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Off the Grid

New York has officially reached the saturation point for contemporary performance in the month of January. When the Association of Performing Arts Presenters comes to town for their annual conference, the city revs its entrepreneurial engines. At least five festivals of new performances now take place during the same two weeks, all of them competing for the attention of beleaguered producers who zip from show to show in search of tourable acts.

With so many showcases spread across town, there’s simply too much supply, even though demand is high, too. The 10-year-old Under the Radar, presented by the Public Theater, anchor of the January festivals, now looks like the elder of the pack, with more established artists, links to America’s resident theaters, and the most traditional dramatic forms. COIL, the multidisciplinary festival of PS 122, takes an expansive view of performance, while across town at Abrons Arts Center the American Realness festival offers edgier dance and performance for a younger crowd. If that weren’t enough to squeeze into two weeks, the Prototype festival presents new opera and music theater — and, this year, the upstart festival Special Effects lured adventurous artgoers off the beaten path (and may be the one to watch in future years).

I focused only on Under the Radar and COIL for a week, and encountered treasure as well as disappointment — but I still missed some of the most promising shows (BigMouth and The Room Nobody Knows). (Many run through January 19, so you can currently catch these as well as a number of others.)

Two poetic works were among the most moving and suggestive: Muazzez, written and directed by Mac Wellman, is a sly and frequently beautiful monologue about “the profound nature of things” on a less-traveled planet. Steve Mellor speaks from the viewpoint of an abandoned cigar factory — yes, that’s right — with suggestive nuance, especially vulnerable and dour in a sequence recounting “the ringing of my inner telephone.” blessing the boats: the remix revives a “performance essay” by the late poet Sekou Sundiata, taking its time with layers of language, and accumulating a power that’s hard to shake off. A memoir of kidney failure and recovery might sound improbable for the stage, but director Rhodessa Jones has deftly calibrated the project so that an individual’s medical predicament reveals unearthly spiritual forces. Three men (Carl Hancock Rux, Mike Ladd, and Will Power — accomplished writer-performers themselves) share the recitation of Sundiata’s text, reflecting on medicine, the body, and the will.

If you like ethereal, you might also enjoy The Record, 600 Highwaymen’s wordless assembly of bodies onstage. The project — directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone — brings an array of mostly amateur participants on and off stage mechanically, each performer executing independent gestures and timed by an unseen clock. (Surprisingly, that structural principle isn’t readily transparent to viewers.) It’s a purely formalist exercise with precedents in dance — the Judson choreographers come to mind — but I couldn’t see the radical rigor in The Record; the stage felt empty to me even as it filled up with a crowd and swelled with soft music and white light.

Heather Kravas’s a quartet, on the other hand, offered rich and unexpected choreographic compositions with four often virtuosic dancers (Oren Barnoy, Cecilia Eliceche, Jennifer Kjos, and Liz Santoro). In sequences varied by rhythm and tone, Kravas seems to explore themes of oppression, including the rigidity of form. The final sequence, with the quartet menacingly jangling cow bells, adds a layer of aggression to this altogether admirable piece.

The prize for abstraction, however, would have to go to An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk, an amusing provocation conceived and directed by Phil Soltanoff. Soltanoff has digitized recordings of the dialogue uttered by Shatner throughout Star Trek, broken down word by word. Manipulating those video archives through a computer system, Shatner — or is it his character, the handsome and authoritative Captain Kirk? — now offers a video lecture on science and aesthetics. (The text is by Joe Diebes.) “You. Could. Call. It. A. Transmission. About. The. Future,” he begins, each word a fragment cut from the series.

Shatner goes on to contrast being and nonbeing, inner and external life, and he fixates on “savage people who don’t make art.” Soltanoff knows when to mix up the pace, occasionally introducing a live performer, and strategically cutting away to a scene of Kirk and his posse on an alien planet fending off bow-and-arrow–slinging primitives, so that Shatner can endorse, then back away from, the idea of colonization. “That. Was. Just. A. Joke,” the square-jawed captain tells us at the end — but there’s a small mountain of ironies to savor about making art about science.

On the other hand, JDX — A Public Enemy is theater about making theater. Created by the 25-year-old Belgian collective tg STAN, who work without a director, JDX has the ensemble tackling Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama, An Enemy of the People, on a bare set, fussing stagily and ad-libbing while searching vainly for spontaneous life while fumbling through each scene.

The perfect antidote to dull theater games could be found in Lola Arias’s El Año en Que Nací (The Year I Was Born). Created in Chile in collaboration with the performers, El Año resounds with purpose. This documentary project gathers 10 young Chileans to tell the story of their own parents’ lives before and after the Augusto Pinochet regime. The choices another generation faced are considered, movingly, by this appealing group, who occasionally try to measure themselves: lining up by economic class, left- and right-wing tendencies, etc. Arias writes and directs with a tight hand, and although we don’t know exactly how she has shaped these family stories, we can appreciate the personal archives opened for us and admire the forthrightness of this post-dictatorship generation.

It was a boon to attend Catch 60, the COIL-sponsored 10th anniversary evening of the performance series. (Watch for future nights.) Outside the multilevel Invisible Dog, throngs waited in hopes of cancellations; inside, short performances from an arsenal of downtown talent sprawled across two packed floors (simultaneously) with kegs flowing. (The evening could have been retitled “Upstairs/Downstairs.”) The producers with clipboards and badges had vanished, but the downtown theater world was there, presenting short segments from works in progress. It was a good reminder that even in a month brimming with new works, the best is always to come.

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Star Trek Into Darkness Boldly Goes Where Star Trek’s Been Before

“Who are you?” pleads a doomed man as Benedict Cumberbatch looms into his first close-up in Star Trek Into Darkness. The answer is Khan. And that’s not a spoiler—it’s a selling point. A less secretive director (i.e., all save the ghost of Stanley Kubrick) would trumpet that his $185 million movie stars Star Trek‘s greatest villain, but J.J. Abrams has so suppressed this fact that I suspect if you rearrange the letters in Khan Noonien Singh, you’ll find the location of the Lost island.

Abrams’ mystery-box marketing gave a boost to weaker, cheaper films like Cloverfield and Super 8, but if Star Trek Into Darkness bombs, the trick is on him. Cumberbatch, a tweedy Brit with an M.A. in Classical Acting and a face like a monstrous Timothy Dalton, has beefed up to become a convincing killer. He’s brutal and bold, and the film around him isn’t bad either. In the opening minutes, Khan terrorizes London, then makes like Osama and flees to the mountains of an enemy planet, causing Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller—welcome back, RoboCop!) to make like Dubya and order his assassination, sans trial. Picture Zero Dark Thirty with bright pullovers and laser guns and you’ll have Darkness, whose heavy-handed political parallels just might feel smart in a summer of Vin Diesel crashing cars.

Instead of Jessica Chastain’s overrated ice queen, vengeance here will be served by the blubbering James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), who so bleeds his humanity across the Enterprise‘s deck that it’s a wonder Chekov (Anton Yelchin) doesn’t slip. Again, the central conflict is between the captain’s swaggering impetuousness and the cold-blooded logic of First Mate Spock (Zachary Quinto). Even more than in the first film, Quinto’s Spock is emotionally disjointed—even dangerous. In his first scene, Spock sacrifices himself to preserve Starfleet’s Prime Directive. Kirk breaks the rules to save his life, and Spock is furious, which is to say he pens a memo of complaint. Demoted, Kirk struggles to reconcile his feelings for his friend. “He’d let you die,” cautions Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), while Spock’s girlfriend, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), is so enraged by her boyfriend’s death wish that she threatens to “tear the bangs off his head.”

After setting up its War on Terror allusions, Star Trek Into Darkness becomes Paradise Lost in Space: It’s a battle for the good captain’s soul. Dispatched to Khan’s hideout, Kirk is torn between Spock’s wisdom and Admiral Marcus’s war-mongering. Will he let his crew quit or die in his quest for justice? Can Khan destroy him simply by smashing his moral code? In Darkness‘ darkest scene, our hero beats a prisoner who’s already surrendered. It’s shocking stuff, but Abrams’s screenwriters don’t trust the popcorn audience to get their psychological implications. Instead, they externalize Kirk’s turmoil by making him spend every second scene suffering unsolicited advice about what to do. That even his subordinates treat him like a passive sap neuters the character, despite an early romp where he beds twin hotties with tails. His only real love is for the Enterprise, that hermaphroditic ship shaped like three phalluses and a flattened boob.

To validate his 2009 reboot, Abrams worked in a space-time splice so Leonard Nimoy could cameo as old Spock, or “Spock Prime,” as though he specializes in overnight shipping. Ironically, in 1982, Nimoy (who had already penned the bristling memoir I Am Not Spock) was so desperate to abandon starship that he only agreed to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when promised his character would die. Spock croaked, but Nimoy’s Vulcan heart was so warmed by the fan agony that the actor returned to direct Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and, post-resurrection, has clung to the franchise, even titling his follow-up memoir I Am Spock. Today, while William Shatner is sealed in his pop-culture terrarium chanting lounge covers of “Space Oddity,” Nimoy returns again so that old Spock can advise young Spock on how to defeat Khan decades before the original Khan defeats the original Spock, causing such a doubled-back crimp in the chronology that in our universe, Wrath of Khan may now no longer exist. Thus freed, Abrams lifts Khan‘s climax, thievery that will enrage the devout as it suggests the Star Trek saga is merely a game of Mad Libs into which he plugs characters and catastrophes.

Hey, why not? Trek diehards have long-since proven they’re impossible to satisfy. Instead, Abrams’ glossy relaunch is tailored to fans who don’t care for canon but know enough to grin when Dr. McCoy pokes a Tribble. Darkness is a cheery combo of classic catchphrases and young Hollywood heat, like blond babe Alice Eve as a weapons expert who can only examine torpedoes in her underwear.

Having crumpled up the franchise for kicks—not that I’m complaining—Abrams won’t have the chore of smoothing out the Enterprise‘s future. Pine, who may yet prove to be a leading man in the model of Harrison Ford, will be pressed to return in sequels, as will Saldana, Quinto, and Simon Pegg’s Scotty. (If the openly gay Quinto hasn’t had the same big screen success as his co-stars, I hope it’s because he sincerely prefers the theater.) But their intergalactic overlord will be in another universe entirely. Hey, Luke—who was your father again?


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Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It Boldly Goes to Broadway

At a recent Friday night performance of William Shatner’s one-man Broadway show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It, Shatner did not have the first word. As the only person on stage, he certainly was supposed to, but he couldn’t get off his opening line before a fan in the orchestra seats shouted, “Hey! You’re not Mr. Spock!” Perhaps the double-Stoli in the adult sippy-cup that’s now standard in the seats of Broadway theaters convinced the man that sharing an improv scene with Captain Kirk would be cool—something he could brag about with the Klingons at the next convention.

Shatner didn’t see it that way. He dropped his head as if to say, “Jesus, not these people again. Am I safe nowhere?” As the fan slinked back into his seat and Shatner tried to push on, another member of the audience chimed in: “Shatner for President! Yeah!” It was starting to look like it was going to be a long night. Shatner was playing to a home crowd, with a pocket of adult Trekkies sprinkled around the Music Box Theatre. He knew going in he could have taken a nap on stage for 90 minutes and still received a standing ovation at the end.

The 80-year-old icon seemed intent on reminding his fans that in the vast Milky Way of his life, Star Trek was but one solar mass, spanning only three seasons of a long career. He reminded the audience, with the help of black-and-white photographs projected on a giant screen behind him, that he is, and always will be, a classical Shakespearean actor. Before there was Kirk, there was Henry V at the Stratford Festival of Canada. Before Shatner shared the bridge of the USS Enterprise with Leonard Nemoy, he shared the stage with longtime friend (and fellow serious actor) Christopher Plummer.

In a presentation that at times resembled an actor showing his resume tape, Shatner leaned heavily on his hand-selected greatest hits. He joked about his long feud with George Takei (or “Hikaru Salu,” as he was known aboard the Enterprise), suggesting Takei is humorless and bitter to this day. On cue, the lights came down, Shatner took a seat on a stool, and we all watched together as up on screen popped a clip from Shatner’s 2006 Comedy Central Roast showing Takei attacking the guest of honor.

Shatner then recalled wistfully a bit he’d done for a George Lucas tribute some years ago where he confused Star Wars with Star Trek. We didn’t have to take Shatner’s word for just how funny the moment was—the lights went down again, Shatner went back to the stool, and there was the clip! (Turns out it was funny, by the way.) The big screen was busy all night, showing portions of Shatner’s commencement address at McGill University in Montreal, scenes from his 1968 TV movie Alexander the Great, clips from his years as Denny Crane on Boston Legal, and a photographic album of his characters from Tamburlaine the Great to T.J. Hooker that looked eerily like a one-man “In Memoriam” montage at the Oscars. These video interludes served to give Shatner regular breathers from the often charming, but occasionally meandering stories of his youthful indiscretion, delivered center stage from a wheeled ergonomic chair fresh off the Office Depot showroom floor.

Shatner is famous for being in on the joke, but in Shatner’s World, he doesn’t seem particularly up for joking about his legacy. The self-awareness and willing self-deprecation that have made him an ironic hero to an entire generation are largely absent from the evening. He ends the show on a heavy note with one of his spoken-word songs called “Real,” in which he tells his Star Trek fans that he doesn’t really drive a spaceship and fight aliens: “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m real.” Shatner wants the moment to be deep and reflective, but all I could hear was the guy from the Priceline commercials.

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TREKKIES UNITE!

Attention Star Base: The USS Enterprise will be touching down in Brooklyn to honor Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, at the Shat Ball 3. Though known in more recent memory as Denny Crane from Boston Legal or the pudgy, exuberant spokesman over at Priceline.com who likely convinced you to buy an overpriced plane ticket to Cozumel, William Shatner is a bona fide legend in the entertainment industry, and we only have to look to T.J. Hooker to prove it to us. The Bell House in Park Slope pays tribute to this titan of Trek with Star Trek–themed comedy, live music, and trivia. Prizes will be awarded to the best Kirk and Spock impersonators; drink specials include Romulan Ale and Klingon blood-wine (delicious). Live long and prosper!

Thu., June 16, 8 p.m., 2011

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Best in Show: Berlinde De Bruyckere at Hauser & Wirth

Mutilated bodies sensuously posed inside antique glass cabinets might bring to mind any number of horror flicks, but these victims of horrible acts—all molded in red-streaked wax—are part of Berlinde De Bruyckere’s unsettling homage to the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. The lifesize figures, each suggesting a sexual position, appear to have been attacked by a meat cleaver in the midst of copulation—they’re headless, split down the middle, and disfigured. Upstairs, you’ll find what might be leftovers of a brutal experiment: branch-like entrails, also in wax, suspended between two sawhorses.

The Pasolini connection isn’t really central. The director did often focus on brutality (his last film, Salò, had fascists torturing teens), and his death, a murder, was extreme: a bludgeoning, followed by a repeated mashing under his own car. But for all its suggested violence, the exhibit is less shocking than quietly absorbing. Nodding toward Pasolini’s use of anachronisms, De Bruyckere has conjured a genteel, 17th-century milieu: marble-like sculptures, formal displays, and old-fashioned drawings of viscera on intentionally aged paper. Your response softens, and that’s perhaps the point: Under artful manipulation, human degradation can become frighteningly acceptable.

Martin Kippenberger: ‘Eggman II’

A wild, boozing provocateur, Martin Kippenberger made art with such manic energy—and so prodigiously—that you wonder if he suspected he’d never live to see his 45th birthday. An entertainer at heart, he typically pitched his work toward stinging satire or the practical joke. He once crucified a wooden frog (pissing off the pope); titled a 1984 abstraction With the Best Will in the World I Can’t See a Swastika; and later constructed entrances to an imaginary worldwide subway system.

But the dedicated clown often touched on pathos, particularly in his last years. The late paintings here, styled in expressionist Pop (a trademark), convey a brooding melancholy—Kippenberger’s final considerations of a favorite image, the egg. This time, that symbol of purity, birth, and femininity seems to hold end-of-life fears and dreams. In one painting, based on a centuries-old engraving, a swordsman prepares to crack open the “philosopher’s egg,” an alchemical vessel that produced (medieval cabalists claimed) an elixir for prolonging life. Elsewhere, an ovoid female figure stands exposed and bloated, a Kippenberger surrogate; the stitched-up doll in Sick Egg Child suffers alone in a room of muddy brown; and an angular woman—perhaps evoking the artist’s mother, who died in a freak accident when he was 23—fiercely clutches a large yellow ovum.

Kippenberger’s hasty brushwork has always suggested a man too impatient, cynical, or drunk to bother with details, but in this selection, the rough picture-making feels driven more by emotion and foreboding. Nowhere is that more evident than in The Spreading of Mediocrity, from 1994: The familiar white oval, immersed in a field of gray, oozes a black goo of disease, presaging the cancer that would kill the artist three years later, turning the iconoclast into an average mortal. Skarstedt Gallery, 20 East 79th St, 212-737-2060. Through April 16

‘Prana’ and ‘Camera Locus 2’

The intriguing space at Invisible Dog, a former factory, continues to host moody installations of light. In Prana (Sanskrit for “vital energy”), Chris Klapper and Jen Lusker have fashioned a living wall. A dense array of 2,000 glowing mushroom-shaped objects pulses with a slow rhythm of breathing, and then reacts to an approaching viewer with anxious flickering, as if estimating the threat. Assembled from simple lamps, hand-soldered wire, and ultrasonic distance sensors, the piece charmingly recalls ’60s sci-fi—a mysterious machine Captain Kirk might have encountered in an early episode of Star Trek.

In the basement, a darkened room becomes a three-dimensional screen for Julien Gardair’s alluring video (Camera Locus 2) of colored shapes and figurative shadow. Photographs and footage of factory artifacts blend with animated drawings, all of it precisely projected on walls, beams, and poles. As you wander past the dream-world visuals, listening to a haunting song by Claude Debussy, you may feel as if you’ve stumbled into a set for a film by the Brothers Quay. Invisible Dog, 51 Bergen St, Brooklyn, 347-560-3641. Through April 3 (Camera Locus 2 ) and April 24 (Prana )

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The Force Is Weak With Long-Delayed Fanboys

Fanboys is meant for the dude who’s content to simply stare at an Imperial storm trooper’s empty helmet for 90 minutes. It’s for the two childhood friends who parted ways back in junior high over a dispute about whether Captain James T. Kirk could kick Han Solo’s ass. And it’s for every girl who ever donned a Princess Leia Jabba-palace slave-girl costume, lest her boyfriend refuse her access to the Dianoga under his robe.

So there’s your target audience—Kevin Smith, in other words, who cameos as himself in a film loaded with more “what the . . . ?” guests than an entire season of The Love Boat. For the rest of you, find something—anything—better to do. Fanboys is little more than Star Wars porn about four friends traveling cross-country in 1998 to sneak a peek at a rough cut of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace months before its release. Not exactly The Odyssey, but for fans it’ll do at least until a new Clone Wars airs Friday night on the Cartoon Network.

Every scene here is a money shot punctuated by some obscure line of dialogue meant to serve as a punch line. Every frame is stuffed with a Comic-Con’s worth of Star Wars toys, bedsheets, and T-shirts—enough vintage detritus to keep the faithful engaged when the plot sags and the jokes go limp, which is most of the time. The movie has been on the shelf almost as long as the aging merchandise: Scheduled for release last year, it’s been the long-rumored subject of reshoots. Clearly, there weren’t enough.

Directed by Kyle Newman and credited to at least four screenwriters you’ve never heard of, Fanboys coasts on its affection for a 31-year-old franchise and the bare bones of a plot. Lifelong pals Eric (Sam Huntington), Linus (Chris Marquette), Hutch (Dan Fogler), and Windows (Jay Baruchel) trek from Ohio to California in an ancient van tricked out like the Millennium Falcon. Linus is dying (but never looks like it), while Eric’s about to sell out and run his dad’s used-car franchise—right, the Dark Side. Hutch and Windows are the accessories, comic-store clerks in need of an adventure. If nothing else, they could use the sunlight and exercise.

The jokes, such as they are, consist of little more than Star Wars lines recited out of context—most of them variations on “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” It feels like the filmmakers’ way of saying, “This is a movie for members only.” The dork knights will howl and squeal to the point of dampness at the sight of Ethan Suplee’s karate-kicking version of Ain’t It Cool News kingpin Harry Knowles, who’s actually the mirror opposite of his depiction here. Unfortunate interlopers will offer a WTF shrug and go get laid.

The one genuine bright spot among the performers is Kristen Bell as Windows’s would-be girlfriend, his dream combination of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Janeane Garofalo. She nails it—half-nerd, half-hottie, and altogether tougher than any of the guys in the van. The other cameos are more dispiriting: Seth Rogen appears in two equally humiliating roles, as a pug-nosed, gap-toothed, lisping Star Trek fan and as a pimp; Billy Dee Williams plays a judge named Judge Reinhold; Carrie Fisher appears solely to repeat a brief line of dialogue from Return of the Jedi; Smith and Jason Mewes make a pit stop in a gas station’s men’s room for oral sex; and William Shatner once more plays himself in what’s become a forced march of self-parodies. You’re better off watching The Star Wars Holiday Special on YouTube. At least Bea Arthur sings.

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Pulling Dylan Out by the Roots

We’d been sleepwalking through the big-shot Bob Dylan tribute hoedown for roughly an hour and a half, clapping politely-to-semi-enthusiastically as Joan Osborne looked serene, Bob Mould looked dapper, Warren Haynes looked like a roadie, Lee Renaldo looked awkwardly triumphant, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah looked hopelessly out of place, Phil Lesh looked helpless. Nobody fantastic, nobody terrible. (‘Cept Phil, of course.) A mild Starbucks tribute to— oh, let’s put it mildly—a not particularly Starbucks kinda dude. And then, oh my God, “Masters of War,” performed by the Roots, consisting in this iteration of Questlove on drums, Captain Kirk on guitar and vocals (no Black Thought this eve), some dude on tuba, and the entire Thursday-night Lincoln Center crowd on jaws-dropped-to-floor percussion. What the fuck.

The first two verses were mashed up with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “And you turn and run farther/When the fast bullets fly” thus replacing “And the land of the free/And the home of the brave,” Captain Kirk bellowing faux-theatrically and quite impressively. (Mistook him for old Roots pal Cody Chesnutt at first, but his voice is much wobblier.) Then the actual “Masters of War” melody started, the tuba largely inaudible, and by the time the soundman cranked it up Questlove was pounding on his kit so angrily it was inaudible again. Before each verse’s leering one-chord dirge finally broke, Quest and Kirk held the pause for 10 to 15 seconds, almost smirking at each other, before bashing through the four chords propping up the last two lines—”You ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins,” etc. Meanwhile, they kept violently breaking into other songs. The tuba guy hyperventilated through “Taps.” Captain Kirk shredded through what we all slowly realized (to our absolute delight) was “You Drop a Bomb on Me.” And as a finale, “Machine Gun,” Quest bashing the snare in bullet time while Kirk unleashed a vicious solo obliterating a fine Warren Hayes/some roadie effort not 15 minutes ago. Just a shocking, volatile, incredible 10 minutes of carnage. “Masters of War” has always seemed to me more like a possibly futile prayer than an inevitable blood oath, the warmonger’s funeral described in some hypothetical future Bob can only hope will come soon. The Roots just killed it.

Not that the preceding 90 minutes of Starbucks fare was so terrible. The gala Music for Youth benefit began with an always welcome Mould in acoustic troubadour mode, belting out “If Not for You” based on what he admitted was the Olivia Newton-John version. Ms. Osborne gave late Dylan’s sweetest and sappiest tune, “To Make You Feel My Love,” the smooth-jazz sweet and sappy treatment it deserved, and returned a while later to help Haynes rip through “I Shall Be Released.” (I don’t mean to harp on this, but there was a roadie who not only looked exactly like him but also happened to be wearing the exact same outfit. Like he’d gone to a Halloween party dressed as Warren Haynes and spent three weeks preparing. Just bewildering.) Medeski, Martin & Wood (plus an extra Wood on percussion) traipsed through a delicate and winsome “Buckets of Rain.” Sandra Bernhard (!?) barreled through a long I-talked-to-Bob-once monologue and howled a couple choruses of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Jazz dude Jamie Saft, resplendent in a full-blown ZZ Top beard, led his trio through “Ballad of a Thin Man,” his icicle-sharp upper-register piano stabs replicating Bob’s voice actually better than most of the singers. Lee Renaldo and some bros (great organ work by some guy in a hoodie) lumbering through “Positively 4th Street,” Lee strumming his shrill, trebly guitar and raising his fists in triumph periodically and crowing about “the election vote.”

Only an ill-advised Natalie Merchant and Philip Glass duo (dourly trudging through “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) and a completely lost Phil Lesh (thwacking his six-string bass and power-mumbling through “Thunder on the Mountain”) truly sullied Bob’s name, and the crowd loved the latter. But not as much as they loved the Roots, and for profoundly good reason. Messing with Dylan is clearly a perilous artistic proposition, as anyone who suffered through a buncha clowns jumping on trampolines during Twyla Tharp’s much derided and soon-to-be-canceled The Times They Are A-Changin’ can attest. Nobody overshot that badly here—everyone underplayed except the Roots and, uh, Ryan Adams, whose dragged his beery backing band through half of “Isis,” then suddenly detoured into “Love Sick,” and then back five minutes later for the second half of “Isis,” a move I suspect was impromptu or at least not formally announced, given that a stagehand, clearly visible in the wings, spent the last several minutes of the affair furiously making neck-slashing motions as Ryan and his mates obliviously thrashed on. (Lotta verses in “Isis,” as it turns out.) Oh, Ryan. So rebellious. The crew clearly would’ve enjoyed removing him from the stage via bulldozer.

Yes, but a Dylan tribute with no bird-flipping audacity just wouldn’t have made any sense. Cat Power, Patti Smith, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott took turns capably wrapping it all up, but the necessary and glorious damage had been done. As the never ending parade of Dylan homage marches onward—Modern Times‘ best-of-2006 critical accolades are next—let us be reminded why we deify him so: He inspires stuff like the Roots’ incredible rendition of “Masters of War,” a version nothing like him and exactly like him, finishing the fight he started and starting 10,000 new ones. We shall be released.

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They Shoot Unicorns, Don’t They?

Space. Cradle of infinite curiosity. Swimming pool of Captain James T. Kirk. Womb of . . . Jawas. A frontier both awesome and absurd, encompassing both infinite complexity and an infinite capacity for stupid, stupid shit. And that, friends, will serve as our metaphor for Muse, a chart-topping British band that sounds like someone put a gun to Radiohead’s, er, head and forced Thom and co. to rock—no dystopian arty shit, just rock—for 72 hours straight. Muse records are like the last 16 hours of such a grueling They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? marathon session, earnest and ambitious to the point of desperation, their songs mangled but rather pretty, like a peacock run over by a Jetta.

But Black Holes and Revelations—specifically its final track—takes rock to Seussian levels of ridiculousness. “Knights of Cydonia” is one of the more fascinating chunks of pop culture to fall from the sky in years, or at least months, or at least days, considering how head-splittingly ephemeral such chunks have become. (Hours?) The song begins with the neighing of horses, the shooting of lasers, and an ominous high-pitched warble that evokes the whistle of a falling bomb. Then there’s the choir, followed by the Dick Dale–style guitar wankery, followed by the mariachi horns. There are synths and acoustic guitars and the drummer’s galloping beat, all while vocalist Matthew Bellamy shouts at the devil and wields his guitar like a Ghostbuster’s proton pack. Let’s not even get into the unicorn/robot/cowboy-adorned video. The best part? A buildup so epic it feels like its 1999 and Sasha and Digweed are spinning at Twilo and you’re candy-flipping and it’s like dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah until a digital choir of Bellamys declares, a cappella, “No one’s going to take me alive!/Time has come to make things right!”

Righteous? Wrongeous.

Remember how George Lucas was always mewling about how the last three Star Wars
flicks—the shitty ones—are the movies he wanted to make originally, but the technology wasn’t available at the time? Imagine if Styx or ELO said that. Imagine if they were in their prime today. That’s Muse, and that’s this sloppy, fascinatingly overindulgent album. ELO had a song called “Rockaria!” which they of course intended as literally “rock aria,” but we can all agree really means “Rock that’s been shat out violently.” Update the tech and you get “Knights of Cydonia,” the black-holiest of pop songs, like a black hole itself—so massive it’s invisible.


Muse play Hammerstein Ballroom Thursday at 6:30, $32, 212-777-1224.