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.
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.
It was great to see Barenaked Ladies be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the Juno Awards in Vancouver recently. And even better, founding member Steven Page rejoined the band for a short performance. Although the Page and BNL have continued to release albums separately, it was a reminder of just how strong they were together.
I saw BNL live a couple of times in the 90's and they were always full of energy. They had big hits with "One Week," "The Old Apartment," and "It's All Been Done" among others selling more than 15 million albums worldwide. But it all started with "Gordon," which was a massive in Canada upon its release in the summer of 1992.
So how does "Gordon" stand up today? Very well! It's a wonderful quirky and unique album. Clocking in at 59 minutes, its effectively a double album. BNL had a unique style stemming from the strong vocal harmonies of founders Steven Page and Ed Robertson. They also had a distinct rhythm section coming from the double bass and occasional congas, rather than a standard rock electric bass and full drum kit. And they blended elements of pop, folk and jazz... but oh, those vocal harmonies.
The songs on "Gordon" range from the delightful "Hello, City" to the goofiness of "Grade 9" and the anguish of "Brian Wilson." There's melancholy mixed in with up-tempo crazy and lounge lizard jazz. It's an odd mix that shouldn't work, but does because of the great musicianship and vocals. There are 15 tracks on the album and in my view 14 of them are excellent. (I would leave off "New Kid (On the Block)" though others might chose "Grade 9" or "Box Set.") Oh yeah, and it has "If I had $1000000." You can't help but listen to this album and smile.
While everyone made a strong contribution to this album, there is no doubt that Steven Page's songwriting and vocals helped make "Gordon" a masterpiece. If Page should ever reconcile with his former bandmates to rejoin for a tour, it would be every fan's dream.
I had the good fortune of seeing Jerry Leger & The Situation live in Toronto recently. They have a strong local following for their regular gig at Castro's Lounge in the Beaches area of town. While guitarist and pedal steel player James McKie was not in attendance, the band plays well as a trio and it was an excellent show.
The band pulled heavily from Leger's most recent double album "Nonsense & Heartache," which I highly recommend. The album was produced by Cowboy Junkies guitarist Michael Timmins. In a single album Leger manages to cram a lifetime of film noir vignettes with titles such as "Forged Check," "Coat on the Rack," "Hired Gun," "Baby's Got a Rare Gun," and "She's The Best Writer You've Never Heard Of." the album is pulling from a wide range of influences including '50s rock and roll, R&B, Blues and Rockabilly sounding like a mix of "Highway 61 Revisited," "Watching The Detectives," and "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing."
Leger has been playing with the Situation for ten years and in an earlier era, they would have earned a gold record and sold-out shoes across America. As it stands, they will be embarking on a month-long tour of Europe starting this week with dates in Germany, Sweden, Norway, UK and Ireland. In May they'll be touring Canada. Hopefully momentum for this album will build and they'll undertake a tour of the US in the fall.
I managed to shoot a couple of videos which you can view below. If you have the chance to see them on tour, I highly recommend it. And tell 'em Zack said hi.
And for comparison, here's the official video for "Big Smoke Blues," which was also shot at Castro's Lounge and around Toronto.
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.
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:
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 managed to catch Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band live this week at The Palace at Auburn Hills, Michigan. I'm not the biggest Springsteen fan, but I have friends who have been telling me for years about his epic live shows. If you've never been, it is definitely a revival experience.
His current2016 tour commemorates the 35th anniversary of his 1980 double album "The River." (Interesting historical fact, the original River tour began in October 1980 at Crisler Arena in nearby Ann Arbor.)
For Springsteen fans, this was definitely a homecoming concert. Springsteen and the latest incarnation of the E Street Band play the entire double album, and then proceed into a lengthy repertoire of hits: "Bad Lands," "Promised Land," "Rosalita," "Dancing in the Dark," "Because the Night," "Born In The USA," and even the old Isley Brothers song "Shout" with Bob Seger joining the band on stage. (Further historical fact, Seger joined Springsteen on stage at Crisler Stadium back in 1980 to sing "Thunder Road.")
For a man who has crossed the 65 year mark, Springsteen has a remarkable amount of energy. This was a three and a half hour all-out high-energy show, with no breaks. Springsteen is certainly not phoning it in. He was out in the audience, crowd surfing, and getting the audience up on their feet. The band is impeccable with Max Weinberg's powerful drumming, Steven Van Zandt on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, Nils Lofgren on lead guitar, and Jake Clemons stepping in for his uncle, the late, great Clarence Clemons.
Die hard fans seemed to know the words to every song, even the deep cuts off The River that never got much airplay. The audience was a sea of old people reliving their youth, dancing to the music and enjoying the vibe. When Springsteen and band are giving it their all up on stage, it's hard not to appreciate their energy and enthusiasm.
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.
My buddy Rob and I are almost finished with our epic '70s homage rock opera Underground Radio. It's been nearly two years in the making. It includes 20 original songs, 4 vocalists, a slew of vintage amp simulations, guitar effects, hammond b3 organ, handclaps, cowbells, backwards guitars and more.
We even got a 30 piece symphony orchestra! And it's the first rock opera to include sound effects from Mars, courtesy of NASA and the US taxpayers at a cost of $18 billion. NASA also does some other cool things besides supporting rock operas. As far as we know, this is also the first rock opera to be recorded entirely in GarageBand.
Underground Radio is inspired by music of The Pretty Things, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Clash, The Jam, The Stranglers, Television, Pink Floyd and others. It's set in a dystopian future under an evil surveillance government, 50 years of winter, rock music is illegal. But these two guys try to jam the government's systems with rock and roll, yada yada yada.
All of the songs will be published under a Creative Commons license so they can be used royalty free by anyone in their own creative projects, like films, games, you name it. If anyone wants to re-mix the songs, we're happy to share the GarageBand or LogicPro files.
The project is now fully funded on Kickstarter but if we can raise more money towards defraying the mixing and mastering costs, that is appreciated. We're looking for input about what else we should provide backers in return for hitting our "stretch goals". For example, we could provide more bonus instrumental tracks, chord charts to the songs, higher quality loss-less audio files, a digital tour booklet, tour poster, album covers etc. Let us know your input in comments or on the kickstarter page.
I admit, I'm late to the party. How did I miss this? If you have any interest in music, you have to watch "Searching for Sugar Man." It's the story of Detroit singer songwriter Sixto Rodriguez who issued two albums in the early '70s, faded into obscurity yet became the voice of a generation in South Africa.
This is like discovering some bootleg Dylan album produced by Phil Spector that got shelved for 40 years. If it was fiction you'd say it was too far-fetched. Yet, it's all true. Checkout the trailer below.
If you ask most people to name a rock opera, they'll probably come up with "Tommy" and not much else. Until recently, I had assumed The Who's "Tommy" was not only the definitive rock opera but also the first. But as I learned listening to the public radio show SoundOpinions, Pete Townshend was beat out by a year with a release of the album "S.F. Sorrow" by the UK band The Pretty Things.
The Pretty Things started out as a typical UK R&B band with a claim to fame of being hairier, dirtier and raunchier than The Rolling Stones. The Pretty Things' first two albums ("The Pretty Things", "Get the Picture" both released in 1965) are steeped in American rhythm & blues with cranked-up fuzz guitar. The music is not to everyone's taste, but if you like '60s garage rock sound, it's brilliant. By their fourth album they were stretching beyond the form and had the idea to create a collection of songs that told a story.
S.F. Sorrow was recorded at famed Abbey Road studios in London, in 1967 where the Beatles and Pink Floyd were also recording. The music and production is definitely of an era; if you can get past the occasional sitar, woodwinds and backwards tape studio effects, it's a brilliant album that combines melody, lush vocal harmonies, and psychadelic garage rock full-gain Marshall stack guitar solos in ways that I'd never imagined before. It makes S.F. Sorrow a tremendous discovery. Many of the songs sound like they could be from some long lost Beatles bootleg session. Standout cuts include "S.F. Sorrow is born", "She Says Good Morning", "Balloon Burning", "Baron Saturday", "The Journey" and "I See You." Also "Mr Evasion." And "Talkin' About the Good Times." Ok, I like almost everything on this album. There are a few clunkers for sure, but overall these fit in with to the broader '60s context and make the best songs stand out even more.
Alas, S.F. Sorrow album got little support in America. The band continued to record for many years, with a somewhat evolving crew of bandmembers and still tours to this day. Unfortunately, The Pretty Things never really got the recognition they deserved for their early blues-based albums, their pioneering pyschadelic sound or their creation of the first ever rock opera.
Here's a YouTube video with most of the original lineup of The Pretty Things live from Abbey Road in 1998 recreating "S.F. Sorrow" in it's entirety along with some help from David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. (Skip ahead to 3:15 where the music starts.)
This live session was also issued as the album and DVD Resurrection. Thanks again to Sound Opinions, for a great show on Rock Operas.