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!