Friday, July 15, 2011

U2 - 360° Tour [concert review]

* July 11th, Rogers Centre, Toronto
U2's 360˚ Tour touched down again in Toronto earlier this week, just over a year after its originally scheduled date, which was postponed due to emergency back surgery that frontman Bono had to undergo. "Thank you for your patience", he told the crowd. "Some of you were two years younger when you bought tickets for tonight's show...I'm feeling much better, thank you", he told the sell-out crowd of 60,000. The 360˚ Tour's staging remained identical to the setup brought to town on the band's last visit here a couple of years ago (read my review of the first of their September 2009 concerts here, which details all the bells and whistles included in the show). That the stage setup hasn't changed isn't a knock against the band, as the razzle dazzle production is still a sight to behold, even after multiple viewings. And considering it's the most expensive and elaborate music production ever assembled for touring, one can't fault U2 for failing to tinker with their huge investment, a gamble which has more than paid off for the band. As was widely reported back in April, the tour is now the most successful of all time, grossing over $700 million and shattering the Rolling Stones' previous record of $554 million for their Bigger Bang Tour. The 360˚ Tour wraps up at the end of this month and will have played to over seven million fans, another Stones-topping record.
The Rogers Centre roof opened shortly before show time, which greatly helped the sound in the infamous-for-its-crap-concert-acoustics building. New York City's Interpol opened the show, but failed to make much of an impression, as their mopey hipster rock is about as ill-suited to a stadium setting as one can get. The headliners subsequently took us on a 130 minute journey through their career, with an emphasis on their early 90's work replacing the tour's earlier spotlighting of their then-current No Line On The Horizon album. Four songs from 1991's iconic Achtung Baby opened the show with a bang, led off by a slightly reworked "Even Better Than The Real Thing" (which didn't necessarily improve upon the original, but still worked quite well), "The Fly", "Mysterious Ways", and "Until The End Of The World", which found Bono and guitarist The Edge making use of the stage's mobile bridges to make their way over to the stage's outer ramps. Their duelling interplay at the end of the song may be as completely predictable at a U2 show as never hearing perpetually low-key drummer Larry Mullen Jr. ever utter a word onstage, but it's still entertaining to watch. Achtung's "One" made its ubiquitous appearance near the tail end of the show.
Bono, looking every inch the rock star in motorcycle boots, leather pants, and leather jacket, looked no worse for wear from his medical procedure, acting as animated as ever on an energetic dip into the band's earlier catalog with "I Will Follow". No Line On The Horizon's "Get On Your Boots" came next, one of three tracks from their most recent studio album ("Moment Of Surrender", as has been customary on this tour, effectively closed the show, and the band once again trotted out their remix version of "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight", which morphed into "Discothèque"). U2 concert staples from The Joshua Tree album ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", "Where The Streets Have No Name", and "With Or Without You" were mixed in with the best of the band's output from the past decade, which included "Vertigo", "Elevation", "City Of Blinding Lights" (where Bono led a bewildered looking young boy around the perimeter of the stage ramps), "Walk On", and "Beautiful Day". The latter song featured one of the cooler moments of the show, as Bono dedicated it to U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in a January shooting in Tucson. Her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, then intro'ed the song from the International Space Station, using words on paper floating around in zero gravity to spell out the song's title, followed by his spoken message to "tell my wife I love her very much, she knows". Kelly then reappears on the video screen during the song's breakdown section to recite the lyrics in time with the music, with Bono joining in and singing the "See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colours came out" lines. Very powerful.
Less memorable were the absolutely momentum-killing mid-show performances of "Miss Sarajevo", followed by "Zooropa". "Scarlet", a completely forgettable song from 1981's October album and about as deep a cut as you can get in the U2 library, also did the setlist no favours. "Miss Sarajevo" featured some strong Bono vocals - it's just not my cup of tea. It's nice that the band is willing to placate their hardcore following with more obscure song choices, but one wishes they did so with stronger material, of which they have reams to choose from. At least they didn't trot out anything from their theatrical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark project. Another superhero-related number did make its way into the show, as "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" from the Batman Forever soundtrack got a fairly rare airing out. The song may be more well-known, but I've never been a big fan of it and it certainly didn't generate the same audience reaction or prove to be as memorable as "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)", which the band played in the same encore spot earlier in the tour.
Musically, Bono, The Edge, Mullen Jr., and bassist Adam Clayton were more than on their game and the moderately altered setlist at least saved this from being a carbon copy of their shows here on the tour's earlier leg. All in all, though, this one would rank somewhere in the lower half of the eight U2 shows I've seen over the years now, which isn't a criticism, simply more of a testament to the fact I've seen them play other shows that just felt a little more special. And U2, even on an average night for the band (and this was miles above being merely average), still wipes most other musical acts off the stage.
Rating: ★★★★ enjoyment of the show was, admittedly, somewhat tainted by various factors that contributed to this not being the most enjoyable concert experience I've ever had: I had some annoying young kid beside me who thought he was at a punk show and kept jumping around and bumping into me, I got completely gouged ($45!) for parking at a lot across the street from the dome, and it was a long wait in hot weather in the general admission line (I got to the Rogers Centre at 5:30 in the morning the day of the show). The wait did pay off because I got a primo spot, but I was so fried by the end of the day I was thinking of Danny Glover's "I'm gettin' too old for this shit" line from Lethal Weapon (I've done the general admission all-day lineup routine about ten times now for Bruce Springsteen and U2 concerts).
Below are a couple of pictures taken from U2's Fan Cam, which takes amazingly high quality pictures of the crowd in a 360 degree (naturally) view, that show where I was located in the audience.
(click pics to enlarge)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lady Gaga - Born This Way [album review]

* Released in May

Lady Gaga's amazingly quick ascension from complete nobody to the biggest music superstar on the planet happened in less than three years, a most impressive feat. Her detractors, a collective which grows exponentially with each of her increased successes, label her as an artist prone to style over substance, an argument which is hard to disagree with. Personally, I'm fascinated (and annoyed) by the fact that even offstage, she always appears to be "on", whether it's going out to dinner in Paris wearing just panties and a bra underneath an overcoat, or a similarly skimpy outfit along with a crazy pair of KISS-style boots as she descends the stairs of her private jet during a recent late winter Toronto concert stop (all of it, naturally, captured by the ubiquitous paparazzi). Such attention-seeking behavior (also flamboyantly on display in the visual component of her music), coupled with the fact that it's near impossible nowadays to escape her and her songs on the radio, a video channel, or an awards show, and it invites the risk of Gaga burnout. Apparently not yet, though, if the 1.1 million copies sold of Born This Way during its first week are any indication, helped by a promotion offered on that priced a download of her second full length album at a mere 99 cents. I'm not a fan of such radical marketing moves, however, as it continues a dangerous precedent established by Radiohead, who devised the "pay what you want" experiment a few years ago, and only reinforces the ongoing devaluation of music (read an interesting article here on Hollywood about the waves the 99 cent sale created in the music biz).

Okay, so cult of personality aspect aside, does her actual music validate all the attention? Not quite. Born This Way has many solid moments, but ultimately suffers from an appalling lack of nuance. Of the album's fourteen tracks, eleven of them essentially employ the same four-on-the-floor type of drum beat that occasionally throws in a slight tempo change. Those bass drum-heavy beats, ready-made for the dance floor, are mixed with a heavy array of synthesizers and overproduction, which brings a wearying interchangeableness to the material. The only song that dramatically deviates from the formula is "Yoü And I" (note the inexplicable umlaut), which numerous reviews have bafflingly labelled as a country song, even though it's nothing of the sort. Perhaps they're confused by the fact the track is produced by Mutt Lange, Shania Twain's philandering ex-husband (which still doesn't explain the "country" label, since Twain is actually more of a pop artist than a country one). The song sounds like a second-rate Twain song, frankly, as it samples the drums from Queen's "We Will Rock You" and even gets Queen guitarist Brian May to make an appearance. It's one of the many oddball songs on an album where Gaga has the crazy meter cranked high into the red zone. Take that ludicrous album cover for example. When the image was first released I thought it was a joke, but nope, it's just another example of her kooky artistic decisions. Born This Way is also loaded with weirdness in the departments of themes and lyrics . "Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)" is lyrically as bad as the title would suggest ("We can be strong, we can be strong/Follow that unicorn on the road to love"), ditto for "Marry The Night" ("I'm gonna marry the night/I'm gonna burn a hole in the road/I'm gonna marry the night/Leave nothing on these streets to explode"), and "Hair" ("I've had enough, this is my prayer/That I'll die living just as free as my hair/And I want you to know, I am my hair"). "Scheiße" opens with Lady Gaga reciting in a German accent, "I don't speak German, but I can if you like...owwww!", before speaking a couple of lines in actual German, a refrain that she repeats numerous times throughout the song. And I have no idea what she's referring to when she calls herself a government hooker in a song with the same name. When she's not trying to trip the listener up with her cryptic wordplay, the other recurring lyrical thread throughout the album finds her trumpeting the personal empowerment of underdogs and outcasts, a theme which gets gratingly overdone. Lady Gaga also borrows liberally from that other once-blonde provocateur, Madonna, whether it's musically (the much-discussed "Express Yourself"/"Born This Way" comparison) or when it comes to recycling Madonna's Catholic guilt themes, as she does on "Judas" and "Bloody Mary".

Weirdness may abound on Born This Way, but the eccentric pop star does churn out a respectable amount of catchy music over the length of its one hour running time, even if the best songs are anthems with an overly deliberate earnestness. The aforementioned "Marry The Night", "Hair", and "Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)" rise above their idiotic lyrical content to succeed as first-rate dance-electro-pop, "Bad Kids" injects a little of Gaga's metal/hard rock influence with some heavier guitars, and the title track is well executed (although everyone's heard enough of it now to last their lifetimes). My favourite track, "The Edge Of Glory", shamelessly pays homage to cheesy 80's pop and sounds like it could have been on the soundtrack to Top Gun. It features one of (if not) the last recordings of late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, although I personally think the sax sounds a little out of place on the song.

Anyone who's seen one of Lady Gaga's concerts or some of her television appearances knows that she's capable of dialling down the bombast and ably pulling off a number with just her and a piano, which she plays quite well. Hopefully, some of that subtlety she's shown in those moments will make its way onto her next album and give her recorded work a few extra dimensions.

Rating: ★★★★

Thursday, July 7, 2011

DVR's and cable boxes use more energy than your refrigerator...

I came across this story a couple of weeks back on the website for The New York Times, which blew my mind. It reports that "one high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found". The nature of their design, which requires the ability to handle a heavy workload, means they're continually processing data and are "on" even when you've turned the unit off.
Anyone who has a DVR (also called a PVR) knows that it makes a VCR feel like the cassette tape format did when CD's came along - completely obsolete. Unfortunately though, the convenience they provide apparently comes at a significant cost (literally).
The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. is on the case, so look for future designs of the technology to rectify this issue. And while the electronics manufacturers are at it, could they please design boxes that come with more than the customary measly 20-30 hours of HD recording time?