There's something so quintessentially American about watching Night Ranger launch into "Don't Tell Me You Love Me," while the dude next to you lights up a joint generating more smoke than the deserted island torched by Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean.
For half a second, I suspected the dude was sucking on a road flare, whilst Night Ranger was sucking, period.
Wrong on both counts.
Sadly, E-40 and the Ranger did not engage in a live onstage heartfelt duet during the climactic moments of the 2004 California Music Awards. This potential pairing -- fraught with promise, tinged with possible genius -- is now thrown upon the dust pile of What Could Have Been, along with Al Gore's presidency, the Sex and the City movie, and (it must be said) Chinese Democracy.
Gentlemen and ladies: a moment of silence.
Now dry your eyes. The outdoor concert and awards ceremony in relentlessly sunny downtown Oakland still offered plenty of moments charged with amusement and exhilaration -- or, in the case of Night Ranger, both. But first, it's off to unwittingly insult Tower of Power.
As high noon dawned and the proceedings officially began, ToP had just scored Outstanding R&B Album honors, you see. (Take that, En Vogue!) And the ebullient MC abruptly threw a Lifetime Achievement Award on top of that for good measure, before praising the band's treasure trove of funk classics thus: "They're no longer oldies. They're now timeless."
Issuing everyone in the band gold-plated walkers would've delivered less of a cosmic bitch-slap. Whoa. You dudes are OLD.
On one hand, the CMAs do skew fogyward, or at least toward already-established badasses in no need of additional exposure: Throwing awards at Green Day (Outstanding Bassist/Drummer/Male Vocalist, Most Downloaded Song); the Red Hot Chili Peppers (California Favorite); No Doubt (Female Vocalist); and newly minted darlings AFI (Outstanding Group, Rock Album, and Debut on a Major Label) is to be expected, if subsequently ignored. But until the shindig's inexplicable butt-rock finale, this here hootenanny focused primarily on yoof.
After all, in a free public concert situation, the ideal live performer manages to make a free public concert's two most important demographics -- overweight (and probably drunk) old men and ultraskinny (and hopefully sober) young ladies -- both dance, like idiots, together.
So you got Hyim and the Fat Foakland Orchestra, better jammy, genre-clashing party fare than you've any right to expect at 12:30 in the afternoon. You got Outstanding Latin Alternative Album honorees Bat Makumba making a literally incredible racket: Loud-ass drums! Guitar feedback! Bullhorn sirens! You got wiseass Outstanding Rap Album victors Marginal Prophets (album title: Bohemian Rap CD) rockin' the stage in gas station jumpsuits and ($%^&*!!) kilts!
And you got dueling blues and jazz jams that topped 'em all. The latter -- presided over by Outstanding Jazz Album winner Dave Ellis -- was a vibrantly classy affair; the blues hoedown that preceded it was also vibrant, but frankly lewd. I'm gonna marry my mother-in-law, declared bombastic vocalist Jackie Payne, dancing like a drunken uncle at your sister's wedding and/or Martin Short. Super-young Sacramento phenomenon Jackie Green also showed up for a tune in head-to-toe denim, looking for all the world like a wayward Stroke.
But Alvon Johnson stole this show with an exhausting ode to his Long! Hard! Black! Smooth! (Pause.) GUITAR!!! He then expressed a desire to pull it and squeeze it and flop it all around, before spanking it and subsequently playing it with his teeth. "Treat me like you love me!" shouted a drunk dude standing near me in the crowd. "I know kung fu!" He was then led away in handcuffs.
Who else to restore our sanity, then, than E-40? The Hieroglyphics crew kicked off the hip-hop portion of the festivities with more voices and styles and subplots than a Robert Altman flick, but after Lyrics Born's usual growling excellence inexplicably floated over the apathetic crowd like a lead balloon, somebody needed to freak the place out again. And there's the mysterious Mr. E, dressed like a cross between a tenured college prof and a tennis instructor for pimps, leading the kiddies in a chant of Hey! 40-water! surrounded by hype men dressed in knee-length throwback jerseys that looked like nighties. Just utterly mind-blowing.
And then, the butt rock.
Taking no chances, Tesla opened with the five-man acoustical jam majesty of "Signs," a thoughtful, poignant, delightful, career-defining song they did not write. Here's the thing: Tesla sounds exactly like Soul Asylum. Same rustic, flannel-clad grunge balladry with doofy lyrics. How did we miss this all these years?
And what to make of the indomitable Night Ranger? The crowd erupted as the dudes launched into "(You Can Still) Rock in America," but let's add a parenthetical and call it "(You Can Still) Rock in America (But You'll Look Absolutely Ridiculous)." The amount of guitar wankery in this band is nothing short of astounding. The dueling axemen -- who specialize in finger-tapping and whammy bar, respectively -- engaged in all manner of splay-legged, pelvic-thrusting, tongue-wagging masturbatory absurdity. These dudes belong on Broadway, or in their own Mountain Dew commercial.
I do not care to meet the sort of women who find this buffoonish behavior sexually attractive.
And yet, man, it's Night Ranger. Restraint is hardly the point, and that guy toking the joint/smoke bomb during "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" had a point -- ditch the ironic elitism and bask in the glow of songs thousands of times more grandiose and catchy than they've any right to be. Ludicrous as they might appear onstage, these turkeys represent the CMA ethos: Fuck art. Let's dance like knuckleheads.
Great songs, though. They're no longer oldies. They're now timeless.
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