25 January 2010

Raggamuffin Festival 2010: Lauryn Hill, Shaggy, Julian Marley, Sean Kingston & Steel Pulse Reviewed!

Saturday 30th January, 2010 at the Brisbane Riverstage, Australia.

Dreadlocks and weed smoke were the order of the day at the Brisbane Riverstage this January. Indeed, it was in surplus, or at least that’s the tale the Glad-bag full of joints on the ground outside told. Never have I witnessed a festival queue this long at this venue, not even for The Hives, Franz Ferdinand, or Nick Cave. And yet, for all the joints being passed around, I can’t imagine the bag-checking was terribly thorough. It seemed to be an unwritten rule – police presence was minimal if not non-existent – and security cracked down on fold-out chairs while developing convenient black spots in their vision in the shape of hand-rolled blunts. And why would you, I suppose; it kept the masses subdued enough not to cause any real trouble.

Unfortunately, I missed festival openers House of Shem due to the shambolic queuing system. I can at least say that their music sounded studio quality, as I was under the false impression that the music coming from the loudspeakers was being played from a compact disc.

When I finally entered the festival grounds, I wondered what perverted brand of justice would allow me to miss a talented band and not the infernal scribbling of Sean Kingston that followed. I don’t have much to say on the subject, actually – fans of Mr. Kingston would have been better off staying at home and listening to the CD – he was essentially standing on stage performing karaoke to his own tunes. Truly awful.

Thank God redemption was at hand, though, when Steel Pulse took to the stage. They sported a powerful reggae groove throughout the set, emphasising the bass line as all good reggae should. And while said grooves sat back in the saddle (again, as all good reggae should), the band played with a tightness that can only come from 35 years of musicianship.

Building on this strong musicianship came Melbourne-based blues and roots band Blue King Brown. Their set was as rhythmic as it was politically and emotionally charged. A great deal of that came from Haitian-born backing vocalist Ngaiire on the back of their tragic loss, but the stage well and truly belonged to lead singer and guitarist Natalie Pa’apa’a, loaded as she was with fire and charisma. This is strong message music at its finest – though perhaps a little too strong – I almost felt bad dancing to it, as if I was somehow trivialising its meaning by enjoying it aesthetically. I’m sure Pa’apa’a would be pleased to know this – mission accomplished!

Julian Marley, one of Bob’s many sons, followed to take things down a peg (or ’simmer down’, if you will). From a distance, I could have sworn it was the Man himself. Closing my eyes, I believed he was there. Unfortunately for Julian and his siblings, they will forever live in his father’s shadow. And how could you not, really – but there is still a degree to which they’ve failed to build on their father’s music – musically, politically, and spiritually. He looks like Bob, he sounds like Bob, but he doesn’t stir like Bob. Nonetheless, it remains a great privilege to be able to hear a Wailers tune sung by a Marley in this day and age.

Sly and Robbie came up as the sun went down, and the people danced into the night to their laundry list of riddims, each folding seamlessly into the next. Much as I revere them as pioneers and innovators of the Jamaican music scene, I found myself unable to penetrate their sound. It seemed so lost and unfocused, a reggae take on a Grateful Dead acid jam. But that’s some people’s bag, and I respect that.

Next came the one we were all waiting for (contrary to what Shaggy would have you believe) – Ms. Lauryn Hill – and by God, she’s still got it. I was truly astonished at how many devoted fans she still has even today, and in Australia no less. Their devotion was well deserved: Ms. Hill delivered a truly incendiary performance, spitting out lyrics like machine-gun fire. Set highlights included “Ready or Not” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)”. Julian Marley returned to the stage to perform a stunning duet of “Turn Your Lights Down Low”. The only down side was the annoying deejay, who was louder in the mix than even Hill, repeatedly yelling “come on Brisbane, make some nooo-oise!!” between each track. (Everyone could tell Lauryn hated him as well, which only added to our affinity.)

Shaggy closed the festival along similar lines (to the deejay, not Hill herself), under the false impression that everyone had come to see him. He seemed not at all impressed with the Brisbane crowd’s tired enthusiasm, despite the fact that it was 11pm and half of them were stoned out of their minds (some perhaps passively). It was a classic case of mismatched demographics: Shaggy was the drawcard to bring in a wider audience (mostly women who want to sleep with him for reasons unknown even to them), while reggae enthusiasts regard his music as Reggae Lite – watered down for the Great Unwashed. Strip reggae of all its political and spiritual significance, and what are you left with? A ‘rude boy’, and just a ‘rude boy’. Indeed, as I watched Shaggy (and Rayvon) amuse with his sexually-charged stagecraft, I found myself wanting for the stuff of substance: your Steel Pulses, your Blue King Browns, and your Lauryn Hills.

Wyclef Jean was originally billed to headline the show, but postponed his performance to 2011 to help the relief effort in his homeland of Haiti. It left me wondering – was Lauryn called in as a last-minute favour for an old friend? Or did she come out of hiding for the one opportunity she was guaranteed not to bump into her former lover and bandmate? Part of me hoped for a Fugees reunion, however unlikely that may have been. Nonetheless, I came away from Raggamuffin far from disappointed.

Wii! What is it Good For?

This is a response to "Nintendo is Lazy" that I started writing quite some time ago, but never finished. I was going to simply stow it away when every man and his dog beat me to the cake, but now that the value of the Wii is being so hotly debated, I thought it the perfect opportunity to dust this off in some finished form or other:

Four weeks ago, IGN's Editor-at-Large Matt Casamassina took aim at Nintendo's methodology and to a lesser extent, loyal Nintendo customers in his article "Nintendo is Lazy and You Don't Care"; an article which set the internet ablaze for all the wrong reasons. While I personally disagree with Matt's core argument, it is clear from the overwhelming reader response that this is a discussion worth having, and one that resonates with the gaming community.

The prevailing idea is that the Nintendo of Today is quantifiably different from the Nintendo of Yesterday; and now that they are ruling the roost (again, I might add), they are 'content to cut corners and cash in'. As his first example, Casamassina cites two playable versions of the character Toad in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, in lieu of a playable Princess Peach. (Lest we forget Luigi's genesis as a Player 2 palette-swap in Super Mario Bros.) There is a symmetry inherent in the line-up here that I believe was very much intentional - two plumbers and two anthropomorphic toadstools - Miyamoto himself noted the similarities in physique between the two basic player models. As soon as you disrupt that symmetry and introduce a third player model, you are immediately obliged to devise a fourth player model, and additionally, behavioural and physical quirks (like those vaunted floating dress physics) to differentiate each character in gameplay. The question Casamassina and Nintendo fans need to ask themselves is just how much would a playable Princess Peach with floating-dress-physics really add to the overall experience? Not much, I'd wager. And yet, the entire game would need to be re-balanced to account for its inclusion, or something similar. Yes, this decision was made because it was easier to do, but it was also taken because the drawbacks (time spent rebalancing the gameplay, changing the physics, and possibly even redesigning the levels) absolutely outweigh any benefits that could possibly be gained from it (a playable Princess Peach with a floaty dress). This isn't laziness, this is a conscious design decision. Mario himself looks the way he does because the easiest way to define his bodily form was to give him a cap, moustache, and a pair of overalls. The entire experience was built around it - he's an Italian plumber that eats mushrooms (because Italians like mushrooms) and climbs down pipes (because that's what plumbers do); turtles try to stop him (because they live in the sewers, as any Ninja Turtles fan will tell you). New Super Mario Bros. Wii is built around four people enjoying the same experience in the same room at the same time - simply pick up and play, with no adjustments to be made - and if a feature of the game does not facilitate that, then it's extraneous, pure and simple. By extension, if Peach was playable in the game, she should have been cut. The road to game development is paved with these kinds of decisions; fraught with compromise - ask any developer whether there was anything they'd like to have implemented, but couldn't or didn't, and I'm sure they'd be happy to rattle off a laundry list of ideas and features - but most of the time, they just make sense. Like this one. Next!

Then Casamassina simultaneously applauds and decries Nintendo for effectively rejuvenating their business by bowing out of the hardware arms race. He mentions that he has covered both the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube during his tenure at IGN. It's hard to know where to even start with these remarks. Effectively he is asking for a repeat of the previous hardware generation - three similarly powerful consoles vying for a larger quadrant of the same piece of pie. Because it worked so well for them last time, didn't it? Come to think of it, I can't remember there ever being a time when cutting-edge graphics and audio has 'won' a 'console war', signifying to me and any other logical person that the gamers who demand this are indeed niche. Six million people may have purchased a copy of Modern Warfare 2, but how many more millions have purchased Mario Kart Wii or Wii Fit, and continue to do so month to month, year to year? When Nintendo disengaged themselves from the 'nuclear arms race', they also disengaged themselves from self-destructive business practices. Both Sony and Microsoft can afford to indulge in this, but for every unit they sell, they take a hit to the hip pocket, and more importantly, when one doesn't sell, they take an even greater hit. If the DS was to the Gameboy Advance what the Wii is to the Gamecube, then Nintendo's strategy was simply to extend the hardware lifecycle to whatever was sustainable. We're already seeing Sony and Microsoft grapple with this issue at the moment. We've had Sony banging on about their 'ten year cycle' when we just KNOW their machine doesn't have the legs to pull it off [and while we're here, has anyone noticed there's been virtually no mention of this vaunted cycle since the Slim came out and the console actually started selling?]. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been posturing Natal's release as a system relaunch. Both companies have realised they cannot afford to advance graphically at the pace they have been if they wish to remain (or in some cases, become) profitable. The bottom line is this: if you value cutting-edge graphics and audio, you should invest in a PC and keep your screwdriver handy. Otherwise, get ready for a seriously rough ride over the next few years.

But this isn't about Sony or Microsoft, this is about Nintendo. It wasn't laziness that drove Nintendo to 'redo' the Gamecube and rethink the input mechanism for console gaming - it was brilliance, and it was daring. Yes, it failed to live up to its promise of 'a new way to play', and yes, Wii Sports and WarioWare can now [sadly] be measured as the extent of motion-controlled gaming on the console rather than the potential, but I STILL APPLAUD THE STANCE. What it essentially said to me was this: prettier graphics, online play, and multimedia bullshit just doesn't cut it. The gaming industry has spent the last three hardware generations languishing in hardware upgrades and a well-stocked library of male power fantasies. What its devotees class as 'mature' games are actually insular, self-referential and immature. I agree with all of these statements, and that's why I bought the Wii.