Friday, April 26, 2024

Archive Review: Graham Parker & the Rumour’s Live In San Francisco 1979 (2010)

Graham Parker & the Rumour’s Live In San Francisco 1979
By 1979, the angry, hurried punk-rock spewed out by such “Class of ‘77” grads as the Sex Pistols, the Damned and others had begun to give way to the more considered, diverse, and admittedly softer-edged “new wave” sounds that would dominate the early 1980s. Also, by this point, Graham Parker, as angry a young bloke as any of his punkier musical brethren, had found near universal critical acclaim with his first three studio albums – Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment in 1976, Stick To Me in 1977 – that would be unaccompanied by any semblance of real commercial success.

Plagued by lack of promotion and label mismanagement for his albums – Parker would write the song “Mercury Poisoning” around this time about his label – and overshadowed by the commercial emergence of the similarly angry young artist Elvis Costello, Parker swung for the fences with his 1979 album, Squeezing Out Sparks. Working for the first time with producer Jack Nitzsche after making three albums with musician Nick Lowe, Costello channeled all of his piss-n-vinegar energy, emotion, and frustrations into songs like “Discovering Japan,” “Local Girls,” “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” and “You Can’t Be Too Strong.” Squeezing Out Sparks would become Parker’s best-known, and most successful album, topping 200,000 copies sold and inching itself into the Billboard magazine Top Forty.

Graham Parker & the Rumour’s Live In San Francisco 1979

As Parker remembers in the liner notes for Live In San Francisco 1979, management put him and his band the Rumour on tour shortly before the March 1979 release of Squeezing Out Sparks and kept them out on the road, on two continents, for almost ten months. One of the early stops along the way was a two-night gig at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco in April, the second night of which was recorded by local radio station KSAN-FM for on-air broadcast.

This is the show that would later be used by Parker’s label for a promotional album titled Live Sparks that culled San Francisco performances of the ten songs from Squeezing Out Sparks, tacked on a couple of songs from a live broadcast on WXRT-FM in Chicago, and would be quickly sent out to radio stations to help provide momentum for Parker’s tour and album sales. The limited-edition, promo-only vinyl quickly became a coveted collector’s item, but would later become redundant in the CD age when included as a second disc on the 1996 reissue of Squeezing Out Sparks.

Live Sparks only told part of the story, however, while Live From San Francisco 1979, released by archive specialists Renaissance Records with its online partners It’s About Music, recreates a longer tale. Featuring a twenty-song performance by Graham Parker & the Rumour as recorded by the radio station, Live From San Francisco 1979 provides a valuable document of the band’s reckless live energy and Parker’s frenetic vocal pace. Whereas the sound on Live Sparks was always suspect – thin and full of echo – it has been markedly improved here, albeit at slightly less than studio quality. While portions of this performance have circulated among fans as bootlegs for years, none to my knowledge have ever included it in its entirety.

Squeezing Out Sparks

Parker performs his Squeezing Out Sparks album almost in its entirety on Live From San Francisco 1979, supplementing those performances with a healthy dose of material from his previous three studio discs. Kicking off with a crash-bang reading of “Discovering Japan” and slipping into a fast-paced version of “Local Girls,” Live From San Francisco 1979 jumps into an urgent performance of “Thunder and Rain” that includes some stellar fretwork from guitarists Brinsley Schwartz and Martin Belmont, Graham’s strident vocal gymnastics, bombastic drumbeats from Steven Goulding, and just beneath the surface, some great keyboards and special effects courtesy of Bob Andrews.

After ramping up the audience with three subsequent barn-burners, Parker & the Rumour deliver a swaggering look at “Don’t Get Excited” that befits the song’s syncopated electricity before launching into the pub-rock-flavored romp “Back To School Days.” A piano-led, tongue-in-cheek boozy roll in nostalgia, the band cranks it out here like Friday night at the local watering hole and their life depends on winning over the crowd. The aforementioned “Mercury Poisoning,” spit out here with all of the venomous intent of the original studio version, is one of the best songs written about the music biz. Directly targeting his former record label and its feeble attempts at promoting his music, Parker’s nimble wordplay is matched by an infectious chorus and kicked out with a punkish fervor of clashing instruments and angry vocals.

The older material easily fits in between the newer songs here, the band’s innate chemistry allowing it to change gears quickly from the swinging R&B rave-up “Heat Treatment” to the rockabilly-tinged “Clear Head” and the hard-rocking “Saturday Nite Is Dead.” The band’s cover of the Jackson 5 gem “I Want You Back” has always been one of my personal favorites, Parker’s reverent vocals doing a great job at expressing the romantic longing and loss of the original song. This live version is pretty cool, a little faster-paced than some performances, but Parker’s vox are still top-notch and the accompanying guitars bring just enough Steve Cropper/Stax Records flavor to mimic the Motown sound. Live From San Francisco 1979 closes with the anarchistic “New York Shuffle,” the song’s pub-rock vibe complimented by a little rockabilly guitar, honky-tonk-styled piano, and more than a little punkish intensity.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Live From San Francisco 1979 documents a road-weary Graham Parker & the Rumour that climb the Old Waldorf stage and kick out the jams with reckless aplomb anyway. The collection is a hell of a lot of fun, mixing Squeezing Out Sparks with the earlier material, and both Parker and the band sound absolutely energized by the loud-n-rowdy audience. More than anything, the album showcases an artist that never quite received the commercial pay-off that his passionate, intense, and entertaining music should have gotten. Luckily we have recordings like Live From San Francisco 1979 to remind us of just how damn good Graham Parker & the Rumour were back in the day. (Renaissance Records/It’s About Music, released ‎October 25th, 2009)    

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2010

Archive Review: Charlie Musselwhite's Juke Joint Chapel (2013)

Charlie Musselwhite's Juke Joint Chapel
Blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite has been pretty busy since the 2010 release of his critically-acclaimed Alligator Records’ album The Well, his first all-original collection of songs. The album earned the blues veteran a well-deserved 2011 Blues Music Award as “Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year,” a feat that he also duplicated in the same category the following year. Musselwhite released Get Up! in early 2013, the album a stunning collection of songs that saw the harmonica wizard collaborating with singer and guitarist Ben Harper on ten breathtaking original tracks of blues, blues-rock, and funky R&B.

Get Up! earned Musselwhite and Harper a Grammy® Award nomination and is certain to be in the running come time for the Blues Music Awards. Musselwhite spent much of 2013 touring with Harper in support of Get Up!, but he found enough time in his busy schedule to put the finishing touches on Juke Joint Chapel, a sizzling live album that documents an August 2012 performance by the blues harpist and his band at the Juke Joint Chapel, a venue located in the historic Shack Up Inn on Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi – the birthplace of the blues!

Charlie Musselwhite’s Juke Joint Chapel

Juke Joint Chapel cranks up the party with a loping cover of Eddie Taylor’s classic “Bad Boy,” Musselwhite’s fluid harp lines dancing spryly atop the slow-walking rhythm as Matt Stubb’s guitar darts in and out of the arrangement with serpentine grace. Musselwhite’s vocals are gruff and slightly twangy, but it’s the harmonica that does most of the talking anyway, and the notes fall from the instrument like rain in a thunderstorm. The tempo picks up a step or two for a raucous take of “Shakey” Jake Harris’s “Roll Your Moneymaker,” the band ganging up on harmony vocals, which are in turn peppered by Stubbs’ stinging fretwork.

Stubbs’ clever guitarplay is front and center on the Tony Joe White roots-rocker “As The Crow Flies,” his energetic six-string sharing the spotlight with Musselwhite’s vocals and frenetic harpwork. The band choogles alongside the two frontmen with a lively locomotive rhythm propelled by drummer June Core’s explosive beat-keeping, but it’s the juxtaposed guitar/harmonica interplay that makes the song fly. It just isn’t a Charlie Musselwhite album without a nod to his old friend and mentor Little Walter, and on Juke Joint Chapel that purpose is served by a scorching cover of the harp legend’s “It Ain’t Right.” Delivered with a feverish intensity, the up-tempo arrangement sounds more like a runaway train than the aforementioned Tony Joe cover, with the band flailing away behind Musselwhite’s incredible harp gymnastics.  

Blues Why Do You Worry Me?

Halfway through Juke Joint Chapel we get the first Musselwhite original, but it’s a humdinger! On “Strange Land,” Stubbs lays down some staggered Bo Diddley-styled git licks, drummer Core and bassist Mike Phillips hold down a rhythmic bottom end, and Musselwhite layers on a flurry of notes which serve as both a bridge between the lyrics and as an emotional punctuation to the words. The song is a real barn burner, with Stubbs’ roaring solos and a cacophonic rhythmic backbone that is enhanced by Musselwhite’s low-key, growling vocals and high lonesome harp riffs. Musselwhite’s “Blues Overtook Me,” by contrast, is more of a traditional Chicago-styled blues romp with autobiographical lyrics, a rollicking backbeat, tasty guitarplay, and savage harp slinging inspired by both the great “Walters” – Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton.

The original “River Hip Mama” is Chicago styled blues by way of the Mississippi Delta as filtered through the 1960s-era British blues-rock of the Rolling Stones. The band creates a menacing, malevolent groove with a boogie-beat worthy of Canned Heat and John Lee Hooker, swinging wildly as Musselwhite chomps away on the harmonica and Stubbs injects shards of slashing guitar. Musselwhite’s lyrics and vocal delivery…slightly grumbled and altogether lusty…also reminds of the great John Lee. His “Blues Why Do You Worry Me?” is another old school high-flyer with referential lyrics, a fine walking bass line, elegant fretwork and, of course, imaginative harmonica licks threaded throughout. Juke Joint Chapel closes out with a cover of jazz legend Duke Pearson’s best-known song, the classic “Cristo Redentor,” for which Musselwhite and crew deliver an energetic and unique reading, the best I’ve heard since guitarist Harvey Mandel’s 1968 recording, the band’s instruments meshing perfectly to create a magical fusion of blues feeling and jazzy virtuosity.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Regardless of whether he’s revisiting old gems or covering classic blues tunes, Musselwhite always provides entertaining performances, and he’s found the perfect musical foil in guitarist Matthew Stubbs to help flesh out his electrifying live sound. Juke Joint Chapel delivers the stone-cold real deal that hardcore blues fans crave, the album perfectly capturing Musselwhite and crew’s houserockin’ live set. Whether you’re a newcomer to the Musselwhite camp who just signed on with The Well or Get Up!, or you’re a longtime follower of the harp wizard, you won’t be disappointed by the high-octane jams showcased on Juke Joint Chapel! (Henrietta Records, released December 24, 2013)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Charlie Musselwhite’s Juke Joint Chapel

Friday, April 19, 2024

CD Review: Johnny Thunders & Patti Palladin's Copy Cats (2024)

Johnny Thunders & Patti Palladin’s Copy Cats
At this point in the time-space continuum, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Johnny Thunders (née John Genzale) is more myth than man. It’s been – give or take – some 50 years since Thunders burst onto an increasingly prog-oriented rock ‘n’ roll scene like a hurricane-strength gust, debuting his ramshackle six-string skills and idolatrous Keith Richards mimicry for the masses with 1973’s self-titled debut album from the New York Dolls. A second, more polished Dolls LP appeared the following year, the Shadow Morton-produced Too Much Too Soon inspiring and influencing a generation of musicians to follow Thunders’ three-chord tsunami with variations on his style.

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers

Musicians and fanatical gutter-rockers like myself may have been the only people to actually buy either New York Dolls album, and the band broke up in 1975 as Thunders – among other band members (he wasn’t alone in his afflictions) – began sinking into the drug addiction that would plague the remainder of his too-brief existence. The second chapter in the Thunders legend began with the formation of the Heartbreakers with former Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan along with Television bassist Richard Hell and guitarist Walter Lure from NYC punks the Demons. The bassist quickly bailed out to form Richard Hell & the Voidoids, as there was only room for one ‘King Junkie’ in the Heartbreakers; Hell was replaced on the fat strings by Billy Rath.

The Heartbreakers were every bit as short-lived as the Dolls had been, releasing but a single, albeit often-reissued 1977 album, L.A.M.F. on the Track Records label. More popular on the other side of the pond than stateside, the Heartbreakers joined the Anarchy Tour of the U.K. with the Clash and the Damned, solidifying their British audience. But when Track went bankrupt, the band broke up. Thunders stayed in London and recorded his influential 1978 solo album, So Alone, with a cast of friends like Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, and special guests like Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Steve Marriott (Humble Pie), and Peter Perrett (The Only Ones).

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers
Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers

With both the Dolls and the Heartbreakers (temporarily) in the rearview mirror, Thunders moved from the U.K. to Detroit in 1980, where he performed in a band called Gang War with former MC5 axe-wielder Wayne Kramer. From there, there would be various Heartbreakers reunions, then back to Europe, Thunders and his family living in Paris and Stockholm while the guitarist released a series of solo albums on dodgy, often fly-by-night labels, recordings typically comprised of a handful of studio tracks padded out with (often) poorly-recorded live performances. Some of these albums were pretty good (1984’s acoustic Hurt Me, 1985’s Que Sera Sera) and some were mighty ugly (1982’s In Cold Blood, 1983’s Diary of A Lover).   

One of the best representations of Thunders’ talents was released in 1988 and passed by without notice by all but the most fervent of the guitarist’s fans. Recorded in London and inspired by John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album, Copy Cats is an affecting and heartfelt collection of vintage 1950s and ‘60s cover tunes that influenced Thunders in some way or another. The guitarist shares the spotlight on Copy Cats with singer Patti Palladin, a NYC veteran who was one-half of the punk duo Snatch and a former member of the Flying Lizards. Palladin also provided backing vocals for So Alone and Que Sera Sera, so the two already had a history and musical chemistry together. Palladin is also credited as producer for the album, which was reissued in 2023 for its 35th anniversary by Jungle Records in the U.K.

Johnny Thunders & Patti Palladin’s Copy Cats

Johnny Thunders
Johnny Thunders
The album’s name came from a Gary “U.S.” Bonds song, “Copycat,” which was recorded but never released, and Thunders and Palladin called in all their chips to piece together a solid studio band to record the songs. Former Heartbreakers Billy Rath and Jerry Nolan provided the rhythm section, which was accompanied by talents like guitarists John Perry (The Only Ones) and Henri Padovani (Wayne County & the Electric Chairs) and backing vocalists Chrissie Hynde and Jayne/Wayne County, and a wealth of other musicians, including a full-blown horn section. The song selection for Copy Cats was truly inspired, ranging from psychotic R&B (Screamin’ Jay Hopkins) and psych-pop (The Seeds) to deep soul (The Chambers Brothers) and obscure proto-Americana (Tarheel Slim).

Jungle Records has seemingly shuffled the order of the tracks with every new reissue of Copy Cats, but the core material remains the same, the label adding two bonus tracks to its 2007 CD reissue (the bawdy, brassy “Let Me Entertain You” and a magnificent, infectiously-rhythmic take on “Love Is Strange”), which appear on the 2023 version, with no further outtakes or additions. What Thunders and Palladin gave us is plenty fab, however – witness the raucous reading of Hawkins’ 1958 song “Alligator Wine,” a delicious swamp-blues stomper with haunted vocals, searing guitar, and kudzu hanging from the studio walls. Thunders’ gritty vocals are tailor-made for Tarheel Slim’s bluesy “Two Time Loser” and perfectly contrast with Palladin’s smoky, sultry vox.

The Elvis Presley recording of “Crawfish” (from the 1958 movie King Creole) serves as the template for Thunders’ cover version here, the guitarist bringing a light-hearted touch to the otherwise heavily-ambient performance. Thunders and Palladin get their girl group-groove on with the Shirelle’s “Baby It’s You,” the duo perfectly capturing the romantic zeal of the original with Palladin’s mesmerizing vocals and Thunders’ masterful acoustic strum. Sky Saxon’s “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” – a minor 1967 hit for the Seeds – is afforded a similarly yearning performance, Thunders’ wan vocals well-suited for the song’s heartbreak lyrics. Jay & the Americans’ 1962 Top Ten hit “She Cried” is reimagined here as “He Cried,” the performance spotlighting Palladin’s enchanting girl group-styled vocals floating above the song’s rich instrumentation.

The R&B-tinged rocker “I Was Born To Cry” proves that, while Thunders is no Dion DiMucci, he can deliver a powerful and effective vocal performance when so inspired. Originally, Copy Cats closed with the Chanters’ 1954 song “She Wants To Mambo,” performed by Palladin and Thunders with theatrical flair and over-the-top humor similar to David Johansen’s approach to “Stranded In the Jungle” on the Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon. Although Copy Cats only clocks in at roughly 32 minutes (add seven minutes for the bonus tracks on the CD reissue), there are plenty of high-quality rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills to be had. Thunders’ fretwork is atypically subdued throughout the album – less buzzsaw and more scroll-saw, as it were – the guitarist customizing his licks in service to these reverent performances. Although Thunders’ vocals would never be confused with, say, Mick Jagger’s, he found a perfect musical foil in Patti Palladin, and their collaboration together on what would be the guitarist’s final studio album is pure magic.      

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Johnny Thunders got off the bus in 1991, dying at the St. Peter Guest House in New Orleans at the young, abused age of 38 years, his tortured soul damaged by years of drugs and drink and fleeting notoriety. Even his death is the stuff of legend – was it the cocaine and methadone found in his system by the New Orleans coroner that killed him – or was it the untreated, advanced leukemia that had left his body a gaunt, shambling mess held together with bailing wire and superglue? Despite the family’s pleas, the New Orleans Police Department couldn’t be bothered to investigate the death of just another junkie musician. Or was it foul play? In his 1998 biography, Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone claims that “they told me that Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards…who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him.”

No matter how he died, over the ensuing years Johnny Thunders has become a Christ figure, an obscure rock ‘n’ roller resurrected by a profitable underground cottage industry of crappy live recordings, dodgy biographies, and questionable documentary films. Decades of rumors and innuendo have made Thunders the avatar of a certain kind of sleazy rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, inspiring bands like Guns N’ Roses, Hanoi Rocks, D Generation, and the Wildhearts, among many others. Although his meager recorded legacy doesn’t support such enduring mythology, it has been artificially propped up by an unfair image of Thunders rather than reality. Separating the man from the myth, Thunders was a guy that just wanted to play his guitar…and he seldom brought more skill, focus, and care to his performances than he did on Copy Cats. (Jungle Records, reissued 2023)

Buy the album from Amazon: Johnny Thunders & Patti Palladin’s Copy Cats

Also on That Devil Music:
The Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977
The Dirtiest Dozen: Punk's Most Important Bands

Archive Review: The Sounds' Living In America (2002)

The Sounds' Living In America
Red-hot, in-the-moment bands like Hot Hot Heat have helped launch a full-fledged ‘80s-styled new wave pop explosion, complete with infectious dancefloor rhythms, synthesizers, and skinny keyboard players with skinnier ties. The Sounds, hailing from Finland, take the trend to the next level, breaking away from their garage-rocking countrymen to deliver a bouncy, contagious debut album that distills two decades of British and American pop/rock into an intoxicating musical elixir.

Living In America sounds a lot like vintage Blondie, the Sounds offering a similar platinum-tressed femme fatale on the mic with Maja Ivarsson. As much fun as Debbie Harry had with Clem Burke’s lyrics, however, Ivarsson seems like she’s having an absolute riot with tunes like “Seven Days A Week” or “Hit Me!” Think purring, sensual, sex-kitten vocals consistently on the edge of orgasm, with the twin leads of guitarist Felix Rodriguez and synth-wrangler Jesper Anderberg driving the material towards dimensions that Blondie only dreamed of with early ‘80s production limitations.

The Sounds’ Living In America

The Sounds
No matter the accompanying instrumentation, every song comes back to Ivarsson’s breathy vocals, which caress the pop culture-savvy lyrics with enthusiastic glee. Sure, the Sounds rip off every notable influence you can put your finger on, but hasn’t it all been downhill since Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Elvis drew up the original blueprints for this rock ‘n’ roll thing in the first place? The title cut takes Kim Wilde’s classic “Kids In America” to new heights. The Sounds nick the sound and fury of the original, dissing the U.S. with the chorus: “we’re not living in America, but we’re not sorry,” the band not missing something that they never had as the song swells to a chaotic and satisfying crescendo.

“Seven Days A Week” is a simple little sweet, with a monster hook that grabs you by the ears and a reckless energy that makes you pay attention. It doesn’t stop there, kiddies, ‘cause there’s not a punter in the bunch among the songs on Living In America. “Rock’N Roll” one-ups Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, lifting the cadence from “Love Is the Drug” in its comparison of our favorite music to our favorite narcotic (while also asking if we’d like to see Maja naked. Duh!) “Like A Lady” sounds like perfect MTV video fodder, circa ’83 or so, Ivarsson strutting like a Teutonic Pat Benetar.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Love, sex, music – these are the subjects that Living In America is obsessed with. That such radio-ready fare as the Sounds is being ignored in favor of committee-chosen playlists says more about the bankruptcy of corporate media culture than the quality of the music on Living In America. ‘Dis shit be the nazz ‘cause the Reverend says so, and if this Sounds disc was played on my radio every hour like that other crap, the world would be a brighter and friendlier place. Check it… (New Line Records, released 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2002

Friday, April 12, 2024

Archive Review: Temple of Soul’s Brothers In Arms (2008)

Temple of Soul's Brothers In Arms
In the world of rock music, Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons is pretty much a known quantity. Almost 40 years blowin’ the sax behind Bruce Springsteen as a member of the E Street Band kind of makes one a household name (in my house, at least). Although not as famous, perhaps, Narada Michael Walden is nevertheless pretty well-known in R&B circles as a noted songwriter, producer and musician.

On the other hand, T.M. Stevens is a question mark for even the most hardcore rock aficionado. Chances are, however, that you’ve heard Stevens pop his bass strings more the once over the past 30 years, the in-demand session player lending his talents to hits by folks like James Brown, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, and Tina Turner, among many others. Stevens was an official member of the Pretenders for a while, toured as part of Little Steven’s Disciples of Soul band, and was an integral piece of Steve Vai’s early ‘90s band (you know, the one that made the great Sex & Religion album).

Stevens has also released better than half-a-dozen wickedly adventurous solo albums, the artist blending African rhythms and hard-rocking guitar with a Bootsy Collins strut that he calls “heavy metal funk.” Japan and much of Europe have already fallen prey to Stevens’ musical charms, and America is in his sights. In other words, Stevens has mad chops – and more than enough experience to brag about said skills.

Temple of Soul’s Brothers In Arms

The Big Man, Clarence Clemons
Clarence Clemons
So, what happens when you throw saxman Clemons, drummer Walden, and bassist Stevens into a recording studio together? Well, add the talents of veteran guitarist Vernon “Ice” Black (who has played with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Herbie Hancock, among others) and you have Brothers In Arms, the lively and engaging debut from the looseknit company of friends hereby known as Temple of Soul. An electrifying and edifying mix of swaggering soul, raucous R&B, and get-up-off-your-ass funk, Brothers In Arms is an album elegantly out of time.

Too often, any assembly of superstar talent strives for the mediocre and still fall short of the mark. There’s just no chemistry among the players, and too often such bands are put together by marketing committee rather than by invention. Not so in the case of Temple of Soul…these guys are all seasoned professionals, hardcore musicians and true believers that have survived for decades on brains and skill in an industry that delights in the destruction of its brightest talents. All four of these guys have circled the other’s individual universes for years and, in some cases (like Stevens and Walden, or Walden and Clemons), they have worked with each other previously.

Thus, there is an innate chemistry that is, perhaps, the most delightful aspect of Brothers In Arms. These guys are all performing like it’s their first dance, and the sheer magic that jumps out of these grooves is a refreshing change from the cynical music-making that passes for commerce these days. Throughout the ten songs here, each band member’s individual strengths are on display, meshing together into the seamless creation of joyous noise. Brothers In Arms offers an inspired mix of rhythmic genres. The album-opening groove of “Anna” dances perilously close to disco territory, to be pulled back from the brink at the last moment by some fine saxwork and deep baritone vocal harmonies. “Seeking Further” hits a Sly-stoned beat behind leathery, soulful vocals and a hard rock foundation.

Jazzy Outtake, an interstellar Sun Ra workout

T.M. Stevens
T.M. Stevens
At the center of Brothers In Arms are two shining instrumental tracks that frame the band’s talents perfectly. “Temple of Soul” begins with a high groove and the chanted line “brothers in the temple, brothers in the temple of soul” before kicking into a fluid rhythm that is accented by Black’s taut, emotive fretwork and Clemons’ old-school, King Curtis-styled sax blasting. “Ode To China” gets a little exotic, with delicate Asian instrumentation layered boldly behind one of The Big Man’s most emotional sax performances, along with the one-two knockout punch of rhythm kings Stevens and Walden.

A fiery cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” seems like it might have been Stevens’ idea in the studio, the classic rock chestnut re-imagined here as a P-Funk romp-n-stomper with some passionate six-string bending courtesy of Black and an imaginative bass line almost hidden in the mix beneath the gang vocals. “Love Me Tonight” sounds like vintage ‘70s soul, all sweetness and light with a slick soundtrack and G.Q. sheen, Barry White style vocals, and a turn-down-the-lights vibe.

Brothers In Arms closes with “Jazzy Outtake,” a breathless, nearly 13-minute instrumental jam by the Temple of Soul guys, each musician adding notes in orbital proximity like some sort of interstellar Sun Ra workout. This song might not be for everybody – free-form improvised jazz seldom is – but in this framework, given the varied experience and abilities of the four contributors, the song illuminates rather than irritates, running the gamut of moods and shades of blue. There are elements of soul, reggae, rock, and blues thrown in, cemented with an anarchic jazz spirit.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Suffice it to say, Brothers In Arms is a heady brew indeed, the sort of creative collaboration between equally talented artists that seldom plays in the commercial marketplace of hype and illusion, but shows longevity nevertheless, running the distance and proving inspirational fuel for generations to follow. Temple of Soul is the kind of band, once rediscovered, that critics and musicians will be effusively praising a decade from now … beat the rush and jump on the TOS bandwagon today! (Slam Alley Productions, released 2008)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog…

Archive Review: Various Artists - New Blood: The New Rock N Roll Vol. 2 (2002)

New Blood: The New Rock N Roll Vol. 2
For the past year or so the mainstream music press has been wetting itself over the “new rock ‘n’ roll” or “new garage rock” or whatever you want to call this mini-revival that we’re currently experiencing. Of course, Sha Na Na told us that “rock ‘n’ roll will never die” and, if Bowser sang it, then the Reverend believes it. Truth is, rock never went anywhere – it has been underground these past few years, hiding from corporate marketing geeks and fermenting, like grape in a jug, until the heady brew popped its top and we had the Strokes, the White Stripes, etc. Of course, for every great white wonder like Jack, there are dozens of bands like the Sons of Hercules and the Chesterfield Kings that carried the garage rock torch in obscurity for years while true believers at labels like Estrus and Crypt and Get Hip cranked out some righteous vinyl. Truth is, kiddies, there ain’t nothing new about the “new rock.”

Rather than bore you gentle readers with a 5,000-word essay on the Motor City roots of the garage rock revival, the Reverend will instead instruct you to run out and grab a copy of New Blood: The New Rock N Roll Vol. 2. A twenty-two song comp with lots of energy and attitude, this labour of love is the effort of a couple of British rock fans/musicians to put some balls back into the UK music scene. Growing out of a series of concerts, etc (read the liner notes fer chrissakes!), New Blood offers up producers Pete and Tom’s idea of the garage revival’s “cream of the crop.” The set includes some of the usual suspects, bands like the Hives, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, (International) Noise Conspiracy, and the Mooney Suzuki, all of which were at the forefront of this garage thingie a year or so ago. Solid mid-card players like the Datsuns, the Von Bondies, the Catheters, and the Flaming Sideburns also step up to the plate with fine results while relative newcomers like Modey Lemon, the D4, and the Hotwires are ready to make an impact on the “new rock” scene.

Although the Reverend could bitch about the exclusion of some seaworthy performers (the Hellacopters, DOLL, the Paybacks), all in all, New Blood: The New Rock N Roll Vol 2 is a fine introduction to a growing worldwide rock ‘n’ roll phenomena that has its roots in three-chord, ‘60s-styled rock minimalism. If this is your first taste of the (major label) forbidden fruit, the Reverend would recommend you check out other current “new rock” comps like Epitaph’s How We Rock or take the plunge and buy the first Nuggets box set. Your ears will be glad you did. Now where did I put that Seeds album… (Artrocker, released 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Monday, April 8, 2024

Funkateer T.M. Stevens, R.I.P.

Funk basssist T.M. Stevens
Word comes from our friend, blues guitarist Eric Gales, that funk innovator T.M. Stevens passed away on March 10th, 2024 at the age of 72 after a lengthy battle with dementia. Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve likely heard the talented and influential bassist play on records by legends like James Brown, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Joe Cocker, and the Pretenders, among many others. Stevens also enjoyed a lengthy solo career, as well as playing in bands like Vai (with hot-shot git-slinger Steve Vai), Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, and Temple of Soul (with the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons).

Born Thomas Michael Stevens in July 1951, the young musician was attracted to music at a young age. “I was born in the Bronx, where hip-hop was invented,” Stevens told me in a 2002 interview, “there’s a lot of rich culture here.” A young Thomas Stevens was barely in his teens when he first picked up a guitar. “I was in the Boy Scouts and the scout leader of my troop loved the guitar,” remembers Stevens. “In particular, he loved jazz and he’d go ‘I need somebody to play with me.’ I’d say, “I can’t play,’ and he said ‘well let me coach you a little bit.’ So, I went to his house after the scout meetings and he’d show me the chords.”

Accompanying his scout leader, Stevens began his musical education. “He was a Wes Montgomery freak and he’d start playing and I’d try to play these chords behind him,” says Stevens, “but I noticed that I was gravitating more towards what I didn’t realize then was the bass, what the bass player did. Before you know it, the bass took me, I didn’t choose it.” The young bass player worked after school and on weekends to buy his first guitar. “I used to work in a senior citizen’s home, washing dishes, and saved up while I was going to high school, and saved up and finally bought my first bass…and I still have it,” says Stevens. “Back then, I didn’t have any money, so I carried it around in the box that it came in until it disintegrated. I’d show up with that raggedy box but I’d pull out that bass and start wailing on something.”

Funk basssist T.M. Stevens
The second stage of Stevens’ musical education came in the streets. “I was too young to play clubs so we played ‘after hours,’ clubs in the Bronx that opened up when the clubs closed,” says Stevens. “All the bartenders, streetwalkers, the pimps and whoever wanted to party would come to these clubs. Because they were illegal clubs, it didn’t matter that I was underage. These were the people who encouraged me to play. They called me ‘young blood,’ they’d say ‘young blood, you’re sounding better and better. I like the way you played that James Brown,’ and they’d give me a ten-dollar tip, to encourage me.”

Stevens attended college as a medical lab tech major but dropped out to purse his dreams. “It was struggle city,” says Stevens, recalling his difficult early days as a musician. “I played the amateur hour at the Apollo and I had this raggedy amp and it just wouldn’t go, so the house manager started playing bass along with me to help me sound better,” says Stevens. “We didn’t have the gear, there was some falling on our face just like anybody struggling to get up there. Then I got this play, Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, written by Vinnette Carroll, it was a black musical. I auditioned for the play and we went into the rehearsal studio and the guy asked ‘can you read music’ and I said ‘yeah!’ knowing I couldn’t read a thing. We got into rehearsal and I would watch the piano player, this gospel piano player, and I’d watch his left hand and I picked up his bass line, so I fooled them for a month. They realized that I couldn’t read the music, but they kept me on because they said that they loved my spirit.”

Performing with Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, Stevens came to the attention of singer, songwriter, and producer Narada Michael Walden. “We did a matinee on a Saturday and we were right across the street from a percussion center,” remembers Stevens. “Walden was going in to buy some drums or something and I was introduced to him and we liked each other. The next thing I knew, I was giving up a nice salary, a constant salary, for a whole lot less money to go out on the road. But I did it, went out on the road opening for Billy Cobham, that was my first band.” The association with Walden would pay off in experience and in status, Stevens co-writing the Top Ten R&B hit “I Shoulda Loved Ya” with Walden in 1979. Stevens later played bass on the legendary 1981 self-titled album by Space Cadets alongside P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell.

Constant touring as a hired gun would lead to further session work for the talented bass player. “New York at the time was a fertile field for talent. There were so many sessions,” Stevens remembers. “We couldn’t keep up – I used to do four or five sessions a day. Somebody called me to try me on one session because I had co-written Narada’s hit and they loved it. From one I went to the next to the next to the next.” One of Stevens’ early sessions was playing with one of his idols, the legendary James Brown on sessions for Brown’s 1986 Gravity LP, which yielded the Top 10 hit single “Living In America.”

“The James Brown record was also my vocal debut,” remembers Stevens. “I did the bass, but I wanted to stay and see what Mr. Brown was going to do because he’s a hero! The background singers got caught in traffic and they needed the backgrounds done, so that he could get his parts on. Dan Hartman was producing, told me to stand up and sing. I said, ‘I’m not a singer,’ he said ‘you are now!’ So, I put some headphones on and sang ‘living in America’ and James said ‘that was great!’ I wasn’t thinking, I had no experience singing, and ended up singing background on the entire record along with playing bass. When the record came out and it was such a big hit, I started singing lead and I haven’t shut my mouth since!”

T.M. Stevens' Shocka Zooloo

After better than ten years of sometimes-lucrative session work, Stevens began to think about pursuing his own artistic vision. Stevens’ solo debut, titled Boom, was released in 1985 in Japan and Germany, and made quite an impact. “My first album came out and it was so unusual. You have your guitar heroes, and bass is generally a more supportive instrument. If you stop to think about it, there aren’t that many bass players leading bands,” says Stevens. “You have Larry Graham, Doug Pinnick from King’s X, Phil Lynott, there’s not so many. So, I came up at a time when there was nobody, especially anybody playing funk, so I had my own little niche. That’s how it took off.”

The modest success of Boom led to subsequent tours of Japan and Europe and the release of Stevens’ 1996 album Sticky Wicked and a third album, Radioactive, in 1999. With 2001’s Shocka Zooloo, Stevens created a style that welded elements of P-Funk and Sly Stone with Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones that he called “heavy metal funk.” Stevens recruited a top-flight crew of imaginative players to back his flights of musical fancy on the album, including guitarists Stevie Salas, Al Pitrelli (Megadeth), and Chris Caffery (Savatage); and drummer Will Calhoun (Living Colour). While the album – his first stateside release – didn’t make much of a commercial splash, it served a much deeper purpose for the artist. “I was able to make it naturally, so whatever success it has or doesn’t have, I’m fulfilled as an artist,” says Stevens. “I was able to put down on tape what I felt. If people are digging it, it’s like the cherry on top of the soda!”

Stevens recorded one album with Temple of Soul – 2008’s Brothers In Arms – with Clarence Clemons, Walden, and Vernon “Ice” Black, and he hooked up with guitarist Pat Travers and drummer Carmine Appice as a power trio, releasing the It Takes A Lot of Balls in 2004 and a live album documenting a House of Blues performance in 2005. Throughout much of the 1990s and ‘00s, Stevens paid the bills through his studio work, contributing his fluid and funky bass lines to albums by artists as diverse as Billy Joel (the chart-topping River of Dreams), 2Pac (the posthumous The Rose That Grew From Concrete), Taylor Dayne (Soul Dancing), Cissy Houston (He Leadeth Me), and fellow fat-string maestro Victor Wooton (Soul Circus). Stevens’ last recording credit was a 2008 live album with the Headhunters, Herbie Hancock’s backing band.

Whether he was playing rock, funk, jazz, R&B, pop, heavy metal, or even gospel music, Stevens imbued every performance with a deft hand, his vast musical knowledge, and no little passion. That Stevens never achieved mainstream stardom with his innovative and entertaining solo albums is less the bassist’s fault than a judgement on the music industry’s lack of vision. Nevertheless, T.M. Stevens enjoyed a career that spanned four decades, lending his immense talents to some of the biggest records of the era.

All quotes above are from my 2002 interview with Stevens for Alt.Culture.Guide™ music zine 

Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul with T.M. Stevens

Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul with T.M. Stevens, photo courtesy of Little Steven


Friday, April 5, 2024

Archive Review: Joe Bonamassa's So, It's Like That (2002)

Joe Bonamassa's So, It's Like That
The blues industry (what would Muddy think of that?) has been, well, singing the blues lately, and justifiably so. Seems that blues-oriented clubs and festivals are seeing audiences drift away, labels are experiencing reduced sales and many blues artists themselves are returning to their day jobs. It seems that in today’s go-go corporate music world, there’s just no room for the blues. Here’s a sage and humble prediction for y’all – all it’s going to take is one red-hot young guitarslinger with rock roots and a love for the blues to pull listeners away from their “new garage,” “nu metal” and “new pop” and back into the big muddy of the blues. This humble scribe nominates Joe Bonamassa, his So, It’s Like That every bit the tonic that the doctor prescribed.

Even at the tender age of 24, Bonamassa has spent better than half his life in the music biz, gaining valuable experience as a member of the short-lived band Bloodline and also playing with folks like Jethro Tull and B.B. King. Bonamassa’s storied pedigree has served him well, however, providing a confidence and maturity to So, It’s Like That, his second album, that contemporaries like Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Johnny Lang lack. His voice has developed into a warm, friendly ‘70s-styled rock ‘n’ roll yelp that is capable of both dizzying highs and mellow lows. Bonamassa’s songwriting has also grown since his solo debut two years ago, bringing fresh wordplay and perspective to the standard blues fare of love and betrayal.

Let’s be honest, tho’ – the reason that the casual listener will pick up on Joe Bonamassa is because of his six-string talents and So, It’s Like That offers a healthy dose of state-of-the-art guitar pyrotechnics. The fiery riffage that kicks off “Lie #1” is Hendrix-inspired and completely sanctified, Bonamassa adding multi-layered rhythmic flourishes beneath incendiary leads in this raging tale of betrayal. A hard rock beat opens “Takin’ The Hit” as Smokin’ Joe drops into a funky groove in this radio-ready rocker while “Under The Radar” uses overdubbed guitars to create a grand circular riff to smack you in the head. The title track kicks off with a Stevie Ray-influenced shuffle, Bonamassa trying on his best Texas drawl to drive the tale of woe home with some nimble fretwork and explosive rhythms.

A bright young talent that continues to amaze, the subtle phrasing, raw power and incredible tone that Joe Bonamassa brings to his playing reminds this humble scribe a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan, an obvious influence running throughout So, It’s Like That. Short-term memories may not recall that the blues were in similar doldrums back in the mid-‘80s as the country embraced “new wave” and “nerf metal” and MTV. Stevie Ray came along, channeling influences like Jimi Hendrix, Albert King and Lightnin’ Hopkins through his two hands to create a rock-friendly, blues-based sound that rekindled interest in classic blues and ignited a decade-plus cycle of blues fandom that is only now weakening. Joe Bonamassa has a similar vibe to his playing, mixing ‘70s hard rock and ‘80s guitar fury to create a sound that is at once both fresh and familiar and quite capable of blowing the dust from the blues, dragging the art form screaming and kicking into the new century. (Medallist Entertainment, released August 13th, 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Archive Review: Transatlantic's SMPT:e (2000)

Transatlantic's SMPT:e
The “progressive rock” label isn’t an albatross that too many bands are quick to hang around their necks these days, which makes the press materials accompanying SMPT:e – a clever acronym representing Roine Stolt, Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy and Pete Trewavas – all the more confusing. Transatlantic has proudly taken up the prog-rock mantle and they don’t care who knows. A literal alt-rock supergroup, composed of various members of Dream Theater, Marillion, and Spock’s Beard, these guys have obviously done their homework, polishing off those old Yes, King Crimson, and ELP records and taking heavy notes. The five songs on SMPT:e may have their roots in 1970s-styled, classically-influenced progressive rock but Transatlantic has brought the genre into the new millennium with some fresh new ideas and more than a few original hooks. Even the cover artwork for SMPT:e resembles one of Roger Dean’s hallucinogenic paintings that used to grace so many prog-rock album covers.

SMPT:e opens with an obviously Yes-inspired thirty-minute track titled “All of the Above” which manages to imprint each of its six suites with a different sound and feel. Mixing elements of classic rock and improvisational jazz with prog-rock roots, “All of the Above” never drags or annoys in spite of its considerable length. Other cuts also manage to breathe new life into the prog-rock corpse: “We All Need Some Light” is a dark-hued, melancholy work while “Mystery Train” is a syncopated, more upbeat number that utilizes the various band member’s voices in creating some nice harmonies. The lone cover on SMPT:e is the appropriately chosen Procol Harum’s “In Held (Twas) In I,” offered here as an extended aural painting, a textured composition complete with zen-like spoken word into. A complex, multi-layered, and ambitious work, Transatlantic’s SMPT:e is a hard album to get a handle on, but one well worth the effort. (Radiant / Metal Blade Records)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000