Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's All About the M&M's

We have all heard stories of the ridiculous excesses enjoyed by wealthy celebrities. (In fact, my sister works in the entertainment industry and has some amusing ones, but you'll have to ask her about them; I won't repeat them here.) One of the most famous "stupid famous tricks" is probably the legendary bowl of M&M's that were required by the Dutch masters of stadium rock, Van Halen. The group didn't just want M&M's; they actually had a contract that mandated that there be no brown M&M's in the bowl. Given that the brown ones were for years the most prevalent color in a bag of M&M's, that's a pretty hefty demand and a whole lot of candy-sifting for some backstage flunky. However, the requirement actually did have a reason. I'll link to the factually-verified article available at [Incidentally, that's a good website for most any rumor you hear or read about. Verify before you forward that amazing email!]

Essentially, the band had very specific technical requirements for their stage and sound equipment, particularly with very heavy speakers and lighting rigs. It was a matter of safety for the band and the audience that those requirements be met by the host venue. The M&M clause was inserted into the contract in a very innocuous manner in a very inconspicuous place, meaning that a careful reading of the contract was necessary to see it. If the band showed up and saw brown M&M's, they immediately knew their technical requirements had not been read and that there was likely something wrong with the venue. What initially seems like a typical case of immature-because-we-can prima donna star behavior actually served a very real and serious purpose.

I mention this because when we have lawmakers who want to pass legislation that is over 2,000 pages long with only a matter of days to review the specifics, and as such bills affect your health care, it might be worth knowing whether or not someone wants brown M&M's.

Image taken from the M&M webpage.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Album Review: The Lost Boys, "Rogues In A Nation"--Renaissance Rock!

Way back in 2006 when I was stationed at Ft. Benning, I went with some friends to the Georgia Renaissance Festival and it was there that I discovered one of the most entertaining and creative bands I've ever heard: The Lost Boys. They present themselves as "the original rock band from 1599," and typically wear their characteristic performing outfits of teal kilts. (At least once per show they mock the men in the audience as a bunch of "lads in pants.") Their music is a mixture of original material, Shakespeare texts set to original tunes, renditions of Renaissance-era songs, modernized versions of Renaissance songs, and parodies of popular music with Renaissance-type lyrics. The group has undergone a few personnel changes over the years but consistently relies on the leadership of guitarist/fiddler/vocalist Matthew Trautwein.

In one of my earlier posts I reviewed another Trautwein project, the Karma Lingo release "Breath of God." Four members of Karma Lingo made up the original Lost Boys lineup that in 2001 produced their first CD, "Rogues In A Nation." Naturally, in keeping with the fanciful nature of the band, the members all play characters in addition to playing music. Trautwein plays String, so called because of his predilection for playing multiple stringed instruments. Kelley Yearout is Clarence the Destroyer, guitarist and tenor vocalist. Charles Holmes portrays Johnny Ozbourne, who sings and plays bass. The group's drummer and fourth vocalist is Michael Starr, played by Michael Guss. Along for the ride is Merlin (Perry Rintye), whose magic allows for the use of modern drums and electric guitars on certain tracks.

The opening title track is derived from a Robert Burns poem about the percieved treachery that led to the union of Scotland and England in 1707. The LB's perform it with harmonized singing against the pounding and thumping of frame drums. "The Diamond" showcases Clarence as well as the energy that can be produced with all-acoustic instrumentation. After Merlin makes an appearance, the group performs a String original, "Little Gypsy," that sound like something the Beatles would have done were they a Renaissance-fair band. String's "Maidens Sing! (with Johnny on lead)," "Wake Up Sleepy Town" and Michael's "True Love of Mine" (with outstanding vocals from Michael and Clarence) are other fine originals on this recording. Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona provides the lyric for String's "Who Is Sylvia?" This track, entirely a capella, is one of my favorites on the recording, both beautiful and mysterious. String also has a vocal and guitar setting of Shakespeare's poem "As It Fell Upon a Day." The Boys share vocal turns on an original rocker, "Lazy Susan," that takes a particular joy in the art of the near-double-entendre: "Sally is a chambermaid, we love to watch her strip....the dirty linens off the bed..." The group's vocal prowess is again showcased on "serious" tunes like the traditional "Burning of Auchindown" and the playful "I Love You." The album closes with two parodies: "Ode to an Unfetter'd Fowl" opens with a four-part harmony setting of Lynyrd Skynyrd's ubiquitous "Free Bird," and the Knack's "My Sharona" is altered to tell the events of Shakespeare's Othello in "Desdemona." (Be sure to listen for the quiet, sneaky verse at the end.)

Word has it that the group is in the process of modifying the original disc, replacing the parodies with new material to end some legal hassles. Copies of the original can still be found at CDBaby or a live performance, so get one while you can! I highly recommend this disc as an introduction to the group. Not only is the performance and production excellent, but it is a whole lot of fun. Check out the band's website for the latest news on their performances and recordings. More to follow in future blogs....

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Last month, I took a break from work and returned to my recent home of Atlanta to visit friends and participate in one of my newest hobbies: ballroom dancing. I had virtually no skill at dancing prior to February of 2009, and the argument could be made that I had virtually no skill at dancing for several months afterward.
It all started in January of 2009 when I joined a singles' activity group called Events and Adventures. The first event that I did with this group was a tango lesson at a local ballroom dance studio. My prior dancing attempts had mostly involved swing, and for some reason I had a mental block about how to do the steps because the pattern didn't (in my mind) fit the music. Tango, however, was more like the marching band-type of regimented movement that I was used to and I picked it up much more quickly. I suppose I should note that I got into ballroom for the same reason that many men do: it is a very good way to meet women.
Another E&A event a few weeks later was at another studio near Roswell, the Daza Dance Studio. It is much nicer than the other studio, and they hold dance parties every Friday and Saturday night. Also...lots of attractive women teach and study there. After a couple of visits to Daza, I decided that it was time to take some lessons and actually learn how to lead. Like many things in life, dancing is more fun if you actually know something about what you are doing. I was fortunate to have a teacher named Natalie; she has several wonderful traits, namely she is sweet, beautiful, and demanding. Also, she used to live in Nashville like I did, so we had that in common. Over the course of the next few months, my regular lessons and party attendance began to pay off and I made a lot of progress. Natalie encouraged me to enter a competition, and after a couple of false starts I managed to commit to the Hotlanta competition in October. The big obstacle, of course, was my untimely relocation to upstate New York in early September, but I managed to take some personal leave and return to Atlanta for a couple of days of intense "re-learning" and rehearsal before the competition started.
I competed in the Pro/Am Bronze phase on the mornings of Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16. Natalie convinced me to enter 18 different events: bronze-level is divided into beginner, intermediate, and full categories and we would dance six styles in each of those. Thursday was "rhythm day" and involved cha-cha, rumba, and east-coast swing. (Yes...swing.) Friday was "smooth day" and the steps were waltz, tango, and foxtrot. It was a bit odd being judged on the dance floor and having to move around with a giant number pinned to the back of my shirt, but I suppose my training as a performing musician helped not only with my sense of pulse but learning to deal with performance anxiety. The results were better than I expected: I placed 2nd in six categories (all at the intermediate level) and 1st in the remaining 12 categories, beginner/intermediate/full. (I should remind you that this was the lowest level of the big trophies or recognition. The awards were discount vouchers for next year's competition!) Still, I did well in my first ballroom dance competition, something I could not have even imagined happening eight months ago. Of course, it wasn't just about doing the steps and getting certificates. It was also about spending time with some great friends that I've made over the past few months and having fun on the dance floor. A big thanks to the people at the Daza studio for providing such a welcoming environment, and especially to Natalie for convincing me that I could do it. It was fun!

Note: more pictures can be found on my Facebook page.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Film Review: Michael Jackson's This Is It

I didn't realize until today that I've gone over a month without posting. That's what moving to a new town and taking a two-week vacation will do to you. I'll talk about my vacation in my next post (most likely).

When I was growing up, Michael Jackson was the biggest celebrity in the world. He had the biggest-selling album, the most-watched videos (I still remember how my sister and I were scared half to death by the sight of MJ turning into a werewolf, then a zombie, in his landmark Thriller video), and everyone wanted to learn how to do the moonwalk. (But no one made it look as effortless and cool as Jackson did.) Then over the years, Jackson became progressively more strange. His face was changing due to obvious (and poorly-done) plastic surgery, there were reports of bizarre behavior with young children, and each new release seemed more like a desperate attempt to get the world's attention and recreate the success of his "Thriller" album.

But the world remembered its love for Jackson after his sudden death on June 25 of this year. He had been preparing for a series of shows in London, a spectacle titled "This Is It" which would cap his live performing career. Footage of the rehearsals has been combined with pre-produced "stage screen video" to give us Michael Jackson's This Is It, a documentary glimpse of what could have been. The film is directed by Kenny Ortega, best known for his work on Dirty Dancing and Newsies, who was the stage director for the show. I went partly out of curiosity, partly because the film is supposed to have a limited theatrical run, and partly out of a sense of cultural obligation, the "need to know" what seeing this film in a theater was like.

It opens with interviews of the dancers during tryouts, all of whom idolize Jackson and are happy just to have the chance to be considered. In fact, throughout the film we are treated to interviews with the dancers, singers, musicians, effects producers, costume designers, all of whom speak glowingly of the experience of working with and for the Michael Jackson. Multiple times we are shown how much of a perfectionist Jackson was, as he lovingly criticizes the band for not quite getting the groove right, or the technicians for having his in-ear monitor turned up too loud. It is also clear from the rehearsal footage that Jackson's sense of timing was incredible, and he had an amazing ability to focus on the most minute of details, be they musical or visual. During the musical numbers, often compiled from several different days of rehearsal and sometimes shown split-screen to allow us to see different dance maneuvers and costume ideas, Jackson and his troupe execute some impressive dance moves and stage effects. Occasionally the ensemble looks a bit rough, but no doubt that would have been fixed by opening night.

Michael Jackson was a showman, and he's at his best when he's putting on a great show. "Smooth Criminal" cleverly has MJ inserted into shots from numerous black-and-white noir films before he leaps onto the stage in an explosion of machine gun fire. "Thriller" utilizes impressive make-up and costumes in a re-imagination of the famous video. In fact, the popular line dances from "Thriller" and "Beat It" are recreated step by step for this production. "Wanna Be Starting Something," the opening number, uses in-stage hydraulic lifts to give the effect of dancers leaping out of the floor. Jackson's musicians and singers are quite impressive, especially lead guitarist Orianthi Panagaris (showcased in "Beat It" doing a more-than-admirable job of mimicking Eddie van Halen's finger-tapping guitar solo) and Judith Hill (I think?) who shares the stage in the duet "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." The only number that didn't quite do it for me was "Earth Song;" the production is impressive but the environmental message just seemed a bit heavy-handed for me. Still, it's clear that Jackson is passionate about the issue and that it was a cornerstone of the show for him.

The film is largely rehearsal footage, so odd stopping points, repetition of sequences, and constant adjustments by Jackson and his creative team are part of the deal. Numerous times he drops lyrics to the songs, ostensibly to concentrate on the choreography. Even so, Jackson's voice was still in very fine form and at times dancers half his age struggle to keep up with his energy and precision. At no point does Jackson look like someone close to death, and many times it is easy to see that he is enjoying himself when everything "clicks."

This is a documentary in the truest sense: it is a record of "something that happened," and much of what we are allowed to see was never intended for the public eye. (I say this as a contrast to recent "documentaries" that are full of staged moments, propaganda, and manipulated footage.) If you are a fan of Michael Jackson, or you enjoy some of his music, or you want to see what surely would have been a great stage spectacle, I recommend you go to the theater and see This Is It on the big screen while you still have a chance.