Parents and children.
If a specific day could be said to possess a theme, well, that surely would’ve been the one I’d've designated for last Tuesday, April the tenth.
Y’see, that was the day my 16-year-old daughter, Julie, though freshly back at school after her Easter break, came home several hours early. We were off to Albany - a near two hour drive - to meet and dine with my old compadre (and Empire City resident), Roger Green, followed by an eagerly anticipated concert in The Egg (a unique civic structure, to be sure) given by Sean Lennon. And oddly enough, opening for the son of John and Yoko was Kamila Thompson, the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson! Also featured was a four piece ensemble (pedigree unknown) whose moniker - Women and Children - still managed to somehow stay on theme!
And as much as I wanted to see the show, I did feel some mild degree of regret (silly as it was, I’ll admit) for being dragged away from the TV only minutes before the true identity of the daddy of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby was about to be revealed!! Now, there’s one kid Sean’s surely gotta relate to…
Let’s review, okay? We were going to see John and Yoko’s kid - along with the Thompson’s kid - with my kid while the TV was chattering on and on about Anna Nicole’s kid! Like I said, theme time…
But how did I find myself in this position in the first place, you might well ask? Cuz, y’know, the truth is, if you’d've told me as recently as six months ago that I’d be heading off with great enthusiasm to see Sean Lennon sing live, I woulda probably thought you were, um, kidding…
Look, I’ll come right and say it - I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Yoko. No, she didn’t break up the Beatles, not really, but there’s always been something that’s nonetheless prevented me from looking upon her with anything more than, at best, begrudging respect - and oft times, not even that. Sorry - my prejudice, and perhaps an unfair one at that. But it is what it is, and it even unconsciously spilled over to Sean, the only child of her storied union with the beloved Beatle.
Julian? Hey, Julian I had no problem with, and I was in fact one of many who snapped up his 1984 release, Valotte, the debut LP that - however briefly - turned the offspring of Lennon and first wife, Cynthia, into an overnight teen idol. But the next several albums (three of which I own, picked up either in the remainder racks or for discount prices at a used CD outlet) were neither the critical nor popular successes that first offering was.
(Happily, a distinctive return to form creatively - if not financially - can be found on Julian’s most recent release, 1999’s wonderful Photograph Smile. Word that another collection of junior Lennon tunes (shockingly, Jules is now older than his dad was when the elder met his tragic demise) is said to be on the near horizon, and if it’s anywhere near the quality of his last CD, it’ll be warmly welcomed in these quarters!)
As for Sean, well, when he released his own solo debut in 1999, Into The Sun, (after collaborating with mom Yoko and subsequently playing with several avant garde musical congregations, material I’ve to this day yet to investigate), I pretty much ignored it. It wasn’t until a year or so later when a friend lent me a copy that I took the time to listen to the CD. I was pleasantly surprised by the disc’s quality, enough so to actually go out and buy my own copy. But as sometimes happens when I add something I consider to be marginal to my always burgeoning music collection (like, for instance, those three other Julian CDs), I rarely get around to playing it. Truth is, if I popped Into The Sun into the CD deck more than twice in the last half decade, I’d be surprised. So when the news came last year that Sean was readying his second solo collection for release, it was all I could do to stifle a yarn.
Hey, I never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the garden, y’know…
What turned me around? Well, it all began with an appearance by the son of Ono on Late Night With Conan O’Brien several months ago. Accompanied by his band, he took the stage and launched into a tune - probably the single, “Dead Meat”, though I can’t say for certain at this late date. Whatever - the thing is, I was immediately struck by both the song’s haunting melody and the group’s expert performance, particularly the vocals. My interest level had been substantially raised - not enough to go out and ACTUALLY shell out some bucks for the new album, mind you, but the seeds were definitely planted…
Because if I HADN’T witnessed that TV appearance, who knows how I might’ve reacted back in early March when Lynn informed me that Sean Lennon was playing at The Egg a month later? Without the evidence provided by Conan’s show, I may well’ve dismissed the notion of attending the show entirely. (Of course, the fact that tickets for the concert retailed at an extremely reasonable twenty-four bucks didn’t hurt the decision making process one iota, to be perfectly honest…). So yeah, we decided, “Hey, why not?” Albany’s not all that long a hike from here - and to sweeten the deal even further, we enlisted local resident (and fellow Fabs fancier) Roger Green! Once we were all in agreement, Lynn went online, secured four tickets, and we were set!
There was only thing we needed now:
A copy of the new CD.
So, later that week, I drove over to my local Best Buy outlet, and purchased a copy of Friendly Fire (which comes as a twofer - a DVD of music videos, loosely tied together as a story of sorts, is included along with the music CD). Arriving back home, I opened it up and slipped it into the disc changer.
How best to describe it? Well, it’s one of those albums that, upon first play you think, “Hmm, very nice. Better than I expected, even”, but nothing really jumps out and bowls you over. Still, it clearly IS good, so you give it another spin.
And then another.
And another still, and before you know it, the ten-song collection (clocking in at a modest 38 minutes) has completely insinuated itself into your subconscious. Whereas many flashy CD’s prove to soon wear thin over all too short a time, Friendly Fire very quietly - but unremittingly - grows on you. By the time Lynn, Julie and I sat down together to watch the DVD (a mere two days before the concert - I wanted the music to work as music first and foremost, and thus avoided the visual interpretations until the tunes were firmly set in my mind), all three of us had long been won over by the record’s subtle virtues.
What does it sound like? Well, unlike Into The Sun (which I naturally pulled off the Hembeck Rack O’ Tunes so as to afford it a thorough reassessment), there were no sudden and unexpected detours into jazz and Latin flavored riffs to be found on this new release. The music here was all of a piece. And while the Beatlesque flourishes regularly found on his half-sibling’s recordings weren’t in such obvious evidence, a close listen to Sean’s song-structure says a lot about the power of DNA. (And not surprisingly, the brothers with different mothers sound - at least at times - amazingly alike. Based on what we have on disc, though, neither one - especially Sean - is likely to pull off a convincing go at the likes of a “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” or “Twist and Shout”. But oh, what the boys could do with “Across The Universe”…).
Maybe the record sounds so cohesive due to the events that inspired it. With song titles like the aforementioned “Dead Meat”, “On Again Off Again”, “Falling Out Of Love”, and the tune that lends the disc its name, you’ve gotta figure there was bad vibes at the root of it all. You’d be right. Now, I can’t say I know all the details - I read about it in an online news story a few weeks back - but as best I can recall, Sean discovered his steady girl two-timing him with his best friend, and before all the conflicting emotions caused by this hurtful revelation could be sorted out, his long-time buddy was killed in a car crash. Yeah, that’s most surely a rotten price to pay for inspiration, no doubt about it…
But whatever the unfortunate circumstances, there’s no denying Friendly Fire is an inspired work of art, so tearing myself away from the tragically farcical Anna Nicole circus for couple of hours, we eagerly embarked on our trip to Albany Tuesday afternoon. Arriving shortly after five, we gathered up Roger directly from his place of employment (and you can read Mr. Green’s own detailed account of the evening by going to his fine Rockin’ and Rollin’ With Rog blog), went out for a vegan-friendly meal of falafel, and eventually made our way downtown to The Egg.
The Egg. I myself was a guest at several FantaCons held in that self-same structure back in the late seventies, early eighties, but hadn’t been inside it since - and I’d never, ever seen a concert there. Well, we parked, hopped the elevator, and soon reached our destination (but not before I turned to Julie and said, “Hey kid, dig it - we’re in The Egg, man! Goo goo ga joob!” Well, SHE laughed anyway…). Our timing was perfect - we were seated just moments before the lights dimmed. And ohmigosh, what seats they were! Third row from the stage, probably no more than thirty feet from the microphone!
Opening act, Kamila Thompson, was already on stage, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. She sang several of her own compositions in a clear, strong voice, inherited no doubt from her legendary British folkie folks, Richard and Linda. The audience warmed to her, no doubt partially due to her engaging between song chatter, but also because she didn’t overstay her welcome, playing for just under thirty minutes.
In this instance, it WASN’T a case of Women and Children first, but instead, second. This foursome - which started out with the female vocalist alone at the keyboards for the opening number, subsequently being joined by the other members of the group one by one on the next several selections - wasn’t as warmly received. Oh, they weren’t bad by any means, but I’m thinking, in a small venue like this, two opening acts is maybe one too many. The crowd was clearly getting antsy for the headliner, and this group’s occasional atonal musical experiments seemed to be trying the auditorium’s collective patience. And they played too long - nearly an hour - after which we had to wait another twenty minutes before the stage was ready for the evening’s featured attraction.
Finally, as the clock neared 9:30 (the show had originally been advertised as running from 7 until 9, but that was sans Women and Children), Sean Lennon and his four-piece band hit the stage to a warm welcome from the small (a 450 seat venue not quite filled to capacity) but enthusiastic crowd! And like I said, there he was, no more than ten yards away! Quite a stark contrast from seeing his dad’s old buddy Paul in an arena, lemme tell ya!
Sporting a bushy beard, a fifties’ ad-exec hat, and a dapper suit and tie (with each male member of the band duded up in similar - if not matching - outfits, minus the head gear), Sean stepped up to the mic, brandishing an acoustic guitar of his own, and launched directly into one of the tunes from Friendly Fire. Which one, I couldn’t tell you, but over the course of the next hour, the band would play all ten selections from the album, as well as one new, unrecorded, song, the instrumental jam that plays under the DVD’s end credits, and for a second encore (the first being Sean alone with his guitar doing “Tomorrow”), “Mystery Juice”, the lone selection lifted from his debut CD. In fact, after introducing the band - Cameron Grieder on guitar, Brad Albetta on bass, Bill Dobrow on drums, and Yuka Honda on the keyboard - he turned to Yuka (who’s also the group’s musical director) and observed that they’d been working together for 12 or 13 years, and that little ditty was in fact the very first song they worked on for their very first CD, where it properly resides as the disc’s very first cut! Now, it’s the very LAST thing they play - hey, THAT’S irony!
How were they? Absolutely wonderful. The playing was precise, but still loose enough as to not come across as pre-packaged. Lennon’s singing was assured, sounding every bit as strong as on the CD - clearly, no studio trickery was needed to sweeten his vocal contributions. The man can most certainly sing! And y’know, when he hunched his shoulders slightly as he sang into the microphone, the body language looked remarkably similar to one of the fellows in that old A Hard Days Night flick!…
The arrangements for the songs (which, incidentally, were NOT played in the same sequential order as on the CD) largely adhered to the recorded versions, with the occasionally focused extended jam elongating a tune to nice effect. The only exception came with “Headlights”, a number that depended on syncopated hand clapping for it’s percussion on the disc. As the group clearly had their hands otherwise occupied, Sean announced that they’d prepared a modified arrangement for the road, and he hoped folks would recognize it (not to worry…).
I’ve gotta admit, initially, I’d just assumed Sean was going to let his guitarist do the heavy picking, leaving Lennon to merely strum his acoustic throughout the show. Midway through, though, he swapped his folkie model for an electric number, and I was surprised that when they came to Marc (T Rex) Bolan’s “Would I Be The One” (the lone number not composed by Lennon), it was Sean, not his bandmate, playing that number’s smokin’ hot guitar solo! Who knew? The kid (who’s now, um, in his early thirties) is apparently a man of many talents.
The crowd loved him - clearly, many in the audience were already familiar with Friendly Fire - but that doesn’t mean the evening was without incident. As the applause for the first number was subsiding, some knuckle head in the back shouted out, “Hey Sean - listen to what the man said!”. The place was intimate enough that there was no way to ignore the remark, though Lennon seemed momentarily confused by it. Hoping to be helpful, the big-mouth in the back clearly pointed out the McCartney connection, but Sean quickly fired back some humorously cutting remark to the unwelcome heckler, eliciting the wild approval of the remainder of the crowd, but unfortunately, the loose-lipped goofball wasn’t quite done. After the next number, he yelled out a total non sequiter (something about a coal mine, I think - I TOLD you it made no sense…), was blessedly silent after the third song, but screamed out “Lenny Kravitz!” after the fourth tune. As Sean once worked with Lenny, he responded by remarking, “Lenny Kravitz. Well, that’s a GOOD thing to shout out at a rock concert, I guess. Not like, y’know, “Celine Dion, WOOOOO!”, an ad lib that had the crowd laughing heartily.
Thankfully, this uncomfortably ersatz Abbott and Costello routine - “Who’s On Stage?” - came to a merciful end during a run through of the CD’s title track, as a couple of beefy guards escorted Lennon’s unwelcome straight man from the facilities, sparing the rest of us his “wit” for the remainder of the evening. The show was so much better without any more unsolicited contributions from the peanut-brained gallery, take my word for it. (Though when Sean later returned to the stage to perform his solo encore, someone else shouted out “Airtight Garage!!”, a reference that very much intrigued Lennon. He explained it was a comic strip by Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) that he quite liked, and that yes, he really digs comic books! In fact, growing up, he wanted to be a super-hero, but failing that, he became a musician instead - which he suggested was almost as good!)
(I suppose I should be relieved that over-eager patron number two didn’t squeal out “Magneto and Titanium Man!”…)
Well, after a rousing standing O, it was all over by 10:30. Y’know, I don’t think I’ve ever attended a concert in which an album was preformed in its entirety - and one that I was so very fond of to boot! After having to practically be dragged to both a Ringo Starr concert and a Paul McCartney show in the not all that distant past, it did my little heart good to find my daughter nowadays so in sync (as opposed to N’Sync, who she USTA like) with her dad when it came to music generally and in particular this evening’s show. Fact is, we couldn’t possibly leave without securing a Sean Lennon tee-shirt for her, one she wore proudly to school the next day. (Lynn and Roger were similarly impressed, by the way, though both skipped the opportunity to upgrade their wardrobes…) (And hey, Rog - thanks for coming along! It made a swell night even sweller, sharing it with an old buddy!)
So my advice to you folks out there is two-fold: if Sean Lennon comes anywhere near your environs, grab yourself a ticket (they’re criminally under-priced), then run out, buy the CD, and live with it in the weeks leading up to the show, playing it over and over. After which, go to the show - you WON’T be disappointed.
And if he’s NOT playing anywhere in your area, well, buy the CD anyway. Again, disappointment is highly unlikely.
Y’know, maybe it’s time for me to reassess my take on Yoko. After all, she certainly raised herself an impressive kid under far from the easiest of circumstances.
Hey, Larry - you might do well to borrow a page - heck, maybe even a couple of complete chapters - from the lady’s book with baby Dannilynn, dig?
Hembeck.com - also not a DNA match with Howard K. Stern (and proud of it), but always open to a Lennon (even the Sisters!). And after visiting my site and Roger’s, why not stop over at Sean Lennon’s? You can check out a little of what I’ve been describing here for yourself!
-Copyright 2007 Fred Hembeck
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