Sunday, July 10, 2011

Summerfest 2011 review

I generally get to Summerfest a few days every year. There was no one there this year that I just absolutely had to see OHMYGODICAN'TMISSTHISCONCERT! but there were still a few acts that seemed like they would be a good time. This is my review of those shows.

Third Eye Blind Delivers The Hits; Somehow Still Underwhelms

Friday, July 1 – Briggs And Stratton Big Backyard, 10PM

Call it heightened expectations: Third Eye Blind's self-titled debut is one of my favorite albums from the 90s, yet I'd never seen them live before. There was nothing wrong with the set list, nor was there anything wrong with the sufficiently lubricated crowd.

Third Eye Blind opened up with easily my favorite song of theirs, “Motorcycle Drive By.” This was perhaps a microcosm of why I was underwhelmed by the set as a whole. On record the song starts as a gentle acoustic song which then explodes into a full-band rockout about halfway through; live, it started out as a full band song right away. It sounded less like the powerful moment it should have been and more like soundcheck run-through.

The set wasn't a disappointment though. The band ran through their catalog of hits from the first album, and some lesser hits from subsequent discs. “Never Let You Go,” from their second album Blue, sounded particularly good. The large crowd danced throughout, many beers were consumed, and a good time was had by all. However, Third Eye Blind were never anything more tonight than what they always were – a solid pop-rock band from the late 90s. This was enough to deliver a decent show, but it's nothing I would describe as mind-blowing or amazing.

Standout song(s): “Never Let You Go,” “Graduate”

Should've played, but didn't: N/A

Fitz and the Tantrums A Good Match For Summerfest

Saturday, July 2 – Miller Oasis, 8PM

Probably 99% of the overflow crowd at the Oasis wasn't there to see Fitz and the Tantrums – that honor would fall to headliners Maroon 5. But after their hour-long set, I think they might have won some new fans.

The neo-soul of Fitz and the Tantrums is reminiscent of Motown and Stax, with a 21st century polish. They have a clean, tight sound that just sounded good. Lead singer Michael Fitzpatrick danced and sang like no one was looking. Co-vocalist Noelle Scaggs implored the crowd several times to get it going, and by the end of the set many were eating out of the palm of her hand.

The set list drew heavily from their new album “Pickin' Up the Pieces,” but they did throw in a couple of terrific covers: The Eurythmics' “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” and The Raconteurs' “Steady, As She Goes.” The album tracks were mostly straight-ahead readings, but the band did jam on a couple of songs, such as the funky “L.O.V.”

By the time they closed their set with the hit single “MoneyGrabber,” a few more asses were shaking, a few more people were clapping along. It's true that the people weren't really there for Fitz & Co., but the band did a damn good job of making it seem like they were.

Standout song(s): “MoneyGrabber,” “Pickin' Up The Pieces”

Should've played, but didn't: N/A

Country Legend Doesn't Disappoint

Saturday July 2 – M&I Classic Rock Stage, 10PM

I can't say I knew many, if any, songs that “First Lady of Country Music” Loretta Lynn played to a medium-sized crowd on Saturday night, but this being a classic country artist I was instantly familiar with the subject matter: a steady diet of heartbreak and loss, defiance and pride.

And make no mistake about it, this show was classic country through and through.

The show started 15 minutes late, with her son coming out and singing – a dead ringer for Larry the Cable Guy, vocally – Toby Keith's “As Good As I Once Was” and one other song before giving way to Lynn's daughters who sang a few more numbers. Finally, at maybe 10:35 or so, Loretta strolled onto the stage in a ridiculously sparkly dress and opened with a couple of country standards: “They Don't Make 'Em Like Daddy Anymore” and “You're Lookin' At Country.”

Other highlights included “Don't Come Home A'Drinkin' (“With Lovin' On Your Mind”) and a wonderful medley of Patsy Cline songs. But what set Lynn apart from her peers – aside from writing a lot of her own songs – is that some of those tunes took an at least slightly feminist look at things, which was unheard of back in the 1960s. “Dear Uncle Sam” was her look at the price of war, while “The Pill” examines sexual liberation. She sang those songs and more with class and with a voice that defied her 79 years.

It was an excellent set, and a fascinating look at one of country music's all-time legends.

Standout song(s): The Patsy Cline Medley, “You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)”

Should've played, but didn't: N/A

The Get Up Kids Transport Me Back to College

Saturday, July 9 – Miller Oasis, 8PM

It's been seven years since a proper full-length album, so no one can really begrudge them for wanting to play the new stuff for their fans. However, it was evident from the get-go that the fans didn't want to hear it. Unfortunately the set was structured – at least for the first half – new song/old song/new song/old song, so as soon as the Kids kicked into an old favorite like the anthemic “I'm A Loner Dottie, A Rebel” the crowd woke up, only to have that momentum sucked out by a new tune right after.

Of course, when old songs were played the crowd ate up every second of it, and naturally the band fed off of that energy. “Shorty” and “Don't Hate Me,” from debut album Four Minute Mile drew good reactions, and set closer “Ten Minutes” may have had the best pop of the night. Overall, the band seemed to be having a good time on stage, joking with each other and the crowd. Not being the headliner (they were supposed to headline at The Rave before being moved to Summerfest) didn't seem to bother them in the least, nor did the crowd's lack of reaction to new material.

Even though I disagreed with their insistence on playing new music, that isn't all I'll take away from the show.

I got into The Get Up Kids in college perhaps a little late in the game – emo classic Something To Write Home About came out my junior year of high school – so the music certainly took me back to those years in my life. The lyrics might be a tad on the whiny side – though not as overwrought as headliners Dashboard Confessional – but they did speak to me in a way that few bands had up until that point.

It may have been weird, ironic even, to hold hands with my fiancee while they sang lines like “As much as I'd like to, I can't put my hands all over you,” but that was at the heart of what The Get Up Kids meant to us, or what any band means to anyone. Music has this uncanny knack for bringing people together, whether its because of shared pain, loneliness, pleasure, anger, or what-have-you. New songs aside, The Get Up Kids succeeded in that regard.

Standout song(s): “Ten Minutes,” “Shorty”

Should've played, but didn't: “How Long Is Too Long” and “Michelle With One 'L'”

Dark-Humored Alkaline Trio In Good Spirits on First Day of Tour

Saturday, July 9 – US Cellular Connection Stage, 10PM

Alkaline Trio warned the crowd early that this was the first show of the tour, so there might be some mistakes. They did make a few – a flubbed line here, a false start there – but that didn't prevent the band from having a great time and delivering a 90-minute set of mostly early material.

I can admit that I was lukewarm at first about seeing Alkaline Trio because I haven't really liked any of their new material since 2005's Crimson, and even that record wasn't quite up to snuff. After opening with a song from 2008's Agony & Irony (“In Vein”) all fears were allayed when they kicked into “Snake Oil Tanker” and proceeded to play songs from their first few albums.

Alkaline Trio charged through 20 of their particular brand of dark pop punk, including “My Friend Peter,” “Cooking Wine,” and apparently the first Alk3 song he wrote, “'97” from the self-titled EP collection. They also visited their first LP with “Clavicle” and “Nose Over Tail.” Pretty much everything went over well, even the jokey “Olde English 800,” which singer Matt Skiba claims he actually sent in as a jingle for the famous malt liquor.

I went in with limited expectations and left with them met and even exceeded. They sent the crowd off into the hot July night with their traditional closer, “Radio.” If they're going to play a bunch of old songs about drinking and girls – the songs that got me into the band in the first place – they are more than welcome to play in our fair city any night... even if they pandered to the Chicago members of the crowd.

Standout song(s): “Bleeder,” “My Friend Peter”

Should've played but didn't: “This Is Getting Over You,” “You've Got So Far To Go”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Chase

I wrote a short story tonight for the first time in years.

Actually, it's more of a writing exercise than a story; I just wanted to see if I could still do it. It's shorter than most, but it'll do.

A few things:

You will probably be able to guess who the two people are in the story. It is a true story (to the best of my recollection) up until the end of the concert passage. Everything after that is a figment of my imagination.

This was written in one shot. There was no editing on my part.

I felt no immense sense of pride upon finishing. (In other words, I know it's not very good.) In fact, I think it reads like the person who wrote it doesn't really write... but then again I've thought that about pretty much everything I've ever written, so whatever.

The title doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But you'll figure that out after you read it.

That said, knock yourselves out.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Super Mario All-Stars (Wii) and Nostalgia

My girlfriend's sister bought me Super Mario All-Stars - a limited edition game for the Nintendo Wii - for Christmas. I was excited for it for a few reasons: 1) I love the games. 2) Since it was a "limited edition," I tracked it on Amazon, and it looked like it sold out on several occasions... so I was genuinely surprised when I opened the present, and 3) The disc came with a couple of extras, which I will talk about later.

But first, the games. As anyone who grew up with video games of the late 1980's can attest, Mario 1 and Mario 3 are untouchable. They are simply two of the greatest games ever created. I never really cared for the acid trip that was Mario 2, but that's beside the point. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels is infuriating, and I'm glad my younger self never got the chance to play that game because I'm pretty sure controllers and possibly televisions would have been broken. No matter what, this particular collection of games is worth the price.

It should be noted that I indeed have Mario All-Stars for the SNES emulator on my "homebrewed" Wii. So I didn't exactly need this disc, but the extras included pushed my desire for it over the top.

The thing I was most excited about was the soundtrack disc that was included. Music from the Mario games is iconic and embedded in my consciousness. Unfortunately, only half the disc -- 10 tracks -- is made up of actual music, and even that has a lot left to be desired. It pretty much begins and ends with the basic themes of all the games from the NES days up through Super Mario Galaxy on Wii. It's still a pretty cool thing to have but I was left wanting more. As for the other half of the disc? Sound effects. That's right: If you've always wanted high-quality audio of Mario hitting a coin box or descending a warp pipe, your desires have been satisfied.

So I moved on to the booklet, hoping for some insights as to why Mario became so popular or how the programmers went about actually making the game. Instead we get a bunch of drawings, and some one or two-sentence quips from the producer or music director. In a word: disappointing.

Nintendo had a chance to do something really special with its greatest franchise, all centered around a set of games that are nearly flawless. Instead, they swung -- not for the fences, mind you, but more of an "excuse-me" swing -- and whiffed hard. They didn't even bother to change the title screen which still reads "copyright 1993," nor did they change the directions in-game from an SNES pad to the Wiimote. Even the little things were missed. I'm not sure I agree with the "F" the Onion AV Club gave it, but it wasn't a whole hell of a lot better. It was a money-grab, plain and simple, and not a particularly good attempt at one.

Yet, I will still come back to the game time and again... because of nostalgia.

(I'll warn you now: This part will bum you out.)

I used to think the sole reason for nostalgia -- specifically of the childhood variety -- was because we look back at that time in our lives with such wistfulness. It was idyllic and carefree. Of course, the truth is that though there were certainly good times as children, it wasn't always great. It could have been merely unpleasant; perhaps you were bullied by a bigger kid or got made fun of incessantly by someone. Or maybe it was tragic, like being abused by a parent. Every one of us falls somewhere on that scale, and every one of us found solace in something, whether it be a video game or a baseball card collection or a book. Anything to escape.

Now? We get to worry about bills and jobs and lovers and kids. What is there for us to take solace in? (Yeah, the lover or the kids... but those worry you, remember?) Denis Leary had a good idea when he said that it was (paraphrasing) "A cookie, a cigarette, or an orgasm." Then put on your fucking helmet and go back to work.

Pushing us farther down that road is the sobering thought that everyone and everything we've ever loved will someday die. Jesus. No wonder we cling so desperately to the past despite the fact that life is forever moving forward, a clock that never stops ticking, not even when you do.

Even so, I'll keep right on playing my NES games or listening to 90's alternative rock or anything else that reminds me of a time when the end was light years away. It's no substitute for "now" to be certain, and like the rest of us I'll be rolling with the punches the best I can. But can you really blame me (or anyone else feeling nostalgic) for ducking out of the present every once in a while to embrace the past?

(Coming up next time: More on nostalgia, particularly music and sports. I know it would fit here, but my thoughts on that are still jumbled.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Coming Tomorrow...

...a review of Super Mario All-Stars (Wii) and some thoughts on nostalgia. I tried to get something down, I really did. But I failed and will try again tomorrow.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sports Bars

I was kinda sorta half-heartedly invited to watch the Packers/Bears game this past weekend by my best friend. The invitation wasn't half-hearted because he's a prick, but because he knows I don't much like the atmosphere of watching a game in a bar.

"Free shots after a TD aren't enough to make you come out?" he texted me when the game was over.

"No, I have more fun watching the game by myself anyways," I replied, "there's cheaper booze here, and if the game gets boring I can always turn it off."

Now, money is always a valid reason not to go somewhere. But what wasn't said is perhaps more important than what was: I really don't like people all that much and I really don't like watching games with them.

I realize this isn't terribly logical as I've been a 20-game ticket holder for the Brewers the last three seasons and there's way more people at Miller Park for a game than at a bar, AND the beer is more expensive. I like watching the Brewers just fine on television, but there's something special about being at the ballpark: the sounds of the game, the chants of the crowd, the tailgating before and after the game.

Going to concerts would be another good example, as though I enjoy catching a show every now and then, listening to an album on my headphones can be just as satisfying.

Perhaps watching a game at home vs. watching at a bar isn't quite the same as my other examples because it's really just watching on TV at one place or another. But I feel like they all have one thing in common, and it is that I don't do those things every single chance that I get because I don't always feel the need to be part of something better than myself.

I get that we are basically social beings and that we need -- crave even -- that social interaction. I'm not immune to that myself: I'll never forget being at game 3 of the NLDS in 2008, or waiting in line for four hours to get tickets to see Metallica. Those things were great, and the crowd made the event as special as the event itself. But I don't need that interaction most of the time. I can enjoy a game way more by myself without the fanatics screaming at a failed screen pass with 13:51 left in the first quarter just as much as they would for a game-clinching interception. I get that's what makes you fans -- though I am also guilty of yelling at the television, I know it doesn't make a lick of difference -- but it's also what keeps me away from the local watering hole come game time.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Beginning?

I was never one for New Years' resolutions. Not because I'm perfect and don't need to change, but because I know I don't have the ambition to follow through with them. So why waste my time?

I'll try my hand at one that revolves around writing, though.

I'm going to try as hard as I can to write every day. It doesn't have to be polished 1,000-word posts on here, or short stories, or whatever. It just has to be something.

Make no mistake, I don't feel any renewed passion for writing. I just have a lot of ideas stewing in my head and I think if I start writing my thoughts down on a daily basis -- however inconsequential or irrelevant they may be -- it will help me get those ideas out and on the page.

This probably isn't the start of something special, but stay tuned anyways...