Monday, October 6, 2008

Fleet Foxes play NYC's Grand Ballroom, 10.4.08

Just months after playing smaller venues like the Bowery Ballroom this past summer, Seattle's Fleet Foxes returned to New York City to perform at the appropriately-named Grand Ballroom at Manhattan Center on Saturday.

The band members were chipper throughout the night and despite their growing fame, they seemed humble as well — frontman Robin Pecknold paused several times to comment on the strangeness of performing in a venue larger than the ones they'd played before. Performing songs from the Sun Giant EP and their self-titled album, which were both released this year, the band kicked things off "Sun Giant" and "Sun it Rises." The ballroom was soon filled with the Fleet Foxes' trademark heavenly harmonies and audience members seemed mesmerized by the blend of folk, rock and pop melodies, which successfully replicated and expanded upon the band's studio recordings.

But while the band members are clearly serious about their craft, they were not averse to cracking jokes and interacting with audience members. In fact, the banter began from the moment the Fleet Foxes took the stage. Band members laughed together and congratulated each other if one of them made a particularly hilarious zinger. Pecknold chatted with audience members who called out anecdotes from their favorite shows and when one concertgoer shouted out "Come As You Are" between songs, the band laughed as Christian Wargo obliged the crowd by subtly playing the opening notes to the Nirvana classic on his bass.

The band began wrapping things up with two solo performances by Pecknold, who decided to go unplugged, singing without a mic for "Katie Cruel." His voice carried surprisingly well and when he signaled that he would be plugging in for "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," audience members pleaded against it. Pecknold gave in and performed without the mic again, receiving thunderous applause when he was done. The band played a new song titled "Silver City" after Pecknold's solo showcase, and while they kept pointing out that it was a work in progress, it seemed pretty complete. The night finally came to a close with "Blue Ridge Mountains," followed by gracious thank you gestures from the band.

Though the Fleet Foxes are relatively new in the grand scheme of the music world, they could be around for a very long time if they keep cranking out stellar recordings and leave audiences smiling the same way those at Grand Ballroom were by the end of Saturday's show.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sigur Rós Play Packed Uptown NYC Venue, 9.18.08

Sigur Rós isn't the type of band that fits any particular labels. The music features elements of post-rock, shoegaze, and even classical sounds. Frontman Jónsi Birgisson — known for his powerful falsetto — tends to sing a number of the songs in a made-up language of sorts, "Hopelandic," in addition to singing in the band's native Icelandic. And yet, while one wouldn't expect the band to have much widespread success due to its not-so-mainstream sound, the members of Sigur Rós have a remarkable ability to draw diverse crowds to their shows. Thursday night was a perfect example, as fans flocked far uptown to New York's United Palace Theatre, for a mesmerizing performance.

Sigur Rós performed for approximately two hours, choosing to play songs featured on a variety of their albums, ranging from their 1999 album Ágætis byrjun to their latest release. Even though the majority of people in attendance — myself included — couldn't really understand the lyrics, many cheered excitedly at the beginning of each song in a show of recognition. Lights and video projections flooded the stage, contributing to the otherworldly atmosphere evoked by the band's moody music. Even though Sigur Rós performed as a four-piece that night, unaccompanied by the string and horn players that have often toured with them in the past, their songs were as richly textured as their studio recordings and seemed to mesmerize the audience. Birgisson's vocals were equally powerful, bursting through the venue as he played his bowed guitar vigorously.

While the band members gave their all throughout the concert, some of the show's greatest moments took place at the end of the night. The band concluded the main part of its set with the upbeat "Gobbledigook," the first track on their latest album, with Birgisson asking the audience to stand up, sing and clap along to the music. Members of opening act, Parachutes, also took the stage with additional drums to keep the beat, as rainbow colored lights flashed through the venue. The packed venue was filled with clapping audience members and confetti flew through the air as the song built up to its triumphant climax. By the time the song was over, both Sigur Rós and the audience seemed exhilarated, with smiles all around.

Sigur Rós ended the night on an even more incredible note, with a two-song encore. Birgisson dedicated the first song, "Illgresi," one of the band's more minimalist tunes, to one of their crew members who couldn't be at the show because he had pneumonia. And then the band chose to kick things up a notch with "Track 8," also known as "Popplagid" or "The Pop Song," which started out gently and ended with a shattering climax that had people screaming for more by the time the band left the stage.

Sigur Rós only took the stage one more time to thank the audience and bow graciously — but judging by the applause and the subsequent excited chatter as the crowd made its way to the subway after the show, the band had clearly made quite an impression, showing that even the "strangest" of music can have a strong effect on listeners.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Radiohead Light up Camden Concert, 8.12.08

Just days after headlining two dates at the All Points West festival in Jersey City, Radiohead continued their tour by playing one last New Jersey date Tuesday night at Camden's Susquehanna Bank Center. The venue was packed with fans who had started lining up hours before the show. By the time the band took the stage, the excitement could be felt everywhere, from the pit to the lawn.

Cheers resonated throughout the center as Radiohead took the stage and started the night with "15 Step," the opening track from their latest album, In Rainbows. Fans danced and sang as frontman Thom Yorke bopped around the stage — and the energy only escalated as the band pulled out a "triple-drum attack" for their next song, "There There." In fact, every song the band played was greeted by enthusiasm and even though the crowd got a little quieter during slower numbers like "All I Need" and "Videotape," many concertgoers either sang or mouthed along to nearly every lyric. An intensely colorful light show, accompanied by beautifully-shot live video footage on big screens, only enhanced the experience further.

The band performed In Rainbows in its entirety and even threw in "Go Slowly," a track from the album's bonus disc. But the band also went back to previous material from four of their previous albums, only excluding songs from their debut album and 2001's Amnesiac. Each song featured the textured layers that Radiohead are well known for and certain songs such as "The Gloaming," which features a punchy bassline when it's played live, took on a whole new sound. Meanwhile, Yorke's voice was in top form, conveying an assorted array of emotions. He hit the majority of his notes to the point of near perfection and it felt as though the entire crowd was holding its breath right before he hit one of his trademark falsettos during a performance of "Nude."

Even though they weren't particularly chatty, the band members were in high spirits throughout the night. When he wasn't at an instrument, Yorke did his trademark spasmodic dance moves for many of the songs, including the classic "Idioteque." In addition to referring to the piano as a "pianoforte" and introducing "Go Slowly" as a "slow song for a good reason," Yorke was smiling during most of the set and made it a point to thank the audience periodically. And despite the fact that they've been touring for nearly two decades, Yorke's fellow band members seemed thrilled by the size of the audience, grinning at each other and at concertgoers as the night wore on. At one point, guitarist Jonny Greenwood — who also played around with radios, keyboards and more during the show — just stood still, brushing his hair out of his eyes to stare at the crowd in front of him.

The band closed the night with two encores, which featured a total of eight songs. Guitarist Ed O'Brien and bassist Colin Greenwood seemed excited as they came back onstage, laughing and clapping along with the audience. Though the band decided to skip two of their biggest hits — "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android" — they did play three songs from their second album The Bends during the encores, including the opening track, "Planet Telex," which hasn't been played much during this tour. Emotions seemed to run wild during songs like OK Computer's "Lucky," especially when Yorke sang the line, "It's going to be a glorious day."

Radiohead ended the night with Everything in Its Right Place from 2000's Kid A, with Yorke singing a couple of lines from R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" before launching into the song. As the song came to a close, each band member took turns going off stage. Yorke went first, grinning and waving at the crowd, and his bandmates slowly followed as they completed their portions of the song. By the end, a sample of Yorke's looped vocals resonated through the venue before the band's crew finally pulled the plug.

Even though the concert ultimately featured a total of 25 songs, the two hour set seemed to go by a lot faster than it really did. Personally, I feel this is the second best show I've ever attended — the only other concert to beat this one is the first Radiohead show I ever went to back in 2001. And judging by other fans' awed reactions by the time the night was over, it looks like Radiohead's longstanding reputation as one of the best live acts in the world is still very much well deserved.

Complete Setlist:
15 Step, There There, Morning Bell, All I Need, The National Anthem, Videotape, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, The Gloaming, Where I End and You Begin, Faust Arp, No Surprises, Jigsaw Falling Into Place, The Bends, Idioteque, Climbing Up the Walls, Nude, Bodysnatchers
Encore 1: House of Cards, Lucky, Go Slowly, Just, Street Spirit
Encore 2: Reckoner, Planet Telex, Everything in its Right Place

(You may also view this review here).

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Supergrass Shake Up NYC Crowd, 7.30.08

England's Supergrass spent most of July touring with the Foo Fighters in different venues throughout the United States. But on Wednesday night, the band ended their series of US tour dates by headlining a packed show at New York City's Webster Hall.

The crowd went wild as the band took the stage and kicked things off with "Diamond Hoo Ha Man," the opening track from their latest album, Diamond Hoo Ha. Crunchy guitars and pounding rhythms permeated the venue as the audience sang and bopped to the beat. And though Supergrass spent the first chunk of the show playing some other tracks from the newest album, including "Bad Blood" and "Rebel in You," they also mixed things up by throwing in a few older tunes like "Moving" from the band's self-titled third album. While some songs had a more abrupt sound, others like "Sun Hits the Sky" from In it for the Money, filled the room with their explosive, swirling guitar noises.

The band members stayed energetic throughout the show and gave their all as the night went on. Lead singer Gaz Coombes was drenched in sweat as he darted around the stage cheerfully, rocking out and encouraging the audience to dance, clap or sing along. And while the band members were charmingly gracious at times, complimenting the crowd and city for being "lovely," they weren't above cursing or acting silly either. Fans were treated to a bit of mock fighting and a goofy false start before drummer Danny Goffey took over the vocals for "Ghost of a Friend." At another point, Coombes decided to ask attendees how they liked his striped shirt.

After performing "Butterfly," the closer from Diamond Hoo Ha, Coombes announced that the band would be devoting some time to their older material. The crowd got even more enthusiastic — you could feel the floor shaking during some of the more popular songs and a lot of people sang their hearts out during the likes of "Pumping On Your Stereo."

It seems that the audience didn't want the band to leave at all during the night and so, Supergrass took the stage one last time for a three-song encore as the crowd chanted their name repeatedly. The band concluded the show with a punchy performance of their first single, 1994's "Caught By the Fuzz," with Coombes throwing himself onto Goffey's drum kit when they were done — a perfect ending for such a lively summer show.

(You may also view this review here).

Monday, July 21, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe at the Apple Store, 7.17.08

It's been six years since The X-Files series finale aired on television, but Mulder and Scully still prevail. This Friday, The X-Files: I Want to Believe — the second feature film affiliated with the TV series — will be hitting theaters. And last Thursday, creator Chris Carter and longtime producer Frank Spotnitz made an appearance at the Apple Store in SoHo, New York, to discuss the making of the film and the time they spent working on the series.

While the event was technically inspired by the fact that the new film was made using Apple's Final Cut Pro, the discussion didn't really adhere to the subject of technology. This wasn't much of a surprise — the audience, which consisted of longtime fans and newbies alike, had started lining up for the event approximately two and a half hours in advance. Judging by the intense discussions taking place on line, it was clear that most wanted to learn more about the characters and the actual motivation behind the film. And both Carter and Spotnitz seemed happy to oblige, though they remained tight-lipped about spoilers.

While the new film takes place in "real time," allowing fans to get a glimpse into what Mulder and Scully's lives have been like since they were last on the air, Carter said it actually follows the storytelling technique featured in the show's first three seasons. Filmed in 60 days and approximately 105 minutes long, the movie is also a standalone story designed to draw in new audiences. "We actually saw eye to eye [with the studio] about it being a standalone," Spotnitz said.

Even though it didn't take very long or much of a budget (by today's standards) to make the film, Spotnitz said they thought the movie was never going to happen. Even though they had started work on the film in 2003, a legal dispute stalled progress, resulting in the film's later-than-anticipated release. But it seems as though the delay might have made the project an even greater labor of love for the cast and crew. Both Carter and Spotnitz said that as the years went by, they began to miss Mulder and Scully.

Though the filmmakers discussed some of the more difficult aspects of filming and producing a show as ambitious as The X-Files, they were also willing to answer some of the quirkier fan queries. When asked who Mulder and Scully would vote for in the upcoming presidential election, Carter paused thoughtfully before saying that Mulder would probably write in Dennis Kucinich, while Scully was still disappointed about Hillary Clinton. Later, when Carter confirmed that Scully would finally have her own desk in this movie, fans — including yours truly — laughed and cheered, indicating that even though many years have passed, there are plenty of people who still care about Mulder and Scully.

It's also clear that Carter and Spotnitz still care about the fans as well. When the event began, Carter actually came out with a camera to take photos of the crowd. And when I — and a few other lucky fans — literally ran into him by the building's side entrance after the panel was over, he was perfectly willing to pause and sign autographs, smiling calmly and posing for photographs as people gushed over his work on the series.

There's no telling how the new X-Files movie, coming out so soon after a major box office event like The Dark Knight, will fare when the show can now only be viewed on DVD or in reruns. But one thing's for certain — the X-Phile community is still active and will probably have a lot to say when Mulder and Scully hit the big screen again.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Meeting Damon Albarn, A Detailed Account (7.12.08)

Earlier this week, I reviewed Damon Albarn & the Honest Jon's Revue, but I didn't really have a chance to talk about meeting Damon after the show. The meeting was pretty brief in the grand scheme of things and I didn't get do anything spectacular like snagging an interview. But the whole process of waiting around for Damon to exit the building ended up being kind of fun and since this was really my first time making such an effort to meet a musician I admire, I thought I'd write up an account of that night.

I'm a pop culture fanatic and a music devotee — I go to plenty of concerts, I've gone to book readings and other events where I've been able to get an autograph and a photo with the occasional celebrity. That being said, I've never tried to follow a strategy for meeting a famous person I admire. But last Saturday, I — especially thanks my friend Shubha who said it was definitely worth a shot — decided that it might not hurt to try meeting Damon Albarn.

I've been a fan of Albarn's, dating back to his days with Blur, for a few years. Since I was still pretty young when the band was releasing the likes of Parklife and even their self-titled fifth album (famous for that "Woohoo" song, "Song 2"), I didn't really start listening to them until I was in high school. Unfortunately, this was towards the end of the band's heyday — they did an unofficial final tour as a three-piece group during my senior year of high school, but I never had a chance to see them. So I've tried to make up for that by attending other concerts featuring Damon Albarn. I saw him perform as part of The Good, The Bad, and The Queen last year and this year, I decided to attend the Revue even though I knew he wouldn't be the center of attention. It's rare to see Damon in concert and being that I was lucky enough to see him two years in a row, I decided that it was time to push my luck further and try meeting him just this once.

After the show was over last Saturday, Shubha and I left the building as soon as we could and found ourselves near a stage exit at the side of the building. There were very few people milling around and I got a little nervous that security would get rid of us, but that never happened. As we stood there, a tiny crowd began to form. A man was standing by himself, clutching a copy of Blur's 13 and there were a few small groups of friends around. My friend and I decided that we would stick around for another hour or so since the show had let out fairly early.

Some of the other musicians who had performed that night began coming out the doors. At one point, one of them gave Shubha and me the thumbs up sign. Shortly after that, another came over to us and shook our hands. "Ça va bien?" he asked a couple of times, motioning to the building. We responded in the slightly broken French of our high school years: "Oui, bien! Très bien!" He was a really sweet guy, enthusiastic and genuinely happy to see we had enjoyed ourselves. As more musicians came out, our little gathering became more lively. Some of the musicians put on an impromptu concert, right there on the sidewalk, and a few passers-by stopped to watch. There was a festive feeling in the air and at this point, we all started getting a little chattier with each other.

Shubha and I befriended a woman named Liz, who was there with her husband — he spent the whole time making fun of her, but he was also the one who had bought the tickets to the show and was the very person who took photos for her when Damon finally came outside. They were a fun pair and we had lots of fun talking to them. At one point, we philosophized about why Damon sings the iconic "Woohoo!" in "Song 2" as "Wahoo!" in his live performances, and we also talked a little bit about his assorted side projects.

There was another fun character, a British man not much older than Shubha and me, named James. He had met Liz through the Blur forums, so he was hanging around quite a bit. James turned out to be quite shameless in his determination to meet Damon — he actually went inside the building a number of times, asking people if they knew whether or not Damon was still around. At one point he left the area, but the rest of us stuck around and when we finally ascertained that Damon was definitely in the building, James returned. It was a bit after 11 p.m. now, an hour since the show had been over. But armed with the knowledge that our idol was in the building, we were newly energized, joking around about guitarist Simon Tong who always seems to be asleep while playing his instrument. And this is where our luck finally changed.

Just moments after we were discussing him, Simon Tong himself came out of the building and though a bunch of us called out his name, he just slunk away after raising his head and smiling briefly in response. Seconds after that, a few more musicians — including Damon Albarn — came out. And we were ready.

I remember crying out his name as he came out and then as I found him standing right in front of me, I asked him if he could please sign my playbill. He was happy to oblige, signing it "With Love, Damon, XXX," and because I'm not so experienced at hunting down my favorite musicians, I didn't really know what to say. So I finally just told him that it had been a great show and he was very gracious about it, saying, "I'm glad you enjoyed it!" At this time, more people were trying to get things signed and after Shubha got her playbill signed, she dragged me over so we could get our photo with him. Posing for a photo with Damon ended up being a slight challenge as someone else had started telling him a joke of sorts and he was too busy laughing his head off. But he managed to stay conscious of the fact that a camera was nearby and he looked up just in time to laugh at the camera for our picture.

Our crowd was relatively mild and nothing like the sort of chaos that Damon might recall from his Blur days. But it was still a lot of fun meeting him and watching him interact with other fans as well. The previously-mentioned James approached Damon and asked him if he could pretend playing his melodica/melody horn — James intended to stand in the background, rolling his eyes, in order to get some fun photos out of it. And Damon was more than happy to oblige — in fact, he began playing the horn, experimenting with a couple of melodies, while we all stood around gawking.

After a few minutes had passed, Damon finally began saying that he really needed to go, so once he finished up with the autographs and a few more photos, we all backed off so that he could leave. But there was still a sense of excitement in the air and as some of us exchanged email addresses, we were all talking about how charming Damon had been. Even James, who had seemed a bit "cool for school," admitted that he was shaking a little and that he could never play his melody horn again.

Though I don't know how often I'll be doing things like this in order to meet other artists I admire, I know one thing's for certain — Operation: Meet Damon Albarn was definitely a complete success.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Playing the Building" with David Byrne

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to visit David Byrne's "Playing the Building" sound installation in New York City. The cool part was that I got to be part of a private tour, hosted by Byrne himself — all thanks to a friend working at Visionaire. And because it was a private tour, we didn't have to battle gigantic crowds, which might have made it difficult for us to enjoy the installation's full effect.

As its title suggests, "Playing the Building" is all about turning a building — the Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street — into a giant musical instrument. The center of the room features a battered old organ, which happens to have an intricate labyrinth of wires protuding from its backside. Each of these wires is connected to various aspects of the building's structure, causing these elements to vibrate and produce one of three different types of sounds.

If you strike one portion of the organ's keyboard, you might hear a motorlike sound. If you strike the other two portions, you might hear a metallic striking sound or something more akin to wind blowing. While it's not possible to create anything melodic while playing this particular organ, the cacophonous result sounds really neat, especially thanks to the acoustics offered by the bare, old-time building. When you play this particular "instrument," the sound is everywhere, and thus the installation's purpose is fully realized.

As we were told on the tour, the nice thing about this installation is the fact that a person doesn't need to be musically inclined in order to create sound. But I will confess that as fun as it is to have permission — as indicated by the "Please Play" request painted in front of the organ — to make an endless amount of noise, it would be a lot more interesting if we could create something melodic. You could say that such a thought is a bit too influenced by the rules of western tonality, but frankly, it would have been really interesting to have more musical options. I imagine it would be very difficult to enhance the installation in such a way, but the thought of hearing fully-realized melodies and harmonies echoing through the Battery Maritime Building is very appealing and might have made things more compelling since Byrne isn't the first person to create a sound installation.

Despite this, it is a commendable project that is worth visiting, partially due to the appeal of the Battery Maritime Building itself. Dating back to the early 20th century, the building has an abandoned, but beautiful appearance that provides an awe-inspiring environment for Byrne's ambitious venture.

(The installation is open from noon to 6 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until August 24, 2008. Admission is free).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Damon Albarn 'Presents' the Honest Jon's Revue in New York, 7.12.08

Damon Albarn has built a reputation for being one of the more eclectic musicians out there. From fronting Britpop legends Blur to voicing 2D, of the virtual band Gorillaz, he's managed to defy genres by associating himself with a variety of musical acts.

On Saturday night, Albarn took the stage at New York City's Avery Fisher Hall with an international group of musicians. The show titled, "Damon Albarn & The Honest Jon's Revue," was part of this year's Lincoln Center Festival and featured numerous acts affiliated with Honest Jon's, a London-based record label.

The stage — clogged with instruments, and draped with flags representing the United States, Canada, France, Mali, and more — was a perfect setting for the mishmosh of music we were treated to that night. The musicians included The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Afel Bocoum Band, and folk singer Victoria Williams. Renowned Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and guitarist Simon Tong — who both collaborated with Albarn on last year's The Good The Bad and The Queen record — were also part of the lineup.

Albarn didn't actually take the spotlight until the show's conclusion. Instead, he played keyboards and the melodica as accompaniment to his fellow artists' music, occasionally laughing, dancing, and clapping in response to the talents that were on display. And Albarn wasn't alone in performing such antics — the members of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble whipped out their lighters and cell phones during vocalist/guitarist Simone White's quiet, yet quirky performance. Later on, after an enthusiastic performer impressed the crowd by playing the bass while holding it behind his head, an audience member actually got up to give him a high five.

The two-hour show consisted of a medley of soul, folk, jazz, and traditional African music (namely from Mali), providing the audience with an opportunity to hear some instruments that are rarely heard in this part of the world. I was personally really impressed to see Kokanko Sata — a female musician from Mali — play the kamelen n'goni, a three-stringed harp of sorts, which is typically an instrument only played by men.

The night came to an end with Albarn taking center stage for a ten-minute performance of "Sunset Coming On," a song featured on his 2002 collaborative project, Mali Music. This was the perfect closer for the night — starting out peacefully with Albarn's distinct, soothing vocals at the forefront and ending with a high-energy, percussion-driven climax that featured all the performers either dancing, singing or playing along with each other. Even audience members stood up to clap and dance to the music.

As soul singer Candi Stanton told the audience earlier in the night, "Music is the international language." And the Honest Jon's Revue, with its fusion of cultures and musical genres, really drove this point home by the time the show was over.

(You may also view this review here).

At the Theater: The Marriage of Bette and Boo

The Marriage of Bette and Boo, a play by Christopher Durang, has returned to New York and opened tonight at the Laura Pels Theatre. I was lucky enough to attend an advance performance Friday night and I'm happy to report that it was well worth it.

The dark comedy, consisting of 33 scenes, revolves around the disintegration of the title characters' marriage. The dialogue is sharp, the characters and action border on the absurd. But somewhere beneath the film references and constant referrals to the likes of Thomas Hardy, there is something very poignant and real about what the audience gets to see onstage. While some of the characters often seem shrill and one-note, there are some moments where audience members will be able to identify and even sympathize with them. Kate Jennings Grant — in the role of Bette — is magnificent in emphasizing this aspect of the play, especially in a few key scenes where she exposes the vulnerabilities lying beneath her "nagging housewife" exterior.

In fact, this production's cast displays a tremendous amount of acting chops and rightfully so, considering some of their past experience. Cast members include John Glover, who is delightfully wicked while playing the part of Boo's rather unsavory father, as well as a hilarious Terry Beaver — whose television credits include Profiler and Law & Order — in a double role.

The Marriage of Bette and Boo isn't likely to receive the blustery fanfare that major theatrical productions receive in this day and age, but it's perfect for those who want to watch something smart and more small scale.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Travelblogue: Bostonian Eats & Treats

I didn't stay in Boston long enough to do a long series of posts like I did while traveling in England, but I did stay long enough to discover some fabulous food and shopping areas. So this post will be dedicated to the spots I went to — some of them are very typically touristy, but they were still very enjoyable and definitely worth stopping by if you're new to Boston.

Newbury Street: This is one of the largest and most picturesque streets in Boston, lined with renovated brownstone buildings that have been converted into shops and restaurants. You'll find major chain stores like Best Buy and Urban Outfitters in the vicinity, along with some designer joints (including the Betsy Johnson store and a couple of high-end consignment shops). While things do get fancy in parts of Newbury Street, there really is something for everyone to enjoy.

Notable Newbury Shopping: One of my favorite places on this well-known street is the appropriately-named Newbury Comics. This is actually a chain that can be found throughout Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire. But having visited the Cambridge location a few years ago, it's always been a place I associate with Boston and its surrounding areas. Newbury Comics is a fantastic place for music lovers and general pop culture nerds. There are used and new CDs, DVDs, and vinyls throughout the store and of course, there are also comic books for sale. Funky pursues, gag gifts, and posters can also be found in various corners — it's a fantastic experience for those of us who still enjoy browsing in record stores instead of ordering everything online. And the best part is, you might find albums you wouldn't easily find in other record stores for a reasonable price! My $9.99 copy of a Graham Coxon solo album has made me very happy.

Notable Newbury Ice Cream: If you're on Newbury Street, you should stop by J.P. Licks, another Massachusetts-based chain. Even though the store is subject to huge lines, they seem to move relatively quickly, and the ice cream is to die for. I had a chocolate chip milkshake that tasted like liquid cake and my friend had some lactose-free mango ice cream that tasted exactly like the fruit. Word of warning though: servings are pretty huge. Another friend seemed to alternate between joy and despair the whole time because her two-scoop ice cream cone was probably bigger than her head. But at least you get your money's worth!

Sunset Cantina: This Mexican/Southwestern restaurant and sports bar is well known for its margaritas and abundant menu. This is another place that serves extremely large portions, so you should really only go there when you're extremely hungry or in the mood to eat a lot. That being said, I had some of the best nachos of my life (with vegetarian chili for those who aren't into the meaty variety) at this place and I'd love to go back again. Also, it's a pretty large place with plenty of kitsch-inspired decor, providing patrons with a great atmosphere for socializing while indulging in food and drinks.

North End: This is one of Boston's oldest neighborhoods and it's also now the center of the Italian-American community. There are restaurants at every corner and you can help yourself to assorted offerings of pasta, gelato, and other tasty desserts when you're in the neighborhood. I was lucky enough to visit two of the North End's food establishments and as both of them were fantastic, I'll mention them here.

Savory: For dinner, my friends and I took a slight detour into one of the North End's side streets, in order to eat at Al Dente Ristorante, where the menu features a good amount of reasonably-priced items. The restaurant is charmingly cramped and makes you wonder how they manage to cook all the food they do in the little kitchen towards the back. But somehow, the restaurant's staff pulls it off, preparing fresh, flavorful food that will leave you happily stuffed by the end of your meal. My recommendation? The Chicken Cacciatore, which you can order with a pasta of your choice. The peppers and mushrooms accented my chicken and linguine perfectly and I actually found myself very close to finishing up the entire plate because I didn't want to waste the delicious ingredients.

Sweet: It seems that everyone must stop at Mike's Pastry for dessert and I will say that the items there live up to the hype. I had one of the richest chocolate chip cannolis ever and it was absolutely delicious. That being said, you should take note of the fact that Mike's is bound to be very overcrowded if you visit close to meal times. There are some tables for sitting, but the store gets so crowded that there are literally lines out the door while people order their desserts. It's best to do what my friends and I did: go in, order your dessert and take it to go. On the bright side, chances are you'll need some time after lunch or dinner to build up an appetite for dessert, so it's a win-win approach.

Quincy Market: This magnificent food court area, located in downtown Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, is perpetually crowded with people hovering around tables in order to get a seat. But it does offer a wide array of food, including breakfast items, Greek, Indian, and East Asian food. There are also dessert and smoothie places, and of course, you can always get some New England clam chowder. This is a great place to go, especially when people are in the mood to try different things. Case in point: I helped myself to a chicken kebab wrap and a smoothie, while another friend helped herself to some sushi and clam chowder in addition to her own smoothie.

It doesn't really matter where you go and it's not necessary to visit all the locations I've mentioned above. At the end of the day, you're bound to find plenty of places to eat and shop in if you're visiting Boston. As long as you're well prepared to do a good amount of eating, you'll be all set!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Travelblogue: A Bostonian Fourth of July

As I get older, I often find myself thinking that most major holidays never really live up to the hype. Christmas still manages to remain fun because of a yearly tradition that my college friends and I have established. But other holidays like New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July always end up falling flat and are never quite as hopping as I'd like them to be.

This year, a group of friends and I decided that it was time we changed that. And so we decided to go to Boston for the Fourth of July, so that we could witness the annual fireworks show, while also giving ourselves the opportunity to explore a new place. The end result was a great success as we were able to have a good time, while also doing something that felt very traditional.

Boston is famous for its Fourth of July celebration, which features fireworks over the Charles River and a concert performed by the Boston Pops in an area known as the Esplanade. It seems that at least a few hundred thousand people turn up to view the show every year — hotels through Boston and Cambridge are booked by visitors hoping to catch a glimpse. From what I witnessed that day, people seem to get really pumped for the show. Our own hotel, the Boston Marriott Cambridge Hotel, provided all guests with free red and blue glow sticks for the celebration. And of course, there were plenty of people peddling glow sticks and other light-up items when night fell.

Being that there were thousands of people in town to take part in the festivities, and also considering the fact that we wanted to take time to explore the city instead of just camping out for a spot, my friends and I didn't try to stay where the main events were taking place. We actually decided to go back to our hotel in Cambridge, which is a choice I'm glad we made after seeing the crowd trying to get on the T after the show.

This is actually a move that I would advise many people to do, if they're staying in Cambridge over the Fourth or don't want to try fighting for a spot near the Pops' stage. The area along the Charles River is absolutely wonderful, lined with grass and trees, providing people with plenty of space to sit down with picnic blankets and whatnot. As we were walking through the crowd, trying to find a spot, it also appeared as though the city had completely shut down. There were no cars to be seen, just hoards of people walking around with friends, family members and their pets. And while I'm not from Boston, I have to admit that I felt a sense of camaraderie as I realized that we were all there for the same thing.

My friends and I finally made our way over to the Mass Ave. Bridge — also known as the Harvard Bridge or M.I.T. Bridge — just a little while before the fireworks began. It should also be noted that the Mass Ave. Bridge is one of those places lined with extra speakers, so that those who are far away from the Pops can still hear them perform. It was definitely incredible to hear the famous orchestra play on such a momentous occasion and so I would recommend that people interested in hearing the music do some research about areas that might feature these speakers.

By the end of the night, I felt that our efforts to see the show had been well worth the experience. We were lucky enough to get a spot on the bridge that ended up being rather close to the fireworks. And while you could say that fireworks are rampant throughout the U.S. on the Fourth of July, there's something special about seeing them while standing over a river near one of the country's most famous historical cities. As a variety of music — including some well-meaning, yet cheesy inspirational tunes and the much-loved Dropkick Murphys' "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" — blared in accompaniment to the bursting fireworks that night, I realized that when they're done right, the holidays can still be pretty spectacular.

Friday, June 20, 2008

R.E.M. Prove Their Legendary Status, 6.19.08

New York's Madison Square Garden was the place to be Thursday night, thanks to a brilliant performance by the legendary R.E.M. Featuring a lively light show, funky camera work relayed on projection screens, and a hefty dose of biting political commentary courtesy of singer Michael Stipe, the concert proved that the band still knows exactly how to hold a crowd's attention.

Stipe was in top form throughout the night, dressed in a sharp suit while lithely dancing around the stage, smiling and occasionally making self-deprecating remarks. "This song is like from the year 1740," he joked while introducing "Ignoreland" from 1992's Automatic for the People, and at another point, he even asked one of the audience members if he needed earplugs since he looked so "miserable."

While R.E.M. did play a good amount of material from their latest album, Accelerate, they also threw in some old favorites and even some lesser-known tracks. The band actually played three songs from 1984's Reckoning, with bass player Mike Mills singing and taking center stage for "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville." Newer songs such as "Man-Sized Wreath," "I'm Gonna DJ," and "Supernatural Superserious" fared well as they were packed with an extra dose of energy that made them sound even better live. Stipe's voice was incredibly clear and sounded remarkably unchanged as it resonated throughout the venue.

Of course, classic hits such as "The One I Love" and "Losing My Religion" were greeted with some of the most excited cheers heard during the night. I have to admit that cliche as it may seem, hearing thousands of people sing along to those songs was incredible, and a perfect indication of why major arena shows can be a ton of fun even when you don't have the best seats in the house.

Though he was very much the rock star, striking grandiose poses while performing some of the band's biggest hits, Stipe also remained humble and credited other talents. He gave multiple shout outs to the night's opening acts, Modest Mouse and The National, even commenting that he found it hard not to steal ideas from them because they were "just that good." And he also gave concertgoers some love towards the end of the show, asking for the house lights to go on so that he could see his "people."

Former The Smiths-guitarist Johnny Marr — now a member of Modest Mouse — was invited onstage for the last portion of the encore. As a fan of both The Smiths and R.E.M., it was really thrilling for me to see Marr alongside Peter Buck, considering this was also my first R.E.M. show. The concert finally came to an end with an exhilarating rendition of "Man on the Moon," and judging by the smiles on people's faces as they left the venue, it was obvious that they had indeed been "having fun."

Overall, it was just a really great night for music fans, as the previously mentioned opening acts also put on some very strong performances. Brooklyn's The National went on at 7 p.m. sharp and while the crowd was only just assembling at this time, the band received a very positive reaction during their 10-song set. Each song was accented by singer Matt Berninger's rich baritone and gloriously textured instrumentals. Cheers were audible as the band launched into "Fake Empire," the opener from their latest album, Boxer. And in a moment that foreshadowed some of Stipe's later political commentary, Berninger said that their last song — "Mr. November" — was "for Barack."

Modest Mouse also kept the entertainment going before R.E.M took the stage. Avoiding their biggest hit "Float On" during their set, the band did play material from their latest album, along with songs like "Dance Hall" and "Satin in a Coffin." The set was peppered with a liberal use of the banjo, two drum kits, and Johnny Marr's guitar work. At one point, maracas were literally flying through the air so that they could be used intermittently during one of the songs.

Though all three bands represent slightly different eras of music, all were able to put on cohesive shows that highlighted their strengths, making it an impressive lineup worth the ticket price. And though they've been around for years, even releasing some poorly-received material, one thing was certain after seeing R.E.M. — they are still a band that should be seen at least once in one's lifetime.

(You may also view this review here).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Album Review: Coldplay Start Getting Back on Track

Artist: Coldplay
Album: Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

I've been listening to Coldplay ever since they released Parachutes and while I never felt they were a particularly brilliant band, I always enjoyed listening to their catalog for what it was — pretty, mellow music that allowed me to relax. But I will confess that 2005's X & Y disappointed me. Unlike its predecessor (A Rush of Blood to the Head), which featured a number of solid yet simplistic piano ballads, X & Y was just too watered down and chockfull of unmemorable songs that kept blending into each other.

I listened to that album a few times while driving and a couple of times when I needed to listen to something that would help me sleep. And then I just tucked it away, never giving it much of a chance to sit inside my CD player.

That being said, the band seems to be getting back on its feet with Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, released earlier this week. This latest effort is what many are referring to as Coldplay's "experimental" album, which may not be a completely accurate description. But while each song still has the basic elements of the average Coldplay tune — pianos, guitars, occasionally trite lyrics, and repetitive chord sequences — various other elements save the record from turning into another X & Y.

Whereas previous Coldplay efforts have relied on generic pop melodies, the band does manage to mix things up by including Middle Eastern tonalities on "Yes," catchy orchestration on the title track, distorted guitars in "Violet Hill," and pounding organs and hand claps on "Lost." Brian Eno's production work also makes its mark here; the guitar flourishes and climactic conclusions (as heard on "42") have shades of U2.

While most of these elements enhance the band's sound, the album has its weaknesses. Lyrics such as "You might be a big fish in a little pond," can take a person out of the moment while listening to the otherwise catchy "Lost." And there are moments where one gets the sense that Coldplay might be trying a bit too hard to shake off some of their insecurities. The decision to combine two songs in "Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love" seems a bit misguided — there's too much of a disparity between the uptempo first half and the more subdued second half. If anything "Reign of Love" might have been better as a hidden track at the end of the album.

At the end of the day, Viva La Vida... isn't quite perfect, but it does signal the return of what seems to be a more confident band. Hopefully, Coldplay will figure out a way to balance their "old" and "new" sound as they continue recording in the future. But for now, they've produced a perfectly appealing album that will probably get plenty of play in a majority of iPods and CD players for quite some time.

Grade: B

Monday, June 16, 2008

Rooney Heat Up Irving Plaza (NY), 6.15.08

Summer doesn't "officially" start until the end of this week, but L.A. band Rooney brought a piece of the season to The Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza on Sunday night, playing an upbeat set for a venue full of screaming fans.

The band played a hefty mix of songs from their self-titled debut and last year's Calling the World, along with a couple of covers and a bonus track titled "Get Away." Fans greeted each song with enthusiasm, singing along to favorites such as "Blueside,""I'm Shakin',"Are You Afraid?" and "When Did Your Heart Go Missing?" I actually had a chance to see Rooney last year before Calling the World was released, and while the music was really catchy, it was a lot more fun to hear the songs now that I'm more familiar with them.

The music was a perfect blend of pop rock, occasionally psychedelic guitars and keyboards, and some very '80s-inspired riffs. Lead singer Robert Schwartzman was oozing with charm throughout the night and was clearly well aware of his adoring fans, even teasing them at one point by pretending he was about to stage dive.

The night ended with a two-song encore, with Schartzman playfully spraying a bottle of water into the crowd as the band took the stage again. After performing "If it Were Up To Me" from their debut, Rooney launched into a rollicking cover of The Beatles' "Helter Skelter," with guitarist Taylor Locke and drummer Ned Brower trading vocal duties. As the song came to an end, Schwartzman leaned into the crowd and fans swarmed him, reaching to touch his guitar and hair.

While Rooney's set was exciting in itself, their opening acts also put on some very strong performances. The Bridges, consisting of four siblings and their cousin Brittany Painter on lead vocals, were on first and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. The band played songs featuring a good amount of piano-centric pop and lush harmonies from their recently-released debut album, Limits of the Sky. Judging by the cheers and applause, it seems that a lot of people appreciated their set.

That being said, it was Locksley — the second opening act — who really seemed to set the tone for the night. The Brooklyn-based group were on fire from the moment they took the stage, jumping all over the place, and climbing on top of amps and speakers as their set went on. The music was equally energetic, guitar-heavy and full of pounding rhythms. Their cover of The White Stripes' "Hotel Yorba" was a perfect illustration of their garage rock influences.

Locksley managed to keep the crowd screaming with excitement throughout their performance and at one point, it almost felt a bit like the second coming of Beatlemania. Thanks to a mix of high energy, good music, and fun-filled audience interaction, it seems that the members of Locksley made some new fans during the night — a pretty impressive feat, considering how many opening acts tend to leave audiences cold.

(You may also view this review here).

Monday, June 2, 2008

Clinic Get the Bowery Bopping, 5.31.08

Eclectic Liverpool quartet, Clinic, played the last of a series of recent US tour dates Saturday night at New York City's Bowery Ballroom. The place was pretty packed and the band didn't disappoint, delivering an hour of upbeat music that had attendees bopping along to the foot-stomping rhythms that pervaded the venue.

Clad in Hawaiian shirts and their trademark surgical masks, Clinic were able to play a hefty mix of music from their quirky catalog. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Ade Blackburn informed us that they would actually be playing two sets for us that night. The first consisted of the entire tracklisting from their latest album, Do It!, while the second set featured various songs from previous albums. The newer material was fantastic live and all the songs seemed to carry an extra jolt of energy, while still sounding similar to their studio counterparts.

While the audience was enthusiastic and seemed to have a lot of fun listening to the new album's material, I think we were all even more excited during the second set. "The Second Line" from 2000's Internal Wrangler was greeted by loud cheers and many shouted along with Blackburn when he called out "No!" intermittently while performing the title track from 2002's Walking With Thee. The excitement prevailed during the encore, which the band kicked off with "The Return of Evil Bill."

The night featured a mixture of crunchy guitar and organ sounds, accompanied by fast, tight rhythms — and you could hear elements of punk, garage rock, and even the blues in the music. But even though most of Clinic's music is an amalgamation of sounds and genres, there is something unique and fresh about it, which makes it a lot of fun to hear live.

Opening act BBQ's set was also pretty solid and played a good part in loosening up the crowd a bit before Clinic took the stage. BBQ — which is essentially Mark Sultan, a one-man band playing guitar and a partial drumkit — played a mostly continuous set, peppered with occasional humorous banter. At one point, it looked as though his set was going to have to end early, after a faulty amp finally failed him about fifteen minutes into his performance. The audience actually seemed sad to see him go, but BBQ was able to return and complete his portion of the show.

As the set came to an end, BBQ poked fun at the audience for simply standing around, saying that people could dance, clap, or even sulk during his next song, if that was the "cool" thing to do. Luckily, he managed to make most attendees laugh, just in time to enjoy themselves even more when Clinic took the stage.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Wire Rock the Seaport, 5.30.08

New York City's South Street Seaport is an area where you can find all sorts of things — food, shopping, and the occasional free concert. This past Friday night was no exception as post-punk legends, Wire, were on hand to kick off a series of free summer shows. And while three decades have passed since their debut album's release, the band still has what it takes to draw a crowd and play good music.

Despite the fact that singer/guitarist Colin Newman occasionally referred to a laptop, presumably to look up the setlist and some lyrics, the band really managed to stay on point throughout the night. The music was catchy and roughly abrupt, still retaining remnants of the revolutionary quality found in their earlier records. Interestingly, the band members didn't play as much early material as one might have expected. "Three Girl Rhumba" and "Mannequin" from 1977's Pink Flag, which are probably familiar even to those who don't really listen to Wire, were noticeably absent from the set.

In fact, Wire took Friday night's show as an opportunity to play material from their newest album, Object 47, which is set for a July release. The new tracks that were performed included "One of Us," "Mekon Headman," and "Perspex Icon." Even though these songs were unfamiliar, I personally felt they blended in well with the rest of the band's discography. The crowd around me, which consisted of older and younger fans, also seemed to enjoy them quite a bit.

While the band was pretty laid back for the most part, we had a chance to witness some onstage banter. Bassist Graham Lewis was the most energetic one of the bunch, interjecting the occasional sarcastic remark in between songs. And at one point, the audience was thanked for not seeing the Eagles — who were performing at Madison Square Garden that night — since they had been "the enemy" back in 1977.

The night ended with two enthusiastically-received encores, which featured "Lowdown," "12 XU," and the title track from Pink Flag. There was something electrifying about those final moments, indicating that Wire's members have not lost their edge, and making it a solid start to a summer of free music.

(You may also view this review here).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Pop Perceptions: In Defense of Indy

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is hitting theaters this Thursday and the Internet is going crazy with all sorts of mixed buzz. Whether I'm on a messageboard or the Yahoo homepage, I find myself surrounded by people debating whether or not it will "suck," along with posts mentioning which critics think it's fantastic and which ones think it's absolute trash.

We're only two days away from the movie's release, but I still feel the need to say a little something about this.

I have to admit that I've been honestly baffled by many people's premature needs to bash the film. Okay, so the critics who have been releasing their reviews have a right to their opinions. They've seen the film and are now in a place where they can make their judgments. But what about the rest of the population?

For months and months, I've been hearing people go on about how Harrison Ford's too old, how this movie will be horrible thanks to the fact that George Lucas mucked up his own Star Wars movies, and how they absolutely refuse to watch such sacrilege.

Fine, I can understand why people would worry about the potential ruin of a well-loved fictional character. But I think there's a point where people are often a bit too entitled to their opinions. I too was a little concerned when I heard about Indy 4. I'm a fan of the original trilogy and while I was excited to that I would get to see Indy on the big screen, since I was too young to see the first three movies in theaters, I was definitely worried that the overall tone of the original films would be lost. At the same time, I was worried that they would try too hard to recapture Indy's "glory days." These are valid concerns that I shared and might still share with Indy's current batch of haters.

But in the case of Indy 4, I feel that there is a select group of people that is just intent on badmouthing the film without any concrete evidence of why it's bad. Yes, Harrison Ford is much older now, but the film is also set about two decades after the first three movies. Previews indicate that Indy will make at least a couple of remarks regarding his age. Yes, George Lucas is still associated with the franchise, but he's not the director, and there might even be a chance that the guy has learned something from the backlash against the Star Wars prequels. I'm not saying this is certain, but you never know.

And while some things have changed in Indy's realm, others have not.

In fact, articles and previews don't really indicate that this film's tone is terribly different from the one found in the original three. Indy still wears the classic fedora. It looks like they've really tried not to overdo it with the CGI and the filming style seems to be classic Spielberg. There might be a few corny jokes, but even the first three movies had their corny moments.

Look, the point is, these movies have never been great intellectual masterpieces. They're just great adventure movies, with a really likable main character. Some of the characters in the original trilogy — i.e. Willie in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — are downright shrill and mostly irritating, indicating that even some of the well-loved movies of the past have their flaws.

Was it necessary for Spielberg and co. to make this fourth installment for the franchise? Maybe not. But relying on your preconceptions and bandying about critics' reviews does not offer any evidence that this is, in fact, a bad film. Nor is it a good way to assert your opinion. Watch it, and then judge. And if popcorn movies of this variety just aren't your thing, don't bother seeing it. But don't go around pushing your views on others and looking down on them just because they're the least bit willing to give the movie a chance.

As for me, I'm excited for this film. I know there's a chance that it might not meet whatever expectations I might have for it, but I want to watch something fun to kick off the summer. And if it's great, that's fantastic. If it's terrible, I might be a little disappointed, but at least I won't be letting any predetermined vitriol take over my life.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Superheroes Take Over the Met

In recent years, spring and summer have become the seasons belonging to the superhero. Year after year, Hollywood studios release films featuring old favorites like Spider-Man and the X-Men. This year, we already have Iron Man creating a buzz in theaters, and later on we'll have Batman returning in the highly-anticipated The Dark Knight.

Superheroes are everywhere and as a result, they're now being taken a little more seriously in other aspects of our society, including the art world. And last week, a special exhibition honoring the influence of superheroes opened in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was able to check out the exhibition, Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, over the weekend. While it was a little smaller than I expected it would be, it was still a neat experience and I'm glad I had a chance to see the exhibition.

The exhibition, brought about by the support of Giorgio Armani and Condé Nast, aims to reveal the connections between fashion and the superhero. Basically, as the Met's Web site puts it, "the superhero serves as the ultimate metaphor for fashion and its ability to empower and transform the human body."

The folks at the Met organized the exhibition by themes, which include "The Aerodynamic Body," "The Armored Body," and "The Mutant Body." Visitors get the chance to view actual superhero costumes from films alongside clothing designed by the likes of Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and the late Gianni Versace.

The exhibition starts off with Superman, showing us how the "S" logo on his chest is really not all that different from the logos we see on brand-name clothing. But the coolest part for all the geeks visiting the exhibition is the opportunity to view a mannequin dressed as Clark Kent transform into Superman. The Superman costume seen here is the same one worn by Christopher Reeve back in the 1970s.

"The Graphic Body" portion of the exhibition revolves around Spider-Man. One gets to see two of the Spidey costumes from the recent films, along with designer gowns that really draw upon the spirit of this superhero due to the inclusion of a "web" design. Sidenote: the Spider-Man costumes seen in the films really do have that interesting rubbery appearance. It seems that CGI hasn't played much of a part in enhancing the costume's look.

There are of course, quite a few more things that I could mention, but I'd prefer not to turn this entry into a laundry list. So I'll just mention a few more interesting aspects of the exhibition. "The Mutant Body" was a neat display, featuring gowns that contained some animal-like elements. I was also able to take a look at the application used as the Mystique "costume" in the X-Men movies — and honestly, I can't imagine what a pain it must have been to both apply and remove it from one's body.

And last but not least, I'd like to mention two things that were personal highlights for me — getting to see the new batsuit worn by Christian Bale in the upcoming The Dark Knight, along with Michelle Pfeiffer's catsuit from Batman Returns. The former was just really neat to see, especially since the costume involves some redesigning that means live-action Batman should have less of a stiff neck when we see him in the movies. But looking at it in person also helped me understand why so many actors have had issues wearing the many incarnations of the batsuit to begin with. Meanwhile Pfeiffer's catsuit, which also shows how tiny the actress must have been while filming, is practically a relic at this stage. Slightly battered and falling apart at the seams, it really is something that belongs in a museum even though it's not that old to begin with.

All in all, the exhibition was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. So if you're the least bit interested in superheroes, fashion or both, and find yourself at the Met between now and early September, I'd recommend checking it out.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Verve Play Second NYC Show, 4.29.08

After surviving multiple breakups, The Verve are back. The British rockers, best known for their late-nineties single "Bittersweet Symphony," played the second of two shows at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. It's been years since the band, currently in its original four-person lineup, last toured the United States. Despite this, Tuesday night's concert proved that they can still put on a great live show.

The Verve opened the night with "A New Decade," the first track on 1995's A Northern Soul. Lead singer Richard Ashcroft's voice was clear and resonated throughout the venue, holding its own against the psychedelic swirling sounds of the accompanying music. The setlist featured a large number of songs from 1997's Urban Hymns, even though the band has plenty of older material along with plans to release a new album this year. That being said, the band did play a few older songs that included a b-side and "Already There" from their 1993 full-length debut, A Storm in Heaven. They also included two new songs: "Sit and Wonder" and "Love is Pain."

Though I didn't have the best seats in the house, it was clear that the band members were having a good time. Ashcroft was a mesmerizing free spirit, lightly dancing on his bare feet as he pumped his fists and motioned to the crowd. He continued to prance around slightly even when he picked up the guitar for various songs. Ashcroft was also fairly chatty throughout the night. In addition to voicing the occasional "thank you" and making a slight public service announcement that warned against dropping acid in the studio, he told the crowd a variety of anecdotes, referring to stopping at the Chelsea Hotel during their first time in New York and a subsequent disastrous gig. He ended the story by saying that the experience had been great anyway, since it was New York after all, resulting in a roar of approval from the crowd.

Guitarist Nick McCabe and bass player Simon Jones were also fairly energized, and shared a warm moment towards the end of the night when the two of them hugged at the conclusion of "Come On." While the night had its mellow moments with songs like "Sonnet" and "The Drugs Don't Work," the set grew increasingly upbeat as the show went on. "Rolling People" was a raucous hit with the crowd, with flashing lights accentuating the beats at the start of the song. "Lucky Man" was also incredibly popular with the concertgoers and it seems the entire crowd was singing along. And "Come On," the last song before the encore, turned into controlled chaos in its final minutes with lights flashing at every millisecond to accompany the cacophonous music. But while it was neat to witness this, it might not be a bad idea for the band to opt for a less intensified light show during the end of that song.

The Verve finally performed "Bittersweet Symphony" at the end of the night, playing the song first during a two-song encore. Screams echoed through the crowd as the familiar string samples filled the air and many sang along as Ashcroft, donned in a black coat that was slightly reminiscent of the song's iconic music video, launched into the verse. While Ashcroft performed with enthusiasm, he stopped a couple of times, choosing to let the crowd sing during some of the song's crucial moments. Cliche as it may sound, I couldn't help singing my heart out during the song as it brought back a lot of memories. Though the song is considered a classic at this point, it's hard to believe that it's actually a decade old.

The night finally ended with a performance of "Love is Pain," one of the aforementioned new songs. It was an upbeat way to end the night. The song contained a dance element that made me wonder if the band is going through some kind of New Order phase, but people seemed to have a mixed reaction to it as they left the show. The sample used during the song was a bit much, but I am interested to hear what the final cut will sound like if the band chooses to record it for the next album.

All in all, it was a great night and it looks as though The Verve will be able to make a pretty solid comeback. Even though they didn't play a lot of new material during the show, the band sounded fresh and seemed happy — a good sign for the future.

(You may also view this review here).

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cry-Baby: A Broadway Review

Despite my close proximity to New York City, I've never really bothered going to Broadway shows. The first time I went to a show was about four years ago when I saw Hairspray. I really enjoyed the musical, since I was a fan of the original John Waters movie. So I was pretty interested when a friend of mine told me about an opportunity to go see Cry-Baby, another John Waters-inspired musical that just opened on Broadway. It has been a while since I watched the movie it's based on, but I also remember enjoying it quite a bit.

The Marquis Theater, which is where the play is running right now, was pretty packed when we went last night. We were also fortunate enough to have orchestra seats, which made viewing the show a lot more pleasurable. But while I found the musical fairly cute and did laugh a few times during the night, I have to admit that it's not the best show I've ever seen. After all, even though I haven't gone to many Broadway shows, I have seen plenty of amateur productions and movies that have been based on them. The best shows have the types of songs that can't get out of your head for days, the types of songs you might find yourself singing for no particular reason.

Unfortunately, Cry-Baby wasn't as memorable as it could have been. The musical, set in the 1950s, features plenty of songs that are derivative of the era's popular hits. But the songs lack a flavor that could help the musical carve a stronger identity for itself. And while some of the show's dialogue had its witty, mildly vulgar moments, it lacked the makings of an instant classic. Though I laughed heartily at a few lines, there were also a few parts where an obvious joke just fell flat.

That being said, the choreography did shine on occasion. I particularly liked elements of "Girl, Can I Kiss You?" and "Jailyard Jubilee" had the whole crowd applauding thunderously at the end. A dance sequence that required the men in the cast to tapdance while wearing license plates at the bottom of their shoes was incredibly energetic and well done. In addition, I did enjoy some of the supporting cast members quite a bit. Harriet Harris — who I personally remember most for her role in an early episode of The X-Files — was great as the old-fashioned Mrs. Vernon-Williams, delivering many of her lines in excellent deadpan. And Alli Mauzey, who played delusional Lenora, a girl vying for Cry-Baby's affections, was fantastic. While her insane-girl routine could have easily worn thin, she just became hilariously loopy as the musical progressed, and got some very loud applause during the curtain call.

But ultimately, as I said, the musical was just "cute." It just couldn't match the quirkiness of Hairspray and even though John Waters is a creative consultant for this production, it lacked the crass ridiculousness of his work. While it was a fun night out and a change from my usual routine for me to go see it, I'm not sure Cry-Baby will have much longevity on Broadway.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The French Kicks Complete Mercury Lounge Residency, 4.15.08

With their latest album currently available online via iTunes and hitting stores in May, The French Kicks are keeping themselves busy with a series of tour dates. On Tuesday night, the band completed a three-week residency at New York City's Mercury Lounge by playing an intimate, sold-out show.

The band took the stage shortly after 11 p.m. with the trademark opening drum riff of "One More Time" filling the room before frontman Nick Stumpf launched into the song's mournfully melodious vocals.

Stumpf crooned into his mic throughout the night, jerking his body around slightly to match the tight rhythms of the accompanying music. While his movements were far from violent, he was clearly feeling the music, especially when he managed to knock the mic stand offstage in the middle of "One More Time." Luckily, no one was hurt and the show continued without a hitch as a concertgoer shoved the stand back.

The French Kicks showcased numerous songs from Swimming, their newest record, with Stumpf simply introducing a couple of the songs according to their track numbers. The new material, which isn't a tremendous departure from the band's previous work, featured infectious elements of pop and garage rock and was well-received by the audience.

But the band also made it a point to include earlier material throughout the show. Stumpf referred to songs like "Crying Just for Show" from One Time Bells as an "oldie," and the audience cheered excitedly and bopped to the beat when the band played the title track from 2004's The Trial of the Century. Towards the end of the night, the band went the old-school route with a high-spirited cover of The Troggs' "With a Girl Like You."

Stumpf remained a gracious performer throughout the night, naming his bandmates both during the beginning and end of the show, and thanking the crowd at the end of numerous songs. While he kept his hands free of instruments at times, he spent the majority of the concert taking alternate turns at playing the guitar, keyboard and bass. Similarly, guitarist Josh Wise took over lead vocals for a few songs, indicating that this is a band that doesn't mind mixing things up from time to time.

It seems the night was ultimately a success for the band, who came back for a two-song encore as the lingering audience cheered for more. The French Kicks may not make the kind of music that can capture large audiences and fill up stadiums. But their somewhat minimalist, catchy hooks are well suited for smaller settings, where their live shows are capable of surpassing the energy of their mellower studio recordings.

(You may also check out this review here.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Emerging from "Unaccustomed Earth"

Jhumpa Lahiri — author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake — made an appearance at Barnes and Noble's Union Square location in Manhattan last Tuesday. The appearance marked the release of her latest collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth.

The evening itself ended up being much shorter than I anticipated, due to the fact that the Barnes and Noble staff seemed eager to get everyone out of the store as quickly as possible. I couldn't blame them, as a rather sizable crowd had gathered for the reading, but I wish there had been time to hear more from Lahiri. After she read from the title story of Unaccustomed Earth for about 20 minutes, Lahiri answered only three questions from the audience before the book signing began.

Though I was mildly disappointed that there wasn't much time for a more expansive discussion, I am glad that I went. I actually wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on The Namesake, so I felt as though things had finally come full circle.

And senior thesis aside, I do have a special place in my heart for Lahiri's first two books. The Namesake was the first Indian-American novel I'd ever bothered tackling and it was exciting for me to read about characters that had a background so similar to my own (even though I'm not of Bengali origins). This prompted me to seek out a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, which I found beautiful and tightly constructed. As a result, I found myself eagerly anticipating the arrival of Unaccustomed Earth.

Having completed the short-story collection this weekend, I am happy to say that I enjoyed it. Lahiri's prose remains clear as she continues delving into issues of identity, familial and romantic relationships, and isolation. I found the title story and the three-part "Hema and Kaushik" the strongest in the collection — the latter had an interesting narrative style and both stories addressed the subject of loss in a way that triggered my emotions. There is a strong emphasis, as seen in The Namesake, on the lives of second generation Bengali Americans as they build their lives in a world so different from the one their parents grew up in.

But while I could relate to aspects of these stories and while I would give Lahiri's efforts a solid B+, I realized that I did have a few issues — not necessarily with the book itself, but perhaps with how it might be received by the public.

Lahiri has not broken any new ground with this collection. This is something that she herself has admitted, even saying that she tends to write about what she knows (typically upper middle class Bengali Americans with advanced degrees in engineering, literature, and so on).

In a way, this is perfectly fine. It would be hypocritical of me to find fault with this when so many authors have become famous for writing about the same subject repeatedly. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the world of the "beautiful and the damned." Jane Austen wrote about romance in a particular portion of English society. And yet both are celebrated as great authors to this day.

That being said, a lot of people are beginning to point out the repetition in Lahiri's writing as a flaw of some kind, as if she's the only person in the world to do this. And though I can understand why she focuses on this tiny sliver of Indian and Indian-American society, I have to admit that I find it a bit problematic as well. I don't take fault with her writing, but I worry about the way the outside world might view Indians and Indian immigrants as a whole.

Much of Lahiri's writing depends on presenting readers with a glimpse into the Bengali American experience as she knows it, causing the press, critics, and some of her readers to focus rather intently on her "Indian identity." And because of that, I often worry that the public is getting a rather one-note view of the Indian diaspora. On the surface, many of Lahiri's stories tend to be bleak, filled with characters who struggle with their dual cultural identities and fight with their parents or children. Most of the marriages are unhappy; the few real love stories have a tendency to end tragically or with significant others cheating on each other. While Lahiri herself never seems to be trying to imply that this is what it means to be an Indian American, I am beginning to wonder if others might start viewing this particular group of immigrants as a particularly miserable bunch.

I guess my main issue here isn't with Lahiri herself then, but with the lack of variety in diasporic fiction. I love reading books by other authors of South Asian descent, because it gives me a chance to know that the world of fiction now has room for people that are somewhat similar to myself. But while there are other South Asian authors in the world, aside from Lahiri, I really don't think there is enough variety in the fiction offered to the general public.

The majority of stories out there — whether they're written by Punjabis, Bengalis, or Gujaratis — tend to present Indian immigrants and their children as people perpetually struggling with their cultural identities and a sense of loss. And while loss is always a part of the immigrant experience, I can't help but wonder why we can't see a more diverse array of Indian American characters in fiction. Even when the authors try to present other themes in their works, these themes get tied up in the concept of being Indian or being an immigrant, leaving the public with what I feel is a very skewed perception of a particular society.

And so while I admire authors like Lahiri and continue reading their work, I'd really like to see more diversity in diasporic fiction out there today. A little less angst could go a long way.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Caribou Play NYC's Bowery Ballroom, 3.28.08

Caribou put on a high-energy show Friday night in New York City's Bowery Ballroom, providing the packed venue with a night of eclectic and solid musicianship.

It was my first time seeing Caribou, masterminded by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Dan Snaith, in a live capacity. Even though I don't fall into the category of die-hard fan, I was curious to hear how the music translated live. I'm happy to report that those of us attending the concert were not left disappointed, as many of the songs sounded even better than their studio counterparts.

The set up was simple enough. Snaith and three more musicians (Andy Lloyd, Ryan Smith, and Brad Weber) played a set of approximately 90 minutes, rarely pausing to speak to the audience and barely creating a scene. Psychedelic graphics were projected onto a backdrop, mirroring the sixties-inspired aspects of Caribou's music.

The music itself was gorgeous, with lush and textured instrumentation by a band that clearly wants to sound its very best. The setlist included a variety of songs from Caribou's catalogue including the breezy "Melody Day," "Sundialing," and the recent single "She's the One" from 2007's Andorra. While there were a few occasions where the vocals seemed to get drowned out by the instrumentation, this didn't hurt the songs' overall sound, especially since the vocals don't tend to be the main focus of Caribou's music.

The percussion was easily the highlight of the night, with the drum kits set up right in the middle of the stage. Drummer Brad Weber was a powerful performer who only broke out of his trancelike state a few times to smile for an appreciative crowd. The intensity of his drumming increased throughout the night and at one point, culminated with him actually clamoring on top of his drum kit with concertgoers shouting, "Incredible!"

And of course, Snaith was equally inspiring throughout his performance, deftly switching from guitar, to keyboard, to drums throughout the night — he even whipped out the woodwinds at one point! But once again, it was best when he took on the drums, going head to head with Weber. The dueling-drum effect had the whole crowd bopping their heads and swaying to the rhythms. I've been to other shows with incredible drumming, but this was one of the first times I found myself so fascinated by it. It's pretty rare for percussion to be given the front-and-center treatment, which may be why I found it so mesmerizing.

Caribou ended the night on a high note, coming back for a one-song encore where a bandmate announced that Snaith had turned 30 years old while performing on stage. After yet another energetic percussive performance, the band left the stage, to cries of "Happy Birthday!" from the crowd.

The Fuck Buttons, who opened for Caribou, were also pretty fantastic and eclectic. Using electronic equipment and percussion instruments, the duo played a gapless 40-minute set that combined tribal rhythms, the sampled sounds of spacey chimes and grinding guitars, along with angry distorted vocals that never detracted from the music itself. The set maintained a moody atmosphere throughout, even as it grew increasingly energized via the presence of thumping beats.

The act was able to get a somewhat positive reaction out of some audience members, which is a promising sign considering how many opening acts have left the crowd cold at other concerts I've attended. Though the set did feel like it was dragging slightly towards the end, the Fuck Buttons put on a strong performance, contributing to a great night for music fans who were looking for something that was both fun and experimental.

(You may also check out this review here).