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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lisa Marie Presley: Back in Action

Monday night at Philadelphia’s World CafĂ© Live venue, Lisa Marie Presley took the stage for what she termed her first concert in seven years. And despite being the daughter of Elvis and having what might minimally be described as a colorful background, when the music starts such aspects are irrelevant.

The concert was a late addition as the first stop on a brief tour, the set list focusing squarely on her new album Storm and Grace. Generating a growing number of positive reviews for its diversion from rock to a rootsier, organic feel, the album’s shift in approach matches well with Lisa Marie’s voice. That carried over into live performance.

Presley is not a belter or a stunt singer, but an effective communicator with a matter-of-fact delivery that still conveys emotional content. She’s closer to Stevie Nicks than Adele, but it works well in a direct, no-frills way. Sometimes all you want is to get the point across.

Presley's band – husband Michael Lockwood on guitar, backed with keyboards, drums, bass and the very talented multi-instrumentalist Doug Pettibone – ably built the right musical atmosphere. Pettibone was particularly impressive, not surprising considering his long stint with Lucinda Williams and sessions with everyone from Mark Knopfler to Keith Richards. Meanwhile, Lockwood deployed a different guitar on just about every song – perhaps indicative of the family financial resources.

If there was any flaw with the set, it was that Lisa Marie initially seemed to have not considered that she was going to have to interact with a live audience between songs. That led to some awkward silences or exchanges with the more vocal members of the crowd that ran along the lines of, “We love you, Lisa Marie” followed by a “Well, I love you, too” return.

“I need to get my stage legs back,” Presley noted early in the 50-minute set. But by the end of the concert, she had done just that, warming to the crowd and ably demonstrating that she deserves to be known on musical merit alone.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Back on Top

My second post here at FRANK BLANK MUSIC was a lamentation over the glacial pace of ZZ Top’s recorded output. Well yesterday, after waiting nine years – nine years! – a collection of new ZZ material reached my open ears.
Texicali is a four-song EP, billed as an advance preview of the untitled – Soon to be released? Eventually to be released? Never to be released? –full-length ZZ Top album that the trio has been collaborating on with super producer Rick Rubin since what seems like the last Ice Age. The EP is only available as a digital download via iTunes.
I almost hate to say it: it was worth the long, long wait.

Texicali staggers into existence with “I Gotsta Get Paid,” a song that personifies one of the old descriptive adages that the Tops themselves made up decades ago: “ZZ Top, he sound like four flat tires on a muddy road.” Or maybe it’s more “ZZ Top, he be like a fine plate of barbecue: he bear down on the meat and ease off the potato salad.” Whatever – flinging mud or sauce, this is the real deal, with a whole lot of bearing down going on from the first notes of the opening track. The amazing rhythm section of Dusty Hill and Frank Beard lope along in relentless low gear while Billy Gibbons takes the wheel with everything from nods to Jimi to sheets of stuttering distortion. Guitarists hold Gibbons in high esteem for his dedication to tone, and there’s a stunning abundance of wild sounds throughout this opener and the three songs that follow.
“Chartreuse” picks up the pace, upshifting into the Texas shuffle tempo that has fueled some of ZZ’s greatest songs, ending on a cloud of slide noise that drops into the opening of “Consumption,” a typical Top tale – at least lyrically - of a “mean mistreater killing me by degrees.” Musically it’s the band at its rawest, with sections breaking down and rising back to life.

ZZ Top mines the blues, Atlantic City, NJ, May 26, 2012

But with ZZ Top, it always comes back to the blues. While early Top blues like “Blue Jean Blues” and “Just Got Back from Baby’s” were simply low down, “Over You” glows with an uptown sheen over its dark heart, strings supporting Gibbons’ tale of woe. But that sophistication is OK – Billy’s no longer a young string-slinger from Texas, but a man with far-flung interests in everything from African art to hot rods. What matters, though, is the heart and soul of Gibbons’ solo, his wide string bends aching as they soar, collapsing into the near-primitive sound of strings grinding frets.

The Blank Family meets the Tops. And Gizmo (lower right), too? And Gizmo, too...

Texicali comes at a time when ZZ Top has just launched the band’s latest round of road work. While the 1980s hits still get their airing, what’s promising is the band’s new insistence on digging deep in the trio’s massive catalog. In Atlantic City ten days ago, “Vincent Price Blues” emerged in mid-set – a song I’d long ago given up hope of ever hearing live.
In “I Gotsta Get Paid” Gibbons sings, “ZZ done put 25 out the door…” Well, that number’s just four if you’re counting new songs here in 2012 – but they are pretty damn fine. C’mon boys - don’t stop now.