Thursday, December 29, 2011

Al Di Meola World Sinfonia - Morocco Fantasia DVD - Sublime Beauty

I couldn't ask for a better way to ring in 2012 than with a brilliant live performance DVD, beautifully shot in an exotic location, with two hours of brilliant guitar playing and musicianship. Al Di Meola's World Sinfonia Morocco Fantasia is stunning from beginning to end. Filmed by Italian filmmakers Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari ( under the supervision of Claus Altvater, the film is as dazzling to watch as it is to hear, interspersing some incredible scenery in various settings throughout Rabat, Morocco. Still, the star of the show is Di Meola and his transcendent skills as a musician, band leader, and composer.  

Altvater, president of the Songsurfer Corporation, emphasizes the importance of Al Di Meola as a composer of the highest order. "Most guitar and jazz enthusiasts recognize Al as one of the most influential guitarists this planet has ever produced, but his mastery of songwriting has often been overlooked."

This exceptional DVD should go a long way towards remedying this.

Al Di Meola took the world by surprise back in 1974 as a member of the jazz fusion supergroup Return To Forever. Armed with a Black Beauty Gibson Les Paul Custom, and a cranked Marshall amp, the 19 year old Berklee College of Music student set straight out of school and into perhaps the most powerful jazz rock band that ever graced a stage. Chick Corea's band had become louder, and more rock oriented as the keyboardist began incorporating synthesizers into his bold compositions, and bassist Stanley Clarke began to incorporate fuzz tones, flangers, and other effects to form a voice that made him a star in his own right. Di Meola brought his dizzyingly fast and stunningly syncopated chops to the fore, and the band became a very rare beast - a jazz band that collected gold records and sold out theaters.

Eventually, having three composers in the same band created a dearth of opportunity for the trio, and Corea chose to change the lineup after their successful Romantic Warrior album. Nothing like going out on top, I suppose. The age of fusion gold came to an end.

Di Meola has certainly never chose to rest on his laurels, or even slow down. His first solo release, Land of the Midnight Sun, was a huge success, and was soon followed by Elegant Gypsy, the album that has perhaps best presented the skills of the young Di Meola, including such classics as the acoustic masterpiece Mediterranean Sundance, and Race with Devil on Spanish Highway. This album won Guitar Player Magazine's Guitar Album of the Year for 1977. This is the jazz guitar album most often found in the collection of serious rock guitarists. 

Then in 1980, Di Meola teamed with flamenco legend Paco De Lucia, and jazz master John McLaughlin to tour and record together, culminating in the classic Friday Night in San Francisco, the platinum album that is still the gold standard for live acoustic guitar performances.

Years of high intensity, high volume stage work had damaged Di Meola's hearing, and in lieu of further damage, and with perhaps a view towards the long term goal of developing as a composer, the guitarist turned to the acoustic guitar as his main instrument of choice, and set off to conquer the world music scene.

Here we are in 2012, and indeed, Al Di Meola has succeeded beyond any reasonable measure. Morocco Fantasia is perhaps his finest documented performance. All the hallmarks of his legendary style remain intact, and incendiary as ever. More impressive though, may be his superior skills as a composer and band leader.

World Sinfonia is a project that the guitarist first unveiled to the world in 1990, and has continued until today. If you have missed out on this fantastic trip, it is time to rectify that.

Morocco Fantasia begins with some nice shots of Di Meola and band making their way through the Bazarr in Rabat, Morocco, beautifully shot throughout the week leading up to the band's performance at the Mawazine Musique Festival. 

Misterio, the DVD's opening track, is from the 2000 release, World Sinfonia III - The Grand Passion. Immediately apparent are the musician's intense levels of concentration as they listen and respond to the conversation between Di Meola's tango dance-step syncopation and accordionist Fausto Beccalorri's romantic narration. They are joined by some sensuously arrpegiated chords by second guitarist Peo Alfonsi that allows Di Meola to take a stunning flight of notes up the neck, and you experience the perfect marriage of gorgeous melodic fluidity and sheer shred. If you ever wondered why the guitarist avoided the world of hard rock, this may be a telling answer. He simply has more to say. Compositionally, every passage opens another avenue as the song opens up and the story unfolds. After the initial mystery has given way to mastery, and by the time Beccalorri starts singing, one gets the impression that this mission of mystique has turned into a joining; an understanding between lovers.

As the filmmakers take a scenic tour of the streets of Morocco that seems to fixate on closed doors and mystery, Di Meola kicks in the distortion that blends so beautifully the sound of his Conde Hermanos nylon string guitar and his Roland VG88's models of his classic fire breathing Les Paul/Marshall tones. It is apparent that Al suffers none for having the best of all possible worlds.

Poly-rhythmic masterpieces are the stock in trade of World Sinfonia, and Siberiana is a thrilling trip that began on a tour of Siberia, and ended on the streets of New York. Drummer Peter Kaszas leads the band using his drum sticks, his hands, cymbals, shakers, and an amazing sense of time. After Di Meola unleashes a fast and furious flurry of nylon notes, he turns and smiles broadly at the drummer. He is clearly enjoying this as much as anyone, and it shows. This number pushes and pulls in every conceivable direction, but in a manner that reveals that the guitarist has achieved great mastery as a composer - it segues effortlessly and glides smoothly through every increasingly intense section. Over the length of the guitarist's career, so much attention has been paid to the mind boggling chops and technical skills that many have missed his escalation to the pinnacle of musical composition. Mind you, his technical skills show no loss of fire, and display the best sense of time to every make its way onto a guitar.

Di Meola's admiration of Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla is well known, and he tips his hat with one of Piazzolla's finest pieces, Double Concerto. Armed with his secret weapon - his rhythmically perfect foot tapping, Di Meola plays unaccompanied for several minutes. The guitarist is an uncompromising proponent of a constantly tapping foot, saying that without it, a guitarist's time will certainly falter, and if Al's efforts are any indication, look no further for proof.

This song is a beautiful journey, featuring incredibly emotional vocals courtesy of Beccalossi, and some of Di Meola's most lyrical playing. His lines always express an emotion and never sink to rote pattern play. The pair collaborate fabulously throughout the tune, with several improvised sections that show the two staring and listening intensely to one another. This will have you considering packing your bags, moving to Brazil, and taking up a life of dancing on the beach.

Written for his father, one child in a family of seventeen, Michaelangelo's 7th Son shows just how far Di Meola's compositional skills have come since I first saw him with Return To Forever on PBS's Sound Stage series almost 40 years ago. 

This number sounds incredibly cinematic, a soundtrack looking for a film - if one can find a film as beautiful, or as romantic as we would like, or could imagine. The DVD's filmmakers, Francesco Cabras, and Alberto Molinari do a magnificent job of capturing the band, and also displaying a fine eye for the beauty and mystery of Rabat. This both sounds wonderful, and is a feast for the eyes - exotic and filled with gorgeous mystique. If this doesn't bring out the romantic in you, check your pulse.

Gumbi Ortiz has been a Di Meola band mate for twenty two years, and percussionist leads the way, and picks up the pace on the next number, Gumbiero. The interplay between band members is especially amazing on this piece. It lives, it breathes, it leaps, and it dances. Granted, this band plays incredibly well on every cut, but this stands out - and when Di Meola and Ortiz duet on the solo section, it becomes impossible for me to write, I must stop and dance. Bassist Victor Miranda moves things along with strength and subtly, providing a bottom end that provides the perfect blend of notes and rhythm. Sublimely beautiful.

Turqouise brings us back from the Mediterranean to a New York City vibe, a vibe that is reminiscent of perhaps a more sophisticated take on the lyrical loveliness that was Simon and Garfunkel back in the days of Scarborough Fare. The intro segues into an upbeat jaunt that sees Di Meola firing off salvos of notes that mix sheer fireworks with melodic passages that make you stop and listen again. The piece breaks down in the middle, and once again, it is fascinating to watch the band listen and look towards every note, every beat, and every slight change of tempo and rhythm. World Sinfonia, indeed.

Joined by a band of local Moroccan musicians, the untitled encore is hugely thrilling. Di Meola, Beccalossi, Ortiz, and Alfonsi are joined my oud master Said Chraibi, violinist extraordinaire Abdellah Meri, and the percolating percussion of Tarik Ben Ali. The improvisational abilities are unbelievable as the musicians weave a tapestry that draws you in, again and again. This is world music at its very best. It is as memorable as a pop single, as technically challenging as one could imagine, and adventurous as the terrain outside the theater. This selection alone is well worth the price of the DVD. 

Finally, Di Meola cracks out his signature multi-colored flame top Paul Reed Smith, plugs it into his Mesa Boogie amplifier, and the band rips through an instant education in heavy metal fusion, the classic Egyptian Danza. A minute and a half in, bassist Miranda takes over, and slows things down, as Di Meola plays some sitar-ish lines that get your hips swaying, before upping the ante and unleashing a wonderful cacophany of rhythm and chops. What is amazing throughout the entirety of this disc is that it never gets boring, repetitive, and disinterest never surfaces. It is a tremendous testament to Di Meola's skill as a writer, his prodigious musical abilities, and his incredible band. 

Morocco Fantasia shows Al Di Meola to be at the height of his skills as a composer, guitarist, and band leader. He has also never appeared to be happier onstage. He smiles throughout the performance and is obviously having the time of his life. This is a brilliant way to start off the new year, with a DVD that both highlights a tremendous career, and inspires new directions and possibilities. 

This is one you will definitely want to own. It may be the guitarist's finest work since 1980's Friday Night In San Francisco. If this was the finest guitar recording of the year, I would not be disappointed, but it is only January 2nd. I think 2012 is going to be unbelievable.

Please don't skip the bonus features included on the DVD - they include band rehearsals, a romantic Di Meola roof solo, shots of the band at Bazarr, and other cool extras. They are all fantastic, a relative rarity - Di Meola and the film's makers obviously went the extra miles to make this memorable, and they succeeded in a grand manner.

Thanks to Al Di Meola, Clint Walker at MVD, and Inakustik Music.

Morocco Fantasia is available via pre-order now on Amazon and will be released on January 24, 2012 on Inakustik Music and Video.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Ballad of Mott The Hoople - A Brilliant Documentary

"Savage history always passes judgment in due course, and here we are in 2011, still studying Mott The Hoople."
           Morrissey, from the liner notes of the new documentary, The Ballad of Mott The Hoople.

I tend to go into any rock documentary with hesitation, trepidation and suspicion. This would be because most generally, they tend to be shameful rip-offs perpetrated by hacks who could not give two shits about their subjects. This lack of desire was doubly strong as I unpackaged this new doc on Mott, created by two lads barely in their thirties, Chris Hall and Mike Kerry. The last thing I expected was to see the band I had perhaps revered more than any other for the last 35 years be treated with the proper respect, love and admiration, but this film does just that.

For a great many years, the legend of Mott has been handled somewhat roughly by the press, or by scurrilous profiteers willing to commit any piece of tape containing a Hoople or two to a full release claiming the Mott name. There are more shitty live Mott albums, and more hackneyed, near Mott releases than I care to name, or remember.

I will cheerfully admit to looking at Mott The Hoople as family, as something I owned a part of as a youth, given my unwavering love and devotion. The band exemplified the notion of a band as a gang perhaps better than any other in the pantheon of rock. There were nasty fights, and serious disagreements among the band, but that was amongst themselves - when attacked outwardly, they quickly closed ranks and became an impenetrable shield of loyalty and togetherness. Of course, eventually they became victims of a fame they valiantly struggled for, and were torn apart by being overworked, under appreciated, and used up by their handlers. But in between the beginning and the end, they came to personify for the band's legion of fans something bigger than just another group. They were an approachable version of rock's elite - they were superstars without the trappings, a bunch of loveable average Joe's from Hereford. Much like their fans, they came with born to lose tattoos, and two strikes against them.

They were claimed by the craziest AR man/producer to ever rise out of Great Britain, the inimitable Guy Stevens, who became the band's Svengali, and made Ian Hunter wake up and realize he had something to say.

"There are only two Phil Spectors, and I am one of them." Guy Stevens

The producer had as big a view of himself as he had of the bands he helped create while working for Island records. His skills were completely non-musical, his ability was in creating a sense of event, of getting into the artists brain and compelling them to deliver a performance the artist had inside of himself, but may not have known it - most often in ways that included violence, drinking, drugs, and outlandish behavior in the extreme.

The film captures this magnificently, and from interviews with his widow, the members of Mott, and other witnesses, you are never sure if they were in awe of his talents, or completely in fear of his lunacy. Some may be nonplussed by the amount of time and gravitas the film's makers give to Stevens, but according to every source (including the band), you would never of had Mott The Hoople without Mr. Stevens, he even gave the band their name:

"Mott The Hoople started in Wormwood Scrubs (a London prison). I was doing eight months for possession of drugs, and I read this book, Mott The Hoople, by Willard Manus. I wrote to my wife and said, "Keep the title secret," and she wrote back, "Are you joking? Mott The Hoople? That's ridiculous!" Guy Stevens' recollection of the discovery of a name for a band he would soon create.

Interviews are liberally sprinkled throughout the film and include such luminaries as Queen's Roger Taylor, Mick Jones of The Clash, and every member of Mott, save for the late Mick Ronson, and the reclusive Peter Overend Watts, who sadly chose to remain silent -  a shame, especially given his spectacular performance at the band's2009 reunion shows, and that all the other members of the band give him much credit for being the band's backbone for many years. Watts always expressed tremendous bitterness over Mott's lack of financial success (not undeservedly so), and has stayed off the rock and roll playing field since the early '80s, so I imagine he has earned the right to remain silent.

Ariel Bender played lead guitar for Mott for only a year, but what a year it was, as the guitarist whose talents have been labelled, 'unhinged genius,' breathed life back into Mott at a time in which it was desperately needed, and without his wild stage performances, and even wilder guitar histrionics, there would simply be no reason for a Mott documentary. Leaving behind his given name (Luther Grosvenor), a name that saw him rise to fame and acclaim with Island recording artists Spooky Tooth, Bender at least partially commandeered the ship from Ian Hunter's more than capable hands, and proceeded to make Mott The Hoople the most amazing live rock band on the planet for an all too brief year.

Bender does the same for this film, as he brings great humor and energy to his reminiscences of his time in the band.

In fact, the entire band, Hunter included, seem on their best behavior here, content to let the thousand bygones to be found in Campbell Devine's biography, All The Young Dudes: Mott The Hoople and Ian Hunter, remain bygones. Hunter is on several occasions at odds with what the others say, but this is perhaps as much just his seeing something from a different angle than any factual disagreement -  especially on the topic of Hunter's taking over the band as its creative center, a move that led Mick Ralphs out of The Hoople, and into Bad Company. Just a few years later, let's not forget that this role of creative helmsman also led to the dissolution of the partnership of Ralphs, and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. Someone has to be in charge, and in Mott it was Ian Hunter, who states in the film his opinion, that the fact that the band was a democracy is exactly what destroyed it in the end.

Organist Verden Allen was responsible for putting together the Mott reunion a few years ago, and his sense of regret at ever leaving the band (at the height of their success, with All The Young Dudes in the top twenty), is still palpable. His replacements, Morgan Fisher and Blue Weaver are also excellent in their respective segments. 

Filmmakers Hall and Kerry have done an amazing job of presenting the story of Mott The Hoople in an extremely fair balance, and with great respect to the legend. They pace the film in a way which feels like the very rise and fall of a band that may never have seen huge success, but has remained on their fan's minds, and turntables for all these years.

For me, the best part of the film is the band's drummer, Buffin, born one Dale Griffin. His demeanor and words express perfectly what the fans have always known. He never wanted to be in any band except Mott The Hoople. For Buffin, the world of rock and roll began and ended with this bunch of ruffians from Hereford, who crossed the Atlantic and saw a few divides, but never quit being the band with maybe the most heart that ever sailed the world's seas. If you can watch Buffin's performance here without getting caught up in his emotions, you're a pretty cold son of a bitch.

The Ballad of Mott The Hoople is a tremendous film for any viewer, but if you're a fan, this is essential viewing that will bear repeated viewings. As a fan, I am thrilled that this documentary got made, and am even more thrilled that it is amongst the better rock docs I have ever viewed.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Joe Bonamassa - Musician of the Year 2011

He stands before a sold out crowd, covered in perspiration and a big smile. He beams at the audience as they scream for another few moments. Finally, he raises his hand, and the clamor settles. He steps forward towards the microphone, and says, "As I stand here before you, one word comes to mind. That word is gratitude."

Joe Bonamassa takes another minute out of an already incredibly long day, and thanks the audience in an obviously sincere, and emotional way. He then lines up with his band, and they proceed to take another night's bows. Once again, Bonamassa has managed to please his fans, his band, and himself - no mean feat for an artist in this day, in this economy, and in this world. He's managed to do this more days than not this year, and his incredible talent, integrity, stamina, and love of what he does has made him my artist of the year for 2011.

It would be very easy to simply make a list of albums, bands, shows, and moments to explain my thoughts, but I would prefer to take a bigger picture view of why, in a year of some incredible performances and stories, Joe has ended up at the top.

I stopped by Joe's dressing room after the show to say hello, and thank him for another incredible performance. I walked into the room and was greeted by keyboardist, Rick Melick, and we briefly spoke and caught up a bit. Carmine Rojas walked across the room, and gave me his usual gregarious handshake, hug, and good vibes. Next, drummer Tal Bergman joined us, and Tal is as animated in person as he is behind his kit. The veteran stickman is a consummate showman who has absolutely raised the entire production a few notches with his talents and presence. I have said it before, but I don't know that I have ever seen a single change of personnel impact a band in such a positive manner, as has Bergman's joining the Bonamassa entourage. He is a joyful being, and his enthusiasm and excitement hit you like a wave. Everyone is still very up after another two hour plus show, and you can see, you can actually feel the love for what they do, and who they are as individuals. I am not sure if they are luckier to have Joe, or Joe is luckier to have them, but I've a feeling that both are getting a hell of a good deal.

Bonamassa is sitting on a couch, looking like he's lost another ten pounds since I had last seen him power rocking his way through Indianapolis back in June with his arena rock monster, Black Country Communion. He looks up and smiles, and manages to lift himself from his comfortable seat.

"Hey Tony, how are you doing?" He asks and warmly shakes my hand. As he pulls his hand back, he takes his right hand and tenderly rubs it across the fingers of his left hand.

"Man, I'm losing my third set of callouses of the year, and I've got another month of shows to go!" He says this with a smile that indicates that while he is genuinely excited about the shows, he is also feeling the strain of a year that has seen him tour three continents with two bands, and release three full albums - one solo record, Dust Bowl, the smash second album by Black Country Communion, and his amazing collaboration with Beth Hart, Don't Explain.

For all this activity, the guy looks fantastic. That's three full length records, several tours of Europe, and several tours of the states.

He explains the fatigue as he relaxes back onto the couch, "You have to understand, I do three shows a day, at least. I have the meet and greet with the fans, the show, and then another hour after the show with more fans (I immediately thought of sound check and ratcheted the tally up to four, but kept that to myself). This has been the most fantastic year yet."

I told him that this show (November 15 in Louisville, Kentucky) was the best performance I had witnessed this year, after seeing several solo shows, and a BCC concert. His playing was phenomenal, the band played better than ever, and incredibly his singing continues to grow in leaps and bounds every time I see the guy. Honestly, I have never seen an artist grow so much over the relatively short span of a year. Every time I saw him, he had upped the ante once again.

Joe just smiled. "Wow. Thank you. Thank you very much; it's energizing to hear that when I am obviously feeling a little wiped out. We're having a great time, and I think that comes across."

If you spend much time around this young guitarist, you get used to hearing thank yous, and other words of graciousness, and thoughtfulness. For a guy who has been on top of the world for a couple of years, the strain, stress, and acclaim have not managed to wear down the man's basic decency, and dignity. He is accommodating beyond belief. He shakes hands, he takes pictures, signs guitars, gives autographs and answers questions - often risking his health and well being in terrible weather to show his appreciation to his fans.

In a time that sees crowds shrinking, record sales plummeting and entourages shrinking, Joe Bonamassa, along with his partner and longtime manager Roy Weisman have continually bucked the trends, selling out bigger shows on every tour, selling records and merchandise in a sensible fashion, and growing the Bonamassa brand year after year, in a completely DIY fashion. The Harvard School of Business need look no further for the new model of success in the music biz.

Musically, the year seemed barely be able to fit Bonamassa's prodigious output, starting with his latest solo release, Dust Bowl. His eleventh full length CD, it rocks furiously, and features guest shots by John Hiatt, Vince Gill, and BCC mate Glenn Hughes, but cameos aside it is the quality of songwriting and singing that blew me away. Produced by Kevin Shirley, it sailed up the charts, and once again had the teaming throngs of Bonamassites screaming, "Best yet!"

June saw the release of Black Country Communion 2, the sophomore effort from the supergroup that was born in Hollywood, the brainchild of producer Shirley after seeing Joe and bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes jam at The House of Blues in 2009. Joined by drummer Jason Bonham, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian, BCC has become perhaps the top classic rock band on the planet, with two superb albums and a live DVD in less than two years. The band played to sold out houses here in the States and in Europe, but left both continents drooling for more. How far this band can go is limited only by the time that Bonamassa and Hughes can dedicate to it. They amazed critics who thought the first record would be tough to beat, by absolutely topping it. This album may be the best album of either of the principle's careers. Certainly, Glenn Hughes (who wrote the lion's share of the record) has never made a more complete record, and speaking for myself, I actually prefer Bonamassa as a full on rocker, but I put that more on my tastes than any sort of empirical judgement.

On the heels of the record's release, the band hit the road for a brief warm up tour of America, here's what I said then:

"This was one of the best hard rock shows I have ever seen, and judging from the enthusiastic response from the packed house, I'm not alone in that opinion. The band still has three shows in the Eastern US before heading off to 25 shows in Europe, including that prestigious High Voltage Festival in London, England on July 24th. God bless Black Country Communion.

Live at last. I first wrote about Black Country Communion before a note had been recorded. I spoke with Glenn Hughes before a single note had been sung. I reviewed the first record first, and am now more convinced than ever that indeed BCC may well be the most exciting and important thing to happen to real rock music in the last twenty years."

Next up on the recording docket came, Don't Explain, a collaboration between the guitarist and Beth Hart. Recorded in just four days, it may well be the best soul/R&B record of the last few decades. It suffers none of the traditional two hits and a bunch of filler that always haunted albums by most soul acts, and sounds incredible from start to finish. It came from humble beginnings. In early 2010, the guitarist caught a Beth Hart show in London. "It was killer," says Bonamassa - and suggested they do a project together. 

Joe continues, "I was up late one night, I couldn't sleep.  I was playing songs on my iPod from the reissue of The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, which included all the opening acts from that Stones show," he recalls. "As soon as the Ike & Tina Turner tracks came on, I just said out loud, 'Beth Hart.'  I emailed Kevin, saying, 'Let's do a soul covers record with Beth,' and he replied back, 'Actually, that's a great idea.'"

Thankfully the creative team of producer Shirley, Hart, and Bonamassa selected a set of standards, but avoided the obvious maneuver of choosing lowest common denominator super hits, and went with mostly deep catalog classics by stalwarts such as Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, Bill Withers, and Melody Gardot. The record speaks for itself, and there is a follow up coming next year, yet another tightly scheduled season.

Countless solo shows, several tours with his supergroup friends, three albums that are as good, or better than anything released this year in their respective genres, and there you have it. To my way of thinking, any one of the three Joe Bonamassas we have on exhibit here could have contended for musician of the year, but this cat knocks off a hat trick, all the while being one of the nicest, classiest, and regular guys on the planet.

2011 has been a great year for music. Great artists like Leslie West, Glenn Hughes, Nils Lofgren, Jeff Beck - they have all done work that may be the apex of their grand careers, but Joe Bonamassa may have trumped the deck this time.

Much thanks to Joe Bonamassa, Roy Weisman, Warren Cracknell, Colin Moody, Rachel Iverson, Brett Diaz, Glenn Hughes, Carmine Rojas, Tal Bergman, Rick Melick, Jason Bonham, Derek Sherinian, Peter Noble, and, of course, Libby Sokolowski, who brought me into the Bonamassa realm!

Very special thanks to Warren Cracknell, Joe's tour manager and sound engineer - pictured here with Libby Sokolowski!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nils Lofgren - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

Nils Lofgrens' latest solo record, Old School came out in November, and I called it maybe the best album I had heard in a year of great releases. In a year that has seen classic rock artists such as Leslie West, Glenn Hughes, and many others put out work that matched or even eclipsed their past glories, this is no faint praise. Old School is imbued with great songwriting, singing, and of course, heaps of tasty, brilliant guitar playing.

When the opportunity to speak with Lofgren came up, I was excited to hear his thoughts on the record - what I wasn't prepared for was being so impressed with the artist as a person. Not that I really should have been shocked - you don't get to work beside the best writers, and musicians of your day without having not only great musical skills, but also exceptional social skills. This interview turned out a bit different for me. Instead of being my usual semi-over chatty self, I was more than happy to allow Lofgren to speak with free reign, and I attempted to let his comments lead me to my subsequent questions. It was only when I listened back over our chat that it became apparent that I had followed the correct path. Nils Lofgren is a huge talent, but he has managed to remain humble. His 43 years on the road with the biggest names in rock, and as a leader of his many solo endeavors has made him a truly wise sage. He wouldn't use those words, but I feel perfectly free to do so. As I listened back to my recording of the interview, I realized that as I listened, I had learned, and for the I am always grateful.

I'll keep my editorial comments to a relative minimum, and let Lofgren's words elegantly speak for themselves.

RGD: Nils, congratulations on the new record. I've spent a lot of time with it, and it is one of my favorite releases of 2011.

Lofgren: Oh, thanks so much, Tony. I really worked very hard on it. I took my time, and felt like I really did something I could feel good about!

RGD: I had read some reviews before I heard the record, and it seemed that many were focusing on your angst, anger, and concerns over the state of the world, and your personal issues (Nils had both hips replaced several years ago, and had suffered through the deaths of close friends and bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons). However when I heard the record, I was most taken, not so much by any sense of vitriol, but rather a lot of resilience and hope, both in the writing and your voice. Was this your intention?

Lofgren: Yeah, I think that's very accurate. I just wanted it to be a very emotional journey through all the things that I was feeling at 60 years old. So I've got a little wisdom, a surprising amount of fear, anger, and concern about my planet and what's around me, but a lot of hope about the human spirit. I just wanted to write honestly about all of it. I'm very grateful to be in good shape - after two great tours with E-Street to come home, and I was excited to jump into my next batch of songs. I really feel good about how it came out.

RGD: The record has a great sound, very sonically satisfying and cohesive. How long did you spend writing, recording and mixing it?

Lofgren: Man, I chipped away at it for over a year, but it wasn't until the last four months that I really started getting into the twelve hour days - the focused tunnel vision, to get it done. Part of the record, the theme of it, is that I've been on the road for 43 years, and I do leave home too much. My family understands, but it does get harder as you get older, so I'm finding a balance between touring, keeping sharp musically, and just working -  staying at home, and helping my wife, Amy, with our six dogs, and being in the studio, but with the doors open. I always told her, like, 'Look, it's not like don't bother me, I'm busy being creative.' It's like, 'Bother me! I'm home, I'm here to help. If a dog needs to go to the vet, interrupt me - I can turn the machines off, it's not a public studio, it's my own homegrown room.' So, I could just do whatever needed to be done, I can run errands, I can go out with my wife. If I felt like turning the machines back on and working a couple of hours, I could just pick up where I had left off.

It was a very balanced purity making this record. I wanted to keep it emotional, so I set out to not even try recording anything until I could sing and play every song as a performance piece, not a work in progress to be crafted later. As a result, I got a lot of live vocals - 10 of the 12 vocals are live in the studio with the main guitar. It was a lot more fun to fill in the blanks and produce around it when I felt like I had a really good performance as the core.

RGD: Historically, your reputation has been as a tremendous live performer, and as a remarkable guitarist, yet it is a subtle album in terms of guitar histrionics - there are lots of amazing and tasty licks, but they never intrude on the songs, or your vocal performances. Is this a result of having worked with so many great artists and songs?

Lofgren: Well, thank you. As grateful as I am for my reputation as a guitarist and instrumentalist, I feel like I originally fell in love with music through The Beatles, The Stones, and songs. I still feel that I am a song player first, rather than a lick player. When I play music, I listen to the song and it kind of helps me to stay out of the way of the singer, and what's being said. There's always plenty of room to get to get licks in, but I think that is my main attribute, as opposed to being an instrumentalist looking to embellish the singer/songwriter - I'm a singer/songwriter playing an instrument.

RGD: You've said that Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen are your favorite songwriters. What have you been able to take from each of them?

Lofgren: Well, it began back in the '60s, really before I had heard those guys. I was listening to the whole explosion of the sixties - The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, the British Invasion, Motown, Stax/Volt, Holland, Dozier, and Holland, going back even to Burt Bacharach, all those great songs and songwriters, show songs even. My mom and dad danced and played big band show music as I was growing up. I studied and played classical accordion for ten years, and entered contests and competitions. I studied accordionists, and the best instrumental and classical pieces ever written - I got really inside of them as a musician, so I had a great background.

At this point, you want to do something that is authentic for yourself, but just the act of listening to the great songwriters in history, and certainly working in bands with Neil Young - doing records, crafting shows, and then performing them in front of people. Just by osmosis you get a very inside look at how a great writer presents his song. A lot of times, along the way, dealing with Bruce - he might have a song in progress, and you get to watch that from an inside track. But, it's no longer a thing of emulating or imitating. That's all gotten to be a part of my experience and inspiration, and just as a natural thing you look for stuff you like to go by, and you grab on to something you can be proud of.

RGD: Let's talk about a song on Old School, that you must be proud of, Dream Big. How did this one develop? The arrangement is brilliant, utilizing electronic sounding beats, a harp, strings that bring to mind Philadelphia soul via Gamble and Huff, and the mantra, "dream big, work hard, stay humble."

Lofgren: Yeah, thanks. That's an unusual piece! It all started when my wife, Amy, got me a harp - a lever harp, for Christmas two years ago. I was just picking out some early stuff on it, trying to find my way around a few simple licks, and you lean it against your shoulder and you play the harp with two hands. I was standing in our guest room, watching NFL football, and it just stands there, so I started picking it backwards - just plucking out notes, and I came up with that little riff. It's a very dark and haunting riff, and I just noodled in my brain, 'you gotta dance a lot....sing a lot,' you know, work hard, be humble. It developed into a song, and then it got a bit more ominous in the sense that, from my perspective it's not extracurricular anymore - I need to keep dreaming big, and try to find a way to stay humble and work hard. Even if you're crippled, dance in your head, dance in your heart, find a way to feel like you are still growing and learning. Otherwise, at 60, I'd be screwed. This was just a somewhat ominous presentation of these themes.

When you get older and you're an adult, you keep looking at the childish things, and they can really hurt or kill you - but child-like things, things that are joyous, that don't hurt anybody, and on the contrary engage people of any age are beautiful. To keep your head and heart open for experiences - especially as you get older.

RGD: Let's stay with the theme of aging. Since your hip replacements, are you able to still enjoy a little basketball?

Lofgren: I can go out and shoot around, and play horse, I just have to accept that I can't play the violent three on three games that I used to play. My new hips just can't handle that. I mistakenly thought that when I got my new hips that I had ordered the ones with Flubber, and that I'd be able to leap and fly, and dunk, and be good to go, but the doctor told me that the trampoline has to stay in the closet - no more flips off of drum risers, and I can't play basketball like I used to, unless I wanted to be a cripple. I was hobbling around for years with the pain, so I'm going to take good care of them. I'm jumping around and dancing onstage, I just can't do the violent impacts that I used to do - but, yeah, I can shoot around and re-live the glory days as I look for new and less harmful ways to use my new hips.

Actually, this new song, Dream Big, that we were just talking about, I'm playing harp with my right hand, I'm tap dancing - the percussion you hear is me tap dancing through a gated reverb and an octave divider. It's a very unusual piece that I do live - then I pick up the guitar, play a solo, and then I go back to the harp. There's a lot of stuff going on there - it's all along the lines of dreaming big, Tony.

(In an unintentional demonstration of his abilities as a multi-tasker, Nils sent me a link to the excellent Youtube video of the song, shot by Rose A. Montana at a Lofgren solo show in New Jersey back in October, as he gave his commentary on the song. I was not surprised, but I was impressed. He's one graceful cat.)

RGD: Speaking of plucking out notes, Nils, could you tell me how you developed your unique right hand technique of playing guitar, in which you utilize a thumb pick, fingerpicking, and touch/tap harmonics?

Lofgren: Sure. When I picked up the guitar as a hobby, my brother started showing me chords, and then I took a few lessons from some great local musicians. One in particular, Bill Singer, had me learn a piece by Chet Atkins, doing The Beatles song, Can't Buy Me Love. It was months of hard work, learning to play a bassline that was static and never changing ( he hums the part to demonstrate), and while that doesn't alter rhythmically - it just moved through the chords, the different bass notes, and to pick the melody up on the higher strings, it was very difficult. One of the hardest things I ever did, and once I got to the end of the piece, I had a whole new key to the kingdom of fingerpicking that I still use to this day! To kind of keep some low grooves going while I do different rhythms with the higher notes - and to this day it is a huge part of my technique. I picked up a thumb pick one day out of a guitar case, and I didn't know any better, so I got the hang of the thumbpick down. My local players said I had to play rock and roll with a flat pick - I said, 'Look, I can't stand stinking up the joint for ten more months with a new pick, I'm gonna stay with the thumbpick. It's really more of a country thing, but I've applied it to rock and roll and harmonics, and just found a style that worked for me.

RGD: Last night, as I was doing some prep for this interview, I stumbled upon an old video clip of you jamming with Roy Buchanan, and as I watched, I noticed Roy was watching you play, and he was just smiling away. He seemed fascinated by your technique.

Lofgren: Well, I have a different perspective on that from some people, Tony. I think Roy, knowing he was my hero, realized that he had invited a 19 year old guitar player on to the stage who was so excited and over-amped that he couldn't shut up. All I did was to play hard and fast, and I was just too immature to even think, and too nervous to think, 'Oh, why don't you shut up, and let Roy play something.' Finally, near the end, I think you can see Roy just smiling at me, realizing that I don't have any maturity, and he just starts de-tuning his guitar like a sound effect - 'Well, there's no room for my licks, so let me just make some noise to accompany him, since I've only been playing rhythm.' That was a great honor, but when I watch that I just cringe, because I was just like, 'Man, you're just too young and stupid to shut up and to trade licks with Roy,' and I have to accept that. Yeah, that's right. I still do stupid things, hopefully less than I did back then, but it was still a great honor to be asked to participate with one of my heroes.

RGD: Going back to the new record, let's continue on the theme of maturity. 60 Is The New 18 is one of my favorite tunes on the record, but it sounds to me as if you're playing the role of commentator more than as the subject of the song, who seems to be having a rough go of things, am I correct?

Lofgren: I'm surprised at 60, how much hope and naivete I've still retained to survive, and that's mixed with some angst, fear, and anxiety about my planet. There's this vision when you're a child that when somebody makes it to 60, they're in a recliner watching TV, the kids are bringing the soup and drinks, and you are this revered character, when in fact, you're like a Rodney Dangerfield, and nobody gives a shit! You have to have a sense of humor about it, but the character in the song is, of course, having a much rougher time with it than I am. I took the liberty of expressing this for people that are struggling with an older age. The thing is, there's a lot of wisdom, but there's also a lot of fear and anxiety that comes with it, and you have to work really hard to temper it all - the guy in the song is not doing such a good job of it at the moment.

RGD: Another poignant moment on the record is the song, I Miss You Ray - dedicated to Ray Charles, but it also has become a tribute to your friend and bandmate Clarence Clemons. You've been including mention of the big man in  the lyrics at your recent solo shows. Had you written this tune before, or after the death of Mr. Clemons?

Lofgren: That was written months before Clarence passed, and again, in keeping with some passionate topics. Ray Charles was one of my heroes, and it was a rough loss a couple of years back, so I used it as a metaphor for that. If you stick around long enough, you start having to say goodbye to family and friends, and it's really tough. You have to realize, and I hope that some of us have family and friends left, that life can be grand, but you really have to once again temper the two. I used the loss of Ray as a metaphor for that, and certainly the great loss of losing my friend Clarence - I've been singing, 'I miss you, C,' in my live shows and unfortunately it's a very appropriate song in which to tailor the lyrics that way.

RGD: Old School features performances by three of the greatest vocalists in history, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, Lou Gramm (ex-Foreigner), and Paul Rodgers. You still sing the lead on the songs, but they contribute tremendously. How did you go about arranging their parts, and putting the songs on which they sang together? 

Lofgren: Sam Moore and I, we sang together here in the studio in Arizona, which was one of the highlights of my performing career as a singer. Paul and Lou did their own tracks, and I was so honored that they were game to do it. What I did was just send them the music - I sent them some ideas and encouraged them to come up with anything they would hear that would be different than my ideas. I can't sing like either one of them, so fortunately, they did just that. They took some of the groundwork of what I may have initially heard - coming and going, they came up with their own ideas in addition to mine, they crafted parts they were comfortable with, and the end result, to me, was just beautiful. I was thrilled and honored to have the help of three great singers like that, and they are good friends - they were very open to helping me, and I could call them up directly and ask for their help with my project. It really speaks volumes about the classy people they are, and they are three of the greatest singers of all time. It even surprised me when I got the tracks back, but that's what you want, isn't it?

RGD: That is so cool. So, with the record now out, what does 2012 hold in store for you, Nils? More shows to promote the album? (This interview was conducted before today's announcement of shows this summer by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band)

Lofgren: Greg Varlotta and I have two dates booked in February, on the 18th and 19th at The Birchmere Theater in Alexandria, Virginia. In the next few weeks I'll see about booking some more work - we'll get out next year and do our own shows wherever we can, and try to spread the word about my new record and keep playing.

RGD: Nils, it's a great record, and I'll do what I can to help you spread the word - thanks for making such a wonderful album.

Lofgren: Hey, thank you so much, man. I'm really very thrilled that you feel that way - I'm proud of the record, so it's heartening to hear that. It's great when what you're trying to do gets through. I appreciate your letting people know about it, because that's what I'll be doing for the next year!

RGD: Hey Nils, just one more thing before I let you go. What with you being right there in Scottsdale, why on Earth has Fender not yet done a Nils Lofgren signature Stratocaster?

Lofgren: You know what? They are always so very helpful. The Fender plant is just up the road from me, and they are all really, really nice guys, but that's a lot of bureaucracy and politics, and I'm not here to twist anyone's arm! If they want me to do it, I'd be happy to, but I'm not into....I'm into writing the next song and figuring out my next gig, but I would do that when they felt it was appropriate. All right, man, thanks a lot, and take care, Tony.

Nils Lofgren - dreaming big, working hard, and staying humble....

Much thanks to Nils and Jeff Allbright at The Allbright Entertainment Group.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Layla Zoe - Sleep Little Girl - Five Big Stars

I spent a few minutes trying to give this piece a clever title. I kicked around Whole Lotta Layla, then I considered The Autobiography of a Blues Singer, but then I decided to get the hell out of the way, and let the record speak for itself.

Sleep Little Girl is a firestorm of a record - the sixth solo release by the self-titled firegirl, and one that will greatly increase the Canadian singer's already international fanbase. Zoe is joined by German blues guitarist Henrik Freischlader, who not only composed all the music, but also played almost all of the instruments, save for the song Let's Get Crazy, which has bass and organ supplied by Moritz Fuhrhop.

I'd been listening to this record almost constantly for two days, and being very impressed by the cohesion of the band, the first question I asked Layla was who was in the band. I about fell out of my seat when she told me that Freischlader has played them all himself. The man is amazing - from the slinky groove of Give It To Me, to the high octane Zep-a-like stomper Rock and Roll Guitar Man, Henrik is world class on every instrument, and you would never know it was a one man show were you not told.

It is to Layla Zoe's everlasting credit that Henrik's performance is not the album's strongest point, for as brilliant as the one man band may be, it's clearly the sultry songstress's album. Everything I've ever read about her included the inevitable comparisons to Janis Joplin, and while that's rather obvious, she is a serious student of music of all types, and her stylings far surpass any sense of mere imitation. I asked about influences, and as I had imagined, she gave me a very impressive list.

"I'm really a guitar girl!" she laughed, "I listen mostly to artists like Roy Buchanan, Frank Zappa, and Peter Green, but I'm quite sure that Billie Holiday, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Susan Tedeschi, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Eva Cassidy, and Joni Mitchell all had an influence on my vocal stylings."

Sleep Little Girl is full of autobiographical musings. Zoe wears her heart firmly on her sleeve, and you can tell by listening that she doesn't have to look far for inspiration. She reaches deep, and tells deep truths. She doesn't spare herself, or her audience - this is the blues, and this is how they were meant to be sung.

Layla said, "Pretty much all of this album comes from personal experiences - my observations on current and past experiences. Sleep Little Girl is a lullaby to myself, as I suffer from mild to extreme insomnia on the road sometimes. Singing My Blues - a true belief that I will be sing the blues until the day i die. Black Oil is about my true belief that the world was coming to an end during the news coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Rock and Roll Guitar Man, well, that's about a guitar player I fell in love with, and so on and so forth..."

Zoe may be the consummate blues singer, but there's a huge dose of rock and roll strewn across this platter, and her melodic abilities and expressive phrasing imply that there was a healthy dose of Robert Plant next to her turntable somewhere down the road. Freischlader's tunes are seldom twelve bar basics - he's a sophisticated composer who covers an amazing amount of stylistic territory, yet manages to keep it between the ditches, and the album never sounds anything but cohesive.

Zoe described the process of their collaboration as such: "I had written many lyrics and poems, as I write often. Henrik gave me demos of a bunch of music he had written. I took the songs I liked from the demos, added melodies with my voice, and out of my words to the songs I thought best suited the lyrics. It was a very organic thing - it was not thought out. It just happened that these were my favorite pieces of music he had written, and my words seemed to fit perfectly! We both had a part in the sound and the feel of the record. Working with him was so natural, it really felt as if it were meant to be."

That it does, indeed. In fact, so much so that her saying that this collaboration was meant to be almost seems an understatement. The music is married to the words in a way you seldom see, as if the moods of the melodies somehow existed only to serve these songs. It sounds like a band that has been working together for years, not like a paste up Pro Tools job. Made with love by a couple of pros at the tops of their games.

I've Been Down is a thick slice of proto-metallic/blues the likes of which Beck and Page were producing in the late 60s. As muscular as Freischlader's backing track is, it's Zoe who nails you up against the wall with a wail that harkens the very gods of blues rock. An auspicious beginning, which primes the pump and revs up the record. For a fellow known primarily as a lava hot guitarist, Henrik Freischlader's bass playing is as good as anyone you'd care to hear.

Straight away from the heavy rock onslaught of the opener, Give It To Me brings a fancy, funky strut that features fatback drums, skronky wah'd guitars, and a rubber band bass line that makes dancing an impossibility. This is as sexy as a song can get - Layla Zoe makes no bones about the mission she's on - she's not begging for it, she's demanding it. And most likely getting it. Her vocal power will knock you out of your seat.

Shimmering tremolo guitars against a very loose, open rhythm track makes Singing My Blues sound like it was constructed for a David Lynch soundtrack - very atmospheric and heady. Zoe's phrasing is sophisticated as the track, and when she goes for the low notes, you will swoon right along with her. Freischlader's guitar solo is a textural playground that suggests there's little in the lexicon that he's not absorbed. A primer for any want to be soul singing sister, this is a proud proclamation of Layla Zoe's mission statement.

Let's Get Crazy is the closest the record comes to the heart of the blues, as Henrik is joined by Moritz Fuhrhop, who plays some soulful Hammond organ and some nice walking bass. Zoe's vocal acrobatics save this one from being a bit predictable, and she delivers a sizzling performance.

I'm guessing that if you stripped Layla Zoe's incredible vocals off of these tunes, you'd still have a helluva record, and you may even get the gist of the titles without the words. Black Oil is another cinematic trip down soundtrack lane, as the chanteuse solemnly sings her hymn of pain, and black rain that is sure to follow the tragedy of the BP oil spill. This song speaks to one specific situation, but also covers the ground of a multitude of sins perpetrated against Mother Earth by ruthless profiteers. Henrik Freischlader milks this tune for every drop of emotion he can muster - it lasts over nine minutes, and you're still sorry to hear it end. If this song had come out in 1971 instead of 2011, the Layla Zoe would be the name of a jet airliner.

Another Bonham-esque piece of drumming rings in Pull Yourself Together, and yet as big and blustery as the arrangement is, it's still Zoe who commands the ship from the bridge. As a guitarist, the German six stringer is incendiary - pulling every bend, slur, and run he has in his vocabulary out on this one. His solo is a blinder, and it's very clear that Layla gave him full reign to ride - I hear a lot of blues band leaders keeping their sidemen on leashes, and it's a thrill to hear when someone is given license to strut his stuff.

I Hope She Loves You Like I Do would have been a huge soul single in the late 60s, and while it offers no surprises, it does exactly what it is supposed to do, and the performances keep it from bogging down in familiarity. My least favorite song on the album, but it's still damned good. 

A modulating bass line and some shimmering, chorused guitars gently introduce Hippy Chick, and Zoe is at her autobiographical best as she lays out her mantras of freedom. The blues always wears a little psychedelia well, and this waves its freak flag high, and proud. This makes me miss Free, back when Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser were still seeing eye to eye, and Rodgers was not yet seeking bad company. Feisty redhead? Yeah, Zoe describes herself better than we ever could - she knows herself and has no shyness, hesitation, or compunction about spelling it out. 

Rock and Roll Guitar Man delivers the big rock in spades, as super saturated pentatonic guitar licks, a loping bass line, laid back beat, and a singer barely tethered to this planet take this one to the time of Led Zeppelin's first tours of America. Zoe and Freischlader joust from beginning to end, as each seems able to take it as high as it needs to go. This one will have audiences going wild this month as the pair cross Germany on their Fall tour. This is great rock and roll, and boy do we need it. 

After the extreme onslaught of Rock and Roll Guitar Man, it's time to relax and ride this record off to the stables, and Zoe does it with a proper lullaby. The album's title song is a gentle good night - Layla can purr as well as she can roar, and accompanied by only an Appalachian acoustic guitar track, she brings us down gently, and bids us good night.

Sleep Little Girl is one of the finest rock and roll records I've heard all year - it's also one of the finest blues records I've heard this year. No matter how you slice it, it is the best record Layla Zoe has yet delivered, and if it doesn't make her a big star, well then, there's little right in the world. I asked her how she felt about the record, and her plans for 2012.

She said, "I plan to keep gigging, and promoting the heck out of Sleep Little Girl, as I personally feel it is the best thing I've ever done. I'm very excited to share it with as many music lovers as possible. I hope to get over to America at some point, and I believe I will. The US is hard to cross into for musicians, with the border and the small money to be made in clubs if you're name is unknown. I'm just waiting for the right time and opportunity. Until then, I'm mostly focused on Canada, and parts of Europe. Someone contacted me online for a German gig in 2009. I have been there ever since - they have a great blues scene, and they really appreciate what I am doing. I met Henrik at that first gig in 2009, he was hired to be my back up band. The rest is history.

"I was struggling so much to survive when I was sixteen years old. I don't think I would have believed then that I would be here now. I would not have believed it"

I'd like to thank Layla for answering my questions before heading out for a month long tour of Germany - she is a trooper.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nils Lofgren - Old School

"Dream big, work hard, stay humble." Nils Lofgren.

As I peruse the public relations blurbs, and early reviews, I'm reading a lot about Nils Lofgren's new release, Old School, and while everyone is talking edgy anger, and vitriol, I don't see it. What I do see is a consummate song stylist who is looking at a couple of rough years and singing some world weary tunes in a very hopeful voice. Lofgren is in great voice, his guitar playing is as jaw droppingly brilliant as ever, but it's his songwriting that has drawn me deeply into this record. This is a great record that will stay in your head through many listenings. It hasn't been off my screen for a week, and it's still growing on me.

Lofgren is coming through a difficult double hip replacement just three years ago, and the deaths of longtime E Street Band members, Clarence Clemons, and Danny Federici. He's also had enough time off of the road to take a long look at the tough shape our country is in. He may be reflective, and at times edgy, but as I listen to this disc, I hear tremendous resilience and hope in his voice and in his melodies.

Conceived and recorded in his home studio, this record sounds great and I was surprised to hear that Lofgren recorded it mostly live, without a lot of overdubs or layering. Years of live performance have honed the singer/guitarist's skills. The guitar work on Old School is nothing short of brilliant - he somehow manages to fill every nook and cranny with lyrical, and tasty forays that never sound forced, or self indulgent. It's no small wonder that Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have kept Lofgren employed for over forty years.

Lofgren kicks it off with the title tune, and Old School is a great way to start - Lofgren's state of the union message. Greasy, slip sliding guitars strut from front to back, and some killer horns keep things moving as Lofgren is joined by ex-Foreigner frontman Lou Gramm on the first chorus and the remainder of the song. Lofgren proclaims, "Oh no, ain't no old school anymore," but I beg to differ. This is very old school, and it flat out rocks - it reminds me of the days when Aerosmith still had their groove.

60 Is The New 18 sees Lofgren waxing on the inelegance of growing old without grace. I suspect that Nils is telling this tale as a wry observer more than anything autobiographical here. Sonically, this sounds like a lo-fi dub take on the 80s school of intelligent and melodic guitar pop as practiced by The Police, or The Fixx. This should have a whole generation of indie rockers realizing that homegrown, handmade records needn't sound that way. Lofgren and his band sound like they spent ages working up these arrangements, but they are mostly live basic tracks, some guitar overdubs, and a few vocal fixes. The instrumental breakdown sounds like the love child of Andy Summers, and Billy Gibbons - it will have you scratching your head, and wondering where such brilliance can be bought.

Paying tribute to the voice of Ray Charles, I Miss You, Ray is a song that you know is a classic the minute you hear the first notes (think James Taylor's Fire and Rain). Nils Lofgren's guitar playing is as tremendously identifiable as ever - his touch and tone are sublime, whether he is playing electric, or as on this tune, acoustic. The rolling, laconic notes remind me of many Paul McCartney classics, as the moment you hear them, their intent and meaning are abundantly clear. As a vocalist, Lofgren is in fantastic form - his smoky resonance is endearing, as if a friend was singing to you in your living room.

It turns out that during all those years of incendiary guitar solos, and trampoline flips, Lofgren was listening very closely to the wordplay of his notably poetic ex-employers. Throughout this entire record, Lofgren assumes the position of wise bard, writing lyrics that are heart felt and compelling. Love Stumbles On is a look back over a life of broken dreams and hearts, yet love soldiers on bravely, and one never gets the notion that Lofgren is anything but hopeful.

Amy Joan Blues kicks the energy up  a notch - it's a cajun-esque romp that features one of the greatest voices to ever grace rock and roll, Paul Rodgers. Throwing lines casually back and forth, Lofgren and Rodgers sound like they've been singing together all their lives - a couple of old pros just doing what they do. Lofgren plays some amazing slide guitar from beginning to end and never seems to repeat the same lick twice.This is a somewhat standard piece of roots rock that is tremendously elevated by some superb performances.

Nils has been featuring Irish Angel in his solo shows for years, and has now recorded what will be the definitive version of the Bruce McCabe written ballad. Maybe one of the best ballads you've never heard, it's a tearjerker that has Lofgren lamenting that he'll have two drinks, one to forget, and one to remember his Irish angel. Beautifully played and sang, this one will stay on your mind long after listening.

Rock and roll Hall of Fame inductee Sam Moore (Sam and Dave) joins Lofgren on the autobiographical Ain't Too Many of Us Left. This makes me wish that somewhere along the line the six stringer had served as musical director for Bob Dylan. A very deceptive, and Stonesy rhythm sounds simple until you listen close and hear the interplay going on between the band on this cut. Yeah, they're old school as hell, and razor sharp, as Lofgren bemoans too much B-ball, too many flips, and artificial hips, all the while noting along with Moore that there ain't too many of us left.

If I had to pick one word to describe this album, I'd say that that word would have to be soulful. When Lofgren sings, "you were mine, when you were mine," it evokes memories of country ballads, haunting loss, and graceful resignation. Words sung by a less skilled vocalist could sound trite, but when Nils sings them you don't doubt that they are straight from the heart. This is another song that has a subtly beautiful arrangement with some nice synth pads, and Lofgren's beautiful acoustic guitar fills.

It takes Lofgren nine songs to finally uncork one that will have you saying, oh yeah, he has played with Springsteen for a quarter of a century. Straight Jersey shore rock with an upfront organ and a loping guitar line, Just Because You Love Me is a heartfelt paean from a man to his wife. This is a cut that lets you far enough into the artist's world to know that the hope he conveys in his voice is well placed.

Dream Big unfolds against sample laden electronic rhythms, and some sweet Philadelphia soul strings that keep getting cooler, and cooler as Lofgren lays down an impassioned rap that contains the most important message I've heard in a song for a very long time. This is street music circa 2011. With lines like, "love like a work of art," this song is an instruction manual on how one must live in perilous times. The angst comes flying out when Nils straps on his '61 Strat and knocks down walls with a stunning solo that is half emotional outburst and half technical wizardry - Lofgren's style is completely unique. His sound is tailor made and handcrafted.

Another heart on his sleeve ballad follows, with Let Her Get Away. It tells the tale of a man who just can't find the way to let go of a lost love. Lofgren's gentle, wispy acoustic guitar is the perfect accompaniment for the song, as Nils describes what dooms him to lose all love subsequent to losing the one he let get away. A beautiful prayer of contemplative resignation.

After evoking the spirit of Neil Young with a tasty bit of guitar squawk in the intro of Why Me, Lofgren is again examining his psyche as he wonders if there is "any hope in my catastrophe." I'm guessing that anyone who gives this a listen will be able to relate to this on many levels. Incredibly personal, but also universal, Nils's lyrics sing to and for every man.

Nils Lofgren's legend is based on guitar histrionics, vaulting into somersaults off of drum risers, being a dependable sideman, and occasional solo artist. Old School may be his most well realized solo foray, and is a marvelous album for our times, as well as his - the pains and woes he sings of are those of all of us in these turbulent times, but it is his sense of hope and perseverance that has kept me listening to this record repeatedly, and digging it more with each subsequent listening.

Old School is one of the finest records I have heard this year, and it's been a pretty good year. A great album for our times - it is a bit sad and reflective, but willing to do the work to make things right.

You should buy this record today.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Joe Walsh - Long May He Run

My buddy Joe Kroger calls me about a week ago. Asks me what I'm up to next Thursday evening. I tell him I have no plans - and he tells me not to make any, he has something lined up and I'll like it. I have this thing about first names. I always trust guys named Joe. Kind of like the way guys named Charlie are generally good eggs. So, when I get the word from Joe, I know I'm good.

Turns out he had grabbed a couple of tickets to see the sold out Joe Walsh concert at the Taft Theater in Cincinnati. Like I said, You can trust a cat named Joe.

The first time I had seen Joe Walsh in concert, he hadn't even yet joined the Eagles. He was still blowing folks away with his cadre of Colorado killers, Barnstorm. That was probably around 1975.

The years were good to Joe, often times better than Joe was to himself.

The next time I saw Joe, well, it was kind of funny. I worked as guitar salesman at the Guitar Center store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. A glamorous gig, indeed, but not without its tribulations. At least a couple of times a day, some poor unfortunate derelict would find his way into the store and become a nuisance. Working on the guitar floor, we were the sentries, assigned to remove these vagrants, and to keep the scene safe and secure for our shoppers.

I'm working the floor one day, and my boss comes up and nudges my shoulder - "Hey Tony, you've got a cleanup by the vintage wall." We called them cleanups, short for supermarket talk, as in, you've got a cleanup on aisle four.

It was one of those days when I wasn't in the best of moods, and probably hadn't made a sale that day, so I may have been a bit surly.

This guy was reeling - wobbling from side to side, doing the back and forth shuffle at two in the afternoon, and smelling like a distillery. I strolled up, grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around, preparing to say, "Hey man, you can't be in here."

I spin the greasy haired blond guy around, and sure as shit - it's Joe Walsh.

Joe says (slurs), "Hey man, how you doin'?"

Well, I'm just a bit shocked, and just a bit starstruck. We dealt with pros every day at GC, but this was a rare sighting. Walsh was a connoisseur's connoisseur when it came to vintage guitars. He had given Jimmy Page a '59 Gibson Les Paul Standard, and gifted Pete Townshend with the Gretsch Pete played on Who's Next. Joe himself was rarely seen playing anything except very nice old Strats and Les Pauls.

He looked up at the guitar wall and pointed to our current centerpiece, a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard - this is back in the days when you could buy one for what we thought was an astronomical price, but seems like spare change in retrospect.

I grabbed a ladder and fetched the prized relic. It wasn't the greatest example you'd ever see - it wasn't highly flamed and it had been well played over the years, but it weighed next to nothing, and the PAFs were as sweet as could be.

Joe said, "I'll take it!" Mind you, he hadn't even played it, he had simply held it, and smiled widely.

I told him that with tax, it would be just under $14,000. Walsh said, "That's cool. Somebody from the office will call you later, OK?"

I said that would be fine, and wondered if I'd hear back from anyone at all, as Joe was well into the wind at that point - about three sheets, as they say. But, sure enough, a little later that afternoon, I get a call and was given directions for payment and shipping.

I learned something that day about judging books from covers, or some such....

The next time I saw Joe Walsh, he was even more intoxicated than he had been that day at the shop. This was perhaps 1990, and Walsh and The Who's John Entwistle were literally laying on the floor at the Yamaha Guitars booth at the NAMM show in Anaheim. They were drunkenly jamming in their nearly supine positions, and in no condition to speak, but they were still playing quite well. It was great for a giggle, but also a trifle sad to see them legless at eleven in the morning.

I saw the guitarist once more, this time in 1998 at Konocti Harbor Resort in Clear Lake, California. Talk about big changes, Walsh was now a practicing Buddhist, and completely sober. He played a blinder of a set, as always.

Fast forward to 2011 - Walsh is on his first solo tour in some time, and playing with a new set of musicians for the first time in many years.

Fast forward to 2011, and a night out with a couple of Joes in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The cheers went up with the dimming of the lights, Welcome To The Club started the set, and that is exactly how it felt. The club was open, and the audience was dialed up and tuned in for the Joe Walsh experience - blazing guitars, catchy classic tunes, the customary dose of humor, and if you noticed some good production values.

Walsh's band was tight, and each member shined when they had their moments in the spotlight. The lineup featured two drummers, and their interlocking rhythms sounded fantastic. Joe even gave his co-guitarist several solos, and they were elegant and tasty. Three backups singers supported Walsh's vocals beautifully, and they received a huge ovation for carrying a splendid cover of Dylan's, I Shall Be Released.

The hits were flowing like a river as Walsh stepped through his career with tunes from The James Gang, to his long solo career, and straight on through to his Eagles days. He even played a new song, Wrecking Ball, off of his soon to be released album Analog Man. The record was produced by Jeff Lynne, and this song sounds like another Walsh classic, and it bodes well for the new record. You can hear the Lynne influence in the thick rhythms and lush backing vocals, but the tune itself is right from the canon of Joe.

Nobody goes to see Joe Walsh without expecting some great guitar playing, and the six stringer gave the crowd exactly what they came for. He's playing as well, if not better than ever. Once again he has rearranged the intro to Turn To Stone, but the audience was keyed in from the first chord as Walsh strummed some lovely passing chords, along with a select few incredibly melodic single note lines before squaring off with his duo of drummers to bring on the classic chords that signal the song's body - throughout the entire tune Walsh's frequent solo forays kept raising the bar higher and higher as he showed once again that he had digested completely the English lexicon of rock and roll guitar as prescribed by Drs. Page, Beck, and Clapton before he ever left Kent to ride with The James Gang. His stock as a guitarist has suffered over the years due to his job with the Eagles, and his comedic bent, but make no mistake, Joe Walsh is, was, and shall always be a guitar hero, first and foremost.

The crowd went completely bonkers when Walsh's tech made his way to the mic to attach the famed Talk Box, and we were treated to a lovely and lengthy rendition of Rocky Mountain Way. He revisited James Gang hits Funk #49, and Walk Away, and his voice and guitar sounded as vital as they had all those years ago. Several Eagle's smashes showed up in the set, with the classic guitar riffage of Life In The Fast Lane being exceptionally incendiary. Walsh then gave another nod to his Northern Ohio roots with a pretty rendition of the Michael Stanley penned, Rosewood Bitters. A few nuggets, a whole slew of huge hits, and an always ample dose of great Walsh guitar work left the sold out audience ecstatic.

Like I said, you can always count on a guy named Joe, and my friend Kroger, and Mr. Walsh proved the point splendidly.

Is it too early to nominate Walsh for another run at the Presidency? I mentioned production values earlier - all through the night, Walsh played before some extremely cool films being played on huge backdrops above and behind the stage. From huge processions of Buddhist monks, to many scenes depicting in stark reality what is happening in this country, Walsh made some great points without ever saying a word. He creates jobs, he pleases his constituency, he does what he promises to do, and he doesn't overstay his welcome. Yeah, both Joes have my vote for 2012, they'd make for a hell of a ticket.

Joe Walsh's new album, Analog Man, will be out in February, 2012.