Friday, August 14, 2020

Archive Review: Spock's Beard's Gluttons For Punishment, Live In '05 (2005)

Spock's Beards' Gluttons For Punishment
The remaining members of Spock's Beard had a lot to live up to when founding member and songwriter Neal Morse left the band a couple of years back. The major architect of the trademark Spock's sound, Morse's departure forced the other band members to step up and take the reins of the popular prog-rock trailblazers.

With drummer Nick D'Virgilio assuming lead vocal duties and underrated guitarist Al Morse stepping into the spotlight more often, the band took on a harder, rock-oriented edge with its two post-Neal albums, Feeling Euphoria and Octane. The band developed a collective approach to songwriting that took advantage of their individual strength's, bringing in friends John Boeghold and Stan Ausmus for lyrical assistance where needed.

Spock's Beard's Gluttons For Punishment

All that was missing was for the "new" band to establish its identity as a top-notch performance outfit, a questionable goal they seem to have rapidly achieved. After all, this is basically the same batch of guys that recorded such classic modern prog albums as The Light and Beware of Darkness. Morse's abdication changed the band's sound and, perhaps, its focus but the talent and instrumental creativity remained in place. As documented by Gluttons For Punishment, the first live set from Spock's Beard, version II, any questions about the band's performance skills were absurd from the beginning.

Recorded during Spock's Beard's Spring 2005 European tour, Gluttons For Punishment, Live In '05 effectively recreates the recent Octane album almost in its entirety and in virtually the same running order as the studio original. Although it's unusual for a band to release a live disc in such close proximity to a studio album, the clamoring of fans evidently tipped the band's hand. There is some embroidery provided the studio versions of the Octane songs, albeit very little, and although the performances are dynamic and multi-layered, one can't help but wonder what a little more time might have added to these songs in the way of instrumental interpretation.

At the End of the Day

The band all but ignores its recent Feeling Euphoria album, covering only two of that disc's songs in "The Bottom Line" and "Ghosts of Autumn," alongside a sparse selection of songs from earlier Spock's releases. "Harm's Way," from 1998's The Kindness of Strangers, provides an ample dose of keyboard wizard Ryo Okumoto's mad riffing while also offering an excellent showcase for Al Morse's understated and elegant fretwork. V's "At the End of the Day" kicks off the second disc, D'Virgilio's vocals taking the song in different directions than Morse's original reading, the tune benefiting from some improvisational jazz-rock fusion styled passages.

Since taking over as the band's frontman, D'Virgilio vocals have steadily improved, the talented drummer also forging a distinctive vocal identity around the band's evolving sound. Nowhere is D'Virgilio's confidence more evident than on the album-closing, nearly twenty-minute revisiting of "The Light" from the very first Spock's Beard album. The vocalist stretches his talents to their limits in recreating the roller-coaster highs and lows and dangerous curves of the song's lengthy and varied performance. Given new muscle by the various players' more aggressive direction, "The Light" is both a reminder of the past and a bridge to the band's musical future.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Spock's Beard remains one of the most intriguing and innovative bands on the modern progressive rock landscape, a wonderful match of talents and musical chemistry that has continuously moved forward for over 20 years. Gluttons For Punishment, Live In '05 is a fair snapshot of this moment in time for Spock's Beard, an entertaining and exhilarating performance from one of the guiding lights of the current prog-rock movement. (Inside Out Music, released May 3, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Buy the CD from Spock's Beard's Gluttons For Punishment

Archive Review: Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica (2005)

Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica
Longtime David Bowie foil and session gunslinger-for-hire Reeves Gabrels isn't a well-known name, even among guitar fanatics...though he should be. Besides recording and performing alongside the legendary rocker for most of the '90s, Gabrels has also turned in admirable session work with a diverse range of artists like Ozzy Osbourne, Public Enemy, the Cure and the Mission UK. Although his solo recordings have been few and far between, with several years spanning each effort, Gabrels' third album – Rockonica – should be the one that puts his name on the rock 'n' roll map for good.

Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica

Whereas on previous albums Gabrels would call in favors from famous frontmen like Bowie or the Cure's Robert Smith to provide vox on his songs, with Rockonica the axeman truly flies solo without a net, handling most, if not all the singing chores. It's not surprising to say that his vocals aren't half bad, his soulful Yankee drawl working well with the material. Sure, he's no Bowie, but Gabrels' voice does bring a bounce to his lyrics, with a cadence that is reminiscent of Wayne Kramer's early solo work. This is no coincidence, I'm sure, since Kramer drummer Brock Avery is on board, providing a rhythmic, Motor City edge to the songs (especially on "Underneath," which quotes quite liberally from the Kramer playebook).

It's all academic, really, since Rockonica is, first and foremost, a showcase for Gabrels' enormous skills. A vastly underrated guitarist often overlooked in the music media's rush to crown a new "guitar god," Gabrels is a hard rock instrumentalist with an avant-garde heart. Think of a cross between Johnny Thunders and Robert Quine and you're probably in the right ballpark. Gabrels' material cuts across stylistic barriers and genre considerations, the six-string maestro mixing straight-ahead rock riffs with taut leads that unwind like a runaway spool of razor wire. Angular, prog-flavored song structure, heavy metal thunder and jazzy, free-form improvisational soloing are blended together with incredible phrasing, unmistakable tone and breathtaking dynamics.

Gabrels is no string-shredder like Zakk Wilde or fretboard racer like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Reeves Gabrels is an entirely different creature, an experimental musician whose powerful performances and instrumental wizardry don't get in the way of having a good time. The ten-minute "Anywhere (She Is)," for instance, offers more twists and turns than a mountain road while "The Conversation" starts out big and blustery, like prog-rock run amok, before settling into a minimalist soundtrack with odd time signatures and an almost bluesy riff. "Leper" offers some tasty lead work before bouncing into a funky groove of '70s vintage while the lengthy, epic "Long Day" displays just about every weapon in Gabrels' toolbox, from slow, considerate chording to shimmering, hypnotic fretwork.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

If you're the type of listener that appreciates skillful guitar playing within a heavy rock 'n' roll background, then Rockonica might just possibly be an album worth looking for. With more experience than today's typically young string-bender, and with a penchant for coaxing just about any damn sound out of his stick, Reeves Gabrels creates music that is intelligent, challenging and, ultimately, rewarding in a way that much of the current corporate chart-fodder fails to achieve. (Favored Nations Records, released 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Buy the CD from Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica

Friday, August 7, 2020

Archive Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' True Companion (2004)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' True Companion
Pittsburgh’s Joe Grushecky may well be rock music’s least-known cult artist, his longtime backing band the Houserockers the best bar band in America. An underrated songwriter and storyteller and a guitarist of no little skill, if not for his connection with fellow blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen, Grushecky would get no respect at all. In the eyes of many critics, however, Grushecky’s 2002 solo effort Fingerprints outdistanced Springsteen’s The Rising in both ambition and pure rock ‘n’ roll thrills.

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ True Companion

Working without the Houserockers net, Grushecky’s solo turn was impressive, but it also proved to be invigorating. Back in the studio with the band he’s fronted in one form or another for a quarter-century, True Companion is the Houserockers’ sixth studio album and first release in almost five years. The time apart has allowed players like guitarist Billy Toms, bassist Art Nardini, drummer Joffo Simmons, and the others to recharge their batteries. The chemistry between band and band leader is undeniable and Grushecky has delivered a solid batch of songs for True Companion, the Houserockers responding with spirited, energetic performances that have more in common with the Stones, CCR, and Memphis soul than with anything you’ll hear on the radio these days.

Grushecky is at his best when writing about his place in the world around him, and True Companion offers several insightful (and revealing) glimpses into the soul of the man. “A Long Way To Go” is a perfect recounting of the joys of rock ‘n’ roll, the lyrics tracing the artist from enthusiastic teenage rocker to middle-aged family man and rock ‘n’ roll lifer who has come too far to quit now. It’s as close to a biography as Grushecky has allowed, the defiant closing lines – “I still want to rock and roll/Hell I’m only in my fifties/And I still got a long way to go” – stating that the old dog still has some music left in him yet.

“Strange Days” is the opposite side of the coin, however, the wondering aloud of a man whose best efforts have been overshadowed by the success of lesser artists. Grushecky has always ignored trends, playing a timeless style of rock ‘n’ roll, although it has cost him greatly. “If only I would have known,” he sings, “maybe I would have changed my look.” He continues “Someday I’m going to write a book/And tell the world out there/About a mighty man they have overlooked/And spread my philosophy/Hey man, it ain’t what you eat, it’s who’s the cook.” Whether we like it or not, age catches up with all of us, and self-doubt creeps in when “all the things I like are so outdated.” Grushecky knows that the world has little place for a fifty-something rocker that few have heard of, yet he continues to hope that “tomorrow’s a better day.”

A Shot of Salvation

It is with the title cut, “True Companion,” however, that Grushecky delivers on every promise that he has ever made to his listeners. With a mournful melody reminiscent of Springsteen’s “The River,” the artist questions his ability to carry on in the face of indifference. In reflecting, he draws strength from those he cherishes – his father, his wife, and his family. Seldom has Grushecky’s guitarwork flown so high, punctuating his lyrics with a lonesome wail that channels the ghosts of a dozen Delta bluesmen. It’s not the only time on True Companion that Grushecky calls upon his family to get him through – “Count On You” is a wonderful love song for his wife, a Southern fried rocker with a funky rhythm and enough joy to share, a musical departure and a lyrical gem.

Grushecky has not abandoned his trademark tales of blue-collar woe on True Companion. “She’s A Big Girl Now” tells the story of a domestic abuse victim that manages to break free and start a new life while “A Shot Of Salvation” offers the lament of every family living paycheck to paycheck in a world where there are “too many songs, not enough soul.” The lively “A Silver Spoon” pokes fun at the privileged few that run this country while “The Shape I’m In” is a hard-rocking accounting of the fears experienced every day by both those who punch a clock and those who have no clock to punch. An electrifying cover of the garage rock classic “Dirty Water” is dedicated to the hometown that has supported Grushecky for decades (and the three rivers that define the city).

The album closes with “Call Him,” the artist coming to grips with the trials and self-doubt experienced across the previous ten songs, finding solace in his faith and the ability to carry on in the face of the dream-crushing daily treadmill. “Well I get up in the morning/And I do it all again/And I never tell nobody/About the pain I’m in” sings Grushecky, searching for a light to lead him out of darkness. It’s a powerful and personal song and a magnificent testimonial. Throughout all of True Companion, Grushecky’s guitar moans and cries and screams like a tortured soul, the Houserockers offering dignified support behind Grushecky’s soulful vocals.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Far too often has Joe Grushecky been compared to Bruce Springsteen, denied his place as a rock ‘n’ roll original. If not for decisions made long ago, or perhaps a stroke of luck or fate’s touch or whatever you want to call it, their roles might have been reversed. Grushecky is a true rocker, an artist of distinctive voice that stands in nobody’s shadow. He keeps struggling to create the perfect rock ‘n’ roll album because that’s all he knows to do. True Companion showcases Grushecky’s best work yet, proof positive that you’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll. (Schoolhouse Records, released January 27th, 2004)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2004

Also on That Devil

Saturday, August 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: August 2020 releases

Is it hot enough for ya?! Yeah, it's August and the summer has been every bit the slog we thought it would be. Half the country is eat up with the Covid and the other half is trying to avoid the virus. The good news is that while the month starts out slow, it picks up by week three with a slew of new music from folks like King Buzzo, Cidny Bullens, Guided by Voices, the Lemon Twigs, Chuck Prophet, Deep Purple, reggae legends Toots & the Maytals, and blues giants Walter Trout and Bobby Rush, among others. Throw in a live sets from Iggy & the Stooge and Nils Lofgren and reissues from the Flamin' Groovies, the Tom Tom Club, and Collective Soul and August is starting to look pretty good! 

Release dates are probably gonna change and nobody tells me when they do. If you’re interesting in buying an album, just hit the ‘Buy!’ link to get it from’s just that damn easy! Your purchase puts valuable ‘store credit’ in the Reverend’s pocket that he’ll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy! If you're boycotting Amazon and don't have an indie record store close by, may we suggest shopping with our friends at Grimey's Music in Nashville? They have a great selection of vinyl available by mail order, offer quick service, and if you don't see what you want on their website, check out their Discogs shop!

Deep Purple's Whoosh!

Collective Soul - Collective Soul [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Collective Soul - Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Deep Purple - Whoosh!   BUY!
The Flamin' Groovies - Jumpin' In the Night   BUY!
Glass Animals - Dreamland   BUY!
The Stooges - Live At Goose Lake: August 8th, 1970   BUY!

Biffy Clyro's A Celebration of Endings

Biffy Clyro - A Celebration of Endings   BUY!
King Buzzo - Gift of Sacrifice   BUY!
Robbby Krieger - The Ritual Begins At Sundown   BUY!

Nils Lofgren's Weathered

Cidny Bullens - Walkin' Through This World   BUY!
The Georgia Thunderbolts - The Georgia Thunderbolts EP   BUY!
Guided By Voices - Mirrored Aztec   BUY!
The Killers - Imploding the Mirage   BUY!
The Lemon Twigs - Songs For the General Public   BUY!
Nils Lofgren - Weathered [live album]   BUY!
Old 97's - Twelfth   BUY!
Chuck Prophet - The Land That Time Forgot   BUY!
Tom Tom Club - Tom Tom Club [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Various Artists - Willie Nile Uncovered [tribute album w/Nils Lofgren, Graham Parker, Elliott Murphy, others]   BUY!

Toots & the Maytals' Got To Be Tough

My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall II   BUY!
Dan Penn - Living On Mercy [Memphis soul legend]   BUY!
Bobby Rush - Rawer Than Raw   BUY!
Savoy Brown - Ain't Done Yet   BUY!
Toots & the Maytals - Got To Be Tough   BUY!
Walter Trout - Ordinary Madness   BUY!

Willie Nile Uncovered

Album of the Month: It's no secret that we're big Willie Nile fans 'round these parts (Willie is from WNY, after all!), but even in a month with new albums from the great Walter Trout and a live Nils Lofgren set, the tribute compilation Willie Nile Uncovered would stand out. Nile is an extremely gifted songwriter, and this two-disc, 26-song set features other very talented folks like Elliott Murphy, Graham Parker, Dan Bern, Richard Barone, Nils Lofgren, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky, among many others, interpreting songs from across the four decades of Nile's critically-acclaimed career. If you're unfamiliar with Mr. Nile, you owe it to yourself to check out Willie Nile Uncovered