John Carpenter: The Man, The Synth, The Legend
When most people think of John Carpenter, the focus often shifts to his work as a director. After all, Carpenter has made a career of filming distinctive thrillers, killers, and chillers. [For the public record, this blogger’s John Carpenter Top 5: “They Live”, “Starman”, “Big Trouble in Little China”, “Escape from LA”, and “Halloween”].
Seeing Carpenter backed by a full band on a stage surrounded by screens at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC, I was treated to something special: a chance to fully appreciate Carpenter in his dual roles as moviemaker and musician. John Carpenter: Live Retrospective was an audio-fueled journey through film as well as an intimate introduction to Carpenter’s most recent albums “Lost Themes” and “Lost Themes II.”
A Feast of Feels and Chills
When Carpenter opened with the main theme from “Escape from New York”–the crowd cheered as the iconic title sequence came into view. Scenes from the movie flashed before our eyes like memories. Indeed, one of the fun aspects of seeing Carpenter perform was the challenge of focus. I had to tell myself: “OK, I’ve seen this film before. Eyes on him.” How often do I see John Carpenter at work rocking out on the synthesizer?! Admittedly there were a few songs I had to go into listen-only mode because the images were still too spine-tingling for me after all these years (namely, “Prince of Darkness” “The Thing”, “The Fog” and “In the Mouth of Madness,” in case you are wondering).
Variations on a Theme
After getting the crowd hyped with some familiar compositions, Carpenter then transitioned into his new music–but not before stating in earnest “Hello, DC. What’s up? I’m John Carpenter.”
Carpenter’s first new track of the night was “Vortex” from Lost Themes–a sultry rock number performed with spine-tingling precision, heightening your anticipation for the doom that looms in so many of Carpenter’s films.
Listening to the new music for the first time made realize how much Carpenter’s scores had such a western feel. The storytelling in Carpenter’s films, whether horror or scifi, come down to being stories about people facing adversaries and surviving their harsh realities–it doesn’t get much western than that! In “Distant Dream” from Lost Themes II, I found myself bopping to the unknown with a foreboding backbeat.
Oldies but Groovy
I loved the pacing of the show–it was a nice balance of classics and new music. About six songs in, Carpenter and his band (which featured son Cody Carpenter, also on synthesizer) put on black shades and you knew it was “They Live” time! All of a sudden the theater transformed into this Barbara Kruger-esque art installation as the words “OBEY” “REPRODUCE” and “CONSUME” flashed on the screen in black and white alongside scenes from the movie. It was great to hear the crowd cheer loudly with the late Roddy Piper the onscreen. Released in 1988, “They Live” reigns as Carpenter’s most relevant and most woke film for the times in which we find ourselves.
About five songs from “They Live”, Carpenter took a moment to talk to the crowd “I love horror movies. Horror movies will live forever.” Then that familiar piano tapping started….Yes, this is “Halloween” aka #AwwYeah time! At this moment my eyes were fixed on Carpenter–his movements were effortless–he didn’t need to look at the screen–he was Halloween! My “Halloween” gush quickly gave way to goosebumps as Carpenter scored up some scares for the remainder of the set.
When Carpenter was about to cue the last song, he looked into the crowd with fatherly concern and said, “Please drive carefully going home…” I quickly thought to myself-Wow, John Carpenter is so sweet. With mischief in his voice, he added “Christine is out there!” Oh, John Carpenter is so subversive! The crowd went wild as scenes of the Plymouth Fury on the rampage flickered before our eyes–reminding me that “Christine” was truly a collaborative effort by two of my favorite masters of horror.
At the end of the show, I found myself surrounded by other Carpenter fans–many wearing OBEY shirts–just marveling at what we had witnessed.
Putting on my shades, I left the theater grateful for the concert adrenaline and the pep in my step–if there is anything you learn from a Carpenter movie, you never know what’s really behind you!