Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Book Review: Martin Popoff's Swords & Tequila - Riot's Classic First Decade (2015)

Martin Popoff's Swords & Tequila
The reputation of American heavy metal pioneers Riot, the high esteem in which they’ve long been held by metal fans, far outpaces the band’s meager album sales over the decades. Formed in 1975 by the late guitarist Mark Reale and drummer Phil Bitelli, the pair added bassist Phil Feit and frontman Guy Speranza and Riot was born. There were changes in the line-up in the years before the band recorded its well-received 1977 debut, Rock City, and the story of Riot itself is one of tumultuous relationships, an ever-revolving roster of musicians, and an ‘underdog’ status, with band founder Reale remaining the one constant.

Rock critic and heavy metal historian Martin Popoff counts himself among the band’s loyal fans, and his latest literary project is Swords & Tequila, an album-by-album Riot biography that, provided its limited sales potential, is surely a labor of love on the behalf of the writer. Martin’s a buddy of mine – we’ve broken bread and drank more than a few beers together – and I have a lot of respect for his immense body of work, which includes better than four-dozen informative, insightful, and entertaining books on classic rock bands like Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, and Black Sabbath, among many others (really, just check out the list on his website).

Martin Popoff’s Swords & Tequila

The founding editor of Brave Words, & Bloody Knuckles magazine, Popoff has forgotten more about hard rock and heavy metal than the Reverend will ever know, so I tend to follow his lead on bands like Riot that I’m unfamiliar with. Martin has chosen to focus the narrative of Swords & Tequila on “Riot’s classic first decade,” which covers the band’s first five studio albums and its short-lived major label tenure...their glory years, really. He constructs the book via interviews with band members and Riot’s longtime manager/producer/Svengali Steve Loeb as well as using archived materials, crafting the sympathetic story of a talented band that, for a myriad of reasons, never quite made it to the top.

The band’s story begins with the lead up to, and the making of Rock City, the 1977 album released by the band’s manager on his independent Fire Sign label. With the skilled, but lacking-in-confidence Speranza on the microphone, and featuring the underrated Reale’s explosive six-string talents, Riot was building a solid reputation in the mid-1970s by playing metallic hard rock in clubs around its NYC hometown. They would be signed to a dubious deal by Loeb and his partner Billy Arnell. As the story eventually unfolds, we’ll find that this was Riot’s first mistake, and rhythm guitarist Lou Kouvaris warned the band against signing the all-encompassing management/production deal with Loeb.

Riot's Narita
Rock City earned Riot a modicum of much-needed attention outside of Brooklyn, and opening slots playing in front of bands like Journey and Mahogany Rush expanded their fan-base outside of the five boroughs. In a lot of ways, however, Riot was swimming upstream against the current. In 1977-79, punk-rock ruled the roost and across town, CBGBs – with its regular fare of bands like the Ramones and the Dead Boys – was the Mecca of loud ‘n’ fast music. The band’s fortunes would lay overseas, with the fledgling “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” scene created by bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon, and their fans would embrace Riot as one of their own.

Riot’s Fire Down Under

Popoff delves into the major label politics behind the band’s two classic recordings – 1979’s Narita and 1981’s Fire Down Under – the former of which was (begrudgingly) released by Capitol Records, the latter by Elektra Records, both of which have subsequently grown in esteem since their release. Narita also sealed up the Japanese market for the hard-rocking quintet. Guitarist Rick Ventura had replaced Kouvaris (axed by management for insolence) for the recording of the album, which represented a major step in the evolution of the band’s proto-metal sound. Speranza’s vocals on the album are more confident, Reale’s fretwork more fluid and inventive. The band’s songwriting was solid, its performances heavier (staying apace of metal trends at the time), and Narita earned Riot important opening slots on a couple of major U.K. festivals.

Riot's Fire Down Under
It would be with Fire Down Under that Riot would finally hit on (almost) all cylinders. Featuring a new rhythm section, but still fronted by the one-two punch that was Speranza and Reale, Riot created a minor heavy metal masterpiece that, although taking its cue from the NWOBHM, nevertheless spoke with an American accent, influencing a generation of bands to follow. Popoff explores the difficult birthing of the album, the band’s fractured relationship with its manager/producer, and the internal dynamics of the band that helped create Riot’s best-selling album. Riot’s modest fame, moderate LP sales, and several tours opening for headliners like Black Sabbath did little to improve their fortunes and, broke and dissatisfied, Speranza left the band in the wake of Fire Down Under.

Riot thought that they’d found the perfect replacement in singer Rhett Forrester. Whereas Speranza always seemed hesitant and sometimes timid on stage, the golden-maned Forrester was seemingly built in a lab to become a rock star. The band followed its acclaimed Fire Down Under with 1982’s Restless Breed, their first album with Forrester and its last for Elektra Records. The band’s sound changed somewhat with the addition of Forrester’s bluesy swagger and a lack of promotional support by the label and an inability to tour beyond a limited region would severely impact the band’s forward momentum. One more album with Forrester would follow – 1983’s Born In America – again produced by Loeb and licensed to a dance-music oriented Canadian label for North American release.   

Epilogue – Riot’s Second Decade

Riot basically imploded by 1985, with Forrester going on to an ill-fated solo career, and Reale moving to San Antonio, Texas, a town that had been very hospitable to the band during its career. This is the end of the band’s first decade, but Popoff doesn’t end the story here – as outlined in an Epilogue chapter, Reale re-created Riot with new musicians and, for a while, it seemed as if the band would rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of its former incarnation. Riot’s 1988 major label album Thundersteel would re-establish the band as a significant force in American metal, in spite of Loeb’s smell all over the thing, and although a number of albums featuring different versions of Riot would be released well into the 2000s, it was all mostly downhill from Thundersteel.

Riot's Thundersteel
So why did a talented, innovative band like Riot run off the rails, ending up so far from its goals? Popoff doesn’t offer any judgments, content to merely outline the story and allowing the various parties, including Steve Loeb, to have their (sometimes conflicting) say on the band’s history. In my mind, Riot’s biggest problem was Loeb, whose protestations of sacrifice on behalf of the band ring hollow and read as self-serving revisionism. It’s always a bad idea for a band to hook up with a single person for management and production, and Loeb’s lack of imagination in the studio definitely held the band back creatively. Loeb’s inability to provide the band members a living wage is, sadly, a recurring issue, one that undoubtedly caused more turmoil in the ranks than was necessary.

Mark Reale’s continued devotion to Loeb, even after the band broke-up and re-formed three years later, was self-sabotaging. Loeb seems to have alienated nearly every powerful music biz mover ‘n’ shaker with his antics through the years, and his production deal with the band created a bad situation where he leased their recordings to whoever would have them instead getting them signed to an established label. And what’s up with those horrible Riot album covers? I understand that Loeb was going for a marketable theme with the band’s recognizable, seal-headed mascot (which Martin lets us know is named ‘Mighty Tior’). But all the LP covers accomplished was to make the albums look cut-rate and amateurish…and how in the hell did the suits at Elektra ever sign off on such god-awful LP jackets as those that adorned Fire Down Under and Restless Breed?          

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Popoff’s Swords & Tequila accomplishes what the author set out to do – it tells the very human tale of a rock ‘n’ roll band that tried and failed. Riot failed not because of its own missteps, or because of any lack of talent, but rather because the music business is a brutal, savage undertaking that often eats artists alive, grinds them up, and spits them out into the gutter if they don’t live up to (sales) expectations. By capturing the oral history of Riot as told by the people who were there, Popoff gets as close to the heart of the matter as is journalistically possible, and the format of Swords & Tequila – with the band’s story framed album by album – provides a lot of meat for Riot fans to chew on.

As mentioned above, Swords & Tequila is a labor of love on the part of Martin Popoff, and he writes about these relatively obscure, albeit important bands like Riot because few other music historians of his stature deem them worthy of an investment of time and effort. Riot was an ill-fated outfit (three of its core members – Speranza, Reale, and Forrester – have all passed away too young), but Reale’s vision of for Riot lives on with his most recent band members continuing under the name Riot V after the guitarist’s 2012 death. Riot’s legacy, as it exists, will only be enhanced by Popoff’s biographical effort; the band’s still-growing reputation built one hard-fought album at a time. Grade: A (Power Chord Books, November 2015)

Get Swords & Tequila from www.martinpopoff.com

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Gordon's Blues Guides now available for your eBook reader!!!

Blues-Rock: Gordon's Blues Guides, Volume Three
Some of you know, but a lot of you might not, but the Reverend loves the blues. Your humble music critic and historian has been enamored of the blues since I was a wee teen spinning Furry Lewis sides on a portable turntable. I've covered the blues for most of the 44 years that I've been writing about music, and spent 6 1/2 years as the "Blues Guide" for About.com as well as contributing to The Blues magazine in the U.K. and Blues Music magazine here in the states.

Along the way, I've learned a lot about the blues, and I've put that knowledge to good use, creating three of these Gordon's Blues Guides eBooks for new and veteran fans alike to get more info on the key artists in their respective blues styles. All of the Reverend's eBooks are available for the Kindle from Amazon.com as well as from iTunes and Barnes & Noble's Nook store (if you look for 'em).

With the publication of Blues-Rock, the Rev's third book in the series (watch for a contemporary blues guide in 2016!), we thought it only fair that we recap the series with a list of all of the Rev's eBooks in the hopes that we can convince you to lay down some hard coin on one or more of these entertaining, educational tomes (links in titles to Amazon.com Kindle store):

Blues-Rock: Gordon's Blues Guides, Volume Three
Blues-Rock (1960s-2010s) is the third volume of Gordon's Blues Guides, a concise and informative primer on this popular sub-genre of the blues, from its formation in the early 1960s through the present day. The guide provides a brief history of early blues-rock bands along with a list of key artists with biographies and recommended recordings. (165pp, $3.49)

Chicago Blues: Gordon's Blues Guides, Volume Two
Chicago Blues (1940s-1960s) is the second volume of Gordon's Blues Guides, a quick and easy primer on the Chicago blues style from the 1940s through the 1960s. The guide provides a brief history of the early days of the city's blues scene, a list of key artists with biographies, and recommended recordings as well as an overview of Chicago-based record labels and a "blues glossary." (78pp, $2.99)

Delta Blues: Gordon's Blues Guides, Volume One
Delta Blues is the first volume of Gordon's Blues Guides, a quick and easy primer on the Mississippi Delta blues music of the 1920s and '30s. The guide provides a brief history of the music, a list of the key artists with biographies, and recommended recordings. (43pp, $1.99)

Stevie Ray Vaughan Buying Guide
Stevie Ray Vaughan Buying Guide
The Stevie Ray Vaughan Buying Guide is an illustrated, album by album overview of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame guitarist’s too-brief career including a condensed artist biography, a discography with complete song listings, and even a select discography of bootleg albums, all compiled by the Rev. Keith A. Gordon, former About.com Blues Guide. As a bonus, the Reverend also includes his reviews of several of Vaughan's albums, including the seminal Texas Flood and In Session, with blues legend Albert King. (94pp, $2.99)

Frank Zappa Buying Guide
During his lifetime and a musical career that spanned five decades, Frank Zappa released almost 60 albums of rock, jazz-rock, and classical music. The Frank Zappa Buying Guide is an album by album guide to navigating the often daunting Zappa catalog, with color cover photos for each album, as well as descriptions, band history, and much more for the Zappa fan or newcomer alike. (92pp, $2.99)

Archive Review: The Georgia Satellites' Keep The Faith (1985)

The Georgia Satellites' Keep The Faith
C'mon now, be truthful…has your Uncle Keith ever turned ya the wrong way? Ever given ya a bum steer? Naw…so listen up boys and girls: run, don't walk, down to your local import bin and lay down yer hard earned coin on a copy of the Georgia Satellites' Keep The Faith EP. Why? 'cause the Georgia Satellites are the hottest, hungriest, honest-to-god blooze singing, rock 'n' roll playing dedicated fools to come down the road in many a mile…and Keep The Faith is their one-and-only recording, containing half a hot dozen barn-burnin', leg-wettin' toons that would even knock yer dear ol' sainted Granny outta her rockin' chair and onto the dance floor!

It's a shame that some of America's finest bands such as the Satellites have to go to England to make a record, but it's lucky for us they did! Keep The Faith moves from zero to sixty miles per hour in the time it takes to drop the needle in these nasty little grooves. From the opening bars of "Tell My Fortune," a tasty AOR rocker, through the two-fisted, six-string madness of "Red Light," to the battle of the sexes on "Keep Your Hands To Yourself," to the mini-album's lone cover, George Jones' classic "The Race Is On," and all the songs in between, Keep The Faith is a swamp-licking, roots-inspired hellbroth of a rock 'n' roll album, a nuclear-tipped aural missile fired at your sensory circuits like sharks on a feeding frenzy. Closer akin to the early Stones, the Faces, and the art of Chuck Berry, the Georgia Satellites have drunk from the well from which rock 'n' roll sprang some 30 years ago… (Making Waves Records)

Originally published by The Metro magazine, Nashville TN, August 1985

Sunday, November 22, 2015

CD Review: Billy Gibbons' Perfectamundo (2015)

Billy Gibbons' Perfectamundo
For nearly half a century, Billy Gibbons has fronted ZZ Top, that ‘little ol’ band from Texas.’ If only for acclaimed ZZ Top albums like Tres Hombres, Deguello, and Eliminator, Gibbons’ place in the rock ‘n’ roll history book would be assured. But the talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist extraordinaire has carved his legacy in stone with a rusty penknife via decades of constant touring and by (literally) showing up to play on recording sessions by anybody that takes a chances and rings him up. Through the years, Gibbons has lent his distinctive fretwork to a veritable ‘who’s who’ of rock ‘n’ blues music, from John Mayall, B.B. King, and Shemekia Copeland to Joe Bonamassa, Ministry, and Gov’t Mule, among many others.

So why, this late in his career, would Gibbons deem it necessary to record a solo album like Perfectamundo? Gibbons has often brought his fascination with other genres of music to experiments with his longtime band, whether it’s the new wave synthesizers that modernized ZZ Top’s sound during the Eliminator and Afterburner era or his flirtation with hip-hop style on the band’s 2012 album La Futura, to cite but two examples. Gibbons has been interested in Latin and Afro-Cuban music for some time, studying percussion with Mambo legend Tito Puente back in the day and, more recently, performing alongside Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi at the 7th Latin Grammy® Awards in 2006.

Billy Gibbons’ Perfectamundo

Dominated by Afro-Cuban rhythms and other Latin music influences, Perfectamundo was recorded, I’d guess, primarily to provide Gibbons with a way to get his groove on without being kneecapped by the obvious restrictions of playing with a three-piece blues-rock band. Working again with musician and producer Joe Hardy (who co-produced La Futura), Gibbons put together a multi-cultural band, The BFG’s, for this ‘solo debut,’ allowing him to flesh out his trademark sound and providing room for the guitarist to explore creative turf that he couldn’t with his regular band. ZZ Top fans picking up a copy of Perfectamundo expecting a reprise of “La Grange” or “Sharp Dressed Man” are going to be surprised – not kindly, perhaps – by Gibbons’ solo experiment.

Gibbons’ bold, ballsy fusion of sultry rhythms and his blues roots works more often than not, the five-piece band and Gibbons’ Latin influences serving as a blank canvas on which the guitarist can paint as he wishes. The album-opening cover of Slim Harpo's “Got Love If You Want It” is a perfect example of the experiment done right, Gibbons’ breathless, subdued vocals complimented by colorful rhythms, along with the dueling B-3s of keyboardists Mike Flanigin and Martine GuiGui, as well as his own spicy fretwork. A cover of the Roy Head hit “Treat Her Right” follows a similar blueprint, drummer Greg Morrow’s excellent percussion supported by bassist Alex Garza’s righteous bass lines and Gibbons’ fluid, soulful vocals. The guitarist’s original “Sal Y Pimiento” strays further from his blues-rock roots; the largely instrumental jam is an exhilarating showcase for the band’s talents, a rollicking tune that one could expect to hear blasting from the windows of a Mexico City bar.

Pickin’ Up Chicks On Dowling Street

Other songs on Perfectamundo cautiously mix ZZ Top’s lyrical bravado with an enticing soundtrack. A bawdy story-song, “Pickin’ Up Chicks On Dowling Street” is the sort of thing that one would expect from late 1970s/early ‘80s era Gibbons, but here its transcends the blues-rock genre to travel worldwide, the blazing keyboards and foot-shuffling percussion providing a high-energy counterpoint to Gibbons’ scorching guitar. However, the musical experimentation falls flat on songs like “Quiero Mas Dinero” (translates as “I Want More Money”), where Garza’s awkwardly rapped vox are shockingly at odds with Gibbons’ brief, but otherwise stellar guitarplay. The song’s too-busy instrumentation rapidly jumps from one notion to another, with mere scraps of brilliance shining through the fog until Gibbons’ inspired, Chicago blues-styled six-string vamp walks us out of the darkness.

The album’s title track suffers from a similar fate, the song introduced by a booming cacophony before descending into Garza’s trite spoken vocals. It’s a shame, too, ‘cause the song’s funky instrumental undercurrent is simply contagious. On the other hand, a cover of the Big Joe Williams (by way of Lightnin' Hopkins) classic “Baby Please Don’t Go” is afforded a new coat of paint, Gibbons and crew re-inventing the blues standard much as Williams himself did when he recorded the song back in 1935. With a big-beat backdrop, Gibbons’ growling vocals dance atop the menacing instrumentation, the B-3 keys kicking up a bit of soul while Gibbons’ short solos carpet-bomb the mix. The invigorating “Q-Vo” is a mostly-instrumental jam, an energetic hybrid of Booker T & the MG’s inspired groove and John Lee Hooker styled boogie-blues, with lively keyboards clashing with shards of bluesy guitar and fatback bass above a rock-solid rhythmic foundation, closing the album on a high note.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Billy Gibbons’ Perfectamundo grows on you, kind of like kudzu – on first listen, my impressions were along the line of “what the hell was he thinking?” Two, three spins down the road and my interest was piqued, and by the fifth or sixth time putting Perfectamundo on the box, I found myself grinning in spite of myself. Gibbons expands his musical palette here, allowing his guitar greater freedom to soar into new territory while exploring different tones and textures with his lyrics and singing.

The BFG’s – named after Gibbons’ line of personally-branded BBQ and hot sauces – are a top-notch musical outfit that effortlessly blends Gibbons’ blues-rock leanings with more exotic fare, and save for the embarrassing hip-hop stylings forced into the mix with a crowbar on a couple of songs, Perfectamundo is an engaging, and entertaining – if surprising – solo debut from one of rock music’s legendary guitarists. Grade: B- (Concord Records, released November 6, 2015)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Billy Gibbons' Perfectamundo

Fossils: Johnny Winter's Still Alive & Well (1973)

Johnny Winter's Still Alive & Well
[click to embiggen]
Johnny Winter – Still Alive & Well

After the release of the Johnny Winter And album in 1970, blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter retreated from the music biz to seek treatment for his increasingly debilitating heroin addiction. During the interim, his brother Edgar scored big with his They Only Come Out At Night album and its hit single “Frankenstein.” A common refrain during Edgar’s 1972 tour was “hey man, where’s your brother?”

The elder Winter brother came roaring back in 1973 with his fifth studio album, Still Alive & Well, the album title both an answer to the question on everybody’s mind as well as a statement of purpose. Working with his former bandmates Rick Derringer and Randy Jo Hobbs, Winter delivered a high-energy set of blues and roots-rock that included a handful of original songs by Winter and Derringer as well as classic covers like Big Bill Broonzy’s “Rock Me Baby” and the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed.” The Stones also contributed a new song, “Silver Train,” for Winter to spin his magic on, and Winter’s original “Too Much Seconal” is a bluesy, personal warning about drug abuse. Derringer’s “Cheap Tequila” is a fine twangy roots-rocker while the title track is a defiant musical statement tailor-made for Winter’s slash ‘n’ burn fretwork.

Still Alive & Well performed admirably in spite of Columbia Records’ bland advertising efforts. This ad for the album is little more than a photo outtake from the session that provided the cover artwork. Displaying, perhaps, Winter’s undeniable albino chic, it says little of the guitarist’s return after three years or his impressive and expanding musical palette. The album peaked at #22 on the Billboard magazine album chart anyway, Winter’s fans obviously excited about the guitarist’s much-anticipated return.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

CD Review: Lee Michael's Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels (2015)

Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels
Nobody sounded quite like singer, songwriter, and keyboardist Lee Michaels during his seven-album run with A&M Records, circa 1968-1973, and while some have tried, nobody has quite nailed his unique, frequently minimalist creative vision since. A soulful vocalist often accompanied on album by only a lone percussionist, Michaels explored the use of piano, keyboards, and even harpsichord in rock music unlike any other artist at the time; even when he went the full band route by adding bass and guitar, it was Michaels’ keyboards that led the parade.

A reappraisal of Lee Michaels’ place in the rock ‘n’ roll history book as been long overdue, and perhaps the release of Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels will prompt a well-deserved rediscovery of one of the great lost rockers of the 1970s. Comprised of 20 tracks, including his lone Top Ten hit “Do You Know What I Mean,” Heighty Hi provides an insightful cross-section of Michaels’ music, pulling material from all six of his studio albums and offering a representative sample of his artistic ambitions. The compilation provides an introduction, of sorts, to new listeners and is being released alongside the seven-disc The Complete A&M Album Collection box set for those who desire to jump headfirst into Michaels’ milieu.

Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels

So what can the intrepid listener expect from Heighty Hi? Opening with the controversial title track, “Heighty Hi,” (hey, it was originally released in 1968), Michaels applies a jangly, Southern gospel vibe to what appears, on the surface, to be a pro-marijuana song but seems to me to be just as likely to also serve as an apt metaphor for peace and brotherhood. Led by Michaels’ wistful vocals and intricate piano playing, the song is certainly infectious in its charms. The comp cranks right into Michaels’ best-known tune, “Do You Know What I Mean,” a studio throwaway that, while based on a true story, the singer never really cared for…and ironically, it became his biggest hit. Featuring a repeating keyboard riff and minimal percussion, the song relies on Michaels’ tortured, tearful vocals that – whether he cared for the song or no – nevertheless channel true emotion.

If only for these first couple of songs, which stood proudly alongside the typical guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll fare of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Michaels deserves acclaim. As shown by Heighty Hi, though, there are lots of other fine examples of Michaels’ musical genius. “If I Should Lose You,” from Michaels’ 1968 sophomore album Recital, masterfully blends R&B roots with a bit of psychedelic pop for a quick shot of exhilaration: Michaels’ whimsical vocals and baroque piano are accented by former Paul Revere & the Raiders’ guitarist Drake Levin’s soaring notes and soulful blasts of horn on what should have been a radio-ready chart hit. Michaels’ original “The War,” also from Recital, is a somber but moving anti-war dirge lifted above the mundane by Michaels’ anguished, angry vox and his clever, effective juxtaposition of harpsichord and keyboards to create a discordant backdrop to the lyrics.

Goodbye, Goodbye

Heighty Hi includes the non-LP track “Goodbye, Goodbye,” a high-octane rocker that was released as the B-side to single “The War.” A foreshadowing, perhaps, of the sort of (slightly) more commercial rock music that Michaels would explore on his album 5th, “Goodbye, Goodbye” is a busy, engaging tune with dynamic keyboards pitted against fluid piano licks, with steady percussion (including a resonant cowbell) and an upbeat, energetic feel that should have made it an AM radio hit. The title track from Michaels’ sophomore effort, “Carnival of Life” has a psych-pop edge that’s sharply honed by intricate keyboard runs and blustery percussion while “Keep The Circle Turning,” one of the many cover songs that Michaels visited on 5th, is provided a rich foundation built on Michaels’ gospel-tinged keyboards, the singer’s reverent vocals supported by the warmth of Merry Clayton’s backing vox.

Michaels’ cover of the Marvin Gaye classic “Can I Get A Witness,” also from 5th, was the singer’s only song to hit the Top 40, and a good ‘un it is, Michaels’ high-flying voice surfing atop a recurring keyboard riff similar in sound to “Do You Know What I Mean.” The urgency and romantic frustration found in Michaels’ vocal performance separates it from his better-known hit, and while it’d never be mistaken for Gaye’s incredible version of the Holland-Dozier-Holland gem, Michaels does the song proud. Michaels shared management with fellow San Francisco rockers Moby Grape, so his cover of their raucous “Murder In My Heart (For The Judge)” comes as no surprise. A rowdy take on the song that features Levin’s nimble fretwork and explosive percussion courtesy of drummer Frosty (a/k/a Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost), Michaels’ deft piano-pounding and gang vocals add a real sense of menace to the song.

Lee Michaels' The Complete A&M Album CollectionMichaels’ original “What Now America,” from 1970’s Barrel, is the sort of gritty, socially-conscious protest song that he could sink his teeth into as a songwriter (Michaels has stated on more than one occasion that his ‘love songs’ were penned only to pacify hit-hungry label execs). With minimalist backing instrumentation and intelligent, probing lyrics, Michaels’ plaintive vocals slowly reach a crescendo before ebbing back into darkness. The shortest of the four songs from Michaels’ 1972 psych-rock experiment Space & First Takes, “Own Special Way (As Long As)” re-imagines the typical love song of the day with a clamorous, keyboard-dominated soundtrack that, along with drummer Keith Knudsen’s solid timekeeping and Levin’s subtle guitar, takes on an authentic funky undercurrent.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

After his stint with A&M Records concluded with the release of the obligatory Lee Michaels Live album in 1972, the singer signed with Clive Davis and Columbia Records, recording a pair of albums for the label that went nowhere when Davis, the singer’s biggest advocate, was forced out of the company. Those Columbia label albums have become obscure footnotes to Michaels’ career, sought-after collectors’ items that command posh prices. After releasing one more album, Absolute Lee, on his own independent label in 1982, Michaels retired from music altogether to pursue a successful career as a restaurateur.

In spite of his unfair distinction as a “one hit wonder,” interest in Lee Michaels and his music remains extremely high to this day, better than three decades after he sung his last note. Four previous Michaels compilations have been released on CD over the past 25 or so years, with Heighty Hi offering more songs and a much more comprehensive look at the diversity and artistry of Michaels’ music. For the casually curious, Heighty Hi will satisfy your needs, providing the ‘hit’ and much more.

As for the long-suffering, but preternaturally loyal Michaels’ fan, The Complete A&M Album Collection offers the singer’s complete run of LPs for the label, digitally re-mastered from the original master tapes, thus allowing you to shelve that worn vinyl in your collection. Either way you decide to go, you’ll be hearing a lot of great music, created by an artist who was never afraid to follow his own distinctive muse. As for those long lost Lee Michaels’ albums on Columbia, well, we can only hope… Grade: A (Manifesto Records, released November 20, 2015)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Lee Michaels' Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels

Kenny Neal Celebrates a ‘Blue’ Christmas

Kenny Neal’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas
Cleopatra Records moved further into the blues field with the November 6th, 2015 release of the talented blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Kenny Neal’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas album. Neal, a New Orleans native, is a Blues Music Award winner, multiple Grammy® Award nominee, and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee.

The son of Louisiana music legend Raful Neal, Kenny has forged a career entirely on his own talents over the past 30 years, the multi-instrumentalist creating a legacy of his own with acclaimed albums like 2008’s Let Life Flow and 2010’s Hooked On Your Love. Neal’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas is the bluesman’s first foray into holiday music, the album mixing soulful takes on traditional and modern Christmas songs, all delivered with no little soul and plenty of Louisiana flavor. If you’re looking for something to mix a little ‘blues’ into your holiday reds and greens, check out Kenny Neal’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas!

I’ll Be Home For Christmas track list:
1. Christmas Comes Once A Year
2. Silver Bells
3. Winter Wonderland
4. Merry Little Christmas
5. Please Come Home For Christmas
6. I’ll Be Home For Christmas
7. Merry Christmas Baby #2
8. Lonesome Christmas
9. Merry Christmas Baby #1
10. O Come All Ye Faithful
11. Silent Night

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Kenny Neal's I'll Be Home For Christmas

Sunday, November 8, 2015

CD Review: Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977 (2015)

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977
Johnny Thunders was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great tragedies, an enfant terrible who, while not dying particularly young (he was 38), nevertheless seemingly left this mortal vale before fulfilling whatever promise Fate had in store for the tortured guitarist. Thunders made his bones as part of cult rockers the New York Dolls, his raw, slash ‘n’ burn six-string technique putting him in a rarified class with the Kinks’ Dave Davies and inspiring a generation of young soul rebels in his wake. Two criminally-underrated Dolls albums were all that the band could muster before going supernova, and Thunders went on to create a productive, if sporadic and often times maddening solo career.

In between the 1975 break-up of the Dolls and the release of his acclaimed 1978 solo album So Alone, Thunders took another shot at the brass ring with his band the Heartbreakers. Formed with New York Dolls bandmate Jerry Nolan, the Heartbreakers included ex-Television bassist Richard Hell, and later added a second guitarist in the talented Walter Lure. A clash of egos soon flared up between Thunders and Hell, who both thought that the Heartbreakers was their band, and Hell left to form the Voidoids, replaced by Billy Rath. This is the version of the Heartbreakers that released their lone classic album, L.A.M.F., in 1977 in the heart of the punk rock explosion. A year or three ahead of its time, L.A.M.F. did little or nothing in the way of sales, and Thunders broke up the band in favor of a solo career.

Johnny Thunders’ L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977

The importance and popularity of L.A.M.F. has only grown since its ill-fated release, dragging Thunders and the Heartbreakers along for the ride. Since Thunders’ death in ’91, dozens of live and bootleg albums of dodgy provenance have been released under both Thunders’ and the Heartbreakers’ names. One live set that had never been released, even semi-legitimately, is the Heartbreakers’ August 1977 shows from the Village Gate in New York City. Cleopatra Records, which is rapidly making a name for itself as an archival label, got a hold of the tapes and has released L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977. Drawing performances from two electrifying Heartbreakers’ shows that Walter Lure considers the best the band ever played, L.A.M.F. Live includes guest appearances from former New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and rockabilly rebel Robert Gordon.

First, a warning – the sound quality on L.A.M.F. Live sucks worse than a politician at a fundraising dinner. Back when the Reverend was reviewing bootleg CDs for an outlaw music zine in Missouri, we’d have called this an “audience recording,” which sounds every bit as bad as it reads. Hollow, cavernous, echoed, with solar flares of feedback at times rendering the listener mute, none of it really matters when the band kicks into high gear with a frenzied, steroidal performance of the Ramones’ “Chinese Rock.” It’s like standing in the back of the club and letting the sonic waves wash over your fractured cerebellum. If live Heartbreakers doesn’t get your medulla oblongata to stand up on its hind legs and do tricks, then turn up the amp…and if that doesn’t work, schedule your lobotomy.

Overall, Lure is right in that L.A.M.F. Live captures a high-energy performance by a band hitting on all cylinders, playing eight of the twelve original tunes from the studio album, the sound slam-dancing off one wall and bouncing hard against the other. The riotous “Get Off The Phone” hits your ears like a tsunami, leaving nothing but destruction in its wake, while the cacophonic “One Track Mind” takes Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production technique to the extreme, the instruments constructing an impenetrable, distorted sonic sludge from which only shouted vocals and piercing guitar licks can escape. A cover of the Dolls’ “Chatterbox” is loud, chaotic, and a rowdy lot of fun while the Carl Perkins’ rockabilly gem “Boppin’ The Blues,” featuring a chicken-pickin’ Sylvain and singer Gordon, is a sloppy, greasy, drunken bacchanal. The Heartbreakers’ theme song, “Born To Lose,” is a runaway freight-train teetering down the tracks to nowheresville.     

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Atrocious, bootleg sound quality notwithstanding, Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers put on a helluva party with L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977. The guitars cut like a switchblade, and the rhythm players raise a ruckus like a thunderstorm. There’s nothing virtuoso or cautious about the performances captured on L.A.M.F. Live – this is raw, visceral rock ‘n’ roll played from the gut by guys that have nothing to lose, so why not make a joyful noise on your way out? Highly recommended for Johnny Thunders fans, or fans of the New York Dolls, or even youngsters who cut their teeth on bands like the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs or New Bomb Turks. L.A.M.F. Live will scratch the punk-rock itch you didn’t know you had… Grade: B- (Cleopatra Records, released October 16, 2015)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F. Live at the Village Gate 1977

Fossils: Jimmy Buffett's A1A (1974)

Jimmy Buffet's A1A
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Jimmy Buffett – A1A

A1A, the fourth album from Jimmy Buffett, was a transitional work in every sense of the word. Buffett had spent better than half a decade in the trenches of Nashville trying to make it as a country singer and songwriter, playing dives like Sam’s Pizza Place and pitching tunes to publishers on Music Row. Buffett’s third ABC Dunhill album, 1974’s Living and Dying in 3/4 Time, scored a minor pop and country hit in “Come Monday,” an effective mid-tempo soft rocker closer in spirit to California-based Avocado Mafia songwriters like Jackson Browne or David Crosby as opposed to the new brand of Texas-bred cosmic cowboys like Guy Clark or Jerry Jeff Walker.

In the wake of a divorce and re-location to Key West, Florida Buffett began to shed his Music City roots and re-invented himself as a country-rock beach bum. A1A, named for the highway which runs along the Atlantic coast of Florida, mixes autobiographical tunes like “Trying To Reason With Hurricane Season,” “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” and “Life Is Just A Tire Swing” with choice covers like Alex Harvey’s “Makin’ Music For Money” and John Sebastian’s “Stories We Could Tell,” the performances blending country, rock, and the occasional island riddims. Buffett enjoyed a minor country hit with the album’s twangiest track, the humorous “Door Number Three” (#88), while the album itself struck a chord with mainstream audiences, A1A becoming the singer’s highest-charting LP to date (#25).

The ABC Dunhill ad for A1A wasn’t particularly effective or gripping, the giant head of Jimmy Buffett hovering, godlike, above a sand-coursed stretch of highway. The ad copy says little of the album save for an attempt to make a Nashville connection for the music – not the best way, perhaps, to sell the singer’s new creative direction, but then again, ABC didn’t have the spare cash to spread around and hype the album at the time. It didn’t matter, really, ‘cause Buffett had clearly found his preferred musical blueprint and, after his tiny label was absorbed by the multinational MCA Records, he’d hit the big time three years later with his signature song “Margaritaville,” the perfect distillation of his beach bum troubadour persona which would hit Top 20 on both the pop and country charts.