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."
New Jersey's elder statesman of rock, Bruce Springsteen, published an epic memoir "Born to Run." I'm not a Springsteen super-fan, but as far as rock docs go, it's well above average. The book clocks in at just over 500 pages, but it's equivalent to a four-hour concert that occasionally leaves you looking at your watch wondering when they'll get to the good stuff. To be fair, there is a lot of good stuff in the book. The first third, on Springsteen's struggling early days is excellent. It's a lively introduction into the early rock and roll scene, with struggles to make it in California that never quite work out. He finally gets signed to CBS, gets down to bottom dollar a couple of times, but dedication to his craft, and sheer brute force pays off. As Springsteen has said in the past, there was no "plan B." They had no choice but to continue to work. Springsteen's writing is colorful, engaging and honest. He's aware of his own insecurities and writes frankly about his ego, his flaws, his desire for control over his band. But the most important element that shines through all of this is his passion for the power of rock and roll. And it's contagious!
But somewhere after his big breakthrough album "Born in the USA," the book starts to bog down. There's a certain rambling verbosity that fans will recognize. It's a fun, breezy style. But like a guest who has stayed for one drink too many, it starts to grate. I found myself skimming passages of earth-shaking, music-making, viagra-taking excess. Ok, he messes around on his wife. He hangs out with Frank Sinatra. I could care less. But when he focuses on the music, his life as itinerant songwriter and troubadour, the book delivers. And there's some interesting revelations about his father's struggle with depression as well as his own.
Springsteen has also issued a companion greatest hits CD Chapter & Verse which includes five unreleased tracks from his early days with The Castilles, Steel Mill and The Bruce Springsteen Band. These songs help round out the book and give you a sense of the the early days of Jersey rock and roll. It also includes a selection of 13 of Springsteen's hits, though it's a bit constrained, since there's only one song from any album. But I think it's worth a listen.
Here's some live footage from an LA concert in 1973 opening for Dr Hook. This was just after the first album "Greetings from Asbury Park" and before the "E Street Band" lineup. It's a short set, but there are some great moments.
I admit, I'm a sucker for rock operas. And if you throw in some HP Lovecraft, well then you've definitely got my attention. "Dreams in the Witch House" is a full-blooded modern rock opera based on one of HP Lovecraft's typically creepy stories about things gone wrong in dimensions we can't know or understand. The story is compelling enough on its own and it provides a solid basis for characters and a story arc. But what really makes this piece shine is the caliber of the rock.
"Dreams in the Witch House" has an over-the-top classic rock sound. If the combination of Meatloaf meets KISS with a side of Trans-Siberian Orchestra intrigues you, you'll love this album. Standout cuts include "The Nightmare" "No Turning Back" and "Signum Crucis" (featuring one-time KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick).
On the spectrum of Rock and Opera, "Dreams in the Witch House" is a bit more on the musical story side of things with many spoken word narrative sections. So if you're looking for background rock music, this might not fit the bill. But if you want a captivating story for a long drive, I highly recommend it.
The whole project was completed in association with HP Lovecraft Historical Society, who also produce excellent old-time radio adaptations of Lovecraft's stories. It's available direct from HPLHS on CD or Vinyl or you can get it at Amazon for $9. This is perfect for Halloween listening.
In 2014, I managed to see the legendary band Televsion live in Toronto --something I never thought would happen. This is one of my all-time favorite bands since 1977's Marquee Moon. Alas, they broke up after their second album, reformed briefly in the early '90s and faded out of existence. Nonetheless, they reformed one more time in the 2000s and seeing them live in Toronto was one of the best concerts of my life.
It's hard to top that kind of experience. I'm not even sure it's prudent to try. But when Television announced they would be playing in Santa Cruz (as well as two gigs in San Francisco) how could I not go? This tour was promoted (was it promoted?) as being built around rare tracks and instrumentals. Phew. That meant I could go and enjoy it without having any outsized expectations. After all, not every experiment succeeds. But it is in that experimentation, that trial by-fire ordeal, that high-wire performance without a net, we can find greatness. Sometimes.
So how was it?
The band was tight. Particularly on songs off their debut album "Marquee Moon", one of the most influential albums of all time. Having three fourths original band members doesn't hurt. Jimmy Rip who took over from the talented but, ah, eccentric, guitarist Richard Lloyd may now have more gigs under his belt than his predecessor. That said, everyone is a couple years older, and Tom Verlaine's vocals, which were never that strong, are not getting any better with time. And as much as I enjoyed the more obscure songs ("Persia," "The Sea") and various instrumental wanderings, I didn't find them as compelling as some of the more, ah, normal, songs. When I hear a song like "Venus," "Elevation," or "1880 or So" it sends shivers down my spine.
To be clear, I would pay to see Television play "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" if that's what they wanted to play. I mean, as long as they played a couple of cuts off "Marquee Moon."
Anyways, check out the videos below. Apologies that the last song is slightly out of focus.
For fans who managed to see Television in 2016, let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.
Following out this week's concert extravaganza, the third gig in 7 days was Cheap Trick. I've seen Cheap Trick before and despite the legal drama with original drummer Bun E. Carlos, they are still a great live band. Following Cheap Trick's inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the release of a great new album "Bang Zoom Crazy Hello" Cheap Trick is currently touring with Joan Jett and Heart. But if that wasn't enough to keep them busy, they are also doing one-off gigs on their own, which is what brought them to Traverse City for the Cherry Festival.
With a career that spans 5 decades, 17 studio albums and numerous hit singles, the band has a pretty big catalog to draw from. They also tend to mix things up a bit in different shows, so it's not always the same songs every night, which is nice. They started off strong with their usual show opener "Hello There," followed by "Just Got Back," "California Man," "On Top Of The World," "Baby Loves to Rock," and "Taxman, Mr Thief," an obvious Beatles reference from their first album and "Never Had a Lot to Lose" and "The House is a Rocking" from Dream Police. The band played with a ton of energy. Robin Zander's vocals are in fine form and he still looks good in skinny leather pants and a cape. Rick Nielsen is all over the stage, swapping out a new guitar for every song, flinging picks into the audience and goofing around as always. The rhythm section is extremely solid with Tom Petersson on bass and Dax, Rick's son, on drums, pounding like hurricane.
Then they played a couple of songs from their new album "Bang Zoom Crazy Hello:" "The In Crowd," and "No Direction Home." Personally, I think it's a great album, possibly the best since the '70s era and I wish they'd played a few more cuts. Next up was "The Ballad of TV Violence" followed by what was a great solo by Tom Petersson on his unique 12-string Gretsch bass (!) that went into a cover of The Velvet Underground's "Waiting for My Man" with Petersson on vocals. This was followed by the ballad "The Flame" and then the big hits: "I Want You To Want Me," "Dream Police" and an encore of "Surrender." That song still gives me goose bumps.
Rick Nielsen then brought out his crazy 50 pound 5 neck Hamer guitar for a short "Goodnight." The whole set was about 90 minutes leaving everyone thirsty for just a few more songs.
Here are a couple of videos I shot. I'll also try to post some high-def photos later on.
The opening band was the born-and-bred in Traverse City Kenny Olson. It was a a bit too generic-hard-rock-guitar for my taste, but they did manage to get the audience on their feet and Kenny is a great blues guitar player.