Sunday, November 13, 2005

This Monkey's Gone to Macaroni Grill

Last night we had dinner at a Romano's Macaroni Grill across the river in Northern Kentucky with two out-of-town friends, Linda Franz and her fella Russell Bays. Donna and Linda met on the Internet, Linda being the author of a series of quilt books tied into the writings of Jane Austen and Donna being her #1 fan. They've become like sisters and Donna really blossoms in her company; it's a pleasure to see her come out from under the 400 lb. book and to know that the smiles I fell in love with are still there. I like Russ and Linda too; they're creative, convivial and fun-loving people, and they travel with Linda's professional mascot, Monkey, who is always a miraculously present personality in the room. We see them twice a year as they drive back-and-forth between their regular home near Toronto and their winter home in Naples, Florida. For you note-takers, I had a campari-and-soda aperitif, followed by a half portion of the insalada blu and, finally, the veal saltimbocca and two glasses of the house chianti. At Macaroni Grill, they leave a bottle of the house wine on your table and operate on the honor system. They have paper tablecloths and leave crayons so you can amuse yourself while awaiting your meal, and you're expected to mark your tablecloth for every glass of wine you have. I wrote two marks and made sure our earringed waiter knew that "II" meant two and not eleven. Anyway, a nice, relaxing, head-clearing visit -- and if you read yesterday's blog, you know I needed it.

After dinner (Linda, Russ and Monkey took the tablecloth and are threatening to reproduce it on her website), Donna was easily persuaded to drive over to the Best Buy neighboring the Hampton Inn where we'd dropped off our friends. (They are continuing on to Florida and, as I write this, Linda and Donna are already on the phone chatting and laughing, from Linda and Russ's intermediate stop in Atlanta.) This past week, I got a nice little windfall by selling off a chunk of my vinyl collection, so as Donna likes to say, it was burning a hole in my pocket. I knew nothing about this, but I was surprised to find that all of the Rolling Stones' releases between STICKY FINGERS and DIRTY WORK have been reissued by Virgin Records as part of something called "The USA Collection" in newly remastered pressings. (These aren't listed on, for some reason, so I have no idea how long they've been out.) As a big fan of the Stones' remastered SACD catalogue, I've been awaiting remasters of these later albums for some time, so I picked up my three favorites right away: STICKY FINGERS, EXILE ON MAIN ST. and SOME GIRLS. (I'm putting the rest on my Xmas list.) I bought a lot of other stuff -- including a copy of David Cronenberg's THE FLY, which Fox didn't send to me even though I contributed to the disc -- but be that as it may.

When I got home, I decided to listen to EXILE first and popped it on. I was disappointed when I loaded the disc and didn't see the little "SACD" sign light up on my player display. The earlier albums had been released as "CD/SACD Compatible," so I was hoping for the same here. Nevertheless, the disc sounded fantastic and vivid. As I read the booklet, I discovered it was mastered with a new SACD process, copyrighted by Virgin, that reproduces the complete sound of the original analogue tapes on standard equipment! Traditionally noted as a "murky" sounding album, EXILE burst through my speakers with robust clarity -- and as seems to work with SACD, the louder you play it, the more realistic the sound gets. A track I've never paid too much heed before, "Casino Boogie," riveted my attention to Charlie Watts' drumming, which is surely some of his best and most inspired on record. And comparitively, it became very obvious that Watts wasn't drumming on "Happy" (album producer Jimmy Miller took over here, without much elegance). Can't wait to load up STICKY FINGERS later today and hear "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" this way.

I followed EXILES by watching a new concert DVD I didn't know was out: Rhino Video's PIXIES SELL OUT, compiled from various performances on the Pixies' 2004 reunion tour. I've been able to download over a dozen Pixies shows from this tour, and they're all wonderful, but the effect of the music is greatly enhanced by seeing it performed. This isn't a particularly visual band, either; they don't exactly "put on a show," they just stand there (or sit, in the case of drummer David Lovering) and belt it out. But Frank Black is one of the best songwriters of the past 20 years, and it's sheer joy to see what was once a cult music being played to sea after sea of people, crowds of 100,000 and more, many of them singing along with the songs -- even when the lyrics are in Spanish. In addition to the concert, there's a menu of bonus performances that can be watched with or without interviews by the Pixies management about the tour, which is almost as generous as the main concert and includes some songs not presented in the other program. At one point, their manager mentions that he sometimes stood in the wings and could see audience members literally in tears to be in the presence of this music. I know it's true, because it happened unexpectedly to me during "Tame." This isn't a tender song; it's the kind of song that gives you goosebumps and makes them explode, which is much rarer. There's a moment in the middle eight, I guess, where all the instruments but the bass drum drop out and Frank Black and bassist Kim Deal keep the song going simply by breathing in a call-and-answer, mock-tantric fashion, and their voices are so primally complimentary, so evocative of roughness and softness, that they seem to fleetingly represent in sound all men and women... until the song resumes its former fury with the most open-throated roaring Frank manages all night long. The song becomes a cyclone. It's the Pixies at the height of their power -- the sort of moment that makes audiences jump and, evidently, strong men weep. If you like the Pixies' music, I think you need to pick this up; it's like finally reaching the main course after the appetizer of the Pixies DVD from last year, which included a 1988 concert and a documentary.

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