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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)

September 19, 2016

Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?


American singer and pianist Nina Simone blazed across the sky of popular music for what seems like an incredibly brief period. Her meteoric rise to eminence in the early part of the 1960s was matched by her all too sudden disappearance from public life in 1968. The documentary, What Happened Miss Simone? produced by Netflix and now available on Blu-ray from Universal Music and Eagle Rock Entertainment, not only fills in details of Simone's life before her period in the spotlight, but tells us exactly what happened to her.
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The movie follows Simone from her earliest beginnings playing piano in church and growing up in segregated America. As a child she was taken under the wing of two white women piano teachers who recognized her talent. Like any other child learning piano she had aspirations to become a classical pianist and even attended the Juilliard School of Music. It was her ambition to become the first woman African American classical pianist. However, when that opportunity was denied her through what she believed was racism, she turned to playing in jazz and blues clubs to help support her family.

It was from those inauspicious beginnings her career was born. Her fame was assured with the release of her first record and the public's reception to her rendition of "I Loves You, Porgy" from the Gershwin brothers opera Porgy and Bess. There's some wonderful footage of her playing the song taken from an old Playboy TV show. The sight of a young black woman playing for an all white audience of smug wealthy hipsters says more about the state of America in the late 1950s than any political slogans or protests.

For the next five or so years Simone would do everything from play a sell out concert at Carnegie Hall to sing onstage at Civil Rights rallies. Her famous song, "Mississippi Goddam", summed up African American anger at those obstructing their civil rights in the 1960s. As her career took off she also became friends with the African American intellectual and artistic communities. James Baldwin, Dick Gregory and Langston Hughes were among those she counted among her friends, while her neighbours were the family of the late Malcolm X.

However, while on the surface things looked great, her life was far from easy. Using excepts from her diaries to let Simone tell her own story, the movie shows us a life filled with domestic violence (she was beaten by her husband), loneliness, and repressed violent urges. These written passages reveal a deeply troubled mind.

All of a sudden, in 1968, Simone left America and took herself into self-imposed exile. First to Liberia in Africa, then Switzerland, and eventually France. It was while she was in France in the 1980s her mental illness was finally diagnosed - bi-polar. Her violent mood swings, bouts of depression and even her sometimes extreme behaviour were all rooted in this disease.

Director Liz Garbus has done a masterful job of telling Simone's story. She weaves together archive footage and still photos with contemporary interviews to allow a complete picture of the woman and her times to unfold in front of us. The co-operation of Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, was obviously key in helping her gain access to things like the diaries and other fascinating archival material.

Of course you can't do a movie about Simone without her music. From start to finish we are regaled with the splendour and majesty of her performances. While some of the quality isn't the greatest - we're talking about footage that dates back almost sixty years in some cases - the black and white footage from the old TV shows is wonderful.

Even better is the CD included in this package, as it contains lovely produced versions of many of the songs which feature in the movie. Some highlights include "Mississippi Goddamn", "Sinnerman", and her covers of "I Put A Spell On You", "Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair", and "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". The latter is particularly poignant in light of the information we found out about Simone in the movie.

The Blu-ray/CD package of What Happened Miss Simone? is a wonderful record of an amazing and unique voice in American popular culture. Simone was more than just a wonderful performer, she was also an articulate and passionate voice in the fight for civil rights. As Dick Gregory says in the movie; "She said things with "Mississippi Goddamn" no one else would have dared say". A great movie about an amazing woman that comes with a bonus CD containing some of her greatest songs.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?/a>)

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)

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])

September 25, 2013

Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987


I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was younger, and by that I mean a teenager and into my early twenties. The concerts were events, a shared experience you had with a group of people who were all there for the same reason. There was something about seeing the music live which made the experience more vital and inspiring than listening to it on record. I don't know if I've changed and concerts are still the same, but I won't go to one anymore unless I'm sure they will be in a controlled environment where people's focus will be on the stage. For under any other circumstances it seems like the audience is far more concerned with their portable devices or talking than paying attention to the person or band performing. These types of conditions make it almost impossible to enjoy a live concert the way I once did.

All of which makes me incredibly grateful for recent advances made in audio/visual technology. Now not only can I watch a performer I really appreciate without putting up with a lot of bullshit from people around me, the sound and visual quality are such they're probably better than what you'd find at most venues anyway. Even more exciting is the fact this same technology is allowing artists to revisit recordings of older concerts and remaster them digitally so we at home can experience them in ways we weren't able to before. Not only is this enjoyable, it also gives you a new appreciation for the group or individual's talent. This was brought home to me by the recent release of the Blu-ray/DVD package from Peter Gabriel Live In Athens 1987 on the Eagle Rock Entertainment label.

Instead of the usual dual format package where they send you the same item on both Blu-ray and DVD, this set is two distinct discs. The Blu-ray is the concert footage culled from three shows Gabriel gave over three nights in Athens of 1987 and the DVD, called Play, is made up of videos of Gabriel's songs from the last 25 years re-edited and mastered for 5.1 surround sound. While Gabriel selected which videos would be included in this collection, the majority of the re-mastering was done by Daniel Lanois.
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Gabriel took a much more hands on approach when it came to the concert footage. Originally the footage shot in Athens had been included in a movie called P.O.V.. Produced by Martin Scorsese the original film was more of a documentary about the 1987 tour as the concert footage intercut with film Gabriel had shot of life on the road off and back stage. For this HD remastering he went back to the original three days worth of film shot during the concerts and put together just over two hours worth of a concert movie. The film also includes the previously unreleased performance by the great Senegalese artist Youssou N'dour and his band Le Super Etoile de Dakar, who opened for and performed with Gabriel during the tour.

In 1987 Gabriel was probably at the pinnacle of his popularity and was touring to promote his most popular album to date, So, which remains the biggest selling album of his solo career. The three days of concerts in Athens marked the end of what was a world tour, so he, the band and the technical people had had plenty of time to work out all the kinks. While you might expect them to have been tired and maybe going through the motions somewhat after having been on the road for so long, nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe they had an extra adrenaline boost because these were the final nights of the tour, or perhaps they played every gig on the tour with this level of intensity, but this show is an emotionally charged phenomenon sizzling with energy from N'dour's opening note to Gabriel's final encore.

If you never had the chance to see N'dour and his band when they were in their prime their five song set will be a revelation. His set is a wonderful example of the way African popular music at the time combined popular music from other cultures with their own to create a spirited and exciting sound. Of course seeing them is twice as exciting as hearing them as they incorporate dance and playacting into their performance. The combination of N'dour's soaring soprano voice and the polyrhythmic sound of his band made for a performance that was not only a celebration of music but the joy of being alive as well.

However, this is Gabriel's show, From the moment he and the band, Tony Levin (bass) David Rhodes (guitar) Manu Katche (drums) and David Sancious (keyboards) open the show with "This is the Picture/Excellent Birds" (a song written with Laurie Anderson) you feel like you've entered into an exciting new world of sound, light and dance. For this isn't your ordinary rock concert with guys standing in a row playing. Nor is it the overblown effects some bands use to hide the inadequacy of their material. Instead what you have is a carefully choreographed and orchestrated show down to the smallest of hand gestures.

Gabriel uses his stage lightening not just for mood. It is almost a dance partner as he uses shadow, colour and light to help him weave the various stories he's telling or to accent a song's emotional content. His concerts run the gamut of taking us into the shadows where our darkest secrets lie (He introduces "Shock The Monkey" as a song about jealousy) to hope, "Games Without Frontiers" his anthem for peace and the joy of life's simple pleasures, "Solsbury Hill". On the latter the stage is bathed in clean white light and Gabriel, Levin and Rhodes almost skip around the immense stage in exuberant, yet simply choreographed, movements.
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However, it was on the song "Mercy Street" where he put both technology and choreography to their most daring usage. Not only did the lights play a part in the movement of the song. the lighting equipment itself became part of an elaborate dance with Gabriel. A portion of his lighting equipment was on a series of mobile crane like arms which could be raised, lowered, contracted and extended seemingly effortlessly. During "Mercy Street" these structures swung over the stage and then pressed down in what looked like attempts to crush Gabriel as he cowered under them. At times he would thrust the lights away from him and they would swing back up into the sky, only to come plunging back down again as he tried to stand. Not only was it an impressive display of coordinating the technical aspect of a show with the performance, it shows the depth of Gabriel's stage craft and his willingness to push the envelope of invention in all directions.

Never the less, all the technical wizardry and all the kinetic energy in the world would still be an empty shell if there wasn't a heart beating inside of, and an intellect controlling, it. In this case it's the heart and mind of one of the most passionate and intelligent performers in popular music. While those moments when Gabriel is in motion are without doubt very exciting, it's when he's still he's his most powerful. In 1987 South Africa was still under white minority rule and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Apartheid and all the crimes committed against humanity caused by it was still a fact of life and the name Steven Biko was still emblematic for the mistreatment of Black Africans everywhere in South Africa. Biko was a school teacher and non-violent protester against apartheid who died in police custody September 12 1977 at the age of 30.

Gabriel wrote the song "Biko" in 1980 in commemoration of the man and what he believed in. The lyrics are simple and to the point, describing how he was found dead in his prison cell, and then repeating his name over and over again as part of a chant played over the sound of keyboard synthesized bagpipes and simple drum. Usually Gabriel stands stalk still in the centre of the stage to sing this song, and on this tour he closed all his shows with it, with his only movement raising his fist straight in the air. In Athens he was joined on stage by Youssou N'dour and members of his band for the chant. There is such power in this man and in this moment, that I defy anyone with a heart to listen to this song, especially this version, without shedding at least one tear. Although Biko's plight might be in the past, the song resonates with such power listening to it being performed today, 26 years later, not only reminds us of past horrors, but the fact people are still being kept in conditions similar to those which led to Biko's death today.

Peter Gabriel is the consummate performer. Not only does he understand how to marry technology and art like few others, he doesn't need technology to make his music great. He only uses it to enhance the experience for those watching not to make up for any deficiencies in his work. Live In Athens 1987 is a perfect example of this in action. Both the Blu-ray of the concert and the collected videos on the DVD are all the proof anyone will ever need. This is a case of technology finally catching up to an artist's vision rather than the other way round.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987)

September 11, 2013

Music Review: Dexys - One Day I'm Going To Soar


One of the more interesting sub genres of music to come about has to be Irish soul. An offshoot of blue eyed soul - the term given to soul music sung by white singers - its first major proponent was Van Morrison. However it was probably made most famous by the movie The Commitments, which followed the ups and downs of an Irish soul band. In the late 1970s another Irish soul band was born out of the ashes of various London based punk bands. Fronted by Kevin Rowland, Dexys Midnight Runners achieved international attention with their combination of Irish folk, soul music and punk intensity as personified by their hit single "Come On Eileen".

Nearly 15 years since they last released a new recording Rowland is back with a new name, a new band and a more refined sound. Now known simply as Dexys their new release, One Day I'm Going To Soar, through BMG is straight Irish soul. Instead of the wild kinetic energy which drove the original band's material this latest incarnation is a far more sedate affair. The music is no longer the assault upon the senses it once was. The raging tornado they were back in the 1980s is now the gentle ebb and flow of the tide as it steadily advances and ebbs along the shore.

No longer super charged - anyone who saw the band in their hay day in the early 1980s will have vivid memories of the entire band charging the front of the stage like a live wall of sound - and far fewer in number then they once were, the band still retains the same core passion which made them so potent originally. Burning at the centre like a red hot sun sits Rowland; the molten core heating everything he comes in touch with. It's his presence which keeps the majority of the tunes on the disc from crossing over into the territory of being too slick and sweet. His rough hewn voice loaded with gravel and intensity rises above even soaring strings to keep things honest and soulful.
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Which isn't to say the others members of the band aren't gifted. Far from it. As usual Rowlands has surrounded himself with wonderfully talented players. From previous incarnations of Dexys are Mick Talbot on keyboards, Pete Williams on bass and Jim Paterson on trombone. Joining them are newcomers Neil Hubbard and Tim Cansfield on guitars, Madeleine Hyland vocals, Lucy Morgan on viola and Ben Trigg conducting the strings section. (Although there's obviously a drummer, I couldn't find any mention of who was playing the kit either on the band's web site or in the album's credits) What's really impressive is how big a sound the band is able to create. You would think far more people were playing the way they to create the ebbs and flows of required to make this type of music work.

For unlike most blues based music soul is all about the rise and fall of the sound. It comes at you in waves as if the players back away from a moment in contemplation before deciding to commit themselves. Once the decision is made the music builds along with the singer's passion and in theory the listener should be swept away by the sea of feelings generated. Unfortunately a great deal of soul music relies on things like swelling strings, or something similar, in an attempt to generate the sensation. There aren't very many singers or bands who can carry songs like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye or any of the other great soul singers of the past did. Instead of there being a symbiotic relationship between vocalist and music where they each carry the other, too much of the soul music I've heard ends up being the music disguising the vocalist's inadequacies.

This isn't the case with Dexys and Rowland. The music and vocals work together perfectly to reflect the emotion behind each song. There's was only one occasion, "You", track 5, where it felt like they went overboard in their attempts to sell the song. There was just a little too much swelling strings making the tune somewhat insipid. Thankfully it was the exception instead of the rule as the rest of the disc's 11 tracks are perfect examples of what soul music should sound like.
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Even better than the sound were the lyrics. Instead of simply being satisfied with songs about unrequited love or how much the singer loves somebody, Rowland and company branch out and have written some darkly humorous numbers. One of my favourites was track 10, "Free", a song in praise of the glories of the single life. "I can't fucking wait to go outside and live my life/At last I'm free and I'm going to be the man I'm meant to be/They say, you don't marry you'll be lonely, (yeah)/All good men raise a family (Oh yeah)/Hey, that's not what I see/No, in truth some of them they don't seem so happy/They tolerate misery, but that is not for me"

Not the lyrics you'd expect from a soul song, or any pop song come to think of it. Rowland has retained the puckish humour and insolence which distinguished his music from so many others in the first place. Along with his abilities as a vocalist, he still has the ability to go up and down a scale without effort and infuse his lyrics with more character than almost anyone else in pop music, it's this edge which has always made his material intelligent and fun to listen to. Even when the music is at its most exuberant one can't help listening to what he has to say.

If you pick up One Day I'm Going To Soar in the hopes of hearing the band you heard in the 1980s you'll be disappointed. However, if you come looking to hear one of the best examples of Irish soul music to be recorded in many years you'll be well satisfied. Dexys ain't Dexys Midnight Runners, but none of us are what we were thirty years ago. As is only proper Rowland and company have moved on and evolved into something different. Yet, the music he and his band produce is as passionate and powerful as it ever was, it's just being delivered in a different package.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Dexys - One Day I'm Going To Soar)

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)

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.
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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.
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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.