Friday, March 17, 2023

Archive Review: The Chocolate Watch Band's No Way Out (1967)

Chocolate Watch Band's No Way Out
As far as 1960s-era garage-rock goes, the Chocolate Watch Band was influential far beyond the band’s meager commercial reach. Although they would become West Coast musical heroes during the mid-to-late-1960s, with a handful of red-hot (and, later, highly collectible) 45rpm singles to their credit, culminating in a series of well-received full-length albums, the band suffered from a serious personality crisis.

Their management and producers would frequently bring in studio players to overdub the band’s recordings, material would be released under their name that had little or no connection to the band itself…not entirely heard of in mid-‘60s L.A. but not something that helped define a band identity, either. Regardless, on the basis of a trio of odd studio albums and a reputation for holding their own on stage with the likes of the Mothers of Invention and the Yardbirds, by the mid-‘80s, the Chocolate Watch Band (later changed to one word, “Watchband”) would become bona fide Nuggets-approved garage-rock legends.

Formed by a group of junior college students in Los Altos, California in 1965, the original Chocolate Watch Band was heavily influenced by the British Invasion sound of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and, later, by the Pretty Things. They were one of the first wave of what esteemed critic Lester Bangs would call “punk rockers,” Vox-yielding young hoodlums roaring out of their garage practice space and into the high school gyms and community centers of California to make teenage girls swoon at the front of the stage. After the usual shuffling of band members, the Chocolate Watch Band as known and adored by collectors of 1960s-era garage-rock treasures included vocalist Dave Aguilar, guitarists Mike Loomis and Sean Tolby, bassist Bill Flores, and drummer Gary Andrijasevich.

It was with this line-up that the Chocolate Watch Band recorded its initial singles – four red-hot slabs o’ R&B-styled proto-rock cheap thrills – as well as appearing and performing as themselves in the teen exploitation movie Riot On Sunset Strip. With all of this high-profile activity to hype the band, you’d think that their debut album would basically record itself and roll off the retail shelves and into the hands of eager fans. In an era when the “serious adults” in the room (i.e. managers & producers) often messed around with a young band’s sound (see: Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Electric Prunes, etc), producer Ed Cobb, with engineers Richard Podolor and Bill Cooper, just couldn’t help but impose their own agenda on top of the band’s considerably fresh and highly-rocking original sound.

As such, Chocolate Watch Band’s1967 debut album, No Way Out, although considered by many to be a classic of the garage-rock era, is not nearly as great as it might have been. The band’s early singles would have provided a solid foundation on which to build a debut album, but the production staff saw fit to include only two of these performances – “Are You Gonna Be There (At The Love In)” and “No Way Out” – in the final mix. The former is a down-n-dirty R&B-tinged rocker with gang vocals, an infectious rhythm track, and greasy over-driven guitars that only bolster Aguilar’s Jaggeresque vocals, the latter is a rock ‘n’ soul hybrid with wiry fretwork, a slight psychedelic edge (mimicking the fledgling San Francisco sound), cool snarling vox lost beneath droning, hypnotic instrumentation, and an overall dangerous vibe that was too cool for school in ‘67.

The full band line-up only appears on two other tracks on No Way Out, a meager representation on record that was curious even by then-current standards. An inspired cover of Chuck Berry’s rollicking “Come On” is a revved-up hot-rod of mid-‘60s rock, with echoey, haunting guitar notes lingering like storm clouds above Aguilar’s rapid-paced, 1950s rockabilly-styled reading of the lyrics. The singer’s original “Gone and Passes By” offers up exotic instrumental flourishes alongside a bouncy Bo Diddley beat, Aguilar’s emotional vocals overshadowed by a lush mix that includes squalls of guitar, bass, and drums creating a maelstrom of sound.

Of the other material on No Way Out, there are a few gems that emerge in spite of the producer’s interference. “Let’s Talk About Girls” is a stone-cold R&B romp a la early Stones that would have benefited from Aguilar’s energetic vocal style; for whatever reason, studio pro Don Bennett’s voice was dubbed over the band frontman’s vocals. The band’s instrumental track rides low in the mix and features some tasty jolts of Mark Loomis’s guitar, helping to rescue the song from disaster. Ditto for a cover of Steve Cropper’s “Midnight Hour,” which succeeds regardless of Bennett’s flaccid vocals, as the band cleverly injects a soul-drenched Booker T & the M.G.’s sound with live-wire rock ‘n’ roll electricity.

Much of the rest of No Way Out is suspect, however, as two instrumental songs – the clumsy attempt at a psychedelic mind-trip that was “Dark Side of the Mushroom” and the equally spacey pastiche of styles (rockabilly, surf, psyche) that was “Expo 2000” – were written by engineer and future uber-producer Richard Podolor and recorded with session players. These songs are “Chocolate Watch Band” in name only, as they lack the band’s input and just provide a songwriting royalty for an interfering studio engineer. Another track, “Gossamer Wings,” was written by singer Bennett, and uses the basic instrumental track from the band’s 1966 B-side “Loose Lip Sync Ship” as a backdrop for Bennett’s dull-as-dirt, soft-psyche performance.  

In spite of its flaws, No Way Out offers around 60% of the cheap thrills one could expect from a recording of its era, maybe a C+ or B- grade that could have been a solid B+ had singer Aguilar’s charismatic voice not been removed from the aforementioned tracks in favor of the less-talented vocalist. At the heart of the problem was the fact that producer Ed Cobb had never even seen Chocolate Watch Band perform live, and didn’t realize the assortment of talents that he had in the studio. An otherwise talented songwriter and producer that would go on to work with artists like Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan, Cobb imposed his own vision on the band to mixed effect. (Sundazed Records, reissued December 3rd, 2011)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012

Also on That Devil Music: Chocolate Watch Band's The Inner Mystique album review

The View On Pop Culture: The Gourds, The Isley Brothers, "Hannibal" & Bruce Campbell (2001)

The Isley Brothers' The Heat Is On

For your humble columnist to discover a new musical talent is a rare joy. Although there is a world of music out there, and nobody can claim to have heard it all, some talented and entertaining artists fall through the cracks of even the most dedicated follower of musical fashions. Thus, when a package of discs from The Gourds came across my cluttered desk, I was at first suspicious of another unknown and unheard-of band from Austin, Texas. With a couple of spins of the recently released Shinebox (Sugar Hill Records), however, I was quickly won over to the charms of this quirky and talented band.

An expanded reissue of the band’s 1998 EP titled Gogitchyershinebox, the new version kicks off with a wickedly funny and oddly engaging cover of Snoop Dogg’s hardcore rap classic “Gin & Juice,” played country-style with nasal vocals and twangy guitars. It’s a surreal musical moment and one that quickly drags you into Shinebox, a skilled hybrid of roots rock, alternative country, bluegrass, and blues that is wonderfully infectious. Whether putting their peculiar brand on covers like David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and Billy Joe Shaver’s mournful “Omaha” or intelligent originals like “Lament” or “Trampled By the Sun,” the Gourds are among the best that the Americana genre has to offer. Sugar Hill has also reissued a couple of other out-of-print Gourds albums, including the critically acclaimed Stadium Blitzer CD.     

Much like the title of their latest release, The Isley Brothers are, indeed, “eternal.” The musical legends have been alive and kicking since the early fifties, two generations of Isley siblings cranking out the jams through six different decades. The CD reissue of 1975’s The Heat Is On (Epic/Legacy) showcases the band in its chart-topping, mid-seventies funk period, one of the most successful and artistically gratifying eras in the band’s lengthy career. The groove that propels the hit single “Fight the Power” is classic Isley – a rolling bass line, driving rhythms and Ernie Isley’s wonderfully fluid, Hendrix-influenced six-string work. Brother Ronald Isley’s vocals are rich and soulful, soaring above the thick instrumentation provided by guitarist Ernie and bassist Marvin, with brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards. The Isleys called this line-up the “3+3,” with three older and three younger Isleys working together to create classic and memorable music. Always rolling with changing tastes, the Isleys would further evolve into disco and straight R&B as they moved into the eighties, but it is the hit-making 3+3 era that will always be remembered by fans.

When Thomas Harris created the memorable Hannibal Lector as an afterthought in his thrilling 1981 novel Red Dragon, no one could have foreseen that the character would take on a life of his own. The DVD release of Hannibal (MGM Home Entertainment) elevates the character to another level, that of myth. A sequel to the Academy Award winning film Silence of the Lambs that starred Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, if Hannibal is, in many ways, inferior to Jonathan Demme’s cinematic masterpiece, it is nevertheless stunning. Hopkins reprises his role as cannibal killer Hannibal Lector, infusing the character with an otherworldly sophistication and charisma, masterfully painting Lector as both predator and prey. Julianne Moore takes on the thankless task of filling Foster’s shoes as FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling, and does an admirable job, staying true to the character’s values in the face of adversity. Director Ridley Scott brings a visual beauty to the cat-and-mouse game played between Lector and Starling. The film ends differently than does the Harris novel of the same name, albeit more satisfyingly for the characters involved. The DVD special edition of Hannibal includes a second disc with commentary, various featurettes and an alternate ending and deleted scenes.          

Bruce Campbell's If Chins Could Kill
How many among us have dreamed of a career on the silver screen? The fame and fortune of celebrities like Julia Roberts or Tom Hanks serves as a beacon for thousands of hopefuls from across the country who descend on Hollywood each year. Yet for every Nick Cage there are a hundred actors like Bruce Campbell, talented journeymen and women who are the meat and potatoes of the entertainment world. Campbell’s biography If Chins Could Kill (LA Weekly Books) should be required reading for anybody considering a career in acting. If childhood friend Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead horror film trilogy made Campbell a cult favorite, it was his work in films like The Hudsucker Proxy or teevee shows like Xena or the short-lived Adventures of Brisco County Jr that forged a career for the likeable performer. If Chins Could Kill, subtitled “Confessions of A B Movie Actor,” is filled with Campbell’s charm and self-depreciating humor. Even more importantly, it accurately portrays the trials and tribulations of the average working actor. Campbell includes many personal stories, comments from long-time friends who grew up in the industry along with him, including Sam Raimi, and looks “behind the scenes” at Hollywood dealmaking. Campbell’s two decades of experience both in front and behind the camera provide him with a unique perspective. If Chins Could Kill is a funny, interesting, and informative backstage look at celebrity, or the lack thereof. (View From The Hill, August 2001)

Saturday, March 11, 2023

I Come To Bury Caesar: Creem Magazine #2 (2023)

Creem magazine #2
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” - William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1599

When I was a teenage rock ‘n’ roll fiend growing up in the rural suburbs of Nashville at the dawn of the 1970s, Creem magazine was literally my doorway to the world of music. Launched in Detroit in 1969 by publisher Barry Kramer and editor Tony Reay, the rag’s ‘Blue Collar’ irreverence appealed to my ‘Rust Belt’ upbringing, and writers like Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Jaan Uhelszki, Richard Meltzer, Jeffrey Morgan and others provided my education in rock music. By the mid-‘70s, Creem was shuffling close to a quarter-million copies a month out the door, second only to Rolling Stone among music zines at the time.

The rag’s editorial focus, unfettered by advertiser manipulation or the desires of the recording industry, meant that they could – and did – write about artists like the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Blondie long before they were discovered by more mainstream publications. When a second generation of writers and editors came along in the 1980s, including Dave DiMartino, Susan Whithall, Rick Johnson, Bill Holdship, and John Kordosh, Creem introduced readers to artists like the Replacements and R.E.M. From 1969 through 1989, Creem magazine was an integral part of American popular culture.

21st Century Creem

The magazine struggled in the years after Barry Kramer’s death in 1981, and although the staff published some good work during the decade, ownership changed hands, Creem moved to the West Coast and, by 1989, it was kaput (the less said about a short-lived and dismal 1990 NYC-based version of the rag, the better). Long story short, there was plenty of litigation, and various hijinks ensued before Barry’s son (and heir to the Creem throne) J.J. Kramer gained ownership of the magazine. A documentary film about the early days, Creem: American’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, was released in 2019 to rave reviews.

As inevitably as the sun rises in the east, Creem magazine itself was resurrected in 2022 as a quarterly, subscription-only “lifestyle” publication which resembles the original rag not a whit. Kramer brought in professional magazine wranglers from the executive suites of Vice magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone to publish the new 21st century Creem; Jaan Uhelszki was hired as Editor-At-Large to provide a link to the zine’s notorious past. A website was thrown together, tee-shirts featuring the magazine’s classic, Robert Crumb-designed mascot “Boy Howdy” were screen-printed and put out for sale, and a weekly email newsletter primed the pump for a print version of the magazine.

Creem In Print

When subscriptions became available for a Creem print version, I swallowed hard and coughed up the ridiculous sum of $80 for four quarterly issues. I’m halfway through my one-year Creem subscription and, so far I am not moved. With the third issue of the new Creem about to be published, I thought it the right time to review what they’d done so far, and it ain’t pretty. The current iteration of the zine has little of the wit or irreverence that made the original publication a rock ‘n’ roll media legend. None of the current crop of writers has jumped off the page, grabbed me by the ears, and poked at my eyeballs with a number 2 pencil to make me pay attention.

The rag’s physical size – an unwieldy 10.5”x13.5” – provides a lot of space for editorial content, which is squandered by the over-use of full-page photographs and illustrations. It’s a pet peeve of mine when magazines overly rely on pages of photos to fill up space – I perceive it as a lack of creative vigor – and the second issue of the reborn Creem sitting on my desk right now features roughly 40 mondo-sized pages of photos, or nearly 1/3 of the issue’s 128 pages. An otherwise interesting twelve-page story on the tragic final days of singer/songwriter David Berman (Silver Jews, Purple Mountains) is littered by six full pages of unnecessarily large photos and a seventh introductory page that add little of value beyond the story’s other four smaller photos.

An Awkward, Oversized Print Format

This is a minor cavil, perhaps, but photo galleries like “Be Our Guest” or the glut of pix embedded in the barely-there story “Freak On A Leash,” for example, are the print equivalent of website slideshows, which went out of style a decade ago. Admittedly, the awkward, oversized print format allows for some fantastic full-color photo reproduction, and the zine’s overall graphic design is reasonably contemporary, efficient, and yet exciting. The publication relies too often on illustrations to accompany the stories – three of the issue’s dozen features offer bad artwork to open the story, others over-utilize photos.

As for the editorial content, it hasn’t been all that compelling over the first two issues. Number two has an interesting story on how the CIA stole $5 million from classic rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the aforementioned story on Berman serves its purpose, if providing little insight into the artist’s work or the lifelong depression that led to his suicide. Three pages of Justin Borucki’s original tintype photography of heavy metal musicians is at least three pages too few, considering its uniqueness and stark imagery. They could have taken pages away from illustrations and featured more of Borucki’s work. “Complacence Rock,” an article on wannabe billionaire rock stars, is a nifty bit of social commentary, but otherwise much of the content is hipster posturing and disposable trifles.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Unless the next two issues of my Creem sub really knock me down and drag me to the record store, it’s unlikely that I’ll be re-subscribing. At the cost of a double sawbuck per issue, there’s too little bang for too many bucks. When I cough up $12 for a copy of Third Man Records’ Maggot Brain zine, there’s usually three or four articles of interest, and something about an obscure artist that makes me spend my money on. With shipping, a copy of Ugly Things cost me nearly $20 for the zine and another $100 for the records I buy after reading the issue.
Personally, that’s my benchmark for a music magazine – does it tell me something new about artists I’m already familiar with, and does it introduce me to artists I didn’t already know, getting me excited about new music I’ve yet to hear. I realize that you can never go back to the old daze [sic], and I’m probably an old man shaking his fist at the clouds. If you dig the “new” Creem, go for it – I won’t judge you – but I’m afraid that they’re no longer singing for me, so I’ll look for my cheap thrills elsewhere… (

Full Disclosure: My first editor and mentor “Ranger” Rick Johnson got me into the pages of Creem in the early 1980s, and I sold them a handful of humorous reviews of books, TV shows, and such for the “Media Cool” section. The zine went bankrupt owing me something like $15 and I got legal paperwork for years afterwards as a legit creditor. I promise that this outstanding debt did nothing to color my impressions of the magazine’s new incarnation.


Creem magazine's Media Cool column, September 1985

Friday, March 10, 2023

The View On Pop Culture: Deviates, Electric Light Orchestra, "Parental Advisory" & Jet Li's "Black Mask" (2001)

Deviate's Time Is the Distance

Mainstream music pundits have all but declared that the punk genre has assumed room temperature. A spin or two of Time Is the Distance (Epitaph), the sophomore album by Bay area punk prodigies Deviates, proves that misconception to be dead wrong. Punk rock is alive and well, still raging against the machine with three chords and a bad attitude. Deviates kick out the jams with a little more intelligence than many punk wunderkinds, the band’s Time Is the Distance a youthful cross between Pennywise and Bad Religion, with a measure of Black Flag thrown in. Roaring six-string work dominates the songs on Time Is The Distance, guitarist Charley’s fingers ripping and tearing at the frets like a lion feasting on its prey. Deviates frontman Brian propels songs like the anthemic “No Mistake” with explosive vocals, the album’s socially conscious lyrics are matched by relentless rhythms. Barely out of their teens, Deviates bring a great deal of energy and vigor to Time Is The Distance, proving that, as punk godfather Peter Townsend once said, “the kids are alright!”

Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, anyone coming of age during the seventies remembers the Electric Light Orchestra. An attempt by singer/songwriter Jeff Lynne to fuse Beatlesque pop tunes with symphonic overtones, ELO (as they were known) chalked up a number of big hits during the decade. It all began with 1974’s Eldorado (Epic/Legacy), a conceptual masterpiece that yielded the British band’s first U.S. top ten hit in the infectious “Can’t Get It Out of My Head.” Recently reissued with original artwork and bonus tracks, Eldorado matches priceless melodies and multi-layered instrumentation to create a sound as ambitious as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album. Whereas pretentious progressive rock bands were masquerading as classical composers at the time, Lynne effortlessly incorporated strings and orchestra into his fantasy song cycle, Eldorado standing as ELO’s finest moment. On the heels of the recently released Zoom, the first real ELO album in 15 years, Legacy has also reissued deluxe editions of ELO’s Discovery (1979), Time (1981), and Secret Messages (1983).

The recent attempts by so-called liberals such as Joe Leiberman and Hilary Clinton to use the power of Congress to reign in unruly record labels, game developers and movie studios is just one chapter in an ongoing struggle between creators and would-be censors. With his book Parental Advisory (Perennial/Harper Collins), author and music fan Eric Nuzum does an excellent job in presenting the history of music censorship in the United States. Nuzum discusses the major targets of the censor (album artwork, lyrical concerns, musician lifestyles, music videos, etc.) as well as religious opposition to music and attempts by lawmakers to censor with ill-conceived legislation. A timeline of music censorship traces the phenomena from the Civil War era to the modern day while an extensive biography provides areas for future reading. Nuzum is an intelligent and entertaining writer who has done his homework, delivering in Parental Advisory a sordid history of opposition to popular culture. If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, Eric Nuzum will open your eyes to this important issue.    

Jet Li's Black Mask
Although Jet Li has enjoyed modest box office successes like this summer’s Kiss of the Dragon, he’s still waiting for that one breakthrough film to catapult him to the top. Overlooked in theatrical release, action junkies craving cheap thrills should look no further than the Hong Kong production Black Mask (New Line Home Video), dubbed for DVD. The perfect replacement for aging celluloid heroes like Arnie, Steven and Chuck, Li plays Simon, a mild-mannered librarian who holds a dangerous secret – he is actually a genetically engineered super soldier who escaped from a secret government program to find a new life. When his fellow former military mutants make a grab for power by knocking off Hong Kong’s druglords in the most violent and bloody manner imaginable, Simon’s quiet life comes unraveled. The librarian becomes the “Black Mask,” a mysterious superhero forced to combat his former Commander and fellow soldiers.

Li’s fight scenes with his former playmates are nothing short of astonishing, the actor making full use of a lifetime of martial arts training. With advanced wirework choreographed by the same genius that later created amazing fight scenes in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Jet Li comes across as a supernatural-fighting machine. As legendary drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs would say, Black Mask has no plot to get in the way of the action. You will find kung fu, laser fu, motorcycle fu and the dreaded poison gas fu. As with many Hong Kong action flicks, there’s a bloody hospital shoot-out, and heads and hands do roll. Kudos to Jet Li for the best Bruce Lee imitation ever. Special recognition is also deserved by the dangerously beautiful Francoise Yip, who plays Simon’s former love, Karen Mok for comic relief and to Patrick Lung Kang as the exceptional head villain, who looks like an Asian Joey Ramone. Give Black Mask four stars – the Rev sez “check it out!” (View From The Hill, July 2001)

Friday, March 3, 2023

CD Review: Various Artists' The Best of Wattstax (2023)

The Wattstax concert was one of the most consequential and influential live events in pop culture history. Organized by Stax Records as a benefit show to commemorate the anniversary of the 1965 riots in the Watts community in Los Angeles, the concert was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August 20th, 1972. Performers included nearly the entire Stax roster at the time, stylistically running the gamut from soul, gospel, and blues to jazz and funk. The label released a double-LP set of the concert’s highlights a few months later to critical acclaim. The event was also filmed by producer David L. Wolper and directed by Mel Stuart (best known for 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory); released in 1973 as Wattstax, the concert film won a Golden Globe Award for “Best Documentary Film.”

In recognition of the event’s 50th anniversary, CraftRecordings has released the entire freakin’ concert in various formats (more about which below). We’re only going to look at the condensed, twenty-track The Best of Wattstax CD here, which offers up highlights from the concert as “hand-picked” by Stax Records. The set kicks off with an amazing performance by R&B legend Kim Weston, singing the ‘Black National Anthem,’ “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song that created somewhat of an undeserved controversy when performed at this year’s Super Bowl game. Released by Stax as a single at the time, proceeds were donated to the United Negro College Fund. Weston knocks it out of the park with a powerful, Gospel-tinged performance. It’s a great way to kick off the CD, but then The Best of Wattstax gets mired down by a handful of Gospel performances, highlighted by the ever-welcome Staple Singers (“I’ll Take You There”) and including songs by Deborah Manning and Eric Mercury.

Luckily, The Best of Wattstax rights the ship with Lee Sain’s effervescent take on “Them Hot Pants” and pretty much rocks the house from then on. As talented as Stax’s Gospel artists may have been, people bought the label’s releases for scorching soul, rowdy funk, and lowdown blues tunes, and that’s what you’ll find on 75% of The Best of Wattstax. While mainstream talents like Isaac Hayes (“Theme From Shaft”), Carla Thomas (“B-A-B-Y”), Rufus Thomas (“The Breakdown”), and Eddie Floyd (“Knock On Wood”) put Memphis soul on the map in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, it’s the lesser-known talents like the Soul Children (“Hearsay”), the Rance Allen Group (the funkalicious “Lying On the Truth”), and William Bell (who proves himself to be the equal of anybody on the soul scene with “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”) that has had collectors’ digging through the crates for better than a half-century. Throw in stellar performances by blues legend Albert King (“I’ll Play the Blues For You”), the Temprees (“Explain It To Her Mama”), and the Bar-Kays (“I Can’t Turn You Loose”) and you have one helluva collection!

As mentioned above, Craft is also releasing Wattstax: The Complete Concert in both a six-CD and ten-album vinyl versions that feature every performance from the event, including spoken word interludes. If your bank account allows for luxury this month, or maybe you have a fat tax refund, consider investing in Soul’d Out: The Complete Wattstax Collection, a twelve-CD box set comprised of the entire L.A. Memorial Coliseum concert as well as recordings from the Summit Club, including 31 previously-unreleased performances and a 76-page, full-color book. Really, you can’t go wrong no matter which version you end up buying! (Stax Records/Craft Recordings, released February 24th, 2023)

Also on That Devil Music:
Isaac Hayes’ Stax Classics CD review
Carla Thomas’ Stax Classics CD review
Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign CD review

Buy the CD from Amazon: The Best of Wattstax

The View On Pop Culture: Blackmore's Night, Rita Chiarelli, "Chasin’ That Devil Music" & Bob Hyde (2001)

Blackmore's Night Fires At Midnight

Guitarist Richie Blackmore is one of the pioneers of heavy metal, best known for his six-string wizardry with Deep Purple and Rainbow. As an artist, Blackmore has long since evolved past “Smoke On the Water,” leaving both of his former bands behind him better than half a decade ago. These days, Blackmore is going forward into the past as the artist explores the possibilities of Renaissance-era music with Blackmore’s Night. A collaborative effort between Blackmore and vocalist/songwriter Candace Night, the pair’s third album, Fires At Midnight (Steamhammer), is an incredibly charming and infectious collection of songs. A few of Blackmore’s trademark riffs still lurk in the corners, songs such as “I Still Remember” resembling nothing so much as a sophisticated power ballad.

On the album’s traditional songs, however, Blackmore shows off his multi-instrumental talents, adding mandolin and percussion to the songs alongside electric and acoustic guitars. Candace Night is not a powerful vocalist, but rather a mesmerizing one, her vocals weaving a spell of enchantment. Her wonderful reworking of Dylan’s classic “The Times They Are A Changin’” is sheer magic, a gossamer affair that underline’s Dylan’s lyrical mastery. Exotic instrumentation abounds across these songs, with harps and whistles and bagpipes transporting the music to another era. Fires At Midnight is a treasure of an album. The music rings as clearly and cheerfully as the tone of a bell, drawing the listener into a musical sojourn that they’ll not soon forget.

Often overshadowed by male artists, women have nevertheless always been a big part of the blues landscape. A few strong women have left an indelible mark on the blues however; artists like Koko Taylor, Etta James, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey earning their seat among the giants of the blues. The distaff side of the genre has continued to grow steadily during the past decade or so, showcasing a marvelous diversity of age and talent that ranges from teen guitarist Shannon Curfman to Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women. Canada’s Rita Chiarelli is a welcome addition to the growing roster of blueswomen. Breakfast At Midnight (Northern Blues) is Chiarelli’s fourth album, a rollicking affair that places the spotlight on her soulful vocals and impressive songwriting skills. Chiarelli explores a number of blues formats on Breakfast At Midnight, from “Never Been Loved Before,” a New Orleans R&B rave-up that would sound perfectly at home in Tipitina's, to the jazzy “Midnight In Berlin.” Chiarelli reminds me a lot of Bonnie Raitt, with great vocal abilities and an artistic palette that includes every facet of the blues. Rita Chiarelli’s Breakfast At Midnight is a breakthrough album by a talent still on the rise.

Speaking of the blues, thanks to historian Gayle Dean Wardlow, the legendary Robert Johnson will finally receive a headstone for his long-lost grave. To celebrate the event, the first annual Robert Johnson Cross Road Memorial Days will be held near Greenwood, Mississippi on August 16 and 17. The celebration of Johnson’s life and career will begin at the Little Zion Baptist Church where Johnson was buried 63 years ago. The event will include a ninety-minute overview of Johnson’s music by Wardlow and record producers Frank Diggs and Larry Cohn, whose efforts rescued Johnson’s wonderful recordings and saved them for posterity.

Gayle Dean Wardlow's Chasin’ That Devil Music
Wardlow was a newspaper reporter and collector of 78 RPM records in the early sixties when he began using his journalistic skills to unearth death certificates for old blues artists. He would then track down and interview friends and families of the deceased bluesmen. Wardlow’s decades-long quest is told in one of the seminal books on the delta blues, Chasin’ That Devil Music (Miller Freeman Books). A fascinating narrative that is complimented by old photos and other graphics, Chasin’ That Devil Music includes tales of well-known artists like Johnson and Charlie Patton as well as forgotten talents like Willie Brown and Tommy Johnson. The book includes a 25-track CD with a wealth of rare recordings and is a great starting point for anybody interested in learning more about the artists and music of the Mississippi Delta.   

It was never my intention to turn this humble review column into a pop culture graveyard, but the loss of so many talents over the past couple of months demands our attention. In the midst of all of the press commentary over high profile deaths, one dedicated rocker has been overlooked. Bob Hyde worked for Capitol Records, where he recently oversaw the compilation of the recent Ricky Nelson box set and reissue series. Hyde was also involved with the first two Rhino Records Do-Wop box sets and produced compilation albums for Mel Torme and George Thorogood, among others. A talented producer, writer and rock historian, Hyde loved the music and fought hard for every project he worked on. In a corporate environment that values bean counters and ‘yes’ men, Hyde was a rarity. He did his work in the shadows, but his contributions in keeping the rock ‘n’ roll flame alive were invaluable by any measure. (View From The Hill, July 2001)    

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Short Rounds: Miller Anderson, The Heartsleeves, The Nervous Eaters, Old Town Crier, Orang-Utan, Roxercat & Bob Weir (March 2023)

Miller Anderson's Bright City
Stuff I’m listening to this month…

Miller Anderson – Bright City (Esoteric Records, U.K.)
Scottish guitarist Miller Anderson was part of the British blooze boom of the late ‘60s and while he’s best known for his tenure with the Keef Hartley Band (four LPs from 1969-71), he also played with Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack, and Dog Soldier during the 1970s and ‘80s and recorded with mates like Ian Hunter, Jon Lord (Deep Purple), and Dave Cousins (Strawbs). Anderson has also pursued an on-again, off-again solo career that began with this 1971 album, Bright City. Although ostensibly a bluesman, Anderson displays a deft hand here at several genres, like the proggy Goth of “Alice Mercy (To Whom It May Concern),” which carries its Procol Harum influences nicely, and ends with a folkie vibe that could easily pass for an Incredible String Band jam. The album’s title track offers a dreamy soundscape in the best British folk tradition, with a lofty string arrangement and Anderson’s filigree guitarplay.   

Bright City isn’t flawless, however…“The Age of Progress” is an underproduced trifle with tinny harpsichord and soulful backing vocals, the song never really picking a lane and sticking with it. “Grey Broken Morning” is a little too jazzbo for my tastes, crossing lanes into middle-of-the-road turf with syrupy instrumentation and treacly backing vox. Much better is the nearly eight-minute, fiercely-rockin’ “Hight Tide, High Water,” which fits all of its kitchen sink styles together into a singular, impressive performance that leans prog-rock but masterfully incorporates elements of blues, funk, and hard rock all fueled by Anderson’s nimble fretwork and a fluid line. Friends and former bandmates like guitarist Neil Hubbard (Juicy Lucy), bassist Gary Thain (Uriah Heep), keyboardist Mick Weaver (Wynder K. Frog), and flautist Lyn Dobson (Soft Machine) contribute to the album, but Bright City is otherwise a showcase for Anderson’s often-underrated six-string skills. Grade: B-   BUY!

The Heartsleeves' So Far, So What
The HeartsleevesSo Far, So What EP (self-produced)

Nashville’s Scott Feinstein has been kicking around the scene for so long that it’s easy to take the guy for granted. A member of popular local 1980s-era rockers Shadow 15, this recently-released five-song EP represents the first new music from Feinstein in memory. Clocking in at a too-short fifteen minutes, the tunes on So Far, So What nevertheless smack you in the face with what feels like an hour of high-octane, ultra-energetic rock ‘n’ roll and power-pop. EP-opener “Angie” is a ramshackle rocker with roots in the Replacements and absolutely no glass ceiling, with delightfully-discordant guitars and bold drumbeats courtesy of Music City veteran Brad Pemberton. “Things” follows a similar blueprint, tho’ maybe even rowdier, with a melodic edge partially driven by Feinstein’s fine vocal performance and stunning Bob Mould-styled six-string overkill.

The underlying melody of “Understanding Jane” is carpet-bombed with pulse-pounding, explosive, smothering instrumentation – a gleefully wicked, groove, indeed! – while “The Warning” swerves a bit, with ubiquitous local talent Jonathan Bright taking over the drum stool. Bright brings a different tempo to what is a more considered, but no less powerful rocker, but the EP closer “Hate” hits the auditory canal like Trent Reznor dropping acid with Timothy Leary, the performance a virtual chokehold of flexed muscle and tense sinew with tortured vocals and devastating instrumentation that lingers. It’s quite a stylistic departure from the previous songs, but also a showcase for the immense and often-overlooked talents of Scott Feinstein and fellow travelers. In the wise words of my pal Jeffersün Jëbëdiah Schmützig Schanchëz, “BUY IT! You can thank me later…” Grade: A   BUY!

The Nervous Eaters' Monsters + Angels
The Nervous EatersMonsters + Angels (Wicked Cool Records)

Beloved Boston rockers the Nervous Eaters – whose hard melodic sound has more in common with, say, the Del Lords than with the Sex Pistols – were ‘one-and-done’ with a single 1980 Elektra Records album recorded by an unsympathetic producer (the better-suited Ric Ocasek was proposed by the band but rejected by the label); ultimately underpromoted to death by a clueless label. The band has soldiered on with founder, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Steve Cataldo carrying the torch through various incarnations and indie LPs like 1986’s Hot Steel and Acid. This 21st century version of the Nervous Eaters was formed in 2018 by Cataldo and a brace of Boston rock veterans, who recorded Monsters + Angels during the pandemic year. Released by Little Steven’s Wicked Cool Records, the foursome cranks through ten red-hot tunes that are guaranteed to scratch your rock ‘n’ roll itch. If FM radio wasn’t such a barren landscape of spineless cretin programming, Nervous Eaters tunes like the hard-rockin’ “Tear Me Up” or the throwback power-pop of “Superman’s Hands” would be dominating the airwaves. If guitar-happy, harmony-rich, big beat classic rock is your jam, you owe it to yourself to (re)discover the Nervous Eaters. Grade: A   BUY!   

Old Town Crier's A Night with Old Town Crier
Old Town CrierA Night with Old Town Crier (self-produced)

Old Town Crier is the solo musical project of Middleborough, Massachusetts multi-instrumental talent Jim Lough, who has a pair of fine previous EPs under his belt. I wrote last year about You, a benefit EP raising funds for progressive political candidates. The results were so successful that Lough decided to release a full-length live album, A Night with Old Town Crier, with half of the proceeds donated to The Pine Street Inn, a charitable organization located in Boston with the worthy mission to end homelessness. Joined by talented young musicians like guitarist Garrett Jones, bassist Alex Bilodeau, keyboardist JennHwan Wong, drummer Avery Logan, and saxophonist Stephen Byth, Lough and band run through eight rockin’ tunes that could have just as easily been recorded in the early ‘70s as in the early 2020s.

Old Town Crier pursues a throwback sound that is famously diverse with a contemporary feel and nary a shred of musical revisionism. Reminiscent of such genre-blending, melting-pot bands as the Charlatans and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Old Town Crier mixes rock, classic R&B, blues, jazz, and Americana in a huge cast iron cauldron and lets it boil over for our entertainment. For instance, “Before You Came Along” displays elements of 1950s-styled rock with period R&B, Lough’s soulful vocals accompanied by honky-tonk piano licks and blasts of icy saxophone. “Come Home Caroline” offers a more measured performance, cool blue sax providing a jazzy intro to a heartfelt love song with plaintive vocals and gorgeous instrumentation while “Della May” reminds of Leon Russell with its bluesy, jazz-flecked piano, loping bass lines, and mournful sax with Lough’s effective heartbreak vox the icing on the cake.

My fave performance on A Night with Old Town Crier is the jubilant “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby,” a jaunty rocker with an old-school vibe and shades of jazzy ‘60s R&B. It’s just a great, up-tempo love song with simple yet brilliant lyrics, rampaging saxophone, big beat drums, and an overall “feel good” finish to the album. If you’d like to hear some fun, finely-crafted, and excellently-played music and support a good cause at the same time, head on over to Bandcamp and check out A Night with Old Town Crier. Grade: A   BUY! 

Orang-Utan's Orang-Utan
Orang-Utan – Orang-Utan (Sommor Records, Spain)

From musical trailblazers like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream to one-shot wonders like Killing Floor and Black Cat Bones, England in the late ‘60s was wall-to-wall with blooze bands grasping at the brass ring. Orang-Utan (née Hunter) were one such outfit, a talented bunch o’ young punters who got a raw deal, literally drawn up in a back-alley by a fast-talkin’ producer-cum-label impresario, resulting in this lone self-titled album released in 1971*. There’s a lot of promise in these tunes, which fall into a psych-blues groove fueled by Mick Clarke’s imaginative fretwork and drummer Jeff Seopardi’s ahead-of-his-time songwriting chops. But there’s also a presage of skillful progginess that suggests a future evolution of the band’s sound that would never be. R.I.Y.L. Cactus, Mountain, The Groundhogs, et al. Grade: B+   BUY!

* Due to its obscurity and stateside-only release,
Orang-Utan, the album, has long been a mid-priced collectible; an original vinyl copy in good condition will run you $50 or more. This 2022 CD reissue will cost you much less, and is the only authorized reissue of the album after decades of dodgy releases that didn’t pay the band a dime in royalties.

Roxercat's Pearls EP
RoxercatPearls EP (9 Dog Records, digital release)

When I reviewed The Fortunate Few: The Rock Opera a couple of years ago, I mentioned that Nashville rock veteran Price Jones left the singing on the album’s songs to the capable hands of Ryan Greenawalt and Talisha Holmes. This evidently struck a chord with the talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist as, for Jones’ latest project with her new band Roxercat, she’s taken back the microphone with happy results. Collaborating again with legendary jazz guitarist Stan Lassiter and bassist Bill Francis, with various guest musicians pitching in, the six-song EP Pearls offers up gems of shimmering, gorgeous, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll.

The title track is a lovely, poetic song rife with imagery built around Lassister’s fluid guitar lines and Jones’ yearning vocals. “Crime” adds a bit of funk to the EP’s rockin’ framework, with Jones’ playful, buoyant vox doing the heavy lifting alongside a foot-shuffling, booty-shakin’ rhythm. “Baby I Tried” is a more traditional love song with guitar lines that perfectly capture the song’s emotions, Jones’ heartbroken lyrics backed by soulful harmony vocals, while “I Changed Today” highlights Lassiter and Francis’s jazz roots with a complex soundtrack that includes a few hard rock riffs and some funky Booker T-styled keyboard flourishes, atop of which ride Jones’ defiant vocals. The instrumentation is top-notch throughout the six songs on Pearls – creative, imaginative and, at times, edgy and adventuresome while Jones’ lyrical chops are as strong as ever.

As they were released digitally rather than in physical form, it’s hard to actually buy these tracks – only two songs are available from Amazon – but trippy, too-cool videos for four of the EP’s six songs are available on the Roxercat website and YouTube, and you can stream the entire Pearls EP on services like Spotify and Apple Music. The Rev sez “check it out!” Grade: A     

Bob Weir's Ace
Bob WeirAce [50th anniversary edition] (Rhino Records)

Although Grateful Dead singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bob Weir wasn’t the first of the band’s members to release a solo album (Jerry Garcia’s Garcia beat him to the punch by a few months), Weir’s 1972 debut Ace was nevertheless the better-received of the initial Dead bandmember’s solo efforts, establishing Weir’s status as a standalone talent and Garcia’s creative equal. Although the core members of the band (Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and keyboardist Keith Godchaux) contribute in the studio, Ace is undeniably Weir’s show, the guitarist singing and co-writing all eight of the album’s songs (five of ‘em with hippie lyricist and Dead friend John Perry Barlow), several of which would subsequently become enduring staples of the full band’s nightly set list.

Nor is it a major surprise that a lot of the songs on Ace follow a similar roots-rock, country, and blues blueprint as the Dead’s 1970 American Beauty LP, Weir seemingly expanding on musical ideas he originally had for songs like “Sugar Magnolia.” There are a lot of great songs on Ace, from familiar tunes like “Mexicali Blues,” “One More Saturday Night,” and “Playing In the Band” (all also performed by the Dead) to overlooked gems like “Black-Throated Wind” and “Looks Like Rain.” This 50th anniversary reissue has been expanded to two discs, the second comprised of a 2022 live performance of Ace by Weir & Wolf Brothers with guests like Tyler Childers and Brittney Spencer. While the second disc is entertaining, revisiting the songs with younger albeit equally-talented musicians, there’s no denying the magic and immediacy of the original Ace, which launched Weir’s solo career and remains the best album the Grateful Dead never released. Grade: A   BUY!

Previously on That Devil

Short Rounds, September 2022:
Buzzcocks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Charlie Daniels & Friends, Will Hoge, The Pretty Things & Walter Trout

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

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

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Planet of Sound 2: More Essays From the Rock and Roll Globe Era (2021-2023)

Planet of Sound 2 is the second collection of rants, raves, and reviews penned by award-winning rock critic and music historian Rev. Keith A. Gordon. Originally published by the Rock and Roll Globe and Book and Film Globe websites, the Reverend covers a wide range of rock and blues music with these 33 essays.

From well-known artists like John Lee Hooker, Lou Reed, Muddy Waters, The Kinks, Edgar Winter, and the Georgia Satellites to lesser-known talents like Joe Grushecky, The Jazz Butcher, Randy California, and Willy DeVille, the Reverend explores the history of these artists and places their legacies into proper context. Planet of Sound 2 also includes several book reviews that delve into the history of the underground comix of the 1970s.

The “Reverend of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Rev. Keith A. Gordon has been writing about classic rock and blues music for 50 years. A former contributor to the All Music Guide, and the former ‘Blues Expert’ for, Gordon has written for over 100 publications worldwide, including Creem, Blurt magazine, Goldmine, Blues Music magazine, High Times, The Blues (U.K.), and Live! Music Review. The Reverend has also written or edited 26 previous music-related books, including The Jimi Hendrix Reader, The Other Side of Nashville, and and Anarchy In The Music City!

Get an autographed copy from the Reverend for $19.99 postpaid!

Buy the print version or an eBook from Amazon!

Friday, February 24, 2023

Buzz Kuts: Big Meteor, The Pietasters, John Popper, Marky Ramone & the Intruders, The RZA (1999)

The Pietasters' Awesome Mix Tape #6
Reviews originally published as a “Buzz Kuts” column, Alt.Culture.Guide™, August 1999

Wild River

Canada’s Big Meteor – the duo of David Wimble and Larry Wayne Church – deliver an engaging set of country-flavored folk-rock tunes with Wild River. Featuring Wimble’s songwriting skills and understated vocals and some tasty lead guitar from Church, Wild River’s thirteen songs delve into the various facets of interpersonal relationships. Although Wimble’s lyrics can, at times, be a bit oblique, in other instances he can be as transparent as glass. With sparse accompaniment, songs like “Honest Man” or “Mission” reveal Wimble’s philosophical side while “The Waitress” uses simple lyrics to create a beautiful, complex portrait of love and desire, the song underlined by Danny Artuso’s fluid steel guitar lines. The otherwise subdued “Alive In Every Hour” nonetheless offers some mesmerizing six string playing; “Until You Take Your Leave” is one of Wimble’s better songs, a radio-friendly pop country ballad. Wild River suffers from thin production, probably due to Big Meteor’s budget, the resulting loss of dynamics underplaying the charisma of the songs. With fuller production, a bit more vocal projection on Wimble’s part and a little fatter instrumentation, Big Meteor could be a serious contender. As it is, Wild River shows a great deal of promise, Big Meteor a band with a bright future. (Big Meteor, self-produced CD)

Awesome Mix Tape #6

A lot of the current crop of ska bands take their cue from the previous generation of island music aficionados, who were themselves mere carbon copies of an earlier generation. I’m not saying that you have to go all the way back to mid-‘60s Jamaica to cop the proper influences, but like an original that fades with each photocopied duplicate, so too do a lot of today’s trend-following ska-mongers sound like pale imitations of the real thing. Not so with the Pietasters, who have obviously studied the old masters and sound as refreshing and energetic today as those old Maytals’ records once did. Due to this musical diligence, Awesome Mix Tape #6 comes across as a vital and enjoyable addition to the recent ska-punk explosion. Songs like “Chain Reaction” or “Crying Over You”, with their low-key dynamics, sparse use of the brass section and soulful vocals come mighty close to duplicating the original island sound. Much of Awesome Mix Tape #6 is like this, a thoroughly enjoyable blending of ska, reggae and R & B with just a touch of punk posturing. While some bands try to make up with volume and attitude what they lack in style and finesse (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the Pietasters bring an authentic feel and obvious love for the music to Awesome Mix Tape #6. Bringing just enough contemporary feel to the material to make it fly in the nineties, the Pietasters do so without sacrificing the sincerity and heart that made original ska so charming in the first place. (Hellcat Records)


With Blues Traveler taking a well-deserved year off, shrugging aside their responsibility as the H.O.R.D.E. Festival house band for a season, frontman John Popper nonetheless found the need to make some music. The result is Zygote, Popper’s first solo effort, and one that may come as a surprise for many longtime Blues Traveler fans. With Zygote Popper begins a process that sees him expanding upon his work with Blues Traveler, traveling, as it were, across some different musical landscapes. The album opens with “Miserable Bastard”, a lengthy, funky number that, save for Popper’s trademark mouth harp work, comes across as closer to Dave Matthews than Blues Traveler. It sets the stage for what is to follow – an hour-long work that deviates from our expectations. Popper experiments with sounds and song structure on Zygote, sometimes diving right off into the deep end – as with “Lunatic” – into a sort of jazzy free-form improvisation that blues-based jam bands can only flirt with. Other material, like the haunting “Evil In My Chair”, are based more on Popper’s vocal abilities than his harp playing – heck, he even plays a little guitar on Zygote. That’s not to say that Blues Traveler fans won’t find something of interest here. I see a handful of tunes from Zygote, notably “Growing In Dirt” and the soulfully bittersweet “Love For Free” that would work in the band setting. Zygote is an altogether brave venture, familiar enough as to not alienate existing fans but allowing Popper room to breathe, artistically. A solid musician and songwriter with deep roots and frequent flashes of brilliance, Popper’s first solo attempt garners an A grade for conception and a B for execution. (A & M Records)

The Answer To Your Problems

As a member of proto-metal hard rockers Dust, Marky Ramone (née Bell) had a musical career prior to his becoming the skinman for the legendary punk foursome. From the sound of The Answer To Your Problems, he’s trying to forge an identity outside his former life as a Ramone as well (although he’s not too proud to capitalize on the name, eh Marky?). Produced by Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen, The Answer To Your Problems offers a take-no-prisoners punk outlook similar to that band’s, with a bit of straight-forward hard rock bombast thrown in for flavor. Brimming with attitude and energy, the songs here – mostly written by Ramone and Intruders’ guitarist/vocalist Ben Trokan – are surprisingly good, showcasing a slightly skewed sense of humor like the Ramones’ best material, but without the sometimes grating pinhead intelligence level. “Peekhole” is a pretty damn funny sidelong look at paranoia, “Life Sucks” could easily become a punk anthem, and Trokan’s duet with punk goddess Joan Jett, “Don’t Blame Me,” is a precious throwaway. Ramone and the Intruders stomp out an unlikely cover of the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” that will have you humming the tune for days while cuts like “Lottery” and “Middle Finger” are as mentally infectious as flesh-eating bacteria. Overall, The Answer To Your Problems is a hell of a lot of fun, a rocking album with tongue placed firmly in cheek and amps turned up way past ten. The Rev sez “check it out!” (Zoe Records/Rounder Records)

The RZA's Hits

Much like Public Enemy did a decade ago; the Wu-Tang Clan redefined hip-hop culture during the 1990s, propelling rap towards a headfirst collision with the twenty-first century. Made up of nine distinct personalities, backed by an innovative, world-class producer in the RZA, Wu-Tang changed rap music forever. Bringing the music to an ever-growing crossover audience, Wu-Tang’s debut album hit hard with a unique blend of mad rhymes, crazy beats, sonic experimentation and an unparalleled mix of style (especially Hong Kong kung-fu flicks), street imagery and imaginative use of graphic and musical icons. (What fan isn’t familiar with the Wu-Tang logo?) Not to take anything away from the rappers who front this hip-hop posse, but props should be afforded production wizard RZA. Showcasing the best of his work with both Wu-Tang and the Clan’s individual solo efforts, Hits brings the RZA’s talents into sharper focus. Including milestones like Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck” and “C.R.E.A.M.” along with solo tracks like Method Man’s “Bring The Pain”, Ghostface Killah’s “Winter Warz”, and others from Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and the GZA (“Genius”), Hits draws heavily from the producer’s early milieu, ignoring more recent (and less acclaimed) works. Although dedicated Wu fans will already have all or most of this material – there’s nothing new here, although Hits does include “Wu Wear, The Garment Renaissance” from the High School High soundtrack. For those who remain in the dark, though, Hits serves as an excellent introduction to the wild world of the Wu-Tang. (Razor Sharp Records/Epic)

The View On Pop Culture: Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music, Lucinda Williams, "Too Much Coffee Man" & "Unbreakable" (2001)

Roxy Music's The Best of Roxy Music

A stylish and charismatic performer, Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music is rock’s equivalent to the suave pop crooners of the 1940s. Although the creative lifespan of Roxy Music was brief by pop/rock standards, stretching across a mere ten years, the influence that the band had on eighties new wave bands and modern British pop is priceless. There have been previous compilations of Roxy Music’s hits, but The Best of Roxy Music (Virgin Records) may well be the most complete. Starting with hits like “Avalon” and “More Than This” from Roxy’s 1982 swan song, Avalon, the collection works its way backwards chronologically, featuring well-known tracks like “Dance Away” and “Love Is the Drug” alongside non-album singles like the 1981 Lennon tribute “Jealous Guy” and the band’s early hit “Virginia Plain”.

Roxy Music’s core talents of Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxman Andy MacKay never failed to deliver music that was rich and multi-hued, a tapestry of style and sound that is classy and timeless. Although the band’s stateside fortunes were limited to a mere handful of hit singles, they consistently placed in the top ten on the British charts and, even more admirably, they knew when to call it quits and rest on their considerable laurels. The Best of Roxy Music serves as a wonderful introduction to the band for the uninitiated but also provides long-time fans with some of the best that Roxy had to offer on one CD.

Not the most prolific of artists, Lucinda Williams is nonetheless one of music’s more interesting talents. A perfectionist, Williams crafts each recording like a diamond cutter shaves a gem. Williams’ sixth album, Essence (Lost Highway/Universal), is no different, its eleven songs carefully detailed and performed with great skill and consideration. Although the somber songs on Essence veer in a different direction from those on Williams’ last album, longtime followers will see Essence as an inevitable evolutionary step.

An album about self-reflection and discovery, Essence is a poetic sojourn, its songs speaking of the search for love, for acceptance, for faith in a world growing ever harsher and impersonal. The songs here feature sparse musical accompaniment behind Williams’ throaty, uniquely beautiful vocals, producer and musician Charlie Sexton deftly juggling the demands of the studio with those of each individual song. Sexton and folk artist Bo Ramsey add subtle and mesmerizing guitar lines to create a structure on which Williams builds her lyrical creations. With Essence, Williams and friends have delivered an enchanting and thoughtful set of songs.

First there was Too Much Coffee Man the comic book, a reckless and joyful celebration of all things caffeine sketched out in crude black & white comic strips. After spending ten years at the drawing board, TMCM creator Shannon Wheeler has opted to change the format of his comic books to that of a full-featured magazine. The inaugural issue has hit a newsstand near you and it’s well worth checking out. The ‘zine includes expected reviews of stuff like coffee ice cream and “be-bop” biscotti but also offers up the unexpected, like pieces on crime and punishment in America, identity theft and cartoonist Kieron Dwyer’s account of his legal struggles with Starbucks as well as several comic strips, including TMCM. Entertaining and intelligent, Too Much Coffee Man the magazine is the Rev’s “must read” for the month (

Proving that the cinematic excellence and storytelling skills that he showed audiences with The Sixth Sense were no fluke, writer and filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan followed up that surprise blockbuster with the equally impressive Unbreakable (Touchstone Home Video). Although it was not the smash hit of his first film, Unbreakable is an admirable work in its own right. Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, the lone survivor of a deadly train wreck. The accident proves to be a sort of watershed for the character when he meets up with the enigmatic stranger Elijah, played perfectly by Samuel L. Jackson.

The story twists and turns in unexpected directions, as the mysterious Elijah leads Dunn to discover his true nature. Shyamalan is an original and insightful director, using interesting framing and camera angles to drive this unique and thrilling tale. As with his previous film, Shyamalan provides viewers with a surprise ending. The DVD release includes a second disc with a “behind the scenes” feature and one discussing comic books and superheroes (a major theme in the film). Unbreakable is a remarkable film that will keep you thinking for days after watching it. (View From The Hill, June 2001)

Friday, February 17, 2023

Various Artists - Sun City [w/Little Steven, Afrika Bambaata, Bob Dylan, George Clinton, Peter Gabriel, Joey Ramone & more!] (1985)

Artists United Against Apartheid's Sun City
U.S.A. For Africa, Live Aid, Farm Aid and similar fund-raising efforts illustrate a recent return and growth of social consciousness in rock music. The Sun City project is a blatant politicization of this consciousness, an open and above-board call to arms against South Africa’s abhorrent official policy of racial segregation and oppression known as apartheid. In support of this project, founder Little Steven Van Zandt, ex-guitarist for Springsteen’s E Street Band, collected the combined efforts of over 50 artists in the creation of the Sun City album.

Artists United Against Apartheid is the name taken by these artists, and it includes some big league talent: among others, Sun City features the contributions of Afrika Bambaata, Pat Benatar, Bono of U2, Bob Dylan, George Clinton, Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel, Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, Herbie Hancock, Gil Scott-Heron, Peter Townshend, and the ‘Boss’ himself, Bruce Springsteen. The result is no feeble entertainment all-star sing-a-long … Sun City is not only an important social statement (perhaps the most important of the decades to date), it is an inspired use of talents and abilities. Both Van Zandt and co-produced Arthur Baker are old pros in the studio, and they use the collected entourage to its fullest.

The six songs on Sun City (including two versions of the title cut) are intelligent and exciting, stylistically ranging from the rocking title track to the Afrikan instrumentation of “The Struggle Continues” to the rap/spoken word “Let Me See Your I.D.” The most chilling moment of Sun City, though, is a song that no lyricist could write the words for: “Revolutionary Situation” is a collection of scraps from speeches from both sides of the issue set to a musical backing. Listening to the point/counterpoint from Bishop Tutu, Ronnie Reagan, South African Prime Minster Botha, and unnamed protesters underlines the relevance and controversy of this struggle.

All artist royalties from Sun City go to the Africa Fund, a non-profit organization working towards freedom and equality for South Africa’s 20 million blacks. (Manhattan Records, 1985)

Review originally published by The Metro, November 1985

Buy the CD from Amazon: Artists United Against Apartheid’s Sun City

(Editor’s note, 2022: The Sun City album and single raised more than a million U.S. dollars for anti-apartheid projects, and inspired other musicians (notably Johnny Clegg) to create their own local organizations. Apartheid would come to an end in 1994 when former state prisoner Nelson Mandela was elected president of South African and his African National Congress (ANC) party won 60% of the seats in the legislature.)

Buzz Kuts: Black Label Society, The Katies, Portable, Sons of Hercules & "Punk-O-Rama 4" (1999)

Black Label Society's Sonic Brew
Reviews originally published as a “Buzz Kuts” column, Alt.Culture.Guide™, August 1999

Sonic Brew

Wunderkind guitarist Zakk Wylde may have earned his rep while apprenticing with Ozzy in the shadow of Randy Rhodes, but his chops are entirely his own. Sonic Brew, Wylde’s Black Label Society debut, opens with a trembling riff that sounds like the mighty fist of one pissed off thunder god, Wylde’s throaty vocals roaring above the din of “Bored To Tears” while he tears off bloody chunks of highly-amped hard rock riffage. Most of the rest of Sonic Brew follows the same pattern – solid heavy metal instrumentation backing Wylde’s awesome six-string pyrotechnics, the guitarist hitting both monstrous bottom-heavy rhythms and surgical-sharp, lightning quick fretboard runs. Wylde’s lyrics, preoccupied with death, drugs, and debauchery, are mostly lightweight and somewhat cliched, but nobody listens to a musician of Wylde’s caliber to pore over the lyric sheet. This is no-frills molten slag for listeners who like to hear the sound of guitars crashing about inside their skulls, two-fisted rock ‘n’ roll for those who like it loud and rough. If that sounds like your kind of musical libation, I’d highly recommend a shot or two of Black Label Society’s Sonic Brew. (Spitfire Records)

The Katies

Hailing from the unlikely rock capital of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the Katies manage to deliver big city thrills with their self-titled debut. Expertly blending heavy metal riffs, pop harmonies, and wonderfully choreographed hard rock hooks, the Katies have created an uniquely enjoyable set of songs. They manage to keep the voltage cranked up, providing their material with boundless amounts of energy while never overpowering the underlying melodies of songs like “She’s My Marijuana” or “Tappin’ Out”. There’s a lot of good work going on in these grooves. I hear British invasion type harmonies here, some 1970s-styled six string work, a fair amount of “wall of sound” dynamics, lots of well-placed feedback and a whole lot of rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Most importantly, the Katies are never predictable – they fill their songs with careening chords and time changes, screaming leads, syncopated rhythms and vocal gymnastics that a lesser band wouldn’t even attempt, much less pull off the way this talented threesome have. If “Modern Rock” radio had any balls, they’d be programming half a dozen cuts from The Katies, but I’d heartily recommend the infectious “Drowner”, the guitar-driven “Miss Melodrama”, and the disc’s first single, “Noggin’ Poundin’”, with its powerful rhythms and clever lyrical twists. The Katies draw from a musical tradition that includes the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, punk rock, heavy metal, grunge, and a thousand and one unknown and unforgotten bands. They are nonetheless an entirely original outfit, their debut disc a strange but tasty fruit plucked from the abundant tree of rock ‘n’ roll. (Spongebath / Elektra Records)

Secret Life

Portable’s first full-length disc features much of the same traits as the self-titled EP released earlier this year, reprising five of the seven songs from that disc and adding seven more to make an even dozen for Secret Life. Crashing guitars and bludgeoning rhythms are the secret to Portable’s sound, frontman Chance providing the songs with a unique vocal presence. Chance’s vocals range from bouncy Brit-pop inflections to the best Seattle-inspired grunge-like howls, sometimes within the same tune. Guitarist Gus Ciceri keeps things lively, his six string contributions as unpredictable and wide-ranging as Chance’s vocals. The rest of the band does its best to help create an atmospheric sound that’s akin to swimming through a pool of sludge, songs like “Silence Please”, “Restraint”, or “Boy-Girl” the barbed wire and broken glass that lie beneath the surface. Portable’s musical milieu is at once both familiar and foreign, Secret Life presenting contemporary hard rock with heart. (TVT Records)

Sons of Hercules' Get Lost
Get Lost

With their early recordings genuflecting towards the graven musical image of punk godfather Iggy Pop, the Sons of Hercules sonic attack was definitely influenced by the Stooges’ groundbreaking sound. With Get Lost, the Sons have honed their two-fisted rock ‘n’ roll to a sharp cutting edge, treading the same stylistic ground that the New York Dolls planted their freak flag on some twenty-five years ago. Also like the Dolls, the Sons of Hercules have a great vocalist in Frank Pugliese, a snarling, spitting frontman who can bend and slur and screech lyrics with the best of them. Combined with the pummeling guitars of Dan Hoekstra and Dale Hollon and a solid rhythm section of drummer Kory Cook and bassist Phillip Plyler, the Sons of Hercules kick out fast and furious garage punk that begs to be turned up loud! Get Lost runs through a baker’s dozen tunes in a respectable thirty-two minutes, twisting your skull and delighting your ears. The Sons are no mere revisionists, however. They know and love the music they draw their influences from, building upon the past to update the sound for a new generation. Get Lost is simply brimming over with great tunes, rave-ups like “Don’t Wanna Be Like You”, “Some Kind of Freak”, and a completely reckless cover of the Byrds’ “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” that evokes the original while improving upon it. Check out the Sons of Hercules – if you don’t Get Lost, you’re going to miss the party… (Get Hip Recordings)

Punk-O-Rama 4: Straight Outta The Pit

For those of you among our reading audience who think that punk rock began and ended with Green Day or Blink 182, there’s some folks in Southern California who would disagree with you. For the better part of two decades now, the gang at Epitaph has cranked out ‘Grade A’ certified punk rock in every flavor that you can imagine. Founded by former Bad Religion member Brett Gurewitz to release that band’s albums, Epitaph has grown into the closest thing that the punk world could call a major label. As for the label’s accomplishments, look no further than the recently released Punk-O-Rama 4: Straight Outta The Pit, a twenty-five-song compilation of talent from Epitaph and its related label Hellcat. The fourth in a series of low-priced samplers (I copped mine for $4.99!), Punk-O-Rama 4 does a great job of introducing listeners to the label’s bands. No matter what style of punk you prefer, this disc has got it all. Looking for hardcore, bunkie? Check out the cuts by H2O, Agnostic Front, or the Dwarves. Want some socially conscious lyrics? Look no further than Pennywise, Rancid, or the vintage Bad Religion cut included here. Pop punk – how ‘bout NoFX, Pulley, or All? Epitaph has even branched out into more artistic areas lately, as evidenced by their recent release of the first Tom Waits album in years, represented on Punk-O-Rama 4 by the excellent “Big In Japan”. Union 13, the New Bomb Turks, Voodoo Glow Skulls…the list goes on and on. Twenty-five bands, a like number of cuts including a previously unreleased Pennywise tune, all for a crazy cheap price, offered in the hope that you’ll find something new here that you like and put out for the full-length CD. Whether you’re a hardcore punk or a weekend mosher, you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of Punk-O-Rama 4: Straight Outta The Pit. (Epitaph Records)

Friday, February 10, 2023

Buzz Kuts: ADZ, Nick Gravenites, Bif Naked, Napalm Death, Pennywise & Verbena (1999)

Bif Naked's I Bificus
Reviews originally published as a “Buzz Kuts” column, Alt.Culture.Guide™, July 1999

His Master’s Choice

They may not be as well known as pop punk outfits like Green Day or Offspring, and you’ll probably never see them on MTV, but ADZ certainly do get around. Hewing closer to the true spirit of punk rock than any other half a dozen bands you could name, ADZ mix hardcore roots with a healthy respect for good old-fashioned, no frills rock ‘n’ roll. His Master’s Choice is a musical mixed bag of tracks culled from various international compilation discs, ADZ singles and demos and the odd live recording. Due to the variety of sources, the sound quality fluctuates a bit, but not enough to make a difference in the enjoyment level of the collection – just turn the sucker up! Musically, ADZ simply rock, from the album-opening band theme song to a rumbling version of the Jonathan Richman favorite “Roadrunner” to original cuts like the wickedly delightful “Get Bent” or the manic, electric “Tetsuo”. Johnny Cash’s country classic “Jackson” receives a raucous rendering while Little Richard and the Kinks also experience similar treatments. It’s this familiarity and obvious love for music other than hardcore punk that sets ADZ above other bands in their genre – when ADZ thrashes a song, at least they know what the hell they’re doing. The Rev sez “check it out!” (Amsterdamned Records)

Nick Gravenites' Kill My Brain
Kill My Brain

By any accounts, Nick Gravenites owns one of the most impressive resumes in rock and blues music. A founding member of the legendary Butterfield Blues Band, he wrote several of their more notable songs, including “Born In Chicago.” Gravenites has enjoyed a thirty-year career as a songwriter, guitarist and producer, appearing on some 45 albums as a musician. He’s had songs recorded by folks like Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Howlin’ Wolf and produced artists like James Cotton and Mike Bloomfield. So you’re asking yourself, “how come I haven’t heard of this guy if he’s such a genius, eh?” You can cure your ignorance by digging up a copy of Kill My Brain, the first CD in a proverbial month o’ Sundays by Gravenites and his long-time band Animal Mind.
    Released by the small San Francisco indie 2 Burn 1 Records, which usually specializes in some pretty esoteric reggae titles, Kill My Brain is the perfect introduction to this talented and underrated artist. Featuring Gravenites’ trademark electric blues and guitar-driven rock, Kill My Brain is a wonderful collection of songs with enough heart to appeal to your intellect and enough muscle to blow your ears out. Although the title song is a bit of a clinker, with pretty garish backing vocals, the remainder of the disc holds up magnificently. “Didn’t You Used To be Somebody” opens with a somber organ riff and choral accompaniment, leading into a poignant tale of Gravenites’ career and the death of Janis Joplin. “Get Together” presents the classic rock chestnut in a different, bluesier light while “Your Heart’s In the Wrong Place” is a lively, uptempo blues number complete with horns and Gravenites’ soulful vocals. Closing the album with a bang, “I’m Gone” is the sort of high-energy Chicago rave-up that Gravenites used to perform with Paul Butterfield and gang back in the day.
    Assisted by his backing band, Animal Mind, which includes Pete Sears of Hot Tuna and the Blues Project’s Roy Blumenfeld, Kill My Brain also offers guest shots from Sammy Hagar and Huey Lewis. A fine example of what can be done with rock music in a blues context, I’d much rather listen to somebody like Nick Gravenites, who continues to bring new perspective to an old art form, than an Eric Clapton, who coasts on past accomplishments. If you’d like to find out what all of the fuss is about, check out Kill My Brain and discover why Nick Gravenites is one of rock music’s “most valuable players.” (2 Burn 1 Records)

I Bificus

Beneath the body mod, gen-x sex appeal and punkish attitude, Bif Naked is, in her heart, a classic rock vocalist in the manner of a Pat Benatar or Ann Wilson. I Bificus, Naked’s debut disc, is full of soaring vocals, rugged musical hooks, and big beat dynamics that are at once both quaintly charming and breathtakingly exhilarating. Naked is a hell of a vocalist, capable of running in a few seconds from a kittenish growl to a full-blown shout within the same song. I Bificus shows some of the signs of the “debut jitters,” small missteps and minor flaws that slightly tarnish an otherwise very solid work, but the album also showcases some pretty nifty flourishes, as well. “Twitch” starts with a riff straight out of the Dave Davies songbook before tilting into a slightly skewed tale of a very strange relationship while “Spaceman” is a passionate plea for extraterrestrial intervention. The album-opener “I Died” offers some clever wordplay among its vivid imagery while “Moment of Weakness,” with its engaging chorus, has “hit single” written all over it.  In the end, however, it is Naked’s wonderful voice and the overwhelming personality that she brings to the material that propels these songs to great heights. Everything else is just icing on the cake… (Atlantic Records)

Bootlegged In Japan

Grindcore noise merchants Napalm Death simply refuse to go quietly into that good night. The typical critic’s worst nightmare, Napalm Death is virtually ignored in the various encyclopedias and guidebooks to rock music, snubbed by all but the hardcore metal press. Nonetheless, they’ve carried the torch for extreme metal for going on two decades now, their influence easily found in bands ranging from Pantera and Metallica to Korn and Limp Bizkit. Bootlegged In Japan came about when the band received an anonymously taped performance from their 1996 tour of Japan. Feeling that it pretty well represented what the band was about, they decided to officially release the show on CD. I can see why such a decision was made – in a live setting the band is able to fan the flames of their sonic overkill from the studio smolder to a raging inferno. This is exactly the case with Bootlegged In Japan, a four-alarm fire of a performance, capturing Napalm Death in all of their sheer molten metal glory. With enough tortured, guttural vocals, jackhammer guitars and skull-splitting rhythm to satisfy even the most hardcore metalhead, Napalm Death’s Bootlegged In Japan is musically akin to washing your face with steel wool and bathing with barbed wire and broken glass. This is two-fisted music for rockers who like it hard and fast – if you ain’t got the balls, pal, don’t go near the stereo… (Earache Records)

Pennywise's Straight Ahead
Straight Ahead

One of the more popular bands on the Epitaph roster, Pennywise mix old-school punk with a bit of raw hardcore speed and more than a few taut, metallic riffs. Straight Ahead is fairly formulaic, the band slapping together some heavy rockin’ rhythms and tough guitar licks with which to punctuate their socially conscious lyrics. Straight Ahead offers its share of lyrical cliches, but beneath the bluster lies some important content, Pennywise having more in common with former bandmates Bad Religion than with, say, popular punk outfits like NoFX or the Offspring. For Pennywise, the message and the music are one in the same, songs like the anarchistic “My Own Country”, the social commentary of “American Dream”, or the insightful title cut preaching a philosophy of self-empowerment, freedom of choice and individualism. In these times, when every aspect of being young is under assault, the cultural Cassandra’s dismiss the aggressiveness and language of punks like Pennywise as part of the problem. They’re dead wrong, however – Straight Ahead, with its themes of alienation and anxiety, hope and frustration, is part of the solution, a thought-provoking touchstone for youth in search of identity, adrift in a sea of mass-produced, homogenized corporate waste matter. They may not be blazing any new trails, but Pennywise, with Straight Ahead, makes the best use of the familiar paths. (Epitaph Records)

Into the Pink

The pundits – this one included – have declared grunge and the much-vaunted “Seattle scene” to be a dead fish. Obviously, somebody forgot to tell Verbena, whose debut Into the Pink rocks with a sonic abandon unheard of since the first shouts out of Pearl Jam or Nirvana almost a decade ago. To cop something another band told me a decade or so ago, Verbena “make a lot of noise for three people.” Into the Pink is filled with small triumphs, musical mischief like “Baby Got Shot” with a hypnotic, recurring riff, “Pretty Please” with its pretty vocals and rhythmic cadence, “Monkey, I’m Your Man” with its menace and its glare or the chainsaw hardcore attitude of “Depression Is Fashion.” Produced by Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, who certainly knows a thing or two about dirty ambience, Into the Pink may well be the last gasp of grunge. But rather than a dying whimper, Verbena deliver a full-blown, defiant and powerful rage against the light. They may go down with the ship, but they’re going down swinging. (Capitol Records)