The indie rock flick "Rumble" has been hitting some of the film festivals this year and I managed to catch a showing up in Traverse City. It's a great film for those who like music, especially rock and blues. The film tells the story of how many Native Americans have influenced popular music in America including the likes of Charlie Patton, Link Wray, Robbie Robertson,Randy Castillo, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jimi Hendrix, Howlin' Wolf and many more. If you're surprised that Hendrix and Howlin' Wolf are included, you're probably not the only one. As Robbie Robertson tellingly says in the documentary, there was an expression he was taught growing up: "Be proud you're an Indian, but be careful who you tell." That sentiment perhaps explains why the influence of Native Americans on popular music was not as well known as it should be.
The film is named after the Link Wray song "Rumble," the only instrumental song ever to be banned on radio. It's a song that influenced a lot of early rockers ranging from Bob Dylan to the Who. But the film goes far beyond just rock and roll, covering influences on blues, folk music and jazz. This is an inspiring film and well worth seeing.
I know everyone and his brother has written something about Chuck Berry's passing recently at the age of 90. Chuck Berry was truly the architect of rock and roll. As Jim Derogatis and Greg Kott put it on Sound Opinions, there was music before Chuck Berry, and there was music after Chuck Berry. He influenced multiple generations of bands and musicians ranging from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Band, Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, ELO, The Sex Pistols, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, you name it. He was a brilliant showman and a heckuva songwriter.
However, a lot of Berry's album recordings sound pretty tame. It's only when you see him live on stage that you appreciate what he brought to rock and roll. From the late 60's onwards, Berry's tradition was to play with whatever local backing band could be assembled, showing up minutes before the show, plugging in and getting to work. No set list, no rehearsal, no soundcheck, no instructions to the band. It was just "hang on tight, play some Chuck Berry tunes and don't screw up." Luckily every band in the world at that time knew Chuck Berry's music and musicians were honored to play with him.
Luckily filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and his crew were on hand to capture some remarkable footage from a 45 minute set at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in 1969. It's staggering to consider the bands on the bill: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Alice Cooper, Chicago, John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, as well as The Doors. Twelve hours of live music! Not bad for $6 CDN.
Chuck Berry who was 41 at the time, was clearly in the "oldies" category, but he's at the peak of his abilities. He rocks with an intensity that shows the depth and breadth of his talents. He's engaging, warm, his vocals are great and his playing is brilliant. The local Toronto musicians, from two local bands Nucleus and Flapping, were pulled together just 15 minutes before the show and had no idea what was coming next. And despite a couple of cool looks from Berry, the band held their own. It made for a great show.
The Toronto Rock and Roll Revival was famous for several other things. First of all, it was the first concert where the audience lit lighters to illuminate the venue. That was done at emcee Kim Fowley's direction to make John Lennon less nervous at what was essentially the unveiling of the Plastic Ono Band. And finally, this concert was the source of Alice Cooper's infamous "chicken incident."
With those memorable words, Johnny Rotten ended the final Sex Pistols concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in January 1978. Rotten parted company with the band, though they released a few other singles without him as well as the miserable Julian Temple film "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle."
Although most reports from this era say they weren't playing very well, concert footage from Winterland and bootlegalbums, tell a different story. Yes, there are times when the band appears to just want to get things over with --particularly on "No Fun," the Stooges song that served as an encore. The vocals are rough, Steve Jones guitar is occasionally out of tune and Sid's bass playing is not always excellent. But it's still much better than I had expected.
It also seems that in San Francisco, the band found a receptive audience. The show was recorded for local San Jose radio station KSAN and so bootlegs are available if you know where to look. The sound check bootleg is particularly good.
I don't know how I missed this but Weird Al Yankovic did an excellent parody of Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues a few years back. Now, parodying Dylan is not particularly hard, whether it's his atonal singing style or his abstract lyrics. But what sets Weird Al's song apart is he did a video in the same style of Subteranean Homeskick Blues with the handwritten cue cards (yes, I know it's been done before) and all of the lyrics are palindromes. It took a few lines before I noticed that, but it adds quite a comedic effect. Take a look at the video at YouTube.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: 10 Days Out is a remarkable CD/DVD bundle that documents Shepherd's 10 day journey in 2004 back to the roots of American blues music in the south. Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Chris Layton & Tommy Shannon of Double Toruble play alongside blues greats like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Jerry "Boogie" McCain, David "Honeboy" Edwards, Willie "Big eyes" Smith, Pinetop Perkins, Etta Baker, BB King, Hubert Sumlin as well as the Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters bands. These may well be the last recordings of some of these blues artists; several have passed away since 2004.
While the CD is great, consider it just a warmup for the DVD. The ninety minute documentary film takes you through dive bars, churches, backyards, graveyards, kitchens and living rooms to hear the blues up front and center. You get a feel for the lives of the musicians who grew up and lived and played the blues their entire lives, many of them 80 or more years old. These are musicians with talent that even give a guy like Shepherd pause to wonder whether he will measure up. The material covers a range of blues styles: acoustic, up-tempo, Piedmont and down and dirty electric blues.
You can buy the MP3 songs alone as part of the Legends EP series on Amazon, but to get the full impact, you're better off buying the CD/DVD package.
Here's a clip from the "10 Days Out" DVD via YouTube.
Also, stay tuned for a new CD: "Live! In Chicago" from a performance on the same tour at Chicago's House of Blues featuring Hubert Sumlin, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and other blues legends. The CD will be out September 28 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Shepherd continues to tour extensively in the US and Canada with gigs coming up in Royal Oak, Michigan, Ohio, Washington, Chicago, New York, Boston, Montreal, Toronto --heck he's even playing in Fredricton, New Brunswick. It's a great live show.
The Ramones have put out a collection of live footage: It's Alive 1974-1996. The DVD captures the band from their rough gigs at CBGBs in the early 70's through major concerts like the sweltering hot US festival in San Bernardino 1982 (shown below) to their final tour in 1996. After 22 years on the road and over 2,000 gigs, the band hung up their gear and retired.
While the Ramones never achieved the recognition they deserved when they were touring, they spawned the UK punk rock invasion of the late 70's, inspiring bands like the Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash. And their influence went beyond the 70's to impact heavy metal and nu-metal that came in the 80's and 90's. If there was ever an inspiration to the musically challenged, it was the Ramones. They proved that you didn't need to have good looks or natural talent to create a band. In any other outcome these guys would have been construction workers. But they picked up guitars and rocked louder and faster than anyone else. Johnny Ramone got more out of 3 barre chords on his $50 Mosrite guitar than most virtuousos get in a thirty minute solo. And I defy anyone to listen to classic songs like "Rock and Roll Radio," "Sheena Was a Punk Rocker" or "Blitzkrieg Bop" and not start moving to the beat.
Clocking in over 4 hours across 2 DVDs, there's some great footage as well as a few rough spots. The video from a concert in Argentina at times feels like it was shot from a pogoing punk in the audience. But the good footage more than makes up for poor production on some numbers. You see po-faced Johnny with his classic buzzsaw guitar technique, Dee Dee bashing his low-slung Precision Bass at a million miles an hour, all acompanied by no-frills frenetic 4/4 drumming.
Also worth checking out is the documentary End of the Century DVD which tells the whole Ramones story upto and including their indoctrination into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And their greatest hits CD Ramones Anthology makes a good intro to the band.
"Anvil: The Story of Anvil" is coming out on DVD this week and it's as a good a movie as ever has been made about rock and roll. Anvil is not the story of a hugely successful band; it's not U2 or Led Zep recalling their hard scrabble days from mansions in the hills. In fact it's a band I'd never even heard of. And I can't say I'm a big fan of thrash heavy metal. But the movie is great. As Bill Murray might put it, it's a Cinderalla story about a working class band from Toronto 25 years after their career peaked. They're still at it, married with kids and holding down day jobs, still looking for a break.
While Anvil pioneered thrash metal and influenced the likes of Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeath and others, they never achieved any success after their first three albums. But the band never split up, they just kept on playing to smaller and smaller audiences, sometimes outnumbering the fans. Critics have hailed the film as a true-life "Spinal Tap" and there's certainly some funny moments as they go on tour, miss trains, don't get paid and still keep on playing. But there's a kinship you will feel as the band slogs on with its ups and downs. At 14, guitarist Steven "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner made a vow to become rock stars and and more than 35 years later, they're still living the dream.
The film, by first-time director and former Anvil roadie Sacha Gervasi, premiered at Sundance in 2008 and has been winning audiences over ever since. If you haven't seen it, get the DVD which also includes bonus footage and an interview with Lars Ulrich from Metallica.
Anvil will be touring the UK in November and then the US and Canada in January & February 2010.
Still Crazy is one of my favorite rock movies. It's a comedy and as funny as Spinal Tap, but with better music. It tells the story of Strange Fruit, a fictional UK band from the 70s that follows in the familiar trajectory of Pink Floyd or Fleetwood Mac. After losing a founding member to drugs, the band disintegrates and attempts a reunion many years later. The film stars Billy Connolly, Bill Nighey, Stephen Rea and Jimmy Nail who contributed greatly to the music. The soundtrack is a gem with original songs that capture the spirit of an era better than you might expect.
I managed to see the film "It Might Get Loud" this past weekend and my one word review is: awesome. If you're into guitars, or rock music in general, it's a great journey into the minds of three guitar players: Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs). But it's not the typical "behind the scenes" movie about the ups and downs of being in a band or the rock & roll lifestyle. It's just about the music, and more specifically, the guitar.
In choosing Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, film maker Davis Guggenheim brought together not only three guitar greats, but more importantly, three generations with Jimmy Page as the elder statesman, The Edge as the technology innovator, and Jack White as a back-to-the-roots radical. (If the film was made thirty years earlier it might have featured Buddy Guy, Keith Richards and Joe Strummer. )
In some of the early scenes of the movie there's a stiffness as the three of them are brought into a rehearsal space together; they are respectful but not quite connecting. But when Jimmy Page starts playing the riff to "Whole Lotta Love" their ages, backgrounds and musical styles go out the window. At that point, they're fans of the music, just like us. You can tell these sounds move them as much today as it did when they first heard them years ago.
The movie takes you through the backgrounds and influences of each of the musicians. You see rare early footage of Jimmy Page playing in a skiffle band, U2 playing as teenagers and Jack White's obsession with drums and guitars. More importantly, you learn what music influenced them. It's fascinating to see Jimmy Page playing air guitar to Link Wray's Rumble or hear how U2 were inspired by The Jam, The Clash and The Sex Pistols.
For anyone interested in guitar and rock music, this is a must-see film. I hope when its released on DVD we'll get to see even more of the three of them jamming.
My wife and I went to see The Rocker last night. I'm a big fan of Rainn Wilson, especially in his role as Dwight, the clueless cubicle dweller in The Office. So I had high expectations going in, along the lines of Spinal Tap meets The Office. Forget it. This movie is the worst rock movie I have seen in ages. Maybe the worst rock movie ever.
I can forgive the premise of a Pete Best type story of a drummer who gets booted from his band just before their career takes off and then 20 years later takes up with some high school kids to give it another shot. And I can forgive the pop pastiche songs, which were better than I had feared. But what can't be forgiven is that there's no humor in this movie. The writing is without humor or dramatic tension. So what you're left with is the equivalent of a Disney after school special. What's worse is the movie has a great cast with SNL and 30 Rock alumni including Jason Sudeikis as the slimey record company rep, camoes by Amy Poehler, and Fred Armisen, Will Arnett and Lonny Ross who make up the fictional Vesuvius in the style of GnR. Unfortunately, the funniest people in the movie have a total of about 6 lines and not a single joke between them. All tolled there are maybe 2 decent jokes in the entire movie. One features Pete Best though it's not even clear until you see the credits.
This is a dud of a movie. Don't go see it and don't even rent it on DVD. Just avoid it. If you want a great rock comedy movie, check out Spinal Tap, Still Crazy, my favorite of the genre.