Wednesday, March 30, 2005

In Blog We Trust

A tip of the fedora to Roland Lloyd Parry at The Bulletin, Brussels' expat weekly magazine, for mentioning this site in his feature article on blogging in Belgium. He quotes me accurately and thusly on the rise of blogging (a subject on which I am quite obviously no expert):

"It's 90 percent nutters, but that still leaves plenty of room for serious ones... A lot of people dismiss it as wankery -- but compare it to the mainstream media. There are a lot of wankers who own newspapers. It's spreading information around in a new and frightening kind of way."
The story also quotes Aidan White of the International Federation of Journalists, who says he is not concerned that the rise of blogging may be a threat to traditional journalism. As White puts it:

"A blogger's view of the world is as interesting as the view from a stranger at the bar or on the bus. It's interesting, but it isn't journalism. Journalism should, at least in theory, be accurate, reliable, useful and ethical. A blogger has none of these constraints, which is why the world of blogging is so fascinating and quirky... Most people, even on the internet, prefer to get their information from traditional sources. Blogging is the art of rumour and speculation. Good fun, but not threatening to journalism."
He clearly hasn't been reading the papers.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Let the Music Do the Talking

To celebrate a recent milestone, my 1,000th visitor (still a long way to go before I catch up to this guy), I post a small collection of music articles I've written recently. They were originally published in The Bulletin, the expat weekly here in Brussels -- although these are the unedited versions.

A confession about my site-counter: I only just figured out how to make it ignore my own visits.

And a confession about these articles: I'm new to the rock-critic game, so excuse the occasional over-egging-of-the-custard or lazy comparison.

The Saints/The Silos
Le Botanique, 9 March

“Ageing punk band” is an oxymoron on a par with “jumbo shrimp” or “corporate social responsibility”. So it should not have been too surprising that before The Saints began their set a roadie carefully placed two gin-and-tonics and a bottle of Bordeaux by the mic stand. What, no hors d’oeuvres?

Born in the bars of Brisbane, the Saints had a chart hit in 1976 with “I’m Stranded” and were quickly positioned as Australia’s answer to The Sex Pistols. They have soldiered on (and off) ever since, emerging every few years with a different line-up, ever-bloozier new riffs, and occasionally a clever harmony.

Singer-guitarist Chris Bailey is all that remains of the original group, and even though he’s getting on in years (he looks like Paul McCartney on a bad hair day, complete with Macca’s unfortunate mid-90s mullet), his sly grin suits him better than the youthful sneer of yesteryear.

True punk attitude is a tough sell in Brussels, where audiences generally shun moshing in favour of pensive posing, sometimes even allowing a head bob or two. But it’s not worth wasting too much time contemplating such lyrics as “A madman wrecked my happy home/and now I live in a twilight zone”. ‘Tis better to take another sip of claret and get on with thy power chords.

Opening act The Silos, out of New York City, proved the far more rewarding half of the bill. Their refreshing twist on the power-trio format – drums, bass, and three-quarter-size acoustic guitar played through an overdriven amplifier – suited such tight compositions as “The First Move” and “Four on the Floor”. Like the emotional gearbox of the latter tune, the Silos shifted effortlessly between rock urgency and pop jangle, tension and release.

Lap-steel guitar added a plaintive touch to the title track of the band’s new album, When the Telephone Rings – one of the set’s highlights, in which singer Walter Salas-Humara offers what must be the best post-9/11 lyric yet: “Even in New York/How I long for New York”.

Wilco Preview
Elysee Montmartre, Paris, 16 March
Except for a short set on a Werchter side stage last summer, America’s best rock band hasn’t been in Belgium for a while and isn’t coming anytime soon. To catch Wilco in a club setting requires a quick, midweek overnight to Paris -- but isn’t that why we have the Thalys?

Since forming the band after the breakup of pioneers Uncle Tupelo in 1995, frontman Jeff Tweedy has charted an intriguing and challenging musical course. Gone are the steel guitars and dobros in favor of tape loops and Radiohead-esque knob-twiddling.

But Tweedy’s lyrical brilliance and the band’s top-flight musicianship have been a constants and each of Wilco’s five albums has proven more satisfying than the one before it. Radio airplay has been more elusive than critical acclaim, but album sales are slowly building via savvy internet marketing – and incendiary live shows. The band just won two Grammys for its latest release, A Ghost Is Born.

It’s hip to pine for Uncle Tupelo, but despite the mythologizing of that great combo, Wilco is the better band. Grab a toothbrush and get on the train.

The Neville Brothers
Ancienne Belgique, 26 February

When Aaron Neville takes centre stage he just about fills it, and not without a certain amount of swampy menace -- his heavy-lidded eyes peering suspiciously from under a Stetson brim, his enormous arms bursting out of a T-shirt emblazoned with an American Indian whose face is half panther. Add in the impressive prison ink covering Neville’s biceps, and the dagger (or is it a crucifix?) tattooed on his left cheek, and for a minute you might feel intimidated. Then he opens his mouth to sing and choirs of angels descend.

Nearly 40 years after hitting it big on the pop charts with “Tell It Like It Is,” and known more in recent years for his syrupy duets with Linda Ronstadt, Neville is back together with his brothers, whose eponymous band pioneered the funk-and-soul sound of their native New Orleans.

Brothers Aaron, percussionist Cyril and saxophonist Charles (along with eldest sibling Art, who is recovering from back surgery and missed this tour), could each headline a show in his own right. Their infrequent family reunions are not to be missed – if only because they get Aaron off the movie-soundtrack-ballad circuit and back in the groove.

Now the Brothers have added a generation to the act, which features Aaron’s son Ivan (an alumnus of Keith Richards’ legendary X-Pensive Winos) on keyboards and Art’s son Ian on guitar. The elders seem happy to let Ivan anchor the show with his soulful vocals and virtuoso playing. But sonny can’t overshadow his dad and uncles and doesn’t try to.

With their insistent opening groove, “Can’t Stop the Funk”, from Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life, their first new album in five years, the Brothers restate their soul street credentials. “We been around since bebop,” they remind, “we been around since doo-wop, now we around for the hip-hop.”

The Nevilles have always stirred Motown soul, reggae prophecy, Southern Gospel, African nationalism and even folkie activism into their potent voodoo brew. When they cover the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” early in the show, you understand their frustration at “what the world is today”.

Later, when Aaron channels Sam Cooke through the ethereal “A Change Is Gonna Come”, you think maybe there’s hope. After “One Love/People Get Ready”, you even start to feel alright. And, at the end of the show, when Aaron sings “Amazing Grace”, accompanied only by Ivan on the church organ, you fight back a tear and believe for a minute maybe there is a God.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Doonesbury's Court Martial

Grant Doty reports from Baghdad on a debate among his fellow soldiers on the merits of the "Doonesbury" comic strip, which has come under fire in Stars and Stripes for being a "left-wing-subcutaneous-slandering piece-of-crap". Turns out a lot of Lt. Col Doty's comrades-in-arms don't feel that way.

Here's the original letter (Grant redacted the author's name, even though it was published in Stars and Stripes):

As a Marine colonel based in Iraq, I am offended that the supposed "newspaper" of the services would choose to include Doonesbury, that left-wing-subcutaneous slandering-piece-of-crap comic by Gary Trudeau. Can't Stripes find anything better on which to spend its money?
And here is Grant's reply, which the military paper has not yet published (although it has published several other letters defending the comic strip):

After reading the recent rant against the marvelously insightful, frequently irreverent, and always entertaining comic Doonesbury (i.e., "left-wing subcutaneous-slandering-piece-of-crap"), I am reminded of a quote from a small Vermont newspaper editor. While not intending to impugn the author of the rant, that Vermont editor wrote, "One of the values of the letters to the editor section of a newspaper is that it can open the mouths of fools." Keep Doonesbury and your letter to the editor section -- both provide a great service in support of freedom of speech and the press for which we are all fighting.
I'll give a big civilian salute to that.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Opera Cops

Turkish police may be cracking down on womens' heads, but French cops are busy cracking down on...opera musicians! As Brian Carney writes today in the Wall Street Journal Europe, the authorities are concerned that traveling opera productions are using musicians brought in from Eastern Europe. This upsets their union-card-carrying counterparts. Carney continues:

Of all the unsavory aspects of French police going about the country busting orchestras and locking up their conductors or managers, the worst canard is that it's being done to protect innocent violin-playing lambs from Sofia. In common with price-fixing cartels the world 'round, high-priced French and German musicians have only one interest in this affair, and that is keeping low-priced competition off the market. That this means smallish French towns get no opera, or get it only when heavy public subsidies are made available, concerns them not at all.