Archive for March, 2010

Interview: Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

For veteran cosmic rockers the Moody Blues, building the set list is A Question of Balance.

Forty-three years after the release of the symphonic rock classic Days of Future Passed, the Moody Blues are still at it, regularly touring their music to concert halls worldwide. Three members of the classic era quintet still remain: Justin Hayward (guitar, vocals), John Lodge (bass, vocals) and drummer/vocalist Graeme Edge. The three men — all now in their sixties — tour frequently with three additional members helping to recreate the band’s lush studio aesthetic.

The band has released only one album of new material in the 21st century (2003′s Christmas). Edge allows that the Moodys would “love for somebody to come along and sign the band to a recording contract.” He says that they’re “in permanent negotiations, but there’s nothing on the horizon.”

During the sixties and seventies, Edge says, “we’d spend a month in the studio, and let [album ideas and concepts] grow in there, and have an organic feel to it.” But today’s market is different: “Small independent labels, they want you in and out of the studio in three hours!” He marvels that some labels “start wanting a piece of the road action.” Edge cites several labels’ policy of demanding ten percent of a band’s touring revenue; they use the argument that albums are merely “loss leaders to get people to the concerts.” His position: “They ain’t gonna get that” from the Moody Blues.

So instead the band puts its effort into live performance. The bulk of a Moody Blues concert audience is baby boomers eager to relive their youth, if only for a few hours. But Edge notes that “we see a sprinkling of younger people throughout the audience, which makes us feel very happy.” He quotes Justin Hayward’s explanation of why younger people might find the Moodys’ music appealing: “Well, they’re the same age we were when we wrote the songs!”

Graeme Edge
In recent years there have been several live tours re-creating classic albums from the psychedelic era. Besides Brian Wilson‘s high-profile tours, Love‘s Arthur Lee performed 1967′s Forever Changes in concert worldwide. And in 2008 the Zombies performed their 1968 album Odessey and Oracle [sic] to wide acclaim. The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed seems ripe for such a treatment.

“We have considered it,” Edge admits, “but there’s a problem: we wouldn’t have somebody else sing a Mike Pinder song. It wouldn’t be right; there’s a phoniness to that. So we’d rather present a nice mix-and-match from all of the records.” Keyboardist, singer and Mellotron wizard Mike Pinder lost his taste for touring and retired from the band in 1978; flautist/vocalist Ray Thomas retired for health reasons in 2002.

A highlight of the current tour is the VIP Package. In addition to a seat at the show, VIP purchasers get a pre-show audience with the band. “It’s a new idea; I’m a bit nervous about it,” Edge admits. “We’ll come out and answer questions. The promoter says, ‘What you’ve got to do is just tell them some amusing stories from on the road.’” After a pregnant pause, Edge bursts into laughter and says, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to say those; there might be some young people there!”

A typical 21st century Moody Blues concert includes all the hits, but the band balances those with a selection of deep album cuts for the hardcore fans. “There’s the big six — as we call them — that we have to play,” Edge says. “And I agree with people; we should play them. I’m not one of those people that says, ‘I’m so bored with playing those.’ My whole life was changed by ‘Nights in White Satin,’ and I love it every night.

“During certain songs — ‘Tuesday Afternoon,’ or one of the old big favorites — I love to look down into the audience,” Edge explains. “As we start the song, I’ll see people lean in to each other and openly say, ‘Oh, I love this one.’ You draw energy from that, and use it in the show. Every one of us is an old ham; we love playing live.

“But we’re always polishing the diamond, as we say. We’re often putting a ‘new old song’ into the show; every time we go out on tour, we probably put five or six new-old ones in. I’m lobbying to get ‘Gypsy’ [from 1969's To Our Children's Childrens' Children] into the show; we haven’t played that for awhile. I can show off on the drums a bit on that one, y’know.” Pausing conspiratorially, Edge adds, “Which I enjoy.”

Read Bill Kopp’s Moody Blues concert review here.

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Interview: King Khan and the Shrines

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Note: the inimitable King Khan brings his crazed live act back to my town — Asheville NC — tonight. So I thought it would be a good time to re-run a story from a year and a half ago, the last time the band rolled through. If you’re in or near Asheville, DO NOT MISS tonight’s show.

There may be better bands than King Khan and the Shrines: bands with calculatingly unparalleled prowess, capable of bloodless technical precision. But King Khan and the Shrines aren’t interested in that fancy-pants conservatory graduate stuff. Their playing is expert, but balances right on the edge of chaos. Should-be classics like “(How Can I Keep You) Outta Harm’s Way” and the S&M-is-fun “Torture” crank out a sound that answers the (perhaps unasked) question: “What would Iggy and the Stooges sound like with a B3 organ and horn section?”

With four albums of new material released since 2001, the Shrines have built an impressive catalog of music. But until recently, locating any of it was tough for American fans. That’s being remedied: in 2008 Vice Records issued The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines, a compilation of some of the group’s finest recorded moments. This April, Vice will reissue What Is!?, a previously hard-to-find 2007 set that successfully translates their blistering live act to a studio setting.

The Shrines’ approach isn’t as extramusical as that of label mates the Black Lips. On a recent swing through India, the Black Lips were up to their usual antics (mooning the crowd, spitting in the air and swallowing the phlegmy gob), resulting in that group being effectively run out of the country. Tellingly, they sought refuge with a kindred spirit at the home of King Khan. But while both the Black Lips and Shrines draw from the same deep well of inspiration, the Shrines apply greater emphasis to the musical side of the equation. Their style — Khan himself suggests “Sun Ra meets George Clinton,” but it’s perhaps better described as “James Brown meets the Sonics” — combines the raucous, direct approach of garage punk with the exuberant, high-octane charge of soul, washed down with a dose of psychedelia.

Khan and his cohorts go where the action is (he notes that “in Spain, people go ape-shit right from the beginning of the show”). And Asheville is becoming a regular destination for the musicians. Last November Khan played the Grey Eagle as half of the duo The King Khan and BBQ Show, a punk-garage-doowop project with guitarist Mark Sultan.

King  Khan Onstage, KK&TS are a thing to behold. And while their Asheville date will find them on the relatively expansive stage of the Orange Peel, they’re quite at home in the sweaty, cramped, low-ceiling confines of a club like Washington DC’s (misleadingly named) Rock and Roll Hotel, a stop on last summer’s tour. Through their excellent, hook-filled tunes and their wild presentation (they’re anything but tame onstage) King Khan and the Shrines are the embodiment of rock’n'roll spirit.

Khan’s underrated bandmates — many of whom share his predilection for winkingly clever noms de rock like Ben Ra and Sam Francisco — boast fine musical pedigrees, having worked with artists like Curtis Mayfield and Ike & Tina Turner. In addition to the standard guitar-bass-drums lineup, the large group features a horn section, an organist and a cheerleader called Bamboorella. Her official bio claims that she “traded a life of crime, sex and drugs for a life of rock’n'roll, sex and drugs.” With her glittery mini-dress, high boots and pom-poms, this lovely lady has the job of helping whip the crowd into a frenzy. While she’s an essential part of the show, hers isn’t the toughest job in the world: audiences worldwide respond enthusiastically to the sights and sounds of King Khan and the Shrines.

Fronting it all is the irrepressible, inimitable King Khan. During performances, Khan sometimes leaves the stage, descending into the throngs of concertgoers. Followed by one or two of his fellow musicians, Khan approaches dozens of audience members, greeting them one-by-one namaste-style: he makes eye contact, places his hands together in prayer-fashion, and bows regally.

Or he may do none of that. You just never know. Maybe he’ll appear onstage in crown and cape, fronting the hard-charging Shrines while singing and flailing away at his guitar. Maybe he’ll grab the mic stand and kneel toward the crowd, a modern-day Micky Dolenz channeling James Brown. Amid all that, Khan doesn’t see what they’re doing as all that unique: “We’re carrying on the tradition of wild rock and roll.” His style is a grab-bag of many things, owing in part to his (and the group’s) international vantage point: Khan lives in Berlin (home base for the Shrines), was born in Montréal and is the child of Indian immigrants. Perhaps half-jokingly, he claims his own musical pedigree: “My great grandfather was the Johnny Thunders of the sitar.”

Bonus Interview with King Khan

After press time, I was fortunate enough to get some additional time with King Khan. I rarely use the Q&A format, since I find it a lazy approach, but in this case the answers are worth it. So here goes:

Bill Kopp: Do you find it a challenge to break even or better when traveling with a large band like the Shrines?

King Khan: I never really think about breaking even. With a band like The Shrines everyone does this for the experience, because we love to play together and spread joy to the masses. But for some reason even when all odds are against us we manage to make a little something. Last year when gas prices were ridiculous we had an orange van from Alabama that was literally spraying gas out of it. We drove all over the US and still came home with a little bit of dough. And since we began promoting burning money as a form of celebration, we never have to worry about it; it just comes and goes like the wind.

BK: The band has garnered a fair amount of underground buzz and positive critical reviews, but you’ve been at it nearly a decade. Last years Supreme Genius comp on Vice certainly increased your profile. Do you have hopes and/or expectations that this tour and the re-release of What Is!? might break the band on a larger scale? Or is that not really the plan?

KK: The plan has always been there is no plan. After all the good reviews our What Is!? album got, and following the release of the Supreme Genius compilation we were finally able to bring the show across the ocean. Our first tour went really great and the reactions we got were even better than I had ever imagined. World domination was always our goal, and I think with every tour we come closer and closer to it.

BK: I saw the Shrines in DC last year at the Rock and Roll Hotel, and I thought that the small, cramped, low-ceiling venue somehow suited what you were doing. Venues like the Orange Peel in Asheville are larger, with a huge stage. Do you expect the band to come across differently in larger venues?

KK: I have always preferred seeing bands in small tight little spaces, but that’s just sexualizing it too much. We have rocked stages big and small. Usually we come across looking more professional when we play on bigger stages. And after all the years of misbehaving, looking a little professional doesn’t really do us any harm.

It’s like when I told our drummer John Boy Adonis to wear a suit and carry around an empty briefcase at this festival in Spain, he did it and instantly hooked up with a girl who basically spoon-fed him tons of booze and drugs for three days. Just goes to show you that sometimes a little deception goes a long way.

BK: What’s the largest venue the band has played? Biggest audience you’ve played for?

KK: The largest audiences were probably playing at a festival in Denmark; I heard someone say there were 10,000 people when we played. We played a couple of shows opening up for this hip German band and had crowds of 3-4000 people. There were a lot of people at the Pitchfork Festival but I have no idea how many.

BK: At the DC show you wandered into the audience and did a “namaste” thing to dozens of audience members. Was that spontaneous or is it a fixture of the show? How much of the show is made up on the fly?

KK: That show was a very memorable one for me, because I got to sing (David Bowie‘s) “Rebel Rebel” with Kid Congo Powers (Gun Club, Cramps) and Ian Svenious (Make Up). Two people I admire a lot. I like to keep the show as spontaneous as possible; if the audience is ready and willing, then so am I. If people come to the show and freak out than you can be damn sure that I will be there in a puddle of sweat doin’ the drop and getting my knees dirty.

BK: Have King Khan and the Shrines ever played for an audience that “didn’t get it?”

KK: Of course, but sometimes you can turn it around and make them get it. I remember once in Austria we played this mod club which was run by a bunch of jerks and so I drank half a bottle of whisky within the first three songs and started going crazy. I took off my clothes and started running around headbutting people. I was lying on top of the bar butt naked, then I started pulling people onstage and asking them to make up punk songs. At one point both my bass player and drummer went off stage because they were pissed off that I was being so ridiculous, but [eventually] they came back onstage and joined the fun.

King Khan and the Shrines onstage in Washington DC. Photo (c) Bill  Kopp
Anyway, there was this kid with a huge set of braces. I went up to him and started calling him “metal mouth” over and over to try and get a reaction out of him, and I grabbed him and dragged him onstage and gave him the mic. He totally broke out of his shell and started singing like a little Darby Crash (Germs). The band was backing him up playing this crazy punk stuff. It was great. The kid was really very happy after that. The bar got a fine for showing obscenity to minors, and I wound up throwing up all night.I guess if an audience doesn’t get it, then f*ck them. It can be more fun in these situations because you just wind up entertaining yourself and the band.

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Album Review: Poco – Live at Columbia Studios, Hollywood 9/30/71

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

There are two truisms — well, maybe there are more, but I’m only interested in two at the moment — when it comes to country-rock. The first is: The Eagles suck. The second, a corollary, is this: Buffalo Springfield was brilliant.

In between the two there was Poco. Closely related (in a Pete Frame sort of way: over time, the group’s lineup included two former Buffalo Springfield members and two future Eagles) to both bands, Poco nonetheless leaned strongly in the direction of the Springfield in terms of quality. Combining country influences and sensibility, Poco delivered their music in a style that caused rock fans — the kind who generally had no use for C&W — to say, “hey, this is pretty damn good.” With a style that followed in the grand tradition of the Byrds, they rocked, and hard. But they did so while staying true to the best qualities of what modern-day listeners might call Americana: close harmonies, storytelling lyrics, concise arrangements.

Right around the time of the release of Poco’s fourth LP From the Inside, the band performed something of a private/warm-up concert for invited guests at the Columbia Studios soundstage. (I’m not 100% certain of this, but I believe the venue is the same one famously used to record side one of Paul Revere and the Raiders‘ major label debut Just Like Us.) That date is documented on the new Collectors’ Choice disc Live at Columbia Studios, Hollywood 9/30/71. CCM’s first foray into the world of archival live releases, the Poco set bodes well for the future. The sound is exquisite, the liner notes (uncredited, but quite possibly by Richie Unterberger) offer depth and context, and — most importantly — the performance is a delight.

It’s been said before, but it’s truly amazing to hear Rusty Young‘s steel guitar sound like a Hammond B3 organ. And the texture of the vocals is such that listeners don’t even have to pay attention to the words if they don’t want to. Throughout the fourteen songs, Poco delivers a set that should please fans of both country music and the heavier, rocking sounds of early 70s rock. There are plenty of highlights on the disc, whether one is attuned toward instrumental breaks, lyrics, vocals or ensemble playing.

On “What a Day” Poco sounds uncannily like Moby Grape, another band that never got its due. And on “Railroad Days” Paul Cotton‘s voice sounds like Stephen Stills.

None of which is to suggest that Poco didn’t have ideas of their own. Perhaps they were ahead of their time: the Eagles certainly got a lot further with a similar (but ultimately inferior and less satisfying) approach a few years later. Frequent personnel changes didn’t help, of course. By the time of this ’71 date, only three members remained from the original lineup that had risen from the ashes of the Buffalo Springfield. In many ways Poco took the rock from the Springfield, while CS&N took the folk.

Genuinely exciting playing is the order of the day on Live at Columbia Studios. The set is not filled with hits, since Poco didn’t have any in those days. Their jubilant shoulda-been-a-hit “Good Feelin’ to Know” was still a year or so in their future. But there’s plenty of good singin’ and playin’ in the set. This disc is recommended for anyone who thinks that both Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Buffalo Springfield Again are essential albums. Poco may mean “little” in Spanish, but the beauty and sincerity of the music on this set is no small thing.

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Album Review: Ray Charles – Genius + Soul = Jazz

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Musical dilettantes sometimes dabble in a wide variety of forms for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes they do it simply because they can: maybe their status or financial wherewithal means they can try on different styles of music like a pair of pants, and then they can toss them aside when it’s no longer trendy of headline-grabbing to do so.

Other artists travel across a wide array of styles because they possess a true understanding and feel for the music. Ray Charles fell into the latter camp. His career was filled with highlights in all sorts of genres. While soul/R&B was his primary métier, his efforts in other forms were always genuine excursions into the music. Few artists have ever been able to cross over like Charles did. From his groundbreaking 1962 record Modern Sounds in Country and Western to his mainstream pop efforts, Ray Charles always brought an authenticity and a genuine appreciation of the music to bear on his releases.

By the time of 1961′s Geniuis + Soul = Jazz, Ray was at the top of his game. His command of the industry was such that he could do whatever he wanted. So it was that he assembled the Count Basie Orchestra (without billing them as such) and recorded ten sides with them. The resulting album is a landmark. With Ray out front on expressive, gurgling Hammond organ, the band charges through highly-charged big band arrangements. Lining up a mix of originals and well-chosen covers (by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin and others), Charles breathed new life into a form that was nearing the end of its commercial heyday.

Beautifully recorded and full of all the drama and exuberance one expects of the best big-band music, Genius + Soul = Jazz represents one of many high water marks in Ray Charles’ long career. But proving the timelessness of the form, Ray returned to the genre nearly a decade later for a follow-up album called My Kind of Jazz. Again featuring arrangement by Quincy Jones (the earlier album was arranged by Jones and Ralph Burns) it traded in the same styles and served up more delicious instrumentals. Together, the two albums are a seamless, fulfilling listen.

In 2010 Concord Music paired those two albums on a disc. But they’re merely half of what the label has dubbed Genius + Soul = Jazz (2CD Expanded Edition). Along with the twenty sides contained on those records, the new set adds two more thematically-linked albums to fill a second disc. Jazz Number II (also known as My Kind of Jazz Part 2) was released in 1973. It found Charles branching out a bit into South American-influenced jazz (aka tropicalia/exotica, but without the blips and bleeps and stereo gimmickry of someone like Martin Denny or Esquivel). Featuring arrangements from a number of heavy hitters including Alf Clausen (later to find additional fame as the musical director for The Simpsons TV show), Jazz Number II was another fine addition to Ray’s recorded legacy.

Charles returned to the form yet again for 1975′s My Kind of Jazz Part III. Again working with Clausen and other arrangers, the timeless (or out-of-time, depending on one’s viewpoint) album charted. On these later albums, Charles’ specific contribution sometimes is a bit harder to pin down: his piano (and occasional organ) isn’t always as out-front in the mix/arrangement as on the earlier discs, but the style and delivery of the tracks is very much of a piece with the 1961, 1970 and 1972 albums. (That said, his Wurlitzer electric piano solo is a highlight of “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’”.) Making sure to give value for money — as if thirty-six Ray Charles jazz sides weren’t enough — the Concord 2CD set includes a bonus track, a rendition of the classic “Misty” originally included on trombonist Steve Turre‘s 1999 In the Spur of the Moment LP. The track features Ray Charles near the end of his recording career, but still in full command of his playing abilities, and confident enough to relish in his role as (prominent) sideman.

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Concert Review: Moody Blues – April 21, 2010

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Maybe you’ve been lucky. Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of attending a concert where the performer was truly, really, wholly into it. I was lucky the other night. I saw the Moody Blues in concert.

Yes, the Moody Blues. I know what you might be thinking. A long string of hits, sure. But nothing in the last couple decades. A bunch of guys in their sixties. What could they possibly have to offer beyond nostalgia?

Plenty, as a matter of fact. There are three members remaining from the classic lineup, or as hardcore Moodys fan might say, from the Moody Blues Mk II. Mk I, you may recall, was fronted by Denny Laine — later of Wings – and scored a hit with Bessie Banks‘ “Go Now.” But that lineup folded, and the group that came together to record the groundbreaking Days of Future Passed in 1967 is the one that people remember.

And it’s the one that had all the hits. By 1972 the Moody Blues had racked up an impressive string of hit albums and singles. Tired of the frenetic pace, they took an extended hiatus in ’72, during which time the various members busied themselves with solo albums. All have their moments.

They came back together in 1977 to record Octave, but by the end of that album’s sessions, Mellotron player Mike Pinder threw in the towel; he had had enough of the touring life.

In the early 80s the group — augmented with Swiss keyboard player Patrick Moraz — staged a surprising comeback. They returned to the charts with another string of hit albums and singles, aided in no small part by several music videos. Some of those have aged well, and some are cringingly, horribly dated.

In the mid part of the new century’s first decade, flautist Ray Thomas retired from the group owing to (non-life-threatening) health reasons. As Graeme Edge explained it, “He struggled on the road for two or three years; it was kind of heartbreaking. He finally had to say, ‘I can’t do it any more.’”

So now the group is down to Justin Hayward (guitar, vocals), John Lodge (bass, vocals) and Edge (drums, spoken word interludes). Onstage they’re augmented by a keyboard player, a second drummer, and two female multi-instrumentalists. One plays additional keys and acoustic guitar, and handles high vocal harmonies. The other plays tambourine, guitar, and all of Ray Thomas’ flute parts. She sings as well, and can do a mean karate kick.

Onstage, the band rocks quite credibly for a bunch of older gentlemen. While the supporting musicians do indeed support, there’s little doubt that Hayward, Lodge and Edge still can deliver the goods.

An underrated lead guitarist, Hayward makes it clear onstage that he’s no slouch. In addition to still nailing all of his vocal parts — he sounds exactly the same singing “Tuesday Afternoon” as he did some 43 years ago — he also cranks out a number of impressive (if brief) guitar solos. On “The Day We Meet Again” (one of a surprising three Octave cuts in the current set list) he plays a vintage Farfisa organ.

Lodge still wears leather pants onstage, and though he’s a bit weathered-looking, his playing is none the worse for wear. At one point in the show he strolls onstage with a double-neck axe that’s half Fender P-bass, half Telecaster with left-handed neck. His pipes haven’t failed him, either.

Then there’s Graeme Edge. The band’s eldest member — he’ll soon be 69 — the drummer makes it clear throughout the set that there is nowhere on earth he’d rather be at this moment than on that stage, playing for us nice people. He grins throughout the performance. At one point, he drops a stick. Without missing a beat (literally), his co-drummer takes note of the situation, and tosses Edge a stick — overhand, across the expanse of the stage — while both continue to play. Edge catches it and continues playing as well.

At one point Edge comes out front to do the Ringo thing. Not only does he shake a tambourine and do some spoken-word bits. Though Edge wrote the spoken interludes that are a hallmark of Moody Blues albums (“Breathe deep the gathering gloom…” “There you go, man; keep as cool as you can…” “Live hand in hand, and together we’ll stand…”), original keyboardist Mike Pinder was often the one who recited most of them. Edge told me in a recent interview that “back then, Mike had the big brown voice, and I was still young and high-pitched. But thanks to the ravages of whisky and cigarettes, I’m back down where his voice was now.”

What’s more, Edge dances across the stage at one point, doing that Michael Flatley the-top-half-of-my-body-doesn’t-move Irish dancing stuff.

Is the banter scripted? Sure. When Lodge introduces the rarely-performed “Peak Hour” from Days of Future Passed, his intro isn’t all that different from one night to the next (I saw one show on the current tour, and listened to an audience recording of another, so I know). You want spontaneity, go see a band full of 23 year olds. And see how many timeless songs they can serve up.

No, there isn’t any new material. The band has two hours to make the audience happy, and they balance their set deftly between the hit songs the punters pay to hear (admittedly great songs like “Ride My See Saw”) and deep album cuts that only hardcore fans would know (“Driftwood” from Octave again, featuring Hayward at his most yearning and romantic).

Short of actually dragging a Mellotron onstage (hey, Bigelf does it), the 2010 edition of the Moody Blues re-creates their classic hits in a manner reasonably close to the album versions. Thanks to a device called the Memotron (a reliable and lightweight digital descendant of the Mellotron), the keyboard player reproduces many of Pinder’s classic sounds. While there is a slight 80s feel to some of the keyboard sounds, that’s only fair. The group’s third chart run did span that era.

The PA sound is excellent. “That takes a lot of work and effort, but we’ve always prided ourselves on having a good live sound,” Edge told me. “We’ve always stayed on the pointed end of technology.” The band members all use in-ear monitors rather than old-fashioned foldback monitors. The result is also a cleaner-looking stage setup, and plenty of room for Lodge to roam (his bass was wireless).

I’m lucky to see them. The show is slightly better paced than the 2008 tour, and the song selection is a bit more interesting. The group plays at least one track from each of their seven classic-era albums, and while this reviewer could have done with a bit less of the 80s material, those tunes do rank among the evening’s most well-received numbers.

Tickets aren’t cheap — in most markets the cheapest seats go for $45 and up — but for a show that balances nostalgia with some genuinely exciting rock and roll moments, you could do a lot worse than go see the Moody Blues in 2010.

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Album Review: Various Artists – Next Stop…Soweto Vol. 2

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

South Africa in the 60s, 70s and 80s was becoming increasingly isolated. Culturally and politically, the minority-rule apartheid country faced increasing ostracizing. Many countries — in an all-too-rare-example of unified action based on widely held concepts of right and wrong — boycotted the country.

Internally, the doors were closed as well. The minority leaders did not want “bad” influences from outside South African borders to find their way into the ears, eyes and hearts of its subjugated indigenous African citizens. As such, they encouraged certain “native” forms of music, but strongly discouraged rock, soul and other popular music genres. The fact that these forms owed their origins in large part to African influence, well, that was seemingly lost on these fellows. But then they weren’t the most nuanced thinkers.

As is always the case, some music got through. It always does. I remember speaking with a friend several years ago. A Russian émigré, he recounted to me how Western rock records would get smuggled into the Soviet bloc, and were then duplicated (pirated, technically) and distributed underground. But since petroleum-based vinyl was in short supply, people collected discarded x-ray film, punched a hole in the middle and cut those as “discs.” Music always gets through.

And so it did into the Soweto (South Western Townships) regions of South Africa. And one result was home-grown music that distilled those influences while adding its own indigenous character. Perhaps more surprising than the fact that this music was created is the fact that it has lasted. Strut Records has embarked on a release program of this rescued music. The latest volume is titled Next Stop…Soweto: Vol. 2 Soultown. R&B, Funk & Psych Sounds from the Townships 1969-1976. Long title, but it tells you the beginning of what you need to know.

Even the most rabid crate-digger will be totally unfamiliar with these 22 sides. All original tunes by Soweto artists, Next Stop…Soweto Vol. 2 is filled with a wide array of styles. Listeners will hear artists influenced by Booker T & the MGs; there’s lots in that style here. But there’s a percussion-centric vibe to many of the tracks that has more in common with, say, Santana. And owing to the economic situation in South Africa, the keyboard sounds are more likely to emanate from a (relatively inexpensive transistor-based) Farfisa than a Hammond, giving the whole affair a vaguely Question Mark and the Mysterians feel.

One track sounds a bit like ZZ Top. Another has vague feel of Spirit. Yet another contains echoes of James Brown. But in all cases the music is filtered through a decidedly South African sensibility. Next Stop…Soweto Vol. 2 is another example of the fascinating cross-pollination that is a hallmark of 20th century pop music.

Plenty of surprises abound. The instrumental “Funky Message” by the Heroes features a chiming electric twelve-string guitar that wouldn’t sound completely out of place on a Buffalo Springfield album. But here’s it paired with a gurgling Leslie’d organ, resulting in something far more soulful.

The stuttering organ fills and beefy horn charts on “Nkuli’s Shuffle” by The Klooks sounds like a cross between early-early (pre-Clapton, I mean) Bluesbreakers and Sun Ra.

Ace organ playing is the highlight of “Skophom,” a cut by the S. A. Move. The track is led by manic glissandos and extremely soulful chording vaguely reminiscent of a really-amped up Billy Preston. It’s perhaps the best track among many great ones. Each listener will find his or her own favorites, though: there’s plenty to like.

Philip Malela‘s “Tiba Kamo” suggests that the work of Isaac Hayes made its way to South African listeners. Bracing organ fills, wah-wah guitar and funky sax breaks all hold forth in support of rousing vocals; this track could have easily served as effective backing on any number of Blaxploitation soundtracks.

Listeners who don’t understand Zulu, Sothor, Tswana or the other linguistic variants spoken in South Africa need not worry: on the vocal numbers, the feel gets through despite the language barrier, and most of the tracks are instrumental. (One track is sung in English.)

For the most part the music on Next Stop…Soweto Vol. 2 is jubilant, celebratory, upbeat. In the face of officially-sanctioned oppression, the Soweto citizens did what they could: they got on with their lives, and sang, played and danced whenever possible.

Important and fascinating as a historical document, Next Stop…Soweto Vol. 2 is no less significant as musical entertainment. The disc is both a fun listen and a useful reminder of the power of music.

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Album Review: Hoodoo Gurus – Purity of Essence

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Purity of EssenceIf you’re a fan of the Hoodoo Gurus‘ best work, you tend to expect a fairly high standard in terms of quality songwriting, arrangement and that elusive takes-your-breath-away factor. And that’s because on albums dating back to the Australian group’s 1984 debut (Stoneage Romeos) (and yes, the parentheses are part of the title), they delivered those qualities in a major way.

Straddling that line between in-your-face rock and impossibly catchy, tuneful pop, the Hoodoo Gurus — led by songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Dave Faulkner — turned out instant classics like “I Want You Back” and “My Girl” on that first disc. While the eventual demise of the Big Time label rendered many of that era’s best albums difficult to find (think of Max Eider‘s The Best Kisser in the World, for example), the Hoodoo Gurus album was quickly picked up by the majors and re-released with a different cover art.

And so began their successful run. Darlings of the college rock radio circuit of the 80s, the Hoodoo Gurus turned out an impressive string of albums, all of which enjoyed some measure of stateside success. Their aesthetic was an amalgam of trash-pop culture influences welded to a beefy rock hybrid. Straightforwardly rocking enough to catch the ear of mainstream rock fans weaned on Tom Petty, yet edgy enough to appeal to fans of the Replacements, the Hoodoo Gurus released seven albums of their pop-garage kitchen sink rock in the 1983-1995 period.

After that, the release schedule slowed down. The group officially disbanded in 1998 but returned in the 21st century with 2004′s Mach Schau, a record named after the cat-call hurled at the Beatles during their Hamburg tenure (literally “make show,” it means, essentially, “work harder to amuse us!”)

With 2010 the Hoodoo Gurus present Purity of Essence, another aptly-named set. Right out of the gate — as they’re wont to do — the band blasts into an anthemic tune. “Crackin’ Up” (not the 50s nugget) contains faint echoes of “Out that Door” from 1987′s Blow Your Cool.

“A Few Home Truths” opens with a slashing, martial guitar attack evocative of the Clash‘s “London Calling” but the song trades in far more melodic territory. Straightforward but heartfelt harmonies brighten the chorus. A dynamic arrangement makes the track even more memorable.

Even when the Hoodoo Gurus head into ballad territory, they do so in a rocking fashion. “Are You Sleeping” is a prime example of this. A drum pattern heavy on the toms and nearly bereft of cymbals gives the track a headed-for-something tension that sustains the song. The band’s trademark chiming guitars shimmer, and the solo has that recorded-in-a-gymnasium feel that helped add drama to early hits like “I Want You Back.” The musical denouement never cones, but it’s a lovely tune nonetheless.

“Burnt Orange” introduces a left-field element to the mix: horns. Sounding like a cross between amped-up Gurus and, well, early Oingo Boingo, the song is still pretty much a standard garage rocker (and I mean that in a good way). It’s easy to imagine the horn chart figure played on a Vox Continental, but that’s not the approach the band employs here. Played at a breakneck pace, “Burnt Orange” ultimately sounds more like Stink-era Replacments. Well…with horns.

The three-chord garage aesthetic is evident on “I Hope You’re Happy,” but the shouted chorus vocals make the track, well, happier, and remind this listener a bit of Katrina and the Waves, specifically their hit “Walking on Sunshine.” A call-and-response lead guitar and organ interplay adds to the festivities, and again the arrangement — something given obvious care throughout the album — makes the already-good song more than it would otherwise be. The exuberant track quotes “Can I Get a Witness” near its end.

What would the blues sound like delivered by an Australian powerpop/garage band? “Ashamed of Me” answers that question. Persistent down-stroke guitar chording adds a Clashy element, but the bluesy solo keeps the song true to its roots.

“What’s In it for Me?” quotes the woo-woo of the Rolling Stones‘ “Sympathy for the Devil,” but the swaggering tune rocks and steamrolls to a beat more closely related to the Stones’ more hard-charging material. Here they sound a tiny bit like the Georgia Satellites crossed with the Chesterfield Kings. Like many of the cuts on Purity of Essence, this one would be a radio hit in a just universe. “Over Nothing” slows things down, and shows that despite his no-b.s. rock chops, Faulkner has a pretty impressive vocal range. Here he heads for the bottom end of his range, turning in a gravelly, emotive performance. Heavily reverbed guitar lines are tastefully worked into the song. And the group’s use of keyboards is — as almost always — judiciously and effectively employed.

“You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” is — thankfully — not a cover of the Judas Priest hit. Instead it’s a riff-based rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on Mars Needs Guitars. Deceptively straightforward, the song in fact has lots of chords.

“Only in America” kicks off with a melody that (perhaps unknowingly) serves up a rock-oriented rethinking of Santana’s Moonflower cover of the Zombies‘ “She’s Not There.” But then the full song kicks in, and sounds more like Another Grey Area-era Graham Parker with backing vocals by Difford and Tilbrook. Of course that’s not what we have here, but the feel remains. By the song’s end, listeners may well be thinking of the Music Explosion‘s “Little Bit o’ Soul” as well. Rarely has a song felt like so many other tunes without actually sounding like any of them. It’s still very good, though.

No Hoodoo Gurus album would be complete without a country-influenced tune, and “Somebody Take Me Home” does not disappoint. Here Faulkner and company sound a bit like Lynyrd Skynyrd at their peak, complete with the right-on-the-edge-of-hackneyed lyrical approach so necessary to that genre. Overdubbed lead guitars serve up that necessary triple-threat.

“Let Me In” chugs along with a minimum of chords (mostly just two of ‘em, actually), preferring to make its point though sheer force. The Ramones proved what could be done with few chords, and the Hoodoo Gurus provide even more evidence that less can indeed be more.

The band serves up some subtlety on “Evening Shade.” Here Faulkner almost sounds like some other singer. An appealing, hypnotically-repeating guitar figure is the basis for the song. Faulkner’s weary tone provides just the right mood for the song’s lyrics. Vaguely jazzy lead chording comes as a bit of surprise, but it’s well-incorporated into the song.

Heavily Leslie’d guitar figures prominently on “Why So Sad?” The heavier vibe is effective, but perhaps a notch less so than the approach used on the other tracks on Purity of Essence. At times, “Why So Sad?” sounds like an early 70s arena rocker, and while that’s a new direction for these Aussies to explore, it doesn’t fit them especially well. The song improves toward its end as it bursts into reckless-abandon overdrive.

The Stooges recorded songs called “1969″ and “1970,” but the Hoodoo Gurus’ harmony-laden anthem “1968″ sounds more like “You Really Got Me”-era Kinks. This one would likely be quite effective onstage. Lyrics like “rock and roll planet goin’ ape” may remind listeners of the goofy and fun-loving lyrics of early Hoodoo Gurus numbers like “”Dig it Up” and “Like Wow, Wipeout.”

“The Stars Look Down” closes the disc. Here Faulkner takes a troubadour approach. With a windy desert plain feel, the slow-tempo lyric-centric number heads for Neil Young territory: you’ll expect a certain kind of solo, and you’ll get it.

The band self-produced the album with help from Charles Fisher (he produced two earlier Gurus albums as well) and got the estimable Ed Stasium to mix the tracks for maximum punch. Faulkner played some solo dates at March 2010 SXSW. Purity of Essence will be out May 11, 2010. Find it. Buy it. Enjoy it.

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DVD Review: Frank Zappa – The Freak Out List

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

The Freak Out ListGreat artists are always more than the sum of their influences. But understanding the amalgam of influences that inform the sensibility of an artist can be a useful window into a fuller appreciation of that artist. On the 1966 debut LP Freak Out by the Mothers (of Invention), Frank Zappa listed 179 names in the gatefold. Those names gave listeners (well, readers) an idea of where they might look for clues as to the development of Zappa’s particular and peculiar world view.

The new DVD The Freak Out List surveys that list, and breaks it into several categories. Making use of informed critics, analysts, historians and musicians, The Freak Out List argues in favor of Zappa’s abiding appreciating for a wide variety of forms. Boundary-pushing classical works of Stravinsky, Holst and of course Edgard Varèse had an obvious influence on Zappa’s work. The Freak Out List does an admirable job of connecting the dots between the work of those artists and Zappa’s synthesis of their ideas into something new and different. Making ample use of sound clips and genuinely useful commentary, the film explores the sonic clues and connections in Zappa’s own work.

For a project not sanctioned by the Zappa Family Trust (a notoriously iron-fisted outfit helmed by Zappa’s widow Gail), The Freak Out List provides ample clips of Zappa’s work. Without those, the film would be a failed example of telling vs. showing. As it is, The Freak Out List is wholly successful.

Veterans of Zappa’s bands (most notably including Don Preston, Ian Underwood and George Duke) don’t always agree with the musicological conclusions arrived at by the attendant scholars, and the producers of The Freak Out List bravely include a wide array of viewpoints, leaving it up to the viewer to decide. Likely Zappa himself would have given grudging approval to many of the conclusions reached in the film.

The Freak Out List gives equal weight to Zappa’s interest in jazz, doo-wop and other forms, and employs its example-commentary-example formula throughout, making a strong case as it argues for a greater appreciation of this complex and oft-misunderstood artist.

The only area that The Freak Out List perhaps fails to explore in suitable depth is Zappa’s predilection toward the shocking, prurient and scatological. While much is made of FZ’s love of humor, no serious attempt is made to divine the roots of Zappa’s thinking that led to such immortal (or immoral) numbers as “Catholic Girls,” “The Illinois Enema Bandit” or “Keep it Greasy.” To be fair, that side of Zappa’s oeuvre developed in the 1970s, and if artists like Swamp Dogg (to name one) were an influence on Zappa, he didn’t name-check them on the liners of Freak Out.

Typical of MVD Visual releases, the packaging is spare, the DVD navigation basic, and the bonus materials scant. Basically, you get what’s advertised, and little more. But for anyone interested in a better understanding of the influences that helped create one of the most important artists of the 20th century, the pop-scholarly approach of The Freak Out List is essential viewing.

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Album Review: Jonny Lang – Live at the Ryman

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Jonny Lang - Live at the RymanAt this late date there’s less point than there used to be in calling Jonny Lang a young blues guitarist. Now in his thirties, Lang is a veteran performer and recording artist. He released five albums in just over eleven years, but he’s waited this long to record a live album. Live at the Ryman finds Lang and his band onstage at Nashville’s famed auditorium, home to an intimate vibe and excellent acoustics. (Neil Young recently recorded a live set there as well.)

As Lang has grown, gospel influences have assumed greater importance in his music (and, buy most accounts, in his life as well). There’s an unmistakable gospel flavor to all of Live at the Ryman‘s twelve tracks, both in structure and delivery. Throughout the set, Lang and his fellow musicians and vocalists turn in a soulful yet surprisingly loose performance. Harmonies are on-the-note but not in perfect sync, and rather than coming off sloppy, that quality vouches for the set’s authenticity.

While Lang’s fiery guitar work is a centerpiece, it’s well-integrated into the songs. Instrumental interplay abounds, but Live at the Ryman is decidedly about the vocals. The set surveys tracks from throughout Lang’s career, and features a Tinsley Ellis number (“A Quitter Never Wins”) as well.

The lyrics of Lang’s newer material do tend toward the preachy side (“It’s never too late to turn around,” to cite one of many examples), but it’s fairly easy to tune out the words (if that’s your chosen approach) and enjoy the playing and the texture of the vocals.

“Give Me Up Again” shamelessly lifts its verse melody from the Impressions’ 1965 hit “People Get Ready.” There are times when such a lift is a homage, others when it’s ripoff. Here the lines are blurred: when you lift a phrase, it shouldn’t end up as the strongest component of your song. Besides, didn’t somebody once say, “Thou shalt not steal?”

The lengthy “I Am” aims for a deeply soulful gospel feel, but what was undoubtedly thrilling in person loses something on an audio-only release. Lang’s singing is surprisingly expressive, but again the lyrical content will resonate mostly to those of a particular spiritual inclination. Others may be less impressed: repeated recitations of “everything is gonna be all right” may spur some listeners toward the skip button.

But in the end, pretty much everything on Live at the Ryman truly is in fact all right. The pacing is excellent. The songs tumble into one another, demonstrating that hard-gigging approach has paid off. Lang and his band connect with the audience yet waste little time with superfluous banter. And as expected, the sound is peerless, striking the right balance between crystal-clear and organically live.

Live at the Ryman is worth owning for Lang fans, and worth a listen for anyone interested in contemporary blues with a strong gospel feel.

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DVD Review: No-man – Mixtaped

Friday, March 19th, 2010

No-man - MixtapedSteven Wilson is one busy dude. In addition to fronting Porcupine Tree (for whom he writes virtually all of the music and lyrics), he’s also involved in a number of other high-profile projects. His collaboration with Aviv Geffen (Blackfield) has resulted in a couple of albums and a live set. He’s at the center of the current 40th anniversary reissue project of King Crimson albums, acting as producer. And yet all that is seemingly not enough. For years now Wilson has been half of a duo called No-man. With vocalist Tim Bowness, No-man is a tricky proposition to describe. Incorporating elements of 80s acts like Talk Talk and Icehouse, No-man is built around the icy, detached-yet-emotional vocal stylings of Bowness. Wilson plays guitar; his well-known facility for crafting hook-laden melodies is dialed way back here. The moody pieces rely on texture and Bowness’ vocals for their effect.

On Mixtaped, the latest DVD document of a 2008 No-man concert, the duo are joined by several other players, most notably a pair of violinists. While it’s clear that this lineup bears the capacity to rock — witness the feedback-drenched guitar on “Time Travel in Texas” — for the most part they keep any ambitions in that direction firmly in check. In fact, with the exception of that track and “Things Change” — the second and second-to-last numbers of the concert, respectively — the mood is somber and restrained.

Bowness doesn’t aid in expanding No-man’s sonic palette. His voice, while evocative of a particular mood, seems incapable (or at least unwilling) of moving beyond a singular approach. In the end, his breathy, angst-filled delivery is monochromatic. What is effective on a couple numbers wears out its welcome over the course of an hour and a half.

The playing is ace, precise and pretty. But it’s also largely forgettable. “All Sweet Things” sounds like Pink Floyd circa The Wall, with a less histrionic Midge Ure on vocals. (If that doesn’t sound all that appealing to you, well, then there you go.) The musical texture is all well and good, but listeners seeking hooks or memorable melody lines are advised to look toward Wilson’s other work, wherein they’ll find it in great supply.

A bonus disc features a documentary on the band that covers their entire history. Cynics might well ask if such a band deserves such in-depth treatment. The docu is well-done, and as with all Wilson-involved projects, the whole package is expertly and lovingly put together.

Verdict: interesting and certainly worth a look for Wilson fans, it’s not up to the high quality standard of his solo work, Blackfield or Porcupine Tree.

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