Archive for March, 2012

Album Review: Lou Ragland – I Travel Alone

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Way back when I was nineteen, I was a full-time college student, but I also held down a part-time job in retail. I became friendly with a co-worker name Wade White, and our conversations often centered around (you guessed it) music. Our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different: I was a suburban kid, and he was (if I recall correctly) a twice-divorced African American who had been part of a relatively successful funk/r&b group in the 1970s. He cut a striking figure: imagine a lanky Miles Davis with jheri curls. At first I didn’t know whether to believe his wild tales from the road; for all I knew, he was a spinner of fanciful stories. (Remember, I was a sheltered kid with extremely limited exposure to persons of color.) But Wade good-naturedly brought his passport to work one day and showed me all of the stamps; he had clearly traveled a lot, especially to the Caribbean. His band never quite made the big time, but they gigged heavily for several years, traveling extensively with their Parliament/Funkadelic-styled sound.

Long story short, he eventually asked me to join his current band as keyboardist. I had always had dreams of playing in a “real” band; the garage bands I had during my high school years usually played one gig and then fizzled out. I seized the opportunity. My experience – about a year or so – in this funk/soul/r&b cover band called Phoenix would be richly rewarding. I had nearly no previous experience with that sort of music, and it was fascinating to observe the different approach the players in the band brought to their instruments. They were all clearly expert – much more proficient than was I – but their style of playing was vastly different from what I heard on my rock albums at home. We played to enthusiastic audiences, and the fact that I was the only white person in the band (and the room, and sometimes the neighborhood) was more a novelty than anything else.

It was only years later that I began to appreciate just how fortunate I had been to have an experience like that. My bandmates exposed me to a lot of great music. Where I grew up, one simply didn’t hear soul, funk and rhythm & blues; in the late 70s and early 80s I didn’t know a single white person who listened to those kinds of things. (Clearly there were many such people; just not in suburban Atlanta.)

I’m reminded of the kind of music that we played in Phoenix as I spin a new set from those master curators of the wonderful (and wonderfully obscure), The Numero Group. Their latest collection is a 3CD set by Lou Ragland called I Travel Alone. Still active today (he’s a member of current iteration of The Ink Spots) Ragland was, even in the 1970s, a compelling lead guitarist and soulful vocalist. (He had briefly been a member of Billy Ward and the Dominoes.) During the tail end of the 60s the journeyman guitarist/vocalist cut singles under his own name and as Volcanic Eruption, and then formed the Cleveland-based funk trio Hot Chocolate. Not the British group that had a hit with “You Sexy Thing,” this Hot Chocolate was much funkier.

Across three CDs, I Travel Alone collects those early singles, Hot Chocolate’s impossibly rare 1971 LP, an entire album’s worth of Ragland solo, and a live-in-the-studio radio broadcast with an augmented Hot Chocolate. The set essentially covers Ragland’s dues-paying, toiling-in-unjustified-obscurity days. Yet for listeners not well versed in 70s funk, a lot of the music on the Numero collection will sound like hits. It wasn’t, despite the high quality of playing, singing, arranging and production (often by Ragland himself). The highlights are too numerous to mention, but a few tracks stand out among the thirty-plus songs. Hot Chocolate’s slow jam “We Had True Love” combines the best characteristics of Billy Paul, George Benson and Motown. The instrumental “So Dam Funky” may lead one to strongly suspect that fellow Clevelanders The James Gang heard or saw Hot Chocolate onstage. (Or vice versa; the release dates of that song and “Funk #49″ were pretty close together.)

The sound quality on the Live From Agency disc might offend purists; it’s not 21st century state of the art, for certain. My advice: accept it for what it is, cast your mind back to the 70s, and imagine you’re tuning in to a relatively low-powered FM radio station to hear this ace live set. With two violas and a flautist rounding out their sound, Hot Chocolate funks their way through selections from their album plus some inspired cover tunes that telegraph their influences. Ragland’s prowess on vocals and guitar is highlighted throughout the set.

Lovers of 70s funk need this set, and everyone else should check it out as well; what I Travel Alone lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in The Real Thang. The Numero Group seem to be charmed; with their peerless taste and unparallelled crate-digging skills, they (so far) can do no wrong. Essential.

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Hundred-word Reviews: March 2012

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Here’s another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews, generally covering indie releases. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 100 words on each album.

Brad Brooks – Harmony of Passing Light
Somehow the name and the cover art led me to think this would be c&w singer/songwriter stuff. Lesson: don’t judge an album by its cover. There’s twang here for sure, but it’s as likely as not to come from an electric sitar. Making highly accessible, appealing music of the sort that recalls John Hiatt and Nick Lowe, Brooks’ album is a hooky, catchy affair that folds in r&b, soul and rock influences; he sounds a bit like a modern day Box Tops. “Calling Everyone” deserves hit status, and the other ten expertly-played and -arranged tracks are pretty swell, too.

 

Jeff Litman – Outside
Litman’s background in jazz and classical music is belied by the Tom Petty-esque harmonic sway of tracks like “Over and Over,” possessing a strong pop sensibility with jagged rock edge to balance the high melodic content. Litman’s slight southern twang and mastery of what John Lennon called the “middle eight” place his music in that area between the grand tradition of midtempo rock, powerpop and modern Wilco-styled alt-country. Many songs have that vaguely familiar but can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it quality. Elsewhere there are shades of Gin Blossoms, Todd Rundgren, Mike Viola and (of all things!) Jellyfish, all making Outside a distinct pleasure.

 

Leigh Glass & the Hazards – Something in the Water
Donny and Marie Osmond may have sung “a little bit country / a little bit rock’n'roll,” but in practice, much of what passes for country-rock isn’t satisfying to fans of either camp. But on Something in the Water, Leigh Glass & the Hazards aim squarely for that few-man’s-land in between; they assertively, defiantly stake a claim to a southern-fried rock reminiscent of Delaney and Bonnie. Glass’ vocal delivery is of the out-front, belting style (her pipes are mixed way out front on this record), and while this isn’t a guitar-fest, most songs are anchored by a catchy, memorable riff.

Mental 99 – Mental 99
Dawn Richardson drummed with Four Non-Blondes, among others. Guitarist Tom Gore worked with PJ Harvey and Courtney Love. That varied pedigree may explain the endearingly oddball yet accessible Mental 99. Groove-oriented poppy instrumental pieces built around catchy licks and riffs, the songs are fascinating and densely layered. But here’s the surprise: all the tracks were cut live in the studio with no overdubs. The originals – especially the Frippery of “Robot Bible Camp” – are great, but “Love is Blue” – one of four well-chosen if left-field covers – is the standout track. They’re an act to follow.

 

The Night Hours — The Night Hours
Purveyors of pretty baroque chamber-pop, The Night Hours are a seven-piece group based in Chicago. A melacholoy vibe pervades their songs, imbued as they are with sorrowful sawing of violins and cellos. Sarah Katheryn‘s voice is ideally suited to the varied songs. There are sprightly, upbeat tracks (“Two Young Girls”) that benefit from a rock sensibility applied to some decidedly non-rock music. “Afterglow” has a slinky nightclub-meets-spy-theme ambience. “La Danse Apache” is built around a gypsy feel. “Shutter” is a piano-centric dramatic number. This delicate and moody music would be well-suited to an intimate, candlelit live reading.

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DVD Review: Todd Rundgren – Todd Live

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Todd Rundgren is a visionary artist. And like all true visionaries – those who follow their muse where it leads them – his output has been, in the minds of many, erratic. That’s clearly part of his appeal; it certainly is for me. But following him isn’t always easy. After the success of 1972′s Something/Anything, he made a deliberately difficult album (A Wizard/A True Star) that was truer to his own feelings, goals and intentions. While AWATS is now rightly recognized as a major work, at the time, it alienated a lot of his fans, especially the people who wanted another “Hello, It’s Me” or “We Gotta Get you a Woman.”

Todd has continued on his own path. His 2nd Wind (1991) album might have turned off those not especially into Broadway-style stage production music. And while 1993′s No World Order ranks among my favorite of his albums, not everyone wanted to hear Todd Rundgren rapping. His output has been peppered with commercial and critical successes, but he’s always remained true to himself.

Rundgren’s most recent pair of studio albums, then, came as something of a surprise even to those who gobble up every musical morsel that the man creates. Todd Rundgren’s Johnson (2011) was a collection of songs from blues legend Robert Johnson, covered in a power trio style; there was little of Rundgren’s personality in the songs as performed, and – for the first time ever – I couldn’t listen all the way through. I got bored, and that never happens for me with a Todd record.

His next album project – released the same year – was (Re)Production, and if anything it was worse. And it was worse in a particularly perverse fashion: Todd is a highly revered producer, having lent this talents to the work of a long list of other artists. What he brings to the work of others often elevates it; sometimes a Rundgren production makes something great out of something that would otherwise be little more than ordinary. So an album in which he covers the songs that he’s produced should be interesting, right? No: on (Re)Production he somehow manages to strip out whatever made the original good, creating something that is pedestrian at best, awful at worst.

The thing is, Todd can never be counted out. And as a long-time fan, I am prepared for the eventuality that – some years from now – I may revise my opinion of those two albums. That’s sometimes how it is with Todd’s music. But in general, I prefer, well, everything else he’s done.

Rundgren is keenly aware of his legacy and of his body of work. In the last few years he’s mounted tours that look into his musical rear view mirror, and he (like his fans) likes what he sees. After a successful tour in which he re-created A Wizard/A True Star in its entirety onstage, Todd mounted a tour in 2010 to perform his 1974 double LP Todd.

The idea of playing one’s albums live has caught on these last several years, and the list of artists who’ve done so successfully is long: Brian Wilson, Love, The Zombies, the Psychedelic Furs, Cracker, on and on. So on some level, reviving Todd was a safe bet. But because that album fell more into the inaccessible side of Rundgren’s catalog, it could have been a dicey proposition.

It’s not. Performed before a hometown crowd of hardcore fans, the September 14 2010 performance of Todd – newly released on DVD – is a tour de force. Staging, costuming, performance, choreography, arrangement, vocals and musicianship are not only all top notch, they’re all fully integrated into a complete experience.

The album is taken in sequence, with little of Rundgren’s trademark banter between songs. The stage setup is free of visible amplifiers, mic stands and cables, and all of the instruments (including Prairie Prince‘s drum risers) are on wheels, so they can be moved around, on and off of the stage as each song demands. A band made up of ace players representing various eras of Todd’s career provides stellar support. Kasim Sulton, former Utopia bandmate and veteran of many Rundgren solo tours, handles bass, vocals and occasional keyboards. Bobby Strickland, a saxophonist whose musical relationship with Todd also stretches back to the 70s, also sings and plays (more) keyboards, and provides wind-controlled MIDI synth support on several tracks. Todd lookalike Jesse Gress handles many of the stunt-guitar parts, plus vocals and (still more) keyboards. And Greg Hawkes (of the Cars and – briefly with Todd – the New Cars – adds (you guessed it) still more keyboards.

Rundgren himself sings, plays guitar and yet still more keyboards. Yes, it takes a lot of keyboards to recreate Todd onstage. Yet it retains a surprisingly organic feel, and there aren’t a lot of synthesizer-solo type bits on the album (or its live reading). The multitracked textures Rundgren layered in the studio require many different keyboard sounds, and one or two keyboardists — even ace ones – simply couldn’t have provided a proper version of the songs. As it is, the interplay between the players is exciting and fresh, while sounding very much like the original record.

There’s plenty of guitar wailing, too, even on this keys-dominated show. The Hendrix pastiche “No. 1 Lowest Common Denominator” and “Heavy Metal Kids” are guitar showcases. And the pop balladry of “The Last Ride” and the rarely-performed “Izzat Love” are reminders of just how varied Todd is as an album; in its own way, it’s a less-commercial answer to Something/Anything.

An odd omission is “In and Out the Chakras We Go (Formerly: Shaft Goes to Outer Space).” One can only guess that its absence has more to do with flow and pacing than an inability to deliver a credible live version of the song. A noodly number, it’s arguably among the least musical of the tracks on Todd, but it’s not wholly lacking in charm. Yet to be fair, it’s not terribly missed.

When the band returns for its “encore” (what: did you think they wouldn’t come back to play it?) of ”Sons of 1984,” they’ve changed into Indian-influenced outfits reminiscent of the BeatlesSgt. Pepper uniforms, and are joined by a choral director and youthful singers from the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts. A transcendent and moving reading of the song follows, and when the curtain closes on the band (still softly singing), the audience continues the song en masse as the credits roll.

In addition to its strengths as a collection of songs, Todd is an exemplar of – and object lesson in – the importance of song sequencing; while Rundgren may have not conceived of Todd in 1974 as a work to be performed start to finish, some thirty-eight years later, this live DVD proves that the album was tailor-made for just such a presentation.

For Todd fans, there’s an amazing bonus feature: an onstage interview with Todd, conducted by Roy Firestone. Firestone asks the tough questions, delves into lesser-known and oft-rumored corners of Todd’s career, and engages the artist in a way that few interviewers have done before. For anyone who has interest in Todd’s take on his own work, that of those with whom he’s worked, or any other number of topics, the interview is absolutely essential. Its inclusion makes a fantastic DVD even better.

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Album Review: Little Richard – Here’s Little Richard

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Little Richard (Penniman) is notorious for his high estimation of his influence on popular music. Among those who’ve studied the history of rock’n'roll, his attitude is amusing, but rightfully acknowledged as not all that wide of the mark. As a friend and bandmate of mine recently pointed out, he’s the father of glam rock.

Well, yeah. Among other things. Rolling Stone magazine – which, once upon a time, was a reliable arbiter about such matters – rated his first album Here’s Little Richard as #50 on its list of the greatest albums of all time. Today it plays almost like a greatest hits collection, but it’s worth remembering that it was his first full-length record.

Richard did cut a number of sides for RCA and Peacock in the early 1950s, but those didn’t go anywhere. He cut a two-song demo of middling audio quality and (at the suggestion of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” songwriter Lloyd Price) submitted it to Art Rupe‘s Speciality Label.

Say what you will about Rupe; he clearly heard something in that tape that’s not readily evident to most ears. Those two songs, “Baby” and “All Night Long,” are competent enough blues shouters, but they sort of lumber along. The band is badly out of tune and sounds like the session was cut at the end of a long evening. And none of Little Richard’s trademark piano pounding is evident. “Baby” would be recut in a greatly improved fashion for Specialty; “All Night Long” was also recut but remained in the can, ending up on a Specialty odds-and-sods collection The Fabulous Little Richard, released to capitalize on his fame after he left the label (and, for a time, rock’n'roll).

In any event, Rupe signed Penniman and got him into the studio to record the twelve songs that make up Here’s Little Richard, and those tracks pretty much say everything he ever needed to say musically. More than half of the numbers are stone classics: “Tutti Frutti,” “Ready Teddy,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Long Tall Sally, “Miss Ann,” Rip it Up” and “Jenny Jenny.” The other five are nearly as good.

The performances are tighter than those early demos (also included on this new Concord reissue in 2012) but not too tight; there’s enough reckless abandon to inform everything bands like the Sex Pistols would need to come up with their own interpretation of rock’n'roll a mere two decades later.

The Concord collection appends a radio interview with Art Rupe and a pair of screen test videos of Little Richard (the latter were not included on the reviewer’s advance). An excellent liner notes essay by Lee Hildebrand sets the scene for listening to Here’s Little Richard in the proper historical context.

Typical of the era, the artist didn’t own his recordings, so Richard recut many of the songs from Here’s Little Richard later; nearly all of these are inferior versions. The ones on this collection are the ones you need; no self-respecting rock fan should be without this music.

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Album Review: Wishbone Ash – Live Dates Volume Two

Monday, March 26th, 2012

It’s a delight – albeit a rare experience – to stumble across good music that’s been out there for years, but that you somehow never noticed until now. In 2007 I interviewed Yoko Ono in connection with her then-current album Yes, I’m a Witch; the concept behind that album was Yoko’s contacting current artists she liked, and allowing them access to multi-track masters of her work. They were free to do with those as they liked. Her choices were interesting: Flaming Lips, Polyphonic Spree, and Porcupine Tree among others. It was through her – in effect – “recommending” the last of those to me by having them turn in a reworked version of “Death of Samantha” from her 1973 double LP Approximately Infinite Universe — that I discovered Porcupine Tree.

Point is, that was my entry point into the music of Porcupine Tree, followed quickly by their 2007 album Fear of a Blank Planet (I interviewed Steven Wilson around that time as well). But perhaps the greatest joy associated with that discovery was my learning that this band had a back catalog of more than ten studio albums.

The discovery of other previously-unheard-by-me music carries a similar bounty of pleasure for me. So while I had a passing familiarity with Wishbone Ash‘s 1972 album Argus, I hadn’t heard any of their other material. The reason had more to do with the dismissive tone critics used when discussing their music (I’ve been an avid reader of rock critics since a very young age) coupled with the fact that their brand of rock had fallen pretty well out of commercial favor by the end of the 70s.

What all that means is that thought I might have seen Live Dates Volume Two in record stores around the time of its 1980 release, I wasn’t at all likely to pick up a live collection – especially one ominously titled Volume Two – by a group I wasn’t very into.

Fast forward thirty-two years. I received a stack of advance/promo CDs I had requested, and mixed in with them was a CD reissue of that album. I wasn’t sure if I had requested it or not, but decided to give it a cursory listen, if only to eliminate it from consideration for review. To my surprise, an hour later, I was still enjoying the CD.

The standard knock on Wishbone Ash is that they could never decide what sort of band to be: boogie or prog. Were they in the manner of Bad Company, Savoy Brown and so forth, or were they a progressive-leaning band a la Pink Floyd? To my ears, the closest comparison might be to Camel, but with a more pronounced and guitar-centric sound. The trademark two-lead-guitar sound was very much in vogue during the later half of the 1970s; perhaps the most popular exponents of that approach were Thin Lizzy (Gorham/Robertson, then Gorham/Moore) and Boston (mostly an overdubbed Tom Scholz). But Wishbone Ash turned in a credible version of that style, and Live Dates Volume Two is chock-full of guitar work.

The Camel comparison is due to the fact that while Wishbone Ash had a fine vocalist in bassist Martin Turner, much of the material on this live set is centered on long instrumental passages. (Come to think of it, the same is true of much of Pink Floyd’s work, despite the evocative vocals of David Gilmour.)

Live Dates Volume Two benefits from excellent live production quality, though at this late date it’s hard to know if any “sweetening” (a la Wings Over America, Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous or Peter Frampton‘s juggernaut Frampton Comes Alive), though the exceptionally clear bass lines and vocals do raise suspicions.

Focusing almost exclusively on material and live performances from 1973 onward (with but one song from Argus), Live Dates Volume Two is filled with songs that are – as often as not – showcases for guitar solos (um, duets). The musical aesthetic is more late 70s than 1980, and that’s fine. Vocalist/guitarist Laurie Wisefiled had joined (replacing Ted Turner) after Argus, and his addition moved the band’s sound closer to the AOR sounds so popular at the time.

The group’s early boogie style remains, as exemplified by tracks like “Helpless,” which seems based on Little Willie John‘s “Fever” by way of, say, Foghat. In a very Spinal Tap-styled gambit, “F.U.B.B.” (the liner notes explain the title) opens with a bass solo. The ten-minute instrumental tune is also reminiscent of Ted Nugent‘s “Stranglehold,” albeit with more interesting (and nuanced) guitar work than the Motor City Madman could ever turn in. And the closing section of the track features some fiery, turn-on-a-dime guitar dueling. An even longer number, “The Way of the World” will please fans of Blue Öyster Cult with its multi-part arrangement, showy drum fills and – here it is again – fiery guitar dueling.

The original US release of Live Dates Volume Two included six tracks and ran the standard length of an LP of the era (about 38 minutes). The UK version of the time, however, included a second disc with early pressings. The 2012 reissue on Real Gone Music includes all twelve tracks in the original running order, roughly doubling the length of the album. The result could be termed more-of-the-same, but in the case of Live Dates Volume Two, that’s not at all a bad thing. For fans of melodic (but not overly wankifying) riffy guitar rock, this album complements Argus to create a tidy 70s summary/overview of Wishbone Ash’s work.

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Album Reviews: Badfinger – Badfinger and Wish You Were Here

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of an informal chat with Dan Matovina, author of the essential 2000 book Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger. Talking with him reminded me just how unlucky that band’s legacy continues to be. In 2007, their two post-Apple albums for Warner Brothers were finally reissued on Collectors’ Choice; since then CCM has gone out of business, and now CD copies of those albums sell for upwards of $30-$70. (They are available as reasonably-priced MP3 downloads, however). So here’s a Blast From the Past: reviews of Badfinger and Wish You Were Here.– bk


In the waning days of the Beatles‘ career, their Apple label singed a number of promising acts. But as the Beatles splintered, their attention to those acts’ careers flagged. Some acts faded away. Some, like James Taylor, immediately left for more fertile pastures. And some hung on. Badfinger was in that the latter category. Originally The Iveys, the Welsh/English quartet was responsible for some of the finest melodic rock/popwerpop of the early 1970s. And they sold lots of records for Apple. But eventually, in the face of Apple’s likely demise, they too left, signing (for a huge advance) with Warners. badfinger_wish_you_were_hereThrough a series of events akin to a Shakespearian tragedy — best chronicled in Dan Matovina’s book Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger — their time at Warners yielded little in the way of commercial success. But their two discs for the label — the eponymous album and Wish You Were Here (released well before Pink Floyd‘s album of the same name, by the way) were full of the same high standards of writing, singing and playing. In fact Wish You Were Here is the group’s artistic crowning achievement. WYWH was pulled from the shelves almost immediately after its November 1974 release, making vinyl copies something of a rarity (and yes, I have one). Surprisingly, Apple has licensed Collectors’ Choice the rights to release these overlooked gems from the period when rock reigned. Even though they’re issued without any bonus tracks, these two are near-essential.

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Concert Review: Thomas Dolby at The Handlebar, Greenville SC (21 March 2012)

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

I wasn’t completely sure what to expect from a Thomas Dolby concert. I knew he’d avoid dated 80′s kitschy shtick; when I interviewed him a year ago, he memorably told me, “every week I get an offer to go off and do some eighties revival tour with ABC and A Flock of Seagulls.” With his first album of new studio material in two decades, A Map of the Floating City, Dolby is, so to speak, back on the cultural map.

Of course he never left; he was merely involved in projects other than the traditional make-an-album-and-tour tradition. For some time he’s been the musical director for the popular TED conference. But he’s now touring in support of the new album (first released in a sort of planned-piecemeal form as a trio of EPs), and I journeyed out of the mountains to see him at The Handlebar in Greenville SC.

The Handlebar is billed as a “listening room,” and that’s a fair description: it’s an intimate space with reasonably good acoustics, an excellent sound system, and a stage that’s low enough to eliminate the gulf between performer and audience. I had been to the venue twice before, for concerts by Todd Rundgren and The Church.

Those with a casual knowledge of Dolby’s recorded work might think of his hit singles “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive,” and thus expect a live show heavy on electronics. But Dolby describes himself and his music as “organic,” and in fact his live presentation backs that up. Yes, he did play keyboards – a full 88-key Yamaha Motif, a Roland synth and an M-Audio MIDI controller, but the electronics, samples and sequences were seamlessly folded into the performance.

Part of the reason it all hung together so well is down to Dolby’s onstage support: his drummer triggered the bass lines (as opposed to playing “to” them), and longtime Dolby associate Kevin Armstrong provided texture in spades on his Telecaster. Dolby’s music truly does draw from a vast array of genres: you’ll hear zydeco, jazz, blues, country, Appalachian folk, electronica, and – of course — rock. Armstrong nailed the Bakersfield sound on tracks like “Road to Reno” from A Map of the Floating City, and throughout the show, Dolby’s arrangements put the guitar front and center. The result was less “Thomas Dolby and some guys” and more of a real band.

Aaron Jonah Lewis, a multi-instrumentalist with whom Dolby has worked recently joined the trio onstage for several numbers, adding – in turns – (amplified) acoustic guitar, harmonica, fiddle, banjo and vocals. Some in the audience might have been a bit surprised to see and hear those kinds of sounds from the man who gave us Aliens Ate My Buick, but then one of the EPs that forms the new album is in fact called Amerikana.

In addition to the music, a highlight of the show was Dolby’s penchant for introducing some songs with a back story. His anecdote preceding “I Love You Goodbye” was particularly amusing, and helped generate interest for a lovely song unfamiliar to most of those in the audience. And when Dolby finally wheeled out “She Blinded Me With Science” as the last number in the set (prior to encore), his story about working with Dr. Magnus Pyke (the man who declaimed, “Science!”) elicited howls of laughter from the enthusiastic crowd.

The set offered both new and old, but somehow even the thirty-year-old numbers sounded modern on this night. The venue wasn’t packed, but those in attendance received the newer and less familiar material with open ears. That Dolby’s music is warm and inviting (not to mention hook-laden) certainly helps. From “One of Our Submarines is Missing” to the dance-oriented encore of “Spice Train,” Thomas Dolby provided a fantastic evening of entertainment.

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Album Review: Robin Trower – Farther On Up the Road (part 2)

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

In Part One of my review, I covered the three albums that Robin Trower released in the last three years of the 1970s, ending with the middling Victims of the Fury. In this section I look at his next three releases; all six are collected in the 2012 compilation Farther On Up the Road.

Things improved greatly a year later; though Dewar was an effective singer, his vocal delivery displayed little variety, heightening the sameness in Trower’s songs. So Trower enlisted the peerless vocal and instrumental talents of Cream bassist Jack Bruce. Bruce’s presence seems to have enlivened Trower: “Into Money” finds the guitarist displaying more fire in his playing than had been heard on recent albums. Even slower tracks like “What it Is” – propelled nicely by the ace rhythm section of Bruce and Lordan – seem to swagger where they might have plodded before. Trower’s arpeggiated and suspended chords anchor the tasty “Won’t Let You Down,” and the track features typically ace vocal work from Jack Bruce. Fans who were disappointed at the laid-back sounds Eric Clapton was making around this time (Money and Cigarettes, for example) could rightly hear echoes of Cream in B.L.T., especially on cuts like the “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”-inspired “No Island Lost.” A brief bust tasty blues harp solo is the highlight of the already-appealing “Feel the Heat.” With Bruce’s vocals, Trower finally had a foil whose talents equaled his own. Where the variety on Victims of the Fury sounded like a band in search of a style, on B.L.T. it feels like a band in command of its talents, intent on trying (and making) new things because they can. Even the Cream parody of “End Game” is a treat, especially when Trower rips out a blistering solo; Bruce’s sympathetic bass work during that solo is a thrill on its own.

No doubt sensing that the had hit on a good thing, Trower headed back into the studio mere months later, again with Jack Bruce. But this time, ever-faithful Bill Lordan was replaced by Reg Isidore, Trower’s drummer on his first two albums. This trio’s release was 1982′s Truce. “Gone Too Far” features some effective dialogue between Trower’s guitar and Bruce’s bass, and throughout the reocrd Bruce’s peerless bass talents make the songs more interesting than they’d otherwise be. Occasional arrangement choices and production flourishes mark Truce very much of its time, but that quality is likely only evident in hindsight. Funk makes a surprise appearance with “Fat Gut,” and Bruce tinkles the ivories on the evocative “Shadows Touching.” Continuing that departure from the guitar-bass-drums format, “Take Good Care of Yourself” features some organ work form Bruce, and gospel-flavored backing vocals. The song’s arrangement could easily have pointed the way forward, a new direction for Trower.

Instead, the aptly-named Back it Up was released in 1983, continuing a string of six albums within eight years. Jack Bruce left and began a long association with producer Kip Hanrahan, focusing on a more Latin-influenced style. As far as Trower’s band, Dewar was back on vocals and (occasional) bass, Reid returned as lyricist on a few tunes, and Dave Bronze played bass on a number of tracks. The drum seat was filled by Alan Clarke. Stylistically, Back it Up represented a sound stuck in neutral; though not flawed in any real way, Trower’s sounds were decidedly out of step with the pop mainstream: not “stadium-rock” enough to compete with the likes of Asia and Dire Straits, and certainly not fodder for the then-popular MTV. For fans of his style, Back it Up is a solid entry that seems to pick up right where Victims of the Fury left off (but with better songwriting and playing), but the feeling that we’ve-heard-this-before nags at the listener. “Black to Red” has flashes of the old fire, and “Benny Dancer” is a pleasing nine-minute showcase of both flash and subtlety. And “Islands” sounds like a restrained version of Jeff Beck.

Taken as a whole, the six albums’ worth of music on Farther On Up the Road shows an artist building on a style (the first two albums), running out of ideas within that framework (the third of the six LPs), finding a new, exciting and fruitful direction (the fourth and fifth albums with Jack Bruce) and retreating to a tried-and-true formula (the sixth album). Fans of Trower’s style would do well to pick this set up if only to fill a gap (they likely already have Twice Removed From Yesterday, Bridge of Sighs and For Earth Below). While Trower would earn plaudits for his work beginning around the turn of the century, the albums that would follow the six on Farther On Up the Road represent his weakest period. Less flashy than the guitar shredders who would appear later (Satriani, Steve Vai, etc.), Trower’s work rarely fails to excite, and the six albums in this set offer plenty to entertain his fans.

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Album Review: Robin Trower – Farther On Up the Road (part 1)

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

In the minds of many fans, guitarist Robin Trower did his finest, most enduring work on his first two solo albums, 1973′s Twice Removed from Yesterday and Bridge of Sighs from the following year. Coaxing a style that owed more to Jimi Hendrix than to any of the sort of lines he played while a member of Procol Harum, Trower’s power trio format was full of texture, and represented the finest of its style.

Trower’s 21st century recordings have been nearly as well received by critics; his 2010 release The Playful Heart is typically impressive and consistent in quality. But less well-remembered – yet full of exciting moments – are the albums Trower recorded for Chrysalis Records in the period 1977-1983. With punk, new wave and MTV, that era wasn’t one that shone a spotlight on Trower’s style of guitar-based rock, so the six albums he released in that period were often overlooked at the time and forgotten since.

A new 3CD set titled Farther On Up the Road: The Chrysalis Years compiles those six albums (plus a pair of non-album cuts) into a tidy package. Released in 1977, In City Dreams would be Trower’s last certified-gold album. In some ways, it followed the style of previous album, relying on a power trio format that kept his guitar work out front. Drummer Bill Lordan and vocalist James Dewar were on board, but for reasons unknown (and not made clear in the new set’s Malcolm Dome-penned liner notes) Dewar did not play bass; instead Rustee Allen held down the bottom end.

With Trower, Dewar’s vocals often bore an uncanny (but pleasant) similarity to Bad Company‘s Paul Rodgers. His vocal texture worked well on the meat-n-potatoes rockers as well as the more soulful midtempo numbers. “Sweet Wine of Love” finds the band sounding very much like Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” but on “Bluebird” (the album’s single) Trower plays in a way that suggests he’s the missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Joe Satriani. The track weds rock sensibility to a fragile, subtle melody, while mercifully sidestepping the whole power-ballad aesthetic. Elsewhere, Trower’s controlled use of distortion adds interest to a clutch of songs that – while good when taken on their own – often sound vaguely similar to other FM radio hits of the day. The funk vibe is briefly set aside for a blues number, the album’s sole cover. That live version of the blues classic “Farther On Up the Road” showcases Trower’s fretwork and might – might – be an outtake from the show released a year earlier as Robin Trower Live. In contrast to that track, the slow jam of “Little Girl” shows what Trower can do when overdubbing is added to his bag of tricks. And acoustic rhythm guitar adds just the right feel to the album’s title track closer. (This 2012 package adds the singe edit of “Bluebird” as one of two bonus tracks).

1978′s Caravan to Midnight picks up right where the previous album left off: same lineup, same producer, same funk-flavored sonic approach. With its tambourine accompaniment and Trower’s phased and wahwah-fied guitar work, “My Love (Burning Love)” sounds even more like Bad Company than anything on In City Dreams. And speaking of burning, thought Dewar’s vocals suit the music well, the smoldering title track might be the album’s most effective piece. “I’m Out to Get You” leans perhaps a bit too far in a disco direction, and there’s a disconcerting sameness creeping into the songs. It’s for You” is a catchy enough track, but lacks personality: it could easily be the latest offering from the Atlanta Rhythm Section or Santana. Some nice overdubbed vocal harmony sweetens the otherwise uninspired “Birthday Boy,” but when reading the sleeve and seeing a track called “King of the Dance,” most rock fans of the era probably cringed. The “come on, come on” lyrics deliver as expected, unfortunately. The record ends with a more-or-less instrumental tune called “Sail On,” one which failed to excite or offer anything new.

Trower clearly suspected that the rot had set in; he changed things up for Victims of the Fury. From the opening guitar squeals of “Jack and Jill,” it’s clear that a (slightly) different approach is on offer. Bassist Rustee Allen is gone, with Dewar again playing his more rock-oriented bass guitar lines. “Roads to Freedom” invites the by-now standard Hendrix and Bad Co. comparisons, but to be fair, that approach was more effective than the dead-end funkification of Caravan to Midnight. Overall, the songs feel more like those of a power trio, and the songwriting improves a notch thanks to help on lyrics on some track by Trower’s former Procol Harum band mate Keith Reid. And even though funk is no longer the goal, the metallic guitar tone on “The Ring” somehow suggests Stevie Wonder. Working unusual chord changes into a twelve-bar format, the slow blues workout “Into the Flame” ranks among the album’s most appealing moments. And on “The Shout” Trower and band try their hand at power-rock. Oddly, “Madhouse” anticipates (six years ahead of time) the sort of click-track blooze ZZ Top served up on their 1983 Eliminator. “Fly Low” leans in a George Benson direction, making the point that Trower is adept at a variety of styles; that’s well and good but did not help in giving Victims of the Fury any sort of identifiable sonic personality. (Single b-side “One in a Million” is a pleasant but ultimately forgettable bonus track.)

In Part Two of my review of Farther On Up the Road: The Chrysalis Years, I’ll take a look at the creative renaissance Trower enjoyed through his collaborations with Cream bassist Jack Bruce.

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Album Review: Chris Barber – Memories of My Trip

Monday, March 19th, 2012

Chris Barber is one of those names I’ve known, but never heard the music; as an enthusiast of the British blues boom, I’d stumble across his name whenever reading about the development of that scene. Though bandleader (and trombonist and saxophonist) Barber isn’t – strictly speaking – a blues musician, he’s worked with many blues artists both British and American. As something of a father of British music scenes, Barber has a stature not unlike John Mayall. It’s no overstatement to say that pop music as we know it would have been very different without Chris Barber.

One example to support that assertion: a singer and banjo in Barber’s employ did well enough that he was able to release singles credited to his own name (Lonnie Donegan) backed by the Chris Barber Jazz & Blues Band. Those singles — “Rock Island Line, “Digging My Potatoes” – gave rise to the skiffle craze, a phenomenon that was in its own way a precursor of the 1970s punk movement: the idea that anyone-can-play inspired a generation of youths including John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, to name just three.

A new 2CD collection titled Memories of My Trip brings together recordings of note from throughout Barber’s long career. Foregoing any sort of chronological approach, Memories of My Trip (named after a Brownie McGhee song that recounts his meeting Barber and others) is instead a sort of musical travvelogue through significant chapters and people in Barber’s orbit. The set is programmed more for thematic, storytelling unity. Thus, a 2010 Eric Clapton track that features Barber on trombone (“Weeping Willow”) is followed by a swinging live version of “Kansas City” by Muddy Waters with Barber, Pinetop Perkins and other luminaries. That 1979 recording from the Capital Jazz Festival is of marginally better than bootleg quality, but the performance is such that sonic quality shouldn’t matter.

More than most collections of this type, Memories of My Trip is really an essay (penned by Barber himself) with a pair of CDs to accompany it. While the music holds up well on its own, the context offered by Barber’s recollections help weave the sometimes disparate styles of music together into a unified whole. Though nominally a “trad jazz” artist (a genre better known to American audiences as Ragtime or Dixieland jazz), Barber has always been the sort of artist who seemed to have little use for pigeonholing.

Traveling to America and Europe as he did, Barber worked and recorded with many blues legends (Waters, James Cotton, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and others). But many slightly more modern-day artists jumped at the chance to work with him as well. Memories of My Trip includes fascinating cuts like “Rock Candy,” a 1966 number by the T-Bones, featuring Barber sitting in with organist (and Jimmy McGriff acolyte) Keith Emerson. A previously unreleased 1990 Rory Gallagher track features the guitarist on acoustic slide and vocal, backed only by Barber on upright bass; it’s a spare yet fiery live performance.

In addition to his career as a blues/rock guitarist, The late Jeff Healey also fronted a band called The Jazz Wizards; a live 2006 recording of “Goin’ Up the River” features Healey on trumpet(!) with Barber guesting on trombone and vocal. A few tracks feature Barber working with Van Morrison; Dr. John is on one of these as well, an unreleased track from 1976). Again, Barber’s liner notes provide useful and informative back-stories for each track. Other tracks feature Barber playing with Andy Fairweather-Low, Mark Knopfler, Jools Holland and other highly regarded names. For this listener, the highlight of the entire set is Barber’s bop-flavored “Tea Party Blues,” but there’s plenty here for most tastes.

Memories of My Trip is a delightful survey of Barber’s varied projects, showing him out front and as part of ensembles. For anyone who knows him only as a name in British music history, this 2CD set is an excellent entry point into his work.

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