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Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood at Madison Square Garden

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Lois and I have never watched a complete episode of American Idol, and the only time we’ve even seen a reasonable portion of one was at our godson’s apartment, the night that Jordin Sparks won.

So, we didn’t know Carrie Underwood from that show (though, of course, we knew of her). We fell in love with her when she released her first CD, and have loved pretty much everything she has done since then as well.

When I saw that she was opening for Keith Urban at Madison Square Garden (MSG), I grabbed two tickets for us, a while ago. We aren’t all that familiar with Keith’s music (though we obviously hear his more popular stuff on the Country channel on XM Radio). We figured that at best, it would end up being a bonus like Kenny Chesney was (when we really went to see Pat Green and Sugarland!), and at worst, we’d know to avoid Keith in the future.

I wrote about that night here, and as you can see (or already know), we were blown away by Kenny’s performance. 🙂

We were both marginally surprised that Carrie opens for Keith. She couldn’t be much bigger on her own, winning award after award, and selling CDs like crazy.

Last night’s show was scheduled to begin at 7:30pm. As I’ve written a number of times before, MSG usually runs like an on-time train. It’s a pleasure to know in advance that you won’t be sitting around for hours wondering when the show is going to start.

Oh well, the best laid plans… Last night was a wild exception to the norm. At 7:35pm (already five minutes late, no biggie yet) they put up a very big screen, with a digital timer on it, counting down from five minutes. You could feel the excitement in the crowd, as people focused on the counter. So, the show would only be 10 minutes late, but, you had five minutes warning, so, not too bad.

When the clock hit 10 seconds left, people started to clap and get really excited. When it hit zero, the lights went out. Typically, the music would start (in the dark), almost instantaneously. Unfortunately, nothing, for more than 30 seconds. A few minutes later, some yellow lights above the stage came on, but were facing out toward the crowd. It was masking the stage, so perhaps this was part of the show.

Nope. A few seconds later, the normal background music (from the speakers, not the stage) started up. No way the show was about to start. A few minutes later, the rest of the house lights came back on. No announcement, which was very disappointing. Then the digital timer came back on with five minutes again. Much less excitement in the crowd this time, as most people ignored it.

This time, the crowd waited until the countdown was at five seconds before starting to clap and cheer. When the lights went off this time, indeed, the music started in the dark, a few seconds later. When the stage lights came on, Carrie wasn’t there yet. As you started to hear her voice, they started showing videos on the very large screen behind the stage. Intermixed with desert scenes (including snakes), were snippets of Carrie, looking like she was walking through the video onto the stage. It was strange, but sort-of cool too.

Instead of her magically appearing from the video screen, after a bit, she emerged front and center stage, rising slowly from underneath. The crowd ate it up.

Let’s get the mundane out of the way. Carrie Underwood is stunningly beautiful. Of course, if you didn’t know that already, then you don’t own a TV, have never glanced at the cover of a magazine even casually, or have very strange taste. 😉

(As with all the photos in the this blog, click on any one of them to see a larger version):

Carrie Underwood on the RunwayCarrie Underwood on the Runway 2

Carrie has an exceptional voice (duh, that’s probably true of most Female Vocalist of the Year winners). Her songs are really good as well, and the selection last night was excellent. Her band is obviously top notch as well. All that said, with the lousy acoustics (in general) at MSG, she wasn’t the best fit for the arena. Don’t get me wrong, her talent was obvious to everyone there. In addition, Lois believes that Carrie was working through a cold (and I think she’s right).

One of the problems (acoustically) is that Carrie’s voice is loud, clear and she hits lots of very high notes as well (with lots of power!). At MSG, it was simply piercing. Not her fault, as hitting the notes is exactly what she’s supposed to do. Still, it was on the painful side at times, not just because of the volume.

She has great stage presence, but even though the crowd loved her, it wasn’t the same energy (not even close) that we’ve seen with other performers at MSG. I was very surprised.

One thing that was very different from all other opening acts that we’ve seen at MSG (and most other places), was the staging. Normally, the opening act does everything in as muted a fashion as possible, in order to avoid any upstaging of the main act. Since Carrie is a legitimate headliner (in my opinion at least), she had way more glitz than any other opening act we’ve seen before.

There were two floating screens on either side of the stage, tall and thin, that mostly showed her live, so that people sitting far away (like us) could see her up close and personal. Behind the stage, where the counter had been, was a large screen showing videos in the background. She also changed her outfit four times, making five separate outfits during her show.

To recap, she came on at 7:50pm and played for exactly one hour. She then came back for a very nice encore, going off the stage at exactly 9pm. So, she was on for 70 minutes in total, after the 20 minute delayed start.

There was a 30 minute intermission, while they prepared the stage for Keith Urban. For the first time ever (in our personal experience), the effort was entirely visible to the crowd. Usually, they hang a very large black cloth to cover up all of the activity.

While we were killing time, we were chatting about how great Carrie was, but how horrible it was to see her at MSG (she really belongs at Radio City Music Hall, which would complement her strength amazingly well!). Lois said “I’m done with MSG, this is the last time I want to see a concert here.” I completely understood her feelings, but felt bad that certain acts would be shut off to us (e.g., Rascal Flatts).

At exactly 9:30pm, the lights went off, and the mood in the crowd changed dramatically. The second the first note on the guitar was heard, a bunch of people starting standing and going crazy (that didn’t happen for Carrie at all), unfortunately, including the two women sitting in front of us…

I won’t be able to do justice to the slick way they used the giant video screen behind the stage to introduce the first song, but trust me, the effect was mesmerizing, creative, and very cool.

When they finally lit up the stage, and Keith (and the band) were all out there (rocking their hearts out!), the crowd was in a complete frenzy. I was pretty sure it would be just like the Kenny Chesney show, but I was wrong. 😉

Kenny’s show is a party, and he’s the guest of honor. He loves his fans, and it couldn’t be clearer, but it’s not really about the music (at least, not the one show that I was at). The music that night was great, and his band is exceptional, but it still isn’t/wasn’t about the music (to me).

That’s different with Keith Urban. In addition to the reason I mentioned above, about wanting primarily to see Carrie, I was curious about Keith, because my godson saw him two years ago in Washington, DC, and told me that he puts on a great show, and that he’s an incredible guitarist. So, I was definitely curious.

Props to my godson, as he was correct on both scores. Without a doubt, Keith Urban is one of the greatest entertainers I have ever seen.

Let’s start with something I really can’t explain. He (and his band, obviously) pretty much overcame the horrible acoustics at MSG as best as can be expected. There’s something about their sound that works in that place. As nuts as we are for Rascal Flatts, they did not overcome the problems, but we loved them despite that. Some part of it has to be the emotional connection with Keith. You are so sucked in, you aren’t distracted by the acoustics.

Perhaps the most brilliant touch last night was the simplicity of the staging. Both Kenny and Rascal Flatts had amazing technical displays, and wonderful uses of them. Still, on some level, they are a distraction from the band, and the music.

Keith had a giant screen behind the stage. For all but two or three numbers, it showed the live action on the stage (of course, mostly Keith himself). For a venue like MSG, it made all the difference in the world. Now, no matter where you are sitting, you see him (or whomever else they are highlighting) larger than life, including every facial expression, and guitar lick. It was fantastic.

Keith Urban on the Big Screen

I mentioned facial expressions because there is such a warmth and sweetness about him that is completely infectious (in fact, that’s true of the majority of his band as well), and if you weren’t in the first few rows, you wouldn’t connect to that unless they projected it so clearly.

Most of the repertoire last night was driving hard rock. It probably qualified as Country (for the most part) because of the themes and harmonies, but from a musical point of view, hard rock it was. But, he’s a very talented and varied musician, and he switched gears a number of times, including a few acoustic guitar numbers, and at least two numbers with him playing piano!

He has an excellent voice (I hadn’t appreciated that as much before last night), which somehow, wasn’t ruined by MSG either.

Here’s another example of simplicity. As I mentioned in this post (and showed photos as well), Rascal Flatts did some cool numbers on a rotating center stage, that had a special bridge which was raised and lowered at various times to give them access. It was way cool. Last night, Keith had a circular center stage as well, but there was a permanent runway connecting the two, and he used the runway effortlessly, all night.

Keith Urban AloneKeith Urban on the Runway and Big Screen

During one set, the core members of the band (six I believe) were on the center stage, and it was a little mellower, closer to us, and amazing!

Keith Urban on the Circular Stage

While the entire band was superb, I feel the need to specifically call out the drummer, Chris McHugh. I had never heard the name before, but obviously, I’ve heard him before. If you look at the page I linked to, I own at least four of the albums he’s played on, and I saw the movie Cars as well. I don’t know how he finds the time to eat given how much studio work he puts in, but he’s so amazing, that I understand why all of these superstars want him!

Keith Urban with Chris McHugh

Two final examples of Keith connecting with the crowd. Toward the end of the show, he walked off the stage into the crowd. Not just a few feet, but way into the crowd, and then up into the stands! Of course, he was mobbed by back-slappers, etc., and yet never missed a beat of playing his guitar, or singing. (I’m not sure Nicole Kidman should see this next photo.) 😉

Keith Urban in the Crowd

Then, when he was jamming with one particular group of people, he took off the guitar, took a marker from one of his helpers, signed the guitar, and gave it to a couple. Because of the giant screen, we could see every nuance of the gesture. The woman looked like she died and went to heaven. Keith continued to sing, ran back to the stage, grabbed another guitar, and rocked out the rest of the song on the runway.

The second example will have to wait so it can be delivered in the correct order. 🙂

Keith played for 100 minutes before saying goodnight. That alone is longer than most acts play, especially when the opening act plays for 70 minutes! In addition, the energy level they all put out (but him in particular!) was so high, that keeping it up for that long can’t be easy. So, when the lights went out, Lois said: “Surely, he isn’t coming out for an encore, right?”

I laughed, and said: “No way he doesn’t come back out!”

He did, for a solo on the piano, in a beautifully moving song that he sang for his wife, as a Valentine’s Day tribute (she’s apparently back home in Australia at the moment). Then the entire band joined him, and they did at least three more numbers. The encore lasted 20 minutes (sweet!), so that he was on for a total of two hours, which put the end at 11:30pm!

Keith Urban on the Piano

Near the very end of the show, they set off a number of confetti canons simultaneously. Here’s a fuzzy shot (larger than the rest) to give you a sense of the mayhem. 😉

Keith Urban Confetti

After the show, nearly every single one we’ve ever been to, the lights go out, and the artist is gone (after the encore that is). The house lights then quickly come up, indicating to the audience that they should get out! 😉

Last night, when the encore was over, the lights never went off. After the band collected together in front of the stage to take a group bow, they all stuck around and kept thanking the crowd. Then, even when the rest of the band was long gone, Keith kept walking around the stage and the runway, and thanking every section that was still around. There was no way we could even consider leaving before him.

It was very moving for both of us. There was a humility to his actions that was overwhelming.

So, I have no idea whether we’ll ever be back at MSG for a concert or not, but we’re not likely to be able to duplicate this experience without seeing this type of crowd interaction, on this scale.

Did I love it? Absolutely! Am I a Keith Urban fan now? Yes, at least for his live performances. I’m not really sure I’ll run out and buy his CDs, but I might. Do I prefer him (specifically, this show!) to Girlyman or The Wailin’ Jennys? (not just another gratuitous plug) 😉 Definitively, no!

There is an intimacy that comes with seeing people like Girlyman and The Jennys in a small venue that can’t be described accurately to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Aside from that, I actually prefer (reasonably strongly) the music and lyrics that both of those groups create to the more general Country music songs (which I love as well, but not as much, and differently).

That said, I am still amazed/impressed by how close Keith got to creating a sense of intimacy in a cavernous place like MSG.

A Semi-Vacation

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As is now our annual custom, immediately after enjoying a wonderful Superbowl party with our friends in Richmond, we headed out early this morning on the long drive to Florida, to visit my folks.

We drove for 10.25 hours today and are now in Daytona Beach, immediately across the street from the speedway. More driving tomorrow and then the rest of the week with my parents.

For me, this is as close as it gets to a vacation. I only checked email on my Treo once before we hit the road, and once when we stopped for lunch. Not staring at a computer screen the entire day is partially a vacation to me. Of course, now I’ll be on all evening, but that’s fine, because it also includes playing one online poker tourney. 😉

The reason I call it a semi-vacation is that Lois works straight through, even when we’re in the car. She works the Treo like it’s a laptop, and touches base with the office a number of times a day as well. Even when we’re with my folks, one ear is on our conversation, and the other on her email.

We had a fantastic ride down today, with close to zero traffic. It was 36 degrees in VA, 60 in North Carolina, 78 in southern South Carolina, 81 in northern Georgia, and 78 throughout Florida. A very nice change from the northern weather we’ve been living with lately (it was 27 when we left NY last Sunday).

We typically listen to the iPod in the car most of our trips. I don’t know exactly what was different today, perhaps the daunting task of DJ’ing for 10+ hours, but Lois asked me to put on XM Radio instead, early on, and we ended up never turning it off the entire way (we did change the channels as our moods changed).

We never turned the iPod on, and that was highly unusual.

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to the decompression, and I hope that Lois finds at least a drop of respite. More importantly, if she doesn’t, I really hope I can avoid being sucked into any of it. 😉

Online Music Services

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I’ve threatened for a few months now to write a Pandora vs Last.fm post. Every week, I decide to finally write it, and then procrastinate again, for numerous reasons. Recently, I decided to boil it down to a very few points, just to get it out (finally).

But, before doing so, I decided to do a little research, since a number of things have changed recently (some dramatically, like Last.fm’s recent announcement about being able to stream songs for free, up to three times).

In doing the research, I found this blog post which summarizes and categorizes 38 different online music services (including the ones I intended to cover). While he doesn’t go into depth on any one of them, it’s a fantastic resource to decide what sites you might wish to explore.

I wouldn’t have, and couldn’t have done as good and exhaustive a job putting that list together. Therefore, I can now (happily) concentrate on the few things that I specifically wanted to get off my chest.

In January 2007 I signed up for an account on Last.fm. At the time, I was mostly listening to XMRadio (I posted about my XM Radio experience here). At the time, we hadn’t had our explosion of discovering new music. Last.fm sounded like a good idea, a way to discover new music by typing in an artist that you already liked.

It amused me for about a month, then I got tired of it and stopped using it completely. The main reasons were that at the time, they never included any songs by the artist you entered to begin with, and they often ran out of similar artists (quickly sometimes) if you didn’t start with a mega-star.

Some things have changed, some things even dramatically (recently), as you can now pick specific songs by specific artists to hear, up to three times each, for free. Still, the biggest value (to me) in Last.fm, is one that I think is interesting, but doesn’t grab me personally all that much. That’s the ability to have friends, and see what they’re listening to, in real-time, in graphs of the past, etc. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool, and I check out my own listening habits on my profile on occasion, but I only have three friends at the moment, and I’m not desperate to increase that list. 😉

Months later, I finally started using an alternate service that I had been aware of for a while, Pandora. I am dramatically happier with Pandora than with Last.fm. If you start with an artist, in addition to hearing similar artists, you also hear a ton of music from the artist you started with mixed in as well.

Their selection of similar artists is fantastic. I can listen for hours on end and it’s extremely rare for me to hear something that I feel the need to rate poorly, or skip, etc. I’ve discovered a number of new artists via Pandora (and yes, I’ve bought their music, so Pandora helped promote them!).

I have a number of stations, and I most often play a quick mix of four of my stations. The only complaint I have about Pandora (and it’s extremely minor) is that they repeat the same songs a little more frequently than I’d like (it could be hours before a repetition, but sometimes, I listen an entire day while working at Zope). To be sure, they are repeating songs that I love, and that I’ve thumbed up, so it’s not terribly annoying. 😉

They too have some kind of friend stuff, but I have zero friends on Pandora (and I’m not looking for any), so I don’t really know how it works. I’ve added the Pandora App to my Facebook account, so when I’m listening to Pandora, friends of mine on Facebook can see what stations I’m listening to on Pandora.

I have over 7000 songs in iTunes, so I really don’t need an online service to find something to listen to. That said, I still listen a bunch, for three reasons:

  1. Convenience. I don’t need to think about what I want to listen to, just what type of music I’m in the mood for. I then don’t have to operate anything, the music just continues to come at me. I can pause a song, and come back to it hours later, and it picks up exactly from that point.
  2. Discover new music. I have tons, but every once in a while, it’s nice to wander into new territory.
  3. Surprise! Even if Pandora were to serve me songs that I already own, the order comes as a surprise, so it’s often like a little gift. Sure, I could turn on shuffle in iTunes, but I’d still have to pick at a minimum a genre, in order to get a similar experience, and Pandora keeps it even narrower than that, in a very nice way.

I had a few other things I wanted to cover, specifically, but I’m going to punt on them for now. With one exception, and I welcome any thoughts on this particular topic.

A number of bloggers have some sort of streaming widget on their site. Some even have more than one. Others have links to mp3 songs that can be downloaded (whether they mean you to or not).

While I applaud the desire to share music as widely as possible, and understand that it can easily end up creating a much larger audience for the artists in question, in the end, something feels wrong about it. I can’t imagine that the majority of bloggers are getting specific permission from the artists or the label.

If it’s only available via streaming, it’s a little easier for me to swallow. While some technical types will be able to capture the stream if they want, the overwhelming majority of people won’t bother, even if there are software downloads that they can use to do it for them.

But, when the link can be right-clicked, and saved, it amounts to mass distribution of copyrighted works. Am I missing something here?

I have promoted many artists in these posts, often with links included. That said, I’ve never once considered offering up a link to something that I own of theirs. I link to their site, to their MySpace site, to YouTube videos, etc. I’d love to attach particular songs to my posts, but again, I just feel that without explicit permission, I’m taking a liberty that isn’t mine to take.

So, any contrary opinions out there? Some of the people who are freely sharing music on their blogs are people I respect enormously, so I’m not saying that they are doing anything wrong, just that I don’t understand all the ins and outs yet. If I don’t get satisfactory answers here, I might post a comment on some their sites, but I don’t want to appear to be pointing a finger, which is the last thing I want to do!

XM Radio

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Two years ago, very good friends of ours bought me an amazing present, a Roady 2 XM Radio player, along with a monthly subscription. I had thought about getting one before they got it for me. It’s a relatively obvious thing for people who spend as much time in the car as we do. I didn’t get it because I didn’t research it enough to realize that you could install it yourself in under 3 minutes! I assumed it would require professional installation…

Anyway, we’ve been enjoying it mightily ever since (as I said above, for 2 years). About a year ago, I was curious to check out the accompanying service on the Net to listen live to the same stations. I never got around to doing it for a number of reasons, most notably because I never bothered to ask my friends for the login information to manage the account.

This past weekend, we were visiting them, and I got the info, and have successfully set up my account to listen live online. Wow! It’s simply too cool! In addition to being able to listen to an amazing variety of music all day long (which is what I’ve been doing while working here at Zope all day today), you can see what’s playing live on all the stations at once through the web. That means that even if I’m enjoying a song, if I notice that another station is playing a favorite of mine, or an artist I’ve always wanted to check out, with a single click, I’m there, listening to it.

They stream at 32kpbs, so it doesn’t soak up any bandwidth whatsoever (if you’re on a broadband connection, and if you’re not, stop reading my posts!) 😉

The only (incredibly minor) disappointment is that they don’t have all of the stations available online. One example is the main Country station (#11). No biggie, but worth mentioning.

Anyway, my only regret is not having enabled this last year…

P.S. Did I mention that this is a free service if you are an existing subscriber with a real XM Radio receiver? That makes it even cooler. Of course, if you don’t have an XM Radio, you might find this worth subscribing to as your primary Net Radio service 🙂