Author: Jim Stalker

Seeking answers – one post at a time.
Sales guy – family guy – thinks a great guitar solo can make the song.
Based in Granite Bay CA – where there is plenty of granite and not much bay.

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Tears for Fears

Coming off three worldwide hits, constant MTV rotation, Tears for Fears entered the studio with lofty expectations and a blank checkbook. These were the days when the Eagles would spend weeks, and tens of thousands of dollars, tweaking the kick drum sound on a song as lame as “Heartache Tonight.” Studio excesses were the orange M & M’s for the days’ top artists. But as Steely Dan proved with Gaucho, time and money don’t replace inspiration. Making an excellent record was not just a matter of getting the right musicians, unlimited blow, and a famous studio. It also had to do with having great songs.

While nothing on “Sowing the Seeds of Love” comes close to being as catchy as “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” (what did?), it does take their music further than it had ever been before. It also achieves that rarest of musical feats: something that can be taken as a whole. Seeds work like an elaborate song cycle. Not as hypnotic as Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” or cerebral as the Who’s “Tommy”  “Seeds of Love” is equally artful.  Seeds has terrific moments of song craft, singing, lyrical inventiveness, stellar musicianship, and show-off production. The CD itself sounds fantastic. The engineering superb.

There are many collaborators on Seeds, most notably Oleta Adams. Plucked from a bar in Kansas City during a TFF tour, Oleta brings the soul to the proceedings through her husky voice and Pentecostal give-me-a-hallelujah piano. The call and response between her and Roland, reworked in concert to include songs like Believe, would be a highlight of their tour that year. Adams turned out to be a real find, earning a Grammy nomination while building a successful solo career.

Phil Collins cameos, as he was apt to do all though the 80’s, and turns in a solid performance trying yet again recreate In the Air Tonight’s dramatic drum entrance. It’s nowhere near as good – try Against All Odds – that’s almost as good.

Co-writing 5 of the 8 songs on the CD (with Orzabal), much credit should be given to pianist Nicky Holland for the feel of the record. A flair for subtle melodies and a skilled right hand on the acoustic piano is on display here (and on her two under-appreciated solo CD’s). “Advice for the Young at Heart,” and “Famous Last Words” both show how this lovely touch elevates the song beyond pop into something more lush and spacious.

The rhythm section was stellar. Peter Gabriel drummer, Manu Katche, never sounded better than on “Badman’s Song.” Talk about a kick drum sound – check that out – the Eagles could have learned a thing or two from that track. Pino Paladino plays, as always, great bass. Apparently, many of these songs started as jams between Katche, Paladino, Hopkins, and Orzabal. This makes sense as their interplay is fluid and dynamic. Trumpeter Jon Hassell adds some nice color to “Standing on the Corner of the Third World.” The Holland/Orzabal compositions on Seeds take TFF sonically beyond anything on Chair, or The Hurting regarding scope and execution.

Seeds title track is quite a number. An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production – and blatant homage to the Beatles – brilliantly captures psychedelia and optimism allowing us to practically smell the patchouli while Roland sings proudly, “I love a Sunflower!” Nothing so groovy has been produced since (with the possible exception of some World Party and Austin Powers). A song that is derivative, respectful, and original at the same time. Try that sometime.

The real star of the show is Roland Orzabal. His vocals, his songs, and one would suppose, his vision made the record what it is. Curt Smith’s contributions are less clear here – besides his lovely tenor on “Advice for the Young at Heart.”  In interviews, it seems there was lots of collaboration between Smith and Orzabal on this record. Those comparisons to Andrew Ridgley were mean and ungrounded.  Orzabal and Smith share production credits on the record. Plus, Smith plays a terrific bass guitar.

After this record Smith and Orzabal took a break from each other. Two “Orzabal only” Tears for Fears projects, “Elemental” and “Raoul and the Kings of Spain” came. Both are terrific records, and worth seeking out. But neither has the confidence and grandeur found in Seeds. It’s simply a beautiful record.

“Kick out the Style bring back the Jam!”

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Peter Gabriel

The Classic Albums series of programs and DVDs is one of the best ever for any serious music fan. Each 60-minute episode dissects the creative forces and execution of some of Rock’s most iconic albums with the people who were there. While some of the first episodes struggled in finding their groove, all the recent editions have been simply excellent. Nearly all are must see/owns for any serious music lover.

Produced by Eagle-Rock and distributed by Kayos Productions in the USA, “Peter Gabriel – So” is the latest episode of this British-produced series to land in America. It is terrific, and you should check it out. Better yet go to Amazon and buy it as you might want to watch it a few times.

Peter Gabriel – Global Super Star.

“So” is the album that took Peter Gabriel from cult artist to worldwide superstar. Before “So” Gabriel was the “weird ex-singer from Genesis!” After this record (and the great videos that accompanied it) – no more! Gabriel came to stand on his own being widely known for both his artistry and commitment to various humanitarian causes.

“So” was a sonic marvel that even today sounds incredible. Rich with nuance and musical detail in every track. “So” is always interesting to listen to and is frequently punctuated with great performances. Tony Levin’s bass. Stewart Copeland’s high hat. Kate Bush’s duet with Gabriel on the haunting “Don’t Give Up.” Laurie Anderson. Wow! What a work!

Manu Katche – Drummer.

This was the record that introduced the world to the unique drumming style of Manu Katche who would go on to drum with Tears for Fears, Joni Mitchell, Dire Straits, Robbie Robertson and Sting (among others). His contribution can’t be overstated here in creating this indefinable collection of sonic soundscapes.  Just give a quick listen to “That Voice Again’ or “In Your Eyes” –  drumming with that kind of power and texture was unlike anything else during the late 1980’s.

Mainly though this is the product of a collaboration between Gabriel and then unknown producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois would go on to do big records with Dylan and U2 (among so many others). Gabriel and Lanois truly came together in the way real artists do: creating something unique that neither expected during the process. They both became better as a result.

In Your Eyes – Global Hit and Masterpiece.

One of the best-known fruits of this collaboration was arguably Gabriel’s masterpiece, the song, “In Your Eyes.”  ‘Eyes,” which is painstakingly dissected by Lanois in the video sitting at the recording console,  is shown how the song was meticulously created layer upon layer to become the song it is.

“In Your Eyes” is a song that would get a second wind from John Cusack’s elevated boom box in Cameron Crowe’s  film “Say Anything.”  The song would also go on to be the centerpiece of Gabriel’s live show (check out Secret World Live – also on Blu-Ray DVD). Great tune – explained in detail on classic albums.

All the details are here on this great Blu-Ray DVD. Comments from Lanois, Gabriel, Anderson, Levin, Katche, and others – many at the playback board – are great. Critic David Fricke, the most articulate of all the talking heads, again delivers context and insight into what makes this record so great. The only one missing is the reclusive Bush. A minor problem with this otherwise excellent must have DVD.

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The Wrecking Crew

Denny Tedesco, son of legendary studio guitarist Tommy Tedesco, has made the best film ever about the LA studio scene, The Wrecking Crew. Unless you’ve attended one of a handful of screenings, chances are you haven’t scene this slightly sentimental valentine from a son to his father. If you are at all interested in the music of the 60’s and 70’s, this is a must have for your DVD collection (assuming one comes out).

A self-funded affair, Tedesco has gone direct on his website soliciting funds in exchange for end-credits in order to bring the film to a wider audience. I hope he succeeds – I have mailed my check. I would love to own the DVD. I hope it includes lots of outtakes and extras! For anyone who loves music and musicians, this movie really gets it.

The Wrecking Crew was loose affiliation of studio musicians who flourished in the LA music scene in the mid to late 1960’s. Initially made up by the players from Phil Spector’s Gold Star Studios sessions, these casually clad players were “wrecking the business” the suit-wearing pros of the past had established – hence the name the Wrecking Crew. 

Many top artists of the day – The Byrds, Mama’s and Papa’s, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and most infamously The Monkees – benefited from the the Crew’s input during the sessions. The Crew musicians would show up adding a riff or lick on the spot that often became the hook everyone remembered from the song.  The complete list of artists these studio musicians worked with is simply staggering.

While many of the notable talking heads in the film (including the musicians themselves) do a great job  describing the time and what it was like to work with the artists, they don’t provide adequate context for their contribution or achievement.

The Wrecking Crew could have benefited from a more detailed history of the record business, the growth of pop music, and the emergence of the LA studio scene (as compared with what was happening in the east).  Without this time line and history, the film can’t provide the payoff it it entitled to  make: these musicians were inseparablewith the growth of popular music as we knew it when it took the world by storm. The accomplishment of the wrecking crew is on par with what the Beatles did. 

A number of great personalities emerge from that era viewers may not be familiar with, notably Drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye, and the filmmaker’s father, “the world’s most recorded guitarist” Tommy Tedesco.  They all wax nostalgic for that great time that will never happen again. That was a time when great songs were being written, the songs were getting played, the records were selling, and money was everywhere. These folks regularly had to turn down work.  There is a charming interplay between these legends sitting at the round-table. Respect is everywhere. The film succeeds in making a viewer nostalgic for a time they might not even know existed.

The talking heads assembled are impressive. Record company founders like Herb Alpert and Lou Adler bring some gravitas to business side of things while providing a sense of how much luck and improvisation were involved in the nascent days of the emerging business. Brian Wilson, who clearly loved those people – they helped him make those brilliant records – is mutually respected by the musicians with the same reverence.

In the end it is as it should be, the musicians themselves having the most to say. They convey the “what it was like” better than anyone. As a pastiche, The Wrecking Crew succeeds wonderfully in capturing the tone of the place and time. It also succeeds as a nice appreciation for Tedesco who clearly was a giant in the business. Were the film featuring anyone else, it wouldn’t have worked. Todesco  played on everything from Bonanza to Batman, Beach Boys to Zappa. His discography is a wonder of popular music. 

A film like this is certain to have omissions. We didn’t hear from from all the key living players from the scene. You never know why.  Some may not be very articulate, others may not want to participate.  More historical context might have helped referencing the Funk Brothers, Stax, or Muscle Shoales who had concurrent and  similar musical communities. This is a minor quarrel however – as The Wrecking Crew stands along side Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Respect Yourself as must haves for any serious music fans’ collection.

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Mad Men – Season Three

Mad Men, TV’s best dramatic series two years running according to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, concluded it’s third season last night. Betty is on a plane to Reno to gain a divorce, and Don is starting a new ad agency with the finest Sterling/Cooper has to offer.  It’s all excitement for Don, and for Betty, another metaphorically inappropriate couch for the living room.

With the exception of Breaking Bad, there is no more interesting hour on Television. From the time warped art direction that never ceases to rattle a boomers synapses, to the chain-smoking actors with the depth of a bird bath, the show never ceases to be interesting and watchable.  While the plot almost always moves too slow, the story regularly balances the mundane with the outrageous – who can forget the hot-shots foot getting mowed off by their clients’ tractor in the office?

In the background are the perfect sets, costumes, and historically accurate intrusions of history that combine to make it TV’s best acid flashback. I suppose Mathew Wiener should start dusting off his shelf to make room for another EMMY in 2010.

There were some delicious moments in season three. The trip to California, Salvatore’s continuing fight with his gayness, and the introduction of a Mr.Conrad Hilton. The best moments continued to be the dramatic ones. Betty uncovering Don’s secret drawer, then confronting him with their contents. The disappointment Joan faced with her husband who wasn’t providing the pot of gold she hoped for (and deserved). These moments were superbly acted, given time to play out, and presented without any heavy background music to let us know what to feel. Those moments, and the writing behind them, are what make the show great and deserving of its accolades.

I could have used a little more Peggy and a little less Duck. I could have also used more actual business. The closing episode was a hummer once Don was kicked in the ass by Hilton and decided to enlist the firm to go rouge setting out on their own. It was a plausible sequence, that not only showed insight into how things work in business, but also was something not seen before on Television. More of this please, it’s great stuff.

There is something in the nostalgia of Mad Men that is both disturbing and satisfying. While it shows how backward we were in the not so recent past (drinking and smoking while pregnant, smoking three packs a day, and driving without seat belts…among many) the fundamental challenge presented in the show of how to be happy and rise above the circumstances we find ourselves in, is a timeless one.  It is oddly comforting to see that the absence of cigarettes and the introduction of the color TV did not make us better human beings.

There is a phrase, “the highest we ever get in life is human.” This has never been more true than on Mad Men.

Well done.

 

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Baked Potato Super Live

For many music fans, the late seventies and eighties were the golden age for music and musicians. Music had become a huge money making industry thanks to the perfect storm of MTV and baby boomers having cash to spend on albums and CD’s. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, released in 1982, was the perfect confluence of something artistically satisfying and commercially successful. Not only did Thriller go on to sell more records than any in history, but it also took home a then record 8 Grammy Awards.

What made this so?

A big part of it had to do with what developed in the LA music scene. With the the shift from NY based Brill Building pop-stars to Topanga Canyon Singer-Songwriters, LA had become the hub for pop music. Warner Brothers, Capitol, A & M, Epic and even Motown were all headquartered in LA. The companies pumped money into their studios giving them the latest equipment. Artists wanted to record in LA. Sunshine, and great studios! There were also the access to great musicians.

Studio musicians in the 1960’s were a critical and often uncredited part of the music scene. Few knew who the Wrecking Crew, or Funk Brothers were. The records companies knew those folks well, and employed them as much as possible – they were hitmakers.

Bands like the Byrds were offended when, with ink drying on their first record contract, learned that the Wrecking Crew would be playing the instruments on their songs. They remained offended until the royalty checks started showing up – which occurred more often than not when the Wrecking Crew was involved!

As pop music moved away from a hit single business to an album business, the band itself became more important. Musicians within bands became better players. Bands like Led Zepplin were composed of former studio musicians.

The Wrecking Crew weren’t getting gigs anymore as bands like the Eagles insisted on playing their own instruments. During this drought, a new crop of studio players emerged on the scene.  Playing jingles, and film-scores in lieu of pop singles, these players were more musical than their predecessors. Bands like Steely Dan abandoned their bands in favor of tapping this inventory of great players both old and new.  The music became better.  By the time Thriller came along the studio scene was vibrant again.

Take a look at all the Grammy winners for Album of the Year in the 80’s, every one them, including the two wins for “bands” ( Toto and U2) have studio musicians collaborating. Most are complete studio creations without a band all, often with different musicians on each track (like Thriller).

Jeff Porcaro, drummer of Toto, and Steve Lukather, their guitarist, might have been the busiest session musicians of the eighties. Jeff’s rock solid grooves, and Steve’s just-perfect overdriven guitar solos were the in-demand cats for the time. They were so busy, they regularly turned down work – with BIG name artists.  Plus, they had their band who was busy selling records and winning Grammy Awards.

It is against this backdrop we come to the CD, Baked Potato Super Live, attributed to the Greg Mathieson Project. The “Project” was an ongoing Sunday Night gig at the small North Hollywood jazz club called the Baked Potato. For years, this gig had been a well known secret for music fans. This was where you catch studio giants like Larry Carlton, Abe Laboriel, Jimmy Johnson, Carlos Vega, Lenny Castro, and Jeff Porcaro (or their substitutes) every week. Released from the confines of their studio gigs you could find them “blowing” and letting it all hang out. For a music fan you couldn’t hear this type of playing anywhere else. You had to get there early to get a seat. Los Angelinos would eagerly look in the back of the Sunday Calendar section to see who was playing that Sunday night.

In 1981 Carlton had left and handed over the guitar duties to then 24-year-old guitarist Steve Lukather. Quite a set of coattails to ride in on. Replacing a legend like Carlton made Luke nervous. It wasn’t a huge problem because he was on fire at the time. His solos were everywhere. Take a look at his session list,it is staggering. Artists as diverse as Olivia Newton John and the Tubes were topping the charts with his trademark solo guitar breaks that blended power and melody. 

When Super Live was recorded he was also at work with the soon-to-be Grammy winner Toto IV. In many ways his career while well under way, was just also just getting started. Worldwide hits, Rosanna and Africa were yet to come. His lead vocals and songwriting, which produced the number 10 song, I Won’t Hold You Back, were still in the future. For Luke this was the perfect crossroads of high expectations being met with confidence (and a ton of talent).

If you are looking for a disc that captures the energy and enthusiasm of players who can’t believe they are doing what they doing, this disc is where to go. Fun just pours off the disc. Jeff Porcaro never sounded looser or better. Luke’s tone, a single 12 Dumble through a tube screamer and space echo is amazing. All you need to do is listen to the opening track, Bomp Me, to hear what a special disc this is.

Porcaro’s endless bass-drum triplets, Luke’s chorus infused rhythm followed by a whammy bar solo that just makes your jaw drop. You can hear the delight pouring through the strings with Luke being able to play more than the twelve bars he’d be allotted on a session. Oh, that’s just the first track.

While not all the tracks capture the energy of Bomp me, they do show a band grooving hard. The interplay, nuance and dynamics are always at play. These are players who not only can play, but know how to compliment each other.

Pops Popswell (from the Crusaders) was a regular for many of these gigs is captured here on bass, and Mathieson provides great grounding for the band with his compositions and keyboard work (Hammond work in particular).

The show is high-school-friends Porcaro and Lukather’s however. If you are fan of either of them, this disc is must have. Luke’s solos are clinics for anyone wanting to play melodic, soulful, and fast lead guitar. For someone like me who would play the fade out of I Keep Forgetting over and over to hear Porcaro’s triplet (check it out, it’s amazing), this is Jeff I can’t do without. Grooves deeper than the San Andreas Fault. If you listen carefully you can hear his smiling face.  For me this is a desert island disc.

In 25 years I have never grown tired of listening to Luke solo on Home, or Jeff and Pops interplay on I Don’t Know. It’s a rare snapshot in time, from a era that’s gone. It’s just a rare combination of super talented musicians, at a great time for music, having fun playing together. Wasn’t that the whole point of playing anyway?

You will have to hunt this down as it is not in print. It’s worth it.

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Yellowjackets

The Robben Ford Group – Robben Ford – guitar, Russel Ferrante – keyboards, Jimmy Haslip – bass, and Ricky Lawson – drums – were a tight, highly musical band of studio musicians that played that strange hybrid of jazz, pop, rock, and blues that was being called “fusion” in the late seventies. Playing mostly instrumentals, the RFG recorded the album, The Inside Story in 1979 – which was promoted as Ford’s solo debut.
While a Ford fan’s favorite, Inside Story didn’t sell – despite some excellent playing by everyone. The songs weren’t there, and the Steve Cropper production didn’t sound quite right. The record company decided trying a more vocally oriented approach for Ford’s follow-up, and his supporting band, now calling themselves the Yellowjackets – got their own record contract playing mostly Ferrante compositions (with Ford on guitar).
That’s how we arrive at one of the first all digital CD’s, the Yellowjackets’ debut, released in 1981 (a bonus edition with four unreleased tracks came out in 2004). What a record!
Four things immediately become apparent once the laser hits the disc (compared to Inside Story):
• Better Songs
• Better Arrangements
• Better Sound
• Better Robben Ford
Ferrante is a great composer of jazz instrumentals. No disrespect to Ford, who writes terrific, sometimes classic blues tunes, but Ferrante is in another class. Ford’s best instrumental, Revelation, was written by Ferrante. I think Ford himself would agree with this assessment of Ferrante.
Ferrante’s melodies are rich and sophisticated and set against a variety of sometimes complex tempos that bring in elements of swing, jazz, lounge, and even gospel. His compositions are perfectly suited for the musicians in his band. He also does a great job of not making the synthesizer be the bad word. Many records from that era are un-listenable today as the result of the DX7 sounds which became a bad cliche.
Ferrante gets some songwriting help from band mates Lawson, Haslip and Ford who either contribute or collaborate to some of the CD’s seven songs. The song collection here is excellent.
The basic song arrangements have a depth and flow that suggests they were worked out on the road over many nights. They showcase a tightness and interplay you just don’t hear when songs are created in the studio. Jerry Hey horn arrangements only enhance the proceedings. Jerry even takes a rare solo on The Hornet.
The digital sound is impressive. Great separation and depth. You can hear everything, crystal clear. All the subtleties in Jimmy Haslip’s bass playing (and there are many) can be heard throughout the record. Priscilla, a portrait-of-tracy-style harmonic tour-de-force, really shows what a great bass player can bring to band.
You also have to credit Grammy winning producer Tommy LiPuma, associated with so many great recordings, here for what happened on the Yellowjackets debut.
The star here however is Robben Ford. Armed with a better tone and better material than on Inside Story, Ford takes the listener on a journey of one dizzying solo after another. He plays with ferocity, melody, and feeling that never overwhelm the material.
For many who love that type of Steely Dan – Larry Carlton complexity, this, Casino Lights, and Mirage a Trois would be the last hurrah for Ford for many years in that style. Recently, Ford has played more in that style with Jing Chi,and Neil Larsen – although he is still very much into the blues.
The Yellowjackets bonus edition features four demos, all with Ford solos. While not as great as the seven original cuts – Ford (and Yellowjackets fans) would find that edition indispensable.

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Steve Winwood

When Island Records founder Chris Blackwell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was sure to make a “special thanks to Steve Winwood, whose association with the label gave us credibility with many artists that made us successful.”

Steve Winwood equals credibility. He is the real deal. A musician’s musician. Steve is an artist who can go into the studio and create music, all by himself – as he did with his million selling Arc of a Diver. 

Not only does he play all the instruments (drums, guitars, keyboards, mandolin, and of course his voice)  but he is also a master of one of the most difficult instruments to play; the Hammond B3 Organ. For those unfamiliar the Hammond has three keyboards. One for each hand and one for the left foot for the bass line. Most Hammond players in rock don’t even bother with the foot keyboard, it’s too hard to play. I would like to see one of the other notable one-man-bands in rock, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Pete Townshend, or Prince have a go at the B3. The point is, the man is talented.

Winwood is also a gifted songwriter. Gimme Some Lovin’ with the Spencer Davis Group, Can’t Find My Way Home with Blind Faith, Low Spark of High Heel Boys with Traffic, While You See a Chance, Higher Love, and Roll With It as a solo artist.  From tight pop tunes to jazzy jams, from ethereal ballads to his most recent Latin-flavored compositions, his songs have covered the full range of rock. He has won Grammy’s,  been sideman for Hendrix and Clapton, and performed for the Queen. It is no wonder he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

The music machine that produces the Jonas Brothers, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga doesn’t really have room for an artist such as Steve Winwood (and others like him).His two most recent releases, About Time, and Nine Lives are mature, original works, by an artist in full possession of his powers. It is some of the best work of his career. If you were a fan of Traffic and Blind Faith, you would like these collections where the players get to stretch out a bit.  Steve’s mastery of the Hammond is on full display. While neither may be considered a five star CD independently, when the best of both are combined – you get very close. 

The opening track on About Time, Different Light, introduces us to Steve’s new rhythmic sound and key collaborator, guitarist Jose Neto – the constant on both records. Neto brings something unique to the Winwood party – his nylon string sound, and strong rhythmic focus that blends chords with arpeggios that compliment the Hammond.  Cigano (for the Gypsies) may be the best example of this collaboration with it’s great samba middle break, and a terrific solo by Neto against the backdrop of B3 Leslie-flavored swells. The Timmy Thomas remake Why Can’t We Live Together (redone by Sade as well) is timely in it’s lyrical content while showing the versatility of former Santana drummer Wilfredo Reyes Jr. who injects a Latin feel with timbales and congas through the entire CD (Domingo Morning a showcase for congas). It is with the eleven minute CD closer, Sylvia, that the band really plays in a way that shows the bands formidable chops. Great composition, great Hammond, a wonderful slow-build solo by Neto that crescendos in sync with Reyes’ drums and the rest of the band. This is the kind of song that you’d hear on WNEW through headphones in the seventies. Put it next to Low Spark in slow loose jam category. Classic in concert – check it out on the DVD Sound Stage- Steve Winwood in Concert. Awesome!

Oh and every solo line by Winwood on the Hammond, is hummable and melodic. 

Nine Lives is a more polished affair. The engineering and sound of the CD is remarkable. You just have to listen to it. The songs are mostly over five minutes, but there are less solos with rhythmic interludes taking up some of the solo time.  There is Latin flavor (Hungry Man), some folk (I’m Not Drowning), Steve playing lead guitar (We’re All Looking), and a guest appearance by Eric Clapton (Dirty City). While Clapton’s playing is fiery, it is really Winwood’s rhythm guitar that dominates that track. It’s a real show stopper when they trade Stratocaster solos on the recent tour (some of this captured on the DVD Live at Madison Square Garden). One forgets just how good Steve is on guitar.It is the ballads (Fly and Bristol Shore) however that are extraordinary. This is where it all comes together, Neto’s nylon sound, the Hammond, the rhythmic complexity created by the band (Incongnito’s drummer Richard Bailey infuses each song with complex poly-rhythms and tasty fills) and Winwood’s instantly recognizable angelic tenor. A great effort here.

In these days of pop stars who can’t play instruments or write songs, we should all join Chris Blackwell, and give a special thanks to Steve Winwood – who does both exceptionally well.

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The Who Quadrophenia

What to do after Tommy?

“Why should I care?”

The “rock opera” Tommy had elevated the status of the band. Touring in support of the record making a captured-for-all-posterity stop at Woodstock, the Who’s live machine was in full gear and their reputation was on the rise.  Their playing had become ferocious, the interplay nuanced, and arguably more powerful than anyone else in rock. They had put in the ten thousand hours of playing live making them outliers. All four members achieved new plateaus using their instruments. Daltrey found his voice hidden somewhere in his now always on display six pack.

Live at Leeds captures the Who during this period in all their power. My Generation, a two minute single, became a fifteen minute improvisation incorporating snippets of other songs. Young Man Blues, has more bite than anything previous, showcases extraordinary tightness of the band, and is a precursor to the punk attitude which came nearly a decade later. “A young man ain’t got nothin’ F’ off!”

Give a listen to the Deluxe Edition of Leeds, and it becomes apparent that Tommy was a bit of live Albatross. Songs like Christmas, Go to the Mirror, and Sally Simpson which while advancing the “plot” of Tommy, are in the end, not Pete’s best compositions. Worse, these songs didn’t translate well live.

Clearly Pete knew this, and the pressure to outdo himself must have been immense.  We all know what happened next: the Lifehouse fiasco and its crumbs, which became their greatest release, Who’s Next. This is all captured on Classic Album’s Who’s Next. One of the best of that DVD series.

Quadrophenia, surprise, is the Who’s highest charting US release. Fellow Brit Elton John had a double LP of his own, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, that kept the Who’s album from the number one spot. No number one for the Who in the US.

“Is it in my head?”

Quadrophenia is Pete Townshend’s Pet Sounds. Like Sounds it is busting with musicals ideas that are all executed well. One great unexpected melody after another. Strings, horns, sound clips, and the sounds of the sea! Elaborate arrangements that go way beyond anything Next.

Where Brian Wilson had LA studio aces The Wrecking Crew on Sounds to execute his musical vision,  Townshend had only himself and the Who.  While Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye may be a great rhythm section, they can’t generate the power of John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Moonie and the Ox turned out to be a wrecking crew of their own.  Quadrophenia incorporates the bands “controlled recklessness” live interplay in the studio better than anything before or since.

“move with the fashion, or be outcast.”

Daltrey is in fine voice. Entwistle’s bass playing, on the Real Me alone, takes the bass further into melodic complexity while simultaneously keeping the bottom.  Plus, he provides a remarkable amount of horn support that significantly deepen the music. Sadly, this is the last hurrah for Moonie, who if you listen carefully is beginning to loose some of the snap found on Leeds and Next.  He will never again be this good. Check out his fills on I’m the One – simply brilliant. His vocals on Bell Boy, one of his only vocal appearances on a Who record, are oddly touching.

The show ultimately is Pete’s. These songs were all composed and performed initially by himself (some of these demos later appearing on Scoop). Pete plays guitar, sings, plays synthesizer, and adds some terrific piano (Chris Stainton guests on four tracks). This may be Townshend’s best guitar playing. Acoustic, electric, finger-picking, rhythm, lead, volume pedal, power chords – it’s all here from the most underrated guitarist in rock history.

Most astounding is that the concept behind the record, actually works. It may not make any sense – a teen with four personalities personified by the four members of the Who – but it works. The evidence is that Quadrophenia works best as an album, not merely a collection of songs. In particular, the two long instrumentals, Quadrophenia and The Rock, work perfectly within their contexts, introducing melodic themes and moving the “story” along. The function as effective overtures and interludes in a classic sense.  What is clear more than anything, like Brian Wilson in Pet Sounds, Pete Townshend is  more than a songwriter, he is a composer.

While Who by Numbers, and Who are You have some highlights, they are unfocused affairs. Fame, and more importantly, drugs and alcohol, had taken over the role of Muse for the band while their instrumental abilities diminished. Moon eventually died of a drug overdose – ironically from a drug to fight alcoholism. Entwistle, after several Who reincarnations with other drummers, aslo died of a drug overdose.Such a sad and tragic end for two innovators and geniuses of their instruments.

Townshend, the genius behind it all, has had Broadway success with Tommy, an uneven yet admirable solo career, and recently written some terrific songs for him and Daltrey on a new “Who” CD Endless Wire. The Who marches on I suppose.

“You stop dancing!”

Quadrophenia was turned into a decent film, a cult classic of sorts, notable for cameo by the then emerging star Sting. It was recently reworked into a stage production, although recently closing, may not share the success of Tommy.

Quadrophenia, like Pet Sounds, may be the last great moment from the Who. Perhaps Townshend has a Smile somewhere in the vaults? We can only hope…

“Love reign o’er me!”

Uncategorized

Corn Flakes with John Lennon

Growing up in Los Angeles in the seventies, it was impossible not to feel the omnipresence of the Chandler’s LA Times. It had become for a time, under the direction of publisher Otis Chandler, a rival to the NY Times and Washington Post (it ranks third behind those two in terms of lifetime Pulitizers).

Robert Hilburn, Times rock music critic in ground zero for the nascent rock music business, occupied a rare position of power and influence. Tuesday, Thursday and especially Sunday Hilburn proselytized about the emerging stars in the LA (and broader) music scene in the always-fought-over-at-the-breakfast-table Calendar section of the LA Times.

Arguably he made a star of Elton John in his US debut at the Troubadour, and was able to interview Lennon, Dylan, and Bono (among others). He recounts these and other experiences in Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life (Rodale).

Truth is I never liked Hilburn. He missed the point consistently, many times. He championed Leo Sayer and David Essex as being the next big thing. Worse, he is a humorless bore of a writer, whose journalism never comes close to his peers Robert Palmer, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Ralph Gleason, and Nick Tosches in terms of depth or energy. 

“Discovering” the talents of Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 is not exactly rocket science – though reading Corn Flakes one might think so.

What is missing from the book is any sense of self-awareness of Hilburn’s limitations as a writer and how much of his “success” was primarily due to his association with the powerful Times. Rock Stars needed that vehicle, and I think in some cases he was played. Reflections of this nature are nowhere in this book. He does say his over-zealousness for music led to some miscalculations. No specifics provided – surely there must be one self-deprecating anecdote, somewhere, that would garner empathy while providing insight into the time and position he had. None. Just a collage of celebrity envy with no real musical analysis. Sloppy journalism.

Despite all this, there is no denying he did have access to a coterie of fascinating personalities. Fans of those stars and that era, may want to revisit them here. The Lennon chocolate bar story is sweet and makes us miss him even more. The Dylan born-again stuff is interesting. It’s all been told before.

Mostly, with Corn Flakes, I was brought back to those Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays when I read his column – and was frustrated all over again. Couldn’t the LA Times have done better?

UncategorizedVideo

Golden Age of TV

During a rather ho-hum Emmy Awards Show (unlike many others, I was not fawning over Neil Patrick Harris) winning Mad Men writer-producer Mathew Wiener referenced the “golden age” of Television and expressed how lucky he is to be making his show. I would broaden his scope here a bit  – we are all lucky that he and others like him are making the shows they do.

In case you missed it, the last ten years have been a Renaissance in high-quality video entertainment. The rising costs of film production and the addition of new TV channels interested in producing original work to drive their brand have raised the bar on quality while breaking the stranglehold the networks held on content for decades. This infusion of quality came at time when the competition for audience attention was elevated by the internet, video games, and other hitherto unavailable entertainment choices.

The result is that some terrific programs have been produced, and seen by few. Take Mad Men for example – the average viewership last year was less than 1 million per episode. Hardly enough audience to sustain it financially.  What AMC (the network that produces Mad Men) knows is that viewership extends beyond the broadcast date (thanks to DVD and on-demand services) and these sales offer a chance to recoup the production investment (given enough time).

There now exists a significant inventory of high-quality entertainment that many have not seen. So if watching a little TV is your thing – and it should be thanks to affordable high-def home entertainment systems – there is no need to be a slave to your DVR  or “seeing what’s on” ever again. You can carefully select shows that interest you and ensure every hour spent in front of the tube is a great one.

Best of all, I have found watching serialized shows that have running plot-lines that extend through the season (think 24, Lost, and Mad Men among others) viewing back to back on DVD is a superior experience to watching them during their original broadcasts. This practice has become commonly referred to as binging. It is easier to keep track of details of plot and nuance of character allowing one to become more emotionally engaged in the material. If you haven’t tried this, you should. You too will be hooked.

In the coming weeks I will provide reviews of some of the absolute best shows television has ever produced as well as some shows with a specific appeal or charm – all available on DVD for you serialized viewing.