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(Above: 5FDP land a knockout in Lancaster, Penn. on Oct. 13, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

When your band is called Five Finger Death Punch, covering LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” seems preordained.

The surprise isn’t that the five-piece metal ensemble decided to record a hip hop tune, but that it took them four albums to do it. When the band finally decided to put their stamp on the classic rap track, they found perfect person to help out: Tech N9ne.

“Zoltan (Bathory, guitarist) came up with the idea, and the riff was laying around for a couple years,” said Death Punch drummer Jeremy Spencer. “Ivan (Moody, vocalist) and I are big Tech N9ne fans, so we asked our management to reach out. I thought he did an incredible job.”

Although he was on tour, Tech N9ne jumped at the request. The only time his schedule would allow was the very un-rock-and-roll time of 8 a.m.

“I usually get up about 11-ish, 12-ish,” Tech N9ne said. “I was worried about my voice because I had just done a show the night before. It was too early for me to be screaming, but it was meant to happen. I don’t sound groggy at all.”

tech-fiveWith the instrumental track complete and a scratch vocal track to provide direction, it didn’t take the Strange Music MC long to record his part. The hasty departure meant although they collaborated on tape, Spencer and Tech N9ne have still yet to meet face-to-face.

“I got an email from their people about two weeks ago saying they were playing Kansas City and asking me to join them. I just about died,” Tech N9ne said. “I wanted to perform with those guys, but will still be on tour. It would have been such a surprise to Kansas City. But don’t worry, I think we’ll be working together a lot in the future.”

Tech N9ne isn’t the only guest on the new Five Finger album. Judas Priest frontman and metal god Rob Halfort joined the band on lead single “Lift Me Up” and members of Soulfly, In the Moment and Hatebreed also appear.

“We’ve been able to experiment a little bit,” Spencer said. “There are some instrumental interludes that link one song to another, and one song has a spoken-word narration from Zoltan.”

The Los Angeles-based band had the freedom to expand their boundaries when they realized they had more than enough material for one album. Instead of culling the material for one release, they decided to release it all in two parts. “The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Vol. 1” came out in July. Volume two drops November 19.

“When you are touring, there is a lot of downtime. We’ve always had some kind of portable studio or recording device with us to keep that (creative) muscle flexing,” Spencer said. “We went into the studio this time with a wealth of material. When we got to 24-25 songs, we thought they all fit so well we didn’t want to separate them.”

Spencer said the band consciously spread out the tempos and textures across both albums rather than creating a common theme for each volume.

“I think you get a wide variety of emotion on both albums,” Spencer said. “You can interchange songs on either volume.”

The recording studio can be a harsh master that will fray even the best of bands – look no further than the Beatles’ “Let It Be” – Spencer said his band emerged from the process even stronger.

“I don’t want to overthink what happened. We just let the ideas flow and got out of the way,” Spencer said. “We all supported each other’s ideas, and the songs just happened. I definitely feel the group is tighter for whatever reason I can’t put my finger on.”

Thinking twenty-six songs and more than 90 minutes of new Death Punch material might be too much for fans to digest in one sitting, the band opted to pace releases. The glut of new songs also created issues when planning setlists.

“We try to balance the old and new. We don’t want to forget about people who want to hear the old hits,” Spencer said. “It’s kind of a good problem to have this much good new material.”

They may have nearly doubled their catalog this year, but Five Finger Death Punch aren’t resting on their laurels.

“We’ve definitely started talking about ideas,” Spencer said. “It will be exciting to move forward and see where it goes.”

Keep reading:

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(Above: ‘Song stylist’ Bettye LaVette captivates a sold-out crowd at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Mo. with an a capella version of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bettye LaVette didn’t write any of the songs she performed for 90 minutes in front of a sold-out crowd Saturday at Knuckleheads, but she owned every single one of them. It’s hard to imagine the original songwriters — including John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Lucinda Williams and Cee-Lo Green— investing more emotion than LaVette poured into her performance. Her voice ached and cracked with every syllable and her arms and legs writhed on every word.

Chatty and playful, LaVette told the audience the biggest reason why she covered Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was so her grandchildren would think she was hip. By stripping the song of its kinetic energy and slowing the tempo way down, LaVette turned the ubiquitous hit into a cathartic confession. It also illustrated why she’d rather be called a “song stylist” than a singer.

09.03.08_bettye_lavette253At any other concert LaVette’s mournful, pleading reading of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” would have been the showstopper. Saturday night it was only one of many powerful moments that earned pin-drop silence from the crowd. Other stand-out moments included “The Forecast” and the haunting country ballads “Choices” and “The More I Search (The More I Die).”

While many of the top performances were quiet, LaVette and her four-piece band did a great job of varying tempos and textures. A cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” was bathed in a swampy funk. “I’m Tired” was wrapped in a twisted country-rock guitar riff. The band’s best moment came on “Your Turn to Cry” when it successfully re-reated the Muscle Shoals production from LaVette’s shelved, would-be 1972 recording.

LaVette discussed those disappointments frankly, sharing how much she wanted to be on American Bandstand and how crushed she was when the show’s producers found her debut 1962 single “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man” too suggestive. She said that much of her life had been pretty good, except that she was continually denied her biggest joy, the opportunity to sing.

The happiness LaVette has found over the past 10 years when her career finally started taking off was evident in the night’s final songs, “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven” and an a capella reading of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”

Setlist: The Word; The Forecast; Take Me Like I Am; Choices; Joy; Your Turn to Cry; They Call It Love; Crazy; My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man; The More I Search (The More I Die); I’m Tired; Love Reign O’er Me; Close As I’ll Get to Heaven; I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

Keep reading:

Bettye LaVette – “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook”

Review: Buddy Guy and Bettye LaVette

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

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(Above: Civil Twilight drop “Letters from the Sky.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Stories of impressionable children seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and deciding to pick up an instrument are legion. Just as copious are examples of songs plagiarizing the Fab Four. Friday’s concert at the Beaumont Club by the South African rock band Civil Twilight is proof that society is finally moving on.

While their parents may have leaned heavily British Invasion acts, the four musicians onstage culled a different, equally rich, catalog. Opening number “Highway of Fallen Kings” revealed the game plan. The piano chords recalled Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” while Steven McKellar’s vocals were indebted to Sting.More than a few songs were beholden to U2. Andrew McKellar, brother to the band’s singer, threw down a moody guitar homage to The Edge in “Ever Walk.” The other McKellar not only modeled his vocal style on Bono, but his lyrics as well. The song “On the Surface” could have been a “How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” outtake, right down to the verse: “To stir humanity, divisions of dignity/to see what will conspire/If I throw myself into its fire.”Of course there’s nothing wrong with copying U2, or any band. Coldplay has done it profitably for a decade, right down to hiring the band’s best collaborator, Brian Eno. Radiohead’s critically acclaimed album “The Bends” also owes a debt to Dublin’s finest musical export.

There were several high points in the 90-minute set. The extended reading of “Please Don’t Find Me” ventured into dub territory and “Holy Weather” had most of the room bouncing. After mimicking others’ sounds for most of the evening, Civil Twilight turned a set-ending cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” blend seamlessly with the rest of the repertoire.

For “Quiet in My Town,” Steven McKellar stood onstage alone spent a rare moment conversing with the crowd. After recalling the band’s previous show at the Record Bar, he decided the song would best be delivered from the floor and hopped into the audience for a stirring solo performance. His bandmates returned for the outro and finally cut loose, relieving all the tension that had been building.

A scan of the crowd, which ranged from junior high students to college graduates, revealed at least one chaperone. Although the Beaumont Club was a third full at best, the attraction is obvious: Civil Twilight write catchy songs that perfectly capture a mood. Their familiarity is their biggest selling point. Although the material may have been drawn from the previous generation, it can easily be assimilated and claimed by young listeners as their own.

Whether or not Friday’s concert leads anyone to discover Civil Twilight’s influences on their own is immaterial. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, just being there was enough.

Setlist: Highway of Fallen Kings, Wasted, Every Walk That I’ve Taken Has Been In Your Direction, Shape of a Sound, Trouble, On the Surface, Please Don’t Find Me, Move/Stay, River, Holy Weather, Fire Escape, Letters from the Sky, Quiet in My Town. Encore: It’s Over, Teardrop (Massive Attack cover).

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R.I.P. R.E.M.

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(Above: Jeff Beck takes fans higher with this cover of the Sly and the Family Stone classic.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

After staying away from Kansas City for more than a decade, guitar wizard Jeff Beck has graced city limits twice in a year. The setlist for Saturday night’s concert at a sold-out Uptown Theater may have resembled his y concert at Starlight in APril 2010, but if anyone had a problem with the encore performance they did a good job of hiding it.

Beck had been touring with a pair of vocalists and a horn section and playing 1950s rockabilly and rock and roll classics, so it was somewhat disappointing to see him take the stage with his standard touring band. Any misgivings were easily brushed aside before the first chorus, however.

The musical structure of all pop songs is repetitive – verse, chorus, verse, bridge. Clever lyrics are a major reason why many songs stay fresh. As an instrumentalist, Beck turned to different tools to keep his music interesting. The guitarist and his backing trio, which included Jason Robello on keyboards, Rhonda Smith on bass and drummer Narada Michael Walden, worked hard to make sure the energy never flagged.

The hour-and-45-minute set shifted smoothly between all-out rockers like “Big Block” and delicate readings of “Corpus Christi Carol” and “Two Rivers.” When the quartet opened up the throttle they created a powerful sound. The rhythm section of Walden and Smith played off each other with a notesy, complementary competition in the vein of Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Robello subtly filled in the remaining colors.

Shunning the microphone set up at extreme stage right for most of the night, Beck did all of his communicating with his hands and arms. A flick of the wrist indicated the tempo, while an outstretched arm highlighted the soloist. By shooting his arm straight up, Beck induced a nifty call-and-response with audience during “Led Boots” and coaxed them into signing the final stanza of “Over the Rainbow.” When a fan seated near the stage was caught recording the performance, Beck wagged his finger back and forth disapprovingly.

Taking the stage in a black suit jacket and matching pants, Beck quickly shed the coat. His traditional attire of arms bare to the shoulders was almost like the magician’s disclaimer: nothing up my sleeves. But like a master illusionist, although Beck’s arsenal was on full display, it was impossible to figure out his tricks. On a fairly straightforward reading of “Over the Rainbow,” Beck played the melody barely moving his left hand on the neck of the guitar. The notes were altered by knobs and bars under his busy right hand.

The Beatles needed a full orchestra for their “A Day in the Life.” Beck had everything he needed beyond his wrists. Tenderly plucking the first verse, he slowly built the song until the grand climax exploded off the stage.

Over the course of the evening, Beck paid tribute to many of his favorite artists, including Jeff Buckley (“Corpus Christi Carol”), Muddy Waters (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” featuring White on vocals), Les Paul (“How High the Moon”), Jimi Hendrix (“Little Wing,” with Walden on the mic), Sly and the Family Stone (the lengthy raucous “I Want to Take You Higher”) and Puccini (set-closing “Nessun Dorma”). The styles may have been diverse, but Beck never sounded like anything other than himself.

Setlist: Plan B; Stratus; Led Boots; Corpus Christi Carol; Hammerhead; Mna Na Eireann (Women of Ireland); bass solo; People Get Ready; You Never Know; Rollin’ and Tumblin’; Big Block; Over the Rainbow; Little Wing; Blast from the East; Two Rivers; Dirty Mind; drum solo; Brush With the Blues; A Day in the Life. Encore: I Want to Take You Higher; How High the Moon; Nessun Dorma.

Keep reading: 

Jeff Beck relishes “Commotion”

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

Review: Bob Dylan

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 (Above: It may have been the holiday season, but John Lennon wasn’t pulling any punches when he put this video together. This extended cut also includes edited interviews with Lennon.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Before it was a song, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was a billboard. In 1969, two years before the song was written and recorded, John Lennon and Yoko Ono proclaimed “War is Over! (If You Want It)” on signage in New York, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo and several other major cities around the world. The signs were an outgrowth of Lennon and Ono’s bed-in for peace, but the phrase stuck in Lennon’s head.

When the couple relocated to New York City in 1971, Lennon quickly feel in the company of radical ‘60s activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Lennon had already gone on record against the Vietnam War at a Beatles press conference in 1966. The conflict was also a frequent topic of conversation during the bed-in. Instead of giving peace a chance, though, the United States had become even more entrenched in combat.

Inspired by his social circle and frustrated by another holiday season marked by fighting, Lennon turned his billboard slogan into a song. Lennon wrote the song over two nights in a New York City hotel room and recorded it almost immediately. Despite being released less than three weeks before Christmas, the single still managed to reach the Top 40. The feat was replicated each time the single was re-released. In Lennon’s native England, the single did not appear until 1972, when it went in the Top 5.

After a whispered shout-out (whisper-out?) to the pair’s children, Phil Spector’s wall of sound kicks in. The opening line – “And so this is Christmas/and what have you done?” – is both a nostalgic look back and the previous year and question of accountability. Despite having hope for the upcoming year, Lennon admits “the world is so wrong.” A chorus of children from the Harlem Community Choir echoes the words that started it all: War is over/If you want it.”

The melody is based on the folk ballad “Stewball,” a song about a British race horse. The first versions of “Stewball” date to the 18th century, but Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly put their stamp on the song in the 1940s. During the folk revival of the early ‘60s, both Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez included the song in their repertoire.

Many artists, including skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan, a big influence on Lennon and most British musicians of his generation, have cover “Stewball,” but their numbers pale in comparison to the roster of those who have recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” From Andy Williams and Celine Dion to Maroon 5 and American Idol David Cook to the Moody Blues and the Polyphonic Spree, the song has been covered by nearly every conceivable artist in nearly every conceivable genre.

Keep reading:

Review: “December 8, 1980″

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

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(Above: “(Just Like) Starting Over” announced John Lennon’s return to music in the fall of 1980. After his death, it occupied the No. 1 spot for five weeks.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Rock and roll is littered with artists who left too soon. None are mourned as deeply and fervently, though, as John Lennon. The former Beatle was gunned down outside his New York City home 30 years ago today.

Keith Elliot Greenberg’s new book, “December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died” marks the occasion. Much of the information contained in this brief volume has been presented before.  Even casual fans will be familiar with many of the details in Greenberg’s truncated telling of Lennon’s biography. While the Beatle’s story is well-known, Greenberg makes it worth visiting again.

“December 8, 1980” reads like a true crime television special, which makes sense given the author’s background as a producer for “America’s Most Wanted,” “48 Hours” and “MSNBC Investigates.” The unfolding day is interrupted by the histories of both Lennon and his assassin, Mark David Chapman.

Greenberg not only places the reader in both men’s minds heading to the fateful moment, but paints a vivid picture of Lennon’s home in the Dakota building and the state of New York City as a whole. First-hand stories from Lennon’s neighbors, autograph hounds who haunted the Dakota’s entry, musicians, fans and police officers. The details these auxiliary players provide peel back the years and familiarity and make the story seem fresh.

Although they were only tangentially related to the saga, Greenberg recounts the activities of Lennon’s fellow Beatles on that day, and their reactions to his death. One can feel the throngs pressing against Ringo as he visits Yoko Ono at the Dakota, and feel the energy of Bruce Springsteen’s unofficial tribute concerts in Philadelphia.

“December 8, 1980” concludes well after the titular date, covering Champan’s trial, the Beatles anthology reunion project, and the attempt on George Harrison’s life in 1999.

Beatles fans truly interested in the events of Dec. 8 and its main participants are advised to seek out any of the available solid Lennon biographies – Philip Norman’s “John Lennon: The Life” has received rave reviews – and Jack Jones’ 1992 Chapman biography “Let Me Take You Down.” Although it is essentially a distillation of those texts, Beatle fans looking for a light trot through that devastating day should be satisfied with Greenberg’s work.

 

Keep reading:

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (includes stories of Lennon’s concerts at Madison Square Garden and the Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh)

McCartney in Career Resurgence

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

 

 

 

 

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(Above: Pavement perform “Gold Soundz” live at the Uptown Theater on Sept. 11, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

About 20 minutes into Pavement’s set, lead singer and guitarist Stephen Malkmus announced to a crowded Uptown Theater that this was the band’s first time playing in Kansas City, if you don’t count Lollapalooza.

The house roared its appreciation for the underground rock band’s belated return, not just because this was only the second K.C. show in the group’s 20-year history, but because they’d been inactive for half of that time.

Saturday’s show would have been memorable even if it wasn’t a fan’s first time seeing the band, or the first time in a long time, as it was for most. The fervent crowd would have devoured anything their heroes delivered, but were treated to many of the band’s best-loved tunes, including three-quarters of the cuts off Pavement’s new greatest-hits compilation.

Calling any of Pavement’s songs “hits” is a bit misleading. Aside from “Cut Your Hair,” which appropriately featured the only rock star moment of the evening when Malkmus soloed behind is back, the band never had any chart success. In fact, it seems they went out of their way to avoid anything conventional. Their songs are anti-anthems, prone to taking left turns or ending just when they start to get settled.

This doesn’t lend itself to the campfire glow of a great sing-along, but the devoted still found a way to chime in. Numbers with a boisterous chorus like “Stereo” provided a natural opportunity to join in – the response to the line “no big hair” in “Cut My Hair” was especially boisterous. Less traditional songs like “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Loretta’s Scars” still found plenty participating.

Malkmus was angled at stage right, with his fellow guitarist/foil/adversary Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg at the other extreme. Kannberg took the vocals for two numbers, “Date w/ IKEA” and “Kennel District,” which closed the main set. Untethered by a microphone, bass player Mark Ibold – on leave from his current gig with Sonic Youth – roamed the stage, while drummer Steve West and percussionist Bob Nastanovich were positioned slightly off center in the back.

Nastanovich was the band’s secret weapon. Most of the time he was relegated to shaking a tambourine or egg, but would suddenly burst to the front of the stage screaming into the microphone. His pent-up energy was a nice change of pace from Malkmus trademark indifferent, slacker delivery, especially when the two styles were set against each other, as on “Conduit for Sale!”

On the brief instrumental “Heckler Spray,” Nastanovich’ second drum kit added some nice muscle. That set up a run through heavy, riff-based numbers “In the Mouth of Desert” and “Unfair.” Just as they seemed to be building momentum, Malkmus dropped the band to a hush with “Spit on a Stranger,” the prettiest song in their canon and the night’s only offering from their 1999 swan song “Terror Twilight.”

The only visual effects were several strings of large indoor/outdoor lights hung around the stage and into the audience. When lit, the theater felt like an elaborate backyard party. They created an especially jubilant atmosphere during upbeat numbers like “Silence Kit.” At one point between songs, Malkmus tried to toss his guitar up into the lights.

A devout sports fan, Malkmus performed in a Jamal Charles/Chiefs jersey. During the encore, he lamented that Charles now played for the “stupidest coach in the NFL.” Nastanovich echoed this sentiment urging the Chiefs to “fire (head coach Todd) Haley and hire Malkmus.”

The 100-minute set ended with “Range Life,” a playful tune that gently mocks the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots (which seemed a lot more relevant when it came out in 1994). No one wanted to quit, however, so Malkmus veered into the Beatles “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Finally the big sing-along moment arrived. It may have taken longer than expected, but it was well worth the wait.

Setlist: Gold Soundz; Rattled by the Rush; Starlings of the Slipstream; Shady Lane; Date W/ IKEA; Frontwards; Heckler Spray > In the Mouth a Desert; Unfair; Spit on a Stranger; Stereo; Loretta’s Scars; Conduit for Sale!; Shoot the Singer; Silence Kit; Trigger Cut; Grounded; Perfume V; Cut Your Hair; Stop Breathin’; Box Elder; Fight This Generation; Debris Slide; Kennel District. Encore: Here; Lions (Linden); We Dance; Range Life (including Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da).

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