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.