Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Charlie Crist is a symptom of an Even bigger problem for the GOP

On April 28th, news broke that Florida Governor and current Senate Candidate Charlie Crist would be leaving the Republican Party and running for Senate as an Independent. The story is on the heels of very poor performance by Crist, which has him trailing in the race for Senate against far-right firebrand and former Florida Speaker of the House Marco Rubio. Crist has been repeatedly slagged by the GOP base for his support for the Obama Administration's Economic Recovery plan, as well as his noted criticism of offshore drilling in Florida, a gulf state.

Consequently, Crist, not a man known for getting into a fray-he notably kept silent as Florida Attorney General during the Terry Schiavo case-has been in a fight for the very future of his career in politics. In a poll conducted last week, Rubio was seen as leading the race with 37%, with Crist at 30% and Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek at 22%. In a nationally televised debate with Rubio, Crist was seen floundering and reduced to mudslinging. All of this culminated in Crist leaving the Republican party and running as an Independent.

The response to Crist's switch has not surprisingly vile. Many members of the GOP who endorsed Crist have renegged their support and supported Rubio. The local GOP even put out a newsletter demanding none of their members vote for Crist. John Cornyn, head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign committee has asked that Crist return the campaign funds given to him by the GOP. In essence, Crist was driven out by an angry mob and told never to come back.

However, Crist's political banishment is not an isolated case. Ironically enough, on April 28th of last year, longtime champion of the moderates in the Republican Party, Arlen Specter, announced he would leave the Republican Party to become a Democrat after it was announced that Pat Toomey, a member of the ultra-conservative interest group the Club for Growth, would be running to the right of Specter in the 2010 senate race. Like Crist, Specter's main crime was support of Obama's Economic Recovery Act and given the dubious title from the Club for Growth of "Comrade of the Week" despite his unabashed support of the Iraq War and gun rights.

In addition, many stalwarts of the Republican Party are facing challenges from the growing far right fringe of the party. Utah Senator Bob Bennett, one of the most conservative members of the Senate is facing multiple challengers from the far right. Even John McCain, the Arizona Senator who was the Republican Party's Nominee for President in the 2008 election, is facing a challenger from the right in disgraced former Arizona Congressman JD Hayworth.

As a result, many GOP Senators that typically would work together with Democrats on issues like energy and financial reform have been forced to say no to virtually everything proposed in Congress for fear that they will become subject to the rage of the Tea Partiers and 9/12ers. This shift to the right in the Republican party is slowly turning the GOP into an ideological party that will not be able to win nationwide elections.

In a recent poll, it was revealed that the biggest voting bloc in America is now independent voters who are disillusioned with both parties. They do not necessarily want to have higher taxes or more intervention from the left, but also do not want government completely out of their business lives and make America into a theocracy as some on the far right want it to be. While the Democratic party has increasingly moved to the center over the course of the past fifteen years, the GOP has become an ideological party that only caters to the beliefs of only a small fraction of Americans.

Furthermore this purge is clearly un-Republican. Case in point, the RNC recently put out litmus test called the Reagan Purity Test, which was named after the principle that Reagan once stated where if someone agreed with Reagan 8/10 times they were on his side. Members who received less than 8/10 would not receive support. However, if Ronald Reagan himself had taken the test he would have failed the test miserably. Reagan famously cut and ran from the Middle East after Marines were killed in Lebanon, raised taxes 11 times during his Presidency and signed the Brady Bill for Gun Control. If the GOP continues this purge, they risk going the way of the Whigs, and the Federalists; only a fringe group of lunatics meeting in basements, hoping for a revival of their ideas that will never come.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jeff Beck brings an Orchestra and Keeps Guitarists' Jaws on the Floor

As the battle for the California Governorship rages between Meg Whitman and her billion dollar advertising schtick and the painfully low key campaign of Jerry Brown, the state of California was treated to a different kind of Guv'nor on April 17th, as Jeff Beck took to the stage at the Nokia Theater. Beck is currently on tour in promotion of his wonderful new album, Emotion and Commotion, where he teams his guitar fireworks with a 64-piece orchestra to create his first studio record in seven years. To perform the material from the new record, Beck has taken a full string, horn and percussion section in tow with him. When needed, a light shines on the orhestra and conductor. When their time is done, the lights go off and are only on Beck, bassist Rhonda, Smith, keyboardist Jason Rebello, and drummer Narada Michael Walden.

For many years, Jeff has been labeled a grumpy Englishman with a volatile temperament that has often prevented him from enjoying great success; he famously broke up the first incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group on the eve of Woodstock, quite possibly missing the opportunity to receive the adulation that peers like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix would later receive. A noted perfectionist, many of his partnerships with other musicians have ended acriminously.

However, in recent years, Beck has been enjoying himself and as a result, he has been reaping greater results. A few years ago, he hired manager Harvey Goldsmith and has been having astronomical success. In 2007, he was featured at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival and put on a memorable 11 song set that was captured on DVD. He put out the phenomenal Live at Ronnie Scott's CD/DVD in 2008, which earned him a Grammy for his instrumental version of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." In 2009, he was inducted by childhood friend, Led Zeppelin founder, and fellow Yardbird, Jimmy Page into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his solo efforts(he had previously been inducted, along with Page, Eric Clapton and others as a member of the Yardbirds) and put on a memorable set and closed out the ceremony by jamming with Page, Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood, Flea, Joe Perry, and Metallica on the Yardbirds classic "Train Kept A 'Rollin." Later that summer, he finally buried the hatchet with fellow British guitar legend Eric Clapton for legendary sets in Tokyo, Japan which led to a mini tour with Clapton in England, New York City and Toronto.

This night, Beck was seen as someone who had nothing to prove to anyone but himself. After an impressive set by Zappa Plays Zappa-a band that features Dweezil son of absurdist composer Frank Zappa playing his father's material-Beck strutted out on the stage in a sleeveless button-up with flames, John Lennon Glasses, White Space boots and purple-striped sweats, toting his legendary white Fender Stratocaster. The entire audience had their jaws agape as Beck opened with "Stratus."

Throughout each song, drummer Walden, a new addition to the band, made sure his presence was known. Aptly dressed in an attire slightly resembled a sushi chef, he proceded to chop of the rhythm and pummel through Beck's riffing and giving a firm grounding to the improvisation going on with the rest of the band. Bassist Rhonda Smith, another new addition, proved her proweress on the four string with slapping bass solos and melodic lines that weaved in and out of the melodies of the song, as well as providing stellar vocals with Walden on Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take you Higher" and on her own, morphing Muddy Water's "Rollin' and Tumblin'" from a Delta Blues rollicker to a dark, hoodoo tinged dirge, aided by robotic vocals by Rebello, proving that in scarity and in the right place, auto-tune does not make you want to shoot yourself.

The real players to keep your eye on however, were the orchestra. On songs like "Corpus Christi Carol" and "Somewhere over the Rainbow" the orchestra provides beautiful atmospheres, allowing Jeff to mimic the vocal lines, by way of manipulating his guitar's whammy bar and volume knobs. Where most guitarists keep their volume knobs on ten, Jeff uses his to create crescendos and swelling sounds, giving his licks a vocal feel and where other guitarists use the whammy bar solely for guitar theatrics, Beck uses it to add extra vibrato to the notes. When coupled with a full orchestra, Beck's guitar turns from a crying maiden to a powerful operatic singer, capable of tenor to baritone.

This does not diminish Jeff's abilities when playing solely with his band however. On songs like "Space Boogie" and my personal favorite "Big Block" Jeff's guitar attacks like Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, destroying everything in its path. Other places, he is capable of playing his guitar with absolute grace such as his version of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," all the while looking so cool, even when he dropped his slide on the song "Angel (Footsteps)."

Beck closed out his initial set with his aforementioned Grammy-winning arrangement of the Beatles "A Day in the Life." This was the only case of the orchestra performing a song not on the new album, as when Beck initially recorded the song, he did so with a full orchestra, per the request of Beatles producer Sir George Martin. On this song, Beck is able to perfectly affectate the tenderness in John Lennon's voice on the Sgt. Pepper classic as well as the violence of the climax in the middle, and when aided by the orchestra, becomes a guitar wizard. By the end of the song, there was not a person sitting in their seat; everyone was applauding or roaring with adulation.

For the encore Beck returned with Rebello playing guitar and Beck pulling out the classic black Les Paul seen on the cover sleeve his bestselling LP, Blow by Blow. He did so, he said in honor of late guitar innovator Les Paul, who died this past August. Beck had become close friends with Les over the years and Beck actually inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Earlier this year, Beck performed with Imelda May, who appears on his new album, for a righteous version of the Les Paul/Mary Ford chestnut "How High the Moon." Here, Beck reprised that performance. Beck was faithful to the original, not deviating from Les' spaghetti string lines. It was a memorable moment because it reminded people that Jeff is a musician just like anyone else and he has heroes and people he looked up to; it gave this seemingly non-human guitar warrior a shade of humanity.

For the closer, Beck and the orchestra performed "Nessun Dorma" from Turnadot. Here, Beck flowed with the orchestra and followed the peaks and valleys. However, by the end, he would not be denied and there he stood, at 65 years old, soaring high above every other guitarist; a monument to the beauty of the six string. At the end, during the applause, Beck said "I have nothing left." If that is the case, he can certainly walk away from this set with a sense of pride.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Review of Emotion & Commotion

Ask anybody to name a famous guitar player from the 1960s-70s Big Bang of Rock and Roll you will likely hear a few familiar names. You will either hear somebody talk about the bluesy explosion of notes that was Eric Clapton in the Bluesbreakers and Cream, or you will hear someone ramble on about the Black Magik conjured by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin, both of whom got their start in British Blues-rockers the Yardbirds. However, if you ask a guitarist to name one of the greats from that era and it is very likely they will name Jeff Beck.

When Eric Clapton quit the Yardbirds over his objection to their decidedly more commercial direction, it was Jeff Beck who filled in and turned the Yardbirds from a cover band into one of the most influential bands of that era. After leaving, he teamed up with future chart topper Rod Stewart and future Rolling Stone, Ron Wood to form the Jeff Beck Group, a band that many consider one of the first heavy metal groups. However, after two albums, Beck had grown tired of the band and began dabbling in more unconventional styles, blending blues with fusion, Indian, Bulgarian folk and electronica. and over the years he has put out instrumental records as well as collaborating with Stevie Wonder, ZZ Top, Imogen Heap and Luciano Pavarotti. He has just enough fame to sustain himself, but enough anonymity to maintain his integrity.

If there is one compliment that is relished on Jeff the most it is that he makes his guitar "sing," in that most of his albums are instrumental yet he is able to emote so much that nobody really misses the vocals; he never wanks like say Yngwie Malmsteen. On Emotion and Commotion, we catch Jeff's ten fingers and six strings singing better than they ever have. Here, Geoff supplements his phenomenal touring band of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, Bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and keyboardist Jason Rebello with a 64-piece orchestra.

Whenever rock musicians decide to use orchestras, it is always a high wire act; the results are either wonderfully profound or insipidly pretentious. However, with Jeff, instead of using the orchestra to be a bed for him to lay his guitar riffs on, he instead chooses to flow with the orchestra. He is the soloist in his pieces but never drowns out the beauty of the strings or the horns. On the opener, "Corpus Christi Carol"-written by another famous Jeff, Buckley-the orchestra becomes the band on the original vocal while Jeff turns makes his guitar convey all of the glory of the original. On "Somewhere over the Rainbow," a song that is covered so often it can make even the biggest fan vomit, Jeff uses the whammy bar of his Stratocaster create the bounce in Judy Garland's original vocal performance.

Jeff also finds time to perform bits his own Jeff-ness. On "Hammerhead," Jeff proves you can make an orchestra really groove, as he goes on an the warpath in a violent Hendrixian fury, brutalizing his guitar until it begs for mercy. On "Never Alone," Jeff dabbles in Africana, having the rhythm section use shakers to create a tribal sound while he uses his guitar to make sounds of chanting. On "Serene," a jazzier number, Jeff lowers the volume but far from tones it down. He plays clever runs that would make John McLaughlin grin and lets bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, a 24 year old Australian woman with enough talent to keep Beck on his toes, take her own blistering solo.

While Jeff has proven over the years that he does not need a singer, whenever he does collaborate with one, fireworks are bound to happen. On the song "Lilac Wine," he teams up with Irish singer Imelda May for a hauntingly beautiful introspection. The song goes back and forth from minor to major to create the feeling of fluctuating emotions. In between May's lines of self reflection, Jeff plays beautifully fingerpicked lines that cacade over the orchestra's flourishes. Elsewhere, Jeff joins forces with British soul songstress, Joss Stone. Stone famously sang on a cover of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" with Beck during his weeklong stint at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, which can be seen on Live at Ronnie Scott's. Here they reprise their partnership on the violent screed "There's no Other Me," where Stone tugs at her vocal chords and spars with Beck's wailing guitars over a dub beat. But the hallmark of their collaboration comes when they cover the Screamin' Jay Hawkins/Nina Simone classic "I've Put a Spell on You." Beck and Stone capture all of the bayou hoodoo of the original on this track, and you can imagine Stone dressed as a gypsy with a crystal ball, and Beck puts on his best Albert King impersonation with his fills.

The gems of the whole album by far though are the versions of "Nessun Dorma" from the opera Turnadot and "Elegy for Dunkirk" from the film Atonement. On "Elegy," Beck uses Olivia safe for a duet while using the volume knob on his Stratocaster to make his guitar crescendo and descend, giving it a violin-like quality. On "Nessun Dorma," he starts out quietly, but as the song progresses, he weaves in and out of the orchestra, changing with the mood to culminate in a beautiful burst of ecstasy by the end of the song.

In rock's pantheon, good guitar players are a dime a dozen and many great guitarists fall off the face of the earth. However, Jeff Beck has proven that one can take the road less traveled and have a sustainable, long lasting career. He will probably never have the fame that his contemporaries have enjoyed but he has something that few in today's modern business can lay claim to: integrity; and that has led to him receiving the adulation and respect of his peers.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Insensitivity of Bob McDonnell

When most Americans think of the Civil War, they consider it quite possibly the most traumatic war this country ever went through. The reason being that it was a war where Americans were killing Americans. Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady at the time, had many male relatives who were fighting for the Confederacy. By the time Lee surrendered at Appamatox, at least 618,00 soldiers had died in the name of this war. Shortly thereafter however, it was clear that the nation's wounds were not completely healed when President Lincoln would be shot, Reconstruction would be an abject failure and African Americans would be subjected to 100 more years of oppression in the South.

However, these facts seem to have escaped Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who this week, declared the month of April to be Confederate History Month. Virginia is the state where the Confederacy's capital was located and was where many crucial battles took place. McDonnell on his website claimed that "this was a defining chapter in Virginia's history that should not be forgotten but rather studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians both in context of the time in which it took place but also in the context of the time in which we live."

While it is indeed important to study this time as a part of American history, to glorify the actions of men who seceded from the Union and as a result caused the bloodiest war ever to occur in American history is insensitivy on behalf of the Governor. Furthermore, When McDonnell was probed in an interview about the study of Slavery in the Confederacy, McDonnell claimed it was not significant enough to discuss, saying "Obviously [the conflict] involved slavery" but that there were "other issues" and that he focused on the ones that were most "significant" to Virginia.

McDonnell's statements not only reflect insensitivity but also ignorance of the history of his state. Production of Cotton through Slave Labor in the colonies and eventually the states possibly originated in Virginia. Not to mention the fact that when the South was engaged in the Civil War, other countries suffered a brief shortage of American textile. In America's formative years, cotton production was given the moniker "King Cotton." Not to mention that almost all of the significant historical figures from Virginia up to and including the Civil War were slaveholders, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and General Robert E. Lee. One of the main reasons why Virginia left the Union was because they were concerned the abolition of slavery would send the cotton industry into a tailspin, thus harming their vitality.

However, the greatest and probably the most damning quote in McDonnell's waxing of Confederate Glory is claiming that it must be understood in "both the context of the time in which it took place but also the time in which we live in." Why should we study it in the time in which we live in? We are not living in a time where there is an issue anywhere near as divisive as the issue of slavery, unless McDonnell is counting the outrage on the right about the healthcare bill that largely people of his ilk have generated.

Furthermore, this time is quite possibly one of the most shameful eras in our country's history. It was a time when we troves of people to a foreign land to work on plantations for incentive of their own and for the benefit of rich aristocrats. This nation has come so far from those dark years; so much so that a year and a half ago, we overcame our long history of discrimination when we elected an African American to the highest office in the land, not to mention the fact that he carried the state of Virginia.

Mr. McDonnell's statements praising this time is not only an insult to all of those who died on the battlefield but also spitting in the face of all of the progress we made in spite of people like himself and the Confederates. In addition, by honoring these men, we are honoring traitors and men who betrayed their country. How can we in good conscience honor those who betrayed this nation as heroes? Do we venerate the Tories and the Loyalists? Do we pay tribute to Benedict Arnold or Aaron Burr? By dedicating a month to honor traitors, Mr. McDonnell is committing treason against the United States of America and to the very ideas of America.

It seems like daily, Americans are bombarded with questions about President Obama's Patriotism or whether or not Nancy Pelosi secretly hates America. Yet how is it that we cannot question McDonnell's love for his country when he is honoring the memory of one of the most disgusting times in American history?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why Ayad Alawi's lead is a sign in the right direction

While a majority of the American general public was watching as the Tea Partiers and 9/12ers were setting the nation ablaze over healthcare reform, few people realized that in Iraq, the nation we have been in for the past seven years, had a parliamentary election. Despite a few car bombings, this election was decisively less violent and chaotic than the previous election in 2006 where Nouri al-Malaki was elected prime Minister. In this election, al-Malaki appears to have met his match as prime minister when his State of Law Coalition party only won 89 seats in Parliament while Iraqi National Accord party won 91 seats.

At the helm of this party was none other than former Iraqi Prime Minister, Dr. Ayad Allawi, a neurologist who was educated in London at University during his years of exile. Prior to his travels to England, Allawi was a devout follower of the Iraq's Ba'ath party. However, he defected from the party upon the rise of Saddam Hussein as leader of the Ba'ath party. He would go on to form the Iraqi National Accord in 1990. When the US began to prop up a democratic government in 2005, Allawi was appointed as interim Prime Minister until the people of Iraq elected Ibrahim al-Jaafari to be prime minister.

Yet perhaps the fact that is most astonishing about Allawi is his decidedly more secular approach to governing. In a 2004 address to the US Congress, Allawi only mentioned Islam twice and invoked the name of Allah once. For Iraqis to vote en masse for someone as secular as Allawi is astonishing, considering that his secular pragmatism led many to believe he was a puppet of the US Government; only a pawn for us to carry out our will in Iraq.

However, Allawi's party won widespread support in both Shi'ite and Sunni voting blocs. In fact, Allawi's secularism is possibly a reason why he was appealing to some voters; he was able to deliver the notions that Shi'ites would have a pragmatic ally while Sunnis could possibly have some of their pull in government restored again after the decisive rejection of Sunnis in the Iraqi government. In a nation that has become rife with sectarian violence since the United States invaded in 2003, the idea of having someone who will work to give both Shi'ites and Sunnis an equal voice.

All of these positives do not diminish his negatives though. Like Hussein before him, Allawi is not afraid to use brute force when he feels there may be an uprising. Case in point, in November 7, 2004, while serving as interim leader of Iraq, he ordered a military strike of the city of Fallujah, where it was believed terrorists were hiding out. Not to mention the fact that Allawi's long absence from Iraq and the fact he was born into an upperclass family is enough to make some Iraqis question his knowledge of their everyday concerns. Not to mention that he had spent many years as a member of the Ba'athist party.

On the other side of the coin, this small lead does not even ensure Allawi will be Prime Minister. However, for a country to decisively choose to elect a party led by a secular modernist who many are reticent about can be seen as a sign that the Iraqi people examined the parties running for public office and decided on their own valition what kind of leadership. This of course is the hallmark of democracy.