Archive for July, 2009

Interview Teaser: Ian Anderson

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Several months ago I was fortunate to score a phone interview with Jethro Tull‘s legendary leader/founder, Ian Anderson. Our talk came at the tail-end of  long day for the UK-based flautist/vocalist, but he graciously spoke with me for more than an hour. Our wide-ranging conversation covered the creative process, the ups and down of the band over the years, the effects of aging, and even the then-current US presidential race. The incredibly articulate and engaging Anderson was endlessly quotable; the problem was, at the conclusion, I had an hour-long recording, almost all of which was worth sharing verbatim.Ian Anderson, Nov 2007. Photo (c) Bill Kopp

But I type something like 18 words per minute, with 12 mistakes.

Enter my good friend David Molnar. Yet another former bandmate (Dave was the best and last in a long line of bassists in my retro-psych garage project The Echoes of Tyme), he’s also a terrifyingly good transcriptionist. He’s agreed to type up a record of the proceedings for me (and for you). Watch this space for details.

Porcupine Tree: The Incident

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Porcupine Tree - The IncidentThis is big. UK progressive rock quartet Porcupine Tree will release their latest album — a 2CD set called The Incident on September 15. A sampler from the album is available on the group’s myspace page. For melodic, intelligent rock in 2009, you can’t do better than Porcupine Tree. (Read my 2007 interview with PT’s leader Steven Wilson.)

And while PT’s not derivative, they do proudly wear some of their influences on their sleeve. Listen to the excerpt, and around the 4:00 mark, tell me it doesn’t sound exactly like Rick Wright’s organ washes that open “Us and Them.”

I look forward to The Incident with eager anticipation.

Progressive Nation Act III: Zappa Plays Zappa

Friday, July 31st, 2009

As mentioned previously, I’m something of a Zappa fanatic. I was lucky enough to see the man onstage twice in the 80s; his peculiar hybrid of obscenely-complicated art/jazz/rock/whatever crossed with a withering sense of irony and a jaundiced eye toward poseurs of all stripes rendered his music tailor-made for a proto-postmodern twentysomething mulleted me.

Or something like that. Besides, he had a song called “Broken Hearts Are for @$$holes.” What’s not to love?

Around that time, I bought a 45rpm record by two of Frank’s progeny: son Dweezil on guitar, and daughter Moon Unit on vocals. “My Mother is a Space Cadet” b/w ” Crunchy Water” wasn’t a deathless slab of music, but neither did it suck. And it definitely showed promise. So while I didn’t follow Dweezil’s subsequent solo career that closely, I did take some note of it, especially the fact that he was developing into one helluva musician.

With Frank’s tragic passing due to cancer in the 90s,  it seemed like that-was-that Zappawise. But thanks to groups like Ensemble Modern (who performed the master’s classical works) and tribute acts like Project Object (who have endured something approaching harassment from the Zappa Family Trust — but that’s another story), FZ’s music stayed alive, and his reputation grew.

It didn’t grow in that morbid posthumous way that we see with some artists — Elvis, Michael Jackson (come on!) and so forth — but it did blossom. People started to take his legacy a bit more seriously; they put the scatological humor stuff into its proper context and allowed themselves to appreciate the intricacies of his massive catalog.

It was against that backdrop that Dweezil assembled some of the best musicians out there — and let’s face it, if you ain’t among the best, you can’t play Zappa — and put together ZPZ. I first saw the group at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville NC a couple of years ago; in all my years of concertgoing, never before (and not since) have I witnessed a performance in which the band got a well-earned standing ovation after every single song. I kid you not.

With that in mind, I was definitely planning to see them again. Even though they were to be second-billed to an act in which I had only marginal interest, I considered the ZPZ show a must-see. And I was not disappointed. From the opening number — the classic fan favorite “Peaches En Regalia” — through impossibly complicated numbers like “Echidna’s Arf (of You)” and “The Black Page #2″ the band kept it going in jawdropping fashion. Dweezil’s band concentrated on the tougher material, though they did pull out selections dating back to Uncle Meat (1969) and even the fun, rocking “Magic Fingers” from 200 Motels (1971).

What’s perhaps most unique about ZPZ (and it’s definitely a hallmark of FZ’s music) is that they manage to play this terrifyingly complex music with feeling. Yes, they’re executing neck-snapping musical left turns throughout, but they’re laughing their @$$es off the whole time too. Special notice to saxophonist/keyboardist/vocalist Scheila Gonzales for her amazing performance throughout the show.

If there were any disappointments for me at all — and yes, I’m stretching a bit here to think of any — I did miss Gonzales’ two-saxes-at-once trick (longtime Zappa fans will doubtless agree that FZ would have had a wicked, sneering cackle at the sexual connotations thereof). And I missed Dweezil’s guitar duets with a big-screen Dad — achieved thanks to the fact that Frank recorded many gigs with multi-camera shots and multi-track audio. Those duets were the closest thing to poignancy that could be imagined at an event with the Zappa name attached to it.

I could have left after that, and been more than satisfied. But no.

Progressive Nation Act II: Bigelf

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Second to take the stage was Bigelf. Like Scale the Summit, these guys were unknown to me. I was totally unfamiliar with their music, so I did a quick bit of reading about them ahead of time. I learned that one of their trademarks is use of vintage instruments. So with that, I was delighted to see roadies hauling out some of my favorite machines: a Hammond organ (or reasonable facsimile), a real Mellotron, a Minimoog. The guitarist’s rig included a stack of Orange amplifiers. 

Bigelf

But none of that would have mattered if the music wasn’t good. And indeed it was. Taking cues from a wide variety of legendary acts, Bigelf rocked the stage like it was 1973. And in some ways it was: while I had read that the group’s influences included ELO and Queen, I didn’t hear all that much to support that argument. What I heard were strong echoes of Demons and Wizards era Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath. My friend Jeff pointed out their stylistic similarity to Bloodrock. Good one, Jeff; spot-on. I had half-joked to Jeff that this was one band who had their priorities right: the keyboard player was front and center onstage. (”F**k you,” he good-naturedly replied.)

The band put on a high-energy show that combined the heaviness of early 70s metal (when that term meant something quite different from its current usage) with the irreverent, winking approach of Cheap Trick (or, for you younger readers, Presidents of United States of America). Their songs struck just the right balance of doom, bombast…and fun. While all four members played well, their primary instrumental strength came in the way they played as an ensemble. The dour, humorless approach of so many progsters was totally lacking while Bigelf was onstage.

I look forward to getting and listening to their albums. As happened when I discovered Porcupine Tree a few years back, I’m filled with anticipation to learn that Bigelf have a back catalog; in this case, five albums. Their latest is Cheat the Gallows. Put in simplest terms, if you think Wolfmother is cool, you gotta check these guys out. I bumped into the guys from Bigelf at the bar later in the evening (Dream Theater was giving me a headache; more on that forthwith) and told them, “you guys are fantastic.” Vocalist/keyboardist Damon Fox was quick with his reply: “You’re fantastic.” Well, ok then.

Progressive Nation Act I: Scale the Summit

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

First up was Scale the Summit. This four-piece (two guitars trading leads, plus bass and drums) trades in the modern instro-metal-prog genre. A really young lot (not Hanson “Mm-bop” young, not “Michael Jackson when he was human” young, but young nonetheless) turned out a bruising set. For me, the songs ran together and didn’t offer much in the way of variety or distinctiveness. This wasn’t helped by the horrible room mix: while the audience could clearly see two fleet-fingered guitarists turning out 64th-notes, all we could hear was the loudest, most indistinct bass imaginable. Try as I might, I couldn’t pick out any actual bass notes; it was all a dull subsonic roar.

Scale the Summit

All I could think was that the onstage monitor mix must have been better, because the guys in the band didn’t act as if anything was wrong. That, or maybe the bass player’s dad is the band manager or sound engineer. Anyway, I’ll cut ‘em a break because they were obviously trying pretty hard, and as I said, they’re way-young. Still, their music is more of the see-what-we-each-can-do variety than the we’re-a-band-that-plays-together variety. But there’s a market for what they do, and they got a standing O. Best of luck to ‘em; this tour is, I should think, a pretty big break for the band.

Gratuitous parting shot: For those who like this style, this group runs circles (ha!) around Scale the Summit.

Progressive Nation 2009

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Prog NationSo awhile back I bought a ticket to the local date of the Progressive Nation tour. My buddy and band mate Jeff talked me into it. On one level, I didn’t need much convincing: near the top of the bill was Zappa Plays Zappa; I’d seen ZPZ a couple years earlier and was wowed by their performance (and I’d seen Frank Zappa in concert twice back in the day, and I own the first 50 or so of Frank’s LPs on vinyl, plus hundreds of FZ bootlegs, so I should know). But the other acts were Dream Theater – a band I had never really checked out – and a couple Swedish doom metal bands. Yikes, I thought; I’m definitely not a metal fan. But pay my $40 I did, confident in the knowledge that at least ZPZ would give me my money’s worth.

A couple months later the date rolled around. The Swedish groups were dropped from the bill (sadly, their label went belly-up) and they were replaced by two other groups I also didn’t know. It was an interesting evening. More soon.

Marshall Crenshaw in Jaggedland

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Marshall CrenshawI just spoke with Marshall Crenshaw. Our interview was nearly two years to the day after our first meeting, an in-person conversation in the lobby of Asheville NC’s Grey Eagle. That 2007 interview is here.

I’ll be publishing the latest feature the first week in August. Keep an eye out for it. Jaggedland is Crenshaw’s best in years, and that’s saying something.

Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey
My interview with / feature on Holsapple and Stamey was published in the July 8 issue of Mountain Xpress. Now that the publisher’s two-week embargo has passed, here’s a link to a much more in-depth version of that piece, on my own site.

Dungen Interview/feature Coming

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Today I interviewed Gustav Estjes, leader of Swedish modern-psych group Dungen. I was turned onto these guys a few years back by my friend (and former bandmate in the Echoes of Tyme) Dave Vandergrift; I’ll always be grateful to DV for that one. Anyway, the feature will run in the August 12 issue of Mountain Xpress, and as always, I’ll post a post-embargo version two week later.

To whet your appetite, you might peruse my 2007 interview with Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske.

If you’re in or near Asheville NC on August 18, I highly recommend you attend their show at the lovely, intimate Grey Eagle.

Review: Moby Grape – The Place and The Time

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

Moby Grape - The Place and The TimeI’ve written extensively about the travails of Moby Grape, the best 60s group most people have never heard. Some of my words on the subject are yet to be published, and when they are, it will be without byline. But if you don’t know their music, it’s worth getting to know. And then, if you don’t know their sad story, it’s an object lesson about..something. Not quite as tragic a tale as that of, say, Badfinger, but damn close.

Sundazed compiled all the bonus tracks from the (now out of print) original album CD reissues. It’s a story in itself. Read a full review of The Place and the Time, a worthy companion to the Grape’s official canon.