Stardust Memories


Despite the mirror-ball above the stage, the New Year’s Eve double bill at Radio City Music Hall—Culture Club with Hedwig and the Angry Inch—wasn’t quite the Death of Glitter, but something like the death of Glitter II: the moment at which 1998 rock’s trendlet of dramatic gestures and ambiguous sexuality was transformed from a reclaimed past into family entertainment and a nostalgia act. Assimilation has its delights, of course, and one of them was that the crowd was pretty intensely mixed. MTV babies and their kids bopped along with Hedwig cultists, dumpy gentlemen in their best pearls and lipstick, tourists looking for something to do that wasn’t sold out yet, and enough nonspecific discophiles that, when “Lady Marmalade” came over the p.a., there was mass lip-synching, with hand gestures.

Hedwig and co. were playing as a straight-if-we-can-use-that-word rock band, rather than performing their musical, for a change. Without the narrative of the show to hold their set together, though, they couldn’t quite manage the grand-scale glamburst they were trying for. John Cameron Mitchell has charisma to burn, and he made the most of Radio City’s huge stage, but with the words and hooks buried in a wretchedly muddy, bassy mix, the band came off like a pretty good 1 a.m. Coney Island High act, or something that ended up getting cut from Velvet Goldmine.

Culture Club, on the other hand, were just plain cuddly. Boy George was wearing some kind of ludicrous, shimmery one-piece-including-crown, and fronting an expanded ensemble that, by some miracle of diplomacy, greed, or human forgiveness, includes original drummer Jon Moss, George’s ex-boyfriend and former pincushion of choice. (The Helen Terry type on gospelized background vocals and George-proof high notes wasn’t Helen Terry, though.) Their set was comfortably familiar to anyone who’d seen their VH1 Storytellers special: running through all the hits except “The War Song,” detouring from the band’s songbook proper to take in “The Crying Game,” even repeating some of the same stage patter.

An encore of David Bowie’s “Starman” was the grace note to the evening: a vision of a freer world, sweetly reinterpreted as an object of nostalgia’s object of nostalgia. And the New Year’s countdown was the occasion for this most sentimental of glam bands to play the ultimate sentimental song: “Auld Lang Syne,” accompanied by a storm of confetti. It fell on the cheering crowd, for whom drag has become just another kind of fun, as if the glitter had turned into paper at the stroke of midnight. —Douglas Wolk

The Death of Hippie

Hell is a human-and-concrete zoetrope lit by thousands of lighters and glow sticks. Such was the scene last Tuesday night at the Garden, day two of Phish’s four-show stand for New Year’s. Not that I’m not a Phish-head; hey, they used to play my boarding school’s football field back in the day. And with 1998’s The Story of the Ghost (Elektra), Trey Anastasio and gang finally made a great album: all funk no flux.

But the jam-band cult audience and their second-wave hippie shenanigans! MSG, unlike a grassy amphitheater, hardly lends itself to psychedelic phun. Sure, there were the milling, crusty hordes down from Vermont and points west, reeking of reefer and oils, questing after ticket miracles and hash-brownie profits, not undone by city rain. Within the inner circles of Hell—the hall itself—glow-stick tossers and rhythmless Gobi dancers prevailed beneath the polychrome spots and kaleidoscopic overhead projections. The desperation of a younger generation determined to replicate Woodstock Nation poses was palpable.

To quote the era’s lingo: “They were nowhere, man.” Those Touchhead kids would do best to recollect that the Aquarian Agers don’t own all the good times. Phish has moved beyond endless noodling to rawk!: readings of newbie “Limb by Limb” and perennial classic “You Enjoy Myself” featuring the guitarists’ jumping dance underscore this shift. And surprise funk surfaced in a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” The band seems to be evolving with the times, growing and innovating. Their sheltered fanatics need to remember that no hippie is an island and swim over to the polyglot shore.

Hell is a hell of a place though, dontcha know, when Phish run their acid-folk voodoo down. —Kandia Crazy Horse

Happy New (Age) Year

It was billed as a 24-hour New Year’s Eve trance marathon, but at Vinyl Thursday night, New York’s trance community had a lot more to celebrate than just the arrival of 1999. The packed house at Vinyl proved that trance, once a fringe movement that clung to survival through tiny, makeshift parties, has now evolved into a full-blown subculture.

Trance’s roots are typically traced to the free-spirited Balearic sound of late-80’s U.K. rave, perhaps because its most visible face, Paul Oakenfold, was one of the first Brits to make the pilgrimage to Ibiza. But trance’s origins are more firmly rooted in the psychedelic, all-night, acid-drenched outdoor parties in Goa and the cyberhippie lifestyle of European techno travelers.

And the sounds emananting from Vinyl, pounding, kick-drum­driven trance that avoided song structure or ravey gimmicks like snare-drum climaxes, would have sent the pop-minded Oakenfold packing. The music, provided by DJs like Matthew Magic and Israeli DJ duo Xerox and Freeman, was stunningly disorienting: often the bass would double up on itself, creating a majestic, rolling sound that evaporated dance music’s 4/4 beats.

Green Nuns of the Revolution, a three-member outfit on U.K. label Dragonfly, provided trance at its brutally effective best: swirling synth effects coupled with zigzagging acidic bass lines and a pumping bass drum that had the Vinyl crowd leaping in time with the rhythm. The group was compulsively watchable, too—the trio was flanked by two spastic male dancers in nun habits, with fluorescent green makeup.

The scene at Vinyl, with its bindi-sporting, tie-dye­clad revelers ecstatically dancing against a backdrop of glow-in-the-dark tapestries and fluorescent balloons, probably seemed distressingly retro-hippie to first-timers. But trancers could never be confused with the hippies who were congregating at the Phish afterparty next door at Wetlands that night. For all its Hindi-festishisms and Gaia fixations, trance is proudly futuristic, more cyberdelic than psychedelic.

And now trance, fueled by a Madonna album that borrowed its astral projections and (at long last!) a blessing in the Times from rave-
theory guru Simon Reynolds, seems poised to become the cool new (age) thing. If the blissed-out massive at Vinyl is any indication, trance’s journey to recognition will be a long and very strange trip, indeed. —Ethan Brown

Flash in the Pan

Old-skool hip hoppers are best left back in the day. No other conclusion was possible at the end of Grandmaster Flash’s New Year’s Eve DJ gig at Life. The two-hour set was ripe for surprise (I’d hoped for an unreleased megamix of his electro-boogie anthem “Scorpio”) but only delivered stale top-40 garnished with rote MC platitudes.

Like an aging wedding DJ, Flash never challenged the crowd’s nostalgia-addled memory of his early ’80s heyday. “Hit after hit, no bullshit!” Flash yelled, as “It Takes Two” segued into “Into the Groove,” followed by “Holiday.” He continued banging two-minute snippets, sometimes gracefully, often not. Nobody cared. VH1 viewers all, the starstruck revelers cheered each successive Big 80s excerpt. Absent was any inkling that Flash once heralded the future with bleak masterpieces like “The Message.” No time for such urban bummers when “We Are Family” provokes giddy waves. At any moment the crippled old lady in the corner might have crawled onstage and started busting “Rapper’s Delight.” Instead, sad creakiness peaked at the zero hour, when chords from that song kicked in. Crackling with shopworn weariness, the vinyl begged for its own—and Flash’s—retirement.

Later Funkmaster Flex gave Flash righteous props when he took control of the decks. Then he promptly blew Flash’s set into oblivion. Though Flex bites from the same wheel of cheese—pairing Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” with Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl”—he has a playful sense of humor and freely jacks his mixes with fierce scratching, repeating a song’s most outlandish phrase for comedic effect.

He’s a show-off too: at one point Flex virtuosically bolted from wheel to wheel, suspending time by repeatedly cutting and recuing between Run-D.M.C. and Doug E. Fresh. Amazed, the by-then stumbling audience cheered the miracle worker, and the old lady rose and walked. (OK, with crutches.) —Ernie Glam

The Kids Are All Right

They Might Be Giants have always been heavy on the juvenilia. In their 12-year history, the sons of Williamsburg have frequently taken inspiration from children’s music, incorporated cartoon sounds into their hooky pop, and maintained a childlike fascination with the dividing line between musical instruments and toys: front man John Linnell’s accordion, the glockenspiel, on down to “the stick” (not the bass guitar derivative but a hefty log they once banged on the floor). When they took a break from musing on CB radio operators and Belgian painters, their love songs dwelt on nascent sexuality. Their romantic objects often proved awkward (“She’s Actual Size”), supernatural (“She’s an Angel”), or even arguably gynophobic (“Shoehorn With Teeth”). In a word, they were nerds, and as such, eminently outgrowable, flash cards to be filed between Monty Python and Elvis Costello.

Ten years ago, when this nerd outgrew them, however, the ’90s had yet to happen, and no one could have known how their aesthetic was to define a decade. It all came rushing back on New Year’s Eve, at nothing less than an all-ages show at Tramps, complete with streamers, balloons, and, yes, many actual children in the audience. “You’re older than you’ve ever been and now you’re even older,” taunted Linnell in singsong. Yet not only did the TMBG audience—probably bused in from Stuyvesant High—seem younger, but so did the band. True, I was far back, but guitarist John Flansburgh’s cheeks had never looked chipmunkier, nor his gestures floppier, nor the band’s kids-in-the-basement vibe more fully realized. Ripping through highlights from their capacious repertoire—many songs “never before played properly,” according to Linnell—TMBG’s virtuosic interplay and audience participation gimmicks were greeted with floor-bending enthusiasm. They predated everything, it seemed—the derivative pseudo-Latin shimmy of “No One Knows My Plan” evoked the cocktail lounge craze, the thrash-and-horn version of “Why Does the Sun Shine?” spoke fluent skacore, and their old kitschy irony was inverted, like an ad for ABC’s fall lineup, as moshing youngsters aped lines about “countless screaming Argonauts.” It was more fun than a National Honor Society spelling bee. —James Hannaham