Sunday, July 21, 2013

sitting in the stands of a sports arena, waiting for the show to begin

I love music. I have loved music since I was a little kid. My taste in music runs the full spectrum from rock and pop to R & B to rap (not 'gangsta rap', I much prefer the old school sounds of the Sugar Hill Gang and Run-DMC) to swing and country-western and everything in-between. 

And I love live music. I went to my first concert at 14 years old (Alice Cooper) and I never stopped. My wife is a music fan as well, but her tastes are a bit more specialized. She's a little wary of anything that isn't The Grateful Dead. She has maintained her affinity for the AM radio bubble-gum pop of our youth, but give her the meandering Space>Drums>Space of a random '73 Dead show and she's pretty contented.

This week, I attended four concerts in nine days. As a reflection of my eclectic musical interests, those shows couldn't have been more diverse.

My son and I saw nouveau-rockabilly guitarist JD McPherson rip up the stage at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live. JD and his band tore through song after song from his debut album Signs and Signifiers, much to the sweaty delight of the packed house. The crowd was comprised of a dichotomous mix of older couples looking as though they just arrived from cheering for their kids at soccer practice and young biker dudes with hair slicked into pompadours, a tattooed Bette Page look-a-like hanging off their equally tattooed arm. The couples, on a sans kids "Mom's Night Out" date, were making out like hormone-ravaged teenagers. The bikers were jitterbugging uncontrollably within the confines of the crowd. It was surreal, to say the least.

Knowing full well that I was missing the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Mrs. Pincus and I took my two nieces - ages ten and seven - to their first concert. (Why weren't their parents part of this important rite of passage? You tell me. [See the previous two links.]) The girls would be making their concert-going initiation with the double bill of Victoria Justice and Big Time Rush. WHAT? Are you kidding me, Josh? YOU went to see Victoria Justice and Big Time Rush? Oh, you're damn right I did! I'll have you know that I am very familiar with Miss Justice's work. My wife and I have been avid fans of her Nickelodeon sitcom Victorious, since our son introduced us to it a few years ago. (Our son, by the way is nearly 26 and well past the show's target demographic.) But — goddammit! — the show is pretty funny! Created by TV veteran Dan Schneider, co-star of the 80s comedy Head of the Class, it is a throwback to classic sitcoms from TV's Golden Age. It is chock-full of off-the-wall humor and digging inside jokes, as it borrows heavily from sources like Make Room for Daddy and I Love Lucy. The young ensemble cast headed by the adorable Miss Justice, while still honing their acting abilities, can hold their own without being precocious or obnoxious (unless, of course, the script calls for it). Victoria Justice has branched out into the world of teen pop music à la Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera minus the skank. Every show features at least one vocal performance and she has parlayed that into a concert experience.

Big Time Rush are also the stars of a Nickelodeon series, one of which I have never seen. They are just another in a long line of manufactured "boy bands" that includes The Backstreet Boys, 'NSync, New Kids on the Block and a host of also-rans with hopes of making it big. Big Time Rush abbreviates its name with the ultra-hip, ultra-cool acronym "BTR". I questioned my wife as to the appropriateness of naming a youth-oriented singing group after a convicted serial killer. She offered clarification, explaining that I must be thinking of "BTK".

The audience at the sprawling semi-outdoor mess of an amphitheater that is Camden's Susquehanna Bank Center was jammed with a giddy contingency of prepubescent young girls, swathed in glitter and glow-sticks and toting handmade signs proclaiming their love for the various and collective members of Big Time Rush. Most were accompanied by one or two adults, the males of which all displayed the same disgruntled yet resigned look of "Well, at least I got out of work early" across their faces. My nieces sat, then stood, then sat, then stood in anticipation of the show. Suddenly the loud, opening strains of a synthesizer cut the summer air and spotlights bathed the stage in a purple-pink glow. A youngster who introduced himself as Jackson Guthy (son of direct marketing mogul Bill Guthy and cosmetic magnate Victoria Jackson) prowled the stage to warm up the anxious crowd. He rambled through three or four songs (that all sounded identical) and prefaced his final song with " This is a cover — I hope you like it." He then broke into Daft Punk's new, infectious jam "Get Lucky." Mrs. P and I joyfully sang along. My ten-year old niece turned around and, in a thoroughly puzzled tone, asked her old aunt and uncle, "You know this song?"

I smiled and quickly shot back, "You don't know this song?"

When Victoria Justice took the stage with the peppy dance-groove "Freak the Freak Out," I was both pleased and embarrassed that I actually knew the song and three others that she sang — lyrics and all. Her music may be vapid and repetitive, but that girl is sure filled with energy. She pranced, danced, jumped and ran all over that stage. I hope she savors this stage of her career, because, as we all know, fame is fleeting. Especially in the fickle, short attention span of the teenage target market.

Big Time Rush were awful. Admittedly, I am not a fan of trendy boy bands, but one can at least recognize a modicum of talent in Justin Timberlake and his cohorts. These guys were just plain bad — wailing and screaming tunelessly over a programmed series of "boops" and "beeps" and other electronic sounds. Their simple choreography betrayed their lack of dance prowess, as well. And their set went on waaaaay too long. The girls enjoyed it, though.

My concert-going reputation was redeemed with an enjoyable performance from throwback guitarist Pokey LaFarge. Fresh from their appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, Pokey and his five-piece band treated the small audience to an evening of hot jazz, Western swing and all things old-timey. After the show, my son and I met and spoke with Pokey. He's a really nice guy.

Speaking of manufactured boy bands, The Monkees brought their "Mid-Summer Night" Tour to Philadelphia's Mann Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday. My son, a DJ on a Philadelphia radio station, was spinning a mix of psychedelic songs in the Mann's concession courtyard as pre-concert entertainment for the arriving patrons. His gig came with two complementary tickets which he offered to his biggest fans — his parents.

The Monkees' current line up features long-time recluse Mike Nesmith, the lead guitarist who had previously shunned all Monkees reunions over the years. It is something of a mystery as to why he agreed to participate in the first tour following the untimely death of original member Davy Jones. One can only draw their own — fairly obvious — conclusion.

Mrs. P and I arrived at the entrance gates just prior to the 6 PM opening time. Once inside, we sat ourselves on a bench a few feet from where our son's audio equipment was set up. We took in the various get-ups of the arriving fans (mini skirts; go-go boots; various t-shirts from many past Monkee tours; a stray Ozzy and Hendrix shirt in the mix) as we listened to our boy's carefully hand-picked musical nuggets from our childhood.

Soon, it was showtime. We took our seats (in a mid-audience private box). We were joined by our son, after he settled monetarily for the gig and scored himself a big ol' dish of gourmet ice cream. The flashing lights illuminated three old, wrinkled guys who may or may not, at one time, have been The Monkees. They launched into "Last Train to Clarksville," "Papa Gene's Blues," and "Your Auntie Grizelda," thus showcasing the questionable talent of the three surviving members of the so-called "Pre-Fab Four". There was something missing, though. Something eerily missing. Davy. Davy was missing. The band purposefully left out all of the "Davy" songs from their repertoire, focusing instead on a setlist full of Micky-sung tunes and Mike-heavy country-tinged compositions. Hits like "Star Collector," "Valleri," "I Want to Be Free" and "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You" were noticeably absent. Davy's likeness was also conspicuously missing from the tour merchandise. While the trio plodded through muddy renditions of some lesser-known Monkees tunes, it became apparent that Davy was the spark of this sorry assemblage.

The tone-deaf crowd - ruining "Daydream Believer" for everyone.
As the performance drew to a close, Micky Dolenz stepped to center stage and announced that the band's most well-known song — the Davy Jones-vocal "Daydream Believer" — now belongs to you, the fans. He then called for a representative of the audience to take the stage (in this case, a gray-haired man and his young son) and led the crowd in song, as the band played the music. What could have been a heartfelt, loving tribute to a beloved pop icon and colleague became, as my son put it, "a fucking mess." As the father and son warbled out the off-key chorus, the overcast sky let loose a huge, angry thunderclap that shook the venue — I kid you not. It was as though Davy was expressing his disapproval. In hindsight, while Nesmith, Tork and Dolenz followed their inflated egos and fancied themselves rock stars in both talent and importance as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Davy was the only one who "got it." He knew he was an actor cast in a part in a TV show and he milked that role for forty-six years. The Monkees were a novelty act. And that's all they'll ever be.

Next week will find me at the annual three-day outdoor festival staged by local radio station WXPN.

As Sonny and Cher once observed: The beat goes on.

As The Grateful Dead once observed: The music never stopped.

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