but I couldn't care less about seeing Lamb of God."

Lamb of God was the second warm-up act. Grrr-metal act Machine Head had served as the opening comedy routine for January's show, and the Lambsters brought a similar version of Grrr to the stage, except that their lead vocalist also poured beer on his head so that he could swing his wet hair at the audience while alternately growling, roaring, and screaming random noises that, as with Bob Dylan, sometimes were almost decipherable. Each song sounded just like the one before it, all three guitarists made the same hair-flipping moves they'd already made, and the hardcore metalheads throwing horns (and each other) in the pitifully thin mosh circle had a great time.

Then it was time for the big boys. Metallica's lighting crew have been busy over the past year making the tools of their trade do new stuff, more stuff, and awesome stuff, and the alignment between effects and song notes was matched to the millisecond. James Hetfield's stage patter continues to be profanity-free (it's a shock now to hear the band's 1990s live stuff with James swearing a blue streak between each song) and filled with warm fuzzies about mutual love between band and its "family" of fans. The between-song repertoire is polished to the point where you won't hear an extra word added from one show to the next (trust us, we've got the Metallica iPhone app), although James is careful to call out the city's name whenever he can.

As had happened during a Quebec show just days before (thanks, iPhone app), Kirk Hammet's guitar melted down during "One," but whereas the Canadians had been treated to an all-James, all-rhythm version of the song featuring harmony notes instead of lead, Grand Rapids got one of the sloppiest renditions of the song imaginable. With Kirk hunched over at the far end of the stage so that his guitar tech could fiddle with the transmitter box at his hip, James missed several drum cues and had to play catch-up as Kirk's lead finally returned, most of the time, to the mix. And the thing is, no one in attendance cared about the glitches.

That's because you don't really go to see Metallica for the music. You go for the experience, to be one of tens of thousands experiencing an Event that defies easy explanation. You don't see the house lights suddenly plunge the arena into darkness at start time; you feel it. You don't hear the opening notes of Ennio Morricone's "Ecstasy of Gold" — you feel them. You don't applaud the sudden appearance of the Four Horsemen; you savor it. Because that's what big huge monster bands like this one do; they transcend sound and vision to become internalized by millions around the world.

They do it through many ways, but here's one: Whereas Dylan couldn't care less if his fans saw all of the show mechanisms immediately after he vanished from the stage, Metallica stays on stage after the show, while the house lights are at full brightness and roadies are beginning the teardown. All four members engage with the crowd, dispensing guitar picks and drumsticks, gathering up home-made banners that fans have brought, displaying the banners over the drums and flashpots. And then, one by one, they stand at one of the remaining microphones to say goodbye to the people still in the arena. These guys are all millionaires, and they know they're musical giants just as Bob Dylan is, and they don't have to do any of the after-show interaction — but they do it anyway. It makes a difference.

Coming off of the high of the Metallica show, we had three days to rest up and get ready for a night with yet another Rock Hall of Fame act. The Palace of Auburn Hills is a fitting venue for rock royalty like Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band, but after standing for the entire two-plus hour Metallica show (one does not sit at a Metallica concert), we were exhausted just thinking about standing through Bruce’s standard three-hour set. But Springsteen’s infectious energy and charismatic performance style makes it pretty near impossible to resist jumping to your feet and dancing, which half of us did.

Greeting his audience with a big “Hello, Ohio!” Springsteen launched directly into his new song “Wrecking Ball,” written to commemorate the demolition of Meadowlands in New Jersey. Perhaps the crowd thought the Boss was just fooling around with that Ohio crack, but as the new song unfolded with lyrics custom-fitted for, well, an Ohio crowd, it became clear that the "front man’s worst nightmare," as the Boss himself called it, had come true. Little Stevie Van Zandt finally got Springsteen’s attention by whacking him on the side of the head, and a red-faced Bruce ably turned his gaffe into a running Where am I? DETROIT! call and response joke with the audience for the rest of the evening. (To his credit, all arenas do pretty much look alike, the band had just played Ohio the night before, and to cap it all off it was Friday the 13th.)

The centerpiece of the show was a performance of the complete Born to Run album, in the order that the songs appear there. From the opening bars of “Thunder Road” to the closing notes of “Jungleland,” the band delivered a rock masterpiece, and not just because there isn’t a bad song on that album. It’s been nearly 35 years since Bruce wrote the lines “Darling you know just what I'm here for/So you're scared and you're thinking/That maybe we ain't that young anymore/Show a little faith there's magic in the night" — and hearing him sing these words at age 60 created a mass swoon for the audience, most of whom were not that young anymore, either. Each song in the album set moved seamlessly into the next, creating a symphonic effect further enhanced with lush arrangements and instrumentation. As brilliant as the original album is, it’s better live, now. And if only the crowd hadn’t insisted on singing along, they’d have heard that.

Springsteen continued to seek absolution for his blunder during his mid-set "stump-the-band/take requests" component that became a mainstay of his live shows in 2009, paying tribute to local rock legends with Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin Man” and a Mitch Ryder “Detroit Medley” ("Devil With a Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly/Jenny Take a Ride/CC Rider") that the E Streeters once featured regularly in concert encores. Incredibly, the Boss even crowd-surfed for several long (and scary) minutes.

After making it safely back to the stage, he continued to ramp up the show until he and the audience were utterly spent. Springsteen and the E. Street Band have long been known for putting on peerless live shows, and they are still in top form. Even not-really-fans can’t help but be blown away by the sheer energy and extraordinary musicianship this band brings every time.

Dylan, okay, we saw him and now we can say that we did. But Metallica and Springsteen, well, we'd really like to see them come back around just once (or twice, or three times) more before they hang up their guitars for good. Meanwhile, we've got a ton of CDs — and an iPhone app.

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