Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Patrick Moraz Live With Yes - 1974

Last week I received my copy of Yes Live at QPR (stands for Queens Park Rangers, for those of you who don’t follow English football). I have to say, it was both surprising and very satisfying. In my earlier post on Moraz and his double-keyboard Minimoog, I talked about how I was a teenager when Relayer came out. 35 years ago and that album still resonates with me, those silky smooth synth lines, which at the time and in fact only until just recently seemed rather mysterious since I had no idea what he used to produce them. A few weeks ago I found out he played Minimoogs. Once I knew that, I had to see video of him live, which is where YouTube is your friend. Many of those videos were from the DVD of the QPR show, so after a bit of searching I went out and bought it.

So, a couple of observations. One is that the DVD does not have the entire show. There’s a separate DVD of part two of the show, but I don’t have it yet. Two is that it’s not an official release. I’m not quite sure if it’s 100% bootleg, but it’s also not quite official either. There were more than a few sound quality issues with the recording, which a Wikipedia article claims were actual problems with the sound at the show. It sounded a little implausible to me, but after reading a number of reviews of the two DVDs on Amazon, there apparently were sound issues and it’s not just a poor recording. The reviews of the second disc say the sound got much better at that point, though. So if you’re looking for a flawless recording, this ain’t it, but if you’re looking for documentation of a great show and can deal with some sound quality issues in the first half, this is definitely for you.

But aside from all that, what I really wanted to talk about was the show. Even all these years later, all the way back from 1974, it’s a standout. One of the biggest surprises for me, actually, was that Jon Anderson played electric guitar for much of the show, as well as a bit of drums. Looking back on it with 20/20 hindsight, there’s of course no way they could have played Gates of Delirium without that extra guitar. I was honestly quite impressed. Anderson did a fine job adding a rhythm guitar to the song, and that allowed Steve Howe to have the freedom to let loose and play. It would have been a much harder job to recreate such a complex and involved song without Anderson’s help (and besides, it kind of gave him something to do through all those long instrumental passages). I’ve seen Anderson play, uh, somewhat cheesy acoustic folky guitar at any number of Yes shows over the years, but to see him A) play electric and B) actually really play it was darn impressive.

Perhaps, though, the most amusing aspect of the show was Chris Squire’s poodle boots (barely visible as an odd puffiness as Moraz crosses behind Squire). Now, it’s probably not fair to criticize 1974 fashions 35 years down the road, but still...To compensate for any hurt feelings my statement may bring up, I have to say that Squire’s Doctor Who-style coat was pretty cool. So Chris, if you’re reading this, please, no hard feelings about the boot thing, OK?

As far as equipment goes, Moraz had four Minimoogs. Two of those were “regular” ones, although one was black, and the other two were in his custom-made double-Mini. He also had an organ, with a Fender-Rhodes on top of the organ and one of his Moogs on top of that. That was on his right if he were facing the audience. On his left was a Mellotron and the double Minimoog. In front of him was the black Mini. Behind him I believe was a Clavinet, but I don’t recall him playing it in the video so I’m not sure. He also had a grand piano on the other end of the stage as well. Lastly, it looked like Alan White also had a Minimoog, but I didn’t see that one get played either so I’m not sure what he was doing with it.

I’ve seen Moraz live a few times, playing acoustic piano with Bill Bruford at the Bottom Line in New York City. It was a real treat, though, to see him go wild on a pile of synths, even if it was only on DVD.

Photos are single frames from the Yes Live at QPR Part 1 DVD.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Eddie Jobson and UKZ

Eddie Jobson proves that prog still lives.

UKZ rolled into New York last night for the final show of their One City World Tour. Uh, wait, I think that was the debut show of the tour. No, really, they meant that literally. The only show on the “tour” was in New York. One does have to wonder about the economics of a single-city tour, but I’m not complaining.

Let’s start again.

UKZ, Eddie Jobson’s return from retirement after more than 25 years, came to New York last night and blew the doors off of the rather elegant Town Hall. The show was incredibly interesting, and Jobson was fantastic. Thick swirling textures, incredible organ, and of course his trademark violin leads. It’s almost like I’d forgotten all about him in the 25+ years since he “retired” and have now been forcibly (and happily) reminded of his existence.

When my friend and I first walked into Town Hall we couldn’t quite figure out what keyboards he had with him. He had a what looked like a Goff-modified B3 straight out of the backpage ads of Keyboard magazine from the ’80s. It looked like galvanized aluminum side panels somehow miraculously supported by very thin legs at the back. On closer inspection it was revealed that those thin legs were actually metal tubes which held the wiring, and that really there were nearly invisible lucite panels holding up the keyboards. On even closer inspection, I was rather astonished to see that Jobson was playing two Prophet T8s! I would never in a million years have guessed that he would bring, here in the 21st century, some vintage synths to his debut show. I have no idea what MIDI gear if any he had in external racks offstage, but he played no other keyboards besides those T8s. I’m still shaking my head about it in a way, and am having a little trouble expressing my sheer wonder at and appreciation of his doing that, especially in the current times when even Tangerine Dream uses Moog Modular emulation software and large onstage video monitors rather than actual hardware.

But regardless of his equipment, what really counts is that he’s still got it, and pretty much tore it up all night long. This is what prog is all about; having chops, and knowing how to use them. I realize there are bands like Dream Theater out there, and while I’m certainly a fan of theirs and they can certainly play millions more notes per minute, the sheer power with tastefulness of Eddie Jobson just can’t be beat. With Jobson, it’s all about the music, not necessarily all about the players. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Jobson has the chops, but doesn’t really need to have the flash of, say, a Keith Emerson with his knives in the organ. He doesn’t have to show you he’s the star, but his playing certainly shows that he’s the foundation.

I don’t want it to seem that Jobson was alone out there, though. He had an incredible group of players with him, including Trey Gunn on Warr guitar, Marco Minnemann on drums (with a little guitar), Alex Machacek on guitar, and Aaron Lippart on vocals (with a little guitar). After the initial U.K. album with Bruford and Holdsworth, Jobson didn’t have a guitarist with him. It was interesting to have that extra bit of texture this time, allowing him the freedom to work less and play more in a sense. To top it all off, near the end of the show they added Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin from the opening band Stick Men for a searing rendition of one of King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 2. For me, this was almost the perfect King Crimson lineup. Double bass, double guitars, drums, all on top of Jobson’s incredible textures and violin. If only...

It was a fantastic show, and I hope they go on to extend their One City World Tour to other cities. UKZ has a four-song EP coming out soon, with hopefully a full album to follow.

Jobson’s back, and it feels great.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Guitar Hero

Well, I finally got a chance to play Guitar Hero. Last year I got my teenage daughter a Nintendo Wii for Christmas. Nobody had them in stock at the time, of course, so while she did get it as a Christmas present we actually only got it sometime this Fall. It’s actually a lot of fun, and definitely different from the PS2 we had previously. The games are much more “body oriented” on the Wii because the controllers are much more physical than a “regular” video game controller. They take your movement into account and not just your finger dexterity. It adds a third physical dimension which other video games lack, bringing the games into the room with you rather than having them confined to the TV screen. It’s an interesting difference.

My daughter had wanted Guitar Hero for quite a while, and has played it often at friends’ houses. I hadn’t really pre-formed an opinion about it, but sort of assumed it was similar to Dance Dance Revolution but with guitars instead of feet. On the surface that’s somewhat true, but I found that the games do have important differences. While the gameplay is similar, DDR is not so much about the music as it is about your movement. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter which song you’re dancing to, but rather the difference is that for Guitar Hero the point is the music whereas in DDR the music is an adjunct. I don’t feel that I’m expressing this well enough to be understood by people who have played neither game, but I hope this will become clearer later on.

Before I talk more about Guitar Hero, let me put a few facts out there. First, I’m a musician. I’ve read that some musicians are very good at Guitar Hero, but also that some great musicians just can’t do it at all. This puzzled me before I had played the game, but it makes sense to me now (but I’ll get to that). Next, I’m not a guitar player. I can play guitar, and in fact many of my songs which have lyrics are written on an Ovation acoustic six-string, but really I’m a keyboard player, and in some ways it might be more accurate to say I’m a synthesist. I also have a Gibson SG, which is probably more in the spirit of Guitar Hero than my Ovation. Lastly, while my daughter can play a number of instruments, mainly flute and piano, she’s not really a musician. Also, she’s much more of a gamer than I am.

OK. I’ve now gotten all that out of the way.

And now we get to the “problem” with Guitar Hero. I said earlier that it’s about the music, but after playing the game a number of times I’ve found that may not be true. As a musician, I rarely play a song the same way twice. (I know this because bandmates have told me so.) It’s definitely recognizable as the same song, though, and while I do play it mostly the same, it’s never exactly the same. In fact, sometimes a song may be radically different when played at different times. As a musician, this is good. It’s called creativity, often with improvisation mixed in. And this is where the problem with Guitar Hero becomes apparent. The goal of the game is to play the songs as “accurately” as possible. While this is not a bad thing in music, it’s actually the entire goal of Guitar Hero. In music, you’re (hopefully) rewarded for improvising, but in Guitar Hero you actually get “punished” for improvising, mainly because the game console notices that you’re not playing exactly the right notes. It doesn’t matter that your notes may be very good ones, very musical ones, it only matters that they’re the correct ones, at least according to the programmer’s idea of the way the song should be played.

Now I have to say that this isn’t bad, but it also isn’t music. Once I had noticed it and figured it out, it made me very aware of the fact that I was playing a game rather than playing music. It didn’t matter if my “extra” notes were better than what I was supposed to be playing, it only mattered that I wasn’t supposed to be playing them.

One of the interesting things about the game is that if you play enough wrong notes in a row, or don’t play notes you should have played, the crowd starts to boo. It’s actually pretty funny, and adds a bit of tension and feedback to the game. I’m not nearly as good as my daughter is at the game, so I tend to experience this more than occasionally, shall we say. But this is one of the main ways I figured out what was wrong with the game. One time I played it, the song we were doing (maybe Eye of the Tiger?) had a long and somewhat boring intro section where you weren’t supposed to be doing anything. As a musician, I “naturally” started strumming the rhythm with what on a guitar would have been muted strings. Imagine my outrage when the crowd started booing! What I had played was perfectly correct and acceptable from a musician’s standpoint, but from the game’s standpoint I was playing illegal notes. I was never able to recover from my quickly accumulated negative rock meter levels, and eventually got booed off the stage. Imagine!

It was actually hilarious, but at that moment it was clear to me that the game had a fatal flaw. There’s nothing wrong with it as a game, but it definitely is not about making music.