While awaiting the start of the Lauryn Hill appearance at the Mammoth Events Center on February 27, I couldn't help but imagine her backstage thinking, "I won five Grammy awards last Tuesday--so what the hell am I doing in this shithole?" Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents may have just purchased Mammoth for over a million bucks (thanks in large part to the financial muscle of SFX Entertainment, the promotions behemoth that owns the firm), but the promised revamping of the venue has yet to take place--and given everything that needs to be done, even a thermonuclear bomb might well be too weak for the job. It's presently the worst performance space in the solar system, with the possible exception of one really bad spot on Uranus.
Given the severity of this handicap, Hill would have been perfectly within her rights to phone in the concert and save her energy for a room where she actually had a fighting chance of sounding her finest. Instead, she worked hard for her money and came closer than anyone could have expected to living up to the hype with which she's been showered of late. The gig's quality confirmed that Hill is just the kind of creative synthesist needed to chip away at the indifference and veiled racism too often directed at hip-hop and R&B artists by the mainstream media.
Not that the show was perfect. Its length--an hour and forty-five minutes from when the lights went down to the end of the encore--seemed adequate on the surface, but the turn was loaded with filler. Hill was preceded to the stage by Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," which was played in its entirety, and she sang her first tune, a gospel ditty about loving Jesus and keeping your eye on the sparrow (a reference to Baretta?), from the wings. Then, after the first forty minutes or so, Hill took a break while a pair of DJs held a turntablist tag-team match and her drummer offered not one, not two, but three extended solos. In addition, there was a lengthy musician-introduction sequence, as well as a band-versus-DJ battle that, fortunately, became an unexpected highlight. Hill and her crew did justice to a handful of old-school favorites (including the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," complete with rewritten lyrics that allowed for crowd-pleasing Denver mentions) before credibly covering, of all things, Jay-Z's Annie-friendly "Hard Knock Life." Better yet, the bringing together of DJ beats and live sounds at the scrap's end subtly argued that inclusion is far more preferable than musical segregation.
How much of this was heard by the capacity crowd at Mammoth is tough to gauge. The venue's sonics vary from place to place within it, but because of the number of bodies jammed into the (too few) areas with decent sight lines, moving around was difficult. From my position, directly opposite the stage near the soundboard, I could pick up the contributions of a mere handful of the seventeen or so players who accompanied Hill. The guitars, keyboards and percussion devices were inaudible for the most part, the horns and background vocalists were regularly buried, and Hill's lyrics were all but unintelligible; her voice was fairly clear, but her words weren't. By contrast, the bass was easily twice as loud as it should have been, the low-end notes smothering pretty much everything in their path. As a result, some of Hill's less distinctive compositions--especially those of a slower, sultrier stripe--tended to blend together, preventing all but the most passionate fans from knowing when "Ex-Factor" concluded and "When It Hurts So Bad" began. But even during these moments, Hill was able to hold the audience via impassioned singing, a compelling stage presence and an air of confidence that was undeniable. She lit a fire under an extended, reggae-inflected "Lost Ones," played earth mother throughout "To Zion," made the most of the breakthrough smash "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and sent a message to the Fugees with "Killing Me Softly" that she doesn't need anyone to prop her up. She can stand on her own very well, thank you.
Predictably, the success of Hill's debut disc, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has had a polarizing effect. Reviewers at major newspapers and magazines who had previously covered hip-hop as an extension of the crime beat have jumped on her bandwagon: Time recently put her on its cover to advertise a we-discover-rap primer that arrived about twenty years later than it should have, and many critics who see the Dave Matthews Band as cutting-edge included her LP on their otherwise lily-white top-ten lists in a fruitless attempt to seem current. In the meantime, many alternative scribes have attempted to stir up a backlash against her. For instance, a writer at the San Francisco Weekly (a sister publication of Westword) printed a satire of the music business in which Miseducation was dismissed as a collection of "limp hip-hop and Stevie Wonder knock-offs."
Such sneering overlooks the importance of Hill's contributions, even though she does indeed have a lot in common with Wonder, whose "Sir Duke" she referenced at Mammoth. Wonder's Grammy wins during the Seventies brought greater attention to the golden age of Seventies soul just as Hill's have done for Nineties hip-hop. Furthermore, her ability to intermingle soul, hip-hop, reggae and pop without diminishing any of them is helping to break down the barriers that keep too many people from appreciating the various styles. Sure, it's embarrassing when lunkheads who wouldn't know Eric B. & Rakim from Shareef Abdur-Rahim (who plays for the Vancouver Grizzlies, by the way) use Hill to pretend that they liked the music all along. But if their posturing brings more attention to artists who deserve it, that's not such a bad thing. Hill is both a popularizer and a damn fine performer, as her Mammoth visit demonstrated--and for that, she deserves thanks and praise. Amen.
Mike Stern started work as program director for KXPK-FM/96.5 (the Peak) on Wednesday, February 24, and since then, he has failed to return numerous phone messages from yours truly. This could be an indication that he's either arrogantly indifferent to the press or possessed of uncommonly good sense--but more likely, it's indicative of the humiliation he feels over a public-relations gaffe that wound up in his lap during his first day on the job.
The story began on the evening of February 23, when DJ Sam Stock was charged with giving away a $300 snowboard as part of a promotion sponsored by Coors. Stock, who declined to comment for this column beyond saying that "this whole thing has been blown out of proportion," was supposed to award the prize to a randomly selected caller. But rather than doing so, he decided to pass it along to the first person willing to engage in an act of "road rage," as it's frequently referred to these days. Peak listener Tom Teehan promptly responded. "He said he wanted someone to incite road rage to the point of another person getting out of their car and trying to start something physical with them," Teehan notes. "Then you'd hand your cell phone over to the guy, and the DJ would tell him that it was all just to win a snowboard." He adds, "I told him I wouldn't do that. I mean, someone could come out with a gun, and I don't want to die over a snowboard. But I told him I'd park on the side of the road and turn my hazard lights on and cause an inconvenience."
Good as his word, Teehan stalled a thirty-foot truck belonging to a company whose name he's asked to remain unpublished in the right-hand lane of eastbound Hampden Avenue at about 8:30 p.m. But moments later, while he was updating Stock on the hilarity, representatives of the Cherry Hills Village Police Department arrived--and they were singularly unamused. After the truck was moved to the parking lot of a nearby Safeway, they told Teehan that the presence of the vehicle had nearly caused a three-car pileup. Teehan didn't see or hear evidence of such a near-miss, but he was still suitably sorry for his actions. "I have family who are in the police force, and I understand the cops' position," he says. "For anyone who was inconvenienced, I apologize."
Predictably, the folks at Coors, whose commercials energetically promote safe driving when they're not trying to get John Q. Public to guzzle gallons of their brew, were incensed by Stock's stunt. Stern, for his part, sacked Stock on Wednesday, but this move hasn't ended the tale. Although the Cherry Hills Village district attorney had not yet decided whether to issue charges by press time, Officer Angel Strickland, a spokesperson for the police, said it was entirely possible that the Peak would be cited for instigating the situation. As for Teehan, he was not ticketed at the time of his mock breakdown, and he received his promised snowboard late last week. But had he known how much trouble the entire matter would whip up, he says, "I wouldn't have done it. No snowboard's worth this."
Local recordings for sale.
Vince Farsetta, an intimate of Leftover Salmon who relocated from Nashville to Boulder, is represented by three, three, three CDs. Ever More finds Farsetta showing off the impressive technique that helped him in the National Old-Time Banjo championship in 1987 and 1996 (he also plays guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, fiddle and Jew's harp). He's occasionally accompanied by bassist Dave Grant and drummer Dilip, but the focus of instrumental numbers such as the jaunty "Four-Way Stop," the strutting "Hop-High Ladies" and the finger-straining "The Pig's Ear" is on Farsetta himself. The CD eschews the progressive-bluegrass approach associated with Salmon in favor of traditional verities, which Farsetta essays with skill and vitality. Entirely different is Skat, on which Farsetta sings against a backdrop provided by a full band that occasionally includes a horn section. The touchstone here is the work of David Lindley: "Shattered Love," "Cut Her to the Bone" and others use modified reggae rhythms that are more enthusiastic than authentic. The same can be said of Farsetta's voice, but the playing is strong (especially on "Mama Boulet," a song associated with Leftover Salmon that its composer sprinkles with banjo), and the fun-time mood is infectious. The EP Vince Farsetta and Big Fatty follows a similar formula. The disc's sound quality suffers in comparison with Skat; the version of "You Knock Me Out" on the former is superior by far. But "Tenement Yard" and "Ital Calypso" are entertaining run-throughs that bode well for the future (Vince Farsetta, P.O. Box 19451, Boulder, CO 80308).
The items printed in this space and elsewhere about Darren Curtis Skanson have pointed out that the guitarist is a savvy businessman who's managed to turn himself into an easy-listening empire. His music, however, is a well-played capitulation to new-age stereotypes. The Complete Peace, Earth & Guitars is a two-CD set, with the first disc focusing on delicate renditions of Pachelbel's "Cannon in D" and the like, and the second dominated by Skanson-written tunes with titles such as "My Love Is Lost," "Melancholy Memories" and "Tigger, Pooh, & the Honeypot." As much as I wanted to despise this last number on general principles, I found it listenable; and I actually enjoyed Skanson's Spanish guitar showcase, "Iberian Heart." But while most of the other tracks would probably sound fine playing softly through the ceiling sound system of a pastry shop, they failed the foreground listening test quite handily. Or maybe I was just too damn relaxed to notice (Colorado Creative Music, P.O. Box 3674, Littleton, CO 80161-3674).
Anyone who believes that the String Cheese Incident is a typical bluegrass band will be disabused of that notion by 'Round the Wheel. There are a handful of bluegrass moments here and a couple of decent songs as well (I didn't mind "Restless Wind" and "Got What He Wanted"), but the album is dominated by jam-band notions that get mighty tedious after a while. "Galactic" vamps aimlessly for nearly four minutes before getting around to its artlessly liberal lyrics ("Our government continues to tell us lies/About who are closest neighbors are/They cover up, smother up, distort and distract"); the title track attempts to reel in Phish without getting a bite; and instrumentals such as "Road Home" and "MLT" constitute faux jazz that skirts the surface of the melodies without truly digging into them. Guest saxophonist Paul McCandless and banjoist Tony Furtado are undeniably talented, but they get swept up in the superficiality of the entire enterprise. Incident-al stuff (available in area record stores). H2Over, by Melange, represents the intersection of smooth jazz and new-age--and from my perspective, it's not a very thrilling place to hang. The copy of the disc I received doesn't include a list of song titles, but the tracks as a whole are built around the huff-and-puff flute playing of Melinda Josefina Sena and the keyboards of Jeff Tarnoff, which swaddle everything in an aural gauze that prevents much spontaneity from leaking out. It's not horrible, just bland--which I suppose a lot of you might consider horrible, now that I think of it (Melange, 5387 South Prescott Street, Littleton, CO 80120).
Andy and Cheryl Winston, the duo imaginatively dubbed the Winstons, check in with Vignettes, a tasteful folk-pop excursion. Cheryl has a hearty, full-bodied voice that Andy's singing caresses on "Anything at All," "Heart of Stone" and "Bad News Night," a trio of efforts that display the tidy production and sincerity that are the hallmarks of the album as a whole. Listeners with an allergy to earnestness will not be converted by Vignettes, but others will discover a recording that fulfills the requirements of the adult-contemporary genre without duplicating its worst characteristics (The Winstons, P.O. Box 4687, Boulder, CO 80306). Geoff Workman, who helmed multi-platinum albums by Journey and other corporate metallers prior to moving to Denver in 1985, stood behind the boards during the making of Remember Rome, by House of Stone, and it shows: The recording has the big, echoey drums and sieg-heil guitars associated with his golden era. The band, fronted by singer/flutist Dave Logan (who does not do Broncos games with Scott Hastings in his free time), is cut from the same cloth. In reviewing a demo by the group in 1994, I described the music as "more hard rock from the way-back machine," and I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more accurate phrase: "No Fear," for instance, sports a barrage of riffs that probably have been used no fewer than five million times since the Seventies, "Run to the Mountain" does the power-ballad thing with a straight face, and "House of Stone" practically begins with a drum solo. Hello, Cleveland (House of Stone, 282 West Ellsworth Avenue, Denver, CO 80223).
The members of the 8-Bucks Experiment perform three songs in SLC Punk, aka Salt Lake City Punk, a flick that received plenty of acclaim at this year's Sundance Film Festival. But although their new version of "Hey Joe," a tune covered most prominently by Jimi Hendrix, is included on the SLC soundtrack being marketed in Germany, neither that tune nor the ones the band plays on screen will appear in the domestic edition of the CD that Hollywood Records will release in conjunction with the picture's April 2 debut. Why not? According to Experimenter Evan O'Meara, whose association with the project was first reported in this space early last year, "The head of soundtracks for Hollywood told us they kicked it off because it's about killing your girlfriend."
In all likelihood, this is merely an excuse for screwing an unknown group: After all, the Exploited's "Sex and Violence" and the Dead Kennedys' "Kill the Poor" will be featured on the disc. But O'Meara is still dumbstruck by the move. "They flew us out to California to record the thing, and then they paid for a video for the German release that's been running on their equivalent of MTV. On top of that, there are around twenty songs in the movie, and we do three of them--but we're not on the soundtrack. The whole thing is just bizarre."
No, Evan--it's the movie business.
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George Onassas relates an amusing anecdote overheard just prior to a Firefall show at the Little Bear on February 21. As Onassas tells it, a man came up to one of the Firefallers and told him that he loved the band so much he'd named his daughter after one of its songs. When the musician asked the moniker of the patron's pride and joy, the guy replied, "Amie"--which, in case you didn't know, was a Top 40 single in 1975 for Pure Prairie League.
Actually, it's just as well that the bar-goer's kid wasn't named in honor of a Firefall smash: After all, the only woman's handle that turns up in the title of such a tune is "Cinderella"--meaning that his daughter would have been doomed to a life of getting home by midnight.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.