Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Memory Palace Podcast Goes On A Nostalgic Trip For WBRU

The Memory Palace Episode 115:
A Brief Eulogy For A Commercial
Radio Station
More so than movies, television, or books, music often marks periods of our life more than any other art form. Whether it is a song of the summer, an album that is played on a loop, or a standout concert, music can also be a trip through time. The podcast The Memory Palace recently produced an episode that reminisced about a particular outlet for listening to music: radio station WBRU.

In the nearly eleven-minute episode A Brief Eulogy For A Commercial Radio Station, The Memory Palace narrator Nate DiMeo goes on a trip across time and relays multi-generational imagery that includes a description of a young girl being left alone with an old radio set and the magic that can occur as she plays with the dial. DiMeo uses that idea as a way to illustrate how the radio station can become a part of the girl as she grows older. He also wistfully recognizes that the girl could really be just anyone and that the music she listens to can come from any artist and occur at any moment as someone encounters different experiences.

An unlikely powerful moment occurs during the end credits, when he acknowledges music in the episode came from JD Samson (Le Tigre, MEN) and that “her music played on that station, now defunct.” It serves as a reminder that radio isn’t just a way to listen to music, but is also a medium for artists to find an audience.

The episode has interesting timing on a personal level. The recent death of Tom Petty, an artist whose career left an imprint on me, triggered an internal trip down memory lane. Listening to the narrator describe different aspects of listening to music on the radio brought to mind so many moments of my own life such as road trips, interactions with friends, and eight unforgettable shows.

WBRU broadcast from Providence, Rhode Island on the frequency 95.5 FM from 1966 through 2017. The station, which has origins dating back to 1936 as an AM station on Brown University’s campus, was sold to the Educational Media Foundation and is now the Christian Adult Contemporary station WLVO. The station has an interesting footnote in music history, it conducted the last radio interview with Kurt Cobain before the Nirvana singer’s death. The station is now an Internet-only station. 

The non-fiction storytelling podcast The Memory Palace is hosted by DiMeo, who is the Artist In Residence for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2016, the podcast was named as a finalist for the Peabody Award. The episode discussing WBRU and additional episodes of the podcast can be heard here:

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Bruno Mars Flashes His 24K Magic In Philadelphia

Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic Tour swung by Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night, playing a roughly 95-minute set that flashed a display of talent as infectious as the 32-year-old Hawaiian’s broad smile. It isn’t every show where a band jolts an arena with chart-topping singles, amazing dance, and even some classical piano. Tuesday evening was not your typical concert.

The show was Mars’ second-ever gig in Philadelphia and his first since 2013. The extensive 153-show tour began in Antwerp on March 28, 2017 and is currently scheduled to wrap in Kuala Lumpur on May 9, 2018. The lengthy tour is in support of Mars’ third album, 24K Magic, which dropped last November. While Mars has been a sensation for quite some time now, he is still riding the megastar wave that began after he had partnered with Mark Ronson for the producer’s smash “Uptown Funk” single in 2015.

Given his status as on one of the biggest stars on the planet, it was not surprising that he played to a packed house. One interesting dynamic of the show was exactly who was in attendance that night. Moms, teenage daughters, and thirty-something millennials completed a crowd of unusually diverse ages. Even from an oxygen-sucking perch in the corner of the Wells Fargo Center’s upper level, it was easy to see that Mars has become a rare cross-generation star who brings unlikely listening audiences together to lose their minds.

He and his talented Hooligans owned every section of the arena to the point where he earned loving “boos” from the crowd as he goaded the left and ride sides of the stage into a cheering match. Not many people earn good-natured derision in Philadelphia, but that was the kind of reaction instigated by Mars while he entertained and seduced the Wells Fargo Center.

As he and his band weaved their way through three albums of material, the singer was an unrelenting ham. At one point, Mars rode the moment with a sly “Calm yourself, ladies.” He later pulled out a bullhorn to whip the audience into a frenzy. After “Finesse,” Mars started the show with a burst of energetic numbers that included the tracks “24K Magic” and “Perm.” He leaned heavily towards his most recent record, but sprinkled in songs from throughout his career like the toe-tapping “Runaway Baby” and catchy “Treasure.”

As the concert reached its midpoint, Mars slowed the tempo down with “Marry You,” “When I Was Your Man,” and “Versace on the Floor.” As the rest of the Hooligans took a quick break, band member John Fossitt provided a classical piece on the piano that felt a little misplaced. Mars and the Hooligans returned with a few upbeat tracks that ramped up the crowd in time for a two-song encore comprised of “Locked Out Of Heaven” and “Uptown Funk.”

Mars was at his best during the encore because his James Brown style feels more natural during the upbeat pop songs, but throughout the night he proved that he is a man who can do just about everything and perform music that can be enjoyed by just about anyone. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Conspirators Is A Phenomenal Podcast For Fans Of Peculiar Stories

There are a large number of podcasts that cover true crime, extraordinary events, or unexplained mysteries. For listeners who may be looking for a podcast that covers a bit of everything, The Conspirators is an enjoyable catch-all show that comprehensively digs into lesser known and remarkable stories.

The bi-weekly podcast began last July and has already touched on a wide variety of topics. The puzzling death of a Sherlock Holmes expert, a violent skyjacking that seems like an improbable action flick, and the incredible tale of an 11-year-old girl who survived the murder of her family and had been left adrift at sea. Stories on the podcast are explored thoroughly by a narrator who operates under the pseudonym Nate Hale. Hale maintains a dry style as he lets each episode unfold and allows the stories to be the stars of The Conspirators. Most episodes are around 25 minutes long.

One of the most fascinating episodes of the podcast is the sordid history of the Ouija board. After detailing how the board game was developed in the late 19th Century, The Conspirators noted the game’s place within the Spiritualist movement. Hale also dug into an unexpected series of bizarre crimes and mysterious events that have surrounded the famous parlor game.

Another fascinating episode told the obscure tale of Lillian Alling. In 1927 the young immigrant outdid any fictional “call of the wild” survival journeys by attempting to walk from New York City to Russia by way of Alaska. Her goal: she just wanted to return home. The Conspirators noted some of Alling’s encounters along the way, including her encounter with telegraph operators and a brief stint working as a waitress in Dawson City just to purchase a small boat so she could attempt a journey through the unforgiving Arctic.

Those topics are a microcosm of The Conspirators. They are detailed accounts of bizarre or outstanding stories. The podcast is refreshing because it does not stick to one genre and Hale has a good eye for selecting stories that can entice an audience into clicking “download” on their podcast app. Because Hale also explores various aspects of each story, the anecdotes do more than just relay news clips and cursory knowledge of an event. Stories like The Blackout Ripper and Typhoid Mary also help to bring an understanding of certain periods of history, making The Conspirators a pleasant and informative listen.

Episodes of The Conspirators can be listened to here:

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Thoughts On Tom Petty

Art allows life to be exceptional. The artists who deliver the music, performances, and words that illuminate our lives also create an extraordinary connection between themselves and their audience. Even if you never meet them, an artist can feel like a friend because they were there on the lonely nights and during the good times that only the closest members of your inner circle were present for. For me, Tom Petty was the artist who made music that spoke to me and inspired me. For an uncounted number of moments, he was there for people as they drove to work, danced at a wedding, flipped across a radio dial, or sat in a bar swirling the remnants of a glass of bourbon. His work maintained a consistent quality that entered the lives of millions of fans. It was the purest balance between commercial popularity and artistic credibility.

I was fortunate to enjoy a complete range of experiences seeing Tom Petty. In addition to being a frequent presence in my headphones, I saw him with friends and strangers, went on a road trip, and recently had the chance to binge a concert tour that satiated my bucket list desire to watch a Heartbreakers tour unfold. Yes, he was not the most dynamic performer, but if you ever closed your eyes in the middle of a show you could hear thousands of people sing along to every word of a chorus. The listening experience was rock ‘n roll ecstasy at its zenith.

I cannot name just one aspect of Tom Petty’s work that created such a devoted bond, because there is so much to celebrate. He valued quality over quantity and mastered longevity as well as any artist in his age group. Outside of Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney, one would be hard-pressed to find a rock artist who debuted in the 1970s that still attracted a millennial following in 2017. He maintained a perpetual cool that transcended generations, but it was the songs that brought the retired plumber and twentysomething tech worker to a Tom Petty show.

He could paint a picture with words and music better than anyone. In those songs he created relatable characters and situations. He also sang about women in a unique way that eludes most male songwriters. The Good Girl. The American Girl. The Indiana Girl. The Free Girl. The longing boyfriend in “Here Comes My Girl” and the teenager chucking rocks into the water in “Even The Losers” are all characters in music that are as much a part of Americana as Gershwin and Elvis.

The people who Petty surrounded himself with were indicative of the magnitude of the man. He didn’t merely align himself with flashy stars, but with the very best of rock ‘n roll. Stevie Nicks, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Dave Grohl are just a few of the musicians who played with him Additionally, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Luke Wilson, Kim Basinger, and Anthony Hopkins all starred in Petty videos that cemented the Heartbreakers’ duel legacy as groundbreaking visual artists.

The legacy of his principle band reflected his own drive. The Heartbreakers are all virtuoso musicians, but consistently played with checked egos in order to serve the beauty of the songs. Petty also consistently kept his fans in mind. He battled a record company to keep album prices down and typically kept his work reasonably priced. His openers usually included exciting musicians like Buddy Guy, Joe Walsh, Chuck Berry, ZZ Top, and Steve Winwood. The consistency of Petty’s albums (the Heartbreakers’ last record Hypnotic Eye hit number one in 2014) and the delivery of a great concert helped strengthen the relationship between the artist and the audience. They delivered great music for forty years. The sudden absence of the Heartbreakers makes American music feel a little less magical.

For the first time in my life I feel a vacancy that cannot be explained. The songs remain, but their creator is no longer around to play them. This is a chapter in my life that I did not anticipate closing. Hearing the music today without the artist is a loss. When Petty and the Heartbreakers plugged in, the sound brought me unmatched joy and comfort. His song “Walls” may best describe the void. “Some things are over. Some things go on. Part of me you carry. Part of me is gone.” 

I would feel remiss without including my favorite song, "Swingin." An underrated classic from a master songwriter: 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Mondo Cozmo Lights Up Union Transfer In Return to Philadelphia

Midway through his band’s Wednesday evening set at Union Transfer, Mondo Cozmo frontman Josh Ostrander looked out into the crowd and defiantly stated “This is what not giving up looks like.” The night was more than just a concert. It was a homecoming and a celebration of an artist who was riding an incredible wave of success. Playing to a hometown crowd that he later admitted was inside the largest Philadelphia-area venue that he had ever played in, the Bucks County native led a band that left nothing on the table over an hour-long set that was packed with emotion and energy.

Mondo Cozmo at Union Transfer, 9/13/17
Ostrander had a long journey to the top of the charts. After over a decade with two different bands, his single “Shine” was released in late 2016 and took off like wildfire after it began to receive significant radio play. In January, the gospel-tinged number knocked the Kings of Leon’s “Waste A Moment” from the number one spot of the Adult Alternative Chart. Many in the crowd that filled up the lower level of the Union Transfer may have already been familiar with Ostrander’s story and appreciated  what his trek to the stage of the Spring Garden Street venue meant. Towards the end of the concert he looked for his brother in the crowd and acknowledged that people in the audience had taught him how to play guitar, smoke cigarettes, and drink the “right” beer.

Even if you didn’t know Mondo Cozmo’s backstory, it was obvious that Ostrander and the other four members of his band were seizing a moment and leaving nothing to chance. Throughout the night Ostrander jumped on to the drum riser and bounced around on stage with his cohorts as they tore through a set that focused on their recent debut record Plastic Soul. They appropriately opened with the slower-paced “Angel,” a song that repeats “If you believe in me, like I believe in you, then you tell yourself that everything is cool.” Mondo Cozmo then built up momentum with the gradual crescendo of “Chemical Dream” and never looked back.

After a run of tracks from Plastic Soul that included “Higher,” “Thunder,” and “Come With Me,” the band owned a cover of The Verve’s 1997 song “Bittersweet Symphony.” The cover blended well with their own material, but as a guitar riff shook the venue there was also something liberating about Ostrander singing a song whose lyrics declare “I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now.”

After closing the first set with the single “Automatic,” the band went backstage and returned for a brief encore with opener Illinois. The two bands played a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s classic “Atlantic City” and “Shine.” It was during “Shine” that the emotion of the evening appeared to catch up with Ostrander, who seemed a little choked up as those in attendance sang along to every word of the chorus.

Mondo Cozmo was preceded by Illinois and Flagship. Like Mondo Cozmo’s set, the evening was about more than just the music. I unfortunately missed Flagship, but Bucks County’s Illinois appeared to enjoy sharing the bill with an artist who was also their friend. They played for approximately 45 minutes, and aside from the heavy rocker “Queen Flea,” Illinois stuck mostly to their folk-rock style. Illinois was briefly joined onstage by CSNPhilly writer Reuben Frank, who sat in on keyboards for a song. In a column earlier this year (Point No. 25), Frank described the relationship between Ostrander and fellow Bucks County natives Illinois. According to Frank, Illinois took the younger Ostrander under their wing as he was learning how to play guitar and write songs.  

Philadelphia has an incredible music scene that has yielded some great artists over the last decade. Musicians like Kurt Vile, The War On Drugs, and Strand of Oaks have all experienced different paths in their career. On Wednesday night at Union Transfer, it was surreal to watch Josh Ostrander and Mondo Cozmo celebrate their own rock ‘n roll odyssey with friends and fans. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Three Great New TV Shows That You Might Have Missed This Summer

It was easy to be lost in the hype of old mainstays that had returned this summer like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and Orange Is The New Black. Three new shows also arrived this year that are worthy of attention before the 2017 Fall Television Schedule descends upon us. Here are three great new shows that you might have missed this summer:

G.L.O.W. (Netflix) – G.L.O.W. took the unlikely topic of a 1980s women’s wrestling show and created one of the most enjoyable binge watches of the summer. Staring Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and Marc Maron, the ten-episode series is an excellent blend of humor and drama. Based on the actual Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling that had aired from 1986 through 1990, the series succeeds in relaying the corny drama, stereotypes, and fun of wrestling. G.L.O.W. strikes an edgier tone than 1992’s A League Of Their Own, but brings a feeling similar to Penny Marshall’s film about a group of women trying to try bond together in an athletic setting.

The Defiant Ones (HBO) – The Defiant Ones is a powerful documentary that focuses on Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, two of the most impactful figures in the music industry. A four-part series that features interviews from a wealth of stars like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Trent Reznor, Sean Combs, and Eminem, The Defiant Ones is refreshingly diverse and comprehensive documentary. The series not only discusses the lives and creativity of both moguls, but also explores the rise of hip-hop and the evolution of Interscope Records. The comprehensive examination of different segments of American society makes The Defiant Ones an unusually remarkable film that can be enjoyed by a wide audience of music fans.

Ozark (Netflix)A new drama about an otherwise mundane suburban husband who uproots his family to the Ozarks after a money laundering arrangement with a drug lord rapidly falls into disarray, Ozark does not waste time immersing the audience in an uncomplicated premise. By the end of the first episode, violence and deceit have already landed a family of four in Missouri. The remainder of the season follows their attempts to reestablish their lives and money laundering operations in an unfamiliar rural setting that becomes more complex over time. The series is headlined by Jason Bateman (who also directed four episodes) and Laura Linney. Ozark is ideal for fans of Breaking Bad who are looking to get a fix on a drug cartel drama with a white collar twist. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Singles' Day: St. Vincent, U2, and Beck All Released New Music On Wednesday

September 6 was a strong day for new music. Three singles from big name artists who are at different stages of their careers provided a small sample of a promising crop of albums. Indie goddess St. Vincent, the prolific Beck, and Irish rock staple U2 all released singles ahead of new records that are due out in October and December.

“Los Ageless,” St. Vincent – St. Vincent dropped her second single, “Los Ageless,” on the same day that she announced her forthcoming record, Masseduction. The radio-made single is a follow-up to her profane “New York” and indicates that the new record may have an eclectic sound with at least some mainstream leanings. While the amazing ballad “New York” felt like an alt-rock spin on a Broadway tune, “Los Ageless” starts with a fashion runway style electro-beat before transitioning to a synth-heavy chorus. St. Vincent crafted Masseduction with producer du jour Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde). The record will be St. Vincent’s fifth album and is set to be released on October 13.

“Up All Night,” Beck – Even though Beck frequently changes the type of album that he puts outs, ranging from hip-hop, rock, and acoustic music, the overall blend of his work is a recognizable signature sound. This quality is on display for his most recent single “Up All Night,” which is a dance-friendly track that is distinguished by its vintage Beck Beat. The song is another insta-hit for Beck and promises to be a Top 40 and festival mainstay for quite some time. “Up All Night” is the third official single for his new album, Colors. The record has been a long time in the making. The previous two singles, “Dreams” and “Wow” were put out in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Colors is Beck's 13th record and will be released on October 13.

“You’re The Best Thing About Me,” U2 – Despite being one of the most established rock bands in the world, U2 is in a relative tweener phase. The band were lambasted for giving an album away for free and recently embarked on an anniversary tour for their timeless 1987 record The Joshua Tree. Although they have received some moderate radio play, U2 have not released an enduring single since 2005’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Despite this unusual phase for U2, the band is continuing to reach for the higher moment and will release Songs of Experience. The first single for the record is “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” an enjoyable track that starts with a simple guitar hook and features a self-aware Bono singing “Shooting off my mouth, that’s another great thing about me.” Songs of Experience will be the 14th studio album for U2. It is scheduled to hit stores (or iPhones) on December 1. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Is The Defiant Ones The Best Music Documentary Ever?

If you are a music fan of virtually any popular music from the last 40 years, HBO’s The Defiant Ones is for you. The four-episode series is a powerful examination of the rise and success of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, two of the record industry’s most influential figures. The documentary also incorporates each man’s background in a way that is a departure from traditional films and blends different segments of society together. Unlike most music documentaries, The Defiant Ones does not rely on a constructing a film around a few new revelations, but brings a different understanding of its subjects to a uniquely diverse audience that may be watching the docuseries for different reasons. Simply put, it is the best music documentary in recent memory and may be the finest music film ever. 

Most music documentaries feel tired. So many of them deify the achievement of the artist or explore nuances of the recording process in ways that are not accessible to the casual fan. The extent of Iovine and Dre's accomplishments do not allow this to be an not an issue with The Defiant Ones. Iovine has been a driving force behind so much timeless music (Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty) that it would be hard to spend much time listening to classic rock radio without hearing a song that he influenced in some way. His work with Interscope Records also helped bring artists like Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt, and even Rico Suave into the forefront of pop culture. Dr. Dre’s own discography is of similar notoriety. Not only did he break out of Compton, CA with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, but he broke down cultural barriers as a member of N.WA. and as a solo artist. As a producer, he has influenced a plethora of artists as well, most notably Eminem. In The Defiant Ones it is Eminem who best defines their successful relationship as “Jimmy Iovine is the levitator. Dre is the innovator.” 

One of the most striking attributes of The Defiant Ones is the star power that has revolved around both men’s rise to success. The diversity of the cavalcade of stars is evident during the beginning of the first episode, when Iovine receives consecutive street cred nods from both Tom Petty and Sean Combs. Not every documentary can find common ground between the most important moments of hip-hop, alt rock, and classic rock, but the blend of talent that revolves around Dre and Iovine allows the film to become an unusually comprehensive documentary of modern music.

The documentary is also not a straight-up love letter to either man. While their achievements are deservedly celebrated, neither is lionized to an extreme and both have their faults explored. Iovine’s relentless personality and Dre’s past issues with the abuse of women (particularly his 1991 incident with television host Dee Barnes) are addressed by the filmmakers. The documentary also digs into the deadly East Coast-West Coast hip-hop wars of the 1990s. Iovine reveals personal misgivings about funding the music scene that led to so much violence. The benign toxicity of the situation remains clear when Dre declines to discuss his knowledge of events from this time with the cameras still on. This is a refreshing aspect of The Defiant Ones. So many documentaries gloss over the faults of its subjects, but this series gives both men a chance to discuss the negatives in their past. Even though Dre was understandably not forthcoming about the hip-hop rivalry, his stance felt genuine and did not appear to be a false posture for the benefit of the filmmakers. 

Another stimulating aspect of the series came from an unexpected topic: business. Many music documentaries stray from discussing the business side of the record industry. It is an unromantic aspect of the art form, but it was an unavoidable topic for The Defiant Ones. Both Dre and Iovine’s influence in the industry transcends their eye for top talent. They don’t merely have their finger on the pulse of music; they control an influential stable of artists. After discussing the rise of Interscope Records, the slightly reverential fourth episode focuses on their role in creating the Beats By Dre headphones brand and its $3 billion sale to Apple in 2014. By ending the docuseries with this aspect of their lives, The Defiant Ones reaches for a grander point in the careers of the two moguls. Not only have they defined the music of multiple generations, but they now define the style in which it is listened to.  

The Defiant Ones is a well-done snapshot of a broad variety of music, culture, and industry that it is more appropriately aligned with CNN’s ongoing Decades series than just a music documentary. The constant star power that is featured in the series is atypical for a documentary with a focused topic. By including so many artists and pop-culture icons, the guests demand constant attention from the audience. When Gwen Stefani, Diddy, Trent Reznor, and Snoop Dogg speak, it is hard not to listen to them discuss Iovine, Dre, and the moments that have defined the two moguls. Because their success is not merely widgets, but also Born To Run, The Chronic, The Slim Shady LP, and The Fame, the transcultural success of both men also reflects the music and moments of our own lives. Like Iovine and Dre, the broad impact of The Defiant Ones is unparalleled and transcends the customary norms of documentaries. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett Trade Places In “Over Everything”

When news first broke of a collaborative record between Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett, it instantly felt like one of those ideas that was just perfect. Both indie musicians are great songwriters who excel at casually narrating scenes with a unique intimacy. On August 30, the duo dropped “Over Everything” the first single and video from their forthcoming LP, Lotta Sea Lice.

Filmed with Vile’s Philadelphia and Barnett’s Australia as the backdrop, the six-minute video for "Over Everything" is a beautifully shot piece with an understated concept. With Vile clad in a white suit and Barnett wearing dark attire, the black and white video changes locations for both artists as they sing their partner’s parts. The video begins with closeups of the two musicians, but the camera gradually distances itself from its two subjects. By the end of the video both songwriters are just specs in the distance.

The song affirms the brilliance of their decision to make music together. The music is not only an excellent blend of their sound, but begins with both musicians deadpanning about solitude and songwriting. The song eventually drifts into an extended jam that feels like it could go on endlessly. 

“Over Everything” will be the first of nine songs on Lotta Sea Lice, which is scheduled for release on October 13. A North American tour with Vile and Barnett begins on October 11 in San Diego and includes a stop at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby on November 3. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

First Friday Five: Philadelphia-Area Festivals In September

With Labor Day Weekend comes the end of summer and the start of the Fall festival season. In addition to fun food events like Manayunk’s StrEAT Festival and the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival, here are five festivals that are hitting the Philadelphia area in September:

Made In America Festival, September 2 & 3 The two-day parkway bash was created in 2012 and has become a Labor Day Weekend staple in Philadelphia ever since. The 2017 festival hosts a mixed lineup of artists that includes J. Cole, Solange, Run the Jewels, DMX, and Sampha. Philly acts Queen of Jeans, Beach Slang, and PnB Rock are among the local musicians on the massive card. Made In America founder Jay-Z, who released his 13th album 4:44 in June, returns as a festival headliner with a performance on Sunday night.

Parkway 100 We Are Connected Festival, September 8Speaking of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia will begin a celebration of the 100th Anniversary of its famous boulevard with the We Are Connected Festival on September 8. The fair is a massive arts crawl that features events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Parkway Central Library, and Park Towne Place. Parkway 100 will have additional happenings over the next 14 months and conclude on November 16, 2018.

Haverford Music Festival, 
September 9 - The seventh edition of the Haverford Music Festival will take place on Darby Road and the grounds of the Oakmont School. This year’s festival starts at 11:45 AM and has beer and wine gardens. The festival is free and all donations and proceeds are directed to the Haverford Township Civil Council. Voice contestant Nadjah Nicole, Beetles tribute band The Weeklings, and 30 artists will grace four stages this year. Matthew Sweet, whose accomplished discography includes the 1991 album Girlfriend, is the festival headliner.

Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show, September 15-17 – The Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show is the oldest outdoor art show in the United States. The festival was founded in 1928 and occurs twice a year. The September edition of the show takes place in the Center City park and showcases over 100 artists with a wide range of styles.

N2N Festival, September 16 – The 22nd Neighborhood to Neighborhood Festival takes place from 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM and promises a compact lineup that will primarily pay tribute to Prince. Outside of the Purple One, no festival could have a more enticing list of names for Prince fans. Both Prince’s former fiancĂ©e and band member Shiela E. and Purple Rain star Morris Day and The Time will play the free festival. Roots drummer Questlove and DJ Marty G will both DJ the event and PnB Rock will also perform at N2N. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Seven Thoughts On Game of Thrones Season Seven

This post contains spoilers about the seventh season of Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones finished its seventh and penultimate season on Sunday evening. The series wrapped its shortest season with the confirmation of a major fan theory (R + L = J) and epic use of an ice-spewing dragon. Here are seven thoughts on Season Seven:

The Writers’ Room – After two lackluster seasons, Game of Thrones bounced back in its sixth installment. After consecutive years of drawn-out plots that were necessitated by the large cast and complex geography of George R.R. Martin’s universe, the show had finally discovered its best balance between character development and compelling drama. That successful formula was abandoned this past season. The show shunned the longer stories and focused more on viral moments that depicted a scheme to kidnap a zombie, epic battles, and dragons wreaking havoc.

The series has recast its identity. Naturally, not every character interaction was developed to perfection in prior year and the writing was never the best aspect of Games of Thrones. The acting and production quality made the series stand out. The show has now lost out on the opportunity to create more dynamic moments between its incredible cast. The amount of viral dominance had an additional negative effect: the overwhelming flash of the season may have also negated the impact of the big moment and become predictable. If every scene is a viral sequence, the value of the battles, dragons, and special effects that the series does so well will eventually become watered down.

The Episodes – The emphasis on flashy moments makes it difficult to distinguish the episodes from each other. The best written and acted episode of the season was “The Queen’s Justice.” The midseason show was one of Cersei Lannister’s finest moments. Watching Cersei enact vengeance upon the Sand Snakes and the Queen of Thorns was particularly engrossing because of the depths of her cruelty. The episode also depicted stunning reversals in the conflict in Westeros after Cersei outmaneuvered Tyrion at Casterly Rock and Highgarden.

Cersei Lannister – Lena Headey does not receive the same amount of attention as Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, or Kit Harrington, but she is one of the best actors on Game of Thrones. Her ability to play an undisputed villain with a likeable evil is uncanny. In a season that emphasized CGI, Headey stood out as one of the most consistent actors on the show by executing the Lannister comeback with perfection.

Littlefinger – The storyline of Petyr Baelish was a frustrating plot with a satisfying ending. While few fans will take issue with the execution of the scheming Littlefinger, the scenes that led to his demise were frustrating. The choice to play Arya and Sansa against each other was more deceitful than distracting. A show can include scenes that mask a surprise, but it should not lie to hide its true intentions. The best mysteries often reveal their outcome with all of the facts present in the open. The intra-family squabbles and lack of sisterly communication that occurred when Littlefinger was not even in the room were examples of how a sloppily written story can derail a show.

The Dragons – Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion were clearly the MVPs of Season Seven. The detail that the visual effects crew has provided to this show is unmatched on television. Not only do these dragons look lifelike, but they act like animals as well. Little touches like Drogon angrily swiping at the giant crossbow with his tail help make the beasts seem believable. While the story that led to the creation of the Ice Dragon was a little far-fetched, its existence was an amazing addition to the season and provides excellent momentum for the Night King heading into Season Eight.

Tyrion Lannister – After six seasons of being the most cunning character on the show, Tyrion endured a slump this time around. He was frequently outwitted by Cersei, devised a scheme that cost Daenerys a dragon, and had his loyalty questioned by his queen. It also cast doubt as to how he will survive in the final season. Will he fall out of favor with Daenerys? Will he redeem himself with brilliant strategy in the war against the Night King? Has he recast himself as a Lannister by becoming secretly allied with Cersei?

Overall Grade – Season Seven merited a B-minus rating. “The Queen’s Justice” and “The Spoils of War” were by far the best episodes of the season. Both rank among the top episodes of the series, although the remainder of the season lacked the fully developed stories and character moments of prior years. The season did not eclipse the consistent quality of seasons one and six, but also did not fall into the plodding stories of seasons three and four. The season did hasten the intersection of so many key characters and set up what appears to be a final season unlike any other epic on television. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Game Night: A First Reaction To The Game of Thrones Finale “The Dragon And The Wolf”

This post contains spoilers about the Game of Thrones episode “The Dragon And The Wolf”

Game of Thrones wrapped up a splashy Season Seven on Sunday night, airing a finale that was a mostly predictable and somewhat disappointing exclamation point. With a 79-minute run time, “The Dragon And The Wolf” was the longest Game of Thrones episode to date. So far, this season had moved at a hastened pace. It eschewed logical timelines and important plot developments in favor of big moments. Ultimately, this writing strategy proved to be a flaw in the season that was also reflected in the finale.

The most glaring deficiency in the writing was rampant in the demise of one of the greatest villains of the show, Littlefinger. After seven seasons of his Shakespearean monologues, Petyr Baelish finally uttered his most prescient statement when he noted, “I’m a bit confused.” While his execution at the hands of Arya Stark was satisfying, the plot was similar to a poorly written whodunnit where the evidence magically appears in the last two minutes of the episode. Throughout the season Arya and Sansa have clashed in private in a way that only makes sense to lead on Littlefinger, who was not always present in the room. That misled the audience, but those scenes turned out to be more deceitful to the viewers than a red herring.

The gaps in writing also appeared in other moments of the episode. The finale opened with the Unsullied and the Dothoraki horde outside of King’s Landing (although the set appeared to be more Highgarden). The presence of the army was more flash than substance and led to nothing of significance. It ultimately was a wasted tease for the high-level conference at the Dragon Pit.

The conference itself was an interesting scene, but missed the mark on what could have been a transformative moment. It was the biggest gathering of the show’s principal characters since Robert Baratheon departed Winterfell in Season One, but felt anti-climatic. Euron leaving and Cersei’s duplicity were a solid development; however, the long-awaited discussion between Tyrion and his sister was lackluster. At no point did they show how Tyrion persuaded his sister to join the Northern effort. Game of Thrones also forgot that Tommen’s death was Cersei’s fault, not her brother’s. After a lifetime of vitriol between the two siblings, this new development was unnecessary.

Jaime’s departure from King’s Landing was also a rushed development. Cersei’s sudden confidence in Euron and the dismissal of her longtime lover was a rejection of the Lannister family’s strongest bond.

The finale did have its positive moments. After a season of Bran’s aloofness, his omniscience was finally explained to mere mortal Samwell Tarly, who laughably said “I don’t know what that means.” Their discussion confirmed the origin of Jon Snow’s birth and rightful place as king of Westeros just as he and Daenerys updated their relationship status to “it’s complicated.” Bran’s introduction of this new truth will be likely be an interesting moment next season.

The most enjoyable moment of the finale came in the closing scenes of the episode. The emergence of the Army of the Dead and the Night King riding an ice dragon was spectacular. While it was not a surprise, the collapse of the Wall and the slow march of the dead was a compelling choice to conclude the season. It would be hard not to marvel at the amazing effects from Game of Thrones’ excellent production team. The vivid sight of an ice dragon destroying the Wall was one of several excellent moments from the series that has typically crafted these moments well.

Season Seven’s finale reinforced a constant theme of the series. The production quality is spectacular, but the writing and story arcs have failed to match the quality of its crew and cast. 

"Rowboat" - Johnny Cash And Beck's Shared Moment

Few American musicians have devised song catalogs as extensive and commercially successful as Johnny Cash and Beck Hansen. Cash achieved a career as one of contemporary music’s true icons and every Beck release touches on a rare level of artistic excellence.  While Cash is primarily known for being a country artist, Beck’s music has been more eclectic and encompassed country, acoustic, pop, and hip hop. While on the surface it would appear that neither of them share much in common, Cash and Beck have a unique bond that occurred at two vastly different points in both careers: the song “Rowboat.”

“Rowboat” was originally recorded by Beck for his independent LP Stereopathetic Soulmaure, an avant-garde album that was released a week before his 1994 career-changing major label debut Mellow Gold. Like Beck’s other independent releases, Stereopathetic Soulmaure is an interesting window into the creative mind of one of the most experimental musicians of the last 30 years. Like any album that would include song fragments labeled “Noise 1,” “Noise 2,” “Noise 3” and the hidden track “Bonus Noise,” the record is not nearly as radio-friendly as Beck’s other full-length albums. It features some brilliantly-written Appalachian folk music, fragments of different songs meshed together, and just plan noise. In hindsight, it is easy to look at the album as a being a lo-fi predecessor of Beck’s diverse portfolio.

Stereopathetic Soulmaure is more than just a precursor to Beck’s storied career. It also contains a song that became an unusual intersection of two artists at opposite stages in their lives. Johnny Cash used “Rowboat” as the lead track for 1996’s Unchained album. In contrast to Beck’s then-status as a rising artist, Johnny Cash was a titan of American music who was enjoying a late career renaissance with his American Recordings series. Unchained included three songs from Cash and reinterpretations of several songs from other artists, including Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” The LP was primarily recorded under the guidance of Rick Rubin and with an all-star cast of musicians: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Flea, Marty Stuart, Lindsey Buckingham, and Mick Fleetwood. 

“Rowboat” itself is a very dark song that tells the story of man who has hit a paralyzing rock bottom after a breakup. Beck’s cut of the song is a very raw take that feels like it was recorded in an obscure West Virginia dive. While Beck’s version is very good, hearing Cash sing the track elevates the lyrics to another level. Cash’s style instantly feels timeless and the isolated worldview of the narrator fits in with so many other songs in his discography (“Nobody”, “Folsom Prison Blues”). It retains the same depressed vibe as Beck’s original, but sounds more Nashville than hillbilly. “Rowboat” is also like many other songs from the American Recordings era. Cash and Rubin found a way to take another artist’s music and make it seem as if it always belonged to the Man in Black. His deep voice and weathered delivery made some of the best contemporary music of the time (Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt,” U2’s “One”) his own and helped cement his legacy to a new generation of music fans.

This YouTube clip from unknown program (labeled as a 1997 European TV Interview) is an interesting moment. The video opens with Johnny Cash discussing the young Beck’s music and flashes to Beck watching the Cash interview in a hotel room:

Monday, August 21, 2017

The War On Drugs’ “Pain” Video Captures Philadelphia In A Unique Way

On Monday, Philadelphia band The War On Drugs released a captivating video for “Pain,” a single from their forthcoming album A Deeper Understanding. The video mixes shots of Philadelphia with clips of the band playing on a barge sailing along the Schuylkill River. Shot entirely in black and white, the film looks as if it belongs in U2’s epic concert film Rattle and Hum.

While the pensive mood of Adam Granduciel’s lyrics are a stark contrast to the groove that soothes, the video captures a uniquely Philadelphia vibe that is similar to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s 1991 video for “Summertime.” Both videos used the Schuylkill River as the centerpiece of short films that primarily shunned the obvious shots and captured more localized parts of the city. Instead of sticking to the Art Museum and City Hall, “Pain” opens with children riding bicycles underneath an overpass. As it proceeds, the video flashes to different parts of the city and its people in a way that helps relay the emotion of the song.

A Deeper Understanding will be released on August 25. The War On Drugs will bring their tour in support of the album to the newly-revamped Dell Music Center in Philadelphia on September 21. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Game Night: A First Reaction To “Beyond The Wall”

This post contains spoilers of the Game of Thrones Episode “Beyond The Wall” and prior episodes of the series.

Game of Thrones has traditionally saved its most stunning scenes for the penultimate episode of a season. Ned Stark lost his head, the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the battle for the Wall, Daenerys harnessing the power of her dragons, and the Battle of the Bastards all took place in the second-to last show of the every season. For the first time in seven years, Game of Thrones has produced a more balanced season and “Beyond The Wall” was just one in a series of action-packed episodes of this installment of the series.

The three plots of the episode featured mixed results. Daenerys continued her bizarre questioning of Tyrion’s loyalty and the Stark sisters clashed again. Both of these plots are frustrating and neither is having an enjoyable direction. Even though Tyrion was named as Daenerys’ most important adviser, her logic for questioning his judgment makes little sense and is only way to create unnecessary friction in the Targaryen camp. Similarly, the drama at Winterfell is needless. The Starks have finally reunited, yet Sansa and Arya are interrogating each other and Bran is flashing occasional omnipotence that has not proven to be terribly helpful.

One week after the ill-conceived, but enticing, plot of kidnapping a member of the army of the dead was hatched, “Beyond The Wall” did not disappoint. Flaming swords, a frozen lake, and an encircled band of warriors all made for a unique circumstance. The sequence was well-filmed and another testament to the production crew of Game of Thrones.

The clash beyond the Wall featured three outcomes: one was predictable and the other two were more unforeseen. Daenerys swooping in with her dragons to save the day was really the only logical outcome to the group’s predicament.

As unlikely as it was that Jon Snow would die again, his rescuer was not as anticipated as Daenerys’ dragons. Benjen Stark had previously rescued his other nephew, Bran, in Season Six. His first appearance this season was brief, but amazing. Benjen hacking through the Army Dead with his flaming flails was an unexpected and refreshing twist to the episode.

The biggest (and least predictable) outcome was Daenerys losing one of her three dragons and what became of one of her scaled children. After centuries of a dormant war between the living and the dead, the dead were better prepared for Daenerys’ dragons than anyone in Westeros or Essos. The dragon received an epic death as it crashed through the ice, but its resurrection was more shocking and creates more exciting possibilities. Will the dragon breathe ice or fire? Will it clash with its brothers in the sky? Will it fly over the Wall?

All of these future stories are intriguing and create a new dynamic as the dead look to defeat the living. The other emerging plots of the season seem to be more directionless and excessive. An inquest of Tyrion’s loyalties and Stark family drama are derailing the known qualities of previously well-established characters. The most important stories of this season have been handled well, but Game of Thrones is creating extraneous drama that is threatening to undermine the final seasons of the series. 

Is There A Streaming Content Bubble?

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal published an article that heralded Apple’s intent to spend $1 billion to create original content for streaming in 2018. With an indelible level of brand excellence in so many different fields, it feels like Apple will not fail to create buzzworthy programs. Apple and its competitors may be running into a different challenge. The market for good streaming content and in-home entertainment has never been stronger, but with a rapidly growing number of options is there a bubble hovering over the expansion of streaming content?

Netflix began streaming content in 2007. In 2013 the watershed series House of Cards was released and the possibilities for in-home entertainment changed overnight. Streaming companies could now release an entire season of television at once and feed our binge-watching habits. It may now seem like a moment from the Stone Ages of Streaming, but Kevin Spacey's appearance on The Colbert Report in 2013 included a discussion of the merits of bingeing television. Bingeing is such a natural part of our viewing options now, but four years ago House of Cards changed how audiences watch programs. 

Kevin Spacey on The Colbert Report, 8/4/13

After initially relegating their streaming options to Netflix or cord-cutting services, major networks like NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS have already used various applications to explore ways to broadcast their own content. Amazon Prime has also created shows like The Main In The High Castle and Alpha House. Streaming company Hulu has not only begun developing original shows, but is also launching its own live streaming service (Hulu Plus). Earlier this week it was announced that Disney would withdraw their property from Netflix by 2019 to create two channels. One channel will be dedicated to Disney and Pixar and the second would feature content from ESPN.

Over the last two years Netflix has already invested $11 billion towards original content in anticipation of this streaming spree. Instead of being left without enticing content in the streaming wars, the service has decided to focus on developing programming in order to keep their massive subscriber base.  Despite being over $20 billion in debt, Netflix has allotted $7 billion for 2018 and plans to become their own content provider.

With this type of large-scale investment and emphasis on original content, the saturation of entertainment seems like an inevitability. The options with just Netflix alone are already overwhelming. In May of 2017 the company released a plethora of high-profile shows: Sense8, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Keepers, and House of Cards along with comedy specials from Tracy Morgan, Sarah Silverman, and Hasan Minhaj. In June, the network followed with another slate of shows that included Orange Is The New Black and the fantastic new show G.L.O.W. With all of this content available at the same time it can be challenging to stay current with television. Unlike a typical network schedule, entire seasons are now available at once. While they can be watched at a leisurely pace, the social media-driven urgency of Must See TV is no longer a single night, but a rush to keep up with the Joneses and binge the most popular shows as quickly as possible.

Major corporations like Disney are not the only companies to enter the market. Unlike any other aspect of modern entertainment, the Internet provides the opportunity for entrepreneurship. The market allows for investment from big names in entertainment like Kevin Hart. The superstar comedian launched the Laugh Out Loud app in August. The app includes scripted and unscripted comedy and the entire Def Jam series. Smaller apps like VRV can deliver shows with a devoted following like My Brother, My Brother and Me to a targeted audience and grow their brand with similar product. These apps also have the potential to focus on diverse multicultural audiences that have been shunned by network television and grow quality content.

This mass of quality entertainment is already running up against a wall. There are only so many hours in a day and the vast amount of entertainment is already at an all-time high level. With network television in decline, the average audience for a show will continue to dwindle because customers are leaving traditional television for streaming. This will continue as the number of options grows. Another factor that will enter the equation is that most people will only subscribe to a limited number of apps. The combined cost of signing up for different apps to watch Disney, Netflix, ESPN, Laugh Out Loud, and Amazon Prime in addition to other regular options such as network television and premium channels like HBO or Showtime is likely to have a negative effect on the marketplace.

There is only so much time and money that an audience can invest in watching television. Will the billions of dollars being spent receive a good enough return to continue this wealth of entertainment and is this rush of quality entertainment really a bubble about that is about to burst?