By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In his 1976 appearance as a celebrity guest on "The Muppet Show," singer-songwriter Paul Williams sang one of his own songs accompanied by a small Muppet choir, a backing band by the name Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (showing remarkable restraint), and the subdued piano of Rowlf the Dog.
The tune was called "Sad Song," but Williams remembers it as one of the happiest moments of his life.
"Oh, it's one of those Hallmark lyrics I wrote, basically a co-dependent anthem, which is pretty much what I spent my life writing. But the way it worked on the show is a perfect example of this intense emotional connectedness we feel with these characters," Williams says.
In the scene — see it and other great Muppet music moments here — the song winds to a close with Williams leaning on Rowlf's piano nonchalantly singing about "the sad song that used to be our song," a sharply sentimental but sweet moment, and as Rowlf plays the final chords, he glances at Williams, as if to say, "Did that help?" Rowlf then closes the piano keys and gently pats the lid.
"I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles," Williams says, laughing heartily at the 35-year-old memory.
Music always has been the beating heart of the Muppets. That "intense emotional connectedness" fans feel to the felt friends created by the late Jim Henson has fueled excitement about the first new Muppet movie in 12 years — "The Muppets," opening Wednesday in theaters — and it comes directly from the power of the franchise's iconic songs, such as Williams' and Kenny Ascher's "Rainbow Connection" and "Movin' Right Along."
For those of us who grew up with the Muppets, the music made an impact beyond celebrity moments on "The Muppet Show," the syndicated TV variety series Henson produced from 1976 to 1981. Those moments included Elton John performing "Crocodile Rock" with the song's namesake and Julie Andrews donning Maria's dress again for "The Lonely Goatherd" on a farm.
"The Muppet Show" celebrated pop songs by reimagining them, adding narratives and creating set pieces in the years just before MTV — always stopping just short of parodying them. Like classic Looney Tunes cartoons, this was a show aimed chiefly at adults; kids could LOL to Muppets dancing around to the Village People's "Macho Man," but adults were ROTFL when Gonzo's disco-dressed chicken gang rumbled with a posse of butch, leather-clad pigs. The show also unearthed folk classics, mid-century lounge music, Tin Pan Alley chestnuts and rhythm & blues.
"We covered everything — every genre and every century," Muppet performer Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Zoot and others) told the SF Weekly in 2007. "We did Charleston numbers, we did the latest stuff in rock 'n' roll, we did the '40s, '30s, classical. I really miss the way we worked with music. Jim was a pretty musical guy."
The new Muppet movie, fortunately, works with music in the same spirit. "The Muppets" soundtrack is not, thankfully, "The Green Album," an unnecessary, marketing-driven collection released in August featuring current indie-rockers (OK Go, Andrew Bird, Weezer, etc.) covering classic Muppet songs. The Muppets are doing their own thing again.
The film's director and music supervisor both come from a musical-comedy project that isn't just a kindred spirit; its title sounds like its own Muppets production number: "Flight of the Conchords."
"The Muppets and 'Flight of the Conchords,' yeah, there are quite a lot of similarities," says Bret McKenzie, half of the Conchords duo and music supervisor for "The Muppets." (The film's director is "Conchords" co-creator and director James Bobin.) "I really didn't have to shift gears, like, at all."
"Flight of the Conchords" was basically an adult "Muppet Show." Few actors are more Muppety than Jermaine Clement, and the songs he and McKenzie wrote for each episode of their acclaimed HBO comedy series (and live concerts) kept things movin' right along in the same adventurous, wondrous and usually optimistic spirit. Henson no doubt would have loved the "Bowie" episode, with Clement dressed up as "1986 David Bowie from the movie 'Labyrinth,' " a puppets-'n'-people fantasy film that Henson directed.
"There's a quality to the production [of 'The Muppets'], a looseness that reflects the looseness of the Muppets themselves, and I think you could say the same about [the Conchords] most times," McKenzie says. "This guy Chris Caswell, who worked on the original Muppets music as a piano player, told me Henson said, 'If it sounds too good, it's not right.' I kept thinking about that a lot. Finding the line between that looseness and a grand musical number — it's a challenge."
Plus, the Muppet universe has a few commandments.
"I quickly had to learn a few things," McKenzie says. "Like, in the Muppets' world, they've always existed. Kermit was never a piece of fabric. I had one lyric with Kermit saying, 'I remember when I was just a piece of felt,' and they said, 'Oh, no, you can't use that.' Another thing is that all these characters have specific vocal ranges. If they go too high or too low, they stop sounding like the character we know. If Miss Piggy goes too high, she sounds like a squeaky mouse.
"Also, all animals can talk — except chickens. They can only cluck. I had this big finale with everyone singing along, and we cut to the chickens, and I said, 'OK, chickens sing.' 'Oh, no, chickens can't sing.' So it's even funnier, because it's, 'OK, cluck,' and they cluck, cluck, cluck."
McKenzie's "Life's a Happy Song" has such a finale — a classic Muppet cluster-cluck that even includes lines sung by Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney and indie rocker Feist. It's one of four new songs McKenzie wrote for "The Muppets" (the others are "Let's Talk About Me," "Man or Muppet" and "Me Party"), and he oversaw the production of other original songs, as well as the film's reprise of favorites like "Rainbow Connection."
The film also includes actor Chris Cooper, who plays villainous oilman Tex Richman, performing — ye gods — a rap song.
"The rap song was a very dangerous idea," McKenzie says. "I arrived and that was already in the script, so I had to make it work. The risk is that it will be a joke from the late '80s. We've all seen people rapping badly. So I gave Chris some rapping lessons — on Skype. If you can imagine, Chris Cooper and I rapping on Skype. It was so bizarre, one of many bizarre moments in this experience. God, it was funny." He laughs.
"He does a stellar rap performance, I must say. We had to make it Muppety, though, you know? We joked about adding, like, some Kanye AutoTune, but it's not about making some contemporary, winking reference. I didn't want this to sound like a Hannah Montana album."
A star is reborn
"Muppety." It's an adjective they all use. Williams says it's a quality he first spotted early in the morning.
"I was a solid fan of everything Henson before he asked me to come over and do 'The Muppet Show,' because living on the road at that time, the best, most intelligent entertainment we could find on television while getting up in the morning and getting ready to go to the next city was 'Sesame Street,' " he says.
The diminutive Williams was once a huge star, lest we forget. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (from "A Star Is Born"), the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson (48 times!). By the '80s, he fell off the radar due to deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, a story that's told in a new documentary currently making the film-fest rounds, "Paul Williams: Still Alive." Williams also is in his second term as president of ASCAP.
"Everybody wanted to do 'The Muppet Show' because it was so very hip," Williams says. On the set of the show, "I understood the magic of what was happening when I was standing there talking to Jim and Frank [Oz, founding Muppet puppeteer and voice actor], and Frank has Miss Piggy on his arm and Jim has Rowlf and Kermit on his arms, so it was all of us in this conversation. There was this extra level of engagement, a kind of medium, that really made it special. Songs came alive in that."
After his "Muppet Show" appearance, Henson asked Williams to write some songs for another project he was working on, a holiday special that would double as a workshop for some production techniques later perfected for "The Muppet Movie" (1979). The special was "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" for HBO.
Their relationship cemented, Williams went on to co-write the now-classic tunes for the first Muppets film. He remembers a moment in the creative process during that film that summarized the unique nature of creating with Henson.
"I love Gonzo most of all," Williams says. "We're all landlocked birds, you know? There was a great scene where the Muppets break down on the road in the desert, and I said to Jim, 'You know, I'm a child of the '60s' — I'm 21 years sober now, of course, but in those days, there were a variety of chemicals involved, and people were having a lot of spiritual awakenings as a result. I said, 'What if we write about that? Here's Gonzo experiencing that feeling of connectedness.' Jim said, 'That's really nice. What if we also get beyond the metaphoric and allow Gonzo to actually experience flying?' So he wrote that whole fair scene where Gonzo gets the balloons and is taken away just to support the song. It's so Muppets — it's a lofty dream squarely rooted on the ground."
So many songs: 10 great Muppet music moments
As you gear up for Muppet-mania this week ahead of the new movie, "The Muppets" — read about the Muppets music and the Flight of the Conchords connection — here are 10 great musical moments from our felt friends (in no particular order), from the show, the movies and the viral videos.
Get this: The song "Mahna Mahna," written by Piero Umiliani, first appeared in a 1968 Italian film ("Sweden: Heaven and Hell") about Nordic sex, drugs and suicide. Thankfully, it resurfaced a decade later as a perfect set piece for "The Muppet Show," featuring two fluorescent pink cows (?!) and one very groovy beatnik.
'Last Time I Saw Him' with Diana Ross
Performing with Muppets is a transformative experience for some singers. In this clip from the fourth season of "The Muppet Show," Diana Ross appears more natural, relaxed and happy than she ever did with the Supremes, first sitting on the stoop and jamming with a few Muppets, then turning it into a full-on production number with a great arrangement that ambles like a Muppet road reverie. By the end of the tune, Muppet horn players are in a Dixieland breakdown, and Ross puts a period on the number with a hammy vaudeville face.
The Muppets started a comeback a couple of years ago with a series of YouTube videos — more respectful pop song covers — like this Muppety take on Queen's popera.
'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'
Sure, "The Muppet Show" had a laugh track, but some poignant moments found their way in. Sgt. Floyd Pepper, of the Muppet band Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem, occasionally turned in cool, calm readings of pop songs. His performance of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (a duet with Janice, "fer sure") is smooth, but this take on this George Harrison song is a piece of pre-MTV perfection, setting up a little narrative in the scene — complete with Miss Piggy in silhouette during a very "Eleanor Rigby" kind of moment — and creating a transcendent moment, especially when Floyd caresses his guitar and says, "Oh, baby, don't cry."
How do you celebrate St. Patty's Day in Muppetland? With the three tenors, of course — the Swedish Chef, Beaker and Animal. Assembling three of the Muppets no one can understand to sing such a classic tune is only the start of the hilarity. The rest of it follows when Beaker overcomes his anxiety for a solo, Animal goes off actually looking for Danny, and the turtlenecks.
'Sad Song' with Paul Williams
After singer-songwriter Paul Williams made this appearance on the first season of "The Muppet Show" in 1976, Jim Henson asked him to write more Muppets music. That turned into a collaboration that lasted decades and produced some of the Muppets' most iconic songs, including "Rainbow Connection." Williams said of the scene: "I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles."
Animal vs. Buddy Rich
"The Muppet Show" showcased all kinds of music, including jazz. In this scene, Animal is let off his chain to challenge revered jazz player Buddy Rich to a drum battle. While Animal hollers like a tennis pro during the match, Rich flies over his kit with power and panache. Animal's drums, incidentally, were performed on the show by British jazz drummer Ronnie Verrell.
'In the Navy'
First, this is the second Village People song the Muppets covered (the other, well ...). For this musical number, the navy in question is a horde of marauding Muppet Vikings, and when they chant "We want you as a new recruit!" — they're not kidding. They come ashore and proceed to shanghai villagers into shipboard service. Educational on sooooo many levels.
'Grandma's Feather Bed' with John Denver
John Denver forged a lasting kinship with the Muppets — he made several "Muppet Show" appearances, hosted a Christmas special and the 1982 special "Rocky Mountain Holiday" — which began with this odd performance. Perhaps it was a less jaded era, so creators and audiences didn't see anything creepy about Denver hopping into bed with a bunch of Muppets, having a pillow fight with them, or dressing in drag as Grandma.
The movies are filled with great Muppet songs (one of my favorites is "The Happiness Hotel" from "The Great Muppet Caper"), but the benchmark was always Paul Williams' Oscar-nominated gem from the very first opening credits.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Mr. Robotic released a debut CD in February — begrudgingly.
The Chicago rapper, aka Columbia College student Marcas Harris, has been writing and recording high-energy, club-ready songs for several years, and he claims to be making a full-time living from it. But the Benjamins haven't been coming from album sales ("Boy in the Band: A Love Story," a six-song EP, is his first physical offering) or iTunes downloads (though a small set of his tracks first appeared there last year). Instead, Mr. Robotic plugged his fledgling career into the other side of the music business: licensing songs to movies, TV shows, advertising and much more.
"I don't necessarily think the album is dead; I'm just not sure I need one to be a full-time, working recording artist," Harris says. "For me, I've got a commercial this week, a TV show next week. ... The people I work with getting commercial placements, they just need songs — and, you know, they're hungry."
"Commercial placements" — that means more these days than just hearing your song playing on the car radio while handsome doctors drive around on "Grey's Anatomy," or even landing on a movie soundtrack. Mr. Robotic songs have been sold for both of those uses — he was on the soundtracks to a couple of B-flicks last year ("Skyline" and "Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming"), and his songs have been used on "Jersey Shore," "The Hills," "Greek," "The Beautiful Life" and more — but he's also written a theme song for a sports drink and an exclusive song for a national chain of yogurt shops. A Mr. Robotic song was used as background for a LeBron James highlight reel on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
Each time a musician places a song in one of these spots — ka-ching! It may not be a loud ka-ching, but in a troubled economy and a music business whose revenue model has been dismantled and decentralized, every little ka-ching counts. Websites, in-store promotions, social-media campaigns, smart-phone apps, you name it — businesses have myriad new opportunities to try to turn our heads with a catchy tune, and they pay for each one.
Those new and revitalized sources of income represent a seismic shift in a musician's business plan. As Damian Kulash — singer for Chicago's OK Go, which just unveiled its theme song to Morgan Spurlock's upcoming documentary about product placement — wrote in a thoughtful December essay about these issues for the Wall Street Journal, "So if vanishing record revenue isn't being replaced by touring income, how are musicians feeding themselves? For moderately well established artists, the answer is increasingly corporate sponsorship and licensing — a return, in a sense, to the centuries-old logic of patronage. In 1995, it was rare for musicians to partner with corporations; in most corners of the music industry, it was seen as the ultimate sell-out. But with investments from labels harder to come by, attitudes toward outside corporate deals have changed."
Bob DePugh handles music licensing at Chicago's Alligator Records. He's been with the label for more than 20 years, and he started making licensing deals for the label about a decade ago. Two songs by Hound Dog Taylor, for instance, are slated for "The Rum Diary," another Hunter S. Thompson story made into an upcoming movie starring Johnny Depp. DePugh even does extra work on the side. He's placed songs for artists at Chicago's Bloodshot Records, too — the Deadstring Brothers in "Sons of Anarchy," Justin Townes Earle in "Justified," the Sadies in "CSI: NY."
"It became more and more my full-time job as the market really grew for it," he says. "Of course, 10 years ago way fewer people knew about this scheme, so the fees you could get were much higher. About five or six years ago is when it really took off, once shows like 'The Gilmore Girls' and that ilk became highly driven by the soundtrack. The floodgates kind of opened. That was also about the time that CD sales began to drop, so it became more important [for artists]. A lot more people are now chasing this income, and by a lot more I mean everyone."
Licensing songs, however, is a crapshoot, DePugh says. Live performance is where the income is for today's musician, followed by album sales and single downloads. He's mystified by the notion of artists who include placements as part of a business plan.
"You can't rely on this income, not really at all," he says. "It's very fickle, and you're dealing with a lot of people. The music supervisor might take your song to the editor, and it might not work, or the director won't like it, or the budget will change — there are a lot of factors that make it very unreliable. It's great as found money, but you can't balance your budget assuming you're going to win the lottery."
One of those music supervisors scouting songs for TV is Evan Frankfort. He's won a Daytime Emmy for his soap opera scores and is a frequent collaborator with Chicago native Liz Phair writing TV music (he helped Phair craft her now-notorious "Funstyle" album while both were in the studio working on TV shows). Through his Los Angeles post-production music company, Would Work Sound, he also helps connect musicians with television directors looking for the right song for the right moment.
But while sealing the deal for a song in a primetime drama can feel satisfying for the artist at first, Frankfort says, the check usually is only as big as the artist. "Fees range from $500, if no one knows who you are, to maybe $10,000 if you have a following," he says.
Lyle Hysen, a New York-based music broker who works on commission with labels such as Chicago's Thrill Jockey and Drag City, has seen higher. "'Grey's Anatomy,' that could get you some money," he says, "but shows like that are usually exclusively dealing with a particular label. But that level of placement could get you $30,000 [all in]. New shows and cable networks don't have that kind of money, maybe $2,000, $5,000 or $20,000. It's not huge, and it's not consistent, but it's money the band doesn't have to load up the van for."
"A theme song, that's the ultimate goal," says Michael J. Mallen, a Los Angeles music broker who has scored Mr. Robotic many of his placements. "When we talk about this stuff, people usually think of the Rembrandts. Nobody knew who they were, then they wrote the theme song for 'Friends.' At that level, you're talking millions of dollars."
Most TV musical appearances, though, are disappointing for the musicians. Programs need theme songs and dramatic soundtracks, but they mostly need music for the background of a scene. Usually deep background.
"Most placements, I'd say three out of four, you won't even know your song is on the show," Frankfort says. "Everyone wants that final placement [like] at the end of 'Six Feet Under,' when the music plays over the drama, but it's usually at the bottom of what's going on. A guy I just did a record with had a song on a show this week. It was his first placement, and he was very excited. He e-mailed everybody. Not only was the show a big pile of sh—, he didn't even know where the song was. He called and said, 'I guess you didn't use it, after all.' I said, 'Yeah, we did, it's in the bar scene.'"
"I've listened to some placements on TV four or five times, cupping my ears down by the speaker, till I get a hint of the steel guitar lick that tells me, 'Oh, yeah, that's the track,'" DePugh says. "Sometimes the tenor of the singer's voice barely comes through. It can be that nuanced. It may not be that thrilling for the artist, until the check clears."
Frankfort has co-written with Chicago-area pop-punk band the Plain White T's, another band that has recently taken to the music licensing route to keep some money coming in. In August, the T's went on a tour not of public concert venues but of TV network boardrooms, playing mini acoustic shows for music supervisors in an attempt to market their music for primetime placements. Singer Tom Higgenson told Billboard: "With our band, our strong points are our lyrics, our melodies, our harmonies. ... We can strip our music down to bare bones and it's still just as effective."
It worked. Plain White T's songs have since been used in promos for NBC's "Parenthood," ABC's "Private Practice," Showtime's "Californication" and a two-month slot on ABC Family's "Secret Life of the American Teenager."
"Plain White T's are just so damn good in that environment," said Disney Music Group vice president of licensing Dominic Griffin. "Especially with 'Rhythm of Love.' It's such a great song with a universal message; it certainly has made it easier to accomplish our goals."
Those goals can range widely, but the bottom line is always there. "Usually, it's supervisors asking, 'Do you have anything that sounds like the Black Keys? Or Coldplay?'" Hysen says. "They want something that sounds hot and current, but something they can clear. Good supervisors don't give me the 'I need something that sounds like a rainy Tuesday.' Most of it's fairly targeted. ... Lyrical cues are pretty big. There's a lot of home, hey I wanna go home, I'm home — a 'home' theme is good. Seeing is a big one, too — happy to see you, good to be seen, maybe a medical show where someone gets their sight back. The werewolf/vampire things are pretty on-target these days. Don't mention fangs but maybe sing about internal love, undying love. Most good love songs do that, anyway."
Does any of this actually sell records or concert tickets?
Only if flashing the musician's name is part of the deal. A few years ago, the late Nick Drake plunged back into the zeitgeist when one of his songs was artfully used in a Volkswagen commercial; CD sales and downloads spiked because the Volkswagen site mentioned the artist for interested viewers who went hunting it. Several months ago, Hyundai helped boost the sales of an unknown pop duo, Pomplamoose, by using several of their Christmas songs in a series of TV ads and correspondingly naming them on their site. Mr. Robotic saw a small sales boost on iTunes after his "Jersey Shore" appearance, because as the song played in the show it included his name and song title in the corner of the screen. Also, that yogurt shop and that sports drink — they both placed links to his songs on their websites.
That doesn't happen when the song's playing in a coffee shop behind the main characters on "The Vampire Diaries" or when it flies by in a commercial promo.
"The good thing about TV music is that you can do a lot of it. The bad thing is that it has an air date," Frankfort says. "The music lives and dies very quickly, sometimes anonymously."
For an unknown, indie artist, music licensing affords them connections that could lead to other things, as well as the occasional check for a song placement. Oddly enough, indie artists even have a leg up on snaring these movie and TV show deals.
"I'm working mostly with unsigned people, independent artists," says Mallen, Mr. Robotic's broker. "If you're signed to a record company, that means there's publishing tied up in the deal, too. It complicates things. In films, often they want something that's available free and clear. It's quicker for them, it's cheaper, but the artist gets their name out there, for whatever it might be worth. I mean, Mr. Robotic can say he was in the Netflix Top 100. That's at least something."
"Most shows don't have budgets for big acts," Frankfort says. "Cable shows, commercials, they're all looking for cheap buys. One band's cheap, though, is another band's payday. Plus, even TV shows that blow their wad on a Fleetwood Mac song probably still need 10 other songs for cheaper."
Chicago balladeer Brad Smith has no illusions about his brush with international fame by virtue of a single song placement. "There's no doubt I was cheaper to get than Bruce Springsteen," he says.
Smith, a 30-year-old unemployed actor and a local musician seemingly unconcerned with his low profile, landed a song, "Help Yourself," on the soundtrack of the acclaimed and Oscar-nominated George Clooney film "Up in the Air" in 2009. How'd he do it? A combination of luck and, you know — it's not what you know but who.
"A friend of mine from high school is [director] Jason Reitman's brother-in-law," Smith says. "He played my CD for this guy, who forwarded it to Jason while he was in pre-production for that movie. I was told this, and then I heard nothing for almost a year. Then one day, Jason calls me up. He wants to use the song, but he doesn't know anything about me, so he's asking questions, like where I regularly played music. I said I didn't very often. He asks, 'What do you do?' I said, 'I read a lot and drink coffee. I'm unemployed.' He says, 'What do you live on?' I said, 'Frankly, if you weren't using this song, I don't know what I'd be doing. I'm about to lose my apartment.' ... That made for a good story. He plucks this guy from obscurity who has no money and puts his song into a movie that's about unemployment."
But despite the song's fairly prominent appearance in an Oscar-nominated movie (in the wedding scene) and on its internationally sold soundtrack — Smith wouldn't say how much he was paid for the deal — Smith remains ensconced in relative obscurity. His soft, acoustic-based songs draw easy comparisons to Elliott Smith, but he didn't receive the same landmark Oscar performance moment.
"There was a lot of talk in the beginning about awards, and Paramount was very confident the song would get lots of nominations, but that didn't happen," Smith says. "In the end, it hasn't done much [for me] at all. My Facebook and MySpace pages got messages from people in Uganda and Romania. That was cool. I got a couple of calls from a company asking me to do a cover of 'Slip Sliding Away' for a commercial, which thankfully didn't end up happening. They wanted to put 'Help Yourself' in that show 'Hung' [on Showtime], but I don't own the song anymore, so I forward those calls to Paramount. ... And I didn't move to Hollywood to pursue this, so things just died back down."
What he did get from the experience is less tangible, certainly less bankable. After taking part in some publicity for the film, he came back to Chicago and finally put a band together. He got serious about songwriting. Early this year, he celebrated the release of a new full-length album, "Love Is Not What You Need," with a show at Schubas, followed by participation in a songwriters series at Metro.
"The biggest thing I took from it was the realization I could take this seriously," Smith said. "My parents, too. It comforted them about what, in their eyes, was something of a hobby, something that wasn't putting them at ease about my security. Now I'm trying to get my legs, as far as my live performance goes. And now I've got some contacts. I much prefer the slow build to sudden stardom, but maybe this will actually work out."
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
Rolling into town for SXSW, so is Jack White's Rolling Record Store
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2011 4:58 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — When I first attended South by Southwest, the annual pop music conference and festival in Austin, Texas (the music industry's spring break), it was 1996, just shy of the event's 10th anniversary — and everyone was already complaining about how big it had gotten. Too many bands, too much press, too much traffic. The film fest had barely started.
This year is the 25th anniversary of SXSW's music showcases, which are now preceded by SXSW Interactive and the SXSW film festival. The whole things stretches on for 10 days, with a lot of entertainment, a lot of media and a ton of traffic — and now most of the complaints about size and impact have shifted to Interactive. But we're all down here because SXSW still has a rep of previewing the films, music and online experiences that we'll be geeking out about for the rest of the year.
It starts the moment you get off the plane, where a brave singer-songwriter strummed her guitar on a makeshift stage at the airport bar next to the baggage claim escalators. For the next four nights, the Texas capital will echo with more than a thousand musicians hoping to turn the heads of writers, talent agents, music supervisors, film directors, label execs and more.
Jack White was first into the fray this afternoon ...
White's in town to unveil his latest venture after his recent confirmation that the White Stripes are no more. White is on a mission to salvage the experience of record buying for a generation of iTunes downloaders. He's put together the Third Man Rolling Record Store — basically a food truck that peddles vinyl LPs, T-shirts and such, plus a sound system. Wednesday afternoon, White worked that system, playing a set in front of the Rolling Record Store, which had set up outside Frank's Diner. He played a handful of songs solo, including a Buddy Holly cover, plus the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."
The mobile shop rolled here from Nashville for SXSW. White says he plans to travel the country with it, hitting the summer festivals.
SXSW Wednesday: Colourmusic, Wolf Gang, the Kickback, Admiral Fallow, Pete Wentz's Black Cards
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:56 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW is basically a musical March madness. Here's one man's brackets at the end of Wednesday night's series of showcases:
BRONCHO: When in doubt, follow Martin Atkins. The famed drummer for Public Image Ltd. and Pigface led a spirited panel Wednesday afternoon advising newbies to the music business, then started his evening at the Oklahoma showcase, seeing BRONCHO. Funny about that name: it's in all caps, for some reason, and it's pronounced so it rhymes with honcho. Tulsa's BRONCHO is the latest project from Ryan Lindsey, who manages to meld his experience in the alt-country band Cheyenne and early indie-rock hopefuls the Starlight Mints into a sweaty mix of loping cowpunk and Stiff Records guitar aggression. Atkins was bobbing his head, anyway.
Colourmusic: Another Okie quartet, Colourmusic, hoisted the freak flags over Austin's Sixth Avenue early, unleashing a squall of early Flaming Lips feedback, general high-pitched shrieking and, surprisingly, some meaty funk grooves. This is some serious evolution for a band that started as a more folk-driven, Britpop act (see their more accessible debut, the cumbersomely titled "F, Monday, Orange, February, Venus, Lunatic, 1 or 13") — and then they met the Lips' Wayne Coyne. Underneath the Brainiac-like furor, though, are some solid, funky rhythms. One fan was moved enough to tear off his shirt, jump on stage and dance ecstatically for all to see.
The Kickback: Guitarist-singer Billy Yost quipped between songs, "If you work in the entertainment industry and would like a hot record to put out, boy would we like to talk to you!" Here's hoping they had their chat. Chicago's the Kickback is a fierce power trio within a quintet — Yost, his brother Danny Yost on drums and bassist Zach Verdoorn. Tighter than a flea's undies, these three plow through every dynamic, from sweetly tuneful to apoplectic fury, buttressed by Billy Yost's apparent natural edginess (his stage banter was taut, nervous, like he was spoiling for a dust-up) and a vein in his neck that bulged whenever things got really good and really loud. It was almost like seeing David Garza at SXSW all those years ago.
Admiral Fallow: Here's the next Scottish band to watch. In the tradition of Belle & Sebastian, but with a more rock edge and a significantly grandiose songwriting perspective, Admiral Fallow is fertile with song styles and instrumentation. Opening their set late with a quiet tune, a lyric buoyed by rhythm guitars just for atmospherics, not melody, this six-piece played pastoral pop for those who've also been turned on to Mumford & Sons or their own countrymen, Frightened Rabbit. I heard the urgency and persistent rhythm of Dogs Die in Hot Cars (a fabulous but, with that silly name, defunct Scottish band), as well as a lyrical landscape of losers and big spaces that reminded me of American Music Club. With their flutes, clarinets and big drums in addition to the guitars, they could be Scotland Music Club, and they should start opening for the National immediately.
Black Cards: A small crowd waited for Pete Wentz to shag it from the mtvU Woodie Awards across downtown and finally debut his new band. He jumped on stage early Thursday morning with a crazy fur hat on and cranked up a fairly dime-a-dozen set of dance-rock. Black Cards is led by Bebe Rexha, a personable newcomer who comes off vixenish without being too affected. She's got a great voice, but Black Cards are still waiting for a full house. The groove-based music is deftly led by Wentz's bass, much the way John Taylor's bass was at the forefront of Duran Duran early on, but in the end it was sub-Garbage, especially when the songs took on a reggae flavor, which suited neither Wentz's nor Rexha's strengths. Clutching his Miller Lite, Wentz mubled some stage patter about how "weird it is when you do something different and people are like, 'That's lame.'" In that sense, yeah, this was weird.
Wandering Sixth Street: In addition to the smorgasbord of music down here, Chicagoans, it's also in the 70s. Strolling the main music row thus makes for easy shopping, with a band neatly framed in the open windows of most clubs. Practically next door to the Colourmusic show was another band with British spelling: Chicago's own Secret Colours, which turned in a set diametrically opposite of Colourmusic's brave frenzy; Secret Colours plays a tender swirl of '60s autumnal folk and '90s shoegaze. Down the way, Ha Ha Tonka smartly showed its Ozark roots in some ripping country-rock, featuring a mandolin player with a harmony voice as high as his instrument and a rhythm section with a driving backbeat. These Missouri boys had the crowd clapping along — and this was the SXChi showcase, sponsored by Chicago's JBTV and Threadless. Around the corner at Latitude, the unofficial British embassy for the duration of SXSW, Lonndon's Wolf Gang drew a crowd. Here's a band that looks like an anachronism — Spandau Ballet's wardrobe, Adam Ant's earring — but sounds timeless, luring a dancing mob on the street with rich melodies and crisp playing. A fellow next to me was lured away from another showcase by the sound. "American music is so muddled," he said. "This is so British — so clean and clear and, I don't know, some kind of tune to take away with you."
SXSW keynote: Bob Geldof pleads for rock's continuing social conscience — 'Say something to me!'
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:25 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A fine new biography of Queen by Mark Blake, Is This the Real Life?, was recently published. The first chapter details the band's performance at Live Aid in 1985, as fine a piece of stadium showmanship as you'll ever see. It inspired me to drop the cash on a used set of Live Aid DVDs, the four-disc set that was finally compiled a few years ago. Watching the whole spectacle over a long weekend while the spouse was away, I finally came to terms with the fact that, sure, Dylan was there, but so were Spandau Ballet and the Style Council (themselves the picture-perfect illustration of style trumping substance in the mid-'80s). It happened when Elvis Costello came onto the stage. He had one song. He didn't pick one of his own, he didn't push the hit, he instead sang "All You Need Is Love." Live Aid is peppered with such moments, when the music itself reminds us of why we're here — much moreso and certainly more effectively than the marathon concert's occasional news reels about the African famine — and what we should be talking about.
This is exactly the kind of thing Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof says is lacking in current music — or, if it's there, at least the democratization of the Internet has prevented him from finding it.
Surprising and inspiring, more optimist than doomsayer, Geldof began Thursday's keynote address at SXSW 2011 with a pleasant ramble but focused his remarks on pop music's history of affecting social change, however indirectly, and the future of that crucial power.
"I don't think the American revolution is over," said the activist-musician. He didn't mean 1776. "The music of the American revolution was not fife and drum. It was rock 'n' roll. It is entirely understandable to anyone in the world. That's why Live Aid worked."
Geldof recalled his youth in "cold, damp, gray" Ireland and the personal (which, once he took action by joining a band, inevitably later became social) revolution that occurred when he first heard rock music. His realization, he says, was, "I can use this thing." He saw the music as a tool to change his own circumstances, and then to have a voice in the world.
But it's the nature of that voice that Geldof focused on. What kind of voice, and through what medium will it come? The Internet isn't enough, he said. "We can talk these things through, which is the limitation of the web," he said, salting his impassioned speech in several places with his distaste for blogs and for the ability of anyone to shout their views unmanaged into cyberspace. An increase in the quantity of voices has drowned out those with quality — "Everybody's got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say," Geldof said.
No, blog screeds and even Woody Guthrie-esque didacticism are not going to keep the American cultural revolution alive and growing. For music to have any impact, he said, "it must suggest, not state ... It has to be about society. The revisiting of context is crucial. When rock becomes about the height of the platform boots and the size of one's country manor, it's meaningless." He called rock music a "vivid, livid argument with the constituency," adding, "This thing we call content now is about the conversation society has with itself."
The power of shaping ideas still lies in the music, he said, though finding it and experiencing it has grown more difficult without clear arbiters and filters online. "Where are the Ramones of today, the Sex Pistols?" he asked. "They're out there, but will they be found? That's the point."
To the musicians at SXSW, Geldof pleaded: "Say something to me!" He also encouraged them not to be taken in by the illusion of community offered by the Internet and to realize that "a fan club is more powerful than 6,000 [Facebook] friends." Then he started to get angry, exactly in the way he wanted musicians to be. "I don't hear it! I don't hear that rage! I don't hear the disgust in music" -- and this after a laundry list of injustices, including the Wall Street scandals and the new McCarthyism of Rep. Peter King (whose hypocritical former ties to the IRA brought real color to Geldof's cheeks) -- "and I need to! It doesn't have to be literal. Ideas are shaped in music. That's why music is dangerous, and always has been. Rock 'n' roll is the siren cry of individualism acting together."
Individualism acting together. Nice. Sounds like America to me. And the voice of that collective individualism is still desperately needed throughout the world, Geldof said without even citing the examples of current uprisings through Africa and the Middle East. "We still need you. Still the voice of the American revolution must pound on."
Amusing postscript: In the Q&A that followed, one questioner brought up contemporary outspoken punk bands and focused on Chicago's Rise Against, who Geldof seemed familiar with. But their name is too literal, he complained. "I really don't think pop should be that literal," he said. "I suggest that they ... move to transliterating what they're feeling."
That said, it should be interesting to compare the directness of lyrics on Rise Against's new album, "Endgame" when we finally hear Geldof's new album, "How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell," this spring.
SXSW Thursday: The Strokes fill an amphitheater on autopilot, plus Abigail Washburn, Yelawolf and more
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Ringing in the second full night of music at SXSW, as they rang in the 21st century, New York City's venerated Strokes plodded into a set cherry-picked from their retro-hipster catalog. In the early stages of a tour that appears to be dreadfully duty-bound, supporting the band's first new record in five years, "Angles," these once refreshing rock revivalists played a free concert for a capacity crowd at Austin's Auditorium Shores outdoor amphitheater. (Capacity of the outdoor venue is listed at 20,000; by mid-show, the entrances were closed to incoming fans, some of whom then knocked down the fences to get in.)
While the evening was temperate and breezy, the music wasn't quite the same. Opening the show with a wink-wink choice for this "comeback," singer Julian Casablancas slumped onto his microphone and wheezed, "I want to be forgotten / and I don't want to be reminded / You say, 'Please don't make this harder' / No, I won't yet." But it's not easy listening to a band that sounds so talented and proficient — and so bored. The Strokes' Thursday night set clearly thrilled the mob of fans, but it sounded like "Angels" does — labored, merely capable, not completely forced but close. Bob Geldof in his keynote Thursday morning said, "America, you look exhausted." Case in point: Julian & Co., not exactly a festival band (see last summer's Lollapalooza) playing-by-numbers and trying to determine what cultural contrast existed that made them sound genuinely fresh and exciting a decade ago. In the new single, "Under Cover of Darkness," Casablancas sings, "Everybody's singing the same song for 10 years."
I bolted and hit the west side of downtown to explore some unknowns — the founding purpose of SXSW — before closing the night with some other known quantities ...
Curiosity led me into the ACL Live at the Moody Theater, a new venue attached to the W Hotel and reflective of its clean lines and modern personality. It's a great, three-decked theater, and the band on stage was, I'll say it, smokin'. The New Mastersounds is a quartet with a formidable keyboardist, Joe Tatton, dancing up and down the ivories of a Hammond organ and a Fender Rhodes. The rhythm section is pure New Orleans backline, and singer Eddie Roberts calmly played an intense guitar solo at the end of the set — smiling to himself when he was done because he knew he'd nailed it. Hot funk, and you'd never believe where they're from while you're standing there doing the chicken dance like you're at Mardi Gras. They're from freaking Leeds.
Abigail Washburn, a k a Mrs. Bela Fleck, struggled against the room at Antone's, kicking off a strong night sponsored by the Americana Music Association also featuring Emmylou Harris and the Old 97s. Washburn, an Evanston native, is a crafty clawhammer banjo player, and she leads a very adult and understated Americana quintet that includes upright bass and pedal steel. Washburn's voice is cool and salty, and her songs are supple and slow-building, like little Appalachian operettas — not the best fit for a big beer hall. But she easily steered several songs into brief breakdowns that caused couples to dance and Washburn to try out her clogging while crying, "Eeee-yeah!"
The Austin Music Hall was smoky with a fiery hip-hop bill. Trae the Truth, a Houston collective built around Trae (born Frazier Thompson III), had manic mouths and big beats, rapping about "the South Side" and getting a lot of crowd participation with exchanges like this:
Trae: "You ain't sh-- if you ain't ever been..."
Crowd: "...screwed up!"
Brooklyn's Yelawolf hit the stage with several times that energy, jumping from side to side in his grungy plaid shirt and ridiculous pom-pommed stocking cap. He juiced the crowd while spewing redneck raps that change gears suddenly between regular time, double time and triple time. Born Michael Wayne Atha in Alabama, Yelawolf is signed to Eminem's Shady Records; he sounds like a Southern Shady, but with much less to say. Yelawolf just wants to par-tay. After Trae joined him on stage for some more call-and-response with the crowd — the youngest and across-the-board most diverse I've seen here yet — Yelawolf got introspective for the briefest moment, stalking the stage and talking about a girl who left him "for some Abercrombie motherf---er." Then he started singing, soft and fluttery, "Love is not enough" — before shrieking, "F--- that bitch! I just wanna party!"
More SXSW Thursday: S.O.S. for B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 PM
The first SXSW S.O.S. went out Thursday morning, after Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco — a buzzed favorite on the schedule especially since his controversial "Lasers" album just went No. 1 — canceled his show, as did Cee Lo Green after him, both for undisclosed reasons. They were scheduled headliners at the Atlantic Records showcase at La Zona Rosa, but Atlantic has plenty of hot commodities to choose from right now. The new lineup became: B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae.
B.o.B. impressed me playing the very first set at Lollpalooza last summer in the brutal morning sun, mostly because this 22-year-old from North Carolina is a triple threat: a rapper with flow, a capable singer and a pretty hot guitarist. All three talents we on stage Thursday night, but showing some wear. Two of his biggest singles from last year's "The Adventures of Bobby Ray" are collaborations, and since Rivers Cuomo and Bruno Mars can't follow B.o.B. on tour to sing their melodious parts of "Magic" and "Nothin' on You," respectively, B.o.B. simply plays their tracks and dances while their voices dominate the chorus. He's got a half dozen guys on stage with him; one of them can't fill in for the live concert? When he straps on that guitar, thou, he's hot, as he did to rip through "Don't Let Me Fall" and "Electric."
Wiz Khalifa, whose "Rolling Papers" CD, due March 29, is one of the year's most anticipated, moseyed on stage and filled the interim with a hazy set. Hardly polished, this sub-Snoop Dogg rambled about the stage, looking like a deer in the headlights but raising the temperature of the place with his carefree party raps, mostly along these lines: "If you don't smoke, I don't know why." Surrounded by members of the Taylor Gang, Khalifa ping-pongee back and forth, laughing to himself and transmitting a generally slap-happy vibe, which the crowd picked up on and rolled with. Before closing with his hit "Black and Yellow" (go, Steelers!), he freestyles a tribute to the late Nate Dogg.
Janelle Monae has announced a spring tour with Bruno Mars (May 27 at the Aragon), and just this week announced some dates opening for Katy Perry. But if the public finally latches onto her in a bigger way, she's already prepared to handle her own headline. A tiny thing (the pompadour adds at least half a foot), she proved Thursday night she can command the stage. Backed by a tight eight-piece band, Monae hit the stage in a flowing cape while three dancers in monk robes knelt around her. She quickly went into her thesis, "Dance or Die," moving the crowd with the tight-tight-tight funk (sometimes that rhythm section was even a little overpowering) and prodding their minds with the sci-fi concepts from her fascinating debut album, "The ArchAndroid." Midway through, she cooled things down with a rendition of Judy Garland's "Smile," then brought the show to a close with the hit, "Tightrope," expanded into a Vegas-jazz marathon with about seven endings. Didn't bother those of us who didn't want it to end.
Let's put on a show! Hanson throws together online telethon for Japan earthquake relief at SXSW
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 5:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Hanson returned this year to the festival that made them famous — and then they got all Bob Geldof on us.
The three Oklahoma brothers first came to SXSW 17 years ago, strolling the streets as under-age hopefuls, singing for anyone who would listen (and getting kicked out of the Four Seasons lobby for doing so). One guy did, and the rest is "MMMBop" history. Now grown up, married, each with kids, they look around Austin and Zac, 25, sighs and says, "South-by definitely put a mark on us."
This year, the Hanson guys returned to SXSW to play a showcase — only their second time to do so — in support of last year's spot-on pop-soul record, "Shout It Out," their eighth. But then something else happened. Maybe it was the presence of Geldof, but Hanson decided to whip together, in the span of about two days, a telethon to raise money for the recovery efforts in Japan following the massive earthquake there and subsequent nuclear power threats.
"When we got to South by Southwest, we expected to see more of a unified effort," Zac said Friday afternoon from a makeshift base camp in an office building on North Congress Ave. "It was like, all we've got going is four tables at the convention center? That's not great. ... All these important people are here, from IFC to CNN, arts and culture people who should be talking about this, and no one really was. So yesterday we decided to throw this thing together, and started calling everyone we know to participate."
"And everyone we don't know," added Isaac Hanson.
The result, they hope, is a 12-hour live stream from noon to midnight Saturday, viewed at sxsw4japan.com (a different address from sxsw4japan.org, but related), featuring live and pre-recorded performances and messages from a variety of musicians. It was still early when I spoke with them, but on board a day ahead were Widespread Panic, the Boxer Rebellion, Ben Folds and the Courtyard Hounds.
"Even if we raise $12, we just felt something had to be done -- by someone, and if we could step up and be those people, OK," Zac said. "We don't want to be so jaded and say, 'Well, we helped out with Haiti, and that was pretty recent ...' I've heard people say, 'Well, it's Japan, they've got money.' It didn't seem right."
Money raised through this awareness project will be via text messaging and go directly to the Red Cross.
Hanson will oversee the stream and appear several times. When it's over at midnight, they head to Antone's for an all-ages showcase at 12:30 a.m.
"Live Aid was put together in two weeks," Isaac said. "We can do this in two days." He looked at Zac. A beat. "Right?"
SXSW Friday: Cool Kids, Mac Miller, Yuck, Wild Flag, A Lull
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 11:45 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Chicago's Cool Kids, Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks, show the folks gathered for SXSW just how much the music business has changed. Since popping up in 2007, the talented rap duo has yet to record a proper album. Instead, they've built a sturdy career on blog-loved singles, EPs, mixtapes and remarkably solid performances like their stand Friday night at Austin's La Zona Rosa. They're doing well enough that Mikey Rocks can strut the stage in a red Neiman Marcus tank top and rhyme about his "new pair of shoes," his "ATM credits," how he swaggers around "with a little bit of gold and a pager" and, finally, snorts derisively: "You shop at the mall!" Still there's talk of an album being recorded, but who cares? The crowd was singing and shouting and dancing wildly. Chuck and Mikey brim with confidence, pacing the stage while calmly but firmly delivering their lines — not too wacked-out, but none of that rapid-fire stuff — over rocking beats and minimal electronic sounds. But it's not all about the coin. "They say if you ain't got no money take yo broke ass home," Chuck said in "Basement Party," the closer. "I say if you got you two dollars, then come through to my party."
Next up was a rapper to watch: Mac Miller. Backed by a DJ scratching actual vinyl, this 19-year-old white rapper from Pittsburgh stumbled into his SXSW debut in a grubby sweatshirt and backwards cap looking and acting every bit the stoner guy from "Clueless." "Anyone drunk or f---ed up?" Miller asked the crowd, which roared the affirmative. "Man, there's so much sh-- backstage," he chuckled, smacking his cheek in amazement. Whatever his state of mind, Miller warmed into an engaging and occasionally goofy set of quick rhymes (he tends to rap on the same note for long stretches). He's got flow, but his set doesn't. He stopped after every song to stumble around some more and yammer on about partying and generally being a good-natured doofus. ("I love to party," he said, then added his thesis: "You gotta goof around a little bit." Someone in the audience said no, you don't. He responded, "Well, I do.") Expect to see him on college campuses all year long — or, with his feisty "Nikes on My Feet" ("Lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em / Blue suede shoes stay crispy like bacon"), on a shoe commercial soon.
Earlier in the week, I saw Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, hosts of public radio's "Sound Opinions" show. The subject of Yuck came up — possibly the buzziest of buzz bands at this year's SXSW — and the two instantly broke into their Siskel & Ebert dynamic, with DeRo claiming Yuck was just retreaded shoegaze rock and Kot disagreeing, saying he hears a lot of Pavement. They're each right, depending on the song. Sometimes, as on "Holing Out," the guitars from Yuck's Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom are wonderfully lush and streamlined (kinda shoegazey). Sometimes, as on "Get Away," the melodies take sharp turns and the bass line gets up and runs around the room (kinda Pavementy). In all, it's a pleasant sound that washes over you without leaving behind much sediment. Yuck, a quartet from London, has played here, there and everywhere this week; Friday's showcase at the Kiss & Fly lounge had a line a block long waiting to get in. It's not really worth all that, but it should make for a harmless summer '90s revival.
Those fans should have been in line for Wild Flag. Amazingly, there was no line for the most exciting revival of the night — from Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and currently a co-writer and actor on the buzz-worthy IFC sketch comedy show "Portlandia." Her new supergroup — featuring singer-guitarist Mary Timony (ex-Helium), keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders) and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss — played a rollicking set Friday night, with Brownstein ping-ponging around the stage in a red dress. This is not Sleater-Kinney — it's much more fun. Pop hooks rule, with spirited vocals from the whole band (including a lot of girl-group ooh's and ahh's in the back), and only occasionally (but thankfully) does a darker S-K undertone show up, particularly in Brownstein's guitar breaks, which thrash about in the pop pool making welcome waves. Cole is the band's secret weapon, though, laying down determined organ lines that give Brownstein and Timony a steady something to cling to. A debut disc is due later this year on Merge.
I capped the night next door with Chicago's A Lull, which crammed onto the closet-sized stage at the Bat Bar with four members playing drums. Digging into the most primal corners of rock, A Lull (Nigel Evan Dennis, Todd Miller, Ashwin Deepankar, Aaron Vinceland and Mike Brown) has released recordings that utilize any available sound they think hits hardest, including hitting drums with microphones and beating things against a wall. Friday's showcase was less destructive physically, but pretty pummeling otherwise. With two drummers, a bassist also occasionally hitting drums and a bongo, a guitarist with drums and a xylophone, and a singer lurching over repeating keyboard whims, A Lull was hardly a pause in anything. But the pounding compositions possess shape and texture and bode well for their full-length album, "Confetti," due April 12.
'American Idol's Crystal Bowersox plays lively SXSW showcase with John Popper
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 1:07 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — The way "American Idol" runner-up Crystal Bowersox and Blues Traveler frontman John Popper were getting along on stage at SXSW, you'd think they'd been BFFs for a long time. But they met just 30 minutes before the show.
Bowersox explained that she had contacted Popper online via a mutual friend (see below for geeked-out backstory) and asked the harmonica virtuoso to play during one song at her showcase Friday night in the Victorian Ballroom of Austin's Driskill Hotel. Popper wound up playing the whole set with Bowersox and her country-rock band.
The two played off each other nicely — Bowersox's acoustic strumming and strong, soulful voice balanced by Popper's high-pitched harp solos. Sometimes Popper (in town with his own band, John Popper & the Duskray Troubadours) went a bit too far, egged on by the applause, and threatened to overshadow Bowersox's first SXSW spotlight. As great a player as he is, he's never one for playing few notes or leaving the slightest space between them. But he added to a rich performance, seeming to enliven mandolin player Charlie King, bassist Frankie May and, for "Mason," Bowersox's husband Brian Walker.
Bowersox, who lives in Chicago, sang and played like a veteran, clearly in command of the band. Each player watched her for cues and chords, as she fearlessly played a set that included carefully constructed folk-pop like "Mine All Mine" and revved-up soul-rockers like "On the Run" and "Kiss Ya." All original, too, thank heavens. Her "Idol" experience is well on the way to becoming a footnote in her bio. "You might know me from a certain television show," she said early in the set. "... 'Extreme Makeover.'"
The show turned into as much a comedy set as a musical one, with Bowersox and Popper veering into a bizarre, slap-happy run of poop jokes. It began when Walker joined her on stage for "Mason," their wedding song, wearing a white shirt and jeans. Bowersox wore the same combo, and she quipped, "Even our poop is starting to smell the same." The scatological humor kept on throughout the set. Backstage afterward, Popper said, "I've never met another singer with such soul and fecal humor."
When will Bowersox finally play a full gig in Chicago again? She didn't know. She and Walker live on the North Side. Walker, however, plays April 7 at the Bottom Lounge, and she'll be backing him up.
** How Crystal met John: If you watch "American Idol" closely, you might have heard Bowersox say something odd during a post-performance interview during the finals in May 2010. She said, "Meow is the time." It was a bet, she said, between her and a friend, Steve Lemme, an actor who was in the 2001 comedy "Super Troopers." In that movie, Lemme's character, State Trooper MacIntyre Womack, is wagered by his buddy to say the word "meow" 10 times during a traffic stop. "Meow is the time" counted as one. Lemme also knows Popper. Bowersox made the original connection online via Lemme. When she hit Austin on Friday, she texted Popper and he came right to the venue. It's a small festival, after all.
Kanye West, Jay-Z, John Legend and more party late into the night for SXSW diversion
By Thomas Conner on March 20, 2011 12:28 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A rare, full "super moon" shone over the Texas capital Saturday night, but only one music star was big enough to eclipse not only that but nearly all of the annual South by Southwest music conference and festival: Kanye West.
Announced via a cryptic online video weeks before SXSW (with the audience enticed via a Twitter/texting RSVP, which the sponsoring company admitted failed terribly, with hundreds turned away) West hogged the spotlight on the festival's final night and set up shop in an unusual venue, a decommissioned downtown power plant. By early Saturday morning, fans were already lined up for the midnight show; at showtime, a mob of ticketless fans mashed the barricades outside, hoping to get in. The venue's capacity is just over 2,000; the event guest list received more than 10,000 requests in its first hour.
From 1 to 4 a.m., West trotted much of the roster of his G.O.O.D. record label across the stage, including Mos Def (who was surprisingly basic and dull), Pusha T (his "Fear of God" mixtape is due Monday) and Kid Cudi (a crowd favorite and a snappy dancer). Most blended in, one after the next, except the arresting Cyhi Da Prince (whose crazy-fast rhymes were paired with the masked Mad Violinist for "Sideways") and the aberrant Mr. Hudson (a bleach-blond white singer who sounds like Midge Ure and covered Alphaville's "Forever Young"). The concert was filmed for an online broadcast scheduled for April 22 — Good Friday.
West himself slipped on stage without pomp and launched a set that swung between brilliant and boring.
Fiery as he is — and certainly was in hot flashes during "Gorgeous" and "Hell of a Life" — the concert benefited most when he added extra theater, such as the cymbal-flipping marching band that joined him (a la "Tusk") during "All of the Lights," John Legend leavening the mood with elegant piano playing (first during "Christian Dior Denim Flow" and "Blame Game," then for his own "Ordinary People") and the big-guns set of the night — Jay-Z showing up for six of the set's 19 songs. When Jay-Z is on stage, Kanye actually looks humbled, standing there with not much to do while Hova roared through "Big Pimpin'." Alas, no announcement of a release date for or even the status of the pair's teased collaboration album, "Watch the Throne."
Ultimately, though, this concert merely crashed the party. Assembled and promoted by an online video service, not the festival itself, West's parade of salesmanship only managed to draw a crowd away from aspiring bands that came to SXSW, one of the few opportunities they have to possibly be heard without the ruckus of Kanye-sized competition.
Kanye & Co.'s set list Sunday morning: "Dark Fantasy," "Gorgeous," "Hell of a Life," "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Christian Dior Denim Flow" (with John Legend), "Blame Game" (with John Legend), "Ordinary People" (John Legend), "Power," "Say You Will," "Runaway," "All of the Lights" (with marching band), "H.A.M." (with Jay-Z), "Monster" (with Jay-Z), "Swagga Like Us"(with Jay-Z, but cut short when Kanye laughed and confessed, "I forgot that thing"), "PSA" (Jay-Z), "So Appalled"(with Jay-Z), "Big Pimpin'" (Jay-Z), "Lost in the World" (with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon), "Good Life" (with the G.O.O.D. crew).
Violence and crowd control problems cause SXSW to consider limiting events
By Thomas Conner on March 21, 2011 1:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Injuries and incidents of violence pockmarked this year's SXSW music festival in the Texas capital, causing organizers to consider scaling some things back for 2012.
At a 1 a.m. Saturday show by '80s pop band OMD, a camera boom broke and fell into the crowd. Four people were taken to the hospital with moderate injuries.
SXSW director Roland Swenson called the accident "disheartening" and added, "This is our 25th year, and we've never had anyone permanently injured."
On Friday night, Chicago pop-punk band Screeching Weasel's show in east Austin was cut short when singer Ben Weasel (Ben Foster), after lengthy diatribes between songs and some taunting of the audience, ended up in a brawl after someone threw an ice cube that hit him in the eye.
Crowd control was a problem at several concerts.
Late Saturday night, a throng of fans unable to get inside pressed against an alley fence at the venue where reunited Canadian noise-rock band Death From Above 1979 was playing. Eventually, the fence was pushed down, "inciting a mini riot" according to the venue.
"Some kid came over the top [of the fence], as soon as he came over the top the fence kind of went and everybody started coming in," the bar owner said.
Police on horseback intervened and cleared the alley, allowing the show to continue.
Thursday evening, the Strokes filled the downtown Auditorium Shores amphitheater to its 20,000-person capacity. When the gates were closed to any new concertgoers, several climbed the fence and jumped off the tops of portable toilets to get in. Minor injuries were reported.
Late Saturday night, crowds mobbed an unusual downtown venue, a decommissioned power plant, where Kanye West had scheduled a midnight show.
This concert was not an official SXSW event, and it was free — to anyone who saw a tweeted promotion and RSVP'd via text message to the concert's organizer, the online video service Vevo. The company reports receiving 15,000 texts within the first two minutes after announcing the show. Capacity at the venue was 2,500.
Things soured when several thousand people who had received text messages saying they would be admitted to the show then received a second message apologizing and adding that they did not have a ticket, after all. Vevo issued a public apology, admitting "we missed this up" and saying they were "asked by the Austin Police Department" to limit the size of the crowd. (Kanye himself was uninvited to a fashion show earlier in the week.)
Despite that — and the fact that entry would be granted only to those with a confirmed RSVP or other VIP access — fans began lining up outside the venue early Saturday morning. Crowd control, I can tell you, was poorly planned and managed, with hundreds of hopeful and some angry fans pressing against a barricade demanding entry and shouting at police and security personnel.
MTV reports a spokesperson for SXSW says the festival will reexamine its approach to free events, "which appear to have reached critical mass," plus Austin city officials plan to limit permits next year for free shows.
In the video below from Austin's KXAN, Swenson attributed the restive attitude at some events this year on too many free events, which "attract an element of people who are troublemakers."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The documentary begins with a lot of people calling him America's greatest composer. And these are frumpy, serious-looking people, with pianos and bookshelves behind them. Clearly, they should know. It's Gershwin, right? Copland?
No, it's — gulp — a jazz man: Billy Strayhorn. And it's OK if you've never heard of him.
Actually, it's not OK, but it is understandable. He never got much credit. Never sought it, really, at least not until it was too late. But as Duke Ellington's right-hand man for 29 years, Billy Strayhorn created some of the most beguiling and innovative music the world (certainly the jazz world) has ever heard, from songs such as "Lush Life" and "Take the 'A' Train" to innovative and challenging soundtracks.
"Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life," a film by Robert Levi premiering tonight as part of PBS' "Independent Lens" series, approaches the subject with the intent of proving that the real talent in this pair was Strayhorn's. Plenty of ex-Ellington band members are on camera vouching for Ellington's powerful persuasion, if not outright manipulation, and calling him "the king of all bullsh—-ers."
But Strayhorn produced many such revelatory moments at Ellington's side. They completed each other's thoughts, finished each other's musical sentences. As a result — and because Strayhorn never pursued, and Ellington rarely gave him, writing credit — it's impossible to tell where Strayhorn's contributions end and the Ellingtonia begins.
Which leads Levi to wonder: Did Ellington take advantage of Strayhorn? The film can't nail down an answer, but it offers plenty of circumstantial evidence. Strayhorn was openly gay in the homophobic '40s; add that to his shyness, and it surely would have been easy to keep him in the background.
Which is where he is throughout the film. In photos and grainy footage, Ellington is always downstage, in focus, talking or leading the band; Strayhorn is always upstage, in soft focus, over someone's shoulder, silent.
In the end, Strayhorn was more a victim of his own poor business dealings. He never worked with a contract, never took a salary (only occasional cash draws). It's not a story unique to Strayhorn; many talented writers and musicians were taken advantage of in the days before copyright law solidified.
What is unique by the end of the film is the depth and range of Strayhorn's talent — his obviously inherent genius. And any way that's brought to light is a good thing.
'BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE'
10 tonight on WTTW-Channel 11.
Soundtrack CD offers music uninterrupted
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
As with many music documentaries, "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life" spends more time filming people talking about music than people playing it. Just as a combo begins one of Strayhorn's allegedly genius works, authors and experts began yapping over it. We're asked to take people's word for the music's greatness instead of hearing and judging for ourselves.
Fortunately, there's a soundtrack. The combos merely glimpsed in the film are whole on the CD "Lush Life: The Untold Story of Billy Strayhorn" ★★, available via Blue Note Records.
'Battlestar' shines in a sad universe
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Perhaps you, too, have condemned the lack of new ideas coming out of Hollywood in recent years (or decades). The endless sequels. Ghastly remakes. Movies that turn into stage musicals and then back into movie musicals.
But one corporate rehash actually hit the bull's-eye. The Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" not only improved on its original source material, it made it forgettable. People have even stopped mentioning the original 1979 series when discussing the current edition. I regret having brought it up now. Forget I said anything. There was no original show.
For sheer hot science friction, Sci Fi's "Battlestar Galactica" rivals ABC's "Lost." As both shows enter their third seasons this week, there are easy comparisons, not the least of which is that neither suffered a sophomore slump, and both still appear to have endless source material from which to spin creepy, conspiratorial dramas.
In fact, "Galactica" could hang on far longer than "Lost." Its Odyssian tale is a thousand times more universal than ABC's sadistic experiment. Season 3 of "Galactica" opens with timeless (and, given current world affairs, possibly timely) issues.
The humans ran from the insidious Cylons — manmade machines that rebeled, evolved into flesh-and-blood models and now want to make babies — and thought they'd found a hidey hole on a distant planet. Season 2 ended with the Cylons showing up and offering a truce.
Make that "truce." As with any dominant power offering to shepherd a weaker one (think Saddam and his Iraqis, Hitler and his Jews), the assurances don't go far when the barbed wire is unstrung. Season 3 finds an active human resistance at work. Cylon squads are "disappearing" innocent people (including the feisty Starbuck, whose cell mate is one highly twisted Cylon with a biological clock). Humans are recruited to police their own kind, and the word "collaborator" becomes an epithet.
Enhancing its populist approach, the new season brings side characters to the fore, making the crusty Col. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) into the series' most engaging and complex individual. Leading the resistance fighters, he has to make some hard choices, and his vision becomes compromised. (That's a crude joke, really.) While the Adamas — Cmdr. Lee (the normally hunky Jamie Bamber, whose softened character wears an unfortunate fat suit) and Adm. William (Edward James Olmos, whose part seems alarmingly diminished in the premiere) — are light years away from figuring out how (or whether) to rescue their brethren, the people on the ground face the religiously fanatic Cylons head on.
But what's encouraging is that once the two-part premiere passes and the dust from its action settles, the show digs right into fresh ground in the third show on Oct. 20. Lines between good guys and bad are further blurred, and still everyone blathers on about having kids. But with a new twist.
It beats the hell out of ABC's seemingly endless tropical weirdness. When you give up on that mind game — who's the lab rat in that show: the characters or the viewers? — climb aboard "Galactica." They need the population, literally and figuratively. If TV made more shows like this, all would not be lost.
8 to 10 tonight, then 8 to 9 p.m. on future Fridays on the Sci Fi Channel.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
New Year's Eve, 1976, and the set of "Match Game" was its usual loony cocktail party. The New Year was always festive on this set, as "Match Game '73" was rechristened "Match Game '74" and so on, with reliably cheesy pageantry, until '79.
This episode opened with a gaudy fake bird, a bicentennial eagle, floating overhead and dropping an egg with the new '77 logo on it. Later, co-producer Mark Goodson made a rare appearance, asking host Gene Rayburn to read a special question for the celebrity panelists. Rayburn read, in the typical corn-pone style of the hit game show's questions: "Old Man Goodson said, 'By the time it gets to be "Match Game '99," I'll need a new BLANK.'"
Rayburn died in 1999, but even then "Match Game" was still filling in blanks on TV schedules. That is, the star-studded game show had been reincarnated half a dozen times, and for the last several years its classic '70s version has been a fixture of cable's Game Show Network. Today, the network is moving the show's reruns back to the fore of its late-night block — that's the "Daily Show" and Adult Swim hour — with two episodes starting at 10 p.m. weeknights.
The show's endurance is impressive given that "game show" these days is starting to mean reality-TV gladiator gaffe-fests. Even the Game Show Network now calls itself GSN, shying away from the original implication as its programming fills with reality reruns and new shows that aren't games at all, such as "Anything to Win," a documentary series about "the competitive spirit" debuting Jan. 10. Slipping away is the ding-ding-ding of the game show bell, and all that's left are a bunch of ding-a-lings.
"But 'Match Game' has always been a staple on our network," said Lou Fazio, GSN's vice president of programming and acquisitions, this weekend. "We've talked a lot about this in meetings, about the uniqueness of this show compared to other game shows. It's the casualness or looseness to the format, the camaraderie and the banter. You watch a couple of episodes and you notice they don't always finish the game, they'll let the game spill over into the next episode. Because the natural comedy aspect to it — Charles [Nelson Reilly] and Brett [Somers] busting each other's chops, mainly — is what's entertaining."
Indeed, "Match Game" is perhaps the only game show in which the game itself is irrelevant. Who cares if anyone wins? The contestants are distractions, unwitting straight players to a panel of sodden cut-ups. You tune in to watch the B- and C-list "celebrities" crack one another up with vaudevillian nyuk-nyuks and occasionally risque (for the '70s) camp. You watch to see what ludicrous outfit Reilly wears while deadpanning and puffing on his pipe. You watch to see just how far Richard Dawson can mack on a woman — contestant, co-star, crew, it didn't matter — in the era before finely tuned sexual harassment litigation. You watch to see these people smoking like stacks and sometimes joking openly about the well-stocked backstage bar. It's the surreality of encamped celebrity, decades before "The Surreal Life."
"Everyone on the show was just so likeable," said Rich Prouty, host of the weekly "Improv Match Game" at IO (formerly ImprovOlympic), 3541 N. Clark. "And they all seemed to like each other. They were having a great time. They're just friends hanging out, doing bits, laughing a lot — at and with each other. It's infectious."
In fact, three years ago, Prouty decided to launch his own version of the show. "I figured with Second City and 'Mad TV' and 'SNL' people around, I had the exact same caliber of panelists they had for the TV show, right here," he said.
He had a successful eight-week run in 2002, and when the smaller theater at IO came available on Monday nights late in 2004, he started an open run of the "Improv Match Game" with local panelists. The show — 10:30 p.m. Mondays (including tonight), free admission — observed its first anniversary last week.
"I try to keep three or four of the panelists as regulars, because that was kind of the key to the TV show," Prouty said. "That way, the majority of people know each other, they're comfortable enough to poke fun at each other, take jabs. They made fun of Charles Nelson Reilly's toupee, and kidded Brett about being old. That was the comedy."
That's the allure of this chestnut game show. It's not a game, it's a living room full of very funny friends. "This isn't a job, it's a social engagement," Reilly once quipped about his top-tier "Match Game" gig.
And what's a little sexism between friends? The show that traded in double entendres often showed its Freudian slips. In one of his more notorious goofs, Rayburn was introducing two contestants, one of whom was a woman with a perky smile and adorable dimples. Rayburn, however, attempted to remark on those dimples, but it came out, "Doesn't she have nice nipples?" Censors, schmensors.
'Legends' needs less pomp, more pizzazz
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
"Legends of Jazz: the Jazz Masters"
9 tonight on WTTW-Channel 11
The producers of "Legends of Jazz: The Jazz Masters" claim that their hourlong special — airing tonight and heralding a new half-hour series, "Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis," starting in January — is the first jazz show on network television in 40 years.
The last one was the syndicated "Jazz Scene U.S.A.," hosted by Chicago's own soul-jazz master, the late Oscar Brown Jr. This new incarnation follows a similar interviews-and-performances format, and while it's wonderful and important to have a jazz showcase back on the public airwaves, this first "Legends of Jazz" outing looks as if its primary audience will be people old enough to remember "Jazz Scene U.S.A."
"Legends of Jazz: The Jazz Masters" airs on PBS — and it's very PBS. It's reserved, stately and moving at the pace of peanut butter. Chicago-based jazz figurehead Ramsey Lewis hosts (and also will host the 13-episode series), leading soft-toned conversations with the guests, and is so genteel and pleasant as to almost disappear.
The special spotlights five pillars in the jazz community, each of them a current or previous recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts' Jazz Masters award: vocalist Nancy Wilson, saxophone player James Moody, singer Jon Hendricks, Latin jazz player Paquito D'Rivera and Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein. Each is the primary focus of conversation breaks between stellar performances from Wilson (an amazing reading of "God Bless the Child"), Moody, Hendricks and Rivera, and each of those conversations, while containing the occasional amusing story or fascinating tidbit (Moody's recollections are pretty interesting), still feels like having dinner with grandparents.
And that particular generational perspective is a valid point here, chiefly because after nearly an hour of remembering the good old days, "Legends of Jazz" tries to end on a positive, life-affirming note for jazz music by trotting out — squeeze Grandma's hand here — an actual young person! Who sings a jazz standard! And likes it! Renee Olstead sings "Taking a Chance on Love," and yes, she's an amazing talent — a high school sophomore, star of the CBS sitcom "Still Standing," and a sinusy voice like Diane Schuur's.
But a young girl singing old songs is hardly the salvation of jazz. A prop for its nostalgia, maybe, but if, as Moody says, shows like this will help "keep jazz alive," "Legends" should try to include today's more energetic expressions of jazz (try the Necks, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, heck, even Jamie Cullum). Otherwise, the youth they say is so important to the music's future will forever view jazz as a musty old PBS relic.
'Enterprise' lands with thud after four years as the weakest link in the 'Star Trek' chain
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
'Star Trek: Enterprise'
When: 8 p.m. Friday, WPWR-Channel 50
Starring: Scott Bakula, Connor Trinneer, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Jolene Blalock, Jeffrey Combs
When "Star Trek: Enterprise" debuted four years ago as the fifth prime-time incarnation of the venerable sci-fi franchise, trouble was evident in the first few minutes: The opening theme was a Diane Warren song.
The blockbuster songwriter — who's penned huge hits for Celene Dion, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Michael Botlon, even (shudder) Milli Vanilli — wrote "Faith of the Heart," which plays over the opening credits along with images of humankind's various achievements in exploration, from the H.M.S. Enterprise to the international space station to the starship Enterprise. The lyrics are typical Warren treacle, full of horrid cliches and vague hopes, promising "a change in the wind" and a chorus questioning "where my heart will take me," whatever that means.
And that's exactly what doomed "Enterprise" three seasons earlier than its "Trek" predecessors ("The Next Generation," "Voyager" and "Deep Space Nine"): We were never offered anything for our hearts — or even our heads — to have faith in.
That shortcoming remains crystalline-entity clear in the series finale of UPN's "Enterprise," airing in a two-part episode beginning at 8 p.m. Friday on WPWR-Channel 50. While other "Trek" franchises have ended with poignant, grand gestures, "Enterprise" wraps up with a whimper as one character — resurrected from another series — attempts to rediscover his own "faith of the heart."
Recognizing that none of the characters in "Enterprise" were ever interesting enough to carry such a weighty episode on their own (a fault of the show's indecisive writing, not of the actors' genuinely engaging performances), franchise curators Rick Berman and Brannon Braga jettison their creation by bringing back a couple of reliable "Trek" heavyweights. The "Enterprise" finale focuses on a dilemma faced by Cmdr. William Riker (the stalwart and sensitive Jonathan Frakes) during a particular episode of "The Next Generation." As he struggles with a decision — he's questioning who to place his faith in — he seeks the usually useless counsel of Troi (Marina Sirtis) and uses the holodeck (a virtual-reality playpen that's been indispensable throughout the franchise) to investigate what happened when the first Enterprise crew wrapped up its service.
Premise was brotherhood
In typical time-bending fashion, this last "Enterprise" event takes place six years in the future, as Earth prepares to join 18 other planets in an alliance called the United Federation of Planets. This Space Age telescoping of the United Nations was series creator Gene Rodenberry's institutionalized notion of universal (literally) brotherhood. It was the source of the core values for each series, namely the "prime directive" (basically: don't speak to another species unless spoken to). "Enterprise" was supposed to be laying the foundation for that great achievement, making a case for how and why humanity established itself as the hub of intergalactic peace and harmony.
Four years of "Enterprise," however, have only shown us a bunch of sleekly uniformed humans covering their own butts. Midway through the series, the story line suddenly shifted radically, a painfully obvious reaction to plummeting ratings and UPN execs crying, "Give us an enemy! We need a Borg! Pander! Pander!" (This was also about the time they added rock guitars to Warren's opening theme, giving a mild edge to the sappy tune.)
In the first season, there was a nebulous, uncertain threat from a time-traveling shadow figure with a spooky deep voice who only appeared occasionally; by the third season the time-traveling was completely abandoned (whither the Suliban?) for a protracted battle against a faraway species called the Xindi who were — for some reason, never quite clear — building a Death Star-type weapon, which they intended to schlepp halfway across the galaxy in order to obliterate Earth. An entire season-and-a-half was wasted on this save-the-planet cliche, the conclusion of which was almost entirely implied — and then the Xindi were never mentioned again. It's as if Mr. Nielsen himself were producing the scripts.
They're only human
Mixed in there was the occasional comic relief (John Billingsley as Dr. Phlox has been an underappreciated treasure) and the inevitable, laughably subdued sexual tension (Braga's trademark distracting influence). We humans bickered with the Vulcans, debated with the Xindi and argued with the Andorians. Our motives always seemed more selfish than selfless.
So it's no surprise that this finale fast-forwards several years to the historic moment of unity. We're to assume that eventually the Enterprise crew tapped into some altruism and leadership, and that humanity became worthy of founding the grand and glorious Federation.
Add to this failure the natural incongruity of a prequel made more than 30 years and countless special-effects advancements after its origin, and it's really no wonder the audience boldly went. George Lucas has struggled with this same quandary in his "Star Wars" prequels. It's asking a lot of any audience to look at the stunning effects of recent "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" productions and reconcile them with the cardboard sets and bad blue screens of the originals. Really, I mean, look at that fancy, techno-savvy bridge on "Enterprise" — they went from that to the featureless set James T. Kirk stalked in the '60s?
That's a lot of disbelief to suspend.
"Enterprise" tries to be arch with several in-jokes throughout this episode — "Here's to the next generation," Capt. Archer (Scott Bakula) salutes over a glass of scotch — but even those can't overcome the purely pointless plot. The Andorian Shran returns (he's not dead, after all, but don't expect a satisfying explanation), and he needs the crew's help to save his daughter, who's been kidnapped by ... no one in particular. So that's the last mission of the first starship Enterprise: getting all Kojak on some nameless space thugs. One of the Enterprise crew dies, too — in the most anticlimactic and dramatically pointless death in the history of the franchise.
It's a deflation of, not a triumphant conclusion to, the series and the bandwagon — for a while, anyway. In the end, of course, Riker learns to have faith in the right person (we've already seen it play out in "The Next Generation"), but the first Enterprise crew scatters with little evidence of where their hearts will take them. So much for boldness in going.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Loni Anderson has discovered the fountain of youth. It's
a delicate mixture of equal parts reruns and fan mail.
" 'WKRP' has been running somewhere in the world since it
went off the air in 1982, and I still get fan mail from all
over the world. I'm getting tons from Germany right now, so
it must be on over there. Some people don't realize how old
the show is, how long ago it went off the air. Little kids
write to me saying, 'I know you're older — you must be 20 --
but will you wait for me?,' " Anderson said in an interview
"I love that kind of fan mail."
The TV show that made Anderson a star, "WKRP in
Cincinnati," begins its run on Nick at Nite this week. The
network launches the reruns with a five-day, 40-episode
marathon beginning Monday night, unofficially enshrining
the show as a classic in Nick at Nite's virtual on-air
television hall of fame.
The marathon will run each night this week from 8 p.m.
to midnight on Tulsa cable channel 33 and will be hosted by
Anderson, who played clever receptionist Jennifer Marlowe,
and her "WKRP" co-star, Howard Hesseman, who played the
incorrigible DJ Dr. Johnny Fever. Anderson said she's
enjoyed seeing the show brought back into the limelight,
though the series is no stranger to rerun ratings routs.
The show ran for four seasons, '78-'82, and actually became
more popular in syndication. Executives at CBS realized the
mistake of canceling the show when reruns of "WKRP" topped
Monday Night Football a year later.
"I'd forgotten a lot of it — and how funny it was,"
Anderson said. "I laughed out loud, which to me is the true
test of a comedy."
"WKRP" was a smart sitcom set in a struggling Cincinnati
radio station, which makes the abrupt format shift from
elevator music to Top 40 rock 'n' roll. Though the music
the on-air DJs are spinning is now called "classic" rock,
Anderson said there's plenty for new viewers — like the
young'uns writing her fan mail — to enjoy. "It's not
dated at all," she said. "That's the interesting thing about
the show. Hugh (Wilson, the show's creator) was so into
comedy coming out of character and story rather than a
referral joke to what's going on in the world at the time.
The comedy comes out of the story and never gets old."
Anderson almost turned down the role of Jennifer. She
had come to Hollywood from her native Minnesota at the
urging of actor Pat O'Brien (who later played one of
Jennifer's elderly beaus in the episode "Jennifer and the
Will," airing Friday night). At the time, she was married to
Ross Bickell, who was called back several times for the
role of WKRP programming director Andy Travis.
"He had the script with him, and I kept getting calls to
go in for the part of Jennifer. But I didn't want it. I
thought the part was window dressing," Anderson said. "It was
not the way I wanted to go, especially since I had just
decided to go blonde. Finally, my agent said, 'There's only
so many times you can tell MTM (Mary Tyler Moore's
production company) you're not interested, so I went in to
"I was doing an episode of 'Three's Company' at the time
('Coffee, Tea or Jack?'), so they told me to come in on
Saturday. I got out my soapbox to tell them how much I
didn't like this character. I did my speech, and Grant
Tinker asked me, 'How would you do it then?' I said I think
she should be sarcastic and atypical. He said, 'So do it
that way.' But it wasn't written that way, and I cried all
the way home thinking I was terrible.
"On Monday they offered me the part. Hugh said, 'I
promise, if this pilot sells, you'll change.' And he kept
his word. You can see the change from 'Pilot Part I' to
'Pilot Part II.' In the first part, I'm sticking my chest
in Andy's face and calling Carlson (station manager, played
by Gordon Jump) a jerk. Later, Carlson became my baby, and
Jennifer became a real person."
That was one of many battles Anderson would have to
fight in Hollywood over the stereotype of the dumb blonde --
ironic since Anderson was a natural brunette until moving
"Before you even open your mouth, there's a look that
happens. I didn't have to deal with that as a brunette, and
it was very new. I made sure to do talk shows so people
would see more than just the outside of me," Anderson said.
Not that Anderson couldn't play a dumb blonde quite
well. In the episode "The Consultant" (airing Friday night),
the staff of WKRP reverses roles to foil a radio consultant
with ulterior motives. Jennifer pretends she's the classic
"I was so intent on not letting anyone know I could do a
dumb blonde voice. I used it a lot when I was a brunette,
but it was never a problem. After I went blonde, I didn't
do it anymore. But I was sitting on the set one day, and
someone made a comment, and I did the voice. Hugh said,
'Did that come from you?' I said yes, and he said, 'We have
to do a show where you can use that,' " Anderson said.
Anderson has played a variety of characters since "WKRP"
went to static, most recently being the mother to the
brothers in "Night at the Roxbury" and mother to Pamela
Anderson in UPN's "V.I.P." Still, she remembers that
first TV role most fondly.
"We were such a family," she said of her "WKRP" co-stars. "We
had all worked, but none of us had had much celebrity
status before that, so it was a beginning, and beginnings
are always spectacular. You always remember your first
kiss, to have this be such a wonderful experience — well, we
were very lucky."
After this week's introductory marathon, all 90 episodes
of "WKRP in Cincinnati" will air in sequence at 11 p.m. on
Nick at Nite.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
For those who found Seinfeld's take on the existential
nothingness a bit too tony and smug (they wound up in jail --
how poetically just), MTV offers "The Sifl and Olly Show." A
late-night offering since its debut in July, "The Sifl and
Olly Show" hit prime-time last week. It now airs each
weekday evening at 6:30 p.m. on MTV, cable Channel 42.
(Fellow night-owls, rest easy — it repeats at midnight.)
Like "Seinfeld," this show is about absolutely nothing.
Sifl and Olly stand at a microphone and chat about whatever
bizarre things are running through their stoned little
minds — arguing about Cars songs, discussing the aesthetic
properties of waffles, breaking into song about Claire
Daines. It's not as much a retooling of "Beavis and Butthead"
as it is a lo-fi knock-off inspired by "Fernwood Tonight."
Both hosts have the same command of the loopy, making a
seemingly safe little chat show into something wholly bent
and bizarre. Their banter and double-take exchanges make
for hilarious TV.
It's the songs that make or break each episode, too.
It's on MTV because Sifl and Olly come from a genuine rock
'n' roll perspective. Even though they can't really carry a
tune, their spark and spunk wins every time.
Not bad for a couple of sock puppets.
Yep, Sifl and Olly are sock puppets. It's come to this.
The move to prime time doesn't mean new episodes have
been added — those come in January — but the first-season
rotation lasts a while and is full of yuks.
For those willing to surrender a bit of intelligence for
half an hour (think about the other TV programs you watch
before answering that), here's a quick guide to watching
"The Sifl and Olly Show":
Settle in. Whether watching the prime time or late-night
broadcast, it's a good time for a snack. Especially if you
have the munchies, in which case you're more likely to dig
Don't sing along to the theme song. As you'll see in one
show, the singing of the show's repetitive theme attracts
vicious bear attacks.
Wagering. Odds that Chester actually will introduce Sifl
and Olly are about 5-3 against. Odds he'll simply walk off
when given his cue are about 50-50.
Who's who. Sifl is on the left, the gray one. He's
fairly cool and laid-back when not lying about his
relationship with MTV News anchor Serena Altschul. He
provides a fitting contrast to Olly, on the right, who's a
bit excitable, particularly when hawking questionable
Polite conversation. After being introduced — or not --
Sifl and Olly will chat a bit, welcoming folks to the show.
There will be another few moments like this later, as if
the camera catches them having a rather bizarre personal
conversation. Whether you figure out what exactly they're
talking about is irrelevant.
Backdrops. Sifl and Olly are "standing" in front of a blue
screen, so various images and scenes are sometime projected
behind them. Be prepared for anything, from twirling skulls
to the surface of a waffle slowly oozing with syrup.
Interview time. Each show features two interviews with
some other sock puppet character. This is why they can call
their show a "talk show." Each interview is prefaced by a
graphic with a spinning, computer-generated skeleton which,
as one fan web site observed, may "symbolize the serious,
in-depth questions Sifl and Olly will ask that get to the
deep inner-workings of the guest."
Not quite. If the interview doesn't collapse entirely
due to a poorly chosen subject or our hosts' inept
interviewing skills, it inevitably backfires on them. Past
guests have included an orgasm (with his runt pal, G-Spot),
an atom on the comb of Elvis Presley, a woman named Sex
Girl, a psychedelic mushroom, the Grim Reaper ("I'm from
Montreal. I'm a French-Canadian") and the planet Mars.
Rock Facts. Each show is peppered with trivia questions
about rock stars. They're all bogus, though they provide
another opportunity for wagering: odds that a Rock Fact
will have something to do with Bjork are about 3-1.
"Calls From the Public." Sifl and Olly take calls from
their fellow sock-puppet public. Somehow, simply by yelling
into the phone, other sock puppet characters can be heard
AND seen by Sifl and Olly. Thus, we get to meet many
amusing locals, from a scary S/M duo threatening to beat up
Sifl to someone trying to sell our hosts some legless dogs.
Their landlord frequently calls to complain, as well; it
seems the Sifl and Olly home is amok with monkeys and water
Don't buy anything. Sifl and Olly are spokes-socks for
the Precious Roy Home Shopping Network, an enterprise in
dire need of investigation. Olly becomes particularly
exasperated when pitching products — such as scarehookers
(fake pimps to keep hookers away), Insta-Jerky (a chemical
that turns anything into edible jerky) and pirate beavers
(specially raised rodents trained to attack wooden legs of
threatening pirates) — and he sometimes must be sedated.
Performance. Art? Occasionally during a show and always
at the end, Sifl and Olly sing a song. Sometimes it's a
cover (their on-the-road version of the Cars' "Just What I
Needed" is priceless, as is their adorably spooky take on
"Don't Fear the Reaper"), more often it's an original tune
about something trivial and strange — how we deal with
stress, Claire Danes, marrying a vegetable, Claire Danes,
hiding in a cabinet or Claire Danes. The music is
sub-karaoke and neither of them can sing, but if you've
held out this long you've already been won over by their
And what exactly is Chester? You're right, he's not a
sock puppet. He is a mold turned inside out. In particular,
he is a mold from which small, plastic Buddha statues are
Watch in good spirits and remember — that whirring noise
you hear is Edward R. Murrow spinning in his grave.
Big Bird, Big Ideas
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Prior to his upcoming visit to Tulsa, and his appearance in
"Sesame Street Live: Let's Play School,'' America's favorite bird,
Big Bird, stopped to answer a few questions about his life and
times. The Tulsa World spoke with Big Bird on March 20 — his
birthday. Here's a report of the, er, fowl language:
Tulsa World: How old are you today?
Big Bird: 6 years old. I don't think I look a day over 5, do you?
TW: How long have you been 6 years old?
BB: Longer than I have fingers to count.
TW: You have fingers?
BB: I'm luckier than most birds.
TW: What's your secret of staying so young?
BB: Living in my fantasy world. I'm a part of a fictitious
world where nothing changes. Plus, constant maintenance and grooming.
TW: What species of bird are you?
BB: That has never been figured out. Maybe sort of a stretch
canary. I'm synonymous with all birds.
TW: Can you fly?
BB: No. But I have high-flying dreams.
TW: What is your natural habitat?
BB: My nest on Sesame Street! It's at 123 1/2 Sesame St.
TW: Are there other birds like you?
BB: Nope. There's only one Big Bird.
TW: What do you want to be when you grow up?
BB: I'm still thinking about that one. I'm pretty happy where I am.
TW: Will you ever graduate from first grade?
BB: I get a gold star every night for doing my homework. I
get a little help from my friends on Sesame Street, of course.
TW: What do you want to teach other children?
BB: To feel good about school, to be cooperative grown-ups
and to develop their own sense of humor.
TW: What's the most important lesson you've learned?
BB: How important my friends are. And that the world is a
better place with all different kinds of people and animals living
together as friends.
TW: What's your favorite record?
BB: "Mocking a Mockingbird and Other Big Bird Calls.''
TW: If you had one wish, what would it be?
BB: I'd wish for two more wishes so I could give one to you.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.