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Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Springsteen’

(Above: The re-tooled BoDeans cover the Boss at a recent stop on their American Made tour. This is the band’s first outing without founding member Sam Llanas.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The urgency in Kurt Neumann’s voice was so strong that he repeated the phrase twice before ending the show: “Buy ‘American Made’ and we’ll come back and play for you.” Translation: we need you to buy our new album to keep going.

Neumann has a lot pushing against him right now. His band, the BoDeans, had a handful of near-hits and big opportunities in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Neumann is determined to be something more than a nostalgia act.Sunday’s 90-minute concert at Knucklehead’s was a defiant statement. Neumann confidently mixed songs from “American Made” with the band’s classic. Most importantly proved he could carry the BoDeans without founding member, songwriting partner and stage foil Sam Llanas.

Llanas may have been missed on the setlist – there was no “Feed the Fire,” “Far Far Away” or “Runaway” – but the fans flooded to the dance floor for “Texas Ride Song” and kept it crowded for most of the night.

The setlist bounced between four decades of work, but the songs all carried the same earthy rock feel that defied time. The new group of players Neumann assembled in the wake of Llanas’ departure brought a freshness to the material and were playing with something to prove.

Percussion player Alex Marrerro enhanced Neumman’s lead vocals with his high harmonies. The interplay between Warren Hood’s violin and longtime member Michael Ramos’ accordion and organ often recalled the roots/zydeco sound of John Mellencamp’s heyday. During “The Ballad of Jenny Rae,” guitarist Jake Owen slipped in a tribute to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord.

Between songs, Neumann was chipper, explaining how a snowstorm in Montana inspired “Idaho” (the title state provided an easier rhyme) and plugging new single “All the World,” which is getting some airplay on CMT. The introductions to the Johnny Cash-inspired “Flyaway” and “Paradise” revealed similar themes of a positive mindset as the ultimate freedom.

Neumann was smart enough to know that the road to the future will be paved with his past, closing with four fan favorites that got everyone on their feet. He called it a night with “Closer to Free,” the song that served as the theme to “Party of Five” and landed the band in the Top 10. As the audience sang along, it’s hard to imagine the message didn’t resonant with the players onstage as well.

Set list: Stay On, Texas Ride Song, Good Work, Flyaway, The Ballad of Jenny Rae, Tied Down and Chained, Paradise, Idaho, All the World, Angels, American, Fade Away > Good Things. Encore: Still the Night, Closer to Free.

Keep reading:

Review: Farm Aid

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed

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(Above: Alejandro Escovedo soundchecks “Lucky Day” during a recent stop at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

In a career that spans four decades, Alejandro Escovedo has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Mickey Raphael, Ian Hunter, Whiskeytown, a string quartet and a host of other talents in his own ensembles. On Thursday night at 1911 Main he performed with an octet of Kansas City’s finest musicians. The result sounded as strong and invigorating as any of Escovedo’s high-profile collaborations.

There wasn’t much room to get acquainted in the opening number, “This Bed Is Getting Crowded.” Far from intimidated, the ad-hoc band threw plenty of muscle into the hard-driving number from Escovedo’s latest album. The smiles exchanged across the stage confirmed what the fans in the comfortably crowded venue suspected: this was going to be a show to remember.Throughout the nearly two-hour set, Escovedo chatted casually between songs, sharing stories about the songs, recalling past gigs and friends in Kansas City — particularly his numerous shows at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club — and generally having a good time. In a lot of ways, the performance felt more like a night out with friends than a capital-P Performance.

High points included the beautiful back-to-back ballads “Five Hearts Breaking” and “Swallows of San Juan” — both of which featured nice steel guitar playing from Mike Stover — and the joyous “Always a Friend.” Later in the night the band smoothly slid from the smoldering “Everybody Loves Me” into the intimate “Gravity/Falling Down Again,” completely and effortlessly transforming the emotion of the room.

Friend and Midwestern Musical Co. owner Matt Kessler got numerous shout-outs for allowing the band to rehearse in his space, being a good friend and for turning 50 at midnight. His birthday present was being allowed to strap on a guitar and sit in with the band for the party-inducing “Castanets” and encore set.

The band, dubbed the Cody Wyoming Deal, was led by Wyoming on guitar and backing vocals, and also included guitarists Stover and Christopher Meck, Erik Voeks on bass and backing vocals, drummer Paul Andrews. Abigail Henderson, Lauren Krum and Katie Gilchrist also contributed backing vocals.

Setlist: This Bed Is Getting Crowded, Crooked Frame, Real As An Animal, Rosalyn, Five Heart Beating, Swallows of San Juan, Always a Friend, Wave Goodbye, Tender Heart, I Don’t Need You, Down in the Bowery, Sister Lost Soul, Pissed Off 2 a.m., Everybody Loves Me > Gravity/Falling Down Again, Castanets. Encore: Velvet Guitar, Shine a Light (Rolling Stones cover).

Keep reading:

Review: Alejandro Escovedo (2010)

Review: Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)

Review: Los Lobos (2011)

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(Above: Jay-Z takes fans behind the scenes for the making of  the cover for his 2009 release “The Blueprint 3.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There is no shortage of books on album artwork. Pick a decade, genre or label and you’ll likely have several volumes to choose among. Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle make an impressive entry into this crowded field with their book “The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995.”

While some of the album covers are inevitably familiar – Santana’s “Abraxas,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind”  - the grouping sets this volume apart. Albums are arranged in ten categories ranging from sex, drugs and rock and roll to ego, drugs, politics and death.

artofLPwebIt’s fascinating to watch the evolution of styles and boundaries. In the 1950s, for example, just showing a black man’s face with a red tint as on Sonny Rollins’ “A Night at the ‘Village Vanguard’ was enough to shock a racially uneasy country in the middle of the red scare. Barely over a decade later, “black power” was in full force on covers such as Miles Davis’ “On the Corner” and Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove.” More subtle comments on race and politics gave way to confrontational styles embraced in succession by reggae, punk and hip hop.

Especially interesting are the two-page spreads, like the one juxtaposing the use of the American flag on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 release “There’s A Riot Going On,” Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 “Born in the U.S.A.” and the Black Crowes’ 1993 album “Amorica.” Stone alters the flag’s stars to make it a statement against the Vietnam War, while the backdrop to Springsteen’s anti-Vietnam statement is seen as patriotic. The Black Crowes chose an image from Hustler of a woman in a flag patterned bikini. The authors note that the Crowes statement wouldn’t have been unusual in the free love era of the ‘60s, but needed the relaxed censorship of the ‘90s to gain mainstream circulation.

Arranging the albums so they comment and reflect on each other, not only reinforces the themes, but adds a deeper appreciation of the work. Students of art will undoubtedly relish this experience, but for the rest of us Morgan and Wardle have added a solid block of text for each work. This paragraph not only provides the context of the time and artists, but explains what the artist may have been trying to accomplish.

This text is especially fun on the disastrous covers marked with an exclamation point.  The authors clearly have a special place in their hearts for the Scorpions. No less than three of the ‘80s German metal outfit’s covers are denoted. Reaching a “Spinal Tap” moment, they muse “Would the Scorpions ever learn the difference between sexy and sexist? Of course not.”

Ending just before the peak of the CD era, Morgan and Wardle give their subjects the largest canvass possible. The oversized pages allow for half-size reproductions. Music fans used to viewing tiny CD booklets will be amazed at the details that spring from the page. Fans accustomed to vinyl sleeves won’t miss much. Gatefold covers or albums that answer the cover artwork on the back are also given full exhibition. The handsome hardbound book is housed in a red plastic slipcase.

“The Art of the LP” is a visual jukebox that will entertain and inspire music fans and artists alike. Unless your coffee table is already loaded with similar books, I suggest making room for this one.

Keep reading:

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Review: “Neil Young – Long May You Run: The Illustrated History”

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

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(Above: Arlo Guthrie pays tribute to his father as their friend Pete Seeger aids in a performance of “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Illegal immigration is a hot-button topic in the current political landscape, but it is hardly a new issue. In January, 1948, a plane crashed carrying 28 migrant farmers being deported by the U.S. government. All 32 passengers were killed in this tragedy, but when newspapers and radio stations reported the incident they only mentioned the names of the pilot, co-pilot, stewardess and guard. The workers were described only as “deportees.”

This incensed Woody Guthrie, who felt the workers were just as human as the other victims. Thus inspired, he wrote a poem expressing the injustice of the situation. Since the workers’ names were not known – 60 years later, 12 of the victims are still unknown – he made up names.

Ten years later, Guthrie had been hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital for what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s disease. Although Guthrie was very much out of the public eye, learning his music became a rite of passage for the musicians in the burgeoning folk revival. Schoolteacher Martin Hoffman was inspired by Guthrie’s “Deportee” poem and set the words to music. The song was quickly passed around the folk community and Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger added it to his repertoire.

Guthrie’s lyrics not only pay respect to the departed workers, but question the system that seduces workers to leave their families and risk their lives to find unsecured work under questionable conditions. In addition to the 28 workers who died in the plane crash, Guthrie jumps to first person and pays tribute to the other workers who either died on the job in America or perished trying to reach a better life.

“We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same. “

After restoring humanity to the anonymous deportees and chronicling the plights of their families and countrymen, Guthrie delivers some damning questions in the final verse.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?

In the 2004 book “Reefer Madness,” author Eric Schlosser raises many of the same questions with his essay “In the Strawberry Fields.” Drawing on firsthand accounts, Schlosser describes the conditions of the illegal farmers in the California strawberry fields. The workers’ living conditions and treatment are amount to slavery in all but name, he argues. Schlosser’s questions, like Guthrie’s, remain unanswered.

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” has been covered so often that Guthrie biographer Joe Klein declared it the “last great song” Guthrie wrote. Artists who have recorded their vision of the song, either in tribute, in protest or both, include Pete Seeger, Guthrie’s son Arlo Guthrie, the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, the country super group the Highwaymen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Concrete Blonde, Nanci Griffith, the Los Lobos side group Los Super Seven, Old Crow Medicine Show and Billy Bragg.

Keep reading:

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

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(Above: The only acceptable version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A fun game has been going around the internet recently: Name 15 albums that influenced your taste in music today in 15 minutes. Because we never play anything straight up at The Daily Record, we twisted the rules a little and came up with 15 songs we dislike by artists we like.

  1. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven.” Might as well get this heavy out of the way first. Classic rock radio has destroyed this great band’s best-known song. I’ve heard it so many times at this point I can conjure it up in my sleep. I never need to hear it again. Let me go one step further: I’d rather hear a half-hour live version of “Moby Dick” than have to sit through “Stairway” again.
  2. Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game.” Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song about the cycles of life is actually a remarkable song. It works too well, though, leaving me completely depressed and feeling like I care about has decayed around me in just under 5 minutes. No wonder Mitchell selected this song to close her classic album “Ladies of the Canyon.” After this there’s nowhere to go.
  3. Beastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right To Party.” The Beastie Boys were a lot more creative and fun than the frat boy stereotype this dumb song earned them.
  4. Van Halen – “Love Walks In.” The Sammy Hagar period of the band is rightly painted as inferior to the original lineup, but you can’t help when you were born and I came of age right in the middle of Van Hagar. I never had a problem with Eddie switching from six-string to synths, but the sugary melody combined with lyrics about aliens made this song more than I could handle.
  5. Boogie Down Productions – “Jimmy.” Usually a master of the message, KRS-One’s sermon on safe sex comes off as both preachy and simplistic. The idiotic chorus destroys what little credibility may remain. The track did inspire the Young MC cut “Keep It In Your Pants” from his follow-up to “Stone Cold Rhymin’.” I wish I didn’t know these things, but I do and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
  6. Anyone – “The Long Black Veil.” First performed by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, this country classic has become a staple for Johnny Cash, The Band, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and a dozen more. I can’t argue with any of those artists, but for a reason I could never put a finger on, it never resonated with me.
  7. Radiohead – “Creep.” This song introduced Radiohead to America, and for that I should be grateful, but “Pablo Honey” is the outlier in their catalog for me. In my mind, the catalog officially starts with “The Bends.”
  8. James Brown – “Killing Is Out, School Is In.” This song became the unintentional center point of Brown’s 2002 concert at the River Market. A lackluster set had already been derailed by a couple Janis Joplin covers by Brown’s then-wife and mayor Kay Barnes onstage proclamation of James Brown Day. Several years after Columbine, the message was not only no longer timely, but embarrassing. The song was later released as a single. Thankfully few heard it.
  9. David Bowie – “Changes.” Yet another song ruined by radio and turned into lazy shorthand for its era by television and movie producers.
  10. The Beatles – “The Long and Winding Road.” Dislike may be too strong a word for this song, but Paul McCartney had already delivered a better ballad for the “Let It Be/Get Back” project. This one feels like a syrupy afterthought to me.
  11. Steve Earle – “The Devil’s Right Hand.” This number brought Earle acclaim as a songwriter before he established himself as a recording artist in his own right. I think Lynyrd Skynyrd covered the same turf better with “Saturday Night Special.” The verses aren’t band, but the song is overly reliant on the repetitive chorus.
  12. The Who – “Behind Blues Eyes.” This sensitive number never seemed to fit in with the rest of “Who’s Next” and it seemed even more out of place as a single. Pete Townshend usually struck the right balance of being tough and vulnerable at the same time (see “The Song Is Over” or “How Many Friends”). He sounds weak and whiney on “Blue Eyes.” Limp Bizkit’s cover confirmed my instinct. Sympathy for Fred Durst? Never!
  13. Anyone but Muddy Waters – “Hoochie Coochie Man.” In the hands of Waters and the Chess studio pros, this is a blues masterpiece. For just about anyone else, it is usually a lame attempt for a middle-aged white guy to show he’s hep to the blooze. I’m looking at you Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, Steven Seagal and Dion.
  14. Jay-Z – “Young Forever.” Alphaville’s 1984 hit “Forever Young” worked perfectly as the soundtrack to Napolean Dynamite’s dance with Deb. In the hands of Hova, however, it is ridiculous.
  15. Louie Armstrong – “What A Wonderful World.” There’s nothing wrong with Satchmo’s sublime performance. He manages to walk the tightrope between sincere and saccharine as the strings underneath support his presentation. Unfortunately, no one understood the song’s message, as it has a crutch when movie producers want to tug on heartstrings. Joey Ramone’s version was great upon release, but in the decade since it has become a hipster version of the same cliché.  I guess this leaves me with Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips’ weird yet heartfelt reading. I don’t think mainstream America is ready for that to be thrust down their throats – yet.

Keep reading:

Review: Flaming Lips New Year’s Freakout

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

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(Above: The Old 97s road-test the new song “Every Night Is Friday Night Without You.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The 16-year history of the Texas-born Old 97s follows a trajectory well worn by other bands: start out with plenty of youthful energy and fire in the belly and gradually grow more mellow and/or pop-oriented. For theirThursday night’s performance at Crossroads, the alto-country quartet shrugged off its pop trappings and attacked their material with vibrant intensity.

The first sign of the evening’s energy came on the second song, “Dance With Me.” Recorded as a pop song for their latest album, 2008’s “Blame It On Gravity,” guitarist Ken Bethea tore into the main riff like a buzz saw, pushing the tempo to nearly double its original speed. When bass player Murry Hammond was given the mic shortly thereafter for a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” the band pushed and prodded the laid-back vocalist.

Flanked by Bethea and Hammond in nearly matching red plaid shirts, photogenic singer/front man Rhett Millershook his hips like Elvis behind his Stratocaster. He yelped, yowled and screamed his way through the 90 minute set list that featured as many cuts from their first album – four- as their latest.

The band’s third album, “Too Far To Care,” is widely considered its best. They treated the crowd to six cuts, or nearly half the album and they consistently received the biggest responses of the night. “Big Brown Eyes” and “Barrier Reef” got everyone dancing and Miller took an audience request of “Niteclub” during the encore.

Miller seemed to enjoy playing the scorned lover and dumping extra venom into likes like “I hope you crash your momma’s car” and “Thought so much about suicide/parts of me have already died” on back-to-back trips down lonely street during “Lonely Holiday” and “Wish the Worst.” A couple songs later, on “Melt Show,” he emphatically kicked the air during the chorus.

Bethea spurred Miller’s energy, leaping into the air at the start of “The Fool,” dropping a Dick Dale-style guitar solo into “Smokers,” another Hammond vocal showcase,” and adding a nice countermelody to the most delicate and upbeat song in their catalog, “Question.” His solo leading into “Timebomb,” the traditional closer, turned the already fast number into something like a punk song.

Drummer Philip Peeples was the brick on the accelerator that never let up. His cadences consistently pushed the band harder and faster. His kit was at the center of “Every Friday Night Is Lonely Without You,” a staccato-riffed song from the band’s upcoming fall album. It was the only song the half-capacity crowd didn’t sing or air guitar along to all night, but embraced just the same. Peeples also took nice mini-solos during “Doreen” and “Early Morning.”

Lucero rock the Bottleneck in 2008.

The drum solo after “Early Morning” led into a reading of R.E.M.’s “Driver 8,” one of covers the band cut for its new “Mimeograph” EP. The arrangement hewed closely to the original, but it was interesting to hear the lyrics through Miller’s enunciation.

Normally the more rambunctious of the two bands, Lucero was more subdued that night. Singer Ben Nichols embraced the band’s mellow side with numbers like the gospel piano ballad “Goodbye Again,” “Kiss the Bottle” and the one-two of “Hey Darlin’ Do You Gamble?” and “Nobody’s Darlings.”

The five-piece band displayed its Memphis roots by adding a two-piece horn section for a set that featured several cuts from last year’s album “1372 Overton Park.” Early in the set the horns competed with the pedal steel in the mix, but they soon settled in adding extra punch and depth. The brass gave “That Much Further To Go” and “Sixes and Sevens” an E Street sound.

Lucero’s 65-minute set ended with nearly everyone taking a solo during the joyous “All Sewn Up.”

Old 97s setlist: Streets of Where I’m From; Dance With Me; Won’t Be Home; Mama Tried (Merle Haggard cover); Lonely Holiday; Wish the Worst; The Fool; Smokers; Melt Show; Question; Stoned; Up the Devil’s Pay; Barrier Reef; Driver 8 (REM cover); Early Morning; Can’t Get A Line; Big Brown Eyes; Doreen. Encore:Every Night Is Friday Night Without You; Niteclub; The Easy Way; Timebomb.

Keep reading:

Review: Old 97s (2008)

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed (with Lucero)

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

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(Above: “Jefferson Jericho Blues” is one of several new songs Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been regularly playing on their tour this summer.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The sets Heart and Sarah McLachlan delivered back-to-back at last week’s Lilith Fair were studies in contrast. Sure their styles are wildly divergent, but each act presented three new songs during their one-hour sets.

Heart was proud of their songs, delivering them in succession. They may have gone one song too far, but the crowd responded positively. McLachlan, on the other hand, apologized for performing new songs. She sprinkled them throughout her hit-laden set and express regret before and after each one. She needn’t have bothered – the audience enjoyed them anyway.

Beloved songwriter James Taylor has only released one album of original material this decade.

Nostalgia is the single most lucrative element in the music industry today. Fans are wiling to shell out more than ever to see legendary artists in concert. Paradoxically, those fans are loathe to hear anything outside of the sacred catalog. This is a closed cannon. With a few exceptions, anything after two dozen hit singles or 10 successful albums is off limits. Some artists, like Billy Joel, are fine with this. Joel hasn’t written any new pop material in nearly two decades. Others, like Fleetwood Mac, shuttle most of their new music to individual projects (although the band did deliver a new album in 2003, their first in eight years).

Solo performers have fewer options. Paul McCartney and Elton John have bravely soldiered on, each releasing four albums in the past decade and highlighting his latest release in concert. James Taylor and Paul Simon have slowed their output to a trickle; both have only released one or two albums of original material in the new millennium, respectively.

Guitarist Junior Marvin and the Original Wailers have been playing material from their upcoming album alongside Bob Marley's classic material.

Then there are the rare established artists whose fans salivate over new material. In 2007, Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic” hit No. 1 on the album charts. Despite a Clear Channel missive not to play any of the new material on its stations, Springsteen performed the majority of the album on his sold-out tour. When “Working on a Dream” appeared just 18 months later, it featured heavily in setlists as well.

The Original Wailers face an even more daunting task. Their catalog is not only the most popular and indelible in reggae, but Bob Marley, their frontman and songwriter, has been dead for 30 years. When the band performed in Kansas City earlier this year they boldly mixed many original songs from their upcoming album in with Marley’s classics. Surprisingly, the new riddims didn’t stop the dancing for a moment.

Artists have three choices onstage: ignore performing new material, apologize and play a couple new songs, or deliver a block of new material. None of these are optimal. (Quick caveat: the songs in question should be worthwhile additions to the catalog, not a cheap excuse to trot out the same tired hits yet again.)

Overconfidence in new material may send fans fleeing for the bathroom and bar. I’m confused why any artist would ever apologize for the music they perform, especially if it is something they have written or hold dear. Ignoring new work reinforces the same message as apologizing: I’m not proud of this material. If they’re not proud of it, why should fans bother?

Despite their perceived authority and glamor, artists have little power over how their music will be marketed, sold and received. Going onstage is as close to complete control that they will ever have. Songwriters should own all of their material, especially the latest and least familiar. Don’t be afraid to surprise. Weaving new material in with the old not only freshens the setlist, but shakes some dust off the favorites by placing them in a new perspective and context. It tells the fan “if you liked this then, try this now.” Remember: Today’s new songs are tomorrow’s sing-alongs.

Keep reading:

Review: Lilith Fair

Review: The Original Wailers

Review: Bruce Springsteen

Review: James Taylor and Carole King

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Edwin Starr – “War,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.

Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.

Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.

Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.

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(Above: Clarence Clemons, the Big Man, recalls the phone call that put the E Street Band on hiatus for 10 years.)

By Joel Francis

Legions of dedicated Bruce Springsteen fans have no doubt haunted hotel bars after concerts in hopes of being able to buy their heroes a drink and soak in their stories. In his new autobiography “Big Man,” E Street saxophone player Clarence Clemons offers fans the next best thing with 360 pages of his favorite stories from the road and adventures with friends like Robert DeNiro, Kinky Friedman and, of course, the Boss.

The warning is right there in the subtitle: “Real Life and Tall Tales.” This is not a chronological telling of Clemons’ life. Rather, it’s a series of episodes and anecdotes. In the first 50 pages, the story races from Clemmons’ childhood in rural Virginia to meeting Springsteen, his first job with a band and ultimately joining the Bruce Springsteen Band.

Early vignettes like the portrait of Clemons and Springsteen hanging out underneath the Jersey pier are vivid snapshots of uninhibited creativity, innocence and ambition. The book is best when it operates along these lines, lifting the veil of history and putting the reader in the moment.

Clemmons’ telling of receiving a phone call from Springsteen while on tour with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band is especially poignant. Also entertaining is the tale of shooting pool with Fidel Castro in Cuba as Hunter S. Thompson offers commentary from the bar.

But moments like this are divorced from context, and raise many unanswered questions. Clemons never discusses how he spent decade away from the E Street Band or how he became friends with the Good Doctor. Too frequently the story is bogged down by diversions of pay phone conversations with Groucho Marx and competitive exchanges with Norman Mailer.

There is no doubt that Clemons is an intelligent man, filled with wit who knows how to tell a story. He is happy to take the reader into the Temple of Soul, the backstage sanctuary Clemons creates before each show, but unwilling to reveal everything that happens away from the music.

Clemons recognizes omitting the juicy bits undermines his purpose. At one point he jokes about writing another book that contains all the sex and drug stories from the early days and publishing it after everyone in the band has died, but realizes everyone has children and grandchildren and quickly recants. The decision is understandable, but the kid gloves weaken the saga and experience.

For example, we learn that Springsteen has two rules: don’t take drugs and be on time. Clemons reports that since he breaks one rule regularly, he is always punctual. Drugs, particularly marijuana, show up several times, but Clemons never explains his introduction to these experiences or their perpetual attraction.

Clemons is more transparent about his health problems. He had both knees and hips replaced prior to the “Working on a Dream” tour and underwent a tough rehab regimen before being able to perform at the Super Bowl. These issues, coupled with ruminations on the deaths of E Street veterans Danny Federici and Terry Magovern give the last third of the book a morbid preoccupation. What should be a celebration, feels like a premature wake.

The biggest problem with “Big Man,” however, is co-writer Don Reo. While most “as told to” authors stay in the background, Reo has no difficulty inserting himself into the story, bragging about his past as a television writer for “The Cher Show” and bringing “Blossom” to the small screen. Reo sometimes serves as an uber-fan insider, providing a third-party perspective on the inner workings of a Springsteen tour or an alternate angle on some of Clemons’ tales. Unfortunately, he’s too preoccupied with dropping names and gushing about how cool it is to be part of Clemmons’ entourage to be completely effective.

Reo’s interruptions also cause an inconsistent narrative voice. Clemmons’ story distractingly jumps between first and third person, depending on which author is helming the chapter.

Despite these shortcomings, “Big Man” is a breezy, entertaining read. Although it may have worked better as a series of blog entries or podcasts, hardcore fans will revel in hearing the man who defined “Jungleland” spin yarns.

(Below: Clemons reflects on the death of longtime E Street band member Danny Federici.)

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Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 1)

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

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(Above: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band back Chuck Berry at the 1995 Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.)

By Joel Francis

“Rock Hall Live,” an exquisite nine DVD box set of performances and speeches from the past 25 years of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies is a treasure trove for all music fans, but it should especially attractive to Bruce Springsteen fans. Springsteen appears on all but two of the discs in more than a dozen performances and nearly as many speeches. As the unofficial MC of the collection, Springsteen makes more appearances than anyone else.

On Monday, The Daily Record examined the first half of Springsteen’s performances on the “Rock Hall Live” box set. Today, we look at Springsteen’s appearance at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his triumphant E Street reunion kick-off and sitting in with U2.

1995 – “Johnny B. Goode” (with Chuck Berry)

In the classic Chuck Berry film “Hail Hail Rock and Roll,” Springsteen tells the story of how he and his pre-E Street band backed Berry in the 1970s. More than two decades later, at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Springsteen reprises the role here, this time with his E Street brothers in tow. Springsteen is relegated to backing vocals and rhythm guitar, but Clarence Clemons punctuates Berry’s lyrical bursts with stings of saxophone a la King Curtis. Sporting a goatee and ear-to-ear grin, Springsteen sheds his backup roll to peel off a brief solo after Berry’s duckwalk.

1995 – “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” (with Jerry Lee Lewis, rehearsal)

In this bonus feature Springsteen and the E Street band rehearses “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” with Jerry Lee Lewis before the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The musicians soundcheck their instruments as the crew preps the stage. There’s one dry run through the number, which is unfortunately edited out. Even though everyone is just messing around they still earn applause from the resting workers on the side of the stage. The footage isn’t incredible enlightening or interesting, but it’s worth watching once.

1999 – “The Promised Land,” “Backstreets,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “In the Midnight Hour” (with Wilson Pickett)

The E Street Band were on the cusp of their first tour together in 11 years when they teased the world with a four-song set at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. Although the entire performance is captured in the “Rock Hall Live” box, it is frustratingly spread across four discs. Springsteen calls each band member one at a time to join him during onstage during his induction to the hall. While there’s no rust from the decade apart in the opening “The Promised Land,” the band is still getting warmed up. There’s no sweat on Springsteen’s dress shirt at the end of the number.

One can tell from the opening chords of “Backstreets” that this is going to be a special performance. Springsteen unloads every ounce of his soul into the microphone and beats a great solo out of his battered Telecaster. The band is majestic and powerful and inspired the normally staid attendees to dance around their banquet tables.

As photos of a young Springsteen flash on video boards behind the band, the Boss drops to his knees as the classic Little Steven horn arrangement to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” kicks in. Sans guitar, Springsteen uses his arms, legs and hips to cue the band and animate the crowd. It works. Everyone onstage and in the crowd is firing on all cylinders when Billy Joel slips beside Roy Bittan on the organ bench and Wilson Pickett enters to deliver “In the Midnight Hour.” Pickett’s voice is as powerful as ever and Springsteen draws on his years of “Detroit Medley” experience to match that ferocity while delivering the second verse. The band burnishes their credentials as the best house band in the business. If anyone were looking to update “The Last Waltz” and showcase a classic ensemble and their influences, the E Street Band should be the top candidate.

2005 – “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (with U2)

“When I say that America is not just a country, but an idea, I’m thinking about people like Bruce Springsteen,” Bono says, introducing the song over The Edge’s chiming guitar chords. As the second verse starts, we catch a glimpse of Springsteen in the wings, waiting for his entrance. It takes the Boss a moment to get oriented before delivering the third verse, which kills the momentum of the performance. The moment is a bit superfluous – U2 doesn’t need his help – bit it’s a nice gesture. Springsteen matches Bono’s vocal passion and closes the performance on a powerful note.

Keep reading:

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

Review: “Big Man” by Clarence Clemons

New DVD Set Celebrates Rock Hall Performances

More Bruce Springsteen on The Daily Record

 

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