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(Above: TV on the Radio perform “Could You,” a song from their newest album, on March 21, 2015, at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

TV on the Radio is no stranger to Kansas City. Nearly eight years ago to the day, the indie rock band delivered a transcendent performance at the Voodoo Lounge. They have returned twice since then, in support of their subsequent two releases.

Saturday night, the Brooklyn-based, indie rock band played at the Midland theater, their largest venue in town to date, in front of their biggest crowd.

The first five songs of the night all came from “Seeds,” the band’s latest album. They would return to it again twice more, and also perform a non-album single drawn from those sessions. A red strobe light enveloped the stage during opening number “Lazerray,” making the band look like a stop-motion video from the future.

Later, the red, green and yellow beams of light crossing the stage during the “Seeds”’ title track recalled the album’s cover. The chorus on that song sounds like a lost African proverb: “Rain comes down like it always does/This time I’ve got seeds on ground.” As singer Tunde Adebimpe repeated the uplifting message, the music slowly built in intensity, threatening to overwhelm the room.

Musically, TV on the Radio can be hard to pin down. At times they can sound like Peter Gabriel, as on set-closer “Staring at the Sun,” or Radiohead, or Joy Division. While there are some obvious touchstones — Bono would kill for the silky falsetto guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone used on “Million Miles” — TV’s sound is generally too mercurial for a game of spot-the-influence. They are clearly pointing the way forward more than they are looking back.

The stage was set simply, with no screens or effects aside from the light show. Though frontman Adebimpe was energetic, the core quartet and touring drummer and keyboard/horn player stayed in place. Arranger/producer/jack-of-all-trades Dave Sitek stood at stage left behind a table of gadgets and next to a bank of synthesizers. He rotated between guitar and the rest of his tricks like the man behind the curtain.

Although the show was skimpy on older numbers (and questionably skimpy in general at just 15 songs and 80 minutes), predictably they were the ones that drew the biggest response.

“Wolf Like Me” inspired a feral sing-along. For the encore, the band went back to its two earliest singles, “Young Liars” and “Staring at the Sun.” Neither could be described as inspiring, but it was moving to hear the room come together in one voice.

If we are fortunate, TV on the Radio will return again in a couple years, with a new batch of songs to perform. We will miss the older numbers they displace, but not too much. After 15 years and six albums, they remain a band on the rise, with no horizon in sight.

Setlist: Lazerray, Golden Age, Happy Idiot, Seeds, Could You, Wolf Like Me, Trouble, Million Miles, Blues from Down Here, Winter, Dancing Choose, Love Dog, DLZ. Encore: Young Liars, Staring at the Sun.

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(Above: The second part of “The Night London Burned,” a 30-minute documentary about Joe Strummer’s final concert and onstage reunion with Mick Jones.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Note: Every year on Christmas Eve, we mark the passing of Clash singer and musical legend Joe Strummer. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Strummer’s passing on Dec. 22, 2002.

“War Cry”

The limp reception to Joe Strummer’s 1989 solo album “Earthquake Weather” didn’t sit well with its creator. But just because Strummer was a stranger to the studio for nearly a decade, doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved with music.

41R6GY31MNL._SL500_AA300_One of Strummer’s great discoveries during the 1990s was the Glastonbury Festival. The three-day summer festival combined two of Strummer’s passions: live music and camping. Every June his entourage would grow, eventually becoming a makeshift community dubbed “Strummerville.” Performances by the Prodigy, Bjork, Elastica and others at the festival fostered a love for techno music that would influence Strummer’s music for the rest of his life.

The song “War Cry” from the “Grosse Pointe Blank” soundtrack is the most overtly electronic-influenced track in Strummer’s catalog. The swirling melody is carried by a pulsing keyboard riff, but the track’s energy comes from Strummer’s vigorous guitar playing. The six-minute instrumental is the only piece from Strummer’s film score to see official release.

Strummer produced the original “Grosse Pointe Blank”  soundtrack and included two tracks from his old band. The first volume was so successful a second was released. “War Cry” was unfortunately buried near the end of the sequel.

“MacDougal Street Blues,” Strummer’s contribution to a Jack Kerouac spoken word compilation also released in 1997, found Strummer working in the same style. Kerouac sounds like he was recorded in a bathroom, but Strummer’s musical backing almost seems like a skeletal cousin to “War Cry.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but “War Cry” signaled the end of Joe Strummer’s wilderness years.

“Bhindi Bhagee”

The first time I heard this song was on a Saturday afternoon broadcast of World Café. I was in the car with my dad and halfway through the second verse I commented that the track sounded like someone from the Clash recording a Paul Simon song arranged by Peter Gabriel. DJ David Dye confirmed one third of my theory, but I still don’t think the other two guesses missed the mark by much.

globalThe musical re-awakening Strummer experienced at Glastonbury carried over to his appearance (as a guest, not an artist) at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD music festival. Listening to the acts from around the world perform, hanging out with musicians like Donovan and spending time at Gabriel’s Real World recording studio finally provided the tipping point for him to get serious about making his own music again.

The music Strummer made with the Mescaleros was diverse, encompassing dance and electronic, country, punk and rock. On the band’s sophomore release, “Global A Go-Go,” Strummer branched out big time for their sophomore release. The platter more than lives up to its name, featuring lots of violin, exotic percussion, flute and other world music flourishes.

“Bhindi Bhagee” opens with acoustic guitar and flute and features Strummer delivering his intricate lyrics in a laid-back conversational style. Like Simon, Strummer lets the song unspool like a story. The chorus is basically a list of everything Strummer hopes to encompass with the arrangement. The best part comes at the bridge, where Strummer honestly explains where he’s at musically.

So anyway, I told him I was in a band
He said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah – what’s your music like?”
I said, “It’s um, um, well, it’s kinda like
You know, it’s got a bit of, um, you know.”

Yeah, all of that and a lot more.

“White Riot (live)”

Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon weren’t looking for trouble when they attended the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, but they shouldn’t have been surprised a riot broke out. Founded as response to the Notting Hill race riots and the racial issues plaguing England in the late 1950s, the carnival had become increasingly violent in its second decade.

Joe aCTONAs Strummer watched the England’s racial minorities physically challenging the authorities, he wished his fellow Caucasians would have the courage to take a similar stand.  Although written long before the Occupy movement, Strummer finally found a body willing to pick up his gauntlet:

“All the power’s in the hands/of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it.”

Along with the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “White Riot” kicked off England’s punk movement. As the band’s debut single, it clearly had special meaning to Strummer, who performed the song as the final encore during his last tour with the Mescaleros in 2001 and 2002. (An early version of the song has Strummer singing the first verse a capella before the full band kicks in. It’s an interesting thought, but the message is much stronger in the final arrangement.) The already-potent track became even more powerful when Strummer invited Mick Jones onstage to play it with the Mescaleros at what would be Strummer’s final concert.

The duo, sharing the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years, clearly had fun with the reggae bounce of “Bankrobber,” stretching it to over nine minutes. “White Riot” is the tour de force, though. After calling for the song “in the key of A,” Strummer almost seems to second guess himself. As the guitarist – I’d like to think its Jones, but don’t know for sure – plows into the opening chords, Strummer hastily calls a halt to the song, instructing the drummer to count it off properly. The aggression and anger in the original version – Strummer almost sounds determined to push you out in front of the cops if you won’t fight willingly – now shows hints of age and wisdom that suggest that while this is one way to bring about change, it isn’t necessarily the only path to revolution. It’s a subtle change, but doesn’t cost the performance any of its original urgency.

Less than five minutes after ending “White Riot,” Strummer and Jones concluded the concert with a blistering “London’s Burning.” Barely five weeks later, Strummer was gone.

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Happy Clash-mas Eve (reggae edition)

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Happy Clash-mas Eve (classic edition)

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(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.

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Review: Farm Aid

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed

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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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Review: Sufjan Stevens

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(Above: Wiz Khalifa’s “Rolling Papers” did not make TDR’s Top 10 list, but was one of its most-played and -enjoyed albums of 2011. Don’t hate, dance.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every music dork with a laptop is publishing their Top 10 list right now, but who else does it in haiku? Enjoy.

The Black Keys – “El Camino”

Building on “Brothers,”
pair trades blues for classic rock
with pal Dangermous.

The Roots – “undun”

Best band on TV,
builds challenging song cycle,
from flatline to birth.

F*cked Up – “David Comes Alive”

Like being hit with
a sledgehammer while feet are
ticked with feathers.

Big K.R.I.T. – “Return to 4Eva”

The South finally
joins the Native Tongue movement.
Backpackers rejoice.

Stalley – “Lincoln Way Nights”

Thoughtful baller makes
Intelligent Trunk Music,
blue collar portraits.

Wild Flag – “Wild Flag”

“Portlandia” star
pairs with fellow grrls to make
punk for NPR.

Raphael Saadiq – “Stone Rollin'”

Soul sound moves to ’70s.
Norman Whitfield, Sly Stone
Don’t call it neo-soul.

Hanni El Khatib – “Will the Guns Come Out”

Raw rock on Stones Throw
Does Elvis, Louis Jordan
by J. White, Stooges.

M83 – “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”

Two mine catalog:
Gabriel goes orchestral,
Frenchman goes retro.

Wilco – “The Whole Love”

Band finally brings
live energy to LP.
Best since “Ghost,” “Sum. Teeth.”

Read more haikus

Top 10 albums of 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2009

 

Top 10 Albums of 2008

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(Above: An excerpt from Sufjan Stevens’ 25-minute saga “Impossible Souls” performed at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

It’s unlikely one will ever find a reissue of “Tales of Topographic Oceans” in the record bins at Urban Outfitters or see hipsters sporting Emerson, Lake and Palmer shirts with their skinny jeans. But on Sunday night at the Uptown Theater, indie singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens delivered a chunk of progressive rock that would have made fans of Gentle Giant and Yes proud.

The earthy folk rock of Stevens’ breakthrough albums – “Seven Swans,” “Michigan” and “Illinois” – has been replaced by electronic, adventurous rock landscapes. About an hour into his two-hour set, Stevens explained the shift saying songwriting was “no longer loyal” to him so he started playing with rudimentary sounds. 

 Sufjan Stevens shifts gears with his new “Age of Adz.”  Extended segments of noises and effects – particularly on the 25-minute journey “Impossible Soul” – made the set feel more like an art installation that a rock show at times. But whether channeling Genesis and the Flaming Lips or Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, the Uptown’s sold-out crowd hung on every note.

After tossing fans a bone with “Seven Swans,” Stevens and his 11-piece band focused exclusively on material from August’s hour-long “All Delighted People” EP and “The Age of Adz,” an album released this month. The poppy “Too Much” came with a boozy twin-trombone solo and could have been a dance hit in another dimension if not for the extended burps and warbles of guitars, organ and synthesizers in its second half.

As the band delivered its complex themes and arrangements, a large trapezoidal video screen reinforced the themes. Space opera “The Age of Adz” featured a film that looked like an animated Funkadelic album cover. Stevens later explained the number as an “explorative supernatural song about love and heartache” and added that a “broken heart doesn’t always bring the apocalypse, but it always feels like it.”Sure it’s pretentious, but it was also a lot of fun and more accessible than it sounds.

The songs felt intimate despite Steven’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. This was due in large part to his hushed, soft falsetto and intimate, yet inviting lyrics. Even the most bombastic material contained letters of encouragement, boasting self-affirming lyrics like “don’t be distracted” and “Sufjan, follow your heart.”

Several numbers were delivered with spare arrangements featuring little more than Steven’s voice and finger-picked guitar. “Heirloom” was just as delicate as its title, while “Futile Devices” was a soul-baring tribute to Stevens’ brother.  When Stevens later forgot the lyrics during the quiet “Enchanting Ghost” it only enhanced the intimacy.

Stevens prepped his crowd for “Impossible Soul,” informing them they were about to embark on an “intense, emotional, psychotherapy experiment.” The result was nowhere near as ponderous the introduction or running time implied. “Soul” is less a song than an exploration of a song idea from every conceivable angle. Melodies and themes were tackled via prog-rock, ‘80s dance and autotune before concluding with Stevens gingerly plucking his acoustic guitar. It was enough fun that the band slipped in a bit of Salt and Peppa’s “Push It” and one of the supporting singers danced around the stage spraying silly string.

The crowd’s patience with the new material was rewarded with three songs from “Illinois.” “Chicago” ended the main set and drew the biggest cheers of the night. After saying goodnight, Stevens returned alone and delivered “Concerning the UFO” on piano and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” on acoustic guitar. It was a bit creepy to hear the audience sing along with Steven’s haunting portrait of the serial killer and an odd note to end the show on.

As with the rest of the evening’s detours, no one seemed to mind. After five long years, the hero had finally returned to his fans. The path may not have been expected, but the results were just as spectacular.DM Stith: The opening act only got 20 minutes, but he had no trouble silencing the crowd. Armed only with his acoustic guitar, the singer/songwriter delivered four songs very much in mold of Stevens’ most popular work. Using several pedals and a sampler, Stith was able to recreate a percussion section and choir by building then looping a series of claps, stomps and harmony vocals. The trick may not be new, but it was still impressive. Stith’s songwriting was even better. It would be interesting to see what he could do with a full set. Several of his songs may be downloaded for free on the Website for Asthmatic Kitty, the label Stevens founded.

Sufjan Stevens Setlist: Seven Swans; Too Much; Age of Adz; Heirloom; I Walked; Futile Devices; Vesuvius; Now That I’m Older; Get Real, Get Right; Enchanting Ghost; Impossible Soul; Chicago. Encore: Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois; John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

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(Above: Santana and Nas put their spin on AC/DC’s “Back In Black” on the “George Lopez Show.” Believe it or not, this is one of the better moment’s on Santana’s new album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

It’s hard to believe it has been a ten years since “Supernatural.” Back then, Santana was just another fading Woodstock star. He has been living in the shadow of “Smooth” and “Maria Maria” ever since.

With a title like “Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time” one could be excused for thinking Santana’s latest album was a repackaging of “Oye Como Va,” “Soul Sacrifice” and the rest of the jams that made him a guitar icon. Instead we are gifted with an album much more panderous.

“Guitar Heaven” reunites Santana with label president/marketing guru Clive Davis for the first time since “Supernatural” and is the third consecutive album to follow its formula. The blueprint is simple: pair Santana’s guitar with some of the biggest pop voices of the moment in every genre. The twist this time is that every tune is a well-known cover, a great guitar classic, no less.

The result is a dozen pedestrian, uninspiring performances. None of the musicians associated with this project even pretend to muster the effort to add something new to these well-worn staples of classic rock radio stations. It’s hard to imagine anyone clamoring to hear Train’s Pat Monahan aping early Van Halen or anxiously waiting to see what Chris Daughtry could do with Def Leppeard’s “Photograph.”

Predictably, Davis invited Rob Thomas back into the fold, but this time the man who brought Santana his biggest hit is anything but smooth. The Matchbox 20 singer seems completely overwhelmed by “Sunshine of Your Love.” Joe Cocker fares better on the Jimi Hendrix staple “Little Wing,” but the performance still begs the question why anyone thought this project was necessary.

At best the outcome is merely redundant; at its worst it an embarrassment. The only inventive choices were including India.Arie and Yo-Yo Ma on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and rapper Nas trying to inject some hip hop into “Back In Black.”

Neil Young’s “Le Noise” is a true celebration of the guitar. For his 32nd album, Young worked with famed producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois’ productions are frequently criticized for their big echoy sound and stark separation of instruments. They can often sound like Lanois conformed the artists to his vision, rather than the other way around.

Although some of Lanois’ swampy trademark exists in “Le Noise,” his distinct fingerprints are absent for the most part. The reason is simple: there’s less for him to work with. All of the album’s eight tracks were cut live and feature only Young and his guitar. The result is a pastoral yet invigorating portrait of Young seated on his amp, volume cranked to 11, intimately and intently debuting his latest song cycle.

While the guitar makes all the noise, Young’s songwriting makes all the difference. Without a bed of strong material, “Le Noise” would be a curio, like “Arc,” the album-length experiment of feedback and noise Young released in 1991. These songs could just as easily been delivered acoustically. Fortunately, Young and Lanois muck them up with waves of feedback and distortion.

In the mid-‘90s, both Young and Santana were regularly releasing solid, if unremarkable albums that clearly came from the heart. Today their paths couldn’t be more different.

In movie terms, Young is the actor who with a questionable resume, but has remained unquestionably independent. Santana, on the other hand, resembles the washed-up actor willing to do anything to land one last big role.

But show-biz loves redemption stories. Let’s hope Santana has some Mickey Rourke in him.

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