Wednesday, July 5, 2017

37th Annual A Capitol Fourth (Michael Colbert's Capitol Concerts/WETA/PBS, July 4, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A half-hour before the end of the NBC Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular I switched to the 37th annual A Capitol Fourth on PBS — thereby missing the actual NBC fireworks but catching all the musical performers — and what was immediately apparent from watching the two shows back to back was how much older the PBS demographic is and how much they were trading in nostalgia. Not all the PBS program was older artists — there was an opening performance of “America, the Beautiful” by Chris Blue, the 2017 winner of the NBC singing contest show The Voice — though it seemed to me he was a high-voiced Black male singer with an uncanny resemblance, physically and vocally, to Johnny Mathis (close enough he’d be good casting for a Mathis biopic if anyone ever makes one) — and after an instrumental performance of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” by Jack Everly conducting the National Symphony Orchestra (just the usual name for Washington, D.C.’s symphony), a woman named Sofia Carson came on to do “The Star-Spangled Banner” (and do it quite soulfully without overusing the “soul” tricks).

Then the oldies-but-goodies got trotted out: the Beach Boys (the rump version thereof with Mike Love, who ended up owning the name after all the legal tsuris between him and Brian Wilson, the only original member) did four songs, starting with “Surfin’ Safari” and then, to my astonishment, bringing out the show’s MC, John Stamos (an amateur drummer as well as an actor), and Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray (well, they needed someone who could sing Brian’s parts … ) for what Mike Love introduced as “our new single” but which turned out to be Brian’s great song “Do It Again,” the lead track from the 20/20 album in 1969, in which the Beach Boys were already milking their audience’s memories of “the sun-tanned bodies, the California girls and the beautiful coastline” as elements of a bygone style they were already retrospecting about. Then they did “Help Me, Rhonda” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” — I was a bit disappointed that in introducing the latter they did not pay tribute to the recently deceased Chuck Berry, from whom the Beach Boys originally ripped off the melody (when Chuck Berry did it, it was called “Sweet Little Sixteen” and it’s one of his greatest songs); Berry and his publishing company, Arc Music (a subsidiary of his record label, Chess) sued and got his name on the songwriting credits as co-composer: on my notes, after the title “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” I wrote, “R.I.P. C.E.A.B.”). At least the current Beach Boys have one of the original lead singers; they were followed by a rump edition of the Four Tops with one guy at the end who looks old enough to have been in the original group — but their lead singer, Levi Stubbs, died in 2008 and without him the alleged “Four Tops” simply don’t sound the same. Ironically, their current lead singer is a young, attractive African-American with a nicer voice than Stubbs’, but without the Levi Stubbs growl in front the rump “Four Tops” are hardly going to sound like the originals. (Motown did the same trick with The Temptations, billing a rump group that had one of the original five, backup singer Otis Williams, long after the original lead singers, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, had passed.) The alleged “Four Tops” did a medley of the original Four Tops’ hits — “Baby, I Need Your Lovin’,” “Bernadette,” “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “It’s the Same Old Song” and “I Can’t Help Myself,” also known as “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” (the latter was the title used by Jimi Hendrix when he covered it with singer Curtis Knight in his pre-Experience days).

Then came a Broadway star named Laura Osnes who supposedly starred as Ensign Nellie Forbush in the recent revival of South Pacific — apparently the first time the stage version had been revived on Broadway since the original production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza — though it’s hard to imagine her rather lightweight voice making it at Martin’s level. (Julie Andrews, cast as Maria von Trapp in the film of The Sound of Music — a role Martin had “created” on stage — was superb, grabbing hold of the part and making it her own, but no one else I know of has managed to surpass Martin in one of her signature roles.) Osnes did a self-consciously “patriotic” medley from her current show, Bandstand (not a bio-musical about Dick Clark, as I would have imagined, but about a group of World War II veterans who form a band once they’re mustered out of the service at the end of the war), including a rather silly song called “I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune” coupled with two genuinely good slices of patriotic Broadway, the George M. Cohan classics “Yankee Doodle Boy” (though she didn’t sing that one: her male chorus line just danced to it as an instrumental) and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (which, fortunately, she did sing). The next singer was country star Trace Adkins, who seemed unable to decide whether he wanted to be the sort of country crooner Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow were in the 1950’s or emulate the rougher, craggier voice of Johnny Cash that knocked them off the top of the country charts in the late 1950’s, but his song “Still a Soldier” — about a veteran leaving a not particularly interesting life but still remembering his years of service and the love for his country that led him to serve in the first place — is quite beautiful and moving.

Then came one of the highlights of the show: modern-day gospel star Yolanda Adams with Patrick Lundy and the Ministers of Music giving the full gospel treatment to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” For sheer emotion and commitment Adams made mincemeat of just about everyone else on the program, though she might have had some competition from the next act, Kellie Pickler. Alas, Kellie got sick overnight and had to miss the concert, so they showed two songs she’d taped at the dress rehearsal the night before, “Small Town Girl” and a superb cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” — alas, she only did the “safe” verses, but she sang with such intensity and feeling I suspect she could do justice to the subversive ones. Then the National Symphony Orchestra did a Star Wars medley, with C-3PO and R2-D2 in attendance, and after that Charles arrived just in time to hear the Blues Brothers introduced (more nostalgia!). “You mean Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi are going to sing together?” he said incredulously. “No,” I said, “Dan Aykroyd and James Belushi are going to sing together.” The substitution of James Belushi for his long-deceased brother John worked considerably better than the substitution of whoever that nice-voiced Black singer was for Levi Stubbs, though that was probably because neither Belushi ever had much of a voice (though I remember the Saturday Night Live program on which the real Joe Cocker was followed by John Belushi doing his Joe Cocker impersonation on the same song — and Cocker’s voice had so thoroughly self-destructed by then John Belushi actually out-sang him!), and they cranked their way through Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Land of 1,000 Dances” — originally a piece of laid-back funk by New Orleanian Chris Kenner until Wilson Pickett grabbed hold of it and turned it into a piece of scorching soul. Then one veteran who is still alive, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, joined the Blues Brothers for “Soul Man,” and while he was under-miked and his voice wasn’t what it used to be anyway, he was still great and left those two pathetic white boys in the dust.

Then it was time for the fireworks — literally — accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra cranking out the usual patriotic classics, including the last four minutes of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (Charles kvetched that it’s a piece celebrating the victory of an autocratic government, though since the nation they won the war against also had an autocratic government — the Czar’s Russia versus Napoleon’s France — that didn’t particularly bother me), Laura Osnes getting trotted out again for something called “This Is My Country,” Trace Adkins doing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” (and doing three full verses of it, which was nice), Yolanda Adams doing “God Bless America” (alas, she did not include the rarely performed verse that begins, “While the storm clouds gather”) and the orchestra taking out the program with Sousa’s greatest hits, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the “Washington Post March” (Charles asked me if I could think of any other song that paid tribute to a periodical, and I couldn’t think of one offhand) and “Semper Fidelis” as the credits rolled. The show was reliable fun, and despite the “rump” aspects of their lineups the Beach Boys and the Four Tops were more than that, while Yolanda Adams was “killer” and the rest of the acts were serviceable — and of course the fireworks were spectacular, especially outlined against the Washington Monument, whose rather odd symbolism (paying tribute to the Father of the United States of America, a democratic republic, with a shape originally cooked up in ancient Egypt as a tribute to absolute monarchs!) both literally and figuratively loomed over the proceedings.