Monday, April 6th: Night Two of the WBCN rock n roll rumble at the middle east upstairs. Seal, fresh off the washed out opening day of the red sox (where he was supposed to sing the National Anthem), plays Boston’s Orpheum Theater.
I attended much of both. And a very interesting study in contrasts it was.
First, the Seal. Many of you might ask yourselves exactly the same question I asked myself when my friend mentioned a few weeks ago that he was thinking of buying a bunch of Seal tickets and would I like to go? ”
Seal? He’s still around and doing more than Heidi Klum? (bah-dum!) Does he have a new record out? ” (turns out he does: Soul, released last november consists of covers of Al Green, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and others… this explains much of his midset song choices).
So off I was to the Orpheum (where I think I have not been since seeing Mr. Mod Paul Weller some 5 years ago on his Illumination tour). Missed most of Peter Cincotti’s opening set, but he seemed like a mix of adult contemporary with some flashy proggery here and there. Not really my thing, but his band could play – as could he.
So, briefly, Seal’s band consisted of a drummer, a bass player with a single keyboard and a guitar player with what looked like two laptops next to him. and a very elaborate light/visuals show projected behind the band. all were on risers, ‘cept the Seal man himself.
After a rough reading, vocally, of the title track of his 1998 (and my last Seal record purchase) set Human Beings, the man was in good voice the rest of the night. The dissappointing part? This 3 piece band, plus Seal, had numerous keys, strings, effects, background vocals (including clearly Seal’s voice), and even horns playing… with NOBODY on stage playing them.
Towards the end of the set there was a brief moment where they played a tune with the guitarist and bass player away from the risers and it seemed as though he was finally depending on the band to carry the whole thing with what they could do live (as I didn’t write down the setlist and have been running on minimum sleep for the last few weeks, my memory of the tune is foggy at best but I think it was Future Love Paradise from his 1992 debut…. and now that I think about it, since that was very house music based, there were plenty of synths and drum machines going, dammit!).
The visuals, on the other hand, started out spectacularly – so much so that I found myself initially thinking, “damn – this is like a clinic in what large rock show visuals ought to be”. At times they reminded me of a danish theater company’s presentation I saw a few years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of Robert Wilson’s experimental production of the german play Woycheck, complete with music from Tom Waits (his early 2000 release Blood Money was music he’d written specifically for this production). That production was one of the most visually spectacular stage shows I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, the video artists seemed to have quickly run out of ideas, and the montages slowly became cheesier and cheesier – shots of Seal from not only his album covers but in various poses…. the lowlight coming when his cover of Al Green’s Here I Am began (with an invisible horn section blaring away) images of trumpets and saxophones began to appear… which then gave away to various floating musical notes, only to return repeatedly. It was almost as if someone downloaded the hippest clip art they could find and then used some corporate HR training manual on how to be “hip in the work place”. And because the earlier visuals were so striking and stunning in their use of color and even a bit of surrealism and all that, it made these later ones look all that much worse.
And so this was a mixed bag of a show – it reminded me of those early Seal records I haven’t listened to in oh-so-long now and how good they are. and how good mainstream, heavily (over?) produced records can be.
But the fact that he apparently felt it more important to spend on his visuals than on a full compliment of musicians or – even more importantly – didn’t trust the songs enough to let his 3 piece flesh out the tunes live so that, in effect, we were witnessing Seal-eoke with an expensive light/video show left me with a bad taste in my mouth and a yearning for real live music – the WBCN rumble! (one more thing before I move on, fellow velvety voiced brit, blue-eyed soul singer Jamie Lidell is famous for, among other things – performing his shows solo, with all sorts of computer and video trickery as well… with the difference being that he creates all sorts of loops on the spotm with a video artist doing the same… so the thrill of live performance is there, along with his innovative melding of elecronica and stax era american soul – see inserted youtube video)
So, during the end of the man’s second encore, my bandmate and I slipped out of the orpheum and somehow managed to time it perfectly – entering park street station just as a train arrived and soon we crossed the river and were at the middle east for night two of the 31st annual WBCN rock n roll rumble – the famous boston battle of the bands that seems to have hurt more winners than it’s helped (the most successful winners of which are arguably ‘Til Tuesday who won in 1983, and the Dresden Dolls who won 20 years later in 2003).
In the interest of full disclosure I must say that myself and fellow TLOS blogger Van Hammersly were participants in night one and we lost out to our friends, the heavily brit pop influenced The Luxury (who, it must be said, played a fantastic set and will be very tough to beat).
But as we set foot into the middle east (after running into our friend Jason, frontman/songwriter for the aforementioned The Luxury – dude likes his articles – and having him rave about the set of eventual night two winners Gravehaven ) and poppy/punky trio Apple Betty (I hate the term pop-punk almost as much as I hate that genre… and Apple Betty are far better than what that term denotes) was getting underway, my relief at hearing live music produced, well, live was immediate and gratifying.
While I realize both being a musician and being a particpant in this rumble makes me biased, it also reminded me of some other important info… and that is the city of Boston, for all the mumbling I hear from folks saying that there’s no great music happening in town, is a very lucky city. There is an extremely vibrant scent of great musicians and songwriters and great performers.
I’ve always been mixed on the merits of the rumble – the whole “music isn’t a competition” arguments fill my head. But being a part of it this year – a year in which Angelle Wood, long a champion of the boston music scene in her various DJ incarnations over the years, has taken over both the local music show, Boston Emissions, and the organization of the rumble, including band selection – has definitely changed my view for the positive.
It probably helps that this year I am friends with many of the bands participating (all of whom I can say, though very different, are very good to great at what they do). The night we performed there was a packed house for all of the bands, and all of the bands delivered. It may be tempting to say I’m just being gracious, but it is a fact.
And the cameraderie between the musicians – many of us already friends – has just grown and grown as I’ve met more and more this week. And everyone has been very supportive of one another.
And all of this was just made more vivid to me by first attending Seal’s show. The man was very funny in his stage banter and clearly a great performer along with that voice of his – but at the same time it felt more like a vegas stage show built on glitz and spectacle that was very safe. None of the thrill of seeing Eksi Ekso close out night two with their very unorthodox line up of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards/flugelhorn and not one, but TWO violins.
And yet Seal, talented as both he and his bandmates were, still felt the need to trot out only guitar/bass/drums/keys and basically have them play along to full arrangements from his records. Add to that the sticker shock of the $12 per ticket ticket fee the bastards at Live Nation added on over the cost of the ticket (and that doesn’t count about another $6 in various other fees per ticket) – the fees alone of a single Seal ticket exceeded the cost of a single ticket to the rumble – and I now know why I don’t go to many of these larger shows any more.
I can stay home and listen to my Seal records without the cheesey visuals, the expensive food n drink, and save the $67 dollars per ticket cost and have the same thrill, only I could do it in my underwear if I wanted.
But for a real thrill – seeing great musicians for 1/6th the cost – is a thrill that, with the announcement that another longtime Boston music venue, Bill’s Bar, is closing, is needed now more than ever.
And I hope those of you who have either yet to experience a good Boston (or whatever city you reside in) band playing in a small club, or just haven’t experienced it in a longtime, will discover – or rediscover – how much fun and amazing it truly can be.