King Crimson Lives!

My wife thinks I have too many all-time favorite bands and albums. With that in mind ….

King Crimson is one of my all-time favorite bands. They started in 1968 and they’ve undergone massive changes in line-up and sound over the years, guitarist Robert Fripp being the only constant, and I thought done was done. Aside from their still astonishing debut album, my favorites of theirs include the 3 album run in the early 70s of Larks Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red (Starless is a song I still play pretty constantly). I saw them twice around 1973 or so and they were amazing to behold and hear live. (One of those times was at the Boston Orpheum, where the opening act was Roger McGuinn doing a solo acoustic set. One of the strangest pairings I’ve ever seen.)

And now, the NY Times reports that they’re back, with a U.S. tour set for this fall. This is the 8th line-up of the band and the roster promises something interesting indeed.  Three, count ’em, three drummers (Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin and Pat Mastelotto). Tony Levin on vocals and bass (and, undoubtedly, stick), two guitarists (Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk) and back in the fold, Mel Collins on flute and saxophone. 

I’m sure we won’t get to see them in Hong Kong. But I imagine there will be albums and hopefully concert videos.

One and a Half Billion Chinese Like Shitty Music

Okay, I’m sure not all of them like this. But apparently a lot do. From an article in the NY Times.

But no mystery is more confounding than that of China’s most enduring case of cultural diffusion: its love affair with “Going Home,” the 1989 smash-hit instrumental by the American saxophone superstar Kenny G.

For years the tune, in all its seductive woodwind glory, has been a staple of Chinese society. Every day, “Going Home” is piped into shopping malls, schools, train stations and fitness centers as a signal to the public that it is time, indeed, to go home.

One recent Saturday afternoon, as the smooth notes of “Going Home” cooed repeatedly over the ordered chaos of Beijing’s famous Panjiayuan Antiques Market, hawkers packed up their Mao-era propaganda ashtrays, 1930s telephones and “antique” jade amulets while the last bargain hunters headed for the gates.

To ensure no stragglers miss their cue, the melody plays on a loop — for the final hour and a half.

According to a manager, Panjiayuan has used the tune since 2000. She did not know why.

“Isn’t it just played everywhere?” she asked.

For a generation of Chinese youth, “Going Home” has featured prominently on the soundtrack of their lives.

Mao Xiaojie, a junior at the Communication University of China in Beijing, said, “They’d play it over and over again at wedding banquets.”

Her classmate Zhang Dawei had more academic associations. “This is what they put on when they’re kicking us out of the school library,” he said.

Emma Zhang first encountered “Going Home” in a cafe many years ago, and then at home, at school, in bookstores, shopping malls and health spas, and on the street. “I used to think the tune was really nice and catchy,” she said. “But now I’m sick of it.”

Decades of easy listening to this one recording, with its undertones of social engineering, have led to certain habits. “Whenever I hear ‘Going Home,’ I finish things faster,” said Cheng Gang, 35, who works in finance.

On the popular Chinese video-sharing website Youku, “Going Home” accounts for four of the 10 most-played videos in the saxophone category, with 313,786 plays over the last three years.

“Nobody knows why the Chinese even like Kenny G so much,” said Jackie Subeck, a music and entertainment consultant from Los Angeles who has been doing business in China for 12 years. She first heard “Going Home” in China in 2002, when it was blasting on her hotel television. At the time, Ms. Subeck was trying to help establish a music royalty collection process in China, so the popularity of “Going Home” was more bitter than sweet. “That song’s on nonstop play and doesn’t collect a penny,” she said.

To add insult to injury, Ms. Subeck was once delayed for hours at the old Beijing airport, where the food court was playing a loop of Kenny G music videos. “We just sat there drinking beer and watching incessant Kenny G,” she recalled. “It was terrible.”

Which is my cue to break out an excerpt from Pat Metheny’s famous Kenny G rant.

Stepping back for a minute, if we examine the way he plays, especially if one can remove the actual improvising from the often mundane background environment that it is delivered in, we see that his saxophone style is in fact clearly in the tradition of the kind of playing that most reasonably objective listeners WOULD normally quantify as being jazz. It’s just that as jazz or even as music in a general sense, with these standards in mind, it is simply not up to the level of playing that we historically associate with professional improvising musicians.

Not long ago, Kenny G put out a recording where he overdubbed himself on top of a 30+ year old Louis Armstrong record, the track “What a Wonderful World” … when Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing all over one of the great Louis’s tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that I would not have imagined possible. He, in one move, through his unbelievably pretentious and calloused musical decision to embark on this most cynical of musical paths, shit all over the graves of all the musicians past and present who have risked their lives by going out there on the road for years and years developing their own music inspired by the standards of grace that Louis Armstrong brought to every single note he played over an amazing lifetime as a musician. By disrespecting Louis, his legacy and by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of. We ignore this, “let it slide”, at our own peril.

I once found myself on the same flight as Kenny G. He held the bathroom door open for me so I didn’t kill him. Please don’t tell Pat Metheny.

Friday Night Rocks

There’s a new place in town and it’s called the New Central Harbourfront, a huge outdoor area right along the harbor next to the Central Ferry piers.  This week, with the Hong Kong Rugby 7’s in town, they’re holding daily events here as part of what they’re calling HK Fanzone. The opening night featured local star Khalil Fong while Saturday night brought De La Soul back to Hong Kong.

Friday night brought Friday Night Rocks, the first in a series of events celebrating the 10th anniversary of Underground. So for the crazy low price of just HK$150 for advance tickets, you got a festival celebrating the amazing diversity of Hong Kong’s independent music scene (plus a guest band from Korea). The bands that played were:

It was a great night, to put it mildly. Stand-outs for me were Shotgun Politics, Galaxy Express and Dr. Eggs.

Here are a few quick photos. There’s a lot more over at the Friday Night Rocks Gallery Page at Spike’s Photos.

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Friday Night Rocks!

Yes, every Friday night rocks but Friday March 28th is going to rock even harder.

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After staging at least 150 shows in Hong Kong clubs over the past ten years, my good friends at Underground are doing their first music festival – and it’s long overdue in my opinion!

The Hong Kong Rugby 7’s are coming up in two weeks and some organizers have put together a multi-day event called HK Fan Zone. Khalil Fong is scheduled for the opening night, Tuesday March 25th, and De La Soul will be headlining on Saturday March 29th. All of this will be taking place at the “New Central Harbourfront.” This is really nice – a second waterfront venue for events and concerts. Is Hong Kong finally dipping some toes into 21st century water?

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Friday March 28th belongs to Underground and they’ll be bringing along SEVEN bands for the event. This includes local indie favorites like Noughts and Exes, Dr. Eggs and Bamboo Star, as well as Galaxy Express, a hard rocking trio from Korea.

There are a limited number of advance tickets for sale at only $150 – admission will cost $200 at the door. I think that’s an incredibly reasonable price for an event like this.  You can buy advance tickets online here.

Read more about the event and the participating bands here.

Finance Live! – Charity Benefit

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(Please click on the above image to see it full size.)

I’m sure that a lot of people in town know Steve Bernstein. By day he works in the financial field and somehow most nights he finds the energy to be playing mandolin in a variety of bands all over town, frequently The Wanch, where I’ve seen him perform many times as a member of the Joven Goce Band.

As if all of this wasn’t already enough, he also puts together charity shows and the latest one is coming up on March 20th at Grappa’s Cellar. Titled Finance Live!, it will feature five bands, all of which include musicians who work in Hong Kong’s financial industry.

The proceeds from this show will be going to Hong Kong charity Foodlink, This is the charity that is working to end hunger in Hong Kong primarily by collecting all of the food that hotels and restaurants used to throw out at the end of the day and distributing this food to those in need.  

So in essence, you’re going to have a great night out, hear some great live music, drink a bit (or a lot, if you’re so inclined) and know that you’re helping people in Hong Kong who really need your help.

Finance Live! is almost sold out, but not quite. I’m asking you, my readers, to help make this event a sell out, and to keep an eye out for their future events as well.

If you’re looking to buy tickets, or if you just want further details on this event, drop an email to steve (dot) bernstein (at) sinopac (dot) com.

Neil Young’s Pono – Oh No!

Neil Young is a famous audiophile. Cranky ole Neil has raged for years about audio fidelity. First we got to hear about how much he hated compact discs. Now seemingly every chance he gets he’ll go off on how much he hates MP3s.

To some extent, he’s right. Digital music doesn’t sound as good as analog. And compressed files don’t sound as good as uncompressed. The thing is, 99.9% of the world doesn’t care.  The average person can’t afford the kind of equipment that brings out this rich sound and the average person probably couldn’t tell the difference – especially because most of the music today is heavily processed stuff that is mastered for MP3 in the first place. Most people are probably listening to 128 KB MP3 files through the cheap earbuds that came packaged with their phones and they think it sounds great.

At any rate, for years Neil has been threatening something revolutionary in the audio world and he finally announced it, via a Kickstarter campaign – Pono Music, Where Your Soul Rediscovers Music. And it’s not really revolutionary after all.

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After all these years of sound and fury from Mr. Young, I for one feel let down.

Pono is a portable music player and a music store. The files are in FLAC format, although the player will also handle MP3 and other formats.  So it’s not a new audio format, which is what I was kind of expecting. FLAC has been around for a long time and there is already a huge library of software for encoding in FLAC and for playing back FLAC music files.

So first, the store. They claim that all the major record labels are behind this. Albums are expected to cost between $15 and $25. They’re reasoning that people will pay more to buy digital music in a lossless format. It’s expensive but I can see some people going for this.

There is no word on whether or not the music files they sell you will contain Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection. I think the answer to this is no because they say that you can play the files you buy “on your PonoPlayer or other compatible devices.”

So I think that’s all pretty good.

Now, the player.  This is where I have a problem.

It will sell for US$399. It will serve one function and one function only – playing music. I am already walking around every day with two mobile phones and a tablet that are capable of playing music and are also capable of about a million other functions. Do I really need to carry another device just for playing music?

Well, they claim that music will sound great on this.  They say that this will be “the best playback device ever for listening to high quality digital music.” The best Digital Audio Converter (DAC).  The triangular shape is said to allow them to use larger components inside, properly spaced, as well as a round battery instead of a flat one, which they say will all result in less interference.

The device itself has just three buttons – on/off and two buttons for volume. Everything else is controlled through a touchscreen interface. In terms of storage, it comes with 64 gig of internal memory and with a 64 gig MicroSD card. They’re claiming 8 hours of battery life for the player. The player will be assembled in Shenzhen.

The Kickstarter campaign has already raised over $2.4 million dollars. There are different rewards at different pledge levels, starting from $5 (you get a thank you on their web site). You can get a Pono player for $300, $100 off list price, in black or yellow.

$400 gets you something a bit more collectible.

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It’s a chrome Pono player, numbered limited edition (500 of each), laser inscribed with the signature of the artist of your choice, pre-loaded with 2 albums chosen by that artist. The signature editions that are sold out are from Pearl Jam, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Neil Young. Still available are ones from Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, My Morning Jacket, Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, Beck, Crosby Stills & Nash, Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters, Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Lenny Kravitz.  I guess Patti Smith and Arcade Fire would be my first and second choices – if I was interested in getting one.

The Pono player is expected to ship in October.

$5,000 gets you an invite to a launch party in California hosted by Neil. This one is sold out already.

So why am I not interested in getting one? These days most of my music listening is done in noisy environments – on the bus, in the office, walking down the street. And I recognize that at my age, a lot of my ability to hear high frequencies is gone. I think that sitting at home in my home office I might hear and appreciate the difference, but the rest of the time I won’t. And I simply don’t want to carry around another device every day when the ones I’ve already got already do the job for me quite well.

What about you? Does the Pono player interest you? Are you thinking about getting one?

Stones Pics – Sour Grapes

A bit of bitching and moaning for a moment.

The SCMP web site has 3 photos from the Stones concert to go with their review. The photos are credited just to SCMP. Here’s the lead photo:

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Seriously, that’s the best photo their guy got? Is there anyone out there who follows my concert photos over at Spike’s Photos who doesn’t think that if I was in the pit with my “real” gear that I wouldn’t have given them shots 10 times better?

But the sad truth is, it probably doesn’t matter. The shots are probably deemed good enough for a web page that few will look at and even fewer will spend more than 5 seconds on.

Still ….

The Rolling Stones in Macau

The Rolling Stones came to Macau on March 9th, playing at the Cotai Arena at the Venetian Hotel. Why Macau instead of Hong Kong, when HK’s Asiaworld Arena is a bit larger? One can only assume that the Venetian is being more aggressive in going after major acts and probably offering them a larger financial incentive.

I tried to get a photo pass for the show, something that I knew was futile since all I can claim is a couple of web sites. But my mom knows Keith’s manager and met Keith a couple of times My mom doesn’t like any rock & roll at all, including the Beatles.  She’s probably met more superstar rockers than I ever will though, and Keith is probably the only one she ever liked. Go figure that! So I tried to work the connections but the wires got crossed and somehow the Stones’ crew thought I was asking for a pass for Abu Dhabi. Once that finally got cleared up, they told me they were already OD’ing on bona fide media requests for Macau and with limited space, the answer was sadly no.  Fortunately I had already bought tickets for me and my wife.

Top tickets were going for HK$15,000 – a “VVIP” package with all sorts of perks (meeting the Stones was not one of them though). I got something at the lower end of the scale, around $1,100 or so including ferry tickets, and that got us seats midway up the first of two risers in the back. But since it’s a relatively small hall, it didn’t feel like I was sitting in “heaven,” as it did when I saw the Stones for the first time at Madison Square Garden in 1969 (yes, it was before my wife was even born) – our seats were in the 2nd to last row in the top level opposite the stage – and there were no video screens in those days.

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So how was the show? Let’s keep in mind that Mick and Keith are each 70 years old. Charlie is 72 and Ronnie is a relative spring chicken at 66. They’re aided and abetted by pretty much the same musicians for the past couple of decades – Darryl Jones on bass, Chuck Leavell (from the Allman Bros) on keyboards, Tim Ries and the great Bobby Keys on horns, Bernard Fowler and the amazing Lisa Fischer (watch 20 Years of Stardom 20 Feet From Stardom to learn more about her) on back-up vocals. And carrying on from the 2013 tour, Mick Taylor is brought out at some intervals as a “special guest.”  The show lasts almost exactly two hours and is mostly high energy. I remain astonished at how Jagger at 70 can be singing, running and dancing for two hours like that.

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I didn’t write down a set list or anything so working from memory here. In past tours the Stones have included some special mini-sets halfway through – acoustic stuff or blues covers – and there was none of that last night.  The set was pretty similar to the ones you’ll find in 2013 videos from Glastonbury and Hyde Park.

On the down side, I was disappointed that the only song they played from Exile was Tumbling Dice. Keith’s 2 song mini-set did not include Happy and I wasn’t happy about that.  Also, given their huge back catalog and the limited amount of time on stage, I wasn’t thrilled that they feel they needed to include relative clunkers like Doom and Gloom.

DSC01407But there’s no doubt in my mind that Midnight Rambler was a strong highlight. See that photo of Micks Jagger and Taylor going toe to toe with each other and trading licks? I don’t care how rehearsed it was or wasn’t, the show could have benefitted a whole lot more from this sort of interplay.

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And Lisa Fischer on Gimmer Shelter? Oh my golly gosh. She’s one of the few singers around who could top Merry Clayton’s performance on the original track.

DSC01434Otherwise it was pretty much the usual suspects played – opening with Jumping Jack Flash, closing with Satisfaction, and Start Me Up, Paint It Black, Sympathy for the Devil, Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar. A Hong Kong chorus joined them onstage for You Can’t Always Get What You Want, a nice touch.

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So, all in all, despite my unhappiness with the lack of Happy, in 2014 the Stones are far better in concert than they have a right to be. I enjoyed pretty much every moment of the show and never felt an urge to say, “hey, let’s head for the exit now and beat the crowds.”

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Now, some disasters, as such.

How is it that you have a concert with somewhere around 8,000 people attending and there are just two tables selling merchandise? Of course this is the kind of crowd that doesn’t mind spending HK$300 and up for a t-shirt and people were buying merch by the armload. Except that the lines were so ridiculously long and moved so slowly that I just gave up. I figure if I really want a shirt, probably there’s a way to get it online.

The other problem is that you come out of the Cotai Arena and you’re thirsty and want a drink and the first place you hit is the McSorley’s bar and there’s already 1,000 people standing outside waiting for a beer. Then there’s the Cafe Deco and a few fancy schmancy restaurants surrounding the casino floor. The food court in the mall is of course closing down by now, nothing else is within easy walking distance, and the queues for busses and taxis are thousands of people long. There’s not even a coke machine anywhere in sight, let alone something like a 7-11. All you can reasonably do is head out to the casino floor where there are carts with small plastic bottles of water to grab. We gave up, got on the shuttle bus to the Cotai ferry terminal, which is completely unlike the Macau terminal. There’s no shops or restaurants or services there at all. After you’ve lined up for an hour to get in to immigration and get your seat assignment, finally there’s a tiny drinks machine in the waiting room.

Last but not least, some photography notes. I knew there was no way I could get my Nikon D800 and 70-200mm lens past the bag check.  So I went with my Sony RX10 and its wonderful 24-200mm F2.8 lens.  All of the photos above came from that.  Given our distance from the stage, the figures were not much more than mere points – so the spot metering wasn’t effective here. I was trying not to use the rear LCD screen, just in case (this has been a problem at previous concerts) so I wasn’t checking results very often. It did eventually dawn on me that underexposing by 2 stops would give me the exposure I wanted.

I was working at manual, with shutter at 1/200th of a second and aperture at F2.8. The rear projection screen was so bright that the last shot is at ISO 400, and other shots were at similar relatively low ISO’s. Had I been checking that rear screen more frequently, I might have moved the aperture to F5.6 or F8 and gone with a slightly faster shutter speed.

Also note that when I was trying to focus on small stuff – the performers running around the outer ring rather than that rear screen, a lot of times the camera took a long time hunting for focus (and frequently didn’t find it till the 2nd or 3rd attempt).

On the other hand, I also tried shooting a video of one complete song – the last one, Satisfaction. Handheld and shakey, I’m still impressed with both the video and audio quality of the result, which I’ve uploaded to Youtube for people to check out. Go to around the 2:50 mark when I’m zooming in on Keith on the runway – I’m presuming there’s digital zoom involved there and the quality is still quite reasonable. If I’d snuck in a monopod, I could have really had something nice.

 

 

My All Time Favorite Albums (U through Z)

I guess I’ll try to finish this up while I’m figuring out what to do about dinner. Previous posts here, here, here, here.

U2 – Boy, War, Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree

UB40 – Geffrey Morgan, Rat in the Kitchen

Ultravox – Ultravox!, Ha! Ha! Ha!, Systems of Romance

Underworld – 1992-2012

Van Der Graaf Generator – The Least We Can Do Is wave to Each Other, H to He Who Am the Only One, Pawn Hearts

Van Dyke Parks – Song Cycle, Discover America, Jump!

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic’s Preview, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Veedon Fleece, A Night in San Francisco

Various – Radio Radio (20 disc bootleg of the music played by Bob Dylan on his Sirius radio series)

Various – Complete Introduction to Chess

Various – The Cosimo Matassa Story volumes 1 & 2

Various – Freedom Sounds (A Celebration of Jamaican Music)

Velvet Underground – Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat, Velvet Underground, Loaded

Verve – Urban Hymns

War – Anthology

Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Stand in the Fire

Was (Not Was) – Pick of the Litter

Waterboys – This is the Sea

Weather Report – Sweetnighter, Mysterious Traveller, Tale Spinnin’, Black Market, Heavy Weather

Webb Wilder – Hybrid Vigor

Whiskeytown – Strangers Almanac

The Who – Live at Leeds, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, The Whole Love

Willie Dixon – Blues a Dixon

Willie Nelson – Stardust, Red Headed Stranger, Phases and Stages

Willie Nile – Willie Nile

Willy DeVille – Backstreets of Desire, Big Easy Fantasy, Pistola

Woody Guthrie – Woody at 100

World Party – History of the World

X – Make the Music Go Bang

XTC – English Settlement, Skylarking

Yes – Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans

Zombies – Odessey and Oracle

ZZ Top – Eliminator

10cc – Sheet Music, The Original Soundtrack

801 – 801 Live

Yeah, I know, there’s no classical here. Which doesn’t mean I’m not into classical. Should have included Beethoven, Bach, Holst, Wagner, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Debussy, and more, maybe another time.

So 75 more albums, topping out at 677 …  which doesn’t even begin to cover all the bands I love that made great singles or a few great tracks but not great albums.

I’m sure some of you are wondering about the bands that got omitted. Where are Rush, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Journey, or One Direction? The answer is that their stuff never meant as much to me, I forgot, or I just don’t like them.

(And I still haven’t figured out what I’m gonna do about dinner.)