had the magic stick: 50 Cent at SPAC.
Rich or . . . Get Rich
Performing Arts Center, Aug. 21
Surely everyone in the audience at SPAC already knew the 50
Cent mythology. It’s mentioned in nearly every article about
the rapper. Quickly, it goes like this: Born Curtis Jackson
in Queens to a crack-dealing mother. Orphaned at 8. Selling
drugs by 12. A promising rap career almost extinguished when
rival drug dealers shot him nine times, and Columbia axed
his first record deal. That’s only the first half of the movie
(which will be out in the fall). The second half charts the
meteoric rise, the signing to Eminem’s label, the release
of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, which went platinum in its
In case we didn’t already know this, 50 Cent preceded his
SPAC set with a dramatic montage of news clips. Talking heads
from MTV’s Kurt Loder to a Toyko news correspondent flashed
on monstrous video screens, intoning 50 Cent’s Cinderella
story. This wasn’t about shoring up rap cred—no one questions
50 Cent on that. More cynically, this was branding. 50 Cent
is an entrepreneur as well as a rapper, like Jay-Z, and his
business empire now includes a multimillion-dollar deal with
Reebok for the G-Unit sneaker, a flavor of Vitamin Water,
a video game, and the upcoming autobiographical movie, Get
Rich or Die Tryin’. (I know this because show attendees
sat through ads for the various 50 Cent ventures.)
The merchandising would have seemed crasser, if 50 Cent didn’t
also know how to entertain. People got their money’s worth
with this show package, you could say. There were opening
sets by up-and-coming artists Mike Jones, Ciara and Lil Jon
(who may have been one of the first performers at SPAC to
quit the stage for a chaotic romp with the masses on the lawn).
Ludacris followed with a set so loud that my face, literally,
was vibrating along to the bass, as the Dirty South rapper
brought out various members of his Disturbing tha Peace posse
for hits like “Stand Up” and “What’s Your Fantasy?” (sadly,
no “Roll Out”).
50 Cent’s headlining set was a barrage of nonstop entertainment,
incorporating special effects, clothing changes, surprise
guest appearances (by Mase, M.O.P., Olivia and Mobb Deep)
and hit songs, of which he has plenty. The rapper made his
first appearance by cascading from the ceiling along a Spidey
web, as fireworks showered his feet. A tortured-looking Statue
of Liberty teetered in the background, her mouth frozen in
a reflexive O, as if she had just been shot, while her crown
and eyes blinked like Christmas lights. Burn barrels, of the
hobo-BBQ variety, shot flames as 50 Cent, backed by Tony Yayo
and other members of his G Unit crew, started into “Magic
Despite his violent past, 50 Cent’s frontman persona was all
about the charm. He flashed his toothy grin, the dimple in
his cheek winking (actually it’s a bullet wound) and easily
seemed more friend than foe. Songs like “Candy Shop,” “Disco
Inferno” and the coyly suggestive “Just a Lil Bit,” played
up the lover-not-fighter image. The surprise ap pearance by
Mobb Deep, who performed “Got It Twisted” and “Quiet Storm,”
was an unexpected highlight. Mobb Deep joined G Unit for one
of 50 Cent’s latest, catchy-as-hell club hits, “Outta Control.”
Heading for the exit before thousands of young, exuberant
fans could jam the tunnel to the Route 50 parking lot, I heard
G Unit and guests collaborate on “Welcome to Jamrock.” The
gritty reggae anthem by Damian Jr. Gong Marley (son of Bob),
is incredibly hot right now (I can’t stop playing it myself),
and various rappers have recorded remixes, including G Unit’s
Yayo. Sounded sweet.
Hail the King
Arena, Aug. 22
Bob Dylan now claims that he didn’t set out to be the voice
of his generation; he just wanted to be Elvis Presley. Sorry
Bob: You had some good years, changed popular music as we
knew it and, in the process, became the voice of your generation.
(Nice going.) It was Neil Diamond, however, who became the
successor to the King.
Diamond’s never been shy about this, either. In his gloriously
demented statement of purpose, “I Am . . . I Said,” he wrote:
“Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of being a king/and
then became one.” This frog wasn’t going to settle for the
lowly, fairy-tale title “prince.”
Diamond, being urban and northern, was Presley with a touch
of Al Jolson—which is where the whole “Jewish Elvis” thing
comes in. Diamond works the sex appeal and the rock thing
and the love balladeer thing like Presley, but there’s a naked
emotion in his singing—not to mention an on-stage vibe somewhere
between a sincere desire and a shameless need for audience
adoration—that’s pure Jolson. (Remaking The Jazz Singer
was dumb; casting Diamond wasn’t.) And, judging from Monday’s
extravaganza at the Pepsi, it still works. And Diamond’s still
Wisely, he mixed up his set to alternate songs from every
stage of his long, successful career. This way, fans of each
distinct era—the brash ’60s pop-rocker, the experimentally
minded singer-songwriter, the romantic crooner—never had to
wait long to hear one of their favorites. And he had plenty
of them, including sing-along fave “Sweet Caroline,” roof-raising
“Coming to America,” supremely schmaltzy “You Don’t Bring
Me Flowers” (done as a duet with one of his backup singers),
faux English romantic ballad “Longfellow Serenade”. . . .
It might actually be more useful to list the hits he didn’t
sing, namely “Song Sung Blue,” “Solitary Man,” “Girl, You’ll
Be a Woman Soon,” and (thank god) that song for E.T.
According to most sources, Diamond does pretty much the same
show every year. (This was my first encounter with the Diamond
experience.) But, clearly, this obvious fact didn’t matter
to the sold-out crowd at the Pepsi. They loved Neil; Neil
loved them. And, when Diamond did his crypto-Gospel/world-music-inflected/overly
dramatic anthems from the early 1970s—“Holly Holy,” “Soolaimon,”
“Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” and “I Am . . .
I Said”—I was cheering right along with the die-hards.
Warped Tour 2005
Fair Grounds, Northampton Mass, Aug. 15
This was the last of 48 stops in two months for the 1000-person
little mobile village known as the Warped Tour. Traffic on
I-91 was backed up almost all the way to the Mass Pike at
noon. The previous night’s downpours had left the massive
infield of the fairgrounds in very rough shape, but the village
was up and running: nine stages and deep mud avenues lined
with tents, with vendors selling everything legal that a teenager
could ever want.
The crowd was massive, too: 30,000? 40,000? Mostly kids, many
mud-splattered, some covered head-to-toe in brown slime. The
girls walking by dressed up for each other had to be careful
where they stepped; one wrong move and you were in the soup.
At one point late in the afternoon, I came upon a small shallow
pond that had formed in the grand promenade, with about 50
mud-covered kids standing ankle deep, just looking around,
looking for all the world like a cross between Trent Reznor
at Woodstock ’94 and March of the Penguins.
There were plenty of parents milling about, too, some undoubtedly
reliving a past they’d never tell their kids about, others
looking like they badly needed a drink. One nice touch of
the tour was the reverse day-care center, an air-conditioned
tent in the middle of the action where parents could kick
back in comfy chairs, have an energy drink, and watch a movie.
I looked in at around 3 PM and the tent was packed, and There’s
Something About Mary was playing on a big-screen TV. Subtitled,
of course, because the din from the outside was pretty intense.
The music? Around 100 bands, mostly of the emo-screamo variety,
something Jon Pareles in The New York Times described
as punky music sung by high-pitched twerps, except that where
old-school punk railed against the world, the twerps mostly
whined about not getting a good date. What Pareles missed,
of course, was that most old-school punks railed about the
world, in the timeless rock & roll tradition, in order
to get a date. At least this new breed is more honest about
Emo-screamo has, like any genre, developed an orthodoxy that
can be stifling, but there was plenty of fun. Brain Failure,
from Beijing (!), played straight-up, passionate punk on a
tiny stage, oblivious to the fact that they were being drowned
out by two bigger nearby stages, and that their audience consisted
of a circle of eight boys goose-stepping in the deep mud.
The Dead 60’s, clean-cut and in polo shirts, laying down brutal
’80s new-wave dance music reminiscent of Joe Strummer and
Midnight Oil. And on the all-girl stage, Shira Girl, led by
an irresistable party-amazon-from-hell named Shira, were electrifying,
hysterical and inspiring all at once, with a jarring mix of
electronica, metal, hiphop and profane fun.
Through the chaos, you could set your watch by when the bands
hit the stages. Amazing.
You couldn’t get close to the two side-by-side main stages,
unless you were 16 and ready to rumble and get dirty. The
Dropkick Murphys rammed it with Celtic punk, bagpipes, and
a blazing version of Amazing Grace. And the Murphs had a nice
family picnic going on backstage and didn’t say boo when certain
members of the press grabbed beer out of their cooler. I love
As headliners My Chemical Romance stormed the stage for the
tour-closing set, kids were packing up the backstage complex.
Many were set-jawed and glassy-eyed, concentrating on just
getting through the next five minutes, then the next five.
But there was also a lot of hugging, and lots of beatific,
tired smiles that said we’ve made it, and we’ve really done
something. And to be sure, they had.