Archive for the ‘multimedia’ Category

Album Review: Todd Rundgren — At the BBC 1972-1982

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Several years back, Todd Rundgren took a proactive approach to the myriad live recordings that exist documenting his long and varied career. A true renaissance man who engenders fierce loyalty in his fan base, Rundgren may still be a “cult artist,” but he’s one of the most well-documented ones. For many years (during the tape- and CD-trading era) a surprisingly large network of Rundgren fans recorded, collected, cleaned-up and traded recordings of nearly every shwo the man ever did. So there’s a massive list of live shows dating back to the very early 1970s, and including Rundgren’s various guises: solo artist, member of the early progressive-phase Utopia, member of the more pop-leaning Utopia lineup, collaborator with Bourgeois Tagg, Hello People, Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson and many others…on and on.

But there aren’t just audience bootlegs out there. From his earliest post-Nazz days, Rundgren has appreciated and embraced television and radio performances as a means for reaching potential fans. As such, there are “board tapes” and/or professionally recorded documents of pretty much every tour he’s ever done. And as he sought to have the best among these released officially, the traing market has somewhat died down (by and large, Rundgren’s fans are an ethical lot; they want him to profit from his work).

The latest entry in the “Todd Rundgren Archive Series” is a near-comprehensive collection of his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the BBC 1972-1982 is a 3CD + 1 DVD set documenting four concerts (three in audio, one audiovisually) and various other related bits and bobs.

The first disc showcases an early solo gig Rundgren did for BBC’s Radio One. An excellent quality mono recording from 1972 finds Rundgren at the piano, using backing tapes to accompany himself. An experienced studio rat even then, he created “karaoke” versions of his hits, allowing him to present them in a live onstage manner that combined the precision and arrangement of a recording with the spontaneity of a live show. Of course such an approach is old-hat now, and has been since the dawn of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), a digital means of syncing multiple sounds sequences. Buti n 1972 it was innovative stuff.

Even with the confining nature of the backing tapes, Rundgren delivers an off-the-cuff, intimate performance, most notably on the Something/Anything? tune “Piss Aaron.” Few would count the tune among Rundgren’s best, but his onstage delivery of it is undeniably entertaining. And the inclusion of “Be Nice to Me” from his early album The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a rare and welcome delight. Rundgren even rocks out at the end, turning in a performance of “Black Maria.”

The first disc also includes two songs from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program(me). These feature the seven-piece Utopia in 1975, performing “Real Man” from his solo album Initiation) and “The Seven Rays,” a highlight of the Utopia Another Live LP (The package’s DVD also features a/v versions of these same two performances).

Speaking of Another Live, the second disc of At the BBC 1972-1982 is similar but expands upon the content of that set. Utopia’s set of the time (1975) included material from Rundgren’s solo albums in addition to their own songs. The BBC disc features a full concert (or at least something approaching one) in excellent stereo, and as such includes songs that weren’t on the single LP Another Live set (recorded elsewhere). Rundgren introduces “Freedom Fighters” as “the first Utopia single” that was never released. The studio version of the tune was on the group’s debut LP; at nearly six minutes, the live reading here is nearly half again as long as its studio version. Live versions of “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” showed up on other Rundgren albums (Back to the Bars and Todd, respectively), but here they’re presented in the context of a full Utopia concert. And “Sunset Boulevard / Le Feel Internacionale” from A Wizard / A True Star hasn’t been released in a live version before (possibly excepting other archival releases), and it’s a highlight of this set.

By 1977 and time of the Utopia Radio One “In Concert” set documented on disc three, Utopia had pared down to a foursome: Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on synthesizer, John “Willie” Wilcox on drums, and Kasim Sulton replacing John Siegler on bass (“all four boys sing,” as they say). Touring to promote both the transitional album Ra and the more mainstream-rock oriented Oops! Wrong Planet, the group performed newer material from those albums, with a quick dip into Rundgren’s solo catalog (“Love of the Common Man” from Faithful) and the set closer “Utopia Theme.” The tighter, compact lineup meant an emphasis upon shorter, more concise songs, but the band still stretches out instrumentally on some longer pieces.

As previously mentioned, the fourth disc in the At the BBC 1972-1982 box set is a DVD. All three sets included are sourced from the TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. The first (mentioned above) features two songs from a 1975 broadcast. The second (from May 1978” documents “The Bearsville Picnic” (the Albert Grossman-headed Bearsville Records was Todd’s and Utopia’s label at the time) and features the extended “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)” from the proggy Ra album.

And the final set of performances on this set brings things full circle in a way, featuring Todd solo in 1982, this time without the gimmicky backing as he winds his way through a solo material set. The performance – featuring Todd variously on acoustic piano and 12-strong acoustic guitar, and even electric “Fool” Gibson SG on “Tiny Demons” – highlights songs from his Hermit of Mink Hollow LP, and includes the innovative “Time Heals” promo video, one of the earliest clips ever broadcast on MTV (the cable channel had premiered the previous fall). Two songs are included that were recorded but cut from the original broadcast: “The Song of the Viking” (originally on Something/Anything?) and “Lysistrata” (a full group performance of which could be found on Utopia’s Swing to the Right album). His reading of “Compassion” (one of his best but least-known songs) is a highlight. Because of the vintage of the video material, it is presented in old format (4:3 ratio) as it was originally broadcast.

Each of the four discs is encased in a mini-LP style sleeve, and the whole affair is in a box slightly larger than a double-CD. An sixteen-page booklet includes photos and an informative essay by Mark Powell.

Taken as a whole, At the BBC 1972-1982 is essential for the Rundgren fan who must have it all, and recommended equally to the relative novitiate looking for an entry point into Rundgren and Utopia’s large catalog.

You may also enjoy: my career-spanning critical look at all of Todd Rundgren’s output (now quite outdated, but worthwhile nonetheless).

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 1)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Marc Ribot (Again)
The second day of Big Ears 2014 kicked off with a most unusual event: Marc Ribot seated in total darkness, armed with only a classical acoustic guitar. Above him on the Bijou stage was a projection screen, upon which was shown Charlie Chaplin‘s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Ribot’s charge was to create a real-time audio accompaniment for the film. This he did with amazing skill.

In fact, while this was ostensibly a Ribot solo gig, in fact the guitarist’s presence meshed so seamlessly with the film that it seemed almost not to exist on its own. His highly expressive guitar lines fit so perfectly with the onscreen images – alternately conveying, joy, menace, whimsy, pathos and the other sensations that encompass the human experience – that one could easily forget about them and simply enjoy the movie.

Which is exactly what the packed house did. Fro the entire film’s run time (approximately an hour), the audience, laughed, gasped and otherwise sat enthralled with the antics portrayed by Chaplin and his seven-year old sidekick Jackie Coogan (known best to my generation as The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester). Ribot’s real-time score was so perfectly integrated that one could have been forgiven for thinking it has been pre-recorded. As it was, the solo performance was a tour de force, one not likely to be bettered.

David Greenberger
Greenberger and I have been Facebook friends for years, but as a byproduct of his status postings there, I know of him primarily as a writer and visual artist. So when I learned that he’d be doing a sort of spoken-word piece at Big Ears, I knew I’d have to catch the performance.

It was a thrill. In the intimate setting of the Square Room, Greenberger took the stage accompanied by a lively and expressive upright bassist (Evan Lipson), nimble and nuanced drummer/percussionist Bob Stagner, and Amanda Rose Cagle, a multi- instrumentalist who played piano, melodica, accordion, electric guitar, percussion and Theremin (and that’s only a partial list).

The premise was rather straightforward, on paper at least: Greenberger read a number of shortish pieces (“a dozen and a half or so,” he told us), all monologues by characters based on conversations he’s had with residents of nursing homes. These raged from barely-lucid ramblings to bitter tirades to bizarre, Dada-ish rants that made little or no sense in any context. And they were unfailingly entertaining.

The musical backing was as varied as Cagle’s instrumental arsenal. Always well-suited for the monologue at hand, the trio provided deep tone color backdrops to Greenberger’s monologues. Initially I thought the trio was improvising; it quickly became apparent that they were instead working from a highly structured – although often seemingly abstract – plan. The only pop-culture equivalent I can think of to describe Greenberger’s performance (with the trio dubbed And Prime Lens — an anagram of their mutual friend, collaborator and guiding light, the recently-deceased Dennis Palmer) is the word-jazz work of Ken Nordine. While Greenberger’s delivery is less stylized than Nordine’s, it’s every bit as enthralling.

Dawn of MIDI
The festival guide’s preview of this trio painted an intriguing picture: a lineup that essentially follows the classic jazz trio format (piano, bass, drums) plays a highly repetitive, minimalistic totally acoustic kind of music that evokes the sound and feel of early synthesizer music ad/or motorik. The truth was, I suppose, quite close to that description, but my reaction to it was unexpected.

As my sweetheart and I arrived at the darkened confines of the Bijou, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces as we crawled around looking for seats. Once we found those seats, we sat down and I snapped a few photos. The next thing I recall took place approximately thirty minutes later, when I was awoken by my sweetie’s whispered words: “I have two words for you: water torture.” While the insistently repetitive music had almost immediately lulled me to slumber, it had given my partner a headache. Looking around into the darkness, I saw that several nearby fellow concertgoers were also splayed out in their seats, fast asleep. One guy, however, was physically gyrating his torso and head in (attempted) time with the music. Go figure.

My coverage of the second day of Big Ears 2014 will continue.

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What’s Old is New Again in November 2013, Part Two

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Three more capsule reviews of new-to-you live albums, continuing from yesterday’s blog entry.

The Modern Jazz Quartet – Lost Tapes: Germany 1956-1958
Where modern jazz is concerned, taste and restraint need not be synonymous. And there’s no better exemplar of the first without the second than The Modern Jazz Quartet. Throughout its forty-plus year history, the MJQ created some tasty, vibes-centric jazz that was classy yet never staid, adventurous yet rarely abstract. And their fame and influence extended beyond the borders of jazz: even The Beatles were fans, releasing a pair of MJQ albums in the late 1960s on their signature Apple label. This newly-released collection of early Modern Jazz Quartet sessions features studio (Stuttgart 1956 and Baden-Baden ’56 and ’58) and live (Pforzheim) recordings from the period that heralded the group’s European breakthrough. As ever, Milt Jackson‘s warm and mellow vibraphone is the centerpiece, though John Lewis‘ piano work is prominently featured. But perhaps the most fascinating tracks here are the three numbers on which the MJQ is backed by orchestra and/or a large ensemble; “Midsömmer,” “Bluesology” and “Django” are all afforded more nuance and greater texture by such arrangements. And at the behest of Joachim-Ernst Berendt (to whom the MJQ’s “J.B. Blues” is dedicated), Milt Jackson turns in a solo reading of Walter Gross‘ “Tenderly.”

Flash Featuring Peter Banks – In Public
Even the notoriously truculent Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979) gave Flash props, comparing them to Yes: “Anyone hearing Flash in 1972 would have given them equal chances for success.” In fact this British group – led by Yes’ original guitarist Peter Banks – sounded a lot like Yes, although Banks was a more aggressive player than Steve Howe. This recording of a 1973 Kansas City date shows Flash living up to their name. With Colin Carter, a strident vocalist in the Jack Bruce mold, and Ray Bennett playing (of course) a thick, trebly Rickenbacker 4001, Flash deliver the goods. This set is quite well recorded, though Banks’ liner notes (penned days before his fatal heart failure at age 65) make needless apologies for the sound quality. In places, Flash sound a bit like Islands era King Crimson, balancing technical prowess with thundering, ballsy 70s rock approach. The songs are knotty and complicated, yet still heavy; the playing never feels like filigree, and it always moves the song forward. Michael Hough‘s drums are mixed surprisingly loud for an early 70s set, but that’s a good thing. The prog tropes of fast/slow, heavy/light, loud/quiet are all used to intelligent ends here.

Update: From the flurry of emails I’ve received, seems there’s disagreement amongst involved parties as to the ownership/legality etc. concerning this release. I’m staying out of it. — bk

Steve Hillage – Live in England 1979
Sure, in 1979 Steve Hillage looked like – and almost certainly was – a dirty hippie, but his wide-eyed brand of rock successfully combined progressive chops with the proto-jam aesthetic of Gong (a collective of which Hillage was a member 1972-76, 1994-1999, 2004-2006 and 2008-2012, effectively making him the Rick Wakeman of space rock). This 1979 audiovisual document was filmed at The University of Kent, and while the audio sounds indeed like the feed from a video, it’s not bad at all listeningwise. Miquette Giraudy shows off her impressive synth skills, and her vocals work well on the tunes alongside Hillage’s lead vocals. John McKenzie‘s bass lines are extremely effective as well, laying down a groove over which Hillage and Giraudy slather their ethereal psych leads. A couple songs from his then-current LP Open are featured, along with perennial cover favorites “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (Donovan) and The Beatles‘ “It’s All Too Much.” Modern-day fans who dig Ozric Tentacles should know that for however great the Ozrics are, many of their ideas can be found right here, a full half decade before Erpsongs. A bonus DVD features many of the CD’s songs plus other goodies, including a 2006 interview.

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What’s Old is New Again in November 2013, Part One

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

I’ve been finding a lot of CDs in my inbox of late: discs that contain neither new music nor reissues; instead they’re new releases of previously-unissued material. Many of these are live concerts, the sort of thing that hardcore collectors like myself used to trade on the underground means. But these official releases come with excellent sound quality, of known lineage, and they often include useful liner notes and images. Plus – and this is very important – the artists get paid something for their trouble. Here are three such releases; more will be on the way soon. – bk

Stan Getz Quartet – Live at Montreux 1972
Montreux, Switzerland – and more specifically, the Montreux Jazz Festival – has long been a go-to location for artists wanting to capture a live performance for an album. This was especially true up to the 70s when the festival was still jazz-only; several landmark albums resulted from shows on its stages. Les McCann‘s 1973 Live at Montreux and Sun Ra‘s 1976 concert (released in ’77) of the same name followed releases from Bill Evans (1968) and Bobby Hutcherson (1973), to name four of many. The Stan Getz Quartet – having left bossa nova behind and morphing into a fusion unit – made their first appearance at Montreux in ’72, with a lineup of staggering intensity: Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and drummer Tony Williams. But thanks to Getz’s innate sense of musicality, of – dare I say – commercial appeal, his brand of fusion is rooted in melody, not of an abstract sort. It’s thrilling without being inaccessible. Corea’s keyboards are nonetheless exploratory, while Clarke’s bass is assertive, muscular. And Williams is Williams, always both in the pocket and pushing boundaries. Nicely recorded, this heretofore unreleased album is a belated yet warmly welcomed addition to the canon of Montreux concert documents.

Quicksilver Messenger Service – Live at the Old Mill Tavern, March 29 1970
Quicksilver were known more as a live outfit than a studio entity, so – decades later – it makes perfect sense that their prime-era studio catalog (eight albums in eight years) would be expanded not through archival outtake material, but of live documents of the band doing their thing onstage. After all, even on so-called “studio” albums, the featured live cuts were often the best. As Dave Thompson‘s knowledgeable liner notes on this new release of a ’72 show attest, by this period in the group’s history, most thought QMS past their prime. But a lineup that still included Nicky Hopkins, David Frieberg and John Cippolina, a returning Gary Duncan and Dino Valenti, and drummer Greg Elmore still had plenty to offer. Though Shady Grove had been released a mere seven months earlier, on this night in Mill Valley CA the band did no songs from it, and only one (“Mona”) from Happy Trails (also 1969). Instead they played material that wouldn’t see release until much later; these were more structured, less jammy than their earlier material. But the jam spirit wasn’t gone: a long blues medley featuring James Cotton makes up nearly a third of this spirited concert.

It’s a Beautiful Day – Live at the Fillmore ’68
Casual listeners – the kind whose knowledge of It’s a Beautiful Day extends little beyond familiarity with the lilting, ethereal sounds of the group’s “White Bird” (a hit on both AM and FM radio) – have a skewed conception of what the band was like. While “White Bird” was all gentleness and light, elsewhere (and especially onstage) the band cooked; they had more in common with Canned Heat and The Doors. David LaFlamme and Patti Santos‘ dual lead vocals on “Wasted Union Blues,” for example, sounds more like Marty Balin and Grace Slick than the duo who sang about birds who must fly lest they die. Of course Linda LaFlamme‘s combo organ and David’s electric violin add an otherworldly, spooky vibe to the songs. Anyone who thinks a violin inhibits a band’s ability (or propensity) to rock hasn’t heard this set from the band’s early days. Though the sound and music are superb, this release’s packaging and info are on the dodgy side; several tunes originally co-credited with then-spouse Linda are credited here solely to David LaFlamme. The package includes a DVD entitled The David LaFlamme Story. You decide if those bits of info might be connected.

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Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit: Recap Part 3

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

The third and final night of the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit featured a host of names with which I was largely unfamiliar. So I took the opportunity to pop into several shows in hopes of finding something that struck my fancy. I was intermittently successful.

Seemingly having ingested a steady diet of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd – specifically, “Shine On you Crazy Diamond” Parts 1 and 2, the aptly-named Darkside created a vibe more than they did actually play songs. True both men operated instruments: the Guy on The Right staffed some analog synthesizers and a bank of effects and sequencers, while the Guy on The Left actually played some very subtle (in terms of its volume) electric guitar. Washes of sound with – as the set progressed – more and more bass bombs, Darkside’s set got a more enthusiastic response form the Sunday night crowd than might have been expected.

Alan Howarth
Howarth would be the big Mountain Oasis surprise for me. A composer who does most of his work at home and/or in studios, Howarth is responsible for the evocative, scene-setting music used in a long list of John Carpenter films (among others). It’s his work you hear when you watch Friday the 13th, Halloween, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China and a host of others. Howarth spent most of his set at a keyboard, laying down spooky, fully-formed arrangements of songs that are hooky in their own way. Other than a quick occasional right-hand wave to acknowledge the rapturous applause he earned, Howarth did take time at the beginning and end of his set to speak to the audience. The visuals were some custom-edited, stuttery captures from the films he’s scored; they were fascinating and repetitive and actually complimented his music, which is the opposite way that things usually work for Howarth’s compositions. Howarth did leave the keyboard once or twice to play some electric guitar (while the keys laid out a sequence or three). Fascinating stuff that might lead attendees back to some overlooked soundtracks.

The Orb
In the world of techno/ambient/rave/whatever, there is an outfit called The Orb, and another called Orbital. In the past, when I even thought about them, I often confused the two. No more: because now I know that Orbital is easily the more interesting of the two. How do I know this? Because I saw and heard The Orb. A total snoozefest, The Orb is two middle aged English blokes standing at a table in near total darkness. One of then has headphones around his neck and a file folder packed with CDs; he takes one of discs these out every few seconds and pops another into a machine. The other bloke did something that was even less worthy of visual attention. And the formless sounds they created (well, did they create or merely present them? You decide.) left nary an impression on my mind as I exited The Orange Peel.

As the supposed successor to Moogfest (which, as reported previously, will continue in 2014) Mountain Oasis pretty much got it right. A well-run festival with a wide variety of acts, it succeeded at what it set out to achieve. Attendance seemed healthy, yet not jam-packed; of course that’s good for the individual concertgoer, but less so for the organizers. Although few of the acts fall into my must-see category, on the whole it was easily worth the time and expense, and I hope to attend again in 2014.

Album Review: The Monochrome Set — Volume, Contrast, Brilliance

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Note: be sure to read all the way through; there’s a new Monochrome Set DVD reviewed as well.

The Monochrome Set were one of those bands who never broke stateside. Though they enjoyed critical and (limited) commercial success in their native England, in the USA they were all but unknown. With a sort that seemed like a cross between early XTC and The Jam with a cafe society vibe, in some ways they’re the musical missing link between Paul Weller‘s first group and his Style Council releases.

But of course Weller had nothing to do with the Monchrome Set. Led by the one-named Bid (on vocals and guitar) and ably backed by the cleverly-monickered Lester Square on lead guitar plus drummer J. D. Haney and bassist Jeremy Harrington (the latter was replaced in 1980 by Andrew Warren), the band played a unique set of songs (all composed by Bid solo or with various bandmates) that remain stylistically difficult topin down. There are hints of dub, ska, punk, new wave, no wave…you name it. Ansd Bid’s laid-back vocal style adds a romantic, devil-may-care air to all of the songs, regardless of the style in which they’re played.

Volume, Contrast, Brilliance…Sessions & Singles Vol. 1 (there would never be a second volume) collected odds and ends form the group’s heyday (1978 through 1981, with a few stray tracks from 1986). Originally issued in 1991 on Cherry Red, the album is now the latest in high-quality, vinyl-only releases form UK-based Optic Nerve. A splendid purple-blue vinyl LP encased in a sturdy sleeve, the reissue also includes a lovely three-color poster depicting the album’s cover art.

The album bookends many of the radio tracks with brief intros and radio interviews that show the band’s sense of humor (check out some of the song titles, such as “Silicon Carne”), and the fact that radio programmers often didn’t know what to make of them.

Perhaps the finest track on the set – both musically and lyrically – is “The Ruling Class,” from a Do It radio program session in 1981; here the band sound a bit like Jazz Butcher. “Viva Death Row” is oddly reminscent of Tav Falco’s Panther Burns at their most rickety, crossed with the danceable white funk of Gang of Four. Decidedly uncommercial-sounding, The Monochrome Set are nonetheless intriguing and often fun.

But wait, there’s more!
That a Monochrome Set live visual document should even exist is a surprise; even more so that said video captures the group in one of its few American performances. Dating from early in the band’s career, the newly-released M-80 DVD shows the original lineup onstage at a “new wave” music festival in Minneapolis MN. With only about a half dozen songs in common with Volume, Contrast, Brilliance, this DVD includes an enure 18-song set in pretty good audio quality.

That’s the good news, however. The images (which I’m pretty sure were originally shot on black-and-white video rather than film) look as if they were downloaded off of YouTube. Pixelated and blurry, the video is watchable, but not much more than that. And the band adopts a jaded attitude onstage: they play at top speed, but Bid and his mates affect a bored vibe throughout. The contrast between high-speed, off-key playing and monotone, off-key singing might have been tres cool in 1979, but watching it on this poor quality video, it’s none too exciting. In particular, Jeremy Harrington’s pulsing bass work is rendered flat here, though that may be down to the audio mix rather than his playing. Regardless, M-80‘s existence is more than justified by its rarity. Just know that you’ve been warned.

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Album Review: Various Artists – The Dutch Woodstock (CD+DVD)

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

I’m a hardcore Pink Floyd fanatic. Yeah, one of those lot who insists that the stuff they did before The Dark Side of the Moon is filled with untold riches. The sort who (allegedly) has over 200 lossless audio documents of Floyd concerts, some dating back to the Syd Barrett era (though you can’t hear Syd’s vocals on the low-fidelity bootleg tapes).

And among Floyd aficionados of my stripe, there has long existed an item on that short-list of Holy Grail artifacts: the group’s performance at a 1970 Dutch festival. The group’s entire performance in audio does exist as a bootleg unimaginatively titled Kralingen Pop Festival 28.6.70. But the audio fidelity is pretty dodgy, even for a tape of the era.

But clips from a concert film documenting the festival formed the basis of a little-seen West German theatrical film called Stamping Ground; that 1971 film included Pink Floyd performing two popular set-pieces, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “A Saucerful of Secrets,” both originally from their second LP. Stamping Ground has never gotten a video release, and so the Floyd clips have circulated only amongst hardcore traders.

Until now, that is. The 2013 set breathlessly titled The Dutch Woodstock brings together a DVD that contains all of Stamping Ground plus other footage presumably cut from the finished film. The package also includes two audio CDs that offer up even more music; the contents of the DVD and CDs don’t match; there are a number of performances unique to one or the other.

The audio is still a bit iffy, but it’s heads above the bootleg versions. In all likelihood the CD concert audio was taken from the audio strips of the 16mm or 35mm film shot at the festival. And while the packagers of this 2013 set may have gone a bit overboard by hyping Kralingen Pop as a “Dutch Woodstock,” the lineup is quite impressive.

A mere ten months after the legendary festival on Max Yasgur‘s farm, the festival aesthetic was in full flower (despite the December ’69 nightmare of Altamont), and across Europe, all manner of festivals were put together. Riding high on the success of their triumphant Woodstock set, Santana are spotlighted at Kralingen; the CD and DVD both feature three high-energy tunes: “Gumbo,” “Savor” and “Jingo.” And a few other top-billed marquee names were in attendance. Besides Pink Floyd, both The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane turned in well-received sets.

But it’s some of the lesser-known acts that make The Dutch Woodstock especially appealing. Soft Machine‘s “Esther’s Nose Job” (from Third) gave the concertgoers some progressive jazz, Dr. John served up his New Orleans-styled goodness with “Mardi Gras Day,” and a very Airplane-sounding It’s a Beautiful Day rocked out with “Wasted Union Blues.” Other artists included Canned Heat, Country Joe McDonald, a just-pre-glam T. Rex, Family, The Flock, and a solo acoustic Al Stewart. The most obscure acts here include the wildly eclectic East of Eden, Dutch group Cuby & the Blizzards, and the all-but-unknown (but interesting) Quintessence.

In all, The Dutch Woodstock shows how the influence of the real Woodstock concert manifested itself; for a few shining years, one could catch acts of a dizzying variety all within a three-day festival. Those days would go away as the era of corporate rock arose, but thankfully, modern festivals such as Bonnaroo present a modern-day facsimile (if not quite equivalent) to the festivals of yore. For an eclectic audiovisual various-artists live set documenting the music scene in 1970, you’d be well advised to pick up The Dutch Woodstock.

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Album Review: King Crimson – Discipline (40th Anniversary Series Edition)

Monday, February 18th, 2013

From their inception in 1969, King Crimson has always been about creating outside-the-box music that challenges (or simply ignores) convention. By the middle of the 1970s, the band had created at least two masterpieces: their debut album In the Court of the Crimson King and 1975′s Red. But after Red – when King Crimson was arguably at its commercial and critical apex – leader/founder Robert Fripp disbanded the group to pursue other projects.

Luckily for all concerned, by the beginning of the 1980s, one of those projects had evolved into a new configuration of King Crimson. Initially called Discipline, the four-piece included guitarist Fripp and drummer extraordinaire Bill Bruford from the previous lineup, and added a pair of American players. Guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew had already established his reputation via sessions with Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, David Bowie and others; not only was he a guitarist of impressive range, depth and expression, but he brought to the band a pop sensibility it has always lacked (and, to be fair, had never actively sought). Journeyman bassist Tony Levin also sang, but in addition to his peerless skills on the four-string, he was (or would quickly become) the master on an exotic instrument called the Chapman Stick. A multi-stringed instrument that is tapped rather than strummed, the Stick allows the player a dizzyingly wide sonic palette, just the right tool for an innovative player such as Levin.

The music that this new version of King Crimson would produce, however, bore little if any sonic similarity to what had come before. While on Red, Fripp coaxed thickly distorted power chords (after a jazz fashion) out of his Les Paul, his subsequent solo ventures saw him pursuing a more ambient approach. Extensively utilizing on-the-fly tape loop technology to expand the sounds of his guitar, he dubbed his new technique (developed in collaboration with Brian Eno) Frippertronics. And it was the Frippertronics approach, based on the man’s often lightning-fast single-note runs – upon which Fripp built his playing in the 80s Crimson.

Belew had already shown that he could coax all sorts of otherworldly sounds out of his battered guitars., and he would create one of his most memorable signature sounds on this first record with his new band. But his bent pop sensibility would also allow the new lineup to build on the emotion-filled approach the previous lineup had used to great effect on Red‘s “Starless.” Bruford, too, seemed a man liberated: while in the early 70s (after having left Yes for the greater challenge of King Crimson) he had briefly shared percussion duties with the wild Jamie Muir, it was now solely left to him to create the band’s drum sounds. He fully immersed himself in polyrhythms, and Belew’s time with Talking Heads likely helped prepare him to be able to handle such complexities.

From Discipline‘s thrumming opening to “Elephant Talk,” it’s clear that the 1980s King Crimson is going to be a very different animal. While Belew declaims a bunch of words (“These are words with a ‘D’ this time…”), the four players twist and turn their way through an unbelievably complicated – yet somehow almost danceable – piece of music. Belew’s guitar roars like an elephant in the wild, and Fripp makes highly effective use of his volume pedal to create a “solo” that feels more like some exotic wind instrument, the sort that might coax a snake out of its basket.

But “solo” isn’t really the right word for the individual breaks that each of the four men take. Everything about this lineup of King Crimson is about the ensemble; even when one player seems to be featured, what the other three are doing is of equal interest and complexity.

“Frame by Frame” was the “hit single (sic) from Discipline, and the highlights are too myriad to catalog here. Bruford’s fiercely aggressive yet lyrical drumming on the track is some of the most impressive of his entire recorded career, and that’s something. The intertwining guitar lines are both impossible to near-follow and lovely beyond compare. Here Belew’s pop instincts meld perfectly with a free-jazz approach, however counter-intuitive that phenomenon might read on paper. (An aside: A dream I often had in the late 1970s involved the unnerving experience of events moving simultaneously at a glacial pace and a fast-forward one; my first hearing of “Frame by Frame” gave voice to that dream: it sounds just like what was hammering away at my subconscious.)


The author in full-on fanboy-mode with
Adrian Belew (L) and Tony Levin (R)

“Matte Kudasai” builds on a lovely dreamscape-pop approach; Belew’s romantic, heartfelt vocals blend nicely with Fripp’s melancholy guitar lines; the latter vaguely recall some early 1970s Pink Floyd solos from David Gilmour. But “Indscipline” takes tings in a very different direction. Atonal in places, featuring (yet again!) some of the most aggressive percussion Bruford’s ever turned in, and full of screaming guitar lines, the song is musically every bit as off-kilter as the story (supposedly written by his then-wife) that Belew recites. Perhaps the most “difficult” piece of music on Discipline, the track sums up every boundary-pushing quality the band ever had, and distills them into a perfect mix. When at the song’s end, Belew screams, “I like it!” the listener is left breathless.

“Thela Hut Ginjeet” heads back into polyrhythm territory, and features the not-remarked-upon-enough harmony vocals of Tony Levin in addition to a rather David Byrne-sounding Belew. Once again Belew recites a story – Discipline is at its core about three things: music, singing, and reciting little vignette-style stories – this time about a narrow escape from a very dangerous situation. Bruford’s clattering drums create just the right exotic “jungle” vibe.

“The Sheltering Sky” may be the most subtly beautiful piece of music any version of King Crimson has ever done. Bruford’s subtle drum work and Levin’s throbbing stick figures are topped by Belew’s under-water sounding guitar, while Fripp lets loose a song-length solo of stunning beauty and grace. Eight-plus minutes and it’s still over too soon: this is one track that could go on forever and not wear out its welcome.

Discipline wraps up with its title track, a summation of all that has come before. Interlocking polyrhythms and melodic snippets that seem to recalls many of the previous pieces on the album serve to tie up the whole affair nicely with a big bow. Sonically, the piece is almost an extension of the “discotronics” direction Fripp took with his League of Gentlemen project, not long before this version of King Crimson got off the ground.

Like all other entries in the band’s 40th Anniversary Series, the 2011 reissue of Discipline includes quite a few goodies. Expertly remixed by Porcupine Tree‘s Steven Wilson, the new package includes a new stereo mix (sourced from the original multi-track masters), and a bonus DVD. The latter contains another version of the album, remixed for 5.1 Surround, two more versions of the album in super-high resolution; the entire album in rough-mix form, and three video clips of the Discipline-era band performing on the BBC’s venerable Old Grey Whistle Test.

The CD also adds a few bonus audio tracks as well: a brief selection of Belew’s vocal loops; a welcome alternate mix of “The Sheltering Sky” that features even more out-there guitar work from Fripp (one can never get enough); and an instrumental mix of “Thela Hut Ginjeet.”

For anyone interested in the most innovative and exciting music that the (loosely-defined) rock idiom has to offer, the 2012 reissue of King Crimson’s Discipline deserves a place on the shelf right near In the Court of the Crimson King and Red. Taken together, these three wildly disparate albums (having only Fripp in common) represent the pinnacle of what has come to be known as progressive rock. Beyond essential.

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Album Review: Mitch Ryder – Live at Rockpalast 1979 + 2004

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Mitch Ryder is a tricky figure to pin down. Though he enjoyed a brief string of hits in the mid 60s (first with the Detroit Wheels and then as an ostensible solo artist), by the end of the 60s, the commercial marketplace had pretty much made its decision: his career was over and done. But nobody told Ryder (born William Levise). Though largely silent (on record, at least) between the release of 1971′s Detroit and his “comeback” around the end of that decade, Ryder has amassed a staggeringly deep catalog; at last count he had no less than two dozen albums of material released under is own name.

Good luck finding more than a few of those records, however; Ryder has never gotten much traction in the USA with his music; what commercial success he has had stateside has mostly been on the oldies circuit, something for which he has professed little love.

Those who haven’t heard him may be surprised to hear that his vocal style and onstage mannerisms are a sort of cross between Little Richard and Robert Palmer (he even looks a bit like the latter, though Ryder’s older and still among the living). Unlike much of the oldies-circuit ilk, Ryder is a hard-charging soul rocker.

Ryder’s solo career differs from his Detroit Wheels period in an important way: he writes the lion’s share of his own material, and when he does cover another artist (which he does with some frequency), he makes the songs his own. A pair of new (albeit archival) releases showcases all of Ryder’s stragneths.

Fresh into the aforementioned comeback, in 1979 Ryder took to the stage for German television’s WDR, at Grugahalle Essen. On this disc, with a set that’s in turns rocking, soulful and funky, Ryder and his band tear through songs from his then-current album Naked But Not Dead (like Lee Hazlewood, Ryder has long had a penchant for off-the-wall, inscrutable, in-joke album titles) and a well-chosen assortment of covers. The band is in top form, and rocks a helluva lot harder than one might expect. It’s a no-compromise set, though Ryder and band do allow eight minutes worth of nostalgia by burning through his two Wheels-era medleys (“CC Rider / Jenny Take a Ride” and “Devil With a Blue Dress On / Good Golly Miss Molly”). But in the end, Ryder seems more interested when he’s leading the band through a twelve-minute reading The Doors‘ “Soul Kitchen.”

By that time in Ryder’s career, it must have already dawned on him that he was something of a prophet without honor in his homeland, beginning around this time, his efforts and successes would be centered on the European continent (this focus remains true today, as he explained in my 2012 interview with him).

So it’s little surprise that Ryder would return to the German stage many more times. In 2004, some of the same personnel involved in making his 1979 concert broadcast possible put together another show. This one ran a bit longer, and while it included those same two medleys (even a non-commercial artist like Ryder knows he has to deliver those for the punters, and he does so well), the set still offered up his trademark mix of then-current self-penned originals and covers that were near and dear to his heart. (And he still closes the set with the Doors tune.)

Peter Rüchel of the German TV show Rockpalast penned the relatively brief liner notes for this set, which is avaialble in tow configurations: a 3CD box containing both concerts, and a 2DVD set with the same material plus a notorious 1979 pre-show interview with Ryder. (That roaringly drunk interview is ominously mentioned in the liner notes, which will make its absence on the CD version a bit frustrating for consumers.)

Seeing and hearing this music may well make one wonder why Ryder hasn’t enjoyed some measure of success; what he offered in 1979 was every bit the equal of other stars who made the bigger time (e.g. John Mellencamp, briefly an ally/patron of Ryder’s). And in 2004 he still delivered the goods, even when working with an aggregation best described as a pickup band.

Those looking for some undiscovered straight-ahead rock’n'roll – and/or those who enjoy Ryder’s music but sometimes find his studio efforts a bit wanting – will enjoy either of these sets.

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Album Review: Renaissance – Tour 2011 Live in Concert

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

“Carpe diem,” quoth the poet Horace. Even in a dead language, wiser words have rarely been written. And while F. Scott Fitzgerald limited his observation to Americans when he claimed “there are no second acts…” occasionally, there are.

Renaissance was never an easy act to pigeonhole. At first blush, some might peg them as part of the British progressive rock movement of the late 60s and early 70s. But that label never fit them well; Renaissance rarely rocked in a traditional sense, and their melodies largely (but not completely) eschewed the tricky meter and jarring dynamics endemic to prog.

Despite their name, the group didn’t fit neatly into the ren-fest retro bag, either; though their subject matter tended toward romantic, epic and medieval themes, they didn’t go too heavily for things like lutes and psalteries. With a sound built around three key elements – Annie Haslam, dizzyingly controlled and expressive voice, Michael Dunford‘s precise and lyrical acoustic guitar work (much of it on 12-string) and lots and lots of keyboards – Renaissance fit into the more ambitious end of the musical scene in the 70s, but somehow always stood apart.

Notwithstanding that the group was actually – believe it or not – originally a spinoff of The Yardbirds (Keith Relf and Jim McCarty founded the outfit as a folk-rock ensemble), by the time Renaissance found their signature style, all of the founding members had departed, and the group was essentially and practically a different outfit with the same name. Where Renaissance truly hit their stride – and created their most enduring work – was in the middle of the seventies, with a pair of well-received albums, Turn of the Cards (1974) and Scheherazade and Other Stories (1975). While they created worthy material before and after, those two albums (and a 1976 live double LP that followed them) represent the group’s commercial and critical high-water mark. Dunford’s compositional prowess (with non-performing writing partner Betty Thatcher) was at its peak, and both studio albums were highly successful marriages of thoughtful (and timeless-yet-topical) lyricism and progressive-minded art rock (well, sorta-rock). So while Renaissance managed nearly an album release per year during the 70s, these two were the ones you’d be most likely to find in someone’s collection.

Which makes it less than surprising that a modern-day configuration of Renaissance would return to this music. Both albums were conceived as complete works (an affectation of the era’s musical ambition), and in a time when it’s all the rage for groups to re-create their finest studio moments onstage, they may well have decided that mounting a tour to perform the two albums in their entirety was an idea whose time had come (again).

As far back as the 90s, Dunford and Haslam attempted to jump-start the band (which had effectively folded circa 1983 after having pretty well gone off the rails). But it was only a good solid decade into the 21st century that the duo really hit their second-act stride. Enlisting four younger players (a drummer, a bassist and a pair of keyboard players), Renaissance was back. New music was no longer a priority, but faithfully recreating the best of their old material was a worthy enough goal. So it was that Renaissance recorded and filmed an entire evening’s performance in September 2011 and released it as a 2CD+DVD set titled Tour 2011 Live in Concert.

Some of what you get on this set is predictable (meant here in the best possible way). The sound mix is flawless. The band backing is expert and faithful to the original versions, though not slavishly so. The playing “breathes.” But what’s really remarkable is that Haslam’s voice is still a stunning instrument of soaring beauty. While she’s a bit younger than the main crop of British rock royalty, at the time of this recording she was already 64 years of age. But clearly she’s spent her time keeping her voice — reportedly possessing a three-octave range – in top shape. True, with Renaissance, Haslam need not scream to be heard over the subtle (yet assertive) music, but her soaring flights of vocal fancy are a highlight of the music on this set.

And Dunford’s skills have only improved, as well. His subtlety on his 12-string adds a warm, deep texture to the music. With the pair of keyboardists providing all manner of sounds (though mostly piano, organ and sampled acoustic instruments like flute; there’s nearly no “synthesizer”-type sounds in the 21st century Renaissance), Tour 2011 Live in Concert distills what is best about this band into a lovely package.

Each of the original album performances gets its own CD on the package; the performances are extended a bit here and there compared to the three-decades-plus old originals, but no new music is on offer. The DVD presents the entire concert in high quality on a single disc. A colorful and sturdy package holds the whole thing and includes a lovely booklet containing numerous photos from the evening’s performance.

With Tour 2011 Live in Concert, Renaissance would have seemed poised to make the very best of their own “second act.” But a mere three weeks prior to the publishing of this review, Dunford passed away suddenly, having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 68. At press time there was (quite understandably) no definitive word on the band’s future. But as the final word from a lineup that features the two key members of Renaissance, Tour 2011 Live in Concert remains a fitting document. Fans can be grateful that Halslam and Dunford took Horace’s advice, seized the day, and created this set.

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