CD/DVD Review: George Fest

By Ernest Barteldes

gh_

When I first heard about George Fest, I thought it was really great idea: bring together a new generation of rock performers (alongside a handful of more established ones) to take stabs at George Harrison’s canon to younger fans who might not even had been around when Harrison released his final hit records in the late 80s.

 

I recall receiving an e-mail from a publicist about the release of the concert film and CD from the 2014 tribute show in Los Angeles shorty before its release , but due to my workload at the time it kind of fell through the cracks and it only came back to my mind when I caught the end of the film on MTV – when the entire ensemble ran through The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care.” I was intrigued and ordered the box from the New York Public Library (no, I don’t do Netflix) and sat down to listen to it as soon as it came in.

It was a fun show to watch, but I felt that the musicians could have been a bit more inventive with the music.  After all, these were bands like The Flaming Lips (who took on “It’s All Too Much,” and oft-overlooked track from “Yellow Submarine”) and members of The Strokes, Heart, Spoon and other bands. However, with few exceptions they played most of the tunes a bit too closely to the original arrangements, sounding more like cover bands than they should have.

There were, however, some brilliant moments: San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club took on “The Art of Dying (from “All Things Must Pass”) and slowed it down, playing with distorted guitars and deadpan vocals that better translated the tune’s mood than Harrison’s overproduced version. Norah Jones (who also did “Something”) took advantage of the country feel of “Behind the Locked Door” to make the tune her own with a soulful vocal delivery and her own acoustic guitar accompaniment. The Cult’s Ian Astbury gives a chillingly beautiful take on “Be Here Now,” an obscure track from “Living in the Material World.”

The deeper cuts were the best surprise here – while standards like “My Sweet Lord” (with an honest delivery from Brian Wilson) and “Taxman” (by The Cold War Kids) were on the set list, we also got to hear seldom-heard tunes like “Savoy Truffle” (Dhani Harrison, who sounds and looks too much like his father) and “Any Road” (from George’s last album, “Brainwashed”). But there were a few missed opportunities – for instance, why have ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic do a straight version of “What is Life” when he could have amused us with “This Song is Just Six Words Long,”  his hilarious parody of “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You” instead?

<BR>

One could say such a rendition would offend hardcore George Harrison fans, but then again that was not even a Harrison composition in the first place, but a cover of an obscure track originally recorded in the early 60s by African-American R&B singer James Ray (go ahead, Google it).  The tune, incidentally, is also on the set, played by the numbers by The Killers’ Brandon Flowers.
I am not in any way going to say it is a bad album – it is nice to hear all these young artists take on this music of my favorite Beatle with such gusto, but as I have said earlier, I would have liked if more of them had tried to be more inventive with the tunes, just as George himself did whenever he played live. You pay tribute not by imitating but by reinventing the music – and giving it your own take.

Advertisements

Disc Review: Discover World Music/Various Artists

By Ernest Barteldes

When it comes to music, I am a bit of an omnivore – I listen to almost everything with the possible exception of gangsta rap or death metal (then there’s the music played at the gym, but my earphones have solved that). As far as I can remember, I have always listened to music from all over the world. In school, I remember being the only weirdo who not only knew who Harry Belafonte and Elizete Cardoso were (I’ll let you Google that one) but also knew a great part of their catalogues.

Lila Downs

Attending concerts at Summerstage and Celebrate Brooklyn deeply broadened my scope – it was there that I first heard groups like Babasonics (Argentina), Amadou & Mariam (Mali) and Lila Downs (Mexico), and I was also blessed to have been present for what turned out to be the final performance by Celia Cruz.

My time as a contributing writer for the now-defunct Global Rhythm magazine was also an eye-opener. I recall that every month the editors (some of whom I am still in touch with) would send the writers a list of records to review, and I would always pick stuff I was not really familiar with so I could learn a bit more about them – during those years, so much music reached me that it is almost overwhelming to think about it. After some time, I started reviewing live performances – one of the most funs was The Pogues, who played a St. Patrick’s Day Concert at Roseland Ballroom back in 2007. I recall that I was probably one of very few sober people in the room (I don’t drink much while covering shows, maybe a beer and that’s it – you can’t really rely on just your notes if you have too much to drink).

World Music is, however, a hard sell in America. Just a few months back I remember talking about Lila Downs to some co-workers and getting blank stares in return – even if some of them HAD watched Frida. Never mind that her shows are completely sold out in New York, and that is also true about stars like Bebel Gilberto, Malian blues guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, Mexico’s Maná and Colombia’s Aterciopelados. From my experience, American audiences in general do not get ‘foreign’ music unless it is sung in English (one of the reasons why Shakira is big in the US and other Latin artists are not).

It’s not like folks don’t try –  World Music organizations and labels frequently bring artists stateside, but those shows are limited to centers like New York, Chicago (which hosts an annual festival every year during the summer), Los Angeles and Miami – some acts do make it as far as Phoenix but it’s not like they are filling halls in Topeka, KS.  I once had an argument with an editor who told me to stop pitching him African musicians – his readers (or he) were not interested – never mind that some of the acts were performing in one of the most popular concert venues in his town.

What would it take mainstream audiences who are not fans of NPR to pay attention? Maybe bringing everything together in a package would be a good start for World Music neophytes would be a good start – which brings us to Arc Music’s Discover World Music, a double CD that showcases different musicians from around the globe. Some are old favorites like Portugal’s fantastic guitarist Custódio Castelo, one of the most sought-out musicians in his country. He appears on “Inquietude,” a gorgeous instrumental piece that highlights his technique on the Portuguese guitar – the most important instrument in fado.  Brazilian music is also very present via Ceumar’s “Gotas do Norte,” a fine example of xaxado, a near-forgotten rhythm from the northeastern part of the country that has been pretty much dwarfed by more commercial fare I’d rather stay away from.

Other highlights include Egypt’s Hossam Ramzy, one of the most creative composers of his generation, and also Noel McLoughlin’s gorgeous “Song for Ireland,” a tune sung with so much passion that it gives you goose bumps even if you don’t have an Irish bone in your body.

Arc Music is one of these labels that always bring you something new – discovering their releases led me to learn about artists like Marta Gomez, Klezmer Juice and so many more. I really recommend you to get this one as your personal introduction to many other things out there.

Discover World Music

Various Artists

Arc Music