The Sopranos/Big Love/Huff
The three best hours on television, and a whole lot better than anything you might see in your local multiplex these days, too. HBO’s bellwether series, in its sixth and final season, had its best episode yet last week, touching on such hot-button topics as Hollywood pitch meetings, celebrity entitlement, award show gift baskets and how to prepare a rabbit old-world style, featuring no less than Doogie Howser buddy Vinnie Delpino (Max Cassella) as a sleazy low-level mobster pulling credit card fraud at the expense of John Ventimiglia’s hilariously put-upon restaurateur Artie Bucco.
The horrified look on Ben Kingsley’s face when Chris accosts him in the elevator about getting into the Luxury Lounge as the Sexy Beast realizes he’s up against the real thing and Lauren Bacall cursing after getting mugged for her gift basket outside the Beverly Hilton are alone worth the price of a subscription.
Big Love is also picking up steam, as its dark Twin Peaks-like secrets begin to unfold, with the much-hassled Bill Paxton admitting that things are spinning out of control, which isn’t a surprise when you consider the man answers to three rather idiosyncratic wives – one of whom he’s having an “affair” with. It’s not quite the sexual paradise you might think, even with the ravishing Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin in the house(s).
Some fans are complaining that Showtime’s Huff has jumped the shark, but I don’t agree. Oliver Platt is still a wonderfully alive character, with all his contradictions, and I’m intrigued by Hank Azaria’s schizophrenic brother played by Andy Comeau, though not everyone else apparently is. It’s another searing epater le bourgeois examination of upper-middle-class foibles, impeccably acted and not afraid to wear a heart on its sleeve, even if it is sometimes misplaced.
Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia)
Everything old is new again. Reminiscent of Dylan’s early-’90s covers albums Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong as much as Bob’s work with The Band on The Basement Tapes, the Boss’ tribute to traditional songs associated with Pete Seeger as well as his roots in folk, country and gospel-blues might seems like a reaction against the major philosophical statements of The Rising and Devils and Dust, or just a chance to recharge his creative batteries.
Indeed, the half-hour DVD that accompanies this DualDisc features the Boss singing the praises of making good-time music with friends and family in the relaxed, Music From Big Pink-like setting of his New Jersey farmhouse.
Many of these songs reflect Springsteen’s own leftist political leanings, from the outlaw blues of “Old Man Tucker” and “Jesse James” and the pro-labor anthems “John Henry” and “My Oklahoma Home” to the 1815 anti-war ballad “Mrs. McGrath,” whose words are startlingly similar to those of activist Cindy Sheehan.
Thanks to Charles Giordano’s accordion and the funereal trumpet of Mark Pender, the Dixieland music pays homage to its birthplace in the Mississippi delta and New Orleans. And while it might seem like Springsteen is catching his breath on this retro tangent, the sheer joy and commitment of the playing infuses even old warhorses like “We Shall Overcome” and “Froggie Went a Courtin’” with modern relevance.
David Gilmour at Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal City Walk
The Pink Floyd guitarist manages to have his cake and eat it, too, as do fans, playing the whole of his new Columbia album On an Island in order during the first part of the show (after teasing the audience with the Dark Side of the Moon medley “Breathe in the Air/Time”). And indeed, the title track and “The Blue,” with guest crooners David Crosby and Graham Nash, effortlessly evoked the languid pace and those patented elongated Gilmour leads, masterfully backed by Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright and the subtle but effective fills of woefully underrated Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera.
The warm response of the crowd led me to believe Columbia missed out on marketing the new album to a captive audience by pulling a Prince and including it with the price of admission, though the real pyrotechnics were saved for the 90-minute, laser-driven second act, book ended by a pair of Syd Barrett nods in “Shine On” and “Wish You Were Here.”
The highlights included extended versions of three early-’70s psychedelic nuggets, “Fat Old Sun” from Atom Heart Mother, “Wot’s…the Deal” from Obscured by Clouds and “Echoes” from Meddle, but the true revelation was a Bowie-ish Pin-Ups take on “Arnold Layne,” a ’60s Britpop hit that even pre-dated Gilmour. Despite the space-age trappings, Gilmour makes you realize the music is made up basically of extended blues riffs, distorted and twisted with effects, but still pretty elemental.
By the time “Comfortably Numb” hit, I was just that, the performance’s lugubrious pacing approaching stasis in a haze of druggy smoke and acid flashback. And that was just the audience. I mean, who needs Roger Waters, anyway? This show once and for all answered the age-old question, which one’s Pink?
Matthew Sweet, Girlfriend: Legacy Edition (Volcano/Legacy)
This two-disc reissue combines the classic 1991 Zoo Records album and its ’92 companion piece Goodfriend — originally A&R’d by HITS’ own Grammy-nominated Bud Scoppa, who provides the new edition’s very informative liner notes — with bonus tracks thrown in. Sweet had already been through a pair of failed label deals at Columbia and A&M, when A&R exec (now poker player) Scott Byron and Scoppa convinced the label’s President Lou Maglia to release the album after everyone else in the industry had passed.
Sweet had enlisted New York punk guitar legends Richard Lloyd of Television and the late Bob Quine, the Void-Oids’ and Lou Reed cohort, who provided their patented crunchy blues leads and gnarled arpeggios, respectively, to an album of Rubber Soul-like wistful love songs as played by Crazy Horse, recorded in the wake of the singer/songwriter’s breakup with a girlfriend and subsequent meeting of his wife-to-be.
“Divine Intervention” and “Girlfriend” establish the palette, the latter mixing and matching Greg Leisz’s bluesy lap steel guitar, ’60s-styled, high-pitched harmonies and Quine’s jagged, gnarled Velvets riffs. The only thing more amazing than realizing how an album this smart could be a commercial success back then is the prescience of “Holy War,” written at the time of the Kuwait invasion, but uncannily relevant today. Then again, so is the rest of Girlfriend, some 15 years after the fact, an album that prefigured musical styles from alt-roots to emo, and sounds just as vital today.
It’s not surprising to learn this sleeper’s first-time director, screenwriter Mark Levin, was once a co-producer for TV’s The Wonder Years, because his idealized, first-person ode to first love in New York City is an adolescent version of Annie Hall meets Madeleine, as affecting but never too cloying leads Josh Hutcherson and Charlie Ray play the Woody Allen-Diane Keaton parts by meeting cute at karate class, only hinting at the neuroses bound to come.
The film’s Upper West Side turf is lovingly portrayed as a danger-free playground bounded by Central and Riverside Parks, as Hutcherson’s Gabe traverses the not-so-mean streets via Razor scooter, an animated overlaid map defining his universe. Our hero’s lessons in amour are a little too neatly underscored by his estranged-but-still-living-under-the-same-roof parents — Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon and The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford — but the depiction of class distinctions in the otherwise melting pot of Manhattan is a far more sophisticated theme than its kid-film veneer would have you believe.
A fun little DVD to rent that you can watch without embarrassment alongside either your children or even just your significant other. It’s sunny, modest optimism and belief in the power of romance captures the allure of the Apple as a collection of small neighborhoods exhibiting their own rituals and social castes better than films with a lot more pretension.
Andrew “Dice” Clay
Just as satellite radio has enabled Howard Stern second banana Artie Lange to come into his own, it’s also resurrected the career of the defrocked funny man, who climbed to the top of the comedy world in the late ’80s and early ’90s with his raunchy nursery rhymes and cartoon misogyny, which got him a lifetime ban from MTV (for using obscenity on their New Year’s Eve show) and had both Nora Dunn and Sinead O’Connor famously boycotting his May 1990 stint guest-hosting Saturday Night Live.
Neither of those two incidents arguably hurt him as much as his long-running feud with his one-time pal Howard, who never ceased to badmouth the comic over some now-forgotten slight. The two made up after Stern’s move to Sirius, and the Diceman has been on the show a couple of times since, each appearance showing he’s a true comedy original, a foul-mouthed, truculent street version of Don Rickles, his one-beat, three-chord rants the comedic equivalent of his leather-jacketed bruddas-in-spirit da Ramones.
The unrestricted satellite radio is the perfect place for Clay’s brand of bawdy bravado, his rapid-fire macho man forcing even such febrile comic wise guys as Howard and Artie into stunned submission. A most welcome, if thoroughly rude, comeback… Hickery dickery dock indeed.
The Friars of Beverly Hills
How could I not love a place with full-scale painted portraits of Dick Shawn, Shecky Green, Frank Sinatra, Henny Youngman and Bob Hope? And a parking garage with a permanent spot for Larry King?
Not to mention an upstairs room with a floor covered in sand on which sits Milton Berle’s pool table, where George Burns would smoke cigars and toss the butts while comics would spirit their girlfriends through the secret passages leading down to the valet. Thanks to old pals at Luck Media, Steve Levesque and Guy McCain, for making my own Borscht Belt dreams come true by nabbing me a membership.
Last weekend, I marked my own admission to old Hollywood by getting an onstage shout-out — along with fellow attendees Dick Van Patten and Mel Brooks — from Kathryn Crosby, who has been appearing at the club performing a one-woman tribute to her late husband. Imagine my surprise when the demure Mrs. Crosby offered thanks for having her as a guest on what she apologized for referring to as “your ‘Media Hos’ radio show.” Bing must be turning over in his grave.
Warner Drive at the Viper Room
My first hint was when the doorman asked if I was one of the parents. Well, close… Actually, I’m a childhood friend of drummer Matt Shapiro’s father Dave, proudly beaming that his son’s band could actually pack the famed Hollywood venue with a sea of female admirers, many of whom appeared far younger than the supposed 21 age limit.
With all the doom and gloom going on in the record business, it’s amazing that the children of the privileged would still set their sites on making it in a rock band, committing to the grueling life of the road and the lottery-like chances of success. That said, this rocking foursome proved all that hard work pays off… at least in a set of tighter-than-tight, high-energy, fun post-punk rock & roll, highlighted by mohawked bass guitarist Peter Crowner mugging up a storm, guitarist Chris Koushayan’s speedball leads, Shapiro’s muscular beats and bare-chested, headband-clad lead singer Jonathan Jonah’s frequent dives into the moshing minions.
The band intersperses memorable originals like “Life,” “Livin’ It Up” and “Shocker” from their soon-to-be-released album, produced by Guns N’ Roses dial-twister Mike Clink, with cool covers such as Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” and “Rebel Yell,” featuring Crowner’s perfect Elvis-meets-Billy Idol sneer. It sure looks a lot more fun than going to college, but do they have something to fall back on?
Rock & roll means never having to say you’re sorry, and these Valley guys are anything but… Someone sign them up while they’re still burning with ambition, and supported by dad.
Gripes of the Week
If you read my “Gripe” a few weeks back, you know I’ve had my issues with unequal traffic enforcement, but, except for the occasional California roll through a stop sign, I generally obey these laws to the letter, always erring on the side of caution. I’m not one who is prone to road rage, either, but I do get pissed off when a car jumps the so-called “right of way” protocol at a four-way stop sign.
I also don’t like it when a car in the lane I’m trying to merge into speeds up rather than slows down to let me in. And when an automobile not making a right turn ends up in the right-hand lane at a red light. Also, when somebody is tailing me too closely. It’s enough to make you flip the bird.