Archive for October, 2010

The Bob Moog Foundation

Friday, October 29th, 2010

“I’m a toolmaker; I’m not a musician.” With trademark modesty, so said Bob Moog, the man who–for all intents and purposes–invented the modern synthesizer.

I sat down recently at an Asheville NC coffee shop with his daughter Michelle Moog-Koussa to discuss the work of the Bob Moog Foundation. As Louis Armstrong‘s “Wonderful World” played softly in the background, the Foundation’s Executive Director told me how the organization got its start not long before Bob Moog (rhymes with “vogue”) succumbed to brain cancer in 2005.

“The Foundation came about right before Dad passed away. My brother Matt had set up a [private] web page for him as a way to keep in touch with forty of his friends, to let them know how he was doing.” Someone leaked word of the site on a synthesizer chat group. She winces at the recollection. “My brother got very upset, and put up a password on the site. [But then] my dad said, ‘y’know what? Take the password down and let them come.’ I’m not sure I would have expected that, because he did really value his privacy.

“The day he died, there were 20,000 hits” on the site. “There were all these tributes to Dad, about how his instruments had affected their lives, how [Moog synthesizers] had given them a voice for their creativity.”

Michelle regaled me with stories of her dad: people “were bowled over that they would ask him a question–they’d muster up their guts to approach him–and he’d whip out a pen and a napkin and draw them a schematic!”

“I mean, [as kids] we knew what Dad had done, [but] in a very simplistic sense. People would approach me: ‘Oh my god–Bob Moog’s your dad!’ But he always held his career at arms’ length; when we would ask him about it, there was a sense of his being uncomfortable about it.” In fact, “when he won the Grammy® in 2002, he wasn’t going to tell us!”

The Bob Moog Foundation

I have my own Bob Moog story. Summer 2000, not long after moving to Asheville, I was at a small neighborhood picnic. Across the lawn, I saw this man in his mid-sixties; I immediately recognized him as the synthesizer pioneer. I stood there, slack-jawed. A neighbor approached me with a wide grin: “I guess you know that’s Bob. Let me introduce you.” The approachable Moog and I then talked about Theremins for awhile.

I recall a 2003 lecture in which Moog went to great pains to downplay his contributions to music, preferring instead to highlight the contributions of others. “At home,” Michelle said, “he just wanted to be Dad. There were friends of his here in Asheville who didn’t know anything [about his work]. Humility was the family religion at the Moog household.”

Bob believed–I’m paraphrasing here–that creativity exists in the ether, and that we are mere conduits, instruments if you will, to spread the fruits of that creativity. Michelle said that Bob “left a legacy, and Moog Music carries it on through their instruments. But there’s also this legacy of his creative warmth that has inspired people all over the world. And that deserves to be carried forth as a tribute to him. We want to continue the inspiration that was achieved through innovation and scientific curiosity.”

The Bob Moog Foundation

The Foundation’s stated goal is to “document, celebrate and teach innovative thinking and to support and honor” Moog’s legacy. The first–and right now, most critical–step is the documenting. Bob stored all manner of personal odds and ends in a non-climate controlled storage building. These included the last production Minimoog synthesizer, various schematics for as-yet-undeveloped devices, reel-to-reel audio masters, and (as Michelle showed me) a stack of daily notepads, listing who Bob spoke to, and what they spoke about.

The Foundation hopes eventually to build an interactive Bob Moog Museum in Asheville, but right now the focus is on preserving these archive items. Thankfully, some high-profile artists like Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan have offered their support, but it’s no substitute for greatly-needed donations from the general public.

Moog-Koussa told me that long-term goals for the Foundation include plans to offer three scholarships in ‘mechatronics’ at UNC Asheville, Cornell and Berklee; the museum; outreach programs to bring electronic music into schools; and live performances and competitions.

Donate to The Bob Moog Foundation

I asked Michelle how she would like Bob to be remembered. “First and foremost, that he was a humanist. Second, that he was a scientist.”

For more information on the work of the Bob Moog Foundation–including details on how you can help–visit

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Bootleg Bin: George Harrison – Denver 1974

Friday, October 29th, 2010

George Harrison - 1974 North American Tour: Denver CO 18 Nov. Matinee

Popular legend among Beatles fans holds that George Harrison‘s 1974 North American tour was an unmitigated disaster. As the story goes, Harrison came down with a severe case of hepatitis (or, as he called it in some interviews, “hippie-titis”). As a result of the malady, he lost his voice. For many artists, that would have meant cancellation of the tour. But whatever his motivations, Harrison’s tour went on as scheduled. In fact, recording sessions also continued: one listen to his cover of “Bye Bye Love” on the Dark Horse LP (waggishly — but not without accuracy — dubbed Dark Hoarse by critics at the time) shows that indeed his voice was shot.

But the planned tour was something of a mega-event. In many ways a sort of scaled-down Concert for Bangladesh on the Road, the tour featured many of Harrison’s usual-suspects musical associates, and over the course of a show, several of them would get their own spotlight numbers. In a real sense George’s ’74 tour was a forerunner or Ringo‘s All-Starr tours that would begin many years later.

In addition to songs from Dark Horse, Living in the Material World and All Things Must Pass, the shows featured a few Billy Preston numbers (“Outa Space,” “Nothing from Nothing,”and “Will it Go Round in Circles,” all of which he’d actually do later with the All-Starrs), and “Tom Cat,” a number spotlighting horn player Tom Scott (L.A. Express). But the thing that made the tour so unusual — well, one of the things, but we’ll address at the others in a bit — was the integration of Ravi Shankar into the set.

In George’s mind, the concerts weren’t merely for him to promote Dark Horse; they were a means to bring eastern music of Ravi Shankar to audiences across the USA. Shankar’s then-current album Shankar Family and Friends featured a compelling and largely successful hybridization of Indian and rock styles. That album was reissued in 2010 as part of the Shankar/Harrison Collaborations box set, and is reviewed here.

The standout tracks from Shankar Family and Friends were part of the shows. “I Am Missing You” featured Lakshmi Shankar on vocals, and the album’s semi-instrumental “Dispute and Violence” was also performed mid-set. In addition to the rock lineup of two guitars, bass, keys, drums, percussion and horns, a complement of fifteen Indian musicians was employed. Audiences were thus exposed to a set that covered rock, Indian music and that slightly odd in-between hybrid.

In yet another unusual move, Harrison’s tour dates were structured so that in most cities there would be two concerts: a matinee and an evening show. Then as now that approach is fairly unusual for a rock artist. And as been documented elsewhere — and this is the quality for which the tour has gone down in history as controversial — Harrison was mildly perverse in his own song selection. On record, he had already made a bizarre, self-flagellating choice of covering “Bye Bye Love” on Dark Horse (featuring backing vocals by Eric Clapton and Pattie Harrison!). While he (thankfully) didn’t do that one onstage, what he did do approached sacrilege in the minds of Beatles fans.

“Something” was one of Harrison’s best Beatles-era songs, so it was reasonable to expect him to perform it onstage. But to change the lyrics to “something in the way she moves it” must have elicited a jaw-dropping response from the crowd. And hearing George croak the lyrics probably helped not a bit. But he wasn’t done. George and band covered John Lennon-penned Beatles song. Featuring an arrangement that owed more to Vanilla Fudge or Rotary Connection, George rasped his way through “In My Life.” Here, at one point, he changed John’s lyric to “In my life I love God more.” It’s cringeworthy, really: in 1974 few were looking for reinterpretations of Beatles songs. A soulful (what other kind would you expect?) organ from Billy Preston nearly redeems the song, but not quite.

Yet if one can look beyond those egregious (and frankly inexplicable) missteps, the tour had a lot to offer. And as it turns out, a number of the shows were recorded from the audience. (At least one was professionally recorded, but it’s unlikely ever to see legitimate release). The November 18 1974 matinee from the Denver Coliseum is one of the better of these. Certainly not perfect — the audio quality is exceptionally dodgy during Shankar’s first number “Zoom Zoom Zoom.”

Critics of the time panned the tour, and more than a few members of the audience would have preferred less Indian music, more rock and roll and (presumably) less taking of lyrical liberties. But even allowing for all of that, these shows are nowhere as bad as all that might suggest: the band — in its rock, Indian and hybrid forms — is mostly top-notch, and any opportunity to hear “What is Life” live should not be missed.

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I have not received any compensation for writing this content and I have no material connection to the brands, topics and/or products that are mentioned herein.

EP Review: Tommy & the High Pilots – American Riviera

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Tommy & the High Pilots - American Riviera

If Neil Finn (Crowded House) were an American instead of a Kiwi, he might sound a bit like Tommy & the High Pilots. On the opener and title cut of T&THP’s EP American Riviera, they rock out with a catchy riff, and apply a yearning vocal atop it all. An unadorned production style has more in common with, say, John Mellencamp than Crowded House, but the song does have that certain something that Finn can be counted on for. It’s over too soon.

“Motorbike” features Tom Cantillon‘s clear and expressive voice, overdubbed on the chorus, in a medium tempo. But behind him, the band pummels along at high velocity, for a pleasing juxtaposition. Subtle pounding piano (if you can imagine such a thing) adds a nice bit of texture. And a slightly unhinged guitar solo notches the excitement up even further.

“Taxi” has a heart-rending vibe even if one ignores the lyrics. It has a wide-screen, epic feel without being pretentious or overwrought. In fact it sounds like soundtrack for a climactic scene in some movie.

“Where to Start” strips things down to their most elemental. Cantillon presents the song’s opening with only voice and guitar. But then the song explodes with a headed-out-on-that-open road feel. Like all the songs on American Riviera, it has a familiar feel; it sounds like you’ve heard it before, but it’s not a rewrite of somebody else’s song.

“The Limit” rocks out in an anthemic, full-on fashion. But “Carried by You” takes a radically different approach. Foot stomps and banjos are on the menu here. In light of the sound of the previous five songs — varied yet rocking — it’s a perhaps unexpected departure. But it works, though it’s over quite suddenly.

Anyone who enjoys the straight-ahead rock sounds that skirt on the edge of Americana — artists like Mellencamp, Gin Blossoms, Old 97s — will find plenty to like on American Riviera. Well, okay: not plenty, since it’s only six songs. But hopefully it’s a teaser for more to come. According to the band’s site, Cantillon brought sixty(!) songs in for consideration, and picked six. Stay tuned; I certainly will.

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Album Review: We Landed on the Moon! – This Will Be One for the Books

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

We Landed on the Moon! - This Will Be One for the Books

I’m not sure what it is, exactly, but for some reason, albums by a few quality bands with female lead singers seem to be finding their way onto my desk in recent months. The latest is This Will Be One for the Books by We Landed on the Moon! And though both the band name and the album title are wordy mouthfuls, their music is exactly the opposite.

Across eleven songs, WLOTM! (sorry for the unpronounceable acronym; were I being paid by the word, I’d spell it out each time) crafts a spiky yet tuneful musical concoction. “The Good Fight” — source of the lyrics that provide the album title — kicks things off with a propulsive, catchy riff, and Melissa Eccles‘ clear, piercing voice is out front where it belongs. “Across the Sun” is another catchy number, and it shares a compositional characteristic with the album’s opener: both have a mid-song breakdown where the tempo slows, the vibe lightens, and things go a bit dreamy. Then — on both songs — it’s back into to rocking. This shade-and-light approach gives the songs more texture than they’d otherwise have, and the approach probably serves WLOTM! well live onstage.

The rest of the band don’t seem to sing much, save for the occasion ooh or ahh, and WLOTM!’s production aesthetic mostly avoids vocal overdubs, so what you get on songs like “Blackout” is (again, probably) pretty close to what you’d get live: a rocking band and s single vocal line. But it’s enough. “Blackout” finds the guitarists playing short bursts of staccato riffage, atop which Eccles sings in a contrasting, mellifluous style. That contrast works. A (relatively speaking) longish instrumental break toward the end of the song introduces some vaguely Radiohead-like guitar textures.

“On Our Last Legs” fashions muted guitar riffs that sound like Police demos, but then the song kicks into high gear, amping up both tempo and volume. “Boats” starts out leaning a bit toward the cutesy kinds of sounds one might have expected from Melanie (Safka) some forty years ago, but then it too turns into more of a rock-oriented number. So while the songs each have their own lyrical focus and sound, arrangement-wise WLOTM! seems to approach the songs with a bit of an agenda: simply put, don’t play any song the same way all the way through. And that’s fine: they don’t overdo it, and the transitions work. This isn’t prog.

“Ships in Parts” is yet another catchy number, but a very (very) slight sameness begins to set in halfway through the album. Don’t get me wrong: the songs are catchy, but they don’t all have that stick-in-your-mind hook necessary to grab the listener by the figurative lapel. The songs do — just a little bit, mind you — begin to tumble into one another. That said, the tempo shifts in “Ship in Parts” sound like they’re done on the fly (i.e. not via studio editing/splicing), so this is one tight band.

“Run for Your Life” features a warbling, trilling guitar line. “Shapeshifter serves up a higher minor-chord quotient and a vaguely spooky/sinister vibe. “Song of Few Words” is truth in advertising, and oddly may be the best song on the album, with its jangle/crunch guitar textures. But it too trades in the let’s change-the-tempo-for-the-middle-eight style. What was a good idea on songs one through three is wearing out its welcome by song number nine.

“All the Little Lambs” introduces some elementary analog-sounding synth lines into the mix; it’s an intriguing development that largely fails to develop. Here Eccles tries for a harder-rocking Pat Benatar style, and while the band gets points for heading in a (marginally) different direction for once, the results aren’t as interesting musically. And that synthesizer: it just lies there, as if someone put a medical textbook on the sustain pedal and walked away. True, at the song’s end there are a few synth squiggles, but it’s too little too late when applied to the album’s weakest (and, not coincidentally, longest) number.

WLOTM! closes the record with “No Show,” a campfire-sounding number. Well, a campfire with Ric Ocasek; it sounds a bit like the Cars, unplugged. Utterly unlike the other songs on the album, this brief, fetching tune is the best song on the record, hands down. Which is cause for some confusion and consternation. Setting aside the final two tracks, you can pick pretty much any track on This Will Be One for the Books, and how you feel about it will be a surefire indicator of how you’ll react to the album as a whole. That’s the case for good or ill. If you dig it, fine: lots more where that came from. Expert playing, tight songs, lovely, controlled yet expressive vocals. But if you don’t care for it — or if you’re looking for some variety from song to song, you might not find This Will Be One for the Books a completely satisfying listening experience. Verdict: good, but perhaps a bit too much of a good thing.

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Album Review: Lucky Peterson – You Can Always Turn Around

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Lucky Peterson - You Can Always Turn Around

Lucky Peterson‘s had a hard time of it these last many years. Struggles with drug addiction and related health problems plus spotty distribution of his occasional albums have meant that music consumers haven’t been properly treated to his brand of music.

Thankfully for him and us, those issues seem to be put in the past where they belong. Peterson’s newest — You Can Always Turn Around — shows him in top form. A master of the duolian resonator guitar (the steel-bodied acoustic with which he’s pictured on the album cover, Peterson deftly wields his axe across eleven tracks that are a mix of covers and originals.

Everybody’s recorded Robert Johnson‘s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” but somehow Peterson breathes life in to the blues chestnut. His guitar playing is electrifying, if not actually electric. While many exponents of the instrument lean toward an unschooled approach, Peterson’s licks are sonically perfect, yet not the least lacking in feeling.

On “I’m New Here” the arrangement is more in a singer/songwriter vein. Petrson introduces the song with narration rather than singing. But as he engages in his own call-and-response, his singing is gentle and expressive. The lyrics of this (possibly autobiographical) song provide the album with its title.

Blind Willie McTell‘s “Statesboro Blues” is another well-worn number; here Peterson lets loose on the resonator, making effective use of the spaces between the notes. No exercise in nostalgia, he sings and plays like he means it. The rhythm section’s spare, sympathetic backing keeps the spotlight on Peterson.

Ray LaMontagne‘s “Trouble” gets the Peterson treatment, but rather than being presented in a guitar-centric arrangement, the song is delivered with a gospel feel. Like all the tracks on You Can Always Turn Around, the lineup features ace sessioners from the Woodstock NY area, but that’s Peterson himself ably handling the ivories.

Lucinda Williams‘ “Trampled Rose” continues the string of well-chosen covers. Peterson renders the song in an arrangement that at first calls to mind the late Mali guitarist Ali Farka Touré; the song’s Mississippi Delta aesthetic develops as the song unfolds. An intriguing mandolin melody serves as the bed for the song.

The arrangement of “Atonement” — featuring heavily distorted blues-metal guitar — comes as quite a surprise; on “Why Are People Like That” Peterson sounds more like Joe Satriani than Robert Johnson. The apocalyptic lyrics and swaggering vocal delivery make this a standout track that serves to point out the breadth of Peterson’s talent. And the fiery, nice-n-lengthy guitar solo is not to be missed.

The country blues “Why Are People Like That” shows that Peterson is possessed of wry sense of humor. Here Peterson focuses on his (at times unhinged( vocal, leaving the resonator duties to Larry Campbell.

Peterson’s original “Four Little Boys” is an autobiographical loping story-song. The song illustrates Peterson’s ability to deliver his vocals using a wide variety of styles, each ideally suited to the demands of the songs.

Rev. Gary Davis‘ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” put Peterson’s resonator back out in front. The unadorned song captures the front-porch vibe, and the singing strikes a perfect balance between controlled and deeply emotive.

The civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How it Feel to Be Free” is presented in a pop-gospel arrangement. Irresistibly catchy, the song exudes a timeless feel. Lucky’s wife Tamara Peterson adds a second vocal that gives just the right touch to a moving song.

Curtis Mayfield‘s “Think” closes the disc. Peterson’s guitar engages in tasty musical dialogue with Larry Campbell’s pedal steel on this wordless rendering. Halfway through the arrangement shifts to a more bluesy BB King-styled section, then back to a loping, countrified arrangement.

It’s a fine line to walk, crafting an album that’s at once musically consistent and showcasing a dizzying mastery of a wide range of styles. But Lucky Peterson’s You Can Always Turn Around is just such an album.

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EP Review: Wheels on Fire – Cherry Bomb

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Wheels on Fire - Cherry Bomb EP

First of all, the fact that Wheels on Fire‘s Cherry Bomb EP is issued on 45rpm vinyl pushes its cool-quotient up several notches before I even get the opportunity to spin the vinyl. But on listening, it’s even better.

“Black Wave” has it all: jangling, spiky guitars, “ooh”-filled backing vocals, sneering lead vocals not miles removed from, say, the Chesterfield Kings, and that Vox/Farfisa keyboard vibe for which this reviewer has an undying love. The song itself is good too, making effective use of three chords.

“Broken Up” has a similar sonic attack that leans a bit more in the direction of the Fuzztones. Handclaps and lo-fi Chuck Berry guitar aesthetics render it a bit more true to the 60s spirit, but it too is memorable.

The title track draws inspiration from 70s glam, staking its claim halfway between Sweet and the New York Dolls. The distorted vocal treatment contrasts nicely with the relatively clean delivery of the instrumentation.

“Go Give Yer Love Away” boasts a rhythm guitar that’s just the other side of being in tune. The result isn’t annoying; it actually imbues the tracks — recorded in the band’s basement — with a campfire feel. Vocal delivery adheres to the Sky Saxon school of singing, and that’s not at all a bad thing. Tambourine, handclaps and other hand-held percussion take the place of the standard drum kit on this brief tune.

And that’s it: four songs. They (probably) won’t change your life, but the tracks on the Cherry Bomb EP are full of fun, authenticity and old-school (read: thankfully not pop-punk) energy. Worth a spin, it’ll leave you looking forward to more from Wheels on Fire.

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EP Review: The Fairwood Singers – Dawn of the Fairwood Singers

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

The Fairwood Singers - Dawn of the Fairwood Singers

Allen Clapp is not British. But you’ll be forgiven for thinking he is when you listen to the new EP Dawn of the Fairwood Singers. The three-song release boasts a sound that evokes the breezy, pastoral sounds of late 60s and early 70s soft (but not lame!) rock.

The cover artwork offers an ideal shorthand for the music contained therein: a line drawing (or woodcut, or something like that) of a stylized sun is set against a moody, dark blue-grey background. The shimmering music inside is joyful and melancholy all at once. Clapp describes the project’s sound as “melancholic popsong,” and that just about nails it.

“September Sun” is short on lyrics, but certainly that’s Clapp’s intention; he’s a deft and expressive lyricist. The approach is more to deliver the lyrics in a hypnotic, mantra-like fashion, and the song is wholly effective at achieving that sort of vibe. The song builds from a simple arrangement into something more developed. There are hints of the Left Banke, the Association and even Alan Parsons Project, but — like Clapp’s main project the Orange Peels, the Fairwood Singers aren’t overly evocative of anyone else. Lovely piano figures and acoustic guitar are balanced with (relatively) grittier sounds of Mellotron and clanking snare drum. This one’s a dreamy, soft wad of ear candy.

“Weather Charts” is some sort of cross between Pilot and Third/Sister Lovers era Big Star, updated for the 21st century (and devoid of Alex Chilton-styled angst and confusion). Again piano and Mellotron are the central instruments; it’s an impossibly lovely melody. The vaguely sad and wistful arrangement has its sweetness leavened by subtle addition of just a bit of distorted guitar. The only thing wrong with the track is that it’s over too soon.

Even if the song wasn’t a thing of beauty, “I Thought I Heard the Answer in a Song” would score on the strength of its title alone. But no: the song boasts a yearning, expansive arrangement. Old-school production flourishes (like hard-panning of certain instruments) are evident on the song. The vocals — overdubbed an indeterminate number of time to glorious effect — are pushed way-forward in the mix. But it too — like the entire EP — ends long before the listener is done with it.

There’s a lonely place on the rock landscape: it’s that place occupied by sturdy, well-written, expertly-executed songs that don’t exactly rock. Allen Clapp’s Dawn of the Fairwood Singers makes a trip to that place a worthwhile excursion.

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CD Review: John Barry – Revisited

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

John Barry - Revisited

John Barry is a rightly revered figure in the world of film soundtracks. Winner of five Oscars for his work on films including Born Free, The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves, the British composer/arranger/musician has earned and enjoyed popularity over the course of his long career. As leader of the instro-pop group The John Barry Seven, Barry even gave the Shadows — Britain’s premier pre-Beatles pop sensation — a run for their money. But it’s his work on three British film productions that’s compiled on the 4CD set John Barry Revisited.

The first disc is the original television soundtrack recording of a program called Elizabeth Taylor in London. The soundtrack features light classical/pop themes, a few of which feature Miss Taylor reciting Wordsworth or Elizabeth Barrett Browning over them. Typical of soundtrack work, themes crop up again and again; what works effectively as audio accompaniment to a film can become repetitive and tiresome on record.

Barry’s soundtrack to Zulu is the second disc in the box. Here the voiceovers are by the film’s narrator, Richard Burton. Though the film is set in Africa, there’s an odd and undeniable pop feel to many of the tracks. The Zulu theme is recast as a straight pop number by the John Barry Seven called “Monkey Feathers.” Removed from the context of the film, it’s simply an upbeat, catchy pop instrumental.

The soundtrack to Four in the Morning is suitably dreary and downbeat, as befits the film’s tale of relationship melodrama and woe. Lots of dialogue is included on the soundtrack, making this listener squirm uncomfortably while the main characters (including a young Judy Dench) argue incessantly. Worst of all, the themes are dreadfully repetitive. Verdict: effective for what it is, but not a very enjoyable listening experience.

The final disc in the set is titled The Ember Singles Plus. It includes an unusual assortment of odds and ends, chief among which are a pair of tracks credited to a Miss X. “Christine” and “S-E-X” are pop ditties centering around the Profumo Affair, something that was a big deal in England back in the day. Other singles compiled here include Barry’s work on James Bond films (though he’s never won Academy Awards for these, they do rank among his most recognizable work).

Not among the most essential of packages, John Barry Revisited is nonetheless an interesting look at the 1960s work Barry did while at the Ember label.

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DVD Review: Johnny Winter – Live Through the 80s

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Johnny Winter - Live Through the 80s

It’s all well and good to demand the highest standards in video quality in a concert film. Technology has progressed to the point where viewers pop in a music DVD expecting to see high quality digital transfers, 5.1 digital sound, and expert camera work. But sometimes, if the content itself — you know, the actual music — is important enough, one has to at least consider letting those standards slip in the name of good entertainment.

That’s the approach you’ll need to bring to a viewing of the compilation DVD Johnny Winter Live Through the 80s. An important artist whose onstage career has not been extensively documented on film, Johnny Winter is represented on this disc through clips from six different concerts spanning the period 1983-88, plus some (very odd) odds and ends.

Yes, the video quality is dodgy in places. A good bit of it looks as if it was sourced from a collector’s shelf, and that may well be the case: back in the days before DVD-Rs and the like we collectors used to trade VHS dubs of rare and/or unreleased music-related material. And when we’d receive a package in the mail containing some videotapes of, say, John Lennon‘s homemade recordings of him on solo guitar and voice (to name but one gem), we’d have no clue how many generations away from the original our copy was. In general the answer was: more than you’d like.

And so it is with some of these clips. The audio quality is also not anything to get excited about: it’s mostly in stereo, never in 5.1 (though the packaging says the DVD is, the source material simply ain’t), and sometimes muffled. But you know what? Hardly any of that technical stuff matters. This is Johnny Winter we’re talking about here.

The DVD opens with three numbers from Winter’s Toronto gig as shown on MTV. And you probably would have guessed that when viewing it: there’s a very MTV-ish look and feel to the proceedings. Remember, if you will, that in the early 80s the music channel showed concerts every weekend; hard to imagine now, yes? The lineup for this gig is Winter on guitar and vocals plus Jon Paris on bass and blues harp (Paris is Winter’s sideman throughout this entire compilation) and Bobby Torello on drums. The band is in fine form, and in a contrast to much of Winter’s 70s work (explored in an earlier release called Live Through the 70s, reviewed here), Winter doesn’t have a second guitarist or other musicians: if you hear a guitar note, it’s him. Pure and simple.

A 1984 Roskilde Festival gig is the visual high point of the disc. The audio and video quality are (relatively speaking) top-notch for this multi-camera, pro-shot performance. Here Winter rolls out his unique blues-rock hybrid (few artists have managed as successfully as he to bridge the two styles convincingly without watering down one or the other). Three of the four numbers will be quite familiar to fans of Winter’s 70s work: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Highway 61 Revisited” (a Dylan tune that Winter has all but made his own) and Chuck Berry‘s “Johnny B. Goode.” The song “Boot Hill” was, at the time of this show, one of the highlights from his album Guitar Slinger. For this show and all subsequent clips on Live Through the 80s, the drum seat is held by Tom Compton.

Guitar purists may or may not rejoice at the sight of Winter’s now-trademark Erlewine Lazer guitar; the headless, minimalist axe doesn’t have the visual presence of Winter’s (briefly-seen) Gibson Firebird, but the light instrument does seem to all but float in Winter’s arms, and he coaxes some pretty impressive fire from it throughout.

The Roskilde performance ends abruptly. Winter, taking a solo out toward the front of the stage’s ego ramp, is pelted by a projectile thrown by a concertgoer (it looks like a bottle, but it’s hard to tell). Startled and more than a little annoyed, Winter stops the show and exits the stage. He’s known for being pretty unflappable, but here Winter is clearly justified in his annoyance. Still, it’s an odd spectacle to witness.

A pair of songs from Passaic’s Capitol theatre from later that year are represented in fair video quality, but any complaints about those visuals will pale once the next section is viewed. Two excellent performances “Lights Out” and “Please Come Home for Christmas” are captured by what all visual evidence suggests was a bootlegger. The performance is taken in via a single camera — with lots of panning — and the audio sounds as if it is taken directly from the PA feed. Grainy, dark, blurry, this is still worthwhile thanks to the performances. It’s also an odd juxtaposition to see Winter and band less than six months after the Roskilde gig (100,000 in attendance), here in a small club.

A pair of Alligator Records artifacts are included next. Now, one thing you probably don’t think of when the name Johnny Winter is mentioned is music videos. Well, friends, there’ a reason for that. The song “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” is rendered MTV style here with a video that is awful beyond description. We see Winter twirling around in a Texas roadhouse-style place. Some cringingly 80s-looking ladies (teased hair, off-the-shoulder blouses and shiny facial makeup) all have their eyes on Winter, and their dates — central casting good-ol-boy types all — are none too amused. A fight ensues, but it’s rendered in faux “gay 90s” sepia tones. Winter slays ‘em all with his axe, and then proceeds to magically tattoo each of the ladies with a little ol’ Texas tat. One of the women — the only attractive one, as it turns out — is former Saturday Night Live cast member Nora Dunn. One suspects she does not include this video on her resume. An Alligator EPK (electronic press kit) promoting the same song is far better, and shows the notoriously reticent Winter willing to actually talk on camera a bit. He does so candidly, and the brief clip is worth seeing.

Three tracks from a Swedish soundstage gig are next. These are presented in very good quality (again, the grading is in relative terms). “Sound the Bell” and “Mojo Boogie” are excellent workouts. A rarely-mentioned quality of Winter’s musicianship is his ability to play sympathetically: yes, he’s the lead axeman, but when John Paris takes a harp solo, Winter drops back, adding just the right touches to highlight the bassist’s playing. While it’s always a treat to see Winter’s fire-breathing guitar wizardry on display, witnessing him share the spotlight only adds to the enjoyment.

A rainy nighttime gig in Pistoia, Italy wraps up the set. Once again, the performance is stellar, and the video quality is lousy. The audio’s none too great either, but if you’ve made it this far, you probably won’t mind.

A good companion to the Live Through the 70s set from a few years back, Johnny Winter Live Through the 80s is — until the unlikely event of something better quality coming along — the best way to get a visual survey of Johnny Winter’s work during that decade. With the exception of the music video, it’s relatively free of 80s-styled trappings, instead presenting Winter’s timeless, high-octane blues-rock hybrid in an onstage power trio format. And since Paul Nelson — Winter’s manager, second (highly accomplished) guitarist and guy-who-looks-out-for-Winter’s-interests — is credited as an Executive Producer, for a change we can assume that Winter will enjoy some profits from airing of his work. For that alone this would be a worthy purchase.

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Disclosure of Material Connection:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

Album Review: Ravi Shankar and George Harrison – Collaborations

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison - Collaborations

This one’s a rare and unexpected treat. While any number of Beatles-related films remain officially unavailable — there’s still no legitimate DVD release of Let it Be, nor the ’66 Budokan shows, nor the Shea Stadium film — yet the folks at Dark Horse (George Harrison‘s custom label) have put together a box set of Ravi Shankar material that includes a semi-restored 1974 concert film of Indian music.

The aptly-named Collaborations is an expansive (but not too expensive, retailing for $55.99) package that includes no less than three CDs and a DVD plus a detailed booklet and fancy box. The contents of the discs are an assortment of familiar and rare material.

The first CD is a reissue of the 1997 Chants of India album. While from a marketing standpoint that album (on its original release) was positioned as a bandwagon-jumping response to the runaway success of the Chant album by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domino de Silos, in reality there’s almost no connection between the two. Chants of India is traditional vocal-based Indian music. The Shankar album was produced by Harrison, though listeners looking for some sort of genre-bridging fusion akin to the “Lady Madonna” b-side “The Inner Light” will come away disappointed and confused. This is the real stuff.

As a rock-oriented western listener, my own tastes aren’t too satisfied by the Indian vocal chant stuff. It’s clearly foreign-sounding, with little if any grounding in any musical tradition that western ears would find familiar. That said, it’s impeccably rendered, and fascinating for what it is. It just doesn’t rank high on my must-play-often list.

The 1976 LP The Ravi Shankar Music Festival From India is another story entirely. While it, too, is vocal-based, there’s a much more lively vibe to be found. The music is joyous, expressive and deeply textured. While there are differences in musical notation between Indian music and western, forms, it might be said that a lot of the music on Music Festival From India is in a major key. Sort of.

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison - Collaborations

Listeners with little or no previous exposure to Indian music may find this disc quite endearing; the call-and-response vocal arrangements and intriguing percussion come together to create a delightful ambience. And go ahead and forgive yourself if you find the music a bit reminiscent of some of the mood pieces from the Beatles’ Help! film and soundtrack LP. While those were wrangled into something approaching pop song form, these are (again) the real deal. Yet they have a more familiar feel than the much-later Chants of India set. With the original vinyl a fairly rare commodity, this reissue is a welcome addition. The highlight may well be “Chaturang,” a number that opens with what westerners might call a drum solo. That gives way to a fetching melody that suggests connections between Indian music and Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese musical forms. (Or at least it does to these provincial, rock-attuned ears.) A variety of moods are explored on this album, and it’s surprisingly accessible.

The third disc in the set is perhaps the missing link. Shankar Family & Friends was originally a 1974 LP on Harrison’s Dark Horse label. Shankar toured the USA in support of this album until suffering a heart attack. Unlike the other discs in this set (and the DVD, which we’ll discuss presently), this music attempts — and succeeds — at bridging the gap between Indian traditional forms and western pop music. From the opening, listeners will know they’re in for something different. Piano, electric bass guitar, and a traditional trap kit are all elements of the lovely, haunting and unforgettable “I Am Missing You.” Shankar’s sister-in-law Lakshmi Shankar is the lead vocalist on this and several other tracks.

Musically, several of these songs have more in common with the sort of material one would find on Harrison’s albums of the time. But the album overall is a delightful amalgam of styles: one song might be sung in English, but then another in Hindi. One track might feature Moog synthesizer, while another would be completely built around traditional Indian instrumentation. More than half of the album is given over to tracks designed for a ballet that never happened. Part of that unstaged ballet, the track “Lust (Raga Chandrakauns)” bests any of Harrison’s own attempts on, say, Wonderwall Music to fuse west and east. The track sounds like an Indian take on Isaac HayesShaft soundtrack; amazing. And “Dispute and Violence” is delightfully odd beyond description, with a horn section that has to be heard to be believed.

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison - Collaborations

The artist lineup on Shankar Family & Friends will be familiar to any liner notes reader owning Living in the Material World: Klaus Voorman, Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston, Tom Scott, and a curiously-named guitarist who goes by the name of Hari Georgeson. The sort of album that could have only come out in the 70s, and only under the direction of George Harrison, Shankar Family & Friends is the musical highlight of the CD portion of the Collaborations package.

Then there’s the DVD. Never let it be said that Harrison’s estate doesn’t pack value for investment into their products. A long-lost concert from 1974, filmed at London’s venerable Albert Hall, is the centerpiece of the DVD. The opening scroll explains that much of the film has been lost or damaged, and it’s true that the visuals are not what 21st century high-resolution viewers have come to expect. Kudos to Dark Horse, then, for electing to restore what could be salvaged. The surviving footage is nothing short of amazing. Outside of the opening section of the Concert for Bangla Desh, most western viewers will have never seen Indian music being performed live onstage. Even though the visuals are at times blurred or otherwise dodgy, the joy, intensity and mastery of the players comes through crystal-clear. Shankar himself is seen alternately conducting the ensemble and playing sitar. In fact on some numbers, he’s but one of three sitar players.

The audio of the Albert Hall survives in pristine quality, and is synched to the video. Where visuals were unavailable, stills are displayed while the high-quality audio plays. As an example of Shankar and his ensemble at the peak of their creativity and popularity, the Albert Hall concert is an invaluable document. And seeing good old George introduce the show is a treat beyond compare. His embrace of Shankar just prior to his exiting the stage speaks volumes about his love and respect for the master.

Anyone open to Indian music should check out this set. Anyone who’s a serious fan of Harrison and/or Shankar simply must own it.

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I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.