Friday, December 20, 2013

Jake E. Lee - "It's better than I thought it would be. It's just really, really cool." - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

"I hadn't felt that alive - and I didn't realize it, for 15 years. Because like I said, I was content, but when I heard the song with Robin Zander, I was just so excited to be alive - it was a pivotal moment in my life, and that's when I knew. 'Count me in - let's do this thing, let's do something - that's when it happened."

Jake E. Lee is kind of like the Garbo of rock 'n' roll. On top of the world one minute, then gone with little more than a trace for the next fifteen years. But, unlike Garbo, Jake came back - how long will he stay? Well, that remains to be seen, but in the meantime it's damned good to have him back treading the boards and playing as well as ever. His new band is Red Dragon Cartel, and after a rough start, they look like they'll be just fine.

I can only imagine what Lee was feeling like after being dragged across the coals of the fiery and impersonal Internet after the band's lead singer, Darren James Smith, got a bad case of the nerves before the band's first show and a few cocktails became something of a drunken brawl. But, hey, it's rock 'n' roll, and Smith showed his mettle by being humble and putting on a helluva show a few nights later in San Diego. One things for sure, it can only get better from here, and I'm of the opinion that this band has a very cool future.

I caught up with Jake two days after the San Diego show, and in spite of being in promo/press tour hell, he was in good spirits and we had a bunch of laughs about it all.

Jake E. Lee: "I'm great - you're my 47th interview, but other than that! It's cool, it's gotta be done, a necessary evil, I suppose."

I asked if he was having as much fun as it looked like on Sunday evening at the Brick By Brick club in San Diego:

Jake E. Lee: "I did have a much better time on that second show, haha! Because now, everybody knows about that first one. Yeah, yeah - the good part is that we'll never be scrutinized and under the magnifying glass as much as at that first show again, and there's no way we'll ever be that bad again. 
"Darren told me later he was really nervous, which I never even considered. I probably should have given him some words of encouragement beforehand, but he's a singer! Singers are usually cocky!"
I offered that most singers aren't following in the footsteps of Ozzy Osbourne and Ray Gillen - even if it was years ago:

Jake E. Lee: "Yeah, that's true." 

But, he fucking blew the first show, that was pretty clear, but he came back and had a great show in San Diego:

Jake E. Lee: "Yeah, he did, and he helped to redeem himself. 
"Because I caught a lot of shit about the first show, too. All those comments, 'What was Jake thinking?'"
I mentioned that the comments were, par for the course of the Internet, very harsh and nasty. I may have used the word vituperative:
Jake E. Lee: "Well, that's because it's not face to face, and they don't have to worry about getting their ass kicked! 
"But yeah, I got a lot of, 'What was Jake thinking' - obviously, I wasn't thinking that! It's not like he showed up to the audition and he was drunk and didn't know the words, and did that. 
"C'mon, I've been around this for a long time, there's a reason I picked him as our lead singer. It may not have shown through on the first gig, but it'll be obvious, and it was obvious at that second show - that's why I picked him."

I guessed that by summer the band will be out kicking ass on the Festival circuit and it will all be forgotten:

Jake E. Lee: "Yeah - I hope so, because it was brutal! Just brutal comments on that first show. 
"We did our worst show ever. Now, we don't have to worry about that! We took care of that right off the bat!"

I have to give Jake great credit for standing by his guy, and facing things head on - he laughed about what could only really be laughed about, and moved on - grace under fire. I moved forward, asking how Ron Mancuso got the ball rolling for Red Dragon Cartel:

Jake E. Lee: "Well, I was in retirement, basically, and maybe not happy, but content. 
"Because I had a great run - I was with Ozzy, I had Badlands, I made music I was proud of, got to play with a lot of great people, and I figured my time was up, so I was cool with doing anything anymore. But when I moved to Vegas, I didn't really have that many friends, or know that many people - I just wanted to get out of LA, and get a change of scenery. 
"One of the few friends I did have was Pete Reveen from Salty Dog, and he knew Ron. He said, 'Hey, Ron wants to hook up with you again, because I hadn't seen Ron in twenty years. So, I went down, and me and Ron reconnected - he said, 'By the way, I'm doing a video for Beggars & Thieves in a couple of days and I'm having people do some cameos, would you do one?'" 
"So - I checked the TV schedule to make sure there weren't any important shows on that night! There weren't, so I said, 'Sure, why not? I'll come down and do a cameo,' no big deal. 
"They did the video, and they put it out, and then Ron called, and he said, 'Hey, have you checked out the video?'" 
"I said, ' He said, 'Well, it's on YouTube,' so I said, 'Yeah, maybe I'll check it out. 
"And he said, 'No - check it out. And read the comments.' I was like, 'Huh? Yeah, whatever.' 
"So - I went and I checked out the video, and I started reading the comments, and there were so many about my little appearance in that video. 'Oh my God, he's still alive.' 'Oh, he didn't get fat and bald!' 'Look, he can still stand on two feet and hold a guitar!' 
"There was a lot of people saying, 'Oh, does this mean something?' and it didn't, y'know? 
"It was a casual thing, but there was a lot of people, a lot of support, like, 'Jake's coming back, he's doing something again!' - and that was never the intent, but there were so many comments. So, I read all these heartwarming comments."

I asked what happened next:

Jake E. Lee: "A couple of days later, Ron called, and said, 'Can you come down? Me and Kevin Churko want to talk to you. 
"Ron has a studio, and it's right next to Kevin's and obviously having worked with Ozzy, Kevin knew who I was, so I came down and Kevin and Ron sat down, and said, 'Look - apparently, there's a lot of interest, a lot of love for you out there, do you want to do something?' 
"And I was like, 'Eh....not really. I mean, I'm not really doing anything, but no - I don't have any strong desire to like come back out and do something.' 
"They said, 'Well, let's just take it really easy - why don't you just come down to the studio, bring some ideas with you, and you and Ron....' Because Ron actually helped write Rock 'n' Roll Rebel for Bark At The Moon. So we already had that relationship. 'Why don't you come down, you and Ron write some songs together, and see if you get some chemistry going, and take it from there? No commitment, just see if it feels good to you.' 
"So, that's what I did. I went down to the studio and I'd show him some ideas, because I had been writing music the whole time - the 15 year absence was more of a 'done with the business' thing. You know, I didn't need all that shit - but music is still in me. 
"Especially with computers, and all that - it gave me a fresh approach where you could write it all yourself, which was kind of hard to do before that without a home studio. You could do it with a computer, so I continued to write throughout that 15 year period, and I had a lot of ideas. I had complete songs even. 
"I brought them to Ron, and we started working on them - the first song we finished was Feeder, and still the point was like, 'Are we doing anything?' 'We're writing songs let's see what happens - I'm not making any promises, or anything.' 
"And they were cool about that - we did Feeder, Ron sang the vocal melody on it, and Ron's a horrible singer! So we're listening to it, and I said, 'You know what? Robin Zander would be great on this song, I wonder if there's any way we could get Robin Zander to sing on it?' 
"Ron knows (Cheap Trick bassist) Tom Petersson, so he said, 'I'll call Tom and see if Robin would do anything like that.' And Robin got a copy of the song and he said, 'Oh, I'd love to do that.' He recorded it in Florida, and sent the tracks back to us here in Vegas. Ron put Zander's vocals into the song that we had finished, and he said, 'Hey - why don't you come down and listen to this?' 
"So, I came down, and it was a pivotal moment. 
"I hadn't done anything in a long time, hadn't worked with other musician in a long time. And to hear a song we had written, and hear Robin Zander on vocals, and Jeremy from Five Finger Death Punch on drums, Tom Petersson on bass - listening to the song.... 
"I hadn't felt that alive - and I didn't realize it, for 15 years. Because like I said, I was content, but when I heard the song with Robin Zander, I was just so excited to be alive - it was a pivotal moment in my life, and that's when I knew. 'Count me in - let's do this thing, let's do something - that's when it happened."

Now that there was a project, it was time to find a band - Lee and Mancuso turned to the Internet, asking for applicants, which led to the selection of Darren James Smith on vocals and Jonas Fairley on drums. I asked what it was like to have hundreds of applicants for the role of lead singer:

Jake E. Lee: "Yeah, we had a lot! You know how it is with the Internet, people sending in videos of their dogs singing. 
"Ron went through most of them, because there were so many applicants - that, I was surprised about. So, I had Ron go through them, and he narrowed it down to like 20-25, and one of the first one's he showed me was Darren's. And before that, he had asked me, 'What are we looking for?' I told him that I didn't have any pre-conceived notions of what we're looking for, I'll just know it when I see it. 
"As soon as he played me Darren's, I said, 'That - we're looking for something like that.' Ron said, 'Well, we've still got another 20, or so to go,' and I said, 'Oh, I'll watch them all, but right now that's what we're looking for, and that's what we'll compare everybody else to.' 
"We went through all the other videos, and there were some really, really good singers, definitely, that would have had a shot except they had to go up against Darren. We compared them all, and Darren just always won out. So, in the end, one of the first guys I saw ended up being the singer."

Darren James Smith makes his presence known immediately on Red Dragon Cartel's opening cut, Deceived. It's also the cut on the album that most closely resembles Jake's signature riffing on Bark At The Moon. I asked Jake if this was an old chestnut he had kept around:

Jake E. Lee: "No! Actually, it's the opposite - of course, I know what you're saying, but it was the last track we wrote for the record. 
"I was coming to the studio and listening to the radio, and Bark At The Moon came on - I'm listening to it, and it had been a while since I had heard it. I was like, 'Wow! That was a really significant song, it has a very particular guitar pattern. I'm listening and thinking, I never wrote anything else like that, and that the first song most people heard from me was Bark At The Moon
"It's weird that I never wrote another song in that vein with Ozzy. Thirty years on, I'm like, 'Eh, it would be really cool to write another song like that, at least using that particular guitar pattern. 
"We went into the studio, and I said, 'Bark At The Moon. I want to do something along those lines, because it's been thirty years now, and I think it would be really cool.' 
"So, we came up with some new chords and a new way to do it, so yeah, it does reference Bark At The Moon, but it was the newest song we wrote."

I asked if Darren had contributed to the writing, or if it was done before he had landed the gig as lead singer:

Jake E. Lee: "Darren was the last guy in - we got Jonas first and by the time we finally got Darren, most of it was written.  
"In fact, Jonas came down from Canada when we auditioned Darren, and we already had most of the songs written. We were actually still working on Deceived and War Machine. But, Darren could only stay a day, or two because of something to do with visas, or whatever. Jonas has more time with us - he stayed a little longer and he contributed to those songs. 
"So he was the only one except for me and Ron that contributed to the writing, at least tom the band - we also had Kane Churko helping with the writing. 
"So, Darren wasn't able to contribute to this record, but if there is another record - and I'm not saying that ominously, obviously the record company expects there to be another record - but it all depends on how I feel at the end of all of this. Maybe there will be, maybe there won't. 
"Yeah, walking away was a lot easier than you'd think. It just involves sitting in front on the couch and watching TV."

Jake E. Lee is a unique guitarist - his style is idiosyncratic, and not at all static - it's easy to understand how it might be tough for a singer to write alongside. In fact, though not many know it, Lee was briefly the guitarist in the formative version of Dio, and Ronnie found the business not to his liking, preferring bigger block chords to sing over:

Jake E. Lee: "Hmmmm.....well, that might be true - and Vivian is a great player, but he did songs I jammed on with Ronnie and Vinnie, with Ronnie playing bass. One in particular was Holy Diver, and my parts, I remember my parts to this day, were more intricate than what Vivian ended up playing, and I think Ronnie was looking for that, just a simple rhythm and that's kind of hard for me to do."

Looking back at LA in the mid-80s with players like Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, George Lynch, Warren DiMartini, and Lee, I wondered if there was something in the water - there hasn't been a group of players that great to come from one scene since:

Jake E. Lee: "Yeah, that is funny - I mean it's weird. Because there was Van Halen in '78, then Randy in '79/80. LA, as far as California, LA was the only place to be. Warren and I grew up in San Diego, and I moved to LA first, because you were never going to get anywhere in San Diego. 
"I needed to move up to LA, but first I had the same thought, like, 'Shit, Eddie Van Halen came out, shit, Randy Rhoads came out, are they all fucking great up there? What's the deal? 
"So, I asked a friend who lived up in LA to name me the top 5 guitar players in town. I wanted to check out their bands before I moved up there - I remember George was one, Carlo Cavaso, another guy from a band called Seagull, so anyway, I went and saw all these guitar players, and said, 'Yeah, they're good, but I'm not going to say that they're better than me. I'm moving up! 
"Yeah, I don't know what the deal was, it was like Southern California in a short period of time produced a lot of really great guitar players."

We were running out of time, and Jake had to get on to interview #48, so I wrapped things up by asking if he had heard about the Randy Rhoads Remembered show that Brian Tichy was organizing for January 25th at The Observatory in Santa Ana:


Jake E. Lee: "Yeah! Actually, I just got an e-mail from Tichy about it! 
"I'm not sure about our touring schedule right now, but I did e-mail him back, and said, 'Hey, don't count me out - let me see what's going on,' so I might get to participate in that! 
"I did one before, way back, probably in '88, or something. I played in that one with Glenn Hughes, Dimebag - that was where I met Dimebag, and it was a fun time! So yeah, there is a possibility that I'll do something in that, as long as our touring schedule permits. Tichy - I've never heard him play drums, and I hear he's an amazing drummer - I've only seen him play guitar in S.U.N. with Sass (Jordan), and he's a really good guitar player! He's just one of those multi-talented motherfuckers, hahaha!"

And, so it was, that Jake is having fun, staying humble, and currently cool with being back in the thick of it:

Jake E. Lee: "Yeah, it's actually very cool doing it - it's better than I thought it would be. It's just really, really cool."

Thanks to Jake E. Lee, Red Dragon Cartel, Kevin Chiaramonte at PFA, Dustin Hardman, and Peter Noble at Noble PR.

Pre-order Red Dragon Cartel Here!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jake E. Lee's Red Dragon Cartel and Ethan Brosh Band - Tearing It Up At Brick By Brick in San Diego

It promised to be one of those shows that makes, or breaks. Jake Lee's band had blown it just a few night before in Hollywood, and new kid on the block Ethan Brosh was opening a show for a guy he readily calls one of his biggest guitar heroes. Another meltdown would sink the Red Dragon Cartel, and anything less than a grand slam would render Brosh just another opener.

San Diego's Brick By Brick is one of the premier rock clubs in the West, and even they were down a notch, having lost their liquor license. This wasn't looking good.

Thankfully, I can report that this was one of the best nights I've had all year. Brick By Brick was packed to the gills with none of the drunken stupidity that can render a metal crowd stupid, and both Brosh and Lee played sets that could easily be called blinders.

The Ethan Brosh Band is led by its namesake, a fiery and fleet fingered guitarist who is as much a serious composer as he is a chops-meister, and he's joined by his sister Nili, who is the hottest female guitarist I've seen since the days when Jennifer Batten was lighting up stages in Los Angeles in the '80s. While she is obviously playing the role of second guitarist in her brother's band, supplying solid metal rhythms, riffs, and magnificent harmonies, she's also providing tremendous support and you'll want to hear her soon to be released solo album.

Ethan Brosh has that thing - that undefinable, but undeniable thing called star power. He held the crowd of anxious Jake fans in the palm of his hand as he dealt ace after ace from his deck. Not many guitarists can command a stage with strictly instrumental work, but Brosh shows why he was picked to open up the last Yngwie tour with his strong compositional skills and his jaw dropping chops. Every tune could be hummed - they have verses, choruses, bridges, and it's easy to figure that his major at Berklee was songwriting. He's weaves endless amounts of melody into his memorable cache of riffs, and it's like a smorgasbord of rock.

He played cuts from both of his solo albums, the latest, Live The Dream, which will be released in May on Carmine Appice's Rocket Records, and the set's highlight was the duet Brosh recorded with George Lynch on his first solo release - Downward Spiral suffered not a bit in George's absence, as Nili picked up the slack and Ethan threw down chorus after chorus of memorable lines.

Brosh's set went down a storm with the sold out crowd, but it was clearly Jake E. Lee's night....

Jake E. Lee took a powder only matched by Garbo's. He had it all, and he walked away, not that you could blame him, after setting the 80s on fire with Ozzy and his own band, Badlands - if ever there was a case of it's time to go, Jake figured it out, and while we missed him, he missed little, and nobody could blame him.

The world went wild when we heard he had decided to 'reappear' in a cameo for his friend Ron Mancuso's band, Beggars & Thieves. The Internet lit up with news of Jake's return, which Lee says was no return at all, just a favor for a buddy. The video stated, "Jake E. Lee is alive well, living in Las Vegas. He would just rather play with Beggars & Thieves than deal with shady promoters and play Bark At The Moon 750 more times."

Well, he's not going to get his wish.

Red Dragon Cartel is the band that came out of this scenario - a scenario that included much song writing and recording, which can be heard on the band's excellent self-titled debut.

Photo by Oscar Jordan

Mancuso is playing bass, drummer Jonas Fairley ended up behind the kit after not getting the frontman slot, which went to Darren James (D.J.) Smith, who almost got ran out of town on the rails for showing up to the band's first show more than a little drunk, and more than a little belligerent. But hey, that's why he got the job - lead singers in rock 'n' roll bands don't come from Idol - they have tattoos, they drink, and they scream. Well.

The Internet was again alive as Smith got a well deserved roasting by those who want to see their old guitar hero Jake do well. The good news is that Smith showed up to the Brick By Brick in San Diego humbled, and convinced to right his egregious wrongs. He did so with much style and panache. Smith is a serious shouter who reminds me of a very feral Ian Gillan. He's being asked to sing songs sung by Ozzy, Ray Gillen, and Robin Zander (the band's first single, The Feeder) and being nervous, or even shit yourself scared could be understood by anyone with the nerve to stand in front of thousands with a microphone in their hand.

The band covered most of their debut record, a few chestnuts from Lee's past, and there wasn't a moment when the crowd was not in love. Smith's performance was far from perfect, but he'll get there with no difficulty - he's a charming rogue, and he is 100% rocker. He came close on everything he attempted, and it will only get better, that was quite clear.

The main point is that Jake E. Lee, as he told me last night, hadn't gotten fat, gone bald, or lost his skills - the solos were still often off-the-cuff and sizzling, his stage presence was warm and confident, and he has a style unlike any on the planet. The guy still has it in spades, and if he can get through a few more hundred Bark At The Moons, and some shady promoters, he's going to be riding this dragon from some time to come.

A totally triumphant return of one of rock 'n' roll's greatest 'lost soldiers.' Welcome home, Jake.

Don't believe me? Here's the whole show:

Red Dragon Cartel (Jake E. Lee) - complete show at Brick By Brick on YouTube - Pre-order Red Dragon Cartel

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rock Ain't Near Dead Premieres This Evening On LA Talk Radio

Rock Ain't Near Dead, a weekly internet radio show, makes its debut this evening, December 14, 2013 at 8 p.m. PST on LA Talk Radio with your hosts Dan Boul (65amps) and Tony Conley (Rock Guitar Daily) - our guest this evening will be guitar legend Pete Anderson. Pete's going to talk about his long history as a guitarist/producer with Dwight Yoakum, label owner, and solo act. He'll be performing some tunes and featuring his Reverend Guitars signature models. Join us live, or catch the archive! You can call in at 1-323-203-0815 to join us on the air!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Rock Guitar Daily's Top 20 Albums for 2013 - Rock Ain't Near Dead!

2013 has been a helluva year - I've heard as much great new music in the last year as I heard in the last ten, and things seem to be lining up even better for 2014, but looking back over the last twelve months is pretty thrilling. Mind you, this list doesn't aspire to be a 'best of,' but rather it's simply my favorites of the last year. Especially impressive is the fact that ten of these records are debuts, and I'm expecting follow ups from all ten next season and more. You'll note that there's 21 albums here - the number one slot was a tie between two fantastic records, and I went over rather than to go one short. It was also a year in which your humble servant got married and had his first child. Yeah, 2013 has been a helluva year.

1 (tied) - Dan Baird and Homemade Sin - Circus Life:

Sonically, this album is wonderful - you never wonder what Baird is singing about, the harmonies well placed and Stonesy, the rhythm section of drummer Mauro Magellan and bassist Keith Christopher sounds like they've known each other forever (which they have), and then there's the guitars. The guitars are not only well played, they also sound like a masterclass in tone - Baird and Hodges are a great team. Listening to the pair's rhythm tracks reveals all - they're playing the same song, the same chords, but the differences in nuance and style are beautifully distinct. Almost always panned left and right, there's a great education in rock there alone. But then there's the songs....

I'm given to hyperbole, but I'm not given to being wrong (well, not about rock 'n' roll, anyway), and I am here to tell you that Dan Baird is as great a writer of that thing known as a rock 'n' roll song as anyone on the planet. There's not a much harder thing to do than to write a straight up rock 'n' roll song in the late year of our Lord in 2013, but Baird makes it sound simple as he avoids cliche while writing instant cliches every step of the way. There's gold in these words and chords.

Read Full Review!

1 (tied) - Pinnick Gales Pridgen:

Talk about an auspicious entree into 2013 - Pinnick Gales Pridgen have thrown down the gauntlet hard - the high-water mark for the new year is set, and set high.

Make no bones about it, this is a supergroup, but there's nothing to fear, for these three musical titans seem to have checked their egos at the door, and simply gotten down to the business of making a great album. There's not a weak link to be found - the songs are thrilling, with incredibly fat grooves, sophisticated changes, some great poetry for lyrics, and an always solid melodic foundation; the playing is stupendous - you have three guys who are absolute state of the art in terms of chops, tones and taste; even the production is exemplary - there's massive amounts of information, but it's all delivered with a crisp clarity. PGP has it all in spades, and I won't be alone in hoping that this lineup takes it onto the road, and back into the studio.

Read Full Review

2 - Johnny Lang - Fight For My Soul:

There's little better than to be greeted on a Monday morning by a record that completely overturns the coffee cart and kicks you square in the ass.

Fight For My Soul by Jonny Lang is one of those records - don't make the mistake of thinking that Lang is just another wannabe blues rocker, no, he's long since moved on to serious and sophisticated rocking soul that evokes the best of Marvin Gaye, Prince, and yes, even the pop wizardry of Michael Jackson. Not just a record, this is an achievement.

I'll build my case, but let me start with his singing - every song here is drenched with Lang's excellent sense of soul, melody, and passion. There's no walking through the tunes, he's putting his soul on the line with every cut, and making the mark and often greatly transcending it. Then there's also tons of great guitar work, and a production that harkens back to the days of big budgets and dreams. This record is one expansive son of a gun - it covers a lot of ground, but Lang always sounds like Lang, he's definitely found his voice.

This is Lang's first studio outing in seven years, and it sounds like he spent the whole time working on his songwriting, singing, and record making chops - fighting for his soul? It sounds like the war is being waged and won. His singing on the title track covers a lot of ground, from a whisper to very healthy belting, and back. This picks up where R&B got lost in the late '80s, when skills gave way to drum machines and infantile loops. I also like that albums are getting back to reasonable lengths - 11 songs are a manageable dose.

Read Full Review

3 - King King - Standing In The Shadows:

King King's second long player picks up where their first left off, and Alan Nimmo goes bold by covering such legends as Frankie Miller (who's Jealousy is the album's first single), and Paul Rodgers, (by way of Free on Heavy Load, from the band's classic 1970 release, Fire and Water) - and he totally pulls it off in grand fashion. Standing In The Shadows covers a lot of bases, and its gorgeous mix of soul, blues, and classic rock makes this one of the best records I've heard this year. This is another one of those records that I consider to be not unlike a greatest hits album by an act I had somehow missed along the way.

There's not many records that I write about these days in which I can state that I like the vocals as well, if not better than the guitars. Alan Nimmo? Now, let me just say - the guy is a killer, killer guitar player. It's taken me two weeks to get this review written, because I can't help but at some point pick up a guitar and start playing myself, and that's one step higher than dancing for me. But, I digress - Nimmo takes on some legends here, and he does them proud. He has tone, phrasing, and just a damned good voice fin which to listen. He's powerful, and his vibrato is velvet and honey. A great singer.

Wayne Proctor brings not just some seriously swinging drum chops, but also his fine ears and skills as co-producer on this, and I thank him not just for the cool stickwork, but also for placing it perfectly in a superb mix. Any time a guy can separate a bass, Hammond organ, and kick drum this well, I consider him a friend, and myself a fan. This record sounds great - it is a joy to listen to sonically speaking, great performances aside.

Read Full Review

4 - Monster Truck - Furiosity:

Monster Truck is a four piece power rock powerhouse out of Hamilton, Ontario - after a few years of thrilling the Northern section of our beautiful continent with two EPs of pure  and fine hard rock, and a stream of great shows opening for such stalwarts as Slash and Deep Purple, the band is releasing their first full length LP, Furiosity, and playing a few select shows in the US this summer opening for the likes of Sevendust and Alice In Chains. Given that Furiosity is a blazing disc full of inspired and genuine hard rock fury, and the band's live shows are the stuff that rock dreams are made of, I'm hoping  we can stay on their good side. Their debut single off of FuriositySweet Mountain River is #2 on the singles charts in Canada this week - can America be far behind?

Furiosity is one of the finest hard rock records that you'll put into your machine of choice this year - it rocks like mad, but the band also brings to the table some deeply soulful selections, great singing and playing on every cut, and they care so much about their product that they went to the considerable cost and effort to scrap an entire session (yes, the whole album) when it didn't live up to what they felt their audience deserved. In a day when most groups don't even know what a recording budget is, it takes huge balls and tremendous determination to look your record label in the eye (if you're lucky enough to have one, especially a great one like Dine Alone) and say, 'We've gotta do it over."

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5 - Reuben Archer's Personal Sin:

Reuben Archer has made the best record of his life, and it takes me straight back to the time in which melodic hard rock ruled the radio. His vocal cords are in fantastic shape, and the best thing I can say is that he sings the way he sings - no need for auto-tune, no stepping back from the tough notes, he takes them to the mat head on. His writing is brilliant - part hard rocker, part skillful soul man. This is like how Frankie Miller should've to turn out.

Rob Wolverson is just 23 years old, but he sounds like he was raised on a diet of organic guitar rock since he left the womb, and has done little since. His lead work is a gas, and it's going to get the attention, but he's a natural riff writer and rhythmatist. He jumps from fierce power chording to smooth, linear single note fills to staccato stabs with an ease that suggests this is not his first stampede.

Archer and Wolverson are a grand match indeed, reminding me of the mating of Mogg and Schenker in the hey day of UFO. The singer gives the guitarist all the room in the world for his expansive, expressive soloing, and Wolverson plays like he actually knows the words - a near dying art for guitarists.

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6 - The Winery Dogs:

The Winery Dogs is a hit - in spite of the name, there's not a dog on the record, and what in an earlier era could have been an ego fueled nightmare is instead an album full of cool tunes and fantastic musicianship that reveals a definite connection between the birth of the power trio and today.

The Winery Dogs are, of course, Richie Kotzen (guitars/vocals), Billy Sheehan (bass, vocals), and Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals). Between them, I'd guess they've laid tracks on a few thousand tracks, and it goes without saying that their formidable reputations precede them. When I heard they were picking up the pieces of a failed project that had included long missing-in-action guitar star John Sykes, my first concern was that the finished product may have ended up sounding piecemeal, or half baked. I'm very pleased to say that my fears were unfounded, and Kotzen's arrival truly saved the day for this, the latest in a series of successful 'supergroups' that seem to be making the sound of classic hard rock again something new and exciting.

The first comparison I draw is to the ill-fated, but brilliant supergroup, Beck, Bogert, and Appice. You've got three guys who are world class instrumentalists, have been around more than a few blocks throwing their hats into the ring, and instead of this being any sort of shredfest, you have an album full of songs that happen to feature some (well, a lot) of incredible playing. A more recent comparison may be to the a supergroup success for earlier this year, Pinnick Gales Pridgen, who also elected to go for the emphasis on song and group vibe, as opposed to the 'Hey, look at me' approach. It's a shame that the brightest lights in big guitar rock are not young bands but rather aging veterans, but it is what it is - The Winery Dogs are picking it up and putting it down in grand style.

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7 - The Temperance Movement:

The Temperance Movement is fronted by Phil Campbell, and he has it all - he sings like a lost remnant from Carnaby Street circa 1968, he writes like he's lived a life that hasn't always went his way, but made for great stories, looks like a movie star, and has surrounded himself with a wickedly divine band of rock 'n' rollers. The band has just released their debut album, and it's an automatic for the inevitable year end top tens - a killer record.

The band is straight up, straight ahead, and what you see is what you'll love. Exuberant guitars gush out of the speakers as their frontman tells his tales, and the rhythm section pushes and pulls just right - no click tracks in sight, no this bunch sounds like they set up, laid it down and headed back to the pub for another set. Tasty riffing is the order of the day, and the production is as crisp and clean as a summer morning. Great guitar tones are to be found from stem to stern, and I'm not really looking for one, but they have not a chink in their mighty armor.

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8 - Black Star Riders - All Hell Breaks Loose:

Black Star Riders have pulled it off. They've made an excellent record, created an identity for themselves, been true to Phil's legacy, and managed to not piss me off. I didn't think they'd piss me off, nor do I imagine that they'd worry much if they did - but here's what I said about this record's prospects back in 2011:
"What about a new Thin Lizzy record? 
"Now this is a whole other can of worms, and it's where I have some serious concerns. This is a tough call. I do believe that the band has every right to record new music, and to release it under the Thin Lizzy name. However, to release new music under that name is a huge responsibility, and has not been done since Phil died. That being said, it would be very ballsy, as no one currently in the band has released any original music that is even close to the standard set by Lynott. It would come with a tremendous amount of pressure, and a dim view from a great many music fans. Personally, I would love to see them try it. Send Warwick back to Scotland for a couple of months, with nothing but pen, paper, and a busman's wages. Take some of the dough that's been made on these recent tours, and hire a ball busting producer who loves the legacy. Then make the best Thin Lizzy album that can be made. If at the end, it isn't up to snuff? Bury it. Deep."
Turns out they did me one better - they made a great record and managed to do it in the best way, with a new name, and a new beginning.

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9 - The Graveltones - don't wait down:

"Forget Batman and Robin. The Graveltones are The Dynamic Duo for the 21st century. Jimmy and Mikey deliver the most exciting, musical, and texturally compelling sounds of any duo I've had the pleasure of listening to (and jamming with) in a very long time!" ~ Elliott Randall
My problem with most duos is the fact they're often not great players, singers, or performers. In fact, that's been my gripe with shitloads of rock for way too long, but the tide is turning, and The Graveltones have shown me the light - these guys have mad skills, they write catchy rock, play their asses off, and what do you know, the guy can even sing.

That guy is Jimmy O, who handle the guitars and vocals, and he's driven to his madness by the thunderous, but precise bashing of drummer Mikey Sorbello. They're creating a hell of an effective stew - I'm hearing some Zep, a boatload of T. Rex, and even some early G&R, and that's just in the first tune, Bang Bang. O is a wicked six-stringer, he manages to carry the show with fat, aggressive riffs and inventive pointed soloing. He also has great pipes - he swoons and sweeps in and out of song sections, and always returns to a solid, gritty baritone that jumps out of the mix.

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10 - Michael Schenker's Temple Of Rock - Bridge The Gap:

Bridge The Gap will do just what it says - it's the record that will find Michael Schenker returning to the major leagues in the very near future. It's filled with great riffs, compelling melodies, the best set of songs on a Schenker project in ages, and it finally sounds like Mr. Schenker is back in a band.

Michael Schenker is at the top of his game - riding higher in the saddle than he has in decades, rifling off riffs that make you ask, "How does he do that?," soloing with smoldering intensity and his trademark melodicism, and writing tunes you want to hear again and again. Whist the mad axeman's guitar playing is why we attend, this record finds him partnered with veteran shouter Doogie White - the singing Scotsman has written the best melodies and lyrics to be heard on a Schenker project in a great many years, and there is something magical that happens when Michael is matched up with his Scorpions brothers, Herman Rarebell and Francis Buccholz.

The last five years have seen Michael steadily climbing, and gaining confidence along the way - once hindered by the anxieties of stage fright, and all-to-many incidents of infamy, it would appear that the guitar master has settled into a place in which he finds peace, and full command of his considerable creativity. I don't know of a hard rock guitarist who doesn't hold the man in high esteem, and now they'll be back to chasing his lead.

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11 - Steve Hunter - The Manhattan Blues Project:

Oh, that should every Kickstarter dream end this sweetly. Veteran guitarist Steve Hunter came off the road with his old shock-rock boss, Alice Cooper, and he humbly and charmingly asked his fans for help in the recording of his next album. Five grand seemed like a deal, so I signed on and tried to do what I could to raise the project's awareness - I say this not for self aggrandizement, but rather because that is how this kind of stuff has to happen for the record business to ever make sense again. Right premise in action.

The request for the five grand? As I both thought and hoped, the project did well, eventually raising almost $14,000 - what goes around comes around, and Hunter hasn't just recorded an album, he's made one of the coolest fusion guitar records since Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow blew my mind as a young neophyte of the guitar. I say fusion not to invoke the Di Meolian jazz of the past, but to convey that there are plethora styles and sounds to be found - a true fusion.

I have to start with how the damned thing sounds - every time I have put the record on, I have almost involuntarily shut the blinds and turn down the lights. Sonically? This is bliss. The attention to detail found on every track is almost startling in this day of super-quick production (which have both their ups and downs). Hunter's limited vision may slow him down some at the mixing board, but this might be the best sounding record I've heard yet this year, so I thank him for the obviously loving care spent here.

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12 - Jake Bugg - Shangri La:

Shangri La is the young Brit's second effort, and it's going to be the one. Producer Rick Rubin picked the right few players, and got it down - not losing the kid's great writing, but framing it with great sonics. Matt Sweeney, Chad Smith, Pete Thomas, Jason Lader, these are all hallmark names, and they deliver the goods as sidemen - sure, this sounds a little ProTools-ish and sometimes a bit derivative, but in a day and age when this is just how projects are done, this is a wall-to-wall winner.

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13 - Michael Des Barres Band - Hot 'N' Sticky Live:

Rock Ain't Near Dead, and if you need any convincing on this point, look - no, listen no further than Michael Des Barres fiery new live set, Hot N Sticky Live. Coming on the heels of last years fabulous long player, Carnaby Street, this disc will cure what ails you with ample doses of rhythm, the blues, and a heaping helping of a sensational love of rock 'n' roll.

Des Barres has returned to the stage after an absence of way too long, but it's better late than never, and if you miss a true London bred hero fronting a tight but loose group of swaggering pirates, look no further. This makes good on the promise set to lie by such acts as Rod Stewart & The Faces, who left to soon only to not return - well, I'm here to say that this is as good as I could have dreamt for rock's growing up into the new millennium. This set moves, grooves, and shakes you down with a top flight band of LA aces, and a frontman who melts all before him.

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14 - SIMO:

J. D. Simo has figured it out. A perfectly wonderful guitarist/singer/songwriter, Simo did the smart thing, and managed to hook up with a rhythm section which is his equal, and they make what I call 'a glorious noise.'

SIMO is their debut album, and it's a very auspicious birth. It's going to get called things like retro, '60s,  this that and the other, and deservedly so, but it's really just great rock, played by a cool bunch. Together a little more than a year, they've been unleashing their hard rock fury over audiences, and garnering a great deal of attention along the way.

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15 - Niacin - Krush:

Niacin, the organ based power trio made up of Billy Sheehan, Dennis Chambers, and John Novello, has returned with their eighth album, Krush, on Prosthetic Records, and it may be their best yet. It sounds like they've been downright hungry to get to this one, and their return is a very welcome one.

They've been gone for the better part of a decade, and while they have been on hiatus, it is obvious that they've not stopped working for a moment - chops are razor sharp, and on this outing it sounds like they've not only brought their virtuosity as players, but they've also been in the woodshed working on their composition skills. These tunes come off as songs, memorable and fresh.

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16 - Joanne Shaw Taylor - Songs From The Road:

Joanne Taylor Shaw rips it up from one end to the other on Songs From The Road, her new CD/DVD offering, and it's tough to tell which she does better - sing, play, or write excellent blues rockers.

Recorded a few months back at The Borderline in London, England, this set reveals Shaw Taylor to possess more true grit than a bucketful of your run of the mill boy bluesers - her voice belies her soft look, suggesting a much rougher road than pictures would suggest, and her guitar tone is on the verge of psychotic reaction breakup. That she chooses a Les Paul and a Marshall as her main weapons speaks volumes - she is connected to the past, but not at all committed to sticking with the script.

I love her guitar solos for the simple reason that she sounds as if she's playing what she feels more than relying on the usual SRV apings - she's got a lot of rock 'n' roll under her fingers, and as anyone who knows me knows, I like my blues rock with a good dose more rock than blues. Her playing is incendiary - from the dirty riffing to an extended solo that touches much familiar territory for an experienced listener, but she's hitting it all with her own take. You won't here me saying anything about her being a hot female guitarist - she is simply a hot guitarist who happens to be female.

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17 - Neal Morse - Live Momentum:

Live Momentum is a stunning achievement by any measure - when looked at from any angle it more than excels, it exemplifies. Neal Morse, The Professor of Prog, has unleashed a superlative set (2 DVDs and 3 audio CDs) that captures not just a three hour tour de force performance from October 11, 2012 at the High Line Ballroom in New York City, but also includes an excellent handheld, homemade documentary from behind the scenes of the entire tour that provides over an hour more of quality entertainment. The level of performance throughout is astounding.

The Live Momentum Tour is somewhat unique, in that Morse hired half of his spectacular six piece band via YouTube auditions. Morse, longtime bassist Randy George, and super-drummer Mike Portnoy are joined by guitarist/vocalist Adson Sodre, Eric Gillette on guitars/keyboards/percussion and vocals, and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Bill Hubauer rounds out the troupe. Whatever Neal dreamt of when he envisioned this process surely must have been tremendously exceeded by these prodigious talents. This is an encyclopedia of progressive rock - equally melodic, virtuosic, and absurdly precise - when the band goes into an a cappella 5 part harmony on Author Of Confusion, all I could do was laugh outloud at the breathtaking beauty. And there's almost three hours of this beauty on tap.

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18 - Humble Pie - Performance Rockin' The Fillmore - The Complete Recordings:

I'll admit to having been intrigued and excited last winter when I first heard that Peter Frampton and Jerry Shirley were going back into the vaults to revisit their classic 1971 live epic, Humble Pie - Performance - Rockin' The Fillmore. What I didn't expect was to be saying a year later that this might be the best sounding live document of a rock show that I've ever heard. But it's just that - the two surviving members of one of rock's greatest road shows have put together amazing evidence with which to proclaim Humble Pie as one of the best live outfits to ever tread the boards.

Recorded on two nights with two shows per evening on May 28 and 29, 1971 at the world renowned Fillmore East, Performance - Rockin' The Fillmore captures all four shows from beginning to end unabridged, which is all the more, given frontman Steve Marriott's rants and charming ravings between tunes. I've always considered the original album to be one of the seventies best live long players, but when I hear the unbridled aggression of the Marshall amps and the howling Les Pauls, the crisp clarity of the vocals, and the incredible rhythm section of Jerry Shirley and bassist/vocalist Greg Ridley, I am astounded to discover what I thought very good turns out to be very great - very, very great.

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19 - Daft Punk - Random Access Memories:

Daft Punk reminds us that we can make musical dreams come true, that's why. Random Access Memories is a concept come to life in a way that's been missing from music for too long. Is it the best album of 2013? Well, that's a very subjective thing, and how do you measure that anyway?

It is a great record - it is well written, incredibly well played by some of the best ever, and it's so pleasing to the ears that it will make kids want big speakers again. Could it be that the robots finding a heart may be more key than we're aware? Daft Punk haven't taken down the wall, they've done better - they've become vulnerable, while reminding us of our own humanity at the same time.

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20 - Scorpion Child:

Scorpion Child are having a helluva year - in addition to releasing their first album, the Austin, Texas based riff rockers are getting set to headline a month of tour dates with Mothership, Gypsyhawk, Wilson, and Nuclear Blast label mates Kadavar - just days after completing the Rockstar Mayhem Tour, not to mention a slate of earlier dates with the legendary Clutch. A helluva year.

Everything I read about Scorpion Child focuses on trying to compare the band to this or that seventies sensation, when in fact, what should be talked about is how tight and together this hard rock troop is, and the skill set on display across their debut.

Clearly the instant star is singer Aryn Jonathan Black - and that's not a completely unfair declaration, as the guy has tremendous chops and a very distinctive voice, and he sings like every note may be his last. The rest of the band is razor sharp and on point. This is great album rock with real arrangements that keeps you involved and entertained. They've honed this material to the point where it stands proudly next to any of their distant forefathers first albums. I'm thrilled to hear a debut that rocks with this much confidence. I've been running around a lot lately and spouting out the mantra that 'Rock Ain't Near Dead,' and this is solid evidence. As good a debut as this is, though, it's their next that I can't wait to hear - just a hunch.

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jack White To Produce New Vintage Trouble

A 'Rock Ain't Near Dead™' exclusive! Rock Guitar Daily's Tony Conley has heard through the grapevine that Jack White will be producing Vintage Trouble's highly expected and as-yet-untitled second studio album. Following 2010's The Bomb Shelter Sessions and several years of heavy touring (including opening for The Who), and near constant television exposure, we'll see if the band can deliver on their own almost impossible hype. I've long said that if they can drop some sheen and grow some hair, they may be unstoppable. Evidently, someone has agreed.

This could be the grand slam of 2014, as success on this front would not just project VT into the stratosphere, it could also give White even more credibility with the world of classic rock, which still tends to see the guitar-slinging producer as an indie rock upstart (though one with by-now industry wide credibility as a producer). If this rumor turns out to be just that, someone should step in and make this a reality, though I'm hearing it from a source close to the band. I'm a big believer in rock destiny, and as I've said, "Rock Ain't Near Dead!"

(Edit) Though the announcement won't come for some time, I have received confirmation that as of today, an agreement between the parties has indeed been made.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Black Sabbath - Live...Gathered In Their Masses - Metallic Magic

So - I'm the guy that started the Facebook page, 1,000,000 Black Sabbath fans say yes to Bill Ward. Me and a few friends joked about the outrage of Mr. Ward not being included in the band's plans after he'd been disinvited after their 11-11-11 reunion announcement, and I started the page as a lark, never thinking a million would be on board, and damned shocked when it grew to 25,000 members in a day, and eventually rising to well over 50,000 before it was all over.

I never vilified anyone, though I certainly criticized the poor manner in which the band handled the whole episode, and I stick with that assessment to this minute. I'm a huge Sabbath fan, going back to the early seventies, and for me, Bill Ward's drums were a huge part of the band's sound. That being said, I am grateful for whatever wizardry has rendered Live...Gathered In Their Masses into being such a great document of the band's tour this past summer. Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler have never, ever sounded better, and they look great in this awesome DVD. Tommy Clufetos also steps up and kicks some serious metal ass behind the kit - he doesn't have Ward's sophisticated sense of swing, but few rock drummers ever have had that.

The big question for me is that of John 'Ozzy' Osbourne - early clips from the tour suggested that he was to put it charitably, 'addled.' And honestly, I'm fairly certain that some serious post filming work went into making his vocals sound as good as they do here, but for that I am absolutely grateful. While it may be somewhere between genuine and modern technology, I'm very OK with that - I can sit and watch this and as a serious student of rock, I can show this to, and tell my child just why so many consider Sabbath to be the greatest heavy metal band in history.

For me, it's all about Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler, and they are bone crushingly beautiful - Iommi's playing is crisp, clean, and his tone is picture perfect. Whatever happened to his tone on 13 is beyond me. I tried on five occasions to listen to the whole album, and I never once made it. I wondered how Rubin reduced the might Iommi to what I heard. Well, it sure wasn't Tony - he acquits himself fantastically and solidifies his position as metal's true godfather. When you hear War Pigs, you are going to melt. It looks great, and sounds even better.

Geezer Butler's bass jumps out of the mix and you can almost hear the callouses on his right hand as he cranks out line after line of precise magic, and I'm not sure who recorded, engineered and mixed the album (I only have a stream - no liner notes to work from), but they deserve heaping mounds of love, respect, and admiration. When Iommi slides down the neck for the intro to Into The Void, you can hear frets hitting fingers - it gets no cooler than that. This is one of the best sounding pieces of work I've heard this year, and I don't care how they did it. At the end of the day, it delivers the goods as well as they have ever been delivered by this band.

Clufetos' drumming is huge, and he actually makes the band sound like Dio's Sabbath jamming with Ozzy, and that I dig. He's more metal than Ward, and I gotta say, he's on fire on this set.

Filmed by god only knows how many cameras, nobody in the world can say anything other than this is a job very, very well done. The editing is excellent, and there are tons of great shots for the proper worship by players and fans alike. They even render Ozzy looking good. Magic? Deal with the Devil down at the crossroads? I care not - somewhere between the black country and Hollywood lies the truth, but the rock 'n' roll kid in me is thrilled.

There have been rumblings that the band could be done with heavy duty touring, and if that's true, they could not have a better send off than Live...Gathered At Their Masses. This will go down as one of the great live documents of rock - beside Live At Leeds, Thin Lizzy's Live & Dangerous, UFO's Strangers In The Night, and Frampton Comes Alive, and we all know that to some degree those shows got doctored, so I can't get my panties in a bunch over how much 'fixing' had to occur.

Tony Iommi has always been given his due as the ultimate writer of riffs, but it's his lead work that keeps grabbing me by the throat - Loner, the first song of the set off 13 isn't going to be on the list of his greatest riffs, but his soloing is sizzling. Mind you, the riffs hear are magnificent - his Laney amps are crisp and clear, not at all muddy nor too gained up - just right. This DVD would be the perfect document to show a judge if you were arguing that Iommi stands proudly right beside anyone who ever picked up a guitar.

Snowblind has Iommi and Butler going down the highway to hell side by side, and it's a great road map to see how the band ventured from the sludgier early days into the crisp riffing of Heaven & Hell. Geezer's bass sounds superb as every note and nuance jumps out of the speakers. Iommi slows things down for the solos and milks every note for all its worth.

Riffs - you want riffs? Black Sabbath's flatted fifth may have started the whole thing, and here even Ozzy's on point - I know I give him hell, but he's well earned it, and I don't have to love him to love his band, which I do.

It's a three for one as the band stays with their eponymous debut with Beyond The Wall Of Sleep, and N.I.B. and we're reminded that they started out on top, and while it's been a trip filled with ridiculous highs and lows, it's still been a helluva trip. I could still do with Osbourne yelling, "I can't hear you," again, again, and again, but it's a small price to pay for getting to hear one of metal's miracles in between, I suppose.

Methademic is another track off of 13, and it's here where Ozzy looks a little lost, staring down at the lyrics and searching desperately for a thin melody to begin with. This isn't near the band's usual standard, and comes off sounding like generic metal for the most part. A good point in which to refresh that drink, pop off for whatever you must do, for things are about to head for the big ending.

Back on track with Fairies Wear Boots, and Ozzy looks a bit more at home again, and you can hear the band stepping back up and hitting the gas, as well. It's somewhat subtle, but I can hear where they are more in sync with what's going on out front, and when Iommi solos, Butler is hitting it hard underneath in support - then it goes into the breakdown, and it's bliss. It's maybe on this tune in which I long to hear Ward's snazzy sense of swing, but it's too late to spend much time mourning what ain't to be, I suppose.

Symptom Of The Universe rocks accordingly, and Clufetos takes the obligatory solo, and while it's certainly adequate, that's all it is, too. His chops aren't up with the better drummers of the seventies, and I'm not trying to beat a horse that's long since run off, I just find this to be mediocre. It doesn't ruin the party, but it does give the Ward fans something to bitch about, and I'm thinking it should have ended up on the cutting room floor for all above. The best thing about it is that it leads nicely into the main event, Iron Man.

Ozzy might sing it, but Iommi is the Iron Man, and it's never more obvious in what might be rock's mightiest single riff. Butler pummels his bass, and it's no wonder that he said he hurt in places he didn't know he had after these shows - he's pounding it out, and his jousting with Iommi on the solo section is nirvanic. Clufetos is much more powerful and impressive on the interlude, and I'm convinced that the solo should have been cut. This marvelous stuff, and nobody won't dig this.

End Of The Beginning is the one time that I think 13 made the mark, and it's heavier here than on the studio version, and truly Sabbath worthy. Even studio magic can't get Ozzy in tune on this, but all I can hear is Iommi, and I'm OK with it.

1971's Master of Reality was where it all started for me and Black Sabbath, so Children Of The Grave is always welcome. This is a great version, and once again I'll say that Iommi and Butler have never sounded better, and that's where it's at for me. Black Sabbath looks funny playing white guitars, but sure enough both Iommi and Butler wield white weapons, and they pummel them just the same. Again, this isn't one of their better, or more original riffs, but this pair could play 'Chopsticks,' and make it metal.

God Is Dead? may be the closest 13 gets to classic Sabbath, and it's a good way to end the set. Iommi sounds better here than in the studio, and this could maybe sit on an older Sabbath outing without seeming weak. There's no real hook, but the rock rolls, and it's appropriately heavy. The new stuff sounds better live than it did in Rubin's room, and for that I'm grateful.

Wrapping it up, it could only be Paranoid, right? Iommi's second best riff is still miles better than anyone else's, right? And Ozzy could sing this one in his sleep. They throw in an all-too-brief moment of Sabbath Bloddy Sabbath, and then it's off to the races, and they end the show with a resounding reminder of why we're watching.

There you have it, ladies and germs - I figure I'll still manage to piss off some of the hardcore, but I think this is a fantastic package, all things considered, and I would say that everyone should buy this, watch this, and love this. I never weathered so much abuse in my life as when I was running the Bill Ward page, so a little more grief won't hurt me none. I'm thrilled to recommend this and even to admit that it may just end up in my year end top ten, if for no other reason that I dearly love Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler, and they are magnificent from beginning to end. As they have always been.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dan Baird and Homemade Sin - Circus Life - Best Album 2013

Circus Life is a good life, and rock 'n' roll is alive and well in the hands of Dan Baird and Homemade Sin. If this album isn't enough to get this bunch back on American soil in 2014, I might be applying for resident alien status across the puddle.

Let me clarify the lineup for those perhaps not in the know - Dan Baird and Homemade Sin is three quarters Georgia Satellites and one quarter Warner Hodges (Jason and The Scorchers). And they're so good I almost want to cry. Baird preaches the sermon of rock as well as any poet that ever attempted, and the band is rarely less than picture perfect. You could be excused for not knowing that this bunch has never stopped performing in one guise, or another since they started back in the '80s, but there will be no excuse for you to not purchase, listen to, and adore this record.

Sonically, this album is wonderful - you never wonder what Baird is singing about, the harmonies well placed and Stonesy, the rhythm section of drummer Mauro Magellan and bassist Keith Christopher sounds like they've known each other forever (which they have), and then there's the guitars. The guitars are not only well played, they also sound like a masterclass in tone - Baird and Hodges are a great team. Listening to the pair's rhythm tracks reveals all - they're playing the same song, the same chords, but the differences in nuance and style are beautifully distinct. Almost always panned left and right, there's a great education in rock there alone. But then there's the songs....

I'm given to hyperbole, but I'm not given to being wrong (well, not about rock 'n' roll, anyway), and I am here to tell you that Dan Baird is as great a writer of that thing known as a rock 'n' roll song as anyone on the planet. There's not a much harder thing to do than to write a straight up rock 'n' roll song in the late year of our Lord in 2013, but Baird makes it sound simple as he avoids cliche while writing instant cliches every step of the way. There's gold in these words and chords.

The first pinched, gritty chords that pop out of the speakers that announce Fall Apart On Me, and it's another of Baird's stock-in-trade - the seriously tongue-in-cheek look on the relationships between men and women. I'd love to see Baird's record collection - whatever he got fed as a youth must have been the perfect diet for the writer as a young rocker. The rhythm that Warner Hodges plays against Baird's is a beautiful piece of whip-crack syncopation, and every guitar player should check this as a fine way to measure one's ability to keep time. I'll say it again and again, but this bunch gets it right. I haven't heard two guitarists joust so well since Webb Wilder and Donny Roberts told Chuck Berry the news in the nineties to all too darned many deaf ears. Check out the final 24 seconds of this tune for a dose of pure bliss.

Stepping it up to a double time snare snapper, Little Darlin' is steeped in sweet country harmonies, and when the guitar solos start it's time to hit the woodshed - these licks sound as smooth as silk and sweet as honey, but they're knucklebusters of the best type.

All The Same is another sad, sad song about the travesties of love, and if Chuck Berry had known it would end up here, he'd smile from ear to ear. Ear candy - there are more calories of candy here than I've heard on an album all year - nothing here is rocket science, but I'll be damned if all the fake rock country guitar players in Nashville get anywhere near this high water mark. No, this is the real deal, and this is where the true religion can be found.

As of today, and mind you, I'm fickle when it comes to these matters - Thousand Little Pieces is the best song I've heard this year. I've been revisiting the live YouTube clip incessantly since I found it, and this seven minute forty-two second cut is even better yet. Slow stuff it tough - you have to be accurate, and your heart must be in the right place. When Hodges kicks into his sweetly sustained solo, he achieves guitar nirvana, then Baird kills me with what may be his best verse yet:
"We had it all,
pretty as a picture.
Just like the one,
you left hanging in the hall. 
A better man,
would find hope in the scriptures.
But Jesus wept,
is all I can recall."
I don't know exactly how George Jones felt about rock 'n' roll, but I'm sure he would have loved this.

Photo by Jos Westenberg

Warner Hodges playing is great across the album, but his soloing on Thousand Little Pieces is the stuff greatness is made of - he goes for the throat with an almost speaker exploding distorted tone, then he backs down and makes you cry, only to wind it all up again and deliver hope in a song that may otherwise just be too damned sad. There's redemption to be found in those notes, and that was always the point. Hodges stands accused of having perfect tone and unquestionable note selection.

A goddamned barn burner, it is.

Where'm I Gonna Lay My Head has a hard act to follow, but it has more going for it than the most creative use of an apostrophe this year, as the band dives right back into the rock. Much of this reminds me of The Band, in that there's no attempt to be progressive, psychedelic, or innovative, just an attempt to write and play the music as best as it can be. Hodges is on fire again, and his stinging and slinging soloing sizzles. The beauty of this pair is that they seemingly have no sense of anything but musical camaraderie - there's never a minute of anything but rock 'n' roll glory.

Stonesy syncopation is a tough order, and Break Down And Cry reminds me of the simpatico relationship I hear on Keith's solo records with Waddy Wachtel - the rhythms here are sublime and they make me dance in my chair as I type. And I like that. The arrangement includes some extremely tasty Hammond organ and some very pop harmonies on the chorus that keeps the track from ever becoming run of the mill. Masterful.

Bassist Keith Christopher steps up to do a lead vocal, and we don't miss a step. This band has been working for a few years to loving crowds around the UK and Europe, and it's quite apparent that they know one another like the back's of their respective hands - Think It's Time is another new type of arrangement, introducing some nice plucked harmonic keyboards under the chorus that add the perfect pop sweetness. Another winner, but you knew I was going to say that, right?

Photo by Jos Westenberg

Mauro Magellan earns his place in the percussion hall of fame with his work on Baby This - not many drummers can 'own' a song, but it can happen, and Magellan does it here with not just stellar stick work, but tons of catchy and chugging, percolating accessory work. Baird has his wit pen out again, and his writing is pure poetry.

The first time I spun this disc, I thought to myself, 'Have they really done this? Have they really recorded a whole album of fairly straight up, soulful rock 'n' roll without covering their own tracks even once?' They have, and the chorus of Long Way Down proves the point marvelously. Hodges is a master of the chordal solo, slurring notes and harmonizing with himself as he works his way around the solos and fills. The record is everything that's wrong with Nashville, and everything that's right with rock. Hell no, rock ain't near dead.

Dan Baird knocks out great rockers like clockwork - every one of us would love to write one rocker that would compare to Outlivin', and he's written an album full. There's an unholy union of The Byrds and The Dictators on this one. Chimey descents of guitar harmonies that evoke memories of And Your Bird Can Sing are always a pleasure, and they fit this number like a glove. I can't write as well as they play, so you are just going to have to buy this record and figure it out for yourself.

Face Of Love is another jangler, rocking melodically down the pike. Starting and stopping and swaggering, all at the same time - most bands could never do this without falling upon their respective arses, but Dan Baird and Homemade Sin toss it off like nobody's business. More arrangement wizardry as clever choices abound - before Hodges goes into yet another 'here's how it's supposed to be done' solo, they throw in a little step down that only lasts about five seconds but contains more musical intelligence than you can believe.

Wear And Tear wraps up the party, and it's a sweet piece of power pop that reminds me that The Flamin' Groovies are back on the scene, and if they hadn't reunited, I'd have been just fine with this in their stead. This album delivers on promises I've been waiting on since The Small Faces dissolved all those decades ago.

Photo by Jos Westenberg

Circus Life may be the perfect album of 2013 - it makes not a single misstep, and every step of the way it has thrilled me to the bone. Thanksgiving week is perfect for its release, as it has me giving thanks for rock 'n' roll this great. I'm soon starting a radio show called Rock Ain't Near Dead down in Los Angeles - it's about where rock came from, where it's at, and where it's going, and I am going to have to move heaven and earth to get someone from this bunch to guest and explain just how they do it. Rock Ain't Near Dead, and this record proves it in spades. I am now calling it the best of 2013. I didn't see that coming, but there you have it.