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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rod Stewart In Concert

Rod Stewart has one of the great voices in rock history, with a songbook that includes dozens of tunes I played hundreds of times in my music radio days, but I'd never seen him in concert. While in Vegas with my daughter earlier this month, I got tickets to see him in the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, and we had a great time.

Stewart announced at the beginning of the evening he was only allowed to do 90 minutes because the casino wanted everyone out and back to the slot machines. Still, he packed plenty of classics into that time frame: "You Wear It Well," "The First Cut Is The Deepest," "Have I Told You Lately," "Forever Young," "Hot Legs," "Tonight's The Night," "Some Guys Have All The Luck."

He also did "Can't Stop Me Now," a 2013 song dedicated to his father, who supported Rod through his early years of rejection by an industry that hated his hair, his clothes, and his nose -- complete with images from Rod's early years as a teenage rocker displayed on big screens behind him. He even did a tune that I haven't heard in a couple of decades by his early band Faces called "Ohh La La."

My daughter didn't know a lot of those songs, but she got right into the spirit of seeing a veteran performer put on a great show, and I even caught her singing along a couple of times. Throughout the show, Stewart was in good humor, joking with the audience, urging them to take photos (despite the pre-show warning not to), and remembering to play to those of us in the mezzanine and balcony, too.

At 71, Stewart is secure enough in his stardom to let everyone in his 9-piece band (including two women who played violins, banjo, guitar, and mandolin, and another woman who played harp and percussion) have solos, including an extended one by his sax player. The three backup singers even got to do a tune while Rod was offstage changing his shirt and jacket. When he returned for the encore ("Maggie May" and "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy") he kicked soccer balls into the audience as balloons fell from the ceiling.

His voice, which started out raspy in his teens, retains that unique Rod Stewart sound, and is still strong. The man knows how to entertain a crowd, and he gives them what he knows they want -- the hits that have carried his career through five decades.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Road Trip: Four Shows In Vegas

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter was traveling the country for work and was going to end up in Las Vegas. I decided to fly out and meet her so we could spend a few days together, during which I taught her some casino games and how to get free drinks, we walked the strip, sat by the pool, and went to see some shows.

I booked a cheap room at The Mirage and arrived a day before she did to discover Jay Leno was appearing there that night. I'd never seen him in person and was curious what his post-"Tonight Show" performance might be, so I went.

It turns out Leno is exactly the joke machine you'd expect from all those years of monologues on NBC, but without the goofy nods to the bandleader. I hadn't seen someone do a pure joke-joke-joke act like that since Rodney Dangerfield -- four to five a minute in the simple setup/punchline style. If one didn't land, no problem, there was another right on its tail.

It was a joke onslaught, but most of the material seemed like warmed-over stuff from his TV days, with some dated references to Charlie Sheen, Warren Jeffs, and other personalities from several years ago. Too many of his setups sounded like this: "Did you see this a couple of weeks ago in the LA Times?" or "Hey, I read a weird item last week in the Washington Post." The problem was that none of the stories were actually from this year. He had very little current material -- maybe a half-dozen jokes about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton -- but nothing biting or particularly clever.

Towards the end, Leno did several minutes about the differences between cats and dogs that you could hear from any hack comic at the Funny Bone. Very few of his jokes made me laugh, but I was clearly in the minority as the rest of the crowd loved him. The only part I did enjoy was when he talked about his parents. For that, he abandoned the joke-joke-joke structure in favor of much warmer storytelling. I had heard a couple of the stories about his father before (like when he introduced dad to Sting), but he tells them with such obvious love that they still work.

Once my daughter got to town, we went to see Mystere, the original Vegas show by Cirque du Soleil, at Treasure Island. As with all Cirque shows, the acrobatics were quite impressive while the weird characters traipsing in and out throughout added nothing. However, I'd forgotten how good the musicians and singers are as they accompany each act with live performances that help set the tone. All in all, Mystere was worth the discounted tickets.

We also went to two shows playing at Planet Hollywood. One is "V: The Ultimate Variety Show," which consists of acts that were popular on NBC's "America's Got Talent" but didn't win -- if you win, you end up with your own Vegas show, like ventriloquist Terry Fator. The cast of "V" includes jugglers, a contortionist, a strongman hand-balancing act, a skating daredevil duo, and four guys who do a medley of Village People hits in costume while on their knees. In other words, exactly the kind of schlocky Vegas variety show I was hoping for.

We also went to see magician Nathan Burton, who has been in Vegas for several years, but hasn't become as big a star as some of the others in his field. It's clear that he desperately wants to be the new David Copperfield or Lance Burton (they're not related), and he does a lot of similar big illusions. Look, this box is empty but, wait a second, now there are four showgirls inside! Hey, where did that jetski suspended in mid-air come from? Wow, that showgirl in a box disappeared and turned up in the middle of the audience! Now let's change the tone to bring up a kid from the audience and dazzle him/her with something silly and then give them the Nathan Burton Box Of Magic, conveniently on sale in the lobby!

OK, fine, I've just defined your basic Las Vegas magic show, which is what Burton delivers. He's not nearly as good as Mac King, whose afternoon show at Harrah's is a must-see, and he's certainly nothing like Penn and Teller, the other magic show I always suggest when people ask me what to see in Vegas.

Burton also has an opening act, a guy named Russ Merlin, who does a routine with audience members that's pretty amusing. The problem was that we'd seen him do the exact same routine -- word for word -- at "The Ultimate Variety Show." Merlin is one of those opening acts that feels his job is to artificially pump up the crowd for the headliner. "Make some noise!!" "C'mon, let's get loud for this next act!!" "The more raucous you are, the better the show will be!"

I absolutely hate that. This must be what it's like to be the warmup person for a late night TV show -- try to get the crowd to exude over-the-top energy when no one onstage has even done anything yet. I will clap, cheer, and perhaps even stand up when you do something worth of an ovation. Yelling at me to shout back at you is not entertainment.

The better acts don't have to do that, and on our final night in Vegas, we saw a veteran performer put on a helluva show that didn't need any artificial assistance. I'll tell you about that tomorrow.

Worth A Link

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How To Grow Poker's Popularity

Keith Woernle has written some excellent pieces this summer for Part Time Poker with ideas on how to grow poker's popularity and global appeal. Since he was a producer for the World Poker Tour's tenth season, many of his thoughts have to do with televised poker, which he thinks should return to showing highlights rather than long hours of live coverage (which I agree is incredibly boring and has driven away the casual viewer).

Wernle also says television coverage needs to be more exciting because poker isn’t quite enough fun on its own:

I’m not saying we need to have dogs chasing frisbees every broadcast or guys screaming as they stand atop chairs, but I’m not opposed to it either. I think the average television viewer watches poker as a form of escapism. They watch and daydream about the high-roller lifestyle and playing for millions themselves. But if all the poker players look miserable, and if no one is talking, and if everyone is hiding under sunglasses and hoodies, and if everyone is min-raising, and tanking six minutes for every hand pre-flop, and not caring if they lose, and not caring if they win, and not even smiling when they win the entire tournament, then maybe the average viewer at home thinks this isn’t such a rockstar lifestyle after all.

Maybe they change the channel. Maybe for good.

Some of this responsibility falls to that of the players. While having a deep determined focus at the final table is absolutely warranted, it doesn’t need to prevent you from enjoying yourself. If you’re reading this and you’ve made a very deep run in a big tournament, was it not the most exciting moment of your poker career? That joy need not always be suppressed. It humanizes the game and makes the product of poker more enjoyable for everyone.
He also touches on a point I've been making for years, that poker is more fun when it's a social game, and table talk helps a lot.
If you’re laughing and joking and generally enjoying yourself at the table, then perhaps, even if you lose, you can leave with a smile on your face. If losing players are fraternizing, laughing, and otherwise enjoying the conversations about them, the sting of their losses will be much less severe. (This also applies to overall winning players that are simply having a losing session).

Poker is fun. Remember how poker is supposed to be fun? That fun should not be limited to your weekly basement home game. Many pros always try to have a good time at the table, regardless of the cards they’re dealt. And if the overall losing players still have a great time, then they are likely to come back for more and keep the poker economy moving.

Laughter and joy are contagious. If nine out of ten people in a crowd start laughing, then the tenth person usually joins in. And if Seats 1, 2, 4, and 5 are having a conversation, then it is simply a matter of time before Seat 3 jumps into that conversation as well (assuming they speak the same language of course).

I think table talk can create a bonding experience amongst players. Conversation creates connection, an almost kinship, between both the winning players and the losing ones.
I'd much rather be at a table where half (or more) of the players are joking around or discussing sports or TV or movies (but not politics or religion!) or even analyzing the last hand than sit with a bunch of automatons who never utter a sound because they're afraid to give off a tell -- even when they're not in a hand. When I played in the World Series Of Poker Main Event four years ago, that was one of my complaints:
I've had losing days at the poker table, but none as frustrating and boring as today. The frustration came from a complete lack of playable hands -- at one point, I went 64 minutes without voluntarily putting chips in the pot -- and the boredom came from the fact that no one at my table said a single sentence out loud in the six hours I was there. I thought of something Tony Dunst said on my Final Table Radio Show: "Without talking, a poker tournament is just a bunch of 24-year-olds in sweatshirts doing math problems silently." That's exactly what I lived through today. I had planned on not listening to music, but I finally put on the headphones after 2 hours because I needed something to keep my brain engaged.
Even worse are the (mostly younger) players who sit at the table with an iPad open so they can watch a movie or play Open-Faced Chinese Poker against their friends as they fold, fold, fold, never engaging with anyone else around them. When I'm on the road and get seated with several of those young obviously non-social pros, I'll ask for a table change or go play a different game -- or leave, which is exactly what they should not want recreational players to do.

The more welcoming, conversational, and fun the live poker experience is, the better it will be for everyone -- and more profitable in the long run for those pros.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Movie Review: War Dogs

There are two kinds of Jonah Hill movies. There's the lowbrow stuff like "21 Jump Street" and "Get Him To The Greek," and there's the Oscar-nominated performances in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" and "Moneyball." "War Dogs" is being marketed as one of the former, but it is actually one of the latter -- a very well-made movie that combines drama and comedy, with very good performances in a based-on-real-life story. And what a story it is.

Hill and Miles Teller play Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, who in 2005, while in their twenties, discovered a law allowing small businesses to bid on US military contracts online — after the exploitation of no-bid contracts by war profiteers like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon and Dick Cheney’s Halliburton subsidiaries -- and wound up selling guns and grenades and missiles and mortars to the Pentagon for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Packouz and Diveroli made millions by bidding on smaller contracts that big defense firms showed little interest in, and then filled those orders by buying outdated weapons equipment online from Asia or Eastern Europe. They thought they could do it all from behind a computer screen in their office in Miami, but on at least a couple of occasions had to go to the Middle East to clean up some messes in person.

"War Dogs" is directed by Todd Phillips ("The Hangover" trilogy) from a script based on Guy Lawson's 2011 Rolling Stone article. Fortunately, Philips didn't turn this into a wacky comedy (don't believe the commercials and trailers!), but got the serio-comic tone just right. And because this is a story about young men who suddenly become ultra-wealthy, there's so much weed, cocaine and prostitutes that they could have called it "The Wolf Of War Street."

The supporting cast includes Phillips' buddy Bradley Cooper in a small part. Ana de Armas plays Packouz’s wife (she looks just like Valeria Galino in "Hot Shots"). Kevin Pollak plays the owner of a chain of dry cleaners who provides some of the money to get the arms dealing operation going. As for Hill and Teller, they're just right as the leads -- certainly better than Jesse Eisenberg and Shia LaBeouf, who were originally set to star and would have been terrible.

I give "War Dogs" an 8 out of 10. It's the best war-related based-on-real-life movie since "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."

Poll Talk

There's been a lot of denial from Trump supporters, including Fox News, regarding polls that show Hillary Clinton with a 5-6% lead over Donald Trump nationally, and ahead in many of the battleground states that will decide the election. That can't possibly be true, they say -- look at how many people continue to show up for Trump rallies!

They have a short memory. In 2012, many Republicans and right-wing pundits refused to believe poll averages that showed Mitt Romney would lose badly to Barack Obama -- but he did. I also find it ironic that they never expressed doubts about the polls when Donald Trump was beating the other GOP hopefuls in the primaries.

Here is Five Thirty Eight guru Nate Silver explaining this -- and why you shouldn't cherry pick polls to find one that makes your candidate look better -- to Brian Stelter on CNN's "Reliable Sources"...

Speaking of polls, there is a difference between polls of "registered voters" and "likely voters." In the last presidential election, of the 219 million Americans who were eligible to vote, 146.3 million were registered, but only 126.1 million actually voted, and the percentages will be roughly the same this year. Asking the former their preference doesn't make much sense if it's the latter that will decide the winner in November.


The "Ben-Hur" kinda-remake was a huge bomb this weekend. It cost $100 million to make (not counting marketing) and brought in only $11.4 million over the last three days. Part of the reason: no one has ever claimed the Charlton Heston original was a classic, save for the chariot race scene. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who can tell you anything about that version, so re-doing it with some CGI magic made no sense.

Chalk it up as yet another failed remake from a creatively-challenged Hollywood. Other big-budget bombs from this year include "Alice Through The Looking Glass," "The Huntsman: Winter's War," "Zoolander 2," "Neighbors 2," and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2."

As a moviegoer, you were much better going to see some of the truly original movies that came out in the last three months, like "Captain Fantastic," "The Infiltrator," "The Shallows," "Money Monster," "Weiner," and "Sing Street." If you missed them in theaters, add them to your Netflix queue or Amazon Prime wishlist when they start streaming this fall.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Nothing Sinister Here

This is a simple three-sentence story from BBC News:

A search has again taken place in Weston Park in Bath by police investigating the discovery of three human feet. The first turned up inside the park in February, the second and third were found in nearby gardens in July and earlier this month. Police say they do not think there is anything sinister behind the finds but they are continuing to investigate why they keep appearing.
Nope, nothing sinister here. Move along. It's just three human feet found in a park.

Wait a minute. Three feet? Shouldn't you contact Scotland Yard?