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

CD Review: The Textones' Midnight Mission & Cedar Creek (1984/1987)

The Textones' Midnight Mission
It’s a tragic roll call of the great overlooked bands of the 1980s – Jason & the Scorchers, the Del-Lords, Walk The West, the Cruzados, the Long Ryders, and Stealin’ Horses, among many others who were bloodied by ignoble clashes with ignorant label execs and brutalized by largely indifferent mainstream audiences in thrall to MTV-approved punk poseurs and nerf-metal. Of all the roots-rock-oriented young rockers roaming the musical landscape during the Reagan/Bush era, none were treated more egregiously, perhaps, than the Textones. Much like their aforementioned fellow travelers, the Textones were undeniably influenced by Dylan, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers; sadly, not unlike many of their colleagues, the Textones were “one and done” with their major label career, and only managed to release two obscure, albeit acclaimed albums during their too-brief existence.

The Textones were formed in 1978 by singer, songwriter, and guitarist Carla Olson, who had moved from her Austin, Texas hometown to Los Angeles with friend and bandmate (and future Go-Go’s member) Kathy Valentine. The original band line-up included bassist David Provost (who would later join the Dream Syndicate) and drummer Mark Cuff, both of whom were shunted aside in favor of former Dwight Twilley Band drummer Phil Seymour and bassist Joe Read when it came time to record. The addition of talented guitarist George Callins and multi-instrumentalist Tom Junior Morgan (primarily saxophone, but also keyboards) perfected the band’s chemistry, and by the time of the 1984 release of their debut album, Midnight Mission, the band had developed a well-honed and unique sound.

The problem, though, was that the Textones’ sound was a little too unique to easily pigeonhole, a necessity if unimaginative label execs are going to pitch your band to radio and MTV (which, believe it or not, was a major player in breaking bands during the ‘80s). The band was signed to Danny Goldberg’s A&M Records-distributed Gold Mountain label, working with Chicago blues veteran and former Electric Flag member Barry Goldberg as producer on their debut. Goldberg largely eschewed the studio clich├ęs of the decade in recording the Textones; his wall of sound production technique largely capturing the band’s polished but energetic musical style. While the band’s often left-leaning lyrics, and curious musical blending of the Byrds, the Stones, and Springsteen clearly placed them in the easily-marketable “heartland rock” category, the Textones’ intelligence, sensuality, and punkish intensity was clearly lost on label personnel who didn’t have a clue to share among themselves.

The Textones’ Midnight Mission

Midnight Mission opens with the overtly political “Standing In The Line.” A cheeky commentary on the materialistic pursuits of the Reagan era, Olson’s trebly, passionate vocals soar above the musical din. While the lyrics display a certain distraught perspective, the swells of instrumentation and Olson’s own forceful vocals add a sort of triumphant defiance to the song, a jangle-pop message of hope amidst the ruins. “Hands of the Working Man,” co-written by Olson and saxophonist Morgan, is cut from similar cloth. A working class anthem that relies heavily on Olson’s trembling, emotional vocals, the song features scraps of wiry guitarplay, some interesting musical swerves, and Morgan’s soulful saxwork, which clearly places the tune in the Bob Seger/Bruce Springsteen/John Mellencamp realm of rust belt blue collar blues.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had nothing on Carla Olson and the Textones, who delivered a decidedly Petty/Dylan doppelganger in the love-gone-awry rocker “No Love In You.” With some nice harmony vocals and an infectious rhythm, Olson knocks it out of the ballpark with her tortured vocals, which are nicely assisted by Morgan’s mournful sax. If any of the suits in the suites at A&M Records had possessed half a brain, they’d have released “Running” as the lead-off single from the album. An odd cover tune among well-written originals, “Running” offers up one of Olson’s best vocal performances nonetheless, the song’s big beat percussion and smothering melody, combined with Morgan’s blaring sax, clearly marking the band as ready for prime time.

Ry Cooder & Don Henley

Olson touches on ill-fated romance again with the mid-tempo tearjerker “Number One Is To Survive,” which received some scattered college radio airplay at the time…‘twas a shame, too, ‘cause aside from Olson’s heartbreak vox and poetic lyrics, the legendary Ry Cooder adds some tasty slide guitar alongside Goldberg’s flowing keyboards, Olson getting in some guitar licks of her own that reveal her underrated talent with the instrument. The band acquits itself nicely in creating a rambling, roots/country-rock vibe that suits the lyrical subject matter perfectly.

Olson’s old Texas buddy Don Henley (yes, that Don Henley), lent his backing vocals to the twangy “Midnight Mission.” Another whip-smart slab of social commentary, Olson’s hearty vocals sound at times like Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders while the music provides an effective, folk-influenced framework for Olson’s not-so-gentle dig at the Reagan administration’s policy of putting spending for war above the average American’s need for jobs, homes, and food. While it seems like such populist sentiments would sound out-of-date in the 21st century, one only need to look around at the dwindling social welfare safety net and growing national security state to see otherwise.

Clean Cut Kid

There’s a lot of romantic turmoil apparent in the grooves of Midnight Mission, and Olson’s “Luck Don’t Last Forever” offers an insider’s reflections on the battle of the sexes. Guitarist George Callins gets some nice licks of his own in here, Morgan’s sax provides an emotional backbone for the song, and Olson’s effective vocals walk the fine line between anger and tears while the rhythm section offers a rock-solid backdrop for it all. After she appeared in a Bob Dylan video for his song “Sweetheart Like You,” the Scribe gave Olson the unreleased “Clean Cut Kid,” which the Textones gladly took and ran towards the goal line with.

Provided a twangy, Stonesy vibe, “Clean Cut Kid” is built upon a fractured melody that Olson transcends with her gymnastic vocals while Goldberg lays down some honky-tonk style ivories and Cooder rips off some subversive slidework. This reissue of Midnight Mission also includes five well-chosen bonus tracks, including Callins’ power-poppy “It’s Okay,” a wonderful tune with lofty harmony vocals and a melody that brands itself on your soul, and “Just A Matter of Time,” showcasing the rare vocal by Phil Seymour, the song itself is a delightful jangle-pop gem with a driving rhythm, enchanting harmonies, and mesmerizing fretwork riding low in the mix. A live recording of “Running,” in spite of its bootleg-quality sound, provides the sort of high-energy charisma and magic that I remember from seeing the band perform live some three decade ago.

The Textones’ Cedar Creek

The Textones' Cedar Creek
Although the Textones’ debut LP received widespread critical acclaim, with many writers (the Reverend included) picking Midnight Mission as one of the year’s best releases, kind words don’t necessarily sell records and, as A&M Records displayed willful disinterest in the band’s fortunes, the Textones found themselves on the outside looking in when they were dropped by the label. They suffered another blow when Seymour took ill and had to leave the band, to be replaced by drummer Rick Hemmert. The core of Olson, Callins, Read, and Morgan remained the same, however, and after a period of lengthy touring in support of their debut LP, they went into the studio to record their sophomore effort, Cedar Creek, as a more confident and road-tested outfit. The album was released in 1987 by the Capitol/EMI-distributed indie label Enigma Records, which was flying high at the time with bands like Game Theory and the Smithereens on its roster.

While Olson had a kit bag full of songs at the ready for Midnight Mission, she had to rely on her talented bandmates for material to flesh out Cedar Creek. Whereas the debut featured six Olson originals or co-writes among its ten tracks, she had only five originals for album number two, including an old tune written with former bandmate Kathy Valentine. No matter, tho’, because from the opening chords of Joe Read’s “Not Afraid,” one knows that the band is in good hands. A little rougher, perhaps, than the love-gone-wrong songs on their debut, “Not Afraid” mixes a bit of jangle-pop with a more muscular rock ‘n’ roll underpinning, Olson’s wavering vocals effectively doubled by the band’s backing harmonies, Callins’ adding some subtle slide guitar licks alongside Morgan’s swinging sax.

Another Soul Searcher

Olson’s “Every Angel In Heaven” evinces a Stax Records influence alongside a Southern rock swagger. Members of the gospel Waters family provide haunting backing vocals behind Olson’s emotional performance on what seems like a semi-biographical set of lyrics. It’s a rather sophisticated song, really, its fragile vocals dependent on the band’s strong rhythmic backbone to fuse all the disparate elements together while Callins’ skilled fretwork provides the glue that holds the center. By contrast, “Another Soul Searcher” is a tough-as-nails, mid-tempo rocker with Olson’s stark, almost ominous vocals riding her taut guitarplay and the band’s sparse instrumentation to new creative heights. The song’s rapid musical changes make for a wild roller-coaster ride while Olson adds some wicked slide-guitar of her own to drive the point home (proving that Carla and George both paid attention when Ry Cooder was in the studio the first time around).

Read’s “One Love” initially sounds like Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac until Olson’s soaring vocals swoop in and Callins’ slicing guitars begin chiming like a bell. Morgan’s tasteful keyboard flourishes, an undeniable melodic hook, and the band’s harmony vocals all work together to create a sort of mid-70s throwback sound reminiscent, oddly enough, of Graham Parker & the Rumour. The high-energy “Gotta Get Back Home” displays the spark and fury of Olson’s best originals from the first album, the joyful rocker benefiting from a lively arrangement that evokes thoughts of Tom Petty’s early ‘80s work while presenting an entirely unique soundscape. Hemmert’s energetic percussion is matched in intensity here by Morgan’s frenetic horn and guest musician Ric Albin’s scorching harp play (Albin was the frontman of L.A. band the Droogs, which included former Textones member David Provost at the time).

We Can Laugh About It

The legendary Ian McLagan adds some of the same red-hot piano-play to the livewire “You Can Run” as he brought to classic recordings by the Faces and the Stones, the song a raucous, chaotic, bluesy romp that displays the band clearly playing loose and having fun in the studio. At first, “Cedar Creek” sounds like it could be a Stones studio outtake, until the intro fades and Olson’s warm voice tells a folksy tale of hard working Americans losing faith in the face of misfortune. McLagen’s piano is more understated here, adding subtle but important flourishes beneath Morgan’s mournful sax and bassist Read’s strong underlying rhythm. Olson turns in one of her best vocal performances here, her voice full of hurt and frustration and anger at how people are treated in this democracy of ours.

“We Can Laugh About It” was a song written in the band’s early days by Olson and original Textones member Kathy Valentine, who left in the early 1980s to join the Go-Go’s (taking that band’s hit “Valentine,” originally a Textones song, with her…). With Callins’ chiming guitar strum as a canvas, Olson’s vocals start out small and grow into a force of nature, at their strongest point displaying a wealth of emotion and, at their lowest, a breathtaking lovelorn weariness that is only enhanced by shards of Morgan’s well-timed sax blasts. It’s a beautiful, well-constructed performance that draws on the tradition of Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons, straddling a fine line between country torch song and bluesy rock ballad.

This Omnivore reissue of Cedar Creek adds a treasure chest of bonus tracks in the form of a previously-unreleased (but eagerly traded and often-bootlegged) eight-song live 1987 set recorded in Santa Cruz, California. Although the sound is a bit hollow and somewhat cavernous, the band rocks with reckless intensity, cranking out a set that includes five songs from the new album (including a high-octane take of “Gotta Get Back Home” and the equally fast ‘n’ furious “Not Afraid”) along with three from the debut (“Standing In The Line” simply devastating in a live setting).

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

To those of existing a thousand miles away from the thriving early 1980s L.A. rock scene (which included present-day legends like Los Lobos, the Dream Syndicate, and the Gun Club among its wealth of bands), the release of the Textones’ Midnight Mission came as a revelation. Carla Olson and crew basically melded the roots-rock of the Byrds with the bluesy roots and sandpaper grit of the Rolling Stones in creating a new amalgam of emotionally-raw rock ‘n’ soul music with a little country twang and a lot of heart. Sadly, as they did with so many bands (Jason & the Scorchers readily come to mind), A&M Records had no idea of what to do with the Textones’ unique musical vision, and the album sunk like a stone upon release. Nevertheless, Midnight Mission – in the eyes of this critic and fanboy – remains an underrated jewel of early Americana. Grade: A

The disappointing departure of a strong rhythmic presence and second vocalist like Phil Seymour changed the band’s sound, but not as significantly as the difference in production philosophy brought by Michael Stone (America, Firefall). Whereas Barry Goldberg deliberately hid Olson’s vocals in a blanketing wall of sound, Stone brought them up in the mix, and more clearly delineated the individual instruments in his final mix even while downplaying Morgan’s saxophone, which is sorely missed here. The resulting album isn’t necessarily inferior to the debut, although Stones’s production, in retrospect, seems to have robbed Cedar Creek of the energy and immediacy of its predecessor. Nonetheless, the band came together in the face of misfortune to deliver a strong sophomore effort that clearly pointed the way to a promising future that, sadly, would never come. Although often overshadowed by its “big sister,” Cedar Creek is still an engaging, entertaining slab o’ wax, and a brilliant bookend to Midnight Mission. Throw in the long-lost live set included on this reissue and you clearly have a winning hand. Grade: B+ (Omnivore Recordings, released May 26, 2015)

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The Textones' Midnight Mission
The Textones' Cedar Creek

The Textones, 1985
The Textones circa Midnight Mission, photo by Gary Nichamin

Fossils: Boston's Don’t Look Back (1978)

Boston's Don't Look Back
(click to embiggen)
Boston – Don't Look Back 

Boston’s self-titled 1976 debut was a left-field success, taking the charts back for honest to god rock music from the growing ranks of prog-pop knob-diddlers and self-flagellating avocado mafia singer/songwriters. The album’s first single, “More Than A Feeling,” hit #5 on the chart, the album hitting #3 in the first of three times that it has charted on the Billboard 200 since its initial release.

It took Boston two years to come up with a suitable follow-up to their debut, a lifetime in those heady, mega-creative days of the 1970s (although barely a heartbeat compared to today’s artists, who take two years just to figure out what clothes they’re going to wear to the next awards show). Don’t Look Back was nearly a carbon  copy of Boston’s debut, Tom Scholz’s electronically-enhanced fretwork fastidiously laid on tape by the notoriously obsessive artisan, singer Brad Delp’s vocal phrasings and approach so similar as to think that these songs were recorded at the same time as the debut. The only visible difference can be found in the more retrospective nature of the lyrics, which show a band clearly burdened by its enormous success.

The advertising for Don’t Look Back that was whipped up by the obviously uninspired Epic Records art department didn’t really have to do much more than announce the album’s impending release. Featuring a different illustration of the uber-cool spaceship featured on the album’s cover (itself reminiscent of a different rocket displayed on the debut LP), the ad screams “it’s here!” to the band’s legion of fans. We subsequently showed up at our local record stores en masse, rolls of pennies in hand, to buy Don’t Look Back, driving the album to numero uno on the chart, the band scoring another pair of hit singles.

Sadly, the great rock ‘n’ roll hope of the 1970s wouldn’t release its third album for eight damn years, Boston’s Third Stage the result of much blood, sweat, and tears on the part of Messrs. Scholz and Delp (the only two remaining original members at the time). Some things just don’t change, though, and Third Stage quickly (and easily) joined its fellow Boston albums in the ranks of the multi-platinum.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Real Gone Music rocks August with Steppenwolf and Steelyard Blues!

Nick Gravenites & Michael Bloomfield's Steelyard Blues
Our friends at Real Gone Music have announced their August release schedule, and it includes some hot titles, indeed! The Reverend’s pick from among the label’s upcoming reissues would be the long-lost soundtrack album from the oddball 1973 comedy Steelyard Blues. Directed by filmmaker Alan Myerson, the film starred Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Howard Hesseman, and Peter Boyle as anti-establishment types trying to get over on the system. Because of its definite anti-war slant (and that of its stars), Steelyard Blues never got half a chance to become a movie blockbuster.

Even more unlikely than the movie was the soundtrack to Steelyard Blues which, to the best of my knowledge, received only sparse distribution in 1973 and has never been reissued on CD. Which is a damn shame, really, ‘cause the film soundtrack features a slate of original songs created by Chicago bluesmen Nick Gravenites and guitarist Michael Bloomfield. While the material was penned to specifically accompany the movie, it stands up quite well on its own, and also includes the talents of vocalists Maria Muldaur and Annie Sampson (from the band Stoneground) as well as frequent Jerry Garcia collaborator Merl Saunders. Gravenites produced the soundtrack and wrote or co-wrote all 14 songs, and it features some of Bloomfield’s best guitar playing. Real Gone will release Steelyard Blues, the soundtrack, on August 7th, 2015.

Steppenwolf was the tonic of choice for 1970s-era teens with a thirst for hard rock. Formed in 1967 by members of the Canadian blues-rock band Sparrow – singer John Kay, keyboardist Goldy McJohn, and drummer Jerry Edmonton – Steppenwolf scored its first hit in 1968 with the classic “Born To Be Wild,” taken from its self-titled debut album. Written by former Sparrows band member Mars Bonfire (Edmonton’s brother), “Born To Be Wild” hit #2 on the U.S. charts and launched a string of seven Top 20 albums which would achieve Gold™ Record status between 1968 and 1970.

Strangely enough, although Steppenwolf was considered an AOR band – a status confirmed by its album sales and accompanying FM airplay – they enjoyed significant success on the singles chart as well. Songs like “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Rock Me,” “Move Over,” and “Monster” would all hit Top 40 status and two of the band’s singles (yeah, you can guess which ones…) would sell in excess of one million copies and be featured in numerous movies like Easy Rider and Candy and in TV shows like Miami Vice and Married…With Children. Steppenwolf songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Slayer, Blue Oyster Cult, and Status Quo, among many others.

These hit singles have largely been unavailable on CD in their original 45rpm mixes, an oversight corrected by Real Gone Music. The label will release Steppenwolf’s The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection on August 14th, 2015, the two-CD set featuring every A and B-side of every one of the band’s singles for ABC/Dunhill, 38 monster tracks in all, compiled in a set that includes liner notes with John Kay’s comments for each song as well as a number of rare photos. Compiled from the best sources available (legend has it that the original 45rpm mixes of this material were trashed years ago), The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection showcases the many different facets of an often overlooked classic rock era band remembered, really, for just two songs.

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Nick Gravenites & Michael Bloomfield's Steelyard Blues
Steppenwolf's The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection

Friday, June 12, 2015

CD Review: Little Feat's Electrif Lycanthrope (2014)

Little Feat's Electrif Lycanthrope
Little Feat never achieved the sort of commercial success expected of its overwhelming critical acclaim. Formed in 1969 by Mothers of Invention alumni Lowell George (guitar, vocals) and Roy Estrada (bass) with George’s friend Richie Hayward on drums and pianist Bill Payne, Little Feat released a half-dozen studio albums and a live set during their ten-year run. In spite of developing a brilliant mix of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, boogie, R&B, country, and funk music that today would be considered “Americana,” the band built a loyal, albeit small following with their raucous live performances, but they enjoyed little commercial success. No single Little Feat album charted until 1974’s Feats, Don’t Fail Me Now (peaking at #36) and Waiting For Columbus, their double live 1978 LP, proved to be the band’s only true hit (rising to #18 on the charts).

Electrif Lycanthrope was the first Little Feat bootleg LP that I ever saw, and I quickly snatched up a copy at a Detroit record show around 1980. The original vinyl version, released by The Amazing Kornyfone Record Label sometime in the late 1970s, featured nine songs taken from a live September 1974 radio broadcast on WLIR-FM in New York City, with the band performing at The Ultrasonic Studios in Hampstead NY, a common venue for these live-to-radio performances. Electrif Lycanthrope wasn’t Kornyfone’s first Little Feat bootleg – they released a number of other Little Feat titles, including Beak Positive (a fine 1975 show) and Aurora Backseat (documenting a 1973 show) – but it’s widely considered by the Feat faithful to be the best of the band’s handful of bootleg albums.

Little Feat’s Electrif Lycanthrope

Aside from its original vinyl release by TAKRL, Electrif Lycanthrope was available for a short time during the 1990s as a dodgy “European import.” This new CD reissue of the album includes three additional “bonus tracks” for a total of a dozen red-hot performances, and while I can’t speak as to the legality of this particular release, it seems to be part of a series of live recordings trickling out of either WLIR-FM and/or The Ultrasonic Studios (check out the great recent Bonnie Raitt and Lowell George release, Ultrasonic Studios 1972). Regardless of its origin, or how long it may or may not be available to buy, Electrif Lycanthrope offers a simply mesmerizing performance by the band in a casual, laid-back environment that allowed them to stretch out and display their tremendous musical chemistry.

Electrif Lycanthrope features material from 1973’s Dixie Chicken and the following year’s Feats, Don’t Fail Me Now. Kicking off with the band’s classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor,” the rhythm section of bassist Kenny Gradney and drummer Richie Hayward establish a fat groove from the beginning, frontman Lowell George’s thick Southern drawl belying his California birthplace. George’s fretwork here is stunning, full of texture and great tone. “Two Trains” is slightly more up-tempo, with Bill Payne’s funky keyboards leading the charge, a loping rhythm dancing behind George’s soulful vocals. While George’s instrument is busy in the background, threading a subtle but wiry lead between the rhythms, Payne takes center stage with his imaginative and charming keyboard runs.

Fat Man In The Bathtub

Little Feat's Electrif Lycanthrope bootleg
A cover of the great Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down,” from Dixie Chicken, is provided an additional minute here for the band to shows off its instrumental chops, beginning with Payne’s church revival piano intro and the syncopated rhythms provided by Hayward’s steady, hypnotizing drumbeats. George’s reverent vocals here display a different facet to the man’s talents, his equally nuanced fretwork providing an additional dimension to the classic song as the band chimes in with backing vocals. George’s breathtaking solo three minutes in underlines the subtlety of the band’s performance. A fan favorite, “Spanish Moon” showcases both the band’s harmony vocals behind George’s spry performance, but also his sultry guitarplay and a strong rhythmic backdrop provided by the band’s often overlooked other guitarist, Paul Barrere. Payne’s keyboards are dominant here, offering a fine counterpoint to George’s guitar.

“Fat Man In The Bathtub” is another longtime crowd pleaser, and here it offers a look into the band’s evolving New Orleans blues and R&B influences at the time. With a cacophonic instrumental backdrop that incorporates plenty o’ Crescent City funk, the performance provides plenty of foot-shufflin’ moments amidst its seemingly free-form jam. The popularity provided George’s “Willin’” may have become a bit of an albatross around the singer/songwriter’s neck, but this gentle, affecting reading – based around George’s weary voice and acoustic guitar, and Payne’s subtle piano – proves the strength of his lyrics and performance. Of the three additional tracks included on this CD reissue of Electrif Lycanthrope, the band’s signature “Dixie Chicken” fares the best, the song’s ramshackle arrangement providing plenty of space for Payne’s nimble piano-play and George’s rowdy notes.      

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If you’re a hardcore Little Feat fan, you may already own Electrif Lycanthrope in one of several formats, but if you don’t, you really should grab up a copy of this CD while you can. If you’re a newcomer to the band, or simply “Feat curious,” this live recording provides an excellent introduction to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s best – yet criminally unsung – outfits. The recording captures the band at the pinnacle of its chemistry, cranking out songs from what are arguably two of their three best studio albums in front of a token audience, but playing like they’re headlining an arena.

The sound quality here is amazing considering the relatively primitive recording technology of the era, although it does get a little muddier on the last three songs, which may have been taken from a second-generation tape. Many fans prefer Electrif Lycanthrope to the authorized live set Waiting For Columbus, which is widely considered one of the best live rock albums of all time. Why argue over semantics? Get ‘em both and revel in the joy that was one of the era’s most dynamic and electrifying live bands! Grade: A (Smokin’ Production, released 2014)

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CD Preview: Ronnie Earl’s Father’s Day

Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters' Father's Day
Blues guitarist Ronnie Earl will celebrate “Father’s Day” a little late with the July 17th, 2015 release of his album by the same name, coming to blues fans courtesy of Stony Plain Records. If you’re unfamiliar with Earl, he’s a phenomenal string-bender who earned his 2014 “Blues Guitarist of the Year” Blues Music Award by touring constantly with his red-hot and rockin’ band the Broadcasters.

Father’s Day will be the ninth album on Stony Plain from Earl and the Broadcasters, and he’s mixed up his typical musical mix for the release. The album includes the first appearance of a full horn section on an Earl album in over a decade, and he’s shaking up his normal instrumental fare with by featuring the talents of a couple of great vocalists – Diane Blue, who has lent her enormously soulful voice to Earl’s material before, and Michael Ledbetter, singer with the Chicago-based Nick Moss Band. Unlike Earl’s previous sparse use of vocalists, Father’s Day features just one instrumental track.  

Earl pays tribute to two of his blues mentors on Father’s Day, covering two songs each by the great Otis Rush (“It Takes Time” and “Right Place, Wrong Time”) and Magic Sam (“All Your Love” and “What Have I Done Wrong”). Earl’s stellar fretwork adds a new dimension to the West Side Chicago sound of the original versions. Earl pays tribute to the great B.B. King with “I Need You So Bad,” and flirts with some old-school soul on covers of Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care Of You” and Fats Domino’s “Every Night About This Time.” Earl revisits one of his early original songs, “Follow Your Heart,” and adds a pair of new compositions in “Higher Love” and “Father’s Day.”

Much as he has now for a quarter-century, Earl is backed on Father’s Day by his longtime band the Broadcasters – bassist Jim Mouradian, keyboardist Dave Limina, and drummer Lorne Entress. Guitarists Nicholas Tabarias, Tim O’Connor, and Larry Lusignan came into the studio to play alongside Earl, as did the horn section of tenor sax player Mario Perrett and baritone saxophonist Scott Shetler. Fathers’s Day was produced by Earl himself and recorded at Wellspring Sound studio in Acton, Massachusetts.

The album’s packaging includes a photo of Earl’s father reading a newspaper feature about Ronnie and includes a dedication from the guitarist: “this album is made for my beautiful father, and we came to peace in the end. Don’t ever give up on your family and don’t quit until the miracle happens.” An son who has clashed with their father will easily recognize the sentiment, and Father’s Day promises to be a showcase for the sort of energetic, emotional, and textured guitar playing that has earned Ronnie Earl a well-deserved reputation as one of blues music’s most talented players.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Procol Harum Is "Back On Black" This June!

Procol Harum's Broken BarricadesThe good folks at Back On Black and Let Them Eat Vinyl have been reissuing classic slabs o’ rock ‘n’ roll history on glorious, inky-black vinyl records in the U.S. and Canada for nearly five years now. Each LP release is stamped onto heavyweight vinyl for the best sound quality possible, and many titles are available in a variety of colors with the rabid collector in mind.

On June 16th, 2015 Let Them Eat Vinyl will reissue a large chunk of Procol Harum’s catalog on vinyl for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. Among the Procol Harum titles receiving the deluxe vinyl treatment are 1971’s classic Broken Barricades, 1973’s Grand Hotel, the following year’s Exotic Birds and Fruit, Procol’s Ninth (1975), and Something Magic (1977). The band’s 2003 reunion album The Well’s On Fire will be released on vinyl for the first time, as will Procol’s commercial breakthrough, 1972’s Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and the 2004 archive release Live At The Union Chapel.

Procol Harum's Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Of these vinyl reissues, Broken Barricades remains my personal favorite. The band’s fifth album and its last to feature guitarist Robin Trower, it features the classic Procol Harum line-up of singer/pianist Gary Brooker, keyboardist/bassist Chris Copping, drummer B.J. Wilson, and lyricist Keith Reid. It was Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, which spawned the Top 20 hit single “Conquistador,” which would become the band’s highest-charting (#5 U.S.) and best-selling album.

The band had a hard time following up their live disc’s overwhelming success, however – although Grand Hotel rose to #21 on the chart, it included no hit singles, and Exotic Birds and Fruit struggled to hit #86 on the chart at the time of its release. Procol’s Ninth fared somewhat better, yielding a minor U.K. hit in “Pandora’s Box,” but after the poor showing of Something Magic, the band broke up. Although best known for their chart-topping 1967 classic “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” all of these 1970s-era Procol Harum albums have their charms. Now, a new generation of fans can rediscover this great music the way that the Reverend first heard it – on vinyl!

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Broken Barricades

Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Grand Hotel

Exotic Birds & Fruit

Procol's Ninth

Something Magic

Iggy Pop’s Rare & Unreleased Psychophonic Medicine Box

Iggy Pop’s Psychophonic Medicine box set
There’s no denying that Iggy Pop is one of the true, bona fide legends in rock music. From his time fronting groundbreaking Detroit noise terrorists the Stooges, and through five decades and counting of an influential solo career, there are few rockers that have made a bigger splash in the R&R gene pool than the Igster.

Amazingly, even after some sixteen authorized solo albums and, at a minimum, an equal number of album releases of, ah…shall we say, “dodgy” provenance…there’s still some fuel in the tank in the way of unheard Iggy Pop recordings. On June 23rd, 2015 the good folks at Cleopatra Records will release Psychophonic Medicine, a three-CD box set comprised of a wealth of rare and unreleased Iggy sides that concentrate on the singer’s vital late 1970s/early ‘80s solo years.

Iggy’s Psychophonic Medicine includes a disc of previously-unreleased studio outtakes and alternate takes from his albums The Idiot (1977) and the vastly underrated Party (1981). The disc includes a pair of songs that have never shown up on any Iggy compilation, anywhere, at anytime – “It’s My Life,” taken from the sessions for Party and “Warm Feelings,” from demo sessions recorded with Steve Jones. The disc offers several songs from the 1985 Jones sessions as well as three songs circa 1983 which were recorded by Ric Ocasek of the Cars.

The other two CDs included with Psychophonic Medicine feature a pair of incendiary live performances. Disc two offers Iggy’s Paris Palace show from 1979 for the first time on CD, a dozen red-hot primal screams that include performances of faves like “Cock In My Pocket,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Kill City” and, of course, “Louie Louie.” Disc three offers Iggy’s often-bootlegged (and appropriately notorious) San Francisco 1981 show, mastered from a newly-discover (and vastly-improved) audio source. That concert performance included such fan favorites as “Lust For Life,” “1969,” and “TV Eye,” a baker’s dozen songs in toto.

Psychophonic Medicine includes a 36-page color booklet featuring rare photos from the archives of longtime Stooges photographer and biographer Robert Matheu, who also wrote the box set’s liner notes. Each of the set’s three discs is packaged in an individual wallet sleeve, and the set includes a bonus track of Iggy’s duet with Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast that was featured on HBO’s True Blood show. Iggy fans, you’re going to want to grab this one up fast ‘cause these sorts of collectors’ wet dreams tend to disappear from the shelves in the blink of a bloodshot eye!

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Monday, June 1, 2015

CD Review: Black Oak Arkansas's The Complete Raunch 'n' Roll Live (1973/2015)

Black Oak Arkansas’ The Complete Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live
Black Oak Arkansas may well be the great lost Southern rock band. Sure, the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd may have had more impressive album sales, and Charlie Daniels and the Marshall Tucker Band may have garnered more respect, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, BOA were easily the rowdiest and most entertaining of 1970s-era redneck rockers during their initial run in the sun. Between 1971 and 1976, Black Oak Arkansas cranked out a whopping ten studio and live albums, none of them commercial chartbusters but most of them listenable and hard rockin’.

The roots of Black Oak Arkansas date back to the mid-1960s and a band by the name of the Knowbody Else, the band recording one unremarkable album for the legendary Stax Records label in 1969. Subsequently moving from Memphis to Los Angeles in 1970, the band was signed by Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco and changed its name to Black Oak Arkansas. Their self-titled 1971 debut album was produced by Iron Butterfly’s Lee Dorman and Mike Pinera and included several songs that would become a major part of the BOA live show during the ensuing years, including “Hot and Nasty,” “Uncle Lijiah,” and “When Electricity Came To Arkansas.”

Black Oak Arkansas’ The Complete Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live

The band’s debut album grazed the Billboard albums chart, rising to #127 and earning BOA its first Gold™ record, but the band’s raucous live shows provided BOA a favorable reputation that helped push subsequent releases like 1972’s Keep the Faith and If an Angel Came To See You…Would You Make Her Feel At Home somewhat higher up the charts. The band line-up of audacious frontman Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, guitarists Stanley Knight, Harvey Jett, and Rickie Reynolds; bassist Pat Daugherty; and drummer Wayne Evans (replaced by future Ozzy Osbourne timekeeper Tommy Aldridge for If an Angel…) marched across America like Sherman through Atlanta, frequently blowing headliners off the stage with their high-octane blend of twangy hard rock, blues, and electric boogie.    

Atco decided to capitalize on BOA’s reputation as live performers and release a live set as the band’s fourth album, and the acclaimed Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live was pieced together from two performances in the Pacific Northwest in December 1972. Released a few months later in February 1973, the seven-track album hit the band’s highest chart position yet at #90, and the gatefold LP would serve as an introduction for many to the band’s considerable charms. But Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live only told part of the story, a tale that is told in full with the release by Real Gone Music of The Complete Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live. A two-CD set featuring two dozen songs, The Complete Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live features the band’s entire performances from a pair of concerts in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.

Jim Dandy’s Hot Rod

As popular as Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live proved to be with its audience in ’73 (my stoner high school friends and myself included), this full expanded set provides a more authentic snapshot of the band’s onstage dynamic at the time. These 24 performances overlap considerably, which is to be expected from two shows on subsequent nights, but there are four songs that were only performed once during the two concerts, none of which appeared on the original 1973 album release. There are some differences in performances as well to be found across the two discs.

Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live was unusual at the time in that it included a handful of previously-unreleased new songs amidst tracks from If an Angel Came To See You… and earlier BOA albums. Of these, the live staple “Hot Rod” is the most memorable, the song a sexually-turbocharged rocker with smothering percussion and stunning guitars laying in behind Mangrum’s growling, guttural vocals. “Up” is another fresh track and, for the life of me, I don’t know why the band didn’t reprise the electrifying live performance with a later studio version. Aside from stellar fretwork from the band’s trio of talented guitarists, “Up” features a lengthy but explosive drum solo by Aldridge that is anything but dull. Spanking the skins with machine-gun precision and maximum clamor, Aldridge keeps the song’s rapid-fire dynamic rolling until the full band kicks back in to finish up with a bang. 

When Electricity Came To Arkansas

The Complete Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live offers up plenty of other breathtaking performances for the rookie BOA fan and the hardcore faithful alike. A favorite from the debut album, “Uncle Lijiah” features the perfect mix of instrumental twang ‘n’ bang alongside Mangrum’s whiskey-soaked vox while the ragged but right “Keep The Faith” provides a fine six-string showcase for the band’s guitarists. Surprisingly, the ever-popular “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul” only appears on the first disc, the song a flamethrower mix of melodic fretwork (that, in itself, reminds of the Allman Brothers) and jackhammer percussion, with Mangrum’s raw vocals providing emotional heft to a lyrical tale of sin and redemption. A cover of the traditional “Dixie” is unlike any other you’ve ever heard, Mangrum’s off-kilter a capella vocals evincing plenty of Southern drawl but also an uncertain menace as the band cranks up a righteous din of crashing drumbeats and clashing guitars.

“Hot and Nasty” remains a BOA fan fave to this day, and its syncopated percussion and funky guitar licks support a groove deep enough to drive a truck through. Mangrum’s vocals are appropriately down ‘n’ dirty here, the sonic equivalent of a flaming bucket of lard, delivered by the flamboyant frontman with a wink and a leer. Another debuting track, “Gigolo,” is a delightfully smutty tale with a melodic hook stronger than most BOA tunes and some fine chicken-pickin’ by the band’s guitarslingers. The ever-welcome “Mutants of the Monster” is a virtual saber-rattling golem with an impressively jazzy bass line, finger-poppin’ rhythms, and a swelling crescendo of instrumentation that provides a real sense of urgency for Mangrum’s howling, apocalyptic vocals. The band’s magnum opus, however, is its instrumental “When Electricity Came To Arkansas,” a rockem-sockem black cat moan that gets the crowd to stomping their feet and clapping with a rowdy washboard solo, bludgeoning guitarplay, throbbing bass runs, and powderkeg drums.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

To be honest, Black Oak Arkansas wasn’t the most talented of the era’s Southern rock bands, nor were they the most innovative of the lot. Their albums were often considered inconsistent, their musical vision somewhat erratic. But dang, son, they were a hell of a lot of fun. The band’s onstage chemistry was second, perhaps, only to the Skynyrd gang at the time, and any long-haired teen that put down a fiver for a Black Oak Arkansas show ticket in the early ‘70s was all but guaranteed a rowdy rock ‘n’ roll party.

The Complete Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live corrects a wrong made some 40+ years ago when Atco decided to release a meager single LP instead of cranking up the record presses and providing fans with a rich banquet of live performances from the tapes available at the time instead of just a mere seven-song taste. The new two-disc set places Black Oak Arkansas in an entirely different light, offering a better representation of the band’s talents as well as full-length examples of their hurricane-strength live performances. Black Oak Arkansas was never the best band of the Southern rock era, but they sure knew how to rock – and The Complete Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live presents the band at its best, warts and all. Grade: B+ (Real Gone Music, released June 2, 2015)

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Black Oak Arkansas 1973

CD Review: Iron Butterfly's Ball (1969/2015)

Iron Butterfly's Ball
What is widely considered to be the “classic” Iron Butterfly line-up was together but two memorable years, give or take a month, out of the five decades the band’s lengthy history spans. The foursome of founding band member Doug Ingle (vocals, keyboards), guitarist Eric Brann (nee Braunn), bassist Lee Dorman, and drummer Ron Bushy released a pair of influential albums circa 1968-69 that included a bona-fide classic in the form of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the first album to be awarded Platinum™ sales status on its way to better than 30 million burgers sold worldwide.

Still, in the annals of “heavy” music, Iron Butterfly is often overshadowed by contemporaries like Steppenwolf, Blue Cheer, and Vanilla Fudge, and when they’re remembered at all, it’s for the seventeen-minutes-plus of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” There’s much more to the band than their most famous song, however. Iron Butterfly’s 1968 debut album, Heavy, featured a different band line-up and is, overall, an unremarkable period piece – a collection of leaden flower-power pop and acid rock that, while curiously entertaining today, was easily lost amidst the late 1960s fray of psychedelia. While In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, released in late 1968, displayed a slight evolution in the band’s sound, it was their third album – the vastly underrated Ball – that showcased Iron Butterfly’s talents and improved band chemistry by moving beyond the band’s psychedelic tendencies to embrace different colors in their sonic palette.

Iron Butterfly’s Ball

Released in January 1969, Iron Butterfly pursued a more melodic song structure for Ball; the album’s material was more consistent than previous, Brann’s guitar solos sharper and more succinct, Ingle’s omniscient keyboard fills more complex and not overwhelming a song’s arrangement. Ball opens with “In The Time of Our Lives,” which was released as the album’s first single. The song disappointingly charted at #96, which is a shame ‘cause “In The Time of Our Live” features a highly atmospheric performance with sudden squalls of fuzzy guitar; Ingle’s chiming, sepulchral keyboards; and haunting vocals that create an eerie but cool Gothic vibe. “Soul Experience,” the album’s second single release, is even better even if it only peaked at #75 on the charts. With psychedelic guitars swirling around Ingle’s somber albeit soulful vocals, and a rumbling of drums, “Soul Experience” was loftier and more musical uplifting than anything the band done before.

By contrast, “Lonely Boy” is a powerful torch song displaying an undeniable R&B influence in Ingle’s torrid vocals and smooth-as-silk, gospel-tinged keys. The song is a striking departure from the band’s normal psych-rock direction, its minimalist but loving instrumentation providing a near-perfect complement to Ingle’s voice. The equally subdued “In The Crowds” is cut from a similar cloth, the band’s complex instrumental backing providing a suitable canvas for Ingle to paint upon, but weak vocals and the song’s shockingly truncated two-minute running time don’t allow for full expression of the original creative idea. Ingle’s “It Must Be Love” is much more interesting, offering textured keyboard patterns and wiry fretwork that are built on a jaunty rhythmic base, and if Ingle’s understated vocals are too low-slung in the mix for most tastes, well, blame the producer.

I Can’t Help But Deceive You, Little Girl

Another Ingle original, “Her Favorite Style,” is an undiscovered psych-pop gem featuring a quirky instrumental arrangement with a memorable hook, an intriguing rhythmic backbone, shots of sharp guitar and keyboards, and an unusual vocal performance that effectively frames the lysergic-fueled lyrics. The odd bodkins “Filled With Fear” shoots for the Goth feel of the album’s opening track, instead achieving a wild head-trip of spacey guitars and martial rhythms that create a whole different style of menace. Brann’s “Belda-Beast” continues to travel deeper into the band’s brave new world. A rare number sung by the guitarist, his breathless vocals are supported by Ingle’s multi-tracked, ethereal keyboards and splashes of colorful guitar.

After the release of Ball, which rose to #3 on the Billboard albums chart and would later be certified Gold™, the band reconvened in the studio to record a pair of songs, the last from this Butterfly line-up. “I Can’t Help But Deceive You, Little Girl” displays a funkier, more soulful and entirely welcome new facet to the band, Ingle delivering a strong vocal performance, pounding his keys with reckless abandon while Brann lays down some imaginative guitar licks above a busy, jazz-flecked rhythm track. Released as a non-album single, the song only inched its way up to #118, which is another damn shame because its flip-side, “To Be Alone,” combines the best of the old-school acid-rock Butterfly sound with the more adventurous musical direction displayed by Ball, clever syncopated rhythms laid down by Dorman and Bushy providing a foundation for Brann’s soaring guitarplay and Ingle’s rapidly-evolving vocal style.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The so-called “classic” Iron Butterfly line-up would only appear on one other album, 1970’s Live concert recording. Brann left the band after Ball, replaced by guitarists Mike Pinera (from Blues Image) and Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt for the studio album Metamorphosis. After Doug Ingle left the band in 1971, Iron Butterfly broke up, with Dorman and Reinhardt forming space-rock cult favorites Captain Beyond and Pinera forming the short-lived outfit Ramatam before landing in Alice Cooper’s band. Brann and Bushy put together a new Iron Butterfly in 1974 with various musicians, releasing Scorching Beauty and Sun and Steel – two albums featuring a vastly different sound – to overwhelming commercial indifference in 1975. Various permutations of Iron Butterfly, helmed by drummer Bushy, have toured ever since, often including Brann, Ingle, and Dorman in the line-up.

While the band’s meager fame rests entirely on the notoriety heaped upon In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida – the song and the album – Ball provided a rock ‘n’ roll blueprint that bands like Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep would subsequently build upon. The album’s hybrid sound of forward-thinking, guitar-driven rock and lingering psychedelic influences have withstood the test of time, Ball an underrated collection that foreshadowed future possibilities for the band had they held it together. Although undeniably a document of its time, the album’s charms remain intact better than 45 years after its release. If you’re a fan of hirsute, late 1960s hard rock, you owe it to yourself to rediscover Iron Butterfly and Ball. Grade: B (Real Gone Music, released June 2, 2015)

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Related content: Iron Butterfly Live 1967 & 1971 (CD review)

Iron Butterfly circa 1969
Iron Butterfly circa 1969: Erik Brann, Ron Bushy, Lee Dorman and Doug Ingle (Photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis)