Monday, November 26, 2012

RUSH!!! Now with Strings!

Last night I went to US Airways Center and saw Rush for the eleventh time in my life. While it was not the best concert of theirs that I have seen—nor was it the worst—it was certainly the most unique.

For the uninitiated, Rush (pronounced like it is spelled), is a Canadian rock trio that has been churning out albums since 1974. They reached the height of their popularity in the early 1980s, with hits like “The Spirit of Radio,” “Tom Sawyer,” and “Subdivisions.” But while many people who were only casually aware of them during the Reagan-era think they have faded into obscurity, diehard fans like me know that they never went away—they simply aged gracefully like a fine wine.

Admitting that you’re a Rush fan generally elicits one of three responses: 1) a blank stare from the 99% of people under the age of 36 who have never heard of them; 2) a roll of the eyes from the 99% of women and 92% of men over the age of 36 who immediately stereotype you as a Mountain Dew swigging, Dungeons & Dragons playing, throwback geek who was into computers 15 years before everyone else; or 3) a spontaneous and very enthusiastic air drum display from those unaccounted for above who, like you, knows that Neil Peart is the greatest drummer who ever lived, ever will live, or can ever be created by a group of the world’s top scientists working 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the next 200 years.

While we’re on the topic of Neil, I’ll make my first observation about last night’s concert. To this day I’m always amazed that with the blistering speed at which Neil plays, his hands don’t simply snap off at the wrists and continue feverishly beating upon the drums independent of his arms. I’m pretty sure this is bound to happen one day, and I hope I’m there to witness it. (I don’t think this would faze him, as nothing seems to.)

The other players in the band are Geddy Lee (singer, bassist, and keyboardist) and Alex Lifeson (guitarist, backup vocals, and comedian.) Together, Geddy, Alex, and Neil create a wall of sound at once intense and thought-provoking. They are musical masters who never cease to amaze. And last night, after having seen them on nine previous tours since 1986, they amazed yet again—this time with the inclusion of a string section!

Now in the name of full disclosure I should say that the presence of a string section came as no shock to me. In my role as diehard Rush fan I follow them on Facebook and Twitter, frequently look at their website, and read all the magazine articles about them that I can get my hands on. So I had heard long ago that there would be a string section this time around. But hearing about it and actually experiencing it are two different things. I had no idea what to expect, but in a word—Wow!

And the thing about the “Wow” is that it comes not just from the musical aspect of the string section—though the music was great. The “Wow” comes largely from the off-the-charts energy that these eight musicians brought to the stage.

The string section entered for the second set, which was composed mainly of songs from Rush’s new album, “Clockwork Angels.” (In my opinion their best album in at least 20 years, in case you were wondering.) When they first appeared they were sitting, which is what I would have expected from a string section; but the second the music started they all jumped up and played their instruments standing the entire time. But they didn’t just play—they bopped, and rocked, and head-banged the whole time they were up there. When they didn’t need to play their instruments many of them were passionately thrusting their bows in the air in time with the music. Basically, they were acting like eight rabid fans that were handed violins and cellos and such and told to hang out on the stage with the band. It was an absolute blast to watch, because they were acting exactly as I would act if I were allowed up there. (Well, not exactly as I would act. They were actually playing their instruments well, whereas any effort I made to play a stringed instrument would likely come off sounding like the tortured wails of a dying yak.)

For me, the highlight of the show was the song “Headlong Flight,” from their new album, which is seven minutes of pure adrenaline surging rock. If you can listen to this song without having your pulse rate increase you are, in all likelihood, not actually human. Clearly, the players in the string section are all human, as they were going as ballistic on the stage during this song as the rest of the audience.

The show was not perfect. Yes, I’m a diehard Rush fan, but even within their canon I have likes and dislikes. Of their 165 original songs there are probably about 10 to 15 that I don’t actually like very much. Their set list happened to include five of those. (I mean, what are the odds?)  

But that’s okay. Last night was really about hearing them play a bunch of songs from their outstanding, super-stupendous new album; and about watching a rocking string section; and about waiting with bated breath for that elusive moment when Neil’s hands finally declare their total independence from his body. One day, Neil. One day.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ponyo: A Movie That Made My Neurons Ache

About two months ago I saw the Japanese anime film “My Neighbor Totoro” for the first time. Never having seen a Hayao Miyazaki directed film before, I did not know what to expect. I watched it with my two young sons and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. The film was equal parts strange and charming. I was very pleased that a Netfix suggestion actually paid off. I was also quite stoked by the fact that my kids fell in love with a movie that had zero violence in it. This is no small achievement.

Excited by my discovery of Miyazaki, I put “Ponyo” in my Netflix queue. I debated clicking the dreaded “Move to position #1” button, but decided I didn’t want to leapfrog over “Magilla Gorilla: Complete Series: Disc 3” or “Spider-Man: Attack of the Lizard,” so I bided my time before exerting my power on the queue. When the time was right, I made my move and “Ponyo” arrived today.

As soon as I got home from work the boys and I hunkered down in front of the television with dinner on our trays and began to watch the movie. For the next 103 minutes my jaw was literally agape. You could have thrown a ping pong ball in my mouth from a distance of 20 yards.

Whereas “Totoro” was equal parts strange and charming, “Ponyo” was equal parts perplexing and sappy. While the basic plot of a girl goldfish (Ponyo) who wants to become human was easy enough to follow, the subplot, in which Ponyo’s father is some kind of evil Aquaman and/or medieval sorcerer who wants to destroy all humans by turning the earth into one giant ocean and who may or may not be getting help with his nefarious plans from his 150-foot aquatic goddess wife, was so contrived and convoluted that I began to feel my neurons ache as they attempted to make sense of what was happening on screen.

But maybe I’m just dense. For those of you who have seen this movie, can you help me with the following questions (and if you haven’t seen the movie, I wouldn’t really call these spoilers):

1- Why are Ponyo and her several thousand goldfish siblings living in bubbles? (And are they supposed to be air bubbles or water bubbles?)

2- What exactly are the elixirs in Ponyo’s dad’s extra-special-secret lair supposed to do?

3- Why was there only one human who was freaked out by the fact that Sosuke’s goldfish had a human face and was wearing a red and white onesie?

I can go on all day with my questions about this movie, but I’ll stop here and move on to a different sticking point—the dialogue. I’m not sure if it was the delivery or the screenwriting, or a combination of the two, but for large portions of the movie I felt like I was watching a junior high school play. All the characters were so sickeningly sweet with each other (except for the psychotic Aquaman wannabe and the cranky woman in the senior center) that I wanted to pluck my own eyes out with the nearest spork.

This unique combination of an impenetrable plot and painfully trite dialogue made for one of my more unusual movie-watching experiences. And I should mention that the surreal visuals that made “Ponyo” look like a Ralph Bakshi film on Quaaludes, only added to the strangeness of the experience.

It is for all these reasons that as the credits rolled I thought to myself, “Here’s something I’ll never see again.” So you can imagine my dismay when, as soon as I turned it off, my six-year-old son said, “Let’s watch that again!”

Monday, November 12, 2012

Freezing in Phoenix: Sad but True

When I moved from Brooklyn to Phoenix a little over 17 years ago my main motivation was winter. You see, I’m not a big fan of winter—at least not the stereotypical one with the snow and the ice and the temperatures dipping so low that the snot freezes to your upper lip within seconds of leaving your apartment. I know that moving to get away from the cold is usually thought of as something done by the frail or elderly, not by a healthy young man in his mid-twenties, but the truth is, I don’t have a lot of body fat and I required so many layers of clothing to keep myself warm that I often had to walk sideways just to get through doors. Also, I never had the proper coordination to get my fingers into the right glove holes, so I was forced to wear mittens, which was embarrassing on blind dates.

So it was that I moved to the appropriately named Valley of the Sun back in 1995. I traded in my mittens for sunglasses and I’ve never looked back. But a funny thing happens after years of living in a climate where the high temperatures stay well above 100­-degrees for four straight months—you actually get cold more easily. This is why I woke up shivering this past Sunday morning, staggered out of bed, and found that my thermostat said 71-degrees.  Yes, you read that correctly—it was 71-degrees in my house and I was shivering.

I reached for the controls to turn on the heat for the first time in over seven months but then I stopped myself. The idea of needing it to be warmer than 71-degrees suddenly felt preposterous. When I was living in New York I might well have been walking around in shorts in 71-degree weather. What business did I have turning on the heat when it probably made more sense to be opening up the windows?

I was eventually roused from these thoughts by an incessant knocking sound, which turned out to be coming from my knees. Although I did not want to admit it to myself, I was clearly freezing. Still, I refused to touch that thermostat. Instead, I put on a sweatshirt, sweatpants, and a pair of socks—then I wrapped myself up in the nearest blanket.

While I sat huddled on my couch I tried to direct my attention to warm thoughts. I contemplated fireplaces and hot cocoa and then…suddenly…mittens. “No way that’s happening!” I thought. Then I ran into the hallway and turned the heat on to 73.