Saturday, July 5, 2014

34th Annual A Capitol Fourth (Jerry Colbert Capitol Concerts/WETA/PBS, July 4, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was the 34th annual A Capitol Fourth concert, telecast on PBS from the National Mall, and by now the formula for these programs is pretty much set in stone: the National Symphony Orchestra (under its pops conductor, Jack Everly — presumably no relation to Phil and Don — when Erich Kunzel was alive he used to conduct the National Symphony in both its classical and pops concerts, but they haven’t been able to find a replacement who can do both) as the basis, a spectacular opening sequence, a plethora of musical acts split between showbiz veterans and rising young stars, and an invariable ending sequence consisting of fireworks displays accompanying a truncated version of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (odd politics, there; you can read the 1812 as a progressive victory of resistance by the Russian people against a foreign occupier, or the Russian Tsarist regime successfully defending itself against the progressive governments Napoleon was trying to spread throughout Europe, but either way its historical politics are an odd fit with a celebration of American independence) and a medley of John Philip Sousa marches (here the inevitable “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the “Washington Post March” and either “Semper Fidelis” or “El Capitan,” I’m not familiar enough with the Sousa oeuvre to tell which). The concert began with a new arrangement by John Williams of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which aimed to cross the old melody with Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare” (which I’d heard not long before on a bus — apparently one of my fellow bus riders was using the “Olympic Fanfare” as the ring tone on his cell phone) but was certainly more interesting than some of the other versions I’ve heard, though the pretentiousness level went up when a chorus entered at the end.

Then a giant American flag billowed out across the stage, and just as I was recalling the line in Howard Dietz’ lyric for “That’s Entertainment!” that “waving the flag … began with a Mr. Cohan,” Kelli O’Hara from Broadway (and even if they hadn’t introduced her as a Broadway star you could tell from her singing style, loud, musical but still a bit punchy) came out and began her medley of patriotic songs with “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” from the pen of George M. Cohan. (I couldn’t help but recall the detail in John McCabe’s biography that the original lyric of that song went, “You’re a grand old rag/You’re a high-flying flag,” since the inspiration had been a story of a group of U.S. Marines winning a battle in the Philippines, either during the Spanish-American war or the Aguinaldo insurgency that followed it, and hoisting a tattered, almost rag-like version of the U.S. flag over the battlefield to symbolize their victory, but enough people complained about Cohan referring to the U.S. flag as a “rag” he was forced to change it.) Her medley continued with “This Is My Country” and “God Bless America,” and closed with a reprise of “Grand Old Flag” — no one was going to confuse her with Kate Smith on “God Bless America” but she sang it well, and for all the leadenness of the classic Broadway style she does have an excellent set of pipes. Afterwards the producers of the concert dragged in the Muppets, and whoever is doing the voices of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy these days sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (of course they only did the “safe” verses!), after which “Kermit” did “his” hit, “The Rainbow Connection.” Things got better with the next performer, American Idol contestant Phillip Phillips (that’s his name, or at least what he’s performing under!), doing a quite good modern pop-rock song called “Raging Fire” and making me wonder if he’s Gay — he looks pretty androgynous and the song was carefully crafted to avoid any mention of the gender either of the singer or the person being addressed. (Then again, maybe Phillips or the person who wrote it for him could have simply been following Irving Berlin’s advice to aspiring songwriters: instead of “he” and “she” say “you” and “I” so your song can be sung by either a man or a woman without having to change pronouns.) After Phillips came a couple of other young singers, Sara Evans singing “Amen to Love” (the song prominently featured the word “Hallelujah,” but both Georg Friedrich Handel and Leonard Cohen beat her to that title) and Jordin Sparks (that odd spelling of the first name was the one on her chyron) did the old Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (It’s such a banal song it’s hard to believe it became the anthem of the mainstream response to AIDS, but recently I heard Judy Garland’s version — she recorded it when it was new, and as she did so often she was able to take it up to the thin edge of bathos without going over.)

Then they dragged in the first of the old veterans, former Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald (the announcer, Tom Bergeron, credited him with the vocal on the Doobies’ first hit, “Listen to the Music,” which was actually recorded before McDonald joined), who started out with the soul classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” He did it as a duet with the heavy-set Black woman who was there to be his backup singer — and who was regrettably unidentified, because she totally outsang him and stole the song right out from under him! Then they did a patriotic song which appeared to be called “Shine On, Sweet Dream” and was, if anything, even more bathetic (with a “b”) than the title would have indicated. After that the National Symphony Orchestra got an instrumental selection, which was yet another tribute to (you guessed it!) George M. Cohan, a medley of “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Mary,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Harrigan.” After that came the second veteran performer, Patti LaBelle, whom I would have been looking forward to if she hadn’t chosen to sing the worst song she ever recorded, “Over the Rainbow.” I detested her record in the 1980’s — it seemed like the most sorry mismatch of a great singer and a great song in the history of music — because it was so heavily over-ornamented (if you want to hear a great soul version of “Over the Rainbow,” check out the one Ray Charles recorded for his 1963 album Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul), and she did it the same way last night even though (praise be for small miracles) her hairdo looked like a normal African-American woman’s hair and not like the inside of a lawn mower. Afterwards came another young performer, Kendall Schmidt, with a song called “The Stars Align” that I quite liked, and then Jordin Sparks came out and did “America, the Beautiful” (two verses) — that, too, was a song for which Ray Charles recorded the definitive soul version, but Sparks’ was a nice try and suitably inspiring for the occasion.

After that came a band billed as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — obviously booked there to tie in with the recent release of Jersey Boys, the biopic of the Four Seasons based on the hit Broadway musical of the same title and directed by Clint Eastwood (whose previous musical biography, Bird, was about Charlie Parker, a less well known but far more consequential figure) — only, counting Valli, there were actually five seasons and the other four guys were obviously way too young to have been the originals. What’s more, Valli looked surprisingly cadaverous — as if he were going to start making horror movies and fulfill the grand-old-man-of-terror gig that’s been vacant since the deaths of Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, and as if he’s sold his soul to the devil to preserve that famous falsetto voice. Valli and whoever the four other guys were did three songs, in reverse chronological order, two of which were originally solo records by Valli rather than Four Seasons discs (“Grease” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”), and only the third, “Let’s Hang On,” was originally a Four Seasons record. It was O.K. but one got the impression Valli was there only because the show and movie have made him hot again, rather than he’s being hailed as a major American contributor to music. (As I’ve pointed out before, in the early 1960’s if you lived, or wanted to live, on the East Coast you thought the Four Seasons were going to be the future of rock ’n’ roll. If you lived, or wanted to live, on the West Coast you thought the Beach Boys were going to be the future of rock ’n’ roll. And the actual future of rock ’n’ roll, unbeknownst to both of you, was being hatched in England — and not even in London, but in Liverpool, a city most Americans had probably never even heard of until they were solemnly informed that the Beatles were from there.) Then it was time for the fireworks — in both senses. A Capitol Fourth has become a well-oiled formula, and the thrills this time definitely came from the young performers — I remember the year one of the veterans was B. B. King, and he was so overcome by the honor he delivered a searing, impassioned performance, but this year’s oldsters were far from his league either in intrinsic talent or in inspiration — but it’s fun, and I was feeling misanthropic enough after a long day around strangers I didn’t mind that my annual Fourth of July fireworks fix was coming from TV rather than “live”!