Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Blackberry Smoke - The Whippoorwill Sails Smoothly

Blackberry Smoke plays upwards of 250 shows a year - where they find the time to stop and make a great record, I'm not sure, but they've done it. The Whippoorwill is the band's first album for Zac Brown's Southern Ground label, and it should be the record to send them to country-rock superstardom.
“I remember not being able to sleep well at night when we were making this new album,” singer/guitarist Charlie Starr recalls. “I was so excited about which songs we were going to cut the next day. After it’s done and we can hold it in our hands and be proud of it we know that there’s another one that will have to be made in the not too distant future, but it feels really good to have this one finished; we’re all really proud of it.”
Lucky for Charlie, all that road work renders a band rather tight, and Blackberry Smoke knocked out this 13 song masterwork in just over four days of recording.
“For all the planning ahead, we still had to get it done in four-and-a-half days, so it’s not like we had time to stretch out and find the most comfortable chair in the studio,” Charlie says. “In a perfect world, I’d like to take a little bit more time to record, but it’s not possible until they add more hours in the day and more days in the week. We’re used to doing it that way anyway.”
The Whippoorwill is one of those records that just kind of fell into my lap - a friend sent me a video of the title song being played live, and I was instantly hooked. Blackberry Smoke is well steeped in country music, but they sweeten it up with some serious blue eyed rhythm & blues, and a healthy dollop of hard rocking guitars. It takes me straight back to when I first saw Lynyrd Skynyrd opening for The Who back in their early days, and being amazed at how much of Clapton's Cream I heard mixed in with their Southern pedigree.

However, in spite of all the splendid and tasty guitar work, harmonious vocals, and a steaming rhythm section, The Whippoorwill gets from good to great on the back of a keyboard player. Brandon Still sounds equally at home behind the piano, or the Hammond organ - his piano playing is a marvel to witness, whether he's pounding out honky tonk, barrelhouse rhythms, or supplying pretty arpeggios underneath Charlie Starr's smooth baritone.

Six Ways To Sunday starts the album off, and it is a great crash course in what you are about to hear. The song harkens back to the days when blue eyed southern soul was a staple of FM radio. This band is all about the songs - they sound like they are reproducing the great sounds that came out of Muscle Shoals in the '60s, but this isn't the house band or some hot session players, this is just the case of some seriously seasoned road dogs laying it down.

I don't have the luxury of liner notes in this day of streamed review copies of albums, but I'm assuming that's Charlie Starr's bluesy vocal that's cushioned so elegantly by perfect accompaniment on Pretty Little Lie. The pre-chorus of this tune melodically sneaks up and escorts you into the heavenly refrain of the title. Great harmonies, a howling Hammond organ, and a serious beat never allow the listener to get complacent, and that's one of the things that keeps Blackberry Smoke from becoming too slick, or too predictable - they're all great musicians, and they never mail it in. Every tune shows them displaying a rather encyclopedic knowledge of their past, and how it was played and sung.

Everybody Knows She's Mine suggests the musical marriage of Lynyrd Skynrd with The Band - echoes of Rick Danko's high howling harmonies abound, and Still's right hand antics on the piano are a joy. Guitarists Starr and Paul Jackson pass parts back and forth with seamless comfort and great taste.

In this day of auto-tuned vocals, and cut and paste production values, I've started to search for musical validity in a new record by comparing new product to classics from the past. In this case, I stuck The Whippoorwill between Skynrd's Second Helping, Little Feat's Dixie Chicken, and Bob Seger's Night Moves - I do this to compare things such as songwriting, singing, playing, arrangements and production values. Many is the record that fails to pass this test in a time whereby session players are used for speed more than their creativity, and sections of songs are put together with a sense of time closer to Seiko than Motown. Perfection means nothing without soul, and these guys have some serious soul. Blackberry Smoke passed with no problem - if released in any era, this record would sound great and pass the test of any time. You can almost hear every show they've played, every notch in their belt.

Ain't Much Left of Me reminds us that country boys have always done well when they crank up the amps, and sang their blues with a solid four-on-the-floor beat. Some nice slide guitar makes an all too brief appearance, and bassist Richard Turner turns in a powerhouse performance on this rocking cut.

The album's title track is a song that will still be played thirty years from now, and someone will be comparing whatever is new and fabulous to this instant classic. The Whippoorwill will be blasting out of jukeboxes from coast to coast for a long time to come. This is how country rock always sounded best, a mixture of black and white musical history, as piped over to England for a bit of sophistication, then filtered back through the states. This would have fit just fine on Clapton and Windwood's Blind Faith record.

Living somewhere between heavy guitar rock and southern fried blues, Crimson Moon goes from hard charging rock into softer verses without blinking an eye. In the age of everything must be louder than everything else, Blackberry Smoke has mastered the art of dynamics - it's nice to hear a drummer hitting his snare both softly and with power on the same track. In making this album, the band chose to keep it in-house and they've done a great job of delivering the goods.

Shakin' Hands with the Holy Ghost shows that when Blackberry Smoke rocks, fans of The Black Crowes and The Georgia Satellites will again have a hard rockin' champion out of the south to salute. I've gotta laugh - just as I wrote that last line, the vocal intoned, "...as the crow flies." A wicked wah-infused guitar solo is in and out, making me hope that they stretch this one out on the road.

The Whippoorwill is a stunning victory for Blackberry Smoke - this should be the record that allows them arenas instead of Harley-Davidson dealership gigs. Not that there's a thing wrong with that, and I'm guessing those are the best audiences in the world, it's just that these guys just deserve to be selling out arenas every night. And I'm sure they will.

Thanks to Blackberry Smoke, Southern Ground Records, and David McTiernan at Shore Fire Media.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray - Between Bakersfield and Outer Space

We're From Here is one of those debut albums that you hear for the first time, scratch your head, smile, and then listen again. It's a 'did I just hear what I thought I heard?' moment - brilliance is like that. Sometimes it takes you a minute to realize that you're in its presence.

I came to this record with a bit of trepidation - I've generally been less than thrilled by much of the alt-country/indie rock that has crossed my path, as the singing is usually out of tune and the instrumentation is something less than inventive or adventurous. Miss Shevaughn dispels my negative notions immediately with a voice that is powerful, pitch perfect, and filled with passion. Her performance on the opening track, Go Hang, is soulful and sultry as she unfolds the tale of a woeful woman who's stayed too long in the wrong place. Her phrasing sounds as if she spent a good bit of time with the soul shouters, jazz queens, and country wailers who established the ground rules for how a woman should sing over fifty years ago. She's not lazy, she doesn't slide by, she hits it head on, and she hits it hard.

Yuma Wray mystifies me - he provides the musical tapestries over which Miss Shevaughn wails, and he combines smooth country bends and slides with shimmering, tremolo chords, then thinks nothing of firing off salvos of Jimmy Page approved shards of jagged howls and power chords. Mi Burro Esta En Fuego follows Shevaughn's opener, and it's an amazing three minutes and forty-six seconds of south of the border guitar bravado that while by no means is technically perfect is perfect none the less. He gets bolder and bolder as the tunes progresses, combining harmonized leads, brutal chord stabs, and melodic statements that suggest, indeed, his burro may just be on fire. OK - take a little Robert Rodriguez soundtrack, add some Neil Young frenzy, throw in a dash of Beck's Bolero, and serve it up with a frentic drum track, and you've got it. Get it?

These two are some kind of empathetic - it's like there's one musical being divided between two bodies. Swirls of steely slides chase the melodies as casually as a walk through a wavy field of flowers on a summer morning. Shevaughn has an amazing set of pipes, and her vibrato is strong and true. Reverberated slide guitars are the silk wrapping of this record, and they give some softness to the chaunteuse's lyrics, which often are less than comforting (much like these times in which we live).

The River Made Me Do It has the marks of an instant classic. It could have been written a hundred and fifty years ago as easily as last year, and the plucked and strummed banjo (just as likely a capo'd guitar) accompaniment is appropriate underpinning until some seriously heavy power chords hijack the proceedings, and announce the tune's second act. It all kind of makes me wish this album had been released in 1969 - Levon Helm and Robbie could have used the competition. World weariness never sounded so hopeful.

Dynamics figure heavy on this disc, and never so much as on the stop/start action between the electric violence and smooth melody of Lost My Way. This sounds like Jefferson Airplane meets Blue Cheer, but it works. The juxtaposition of dark and light flickers repeatedly, but not so much as be jarring - somehow they make it sound very natural. So much so that I keep finding myself smiling at their clever musicality.

Lyrically, this isn't the most pleasant street you're going to find yourself on this summer, but it has the gripping ring of the Truth. Shevaughn is cast in the mold of the classic Southern songcrafters. Her tales sound like she's listened closely to a lot of sad tales, and maybe shared a few of her own.

Morning Is Breaking is a mournful meditation that is driven by a gospel tinged, modulating organ that hangs over the tune like a thunderstorm, only to be interrupted by a very brief, but very cool lo-tech, lo-fi guitar solo. Mind you, these terms only describe the techniques - musically it is sublime and perfect for the song. Miss Shevaughn sings this one like there might not be another, and she milks it so sweetly.

Yuma takes the microphone on Cloin's Lament, and he evokes visions of The Band if they had been produced by Jimmy Page - heavy, heavy guitar blues mixed with a "throw me in the river" refrain that develops into a torrent of passionate wailing vocals, crashing cymbals, and careening chords that slam against your ears with charming aplomb. Holy hell this is great stuff.

No Grave To Brush The Dust is another instrumental, and the interludes give a pleasant respite from the dust bowls, and broken city lights as Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray ride the highways and byways of an American Dream gone nightmare. Mind you, for all the darkness and trepidation this album deals with there is never a shortage of hope that shines through musically. That may be this record's greatest charm - in the face of life's hardships and tribulations, you get the impression that these are not just the survivors, they are also the victors.

We're From Here is a stunning and audacious debut - this record sounds like they've made an Oscar winning movie based on the Great American Novel. Miss Shevaughn joins Emmylou Harris and KD Lang in the realm of the great female American storytellers. She is a force of nature, and Yuma Wray provides the perfect home in which to raise her stories. Forget about genres and categories, this is great music.


We're From Here will be released September 11th, and Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray will be tour starting in September.


Thanks to Tony Bonyata at Pavement PR.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

John Wetton on Asia XXX - Track by Track

I never do this, but today I am simply reprinting an interesting piece that I just saw on John Wetton's website. I enjoyed the new Asia album a good deal, and I always find Wetton's words to be entertaining, educational, and informative. If you like Asia, you'll find this well worth your time. Tomorrow it shall be me with pen in hand again (so to speak). John, I hope you don't mind.

John Wetton, "I will preface this whole essay by stating that I don't write with a view to being criticized. If I did that, I wouldn't be able to write at all. I just let the pen flow (figuratively, because I write on the computer), but in other words, as soon as I have my title, direction,---when I know roughly what point I'm going to make, I just let the Muse do it for me. People may say that it sounds like I'm not in control, and maybe I'm not, but this works for me. I will then review and revise, change this, change that, until --to my mind-it makes sense, and has some kind of form. I consider form to be all-important, in music as well as lyric. I tip my hat to some of my greatest influences--Richard Palmer-James (listen to Supertramp's biggest hits, and you will hear RP-J's influence all over them like a cheap suit), Joni Mitchell (my first-person confessional comes directly from her----did I say that I love Joni Mitchell? There, I've said it now), Marvin Gaye (don't be afraid to describe exactly what's pissing you off, but be urbane when you say it). So, the thought stream dictates the Asia lyric. Now I don't know why, but lately all the lyrics have a positive bent. I'm not using the word 'message', because that would be too self-important, but the song, however dark, will not leave you in that hopeless place alone. As I said, I don't know why, but that's the way it goes. You may notice references to Asia's past in some of the lyrics---there are some that are very personal to the band, and others that may bring a smile to your face, if you know the history of the band.

"Tomorrow The World:
All of the introductory passage is Geoff's, the cello is my idea---we were hoping that Hugh McDowell would be available to play the part, but by the time of recording, he was not well enough---we look forward very much to working with him again when he's recovered. I played the original cello melodic idea into the track, and GD found the sound. Musically, it's a  Wetton/Downes collaboration ---all of the ideas came from our last writing session, along with Face On The Bridge.Great drums from CP on this track. The choruses are an adult talking to a child, and the verses, where the lyric gets tougher,are all about fate, destiny. What I am saying, however, is that whatever cards life has dealt you, what you do with them is up to you. It is not compulsory to accept without question.

"Bury Me In Willow:
My chorus, which I really did not know what to do with. It was written on 12-string guitar over the last year.  Got the lyric idea finally after GD and I had been putting down ideas at Liscombe, and I was driving home from the studio (a 2.5 hr drive, and one where I get a lot of ideas, as I'm very focussed, and I have rough mixes to listen to . The first idea was to have my casket made of willow, rather than oak, and then the symbolism hit me, that maybe the less rigid, less dogmatic, more tolerant, pliable attitude would have been a better way to be in life. But if I couldn't be that way while alive, I'll make sure that in death, I forego all the status symbols , pomp and rigmarole of a formal funeral for a pauper's burial.So the lyric then wrote itself around the chorus. Geoff's music on the verse, solos and outro. My little madcap bridge superbly orchestrated by GD and a brilliant E-Bow solo from Steve.

No Religion:
Originally a backing track created in the studio from ideas from Steve and Geoff, I tinkered with the end line of the verse leading into the chorus, then looked for ideas for the lyric. I started writing about unemployment---a lot of the people I know locally have had redundancies recently---and somehow incorporated angst and depression into the thinking. The verse struck me as quite dirty, the bridge more melodic and pretty ( 'I daisy-chain my life away'), and the choruses carry the main statement that our unemployed hero is carrying---'got no religion, just living hell, if I had money, I'd drop it all in a wishing-well', meaning even if he had some money, it wouldn't be enough, so he may as well gamble it to get more.The song starts in a pub, ---then our guy's going to find a sordid place to daisy-chain his life away. He's waiting for the Man, but the Man, instead of giving him the goods he ordered, starts telling him how to change his life. In retrospect, I wanted the angelic Miss Ludo to be the one to impart the life-changing Epiphany--Ludovika is in real-life a Barista at my local coffee-shop. People always ask me if my lyrics are autobiographical. 'Always', I reply, so your question is rhetorical. I love the energy of this track, it's infectious, and Tufty did a great mix.

Geoff and I wrote the chorus to this together, I remember the afternoon at my house,and we were getting terribly excited about this tune. It has a classic chord sequence ---C/ Am/ Dm/ G/ C, but the melody can be half-time over a rocky back track. At a later date, I got a message from GD---'why not try the title Faithful?' Now, this is fatal (fatal, not faithful), because try as I may, I could not get that title out of my head. So, despite the possibility of derision and raised eyebrows from ex-wives, I began to swim with the tide, and before long, the lyric had written itself. It verges on schmaltz (the whole song does, despite the tough backing track), but then so does everything by Paul McCartney, The Eagles and Bon Jovi, so.....I rest my case. It all depends how well you do it, of course. I think we did well. The harmonies are restrained (I could have gone totally overboard on the three-part in the chorus), and it charges like a steam train, once the stride is hit.The drumming is fantastic, and the solo is the tune ( and I love that).

"I Know How You Feel:
Driving through the Hindhead tunnel, en route to my dentist for an implant one dark, Winter evening in the wilds of Surrey, I flicked between two rough mixes on a studio CD. The end of 'Faithful', and the opening to 'I Know How You Feel". I got chills, it was so atmospheric---whatever the sequence on the final pressing, these two songs had to be adjacent. I mentioned it to Mike (Paxo), who tried it for himself, and agreed that it was a winner. Out of all the songs on XXX, this is my favourite. The Midinight Mix adds another dimension to the song, but either version gets my vote as the song of the album.The comparisons to other bands because of the eights in the right hand of the keyboard are churlish---for the rock version, it had to be this way, and I love it. The drum part locks perfectly with the bass licks, and the the vocal middle 8 (bridge) is up there with our best. The lyric is me talking to someone else who has the same condition that I do, and reassuring them that all will be ok.

"Face On The Bridge
This is , I think, the last song that Geoff and I wrote for the album, and it's odd that it was chosen as the first single. The same happened with Heat of the Moment, Don't Cry, and Go. It's the story of seeing a face on the King Charles Bridge in Prague, the Karluv Most, Praha 1. It's quite an amazing place---it's covered with artists (some very good ones, too) painting and sketching everything from landscapes to caricatures, and the bridge itself has statues along the balustrade---at night it all lights up and is quite captivating---not as captivating as my interpreter, however, without whom this song would not have a subject. It was a title I wrote in my diary, and when the first chords of the chorus appeared, I knew it was the right place. Steve's guitar parts embellish the track superbly,the drums have been described as 'very Coldplay' or 'very U2'. Rubbish! they're very good, is what they are--- they're also very modern, well done Carl for dragging us into the 21st century! The verse is Geoff's, and the chorus is mine, if you are keeping a notebook.That's my mobile phone ringing over the intro, by the way. 

"Al Gatto Nero:
Al Gatto Nero is a little Italian restaurant close to where I live. It has a great sign over the door, a real Art Nouveau cat, looking suitably aloof and nobile----- snooty. I just loved the idea of a guy getting so hacked off at home, that he seeks some enjoyment and company at the local. Like Joni Mitchell's Mermaid Cafe, it's the place to go to to let the hair down, and forget about the problems, have some fun tonight.All the music is Geoff Downes, I provide the words on this tune. It's been played a couple of times on Radio 2 in the UK, on Ken Bruce's show---and it sounds great on radio. On my trip to Japan in January, for my solo dates, the lovely Valentina (management) sat next to me for 15 hours, and kindly provided the Italian translations and pronunciations, which I probably managed to massacre,and thoroughly dodgy-up. Thankyou, Val.

Steve Howe sent a CD to me, GD and Mike Paxman  with the bones of the song, and we all agreed we needed to put this on the record, so the track was created, and I started to think about lyrics. The song is so pop/rock that any standard rock lyric idea tends to sound trite . I took a leaf from the great British pop bands of the 70s/80s---like 10cc and XTC---and wrote something so scathing and vitriolic---the lyric has the words brutal, traitor, murderous and speaks of ' putting the knife in', but is sung in a straightforward ,po-faced, almost mellifluous manner  . The word Judas is mentioned in the lyric, so Paxo suggested it, half-jokingly, as a title. I leapt at that, and added sugar-sweet honeyed harmonies singing the deathly chorus. I've been asked who bears the brunt of this vitriol,who is the subject of this song ? Is it Mr.Lane? The Ex? That bloke from EMI? No, it's not---sometimes my characters are an amalgamation of several different heroes or villains----- but I'm not going to tell you who it is...................YET.

"Ghost Of A Chance:
A natural closer, and we knew that as soon as we had the chords that this was a possibility. Lyrically, it sums up the diverse emotional mount and abyss of the whole album. It's triumph in adversity, it's telling me if I want a different world, I must go out and change it,but the change starts with me, and action must accompany a decision, otherwise that decision is a whim. Absolutely stunning steel guitar solo from Mr. Howe,  gargantuan drums from CP,Taurus Moog pedals make their presence felt, and a great way to end the record on a powerful note of personal optimism in a blaze of Asia musical pyrotechnic." 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Michael Des Barres Band - Carnaby Street Sees the Return of Rock and Roll

Michael Des Barres first caught my ear in 1973 - he lead Silverhead, a band that kicked Rod Stewart and The Faces asses at their own game back then, and 40 years later he's still kicking Rod's ass. Carnaby Street, the new release from the MDB Band will satiate those who are still waiting for Woody and Rod to get their act back on track.

Des Barres is in fine voice, and he's writing the same kind of sexy, cheeky Brit blues rock that made Silverhead (then Detective, then Chequered Past) a band that couldn't miss but did. Inexplicably, the singer's art has never been able to eclipse the flamboyance of a Marquis born to be bold and brash. He's always had the chops, he just never quite clicked with American ears - he's better known on this side of the lake for his acting than he is his music, which is our loss.

One thing that has always separated Des Barres from most solo singers is his willingness to surround himself with excellent musicians - guitarist Eric Schermerhorn (Iggy Pop, David Bowie) shines on this record, keeping things interesting in a way that puts me in mind of a guy like Waddy Wachtel. He never oversteps, but he's constantly playing things that catch my attention, makes me smile, and want to pick up my guitar. Bassist Paul ILL sounds like he's devoured every Duck Dunn chop there ever was, along with a walloping dose of Motown - this album is worth the purchase price for his performance alone, and how often does that get said about a bass player? David Goodstein is relentless behind the drum kit, keeping things moving right along, and keyboardist Jebin Bruni fills a lot of space with a lot of taste - especially his excellent organ work. Yeah, this is a band.

You're My Pain Killer displays a brazen boldness as Des Barres kicks off the record not with one of his patented riff rockers, but with a smoldering piece of rhythm & blues that is sweet as a big slab of smoked ribs - then gets even sweeter with a nicely melodic bridge that rolls into a succinct Schermerhorn guitar solo before drifting back into the song's refrain. This is a powerhouse piece for the band - killer playing, ethereal background vocals, and a great gritty performance from their frontman.

"Well I was nineteen in 1967, on the streets of London, I was in heaven..." Carnaby Street may have been where Des Barres grew up, but he hasn't grown up much - he's still the coolest guy on any street he walks down, even with a blazing band chasing him every step of the way. This sounds like a great mash up of Bowie's Spiders, The Faces, and every band that ever made us American kids wonder what was in the water over there. This song rocks, rocks, then rocks some more.

Des Barres has always had a melodic flair that kept his material from sounding routine, or played out. Forgive Me could sound mundane in the hands of lesser bands, from the lungs of lesser voices. This is classic rock - it isn't reinventing anything, but it proves that even in middle age, rock and roll can be vibrant, unapologetic, and life confirming. If this don't move ya, check your pulse.

Sugar is a brilliant example of how a band can re-till the soil of rock and R&B without ever sounding stale, or tired. Schermerhorn sounds like he's been waiting to make a record like this all his life, and once again, Des Barres busts out with a bridge that turns the song on its ear and turns your lust to love - this might the fattest, sweetest groove I've heard all year. I'm ass dancing in my chair as I type this, and looking at my guitar like we got a date after this.

MDB has always had sex on the brain - he wrote such classics as Rock Out, Claudette, Rock Out and 16 and Savaged, both bawdy rockers that connected with a great many lustful youths back in the day, and he's still rolling down the same highway with Route 69. Rock and roll belongs in the bedroom as much as it does on stage, and at 64, he hasn't forgotten this.

Please Stay is a slow and languorous walk through what could be the end, or the new beginning of a love. With a band like this, and this much passion and skill, I'm guessing she stays. The band kills it on this one, Bruni's organ playing is sublime, the bass beautiful, Schermerhorn is glorious, and the drums sound like they were smelted in a slow baking furnace. I don't need Rod Stewart when I got this.

Des Barres bares his punk pedigree on Little Latin Lover - this is what the New York Dolls comeback should have sounded like. MDB has finally got his ass in gear and produced a record that's on par with his always large skill-set. This flat out moves.

Hot and Sticky is another one that just bursts with melodic flourishes - I'm now typing with my guitar in my lap - this is a band I want to join, not just listen to. This has a chorus that is as joyfully bouncy as The Small Faces - Chrissakes, this is Steve Marriott good. And it doesn't sound like an old and tired version of the sixties, this is high octane and kicking.

The band makes a break for it right out of the gate on From Cloud 9 to Heartache, and MDB is chasing them every step of the day. This is high horsepower pub rock - the best I've heard since Graham Parker was squeezing out sparks. I've heard great things about this band as a live entity, and now I'm ready to walk to LA to check them out.

Happy endings are a beautiful thing, and can you have a better ending than a song called, My Baby Saved My Ass? I always hoped Ronnie Wood would have sounded like this when he joined The Stones instead of becoming a Keith clone, but with this, Eric Schermerhorn has become a new guitar hero, and my job is to spread the word - this is the finest slice of summertime, sexy rock and roll I've heard this summer, like a gift from God on a morning that could be spent thinking about friends shot up in some damned movie theater. This album gave me an hour of great joy when it was needed most, and ain't that rock and roll's job?

Michael Des Barres - congratulations, pal. You've made a great album, and I'm smiling from ear to ear. Thank you, sir!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Hughes, Vai, and Smith: Highway Star for Jon Lord and Machine Head 40th

"The session today was EPIC! Steve Vai's playing was from another planet: Chad as always, killed...the man is from another world. Hahaha!" Glenn Hughes on his Facebook fan page.

"Hey, I just finished up a dream of a life time. I was able to unite Glenn Hughes with Steve Vai and Chad Smith on a cover of Highway Star for the 40th anniversary of Machine Head. Producing and mixing these guys has been incredible and the result is MIND BLOWING..wait until you hear the CD, you won't freaking believe it. Glenn is GOD and Vai sounds like Brian May is doing crystal-meth while emulating Hendrix! Hahaha! Talk to you soon." Producer Fabrizio Grossi.

This week has been a tough one, the world of rock so visibly shaken by the death of Jon Lord. However, the community that makes up the upper echelons of rock has always been able to rise above it, and move forward. Just days after Lord's passing, the first tribute has been completed and it's a magnificent one.

Glenn Hughes got together yesterday with guitar god Steve Vai, and everyone's favorite drummer, Chili Pepper/Chickenfooter Chad Smith, and they laid down Highway Star with producer Fabrizio Grossi. As you can see from up above, the participants are rightly chuffed!

Deep Purple's Machine Head album entered the world in 1972, and there is a tribute album being made to mark its 40th anniversary. Details are still being sorted out, and recordings being made, but I don't think I'd be far off the mark to say that knowing what I do know about this project, it will be a tough tribute to beat. 

"We were asked if we'd contribute to the 40th anniversary of Machine Head, too - we can't turn that down! We're circling the Purple catalog and hopefully we'll come up with something that is worthy for these wonderful men." Metallica's Lars Ulrich, in an interview with Metal Hammer Magazine.
Glenn Hughes is carrying the torch for a great many of his fallen friends. He's seen the passing of bandmates and friends Mel Galley, Ronnie James Dio, and now the death of Jon Lord. Sometimes one gets the feeling that the Universe does actually know what its doing when it sets a man like Hughes on the back burner for twenty or so years - maybe he was being shelved like a fine wine, to be served when necessary. He's just finishing up with Black Country Communion's third album (which he proudly states is his most epic ever rock), he's just off the plane from a successful solo tour of Europe, and he's soon to be diving into the studio with another project that will make heads spin, and possibly explode. Hughes is fond of stating that there are no mistakes - that, indeed, the universe does know what it is doing, and it does it with love, compassion, and courage.

In the coming weeks, more details will be revealed for the 40th Anniversary celebration of Deep Purple's Machine Head. In the meantime, sit back and ponder. It already has Metallica, and the three headed monster of Hughes, Vai, and Smith. Dream big, stay positive, and who knows - maybe we've not even yet heard the best news that we're to hear concerning this tribute, which is already produced some smiles in a week that started on such a down note. I know in my heart that that is what Jon Lord would have wanted - for his passing to stimulate the making of great music by his courageous and loving friends. Now, that is a tribute. More soon!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Crosby, Stills & Nash 2012 - Live and Alive, The War Is Over

Stephen Stills has finally made an album that shows why Neil Young could never really resist the temptation to go toe to toe with him as an axeman. David Crosby finally shows us why he might well be the finest jazz singer America has yet produced. Graham Nash? Well, Graham Nash has kept this wooden ship afloat for over 40 years, hasn't he? As always, he sings amazingly well, and reminds us that The Hollies gave their best songwriter to America - can anyone not listen to Our House when it comes on the radio, and not sing along?

CSN 2012 is the new CD/DVD by Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and it's about damned time they made a great live album. This career covering collection offers up 25 great tunes, but more notably it contains 15 bona fide classics that could be agreed on by any lover of rock. I have to think that if you played this set to any one of the band thirty years ago and told them it was them at 60, they would have been pretty pleased. If every fan of the band would just give this set one listen, all would be forgiven. I'm guessing this document will even make Neil smile.

When discussing CS&N there are always three things discussed - singing, songwriting, and personal problems. I'm going to change that today by substituting Stephen Stills guitar playing for the personal problems, hell - there's books you can read about those.

Stills kicks the album into gear on set-opener Carry On/Questions with a fuzzed out salvo that is gloriously noisy in the way that makes you think his amplifier really might explode. And as brilliant as the intro is, it's his solo that makes you wonder why this guy's name isn't bandied about more often when the greats are being discussed - if Hendrix can hear this, he's smiling from ear to ear. I'm kind of pissed that Stephen won't reveal what he's using to overdrive his vintage tweed Fender Bassman, but whatever it is, it is amazing. He's playing like a guy that still has something to prove, and he's proving it. With the help of bassist Kevin McCormick (Melissa Ethridge, Jackson Browne), drummer Steve DiStanislao (Joe Walsh, David Gilmour), and organist Todd Caldwell, Stills turns Wooden Ships into a hard rocking, Hendrixian piece of guitar rock, and he solos like a man on fire as all the while the trio reminds us how brilliantly and beautifully they sing together.

Helplessly Hoping will have everyone who has ever heard it smiling as at long last everyone is not just on the same stage, but also on the same page. Crosby and Nash provide the perfect accompaniment to Stills's lyric poetry. The voices blend like fine wine that's aged and mellowed to a wonderful bouquet - not as bright and sparkly as in 1969, but with a warmth then never imagined.

David Crosby has called Guinnevere his finest composition, and there's no argument here. It stands as one of the most, if not the most inventive American guitar ballad. Structurally a very complex song, it features an unconventional tuning (E B D G A D) that lends itself to ambiguous chords with no fixed tonal center, complex fingerpicking, fluid time and tempo changes, and we haven't even gotten to Crosby's lyrics, which tell the tale of three of his lovers (only two of which he ever named). If this ain't jazz, how come Miles covered it? This might be my favorite rendition - it finally sounds its age.

CSN cover a lot of territory in terms of stylistic diversity - they alternately bounce between hippy jam band, folk minstrels, and progressive songcraft. Deja Vu masterfully runs the gamut - spacey rock at its best, killer singing, another mindblower of a guitar solo from Stills, and even some soulful harmonica. The band flexes its muscles so well on these tunes, especially organist Todd Caldwell. I've never heard CSN sound so much like a true band.

Marrakesh Express gets a swinging treatment that brings to mind not only what Jerry Garcia loved about CSN, but also displays exactly why Graham Nash took this tune with him to California when his brethren in The Hollies rejected the song. Nash later sits down at the piano and blows my mind when I realize that at 69 years old he sings and plays Our House as well as ever. Crosby's low harmonies are exemplary, and sublime in their tenderness.

My favorite moment comes very near the end, in the middle of a stunning rendition of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes - as the trio comes out of the chorus at the five minute mark, Stills plays some passing chords and fills on his twelve string (tuned E E E E B E - a tuning Stills calls the 'Bruce Palmer Modal Tuning') before gently cascading into George Harrison's raga rock masterpiece, Within You, Without You. It's a beautiful moment, and a reminder of the fact that CSN were entwined with all that made rock great, long before they stumbled through so many years of strife and tribulation. Graham Nash says, slightly off mic, "God bless you, George," and Stills leads the band back into the final verse before going magisterially into the song's famous Cubanesque salsa finish. It's the perfect ending to a set that at long last delivers a soul satisfying live set from one the planet's most talented and enigmatic entities.

If this is where Crosby, Stills, and Nash have landed after over forty years, I don't know how anyone could complain. They're singing well, they are harmoniously in sync as performers, and Stephen Stills even makes it a thrill for the guitar fans - CSN 2012 deserves to be heard by every fan the band ever alienated, and every fan that has loyally waited for this moment. Now, if they could just get back into the studio with Neil Young one more time - I know, I'm both demanding and a dreamer.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Million $ Reload - Rock & Roll Straight Up with No Chaser

A Saint's Sinner is Million $ Reload's excellent new hard rock record, out this month on Frontiers records. Let's do a little catching up, if you're not already onboard....

Million $ Reload is a phrase that comes from the card game Texas Hold 'Em - it's a mythical situation that would guarantee a win at every turn. It turns out that rock and roll is just as 'mythical.' If there was anything right in this old world you'd already know M$R. However, after releasing Anthems for a Degeneration in 2008, an album hailed in some quarters as being "the best hard rock debut since G&R's Appetite For Destruction", M$R disappeared from international radar having barely set foot in America.

"Well, we had a little problem with our label going under, but now we're back on track," says lead singer/songwriter Phil Conalane, with more than a bit of humble good nature.

Phil is yet another fantastic Irish rock singer in the classic mold - he's not given to bold exclamations unless there's a microphone in his hand and a fire breathing rock band behind him, but when there is, he makes a lot of beautiful noise. A Sinner's Saint is M$R's second album, and the band seems content to let the music do the talking - and it does so brilliantly. Classic Rock Magazine just gave them a big nod, and 8 out of 10 points on the rock and roll Richter scale. As Phil so elegantly states, "Let's just say, Tony, that the record, it's being, as they say, 'well received!'"

"We don't work real hard at it, we just try to do what comes natural to us," Conalane elaborates, "We generally just get in a room and knock the songs together."

He makes it sound as if great riffs and hummable melodies grew on trees, and he and his band mates casually pick them at will. And maybe they do - a listen to either of the band's two long players will convince you that they are indeed gifted in the rarest of ways. Hard rock bands come about a buck a dozen these days, and to be honest, I cringe when I see most of them coming, so it is an honor and a thrill to hear records that genuinely excite me. I've been listening to hard rock for 40 years now, and when I tell Phil that A Sinner's Saint sounds four decades old, I mean it in the best sense. If you play this record between AC/DC's Highway To Hell and Def Leppard's On Through The Night you'll get what I am saying. It doesn't shrink a bit, and it fits perfectly in the pantheon of great hard rock.

Bullets In The Sky came my way via its being chosen as Track of the Week by the UK's best rock publication, and why it was chosen is obvious. Off with an insistent bit of riffing, a rock steady high hat sets the scene. A howling bit of feedback rides just on the crest of the wave, and a voice that sounds like it was born of Belfast, Bon Scott, and whiskey tells us, "It's a long way down, and there's no way out." By now, the full kit is being hammered righteously with a furious back beat, and one of the hookiest pre-choruses to come down the pike in ages instantly has you humming along with some glorious background vocals - Conalane writes some seriously melodic parts that sit wonderfully on top of a guitar team that sounds as good as Gorham and Robertson did in the early days when Thin Lizzy established their kingdom of the realm of twin guitars. Again and again, this album put smiles upon my face as the band fills every space with inventive and cool riffs, fills, and solos. There's no weak link apparent as the rhythm section is not just a driving, propulsive machine, they are extremely musical.

Produced by Neal Caulderwood (The Answer, The Almighty), A Sinner's Saint is a classic straight ahead rock record. The guitars are brash and in your face, but they never swallow up the vocals. There are loads of quality guitar parts from stem to stern - Andy Mackle and Brian Mallon toss things back and forth as if they've been playing together for ages. I asked Conalane if as lead singer and main songwriter it was much of a task to sort out having two great players in the same outfit?

Conalane, "No, not at all. We aren't really an ego driven band - we tend to work things out together and try to do what best serves the song."

Serve the songs they do - this bunch sounds as if they've been gigging since the cradle. One of the things that I love about the album is that it sounds very organic. It never sounds contrived or forced. Conalane has the voice of the ages, as timeless as they come. To hear him tell it, it comes as natural as rolling out of bed in the morning (though he's sounds like his mornings might begin about early evening). I don't really think the guy has any idea just how rare and difficult is the art of really good hard rock. As I said, over the last twenty years I've come to rue the appearance of a bunch of unruly haired, tattooed wannabes with Marshall stacks, but this bunch has eased my jaded soul, and for that I am greatly appreciative.

Conalane, "Aw, c'mon, man. You must get loads of great records to listen to all the time, right?"

I told him that I sure wished that were true, but really, I hear about two, or three albums a month that really make me smile, and for one of them to be a straight ahead hard rock record is a true rarity.
"All we ever wanted to do was right proper frickin' rock songs. Songs that people could relate to and make rock fans say, 'Here's a rock and roll band playing genuine rock and roll with no bullshit and no frills, and they're having a blast doing it!' That's all we want to do, write and perform kick ass rock and roll and stick to our principles. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. The bottom line for us is that a good song is a good song. Isn't that what it's all about?" Phil Conalane.
Million $ Reload are wrapping up 2012 with European festival appearances, and as many gigs as they can muster. High in their hopes is international travel, more shows, and hopefully a trip to the US. They have the machinery of Frontiers Records behind them, which should bode well for their aspirations becoming reality. This time around, their label is not going to go belly up and waylay M$R's destiny.

The best thing for you to do would be to plonk down a few bucks for both of the band's records, and get hip to one of the finest hard rock outfits on the planet. They should not stay 'little known' to American ears for long - they've played Download three times, appeared at Donington, Hard Rock Hell, and loads of European gigs while waiting for a place for their records to call home, which they've now done by connecting with Frontiers. There's two albums worth of hard rocking that will prime your pump until they can make it to a town near you.

Most days I'm a bit wordier, but I'm going to follow the lead of my Irish brothers-in-rock, and let the music do the talking. If you give it a taste, you're most likely going to order up a full helping.

Thanks to Million $ Reload, Phil Conalane, Frontiers Records, and Dustin Hardman

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Free and Joe B? Here's Why I Like The Idea (and it's only my idea)

Late last year, I watched Joe Bonamassa and Paul Rodgers performing two Free classics, Fire and Water, and Walk In My Shadow at the Beacon Theater in New York. It wasn't until then that I thought it might be a great idea - what if the surviving members of Free reassembled for one more record, and maybe a few shows with Bonamassa standing in for the late Paul Kossoff?

I can already hear the complaints this will generate. I know that Joe doesn't play just like Kossoff - nobody does. However, I do have some genuine insight on just how much the young blues rocker reveres Kossoff, and his legacy. I have stood on a stage with Joe as he tested out a vintage Les Paul for the first time, and the sound he mentioned first, with a huge smile on his face, was Kossoff's. I also realize that you can't recreate history - and that is not even close to what I am suggesting. I do, however, think that given his regard for Free and Kossoff's history, his total love of the music, and his obvious talents, that Bonamassa would be the perfect guy for the gig. To those who think that Bonamassa would play in the exact same style as he would for his solo act as he might on a Free record, I disagree, and strongly.

I believe that Joe Bonamassa would be the first to say that what he would have to write and play for another band's reformation would have to be different than his normal workday. I think he'd be smart enough to keep it lean, soulful, and of the right spirit. Sure, he played more like himself than Kossoff at The Beacon Theater, but you have to understand - he was playing for an audience who came to see a Bonamassa show. My guess is that if he were to pinch hit for Paul Kossoff, he'd be wearing a different hat, and that he'd even change his rig appropriately. It's also my guess that my writing this may make him cringe uneasily, and for that I am sorry.

Of course, this is all my fan's eyes dreaming here. None of the principles have embraced this idea - I had first mentioned it back in February on my Facebook page:
"Can anyone watch this (Bonamassa and Rodgers at The Beacon) and not come to the conclusion that the three surviving members of Free and Joe Bonamassa should book some time in 2013 and record an album? I have to think the prospect would make Paul Kossoff smile from ear to ear."
One of the first people to 'like' my post was Andy Fraser's manager - we had a brief chat and it seemed to indicate that the Fraser camp not against the idea in principle. I certainly can't say more, or insinuate anything else, but even that was very heartening.

I smile broadly when I think what producer Kevin Shirley could do with Rodgers, Fraser, Kirke, and Bonamassa in the studio. Shirley is known to be a big fan of no-nonsense, get in and get it done tracking, and there is surely some magic to be yet mined out of this vein of rock.

Does the world even need a Free reunion?

If you're at all like me, you're of the opinion that Free's catalog is entirely too small, and it always feels decidedly unfinished. Most of the fans I talk to wish there was a larger collection of the magic that was made by this band - I'm always amazed at how many views the band's classic clips get on YouTube, and how often these clips pass by my Facebook news feed.

Now, as I said earlier, this is all just a fan's dreamings. I would dearly love to again hear Paul Rodgers fronting a band that matched his incredible talents. Andy Fraser has carved out a completely different and engaging musical career since leaving Free, but his die-hard fans would give plenty to hear his bass playing and compositional skills in a hard rock setting once again.

I'm not like most fans, I think Bad Company was not just a great band, I think they were perfect for their time. Mick Ralphs joining up with Rodgers was an inspired musical marriage, and as much as I revered Mott The Hoople and Free, I also adored Bad Company. Just because a great band no longer exists, it does not mean that the remaining members shouldn't continue to ply their trade in the way it suits them. I don't see any blasphemy with a reunion (of sorts) that is done for the right reasons - and those reasons should only be the musicians desire to make music, and the fans desire to hear it.

I have seen other names bandied about when the wishful thinking of a Free re-make is discussed, but I think from several standpoints, Bonamassa would be a great candidate. He has plenty of fans on his own, and he can tremendously aid the marketing viability of a project such as this. I've already stated why I believe him to be a great guy for the job musically. Mick Ralphs' name has come up, but I think that is preposterous - the existence of Bad Co would transmogrify this into something completely different, and messy.

One of my reasons for dreaming this dream is that I would dearly love to hear another great album from Paul Rodgers. He's had a stellar solo career, and he did heroic work with Queen - perhaps proving that this type of scenario can work. He didn't make a foolhearted attempt to become Freddie Mercury, he just did a great job at singing the Queen catalog in his own style and voice.

Rodgers will be the tough one to corner, I'm guessing. And, I respect that he has his reasons for any decision in his life. I know the situation is not simple, and there are many issues to which I am not privy that effect this scenario. But I think it would be great to hear him fronting that quality of band again. I like the possibility of magic. It's also a beautiful thing that Rodgers is still in great voice, and good shape. This thing could rock.

I'm not suggesting a long termed commitment, just an album, and maybe a short tour of very select cities. I am of the opinion that it would be great for the fans, great for the players, and great for the history of rock and roll.

I apologize to the musicians I am writing about in this story, especially Joe Bonamassa, who is already the busiest guitar player on the planet and a man who enjoys controlling his own destiny quite well without my help. If you're not interested, not able, or even just can't be bothered, I fully understand, and I sincerely regret any discomfort this could possibly cause. We fans are like that sometimes, only thinking for ourselves. I know that everyone is busy, has lives and careers of their own, and issues that I cannot possibly understand. As I've said - none of the principles have ever mentioned even the remote possibility of this lineup - it's just me, dreaming.

But if there's a way, there is a great possibility of some great music and music history to be made, don't you think?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tales From the Cracker Box - Hanging with Johnny Hickman

I had a chance to do some catching up with Johnny Hickman of Cracker after the band's performance as part of the "Last Summer on Earth" tour. After giving the rest of the bill (Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, and Big Head Todd & The Monsters) a tough act to follow with a set full of classic Cracker hits, we snuck Johnny off to the cozy confines of a local wings and beer joint for a couple hours of civilized conviviality and laughs (laughs mostly courtesy of the hilarious Joe Kroger - a pal of ours who maybe knows more about rock and roll than any of us).   

I still remember picking up the first Cracker record back in 1992 at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. What sold me was one name in the liner notes - Jim Keltner. If Jim Keltner was playing on a band's debut record, it had to be a helluva good band, and a helluva good record. In fact, it's a great record. When I told Johnny Hickman last night that it was one of the best debut records I had ever heard, he smiled a big smile. When he told me the story of how it came to pass that The Jim Keltner had played on the record, I smiled.

"That was our producer, Don Smith's doing," Hickman said. "We were recording just up the road from where Little Village was making their album. Don said that Jim might be willing to play on a few songs if he dug them."

That's why I had bought the Cracker record - I knew that if Keltner's name was on it, it couldn't suck. Actually, that's Hickman and Cracker co-founder David Lowery's mantra - "The only real rule in music is 'don't suck.'" Keltner's name is like the Rock and Roll Seal of Approval, if he's on it, it generally doesn't suck.

"Don took the demos and let Jim have a listen. He came back saying that Jim would play on the record, but only on the songs he chose. He chose three - and it worked out perfectly, because he picked one of my tunes, one of David's, and one that we co-wrote. Mr. Wrong, Happy Birthday to Me, and This Is Cracker Soul." Hickman continues, "Cracker Soul was first, and it was just me and Jim playing that long intro before the bass comes in. I kind of just took a deep breath, and he counted us in. We started playing it together - just over and over trying to find the right groove.

Photo by Joe Kroger
"All of a sudden, I just felt it come together (he brings his hands together in a swoop towards the heavens), and right then, Keltner just looks towards the control room and makes a circular motion with one hand, as in 'role tape.' We nailed it in one take. We recorded the entire thing together, and then we just added everyone else's parts around what Keltner and I had recorded."

If you have the first Cracker record, this would be a good time to throw it on, and listen to this of piece rock and roll come Bakersfield via Motown. Davey Faragher's bass walks in like John Wayne wearing Jamerson's bass, and it's off to the races. Cracker Soul? You're damned right - this song perfectly encapsulates the essence of the sound that led the band to selling tons of records and selling out tons of shows over the years. It defines Cracker soul.

"You know," Hickman says when ex-Cracker bassist Davey Faragher is brought up, "Dave is just such a huge talent. He arranged all the background vocals, and plays bass so well. He kind of upped our game, he was the local boy from Redlands 'made good,' - you know he played on The Pointer Sisters's I'm So Excited back in the early '80s."

This Is Cracker Soul is also a grand example of the musical marriage of punk/pop/country/soul created when Lowery and Hickman finally joined forces after years of circling around one another in local bands since they were kids.

"When we got together, I think David and I realized that there would be some give and take, a little pushing and shoving between us, creative tension - just because we both feel strongly about our own ideas. But over the years it's worked out better than we ever would have guessed (at this point Johnny intertwines his fingers to make one large fist, and that maybe makes the point better than words).

"When we were both just in local bands, every so often, I'd walk up to David, and say, 'Hey, did you write that?' or he'd walk up to me and ask the same thing, and after an acknowledgement, the other guy would kind of walk away with steam coming out of his ears, knowing he had to go write something just as cool."

It's nice to sit and listen to Hickman speak with such reverence and respect for his bandmate of over twenty years. He waxes enthusiastically about Lowery's amazing ability to combine his love for everything from Bakersfield country to Captain Beefheart to give birth to such perfectly unique tunes such as Kerosene Hat, or the tale of the band's incredible, but unfortunately unheard cover of Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breaks. If you look for Internet references of Cracker covering this tune, you'll find that every source you locate says that Cracker recorded and submitted the tune, Good Times, Bad Times, after their take on the aforementioned 'Levee' was deemed, 'too weird.' Turns out the Internet isn't always right. Here's the real story.

Photo by Joe Kroger
Johnny Hickman, "We recorded Good Times, Bad Times because there was a legal issue with When The Levee Breaks - Zeppelin was in a lawsuit with the publishing company who owned the rights to the Memphis Minnie classic (the song was originally written by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy in 1927 after the Great Mississippi Flood killed hundreds of African-American levee workers - often referred to as 'Katrina One'), so they couldn't give us permission to use When The Levee Breaks. Of course, they only told us we couldn't use it after we had already recorded it. It's a shame we couldn't put it out, it was such a great version - there are loads of dark and mysterious harmonica all over it, just layers of overdubs - it really sounds amazing!"

Maybe someday, when there's a Cracker box set, this gem will see the light of day. As it is, if you're pining for new product from the band, it appears that they are considering a new record for an early 2013 release. In the meantime, both Lowery and Hickman have released excellent solo albums since the band's last release, Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, in 2009. Albums which both are filled with great writing, singing, playing, and a few songs that would have fit very well on a Cracker album.

"The Palace Guards (Lowery's 2011 solo release - http://rockguitardaily.blogspot.com/2011/02/david-lowery-palace-guards-5-stars.html) was such a great record," Hickman agrees when I mention it, "But boy, there are a couple of tunes on there that I would have loved to sink my teeth into! Two of them in particular, I Sold The Arabs The Moon is such a great tune, but especially Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me. Those would have made such great songs for the band, but that could be true of about any song David would write - it is a really cool record. I suppose there's a few like that on my solo records too - numbers where the other guy hears a song, cringes, shakes his head, and wishes that one could have been saved for the band."

 Speaking of solo albums, Hickman has just released Tilting, his second solo release http://rockguitardaily.blogspot.com/2012/06/johnny-hickman-tilting-buy-it-dont.html, and his first as a label owner. I asked if there was any chance for some solo shows later in the year to support, and how he liked being a record mogul.

 "We've been kicking around the possibility of doing some shows. It would be great to be able to do it with a band because the tunes lend themselves to a full band treatment. I've been talking about it with Jason (Larson, the record's producer), and one of the questions is what role Jason would play in a band - he plays every instrument. We'll know more later in the summer. I've had my hands full getting ready for this tour and getting my record out there. It's a lot of work, but everything is going really well!"

We also spoke about the currant Cracker tour - I was surprised to not be seeing bassist Sal Maida up on stage, but thrilled to see his last minute replacement Bryan Howard doing a fantastic job. I asked Johnny how much rehearsal time they had with Bryan.

Johnny said, "Bryan's doing great, I'm glad you noticed. No, we didn't really get a chance to do full rehearsals at all with him. He's pretty familiar with the material though, and he's a fine musician - We're all sorry that Sal couldn't do the tour, but yeah, Bryan's a lot of fun to play with up there."

And who knew of Cracker's connection with gore rockers Gwar?

Photo by Brenda Yamen
Hickman explains, "We were neighbors. They lived right beside us when we lived in Richmond. There's a part of town called Oregon Hill, and it was filled with musicians - us, Gwar, a funk band on the corner, it was crazy, but it all kind of fit together.

"Later on, some of the crazier characters became pretty inspirational, especially around the time of Kerosene Hat, when we lived in the desert and there'd be all sorts of pretty weird characters everywhere you'd look. One day David just started singing, 'Here comes old lava lamp, here comes this, or that...here comes old Kerosene Hat' - bingo. We called them desertbillys!"

We covered a lot of ground in those few hours over our drinks, onion rings, and cole slaw, but the funniest part of the evening came when our friend Joe had Johnny sign a Merle Haggard record. Now, you may wonder why on Earth would he have Johnny sign a Haggard album - well, here's the story.

A few days before the show, Joe and I were out for a leisurely lunch and stroll through Dayton's Oregon District - I had wanted to introduce Joe to some interesting characters in the district, such as Greg Bonnett - a rather large and imposing figure of a man (maybe 6 foot 7 or so), who happens to not just be one of the world's great guys but also runs the best used book store East of the Mississippi, Bonnett's Books (since 1939!). We were also on the hunt for some Cracker on vinyl - Joe is a memorabilia buff, and he thought a signed album cover would be a nice addition to his enormous collection. Turns out that people keep their Cracker records. After searching through the bins at Omega Records and The Record Gallery we were empty handed. As close as we came to striking gold was when we looked for a solo Hickman slab - no Hickman, but alas, we came across Merle Haggard's 1976 release, My Love Affair with Trains (title song written by Dolly Parton - make your own jokes). Well, given that Haggard had similarly rakish good looks, and Bakersfield roots - we had found our cover.

Hickman laughed, and played right along, "Is it OK if I sign it, Hag?"

We howled, and the deed was done - Joe had his prizes for the day. He had a signed album cover, a back stage pass, an autographed Cracker concert poster (by Johnny and David Lowery), and as he put it so well, "Killer show at Fraze tonight. Even better hanging out with one of my favorite guitarists/songwriters afterwards. Tonight was certainly a highlight of this life."

Telling Tales Out of School!
A splendid time was had by all. I even got to tell Johnny about a great new record by local boys Buffalo Killers, who share with Hickman the fine talents of Pavement PR's Tony Bonyata - a guy who both bands and myself agree does a fantastic job for his clients.

Johnny on Bonyata, "It's great to have someone as enthusiastic and passionate about the music as Tony on our side. He has such a rich history of knowledge and experience that it's an honor to work with him."

If you get a chance to see Cracker on this tour, check 'em out - they're on fire. Buy Johnny and David's excellent solo CDs, and keep your eyes open for a slew of new blogs from Johnny that he said were maybe heading our way - he's a great storyteller, songwriter, guitar player, and all around good fella.

Thanks to Johnny Hickman, Cracker, Tony Bonyata and Pavement PR, Joe Kroger.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Goran Fat Boy Overdrive - A New World's Champion

"Man, this thing is righteous! Please let the builder know how much we appreciate the kind gift. It is online and in service. Wow!!" Billy F. Gibbons

"Billy Gibbons has received his Fat Boy Overdrive and was using it today in the studio. He wanted me to tell you thank you very much from him, and that he will be using it now." Lance Lopez

The Goran Fat Boy Overdrive pedal may be the best sounding distortion device I have ever played through, or heard. However, the last thing I would ever wish to do would be to speak an untruth, or to ruffle feathers. While I have invoked the name of one of the true modern day gods of tone, I also must state that he does not endorse Goran products. What I have written is true, and my intent is this - to state that while it is true that Billy Gibbons owns the pedal, digs the pedal (he must, he gave one to a friend), and has used the pedal, he does not endorse this, or any other products with the possible exception of Gibson's 'Pearly Gates' Les Paul, and I completely respect that and would never wish to imply otherwise. Mr. Gibbons would sound like Mr. Gibbons through any gear you gave him, and to imply that the tones that emanate from his guitaring are anything but his imprint would be preposterous. By the same token - I think he digs it. And like I said, it may be the finest sounding dirt box I have ever stomped upon.

"Online and in service"
It's not easy to get me excited about distortion/overdrive pedals. I owned my first Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 Power Booster back in the mid-70s - it thrilled me to no end. My little Fender Vibro-Champ amp turned into a veritable mini-Marshall, and I could instantly do a very convincing Ace Frehley imitation. I was hooked.

Over the years I moved from one distortion/overdrive pedal to another, as I'm sure most guitar players have. I went through periods where there were tubes in my pedals - the Butler/Chandler Tube Driver comes to mind, as does the Ibanez Tube King (designed by B.K. Butler - the US version states the BK 5022305 patent number on the case), ending up later with a Butler designed Tube Works Real Tube, which Butler says he tweaked by playing ZZ Top's Tush through it over, and over again. There was also the wonderful Mesa/Boogie V-Twin that had a tube front end so sweet that I even occasionally used it to warm up digitally recorded vocal tracks! I even experimented with using a variety of different tubes in these pedals (especially, substituting 12AY7 tubes for 12AX7s) - always searching for that magic sweet spot in my brain.

Of course, there were my 'Strat' years, and I used Echoplex pre-amp clones, the ubiquitous and still wonderful Ibanez Tube Screamers (TS9 and TS 808s), and maybe my all time favorite, the Fulltone Full Drive 2 (the orange 90s model). But even that didn't last, and I eventually quit using front end boosters completely. I decided that with the right tube amp connected to your guitar, all you need between them is a cable.

Still, there were many times when I found myself stomping on the ground in front of me, stepping for a pedal - that little extra oomph, that muscle-bound magic, and it wasn't there. Still, I thought that until I had found the miracle pedal, that tonal nirvana of my dreams, I would simply do without.

It was then, just late last year that something rather exciting happened.

Lance Lopez

 Lance Lopez had just returned from a very successful world tour that had seen him playing to huge crowds from Indonesia to Germany, even in Belgrade, Serbia. If you don't know Lance Lopez, you need to fix that right away. He's the best string strangler to come out of Texas since Stevie Ray Vaughan. Here's some of what's been said by others:
"Texas has been know throughout the years to be the breeding ground for some of the baddest guitar players of all time...Lance is yet another one to carry on that Texas tradition." Billy F. Gibbons - ZZ TOP

"A very exciting and intense Blues Guitarist." Jeff Beck

"Lance Lopez got 3 standing ovations when he opened a show for me and I was among those standing." B.B. KING

"One of my favs, the boy can make a guitar sing!" Greg Martin - Kentucky Headhunters

"When we are onstage together I get chills because Lance reminds me of someone I used to play with along time ago." Buddy Miles
Lance Lopez with Rama Satria Claproth  in Indonesia!
Lance Lopez is a dye-in-the-wool guitar tone fanatic. He's a big man, but his tones are bigger. His sonic vibe is not unlike that of Leslie West - mind you, they sound nothing alike, it's just that Lance's tones are that identifiable. He's a humbucker and head/cabinet sort of guy. He's currently endorsing and using MusicMan Reflex guitars and Mohave AmpWorks amplifiers, and he's a bread and butter kind of guy when it comes to tone. He believes in using only what sounds great and works - gig after gig.

Lance came back from his world tour absolutely raving about his new overdrive pedal. It had instantly became a part of his rig and has remained so to this day. There's a great story that has Lance arriving at Goran's shop to check out some of the Serbian's creations, including the Fat Boy. The first thing that happens is that Goran wants to walk outside, he wants to show Lance the Fat Boy. Not being exactly sure why they have to go outside to test an overdrive pedal, Lopez accommodates his host and steps back into the parking lot, where Goran immediately proceeds to throw the pedal off the wall of his shop. He smiles, picks the pedal off the ground, and says, "Good! Now let's see how it sounds."

The Goran Fat Boy Overdrive pedal is, indeed, very well built. It lives in a handsome and heavy duty metal housing that is 7.5" long, 5" wide, 2" deep, and features a jet black outer shell and a sexy chrome overlay on the footswitch section. It is a two channel device with a drive section and a solo (boost) section, both of which are foot switchable. The drive section consists of gain, tone, and volume control knobs. The solo section has a gain control, and a volume knob. Both section feature LED indicators that are green when engaged. Perhaps its coolest feature is its mode selector which is switched on via a small toggle switch located between the channels. Classic creme colored chicken head knobs add an attractive look, and are often more handy than plain round knobs, especially on a dark stage.

True bypass is one of those concepts that is difficult for some guitarists to understand. Simply put - for practical purposes, true bypass means that when a pedal is not turned on, your guitar's signal goes straight through to its destination. This means that there is no tone loss, as can occur with some pedals (very notably with wah pedals and time delayed effects). The last thing you need is a tone shaping device that makes your original tone worse - the Fat Boy is true bypass, so it is audibly imperceptible when not turned on. The pedal runs on either a 9v battery, or adapter (not included).

Before we get to how the pedal sounds, let's discuss the mode switch. I've rarely encountered a single switch that does more to elevate the value of a pedal than does this single toggle. It has two modes, FAT and Vintage. It literally gives you two completely different and wholly effective types of distortion - you literally end up with an extra (and great sounding) amp in your collection.

Let's go from small to large here, and first talk about the Vintage mode. This mode provides some of  the most soulful, sweet distortion tones imaginable. It almost casually evokes the holy trinity of amp builders, depending on how you configure your gain, tone, and volume options. Going lightly on the gain and the volume, I could easily coax classic sounds that harkened to sweet grind of the Fender Deluxe Reverb. Utilizing the tone control, I can increase the chime and get satisfyingly Vox-like (think Mike Campbell or R.E.M.'s Peter Buck). With a bit less gain, but more of a volume boost I conjured some lovely Peter Green bluesbreaking. Perhaps most pleasurable for me, though, was engaging the solo section with a bit of extra gain, and hearing tones that accurately parroted the incredible tone of Free's Paul Kossoff's hundred watt heaven. Oh yeah, it also does an admirable job of channeling the 'more difficult than you'd think to reproduce' tone of Malcolm Young - Malcom is the brother responsible for writing and playing the rhythm riffs for AC/DC, and this pedal cops his plexi tones with stunning success. The settings I am talking about here are all found by using a fairly moderate (40%) amount of the gain on hand. Increase the gain levels and you will find precisely what you find as you crank up an old tube amp. You may never max out your gain levels, but you can be assured that as you increase the juice the pedal holds its tone. Some pedals have a maximum setting that is useless - by the time you get there, you've turned your tone to mush. The Fat Boy sticks with you right to the hilt. Did I mention you can replicate any Jimmy Page distortion tone remarkably well with this beauty?

Eddie Van Halen's Marshall
The FAT mode is a completely different kettle of fish. It is the more modern, higher gain side of things, and while it won't do a great job of that horrible scooped mids sound that almost turned heavy metal into a eunuch for a few years, it will nail most of your high gain heavy lifting. It specializes in the type of tone that came to be known as the brown sound - the vaunted tones that had every wanna be metaller in LA turning to Jose Arrendondo, the Chilean amp guru, who started modifying Eddie's amps towards the end of Van Halen's 1978 tour. These tones are massive, but extremely well defined and focused.

After testing the pedal out by myself for a few days, I was concerned that perhaps my enthusiasm was forced - that what I was hearing may only be some sort of wishful mirage. I took the pedal to the test laboratory of not only one of the best players I know, but also one of the best repair technicians in town. My pal Chris Wright has been hammering out some of the most inventive guitar rock around for some twenty years, and has a great reputation for being the go to guy when your guitars, amps, or pedals are misbehaving. He's also a stone cold encyclopedia of high output guitar tones.

Christopher Wright
We plugged the pedal into a 50 watt, single channel amp and a custom built 2X12 closed back cabinet that Chris had just finished building. In terms of tone, his amp resembles a beefed up plexi. It is an amazing sounding amp that is chock full of tone and is extremely loud, but never harsh. In short, it is a great amp. We ran the pedal through its paces on the Vintage channel, and it faithfully replicated the sounds I had gotten at home. When we kicked it into its FAT mode, my friend's eyes lit up as the harmonic content blossomed and notes of seemingly endless sustain were instantly on tap. As brilliant as the amp had sounded when used in my home studio, it came into a world of its own when married to some healthy horsepower and running as it was meant to be ran.

Right hand articulation is often the tipping point between good distortion devices and great distortion devices. The Goran Fat Boy seems extremely focused on bringing out the proclivities of the picking hand. If you dig in, or smack it, it responds without flinching - but if you gently caress the notes it will respond in a more delicate, soulful, and intelligent manner. I was reminded of the great varieties of tones that Rory Gallagher once coaxed out of his equipment. So much modern distortion has actually taken individuality away from players - I'm all about gear that let's the player's soul shine through, and the Fat Boy does this in spades.

The solo (boost) section of the pedal shares the basic tone shaped by the drive channel, via the drive's very well voiced tone knob. The active knobs on the solo side are for gain and volume, and both actually work - many times, I have come across boost settings which did little but provide a huge bump in volume. The Fat Boy's solo controls both contain a large degree of maneuverability. The solo channel can be contoured to provide the extra push for a solo at the end of the set, or to cut through sections of music where you may just need a bit of something extra. There's not a significant change in tone, just in horsepower - and given that it can be delivered in the form of volume, gain, or both is a huge benefit.

Three, or five channels? Depending on your application, this pedal takes a single channel amp, and turns it into a five channels if you take into consideration being able to switch between modes, or a three channel amp if you are in a live setting. Changing the mode switch could be done between songs, or by a tech, but for our discussion I think the reality is that in a live setting the Goran will effectively add two channels to your current amp. In the studio, or at home, you basically are granted four very different degrees of breakup, and tone. Four very usable modes of distortion - not a lot of pedals offer this much real world usability.

Whether you are a roots rocker, bluesman, classic hard rocker, jazz rocker, or even a Priestly metallurgist, the Goran Fat Boy Overdrive will deliver on its promise to provide you with the last distortion pedal you may ever need - not that it will be the last you will ever buy, as that is not our nature. It is an extremely well built pedal that contains top flight components (Black Gate electrolitic capacitors, NOS Allen Bradley composite resistors, and a military grade opamp) - this thing is built like a tank. It shines brightest when coupled with great guitars and amps, but it also makes a Squier Strat Pack sound pretty incredible. Some high end pedals are more transparent, and not so impressive with lower end gear. Regardless of your rig, the Fat Boy makes the grade.

Oh yeah....while I was copping tones, there were two in particular that thrilled me. They are two tonal footprints that are historically hard to copy. The first were those associated with that "Lil Ol' Band from Texas," and I found that with a bit of tweaking the Goran could ably emulate anything from Tres Hombres to I Gotsta Get Paid, and 'all points in between.' As I stated earlier, the Reverend Willie G can get his tones out of most anything, and lord knows he has - however, you will be greatly aided in your search for tonal nirvana by the Fat Boy. The second was a tough one - could the FB approximate the fire breathed by the legendary Ritchie Blackmore? I have always found the dark master's tones to be vexing, so I was pretty amazed at just how easily I am able to dial in a mirror image of the Deepest of Purples. That is why I have no complaints, and only kudos to offer about this fine, fine, fine piece of gear. No matter what I asked it to do - it did, and exceptionally.

I'm sorry if you find this a bit wordy, or shall I say verbose, but like I said, this may be the finest distortion device I have ever found, and I think its story deserves to be reasonably complete.

My thanks to the Goran Custom Guitar Staff, Goran, Lance Lopez, and Fabrizio Grossi!

All quotes used for this review are available online, and in no way imply an endorsement of the reviewed article!