Sunday, March 31, 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Great Guitar Solos, #5: Alvin Lee

"His speed and dexterity...was scary and exciting. He was daring enough to play and sing close to his limit every time. As a man off-stage, his persona was modest and gentle. On stage - a giant who will be missed greatly."

-Queen's guitarist Brian May, on Alvin Lee

I remember the first time I saw "Woodstock" on PBS, many moons ago. I came to the initial viewing with an intense sociological curiosity about late '60s America, which seemed so much more happening and free and authentic than the plastic, reactionary, hyper-corporatized '80s I was living in.   

But most of all, I watched "Woodstock" for the music. In an era loaded down with drum machines, synthesizers, and slathered-on production, it was refreshing to witness a moment in time when the distance between musician and listener was shorter, when technological crutches were absent and real musicians spoke directly from the heart with real instruments.

There were famous performances I knew about in advance (Jimi Hendrix doing "The Star-Spangled Banner," Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help from My Friends") and acts I was familiar with who I didn't know were in the movie (Santana, Crosby, Stills, and Nash). And there were artists I discovered for the first time, including Alvin Lee of Ten Years After.

The general public best knows Ten Years After for the single "I'd Love to Change the World," but Alvin Lee was a touring musician first and foremost, a guitarist's guitarist who proved himself night after night on the road.  

This video from "Woodstock" is Lee's moment in the sun.

(Click on box in lower right for full screen)

Lee steers this epic performance from the get-go with hot opening licks which show that he means business. Once the verse comes in, he effortlessly shifts between rhythm guitar/belted-out blues vocals and fluid, rapid-fire fills reminiscent of Johnny Winter.

The solos at 5:30 and 9:18 blaze, but they're just one part of the bigger picture. Lee was among the many British invasion musicians who'd assimilated the foundational blues and rock of post-World War II America. Here he tips his hat to his rock 'n' roll forebears with short quotes from "Blue Suede Shoes," "Baby Please Don't Go," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and "Walk that Walk," ultimately showing how a resourceful interpreter can turn a simple 12-bar blues progression into a dynamic piece.

While "I'm Going Home" is Lee's most renowned performance, the version of "I Can't Keep from Crying" below is a better showcase of his guitar chops.

(Click on box in lower right for full screen)

Lee starts with a classical riff that segues into finger-picked arpeggios and back into the riff. After striking a big meaty resonant chord, he dishes blues licks doubled with scat-like vocals before bringing in the main theme and opening verse. Within two minutes, he is let loose in jamland. 

Book-ended by short vocal sections is a sprawling, free-flowing quarter hour where Lee's advanced intimacy with the fretboard emerges in endless variations. There's a jazzy chord fragment line that gives way to a smoking lead, tapping, brief nods to Cream and Jimi Hendrix, pick slides, a tuning peg experiment, a microphone-stand-as slide maneuver, and intermittent injections of molten Pentatonic runs over a steady organ-bass-drums vamp. The only thing that isn't in this recording is the bow from "Dazed and Confused."

R.I.P. Alvin Lee (December 19, 1944 - March 6, 2013)
At a twenty-minute running time, "Crying" is not for people who feel most at home with a hook-based verse-chorus, verse-chorus song structure they can hum in their car on the morning commute. 

But guitarists, jam band fans, and patient listeners are grateful for the Alvin Lees of the world, the imaginative improvisers who draw from within to offer spontaneous combustion that can transcend scripted, notation-based music

**Click here for Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (of Funkadelic)

here for Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa

here for Great Guitar Solos, #3:  Hiram Bullock 

and here for Great Guitar Solos, #4: Dweezil Zappa Nails "Eruption"

Friday, March 8, 2013


"No!" dramatizes the campaign ad wars leading up to Chile's 1988 plebiscite.

In the fifteen years since General Augusto Pinochet has replaced the democratically-elected president (Salvadore Allende) in a bloody CIA-backed coup, countless dissidents have been jailed, tortured, executed, exiled, or "disappeared."

Honoring election provisions in Chile's constitution (and international pressure to bring legitimacy to the Chilean government), Pinochet has called a referendum. A "yes" vote would give him eight more years in office; a "no" vote would trigger a free and fair presidential election one year later. 

Getting rid of Pinochet and his iron fist appear to be a long shot. After 15 years of subjugation, many Chileans don't see any point in voting; they assume the election will be fixed. Others grimly accept the dictatorship as a fact of life, a form of inertia which one No campaign adviser calls "learned hopelessness." And even if Pinochet loses the vote count, some wonder if he'll actually relinquish power. 
Augusto Pinochet, dictator

As a minor concession, Pinochet grants the No campaign 15 minutes a day on state-run television to make their case to voters.

The fictional protagonist is dropped into this factual setting. Gael García Bernal plays René Saavedra, an advertising wizard. 

While his ex gets arrested for demonstrating against the government, Saavedra is apolitical, seemingly detached from the process. Early on, he butts heads with his partners in the No advertising campaign. Most of the No brain trust (who relish the "privilege" of free speech after fifteen years of government censorship) want to speak truth to power by highlighting the horrifying aspects of Pinochet's rule. 

Saavedra feels that stoking moral outrage is not a winning strategy. He thinks persuadable voters will be more motivated by hope than fear and creates a series of advertisements full of music, dancing, bright colors, youthful smiling faces, inclusion, and fun, in effect turning democracy into a product - complete with a rainbow logo and a theme song.  

While the No ad campaign includes a mix of hope and history, the Yes campaign draws from the universal right-wing playbook with primal appeals to selfishness, nationalism, fear, and a heavy dose of denial. Pinochet's human rights atrocities are invisible in the Yes ads; his military pedigree keeps the citizenry safe, something the other side can't do. Chilean flags are ubiquitous in spots which gush about the country's greatness, insinuating that to love Chile is to love Chile's un-elected leader. Other ads claim that the center-left opposition would kill the economic recovery, though in fact they would better represent the interests of the masses than Pinochet's right-wing plutocracy. And the Yes campaign uses red-baiting for good measure, showing a grim reaper on horseback waving a Soviet flag, falsely conflating the opposition with the dreaded commie Russians. 

Gael García Bernal as René Saavedra
Members of the movie audience laughed out loud at the flagrant dishonesty of the Yes campaign's ads; the parallels to American politics were unmistakable.  As with every American presidential election, the ads are targeted to a narrow group of swing voters (in this case, youth and lower middle-class women over 60), and while the left wheels out A-list artists, the right is stuck with second and third-tier celebrities, the Chilean equivalent of Republicans Pat Boone and Meatloaf. As the Yes campaign tries to pull the wool over the voters' eyes in Chile, George H.W. Bush is on his way to a decisive win in the United States with an empty campaign based on little but mockery of Michael Dukakis' small stature in a tank photo op, attacks on Dukakis for vetoing a bill requiring teachers to lead classes in the Pledge of Allegiance, and plays to white racial fears with the infamous Willie Horton ads.   

A good portion of "No!" consists of campaign staff on both sides reviewing the opponent's advertisements to determine their next move. Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), Saavedra's boss at his daytime advertising gig, is in charge of the Yes campaign ads. When together, both men obscure the extent of their involvement in the campaign, even as they watch each other's spots closely while apart. Advertising is one of the most soulless, repellent elements of modern life, but in this context, with so much on the line, it was fascinating to see how each side plumbed the psychology of the public. 

There's no telegraphed epiphany, but Saveedra's political awareness grows over the course of the movie. The brutal actions of the government against protesters and the consistent threats and harassment he endures from pro-Pinochet thugs make the election stakes crystal clear. As Saveedra leaves an election night party with his young son, one senses that he has connected the dots:  a victory for the No campaign is ultimately a victory for his son's future.

I would be remiss not to mention that the director's decision to tell the story of the plebiscite through the advertising campaign has generated controversy in Chile. 

the glow of victory
People who were involved in the No campaign have pointed out that years of organizing and dissent, and the campaign's ground game - particularly the registration of millions of voters - were unexplored in "No!" 

Pablo Larraín said his original four-hour cut included much more historical context, but this comprehensive vision was sacrificed to keep the narrative simple and focused, and to meet a more accessible running time.

We're back to the discussion prompted by the gussied-up suspense at the end of "Argo" and the dubious implication that torture produced crucial intelligence in "Zero Dark Thirty." The use of extensive archival footage and a U-matic film format (which gives "No!" a grainy '80s look) could suggest an authentic window into history, but major elements of the event are left out. 

What ethical responsibility does a dramatic filmmaker have to history in these circumstances? At what point does artistic license become artistic licentiousness? Is it best to preface the film with "based on a true story" and let the audience decide? 

Survivors of the Pinochet regime may be the only people fit to referee this dispute. For what it's worth, I enjoyed "No!" for a number of reasons. Bernal is steady in the lead, low-key and determined. Despite the serious subject matter there's a lot of humor, much of it dark. The excitement of an election season, of watching the tide of history build, is palpable. The pacing is spry and the subtitles are yellow. And it's hard not to leave the theater on a natural high after re-living a great moment in human liberation.   

                                                   Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

                                                                    "A Spoiler-free Review of 'Mud'"

"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")