Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 5 of 8

September 4th, 2015

Lightening the mood a bit today with some power-pop leaning releases, leavened with some heavier, more adventurous sounds.


The Prime Ministers – Youngstown Milk Run
Don’t allow yourself to be put off by the song titles that make use of tired Prince-isms (“Can U B My Dreams,” “I Wait 4 Your Guitar”). The songs are better than all that. Betraying a strong influence of mainstream 80s rock (Huey Lewis, but don’t hold that against ‘em either), the eleven songs on this disc are catchy, rocking stuff. Sure, the occasional hip-hop vocal break is jarring, leaving a vaguely Smash Mouth flavor behind, but let’s not hold that against the band either. If you liked 80s FM radio, you won’t find this music past its sell-by date.



Gretchen’s Wheel – Fragile State
Gretchen’s Wheel is Lindsay Murray, a singer songwriter from smalltown Tennessee. On Fragile State, she handles songwriting, vocals and the lion’s share of instrumentation. The remaining instruments and production engineering duties are the domain of Ken Stringfellow (The Posies). Murray’s sturdy, inviting songs tread the space between singer/songwriter and midtempo power pop. The songs occasionally remind one of Warner Brothers era Badfinger. There’s a subtle country (the good kind!) influence imbued into the arrangement; this album rewards the listener who spends time with it. Sources say that another album is on its way soon; that’s welcome news in these quarters.



Ligro – Dictionary 3
Liner notes author Dr. Brad Stone makes the point that jazz isn’t always mellow and relaxing. It certainly isn’t on this five-track album on the MoonJune label from this guitar/bass/drums trio. The textures are warm and inviting, but there’s an adventurous spirit at work that keeps things interesting. With a high melodic quotient, and lots of engaging interplay between the instrumentalists, Dictionary 3 is an enjoyable listen start to finish. And because of its relatively accessible character, it might be a good entry point (for your non progjazz-inclined friends) into the world of MoonJune artists. Tasty piano on track one.

Blurred Vision – Organized Insanity

Chiming melodies and massed (chorused/overdubbed) vocals give the songs on Organized Insanity a feel not wholly unlike some of Crowded House‘s work. It’s a safe bet that these songs are “about stuff,” as the first track (“No More War”) features clips from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The trio ostensibly plays guitar/bass/drums, but lots of electric piano, south-of-the-border horns and banjos (all but the first are uncredited) add nicely to the texture. One’s predilection toward message-y music (see also: U2) will surely indicate how one will react to this music. Often anthemic, often swinging for the fences.



Godsticks – Emergence
In the music biz, everything has to have a label; I believe the label for this music is “active rock.” You might also call it “aggressive progressive.” Musically akin to some of Porcupine Tree‘s more metallic moments (circa Fear of a Blank Planet), on Emergence Godsticks gets the chunka-chunka vibe down tight, with a vocalist who reminds this listener of Eddie Vedder. Punishingly precise riffage underpins the songs; only one track features keyboards; otherwise it’s power trio and vocals pretty much all the way. “Much Sinister” sounds like its title suggests. The Pineapple Thief‘s Bruce Soord guest-vocals on two tracks.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 4 of 8

September 3rd, 2015

More quickie reviews today. Some familiar names, some not-so-well-known ones. All worth a spin.



John Wetton – New York Minute
This disc – recorded live at New York City’s Iridium in fall 2013 – has an odd, busman’s holiday quality about it. Though Wetton is pictured with a guitar, on the record he’s just singing. He’s backed by The Les Paul Trio, an outfit named not for who’s in it, but instead for the man who founded it. Save for a couple of tracks, this set finds Wetton covering other people’s songs. Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, Traffic, Dylan by way of Hendrix, and The Beatles all get the treatment. It’s good, but it does feel a bit…pointless.



Holly Golightly and The Brokeoffs – Coulda Shoulda Woulda
This is Golightly’s other 2015 album; her solo-billed Slowtown Now! is wonderfully eclectic and recommended. Here with her band (and Lawyer Dave) she’s less stylistically varied but an equally rewarding listen. Golightly’s a kindred spirit with such names as Wanda Jackson, The Cramps, and JD McPherson. Imagine if rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t splintered and “evolved” into myriad forms, and Coulda Shoulda Woulda might give clues to how it would sound today: full of c&w’s lyricism, and rock’s energy. The delightfully “live” mix suits the songs perfectly, and Golightly’s humor is never far from the surface (check “Apartment 34” for evidence).



Mick Abrahams – Revived!
Quick question: who was the guitarist in Jethro Tull? Answer: Martin Barre. Right? Well…yes. But the original axeman in Ian Anderson‘s folk-prog group was none other than Mick Abrahams. In those days Tull was a bluesier outfit; it was disagreement over the group’s musical direction that led to Abrahams’ exit. Revived! is a 17-track set (plus bonus DVD) that features Abrahams and a passel of musical pals (including Barre, Bill Wyman, Bernie Marsden and others. It’s a varied set that recalls Wyman’s solo work more than anything else, most notably on a cover of Lieber/Stoller‘s Coasters classic “What About Us?”



Anton Fig – Figments
Anton Fig is an in-demand drummer best known as a longtime member of Paul Shaffer‘s band on David Letterman‘s TV program. In 2002 he recorded and released a solo album (newly reissued in 2015), Figments, featuring a selection of guests from his (no doubt) ample Rolodex. Fig plays other instruments besides drums, but the passel of guests gives the disc most of its character. Very much of its time, Figments sounds a bit like a Mike + the Mechanics disc. Players include Blondie Chaplin, Sebastian Bach, Ace Frehley, Chris Spedding, Shaffer (naturally!), Randy Brecker, Chip Taylor, and many, many more.


Caddy – The Better End
Dreamy, gauzy, vaguely shoegazey pop a la Teenage Fanclub crossed with The Church is the order of the day on The Better End. Less densely textured than either of those groups, the music is nonetheless well-crafted and immediately likable. For all intents and purposes, Caddy is Tomas Dahl, with the occasional guest vocalist. Dahl is Norwegian, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any trace of a Nordic accent in his vocals. The melancholy ambience of the songs is redolent of Starling Electric, full of shimmering guitars and ringing chords that hang in the air. Available only from Kool Kat Musik. [ORDER HERE]

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 3 of 8

September 2nd, 2015

Still more hundred-word reviews. Today’s collection features shredding instro-rock, and, well, other kindsa rock as well.



Aristocrats – Tres Caballeros
Speaking of Marco Minnemann, he’s also part of power trio The Aristocrats. He’s behind the drum kit while Guthrie Govan handles (or, shall we say, shreds) guitar and Bryan Beller holds down the busy bottom end with his bass. This is muscular music that deftly straddles the line between look-at-me solo showoffery and tight ensemble playing. Which is just as it should be for an instrumental trio. There’s an off-kilter musical sensibility that, at times, is reminiscent of Frank Zappa‘s late 70s and early 80s work, but The Aristocrats never quite sound like anyone else. Beats the hell outta Chickenfoot.



Rhys Marsh – Sentiment
Marsh is part of a musical universe that includes Tim Bowness (No-Man). The Norwegian multi-instrumentalist is involved in a number of musical projects; this solo album is merely one of several projects of his. The handiest musical reference point for Marsh’s solo album might be Porcupine Tree – vocals and lyrics are the album’s prominent focus – but his writing isn’t always quite as hook-filled as Steven Wilson‘s. Lots of real Mellotron adds a nice, suitably dark texture. “Pictures of Ashes” is one of the disc’s most memorable tunes, with lots of shade, light and musical texture. A worthwhile listen.



Mandala – Midnight Twilight
And here’s Rhys Marsh yet again, joined by Will Spurling (percussion) and bassist Francis Booth. Mandala rocks harder than Marsh’s solo disc, and there’s an early 70s heavy power trio vibe (Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath) that’s leavened only by Marsh’s soaring and slightly mannered vocals and his keyboards. With its lovely string section work, “The Dark Waltz” is a highlight, and overall, the song quality is a notch or two above what you’ll find on Sentiment. When Booth gets the chance – which isn’t often – to showcase his skills, he shines. Spurling’s precise-yet-splashy drum work perfectly suits the music.


The Aaron Clift Experiment – Outer Light, Inner Darkness
Violin isn’t the most common instrument used to expand rock’s sonic palette. Save for Jean Luc Ponty‘s 70s fusion outings and perhaps Kansas, it’s simply not widely used in rock. And while The Aaron Clift Experiment‘s core lineup is a semi-standard rock setup, nearly half of the tunes on this album feature violin. And it works, adding a yearning, melancholy vibe that plays well off the soaring guitars and melodramatic keyboards. Clift’s impassioned vocals are the cherry on top. Tricky, prog-leaning rhythms are beaten into a melodic form, so meant-n-potatoes rock fans can dig this as much as progheads will. [ORDER HERE]



The Shrike – s/t
The Rorschach-inspired cover art begs the question: what do you hear in the music? Imagine Metallica fronted by Pat Benatar, maybe. Strutting, macho rock textures with assured female lead vocals. You won’t find a less-likely looking collection of musicians anywhere this side of Cheap Trick. But it’s the music that matters, and for those who Just Wanna Rock, The Shrike might just be the ticket. There are enough solo bits to satisfy the air-guitar-wielding listener, and the snaky riffs will stick in your head long after the disc finishes its spin. There’s a dark, angsty tinge to the lyrical content.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 2 of 8

September 1st, 2015

More hundred-word reviews. Today it’s progjazz, prog-rock, and rock rock.



Lorenzo Feliciati – Koi
Rare Noise Records can reliably be counted upon to release challenging, outsider-flavored music that leans toward, jazz, avant-garde, and/or progressive directions. Koi is Lorenzo Felicati (basses, guitars, keyboard and more), Alessandro Gwis (keyboards and computers) and percussionist Steve Jansen. But they’re joined by various horn players and (on one track) King Crimson drummer extraordinaire Pat Mastelotto. The musical vibe is sinister yet atmospheric and tuneful, and it’s more accessible (that is to say less avant-garde) than many Rare Noise offerings. Think of it as bop-jazz influenced music (with a touch of space-rock) played on modern, state of the art instruments.



XaDu – Random Abstract
If you want to know about interesting new music (generally in progressive rock/jazz idioms) being made in southeast Asia and other non-USA locales, your first stop should be Leondardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune Records. The artists in Leonardo’s stable are as prolific as they are skilled, and they often team up in various collaborative efforts. Two artists I’ve covered before – Xavi Reija and Dusan Jevtovic – come together to make this free-form work displaying the power of rock, the grandeur of prog, and the precision and exploratory nature of jazz. Drums and guitar duos don’t usually pique my interest; this does.



Landmarq – Roadskill: Live in the Netherlands
This long-running progressive act from the UK has largely flown under the radar for most of their existence. Their music deserves a wider audience, and clearly somebody knows who they are, as this live disc demonstrates. Tracy Hitchings is one of relatively few female lead vocalists in the progressive idiom, and while her pipes are vaguely reminiscent of Annie Haslam (Renaissance), the musical backing rocks harder (and a tad more interestingly) in a sort of Spock’s Beard kind of way. The special edition features a 78-minute concert CD plus a DVD that adds two tunes plus interviews and other goodies.



Kinetic Element – Travelog
Five long tracks – the shortest is a shade under ten minutes; the longest, more than twice that – make up this disc. The four-piece group is made up of some decidedly not-young musicians, but their sound is delightfully timeless progressive rock. Kinetic Element are and instrumental outfit, but they bring in guest vocalists for each of the tracks. That said, the pieces are still primarily instro in nature. Those who enjoy the slow burn of epic prog – think YesClose to the Edge more than Tales From Topographic Oceans – will enjoy this delightfully adventurous yet accessible set.



Marco Minnemann – Celebration
One of music’s busiest, most in-demand players has somehow found time to write, play and record a solo album. And Celebration is a solo set in the truest sense of the word: save a bit of spoken-word on one track, everything you’ll hear on this disc is Minnemann. If Joe Satriani made a progressive rock record, it might sound something like this. Metallic guitar and drums push up against vibes, synthesized horns, and uber-heavy, bone-crushing bass lines. Imagine 70s-era Jean-Luc Ponty putting down the violin and picking up a really bad attitude. Thrillingly out-there, tuneful, endlessly varied and thus unclassifiable.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September (sic), Part 1 of 8

August 31st, 2015

Time to clear the backlog of discs – worthy ones all – cluttering my office. Beginning today, and occasionally interrupted by other content, here’s a solid two weeks of hundred-word reviews.


Terell Stafford – BrotherLee Love

Lee Morgan was a hard bop trumpeter who recorded between the mid 1950s and 1971, mostly for the Blue Note label. His most renowned sideman session was John Coltrane‘s Blue Trane (1957), and he was a longtime member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. On this album, Philadelphia-based trumpeter Stafford pays homage to Morgan. Stafford and a tight four-piece run through nine cuts associated with – and nearly all composed by – the late Morgan. Tasty stuff indeed, rendered in adventurous hard bop style. Plenty of solo breaks make this a worthwhile listen even for those who don’t know Morgan’s work.


Alison Faith Levy – The Start of Things

Former Sippy Cups member Levy records for Mystery Lawn Music, a label renowned for its intelligent power pop and art-pop artist stable. Levy makes music for kids, but her appeal extends far beyond the tot-rocking set. The lyrics are squarely aimed at youngsters, but not in a saccharine-sweet manner; Levy never “sings down” to her audience. And adults will find plenty to like in the music and arrangements. Levy’s music truly does bridge the gap between music for children and for grown-ups; in that way she’s heir to the music of The Banana Splits, nearly always a very good thing.


The Lucky Losers – A Winning Hand

To my ears, most modern blues is stale and uninspired. I can’t think of another genre that cranks out so much dull material. So when an exception comes along, it’s all that ore remarkable. Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz sing together in harmony, and trade vocal lines on this album’s dozen tunes, backed by a solid but not showy) band and horn section. They capture the fun and excitement of a bluesy band in a dimly lit bar. And at its core, that’s what modern blues is about. That Berkowitz is a skilled blues harpist only adds to the enjoyment.



Otis Taylor – Hey Joe Opus: Red Meat
Sixty-seven year old bluesman Otis Taylor has a long and storied career. This idiosyncratic outing finds the multi-instrumentalist and singer constructing a sort of song cycle built around the chestnut “Hey Joe.” His readings don’t recall Hendrix or The Leaves; no, they have more of an Americana feel. Some of the guitar work recalls The Allman Brothers (thanks to guest Warren Haynes), and the musical dialogue between guitar and fiddle) has shades of Jefferson Airplane with Papa John Creach. Extensive use of cornet (Taylor Scott) adds an interesting character to the songs. On the whole, exceedingly eclectic, understated, and worthwhile.


Phil Lee – Some Gotta Lose…

Lee’s previous album, The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love, knocked me out with its windswept singer-songwriter vibe. He reminds me a bit of James McMurtry crossed with Leon Russell, and his music is equally informed by blues, Americana, old-school country and plain old rock’n'roll. Some Gotta Lose… is another showcase for Lee’s well-worn voice. This is as real as it gets, straightforward poetry and stories set to music. One of these days, he and I really will meet up for that cup of coffee; until that day, I’ll enjoy his music on this shiny disc.

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A Brief History of Rock’n'roll…Because, Why Not?

August 28th, 2015

My cousin is a fifth-grade public school teacher. Put another way, he’s doing some of the most important work there is. Recently he asked me to put together “a page or two” history of rock ‘n’ roll from its beginning through the 1970s so that he could share it with his students. As patently impossible as such a task might actually be, I happily said that I’d give it a try. Here it is. — bk


Nobody knows when, where or how the musical form we call rock’n'roll began; if anyone tries to tell you different, don’t trust them. Do your own research. For information on the origin of the term “rock’n'roll,” ask your grandparents (or at least someone over 40); I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to write about that in a essay aimed at fifth graders.

The style of music that came to be known as rock’n'roll grew out of many other American musical styles, most notably blues (played mostly, but not only, by African Americans) and country (played primarily, but not only, but whites). Perhaps the clearest musical predecessor of rock’n'roll is the jump blues and swing style of the 1940s, typified by the music of Louis Jordan and Louis Prima. Once electric guitars gained wider use, they replaced the saxophone as the small band’s “lead” instrument; this change was one of the most important developments in rock’n'roll.

Early pioneers of rock’n'roll included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and His Comets, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Little Richard (Richard Penniman), and Ike Turner, among others. In fact the song that many scholars claim as the “first” rock’n'roll song, Jackie Brenston‘s “Rocket 88,” features Turner and his band.

After a brief period of popular success, things went wrong for most of rock’n'roll’s early stars. Elvis was drafted; Jerry Lee Lewis endured a scandal backlash in the wake of his marriage to his 13-year old cousin; Berry was arrested on Mann Act charges; Little Richard left rock’n'roll for religion. And important dance/radio disc jockey Alan Freed – the man many credit for naming rock’n'roll – faded from the scene in disgrace after a payola (accepting bribes to play specific songs on the radio) scandal.

Meanwhile, big business had discovered that there was a market for this thing called rock’n'roll, so in the absence of many of rock’s original heroes, they manufactured new ones to take their place. This “teen idol” era featured many disposable – often musically and visually interchangeable – artists, but behind the scenes, true creativity was at work. The so-called “Brill Building” style of pop songwriting launched the careers of many important songwriters who would go onto fame in their later years: Carole King, Neil Diamond, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Neil Sedaka. Even Lou Reed (later of the Velvet Underground) played a role in the Brill Building movement. And with his lush “wall of sound” production style, producer Phil Spector became a legend as the force behind many so-called “girl groups.” And in Detroit – always a fertile ground for music, Motown music gave rise to African American vocal groups.

Alongside the pop of that era, music product aimed at a younger set became popular; often discredited by supposedly serious critics, “bubblegum” music is arguably rock’s longest-lasting form; modern acts like Britney Spears and N*SYNC carry on the bubblegum tradition (proudly or not).

Across the Atlantic, music fans and musicians in England (and elsewhere on the continent) were listening to American rock’n'roll. As early as the late 1950s, The Beatles were developing a style that drew upon early rock’n'roll, rhythm and blues, soul, country, rockabilly and musical theater. It has often been said that the so-called “British Invasion” of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and other groups was merely a case of the British bringing an American form of music back to Americans. In the face of the American success of groups like the Rolling Stones, tens of thousands of “garage groups” formed all across the United States; that anyone-can-do-it ethos influenced a generation and planted the seed for “punk rock” of the 1970s, a style that has as much in common with very early rock’n'roll as anything else.

As rock’n'roll once again grew in popularity, musicians from other musical idioms either changed their style, or incorporated elements of rock’n'roll into their own music. Folk musician Bob Dylan famously “went electric” in the summer of 1965, and rock groups began adding non-rock sounds and textures to their music. By the middle of the 1960s, social upheaval – centered around increased availability of birth control, the rise in use of recreational drugs, and generational opposition to America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam – led to a period of musical experimentation. Myriad forms of music came out of this era: psychedelic rock and blues rock are two of the most well-known forms. Even groups who hadn’t been known for musical experimentation began to push the boundaries of popular music; the Beach BoysPet Sounds album (1966) is one of the best examples of this.

As the 1960s drew to a close, some musicians – feeling a need to step back from some of rock’s excesses – launched a “back to basics” movement. That yielded Bob Dylan’s return to acoustic and country/folk forms, The Band‘s Music From Big Pink, and eventually The Beatles’ Let it Be. By the time the 1970s began, rock’roll had split into countless sub-styles including jazz-rock, fusion, heavy metal (Black Sabbath), glam rock (T. Rex), progressive rock (Yes), space rock (Pink Floyd) classical-influenced rock (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), on and on. Meanwhile the quieter, less threatening era of the singer/songwriter calmed things down with the likes of James Taylor, Billy Joel, and The Eagles. And “classic” or “corporate” rock was on the rise; by the mid 1970s, punk rock – itself a derivative of bubblegum, garage rock, and early rock and roll bringing things full circle – would establish itself as an answer to what its practitioners saw as a bloated, big business enterprise.

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The Chocolate Watchband: Give the People What They Want (Part 2)

August 27th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Chocolate Watchband guitarist Tim Abbott believes that these new versions of the band’s old songs are an “opportunity for us to rewrite history, to make it right.” Because any way you slice it, Richard Polodor‘s “Expo 2000” which leads off the new disc, is a pretty ace psychedelic instrumental, well worth revisiting.

And there was another compelling reason for the re-formed Watchband to record these songs: “None of these songs were on iTunes,” Abbott points out. “They weren’t available to the fans. Universal [Music Group] had control of it.” The band initially released the tracks independently under the title Revolutions Reinvented, and – interestingly enough – right as those versions hit iTunes, Universal decided it was the right time, finally, to make the original versions available, too. “Pretty much par for record companies,” Abbott observes ruefully.

But ultimately, all of the songs featured on I’m Not Like Everybody Else have been staples of the modern-day band’s set list for quite some time. “We’ve been doing these tunes since 1999,” says Abbott. Back then, vocalist David Aguilar rang up Abbott, told him that there was renewed interest in the band, and suggested they get things going again. Their first gig was in San Diego. “The promoter basically paid us to put the band back together,” laughs Abbott. Fans came from all over – as far as Europe – to see the revived Watchband play live. The band were surprised at the positive reception they got. “I knew something was going on,” recalls Abbott, “but I didn’t realize to what extent. When we finished the show, a guy came up to us and said, ‘I want to bring you guys to New York to do a live show. And we want to record it.’ And then another guy said, ‘We want to take you to Rome.’” And all those things did indeed come to pass.

In the wake of that success, The Chocolate Watchband recorded an album of new material. But Abbott admits that “fans didn’t really embrace” it. He concedes that the band “weren’t thinking about our direction; we just made music.” And while the music may have been worthwhile – the band’s current website pointedly makes only the briefest mention of its existence – it didn’t sound at all like the Watchband of old. And that’s what fans want. As Allmusic‘s Bruce Eder wrote in his measured review of Get Away, “coming off of a 32-year layoff from music, do you try to sound like who you were, which is to say, as people remember you, or who you are?” Abbott contends that the material was good, and suggests that the band might revisit and re-record the songs in a style more akin to their signature sound.

That’s what they did – very successfully – for I’m Not Like Everybody Else. “We had an experience in New York,” Abbott says, “where we brought some of our updated-sounding stuff. And what we found was that our fan base just rejected it. We had done our show, and when we came back for an encore, we did new music. And that was the worst possible thing we could have done! We didn’t know, but it was very educational.” He laughs as he recalls something David Aguilar said to him one night, post-show, after running through a set of the Watchband’s best-loved – “genuine” or not – songs. “We should have done these songs back then. They’re good!”

The new album takes its title from a Watchband cover of the classic Kinks song. But the lesson that The Chocolate Watchband learned happens to be the title of a later Kinks album: Give the People What They Want. Abbott observes, “a lot of bands get to evolve. The Beatles: you watched them evolve. There was an evolution of the style, the sound. But we don’t have that privilege, because we basically dropped out, and then we came back. And so our fan base wants The Chocolate Watchband that they love. They don’t want it changed. They don’t want it updated; they don’t want me to shred on guitar. They want to hear it in that style; that’s why they like it.”

Original bassist Bill “Flo” Flores is featured on the album, but had to retire shortly thereafter for health reasons. Music journalist/author Alec Palao is the group’s official historian, and he advises the group as well. Some of his most well-regarded advice: “Make it sound correct: make it sound vintage.” So both live onstage and in studio recordings, that’s what The Chocolate Watchband does. Abbott smiles when he cites a Belgian reviewer’s concert writeup: “For just a moment, I felt as if I was 17 years old, at the Fillmore Auditorium watching one of my favorite bands in the world.”

One of the other heroes of the 60s garage/psych era is The Seeds. That group’s keyboard player, Daryl Hooper, has now joined the Watchband for live dates and recording. “We have another album in the can,” says Abbott, “and we’re probably going to finish it in the fall.” Hooper is on the disc, playing both keyboards and guitar.

Based on the band’s early recorded legacy, they’re often thought of as major Rolling Stones acolytes. Not so, says Abbott. “We were kind of a blues-influenced band,” he says, noting that the only song from their albums that ever found its way into their live sets in the 60s was “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” So oddly enough, today’s Chocolate Watchband doesn’t really sound like the vintage band at all. At least not like the vintage band when they played live. “We did a lot of Chicago bluesy kind of things,” Abbott says. Flores and he “were influenced by James Brown and soul. And Gary [Andrijasevich, drummer] had a jazz background. David was an artist. And Mark, who I replaced, was really into Jorma Kaukonen from The Jefferson Airplane.” Not to put too fine of a point on it, but as Abbott says, “the live Chocolate Watchband was nothing like the records.” He laughs and adds, “It is now.”

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The Chocolate Watchband: Give the People What They Want (Part 1)

August 26th, 2015

Among aficionados of 1960s garage and psychedelic music, The Chocolate Watchband is dearly loved. Though the band’s history is – even by the standards of that era – a mightily convoluted one, the band (and its ersatz versions; more on that subject shortly) left behind some durable music that captures the 1960s zeitgeist.

In many ways, the story of San Jose, California-based The Chocolate Watchband is typical of its time. Richie Unterberger‘s chapter on the band in his 1998 book Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll is highly recommended; suffice to say that the story is too complicated to recount here. The short version is that while the band recorded a number of excellent sides, producer Ed Cobb (and engineer Richie Polodor) brought in studio musicians to cut additional tunes, ones that the “real” band had nothing to do with. Complicating matters for those who value so-called “authenticity,” some of those not-really-Watchband tracks are very good-to-excellent.

In 2015, many might look back with bemusement (not to mention ridicule) upon 60s bands with “silly” names: Electric Prunes, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Vanilla Fudge, Strawberry Alarm Clock…you get the idea. It should be noted that these weren’t comedy bands in any sense of the term; no, they were often as deadly serious as, say, Love and The Doors. And while the Watchband didn’t score any megahits along the lines of the Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints” (which featured a lead vocal by a guy who wasn’t even in the group, but that’s yet another story), they created some excellent music.

Oddly enough, The Watchband have some connections to The Grateful Dead. Prior to joining the Watchband, guitarist Tim Abbott played in a band that sometimes featured drummer Bill Kreutzmann “Our regular drummer was a ski bum, and he used to desert us all the time,” Abbott chuckles. “In college, I played with Mickey Hart in The Five of Harts, his band. And I knew Bob Weir; he used to come down to The Chocolate Watchband’s cabin in Los Gatos. One time, in 1967, he brought along what might have been the very first wireless guitar rig, a prototype. And Jerry Garcia helped me get one of my favorite guitars; he worked at a music store.”

Abbott recalls the circumstances of his most memorable Chocolate Watchband concert date of the 1960s. It also happens to have been his first one. “Mark [Loomis] had left the band, and there were a lot of bookings left. They called me in on a Wednesday afternoon: ‘Tim, we’ve got a gig Saturday.’ We rehearsed all the way from Wednesday all the way up to Friday night. Almost without sleeping. Saturday morning, we jumped into the manager’s Lincoln and then, off to Mt. Tamalpais [just north of San Francisco] for the Mount Tam Fantasy Fair.” That festival drew more than 36,000 people on June 10-11, 1967, and featured an eclectic lineup that included Dionne Warwick, The Doors, Tim Buckley, The Byrds, The Merry-Go-Round (with Emitt Rhodes) and many others. “I walked out onstage,” Abbott remembers, “and I thought, ‘this is cool.’”

But that wasn’t all. “When we finished our set, the manager for The Fifth Dimension walked over to me and said, ‘Our guitar player didn’t make it. The band really like the way you played. They want to know if you’d substitute.’ I said yes.” He went over and met the band, and was all set to play with them. “I asked, ‘Do you guys have any charts?’ They said yes and opened their book for me.” He pauses for emphasis. “Not a chord in sight! All written out, ‘golf clubs on fences.’ And I hadn’t sight-read in years. I mean, I could sight read, but not in front of that many people! I asked them, ‘Don’t you have anything with chords on it?’ They said, ‘No, this is what we have.’ Those were studio charts for seasoned studio guys.” Abbott had to bow out, but he still has fond memories of the festival.

Modern-day listeners may know The Chocolate Watchband best through their inclusion on the Nuggets compilations. The original 1972 double LP featured “Let’s Talk About Girls,” an aggressive, macho Rolling Stones-flavored rocker. But when Nuggets was expanded to four CDs in 1998, the band scored two more inclusions: “Sweet Young Thing” (not the Monkees‘ tune) and the immortal “Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love-in),” which had been featured in the 1967 teen exploitation film Riot on Sunset Strip.

In the group’s (again, convoluted) heyday, they released three LPs – 1967′s No Way Out, The Inner Mystique in 1968, and 1969′s One Step Beyond – all of which command extremely high prices on today’s collector’s market. And all three feature a mix of originals, covers, actual-group performances, and recordings made without the band’s knowledge or involvement. Their time apparently having passed, The Chocolate Watchband broke up in 1970.

Fast forward more than thirty years. With the renewal of interest in all things garage-psych – thanks in no small part to the aforementioned Nuggets reissue – four key members of the 60s era band reunited and began to play live dates. Various compilations and live discs followed, and eventually the group entered the studio to record a new album. Now available as I’m Not Like Everybody Else, that disc collects thirteen tracks from the band’s history, in newly-recorded (but faithful) versions.

“There were a couple of things that were on our minds,” explains Abbott. Acknowledging that some of the songs weren’t recorded by band members – much less played live at concert dates back then – he says, “There were a few times when the band got to do what it does, but not often. Not to the extent we wanted to. David [Aguilar, lead vocalist] was replaced by a studio guy, and then they took pieces of what we had done, and built new songs out of them.”

“The record companies back then were in complete control,” Abbott says. Understandably, the band wasn’t happy to learn their record label was passing off songs written and performed by others as the Chocolate Watchband. “The band hated ‘em. I remember using those records for target practice,” Abbott says with a chuckle. “And when those albums started going for two, three and four hundred dollars apiece, I started thinking, ‘Oh my god. What have we done?’”

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Album Review: Muddy Waters 100

August 25th, 2015

I’m on record stating my belief that the majority of tribute albums are generally a waste of nearly everyone’s time. Often, the tribute version of the tributee’s songs are too reverent by half, adding nothing to the original. Or, in other cases, the artists go too far, applying their own trademark “sound” for better or worse (usually the latter) to a song that really didn’t need any help, thanks.

Tribute albums tend to be indulgent and self-conscious even when they don’t involve the participation of the omnipresent three (Bono, Jack White, Dave Grohl) who seem, somehow, to attach themselves to every project that’s ostensibly about someone else.

And it’s because of that baggage that I bring to my listening experience that very few tribute albums make it past my slush pile. But I’m very pleased to report that Muddy Waters 100 is a highly worthy exception to the rule. In celebration of what would have been the 100th birthday of Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield), Chicago producer Larry Skoller has brought together a superb band to interpret  fifteen of Waters’ best-loved songs, and some well-chosen guests help out.

John Primer is no youngster himself; at 70 years of age, he’s a well-seasoned journeyman bluesman. His guitar and vocal skills are stellar, and he manages to conjure the ambience and spirit of Muddy while (a) not aping the great man and (b) maintaining his own identity in the process. Backed by a crack team of musicians that includes guitarist Bob Margolin (he and Primer were members of Waters’ band) plus some younger but supremely talented players, Primer leads the band through Waters tunes that are well-known (“Got My Mojo Working,” “Mannish Boy”) as well as some that won’t be familiar to those who aren’t hardcore blues fiends.

The guests are players whose presence make sense: musicians who’ve been influenced by Muddy Waters show up here, as opposed to flavor-of-the-month stars brought in more for their marquee value. But nonetheless, they’re names most listeners will recognize, and their participation is welcome. Derek Trucks, Johnny Winter (in one of his last sessions before his death), James Cotton, Gary Clark Jr., and Keb’ Mo’ are just some of the spotlighted guests.

The arrangements are familiar enough that purists shouldn’t be put off, but they happily avoid that slavish reverence to which I alluded earlier. Modern beats find their way into some of the performances, but unobtrusively so. One can’t help think that the man who once deigned to make Electric Mud would have smilingly approved.

The well-annotated booklet provides some historical context for the songs chosen. An excellent essay on Muddy Waters provides more background. And the photography deserves mention: all manner of archival photos of the master at work are included in stunning clarity. The hardbound case makes the whole package a souvenir-of-sorts, but it’s all in service to the music therein.

True, April 4, 2013 was the actual 100-year anniversary of Muddy’s birth, but these things take a while to assemble, and the care that went into the making of this package – the music, the liner notes, the booklet and the physical package itself – is such that Skoller and company deserve a pass on that minor point.

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Concert Review: Jaga Jazzist — Asheville NC, 23 June 2015

August 24th, 2015

Demonstrating yet again that – more than sixty-odd years after the dawn of rock’n'roll – popular music idioms remain fertile ground for experimentation and cross-fertilization, Jaga Jazzist combines rock, jazz, electronica, trip-hop, and who-knows-what-else into music that is all and none of those things at once. And as their recent show at New Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina illustrated, modern-day audiences are open to musical journeys of the sort undertaken by the group, even if those audience members don’t always completely understand what’s going on.

If one were to have polled the June 23 audience at New Mountain, asking each person whether they enjoyed jazz, my own guess is that most would give a noncommittal answer of the “Some of it’s okay, I guess” variety. Yet the audience reaction to Jaga Jazzist’s performance was enthusiastic and attentive. With eight members onstage (drums; bass/keyboards; guitar/keyboards; guitar/vibraphone/analog synthesizers; brass; brass/synthesizers; synthesizer/guitar; and synthesizer), the group occupied a very busy (and busy-looking) stage; the musician setup was obviously based more on facilitating visual and auditory communication amongst the musicians, and made few if any concessions to visual-aesthetic considerations.

Save for the odd bit of wordless vocalization from the two-person brass backline, the music of Jaga Jazzist is completely instrumental. The lengthy tunes – typically six minutes or more, and sometimes much more – allow the band to engage in multiple musical dialogues, and while the pieces seem designed to allow plenty of space for the individual players to express themselves, the music always seems to be headed someplace specific. Jaga Jazzist are not a “noodling” band; while what they do might be categorized as experimental jazz, the music is firmly rooted in conventional styles; that built-in contrast lets the group weave unique works on the fly, but it also keeps the group grounded enough so as to not lose an audience weaned on more conventional music.

Lars Horntveth took center stage, but rather than acting as a front man, he busied himself musically, constantly switching (often multiple times within a given musical piece) between guitar, Korg analog synth, and vibraphone. And all the while, Horntveth engaged in only an occasional quick and subtle meeting of eyes with the other players; the level of unspoken communication among the seven men and one woman onstage seemed to operate at a very high level.

Drummer (and co-leader with brother Lars) Martin Horntveth handled the daunting task of laying down a thick and solid backbeat for the group’s exploratory music; his approach drew upon the finesse of a jazz drummer, the precision of a percussionist in a metal band, and the sheer power of a straight-ahead rock drummer. His duties also included acting as the band spokesman; other than an occasional quick smile and nod of recognition and appreciation, the other seven members of Jaga Jazzist opted not to speak to the audience during the set.

The group showcased several numbers from their latest, 2015′s Starfire (reviewed here), but they also dug into their back catalog, pulling out winning tracks such as the title work from 2009′s One Armed Bandit. Expanding a bit upon the studio version, Jaga Jazzist wrapped the work’s signature melodic lines around a dense, thickly-layered arrangement that featured plenty of crosstalk between instruments. The group skillfully juxtaposed classical/acoustic instruments with throbbing synthesizers, sinewy electric guitars, and the buttery intonation of the vibraphone.

Combining such disparate instrumentation could easily result in a sonic mishmash, but the carefully arranged music of Jaga Jazzist brings those disparate instruments together in a way that suggests deeply evocative soundtrack music. Yet unlike soundtrack scores, pieces that are designed to complement a moving visual image, Jaga Jazzist’s music serves as a soundtrack to whatever mental images it conjures in the mind of the audience members.

I noticed one guy who was clearly getting into the music, trying to follow the beat. He never quite could manage to hold onto the (often tricky time signature) groove for more than a few seconds here and there, but his thorough enjoyment of the music was nonetheless manifest. In that way, he was a fairly typical audience member this night.

There really aren’t many groups to whom Jaga Jazzist can be likened. Their synthesizer-centric instrumentals occasionally call to mind the psychedelic jam of Ozric Tentacles; their inventive arrangements and hypnotic guitars coupled with modern jazz ideas suggests some of Dungen‘s work (most notably on One Armed Bandit‘s “Banafluer Overalt”). But ultimately, this eight-piece group from Norway charts their own musical path.

All photos © 2015 Bill Kopp

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