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Saturday, June 21, 2014

My review of the 2014 Led Zeppelin I, II, and III Remasters/Hi-Resolution Downloads

If you are going to sing a verse like this, full of dread and apocalyptic fury:

The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde,
Singing and crying: "Valhalla, I am coming!"

...your band had better not suck. 

They did not.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Ruminating on Rubber Soul

This morning I listened to the 1965 album Rubber Soul by The Beatles (you may have heard of them). Curious album title, that…

Rubber Soul cover, US stereo edition.

From the vantage point of 2014 it’s easy to take this collection of music as something that seems to have always existed – but it’s more interesting to put it in the perspective of where in the band’s career timeline it was created.

While the songs generally credited to Paul McCartney remain focused on matters romantic – and masterful displays of pop-craft they often are – John Lennon’s words begin to show the first signs of a new direction for the band and a changing attitude for him. “Norwegian Wood” brings a much more adult take on relationship complexities than the cut-and-dry characterizations that inhabited earlier songs. And in “The Word,” when Lennon announced “Now that I know what I feel must be right, I'm here to show everybody the light,” he set a course that he would follow for the rest of his life.

The band recording Rubber Soul.

George Harrison displays a darker lyrical approach as well, noting in “Think for Yourself” that “I left you far behind, the ruins of the life that you have in mind.”

The shimmering production and spirited performances that abound in Rubber Soul seem like a seamless and logical progression from the album’s predecessor, Help!, arriving quickly on its heels. But the album also offered clues that things were changing. No one could have imagined just how much.

The blog awakens...

...after extended slumber.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What a difference four decades make...

The first time I ever saw Tony Joe White was May 1, 1971. I hated him.

White had the unenviable task of joining Spirit in opening for Jethro Tull, now at the peak of their powers just days after the release of Aqualung.

I, along with many others in Philadelphia’s packed Spectrum, had little time for some dude playing music about swamps and looking kind of like he’d just emerged from one, especially when Martin Barre was waiting in the wings ready to unleash that six-note onslaught that heralded the title track of the new Tull LP. White did not go down the worst of any opening act I saw at the Spectrum; that dubious honor was presented a few weeks after this show, to LaBelle as they crashed and burned in a storm of boos before The Who claimed the stage during the Who’s Next tour. But the crowd did not exactly embrace White in a warm hug of good cheer.

Yesterday, just over forty years later, I saw Tony Joe White for the second time. What a difference a few decades make.

Tony Joe White's 2013 release on Yep Roc Records.

Backed only by drummer Fleetwood Cadillac - yep, that’s how the Mississippian was introduced - White took the stage at Philadelphia’s World Café Live for the weekly WXPN Free at Noon concert series and got things off to a rousing start by discovering his amp was not on. But years of stage experience saw White coolly apprise the folks in front of him - and those listening around the world - about the issue and its resolution.

“Alright - Friday!” White announced in his thick drawl, “A little mid-day swamp…”

A man in black - Tony Joe White on stage at World Café Live.

For the next forty minutes White held the crowd spellbound, his worn Stratocaster emitting notes that led down twisting paths of the blues, backed by Cadillac’s simple but sympathetic drums. White’s tales of hoodoo, voodoo, and a disappearing Southern life were nearly croaked out in a conspiratorial voice that gave the impression the tales were being told just for your ears alone. And no-one could stop listening.

That I found White so mesmerizing this time is a direct by-product of the fact that my musical tastes haven’t refocused over the years, they’ve simply widened to now embrace swamp rock, Tull, and far too much else.

But I’m glad I had the chance to test that theory.

Tony Joe White’s Free at Noon concert can be heard at the following Web site; simply scroll to the bottom of the page and look for the Free at Noon stream for November 15, 2013:


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hi-hat of the gods...

Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion was welcomed warmly to the United States last night by a full house at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope PA. The large audience was attentive and applauded in all the right places during the two sets, and the musically brilliant but notoriously combative Baker was appreciative of the reception.

Now 74 years old and in constant pain from a degenerative spine condition, Ginger still displayed the form that influenced a tide of rock drummers. Characteristically, Baker’s relentless hi-hat creates a pulse for every song. The stylistic aspect, so prominent during Baker’s ground-breaking years with Cream, was soon passed down to a second wave of drummers powering 1970s hard rock bands ranging from Mountain to Cactus.

Jazz Confusion on stage in London earlier this year.

That Baker has a legion of rock disciples, of course, has always annoyed him, for Ginger considers himself a jazz drummer.

And that’s certainly the style that Jazz Confusion deftly works through, covering material ranging from a Sonny Rollins tune to a bluesy check-in via a composition written by the late Cyril Davies, a Baker cohort in the early 1960s. With Baker and Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo merging swing with African rhythms, an energetic foundation supported bassist Alec Dankworth and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. Ellis, long-time sideman with James Brown during Brown’s most fertile creative period, took lengthy solos that varied intensity with playfulness. Dankworth held the low end, partnering with Baker and Dodoo to support Ellis but also stepping forward with dexterity for his own moments in the spotlight. No surprise that Dankworth should shine: he’s the son of the late horn player and composer John Dankworth and wife Cleo Laine, the only singer nominated for Grammy Awards in jazz, classical, and pop categories.

At one point Ginger said, "I'm 74 years old and have a number of physical infirmities, so I apologize if I can't play what you want to hear." It was an entirely unnecessary apology. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

About Sound and Vision

When Tin Angel opened on Philadelphia’s Second Street corridor, it brought the concept of an intimate venue with an emphasis on good sound and clear sightlines to a music scene that was in dire need of such a venue. This type of concert experience has since been expanded upon by area stages such as Milk Boy and other coffee shops – although the listening frequently requires tuning out espresso brewing and assorted low-level hustling and bustling.

A few months ago a new, easily-accessible venue opened just up the Northeast Extension in Quakertown with a series titled Parlor Concerts at McCoole’s. The debut artist was John Hammond, but word of that event or the series’ existence didn’t seem to spread to very many Philadelphia ears. In fact, when I received a “what’s new” email from the great guitarist Bill Frisell listing a “Parlor Concert” in Quakertown, I was sent off to Google to figure out exactly what that was. I’m glad I did.

An exterior view of part of the McCoole's complex, with the Arts & Events Place to the left.

The Parlor Concert series takes place at McCoole’s Arts & Events Place, adjacent to McCoole’s Red Lion Inn, located just east of Route 309 on the main road into Quakertown. Essentially, the McCoole’s complex is a series of related buildings rescued from decay by Jan Hench, who after establishing a highly-regarded restaurant and tavern began including artistic endeavors in her vision.

Bill Frisell’s September 8 concert took place in the very intimate upstairs theater, which seats just under 200 listeners. How intimate? The set ended with Frisell, still on stage, conversing with the audience and booker Tom Malm about how impressed he was with the venue, and his desire for a return engagement as soon as possible, perhaps with one of his band projects.

Bill Frisell alone on the stage, September 8, 2013.

Sunday night, though, was all about Frisell as a solo artist. Using a series of guitar effects to craft loops or sonic-grabs of pedal tones, Frisell’s astonishing grasp of chord voicings and scales was readily apparent. After moving from an airy improvisation on into the traditional and familiar patterns of “You Are My Sunshine,” Frisell coaxed the melodies from every position on the neck of his well-worn Telecaster, subtly changing the sonic character of each progression. An equally impressive aspect of the guitarist’s approach is his fearless use of abrasive tones, which characterized one cacophonous passage before suddenly resolving into a beautiful, haunting medley rendition of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “In My Life.” It’s a gifted solo talent who can take an audience on such a wide-ranging musical journey, but Bill Frisell regularly accomplishes that feat – it just usually happens in front of much larger audiences. To see and hear it within such personal confines was a rare experience.

The next event on the parlor concert horizon is October 25 with Jim Lauderdale, who like Frisell is a Grammy winner. Lauderdale has had an illustrious songwriting career and has worked with artists ranging from Lucinda Williams to Elvis Costello. His date is followed by a number of other shows on the venue schedule.

And about that return visit by Bill Frisell? There’s a poll up right now at the following link to determine which of Frisell’s many projects is drawing the most listener interest:
Hopefully more music fans from the Philadelphia area will make the quick drive north to share in this experience when it happens.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Night I Outlasted Yoko Ono

Despite being a geezer, by late August I am usually deep into my annual marathon training program. But a fractured foot six weeks ago has left me humbled in the basement, logging hours on a stationary bike until I can return to ground pounding.

Tonight, I scheduled a 30-minute bike session and grabbed my headphones, CD player, and The Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace in Toronto 1969. I had this album soon after it was released, when I was in high school, but despite my Cream fixation and the album’s inclusion of Eric Clapton on guitar, I never made it all the way through both sides once I encountered the dreaded and legendarily-unlistenable Yoko cuts.

Damn straight - make mine the audiophile version!

Who knows why I selected this disc tonight - hell, who knows why I bought it a few weeks ago - but I recall clearly thinking, “I’m only on the bike 30 minutes, I’ll be done before Yoko gets warmed up.”

But as I got underway, I felt the taunting of that young Japanese woman all those decades ago. The decision was boldly made: my 30-minute ride just got expanded to 39 minutes.

Maybe it’s the years I logged in training with unconventional female singers like Nina Hagen and Lydia Lunch, but each atonal bleat uttered by Yoko only made me pedal harder and faster. I refused to lose!

Hit me with your best shot, Yoko! You don't scare me...

Mercifully, it came to an end with me drenched in sweat upon hearing the final utterance of, “Give peace a chance…” But I was triumphant! I heard every second, every note - and, since I’d masochistically purchased the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Ultradisc II gold disc version of this release, I heard it in the best possible sound quality!

Next workout: Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music