Two hours and 35 minutes of unbridled hell
What a wild and wacky time the Middle Ages were. The plague…the Hundred Years War…the Inquisition…and the creation of some of the most unique and painful torture implements ever conceived. Take the Judas Cradle for example, a series of harnesses that suspended its victim, legs spread, over a large metal pyramid. Unless a confession came falling from your lips, your body would be hurled, nether regions first, onto the pointed end of the tippy top. Or what about the Heretic Fork: nothing more than a cast iron rod with two sharp stabbing extensions, attached around your neck and slowly screwed into your sternum by a skilled agony technician. There was the Iron Maiden, a forged metal overcoat complete with head to toe spikes just perfect for year round heathen aeration. And let's not forget harlequins, those macabre minstrels of human misery. But of all the insidious and excruciating torment machines created by those fresh fruit and vegetable deprived medieval minds, the most abhorrent and destructive is also the only one that's still in existence and use today. And it is the most incredibly dreadful and evil prolonged pain delivery device ever conceived by man since the thumbscrew or the fiction of L. Ron Hubbard. Its name? Why, the RAFFI of course.
That's right, the Raffi, otherwise known as the multi-cultural, ethnical and ethical Canadian Armenian Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine singer(?)/songwriter (??)/performer (???) specializing in limp lullabies for the little ones. Raffi, whose bizarre nom de plume stands for Retarded Atonal Folksongs For Illiterates. He is the kiddie crooner who concentrates on the infliction of maximum despair on unsuspecting adults while hypnotizing all children (or the merely childish) into blissfully oblivious states of mental inertia. Take some Cat Stevens, marry it to a little Al Stewart, brush liberally with John Denver's alcoholic environmentalism, and package in a Gallagher style batch of self-promotion (and entertainment value), and you have the impish irritant in all his wide-eyed whimsy. Before Barney bellowed biliously, or Tinky Winky waggled his wang at the other treacherous tubbies, this hero of the barely post fetal and near feral was the biggest thing since olive loaf or the spreadable guinea pig. And thanks to this DVD presentation from Rounder Records, you too can experience 155 minutes of prolonged mental and emotional torment. Join the paying (in more than one way) audiences as they sit enraptured by a mysterious man who cavorts like a high school science teacher and intones about belugas, bananas, and the sorry state of the planet.
Actually, the three concerts included here represent a near ten-year span in the so-called career of the singing sycophant. And aside from nausea and thoughts of suicide, one can experience Raffi's amazing personality transformation, from tender tenor to confused conservationist through this introspective Three Faces/Phases of Raffi. Taken together or separate, they clearly indicate that, when one makes a career out of playing folkie to the first grader, the stress of singing simpleton can pervert even the most well-intentioned activist.
Phase 1: Raffi the Gentle Children's Troubadour—A Young Children's Concert (1984): It's Raffi UNPLUGGED. Just the bearded one, a guitar, and hundreds of adoring pre-adolescents drooling and staring in wild-eyed veneration at that thing which is called Raffi. They LOVE Raffi. They call out his name in rapturous glee. They sing along, word for word and note for note. They hang on his every pronouncement as if he was the Messiah, or offering them fruit roll ups. This is where Raffi honed his craft: putting his calm, placid puss out there for the audience to wonder at, softly singing his minimalist music and producing the kind of magic one usually finds in a street mime or the Sweet Adelines.
Phase 2: Raffi, the Worship Me Rock Star—Raffi in Concert with the Rise and Shine Band (1988): Man, talk about an ego switch. During Phase 1, the Raffster was a peaceful, tranquil madrigal, placing his trust (and future financial security) in the direct connection between artist and audience. What a difference a hit song makes. After "Baby Beluga" swept the Emmys, Oscars, Tonys, Grammys, Razzies, and the Webbys, Mr. Too-Self-Important-to-Sing-Solo-Anymore went Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival and plugged in for some electric bugalooing. The result? The same old song and phony show blown up for the big stage, with all the intimacy and sweetness sapped away. Led Zeppelin in its prime or the Bay City Rollers had nothing on the hairy hummer and his backing band of unemployed Renaissance fair workers. And all the wee ones wanted to do was rock and roll all night, and potty everyday.
Phase 3: Raffi, the Whacked-Out Environmentalist—Raffi on Broadway (1993): Otherwise known as Raffguy goes nutzoid and starts to lament greenhouse gasses. Odd that he would be so offended by water, soil, and air contamination and yet be so at ease with the noise pollution he was spewing forth. All of the baby's bedtime balm and quiet quatrains are cast aside in favor of more songs about H-bombs and irradiated food. Everything is a composed, calculated rant, from tunes about stereotypical names to the tooth brushing Raffi rap. You heard that right, folks. Raffi raps. He hips and hops and pips and pops his way through a phat farm of organic beats and gangsta grooves before he stumbles and stammers like a bishop with a corncob up his miter about proper dental hygiene.
If there is one thing that stays fairly consistent throughout this rancorous career retrospective of Raffifi, it's his wayward song structure and style. A standard Raffistafarian tune dismisses the basic principles of composition and lyrical formation as he randomly throws out thoughts and non-sequiturs, mashing them together in graceless, gangly stanzas that have no consistent rhythm or flow. His melodies (when he's not swiping the better public domain children's songs and adding his own weird words to them) follow the old fashioned pentatonic scale, since anything more than five notes would venture three beyond his octave range. And song subject matter stays firmly grounded in standard juvenile jive like imaginary mooses kissing gooses and improper vowel sounding. Mr. Face Fur may feel that the best way to empower the child is through the sharing of music, but one would be hard pressed to find anything fortifying in off-key proclamations about peanut butter or flies wearing ties.
There is really not much to this DVD package. It is presented in almost Dolby Digital stereo. The image is barely better than a new VHS full screen transfer, with some minor video flaring. It contains the three concerts only. No other extras. And just like the over-enthusiasm of Thomas de Torquemada, this disc shows that almost twenty years down the line, Raffi still hasn't figured out when to pack up his platitudes and give up. It's over 600 years since some mad monks supervised his hellish creation and he still wants to whimper and whine about a baby white whale. The zygotes that once loved him no longer clamor for hugging or mugging. There is an entire new wave of passive playtime performers who have stepped in to fill his vacuous void. And yet he marches on, hoping that everyone will simply follow along to his Pied Piper of Hambone hysteria. At least when Cat Stevens realized that his tender folk rock was pissing people off, he went and changed his name to accentuate his new found religious fanaticism, giving fans the justification they needed to revile him. Raffi still wants to shake your sillies out…and swallow your soul.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Rounder Records
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