Chez Shaffner

Monday, November 06, 2006

Album Reviews Live

I have two recent album reviews live at Being There Magazine.

Gabriel & Dresden, Gabriel & Dresden
Game Theory, The Roots

Both albums are fantastic, and I hope the reviews are enjoyable!

Check out the rest of Being There Magazine, while you’re at it. They publish a full magazine every other month, complete with interesting features. Some CD and DVD reviews are added every month. The November/December issue went live over the weekend (including my two reviews!)

Let me know what you think!

Labels: ,

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Wang Center, Saturday, October 7th: So You Think You Can Dance

Go ahead, ask me where I was Saturday night.

You’ll never guess.

Well, maybe from the blog title...

That’s right, I sat in Orchestra Left, Row O at the Wang Center in Boston, for a two hour dance spectacular, the So You Think You Can Dance Tour’s visit to area code 617. To protect me from screaming teenaged girls and exuberant gay men, Keryn and her younger sister, Lyra, accompanied me.

If you told me one year ago that I would have watched (and enjoyed) this show, I’d have laughed in your face. Goes to show that a lot can change in a year.

So You Think You Can Dance was a summertime hit for Fox. The show’s set up echoed American Idol (the same executive producer, too), with one important difference: professional experience did not preclude a dancer from proceeding through the tryout process. Of the final four contestants, two were defending American swing dance champions, one had been in The Music Man on Broadway, and one was a professional hip-hop dance instructor. This ensured a high quality of performance; these were no amateurs.

The premise of the competition was as follows: each pair (male/female until the last few weeks, which featured same-sex pairings) drew a style of dance from a hat and had one week to work with a choreographer on a new routine. The styles were far-ranging: hip-hop, paso doble, smooth waltz, West Coast swing, contemporary, pop, disco, Broadway, and other styles you’ve probably never heard of. After each episode, “America” voted by phone for their favorites, and the two lowest vote-getters did not return (sounds vaguely familiar, yes?)

In almost all cases, at least one-half of the couple was outside his/her comfort zone with the selected dance, and sometimes profoundly so. For a hip-hop dancer who has learned to pop to the beat with each motion, the languid flow of contemporary or the smooth float of a waltz are very foreign indeed. Reverse the scenario, and imagine a classically trained ballet dancer trying to play Fly-Girl… it’s not pretty.

Although all ten finalists were highly talented, some fumbled at adapting to new dance styles. For example, Dmitry, a ballroom dancer by trade, was ineffective in contemporary. Similarly, contemporary soloist extraordinaire Ryan flowed too smoothly for hip-hop and he failed to be a sufficiently masculine lead when partnered in ballroom.

Several finalists, however, demonstrated exceptional range. Ivan, playful self-trained hip-hop dancer, starred in two of the most popular pieces from the season, a poignant contemporary and an exciting Argentine tango. His partner for those pieces was the youngest finalist, Allison, whom “America” voted off at least one week too early. The final four (Benji, Travis, Heidi, and Donyelle) were brilliant when dancing within their comfort zone, but they survived to the end in large part because they had the right combination of personality and technical skill to seem consistently competent even when they couldn’t quite pull off a given style.

The winner of the title “America’s Favorite Dancer” was Benji Schwimmer. His cousin, with whom he holds the current U.S. swing dance title, was also among the final four. That Benji would be one of the top two at the end was never in doubt (to me) from the moment he made the show (as an alternate). Although Travis, who finished second, demonstrated more refined technical skills (his arabesque pirouettes make Keryn’s jaw drop), he ultimately fell short on the popular vote. But don’t feel too bad for Travis, or any of the finalists--I’m guessing they have great jobs lined up after the tour ends.

The SYTYCD Tour, which stops in twenty-odd cities, features the top ten competitors performing favorite routines from the show, joining in ensemble routines (Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” a tribute to Fosse, “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, etc.), and performing two-minute solos.

Boston’s Wang Center is a beautiful venue, ornate marble columns, gilded capitals, frescoes filling the interstices.

Now imagine it filled with screaming teens carrying poster-board signs proclaiming their love for one or more of the dancers.

A boy-band-concert vibe throbbed through the audience.

Despite the screaming throngs, the performance did not disappoint. Even if you have never seen an episode of the show, it would be an extremely entertaining display of dancing talent and often-brilliant choreography. The highlights were numerous, and the performances compared favorably to what we’d seen all season. My personal favorite was a new swing dance routine from Heidi and Benji, followed by Travis and Heidi’s paso doble, wherein Heidi plays the part of the matador’s cape to brilliant effect. I'm not sure whether Keryn could narrow down to a favorite, but I think she'd list the Mia Michaels' choreographed park-bench-and-sunflower routine (again featuring Travis and Heidi) and the gentle hip-hop set featuring Ivan and Allison (and two umbrellas).

As much as I can’t believe I’m writing this essay, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the entire show, and would see it again without hesitation. As I said before, a lot can change in a year.

Now back to Paso Doble for Dummies…


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

José González at Avalon (Boston)

The stage is crowded. Drum set, two large synthesizers, electric guitar and bass resting in their cradles, eight microphone stands, speakers upon speakers. The stage promises bombast. It promises noise.

Two spotlights train on a single man, seated at the front of the stage, acoustic guitar on his right knee. Plucking the bass line with his thumb, thumping the percussion with the heel of his palm, delivering melody in the confluence of his voice and reverberating strings. An orchestra emerges from those two simple instruments: intense and rich, better than bombast, more powerful than noise.

The lone musician is José González, and I came to Avalon tonight to see him. The thin crowd milling about near the stage twenty minutes before his set is here for the same reason. Over the next hour, hundreds more will arrive, eschewing the opening act for the headliner, Zero 7, of which José González is also a current member. Shame on them for missing his act, though the sparseness allows me an unobstructed view from twenty feet.

A few months ago I bought The Chillout Sessions 2006, by Ministry of Sound. (As of this writing, Amazon has only 5 copies left, so I recommend buying now, if you're into downtempo). José González's version of "Heartbeats" is the opening track--you may have heard it an advertisement for the Sony Bravia. That track alone made me hesitate when perusing the events calendar at yesterday. After listening to Mr. González's myspace profile, I decided it was worth $17 to see him live.

For ten seconds between songs he tunes his guitar; even that sounds beautiful. "Slow Moves" is especially awe-inspiring: close your eyes and your brain paints a picture of a three-piece band, open them and find only José González, squeezing more sound from that guitar than you believe possible. Later, after Zero 7 launches its high energy, synth-rich set, one where thrilling electric guitar solos are sometimes wrought through the pounding of keys, José González emerges from the wings. He takes his place again and sings "Futures," the band's current single. It works. Alternating lead vocals between the bounding, skipping, and enthusiasticSia Furler to the quiet intensity of José González, Zero 7 strikes a lovely balance.

See them together if you can, or find a way to see José González on his ongoing solo tour. It was worth a lot more than $17 to me…