Sunday, June 22, 2014

Earth, Wind & Fire's Electrifying Vibes

Earth, Wind & Fire  - photo by John V
Earth, Wind & Fire brought the funk, soul and R&B to Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday night.  Longtime members Philip Bailey, Verdine White & Ralph Johnson led the band through a powerhouse 90-minute show, raising the roof on the place, and enthralling a very enthusiastic crowd. Kicking off the night with the one-two punch of “Boogie Wonderland” and “Sing A Song,” the show’s energy never flagged. Bailey’s amazing voice, White’s nimble bass playing and Johnson’s powerful percussion, helped the group sail through an energetic set of EWF hits, like the classic Beatles cover “Got To Get You Into My Life” and some fan favorites, such as the moving “Devotion.” One of the top songs of the show was an electrifying version of “Reasons” featuring Bailey’s best vocal performance of the evening. That robust falsetto is still going strong after all these years, and hasn't lost any of its power.

The evening featured one classic song after another; “Fantasy,” “Shining Star,” “September” and a cool version of one of my personal favorites, “Serpentine Fire.” The group truly knows how to pace a show like this. You’d get a couple of fast & funky numbers to get the crowd on their feet, then they’d take it down a bit for a powerful ballad like “Keep Your Head To The Sky,” another highlight of the evening. Of course, the excellent band, including the celebrated EWF horn section, added immeasurably to the show’s success. The group also includes Bailey’s son Philip, Jr. on vocals; he also did a wonderful job. EWF truly operates as a unit, and there are no mere “hired hands” in this outfit. These were expert players at the top of their musical game, and they were all given the chance to shine during the night’s performances. Every member of the group was outstanding.

I cannot say enough positive things about this fantastic band, and this fabulous show. The audience, including myself, were clapping, shouting, rising to their feet and dancing throughout the concert. In short, we were enjoying ourselves immensely, and the band looked like they were having a great time as well. As the evening reached it’s apex with “September” and “Let’s Groove” you could feel the sense of happiness, joy & good vibes reverberating throughout the arena. Earth, Wind & Fire are on the road this summer; you simply have to check out this excellent band live, and experience this funkified, testified, groove-filled show. Very highly recommended. Here are link’s to the band performing “Serpentine Fire” and “Got To Get You Into My Life”

Set List:
Boogie Wonderland
Sing A Song
My Promise
Shining Star
Serpentine Fire
Saturday Nite
On Your Face
Sun Goddess
Kalimba Story
Keep Your Head To The Sky
That's The Way Of The World
After The Love Has Gone
Got To Get You Into My Life
Let's Groove
In The Stone

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Night of "All-Starrs" featuring Ringo

Ringo & The All Starr Band - photo by John V
Ringo Starr brought the latest edition of his All Starr Band to the Oakdale Theatre this past Saturday. The former Beatle & his friends rocked the house with a crowd-pleasing set of classic songs. Things kicked off with the Carl Perkins number “Matchbox” and for the next two hours, we were treated to Beatles classics, solo tunes & a slew of hits from the catalogs of Ringo’s famous band mates. The current version of the group features Gregg Rolie (Journey/Santana,) Todd Rundgren, Richard Page (Mr. Mister), Steve Lukather (Toto) and ace sidemen Warren Ham & Greg Bissonnette. The guys were having a blast playing with Ringo, and their joy & enthusiasm was infectious. Rundgren was like the Energizer Bunny of the group, careening around the stage, jamming with everyone, and cracking up Ringo & the band with his good humor.

The evening was full of memorable songs, including a gritty “Black Magic Woman,” Rundgren’s passionate take on “Love Is The Answer,” and Lukather’s outstanding version of “Africa.” Of course, there were also Ringo’s charming & effervescent performances of Beatles classics such as “Yellow Submarine,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.” But it’s also fun to see him sit back and play drums while Page sings Mr. Mister’s hit “Kyrie,” or Lukather rips thru the Toto classic “Hold The Line.”  Ringo was clearly having as much fun playing with the band (and acting as their ringmaster; pun intended) as they were playing with him. The show’s energy & pace never flagged, and the audience (comprised of several generations of rock fans) was dancing, singing along and having a wonderful time. The affection & positive feelings that fans have for Ringo (and the other artists who tour with him) are as plain as the smiles on their faces during the show.

Each version of this group has had its pleasures & surprises. I’ve seen the fantastic Mr. Rundgren perform with Ringo previously & as a solo artist & I've also seen Rolie perform live before. But it was my first time seeing Lukather & Page, and they were both impressive. Lukather’s guitar work was incredible & his Toto songs got some of the warmest responses of the night. Page’s vocals on the Mr. Mister numbers he did were excellent, and he contributed some fine bass work. Rolie (a founding member of both Santana & Journey) was also outstanding. The “All Starr Band” concept works very well; it looks & sounds as fresh as it did when Ringo started these tours back in 1989. You get to see a group of well known rockers perform their best known tunes, led by a bona fide Beatle singing songs that several generations have come to know & love. It really is a can’t miss proposition for concertgoers.

By the time we got to the end of the show, and Ringo was leading us all in a joyous sing-along on “With a Little Help From My Friends,” you could tell the audience wouldn't have minded if the the show had gone on for another two hours. It truly was a splendid evening of music & fun, and everyone had a wonderful time. If you get the chance to see Ringo & The All-Starrs on the road this summer, I heartily recommend it. Here are links to the Ringo & the band performing “Don’t Pass Me By,” ‪, “I Saw The Light,” ‪, “Evil Ways,” ‪, “Hold The Line,” ‪ and “Kyrie,” ‪ These videos are from the 2012 tour, featuring almost the same lineup that performed Saturday at the Oakdale.

Matchbox (Ringo)
It Don't Come Easy (Ringo)
Wings (Ringo)
I Saw the Light (Todd Rundgren)
Evil Ways (Gregg Rolie)
Rosanna (Steve Lukather)
Kyrie (Richard Page)
Bang The Drum All Day (Todd)
Boys (Ringo)
Don't Pass Me By (Ringo)
Yellow Submarine (Ringo)
Black Magic Woman (Gregg)
Honey Don't (Ringo)
Anthem (Ringo)
You Are Mine (Richard)
Africa (Steve)
Oye Como Va (Gregg)
Love Is The Answer (Todd)
I Wanna Be Your Man (Ringo)
Broken Wings (Richard)
Hold the Line (Steve)
Photograph (Ringo)
Act Naturally (Ringo)
With a Little Help From My Friends (Ringo)
Give Peace a Chance (Ringo)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ray LaMontagne's "Supernova" Tour Stops By The Oakdale Theatre

It was three bands for the price of one this past Tuesday at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, as Ray LaMontagne brought his “Supernova Summer Tour” to the venue. First up was The Belle Brigade, who treated us to some ethereal alternative pop. Their music has a variety of influences, including 60s & 70s pop/rock, and a dash of 80s alternative. The group features Ethan Gruska on guitar, piano, vocals & Barbara Gruska on drums & vocals. The siblings are also part of Ray’s backing band for the tour. They only played a few songs, but their sweet harmonies & cool tunes got the night off to a good start. I recommend seeking out their recently released album, Just Because, as well as their self-titled 2011 debut disc; you'll hear hints of Simon & Garfunkel, Fleetwood Mac & REM in their eclectic sound.

Soon after, the night’s second act, Jason Isbell, took the stage, and wowed the crowd with a dose of country rock, Southern style. The former member of the Drive By Truckers has been recording & touring with his current band, The 400 Unit, since 2009. Jason’s set, mostly culled from his last two releases, 2013’s Southeastern & 2011’s Here We Rest, ranged from the driving guitars of songs like “Super 8” to more reflective numbers like the powerful, moving “Elephant.” I was somewhat familiar with Mr. Isbell’s work before the show, but I must she won me over with his excellent guitar work & vocals. The 400 Unit provided solid support, and had excellent interplay with Jason. Judging from the crowd’s reaction, by the time his set was over, he had gained himself a whole new group of fans. If you’re a Southern rock or country fan, check out Jason’s music; you won’t be disappointed.

Ray LaMontagne (on right): Photo by John V
Then it was time for the main event. Ray LaMontgane entered, and kicked off his portion of the night with the title track of 2008’s Gossip in The Grain. After that, it was a generous helping of songs from his new disc, Supernova, including the psychedelic “Lavender,” the bluesy “She’s The One,” and the pop-oriented title track. One of the show’s highlights was a brief acoustic set in the middle of the evening with Ray & bassist Zachariah Hickman doing excellent versions of a couple of the “old songs” as Ray called them: “Jolene,” and “Trouble,” followed by a beautifully played rendition of “Like Rock & Roll Radio,” from 2010’s God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise. The rest of the night’s selections bounced between the jangly country pop of the Supernova track “Ojai,” (one of my favorites on the new disc) to an excellent version of “Beg, Steal Or Borrow,” another song from God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, and back to some more psychedelia with "Julia," another cut from the new album.

The notoriously crowd shy LaMontagne did take time to thank the fans at several points during the show, and spoke briefly to the crowd during the acoustic set as well. But as always with Ray, his often intense live shows are all about the music, and he didn’t disappoint during this fine performance. He clearly loves playing with this band, and their accompaniment was tight & focused when it needed to be, and looser & more jam oriented when the occasion warranted, as it did on one of the more rocking songs of the evening, “Meg White.” The concert ended with the one-two punch encore of “Hey Me, Hey Mama” and a fantastic version of Supernova’s closing track, “Drive-In Movies.” It's my second time seeing Ray live (the first was back in 2009) and I thought the show was excellent all around, though it would have been nice to hear a couple more of those "old songs."

It was a great night of music, from three different but very entertaining bands. If you get a chance to see Ray’s show on the road this summer, I'd check it out for sure. Here are links to The Belle Brigade’s “When Everything Was What it Was,”, Jason Isbell’s “Alabama Pines,”, and Ray LaMontagne’s “Supernova,”

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Director Gareth Edward meets "Godzilla"

One of the great pleasures of my trip to the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival this year was the chance to see director Gareth Edwards interviewed before a screening of Gojira, the original cut of the classic monster film, which introduced the world to Godzilla. The Japanese version of the movie, which is darker and has a more overt anti-nuclear message, has been re-released on DVD & Blu-ray, and screened in some cities across the US. This is the film (featuring additional scenes with Raymond Burr, shot for the US version) that we know as Godzilla, King of the MonstersEdwards, who directed the 2014 version of Godzilla, talked about Gojira, and its inspiration for him as a film-maker. Of course, there have been many sequels over the years; baby boomers have fond memories of watching TV showings of these films as the Big G and other giant creatures like Mothra & Rodan faced off against foes such as the dragon-like Ghidorah. In 1998, an American remake, starring Matthew Broderick and written, produced & directed by Roland Emmerich & Dean Devlin (the creators of Independence Day) was released. Godzilla was portrayed as a raptor-like creature (in the wake of Jurassic Park’s success) and there were unappealing characters & lame humor. Further attempts to fashion a new film stalled over the years. But now Edwards (who also directed the well regarded 2010 film Monsters) gives the tale a modern spin, taking the legend of Godzilla in a new direction, but paying tribute to his roots.

The film opens in 1999, as two initially unrelated events occur: a group of scientists led by Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) make an amazing discovery in the Philippines, and a nuclear plant in Japan suffers a catastrophic accident, due to strange seismic activity. Fifteen years later, Joe Brody, a survivor of the plant explosion, still refuses to believe it was an accident, and keeps trying to find the real cause of the event. When Joe is arrested for returning to the now quarantined accident site, his son Ford goes to help him. But a series of strange occurrences reveals the existence of a large, insect-like creature. Ford, who’s a Navy bomb disposal tech, gets embroiled in the military’s battle with the giant monster. Soon, it becomes apparent that there is more than one of these things, and that there may be a mythical creature called Godzilla on the way to battle these winged giants. Dr. Serizawa knows more about the origins of these monsters than he has let on, and it may be tied to the nuclear accident that Ford's father was investigating. As the creatures weave a path of destruction across the country, the military tries to come up with a plan to stop them. Then, Godzilla arrives on the scene to complicate matters. Who will win the battle, and will mankind survive? Is Godzilla our protector, or our enemy?

I’ve purposely tried not to give too many details away, so you can enjoy the story on its own terms. Edwards does a good job with the pace of the film, building up our expectations and keeping the full reveal of Godzilla from us until about an hour into the movie. This Jaws style approach has bothered some viewers, but I think it works in the film’s favor. When he does shows Godzilla to us earlier in the film, he’s often glimpsed on a view screen, TV monitor, or from a crowd’s perspective. But when it’s time for all out creature action, Edwards doesn’t skimp on the visuals. This is a monster melee that will please fans of the classic Godzilla films of the 60s & early 70s. And this Godzilla (though updated a bit) looks like Godzilla, not a Jurassic Park wannabe. The way Max Borensetin’s screenplay (from a story by David Callaham) weaves the anti-nuclear theme into the story, but takes Godzilla’s origin in a new direction, is very clever.

Some have found the character aspects of the film weak, but I thought the performances were fine, given the material. It’s a giant monster movie, folks, not Shakespeare. Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Watanabe are all fine in their roles. The visual look of the film, courtesy of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey & the monster designs (by a group of talented effects technicians, including motion capture performance guidance from Andy “Gollum” Serkis) are quite impressive. There are several visual nods for fans of the classic Toho film series, and the door is certainly left open for a sequel. All in all, Godzilla is definitely worth seeing for fans of the big guy, and it should wipe away memories of that 1998 debacle for most viewers. Godzilla is now in theaters in 2D & 3D formats. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: