The hook brings you back: Blues Traveler’s still got it

After driving for 40 minutes to Lockport, a trip that included an emergency diarrhea stop at a McDonald’s bathroom, then standing in a crowded parking lot for three-and-a-half hours, with representatives from a local bank whipping t-shirts and frisbees at my head in between bands, I was in no mood to have fun last night. But I was still looking forward to seeing Blues Traveler’s Molson Canal Concert Series set – my first time seeing these dudes since their memorable show at UB in 1995. First, however, local legend “Baby” Joe Mesi came out to emcee some weird kickboxing weigh-in thing, and called the band “The Blues Travelers” twice. I guess it would be unfair to mock him for that, with him being a baby and all.

When the band finally took the Molson Canal Concert Series stage, all of this was forgotten. John Popper & company’s set was marked by their serious improvisational chops and turn-on-a-dime synergy, something they’ve been sharing with crowds for over 20 years. And while they’re not exactly relevant artists these days, they also aren’t trying to relive the mid-’90s, when one of their lamest tunes became a monster hit. (I like coffee and I like tea too, but you’re not gonna hear me singing about it.) These guys remain a jam band with a purpose, marked by dynamic muscle and good songs. They soloed like crazy during this set, but only a few times did I hope they’d move on to the next number. That’s mostly thanks to Popper, who’s harmonica skills remain awe-inspiring.

My review goes into things in more detail, but if you don’t feel like reading, just know that they smoked.

Inception: Wake me for the cool parts

I scored free passes to a sneak preview of Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated sci-fi/action opus Inception last night. And although I hadn’t been exposed to all that much of the hype, I had been tainted enough to go in hoping for a jaw-dropping spectacle.

What I got was a mess. An ambitiously constructed, sporadically clever mess, but a mess nonetheless. Inception is basically a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Flatliners – a group of slick, attractive guys (and token girl) who perform elaborate heists in the dreamworlds of their victims. Tempted by the promise of one last score, involving the tricky process of “inception” – planting an idea in a subject’s head and making him think it was his – Dom Cobb (played a little too forcefully by Leonardo DiCaprio) assembles a crack team of subconscious bandits to make it happen. But a “projection” from his turbulent past does everything it can to sabotage the mission.

The concept is interesting enough, and sets the stage for some amazing sequences, where activity in the real world bends the laws of physics in the dream (a zero-gravity fight scene being the most memorable). But if you’re looking to go beyond the fantastical to elicit some kind of meaning – something the film practically demands with its oh-so-serious score and pseudo-religious lingo – get ready for a headache. Cobb’s backstory is intriguing at first, his questionable relationship with his now-deceased wife (Marion Cotilliard) giving some emotional resonance to all the high-octane action. But after what seems like dozens of scenes with DiCaprio and Cotilliard staring morosely at each other, this initial intrigue evaporates. And as the plot lines get progressively more complicated – boy meets girl in real life, then they get trapped in a dream world and live together there for 50 years, then they return to reality but aren’t sure if it’s really reality, then continue to see each other in dreams after one of them dies, or something like that – it becomes impossible to care.

Nolan must have thought this sort of heavy-handedness would provide the dramatic heft necessary to upgrade Inception from sci-fi popcorn flick to philosophical tour de force, but it only succeeds in dragging everything down, making an already bloated two-and-a-half hour run time feel like three.

Which is too bad, because there’s an awfully fun summer movie hiding beneath all the weepiness and high-minded ideas. The chase scenes are taut and imaginative, CGI sequences of exploding cafes and runaway freight trains are beautifully executed, and the supporting cast is pretty wonderful. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a masterfully reserved performance as Cobb’s sidekick Arthur, including a total charmer of a scene with sort-of love interest Ariadne (a workmanlike Ellen Page), and Tom Hardy is a godsend as Eames, the smarmy, sarcastic “Forger” (a guy that impersonates people in dreams).

But Inception is out to show you more than a good time, and becomes a murky metaphysical puzzle as a result. You’re gonna be better off exploring dream worlds of your own.


If you’re a Buffalonian who loves high-energy Latin rhythms, then man, you’ve been in hog heaven this past week. After Ozomatli put on a typically ferocious show on Thursday, you had Sunday’s powerful set by local act La Krema – 11 dudes who dish out salsa and merengue grooves with serious authority. Led by singer Jesse Pabon, whose voice was even smoother than his fedora, sunglasses and jeans ensemble, La Krema is dominated by waves of percussion – congas, timbales, cowbells, guiro, etc. Delivered by four talented players, this wall of rhythm is an intoxicating thing – enough to get people who typically don’t dance to get up and make asses of themselves.

As I sat on the Albright Knox’s back steps, where the show was being held (the first of this summer’s Buffalo News-sponsored jazz series), I saw plenty of amazingly awful moves, ranked in order of offensiveness here:

1. A middle-aged couple, man in a “Beers of Massachusetts” t-shirt, woman in flip-flops, lazily freaked each other right in front of the stage.

2. A senior citizen with a huge beard started hopping on one foot.

3. When Pabon told the crowd to “throw your hands in the air,” most of the crowd raised their arms like a referee confirming a field goal. The “wave ’em like you just don’t care” concept was lost on them.

I joke, but seriously, this show was a testament to the power of a great rhythm. People of all ages were shaking what their mother provided for them, not caring that assholes like me were criticizing their every move. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Check my review, in which I leave the dancers alone.

I want to believe (in Ozomatli)

Of the myriad of reasons why a hopelessly awkward teen in the 1990s would love The X-Files – the escapist plot lines full of devilish conspiracies, cool monsters and clever humor helping him forget he was still a virgin, at least for an hour – one was that a secondary character was an Ozomatli fan. Richard “Ringo” Langly, one of The Lone Gunmen, Fox Mulder’s go-to trio of hackers and conspiracy nuts, frequently wore the L.A. salsa/hip hop/funk band’s t-shirts on the show. As a result, the show spoke to alien obsessives, will-they-or-won’t-they morons, and Ozo-loving nerds like myself.

And the band’s sizzling set at Thursday at the Square showed that they’re still a party band of the highest order, and as eclectic and energetic as ever – a nifty thing to witness, now that this Ozo-loving nerd is in his 30s. Now a septet, without a DJ in tow, Ozomatli still boasts a hugely syncopated sound, with two percussionists and a drummer throwing rhythmic flourishes all over the solid bass playing of original member Wil-Dog Abers. Justin Poree is their MC these days, and he seemed like a talented guy with a steady flow on Thursday – unfortunately, P.A. troubles meant that pretty much all the vocals were low in the mix, so it was tough to hear any of the lyrics.

As expected, tunes from the 2010 disc “Fire Away” were the order of the day, which was fine. The record is certainly the most easily digestible of all of Ozo’s works, boasting some lovingly polished R&B hooks and some never-before-seen, tender balladry. But to be honest, I would have preferred to see the late-’90s version of the group, with Chali 2na busting out verses over the impeccably arranged funk and salsa grooves of its 1998 self-titled debut. Not a complaint exactly, just a feeling.

Still, this was a fiery, incredibly enjoyable set that touched on all that makes Ozomatli great. Fusing such a wide variety of styles into its hyperactive live show, the band is a sonic melting pot filled with an irresistible, bubbling brew.

If you’re looking for some mind-bendingly great musicians who know how to rock a party without ever resorting to clichés, then thanks to Ozomatli, the truth is out there.

You can check my review here.