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February 25, 2017

Music Review: Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway


Rhiannon Giddens Freedom Highway Cover.jpgThe incomparable Rhiannon Giddens' second solo album, Freedom's Highway on Nonesuch Records is being released on February 24 2016. Not only is this album timely for its release during Black History Month, it's also a reminder of the struggle required to overcome oppression no matter what shape it comes in.

What Giddens has done on this collection of twelve songs, ten originals and two covers, is assemble a cultural/social/political history of African Americans in the United States. From slavery through the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the present day she recounts, through song and music, events and personal stories which have shaped this history. However, these aren't just political songs, they are also an amazing collection demonstrating the diversity of music that has sprung from this culture over the years.

There aren't too many artists out there who can set themselves a task as complicated as this and not only achieve it, but do so in a manner where the artistic expression is equal to the content of the material. Musically the album ranges from the soul/rap of the fifth song, "Better Get It Right The First Time" to the country sounds of "The Angel's Laid Him Aways", the disc's second track. Combined with the New Orleans sound of "The Love We Almost Had", the gospel "Birmingham Sunday", and the near bluegrass rattle of "Following The North Star", the album covers almost the entire spectrum of American music.

Of course while the music is wonderful, the centrepiece of any Giddens album will always remain her voice. Her range, control, and expression are befitting someone who went from schooling in opera to playing in the old time African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has the uncanny ability of being able to bring the listener into the heart of a song. Through her empathy and compassion we feel the myriad range of emotions she's expressing.

This can make for some heartbreaking experiences. The opening track, "At The Purchaser's Option", is both a lament and a statement of defiance told from the view of a young female slave. Based on a old advertisement offering a young slave for sale and her nine month baby, available at the purchaser's option, the song brings the dehumanizing reality of slavery home with a vengeance. "I have a babe but shall I keep him/Twill come the day when I'll be weepin'/But how can I love him any less/This little babe upon my breast/You can take my body/You can take my bones/You can take my blood/But not my soul"

While all the songs on the album are wonderful, and no matter how many times you listen to it you're more than likely to hear something new and breathtaking each time, the two covers, "Birmingham Sunday" and the title track "Freedom's Highway" stand out. The former is about the terrorist attack on an African American church in 1964 that left four children dead during the height of the civil rights movement while the latter is a Staple Singers song from the same era about the need for perseverance in the march for freedom.

Giddens performs this song as a duet with Bhi Bhiman, whose parents were born in Sri Lanka: "America's strength are her people, whether they came 4,000, f00, or 40 years ago, and we can't leave anyone behind" (Rhiannon Giddens). Maybe not a message some people want to hear, but a timely one all the same.

Freedom Highway is one of those amazing rarities, a politically charged and artistically refined album. The music is spectacular, the lyrics are beautiful and inspiring, and the singing is as glorious as you'll hear anywhere. Giddens proves once again she is a force to be reckoned with - musically and otherwise.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway)

July 2, 2014

Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Move Your Body


New Orleans holds a grip on most North American's imaginations. Little wonder when you consider the fact the city is a meeting place for so many cultures. French, Spanish and African all come together in an incredible mixture making it an hot bed for the arts and other slightly more esoteric ventures. For New Orleans is also known for its mixture of the sacred and the profane. Voodoo and Catholic beliefs intermingle and share equal billing on the streets and in places of worship and spills over into the music which forms the heartbeat of the city. For you can find everything from down and dirty funk to gospel on its streets, in its bars and even in its churches.

Yet for all the famous musicians the city has produced, it's the brass bands who parade through its streets accompanying everything from funerals to Mardi Gras celebrations which have made the strongest impression on people's imaginations. Lost amid the drunken revelry of the latter is the fact the festival marks the final celebration before the beginning of the Catholic period of repentance leading up to Easter, Lent. It may be a huge party for the tourists replete with sex and uninhibited behaviour, but its also shows the depth of the city's religious and Catholic roots. The music of the bands not only reflects this history, it also helps to perpetuate it.
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Listening to the latest release from Rebirth Brass Band on Basin Street Records, Move Your Body, provides a perfect example of the city's dual nature. For they move between the bawdy and the sacred lyrically without any apparent effort or change in their approach to the music. Musically their influences are as diverse as their subject matter, drawing upon jazz, big band, funk, blues and gospel to create their sound.

The album's opening track, "Lord, Lord, Lord, You've Sure Been Good To Me", is a traditional gospel number which has been given a Rebirth makeover. The lyrics, sung by guest vocalist Glen David Andrews, give thanks to God for providing the essentials of life. "Woke me up this morning, sure been good to me/God woke me up this morning, sure been good to me/Put food on my table, sure been good to me/And I know it was the hands of the lord". Musically, the song is a rollicking, funk influenced tune which would bring the dead to their feet. What's amazing is in spite of the secular sound of the tune, you don't doubt the sincerity of the feelings behind the lyrics.

Andrews does a great job of convincing us of the sincerity of his beliefs while at the same time singing a rollicking, funky tune. As for the band, they make us feel like they're marching us straight into salvation with a beat and tempo that can't be resisted. You can have no problems visualizing people dancing through the streets on their way to or from church listening to this tune. Some might not approve of this approach to religion, but to me it's an example of how when influenced by the divine an artist will create something that will move the human spirit even if you don't share their beliefs.
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However, Rebirth are equally at home with the more earthy pleasures of New Orleans. While it's a celebratory song in its own right, "HBNS", is about as far removed from gospel as you can get. "I need hot butt naked sex/I love it when you make me sweat/I need hot butt naked sex/Baby did you get my text". Sung as a duet by Erica Falls and Quinten "Q" Spears the song celebrates the joy of sex in both the female and male voices. Like the city itself this song is all about sensual pleasures and finding joy in them. Unlike some people would have us believe, this song lets us know you can be religious and still enjoy sex.

Musically the disc rocks and rolls through a mixture of instrumentals (including a great cover of the old Loggins and Messina hit "You're Momma Don't Dance") and vocal accompanied songs without almost a pause for breath. While normally this could be rather overwhelming, Rebirth change up the pace enough from song to song to ensure the listener's interest never fades. They effortlessly move from funk to gospel to blues to marching band without missing a beat and carry us right along with them all the way.

Like the city they hail from Rebirth Brass Band are fun, sexy, sleek and have just enough edginess to their sound to hint at the feeling of underlying darkness which is so much a part of New Orleans' make up. Hurricane Katrina may have destroyed many of the buildings and neighbourhoods in the city, but as long as there are bands like this one, its soul will live on. While it's not like being there, Move Your Body brings a little taste of New Orleans into your home and heart.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Move Your Body)

April 9, 2014

Music Review: Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home


The early 1960s saw the rise of an incredible number of blues based rock and roll bands in of all places the British Isles. The Animals, Led Zepplin, The Yardbirds, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones (yes they started off as a blues band - listen to their early albums) were just a few of those whose careers were shaped by the blues. While most of them went on to become part of the music establishment, at the time their music was considered rebellious and dangerous by the establishment. They also entrenched their style of music into British pop culture.

No matter what was being played on the popular music stations or rising high in the charts, the blues seemed to always be hanging around the fringes ready to raise its head when people wanted to hear something a little more rebellious than what was normally available. So when four guys from Canvey Island, about thirty mile east of London up the Thames River in England, decided to formed Dr Feelgood the band who impressed everyone from Johnny Rotten to Richard Hell with their rawness and intensity they looked to the blues and R&B for their inspiration. The creative force behind Dr. Feelgood for their formative years was guitarist and primary songwriter Wilko Johnson. While Johnson left the band soon after their fourth album, he's never left the style of music he played with them behind. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, he's been grabbing at as many opportunities as possible to make and record the music he loves while he can. (His doctors told him he was only going to make it until October 2013 - but he's defied all their predictions and is still performing)
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One of the projects he's undertaken was teaming up with Who frontman Roger Daltrey to record an album of ten Johnson penned, and one cover, R&B/blues/rock and roll songs called Going Back Home. Released on the Chess record label in the UK the disc is being issued in North America by Universal Music Enterprises. While it might appear the two are a generation apart as Daltrey and The Who were part of the early 1960s British rock scene, and Johnson the early 70s, they both share a love for what they call British R&B.

Lyrically speaking none of Johnson's songs are going to change the world or even probably change your life. However, that's not the point of this music. The songs on this disc are about things we can all relate to, whether we want to admit it or not. While it might be a bit odd to hear these two veterans of the rock wars singing songs about being young and irresponsible, when it comes down to it, isn't that what rock and roll should be about? A celebration of everything the supposed adult world looks down upon.

The disc's opening and title track is a perfect example. The music is rollicking, I defy anyone with any soul in their body to resist the urge to dance while listening to it, while the lyrics are a celebration of the ups and downs of a irresponsible life. "I wanna live the way I like,/Sleep all the morning, go out and get my fun at night./Things ain't like that here,/Working just to keep my payments clear." Bemoaning having to actually work to do the things you want to do might not seem overly rebellious to some, but considering the fact Britain is the home of the Protestant Work Ethic, this type of attitude would make Margret Thatcher spin in her grave.
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For those of you who are wondering how Daltrey sounds after all these years, as far as I'm concerned his voice sounds better then it ever has. Of course that could be my own personal bias as I've never been one for the rock and roll vocal pyrotechnics he used to engage in during his younger years. However, on this recording his voice is a wonderful growl full of expressive twists and turns which is perfect for the material. Listening to this disc you swear he was born to sing this music as he not only sounds great he has the right attitude to express the sentiments behind the words. The tough kid from the streets who once sang "I hope I die before I get old" is still alive and well and giving the establishment a two finger salute.

The band accompanying the two front men are the perfect match to the music as well. They are the perfect combination of sounding like they could go off the rails at any moment while at the same time being incredibly tight. It helps that Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (drums) are Johnson's regular rhythm section, but Mick Talbot on piano and Hammond Organ and Steve Weston on harmonica are equally at ease with the music and the rest of the band. Weston especially is incredible. His harmonica playing is the perfect accompaniment to Daltrey's voice, providing an amazing counterpoint to his growls without ever overwhelming him.

Of course Johnson is Johnson. His guitar is the motor driving each and every song. Whether he's chugging along in the background playing rhythm or delivering short choppy leads, his playing is a lesson in the old adage of less is more. He gets more out of what he does in a few seconds than most rock gods can get out of a ten minute solo. There's an intensity to his playing (and his stage presence) that few to this day can match. The ten original songs he's penned for this album, match his playing style, as at first listen they seem to be simplicity in themselves, but you gradually realize there's a lot more to them they you first thought.

Going Back Home is a wonderful and imaginative collaboration from two men who've never lost their love for rock and roll. Even their choice of a cover, Bob Dylan's "Won't You Please Crawl Out Your Window" from his Highway 61 Revisited album, is inspired. They've turned it into a wonderful, rollicking R&B song which fits the mood of the track perfectly. In some ways you can almost imagine Dylan recording it this way, as that could easily be Al Kooper on the organ or members of The Band providing the bass, drums and guitar. However, just because the disc looks to the past occasionally, there's no way you can call this an exercise in nostalgia. This album is a timely reminder of how the soul of rock and roll is still rebellion.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home)

December 14, 2013

Music Review: The Clash - Special Edition Releases


I remember a conversation I had with my brother when I was a teenager. He asked me if I thought I would still be listening to any of the music I liked then when I was 50. At the time it seemed like it was an eternity in the future, our parents weren't even that age. However, it did make me think. What would happen to my tastes in music as I aged? Looking at my parents record collections didn't bring me much solace as it was predominately classical music with a couple of token collections of old socialist/union songs.

As the years passed I forgot the conversation and never really gave it much thought again. My musical tastes have broadened and I listen to material from all over the world. I've come to appreciate the sublime beauty of a Brahms concerto but am equally moved by classical music from Persia (Iran) and India. However, like most everyone else these days, a quick glance through my iPod's playlist is probably the best indication of where my heart really lies. While you'll find an eclectic mix of music reflecting my various interests, you'll also notice a predominance of music from thirty to forty years ago, with one band in particular standing out among the others.

In their heyday The Clash were referred to as "The Only Band That Matters". While that may not be a title any band can legitimately lay claim to I listen to them today at 52 just as often and with as much enjoyment as I did over three decades ago. I still say the best rock and roll concert I ever saw was seeing them in 1982. They might have been on the downward end of their career as a band, but they were still the most dynamic rock and roll band I'd ever seen. This may sound like the typical nostalgia of an old geezer going on about the bands of his youth, but I'm not the only one who thinks they were important as Legacy Recordings has just re-released all five of the band's original studio recordings re-mastered by the band's surviving members and in their original album packaging.
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The Clash (1977), Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982) are the legacy of the original core of the band: Joe Strummer guitar and vocals, Mick Jones guitar and vocals and Paul Simonon bass. Terry Chimes (credited on the first album as Terry Crimes) played drums on the first release and returned to the band for their 1982 tour after Topper Headon, who had replaced him on drums for all the subsequent albums, was fired because of his heroin addiction. Crimes then left the band again prior to 1983 and was replaced by Pete Howard for what would be the final tour. Strummer fired Jones in 1983 and the band staggered on until 1986, releasing Cut The Crap (an album Strummer later disowned) before they finally broke up.

In many ways The Clash were the epitome of the punk scene. They were raw energy which couldn't be contained and eventually self-destructed like the scene itself. Punk's "do it yourself" ethos couldn't stand up to the corporate reality of the music industry as even signing a recording contract would mean surrendering some of your independence. Becoming successful would almost contradict everything punk was supposed to have been against - the bloated self-importance of rock stars living in old castles and driving around in Rolls Royces while their fans were kept at a distance by managers, promoters and record companies.

However, The Clash weren't your typical punk band, or band of any kind for that matter. Strummer, the driving force behind the band, was a committed social activist who idolized political songwriters of the past like Woody Guthrie - even calling himself "Woody" for a time. While bands like the Sex Pistols were singing songs about anarchy and destruction, Strummer pushed The Clash in a different direction attacking what he saw as the inequities and injustices in Britain and the world. Songs like "White Riot", about riots by white supremacists during the West Indian celebration of Carnival in 1976, "I'm So Bored With The USA", condemning the Americanization of the UK, and "Career Opportunities" about the lack of real employment for young people in the UK, on The Clash were an early indication of the direction the band was taking. Instead of just being angry, they articulated the reasons for people's dissatisfaction.

There were also indications right from the start they were going to be more than just your average thrash and burn punk band musically as well. Their cover of "Police and Thieves" shows both Jones' and Strummer's interest in reggae. The social and political themes continued on the second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, as did the continued development of a more sophisticated sound. While there are still straight ahead blast the walls down punk songs like "Safe European Home" and "Tommy Gun" there were also tracks like "Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad" with its slower pace and more intricate harmonies and "All The Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)" whose almost catchy beat is only offset by the song's rather bleak chorus, "All the young punks/Laugh your life/Cos there ain't much to cry for/All the young cunts/Live it now/Cos there ain't much to die for".
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It was their third and fourth albums, London Calling and Sandinista, when the band really kicked out the jams both musically and lyrically. London Calling, a two album set, featuring songs like the title track, "London Calling" and "Waiting for The Clampdown" continued the band's assault upon the establishment. However, it also featured songs which were far sophisticated then any other punk band had previously attempted. Jazz, rockabilly, and reggae influences could be heard on songs throughout the album. However, it still retains the same sense of urgency and social outrage which had infused the first two albums making it punk in spirit if not necessarily musically.

Those who felt The Clash were straying too far from the basic punk structure of three chords played extra fast with London Calling discovered they hadn't seen anything yet with the release of the triple LP Sandinista. While the album's title, and songs like "Washington Bullets", with their support of the overthrow of the American dictatorship in Nicaragua by the left wing Sandinistas, made it obvious their politics hadn't changed, musically the material was light years removed from the material on the first two albums and even made London Calling look safe. They went in almost every musical direction possible. From the straight ahead funk of "The Magnificent Seven" to their homage to Motown with "Hitsville UK" and experimentation with reggae dub style music.In fact most of side six are dub versions of other songs on the album and songs they had previously released which they recorded in Jamaica with producer Micky Dread. They even did their version of a gospel tune, "The Sound of Sinners", although its lyrics would have left most Christians gasping and reeling, "After all these years/ To find Jesus/After all those drugs/ I thought I was him".

They also showed they had developed a surprising amount of political sophistication on this release as they didn't limit themselves to easy political targets in order to score points with the converted. They tackled the thorny issue of England's neglect of those who fought in her wars in the past with "Something About England". While the title "Washington Bullets" would make one think the song was only about America's history of propping up dictators, the band also included lines in the song like, "Ask the Dali Lama up in Tibet/ How he feels about voting communist". They also were the first band to sing about how Western commercialism was impacting the developing world with the biting and satirical "Charlie Don't Surf".

Sandinista may not have appealed to those fans who thought the band should have stayed firmly stuck in the past playing the same music they had started out with. However, unlike many bands who had put out three album sets before, each disc remains, interesting to this day. You can't find anything you would even remotely call filler or wasted space anywhere. The band also insisted their label at the time charge no more than the price of a regular single album when it was first released, ensuring everybody would be able to afford to buy it. This combined with their continued refusal to conform to anyone's expectations musically and their insistence on sticking to their political guns marked them as punks in attitude and spirit.
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While Combat Rock might have been their most commercially successful album, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and "Rock The Casbah" are the two songs you'll hear played most often on "Classic Rock" radio stations, to my mind it was their weakest album and the one I've listened to the least. Although still far more interesting than what most bands were putting out at the time, there was something about the disc which felt almost half-hearted. Maybe it's only applying 20/20 hindsight, but when the news came out that Mick Jones had been fired from the band in 1983, it didn't come as much of a surprise. It had really felt like the band was only going through the motions and the end was near.

The Clash released five albums during the five years the band contained the core of Strummer, Jones and Simonon. Not only does that work out to an album a year, two of those recordings were multi-disc releases making a total of eight albums. They also released a couple of EPs of material they weren't able to fit on other recordings. Listening to these five albums more then thirty years after their release it's amazing to hear the amount the band progressed in such a short time. Musically and lyrically they singlehandedly redefined punk rock by showing it could be more than the simplistic sound of bands like The Ramones or the pure anarchy of The Sex Pistols. They were one of the few bands who demonstrated punk was more than just a style of music, it was an ethos. Speaking out against injustice, spitting in the eye of authority and always playing by your own rules. Which is probably why I can still happily listen to anyone of their albums at the ripe old age of 52. It's not a matter of recapturing my youth, it's a matter of reminding myself what's important. For me, they will always be The Only Band That Matters.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: The Clash Special Edition Releases. A version of this review was also published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review The Clash - 'The Clash', 'Give 'Em Enough Rope', 'London Calling', 'Sandinista' and 'Combat Rock' [Remastered])

November 11, 2013

DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film


When people talk of the genesis of punk rock they usually refer to bands like Television, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash as being the ones at the forefront of the movement. Sometimes it seems like the music sprung out of nowhere, as if all of a sudden people like Richard Hell, John Lyndon and Joe Strummer came up with the idea our of thin air. While these bands and individuals were vital to the genre's success and their role in its history can't be denied, there were others who laid the groundwork for what would become punk. Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The New York Dolls and the recently deceased Lou Reed are the names mentioned most frequently as being their inspiration.

However, a new documentary movie by acclaimed director Julien Temple, Oil City Confidential, distributed in North America by MVD Entertainment Group, tells the story of a band whose contributions have largely been forgotten, but who probably had just as much influence on the punk scene as any of those mentioned above, Dr. Feelgood. Temple has made a career out of charting the history of British punk through a series of documentary movies including The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, about the Sex Pistols and The Future is Unwritten about Joe Strummer, so he's not someone's who opinion you can dismiss lightly.

While a version of Dr. Feelgood continues to exist and tour today, it was the original line up and the period between 1971 and 1977 which concern us and Temple's movie. However, Temple does more than just focus on the story of a band and rock and roll, he creates the context for both their birth, character, success and failure. Employing the band's original guitarist, Wilko Johnson, as a kind of tour guide and oral historian, Temple sets the stage for their beginnings by taking us back to the land of their birth, Canvey Island. Thirty miles east of London in the county of Essex, Canvey Island is located offshore in the Thames River. While a type of holiday resort for Londoners in the early part of the 20th century, 1936 saw the construction of the first oil terminal in the region and since then refineries and terminals have sprouted up like boils until they now cover the landscape.
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So when the band (Aside from Wilco members included The Big Figure (John Martin) drums, John B Sparks bass and Lee Brilleaux (Lee Collinson) vocals, harmonica and occasionally slide guitar) formed in 1971 the smokestacks of gas refineries and the huge oil storage tanks dominated the landscape. As the oil business loomed large in the life of those from Canvey Island, so Canvey Island loomed large in the development of Dr. Feelgood. In order to establish what the island meant to these four guys and how it figured in the character of the band, Temple spends a portion of the movie telling us the history of the island.

Using archival footage dating back to pre-WW II we learn the island had a wild reputation. It was a place where you went to do things you wouldn't do back home. Loose women, booze, gambling - almost anything went on Canvey Island. In 1953 the below sea level island suffered its worst recorded disaster when it flooded killing 58 people and forcing a great deal of the population to be evacuated. The flood hit the tourists areas, including the amusement parks and holiday camps, hardest as they were closest to the Thames. Following the flood a new concrete flood wall was built. As a result the island now closely resembles pictures you see of fortified beaches in France during WWII as its completely surrounded by concrete.

Interspersed with the history of the Island we learn the history of the four original band members and how they found each other. Brilleaux had formed a jug band when he was a teenager. They would take their instruments around in an old baby pram to various tourist spots and pubs and set up outside and busk for some extra cash. Temple has unearthed some great footage of them wheeling a pram piled high with instruments as they head out to gigs. However, it was the blues and R&B Brilleaux really wanted to play. So he, Sparks, and Martin approached the older Wilco - he'd actually been a teacher in the local school- who'd they heard played guitar to join them.

As Temple reminds us pop music in the early 1970s in the UK was dominated by progressive rock groups playing longwinded synthesizer pieces which had nothing to do with rock and roll. It would seem to have been the worst time in the world to form a band who wanted to play down and dirty blues and R&B based music. However, it was also the time when pubs in London were just starting to book bands. So instead of having to book venues, bands were cramming themselves into whatever corner of a pub they could fit and playing for a crowd who was right in their face.

Dr. Feelgood, dressed in cheap suits, looking a little like low rent gangsters, and playing their raw blues and R&B were very much the antithesis of the progressive rock bands on the radio. They'd climb into their old beat up van after work and drive the 30 odd miles to London to play a gig and at the end of the night make the return journey. When describing this juncture of their career, Temple intercuts current interviews with members of the band with footage from black and white British crime movies. In doing so he creates the atmosphere surrounding them in those early days. They, like the criminals in the movies, were making smash and grab raids on London before retreating to their hide out on Canvey.
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Watching footage of the band playing live there's a definite element of menace to their stage presence. Brilleaux looms over the centre of the stage, a large figure hunched over his microphone while Wilco glides around stage playing his guitar with his eyes boring into the audience like he's sizing them up for his next victim. In a brief clip Richard Hell of Television sums up by saying about Wilco something along the lines of "He had this whole crazy stare which was awesome." Hell wasn't the only one impressed by the band. During their times playing the pubs in London, people like John Lydon and Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and Joe Strummer were catching their act.

While you might think it hyperbole before you see the movie, Temple's description in his notes accompanying the DVD of Dr. Feelgood being John The Baptist to Johnny Rotton's Anti-Christ, is quite accurate. They were the initial tremor foreshadowing the shockwave of punk in England. Even if they didn't have the same status in New York City, they were treated as fellow travellers and compatriots when they played there in 1976.

Unfortunately, by then Wilco was starting to fall off the rails. He had been the band's primary songwriter on their first two albums and when it was time to go into the studio for the third album, he had nothing. He was isolated from the rest of the band by his use of drugs and not being a drinker. When he was supposed to be writing songs he was merely sitting in a room doing drugs. He's completely candid about his behaviour today, and how it caused him and Brilleaux to fall out. As Wilco says, there's always one guy in the band who falls in love with being a rock star when they first start achieving success, and he was the guy in Dr Feelgood.

Temple has created some of the finest documentaries about punk rock ever made. They don't just do a good job of capturing their subject matter warts and all, they allow audiences to understand the context which created the music and how the various individuals developed. With Oil City Confidential he has not only created a movie which captures the spirit of the times and tells the story of the band, Dr. Feelgood, he has created a movie whose form itself is a tribute to the anarchic nature of punk.

One thing you'll notice during the movie the interviews done in the present never have all four original members of the band together. This isn't because of any lasting acrimony between them, it's because Brilleaux died of cancer in 1994. The interview footage of him has been taken from a BBC interview done in the early 1990s. As well as other clips not included in the movie, one of the bonus features included with the DVD is this interview in its entirety.

Dr. Feelgood's original line up put out three studio albums, Down By The Jetty (January 1975 ) Malpractice (October 1975) and Sneakin' Suspicion (1977) and one live album, Stupidity (1976), which went to the top of the UK Charts. Their hay-day may have only lasted three years and four recordings, but their place in the history of rock and roll and pop music can not be underestimated. Would punk rock in England have happened without them? Of course it would have. However, without them there wouldn't have been an audience ready and waiting for the bands who came after. As the film shows they set the table for others to reap the rewards of fame. Hopefully Oil City Confidential will help ensure the names Lee Brilleaux, Wilco Johnson, John B Sparks and The Big Figure will now be remembered and given their due place in the annals of pop music.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film)

September 16, 2013

Music Review: The Band - Live At The Academy of Music 1971


Does anyone else find it odd a band with four members from Southern Ontario Canada is considered by so many the inspiration for what's known as the Americana genre of popular music? Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson all hail from north of the 49th parallel, so how did they end up being the group Mumford & Sons refer to as "an incredible influence on so many musicians, not the lease on the four of us"? The answer lies in part with who they all were as musicians and in part with the path their career took.

First there was Ronnie Hawkins, who came up to Toronto Canada from his native Arkansas to spread the gospel of rockabilly and ended up relocating permanently. The band he brought up with him included a young drummer, Levon Helm, and while the rest of Hawkins' Hawks were gradually replaced by the above mentioned quartet from Ontario, Helm continued to anchor the band's rhythm section. They toured up and down North America playing Hawkins' country influenced rockabilly from 1960 to 1962 and then struck out on their own as Levon and the Hawks - Helm being the senior member of the group. However, a guy named Bob Dylan happened to catch their show one night and wondered if they'd be interested in backing him up on stage for his upcoming tour of England. While Helm ending leaving the tour, the others continued with Bob to be booed off stages across Great Britain.

When the tour ended the all retreated to upstate New York where Dylan had a house in Woodstock to lick their wounds and prepare for the second stage of what was supposed to be a world tour. However, Dylan wiped out on his motorcycle and used that as an excuse to retire from performing for a while. Finding themselves at loose ends the group settled into a house of their own, invited Helm to come join them, and began writing and creating their own music. Music From Big Pink, their first release as The Band, came out in 1968, and was the complete antitheses to what the rest of popular music was doing. It drew upon everything that had influenced rock and roll in the first place, blues, country and gospel, and put them through the grist of their mill of experience as a hard playing, hard living, bar band and touring ensemble. It was as a rough gem of a record destined to be a classic.
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Three years, and three albums later, The Band booked The Academy of Music in New York City for four nights of concerts, December 28, 29, 30, 31 1971. In 1972, the double album, Rock Of Ages was released as a record of those four nights. In 2001 Capital Records reissued it on CD with a bonus disc including tracks featuring Bob Dylan accompanying The Band on four songs and six other tracks not on the original album. Now for the first time ever, Capitol/Universal Music, is releasing the definitive recording of that concert as a four CD one DVD set co-produced by lead guitarist Robertson, Live At The Academy Of Music 1971.

The first two discs contain copies of every song played over the four nights of the concert specially re-mixed for this release, while discs three and four contain the soundboard mix of the entire New Years Eve concert. The DVD are the songs from the first two discs remastered in 5.1 surround sound, plus copies of two songs from the concerts filmed by Howard Alk and Murray Lerner. The entire set come in a 48 page hard cover book containing previously unseen photos, an essay by Robertson about the concert, appreciations of the The Band and the the set's recordings from Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Mumford & Sons (where the quote earlier is taken from). (Note: as a reviewer I was only sent a digital copy of the above and the four CDs but not the DVD so I can't comment on the 5.1 remix or the video clips)

While studio albums of The Band give you an idea as to the quality of their music, it's only by listening to them perform live you come to appreciate them for what they were. For it's here you realize what it was made them so special. The raw chaotic power held together by years of performing with each other allowing them to play with complete abandon secure in the knowledge that even if one of them made a mistake, the others would be right there to smooth things over. At times you are literally holding your breath for it can be like watching a train careen down the tracks on the verge of running off the rail, but which somehow or other miraculously doesn't crash and comes safely into the station.
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Listening to the New Years Eve concert through the sound board, with it's raw unfiltered mix picking up the chatter on the stage, including them and Dylan deciding at the last minute which songs to play during the encore (prior to plunging into "Like A Rolling Stone" you hear Dylan say "haven't played this one together in 16 years") puts you into the centre of that ride. You can almost feel the energy bursting from your speakers as they put everything they have into each song. The soundboard mix is not what is played back through the Public Address (PA) system for the audience. Instead you hear each instrument and vocal track as a distinct stream, balanced with everything else, but not mixed down into one overall sound. (As an experiment listen to the recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" on Disc 4 from the soundboard mix then listen to the version of Disc 2 from the same concert through the regular mix and you'll hear what sounds like almost two different versions of the song, with the former being a lot rougher but infinitely more exciting.)

I've heard many other collections of musicians sing their versions of songs The Band performed. While they might be gifted performers there always seems to be something missing. It's an indescribable and undefinable quality which I've never been able to put my finger on. The closest I've come to it is when trying to describe their vocal harmonies on their classic gospel tune "The Weight" as saying they sound like shouldn't work, but they end up sounding perfect. The Band weren't just playing a style of music, they were the living embodiment of all that makes the music so vital and intense. Something you can only achiever from living and breathing the music together in every situation imaginable.

The Band started out touring with Ronnie Hawkins on the bar circuit, graduated to concert stages with Bob Dylan and only after eight years of playing together under those circumstances started producing their own music. On this four disc set you'll hear versions of what most consider their best material, "Across The Great Divide", "Stage Fright", "The Weight", "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "The Shape I'm In" "Life Is A Carnival", "Up On Cripple Creek" and some songs you'll have never heard them play before like old 1950s number "(I Don't Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" and Stevie Wonder's "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever". Any band would be happy to have written a couple of those songs over the course of a career, and The Band had written them all in their first three years of existence.

The four nights of concerts performed at the end of 1971 at New York City's Academy of Music showed was The Band's coming out party as a force to be reckoned with in rock and roll. They had shared the bill with others at festivals and shows, but this was their event. This four CD, one DVD collection is a wonderful reminder of just how amazing a group they were. A celebration of rock and roll and music like you've never heard before performed by the band who personified the music as few others ever have.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: The Band -Live At The Academy of Music 1971 [4-CD/1-DVD])


August 6, 2013

Blu-ray Review: The Sapphires


Like many other indigenous people the Aboriginals of Australia saw colonizers steal their land and attempt to destroy their way of life and culture. One of the more insidious ways invaders have attempted to carry out cultural genocide has been to steal the children of indigenous people in order to civilize them. In Canada and the US we had the residential schools where we beat the "Indian" out of children in an attempt to make them white. In Australia Aboriginal children who could pass for white were taken from their families and placed in white institutions cutting them off from their communities and destroying connections to their history and culture.

Somehow, in spite of the of the best efforts of their colonial masters, Native peoples in most parts of the world have survived and managed to retain their cultural identity. They have even regained enough strength to begin telling the stories of the people who lived through the bad times. Not all of the stories have had happy endings, but neither have all the stories had sad endings. In fact some of the stories are uplifting and inspiring. One of those stories is the tale of four young Aboriginal women who for a year, 1968, were a singing group who performed American soul and R&B music for troops in Viet Nam. Written by Tony Blair, son of one of the woman in the group, The Sapphires was first a stage play and then a movie and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment and Miramax Films.

While the majority of the movie is set in 1968 the year The Sapphires were performing, the movie opens in 1958. Four little girls are preparing to sing for their friends and family on the back of a flat bed truck. In the middle of the performance they are interrupted by an invasion of white men in cars come to steal any "white" looking children. The children flee into the woods, the bigger ones helping the little ones, in an attempt to escape. The movie then jumps ahead ten years to three young Aboriginal women leaving their "settlement" (the Australian equivalent of a reservation) to go into a white town to enter a talent contest run by the very hung over, down on his luck, talent scout/music lover/want a be manager, Dave Lovelace. (Chris O'Dowd)
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Even in his rather fragile state Lovelace can see Gail, (Deborah Mailman) Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) are obviously the class of the contest. In fact he even manages to stir from his alcoholic stupor enough to provide them with piano accompaniment for their performance. In spite of them being much better than anyone else in the contest, the three lose. Of course they had as much chance of winning as The Supremes would have had at a contest run by the Ku Klux Klan, and both Lovelace and they are pretty much kicked out when the contest is over.

However, Cynthia convinces Lovelace to help them respond to an audition notice requesting entertainers for American troops in Viet Nam. He does so, but only on the condition they stop singing Merle Haggard songs and start singing soul music. He might be a pasty faced white guy from Melbourne, but he's got the blood of a soul musician floating in his veins. After he manages to convince their family to let him take the girls to the audition, and maybe Viet Nam, the scene shifts to Melbourne where it takes place and the trio expands to a quartet. Their cousin Kay, (Shari Sebbens) the fourth girl at the beginning of the movie singing with them, had been stolen by the government and placed in the white world and is now living in Melbourne. They reclaim her for the family and the singing group.

The movie follows the arc you'd expect. The girls experience success as performers in Viet Nam and start to play to larger and larger collections of troops. Of course it's not all smooth sailing with Cynthia resenting her younger sister Julie being the centre of attention as the lead singer and acting out by drinking too much and trying to steal the spotlight. However, it's Lovelace's irresponsible behaviour and drinking which gets them into serious trouble. He drunkenly agrees to take the girls to a base close to enemy lines, but forgets to tell them they will have to make the trip without the military escort they've had previously.

Gail, the eldest, and thus responsible for the other three, had taken the longest to trust Lovelace. However, when she did start to trust him the two became, against her misgivings and better judgement, romantically involved. When she finds out what he did she's furious with both herself and Lovelace. While they make the trip to the base safely enough it comes under attack while they are there. The girls are airlifted to safety, but as they lift off they see Lovelace go down. They arrive back in Saigon not knowing whether he's alive or not, only to find out Martin Luther King has been assassinated.

The Sapphires is the type of movie which in the wrong hands could be maudlin and sentimental trash. Instead, what we are given is a very realistic portrayal of four young women having the time of their lives in the middle of a horrible situation. At the same time it manages, without any overt politicalization, to show the damage done the Aboriginal people of Australia by the policy of taking their children away from them. With the character of Kay we see how these children became both alienated from their people while never really fitting into the "white" world. Putting up with having their land stolen and overt racism is bad enough, but to have your own children turned against you must have been the real knife in some people's hearts.
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In the role of Lovelace O'Dowd continues to impress as an actor. He's one of those people who have the wonderful ability to wear their heart's on their sleeve without ever overplaying a scene. While a natural comic, he's also able to communicate what hides behind his character's bluff exterior and grins. Like his character, O'Dowd has soul, and it shines through in his entire performance. While the four women aren't as experienced as O'Dowd, only Mailman has any real acting experience and this is Sebbens' first movie, they all do wonderful jobs with their characters.

Each bring a level of credibility to their performances which helps make the movie a joy to watch. Mauboy is a professional singer and does all her own singing as the lead singer for the group Julie, but seeing her on screen she does such a good job in her role you think of her as an actor doing some singing, not a singer doing some acting. In spite of their inexperience, neither Tapsell and Sebbens are weak links. As the dispossessed Kay, Sebbens gives an especially moving and strong performance as she attempts to reclaim her heritage.

Seeing a movie like this at home on Blu-ray through a good home theatre system with 5.1 sound makes you appreciate the potency of the music the girls sing all over again. The sound and visuals are as good you've come to expect from the new technology, and thoroughly enhance the story. What's nice, is unlike movies which try and compensate for any weak spots in the script by turning it into spectacle through effects instead of telling the story, here the audio enhances the story and helps set the atmosphere.

The special features on this Blu-ray are much better than usual as they not only give you a chance to meet the actors and learn about how the movie was made, you also meet the original Sapphires. After their tour of Viet Nam none of them continued to work as singers, although one was the first ever Aboriginal model in Australia for a while, instead they returned to their communities and worked tirelessly to help their own people. They are all still alive and the interviews with them in the special features are almost as interesting as the movie itself. They probably won't make a sequel to The Sapphires, as their lives aren't as glamourous now as they were for that one year, but the story of what they've done since is every bit as impressive.

The Sapphires is the story of four women who grabbed a moment and ran with it for all they were worth. It's fun, sad and best of all, very real. For some reason the movie seems to have come and gone without much notice when it played in the theatres and it would be a shame if the same thing happened now that's it out on Blu-ray and DVD. This is a wonderful movie filled with great performances and some of the best soul music to come out of the 1960s - what more could you ask for?

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: The Sapphires)

July 13, 2013

Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn


When Ronnie Hawkins followed Conway Twitty's advise and moved up to Canada from his native Arkansas on the chance his style of rock and roll would catch on, he brought his band with him. While the rest of them fell by the wayside fairly early on the drummer he brought up from Arkansas stayed on when he hired on local Canadian youngsters to form his newest version of The Hawks, his backing band. Save for a brief time when the rest of the group travelled to England with Bob Dylan and he stayed home, Levon Helm was the drummer for The Band until they retired in 1978.

While primarily the drummer, he would also step out from behind his kit to play mandolin and was one of the key voices giving the band their distinctive vocal sound. While he didn't actually write any of the songs the group was famous for, it was his Arkansas growl fans associated with classics like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". If there was something odd about a group of musicians from South Western Ontario playing music with roots planted firmly in American soil, Helm's presence gave them an aura of authenticity. After The Band broke up Helm went on to do some acting in movies and kept on making music. However, it was the setting up of a 200 seat performance space in Woodstock New York, The Barn, which might prove his longest lasting legacy after his death April 19 2012.

Starting in 2004 Helm would host what he called Midnight Rambles featuring some of the biggest names in the music industry. Over the years he and his band were joined by the likes of Elvis Costello. Dr. John, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson and a host of others. When it was discovered the throat cancer he had beaten in the late 1990s had returned his dearest wish was the concerts at The Barn would continue after he passed. In an attempt to help out a bunch of his friends and colleagues got together to play some of his favourite tunes on October 3 2012 at the Izod Centre in New Jersey. That concert has now been packaged as a two DVD, two CD set from StarVista Entertainment called simply Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn.
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With Helm's long time guitarist Larry Campbell and producer/bassist Don Was acting as co-musical directors a plethora of musicians from all eras and genres sat in with one of the two house bands, The Levon Helm Band or an all star band assembled by Was for the night. As on any of these occasions where such a mixed bag of performers are assembled in attempt to provide something for everyone, inevitably there will be some you're not going to like. However, the real pleasure about an event like this are those people who take you by surprise and step outside their normal box.

One of the highlights of the night for me was Bruce Hornsby singing "Anna Lee". Accompanied only by Larry Campbell on violin, with Amy Helm and Theresa Williams singing harmonies, Hornsby sat on a folding chair strumming a dulcimer and sang the song with an aching simplicity. It was mountain music at its finest as the words and music floated out over 20,000 rapt audience members. It was one of those magical moments in music where it seems like the world is holding its breath so as not to disturb what's being created.

I've never been a big fan of Pink Floyd, so I'm not really familiar with what Roger Waters is capable of doing. After joining the band My Morning Jacket for a rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", he then stepped up to the microphone and sang a song I wasn't familiar with, "Wide River To Cross". It was the perfect choice for both the evening and the performer. The song, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, and recorded by Helm on his Dirt Farmer CD, was a poignant reminder of how Helm wasn't able to complete his personal journey. "I'm only halfway home, I've gotta journey on/To where I'll find, find the things I have lost/I've come a long long road but still I've got some miles to go/I've got a wide, a wide river to cross".

Water's voice might not be what it once was, but his delivery on this song was spot on. He showed an impressive emotional depth and range and allowed the song's lyrics to dictate his delivery. He, like Hornsby earlier, let himself be a conduit for the song and the charged emotional atmosphere of the evening. As a result he gave a remarkably soulful and honest performance.
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Of course there were some other fine performances on the night. Mavis Staples singing "Move Along Train" showed she can still hold her own on stage with people half her age. It was cool to hear Gregg Allman join his former band mate Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers for a solid rendition of "Long Black Veil". John Hiatt rocked his way through The Band's "Rag Mama Rag" while David Bromberg and Joan Osborne burned up "Don't Do It". However, in spite of these good performances, there was also a sense of something being off about the evening. Whenever anybody attempted to sing a Band song, try as they might, it just didn't sound right. I kept waiting to hear the distinctive vocal harmonies of the original which made the songs unique and they never appeared. Even when everybody came on stage for a finale of "The Weight", they weren't able to capture the sound which made the song so great.

That wasn't the only thing off about the evening either. There were names people were very carefully not mentioning either on stage or on the second DVD disc containing the interviews with those participating. For all everybody loved Helm, he didn't write any of the songs performed during this show. The majority of Band material performed was written by Robbie Robertson, and it was like he doesn't exist anymore. I also found it weird neither Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan were mentioned let alone taking part. After all, they were the two men who gave Helms his start and established him as a professional musician. Maybe Dylan was too busy, but why wasn't Hawkins there? He's still performing and would have fit in a lot more comfortably than some of the people chosen to perform.

Technically speaking you can't find any fault with the production of the DVD as both the audio and the video are clean and the recording sound's great in 5.1 Surround Sound. There's a couple of times where its obvious camera cues were missed as they are late focusing on a soloist, but you have to expect stuff like that at a live concert where there's been very little rehearsal. The second DVD contains interviews with all the performers, and to be honest I didn't wade through them all. The ones I did watch were the usual sort of thing, why they did the gig and when did they first meet/hear Helm. There was only one piece of rehearsal footage included in the special features and its pretty much identical to the performance given during the show. The two CDs in the set contain all the songs from the DVD so you can listen to the music anytime and anywhere.

Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn is a well produced recording of a concert given October 3 2012 in honour of Levon Helm and to try and ensure the continuation of the work he started when he was alive. Levon Helm Studios, of which The Barn where the Midnight Ramble performances take place is part of, is a place for musicians of all genres and ages to record, perform and learn. It was Helm's attempt to keep a little of the style of music he championed during his career alive and of interest to a new generation. In these days of slick commercialism the rough hewn honesty of his music and work will be sorely missed. While this isn't the perfect recording, like Helm, its heart is in the right place, which more than makes up for any flaws.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn)

June 28, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride


The road trip has taken on almost iconic status in American pop culture. From Jack Kerouac's On The Road to quasi philosophical works like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance the road trip has come to be equated with both searching for personal identity and the quest to discover the truth about America. Part of the popular appeal for this type of story is they usually combine America's love for the automobile and their love of the rugged individual. However, no matter what they find out about themselves, most of those who make the pilgrimage in search of America discover its a country whose identity changes from region to region.

While many are loath to admit America has a multitude of faces singer song writer Willie Nile's latest release, American Ride, on Loud and Proud Records not only recognizes this fact but celebrates it. In some ways this album is Nile's personal road trip as he not only sings about America but about personal discoveries he's made during the course of his journey.

Nile has always managed the delicate task of fusing optimism with a realistic view of the world around him and this album is no exception. The opening track, "This Is Our Time", exhorts listeners to make the most of the opportunities presented to them enjoy the ride of life as much as possible. (Note: Track order in this review is based on an early promotional version of the disc and may differ slightly from the final release) Using the image of a train waiting in the station as a metaphor for life and encouraging people not to miss their ride isn't exactly original. However, as with all of Nile's songs intent and emotional honesty are what really matter and no one has ever sounded more sincere in their encouraging of others to live as fulfilling a life as possible.
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Yet Nile isn't blind to the harsher realities of life. However, he doesn't sing sentimental songs about the troubles of the world, instead he stares them straight in the eye and tells them what he thinks of them. "Holy War" is directly addressed to anyone who uses God to justify killing. Whether suicide bombers or those pointing a gun at somebody else because it's God's will his opinion of them is succinct and to the point, "God's holy, your not". It's not often a popular musician will let his anger and disgust show through so clearly in a song, but Nile has never been one to pull his punches and this song is no exception.

Nile lets his wry sense of humour come through on what is sure to be one of the most misunderstood songs on the album, "God Laughs". In it he has God going about his day and experiencing a variety of human emotions and generally acting like you and me. "God laughs, God cries, God looks for love between your eyes/God gives, God takes, God pumps your gas and slams your brakes/And why?/Because he's God". Maybe some will be offended by this humanizing of the deity, but if they do they're missing the point. Nile's God feels pain and happiness like you and me. He rejoices in our triumphs, mourns at our losses and grieves at the way we treat each other with such callousness. After all, if we're created in his image, doesn't that mean we and He reflect each other?

While these songs, and his cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died", are along the lines of personal discoveries, Nile does take us on an actual trip around America. The title song, "American Ride", has him travelling the length and breadth of the country and reminding us of the amazing diversity of music, and by extension, people, to be found from region to region. Starting off with a solo acoustic guitar, the sound gradually fills out as we travel further on his "American Ride". Crisscrossing the nation with a litany of place names and highways he makes it obvious he loves the country. However, there's also something elusive about his reasons for loving it. "Rolling cross the plains through the great Sioux land/As good a place as any where to make our stand/Some might say it's all a dream/Abraham Lincoln Martin Luther King/From rock and roll music to the be-bop jazz/To the unknown soldier giving all he has/From Ellis Island to the Redwood trees/You're untamed beauty got me on my knees".

His referencing of Sioux lands and the elusiveness of the equality dreamed of by two men who were both assassinated shows he's not blind to the country's less than noble past or the problems it still hasn't been able to solve. However, that doesn't mean he can't see or admire its beauty or recognize what has been created by the country's people. Unlike others who go off on a road trip searching for America, Nile already knows his country. While there are those who think blind obedience is the sign of a true patriot, Nile's ability to love his country in spite of its problems makes him seem a far greater patriot than somebody who says "my country right or wrong".

Nile is probably one of the most versatile songwriters and performers around today. He may not have what anybody would call a melodic voice, on occasion it sounds like gravel being scrapped over sandpaper, but the range of expression he can produce with it allows him to perform more styles of music than most people would even think of attempting. He can rip through a high speed rock song with ease and the very next instant be singing what's basically a traditional folk song, "The Crossing". As you journey through this album you'll find traces of country, blues, punk, soul, R&B, and nearly every other kind of music associated with American pop culture.

Not only can he play and sing all these types of music seemingly effortlessly, he can also write in each genre with equal ease. Listening to his songs it's easy to become caught up in the music and miss out on the lyrics. However, once you start paying attention to what Nile is saying you'll realize there's more to his material then what first meets the ear. His lyrics are deceptively meaningful as at first listen they sound rather straight forward. Yet, they not only stay in your mind, once you start thinking about them in the context of a song's theme, they reveal their hidden depths are made obvious. Unlike a lot of people he doesn't try to impress you with his vocabulary, instead he uses the same language most of use in everyday life. It seems that what's being said is far more important to Nile than how it is said.
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Like the great folk singers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg for example, Nile sings about the things he cares about in as straight forward and honest a way as possible. He may not strike people as a folk musician, however his music has the same sort of straight from the heart honesty and passion as anybody playing solo acoustic guitar. If you listen closely you can hear echoes of every great song ever written about America in his music as he asks all the right questions and searches for answers.Any answers he might find may not always be pretty and, they may not always be what people want to hear, but you know they're always going to be truthful.

American Ride is the latest instalment in Nile's recording of the journey he set out on back in the 1970s when he started out by playing coffee houses in New York City. It's been a great voyage up until now, and if this album is any indication, not only is it a long way from over, there's still plenty to hear and see from Willie Nile.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride)

(Photo Credit: Photo of Willie Nile by Lucas Noonan)

March 5, 2013

Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell & Angels


In her autobiography about being a young artist in New York City, Just Kids, Patti Smith described attending the opening night party for a new recording studio. Being shy and easily overwhelmed by crowds she spent a great deal of time outside on the fire escape with the equally shy musician responsible for the studio's existence. Jimi Hendrix didn't have too much longer to live when he sat on the fire escape outside his newly opened Electric Ladyland studios with a young poet. The studio was to have been the place where he would have been able to experiment and play music away from the demands of the world.

Today, more then 40 years after Hendrix's death, the studio is one part of his legacy to the world of music. Smith is only one of many artists who record there taking advantage of what Hendrix created. However Hendrix's legacy stretches far beyond the walls of Electric Ladyland. In the 1980s when Tuareg rebels in North Africa picked up guitars to begin making music as a way of preserving their culture their biggest influence was Hendrix's style of blues guitar. While still famous for his pyrotechnics on guitar as the years pass more and more are discovering what the Tuareg appreciated - Hendrix's ability as a blues musician. Unlike other lead guitar players, both then and now, Hendrix understood there was more to being a guitarist than just being able to rip leads.

Listening to the new CD, People, Hell & Angels, released by Legacy Recordings, of previously unreleased Hendrix studio sessions is to be reminded once again how complete a musician he was. Some might wonder why bother releasing the music of somebody dead four decades, especially tracks which are essentially unfinished? The answer would be for the same reason we publish, and read, the letters and diaries of famous writers. Hendrix was a musician, so these tracks are his diaries, his letters to the world. They represent a chance to gain some insight into the directions he was wanting to take his music, what his interest were and maybe get to know him a little better.
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The majority of music released under his name since his death have been of not only dubious quality, but dubious origins as well. It's only been recently his family have been able to gain control of his music and try and redress the damage done to his legacy by a legion of unscrupulous people trying to make a fast buck off the name of Hendrix. In the years following his death a number of poorly recorded and badly mixed albums were dumped on the market. Tracks appearing on this disc had previously been released in either truncated versions or with studio musicians overdubbing those who had originally been in the studio with Hendrix leaving only his solos intact.

This would be equivalent to rewriting an unpublished story by James Joyce leaving monologues intact while having some hack ghostwriter fill in the blanks. Whatever magic was originally present in the studio when Hendrix was there with those he chose to create with in the moment was lost. Taking his solos out of their original context is akin to planting a palm tree in the Arctic Circle. Not only will it look out of place, it will wither and die. Here, lovingly restored by Eddie Kramer, the man who engineered all his studio albums and recorded his most famous concerts, and co-producers Janie Hendrix (Hendrix's sister) and John McDermott the songs can be heard in all their rough uncut glory.

I remember having semi-serious discussions with high school buddies in the 1970s about the possibility of Hendrix playing disco if he had lived. Who knows, he might have. If he had I'm sure whatever he did would have been far superior to the emasculated swill flooding the airwaves at the time or what Prince churned out in latter years. Of course there's no way of knowing what he might have done, but judging by what we hear on People, Hell & Angles his heart was still firmly rooted deeply in the blues. You'll also hear that while our dire predictions of disco might have been unfounded, he retained a fondness for both funk and R&B.

The first track, featuring him accompanied by his old army buddies Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, "Earth Blues" is a bare bones funk tune. No horns or keyboards like we're used to, just the three of them driving the beat and playing something dark, dirty and dangerous. Recorded in December of 1969 it might have just been three old friends jamming together and having fun it could also have been an indication of his vision for the song. The version released on the posthumous Rainbow Bridge in 1971 was a far different, more mainstream radio acceptable tune.
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Two other songs on the disc which go a long towards suggesting Hendrix had no desire to be pigeon holed as just another rock guitar god are "Let Me Move You" and "Mojo Man". Both of them show him reaching back too his early days as a sideman in R&B bands. Whether trading leads with saxophone player Lonnie Youngblood on the former or taking a master vocal track created by Albert and Arthur Allen (the vocal duo known as the Ghetto Fighters - Read the interview at the other end of the link to the Ghetto Fighters, now known as TaharQa and Tunde Ra Aleem, to find out more about their relationship with Hendrix) on the latter both show Hendrix pushing the R&B genre much further then anybody today would even dream of trying.

However, no matter what the song, no matter what the style, running like a constant thread through every song in the ever changing pattern of a complex tapestry tying multiple images together are the blues. They are the solid bedrock which all the tunes on the disc are rooted in. In some ways it seems like he was stripping his music down to its bare bones and finding new ways to clothe them. Unlike others Hendrix wasn't going to be satisfied with merely rehashing the same old format. Instead he was reinventing what was possible and pushing the blues and its associated genres in directions no one else was or has considered.

Hendrix will always be remembered for his incandescent guitar work and the wild abandon he brought to music. However lost amid the sound of the pale imitations trying to copy the original was the inventive and innovative soul constantly seeking to find new modes of expression. Listening to People, Hell & Angels is an opportunity to peek into the mind of an artist at work as he explores his media and the possibilities it offers for expression. These might not be finished songs or even the most polished of efforts, but they are invaluable and worth listening to none the less. We have no way of knowing what Hendrix would have accomplished had he lived. However, if this release is anything to go by he would have always been two or three steps ahead of everyone else.

(Article first published as Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell and Angels on Blogcritics.)



January 16, 2013

Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra


I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Erin McKeown's new release Manifestra. The only examples of her work I'd heard to date had been YouTube videos of her performing solo and the satirical black comedy anti-Christmas disc, F*ck That she released in 2011. While I felt fairly comfortable in predicting this latest release wouldn't be as, shall we say, extreme as the former, I thought it would continue in the same pattern. A mix of agit-prop folk music and dark humour making wry but intelligent commentary on society today.

While there had been mention on her web site about a band, it didn't click in this was a permanent arrangement. So I was caught off guard when the opening song on the disc, "The Politician", saw her accompanied by the full compliment of a rock and roll band and effects galore. As the disc progressed it became increasingly obvious she was far more sophisticated and versatile a musician then I had realized. While I had previously been impressed by both her singing and guitar playing, not to mention her skills as a lyricist, this album shows she's much more than just another singer/songwriter plucking on her faithful six string and singing about the world's injustices.
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Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that type of music. However, to take the impetus behind it and create something far more musically and intellectually sophisticated as McKeown does on this disc is indicative of an artistry you don't see very often in pop music. Politics aren't limited to the decisions made by those we put in power and what occurs on the world stage trickles down into the fabric of our lives whether we know it or not. Without flow charts or pointers McKeown's songs go beyond the headlines and issues. What's done in our name as a country or a people will always shape our society. Like the proverbial butterfly wings flapping here being felt on the other side of the world, those currents are part of our pulse whether we know it or not.

"The nature of the jailer is/to do just what he pleases/but when we hang another man/part of us dies with him/lock up your soul piece by piece/then tell me just what love is", McKeown sings in "The Jailer". When it comes to arguments about capital punishment most people talk about vengeance or its effectiveness as a deterrent. Some might question a state's right to take a person's life and others play on people's fears. However, hardly anybody looks at the cost passed down to every citizen when a government kills their fellow citizens in their name. McKeown asks us to consider what's being taught when the law allows people to be killed. How can we really understand what love is when we sanction murder? When an individual kills another person it's a horrendous crime against love and yet it's not when the state does it? Doesn't anyone else find that confusing?

Even the more overtly political song, "Baghdad to the Bayou", isn't what I'd call typical of the genre. Instead of a litany of complaints or an attack on somebody or something it expresses the hope generated by the people's revolts that have been occurring around the world. "Street by street we will repeat/ the revolutions of the spring/you can't stop a people/when a people start to sing". Referencing both the Occupy Movements and the Arab Spring the song puts leaders everywhere on notice people aren't as inclined to be as unquestioningly obedient as they might have been in the past. The last line of the last verse, "We want accountability", capture what's been at the heart of each of those movements.
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In doing so MeKeown and co-writer Rachel Maddow have managed to bring back the feelings of hope these movements generated. Some of the dreams may have soured, Egypt has taken some nasty steps backwards and none of the occupations seem to have changed anything, but that doesn't mean people have gone back to sleep again. There have been too many examples in recent years of how a concentrated effort by a motivated population can be a powerful force for change. "Baghdad to the Bayou" is a spirited and timely reminder for all of us who may have forgotten what's been accomplished over the past few years.

Earlier I had mentioned being surprised by the variety of musical styles McKeown employed on this disc.In fact there's no two songs employing the same approach musically. Each song has been carefully arranged and produced so its lyrical content is given emotional and atmospheric context and support by the music. "The Jailer" is a punchy mix of R&B and jazz which underlines the potency of certain lines and gives the song a richness and texture that makes you take notice. Musically it captures the feelings of defiance the song expresses and the warnings of the dangers we face by abdicating control of our lives to a few powerful individuals without missing a beat or attempting to manipulate the listener.

I've chosen this song to cite as an example, but every song on this disc is a lesson on how to marry lyrics and music to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For while there's no denying the potency of McKeown's lyrics, by fleshing the songs out with additional instrumentation and careful orchestration their power is increased ten-fold. As part of this release McKeown has included a second disc, Civics, containing solo acoustic versions of the tracks on Manifestra. While you can hear hints of what the end results, it's like looking at an artist's preliminary sketches for a painting. You get the general idea, but they've nothing of the full impact of the finished product.

There are musicians out there who sing about issues and don't pay much attention to the music. There're far too many making music these days who have nothing to say and try to hide their lack of thought behind layers of sound. McKeown is one of the few who not only have something to say but the artistry and talent to create songs both intellectually and musically stimulating. Not only was Manifestra fun to listen to, it also makes you think. You can't ask for a better combination.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2012

My Ten Favourite Recordings of 2012


I don't have any idea the number of press releases I received over the course of the past year announcing yet another CD of music being released by someone. Conservatively I'd say they would have to numbered well into the thousands. Based on those numbers for me to claim I can select the ten best releases of 2012 borders on being ridiculous. However, out of the releases I released I offer you the ten I liked the most. These are the discs which have ended up on my I-pod and I will be listening to them for years to come. Hopefully you'll be encouraged to check them out and find out why I thought they were special.

Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - The Songs Of William Blake When most people refer to Americana or roots music they tend to forget about two important musical traditions. Redbone and her band created an album which blends the Native, African and Anglo/Irish/Scot American roots of North American music with the words of poet William Blake. The result are wonderfully vivid versions of Blake's work. With Redbone's splendid voice leading a masterful group of musicians you'll not only gain a new appreciation for the poems but broaden your definition of roots music.

Patti Smith - Patti Smith Live At Montreux 2005 As far as I'm concerned any release by Patti Smith is a special occasion. A DVD of her in concert is something to really celebrate, especially when its as well filmed and recorded as this one. Her regular band is augmented by the inclusion of lead guitarist and old friend, Tom Verlaine and they play a selection of tunes from her whole career to date. A live recording also is the chance to see her and the band step outside the box with improvised solos you won't find on studio recordings. Listening to Smith is great, being able to her watch her perform live is even better.

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind The fact the Ben Folds Five are a trio should tell you something about the band even before you first listen to them. Intelligent, witty and an ability to create finely crafted pop songs make this unlikely group of pop musicians not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Lyrics which make you think combined with music that veers between power pop and torch songs - sometimes in the same tune - aren't what I've come to expect from most bands these days. However, that's the beauty of this band - they defy expectations with panache.

Jason Collet - Reckon If there were any justice in the world of pop music everybody would have heard of Jason Collet. Funny, irreverent and emotionally honest he tackles both topical and personal subjects in ways everyone could take a lesson from. He manages to show how the former impacts individuals and turns the latter into statements with universal appeal. If you've never heard him before do yourself a favour and pick up this disc. Your won't regret it.

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years Sure Strummer has been dead for a decade now, but as this digital download of fifty plus songs culled from live concerts, unreleased tracks and the three studio albums he released with The Mescaleros shows, his music remains as vital today as it ever was. While more musically sophisticated than his recordings with The Clash, this music retains an edge which allows him to cut through the shit and get to the heart of a subject. For all you Strummer fans out there, and those who missed out on the Mescaleros' years, this collection is a must have.

Mark Knopfler - Privateering There are some guys still playing who you wish would just do us all a favour and retire already. Knopfler isn't one of them. This collection of songs proves he's still a master when it comes to song writing and guitar playing. His ability to write about a variety of subjects with sensitivity and intelligence is if anything even stronger then ever and his guitar playing remains some of the most subtle and beguiling in the buisness. As comfortable as a favourite sweater, but much more exciting, this is music you'll listen to for a long time to come.

Public Image Limited - This Is PIL It's been forty plus years since John Lyndon (aka Johnny Rotten) first set people's teeth on edge with his in your face image and iconoclastic music. He might not dress to shock anymore, but his music is still as unstintingly acerbic and challenging as it ever was. With this latest album from PIL he and the band show they are still musically interesting and fiercely independent. A great reminder of pop music's ability to unsettle and question the status quo with intelligence and wit.

Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal One of the great Texas outlaw musicians is back with another disc of gritty and real songs. Part autobiographical and part mythological his latest disc is an irreverent but heartfelt look at music and life. You won't hear any of Hubbard's music on your local country radio station, or any other radio station for that matter, mainly because he has a disturbing habit of speaking his mind. Honest, gruff and firmly rooted in reality its the best music to come out of Texas in years.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil After raising over a million dollars through her Kickstarter campaign to produce, promote and tour this album Palmer was thrust into the role of standard bearer for independent music producers. Almost lost amidst all the fuss was the excellence of the resulting album. While she made her name as a quirky and intelligent solo artist, this disc sees her step into the role of front person for a rock and roll band without missing a beat. More musically sophisticated than any of her previous releases, lyrically she's still as insightful and thought provoking as ever. While she's an adherent of the school of rock and roll as theatre, substance never takes a back seat to style. One of today's most exciting and dynamic performers has finally taken centre stage and pop music will never be the same again.

Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird Somehow or other Rudd manages to produce record after record of topical material without ever sounding preachy or self-aggrandizing. He makes no apologies for singing about the exploitation of the environment and how it endangers life on the planet. Playing a combination of traditional and modern instruments his music is the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. Simple and powerful his songs work on us both intellectually and emotionally without resorting to manipulation or guilt. He sings about facts, dreams and hope - asking us to join him and others in changing the way things are currently done. A brilliant musician and gifted songwriter he'll have you rethinking the way you look at the world.

Article first published as My Ten Favourite Recordings Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

December 6, 2012

DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72


In these days of the media's attention so focused on the lives of those we consider celebrities it can be hard to believe there was a time when a trip behind the scenes into the life of a pop musician or film star was considered something out of the ordinary. Yet it wasn't too long ago that the idea of a camera crew following a celebrity around was considered a novelty. In those more innocent times it wasn't a matter of media trying to uncover scandals or revealing secrets. In fact the sole purpose of these early reports from backstage seemed more concerned with humanizing larger than life figures.

At least that's the impression one gets watching the footage taken by famous rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya of Ike and Tina Turner. Using one of the first ever portable video cameras, Gruen and his wife joined the Turners and their band on the road and at home for their 1971-72 tour. Now, forty years later, the footage taken during this time has been cut, edited and digitally remastered as Ike & Tina Turner - On The Road: 1971 - 72, and released on DVD by MVD Entertainment Group.
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Needless to say video technology was in its infancy in those days. According to Gruen's notes the camera was loaded with tapes similar to those used on old reel to reel audio equipment. The picture quality wasn't the greatest. In low light the image would darken to the point where the screen would almost be black and in bright light it would blanch out. The audio was mono only and would tend to distort if the source was too loud and pick up any and all ambient noise in the surrounding vicinity. If this were filmed today we would just throw it out as garbage. However, as a historical record of a bygone era and for the look it allows us into the lives of one of rock and roll's more controversial husband and wife teams, its an invaluable document.

The sad demise of Ike and Tina Turner's marriage has been well documented. The abuse she received at his hands and sneaking out of their hotel room with only change in her pocket is all that most think about when their life together is brought up. In his liner notes for the DVD Gruen says the footage he shot shows why they were together for twenty years. While I'm not sure it accomplishes that goal, what this DVD does is remind us of just how incredible the band was at the height of their performing prowess. While I'm sure there's still footage from their periodic television appearances, I can't see any network in the early 1970s airing some of the footage included in this DVD.

If in the 1950s they wouldn't film Elvis below the waist and in the 1960s demanded the Rolling Stones change the line "let's spend the night together" to "let's spend some time together", there's no way they would have allowed the full unbridled sexuality of Ike and Tina on the air in the 1970s. It must have been hard enough to get Tina and the Ikette's dance moves approved for prime time television. This is a band that reminds you of the word funk's origins with almost every note they play. Even considering the poor quality of some of the footage there's no disguising the fact their music wasn't the safe anti-septic stuff being churned out by Motown for mass consumption. They were playing down and dirty funk and R&B which makes even most of today's rappers look tame in comparison.

At least 50% of the film, if not more, was taken off stage. There's footage of Tina at home with the kids making supper and going grocery shopping like any housewife. However, even standing over a stove cooking, out of the slinky costumes and wigs she wore on stage, her natural glamour and presence shine through. Of course not everybody's house in those days has an in ground swimming pool, a sunken living room and a Grammy trophy on the mantle piece. Yet in spite of these things we also see a fairly typical domestic situation for the time period. Wife and kids hanging at the house.
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Interestingly enough, Ike never appears in the footage shot at home. We only ever see him in work related situations. Backstage, rehearsing the band, or in the studio Ike's presence is inescapable, but we hardly ever see the two of them alone together. Taciturn to the point of almost hardly ever talking except during rehearsals, I can't recall him saying anything not related to business during the entire DVD. Even then he doesn't say much. However, there's no doubt he's the one running the show musically. Watching him lead the band on stage and in rehearsals he's like a conductor. Even during concerts he would tend to stand facing the audience in profile so he could cue the band when required.

Of course, with Tina out front nobody was going to be paying much attention to anybody else anyway. She could blow the doors off an auditorium with her voice one moment and the next bring you to tears with her gentleness. She's pulling an audience to their feet and getting them dancing in the aisles and then sitting them back down again to break their hearts. Then there's her dancing. While your mind tells you she has to have her feet on the ground, your eyes are telling you a different story. Like some exotic bird she seems to float above the stage all the while twisting and twirling like an ecstatic dervish.

Unlike others who dance with only their arms and their legs, her whole body is involved. It's like every muscle is attuned to the music and responds to what's being played. It might start with her hands or her feet, but soon it can't be contained and her whole body explodes into motion. However it's not an uncontrolled flailing around either. For no matter how fast or involved her movements she's always able to stay centred on a song's rhythm and its that pulse which lies at the base of everything she does.

As an historical record of just how incredible Ike and Tina Turner were at the peak of their career there's no questioning the value of this DVD. However, in spite of what Gruen says in his liner notes there's no evidence of them having anything in common aside from the music. Nothing of what we see of them together in this movie indicates an emotional bond existed between them. In fact we learn almost nothing about Ike except that he was completely devoted to his music. Maybe he was just a very shy man, or very private, but don't go looking for anything that will give you any insights into their private life, because you won't find it here.

While the majority of the DVD is taken from the black and white footage Gruen shot with his early model video camera, there are a few pieces of colour film spliced into it that were shot at the same time. Unfortunately all they serve to do is make the flaws in the video even more obvious. Some of the times parts of the image on screen is blacked out because of low light, and other times the exposure is off because the ambient light was too bright. However, that doesn't stop this DVD from being something special to watch. The music created by Ike and Tina Turner was some of the most amazing R&B/soul/funk produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Any opportunity to see them perform shouldn't be missed. No matter what happened down the line, it can never be denied what they did together was amazing - it's just too bad it couldn't have lasted.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72 on Blogcritics.)

October 26, 2012

Music Review: Colin Linden - Still Live


I'm really beginning to dislike the word revival. I've nothing against the word itself, merely the way its being employed in the context of music. Press release after press release heralds some musician or other as being in the vanguard of some sort of revival.The word revive has its origins in the Latin word revivere which literally translates as back live but has come to mean bring back to life. So when its used in reference to a particular genre of music the inference is the style had died and is now being resurrected by somebody. The problem I have with this is the music its usually used in context with never went anywhere. The blues, folk and the other music people seem to think needed reviving, never died. It just wasn't in the popular eye because some other music was the flavour of the month. Thousands of people the world over may have been enjoying a a musical genre, but it's only when it shows up on MTV people remember its existence and it miraculously undergoes a revival.

All you have to do is sit down and listen to a disc by the likes of an artist of the calibre of Colin Linden and you'll appreciate how alive the folk/blues/roots tradition has been and continues to be. Linden has been performing and recording since the 1980s and tours throughout Europe and North America to appreciative audiences playing what most people would now refer to as either roots or Americana. Listening to the new release of a concert he gave in 2010, File Under: Music label, you'll hear as diverse a collection of material from this one performer as you'd normally expect to hear from five or six different groups. Blues, R&B, soul, rock and roll and country all make their presence felt in Linden's music, and he sounds equally at home with each.
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Linden interest in the blues started young. His mother took him to see Howlin' Wolf when he was 11 and he's been hooked ever since. You can hear his affinity for the blues in his slide guitar playing and his use of rhythm in all his music. But, blues is the foundation upon which he builds his music not the only place he resides. They are Linden's jumping off point. However, no matter how far he leaps he never looses track of his first love. Yet he's not content with being a traditionalist either and merely recreating the sounds others have made before him. Even better is what's true musically is also true lyrically. Don't expect to hear your typical "my baby done left me broken hearted" blues songs or blue eyed soul moaning from Linden. While he might have gained his reputation for being a guitar player and sideman (playing with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Robert Plant) his lyrics have an intelligent introspection you don't often hear in popular music.

The soulful, R&B influenced "Between The Darkness And The Light Of Day" stands out as a great example of this. "Just a soldier on the road between the darkness and the light of day/I did everything I was told but I still haven't found my way/Now my feet are weary but my heart is strong/Somehow or other I will carry on/And I lift my spirit and sing my song between the darkness and the light of day". It's not often you hear anybody singing about the difficulties of finding balance in a world where it's so easy to fall into negativity and cynicism. Things don't always work out the way we're told they do. Go to school, get an education and a job and family are sure to follow is the myth a great many of us were raised on. However reality turned out to be a different story.

In this song Linden talks about all those who are still struggling with finding they're way. However he doesn't do it with negativity or by trying to find someone to blame. Instead the song is about the bravery of those who make the effort to find themselves and create space for a descent life in a confusing world. These people are truly soldiers, but they don't go to war in order to conquer. They're fighting to be true to themselves and what they believe in. In a world replete with songs about broken hearts it's a joy to hear somebody sing about something real, and in such an intelligent and soulful manner.
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This tune also shows off the band playing with him on this occasion. John Dymond on bass and Gary Craig on drums effortless carry the rhythms of this song and the rest of the album. Soul and R&B have to be some of the trickiest musics to play. Neither fast nor slow the music has to have an almost effortless swing to it in order to be effective. Of the soul I've heard recently this is one of the few that haven't felt deliberately slowed down in an effort to make it sound more heartfelt. Instead Craig and Dymond have set a pace which carries Linden's guitar and vocals with a kind of effortlessness that is wonderful to hear. Of course it doesn't hurt that Spooner Oldham is providing organ accompaniment on this and other tunes. His fills on keyboard provide texture and body to songs without making them overblown. It's like he smooths out the rough edges of the sound without taking away the rawness needed to keep the songs real.

Of course Linden is the focal point of every song. His guitar playing is probably one of the best kept secrets in music. There's nothing showy or flamboyant about it, but careful listening reveals him to be as skilled as anybody out there. There's a style and grace to his playing that only comes from years of playing and a devotion to his music. At the same time there's nothing of the playing it by rote you might hear from others who have been playing for ages. Everything, from his finger picking to his slide guitar leads sound like he's still playing with the joy that comes with the first flush of discovery. Polish and refinement do not have to translate into slickness, and Linden performs with heart and passion.

While no one's going to write odes in praise of his vocals, his voice is ideally suited to what he chooses to sing about and the style of music he plays. There's a roughness around the edges of his voice that gives it an integrity which more than compensates for any lack of polish. When he sings you have no trouble believing he means every word of every song. While the same can be said about other singers, what makes Linden a little more special is it holds true across the various genres he ventures into. From the straight ahead rockers, acoustic blues to the more soulful R&B numbers he never hits a false note.

Still Live is a unique opportunity to hear an artist who plays for the love of his music. Linden plays what he plays not because its what is popular today, but because its the music that allows him to speak clearest. What's really nice about this live recording is how it manages to both capture the feel of a concert and have studio quality sound. Not only does that mean you're able to fully appreciate his talents as a musician you hear that little bit extra of himself that all artists seem to allow to show in concert. For those of you familiar with Linden this disc will be a treat as it will give you a chance to appreciate his talents in a live setting and be reminded of just how versatile a musician he is. For those new to him it will make a great introduction to a man whose life long love affair with the blues and its offspring shows in every note he plays and every lyric he sings.

(Article first published as Music Review: Colin Linden - Still Live on Blogcritics.)

September 21, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live At The US Festival 1982 & 1983


It always amazes me that when I hear these so-called "retro" events featuring music from the 1980s how I never recognize any of the music. So it's been something of a relief this past summer to find Shout Factory offering a retrospective of the career of the band who easily provided the best and most intelligent dance music for the first three years of the 1980s, The Beat, or as they were known in North America, The English Beat. First, there were two greatest hits collections: a five-disc box set The Complete Beat and a single disc Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat. Now, last but not least, comes the CD/DVD combination package The English Beat Live! at the US Festival. Both the CD and the DVD feature the band's performances from the 1982 and 1983 festivals.

While the CD is comprised of the highlights of each year's show, the DVD, able to hold more material, has both concerts in their entirety. The US festival was a seven-day extravaganza of popular music with each day featuring a different category of music. Which was probably a wise decision on the part of the promoters as those who would want to watch bands like The Clash, The English Beat and others scheduled to play on "New Wave" day probably wouldn't mix well with the crowd coming to see Van Halen and their ilk.
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This was the early days of music video television and before home televisions could deliver the high quality of sound and visuals to make watching an event like this worth while. Now, 30 years after the 1982 concert, its available complete with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and compatible with your wide screen television. So not only does the sound quality do the band justice, the visuals are crisp and clean which is a nice change from some DVDs made of tapes from that era. In fact, the sound is crystal clear and far better than many recent concert recordings I've heard. For example, how often do you actually hear the secondary percussion instrument being played by a vocalist during a concert? On this release, you can hear every tap and beat vocalist Ranking Roger plays to accompany his singing and mad dancing.

The US Festival took place in a large open area in Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California. In both years the stage was enormous and the band seemed dwarfed by their surroundings. In both concerts, but especially in 1982, they looked and acted like they were expending a lot of energy, but somehow or other you don't feel it. Maybe it was because they were so isolated from the audience; the bands were on this huge stage and separated from the audience by a fenced off area for press photographers. Or maybe it was because it was open air and the energy they produced just sort of dissipated into the wide open spaces around them.

Of course, no tape will ever be able to convey the experience of dancing yourself silly alongside a thousand other bodies at a show. What it should do, and what this DVD does, is capture moments which give you glimpses into the experience. One such moment is when the entire band is in motion and dancing around the stage like mad men while playing their instruments, with only lead vocalist and guitarist Dave Wakeling preventing them going into orbit by staying anchored at his post in order to sing. Or watching vocalist Rankin' Roger break into his biggest smile while desperately trying to bridge the gap with the audience by climbing on top of the monitors at the edge of the stage and dancing his heart out.
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As far as the set list for both concerts go, each year's contained an even mix of the band's material from all three of their studio albums. While songs like "Two Swords", "Save It For Later", "Twist and Crawl" and "Get A Job/Stand Down Margaret" show up both years, there are enough differences between the two to make watching each concert worthwhile. The 1982 concert features "Hands Off, She's Mine" and one of their lessor known tunes, "Sugar & Stress". The 1983 concert has a couple of my favourite English Beat tunes, "Ranking Full Stop" and their great cover of the old Miracles hit "Tears Of A Clown".

Even more fun for old fans will be the sight of their original saxophone player, Saxa, joining them on stage halfway through the 1983 concert. While his playing wasn't as sophisticated as the man who replaced him, there was an emotional depth to his playing which made him a lot of fun to listen to. In fact, once he joined the band on stage they reminded me more of the group I had seen live then at any other time on the DVD. Of course that could just be because of associating Saxa with seeing them perform, but they did seem to have a lot more fun once he started playing.

One thing you can't fail to notice is no matter how much fun they are having, and no matter how crazy they get, this band was incredibly tight. It's hard to believe this was a live concert they were so in sync with each other. Not a cue was missed and there didn't appear to be a note dropped or any of the other glitches you would normally see in a live concert. Technically there were also very few problems, including no equipment failures. Of course, this could be because all the technology was supplied by Apple computers and they were using top of the line everything. Still, technology is only as good as the people operating it, and the people crewing this event must have been at the top of their game for everything to have gone so smoothly.

The English Beat only produced three albums, but from 1978 until their breakup in 1983, their infectious mix of reggae, ska, Motown, pop and punk kept people dancing. England during this time was a powder keg of racial tension and unrest. It was said the only sure fire way to ensure a gathering wouldn't descend into violence of some sort or another was to have the English Beat play – as everybody would be too busy dancing and having fun to think about anything else. They just didn't play mindless dance tunes either, they sang about social justice and racial equality with a heavy emphasis on tolerance and joy. The English Beat Live! at the US Festival is a lovely reminder of their politics of joy and what it was like to see them in concert. I can only wish more bands would learn from their example.

(Article first published as Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live! at the US Festival 1982 & 1983 on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Band photo by Michael Grecco

August 21, 2012

Music Review: Linsey Alexander - Been There Done That


There was a time when nearly every second CD I reviewed was a blues recording. While I never tired of listening to the wide variety of sound the genre encompasses, I noticed my writing on the subject was all beginning to sound the same. Whatever the reason for it, I decided it wasn't fair to the people sending me discs to review to continue on in this vain so I took a break from writing about the blues. So it seems appropriate the first blues disc I've reviewed in a while is a release from Chicago based Delmark Records, the oldest independent record label in North America, if not the world. Not only have they brought the world recordings by some of the biggest names in blues over the years, but they also go into the neighbourhood bars and clubs which are the life blood of the genre to find and record artists who play the blues for the love of the music.

These are the people who will probably never be household names or even known beyond the boundaries of Chicago. However it's people like Linsey Alexander pouring their hearts and souls into the music who ensure the blues not only survive but grow. Listening to his newest release, Been There Done That, you not only hear the passion which has always been the strength of this type of music, you get a sense of how music in Chicago has cross pollenated. For on this disc Alexander not only plays the straight ahead electric blues the city is famous for, you'll also hear how soul, R&B and funk have exerted their influences on his sound.
Cover Been There Done That Lindsey Alexander.jpg
Like many other blues musicians Alexander is a transplanted Southerner. He moved up to Chicago in the early 1950s and has been playing the blues since1959 sharing stages with the likes of B.B King, Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy. At the same time he's also carved out a solo career for himself which has seen him not only playing Chicago, but beginning to get recognition in Europe as well. For this disc he's put together a hot band of local blues players including the ubiquitous and immensely talented Billy Branch on harmonica and the LA Horns (Ryan Nyther trumpet and Bryan Fritz tenor saxophone) to fill out the sound on those occasions he ventures into more soulful territory.

No matter what he's playing the first thing you're going to notice about Alexander is his voice. It's like it was made to sing the blues. Raw, raspy and powerful (you don't want some smooth as silk balladeer singing the blues) he is able to effortlessly project over his accompanying band without ever sounding like he's straining. On tracks like the disc's opener, "Raffle Ticket", and the other straight ahead blues numbers, his voice takes on a world weary, seen it all and had it all done to me tone that suits the music perfectly. Yet at the same time he's also gives the impression he's dropping you a wink, letting you know it's all in fun and preventing him from sounding like he's feeling sorry for himself. It also helps to take the edge off the "girl done treat me wrong" type of songs by making them sound playful rather than hateful. For while there's nothing wrong with a blues song celebrating a love gone bad, I get sick of songs about the bad things women do to men.

Something else setting Alexander apart from quite a few other blues players is his sense of humour. The second song on the disc, "Bad Man", with a funky groove propelled by Roosevelt Puifoy's driving organ and the aforementioned horn section, has him listing all the reasons why he's such a bad man. Lyrics like "My hair is nappy/I never got along with my pappy/drugs and crime only make me happy/I'm a bad man/I'm a real bad man" show you he's not taking himself too seriously. While "drugs and crime only make me happy" might sound serious, you have to wonder how "bad" he really is when how he wears his hair is given equal importance. The fact the song is a lively, almost cheery, funk number, makes it even less likely that he wants us to take him seriously. Just to top it off, the song fades out to the sound of Alexander doing a really funny evil laugh, the type you equate with people sending up the villain in a melodrama.
Linsey Alexander.jpg
However, just because he knows how to have fun doesn't mean he doesn't take the music seriously. Listening to his elegant cover of the late Willie Kent's "Looks Like It's Going To Rain", the fifth song of the disc, gives you an indication of how much he cares about what he's doing. Maybe it's because Kent was a friend of his, Alexander starts off by dedicating the song to him, but this is as good a version of this song as I've heard from anyone. The arrangement of the horns, guitar and keyboard is perfect in how it conveys the emotions of the song without being overwrought or manipulative. Instead of the horns being used to try and milk a little extra emotion out of the song, they serve as accents to the beat helping to prevent the tune from bogging down.

Too often performers take soul songs like this and slow them down far too much in order to make themselves sound more emotional. What they don't realize is the careful interrelation of lyrics, melody and rhythm are what make them powerful. Slowing them down might make the singer the centre of attention, but it also saps the tune of its energy and emotional impact. Alexander has too much respect for both the man who wrote the song and music in general, to make himself more important than the needs of the tune. So his vocals are just one of the instruments working together to communicate the song's message to listeners.

It's not just in his vocals you see his respect for the music, it's in everything Alexander does with a song. Even with the material on this disc being primarily written by him ( tracks 2, "Bad Man", and 9, "Big Woman", were co-written by Sharon Pomaville) he doesn't indulge in any extravagances, like over elaborate guitar solos, which might detract from a number's overall impact. His solos, as well as those by fellow guitarists Breezy Rodio and Mike Wheeler, elaborate on a melody's theme to accent a song instead of being excuses to show off anyone's expertise. Each song is carefully arranged to take best advantage of the entire band without any one of them taking precedence. From the rhythm section of Greg McDaniel on bass and James Wilson on drums out, the band plays so well together there are times when it feels like you're listening to a single instrument instead of the up to nine that could be playing at anyone time.

Recordings like Been There Done That show how the blues have survived both the ups and downs of popular interest. It's because of the love and passion the music inspires in musicians the quality of Linsey Alexander. Not only does he respect the music he plays, he also remembers playing implies having fun. When it's appropriate he can be as serious as the next musician, but he also knows there's enough troubles in the world that sometimes even the blues has to have some laughs. This is a wonderful album of music from a musician who deserves far more attention then he has received up to this point in his career.

(Article first published as Music Review: Linsey Alexander - Been There Done That on Blogcritics.