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Catching Up With Van Halen

It’s safe to say that Van Halen’s first 6 albums stand as one of the greatest winning streaks in rock history… It’s difficult to consider this band nostalgic, as those 6 albums have never gone long without a spin within my perpetually cycling playlist, but the fact is, they’ve gone decades since they were relevant in the moment… from my perspective, they haven’t been a band since 1984, that’s when the prolificness, the passion, the velocity… all but disappeared, as the mighty Van Halen morphed into something else. An argument on the Hagar years isn’t of interest here today, it’s enough to say that Sammy was never my cup of tea… But here we are in 2012 and Van Halen is immersed in a renaissance of sorts, which I witnessed first hand at Chicago’s United Center this past Friday night (video below), so it got me thinking… What would it take for me to see Van Halen as something beyond a nostalgia act?

Van Halen’s live show right now certainly leaves a lot of room for hope. Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang, VH’s version of two and a half men, are definitely playing well together, it’s evident that amongst these three, many hours of rehearsing have been logged. Uncharacteristically absent from the stage were cigarettes and booze… and if Eddie’s rediscovered timing, dexterity and endurance are any indication… he’s cleaned up a bit and gotten back to business. Brother Alex, as always, drives everything forward with the solid drumming that has been one of the few constants over Van Halen’s 30-year career… and that kick and snare, consistently one of the best sounding in live music… and after the show the other night, I have to say that I miss Michael Anthony a little less… Wolfgang’s bass playing skills have truly come a long way since we last heard him on the 2007 tour, his back-up vocals were spot on and he never missed a queue… I would guess he’s very aware of fans opinions regarding Michael Anthony and what his voice lent to that signature early Van Halen sound… one way or another, he did very well on all fronts… which leads us to Diamond Dave…

Eddie lights Dave

Many won’t agree with me, and I believe this is due to nostalgia, but David Lee Roth seems to me a performer who’s time has passed… the last 25 years on his own seems to have caused too much of that Las Vegas schtick aspect of his personality to come to the forefront… he’s lost his edge as the front man of a high-speed rock and roll band. Seemingly, much of that impression could be erased if he put in some serious practice time… but it was disappointing to me the sheer number of words that he forgot and annoying to listen to that bullshit scatting thing he does in their place. For example, “I’ve been to the edge… from there I stood and looked down… you know I lost a lot of friends there baby…” these words are sacred to this song and he completely changed almost everything about them… not in a good way either… because if you’re going to play (nostalgic) hits from your past… and you’re going to do it because you feel that that’s what your fans want to hear… then play them as recorded. It’s not like you’re Pearl Jam or Springsteen, constantly on the road, constantly messing with your setlist… Van Halen is playing pretty much the same 24 songs every night, and also of note is how similar the current set list is to the one they played on ’07-’08 tour, recommit ALL the words to memory Dave… for the amount of money you’re raking in at each of these shows, it’s the least you can do.

Young Diamond Dave

Diamond Dave in 1982 was the be all end all, don’t get me wrong… I remained a big fan well into his solo career as well as I quickly abandoned the Hagar-led VH… it’s the 2012 version of Roth that I’m worried about… Van Halen has always had lead singer issues… it’s too bad Mama and Papa Van Halen couldn’t have spit out one more kid with a fondness for the microphone and the limelight… One thought I had was perhaps the brothers should consider the same route they took on bass guitar and scoop up some younger frontman of a VH tribute band like the Atomic Punks, a hungry kid that would dedicate every spare moment to capturing every nuance of their recorded work… as opposed to a salty vet like Roth who’s perhaps too big of a rockstar to care enough to re-acquaint himself with the back catalog. I don’t know… the set list is a nostalgic one, so the point should be authenticity. Many will feel I make too big of a deal out of this, but that’s been the residual effect of $160 tickets… at least on me. If they were $35 I would care less who was fronting the band.

To Dave’s credit, he sounded good on all 4 of the new songs in the set from their latest “Different Kind of Truth” release. This leads you to believe that he’s just coming off of the recording of these songs so they’re fresh in his mind… which makes the fact that he’s forgetting words that he himself recorded on the earlier songs even more indicative of laziness, just seems unprofessional… also noteworthy is that the performance of these songs are recent and thus akin to his vocal range now, at 57 years old. Quite a few times he struggled to hit notes on songs from the early days.. just sayin’… but enough with the Diamond Dave bashing, overall it was a pretty satisfying show, which will always be the case when Eddie’s on his game.

Album Cover

Let me finish up with some praise for Diamond Dave as I say a few words on the new Van Halen studio release “A Different Kind of Truth”. My suggestion is that you give this record a couple listens if you haven’t already (free to do on Spotify)… Although there’s definitely throwaways amongst this albums 13 tracks, there’s also a lot of interesting music going on… Many have written that this or that song is reminiscent of demo’s from the early-80’s… but if all the songs form a nicely flowing album in the here and now… who care’s where (or when) the songs came from, let’s just be glad they’re here. Its been a mighty long wait.

The record starts with the album’s first radio single, “Tattoo” is a song that you want to dislike… but after hearing it a few times its got one of those choruses that you can’t get out of your head… a nice showcase for father/son backing vocals and sharing a kinship to “Yankee Rose” from Roth’s solo debut… I don’t know why I think that, it’s just the song that comes to mind… but from there things get more musically serious with “She’s The Woman”, a song that churns along Panama style and is also one of the new songs getting played on the tour. She’s the Woman features an incredible bridge that demonstrates the practice time put in by the 3 instrument playing members of the band… and credit really must be given to Roth for a really nice job with lyrics and delivery ‘…I wanna be your night in shining pick-up truck…” Classic Dave, he shows a really nice vocal flow on this track.

Current Lineup

“You and Your Blues” is a song that starts out promising but then loses its way in the chorus as they inexplicably include a shout-out to the Stones with the lyric ‘19th nervous breakdown’ over and over. With “Chinatown” you get the opposite… the chorus sounds great but the melody of the verses doesn’t quite work… this song does feature great Eddie fretboard work and a classic Alex double-bass beat… so not all is lost. “Blood and Fire’ is just too poppy, I wouldn’t be surprised to find this song on a Richard Marx retrospective… The music of ‘Bullethead’ has a lot of promise but the lyrics are throwaway as you can’t help but wonder what the hell a bullethead is…

From there I would say that the next 4 tracks; “As Is”, “Honey Baby Sweetie Doll”, “The Trouble With Never” and “Outta Space” brings us back as close as we’re going to get to the origins of Van Halen. Intricate guitar lines, big double-bass rhythms, stellar backing vocals and straight on rock and roll vocals… This leads into “Stay Frosty” which is a kitschy song ala Ice Cream Man… if that’s your kind of thing, then you’ll like the song. You can already hear it as a staple on the next Diamond Dave solo tour once he gets himself kicked out again. The album then unfortunately concludes with 2 throwaway songs in “Big River” and “Beats Workin” which left me feeling that “Stay Frosty” should have been where the album concluded. But considering these 4 haven’t made an album together in 28 years, I look at “A Different Kind of Truth” as a solid accomplishment… it easily could have been worse and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sammy Hagar was regretting some of the shit he was talking a few months back as his autobiography was about to come out. Van Halen, both live and on record have turned in an admiral performance for a band on the tail end of its career… now we’ll wait to see whether the resurgence continues… or if this whole thing just turns out to be a one-off cash grab… hoping for the former, fearing for the latter.

If you’ve caught Van Halen for one of the stops on this current tour… please leave your impressions below in the comments… I’m very interested to know whether DLR works out his issues as the tour progresses. The only pictures I took at this show were phone pictures… not that hot, but here they are to check out.

Thanks for the Ride.

It’s not every day that I write a post like this. Happy that two great friends are just completing a phenomenal 27-year run, yet sad that my weekly role in that is coming to an end… I’ll miss the weekly rides in to the Tribune Tower, traveling after dark makes it feel like the expressways are my own personal possessions. Its gotten to the point now where I schedule client meetings, visits with friends and errands for Wednesday evenings prior to show time, something almost every week, I’ll miss that… Although I remain very much connected to them, I’ll miss the weekly banter with my CyberSquad cohorts Mike DiMichele, Patrick Crispen and Mike Reid… I’ll also miss seeing the friends I’ve made around the show, particularly Dan Sugrue, Paula Cooper, Ted Novak and Alex down in security. I’ll miss running into David Kaplan and Milt Rosenberg in the halls late at night… I’ll miss the stellar coffee available in the guest lounge and sitting in the Showcase Studio during the news looking out onto Michigan Avenue… I’ll miss having access to a hallowed ground where so many Chicago radio titans were made… but most sorely missed will be seeing Steve and Johnnie every week… two really gracious and sincere people that have made me feel welcome and at home since the day that I met them. I’ve really gotten used to them in my life and plan to keep them there whenever they’re not in Nashville, Panama City Beach or wherever else their travels take them. But as all things come to an end, I guarantee I’m just one of legions feeling the sting as the overnight institution of Life After Dark draws to a close, at least at WGN…

Degrees of separation have always been an intriguing notion to me… and how I ended up on Website Wednesday Night with Steve and Johnnie ends up a case of 5 degrees that I consider now with wonderment. More interesting is that other occurrences earlier in life that could have led to such a union didn’t… and the chain that actually did couldn’t have been predicted in a million years.

CyberSquad

I was a child of the radio… my Dad has listened to WGN pretty much every day of his life, so those mighty call letters have been rattling around my head since the days of Wally Phillips, Roy Leonard and Paul Harvey. In middle school I spent every spare moment listening to rock radio… WLUP and WMET were amongst my presets, but most of my time was spent on WLS (AM89) as I was addicted to their weekly charts flyers I could pick up at the local Rainbow Records in Park Ridge along with their stable of premium rock DJ’s like John Landecker, Tommy Edwards and Larry Lujack. Coincidentally, I fell asleep almost every night listening to Steve King who was working the overnights even back then. Also around that time it turned out that my Mom was a nurse in the Glenbrook hospital system and one of her co-workers was Peggy Weber, whose father Clark, was of course a big-time radio personality at WIND AM… this led to a tour of their studios and the opportunity to interview Mr. Weber for a school project… this was also the station that Steve would meet Johnnie just a few years later… and then as I’ve mentioned on-the-air before, I came within 2 degrees of separation in the late 70′s when Dan Fabian, the WGN Program Director that eventually hired Steve & Johnnie to set off their current chain of over 6,200 shows, was also my Park Ridge Little League coach for the mighty team that was Nelson Funeral Home that year.

Anyway, you would think that one of those experiences would have been what led me to Website Wednesday Night… but the actual answer to that riddle turned out much more circuitous. Here’s the 5 degrees of separation, bear with me… my parents get divorced in the late 80′s and both re-marry. On my Dad’s side I gain a step-brother named Scott. Scott works for a company in Northern Indiana that sells color-copiers and I work for an architecture firm in Chicago that needs a color copier. Scott sends me their Chicago rep, a guy named Ruben who I buy a color-copier from. Just beginning to get deep into web design, I ask Ruben if he has any recommendations in the web-hosting ISP department… he recommends a company named Forward.net that was owned by none other than Gray Rothkopf, whose name many of you will recognize as my predecessor in the Mac chair on Website Wednesday Night. Gray and I became fast friends… we both socialized and did business together during his run on the Steve & Johnnie Show which gave me cause to tune in many a Wednesday evening to listen in. I let Gray know that I’d love to accompany him to the studio some night to watch everything go down in person… That night ended up being February 13th, 2008 which also marked the start of my own run in the Mac chair for Website Wednesday Night.

Steve & Johnnie

As I’ve told the story before… Gray didn’t tune me in to the fact that the evening was more like an audition… this didn’t become clear to me until the two of us were pulling into the WGN lot before the show… Gray told me to be careful to not swear on the air (I’m quite the pottie-mouth off air) as I objected to the fact that I would be on the air at all… but in retrospect, waiting until the last minute to break the news was the best thing he could have done, didn’t give me any time to over-think it… hopefully if any of you end up on the radio at some point, it can happen for you in the same manner… almost like ripping a band-aid off fast.

So since that fateful February night, I’ve done approximately 180 shows give or take… and every last one of them has been appreciated. I’ve had a ton of experiences and met a ton of people, my professional network has grown as well… all made possible due to two outstanding human beings… Steve… Johnnie… I’ll miss our weekly rendezvous’ here in the immediate future… but here’s hoping there’s yet another home to be had in your illustrious radio careers and that I’ll be able to weasel my way into that one as well ;-)

Much love and Godspeed.

(Editors note; for those of you that are regular visitors to my Website Wednesday Night Show Site… that site will now enter a hiatus so that I can focus more attention on this site which is my primary weblog. I would really love for you to bookmark this page, subscribe to the RSS feed and just generally stay in touch. Another method of staying in touch would be to LIKE my Optiflux Facebook page which I just brought online today for that very purpose… Last, here’s a link to the audio mash I did to commemorate the final show… and as always, thanks for listening!)

 

Catching Up on Trent Reznor

Time to pre-order, we’re about to hear from Trent Reznor along with his long-time writing partner Atticus Ross… If you’ve been to the movie theater in the last couple of weeks, you’re sure to have seen the trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that features a cover of Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song done by Reznor, Ross and Wendy O from the Yeah,Yeah,Yeah’s… as they did for David Fincher’s The Social Network last year… Reznor and Ross have once again done the soundtrack for a Fincher film and this one weighs in at 39 songs over 3 compact discs… available for pre-order right now at NIN.COM within one of the sleekest web commerce set-ups I’ve ever seen… but Trent has always done the web just right… so no surprises there. The movies hitting theaters on December 21st, the soundtrack ships on December 9th.

And just for a blast from the past… back to 1992 for the last recording Trent ever did with Marilyn Manson. Gave Up… recorded in the living room of Sharon Tate’s house, live to video… digging that 128-channel SSL console… Nine Inch Nails at full throttle.

Arena Rock is Dead

My love/hate relationship with Axl Rose turned another page last night as I, for whatever reason, bought tickets to see Guns N’ Roses at Chicago’s Allstate Arena. As nostalgia goes, lately it seems that every time I decide to see a show from a band that had significance for me at some other point in my life… I leave unsatisfied, as though some key ingredient from my past love of a band remains elusive 20 years later in the here and now… Guns N’ Roses illustrated this evolving awareness perfectly to me last night…

Axl Rose

Present back in April of 1992 at the very same Rosemont Horizon, I was part of sold out crowd for the rip roaring last show of the North American leg of the Use Your Illusion tour. GNR was a whole different beast back then… the exodus had begun as Izzy Stradlin had recently quit the band, but Matt Sorum and Duff McKagan remained the rhythm section and Slash was still on guitar. Dizzy Reed had also become a solid member of the band and remains so to this day…. but most significantly, they were still a band whose relevance was current having just come off their best work… that’s what fades over 20 years for most every band, their own hunger and relevance… truly as if fame and fortune exacts that particular toll… God knows, Axl hasn’t done much to disprove that notion… with one of the most distinctive voices in rock, I’m guessing the reason it still sounds so good (and he still does sound great) is that he hasn’t used it that much over the last two decades.

GNR Band

As a general rule-of-thumb though, a rock show that happens in an arena is determined by how many people want to see a concert as opposed to whether or not that specific band and its particular show is one that’s suited for an arena.

As far as arena rock shows go, GNR had all the modern day accoutrements… but they were cookie-cutter, which is where the problem lies… several stories tall video screens, explosions and pyrotechnics, all that cock-rock hamming and posing… but they also had an inferior sound system, a mix that was crap and the volume pumped 20 decibels past where it should have been… how does this possibly serve the music and to a lesser extent the venue? One’s left to guess as the headache grows… admittedly I’m most certainly in the minority on this… most concert-goers seem more than fine with things just as they are… but as live music fans, I believe we’re mostly tuned to accept what has always been a standard as opposed to insisting that increased ticket prices are reflected in the experience… to have a great sound system designed specifically for the arena context for example… is that too much to ask? The price of your ticket, parking, a concert shirt and a beer would set you back $150 at this particular show… the least we should get should be a clean mix at a reasonable volume so that the music could be enjoyed without inducing a volcanic headache and a ringing in the ears for the next couple days.

GNR Pose

I wish I had the energy to analyze the set list for the evening… but why bother, it’s not a whole lot different from the GNR setlist of two decades ago… and the covers… wow, the covers… 11 of them in all if you count the individual showcases… and we got a lot of those too didn’t we… one for each of the guitar players including Tommy Stinson on lead vocals for the Who’s My Generation and Dizzy Reed pounding out a raggedy version of Baba O’Riley acoustic on the piano… but what really amplified the annoying was that GNR didn’t take the stage until 11:15 pm… who wants to hear Paradise City at 2 o’clock in the morning on a weeknight? Might not be that rock and roll of an opinion to have but fuck that… all this talk about “Axl time”… fuck that as well… we’re the customers, he’s the provider of a service… he needs to show some modicum of respect to those paying the bills… ticket says 9 pm… be on stage by 10. Its been reported that Axl needs 90 minutes of vocal prep prior to a show… its also been reported that he rolls into the arena around 8-8:30… All I can say is that I’m never gonna pay to see these guys again…

Arena rock is breathing its last breaths, its audience is aging out… the number of current bands relevant for an arena is miniscule… long live the theaters and smaller venues… the experience… sonic, social and otherwise are superior anyway… as is the value for your dollar. Think about it the next time you’re gonna drop all that money on a band whose best days were 20 years ago.

Nice knowing you Axl… from here on out it’s just me, my Guns N’ Roses discs and the memories.

 

Thanks for Everything Mr. Jobs

If a butterfly flaps its wings in Cupertino…

It’s not often that someone you’ve never met dies and you can’t help but think how profoundly different your own life would be had that person never lived… but that’s the case for me today with the passing of Steve Jobs.

Original Mac Plus

I look back on my own journey with gratitude for having found myself in San Francisco’s Bay Area in the late 80′s stationed there as a member of the US Navy. As an ex-pat musician for whom being in a band wasn’t looking probable over the next few years, I was fortunate enough to have walked into the Oakland Guitar Center one Saturday afternoon in April of ’88 where one of the seminal moments of my life would occur. A discussion with a sales rep named Drac, who soon became a good friend and musical accomplice, turned me on to the knowledge that with this new computer called Macintosh and a software package called Vision, I could connect MIDI-equipped keyboards (also a relatively new technology at the time) to the Mac and create music on my own, sans the band. I frantically began saving my money and on November 1st of that year, bought my first Mac… a Macintosh Plus that I paid $1,180 for, I still have the sales receipt and the computer which speaks to the ‘Cult of Mac’ that Jobs created.

From there it was literally the opening of Pandora’s Box. Although I remain active using Mac’s for music to this day, it quickly became apparent that the computer could be used for a lot more than that and I was interested in all of it… Painting, drawing, animating… layout, typography and printing tech… and believe it or not, the internet was still 8 years from becoming a reality. Being so close to Apple there in San Francisco was also a major boon in terms of exposure to people also keenly interested in the Macintosh… Trips to a little software boutique store called Mac Orchard in Berkeley was a place I could often be found, rummaging through the bins of shareware (on 3.5 floppies) and talking to like-minded folks, many of whom were the authors of the software I was taking home after every visit…

Original Mac Team

I was also very fortunate to have been one of the earlier members of BMUG, the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group, which was the largest Macintosh Group in the world at the time… Thursday night meetings were epic on the campus of UC Berkeley… and when I had to miss one due to military responsibilities I would near tears… it was at those meetings that I heard Guy Kawasaki speak, the original Mac evangelist… extremely knowledgable and inspirational for anyone who has had the pleasure of his insight…  I also heard speak and met Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, both members of the original Mac design team and at the bottom of this photo… Atkinson also being the inventor of Hypercard, a precursor to Macromedia’s Director which exists to this day as Adobe Flash, that was another multi-year obsession of mine… and sad to say, especially on this day, that I was deployed in the North Pacific the Thursday evening that Steve Jobs spoke to the assembled BMUGgers… one of the greatest senses of loss I’ve ever felt for having missed something…

And that’s where I find myself today, missing something… the loss more nostalgic than anything else… I could tell a hundred more Mac-related stories that were all, in one way or another, enabled by Steve Jobs. I feel no anxiety or any threat towards Apple’s continued world-leading design and innovation. Of the hundreds of qualities Steve Jobs obviously possessed, a thoughtfulness towards his own legacy was chief amongst them. Apple is a company with a blueprint for the future and a talent pool that’s second to none for fulfilling that vision… it’s just profoundly sad that Steve didn’t get another couple decades to witness where his vision would take the world. But on the flip-side, his was a life force that literally changed the world, and none but a handful can ever make that claim.

The computer for the rest of us… that was the notion that grabbed me. Like millions of others I was never too concerned with how computers worked… just that they did…. and for all those whose lives were inspired and enabled by Steve Jobs imagination, determination and ultimate contributions, the world is certainly an emptier place today… he will be sorely missed.

Godspeed Mr. Jobs… and thanks for everything.

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