Monday, January 19, 2009

Every Voice Lifted And Singing

Yes, The Most Soulful White Man To Ever Dig Grooves Into Vinyl Was On The Mall Too...

In the bevy of events planned for this weekend / week-start of the whole world's singing “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” with the “B”-side of “Funky President”, the “We Are One” concert on the Mall was the one event I was not necessarily up for. Outdoor concerts just generally sort of leave me a bit cold. I hate how the elements can muck with the audio, and contending with huge crowds in the hundreds of thousands all trying to get home at once is a serious comedown. Did I say they leave me “cold”? Oh yes. They do. And in some cases, literally. Extreme heat is bad enough at an outdoor performance, as I found out at Diana Ross' infamous Central Park summer concert that was punctuated by a massive and sudden wind and thunderstorm, but ass-clenching cold is a whole other smoke. Or icicle if you will. If you've been in the northeast this week, you have no doubt felt the “Hawk's” bite as winter has moved in forcefully. It's cold here in D.C. too. Everyone who came down from New York brought ungainly-assed bags of extra coats and sweaterings. Getting about in the cold was going to be tough enough, but standing there in it for hours for a concert—I don't care WHO is singing—was going to be a bitch. But, with press credentials in tow for what would end up being amazing positioning, off we went.

D.C.'s Metro subway system is as I remembered it—pretty damned efficient, but still echoing of the seventies design styling so prevalent when it was primarily constructed. And folks, we used the hell out of it yesterday, and will today and tomorrow as getting around town by car is increasing in difficulty by the hour. Streets are being barricaded with huge cement slabs fork-lifted from flatbeds every few minutes to secure the place. We drove to the Hilton downtown, bailed there and walked down to Dupont Circle and nabbed the Metro to Metro Center where we transferred to the Vienna / Fairfax Blue (Orange) line and got off at Foggy Bottom—a place with a name so entertaining, that every American citizen should go there once, just to say “Yeah, I rode out to Foggy Bottom...yep.” in their lives. From there we trundled down to the Lincoln Memorial end of the National Mall where the concert was taking place. Let me amend that. Thanks to our press credentials, we were just off to the side of stage left and the orchestra pit. Close as all hell, and well within the view of the sharpshooters who binocular-swept the area for troublemakers. Press from all over the world was there, and some familiar faces, too. David Corn of Mother Jones stood next to me, peering over the riser at things going on, too. And then...

There was a bombastic blurt of the “HBO Feature Presentaion” theme from the loudspeakers, eliciting a massed leap of surprise from most, and perhaps a few sudden urine icicles of shock from others. Joe and Jill Biden came out from behind a moving, trompe l'oeil wall and I looked down the mall for the first time and saw the massive crowd in full for the first time—stretching all the way back to the Capitol dome. This was not Thursday night at Wingate Field in Brooklyn to see a much-decimated version of Morris Day and The Time kludge through four tunes with 5,000 folks “listening”.

This...was a crowd.

The Bidens stood at a podium and then The President-Elect and his wife were introduced and the Mall fairly twinkled like a Christmas tree as thousands of flashes went off to catch their entrance. The four stood there waving, and then went right—to their seats behind a bullet-proofed glass partition. No hates for the fellas as they sat with their wives and the adorable Malia and Sasha, who would tuck her head between her mom's left arm and side for warmth and a little extra love. Denzel Washington led off things as the first actor of many speak and quote Lincoln and other figures from history and how they related to the nascent Obama presidency.

These folks were interstitial—dropped in between the acts that performed. From a “Why him?” appearance by Kal Penn, to a “When Is he gonna break into a mock-metal guitar howl and air guitaring frenzy?” (But he never did!) Jack Black, to the odd but rewarding pairing of Steve Carell and Jamie Foxx for a reading, capped off by Foxx's eerie impersonation of Senator Obama's Grant Park speech, you never knew what was coming next. Tom Hanks' appearance brought not groans, but a few “Sigh! Well of course Tom Hanks. Mr. Gravitas...blah-blah-blah” from some in the crowd. But he was good. Typically every-mannish and good guy-esque, Hanks was Hanks and most said “Thanks”—for his statesmanly handling of his part.

The music though...the performers were a whole 'nother smoke.

The festivities kicked off with “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen doing the do with a live Gospel choir augmented blast of “The Rising”. Bruce was intense, guitar held high up, as is his want when he's really feeling it. A smart move to kick off with one of the best live performers in Rock over the last 25 years. A rousing start indeed!

Southern Soul Goddess Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi sang a stunning rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come”—with LaVette's Memphis horn-like voice, sweet and squalling, and Bon Jovi's noting for me, (for the first time) an odd, Sam Cooke-ish influence (more on Sam later). Jon Bon Jovi can flat-out sing. And didn't seem to look at the massive, lyric-crawling TelePrompter even once. End of story, folks.

Will.I.Am and Sheryl Crow, who last teamed up in Denver for the convention were a little off with their rendition of Bob Marley's “One Love”. A flubbed note here and there and a bit of disconnection between the two kind of washed that performance out. Eh.

Usher's and Shakira's opening take on Stevie Wonder's “Higher Ground” was a tight-wire act, with many wondering if Usher would break into some of his signature moves—spins, spine-snaps and crucifixion poses, and the rest fearing Shakira's “hips not lying” and Michelle suddenly having to slap hands over Malia and Sasha's eyes over the ensuing display. Thankfully, this did not transpire, but what did next was stupendous. The song's scribe, one Steveland Morris, a.k.a. Stevie Wonder emerged on piano and was as Stevielicious as ever, elevating the song to the ground its lyrics inferred. When Stevie gets to hammering out block chords with his left and hitting those jazzy light counterpoints with his right while singing, he starts killing it, folks. He had Barack and Michelle on their feet stomping and clapping the two and four with more perfection than any other President and First Lady in memory—sorry Bill and Hillary. Stevie found the pocket, and took everybody else in with him. He ended his time with a melismatic acapella singing of Barack Obama's name to the tune of his “Take Me Up To Paradise” as he was led off. Just an impromptu, emotion-filled blurt that kind of summed up the feelings of many of the assembled.

Garth Brooks was a high point. I've never seen him live, but have heard that he is a blazing performer. You'd best believe that. His energy is next-level. He ran to the lip of the stage and you thought he'd perhaps stage-dive into the orchestra pit, he was so fired up. He did a pitch-perfect “American Pie”, roaring through the song and looking heavenward with glee. He medley-segued into The Isley Brothers' “Shout!” with the massed hundreds of thousands pogo-ing in all the right spots as you looked down the Mall. He turned and “conducted” the choir along, cajoling them into a frenzy with the crowd. He had the press section jumping as well, and I admit to being fully ready to fall on my back and “waterbug” like John Belushi in “Animal House” when the time came...but thankfully for all gathered, I chilled. He ended his segment with a heart-pumping “We Shall Be Free”, with him skipping across the stage, whipping off his wireless mic and hat, and again Toscanini-ing the choir into the D.C. sky with their voices. I don't like “Country” music, but this son-of-a-bitch rocked the bells yesterday. I now understand those who've raved about his stage presence. Totally.

And then, there was James Taylor. “JT” is one of my favorite all-time performers. He is for me, one of the most naturally “soulful” White performers who've ever released a record or mounted a stage. You see, “Soul” isn't a sound. It's a feeling. There have been folks like The Righteous Brothers' Bill Medley who could sort of get the sound, if not quite the feel, and those like the dreadful Michael Bolton who think that “Soul” is vocal stress, grimacing, and histrionics. That ain't soul, foilks. Soul is a bouncy, singing from the very heart—its beat and the whoosh of blood after its thump. It's easy and just sort of natural. It's never forced. It skates between beats and lands after a timed hover...justso and makes you go “Mmmmph!” when it's right. James Taylor does this easily (Along with George Michael and the much unheralded Boz Scaggs). There's a Country, folk-y sound to him and a simultaneous and free-flowing bit of the Sam Cooke sound to his style. Little vocal runs on a lyric, doubling the beat, adding breaths and ad libs and landing on that “Mmmmph!” note. Taylor came out alone with his baby blue Strat singing his classic “Shower The People” and sounding as good as ever, his slightly nasal twang curling the ends of his smooth tenor notes as we've always heard it do. He was joined by the ubiquitous John Legend and Jennifer Nettles. Taylor was able to do more with less (in my mind), complementing on his fills unlike Legend and his tendency to over-sing when he should be supporting as a background player. Legend's leads on the Taylor chestnut kind of reeked of, “Watch me take this song and make it my own with its owner right next to me!”

It didn't work John...sorry.

Taylor wrested his song back from Legend's tune-twisting hands and brought it back to the sing-along it was meant to be—and not the one-upmanship show it could have become. And he exhibited more effortless “Soul” than JL could conjure with far more work involved. Take a note, br'uh...and take it easy. It won't hurt you.

The show was capped off with Springsteen returning for a rousing “This Land Is Your Land” with one of its venerable old-school interpreters, Pete Seeger, plaid-shirted and banjo in hand as you've always remembered him. As the song hit the three-quarter mark, Seeger swapped with Springsteen, letting The Boss hit the main melody as he took the 'tween moments to presage the next line quickly, neatly and with such a breezy effervescence that you easily forgot that he was 89 years old—until you remembered he's had that white beard for the entire forty years since you first saw him on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”. This unabashed former young Communist, and later civil rights activist whose decidely left-of-center views would hold him hard in the sights of wingnut central from the days of McCarthy until stood at Lincoln's feet as a guest of a president and was ushering him into office on a musical wave of positivity. The Boss, feeling it again brought his guitar up high, to hear those notes up close, and he looked over at Seeger and smiled a “This is unbelievable!” smile and closed his eyes to strum a little harder seemigly savor the moment. BeyoncĂ© would come out and lead all who performed—spoken and sung—in a well-turned “America, The Beautiful”, with Stevie chiming in on harmonica and everyone else assembled, including many on the Mall proper filling in “We Are The World” style in unison. The diva did not fail, saving up a big, high note whoop for the song's end while radiating an rare (for her) understated fabulousness. Not the most lyrically expressive singer, as she like Legend is also prone to over-tickle a melody to where nothing stands out, she turned in a nice job on this one. Still more eye candy to me (and what eye candy she is, honestly) than a voice to be reckoned with, she was surprisingly good. And that's a lot coming from me as I'm still hating on her a bit for her exuberant performance while in Destiny's Child for Bush's 2000 Inaugural Ball at the behest of Education Secretary and shyster from her home town of Houston, Rod Paige. The “Crazy In Love” video did a lot (ahem!) to move me into “B's” camp, but as for her singing, which can get a little screechy, I give her a thumbs-up here. Very “Inaugural-icious” as she might intone.

With that, we were done and backtracking on the Metro to our base in Arlington for the night. Travel back was much easier than coming in, thanks to the many native Washingtonians who were so courteous and helpful with us getting around. A stop in Dupont Circle for food, and then home for the night where we passed out after many, many hours runnin, plannin' and writin'.

In the was worth every one of the recuperative forty winks we got.