Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Phish Finale at SPAC: And then there were nine

by Thomas Dimopoulos

SARATOGA SPRINGS - You can imagine them as young college students, some 20 years ago, huddled in dorm rooms at the University of Vermont deeply immersed in the texts of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and some academic jibber-jabber called synaptic interaction.

All the while they were thinking yes, there has certainly got to be a better way.

So the band of musicians who would be Phish got some instruments, mounted a microphone atop a hockey stick and got themselves a gig at a campus party. There they played 'Proud Mary' over and over and over until the sky opened up and the path appeared to that better way.

Twenty years of shows, albums and personnel shifts later, Phish is calling it quits shortly after
staging a pair of shows at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center June 19 and 20.

The group took the stage Saturday night to a great roar from the faithful, many of whom descended upon the park earlier in the day, turning the evening concert into an all-day event.

Despite the bass-heavy drone that buried everything in its path inside the amphitheater during the show openers 'Reba' and 'Runaway Jim,' the sound balanced nicely deeper into the nearly three-hour set that included a 30-minute intermission. Fans cheered every solo and delighted in every turn of a phrase. In this farewell tour ending a 20-year career, every nuance is a moment to be glorified.

As descendants of the Grateful Dead-meets-Frank Zappa school of rock, Phish invite a mixed response from a community of music fans driven to extremes: You either love them or can't stand them. They are musical heroes to their faithful, post-Woodstock generation collaborators for those who never got to see the real thing.

To outsiders, it is easy-listening music playing in a high-rise elevator whose cables have snapped; it's the car sent plummeting in a surreal, slow-motion descent.

And you can still find area music fans who claim to have been part of the crowd packed into Aiko's to witness the band's appearance at the now-defunct Caroline Street venue in the spring of 1990. It was a year that also showcased a Phish appearance at the Skidmore College gym later in the fall. They first performed at SPAC in support of Carlos Santana two years later.

At their best Saturday night, the band kicked it hard behind front man Trey Anastasio. The guitarist wrung out big, looping notes that hovered in the air like a summer moon. He was accompanied by layers of lights that oozed lavenders, blues and mopey greens and cut the haze with sharp white triangles of light accented with smoky white rings that spun at their core.

Alternately graced with lightning-fast fingers, Anastasio rapid-fired along his fret board,
offering tones for the faithful, who swooned at the grooves.

Among the evening's most memorable moments was the performance of 'Wolfman's Brother'
as a giant balloon that read 'Vibe' made its way around the amphitheater.
Other high points came in Page McConnell's soft piano interlude introducing 'Walls of the Cave,' which grew to a crescendo with Anastasio's roaring guitar supplemented with the strobe effect of the lights.

Phish closed out the second set with a joyous delivery of 'Cavern,' a song dating back a dozen years to the band's club years, while the faithful danced to its bouncy rhythms and mouthed along to its memorable tagline: 'Whatever you do, take care of your shoes.'

The finale was the slow and somber ballad 'Wading in the Velvet Sea,' its drifting melody sending Saturday's crowd off into the night, its metronomic pulse the countdown to extinction for the band they called Phish.

published in The Troy Record and The Saratogian, June 2004.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sting cools, Lennox rules: Live at SPAC on the 4th of July

by Thomas Dimopoulos

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Sting ruled center stage with a kingly air of royalty Sunday night.
He dressed in a sleek black suit accented by white collar and cuffs, and looked every bit the English country gentleman dressed for a special occasion.

He waved his bass like a scepter over the heads of the faithful who flocked to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on the Fourth of July. The irony that he stood a few miles down the road from the battlefields of the American Revolution was not lost on the 52-year-old performer.

'Independence Day is a tough day to be English,' he joked. 'We used to own this place:
New York, Albany, Sche-nec-ta-dy,' he announced, then compared the feeling of being English on American Independence Day to being a Red Sox fan at the World Series. A number of the flock did not laugh.

It has been 20 years since the breakup of The Police, the reggae-fused power trio Sting rode across the English Channel of the musical New Wave. And these days, there seems to be a
more bourgeois pomposity in his tone. It is not an air with which the Spa City is unfamiliar.

Sting alternated between bass and acoustic guitar, fronting a seven-member band that included multiple keyboards and percussionists.
The set played for 90 minutes, nearly half of which was culled from his recent 'Sacred Love,'
and included a mixed bag of tunes from his solo career as well as a smattering of tones
dating back to his days with The Police.

He wove memorable performances, playing acoustic guitar on the song 'Fragile,' and delivered
a snappy version of 'Englishman in New York.' Three tunes into the set, the crowd was brought to its feet when he was joined by Annie Lennox for the song 'We'll Be Together,'
as Sting played the country gentleman to Lennox's energetic shimmy and shake.

Lennox performed amiably earlier in the evening.
An entertaining performer who is comfortable on the stage, her set was highlighted by the piano-driven ballad 'Here Comes the Rain Again' and a jazzed-up version of Bob Marley's 'Waiting in Vain.'

A commanding presence in spangle-trimmed blue jeans that clung to her thin frame, Lennox belted out the pop tune 'Walking on Broken Glass,' and donned a black vinyl Elvis-like motorcycle jacket to deliver a gritty 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).'

Of Sting's newest material, 'Dead Man's Rope' worked nicely, the singer strumming what he introduced as 'the smallest guitar in New York state' while framed by multiple video images of nature gardens and full moons, swaying trees, solar eclipses and surreal underwater villages inhabited by topless vixens.

The video accompaniment was most poignant during the intense performance of 'This War,' depicting war planes dropped their bombs as Sting's vocals wailed with a thrilling remorsefulness and the band pounded and throbbed in the emotionally charged song.

Rather than riding the wave to a higher intensity, however, the momentum was stunted by
the mid-set lull - that self-indulgent section of the program when artists force-feed their audience with ill-suited new material.

Not even the swirling light-beam psychedelics, nor a parade of video screen strippers
could save the dreadful one-two punch of 'Whenever I Say Your Name' and 'Sacred Love,'
which stank up the air with such ferocity that even the happily buzzing mosquitoes circling through the night were murdered by its dull and stagnant air.

You had to wonder if some of the audience might have been felled as well, the best seated of whom shelled out a cool $100 per for the privilege.

Sting offered up 'Synchronicity II' from The Police songbook early in the set and eternal deliverance from the mid-set lull was promised as the quarter-century old hit 'Roxanne' was dusted off and revved up to ride into the night. But this too - mixed with bits of 'King of Pain' - was murdered by the bland hand of its musical leader, whose jazz-cheesy indulges rendered 'Roxanne,' now 25 years older, little more than a nostalgic tease incapable of delivering her former glories.
So broken was its momentum at the end, that even King Sting and all the king's men couldn't put poor Roxy together again.

The mass exodus began even as the singer stood in the emptying amphitheater taking bows
and performing curtain calls, the sounds of 'Desert Rose' and 'If Ever I Lose My Faith'
drifting into the long, bittersweet night.

published in The Saratogian, July 6, 2004.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Deep Purple: Space Truckin' at Saratoga

SARATOGA SPRINGS - It was a small but enthusiastic crowd of 4,000 that flocked to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Tuesday night. The faithful were treated to the loud sounds of classic rock's past as the triple-bill of Joe Satriani, Thin Lizzy and heavy metal demi-gods Deep Purple roared into town.

Dating back to Deep Purple's earliest days, bassist Roger Glover and drummer Ian Paice were led by long-time vocalist Ian Gillian who alternated from shaking a tambourine to strumming air guitar power chords and wailing like a heavy-metal banshee.

The three were joined by relative newcomers Steve Morse - attempting to fill the big shoes of former guitarist Ritchie Blackmore - and the medieval organ-meets-boogie-woogie piano style of keyboardist Don Airey.

Silver-haired, suntanned and draped in a billowing white frock, Gillian looked like a cross between Tony Bennett and Muammar Khadafy as he belted out the vocals in front of a large backdrop festooned with images of 'Bananas' - the title of the band's most recent album,
from which a handful of tunes were performed.

The best of these were the symphonic overture turned metal head banger 'I've Got Your Number,' and the solemn instrumental 'Contact Lost,' dedicated to the lost crew of the
Columbia Space Shuttle.

Framed by rows of amplifiers, fog machines and a pair of large mirror balls, the band was at
its best with its vintage material, from the diabolically perverse 'Knocking at Your Back Door'
of the 1980s to a slew of rock anthems written a decade earlier.

Gillian beckoned the crowd to chant along to fan favorites 'Space Truckin''' and 'Woman from Tokyo,' ratcheted up the rhythm section leading to the explosive 'Highway Star,' and bellowed under the white heat of the flashing strobe lights during the set closing 'Smoke on the Water,' which burned at full-throttle as fresh as it was pouring out a radio tuned to the FM dial rolling down the highway of the 1970s.

Thin Lizzy appeared earlier in the evening performing their black leather anthems 'Jailbreak' and 'The Boys are Back in Town' under the evening's waning red sun, followed by guitar guru Joe Satriani.

Satriani fronted his band with all sorts of guitar wizardry, from looping sonic oodlings to sharp and cutting saw-toothed tomes. Best known for his album 'Surfing with the Alien,' Satriani bopped, rocked and plucked his six-string with the craftiness of a musician intimately familiar with his instrument.

In closing out the evening, Deep Purple proved that while time has marched on and the band's lineup has gone through a number of alterations, little has changed in their sonic delivery.

Once listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the loudest band in the world, the sheer volume of the band's set was somewhere near the proverbial sticking your head inside the nozzle of a jet engine.
One has to wonder what was running through the minds of recreational golfers wielding nine irons a few hundred yards away as the earth shook from the band's heavy vibrations.

For their encore, the band revisited their 1968 rendition of 'Hush,' punctuated by Gillian's blood-curdling howl, a wailing grand finale that catapulted clear across the state park and undoubtedly ricochet over the city for another 35 years, at least.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, Aug. 19, 2004

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Nickelback, ex-Alice Cantrell: Live at Saratoga

SARATOGA SPRINGS -''Nice to see Nickelback's got some fans in this neck of the woods,'' announced frontman Chad Kroeger, whose own neck of the woods is somewhere up in the
north throat of Calgary, Alberta.

'' You guys came here to rock ... well for the next hour-and 20-minutes, you're butt belongs to me,'' explained the singer, his band erupting in grand rock star style with their opener,
''Woke Up This Morning,'' accompanied by bombastic explosions and heat- searing flames that shot 20-feet into the air.

Six years ago, brothers Chad and Mike Kroeger, along with their cousin Brandon and guitar player Ryan Peake, formed the nucleus of the band that named their ensemble after bassist Mike Kroeger's oft-repeated stuck-at-the-cash-register phrase: ''Here's your nickel back.''

Saturday, the four-piece band ran through a retrospective spanning its six-year career, including a musical ode to magic mushrooms (accompanied with a swirly grey fog-producing machine) and an invocation to the masses - answered by the faithful with a volley of devil-headed, index-finger-and-pinky salutes.

Featuring classic rock-styled pyrotechnics, ritual guitar-smashing, a blatant ode to cannabis
and a female flasher, the nearly 4,000 Nickelback fans attending Saturday night's concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center got to see a bit of everything, and perhaps a little more than they'd anticipated.

Nickelback's stage looked as if it had been laid out by some trippy feng-shui master. A pair of ramps framed neat rows of proportionally stacked amplifiers. A drum riser sat at center stage, and a backdrop fitted with a giant peering eyeball hung above the stage, periodically shooting a ray of light out of its leather ''pupil.''

Beneath the wide brim of his signature white cowboy hat, bassist Mike Kroeger pushed the rhythm section with tight syncopated riffs, freeing brother Chad to flail on guitar and deliver the vocals. The band saved the best for last.

''May we play for you some brand new unrecorded Nickelback?'' singer Kroeger asked before launching into the band's fiercest rocker, a catchy and lyrically vicious ''I Figured You,'' before ending with the hit ''Too Bad.''

The encore featured acoustic versions of ''Hero'' and ''You Remind Me,'' after which Kroeger smashed his acoustic guitar over the drum riser, sending shards of wood flying across the stage. Then, he brought back the entire band for an electrified finale of ''You Remind Me.''

Earlier in the evening, ex-Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell performed with a five piece ensemble whose trio of guitarists created dense layers of seductive noise on a stage bathed in deep blue and crimson lights.

Performing both old and new material - Cantrell's latest CD ''Degradation Trip'' was released this week - Cantrell's set built in intensity as it progressed, bringing the crowd to its feet during an anthemic ''Cut You In,'' and the moody metallica ''Down in the Hole,'' where, poised on knees at center stage, Cantrell wailed like a vintage guitar god before exiting amid a blaze of feedback leaving the crowd panting for more.

But the audience's pop-hero like adulation of Nickelback was apparent, dancing to the group's tunes while singing along to the words.

By evening's end, a sated crowd made its way to the exits, the older ones with ears happily ringing, and the very young with stars in their eyes.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, June 20, 2002