Friday, July 6, 2018

38th Annual A Capitol Fourth, July 4, 2018 (Michael Colbert Classical Productions, WETA, PBS-TV, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

As I noted above, the PBS A Capitol Fourth concert (the 38th annual, built around the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jack Everly, who’s led these concerts ever since their founder, Erich Kunzel, died) played mostly to an older audience demographic — though there were a few younger talents on display. The show opened with the vocal group Pentatonix — who present themselves as an a cappella ensemble, though when I first heard them I thought they were cheating by using a drum machine; it turns out that the “drum machine” is one of the Pentatonickers imitating one vocally, and I wish they would stop doing it because I think they sound better without it — with a song called, as best as I could figure it out (unlike NBC’s announcers, PBS’s were not always scrupulous in announcing just what song the musical act was about to play, nor did they run chyrons) either “Sing, Sing, Sing” or “Don’t Let ’Em Break You Down.” Then a young singer named Hylie Jean came out and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a.k.a. “To Anacreon in Heaven” (those are the words of the old British college drinking song for which John Stafford Smith composed the melody in the first place), after which the first of the great (or not-so-great) old-timers on the program came out. He was Jimmy Buffett and he came out surrounded on stage with a company of performers from his just-closed Broadway show Escape to Margaritaville (which apparently is not a Buffett bio-musical but a show about a serious, political woman and a party boy stranded together on a desert island — apparently, to quote Dorothy Parker’s lines about Sinclair Lewis’s novel Dodsworth, Buffett didn’t approach any friends with the outline of his story and say, “Stop me if you’ve heard this before”). Buffett is an O.K. entertainer who’s written one imperishably great song ­— you guessed it, “Margaritaville” — but for some reason the dramatis personae of his musical (including a young man who looked like Buffett recruited him to play Jimmy Buffett as a young man) turned Buffett’s cynical, despairing tears-in-my-cocktail lament into an anthem to good booze and good times.

Afterwards came a young country singer named Luke Combs who’s heavy-set and not especially sexy (I’ll confess that to me a lot of the attraction for modern-day “country” music is all those tall, hot, sexy guys in skin-tight jeans who are so much fun to look at I really don’t care whether then can sing or not!), and whose song “Honky Tonk Highway” doesn’t get many brownie points for originality either, but who sounded a lot more convincingly “country” than either Blake Shelton or Keith Urban had on the NBC show. “Honky Tonk Highway” had a part for pedal steel guitar, this once-paradigmatic country instrument that seems in recent years to have gone the way of the arpeggione or the ophicleide, and it occurred to me that if Hank Williams could be brought back to life long enough to hear it, he’d recognize it as part of his tradition where he wouldn’t feel that way about Shelton’s or Urban’s songs. The next group was the Temptations, or rather a rump group of Temptations recruited by the current owners of the name (basically whoever still owns or controls Motown Records) to do three of the original Temptations’ biggest hits, “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl.” The last two were written for the original Temptations by Smokey Robinson (though on “The Way You Do the Things You Do” he had helped from Bobby Rogers of Robinson’s own group, The Miracles), and a line like “If good looks were a minute, why then you could be an hour” is pure Smokey Robinson. The new Temptations may not have any personnel connections with the original ones (for years a Temptations group circulated with one old guy as one of the background singers who was at least 20 years the senior of everyone else on stage; he was Otis Williams, last survivor of the originals) but they suffered considerably less than the rump Four Tops that performed on one of the previous Capitol Fourth telecasts. I think that’s because the original Temptations’ lead singers, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, both had great voices but didn’t have the distinctive sonic signature of the Four Tops’ original lead singer, Levi Stubbs, and therefore one could appreciate “My Girl” without thinking, “This guy doesn’t sound anything like David Ruffin” (he actually sounds a great deal like Ruffin!).The next performer up was opera star Renée Fleming, who like a number of other opera singers at the end of their careers decided to take a part in a musical and got to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the current Broadway revival of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Carousel. (Charles resents the way this song has become a sort of acme of sentimentality when in the context of the full show it’s about a woman being haunted by the ghost of an abusive late husband.)

After that film composer John Williams appeared as a guest, though he didn’t take over the podium — Jack Everly continued to lead the orchestra as it played a medley of themes from the 1976 film Superman accompanied by clips from the film — which was fun even though if you’ve heard one John Williams score for an action-adventure movie you’ve pretty much heard them all. Next up was one of the relatively young people on the bill, country singer Lauren Alaina, doing her big hit “Road Less Traveled,” which didn’t impress me as much as “Honky Tonk Highway” had but was still nice enough. The next artist was superstar classical violinist Joshua Bell, who was billed as playing a “Spirit of ’76” medley but really just did variations on “Yankee Doodle,” probably the only song from 1776 most Americans are likely to know. Bell also played what was billed as a medley from Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story — it was prefaced with a prclamation about Bernstein and his centennial from Chita Rivera, second lead in the original 1957 Broadway production of the show — but which included only two songs, “America” and “Tonight.” The number was accompanied by still photos of the stage original and also by clips from the 1961 multi-Academy Award-winning movie, which I remembered thinking was the greatest movie ever made when my age was still in single digits. When it was reissued in 1970 I was all too well aware that Natalie Wood was miscast (and it didn’t help that the vocal parts were totally beyond her and were dubbed by the ubiquitous Marni Nixon), Richard Beymer completely untalented, the second leads (George Chakiris and Rita Moreno) completely stole the film from the principals, and the marvelous opening scene shot in the streets of New York City (in a tenement district about to be torn down to make way for Lincoln Center) just made the rest of the movie, filmed in one T-shaped set in a Hollywood studio, look that much more “fake.” (That had been a problem with a previous film of a Bernstein musical, On the Town, too.) After the West Side Story tribute Pentatonix returned with a dull song called “Stay in the Middle,” and a young country singer named Andy Grammer — no relation to Kelsey — did an O.K. song called “Back Home” that was a hit single for him a few years ago.

The show’s main event was the Beach Boys — or at least what’s left of them: a few years ago all the surviving members of the Beach Boys (all the key ones, anyway) united for an album called That’s Why God Made the Radio and a concert tour that generated a live album which — praise be — encompassed material from the Beach Boys’ entire career, not just the early fun-surf-cars hits. Unfortunately, the epic love-hate relationship between the two most important Beach Boys, singer-songwriter-producer Brian Wilson and his cousin Mike Love, went south again after this project and Love, who in earlier legal proceedings had grabbed exclusive rights to the name “The Beach Boys,” organized his own rump group — though at this performance he paraded one other semi-original member, Bruce Johnston, who was recruited to fill in for Brian Wilson after the mercurial (to put it politely) Brian decided at the end of 1964 he would never appear live with the band again. Their repertoire was predictable — “I Get Around,” “Kokomo” (the novelty record they did in the 1980’s for a movie set in Florida, which seemed to appeal to the Beach Boys because it gave them the opportunity to celebrate a beach town on the other side of the country from their native California) and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and their performance was — well, fun, fun, fun. After that came the more celebratory, patriotic parts of the concert: the last four minutes of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with fireworks — the fireworks had actually begun during the closing bars of the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” — cannons and a chorus intoning the Tsarist Russian national anthem whenever the score quoted it), pop-gospel star CeCe Winans doing “God Bless America,” the orchestra in a medley of George M. Cohan’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and probably the dullest patriotic song ever written about America, “This Is My Country,” Renée Fleming doing “America, the Beautiful,” and the orchestra in John Philip Sousa’s greatest hits (“Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Washington Post March”), which closed out the telecast even though it’s possible the concert itself continued after the 90-minute PBS time slot. It was a fun event and a good way to celebrate America’s birthday.