Paul Kelly has been one of my favorite musicians since a trip a few years back to Australia. A buddy set me up with an iPhone full of Australian music and Paul Kelly's "Songs of the South" greatest hits album ended up in heavy rotation. In the fall, I saw that he had released a new album "Life is Fine" which was shooting up the charts, and embarking on a tour of North America. Even better, my other Australian mate Rob got tickets to see him at Slim's in San Francisco.
Although Kelly only went on stage at 10pm (a late night for an old fart like me!) it was a corker of a shoe. Slim's is a modest size club (capacity of about 500) and they were mostly full, which is pretty good for a weeknight. I'm pretty sure I was the only non-Australian there and everyone seemed to have had about 4 more beers than I did. So it was a lively and exuberant audience. With five decades of touring and recording, Paul Kelly is a national treasure in Australia; he's written songs that are uniquely Australian with world-wide appeal.
Kelly has quite a bit of acoustic and bluegrass music in his background, but I was glad that this was more of a rock and roll show with a full band. He played the new album "Life is Fine" in its entirety and then went into a greatest hits set with two encores. The new album is good, though I was not familiar with it. I recognized just about every song after that including classics like "From St Kilda to King's Cross," "To Her Door," "Before Too Long," "How to Make Gravy," and "Darling It Hurts." The show ran two hours and it was one of the best shows of the year.
Here's a video of a song "Firewood & Candles" from the new album.
If you know one thing about the obscure prog rock band Klaatu, it's that in the late 1970s they were rumored to be the Beatles. Of course, that wasn't the case, as legions of Beatles fans later realized when they, you know, actually listened to the first Klaatu album. But they were a pretty good, if undervalued band.
Haling from Toronto, these three studio musicians thought that "the music should speak for itself." Hence, no bios, photos or interviews with the band, not even credits indicating who played or wrote the songs. And since they were signed to Capitol Records, some bonehead reporter for the Providence Journal thought it must be the fab four reunited.
At any rate, when all these Beatles rumors surfaced, sales for their first album soared. And admittedly, there are a couple of Beatlest-esque tunes on the first album, notably "Subway Sub Rosa" and "Little Neutrino." Meanwhile the band shrugged off the rumors since they were busy in London recording their second album, the rock opera "Hope," with the London Symphony Orchestra. And The Carpenters released had a hit single with their version of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants from Interplanetary Craft."
And I've got to say, "Hope" is one helluva an album. Although it clocks in at just over 40 minutes, it is ambitious and grandiose musically and thematically. It tells the story of an ancient race or planet of space travelers and a lonely lighthouse keeper at the end of space or who the heck knows what. There is a story here, which is why I think this qualifies as a rock opera more than just a concept album, but I wouldn't be able to explain it to you. Still, I would put it up there with SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things. It's that good an album.
While the whole album is excellent, I view "Long Live Politzania" as the best cut. Ok, and some of the vocals on this album do sound a bit like George Harrison but I think it's just coincidental. The guitar work on "Madman" is also excellent. The music has a '70s extravagance that you will either love or hate. There are elements that compare with Queen, King Crimson, Supertramp, the Beach Boys, fellow Canadians Max Webster and others from that era.
Unfortunately, at some point the truth behind the rumor ("Klaatu is Klaatu!") surfaced and there was a huge backlash against the band. This was unfortunate because the band had nothing to do with these rumors. The band recorded three more albums before breaking up.
The first three albums are excellent while I consider the last two a bit more hit-or-miss. There's also an excellent box set called "Sun Set" which includes all of Hope with all of the London Symphony Orchestra sections fully restored. The albums are available on Amazon, iTunes and from the official Klaatu website.
Since live footage of Klaatu is relatively hard to come by, here's a 1974 live performance on CBC Music Machine with a song from their first album.
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, one of my favorite bands in the last twenty years, is on tour promoting their first new album in seven years. Although the album "The Hanged Man" was mostly composed and performed by Ted Leo as a solo project, this is a full band tour. I managed to see them at Detroit's Magic Stick club and it was a great show.
There were two local opening acts Someone Who Isn't Me (SWIM) and the delightfully energetic punk pop band Ryan Allen and his Extra Arms. Ryan and crew did a great job with 110db of high energy rock loaded with hooks. Ryan's a fan of Ted Leo from way back and the band certainly held their own with this audience.
Ted Leo went on stage about 9:40pm. Although there was no separate encore, it was a two hour show which was not bad for a Wednesday night. The band was incredibly tight with Leo's trademark distorted punk guitar, a powerful rhythm section with the full force of drummer Chris Wilson, Adrienne Berry on sax and backing vocals, and at times three (!) guitar players resulting in a wonderfully frenetic and soulful sound. There were only minor order changes in the setlist from shows in Toronto, Boston, DC in the last week. The tour is drawing heavily from the new album, which is quite solid.
Leo was garrulous about his descent into piano and acoustic guitar singer-songwriter form, but the songs don't need any apologies. Highlights included the upbeat R&B influenced "Can't Go Back," "Run to the City," "Lonsdale Avenue" and "Let's Stay On The Moon." There's still plenty of fast-paced songs, but Leo is painting from a wider palette than previously with a couple of more relaxed songs, rich in vocal harmonies. But when the band got to the more rocking numbers, they were full-on explosive and moving in a chaotic choreography. Despite Ted's protestations that his voice was rough, he sang beautifully.
The band also played a good assortment of songs from earlier albums including "Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?," "Parallel or Together," "The High Party," and my favorite song "Biomusicology." I think we can all agree "Biomusicology" is one of the greatest songs ever written. Heck it could be a Lennon / McCartney / Strummer / Weller composition, for all I can tell. That song just sends a chill down my spine. And although I was hoping to hear "Timorous Me" in an encore, the rest of the material was so good and the banter so enjoyable I can't fault Leo for skipping a couple of songs.
I managed to shoot video of several of these songs. I think the audio captured and processed on my iPhone is possibly better than it sounded at the club. I always find the mix at MagicStick to suffer from too much bass and drum and not enough vocals.
The band is on it's way to Chicago and touring coast-to-coast through December. If you haven't seen Ted Leo live before, this is a tour worth catching.
If you grew up in the '70s Jethro Tull was a band that was hard not to notice. They had a slew of FM radio hits and a distinct flute-driven sound ranging from blues to hard rock to prog to folk. Whether you loved Tull or hated it, it was immediately recognizable. Ian Anderson, was the songwriter, vocalist, flautist and arranger that defined Jethro Tull. Iconoclast that he was, he cycled through more than two dozen band mates over five decades, dispensing with the second longest-running member of Tull, guitarist Martin Barre, back in 2011.
I managed to see the latest incarnation of Jethro Tull (or more accurately, "Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson") at Interlochen this week. Although I'm not a huge Tull fan, I'm familiar with their '70s hits. There is a certain sameness to a few of the songs ("Locomotive Breath," "Cross-Eyed Mary," "Hymn 43" all sound the same to me) but there's an inventiveness in the standout songs like "Thick as Brick," "A New Day Yesterday," "Living in the Past," and their jazzy interpretation of Bach's "Bourrée." And of course, what can be said of "Aqualung" --a song that has arguably one of the greatest guitar solos of all time. (Guitarist Martin Barre claims it was recorded in a single take, fearing that if he dallied, Anderson would put another flute solo in its place.)
The band played a lot of the classic songs drawing heavily from the late '60s and early 70s, along with a few more recent songs and instrumentals. And while the band was incredibly tight (they play virtually the same set list every night on this tour), the concert was a bit of a mixed bag. The flute playing, the guitar, the keyboards, the drum solo were all excellent, but...
I knew that Anderson's vocals had deteriorated in the '80s, due to a heavy touring schedule that inflicted permanent damage. Anderson's range has become more limited and his voice has lost the rich, smooth sound that characterized his best work. While not awful, it was clear as the night wore on, he's not doing the songs justice.
And this is not intended as a knock on Anderson. He is a bona fide musical genius having released 30 albums, won awards by the score and invented an entire genre. Heck he can still play the flute on one foot. And at 71, there would be no shame in sharing the singing duties with another performer.
During Aqualung, the last song before the encore, there was a video with a second vocalist, Ryan O'Donnell, who toured with the band a few years earlier, singing some of the verses. Similarly, on Heavy Horses, he had video of singer and violinist Unnur Birna from Iceland performing some parts. Personally, I think it would be great to have a second vocalist singing along with Anderson, or alternating songs or verses or lines. However, pulling up a video with a vocal backing track seems a bit cheesy to me. Still the band was great and guitar player Florian Opahle put his own mark on Martin Barre's original solo.
Jethro Tull is coming upon it's 50th anniversary in 2018, which is pretty crazy if you think about it. If you haven't seen Tull before, or if you want to relive some of those memories, check out their latest tour with dates in the US, UK and Europe coming up. Sadly, it seems unlikely Ian Anderson will be able to sing as well as he used to, and unless he brings back Ryan O'Donnell, the vocals are going to be pretty weak.
Here's a video of the encore, the classic Aqualung. Skip ahead to 3:10 if you want to get to the awesome solo.
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.
For a lot of people, Joe’s Garage remains one of the most approachable of Frank Zappa’s works. Technically, a triple album when released on vinyl in 1979, it's long since been reissued as a double CD combining Acts I, II and III and clocking in at just under 2 hours.
Although the title track has the usual Zappa key and tempo changes, it has a catchy sing-along chorus and just the right amount of humor to not overwhelm the casual listener.
Zappa narrates the story as the “Central Scrutinizer,” providing the necessary explanations that keep the story moving along as Joe moves from Garage Band to degenerate rock star, a criminal and ultimately gives up on his musical dreams to worker at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen Facility. It’s got the usual rock opera themes of dystopian society, music is illegal, yada yada yada. (In tribute to Zappa, we snuck in a few references to "Louie, Louie" in Underground Radio.
The lyrics range from profane (“Crew Slut”) to comical (“Why Does It Hurt When I pee?”) and occasionally profound:
Information is not knowledge Knowledge is not wisdom Wisdom is not truth Truth is not beauty Beauty is not love Love is not music Music is the best
Considering the album was released in 1979 against the backdrop of government censorship of rock music, it’s an appropriate and compelling social satire.
The album has several epic guitar solos and an occasional ‘70s disco-funk influence, but overall the album holds up. The penultimate song is the instrumental “Watermelon in Easter Hay” a signature Zappa song, that his son Dweezil regards as one of his father’s greatest solos. It’s a truly majestic piece of work, intended as the product of Joe’s tortured imagination. Here's a video of Dweezil Zappa playing it:
The Summer concert season has kicked off in Northern Michigan with a concert by The Accidentals at Fountain Point Resort, just outside Traverse City. The Accidentals just wrapped up a 40 city tour and are preparing for the launch of their new album on Sony Music Masterworks in August.
The Accidentals are a bit of a local legend in Traverse City, forming the band while in high school and entering into the Interlochen Center For the Arts first-ever singer-songwriter program. Based on their success, they chose to skip college and have been touring and recording ever since. As a result, they've got massive music chops playing a dozen instruments between them and they have wonderful vocal harmonies offset by violin, cello, electric guitar and bass.
Although The Accidentals mostly play original and fairly eclectic Folk /Jazz / Roots music, they also occasional throw in a rock cover or two. Here's a video from an earlier concert covering "Taxman" and Rush's "Tom Sawyer" showing them for the music geeks that they are.
Fountain Point Resort has more than a dozen concerts planned through the rest of the summer on Thursday and Sunday evenings including The Crane Wives, The Go Rounds, Jazz North and more. Tickets are $10-20 with an outdoor bring-your-own lawnchair setting. There are food trucks, but you can also bring your own food and alcohol. You can also buy a season pass for $95.
It was 50 years ago today, the Beatles' album "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was released, ushering in a new sound for the Beatles, but also for rock music in general. For many, Sgt Pepper's is considered a breakthrough album, for others, including some of the Beatles themselves, an over-blown affair. Not to miss an anniversary, Apple has released a newly remastered version of the album, undertaken by none other than Giles Martin, son of the Beatles' original producer George Martin. Fans of the album will want to pick up this new version, regardless of what this or any other review says.
The reissue is available in several forms, but in this review I'll cover the "Deluxe" 2 CD edition which includes the remastered original album along with a second disk of 18 never-before released alternate takes as well as remastered versions of the singles "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" that were recorded earlier in 1967, but weren't on the original album. There's also a "Super Deluxe" version which includes 2 disks of alternate takes, the original mono mix, the 1992 25-year documentary film on DVD, a blu-ray audio disk and a 144 page hardcover book with details on all the recorded tracks, photos, hand-written lyrics etc.
Beyond the 50th anniversary, the impetus for the reissue is that the original stereo mixes of Beatles albums are rather outdated. Back in '67, few people owned stereos. So while the Beatles were heavily involved in the mono mixes, none cared enough about the stereo mixes to actually be involved, instead delegating the task to the Abbey Road audio engineer Geoff Emerick. Because of the limitations 4-track recording, many of the original stereo mixes are panned quite hard left and right. While that extreme panning (for example hearing the drums widely separated from vocals) can be dramatic on occasion, the new reissue sounds much better. Not only does it sound more modern, it is much more vibrant.
There's a richness to the new release that makes the drums, bass and occasional guitar fills crisper and more natural sounding, without sacrificing anything. While the improvement is most pronounced when listening on headphones, even with a decent car or home stereo, the original stereo album sounds flat by comparison. There's a punch to the new mixes that is unmistakable.
The sound is most noticeable on the opening title track and "Reprise," "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," "Getting Better," "Fixing A Hole," "Lovely Rita," "Good Morning," and "A Day In The Life." Admittedly, that's pretty much the entire album. To be clear, every track sounds much better.
As with most "alternate takes" disks, I would have to say this one is also a bit of a mixed bag. Almost by definition, alternate takes are those which were not chosen for the original album, usually being obviously inferior. Still, they provide an interesting perspective. The Beatles are at times funny, sharp, flat, off-key, out-of-time, but always sounding good. It makes the Beatles more human and less like pop geniuses to hear the takes before they've been subject to the magic of George Martin's production wizardry. The remastered versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" are superb, but only a few of the alternate takes will be worth more than a few listens. The unadorned version of "Good Morning" is excellent and I found take 1 of "A Day In The Life," arguably the Beatles' greatest song, fascinating. If you're a fan of the Anthology albums, you'll love the disk. If you're a casual fan, it's less compelling.
At this point, I may as well state the obvious: I'm a huge fan of this album and the reissue. I don't think "Sgt Pepper's" is necessarily the Beatle's best album -- I would rate "Revolver" higher-- but it holds a special place for me as the first album I bought. And it still sounds fresh, innovative and compelling, 50 years after it's release.
The only down side to listening to the remastered version, is that not only does the original sound flat in comparison, but so do the rest of the Beatles' albums. I can only hope that Apple remasters the rest in the coming years. And for fans who just can't get enough, check out the PBS show "Sgt Pepper's Musical Revolution" as well as Rolling Stone's excellent coverage including the back story on every song.
This next one is a bit of an odd-ball to me. It's not exactly a rock opera, but it's close enough to warrant examination. "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" came together in 2013 as a joint project of John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T-Bone Burnett. Ok, that's quite a parentage right there. Their efforts yielded a star-studded band, an album, a "hardcover" box set and a touring cast. While there's some rock to this whole thing, "Ghost Brothers" is more alt-country-musical than rock opera. So it's important to judge the project on that basis, rather than comparing to a traditional rock opera like "Tommy." If you are looking for big soaring guitar solos, this is not gonna cut it.
But if you like the roots rock music of Mellencamp, Elvis Costello or The Blasters, then it might be right up your alley. However, before every musical number there's a dramatic exposition that takes place. It starts off with the narrator (Stephen King) introducing the tale as a back-country DJ known as the Zydeco Cowboy. These narrative elements are done well with professional actors, and they help move the story along in a way that is hard to do with just songs. But if you just want to listen to the music, you'll be hitting the skip button quite often. The songwriting, the vocals, the playing, the production are all top notch, conveying a real sense of emotion and some nice swampy southern sounds. Standout songs for me include "So Goddamn Smart,"How Many Days," "Tear This Cabin Down." To be clear, I'm way more a fan of "alt" than "country." Your mileage may vary.
Personally, I find this album interesting, but, even with Elvis Costello on board, this is too far afield for repeated listening. It's a good effort, just not my cup of tea.
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."
Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols recently published his long-awaited autobiography "Lonely Boy." I've read lots of rock bios over the years, and this is certainly the funniest, but also the starkest. Jones pulls no punches as he tells of his rough upbringing: the father who left his mother, tales of sexual abuse, shoplifting, you name it. Jones' isn't after your sympathy, but it does explain his errant ways as rock and roll guitar hero. There's plenty of sex and drugs added to the rock and roll, but you're unlikely to envy Jones' addictions.
It's a fitting tale that sheds light on the dawn of Punk rock from someone who helped make it all happen. Jones describes how his theft of musical equipment from some of his favorite rock stars (including David Bowie) led to the formation of the band that became the Sex Pistols. He also describes the band's early gigs, the role of manager Malcom McClaren on the band and some of the rock bands he loved. Who knew Jones loved bands like Boston and Journey in addition to The Faces and Mott the Hoople.
Jones takes the high road when talking about his bandmates and gives songwriter and vocalist his Johnny Rotten full credit for taking the band in a unique direction. But his description of life on reunion circuit with the Sex Pistols in the early 2000s makes it hard to imagine putting up with Rotten's behavior.
I listened to the audiobook version and I found it riveting. It feels like you ran into a long-lost high-school buddy in a dive bar and he told you how he spent the last twenty years of his life in an epic rock and roll roller coaster. It's a helluva ride, but maybe better to hear about it than to live.
I also highly recommend Jones' daily rock and roll radio show Jonesy's Jukebox on KLOS and also available via Podcast. I'm not sure why the podcast still doesn't include music, but it's still worth listening to.
It might have been a slow Sunday evening for some folks, but I managed to score great seats to Elvis Costello & The Imposters playing at the historic Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. I've seen Elvis about half a dozen times over the years and this was by far the best show of them all. While the tour purported to focus on his 1982 somewhat-overlooked album "Imperial Bedroom" the band played at least as many songs from earlier albums. Which is good, because "Imperial Bedroom" is overlooked for a reason -- it's not as good as the material that came before it! Ok this is just my opinion, but I'm the guy writing the review, so bear with me.
At any rate, he kicked things off with "Lipstick Vogue" from "This Year's Model" and played a good mix of songs from the late '70s and early '80s including "Accidents Will Happen", "Tears Before Bedtime", "Shabby Doll," "Man Out of Time," "Beyond Belief," "Green Shirt," "Kid About It," "You Little Fool" and an epic version of "Watching the Detectives."
They took a short break and came back with "Alison" with just Elvis and his two soulful backup singers Kitten Kuroi and YahZarah, with a style straight out of Stax. He also did a nice version of "Shot With His Own Gun" and "Almost Blue" accompanied only by Steve Nieve on piano. Costello was never the strongest of vocalists for this type of work, but he (mostly) managed to pull it off.
And for whatever smooth edges Elvis lacks vocally, he's more than willing to make up for it in guitar. In fact, I'd say he played more out-there crazy guitar in this concert than I've ever heard him play before. It gave the whole evening a tremendous energy boost.
The encore was a fantastic set including "Every Day I Write The Book," "Pump It Up" and "What's So Funny About Peace Love & Understanding."
Costello rocked the house for nearly 2 1/2 hours over 27 songs. For a guy who's pushing 62, he showed that he can still bring it on every night. And in retrospect, I still don't love "Imperial Bedroom" but I will admit that "Almost Blue", "Man Out Of Time" and "Beyond Belief" are among Costello's best songs.
Overall, it was a great concert and it appears that he's playing a slightly different mix of songs every night on this tour. If you get the chance to see him, I highly recommend it.
I managed to shoot a couple of videos from the concert including "Lipstick Vogue", "Accidents Will Happen" and "Watching the Detectives."