Archive for October, 2011

Moogfest 2011 Recap: Day 1, Part 1: Matthew Dear, Mayer Hawthorne, Tangerine Dream

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Matthew Dear
Well, somebody has to go on first, right? The three-day Moogfest kicked off just after 5pm on Friday. Spread across more than a half-dozen venues throughout downtown Asheville NC, the event brings together a dizzying array of musical styles, including up-and-comers as well as legendary names. Many of the latter include artists one rarely sees on tour.

Matthew Dear is among the former. A youngish singer/musician, he spent most of his time onstage singing, but between songs he busied himself with the setting up and triggering of beats, loops and whatnot. Heavy on groove but light on lyrics, Dear’s music was built around those programmed pieces, and more often than not the band seemed to be following the electronics, rather than the other way ’round. At one point Dear picked up a black Les Paul, causing to me to mutter to myself, “Well, this could be cool.” But as best as I could tell, he’s from the Elvis school of guitar playing: other than a few random jabs, he didn’t seem to do much with the guitar.

As is typical for an opener, attendance was light, though the crowd grew steadily. Dear’s set took place at the Animoog Playground, a fancy name for “big outdoor parking lot.” The sound was good, and the band’s energy was there, but the weather was doom-laden. Grey and windy, the skies began to open up a bit, misting lightly upon the crowd. With temperatures starting under 50 and headed downward, there was plenty of incentive for people to move around. And they did, a bit. In total, a good opener that drew people in.

Mayer Hawthorne
One of the acts I specifically wanted to see, Detroit’s Mayer Hawthorne came out at 6:30pm for what was planned to be a one-hour set. By this time the Animoog Playground crowd had more than doubled in size, and darkness was quickly falling. The rain was also starting to pick up. Hawthorne and band took to the stage, and the singer joked that this weather was nothing: “It’s like this every fuckin’ day in Detroit,” he quipped.

As the band tore into their retro-soul set, the crowd reacted in kind. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people around me who seemed to already know the songs. Hawthorne’s second album How Do You Do had only been released a week or so before, but one could clearly see people mouthing along with the lyrics.

Hawthorne impressed by switching between keyboards, percussion and guitar throughout the set, and the band was super-tight. But as the rain increased in intensity, it became more of a distraction. But twenty minutes or so into the set, water could clearly be seen bouncing off of the keyboards and drums. Even before they started playing, the musicians were toweling down their instruments, gamely attempting to keep them dry. But by this point in the set, the stage was slick and everything was wet. Crew members brought towels and tarpaulins out and tried to cover whatever could be covered, and during a guitar solo Hawthorne exited stage right to dry off, while his bassist cowered stage right in a vain effort to stay (briefly) dry.

Despite all of this, the band had the audience in the palm of their hand. People were moving, digging it, and the crowd kept growing. And to watch the band, one would think they weren’t bothered at all by the pouring rain. Even though the stage has a top and fabric sides, this cold rain was coming down sideways. There wasn’t a dry spot onstage. And as it turned out, this must have been more of a problem than the performers let on. After finishing a song around the 45 minute mark – clearly not a set-ender – the band quickly exited the stage without a word. No goodbye, no nothing. This surprising turn of events marked the end of their set. Any band would be forgiven for throwing in the soggy towel under these conditions, but the abrupt manner in which it actually happened took everyone by surprise. People looked around at each other: “Are they finished?” Most shrugged and left for another venue when it was announced that Little Dragon – the next-scheduled act on that stage – had canceled due to “a band member’s illness.” For me – like so many others – it was time to head indoors for awhile.

Tangerine Dream
North American concert dates by this legendary outfit are a rarity, so I had marked this show down as do-not-miss. That it took place indoors in a seated venue made it even better: a quick six-block walk across downtown to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and a friendly security pat-down later, I was inside the venue. As with all of the Moogfest shows (save the separately-ticketed Brian Eno talk scheduled for Saturday), seating was general-admission, first-come-first-served. But having arrived fifteen or so minutes early, I had no problem finding a seat.

The stage was decorated with an assortment of synthesizers, both vintage and modern. A pair of wide-screen monitors were situated close to the front edge of the stage; each displayed a virtual synthesizer; one looked a bit like a typical (if slightly intimidating) “soft synth” and the other was a graphical representation of a modular synth, similar to an old telephone switchboard. (From my vantage point, neither seemed to do much of anything throughout the set, I must note.)

The six-piece band feature two older guys, one seated at a bank of keyboards and hidden behind sunglasses and a hat that made him look like a krautrock Charlie Rich or Leon Russell. The other stood at his keyboard racks, cloaked in a jacket and scarf. A slightly younger guy with a Strat-style guitar delivered David Gilmour-flavored licks that wove in and out of the songs.

Those songs – all wordless, mostly hook-free – had a feel halfway between soundtrack music and new age. In other words, they offered a good cross-section of what Tangerine Dream’s music has long been about. Songs tumbled into one another, rarely stopping completely to allow for crowd applause.

Half of the band were younger females. An energetic drummer played stand-up style behind a set of Roland v-drums, occasionally moving over to a set of acoustic percussion (congas, etc.) New age accoutrements such as rain sticks and whatnot were in ample supply. A woman at the back of the stage alternated between wind instruments, percussion, keyboards and other assorted instruments. Now and then a violinist appeared.

It must be said that the crowd reacted coolly to the set. While flawlessly performed, the fact that the music wasn’t high-energy, coupled with the lack of movement onstage (excepting the drummer) mean that it wasn’t the most exciting set. Other than the standing crowd in the VIP section up front (roughly 100 people), the crowd sat down after the first five minutes or so. At the start of the set, the hall was more than half-filled; as time wore on, more and more people left.

Which points out an inescapable fact about events such as these: under the best circumstances, fans will almost likely find that there are two must-see bands playing at the same time. So the odds of someone coming and staying for an entire set are greatly diminished, no matter how great the show. In the case of Tangerine Dream, the band’s set was slated to run two hours, making it one of the longest scheduled sets of the whole weekend.

Though I had planned to stay for the whole set, a friend suggested we head over and check out some of the bands playing next door at the cavernous Asheville Civic Center. Reluctantly admitting that I had pretty much heard what Tangerine Dream had on offer, I agreed and we exited.

Next: Holy F**k, Moby, and LunzProject featuring Hans-Joachim Roedelius.

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Looking Back at Monterey Pop

Friday, October 28th, 2011

I’m reminded of Monterey Pop — the grand-daddy of ‘em all — that took place more than 44 years ago. Here’s a feature I did on the 40th anniversary of the historic festival. — bk

Before Coachella, before Bonnaroo, before Live Aid, and before Woodstock, there was Monterey Pop. For three days in June 1967 (the legendary “summer of love”), The Monterey International Pop Music Festival set the standard for all future festivals. Last summer marked the 40th anniversary of the event.

A defining moment in pop music history, Monterey Pop was the collective brainchild of a who’s who of music luminaries. That short list included producer Lou Adler, musicians John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas and Andrew Loog Oldham, producer/manager of The Rolling Stones. According to Adler, the festival grew out of a conversation “regarding the validation of rock ‘n roll music as an art form.” Jazz and folk had their festivals, but there had never been a widely-promoted rock fest. “To do this,” Adler says, “we had to represent every genre: the music of today, of yesterday, and of the future.”

The festival saw the national debut of Janis Joplin, breakthrough performances by The Who and Jimi Hendrix (all three of whom, Michelle Phillips reminds me, “nobody had ever heard of” in the USA), the crossover triumph of Otis Redding, and the penultimate performance by The Mamas & The Papas. Add to that some legendary performances by Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Ravi Shankar (that’s Norah Jones‘ dad to you younger folks) and many others. In fact 32 acts were spread across the three-day festival. “You have to give the Monterey audience credit,” says Adler. “They saw everything from Shankar to Hugh Masekela to The Mamas & The Papas to Paul Butterfield. And they sat!”

Michelle explains how quickly it came together. Promoter Alan Pariser “brought the idea to us in April [1967]. And by June 16-18, we had everybody onstage,” she gasps, “performing for free!” Adler recalls that “the cheapest ticket was $3.50 for the evening and $3 matinee.” Adjusted for inflation, even the most expensive ticket would only be about $40 in 2007 dollars. Not a bad deal to see the Monterey lineup. The event was innovative as what Michelle calls “the first of its kind,” the first rock benefit. Lou says a nonprofit event “seemed the right way to ‘give something back.’” All proceeds from the festival and ancillaries (recordings and marketing tie-ins) went to the Monterey International Pop Festival Foundation. And although Michelle admits that “at the time, nobody knew where all the money was going to go,” the Foundation was (and is) well-managed. Even today it supports initiatives including the San Francisco Free Clinic, the Debbie Allen Dance Studio in Harlem, local jazz institutes, and more. “Forty years later,” Michelle says, “this three-day festival is generating hundreds of thousands of dollars to support these wonderful programs that are in the spirit of the festival itself.”

Michelle Phillips mentions that they set a precedent of treating the performers right. “We made everybody feel like they were the headliner.” Lou Adler believes that modern festivals that “in spirit try to do what Monterey Pop did as far as making the artists — and audiences — comfortable are Coachella and Bonnaroo. I think that the people that run [those events] are good people with the right motives.”

monterey_pop_townshend The Monterey festival was filmed by legendary documentarian DA Pennebaker. The film was originally conceived as an ABC-TV special. Lou recalls that “the head of the network at that time was a man by the name of Tom Moore — a southern gentleman with conservative views. So ‘calculated’ might be the wrong word, but in choosing what to show them [in an early screening to get approval] we showed them Jimi Hendrix.” Upon seeing the incendiary footage of Hendrix making love to his Stratocaster, setting it alight and smashing it onstage, Moore’s curt reply was, according to Adler, “not on my network!” In terms of both profitability (for the Foundation) and for Monterey’s ongoing legacy, things worked out for the best, and Monterey Pop remains a crowning achievement in musical cinema.

On the newly-released 2CD Monterey Pop set, Cass Elliot is heard suggesting that the festival become a yearly event. It was briefly considered, Adler says, but “it didn’t have the same feel.” And a followup concert might have lacked some desirable naïvete. “There was an honesty about it that no longer existed, so we chose not to do it.” Michelle Phillips is unequivocal: “It could never have happened again.” But the once-in-a-lifetime nature of Monterey Pop only served to make its reputation shine brighter. “And that’s better for us [performers],” she laughs.

Michelle observes that “John [Phillips] and Lou knew how to do something incredibly special with this little minute that they had.” She and Adler agree on Monterey’s lasting legacy. “It will always have to be the music,” Adler says. “Not politics, not the ‘summer of love,’ not the culture, not revolution…it’s always the music. That’s what’ll keep it going…probably forever.”

Artist Photos © Elaine Mayes

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Album Review: Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton – Play the Blues

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

There’s long been an undercurrent of humility (or perhaps even shyness) in the work of Eric Clapton. Sure, he was dubbed “God” in late-sixties Britain thanks to his guitar work, but Clapton has always seemed uncomfortable as a front-man. Even his Derek & the Dominos project was an attempt to get away from having his name on the marquee.

So it’s perhaps not a great shock to find a suit-and-necktie Clapton serving as – more or less – a rhythm guitarist on a new live set with Wynton Marsalis titled Play the Blues: Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center. And in fact, Clapton does play some fiery guitar (check out the opener “Ice Cream”), but he does so in a context that many fans will consider a departure for him: Dixieland swing.

It’s really not that major of a departure. At the front end of the British blues boom, the raging style in the UK was “trad jazz” (Stateside we call it Dixieland). More of an ensemble style than a showcase for solo prowess, trad jazz (along with a related style, skiffle) informed the musical sensibility of damn near every English rock musician of the era that you’d care to name.

This set is full of fun, upbeat, decidedly American music, and it’s clear that Clapton is having the time of his life playing along with Marsalis and his ace sidemen. Oftentimes – in fact, most of the time when he’s not taking a solo – Clapton’s guitar melts into the sonic gumbo; he’s not easy to pick out, and that’s clearly by design. With a sound that’s closer to W.C. Handy (two of Handy’s songs are covered here) and Louis Armstrong than, say, oh, Robert Johnson, Play the Blues does show a side of Clapton’s interest that he’s not highlighted greatly until now. Yes, “Ice Cream” is a Robert Johnson song, but he never played it like this.

Even when playing songs that are closer in style to what most Clapton fans think of as the blues, the arrangements are altered to work within the band’s format. There is only one musician each handling clarinet and trombone – and one trumpeter besides Marsalis – but it often sounds like more. Clapton plays some electric leads with a bit of distortion, but this is most certainly not rock’n'roll. It ain’t “Crossroads,” either, though of course the chord structure on numbers like “Joe Turner’s Blues” evokes memories of that classic blues song.

Few concessions to modernity are made on Play the Blues, and in context that approach makes sense. Seeing “Layla” listed on the sleeve did worry me a bit: I’m not a fan of the anemic retread Clapton applied to the classic on his Unplugged album, so I wondered what he and Marsalis would do with (or to) it in this idiom. Happily, the arrangement here is more spirited and appealing than the Unplugged reading.

While Play the Blues might not be a huge departure for Clapton, for many of his fans it may remain one. He’s to be credited for following his muse wherever it takes him, and certainly at this point in his life and career he’s got little to prove. But one wonders if Play the Blues may end up as one of those discs that every Clapton fan owns but none actually plays more than a few times. I enjoyed Play the Blues, and the guest appearance of legendary musician/musicologist Taj Mahal (for one song on the CD, two on the DVD) is a delight. That said, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to spin Disraeli Gears.

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Album Review: Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

The new 2cd collection Songs From the South Volumes 1 &2 is subtitled Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits, but if you live in the USA, the subtitle could as easily have been Forty Paul Kelly Songs You’ve Never Heard Save For One or Two At Most. Which isn’t to say that this isn’t a winning and varied collection of songs; it certainly is.

Fans of what they used to call “college rock” may remember “Dumb Things” from Paul Kelly‘s 1987 album Under the Sun (I have the vinyl LP), and apparently the retro-garage raver Gossip‘s “Darling it Hurts” actually charted in the USA that same year (I wasn’t listening to mainstream radio by then, so I completely missed it). Kelly’s style is hard to describe, in part because he’s tough to pin down. The rock-oriented songs that kick off the first disc (covering 1985 to 1997) have a style that’s not miles removed from Hunters & Collectors, Midnight Oil, The Church and even, occasionally, Crowded House (if you hadn’t guessed, Kelly is Australian). Chiming guitars, strong melodies and an of-its-time production aesthetic are found in spades on these cuts.

But there was (and remains much more to Paul Kelly. Possibly to give his thoughtful and incisive lyrics greater emphasis, after a couple rock-leaning albums, he opened his style up to include folkier arrangements. Kelly has a knack for tackling universal themes in a highly personal manner; in fact he often does so in a way that can make the listener uncomfortable. Curiously, his story-songs often leave a key piece of the story missing; perhaps this is to invite/allow the listener to fill I nthe blanks, thus making the story hit closer to home. But on songs like the troubador-ish “Everything’s Turning to White,” it remains a bit difficult to sort out exactly what the story’s ultimately about. Imagine a joke with a great buildup and no punchline; now remove the humor as well.

Some songs are lost in translation, so to speak. Seven-plus minutes of the Dylanesque “Bradman” may seem excessive for anyone not well-versed in the history of (I guess) Australian cricket. But on songs like “Sweet Guy” and “From Little Things Big Things Grow” Kelly hits his mark, pairing attractive melodies and highly personal lyrical subject matter. He’s unafraid to fold in elements of old-style country and folk in to his songs, and has an innate sense for music that fits his words. To wit: he and his band The Messengers rock out big time on “Pouring Petrol on a Burning Man.”

That stylistic variety carries over to the second disc (focusing chronologically on the period 1998-2008). “Nothing on My Mind” has a beat that’s equal parts soaring and funky. It also features blistering fuzz guitar fills. “I’ll Be Your Lover”sounds like something George Harrison might have done in his Cloud Nine era. But plenty of songs are built around a Kelly solo vocal and spare instrumentation: “Love Letter” puts banjo and fiddle up front. “Gathering Storm” sounds uncannily – both in its music and lyrics – like a Blood on the Tracks outtake.

And so it goes. Typically a greatest-hits collection serves to give fans a quick and easy way to collect the most commercially high-profile tracks of their favorite artist. But Songs From the South won’t serve that function for most listeners in the northern hemisphere. Instead it’s a sturdy collection of the mostly-unheard work of an Australian with a strong vision. Instead, it may lead those who hear it to delve deeper into Paul Kelly’s deep back-catalog (twenty albums and counting).

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Album Review: The Buzzcocks – What Do I Get?

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

The CD+DVD package What Do I Get? documents the reunited Buzzcocks on a live date at Shepherds Bush Empire in 2003. And if the title is a question, the answer is simple: a barrage of ear-bashing punk, catchy melodies played at amphetamine-fueled speed before an adoring, pogo-ing crowd.

The hits are all here, and while the DVD dhows that original Buzzcocks Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle (both on guitar) have aged a bit since the heyday of 1977′s “Orgasm Addict,” to the ears they haven’t changed much. The songs tumble into one another a la The Ramones, but there’s a ferocity (and lack of those Noo Yawkers’ cartoonish element) and sense of danger to these songs. Even when they’re singing about love(!), Shelley and Diggle convey menace. While John (Rotten) Lydon felt compelled to let us know “We mean it, man,” sincerity is never in question with the Buzzcocks.

Depending on one’s constitution, this live set will wind you up or leave you drained. Or, quite possibly, both. As edited on both the album and the audiovisual document, the band doesn’t leave enough time between songs for the audience to register approval; thus it must be done during the songs. The set is paced maniacally, with the hits and near-hits (“I Believe,” “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” “Ever Fallen In Love With Someone You Shouldn’t Have?”) placed toward the second half of the show.

It’s something of an endurance test to get through the DVD: the film runs more than three and half hours, rarely letting up in intensity. Obviously, there’s material on the DVD that’s not on the CD, but it’s more of the same. That’s certainly a good – if not great – thing if you like the wall of roaring instrumentation and yelping that characterizes the Buzzcocks. Clearly, What Do I Get? is not for the faint of heart. But for those receptive to real-deal UK punk played in a we-really-do-mean-it-man fashion, What Do I Get? is unbeatable. Pop tunes at 100mph rarely get as good as this.

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Album Review: Tom Principato – A Part of Me

Monday, October 24th, 2011

There’s an old saying where pop music is concerned: “Don’t bore us; get to the chorus.” 1970s hitmakers The Raspberries were the very embodiment of this aesthetic: many of their songs would kick off, toss out a line and half of a lyric and head straight for the hook-laden chorus. For that style of music, nothing could be better. It’s what the people came for.

When we’re speaking of the blues, however, an entirely different set of rules apply. And those rules — such as they are – vary widely depending on the particular sub-style of blues, and depend to some degree on what is being highlighted in the given song. Take, for example, an album by a blues guitarist: in such a case, many listeners come to hear the burning fretwork. The verses and choruses can sometimes get on the way; to some they’re little more than a necessary evil, something that has to be included.

Occasionally – rarely, actually — an album and/or artist comes along that transcends those so-called rules. The restrictions simply don’t apply. A Part of Me by is just such an album, and its maker Tom Principato is just such a musician.

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t familiar with the guitarist when A Part of Me landed on my desk a few weeks ago. The disc went in the slush pile, where it would remain until I did one of my periodic smash-or-trash exercises to winnow down the stack of CDs for potential review. When I finally popped the disc into the player, though, I knew immediately that I had received something special.

A Part of Me is one varied collection. The disc opens with “I Don’t Wanna Do It,” a longish, lazy and loping country-tinged blues in which Principato’s voice is (initially) the primary focus. He may be from Virginia, but Principato’s voice sounds a lot like an American Eric Clapton. A lengthy guitar solo takes center stage for the song’s second half, quickly establishing (for the new listener) that Principato is a commanding, inventive player.

Principato applies a throaty, jazzy feel to his guitar licks on “Sweet Angel.” One of several tracks that features notable guest artists, the track serves up Hammond B3 courtesy of Chuck Leavell. On “Part of Me,” the guitarist sets up an slow gospel-blues arrangement evocative of Boz Scaggs‘ cover of Fenton Robinson‘s “Loan Me a Dime.” The Memphis Horns’ Wayne Jackson handles the understated yet integral horn charts.

On “Down the Road,” Principato shuts up and plays his guitar. His tasty guitar licks say most of what needs to be said on this track; he’s ably assisted by legendary keyboardist Brian Auger (on organ and electric piano) and renowned session bassist Willie Weeks. The highly melodic instrumental dialogue is such that vocals would have simply gotten in the way.

The modified Bo Diddley snare beat that kicks off “Down in Lou’siana” telegraphs the song’s feel long before the title is made evident. A swamp pop arrangement suits this mash note to the joys of the Pelican State. On the instrumental “Back Again & Gone” the guitarist sounds a bit like Eric Johnson; a master of tone, Principato coaxes a dizzying array of subtle sound shades out of his axes (onstage he plays a Strat and Tele).

Speaking of onstage, I was lucky enough to catch Tom Principato on a recent live date here in Asheville. Tearing through much of A Part of Me plus selections from his vast back catalog, Principato was supported by bassist Steve Wolf, drummer Joe Wells (I think) and percussionist Josh Howell. The latter adds a lot to the band’s live sound, allowing them to move far beyond the standard blooz power trio format. On the record, Gail Sanchez‘s congas do the same for the Santana-flavored “Stranger’s Eyes.”

Tom Principato’s A Part of Me is the ideal blues album to play for your rock-leaning friends who (wrongly) insist that all blues sounds the same. Finely textured and varied, this album is a highly enjoyable listen start to finish.


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Preview: Jump Out the Window – The Brotherhood Story

Friday, October 21st, 2011

April 30, 1967 — On this Sunday evening, the popular group Paul Revere and the Raiders were scheduled to appear for the first time on the hit television program The Ed Sullivan Show. At the peak of their popularity, the Raiders were slated to perform their hit “Good Thing” from The Spirit of ’67. It was planned to be one of the final performances by the most celebrated lineup of the band: the power trio of guitarist Drake “the Kid” Levin, bassist Phil “Fang” Volk and drummer Mike “Smitty” Smith had all given their notice to Revere, having made plans to form their own group. What could have been a high point of their time as members of the hit-making Raiders instead marked the abrupt end of a chapter. Shortly after the performance, Drake, Smitty and Phil were off to pursue their musical vision, one quite different from the band they had just left.

Drake, Phil and Smitty founded a group that would record three albums, perform a handful of concerts, and remain together barely two years. But while the music was heard by few at the time or since, during their brief time together, their band, Brotherhood, existed at the center of an exciting musical scene and created enduring music that deserved more success than it found…

Above: a rare live shot of a rare live performance by the final lineup of Brotherhood (L-R: Drake Levin, Joe Pollard, Phil Volk). Circa 1969. Photo by kind permission of Phil Volk.
To read the rest of my feature, JUMP OUT THE WINDOW: THE BROTHERHOOD STORY — not online; available in print only –  order the latest issue of Ugly Things Magazine. This in-depth story is based on extensive interviews with many of those who were there, then.

Thanks to Phil Volk, Joe Pollard, Ron Collins, Sandra Levin, Lynnette Stevens, Jim Valley, Eirik Wangberg, Roger Hart, Jeff Levin, Donald “Buddha” Miller, Paul Moser and Tim Livingston for their willingness to be interviewed. Thanks also to David Levin, Brenda Hibbs, Lars Keilhau, Neal Skok, Debbi Bennett, Harold Brown, Bob Koenig and Sunita Patterson for their invaluable assistance in developing this story.

UPDATE: A serialized version of the entire story starts on this blog on Monday April  24, 2012.

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The dB’s and the Collective Unconscious

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Chalk it up to coincidence if you must; me, I’m not superstitious but the timing is remarkable. Yesterday I was contacted by a fellow NC-based writer/blogger/music fan, asking permission to excerpt a couple of pieces I wrote. Both (just slightly) pre-date this blog/zine. One of these was a review of the delightful hERE aND nOW album from Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey; the other is a feature/interview with the duo, better known as half of The dB’s.

So it was with a bit of surprise that I greeted the news release that landed in my inbox a mere few hours later. I rarely do this, but allow me to reprint the release verbatim:


“Revolution of the Mind” MP3 brings together original members Peter Holsapple, Chris Stamey, Will Rigby and Gene Holder as they target album release for 2012.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The dB’s will release a new song, “Revolution of the Mind,” for free download at <>. The high-energy rock track was recorded by Peter Holsapple, Gene Holder, Will Rigby, and Chris Stamey during sessions for the band’s new album, Falling Off the Sky, due in spring of 2012, and includes additional “revolutionary” guitar by Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo) and background vocals by Django Haskins (The Old Ceremony).  “The MC5 played in our hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, in 1971,” Stamey related, with a nod to the timely track’s sonic and political inspiration, “and none of us were ever the same again.”

The band is best known for its critically hailed proto-indie pop 80s albums Stands for deciBels and Repercussion. Due to conflicting geography, work and tour schedules, the reunited quartet has taken its time but has finally completed  the new album, “Falling Off the Sky.” It will be worth the wait. But for now, the nonalbum track “Revolution of the Mind”  should serve as an appetizer.

Two NC-based artists have been inspired by recent events to create videos for the song, also available from the band’s site: one by Jerry Stifelman of Creato Destructo Imagery and the other by Greg Parsons (editor) and Mike Allen (director).

Count on me to keep readers updated on this one.

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Album Review: Alberta Hunter – Downhearted Blues

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Here’s a slightly unusual item, but it’s of such historical import that it would be unfair to call it a curio. Alberta Hunter was 86 years old when this live set — titled Downhearted Blues — at Greenwich Village’s The Cookery was captured. But the verve with which she delivers the songs belies her age.

Hunter’s story is a fascinating and (of course) long, but I won’t recount it here; Bill Dahl’s liner notes do a fine and succinct job of tracing her history. Suffice to say Alberta Hunter had paid her dues decades before this date. She had plenty of ups and downs: recording under the sponsorship of some well-known names and touring the globe, she also found herself without a contract more than once, and took a long break from performing in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Across eighteen tracks, backed only by piano and upright bass, Hunter sings torch songs, saloon ballads, and swingin’ bawdy blues shouters. A pleasing mix of standards (“I Got Rhythm,” “Dark Town Strutter’s Ball”) and naughty numbers (“Two-fisted Double-jointed Rough and Ready Man,” “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark”) makes up the set. Hunter works the crowd and does far more than simply deliver the songs. Plenty of singers live their entire lives without developing the expressiveness and control that the then-octogenarian displays on this set. With a you-are-there ambience to this soundboard recording, all the listener needs is a good glass of scotch and a dimly-lit room to set the right scene for this disc.

Alberta’s between-song banter — including a brief bit about a song she wrote in 1923, one that Bessie Smith covered as her first recording – only adds to the enjoyment of the program. Hunter’s professional yet wholly-unaffected style is a refreshing change from most live blues albums that one might stumble across these days.

Blues aficionados: even if your tastes don’t generally extend to female blues singers, you’d do well to open your mind and ears for a listen to Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery.

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Album Review: Gentle Giant – Three Friends

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Three Friends finds 70s progressive group Gentle Giant at their most rocking and abrasive, yet the group manages to deliver a set of challenging, progressive numbers in the process. Right out of the gate with “Prologue,” the band combines the fiddly-bits melodic style that endears them to fans (and drives everyone else up the wall), but weds that fussy approach to a power-riffing delivery. It may be a misnomer to describe the recurring melodic motif in “Prologue” as a riff – it’s much more intricate and involved than that term suggests — but it’s delivered in a manner that gives it the feel of one.

A relatively dry, intimate production style puts the music right in the listener’s face. Unison playing of the melodic line puts the emphasis on some aggressive, dirty-sounding guitar work from Gary Green, and his lines are doubled and/or harmonized by Kerry Minnear’s buzzing analog synthesizer work.

“Schooldays” is built around some deft crosstalk between Minnear (on vibraphone and electric piano) and Derek Shulman on trademark acrobatic vocals. Co-producer (with the band) Malcolm Mortimore deftly delivers percussion work that’s both assertive and light (the band would finally setlle on a permanent drummer in John Weathers, who came aboard after Three Friends).

The medieval trappings that are a central part of the Gentle Giant sound are in full flower here; there’s a theatrical bent to the songs as well. In places – especially during some of Minnear’s piano-centric excursions — “Schooldays” recalls Procol Harum. But when Minnear launches into a manic vibes solo – punctuated by electric piano riffs and wide-panned stereo vocal work from Derek – the record heads decidedly (and delightfully) in a jazz direction.

The plucky guitar intro to “Working All Day” is reminiscent of some of King Crimson’s more dissonant moments, but the stomping riffage that’s the song’s centerpiece suggest an unholy hybrid of Uriah Heep and a medieval troupe of balladeers. Philip Shulman’s sax work adds a gritty dimension to the track, suggesting what Supertramp might have sounded like had they pursued a more musically ambitious (but certainly less remunerative) direction. Again it’s Minnear who steals the show, with some fine, expressive organ soloing.

Ray Shulman’s multiple-overdubbed violin work is the main attraction on “Peel the Paint.” Plucked, sawed and pizzicatoed, his fiddly bits create an airy ambience that suits the lyrics perfectly. Some super-heavy riffage comes as a bit of a shock, then, when it comes in. Sax, distorted guitar and wailing vocals work together, delivering a melody that’s all riff and little melody. If you want to evangelize some prog to a Black Sabbath fan, “Peel the Paint” is a suggested starting point. Green briefly channels Jimi Hendrix (or at least Robin Trower) in a blistering solo, the likes of which one wouldn’t expect on a Gentle Giant record. (Mortimore does his best Mitch Mitchell, too.)

“Mister Class and Quality?” answers the where-did-Kansas-get-their-ideas-from question once and for all. The band weaves a twisting, complicated melodic line, but delivers it in a stomping, gritty manner. The title track unfolds in a majestic manner, summing up all that has come before.

Like many albums of its type, Three Friends is built upon a narrative of sorts: in this case (as the liner notes relate it), the story concerns “old school friends…and whatever became of them.” Following the narrative isn’t necessary to enjoyment of the record.

The 2011 digipak reissue of Three Friends appends a live reading of “Prologue” from 1972, and some fascinating studio outtakes of “Peel the Paint” and “Three Friends” vocal parts.  The former proves – better, perhaps than did the official Playing the Fool live album – that onstage, Gentle Giant could be forceful and overpowering one moment, subtle and fussy the next, and then crushingly heavy the moment after that. And the studio outtakes are required listening for anyone who’s ever enjoyed Gentle Giant’s singular and unique brand of progressive rock.

Note: You may also enjoy my reviews of several other Gentle Giant reissues, and my interview with the band.

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