Tag Archives: Conan

Allen Stone or Traditionally Black Music Deconstructed by a White Guy.

I was watching a DVR-ed episode of Conan recently, as I often do, and the guest line up was as follows: Chris Colfer (Kurt from Glee), Charlyne Yi (from House), and then Allen Stone. If I don’t recognize the last guest, it’s usually a stand up comedian and I like to watch those guys, so I decided to give it a whirl. Yet in the monologue, Conan said “…musical guest: Allen Stone!” Blah. Sounded like a bad country artist, so at that point I nearly turned it off but I have really enjoyed the guest interviews Charlene Yi has done with Conan in the past, so I decided to watch at least her segment. She is just the most bizarrely cute girl; she interviews like a ten year old who’s high and surprised she is on a talk show. And Conan clearly loves her, which makes for an all-around funny interview. Catch her if you get the chance sometime.

So her segment ends, and I am getting ready to turn it off when Conan introduces the musical guest as a soul singer from Seattle. My brow immediately furrowed in confusion over that description and then this performance happened:

Holy cow. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a voice and singer that are more mismatched. I mean this guy doesn’t fit at all. He looked like Brett Dennen’s hipster twin but the song that he played was as far away from that as you can get. He completely blew me away. When I showed Colleen the video later that day, she had the exact same stunned expression as I did after it ended.

And after I got a hold of his album and have taken it in a few times, a new question has been rolling around in my head. What is soul music? I hear that term all the time and I use it all the time, but do I really know what I mean?

Where did soul come from? Wikipedia’s intro statement on their soul music article reads as follows: “Soul music is a music genre originating in the United States combining elements of gospel music and rhythm and blues. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, soul is ‘music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.'” There is a lot to unpack there, but the main point is that soul music really came into being in the ’60s, when genres really started getting melded together in new and innovative ways by black artists. They took the religious passion of the African American churches and injected it into the melodic snaps and claps of rhythm & blues. Soul music in the ’60s was loud, energetic, and meaningful. Soul singers made you feel what they were singing. Can you compare most of today’s popular music with what you hear when Aretha Franklin sings to her man that he makes her feel like a natural woman? Damn if that’s not real and sensual and pure. When Sam Cooke sings “It’s been too hard livin’, but I’m afraid to die, cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky…” in the masterpiece song A Change Is Gonna Come, I get chills. Who hasn’t gone through hardship and questioned their entire life philosophy? These are real thoughts and feelings that people across racial boundaries, across age and gender and socioeconomic lines really deal with. In the liner notes to their album Naturally, Gabriel Roth (bassist and producer for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) writes: “Somewhere between banging on logs and the invention of M.I.D.I. technology we have made a terrible wrong turn. We must have ridden right past our stop. We should have stepped down right off the train at that moment when rhythm and harmony and technology all culminated to a single Otis Redding whine. That moment of the truest, most genuine expression of what it means to be human.” That’s exactly it.

And this is where it becomes really important for me. Soul started as a traditionally African-American genre of music. But at its core, soul is so much deeper than that. It’s called soul for a reason. If it was strictly a genre of music for one people group, it’d be called skin. But it doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or any other color. Anyone can relate to feeling love or love lost, questioning the deep life question. And love is universal. Soul, at the most atomic level, is universal.

So let me throw this back to Allen Stone. Thankfully, skin color does not determine a soul singer (see: Dusty Springfield, Adele, Susan Tedeschi, Steve Cropper, Dr. John, Michael McDonald, etc.), so is he a soul singer? Of course he is, if for no other reason than his incredible tune Unaware. That song is beautiful, whether he’s singing about the government or a dame who’s done him wrong. He sings from inside, and you can hear the raw emotion in his voice. That’s says soul to me.

So how the heck would I describe soul? On the surface, certainly not by the shaggy, blonde-haired, gap-toothed hippie singing on Conan. Yet that is soul, all the way. Soul is bass that knows it can play more than the root note. Soul is knowing how to use horns in a subtle way. It’s bobbing your head backward on the 1 and the 3 beats instead of forward. Soul is a drummer that can be sloppy in the most controlled way, or adding a new rhythm within the main rhythm. These are all musical elements of soul, and somebody else might define soul in a totally different way, and that’s OK. What I’m sure of is that I know it when I hear it. I get goosebumps when I hear it. Here are a few examples of that:

http://youtu.be/Qgp7hlkfstI (goosebumps: 3:55, the rhythm change in the drums)

http://youtu.be/bb6cBKE3WzQ (goosebumps: 0:15, the whole freaking chorus)

http://youtu.be/-4Yz_bUTlbo (goosebumps: 3:15, the keys part that comes in is heartbreakingly beautiful)

http://youtu.be/XrjXLbQQmZA (goosebumps: 0:24, that seventh chord)

http://youtu.be/TgRplZMRJvI (goosebumps: 0:15, when the verse really starts)

http://youtu.be/ShO6KKaEoZQ (goosebumps: 3:00, when they sing the chorus together. I swear, Adele has the voice of Sister Act 2-era Lauryn Hill. Chilling.)

http://youtu.be/wz2_N_9ggHI (goosebumps: 2:57, the bass. The bass!)

http://youtu.be/24gjW4Oqj2k (goosebumps: 2:10, the bridge. Beautiful combination of both voices and John’s guitar part.)

http://youtu.be/dAao_2_pNCo (goosebumps: 3:34, the horns, and 3:47, when his vocal line and guitar line trade places)

http://youtu.be/UdYRzH10L2M (goosebumps: the whole thing. SRV could do no wrong)

http://youtu.be/dZkjo3mNmsA (goosebumps: first seconds you hear the bass. Man that bass is funky)

http://youtu.be/ccenFp_3kq8 (goosebumps: 0:42, when the synth part comes in)

http://youtu.be/TmaKSpTIJzI (goosebumps: 2:51, when the chorus drops out and the new chord progression kicks in)

http://youtu.be/U438sZlUj4w (goosebumps: 4:52, the last chorus into the “Booty” part of the song. The vocal layering stops me in my tracks and sheer groove of “Booty” brings it on home. Legitimately though, as I’ve said before, this entire album could go on this list.)

These are all songs that I’ve heard from the last fifty years that I’ve thought “Man, that is soulful.” And you’ve got a huge mix of genres and feelings and passions and faces here. It’s a transcendent genre of music. In the end though, when I say soul, I just mean music that I like. It’s music that means something, and means it to many people. The things that matter in life matter to more than just me. They ultimately matter to everyone, and these themes are represented in soul music. That’s what makes it so enduring.

-Jon

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quick joke.

funniest actual joke i’ve heard in a long time, from conan’s monologue, wednesday, july 29th:

“in south carolina, a man has been arrested for the second time for having sex with a horse.

… apparently this guy just couldn’t take ‘neigh’ for an answer.”

-jon

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conan’s first week.

conan o’brien has officially taken over the tonight show franchise on nbc. he’s gotten through his first week and i couldn’t be happier. he moved in with little to no hiccups, and it looks as though he’s gonna make a great host.
monday was such an exciting night for me. i’d waited three months with great anticipation to see conan back on the air and i was just amped to see the news anchors end with “stay tuned for the tonight show with conan o’brien on next!” right off, i’ve gotta say that seeing conan’s new show, i was left with the impression that he really loves television. just as a medium, as an art form, as a way of communication, he loves television. his show started with a decades old nbc peacock logo stating, “the following program is brought to you in living color on nbc.” super cool homage to an era of television gone by. his intro too has a very cool old-time microphone with a very vintage nbc logo on it and loads of flashy lights, and his new set really has the perfect mixed feeling of vintage and contemporary styles. for example, there is a mural wrapping around the stage above conan that’s hard to see on tv, but it’s a really trendy art-deco vintage mural with scenes from 1920s LA area and nbc logos. just really cool stuff. it’s hard to explain but it just seems that conan loves tv and this whole new show is very much an homage to television from the past. such a neat thing.
conan’s cold open was a great way to kick of his show too. seeing him literally run across the united states was really funny to me. the man has just the longest limbs you could ever imagine. it’s incredible, and seeing him sprint across wrigley field was great. it was a great intro that i think was endearing to leno’s old viewers.
the new intro is really cool too. i mentioned the old mic, but it’s just a very hip, vintage montage of lights and sounds with conan’s old pal and new announcer andy richter announcing conan and the band and guests. a fitting job for andy. and the theme song. oh man when i heard conan’s old theme music from late night i was just ecstatic, but they’ve updated it with some real flourish and it kills now. it’s such a great tune. seeing max weinberg and the tonight show band (previously known as the max weinberg seven) playing was great too, i’m so happy they came from new york to join conan on the show. they are such a great band.
so overall, conan was great. he seems really happy and really grateful for this new opportunity and is really excited to take the show over and make it his own. while he didn’t seem completely at ease on the first night, by the end of the week he was really getting into his groove. i have no doubts he will feel right at home right away.
i guess what i mean by completely at ease is on late night, there was a lot more of him killing time during the monologue with just silliness. conan making jokes about his hair or how the audience cheered too much for him or how a joke bombed. so far on the tonight show, there has been a lot more pre-produced sketches, off-set segments (also called “remotes”) which has conan interacting with just normal people, like universal studio tourists, workers on the universal studio lots, random LA citizens, etc. i’ve always found these segments funny, because conan has an incredible knack for improvisational comedy and finding the comical within normal situations with normal people. some of my favorite moments from late night were his remotes, like the old-tyme baseball sketch, anything that triumph the insult comic dog did, conan’s bird-watching outing, conan’s formation of a boy band, and conan’s dinner with associate producer jordan schlansky. these are just a few of the absolutely hilarious sketches that conan has done off the set. if you have a chance, take a look at these sketches because they are thoroughly entertaining. if conan keeps this kind of comedy up on the tonight show, his viewers are in for quite a treat. what has been missing a bit, and was coming back slowly by the end of the week, was his off the cuff silliness on camera. during his monologue, conan plays the audience so well and often rambles just enough to say hilarious things. he comes up with ridiculous “impressions” of celebrities that are just him doing things like pulling on fake suspenders to do larry king. they aren’t actually “good” impressions but they are funny. it’s this type of silliness that has taken him a bit to ease back into since starting but i think the more he takes over the show the more we’ll see it.
one thing that improved greatly as the week went by was the return of great old comedy bits from late night. when i realized they were doing in the year 2000 on wednesday, any of my fears for conan’s switch to an earlier time slot were alleviated. i was unsure if they were gonna bring a lot of bits over or use max and the band in bits as much, and seeing them take a classic bit from late night and giving it just a little bit of pizzazz for the new audience was reassuring. thursday’s show saw the return of max weinberg as more than just a great band leader but also a really weird and hilarious member of the show’s comedy team and friday’s show featured the old bit celebrity surveys. i’m not worried anymore. they’ll bring over the funny stuff and leave aside the not as good stuff.
the first week was jam packed with celebs. will ferrell, tom hanks, gwyneth paltrow, ryan seacrest, and a few lesser knowns. musical guests included pearl jam (debuting a brand new song from their forthcoming album), green day (who gave conan a guitar as a house warming present), sheryl crow (performing the same song she did on her debut performance on late night with conan o’brien way back in ’93 or ’94, whenever it was), and most importantly for ME, john mayer trio. the trio hasn’t played together in like a year and a half and to see them performing on stage was just really great. they covered california dreamin’ by the mama’s and the papa’s and were backed by a los angeles children’s choir. so awesome. leave it to john mayer to turn a ’60s folk song into a real rock ‘n roll tune. get a load of this.
so it’s been a good first week. i want to call it great just because i’m excited to see conan doing the job he was born to do, but i’m gonna keep my grade at good for now, mainly cause i know he hasn’t won many new viewers’ hearts yet. but i know the show is only gonna get better. conan has only ever improved in his 16 years on television and this is his chance to really do what he wants with his show and with his comedy. can’t wait to see what he’s got up his outrageously long sleeves.
-jon

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out with the old, in with the old.

conan o’brien wrapped up the final episode of late night with conan o’brien back in march. i’m not sure why, but leading up to that show i had been actually kind of sad thinking about conan packing up and taking the reigns of the tonight show. conan had been hosting late night for 16 years now, which is actually pretty incredible if you think about it. the first year or so of the show was reamed by critics and fans alike, and subsequently has become the funniest late night talk show on television and for my money, the funniest show on television period (that’s right office writers, you really have dropped the ball).


i guess it made me kind of sad thinking about his move because while i didn’t watch him growing up, i started watching him all the time when i was in 8th grade and all through high school. along with jim carrey in dumb and dumber, conan was the most influential person when i was developing my own sense of funny. the guy just did and said things that always made me laugh. he was very self-depricating, but not in a “pity me”-woody allen type of way. he made fun of himself all the time, yet always laughed at the jokes he made at his expense because he knew they were funny. that’s a subtle but important distinction that resonated with me very strongly. and he not only made jokes about himself, but jokes about the quality of the show, sketches, props, special effects, ridiculous audience members, inappropriate guests, etc. nothing was really off limits, but he was always respectful. his jokes were never truly mean-spirited, in his monologues, after making a completely inappropriate joke about whatever, the audience would usually laugh/make a “ohhhh” sound and he would make this hilarious face where he tensed up because he knew what he said was too much. he knew it was a joke and that face was part of the delivery but i always found it just very funny.

jay leno is also no longer the host of the tonight show. his last show was very nice; a fitting tribute to end his seventeen years as host. leno has always been kind of a tough cookie for me; i’ve never wanted to like him all that much but i’ve always enjoyed watching his show. he was never really loved by the critics or even by carson it seems. letterman was always thought of as the true successor of the tonight show and was generally treated better by critics than leno was. but leno has always been more popular with the american public, and kept the tonight show the number one rated late night show on tv. i think it comes back to his personality. his jokes were never grade A, usually landing in the cheese pile. but he was a nice guy. everybody always talks about how you could have a beer with jay. he didn’t “get” twitter, just like most every american over the age of forty-five. part of it for me is that while his jokes might be too accessible or not very intelligent, he always seemed to know exactly that and just went with it and enjoyed getting easy, silly laughs. he reminded me of my dad in that way. he was always ready with the old rim-shot punch line and was pleased whether he got a big laugh or a groan and a roll of the eyes. and that’s why he was successful. because people gravitate to kindness. to sincerity. and jay delivered that. he didn’t deliver high-brow comedy, but he delivered a lot of silly jokes and a bit of escapism.

jay’s last show was surprisingly sweet. he had the obligatory best of jaywalking sketch, and then had conan on as a guest, which was very gentlemanly of him, considering conan was taking over in two days. james taylor was jay’s handpicked musical guest, playing sweet baby james, the song jay heard on his way out of boston nearly forty years ago on his way to hollywood to try to make it in show business. and then his sign off. very sweet, very leno. he introduced all the kids that had been born from couples who had met each other working on leno’s tonight show, sixty-eight total, from age zero to seventeen. it was a really nice sentiment to end his last show. and it was sad too. the same type of sad conan’s goodbye on late night was in march, not completely sad because he’s not gonna be gone for long. but still sad. a lot of people my parents’ age kind of see this as the end of an era since leno was really the only guy they liked. hopefully they give conan a chance.

if nothing else, he’ll be treated better and given more slack than he was when he took over late night in ’93. conan’s evolution since ’93 is really incredible. he started as a nervous, seemingly unfunny host who had just gotten the gig because he had connections with lorne michaels, producer of most of the funny stuff on nbc and a pretty big power player at the network. conan had been a writer on snl at the tail end of the ’80s and had started writing for the simpsons during the best seasons of that show (3rd-4th). having known him from his snl days, michaels gave conan a shot once letterman announced he was leaving late night and boy did it not go over well. nobody had ever heard of this guy conan. he had never been on tv. he seemed awkward and unsure of himself. his first episode of late night was posted somewhere online a few months ago and i watched the first little bit of it. holy cow it is uncomfortable to watch. conan so very clearly isn’t sure how to perform on tv, he’s really nervous, and expresses that anxiousness through a lot of laughter. too much laughter. but it’s understandable, the guy was an unknown taking over for fan favorite letterman. but seeing that first episode’s awkward laughter and too-slow comedic pacing, it is a wonder to tune in now and see conan do his thing on late night. he owns it. he is perfect. he has become a true performer. he knows how to handle the crowd and make them laugh, he knows how to handle slip-ups in the show, he knows how to appear cool and very relaxed in his role as host. in 16 years he became the perfect host.

he belongs as host of the tonight show. i’m so intrigued to see how he fits into this new role. everything i’ve heard is “conan’s gonna have to grow up to make it on the tonight show” but on his last show of late night, he promised he wasn’t going to. reading interviews/articles about his new show recently though, i think that he knows he will have to reformat his unique brand of comedy just enough to keep the older viewers laughing along with the young kids. i don’t think it will be too much though. i think he’s almost got more freedom now if anything to do things with his comedy he hasn’t been able to before. on leno’s last show they showed a clip of a bit where conan has an academy award-winning makeup artist turn him into a completely different person and he hosts a focus group of old people watching clips of conan on late night to see how the older crowd likes him. i’m not sure what it was about it but right away it just felt like a little bit different kind of sketch than he would ever have done on late night. and it made me so excited to see what he’s got in store for the tonight show.

watching conan walk out onto the tonight show stage after being introduced by jay, hearing the crowd cheer for him, hearing the tonight show band playing conan’s theme song, the whole thing made me swell up with pride. conan is my tv hero. he was really gaining popularity as i started to watch him back around 2000 or 2001, and probably more than anything in the last ten years, conan has influenced my humor. it’s incredible too, because i haven’t even noticed it until the last year or so. conan’s comedy was so subtle in sneaking into my subconscious; his bits were just hilarious to me, the way he would mock his hair or his complexion or height, the immediate rapport he had with guests of all types, just from being a good conversationalist. all of this worked it’s way into my personality and has influenced me in big, big ways. and seeing him on leno’s last show was just great. i hadn’t seen conan do anything since his own last show last march, except for watching old late night sketches over getting amped for conan’s tonight show, and seeing him again do anything on tv was just so exciting. he really is the funniest real guy on tv. he knows how to talk to people, famous or non, he knows how to ask questions, he knows how to go with the flow when things don’t go exactly as scripted, he knows how to make people laugh, he knows how to make fun of himself, he knows how to make fun of others, he is extraordinarily good at improv, he will do just great as the host of the new tonight show. conan o’brien, i can’t wait. you are ushering me into my adult life. thanks.

-jon

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An Important Message From Conan O’Brien

EDITED 10/19/11: Hulu and NBC have removed all videos pertaining to Conan’s stint as Tonight Show host. I had originally embedded a hilarious clip of Conan leading up to his Tonight Show premiere.

two more days. funniest man on television.

-jon

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