Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nik Turner goes on Space Fusion Odyssey

Nik Turner’s Space Fusion Odyssey
This LP appeared on your favorite music dealer’s shelves a few days ago, but in case you may have missed it, sonic provocateur Nik Turner (Hawkwind) released his new solo album, titled Space Fusion Odyssey. The follow-up to Turner’s critically-acclaimed 2013 release Space Gypsy, the new album includes contributions from a stellar cast of talented guests, including Billy Cobham, Robby Krieger of the Doors, Steve Hillage and Gilli Smyth of Gong, Soft Machine’s John Etheridge, and Amon Düül II founder John Weinzierl, among others.

Released by Cleopatra Records’ Purple Pyramid imprint, Turner’s Space Fusion Odyssey CD comes packaged in a mini-LP gatefold sleeve with a 12-panel poster, while a vinyl version arrives in a deluxe 12-panel poster fold-up jacket, pressed on glorious, gorgeous starburst colored wax. Leading what he’s dubbed the Interplanetary Arkestra (in honor of jazz legend Sun Ra), Turner applies his otherworldly sax and flute playing to an ambitious set of jazz-fusion influenced psychedelic space-rock that is quiet unlike anything you’ve heard before (don’t believe me – stick the video below into your earholes and if the swirling guitarplay of Robby Krieger and Megadeth/Ohm axeman Chris Poland doesn’t blow your little mind, nothing will…)

Later this year, Turner will be publishing The Spirit of Hawkwind 1969-1976, the book promising to be the definitive biography of the legendary space-rock innovators, documenting the band’s gravy years. Written by Turner and noted music historian Dave Thompson, the hardcover tome will include over 250 pages of rare and unseen photos as well as a comprehensive Hawkwind discography – no mean feat, considering the extensive and oft-confusing Hawkwind/Hawklords back catalog. Definitely a book for the Hawk-geek among us (the Reverend included…)

Nik Turner’s Space Fusion Odyssey track list:
1. Adjust The Future
2. Hypernova
3. Spiritual Machines
4. Pulsar
5. An Elliptical Galaxy
6. A Beautiful Vision In Science Forgotten
7. We Came In Peace *
8. Interstellar Clouds *
9. Spiritual Machines Chapter 2 *
10. Random Acts (Revisited) with The Fusion Syndicate *

* CD bonus tracks

Buy the CD from Nik Turner's Space Fusion Odyssey

CD Preview: Eric Bibb & JJ Milteau discover Lead Belly’s Gold!

Eric Bibb & JJ Milteau's Lead Belly's Gold
With one foot in the past and his eyes on the horizon, bluesman Eric Bibb is one of the most exciting and innovative artists on the blues scene today. Working with acclaimed French harmonica wizard JJ Milteau, Bibb further fuses blues tradition with a contemporary edge on Lead Belly’s Gold, scheduled for November 6, 2015 release by Stony Plain Records.

Lead Belly’s Gold features eleven live tracks recorded at the legendary Paris jazz club The Sunset, combined with five new studio tracks. Offering both material chosen from the Lead Belly songbook as well as original tunes written by Bibb and Milteau in tribute to the influential bluesman, the pair are backed on Lead Belly’s Gold by guitarist Jerome Browne, bassist Gilles Michel, keyboardist/percussionist Glen Scott, drummer Larry Crockett, and backing singers Big Daddy Wilson and Michael Robinson.

In his day, Lead Belly (born Huddie Ledbetter in 1888 in Louisiana), was known as a “songster,” a musical wanderer who would perform a mix of folk, gospel, blues, and ballads – whatever songs might elicit tips from an appreciative audience. Ledbetter was also a skilled and innovative 12-string guitarist, a role taken on by Browne on the new album. Ledbetter’s ability to take a traditional song and interpret it in a way so as to make it his own is a large part of his legacy, and his artistic influence extends beyond blues music (notably Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee) to folk singers (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan) to rock ‘n’ roll (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Grateful Dead, the White Stripes – even Nirvana recorded a Lead Belly song).

Lead Belly’s Gold features several classic tunes from the artist’s milieu, including “Midnight Special,” “Good Night Irene,” and “Rock Island Line,” as well as lesser-known Ledbetter gems like “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “The House of the Rising Sun.” One of the more intriguing among the new Bibb/Milteau compositions is “Swimmin’ In A River Of Songs.” Writing in the album’s liner notes, Bibb notes, “It’s hard to remember when I first heard Lead Belly’s music because, somehow, he’s always been around. Most likely, I heard recordings of others (The Weavers and Woody Guthrie) singing songs from his huge repertoire before hearing his actual voice…”

Continuing, Bibb adds, “what I hear now, when I listen to Lead Belly’s recordings and YouTube clips, and what I must have sensed when I was a boy, is the man’s personal power and independence. His sound made it clear that he was his own man. The fatalism and resignation that I heard later in the voices of many of my prewar blues heroes was missing in Lead Belly. He was way ahead of his time. The path he cut through a world that conspired to rob him of his humanity, dignity and manhood was a personal triumph that will inspire for generations to come.”

“Lead Belly was a human jukebox,” says Bibb. “He knew hundreds of songs that he’d either heard somewhere and adapted, or written himself. Jean-Jacques and I chose songs from Lead Belly’s vast repertoire that we could make our own. We wanted to pay homage to not only a great musician, but to the rich tradition he embodied. Staying pretty close to his renditions, we had a lot of fun collaborating on these new arrangements.” Check out the video below for a taste of Lead Belly's Gold!

Buy the CD from Eric Bibb & JJ Milteau's Lead Belly's Gold

Friday, October 16, 2015

Smokin’ Joe Kubek Services & Fundraiser

Smokin' Joe Kubek
Smokin' Joe Kubek
We’re all gobsmacked by the death of reverend blues-rock guitarist Smokin’ Joe Kubek [obit here]. The guitarist’s long-time musical partner Bnois King released a statement saying “He loved the blues. He was always very serious about the music and the presentation of the music. He had a modern style but he really studied those old cats. And, he would literally give you the shirt off his back. He was a great friend.”

There will be a visitation for fans wishing to pay their respects to Kubek, which will be held from 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM on Sunday, October 18th, 2015 at Donnelly’s Colonial Funeral Home, 606 West Airport Freeway in Irving, Texas. The following service will be restricted to family and friends only. Thanks to The Blues Foundation’s HART Fund, Music Cares, and The Actors Fund For Everyone, the cost of Kubek’s funeral service and related expenses are being paid in full.

However, there’s another way that blues fans can pay respect to Smokin’ Joe for all the great music he gave us through the years. Nobody gets into blues music expecting to get rich, and even for the most popular of musicians, money can be tough. Kubek was stretched thin, financially, before his death. His wife Phyllis has been battling breast cancer, and Joe had been staying off the road – live shows providing most of his income – to take care of his wife. Now that Kubek is gone, his wife is left on her own without income and with mounting medical bills.

A call has gone out to the blues community to help with Phyllis Kubek’s living expenses. If you wish to make a donation to help out and honor Smokin’ Joe, you can do so one of three ways. You can donate to the Go Fund Me account that has been set up to raise a goal of $20k to help Phyllis with her medical and living expenses. You can send a donation directly via PayPal to the email address Or you can send a check made out to Phyllis Kubek c/o Piedmont Talent Agency, P.O. Box 680006, Charlotte NC 28216. Blues fans have always shown that they have the biggest hearts, so dig deep and help out a friend in need! (Thanx to Debra Regur, Blind Pig Records, for the info)

Smokin' Joe Kubek photo by James Bland, courtesy Blind Pig Records

Nils Lofgren Faces the Music

Nils Lofgren's UK2015 Face The Music Tour CD
It’s no secret that we’re Nils Lofgren fans ‘round these parts…the Reverend has been following the talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist since his late 1960s band Grin and his early ‘70s solo work. Lofgren’s membership in the high-profile E Street Band, backing up Bruce Springsteen on stage and on record, helped prolong and pump some longevity into his solo career.

In spite of the release of last year’s ten-disc, career-spanning CD box set, we still consider Nils to be one of the most criminally-underrated talents in rock ‘n’ roll. Whether you’re a Nils fanatic or not, there’s no denying that the man has created a heck of a lot of great music!

On November 13th, 2015 Lofgren will be adding to his immense and impressive back catalog with the release of UK2015 Face The Music Tour on both CD and as a digital download. After the release of Face The Music – the aforementioned box set – Lofgren organized a series of solo and duo acoustic shows to promote the retrospective collection.

In January 2015, Nils toured the U.K. and performed to enthusiastic audiences, with several shows recorded for posterity. It’s these shows that are documented by Lofgren’s UK2015 Face The Music Tour album. Lofgren sings, and plays guitar and keyboards, accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta. The result is an inspired collection of intimate performances that showcase Lofgren’s talents in the best light.

In a press release for the new album, Lofgren says “after a three year break from our traditional acoustic U.K. tours, we headed back in the dead of winter, excited for another run of shows, town to town, on the bus, sharing music that hopefully spreads some good will and hope to linger with the wonderful audiences we've had, decade after decade. Accompanied by Greg Varlotta, our friend and amazing, multi-instrumentalist and our stellar crew, we all set out to do special, inspired shows everywhere.”

Continuing, Lofgren adds, “we were all thrilled with the audience response and it was Amy [Nils’ wife] who insisted we record the last half of the tour, optimistic it could lead to an album of live tracks to commemorate this wonderful U.K. run. She was right and here it is. We hope you all enjoy it. It really is the audience that breaths the life, fire and inspiration into every performance. God bless you all and thanks again for your presence and magical energy, night after night, town after town, note after note. Peace and Believe.”

Buy the CD from Nils Lofgren's UK2015 Face The Music Tour

UK2015 Face The Music Tour track list:

1. Too Many Miles
2. New Holes In Old Shoes
3. Lost A Number
4. Walkin’ Nerve
5. Miss You “C”
6. Girl In Motion
7. I Don't Want To Talk About It
8. Rusty Gun
9. Black Books
10. Goin’ Back
11. The Sun Hasn’t Set
12. Like Rain
13. Mud In Your Eye
14. No Mercy
15. Shine Silently

Related content:
Nils Lofgren & Grin - Gone Crazy CD review
Nils Lofgren - Back It Up!! Live CD review

Archive Review: Nils Lofgren's Back It Up!! Live...An Authorized Bootleg (2007)

Nils Lofgren's Back It Up!! Live
One of the most highly-coveted “Holy Grails” of record collecting has always been Nils Lofgren’s Back It Up!! A 1975 promotional release by Lofgren’s label, A&M Records, the faux bootleg was actually cut live in the studio by Nils and band for a radio broadcast on San Francisco’s KSAN-FM. The folks at the label liked the performance so much that they decided that it was just the thing to light a fire under complacent FM radio programmers and support Lofgren’s critically-acclaimed self-titled debut album.

With much less corporate bureaucracy to struggle with back in those days, the idea of an authorized “bootleg” album shuffled around the offices and quickly became a reality. The label pressed up 1,000 copies of Back It Up!! on vinyl with a plain white cardboard sleeve and crude photocopied insert, as was the style of bootleggers at the time, and mailed ‘em out to radio stations and the press. Although it netted Lofgren a fair amount of airplay and hype, history has proven that it did little to boost his record sales above those of any mid-card punter.

As laid out by Bud Scoppa’s informative liner notes for Back It Up!! Live…An Authorized Bootleg, the label was hot to send the promo album out as a regular release, an idea nixed by the man Nils himself. Fearing that the live disc would interfere with sales of his second album, Cry Tough, the promo-only album was put back into the label’s vaults. Meanwhile, as Lofgren’s career continued on pace, with the talented guitarist eventually setting aside his solo work in favor of a gig with Springsteen’s E Street Band, the status of Back It Up!! continued to grow, a primo copy of the original PVC fetching low-to-mid three-figure prices in collector’s circles.

I had seen several bootleg copies of Back It Up!! circulating around the various record conventions that I worked during the late 1970s/early '80s, especially in Detroit and Chicago, but the Reverend actually picked up his favored copy of the vinyl from a former label executive’s gotta-move-now-cause-I’m-outta-cash yard sale in Nashville for a mere $2.00. My copy looks like the real thing, but what the hell do I know? It could be a boot; if it is, it’s a good one: the vinyl sounds great and looks authentically grungy. Maybe I should do some DNA testing, though, ‘cause according to Scoppa, his roommate – noted rock critic R. Meltzer – was hired by the label to fix the inserts to the sleeve, his sweat inevitably mixing with the sticky glue.

The main reason why Back It Up!! remains a valued collectible after all these years isn’t solely because of its scarcity, or lack thereof (I’ve probably seen over 1,000 copies myself at shows through the years, if you catch my meaning). No, the album is valued above other label promo items ‘cause it rocks like a leopard on a treadmill, whatever that means. It’s a great selection of songs…a couple from Nils Lofgren, the debut album; a couple of vintage Grin cuts (including the beautiful “Like Rain”); and a soulful turn on the Goffin-King chestnut “Goin’ Back.”

The performances captured by the album are simply electrifying, among the best you’ll hear from Nils, and these ears have heard a lot. Lofgren’s Keith Richards tribute, “Keith Don’t Go (Ode To The Glimmer Twin)” starts out with a tense, trippy guitar line straight from the Who playbook before breaking into Nils’ impassioned lyrical plea. The fretwork is stellar, Nils tearing off a number of crushing solos built atop the brickyard rhythms provided by his brother, guitarist Tommy Lofgren.

“I Don’t Want To Know,” also from the solo debut, should have been a huge radio hit; a melodic rock number with fine vocal gymnastics and a BIG catchy hook guaranteed to grab you by the ears, it’s a classic tale of love and betrayal. This live version benefits from the addition of Al Kooper’s piano, the rock legend working on producing Lofgren’s sophomore effort at the time. The aforementioned cover of “Goin’ Back” offers Kooper’s light-hearted keyboard riffing and a breathless, smooth-as-silk vocal performance by Nils. “Beggar’s Day” jumps back into a rock groove after several pop-inflected cuts, the obscure Grin cut showcasing Lofgren’s tuffest vox and even tougher fretwork, his slice-and-dice solos filleting the slightly funky rhythms of bassist Scott Ball and drummer Mike Zack.

Rock 'n' roll, much like life, is full of “what if” moments. What if you had married the geek that later started that billion-dollar software business rather than the high school quarterback? What if you’d bought that Google stock at $12 per share like your father-in-law suggested? What if Mr. Miyagi had refused to teach that punk kid any of his slick moves? What would have happened to Lofgren’s career if an excellent live set like Back It Up!! had been released to compliment both his debut album and Cry Tough? Would it have been enough to put Nils in the national spotlight, where his native talent and dynamic onstage presence might have brought him the stardom he deserves?

As good as this set is, maybe Back It Up!! could have been better. Clocking in at slightly less than 45 minutes, the album feels incomplete by a song or two. Maybe Nils and his talented band only put these seven songs to tape, I don’t know. But if Hip-O Select had more of this stuff in the vault, they should have released an expanded version of Back It Up!! since it’s clearly the long-faithful fans that would be the most interested in this limited edition CD reissue.

If you’re interested in this great disc, I’d recommend that rather than spend your coin on this A&M/Hip-O Select release, surf over to the man’s web site ( and buy his virtually identical version of the album (titled Bootleg). You can’t go wrong either way, ‘cause this is a classic disc deserving of a place on your shelf. (A&M Records/Hip-O Select, released 2007)

Fossils: Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers (1972)

Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers
[click to embiggen]
Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers

Released during the dimming days of the “peace & love” decade of the 1960s, the Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers was, arguably, both one of their best albums and one of their most controversial. The band’s leftist, anti-war politics shone brightly in the lyrics of songs like “We Can Be Together” (in which the label tried to censor the word “motherfucker) and the title track while songs like “Good Shepherd” and “Eskimo Blue Day” evinced more of a “back to the land” Earth goddess vibe. Musically, Volunteers ranged from hippie folk and psychedelia to anthemic hard rock.

The album extended the band’s string of five straight Top 20 albums, peaking at #13 on the Billboard Top 200 while the title track rose to #65, quite an accomplishment for a politically-charged song at the dawn of the AOR era. The label’s ad for the album certainly didn’t help its commercial prospects – I’m sure that the band’s high-profile performance at the Woodstock festival a few months previous did more for Volunteers – the ad’s graphic showing little more than a photo of the LP cover, the band’s name in too-large type, and an out-of-the-place copy of Dan O’Neill’s “Odd Bodkins” comic.

Volunteers would be the last album from what is considered to be the band’s classic line-up, drummer Spencer Dryden forced out and replaced by Joey Covington. Singer Marty Balin would also leave soon thereafter, and before the 1971 release of Bark, the band’s sixth Top 20 LP in a row and the first for its RCA-distributed Grunt Records vanity label. Considering how little effort or thought went into the ad design for Volunteers, or even the album cover artwork of Bark, it’s not sure if the band was too stoned to realize that they were being dissed by the label.

Archive Review: Grin's Gone Crazy (2007)

Grin's Gone Crazy
After touring with Neil Young while still a teenager, singer, songwriter, and guitar hero Nils Lofgren formed the band Grin in 1969 with bassist Bob Gordon and drummer Bob Berberich. While his credentials as part of Young's entourage certainly attracted a few people to the band's early shows, Grin rapidly built a fervent audience of its own in the Washington DC/Northern Virginia area based entirely on the band's dynamic performances and Lofgren's six-string pyrotechnics.

Lofgren further parlayed his connection with Young into a record deal for Grin, and the band released its self-titled debut in 1971. Grin's sound was simple, no-frills, guitar-driven rock 'n' roll with pop overtones and catchy melodies. Although the debut album didn't set the world on fire with sales, it did well enough to merit a follow-up, and in '72 the band released 1+1. The album's lone single release, a clever slice of power-pop called "White Lies," would become a minor hit on AOR radio, rising as high as #75 on the Billboard magazine pop chart and propel the album onto the bottom end of the Top 200 album chart.

To help flush out the band's sound, Lofgren added his brother as a second guitarist after the second album, Tom Lofgren playing rhythm behind Nils' scorching leads. In 1973, the band released All Out, another fine collection of songs that rose almost as high as 1+1 on the charts, but yielded no singles, hit or otherwise. Disappointed by the band's lack of forward commercial momentum, CBS dropped Grin, who would quickly be picked up by A&M Records.

Gone Crazy would be the result, Grin's fourth and final album, released in 1973 and sadly suffering a fate similar to its predecessors. Many consider Gone Crazy to be Grin's weakest album, but I'd disagree – the band's four-album milieu is uniformly and consistently enjoyable. Grin's infectious pop/rock sound was a welcome digression during the hard rock early 1970s, and if Lofgren and crew could easily bang it out with the heaviest of their contemporaries, they also possessed an elfin charm and whimsical nature that sets their music apart from much of the decade's better-known bands.

Gone Crazy opens with a fierce rocker, "You're The Weight" offering up a concrete-hard guitar-bass-drum riff on top of which Lofgren lays down his potent vocals and measured wildcat solos. The song is as infectious as anything Grin had done previously and, in many ways, foreshadows Lofgren's soon-to-come solo debut album. The band slows it down a bit for the mid-tempo ballad "Boy + Girl," which features as much of Lofgren's keyboard skills as it does guitar. With trilling piano play that sounds like an old-timey, Western saloon soundtrack, Lofgren tries on his best blue-eyed soul shoes, the song engaging and hiding just a bit of nasty funk beneath the grooves.
"What About Me" returns the band to solid rock territory, Lofgren's wiry fretwork running like an electrical charge across the song's exotic instrumentation. While Lofgren's vocals here are a little more strained, they fit the chaotic feel of "What About Me," with the rest of the band throwing in their own shouted harmonies. Lofgren delivers a scorching solo at just past the two-minute mark, short and shocking and simply devastating while his grinning (sorry!) band members knock out the wild-n-wooly rhythms behind him.

"True Thrill" is a bouncy, pop-influenced tune with a slippery rhythmic arrangement, Nils' trademark guitarplay, a little vocal harmony, and some very fine basswork by Gordon. With a little label push in the right direction – perhaps a judiciously-placed $100 bill in the sleeve for a few station programmers – and the song could have been a hit on both AM and FM radio. By contrast, "Beggar's Day" (Eulogy to Danny Whitten)" is a blistering rocker and strictly FM radio fare. Written for his fallen Young bandmate Whitten, it is lyrically one of the best songs Lofgren has written, with powerful instrumental backing, passionate vocals, and some of Lofgren's nastiest guitar solos.
The gentle ballad "Believe" is the closest that Gone Crazy comes to a clunker, the piano-heavy tune relying too much, perhaps, on Lofgren's still-maturing keyboard skills and too little on his six-string mastery. Lofgren's vocals are slight, sometimes too sweet, and the band harmonies are simply precious, and the lyrics come from a solidly romanticist perspective, but the song could have benefitted from a little guitar grit. The album ends with "Ain't For Free," a bluesy mid-tempo honky-tonker that smolders in the grooves and features a different side of Lofgren's guitar skills.

After touring in support of Gone Crazy, Grin would break up in 1974 and Lofgren would stay with A&M Records, delivering his critically-acclaimed self-titled debut album a year later, fully launching a successful and varied career that is still going strong today. Although the Grin chapter of Nils Lofgren's musical history has been obscured by his later work, it's nice to once again hear the underrated Gone Crazy, one of the true hidden gems among the band's sparse catalog. (Hip-O Select Records, released October 26, 2009)

Buy the CD from Grin's Gone Crazy

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy! 40th Anniversary Edition

The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!
Forty years ago, rock ‘n’ roll icons the Dictators released their liver-quivering debut album, the classic The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! The proto-punk outfit – comprised of audacious frontman “Handsome” Dick Manitoba, guitarists Scott “Top Ten” Kempner and Ross “The Boss” Funochello, bassist Andy “Adny” Shernoff, and drummer Stu Boy King – followed a fast ‘n’ loud musical aesthetic heavily influenced by 1960s-era garage-rock and British Invasion bands and lyrically littered with pop culture references to professional wrestling, crappy television shows, hot rods, and fast food.

In celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the release of The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, the good folks at Real Gone Music have whipped up an interesting release for Record Store Day’s Black Friday event on November 27th. The label will release a Black Friday exclusive, The Dictators: The Next Big Thing EP, which will be pressed on opaque red vinyl. The four-song 10” EP includes rowdy remixes of three songs from the Go Girl Crazy! LP – “The Next Big Thing,” “Two Tub Man,” and “Weekend” – which have been sonically-altered by Dictators fan and punk legend Andrew W.K.

The Dictators: The Next Big Thing EP will be released in a limited edition of 2,500 copies featuring back cover and label artwork taken from previously-unseen photo contact sheets, and the record also includes a previously-unreleased song from the original sessions, “Backseat Boogie.” On December 4th, 2015 Real Gone Music will continue their Dictators celebration with the reissue of The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! in an expanded and re-mastered anniversary edition.

Reissued on CD for the first time in over 20 years, this new edition includes nine bonus tracks in addition to the nine original songs, including Andrew W.K. remixes of “Weekend” and “Two Tub Man,” the previously-unreleased “Backseat Boogie,” and the unreleased single mix of “(I Live For) Cars and Girls.” Shernoff contributed liner notes for the reissue, and the packaging includes several rare, previously unseen photos.

Unceremoniously dumped by Epic Records after The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! failed to produce the sort of overnight success the label expected, the band signed with Elektra Records and released a pair of critically-acclaimed livewire LPs – 1977’s Manifest Destiny and the following year’s Bloodbrothers – neither of which performed commercially (the former inched onto the chart at #193). Both albums are considered classics today, and the band’s unbridled rock ‘n’ roll spirit would influence a generation of died-in-the-wool rockers to follow.

Buy the CD from The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! 40th Anniversary Remastered & Expanded Edition

Vintage Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers 1977 live LP!

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977
After the break-up of the groundbreaking and influential New York Dolls in 1975, guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan formed the Heartbreakers with bassist Richard Hell. When Hell left the band to form the Voidoids, he was replaced by Billy Rath, and a second guitarist was added in Walter Lure. It’s this line-up that recorded the band’s lone classic album, 1977’s L.A.M.F.

Although it flopped like a beached halibut on the Jersey shoreline, the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F. has since come to be considered an early punk-rock gem, the album influencing bands like the Damned and the Sex Pistols (both of whom the Heartbreakers toured the continent with on 1976’s Anarchy Tour), among many others. Thunders’ post-Heartbreakers solo career and his popularization of junkie chic have served to make the singer, songwriter, and guitarist a rock ‘n’ roll cult idol. Since his death in 1991, dozens of live and bootleg albums of dodgy provenance have been released under both Thunders’ and the Heartbreakers’ names.

Oddly enough, one live set that’s never been semi-legitimately released is the Heartbreakers’ August 1977 shows from the Village Gate in New York City. On October 16th, 2015 Cleopatra Records will finally put this legendary performance on plastic with the release of Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977. Pulling from two electrifying performances that Walter Lure considers the best shows that band ever played, the Village Gate shows include guest appearances by former New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain and rockabilly rebel Robert Gordon. L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977 is being released on both CD, with a mini-LP gatefold sleeve, and as a limited-edition hot pink vinyl LP with gatefold sleeve.  

L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977 track list:

1. Chinese Rocks
2. Pirate Love
3. Get Off The Phone
4. All By Myself
5. Let Go
6. Can’t Keep My Eyes On You
7. Chatterbox
8. One Track Mind
9. Take A Chance With Me
10. Born Too Loose
11. Boppin’ The Blues
12. Do You Love Me
13. I Wanna Be Loved

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Blues-rock guitarist Smokin’ Joe Kubek, R.I.P.

Smokin' Joe Kubek
Photo courtesy Alligator Records
We’re sad to have to report that Texas blues-rock guitarist Smokin’ Joe Kubek died from a heart attack on Sunday, October 11th, 2015 at the age of 58 years old. Kubek passed away shortly before he was to perform at the Pleasure Island Seafood & Blues Festival in North Carolina.

Born in Pennsylvania in November 1956, Kubek grew up near Dallas, Texas. Influenced by artists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and, later, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Kubek began playing professionally at the tender age of 14 years old, backing artists like the legendary Freddie King. Gigging in and around the Dallas area throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Kubek worked with R&B singer Al “TNT” Braggs and became associated with artists like Albert King, B.B. King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, with whom he became close.

A chance meeting with fellow bluesman Bnois King at a Monday night jam session in 1989 would change both men’s fortunes. Kubek and King became close friends and they quickly developed a remarkable music chemistry by mixing their two individual styles – Kubek the raucous lead guitars and slide player, King a more nuanced rhythm guitarist. The Smokin’ Joe Kubek Band featuring Bnois King released its debut album, Stepping Out Texas Style, in 1991 and soon branched out beyond the Dallas area to perform clubs and festivals across the U.S. and internationally.

The pair released eight albums for the Bullseye Record label circa 1991-2000, signing with Blind Pig Records for 2003’s Roadhouse Research. Now billed as just ‘Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King,’ the duo’s popularity continued to grow, and they were regularly playing 150 dates a year in the United States, Canada, and Europe, which they toured twelve times. After releasing three acclaimed and successful albums for Blind Pig, Kubek and King signed with Alligator Records in 2008, releasing the Blues Music Award-nominated album Blood Brothers, following it up with another BMA-nominated disc, Have Blues Will Travel, in 2010.

The Smokin' Joe Kubek Band featuring B'nois King
About that album, the Reverend wrote in Blues Revue magazine, “after better than two decades playing together, the chemistry between blues guitarists Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King is undeniable. The two fretburners have developed a distinctive blues-rock sound that they seldom stray too far away from, and long-time fans will be relieved to know that Have Blues Will Travel follows this tried-and-true Kubek/King formula to a tee; that is, guitar-driven, houserockin' gutbucket blues delivered with Lone Star state panache.”

Kubek and King released a pair of albums for the Delta Groove label – 2012’s acoustic Close To The Bone, and 2013’s Road Dog’s Life – before landing back on Blind Pig for the release this year’s Fat Man’s Shine Parlor album. Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King had a wonderful musical synergy that translated well to album but positively burned down the stage in a live environment. Kubek’s talents and contributions to the blues will be missed…

(Thanx to Marc Lipkin of Alligator Records and Debra Regur of Blind Pig Records for the info) 

Related Content: Smokin' Joe Kubek & Bnois King's Have Blues Will Travel CD review

Archive Review: Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King's Have Blues Will Travel (2010)

Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King's Have Blues Will Travel
After better than two decades playing together, the chemistry between blues guitarists Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King is undeniable. The two fretburners have developed a distinctive blues-rock sound that they seldom stray too far away from, and long-time fans will be relieved to know that Have Blues Will Travel follows this tried-and-true Kubek/King formula to a tee; that is, guitar-driven, houserockin’ gutbucket blues delivered with Lone Star state panache.

Musically, the scorching title track “Have Blues Will Travel” masterfully blends ZZ Top-styled booger-rock with hints of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern soul, and runaway locomotive rhythm. Lyrically, the song is a bluesy tale of woe that involves wife-cheatin’, barfights, a hangin’ judge, and jail time, i.e. an average day in the life of the itinerant bluesman. The slumbering groove of “Out Of Body, Out Of Mind” burns no less brightly, King’s growling vocals rumbling above a blistering twin-guitar attack that snaps, crackles, and pops right out of your speakers.

If Have Blues Will Travel misses a note here or there, it’s with contemporary novelty songs like “RU4 Real,” which nonetheless has time-honored blues tradition on its side, or the tired “My Space Or Yours?,” a rollicking shuffle that incorporates tech lingo into a double-entendre attack on the listener’s intelligence. By contrast, the topicality of the working class blues of “Payday In America” will withstand the test of time, the blue collar tale of cuttin’ loose on the weekend bolstered by Kubek’s razor-sharp slide-guitar and King’s soulful, world-weary vocals.

Much of the rest of Have Blues Will Travel will certainly please the dedicated blues-rock fan, such six-string showcases as the menacing, mid-tempo “Shadows In The Dark” or the hard-rocking positive vibe and message of “One Step At A Time” offering plenty of energetic fretwork and explosive, intertwined guitars. Few instrumentalists can tag-team a song like Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King, the aforementioned chemistry between the two men lifting Have Blues Will Travel above the morass of Stevie Ray-cloned guitarists to achieve higher altitudes of ambition. (Alligator Records, released May 25, 2010)

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Archive Review: Jello Biafra's In The Grip Of Official Treason (2006)

Jello Biafra's In The Grip Of Official Treason
Since President Bush’s popularity has dropped faster than the Titanic what with this whole “morass” thing going on over in Iraq (and, lest we forget, Afghanistan too), a lot of otherwise spineless twits have raised up on their hind legs and started bashing the administration. Big fat hairy deal! It’s easy to kick the man and his friends when they’re down and out; it’s another thing entirely to challenge the powers that be when, like Cagney, they’re “on top o’ the world, ma!”

That’s where Jello Biafra comes in...for two decades and four Presidential administrations, Biafra has been the proverbial fly in the political buttermilk. The former Dead Kennedys’ frontman and punk rock icon has forged an impressive second career as a speaker and social commentator. The Green Party progressive has never been afraid to tackle the big issues, pointing out the hypocrisy and contradictions of public policy regardless of whether it’s the Republications or the Democrats holding the seat of power.

Jello Biafra's In The Grip Of Official Treason

In The Grip Of Official Treason is Biafra’s eight spoken word collection, a massive three-disc set that gathers material from several Biafra performances over the last couple of years. The extended rants on the discs run the gamut of subject matter, from U.S. policy in the Middle East and, of course, the war in Iraq to America’s preoccupation with electronic gadgets and their dehumanizing effect on the social landscape. Biafra’s well-researched commentary and insightful observations are delivered with no little amount of humor, a necessary ingredient to keep the bile from rising up at the harsh reality these stories reveal.

Biafra has often been accused of “preaching to the choir,” that those listeners most likely to pick up spoken word albums like In The Grip Of Official Treason are those who likely already agree with Biafra’s anarcho-leftist worldview. However, I don’t necessarily agree with this criticism. A look at the album’s liner notes shows that pieces like “Punk Voter Rally Cry” and “Die For Oil, Sucker” have been taken from a variety of live performances. From the 2004 “Rock Against Bush” tour stop in Tempe, Arizona to the H.O.P.E. 2006 Hacker Conference in NYC, Biafra is often speaking before audiences that probably don’t hold firsthand memories of the Dead Kennedys. Many of his college-age audience members were still in diapers when Biafra released No More Cocoons, his first spoken word album, nearly twenty years ago.

The Punk Rock Diogenes

For many of Biafra’s young listeners, his observations come as a revelation, and the material you’ll find on In The Grip Of Official Treason is no different. The wide range of topics covered by Biafra, all obviously thought out in detail and well documented, is stunning and best swallowed in one-disc doses. Even for someone as well-read as the Reverend, Jello still manages to teach me something that I didn’t already know, opening my eyes to a new reality, however depressing it may be.

The most amazing thing about In The Grip Of Official Treason is that Biafra can still do this gig, that he still holds a glimmer of hope in the face of Democratic betrayal, Republican corruption and corporate greed. Biafra is the punk rock Diogenes searching for one honest man; or maybe he’s the left-wing Paul Revere, warning us of the coming storm. Either way, In The Grip Of Official Treason entertains and enlightens, and if it doesn’t piss you off, you’re just not listening… (Alternative Tentacles, released October 24, 2006)

Buy the CD from Jello Biafra's In the Grip of Official Treason

Friday, October 9, 2015

50 Years of Blues Legend Bobby Rush in One Cool Box!

Bobby Rush's Chicken Heads box set
The Reverend has long sang the praises of blues legend Bobby Rush, one of the most talented cats to ever step up to a microphone and strum a guitar, and one of the most genuinely nice people you could ever meet. Over the course of a storied career that has spanned some five decades and earned Rush ten Blues Music/W.C. Handy Awards – including the coveted “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” honor earlier this year – the singer has released a heck of a lot of great music for a plethora of record labels.

Any attempt to collect a complete Bobby Rush discography would put a serious dent in your bank account and probably drive a person certifiably mad trying to dig up a literal crate full of rare records. Thanks to the good folks at Omnivore Recordings, on November 27, 2015 you’ll be able spend your hard-earned coin on Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush, a four CD, 74-song deluxe box set that spans the singer’s entire career. Offering nearly five hours of music, Chicken Heads compiles material from 20 different record labels (!) and includes a 32-page booklet with notes by my esteemed colleague Bill Dahl, who knows this stuff better than anybody.

Born in Homer, Louisiana in 1933, Rush was originally influenced by his guitar and harmonica-playing father to experiment playing with a wire diddley-bow. Moving to Pine Bluff, Arkansas as a teen, Rush became friends with guitarist Elmore James and pianist Big Moose Walker and it was here that he formed his first bands. Relocating to Chicago in the 1950s, Rush played with blues greats like Muddy Waters, Luther Allison, and Jimmy Reed, and recorded at Chess Records. It would be the 1971 release of his Billboard R&B charting single “Chicken Heads,” on the indie Galaxy label, that would bring him to national prominence. Almost 30 years later, “Chicken Heads” would re-enter the charts after being featured in the movie Black Snake Moan.

Bobby Rush photo by James Patterson
Bobby Rush photo by James Patterson
Rush recorded his debut album, Rush Hour, in 1979 with producer Leon Huff for the Philadelphia International label, scoring a minor hit with the song “I Wanna Do The Do.” Rush would return to the south where he became a fixture on the “chitlin’ circuit,” touring the back roads of the southeast and southwest United States and earning a reputation as a dynamic live performer (Rush still performs almost 200 nights a year!) Along the way, the talented singer, songwriter, and musician developed his own unique style of blues called “folk funk,” the sound an amalgam of blues, soul, and funk music as only Bobby Rush could perform it. Rush has released better than two-dozen albums during his career, earned three Grammy® Award nominations, and a whopping 41 Blues Music Award nominations.

Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush offers material from Rush’s records for labels like Checker, Galaxy, Jewel, Philadelphia International, Malaco/Waldoxy, and LaJam Records as well as his own indie Deep Rush label. “It’s very exciting,” Rush says in a press release for the box set. “Truly I feel honored that someone would think enough of me to do this. The record side of it is the glory side of me and that’s the side that I want people to know and I’m grateful for that. I’m happy that someone thought before I leave this land to tell my story. I’m proud of it and flattered about it. I want the world to know that this is my first time and I want to say it for people to be enthused about me. I’m not enthused about all of the songs because at the time I didn’t think they were all good. But after you become a ‘legend,’ you look back and it all looks good. There are things you had in the can you didn’t want to put out, and then you get asked what you have in the can that’s never been heard to put it out.”

Buy the CD box set from Chicken Heads: A 50 Year History of Bobby Rush

Sunday, October 4, 2015

CD Review: Webb Wilder's Mississippi Mōderne (2015)

Webb Wilder's Mississippi Mōderne
It’s been nearly 30 years since Americana legend Webb Wilder released It Came From Nashville, the singer’s rowdy debut, thereby staking his claim alongside such ground-breaking Music City bands as Jason & the Scorchers, the Questionnaires, and Tim Krekel and the Sluggers, among others, as one of the best and brightest the city had to offer from the rough ‘n’ tumble Nashville rock underground of the 1980s. A brief flirtation with major label success resulted in a pair of excellent and influential albums – Hybrid Vigor and Doo Dad – but over the past decade or so, Wilder has recorded and toured sporadically.

Wilder released a couple of fine albums with roots ‘n’ blues label Blind Pig Records in 2008 and ’09, but he has returns to the sympathetic, Southern roots-rock imprint Landslide Records for Mississippi Mōderne. Wilder’s first new studio album in almost six years, and his first for Landslide since 2005’s excellent and tragically-overlooked About Time LP, he’s is backed on Mississippi Mōderne by his band the Beatnecks, comprised of longtime compatriots Tom Comet on bass and Jimmy Lester on drums, with guitarist Bob Williams and guests like guitarists George Bradfute and Joe V. McMahan. 

Webb Wilder’s Mississippi Mōderne

Wilder’s unique brew of roots-rock has always offered a fine balance between twang and bang, a blend of classic country and British Invasion influences with more than a soupçon of blues thrown in for flavor. You’ll find little different in the grooves of Mississippi Mōderne. It’s a familiar formula, and one that Wilder has always done well with, which is not to say that there’s anything formulaic with these white-hot new tunes – just the mad scientist that is Webb Wilder finding a new way to mix the same old elements into a new sonic gumbo.

The album is introduced by the haunting, Delta blues-styled “Stones In My Pathway,” a Robert Johnson influenced black cat moan that sets the stage for what follows. Wilder’s original “Rough and Tumble Guy” is a typical rocker from the “Last of the Full Grown Men,” the song long on twangy guitars, rollicking rhythms, and sly, boastful lyrics that would sound exaggerated coming from anybody other than the ever-humble WW. Honestly, how can you dislike a line like “I’ve been to hell and back again, brought back some bar-b-que for my friends,” which is surrounded by crashing drumbeats and piercing guitar licks?

Too Much Sugar For A Nickel

Where Wilder really shines is with his heartfelt love songs, of which Mississippi Mōderne has more than a few. “Only A Fool,” a Wilder co-write with Memphis soul legend Dan Penn, is one such example, a mid-tempo rocker that pours hot coals on the lyrical protagonist’s already-raw emotions. Wilder conveys heartbreak and misery with the bruised dignity of country great George Jones; even though his vocals express a winsome hopefulness, the tears are never far beneath the surface. A cover of the Conway Twitty deep track “Lonely Blue Boy” covers much the same thematic ground, albeit with crunchier guitars than the long-gone original, and a lurking rhythm that shadows all but Wilder’s deep baritone vocals. Whereas Conway was trying to sound like Elvis Presley, Wilder sounds more like Carl Perkins, re-making the song in his own indomitable manner.

Wilder’s “Too Much Sugar For A Nickel” is one of my two faves on Mississippi Mōderne, the sort of smooth-sounding, throwback roots-rocker with clever lyrics that has become a sort of signature for the singer. The title is a reference to any deal that’s too good to be true, and the love triangle Webb croons about here is provided a gentle but firm country-flavored soundtrack with shimmering guitars and steady drumbeats. In a similar vein, long-time Wilder friend and former producer R.S. Field contributes my second favorite song here, “I’m Not Just Anybody’s Fool,” which sounds not unlike some of Threk Michaels’ best-written ballads. Field is a scholar of old-school rock and country music and straddles the fine line between both here, Wilder’s voice is tailor-made for the song’s filigree lyrics, delivering the lovelorn plea with grace and elegance above some equally impressive fretwork.

Stones In My Pathway

It’s taken me a while to warm up to the blustery “Yard Dog,” and not just because of its psychobilly edge, Wilder’s studio-echoed vox, or the too-precious lyrics. The song’s swagger is built from chaotic guitar licks, machinegun drumbeats, and overall smothering instrumentation and kudzu-thick production that will have you suffering from claustrophobia before the end of the song. Showcasing his blues chops, Wilder takes on Chicago blues legend Otis Rush’s obscure “It Takes Time” (from Rush’s classic Mourning In The Morning LP). Scorching guitar licks open the track before Wilder’s larger-than-life voice jumps in headfirst. Wilder and the Beatnecks capture the spirit of Rush’s original, but pump it up on steroids with finger-blistering fretwork, a hale and hearty bass line, and big beat drums. Wilder walks even farther onto blues turf with an inspired cover of the great Jimmy Reed’s “I’m Gonna Get My Baby,” the band building an unassailable wall of sound atop of which Wilder’s studio-altered vocals are blasting alongside otherworldly guitars.

There are a lot of romantic ‘fools’ to be found on Mississippi Mōderne – we’ve heard “Only A Fool” and “I’m Not Just Anybody’s Fool” already, and Wilder pulls off a trifecta with an astounding cover of country great Charlie Rich’s “Who Will The Next Fool Be?” With a low-key instrumental arrangement that features a heavy dose of guest Micah Hulscher’s jazz-flecked, honky-tonk piano, Webb belts out an emotional take on the country classic. Mississippi Mōderne closes out with a full-length “Stones In My Pathway,” Wilder’s eerie voice altered to sound as if it’s emerging from an ancient 78rpm slab o’ sandpapered shellac. The song’s upbeat tempo and church revival fervor perfectly captures a Delta blues vibe, and it could just as easily be Charlie Patton tearing the roof off this juke-joint as WW.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

I don’t believe that Webb Wilder has every made a bad record – only good and great – and the Rev has heard every single one of ‘em! Still, Mississippi Mōderne is, perhaps, the best album Wilder’s made since It Came From Nashville. In the hands of a lesser artist, this ramshackle mix of garage-rock, blues, and old-school country music would sink like an over-inflated soufflé, and the album’s often over-the-top lyrics would lack in sincerity coming from a singer without Wilder’s charismatic personality. Backed by the grizzled veterans that comprise the Beatnecks, though, Wilder delivers a powerful and entertaining collection in Mississippi Mōderne. Grade: A+ (Landslide Records, released September 25, 2015)

Buy the CD from Webb Wilder's Mississippi Mōderne

Fossils: Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power (1973)

Iggy & the Stooges' Raw Power
[click to embiggen]
Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power

The early 1970s was a tumultuous time for Iggy Pop and the (Psychedelic) Stooges. While the band had released a pair of critically-acclaimed albums in The Stooges (1969) and Fun House (1970) that would eventually become two of the most influential and iconic albums in rock music history. Both albums were deemed commercial busts, though, and the band couldn’t get arrested even in their Motor City hometown. As the various members drifted into hardcore substance abuse, Iggy tried to keep the band afloat by juggling the line-up and adding underrated guitarist James Williamson, but it looked as if the Stooges were about to become mere rock ‘n’ roll footnotes when an unexpected savior stepped in to put the band on the road to immortality.

A chance meeting in 1972 between Iggy Pop and David Bowie would lead to the British glam-rock star taking the wheel of the badly listing Stooges ship of state and, temporarily at least, setting the band on a straight course. Bowie’s manager took on the band, and the singer – who was at the height of his Ziggy Stardust era fame – took the band into the studio to record their important, groundbreaking third album. Released in 1973, Raw Power would ultimately provide a template for young punks around the world to follow just a couple years later, and songs like “Search and Destroy,” “Gimme Danger,” “Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell,” and the high-octane title track would inspire a several subsequent generations of young, loud, and snotty rockers.

The Columbia Records ad for the album featured the iconic photo of a young Iggy Stooge strangling the microphone alongside influential quotes from Creem magazine’s Dave Marsh and Rolling Stone’s Lenny Kaye (future Patti Smith Band guitarist)…simple, but effective, conveying both the band’s sense of danger (now billed as “Iggy and the Stooges”) and the energetic nature of the music to be found in the grooves.

Coyote Records resurrected with Speed the Plough

Coyote Records logoFounded by Steve Fallon and Bill Ryan in 1982, the esteemed New Jersey-based indie-rock label Coyote Records* was, perhaps, the hottest East Coast imprint during the decade (sorry Gerard…). Coyote released albums by such acclaimed and influential artists as Yo La Tengo, The Feelies, Beat Rodeo, Chris Stamey of the dBs, and New Jersey’s favorite sons, Speed the Plough. A 1985 compilation album of Coyote label acts titled Luxury Condos Coming To Your Neighborhood Soon has since become a sought-after, premium-priced collectors’ item.

Fallon was also the owner of the legendary Hoboken NJ club Maxwell’s, which was a destination venue for such college-radio-ready performers as Husker Du, the Replacements, and R.E.M. among many others. Fallon also supported NY/NJ area artists who came to define the “Hoboken Sound” of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, a scene well-documented in the pages of Jim Testa’s Jersey Beat music zine (full disclosure: the Reverend contributed album reviews to Jersey Beat for years). 

“At the time, a lot of the bands who I became close to through Maxwell’s were struggling to find record labels to put out their first releases,” Fallon says in a press release for the revived label. “So I thought I could help and that's basically why I started Coyote. Of course, the most important thing was that I really liked the music they were making.” Coyote released dozens of albums and singles during the ten years it was in business, with Fallon closing the doors in 1993 and selling his interest in Maxwell’s a few months later.

Speed the Plough
Speed the Plough
Nevertheless, Fallon was still interested in music and – inspired, perhaps, by young fans buying vinyl records from his Delaware-based store Gidget’s Gadgets – Fallon will resurrect Coyote Records on a limited basis with the December release of a new album by veteran Jersey rockers Speed the Plough. Titled Now, the twelve-song collection was recorded in 2014 and early 2015 and will be the band’s first album since 2011’s Shine.

Formed by John and Toni Baumgartner and Marc Francia in 1984, Speed the Plough has featured numerous band line-ups through the years, its roster including Stanley Demeski and Brenda Sauter of the Feelies, and well-known rock critic Jim DeRogatis (another Jersey Beat alumnus), among others. STP released four full-length albums on the East Side Digital label, beginning with 1989’s self-titled debut and ending with 1995’s Marina, all featuring band’s high-energy jangle-pop sound.

The Baumgartners reformed Speed the Plough in 2009 and have been going strong ever since. The band's return to Coyote Records – the label which released their earliest recordings – should be a nice fit for both.

* Fallon’s Coyote Records should not be confused with either the U.K. record label or Russian metal label of the same name. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

CD Preview: Flying Colors’ Second Flight

Flying Colors' Second Flight
On November 13th, 2015 Music Theories Recordings (through the Mascot Label Group) will release Second Flight: Live at the Z7 from prog-rock supergroup Flying Colors. The album – the band’s fourth and its second live recording – will be released in multiple formats, including CD, Blu-ray and DVD, vinyl album (with mp3 download card), and as a digital download through online services like iTunes and Pono, among other formats.

Second Flight documents a 2014 performance by the band at Switzerland’s Z7 venue, which was captured on film and features material from Flying Colors’ second studio album, Second Nature. The band had only performed seven times before this night, and was still exploring and perfecting their arrangements for the songs, the band and audience discovering the new material together. The band brought the same dedication to excellence in recording the show as they do with their performance. An audio-only version of the concert will be available in Headphone Surround, in formats up to uncompressed 24-bit/192 kHz from vendors like Pono.

Every one of the show’s mixes was mastered to 2” analogue tape and digitized separately for each audio format. The audio quality was maximized through the use of a new audio engineering process, Harmonic Phrase Analysis, which was developed specifically for use at the band’s show at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, and the video was mastered by special effects company Cinnafilm, using their Dark Energy technology (IMAX). Using 24 different cameras to record the performance (!), the resulting sound and imagery is the next best thing to actually witnessing the show yourself.

Formed in 2008, Flying Colors is an assemblage of virtuoso musicians: keyboardist and singer Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, and solo), guitarist Steve Morse (Deep Purple, Dixie Dregs), bassist Dave LaRue (Dixie Dregs), and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Transatlantic) along with lead vocalist Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev). The band released its critically-acclaimed self-titled debut album in 2012, quickly following it up with 2013’s Live In Europe set.

Second Nature was released in late 2014, the band finding new fans with its expansive sound and dynamic live performances. About the album, All Music Guide’s Matt Collar wrote “if on their debut Flying Colors were finding their footing as a neophyte ensemble, on Second Nature they reveal a newfound cohesion born out of their 2012 tour …consequently, this is an album that balances the group's virtuosic talents with moments of orchestral lyricism, folk-inflected balladry, and powerhouse rock anthems.” Featuring eight of nine songs from Second Nature, along with other inspired material, I expect that Second Flight is gonna kick ass!

Buy the CD from Flying Colors' Second Flight: Live At The Z7

Friday, October 2, 2015

CD Review: Anderson Ponty Band's Better Late Than Never

Anderson Ponty Band's Better Late Than Never
They’re both bona fide legends – singer/songwriter Jon Anderson and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. Anderson, of course, spent 35 years fronting prog-pop chartbusters Yes, but has also enjoyed a lengthy and successful solo career as well as working on ground-breaking collaborations with musicians as diverse as Rick Wakeman, Vangelis, and Kitaro (plus there was one solid album by the Yes spin-off band Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe).

Ponty may be less well-known to rock music fans, but he’s no less a talent. A traditional jazz violinist who had flirted with bop and free-jazz styles, Ponty pioneered the use of electric violin in both jazz and rock music; he helped create and define jazz-rock fusion during his stint with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra; and he left his mark on the world of rock ‘n’ roll with his tenure as a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. As a solo artist, Ponty earned acclaim with a slew of eclectic late 1970s albums like Imaginary Voyage and Cosmic Messenger; while in the 1980s and ‘90s, Ponty broke new ground by incorporating synthesizers and other electronics with his violin to create an invigorating and unique sound.

Anderson Ponty Band’s Better Late Than Never

Given their past accomplishments, as well as a propensity for working well with others, it comes as no surprise that these two talents would join their creative mojos together and form the Anderson Ponty Band. Anderson and Ponty are backed by members of Ponty’s touring band, including guitarist Jamie Glaser (whose parts were dubbed in later…long story), bassist Baron Browne, keyboardist Wally Minko, and drummer Rayford Griffin – who, between them all, have experience playing with folks like Chick Corea, Billy Cobham, and Stanley Clarke as well as pop idols like Pink, Toni Braxton, and Michael Jackson.

Together, this is the group that created Better Late Than Never, recording a live performance at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado in September 2014. The fourteen-track, hour-long set is an invigorating mix of prog, pop, and fusion as the band revisits both songs from Anderson’s time with Yes and his solo career as well as tunes from Ponty’s vast back catalog. The brief instrumental intro that opens Better Late Than Never draws upon familiar musical themes from Yes, but the band jumps headfirst into “One In The Rhythms of Hope,” Anderson’s angelic vocals a fine match for Ponty’s otherworldly violin riffs. I particularly like Griffin’s subtle use of what sound like vibes at key moments in the arrangement.

Renaissance of the Sun

The band’s take on the Yes classic “Owner of A Lonely Heart” is generous with new flourishes, the band re-interpreting the song and providing it with just as much muscle as the original, but with Ponty’s buzzsaw violin providing a bit of rough grit to the performance. The shimmering, dancing “Listening With Me” provides a contrast to its predecessor, but the song is no less intense, Anderson’s impressive vocal gymnastics moving perfectly with the instrumentation’s fluid time changes. The exotic rhythm of the Yes deep cut “Time and A Word” is exaggerated and even funkier thanks to a flexible rhythm section and Ponty’s hypnotic violin notes.

“Infinite Mirage” is a breathtaking fusion of Anderson’s songwriting skills and Ponty’s instrumental talents. Anderson takes the Ponty song “Mirage” from his Enigmatic Ocean album and adds words, his silken vocals punctuated by Ponty’s high-flying performance. The free-flowing “Renaissance of the Sun” is a stunning example of the assembled band’s virtuosity, the song masterfully blending electrifying jazz-rock fusion with 1970s-era prog-rock Yes in the creation of a truly impressive performance. Ponty’s violin is threaded throughout, Minko’s mournful piano provides an emotional counterpoint, and Anderson’s vocals add light and texture. The Anderson Ponty Band’s reading of the classic rock radio staple “Roundabout” lacks Yes’s glorious harmonies and Rick Wakeman’s classically-manic keyboards, but otherwise the band acquits itself well and delivers an invigorating take on a familiar tune.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The Anderson Ponty Band’s two-disc Better Late Than Never includes a ten-song concert DVD that features some of the best performances from the show, the band playing against a cool video backdrop with changing graphics. One minor cavil for what is otherwise an excellent collection of music – evidently Jamie Glaser’s fretwork was edited in using some high falutin’ production wizardry, replacing original guitarist Jamie Dunlap’s performance. You can watch the DVD and not only is Dunlap not introduced as part of the band, his appearance onstage is downplayed by the video editing.

The aforementioned complaint aside, as good as Glaser’s guitar playing is – overdubbed or not – the focus on Better Late Than Never is on Anderson’s soaring vocals and Ponty’s raging violin play. Both men definitely bring their best game to play on these performances, which serves to highlight the intrinsic talents of both. Anderson and Ponty have been talking about working together for 30 years. In this case, “better late than never” is an appropriate album title, the Anderson Ponty Band delivering a dynamic and entertaining live set that is one of the best things to happen to prog-rock in decades. Grade: A- (Liaison Music, released September 25, 2015)

Buy the CD from Anderson Ponty Band's Better Late Than Never

Thursday, October 1, 2015

CD Preview: Leslie West’s Soundcheck

Leslie West's Soundcheck
Guitar God Leslie West will be roaring once again come on November 20th, 2015 when Provogue Records releases his 16th solo album, titled Soundcheck. The follow-up to West’s critically-acclaimed 2013 set Still Climbing, the new disc seems to be a mix of new material and previously-unreleased performances that have been pulled from the archives, given a new coat of attitude, and unleashed on the public on Soundcheck.

Among the guests joining West in making music for the new album are guitarists Peter Frampton and Brian May of Queen, former Jeff Beck keyboardist Max Middleton, singer Bonnie Bramlett, and West’s old West, Bruce & Laing bandmate, bassist Jack Bruce. Soundcheck was co-produced by West and engineer Mike “Metal” Goldberg and features West wielding his instrument on an inspired mix of original material and often-unusual cover songs.

West tackles the blues standard “Goin’ Down” with the ferocity of Freddie King. Joined by Queen’s May on guitar, pianist Middleton, legendary Muscle Shoals session bassist David Hood, Bobby Whitlock on keyboards, and Bramlett on backing vocals, West tears through the song like a hungry dog into a t-bone, sharing solos with May, the two guitarist’s differing styles oddly complimentary. Soundcheck also features a reverent, haunting cover of Curtis Mayfield’s soul classic “People Get Ready,” which offers some incredible guitarwork; a reading of Tracy Chapman’s hit “Give Me Just One Reason,” performed in a soaring blues style; and a raucous live version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” recorded in 1988 with Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and Joe Franco on drums.

West’s sizzling slide-guitar playing is punctuated by Frampton’s fretwork on a minor-key cover of “You Are My Sunshine” that represents another odd musical choice. “I watch the television show, Sons of Anarchy,” says West in a press release for Soundcheck, “and during one episode, a minor-key version of this song was playing in the background. I thought, Whoa…that sounds so different! I recorded it and sent it to Peter, and we trade solos and then play harmony lines together at the end. Also, I’m playing slide while he’s playing conventionally. His tone is phenomenal on this, with a warm sound and a really nice vibrato, and he loved the arrangement. To take a song you’ve heard all of your life and change it around like this is very cool.”

Considering a career that dates back to the Vagrants in the late 1960s, hard rock titans Mountain during the 1970s, and a legendary solo career that has spanned five decades, West muses “you know, when it comes to talent, we don’t all move at the same rate of speed. Some people start at the top of their game and after 10 or 20 years you wonder what the hell happened to them. I like to joke that the older I get, the better I used to be, but after giving up drugs and smoking, my voice can hit notes that I never could reach before. I’m thankful for that.” Listening to Soundcheck, it just might be West’s best of a long and accomplished career.

Buy the CD from Leslie West's Soundcheck

Archive Review: Peter Guralnick's Careless Love (1999)

Peter Guralnick's Careless Love
Subtitled “The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley,” Careless Love is Peter Guralnick's second book on the great American icon, a sequel of sorts to the writer's critically-acclaimed Last Train To Memphis. Picking up where his first book left off, Guralnick chronicles the life of Elvis from his induction into the Army in 1958 through his death almost twenty years later.

Careless Love, by any accounts, is an exhaustive work, with some six hundred and fifty pages of story, over six hundred footnotes and more than a dozen pages of bibliography. For his work on both books, Guralnick is to be envied as a scholar and a journalist. Created from hundreds of personal interviews, magazine articles, and books, Careless Love will leave you knowing more about the rise and fall of Elvis than you ever cared to know.

Nonetheless, it's a story worth telling. Elvis was the first true rock star, and if his excesses and undignified death have been documented extensively elsewhere, they've not been done to this extent or provided such context. Guralnick's Elvis is a troubled man, an artist whose startling rise to fame only created its own problems. Elvis had his eccentricities, to be sure – his fondness for underage girls, for instance, is knowledge to even the most casual Elvis fan, but Guralnick puts it in perspective, with Elvis' desire for innocence and purity represented by these teenage paramours. Elvis was also a responsible man, a corporate kingpin with dozens of relatives and employees on the payroll.

Most of all, Guralnick's Elvis was an immature man, burdened with unprecedented fame and the fortune to indulge his fantasies. Self-centered to a fault, Elvis always had to be the center of attention and affection, and would often play friends, relatives and employees off one another, manipulating them for his own purposes and enjoyment. Given the sordid debauchery of today's standard rock star, Elvis was a choirboy. He always had his girlfriends, often times carrying on relationships with more than one woman (or girl) at a time.

He was sincerely against drugs, although his own abuse of various pharmaceutical substances escaped him. He and his posse often got rowdy and tore up hotels and such, and, at times, would rough up overzealous hangers-on. But, in his heart Elvis was a good-natured, conservative, God-fearing mama's boy from deep in the heart of Dixie. All else aside, this is how Elvis pictured himself, and who are we to argue with it?

Guralnick goes into great depth in Careless Love on the relationship between Elvis and Col. Tom Parker, his manager and promoter and, perhaps, the real creator of the myth that was Elvis. It's interesting to read of the love/hate relationship between Elvis and the older Parker, the lengths to which Parker would go to ensure “his boy's” success and loyalty. The details of Elvis' relationship with Priscilla are also laid bare, from his earliest infatuation with a teenage girl through their stormy marriage and eventual divorce.

One important myth, that of Elvis' racism, is touched upon only marginally by Guralnick, mostly in tales of Elvis' meetings with various R & B artists. From my reading of Careless Love, it doesn't seem to me that Elvis Presley was more or less bigoted than any other Southern white male of the era. Often accused of “ripping off” black artists, Elvis has a sincere love for many blues, gospel, and R & B songs and artists and, indeed, helped the careers of many of the black artists he respected.

Another myth shattered by Guralnick is that of the “evil” Doctor Nick. A Memphis physician, who ended up on Elvis' payroll, Dr. George Nichopoulos is usually made the villain of the Elvis story. Guralnick gets to the heart of the matter, which is that Dr. Nick, as he was known, truly cared for Elvis. Realizing that he couldn't control his famous patient – much less oversee his actions twenty-four hours a day – instead Dr. Nick did his best to try and lessen the impact of various drugs on Elvis' system and keep the star alive, if not healthy. There were plenty of other unscrupulous physicians and pharmacists who were ready and willing to provide whatever pills and powders that Elvis wanted, and Dr. Nick fought a valiant battle to try and keep Elvis from killing himself. He failed in the end and, with Elvis' death, became the scapegoat for Presley's self-destructive behavior.

At its core, Careless Love is the story of a man overwhelmed by his fame and the expectations that accompanied it. Like many artists that would follow, Elvis fell prey to celebrity and its requirements. An uncertain man, Elvis was never quite sure that he was good enough, that he could juggle performing and recording and movies and keep the fan's adoration that he craved. Only in the music did Elvis find release, and in the end even it couldn't save him. It's the music that Elvis created, however, that built and continuesth and legacy that is Elvis Presley. (Little, Brown 1999)

Buy the book from Peter Guralnick's Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley