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This week's Playlist (see page 82) looks at three veteran entertainers--Paul McCartney, James Taylor and John Fogerty--who see new recordings as the best way to keep themselves in the public eye. Other folks with decades of stagework under their belts prefer to accomplish this goal via live appearances. After all, hitting the summer touring circuit is a lot easier on the muse than coming up with new stuff: Aficionados eager to see old favorites during the hot months generally want nothing more than to hear the hits done the way they remember them, and how hard is that? And yet, it is possible to take the high road--to grab the money of longtime fans without leaving them feeling cheated. Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Ozzy Osbourne (fronting a mostly reunited Black Sabbath) and Link Wray all had the opportunity to play the game the right way during recent Denver gigs. Predictably, not all of them did, but most of them provided at least a few good moments. And in this grimmest of all conceivable concert seasons (can anyone else remember a year that sucked this much?), that's a consolation.

Berry, of course, was the biggest offender, which is no surprise. He's been phoning in his performances for so long that he probably couldn't give his all if he tried, and at the annual KOOL Koncert--held on June 14 at Mile High Stadium, a few days before he duck-walked for Bill Clinton and other dignitaries in Denver for the obnoxiously overhyped Summit of the Eight--he most certainly did not. Wearing a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and a skipper's hat that the late Alan Hale apparently doesn't need anymore, the seventy-year-old Berry stepped before a sizable, multigenerational crowd during the late afternoon, and from the very first, it was obvious that he was going to put the absolute minimum effort into his act. His guitar was badly out of tune, but that didn't stop him from playing it anyhow. Moreover, his sense of time was so schizophrenic that the pickup band behind him seemed to have no idea what he was going to do from one minute to the next. Berry was just as clueless about the identities of his supporting cast. Instead of complimenting his lead guitarist by name after the musician ripped off a solo, Berry gestured in his direction and told the throng, "That's the blues."

Could this possibly have been the man whose guitar riffs are one of the essential building blocks of rock and roll? It was hard to believe from where I was sitting--in a luxury box with executives from (I kid you not) the Alzheimer's Association. At one point during the show, I glanced through the glass wall that separated my box from the one adjacent to it to see a prosperous-looking man in his early fifties ignoring the show in favor of the latest issue of the New Yorker. Apparently, he was more interested in reading the latest book review by John Updike than in discovering which ditty kicked off by the opening lick of "Johnny B. Goode" would actually evolve into the song itself. And maybe, in the long run, he made the correct choice. Cynics who believe that rock is a dead art form that should have been embalmed and confined to a museum a long time ago would have found plenty to bolster their argument in Berry's tired exhibition.

The beginning of Johnny Cash's June 17 gig at the Boulder Theater suggested that the Man in Black might follow Berry's mediocre example. The first song of the evening, "Folsom Prison Blues," was given a perfunctory reading, with Cash's longtime sidemen (including a drummer who's accompanied him for 38 years) vamping generically and Johnny wearing the impassive expression of a guy ready for a nice nap. But the intimate setting and a raucous assemblage that ranged from punk rockers to a family of six that seemed to have time-traveled to the venue from Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma eventually had an effect on the show's star. He became more animated with each passing composition, and by midway through his unexpectedly knowing version of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," his eyes were ablaze with the kind of passion that the former employees of Sun Records still talk about more than forty years later. From that instant until the end of the set's first section, he was a boisterous, enjoyably unpredictable presence. He was so cheered by the audience's reaction to a hopped-up "Ring of Fire" that he immediately played it again. Later, a video of a train crash that accompanied his obstreperous rendition of "Orange Blossom Special" tickled him so much that he couldn't help but guffaw. He had played these songs countless times, but on this night he found the fun in them again.

Unfortunately, the steam that Cash gathered began to dissipate when his wife, June Carter Cash, arrived. June is a fine performer in her own right, as well as an important historical figure: She was a member of the Carter Family, among the greatest of all purveyors of what's known today as American roots music. And she and her husband obviously have something special together. They've been man and wife since the Sixties, and her support is as good a reason as any that Johnny is alive and kicking at the age of 65. But to put it bluntly, what's best about Cash (his bleakness, his intensity, his Old Testament views of wrong and right) are diminished by her presence. She softens him--and while their duet of "If I Were a Carpenter" was sweet, that's all it was. As for June's part of the show, which she shared with Rosie Carter, her daughter from a previous marriage, it would have seemed pleasant had it not interrupted a far more intense display. Mother and child warbled a pretty version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," but that wasn't what I was waiting for. Instead, I wanted Johnny to croon about heartbreak and death, and I got my wish. After June and Rosie departed, he delivered "The Long Black Veil," an old Lefty Frizzell smash that is arguably the perfect Johnny Cash song. This macabre tale, narrated from beyond the grave by an executed man watching his grieving lover, is a journey to both heaven and hell--two places that Cash knows well. That he still seems unsure which of these regions will serve as his final destination has everything to do with his enduring vitality.  

Vitality is not the first word that comes to mind when it comes to the Ozzfest, held June 24 at Mile High. The crowd, by stadium standards, was sparse; approximately 10,000 more bodies were present at the May 1 U2 date, which industry observers saw as a financial catastrophe. But what attendees lacked in numbers they more than made up for in tattoos. The entire Caucasian population of local prisons seemed to have been released in order to attend the spectacular, and by my estimate, 98 percent of them, be they men or women, could have beaten the shit out of me. (Of course, 75 percent of those at the average Johnny Mathis gig could do likewise--but that's another matter.) There was enough bad skin on display to thrill any Clearasil executive, enough desperate single dudes to keep Westword's romance department busy well into the next millennium, and enough women with low self-esteem to ensure that Oprah Winfrey's ratings will continue to climb.

Efforts to turn the fest into a Lollapalooza in leather were cheesy in the extreme. Never Never Land, an alleged "dark circus" laid out in a parking lot just outside the stadium near the by-now de rigueur second stage, was dominated by an array of standard-issue food stands selling hot dogs, pretzels and turkey legs the size of Louisville Sluggers, a collection of craft booths peddling the same old necklaces and Dr. Seuss hats, and a slew of typical carny-style amusements ("Throw the basketball in the hoop and win a prize") operated by what appeared to be a team of extremely close-knit heroin addicts. There was also an area where young women were encouraged to have their breasts painted or tattooed in full view of a steady stream of mouth-breathers who no doubt reimagined the incidents when they were alone in bed later that night. A gaggle of little-known bands such as Coal Chamber provided a soundtrack for this scene from a platform to the right of an extremely dorky swamp-monster balloon, but only a relative handful of people seemed to pay any attention to them.

Because my bold attempt to sneak a Subway sandwich into the stadium was thwarted by security personnel, who forced me to inhale the thing while sitting on a bench outside it, I caught only part of the main-stage set by Pantera--but I was present long enough to witness one of the loudest groups on the planet living up to its reputation. Lead singer Philip Anselmo's throaty wail (not to mention his impressive way with between-song profanity), the melody-free guitar skronk of Dimebag Darrell and the punishing percussion of Vinnie Paul demonstrated why bandmembers feared that a cover version of Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan" included on their 1994 album Far Beyond Driven would make Pantera boosters think that their heroes were mellowing out.

In fact, Pantera's assault was so punishing that Marilyn Manson, the current scapegoat of the Christian right, couldn't help but seem a bit musically timid by comparison. Manson realizes that his ghoulish image is good for business, but during his Denver date, he didn't knock himself out coming up with fresh outrages. He ripped pages out of a Bible and wiped his ass with an American flag as he has done at practically every show in 1997, and his impromptu decision to break a bottle during "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" seemed somewhat less shocking after he stepped aside to allow a roadie to sweep up his mess. Likewise, quotes from Prince's "1999" and the Beatles' "Baby, You're a Rich Man" and a cover of John Lennon's "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" didn't convince the metalheads in attendance that Manson was a true believer. He may have looked fetching in his girdle, garter belt and fishnet stockings, but that wasn't enough to put the majority of the hardcore types present into his corner.  

Ozzy Osbourne, on the other hand, was greeted like a conqueror despite a stage demeanor that's more amusing than the last three Adam Sandler movies put together. He has absolutely no muscle tone; he's so soft and flabby that he's practically an invertebrate. (How he manages to stand up rather than collapse into a jiggling blob is among the greatest mysteries of our time.) In addition, he claps his hands like an octogenarian calling a square dance (he's only 48) and walks in tiny, mincing steps, as if he's trying to guard against a sudden onset of incontinence. A few minutes into his set, a guy behind me said, chuckling warmly, "Look at Grandpa Ozzy walking around the stage." But given Ozzy's limp, shoulder-length hair, his hunchbacked posture and his dopey little grin, I was reminded more of a dotty maiden aunt serving finger sandwiches at a mid-morning brunch.

Of course, these idiosyncrasies only endeared Osbourne to the masses--and his backers were just as willing to forgive him for the cliched quality of his solo material. Whereas the Sabbath catalogue with which Osbourne is associated is nothing if not distinctive, the music he made after leaving the group is largely interchangeable; were it not for his unmistakable drone of a voice, you could easily mistake it for the work of any of a hundred Eighties combos. As you might expect, the power ballads came off worst--"Goodbye to Romance" was a seemingly endless patience-tester--but that didn't stop ticket-holders from waving their arms in unison and flicking their Bics. They were made even more ecstatic by "Crazy Train," and they enthusiastically directed chants of "Fuck you!" at detractors who, according to Osbourne, "want to make me change my religion" during the introduction to "Suicide Solution." Ozzy was sued for the latter by parents who claimed that it caused their son to kill himself, but at Mile High, it was less controversial than laughable. Osbourne left the stage for a full ten minutes during a wanky instrumental segment handled by his young backing musicians, then returned for the epic's conclusion, at which point he shouted, "God bless you! I love you all!"

The clownishness of this entire presentation left me anticipating that the Black Sabbath reunion would be a joke, too--which, unexpectedly, it was not. Sabbath was given zero respect during its heyday, but the subsequent grunge revolution proved that the rudiments of the outfit's sound are not to be dismissed. To put it plainly, the music is awesomely, infectiously dumb--and so simple that Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler (only drummer Bill Ward was missing from the original lineup) were able to reproduce it flawlessly even after nearly twenty years apart. Iommi's guitar emitted enormous chunks of stupidity that fell like catapulted boulders and caused nearly as much damage. The humming, buzzing, bottomless chords at the base of "Black Sabbath" (the 1969 track from which the band took its name) caused the stadium to vibrate like a tuning fork; if the joint tumbles to the ground during the next few weeks, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has these guys to thank for making his fondest desire come true. Osbourne owes Iommi and Butler a debt of gratitude, too. The maelstrom whipped up by "War Pigs," "Iron Man," "Sweet Leaf" and the rest was so violent that the only thing he could do was bark out the tunes' familiar words while hanging onto his microphone stand for dear life. As a result, for the first time in years, he didn't seem like a buffoon. Will miracles never cease?

Apparently not, because Link Wray, 68, proved to be more exciting live than anyone at his jam-packed Bluebird Theater date on June 28 had a right to expect. The Bluebird advertised the show as starting at 8 p.m., but Wray did not emerge from the wings until 11:30, prompting comedians in the crowd to suggest that the ridiculously lengthy delay had been precipitated by his decision to take a late-evening nap. And perhaps it had, because he was every bit as energetic as the musicians backing him up--and they were approximately one-third his age. Wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt, dark glasses and a waist-length ponytail that practically screamed "fashion risk," Wray stalked the stage like John Hinckley with the scent of Ronald Reagan in his nostrils, peeling off a seemingly endless series of deafening guitar runs that still weren't loud enough for him; he must have asked the sound man to turn up his ax fifteen times during his ninety minutes in the spotlight. The results were sloppy in the extreme, in part because Wray insisted on signing autographs in the middle of solos. But by night's end, you couldn't help but feel revitalized, perhaps even inspired. Based on his performance, those of you who think you're too old to rock and roll should be ashamed of yourselves.  

Here's a note from Dan Jacobs via the Internet. "Great article on the fetish show at Rock Island," he writes about Westword contributor Kelly Lemieux's piece "Whipping It Good," published in our June 19 issue. "But just for your information, [pinup model] Bettie Page is still alive and well. She can be contacted in care of the Bettie Scouts of America at http://www.xnet. com/~dav/bp/bettie.shtml#stuff." We hope that information helps you Bettie Page fans out there rest a little easier.

Pin up these. On Thursday, July 3, Assorted Jellybeans are available for tasting as part of the "Skankin' in the Pit" tour stopping at the Bluebird Theater, and Westword's Marty Jones joins Frank Hauser Jr. and Andy Monley for a songwriter's night at the Across the Street Cafe. On Friday, July 4, the Greyboy Allstars play for the first of two nights at the Fox Theatre; Mark Hummel does likewise at Brendan's; Boss 302, the Ray-Ons and Electric Summer shine at the 15th Street Tavern; and Cabaret Diosa presents what it describes as a "firecracker extravaganza" at the Boulder Theater. On Saturday, July 5, David Wilcox is among the performers dropping by for the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in (you guessed it) Cherry Creek. On Sunday, July 6, the Undulating Band, from Arlington, Texas, shakes at Soapy Smith's, and the Ogden Theatre hosts the Ernie Ball battle of the bands. On Tuesday, July 8, the Quakers sow their wild oats at Cricket on the Hill, and Susan B. Anthony votes for Moot and the Sleeping Brotherhood House Band at the Mercury Cafe. And on Wednesday, July 9, Ounce for Ounce weighs in at the Cricket. Heavy.

--Michael Roberts

Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox 2.0 at www.westword.com


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