MC Chris Celebrates Ten Years on the Road at Birmingham’s Syndicate Lounge

The Ten Years of Touring Tour feels more like a house party than a concert. It’s an impression that may be partly due to the venue. The Syndicate Lounge in Birmingham, AL was intimate and casual and had every appearance of a buddy’s game room or basement bedroom. There’s a small bar in the back, a room with a couple of sofas off to one side and a smaller room around the corner where a merch table sat instead of a ping-pong table. Three laptops were set up on a small table in the middle of the stage, like someone tried to put together an ad hoc LAN party.

But the house party vibe didn’t lie entirely on the shoulders of The Syndicate Lounge. MC Chris and both of his opening acts are among some of the most affable and approachable artists you’ll ever meet. They engaged the crowd and gladly bullshit with fans after the show about classic NES games and iconic wrestling moves while signing autographs and posing for selfies. They’re all proud nerds.

Former schoolteacher and Philadelphia native Mega Ran was a perfect primer for the night. Funny and friendly, it’s impossible not to smile back at the man when he grins. Mega Ran served as an unofficial master of ceremonies for the show. He expertly warmed up the crowd, directing dance moves and bringing fans onstage to participate. His set was peppered with anecdotes about his teaching experiences and his disappointment in his kids’ love of Drake. For his big freestyle finale, he had the audience empty their pockets in search of props and spontaneous subject matter.

One of the perks of seeing a bill with three MCs means not having to suffer through a full breakdown, set up and sound check between every act. A jiggling of a couple of cords and a quick mic check was all that was required before MC Lars was ready to go on. Lars’ onstage persona was jubilant and childlike. He bounced from one side of the stage to the other high fiving fans while espousing his love of Weird Al Yankovic and Edgar Allen Poe. Mega Ran returned to the stage for a few tag team raps to close out the set, including a full rap rendition of Poe’s “The Raven” complete with a raven puppet.

It’d be reasonable to suspect that Mega Ran and MC Lars performed an off stage Dragon Ball-style fusion dance to form the headlining act. MC Chris is a veteran artist who embodies both the tangent-prone, audience taskmaster of Mega Ran and the loveable goofball of MC Lars. Chris was quick to work the crowd, making them laugh, dance and sing on command. Despite touring on a new album, his set was very fan-conscious. He leaned on older, pre-Foreverrr material, only slipping in a couple of newer tracks. It was a disappointing and perhaps an overly cautious decision given the popularity of his previous album and that his newest albums deal in Halloween-appropriate fare. Considering that he hosted a mid-concert costume contest, one might’ve expected more Ghostbusters and Freddy Kruger-centric tracks to work their way into the set. But long time fans were guaranteed to hear all their favorite songs. The set list included everything from “Pizza Butt” to “Fett’s Vette.” Chris even opened with “I Want Candy,” a deep-cut from his Adult Swim alter ego MC Pee Pants.

As anyone familiar with an MC Chris show might expect, his set was filled with nerdy rants about Star Wars and Jaws interspersed between raps. Underneath the “funny voice” and the nerd rage façade, Chris is a respectable comedian with a sharp sense of timing and the ability to flip a flub into a laugh. One bit involved continuously interrupting his own song to return to a previous rant about the Millennium Falcon as if he were a politically enraged Facebook poster, culminating with the angry non sequitur, “Jared Leto was a bad Joker!”

Ten years is a long time to spend on the road, but MC Chris and his compatriots have only improved with age. It’s well worth your time to release your inner geek for an evening. There are few shows that are as fun as an MC Chris show and you should see him live at least once, no matter what Alex Trebek says.

CD Review: “MC Chris is Dreaming” by MC Chris

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Even when tackling more personal topics, the self-proclaimed king of nerd-core hip-hop has consistently maintained a chipper demeanor, but his 10th album is an exception. There’s still the occasionally danceable track like “MC Chris the Shit” and the typical collection of goofy skits, but on the whole MC Chris is Dreaming is an album besieged with personal demons.

Inspired by the synth-laden score of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” Dreaming is driven by creepy but catchy keyboard melodies that dreamily underscore the subject matter. If MC Chris was being haunted by his past ghosts on his previous album, he’s possessed by them on this one. MC Chris is blunt about his fears and insecurities, rapping about everything from his weight to his fear of becoming like his alcoholic father. He effectively uses pop culture boogieman Freddy Krueger as an avatar for his mounting anxieties and attempts to overcome him by focusing on what he has in front of him. It’s surprisingly deep for an album that contains a song about nocturnal emissions.

The dour attitude even seeps into the normally light-hearted skits, featuring bits where Freddy dangles success in front of MC Chris only to snatch it away. But he does eventually find closure, meditating on why a demon capable of conjuring up any dream world imaginable would choose to reside in a personal hell, especially when he could have waffles. Always self-aware of his indulgences, MC Chris calls his album out for being depressing and maudlin in the final skit. But this is an indulgence that can be forgiven. No longer anxious to please by turning out silly Star Wars dance tracks, MC Chris is growing as an artist and Dreaming is evidence of that.

Film Review: ‘Ghostbusters’ (PG-13)

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“Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts.”

Neither a direct sequel nor a true remake, ‘Ghostbusters’ takes a cue from the newest Star Wars movie by taking brand new characters and surrounding them in all too familiar territory. And it works for director Paul Feig just as well as it did for JJ Abrams. While the plot isn’t novel, following the same story beats of the 1984 original, the comedic chemistry between Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Melissa McCarthy brings fresh air into the old franchise.

The film immediately offers up the sort of rapid fire, deadpan quips that should put nervous fan boys at ease. We are treated to a cold open of Zach Woods (‘Silicon Valley’) guiding a tour through an historic haunted mansion that boasts of such then-modern conveniences as a “face-bidet” and an “anti-Irish fence.” Like its predecessor, ‘Ghostbusters’ is filled with quotable one-liners.

McCarthy and McKinnon’s characters get off to a rocky start, initially coming off as juvenile and mean-spirited. But once the necessary groundwork is laid and the ladies are suited up, the rough edges disappear. The SNL pedigree and camaraderie of the main cast does the heavy lifting in the film and they are given plenty of room to play off of one another. Jones and McKinnon on their own may have been an overload of quirk, without Wiig’s straight man (…err, straight person?) to keep them grounded. Surprisingly, McCarthy takes a more understated approach letting all but a few scenes of slapstick fall on the shoulders of Jones and Wiig.

It’s to the writers’ credit that they avoid making the new crew surrogates for the old. Despite some similarity in appearance to the cartoon version of Egon, McKinnon’s mad scientist engineer would have flustered and frightened off Harold Ramis’ character long before the first ghost was busted. And despite both being the lone black and blue-collar team members, Jones portrayal of a gregarious, well-read history buff who volunteers to join the “club” shares little in common with Ernie Hudson’s no-nonsense “just here for the paycheck” Winston. The film may pay near-constant homage to the Ivan Reitman original, but it’s careful to maintain its own identity in the Ghostbuster universe.

It should come as a relief to fans (and perhaps to the dismay of the troll-happy “GhostBrosters”) Feig delivers a film that’s a worthy successor to the original and is completely superior to ‘Ghostbusters 2.’ ‘Ghostbusters’ tries too hard at times, but shows nothing but love for its cult following while taking winking potshots at its pre-agitated detractors. Not only is this summer movie worth the price of admission, it’s even worth the extra few bucks to have 3D proton beams and projectile slime fly at your face.

CD Review: ‘Safe Word’ by The Dreaded Marco

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What’s your energy drink of choice?  Redbull?  Monster?  NOS?  Put those caffeinated cans of heart attack down and take a swig of The Dreaded Marco’s new album, Safe Word; the safer alternative for people who want to get up and go!  For fans of rock music who prefer to take theirs black, this new release will please you in no small way. Gritty riffs, wailing solos, and obvious references to Star Wars! Okay, so perhaps it’s not as straight-forward rock as I initially said, but the band has a way of blending its variety of musical talents and preferences into a strangely cohesive musical product. Throw in a lost and confused guitarist named Mike, which makes for some amusing interludes, and you’re on your way to understanding this album.

The Dreaded Marco arrived on the scene in 2010 as the brainchild of guitarist-vocalist Charlie Sheets (Echovalve), drummer Mike Froedge (Black Label Society, DoubleDrive), and guitarist Dixie Duncan (Echovalve, Eye Empire) with the release of its first EP, Metrognome. The threesome was rounded up to a four-piece with the inclusion of bassist Scott Williams, who brought with him a love for jazz and boogie to throw into the mixing pot. Combine this with the existing groove and head banging riffs, as well as a change in personnel – exit Dixie Duncan and enter Mike Martin (Fozzy, Stuck Mojo, Agent Cooper) – and you have the soundtrack for a good time.

 

Join Mike as he gets lost in a multi-story shopping center of musical delights, complete with its strange, and sometimes ornery inhabitants. Fourth Floor: Restrooms, Women’s Lingerie, and the Alligator F#ckhouse. But as strange as it may be, The Dreaded Marco manages to wrap up all their diversity in a cloak of hard-hitting blues rock.  “I Run Cloud City” sounds like the second coming of Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me,” the title track is the hard rock swing dance tune you’ve been waiting for, and “Bruce’s Magic Kite Circus” is a hot blooded Arabian-driving song with an addictive groove. And those aren’t even my favorites!

The Dreaded Marco aren’t worried about taking themselves too seriously, which works in their favor as a rock band.  They’re able to use their talents as musicians to do what they want, even if it isn’t what is expected, which gives them greater freedom to create and enjoy themselves. The fact that they decided to encapsulate all of these ideas into a casing of blues rock makes Safe Word something of a daily multi-vitamin of music; it provides you with a dose of everything you need, in an album that’s easy to digest. That’s just the kind of band The Dreaded Marco is; always looking out for your health.

 

For more on The Dreaded Marco, visit:
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Buy Safe Word at: iTunes | Amazon | Google Play
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Interview with Sci-fi Writer, Timothy Zahn

“Star Wars” had new life breathed into it when Bantam Spectra released the “Heir to the Empire” 22 years ago; the first book in what is now known as “The Thrawn Trilogy.” Author Timothy Zahn’s story was set five years after the events of “Return of the Jedi” and featured the return of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and the rest of the heroes of the rebellion. It became the first book in what is now known as the “Star Wars Expanded Universe.”

His original characters from “Heir to the Empire,” Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade and Captain Palleon have gone on to become some of the most beloved characters in the “Star Wars” universe. Since “Heir to the Empire” was released, Mr. Zahn has gone on to write numerous other “Star Wars” novels, comics and short stories.

At Dragon Con 2013 in Atlanta, Mr. Zahn took some time to discuss writing and publishing in today’s changing marketplace.

Pointing at the iPad that had been placed on the table to record the interview, Mr. Zahn began talking about the first subject of the interview: technology. “I finally realized why I don’t like these things,” he said. “It’s because when I first started with a computer, we were careful not to touch the screen and we were TOLD not to touch the screen. Now, we’re supposed to touch the screen. It’s weird. I’m getting used to the idea, but that’s what my problem is with them. Tablets are fun to play with and occasionally read from, but I am always going to need a laptop to type with … an actual keyboard.”

When asked to explain how his approach to writing as evolved with technology over the past 20 years, he explained that he had gone from using pencils to a laptop. “I had no computer when I started out. I was unable to compose at a typewriter, because there were always changes to do and when there were strikethroughs and additions and such, I couldn’t read for flow because I kept fumbling over these changes. So, I always wrote it all in pencil, longhand in notebooks using every other line so that I could edit in the changes, add stuff in, erase, whatever. Once I got it into proper format, then I would go ahead and type it up to send it out.

“I love the computer because if I want to take out this word, I take it out and it still flows. You won’t see what’s gone and I can still read it for flow. I always work on laptops because I travel enough that I need to work on the airplane, and I work pretty well on planes. So, I can keep up with things that way.”

Technology has managed to fold back on itself, however. “Ironically, the last few books I’ve done, especially when I’m doing collaborations or other such things, we work with the track change feature in Microsoft Word and I’m right back to where I didn’t want to be with the typewriter. Because now, all those strikeouts are still visible and everything else is in different colors, so we’re back to exactly what I didn’t want to do.

“On the other hand, it’s convenient in many ways. ‘The Terminator Salvation’ prequel book I did, I was working with Titan Books in London and I think we went through like three versions of the book, changes and such without it ever hitting paper. You know, just emailing it back and forth. I still remember the old days, when even with a computer, I would budget a morning to printing out, tearing the pages apart, packing it into the box, address it and mail it to my agent. So, the ability to say ‘okay, it’s done,’ attach the file and send it out is immensely handy to be able to do.”

Mr. Zahn wasn’t always planning on being a writer. Before he dedicated his time to chronicling the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, he was a physics grad student. While he was writing as a hobby, it wasn’t until his adviser had passed away and he was told that he would need to start a project from scratch that the writing became a full-time job. “I decided I was having more fun writing, so I went from budding physicist to struggling writer in about a day … well, a week or so from when I actually made the decision to when I started full time. I spent that first year just doing short fiction. The second year I started on my first novel … doing about two weeks on the novel, then taking a break and writing a short story, etc. Then, I started doing novels, started mixing novels and short fiction, and eventually doing mostly novels, though I still do two or three short stories every year or two in addition.”

When asked if there was a particular format that provided him a guilty pleasure, he brushed off the mere notion. “I have no guilt about any of these things! It’s all pure pleasure. A novel is a mural, a short story is an 8-by-10 drawing or painting and a comic book is someplace midway between, or halfway to movie or TV. They are slightly different challenges and capabilities.

“In a novel I can do a lot more development, more plot threads, more characters. I can be a little more wordy in descriptions and such. In a short story, I have to write a lot more tightly. Every word has to matter. They’re different. They’re both fun, they’re both challenging; graphic novels, again the same thing … different style, different abilities, different drawbacks. I like all of them. I would like to do more graphic novels; I just haven’t had the opportunity. Short stories, someone will invite me to a collection and volunteer something. Novels are the bread and butter of the writer of course. They pay better and you get royalties down the line.”

In regards to the appeal of the graphic novel format, he explained that he appreciated the ability to let the reader discover on their own. “For example, in the six-part Mara Jade comic that Michael A. Stackpole and I did, ‘Mara Jade: By the Emperor’s Hand,’ one issue ends with Mara Jade having a fight with some bad guys who murdered her boss and such, and she’s decided to take out the gang.

“Well, the opening of issue four has Mara Jade at a cafe type place working on a computer trying to figure out where they might be. On the table is the distinctive knife the bad guys use, and I specifically put it [in the script] to be there as either a warning: ‘I’m part of the group, don’t mess with me,’ or it’s bait. But, it’s something that in a novel or in a short story you’d have to say ‘Mara put the knife here to entice any possible leads toward her.’ In the comic, I can just have it there, and the sharp-eyed reader can spot it and see she’s doing something with it. So, you can be more subtle and have more Easter egg type of things that are harder to do in the prose aspect.”

As a writer, organization and research are often paramount to success. Since he is primarily a science fiction writer he explained that often times research isn’t as important as documentation. “I usually use 4-by-6 index cards, and write down the characters and any of their distinguishing features gets added to that. If I’m doing something that requires a lot of research, I will probably find websites or pages and copy them into a file on my computer so that I have a quick reference type of thing.

“Ideally, as for the ‘Honor Harrington’ universe collaborations I am doing with David Weber, David already has a researcher who’s worked on the ‘Honor Herrington’ companion and such. I shoot questions to the researcher and he’s the one with the database, so he goes through the effort of digging things out if he doesn’t remember them, or creating the new tech I am going to need. So, I do as little research as I can get away with because it takes time, and I’d rather be writing.”

The publishing market has changed dramatically since Mr. Zahn began his career. Now, self-publishing, e-books and crowd sourced funding are all common practices. When asked if he felt that the traditional practice of shopping a book around to different publishers was still the best way to become successful, he had a good bit of insight to offer. “Well, the editing process [that publishers provide] is definitely good and necessary for pretty much everybody. But on the other hand, there are freelance editors out there. The editor that was on my first ‘Star Wars Thrawn’ trilogy is now freelancing. She also works for the Open Road people, but she does freelance editing. If you want to self publish, you can hire a freelance editor to clean up your stuff before you do that. There are lots of opportunities that didn’t exist 20 years ago, so we’ll see how it all shakes out.”

Freelance editors aside, Mr. Zahn had some other insights into the benefits of traditional publishing. “If you come out under a traditional publisher, the reader knows somebody edited this thing and somebody else thought it was worth paying some of their hard earned money to the author. So, you’ve got a ‘junk filter.’ Theoretically you have less garbage coming out of a major publisher than you do out of the self-publishing which doesn’t cost anything. So, I think still, traditional publishing is a good way to go if you can.”

But, he was quick to point out that the larger point is for the writer to not give up just because the traditional approach might not work right away. “The one piece of advice I can offer is: if you want to write, keep writing. Keep reading so you see what you like and don’t like in other people’s work. Incorporate into your work what you like and avoid what you don’t. Find your own voice. Write the story, finish the story, send out the story or put it on your website or whatever, and go on to the next one. A lot of brilliant writing minds out there will never be heard from because they quit. Their first story didn’t sell the first time, or whatever so they stopped doing it. Persistence is a major part of all of this.

“I don’t know how relevant it is now, but I started out with short fiction because the magazines were always looking for new writers. There are e-magazines out there still and they also serve the purpose of the traditional publisher of filtering out some of the bad stuff. Also, if you can do short fiction, I think those markets are easier to break into than the novels. Self-pub if you like – try the traditional route, or e-magazine, but just keep at it. Keep writing.”

Finally, the interview wouldn’t be over unless he was asked about “Star Wars: Episode VII.” When asked what he would do if JJ Abrams were to call him up tomorrow and ask for his help, he was very succinct. “Let me put it this way: we are a 10 hour drive from Lucasfilm HQ at the Presidio in San Francisco, Calif. I would make it in eight hours.”