Archive for the ‘dvd’ Category

DVD Review: BB King — The Life of Riley

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

I know people who argue that – as a creative work – the music documentary is dead. They point out that the medium has become a rote retreading of tired techniques; that every possible clever, creative or even interesting method of telling a story onscreen has been beaten to death, leaving only the shell of a concept in its wake.

I understand what they mean. It’s nigh upon impossible to find a music documentary that doesn’t have these four things:

  1. Character actors “reenact” the musician’s early years while stock audio (that evokes the style of the subject matter without having to actually, y’know, pay royalties for using the actual music) plays in the background
  2. Post-production digital gimmicks like “fake scratched 16mm film” or “fake sepia tinting” or “fake [insert any of the myriad effects]”
  3. Bono, and possibly Dave Grohl
  4. Narration by Morgan Freeman.

Okay, I overstate things a bit here, both to make a point and possibly elicit a small chuckle. But the fact remains that – like the book says – when it comes to music documentaries, it often seems as if there’s nothing new under the sun.

Jon Brewer‘s new documentary B.B. King: The Life of Riley falls into many of these traps: it has the actors, the post-production, U2‘s ubiquitous lead singer, and Freeman (the last as both off-screen narrator and onscreen “talking head”). But despite its often rote approach, The Life of Riley transcends cliché. This is no doubt thanks to its subject matter. B.B. King is very much the real deal, and so even when tired devices are used to chronicle his life, the substance wins out over the style.

Throughout the film, Brewer’s approach seems to be chronological, but a close watch shows that the narrative often jumps forward and backward in the timeline, in service of the mini-narrative being explored. As much is left out of the story as is put in, and the viewer likely comes away feeling that they haven’t been told the whole story. (For example, we’re left wondering if he’s still married to Sue Carol Hall; he’s not). And his monumental, historic 1974 concert in Africa deserves more than the cursory mention it gets in the film. But in the absence of any other career-spanning look at King, The Life of Riley is what we have. And in the wake of King’s very recent suspension of his tour (for health reasons; he’s currently 89 years of age), now is the perfect time for such a film to appear.

In Brewer’s defense, The Life of Riley is perhaps the only music documentary in which the inescapable likeness and voice of Bono does truly deserve its place in the film. U2 toured and performed with King, and their “When Love Comes to Town” (featuring King on vocals and guitar) is one of the better pieces of music they’ve produced. (It’s less clear, however, why Bruce Willis gets screen time, but we’ll leave that one for another day.) And despite the fact that having Freeman narrate your film has become tired even as a joke device, the man’s clear yet laconic cadence is an excellent vehicle for narration.

As portrayed in The Life of Riley, King is painted as something of a good-natured rascal, one who always has a smile but whom you’d best not cross; it seems once he achieved success, he invariably (and inviolably) got his way. Fair enough: if any musician can be said to have paid his dues, King – who came from indisputably hardscrabble beginnings – is that man.

Music fans will come away from The Life of Riley wishing there was more in the way of performance clips in the film. But for that, there’s always King’s deep catalog of music. His most recent album is the Grammy-winning One Kind Favor; I reviewed it on release way back in 2008.

In the end, unlike its subject matter, The Life of Riley doesn’t yield anything that’s groundbreaking or especially inspiring. It’s perhaps only a small notch above an A&E Biography TV special (do they even make those any more?), but it remains worthwhile viewing.

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DVD Review: Ian Anderson – Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland

Monday, October 27th, 2014

In 2012, Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson mounted a tour to promote his latest solo album, Thick As a Brick 2: What Ever Happened to Gerald Bostock? The tour and album both represented a high point in the recent musical activity of the ever-busy Anderson.

I saw the Asheville date of that tour in my hometown, and got the chance to interview Anderson for a print feature in advance of the performance. At the time, however, I reviewed neither the album nor the live show. This new DVD (also available on Blu-Ray) is a document of the show, which is in part a document of the album.

While in the last several years, Anderson’s flute playing has actually improved (we discussed that in our first interview, back in 2007), his vocal ability hasn’t fared so well. In fact, a 2010 DVD (Jethro Tull – Live at Avo Session Basel) vividly illustrates what the ravages of time have done to Anderson’s pipes). Still, as the Thick As a Brick 2 album shows, his songwriting and arrangement skills (and, again, his flute playing) remain sharp, reliable tools.

It is clear that Anderson realizes his strengths and weaknesses. And his solution to this set of challenges is nothing less than inspired: he’s added a new character to the onstage lineup. The Yorkshire-born Ryan O’Donnell was born in 1982, the same year Jethro Tull released their fourtten studio album, The Broadsword and the Beast; around the time of O’Donnel’s fifth birthday, Tull received the dubious honor of a Grammy Award for “best heavy metal album.”

But while the young O’Donnell may not have grown up during the classic era of Jethro Tull (arguably 1970-77), his demonstrably understands and appreciates the Tull aesthetic. Leaping about the stage in a most theatrical fashion – and freed from the demands of having to play an instrument – O’Donnell is able to convey not only the sound of his voice (and let it be said that his vocal texture and phrasing are very similar to that of Anderson in his prime), but the movement and visual flourishes so critical to the narrative of Thick As a Brick 2.

O’Donnell’s onstage presence allows Anderson to have it both ways: he can play his delightful flute parts – including ones that overlay the vocal lines, something he’s obviously never been able to do before now – and he can sing the parts of his signature vocals that lie within his diminished range. And with O’Donnell’s help, it all sounds as good as it possibly can.

Thick As A Brick 2 picks up the story of the child character Gerald Bostock, now fully grown and full of modern malaise. Onstage, Anderson and his team make full use of video clips at key points in the story; these – starring Anderson in one of several character roles – show that in addition to his myriad other skills, the sixty-something Anderson is a fine and natural actor.

Thick As A Brick 2 is full of humor, sarcasm, wit, drama…and lots of good music. Similar to the approach used on the original 1972 Thick As A Brick, the work is presented more or less as a single piece (yet with its sections distinctly titled), and is built around a central musical motif. But unlike, say, Roger Waters‘ three-note riff that represented most of Pink Floyd‘s 1979 The Wall, the Thick As A Brick 2 motif is at its core quite musical, and involved enough to sustain its use across an entire album.

The 2012 performance in Iceland is – by design – nearly identical to the performance I witnessed that same year in Asheville. The choreography dictates that this is so. The first half of the performance is a live reading of the 1972 album; after a brief intermission ,the band returns to present Thick As A Brick 2. And while when I first heard the modern-day sequel (studio version), I sensed that it paled somewhat in comparison to the ’72 album, when the two pieces are performed live, end-to-end, Thick As A Brick 2 benefits greatly. It’s a worthy successor to its predecessor. And with the flawlessly performed, filmed and (courtesy of King Crimson‘s Jakko Jakszyk) audio-recorded DVD Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland, fans of Anderson and Jethro Tull are presented with a must-have purchase. And that’s no mean feat for someone like Anderson, producing vital works some 45 years after releasing his debut album. If you like anything you’ve ever heard from Anderson, you definitely won’t want to sit this one out.

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DVD Review: Money for Nothing

Monday, October 13th, 2014

I approached this DVD with more than a bit of trepidation: would the filmmakers attempt to bestow great and weighty cultural importance upon the music video format? Or would they take a History Channel sort of approach to it, adding melodrama where little actually existed?

I was delightfully surprised when I viewed Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video. The whole affair is aimed squarely at the sort of viewer who’s closely familiar with music videos in general. The 78-minute DVD is paced for the ADD generation(s), with the narrative broken into a long menu of bite-sized pieces, none lasting much longer than two minutes.

Money for Nothing charts the history of the music video via two timelines, two points of view. First, the form itself. After tossing a red herring or three the viewer’s way – suggesting that music videos began with MTV’s broadcast of The Buggles‘ “Video Killed the Radio Star” – the film tells us, hey, wait a minute. The BeatlesA Hard Day’s Night, right? But no: Money for Nothing rightly (if in exceedingly brief fashion) points to Scopitones (from the 1960s) “Soundies” (from the mid ’40s) and finally Walt Disney‘s Fantasia (1940), and even to early animated color films out of Germany in 1933.

But Money for Nothing never goes all academic on the viewer; like the subject it’s chronicling, the film keeps moving, never lingering on any image of idea for more than a brief second. Certainly the arc of MTV’s rise and fall is followed, since the Viacom cable channel was the embodiment of the medium for many years.

Money for Nothing isn’t afraid to chart the downfall of the form, and even makes its own suggestions as to why music videos became moribund on television (and why they still exist, albeit in a different form). The film rightly categorizes music videos as “advertisements,” but concedes that quite often it wasn’t clear what exactly was being sold.

Well, except when it was: fantasy and sex (and often both) are unsurprisingly the top items being pushed by music videos. Music videos have rarely been a means of delivering subtlety, and the film concedes that as well. But neither does Money for Nothing ridicule the form: it seems to suggest that music videos are a bit like a painter’s canvas, or a blank piece of paper: what is done with them depends largely on the artist.

And the “artist” is the focus of the second timeline the film follows: not the music artist, but rather the filmmaker. As the hundreds (literally hundreds) of film clips flicker across the screen, the bottom corner info lists the artist, album, director and year, just like good ol’ MTV did back when it broadcast music videos. And the second timeline explores the work of notable filmmakers. After giving props to the music video heavweights (Godley and Creme chief among them), I was surprised to see the names of so many well known motion picture directors among the credits: Julien Temple and Jonathan Demme, sure. But Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese? Their participation helped legitimize the form. Or did it just help them pay some bills in a lean era? Money for Nothing leaves that call to the viewer.

The DVD isn’t without its flaws. While mentioning The Monkees as a key component in the early history of the music video, no mention is made of Mike Nesmith, the man who pretty much invented the idea of a channel that showed music videos all the time (he sold that idea to Viacom). And no mention is made of Paul Revere and the Raiders, even though they appeared on television mugging and miming to their songs more often than any other musical artist before or since. And while I’m not a particular fan of the videos, not a single clip (nor mention thereof) of the 1980s’ most ubiquitous music video trio, ZZ Top, shows up in Money for Nothing. (They also missed mentioning Todd Rundgren‘s important and pioneering work in music videos, but I’ll give ‘em a pass on that one since he’s not the household name he deserves to be.)

Near its end, Money for Nothing largely concedes that the era of the music video has long since ended, but it makes the case that some interesting work is still being done in the form. (It manages to do so without mentioning YouTube; neat trick, that.) Like the ephemeral and ultimately fun if insubstantial form it chronicles, Money for Nothing isn’t a wholly satisfying film, but it’s the best look at the history of the music video that’s been done so far. Recommended.

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Album Review: Eric Clapton – Unplugged (CD+DVD)

Friday, July 18th, 2014

Here’s a slightly unusual candidate for reissue: Eric Clapton‘s 1992 Unplugged album. To my knowledge, this massively commercially successful album has never gone out of print, which begs the question: why reissue it? To be fair, this 2014 reissue does include some bonus material. But first, let’s take a look at the original album.

Filmed – as was standard procedure for the cable series MTV Unplugged – in front of a small audience and featuring more-or-less acoustic readings of the artist’s work, Clapton’s Unplugged came pretty far into the whole “unplugged” story arc. The TV series had begin its life as a Jules Shear-hosted show with all manner of musical guests. Artists would render stripped-down, often more subtle versions of their (generally) well-known material. Beginning in late 1989, MTV Unplugged began airing, and by 1991 at least a couple of major stars had not only appeared, but had subsequently released live recordings documenting their performances: Paul McCartney‘s Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) and Mariah Carey‘s single cover of the Jackson 5‘s “I’ll Be there.” So by the time of Clapton’s Unplugged date, the idea was certainly neither new nor groundbreaking.

And by this point in Clapton’s career, his style had calmed considerably from the days of Derek and the DominosLayla and Other Assorted Love Songs (not to mention Cream), so the mellow approach was no significant stylistic departure for him.

Still, Clapton – joined by longtime musical associates including percussionist Ray Cooper, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low – used the format to explore his love of the more acoustic-leaning “country blues” sounds that had long been a major influence on his playing. The result was a set heavy on covers (some might call them standards), with a few contemporary originals tossed into the mix. For his trouble, Clapton’s Unplugged LP scored him more than 10 million units sold, plus six Grammy awards.

The album’s most memorable cuts are a version of “Tears in Heaven,” the song about the tragic loss of Clapton’s son Conor, and a reinvention of “Layla” that bizarrely denudes the tune of its passion (and its classic extended instrumental coda), though it remains popular in many corners.

The new set expands the original album and offers three discs total. The first is an exact duplicate of the original 1992 CD, featuring fourteen songs form the television performance. The second disc features material recorded but not aired as part of the TV program, including three numbers (“Circus” and “Worried Life Blues” plus two takes of the unaired “My Father’s Eyes”) not broadcast, and four alternate takes/breakdowns of songs that did appear. A third disc (DVD) features the entire program as broadcast, plus an hour of previously unseen footage. None of the previously-unseen/unheard material is especially revelatory; they’re all very much of a piece. The booklet that accompanies the digipak is short on details; the opportunity to feature a contemporary essay on the performance has been passed up. And the cover art again features the grainy, “screen capture”-looking photo that graced the original release.

Verdict: good for Clapton fans who somehow don’t already have the lion’s share of this material on CD and DVD (or perhaps VHS); worthy of interest for most others, but not an essential purchase.

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DVD Review: Morrissey — 25Live

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

In pop culture, certain truths evolve into long-running inside jokes. For example, if you booked Sly Stone for a gig, you could count on him (a) not showing up, (b) showing up right around the time the gig is supposed to end, or (c) walking out the stage door mid-act to “take a pee” and then not returning. And with former Smiths vocalist Morrissey, buying an advance ticket to a date on one of his tours is akin to buying a Powerball lottery ticket: your odds of getting an return on your investment are one in a million.

Well, okay, it’s not quite that bad. But just last week Moz announced the suspension of yet another tour, this time due to him ostensibly catching a bug of some sort from his opening act. Yeah, whatever. Terminally precious, Morrissey has a long history of this sort of behavior, and his long-suffering fans continue to buy tickets. They’re the music fan version of Charlie Brown, and Morrissey is Lucy van Pelt with the football. Aaaargh!

But the elusive fact remains: the man does occasionally put on a show. And when he does, it’s often very, very good. While there’s no documentation letting us know just how long the film crew had to follow him around to actually catch a show, the new DVD 25Live is a full concert performance. Morrissey and band appeared onstage at Hollywood High School in March 2013, and the entire show was filmed and recorded.

The DVD opens to the strains of The New York Dolls‘ 1971 classic “Looking for a Kiss” (superfan Moz was instrumental in getting the Dolls to reunite a few years back). Black and white backstage footage is shown, with brief fan interviews letting us know just how hardcore Morrissey’s fans really are. (This fact will be hammered home as the concert gets underway.)

The production values – both onstage and in the DVD – matter-of-factly put forth the idea (accurate or not) that Morrisey is the world’s biggest star. Everything about the DVD is top-notch and professional. The band – all dressed in matching jeans and t-shirts – perform flawlessly, yet with the fire and passion that Morrissey’s emotional (though generally not “emo”) songs require. And the man himself is on-key throughout, and is seemingly having the time of his life in front of the capacity crowd of young fans.

The band charges through a pleasing survey of Morrissey’s solo material, sprinkling the set with plenty of Smiths classics. Morrissey’s lead guitarist (and musical director) Boz Boorer does a fine job of conjuring Johnny Marr‘s original licks, and his own personality shines on the newer material. Morrissey’s curious blend of upbeat music wedded to somber, melancholy lyrics (the crowd happily sings along: “You have killed me, you have killed me”) is well served by the performance, the venue, and the audience.

The editing of the DVD leans in the direction of warts-and-all, though there really aren’t any warts. Morrissey’s cryptic in-between-songs banter is included, as are the count-ins. The 21st century ADD technique of endless quick-cutting is in full flower here: rarely does any one camera angle linger onscreen for more than two or three seconds.

At one point, the singer hands the mic over to some front-row fans, affording them the chance to preserve in high definition audiovisual their fawning spoken tributes (Example: “Thank you for the life lessons you’ve taught us”). Though one suspects — hopes? — such words would make a performer squirm just a bit, for his part Moz doesn’t seem to mind. And during the encore, when Moz carries around a little boy — handed up from the crowd while wearing his Smiths t-shirt — one can clearly see the beefy security personnel manhandling the front-row crowd to keep them offstage. At that moment I couldn’t help recall the “Sally Simpson” scene from The Who‘s Tommy, such is the near-messianic stature Morrissey seems to have among his fans.

The DVD’s title 25Live refers to the number of years in Morrissey’s career to date; the video includes nearly as many songs. And considering the disc’s relatively modest price – about twelve bucks for the Blu-Ray, a bit less for the DVD – it represents a sure-fire way to enjoy an evening with Morrissey. (There’s no truth to the rumor that every other copy of the disc features footage of a silent, empty stage.)

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Album Review: Bobby Rush — Decisions

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

An authentic blues album is a rare thing in 2014. Maybe it’s a function of modern recording techniques; I don’t know the reason. But most attempts at capturing the blues in the context of a recording session end up feeling and sounding sterile and lifeless, rote and unimaginative.

The good news is that the current state of blues releases has the effect of shining a brighter light on those albums that truly do rise above. And that’s the case with Decisions, the new CD+DVD release from Bobby Rush. Ably backed by the seasoned party band Blinddog Smokin’ (Chicago Chuck Gullens on drums, bassist Roland Pritzker, Mo Beeks on keyboards, guitarist Robert “Chalo” Ortiz, and vocalist Carl Gustafson out front) plus assorted studio cats on additional guitars, saxophones and whatnot, Rush delivers his soulful vocals in a style that laid back enough to convey the I-got-this attitude without breaking a sweat.

Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) shares lead vocal duties with Rush on one tune, the album opener “Another Murder in New Orleans.” And while the album packaging makes a bit too much of this single-track collaboration (“Featuring the Legendary Dr. John” is emblazoned on the cover artwork, and a great photo of the duo serves as the booklet’s cover), the tune will leave listeners wanting more from these two grizzled veterans of music.

In fact, the Gustafson-penned “Another Murder in New Orleans” fits smoothly into the sonic space of the album overall. Rush composed five of the album’s ten tracks, including the smoky title song. And he has a sympathetic foil in Gustafson, the writer (either solo or with others) of Decisions‘ other tracks. Gustafson included two numbers written to be autobiographical (sic) tunes, and their titles make clear their subjects: “Bobby Rush’s Bus” purports to tell the story of “nineteen years on the road” with Rush, and an announcer lets us know who’s taking each of the four solos. And the wry and comical “Dr. Rush” casts Bobby as a radio call-in advice resource.

In fact, nearly all of the tracks on Decisions aim for a slice-of Bobby’s-life vibe, and those slices are upbeat and grin-inducing. “Too Much Weekend” tells the story of the Monday-morning effects of a weekend of over-stimulation. Full of stabbing horn chart work, “Funky Old Man” implores the listener to do a new dance called the “Fred Sanford.”

Elsewhere, “Love of a Woman” mines well-worn lyrical territory familiar to any blues fan, and “If That’s the Way You Like It I Like It” is sung in the voice of a man who will seemingly put up with anything to keep his woman. And “Stand Back” folds in some Cuban salsa elements, answering the unasked question: What would Santana‘s “Smooth” sound like with Bobby Rush out front instead of that Matchbox 20 guy?

The included DVD features a video for “Another Murder in New Orleans” featuring Rush onstage with the band at One Eyed Jack’s, with Dr. John on piano and vocal. Some clever, highly stylized animation and handheld street-scenes camera work, adds interest, though the black-and-white narrative sections are perhaps a bit too literal. But overall, it’s an exceedingly well done clip. A brief interview of sorts with Dr. John is interesting, but the intercut footage of Rush sitting on a stool in the studio doing some solo blues with only his voice and harmonic is worth seeing.

Rush’s previous album — 2013′s Down in Louisiana – earned a Blues Music Award for “Soul Blues Album of the Year,” and since Decisions is every bit as good, it will be worth watching to see if this new album gets similar notices.

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DVD Review: I Dream of Wires, Hardcore Edition

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

The producers of I Dream of Wires‘ “Hardcore Edition” weren’t kidding when they named the film. The original film is a lovingly detailed and insightful feature-length documentary look at the analog synthesizer: its genesis, birth, evolution, demise and subsequent surprising rebirth. Drawing on history and contemporary interviews with synth fiends you’d recognize (Skinny Puppy‘s Cevin Key, Nine Inch NailsTrent Reznor), I Dream of Wires successfully explains the appeal and intimidation factor of the mighty beast that is the analog synth.

Though I consider myself more than a casual aficionado of the analog synthesizer (I own several, though none are the impossibly expensive switchboard-panel looking modular design), I learned quite a bit watching this film. You know those stories where two people are working concurrently, yet independent of one another, racing toward a similar end? You know, like Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison? Well, Bob Moog (“east coast”) and Don Buchla (“west coast”) shared a similar story. Buchla’s approach was – his adherents would arguer – more “pure,” as he didn’t wish to limit/encumber his synthesizer with anything so drearily commonplace as a keyboard. Moog, on the other hand, thought in more practical – yet equally groundbreaking) terms, so even his earliest monophonic modular synthesizers were controlled by a keyboard that would render the machine at least nominally familiar to a pianist or organist.

I Dream of Wires gets into much more than that, though, as it charts the decline of the analog synth in favor of the sterile Yamama DX-7 in the 1980s. In that period, old Moogs could be picked up secondhand in pawn shops for next to nothing ( to wit: I bought a Moog Rogue in 1982 for, I think, $125). But as the 90s unfolded, select musicians began to rediscover the joys of “real” synthesizers (there’s an oxymoron for ya) and things have been on a slow, gradual upswing ever since.

The new “Hardcore Edition” expands on all of this, and may be more than the average viewer wants (or can handle in a single sitting). But if one views it more as a series or miniseries, the four-hour DVD makes for excellent watching.

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DVD Review: The Doors — R-Evolution

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Many of the best-loved bands of the 1960s don’t own the rights to their own material. What this means in practical terms is that they don’t have the freedom to put together career-spanning DVDs that offer a comprehensive look at their work in their most vital years. (and the opportunity to profit from same.)

When I think about this fact, one of the first bands that comes to mind is Paul Revere and the Raiders. On television in their heyday more often than The Monkees (if you can wrap your mind around that fact), The Raiders have not a single DVD showcasing their material. (Direct your inquiries to Dick Clark Productions, the entity responsible for the non-existence of Raiders video product in the 21st century.)

Other bands have either fared better, or worked to secure rights to their material. The Doors were always careful stewards of their work product, so it’s not surprising (though it is most welcome) that there’s a new DVD – with a run time (including bonus material ) of nearly two and a half hours – documenting their film and television output.

R-Evolution is a thoughtful survey of The Doors’ music in video form, without any annoying voice-overs or other superfluous content. It’s just the videos. And as the liner notes make clear, the pointedly chronological organization of the clips emphasizes how the band started out “playing the game” (see performances on American Bandstand – Clark again! – from 1967), but quickly asserted control of their product and made more abstract, idiosyncratic films that fit with what we today recognize as the Doors aesthetic.

The sourcing of these clips is exceptional, and the quality beats the hell out of anything that circulated among (cough) bootleg collectors. Trust me on this. Clips from Murray the K‘s TV show, Jonathan Winters‘ show, and various European musical programs have an undeniable kitsch factor (“Light My Fire” on Malibu U features a setting inspired by a laughable, wrongheadedly literal interpretation of the lyric, and must be seen to be believed).

But the later material is – as it should be – odd and much more Doors-y. Music films produced by the band themselves lean more on live footage and in-studio clips than any sort of pantomiming by the band. And even the 1980s clips – made to take advantage of the medium’s ascendancy in the age of MTV – are fascinating if a bit dated.

The copious bonus material on R-Evolution rounds out an excellent disc that deserves to be a part of any serious 60s music fan’s collection.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 4

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: As much as I love your songwriting, two of my favorite tunes of yours have always been “Hold Back the Night” and “I Want You Back,” both soul/r&b covers. How did you discover that sort of music when you were young, and – since it has clearly influenced your style – what do you think it was and is about that kind of music that connected with you on an emotional level?

Graham Parker: None of that was a stretch in England in the 70s. After The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there was a sort of subculture of soul, ska and Motown. And a sort of mod look, but more like skinheads. We looked like skinheads, but without the violence. Well [chuckles], sometimes, but not always.

And the culture was going to the clubs and listening to that music. Even going to see The Skatalites in the suburbs of England! I saw them, for goodness’ sake, in a provincial town, a nowheresville. These people would tour ’round here. [In the 60s] Otis Redding would play at a big scene about five miles from me. I was probably about fourteen [circa 1964-5]. Maybe sixteen. And in those days, we knew about things by seeing posters. And if you didn’t go out in a car that week, you wouldn’t see a poster. And you’d miss Otis Redding, playing down the road!

It wasn’t a stretch for us to be into that kind of music. It was a semi-underground thing; the charts were still much more pop music. But it was really something that got into my blood at that age. And then you get out of that and into the psychedelic era, then the blues era – Peter Green and Chicken Shack – I went through all that and forgot about soul music.

By the time I got to my early 20s, I might hear “I Want you Back” on the radio. And I realized, “That’s never gonna die.” Whereas a lot of this progressive rock, it’s dead in the water, y’know? So my entire attitude changed once again. I rediscovered that music, and I suddenly had a plan, as it were, or a direction to reinstate soul music into the culture. But to do it in an English way, of course. Like the Rolling Stones had done blues in an English way. And the Beatles did “Please Mr. Postman” and stuff like that.

BK: It’s part of the proud tradition of British artists serving up American music to Americans, filtering it though a British sensibility.

GP: Right. There was really nothing original about what I was doing. I was just doing it in my way, and it sounded like me. And it was extremely aggressive. We were also doing “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It’s on the [1976] Live at Marble Arch record, I think. Which at the time, 1976-76, was radical. The audience would see us doing that, and they would think we were doing bad pop music. They didn’t understand, because it wasn’t progressive, and there weren’t big lead guitar solos. But we took soul music and beefed it up into hard rock’n'roll style. But as I say, it wasn’t any more original than what The Beatles or Stones or Chris Farlowe were doing.

I was writing songs that were very soul influenced, but with more intellectual lyrics. But it wasn’t slavish, like the Alabama Shakes, which is basically a very good slavish copy. I wasn’t doing that, ever.

BK: A good bit of the film focuses on the events leading up to and including the making of Three Chords Good. What abut the experience of making that record was the same as the old days, and what was different?

GP: It was much different because we didn’t have a producer. It was me and my engineer/co-producer Dave Cook, saying, “We’re doing it. No way are we looking for some outside producer; it’s not going to happen.” And the band went along with it. Everybody in the studio was very glad of that. We know what we’re doing now; all that mystique about a great producer, that’s gone. It’s rubbish. What you need is an engineer who knows what he’s doing. And I had the experience to know what my songs are about. You don’t need someone walking in who’s heard them twice and thinks they know what they are! They never did; it was really getting in the way.

It was better. Everyone could relax and come up with their own ideas. And nobody had to listen to another guy who they’d barely met. Because [producers] always want to put their ten cents in. They’re being paid to do that.

BK: All the upcoming dates listed on your site are in the UK or western Europe. Do you have any plans to tour the states, or is that even feasible?

GP: Because we did it twice – and we did all of my markets in the States, and let’s face it: I have a limited amount of markets – there are only so many markets that make it feasible for a six-piece band and crew to come through without going broke.

It just seemed to happen. We did four dates in England; Shepherd’s Bush was sold out months in advance. To a certain extent, the response was even better than in America. In America, we’d just fill out a 1000-seat venue in New York for the last few dates. In England, we’d fill out a 2000-seater months in advance. So basically, I go where I’m in demand. And as soon as my agent saw that – him and the promoter – they went out thick as thieves and said, “Let’s do some more!” And I kind of got bowled along with it. Now we’ve got all this stuff lined up, including Europe, and I don’t really know how much I want to do this all year’ round. And – to talk in hard terms – I don’t think I can strain my market. And to tour America again that soon with The Rumour, I think that this year is out as far as the U.S. Is concerned. I’ve got other markets, like Scandinavia and Spain, that I have not toured in a long time. They want me to go other there solo, or any way possible. But how much life there is in this dog, I don’t know. I really take it bit by bit.

BK: Two Chords Good was released more than a year and a half ago. And while the bootleg box set is a recent release, what are your plans as far as recording releases for the future?

GP: Well, the lot of us are meeting in London, and we’re doing a record in about a week’s time. How about that? [chuckles]

BK: Fantastic!

GP: You may be the first to know that.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 3

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: As the new Ask Me No Questions documentary points out, you parted ways with The Rumour after The Up Escalator (1980), but with the exception of Another Grey Area (1982), you pretty much continued to work with guitarist Brinsley Schwarz on many of your recordings. What was it about him that led you to keep using him but not the other guys in The Rumour?

Graham Parker: I’ve never really been able to answer that questions, really. Actually it was him and Andrew [Bodnar] on the bass as well. They continued on quite a lot of stuff. If you think of The Mona Lisa’s Sister [1988] – which was quite a radical record for me, production-wise – I had gotten fed up with all these 80s-sounding producers, and wanted something with as few instruments as possible. I had never really done that, and I pulled off something quite different, I think. Brinsley and Andrew were part of that, and they were on the road with me. So we did quite a lot together.

But I don’t really know the answer; it just seemed to fall into place without me thinking about it. Brinsley is a foil for me; he can take off the rough edges a bit. Martin [Belmont], as a guitarist, is sort of rough-edged. He’s a brilliant guitarist, and he actually played some incredible guitar on Howling Wind. That’s a lot of him playing the lead on songs like “Don’t Ask Me Questions.” Much more than people think. But he’s got that incredible intensity: Martin cannot lay back. Brinsley adds a dimension that real counts against what I do. So it seemed normal and natural to me; I don’t know how it happened, but I just started talking to Brinsley, and I said,”I want you to help me with The Mona Lisa’s Sister.” He was also on Steady Nerves [1985].

Also, some of the guitarists I was finding myself working with via producers like Jack Douglas on Another Grey Area, I didn’t think they were quite right for me. I didn’t think they had enough individuality in their playing; Brinsley has great individuality. So he has both of those things: a style that can smooth of some of my edges, making a very nice balance, and also individuality as a player. But it’s only now looking back and analyzing it that I can see why I did it.

BK: You mentioned about the 80s sound on some of the records. For me, the only one that really has what I’d consider “dated” production is the one that has “Break Them Down” on it…

GP: Steady Nerves, yeah. That was around the time I was saying, “Oh, I should be my own producer.” But I didn’t really have the guts to do it completely. So I got this guy Bill Whitman, who had engineered the She’s So Unusual album by Cyndi Lauper. And if you think of the sound of that, it personifies the 80s. Not that it wasn’t good; it was very good. He had done that record, and he was in that mode. There was no shaking him out of that. And I went along with it, because it was what you did then. You made an absolutely enormous drum sound, and all the instrument had a load of reverb on them. Everything was drenched in that sound. And that one’s definitely a culprit.

And that’s why I went radically against it with The Mona Lisa’s Sister. I really wanted to do the opposite. Although, if you listen to “Start a Fire” now, you could very well say, “That sounds very 80s.” The difference is, there’s one acoustic guitar doing the rhythm on a sort of disco beat song. Which is sort of unusual; that song is on a lot of alternative [compilation] records. But on that record, I stopped at four instruments: “We’re not gonna double the guitars.” That’s what you did on 80s records; if I played a rhythm guitar on Steady Nerves, the producer would say, “Double it.” So then you’d play what you did again, and they’d copy it. Because it made everything “bigger.” But in hindsight, it made everything smaller, in a strange kind of way. It squashed it with lots of treatment, lots of reverb. And that kind of production really canceled out the rock’n'roll element. It did so very effectively. And we were all guilty of that. We were searching for a bigger sound, but what we were getting was a louder sound. So it was very good to make The Mona Lisa’s Sister, and even better to make Struck by Lightning [1991]. By then, everything was much more grassroots again. There are a couple of tracks on that one that are overdone with production, but mostly, it’s back to the roots.

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