Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hollywood Bowl

This piece of mine appears in the current issue (# 105) of Flaunt magazine, wrapped around some very cool vintage photos of the Hollywood Bowl. The article was actually supposed to run last year and you can easily spot the patched on part to make it relevant for this year.

      The crowd is on its feet, dancing and wildly clapping along to the beat. A dark-skinned, grinning African man has nimbly boogied his way along the narrow and curved catwalk that expands half-moon style into the audience. This section of the stage loops the VIP section behind him in an open semi-circle of top-dollar seats whose moneyed concert-goers intently watch the man’s back as he faces the massive, sold-out amphitheater. Suddenly the dancer, a supporting player in this performance by the Senegalese Afro-pop musician Fallou Dieng, starts doing a series of hard, propulsive pelvic thrusts. The loose-fitting drape of the traditional African garb he's wearing accentuates the swing of a clearly gargantuan dick that is not constrained by any undergarment. Beneath the hypnotic grooves of world music and the colorblind/feel-good vibe wafting over the crowd is unbound affirmation of one of the world’s most potent racial myths. The audience gasps as the dancer wickedly keeps thrusting; he’s getting off on their shock while the countless musicians behind him vamp and riff their way through an elastic groove.


      The Hollywood Bowl, built in 1922, may be best known in the American memory as the site of two legendary Beatles concerts in 1964 and 1965. The sight of hysterical teenagers bouncing up and down, drowning out the Fab Four’s revolutionary sugary confections, is forever burned into history via now-vintage news footage. And the Bowl is the majestic newsreel co-star, unobtrusively filling up the background, anchoring history.

      The stage lights dim and the scrim that is placed center-stage, in the middle of the artfully arranged “clutter” of instruments and stage props, is suddenly lit from behind; the silhouette of a feminine form appears and the mounting anticipation of the crowd (filled with lots of lesbian couples of all ages and style configurations) explodes into a collective howl of welcome. The owner of the shadowy female form is Canadian singer-songwriter Feist. For the next hour or so she performs a set defined by witty banter, musical dexterity and, for those not yet initiated, unexpected soulfulness. Her opening act was Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and though they put on a very good show (Jones belts her tunes, dances madly across the stage in high heels like a femme sibling of James Brown, and cracks wicked jokes with the crowd), something of Jones feels incredibly contrived – it’s a sweat-drenched “performance of a performance” of a certain vintage style of Negro soul-shouter, Negro soul theater. It’s museum-piece authenticity pitched to old-school R&B geeks and rainbow tribe hipsters. They eat it up. Feist’s stage show is more improvisational, more inspired. More truly organic, though it is also very artsy in its use of set design and projected video images. But the trappings all serve to underscore one crucial fact: What we are hearing from Feist is true soul music.



      Although the VIP section and the box-seats just behind them offer fantastic proximity to the stage, and the amphitheater’s design is such that no sight-lines are disrupted, the primo place to sit may well be up in the very back: stair-stepped cheap seats. Back here, picnics are spread and strangers jostle in close proximity. There is far greater likelihood of spontaneous dancing breaking out in the nosebleed tier than there is down where money talks. And depending on the artist performing and the crowd drawn, there’s a very good chance that a soft but thick floating cloud of reefer smoke will drift its way from the top of the hill, down over the crowd, hovering lightly and sparking one or two contact highs before fully dissipating.

      “I am not playing with you! Make some noise!” Cee-Lo, stripped down to a wife-beater that stretches tightly over the perfectly round, seemingly solid belly that protrudes almost defiantly in front of him, is demanding his well-earned due. And when the crowd gives it up, the Gnarls Barkley lead vocalist breaks into a Cheshire cat grin, then laughs, “I know y’all are like, ‘That big muthafucka is bad.’” And he is. From a frantic “Gone Daddy Gone” to the rock & soul & blues wail that punctuates “Transformer” to the near operatic lushness of “Neighbors,” to the straight up commandeering of Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” Cee-Lo and his artistic partner Danger Mouse slog off their rock-crit jizz-acclaim and push beyond their media hype to create a night of transcendent music. Fucking transcendent.


      There are not a whole lot of places where the mix of people that constitute LA actually do mix. And it’d be foolish to position the Bowl as a place of Kumbaya sing-alongs and giddy culture-mash. But something about the place simultaneously puts folks on their best behavior and encourages them to let down their guard. Strangers share jokes and food. The desire to commune is large and palpable. As the stage is struck following one artist’s set, and then put together for the next artist, conversation is brokered amongst people in the audience who have never met before and may not meet again.

      She’s not having the best night. Her voice is strained and she’s missing notes. At one point, she flubs a line and blames it on the crew. “What do you guys do, turn off the mike whenever I step offstage?” she asks crisply in the direction of the wings. The crowd oooohs in response. She is a legend, and part of that legend is her fabled bitchiness. For some in the audience, this flare-up is better then any song she could sing or any perfect note she might hit. But then, midway through a concert set-list that is really just a tight, Vegas-style run through of over four decades of music and some of the most identifiable pop gems in the American music catalogue, Diana Ross quiets things down for a jazz segment. As she raises her arms, they jiggle a bit, old lady style, and the effect is sobering. The former poster-girl for the impeccably glamorous, reed-thin fashion-plate has aged. But pushing past the effects of time, sound-system screw-ups and whatever other demons taunt aging divas, she delivers a note-perfect, emotionally wrenching version of the jazz standard “Don’t Explain” that brings the sold-out crowd to absolute silence while she sings. It’s that pregnant “hush” you read about when novelists or gossip columnists try to describe the indescribable power a true star has on a crowded room. That’s what happens here. The Bowl itself seems to hang on her final exquisite note.


      The Hollywood Bowl is the result of harmony. The manmade structure is actually built within one of the world’s largest natural amphitheaters. Mother Nature shaped hills, dirt and rock into a perfect-acoustics buffer zone that was fine-tuned with the addition of stage, seats and technology. The home of the LA Philharmonic, the Bowl has hosted everyone from Pavarotti to Ozomatli, from the Bolshoi Ballet to Al Jolson. Its iconic band shell, originally designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank), was remodeled and updated, given improved acoustics, in 2004. Scheduled to take advantage of the refurbishments in this year’s summer concert series were artists like Grace Jones, Adele, Femi Kuti, Santigold, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Ray LaMontagne, Boney James, Depeche Mode, Herbie Hancock, and Liza Minelli.


      An aged but still spry old African American jazz musician who’s played with a who’s who of musicians over the years is sharing the seating box with us. As he rolls out tale after tale of his decades in the business, his wife is on her cell-phone hard-balling her way through business negotiations on his behalf. She puts the phone away during performances (always respectful of the artists onstage) but at every break between acts picks it up again. As the houselights dim and a group of tousle-haired, thrift-store chic attired young musicians make their way onstage, the jazz man furrows his brow. “In my day,” he says emphatically, “we dressed up to go onstage.” But as the performance stretches on, the jazz man starts to clap along. Soon he’s grinning and shouting his approval along with the crowd. Paulo Nutini – of Italian descent, raised in Scotland, fed a steady diet of classic, gritty soul music – is a dervish onstage, his music a fusion of pub-rowdy, literate folk music and vintage R&B. A huge chunk of the crowd is hearing him for the first time but they are immediately won over by the songs “These Streets,” “New Shoes,” and “Last Request.” As Nutini departs the stage after a raucous encore, the jazzman shakes his head and smiles, “I had my doubts... I had my doubts. But that boy was good.”

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