Programmed to Receive

Al Jolson or Al Gore? “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” boomed the vice president from the Radio City Music Hall stage last Thursday, revving up the Democratic baby-boom power elite. Then he treated us to one-liners from his Letterman appearance. “The Concert,” as it was billed, organized by Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, VH-1’s John Sykes, and Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner, with the hall provided by Cablevision, raised $6.5 million in “hard” money for the ticket. Two movie presidents, Michael Douglas and Harrison Ford, hailed the would-be chief. In this atmosphere of piety and self-congratulation, Gore’s constant pop-culture bashing was simply not taken seriously—he made one passionless comment about marketing inappropriate material to children, to light applause; his running mate stayed mum on the subject. Introducing Joe Lieberman, Weinstein fondly called him “a guy who isn’t making my life any easier.” “Joe Lieberman is smiling at me now,” said Bette Midler, who’s got a new sitcom debuting this fall and understands the necessity of pandering as thoroughly as either candidate. “But wait until sweeps!”

Metal detectors and bag searches at the entrances notwithstanding, the show had been declared a no-rap zone. Macy Gray, the hippest performer slated, canceled at the last minute. Perhaps, after she traded barbs about her pubic hair with the Wayans brothers at the Video Music Awards—held at Radio City one week earlier—she’d been judged too much of a risk. So comedian John Leguizamo had what Hillary might call the chutzpah to offend. “We push a lot of sexual and very deviant material that hurts the youth of America,” he said proudly, then declared Lieberman the perfect veep pick: “It takes a Jew to lick Bush.” Lynne Cheney would allude to Leguizamo’s remarks over the weekend, as an example of Democratic hypocrisy on the culture issue. I’d call them a reminder that art inevitably takes issue—it’s supposed to be impolitic. The going-on-40 kids’ table, appearing early, made vague motions: Sheryl Crow said “Shake your ass!” and shook hers; Lenny Kravitz played loud; k.d. lang dedicated a love song to Tipper; Bon Jovi did a track from an album called Slippery When Wet.

Then the boomers took what was theirs, proving by the time the mass singalong “Teach Your Children” arrived that classic rock is at the core of Clintonian sanctimoniousness. (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” or bridge to the 21st century?) Midler, Jimmy Buffet, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles, Paul Simon: The best way to stay entertained was to think subtext. CSN did “Love the One You’re With,” and they did it right after Stephen Stills said of Gore, “He has a wife who plays drums. I’ll take it.” There’s a ringing endorsement. More grudging acceptance: Was Don Henley’s “Desperado” an anti-Nader anthem? (“Why don’t you come to your senses? . . . Freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talkin’.”) Which put the earlier Crow-Kravitz-Bon Jovi cover of Gore’s favorite band, the Beatles, in a new light: You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, we all want to change the world. It’s gonna be all right.

As a message, this last seemed singularly appropriate for the talent on display at Radio City. Save for Simon (who tastefully omitted “You Can Call Me Al”), The Concert featured performers who are commercial powerhouses but few rational people’s idea of first-caliber artists. But the liberal entertainment complex hammer at us to revere them, like we’re supposed to embrace Gore-Lieberman. Because they’re pretty good, they have their hearts in the right place, and anyway, imagine what evil crap would be charting if they weren’t. —Eric Weisbard

Perfect Sound Forever

“We’re going to brisk it up a little,” Roy Kral says, introducing the second encore he’s doing with his partner and wife, Jackie Cain. Well, leave it to a jazzman to wiggle an adjective into a verb. But while Jackie and Roy may brisk the Jimmy van Heusen-Sammy Cahn “Come Fly With Me” at the FireBird Cafe, they never brusque it.

That’s because they hold Ph.D.’s from Cool Jazz U., where the basic teaching is: Music is intended to soothe and delight. In songs that turn introspective and even painful, the idea is to anesthetize feelings with quiet chords and feathery vocalizing. When Jackie sings “Lost”—for which Roy supplied the melody to Fran Landesman’s Jean-Rhys-forlorn lyrics—she makes sure that in chanting about losing “books and my looks,” it’s subdued desperation she reveals. The same for the impressionistic “Through the Windows of Cars,” another Landesman-Kral item.

Featuring Landesman songs, incidentally, is one key to what distinguishes Jackie and Roy. They choose nothing obvious. If they’re doing Frank Loesser, it’s the rarely traveled, slyly metaphorical “Sand in My Shoes” with the provocative couplet, “That’s why my life’s an aimless cruise/All that is real is the feel of the sand in my shoes.” If they include George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” it’s because the rhythm they got is not run-of-the-mill. If they deliver “Moon Over Miami,” it’s because Roy plays the melody once through with pungent chord clusters.

After harmonizing and/or swapping musical lines for 53 years(!)—i.e., since before their accomplished sidemen Dean Johnson and Rich DeRosa were born—they’ve honed a formula so skillfully it’s almost undetectable. A repeated conceit has one of the pair holding a note while the other slides around, under, or over it. And if Jackie’s voice was tentative on these maneuvers, it probably had to do with first-night nerves. In the living museum of contemporary singing, they claim a room, if not an entire wing. —David Finkle