Elton John & Bernie Taupin Tribute CDs “Revamp” & “Restoration” Evoke Different Responses

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Earlier this year, the legendary pianist, vocalist and performer Elton John announced that, after 50 years on the road as a musician, he would be retiring from the road. There’s plenty of reason to believe John when he says this – he’s never even mentioned the idea of quitting prior to 2018 and seems quite happy performing (his residency in Las Vegas was one of the hottest seats in town). The announcement of his retirement disappointed many of his longtime fans and made interest in his concert tour more special that simply being able to see the virtuoso.

Along with his farewell tour, John has also been feted with not one but two new CDs from artists paying tribute to the songwriting of John and his studio partner, Bernie Taupin. This isn’t the first time that the duo has gotten this treatment; back in 1991, they were the subject of a tribute album called Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (the title of the CD reflected the fact that John and Taupin often worked separately on songs, with John coming up with the music and Taupin writing the lyrics in…two rooms). The record featured artists as diverse as The Who, Kate Bush, Oleta Adams, The Beach Boys, Wilson Phillips and Bruce Hornsby (his version of “Madman Across the Water” is nearly as good as the original) and their take on some of the classic music from John & Taupin.

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With John calling an end to his touring days, it seems natural for another trip down memory lane and instead of one CD, fans get two. There’s a reason for this:  one CD, called Revamp, is filled with the top artists from the pop world and their renditions of popular John/Taupin tunes, and the other CD, called Restoration, features the best in current country music taking their shots at saluting John/Taupin. Surprisingly, it is the country side that wins out the “reimaging” (why not just “tribute”) battle between the two CDs.

Revamp kicks off with a snippet of John performing “Bennie and the Jets” before segueing into rapper Logic and P!nk joining forces for a rap/pop version of the tune. The twosome takes the classic song and make it their own, entertaining the listener and offering hopes that the remainder of the CD will be as adventurous. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come to be as pretty much every other song on the disc holds close to the original renditions.

Coldplay’s “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” falls flat, never even coming close to inspiring the listener, but Alessia Cara attempts to redeem that performance with a well-done version of “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues.” Ed Sheeran turns “Candle in the Wind (2018)” into a folksy tune and Florence + the Machine hold serve with “Tiny Dancer.” Mumford & Sons (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”) shows up for a so-so rendition before the top two performances take the CD.

Mary J. Blige demonstrates some very powerful vocals in tearing into “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and really does make the song hers. By far the top song on the album is the collaboration between rapper Q-Tip and Demi Lovato, who take the classic tune John performed with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and stand it on its head. Where the original tune was a piece of pop pablum, Q and Lovato turn it into a reggae/R&B mixed effort that comes off fabulously. Their approach wouldn’t have worked on any other song from the John/Taupin catalog, so it was outstanding that the right performers and song were matched up. Although Miley Cyrus (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and Lady Gaga (“Your Song”) cover their respective tunes admirably, the Killers (“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”), Sam Smith (“Daniel”) and Queens of the Stone Age (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” possibly the worst effort on the CD), come up short on their work.

Revamp is devoid of the artists taking their chances at recreating John/Taupin classics. For the most part, they stuck to the material and, while enjoyable, I’d rather see them stretch a bit and attempt something new. This doesn’t make Revamp bad, it’s just it pales in comparison to its companion disc.

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Surprisingly, it is the country artists that take part in the tribute on Restoration that take the most chances in their interpretations of John & Taupin’s songs. From the start of the CD, with Little Big Town delivering a daring rendition of “Rocket Man,” the country artists seem to be more comfortable with deviating from the originals. The country artists also delve deeper into the John/Taupin catalog than the pop artists did.

Although there is a repeated song – Maren Morris’ OK version of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” – and a repeated artist – Miley Cyrus shows up again to give a so-so performance of “The Bitch is Back” – the other artists take some chances with some deep cuts from the John/Taupin catalog. The Brothers Osborne deliver a stunning rocking version of “Take Me to the Pilot” and country legend Willie Nelson contributes a well-done version of “Border Song,” but other artists stretch their legs.

This isn’t to say they all hit the mark. Don Henley and Vince Gill give up an uninspired version of “Sacrifice” and Lee Ann Womack’s start slow/finish strong version of “Honky Cat” are a bit of a disappointment, but they are more than made up in such choices as Miranda Lambert (“My Father’s Gun”), Chris Stapleton (“I Want Love”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Roy Rogers”). Two duets bear special mention because of their uniqueness, the Rhonda Vincent/Dolly Parton collaboration on “Please” and Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris’ stirring rendition of “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.”

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For its sheer daring and stylistic changes, Restoration comes out as the better CD than Revamp. It could have been for the fact that the pop singers weren’t as well versed in Elton John’s music or that they didn’t feel comfortable taking such songs and making them their “style.” It really seemed that the country artists understood John and Taupin’s works much better, displayed in the chances they took in song choices and the way they were performed. While you can’t go wrong with either one (nor the original Two Rooms…in fact, ownership of all three is well worth having in the catalog), it is clear to see that one is better than the other.

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Protests Only Work When It Hurts…

It’s funny the things that will come up when you’re in the process of moving. During me and my wife’s latest move from the foothills of North Carolina to the Gulf Coast of Florida, I happened across probably one of the more disappointing moments from this year (at least until possibly the election in November)…

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Now, the seats weren’t fantastic – in fact, they were at the other end of the arena from where the stage was situated. But they were square on with the stage and would have offered a great opportunity to see much of the crowd enjoying the show from Bruce, one of the legendary performers in rock history (I could tell stories about seeing him in 1980 for a six-plus hour show, but we’ll save that for another time). My wife and I were eagerly anticipating the show as it had been many years since either of us had been able to see “The Boss” in action.

Then the North Carolina General Assembly and asswipe Governor Pat McCrory got their panties in a bunch.

In February, the Charlotte City Council passed an ordinance extending protections to the lesbian/bisexual/gay/transgender (LGBT) community. A part of this ordinance – and the issue that sparked the most controversy – was the provision for allowing people to use the restroom of their gender identity, rather than that of whichever sex they were born. In essence, the ordinance allowed those who were in the process of shifting from one sex to another to use the restroom of that other sex (male transgendered individuals could use female restrooms and vice versa).

The response by McCrory and the GOP-dominated North Carolina legislature (which has been gerrymandered to make it virtually impossible for a balanced legislature to occur – witness the THREE TIMES that the federal government has called the state’s legislative districts unconstitutional) was immediate. Convening a special session of the General Assembly (one outside the normal working times of the legislative body), McCrory and his henchmen pushed through HB2, a bill that was so overreaching in its aim it was destined for the “unconstitutional” bin almost from the start.

Not only did that bill immediately set that “all people” had to use the restroom of the birth sex, but it also removed the right for minorities and the LGBT community to sue through the state court system for discrimination. It included a provision that prevented individual cities from enacting their own laws that differentiated from state statutes. With many Democratic representatives protesting by leaving the voting floor, the statute passed through the General Assembly with only about 12 HOURS of overall discussion.

This was the end of March and, within days, the impact was felt. Several local productions in theaters around the Tar Heel State reported that the rights holders to significant stage productions (plays) were pulling their approval for performance over the bill. The streaming provider Hulu pulled the production of a program they had set for airing out of North Carolina over the bill and PayPal suspended expansion of its operations center in the state. This was but the tip of the iceberg, however.

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Many entertainment artists have also pulled out of shows that they were scheduled to perform, including “The Boss,” Pearl Jam, Boston, Bryan Adams, Ani DiFranco, Ringo Starr, Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato and Cirque du Soleil. The real thunder came down, however, over the past couple of months, first with the National Basketball Association’s removal of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte. Then, just yesterday, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) removed SEVEN championship games or playoff sites from the state, citing the law as the reason. All totaled, the loss of business regarding all of these repercussions could total to as much as half a billion dollars by the year anniversary of HB2’s passage, with the NBA All-Star Game accounting for about $100 million of that total, and could even impact future business in the state.

The reason this came back to me was not only a result of the move. Finding that ticket stub for an unused concert was simply the catalyst for a reply to model Kate Upton’s Twitter hissy fit over athletes not standing for the National Anthem. Of course, over the weekend was the opening weekend of the National Football League season (and the 15th anniversary of 9/11, just coincidentally) and, following in the footsteps of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s continuing protest against inequality in the United States, some players either did not stand for, knelt in protest or displayed the “Black Power” salute as the National Anthem played. This bunched Upton’s panties, who stated, “This is unacceptable. You should be proud to be an American. Especially on 9/11 when we should support each other.”

The continued attention being drawn to what has now become a movement (hey, if a subject catches the nation’s attention for more than two years – yes, it’s been that long since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, widely considered the spur – it is a movement) is only done when a protest has an impact. Kaepernick has been vocal in the past regarding the issues of black people in the United States and their treatment at the hands of law enforcement, but no one was paying any attention to what he was saying. It wasn’t until his act of defiance of not standing for the National Anthem – and attention was drawn to the fact that he was doing it – that there became a national conversation (admittedly sometimes not about what Kaepernick wanted to talk about, as with Upton’s attempt at using her First Amendment rights by silencing Kaepernick’s, but still there was discussion).

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For a protest to have an impact, there are a couple of things that it should have. It has to have some financial teeth, some fiscal bite, that pushes some to reconsider their positions (it also has to have a side that understands those fiscal implications – apparently North Carolina Republicans are morons if they issue this response). Along with that, it should have some emotional impact on people. There were plenty that were upset over Springsteen’s decision to not perform in North Carolina, just as there are more than likely many upset that Demi Lovato didn’t come to North Carolina or that LeBron James won’t be making an appearance during the NBA All-Star Game in the state. A protest only works when it hurts, either physically or emotionally. That is what makes a protest enact the change that comes about (eventually) with issues.

I’m putting those unused Bruce Springsteen tickets back in the desk as a reminder to myself for a couple of reasons. One, something has to be lost (in some cases) for a protest to have its desired effect, and Two, there is the ability to protest at all levels, from the richest of us all to the poorest. It will be some time before the protests of the actions in North Carolina and the national discussion of inequality are adequately addressed, but hopefully it is sooner than later.

Why Do Women Put Up with Us?

I’ve thought about it before but, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve really begun to wonder in depth how the female part of the species homo sapiens puts up with the male gender. Let’s get beyond the usual stuff – leaving the toilet seat up, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” generalities – and get down to the brass tacks. In a couple of instances of late from the news, things would be much different if there was a female mind in charge.

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Earlier this week, Fox Sports sportscaster Erin Andrews was awarded by a Tennessee jury $55 million in damages stemming from a 2008 incident with a “fan.” In that situation, the pervert reversed the peephole in Andrews’ hotel room door in Nashville, TN, and videotaped (with his cellphone) Andrews in the nude as she prepared for her broadcasting duties with her then employer ESPN. The only way the videos were ever found out about was because the asshole decided to try to sell them to TMZ, that great bastion of journalism.

Of course the perv was found and convicted, spending 27 months in jail (far too short if you ask me), but the damage was done. Andrews spent a great deal of time and money in trying to remove them from the internet – something that is virtually impossible – and eventually filed a civil lawsuit against the criminal and the hotel for their negligence (it was alleged that the hotel gave the man extensive information as to Andrews’ whereabouts in the hotel, even putting him in a nearby room to hers). After two weeks of testimony – which included a tearful Andrews recounting, over two days of testimony, how the situation still affects her today in taunts when she is on college campuses and one of the executives of the hotel actually WATCHING THE VIDEO DURING A DINNER MEETING during the trial (for which the executive vehemently apologized – afterwards) – Andrews was awarded $55 million, although she’ll probably never see a nickel of the money (and it probably wasn’t about that, at least for Andrews).

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While there is a bit of “good” (hey, there’s still a nude video of Andrews out there if you really want to find it) news in that case, another case that has come up isn’t as pleasant. The pop star Kesha’s battle against record producer Dr. Luke was resolved (temporarily) of late, with the courts barring Kesha from doing any recording without it coming from work between her and the producer, whom she claims signed her to a contract at an extremely young age under the influence of drugs. Kesha has also alleged that Dr. Luke raped her and, throughout their working relationship, continually berated her verbally, emotionally and continued the sexual abuse.

The music industry has divided itself along the natural lines, the industry bigwigs on the side of Luke and the performers on the side of Kesha. Taylor Swift (whom I normally wouldn’t give the time of day) stepped up with $250,000 to help support Kesha during a “trying time,” and other artists such as multi-Grammy Award winner Adele, Demi Lovato, Snoop Dogg, Kelly Clarkson (who stated her former management “blackmailed” her into working with Luke) and actor Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order:  SVU), herself a longtime anti-rape and domestic violence advocate, have voiced support. Lady Gaga has firmly announced her support, recounting her story of her early days in the recording industry and how she, like Kesha, was attacked by a male who was supposed to be helping her career rather than relieving one of his “tensions.”

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These are but two of the more visible cases of where men continue to subject women to degrading situations. I am positive that it happens literally millions of times per day across the United States and around the world, whether it is something as seemingly innocent as a “darlin’” when a subordinate performs a task to literally and physically raping a woman while they work with or for a male superior. It shouldn’t happen and it has to be asked why women allow it to continue?

There are, for lack of a better term, the “fantasies” of women taking over in culture and changing it through the utilization of their own powers. There is a classic Greek play called Lysistrata by the Greek playwright Aristophanes in which women, upset with the ongoing fighting in the Peloponnesian War, withhold carnal pleasures from their husbands until the fighting is stopped. It is arguable, however, that the Church put a quick kibosh on that and, over the next 2000-3000 years, women went into the shadows.

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In 1975, however, women finally took a stand, at least in one nation. In Iceland, women went on strike – that’s right, every woman, whether a traffic cop, housewife, bank clerk or mother – walking off their jobs and out of their homes. The resulting 25,000-plus women (astonishing considering the island nation’s population was only about 200,000 at that time) shut down the country and were able to win concessions from the government. The next year, equal pay laws were passed in Iceland and, in 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir was the world’s first elected female president and won reelection in 1988.

Here in the United States, women either do not understand the power they wield or do not want to “rock the boat” on the situation. If the female of our species were to achieve something along the lines of what the Icelandic women did, the impact on the United States – not only economically but politically, culturally and socially – would be seismic.

Instead of only a handful of women being in elected seats of power in Washington, D. C., it is extremely possible that MORE women would be elected to those positions, maybe even a majority of the positions. Businesses would be led by strong, smart ladies who would be led by doing the right thing rather than JUST what the bottom line says. And perhaps we would show more consideration for our fellow persons, as it really does seem that the males of this species don’t really give a fuck beyond their own skin casing as to what others do.

But is it impossible for U. S. women to pull off what the Icelandic ladies did? U. S. women are a diverse lot – more so than the homogenous nation of Iceland – and perhaps they would have the same troubles that men have in this country of deciding a course of action. I would have hope, though, that they would have a better nature than the male gender does and would be able to work through situations rather than compare dick sizes.

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Trust me, I’m not advocating for a Diana Prince/Wonder Woman-like home of Themicyra here. We all have to work together on this traveling roadshow called Planet Earth. But a little more equality between the two genders – achieved through a Ladies’ Strike – would be able to bring us a bit closer to refining the country into the best version it can be – and isn’t that what we’re looking for the United States to be?

So here’s my challenge…Ladies! Time to stop what you’re doing! Moms, put the kids down! Make Dad take care of them for a day. Teachers, cops, mayors, professors, physicians, psychiatrists, astronomers to zoologists…plan one day for the “U. S. Women’s March and Strike,” bring the country to a standstill, march on your state’s capitals and bring about the change that is necessary for the country. Women have and have always had the power…it is time that power is demonstrated, much like your sisters did in Iceland more than 40 years ago. It’s time for women to truly step to the fore!

Mr. Robot a Unique Trip; Florence and the Machine’s Latest Rocks

The most fun thing about entertainment – be it movies, television, music, books, video games or whatever – is that individual tastes are accentuated. Because of this enhancement, there is virtually anything out there that people can digest and, perhaps, things that particular people avoid like the plague. Two things recently have raised my metaphorical radar in that they are excellently done and intriguing, at least to me.

Lately, television has been a bit of a wasteland for me. The last show that I REALLY got into was Leverage (as you already know) and it has been a trial to find something else to garner my attention. There’s only so many athletic events, historical shows (think Henry Rollins’ 10 Things You Don’t Know About…) and movies (VERY few) that you can watch before you would like to see something weekly that you feel invested in. On my DVR right now is the USA Network’s Dig (just waiting until the right moment – as in the announcement of a second season – to burn those off), but it will have to wait until the conclusion of USA’s Mr. Robot.

Mr. Robot is the story of a computer security drone named Elliot who shuffles through his humdrum life by day working for an omnipotent company called E Corporation (or “Evil Corp” to Elliot and his fellow employees – on a side note, the logo for Evil Corp is quite reminiscent of the Enron logo) and, by night, becomes a hacker vigilante who tries to right the wrongs in society. In the very first episode, Elliot finds out a local restauranteur is a pedophile and, rather than bribing the man with the information for a financial profit, turns him into the authorities.

It’s not enough for Elliot, however. He has a massive addiction to morphine, grinding up pills to snort them directly into his system, and counters it by taking anti-addiction medication to maintain a sense of stability. Elliot also is extremely antisocial, even around his childhood friend (and maybe a feeling of more from him) Angela, a manager at the security company that both work for.

Through their company’s work in providing computer security for Evil Corp, Angela and Elliot detect a hack during a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack that requires Elliot to fly with the head of the company to access Evil Corp’s massive computer database and eradicate a file before said attack ravages the Evil Corp systems. Elliot finds the particular bug file and, strangely, the file is directly addressed to whomever finds it. The file requests Elliot to leave it in the system, which Elliot does (with a few changes that put him in control of said file) and, from there, Elliot is off on a ride that he (and the audience) have no control over.

Elliot learns that the hack came from a group called “fsociety” (a clean version of “Fuck Society”) and its leader, a mysterious and legendary hacker by the name of Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot has a vision of leveling the playing field for all of mankind against the corporations and governments that “shackle” them through eradicating all records of debt that people have accumulated in their lives. Elliot, by the end of the first program, isn’t sure which side he wants to be playing for.

Not to give away too much about the program (it is currently up to its seventh week on the USA Network), but it is as trippy as it is intriguing. Add in a Chinese hacker team known as the “Dark Army,” a Russian couple, with the husband being a high-ranking member of Evil Corp (and both with some sinister plot as well as slightly twisted minds) and a member of “the 1% of the 1%,” as Elliot learns, gangbanging drug dealers (remember, Elliot’s an addict) and various other twists and you might find your head spinning.

Part of the reason I like the program is those twists that you don’t see coming. It has a darkness to it that is realistic and, along with that point, the characters speak as a normal person would (you’re going to hear “shit,” “dickhead,” and other assorted vulgarities, including bleeps for where “fuck” has been uttered). But it is done naturally and in the flow of show so, to me at least, it is unnoticeable. There are some plot holes and reality checks during the proceedings, but the science behind the hacking and how complex computer and internet are – or how lacking they may be – is solid.

They couldn’t have cast anyone better than Rami Malek to play Elliot. He delivers on the character with some excellent acting in the role and his appearance – some of it HAS to be his own – give you the impression of someone who is dealing with an opiate addiction. I also really enjoy Christian Slater as Mr. Robot; he is able to play psychotic, caring, nurturing, demanding and rebellious, sometimes all within the same scene.

If you’ve got On Demand with your cable system, you might want to catch up with Mr. Robot as it is well worth the time spent (the first six episodes should be there). Once you’ve caught up, Mr. Robot airs on the USA Network on Wednesdays at 10PM Eastern Time.

On the musical front, I often despair. 2015 has been dominated by the post-teenage Disney chicks such as Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato and others that I just can’t get into fully. I can enjoy Jason Derulo and Bruno Mars, but other male vocalists just don’t capture my attention.  Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea aren’t exactly my taste and don’t even get me started on Taylor Swift. Never has someone done so much with so little talent, except maybe for a Kardashian. And she’s supposed to be what many consider a “fashion plate”; in my eyes, the clothes looked better on the hangar than on Swift (I’ve seen 2×4’s with more curves).

As such, I normally go to alternative music, although my penchants favor the hard rock/metal scene (and most of that, honestly, even bores me nowadays). Recently Florence Welch and her band, Florence and the Machine, released their third album called How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Many of you might not have heard of the band since their debut back in 2009, when the song “Dog Days Are Over” was a big hit on radio. But Florence and her gang aren’t easy to put into one of the nice little cubbyholes that music likes to use, hence the band’s difficulties over the past six years.

Their debut album Lungs was a treasure trove of different musical stylings that demonstrated the power of Florence and the Machine’s music and, in particular, Welch’s voice. Along with “Dog Days Are Over,” the song “Kiss with a Fist” and “Hurricane Drunk” were the outstanding tracks that showed the promise of the band. They were rewarded with being nominated in 2011 for Best New Artist at the Grammys, an award that went to Esperanza Spaulding (who?) over the group, the rapper Drake, the folk band Mumford and Sons and even Justin Bieber.

The follow-up to Lungs, 2011’s Ceremonials, was an even bigger hit for Florence and the Machine, allowing for the group to really take their time before stepping into the studios for their next effort (that and the closure of their record company, Universal Republic Records, helped to give that time). Going back to the studio last year following the breakup of Welch’s then-relationship, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was recorded and released in June 2015, with the band touring the major music festivals, including last weekend’s Lollapalooza show in Chicago.

The musical stylings of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, run the gamut. On the first single, “Ship to Wreck,” Florence and the Machine echo Morrissey, albeit with a few more guitars and a lot more power. “What Kind of Man” is a rocker that sounds as if the Tower of Power horn section was imported for backup, while “Caught” and “Delilah” capture the attention of the listener. Along the way, Welch’s powerful and emotional vocals rule the roost, evoking memories of a more-rock oriented Kate Bush or, for a more contemporary comparison, Adele. In fact, a sing-off between Welch and Adele would probably lead to a stalemate as both blow speakers out with their vocal talent.

All three of the albums are well worth owning, but How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is the way to go for a complete look at the power and potential of Florence and the Machine. Be sure to get the extended version as it contains “Make up Your Mind” (another outstanding song) and the demo version of the title track, showing the development of the song from incarnation to finished product. You can’t miss out on what should prove to be the album that takes Florence and the Machine further into the consciousness of music audiences.