Monday, November 13, 2017

A review about reviews

Jo Walton's WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT (2014) is like sitting around with an old friend, talking about what great books you've read lately. It's 130 posts compiled from a blog she wrote for, about re-reading various old science-fiction classics and guilty pleasures.
Walton doesn't pretend to be a "critic" -- she just writes about what struck her upon reading (or re-reading) some books. But she does what all the best book critics do -- enlightens you about what makes a book worth reading. Those flashes of insight are what make her reviews a lot of fun to read.
She hasn't convinced me (yet) to try reading C.J. Cherryh or Lois McMaster Bujold or Steven Brust, but I like and agree with her reviews of Samuel R. Delany's NOVA (a helluva lot going on in that book, it's crammed full of action, thought and detail) and BABEL-17 (flashes of brilliance); and her comments on Roger Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT and DOORWAYS IN THE SAND.
Maybe even better are her "theme" columns -- Do you skim? What about novel series(es?) that go downhill? (On Frank Herbert's DUNE series: Read the first one. Then stop.)
There are a couple of reviews about books you've never read -- because they never got finished: Robert A. Heinlein's THE STONE PILLOW and Harlan Ellison's THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS -- this review (for April Fool's Day) wasn't as funny as it could have been, but if Walton's point was that Real Life is way weirder than fiction, she nailed it.
I also back Walton's idea of re-reading books to see if they're better or different than you remember. Every few years I re-read Peter Straub's IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, and every time I get something else out of it, almost like it's a new book. The last time, it was like the story was completely new to me. I've also done this with Roger Zelazny's THIS IMMORTAL and ISLE OF THE DEAD, the two Delany novels mentioned above, and some others. Oh, and Robert M. Persig's ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE. I may not be able to read anything NEW, but there are some old friends in the house that I know I won't be wasting my time with.
Walton's book won't waste your time, either.

However, this one might: Will Romano's CLOSE TO THE EDGE: HOW YES'S MASTERPIECE DEFINED PROG ROCK (2017) is the third of Romano's books about progressive rock, and the first to disappoint me. His MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY is still the best prog-rock history, and his PROG ROCK FAQ was almost like a sequel, and was nearly as solid.
CLOSE TO THE EDGE recycles a lot of stuff Yes fans likely already know, adds a lot of (to me) unnecessary, extraneous material, adds a list of tour dates, discography, bibliography, a weak index, and ends up almost 300 pages long. You can read the good stuff in an hour.
I was annoyed with this book from the start, with Romano's first-the-earth-cooled history of prog. I know he was trying to set up a context for his story, but. His history of Yes is more solid, and includes some info you may not have read before. But in this book supposedly about one album you get Yes's full career up to CTTE (which was the band's fifth album), plus much about the three albums that followed.
My biggest gripe is that except for a couple of stories, this book doesn't put you into the studio with Yes while they were recording CTTE -- in two- and three-minute segments, with leader Jon Anderson telling the band "If you don't like this tune, YOU come up with something better." There's a book there, about how that band worked ... for awhile.
Romano also takes all this stuff VERY seriously, referring to the title track of CTTE as "a symphony," or at least a sonata. There's a whole chapter on "water imagery" in '70s prog, for chrissakes. It's too much, if you've heard a lot of this stuff.
Romano and Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard could have used a better proofreader. There are words dropped, odd sentence constructions, words misspelled -- it looks like the book was a rush job. The first time Strawbs leader Dave Cousins is mentioned, he is listed with no first name. (The Strawbs is where Yes keyboard-player Rick Wakeman came from.) One more read-through would have helped immeasurably with smoothness, would have avoided jolting me out of the book.
And I'd say Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON defined in the public's mind what prog was. But there's been enough written about DARK SIDE, right?
Yes drummer Bill Bruford has some less exalted views about working on CTTE. Judging by his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, he could have written an interesting, funny, acid-tinged book about what Yes and those sessions were like. But he wouldn't have bothered.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Tedeschi Trucks 2!

The Tedeschi Trucks Band can apparently play anything. And they do. Which has maybe become a problem when it comes to live shows.
I saw them for the second time on Sunday night at Seattle's beautiful Paramount theater. And I thought they were WAY better when they played a year ago at Seattle's McCaw Hall as part of their LET ME GET BY tour.
Don't get me wrong, here. They sounded great. They played great. Some of the songs -- especially the half-dozen I didn't recognize, which I assume were tryouts of new material -- came across as pretty strong.
But with 12 people on stage, I assume there must be a lot of egos to keep happy in this band. And there was a lot of showing off.
But here's the thing: There was MORE showing off a year ago. But the songs were stronger.
In the review I posted last September, though I thought that McCaw Hall concert was one of the best I'd ever seen, I was already uneasy with some parts of TTB's show. I don't think every song should be an excuse for Derek Trucks to show how loud and high and long he can play that guitar. And he CAN play, no question.
But that was still happening on Sunday night. In almost every song, at some point everybody backed off and opened up space to let Derek take over. Three or four times is OK. But after that it's too much. One of his best solos was on a long, angry piece called either "It Makes You Wonder" or "Shame." In fact, some of TTB's best moments were when they were clearly angry, as on one of their earlier songs, "Get What You Deserve."
Other solos made attendees wonder if TTB were trying to become some sort of blues-pop-jazz-rock-fusion band. I enjoyed some of this -- a drum duel just before intermission finally caught hold of a nice pounding groove (there was actually a lot of pounding in this show), and keyboardist Kofi Burbidge got some wild squawking, bubbling sounds out of the organ later in the show. I liked this -- I thought it was funny.
Their sax player also did a jittery, twitchy, Ornette Coleman-like meltdown early in the show that I thought was hilarious ... but he'd done the same bit a year ago. It's OK to do one clearly overdone meltdown -- that's funny. But one in every song is too much.
There were other spots that I thought were just dead -- where it seemed something was supposed to happen but didn't. This might have been technical -- during intermission, a tech worked on a couple of amps, and the second half of the show had fewer gaps. But some spots seemed to leave members of the band lost or waiting for cues. If things had been right on cue, it would never have occurred to me that there were dead spots.
And then there's the song choices. I still have a fairly long list of stuff I'd like to hear TTB do live -- they did nothing I'd hoped for. They did two songs from LET ME GET BY -- but not the best one, "Anyhow," which they opened powerfully with a year ago. They did B.B. King's "How Blue Can You Get?" and Ray Charles's "Let's Go Get Stoned," both of which came across with passion and power. Susan Tedeschi did a solo spot on Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," but she messed up the first line of the lyric ... and I'm sorry, but her version doesn't beat Peter, Paul and Mary's.
But Susan has a great voice that was strong on the rockers and cut through the big sound. And there's a couple of TTB's backing singers who can keep up with her. Former lead singer Mike Mattison took a few leads and still has a powerful voice. They should use him more often for contrast. He was especially good duetting with Susan on "Get What You Deserve."
TTB didn't talk much. Susan lightened up a bit toward the end and talked more, introduced the band, etc. She and Derek had hardly any interaction on stage.
At least they gave value for the money. The show ran almost three hours (not counting the half-hour intermission), and TTB came back on stage for an encore while we were in the lobby buttoning up coats for the 35-degree night outside. But we were done by then.
I was still disappointed. Maybe they were tired. They've been on the road a LOT the last year or so. The songs I thought were new sounded VERY good, and I'll still look for their next album.
Maybe I wish they would have settled down a bit -- actually been a blues band rather than a blues-pop-jazz-rock-fusion orchestra. Just because you CAN play everything doesn't mean you HAVE TO play everything. Stick with what you do best.

Friday, November 3, 2017

More bad behavior

Want to read 500 pages of selfishness and egomania?
No? Not interested? What if it's really well-written?
Joe Hagan's STICKY FINGERS (2017) updates Robert Draper's excellent ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE: THE UNCENSORED HISTORY (1990), by hooking a biography of RS editor/publisher/founder Jann Wenner around his coming out as a gay man in 1995.
Along with re-telling all of Draper's best stories (some with a little more depth and context), STICKY FINGERS then chronicles who Wenner slept with, how often, how this affected his magazine, etc. Everyone close to Wenner gets the same treatment. His ex-wife Jane, for example. A fascinating psychological study, in a way.
Much of this is riveting reading -- because the stories of RS's early days (Hunter Thompson, Altamont, etc.) are great stories. But it all becomes too much, because the star of this story never for a second drops his selfishness and greed. He forgives himself for everything, and throws everyone else under the bus.
Brilliantly, vividly written. Lots of cameos by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, etc. But do you really want 500 pages of it?

By the way, if you read Peter Biskind's DOWN AND DIRTY MOVIES (reviewed here awhile back), about the founding of Miramax Pictures back in the 1990's, the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein should have come as a very small surprise. After reading how he abused and terrorized his employees at Miramax, it should be no surprise that he abused and harassed actresses, too. The surprise is it took so long for him to take a beating for it.

COMING SOON: Reviews of Will Romano's CLOSE TO THE EDGE: HOW YES'S MASTERPIECE DEFINED PROG ROCK (disappointing so far, but I'm only 70 pages in) and I AM BRIAN WILSON. And maybe some other stuff, too....
ALSO PLANNED: More live-blogging about Strange Music I've never heard before. Next test-listening session coming soon. Already have the intended victims piled-up and waiting....