Live Music (and more): Tower of Power, War and Cheech & Chong at the Greek Theatre

May 27, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

The pairing of War and Tower of Power at the Greek Theater Saturday night had the earmarks of a poppin’ high time of great music.   They’ve played the Greek together before and blown the doors off of the place.  Both bands have an impressive catalogue of enduring hit songs, a strong longtime following, and they continue to tour regularly.  So, they have definitely kept their sea legs beneath them.

Cheech and Chong

Cheech and Chong

The wild card on the bill Saturday were Cheech and Chong, who more or less emceed and provided comic relief throughout the evening.  It was going to be interesting to see how all of this actually played out.  In the end it’s probably fair to say the results were mixed.  It was pretty weird.

The crowd at the Greek was an interesting one.   It seems that the Greek sells tall cans of beer this season and these were a very popular item Saturday.  Many patrons bought them in pairs…repeatedly.   By the end of the night people were staggering up and down the stairs.   In keeping with the Oakland theme that comes with Tower of Power (a local treasure of that fine city), the gig felt a lot like a Raiders tailgate party. This was a great opportunity for people watching.

My hope for Saturday night was that there would be one great set of music, then some vintage live comedy from C and C, and then another great set of music. It didn’t quite work out that way.   From the start the comedic bar was set to a scatological low level that few actually want to endure.  It began to get a little embarrassing to hear men and women (Tommy Chong’s wife, Shelby) in excess of 60 and 70 years old talking like this to thousands of people at the Greek Theatre every time they got behind a microphone.

Tower of Power

Tower of Power

Throughout the evening Tower of Power and War didn’t get to play more than two or three songs before another comedic interlude/interruption from Cheech and Chong.  Was anything added by having Tower of Power play “Basketball Jones” behind Cheech and Chong?   Not when we had to listen to all the juvenile stuff first.   TOP really doesn’t have any need to be sharing their time slot with Cheech and Chong.  Nor does War.   Share the stage, sure, why not?  Share the actual time slot, come on, they don’t need to do that.  It was like watching a great band rehearsal get interrupted by a couple of goofy 12 year olds.   Somebody take these kids to the park or the movies so the music can continue.

With all of this being said, it should be noted that TOP was as crisp as ever and Larry Braggs was once again in fine form on lead vocals.   Blowing through hits like “What is Hip?” “You’re Still a Young Man,” and “So Very Hard to Go,” their catalogue has aged like fine wine. We just didn’t get to hear as much of it as they might have played otherwise.  These are classic songs and the vaunted 5 piece Tower of Power horn section, led by longtime members Emilio Castillo on tenor sax and the Professor, Steven Kupka, on baritone sax is still honkin’ and smokin’.  Tight, tight, tight.



The same basic plight that TOP met also awaited War.    Led by the charismatic and talented keyboardist, Lonnie Jordan, they too couldn’t get far into the set without having to stop for the silliness.  They did a spattering of their most recognizable tunes including “Me and Baby Brother,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Cisco Kid,” “Slipping into Darkness,” and “Summer.”  Though the personnel have changed quite a bit since the songs were recorded, the lineup is basically the same.  And for a lot of people, the juxtaposition of harmonica and saxophone will always evoke War’s sound.  War’s set did include the one sweet surprise of the night — a fine rendition of “Spill the Wine,” the 1970 hit song that they cut with Eric Burdon.  Lonnie Jordan did a great job on the ultra laid back vocal line and the signature flute trills from David Urquidi were a nice attention to detail.   Hot flames of fire roaring at his back, indeed…

The Tower of Power horns marched through the aisle up onto the stage to join War at the end of the evening.  Even then they had to stand there with their horns in their hands and listen to more of the stoner dudes.  Finally, they got to flesh out “Low Rider” with War…and it did sound tremendous.

Cheech and Chong were big in the seventies and early eighties with a weed-tinged angle on the world.  The personae of a hippie burner and his similarly stoned Chicano counterpart were endearing and rather progressive at the time.   Their comedy sketches were classic – the sort of thing that many a teenage dude learned word for word, nuance for nuance back in the day … whilst learning the art of smoking dope.    One was part and parcel to the other.   But that was then and this is now.

To be fair, Cheech and Chong did do their famous Santa Claus routine pretty much straight through and it was entertaining. They are still funny when they make the effort to keep it “clean.” This would be a much better direction for them to go in. And in this way every body else can be left to do what they do on their own terms at a pace that doesn’t include silliness.

When left to their own devices both War and Tower of Power are still among the very best at what they do.  So, how about just letting them carry on uninterrupted?

* * * * * * * *

To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

Picks of the Week: May 22 – 27

May 22, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Kathleen Grace

– May 22. (Tues.)  Kathleen Grace Group.  Singer Grace, a true musical adventurer, combines the folk-based methods of the ‘70s singer songwriters with her jazz roots in her new album, Mirror.   Blue Whale.    (213) 620-0908

– May 22. (Tues.) Otmaro Ruiz/Aaron Serfaty Quartet.  Versatile pianist Ruiz and drummer Serfaty – musical partners for three decades — get together with the solid bass playing of Edwin Livingstone and the lush vocals of Brazilian singer/composer Catina De Luna. Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

– May 24. (Thurs.)  Vardan Ovsepian.  Armenia-born pianist/composer Ovsepian celebrates his birthday with a release party for his new CD, ChromaticityBlue Whale.   (213) 620-0908.

– May 24 – 27. (Thurs. – Sun.)  The Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Four consecutive nights of Mozart compositions conducted by Gustavo Dudamel,  Thurs. and Sat. will begin the three year Mozart/Da Ponte Trilogy with Don Giovanni. Friday night and Sun. afternoon will feature Exultate, jubilate and the Posthorn Serenade (K. 320) with soprano Kiera DuffyDisney Hall.    (323) 850-2000.

Tierney Sutton

– May 25 – 27. (Fri. – Sun.) Tierney Sutton Band. It’s one of the finest musical partnerships in all of jazz – the almost symbiotic connection between Sutton’s warm, pliable voice and the complimentary responsiveness of her Band.  Hopefully they’ll play some selections from her latest CD, American Road.  Catalina Bar & Grill. (323) 466-2210.

– May 26. (Sat.)  War and Tower of Power. Two of the heavy rhythm, hard charging rock bands of the late ‘60s and beyond, War and Tower of Power impacted much of the crossover music that followed.  And they’re still at it. Greek Theatre.    (323) 665-5857.

– May 27. (Sun.) Alan Broadbent.  The gifted pianist/composer Broadbent, long one of the Southland’s jazz benefits, moved to the east coast last year.  Fortunately he comes back from time to time, so don’t miss this visit, in which he’ll be backed by bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Kendall Kay Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.    (310) 474-9400.

* * * * * *       HIGHLIGHT      * * * * * *

May 27. (Sun.) The 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival’s Second Community Concert. The Playboy Jazz Festival’s annual free concerts leading up to the Festival itself — which takes place on June 16 & 17 at the Hollywood Bowl – are some of the Southland’s greatest jazz bargains. And this year is no exception.  The second free concert of the 2012 Festival takes place at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.  The featured act is the Jeff Lorber Fusion.

Jeff Lorber

Founded in 1977, the Fusion was a pacemaker in transforming cross-over pop- and rock-influenced jazz into a convincing musical blend.  Since then, Lorber’s done everything from solo recording and production and session work to r&b and video game music.  But his many fans are always delighted on the rare occasions when he once again revives the inimitable Jeff Lorber Fusion.

Also on the bill, the fine playing of the Washington Preparatory High School Jazz Ensemble, another collective of Southland young players convincingly proving that the future of jazz is in fine hands.,  The Second Free Playboy Community Concert at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.        (310) 450-1173.

 San Francisco

– May 25 – 27. (Fri. – Sun.)  Joshua Redman’s James Farm group examines some of the far reaching connections between jazz and contemporary pop sounds.  With pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric HarlandYoshi’s Oakland.   (510) 238-9200.


– May 24 – 27. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Gerald Clayton Trio.  Already an impressive pianist when he was in his teens, the twentysomething Clayton has matured into one of the gifted jazz artists of his generation.  Jazz Showcase.    (312) 360-0234.

New York

Joe Lovano

– May 22 – 26. (Tues. – Sat.)  Joe Lovano US Five. The dynamic tenor saxophonist’s talented young band checks out the music from his Bird Songs album – the still potent pleasures of bebop and its memories.  Birdland.    Bird Songs.  Album  *212( 581-3080.

– May 22 – 27. (Tues. – Sun.)  Fred Hersch Duos & Trio. Pianist Hersch continues his fascinating journey through classically-oriented jazz territories via his work with duos and a trio. The Jazz Standard.    (212) 576-2232.

– May 277. (Sun.)  Ravichandra Kulur.  South Indian flutist Kulur is a master of the Carnatic ragas and talas of his homeland.  His improvisational excursions are aided by Arun Ramamurthy, violin, and Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, mridangam.  Cornelia St. Café.   (212) 989-9319.


– May 27. (Sun.)  Sunday Jazz Lunch Celebrating the Modern Jazz Quartet.  The ensemble of Jim Hart, Barry Green, Matt Ridley and Steve Brown perform the memorable music of the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet.  Ronnie Scott’s.   020 7439 0747.


Anat Cohen

– May 22 (Tues.)  The Three Cohens.  The gifted Cohen siblings Anat, clarinet and tenor saxophone, Yuval, soprano saxophone, and Avishai, trumpet, display their extraordinary jazz skills in the company of pianist Yonatan Avishai, bassist Omer Avital and drummer Jonathan BlakeA-Trane.  030 / 313 25 50.


– May 23 – 25. (Wed. – Fri. )  The Yellowjackets.  After more than three decades of musical togetherness, the Yellowjackets continue to bring some impressive jazz essence to their unique blend of fusion and smooth jazz.  Blue Note Milano.


– May 22 & 23. (Tues. & Wed.)  The Brian Blade Fellowship Band. Always a much in demand jazz sideman, drummer Blade has recently begun – with his Fellowship Band — to reveal his significant skills as singer and a songwriter.  Blue Note Tokyo.  03-5485-0088.

* * * * * *

Tierney Sutton photo by Tony Gieske.  

Picks of the Week: May 24 – 29

May 24, 2011

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Gene Harris

– May 24. (Tues.)  A Tribute to Gene Harris.  This is as close as live music gets to the irresistible sounds of the late Gene Harris’   Quartet.  Pianist Bradley Young takes the lead role, backed by a trio of alumni from the original Harris ensemble – Luther Hughes, bass, Paul Kreibich, drums, Frank Potenza, guitar.  Charlie O’s.   (818) 994-3058.

– May 24 – 29. (Tues. – Sun.)  The Royal Danish Ballet. With a history dating back to 1748, the company has longevity and maturity on it side, whether performing classics or new works.  Program I (Tues. & Wed.) features new works by Nordic choreographers.  Program II (Fri. – Sun.) presents a new production of August Bournonville’s classic Napooli.  Segerstrom Center for the Arts.    (714) 556-2787.

– May 25. (Wed.) Bob Sheppard Quartet.  Everyone’s first-call jazz saxophonist steps in the leader’s spotlight for once, backed by the solid playing of  John Beasley, piano, Darek Oles, bass, Steve Hass, drums.  Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

– May 25. (Wed.)  Lisa Hilton. Pianist Hilton’s lyrical, highly personal style has been described by Down Beat magazine as “A deeply expressive style of coaxing sounds from keys.”  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

– May 26. (Thurs.)  Nicholas Payton“Happy 85th Birthday Miles Davis”  Expect to hear some of the great classics of contemporary jazz when trumpeter Peyton celebrates what would have been Miles’ 85th birthday.  A Jazz Bakery Movable Feast at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.    (310) 271-9039.

Anna Mjoll

– May 27. (Fri.)  Anna Mjoll.  Iceland’s gift to contemporary jazz vocalizing brings her unique style to songs that reach easily across the jazz boundaries.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

– May 27. (Fri.) Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience.  Drummer Bonham leads a dedicated tribute band in a powerful evening of Led Zeppelin songs, accompanied by atmospheric video and light shows.  The Greek Theatre.    (877) 686-5366.

– May 28. (Sat.) War and Tower of Power.  They’re back.  Two of the definitive crossover rockbands of the seventies make their annual Summer appearance at the Greek Theatre. (877) 686-5366.

San Francisco

– May 26. (Thurs.)  Laurie Antonioli.  Singer Antonioli is a rare talent, too rarely seen beyond the Bay area.  She’ll hopefully do material from her recent album, American DreamsFreight & Salvage Coffeehouse, Berkley.   (510) 644-2020.

Rickie Lee Jones

– May 27. (Fri.)  Rickie Lee Jones. Veteran singer/songwriter Jones, a compelling performer for more than three decades, will revisit songs from her debut album, 1979’s Rickie Lee Jones and 1982’s Pirates.  An SFJAZZ Spring Season event at Davis Symphony Hall.   (866) 920-5299.

– May 27 – 29. (Fri. – Sun.)  Hiroshima.  Genre boundaries mean nothing to the versatile members of Hiroshima, who have been blending Asian, Latin and jazz elements for more than three decades.  Yoshi’s Oakland.   (510) 238-9200.

– May 28. (Sat.) Tony Bennett. Still going strong at 84, Bennett’s every performance is a definitive display of how to bring jazz-tinged life to the Great American Songbook.  An SFJAZZ Spring Season event at Davis Symphony Hall.   (866) 920-5299.


– May 24 & 25. (Tues. & Wed.)  Bucky Pizzarelli Trio. The master of the seven string guitar continues, at 85, to provide some object lessons in jazz guitar to younger generations of players (and listeners).   Jazz Alley.   (206) 441-9729.


– May 26 – 29. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Miguel Zenon Quartet. Alto saxophonists, one of the most original saxophone voices of his generation, has already had his impressive skills acknowledged with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.  Jazz Showcase.    (312) 360-0234.

 New York

Stanley Clarke

– May 24 – 29. (Tues. – Sun.)  Stanley Clarke.  A bass players’ bassist and musicians’ musician, Clarke, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday brings creative enlightenment to everything he plays.  The Blue Note.    (212) 475-8592.

– May 26 – 29. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Cedar Walton, Javon Jackson, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash.  The list of names tells you all you need to know – that this will be an all-star evening of prime jazz.  Iridium.    (212) 582-2121.

Washington D.C.

– May 26. (Thurs.)  Roseanna Vitro.  Always adventurous, jazz singer Vitro’s latest album, is a creatively convincing exploration of the songs of Randy Newman.  Blues Alley.    (202) 337-4141.


– May 27 & 28. (Fri. & Sat.)  Tania Maria.  Ronnie Scott’s. Veteran Brazilian singer/pianist Tania Maria authentically blends Brazilian rhythms with urban blues and pop, hip-hop and funk.  Ronnie Scott’s.  020 7439 0747.


– May 27. (Fri.) Ron Carter Trio.  The iconic acoustic bassist Carter performs with his superb Golden Striker trio – guitarist Bobby Broom and pianist Mulgrew Miller.   Blue Note Milano.    02 69 01 68 88.


Gretchen Parlato

– May 25. (Wed.)  Gretchen Parlato. One of the most imaginative of the new generation of young singers performs material from her new CD, The Lost and Found. New Morning.

Nagoya, Japan

– May 23. (Mon.)  Cheryl Bentyne.  Taking a break from her Manhattan Transfer chores, singer Bentyne displays her far-reaching jazz vocal skills.  Blue Note Nagoya.    052-961-6311.  To read a recent iRoM review of Cheryl Bentyne click HERE.

Rickie Lee Jones and Stanley Clarke photos by Tony Gieske.

Pop Music Live: War, Tower of Power and the Average White Band at the Greek Theatre

June 4, 2010

By Mike Finkelstein

Last weekend, War, Tower of Power and the Average White Band shared the stage at the packed Greek Theater.   These are three of the most memorable names from 70’s soul.  All had considerable radio success then.  War and TOP have dozens of iconic tracks between them and the vast majority of the audience was likely grooving to these songs when they first came out.   You could just feel the anticipatory buzz in the balmy outdoor air.

Average White Band

Opening the show was the Average White Band, an enduring Scottish funk/soul band who appeared on the international scene in the early 70’s.   AWB’s line up showed some interesting versatility as they swapped instrumental duties on several numbers.  Onnie McIntyre and Alan Gorrie both sang leads and played guitar and bass, Fred Vigdor doubled on sax and keyboards and Klyde Jones rotated between keyboards, guitar, bass and lead vocals.  No doubt about it, AWB went over very well as a third billed act.  The crowd knew the material and were anticipating the hits.  Towards the end of the set the hits were delivered and people were dancing at their seats and in the aisles.   This is as pure a sign of approval as a band could hope for.   Songs like “Cut the Cake” and the signature tune “Pick Up the Pieces” sounded timeless, as good Saturday night as they were over 30 years ago.   Sometimes it takes not hearing a great song for quite a while to make obvious just how good it is.  And with “Cut The Cake,” I was one of many who kept hearing the immortal lascivious line, “Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee, gimmee, gimmee that cake!” … and was still digging it.

Next on was Tower of Power, who are surely a testimonial to keeping things at a peak level for the longest of times.   The core of this band has been working steadily together through numerous personnel changes over a period of 42 years.   They still sounded like a well tuned high performance musical engine.  TOP featured a poppin’ five piece horn section led by founding members Emilio Castillo on tenor sax and Stephen “Doc” Kupka on baritone sax (a most hypnotically funky instrument rarely seen in pop music).  The band was powered by a rhythm section of Francis Rocco Prestia on bass and David Garibaldi on drums that thumped and snapped like few others around.  TOP bopped, glided, and swayed through a panorama of moods and grooves in this show.

Tower of Power

It takes one very polished front man to guide all of this energy and sound in a ten-man band.  Tower of Power has certainly made a fine chocie Larry Braggs.  He sang the slow songs with power and control, effortlessly opening it up and reelng it back in emotionally for dynamic effect.   Songs like the gorgeous and touching “So Very Hard To Go,”  and the poignant ballad “You’re Still A Young Man,” showcased his singing beautifully.  When the band lurched into open throttle funk on songs like “What is Hip” and “Down to the Nightclub” they took it to the next level. TOP played with a remarkable mix of precision, power and crisp arrangements, and it was gratifying to see them burn it up the way they did.

Tower of Power even has a new album out, The Great American Soulbook, a set of classic soul covers.  Among the songs they performed from it were the Billy Paul classic “Me And Mrs. Jones,” as well as a medley of James Brown covers.  Castillo explained, and the sound of the band confirmed, that it all begins with James Brown for them.  Listening to them pop and honk through “I Got the Feeling” it was clear as could be.

War was the headliner Saturday night and they did not disappoint.  Their music is a very unique mix of many different styles.  Elements of doo-wop, Calypso, reggae, funk, and soul can be heard throughout their catalogue but these musical strands are woven together so that it always sounds like War. While most of their songs are undeniably funky they do not often move very fast, but they groove like no one else’s business!

Lonnie Johnson and War

The band was fronted by the charismatic Lonnie Johnson, who held forth with a warm and knowing demeanor from behind a set of keyboards painted with bright designs.  War gets a very unique sound from their unusual instrumentation.  They featured Salvador Rodriguez on drums who is as steady as they come and plays with a winsome flair.  Next to Rodriguez was a full set of percussion played skillfully by Marcos Reyes.   At the bottom of this rhythmic mix was Francisco “Pancho” Tomaselli from Ecuador, who held down one solid bass line after another all night.  War also featured a unique sonic combination of saxophone (Fernando Harkles) and harmonica (Mitch Kashmar).   The mix of these two instruments together over the band’s inimitable percussive groove made for a signature sound.

War’s set was a romp through their catalogue of hits.  They opened up with “Cisco Kid,” one of their most easily recognized songs and the gig was off to a fine start.     As the show progressed, Johnson took time to explain some of what was behind songs like “Me and Baby Brother” and “Slipping Into Darkness” (tripping and drinking).   These are issues that resonate with an urban audience and the crowd at the Greek had come to hear these songs because, well, if you grew up listening to the radio in the 70’s then you quite likely know all of these songs like the back of  your hand.  War also played some of their lighter songs such as “Summer” and “Why Can’t we Be friends?” and they all worked like a charm.

But the one number that probably translated best to the present was “Lowrider”. This delightful and ubiquitous jam is War’s signature song. Its appeal was ultimately in the amazing groove it established, as it chugged and shuffled along sparsely yet deliberately.   Ultimately, it is this balance of odd but appealing voicings with great grooves that will keep War’s songs in the hearts of many more people in the future.  The best tunes do endure.

Throughout the night I watched a pair of kids, perhaps brother and sister, in the wings to the side of the stage.  They probably weren’t even in middle school yet but these two were dancing euphorically “old school”  to Tower of Power and War for well over an hour.   This nicely supports the idea that great music appeals to people of all ages.

Picks of the Week: May 24 – 30

May 23, 2010

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

– May 24. (Mon.) Sopranos and StringsBrad Dechter and Roger Neumann, soprano saxophones, Graham Dechter and Jim Fox, guitars and Chuck Nenneker, bass. The instrumentation makes for an evening of intriguing sounds, enhanced by the father and son presence of Brad and Graham Dechter.  Charlie O’s.    (919) 994-3058.

Ann and Nancy Wilson

– May 24. (Mon.)  An Evening With HeartAnn and Nancy Wilson. The talented duo are back on the scene, talking about their career and performing songs from the upcoming CD, Red Velvet Car, their first studio recording in six years.   Grammy Museum. 1.800.745.3000.

– May 24. (Mon.) Slide FX Trombone Tentet. Here’s another of the week’s intriguing jazz instrumentations – six trombones (four tenor and two bass) and rhythm.  Call it Kai  and J.J. multiplied by five.  Steamers.  (714) 871-8800.

– May 25. (Tues.)  Seth McFarlane and The Ron Jones Influence Jazz Orchestra.  Not only has Seth McFarlane created the hit TV show Family Guy. He also has a special interest in singing the songs of the Frank Sinatra/Nat “King” Cole era – which he’ll do with the Influence Jazz Orchestra (on the 2nd set only).  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

– May 26. (Wed.)  Bob Mintzer and Bob Sheppard Quintet.  ————> Two of the Southland’s most versatile saxophonists go head to head.  Expect improvisational fireworks.  Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

– May 26. (Wed.)  Carol Robbins, Larry Koonse and Pat Senatore.  It’s an all-strings jazz set.  And an unusual combination of strings, at that, with Robbins’ harp, Koonse’s guitar and Senatore’s bass – three of the Southland’s versatile, veteran jazz artists.   Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

– May 26 – 30. (Wed. – Sun.)  The Lion King.  Disney’s award winning musical, based on the 1994 animated film, has had an extraordinary theatrical life – the 8th longest running show in Broadway History.  But no need to take a red-eye to Manhattan to savor the music by Elton John and Tim Rice, not when this fine production runs for nearly a week at OCPAC’s Segerstrom Hall.   (714) 556-2787.

Denise Donatelli

– May 27. (Thurs.)  Denise Donatelli. A night with jazz singer Donatelli’s vocals in the cozy atmosphere of Charlie O’s is always something to savor.  But this event should be even better, with Donatelli celebrating her birthday.  Hopefully the audience will send her a “Happy Birthday” singalong.  Charlie O’s.    (919) 994-3058.

– May 27 – 30. (Thurs. – Sun.)  David Sanborn Trio, featuring Joey DeFrancesco.  The blues fly in all directions when these two masters get together on the stage – De Francesco’s groove-heavy Hammond B-3 propelling Sanborn’s alto into stratospheric excursions.  Don’t miss these guys.  Catalina Bar & Grill (323) 466-2210.

– May 29. (Sat.)  Tower of Power. Average White Band. War.  Three of the hottest horn-driven rock, blues and crossover bands of the ‘70s match their greatest hits on the same stage.  Expect dancing in the aisles. The Greek Theatre.  (323) 665-5857.

Eric Reed

– May 29. (Sat.) Eric Reed Trio.  Pianist Reed was already working with Wynton Marsalis while he was still in his teens, back in the late ‘80s.  And he’s been on an upslope ever since, working with Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Clark Terry and many others, as well as leading his own stellar groups.  Vitello’s.  (818) 769-0905.

– May 29. (Sat.)  Regina Carter “Reverse Thread.” The always adventurous Carter surrounds her soaring violin with the intriguing combination of Yacouba Sissoko’s kora, Will Holshouser’s accordion, Chris Lightcap’s bass and Alvester Garnette’s drums and percussion.  The Grammy Museum Sound Stage.  A Jazz Bakery Moveable Feast. (310) 271-9039.

– May 29 & 30. (Sat. & Sun.) Cajun Creole Music Festival. There’ll be blues of every imaginable sound and hue at this entertaining, two-day outdoor festival.  Among the highlight artists: The Soul of John Black, Elvin Bishop, the Mannish Boys, the Delta Groove All-Star Blues Review, a long line of Cajun Creole artists and much more. Cajun Creole Music Festival.  Rancho Santa Susana Community Park.  Simi Valley.    (805) 517-900.

– May 30. (Sun.)  The John Daversa Big Band. Trumpeter Daversa squeezes his adventurous big band into the up close and personal performance space of the Baked Potato.   (818) 980-1615.

San Diego

– May 29 & 30.  (Sat. & Sun.)  Jane Monheit. Blessed with one of the jazz world’s most warm and engaging voices, Monheit is also an imaginative singer with a lyrical knack for telling a musical story.  Anthology.  San Diego.   (619) 595-0300.

San Francisco

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensil

– May 25 – 29. (Tues. – Sat.)  Wesla Whitfield and the Mike Greensill Trio. Cabaret/jazz singer Whitfield and her husband, pianist Greensill, are among the definitive musical actsin the Bay area’s plethora of fine vocal talent.  Rrazz Room.  (415) 781-0306

– May 28 – 30. (Fri. – Sun.)  Benny Green Trio.  Pianist Green has worked with Betty Carter and Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and Milt Jackson, and been a protégé of Oscar Peterson.  He’s emerged from that experience as a major jazz pianist, especially listenable when he’s working with the likes of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny WashingtonYoshi’s Oakland.   (510) 238-9200.

– May 29 & 30. (Sat. & Sun.)  Mose Allison.  The bard of the bayou celebrates the release of his first CD – The Way of the World – in 12 years. He’ll be backed by Pete Magadini and Bill Douglass. Yoshi’s San Francisco.   (415) 655-5600.

– May 29 – June 1. (Sat. – Tues.)  Roberta Donnay Jazz Trio. Donnay’s singing has a bit of the coyness of Blossom Dearie, a trace of  the poignancy of Billie Holiday and a whole lot of her own unique way with a phrase.  She hasn’t yet received the visibility she deserves, but Donnay’s worth hearing at every opportunity. The Union Room @ Biscuits & Blues.   (415) 292-2583.

New York

– May 24. (Mon.)  Beat Kaestli.  The Swiss-born vocalist, whose sound is sometimes reminiscent of Kenny Rankin, has the potential to emerge as a high level jazz artist.  Zinc Bar.  NYC.  (212) 477-9462.

– May 25 – 29. (Tues. – Sat.)  Joe Lovano Quartet.  Saxophonist Lovano has assembled a cross-generational quartet that brings together a foursome of world class talent.  With pianist Steve Kuhn, bassist George Mraz and drummer Willie Jones III. Birdland.   (212) 581-3080.

– May 25 – 30. (Tues. – Sun.)  Ahmad Jamal.  Miles Davis once said that he learned a lot about jazz time from Jamal.  And it’s easy to believe whenever the iconic pianist sets up one of his irresistible grooves.  Blue Note.   (212) 475-8592.

Phil Woods

– May 27 – 30. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Phil Woods Quintet.  The veteran bopster positions his soaring alto saxophone alongside the articulate trumpet lines of Brian Lynch, backed by the solid rhythm team of pianist Bill Mays, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill GoodwinDizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.  (212) 258-9595.

On Second Thought: U2 — “War” (1983)

April 12, 2009


By Dave Gebroe

Whether it be from a priest, a rabbi, an outspoken relative, or the Almighty Bono Vox himself, my knee-jerk impulse to being preached at is exactly that: to knee that jerk, right in the groin.  Along the same lines, I also don’t look fondly upon Greenpeace pamphlets being thrust in my face as I walk into an overly expensive stadium show.  I just don’t care for activism in my rock.  None of this explains why at fifteen years old I went to see U2 on “The Joshua Tree” tour, nor does it explain why the show left me in a state of slack-jawed awe at the mystical intensity of the U2 experience.  The long and short of it is that this gaggle of stylistically-challenged Irish rockers contained the perfect level of grandstanding self-seriousness especially during the Eighties-for a zit-faced, teenage doofus like myself to truly call my own. 

No matter how many permutations they manage to force out of their once-vital band, for me the longstanding image of U2 will be their performance of “Silver And Gold” from that hot-air epic of Americana-seeking douchebaggery “Rattle and Hum.”  Dressed in a cowboy hat, of all things, Bon(z)o needles the audience with a mid-song anti-apartheid rant.  When he catches himself drawling on interminably, instead of poking fun at his own sermonizing tendencies (something at which he became more proficient during the “Achtung, Baby” era), he actually has the brass-balled audacity to implicate the audience!  “Am I buggin’ ya?  Don’t mean to bug ya.  Okay, Edge, play the blues!”  And the unintentional punch line, especially in light of the band’s obsession with uncovering the essence of what makes America tick, is that what comes rippling out of The Edge’s amps is as authentically bluesy as the theme song to “Sesame Street.”

Rewind five years and we have the dubious pleasure of bearing witness to the birth of Bono as caricature.  There he is, that quaint, mullet-sporting crusader waving a white flag and whipping up a “No more!” call-and-response with the “Live At Red Rocks” crowd.  Looking back now, I see some dude trying a little too hard to capture his place in the American spotlight after two albums hadn’t quite done the trick. 

Those albums — 1980’s “Boy” and 1981’s “October” — still stand today as powerful works from a band that hadn’t yet discovered its voice, and was all the better for it.  “War” (recorded in the summer of 1982, and released in February, 1983) was the fulcrum point at which U2 ceased to be an Echo & The Bunnymen-derived New Romantic outfit and began striving after its own sound and tackling its own messages, however weighty they tended to be.

For some strange reason, “War” is considered the high-water mark of their early work as a band.  It replaced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the top of the charts, becoming the band’s first #1 album in the UK. There were three huge singles in America and the record was eventually ranked number 221 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Objectively, “War” was U2’s worst album until 1997’s “Pop” came along.  Admittedly, the first three tracks are excellent.  The record kicks off with the martial-drum intensity of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” then segues into atmospheric nuclear nightmare “Seconds,” and…yet another atmospheric nuclear nightmare (not to mention one of their best songs), the classic “New Year’s Day.”  At this point we’re running full steam.

The record then promptly drops off and never recovers.  “The Refugee” sounds like what might happen if Bow Wow Wow had a political conscience.  And yet, somehow, it’s even worse than that comparison implies.  “Like a Song…” was apparently intended as a response to those who believed the band was too worthy, sincere, and not “punk” enough.  Unfortunately, it’s too worthy, sincere, and un-punk to carry its message.  “Red Light” is a lame ditty about prostitution.  And so on and so forth, each tune wrapping itself around an issue and passing itself out like a pamphlet.

This might be a good time to mention that I typically try to ignore lyrics.  There are exceptions, but I have a great respect for the limitless interpretive possibilities inherent in good music.  When you take in the lyrics, it’s unavoidable that a definitive singular meaning’s going to stamp itself into concrete.  It’s like the old-time radio serial lovers who resented the advent of television; once the whole picture was available, with all the blanks filled in, the work had already been done and your imagination was no longer invited to the party. In that mode of thinking, political lyrics typically tend to be outright anathema to me. 99 times out of a hundred, it skews toward the nausea-inducing if the words are at all distinguishable. 

“And we love to wear a badge, a uniform / and we love to fly a flag / but I won’t let others live in Hell” (from “Like A Song”)

How am I supposed to get a groove on when some young rock star hopeful’s enunciating these putrid lyrics clear enough for me to hear?  Even “Two Hearts Beat As One,” ostensibly “War”‘s love song reprieve from the relentless political proselytizing, kicks off like Bono forgot he was stepping away from the pulpit for a moment: 

“I don’t know, I don’t know which side I’m on / I don’t know my right from left / Or my right from wrong” (from “Two Hearts Beat As One”)

Christ, even his love songs from this era were framed in a context of political opinion.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that “New Year’s Day” started life as a love song Bono wrote for his new wife, but was promptly rejiggered into its current state as an Armageddon ditty inspired by the Polish Solidarity movement.  What an incurable romantic!

This sense of weighty grandiosity all starts with that album cover; it sports the same kid from “Boy,” but his childlike wonder’s gone the way of the dodo.  Check him out, scowling at us, admonishing us for the poor state in which we’ve left the world he’s inherited.  Hey, come on!  What the hell did I do wrong?  How did I get implicated just by picking this record up off the rack?

Like many important artists through rock and roll’s long, storied history, U2 is sensitively attuned to the tweaking of their aesthetic strategy based on what’s come just before.  But there’s something about their approach that feels more like a marketing plan than an artist’s bid for mercurial, outside-the-box thinking.  Their entire journey of “growth” can be traced back to “War.”  After this record, there was a lyrical de-emphasis in favor of ambience (“Unforgettable Fire“), followed by a maniacally grandiose lyrical re-emphasis (“Joshua Tree“), which prompted a nose-thumbing at themselves, beating the wags to the punch in their attempt to control the depth to which they were satirized (“Achtung Baby”), etc.  In retrospect, all these moves seem suspiciously calculated to keep any and all detractors of the band at bay.

There are apparently those close to U2 who feel as I do, as can be evidenced by producer Brian Eno coercing Bono to tear down his mulleted crusader image by fully improvising a set of mumbled lyrics for “Elvis Presley & America” on their next record.  Although I do dig the tune, so begat a career of low-rent about-faces designed to keep the record-buying public convinced that they were still the best damn band in the world.  The grand sum of this people-pleasing bobbing and weaving leads me to believe that they must have felt more than just a passing feeling of kinship with Sally Field as she took the stage at the 1985 Oscars and immortalized herself by admitting that, “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

U2 — “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” US Festival, 1983:


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 255 other followers