Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

'Bop 'til you drop..'

Happy 63rd birthday, Ryland Peter Cooder, and thanks for some great, great music, onscreen and off.

I saw Ry just once, at the Kiel Auditorium in St Louis in 1983, on a double-bill with Eric Clapton, and always hoped I'd have a chance to see him play live again. His entire career has been the epitome of creative talent and musical integrity.

Many happy returns.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

'Give me some music..'

Went to the Metropolitan Opera today for the National Council Grand Finals Concert, and heard some remarkably talented young singers - a useful benchmark for where stepdaughter might aspire to be in a few years.

The next step for her is the undergraduate production of "Gianni Schicchi" next month, then all being well, a return to the Caramoor Festival this summer for "Norma" by Bellini, one of their Bel Canto productions.

It was a great show today; the orchestra was in fine form and the day was capped with a performance by Frederica von Stade which, it turned out, was announced as her final appearance on the Met stage, forty years after she launched her career by becoming one of the winners in this same competition.

The contest has become somewhat more well-known since the movie "The Audition" documented the 2007 final concert, and the place was packed.

The kids sang brilliantly and their repertoire selection was just the right mix of crowd-pleasers and more unusual choices.

It will probably always amaze me that Samuel Barber - the centenary of whose birth was last week - could write something as dischordant and challenging as "Give Me Some Music" from his opera "Anthony and Cleopatra" as well as composing what is possibly the single most perfect piece of music I have ever heard....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

'I want my... holographic karaoke'

I've just been at a conference on the future of media. I met some cool, smart people and it was an entertaining couple of days. I first started going to these sort of gatherings in the mid-1990s, and even if the players and the technologies have changed, the fundamental challenge is still the same - monetizing content.

The creative industries are perpetually wrestling with three basic questions: what is the audience prepared to pay for, will they pay enough (or will enough of them pay) to make producing it worthwhile, and if so, what's the best way to deliver it to them?

Meanwhile, notoriously fickle consumers have become complacent that something newer and better is always around the corner and, increasingly, they're expecting not to have to put their hand in their pocket for it.

I worked in 'conventional media' for nearly a quarter century, and one thing I know now is that the landscape is, more than ever, less about protecting what you already create and more about finding what you will need to create five or ten or twenty years from now.

There's a track record of innovation through functionality driving demand – look at models like Netflix, Shazam, Pandora, mp3ify, or even the iPod itself, for not just changing how consumers purchase content, but the very way they discover and interact with it.

Above all, the key is being able to admit that the 'model that's always worked' only worked because consumers were used to doing things that way. That's not going to be the case for much longer - as one panellist said at the conference, "we're not at a moment of transition, we're at a moment of destruction" - and the companies who can adapt to an environment where they're more responsive to consumer needs, and less dependent on their dying, so-called 'core' products, are the ones who will thrive.

Anyway, here's my totally bluesky wishlist for something that's 'next generation' as opposed to just 'next upgrade'. And it's something I'd willingly pay for if someone - Disney, EA, NewsCorp, whoever - can deliver it to me. I suspect I'll be waiting a while, though.

The original Guitar Hero game launched five years ago - and Rock Band two years later - and even now, in spite of tremendous improvements, and regardless of the artist catalogs they're able to sign up, and the more sophisticated on-screen avatars they can offer, their model seems stuck.

It needs something more, well, real. And I think there's a crucial demographic they're missing - people who can actually play an instrument rather than just manipulate a controller.

I want to plug in a real guitar and be able to play alongside holograms of my favorite artists. When I sign up for a performer's 'channel' I'll be able to jam with their images or, crucially, with other members of the channel, with social/community functionality wrapped around the content (and of course any advertising and merchandising opportunities that go along with that).

Imagine tapping into the highest-grossing concert tours worldwide on an annual basis: currently, performers like:

- U2
- Bruce Springsteen
- Rolling Stones
- Madonna
- Taylor Swift
- Jay-Z
- Britney Spears
- Dave Matthews Band

as well as archive or back catalog material - even from artists who may no longer be with us.

There were apparently more views for the streamed U2 concert online last year than tickets sold for all other rock concerts put together in 2009, and you only have to took at the popularity of the 'Met in HD' series, to see the appeal of an experiential combination of quality and exclusivity. It's only a matter of time before we see widespread concerts in HD at movie theaters then at home – an intermediate step to a fully immersive, holographic platform.

While there is effectively 3D functionality in a lot of existing game environments, the next wave of gaming will be around 3D control – increasingly, using your body as the controller, something that the Nintendo Wii has set in train, and which Sony recently moved forward.

So, looking way beyond that, what would you get with the holographic gig - what I call "Playalong"?

* It's both participatory and passive: you can either watch or take part – there might be different pricing plans for both, but it's designed to encourage people who start off just watching to do it themselves.

* It's incentivized – there'd be a ‘best performance of the day’ award – voted by members of the community who can view past performances of songs they play on video – and those are rewarded with points and/or merchandise.

* Advertising can either follow the content or the audience, but has to always have some relevance to the performer – ie – merchandising or rare downloads. You could also have a 'premium' subscription level option that removes advertising altogether and includes exclusive content: artists already do that with online 'fan clubs' whose primary function for the subscriber is pre-sale concert tickets.

Of course there are structural commercial problems - aggregation of rights is probably the biggest non-technical hurdle, but once the artists realize how much there is to be made from what is effectively a new platform for content distribution, they'd make it work. Technically, we'd be looking at something like a Home Theater system, only with sensors/projectors instead of speakers. But the important thing is the networked capability.

Research seems to show that people currently have a tolerance for only two boxes in their living room - a cable/satellite receiver box and a game system. There are roughly 125m US TV households (about 99 per cent market penetration). But we are looking at a globally networked environment. Microsoft's XBox has about 39m consoles worldwide – crucially, 23m of those are subscribing to the XBox live service.

So this service would likely initially piggyback on an existing game system. But growth of any 'new, new thing' can be dramatic and rapid, and force users to re-evaluate what they previously thought of as standard. There are other potential applications for the platform based on existing and new proprietary content, for example, experiential part-game/part-movies, where players affect outcomes by triggering alternate plot routes.

And of course, the concept is scalable and upgradable; every time there's a new album, the user can download both the 'rehearsal' version and the 'studio' version of the tracks, as well as live options once the tour begins. This way, the artist can monetize multiple individual performances of their content, as well as just the recorded staple.

Maybe charging for the service might work best on a Netflix model – unlimited usage for a monthly subscription - maybe with a joining fee and premium add-ons for things like tutorials, but what you'd get as the consumer would be:

- A compelling user experience
- Offers exclusivity of access
- Has many options to choose from (you can sing, play guitar, bass, keyboards whatever, and play in a 'rehearsal studio' or live)
- Play that's potentially different every time (you can choose things like arrangements; do you play solo or with the full band, or even venue; do you play at the Ryman Auditorium, Maxwell's in Hoboken or Wembley Stadium?)

Tracks would be recordable, so you can relive your triumphs and replay them, or you can use the studio option to put together demos, either on your own, or in collaboration with other members of the channel, which in turn could be uploadable for others to sample.

Is there a mobile app? No. it‘s fundamentally a home entertainment, multi-player living room experience. But you will be able to use your mobile phone to connect with the communities you're a member of in order to schedule jams / performances etc. or download new tracks. Or your phone can alert you to newly released content, or about other performers you might also be interested in, given your profile.

Of course, we're a long way away from working out the economics, and the existing technology is probably very much in its infancy. The audio technology's already available in karaoke versions of songs with tracks stripped out. It's the visual, interactive platform that will provide the all-round experience. For public performance, existing karaoke bars wouldn't need any additional space than they already use.

For the home version, we're probably looking at a post-3D intermediate stage involving a body suit or wrap-around glasses, but the key thing is that you'd be creating real music, with real instruments; not just mindlessly replicating some emotionless sequence of colored buttons.

And that's what will make it worthwhile, and worth paying for.

So, like my idea a couple of years back for a reality TV show, if I can help make this come about in any way, drop me an email.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

'And out the door I went..'

It's still cold in New York, but it's sunny. And something happened the other day that proves the seasons are changing. No, it wasn't the start of Spring Training, but rather that for the first time in months I saw people drinking outside in the beer garden at my local bar. There might still be snow piled on the sidewalk, but like - appropriately enough - the swallows of Capistrano returning from their winter exile, the seasonal return of al fresco drinking is the source of great celebration and joy.

Monday, March 8, 2010

'After all, I'm forever in your debt..'

Take a moment to celebrate someone special in your life today, for International Womens Day - appropriately enough the morning after Kathryn Bigelow became the the first woman to win a Best Director oscar, for her movie 'The Hurt Locker'.

So with simple gratitude, here's some great women writers and their beautiful songs:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

'I can spin you a yarn, it's as long as my arm..'

Although I grew up in Belfast and visit a couple of times a year, I haven't lived there for twenty-six years. But I try to keep current with local music as best I'm able. As well as the Alternative Ulster site, I follow a blog by local BBC DJ Stuart Bailie and occasionally catch online broadcasts by another BBC presenter, Ralph McLean, both of whom do a good job promoting local performers.

The Belfast-Nashville Songwriters Festival has become a highlight of the city's musical life over the last five years, and encourages the transatlantic exchange of talents between the two sister cities. This year's has just finished and again sounded like it was another great success. Some of my current favorite young songwriters from home took part:

Aaron Shanley won the Katherine Brick Award for young songwriter of the year and will be in Nashville for some gigs next week.

Ben Glover has just released his second album. "Through the Noise, Through the Night." This is a track from his debut album with his band The Earls, "The Week The Clocks Changed"

Iain Archer won an Ivor Novello songwriting award for his contribution to Snow Patrol's album "Final Straw", including co-writing their classic song "Run". There's an interview with him here. He's also gigging in Nashville this month.

I've just discovered John D'Arcy but I like what I hear.

Even in difficult times, Belfast has always had a vibrant live music tradition. So apparently now to go along with the bus tour of notable musical spots in the city there's a new mobile phone app that connects you with venues and gigs, as well as having a "hall of fame" feature, hosted by the aforementioned Stuart Bailie.

if you find yourself in Belfast and are looking for a good night's musical entertainment with a decent bit of craic, you can do worse than head over to The John Hewitt in the half-bap area near the Cathedral.

Another of my favorite writers, Foy Vance is playing two shows in London on March 14th - one at lunchtime in Trafalgar Square for the St Patrick's Day celebration. If you're in town, go along and hear him. You won't regret it. Meanwhile, one of my all-time musical heroes, Strabane's own Paul Brady, has a new album coming out soon, called "Hooba Dooba" and a UK tour follows in April (he's playing the 02 in Shepherds Bush on the 25th).


On the subject of wonderful songwriters, Mark Erelli has just completed his new album, "Little Vigils" and is streaming it at his site. The tracks all sound amazing; I especially liked "Everything In Ruin" and learned it after a couple of listens.

Here's a nice video of Mark and his band during recording:

The album will be available on March 16th and Mark's touring to promote it, kicking off in Portland Maine tomorrow (Friday March 5th). Unfortunately I'll be away when he plays New York, at the Rockwood Music Hall on March 27th. But if you're in town, please go see him.

Luckily I will be at the Rockwood this coming Thursday though, March 11th, to see Peter Bradley Adams a great singer-songwriter I've liked for a while now. If you're in the city, check out the show.


It seems today was World Book Day (although apparently, somehow only in the UK? In the rest of the world it's on April 23rd - what's up with that?)

So here are some great music books - in no particular order, just some that I've enjoyed reading and thought you might too. I read pretty much anything and everything on Springsteen, so I've made a point of not including any books about him here, just to have a bit of a change.

Reviving the Belfast theme, "Can You Feel The Silence" is a great biography of Van Morrison (responsible for today's post title, incidentally) by Clinton Heylin, who also wrote a really compelling book called "Bootleg" about the culture of pre-digital illegal recordings, as well as lots of other good stuff.

"Heart And Hands" is a beautifully-illustrated coffee-table type book looking at traditional instrument makers across the United States. Great to dip into.

Another great visual volume is the series of portraits "American Music" by Annie Leibovitz, probably the pre-eminent rock and roll photographer. I went to the touring exhibit for this collection in London and seeing these images close-up shows how she's able to capture the character of her subjects.

Here's a double-dip from Peter Guralnick - I love his writing, and these two, "Lost Highway" and "Last Train To Memphis" are just brilliantly researched and narrated. Entertaining and educating with every page.

Like any other "list" of someone else's choosing, Nick Hornby's "31 Songs" has some songs you'd pick yourself, some you wouldn't and some you needed to hear for the first time. But as always with Hornby, the writing itself is smart and rewarding.

The late Timothy White's biography of James Taylor is a comprehensive and revealing look at one of AOR's most fascinating individuals. Also, check out "Hotel California" by British writer Barney Hoskyns, about that whole west-coast world.

"The Last Party" by John Harris is a great account of 'Cool Britannia', and how we all started to confuse Blur and Blair.

Will Bunch is one of the wittiest newspaper writers around. His 1994 book "Jukebox America" is a brilliantly evocative travelogue of the sort that most guys my age wish they'd written.

"I Hate Myself And I Want To Die - The 52 Most Depressing Songs You've Ever Heard" by Tom Reynolds is (sigh) hilarious....

Finally, about ten years ago a Scottish friend of mine, Stephen Walsh, wrote a terrific, bitter-sweet tale called "Heartache Spoken Here" about Britain's love affair with country music. I'm biased, but It's brilliant. Here's the Amazon description:

"After his wife left him, Stephen Walsh took to the road in his camper-van in search of Britain's "Country and Westerners". What he found was a world of quirky characters, sharing the tales of lost love, country music and big hats, and how to find the place where broken hearts are mended."

If you get a chance, read it, and you'll get an idea of what's really important.


On the subject of books, the New York Public Library is promoting its rock and roll collections - brilliantly titled "Twist-n-Shhhout".

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

'Face off against each other out in the street..'

Really, New York magazine? Really?

Not even on the list?

Not even a single Bruce song? Did you read your own criteria?

"..a playlist of the most [sic] New York songs written since 1965 (caveats: no instrumentals, no movie theme songs) that get at the city's romance — the sex, the grit, the wit, the skyscraper-size ambition."

I know it's just linkbait, but I can't resist.

You could probably come up with ten or so brilliant New York City tracks by Bruce alone, but I'll post my own list of songs that aren't on their list later today.

UPDATE: Ok, so like any other listicle, the New York magazine piece was designed to provoke reader responses, comments and page views. It's a decent idea, everyone who lives in the city or has even visited will have an opinion.

The Huffington Post also has a potentially very cool 'Map The City In Song’ project going on at the moment, which seeks readers’ contributions of geographically specific lyrics related to the city.

But even so, it’s kind of hard to believe the New York list didn’t have any Bruce songs and only one – “Visions Of Johanna” by Bob Dylan.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great songs on there, but ranking them, apart from the top five, is probably too tough a call. I mean, Ryan Adams only sneaks in at 35 out of 40? WTF?

Also, I think you’d probably have to amend the criteria to have songs related to 9/11 separate. That would pretty much cover any of the key songs from ‘The Rising’ including the title track, “Into The Fire,” “You’re Missing”, or “My City Of Ruins” (even though it was originally written about Asbury Park ) but of them all, this one is probably my favorite:

There are some great songs in that corner from other artists too, of course, compelling narratives like Lucy Kaplansky’s “Land Of The Living” or Mary-Chapin Carpenter's “Grand Central Station”. But for me, there’s a special place for John Hiatt's “New York Got Her Heart Broke”. John never recorded this song, and I heard him play it just once, at the Town Hall on 43rd Street, on November 17th 2001. It was haunting, sincere and deeply moving.

There have also been lots of songs specifically about immigration from an incomer’s perspective, so I won’t go into them at length, except to pick out Marc Cohn’s beautiful “Ellis Island”, which finds its resonance in a generational connection and continuation.

So, here’s a quick list: no rankings, just great music with this great city as its theme. Most of these are just off the top of my head, so I’m always open to your suggestions.

Since it’s not my field I’m not going to venture into the City’s rich jazz tradition beyond standards like Duke Ellington’s “Take The A Train” written by Billy Strayhorn, or “Autumn In New York” covered by pretty much everyone. Same with rap, but you totally have to hat-tip The Beastie Boys and kick off with “Open Letter To New York”

Ian Hunter – “Central Park And West”
Kiss – “Back In The New York Groove”
10CC – “Wall Street Shuffle”
James Maddock - “Sunrise On Avenue C”
Brian Kennedy - "Christopher Street"
James Taylor - "Up On The Roof"
Joan Baez – “Diamonds And Rust” (also successfully covered by, er, Judas Priest)
Nils Lofgren - "Yankee Stadium" (written to commemorate the closing of the old park. You can download it for free from Nils' site)
Sting – “Englishman in New York”
Willie Nile - "The Day I Saw Bo Diddley In Washington Square"
Sarah Harmer - "Basement Apartment" (I know she's Canadian, and the song's about any city, but when I first heard it I thought it was about NYC until I saw the video)

Steve Earle – “Down Here Below”

U2 – “Angel Of Harlem” and “New York”
Fountains of Wayne - "Red Dragon Tattoo"
Velvet Underground – “Waiting For My Man”
Graham Parker and the Rumour – “New York Shuffle”
Billy Joel – “52nd Street”, "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" or “Miami 2017 – I’ve Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway”
Rosanne Cash – “Seventh Avenue”

Bob Dylan - Apart from the obvious “Positively 4th Street” (although it’s been argued that this song is meant to contrast Dylan’s two worlds at the time, of New York and Minnesota) there are plenty of songs to choose from here - for a good overview, check out the excellent New Pony site, while reading a blog post by Adam Masterson reminded me of "Joey" the story of a notorious Red Hook gangster.

Tyrone Wells – “Dream Like New York”

Don Henley - “New York Minute”
Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi” - maybe, maybe not specifically about NYC, but definitely “Chelsea Morning”
Tom Waits – “Downtown Train”
Simon And Garfunkel – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – again, I know it might not be specifically about the City but at the R&R HoF show their backdrop while singing it was the Manhattan Bridge, while there's always the “59th Street Bridge Song”.

I’d also include Everything But The Girl’s cover of “The Only Living Boy” (despite the slightly bizarre video with its “Bill and Ted” windmilling visual reference).

As I said, you could easily compile a Springsteen-only playlist with tracks like “Meeting Across The River”, "41 Shots", “New York City Serenade”, the afore-mentioned “Jungleland” or “Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?”

But when it comes to capturing the very essence of the city on a steamy summer night, this track just walks away with it…

For tapping into the universality of poverty; urban or rural, young or old, there are few songs as powerful as Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City”. And what a version this is, alongside Ray Charles.

And finally, here’s something that always, without fail, makes me smile. Sorry, Jay-Z, but the kids from PS22 got your number…

Monday, March 1, 2010

'Darkness alive with possibilities..'

Last night's Winter Olympics closing ceremony turned into a brilliant self-parody of every imaginable Canadian cliche. It was an almost surreal spectacle that had me pretty much in hysterics all evening - most of it intentional, some maybe not. Congratulations to the organizers for having the ability to laugh at themselves while at the same time making Canada even more endearing.

Like at the opening ceremony, a range of Canadian musicians and artists took part, with a special 'live' spot reserved for elder statesman Neil Young, who sang "Long May You Run", the great song he also played at last month's final Conan O'Brien show and - depending on who you believe - is about either his first car, his last girlfriend or Stephen Stills.

In the US, NBC cut away at 11.30 to go to its new heavily-hyped Jerry Seinfeld show just as the concert part of the ceremony was about to start - but judging from some of the less than enthusiastic tweets thereafter it might have been a relief that I ended up watching neither. Apparently there were some interesting choices for Vancouver's musical line-up: Nickelback but not Rush? Hedley (?) but not The Barenaked Ladies?

But whatever. I couldn't help think that my favorite Canadian singer would have been perfect for such an auspicious occasion. And this - in any of its versions - would have been the perfect song...

And as if to prove that Canadian musicians have a great sense of humor, check this out:

(Thirty-two years ago this week, I saw Rush play at the Liverpool Empire on their "Farewell To Kings" tour. Brilliant show.)