Friday, July 3, 2015

CD Review: Michael Fennelly's Lane Changer (1973/2015)

Michael Fennelly's Lane ChangerSinger, songwriter, and guitarist Michael Fennelly isn’t the most obscure of cult heroes, but his status as a critic’s darling and favorite of 1960s-era rock aficionados is undeniable. Moving from New York to Los Angeles at the tender age of 17, Fennelly was subsequently signed to a song publishing deal with musician and producer Curt Boettcher’s Mee Moo Music. Fennelly became a member of Boettcher’s studio collective, contributing his talents to recordings by a pair of Boettcher’s legendary pop-psych bands, Sagittarius and the Millennium.

By 1969, Fennelly wanted to pursue music with his own band. He hooked up with the members of a blues-rock outfit called Stonehenge, forming a new band named Crabby Appleton and earning a recording contract with Elektra Records on the strength of Fennelly’s original songs. Although the band’s self-titled 1970 debut barely charted, it nevertheless scored a Top 40 hit with the Fennelly song “Go Back,” the album displaying an invigorating mix of power-pop and boogie-oriented rock that would become the band’s signature sound. A year later, Crabby Appleton released its sophomore effort, Rotten To The Core, moving as a band away from 1960s-styled power-pop and into a harder rock direction. The album failed to chart, Crabby Appleton broke up, and Fennelly took time off the road to write new songs.*

Michael Fennelly’s Lane Changer

Signed to Epic Records on the strength of his song demos, Fennelly would record his long-anticipated solo debut album, 1973’s Lane Changer, in England. Produced by former Zombies bassist Chris White, Fennelly was backed by a number of England’s best, tho’ admittedly underrated musicians of the era, including bassists Dave Wintour (who had played with Rick Wakeman) and Jim Rodford (Argent, and later with the Kinks); and drummers Robert Henrit (Argent, and another future alum of the Kinks) and Henry Spinetti (who would later play with both Eric Clapton and George Harrison). White’s former Zombies bandmates Rod Argent and Russ Ballard added backing vocals on several tracks. In-demand U.K. session horn players Mike Cotton and Alan Holmes augment a number of performances on the album with their immense sound, and Fennelly’s former Crabby Appleton bandmate Casey Foutz brought his keyboard prowess to the party.

In many ways, Lane Changer continues in a similar vein to Crabby Appleton’s Rotten To The Core; that is, hard-charging rock ‘n’ roll with pop and psychedelic undertones. The album-opening title track is an engaging slab o’ slippery hard rock featuring Fennelly’s lofty vocals, a busy arrangement with chaotic instrumentation, and rapidly-shifting changes in musical direction, all held together by Fennelly’s wiry fretwork which runs throughout the song. By contrast, “Touch My Soul” is a gentle, slow-paced ballad that mixes a folkish lyrical construction with touched of gospel grandeur and Fennelly’s soaring vocals. The highlight of the song, however, is Fennelly’s underrated guitar playing, which bolsters a wonderful vocal performance with both emotion and imagination.

Shine A Light

Michael Fennelly's Lane Changer
Jumping right back into high-octane, hard rock territory, “Won’t You Please Do That” is an unabashed Zep knock-off that expands that band’s classic sound even further with Fennelly’s hypnotizing guitar, explosive rhythms, and a call-and-response chorus that includes Argent, Ballard, and an unnamed “mystery singer” that sounds suspiciously familiar. “Dark Night” is more of a stripped-down affair, with Fennelly’s haunting vocals front and center in front of a simple bass/drums rhythm and flourishes courtesy of Casey Foutz’s Mini-Moog.** It’s a downright beautiful song, full of texture and complexity, with a lot of musical invention hiding in the grooves beneath Fennelly’s soulful vocals and Foutz’s symphonic swells and electronic sojourning.

The solo performance “Easy To Love” displays Fennelly’s talents nicely, his acoustic guitar strum nestling right nicely up against his expressive vocals, which at times hit a tone not unlike bluesman Skip James’ voice on what is otherwise an engaging folk-rock ballad. “Shine A Light” builds upon its predecessor, adding drums and bass to an unassuming, mid-tempo rocker that offers some of Fennelly’s most inspired fretwork on Lane Changer, his breathless vocals punctuated by a short but lovely solo. On the other hand, “Bad Times” offers up some good ol’ ‘70s-styled dino-stomp with bombastic rhythms and blazing guitar, the song’s lengthy intro leaping, headfirst into a raging boogie-rock with Fennelly’s sly guitar leading the charge.

A stunning, guitar-driven rocker, “Watch Yourself,” features an uncredited Jeff Beck playing lead guitar while Fennelly himself keeps pace with an intricate rhythm guitar performance, his high-flying vocals presaging the rise of the arena-rock godhead. The album ends with a classic fake-out in “Give Me Your Money,” the song starting as a sort of jazz-flecked, late-night torch-song with a dark ambiance and syncopated rhythms driven by Foutz’s tinkling keys before bursting out into a fast ‘n’ furious boogie blast that, once spent, gives way to the song’s darker tones and slower pace. It’s a truly schitzo and altogether wonderful performance to close out the unique musical experience that is Lane Changer.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

We have Sundazed Records to thank for the long-overdue release on CD of Michael Fennelly’s Lane Changer by Wounded Bird. In 2013, the esteemed archival imprint released the compilation Love Can Change Everything: Demos 1967-1973, which featured rare Fennelly material from the Millennium era, songs by Crabby Appleton, and from his solo albums. The success of that title directly (or indirectly) resulted in Lane Changer finally becoming available on CD for Fennelly’s long-suffering fans. Now if somebody would only reissue Fennelly’s other solo album, Stranger’s Bed, life would be one step closer to perfect.

Fennelly’s Lane Changer is an awe-inspiring collection of pure, inspired rock ‘n’ roll songcraft that, perhaps, in any other year, may have exploded into the mainstream and garnered the artist the success he deserved. But in 1973, a year that included big rock albums by the Rolling Stones, the Who, T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, Todd Rundgren, and David Bowie, among others, Fennelly’s equally superb effort was buried in a veritable landslide of great music that would achieve classic rock status. Thanks to the good folks at Wounded Bird (and Sundazed), though, we have another chance to appreciate the too-often overlooked talents of Michael Fennelly. Grade: A (Wounded Bird Records, released May 12, 2015)

Review Corrections
Michael Fennelly was kind enough to get in touch and set the record straight on several incorrect notions that have long surrounded Lane Changer, so the Reverend has made the following corrections to his review:

* After the break-up of Crabby Appleton, Fennelly spent time off the road in the Hollywood hills; he didn’t move to England as was previously stated.

** Rod Argent’s Mellotron playing credit on the song “Dark Night” as listed in the album liner notes is incorrect. It was Fennelly’s former Crabby Appleton bandmate Casey Foutz who made the magical sounds on the song with his Mini-Moog.

For more info on Michael Fennelly, check out his interview with It's Psychedelic Baby! zine

Buy the CD from Michael Fennelly's Lane Changer

Fossils: Canned Heat's Future Blues (1970)

Canned Heat's Future Blues
(click to embiggen)
Canned Heat – Future Blues

It had been a long, strange trip for blues-rock stalwarts Canned Heat between the band’s founding in 1966 and the 1970 release of Future Blues. Formed by blues fanatics and record collectors Al Wilson and Bob “The Bear” Hite, and named for an obscure blues song by an even more obscure Delta bluesman, Canned Heat had recorded four studio albums, enjoyed a couple of smash hit singles, and performed a knock-out live set at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 previous to Future Blues.

For any other band, this modest commercial success and traditionally-based blues-rock sound would have had rock’s critical establishment hanging by their tails from the trees and throwing poo at anyone who dared dissent from the conventional wisdom. Oddly enough, however, Canned Heat never received much love from the scribes, the band somehow deemed “inauthentic” and/or “sell outs” by the rock ‘n’ roll press (in spite of their later collaboration with blues legend John Lee Hooker, a rigid taskmaster who didn’t suffer fools lightly).

Regardless, the band had its fans, and Future Blues performed about as well as Canned Heat’s previous efforts, scoring a minor Top 30 hit with a cover of Wilber Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together.” The album itself inched its way up to #59 on the Billboard Top 200 chart…no mean feat, considering the band’s blues obsession in the fledgling era of album oriented rock (AOR). The label’s creative department did little but splash the album’s cover art on the page with the “one small step for man” tagline, but the cover art itself was brilliant, if controversial.

Blending the iconic photo of the raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima during World War II with the recent (summer 1969) moon landing, it’s as if the band was declaring both a new sense of musical freedom as well as commenting on the country’s social distress (thus the upside-down flag), the imagery conceived, no doubt, in response to Al Wilson’s growing environmental concerns. The cover perfectly captures the vibe of the band at the time as they were striving to move beyond mere blues and R&B cover tunes (“Let’s Work Together,” Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama”) towards a new blues-rock sound (“London Blues,” “Future Blues,” Wilson’s eerily prescient “My Time Ain’t Long”).

Other than the aforementioned John Lee Hooker collaboration, Future Blues would be the last album to feature band founder Wilson, who tragically passed away not long after its release. The album remains an unheralded gem in the band’s catalog, its long-term legacy lessened, somewhat, by inferior versions of Canned Heat that still perform to this day.

CD Review: Sonny Landreth's Bound By The Blues (2015)

Sonny Landreth's Bound By The Blues
Although he’s enjoyed a solo career that dates back some 30+ years and includes ten overwhelmingly acclaimed albums, guitarist Sonny Landreth remains best known for his role as ‘sideman to the stars.’ Throughout his lengthy career, Landreth has played and recorded with artists like John Hiatt, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Buffet, to name but a few. But since the release of his 1981 solo debut Blues Attack, Landreth has consistently delivered high-quality, guitar-oriented music that cleverly mixes blues, rock, folk, zydeco, and jazz into a sound that defines the Americana genre.

Bound By The Blues is Landreth’s first album since 2012’s Elemental Journey, the guitarist’s first totally instrumental work, one that incorporated more than a little jazz influence along with Landreth’s signature guitar-driven blues-rock sound. Landreth takes back the microphone with Bound By The Blues but, really, the new album is notable in that it represents the guitarist’s most blues-oriented effort since 2003’s The Road We’re On, which was also recorded with bassist David Ranson and drummer Brian Brignac. Although Landreth has never strayed too far from the blues he loves with his solo work, neither has he been afraid to experiment with other forms, challenging his talents as well as those of his band members.

Sonny Landreth’s Bound By The Blues

So what does Sonny Landreth’s first blues album in over a decade sound like? Well, Bound By The Blues opens with the deep Southern groove of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” which is about as bluesy as one can get unless your name is Charley Patton. Landreth’s familiar, fluid slide-guitar slithers throughout the arrangement, the band banging and crashing nicely in developing a chaotic rhythm behind Landreth’s warm vocals as his guitar leaps out of the speakers and grabs you by the ears. Landreth’s original title track keeps the raucous vibe going strong, the singer name-checking his musical heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters while picking out a strong, affecting guitar line. Landreth’s blistering solo here is washed in Delta mud, soaring and swooping like the ghosts of a dozen long-dead Mississippi bluesman laying down a juke-joint stomp.

A cover of Elmore James’ beautiful “It Hurts Me Too” displays the perfect balance of blues and soul, the mid-tempo ballad built on a swaying Chicago blues rhythm but featuring plenty of Landreth’s signature guitar tone and technique, his emotional vocals supported by considered guitarplay that, while reverent in honoring the original, threatens to leap over the edge nonetheless with crackling electricity. The original “Where They Will” changes gears somewhat, the song’s slightly exotic rhythms matched by Landreth’s somber vocals and scraps of subtle, almost understated guitar that explodes with the singer’s refrain “let the blues takes me where they will,” his haunted voice increasingly supported by graveyard fretwork as the song’s protagonist stares down his own mortality. It’s a subtle but strong performance, one that nicely showcases Landreth’s underrated talents as a singer and songwriter.

Firebird Blues (In Memory of Johnny Winter)

A lively cover of Skip James’ “Cherry Ball Blues” is less serious than its predecessor on the album, Landreth putting a little more twang into his reading of the lyrics, cutting loose with a red-hot barrage of notes that flows like molten lava beneath the band’s explosive rhythms. Landreth’s solo at the two-and-a-half mark veers dangerously close to heavy metal territory, combining the blues-influenced hard rock edge of, say, Robin Trower or Pat Travers with Landreth’s undeniable sense of the genre. Landreth ventures further onto blues-rock turf with “Firebird Blues,” his tribute to the late Johnny Winter.

A heartfelt instrumental track, Landreth pours his grief and loss into a phenomenal performance on “Firebird Blues” that honors the history of Texas blues, from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson through Lightnin’ Hopkins and Winter himself. What better way to further pay tribute to Winter than to re-visit the Johnson songbook via Elmore James and a rowdy version of “Dust My Broom”? Landreth shakes the arrangement up a bit, his take on the blues classic a little looser, but no less swinging, the guitarist coaxing some unusual tones out of his guitar while doing the song proud with a strong vocal reading that dances spryly on top of the jaunty rhythmic foundation constructed by bassist Ranson and drummer Brignac.

An equally effective cover of Big Bill Broonzy’s classic “Key To The Highway” skews closer to the Piedmont blues of the original than to Eric Clapton’s British blues perspective. Beneath his hearty vocals, though, Landreth lays down greasy, Louisiana swamp guitar licks that outpace either of the aforementioned artist’s efforts; Landreth’s imaginative playing moving in lockstep with the rhythm section. Bound By The Blues closes out far too soon with Landreth’s rockin’ original, “Simcoe Street.” A fleet-footed instrumental track with a locomotive rhythm and Landreth’s livewire fretwork, the song sounds like a contemporary take on the sort of boogie-infused blues-rock practiced by 1970s rollers like Foghat and Humble Pie.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If you’re already a Sonny Landreth fan – and how can you not be? – you don’t need to be told to run down to your indie record store and lay down your shekels for a copy of Bound By The Blues. But if you’re unfamiliar with the talents and charm of Mr. Landreth, or just a newbie blues fan altogether, the album is a great place to begin delving into the music of this (still) underrated singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Grade: A- (Provogue Records, released June 9, 2015)

Buy the CD from Sonny Landreth's Bound By The Blues

CD Preview: John Mayall’s Find a Way To Care

John Mayall's Find A Way To Care
For anybody that’s been following the British blues ‘Godfather’ John Mayall’s lengthy career – spanning six decade and still going strong – knows that he’s been making some of the best music of his life here in the new millennium. Mayall’s 2009 album Tough was pretty bad-ass, while last year’s A Special Life can be counted among his greatest efforts (just behind Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, A Hard Road, Crusade, and Blues From Laurel Canyon in my humble opinion…).

Well, blues fans, hold onto your hats ‘cause fresh off the triumph that was Mayall’s look backwards at his early days (the amazing Live In 1967 with Peter Green) comes the bluesman’s much-anticipated follow-up to A Special Life (yeah, it was that good!). On September 4th, 2015 Forty Below Records will release Mayall’s Find A Way To Care in both compact disc and glorious black vinyl versions.

Find A Way To Care was recorded at the House of Blues Studio in Encino, California and produced by Mayall and Forty Below’s Eric Corne (Mayall also did the graphic design and artwork for the album). As usual, Mayall handles vocals on the album as well as playing piano, Hammond organ, guitar, harmonica, and other various instruments, and he was joined in the studio by his talented band of seven years – guitarist Rocky Athas (shouldn’t we be talking more about this guy?), bassist Greg Rzab (ditto), and drummer Jay Davenport. A full horn section was brought in to compliment several tracks on the album.

The album features an even dozen songs, including inspired covers of Don Robey’s “Mother In Law Blues,” Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call,” Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “I Feel So Bad,” and Percy Mayfield’s “The River’s Invitation,” among others. In a press release for the album, Corne says, “I really wanted to feature John's keyboard playing on this record. He’s truly one of the most lyrical, economical and underrated keyboardists around. We also wanted to change things up a bit after the success of A Special Life and the addition of a horn section on several tracks was a really fun way to do that. As good as the last album was, I think this one is even better.”

In talking about his choice of cover songs on Find A Way To Care, Mayall says, “every time I make an album, I always feel I owe it to my fans to come up with fresh and varied interpretations of the blues. With this in mind, I chose an assemblage of songs that includes perhaps some slightly lesser-known bluesmen, and that all had either different beats or special instrumental treatments. I also found three songs that would be further enhanced by the addition of horns.” The album also features a number of original songs written by Mayall and inspired by real life. “As always, I draw from my own experiences and thoughts about things in my life so that from album to album I create on ongoing musical diary of my life,” he explains. “The blues never lets me down!”

Check out the video trailer of the making of the new album below and then hie thee onward to and pre-order the album: John Mayall's Find A Way To Care

Related content: John Mayall's Live In 1967 CD review

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Prog-Rock Legend Chris Squire, R.I.P.

Yes bassist Chris Squire
We’re sad to report on the passing of Chris Squire, founding member and bassist for British prog-rock legends Yes and one of the most influential musicians to emerge from the progressive rock scene. It was just a month ago that Squire revealed that he was undergoing treatment for acute erythroid leukemia, a rare form of the disease, and that he would be absent from the band’s upcoming U.S. tour, the first time in over 45 years that Squire would miss a Yes tour. Squire passed away in his Phoenix, Arizona home, accompanied by his wife.

A self-taught virtuoso bassist, Squire formed Yes in 1968 with vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Peter Banks, keyboardist Tony Kaye, and drummer Bill Bruford. This line-up recorded the band’s self-titled 1969 debut and the following year’s acclaimed album Time and A Word, the band’s first to chart in the U.K. Guitarist Steve Howe replaced Banks for 1971’s The Yes Album, the band’s U.S. chart breakthrough, and Rick Wakeman would replace Kaye for that year’s Fragile, a ‘Top 10’ charting album on both sides of the Atlantic. This line-up of the band would record but a single album together – 1972’s classic Close To The Edge – before Alan White replaced Buford, who left for King Crimson, and Patrick Moraz replaced Wakeman for 1974’s Relayer when the keyboardist launched his solo career.

Yes broke up in 1980 after the release of their tenth studio album, Drama, their first without vocalist Anderson and first to feature Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, former members of the Buggles. Although the album sold respectively, charting in the ‘Top 10’ in England and ‘Top 20’ in the states, band tensions had reached a boiling point. After a couple of years, Squire and White formed the band Cinema with South African vocalist and guitarist Trevor Rabin. The trio begun recording on a debut album that included Yes founding member Tony Kaye, but when Anderson returned to the fold, the band changed its name back to Yes and released 90125, their most commercially successful album. The popularity of the hit “Owner of A Lonely Heart” and the band’s new, pop-prog sound propelled 90125 to triple Platinum™ sales status.  

Chris Squire's Fish Out Of WaterProblems within the band caused the recording of their 1987 follow-up album Big Generator to stretch over a couple of years, and while the album would go Platinum™ in the states, the writing was clearly on the wall for a band change. The 1991 Yes album Union featured a “who’s who” of past and present Yes members, including Steve Howe and Bill Bruford, and 1994’s Talk would be the last to feature Rabin as a member of the band. Their commercial peak behind them (Talk was their first album to not chart ‘Top 20’ in the U.S. in two decades), Yes recorded sporadically throughout the remainder of the ‘90s and into the new millennium, the band’s most recent album, 2014’s Heaven and Earth, featuring a line-up comprised of vocalist Jon Davison, guitarist Howe, keyboardist Downes, drummer White, and bassist Squire. 

While Squire dedicated the lion’s share of his time and energy to Yes through the decades, he would release a lone solo album, Fish Out Of Water, in 1975. A critical and commercial success, the album featured Yes members Bruford and Moraz as well as Squire’s former bandmate in the Syn (a mid-60s precursor to Yes), pianist Andrew Pryce Jackman. With then-current Yes guitarist Billy Sherwood, Squire formed a musical side-project called Conspiracy that released albums in 2000 and 2003, and in 2004 the bassist joined a reunited the Syn for a single recording and tour. More recently, Squire hooked up with guitarist Steve Hackett from Genesis under the band name Squackett, the pair releasing an acclaimed album A Life Within A Day in 2012.  

Although Yes would go through multiple personnel changes throughout the years – eighteen different members by Squire’s count in a 2013 Rolling Stone magazine interview – the bassist was the bedrock foundation of the Yes sound, and the only musician to appear on all 21 of the band’s studio and ten live albums (and counting). Squire’s imaginative, melodic, and energetic playing style influenced subsequent generations of players, from Rush’s Geddy Lee to Les Claypool of Primus and John Myung of Dream Theater, among many others. His musical contributions to Yes shaped the band’s sound and legacy and his presence will be sorely missed by prog-rock fans worldwide.

"Chris Squire Beacon Theatre 2013-04-09" photo by Solar Scott, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons