Last Friday, it was my pleasure to see John Carpenter––horror master, composer of electronic music, and one of my cinematic heroes––live in concert at the PlayStation Theater in Times Square.
Carpenter (affectionately and frequently referred to as "Carpy" by this site) has deliberately kept a low profile for much of the last decade, having directed only one feature film and two episodes of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR since 2001. However, the past year has seen a sort of New Carpenter Renaissance: he's released two new albums (the brilliant LOST THEMES and LOST THEMES II, both of which are the atmospheric equivalent of new Carpenter films), issued three music videos, announced his intention to produce a HALLOWEEN movie for the first time since 1982, and has been touring with the "John Carpenter Live Retrospective," a concert series of film music, new and old, accompanied by projected scenes from his classic films. It was this Live Retrospective that I was able to see on Friday along with a packed house of fellow Carpy enthusiasts (a crowd of around 2,000). Let me tell you about it!
The lineup consisted of John Carpenter himself on one synthesizer, his son Cody Carpenter handling multiple synths, Daniel Davies [Carpy's godson and son of The Kinks' Dave Davies (who collaborated on IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED '95) ] on lead guitar, John Konesky on guitar, John Spiker on bass, and Scott Seiver on drums: the same lineup seen in Carpenter's recent music videos. Carpenter himself looked rather formidable, dressed all in black with his trademark mustache and long white hair pulled back into a ponytail. At 68, he's still got a real spring in his step, and often visibly grooved to the beat, gave the sign of the horns, or encouraged the audience to clap along. This was not the "lovably irascible" Carpenter who makes the headlines on nerdy websites every few months when he opines on the shortcomings of contemporary horror, etc. This was a laid back, funky Carpenter––this was Carpenter having fun! (As usual, he was a man of few words, but I'll recount the most memorable ones as I describe his set list.)
He opened, appropriately, with ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's "Main Title," a classic selection which really got the crowd going. Across the board, I must say that Carpenter's band has a nice, thick sound, and the live arrangements generally differ from the album/soundtrack versions in that there's a greater prevalence of drum orchestration and guitar solos, which ultimately makes for a more satisfying live experience.
Carpy and his crew rock out to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Photo courtesy of John Carpenter's official Facebook page.
Next was ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13's iconic "Main Title," Carpy's first big hit and one so popular that it was even remixed for French discotheques! (Carpenter declined to play the disco version.)
He followed with two tracks from LOST THEMES, the nostalgic "Vortex" and the thoughtful "Mystery," both pumped up by new arrangements which allowed for an impressive drum foundation and an extended guitar solo from Davies.
After taking a moment to describe his love for ghost movies, Carpy & Co. turned their attention to THE FOG's "Main Title," as blue lights shone bright and the fog machines were turned to full blast. It was a moment of true magic to see Carpenter pounding out that baroque melody while enveloped by his iconic blue fog.
Carpenter and his band proceeded to don sunglasses, and bassist John Spiker plucked out the first five notes from THEY LIVE. The crowd erupted in recognition as "OBEY," "CONSUME," "CONFORM," and "SLEEP" were projected on the screen behind the band. They continued with the rest of "Coming to L.A." (the main theme of THEY LIVE), and when the projection featured Keith David and Roddy Piper's famous fistfight, there was a rather enthusiastic response from the crowd, to say the least.
Next was the only non-Carpenter-composed song of the evening (sorry, STARMAN die-hards––no Jack Nitzsche for you!): the Ennio Morricone-scored "Main Title" from THE THING. Carpenter gave a special shout-out to Morricone as the ominous bass line began to rattle the room. Stark white light set the proper Antarctic mood, one which was later accompanied by projections of some of the more gruesome (and crowd-pleasing) scenes from THE THING. He followed this up with "Distant Dream" (the opening track from LOST THEMES II), which served as a sort of palate cleanser after that relentless, bassy doom and gloom.
Carpenter dedicated the following song to "a friend I made five movies with, but the most fun we ever had was when we went looking for a girl with green eyes."
There's Biiiiiig Trouble....in Little China! Photo courtesy of John Carpenter's official Facebook page.
Obviously, the friend was Kurt Russell, and the song was "Pork Chop Express," the rootin'-tootin' opening theme to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. (Unfortunately, this was a "John Carpenter Live Retrospective" and not a "Coupe de Villes Reunion Tour," and therefore we were denied the rockin' closing credits music, "Big Trouble in Little China." But I can live with that!)
Carpenter invited the audience to "ride the synth wave" with him, and followed with "Wraith," a melancholy track from LOST THEMES. Then he insisted "these songs so far have been uncharacteristically positive––let's go a little darker... into the 'Night.'" (The "Night" in question being the closing track from LOST THEMES, a gloomy cyberpunk meditation.)
Afterward, insisting that he had "a confession to make," Carpenter humorously admitted to being a horror director before proclaiming "horror movies will live forever!" The crowd roared as Cody began plunking out the HALLOWEEN "Main Theme" (in its distinctive 5/4 time signature). The orchestration that followed was more layered and complex than what originally appeared in 1978, and it was newly arranged for this lineup (though it bore a resemblance to the arrangement from HALLOWEEN II).
He followed this with the rockin' "Main Title" from IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, and Daniel Davies performed the extended guitar solo that his father originally played for the 1994 film. After this, the band left the stage––but you just know Carpy's gonna do an encore:
They returned with "Opening Titles" from PRINCE OF DARKNESS, one of Carpenter's darkest and voxiest tracks. This flowed into "Virtual Survivor," a moody piece from LOST THEMES II, which gave way to "Purgatory," a diptych from the original LOST THEMES that I once imagined was the theme song to the fictitious film, CAPTAIN RON VERSUS THE FOG.
When they'd finished, Carpenter grew pensive, leaning toward the microphone. He said, "As you leave tonight, and go out into the darkness, be careful... 'Christine' is out there!" Two floodlights lit up opposite ends of the stage (approximating the headlights of a haunted Plymouth Fury), and the fourth and final encore was the lesser-known "Main Theme" from CHRISTINE (you may recall that the opening scene is actually set to George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone").
In all, it was a wonderful experience––wonderful to see one of my heroes not merely yawning through a Q&A, but actually doing what he loves on a stage for a deeply appreciative audience; presenting fresh new material alongside his past classics. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Carpy rocks!