July 25, 2010

What boomers could learn from John Oates?

By Ned Mackey

Both my father and I could recognize ourselves in the faces of the crowd, almost equally divided between his generation and mine, at the Hall and Oates concert in Chicago on Friday night (July 23, 2010). A 50-something couple sat directly in front of us, while immediately behind us were three teenage girls who loudly demonstrated throughout the concert that they knew all the words to Hall and Oates’ catalogue of hits. Our three rows were emblematic of the entire theater where boomers, Xers, and youngsters joined in chorus with “I Can’t Go For That”, “You Make My Dreams”, “Sara Smile”, etc.

The show itself was a dazzling display of music virtuosity, talent, and craftsmanship. Daryl Hall’s vocals were soulful and soaring, whether he was in raspy rock, falsetto croon, or Cocker-scream incarnation, while the band–powered by saxophone player Charlie DeChant’s eclectic and exciting solos, and the scorching dual lead guitars of John Oates and Paul Pesco–was pitch perfect and tight, leading the crowd through ballads, jam sessions, and funky danceable numbers.

Due to a bear hug embrace of ’80s new wave trends, the most succesful duo of all time was once considered kitsch and relegated to the role of “guilty pleasure,” by critics unable to dismiss or dispute their talent, but unwilling to acknowledge their musical and artistic value. However, after heavy hip hop sampling and everyone from Brandon Flowers (of The Killers) and Travis McCoy (of Gym Class Heroes) citing Hall and Oates as a primary influence, the group has gained what the Chicago Sun-Times calls, in a review of Friday’s show, “unexpected indie cred.”

Thomas Conner, the Chicago paper’s pop music critic, elaborates:

Hall & Oates within the last year have enjoyed a more direct appreciation among a new generation. Daryl Hall performed his hits with Montreal-based electro duo Chromeo at the Bonnaroo concert festival. In last year’s indie film “(500) Days of Summer,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character celebrates his new romance in a Broadway-like production number to “You Make My Dreams.” Smooth pop duo The Bird & the Bee released their third album this year, an entire set of Hall & Oates covers. “There’s definitely no irony,” said Greg “The Bee” Kurstin defending the release. “They’re great songwriters and these are great songs.”

The pop and R&B sensibilities of Hall and Oates possess generational and racial crossover appeal that demonstrates, through hip hop sampling, modified covers from neo-soul singers to country performers, and questionable rip-offs–Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater”, that the rock bands and songwriters that aging critics continue to cherish, including Bruce Springsteen–for whom your youthful correspondent has a special appreciation–have relatively very little influence outside a small selection of earnest rock bands with cult followings, and will soon, at least musically, be tossed into the heap of cultural oblivion as rock ‘n’ roll inches closer and closer towards its tomb.

The death of rock ‘n’ roll, which at this point is inevitable and imminent, requires serious mourning–intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. However, neither sentimentality nor musical preference should get in the way of an honest appraisal of modern music that accepts the fact that the chief influences on the current generation of hitmakers are those that may have dipped a toe in the rock world, but existed most expressively in other genres–Michael Jackson, Madonna, Public Enemy, NWA, Tupac, Prince, and to possibly a lesser, but more interesting extent–Hall and Oates. That list is by no means comprehensive or complete, but it should be read as instructive for understanding where current musical sounds, both exciting and banal, come from.

The most refreshing aspect of the Hall and Oates performance was their expression of creative awareness and flexibility. Rather than simply basking in the nostalgic glory of a thirty-plus year career, millions of record sales, dozens of hits, and a newfound importance, they remain open to influence from the younger musicians who honor them and reveal respect for the twenty-somethings and teens who have recently started downloading their songs and buying their tickets by working to wrap their old hits in new casings.

The stage set and lighting effects had an aesthetic younger than most members of the band. Mid-way through the show, it became obvious that Daryl Hall and John Oates are keeping track of the designs and technical innovations of popular dance clubs and applying appropriate visual updates to their performance. From rave colors, including glowing tambourines, to MTV-style lighting direction, which moves at light speed, nearly all the hallmarks of contemporary clubs were central to the show.

More importantly than flashy progression is musical innovation, and Hall and Oates demonstrated a malleability to modernize, which is rare among their peers. Each month Daryl Hall televises an internet concert called “Live From Daryl’s House” that typically features much younger special guests such as Travis McCoy, Chromeo, Eli “Paperboy” Reed and Diane Birch. Consistent interaction and performance with youthful talent has paid off, and the Hall and Oates live show effectively captures how cross-generational influence can cut both ways.

“I Can’t Go For That” was turned into a funky jam, which would fit well in newly opened dance clubs judging from its updated beat and the reaction it received from the younger members of the audience. “You Make My Dreams” reached a crescendo in a new funkified ending that got the biggest ovation of the night when Hall half sung and half rapped new lyrics over a lightning quick beat. There were plenty more examples of Hall and Oates’ willingness, but more impressively, enthusiasm for adapting to musical changes–a condition that demands modesty and maturity. Hall and Oates are not merely content to teach, nor do they take their newly earned younger audience for granted. They want to learn.

Baby boomers in music, but also in politics, higher education, and the media, who continually behave with obnoxious arrogance, foolish pride, and unearned authority when myopically and irrationally clinging to their own ideas and steadfastly pursuing their own projects, without allowing input from other generations, should accept a lesson in creativity, adaptability, and integrity from Hall and Oates.

The pop duo may be a surprising source of wisdom, but increasingly insulated boomers will eventually acquire many lessons from unlikely people and places. Unwanted and unexpected instruction is one of the many costs for living, as the song says, “out of touch.” Hall and Oates, in their own small but insightful way, are working, albeit in slim company, to avoid such a burdensome price.

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