Friday, July 5, 2013

A Capitol Fourth (PBS, 7/4/13)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the 31st annual “A Capitol Fourth” concert from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on the Fourth of July. These things have been going on for some time and tend to be wildly uneven, and this one was no exception: surprisingly, some of the younger performers on the show outpointed the veterans. The veterans included Barry Manilow, who was introduced as the greatest living showman (a designation I doubt even many people who like Manilow would give him), and Neil Diamond. The non-veterans included the cast members of Motown: The Musical, 13-year-old Jackie Evancho (who started the proceedings by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” who phrased it as if it were something from the score of The Sound of Music but has a quite nice and technically accomplished voice; like Judy Garland she has a fully formed adult woman’s voice even at 13, though stylistically she’s a lot closer to Deanna Durbin and she’s also clearly been influenced by Julie Andrews), country singer Scotty McCreary (who sang a pretty standard-style country love/sex song with the self-explanatory title “Girl, I Gotta See You Tonight” — there’s nothing off-color about the lyrics but there’s still no doubt about what he wants to see her about — but sang it quite well), and what was for me the high point of the evening, current American Idol winner Candace Glover. She’s a buxom African-American woman (with long straight hair) who picked a song called “I Am Beautiful,” and I couldn’t have enjoyed the experience more: a woman of size who (like Adele) isn’t ashamed of it, singing a song celebrating her own beauty and singing her heart out on it! Of the veterans, Neil Diamond did three songs, including a new one called “Freedom Song (They Won’t Take Us Down)” — a title that led me to the grim expectation of a Toby Keith flag-waver about bombing the shit of those supposedly trying to take us down. Instead it turned out to be a surprisingly Springsteen-esque stadium anthem about American freedom — and I had to remind myself that if Springsteen had written and sung this song I’d have liked it better, an indication of the difference in their reputations (and the difference in my interest in them) rather than the quality of Diamond’s song.

Then he sang “Sweet Caroline” and bobbled the part where the melody goes down — I joked to Charles, “It’s unusual to see a singer who has trouble singing their old hit because they no longer have the low notes!” — and afterwards did the almost inevitable, given the date and the occasion, “America” from The Jazz Singer, a song I actually quite like because of its campy over-the-topness, and one which had a weird resonance for me in the middle of the debate over the immigration bill, in which by a series of amendments the militarization of the border has reached absurd lengths (including the plan to double the size of the Border Patrol, which is already the largest federal law enforcement agency and has reached the point of having to recruit at job fairs — maybe I should apply there!) and the so-called “pathway to citizenship” has started to look more and more like an ordeal on a reality TV show. (“Only one of our contestants will get the coveted green card! The others will be — VOTED OFF THE COUNTRY!”) The clash between Diamond’s eloquent defense of the “nation of immigrants” and the ridiculous bill that’s being debated in the Senate now (and which probably won’t pass the House because the Tea Party’s minions don’t think it’s tough enough!) was almost unbearable — and it might have made the song itself seem better than it is. Diamond came off quite well compared to Manilow, who got to sing four songs in the early part of the show: “It’s a Miracle,” “Could It Be Magic?,” “I Write the Songs” — which he didn’t write; ex-Beach Boy Bruce Johnston wrote it for a David Cassidy album he was producing, and my friend and former partner Cat Ortiz was always in high dudgeon that Cassidy’s version had been a hit in Europe but Manilow had covered it and taken the U.S. hit away from him — and whatever you think of David Cassidy he did do this song worlds better; not only does he have a richer, much more flexible voice, he’s also heard of phrasing, which Manilow hasn’t — and “Can’t Smile Without You,” on which Manilow duetted with an audience member — female — who had almost no voice at all. I would have hoped he’d pick a random woman in the audience who would turn out to be a fully trained singer with a fabulous voice that outshined his, and she’d become an overnight star, but alas this was reality, not 42nd Street.

Manilow’s opening set was followed by the Motown: The Musical cast, who were reasonably accurate simulacra of the Supremes, Temptations and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas as they went through “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “My Girl” (whoever did it last night hasn’t anywhere near the smoothness or soul of David Ruffin on the original record, but so what; it’s as good as you’re going to hear the song done live today), “Get Ready,” and “Dancing in the Street.” “Get Ready” was preceded by a brief scene in which an actor playing Berry Gordy makes a pass at the actress playing Diana Ross and she expresses doubt that she should get romantically involved with her boss, while he assures her that it’s going to make her a big star and he won’t let their personal emotions get in the way of business. It certainly sounded to me like an “official,” sanitized version of the dark story already told honestly (for the most part) in the musical Dreamgirls. After that we got an act that was introduced as “Darren Chase with Patrick Lundy and the Messengers of Music.” Chase turned out to be yet another white soul singer wanna-be and P. L. and the M’s of M turned out to be a small army of African-American backup singers, any one of whom could probably have grabbed the mike from silly little Darren Chase and done the song — the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” already covered by white artists like Joey Dee and the Beatles (and not surprisingly Chase was far closer to Dee than the Beatles) — worlds better. In the middle of the song Chase sat at a piano, banged out a few chords and tried to convince us he was Ray Charles; then he got up again, laid down on the floor during the last chorus and tried to convince us he was James Brown. (“The hardest-working white man in show business!” Charles joked.)

Then Jackie Evancho came back with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” and while her rendition was hardly at the level of Elton John’s (I made a joke about how right after we got a lame cover of a Black song we were getting a lame cover of a white one), Charles reminded me that she’s only 13 — and Evancho certainly has enough sheer vocal talent that she could become a very great singer, and she’s already a quite appealing one despite my jibe. The next piece was a medley of John Williams’ music from the film Lincoln, introduced by a film clip from its director, Steven Spielberg, played by trumpeter Christopher Martin and conducted by Williams himself. (Throughout the rest of the concert, the National Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Jack Everly, the late Erich Kunzel’s successor.) It was quite lovely, even though the visual presentation featured photos of the real Abraham Lincoln intercut with clips from the movie, which gave away that though Daniel Day-Lewis was quite believable in the part he really didn’t look that much like the man he was playing. After that came Megan Hilty, who turned out to be another pleasant surprise: a blonde Broadway star (she was Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked) who got to sing “Someone to Watch Over Me” as part of (of all things!) a tribute to disabled veterans. As soon as the camera panned down to a long line of young men in wheelchairs, many of them with limbs in casts as well, my glucose detector went off and I said to myself, “Milking it” — but as little as the song had to do with the scene (there was a lame attempt by the M.C. and Hilty herself to connect them by saying that America’s servicemembers are “watching over” us), Hilty sang it beautifully. Yes, there were times I could have wished for more understatement instead of the full-tilt Broadway belt as she reached the climax, but still she sang Gershwin — here and later on in the show when she did “Strike Up the Band” — better than most other living people could have.