They didn’t call it garage when ? And the Mysterians were playing “96 Tears.” They didn’t label it punk when The Stooges sang about “No Fun.” And they didn’t use the term heavy metal when Blue Cheer released their dipped-in-acid 1967 reading of Eddie Cochran‘s “Summertime Blues.” But heavy metal is most certainly what it was, though (as the new oral history Louder Than Hell – to be reviewed her soon – tells us) the genre label didn’t catch on for a few years hence.
Blue Cheer was the perfect band for listeners who found Cream too subtle. A few years before Black Sabbath took sludgy riffs and uber-heavy arrangements to their logical extreme, Blue Cheer was cranking out screaming tunes that aimed squarely for the gut, largely ignoring the head altogether. The band endured personnel changes and never made another album as truly definitive as their 1968 debut Vincebus Eruptum, but the band would be historically significant if all they had ever done was “Summertime Blues.”
Bassist/vocalist Dickie Peterson was the sole member to appear in all lineups of the band (save the wasteland years of 1975-83, a period during which Blue Cheer toured but released no new music). In 2008, the final lineup of the band – Peterson plus drummer Paul Whaley and guitarist Andrew “Duck” MacDonald – performed a concert for German television program Rockpalast; that set plus a pair of studio tracks has now been released as Blue Cheer Rocks Europe.
The set takes the listener right back in time: those super-heavy bass lines sometimes run in lockstep with the guitar riffage, and sometimes they hold things down while the lead axe wails. And Peterson shreds his vocal cords on an assortment of originals (some of which are relatively recent compositions) and well-worn covers that includes Mose Allison‘s “Parchman Farm” (and of course “Summertime Blues”). Listeners looking for subtlety and nuance had best steer clear of this set: instead, it’s a roaring, ear-splitting collection of in-your-face heavy-osity that demands undivided attention. Both ends of the sonic spectrum are filled: Peterson’s thunderous bass lines and Whaley’s precise yet lumbering drums play off of MacDonald’s fleet-fingered solos and power-chording riffage. It’s as if the 70s never happened, and – if, like me, you enjoy this sort of thing from time to time – that’s just fine.
It’s not made clear in the liner notes whether Peterson knew at the time of this performance (April 11, 2008) that he was suffering from prostate and liver cancer, but he passed away on October 2 of the following year. As such, Blue Cheer Rocks Europe stands as the final document of this influential band.
There’s a kind of powerpop that steers well clear of the candy-ass end of the spectrum, yet manages to avoid macho, posturing cockrock-iness. That sweet spot is where Donovan’s Brain lives. Just when you think every good riff has been used, here they come with a menacing bass line figure around which they build the opening track on their latest, Turned Up Later. And true, that bass figure on “Take Me With You When You Go” may in fact have been used before – okay, maybe a few thousand times, if we’re honest about it – but here it feels fresh and new.
But at their core, Donovan’s Brain aren’t a powerpop band at all: that label is far too limiting for them. Decidedly retro, yet in a more modern/classicist, Tom Petty sort of way, they are equally at home with windmill guitar figures and rocking guitar solos as they are with laid-back psychedelic excursions.
To wit: the band shifts gears completely for “As the Crows Fly,” which feels like a cross between Their Satanic Majesties Request era Rolling Stones (note: that’s a compliment; it’s my favorite Stones LP) and 80s paisley underground heroes Rain Parade. And this is one band that understands the conventions of a pop song: most of the tracks on Turned Up Later fade out long before they get overly familiar.
Swooshy, phase shifted guitars and Mellotron are among the highlights of “It’s All Right With Me.” In fact the mighty Mellotron figures prominently on a number of the tracks by this supergroup-of-sorts. I don’t use that term lightly: the personnel includes Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman), Bobby Sutliff (Windbreakers), Ron Sanchez, and Matt Piucci of the aforementioned Rain Parade, among other notables. That Donovan’s Brain features tracks by no less than five composers ensures that it’s a varied offering, yet the tracks hold together as a cohesive whole. The baroque-psych textures of “My Own Skin” evoke memories of both Brian Jones and The Verve (who, you may recall, famously nicked the Stones awhile back). And this is done without any sort of nicking.
That Mellotron rears its (tape) head again on Sanchez’s “Small Circles,” which filters The Moody Blues through a waltz-tempo melody. But then the powerpop approach returns for a Byrdsy rave (complete with oohs) on “Restless Nights, Many Dreams.” The dreamy “Cardboard Army” illustrates that the band understands that a Mellotron has more than one built-in sound (it has three, in fact). Some synth layered atop the ‘Tron lines makes for a magic carpet ride.
That slow, spaced-out vibe is continued on “Manager of Time,” which is vaguely reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Flying” (albeit with lyrics). Sutliff’s “Morning Side Dream” conjures that immortal AM radio wistful sunshine pop feel, and the result feels like a hit; Sanchez’s bursts of electric lead guitar make a great tune even better.
The doomy tones of “Red Wing Spy” recall The Move; the band pull out all the stops – and toss in all the instruments – for this one, and do so effectively. Listen closely and you’ll even hear some vibraphone amidst the sonic swirl. “Fulcrum” is timeless, tuneful pop that fits nicely amidst the other songs, brightening the mood a bit as well. Turned Up Later‘s dozen tunes are wrapped up with “In Search of Connie Companion,” a warbly, watery, lysergic trip through the sixties. Ric Parnell‘s tom-centric drumming specifically evokes the fadeout of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Off-topic postscript: Congratulations and best wishes to Bobby Sutliff, who married his sweetheart just last week.
Though it far too often is the case, avant garde music need not be chilly and foreboding. Sometimes it can be warm and inviting, while still maintaining its outré, weird-and-wonderful characteristics. That’s the case with Pure Electric Honey, the 1988 debut album from Ant-Bee, reissued on CD in 2013.
Pure Electric Honey certainly bears few sonic hallmarks of the late 1980s. Some sonic touchstones include Frank Zappa‘s late-sixties music; the legendary SMiLE sessions from Brian Wilson; and (relatively) more modern artists such as The Residents and – most notably, I think – Elephant 6 Collective artists Olivia Tremor Control. Now, Ant-Bee (essentially Billy James and a large cast of other musicians) recorded Pure Electric Honey long before OTC cut their debut long player Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle, but the two acts are clearly kindred spirits, even if they arrive at sonically related destinations via different pathways.
The willfully playful and obscure liner notes on the 2013 reissue of Pure Electric Honey offer little in the way of actual information about the genesis of these recordings. What little we know is gained through listening to the music itself. From the opener (“Intro”), it’s clear that Ant-Bee is concocting a sonic stew that mixes equal parts Beach Boys “Our Prayer” with the studio trickery of inside-the-piano found sounds of Lumpy Gravy.
But while “My Cat” might initially feature backwards tapes of a bagpipe, with ghostly vocals smeared atop them, when the song launches into its “rock” section, the result is closer to a pop reinvention of The Residents, with a bit of spooky Third-era Big Star thrown in. Later in the track, gonzo/atonal guitar work takes center stage. The thrilling “Evolution #7” is reminiscent of some of the more musically exciting parts of The Who‘s Tommy, with bonus of some snappy electric sitar and dollops of creamy vocal overdubs.
Beats fade in and out of the mix. Though James is primarily a drummer/percussionist, the tracks on Pure Electric Honey are by no means drum-centric. Using the studio as an instrument, James’ cut-up approach sounds like the result of recording many sessions, cutting the fruits of those sessions into into very small bite-size chunks, tossing them on the floor, and then carefully reassembling them into something entirely different. But that assembly is by no means haphazard; the dream-like texture of Pure Electric Honey is carefully arrived at by its creator.
During “Black and White Cat, Black & White Cake,” a snippet of a straight-ahead pop song fades in briefly. But then it’s gone, leaving behind a murky, echo-laden slab of musique concrète. And so it goes throughout Pure Electric Honey. Those looking for a toe-tapping good time are urged to look away from this record: it won’t please you. But those who appreciate the unusual – especially the sort of unusual that is pop-based and not at all pretentious – are strongly nudged in the direction of Pure Electric Honey.
Garage/psych enthusiasts might be surprised to learn that the original (vinyl) release of this album was on Greg Shaw‘s VOXX label. The sounds on Pure Electric Honey might at first blush seem to be outside Shaw’s area of interest, but a clear love (and understanding) of the sweet spot at which psychedelia, pop and the avant garde all intersect is a hallmark of this album. In that light it’s less surprising that Shaw would have appreciated it.
Oh: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this as well. If you investigate Pure Electric Honey and wish to delve further into its brand of madness, I would also recommend a much later Ant-Bee work called Electronic Church Muzik. It features a number of “name” artists assisting James in his bizarre musical goals, but it’s even more out-there than the Ant-Bee debut.
I started attending arena-scale rock concerts back in the late 1970s. My first show was in October 1978, seeing Electric Light Orchestra with their hamburger bun/spaceship setup at Atlanta’s Omni. (In the words of Rob Reiner‘s Marty DiBergi character in This is Spinal Tap, “Don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore.) One of the things I remember from the shows of that era was the fact that the opening acts had it pretty rough. They often played to still-nearly-empty rooms, with the house lights still burning brightly, and the sound techs were generally even more indifferent to their music than the audience was. Worse yet, the biggest applause the opener would generally get was in response to, “Okay, this will be our last song…”
From my perspective, things have changed. Part of that has to do with time and general attitudes, I think. It’s also true that for the most part the arena-show era has come and gone. While some acts still play the big stadiums and draw massive crowds, in the rock idiom, smaller clubs are the preferred venue. That’s certainly true for me, living in the small city of Asheville NC. While we do have a civic center where big name artists can come to relive the terrible-acoustics vibe of 70s concerts (Bob Dylan will be here in a few days), mot of the quality acts play here at The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, The Grey Eagle or The Orange Peel.
And the audiences at those venues – in my experience, at least – are far more receptive to opening acts than was the case in my Atlanta days.
Certainly it helps that headliners today seem to give some actual thought to billing opening acts who have some sort of aesthetic compatibility; long gone are the days when the record company (“What’s a record company, Daddy?”) would foist a labelmate of dubious quality upon the touring headliner.
A prime example of intelligent billing was the recent Black Angels show at The Orange Peel. The Austin-based group has made a name for itself with droney-yet-catchy modern psych. Their tribal beats (in other words, not a lot of cymbals) and minor-key arrangements conjure the vibe of late-late 60s psychedelia; their sound might well be described as the aural equivalent of a good “bad trip.” I like ‘em, and have seen and interviewed them before. Their show was predictably impressive, and the packed house loved it. The accompanying visuals were especially effective, a sort of modern rethink of the kind of thing Andy Warhol‘s Exploding Plastic inevitable tried to achieve.
Not to take anything away from The Black Angels, but where things got really interesting was earlier in the evening. Two bands took the stage before them, and both offered their own spin on selected sounds of the Sixties.
Elephant Stone took the stage first. The Montreal-based quartet wove a thrillingly authentic sixties vibe, and in fact upped the ante beyond how they actually did it back then. Starting with catchy tunes (always a good idea) and clear, gentle vocals that were mixed nice’n'out-front, the rocking band added something one rarely if ever sees in the rock idiom: sitar. No, not a Coral electric sitar, but the real, honest-to-goodness, crosslegged-on-the-floor, Ravi Shankar instrument. With a shimmering, jangling sound heavy on tambourine-shaking vibe, Elephant Stone brought the house down. And while Asheville audiences – perhaps because they often disproportionately represent creative types – are usually appreciative of opening acts, the enthusiasm with which the packed house greeted Elephant Stone was extraordinary. And well-deserved. The band easily rates a top spot billing when (hopefully) they return to Asheville.
The Allah-Las tread similar musical territory, but they too have style all their own. While not employing the exotic instrumentation of Elephant Stone, they piloted their wayback machine straight to mid 60s Los Angeles; their songs as presented onstage gave modern-day listeners the most authentic recreation of what it must have been like to see bands like Love at legendary venues such as Pandora’s Box and the Whisky-a-Go-Go. Delightfully unconcerned with updating the 60s garage/psych/punk aesthetic for the 21st century, The Allah-Las played a set of songs that not only sounded like they were written in 1966, but played then too. No small feat: While their album gets the production vibe just right, it’s not reasonable to expect that the band could realistically reproduce that feel onstage. But in fact they did: jangling guitars were the order of the night.
Whether a concertgoer showed up at The Orange Peel to see and hear The Black Angels, The Allah-Las or Elephant Stone, odds are high that they came away happy at witnessing all three. With complimentary sounds and musical approaches yet distinct identities, all three bands put on excellent shows. In the end, the evening felt more like a triple-bill than a headliner with two openers. It was one of the best local shows in recent memory.
Say what you will about The Grateful Dead – heaven knows I’ve been harshly critical of them, and stand by every one of my written remarks – even at their worst, they possesses an undeniable charm. And no matter what era of the band one focuses upon, there’s always something there to recommend. But then it’s just as reliably saddled with some sort of flaw that keeps things from being perfect (and yet of course that’s an unfair standard). So it is with the latest reissue of a Dead archival set, Dick’s Picks Volume 24: Cow Palace, Daly City CA 3/23/74.
First the upsides: the sound quality is stunning. The band was debuting its use of the “Wall of Sound,” a massive array of speakers designed to deliver the cleanest, most precise live sound imaginable. (Photos of the wall are included in the CD set’s liner notes.) And equal care went into capturing that sound onto tape; few live recordings from nearly forty years ago sound this clear.
Another (qualified) plus: though Donna Godchaux is with the band at this point, for the most part she doesn’t seem to do much. And that can only be good; in retrospect one cannot help but wonder what they were thinking letting her onstage. Bad-bad-bad, like a Bonnie Bramlett minus any sense of pitch or subtlety (which of course leaves nearly nothing).
Beyond all that, it’s standard-issue Dead. They start strong and relatively tight (tightness is measured on a sliding scale when we’re talking about The Dead) with “U.S. Blues,” and for most of the first hour they play actual songs. Only “Weather Report Suite” goes on over ten minutes.
By the second disc (second set) it’s noodle time. An aborted take of “Playing in the Band” (the mics were off, it seems) leads into a few moments of aimless fiddling, but then the band drones into an equally aimless reading of the song. That, however, segues into a surprisingly Just Like the Record reading of “Uncle John’s Band,” followed by a string of longer pieces. Then back to jamming; it’s probably transcendent if you’re a deadhead; it’s dull otherwise.
1974 was a period of Mickey Hart‘s estrangement from the band, so this is one of relatively few tours during which the band had only one drummer (Bill Kreutzmann). So if you don’t count Donna (and I don’t), the band is a mere five-piece here. One might think that would make them a bit more musically straightforward, but close your eyes and the difference isn’t measurable.
Like most every other Grateful Dead show recording, it’s ragged-but-right, rarely rocking, and relentlessly redundant. Not for nothing did the band title one of its live albums For the Faithful. As the saying goes, if you like or love The Grateful Dead, you’ll enjoy this one, especially for the sound quality. If you find them monotonous and lacking in energy, there’s little within the grooves of Dick’s Picks Volume 24 to change your mind.
I came away from the hours spent listening to this set – nothing to dislike here, really, and plenty of enjoyable moments – with one major thought: It’s too bad that any number of other bands — far better ones, in my estimation — couldn’t have had (and used) such stellar mobile recording equipment to capture their shows. Instead we get out-of tune guitars, croaky vocals and Donna Godchaux in brilliant, top-notch audio quality.
Seven CDs represents quite a lot of music. And all of the music on Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective was recorded in the space of six and half year years. The earliest tracks date from spring 1965, and the latest cuts were recorded in fall 1971. But the 129 tracks span an impressively wide stylistic range, making the case (if such a case really needed making) that Duane Allman was one of the great guitarists of his generation. As a band leader, jam/collaborator and/or session player, Allman never failed to bring a fresh and unique approach to the song at hand.
While Allman developed a signature style – especially on slide guitar – he was adept and bending his style in the direction other artists’s projects needed. The result (as showcased mostly on discs 2-5) was that Duane Allman seemed always to improve a session, but he could do so in a way that didn’t necessarily call attention to him. It’s dangerous to project ideas of personalty upon an artist who’s no longer with us, but there’s plenty of evidence on Skydog that Allman was not an egocentric player.
On some of the tracks, Allman’s just there doing his part, and he’s sometimes buried in the mix. But if one listens closely, there’s always something interesting to hear coming out of the man’s guitar.
Some of the earliest material Allman recorded has circulated among collectors, and some has seen official release before. But The Escorts (one of his earliest bands) are shown to be a pretty tight little unit. The Allman Joys leaned heavily in a Yardbirds-centric direction, but they did it convincingly: somehow the band manages to sound like they wrote the songs, as opposed to coming off like one of those awful “not the original artist” acts on so many cheap compilation LPs of the era. And the Hour Glass tracks show that Allman’s band belongs on any list of important Nuggets-era garage/psych bands.
As Allman moved into session work – he was a regular and popular fixture at the Muscle Shoals studios – his playing ability advanced, and the sheer breadth of his stylistic palette expanded in many directions. His work on covers (Clarence Carter‘s reading of The Doors‘ “Light My Fire,” Wilson Pickett‘s “Hey Jude” and Aretha Franklin‘s “The Weight” to name but three of many ace cuts) shows that be brought his sensibility to bear on these unique interpretations of well-known songs.
Equally at home on soulful blues numbers (Otis Rush, King Curtis), odd, near-novelty tunes (“Hand Jive” by The Duck and the Bear) and art-pop (Laura Nyro‘s “Beads of Sweat”), Allman was a man for all seasons.
Skydog isn’t a cheap set: it lists for well over $100. But for anyone who has more than a passing interest in Allman’s music and musicianship, there are countless reasons to justify the purchase. There’s a healthy amount of previously-unreleased material here. And because Duane played on so many disparate sessions, the odds are good that you won’t have large chunks of this material in your collection already. Moreover, there’s a minimum of crushingly-obvious selections here, even though somes song simply had to be included (Derek & the Dominos‘ “Layla,” Boz Scaggs‘ epic barnburner “Loan Me a Dime”). There’s also less Allman Brothers Band music than one might expect (less than twenty songs), and when it is there, it’s especially tasty.
And the packaging is nothing short of stunning. Housed in a sturdy box made to look like a guitar case (right down to the furry gold lining inside), the package uses no plastic (except the discs themselves, of course), instead protecting the CDs in printed paper sleeves. A lovely booklet (color covers, duotones inside) is filled with discographical information, photos and thoughtful essays. A “Skydog” decal and commemorative guitar pick are also nice little touches. But none of that would matter if the music wasn’t wonderful. And it most certainly is. After working one’s way through the exhaustive musical history that is Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective, listeners will surely come away with a couple of enduring thoughts. One, Allman sure did a lot of good work in the space of a short six years or so. And two, had he not lost his life, he doubtless would have gone on to do even more of similarly enduring quality.
It’s the rare modern act that bridges audiences young and not-so-young. Australia’s Tame Impala is one such act. In the studio, the Australian Tame Impala is essentially one man: Kevin Parker. An unabashed sixties music fetishist, Parker crafts the music (two albums and an EP to date) doing all of the playing, songwriting and singing himself. But for the first full-scale tour of the USA, Parker assembled a band to play the music.
With a dreamy, psychedelic sound that owes serious stylistic debts to John Lennon and Todd Rundgren, Tame Impala still manages to come off modern enough to appeal to listeners not well-versed in the musical aesthetic of 1960s and 70s rock/pop. By folding in modern elements such as looping and sampling, Parker creates a sound that draws form the best of old and new. ( A friend of mine offers that Tame Impala sounds a bit like “Dungen, but singing in English.”) And while the 2010 debut album Innerspeaker begins to sound a bit samey when played all the way through, there is enough creativity at work – and plenty of hooks among the swirling drone – to keep listeners’ attention.
Tame Impala branched out its sound for 2012′s Lonerism, a release which deftly avoids the dreaded sophomore slump. Both a commercial and critical darling, Tame Impala seems poised for further success. The group’s February 2013 show at Asheville’s Orange Peel followed the same set list they used on most other dates around the time, but when it works, it works. Playing to an enthusiastic packed house (the show sold out far in advance of the performance), the live lineup of Tame Impala tore through their catalog, unafraid to front-load the set with some of their more well-known (and best-loved) numbers. “Solitude is Bliss” was wheeled out a mere four songs in, and they closed the set (relatively brief encore notwithstanding) with an especially effective reading of what may be their best number, the non-LP “Half Full Glass of Wine.”
Had scheduling permitted, Tame Impala could easily have booked a multi-night string of dates in Asheville, and other dates on the tour (still in progress ta press time) have been equally well-received. But there’s wisdom in the leave-’em-wanting more strategy. A band to watch.
Not that anyone asked, but we now have an answer to the musical question: what might a Public Image Ltd album sound like without the involvement of John Lydon? The new album Yin & Yang is credited to Jah Wobble and Keith Levene, two prime movers of PiL during its most creatively fruitful period. And not to take away from Lydon’s considerable (no, really) talents, but these guys are players: Wobble is a thunderous, dub-influenced bassist (and lyricist), and Levene is an imaginative guitarist. As the liners tell us, all basses and guitars on Yin & Yang are by the duo, otherwise assisted by a very short list of musicians; Wobble handled production, “editing” and mastering.
The songs are rooted in arresting riffs and hooks – often built around Wobble’s snaky bass lines, as on the instrumental “Strut” – and Levene’s varied guitar work conjures all sorts of textures out of his axes: jagged, atonal skronk, lovely acoustic picking, and sexy circular riffage…sometimes all in the same song.
Sometimes, Wobble declaims his lyrics like a street corner poet: this approach forms the centerpiece of the title track and “Jags & Staffs,” the latter featuring some noisy guitar and beats slowed to near the stopping point. Wobble’s bass lines on many of Yin & Yang‘s tracks will test your system to its limits; listening to this album on stock computer speakers is not recommended.
It wouldn’t be accurate to call this album punk, but it doesn’t easily allow classification into any other box, either. Dub-metal-trance, maybe? And then just when you think you’ve pegged the album’s style, “Mississippi” comes on: it’s nothing if not a pop song, sort of a Rolling Stones or T. Rex from another dimension, filtered through a cassette deck with serious oxidation problems. Its so catchy, it’s completely unnerving. Then there’s the matter of a ghostly, warped cover of The Beatles‘ “Within You Without You.” In the hands of Wobble and Levene, the George Harrison composition is transformed into some sort of dub extravaganza built around Revolver-esque bass lines and featuring some vaguely psychedelic guitar work from Levene. Key pieces of the song are broken down and reassembled, in a way that recalls the methods – if certainly not the sounds – of modern jazz.
The instrumental tracks on Yin & Yang are often built upon a hypnotic bass figure from Wobble, and some heavy-but-simple drum work, leaving plenty of space for Levene to layer his guitar work; this approach is the hallmark of “Back on the Block” and “Fluid,” though the latter features some atmospheric horn section (trumpet and flugelhorn) work as well. “Understand” sounds like it would have been the ideal place for Lydon to make a guest appearance; instead it’s one Nathan Maverick on vocals. The production style throughout is dry and intimate, suggesting that the duo could reproduce this stuff in a live setting quite well.
A strange and alluring “psychedelic dub” album, Yin & Yang shows that thirty-five years after they were half oft he team that made the postpunk classic Metal Box, Jah Wobble and Keith Levene have plenty of jagged ideas left in ‘em.
Here’s yet another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews; today it’s Latin psych, comedy, rock’n'roll and country, and pop. I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were beginning to gather dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.
Alfonso Lovo – La Gigantona
Count on the Numero Group for fascinating, outside-the-box releases of previously-ignored music. Their Buttons powerop compilation, their reissues of rare material by soul/r&b artist Lou Ragland, and The Boddie Recording Company, and funksters Father’s Children all brought obscurities out of undeserved shadows. And those are just a few. One of the latest is La Gigantona. Originally slated for release in the mid 1970s, this album by Nicaraguan Alfonso Lovo was a victim of that country’s political unrest. Will it sound to untrained ears like Santana? Sure, it will. The presence of percussionist José “Chepito” Areas will only reinforce that sonic connection. But there’s a psychedelic weirdness here – treated vocals, out-there guitar – that moves well beyond Santana’s bag of tricks. Rescued from the sole surviving acetate of the finished album sessions, La Gigantona is a funky, Latin psych-flavored disc that may conjure “what ifs” in your mind.
Joan Rivers – Presents Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories
It’s the rare comedy record – The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart, for example — that sounds as fresh today as in 1962. Joan Rivers started her stand-up career (these days, when she’s known more as a “personality,” we forget she ever had one) back in the mid 60s, and her debut LP has been reissued by the eclectic sorts at Rock Beat. While a lot of her humor here is built around the subject of her hairdreser (the Mr Phyllis of the title) her approach is surprisingly non-homophobic. Remember, this was 1965. The material is delivered in a well-timed, manic style, and Rivers deftly riffs off the audience’s reaction to her jokes. The absurdity of the gags – bits about wig farms and such – is pretty goofy, but there’s a sly and subtle wit to her material that might pass you by on the first listen.
Jerry Lee Lewis – The Killer Live! 1964-1970 Fleshtones biographer Joe Bonomo authored a rhapsodic book-length mash note to one of music’s all-time great albums, Jerry Lee Lewis‘ landmark 1964 LP Live! At the Star Club. Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found is required reading, irrespective of how you feel about Lewis. Recently Hip-O Select collected that album with two other live Lewis documents: The Greatest Live Show on Earth (1964) and Live at the International Las Vegas (1970). While the second ’64 LP certainly suffers in comparison to the German concert, it has its moments, and a bunch of outtakes rise to a similar standard. By the time of the Vegas gig, Lewis had figured out where the money was (hint: country and western), but even it is worthwhile. Sixty live tracks is a Whole Lotta Lewis, but at least a full third of it (and possibly half) is some of the wildest stuff you’ll ever hear.
Dion – The Complete Laurie Singles
Real Gone Music continues a tradition its founders began at their old label (Collectors’ Choice Music) of putting together career-spanning singles collection of pop artists. For completists, these can’t be beat: nearly always sourced from the master tapes, there’s excellent mastering, transfer and fidelity to be found. And since we’re talking about singles, any number of non-LP sides appear, sometimes making their first appearance in digital format. Dion DiMucci – known in those teen idol days simply by his first name – enjoyed some well-deserved hits through his time on Laurie (a period that nearly extended to both ends of the 1960s), but nearly all of the hits came in the pre-Beatles era. Of course “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” are here, but too are some interesting late-period pieces including a bizarre reinvention of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Purple Haze” (#63 pop) that sounds more like Arthur Lee‘s Love.
My firsthand experience with tribute bands is quite limited; in general, the concept doesn’t do a lot for me. While there are quite a few acts touring (quite successfully, I should note) the works of more famous bands, many of them base their stage act on the visual style and cues of the band being tributed. In Asheville alone, we have a number of tribute bands who regularly make an annual (or more-often) swing through for a show. There’s a Michael Jackson one (Who’s Bad), a Misfits one, and for quite some time we had our own locally-grown Led Zeppelin tribute band, Custard Pie. For me, though, many of the tribute bands – and I’m speaking in general here, not of the aforementioned acts – seem to cross over into play-acting. Of course some of that is necessary if you’re paying onstage tribute to Jim Morrison of The Doors, or KISS, or any other acts possessed of a distinctive visual aesthetic.
And that is one – but only one, mind you – reason why I absolutely love The Machine. They perform the works of Pink Floyd, my second-favorite band of all time (second only to The Beatles). And one of the distinctive features about the Floyd was that they didn’t have much in the way of distinctive visual features. Yes, they had Mr. Screen, the large, round projection tapestry, and loads of lights and whatnot, but often as not, the band members themselves weren’t an integral part of the visuals. It was about the music.
As it is with The Machine. I first saw them four or five years ago, during which time I got a chance to go backstage and talk with the band pre-show. I had missed them on subsequent Asheville dates, but jumped at the chance to catch their January 2013 show.
As it happened, the band had very recently undergone a significant lineup shift. Guitarist Joe Pascarell had left the band, as had drummer Todd Cohen. So for 2013, bassist Ryan Ball moved seamlessly into the guitar role, joined by newcomers Adam Minkoff on bass and lead vocals, plus drummer Tahrah Cohen (who, I’m told, was a founding member of The Machine decades ago). [Note: See a reader's correction in the comments below. -- bk] Only keyboardist Scott Chasolen remains intact from the previous lineup.
What’s amazing is – though the Orange Peel date was the first public performance featuring the revised lineup – if anything, The Machine put on a better show this time around. (And I found their last show an unqualified success.)
Much of this is due, I think, to bassist Minkoff. His vocal range and texture are such that he can convincingly cover both Roger Waters‘ vocal parts (not that hard; Rog’s a great songwriter but no award-winning singer) as well as those of David Gilmour. So with the expert vocal harmonies of all three other band members (including drummer Cohen), The Machine are well-equipped in the vocal department.
Cohen does a fine job on drums, recreating Nick Mason‘s distinctive style; Mason has never been on the short list of technically great drummers, and his bag of tricks is relatively small, but his particular style is such an integral part of the Pink Floyd sound that criticisms of his chops are moot. Cohen did a thrilling job on her roto-tom intro to “Time,” adhering to the spirit of Mason’s work without aping it.
Ball plays Gilmour’s guitar leads as if he’s been doing it for years, despite just having moved over from bass guitar. While his Stratocaster had a tad less reverb applied to it than is Gilmour’s custom, that may have been a function of the room’s acoustics more than anything else. Like Cohen, he struck a perfect balance between playing Like The Record and giving the songs his own personal spin.
Chasolen is as central to The Machine’s sound as Rick Wright was; if one isn’t paying close attention, it’s easy to overlook just how integral what he does is to the overall presentation. That he’s seated (same as Wright always was) makes his presence that much more subtle. But he’s key.
The Machine know their audiences, and (as discussed with me a few years ago) they strive to give audiences what they want; this means playing a certain number of the really well known numbers, but also throwing in a few lesser-known tunes for the hardcore Floydians (like me). On this night, The Machine gave us four songs from The Dark Side of the Moon, four from Wish You Were Here, five from The Wall, one from A Momentary Lapse of Reason and two from The Division Bell.
But they also dug deeper and performed “Sheep” from Animals (an album Pink Floyd didn’t touch live post 1977), two from Meddle (a shortened-to-fifteen minutes “Echoes” and the virtually unknown “Fearless”), as well as A Saucerful of Secrets‘ “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (the night’s only pre-1970 tune; no Syd Barrett-era material at all). But for me the biggest pleasure of many delights was The Machine’s reading of “Childhood’s End” from Obscured by Clouds, an underrated tune from an underrated album.
The band kept mostly to the original album arrangements (though as I’ve read elsewhere, if you want to hear how the Floyd sounded live, go see The Machine), yet they did stretch out for a longish and tasty keyboard solo at the tail-end of “Another Brick in the Wall, Part Two.”
Seeing as Rick Wright has passed on, and (though Gilmour and Waters have largely buried the hatchet) Pink Floyd will never again play live, The Machine is a worthy and entertaining flame-keeper. And twenty-five years on, they seem only to be improving at their chosen game.