Archive for July, 2012

Book Review: The Me Generation…By Me

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

As someone who (a) is a writer and (b) grew up immersed in the pop culture of the 1960s, Ken Levine would seem ideally suited to write a book about that decade. That he’s a comedy writer (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier and host of other well-known shows) would suggest he could deftly weave humor into such a book. And in fact those assumptions are not too wide of the mark. Levine’s new book The Me Generation…By Me: Growing Up in the ’60s is a first-person account of Levine’s experiences in that legendary decade. He grew up in suburban Los Angeles – one of pop culture’s epicenters during that era – and went to school with any number of people who would go on to fame of their own.

Early on – Levine’s three-page introduction is one of the best things about the whole book – the author sets out his unique point of view: he asserts (correctly, of course) that he, like most people who lived through the 60s did not in fact “…attend Woodstock, move to Haight-Ashbury, protest the war by burning [...] bras or banks, or form a band that played Woodstock.” Levine’s story is told from the point of view of Everyman. Every man who grew up in Los Angeles, worked at a college radio station, and had a schoolboy crush on classmate Ann Jillian, that is.

Perhaps surprisingly, given his professional background, Levine’s writing style is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. He has an acerbic tone not completely removed from the approach of Bill Bryson, but his writing in The Me Generation rarely crackles with wit. Instead, it’s a solid, mildly/occasionally humorous account of his formative years, a time filled with frustration, rejection, missed opportunities and a clutch of memorable episodes. In other words, The Me Generation is a lot like real life: sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes more interesting than others.

Levine throws in the occasional provocative aside – he wasn’t impressed, for example, with many of your favorite groups from the 60s; instead The Mamas and the Papas were just about his favorite act. But mostly, he strings together a chronological narrative of the era from his personal point of view as a young man. He’s neither Zelig, Forrest Gump, nor a character in a 1970s John Jakes novel series: The Me Generation is not filled with tales of Levine meeting – let along hanging out with – Jim Morrison, Rodney Bingenheimer or Kim Fowley. Instead, the young Levine does cross paths with a number of radio jocks, experiences that would influence his subsequent career choices.

Though The Me Generation is told in mostly chronological order – no Ken Kesey he – readers can pretty well open the book to any page and read from there. The book is broken into dozens of vignettes, most of which run no more than a few pages. True, it’s more enjoyable to follow Levine’s tale from beginning to end (well, end of the decade, at least), but The Me Generation works well as a series of quick, episodic reads as well.

It’s a bit sad in the 21st century to realize that a worthy book such as The Me Generation…By Me couldn’t find a publisher. (At least that’s the assumption I’m making about this self-published tome.) A writer with an established name and reputation has a good story to tell; in previous years, a book deal would have been a distinct possibility, if not a foregone conclusion. Well, there I go getting all nostalgic for days gone by. If you’ll pardon me, I’m off to write my own book about growing up in…the 70s. (Not really, but I am working on a book.)

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Concert Review: Papa Grows Funk – Asheville NC July 27 2012

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Live performance and studio output are two wildly different things. Some bands are adept at crafting carefully-put-together studio albums, but when they take to the stage, they’re lifeless and stiff (or worse, show to be incompetent on their instruments). Other acts are engaging onstage, but seem never able to capture the excitement of live shows on their recordings. (The Grateful Dead are perhaps the most oft-cited example of the latter.)

So when a band that is equally compelling both in record and onstage, it’s a remarkable thing, and well worth noting. New Orleans-based Papa Grows Funk is just such a band. The five-piece outfit held down a prominent spot on the Saturday lineup of Asheville NC’s 2012 Bele Chere Festival.

On record, Papa Grows Funk delivers an array of, well, funky sounds. Drawing from the deep and rich talent pool of their native New Orleans, PGF can sound like Wild Cherry or Average White Band one moment, Earth Wind & Fire the next, and – especially when Jason Mingledorff‘s saxes kick in – like the N’awlins players they are. But the most distinctive sonic element of the band is provided by its leader John Gros when he wails on the Hammond B3 organ.

With his Telecaster-styled axe, June Yamagishi‘s onstage demeanor often suggested an equal mixture of pleasure and pain (the man pulled some faces), but his taut, expressive style rocked out in a big way. On bass, Marc Pero always applied just the right touch, from finger-poppin’ funk lines to solid Duck Dunn-flavored bottom end work.

Onstage at Bele Chere, Papa Grows Funk whipped the crowd into a funk frenzy as they ran through tunes from their catalog, including 2012′s Needle in the Groove, produced by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. Gros’ clavinet work on “Yes Ma’am” called to mind Stevie Wonder and Led Zeppelin all at once. The group’s 90-minute set on the Battery Park Stage allowed them plenty of time to stretch out and get well into the groove; each player took his turn in the spotlight. But the most thrilling part of this mostly beat-centric band was an extended duet between Gros on organ and Mingledorff on saxophone. While the other players held back, the two wove lyrically musical lines around each other for a tasty – and times ethereal – instrumental interlude.

Photos by Kristin Fellows, www.kristinscamera.com

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Sunday Bonus

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

You may know that Collectors’ Choice Music — the label, not the mail order catalog service — went out of business a couple of years ago. Not long before that, CCM worked a deal with ABKCO, an arrangement that saw many of the long-unavailable titles on the old Cameo-Parkway label again become available. Well, when CCM went away, so — again — did those titles. Happily, the new label Real Gone Music is a successor (in all the best ways) to Collectors’ Choice, and RGM has re-reissued may of these titles. I reviewed a whole slew of ‘em when they came out on CCM, but since they’re available again — and well worth your time — I present links to those reviews once again.

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Album Review: The Steve Hillage Band – Live at the Gong Family Unconvention

Friday, July 27th, 2012

Steve Hillage was (and/or is) the guitarist from British/European hippie collective Gong. Always possessed of a mystical bent, Hillage’s songs straddled the space between psych-jam and wide-eyed folike sensibility. His music is as likely to feature loopy analog synth bleeps as it is to deal with subject matter you’d expect from Syd Barrett or Robyn Hitchcock. He’s an impressive and entrancing guitarist who makes intelligent (and non-clichéd) use of any number of effects pedals. His voice, however, is a somewhat limited instrument. His longtime partner Miquette Giraudy provides wacky synthesizer backing – especially tasty and textured on a cover of the Beatles‘ “It’s All Too Much” – but her vocals – at least as represented on this live document – are even more, er, humble than those of Hillage.

But fear not: the focus of this 2006 live recording is mostly on the music. The extended “Solar Musick Suite” is particularly exciting. Hillage’s music and sensibility foreshadows the musical approach of Ozric Tentacles, though Hillage’s music leans a bit more in a pop direction. A companion DVD version of this set (with a slightly different set list) is also available. After an extended period out of the music and performance scene, Hillage’s Live is a welcome return (and return to form).

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Album Review: World Famous Headliners – s/t

Friday, July 27th, 2012

For twenty-plus years, Al Anderson was the guitarist in critics-darlings NRBQ. Though no longer a member of that band, Anderson has returned for occasional reunion projects and shows. But his focus these days is on his own band – his first since leaving NRBQ, The World Famous Headliners. The wryly-named group isn’t filled with household names, but it does feature Nashville-based players with impressive résumés. Multi-instrumentalist Shawn Camp, guitarist Pat McLaughlin, bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Greg Morrow all have well-deserved reputations in the music business mostly (though not exclusively) within the country idiom. But the music on the group’s self-titled debut leans toward rock’roll with a c&w bent.

There’s a loose and smirky feel to the songs. To wit: the vocalized backing on “Give Your Love to Me” is the sound of a bunch of guys who wanted a horn section but couldn’t round up the cash to rent one. Anderson’s expressive guitar work is all over the record, but it feels more like a band effort than a guitar showcase. “Mamarita” feels like Los Lobos, and the stacked lead vocal harmonies on “Can I” and “Heart of Gold” are absolutely ear candy.

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Album Review: Chris Thompson Band – Berlin Live

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band were not among the most high-visibility of 70s rock bands. There were any number of reasons for this, few having to do with the quality (and commercial appeal) of their music. The band’s namesake was a non-singing, South African keyboardist who played sitting down. And the band’s biggest hits were penned by others (Bruce Springsteen‘s “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirits in the Night,” Bob Dylan‘s “You Angel You,” Mike Heron‘s “Don’t Kill It Carol,” The Police‘s “Demolition Man”). And – not wholly dissimilar to The Alan Parsons Project, anther very good-but-anonymous band of the era – they went through a succession of lead vocalists.

That said, rapsy-piped Chris Thompson did front the Earth Band during its most successful run (and for two stints thereafter), so to the extent that any voice is associated with the group it does tend to be his. And that’s certainly highlighted on a new 2CD+DVD set from Thompson titled Berlin Live & Live at the Colos-Sal. Unlike some of these sorts of packages, the DVD isn’t an audiovisual version of the CD;. The pair of CDs document a June 2011 live show done for Radio Berlin. Thompson and his band (four German and/or European players) run through all of the hits (and near-hits) from the Earth Band, using arrangements that don’t stray too far from the original versions. Fans of Manfred Mann‘s playing style (he’s not present here, of course) will be pleased to know that the keyboards are prominent in the mix. One’s enjoyment of the package will be determined to a large extent by how much one likes Thompson’s voice: it’s equal parts rasp and vibrato. Very “rock’n'roll” to be sure, but some will surely find it grating. Still, a version of the Manfred Mann (not Earth Band) hit cover of Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn” balances arena rock and a gospel flavor, resulting in a rousing rendition.

The audio track listing is well out-of-whack with respect to what;’s on the disc, and the package’s booklet devotes a full quarter of its space to name-checking literally hundreds of (German) people

The DVD documents an abbreviated edit of a pair of dates from January 2011 (the liner notes explain that the rest of the video was unusable).. The seven songs that remain aren’t perhaps the ones most would pick, but they are supplemented by some “fan cam” clips of “Mighty Quinn” and “You Angel You.” Overall, it’s an entertaining package for whatever segment of today’s CD/DVD-buying market enjoys Thompson’s brand of classic rock.

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Album Review: Michael Des Barres Band – Carnaby Street

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Perhaps best known as the guy who sang Robert Palmer‘s Power Station parts in the touring lineup of that 80s sensation (I refuse to label them a supergroup: Chic and Duran Duran are not Cream and Traffic), Michael Des Barres does in fact have an impressive pedigree. He’s sort of the ultimate insider guy: he’s better known (and more respected) by people inside the music biz, many of whom have jumped at the chance to work with him. He’s an actor who’ll be familiar to any number of American TV shows (mostly in the 80s) and he’s well-known for having the former (Miss) Pamela “I’m With the Band” (Miller) Des Barres as an ex-wife. But hey, he’s got a new album, and it’s a cracker.

On Carnaby Street, Des Barres’ vocal texture is closer to that of Rod Stewart than Palmer. But musically, he’s aiming for a good-time partying rock’n'roll vibe not far removed from what the Rolling Stones sounded like in, say, 1972. The title track, in particular, is a superbly driving affair that should appeal to fans of the Stones, Faces, Free, Mott the Hoople and other highly-regarded British rock acts. And don’t let the album’s title and Union Jack packaging fool you: Carnaby Street is no exercise in nostalgia. Des Barres and his band – band, I say: not anonymous studio hacks – sing and play like they mean it. Despite the sometimes stale and pedestrian connotations of the term, there’s a reason they call it “classic rock,” and Carnaby Street is a modern example of just why that is.

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Album Review: Tommy Roe – Devil’s Soul Pile

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

When you hear Tommy Roe‘s name, you can’t help but remember “Dizzy” and/or “Sheila,” two of his hits from the 1960s. And that was a long time ago. His latest, Devil’s Soul Pile (huh?) is a breezy, pleasant midtempo affair that serves to remind fans that he’s still creating new material, rather than (only) working the nostalgia circuit.

By definition, Devil’s Soul Pile is a somewhat musically anonymous affair: there are no musician credits, other than Roe’s liner note message thanking “all the engineers, singers and musicians.” I could tell you that the album was recorded in Nashville, but a few seconds of listening would have told you the very same thing. Not a note is out of place; whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to the listener. But in contrast to the music, the lyrical subject matter on most all of the songs has a nicely personal bent: not so much as to make one squirm, but Roe definitely scores points for aiming for what’s real and true. And on “Without Her,” Roe suggests a sort of Nashville version of The Raspberries at their most sentimental.

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Album Review: The Zombies – Recorded Live in Concert at Metropolis Studios London

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

The Zombies are one of those sixties acts who somehow never got their due on the first go-round. Chalk it up to bad timing, a glut of great music; it really doesn’t matter or change the facts. The Zombies produced one of the great baroque-pop albums in Odessey and Oracle, but weren’t around to capiltalize on its success once it caught on. (Imagine, if you will, that Radiohead had broken up six months after releasing OK Computer, another landmark record that made a slow burn on the charts.)

The surviving members of the original Zombies lineup reunited in 2008 to mount live dates in which they re-created Odessey & Oracle, and that got them back onto the touring circuit. The touring version of the group doesn’t include all of those guys, but it does feature extraordinary vocalist Colin Blunstone and ace keyboardist Rod Argent. Also on board are bassist Jim Rodford (a member of The Kinks during their resurgence in the 1980s) and son Steve Rodford on drums. Guitarist Tom Toomey shows he belongs with these highly-regarded players, especially on his solo during “Any Other Way.” That song’s charms are more amazing when one discovers it’s a new (2011) track, not a sixties classic. A performance of Denny Laine‘s bouncy “Say You Don’t Mind” (a solo hit for Blunstone in the early 70s) and a lovely version of George Gershwin‘s “Summertime” show the range of these veteran musicians. Thank goodness they’re still at it.

This new CD+DVD touches on a number of O&O tracks, but also delves into the group’s other material. The performances are shockingly dramatic and tight; there’s nary a whiff of nostalgia, no feeling of old guys trucking out the old stuff. Blunstone’s voice is as controlled and expressive as ever, and Argent’s Hammond and piano talents are second to few. The session took place in front of a crowd of 120 souls, and the result combines the best characteristics of studio (clear sound, careful arrangements) and live (that ineffable vibe a band gets playing to a real audience). Recorded Live is perhaps the best contemporary live performance/recording by an “old” band since Love’s Forever Changes Live.

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Album Review: Redd Kross – Researching the Blues

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Leave it to the bratty (though now fortyish-plus) McDonald brothers to title an album Researching the Blues. Anyone familiar with their musical approach – perhaps best described as pop-punk yet having nearly nothing in common with all the crappy bands that claim that title. There may not be anything here that’s quite as candyfloss-accessible as “Bubblegum Factory,” but it’s a solid album that still beats most of what’s out there in terms of entertainment value. The title track’s insistent verses have an up-close production value that is reminiscent of some of the group’s earliest work, but when the chorus kicks in, that Phase Shifter arena-rock vibe comes roaring back in a big way.

The characteristic that has always set Redd Kross apart from other superficially-similar bands is a knack for crafting memorable melodies, and wrapping them in arrangements full of spikes and barbed-wire. Those qualities are in ample supply here, from the sha-la-la backing vocals on “Stay Away from Downtown” to the swing and swagger of “Uglier.” The smart-ass detachment of the old days is dialed back a bit in favor of a more, shall we say, commercial attitude, but there’s plenty here to delight those who loved the group’s earlier work.

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