by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I watched the 30th anniversary Capitol Fourth concert from last night, a show from the mall in Washington, D.C. featuring the National Symphony Orchestra of that city (one has to distinguish because if you do a Wikipedia search for “National Symphony Orchestra” the first thing that comes up is a page showing how many National Symphony Orchestras there are worldwide, including one in Estonia). This was the first concert in the series held since the death of long-term pops conductor Erich Kunzel — someone named Jack Everly — and there was a long tribute to Kunzel in the middle of the show, including the performers who played on it during his tenure (like Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles — the snatch of Charles singing “America, the Beautiful” with fireworks going off behind him was worth sitting through this show in and of itself!) and a shot of his widow, predictably tearing up.
The performances were the usual mixed bag, and whoever programmed the show made a basic Events 101 mistake by leading off with the finest performer on the bill: Gladys Knight, the seedless version (no Pips), doing old hits “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia” as well as something called “Nitty-Gritty” and sounding as good as she did when she made her first record, “Every Beat of My Heart,” 49 years ago. Like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Patti Labelle, Knight was trained for this sort of singing in a church choir and as a result knows how to sing soul and still preserve her voice — as I’ve noted here before, the real victims of the myth that these singers had “untrained” voices were the white singers who bought into it, tried to sing the same way and totally sent their voices out to lunch in a few years because they didn’t realize that soul singing takes training and discipline just like any other style of music.
Next up was Darius Rucker, who as the lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish proved that you could have a Lynyrd Skynyrd-style Southern rock band fronted by an African-American singer, and is now busy proving that you can be Black and be a country singer as well — though frankly his new material (represented here by songs apparently called “That’s All Right by Me” and “Down the Forever Road”) doesn’t sound that much more country than the Hootie songs and as Black country singers go, he’s no Charley Pride. He also sang Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” — which has always struck me as a potentially good song if someone would come along and sing it as a simple, heart-felt declaration of patriotism instead of larding it with all the Reaganite garbage it took on when Greenwood had the hit (and the Bushite garbage it took on again when it was reissued after the9/11 attacks), but Rucker wasn’t the one to do it.
Then there was a tribute to George M. Cohan — which, predictably, represented him not by a clip from either of his own films (he made two talkies, The Phantom President for Paramount in 1932 and Gambling for Fox in 1934; both are known to exist but neither have been shown recently) but by James Cagney singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in the Cohan biopic of that title, and by the National Symphony Orchestra playing the overture to the revival musical George M.! (originally produced with Joel Grey as Cohan), which at least gave them what amounted to an instrumental medley of Cohan’s most famous songs without them having to produce one afresh.
David Arbuleta, an American Idol runner-up who had opened the show with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” said he wanted to dedicate a song to the servicemembers who are out defending our freedom in hopes that we will stand by them when they return — an important demand, especially given all the horror stories I’ve heard of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan getting shafted by the Veterans’ Administration and receiving either lousy care or none at all from the VA health system. The song was “Stand by Me,” and though he’s up against formidable competition from Ben E. King and John Lennon, he acquitted himself quite well on it.
Then they brought on Chinese-American classical pianist Lang Lang, who played the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini (introduced as the theme song from the film Somewhere in Time and heard here in a treacly orchestration that sounded like something Liberace would have played) and a set of variations on John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” apparently written by Vladimir Horowitz to celebrate his becoming an American citizen, though Horowitz didn’t vary Sousa’s theme enough to make it a truly viable work for a classical pianist, himself, Lang Lang (whom some nasty reviewers have called “Bang Bang” — I remember one American Record Guide critic who began a review of the pianist Yundi Li by mentioning the previous adverse reviews he’d given Lang Lang and other pianists of Asian descent, and said that here finally was an Asian piano player he actually liked and could therefore avoid being accused of racism) or anyone else.
Then, as part of the tribute to Erich Kunzel, John Schneider, star of the late-1970’s/early-1980’s TV series The Dukes of Hazzard, came out and sang a stentorian version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” changing the lyric “When the sun refuse to shine” to “When the sun begins to shine” and ultimately doing such a crazily wrong version I wished they’d had a film clip of Louis Armstrong performing it they could have used instead — though I must say that Schneider’s looks (which were all that made him a star “in the day” — no one ever accused him of acting ability) have held up surprisingly well. Things got better when the Washington Drum and Bugle Corps (though, despite its name, all the brass instruments they were playing were trumpets, albeit some of them were baritone or bass horns; still, unlike real bugles, all of them had valves) did Sousa’s “Washington Post March” and then country singer Reba McIntire came on.
She was introduced by annoying MC Jimmy Smits with a quote from Billboard magazine that claimed she’d had more country hits than any other female singer (more than Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn? That’s hard to believe) but her two original songs, “Consider Me Gone” and “Here’s Your One Chance” (about a young, poor woman whose single mother actually trains her to be a mistress, and she grows up and is quite grateful), were sung with real feeling and soul; she was clearly the best performer on the bill next to Gladys Knight. She got to sing a medley of “America, the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” that was well worth having, and the fireworks display started during those songs and continued through a snippet of the 1812 Overture, complete with chorus and cannons.
The amount of time on these concerts devoted to Tchaikovsky’s ceremonial piece (one even he wasn’t especially enamored of — he knew the government department that commissioned it wanted something loud, cheap and blatantly “inspirational,” and that’s just what he gave them) has gradually shrunk; early on they would present it complete, or nearly so; then it got cut down to six minutes and now it’s down to about three. (I still treasure Peter Schickele’s parody, 1712 Overture, which follows pretty much the same ground plan only with the two main themes altered to commemorate the American Revolution instead of Napoleon’s attempt to conquer Russia: instead of the “Marseillaise” Schickele used “God Save the King” and instead of the Czarist Russian national anthem he used “Yankee Doodle.”)
The concert ended with the usual march medley, including “Stars and Stripes Forever” now heard in its original form, and though it had its bad moments the concert was overall one of the more satisfying ones in the series — maybe there wasn’t anyone on the bill as galvanic as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughan or Jerry Lee Lewis (though Gladys Knight came close), but there was only one really dreadful singer and even relatively minor talents like Darius Rucker and David Arbuleta acquitted themselves well. Still, there seemed to be more of the spirit of America in the show I watched immediately after it, a 2009 Austin City Limits featuring Willie Nelson (playing his ancient guitar, “Trigger,” which he’s had so long — he bought it new in 1954! — it actually has a gaping hole in the soundboard where the fingers of his strumming hand have worn it down through the decades) with the Texas neo-Western-swing band Asleep at the Wheel, whom Nelson has mentored since the 1970’s when he heard that there were a bunch of hippies playing Western swing and told them they should relocate to Austin — which they did.
Even for someone as famously eclectic as Willie Nelson — whose peculiarly intimate voice (he always sounds like he isn’t singing, merely conversing with you in your living room) is as good as ever — the song list for this appearance was pretty weird: it included a cover of “Sweet Jennie Lee,” which Cab Calloway recorded for Victor in 1930; W. C. Handy’s “Hesitation Blues” (though Nelson said he didn’t know where the song had come from or what the title meant!); and an even older, though less obscure, jazz piece than “Sweet Jennie Lee”: “Fan It,” written by Frankie “Halfpint” Jaxon and recorded first by him with a New Orleans band featuring the legendary Freddie Keppard on cornet. It’s less obscure than “Sweet Jennie Lee” because there were jazz covers of it over the years, including ones by Red Nichols and Woody Herman, but it’s still an odd song choice. They also played the traditional blues “Sittin’ on Top of the World” (usually credited to Howlin’ Wolf but apparently originally written by Wolf’s mentor, Charley Patton; it had certainly made its way into the wider world before Wolf recorded it — even Ray Charles had done a Nat “King” Cole-flavored version for Swingtime about five years before Wolf did it for Chess) with Asleep at the Wheel member Elizabeth McQueen on second vocal.
Nelson began the show with some of his early-1960’s hits — the songs he sold to others, like “Crazy” (it wasn’t until Nelson performed this on the very first Austin City Limits show in 1975 that I realized he had written it!) and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and it was only towards the end of the show that he trotted out his late-1970’s/early-1980’s M.O.R. hits (“You Were Always On My Mind” and “On the Road Again”) that transformed him from cult country singer to mainstream attraction.