Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jesus Christ in a Crushed Velvet Jacket

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
22 June 2008: Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

When I was in sixth grade, you could get school folders that had album cover art on them. Slick glossy things die-cut as if an LP were coming out the top of a record sleeve. I had a handful of them, but the two I remember most clearly are Rush's Signals and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Long After Dark. I don't know that I was completely aware of who either of those bands were necessarily. I knew and liked their music and all, but I was only 12. I came to really love both of those bands to varying degrees as time passed and my musical tastes continued to evolve. I have seen Rush multiple times over the years, but until this week, I had never seen Tom Petty in concert. So now my wife and I can add him to the list of icon artists we have seen live, putting his name alongside folks like Prince, The Police, and U2.

Steve Winwood warmed up the crowd for Petty, and I don't know that I've ever seen the pavilion so packed for the opening act before. Maybe it had something to do with the weather, but I'd like to think it had more to do with the fact that it was Steve Winwood doing the performing. He played a great set. Where most opening acts seem to be relegated to 45 minutes, Winwood played for just over an hour and hit all the right high points: songs like "Higher Love" for my wife and the Spencer Davis Group hit he co-wrote, "Gimme Some Lovin'", closed the set. But for me, it was hearing one of my all-time favorite songs performed live: "Can't Find My Way Home", written by Winwood during the short life of the supergroup Blind Faith, that satisfied my fix.

Torrential rains plagued us at Blossom once again
, just as they did two years ago. But, like then, we had pavilion seats and were spared the soaked-to-the-bone experience of the poncho-coated throngs huddled on wet blankets up on the hill. And when Tom Petty took the stage decked out in violet crushed velvet jacket with his gray-on-blonde full beard and long straight hair, he looked like Jesus Christ presiding over the coolest tent revival ever.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are cashing in on their stellar Super Bowl halftime show with this tour, and we were happy to oblige them. Much like The Police's reunion tour last year, this was essentially a greatest hits trip through the back catalog. The undiscovered gem on the setlist was an Echo B-side called "Sweet William". This garage rock blues stomper beautifully illustrated the strength of the band and just why the core of the group has backed everyone through the years, from Dylan on his True Confessions Tour to Johnny Cash on the Grammy-winning American II album, Unchained.

After treating the crowd to the Traveling Wilbury's "End of the Line" and the Full Moon Fever deep-cut, "A Face in the Crowd", the last half of the main set unspooled a half-dozen killer songs from Petty's catalog. "Learning to Fly" was slowed to a near-acoustic crawl, taking it to a simultaneously darker yet communal place where the crowd was able to carry the vocals for extended periods. Retaining its psychedelic edge, "Don't Come Around Here No More" lived up to expectations as my favorite Tom Petty song. And the main set-closing "Refugee" bristled with all the fire this Damn the Torpedoes nugget did when originally released almost 30 years ago. The encore of "Runnin' Down a Dream" began a perfect nightcap, followed by Petty's extended storytelling riff in the middle of "Gloria" and the raw energy of 1977's "American Girl". This tour may have been a cash-grab, but it was well-deserved, and I can hardly fault him given the quality of the show.

Tom Petty's fan base defies genre or categorization. I knew his music in middle school when I was listening to rock and pop on WMMS, when I was in early high school and listening to hard rock and hair bands and metal, and when I was in late high school and college and listening to alternative and new wave. Petty's music was always there. Always applicable. Always accepted. And the music remains viable even today, and I'll proudly stand and testify.

"Oh, yeah. Alright. Take it easy, baby. Make it last all night..."

(All photos by Adam and Tracy Besenyodi.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Marvel Unbound - Runaways, Volume 1

An audio version of this blog entry is available in episode 39 of Marvel Unbound. Feel free to leave comments and ideas here or in the Marvel Noise forum's "Marvel Unbound" thread. Enjoy!

I had flipped through Brian K. Vaughan's Pride of Baghdad trade paperback numerous times at the big box bookstore and was totally intrigued by it. I finally picked it up a few weeks ago and sat down one Sunday night to start reading it. An hour later I closed the book, having read it all (and reread parts) in one sitting, feeling like I'd just been punched in the gut. But in a good way.

I had heard of Vaughan because my wife is a huge Joss Whedon fan. And I knew that the two of them had embarked on a sort of creator/writer swap of their respective love children: Runaways and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Vaughan created Runaways, then left the title and penned the "No Future for You" Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight Faith story arc. Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and stepped away from that title to helm Runaways, Volume 4.

Pride of Baghdad is on DC's Vertigo imprint. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight is published by Dark Horse. But Runaways is all Marvel. Originally produced under Marvel's short-lived Tsunami imprint, designed to capitalize on the popularity of manga, it quickly dissolved, and Runaways was folded into the Marvel Age/Marvel Adventures banner in that they are reproduced in the digest-sized trade paperbacks. But the monthly books and hardcover collections don't carry that banner.

The Runaways, Volume 1 hardcover collection tells the story of six only children -- teenagers -- who discover their parents are the supervillains called the Pride, a group working to bring about the end of humanity on behalf of the Gibborim. This 18 issue storyline follows the kids and their journey of discovering their parents aren't who they thought they were, their world isn't what it once seemed, and the person each of them can become. Oh, and did I mention we get an awesome two-issue Cloak and Dagger appearance in the middle of this thing?!

The bulk of the story arc contained in volume one of this hardcover collection takes place over just five fast and furious days. Although framed in the story's present tense, issue #13 is largely devoted to the history of the Pride by way of flashbacks. And the final issue of this collection seems to takes place a few months after the conclusion of issue #17.

While Marvel's X-titles have been milking the whole "mutations manifesting themselves in adolescence" allegorical angle for decades, Runaways takes a different tack. Vaughan sums up the themes explored in the title in his original premise for the book as "At some point in their lives, all young people believe that their parents are the most evil people alive. But what if they really are?" The result is a more literal, fresh approach, and thoroughly engaging read.

There is so much to recommend this book it's hard to know where to begin. For starters, I can't speak to whether or not Vaughan's writing is an accurate reflection of how teenagers talk these days, but I can say with certainty Vaughan's writing is an accurate reflection of how I think teenagers talk today. And the art... oh, man. The art! Adrian Alphona's interiors are perfect. Although the kids are the somewhat stereotypical California beautiful people type, Alphona is careful to never portray them as over sexualized. And Jo Chen's cover art is just beautiful, adding a hint of realism to her depictions.

The embarrassment of riches continues as it throws standard comic book super hero convention out the window by ignoring clichés like super heroes in costumes, using a team name, or even codenames. The kids of Runaways forego costumes for the more sturdy everyday wear of a teenager's lifestyle: jeans, cargo shorts, hoodies, goth wear, et cetera. This natural appearance helps ground the story in the reality of the adolescent world. Although they comment that they are runaways, I don't think the group ever actually refers to themselves as "The Runaways" in the proper noun sense. This falls right in line with the group's general aversion to using individual codenames for each other. Although at one point five of the six decide on codenames for themselves or each other, Runaway Gert and her pet seem to be the only ones to consistently use them and are called by their codenames. She justifies this because she doesn't want to use the "slave name" her evil parents gave her.

Although not a Marvel title, Y: The Last Man is another of Vaughan's works I am looking forward to checking out. I'm holding off for the hardcover collection scheduled for release this fall from Vertigo. Until then, I have my newly received Father's Day gifts from my wife to work my way through -- the second and third hardcover volumes of Runaways.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Short List

Took my sister and brother-in-law to the Rock Hall today. They had never been before. Despite the misappropriation of the institution of rock (and I feel like I'm misappropriating it myself by referring to it as an "institution"), I do enjoy visiting the "House that Rock Built" up on the lake. I was looking through the list of inductees since the Rock Hall began taking names in 1986 and was surprised by how few I've actually seen in concert over the years. Although I love a lot of the bands that aren't on my show list, I'm sure as the years continue to creep by and more and more of the artists that are more of my generation reach that quarter century mark since their first release, the number of artists in the Hall that I have seen live will steadily climb. In the meantime, here is my rather embarrassing short list (followed by the year they were inducted):