Sound Checks

Neil Diamond
Friday, Dec. 4; Kiel Center

Somewhere back in the mid- to late-1970s Neil Diamond, at the peak of his popularity with the hit "Song Sung Blue," was granted what entertainers receive at the peak of their popularity in this country: his own television special. My roommate then was an enthusiastic fan -- and I was not. Because I'd fiercely negotiated a moratorium on Hot August Night being played, over and over and over, when I was home, I'd agreed to leave the apartment for the evening so she could enjoy Neil without any sniping from me.

My companion for the evening was a little late though, and when he arrived there was Neil, self-important, unctuous, Vegas-smooth, introducing his prime-time honorific. Neil gave a tease in his intro as to who would -- surprise! -- appear on his really big show, and my friend and I tried to guess who the guest stars would be.

"Henry Winkler," I said. "Helen Reddy," said my friend.
And, within seconds, with Neil smugly beaming at the gifts he was bestowing on his fans, there was Henry Winkler just going wild onstage, and Helen Reddy joining Neil in a very out-of-tune duet of perhaps the worst song ever to become a Top 10 hit, "Song Sung Blue."

My friend and I were quickly exiled from the premises, but the point of the story is that when Neil Diamond appears at Kiel, those in attendance will be getting much what Holiday Inn offers in its ad campaign: "The best surprise is no surprise." "Coming to America," (a song that possibly sank Mike Dukakis' presidential campaign when it became his theme at the Democratic convention in 1988), "Cracklin' Rosie" (a tribute to cheap wine) and, of course, "Song Sung Blue," which the aging, paunchy star will croon as if in a state of bliss -- will all be performed with overblown orchestration, fantastic lighting effects and dripping sincerity. I'll be out with a friend elsewhere. (ES)

El Vez
Friday, Dec. 4; the Duck Room

Before the National Enquirer changed the focus of its "editorial" content from stories about aliens and two-headed babies to celebrity gossip, readers could find in every issue of the mag at least one story about an "Elvis sighting." But perhaps the sightings were not of Elvis after all. Maybe shocked fast-food, car-wash and grocery-store customers really saw El Vez, not Elvis. El Vez, otherwise known as Robert Lopez, is the "Mexican Elvis," the Chicano king of rock & roll. He's not to be confused with the tremendously unfunny Tortelvis from Dread Zeppelin or for a member of the Flying Elvises.

Mr. Vez cut his teeth in the late-'70s So-Cal punk-pop band the Zeros. Some years later, a successful performance at an Elvis birthday celebration in Memphis led Lopez to consider cultivating his alter ego full time. It was a wise decision. Since that fateful day, El Vez has released three full-length albums, El Vez Is Alive, Graciasland and, most recently, G.I. Ay, Ay! Blues. But the El Vez act, equal parts drama and musical madness, is best experienced live, not on record. El Vez leads listeners down various avenues of rock & roll, making forays into rockabilly, classic rock and R&B and peppering his tunes with stinging social criticism, in the process turning an American icon into an instrument for social change. When El Vez croons and dances, his gleaming pompadour standing tall and proud, his mustachio-ed smile reveals that he knows the performance is both a parody and a tribute to the King. Sure, El Vez is a shtick. But it's a shtick that, at least for me, has yet to lose its magic. (AG)

Johnny Mathis
Saturday, Nov. 5; the Fox Theatre

We all know there's not much to be happy about during the holidays, but if there's anyone who can turn those beleaguered Christmas songs into something that even approximates good cheer it's Johnny Mathis. The voice that turns "Chances Are" into a glittering showcase of love's promise can make even Christmas seem worthy of the heart's attention. Mathis will appear at the Fox, and that showy jewel of a theater palace will be the perfect stage for his falsetto tones. A showman in the best tradition of that art, Mathis might lack the dramatic gifts of a torch singer, but he can make the treacle of Christmas music into something glowing and, yes, even meaningful. (ES)

Six Finger Satellite
Wednesday, Dec. 9; the Hi-Pointe

It's tempting to fall in love with Six Finger Satellite; their mixture of anachronistic analog synths, treble-edgy guitar tantrums and linear-tracked beats works so well on paper, and when they run their vocals through the robotic voice-manipulator thingy, well, they're pretty much unzipping your pants for you. I mean, really, is there any voice sexier than that of a fake robot?

But there's actually nothing sexy about Six Finger Satellite. Over the course of their five-year musical career on the Sub Pop label, their dry-as-a-desert sibilant synthetics have continually stayed well away from the groin area of our groove machine and dug their way into the bones and brain. When they do groove, which they attempt to do often on their recent Law of Ruins (Sub Pop), it's often from a step away, which is frustrating. Their music, even the human parts like the guttural bass and drum lines, seems too analytical to provoke much of a human emotional response. And even when they rock, especially on the near-Birthday Party outtake "New Kind of Rat," they rarely seem to lose themselves inside the music, preferring instead to poke at it from an arm's length. Perhaps it's just the recording quality, which is a tad -- I'll say the word again -- dry, or maybe it's more deeply ingrained in their approach. Regardless, there's something about 6FS that is pulling me to see them perform -- word is they're pretty great live -- but I'm a tad skeptical, too. There's only one way to find out.... (RR)

Contributors: Anna Giuliani, Randall Roberts, Eddie Silva

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