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OK, U2\’s still got it

Last night (December 13, 2005) I saw U2 play in St. Louis at the Kiel, er, Savvis Center. It was the third time I’d seen them, and probably the best.The first time I saw them, they played Busch Stadium in 1992 on the Zoo TV tour. The band was very much in its self-parody phase. The second time I saw them, in 1997 at the Kiel Center, they were promoting their not-so-successful album Pop and winding down that self-parody phase.

I didn’t see them when they toured in support of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. There was no good reason for it; I just didn’t get tickets and go.

Longtime U2 fans complained about the two tours I had seen. Seeing them on the Joshua Tree and earlier tours was like a religious experience, they said.

Compared to the other two I’d seen, this was a stripped-down show. No three semi trailers full of TV screens. No giant lemon descending from the ceiling. They had some screens up, which seemed to be mostly for the benefit of the people behind the stage or up in the nosebleed seats.

Rapper Kanye West opened. I appreciated his use of symphonic instruments in addition to samples. But unfortunately the bass was turned so high I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Bono came out and introduced him personally. I’ve never seen anyone come out and introduce the opening act before. I’ve only ever seen someone acknowledge the opening band one other time before (I’d rather not say who that was, because that would be admitting I saw that band live).

U2’s set opened with “City of Blinding Lights,” accompanied by a light show, which seemed like a good set-opener, and is probably my favorite song on the current album. The set was heavy on songs from the current album, of course, but a number of staples of the band were missing.

No “New Year’s Day.” No “I Will Follow.” No “Even Better than the Real Thing.” No “Desire” or “All I Want is You” or “Angel of Harlem.”

For that matter, there was absolutely nothing from the albums Zooropa, Pop (their experimental stage in the late 1990s), or Rattle and Hum (the height of their commercial success on the coattails of Joshua Tree). Those were good albums, but, admittedly, not up to the standards of most of U2’s catalog. They also didn’t play anything off their outstanding 1980 international debut, Boy, which I missed, but didn’t expect.

But when a band spends a quarter century making music, something inevitably has to be left out or else the band ends up playing for three hours.

Sometimes because of what was left out, but mostly in spite of it, it was an amazing concert. Some nights, Bono’s voice is so weak that either he has to appeal to the crowd to sing over him, or, in extreme cases, The Edge has to sing. This most infamously happened when the band played in Sarajevo, and Edge had to sing “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Not on December 15. Bono’s voice was clear and strong. When they sang “Gloria,” a raw number from way back in 1982, sounded almost like the studio recording.

Here’s the set list as I recall it:

City of Blinding Lights
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – In a Little While
Beautiful Day
Original of the Species
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Sunday Bloody Sunday – Rock the Casbah
Bullet the Blue Sky
Miss Sarajevo (from the “Passengers” side project with Brian Eno from the late 1990s)
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Where the Streets Have No Name
Until the End of the World
Mysterious Ways
With or Without You
Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of

The socio-political messages of old, largely missing from the tours of the 1990s, were back. (Like I said, I missed the previous tour–for all I know, this mode of U2 has been back for four years.) Bono urged the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the scrolled on the screen. I know there isn’t a lot of support for it in the United States, certainly not from the political party currently in power, but frankly it read a lot like the American Declaration of Independence. “We must not become a monster in order to defeat a monster,” Bono urged.

While Bono’s political leanings are traditionally far to the left of my own, what he was saying sounded perfectly reasonable to this registered Republican.

And although “We must not become a monster to defeat a monster” may sound like an anti-war stance, he dedicated “Bullet the Blue Sky” to the members of the U.S. military serving overseas.

Bono also urged joining an organization intended to end poverty. I’m not going to blindly join an organization just because some rock star tells me to without knowing something about it, but the guy’s sincere and his intentions are good.

The most important thing, agree or disagree, is that U2’s message made the crowd (or at least two of the people in it) think.

Religious experience? Well, maybe not quite, but awfully close. Unforgettable? Absolutely.

The youngest two band members are both 44, but if last night was any indication, U2’s not showing any signs of slowing down yet.

Song lyrics on the web will be the death of the music industry?

How many times did you hear a song on the radio, like it, then eagerly wait for the DJ to come on and announce what the song was, only to hear the next song? (Which inevitably is something worse, of course.)

It happens to me a lot. So I don’t even wait for the disappointment. I grab a scrap of paper, listen for a few words that sound distinctive (or that get repeated a lot), then when I get home or somewhere that I can mooch a little Internet access, I hit the search engines.

I’ll bet I ended up buying half my CD collection that way.I guess I should apply for a patent on this method of investigation though, because obviously I must be the only one who does this, because posting this stuff online is killing the industry.

Now that I think about it, posting song lyrics might be difficult to justify under the fair use doctrine, especially if your web site is just one big database of song lyrics that somebody else wrote. It’s one thing to quote a few lines of a song–which has always been permitted, even if what you’re writing isn’t a music review–but song after song, in its entirety does cross a line.

The question is whether it does more good than harm. I’m not convinced that online postings of song lyrics and guitar tablatures necessarily harms the sheet music industry all that much. In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with musicians, and most of the musicians I knew sat down with a tape or a CD with a pencil and paper and wore out the fast-forward and reverse buttons playing snippets of songs over and over again, taking notes, until they’d figured out what was being played.

Today it’s faster to search the Internet for that kind of information. But if you couldn’t, you’d probably go do it the old-fashioned way.

And the sheet-music industry doesn’t make any money either way.

Why not just go down to the record store and buy the music? Oh. Well, because you probably can’t. And even when you can, the selection is limited. If you want something other than current hits and staples of a particular popular genre, you probably won’t find it, because sheet music takes up a lot more space than CDs do. So you can order it online, but in the time it takes for the thing to arrive in the mail, you could have transcribed the artist’s entire catalog yourself.

And besides, most musicians don’t have any money. And the musicians I know who do have money didn’t make their money making music.

So I suppose the Music Publisher’s Association is probably justified–from a legal standpoint–in going after web sites that are just a cache of lyrics. But when they do, expect CD sales to take another hit–especially sales of back-catalog discs and acts who haven’t quite hit the big time yet. Of course the RIAA will just blame downloading and CD burners.

There’s a way around this, of course. The songwriter can do whatever he or she wants with the words.

And if the songwriter wants to make more money than the average substitute teacher, I suggest posting those lyrics online, so that when the song manages to get played on some station on the far left side of the dial and 12 people hear it, the four people who like it can do a search and buy it. They might sell less sheet music. But they’ll sell a whole lot more records.

My first impressions of Pandora

So I’ve been messing with Pandora, a new music service.

It’s interesting. Not foolproof, but interesting.The theory goes like this: Have highly experienced musicians overanalyze pop music, identifying its tonal qualities, and based on the qualities you find in a song that the masses (or any given individual) like, predict other songs that will have the same appeal because they share the same tonal qualities.

So I signed on, and it asked me for the name of a band or a song that I liked. So I picked “City of Blinding Lights” by U2 out of the air.

Two songs later, it played “Read ‘Em and Weep” by Meat Loaf.

Say what?

I gave it a chance. I thought more of Meat Loaf when he was a one-hit wonder than I did after he made that comeback in the ’90s. And this song is the epitome of why.

Let the record state that I don’t like over-the-hill wanna-be hard rockers singing songs that were originally written by Barry Manilow!

Note that I’m emphatic enough on that point to break out the italics and the exclamation point. I’m almost emphatic enough to break out the blink tag.

If I lose coolness points for not liking Meat Loaf-sung Barry Manilow cover tunes, then so be it.

I suppose it did have somewhat similar musical qualities to U2’s City of Blinding Lights. But this just goes to show there’s more to music than just, uh, the music.

To its credit, it did pick out a song by Delirious? that I liked.

But I guess U2 isn’t exactly the best experiment for something like this. While U2 has a reputation for all of its songs sounding the same, any serious U2 fan will point out that it’s several of U2’s hits that sound similar. But if I were to whip out a few of U2’s lesser hits, like, say, “A Day Without Me” off Boy and “The Fly” off Achtung Baby, to name two of the better songs off their two best albums, you might be hard-pressed to identify the band.

And since that’s one of the things I really like about the band, I abandoned the experiment. Tonal qualities alone won’t find another U2.

I forgot about the first time I ever heard “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The reaction? “U2 records albums?” Yes, when I was 13, I thought U2 just toured and put on political demonstrations and that making records was an afterthought.

Sometimes the appeal isn’t just the music and how it’s played. Need another example? Anyone care to do a survey of how many people watch Jessica Simpson music videos with the volume muted?

So now that I’ve talked about why Pandora can’t work, let’s talk about when it does work.

After the Meat Loaf indignity, I typed in “What About Everything, Carbon Leaf” into Pandora. And it came back and said it didn’t know that song. So I just typed in “Carbon Leaf.” It came back and described Carbon Leaf as a band that uses subtle harmonies, electric instruments up front, a mixture of acoustic and electric in back, and prominent percussion.

I’d never thought about it that way, but that was what made the band catch my ear in the first place. The line “What about aeroplanes?” had a lot to do with it too, but Pandora’s technical description tells how the band said, “What about aeroplanes?” Had it been Pantera asking “What about aeroplanes?” I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much.

But when I think about the alt-rock that was being recorded in the early 1990s, before it became all-grunge-all-the-time, that description of Carbon Leaf pretty much could apply to the songs by Sugar, Material Issue, Aimee Mann, The Connells, and, for that matter, even Weezer, that I liked.

So out of curiosity, I punched in “The Sisters of Mercy.” It came back and asked if that was a song or a band. I had the band in mind, rather than the Leonard Cohen song. Leonard Cohen is an example of someone whose lyrics I like, even when I often don’t like the music.

It identified the Sisters of Mercy as having hard rock roots, electronica influences, and an emphasis on minor key tones. Fair enough.

Problem is, it gave me Pig Society by Dope, Loco by Coal Chamber, and Set Me Free by Velvet Revolver, followed by Big Truck by Coal Chamber (which sounded like a monster truck rally).

How much does Andrew Eldritch know about monster trucks, anyway?

Once I gave it enough thumbs-downs, it tried Sonic Youth on me. Sonic Youth isn’t very goth, but it’s a much better fit than something called “Big Truck.”

So I decided to see what it said about Joy Division. “Punk influences, mild rhythmic syncopation, extensive vamping, electronica influences, and minor key tonality,” it said. OK, basically Sisters of Mercy minus the heavy metal with a little punk instead? I’ll buy that. I let it play. So far, no songs about monster trucks, but the songs it did play were songs I wouldn’t mind hearing again. Tactic learned: If you punch in one band and don’t like what it finds you, punch in the name of a somewhat similar band and see what it finds.

For entertainment value, I have to give Pandora some props. Sometimes the entertainment value is unintentional. But hey, even Babe Ruth only hit a home run 8.5% of the time. There are worse ways to discover new music than this.

Like turning on the radio, for instance.

New Order is back?

A week or so ago I was in the car with my fiancee and a song I’d never heard before but that seemed strangely familiar came on the radio. "Sounds like New Order," I said. She said she was thinking the same thing but mentioned someone else it sounded like.

"That’s a Peter Hook bassline if I’ve ever heard one," I said. "Gotta be New Order."

I heard the song again this morning, and this time, the DJ said who it was. "Yes, the ’80s band," he added.It just shows how out of touch I’ve become. Ten years ago I followed that band’s every move, being (at the time) an incurable Joy Division fanatic. Since Joy Division was gone forever, New Order was the closest thing I was going to get. And sometimes I settled for the side projects, although they were almost always disappointing.

It’s a good song, I guess (though I still don’t know the title). It didn’t instantly resonate with me like their 1993 comeback "Regret" did, but it’s a whole lot better than anything else that took up space on the same album with "Regret."

But I guess it shows how priorities change when we get older. A search revealed the album was released about a month ago. There was a time when I’d run out on my lunch break and buy it on the basis of the band’s name on the cover. I just don’t do that anymore. I bought half my collection of CDs on the basis of one song, or on the basis of who recorded it, and I’ve been bitten way too many times.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the record store and I listened to a whole pile of discs and had a blast. But I walked out empty-handed. It was a great way to spend that evening, but I didn’t hear anything that made me want to spend 17 bucks. And it could very well be a year before I go do that again.

Am I getting old, or is there that much less interesting stuff out there now than there was in 1987?


I missed the first play of the new single by U2 on the radio in St. Louis by about five minutes. Crud.The new album is called How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and will be released in November. The DJs really liked the new song, from what it sounded like, so I must have missed something.

I know nothing else about it, other than the album was produced by Steve Lillywhite, who produced 1980’s Boy, 1981’s October, and 1983’s War before the band started its long and profitable partnership with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno.

So my guess is this is will sound a little like the really early stuff, the same way All that You can’t Leave Behind sounded a little like Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree.

But it’s all speculation until I manage to hear it.

This is another lame Johnny Ramone tribute

Johnny Ramone died today. That name might not mean anything to the majority of you. That’s OK.

Johnny Ramone was the guitarist for the Ramones, a punk rock band that got started in the ’70s. His bandmates Joey Ramone and Dee Dee Ramone have already passed, all way before their time.My only public Ramones experience was in 1996 or so. I was at Royals Stadium, and the Royals were playing another miserable game under the watch of manager Bob Boone. I don’t remember what the score was and I don’t remember who they were playing. All I remember was the other team brought in a left-hander and Bob Boone pinch-hit for Johnny Damon, and at that point, I was done.

And then the sound of the Ramones came on the PA system: the famous opening to Blitzkreig Bop. "’Ey! Oh! Let’s go! Ey! Oh! Let’s go!"

I responded by singing out another Ramones song, much to the dismay of those sitting around me:

"Bah bah bah bah, bah bah bha bah bah, I wanna be sedated!"

The Ramones recorded simple music. Their songs were really short, really fast, and for their time, really loud. And they never took themselves seriously.

They printed a story in the sleeve of their first retrospective compilation. I guess most would call it a greatest hits collection, except the Ramones didn’t really have any hits. The story was about their first gig. Joey, Tommy, Dee Dee, and Johnny Ramone walked into a bar, tall, lanky, long hair, wearing t-shirts and leather jackets. The bar owner didn’t know if they were a band or four thugs looking to steal sound equipment. They got up and played a few numbers, all of them really fast, really loud, none over two minutes. And at the end, the bar owner didn’t know if they were a band or four thugs looking to steal sound equipment.

I’m sure the pair of alternative stations in St. Louis in the late ’80s and early ’90s, far on the left side of the dial, played plenty of Ramones. The problem was you couldn’t hear either 89.7 or 89.5 FM if you were more than about two blocks from their dinky little towers. The first station with any kind of power that would play the Ramones was 105.7, which started playing alternative music in 1993. Back in the days before it turned into all Bush, all the time (which was just before it turned into all Korn, all the time), they mixed in some Ramones along with Nirvana and Matthew Sweet and Sugar and The Pretenders and the Gin Blossoms and the dozens of other bands the Ramones had influenced. But it was too little, too late. In 1996 they released an album titled "Adios, Amigos!" And they meant it. No more tours, no more new records, no nothing. And they vanished. I think I heard about Joey Ramone doing a few cameos on sitcoms or something. But the only time I heard the Ramones on radio again was on a retro station right after the DJ announced one of them had died. Which was fairly often, now that I think about it.

But now there’s no retro station in St. Louis to play the Ramones as a tribute to Johnny. And the record industry doesn’t have the patience these days for bands like the Ramones. The Ramones were like the Velvet Underground, in that they were the kind of band that would sell a few thousand records, but everyone who bought one of those records would go start a band.

I read today that Slash learned to play guitar by listening to Johnny Ramone. Slash! Of Guns ‘n’ Roses!

Ten years ago, they’d have let the Ramones record the first album. Some executive would have liked it. It wouldn’t have sold any better, and they’d have let them record a second album, but only because that first album showed some promise. When the sales figures for the second one came in, they’d tell them to hit the road.

Today, if that first Ramones record didn’t sell a million copies, there wouldn’t be a second Ramones record.

I don’t know that we’ll see another Johnny Ramone again. The world’s changed too much since his day. For the worse.

I didn’t expect to hear that on the radio…

So, I’m driving home and flipping through the radio stations, and I get to the local Michael W. Smith/Stephen Curtis Chapman/Amy Grant station, and the most unusual thing is playing: David Crowder!

If I had a radio station, of course, I’d just play David Crowder over and over. And when people bugged me about the repetition, I’d just write to him and tell him he needs to make another album quick because people are complaining about the repetition.

Thank you, Kurt

I really don’t want to write another this-is-where-I-was-when-I-first-heard-Teen-Spirit piece. It’s too obvious. Every blogger under the age of 40 must be doing that today.

If you must know, I was in my bedroom in my teenage home in Fenton, Missouri. I was listening to 89.7, which was a commercial-less indie station with an incredibly weak signal, run by a local YMCA or some other similar community organization. I could only get it in certain parts of St. Louis, and to get it at home, my boombox had to be in the right place in my room.
This would have been sometime in September 1991, long before the Top 40 stations got their grubby mitts on it. At the time, 89.7 was getting several requests for the song every hour.

Much has been said about how the album, and that song in particular, were a rampage against the overproduced, overly flambouyant pretty-boy pop metal that ruled Top 40 radio until late 1991. And certainly it was a shock there. But it was a bit of a shock in the alternative radio world too–to ears that were used to hearing Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Inspiral Carpets, and the immortal Elvis–Elvis Costello, of course–it was a bit of a shock. Ned’s was certainly odd enough, and Inspiral Carpets had their share of angst. But Nirvana was more raw, and, well, a lot more loud.

Of course, Kurt Cobain committed suicide 10 years ago today.

In college, I lived for a time with a bunch of farm boys, and I remember them ragging me about how I "liked bands whose lead singers killed hisself." (Yes, I bristled at the butchered English.) Cobain was of course the poster child.

Nirvana of course opened the door for a new form of mainstream music, helping alternative music move from the lower left end of the FM dial to the right-hand side occupied by classic rock and Top 40 stations. But the originality fizzled, and Cobain wasn’t dead two years before people were ready for the alternative to alternative.

I think that has more to do with record company execs than with Cobain, of course. Signing bands like Nirvana is risky business. You can sign every garage band that comes around and strike out 99,999 times, or you can sign a band that just imitates something that’s already proven to be popular, make a few million, and just sign another one with that band fizzles out. Certainly, it’s easier that way.

People got tired of bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, and soon we had highly polished bubblegum bands again–boy bands and girl bands who looked good on magazine covers and posters, and who maybe could sing, and if not, well, that’s what post-production is for.

It was once said that grunge is what happens when children of divorce get guitars. Does that mean boy bands are what happen when children of divorce get Prozac?

For a while, at least, it was OK for the music you listened to to reflect your problems and your inner demons.

Nirvana had a brief resurgence when the last song they ever recorded was finally released. "You Know You’re Right," it was called. More than a decade after "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it struck a chord with me again. Some people can’t be reasoned with, and that, to me, seemed to be what that song was about. I was dealing with one of those at the time.

The song was different and the message was different, but once again, I found myself cranking the radio whenever a particular song by Nirvana hit the airwaves. Or, if it was really bad, I’d carry a Nirvana CD with me and pop it in my CD player. And for a few minutes, I’d feel better. When the song ends, the problem is still there, but at least you know you’re not alone.

I really couldn’t care less if Nirvana changed the world or changed the music industry, or the direction the industry took in the wake of Cobain’s self destruction. Change doesn’t really seem to matter all that much, because it’s only a matter of time before some other unlikely–and probably unwilling–revolutionary comes along and changes it back.

As a stereotypical GenX male, what matters most to me was that Kurt Cobain came along, and in him I found someone I could relate to, three minutes at a time.

Thanks, Kurt.

A coupla MP3 jukebox solutions

I’ve been playing with MP3 jukebox solutions. Grind! looks perfect, except for the life of me I can’t get it to work, which puts a bit of a damper on things. It acts like it’s playing, but the sound never comes out of the sound card. The sound card works fine. The www-data account (Apache’s user) has access to the sound card. The MP3 player software runs as www-data. It works fine when I log in and su into the www-data account. But when I hit the web page to control it, the music never plays.
So I’m about to give up for a while and give Gina a look. Gina’s got lots of cool features. But I’d rather have a computer that plays the music rather than streaming it–I want to hook up a headless computer to my stereo. I suppose I could put an MP3 server in my basement and put a headless computer on my stereo and control it remotely using remote X or VNC or something. It doesn’t do scoring of music the way Grind! does, but I think I can hack that in. You know, create another database of songs, assign a score to each, then when it picks a track, discard it if its score is zero, and when it picks one track, pick two instead, play the higher-scored track and put the other one back in the queue (unless it’s a zero, in which case you discard it). I think I can code that. And that way I’ll hear U2’s “I Will Follow” a lot more frequently than U2’s “Mysterious Ways” (which, don’t get me wrong, was a good song… THE FIRST 3 BILLION TIMES I HEARD IT).

And hey, maybe I can figure out how to hack Gina to play the song instead of streaming it. Because it does lots of other cool stuff. Click the link, check it out.

I wrote up a bunch of stuff today but technical difficulties prevent me from posting it. I’ll post tomorrow.