Friday, April 1, 2011

Let Wrestlemania Weekend Begin Again...

As a wrestling fan, there just is no weekend of the year for me quite like Wrestlemania Weekend.

This year is particularly bittersweet, though. This marks 20 years almost exactly from the time I fell in love with the wrestling business not long right after seeing Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter for the (then-WWF) Championship and the Ultimate Warrior vs. "Macho King" Randy Savage in the company's first "Career-Ending Match" at Wrestlemania VII. 

In that intervening two decades, I've watched the evolution of both professional wrestling and its popularity. I was a loyal fan throughout the early-'90s transitional period when the business was finding its new way. I shook my head in puzzlement with the meteoric, unprecedented, and never-equaled explosion of wrestling's popularity when WCW Monday Nitro and WW(F) Monday Night Raw engaged in mortal combat during the "Monday Night Wars" when every Monday night really was wrestling night. But when that boom ended, there I remained during a time when I'd say that I'm a wrestling fan and like Pavlov's most annoying dogs, those bandwagon fans that jumped on board in the late '90s said that they stopped watching when the careers of Goldberg, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock came to an end.

Which, to this day, always makes me think one thing: "No, you're not a wrestling fan. You're a Rock/Austin/Goldberg fan. There IS a difference."

But through every high and low wrestling has endured, Vince McMahon and Co. bring the A-game in the three months leading up to this one weekend. And almost every year, there's one storyline -- two, if we're really lucky -- into which the now-WWE production teams pours their every drop of creativity to build the drama that reminds fans like me why we're fans: because every great, memorable moment I've witnessed was one that I never saw coming. And I never know when that next one will hit that will change the business like some bald Texan telling an opponent that "Austin 3:16 says (he) just whipped your ass" or maybe just a match so good, it lives forever in my memory (there's a Shawn Michaels-Chris Benoit match from Raw that fits that latter description which, sadly, will probably never again see the light of day.)

When I think about those moments, I think of three great promo videos that aired leading up to marquee Wrestlemania match-ups. Whether you're a fan or not, you cannot deny that these three are more like trailers to grand epics with music and footage paired as perfectly as any combination of those two could be paired to generate goose-bump drama.

So if you're a fan, please enjoy these. On these three occasions, WWE reminded me why I'm a wrestling fan and probably will be for life. If you're a bit of a noob, watch 'em anyway. Maybe they'll get you just curious enough to dip a toe on Sunday and maybe enjoy this form of entertainment as much as I do.


"In time, your time will be no more . . ."

Those unexpected moments I mentioned? Behold Exhibit A.

I grant that this isn't even a week old, having aired just this past Monday. But a feud has been built between these two last remaining giants of wrestling's last boom period. With Kurt Angle now wrestling elsewhere, Steve Austin and The Rock retired, Mick Foley a nostalgia act, Shawn Michaels entering the Hall of Fame this year and Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit tragically dead, Triple H and the Undertaker are the last two titans standing -- each wanting to be "the last outlaw." They are WWE's two John Marstons -- the last two cowboys at the end of a dying, lawless, wild age.

I've enjoyed this match's build-up, particularly since they met at arguably the greatest Wrestlemania ever produced exactly 10 years ago in Houston. It's a sense of history, and of a full circle. But then I watched this promo and heard Mark Collie's eerie, tense, whispered vocals and the hair stood on the back of my neck.

If you've ever seen the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher and read the sub-head, you have a pretty good idea what's coming.

"There ain't no grave, can hold my body down . . ."

In a very, very short time, this two-year saga of the two greatest performers wrestling has ever known or may ever know has become already the stuff of immortal legend.

Heading into Wrestlemania 25, the Undertaker was 16-0 at Wrestlemania. Shawn Michaels had already cemented his reputation as reaching a different performance level that one time per year. But he had one thing he hadn't yet achieved: he wanted to end what has become known in reverent terms simply as The Streak.

At Wrestlemania 25, he almost did what 14 others before him hadn't. But where fans thought this great feud had reached a climax, the people writing it knew that was only the penultimate chapter. For the next year, Michaels would plant seeds for the true climax by acknowledging that he'd wrestling a "near-perfect" match and only made "one mistake." He started telling the world he believed -- no, he knew -- that he could beat the Undertaker on the one stage where no other had.

Finally, after months of goading, the Undertaker laid down one final challenge: Streak Versus Career.

In twenty years, I've never seen long-term booking and story-planning quite like this. And it will probably never happen again. But in the meantime, I witness the second greatest Wrestlemania-hype video in 20 years following this business.

And I never expected who would provide the soundtrack . . .

The Best. Period.

I saved the best for last. 

Sadly, this video also puts me into a tough position. If you didn't come of age as a fan during the late '90s, you just can't fully appreciate what Steve Austin and Dwayne Johnson shared as performers. The two greatest, most popular, entertaining performers of their era, who each helped launch wrestling to unprecedented and yet unequaled heights and became almost bigger than the business itself, actually wrestled comparatively few times but every single time was magic. Their charisma and ability told a story every time the two locked eyes. This was Joker and Batman. This was Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas. This was Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

Austin was returning to Wrestlemania after taking off nearly a full year to finally repair a legitimately long-broken neck. In the meantime, The Rock had become arguably -- depending on who you asked and the day -- either the company's most popular star or a damn-close second. One more spark to light the fire? Austin would main-event Wrestlemania in his home state of Texas. It was a moment at a time in the wrestling business that words just don't do justice. You can't define it with verbiage to someone who's never seen it. And those who are seeing it just now, can't really appreciate its full context because it was the end of an era they never experienced from its rise, to its fall.

But few will ever forget this one video. It may be the only truly awesome contribution to humanity Limp Bizkit have ever made. Top to bottom -- pacing, footage, cuts -- it is promotional, hype-building genius.

But it speaks for itself better than I ever could for it. Enjoy.

This year won't be without its sad moments, though. For the first time since Wrestlemania 22, I won't be watching with some combination of my best friends, whom I've affectionately dubbed The Horsemen -- Chris Faughn, Jeremy "J-King" Hulshof and John Inman. Finances and circumstances just put a bullet in a once-a-year tradition that always involves home-cooking, watching both the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony on USA and tons of past wrestling matches on DVD, and a yearly four-handed poker game in tribute to our departed friend, fellow wrestling fan and tournament poker player Steve Black, who passed away between seeing Wrestlemania 23 live in his hometown of Detroit with Jeremy and I and being able to see Ric Flair's *ahem* "retirement" match at Wrestlemania 24. I'm unemployed and cash-strapped, Chris has a baby on the way and John will be watching on pay-per-view with Jeremy. For the time being, I must hit the pause button on a tradition about coming together with my band of brothers over something we've all loved for years.

But what this weekend is about won't change. At 6 p.m. Sunday night, I know where I'll be. That's because I know where The Miz, C.M. Punk, Randy Orton, Edge, Alberto del Rio, Triple H and the Undertaker will be. Once a year, everything culminates. And once a year, I might witness that next great memory's birth. You never know.
I'm Sleepless Colin. You're not. And that's the bottom line.

Tiger Tunes: Glee Folds Five

Choir was a big part of my life growing up.  Each year in middle school, our class would put on a recital singing songs about Christmas or spring.  In high school, I participated in concert choir (called Honor Choir), which led to stints at district choir and State Music Contest.  And in undergrad, I was lucky enough to successfully audition for 2 university choirs (I also auditioned for the university’s jazz choir, but my scat-singing sounded like a baby blowing one big, long raspberry).  I was a complete choir nerd, and proud of it.

So naturally, I was excited to see last year that Fox had developed a delightful little choir show called Glee, and that it had become a gigantic success.  It was becoming cool again to be a choir geek, whether it was because of the hot football players, the lovely-and-talented-yet-annoying Rachel Berry, or the hilariously intimidating villain Sue Sylverster and her one-liners about Will Schuester’s hair.  Yet while the show’s hype was well-deserved, not ALL of the choir geek resurgence credit went to Schuester and the gang.  Someone else got there first.

Right around the time that Glee’s first season was being filmed, singer-songwriter and cult music hero Ben Folds was developing a little choir geek project of his own.  Released in April of 2009, Ben Folds Presents: University A Capella! is a compilation of various university a capella choirs around the country singing Ben’s songs.  The only exceptions are two tracks where Ben himself arranges and sings a capella.  But since this project was a compilation album that wasn’t going to garner any radio play, and not a TV show on one of the biggest networks in the world, it sadly went under the radar.

Yeah, yeah….I know Glee is about high school choir andUniversity A Capella! puts the emphasis on collegiate choirs.  Just work with me here, kids.

It should also be mentioned that making the album helped get Ben the gig as one of three judges for the NBC  a capella group show The Sing-Off, which has already had 2 very successful seasons, and will probably come back later this year.

So without further ado, let’s dive into University A Capella!

Not The Same; The Spartones (UNC-Greensboro):  This R&B choir brings an interesting soulful vibe to Ben’s homage to a friend who got high at a party, climbed a tree, and came down a born-again Christian.  The background singers overpower the male lead in a few spots, but they blend well together in the bridge and again towards the end.  Plus, I’ve always liked this song.Grade:  A-/B+

Jesusland; The Loreleis (UNC-Chapel Hill):  The original—from Ben’s 2005 album Songs For Silverman—was used in Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous.  This version is beautifully sung by the all-girls choir The Loreleis.  The lead has a slight tremolo in her voice, but it enhances the overall quality of the track.  The backups provide an interesting mix of middle and low harmonies, along with light vocal percussion.  It’s a very well-done performance that is among my favorites on the album.  Grade:  A+

Brick; The Leading Tones (Ohio University):  It was this very performance that inspired Ben to do the album in the first place.  He heard this recording, and got permission from the university to use it without needing the all-male choir to rehearse it more.  It’s a little strange hearing the R&B spin on it, but the soft lead vocal and light backing vocals work well with the story of the lyrics.  Grade:  B+

You Don’t Know Me; With Someone Else’s Money (University of Georgia):  I absolutely love the work of the background on this song.  It’s bouncy, the baritone part is incredibly catchy, and the soprano take-over during the bridge is musical chocolate—sweet and light, yet simultaneously smooth and rich.  As for the two leads….the male lead sounds scarily just like Ben (in a good way), but the female lead sounds nothing like Regina Spektor.  Which isn’t bad; it just makes the lead vocals lack a little oomph.  Grade:  A-

Still Fighting It; Mosaic Whispers (Washington University in St. Louis):  This performance shows more traditional choral elements, mixed with the vocal percussion of R&B groups.  The male lead has an excellent voice that exhibits the emotions that the song requires, and the background, though a tiny bit on the loud side, uses an even balance of male and female harmonics.  Grade:  A

Boxing:  We take a break from the choirs and go to a track from Ben Folds Five’s eponymous debut that has Ben himself singing with an unnamed backing choir and some lady singing opera (?!).  Ben and the choir blend seamlessly, but the lady is a bit of a distraction at times.  Still, it’s a creative choice. Grade:  B

Selfless, Cold, and Composed; The Sacramento State Jazz Singers:  This choir was the perfect choice to cover this song.  The original (from Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen) is extremely jazzy, with intricate piano riffs and a jazzy bass line, and this choir portrays the original beautifully.  It’s the longest track on the album, but there are enough fascinating things going on that I don’t want it to end.  The female lead exudes an interesting simplicity in her voice, the harmonies are flawless, and the scat-singing is absolutely delicious.  Well-done, guys!  Grade:  A+

Magic; The Voices in Your Head (University of Chicago):  Ok, first thing’s first:  Best.  Choir.  Name.  EVER.  That alone gets major points from me.  Second, this is such an ethereal-sounding song that requires just great voices without fancy riffs and vocal percussion.  And this group definitely does it justice.  There is not a hint of R&B here, nor is there an actual lead vocal….just beautiful blends, wonderful harmonies, and lots of dynamics.  Grade:  A

Landed; The Buffoons (University of Colorado):  This all-male choir does a great job on this cut from Silverman, though I have to say that the lead vocal sounds like a weird mix between Death Cab For Cutie front man Ben Gibbard  and Owl City.  That’s not a bad thing at all, but it does stand out significantly more than the backing harmonies.  Grade:  B+

Time; The Princeton Nassoons:  Yet another song from Silverman,and this all-male traditional choir gives it a very collegiate, alma mater-esque vibe.  The lead vocal has a heckuva voice, and the backing harmonies help bring it out even more.  Gorgeous. Grade:  A-

Effington:  This is the other track that has Ben doing his owna capella arrangements, and while the original is somewhat giggle-worthy, this version is even more so.  The backing vocals are bouncy and almost clown-like, which emphasizes the song’s silliness.  The kids saying the opening and closing lines are a cute addition as well.  Grade:  A-

Evaporated; The Newtones (Newton South High School):  This is the only group on the album that is from a high school, and it shows for the most part.  They do have a very nice blend and good vocal percussion, but their overall performance leaves me a bit cold.  Technically, they are very impressive, especially with the variety of voices they use for the lead vocals. However, they definitely lack the maturity of the other groups.  It also doesn’t help that I’ve always thought this song was a little on the boring side.  Grade:  C+

Fred Jones Part 2; The Gracenotes (The Westchester University of Pennsylvania):  This is the poorest fit between choir and song choice.   The all-girls choir sounds lovely on the backing vocals, but the lead vocal has way too much of a tinny quality, and sometimes comes off as Tiny Tim in an earthquake gargling vinegar.  It just doesn’t sound pleasing to the ears at all.  But like I said…the background sounded nice, especially on the bridge.  Grade:  D+

Army; The Midnight Ramblers (University of Rochester):  Just the fact that a college choir dropped the f-bomb in a song is enough to make me spray my monitor with Diet Dr. Pepper.  But this whole track is just a big ball of hilarious fun that you can jam to in your car.  The lead vocal injects the lyrics with a very subtle sarcasm, while the backing vocals completely rock out, especially on the bridge (where the original had a big brass solo).  I also love the ad-libbed “real American hero” at the very end.  Grade:  A+

Fair; Eau Claire’s Fifth Element (University of Wisconsin): There is so much going on in this track.  The lead vocals are solid, but the backing vocals become the real star of this performance, using a great bass line, subtle references to past Ben Folds songs (there is a lyric from “Zac and Sara” thrown in there, as well as a couple other songs), and some catchy falsetto work on the chorus.  It’s another totally fun track that you don’t want to end.  Grade:  A+

The Luckiest; The Amateurs (Washington University in St. Louis):  We end the album on a traditional choral performance on Ben’s ode to his family from Rockin’ the Suburbs.  The background vocals sound like they’re performing in a church and singing to the heavens, especially when they blend with the lead on the chorus (that’s a good thing, in my book).  The lead vocal has an absolutely wonderful range, and this song is an excellent showcase for it.  A beautiful choice for a closer. Grade:  A+

And there you have it!  Despite a couple of hiccups, this is a really enjoyable album, and I’d love for there to be a second volume some time down the road.  I do admit that I had thought Ben would be performing all the songs with the choirs all in the background, so this sound was a little unexpected at first.  But what a concept, and what an impressive collection of talented choirs!  And I’m willing to bet that even Ms. Sylvester would enjoy it.

Recommended songs:  “Jesusland,” “Army,” “Fair,” “Selfless, Cold, and Composed,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “The Luckiest,” “Still Fighting It”