Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Smithereens Rock On...

The Smithereens at The Kate in Old Saybrook, CT on 6/29/11

Rock & Roll, Smithereens Style
“I’m not sure The Kate is ready for this,” said the smiling emcee at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook as he introduced the band, but an audience of loyal fans were absolutely ready for The Smithereens to take the stage and deliver two sets of blistering rock & roll. The band tore thru such classics as “Behind The Wall of Sleep,” and “Drown In My Own Tears,” and a generous helping of songs from their new album, 2011. The New Jersey based band has been around since 1980, and has been rocking audiences live & on record ever since.

The Smithereens are perhaps best known for songs like  “Blood & Roses” and the 1990 hit “A Girl Like You” and they’ve been releasing fantastic albums full of power pop & crunchy guitar rock (with a heavy 1960’s influence) for years, beginning with 1986’s Especially For You. Friday’s show at “The Kate” was another electrifying live performance from the band. The obvious joy they have when playing together is infectious. They’re all amazing musicians, with Pat DiNizio’s solid lead vocals combining with Jim Babjak’s blistering guitar solos, Dennis Diken’s spectacular drumming and bassist Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion’s energetic bass. Jornacion, who joined the band in 2006 (when original bassist Mike Mesaros left the group), encouraged the audience to participate throughout the show, and charged up the theater with his wild antics.

The band wears its garage rock influences proudly, and the show included some  excellent covers of songs by The Beatles & The Who (the band has recorded tribute albums to both groups). New songs like “Sorry” and “One Look At You” fit comfortably into the band’s catalog; when you’re looking for old-fashioned rock & roll , you need look no further than a Smithereens disc or concert. By the time the 2nd set came to a close with the thundering chords of  “A Girl Like You” part of the audience had moved toward the stage, and everyone else was on their feet. If they’re playing in your area, head out to see this under-rated, excellent band; you won’t regret it.

 The author & the band

Friday, July 29, 2011

“Captain America” fights for freedom...

In a summer movie season that seems overpopulated with comic book heroes, aliens & transforming robots, director Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger is a successful adventure movie based on the classic character created during the 1940s by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby. As the film opens, it's World War II, and a scrawny young man named Steve Rogers continually applies for the draft. He has a lot of heart, but keeps being rejected because of his size, and a variety of ailments. Enter Dr. Abraham Erskine (well played by Stanley Tucci), who is working on a secret formula that will transform an ordinary man into a “super soldier.” Erskine is impressed by Steve’s dedication & energy, and recruits him for the super-soldier program. After going through training at Camp Lehigh in New York, Rogers is chosen to be the test subject for the “super-soldier” experiment.

Meanwhile, a Nazi colonel named Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is pursuing a mysterious artifact he believes will give him the power to rule the world. While he is working for Hitler, Schmidt has plans of his own for world domination.  He also has a connection to Erskine that ends with tragic results. Inevitably, the paths of Rogers & Schmidt will cross, and the fate of the world will hang in the balance. Director Johnston (who also helmed the underrated The Rocketeer (1991), another period superhero film) keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and the action sequences are well-staged and exciting. There are good performances from Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America (trivia note; Evans also played The Human Torch, another Marvel hero, in the two “Fantastic Four” films), and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, an agent assigned to help Steve on his missions. Tommy Lee Jones is solid in a supporting role as Colonel Chester Phillips, who’s in charge of the special unit that works with Captain America. Weaving is great fun as the villain, who turns out to be an archenemy of Cap’s from the comics world.

The film is a slam bang, old-fashioned WWII adventure movie (with some fantasy & sci-fi elements thrown into the mix), and you don’t need to be a comics reader to enjoy it. However, there are multiple in-jokes and nods to classic Marvel characters and moments from the comics for fans. There are also cameos and tie-ins to other characters from the Marvel movie universe.  And make sure to stay all the way through the credits for an extra scene that you’ll especially enjoy if you are a fan.

Captain America: The First Avenger is an entertaining film that re-introduces the classic character to a new audience. In a summer movie season that’s already overflowing with action heroes, explosions and sequels, it’s an old-fashioned action film that delivers on its promise. 

Note: While you can view the film in 3D, this reviewer saw the film in its 2D version, and it was perfectly fine in that dimension.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Blazing Funk & Cool Soul

On Friday, July 22, the thermometer was inching towards the 100 mark, but the crowd on the Hamden Green was ready to cool down with some classic soul. The Spinners wowed the crowd with a fantastic performance, featuring many of their best-known songs. The group has been around since the ‘60s, but had their greatest success during the ‘70s, with such hits as “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” “I’ll Be Around,” and “The Rubberband Man.” Their smooth vocals and Temptations-style choreography made them an audience favorite, and the group appeared on many TV shows (such as “Soul Train”) and toured extensively during their heyday.

Opening act Boogie Chillun (a longtime staple on the New Haven music scene), heated up the already hot crowd with a set of funkified tunes, including Kool & The Gang’s “Hollywood Swingin” and Parliament’s “Tear The Roof Off The Sucker (We Want The Funk)” Despite the warm weather, a good portion of the crowd was grooving along with the band's funky sounds. After closing with “one for the kids,” Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You,”  the Chillun left the stage, and gave way to The Spinners.

Led by original members Bobbie Smith & Henry Farmborough, (and newer members such as Marvin Taylor, whose smooth vocals recalled Marvin Gaye), the band entertained the crowd with a generous set of hits like “Then Came You,” “Mighty Love,” “It’s A Shame,” and “Sadie.”  The group also had a stellar band of backing musicians laying down their grooves. The music of the 60s and 70s really touches a chord with those of us who grew up during that era (and many people in the younger generation as well), and you could see & feel the energy of the crowd as people got to their feet during songs like “Working My Way Back To You,” “I’ll Be Around” and “Games People Play.” It was great to see entire families singing & dancing along with the energetic group. The Spinners' soul, style, and sense of fun never waned during the show and they truly left the crowd wanting more.

This show was part of the Hamden Arts Commissions' Annual Free Summer Concert Series. Kudos to them (and the Town of Hamden) for continuing to provide fantastic entertainment every summer during this shows.

Note: Spinners Photo by John V

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A July 4th Playlist...

Happy 4th of July!

Here's a playlist for the celebration. No commentary or analysis here, just a selection of some rockin' & soulful tunes; feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section.

1. Jimi Hendrix, "The Star Spangled Banner"
2. Ray Charles, "America The Beautiful"
3. Chuck Berry, "Back in the USA"
4. John Mellencamp, "Justice & Independence '85"
5. Bruce Springsteen, "Born in The USA"
6. The Rascals, "People Got To Be Free"
7. The Steve Miller Band, "Living in The USA"
8. Neil Diamond, "America"
9. Lee Greenwood, "God Bless The USA"
10. Woody Guthrie, "This Land is Your Land"

Note: Photo above taken by John V at the Hamden, CT Fireworks on 7/1/11

X-Men: The Beginning

X-Men: First Class is an entertaining prequel/re-invention of the X-Men saga (it's Batman Begins, X-Men style). Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Kick-Ass), the story follows the parallel development of James McAvoy's Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr (who later becomes known under a more familiar name). After a brief prologue showing the childhood days of Xavier & Lensherr, this well-made film follows the formation of the X-Men team, during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It's an exciting movie that's equal parts science-fiction, spy thriller & slam bang action.

McAvoy does a good job as Professor X, with an interpretation of the character that's a little different from the Patrick Stewart version we've seen before. Fassbender is excellent as Lensherr, who develops into the character X-fans know as Magneto (played by Ian McKellen in the earlier X-films). Kevin Bacon is deliciously evil as the villainous Sebastian Shaw, with January Jones (Mad Men) assisting him as the beautiful but deadly Emma Frost. We see some familiar characters among the team of mutants that Xavier assembles, and a few new ones as well. There are also memorable cameos by two cast members from the previous X-films (though you may miss one because it's so brief). There are also a lot of familiar faces in the supporting cast, including Oliver Platt and Michael Ironside.

To say too much about the story would spoil the fun, but the film mixes fact and fiction as Bacon's villain tries to start World War III at a time when tensions between the U.S. and Russia were high, and the there was a real threat of nuclear war. One of the co-writers and producers on the film is Bryan Singer, who directed the well-received X-Men and X-Men 2 (but not the less successful X-Men: The Last Stand), so that helps the film, even though some of the X-history is re-written a bit. The action sequences and special effects are first rate. X-Men: First Class is one of the best of the recent slate of superhero films, and is fun for fans and non-fans alike.