Even in an age of unparalleled innovation and artistic freedom, Spirit stood head and shoulders above their 1960s-era rock ‘n’ roll contemporaries. Perhaps only Love shared the same sort of expansive and adventuresome artistic vision as the five guys in Spirit, whose disparate and diverse musical backgrounds led the band to explore the outer regions of rock ‘n’ roll as the band incorporated elements of the blues, folk, R&B, and jazz into their heady brew of psychedelia-tinted hard rock. Although they never experienced the level of commercial success that their talents and innovative music deserved, few bands since have matched Spirit in eccentricity, originality, intensity, and instrumental virtuosity.
For all their creative accomplishments, Spirit’s legacy is that of a half-forgotten band whose name is seldom brought up in ‘classic rock’ discussions. Published by Sonicbond Publishing in the U.K., On Track...Spirit corrects this oversight, revisiting the band album by album, song by song, from their ground-breaking self-titled 1968 debut and their masterpiece, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus through the break-ups and reunions and solo efforts of the lean years until their resurgence in the 1990s with albums like Tent of Miracles. More than a mere album guide, On Track...Spirit recounts 30 years of the trailblazing artistry of Spirit.
The “Reverend of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Rev. Keith A. Gordon has been writing about classic rock and blues music for 50 years, his words appearing in over 100 publications worldwide including Creem, Blues Music magazine, Live! Music Review, and the Rock and Roll Globe. A former All Music Guide contributor, Gordon has written 25 previous music-related books including Anarchy In The Music City!, The Other Side of Nashville, and Scorched Earth: A Jason & the Scorchers Scrapbook.
With so much of today’s corporate-flavored “modern rock” and nu-metal seemingly cranked out in cookie cutter fashion, hyped to the top of the charts and destined to be discarded as yesterday’s relic, it’s a joy to find something that truly stands out. Toxicity (American Records), the sophomore effort from Los Angeles favorite sons System Of A Down, sounds like nothing that you’ve ever heard before. The band’s members are all of Armenian descent, and their shared cultural heritage sharpens the edges of Toxicity with an undeniable Middle Eastern flavor. Throwing raga rhythms on top of muscular speed metal, System Of A Down are a thinking man’s hard rock band. While tuneage like “Prison Song” or “Deer Dance” showcases the band’s decidedly left-leaning political side with powerful riffs and growled vocals, songs like “Psycho” highlight a more playful, surrealistic side of the band. Singer Serj Tankian possesses a unique, operatic and slightly off-kilter voice that can be both menacing and comical while axeman Daron Malakian mangles the strings with a fervor unparalleled by most of his peers. Equally influenced by hardcore punk and thrash bands like Sepultura, Toxicity proves that System Of A Down will be a musical force to reckon with for the foreseeable future.
Bill Kirchen comes by his honky tonk credentials honestly, making his bones in the seventies with the groundbreaking rockabilly rebels Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. As shown by Kirchen’s latest solo release, Tied To the Wheel (Hightone Records), the underrated guitarist hasn’t lost a step in thirty years, throwing out hot licks with the best of them. Mixing up roots-rock, rockabilly, western swing and Southern California-flavored country honk, Kirchen continues to bring new energy to familiar musical territory. A never-before-released Commander Cody tune, “Truck Stop At the End of the World” kicks off Tied To the Wheel, setting the stage for a raucous collection of tunes set in a world populated with truckers, smoke-filled bars, hard liquor and fast women. Nashville hasn’t inspired music like this in years, but there’s a lot of highway between Music Row and Bakersfield, and that’s where you’ll find Bill Kirchen, burning up the blacktop with his friendly vocals and red-hot guitar, attacking every song on Tied To the Wheel with reckless abandon.
Scotland’s Beta Band is one of the more enigmatic outfits to hail from the British Isles. For their second album, Hot Shots II (Astralwerks Records), the band blends electronic beats and drums-n-bass rhythms, painting them on top of an ambient aural landscape that sounds like Brian Eno jamming with Kraftwerk. The result is an engaging, textured and multi-layered sound that is equal parts Britpop and avant-garde experimentation. Stephen Mason’s otherworldly vocals float above lofty harmonies provided by the other band members while DJ John MacLean adds samples, synths and a vague dancefloor feel to a collection of songs that appeals as much to the listener’s intellect as to their ears.
Rock ‘n’ roll has always been about breaking all the rules, a fact sadly ignored by today’s safe-as-milk hitmakers. Token nonconformity is often just another way of fitting into another sort of crowd and to really “rip it up” you’ve got to be daring as well as different. Writer Denise Sullivan understands this rockin’ reality, exploring an alternative music world in her latest book Rip It Up! (Backbeat Books). Sullivan profiles twenty artists who, throughout their careers, made a difference even if many of them never worked their way onto the charts. Working from her original interviews, Sullivan fills out the profiles with career timelines, lists of recommended recordings and plenty of photos. From well-known artists like the Kinks, Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads to alt-rock cult faves like Camper Van Beethoven and Julian Cope, Sullivan brings a fan’s enthusiasm to the material. Profiles of country legends the Louvin Brothers, folk veterans Utah Phillips and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and R&B groundbreaker Ike Turner are also included, evidence of Sullivan’s diverse musical tastes and knowledge. An entertaining and informative read, Rip It Up! is a great addition to any music lover’s library. (View From The Hill, August 2001)
As far as 1960s-era garage-rock goes, the Chocolate Watch Band was influential far beyond the band’s meager commercial reach. Although they would become West Coast musical heroes during the mid-to-late-1960s, with a handful of red-hot (and, later, highly collectible) 45rpm singles to their credit, culminating in a series of well-received full-length albums, the band suffered from a serious personality crisis.
Their management and producers would frequently bring in studio players to overdub the band’s recordings, material would be released under their name that had little or no connection to the band itself…not entirely heard of in mid-‘60s L.A. but not something that helped define a band identity, either. Regardless, on the basis of a trio of odd studio albums and a reputation for holding their own on stage with the likes of the Mothers of Invention and the Yardbirds, by the mid-‘80s, the Chocolate Watch Band (later changed to one word, “Watchband”) would become bona fide Nuggets-approved garage-rock legends.
Formed by a group of junior college students in Los Altos, California in 1965, the original Chocolate Watch Band was heavily influenced by the British Invasion sound of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and, later, by the Pretty Things. They were one of the first wave of what esteemed critic Lester Bangs would call “punk rockers,” Vox-yielding young hoodlums roaring out of their garage practice space and into the high school gyms and community centers of California to make teenage girls swoon at the front of the stage. After the usual shuffling of band members, the Chocolate Watch Band as known and adored by collectors of 1960s-era garage-rock treasures included vocalist Dave Aguilar, guitarists Mike Loomis and Sean Tolby, bassist Bill Flores, and drummer Gary Andrijasevich.
It was with this line-up that the Chocolate Watch Band recorded its initial singles – four red-hot slabs o’ R&B-styled proto-rock cheap thrills – as well as appearing and performing as themselves in the teen exploitation movie Riot On Sunset Strip. With all of this high-profile activity to hype the band, you’d think that their debut album would basically record itself and roll off the retail shelves and into the hands of eager fans. In an era when the “serious adults” in the room (i.e. managers & producers) often messed around with a young band’s sound (see: Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Electric Prunes, etc), producer Ed Cobb, with engineers Richard Podolor and Bill Cooper, just couldn’t help but impose their own agenda on top of the band’s considerably fresh and highly-rocking original sound.
As such, Chocolate Watch Band’s1967 debut album, No Way Out, although considered by many to be a classic of the garage-rock era, is not nearly as great as it might have been. The band’s early singles would have provided a solid foundation on which to build a debut album, but the production staff saw fit to include only two of these performances – “Are You Gonna Be There (At The Love In)” and “No Way Out” – in the final mix. The former is a down-n-dirty R&B-tinged rocker with gang vocals, an infectious rhythm track, and greasy over-driven guitars that only bolster Aguilar’s Jaggeresque vocals, the latter is a rock ‘n’ soul hybrid with wiry fretwork, a slight psychedelic edge (mimicking the fledgling San Francisco sound), cool snarling vox lost beneath droning, hypnotic instrumentation, and an overall dangerous vibe that was too cool for school in ‘67.
The full band line-up only appears on two other tracks on No Way Out, a meager representation on record that was curious even by then-current standards. An inspired cover of Chuck Berry’s rollicking “Come On” is a revved-up hot-rod of mid-‘60s rock, with echoey, haunting guitar notes lingering like storm clouds above Aguilar’s rapid-paced, 1950s rockabilly-styled reading of the lyrics. The singer’s original “Gone and Passes By” offers up exotic instrumental flourishes alongside a bouncy Bo Diddley beat, Aguilar’s emotional vocals overshadowed by a lush mix that includes squalls of guitar, bass, and drums creating a maelstrom of sound.
Of the other material on No Way Out, there are a few gems that emerge in spite of the producer’s interference. “Let’s Talk About Girls” is a stone-cold R&B romp a la early Stones that would have benefited from Aguilar’s energetic vocal style; for whatever reason, studio pro Don Bennett’s voice was dubbed over the band frontman’s vocals. The band’s instrumental track rides low in the mix and features some tasty jolts of Mark Loomis’s guitar, helping to rescue the song from disaster. Ditto for a cover of Steve Cropper’s “Midnight Hour,” which succeeds regardless of Bennett’s flaccid vocals, as the band cleverly injects a soul-drenched Booker T & the M.G.’s sound with live-wire rock ‘n’ roll electricity.
Much of the rest of No Way Out is suspect, however, as two instrumental songs – the clumsy attempt at a psychedelic mind-trip that was “Dark Side of the Mushroom” and the equally spacey pastiche of styles (rockabilly, surf, psyche) that was “Expo 2000” – were written by engineer and future uber-producer Richard Podolor and recorded with session players. These songs are “Chocolate Watch Band” in name only, as they lack the band’s input and just provide a songwriting royalty for an interfering studio engineer. Another track, “Gossamer Wings,” was written by singer Bennett, and uses the basic instrumental track from the band’s 1966 B-side “Loose Lip Sync Ship” as a backdrop for Bennett’s dull-as-dirt, soft-psyche performance.
In spite of its flaws, No Way Out offers around 60% of the cheap thrills one could expect from a recording of its era, maybe a C+ or B- grade that could have been a solid B+ had singer Aguilar’s charismatic voice not been removed from the aforementioned tracks in favor of the less-talented vocalist. At the heart of the problem was the fact that producer Ed Cobb had never even seen Chocolate Watch Band perform live, and didn’t realize the assortment of talents that he had in the studio. An otherwise talented songwriter and producer that would go on to work with artists like Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan, Cobb imposed his own vision on the band to mixed effect. (Sundazed Records, reissued December 3rd, 2011)
Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012
For your humble columnist to discover a new musical talent is a rare joy. Although there is a world of music out there, and nobody can claim to have heard it all, some talented and entertaining artists fall through the cracks of even the most dedicated follower of musical fashions. Thus, when a package of discs from The Gourds came across my cluttered desk, I was at first suspicious of another unknown and unheard-of band from Austin, Texas. With a couple of spins of the recently released Shinebox (Sugar Hill Records), however, I was quickly won over to the charms of this quirky and talented band.
An expanded reissue of the band’s 1998 EP titled Gogitchyershinebox, the new version kicks off with a wickedly funny and oddly engaging cover of Snoop Dogg’s hardcore rap classic “Gin & Juice,” played country-style with nasal vocals and twangy guitars. It’s a surreal musical moment and one that quickly drags you into Shinebox, a skilled hybrid of roots rock, alternative country, bluegrass, and blues that is wonderfully infectious. Whether putting their peculiar brand on covers like David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and Billy Joe Shaver’s mournful “Omaha” or intelligent originals like “Lament” or “Trampled By the Sun,” the Gourds are among the best that the Americana genre has to offer. Sugar Hill has also reissued a couple of other out-of-print Gourds albums, including the critically acclaimed Stadium Blitzer CD.
Much like the title of their latest release, The Isley Brothers are, indeed, “eternal.” The musical legends have been alive and kicking since the early fifties, two generations of Isley siblings cranking out the jams through six different decades. The CD reissue of 1975’s The Heat Is On (Epic/Legacy) showcases the band in its chart-topping, mid-seventies funk period, one of the most successful and artistically gratifying eras in the band’s lengthy career. The groove that propels the hit single “Fight the Power” is classic Isley – a rolling bass line, driving rhythms and Ernie Isley’s wonderfully fluid, Hendrix-influenced six-string work. Brother Ronald Isley’s vocals are rich and soulful, soaring above the thick instrumentation provided by guitarist Ernie and bassist Marvin, with brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards. The Isleys called this line-up the “3+3,” with three older and three younger Isleys working together to create classic and memorable music. Always rolling with changing tastes, the Isleys would further evolve into disco and straight R&B as they moved into the eighties, but it is the hit-making 3+3 era that will always be remembered by fans.
When Thomas Harris created the memorable Hannibal Lector as an afterthought in his thrilling 1981 novel Red Dragon, no one could have foreseen that the character would take on a life of his own. The DVD release of Hannibal (MGM Home Entertainment) elevates the character to another level, that of myth. A sequel to the Academy Award winning film Silence of the Lambs that starred Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, if Hannibal is, in many ways, inferior to Jonathan Demme’s cinematic masterpiece, it is nevertheless stunning. Hopkins reprises his role as cannibal killer Hannibal Lector, infusing the character with an otherworldly sophistication and charisma, masterfully painting Lector as both predator and prey. Julianne Moore takes on the thankless task of filling Foster’s shoes as FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling, and does an admirable job, staying true to the character’s values in the face of adversity. Director Ridley Scott brings a visual beauty to the cat-and-mouse game played between Lector and Starling. The film ends differently than does the Harris novel of the same name, albeit more satisfyingly for the characters involved. The DVD special edition of Hannibal includes a second disc with commentary, various featurettes and an alternate ending and deleted scenes.
How many among us have dreamed of a career on the silver screen? The fame and fortune of celebrities like Julia Roberts or Tom Hanks serves as a beacon for thousands of hopefuls from across the country who descend on Hollywood each year. Yet for every Nick Cage there are a hundred actors like Bruce Campbell, talented journeymen and women who are the meat and potatoes of the entertainment world. Campbell’s biography If Chins Could Kill (LA Weekly Books) should be required reading for anybody considering a career in acting. If childhood friend Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead horror film trilogy made Campbell a cult favorite, it was his work in films like The Hudsucker Proxy or teevee shows like Xena or the short-lived Adventures of Brisco County Jr that forged a career for the likeable performer. If Chins Could Kill, subtitled “Confessions of A B Movie Actor,” is filled with Campbell’s charm and self-depreciating humor. Even more importantly, it accurately portrays the trials and tribulations of the average working actor. Campbell includes many personal stories, comments from long-time friends who grew up in the industry along with him, including Sam Raimi, and looks “behind the scenes” at Hollywood dealmaking. Campbell’s two decades of experience both in front and behind the camera provide him with a unique perspective. If Chins Could Kill is a funny, interesting, and informative backstage look at celebrity, or the lack thereof. (View From The Hill, August 2001)
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” - William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1599
When I was a teenage rock ‘n’ roll fiend growing up in the rural suburbs of Nashville at the dawn of the 1970s, Creem magazine was literally my doorway to the world of music. Launched in Detroit in 1969 by publisher Barry Kramer and editor Tony Reay, the rag’s ‘Blue Collar’ irreverence appealed to my ‘Rust Belt’ upbringing, and writers like Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Jaan Uhelszki, Richard Meltzer, Jeffrey Morgan and others provided my education in rock music. By the mid-‘70s, Creem was shuffling close to a quarter-million copies a month out the door, second only to Rolling Stone among music zines at the time.
The rag’s editorial focus, unfettered by advertiser manipulation or the desires of the recording industry, meant that they could – and did – write about artists like the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Blondie long before they were discovered by more mainstream publications. When a second generation of writers and editors came along in the 1980s, including Dave DiMartino, Susan Whithall, Rick Johnson, Bill Holdship, and John Kordosh, Creem introduced readers to artists like the Replacements and R.E.M. From 1969 through 1989, Creem magazine was an integral part of American popular culture.
21st Century Creem
The magazine struggled in the years after Barry Kramer’s death in 1981, and although the staff published some good work during the decade, ownership changed hands, Creem moved to the West Coast and, by 1989, it was kaput (the less said about a short-lived and dismal 1990 NYC-based version of the rag, the better). Long story short, there was plenty of litigation, and various hijinks ensued before Barry’s son (and heir to the Creem throne) J.J. Kramer gained ownership of the magazine. A documentary film about the early days, Creem: American’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, was released in 2019 to rave reviews.
As inevitably as the sun rises in the east, Creem magazine itself was resurrected in 2022 as a quarterly, subscription-only “lifestyle” publication which resembles the original rag not a whit. Kramer brought in professional magazine wranglers from the executive suites of Vice magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone to publish the new 21st century Creem; Jaan Uhelszki was hired as Editor-At-Large to provide a link to the zine’s notorious past. A website was thrown together, tee-shirts featuring the magazine’s classic, Robert Crumb-designed mascot “Boy Howdy” were screen-printed and put out for sale, and a weekly email newsletter primed the pump for a print version of the magazine.
Creem In Print
When subscriptions became available for a Creem print version, I swallowed hard and coughed up the ridiculous sum of $80 for four quarterly issues. I’m halfway through my one-year Creem subscription and, so far I am not moved. With the third issue of the new Creem about to be published, I thought it the right time to review what they’d done so far, and it ain’t pretty. The current iteration of the zine has little of the wit or irreverence that made the original publication a rock ‘n’ roll media legend. None of the current crop of writers has jumped off the page, grabbed me by the ears, and poked at my eyeballs with a number 2 pencil to make me pay attention.
The rag’s physical size – an unwieldy 10.5”x13.5” – provides a lot of space for editorial content, which is squandered by the over-use of full-page photographs and illustrations. It’s a pet peeve of mine when magazines overly rely on pages of photos to fill up space – I perceive it as a lack of creative vigor – and the second issue of the reborn Creem sitting on my desk right now features roughly 40 mondo-sized pages of photos, or nearly 1/3 of the issue’s 128 pages. An otherwise interesting twelve-page story on the tragic final days of singer/songwriter David Berman (Silver Jews, Purple Mountains) is littered by six full pages of unnecessarily large photos and a seventh introductory page that add little of value beyond the story’s other four smaller photos.
An Awkward, Oversized Print Format
This is a minor cavil, perhaps, but photo galleries like “Be Our Guest” or the glut of pix embedded in the barely-there story “Freak On A Leash,” for example, are the print equivalent of website slideshows, which went out of style a decade ago. Admittedly, the awkward, oversized print format allows for some fantastic full-color photo reproduction, and the zine’s overall graphic design is reasonably contemporary, efficient, and yet exciting. The publication relies too often on illustrations to accompany the stories – three of the issue’s dozen features offer bad artwork to open the story, others over-utilize photos.
As for the editorial content, it hasn’t been all that compelling over the first two issues. Number two has an interesting story on how the CIA stole $5 million from classic rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the aforementioned story on Berman serves its purpose, if providing little insight into the artist’s work or the lifelong depression that led to his suicide. Three pages of Justin Borucki’s original tintype photography of heavy metal musicians is at least three pages too few, considering its uniqueness and stark imagery. They could have taken pages away from illustrations and featured more of Borucki’s work. “Complacence Rock,” an article on wannabe billionaire rock stars, is a nifty bit of social commentary, but otherwise much of the content is hipster posturing and disposable trifles.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
Unless the next two issues of my Creem sub really knock me down and drag me to the record store, it’s unlikely that I’ll be re-subscribing. At the cost of a double sawbuck per issue, there’s too little bang for too many bucks. When I cough up $12 for a copy of Third Man Records’ Maggot Brain zine, there’s usually three or four articles of interest, and something about an obscure artist that makes me spend my money on. With shipping, a copy of Ugly Things cost me nearly $20 for the zine and another $100 for the records I buy after reading the issue.
Personally, that’s my benchmark for a music magazine – does it tell me something new about artists I’m already familiar with, and does it introduce me to artists I didn’t already know, getting me excited about new music I’ve yet to hear. I realize that you can never go back to the old daze [sic], and I’m probably an old man shaking his fist at the clouds. If you dig the “new” Creem, go for it – I won’t judge you – but I’m afraid that they’re no longer singing for me, so I’ll look for my cheap thrills elsewhere… (www.creem.com)
Full Disclosure: My first editor and mentor “Ranger” Rick Johnson got me into the pages of Creem in the early 1980s, and I sold them a handful of humorous reviews of books, TV shows, and such for the “Media Cool” section. The zine went bankrupt owing me something like $15 and I got legal paperwork for years afterwards as a legit creditor. I promise that this outstanding debt did nothing to color my impressions of the magazine’s new incarnation.
Mainstream music pundits have all but declared that the punk genre has assumed room temperature. A spin or two of Time Is the Distance (Epitaph), the sophomore album by Bay area punk prodigies Deviates, proves that misconception to be dead wrong. Punk rock is alive and well, still raging against the machine with three chords and a bad attitude. Deviates kick out the jams with a little more intelligence than many punk wunderkinds, the band’s Time Is the Distance a youthful cross between Pennywise and Bad Religion, with a measure of Black Flag thrown in. Roaring six-string work dominates the songs on Time Is The Distance, guitarist Charley’s fingers ripping and tearing at the frets like a lion feasting on its prey. Deviates frontman Brian propels songs like the anthemic “No Mistake” with explosive vocals, the album’s socially conscious lyrics are matched by relentless rhythms. Barely out of their teens, Deviates bring a great deal of energy and vigor to Time Is The Distance, proving that, as punk godfather Peter Townsend once said, “the kids are alright!”
Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, anyone coming of age during the seventies remembers the Electric Light Orchestra. An attempt by singer/songwriter Jeff Lynne to fuse Beatlesque pop tunes with symphonic overtones, ELO (as they were known) chalked up a number of big hits during the decade. It all began with 1974’s Eldorado (Epic/Legacy), a conceptual masterpiece that yielded the British band’s first U.S. top ten hit in the infectious “Can’t Get It Out of My Head.” Recently reissued with original artwork and bonus tracks, Eldorado matches priceless melodies and multi-layered instrumentation to create a sound as ambitious as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album. Whereas pretentious progressive rock bands were masquerading as classical composers at the time, Lynne effortlessly incorporated strings and orchestra into his fantasy song cycle, Eldorado standing as ELO’s finest moment. On the heels of the recently released Zoom, the first real ELO album in 15 years, Legacy has also reissued deluxe editions of ELO’s Discovery (1979), Time (1981), and Secret Messages (1983).
The recent attempts by so-called liberals such as Joe Leiberman and Hilary Clinton to use the power of Congress to reign in unruly record labels, game developers and movie studios is just one chapter in an ongoing struggle between creators and would-be censors. With his book Parental Advisory (Perennial/Harper Collins), author and music fan Eric Nuzum does an excellent job in presenting the history of music censorship in the United States. Nuzum discusses the major targets of the censor (album artwork, lyrical concerns, musician lifestyles, music videos, etc.) as well as religious opposition to music and attempts by lawmakers to censor with ill-conceived legislation. A timeline of music censorship traces the phenomena from the Civil War era to the modern day while an extensive biography provides areas for future reading. Nuzum is an intelligent and entertaining writer who has done his homework, delivering in Parental Advisory a sordid history of opposition to popular culture. If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, Eric Nuzum will open your eyes to this important issue.
Although Jet Li has enjoyed modest box office successes like this summer’s Kiss of the Dragon, he’s still waiting for that one breakthrough film to catapult him to the top. Overlooked in theatrical release, action junkies craving cheap thrills should look no further than the Hong Kong production Black Mask (New Line Home Video), dubbed for DVD. The perfect replacement for aging celluloid heroes like Arnie, Steven and Chuck, Li plays Simon, a mild-mannered librarian who holds a dangerous secret – he is actually a genetically engineered super soldier who escaped from a secret government program to find a new life. When his fellow former military mutants make a grab for power by knocking off Hong Kong’s druglords in the most violent and bloody manner imaginable, Simon’s quiet life comes unraveled. The librarian becomes the “Black Mask,” a mysterious superhero forced to combat his former Commander and fellow soldiers.
Li’s fight scenes with his former playmates are nothing short of astonishing, the actor making full use of a lifetime of martial arts training. With advanced wirework choreographed by the same genius that later created amazing fight scenes in The Matrix andCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Jet Li comes across as a supernatural-fighting machine. As legendary drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs would say, Black Mask has no plot to get in the way of the action. You will find kung fu, laser fu, motorcycle fu and the dreaded poison gas fu. As with many Hong Kong action flicks, there’s a bloody hospital shoot-out, and heads and hands do roll. Kudos to Jet Li for the best Bruce Lee imitation ever. Special recognition is also deserved by the dangerously beautiful Francoise Yip, who plays Simon’s former love, Karen Mok for comic relief and to Patrick Lung Kang as the exceptional head villain, who looks like an Asian Joey Ramone. Give Black Mask four stars – the Rev sez “check it out!” (View From The Hill, July 2001)
The Wattstax concert was one of the most consequential and influential live
events in pop culture history. Organized by Stax Records as a benefit show to
commemorate the anniversary of the 1965 riots in the Watts community in Los
Angeles, the concert was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August
20th, 1972. Performers included nearly the entire Stax roster at the time,
stylistically running the gamut from soul, gospel, and blues to jazz and funk.
The label released a double-LP set of the concert’s highlights a few months
later to critical acclaim. The event was also filmed by producer David L. Wolper
and directed by Mel Stuart (best known for 1971’s
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory); released in 1973 as
Wattstax, the concert film won a Golden Globe Award for “Best Documentary
In recognition of the event’s 50th anniversary, CraftRecordings has released the entire freakin’ concert in various formats (more
about which below). We’re only going to look at the condensed, twenty-track
The Best of Wattstax CD here, which offers up highlights from the concert
as “hand-picked” by Stax Records. The set kicks off with an amazing performance
by R&B legend Kim Weston, singing the ‘Black National Anthem,’ “Lift Every
Voice and Sing,” a song that created somewhat of an undeserved controversy when
performed at this year’s Super Bowl game. Released by Stax as a single at the
time, proceeds were donated to the United Negro College Fund. Weston knocks it
out of the park with a powerful, Gospel-tinged performance. It’s a great way to
kick off the CD, but then The Best of Wattstax gets mired down by a
handful of Gospel performances, highlighted by the ever-welcome Staple Singers
(“I’ll Take You There”) and including songs by Deborah Manning and Eric
Luckily, The Best of Wattstax rights the ship with Lee Sain’s effervescent take on “Them Hot Pants” and pretty much rocks the house from then on. As talented as Stax’s Gospel artists may have been, people bought the label’s releases for scorching soul, rowdy funk, and lowdown blues tunes, and that’s what you’ll find on 75% of The Best of Wattstax. While mainstream talents like Isaac Hayes (“Theme From Shaft”), Carla Thomas (“B-A-B-Y”), Rufus Thomas (“The Breakdown”), and Eddie Floyd (“Knock On Wood”) put Memphis soul on the map in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, it’s the lesser-known talents like the Soul Children (“Hearsay”), the Rance Allen Group (the funkalicious “Lying On the Truth”), and William Bell (who proves himself to be the equal of anybody on the soul scene with “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”) that has had collectors’ digging through the crates for better than a half-century. Throw in stellar performances by blues legend Albert King (“I’ll Play the Blues For You”), the Temprees (“Explain It To Her Mama”), and the Bar-Kays (“I Can’t Turn You Loose”) and you have one helluva collection!
As mentioned above, Craft is also releasing Wattstax: The Complete Concert in both a six-CD and ten-album vinyl versions that feature every performance from the event, including spoken word interludes. If your bank account allows for luxury this month, or maybe you have a fat tax refund, consider investing in Soul’d Out: The Complete Wattstax Collection, a twelve-CD box set comprised of the entire L.A. Memorial Coliseum concert as well as recordings from the Summit Club, including 31 previously-unreleased performances and a 76-page, full-color book. Really, you can’t go wrong no matter which version you end up buying! (Stax Records/Craft Recordings, released February 24th, 2023) Also on That Devil Music: Isaac Hayes’ Stax Classics CD review Carla Thomas’ Stax Classics CD review Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign CD review
Guitarist Richie Blackmore is one of the pioneers
of heavy metal, best known for his six-string wizardry with Deep Purple and
Rainbow. As an artist, Blackmore has long since evolved past “Smoke On the
Water,” leaving both of his former bands behind him better than half a decade
ago. These days, Blackmore is going forward into the past as the artist
explores the possibilities of Renaissance-era music with
Blackmore’s Night. A collaborative effort between Blackmore and
vocalist/songwriter Candace Night, the pair’s third album,
Fires At Midnight (Steamhammer), is an incredibly charming and
infectious collection of songs. A few of Blackmore’s trademark riffs still
lurk in the corners, songs such as “I Still Remember” resembling nothing so
much as a sophisticated power ballad.
On the album’s traditional
songs, however, Blackmore shows off his multi-instrumental talents, adding
mandolin and percussion to the songs alongside electric and acoustic guitars.
Candace Night is not a powerful vocalist, but rather a mesmerizing one, her
vocals weaving a spell of enchantment. Her wonderful reworking of Dylan’s
classic “The Times They Are A Changin’” is sheer magic, a gossamer affair that
underline’s Dylan’s lyrical mastery. Exotic instrumentation abounds across
these songs, with harps and whistles and bagpipes transporting the music to
another era. Fires At Midnight is a treasure of an album. The music rings as
clearly and cheerfully as the tone of a bell, drawing the listener into a
musical sojourn that they’ll not soon forget.
by male artists, women have nevertheless always been a big part of the blues
landscape. A few strong women have left an indelible mark on the blues
however; artists like Koko Taylor, Etta James, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey
earning their seat among the giants of the blues. The distaff side of the
genre has continued to grow steadily during the past decade or so, showcasing
a marvelous diversity of age and talent that ranges from teen guitarist
Shannon Curfman to Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women. Canada’s Rita Chiarelli is
a welcome addition to the growing roster of blueswomen. Breakfast At Midnight
(Northern Blues) is Chiarelli’s fourth album, a rollicking affair that places
the spotlight on her soulful vocals and impressive songwriting skills.
Chiarelli explores a number of blues formats on Breakfast At Midnight, from
“Never Been Loved Before,” a New Orleans R&B rave-up that would sound
perfectly at home in Tipitina's, to the jazzy “Midnight In Berlin.” Chiarelli
reminds me a lot of Bonnie Raitt, with great vocal abilities and an artistic
palette that includes every facet of the blues. Rita Chiarelli’s Breakfast At
Midnight is a breakthrough album by a talent still on the rise.
Speaking of the blues, thanks to historian Gayle Dean Wardlow, the
legendary Robert Johnson will finally receive a headstone for his long-lost
grave. To celebrate the event, the first annual Robert Johnson Cross Road
Memorial Days will be held near Greenwood, Mississippi on August 16 and 17.
The celebration of Johnson’s life and career will begin at the Little Zion
Baptist Church where Johnson was buried 63 years ago. The event will include a
ninety-minute overview of Johnson’s music by Wardlow and record producers
Frank Diggs and Larry Cohn, whose efforts rescued Johnson’s wonderful
recordings and saved them for posterity.
Wardlow was a newspaper
reporter and collector of 78 RPM records in the early sixties when he began
using his journalistic skills to unearth death certificates for old blues
artists. He would then track down and interview friends and families of the
deceased bluesmen. Wardlow’s decades-long quest is told in one of the seminal
books on the delta blues, Chasin’ That Devil Music (Miller Freeman Books). A
fascinating narrative that is complimented by old photos and other graphics,
Chasin’ That Devil Music includes tales of well-known artists like Johnson and
Charlie Patton as well as forgotten talents like Willie Brown and Tommy
Johnson. The book includes a 25-track CD with a wealth of rare recordings and
is a great starting point for anybody interested in learning more about the
artists and music of the Mississippi Delta.
never my intention to turn this humble review column into a pop culture
graveyard, but the loss of so many talents over the past couple of months
demands our attention. In the midst of all of the press commentary over high
profile deaths, one dedicated rocker has been overlooked. Bob Hyde worked for
Capitol Records, where he recently oversaw the compilation of the recent Ricky
Nelson box set and reissue series. Hyde was also involved with the first two
Rhino Records Do-Wop box sets and produced compilation albums for Mel Torme
and George Thorogood, among others. A talented producer, writer and rock
historian, Hyde loved the music and fought hard for every project he worked
on. In a corporate environment that values bean counters and ‘yes’ men, Hyde
was a rarity. He did his work in the shadows, but his contributions in keeping
the rock ‘n’ roll flame alive were invaluable by any measure. (View From The
Hill, July 2001)
Miller Anderson – Bright City (Esoteric Records, U.K.) Scottish guitarist Miller Anderson was part of the British blooze boom of
the late ‘60s and while he’s best known for his tenure with the Keef Hartley
Band (four LPs from 1969-71), he also played with Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack,
and Dog Soldier during the 1970s and ‘80s and recorded with mates like Ian
Hunter, Jon Lord (Deep Purple), and Dave Cousins (Strawbs). Anderson has also
pursued an on-again, off-again solo career that began with this 1971 album,
Bright City. Although ostensibly a bluesman, Anderson displays a deft
hand here at several genres, like the proggy Goth of “Alice Mercy (To Whom It
May Concern),” which carries its Procol Harum influences nicely, and ends with a
folkie vibe that could easily pass for an Incredible String Band jam. The
album’s title track offers a dreamy soundscape in the best British folk
tradition, with a lofty string arrangement and Anderson’s filigree
Bright City isn’t flawless,
however…“The Age of Progress” is an underproduced trifle with tinny harpsichord
and soulful backing vocals, the song never really picking a lane and sticking
with it. “Grey Broken Morning” is a little too jazzbo for my tastes, crossing
lanes into middle-of-the-road turf with syrupy instrumentation and treacly
backing vox. Much better is the nearly eight-minute, fiercely-rockin’ “Hight
Tide, High Water,” which fits all of its kitchen sink styles together into a
singular, impressive performance that leans prog-rock but masterfully
incorporates elements of blues, funk, and hard rock all fueled by Anderson’s
nimble fretwork and a fluid line. Friends and former bandmates like guitarist
Neil Hubbard (Juicy Lucy), bassist Gary Thain (Uriah Heep), keyboardist Mick
Weaver (Wynder K. Frog), and flautist Lyn Dobson (Soft Machine) contribute to
the album, but Bright City is otherwise a showcase for Anderson’s
often-underrated six-string skills.
The Heartsleeves – So Far, So What EP (self-produced) Nashville’s Scott Feinstein has been kicking around the scene for so long
that it’s easy to take the guy for granted. A member of popular local 1980s-era
rockers Shadow 15, this recently-released five-song EP represents the first new
music from Feinstein in memory. Clocking in at a too-short fifteen minutes, the
tunes on So Far, So What nevertheless smack you in the face with what
feels like an hour of high-octane, ultra-energetic rock ‘n’ roll and power-pop.
EP-opener “Angie” is a ramshackle rocker with roots in the Replacements and
absolutely no glass ceiling, with delightfully-discordant guitars and bold
drumbeats courtesy of Music City veteran Brad Pemberton. “Things” follows a
similar blueprint, tho’ maybe even rowdier, with a melodic edge partially driven
by Feinstein’s fine vocal performance and stunning Bob Mould-styled six-string
The underlying melody of “Understanding Jane” is
carpet-bombed with pulse-pounding, explosive, smothering instrumentation – a
gleefully wicked, groove, indeed! – while “The Warning” swerves a bit, with
ubiquitous local talent Jonathan Bright taking over the drum stool. Bright
brings a different tempo to what is a more considered, but no less powerful
rocker, but the EP closer “Hate” hits the auditory canal like Trent Reznor
dropping acid with Timothy Leary, the performance a virtual chokehold of flexed
muscle and tense sinew with tortured vocals and devastating instrumentation that
lingers. It’s quite a stylistic departure from the previous songs, but also a
showcase for the immense and often-overlooked talents of Scott Feinstein and
fellow travelers. In the wise words of my pal Jeffersün Jëbëdiah Schmützig
Schanchëz, “BUY IT! You can thank me later…”
The Nervous Eaters – Monsters + Angels (Wicked Cool Records) Beloved Boston rockers the Nervous Eaters – whose hard melodic sound has
more in common with, say, the Del Lords than with the Sex Pistols – were
‘one-and-done’ with a single 1980 Elektra Records album recorded by an
unsympathetic producer (the better-suited Ric Ocasek was proposed by the band
but rejected by the label); ultimately underpromoted to death by a clueless
label. The band has soldiered on with founder, singer, songwriter, and guitarist
Steve Cataldo carrying the torch through various incarnations and indie LPs like
1986’s Hot Steel and Acid. This 21st century version of the Nervous
Eaters was formed in 2018 by Cataldo and a brace of Boston rock veterans, who
recorded Monsters + Angels during the pandemic year. Released by Little
Steven’s Wicked Cool Records, the foursome cranks through ten red-hot tunes that
are guaranteed to scratch your rock ‘n’ roll itch. If FM radio wasn’t such a
barren landscape of spineless cretin programming, Nervous Eaters tunes like the
hard-rockin’ “Tear Me Up” or the throwback power-pop of “Superman’s Hands” would
be dominating the airwaves. If guitar-happy, harmony-rich, big beat classic rock
is your jam, you owe it to yourself to (re)discover the Nervous Eaters.
Old Town Crier – A Night with Old Town Crier (self-produced) Old Town Crier is the solo musical project of Middleborough,
Massachusetts multi-instrumental talent Jim Lough, who has a pair of fine
previous EPs under his belt. I wrote last year about
You, a benefit EP
raising funds for progressive political candidates. The results were so
successful that Lough decided to release a full-length live album,
A Night with Old Town Crier, with half of the proceeds donated to The
Pine Street Inn, a charitable organization located in Boston with the worthy
mission to end homelessness. Joined by talented young musicians like guitarist
Garrett Jones, bassist Alex Bilodeau, keyboardist JennHwan Wong, drummer Avery
Logan, and saxophonist Stephen Byth, Lough and band run through eight rockin’
tunes that could have just as easily been recorded in the early ‘70s as in the
Old Town Crier pursues a throwback sound that is
famously diverse with a contemporary feel and nary a shred of musical
revisionism. Reminiscent of such genre-blending, melting-pot bands as the
Charlatans and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Old Town Crier mixes rock, classic
R&B, blues, jazz, and Americana in a huge cast iron cauldron and lets it
boil over for our entertainment. For instance, “Before You Came Along” displays
elements of 1950s-styled rock with period R&B, Lough’s soulful vocals
accompanied by honky-tonk piano licks and blasts of icy saxophone. “Come Home
Caroline” offers a more measured performance, cool blue sax providing a jazzy
intro to a heartfelt love song with plaintive vocals and gorgeous
instrumentation while “Della May” reminds of Leon Russell with its bluesy,
jazz-flecked piano, loping bass lines, and mournful sax with Lough’s effective
heartbreak vox the icing on the cake.
My fave performance on
A Night with Old Town Crier is the jubilant “Everybody’s Somebody’s
Baby,” a jaunty rocker with an old-school vibe and shades of jazzy ‘60s R&B.
It’s just a great, up-tempo love song with simple yet brilliant lyrics,
rampaging saxophone, big beat drums, and an overall “feel good” finish to the
album. If you’d like to hear some fun, finely-crafted, and excellently-played
music and support a good cause at the same time, head on over to
and check out A Night with Old Town Crier.
Orang-Utan – Orang-Utan (Sommor Records, Spain) From musical trailblazers like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream to
one-shot wonders like Killing Floor and Black Cat Bones, England in the late
‘60s was wall-to-wall with blooze bands grasping at the brass ring. Orang-Utan
(née Hunter) were one such outfit, a talented bunch o’ young punters who got a
raw deal, literally drawn up in a back-alley by a fast-talkin’
producer-cum-label impresario, resulting in this lone self-titled album released
in 1971*. There’s a lot of promise in these tunes, which fall into a psych-blues
groove fueled by Mick Clarke’s imaginative fretwork and drummer Jeff Seopardi’s
ahead-of-his-time songwriting chops. But there’s also a presage of skillful
progginess that suggests a future evolution of the band’s sound that would never
be. R.I.Y.L. Cactus, Mountain, The Groundhogs, et al.
BUY! * Due to its obscurity and stateside-only release, Orang-Utan, the album, has long been a mid-priced collectible; an original vinyl copy
in good condition will run you $50 or more. This 2022 CD reissue will cost you
much less, and is the only authorized reissue of the album after decades of
dodgy releases that didn’t pay the band a dime in royalties.
Pearls EP (9 Dog Records, digital release) When I reviewed
The Fortunate Few: The Rock Opera
a couple of years ago, I mentioned that Nashville rock veteran Price Jones left
the singing on the album’s songs to the capable hands of Ryan Greenawalt and
Talisha Holmes. This evidently struck a chord with the talented singer,
songwriter, and guitarist as, for Jones’ latest project with her new band
Roxercat, she’s taken back the microphone with happy results. Collaborating
again with legendary jazz guitarist Stan Lassiter and bassist Bill Francis, with
various guest musicians pitching in, the six-song EP Pearls offers up
gems of shimmering, gorgeous, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll.
track is a lovely, poetic song rife with imagery built around Lassister’s fluid
guitar lines and Jones’ yearning vocals. “Crime” adds a bit of funk to the EP’s
rockin’ framework, with Jones’ playful, buoyant vox doing the heavy lifting
alongside a foot-shuffling, booty-shakin’ rhythm. “Baby I Tried” is a more
traditional love song with guitar lines that perfectly capture the song’s
emotions, Jones’ heartbroken lyrics backed by soulful harmony vocals, while “I
Changed Today” highlights Lassiter and Francis’s jazz roots with a complex
soundtrack that includes a few hard rock riffs and some funky Booker T-styled
keyboard flourishes, atop of which ride Jones’ defiant vocals. The
instrumentation is top-notch throughout the six songs on Pearls –
creative, imaginative and, at times, edgy and adventuresome while Jones’ lyrical
chops are as strong as ever.
As they were released digitally rather
than in physical form, it’s hard to actually buy these tracks – only two songs
are available from Amazon – but trippy, too-cool videos for four of the EP’s six
songs are available on the
Roxercat website and
YouTube, and you can stream the entire Pearls EP on services like Spotify
and Apple Music. The Rev sez “check it out!”
Bob Weir – Ace [50th anniversary edition] (Rhino Records) Although Grateful Dead singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bob Weir wasn’t
the first of the band’s members to release a solo album (Jerry Garcia’s
Garcia beat him to the punch by a few months), Weir’s 1972 debut
Ace was nevertheless the better-received of the initial Dead bandmember’s
solo efforts, establishing Weir’s status as a standalone talent and Garcia’s
creative equal. Although the core members of the band (Garcia, bassist Phil
Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and keyboardist Keith Godchaux) contribute in the
studio, Ace is undeniably Weir’s show, the guitarist singing and
co-writing all eight of the album’s songs (five of ‘em with hippie lyricist and
Dead friend John Perry Barlow), several of which would subsequently become
enduring staples of the full band’s nightly set list.
Nor is it a
major surprise that a lot of the songs on Ace follow a similar
roots-rock, country, and blues blueprint as the Dead’s 1970
American Beauty LP, Weir seemingly expanding on musical ideas he
originally had for songs like “Sugar Magnolia.” There are a lot of great songs
on Ace, from familiar tunes like “Mexicali Blues,” “One More Saturday
Night,” and “Playing In the Band” (all also performed by the Dead) to overlooked
gems like “Black-Throated Wind” and “Looks Like Rain.” This 50th anniversary
reissue has been expanded to two discs, the second comprised of a 2022 live
performance of Ace by Weir & Wolf Brothers with guests like Tyler
Childers and Brittney Spencer. While the second disc is entertaining, revisiting
the songs with younger albeit equally-talented musicians, there’s no denying the
magic and immediacy of the original Ace, which launched Weir’s solo
career and remains the best album the Grateful Dead never released.