Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Wrecking Crew Movie - A Great Tribute

"'The Wrecking Crew' documentary by Denny Tedesco is a must see. It opens our eyes to one of the most unique group of musicians in contemporary music. They are the well from which the rest of us have drawn." Leland Sklar.
You may be forgiven for not knowing Leland Sklar. His leonine visage may actually be more familiar, what with him having graced the stage as the 'go to' bassist for James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Genesis, Toto, and countless other acts for the last few decades. He should be better known for being one of the most recorded and talented musicians in modern history. Leland's skills as a session player are legendary - session players are musicians who, in the words of Wikipedia, "...are instrumental or vocal performers who are available to work with others at live performances or recording sessions. Usually such performers are not a permanent part of a musical ensemble and often do not achieve fame in their own right as soloists or bandleaders." Boy, that's a little clinical, but it sure says a mouthful.

The records of acts that were the creations of marketing and record company executives, such as The Monkees, and The Archies are well known to have largely been the work of behind the scenes session players. However, not so well known is the work of unofficial and loosely membered groups (collectives?) known as The Funk Brothers, The Muscle Shoal Rhythm Section, The Nashville A-Team, The Section (which included Sklar), MFSB, and The Wrecking Crew. These six aggregations created records that sold more copies than most likely did The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Elvis combined.

The Funk Brothers - they were Motown's men, playing the music that made Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and many others so successful. In fact, many experts consider Motown bassist James Jamerson to have been the greatest session musician of all time. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were The Swampers mentioned in Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama - providing the soulful and muscular backing for Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, The Staple Singers, and most every other act that mattered out of the American South in that era. The Nashville A-Team owned the country & western charts throughout the 1950s and '60s. The Section defined the singer/songwriter sound out of California in the '70s. MFSB were TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia), creators of the masterful tracks of The Stylistics, The O'Jays, Wilson Pickett, The Spinners, and Teddy Pendergrass.

Then there is The Wrecking Crew. This nickname was coined by Drummer Hal Blaine, perhaps long after the fact - allegedly echoing the words of the previous generation of serious, suit wearing, note reading sessioners who claimed that these young, unshaven upstarts with their noisy rock and roll would 'wreck the music business.'

The Wrecking Crew first became known as the team of musicians utilized by studio prodigy/pop producer Phil Spector. It featured a revolving team of talent that included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel, Hal Blaine, Howard Roberts, Al Casey, and many others. Whether the Crew's largest legend is The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, or maybe being the musicians who created Spector's famous 'Wall of Sound,' it may safely be said that no other group of musicians ever played on more hit records. To say that they were the major pop/rock music making machine of the American '60s and '70s is an accurate statement.

Leland Sklar adds, "The 'Wrecking Crew' were the guys, just before my run started. I was in a band in 1966, and when we went into the studio it was those guys who played on our record. I sat there looking through the window in United A studio, and was in awe. There was Hal Baine, Jim Gordon, Bobby West, Tommy Tedesco, Mike Deasey, Dennis Budimir, Mike Melvoine, Larry Knechtel, Mike Rubini, and others. Within three years I was working with these guys on a daily basis. They were my mentors. A more fun and giving bunch of characters you could not have asked for."

I'm sure that most of you reading this are aware that Tommy Tedesco's son, Denny, has made a full length documentary called The Wrecking Crew. I've just viewed a private copy, and I can tell you - it is the best film you will ever see about one of the most exciting times in musical history. It stands proudly beside Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the award winning documentary that so wonderfully told the story of Detroit's Funk Brothers, as a musical bookend to that fabulous era of record making. Tedesco has compiled an incredibly loving, and touching tribute to these musicians, their time, and their place in musical history.

Even though I already knew most of the stories the film tells before I ever saw it, I will still be going back and re-watching this documentary for years to come - for the sheer joy that it brings. Tedesco has done a fine, fine job of pacing, mixing interview clips compiled over the years with still photos, and filmed scenes from behind the scenes as the music was made. It is the kind of film that will have you wondering where the last two hours went. As I said, I knew most of these tales previously, but what an enjoyable flight to take, to finally be able to watch the telling of these anecdotes in such an entertaining way. Everyone I have talked to that has seen the film agrees - it is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.

Sadly, the days of the session player have largely passed. To a large degree, it died off alongside the record business. In fact, this movie is suffering for a lack of commercial release itself. It's been lauded far and wide, screened for thousands, but due to the huge expense of licensing the amazing music contained within (some 130 song clips), it remains unreleased. It seems that the record companies are so pinched for profits that they can't see the wisdom of foregoing a license fee, in spite of the fact that the movie will surely stir up an avalanche of sales for back catalog when the film does (if it does) get publicly released. If nothing else they should forgive the licensing as a thank you to the musicians involved, letting the players now get the well deserved credit that avoided them in their primes.

Denny Tedesco and his team are now showing the film in private screenings being sponsored around the country in order to raise the funds necessary for the film to be shown to the public. 

When I say that the film has garnered great and loving reviews, I kid not. Here's a sampling from some folks you may know:
"A wonderful, touching, and hilarious film about the unsung heroes of so many songs that you carry in your heart." Elvis Costello

"It was incredible! I felt like I was sitting right there with them at that table. It had everything that I wanted to see, and more that I didn't expect. Thank you for making this film!" Peter Frampton

"Denny Tedesco has given us an amazing look at a musical moment in history that everyone who loves rock and roll should see." Christopher Guest (director and star of Spinal Tap, and other great mockumentaries)

"The Wrecking Crew is in the league of the best music documentaries ever made!" Dan Forte, Vintage Guitar Magazine, Dec. 2009

"If I had known they were available, I would have used them on my records! The Wrecking Crew is the best documentary yet about the recording scene. I loved it." Steve Miller (Gangster of Love)

"They were the unsung heroes - if those guys were playing sessions today, they would be known, people would know about them. It would be something more than just session musicians." Cher

"I highly recommend this to everyone to see. It's terrific, hard hitting with the right punches, and filmed as only experienced, and fine filmmakers can do. I know your revealing film will be enjoyed and appreciated by the public for years to come." Carol Kaye
 Carol Kaye? Isn't she on record as being vehemently against this film?

She is, indeed, and as Leland Sklar has remarked about the situation, "I just don't get it!"

I do not doubt that there is a possibility that the name The Wrecking Crew may have come after the fact. And, as the film was made by Tedesco's son, I'm not too shocked if Tommy gets a lot of screen time, but I will add that the elder Mr. Tedesco introduced a great many of us to the realities and the existence of studio/session musicians many years ago in his brilliant columns in Guitar Player Magazine for so many years. Without the Tedescos, we might still be wondering who made all this great music.

Ms. Kay is treated fabulously in, and by this film. I would certainly call her one of its stars, and recognize her as one of the greatest musicians to ever record a note. Her legacy is as unquestionable as her occasionally bewildering and curmudgeonly ways. This is not the first time she has been embroiled in controversy, but I can't say that I've uncovered much to support her views of this film. Her issue seems largely to do with the name given this 'group' of musicians who dominated the '60s recording industry in LA, and her denied, but rather obvious dislike of Hal Blaine. I take no sides here, other than to state that as a very educated, and I like to think reasonable music writer I can only say that while obviously not perfect, this film is a stunning and wonderful tribute to those it portrays. I would hope that she and Danny Tedesco may someday settle their differences, and be friends again.

Before I actually watched the film, I experienced a degree of trepidation - had young Tedesco went off the reservation, and made something egregious that would in some way shame his proud father's past? I had certainly hoped not. I would be neither the writer I am, nor the musician I am were it not for Tommy Tedesco. His writing inspired me, making me believe that one could communicate honestly, and passionately, even without a degree in English. His guitar playing made me realize the value of not just knowing the notes, but how to make them beautiful. I had the pleasure of meeting Tommy at a well-known music store I helped manage in the late '80s. It was there that I learned the best lesson - that no matter who you were, no matter how far you had risen in your field, you could and should still be above all, a nice guy. Denny has done his father a great honor.

I'll close with a comment from studio guitar legend Mitch Holder that sums things up pretty well. Mitch, of course, nailed it on the first take.

Mitch Holder says, "Denny Tedesco has done a super human job in documenting the great group of studio musicians who carved out so many hits of the '60's. The fact that they all played together in the studio at the same time is almost a thing of the past now. Sure, it happens every now and then but not like it was done back then. The crossfire of ideas that developed recording that way are in evidence on all of those records. Denny's film takes you back to that golden era of recording for all of posterity."

If Denny Tedesco didn't get every nuance right, I'm OK with that. If Hal Blaine has somehow elevated himself in stature as he has raised the awareness of the story and plight of the session player, all is forgiven. This is a documentary film, I understand, but it is also a piece of entertainment. And it's a great piece of entertainment - one that will have you watching again, and again - and maybe even buying some old records. You're going to love this movie.

I hope that this fine film makes its way onto your screens - it is truly one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen, and it deserves its audience.

Here is a link to the movie's website. Contribute if you are able, or see if there is a possibility of holding a screening of the film in your neck of the woods:

Great thanks to Leland Sklar, Denny Tedesco, and those who made my viewing possible.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tedeschi Trucks Band - Live - Everybody's Talkin'

Everybody's Talkin' is the second release by the husband and wife team of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, and their fine band. This double live album delivers on the full promise of this musical marriage born of a real life family affair. Featured is the same band, production team, and the same combination of blues rock, R&B, and instrumental experimentation that won the band the Grammy for Best Blues Album last year for their debut platter, Revelator. The first thing I thought of on my inaugural listening was recollecting the amazing synergy of Delaney & Bramlett as they were joined on the road by Eric Clapton in England back in the late '60s. There is just as much talent and energy here, and some of the same indulgence, as well.

Clocking in at just around the two hour mark, this record fairly faithfully replicates the experience of a Tedeschi/Trucks show, and while it's a great document for their audience, it may be the case of a bit too much, too soon. As a single disc, they may have pulled off the best live record of 2012 - as a two record set, the material wears a little thin - depending on mostly cover tunes, some nuggets from each of their previous pasts, and three songs from their debut. Mind you, the playing and singing is uniformly fabulous across the board, but the inclusion of an overly long drum solo, and a couple of tunes in which Tedeschi surrenders some mic time leads me to believe that they may have given a little more than they needed. Another album's worth of new material before a live outing may have justified a double CD release, but the spreading out of so much material over such a large territory renders what could have been an absolute blinder of a live album into merely a very fine document of a band developing into what could be greatness.

This may come off as sacrilege to their fan base, but, I've spoken to several listeners who share this opinion and expect that this band could well grow into something much bigger than we've yet seen from the reigning King and Queen of the blues. One of the trade offs I seem to be seeing in this new era of artist self direction is the discipline and marketing expertise that could be delivered by a strong producer, and an experienced manager.

Everyone's Talkin' starts things off, and the band brings some panache to the Fred Neil tune that Harry Nilsson's original hit version never imagined. Oteil Burbridge's bass line gets things moving around the second verse, and Susan Tedeschi's always excellent vocals are nicely embellished by a small horn section, and some fervent background singers. Oteil's older brother Kofi lays into his B-3 soon after, and Derek Trucks tears off a casual little solo that is perfect - thick and creamily toned, well played, and soulful. A nice introduction of what's to come.

Trucks takes center stage next, and meditatively spins out a gorgeous three minute intro to Midnight In Harlem (Swamp Raga Intro with Little Martha) that is as suggestive of Ravi Shankar as it is to the memory of Duane Allman. The young Southerner is one of the truly ascending masters of the slide guitar - I've recently had the pleasure of spending time and speaking with slide masters Ry Cooder, and Sonny Landreth, and as I listen to Trucks I wonder what it may be that draws such soulful, thoughtful, and musical mystics to the slopes of the slide. George Harrison brought the art of melodic slide playing to the world of the electric guitar when faced with his immersion into Indian music and the arrival of chops heavy guitar-slingers like Clapton, Hendrix, Beck, and Page, and ever since, the best proponents of the art seem to bring as much to the table as beings as they do as musicians. Trucks is the youngest of the breed, and quite possibly alongside Sonny Landreth, the most highly developed of these slide masters. His meteoric rise over the last decade has been most amazing, but I dare say, and hope - his best playing may lay ahead for him.

Susan Tedeschi then takes the reins for a sultry stroll through this tune that helped propel the band's first album to #12 on the Billboard 200 charts last year. The band is unobtrusively supportive, but don't let that comment fool ya - they play with a casual ease that almost masks a level of virtuosity which matches the legacies of so many great Southern Rock bands. Trucks lays down another brilliant solo that simmers along for a bit before escalating into a boiling tribute to the modal melodicism of Dickey Betts - Derek's tones are very thick and filled with pure tube amp overdrive. He makes it sound effortless, but to control the amount of horsepower necessary to produce this tonal torrent with a slide is akin to riding bareback on a rocket ship. This is the rock and roll equivalent to sorcery, or brain surgery - and the doctor is in.

Super solid ensemble playing is the way of the day on Learn How To Love, and the band cuts a huge pathway for Tedeschi to show off her well honed vocal gymnastics. Hubby pops in for a solo that tightropes its way up and down the neck of his acclaimed Gibson SG as he masterfully navigates bottlenecking and string skipping single note fingerings. Saxophonist Kebbi Williams gives Trucks some of his own medicine, first blowing a fairly straight solo that brings to mind Traffic's late '60s spark before he ventures a ways outside and gets a bit harmolodic with it. They then break things down into another Trucks trip that builds and builds before Tedeschi steps up with some tasty guitar chops of her own, leading to a satisfying session of husband and wife trading eights. Thrilling stuff.

It's rather amazing that with eleven people sharing the stage, things never get muddled, or overly busy, but this band is not just playing, they're also listening to one another, and embellishing as they accompany each other. It's clearly Trucks' show as the band's main soloist, but there is a huge amount of interplay going on all the time. The band's two drummers (Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson) play like a well oiled machine, and are extremely complementary, as is bassist Oteil Burbridge and his keyboardist brother, Kofi. The horns are fantastic in their role - they bide their time, and when called upon, they flat out deliver, usually in a way that suggests a Soho jam session long after midnight.

Bound By Glory is another excellent tune off of the band's first release - Trucks brings it up to speed with a lovely bit of raga rock before Kofi Burbridge steps on the volume pedal of his Hammond B-3 organ, and leads the band into a tune that has classic stamped all over it. The organist takes the first solo that sees his bassist brother bouncing alongside enthusiastically until Trucks takes back the wheel, sending the band and the tune out to a sizzling conclusion.

A pleasant Bo Diddley beat rings in the blues standard, Rollin' and Tumblin' - it features more of the same outstanding playing, but it's something of a let down after the incredible head of steam the band has thus far built, and while this rendition is certainly a few steps ahead of what most bands could do with this tune, it is also a step behind what I expect from this crew. It's hell to hang out with greatness - it creates some very high demands and expectations!

Derek Trucks is so well immersed in Indian/Middle Eastern music that I feel pretty comfortable stating that he's steeped in it. Nobody's Free features yet more brilliant soloing that amply displays his affection and command for this idiom before he hands off to Kofi and his younger brother - the elder Burbridge brother takes his hands off his Hammond and uncorks a flute solo that is so incredible that you don't mind that it is a flute solo, while Oteil gives a lesson that shows why he has been the jam band/southern rock bassist of choice for the last few decades. Tedeschi's vocals are especially strong on this cut, as she reaches deep into her blues rock encyclopedia of chops and soul.

A gospel infused version of John Sebastion's Darling Be Home Soon gives the audience and the listener a chance to catch their breath, and enjoy the band in song mode. Even still, there is a relatively mindblowing solo from Trucks, and loads of inventive and interesting playing and singing.

Disc two of this package is where things slow down for me a bit. There's plenty of excellent playing and singing, but the tunes don't jump out at me with as much melodic oomph as I'd like, and honestly, I find the lengthy drum solo in the fifteen minute version of Stevie Wonder's Uptight to be a bit much without visual stimulus, or anything truly exceptional from the solo itself. When I recently saw the band, this tune was a high point, but it doesn't play as well for me with audio only. Chop the drum solo out, and maybe we have a different ending, but for me it weighs the whole thing down more than I would like.

Of course, at the amazingly low price of $10.88 (Amazon), one could say I have no place to complain, but I still think I might. I have been saying for several years that Derek Trucks is very close to becoming a much more significant artist than he already is - I have stated many times that I think he has an album in him that will completely overshadow what he has done so far. And, I think that by keeping this set to one CD, they may have actually ended up with a more impressive document. This is a fine, fine album, but again, I think some judicious chopping may have left them with a great listening experience from beginning to end which would have left us plenty sated, but still clamoring for more.

Tedeschi Trucks Band is one of the most powerful outfits filling theaters today - they've made an excellent second album, and I'm sure the best is yet to come. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to Michael Vernelle Lewis!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Johnny Hickman - Tilting - Buy It, Don't Steal It!

"I love writing songs in all capacities....throwing Lowery riffs that he builds a song around or writes words to my melodies, writing entire Cracker or solo songs on my own, all good. It's a little frustrating sometimes because understandably, people first regard me as just the lead guitarist when in truth I co-wrote the bulk of the Cracker canon with David Lowery, including every radio hit. Keith Richard, Mike Campbell, Joe Perry....we all get pigeonholed that way. Goes with the guitar-slinger territory." Johnny Hickman on being not 'just' a lead guitarist.

Tilting is Johnny Hickman's second solo sojourn, a trip that sees the veteran songsmith/guitarist/singer weaving in and out of a wide variety of styles without ever forgetting where his roots lie. Recorded in Colorado with producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist Jason Larson, the record is most definitely a modern affair - largely funded by friends, family, and fans via a very successful Kickstarter campaign, only to be instantly pirated by wretched download sites who somehow managed to get their hands on a promo copy. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it appears.

If you find yourself thinking that this disc harkens back to the genre jumping employed so successfully by the mid-period Beatles, you're not mistaken. Mind you, there's more than enough Cracker soul to keep his core constituency smiling (such as the album's excellent opening track, Measure of a Man), but there's also a smoky, sophisticated trip to French bistro music on the 'keep the home fires burning' Papa Johnny's Arms, which features a beautiful jazzy chord progression, a lovely Django-esque guitar solo, and some clever and warm wordplay.

Dream Along With Me is a piano based mid-tempo burst of '70s melodicism that evokes fond memories of Eric Carmen, The Raspberries, and even Paul's Wings - not what one might expect, but a delightful surprise, especially the angelic background vocals, and a guitar solo that surely has the mystic George smiling from above. Then there's a slab of pop entitled Sick Cynthia Thing that sits comfortably somewhere between Elvis Costello, Guided By Voices, and The Sweet. We're talking seriously eclectic stuff here, but it works in a way that only a seriously skilled writer could pull off. Someone who's listened to as many great records as he's made.
“I sometimes feel like the impassioned madman with his lance trying to slay the windmill monsters,” Johnny reveals. “I think a lot of people do in these troubled times. The idea of battling these mighty, unbeatable foes both real and imagined is disturbing yet darkly amusing to me.”

He continues, “The songs on Tilting are definitely more personal, more autobiographical than on either Palmhenge or Cracker records. I didn’t set out to do that but it’s just where I am in life I suppose. I didn’t steer cautiously around any of my feelings or experiences, good or bad. It’s as honest as hell, I can tell you that. Lyrically, there’s a little mid-life crisis catharsis going on here, not that that’s a bad thing. That and just being pissed off and reveling in it. I also love collaborating, which I do with David as well as my long time friend Chris LeRoy. Two of the twelve songs on Tilting were written by or with Chris, though the majority of these songs are directly from my head and heart.”
Not Enough is a pissed off picture of what this country is going through, but even as he's taking those who see no problem in the way our nation is behaving to task, Hickman makes it sound like we'll be just fine. His witty lyrics never pander to the those who would give up without a fight, or to those who would call for in the streets revolution. No, there's a sense of staying the course and being a man, taking it as it comes and making it all work out. Maybe even more than the tasty melodicisms and the cooler than cool arrangements, what I like about this record is that like The Who, The Kinks, and The Beatles, this guy is not gonna quit, and he's never going to whine. Stick with him, watch what he does, follow hid lead, and you'll be fine, too.

Hickman's voice is exceptionally strong throughout the album, whether it's standing nakedly by itself on the barroom lament, Drunkard's Epiphany, or shouting over the power pop/punk of Takin' Me Back. Of the great '90s rock and roll sergeant-at-arms (Mike Campbell, Peter Buck, and Doug Gillard come to mind), Hickman is the first to stand tall and produce a solo album strong enough to stand alongside his day job's finest. Any song on this disc would sit proudly smack dab in the middle of a Cracker album, the same thing that I said about David Lowery's outstanding 2011 solo outing, The Palace Guards.

World weariness occasionally appears, as it will when the times sees one losing friends to the psychic wars, and the ravages of an industry that left town. Whittled Down is a tale of the rigors of the road, but I'm also hearing the somber souls of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous looking down on Lonesome Johnny from some celestial tavern. This is a new form of the working class hero - he's the guy left behind to pick up the pieces and keep on moving. Hickman honors his friends living and dead, his bandmates, and his family with his deep vein of dignity and integrity. His is the job of the living and the leaders - the survivors. And he's doing a damned fine job.

I had the pleasure of hanging out and talking with author Joe Klein (Primary Colors) and legendary guitarist Ry Cooder the other night - we talked of music, politics, and the state of the nation. Ry seemed a little pissed, and somewhat concerned that I had already heard the whole of his new record, which is still months from its release date (I assured him I had heard it through legitimate means). Klein listened intently as the working class of Dayton. Ohio told him their take on America. As I listen to this record that Johnny Hickman has just made, read the impassioned words of Hickman's partner in Cracker David Lowery as he attempts to steer the music industry and its customers into sensible waters, and recall the conversations with Klein and Cooder, my level of anxiety and angst about this old world finds itself easing down a bit. It's artists like these who remind us of not just who they are, but who we are - and in a damned fine, entertaining fashion. It tenders and engenders hope, and it gives strength.

Another Road brings the album to a finish, and it does so in the finest of fashions. Its staccato, tremolo'd guitar intro reminds me that rock is the voice of reason - one of power, redemption, and salvation. It reminds me of The Who at the height of their powers, when Townshend's anger unleashed itself in the only way that makes sense - with loud rock and roll guitars, and a song that makes one wish to move forward, and upward.

Tilting is a damned fine record. There are many other great songs and moments on this platter that I haven't mentioned, but I will allow you to discover them for yourselves. Hickman has set the bar high and hurdled above and beyond it. Now, you can do me a favor. Buy this album - don't steal it. Pay the artist, for without the artist, nobody else gets paid, in fact, nobody else in the music business has a job without the artist. And go out and see Cracker this summer as they tour America with Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveller, and Big Head Todd and The Monsters, as part of The Last Summer On Earth 2012 Tour.

 Finally, I'll leave you with Hickman's words of wisdom:
“Personally, all my favorite records and bands have been those that don’t flatline into one tiny sub-genre (Beatles, Kinks, Radiohead, Petty, Neil Young…). When I write, I just do it and don’t worry about it. As David [Lowery] and I always say, the only real rule in music is ‘don’t suck.’”
Tilting release date - July 3, 2012

Great thanks to Johnny Hickman, Jason Larson, and the ever helpful Tony Bonyata at Pavement PR. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Leslie West Live At The Iridium!

I had a chance to watch the first of three shows that Leslie West played last week at The Iridium in New York City last Monday night via the club's live web cast, and it was a stunning return to the headlining stage for the (Don't Call Me Legend) legendary six stringer.

Accompanied by the incredible Rev Jones, armed with his Dean Custom signature series six string bass, and drummer Bobby Rondinelli (Rainbow, Scorpions, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult), West brought the magic in spades. In spite of some technical snafus caused by some unexplainable guitar technician related issues (I'm hesitant to blame the tech because I wasn't there, and it's not my gig to point out blame) Leslie gave the crowd a thrilling night of incredible guitar playing, soulful singing, and his usual graciousness and good humor.

The thirteen song set was filled with West classics, and several covers, including the passionate set opener People Get Ready and the Bob Dylan penned Blowin' In The Wind off of the 2011 Mountain album Masters of War (an incredible disc if you've never heard it). The highlight of the set for me was one of the finest renditions I have yet heard of Jack Bruce's Theme From An Imaginary Western originally recorded for Mountain's first album in 1970. Of course, the guitar playing and tone were as exemplary as always, but it was West's moving vocals that captured me on this evening. His vocals seem to get better and better with the passage of time!

West's latest album, Unusual Suspects, was represented by the rocking To The Moon, and the set closing Turn Out The Light. Recorded shortly before the Mountain man was temporarily slowed by the amputation of his right leg in June of last year, the album was a high point of 2011 - West put on the performance of his career, and the production and bass playing by Fabrizio Grossi, along with the powerhouse drumming of Kenny Aronoff made for a fabulous record. Even superstar cameos by Joe Bonamassa, Slash, Zakk Wylde, and Steve Lukather could not deflect the light of West's remarkable musicianship.

Leslie at one point in the show warmly addressed Les Paul Junior from the stage, and laughingly asked that the guitar that West brought to such fame (the Gibson Les Paul Junior) not be compared with his Dean signature model. I've seen Leslie play a lot of guitars over the years, and I am a huge fan of the venerated Les Paul Jr., but I can honestly say that the tones he is getting from his new Deans and his Blackstar amps are definitely the best of his career.

It is a huge thrill to have Leslie West back on the boards, and if you get the chance, don't miss him on this summer's Classic Rock and Blues Tour, featuring West, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer, and Savoy Brown's Kim Simmonds. This should be one helluva show.

I have to be honest. This show brought tears of joy to my face. Congratulations, Leslie.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Ry Cooder Sighting And Sonny Landreth Live!

Ry Cooder, "Sonny's playing around here, tomorrow? Where? Man, I'd love to see him, it's been a while. Cincinnati, huh? Boy. I'd really love to make it down there! If I don't make it, please be sure and tell him I said hello, and that I send my best regards."
Sonny Landreth, "You saw Ry last night? Where? I tell ya, he is The Master. It's been quite a while since I've seen him! Man, I sure wish he could have come down. Anyway, that's some good mojo!"

Author/columnist Joe Klein, "This is not business as usual, and I'd love to hear more about the last mayor of Dayton"

A friend sent me a message that I instantly read as cryptic. So cryptic, I couldn't understand it:

"Dude. Ry Cooder. Secret show. Trolley stop. Tonight. 9pm."

To read this note as anything but cryptic seemed a bit unreal. The Trolley Stop is a local tavern that features local music and on very rare occasions, a national act. In fact, even they haven't yet mentioned yet on their Facebook page that on a quiet Wednesday evening in June that not only did one of the greatest American musicians of all time stop in to play a few sets, but that he was accompanied by one of America's most read and revered authors, Joe Klein (Primary Colors' Anonymous).

I called my friend, local guitar wizard repair man and player extraordinaire Christopher Wright, and asked what he meant in this missive. Hell, I'm no cryptographer, I sometimes miss the very writing upon the wall. Turns out that as usual, I had it a bit askew. He meant just what he said. It turns out that Ry is just on the road hanging out with his friend Joe. The author is conducting a road trip across America. In the words of Time Magazine:

"Following previous years’ journeys from New York to Los Angeles and from Texas to Iowa, Joe Klein has once again hit the road to find out what people are thinking outside the Beltway. This time he’s traveling up the East Coast from North Carolina, across the Rust Belt and winding up in Minnesota—though, in true road trip fashion, the route could always change.

Along the way he’s meeting with politicians and community leaders, as well as readers who have invited him into their homes and businesses to talk about how they’re faring in these difficult times. And a few special guests are joining Joe as he meanders through the Heartland."

I sat and spoke with Joe (whose name I didn't yet know - he said he was a friend of Ry's) for a few minutes, and I listened as he talked with some local musicians, who would soon be joining Cooder onstage, about the current state of America. What impressed me most was how Klein listened when the musicians spoke. He never pontificated, and he appeared totally absorbed, and completely engaged.

As I stated earlier, I'm occasionally a little slow on the uptake. It had not yet been explained to me that this was The Joe Klein, a guy who has sold more than enough books to fill a library. He had written a novel so dangerous as to deny being its author for quite some time (1996's Primary Colors; A Novel of Politics, based on the 1992 Democratic presidential primary - estimated sales 3 million), a fellow who had been regularly employed by the world's largest publishers, starting with Rolling Stone Magazine as a contributing editor in 1974. In fact, it was his tour on that had placed Cooder in our musical laps for the evening. And here I thought that Ry's friend was just a very bright perceptive fella named Joe.

Here's what Joe had to say about the evening in his blog for Time Magazine's 2012 Swampland coverage of the presidential election:

"Well the big event yesterday was watching the great Ry Cooder jamming with one of his discoveries, a retired meter reader named Dan Gellert - a brilliant country fiddler and banjo player - at the Trolley Stop in Dayton, Ohio"

Dan Gellert is indeed a brilliant musician. After the show I asked how he had come to know the renowned Cooder. He explained that in the usual fashion, his music had been passed along to Ry by Gellert's daughter at Mike Seegers funeral. The astute ethnomusicologist had liked what he heard and called Dan up and asked if he'd enjoying jamming a bit when Ry came to Ohio. Dan agreed, and the die was cast. The veteran fiddler supplied the tunes, some great fiddling, a bit of plucky banjo work, and a vocal style that fit like a pair of well worn work boots. Cooder did as he always does, and unobtrusively became an organic part of the music. He played an ancient Gibson L series guitar that had been generously supplied by the neighboring picking parlor, Recreate.

Everyone had a great time, and Cooder and Klein seemed to have successfully completed their mission of a night out with some libations, some music, and lots of good conversation.

The first thing I had said to Ry had been, "You know, I thought Sonny Landreth was gonna be the only great slide player I'd be seeing this week!"

Last month, I stated here that Sonny Landreth's new album Elemental Journey was the veteran guitarists' best album ever, and maybe the best instrumental guitar album of 2012. I had a chance to see Landreth live last night at Cincinnati's 20th Century Theater and the show shone as brightly as the new record.

Accompanied by bassist Dave Ranson, and drummer Brian Brignac, Landreth wooed the capacity crowd with another master class on slide guitar. Combining an intoxicating stew of Cajun/Zydeco, rock and roll, blues and a sensational sense of harmonic sophistication, Landreth held the crowd in a hand for the almost two hours, and the crowd adored him.

Classifying Landreth's heady mix has never been easy, and with his latest album he has upped the ante by going all instrumental and incorporating strings, steel drums and guest cameos by heavy hitters Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. The cool thing about this is that it is one fabulous ride, even if you can't quite give it a name. Landreth and band absolutely smoked on the tunes from the new record, even without the strings, Steve Conn's great keyboard work, and the superstar sidemen. His rhythm section was on fire - Brignac is a whirling dervish of a drum, with rock horsepower and brilliant versatility; Dave Ranson has been sharing stages with Landreth for over twenty years, and he is both solid and adventurous. One of the joys of listening to Landreth's phenomenal guitar histrionics is in hearing how fast he can change directions, and going along for the ride as he howls one moment, whispers the next, and then seems to inexplicably do both simultaneously.

 Had Hendrix ever seen Sonny Landreth, the Seattle sensation may have had a similar reaction to Landreth's otherworldly technique as did Townshend, Beck, and Clapton to Jimi. He may have just wanted to quit. He wouldn't have, but for a moment there would be that recognition of the fact that no one can do what this man is doing. The question of who is the world's greatest slide guitarist is a stupid question. There's the ever incredible Derek Trucks, his band mate an fellow Duane disciple Warren Haynes, and the aforementioned Ry Cooder, just to name a few. Of the bunch, no one does quite what Landreth does - his style is honed of genius. No one before him did quite what he does, and no one seems to have come even close to approaching an approach to his combination of slithery slide and sure fingered fretting. I won't even go into the proficiency of the man's right hand. But, I will say that watching and listening to this fine Southern gentleman had me giggling like I did when my heroes would amaze my young ears at fifteen, and that doesn't happen too often. Thanks, Sonny.

After the show I had a chance to chat with Sonny, and even after just walking off stage after a whiz bang, non-stop performance, he was warm, kind, and gracious. I told him that Ry Cooder had really wanted to come down and see the show, and Landreth seemed both genuinely humbled and pleased. That's something that I got from both Sonny, Ry, and Joe Klein this last week - they are where and who they are because they are genuinely nice people, on top of being consummate professionals. Each gentleman does his job in a fashion few are able, and they were all extremely unselfish in their approach to others. We can all learn from men such as these.

Thanks to Sonny Landreth and his band, Ry Cooder, Joe Klein, Christopher Wright, Jay Madewell, and the good folks at Conqueroo PR (Cory Baker and Julie Arkenstone).

Monday, June 11, 2012

Spectrum Road - The Smile on Tony Williams' Face

Veulta Abajo is a brilliant place for Spectrum Road to start their debut album. One of the heaviest rocking pieces of jazz fusion that ever was etched onto vinyl, the tune could easily be mistaken for a King Crimson outtake that got lost on its way through the big top of a passing circus. In paying tribute and homage to The Tony Williams Lifetime, Spectrum Road throws down the gauntlet as Cindy Blackman-Santana unleashes a dizzying drum roll that careens down the straightaway, splitting apart the furious molten metal riffing provided by Vernon Reid's Fripp-a-licious guitaring, John Medeski's howling Hammond organ, and the unstoppable Jack Bruce's bludgeoning bassline. This band is fearless - this record is fantastic. Filling the rather large footprint of Tony Williams' stick work is no mean feat, but from beginning to end, Blackman-Santana drives this band relentlessly with endless chops, sophistication, and a go for the throat energy that leaves one breathless, and smiling.

Born of a conversation almost ten years ago between Reid and Bruce, Spectrum Road started out as a tribute to Williams, but has grown into an entity of its own - Williams' tunes are the guidepost, but while they provide a basic frame, the album is an endless array of brash improvisations, solos, and a sense of accompaniment that always pushes the soloist to push themselves to the outer limits of their huge skill sets. Vernon Reid makes no particular effort to replicate John McLaughlin's original guitar parts, instead, he's simply being himself - at times reminding the listener of the super effected, turbocharged leads that brought him to fame with the woefully underrated Living Colour, and then at times he sounds like the best jazz saxophonist in decades. Where McLaughlin's playing on Lifetime records suggested psychedelia, Reid's suggests extraterrestrials.

Photo by Marek Hofman
Immediately after wrapping up the whirlwind of the first cut, There Comes A Time shows Jack Bruce in amazing voice as the band unveils a sleek slow blues that dances sensually through the extended intro - except for Blackman-Santana. She sounds like a cat on a hot tinned roof, playing perfectly, but in an anything but in an expected manner. As Reid plays some of the most restrained, melodic single string work of his career, the drummer is an acrobat on a bet - a thrill at every turn, but with a sense of surefooted confidence. At the young age of 69, Bruce has never been busier, and has never been more in command of his talents. He's not doing a lot of singing on this record, so when he does you are thrilled as he sounds as if he's lost not a note, and his bass playing is adventurous as ever.

Next up is Going Back Home, based on a Jan Hammer tune, Coming Back Home, from Williams' 1978 album, The Joy of Flying. This would be a fairly standard piece of melodic fusion were it not for the virtuosity on display. Everyone takes a few turns, and this becomes much more than just a pleasant melody. It wonderfully reflects the maturity of these players as they unleash otherworldly chops, and yet manage to not step on one another's toes, or ever seem overly busy. Even as Reid toggles between stating the melody in myriad of subtle variations and some splendid torrents of 64th notes, he does so with an understated grace - something most guitarists will ever comprehend, let alone emulate.

Where finds Blackman-Santana scatting in a stoney Nancy Sinatra sort of way for the first three minutes as Medeski and Bruce weave a web under her tribute to Tony Williams fantastic drumming. Then Vernon Reid brings in some Mid-Eastern flavored fusion that suggests what may have come from Al DiMeola mind melding with Jimi Hendrix. Vernon delivers loads of notes, some sensational swagger, but also some bluesy bends and otherworldly squalls. After Reid pontificates for quite some time, he steps aside and Medeski cuts loose with the gnarliest B-3 solo that I have heard in a great many years. This is a full metal jacket only affair - Reid lays down some incredibly heavy rhythm guitar work, and the keyboardist gets out every hard rock dream he's ever dreamt. At the eleven minute mark, Cindy is back with her rap, and the band takes a minute and a half to come down from a trip that sounds better than anything that went down at Woodstock. This is jazz-rock grown up, and it is Good.

Sounding like a hybrid of Scottish, Indian, and inter-galactic space rock, An t-Eilan Muileach (Isle of Mull) is a Jack Bruce raga meditation on a Scottish classic, sang, of course, in Gaelic. Sitting roughly at the album's midpoint, one could hardly ask for a more thoughtful and pleasant respite. Never so meditative as to become sleepy, again it demonstrates the remarkable musical maturity on tap here.

Cindy Blackman-Santana is often referred to as a Tony Williams acolyte. She has spent untold hours ingesting the master's lessons and has absorbed the teachings and applied them to her own musicianship. Vashkar, the Carla Bley tune from Lifetime's 1969 Emergency album is a number that the drummer has covered on many previous occasions, and this time around it would appear that she has taken it as far as it can be taken. Once again, Vernon Reid is spectacular. The note count alone on this song is astronomical, but he's always exciting and interesting - he never disappears into repetition, or lethargy, largely due to the poking and prodding of three of the heaviest hitters in history keeping him on his toes and moving. Medeski then takes the helm and proceeds to raise the roof with soulful, and exciting Hammond wizardry. This may be one of the few bands on the planet that can make you turn your head away from Jack Bruce, if only for a few minutes.

Bruce returns to the past for One Word, which he originally recorded with Williams in 1970 after he had left the luxurious, but stressful environs of Cream. What's amazing is how much better his voice sounds here than in did 42 years ago. There is more dynamism and energy, as well as straight fire power. I don't know how Bruce has managed to make such a tremendous comeback from a life threatening liver transplant just eight short years ago, but I am ever so grateful to still have him here and making such music. I can't see where this record is much less earth shattering than Cream's were in their day.

When was the last time you heard a mellotron solo? I don't know that I ever had until the original improvisation, Tillmon's Blues, named for Tony William's father a jazz saxophonist, who took Tony to Jazz clubs and had the boy sitting in with the bands by the time he was eleven years old. Not much different is the story of Cindy Blackman-Santana, who discovered the drums at a pool party in her hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio when she was just seven years old. She simply sat down, started playing, and has never stopped. While she is certainly not a carbon copy of Williams' playing, she has absorbed the essence, the musicality of his musicianship, and that has allowed her to make this music her own. She's definitely bringing more of a rock and roll hammer to the show, and it fits beautifully.

Allah B Praised features the band wearing their rock and roll shoes again, and they maintain a blistering pace for over four minutes of musical daredevilry. It amazes me to hear a superstar such as Bruce functioning strictly as the bass player, and knocking the ball clean out of the park. I always get miffed when someone accuses a star such as, say, Paul McCartney, of laying back, or holding his best licks for his own tunes - time and time again, this is simply not true (listen to Paul's work on Something, or Lennon's Come Together!). Bruce is always a beautiful part of Spectrum Road's rich tapestry.

Spectrum Road ends the second step their journey with a thoughtful and melodic rendition of Wild Life, the only tune they take on from the Allan Holdsworth edition of Lifetime. Vernon Reid rides this out with the magnificence he has displayed throughout the album. I'm not sure where musicians of Reid's rank size up in the eyes of a strange new music business, but two words that should come to mind are virtuoso and superstar. His playing is shining more than it ever has, and he generally shoulders the melodies for this troop. His soloing is sublime, as is John Medeski's.

I can't imagine that this won't lead to another record, and I'm hoping that if there is another, that it will be filled with originals. It's very clear that Spectrum Road has a magic that far exceeds their initial premise. Every member plays as well, if not better than they ever have.

Jack Bruce? Well, don't get me started. The guy seems to be getting better by the moment, having seemingly found the fountain of musical youth and genius. The man is a true inspiration.

At the end of the day, this just might be Mrs. Santana's album. I don't know of any other drummer who has laid it down quite like this in some time in this realm. A magnificent performer, and performance.

Great thanks to Spectrum Road, and Kevin Calabro at Calabro Music Media.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Squackett - 5 Stars - A Prog/Pop Classic

Chris Squire  and Steve Hackett are both musical legends. They have been in the upper strata of the world's most incredible musicians for over forty years. Each writes, plays, and  sings a challenging sort of music that has come to be known as prog, or fully, progressive rock. Both served time in huge and innovative bands - Squire in Yes, and Hackett in Genesis. Now, the pair have combined to record an outstanding record that highlights the exact skills that have kept them employed, and in the public eye for so many decades. With a nod, I am assuming, to their very Englishness and the humor presumed within, they have chosen a rather awkward, and perhaps silly name. A name I happen to like, but some may find disturbing - a name that belies the wonderfully melodic, dynamic music found in their new record's grooves.

If you're wondering about the title of this review, I'll explain. It is a question that dawned upon me as I heard some very negative comments about Squackett. For the most part, the reviews of this album have been tremendously positive, as this one shall be, as well. However, these negative comments weighed on my psyche - Squire and Hackett have written and recorded their first outing as a team, and have obviously documented music that is very close to their hearts and personal. It is well produced and gorgeous, with both partners contributing to all facets of the production. They have laid their hearts and minds on the line as artists always have, so I would ask naysayers and critics one simple question:

What Shitty Band Are You In?

I can well understand that perhaps not every song of every project a musician may attempt will please every listener. It's appreciated that occasionally, a musician or band will make a misstep, or fail to connect in some way with some fan, some critic. However, for someone to dismiss a fine effort by two extremely seasoned professionals who have done their best and delivered a product well within the parameters of probability and acceptability causes me to wonder just what goes through the mind of someone who reacts with malice, and vitriol. Makes me wonder what they have done that enables and authorizes them to castigate so harshly. It makes me want to ask, "So, what shitty band are you in?"

I don't write about music I don't enjoy, it's that simple. Why would I? Why would I spend valuable time and energy with something that gave me no fulfillment? I could write from now until the very end of time, and not be able to fully express my thoughts about that which I do enjoy, so why waste time with grousing and deriding that which holds little value for me? I get little pleasure from disappointing or angering an artist, or an artist's fans, who most likely have no interest in reading what someone doesn't like about their favorites. I have less than no desire to be amongst the minions who rain down criticism from on high. I'd rather spend my time telling you what I do enjoy about the new Squackett album, and there is much that I enjoy.

I'll be the first to say that I like my prog with liberal dose of pop, and if there are some nice rocking guitars to go along with it, all the merrier. Squackett is above all a song album. Those looking for long stretches of virtuosity may be disappointed, though both Squire and Hackett provide a ton of fire power from their respective instruments.

Hackett's guitar playing is astounding - one minute he is chiming chirpingly and you are dreaming of Brit-pop of the ages, whether it be The Fab Four or XTC, then you blink and he is pushing a crescendo of rapid fire distortion through the atmosphere with his Fernandes Sustainer and Whammy pedal. His histrionics are equally acrobatic and lyrical - for all his shredding (and there is a good deal), his playing is marvelously melodic and in a most unpredictable manner. His style is his own, and his musicianship is developed to the point whereby his inspirations are a long forgotten memory, replaced by his own stamp of creativity. If Squackett were the work of a new talent we'd have a new guitar super hero - as it is we simply have an underrated one.

Chris Squire brings to the table much of what he has always brought. His wickedly wonderful bass playing, marked by the unmistakable tone of his signature series Rickenbacker 4001S coming through a combination of amps and effects, and most generally including a 100 watt Marshall guitar amp, has never been more welcome. Almost identifiable as his playing is his angelic vocal cords, which rang so soothingly next to Jon Anderson's for so many years and records with prog superstars, Yes. Here, the vocals are shared with Hackett (each singing lead on their own compositions) - they weave in, out, and around one another as if they have been doing so forever. Harmonies, unisons, and stacked vocal configurations abound as the vocals throughout the album bring to mind CSN&Y, and The Hollies as much as the pair's prog past. While admittedly there is not a lead voice as distinctive as Anderson in Yes, or Gabriel in Genesis, you will still walk away having listened to one of the most impressive vocal productions in a great while. In a day when harmony, background, and group vocals are relatively rare, this album is a vocal treasure chest.

The album also has a somewhat secret weapon - it comes in the form of longtime a Hackett cohort, producer and keyboardist Roger King. Throughout the proceedings, King does a fantastic job. To my ears this is everything the last Yes album wasn't, but should have been. As a producer, he has done a marvelous job of putting together a record that sounds wonderfully cohesive, especially given that in all likelihood there was little time to woodshed the material, or for the band to spend much time actually in the same room. This is just part of the way that many project type records are made these days due to economic necessity and the fact that a musician can't stand still for long and earn his daily bread. The job that's been done here is pretty great - much akin to the job done by Bill Evans and the members of Flying Colors on their stunning debut earlier this year.

King also provides fabulous atmospheric keyboards on every cut, proving the essential glue that holds together the huge instrumental talents of Squackett. This record sounds like a band, as opposed to this song by Squire, this song by Hackett - there isn't the tremendous amount of challenging interplay that existed in 1970, but it's important to realize that firstly, that is not what these two have set off to create, and secondly, that type of instrumental sophistication requires a great deal of time, rehearsal, and collaboration that is again just not always possible in this day and age. It's not just prog, look at the dearth of cool jazz fusion, or even elaborate pop. You'll not soon see again the like of Sgt. Pepper in this market. That having been said, you should be even more impressed by the job that has been done here. Hackett did well to bring King into this project, and King has done a masterful job.

The songs....

A Life Within A Day - Epic prog/pop. There are those who say mentioning Zeppelin here is inappropriate, but that would be like not acknowledging the 800 pound gorilla in the corner. Of course the chugging, mid-tempo, Eastern riffing evokes Kashmir. However, there is also the fabulous intro that is pastoral and elegant. Then there is the solo section that takes off on an incredible path, leaving behind anything reminiscent of LZ's blues rock - Hackett lets loose with some heavily effected, dissonant squalling that somehow remains wonderfully melodic, as Squire underscores his soloing with some characteristically furious busyness. As these two instrumental giants joust, Roger King is fast in the thick of it, and the entire section becomes a fantastic journey that finds the listener gripping his chair, and holding his breath. Alas, they pull out of it having avoided disaster and then it's back into the now familiar riff, and vocals that by now have you singing along. Amazing as the rifled riffing is here, it is the song you walk away singing.

Tall Ships - Enters with Hackett gently playing some acoustic guitar that ends with a brief flamenco flourish after which Squire brings some fabulously funky bass work into the mix. This swings and dances a bit much for prog, as drummer Jeremy Stacey provides some Purdy-esque fatback beats and Hackett joins in with rhythmic stabs that would make Nile Rodgers grin. The melody comes in and it's a cool combination as East meets West - imagine a Crosby, Stills, and Nash album with some vindaloo on the side, and you're about there. A great chorus, and another brilliant Hackett solo. The harmonies are tight and intoxicating, and if there was still real radio, this would be a big summer smash.

Divided Self - A great dose of Brit pop that's wise lyric may be lost in the happy sonic landslide that sees both Steve and Chris strapping on Rickenbackers to perfect effect - Hackett both chimes and plays great fills (exactly in the style of the great tradition) as Squire reminds us that XTC's Colin Moulding may have listened to a few Yes albums on his way to greatness. It's a joy to listen to Squire playing marvelously busy, melodic, and effective bass under Hackett's solo. Two absolute masters of their craft - you can almost hear them listening to one another and reacting in the instrumental sections. If there's not enough playing on this record, you're really not listening very closely.

Aliens - A Squire tune that sees Hackett, King, and Stacey providing some gentle backing that keeps things moving while the bassist weaves his tale of extraterrestrial possibilities.

Sea Of Smiles - This song is going to set the bar awfully high for this summer's later entry in the prog/pop sweepstakes when John Wetton brings out this year's new model of Asia. If this had been released in 1980 it would have seen Squackett jetting to gigs with their name etched upon the back of a big bird's ass. This is a great piece of songwriting, and it's sweetened by loads of cool chops, great choral vocals, and another stunning Hackett solo. King's keyboards are outstanding on this cut - one minute he's playing rapid arpeggios, then he's back to plucky atmospherics, and soothing sheens of synth-work.

The Summer Backwards - More folkish, pastoral harmonies, and some gorgeous melodies abound that again seems to having Squackett thanking Andy Partridge for thanking them. This would fit lovely on XTC's Skylarking, one of the truly classic summer pop records. This one is Hackett's, and it is much lighter in tone and mood than much of his recent solo output.

Stormchaser - A bit of Squackett metal. Very reminiscent of Hackett's solo rock, and it makes me wonder how Hackett has avoided greater acclaim. You can literally hear the band being formed on this cut. It's an early arrival and you can sense that this was the jumping off point. Squire's bass is belligerent and rude - it's clearly Hackett's riff, but the bass man is making his presence well felt. This will be a barnburner when these fellows hit the boards.

Can't Stop The Sun - I get the sense that Chris Squire has finally got his well-deserved obsession with The Beatles out of his system a bit with Squackett. The marriage of melody, harmony, and a bass driven engine is beautifully executed, and we have another tale of the philosophies of love that is as pleasant in the light of day, as it is at midnight. That's a fascinating thing about this album - I've noticed that it delivers a wealth of sunshine and sunny weather, but also has a nice undercurrent that makes it quite good after midnight.

Perfect Love Song - The album's second absolute classic, and the perfect second side for the double sided single, next to Sea Of Smiles. This is all about the ear candy - it's gorgeous, well conceived, and executed with stunning precision. If you have qualms with this, I only ask - do you have a better piece of prog/pop up your sleeve? Great writing, much more than proficient playing, wonderfully soothing vocals, and a flash guitar solo. You kidding? This is great stuff. In the words of Steve Hackett, "A Perfect Love Song celebrates music and love. Just when you think that life is cast in slabs of grey stone, love kicks in and transforms everything. The song has an ascending chord sequence and upbeat lyrics, rounding off one of the most rewarding projects I've been involved with."

So, I'll end where I started with a simple question.

What shitty band are you in? Really, if you are amongst this record's critics, I'd love to hear what you have better to offer. In the meantime, lighten up and enjoy a cool, cool piece of music.

If this was a record by a bunch of unknowns, I suspect it would be lauded widely. If it had been released in 1972 as a side project between Yes and Genesis albums, it would have been acclaimed as the great success that it is.

Squackett is a great record. It does exactly what Squire and Hackett set out to do - record an album of songs that well represents their careers and talents. I congratulate and thank them, as I am personally enjoying it tremendously. It hasn't left my presence since it arrived, and it will most likely be a major part of the soundtrack to my summer. With that, I am well pleased.

My thanks to Steve Hackett, Jo Hackett, and Esoteric Antenna/Cherry Red Records.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Garbage - Great New Record - What Shitty Band Are You In? (Part 1)

Garbage has a new album, Not Your Kind Of People, and to these ears it sounds pretty fucking fabulous. I have to admit, I haven't listened to Garbage much in the past - let's just say I was busy when they were in their heyday and I'm just catching up and on.

If you're wondering about this review's title, here's the deal. While I haven't been terribly intimate with Manson, Vig, and Company in the past, I do have a bit of indie cred. I spent a great part of the last ten years living in the apartment below maybe the greatest American songwriter of the last twenty-five years, my old friend Robert Pollard, he of indie rock legends Guided By Voices. I've known Bob since I was ten years old, played with him in several bands, made a record or two with him, and served as musical director in his first post GBV project, The Moping Swans. I live in a town that drips indie, and while I am a bit more high tech, I get it. Pollard always bristled at those too lazy, untalented, and afraid to stick their necks out creatively, and once, upon being fed up with the non-doers unwillingness to do anything except bitch about what he was doing, he had some T-shirts printed up that said simply: Guided By Voices - "What Shitty Band Are You In?"

In tribute to my old pal, and everyone else over 40 and still having the balls and bluster to put out their art (such as Garbage), I ask those who sit back and criticize:

So - What shitty band are you in? If you're in no band at all, if you don't do anything towards making rock a better place, then perhaps you should take the advice that Barry Bonds couldn't. Maybe you should just shut the fuck up.

I first heard some material off the new record, and thought that it sounded just great. The songs sounded well written, the band is as tight as can be, the vocals great, and the production is superb. First thing I did was to read a few recent reviews. Most were pretty positive, but there was a good deal of print that chided the band for either not sounding up to their past, or trapped in and by said past. It was here that I feel I had an advantage. I could listen with fairly fresh ears - I was not jaded by their history, or even too familiar with their past. What I found, I liked, and liked a lot.

Automatic System Habit opens the record with an intro that made me think that if Cream's White Room had been written in this century it may have sounded a bit like this, then the band slams into a very modern rage against dishonesty. Shirley Manson's vocals are just great - she's obviously not lost a note in the seven years since the band's last record, 2005's Bleed Like Me. The guitars rage, fairly jumping out of the mix in your face, the drums pound with exuberance and precision, and there is enough electronica to keep things from ever being pedestrian. This is the sound of righteous indignation, of pissed offedness, and I like it. It rocks.

The next track, Big Bright World, delivers a huge dose of what I thought rock of the '90s promised, but never really delivered with regularity. None of the out of tune, out of time, unironed, unshaved mess of shit that I heard way too often throughout what I have come to call rock's lost decade. This sounds like a natural progression of where electronic pop should have headed after Bowie went to Berlin, and The Cure made androgyny so appealing. It's melodic, it's driving, and there's no shortage of delicious ear candy. Two tracks in, and I have no idea what any critic could find to bitch about.

If you can hear Blood For Poppies and not want to be whipping out this crazy cool guitar riff and dancing beside Manson as she delivers this tale, you're sure less ambitious than I. Any fan of rock should just be thrilled that they have something this good to listen to in this time of the Kali Yuga.

Not Your Kind Of People has instant classic written all over it. Manson delivers a tour de force, laying out the band's current manifesto, and displaying a knack for melody and phrasing that changes wonderfully in each of the song's luxurious sections. I listen to this and marvel at how hipster music journalists can harp about overproduction, or to call this pedestrian. I'm guessing these overpaid fucknuts have a negativity quotient they must hit, and since the band are recording and distributing on their own dime, these idiots' overseers don't have to worry about alienating advertisers or otherwise biting the hands that feed. This is an extremely satisfying listen. I love what the UK's The Guardian said about this track, "A beautiful, otherworldly cross between a John Berry Bond theme and a David Bowie outsider anthem."

This record is going to sound great onstage. It's relentless in its tones, textures, and melodies. Garbage sound hungry, angry, and pent up - never a bad thing in rock and roll.

Shirley Manson writes some fairly dark lyrics, and often seems to revel in this darkness, but through it all I can generally see a lot of light. Garbage come off as maybe the ultimate insider's outsiders. Over-talented in a time when talent is scorned, ambitious when all seem s hopeless, and above all not about to bow down to the lies, the disillusions, and the assholes who aren't even in a shitty band - let alone a brilliant band.

This record is a bit outside of my normal world, and I'm damned glad it came to visit. It made me smile, it makes me dance, and inspires me to pick up my guitar, call my old friend Bob, and see if he's ready to make another shitty little record. I didn't spend much time on the musicians' individual contributions, but they are all uniformly brilliant and inspired, and for that, I salute them.

If you dig rock - dig this. Smashing, bashing guitars and drums, hummable melodies, and loads of interesting soundscapery. Fuck the critics - they'll never love you for long.

I'm going to wrap this up with a statement the band recently released that says more than I can about where they are at - I'll end by asking one simple question:

What Shitty Band Are You In?

Garbage's statement:

"'Okay so honestly….let’s not retread the history that precedes this record. It’s all on the Internet for anyone to have at it. If you have any interest at all….you can Google anything you need to know about us in five minutes flat. Just please ignore the stuff about me dropping a poo in an ex boyfriends cornflakes and we’re all good.

Suffice to say we have been gone for seven years. We now are experiencing what is commonly known as the seven year itch, except instead of wanting to leave each other, we want to return to one another. We have made, arguably, the best record of our career. You may hate it. In which case you have no need to read any further.

For those of you who have a further curiosity let me say this: We quit in the middle of our last tour and went home because we were sick and tired of our record company wanting us to make money whatever the cost to our morals or our bodies. We quit and went home because we couldn’t stand another backstage hang with anyone from the aforementioned record company. They quite literally were making us sick.

We quit and went home and built ourselves a life outside of Garbage and outside of music and outside of the rest of the world. Then we got bored of doing that and pretty much began to obsess about making music again. We got together about a year ago now in a small studio in Atwater Village, Los Angeles. There we recorded all of the songs on this new record we are calling “Not Your Kind Of People”.

We wrote, recorded and mixed it ourselves, old school style.

We are self-releasing it on our own record label STUNVOLUME, via Liberator Music in Australia, new school style.

The title of this record is kind of our mission statement. For too long we almost felt like apologizing for the fact that we didn’t fit in musically with any kind of scene. We didn’t fit in with the electronic scene even though we used electronica. We didn’t fit in with the hipster scene even though we were pretty popular. (Probably because we got too popular. We sold 13 million records over the course of our career.) And we didn’t fit in with the alt rock scene either.

We just didn’t fit in. We never have.

Now we accept this fact and are happy about our outsider status. We realize that we don’t sound like anyone else and that is a pretty hard thing to achieve in this current climate where we all have access to an infinite sea of musical possibilities. To have hold on a unique sound is a currency of which we are proud.

If you have further interest in us or the making of this record, please feel free to schedule an interview with our press office. We will be happy to accommodate your curiosity. Otherwise I think we are done here. Don’t you?

Thanks for reading.'


Thanks to Brian, Ibo, and Sam from BB Gun Press!