August 30, 2009

New Michael Jackson Visual Biography Beats All Others

If not for the tragic circumstances of June 25, Michael Jackson would now be well into his scheduled 50-date stand at London’s O2 Arena, entertaining an audience that would ultimately exceed three quarters of a million people. In all likelihood, a world tour would have followed. A new album may have resulted as well, reacquainting the music icon to a medium he once dominated.

Of course, none of that can happen now.

In the wake of Jackson’s untimely death, though, has come a renewed appreciation of his life and career. While much of what’s been published thus far has been in the spirit of exploitation rather than earnest assessment, a reissued work by Adrian Grant—creator of the fan-club magazine, Off The Wall, as well as The Michael Jackson World Network website—serves as the benchmark resource on Jackson to date.

Originally published in 1994, Michael Jackson: A Visual Documentary – 1958-2009 – The Official Tribute Edition includes supplementary material covering the intervening years, culminating with coverage of Jackson’s public memorial at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which the author attended.

The book’s first forty or so pages skim through his childhood and formative years in the Jackson 5, marking pertinent milestones and professional achievements. The bulk of the book, though, concentrates on Jackson's solo career (post-Off The Wall) and the realities of his life within that time.

A feast for fans, the book is loaded with photos and information depicted in meticulous (sometimes day-to-day) detail. While authorized by Jackson in its prior publication, the accounts offered here aren’t of a predictable, hero-worship sort. In fact, much care has been taken by the author to render a straightforward and evenhanded treatment, including accounts of Jackson’s various tribulations and controversies.

Particularly impressive—beyond a myriad of exceptional photographs, many of them uncommon even to ardent fans—is the breadth of content afforded here. Mixed in among chart positions and concert-attendance records are tidbits on Jackson’s whereabouts and activities when not on the stage or otherwise under public scrutiny, from clandestine encounters with other elusive luminaries (like Prince) to songwriting and recording sessions for songs that have yet to be released.

Barring the eventual publication of an authoritative biography in more narrative form, Michael Jackson: A Visual Documentary is at this point the most definitive chronicle of the late superstar’s life and career published anywhere.

August 27, 2009

Album Review: Melissa McClelland Renders A Masterwork with 'Victoria Day'

Blasphemy and vengeance — the kind that fuel small-town rumors of late-night dalliances and other illicit delights — yield to love among the ruins on Victoria Day, the latest album by singer/songwriter Melissa McClelland.

Rich with folk, gospel, and blues, the songs on Victoria Day underscore searing, often-bittersweet yarns with the Gothic austerity of a murder ballad.

Her voice gorgeous in its winsome grace, McClelland is at turns womanly and whip-smart, with an air of stone-cold defiance coursing through even her most self-incriminating admissions. “I have sinned, I’ve been around,” she concedes on “A Girl Can Dream,” a rockabilly rant of repentance and wishful thinking. She serves up a comparable shot of sass (hold the guilt) with “I Blame You,” a frisky rhythm underscoring her playful reproach.

She’s a picturesque storyteller, populating otherwise barren ground with a cast of shady characters. To the raunchy, gin-soaked riff that drives “When the Lights Went Off in Hogtown,” McClelland renders a slice of backwoods nightlife behind closed doors — or at least away from anyone who’d judge — in lines like, “Now the smart girls just got pretty/And they’re not going home tonight.” Likewise, she laces a refrain of blessed reassurance in “God Loves Me” with scenes that aren’t exactly righteous.

For all the bravado she brings to these songs — and never more so than on the gut-bucket stomp, “Glenrio,” in which she socks some philandering harlot in the mouth, snarling afterward, “She asked for it!” — McClelland eventually lets her guard down. In “Seasoned Lovers,” she pairs up with Ron Sexsmith, lamenting a romance that’s lost its spark, having become about as passionate as watching paint dry on plywood. Also, enriched by elegant strings and her only performance on piano, “Segovia” finds her reminiscing the first rush of an old love affair. And on the most achingly sensuous song on the album, “Cry On My Shoulder,” McClelland gives one forsaken, heartbroken man a reason to get happy. “It won’t hurt, I swear/I am the month of May,” she sings in wistful breaths. “I’m gonna kiss your blues away.”

Exceptional from start to finish, Victoria Day is a masterwork.

August 20, 2009

Counting Crows Connect with Friends & Fans in Concert

Have You Seen Me Lately?
Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (photo by Donald Gibson)
“It feels like the ‘60s in here,” one older gentleman told me early on. “I love it!” While the concert wasn’t quite reminiscent of that era, the vibe inside Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall — on a night billed as “The Saturday Night Rebel Rockers Traveling Circus and Medicine Show” — certainly recalled its communal, peace-and-love spirit.

It didn’t matter that it was at least forty years later (and on a Monday) once the Counting Crows took the stage with Augustana and Michael Franti & Spearhead, together opening with Van Morrison’s “Caravan,” the Moondance classic invoking the welcome spirit of a gospel revival.

Perhaps being in the company of such talented musicians encouraged them to give their best or maybe it was just a good night to catch the Counting Crows in concert. Whatever the reason, the band — in particular Adam Duritz, who despite dealing with an injured (and at one point, bloody) knee, scrambled about the stage like a precocious kid on a jungle gym — delivered in spades.

(photo by Donald Gibson)
They brought the crowd to its feet with a double shot of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” and “Accidentally In Love,” the latter, according to Duritz, being somewhat of a live rarity these days. Digging in deep on “Ghost Train,” they sounded strikingly heavy and aggressive. They bristled with guitar-laden edge on “Catapult” and “Have You Seen Me Lately?” while on “Hanginaround” they got downright rambunctious, bringing all of the musicians back on stage to jam. And they extended “Rain King” in the encore to include “With A Little Help From My Friends,” capping off one of the most fun concerts of the summer.

While the Counting Crows likely drew the wider share of the audience, no one act served as the headliner. Rather, each band performed (either alone or as one giant group) throughout the nearly four-hour-long concert, at times trading verses on each other’s songs or on classics by other artists.

The Crows and Augustana teamed up for two of the night’s most resonant covers, first with a ragged-yet-inspired version of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” and then later with what Duritz called “just about the most beautiful song ever written,” Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.”

Augustana showed promise on their original material — particularly with “Twenty Years” and their breakout hit, “Boston” — yet they didn’t make enough of an impression to earn new fans like they could have done before such a diverse audience.

Michael Franti (photo by Donald Gibson)
Anyone who wasn’t familiar with Michael Franti & Spearhead before this night, however, no doubt knew and — based on the exuberant response he drew from the audience en masse — hit up iTunes for his reggae-drenched tunes shortly thereafter. Franti was on fire, kicking out the jams on “A Little Bit of Riddim” and “Say Hey (I Love You),” both tracks from his most recent album, All Rebel Rockers. As she is on the recordings, vocalist Cherine Anderson was present, complementing Franti’s infectious energy with a bundle of her own. Other highlights that Franti offered up included a throbbing, seemingly impromptu take on “Billie Jean” (with a thriller of a bass groove) and “I Got Love For You,” a slow-to-build rhythm with a message he’d written as a dedication to his adult son.

On a night underscored by camaraderie among artists and the common ground that music occupies for all of us, everyone — singers, musicians, and audience — ultimately joined together to sing “This Land Is Your Land,” bringing the show to a most-fitting conclusion.