Posts Tagged ‘orange peel’

Concert Review: The Musical Box, 22 July 2014, The Orange Peel, Asheville NC

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

When most modern-day listeners think of Genesis, their thoughts turn to the Phil Collins-fronted trio that released a string of pop albums and singles in the late 1970s and early 80s. Or, to riff on the old Beatles joke, they refer to Genesis as “the band Phil Collins used to be in.” But to those who paid attention in the early 70s, Genesis is, at least, the band Peter Gabriel used to be in. And that Genesis was a highly theatrical outfit, with Gabriel onstage in an assortment of outlandish costumes, introducing the lengthy story-songs in his trademark clipped, back-of-the-throat manner. And Genesis’ albums of that era – most notably, 1973′s Selling England By the Pound – featured musical flights of fancy that capitalized on the instrumental prowess of Tony Banks (keyboards), guitarists Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford, Gabriel on vocals and flute, and the (too-often forgotten) superb drum work of Phil Collins.

All photos © 2014 Audrey Hermon and Bill Kopp

The work of that classic era lineup is treasured among many Genesis fans, and save for a few one-off reunion projects, no new music was released by that configuration after the 1970s. Those who wanted to enjoy the live spectacle that was early-mid Genesis had to content themselves with a Peter Gabriel concert (though Gabriel didn’t and doesn’t perform Genesis era material) or track down one of the handful of unofficially-released films documenting Gabriel-era shows.

One group of people who have most assuredly seen those films is the five-man group calling itself The Musical Box. This Montreal-based quintet formed over twenty years ago with the express mission of bringing that classic-era Genesis back to present-day audiences. The group’s current tour features alternating set lists: one night centers around material from the 1972 album Foxtrot; the next builds a setlist around songs from Selling England By the Pound.

As it happens, the latter is both my favorite Genesis album and the basis for The Musical Box’s July 22 performance at Asheville’s Orange Peel. I scored a front-row seat for the spectacular show, but made a point of not watching any Youtube clips of the group ahead of time; I wanted to be surprised.


Indeed I was surprised, and delightfully so. From the moment we arrived, it was clear that The Musical Box takes great care to faithfully re-create the visual components of an early 70s Genesis show. A pre-concert look at the equipment onstage showed that vintage (or, at the very least, vintage-looking) instruments and amplifiers would be in use wherever possible.

The “Steve Hackett” guitarist (François Gagnon) would be seated on a stool stage-right, with amp controls and pedal at his easy disposal. “Mike Rutherford” (left-handed player Sébastien Lamothe) would, for most of the evening, be sporting a custom Rickenbacker double-neck axe containing both bass and six-string guitar. The drum kit of “Phil Collins” (Marc Laflamme) was large but made use of older, less-substantial hardware, the kind that can tip over when the drums are hit hard. And while there was a concession to modern technology in the form of a digital keyboard (with its nameplate airbrushed matte black), most of the keyboards played by “Tony Banks” (Guillaume Rivard) were the real thing: a Mellotron, an organ with pedals and Leslie cabinet were prominent onstage fixtures.

None of that technical information would mean a thing if the music wasn’t right. And it most certainly was: as the band ran through selections from the early Genesis catalog (not, in fact, playing Selling England start to end, but instead peppering the set with album tracks), the audience was provided with a true Genesis experience.

The single most important component of that experience was vocalist Denis Gagné (“Peter Gabriel,” of course). His purposefully stilted, bird-like onstage demeanor captured the essence of Gabriel’s public persona of the 70s. Making ample and effective use of costume changes, Gagné led the band on a dizzying trip through the early part of the Genesis catalog.

Other than Gagné (who remained firmly in character the entire time), none of the band members addressed the audience during the performance, though all provided backup vocal support. If any of the band have French-Canadian accents, no one in the audience could tell. The fanciful backdrop and occasional projected images helped make the illusion complete.

Little details helped, to be sure: the group’s long history as a tribute band has clearly afforded them the opportunity to hone the presentation to perfection. Laflamme wore a pair of white overalls with no undershirt, just as Collins did onstage in the 70s. And the overall white-clothing theme of the band helped keep visual focus directly on the flamboyant visual spectacle that was Gagné.

A few songs from Selling England By the Pound were left off the night’s setlist (most notably the beautiful, heart-rending Collins spotlight number “More Fool Me”), but it’s difficult to imagine anyone having come away disappointed from an evening that featured the keyboard-centric “Firth of Fifth,” the melodrama of “The Battle of Epping Forest” (both from Selling England) and an encore that included “The Knife,” from Genesis’ 1970 LP Trespass. As it was, the setlist provided each band member ample opportunities to show off (a) their instrumental chops and (b) their skill at re-creating the sound of Genesis studio albums onstage, a feat that even the original band could rarely manage.

For those who saw and loved Genesis with Peter Gabriel, The Musical Box are a vivid present-day re-creation of that era. And for those who are too young to have seen Genesis the first time ’round, this feels like the real thing.

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Three)

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

One thing that has changed – somewhat – is Rod Argent‘s keyboard arsenal. “I would only ever use my real [Hammond] C3, a Leslie [rotating speaker], and a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano in the studio. When we are recording an album, that goes without saying.”

“But,” Argent admits, “on stage, it’s so convenient and so reliable to use the new modules. I think that onstage the Hammond XK3 holds up really well. It’s obviously about a tenth of the weight of a real Hammond organ. I have memories of those days of when I would help huff that ’round myself! I couldn’t play for two hours because my forearms would hurt so much. I mean, it’s a bloody nightmare. And it would go wrong about once every two nights because they are not made to be thrown around the world.” He adds an amusing vignette: “The first time I came to the States with Argent, we brought our English one over, it came up on the [baggage] carousel. The whole thing came up on the carousel, like a huge theater organ!”

When seeing the band live today, a common reaction among audience members is, “Oh, gosh! I forgot they did that one!” Another is the look of sheer joy on many faces in the audience. I ask Colin Blunstone and Argent if they get a sense of that feedback when they’re up on stage.

“I always get a sense of that,” says Argent. “I always ask that instructions be given to the lighting people not to put the audience in total blackness. I don’t want them to be brightly lit, but I like to be able to just catch people’s reactions and movements so there is a real feeling of interaction between us and them. In the middle of this tour I am going to be 69, and I can’t believe it. But when we are on stage, it feels 100% the same as when I was 18 years old. That is such a privilege and it does not happen in many professions. And I love it.”

“You definitely do get a sense of it,” concurs Blunstone. “If you have an enthusiastic and supportive audience, that’s why performers want to perform. That’s what we do it for, really. It really lifts you, and it’s a completely different experience to that of playing somewhere where you’re not very well known, with a very quiet audience. You have to sort of work a lot harder to get a good performance in a situation like that. It’s incredibly important that you have that enthusiastic audience. It’s very easy when you go out onstage to a wonderful audience; they do it for you.”

The group are already at work on a studio followup to 2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In. “We’ve already started recording. We’re rehearsing three or four songs, and we’ve recorded two tracks; we just did one the other day. And we’ve got one more day of recording next week. But after that, of course, we’ll be away for six weeks. Later in the summer – I think the end of June – we’ll start recording again. And we’ve deliberately kept the second half of the year quite free. So it will be a time of writing and recording.”

Argent elaborates, saying, “the other day, just for fun, we started doing a song called, ‘I Want You Back Again,’ which was a very little known Zombies a-side in France and was a very small hit there in 1965. And we played this original song for a very short period of time. We heard Tom Petty do it, and we thought, “This is a great song! Why aren’t we doing this?” And so we started doing it on stage. And, just for fun, ’cause we love doing it on stage so much, and we think the band sounds so good now, we wanted to capture the 2014 version. And, strange enough, when you just called me, we just had it blasted and I was just playing it through. It sounds great. It sounds so much in common with the original, but I think it sounds better. I think it has all of that fresh feeling, absolutely no overdubs at all. We recorded it live, like we do on stage. The vocal was live, everything was live but in a studio environment.”

Both men still feel they have a lot to offer musically. “We are having a ball doing it,” Argent says. “And we have discovered that we are not trying to be what we were in the ’60s, but there are a lot of parallel elements going on. We are just trying to make things work for us in the same way that we were trying to make things work for us when we first started out.”

Asked if any of the new, as-yet-unreleased material will be previewed on their tour, Blunstone is circumspect. “We haven’t been talking about that, no. But we may well play some at sound check, and if they start to sound polished, maybe we’ll experiment. We’ll be playing lots of hits and lots of newer material; I like to think that there’s something there for everyone.”

The Zombies will perform at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel on Tuesday, April 15.

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Two)

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Continued from Part One

“I can’t tell you why [Odessey and Oracle] wasn’t successful when it first came out,” offers Rod Argent, “unless it was the fact that everything was so much more based in the country where you lived in at that time. And we only ever had one hit in the UK. Fewer hits in the UK than anywhere else in the world! We later found out we almost always had a hit somewhere in the world at any point that we were together, except in the UK. And because our profile had got so low in the UK, Odessey and Oracle came out – and it actually got great critical reviews, let’s be honest – but it didn’t sell. There was no real viability to it.

Argent continues. “There are two reasons why it later became successful. One was that it was picked up by well-known people who became fans. Paul Weller became a huge fan, and then more and more young indie groups of the time. I mean, Paul was a young hotshot when he first came out in the UK and he picked this as his favorite album of all time. And that is something he still says now. And then just succeeding waves of young indie bands and established artists, people like Tom Petty and Dave Grohl have said absolutely lovely things about it all the way along. Now that has obviously helped.”

“The other reason that I think it hasn’t faded away, if you like,” Argent adds, “is that we never tried to just be commercial when we made that record. In the same way that we recorded everything all those years ago – and we still do now, – and we don’t think, ‘How can we make a hit record?’ We never thought that; we just thought, ‘I’ve got this musical idea. How can we make it work?’ And that was always the focus of what we did, and that is the focus of what we do now.”

Colin Blunstone agrees. He says that “radio programmers ask, ‘What is it? Is it rock? Is it jazz?’ People don’t know how to program it. I think that is really a problem that the Zombies suffered from all the way through their brief professional career from ’64 to ’67. We didn’t really fit. We never wrote to have hits. We wrote what we wanted to write.”

“When you are honest like that,” says Argent, “it might not be the most commercial thing in the short term, because what you are not doing is trying to tap in to what used to be in the old days ‘zooming up the charts.’ Instead, you are trying to please yourself. In the long term, I believe that that means things don’t date quite as much as some other things. It is important not to try and make it with that in mind, but just try and do it for the right reasons. When young artists come up to me and ask what advice can I give, I say, ‘Well, there is not much I can give except really to say be true to yourself. Just do what turns you on. Do things for the right reason. Don’t try to do things just to be famous.’ There is nothing wrong with trying to be famous. But first of all, try to be the best at what you can do. If you asked an 18 year old when we started, ‘What do you want to be?’ he would say, ‘I want to be in the best group in the world. I want to be the best guitar player in the world.’ Nowadays you ask and they say, ‘I want to be famous.’ And it is a very different thing.”

“We still cut records now that we like,” says Blunstone, “and just hope that just hope that if we like them, and if the performances mean something to us, it seems logical that there is at least a chance there are other people out there that will derive the same pleasure that we do from these performances.”

I remark that Blunstone’s voice seems largely intact, having changed little since the group’s debut some 45 years ago. “I do work at it. Rod and I both started with a singing coach probably ten or fifteen years ago. Not when we were young; we did it in this incarnation of the Zombies. He taught us some things about technique, and I think it helped us to keep our voices strong and fairly accurate.”

“And it is important that your voice is strong,” Blunstone adds, “because we have to play…we usually keep it to five nights on the trot, five nights and then we try and have a day off. Because a lot of these songs we play are, for our voices, in very high keys. We’re really straining. All the songs we play are in the original keys. We’re singing in the same keys, in our late sixties, that we were singing when we first recorded them. When we were eighteen. It really does pay to have a little bit of singing technique, and to know how to support your voice. And to sing from your diaphragm.”

Blunstone believes something valuable is lost when a song’s key is changed. “The song won’t sound the same. By the by, [laughs] I do feel that I’ve strained my voice this week! And here I am agreeing with you about how strong my voice is. I’ve been singing a lot, and we’ve got a lot of singing next week as well. I’m trying to keep my fingers crossed; I do everything I can to keep my voice sharp, to keep it in shape.”

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part One)

Friday, April 11th, 2014

The Zombies are among the fondly-remembered cast of characters from the British Invasion (or, as they somewhat more succinctly call it in the UK, the Beat Era). While they certainly didn’t rock as hard as The Who, Yardbirds, or The Kinks, and enjoyed nowhere near the level of chart success that The Beatles and Rolling Stones achieved, their subtly jazz-inflected pop music has worn quite well. One of the more sophisticated (musically and lyrically) groups of the era, their hits – “Tell Her No,” “Time of the Season,” “She’s Not There” and more – remain staples of oldies radio, and sound much fresher in 2014 than anything by Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark 5.

The Zombies famously broke up – thinking they had gone as far as they could – -before their best album, Odessey and Oracle [sic] was released. And while that might have been the end of the story, the former band members remained quite busy. Keyboardist and vocalist Rod Argent started his own eponymous band, scoring the monster hit “Hold Your Head Up” and a smaller hit, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” Lead vocalist Colin Blunstone went on to a solo career and did notable work on a number of Alan Parsons Project tracks.

But it wasn’t until the tail-end of the 20th century that Argent and Blunstone reunited, and not for several more years before they reactivated the Zombies. After mounting a UK tour that culminated in a live run-through of Odessey and Oracle (with the four surviving original members), The Zombies (Argent, Blunstone and other slightly younger players including Jim Rodford from 80s era Kinks and Rodford’s son) became a going proposition once again. They now tour regularly, and released an album of original music (2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In) to positive reviews.

The Zombies bring their show to Asheville NC on April 15 – the band’s first time here – and I spoke to Argent and Blunstone ahead of the tour. In many ways they’re more popular now than they were the first go-round, some 45 years ago. Colin Blunstone offers his take on that conundrum: “I think that if you understood why we are more popular in one era than another – or if you understood why one record sold more than another record – obviously you could put the situation right and everything would be fine. The thing is there are so many unpredictable and unknown quantities in the music business, no one really knows the answers to those questions.

“For me,” he continues, “the most exciting thing that has happened from my career is this renaissance of the Zombies. We have a really, really great live band to go out night after night and play around our country, your country; we play around the world. And we have managed, without a hit record, to recreate some of that interest that was there in the original incarnation of the band in the ’60s. I think that is really exciting, because it is just word of mouth that traveled as a result of the performances.”

“The thing is that we did not plan any of this,” Rod Argent says. “Colin and I just got back together by accident when we did. We didn’t plan it at all. We decided to put a band together and do a half a dozen gigs for fun, not any particular focus on the Zombies. It felt so lovely to be working together again.

“It just sort of spiraled,” he continues. “It took a long time for us to embrace the original feeling of the Zombies. The last thing we wanted to do was just to try and go out there and milk it, do it to make a buck. We really did not want to look back; that wasn’t the reason we were doing it. We were doing it because we suddenly found ourselves having a great time working together again. But, when we started to write a little bit of new material, and to expand our direction in that way, it suddenly felt relevant, and not like a cop out, to go back and rediscover a lot of the old material.

“And then,” he says, “we realized that a lot of that old material that we had never played. Not least, the Odessey and Oracle stuff. Because we had never had performed that live. When we did that in Shepherd’s Bush in 2008, we played from start to finish. That’s the first and only time we reproduced every note from that album. We got other forces in because we had to, because we had overdubbed stuff on the original album. And I said to Chris [White, original Zombies bassist], “If we are going to do this, then we’ve got to reproduce every single note that was on the original album.” We did that. I even went out and bought a 1890s Victorian pump organ so we could get the exact sound on “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

Speaking (again) of Odessey and Oracle, I wonder why the album was such a slow burner, seeing as it now stands as an exemplar of that late-60s baroque rock style. Blunstone offers his perspective: “The obvious thing to say is that the band decided to finish before the album was even released. It was a time when the single was still important and we had released, I think, a couple of singles, maybe even three singles from the album. They hadn’t had any commercial success and I think everyone felt that we had gone as far as we could. And so the band decided to finish so there was no band to promote the album. I think that piece was a huge part of it.”

“I think that everyone in the band felt it was the right time for us to finish,” Blunstone adds. “We felt we had completed a musical circle. We had given all we’d got to give on that particular project, and it was time to move on and get involved in other projects.” He pauses and then goes further. “With a tiny bit of hindsight, I am probably the only one who feels like this: I would have been intrigued to have seen what we might have done if the band had stayed together. In particular, I think, Rod Argent and Chris White’s writing skills were really magnificent at that time. Really fabulous. They still are, but it seemed they just really sort of exploded just at that time in the late ’60s. I would have loved to have seen what we would have gone on and done.”

“But,” he says, “I feel that is one of the main problems, as I was saying, there was no band to promote [Odessey and Oracle]. I think it is a unique album. The sound of that album is not really like anything else from that period.”

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Photoblogging: Mountain Oasis 2013, Part Three

Monday, November 11th, 2013

Some images from the third and final night of Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville NC. All photos © Bill Kopp.

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Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit: Recap Part 3

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

The third and final night of the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit featured a host of names with which I was largely unfamiliar. So I took the opportunity to pop into several shows in hopes of finding something that struck my fancy. I was intermittently successful.

Seemingly having ingested a steady diet of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd – specifically, “Shine On you Crazy Diamond” Parts 1 and 2, the aptly-named Darkside created a vibe more than they did actually play songs. True both men operated instruments: the Guy on The Right staffed some analog synthesizers and a bank of effects and sequencers, while the Guy on The Left actually played some very subtle (in terms of its volume) electric guitar. Washes of sound with – as the set progressed – more and more bass bombs, Darkside’s set got a more enthusiastic response form the Sunday night crowd than might have been expected.

Alan Howarth
Howarth would be the big Mountain Oasis surprise for me. A composer who does most of his work at home and/or in studios, Howarth is responsible for the evocative, scene-setting music used in a long list of John Carpenter films (among others). It’s his work you hear when you watch Friday the 13th, Halloween, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China and a host of others. Howarth spent most of his set at a keyboard, laying down spooky, fully-formed arrangements of songs that are hooky in their own way. Other than a quick occasional right-hand wave to acknowledge the rapturous applause he earned, Howarth did take time at the beginning and end of his set to speak to the audience. The visuals were some custom-edited, stuttery captures from the films he’s scored; they were fascinating and repetitive and actually complimented his music, which is the opposite way that things usually work for Howarth’s compositions. Howarth did leave the keyboard once or twice to play some electric guitar (while the keys laid out a sequence or three). Fascinating stuff that might lead attendees back to some overlooked soundtracks.

The Orb
In the world of techno/ambient/rave/whatever, there is an outfit called The Orb, and another called Orbital. In the past, when I even thought about them, I often confused the two. No more: because now I know that Orbital is easily the more interesting of the two. How do I know this? Because I saw and heard The Orb. A total snoozefest, The Orb is two middle aged English blokes standing at a table in near total darkness. One of then has headphones around his neck and a file folder packed with CDs; he takes one of discs these out every few seconds and pops another into a machine. The other bloke did something that was even less worthy of visual attention. And the formless sounds they created (well, did they create or merely present them? You decide.) left nary an impression on my mind as I exited The Orange Peel.

As the supposed successor to Moogfest (which, as reported previously, will continue in 2014) Mountain Oasis pretty much got it right. A well-run festival with a wide variety of acts, it succeeded at what it set out to achieve. Attendance seemed healthy, yet not jam-packed; of course that’s good for the individual concertgoer, but less so for the organizers. Although few of the acts fall into my must-see category, on the whole it was easily worth the time and expense, and I hope to attend again in 2014.

Preview: Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit

Friday, October 25th, 2013

The history of the new Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit is a bit knotty. Quick capsule back-story: synthesizer pioneer R.A. Moog passed away in August 2005. As a way to honor his myriad innovations, a small festival called Moogfest was put together in New York City in the year before his passing. That small festival was repeated each year though 2008; owing both to its growing popularity and to the fact that Asheville NC was Moog’s home (and headquarters of Moog Music, Inc.), the festival moved to North Carolina beginning in 2010. The (now huge) three-day festival brought together artists old and new (with varying degrees of connection to synthesizers, it must be said) and grew even more popular.

In the wake of Moogfest 2012, a falling out occurred between various entities involved in organizing the festival. Moog Music and The Bob Moog Foundation would no longer collaborate with AC Entertainment, the official organizer of the event (AC also puts on Bonnaroo and other large-scale events). As a result, for awhile in late 2012, it looked as if the festival would be no more.

But when the dust settled, Asheville ended up with two planned festivals. There would be no Moogfest 2013, but the festival is now scheduled for April 23-27, 2014, once again in Asheville. Meanwhile, AC Entertainment has mounted a new festival, scheduled in the slot formerly given to Moogfest. So on the weekend of October 25-27 (in other words, today through Sunday), Mountain Oasis will rock Asheville.

Similar to Moogfest in its soft focus on synth-based music, Mountain Oasis aims to bring all kinds of acts to town. From EDM to ambient, from avant garde to pop, Mountain Oasis aims to provide an overview of current and/or historically significant artists to perform.

And I’m going. The five-venue festival – Asheville Civic Center (aka Arena), Thomas Wolfe auditorium, The Orange Peel, Diana Wortham Theatre, and Asheville Music Hall – is very close to home; the Peel is the venue farthest from my house, and that’s all of 2.2 miles away. While most of the artists scheduled for Saturday and Sunday are unfamiliar to me (Gary Numan, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Animal Collective and Nine Inch Nails notably excepted), my plan is to hit as many of them as possible, and then report back here soon thereafter (with photos). But tonight, my scramble will be of a slightly different nature; there are a number of historically significant acts on my must-see list.

I got (slightly) turned onto Half Japanese way back when I was in high school (late 70s/early 80s) when a friend into the outré brought some of their records to school. Silver Apples, I know of mainly as early synth pioneers. Daniel Johnston has a reputation as an erratic, highly idiosyncratic performer, and that description is being tactful. Sparks fall into that weird-70s bag; they’re a cult attraction with hardcore fans among those whose opinions I respect. Neutral Milk Hotel are a sort of acid-folk act, part of the Athens GA-based Elephant 6 Collective that has also given the world Olivia Tremor Control and Of Montreal. It will require some deft scampering from venue to venue (and tonight’s forecast is 27°F), but that’s the plan. Look for post-show details on the whole Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit soon, here on Meanwhile, details on the festival can be found at the official site.

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Shuggie Otis at The Orange Peel, Asheville NC 9 October 2013 (Part Two)

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Continued from Part One

Once the doors opened, we entered and secured our barstools, settling in to wait for the show. Minutes earlier, the Orange Peel’s Facebook event update status had informed us that the opening act had canceled last-minute, and as such Shuggie Otis would be taking the stage earlier than usual. At this point, only a handful of attendees had shown up, though by showtime the place was a hive of activity.

A few feet away from us, there was a surprising sight: Shuggie was sitting at the bar, nursing a beer and chatting with a few people. Now, the green rooms at the Orange Peel are well appointed, and most artists hang backstage pre-show. It’s a rarity to see a performer out in the venue-proper before the show begins. But here was Shuggie, smiling and conversing with various people.

When I had made my initial press inquiries, I was told that interviews with the man were few and far between. So with that in mind, I was hesitant to approach him. But other people seemed to have no compunction about doing so, and Shuggie was clearly engaging in conversation with them. So we wandered over and said hello. Shuggie shook our hands, thanked us for having helped him get into the venue, and graciously posed for a photo, still wearing his suit and hat, and sporting a big smile.

I was immediately stuck at his relaxed, casual demeanor. Based (unfairly, perhaps) on the hushed rumors I had heard, I half expected him to be a huddled recluse, wheeled out onstage to perform. Instead he was a cool and very approachable cat. There were no signs of him being anything other than a completely together performer, patiently waiting for his time to go onstage. After a few moments, we returned to our seats. Shuggie continued to chat with other people, posing occasionally for yet another photo, and mere minutes before showtime, he headed backstage.

When Shuggie Otis came out onto the Orange Peel’s stage, he was dressed in that same suit and hat. He had set aside his cane and donned a pair of large, dark sunglasses. He was wearing a vintage red Gibson SG with tremolo bar. The band vamped a bit while a robotic voice (a recorded intro) name-checked the onstage musicians, assigning them all pseudonyms. Otis introduced the first song – a variation on “Inspiration Information” and off they went, laying down a groove that was equal parts soul, funk and r&b. That song – punctuated by Otis introducing his band mates one by one – led into a straight reading of the actual “Inspiration Information,” one that melted away the years. Otis sounded exactly the same: those fluid grooves, that silky yet assertive guitar, that voice.

At the end of that song – and after grappling with an unruly Marshall half-stack and some pedals – Otis introduced each of the band members…again. This left us slightly perplexed: would he be doing this all evening, after every song?

His band was tight. Featuring his younger brother on drums, the band also included a keyboard player, bassist and a three-man horn section. Several of the musicians sang backup and took their turns at soling on their instruments, but it was always Otis who held center stage. Alternating between the SG and a black Les Paul, Shuggie delivered a set that drew from his three albums plus Wings of Love. The material from the latter was significantly better onstage than on the disc, perhaps owing to the full-band arrangement (in the studio, even as far back as the 70s, Otis has often favored primitive drum machines) and the organic feel of a live performance.

Blues numbers gave Otis ample opportunity to show off his sharp skills as a lead guitarist, and the sax, flute and keyboard solo spots gave him the chance to display his funky rhythm guitar chops. Between songs he’d sometime ramble a bit, occasionally laughing heartily at something the rest of us didn’t quite catch, but he was clearly having a good time. During the set, Shuggie endured some good-natured ribbing from his bandmates, and responded in kind. “What’d he say?! I should dock him. But he’s also my road manager. He handles the finances. So what’s a man to do?” Mid-set Shuggie teased the audience that he’d invite us all up onstage.

And to my great surprise, he eventually did just that. Near the end of the set, I wandered up close to the stage to get a few more photos. At that point, Shuggie’s road manager/horn player leapt to the front edge of the stage and began waving his arms, exhorting people to come on up onto the stage. Finding myself right there, I gamely went along. As it happened, of the dozen-plus people who made it up there, I was one of only two males. The rest were women who clearly came to dance. And dance they did, surrounding Shuggie as he knelt down, coaxing extended lead guitar lines from his SG. The crowd loved it, and welcomed him back for an rousing encore that included “Strawberry Letter #23.”

Otis’ site has a bit of information about his current studio project, due out sometime in 2014 and featuring some “special guests.” In the meantime, his current road show has wrapped up: last week’s Asheville date was followed by shows in Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans and Austin. If Asheville’s show was any indicator, the man is back in top form, and if there’s a tour in support of his as-yet-untitled album next year, I’ll be there, holding the front door open for him once again.

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Shuggie Otis at The Orange Peel, Asheville NC 9 October 2013 (Part One)

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

One evening early in September 2013, I was on the phone with a good friend. “Shuggie Otis is playing next month at The Orange Peel,” I announced. “What?! No…” Clearly I was mistaken, he thought. “He’s dead.”

No he’s not, I assured my friend. But that belief is a common, understandable mistake. Son of famed R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, Shuggie burst on the scene with Dad’s help in the late 1960s. When his debut LP, 1969′s Here Comes Shuggie Otis was released, the singer/guitarist was a mere fifteen years old. But one would never know that listening to the fully realized recording. Though he had help from musician friends including Wilton Felder, his first record displayed a firm command of a variety of styles, from soul to blues to r&b to a sort of ambitious, proto-progressive rock. He most definitely didn’t sound like some kid when he played those guitar leads.

While the album’s strongest and most forward-looking track was the opener “Oxford Gray” (a Shuggie original co-written with his father, bassist Felder and drummer Stix Hooper), the whole album showed promise. That promise was fulfilled in fits and starts. Freedom Flight didn’t come out until nearly two years later, but it was another solid collection that included the now-classic “Strawberry Letter #23,” a hit for The Brothers Johnson in 1977 (Shuggie’s original version remains the best). And three more years passed before Inspiration Information came out in 1974. Its title track was a minor hit, and this third album also garnered very positive reviews. But – more or less – that was the last anyone heard from Shuggie onstage or on record.

He didn’t exactly go away, but what he did do is murky. In (rare) interviews he points out that he never really stopped making music, playing guitar. And in fact that’s true: on the 2013 expanded reissue of Inspiration Information, the collection includes four more tracks from that album’s sessions and an entire second disc called Wings of Love. That disc brings together the best of what Otis had recorded between 1975 and 2000. And while overall it’s perhaps not quite as remarkable as his early work, its strongest cuts (including the song “Wings of Love”) hold up very well next to the best of his earlier work of nearly forty years ago.

But whenever Shuggie Otis’ name would be brought up, there would be talk of unspecified “problems,” reasons why he was no longer releasing new material or performing. “Erratic” and “unpredictable” are a few of the words I have heard used to describe him, though whether these opinions were the product of first-hand knowledge or rumor couldn’t be ascertained.

So when I discovered that Otis was mounting a tour and coming to Asheville NC’s Orange Peel, I simply knew I had to go. So Escape From New York film quote references aside (“I heard you was dead!”), I made plans to attend the show.

“Do you know how we get in?” That was the query aimed at us by the dapper, impeccably-dressed man who approached us just outside of the Orange Peel’s front door and box office. As is my standard practice, we had shown up early so we could get a seat for the show. The Orange Peel got its start in the 1960s as a roller skating rink (the wood floor remains to this day) and was a soul/funk club in the 70s. When it reopened in 2000, it held just under 1000 people, and a recent remodel/expansion increased its capacity to about 1400. But for most shows, a small scattering of four-top tables and barstools provided seating for no more than perhaps fifty people; the rest would stand. So for an evening of music (usually including an opening act), I preferred to have those barstools.

Hence our presence ahead of the doors (or even box office) opening for the evening. So at this moment, my sweetheart and I were the only people there. That’s when the stylishly dressed man approached us. In a subtly pinstriped suit with silk Ascot and matching cane (the latter seemingly more for sartorial effect than to provide balance), he walked up to the front door and turned to us, asking about how we might get in.

We recognized Shuggie Otis immediately. My sweetheart started banging on the glass door in hope of getting the attention of someone inside. “I’m playing here tonight,” Otis told us. I laughed and said something to him like, “Yeah, no kidding.” An Orange Peel staffer came to the door and opened it. Otis disappeared inside the venue.


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Dig the DIG Festival: August 15-16

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Asheville, North Carolina is host to more festivals than one might expect of a city its size. This cultural magnet nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Western part of the state has a population of about 70,000 (more if you count the outlying areas, but it’s still modestly-sized), but the city is home to more than its share of creative types. In addition to a vibrant mountain music/bluegrass/Americana scene, Asheville boasts active communities of jazz players, as well as progressive, metal, singer/songwriter, punk, and just about every other genre you might think of.

The big annual street fair Bele Chere may or may not continue into the future, but that free three-day festival has brought big national acts to Asheville. Moogfest has done the same (the influential and innovative Moog Music is headquartered downtown).

But for locally-based acts, the festival scene is a bit tougher. So to right that wrong, a group of high-profile music people in town have put together the DIG (Downtown Independent Groove) Festival.

Here’s a quick summary by the numbers: With a lineup that includes thirty-six bands at five venues (The Orange Peel, LaB, The One Stop, Asheville Music Hall, and The Emerald Lounge) across two nights (August 15-16) for only $15, DIG Fest can’t help but give good value for the money.

All five venues are a short walk form each other. “And that’s a goal of the whole thing,” says organizer Justin Ferraby. Scheduling Friday’s shows to begin shortly after the free Downtown After Five street festival (situated right among the DIG venues) means that festivalgoers can enjoy even more hours of nonstop music. “It creates a long-weekend” feel,” says Ferraby.

The DIG Festival is always scheduled for the third week in August, to coincide with the time when students return to classes at UNCA, Mars Hill, Warren Wilson and other colleges in the region. And DIG has grown since its debut four years ago. At that point, it was one of two prominent locally-oriented festivals (the other being Pop Asheville).

“We make it a Thursdays-Friday festival,” explains Ferraby, “because Asheville is such a heavily hospitality-driven city. There are so many people who work in restaurants and bars” on weekend nights. The DIG schedule gives them a chance to attend as well.

In keeping with the local theme, most of the sponsorship comes from local companies (primarily breweries, something for which Asheville is known and admired). Ferraby says that local breweries “Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium “were all excited to get involved,” as was Lagunitas. And donations will be accepted at all DIG venues to support the work of the Asheville-based Bob Moog Foundation. “The whole festival is about community,” Ferraby says.

Attendees can look forward to some one-off combinations of players form various bands coming together onstage; Ferraby notes that last DIG festival yielded three new bands created during the two-night event.

Along with Justin Ferraby, the team of organizers includes Oso Rey, Jeff Santiago, and Erika Jane. Rey and Jane were involved in the original DIG Festival in 2009. Ferraby jokes that “It’s like the World Cup or the Olympics: every four years something great comes along!” But going forward, DIG is planned to be an annual event. “The lineup and low cost allows people to take a chance on a band they might not otherwise see,” offers Ferraby. “We’ve already got a good music scene, but anything we can do to help it, we want to do.”

Details about venues, ticketing (tickets available at the Orange Peel box office) and the lineup can be found at

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