Rock out with your cock out: Eminem X Rihanna descend to the Rose Bowl

By Michael Traversa

IMG_1290_mod Note:  This is a review of Night 2 from the front row.

So The Monster Tour finally opened with two sold out shows at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. It all starts with a short film that depicts Eminem as a modern Hannibal Lecter and Rihanna as the savior coming to his rescue. When the two finally appear on stage, lifted up by two moving platforms, Eminem is still tied up to an hospital bed. Yup, you know this. When those two came together for a massive stadium tour I just knew there will be humor and irony along with the music. Eminem in particular is a master of sarcasm. Friday night he even recited a whole monologue from the movie Superbad, which was hilarious.

In the beginning they go through some of the songs that features more than one voice on the track (Numb, No Love) followed by the most obvious choice for starter aimed at inciting the crowd: (we are gonna) Run this town (tonight)! Then the show appears to be divided into two clear blocks, a full show from each, with a few forays into each others. Basically Rihanna’s show followed pretty much the setlist of her Diamonds World Tour. And unfortunately it suffers from the same problems I pointed out for the Diamonds tour back then: only snippets of many favorite hits, too much use of backing tracks for the chorus, heavy on the hip hop tracks from Unapologetic, while other songs from the same album are better. For various reasons (Pasadena’s curfew? Better show flow?) she eliminated three songs from night 1, among those Man Down which is one of my ultimate favorites. In fact I’ll go as far as saying that she should make a whole reggae record, more in synch with traditional music of the Barbados. One of those songs was replaced by Only Girl, which she did not perform on night 1. In the final count it comes down to two songs difference and one substitute.

Rihanna seemed confident, seductive and held everybody’s attention in the palm of her hand. She appeared playful and happy to sing on every song, despite some criticism. I can see how somebody from afar may think of lip synching. Both Rihanna and Eminem sang live but, especially in Rihanna’s case, there was a heavy use of backing tracks. When it’s her voice on the chorus coming out of a backing track, (something that a backup singer could do instead), it produces a strange effect. When she pulls the mike away to let the people sing, her voice can still be heard. This is something that unfortunately started with the last tour, but she is still singing all the verses live.

The highlights were obviously the joint performances and it was remarkable how Love The Way You Lie Part II and the original were blended seamlessly into one so to pass the baton from one act to the other. I suspect Eminem did his average setlist from his latest tour as well. Eminem is a riot, he is like a crazy ball, never still in one spot, he keeps jumping left and right. He too played along his image, attacking the songs aggressively, and joking in the more ironic ones, especially the early hits of the first LP. Well Mr Mathers, you are a Rap God. Funny how his hype man Mr Porter pointed out at wasted people in the front to which Mr Mathers replied, “Just because I can’t do drugs doesn’t mean you can’t“. Also in the case of Eminem I didn’t like some songs being truncated. In Stan, for example, he cut out the whole final verse (the part where Stan drives off the cliff and Shady’s response to the letter). Nevertheless it sounded even more haunting with Rihanna on the chorus. The choice of Airplanes over Lighters was odd, since neither one of them penned the song, but I guess Eminem’s verse on the second version of the tune was enough to grant a spot in the setlist.

The bottom line is whenever they shared the stage the monster came alive. In the end they alternated their most influential hits (We found love, Lose yourself) leading into the titular song, complete of fireworks and flipping the bird.

L.A.’s nice, but New York’s my home.

By Michael Traversa

That’s a quote from a song, New York for life, written specifically for the retrospective compiled for the American market by Italian superstar Lorenzo Jovanotti.
Jovanotti has been building up a nice following in United States in the past three years with countless shows in small clubs and big music festivals, such as Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. “A new challenge”, those are the words used by the artist who sells arenas and stadiums in his homeland. Jovanotti understands his music cannot break big numbers in America since it’s spoken in a different language, but he is also aware of the power of music beyond the words. The same power that drew him to hip hop when he was a little kid, “To me it was the sound, the fact that the song could be about nothing and anything, that you didn’t have to have a good singing voice to do it”. Getting to play in front of people who don’t know all the words to the songs, who needs to be conquered has been refreshing and a learning experience that he has been able to apply to the shows in his own country where he can count on a 25 years relationship with his fans.
So it was obviously a great honor for Jovanotti to be invited to the Grammy Museum (“I cried when I saw Michael Jackson’s jacket”) and have a QnA moderated by Scott Goldman.

The talk spanned several subjects, including the dance oriented beginnings, the introduction of rap music to Italy along with more political fueled lyrics, his love for New York, where he has been spending this past summer and his big influences in music. “Coming here I took a taxi from Gabriele Muccino’s house who’s been hosting me and the taxi driver was a Russian guy who was listening to Pavarotti in the car. So the first thing I did was showing him the picture of me and Pavarotti I have on the iphone. He took the phone, looked at the picture and then turned his head to look at me, which was also dangerous, look at me not paying attention to the road [laughter]. I told him I knew Pavarotti. I saw that as a sign coming here to the Grammy Museum, Pavarotti’s blessing”.

His relationship with New York started as little boy when his father, who often visited the city for his work with the Vatican, would come back with Super 8 videos to show to his family. “I always say I live in my music. I live in my language. But I have a connection with New York. I went there for the first time after the military service, which in Italy was mandatory at that time. Some people find a way to avoid it but not me”. To which the moderator replied “What did you do in the army?” “Nothing”, Jovanotti said getting a big laughter from the audience. “Literally nothing. Supposed to be in the tank, please don’t make me touch any buttons… Anyway I went to New York after the military but it was like coming back to it, not discovering it for the first time”.

Goldman asked him how he started making music and how he was able to bring rap and hip hop to Italy. Jovanotti said, “I started as deejay because I wanted to make music but I didn’t want to learn how to play an instrument. I would see my big brother spending hours studying how to play guitar, I didn’t want to do that. So my producer at the time was doing dance that’s how I came to sing in English. Italy has a big tradition of dance producers, think of Claudio Simonetti. Then when the time for a second album came my producer told me I should sing in Italian because my way of communicating, which was already big, would be enhanced if people could also understand the words. But the songs for that album were a mix of rock, hip hop, dance. They were made of slogans, they way I chose words was if they would be good on a t-shirt”.
Then they became political, commenting on social issues and sometimes they got you even in hot waters”, prompted the interviewer.
Yeah but I didn’t do it because of that. I always did what I felt was right at the time, not because of the political impact. The thing with Drop the debt for example; I wrote to Geldolf saying that I was an Italian Super Star [laughter]. I actually said that [more laughter], that I would like to associate my voice, lend my megaphone to that message. It’s always easy to speak about what was not achieved but harder to speak about what was achieved. Even though the primary goal was not reached a lot was accomplished with hospitals being built, parts of Africa where children now can go to school. Now it’s harder because with the global crisis people don’t want to hear about others problems, other countries’ poverty”.

Jovanotti is always been on the front line of helping those who were in trouble. From the audience came the question about the song he wrote with the help of about 60 other Italian artists to raise funds and rebuild the city of L’Aquila, struck by a devastating earthquake. “I wanted to do something so I called Giuliano Sangiorgi of Negramaro and told him I wanted to record a song but I wanted everybody to come the same day in the same room, not by phone or by email. We wrote the music in one day and the second day we got the lyrics down. And they all came but because in Italy there’s this bad tradition of stealing we wanted to control the money, make sure they were gonna go where they were supposed to. So we attached it to a specific task, the rebuild of the church in this case. We were probably over controlling it and that’s why the money got stuck for three years but it was necessary to ensure they will get it. And honestly the money was not the reason why we did it. You know, when somebody in your family goes through a tragedy or something bad happens you make a call, you send a txt, let them know you’re there for them. That was our txt. Saying I’m with you”.

Although Jovanotti’s influences have often been linked to the Beastie Boys and the hip hop from the Eighties two names came up in the conversation: Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra. Two voices that mean everything for Jovanotti “And Dylan is still relevant today, his latest album is excellent”. He has often collaborated with artist from different countries and he has a special relationship with Michael Franti and Ben Harper. “How it came to be was nothing magical, really. I was a fan of Michael’s music and through common friends, I knew somebody who knew somebody who could get to him, I sent an email saying – do you want to collaborate with an Italian artist? – Simple as that. No magic; although sometimes an e-mail can be said to be magical. I’m still surprised when I can send a finished song with an email. We now have a sort of brotherhood. Sometimes we find out that we were listening to the same music at the same moment without knowing each of us was doing that. With Ben Harper I also have a strong connection. He is somebody who can make a blues album and the next one is a rock album and the problem is that they don’t know what section of the music store to put it. Here they need to put a label. They wanna know who you are, what do you do, and why. And how much you’re making. That question is not so much asked in Italy. In fact Ben has a bigger following in Europe where the diversity is more appreciated than here”. Then he cracked a joke “In Italy we don’t put the cds in the store by genre, we just put them in alphabetical order”.

When the moderator opened the conversation to the crowd I got to ask a couple of questions myself. What I wanted to know was as Jovanotti’s audience in United States grows bigger does he think there will be space for a bigger production instead of small shows, to which somebody else in the auditorium even suggested the Hollywood Bowl.
I would like it, I’m not saying no to it. In the future who knows, but right now I like playing small clubs, with no setlist, all improvised, we rent drums and other instruments on the spot. I like the idea of going with the flow, feel the room even if it means lose money for the time being”. The second question I asked was in regards of the upcoming collection titled Back Up, set for release in November in Italy. If one of the dvds would include the historical Jovanotti-Carboni tour, something a lot of fans have been craving for years. Jovanotti said, “The two dvds, one includes all my appearances on tv. It’s a blob of all my appearances. The other one is a collection of videos, so it will not include the Jovanotti-Carboni tour”.

Another important question was posed by good friend Vladi, who asked “Since you started your career singing in English, why not sing in English in United States?
The answer was even more interesting, “When the time comes. Now it’s not that time. Because I don’t want to translate the songs, I wanna be able to write directly in English and especially my songs translated, they don’t have the same impact, not because my songs are the best, on the contrary it is probably my limitation in song writing. One day perhaps”. Jovanotti’s song writing, I assure, is excellent but it’s true that there’s a lot to be lost in translation.

The night concluded with an acoustic performance, accompanied by his guitar, “I’m not a guitar player, think of this like a group of friends gathered on the beach around the fire”, of some of the songs included in Italia 1988-2012, the aforementioned cd ATO Records released for the American market.
Piove, Sulla Frontiera, an astonishing stripped down version of La porta è aperta, Serenata Rap, Come parli l’Italiano, Mezzogiorno were the songs played.

Operation Nostalgia: Roxette Live.

By Michael Traversa

For thirty something like us Roxette represent our childhood, memories from when we were growing up, songs that have become part of our DNA. Knowing that they are still alive as a band and putting out electrifying shows is somewhat comforting.

So it was with great pleasure that my buddy and I decided to descend on the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal City to see them live for the first time.

The show was good with a lot of energy and hits aplenty, although a couple of favorites were not played, and they were missed. It started off with the classic Dressed for success followed by one of the major hits from the 90’s Sleeping in my car. The live rendition was excellent mainly thanks to great additional musicians in the band. Half of the duo Per Gessle was like a kid on stage, time seemed to not have passed for this middle aged rocker, the voice was even better than twenty years ago; he kept jumping left and right from one end of the stage to the other, practically carrying the whole show on his shoulders. Same cannot be said of the other half Marie Fredriksson. Unfortunately she was diagnosed with brain tumor in 2002 and the way to recover is a long and hard one. She appeared contrived on stage, almost robotic, she can still sing but her voice is clearly not what it was back then. At times troubles with hitting both high and low notes were evident and back up vocalist Dea Norberg along with Per masterfully tried to mask it.

In the case of the ballad Crash Boom Bang it was a wise choice to let Per sing the first verse before passing the ball to Marie (this was one of the songs sang entirely by Marie on record). If the start was a little rough it got better throughout the show. The long medley “back to basics two chordsHow do you do / Dangerous was probably the highlight of the show: it got everybody on their feet and singing and finally brought down the invisible barrier between those on the stage and the ones below.

The band introduction made space for a Beach Boys impromptu by lead guitarist Christoffer Lundquist which eventually lead into Joyride, another show stopper thanks in part to the fans’ initiative to release balloons in the air – off of a line of the lyrics – balloons that kept floating over the crowd’s heads.

The encore was made of classics, “We can’t really leave you without playing this oneListen to your heart, followed by breakthrough single The Look. Marie had problems even walking while exiting the stage and she needed to be accompanied out, on the contrary Per was the life of the party, keeping playing the guitar even after dropping the guitar pick. The finale was dedicated to an acoustic version of Church of your heart.

It was a night down memory lane; even when the show wasn’t as good as anticipated it was still a lot of fun. Loud and satisfying, despite the occasional problems.

Sunset Strip Music Festival

By Michael Traversa

We finally made it to the Sunset Strip”. Punk rock band from Orange County The Offspring came on stage and embraced the warm welcoming from the crowd of the Sunset Strip Music Festival, now in its fifth year. That one and half mile of Sunset Boulevard rose to fame in the Seventies, thanks to its soon to become world famous clubs such as the Roxy and the Whiskey a Go Go which hosted breakthrough shows of bands such as The Doors and The Police. Now that strip is once a year closed to the traffic to host a music festival that gathers the most iconic acts of hard rock.

We used to drive up here from Orange County to see the Ramones play the Palladium or to see the Clash play the Whisky and the Roxy“, said guitar player Noodles.  On Saturday night The Offspring shared the bill with Marilyn Manson (more on that later) and kicked off a powerful set with All I Want that got everybody jumping up and down from minute one. The band was always on the mark, never wasting a second and successfully mixing popular hits with new material out of the freshly released Days Go By. Mosh pit often broke lose among those closer to the stage, especially on all time favorites Bad Habit, Want You Bad and The Kids Aren’t Alright. New songs Dividing by Zero, Slim Pickens Does the Right Thing and Rides the Bomb to Hell got a very positive response as well. Lead singer Dexter Holland had everybody at his feet with sing-alongs while guitar player Noodles often claimed the spotlight.

Dexter, Noodles and co. have come a long way since their shot to success in the nineties. All their songs made of recognizable riffs, catchy choruses and ya-yas and oh-ohs definitely deserved their place in the history of music. When Dexter wasn’t joking with the crowd, “Hey that’s something everyone can enjoy” (one of the many intros off Americana), he would embrace the guitar to slow things down on the hypnotic Kristy, Are You Doing Okay? only to go back and have everybody screaming Pretty Fly (for a White Guy). The humble approach to their presence at the festival “Thanks for checking out our set“, albeit being listed as top billing, goes to show their sincerity in music and connection to their fans.
This fast and furious show (it clocked at about 70 minutes) was probably one of the best concert I ever witnessed, never a dull moment and with so many hits on a career that spans over more than twenty years it was impossible not to get carried away.

Manson drew a more hectic crowd, several people throughout the set had to be escorted out by security, sometimes kicking and refusing to leave. The reverend himself, recently back on the music scene (his latest album Born Villain was released in May after a three year hiatus), had a somewhat more sober show when compared to his tours of the past. He left the theatrics at home for most part and seemed more concentrated on giving a private show to some elected kids gathered backstage on the left end.

The show kicked off with the heavier tune on the setlist Hey, Cruel World… and soon started maneuvering between the hits Disposable Teens, The Dope Show and brand new songs No Reflection, Pistol Whipped. Manson was often chatty in between songs. Declaring his love for California, which has become his new home, and inviting his fans (only half way joking) to steal his albums instead of buying them. He made fun of the war, talked about his dad and warned the people about not doing drugs, “At least don’t do my drugs“, which served as introduction to The Dope Show. The set really started having a bigger impact on the crowd when the covers Personal Jesus and the signature rendition of Sweet Dreams were played. His frantic movements on stage and a few props (helmets and a plastic knife) reminded me of the Manson that once was. He’s now more of a rockstar than a gothic controversial figure.

He often expressed his privilege to play the historical Sunset Strip, all that love translated in an impromptu mini set with the remaining members of The Doors Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger who came on stage to perform not one but three songs off their catalog. Manson in particular looked happy of being able to play with his idols, “I don’t know if you guys invented the Sunset Strip, but you pretty much paved it“, he said. In fact when he asked the crowd if they wanted one more Doors song, he declared, “This is the first song I learned to play” (Five to One).

The encore brought back on stage the choreographic part of a Marilyn Manson show. From a pulpit Manson tore pages off the Bible only to chew on them and spit them out towards the crowd while performing Antichrist Superstar and later top it off with super smash hit The Beautiful People (“This song was written for you“) which closed the set among an explosion of white confetti and an invite on shouting as loud as possible.