Sunday, December 22, 2019

How holy was it really?

Blues guitar ace Joe Bonamassa, apart from his considerable musical chops, is also a master of self-promotion, so emails from the people in his retinue authorized to speak for him do not come as a surprise. JB has minions who communicate with fans every week, and his online store also sells "merch" associated with other musicians. Everything from bobble-head dolls to t-shirts, pins, and guitar picks is offered there, all of it evocative of what the marketing elves assure us is a "blues lifestyle."

More often than not, I smile at the "Buy Now!" and "Watch Now!" earnestness of the Bona-machine, knowing that it would be churlish to begrudge musicians a money-making opportunity. But JB can try my patience, even though I've never met the man. One reason I prefer lesser-known acts like Martha Bassett and the Blue-Eyed Bettys is that their email communication with fans tends not to overwhelm, whereas Bonamassa's multi-channel approach inevitably touts both what he's done and what he plans to do next, with side trips into what he likes and what he thinks you should like.

This morning, Joe Bonamassa's crew blasted out an email with the off-putting subject line, "The most rockin' 'O Holy Night' ever -- Watch Now!"

I do not think that was an appeal to people in my (traditionalist) demographic, because my initial reaction to that directive was to think "What fresh hell is this?"

Let me explain what I see as JB's interpretive failure, while opening a can of "Get off my lawn" familiar to other devotees of the weaponized quotation mark:  "O Holy Night" is my favorite Christmas carol, and it's supposed to be transcendent, not 'rockin.' "

Joe's "guitar face" smirk and shades don't suggest awestruck wonderment or tranquility, which is probably why he felt the need to keep his toggle switch duct-taped into the "blues" position. In this case, however, he's committing what I think is a musical misdemeanor of the kind that YouTube icon Rick Beato alluded to when he said that the problem with competitive singing shows on TV is that they put a premium on vocal fireworks and "note chasing" that can be a disservice to songs. Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, or Townes Van Zandt wouldn't come within a million miles of winning a competition like "The Voice," yet each of them is (or was) indisputably a top-shelf artist. There's a reason why the definitive duet on "Seven Spanish Angels" is by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson rather than, for example, singers of arguably greater vocal prowess like Randy Meisner and David Bowie.

If you're going to cultivate or celebrate a sense of the sacred, you have to start humbly rather than from the "here, hold my beer" point of view on which so much rock (turn it up!) or blues (you think you've got it bad?) depends. "O Holy Night" is not a rock anthem, and shouldn't be treated as such. When I want a feeling of reverence evoked by the whammy bar on a Fender Stratocaster, my go-to guitarist is Mark Knopfler, anyhow.

Bonamassa bends notes expertly, and he's got the same fondness for creative distortion that Jimi Hendrix had, but there are compositions that ought not be messed with even in the interest of refreshing them, and O Holy Night is one of those. Adolphe Adam's stellar contribution to the corpus of Christmas music doesn't need a blues-rock overlay.

I don't mean to suggest that "stay in your lane" is an ironclad musical commandment. The folk-punk cover of "Sweet Child o' Mine" by a German polka ensemble has much to recommend it. But The Heimatdamisch lent knowing humor to their Guns n' Roses homage.

Competent artists can take a sturdy chestnut like O Holy Night and add welcome filigree (even if that means singing it while you wear a cowboy hat in church). They can also go beyond filigree to turn the carol into a power ballad, as Jennifer Nettles has done, although her impressive effort remains less affecting than Martina McBride playing it straight with the same material.

But Bonamassa's take on O Holy Night subverts and cheapens the 19th-century French poem on which that carol is based. JB and his accomplices don't play the hymn as an exercise in Christian piety. For them, it's just another platform from which to showcase their virtuosity. Apparently they wouldn't know liturgical resonance if they tripped over it.

JB needs an introduction to Gregorian chant, a refresher on the joys of acoustic music, or a few pointers from what Alison Krauss did so sublimely in the river for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. In this instance, at least, Bonamassa has forgotten the axiom about the singer serving the song rather than the other way around.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

A solid movie year

In no particular order, 2019 gave us:
  • Yesterday
  • Ford v. Ferrari
  • The Peanut Butter Falcon
  • Rocketman
  • Richard Jewell
  • Harriet
  • Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
  • Unplanned
  • Knives Out
In my blog, that's a movie year to be thankful for.

If I were giving out the Academy Awards, I'd tap Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) for Best Actor, and Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) for Best Actress. As for Best Picture, I'm thinking either Ford v. Ferrari or The Peanut Butter Falcon, even though both films have no shot at that award among the glitterati who do the actual voting about such things.

I'm also sympathetic to the idea that when you get right down to it, art should not be competitive, because it is not sport. If you think that one through, I suppose it means that art can ultimately be "good" or "bad," but not "best". Lists are made for convenience, but it's silly to compare Casablanca (for example) with The Searchers -- both films sit firmly in the "good" column.