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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

Monday, June 17, 2013

Men of wealth and taste…

The Rolling Stones today, by Sebastian Krüger:

Much of the focus on the Rolling Stones’ “50 & Counting” tour has zeroed in on tickets selling for prices north of $500 - and pit access for double that. What gets ignored ticket-wise is something that serious Stones fans have been well aware of: it’s been fairly easy to obtain $67.00 tickets (add $18 for the ticket vendor “convenience” and “processing” fees) through links on the band’s web site. And they’re not just rafter seats, as a percentage of them are lower level and pit tickets, randomly distributed when picked up at the venue. In fact, it’s probably not too late to land tickets at this price for the final three United States gigs tomorrow night and Friday night in Philadelphia, and a week from tonight in Washington D.C.

But the ticket “controversy” is a distraction from some simple truths.

Two years down, 48 to go…

In the 50 years that rock and roll bands have been in existence, two are recognized as the foundation of everything that came after: The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. One of those two played their last show more than four decades ago; the other plays Philadelphia tomorrow night.

Maybe because they have worked so hard since 2000 it’s difficult to put their legacy into the proper perspective. Tour after tour, playing clubs, theaters, stadiums, recording albums, putting out films - they’ve been around and so visible that it’s easy to take them for granted.


If the next three shows are not the final Stones American shows, there will not be many more down the line. A cross-country major slog of a tour? Those days are definitely gone. If they come back at all, expect a short itinerary at an easy pace, much like this current journey. But that return visit is a colossal “if” at this point.


Mick and Keith: proper conditioning for dangerous times ahead.

For now, take some time to ingest the miracle that fifty years down the road, this is still a working rock and roll band - and a damn fine one. Their days of danger may be in the drug-clouded past, but the songs they crafted then still offer a musical pipeline directly into that ominous era. And the Rolling Stones circa 2013 have labored hard in preparation for this set of dates to make sure they’re up to the task of conveying the darkness at the heart of “Street Fighting Man” and “Midnight Rambler.”


Said Keith, "Mick is my wife, but we can't get divorced." ‘Til death do us part.

Sure, this tour has had the occasional dubious moment. Mick Jagger seems to have an obsession with appearing current, which accounts for tour guests that have included Katie Perry and Taylor Swift. And not every note played in a two-hour-plus set is going pack a sonic wallop. But with guitarist Mick Taylor providing a link to the days of exile, and Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood weaving their guitars into a characteristic propulsive surge, this is still a band that can conjure up a vital sound that is uniquely theirs.

So, rather than dwelling on the business aspects of tour grosses and number crunching, let’s put the Rolling Stones in the perspective of their musical legacy.

Give ‘em their respect. They’ve earned it the hard way.





Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Sorry State...

Todd Rundgren’s career has occasionally been characterized by unexpected musical left turns. He's creatively migrated from the wistful balladeer of “Hello it’s Me” to the fusion-leaning leader of Utopia V1, and then on to the creator of harder rock with the latter Utopia followed by a return to solo experimentation. So it was really no surprise when Rundgren announced a new turn with the impending arrival of State, a journey into electronica. What was surprising was the totally lackadaisical, technically-deficient performance given by Rundgren at Philadelphia’s Trocadero last night.

Ensconced upon a high platform center stage, with ex-Tubes drummer Prairie Prince manning an e-kit stage right and flanked to the left by long-time tour guitarist Jesse Gress, Rundgren stood surrounded by electronics and one electric guitar. Over his head a microphone hung down, and prominent lighting rigs constantly shot beams of color into the crowd.

Todd towers over the Trocadero.

Rundgren opened with the first track on State, “Imagination.” It’s a curious song for an album that is described by its creator as electronica - a heavy, lumbering rock song that brought the most focus to the evening. Thereafter, as Todd attempted to propel himself into something resembling the current dance world, it was one embarrassing moment after another. A number of shows into the tour, Rundgren seemed to have little feel for what he was attempting to convey. A lack of communication with Prairie Prince was obvious, while Gress’ playing was far more assured than Rundgren’s tentative and only-occasional guitar work. Rundgren also seemed to be having continual difficulty with his main vocal microphone. Worse by far was the fact that, a number of shows into the tour, Rundgren seemed to have little control over his own electronics, which were responsible for the bulk of the sound. Parts stopped or started at inappropriate times, and a common sight last night was Rundgren bent over, staring through his sunglasses at one recalcitrant device or another.

Kraftwerk is often criticized for cold and unfeeling performances. I disagree, but I think everyone who has heard them would agree that their precision is unwavering. Had last night’s Rundgren show been one by Kraftwerk, heads would have been rolling in Düsseldorf.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Rock Book Short Reviews Number Two: Keith Richards

Keith: can't buy a friend? Au contraire...

Keith Richards’ Life was without a doubt one of the most highly-anticipated rock music accounts ever published.

Like most of the books covering the lives of the second wave of rock musicians - those who ascended the charts in the mid-to-late Sixties - Life finds our Stone growing up under the seismic influence of World War Two. It’s hard for many of us relate to that experience for, while the United States has been involved in multiple conflicts, U.S. fighting has taken place elsewhere, like a perpetual “away game.” But as in the books of Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, and scores of others, Keith readily admits being shaped at a fundamental level by the difficult early environment of his life.

Much has been made of the book’s occasionally dismissive attitude toward Mick Jagger, and there are passages that are downright insulting to the Stones’ front man. But there’s little that’s any more shocking than the intense war of words the two waged in the mid-1980s, when each issue of prominent music magazines bore a new tirade by one Glimmer Twin against the other - and those words rang like they were playing for keeps.

More revelatory in Life is Keith simply talking about music. Not surprisingly, Richards is consumed by his role in the Stones and offers some fascinating glimpses into the band’s constantly evolving creative process over the decades.

In the end, though, despite all the tales of drugs and crazed behavior, the overall sense in the air as one closes Life is a bittersweet aura. As you make your way through the pages, especially in the book’s second half, you find that rarely does Keith mention anyone with affection who isn’t directly employed by him or at the very least dependent upon the Rolling Stones generating huge sums of money. Like they’re doing right now…