Thursday, December 06, 2018

Language and Progress - A Conversation with Steven Pinker and John McWhorter @ The Anne L. Bernstein Theater (12/6/2018)


Since moving to New York, I have had the chance to attend a few talks by thinkers that I greatly admire - Sam Harris & Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins & Brian Green.  It wasn't until this morning (in anticipation of tonight's event) that I considered that it might be worthwhile to blog about these types of events.  (I should perhaps also mention a Neil deGrasse Tyson talk that I saw a few years ago in St. Louis as another blog-worthy event.)

Tonight's event actually had a bit of a backstory.  It was originally supposed to be a conversation between Steven Pinker and Matt Dillahunty, and was promoted by Pangburn Philosophy.  However, that company folded about a month ago, so the event was cancelled along with several others.  Everything I have read and heard on the matter thus far indicates that Travis Pangburn was a fraudster who swindled both speakers that he had recruited and customers who had bought tickets for the events.  I should note, though, that although I knew about Pangburn ceasing operations, I didn't actually realize until last week that this specific event had been cancelled - it seems Pangburn didn't send out a notice to ticket-holders who had acquired tickets through his site.  And of course he wasn't providing refunds - the purchase confirmation notice says "No Refunds & No Exchanges. All Sales Are Final.".  Luckily, I saw Steven Pinker's retweet last week of this make-up event, with tickets being made available for *free*; so I jumped at the chance.

The event was held in a small theater on Broadway - I would guess it seated about a couple hundred people (though I'm terrible at these sorts of estimates), in contrast to the ~1500 at the originally scheduled venue.  Prior to the start, I noticed Steven and John chatting right next to the audience, and attempted to go say hello (as it seemed that a couple of other people just had); but the organizer (Jay Shapiro) stepped in, saying that there would be time for that afterward, as they were about to begin.

The talk was moderated by Shapiro, and consisted of about 30 minutes on linguistics, maybe 30 more on progress denial, and then another 45-ish more on audience questions.  Steven and John are both obviously brilliant guys, and pretty much agreed on everything that was discussed.  I can't say that I have any familiarity with linguistics, but some of the discussion on that topic was pretty interesting.  They dished on theories of the relationship between language and human thinking, a bit of what Chomsky got right and wrong, and other things that I can't remember.  Unfortunately, though, I also don't remember either of the couple insights that I found particularly interesting at the time.  After Jay transitioned them to ideas on progress and its denial, they discussed Steven's books on the subject, as well as John's categorization of many social justice proponents on the left as adhering to a religion.  I found that last bit particularly interesting (the rough outline is that such social justice proponents react strongly against reasonable arguments that don't adhere to their worldview in a dogmatic way similar to religion), and will try to spend some more time with his thoughts on that matter.

After the talk, I hung around a bit to take advantage of the intimate setting and try to meet the speakers.  I was fortunate enough to separately briefly chat with John, Steven, Jay, and Coleman Hughes (who was in attendance and had the first audience question).  I delivered a message from Fran to Steven telling him to keep up the good work and that she thought that his curls were almost as awesome as hers - he was happy to hear that last part.  I also got a little more background from Jay and John about how they hurriedly put the event together at the last minute.  All in all, it was a pretty cool event, and a nice way to end a birthday.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Thom Yorke @ Kings Theatre (11/26/2018)


I had mixed expectations going into this show, so I'm not too disappointed that I didn't like it more than I did.  Thom is (obviously) a musical hero of mine - both because of Radiohead and much of his solo work.  I knew this wouldn't be like the shows he did as a band with Atoms for Peace, but wasn't sure how much this would be like a DJ set.  In the end, it was somewhere in between.

There was a lot of head-down button-pressing and knob-twiddling, but both Thom and Nigel did break out guitars for quite a few songs (plus a couple on keyboard for Thom).  Thom was also pretty animated, often dancing in his trademark awkwardly entertaining style.  Despite that, it's hard to give many points for performance during this show.  I didn't really like many of the new songs, and I might even go as far as to say that some of the ones that I knew were a ruined a bit by the new overly-electronic stylings and improvisational singing - "The Clock" being a prime example of this.  Seemingly every song had a newly conceived camouflage of an intro (and some also an outro), which were on the whole hit or miss - mostly miss.  There were definitely some highlights, though, including new tune "Not the News" and an excellent rendition of "Default".  Thom definitely still has some great pipes (as displayed during "Atoms for Peace" and "Suspirium"), even if he sometimes seems like he'd rather not try.  One might conjecture that his age showed a bit when he hilariously forgot a couple of lines during "Truth Ray", but I've known him to do this type of thing for a while.  I would be remiss if I did not point out that the visuals on the backing screens were pretty spectacular the whole show.

I'm probably being too harsh on this concert, though - mostly because I'm such a huge fan of Thom's work.  Despite the low-ish rating, I did enjoy a lot of it, and wouldn't dare ask for my time or money back.

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Setlist: https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/thom-yorke/2018/kings-theatre-brooklyn-ny-439733cb.html

Rating: 4.1/5

Monday, October 15, 2018

Mew @ Brooklyn Steel (10/14/2018)


This show (and tour) was a 15th anniversary celebration of Mew's breakout album, Frengers.  As such, the last half of their setlist was dedicated to playing the album in order.  Interestingly, they took a 10 minute intermission between the first half of the set and the Frengers portion.  Unfortunately, I got my timing a little wrong (and the weekend MTA closures didn't help) and didn't make it to the venue until Mew was on their second or third song (based on what what someone answered when I asked; not sure since I can't find the setlist online).  It was nice to hear all of Frengers (admittedly a strong album), but I would have liked to hear more of their newer stuff.  They also played one old song, "King Christian", that I wasn't familiar with.  Side note: Jonas is still one of the least animated front-men around; but that's fine as long they play good tunes and he belts out that falsetto.

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Rating: 4.4/5

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Update (10/16/2018): The setlist has been posted and I apparently missed two of their best songs to start off the show.  So my complaint about hearing newer songs is kind of on me.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Beach House @ United Palace Theatre (8/23/2018)


I considered not going to this show because I injured myself playing soccer 3 days before and was still limping around (the injury happened on Sunday, and I worked from home Monday and Tuesday); plus I've seen Beach House several times before.  I'm glad I decided to use my ticket, though, as this ended up being probably my favorite of the times that I've seen them.  This was surprising because I think the album that they put out this year (7) was a little weak.  The new tunes didn't drag down the setlist too much, though, and a couple were even standouts.  "Lemon Glow" (my favorite from the album) was a stunning closer for the main set, and "Dive" was a solid way to end the evening.  Something about the live rendition of "L'Inconnue" made it also noteworthy for me, and my second fave from the new album, "Dark Spring", didn't disappoint either.

Of course they also threw in enough classics to keep us happy.  And "Levitation" - one of my top songs from my favorite album of theirs - was a great way to start the show.  I would have liked to hear some more of my favorite songs of theirs, but I guess those songs probably aren't their most popular ones.  They did bump up the production value of their light show a bit, but maintained their standard perform-in-the-shadows style (the two pictures above were chosen because they are the most lit that the band members ever got - they are not representative of their lighting for most of the show).  Based on their comments, they enjoyed the energy of the crowd, which was mostly standing despite the theater environment.  All in all, a high quality concert.

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Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Radiohead @ Madison Square Garden (7/14/2018)




Just seeing my favorite band for the umpteenth time in the umpteenth different city...no biggie.  Though it was Franziska's first big concert and she was new to the works of Radiohead.  She said she had a great time, so that's good.  This show falls somewhere in the lower middle of the pack for me in terms of Radiohead shows.  How much I enjoy them basically comes down to the setlist selection, and they didn't play too many of my favorites this time around; but that's perfectly fine.  They did play the top three songs that Fran wanted to hear, though ("Lotus Flower", "The Numbers", and "Present Tense").  The highlight of the show for me was Thom's sublime voice on "Spectre", which they debuted this tour and were playing live for only the third time.  My biggest complaint was that Thom's guitar was almost inaudible in the sound mix on our side for the last few songs of the main set.

Oh yeah...we completely missed the opener, Junun (Johnny's other band).  But Fran did hustle to get us there on time to make sure we didn't miss any of Radiohead.

Setlist: https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/radiohead/2018/madison-square-garden-new-york-ny-1beba560.html

Rating: 4.6/5

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Top albums of 2017

My musical dark age continues.  Or perhaps I'm becoming a crotchety old man who bemoans the fact that they don't make music like they used to back in the day.  I didn't get too particularly excited about any albums this past year, and a few that I was looking forward to ended up being busts.  The list this year is dominated by familiar (to me) names, as it was a low year in terms of new artist discovery.  Let's hope next year's list turns that around a little bit.

1. Grizzly Bear - Painted Ruins
2. Bonobo - Migration
3. Hundred Waters - Currency EP
4. Sylvan Esso - What Now
5. Major Lazer - Know No Better (EP)
6. ODESZA - A Moment Apart
7. Mew - Visuals
8. Death From Above 1979 - Outrage! Is Now
9. Hundred Waters - Communicating
10. Moses Sumney - Aromanticism

11. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
12. Phoenix - Ti Amo
13. UNKLE - The Road: Part 1
14. Alt-J - Relaxer
15. Fever Ray - Plunge
16. Mutemath - Play Dead
17. Feist - Pleasure

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Mogwai @ Terminal 5 (12/8/2017)


The short story is that Mogwai's new stuff is not as good as some of their older stuff, and the more new stuff they play the less good the show is.  I didn't prep much for this show, but I don't think that affected my impression of it too much (though there were certainly a few songs that I didn't recognize).  Their setlist spanned their catalog, which was good for some variety; but their mid-career material (especially Happy Songs for Happy People and Mr. Beast) is their best work in my opinion.  The stage setup and lights were interesting, though not mind-blowing.  I could have done without a couple of sections of excessively loud noise, and the accompanying hearing loss (I need to start taking ear plugs to shows).  It was also weird to see them play a couple of songs with undistorted vocals; one was from the new album, and one I didn't recognize.

Rating: 4.2/5