Once Were Brothers

Once were 2

A few months back, Robbie Robertson released "Once Were Brothers" a biography of The Band, adapted from his autobiography "Testimony." As with any good rock doc, it's a bittersweet story of the rise to stardom, fame and fortune followed by an inevitable decline. 

If you're at all interested in this story, you might know a little bit about The Band already, including backing Bob Dylan on his infamous 1966 world tour where he "went electric" to a chorus of boos every night from the die-hard folk fans. The roots of The Band go back earlier than that, though. It was formed by four Canadians from Southwest Ontario (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel), who joined up with Arkansas drummer Levon Helm to become the backing band for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s. 

The Band had its moment in the limelight in the late 1960s through the mid 70s. Their music created the American genre of music, as ironic as that is. Their first three albums stand the test of time with such classic songs as: The Weight, Stage Fright, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, King Harvest. They influenced artists as diverse as George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Elvis Costello, The Wallflowers, the Black Crows, Drive-by Truckers and Paul Kelly. They continue to influence contemporary artists like My Morning Jacket and Nathaniel Rateliff. 

The band was together (more or less) for 16 years when Robbie Robertson decided to call it quits with a final concert, what became "The Last Waltz," filmed by Martin Scorsese. As this film makes clear, The Band was heading for destruction due to alcohol and drug issues and Robertson hoped they could take time apart to heal and pull things together. They pulled together an all-star set of musicians including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Diamond and more. The film also includes perhaps the greatest version of their masterpiece The Weight ever recorded with the sublime vocal harmonies of the Staple Singers.

Sadly, the original lineup never played together again, though Manuel, Danko, Helm and Hudson toured without Robertson in the 1980s. Richard Manual sadly hung himself on tour in 1986. The band continued in various configurations in the 90s, but without Robertson's songwriting, the new albums were lackluster. Rick Danko died in 1999 and Levon Helm passed away in 2012.

Robbie Robertson is the only member of the band with contemporary interviews in the film, and it's very much his story. He wasn't the singer, but he was lead guitarist, songwriter and the dominant creative force behind The Band. The film does a good job representing Helm's point of view, who bitterly resented not getting songwriting credits. But as Ronnie Hawkins notes, there's a difference between arranging a song and writing it.  

It's very much a story worth watching. It's equal parts inspiring and sobering.  

Here's a trailer:

Let It Be Revisited

Let it be
It's hard to believe that the Beatles final album, Let It Be, was released 50 years ago. The album came out on May 8 and the documentary of the same name was released a week later in theaters in the US and two weeks later in the UK. 

Get backThe story of the album is well known: Paul McCartney, at this point the de facto band leader, wanted to create a "back to basics" album, originally known as Get Back. Instead of the psychedelic studio production wizardry of Sergeant Pepper's, or the tension-filled solo recordings of The White Album, this was to be the four of them, playing new songs in a live television concert special.  

In early 1969, the band started rehearsing at Twickenham studios. Film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was invited as a fly-on-the-wall, to film all of it. He shot over fifty hours of footage, which resulted in the cinéma vérité documentary.

The film tells no story, has no plot and other than when the Beatles are playing live, is not very good. It shows the lads rehearsing, playing cover songs, arguing, goofing around, etc. There's a strange scene where McCartney talks non-stop for several minutes to Lennon who doesn't say a word. It's hard to determine who is more bored: Lennon or the audience.

The film has an undeserved reputation as capturing the band's break up. There are a couple of moments where you see the tension, but there are far more scenes, especially when they're playing, where you get to witness the magic of four people connecting, playing live with some of their most famous songs. 

The original film has been out of circulation for decades. I managed to see it in college in about 1980 and then more recently downloaded an, ah, archival copy. For Beatles fans it is still remarkable to see them play songs such as "Two Of Us," "Let It Be," "Dig a Pony" and others. You also get to witness the famous rooftop concert featuring "I've Got A Feeling," "Get Back," and "One After 909" I had forgotten a very funny scene where Lennon flubs the lyrics in the otherwise heartfelt "Don't Let Me Down" in a most creative fashion

The album is good, if a bit of mixed bag. Following the rooftop concert, several mixes were made by Glyn Johns and rejected by the Beatles. The band lost interest and then proceeded to begin work on the much stronger album Abbey Road. The Get Back project sat on the shelves for months. Phil Spector was called in to rescue the album and added orchestral strings and choir overdubs to four songs. The album came out more than a year after it was recorded under the new name Let It Be.

Although McCartney disliked Spector's final mix, Lennon defended Spector's work a 1971 interview saying:

"...he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit, with a lousy feeling toward it, ever. And he made something out of it. He did a great job."

Not one to leave well enough alone, in 2003 McCartney remixed the album as Let It Be... Naked, excising Spector's embellishments and substituting two tracks. It's different, but you'd be hard pressed to say it's better.

As of yet, there has been no 50th anniversary remixing of Let It Be, as we have had for Sergeant Pepper's, The White Album and Abbey Road. There is a new documentary film The Beatles: Get Back, being created by director Peter Jackson, Although originally expected in September 2020, the film has now been delayed by almost a year. The film uses Lindsay Hogg's original footage as well as over 140 hours of audio to create a new documentary. My hope is that there will be a new Deluxe album to go with it.

I just wish it wasn't going to take so long.

Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace

Amazing grace title

You'll be forgiven for not having heard of the film "Amazing Grace." After all, it was shot 47 years ago and until recently never available due to a combination of technical difficulties and legal issues. However, it is now available and showing in theaters and definitely worth seeing. 

Aretha choir  The film was originally shot in 16mm by Sydney Pollack at the behest of Warner Brothers. The occasion was to be a live recording of the Queen of Soul's return to her gospel roots at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts over two evenings.  It would be a live album as well as a Hollywood theatrical release, following on the success of Woodstock. Unfortunately, Pollack had never shot live music before and failed to sync the film to the audio recording. Luckily Alan Elliott, with Pollack's blessing, took over the project in 2008 and, with the use of modern computers, was able to digitally sync everything.

My wife and I managed to see the film over Easter weekend and it was terrific. Even if you're not a huge fan of gospel, you cannot help but be moved by the spirituality of the music. Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir show the power of music in their emotional renditions of these songs. The audience swaying and clapping along and if you look closely you'll see long-haired and pale-faced Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger are there on the second night at the back.

It's no surprise that the album went on to become the best-selling gospel record of all time. But it's a shame that neither Franklin nor Pollack were able to live to see the release of this film. 


"Rumble" Is A Blast!


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.


Chuck Berry - Live At The Toronto Rock And Roll Revival 1969

Chuck Berry Toronto 1969

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. 

Toronto ticketLuckily 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." 


Ever Get The Feeling You've Been Cheated?

Goodbye Winterland front

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 bootleg albums, 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.  

Weird Al - Bob

Weird al bob

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

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.

Ramones: It's Alive DVD


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.

Gabba gabba hey!

Anvil - Now on DVD

"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


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.

It Might Get Loud


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.