by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
One was my DVD recording of last night’s Capitol Fourth concert on PBS, which surprised me by being decidedly inferior to the National Memorial Day concert from last May 24 I’d just got around to watching yesterday morning on the ground that an orgy of patriotism would be an appropriate way to begin the Fourth of July. The big problem was that the greatness-to-schlock ratio was way out of whack; conducted (as was the Memorial Day concert) by Erich Kunzel with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Capitol Fourth concert began with a marvelous performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Aretha Franklin. Aretha essentially turned the national anthem into a gospel song, varying the melody, “worrying” the notes and changing the word “o’er” the two times it appears to “over” just so she could have an extra note to play with. It was a marvelous performance, in some ways closer to Jimi Hendrix’ famous instrumental recording from Woodstock than any other vocal version, and my only regrets were 1) she only sang the familiar first chorus (I wanted to hear more!) and 2) the rest of the concert was going to have a hard time following her.
They didn’t even try; instead the program bee-lined straight from the sublime to the beneath-ridiculous and brought out Barry Manilow for three songs: “It’s a Miracle,” a medley of “Daybreak” with “This One’s for You” and “Somewhere in the Night,” and “Copacabaña” (I hadn’t heard “Copacabaña” since it was originally popular in the late 1970’s and frankly I’d forgotten what a terrible song it is; it’s got an infectious hook, all right, but the rest of it sucks rotten eggs). It got even worse than that as they brought out the Sesame Street Muppets for a ghastly medley of the Sesame Street theme with some of the songs representing the individual Muppet characters — “Elmo’s World,” “I Love Trash,” “Somebody Come and Play” and “’C’ Is for Cookie” — which made me think that it was a pity Dick Cheney was no longer in office, because if he’d been there he probably would have had this music replace Yoko Ono and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the material with which to torture — excuse me, aid in “enhanced interrogation” of — the Guantánamo detainees.
Then they brought on Natasha Bedingfield, a singer I ordinarily like (despite the irony of celebrating American independence by bringing on a performer from the country we won our independence from), singing the Carpenters’ “Sing” — a song that under ordinary circumstances would have suited her voice well even though it doesn’t have the awesome purity of Karen Carpenter’s — only they had her do it with the Muppets, who as if we hadn’t been tortured (excuse me, “enhanced”) enough at this point came back again for a medley of George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” After that things got at least marginally better: the current company of the Four Seasons biomusical Jersey Boys (Jared Spector, Josh Franklin, Devin May and Michael Ingersoll) came on for a Four Seasons medley (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” — devastatingly parodied by the show Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit as “Walk like a man/Sing like a girl” — “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and their comeback record, “Oh, What a Night”) that was a good deal better than most of the material that had preceded it and reminded us of what marvelous ear candy the Four Seasons’ recordings were even though as artists they were blown away, first by the Beach Boys and then, even more definitively, by the Beatles.
After that Natasha Bedingfield came back to do her hit “Pocketful of Sunshine” and things got better with a performance of bits and pieces of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue featuring pianists Michael Feinstein and Andrew von Oyer (it seemed hardly necessary to engage two pianists for music Gershwin wrote for one, but at least Feinstein has a direct Gershwin connection — all those years he worked as an assistant to Ira — and his presence was welcome, as was the TV director’s decision twice to copy the great overhead shot, with the camera revolving as it looks down at the piano[s], with which Irving Rapper ended the 1945 Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue) and Aretha Franklin dredging up two of her old soul hits, “Think” and “Respect.” Though her voice isn’t as loud, imposing or flexible as it was when she recorded the originals, she’s enough of a canny old professional that she managed to rework them and still blow away everyone and everything else on the program.
After that it was another sorry return by Barry Manilow doing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” (appropriating the national anthem of the country we won independence from!) and a supposedly “inspirational” original called “Let Freedom Ring” (it was actually a relief when they began the fireworks during this number!) and then the usual ending fare: the last few minutes of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture complete with fireworks (visible and audible), cannons and a chorus, a march medley by — let me make sure I have all of these — the U.S. Army’s Marching Trumpets, Drum and Fife Corps (who plays a fife in the 21st century, for heaven’s sake?) and Ceremonial Marching Band (they all make a joyful noise but the Marine Corps Band is better), followed by a ride-out featuring the full National Symphony Orchestra in Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The patriotism wasn’t the problem with this concert; the problem was the sheer amount of tripe with which it was weighed down so that only Aretha Franklin emerged triumphant from the morass of terrible music (the Muppets’ selection), mediocre music (Manilow’s originals), and good music ill-treated (Bedingfield’s features and the Gershwin and Tchaikovsky bits). And incidentally I’m still amused by the fact that the intensely moving recitation about Iraq War victim José Pequeño in the 2009 Memorial Day concert (overall a much better show than the Fourth of July concert!) was followed by Katherine McPhee singing, of all songs, “Somewhere” from West Side Story — composed by anti-war Leftist Bisexual Leonard Bernstein …