Thursday, July 31, 2014
In reviewing the recent 19-disc, complete works box set from Mellencamp, it became clear that he has been, for the most part, a singles specialist. Not that he wants to be; he clearly has had aspirations as a serious rocker with important albums. But over and over again, he would offer up a couple of decent or even killer songs per outing, with the rest ho-hum. And tellingly, his last few albums have featured perhaps one or none at all.
The one album of the past 15 years or so that I did like was Trouble No More, his blues and standards collection from 2003. It was a contract-filler, but a different one. Mellencamp truly wanted to celebrate the material, and to make it current too. Recorded in the wake of 9/11 and the Bush invasion of Iraq, he wanted to make a statement about war-mongering, and the relevancy of the words of Woody Guthrie and some of the old bluesmen. And, he had a couple of words of his own.
This set is one of the two concerts Mellencamp gave at the time featuring the songs of the album. Coming out strong with a couple of old blues classics, Stones In My Passway by Robert Johnson, and Son House's Death Letter, he follows up those scary words with some of his own. Rewriting another old blues theme, he modernized To Washington as a condemnation of Bush and Cheney, accusing them of using excuses to start was for profit. Then comes Bob Dylan's Highway 61, with another brazen re-write. In his new version, Bush prays for a way to fight the next world war, and is told "Just give Donald Rumsfeld about a million guns, and have it out on Highway 61." It gutsy, which has always been Mellencamp's second-best trait.
His best trait has been those catchy heartland rockers, and a few turn up here as well, the best and rootsiest of them, Pink Houses, Paper In Fire and Small Town. For a guy so associated with rural U.S. values, it's one of his best moments.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Forty Four is an original Cuddy number, as are all but one of the eleven cuts here, sounds very old, but is a smart and ultra-cool mix of a blues theme and country clucking. He's going to get his .44 caliber to finish off some scumbag, a recognized blues motif, but check out Robertson's guitar licks, straight out of Bakersfield. Just One Kiss is more on the jazz side, a bit of a Mose Allison feel, with a fine piano solo, but more of a Chicago guitar break. Gospel, not surprisingly, has that very musical style, with more of that country pickin'. The band (and co-producer Greg Keelor, apparently a family friend), have uncovered all the roots, but have crafted a hybrid rather than a pure breed.
The Devin Cuddy Band makes its way east soon. They play Plan B in Moncton Aug. 22, and the next night in Georgetown, PEI, at the Cloggeroo Festival.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Norah is the queen of side projects, giving us both The Little Willies and the Billie Joe & Norah sets, and she'll duet with anybody who asks, especially if they are country. She's been gigging with this group since 2008 for fun, mostly to learn guitar and do country songs without any pressure. Joining her are Sasha Dobson, another jazzy kind of singer on her own, and Catherine Popper, bassist for a bit in Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
All three take turns at the vocals, look for nice harmony moments, and bring originals to the table. But it's the covers were they seem to have most fun. The album features both studio and live tracks, and everybody pitches in where needed, Dobson handling drums if needed, Jones supplying a little fiddle, all playing acoustic guitar, and nobody playing piano, it seems to have been banned, making sure we realized this is not a typical Norah Jones album (whatever that is now.)
I'd be just as happy if Jones never did another of her old style albums. Listen to her Don't Know What It Means, an old country twanger with a Bo Diddley guitar sound, and its clear she could easily just continue in the alt-country world. She has the right taste too; the covers here include a grand live version of Neil Young's Down By The River, with the best vocals that song has ever had, and more strong harmonies on the under-appreciated Band number Twilight. If anything, this is better than the Little Willies stuff.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
This is quite a different album for Hiatt. The overall feel is acoustic blues, not unknown in his repertoire but the furthest he's gone in that field. There is a band involved, his touring guys giving it the full sound, but Hiatt's acoustic is up front, the lyrics are largely dark and philosophical, the vocals slightly slurred and gruff.
The disc starts out with several world-weary numbers. The opener Long Time Comin' shows Hiatt might be tough to be around on bad days: "I've sang these songs a thousand times, ever since I was young/It's a long time comin' and the drummer keeps drummin', your work is never done." Wind Don't Have To Hurry is downright bleak, with the thought police taking your liberty, and your soul already sold for a bit of silver and gold. The mood does get lifted a little on Marlene, the girl the singer isn't good enough to win. Finally, by cut six, Baby's Gonna Kick, we get relief as the band goes uptown and we get a good groove. This is bad boy Hiatt again, admitting he's a wild one and that his lover will give him the boot when she's finally had enough, but it's delivered fun and sexy.
Hiatt must have sensed the dark side was winning on the album, because there's a cheap laugh tune included, Old People, which is a rant about senior citizens being a miserable, cheap, crafty bunch. It isn't up to the usual clever Hiatt standards, the chorus is dumb ("Old people are pushy/they're not mushy"), and feels like its there to placate the old fans who want some of his fun stuff. I'll admit it does take a couple of listens to appreciate the darkness here, but I think most will get there eventually, and the blues playing is sterling throughout. And if you want great Hiatt lyrics, you'll find them in the title cut, where he sings "Sometimes love can be so wrong, like a fat man in a thong."
There's another teaser offered in the deluxe edition, a live concert DVD. Of the ten cuts, only two are new, the rest being classic Hiatt numbers such as Slow Turning, Drive South and Have A Little Faith In Me. That alone is enough to grab this set, even if you do find the album proper a little too heavy.
Friday, July 25, 2014
Keira Knightley sings? Yes, and very well thank you very much. She stars in the new film about an independent singer/songwriter who doesn't want to sell out, despite Mark Ruffalo's attempts. The good news is that Ruffalo doesn't sing too, he's the record company guy. But Knightley's ex is played by Maroon 5's Adam Levine, and he has lots of cuts on the soundtrack too. Worrisome? As it turns out it's a pack of very fine pop songs, not exactly hip but real quality.
Credit goes to one Gregg Alexander, who at first I didn't remember. Checking credits, it's the same guy who ran the 90's band The New Radicals, who hit with You Get What You Give. I thought their album was first-class, so it comes as no surprise he's resurfaced with this set.
Cee Lo Green has a smaller role in the film, which is an excuse to get a couple of his songs on the disc, and surprise, even he's doing Alexander numbers. However, Alexander is a crafty-enough writer to fit right in with the star, and both Horny and Women Of The World (Go On Strike) are made-to-order Cee Lo, not classics but exactly what you expect from him, cheeky and fun. It's a rare quality soundtrack from start to finish, and with Cee Lo and one of the Adam Levine cuts, Lost Stars, getting airplay, it could be a sizable hit.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
That's a lot of Johnny Cougar. 19 discs to be precise, each of his regular albums, plus the soundtrack to his 1992 movie Falling From Grace, in which he starred, directed, produced and put together the soundtrack. Just from that alone, you can tell Mellencamp has a healthy opinion of his talent. I'm not going to deny there's something to him, but after going start to finish with this gargantuan box, I'm not going to rave either.
Mellencamp broke through at the end of the 70's and into the 80's, a time of album artists, and he's always acted like one. The thing is, he's really been more of a singles artist, at least in terms of popularity. Early albums John Cougar and Nothing Matters And What If It Did were really only noticeable for the hits I Need A Lover, Ain't Even Done With The Night and This Time. Things really got going with American Fool, which held Hurts So Good and Jack & Diane, but little else. But Mellencamp was moving like a heartland Springsteen, farms instead of factories. So there was a higher concept to this stuff. He hit us full-on with it for the next two albums, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow. We're celebrating the little guys and gals in the Small Towns, in those Little Pink Houses, where the walls are Crumblin' Down, trying to make it through the Lonely Ol' Night.
This was JCM at his peak, with an unstoppable string of hits, and you can add in Authority Song, R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A., and Rain On The Scarecrow to that. Everything he was writing fit into these fist-pumping mini-anthems, although the album tracks that went with them would usually fall flat. And didn't you find the writing a bit confusing? You had that ominous line, "Rain on the scarecrow...". As far as I know, farmers (and scarecrows) like a good amount of rain. What's Jack & Diane about, anyway? "Oh yeah, life goes on/and nothing actually happens in this song."
The next two albums saw him try to be a bit more reflective, and the music started to become more varied, but he still continued the annoying habit of using truncated sentences or forcing awkward sentences into existing melodies. Now, those melodies continued to be the best thing about the albums, and for awhile there would be a great-sounding single such as Cherry Bomb or Paper In Fire to enjoy. But the 90's were not kind to his career, and by 1999 he was doing acoustic covers of his old hits on the Rough Harvest album, to get out of the contract.
Only five albums have come out in the 2000's, a mixed bag at best. Cutting Heads in 2001 was pretty good, with a lot more songwriting variety, but not a hit in sight. Trouble No More I really enjoyed, and still do. It's his full covers album, a mix of old folk blues from Son House and Robert Johnson, some Woody Guthrie, and left-field tunes such as Skeeter Davis' The End Of The World. But Freedom's Road was a disaster, with Our Country a blatant truck commercial, and some Liberal 101 lyrics to counter the redneck vibe of that.
In the most bizarre move of T Bone Burnett's well-respected career, the producer teamed up with Mellencamp for the singer's latest two albums, Live Death Love And Freedom, and No Better Than This. While Burnett brings his trademark acoustic sound to the proceedings, he does nothing to save the songs. They are a mournful bunch, both albums plodding along with little relief. I The songs may say something meaningful, but I'll never find out, such is the dreariness of listening through. News that the duo have recorded a new one for this fall gives me no pleasure.
In 1989's Pop Singer, Mellencamp protested that he "never wanted to be no pop singer, never wanted to write no pop songs." But that is exactly what he did, and what he was good at. The millions of fans he once had loved it when he got all riled up and shook his mane. He seemed angry, defiant and a hero. The trouble was, he wanted to be like Bob Dylan, and have something important to say. In the end, you could put a cherry bomb to this box set, and be left with maybe a good two-CD set.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Here are a couple of must-owns for the roots fan. Parsons has long been the poster boy for alt.country, Americana, whatever it gets called when rock fans like country. Poor sellers when released, his death has pushed these up to equal status with his lone album with The Byrds (Sweetheart Of The Rodeo) and the debut Flying Burrito Brothers platter. They've been available in a nice CD set for years, but it's oh-so-cool to get them on vinyl again, reissued now in high-quality pressings.
GP was definitely the start of something, but as with all things Parsons, a bit of a shambles. His instincts were right; flush with inheritance money, he hired some of the best, including most of Elvis's TCB band, with James Burton on guitar, Ronnie Tutt on drums and Glen D. Hardin on piano. Then there was his new vocal partner, the unknown Emmylou Harris, whom he was in the process of schooling in classic country (she was a folkie before). Producing was ex-Traffic member Rik Grech, picked up in England after Parsons was booted out of the Rolling Stones orbit. What could go wrong?
Well, lots. Grech was a fellow traveler in the substance abuse sweepstakes, and Parsons was barely holding it together at the best of times. He was more concerned about authenticity than polish, and that meant some shambolic takes on covers We'll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning and That's All It Took. Harris wasn't smooth yet, and the poor woman could have used a few more takes at least to get her parts down, but Parsons was rushing things. Still there are grand songwriting gems and tremendous hurt vocals on The New Soft Shoe, A Song For You, and the great She, a doomed love song drenched in the oppressive Southern atmosphere of Parsons' youth. Parsons was getting close to his beloved and hoped-for Cosmic American Music, but it was greeted mostly with a big WTF?
And then, like all good legends, he died. Look it up, it's crazy, and involves corpse theft and a partial cremation out in the desert. But he'd already gone on a game-changing tour with Harris and some of the band, and made the follow-up, Grievous Angel. Parsons had been cleaning up a bit, and the albums has a much-improved sound and cohesion. The brilliant Return of the Grievous Angel, with its calico bonnet and truckers and kickers and cowboy angels is the key, the song he'd searched for, the one that took the spirit of classic American country and placed it squarely in the now. The band was working beautifully, with Burton's licks and Emmylou's twang now essential to the sound. The sorrow of Brass Buttons and $1000 Wedding was heart-wrenching, and the welcome return of Parsons' Byrds-era classic Hickory Wind a masterstroke. Even the covers were essential, especially the duet with Harris on Love Hurts, perhaps the best-ever version of this song in a field crowded with the likes of The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison.
Gram Parsons was talented, a visionary, and driven, but he was also lazy, troubled and foolish. He frittered away every great opportunity he was given, had great respect for the music but little for the talented people around him who helped him reach the greatest heights. Infuriating, especially when you hear these last two albums he made, and where it could have gone.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
If you want authenticity, Vest is the kind of blues guy who brings the real deal to the table. He's a boogie-woogie piano player with pedigree, who knows both the blues and early rock and roll styles inside out, being seasoned enough, and playing with some of Canada's best over the years. Vest learned his licks back in Alabama where he was born 71 years ago, but is now based in Victoria, B.C., where he plays with the likes of David Gogo, and wins Maple Blues Awards on his own.
For his latest, Vest has teamed up with Fathead's guitar player (Teddy Leonard), and Downchild's rhythm section (Gary Kendall on bass, Mike Fitzpatrick on drums). With a set full of originals (aside from two covers), Vest shows off several styles, including some barrelhouse, a little country and lots of piano-based storytelling. Streetcar is a number that could have come out of the Dirty Thirties saloons, while Freight Train Rolling is 50's Memphis. The weary-voiced Vest doesn't have a lot of range, so the story-song works best for him, plus you feel like you can believe everything he tells you, because he's seen it all.
He's really here to let his fingers do the talking, and hearing real piano played with that special boogie twinkle is a grand treat. The band is sharp and full behind him, and Leonard gets to chime in with some nice licks as well. These are veterans who know how to do it.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
The Jayhawks had, seemingly, everything going for them in the 90's. They were the poster-band of a hot new genre, alt.-country, had a major league contract with Def American, and a buzz-worthy album, Hollywood Town Hall. Then there was the writing team of Marc Olson and Gary Louris, either one liable to come up with a sweet hit, and together the makers of Everly-worthy harmonies. But as Jayhawks fans know, they were the band who never quite made it over the hill.
Excitement was still in the air after the 1995 album Tomorrow The Green Grass, but that's when the big blow happened. Olson was fed up with having his music compromised by the record label and his bandmates, and abruptly left. The rest of the band decided to continue, but things weren't going to be the same.
Since a major reformation in 2011, including the return of Olson, the band's original albums have been receiving the deluxe treatment. Now it's the turn of the post-Olson works, a trio of high-quality discs that continued the familiar pattern. The songs were great, the true fans loved them, the shows were wonderful, but they couldn't break out of cult status. Some bands just aren't meant for it, no matter how good.
Each one comes with several period bonus cuts, and new historical liner notes, and are certainly worthy of an upgrade if you did have the originals. 1997's Sound Of Lies was the first with Gary Louris assuming sole leadership and writing most of the songs. Luckily, he was ready with the goods, although the country influence was on the decline. More rock and experimentation was moving in, the guitars crunched more and a more somber and cynical tone was cast on the album. Even the fun, Petty-like number Big Star was totally ironic, Louris acknowledging he'd probably never leave the club scene. Those who were drawn to the Jayhawks for their Americana/Gram Parsons nods would now need to broaden their horizons to stay fans.
Smile was next in 2000, and featured a big gun producing, hard rock vet Bob Ezrin. The disc started off with one of the band's catchiest singles ever, I'm Gonna Make You Love Me, but then got dramatic and large. The songs were more complicated, and the sonics thick. It's not an easy-breezy listen, although the same heavenly harmonies and major melodies are still in great supply. The words instead felt distinctly uneasy.
2003 saw the group shed a good deal of the darkness, strip back to a trio, bring in producer Ethan Johns and make what was the closest thing to an acoustic album since their formative late 80's work. Rainy Day Music was home to the most concise and accessible set of songs since the Olson days. That includes the should've-been-hits Tailspin, Save It For A Rainy Day and Angelyne. It should have re-energized their career, but once again, whatever needed to click didn't. Go figure. But don't let that stop you enjoying, be hip with the cult!
The bonus tracks come from demo tapes, obscure European b-sides, alternative recordings and a couple of live tracks to show how grand the band was at that time. Each disc has either five or six extras, and none of them are boring throw-aways. Highly recommended, as are all the other Jayhawks albums.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
There's something very familiar about Loverboy's new single, Countin' The Nights. It sounds like it could have been on one of the group's classic 80's albums, and has the same swagger as Working For The Weekend, or The Kid Is Hot Tonight. Is it deliberate copying, trying to link back to the glory days? As it turns out, it sounds like that because it is from those days. It's an old demo track, that for some reason didn't make the cut way back when. That's the story behind all ten of the cuts here, some of which date back in some form to 1974.
They come from the great pile of tapes collected over the years by founding guitarist and writer Paul Dean. At least one of the cuts, You Play The Star, he had thought lost until it turned up on an unlabeled reel. The demos existed in various states, some more complete than the others, some with original bassist. the late Scott Smith. All of them needed a bit of work, some new parts added, from vocals to keyboards, making this technically and partially a new album. You'd be hard pressed to hear the 2014 additions though, every note here sounds like the 80's, either a good or a bad thing depending on your feelings about red leather pants.
Most of the tracks could or should have made albums back then, and a couple are pretty darn good, including Countin' The Nights. Loverboy never were a lyrics band (see Hot Girls In Love), and there are some howlers. It's hard to take Slave seriously, with its story about some sort of metal horde attempting to rule the planet. Who knew such a battle was going on back in the 80's? The poor hair metal bands, it must have been horrible, they should have said something, we could have got the U.N.involved. But Doin' It The Hard Way is a good update to Workin' For The Weekend, with the taxman wrecking it for everybody: "Don't know how people can raise a family/When they add the GST, it's insult to injury." Hey the GST still sucks! Loverboy's still got it rockin'.
Monday, July 14, 2014
Leading up to the final, sold-out reunion show in London on Sunday, Python have released a handful of artifacts, including this new version of the group's musical numbers. Sings was originally released in 1989, and was quite popular, collecting such favourites as The Lumberjack Song, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, and Eric the Half-a-Bee. Most aren't quite the way you know them, from the films or TV shows, as they were re-recorded for Python albums or live shows over the years. But the jokes are still the same, usually just the links are changed a bit, as they are taken from a different skit or introduction.
To beef up the set, six new numbers have been added, out-takes from old sessions, or unused ideas from cancelled productions. These include The Lousy Song, where the late Graham Chapman wanders into the studio to find Eric Idle listening back to a song he's just recording. Chapman finds it repulsive, and declares it bad enough for the album, and years later it finally finds that home.
The bigger bonus is found on disc two, which is actually the old 1970 movie (their first), Monty Python's Flying Circus (live), put out by the BBC as the TV show started to take off. It's a collection of many of their most beloved sketches, including Flying Sheep, Crunchy Frog, Nudge Nudge Wink Wink, and of course, Dead Parrot Sketch. Having vintage and prime versions of these is, for me, better than the entire Sings (Again) album.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
If there's an album that deserves to be heard in the best possible way, it's Legend. It's a collection that has to be put on loud, and that big bass has to punch through your soul, you need to move to the rhythm. You want the guitars chords to slice through the air, and the I-Three's to chime to heaven on Three Little Birds. If there's an album you want to stick on your surround sound and crank, this would be it, even if you're not the biggest audio nerd around. Turn it up, the neighbours won't complain, it's Bob Marley. Ev'ry little thing gonna be alright.
Friday, July 11, 2014
The battling Blaster Brothers reunite to bond over Big Bill Broonzy. It's a great story, and a great album. Phil and Dave Alvin have had problems over the years, and haven't made an album together in almost 30 years, since the heyday of LA's The Blasters. But after Phil had a serious illness in 2012, they put things aside to get back to music-making. They'd loved Big Bill since discovering him as young teens, and that became the project.
It's so much more than just a basic tribute disc. The Alvins know these songs inside and out, and do a lot more than just cover them. They truly do make them their own. It's not done by updating them, nor by adhering to the absolute original version. Instead, they play them like they own them, like they wrote the numbers themselves. You can hear the love in their versions, not for the songs as museum pieces, but as living, breathing gigantic pieces of art. Sometimes they rough up Broonzy's numbers with gritty electric edge, sometimes with intricate acoustic guitar, but always with the idea of serving the song, rather than presenting the Alvin Brothers.
Broonzy's best-known number is here, Key To The Highway, but unless you're a big fan, you won't be familiar with the other tracks. He wrote so many (over 300) that, unlike Robert Johnson with only a couple of dozen, his numbers haven't been over-recorded. He was a grand story-teller, with tall tales, mistreatin' blues, or social history. Southern Flood Blues is a scary, first-person account of the river rising and no help coming for a neighbourhood, the residents sure to drown. Somehow Phil And Dave Alvin have made these songs a totally new experience.
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Yes, yes, I know, I know, how old are those guys, when are they going to quit, how many times are they going to trot out the same old stuff, etc. etc. The thing is, they haven't done Quadrophenia that much, and never in this form before. And let me tell you, Roger and Pete really pulled this show off. I put Roger first, because it was his baby. He talked Townshend into it, and developed the elaborate stage presentation. Pete puts on a fine performance, but the big cheers should go to Daltry for the show concept, and for sounding so damn good at 70. Very, very impressive.
The way the album/rock opera is being presented is as a concert with visuals. All through the performance, film footage flies past, on a series of big and small screens surrounding the musicians. It's not presenting the storyline, as the movie version did, but instead these are images and news events that connect the audience to the historical context of the characters in Townshend's project. Quadrophenia was a rough coming-of-age set in the Mod world of mid-60's England, a main character who felt split in four directions while trying to become an adult. Those four personalities also reflected the four members of The Who. So, we get film of World War II England, which completely changed British society, and we watch a flurry of images that take us up to the 60's. Then, the footage becomes interspersed with vintage performance pieces by The Who themselves, fascinating shots of the band as mere children, pummeling their instruments. Daltry and Townshend strut their stuff in front of their younger selves, and the shots of the late Keith Moon are especially touching.
Later on, in a brilliant piece of theatre, John Entwistle takes over the screen, and plays one of his fantastic "lead bass" solos in the middle of the song 5;15, a wonderful bit of trickery as Daltry watches along with us, his late band mate taking over the stage to everyone's delight. For the home video version, some of the film footage is edited in as full-frame material, so its arguable that we get an even better view than the July 2013 audience. It's a blast of a show no matter what, and for my bucks, a better version of Quadrophenia than the group could have done in its 1970's heyday. Bonus tracks feature the lengthy encore that night, a six-song hits set with Won't Get Fooled Again, Who Are You, Pinball Wizard and more.
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
The headline-grabber here is Sweet Amarillo, another co-write between OCMS and one Bob Dylan. That's the same team that produced Wagon Wheel, the ubiquitous festival favourite, and a number one country hit for Hootie. Ketch Secor had worked up Wagon Wheel from a sketch on a Dylan bootleg, but this time Bob sent him an unfinished number, no doubt well-pleased with the financial windfall his detritus had generated. I'm so tired of Wagon Wheel I can't possibly tell if this one is as good, because it sounds much better to my overworked and less than objective ears. I do like Sweet Amarillo a lot though, which the group has worked up to feel like a Desire-era number.
The rest of Remedy is typical of the way the Crow flies, with lots of faster-than-possible banjo and fiddle numbers, espousing Dirty 30's values and musicianship. Doc's Day is a tale tail about what has inspired their sound, an old hillbilly advising them "if you wanna rock, listen to Doc." Watson, that is. They hyper tune 8 Dogs 8 Banjos describes their version of happiness. O Cumberland River is a jumble of several Band songs, especially all the ones sung by Levon Helm.
There are a couple of tunes where they slow down long enough to take a breath, but really, speed works well for them on good-time, shit-kickin' old timey songs. One of the best is actually called Shit Creek, as in 'we're up it'. Secor's spitting out the vocals, his fiddle's on fire and the band is cookin'. That's what you want from a medicine show.
Monday, July 7, 2014
Long-awaited and the stuff of legend, this box from the famous 1974 CSNY reunion tour has gone through what everything to do with "Y" does. That means endless delays for frustrating reasons, to the point of being underwhelmed when the project finally does show up. Think Young's Archives Vol. 1, something so discussed for so long that when it did arrive, many wondered what all the fuss was about. This time, Young wanted the best available audio for Blu-ray, meaning producer Nash had to scrap much of the work a third of the way through and start over. He described the whole process as the most difficult project of his life, and said it took a year of work but four years for approvals.
So, given all that, it is underwhelming? My message is no. It is a giant gift of a box. You can go cheap and get the single, 16-track CD but that's missing way too much. It was a monumental tour, and you'll want the three CD, one DVD version, if only to get all the unreleased Neil Young numbers done that summer.
Ah, Young. This was one of his great periods, and he really does steal the show. The rest of them had done okay after the splintering of the group in 1970, but Young was in the stratosphere. He could fall back on great numbers from After the Gold Rush and Harvest (Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Old Man), helped out by the heavenly harmonies of the others. Or, he could dip into the current album, On The Beach, for bleak brilliance (Revolution Blues, On The Beach). Several of his songs made their debut on this tour, including some meant for CSNY projects that never came to be. That meant one of his best-loved numbers, Long May You Run, sat another two years before coming out, but we hear it here, already in its final state. Then you have the stuff of years of bootlegs: Pushed It Over The End, Love Art Blues, Hawaiian Sunrise. It's perhaps unfair to compare anyone to Young at this point, but it's hard to look at the other guys on the same stage and consider it a fair fight.
What's nice is that this set never seems like the clash of egos that has often marred the CSNY story. There is an overall fairness and cooperation on display, each member helping the other, everybody getting their turn to shine. If anything, it's the solo songs by each that come off better. They really seem to be trying on Stills' Johnny's Garden, Nash's Immigration Man, and Crosby's The Lee Shore. The big CSNY numbers like Deja Vu and Almost Cut My Hair have an air of smugness, like they know they are the big star numbers. Or maybe I'm projecting; anyway, I like the unexpected interplay.
Sadly, CSNY never got better. Young got more erratic, but has continued to show brilliance at times. The rest have really offered us at best a cautionary tale about drugs, money, ego and talent. The good news is that the recording legacy of this group has just grown a significant amount, and it's a very good set.
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Emma-Lee joins on vocals for You Carry Me, which really ups the drama, and harmony fans will love the three-part work. Someday Soon sees the pair move into lighthearted whimsy, a bit like Simon & Garfunkel doing Feelin' Groovy, that sort of vibe. You'll have to enjoy the sweeter side, with the duo's pretty pop featuring strings, gentle percussion and keyboards. The biggest beat they get is from hand claps on Manna For My Soul, an uptempo and fun one, bright and cheerful. I think this may be the exact opposite of heavy metal.
Saturday, July 5, 2014
As for the album proper, the group is now banking on similarities to current dance-n'-diva acts. Blondie invented the whole merger of new wave and disco, and that sound can be heard in the icy pop of Lady Gaga's and all those wanna-be's. So the group have brought out the synths again, invited a few names such as Miss Guy and Beth Ditto, and made their sound modern. It didn't take much really, and it just goes to show how the group was always at the forefront. Unfortunately, the songs they have written don't really punch through with any success. Singles Sugar On The Side and A Rose By Any Name are passable dance numbers, well-produced but really not memorable enough to stand out. And certainly they can't match the excitement of a Call Me, for instance, for the dance floor crowd.
Those who first followed the group in the punk days might be tempted by the Special Deluxe Version of the set, which is expanded to three discs with an extra DVD. On first glance, this seems like it could be the jewel here. It's a full set recorded live at CBGB in 1977, back at the start with the X-Offender/In The Flesh version of the band. This would have been great, except the video is complete crap, seriously deteriorated, and the audio was probably never good. It could be used if you were looking to describe what the band was like in those days if writing an essay, but as for an enjoyable hour, forget it, it's more frustrating for what could have been. The use of the words special and deluxe aren't really appropriate here.
Thursday, July 3, 2014
I always trust the players who started on harp, rather than went to it as a second instrument. For three decades, Dave Hoerl has been leading the way in Vancouver, after moving up from San Francisco. His band The Twisters helped bring jump blues back to the forefront, and has held its own as one of the country's best. Now, Hoerl takes the solo route for the very first time, giving us some of the usual fun The Twisters deal in, plus a few style surprises to change things up. He's the songwriter and lead singer, but its the harmonica work that stands out, and it's such a pleasure to hear high-quality playing all the way through, songs made with the instrument in mind rather than it slapped on as an option. Hoerl doesn't just solo, he fills in places where you'd often find guitar or piano parts. He knows how to lead into verses with quick lines, or follow along with a couple of notes, stabbing like rhythm guitar players. When he does blast away, it's all the more better, inventive lines that go to surprising places, not just bluster and sputtering.
As a writer, the good times are on display, whether it's creating party music (Pure & Simple Blues), a tribute to his partner (Soul Mate), and an Arabian-flavoured number, Snake Charmer. The latter song features Hoerl's dextrous chromatic harmonica playing; that's the bigger one with the slide bar that gives the instrument all the notes of the scale, plus the well-known tone used by such fine players as Stevie Wonder, and heard on the Sesame Street theme. Now that's a hard harmonica to master, and here Hoerl imitates horn parts and duels with sax lines. What you have here is a fine blues album on any level, and put up another notch because there's a stand-out player involved as well.
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
He might be best remembered for the ballads, but he could do it all, from Latin (Papa Loves Mambo) to Rat Pack (Open Up The Doghouse, Two Cats Are Coming In with Dino). It's the swing I like, the breezy way he sings Route 66 or Walkin' My Baby Back Home. As for jazz chops, his version of Ellington's Don't Get Around Much Anymore matches any. This is a nice packed set at 22 cuts, including a previously unreleased take of 1953's You're W
rong All Wrong. Some of the big hits here are the 1961 re-recorded versions, including Mona Lisa and Unforgettable, but they don't sound flawed and the vocals are perfect. All you Mad Men fans need at least one Nat collection.
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Levon Helm's last few years were spent holding court at his home studio/concert space, running the Midnight Rambles. These featured his crack band, and whatever guests would drop by, great players and famous names alike. These proved so popular that Helm got back on the concert and recording circuit near the end of his life, winning Grammy awards and becoming a roots music icon.
Luckily, those Rambles were often recorded, and the series is now up to volume three. This is Americana at its finest, R'n'B and hillbilly sounds, Gospel and folk, the stuff Helm had in his DNA. The caveat is, as always, it's not Levon, it's the music that's on display. Helm would only sing the occasional number, as his throat was an iffy proposition after cancer surgery. So you have to appreciate the rest of the fine folks here. That's a bit of an understatement too; this was a band and a family so tight that Larry Campbell left his long-going gig with Bob Dylan to lead the group with Helm. There's also horn man Jimmy Vivino, straight from Jersey and duty with Springsteen and Conan's groups. Daughter Amy Helms is here, old unheralded blues singer Little Sammy Davis, a real revue on stage.
There are some great and surprising numbers here. Instead of old Band hits and cuts from his solo albums, this is a connoisseur's collection. Helm kicks things off with Chess blues on Willie Dixon's The Same Thing, and closes it with the pure funk of Take Me To The River. Amy offers Sam Cooke's Ain't That Good News, more gutsy than his sleek production. Guest stars on this set are top drawer, including Allen Toussaint playing with fire on his own A Certain Girl, and Chris Robinson dropping by to light up Shake Your Money Maker. Best of all is a unique version of Dylan's Simple Twist Of Fate, sung by Brian Mitchell and turned into a Parisienne torch number, with accordion and mystery. I'm glad these are out there for Helm's sake as well, as he sounds much better here than the last few months of his life, when he could barely croak a couple of tunes a night. Helm was one who did prove F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong in The Last Tycoon, an American with a great second act in his life.