Thursday, September 15, 2016

More Than A Concert: Bruce Springsteen @ MetLife Stadium

What did I do to deserve this?

Said with wonder, it’s inspiring. Said with defeat, it’s wallowing. I took the former for two sultry nights in August, two states away with an open heart. In a summer of despair, I needed to prove I deserved the space I’d chiseled for myself in this world. Solitude and reflection are no match for the comfort of a hand to hold, but there are still moments of fireworks among the ashes. 

The River Tour, the swamps of Jersey, a 66 year old man and his band. It was the first time I can remember that I openly wept at a concert, without shame and without doubt. “Something In The Night” – the story of a man who would rather drive all night than face the emptiness of his life. “The River” – so much youthful promise and the weight of responsibility that drowns without sympathy. “Living Proof” – birth and rebirth, the fragility of life, and miracles in the dust. “Independence Day” – the startling realization of the dreams of parents before their children, wistful and resigned, bridges that can neither be mended nor burned. 

You're born with nothing
And better off that way
Soon as you've got something they send
Someone to try and take it away
You can ride this road 'til dawn
Without another human being in sight
Yeah, just kids wasted on
Oh, something in the night

Much has been written of the spiritual atmosphere at Bruce’s shows, and with good reason. There is baptism in the dirt, there is reconciliation for the outlaws, there is the hope etched in stone in this hard land. Transcendence, love is a state of grace, and the realization that there are no saints, no sinners, but people clawing to stay alive in a world of decay. The mundane is miraculous and the epic is arcane. Neither church nor school gave me the community I discovered at a concert venue. 

Four precious hours that unite generations. Children sleep on their parents’ hearts, gentlemen with white hair take photos on their flip phones, twenty-somethings with American flag bandanas crush Bud Light cans under sneakers, the 50 year old faithfuls with a hundred shows under their leather belts. No gimmicks, no costumes, no artifice. 

I found ferocity in those electric guitars, certainty in a steady drum beat, joyous abandon in a saxophone, artistic beauty in piano keys. The gravel in Bruce’s voice is grounding; it is wisdom and experience that never forgot the struggles of youth. 

Or as one lady says, calm certainty in her voice, at the end of “Lost In The Flood” live from MetLife on August 25th, “everybody just witnessed the face of Jesus. That is fucking it. That is Bruce at his best.”

With wonder: what did I do to deserve this?

Just one kiss from you my brother
And we'll ride until we fall
We'll sleep in the fields
We'll sleep by the rivers and in the morning
We'll make a plan
Well if you can't make it
Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive
If you can
And meet me in a dream of this hard land

All photos by Meghan Muldowney - Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band @ MetLife Stadium August 23rd & 25th, 2016

Thursday, April 7, 2016

American Idol Season 15: April 6, 2016

Finale Performance Night – April 6, 2016

Round 1: Winner’s Single

1.   Trent Harmon – “Falling”   B
It’s always tough to judge a winner’s single – comparing it to more than a decade of winner’s singles before it, both high points (“The Time Of Our Lives”, “A Moment Like This”) and low points (“No Boundaries, “As Long As You Love Me”). This song didn’t grab me as much on first listen as I hoped it would, but overall, in a general sense, I liked the lyrics and Trent’s vocals. The lyrics to this song are very very sexy and I’m not sure that Trent brought that element of it to light. The best part of it was Trent’s falsetto run at the end of the song.

2.   Dalton Rapattoni – “Strike A Match”  C+
The studio version of this is light years better than the live version, but the song suffers from lyrical clich├ęs: “rolling thunder”, “caught in the rain”, “dancing in the dark”, “start a fire”. It sounds like a Boys Like Girls outtake from 2009. That’s not an insult, just the truth. The guitar sounds too fast for the vocals and the whole thing just isn’t my favorite. Was it the sound mix that was off or Dalton’s mumbly, unintelligible vocals? It’s unfortunate that this was Dalton’s last performance on the Idol stage; he had so many more that were exciting, unexpected, and vocally strong.

3.   La’Porsha Renae – “Battles”  B+
Of the 3 Winner’s Singles, La’Porsha’s has the strongest hook/chorus combo, in that I was singing it after the performance was over. Her vocals were strong, although it wasn’t her best vocal performance in comparison to some of her past songs (“Glory”, “Diamonds”, “Come Together”) La’Porsha’s song was the best match for her Idol Journey ™ - it spoke to rising over adversity and not only surviving, but thriving. I’m not sure that I see a place for any of the 3 Winner’s Singles on today’s iTunes charts but I think La’Porsha has the greatest chance for success with this.

Round 2: Simon Fuller's Choice

4. Trent Harmon – “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (Simply Red)  A/A-
Bring it home, Trent. As Randy would say, Trent is “in it to win it”. This was the first time in the night I got up off my couch and moved closer to the TV. This is one of the sweeping Vintage Idol type songs that’s meant to deliver a moment for the contestant. I love how Trent is so passionate about every lyric he sings. There is no artifice in this boy (well, ok, maybe on “Counting Stars”). He has such control of his voice but also the ability to sing with wild abandon; Trent demonstrated both of those talents on this song.

5.   La’Porsha Renae – “A House Is Not A Home” (Dionne Warwick)  B+
I’ve heard this song performed so many times – from Tamyra Gray to Jacob Lusk to Will & Emma dueting on Glee – and it’s never been my cup of tea. Of course La’Porsha can do the song justice, no question about it. She infused this song with too many runs for my taste, but she did leave me feeling the emotion of the lyric – a person in pain, hoping to repair a broken relationship.

Round 3: Contestant's Choice (Reprise)

6.   Trent Harmon – “Chandelier” (Sia)  A+
Trent stunned me with his interpretation of this Sia song the first time he sang it and he gave me chills the second time he sang it. In a lesser singer’s hands this could become just karaoke, or a party anthem, or a complete annihilation of the clever lyrics. But in Trent’s vocal chords, I found everything I had been looking for: the cavalier attitude, slow recognition, and full embracing. Sweet like honey, slow like molasses, woozy like whiskey: Sia’s beautiful song deserves a master class in interpretation to do it justice. And Trent more than excelled in it. For me for you, he’s been my Idol all season, my dark horse since he had to make Idol history by being the first person to compete solo during the Hollywood Week Group Round. If you can make it this far with mono, you can do anything.

7.   La’Porsha Renae – “Diamonds” (Rihanna)  A
There was no doubt in my mind that La’Porsha would select “Diamonds” as her reprise performance – and what a way to close out the very last performance finale of American Idol. Stunning melodic choices infused with a power that Rihanna’s version never had. Rihanna’s version is all speculation and laid-back promises, La’Porsha’s is fierce and instructive. There was a militaristic drumbeat in the background of the arrangement which drove the song to a more intense, deeper place. Even though Trent has been my guy all season, I can’t be upset if La’Porsha is our last American Idol – her voice is beyond gorgeous and her story is inspirational. What a finale!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

American Idol Season 15: March 31, 2016

Top 4 – Hometown Visits: March 31, 2016

1. Mackenzie Bourg – “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen) A-/B+
The more cynical will point to just how many times this song has been covered on Idol – Jason Castro, Lee DeWyze, Tim Urban –  and say that its popularity should prohibit its inclusion on the show. But this was a perfect song choice for Mackenzie, who sang Leonard Cohen’s classic like a lullaby. Mackenzie sang it in a Jack Johnson style - lilting, light, gentle – and beautiful.

2.  Dalton Rapattoni – “Calling You” (Blue October) B
A very smart decision by Dalton to pick a song he could truly make his own. It seemed a little bit of a left field choice at first but when Dalton highlighted the line “I can’t believe you actually picked me”, I got it. He came across as humble, self-effacing, and strategic. [Side note: Blue October is an incredibly underrated band and their 2006 minor hit “Hate Me” became a defining song of my college years.] Dalton may not have the strongest voice but he might just be the best performer of the season. He knows how to play to his strengths and to an audience.

3. Trent Harmon – “Tennesee Whiskey” (Chris Stapleton) A
Trent hasn’t had a misfire since his performance of “Counting Stars” and this wouldn’t break his streak. Smooth with a kick at the end, just like a glass of whiskey. His voice has such power but also such finesse, the ability to take an oft-covered song and truly add his own flavors.

4. LaPorsha Renae – “Glory” (Common & John Legend) A-
LaPorsha is not, and has never been, a singer who can just sing beautifully. She brings grit, passion, and overwhelming emotion to every song she sings – it’s a trait that most of our popular starts today lack. “Glory” was the perfect song choice for her.

5.  Dalton Rapattoni – “Dancing In The Dark” (Bruce Springsteen) A-
If only Dalton had kept the slowed down, aching arrangement the song started with. It devolved into a proto-pop-punk jam which was exhaustingly fun. However, I had been so excited to finally hear the song stripped down, highlighting the naked depression of the lyrics, that it disappointed me when the song kicked in to uptempo.

6. LaPorsha Renae – “Stay With Me Baby” (Lorraine Ellison) A
LaPorsha’s voice is so powerful it almost seems effortless at times. It’s important to remember that singing the way she does is unbelievably difficult. Maybe LaPorsha didn’t like this song’s lyrical content – and she’s entitled to her opinion – but she won’t necessarily feel a deep and honest connection to every song she’ll sing for the rest of her life. But someone listening will be moved and it’s her job to ensure they feel moved. And I absolutely was.

7.  Trent Harmon – “Drink You Away” (Justin Timberlake) B
Compared to Trent’s first performance, this one didn’t grab me. The music seemed too loud for his vocals and with two very similar songs, it was easy to draw comparisons between the performances instead of feeling like they were distinct entities. “Drink You Away” paled in comparison to “Tennesee Whiskey” – although Trent certainly poured a little shot of Justin Timberlake into his vocals. Then again, Trent is my favorite contestant this year and I’ve just listened to his studio version of “Drink You Away” on iTunes four times a row…and it’s growing on me, like a fungus.

8. Dalton Rapattoni – “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” (Tears For Fears) B/B-
Starting the performance admist the crowd immediately took the energy out of the performance. While thrilling, I’m sure for the audience members standing directly around him, it looks chaotic and messy on TV and probably didn’t play as well in the studio. Compare Dalton’s vocal take to Rayvon Owen’s smooth-as-butter version from last season and it didn’t quite hold up.

9.  LaPorsha Renae – “Hello” (Adele) A-/B+
This was set up to be an Idol Moment ™ but it underwhelmed just a little bit for me, for you. Maybe its because the song’s ubiquity has led me to only associate the song with Adele’s voice. Of course LaPorsha sang it beautifully but I wasn’t as entranced as I was by her previous 2 performances.

10.  Trent Harmon – “Waiting Game” (Parson James) A
The judges were spot on with this pick for Trent. I think picking an unknown song is always a risk – either the singer makes the song their own or they confuse the audience who’ve never heard the song before. Was there any doubt Trent would shine with this? 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

American Idol Season 15: March 24, 2016

Top 4 - March 26, 2016

LaPorsha Renae – “Wanted Dead Or Alive” (Bon Jovi) B
How can it be lost on Scott Borchetta that “Wanted” is not a literal song about a cowboy? The song is a metaphor about life on the road as a touring musician, comparing it to the uncertain future of a restless cowboy. La’Porsha actually could relate to the song’s message more than Scott, as the only way to make money through music these days is by touring relentlessly. That said, I wanted to love La’Porsha’s rendition more than I did. While her voice sounded powerful, she lacked the emotion and weary desperation of the song’s lyrics. At one point it sounded like she forgot the lyrics “on a steel horse I ride”. I wanted to be jumping out of my seat and running to download the iTunes rendition. Instead, “for me, for you dawg it was alright”.

Mackenzie Bourg – “I Want You To Want Me” (Cheap Trick) D+
There’s not much to “I Want You To Want Me”, not lyrically anyway. It’s the quick, frantic pace of the song that evokes a room dripping with perspiration, full with people jumping up and down in the name of the power-pop chord. Stripping down the song doesn’t add to the melancholy of the lyric, or highlight anything once hidden. It just reveals that the lyrics are repetitive and flat. Mackenzie did absolutely nothing with the song by changing the arrangement and singing it as a midtempo. It sucked the energy out of the room and revealed the weaknesses in his voice. A rare misstep for Mackenzie, but at this stage of the competition, it could prove his undoing.

Trent Harmon – “Sharp Dressed Man” (ZZ Topp) B+
This was to be Trent’s breakthrough Idol Moment ™ - the one we look back at as the turning point of the season for him. And it started that way, gloriously so, with Trent in a suit for the first time, looking every bit the part, slowing down the tempo to accentuate the lyrics, showcase his voice. It was delicious and it was the makings of a memorable performance. Unfortunately, then the sped-up version of the song kicked in and it became something akin – distantly related of course, a second cousin – to karaoke. Trent has always been the dark horse of this competition since his mono diagnosis. He came so close to a moment in my eyes, but fell just achingly short.

Dalton Rapattoni – “God Only Knows” (The Beach Boys) B-/C+
I know that Dalton was trying to have an emotional moment here, but it reminded me of cheese left in the toaster too long – overdone and burnt on the good parts. “God Only Knows” is a song of jubilation, underscored by the fact that a choir sings in the background of the chorus. It’s a song of redemption and rejoicing, not a song of angst and maudlin self-indulgence. Wandering around the stage in a hobo hat, Dalton looked almost uncaring of the moment’s significance. His vocals sounded good, but not good enough to make us feel that he hands-down earned his spot in the Top 4.

La’Porscha Renae – “Elastic Heart” (Sia) B+
This performance showcased a completely different side of La’Porsha from her “Wanted Dead Or Alive” rendition. This felt more authentic and connected. Although I’ve never liked “Elastic Heart” as a song, La’Porsha elevated it to a level that was captivating and intriguing.

Mackenzie Bourg – “Titanium” (David Guetta & Sia) B-
Mackenzie really needed to come back and win the Second Round of the show after failing so badly on the Classic Rock side. The song “Titanium” is all cold steel, a curled lip, and shell casings. Mackenzie didn’t bring the unapologetic power to this song that he needed to. That said, it was a definite improvement on “I Want You To Want Me”, but it seems like one that will land him solidly in 4th place.

Trent Harmon – “Chandelier” (Sia) A
From the second the “Sia Songbook” was announced as one of this week’s themes, I hoped that Trent would pick (or be assigned by the producers) “Chandelier” – my all-time favorite song Sia has written or performed and my #2 Song Of The Year in 2014. He did it all the justice I could ever hoped for. “Soaring, flying, freewheeling through an endless diamond sky”, Trent opened us up to a Whole New World with this song. His vocal control is unparalleled, yet he doesn’t sacrifice precision at the altar of emotion.

Dalton Rapattoni – “Bird Set Free” (Sia) B

Dalton’s voice was more confident and assured on this self-empowerment-with-a-twist anthem than his earlier rendition of third-choice song “God Only Knows”. I still can’t shake the fact that Dalton can come off as gimmicky and over-produced rather than raw and vulnerable. Somehow what seems to others as vulnerability still reads as artifice to me. There is still something a bit cringeworthy about the lyric “I don’t care if I sing off-key” in a singing competition but I’ll give Dalton a pass on this one. Trent’s “Chandelier” rendition should have closed the show to be the song left in our ears, but this wasn’t half-bad.

Best of the night: Trent 
Worst of the night: Mackenzie

Thursday, March 3, 2016

American Idol Season 15: February 25, 2016

Top 10: Contestant's Choice - February 25, 2016

The Top 10 finalists compete tonight with a double elimination next week.

Olivia Rox - "Unconditionally" (Katy Perry) B/B-
The beginning was beautiful, but the second Olivia took the mic off the stand, her voice veered into this terrible "froggy" sound. She has that in common with Tristan although (unlike Tristan), she has moments of beauty. Olivia is obviously this year's Jax, but without a lot of the edge and daring that made Jax such an interesting contestant.

Gianna Isabella - "Listen" (Dreamgirls musical) C
Not sure why Gianna would decide to tackle such a huge song, most famously sung by Beyonce. Gianna comes off as such a Mariah Carey impersonator in a pageant or a high school talent show. I don't feel anything when she sings. It's all very "Point A to Point B", look here, make this hand gesture, hit this note, do this run. Gianna kind of mangled the ending - not sure she hit the note she was intending to. If she makes it past the double elimination, I'll be shocked and disappointed.

Lee Jean - "Skinny Love" (Bon Iver) C+

Whenever Lee sings, I smile. He clearly has a lane and a style that he has never veered from. Lee's greatest strength is his personality and generally the character he expresses when he sings. I'm afraid that his quiet demeanor will lead him to be eliminated next week.

Avalon Young - "Stitches" (Shawn Mendes) C
Completely the wrong song choice for Avalon. It didn't really go anywhere. Avalon seemed hesitant and a little uncomfortable in a way that we hadn't seen from her. Could this song choice have been influenced (read: chosen for her) by the producers? It's normally a smart idea to take a currently popular song and give it a little bit of a spin, but in this case, it just didn't work. I predict that Avalon's fan base will carry her through one off week; she deserves it.

Dalton Rapattoni - "Hey There Delilah" (Plain White T's) B+
Very Good Charlotte circa 2006. Which is to say I loved it. Dalton is one of the few contestants that has really varied his song choice from week to week and kept it interesting. My prediction (only somewhat tongue in cheek) is that Dalton will win the show and go to star in the Broadway revival of Rock of Ages in 2020.

Tristan McIntosh - "Nothin' Like You" (Dan + Shay) D+
The song was too much of a tongue-twister for poor Tristan. She had a tendency to let the end of her sentences run out of breath and end halfway through completion. The lyrics got completely lost. By her face at the end, I could tell she knew she didn't nail the song.

Mackenzie Bourg - "I See Fire" (Ed Sheeran) A-/B+
Ed Sheeran is not the artist I would have predicted would be covered most on Idol this year! Mackenzie did Ed more justice than Lee has up to this point, however. Mackenzie is dreamy and captivating and the kind of kid I would have fallen in love with in high school.

LaPorscha Renae - "Diamonds" (Rihanna) A

Everything worked about this performance -  the beautiful jewelry, head band, minimalist arrangement, La'Porscha fixed in the middle of the stage at the microphone rather than traveling around the stage, letting her voice speak for herself with her dramatic facial expressions. La'Porscha was the one to beat tonight! Better than Rihanna's original.

Sonika Vaid - "Bring Me To Life" (Evanesence) A-
Sonika burst out of her shell tonight with a very unexpected song choice. Amy Lee has a gorgeous voice and it's hard to do Evanesence justice. I loved the black pageant princess dress which complimented the song perfectly. She went sharp a little bit on some of the lyrics, but I'd rather hear that combined with passion than a perfect, emotionless performance. Sonika's best performance on the show to date!

Trent Harmon - "Like I Can" (Sam Smith) B
Not Trent's best performance, but he can wipe the floor with at least half of the contestants. Trent's voice is one of the most unique. I just want to know if he is still suffering from mono or if he is feeling better!

Best of the night: La'Porscha, Sonika
Worst of the night: Tristan

Prediction: Tristan and Gianna will go home.