Friday, July 29, 2022

Archive Review: The Zombies’ Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London (2012)

The Zombies offer up a textbook example of the magic of rock ‘n’ roll to create legend out of obscurity. Formed in the U.K. in 1961 by singer Colin Blunstone, guitarist Paul Atkinson, bassist Chris White, keyboardist Rod Argent, and drummer Hugh Grundy, the band was signed by Decca Records after winning a local music competition. They scored a hit single right out of the gate when the Argent-penned “She’s Not There” charted in both the U.K. and the U.S. in August 1964. The Zombies rode the British Invasion wave into the U.S. Top Ten with Argent’s “Tell Her No” later in ‘64, but half a dozen or so subsequent single releases failed to match the band’s earlier chart success, and Decca dropped the band in early 1967.

The Zombies had spent a couple years of hard touring across the United States, performing alongside folks like Dusty Springfield and the Searchers when they signed a last-gasp deal with CBS Records which resulted in what has since become known as the band’s magnum opus, the wonderful Odessey and Oracle. An inspired mix of the band’s British R&B roots and contemporary late 1960s psychedelic pop/rock with symphonic overtones, support by the label for the making of Odessey and Oracle was virtually non-existent. This forced the band to use a then-novel Mellotron to mimic orchestral passages because they couldn’t afford studio musicians on the miniscule recording budget provided by CBS. When the label demanded a stereo mix of the album (which was recorded in mono), Argent and White footed the cost themselves.

Odessey and Oracle

The album sank like a stone in the band’s homeland, and was only released in the U.S. because of support from Columbia Records A&R man Al Kooper, a talented musician and songwriter in his own right, who had bought a copy of Odessey and Oracle during a trip to London and recognized its brilliance. By the time of the album’s late 1968 U.S. release, the Zombies had already broken up and Rod Argent had begun forming his self-named hard rock band with Zombies bandmate Chris White…all of which made the unexpected success of “Time of the Season,” which would rise to #3 on the U.S. charts in late 1969, all the more awkward. The band members declined to tour in support of the album and hit single, resulting in at least three counterfeit versions of the band touring the states as “the Zombies” well into the 1980s.

Odessey and Oracle
Somewhere along the line, though, that ol’ rock ‘n’ roll magic kicked in, and as new audiences discovered Odessey and Oracle, the album became a bona fide record collectors’ dream, a holy grail of 1960s-era psychedelic pop that commanded hundreds of dollars for an original vinyl copy. Music historians connected the dots between the Zombies and like-minded “sunshine pop” bands like Left Banke and the Millennium, while musicians like Paul Weller and Dave Grohl confessed their admiration for the band and its landmark album. In the wake of renewed enthusiasm for their work, three of the five original members reunited briefly during the 1990s to record a new studio album, mostly to retain their rights to the Zombies name.

In 2008, Blunstone and Argent got back together and re-formed the band with White and Grundy to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle with a series of live shows. The duo has been at it ever since, touring annually as the Zombies featuring Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, the two joined by former Argent/Kinks bassist Jim Rodford and his son, drummer Steve Rodford, along with guitarist Keith Airey, who would be replaced by Tom Toomey by the time the re-vamped Zombies recorded their critically-acclaimed 2010 album Breathe In, Breath Out.

The Zombies’ Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London

In January 2011, the Zombies were invited to perform in front of a small, albeit enthusiastic “invitation only” audience in London’s Metropolis Studios, an intimate concert that was documented for the subsequent release of Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London, a two-disc audio/visual extravaganza certain to thrill the pants off of any longtime fans of the band. The CD and DVD offer up 19 tunes, most of ‘em bona fide classics, including six from Odessey and Oracle as well as the earlier hits, and even a couple of cuts from the Zombies’ most recent, Breathe In, Breath Out.

The show starts out with “I Love You,” a popular but failed 1965 single that features a distinctive riff and forceful melody. How can a “failed single” be popular, you ask? Well, it was originally released as the B-side to a meager U.S. single, “Whenever You’re Ready.” But the song would become a hit when it was later recorded by the California pop band People! in 1968, rising to #14 in the U.S. and working its way into the top ten in Japan (twice!), Mexico, Israel, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Decca reissued the Zombies’ original as a single in late ‘68 but it sank like a stone. Still, it’s remained one of the band’s more popular live songs, and here it’s provided a strong performance, with solid vocal harmonies, psychedelic fretwork, and plenty of Argent’s manic keyboard-pounding.

The band acquits itself nicely on the Jimmy Ruffin smash “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” which was a U.K. hit for Blunstone and keyboardist Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmics guy) back in 1981. With the band providing Motown-styled backing harmonies, Blunstone imbues the song with a longing and wistfulness that falls just short of Ruffin’s original. An odd instrumental interlude mid-song detracts somewhat from the performance, but Argent’s soulful keyboard riffing hits just the right note. Toomey’s guitar solo near the end is elegant and tasteful, extending the song to its short, discordant ending. “A Rose For Emily” is the first of a half-dozen songs pulled from Odessey and Oracle, a wan pastoral ballad that displays moments of Beatlesque melodic brilliance and interesting vocal harmonies.

Time of the Season

The audience is preternaturally patient waiting for the hits, and they get the first in the form of “Time of the Season,” an uncharacteristic song in light of the rest of the band’s more sedate psyche-pop milieu. With its familiar riff, unusual melody, chiming keyboards, and oblique lyrics it’s an instantly accessible tune and while it originally flopped as a 1968 single in the U.K. it would hit #3 in the U.S. and top the charts in Canada a year later. “Tell Her No” suffered a similar fate previously when released in 1964, hitting big in North America while the band’s hometown audience largely yawned. “Tell Her No” offers a similar syncopated melody and chorus, and the 21st century Zombies do it well, Blunstone’s soft lead vocals providing a counterpoint to the band’s almost overwhelming backing harmonies. It’s an engaging moment that thrills the audience.

The Zombies
The last of the Zombies’ hit U.S. singles to be performed this night was also the band’s first, “She’s Not There” hitting #2 in the U.S. and Canada while charting at #12 in the U.K. In many ways, it would set the standard by which subsequent releases would be measured, which is why, perhaps, “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season” rose above the band’s other singles in that they all share a distinctive harmonic vibe that stood out as different and innovative at the time. Performed here, the song lends itself to a lively Argent keyboard solo, with great vocal harmonies lending to the larger-than-life sound of the song. The classic rock radio standard “Hold Your Head Up” was Rod Argent’s biggest hit with his self-named band, the 1972 single hitting #5 in the U.S. and receiving constant radio airplay ever since.

The Zombies’ version here of “Hold Your Head Up” is stretched out and definitely over-the-top, allowing Argent to bang away at the keyboards with reckless abandon, his vocals assisted by the band’s harmonies on the chorus while Toomey delivers the song’s timeless guitar lick. Although the audience came to hear the hits, the Zombies had a lot of good-to-great songs that never received their due. “I Don’t Believe In Miracles,” from the band’s 1991 reunion album, is a bittersweet ballad that features a strong vocal turn, beautiful harmonies, a melancholy melody, and finely-crafted lyrics. “Care of Cell 44” is a deceptively catching slice of sunshine pop with a uniquely British ambience and instrumentation similar to colleagues the Kinks while “Beechwood Park,” at times, reminds of Procol Harum with classical-tinged baroque instrumentation and somber yet effective vocals.            

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While some 1960s-era bands touring the oldies circuit these days are living entirely on past glories, you can’t say the same of the Zombies. Sure, Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London strikes all the highlights of the band’s career for an appreciative audience, but the hits are a small part of the 19 inspired performances caught on audio and video that night. There’s a reason why Odessey and Oracle is considered a rock ‘n’ roll classic, and it has a lot to do with the depth of the band’s songwriting chops, their instrumental prowess, and their often whimsical imagination, all of which are on full display on both the CD and DVD of Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London. (Convexe Entertainment, released May 24th, 2012)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012

Archive Review: Todd Rundgren's Todd Live (2012)

Todd Rundgren’s Todd Live
Save for a loyal but rapidly-graying audience, Todd Rundgren is in danger of being lost amidst a sea of cookie-cutter indie-rockers that don’t possess an ounce of his individuality, innovative nature, or sheer musical “chutzpah.” As close to a true renaissance man as rock ‘n’ roll has created, Rundgren – a talented multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, video and multi-media artist, and tech wizard – has pretty much always done it his way, often with interesting results, exploring the outer limits of pop, rock, prog, and electronic music both as a solo artist and with his band Utopia.

Although he’s been making music for better than 40 years now, the anything-goes 1970s were Rundgren’s era, the prolific musician cranking out eleven critically-acclaimed albums that hit the charts with varying commercial returns over the ten year period. The double-disc 1972 album Something/Anything? provided Rundgren with a modicum of pop stardom, a not entirely-welcome status that the artist quickly denied with the following year’s difficult-albeit-exciting album A Wizard, A True Star. Featuring nearly 56-minutes of music crammed onto two sides of vinyl…a technological marvel in and of itself for the time…side one of the album featured a Beatlesque extended medley of proggish rock, side two a few pop/rock songs surrounding a ten-minute medley of R&B hits.

A Wizard, A True Star

Against this backdrop, the release of the double-album Todd in February 1974 found the artist’s fans wondering which Todd Rundgren would show up in the grooves. While Todd ventured further into the musical experimentation that Rundgren began with A Wizard, A True Star, especially considering the artist’s growing fascination with synthesizers and other technological means to shape music, in truth the album also crossed paths with Todd’s Something/Anything? era pop-rock cheap thrills and Utopia’s just-over-the-horizon electronic adventures.

Although Todd didn’t set the woods on fire commercially, the pricey double-LP did climb to #54 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, and yielded a minor hit (#69) in the lofty, ethereal-pop tune “A Dream Goes On Forever.” Undaunted, Rundgren moved onward and upward with 1975’s aggressive Initiation, a reckless synthfest that further pushed the boundaries of vinyl capabilities with better than 30-minutes of music squeezed onto each side, the album’s electronic-rock soundscape furthering the artistic sojourn that Rundgren had begun with the release of the Todd Rundgren’s Utopia album a few months after Todd.

Whereas Todd Rundgren’s Utopia would initially best Todd in sales, rising to #34 on the album chart without the benefit of a hit single, through the years the equally-difficult Todd has taken on an aura of its own, the album’s reputation often preceding the actual listening, with gems like the aforementioned “A Dream Goes On Forever,” rocker “Heavy Metal Kids,” and Rundgren’s flirtations with Gilbert & Sullivan satisfying the curious and influencing a generation of like-minded fellow-travelers to follow in Rundgren’s considerable wake.

Todd Rundgren’s Todd Live

Todd Rundgren’s Todd
In 2010, Rundgren put together a band of various friends, including bassist Kasim Sultan from Utopia, guitarist Jesse Gress, keyboardist Greg Hawkes (The Cars), drummer Prairie Prince (The Tubes), and saxophonist Bobby Strickland to perform Todd live, for the first time, in its entirety. The Philadelphia show of the special, limited, six-date sold-out mini-tour – which also included a performance of Rundgren’s 1981 album Healing – was recorded and videotaped for subsequent release on CD and DVD. While Healing will be released at a later date, the live performance of Todd is more or less a re-creation of that classic album, in spirit if not exactly musically, minus one song – “In and Out the Chakras We Go.”

While some of the more technologically-created fantasia from the original album has been stripped from this live performance, modern electronics allow a lot of the factory showroom sheen to rise out of songs like “I Think You Know,” a discordant albeit lovely mid-tempo ballad with shimmering fretwork and squalls of electronic snowfall. Rundgren’s operatic satire of the music biz, “An Elpee’s Worth of Toons,” mixes Gilbert & Sullivan with a dash of Utopia-styled electronica and a pop/rock vibe to deliver its devastating lyrical message amidst a cacophony of instrumentation and Todd’s best bent vocals. Changing directions so rapidly that it could give the listener whiplash, Rundgren and crew slide effortlessly into the ethereal “A Dream Goes On Forever,” this live version slightly less busy than the studio reading, but lacking none of the bittersweet melancholy of the original.

Rundgren further indulges in his Gilbert & Sullivan obsession with a spry cover of “Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song,” evoking memories of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons. This performance is pure delight, Rundgren’s unabashed enthusiasm dripping from his nimble vocals as Greg Hawkes’ provides the rhythmic backdrop with his chopping piano play. One of the overlooked gems from the original Todd was the hard rocking “Everybody’s Going to Heaven/King Kong Reggae” mash-up, the live version pounding at the pavement with jackhammer ferocity, guitar-drums-bass-keyboards slam-dancing behind Todd’s strained vocals, the man finally cutting loose with a fire-and-brimstone guitar solo before breaking down into the monster jam that is “King King Reggae.”

Another overlooked cut from Todd was the smooth-as-silk pop song “Izzat Love?” With an undeniable melodic hook and harmony vocals rising about the swirl of low-key instrumentation, the song sounds like something from Todd’s early band Runt, updated with a few modern flourishes but otherwise a lofty example of Rundgren’s 1960s-styled pop/rock chops. The song ends abruptly, descending into madness in an electronic storm, leading into the muscular, blustery “Heavy Metal Kids,” an up-tempo rocker with malevolent intentions, crashing drumbeats, and tortured guitarplay. Todd Live ends with the gospel-tinged pop of “Songs of 1984,” a perfect showcase for both Rundgren’s songwriting skills but also his immensely diverse musical sense, the mid-tempo verses brought up a notch by the uplifting, choir-like choruses.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While it’s unlikely that Todd Live will gain Rundgren many new fans, it’s certain to appeal to his horde of longtime followers…but if a couple of young pups are curious after hearing the live versions of these songs and decide to check out the originals, or other equally-exciting entries in Rundgren’s large early catalog – many of which have been repackaged by British archival label Edsel Records as reasonably-priced double CD sets – all the better! (Rock Beat Records, released 2011)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012

Friday, July 22, 2022

Archive Review: Robin Trower’s Farther On Up the Road: The Chrysalis Years 1977-1983 (2012)

Robin Trower’s Farther On Up the Road
Guitarist Robin Trower came to prominence during the 1960s as a member of British rockers Procol Harum. While Trower’s textured six-string contributions to Procol Harum’s first four albums were often overshadowed by the band’s trademark heavy keyboard sound, his talents were an essential part of the band’s early success. Trower broke from Procol Harum in 1971 to launch a solo career that would result in phenomenal commercial success during the 1970s, cooling off considerably during the ‘80s, only to be reinvigorated somewhat during the 1990s by the guitarist’s return to his blues roots, an undeniable influence that had always been part of Trower’s sound, even during his arena-filling heyday.
Although Trower continues to burn up the highways in both the U.K. and the United States with frequent touring, and the guitarist releases new records on a fairly regular basis, it’s not too soon, perhaps, to take another look at the roots of a legendary career that is now in its sixth decade. In 2010, Chrysalis Records (a Capitol Records subsidiary) released the three-CD Robin Trower compilation A Tale Untold, which included the guitarist’s first four solo albums as well as his 1975 concert disc Live!, along with a handful of rare bonus tracks. Although this first box set neatly wrapped up Trower’s breakthrough years with Chrysalis, circa 1973 through ‘76, it only told part of the story.

Robin Trower’s Farther On Up the Road

To fill in the blanks, Chrysalis/Capitol has released Farther On Up the Road: The Chrysalis Years 1977-1983, another three-disc set that features the six albums that made up the rest of Trower’s tenure with Chrysalis, as well as a pair of obscure bonus tracks. Trower’s transition from pop star to bluesman is quite apparent across these three CDs, beginning with 1977’s In City Dreams. Moving away from the psychedelic-blues sound of his earlier solo discs, Trower tried to update his sound for end-of-the-decade audiences with some success; the album would rise to #25 on the Billboard magazine albums chart.

Trower made changes to his band line-up with In City Dreams, relegating his longtime bassist/vocalist James Dewar to the microphone and bringing in new bass player Rustee Allen to keep the rhythm with veteran drummer Bill Lordan. Allen would bring a funkier edge to the material, his fluid basslines throbbing behind Trower’s soaring fretwork. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the album’s lead-off track, “Somebody Calling,” Allen’s strutting rhythms straining in counterpoint to Trower’s screaming psyche-blues guitarplay. The album’s highlight is “Farther On Up the Road,” from which this set takes its name, Trower and crew delivering a raucous take on the blues-rock standard with plenty of raging guitar and crashing drumbeats. “Little Girl” comes the closest to Trower’s early 1970s work, while the album’s title track virtually channels Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” both sonically and emotionally.

Victims of the Fury

Trower kept the band line-up intact for 1978’s Caravan To Midnight, further pursuing the previous album’s funk-infused sound with tracks like the flaccid chamber-pop of “Birthday Boy” or the misguided “My Love (Burning Love),” which sounds too much like a bad Foreigner single. The album is not a complete loss, however, as the instrumental title track crosses over to truly ethereal turf with melodic guitarplay that reminds of Carlos Santana, sans the obvious Latin influences. Allen’s bass playing on the song is jazzy rather than funky, and the backbeat is kept to a minimum; ditto for “Fool,” a bluesy, smoldering, mid-tempo track with riff-happy guitars that evinces a pub-rock vibe similar to Frankie Miller’s best work.   

Perhaps unsatisfied with the reception and direction of his previous two albums, Trower stripped the band back to the power trio format he made his reputation on, putting Dewar back on bass and vocals for 1979’s Victims of the Fury. Working with new producer Geoff Emerick, who had engineered the guitarist’s first two solo albums, and bringing in songwriter Keith Reid from Procol Harum to help with lyrics, Trower begins his evolution back to the blues. Starting with “Jack and Jill,” a tough-as-nails tale with scorched-earth fretwork and squalls of bass and drums, Victims of the Fury pursues a blue-hued, harder-rocking sound. Trower cuts loose and lets his freak flag fly with “Roads To Freedom,” the guitarist’s Jimi Hendrix-styled Stratocaster sound accompanying a moody, psychedelic-blues soundtrack. “Into The Flame” sounds like early 1960s-era Eric Clapton mixed with late 1960s-era Cream…with Eric Clapton, while “Mad House” pairs a locomotive rhythm with an unrelenting barrage of riffs to great effect.    

Truce With Jack Bruce

Robin Trower
The first of several collaborations with former Cream bassist Jack Bruce, the horribly-titled 1981 album B.L.T. (named for Bruce, Trower, and drummer Bill Lordan), with its ill-conceived cover art (a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich with raw bacon) remains one of Trower’s most critically acclaimed and commercially-accomplished albums (rising to #37 on the Billboard albums chart). With Bruce’s grittier, more soulful voice up front and his legendary fat-string guitar in the mix, B.L.T. successfully melds blues and rock with elements of jazz and funk. “No Island Lost” is a bombastic number that reminds of West, Bruce & Laing’s larger-than-life brand of blues-rock-on-steroids, Trower laying down some Hendrix-styled riffs that will singe your speakers. Bruce’s original song “Life On Earth” blends Cream’s dinosaur-rockin’ blues with a new wave edge, while the Trower/Reid composition “Carmen” is a beautiful piece with shimmering fretwork that remains part of the guitarist’s repertoire to this day.

Truce, released a year later, continued Trower’s artistically-satisfying collaboration with Bruce, this time with original Trower band drummer Reg Isidore (who had also played with Peter Green) on the cans. Stylistically, the album differs little from B.L.T., the performances mixing blues and rock with a few progressive elements and even strains of funk and soul. Recorded across two full days of intense session work, Truce brought out the best of all the players, and even the normally-pedestrian Isidore rises to the occasion and bounces rightly off of Bruce’s taut bass lines. The album also features a few Bruce/Peter Brown songs, the bassist teaming up with his old Cream songwriting partner for gems like the invigorating “Thin Ice,” Bruce’s vocal gymnastics matched by a spry syncopated soundtrack and Trower’s wiry guitar. Bruce and Brown tag-team with Trower on the fascinating “Last Train To the Stars,” the guitarist’s shimmering fretwork exploring new frontiers of sound while Bruce’s soulful, soaring vocals jump all over the place.

In 1983, Trower recorded his last album for Chrysalis, the hard rock collection Back It Up. Reuniting with vocalist Dewar, and sporting a fine new rhythm section in bassist Dave Bronze and drummer Alan Clarke, the album seemed an attempt to appeal to the heavy metal-crazed early ‘80s youth market, to no avail. Trower’s normal inclination towards a blues-oriented sound is downplayed here in favor of a straight-forward, six-string Sturm und Drang, and while tracks like the riffish “Black To Red,” the psychedelic-tinged “Benny Dancer,” and the beautiful, mesmerizing instrumental “Islands” evoke the Robin Trower of the early 1970s, it proved to be too little, too late for a generation fascinated by MTV and insipid British pop music. Back It Up would fail to crack the Billboard Top 100 albums chart, leaving Trower in the commercial wastelands for the rest of the decade until his U-turn to the blues during the 1990s.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Farther On Up the Road provides an intriguing coda to Robin Trower’s years with the Chrysalis label, preserving both the guitarist’s creative triumphs and musical missteps during the era. The three-disc set is worth the price of admittance (around $20 last I checked online), if only for the two albums recorded with Jack Bruce, which remain out-of-print in the U.S. and available only as a British import from our friends at BGO Records.

You can’t beat six Trower albums for the price of two, and for less than the cost of a night at the club, you can grab both Farther On Up the Road and A Tale Untold and have eleven vintage Trower albums in two nifty box sets! An innovative and imaginative guitarist who has taken blues music to new artistic heights, Robin Trower is one of the true giants of the blues-rock style. (Chrysalis Records/Capitol, released March 13th, 2012)

Friday, July 15, 2022

Short Rounds: Shemekia Copeland, Jade Warrior, Gwil Owen, Prince & the Revolution, Sour Ops, Supersonic Blues Machine & 'Heroes and Villains' (July 2022)

Shemekia Copeland's Done Come Too Far
New album releases in 200 words or less...

Shemekia CopelandDone Come Too Far (Alligator Records)
One of today’s finest singers in any genre, Shemekia Copeland has been on an impressive roll, delivering three consecutive career-making albums, the last two working with Nashville producer/musician Will Kimbrough. Third time’s a charm, Copeland returning to the Music City to collaborate with Kimbrough again on Done Come Too Far, which features talented friends like Sonny Landreth, Cedric Burnside, and Aaron Lee Tasjan complimenting the steady backing of bassist Lex Price and drummer Pete Abbott. The results are pure magic (again). Copeland blows the doors down with the defiant “Too Far To Be Gone,” her powerful vocals soaring atop Landreth’s serpentine slide-work. The African-flavored “Gullah Geechee” ties Delta field hollers to their deeper roots while the Cajun romp “Fried Catfish and Bibles” is a sheer delight. Socially-conscious songs like “Pink Turns To Red” are turbocharged by Copeland’s awesome, pissed-off, pummeling vocals while a cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Barefoot In Heaven” adds a blues tint to the Americana gem. The heavyweight title track is fueled by Copeland’s fierce voice and Burnside’s mesmerizing fretwork. Closing with her father Johnny’s “Nobody But You,” Copeland cements her blues bona-fides with blistering intensity. What are you waiting for; go buy it! Grade: A+  BUY IT!

Jade Warrior's Last Autumn’s Dream
Jade Warrior – Last Autumn’s Dream (Esoteric Recordings U.K.)

The third album from British art-rockers Jade Warrior, 1972’s Last Autumn’s Dream found the relatively obscure (stateside) band exploring much the same musical turf as fellow 1970s-era proggers King Crimson, Family, or Gentle Giant, but with loftier intent, more reliance on English folk traditions, and seemingly less of an eye on rock stardom. Which is to say that it’s every bit as interesting and multi-textured as any other prog-rock album released the time, its tracklist jumping from the pastoral, classicist beauty of “A Winter’s Tale” to the bristling, angry hard rock of “Snake,” and right back to the darkly-atmospheric ambient nightmare tones of “Dark River,” all in the course of a quarter-hour. That’s not even mentioning the exotic instrumentation, whiplash time signature changes, and oblique lyrics that inhabit each performance like a hallucinogenic fungus. Guitarist Tony Duhig and percussionist Jon Field were bandmates in 1960s psych-rockers July (their self-titled 1968 LP is a psych classic), and their combined vision drove Jade Warrior to maddeningly-delightful heights of creativity. The band’s self-titled 1971 debut may rock harder, and their sophomore effort, Release, is artier but, with Last Autumn’s Dream, they found the sweet spot in the eye of the hurricane. Grade: B   BUY IT!    

Gwil Owen's The Road To the Sky
Gwil Owen – The Road To the Sky (self-produced)

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Gwil Owen is one of the many talented outsiders looking in on Nashville’s mainstream music biz, a DIY lifer making music on his own terms. The Road To the Sky is Owen’s follow-up to 2020’s excellent Flying Dream, and it follows a similar vein with touches of rock, country, and Little Feat-styled funk. Owen is accompanied here by talented friends like multi-instrumentalist Joe McMahan, keyboardist Tony Crow, and bassist Dave Jacques, and it shows in the grooves. “When the Songwriter’s Gone” displays a few Springsteen-esque flourishes within its loping backroads vibe and gorgeous guitarplay while “Ghost Town” rocks with brilliant poetic imagery. “Change” relies on minimal instrumentation and Owen’s gritty, twangy vocals (think Delbert McClinton) and the haunting, bluesy “Murder” reminds of Tom Waits. Owen uses a pre-recorded guitar coda from his late friend David Olney to fittingly punctuate the beautiful ballad “She Does It All With Her Eyes.” Owen is a gifted story-teller and a charismatic lyricist with an ear for melody and the ability to create deceptively-complex and lush soundscapes. An adventuresome, old-school tunesmith in the vein of Olney or Guy Clark, Owen is an artist worth your time to discover. Grade: A   BUY DIRECT!

Prince and the Revolution's Live
Prince and the Revolution – Live (NPG Records/Sony Legacy)

If you’re a Prince fan (and who isn’t?), don’t let the nearly $40 price tag of this swanky set deter you from jumping, headfirst, into the deep end of the pool. Documenting an especially electric 1985 performance in Syracuse NY, Live offers 20 dynamite songs across two CDs and a Blu-ray disc with 5.1 surround sound, as well as a groovy 24-page color booklet with liner notes and rare photos. Prince and the Revolution were 93 shows into a 98-show tour in support of the chart-topping, thirteen-million-selling Purple Rain album and they’re firing on all cylinders. Prince’s trademark blend of psych-drenched guitar rock, slinky funk, and sizzling soul was on full display on a “greatest hits” setlist that includes crowd-pleasers like “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” and a mind-bending, expanded reading of “Purple Rain” showcasing the Purple One’s justified ‘Guitar God’ status (and the band’s tight-knit musical chemistry).  There’s nothing here from Around the World In A Day, which was released a month after this show, but there are plenty of choice cuts from 1999 and Purple Rain alongside the deep cuts, making Live an invaluable snapshot of Prince and the Revolution at the peak of their powers. Grade: A   BUY IT!

Sour Ops' Deep Fake
Sour OpsDeep Fake (Feralette Media)

Nashville rockers Sour Ops break up the crushing monotony of reality with another id-tickling album, Deep Fake, a collection guaranteed to scratch whatever musical itch is currently plaguing your fever-dream cerebellum. Ringmaster Price Harrison leads his crackerjack band through ten high-voltage, hair-raising performances that range from the bright, buoyant power-pop of “Navy Blue” and the jagged satire of the dark-hued “Doomsday Prepper” to the pop-metal edge of “Texas Punk 66,” which wears its gorgeous guitar tone like a magic cloak. The title track is a fierce mid-tempo rocker with brilliant lyrics about fleeting celebrity that is combined with stunning, chaotic fretwork while “Another Letdown” turns a keen eye towards modern society with 1960s-styled psychedelic pop and vintage ‘70s muscle car rock overkill, resulting in a bloody good time. The insightful “I Followed You Down” explores the dangers of falling prey to a cult of personality while Deep Fake closes its too-short 30-minutes with “Fall Into the Sky,” a shimmering, ethereal love song with yearning instrumentation. With Deep Fake, Sour Ops has moved beyond the obvious Replacements/Stooges/Cheap Trick references to truly find their own musical voice, one that masterfully blends everything that came before into something unique, personal, and entirely stunning. Grade: A+   BUY DIRECT!

Supersonic Blues Machine's Voodoo Nation
Supersonic Blues MachineVoodoo Nation (Provogue Records)

Supersonic Blues Machine is the trio of bassist Fabrizio Grossi, guitarist Kris Barras, and journeyman drummer Kenny Aronoff, the band showing itself to be a well-oiled, high-performance engine of destruction with Voodoo Nation, their third studio album (and the first to feature Barras, a British fretburner in the Rory Gallagher tradition). As with their first couple of blues-busting albums, Voodoo Nation offers up an inspired blend of blues, rock, and funk all delivered with no little heart and soul. Also as with previous LPs, they invited a slew of blues-rock axe-manglers along for the ride, with talents like Eric Gales, Ana Popovic, Joe Louis Walker, Kirk Fletcher, and Sonny Landreth jumping into the rumble seat. King Solomon Hicks brings a Hill Country vibe to the sonic-grind of “You and Me” and “Devil At the Doorstep” benefits from Gales’ fluid tones and imagination. Popovic is an underrated gem whose duel with Barras is pure blues-guitar heaven while the Supersonic guitarist lights a wildfire with the inspired “Too Late” and its Leadbelly licks. The title track is a swamp-rock masterpiece with swagger, stunning fretwork, and a dark-hued ambiance. Supersonic Blues Machine ain’t your grand-pappy’s blues, but they could be yours. Grade: B   BUY IT!

Heroes and Villains
Various Artists – Heroes and Villains: The Sound of Lost Angeles 1965-68 (Grapefruit Records U.K.)

From pop, rock, and proto-Americana to blues, folk, and psychedelia, there’s no denying that the mid-‘60s L.A. music scene was bursting at the seams with creativity and vision. Leave it up to those madmen at U.K. archival label Grapefruit to document the history of this influential era. Heroes and Villains collects a whopping 90 (!) tunes on three CDs in a nifty clamshell, the accompanying guidebook offering comprehensive liner notes and rare photos. The “usual suspects” to be found here, well-known chart titans like the Monkees, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Steppenwolf, Sonny & Cher, and the Mamas and the Papas, among others, but not always the songs you might think you’d find. There are oddities like the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart; talented obscurities like Tim Buckley and Ruth Friedman; and cult rockers like Love, Kaleidoscope, and Merrell Fankhauser’s various bands. Where the box set really shines, though, is with the too-cool unknowns like the Rose Garden, Children of the Mushroom, the Laughing Wind, or the Chyldren, et al. There’s a lot of meat on these discs, a myriad of musical possibilities and styles, more than a few of which are guaranteed to satisfy your musical needs... Grade: A   BUY IT!

Previously on That Devil

Short Rounds, December 2021: Calidoscopio, Deep Purple, Tom Guerra, The Specials, The Wildhearts, Sami Yaffa & 'I'm A Freak Baby 3'

Short Rounds, September 2021: Marshall Crenshaw, Crack The Sky, Donna Frost, Mark Harrison & the Happy Tramps, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram, the Rubinoos, and Jon Savage’s 1972-1976

Short Rounds, June 2021: The Black Keys, the Bummers, Michael Nesmith, Greg “Stackhouse” Prevost, Quinn Sullivan, and the Vejtables

Short Rounds, April 2021: Peter Case, The Fortunate Few, David Olney & Anana Kaye, Sour Ops, Joe Strummer, and the Thieves

Archive Review: Walter Trout’s Blues For the Modern Daze (2012)

Walter Trout’s Blues For the Modern Daze
Guitarist Walter Trout has always been a working bluesman, a journeyman musician that dutifully put in his time with bands like Canned Heat and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, as well as playing behind legends like Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker before launching his own solo career in 1990. Through the years, and despite the ups-and-downs that a lengthy career will bring, Trout has seemingly remained humble, and always excited to climb on stage and perform.

A few years back, however, Trout began a transformation, subtle at first, but picking up steam through albums like 2008’s The Outsider and the 2009 compilation Unspoiled By Progress, featuring the new track “They Call Us the Working Class.” With the release of his 21st album, Blues For the Modern Daze, Trout’s evolution seems complete – the singer, songwriter, and guitarist is now the populist voice of the blues, following in the footsteps of artists like Big Bill Broonzy, J.B. Lenoir, and Blind Willie Johnson, whose influence on these songs Trout has frequently cited.    

Walter Trout’s Blues For the Modern Daze

Blues For the Modern Daze opens with the scorching “Saw My Mama Cryin,” a high-flying bit of bluesy social commentary that provides anguished insight into the working class struggle. Trout’s tortured vocals convey heartfelt emotion while his guitar weeps and moans and screams with some intensity. Trout’s solos here cut deep as the band delivers a solid groove, and the song rocks and rolls itself to an inevitable conclusion. By contrast, “Lonely” is no less powerful a performance, the mid-tempo ballad-like rocker featuring a nuanced vocal turn and mournful guitar licks. Although it’s a fine showcase for Trout’s exemplary six-string skills, it’s also a solid example of his songwriting chops and underrated, potent vocals.

The doom-and-gloomish “The Sky Is Fallin’ Down” is a cautionary tale with a bonfire soundtrack that nearly rages out of control as Trout levels accusations and proffers his advice in the face of impending disaster, his dark lyrics matched by incendiary fretwork that threatens to ignite your speakers with its red-hot riffs, notes sparking from the fretboard. Trout’s “Blues For My Baby” is a more traditionally-styled tune, with gorgeous piano tinkling behind the guitarist’s smoky string-pulling. Close your eyes while listening to this one and you could easily believe that you’re sitting in a West Side Chicago club circa 1964 or so listening to Magic Sam or Otis Rush wail on the blues.   

Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous

For old-school classic rock fans, “Recovery” is a real find, Trout channeling his inner Robin Trower with a phenomenal six-string performance that matches Trower’s swirling, Jimi Hendrix-inspired psychedelic-blues sound with a 1970s-styled, openly atmospheric blues-rock sound. A tale of romantic woe, “Recovery” literally wears its heart on its sleeve, the song drenched in the pathos of Trout’s effective, emotional vocals and imaginative fretwork. “Turn Off Your TV” is both insightful and humorous, Trout delivering a rollicking vocal performance above a slight boogie refrain, his lyrics pointing to the hypocrisy of commercialization and the overall absurdity of much of what one witnesses on the tube. Trout’s guitarwork here is more upbeat and less provocative, delivered with energy and vigor while his hoarse vocals reinforce the song’s themes.

Trout continues in his populist vein with “Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous,” a slow-burning blues tune with deliberately-paced guitar riffs and the constant joyful din of rolling piano notes on this reverse “rags-to-riches” tale that cautions the wealthy1% that life isn’t always a bowl of cherries, and that what goes up may one day come back down to earth. Trout’s solos on the song are stunning, rich with tone and sharp-edged, infused with the spirit of the blues while still rocking hard.   

Pray For Rain

The odd, albeit poetic spoken word piece “Puppet Master” offers Trout’s somber vocals hauntingly applied above an evil keyboard riff, the brief interlude leading into the rampaging “Money Rules the World,” a spot-on lyrical condemnation of the effect of unbridled wealth and corporate interference on the fate of the average person. A virtual theme song for the “Occupy” movement, Trout layers on the blues with delightfully-tortured guitarplay which frantically fire-dances above the song’s locomotive rhythms. It’s a 21st century rocker worthy of Hendrix but offering a contemporary blues edge. “Brother’s Keeper” is in a similar vein, a mid-tempo rocker with a gospel frame of mind that calls out the self-righteous in no uncertain terms, Trout’s flamethrower guitar solos throwing fuel on an already out-of-control blaze.

The title track of Blues For the Modern Daze displays the Blind Willie Johnson influence that Trout mentions in talking about the album; the song an effective bit of intelligent social commentary delivered with an undeniable Delta blues vibe and gospel fervor. Trout’s acoustic guitar strum gives way to squalls of cyclone-strength electric riffs, the singer shouting and screaming above an apocalyptic tango that reminds of Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere” with its doomsaying lyrics and powerful instrumentation. The album ends with “Pray For Rain,” a comparatively gentle performance delivered in an acoustic country-blues style that is no less effective for its seemingly innocent nature. Beneath Trout’s spirited guitarplay and wailing vocals, however, you’ll real concern and some metaphorical hard questions without easy answers.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

In the spring of 2012, a lot of words have been spilled out in print and online talking about Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball and the album’s frequently vague political and social commentary. While I’m not going to diss on the Boss, I’d argue that another New Jersey native has delivered the essential protest album of the year.

Walter Trout’s Blues For the Modern Daze is smart, insightful, and 99% to its core, displaying an undeniable populist viewpoint while retaining the guitarist’s trademark turbocharged blues-rock sound. As a songwriter, Trout has never been better, and his voicing of his social concerns – bolstered by an unbridled six-string rage – is delivered with plenty of heart and soul. This is Walter Trout at his very best, and we should all be listening… (Provogue Records, released April 24th, 2012)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Walter Trout’s Blues For the Modern Daze

Friday, July 8, 2022

Archive Review: Tommy Bolin's Great Gypsy Soul (2012)

Tommy Bolin's Great Gypsy Soul
The late Tommy Bolin is one of the great lost guitar heroes of the 1970s. A player of amazing vision and imagination, Bolin was equally versatile in a diverse range of styles, whether it was blues, hard rock, funk, or freewheeling jazz, and he did so with an incredible fluidity of tone and emotion in his playing. From his roots with the blues-rock band Zephyr and his ground-breaking session work on Billy Cobham’s fusion classic Spectrum, to a two-album stint with the James Gang (replacing Domenic Troiano, who himself had replaced Joe Walsh) and a brief tenure with Deep Purple (admirably filling Ritchie Blackmore’s shoes), Tommy Bolin brightened up every recording he touched.

Tommy Bolin’s Great Gypsy Soul

Tragically, Bolin’s fledgling solo career was derailed by a heroin overdose in 1976, with only two proper studio albums – 1975’s Teaser and the following year’s Private Eyes – released during his lifetime. His younger brother Johnnie, himself a musician, has kept the flame burning through all the years since Bolin’s tragic death, and there have been a wealth of posthumous releases showcasing Bolin’s six-string skills in both live and studio settings released under the Tommy Bolin Archives label. Among the best of these is the Live At Ebbets Field album, which documents a 1974 performance by Bolin’s post-Zephyr band Energy, with the guitarist proving himself the bridge between Jimi Hendrix’s jazzier six-string excursions and Jeff Beck’s later jazz-rock fusion.  

There have also been a number of Bolin tribute albums released over the years. Great Gypsy Soul is the latest of these tributes designed to cement Bolin’s status, albeit with an interesting twist. Working from unreleased outtakes and alternate versions of songs previously recorded by Bolin, producers Greg Hampton and Warren Hayes brought in a cast of talented guest musicians to add their instrumental flavor to Bolin’s original vocals and guitar. The resulting effort is credited to “Tommy Bolin and friends.”

Pros & Cons

While I’m not personally convinced that this entire effort is necessary, one can’t deny the talents of the invitees to this party, a partial list which includes Haynes, Derek Trucks, Steve Morse, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Lukather, and Bolin’s former Deep Purple bandmate Glenn Hughes. In the absence of detailed liner notes, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the original performance from new additions, but Trucks’ flourishes on Bolin’s “Smooth Fandango” sound mighty good; ditto for Sonny Landreth’s scorching slidework and Hughes’ throaty vocals on “Sugar Shack.” Hughes, with Bonamassa and Nels Cline, take “Lotus” to another spiritual plane altogether.

Other tracks fail to impress, however, Peter Frampton’s take on “The Grind” lacking something seminal in its execution, while Myles Kennedy – singer with former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash’s band – falls flat on his face on Bolin’s “Dreamer,” a performance only partially redeemed by Nels Cline’s (too) sublime fretwork. Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford adds bombast to Bolin’s “Wild Dogs” where the late guitarist would have brought stealth, and even the great Warren Haynes experiences a rare misfire in taking on Bolin’s signature tune “Teaser.” Guitarist John Scofield seems entirely lost here, while Lukather seems to be still trying to find his way to the studio with a lukewarm reading of “Homeward Strut.” Bolin’s work is too often overshadowed by the contributions of his “friends,” and the listener would be better off slapping a well-worn vinyl copy of Private Eyes on the turntable.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If you’re already a Bolin fanatic, you’re probably going to want to grab a copy of Great Gypsy Soul; I’m telling you that you should resist the urge to spend your money on an album that adds absolutely nothing to the guitarist’s legacy. I realize that there’s a legitimate dearth of quality Bolin material available, but you’d be better served in spending your money on one of the guitarist’s incredible ventures into the world of jazz-rock fusion, notable among these Billy Cobham’s Spectrum and/or Alphonse Mouzon’s Mind Transplant.  

On the other hand, if you’re a newcomer to the Tommy Bolin mystique, pass this one by in favor of one of the several variations of Teaser that you’ll find available; even with a myriad of dodgy demo tracks and raw alternate takes on expanded versions of Teaser, you’ll fare better than you will with Great Gypsy Soul if you’re looking to discover Bolin’s enormous charms. (429 Records, released March 26th, 2012)

Friday, July 1, 2022

Archive Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound (2012)

Various Artists - Jail House Bound
John Avery Lomax, and his son Alan, hold a singular place in the history of the blues. When the elder Lomax’s career as a bank executive went south during the Great Depression, the 64-year-old music enthusiast decided to follow his passion as a collector of what were then known as “folk songs,” including African-American spirituals and blues music. Signing a contract with a publisher to compile a book of folk songs, and working with the Library of Congress to record authentic performances as a living documentary, Mr. Lomax and son went about changing the course of American music.

To document the purest form of the African-American folk song, performances untarnished by radio, records, or the creeping influence of Anglo culture, the Lomaxes traveled to the prison farms of Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Lugging around a 300-pound cylinder recorder in the trunk of their car, the pair captured for posterity the voices of unremarkable men often imprisoned for the slightest of offenses. While many of the performances that can be found on Jail House Bound have been available in various formats since their original 1933 recording, never before have they been presented in as scholarly a form as this release by the West Virginia University Press.

Because of the primitive technology used, there’s only so much that digital mastering can do to make antique cylinder recordings presentable, but Jail House Bound makes a valiant effort. While Southern prison recordings are admittedly an acquired taste shared by few blues fans, there is a lot of great music to be heard here nonetheless. Moses “Clear Rock” Platt’s reading of “That’s Alright Honey” sounds like a 1950s-era R&B hit, while Ernest “Mexico” Williams does an admirable job with the standard “The Midnight Special.” James “Iron Head” Baker and a couple of other convicts bring a soul groove to “Black Betty” while unidentified Mississippi State Penitentiary prisoners rock the classic “John Henry.” Capturing nearly two-dozen seminal examples of the African-American folk song, Jail House Bound closes out with an interesting interview with John Lomax.

Jail House Bound includes a booklet with new liner notes and song-by-song annotation which put the collection in context. While the Lomaxes would later discover legends like Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, it was with these field recordings that they first began documenting the art form known as the blues. (West Virginia University Press, released February 28th, 2012)

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine, 2012

Archive Review: Fishbone's The Essential Fishbone (2003)

Fishbone's The Essential Fishbone
Gwen Stefani was still carrying a lunchbox to school and hanging around the mall when Fishbone first began fusing elements of ska, punk, funk, and metal together to create a distinctive and memorable sound. Formed way back in 1979 by a group of junior high school friends that included vocalist Angelo Moore, bassist Norwood Fisher, guitarist Kendall Jones and keyboardist Chris Dowd, the band’s hyperactive live performances created a buzz around its hometown of Los Angeles. After spending several years perfecting their eclectic blend of offbeat humor, socially conscious lyrics and musical madness, Fishbone finally earned a label deal with Columbia Records in 1985.

The Essential Fishbone

After testing the waters with a self-titled EP, the band’s first full-length album, In Your Face, dropped in 1986. While the Fishbone EP featured the spry two-tone “Party At Ground Zero,” the band’s raw energy was tempered somewhat by the overly-polished production provided In Your Face. It was with the band’s sophomore effort in 1988, the raucous Truth and Soul, that Fishbone captured its loyal college radio audience, the album’s inspired hybrid of metallic funk and ska-flavored rhythms including a slammin’ cover of Curtis Mayfield’s classic “Freddie’s Dead.” Bolstered by the band’s reputation as a live party band, Fishbone stood alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers as harbingers of the late ‘80s “alternative rock” movement.

It took Fishbone three years to follow up the successful Truth and Soul, killing time with a brace of EPs – mostly made up of B-sides – that offered little new except for the infectious “Bonin’ In the Boneyard.” The release of The Reality of My Surroundings in 1991 lived up to fan’s expectations of the band, the album creeping into the top half of the Billboard chart and yielding high-energy cuts like “Everyday Sunshine” and “Sunless Saturday.” Give A Monkey A Brain And He’ll Swear He’s The Center of the Universe followed in 1993, the disc failing to build upon the band’s growth in popularity despite solid songs like “Unyielding Conditioning” and the super-funky “Lemon Meringue.” By the time of the mid-‘90s ska-revival, led by Fishbone followers like No Doubt, the band had jumped labels to Arista; subsequent recorded efforts failing to follow through on the band’s initial promise.

The Essential Fishbone actually revisits the band’s ten years on Columbia, circa 1985 to 1995, gathering together the aforementioned songs and several more from Fishbone’s various albums and EPs for the label. The collection is an invaluable document that illustrates why Fishbone was so influential on better-known artists like No Doubt, Sublime, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and others. The Essential Fishbone collects all the songs you’d want from the band, including the rarity “Skankin’ To the Beat” and EP tracks like “It’s A Wonderful Life (Gonna Have A Good Time),” serving as an excellent introduction for newcomers curious to see where ska-punk came from.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Almost a quarter-century after Fishbone first began playing school dances and outdoor festivals, the band remains a popular concert draw. Since 1995, they have released albums on Arista and Hollywood, finally going the independent route and establishing Nuttsactor 5, their own imprint. The perfect example of a band that should have sold more records, The Essential Fishbone nevertheless showcases a die-hard outfit whose lasting influence on rock music has far outdistanced its commercial achievements. (Sony Legacy Recordings, released 2003)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2003