‘Sound City’ built on rock ‘n’ roll

If you look at the amount of groveling you might have to do and the royalties you would have to pay to sample the songs of rock greats like Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, Fear, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, the Foo Fighter’s and the Beatles in a widely distributed documentary playing in theatres, “Sound City” would be a producer’s nightmare. Imagine paying for the songs and enticing their respective artists to star in your film? Even more unlikely, right?

But that’s not a problem if the producer is Dave Grohl — the Foo Fighters’ and Nirvana’s drummer. Grohl, who paid more than $75 thousand for Neve’s signature recording board, uses that piece of equipment to sign big name rock stars, including Paul McCartney, to appear in his documentary, “Sound City.” The 108-minute documentary narrates the rise and fall of Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Calif., throughout the 1970s to 2000s.

Sound City Studios is a dump, producers, studio managers and band members repeat again and again. “I would say you could piss in the corners and no one would complain,” producer Joe Barresi says.

But besides the fact the studio smells like beer, it has character. It’s the kind of place where Barry Manilow would pull up in his beat-up, run-down car with cops trailing him during the ’70s. It’s the kind of place where band members were half in love with the studio’s secretary, Paula Salvatore, asking her to sing backup vocals in their songs. It’s the kind of place that stubbornly recorded on analog tapes rather the emerging digital technology formats of the ’80s to present day. The place that’s saturated in history — from the records on the walls to the people who trudged through its doors.

Although “Sound City” offers insights into the character of the studio, the documentary becomes an extended commercial for “Sound City: Real to Reel,” Grohl’s collaborative CD with other artists who also attributed their success and stardom to the Van Nuys studio. With each person saying the same thing sound bite after sound bite, his or her words become redundant, making the film sound like an expensive public relations feature with a rocking soundtrack. While rock ‘n’ roll fans will appreciate Grohl’s tribute to the birthplace of Rick Springfield’s “Working Class Dog” to Nirvana’s “Nevermind,”  others will see the documentary as just noise.

‘Enter the Haggis’ tells a story

Enter the Haggis playing on July 7 at the HIstoric Riviera Theatre & Performing Arts Center. Photo taken by Qina Liu

The Celtic have a tradition as storytellers — and Canadian Celtic-Rock band Enter the Haggis emulate this skill as they take the stage last Friday night at the Historic Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, N.Y.

“This song has always been kind of an obituary,” singer Brian Buchanan says as he introduces, “The Flood,” one of the band’s newest songs from their C.D. “Whitelake.”

“This song is not about drowning,” Buchanan says ironically; he almost drowned when canoeing after recording this song. “The cheerful note of the story is that I don’t die,” he says.

To this, an audience member cheers.

“The Flood” starts off slow, it’s haunting and somber melody flooding the theatre as Buchanan sings about trying not to drown amid the flood of “commitments and careers.”

“It’s easy to not be afraid and simply close our eyes as we watch the water rise,” he sings.

In a way, these lyrics reflect the story of the band, who decided to do the not easy thing of leaving their record label to record “Whitelake” independently. The stories, like “The Flood,” are more personal, and the overall C.D. sounds more rock, blues and country than the Celtic flavor that riveted fans.

Despite going in a new direction that might disappoint some, Enter the Haggis continues to tell the stories that supported them. These stories included “Noteworthy and Piercy,” which Buchanan describes as the true story of two fisherman from Newfoundland; “The Death of Johnny Mooring”; “One Last Drink”; “Lanigan’s Ball”; “Down with the Ship”; and…

“Gasoline,” someone shouts from the orchestra.

“Where?” Buchanan asks, looking around comically.

Dutifully, Enter the Haggis plays “Gasoline” during their second set, followed by newer songs such as “Whistleblower,” which is about an ex-child soldier returning home; and “Devil’s Son,” which Buchanan describes as the “happy song about Mark Madoff’s suicide.”

The eclectic blend of both older and newer songs and styles only added to the energy of the theatre as Craig Downie virtuosoly juggled among trumpet to bagpipes to harmonica to vocals and Brian traded time among fiddle, keyboard, guitar and microphone. As depressing as the lyrics to Stan Rogers’ “White Squall” might be, the lighthearted banter between the band and the audience raised spirits.

“There’s a bar, you know,” Downie says as he raises a pint of Guinness to his lips.

Later Downie becomes fascinated by a chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the Riviera Theatre, and begins singing from “Phantom of the Opera.”

“You know, when he sings, that chandelier falls, right?” Buchanan quips.

This playful, tongue-in-cheek banter continues as Craig narrates Phantom, calling, “Christine, Christine.”

“The crowd’s yelling for Lady Gaga,” says Buchanan. “Or Andrew Lloyd Beiber.”

Enter the Haggis plays “Cameos” at the Riviera Theatre. Photo taken by Qina Liu.

In reality though, the crowd was yelling for Enter the Haggis, standing and cheering until the band returned. Unplugged from their amps, the five members of the band lined up at the front of the stage and began singing, “Cameos.”

“The story’s told, the credits roll, the lights are up, it’s time to go,” chimed the voices of Buchanan, Downie, Trever Lewington, Mark Abraham and Bruce McCarthy.

“This is a beautiful, beautiful theatre and we’d love to come back someday,” Buchanan says.

With the success of “Whitelake,” Enter the Haggis will be recording another indie album in October.

‘Rock of Ages’: a guilty pleasure

It’s 1987. “Rock ‘n’ roll is a disease,” or so says Patricia Whitman (Catherine Zeta-Jones), wife of Los Angeles Mayor Mike Whitman (Bryan Stanton). The problem — Patty says — lies in “sex, hateful music, and…”

Patty pauses like former GOP Presidential Candidate Rick Perry did when trying to name the three governmental agencies he would eliminate.

“Sex,” she finally says as the conservative women around her gasp in horror.

Meanwhile, the supposedly dark and dirty realm of rock ‘n’ roll — embodied by rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), front man of the band Arsenal — is trying to persevere against the burgeoning ’90s boy bands that are ‘pop-ing’ up among the 14- to 21-year-old crowd. You already know how this story ends. (I’ll give you a hint: It’s a Journey power ballad recently resurrected by Fox’s hit television show “Glee.”)

Despite the predictability and cheesiness of “Rock of Ages” — (you would think with Fox’s “Glee” and NBC’s “Smash,” we would be used to people singing about their feelings by now) — it does what’s any Broadway musical is designed to do. It’s a safe, crowd-pleaser — comfortable and familiar like your favorite stuffed animal, fairy tale, or Bon Jovi song. You have your young heroine who gets on a bus to follow her dreams, a rock wizard who disappointingly turns out to be no more than a man hiding behind a curtain, a budding “Rolling Stones” journalist looking for a story but falling in love instead, and an opening sequence where everyone in a moving bus starts singing. (Does it sound like the plot to “Almost Famous” yet?)

In addition to the familiarity of the story, a familiar cast of actors propels the show. Catherine Zeta-Jones is known in another musical movie role as “Chicago’s” vaudeville actress Velma Kelly. Russell Brand is known for his comedic charm in movies such as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Alec Baldwin is Jack Donaghy of NBC’s “30 Rock” and ‘brass balls’ Blake from “Glengarry Glen Ross.” (At one point, Baldwin’s character Dennis, the owner of rock ‘n’ roll club, The Bourbon Room, talks about a band named Concrete Balls.) And who could forget Tom Cruise — strutting half naked for half the movie, eluding sex, seductiveness, and vulnerability.

“Rock of Ages” is different from director and choreographer Adam Shankman’s previous canon “Hairspray” because it covers Los Angeles’ underworld — from rock ‘n’ world to prostitution — while “Hairspray” features a teen-friendly television dance show. Still, that doesn’t make the singing and dancing numbers of either any less well done. Catherine Zeta-Jones does high kicks in a skirt while singing Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Tom Cruise straddles a microphone while he sings Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Julianna Hough pole dances as she sings Journey’s “Anyway You Want It.” Diego Boneto jumps up on the table as he sings a mash-up of Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The choreography to “Rock of Ages” is fun and high energy, even if the song transitions and plot are cheap and obvious. But like watching “Glee” these days, aren’t the music and big performance numbers why you’re still tuning in in the first place? And if rock ‘n’ roll is still a disease, “Rock of Ages” is also bound to be a guilty pleasure — so bad that you can’t help but watch.

“Rock of Ages” is directed by Adam Shankman and written by Chris D’Arienzo, Allan Loeb, and Justin Theroux.

To see this published in Imprint Magazine, click here.

The Levon Helm Band captivates audience at The State Theatre

It is not often that one encounters a legend face to face, but when audience members filed in to see Levon Helm perform at 8 p.m. on March 5 in the State Theatre, they were sure to have that experience.

Recovering from his 1998 diagnosis of throat cancer, Levon Helm, who has spent his whole life dedicated to music, was told he would never sing again. But the 69-year-old musician is a true performer. Helm made a consecutive two-time Grammy-winning comeback with his 2007 release of “Dirt Farmer” for best traditional folk album and his 2009 release of “Electric Dirt” for best Americana album. Having worked with musicians like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and influenced others, such as Elton John and Marc Cohn, Levon Helm remains an inspiration.

The Wood Brothers, a two-man band consisting of brothers Chris Wood on bass and Oliver Wood on guitar, provided the opening entertainment for the famed performer. While the duo could not quite match Helm’s skill as a multitalented musician, The Wood Brothers gave a solid performance in their folksy-blues style.

Chris Wood’s fingers created masterful moans with the cello, while his older brother Oliver Wood provided the lyrical and guitar accompaniment to songs such as “Tried and Tempted,” “Lovin’ Arms,” “Chocolate On My Tongue” and “Up Above My Head.”  Often, Chris Wood would play the harmonica or harmonize with his brother’s voice while simultaneously providing the walking bass lines to the songs. The Wood Brother’s hour-long set served as a brilliant opening act for The Levon Helm Band. They relaxed the audience with their mellow soft sounds.

The other members of The Levon Helm Band carried the vocals of most of the songs, but Helm had a maintained a quiet but powerful presence on stage. The original member of the rock group, the rest of the band was always moving with his rhythm as he kept the beat with his skillful drumming.

Brian Mitchell, a singer and musician for the band, whose voice was raspier than Levon’s, pleased the crowd with his frequent chromatic scales on the piano and head banging. While Mitchell switched between playing the piano and accordion between songs, other members of the band carried musical solos: Steven Bernstein on the trumpet, Clark Gayton on the trombone and Jay Collins and Erik Lawrence on the saxophone. They alternated between the brass solos in “Fannie Mae” and gave the song a lively, jazzier feel.

To the delight of audience members dancing in the aisles, The Levon Helm Band also performed some older, popular hits. “Long Black Veil,” originally featured on the band’s 1968 album “Music From Big Pink.” It was a crowd pleaser as Teresa Williams’ and Amy Helm’s powerful country voices belted out the lyrics. The band’s “Remedy” also began with screams of approval from the crowd, as it featured Jimmy Weider on acoustic guitar, with Larry Campbell performing a sick electric guitar riff. The angelic harmonies of Larry Campbell, Amy Helm and Teresa Williams were simply breathtaking when singing their rendition of The Grateful Dead’s “Attics Of My Life.”

Photo taken by Claudia Pietrazak for The Ithacan.

The highlight of the set was when Levon Helm traded his drumsticks for his mandolin and began singing “Deep Elem Blues.” It was endearing to watch Levon Helm and his daughter Amy Helm sway to the music, each leaning into a shared microphone. It was one of the most infectiously spirited tunes.

At the end, The Wood Brother’s were invited back onstage to sing the band’s 1968 hit “The Weight.” Like the performance began, the show ended with a full standing ovation from audience members, who filled the theatre with deafening applause.

Click here to see the article in The Ithacan. For more information on The Levon Helm Band and their Midnight Ramblings, click here.