How Maya Rudolph Became the Master of Impressions

This beautiful piece in The New York Times Magazine last weekend about Maya Rudolph is one of the best things I've read in a while.

Reading and picturing this scene had me laughing out loud ... 
She was telling the story of the time she was bitten by a black-widow spider while getting a massage on a girls’ vacation that many comedy fans might commit real-life murder to attend, with her “Saturday Night Live” friends Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Ana Gasteyer and the writers Paula Pell and Emily Spivey. Rudolph was doing an impression of Gasteyer the moment Rudolph explained to her that she was possibly about to die.

Her Gasteyer was a 120 percent concentration: angular head movements; precise intentional blinks; a modulated operatic voice — classic Gasteyer, but swirled with the essential oils of her performance as a tightly wound 1990s Martha Stewart. Rudolph’s account of the fiasco was bursting with rollicking impressions — Poehler taking charge with peppy fortitude; Dratch trying to discreetly escape to a shower — but to print the transcript would be a disservice to Rudolph, because the transcript is simply not funny. The element that brings tears of laughter to your eyes is not the words themselves, but the curious, thrilling sensation of witnessing other people’s faces and voices emerge from Rudolph’s own.
And the reflection of her mother's death and childhood is heart-wrenching. I had no idea who her mother was until I read this, but I most definitely know “Lovin’ You.” After reading this, I pulled up the song and listened. My heart melted at the sound of Riperton singing “Maya, Maya, Maya” at the end of the track. 

I can hardly wait to give “Forever,” her new series with Fred Armisen a try. 


A night with Taylor Swift

So I took Phoebe to see Taylor Swift perform at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City last night.

Taylor Swift. One of the biggest pop stars on the planet. I'm still having trouble believing it.

Phoebe has pretty much grown up with her music playing around our house – since the days of the “Love Song” music video rolling on our TV, back when Kates and I spent our Saturday mornings watching the VH1 countdown and we couldn’t name a single show on the Disney Channel. Oh, how times have changed, but that’s another post.

We own all of her albums and it’s no wonder Phoebe has grown to admire her music so much. Taylor is as wholesome as pop stars come these days, and I can’t think of another one I’d rather have Phoebe admire.

Fast forward to a year ago when the news broke that Taylor was unleashing a tour to promote her new “Reputation” album and coming to Kansas City. I started talking with Kates about the idea of taking Phoebe. Somehow I got a pair of tickets for us last December – we decided Faye wasn’t old enough for a big-time concert and Kates was ok with not going – and we presented them to Phoebe for her birthday in the form of a printed Ticketmaster confirmation. She opened the envelope, read the paper and let out a happy scream as she flopped into the couch.

And I’m not gonna lie. I was pretty darn excited to see Miss Taylor myself.

After months of waiting, the day of the concert finally came. As everyone was waking up yesterday, I went across the hall to Phoebe’s room and jumped on her as she lay in it. “Today’s the big day!” I shouted as I shook her and rocked her bed excitedly.

It turned out to be a beautiful night for an outdoor concert with an overcast sky and temperatures in the high 60s – which was a relief, considering it’s been raining nearly non-stop for the last two weeks. The grass, which had been on life support since late June because we had barely seen a drop of rain since then, is now a lush green, and I’ve mowed our lawn more times in the last three weeks – three times – than I did all of the month of July and for most of August combined.

A preview from the local news ...

With the concert set to start at 7, we left the house a little after 4 in the afternoon. I offered to take Phoebe somewhere for dinner, and she picked the McAlister’s Deli in St. Joseph, which she loves. It was a good halfway stop between The ‘Ville and Kansas City.

We arrived at the stadium complex around 6:50 and joined the parade of vehicles moving into the parking lot. We could hear the opening act, Charli XCX, on the stage inside Arrowhead as we drove through the parking lot. Finally, we got parked and started our walk to the stadium.

The place was a madhouse. But in a good way. … Taylor announced to the crowd shortly after she took the stage that last night’s show broke the attendance record for a concert at Arrowhead Stadium, and the number published this morning had it at 58,611 – and considering Arrowhead is the largest venue in Kansas City, that could mean it was the biggest in Kansas City history, right? The crowd was loaded with young couples and parents with tweens in tow, which relieved any doubts I was having about whether bringing Phoebe to a Taylor Swift stadium concert was the right thing to do. It only got better from there. The crowd was excellent and I didn’t observe an ounce of rudeness the entire night. A breath of fresh air.

Phoebe was all smiles and barely containing her excitement as we walked the ramp up to our seats. We were in the upper deck in a corner of one of the end zones. Charli XCX was ending her set with “Fancy” as we got to our seats around 7:30, and – although I would have liked hearing “Boom Clap – I didn't mind that we missed her.

Around 7:45, the second act, Camila Cabello, took the stage. When we sat down, I couldn’t have told you what songs she was known for. When I asked her, Phoebe said she knew a couple of her songs and knew she was formerly with Fifth Harmony. … I was soon pleasantly surprised by how many of Cabello’s songs I did recognize. Wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jersey, she opened with “Never Be the Same,” which has been all over the radio this summer. Plus, she worked in “Bad Things,” a Machine Gun Kelly song on which she sings an altered chorus of Fastball’s “Out of my Head,” and she ended with “Havana,” another popular radio tune this summer. I also really liked “Inside Out.”

On the downside, Cabello appeared as nothing more than a speck on the stage from where we were seated. Huge arena and stadium shows have never been my thing and I much prefer the club and small theaters that most of my favorite bands tend to play. I like the intimacy of those environments and the feeling that you’re so close to the stage that you could shake the band members’ hands and you can really appreciate the musicianship playing out before your eyes. … Last night, our seats felt so far away that we had to rely heavily on the video screens, and I had doubts about whether Cabello was actually singing or going through the motions to a recorded track.

All of those thoughts were erased when Taylor took the stage.

During the intermission, Phoebe and I enjoyed watching the crowd and chatting about what we could expect during Taylor’s show. She was curious about the planning that goes into concerts in general and the stage construction, and I enjoyed explaining the production elements to her. After all, we’ve taken Phoebe to Summerfest a few times and some shows at the university, but she had never experienced a production even remotely close to the one we saw last night.

The main stage was shaped like an X with two huge panels at the back of it, each angled slightly toward the sides of the stadium and a giant skeleton of steel towers behind them. Red lights blinked at the top of the towers for extra effect. Adding to my own curiosity about the setup, two smaller stages were stationed at each corner of the end zone in front of us – which suggested additional performance space for Taylor, but I couldn’t figure out how she was going to get there if my suspicion was true

The time passed quickly. The sky darkened fast and at around 8:30, the stadium lights went out.

Suddenly the stage came alive with bright lights and thumping bass. The two huge panels slid apart at the center of the stage, and out came Taylor, eyeing up the crowd and busting out “… Ready for it?” the opening track from “Reputation.”

She performed all but one of the 15 tracks from “Reputation” and effortlessly weaved in her hits and fan favorites throughout her two-hour show in the form of medleys and mashups. Taylor and a collection of dancers paraded up and down the X all night long as the musicians rocked their instruments from the second story of the steel structure.

The show was everything I had hoped for and more – even when things on stage weren’t exactly perfect – with not a curse word uttered throughout. Early in the show, Taylor was pacing the stage and talking to the crowd when she realized her mic was cutting out. She immediately apologized to the crowd, recalling that it rained all week during the stage setup and that some of the equipment probably was affected. She played it cool, pausing to listen to crew members communicating the status through her ear piece and talking back to them as the crowd listened in. As the scene played out, I pictured in my mind dozens of crew members scurrying around backstage replacing cables, duct-taping attachments and working to fix the issue – which was resolved in minutes. … Later, while her band and dancers were taking a break and Taylor was on stage by herself to play a couple songs acoustically, she admitted she was battling a cold. A crew member stepped onto the stage to hand her a Kleenex and she asked for the crowd’s patience and forgiveness as she stepped away from the mic to blow her nose. … As the breeze was picking up toward the end of the show and she sat alone at a piano, it was easy to tell she was uncomfortably cold on the stage. But her professionalism shined, and her ability to power through it and deliver a top-notch performance for the grateful crowd was impressive.

And the wristbands. After passing through the gates, everyone was handed a clear Vivofit style wristband. We weren’t given any instructions but figured they had something to do with the show – and wow, did they ever. From the first moment of the show, they lit up and didn’t stop until the stage went dark at the end of the night, only adding to the amazing light effects throughout the show. They flashed to the beats of the songs. Sometimes they flashed bright white. Sometimes they were red. Sometimes they were multi-colored. Sometimes they blinked. Sometimes they illuminated like a wave spreading across the stadium bowl.

Every few minutes I’d sneak a look at Phoebe and I’m not sure she ever stopped smiling. She sang along to every. single. word. Several times, I leaned into her to ask the title of the song Taylor was singing, and she knew every time. How do you know all of this!? I thought. But I remember my mom asking me the same question when I was Phoebe’s age on the mornings that she drove me to school and I sang all the words to the songs that played on the car radio.

One of the high points of the night was a run of “Style,” “Love Song” and “You Belong to Me.” …

All night long, there were blasts of confetti and fog machines and no shortage of pyrotechnics. During “I Did Something Bad,” balls of flame shot from the stop of the stage, and we could literally feel the heat all the way from where we were sitting.

About a third of the way into the show, I got my answer about the smaller stages in the end zone when Taylor stepped onto a carriage that transported her over the crowd from the main stage to the smaller stage on the opposite corner of where we were sitting. It was a beautiful scene that fit the tone of the song and the stage transition perfectly.

Then an amazing dance party broke out. Watch …

The euphoria of “Shake It Off” felt like a finale – and yet we weren’t even halfway through the show. On the next two songs, the band when silent and the dancers disappeared as she performed “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” and a fan favorite, “The Story of Us.” Just her on an acoustic guitar and a beautiful crowd sing-along. (Here's an up-close version)

She walked through the crowd to get to the other small stage, where she performed a few more songs, and then boarded a snake-shaped apparatus that shipped her back to the main stage while she sang “Bad Blood.”

Back on the X, she sang a raucous “Don’t Blame Me” that was accompanied by some mean guitar and more fireballs sprouting from the top of the stage; for me it was the most powerful performance of the night. Then, she was left alone at a piano where she played a medley of “Long Live” and “New Year’s Day.” … I love “New Year’s Day,” and her moving performance of it on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon remains unforgettable. I had chills going through my body as she performed it last night and would have been disappointed if she hadn’t. …

A couple songs later, the drum beats of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” began pounding through the stadium. The crowd sang it loud with her and we were treated to just enough of it before the band transitioned into “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” – perhaps my favorite track on the “Reputation” album.

What unfolded was a concert finale for the ages …

When the smoke from the fireworks cleared, the lights at the stadium turned on, and Phoebe and I stood back against our seats and caught our breaths. Even then, the show was still going as end credits rolled on the big screens behind the stage. The screens flashed photos and names of the musicians and dancers who were part of the show, mixed with outtakes of Taylor and her crew rehearsing in an empty Arrowhead Stadium. Phoebe and I just stood there, soaking it in and relishing the final minutes of a truly memorable night.

I’m just going to say it. Of all my concert days and nights, this was the best concert ever … Sorry, Fun. You’ve been overtaken. (Ironically, Fun member Jack Antonoff co-produced “Reputation,” so there's that.)

Here’s The Kansas City Star review ...
The massive crowd witnessed an extraordinary spectacle. The main stage resembled an offshore oil rig outfitted with massive video screens. Most songs were complemented by an array of gaudy visual embellishments.

Swift zipped across the stadium in a skeletal snake during “Bad Blood.” She was flanked by aerial acrobats when she reached the stage.

The lavish display included an arsenal of fireworks, a phalanx of dancers, gales of confetti, and balls of fire that warmed the audience on a cool evening. Free wristbands distributed to all attendees emitted synchronized blasts of color. …

Swift’s interactions with the audience were unfailingly gracious, but a drawback of a nearly otherwise flawless two-hour production was revealed as Swift rendered tender songs on piano shortly after admitting she was suffering from a cold.
(Update 9.19.2018: Here's a review from this week's St. Louis show.)

The setlist
1. “Ready for It?”
2. “I Did Something Bad”
3. “Gorgeous”
4. “Style” / “Love Story” / “You Belong With Me”
5. “Look What You Made Me Do”
6. “End Game”
7. “King of My Heart”
8. “Delicate”
9. “Shake It Off” (with Charli XCX and Camila Cabello)
10. “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” (acoustic)
11. “The Story of Us” (acoustic)
12. “Blank Space”
13. “Dress”
14. “Bad Blood” / “Should’ve Said No”
15. “Don’t Blame Me”
16. “Long Live” / “New Year’s Day” (solo piano)
17. “Getaway Car”
18. “Call It What You Want”
19. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” / “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”