I celebrated Mexican Independence Day (Grito de Dolores) as I do most other holidays – putting on a show. This one was special, because it featured America’s first all female mariachi group Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.
To say this performance was great would be an understatement. Their intonation was flawless, their musicianship stellar, and harmonies angelic. I would argue this quality hasn’t come cheap. As the first in a male dominated musical style, I am sure these ladies have had to overcome huge odds. I would wager many have wanted them to fail and their performances have been criticized much more harshly than their masculino counterparts. Yet, they have endured, overcome, and continue to inspire through the power of music. When you listen to them perform, you hear and feel that strength only a woman can possess and if you work in the industry, it is one of those performances that will remind you that music is much more than entertainment.
If you are a musician, work in the music industry, or are just a plain ol’ fan of music in general you need to go see KISS. I am sorry that I waited this long, but the minute I heard they were playing a mini-residency (well two of the original four members anyway), I was there.
Wednesday, November 5th was opening night and I had my seat dead center mid-balcony, which, in my opinion, is one of the best spots at the Joint at Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Having attended Crüe’s residency last year, I anticipated a spectacular stage spectacle.
That is exactly what KISS delivered.
But it took a minute. I noticed a lot of the fire effects, though very cool, were done by Crüe last year. And for a bit, I was wondering if these residencies might be cookie cutter stage shows.
Boy was I wrong….very wrong.
I want to say it was during Shout it Out that they kicked on the lasers, but I can’t be 100% certain. It all was quite a blur. Anyway, during the tune Gene and Paul rose above the stage on a mechanical lift. The lasers kicked on and swayed over the crowd. From where I was sitting, it seemed like you could just walk right onto the bed of bright LED green. It was so intense that I felt as though I was reliving an acid trip of yesteryear.
It only escalated from there.
Gene took his bass solo center stage while spitting up blood under an eerie green light that was accented by white strobes. Then he lifted into the air.
Yes you read that correctly…he lifted into the air, and then landed on a suspended pedestal above the crowd. From there, they ripped through a few tunes. Later on Paul Stanley took his own ride above the crowd and landed on a pedestal stage left, did a tune and then took off over the audience to land on another pedestal stage right before floating his way back home.
In an era where rock stars cancel sold out shows for the sniffles, here was Paul Stanley, an icon, a multi-millionaire, a recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee riding a hundred feet above the crowd with no safety harness (from what I could see) and no net below. Something only a true rock star would consider, much less take on.
These theatrics happened in front of the best lighting design I have seen yet. Let me put it this way. A true artist learns to paint with less. This L.D. understood that fact and painted that stage with the perfect wash for every song, every feeling, every emotion and then accented it to rhythmic perfection.
Perhaps the greatest moment of the night was after the last tune when the group welcomed a local Las Vegas wounded warrior and his wife on stage. They then handed over this Purple Heart recipient his own home free and clear. After that, Paul asked the whole crowd to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which we all obliged with our hands over our hearts. Then it was back to some serious American rock and Roll culminating with the KISS anthem Rock and Roll all Nite.
It was an epic show, and as a musician and lover of music it was surreal to watch KISS on stage. Something hits you when you see the make-up, the theatrics, the devoted fans. It was more than catching a band, it was catching an actual piece of history. Not just rock and roll history, but a piece of American history. I noticed that during our Pledge of Allegiance as countless foreign faces obliged Paul’s request and stumbled through those words. As an American, I often forget the ingredients that create our country. Things like muscle cars, the iPhone, apple pie, Coca-Cola, and of course…KISS.
My buddy made the best argument about how you define a good concert. His definition went like this: “You know a band is good when tune after tune you say…oh yeah! they wrote this one too. I love this song!”
That was exactly the feeling I got from Darius Rucker’s show at the Joint at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas on Saturday, October 18th.
He just kept on surprising me.
Sure, I knew he was the lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish, so I expected a few of their tunes. However, Rucker reminded me that there were more than a couple, and if you are in my age bracket hits like Time, Let Her Cry, Only Wanna Be With You, and Hold My Hand will certainly bring you back to your high school dance days, making out and lots of heavy petting.
Next, I knew that Rucker had launched a very successful country music career. What I DIDN’T know is how seriously his troubadours tackle the genre. You can hear it in their orchestration with authentic slide steel and fiddle that seems to fit “just right” under a bed of vocal harmonies. This “true-to-the-genre” sound parlayed nicely into their respectful homages to country music legends Hank Williams and Jerry Reed on Saturday. And there is no doubt in my mind that these masters would tilt their stetsons in praise. After seeing how Rucker presents his music live, I can see why he has found success with country hits such as Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It, Come Back Song, Alright, and Radio. All of which he played on Saturday.
And just when I thought the surprises were over, Rucker broke into Prince’s Purple Rain for his final tune.
Earlier this year I got a chance to see the Zac Brown Band at The Joint in the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. I have to admit I was completely blown away by their performance.
The group places musicality at the forefront of their act with five part harmonies and orchestration that is reminiscent of the early Eagles. They intertwine their chart topping hits with an eclectic mix of covers that lesser bands would drop after they emerged from the bar circuit. During that first performance, I heard a little Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews Band and Rage Against the Machine. I have since argued that the Zac Brown Band may be the best “musician” band out touring.
Earlier this week I found out the group was returning to Vegas to play the much, much, larger MGM Grand Garden Arena and I had to go. For one, I enjoyed their first concert so much that I wanted to see them again in the same year. Second, I wanted to see if they could handle a crowd of 15,520* compared to the Hard Rock’s 4,300 capacity*. I had recently watched a master of larger stadiums, Billy Joel, kill the room with a spectacular show and was anxious to see how Zac would captivate such a large audience.
Not surprisingly, Zac did it by showcasing the entire group’s superior musicality. Out of the gate, they played the up tempo hit Whiskey’s Gone with an extreme focus on tightness. A few moments later the group had burned through Uncaged, Kashmir by Led Zeppelin and then introduced a pumped crowd to fiddler Jimmy de Martini with a bad ass rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
It was amazing, it was tight and it sounded so good, but, YAWN, I had heard it before. It was the same opener from their performance at the Hard Rock that year. I knew that if the group tried doing the same show as the Hard Rock it would fail. A bigger audience needs something more and when your show is on the strip in Vegas it better have the ability to cut through the noise of the horde of million dollar Cirque and headliner shows in the immediate area.
I started to lose confidence, but the band’s musicality, combined with the fact that five part harmonies leave a puddle in my seat, kept me from falling off the edge. It was enough to hold me over until the rock stopped and the mood changed. The group broke from their amplified instruments and took center stage seated on four lonely bar stools. From this configuration that resembled a writer’s night at Nashville’s famed Blue Bird Café, they broke into a set that included a powerful rendition of Dan Fogelberg’s classic Leader of the Band, a new cover of Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the group’s classic Toes and a closer that knocked me out of my seat…Piano Man by Billy Joel before they broke for a ten minute intermission.
After the intermission, the group returned to Let it Rain and my personal Z.B. favorite Goodbye in Her Eyes, which was followed by Metallica’s Enter Sandman and a lot of confused audience members who thought they attended a “country” show. The musicality and covers didn’t stop for the rest of the night. There were Z.B. hits like Knee Deep and Cold Weather combined with classics by James Brown and the Temptations among others. The group closed out with their, make you wiggle your butt, hit Jump Right In.
I have to say, Zac Brown’s performance was spectacular. However, I found that the overall presentation was a tad bit lacking, especially in their lighting design. The team did have some great ideas. At times they dropped scrim curtains in front of the stage and lit them with video. This created some cool effects in Let It Rain and the intro to Day for the Dead, but the lighting design was weak. It rarely followed the tempo, theme or mood of the song and in my opinion could have been done much better. On numerous occasions I wondered if the lighting operator had ever heard a Z.B. tune as things just didn’t line up.
They did redeem themselves on the encore opener, Day for the Dead, where they lit the stage in a cool vibrant blue wash and accented the band, who were in full dead costume, with neon emphasis. I wish they had spent this amount of time for the entire show. Some may argue that this is not needed, but in Vegas you have to go big or go home, a lesson Elvis learned during his first round in the city.
I really don’t think anyone else noticed the minor flaws of their lighting design. The group hid them well with their extreme musicianship. At the end of the evening, they broke into the full version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a tune that 90% of today’s bands can’t pull off because they lack the vocal harmonies and musical prowess to facilitate. But Zac and his troubadours could and did…very well.
They closed the night with their chart-smashing hit Chicken Fried. During the verse of “I thank god for my life…and for the stars and stripes…may freedom forever fly, let it ring,” two full dressed marines marched onto center stage to be welcomed by a roaring standing ovation. They stood like statues through the lyrics “salute the ones who died…the ones that give their lives…so we don’t have to sacrifice…all the things we love,” as the crowd cheered on in a moment where everything seemed just fine with America.
All in all, Zac Brown had won me over again. They proved that they can rock any room, be it 4,300 or 15,520. Why? Because they place a high value on musicianship, and when that is at the peak of its game Nothing Else Matters.
Hey Zac, cover that Metallica tune, would you?
You can check out the entire set-list from Zac’s MGM Performance here.
*Figures from Pollstar.