Three Sides Live
Green Day, the Mars Volta and Wilco Take the Stage

I’m late again. I know it.

I have a good excuse, though – this week our usual courts and crime reporter was on vacation, and it fell to me to cover a lengthy sentencing hearing in a child sex abuse case. Let me just say this – the regular courts and crime reporter has nothing to fear from me. He can keep his job.

We’re quickly approaching the end of the year, and I’ve already written three drafts of my top 10 list. There are couple of wild cards to go – System of a Down releases Hypnotize next week, and Ryan Adams completes his 2005 trifecta with 29 in December – but it’s taking shape. And as usual, I’m contemplating how to finish up my year, column-wise. Next week I’ll review System, the week after that I’ll catch up on a few worthy records I overlooked, and then there’s one new album a week until Christmas.

This may be the first year of TM3AM’s existence in which I don’t take a single week off, in fact. I may even have to do two of them on Christmas week to get my review of Ryan Adams in before the top 10 list, but we’ll see. I also have something interesting planned for the last week of the year, if I’m not too burned out by that point.

Anyway, that leaves this week, and I figured I’d dive into the flood of late-round live albums that usually smack us in November. This year has been no exception – the record companies love to wait for the Christmas season to release double-disc and CD/DVD live documents that would look great under the tree, or in a suitably large stocking. The best part for them is that there’s little to no work required on their part – no wrangling of “difficult” artists in a studio, no unpredictable results, just a live recording packaged up and spit-shined. Minimal investment, enormous return, especially around the holidays.

Perhaps the highest-profile of these this year is Green Day’s Bullet in a Bible, a concert film and a live album in one. Designed as a capper to this California trio’s biggest year ever, Bullet is a lavish package, containing three and a half hours of material, and more sneering and eye makeup and fake British accents than anyone should ever be asked to take in all at once. It is obviously intended to be Green Day’s Rattle and Hum, their Stop Making Sense, and why it wasn’t given a theatrical release is kind of beyond me. It would have done very well.

Green Day is back on top of the world, 16 years into their run, thanks to an immensely popular, monolithic beast of an album called American Idiot. Watching Bullet, it struck me that I never really reviewed Idiot, other than to mention that it didn’t come anywhere near my 2004 top 10 list. Let’s rectify that right now – American Idiot is, by far, the best album Green Day has ever made. A twisty rock opera that contains a couple of multi-song suites and more interesting instrumentation than any of their other records, Idiot deserves its accolades, relatively speaking.

Green Day, however, is not a great band, and the best record they’ve ever made is still just pretty good. The proclamations of genius are, as usual, baffling to me. Idiot is Green Day’s attempt to not just sound like early Clash, but take on their political consciousness as well. Despite its studio sheen, it is probably the most punk record they have made, thankfully devoid of the self-obsessed whining that has plagued Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics since day one. It is a record that wants to say something, that wants to mean something, and it almost gets there.

So high marks for ambition, but the songwriting is, as usual, kind of flat. The standard three-chord rawk still prevails, and the two nine-minute excursions are really just 10 smaller songs, compressed together with little connective tissue. Some numbers are wonderful – the singles “Holiday” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” are the best things on the record, and “Letterbomb” is right behind – but some of it is rote and forgettable, and an album as revered as this one seems to be should have no dead spots. American Idiot is a huge step up for a modestly talented band, but it doesn’t go far enough to justify the hoopla.

And Bullet in a Bible is all hoopla, so you can imagine my indifference to a lot of it. The most interesting aspect of the tour documented here is the spectacle – long gone are the days when Billie Joe, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool (a nickname that should be wearing thin by one’s late thirties, wouldn’t you think?) would just bash out the tunes. The current Green Day includes a second guitarist, a piano player and a horn section. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but what you’re seeing on this film is a massive effort that took dozens of people to pull off, more a show than a concert, in a way.

Of course, Bullet focuses most of its attention on American Idiot, including seven of its songs, and naturally all of its singles. It kicks off with the title track, then launches into “Jesus of Suburbia,” the better of the two epics, and by the time they’re done with that one, you should realize that the live versions are not going to differ tremendously from the studio ones. How can they, with the hundred or so people working lights, cameras, sound, every aspect of this rigidly timed affair? Green Day is a good live band, even under these conditions, and they do stretch out more as the album continues, but mostly, this is recitation with audience noise.

When the band veers into its back catalog, the exponential improvement that is American Idiot is placed into sharp relief. The older hits have not aged well, especially “Basket Case,” an overplayed and overhyped slice of banality even in 1994. Their progression is fun to trace – the Nimrod shuffle “King For a Day” is given a dustoff, and it feels like the first tentative step into versatility that it was. The live version incorporates the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and Monty Python’s “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,” if you can believe that, in the album’s most invigorating moment.

But of course, they close with “Good Riddance,” which may still be their biggest hit. It’s a good song, but amazingly, I’m still sick of it, eight years later, and I found I didn’t need to hear it again. I would have preferred if Bullet had ended with “Minority,” here given an extended coda and a fine finish. Even in its electric form, which periodically threatens to turn into a full-band punk-o-rama, “Good Riddance” is underwhelming – pretty, but nothing special.

The audio portion of Bullet in a Bible is less than half the story – the concert film gives a better sense of what it was like to be at this biggest of Green Day shows, and makes clear that some studio wizardry was undertaken to clean up and shorten the CD. Bullet the film is two and a half hours long, its stage footage interspersed with interviews and documentary clips, and it’s enjoyable, though I don’t feel like I know the guys any better after watching it. The movie is recommended if you want the full picture, but only if you’re prepared for the two minutes of faux on-stage masturbation during “Longview.” I could have lived without it.

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Green Day may have bored me, but they didn’t actively piss me off. Leave it to the Mars Volta to do that.

The guys in TMV are talented, and exceptional players. There’s no doubt about that. When they are on, they are astounding, blazing through some of the most interesting progressive-jazz-metal-salsa-what-have-you I’ve heard since Frank Zappa’s time. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, particularly, is an idiosyncratic guitar master, slashing and cartwheeling when others would be staying in strict time with the drums and bass. Nothing about his work is stock or expected.

Why, then, do he and his cohort, gravity-defying vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, exhibit such a fondness for pointless filler noise? Their second album, Frances the Mute, hit earlier this year, and there’s an hour or so of the most explosive, original rock of 2005 on there, no question. But the album is 77 minutes long, and the remaining time is filled up with effects, tape noise, random chimes, and overall frippery. Does it add atmosphere? Maybe, if you have the patience for it, but I can’t help fixating on how much stronger an album Frances would have been without all that pretentious crap.

And now here’s Scabdates, a self-produced live document that runs 72 minutes, and includes only five songs. I don’t mind jams – I love them, in fact, especially if you can hear and feel the band heading into uncharted directions as they play. There’s some of that here, but not much. The extended running times are padded out with long, ass-aching voids, like the drums-and-space sections of Grateful Dead shows. In some cases, like “Caviglia,” the entire song is random squalling.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t bother me, but the band is so rarely firing on all cylinders on Scabdates that the whole thing tries my patience. The album starts with four minutes of noise called “Abrasions Mount the Timpani,” then vaults into a 13-minute run-through of “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt,” complete with sub-sections that are little more than Bixler-Zavala yelping over repetitive grooves. His most self-indulgent Robert Plant tendencies come to the fore here, and if you liked that band’s 30-minute live takes on “Dazed and Confused,” you will like this.

Me, I think that Zeppelin was remarkable everywhere but on the stage, and I never listen to The Song Remains the Same, or that other live thing they came out with a couple of years ago. There’s a point where looseness just overcomes structure and flops around on the floor, and the Mars Volta glibly vault right over that point. I don’t want to give the impression that Scabdates is a mess, but… wait, yes I do. It’s a big explosion of bass riffs and guitar solos and vocal acrobatics with nothing to hang it on. There’s maybe 20 minutes of song, all told, on this whole thing.

Is this a problem? Well, not if you dig this sort of thing. If the 10-minute found-sound noise sculpture in the album’s final movement sounds like something you want to sit through, then you’ll love this. This kind of thing always reminds me of Andy Warhol, though – “I have made shit, I know it is shit, but if I am deeply committed to considering it art of the highest order, I can convince people it is not shit.”

The difference is, Warhol couldn’t paint, and the Mars Volta boys can really play. The parts of Scabdates that truly demonstrate that are the ones that sound the most like an old-time jazz session, like Miles Davis finally achieving that rock band sound he had been aiming for. There’s about half an hour of absolutely amazing stuff here, most of it in the early going of the 42-minute “Cicatriz.” Rodriguez-Lopez plays like a man possessed, and his not-specifically-named drummer and bassist are almost demonic. (There are 21 people listed here as “The Mars Volta Group,” and no indication of what they all do.) But it’s the superb stuff that makes the wankery sound even more like what it is.

Yes, I am probably being too harsh here. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I bought Scabdates, if not this. Lately, though, I have been too much in love with the idea of the well-crafted song to have the patience for something this freeform. Right now, I am re-listening to “Cicatriz,” and the playing is excellent in the early, jammier sections. I am still left wondering, though – if I had attended this show, how long would I have stayed? At what point on Scabdates would I have said, “That’ll be enough of that,” and just left?

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And speaking of pissing me off, there is Wilco.

If I had a category in the year-end list for Biggest Disappointment, Wilco’s A Ghost is Born would have won last year’s prize, hands down. The record found leader Jeff Tweedy floundering in the wake of their best work, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the departure of its co-architect, Jay Bennett. He responded by strapping on his guitar for a few tracks of flailing, then sinking into boredom for the rest. The nadir of the album (and of Wilco’s whole catalog) was the 12 minutes of ear-numbing noise appended to “Less Than You Think” – nothing the Mars Volta has done matches that for self-indulgence.

Naturally, Tweedy waited until his band was seemingly at its weakest to record their first live album, Kicking Television. Laid down in early May of this year at Chicago’s lovely Vic Theatre (yes, I’ve been there), the album includes three-fourths of Ghost, comprising the lion’s share of the selections. Just a quick gander at the track listing made me dread hearing this thing, but I live near Chicago, and the buzz surrounding those gigs in May has been astounding. Some fans I talked to called them the best Wilco gigs they’d ever seen.

So I spun Kicking Television, and you know what? It’s excellent. The band is tight, and adventurous, and even Tweedy sounds excited to be there – the bored and sleepy tone that permeated Ghost is all but gone. Most of the nine songs from that album come alive on stage, in ways I didn’t expect. “Company in My Back” still makes no sense, but the interplay between guitar and piano is terrific, and “The Late Greats,” buried at the end of Ghost, here jumps out as a sweet little singalong. The band breathes life into slogs like “Hell is Chrome” and “Handshake Drugs,” and zips through “Hummingbird” delightfully.

As good as the songs from Ghost sound, the seven selections from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sound even better. YHF is that rare album that demands front-to-back listening, but is made up of fantastic songs that work separately as well. Slotting something like “Wishful Thinking” right before a masterpiece like “Jesus, Etc.” really shines a harsh light on the former. The live band makes all things equal, in a way, and the YHF material stands as the brightest stuff here.

Wilco only jumps backwards thrice, for the set-opening “Misunderstood” and the Summerteeth favorites “Shot in the Arm” and “Via Chicago,” which only demonstrates how rapid their ascent into more progressive areas has been. Still, it’s the more traditional, rock ‘n’ roll stuff that shines brightest on Kicking Television, especially the two selections from the Mermaid Avenue sessions, during which Wilco and Billy Bragg wrote music to some of Woody Guthrie’s poems. “One By One” is amazing in its live setting, sounding like a true American classic.

The band follows up the Guthrie material with a four-song string of YHF tunes, and it’s the most enjoyable stretch here. Of course, Tweedy had to screw it up, and he did by capping the set proper with “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” It was a tedious disaster on record, and it’s only marginally more interesting live, just endless, mindless epileptic soloing over a one-note groove for 11 minutes. He pulls it out at the end with a beautiful cover of Charles Wright’s “Comment (If All Men Were Truly Brothers),” which closes the set with elegance.

Such a dazzling live document was, to say the least, unexpected, but Kicking Television is a well-spent two hours, and a redemption after the messy Ghost. In fact, this record has made me want to revisit A Ghost is Born and perhaps revise my opinion – I find I like a lot of the songs from it a lot more in this setting than on the studio release. Maybe Wilco was ahead of me again. Either way, with this new lineup in place, I am looking forward to the next Wilco album, which is something I couldn’t say before listening to Kicking Television. It has restored my hope. What more could I want?

* * * * *

Next week, System of a Down, probably.

See you in line Tuesday morning.