Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Two Costellos: Elvis Costello Live at the El Mocambo & Live at Hollywood High

What a difference three months makes! The two recorded 1978 Elvis Costello shows – Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High – are completely different from each other in tone, attitude and musicianship but, more importantly, they mark the coming of age and the maturation of Costello as a significant presence on the musical scene.

Costello, coming off a derided show in New York, landed in Toronto for a late night set, scheduled for March 6 at the city’s fabled El Mocambo club. The concert was to be broadcast live on radio; when news got out, the city erupted into a frenzy. People began lining up almost half a day before the 11:30 pm show, in the generally vain hope of scoring one of the 300 tickets available (minus those going to industry and record folk, of course).

By the time Costello hit the stage, expectations were remarkably high. To say he exceeded them was an understatement. Live at the El Mocambo, all 49 minutes of it (not including the encores which were not broadcast or recorded), is one of the best live shows ever put to disc, right up there with the 1971 Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East. As with that show, you can only wish you’d been there when you listen to it.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Is Film Criticism Dead? #5

My colleagues [Susan, Kevin, David & Shlomo] have previously and majestically destroyed Andrew O' Hehir's ignorant article "Film Critics: Shut up already!" I support them and their opinions whole heartedly. But I feel as if my position on the subject would be trite, so I'm shifting the looking glass from film criticism to the film industry's impact on it. Here are some disparate observations.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Beg, Scream & Shout!: The Flirtations' Nothing But a Heartache

When I was a kid, I treasured my transistor radio. Tuning into the local rock stations, I always found myself eagerly waiting to hear some song I fell in love with days earlier. Unlike today's Mp3 and IPad generation, where you can pick your tunes from a vast library you program on your player, there was an element of surprise to radio listening. You never knew when that favourite song would turn up. Sometimes you left your transistor on - with the ear-plug close by - just in case the DJ slipped in the tune, a track that changed the way you walked that day.

In 1969, one song that barely got any airplay (but certainly changed the way I walked) was The Flirtations' pop masterpiece "Nothing But a Heartache." The Flirtations were a black American all-female R&B band from South Carolina, but they actually made it big in England. They did it with a sound, too, that echoed the exuberance of the very best of Motown. "Nothing But a Heartache" was an indelible part of what was termed England's Northern Soul genre. In the late sixties, Northern Soul had emerged out of the British Mod scene. The music consisted of a particular style of black American soul based on a heavy backbeat combined with the quick tempo of Detroit's pop sound. But one of the key ingredients of Northern Soul was the manner in which the singers would convey heartbreak. It wasn't by expressing despair, but instead, by providing leaps of pure exhilaration.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Les Bon Temps: The Post-Katrina Angst of "Treme"

Most northerners are familiar with the French Quarter and the Garden District, historically popular New Orleans tourism destinations. But we probably have had limited knowledge about Faubourg Treme, a section of the Big Easy with a heroic legacy. Under 18th-century French and Spanish colonial rule, slaves had Sundays off, allowing them to gather in Congo Square to sing and dance. Many wore makeshift costumes with an indigenous flair -- the origins of contemporary Mardi Gras, in which elaborately dressed “tribes” parade through the Crescent City.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Borrower: The Egregious Oeuvre of James Cameron

For the sake of the blog, I finally broke down and watched James Cameron's Avatar on DVD. Let me get this out of the way right off the top: It's a better movie than Titanic. That’s not saying much since I think that 1997 disaster flick is one of the worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. In Avatar, Sigourney Weaver seems to be having fun in her tough-broad scientist role, and there's a couple of scenes here and there that at least got a chuckle out of me, but that was between long bouts of boredom while I watched cartoon characters (because this film, except for the sequences at the military base, is a computer-generated cartoon) frolicking around hippie-dippie landscapes. And don't get me started on the teeth-grinding dialogue or the stupid shoot 'em up at the end.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Book: I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and Nobody Can Pay

One of my favourite subjects in high school was economics because I was curious about how banking, high finance and political budgets work within Canada. (One of the favourite books explained government spending using guns and butter.) I took a course in my first year of university as well that was larger in scope by looking at political economic systems in Russia, China and the United Kingdom. While the details bogged me down, greatly affecting my grades, the macro-economic picture was much less illusory. These courses helped me understand the economic forces in the world and I applied that knowledge to a better understanding of “the big picture.”

But when the so-called “financial crisis” of 2008 occurred, I struggled to understand how the mechanics of the financial system were breaking down, literally on a weekly basis. Suddenly everything I learned in school didn’t fit the current economic malaise. It was a blend of investment bank failure, the collapsing automotive industry and the housing market in complete turmoil mostly in the United States with trillions of dollars at stake. So reading the stories and hearing about which bank failed, what government bailout was going to help which company and how the burst of the housing bubble was leaving people homeless, it left me numb. I didn’t know what to think or who to believe; I was simply struggling to understand what it meant to the world economic system and therefore what it meant to me. Something had changed systematically and my fundamental knowledge of economics wasn’t enough.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Killing Joke: Censorship in South Park

On April 21th, 2010 Matt Parker and Trey Stone were boldly unable to go where they've gone before. A week earlier, they had celebrated their 200th episode with a plot revolving around the Muslim prophet Muhammad's invincibility from ridicule and the town's desire to harness similar powers within South Park. The episode, inoffensively named "200," directly asked us if whether they were portraying Muhammad in an offensive manner or not. They placed him in a U-Haul van, in a mascot's outfit, behind a black bar labeled "censored." He does remain silent. They asked us if we would be offended hearing him speak or if we could allow ourselves to see his legs move. They weren't mocking Muhammad. They were mocking how we've come to censor our thoughts and ideas, not out of respect for the subjects brought up, but instead because of fear.