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He had the magic stick: 50 Cent at SPAC.

photo:Chris Shields

Get Rich or . . . Get Rich
By Kirsten Ferguson

50 Cent

Saratoga 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 first week.

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 Stick.”

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.

All Hail the King

Neil Diamond

Pepsi 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 cool.

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.

—Shawn Stone

Ah Youth

Warped Tour 2005

Tri-County 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 it.

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 them.

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.

—Paul Rapp

 

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