Reality check: ‘Saturday Night Live’ has always been hit-and-miss

Colin Jost and Michael Che during "Weekend Update" on October 25, 2014. Photo by Dana Edelson |NBC.

Colin Jost and Michael Che during “Weekend Update” on October 25, 2014. Photo by Dana Edelson |NBC.

So I was surfing comments on Entertainment Weekly’s wrap-up of the Chris Rock-Prince episode of Saturday Night Live on Sunday when I stumbled onto a group of commenters who had actual — Wow! — perspective.

“The actual truth is that the show has always been really hit-and-miss,” a guy identified as StewyStan wrote. “Go back and watch some of the full 90-minute episodes from the 70s, and you’ll be amazed by how uneven the show was even during the supposed golden era.”

He’s right. As a longtime SNL fan, I have some of those seasons on DVD, and yeah, there is quite a bit of drek amongst the golden nuggets.

A poster identified as Gary Middleton put it brilliantly:

1976: “The show hasn’t been funny since Chevy left”.
1980: “The show hasn’t been funny since the original cast left.”
1985: “The show hasn’t been funny since Eddie left.”
1986: “The show hasn’t been funny since Crystal left.”
1994: “The show hasn’t been funny since Hartman and Carvey left.”
1998: “The show hasn’t been funny since Norm Macdonald was axed.”
2003: “The show hasn’t been funny since Will Ferrell left.”
2008: “The show hasn’t been funny since Fey/Poehler left.”
2012: “The show hasn’t been funny since Kristen Wiig left.”
2014: ?

I have been saying for a while that Saturday Night Live nostalgia fetishists are the biggest bunch of cranks on the Internet, besting people who think there has been no good music since the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.

Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, et al were amazing, and they established one of the most enduring entertainment franchises in television history. But they were not the only ones who did it well. When I was a teenager, it was Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Billy Crystal, Victoria Jackson, Dennis Miller and Co. who made us laugh and satirized the era we were in. Subsequent years have given us David Spade, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Seth Meyers. Give me another show with that kind of track record.

Is the current season, No. 40, struggling? Yes. Yes it is. It has put me to sleep more than it has made me laugh out loud — guest host Jim Carrey’s Matthew McConaughey-Lincoln ad satire has been the best thing of the season, thus far. The new casting of Weekend Update is simply a mistake, and I have loved Michael Che’s work on The Daily Show. But Cecily Strong was carrying that segment after Meyers left, and for some strange reason, she was booted. Strong, Kate McKinnnon and Aidy Bryant are the most reliable players along with longest-serving cast member Keenan Thompson, but they aren’t enjoying much support.

Lorne Michaels has enough of a track record to know this. In comedy, more than any other field, you know when you are bombing. And Michaels has proven that he can right this ship. I have clear memories of the post-original cast era, when it appeared that Saturday Night Live really might have been done. The show has had dark days and heydays. I look forward to the latter returning.

Post Script: I sort of have to thank SNL for helping prove my point. Last Saturday at 10 p.m., NBC aired an archive episode from 1979, hosted by Rick Nelson, that contained nary a laugh. It actually prompted my 15-year-old to say, “So is Saturday Night Live a show that got better over the years?” Not necessarily. But it did make the subsequent repeat of the Bill Hader episode from this “inferior” season look like an absolute scream. Like I said, it has always been a show of hits and misses — though I was sort of baffled why they aired that ’79 stinker.

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Taylor Swift coming to Rupp Arena next year

Taylor Swift played a red Les Paul during a concert at Rupp Arena in April 2013 as part of her

Taylor Swift played a red Les Paul during a concert at Rupp Arena in April 2013 as part of her Red Tour.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Herald-Leader staff

Fresh off its biggest music event ever with Garth Brooks’ four-show stand last weekend, Rupp Arena announced Monday morning that Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour — named for her latest album, not any revolutionary time-travel breakthroughs —  will come to Lexington on Oct. 20, 2015.

Swift has played Rupp three times in the past, most recently her mammoth Red Tour in April 2013.

The 1989 Tour will launch in Louisiana in May and will get to Kentucky fairly quickly, on June 2 at KFC Yum Center in Louisville.

Rupp Arena consistently attracts top-tier country acts, but since the opening of the Yum Center, rock and pop shows have tended to gravitate to Louisville. Swift says 1989, which was released last week, marks her transition from country to pop, but she is keeping a date with Lexington.

Tickets for some venues are scheduled to go on sale Nov. 14, but Rupp Arena tickets will go on sale at a later date, Rupp spokeswoman Sheila Kenny said. Prices were not included in the tour announcement.

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Red, White & Boom unplugged?

Hunter Hayes.

Hunter Hayes

If big shows by Garth Brooks and Jason Aldean have not been enough for Bluegrass-area country fans this fall, WBUL-FM 98.1 is ending the year with a lineup that echoes its big July festival.

Call it Red, White & Boom unplugged.

The Bull calls it Acoustic Jam 2014, 7 p.m. Dec. 2, and the crowd at the Lexington Opera House will be a fraction of the size of the Boom audience at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. But that is part of the appeal of seeing shows by national artists at the 940-seat Opera House: being up close and personal with the stars.

Topping the lineup for this show will be Hunter Hayes, David Nail, Joe NicholsAmerican Idol champion Scotty McCreery, and both parts of Jessamine County’s country-star Montgomery family: John Michael Montgomery and Montgomery Gentry — John Michael’s older brother, Eddie Montgomery, and their friend Troy Gentry.

Also in the lineup is Sam Hunt, whose debut album dropped this week to rave reviews; Voice competitor RaeLynn, whose current song is God Made Girls; Kristian Bush of Sugarland fame and Maddie & Tae, whose hit is Girl in a Country Song.

Also, as with WBUL’s RW&B, there will two acts to be named later. But tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday (Nov. 7) for $107.50, including fees. Proceeds benefit Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

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Review: Boz Scaggs at the Lexington Opera House

Boz Scaggs.

Boz Scaggs.

More reading: Walter Tunis — ‘Silk’ is but one texture of Boz Scaggs’ career

Heading to the Lexington Opera House Tuesday night, it was easy to wonder which Boz Scaggs we would see: the radio hit maker of the 1970s and early ’80s or the bluesy Boz of recent albums and PBS specials.

It turned out the 70-year-old guitar master was able to meld his various personas into an eminently satisfying hour-and 45 minute set, even if he didn’t play your favorite song from his catalog (No Jojo? May have been too disco Boz.).

In recent years, Scaggs has returned to the bluesy roots of his career, particularly on his 2013 album Memphis, recorded in the title town and delivering heavy doses of Delta blues from the frets.

And that’s where the evening started, reaching all the way back to 1971 and Runnin’ Blue, a fitting introduction to Scaggs’ distinctive voice and the crack seven-person band he brought with him. Fast forward 42 years, and we got the Willy DeVille tune Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl from Memphis. 

Having set the bluesy tone with a few more numbers, we began to navigate into Scaggs’ signature West Coast cool hinted at in a lovely rendition of Sierra, which demonstrated how well a big group of musicians can come together to create something of subtle beauty. That is also an apt description of Scaggs’ cover of Brook Benton’s Rainy Night in Georgia, a near perfect selection for the rainy evening we had come in from, and would depart into.

But there are songs Scaggs cannot get away without playing, and the energy of crowd clearly spiked as drummer Gene Lake smacked into the opening of Lowdown with bassist Rich Patterson getting a cheer for plucking off the song’s signature two-note bass accent. We were at the singing-along-to-every-word point in the show — Scaggs reflexively backed away from the microphone as the crowd bellowed “Low, low, low down,” heading into the bridge. That’s where we stayed for a while through radio fare such as Harbor Lights (a showcase for saxophonist Eric Crystal and keyboardist Mike Logan) and Miss Sun, featuring a playful call and response between Scaggs’ guitar and singer Conesha Monét Owens, aka Ms. Monét.

Monét got the stage to herself to run through some R&B hits such as Sly and the Family Stone’s Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) and the CCR-via-Tina Turner classic Proud Mary. Though she tended to overdo hand motions to illustrate the lyrics, her voice was glorious, and at that point in the show she had done the best job of bringing the crowd to its feet.

That was, until the encores.

After a sound-plagued rendition of Lido Shuffle, the band did the obligatory departure to return after just a few minutes with What Can I Say from Scaggs’ iconic Silk Degrees album (along with Lido and Lowdown)  and then launching into a cathartic rendition of Loan Me a Dime, another song he’s been playing since at least the early 1970s.

In this performance, Scaggs gave some of his most emotional singing, fretting “This girl’s been gone so long, it’s worrying me, you know it’s worrying me,” and taking tack sharp blues runs on the guitar. But what really made this star-turn affirm Scaggs still has “it,” was how much he relished being one of the boys in the band, particularly trading tasty licks with guitarist Michael Miller and supporting the sideman’s solos with some jazz riffing.

That could have ended the evening on a powerful note, but it was powerful enough for the crowd to demand and receive one last encore of Sick and Tired. (It almost seemed we were going to get a third, but a spent-looking Scaggs returned to simply say goodnight.)

In less than two hours, we went from wondering which Boz would show up to being glad he showed and affirmed his body of work holds up very, very well.

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Jian’s gone, but the show must go on

Jian Ghomeshi, former host of CBC radio's Q. CBC Photo.

Jian Ghomeshi, former host of CBC radio’s Q. CBC Photo.

Fans of intelligent cultural coverage, particularly those who tuned in that sort of stuff on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Qhad to be disappointed by yesterday’s news that the show’s host, Jian Ghomeshi, was fired following very serious sexual allegations by a former girlfriend.

My hope is that the situation, including other allegations, will work out in a way that justice is served. I refuse to speculate further because, as I often say, no one really knows what happens in a home once the doors are closed except the people involved. You really do not know, so stop speculating.

My interest is in great radio and great cultural coverage, which has consistently delivered from Ghomeshi and other hosts, and I hope will continue now that he is gone.

has always impressed me as an outlet more interested in art than celebrity, something of a rarity in the star-obsessed national and continental media that seems to regard being on a two-bit reality show like 16 and Pregnant as enough accomplishment to merit coverage of every hookup and breakdown in In Touch Weekly (You sent me all those emails, eventually I was going to say something).

In its several years on the air in Central Kentucky on WEKU-88.9 FM, even if I scoffed at someone had on its guest list, I presumed they must have some cultural value for the show to have booked them. Ghomeshi and his colleagues’ interviews always drew out the best and most enlightening discussions. That’s what he brought, and that’s what I currently presume his successors Brent Bambury and Piya Chattopadhyay will continue. (A moment of levity: In the grand scheme of NPR, I think Chattopadhyay, by her name alone, is the obvious heir to the the throne.) The local pairing of at 2 p.m. and Fresh Air at 3 gives listeners two hours of the best talk in the nation.

There are many, many iconic programs that have survived multiple host changes. Tonight Show, anyone? We are used to Ghomeshi, but it is fairly obvious however this situation shakes out, that is over. His personality, which did rub some listeners the wrong way, is a big part of the show. But in a new era, with new hosts, the focus may shift more toward the guests and topics. There is a tradition of great interviewing highlighting great artists and important topics. I, for one, am pulling for that to continue.

Note: Rich Copley contributes a weekly commentary to WEKU-FM.

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Listening to … Angaleena Presley, ‘American Middle Class’

Angaleena Presley performs during the first day of two-day Red, White and Boom country music festival at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Lexington, Saturday, July 5th, 2014. © Herald-Leader staff photo by Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay.

Angaleena Presley performs during the first day of two-day Red, White and Boom country music festival at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Lexington, Saturday, July 5th, 2014. © Herald-Leader staff photo by Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay.

Martin County native Angaleena Presley knows small town Appalachian life well enough to not romanticize it too much.

While a lot of country songs today get all nostalgic for Friday night lights, she writes about the town football star dying from a prescription pain medication overdose (“Pain Pills”).

Her visit to town on a Tuesday night involves giving an encouraging smile to a cold girl at the supermarket whose mama is buying cigarettes.

Angaleena Presley - albumAnd American Middle Class is introduced by her daddy, Jimmy Presley, talking about work as a coal miner saying, “it ain’t no life, really,” while his daughter sings, “hammer a nail between your heart and your hometown, so you can carry this country on your back.”

There is also a lot of fun, redemption and confidence on this remarkable debut album, American Middle Class. It is an embrace of the aesthetic and traditions of American country music that also sounds immediate and relevant in the 21st century.

Folks who went to Red, White & Boom in July may not have gotten a good impression of Presley, as sticking her out on the thrust stage alone with her red guitar in front of a party-hearty crowd was not the best format to be introduced to her.

But this album reveals Presley as a strong new voice in country.

Presley, as her press biography tells us, has known life as a coal miner’s daughter, a one-time single mother and watched the toll of drug addiction  growing up in the Martin town of Beauty. But she has also seen the glamour of Nashville celebrity as a successful songwriter and one-third of the Miranda Lambert trio Pistol Annies — Ashley Monroe rounded out the group.

If there is any justice in country music, Presley should be able look forward to her own Nashville spotlight with this assured album she co-produced with her husband, Jordan Powell. The searingly honest lyrics are buffeted with a gritty production by this artist who believes it’s a sin to produce a country album without a steel guitar.

Key elements include Josh Grange’s evocative pedal steel, John Henry Trinko’s canny piano and organ and crew of accomplished musicians that give every song the right ratios of groove and compassion.

And then there are the lyrics. Yes, there’s some bitterness. Yes, there’s some romance. But there are also clever meditations like Dry County Blues, which addresses some sad facts about addiction — expanded on in other songs — but but it also filled with humor. Like she sings on All I Ever Wanted, “I lived myself one hell of a life.”

Like Kacey Musgraves last year, and Loretta Lynn decades before, Presley sings with brutal honesty about her rural roots. But you never doubt home is a place she loves and wants to see get better. With such an autobiographical first statement, you do have to wonder where her next album will take her. This is clearly a record that’s been inside Presley, 38, for years.

But this year, you have to say that between Presley and Sturgill Simpson — and let’s not forget Sundy Best and Kelsey Waldon — some of the best country music being made today is by Kentuckians.

 More to read:

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‘Voice’ audition ‘uplifting’ for Sydney Cubit

Lexington performer and songwriter Sydney Cubit.

Lexington performer and songwriter Sydney Cubit. sydneycubit.com.

As viewers saw in a montage on Tuesday night’s episode of “The Voice,” the judges did not turn around for Lexington teen Sydney Cubit.

But despite not advancing to the live competition, Cubit’s mother says that the 16-year-old Henry Clay High School student enjoyed and grew from the experience.

“It was an honor to be part of it,” said Allison Cubit, who said Sydney was recruited to audition for “The Voice.” “Eventually everyone is told no, except for one person.”

Cubit said that Sydney was grateful to be among the final 100 that actually got to perform before judges Adam Levine, Gwen Steffani, Pharrell Williams, and Blake Shelton after tens of thousands auditioned.

“It was probably the most uplifting part of the whole experience,” Allison Cubit said. “They spent so much time with her giving her feedback that was really helpful.

“It’s a real confidence boost being part of the mix, and a validation to have the show or the judges see and affirm what you’re doing.”

Meeting other contestants, Cubit learned that many had been through the audition process a few times already. So who knows? This may not be the last time “The Voice” hears from Sydney Cubit.

 

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Studio Players adds a performance of ‘Leading Ladies’

Ryan Briggs as Leo/Maxine and Will Drane as Jack/Stephanie in Studio Players presents Ken Ludwig's "Leading Ladies" at the Carriage House Theatre Sept. 18-Oct. 5. Visit studioplayers.org for more information. Photo by Larry Neuzel.

Ryan Briggs as Leo and Will Drane as Jack in Studio Players production of Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies” at the Carriage House Theatre, through Oct. 5. © Photo by Larry Neuzel.

This is a good way to start a theater season: Studio Players is having to add a performance of its season-opener, Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies,” to accommodate audience demand.

It seems audiences are agreeing with Herald-Leader critic Candace Chaney, who wrote: “Directed by Marty Wayman, the farcical romp is the quintessential Studio show. It’s an evening of lighthearted silliness with the actors having as much fun as the audience.”

“Leading Ladies” is the story of two struggling Shakesperian actors who dress up as women to try to cash in on an inheritance. Hilarity ensues.

“We have a handful of tickets for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but we want to make sure everyone that wants to can see the show,” Wayman said.

The additional show on this, the production’s closing weekend, is at 8 p.m. Thursday. Go to the Studio website for tickets or call (859) 257-4929.

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Lexington’s Sydney Cubit on ‘The Voice’

Lexington singer and songwriter Sydney Cubit will go before the judges on "The Voice" this week. Photo by Allison Cubit.

Lexington singer and songwriter Sydney Cubit will go before the judges on “The Voice” this week. Photo by Allison Cubit.

Lexington teen Sydney Cubit will go before Adam, Pharrell, Gwen and Blake this week on NBC’s “The Voice.”

The 16-year-old Henry Clay High School student has become well-know in Lexington as a singer and songwriter with regular gigs at venues such as Natasha’s Bistro & Bar, where she had a sold-out show Saturday night. Her first EP, “Pick Up the Pieces,” was released last year and is available for download through her website.

Of course, as with any reality-competition show competitor, the Cubit’s are sworn to secrecy, lest a legion of NBC lawyers whisk them off to an undisclosed location in Burbank. So we will have to watch and see how it goes for Sydney. “The Voice,” airs at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on NBC (WLEX, 18-1 broadcast and TWC Ch. 8 in Lexington).

Watch this space for a recap of Sydney’s audition after it happens.

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Listening to … Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, ‘Cheek to Cheek’

Lady Gaga, right, and Tony Bennett arrive for a media event at the Brussels' city hall on Monday Sept. 22 , 2014. © AP photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert.

Lady Gaga, right, and Tony Bennett arrive for a media event at the Brussels’ city hall on Monday Sept. 22 , 2014. © AP photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert.

In 1989, the soundtrack to a little movie called “When Harry Met Sally” turned a generation that was tuned into U2 and Bon Jovi onto standards from the American songbook. All it took was a charming guy named Harry Connick Jr. delivering straight ahead renditions of songs like “It Had to be You” making them seem as relevant to us as they were to our parents or grandparents. And the messenger was one of us, a 20-something whose tastes veered in a different direction when he sat down at the piano.

140928GagaBennettAnd no, Connick’s brand of standard time didn’t knock Paula Abdul, New Kids on the Block or (sadly) Milli Vanilli off the top of the pop charts. But Connick became a mainstream star and a new generation heard some music that really deserves to endure.

It’s easy to recall that album listening to “Cheek to Cheek” the new album of standards by the head-turning pairing of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

Gaga’s vocal chops are already well established, particularly if you have bothered to venture beyond her chart-toppers to songs such as “Brown Eyes.” But she has never collaborated with a gentleman like Bennett, 60 years her senior. And while this project originated with him, Bennett gives Gaga plenty of room on this album to show a completely different side of her voice and style. If you really listen to her music, you know she can do smoky and torchy.

But this is an album that calls on her to relax and puts the focus on interpreting the lyric, the true art of masters of this style like Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney. “Lush Life” is Gaga’s tour de force, sitting beautifully in her lower range, finding her easy and reflective, singing Billy Strayhorn’s lyrics like she lives them. In short, what we want from a standards singer.

And in Bennett, 88, she has a partner who has been at the top of this game for decades. Their collaborations on standards like “But Beautiful” are sublime and “Anything Goes” are pure delights — the latter being amusing because it’s a Cole Porter scandal song that if rewritten today would probably include a reference to Gaga’s pop-star persona, for whom the title applies.

Fortunately that includes singing standards with one of the masters of the form. Is it a great album? No. There’s nothing particularly imaginative or surprising about the arrangements or performances. Bennett is as reliable as ever. As game as Gaga is, she is sometimes shrill or sounds like she’s singing through. But she also has plenty of great moments, and frankly, she is the reason people em masse will pay attention to this record. Certainly, there are practitioners of this form such as Pink Martini, Michael Buble and Connick putting out albums on a regular basis. And watching groups such as the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra’s Jazz Arts Orchestra, it is obvious there is a lot of enduring appeal in this music.

What something like a hit movie soundtrack or a current pop star taking on this music brings to the table is exposure to a wider audience than regularly listens. And that makes it worth tuning in.

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