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(Above: Michael Stipe introduces what “may well be his favorite song in the R.E.M. catalog.” The classic “Fall on Me” gets the unplugged treatment for MTV in 1991.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first volume of R.E.M.’s “MTV Unplugged” collection is a perfect storm of both the band and the zeitgeist.

In 1991, “Unplugged” was just starting to take off, thanks to the success of Paul McCartney’s official bootleg from his appearance on the show. The show was gaining a reputation for a place where classic rock artists could rekindle their audience by playing stripped-down versions of hits and a venue for newer, but still established, bands could expand their palette.

The year was also a watershed for R.E.M. Signing with Warner Bros. and a massive tour for “Green” had catapulted the quartet from cult status. “Out of Time,” the follow-up to “Green” became R.E.M.’s first No. 1 album, and produced their biggest hit, “Losing My Religion.”

“Out of Time” was also uniquely suited for “MTV Unplugged.” After building success with riff-heavy arena-ready songs like “The One I Love” and “Orange Crush,” the band decided to scale back. Mandolin, acoustic guitar and organ dominated songwriting process and, in turn, the final recordings.

R-E-M-MTV-Unplugged-1991It seemed inevitable that R.E.M. would appear on the popular MTV show. The surprising part is that it took 23 years for the performance to see proper release. After surviving for nearly a generation as old, dubbed VHS copies and bootlegged CDs, R.E.M. “Unplugged” was finally released. It debuted in April as a Record Store Day Exclusive vinyl set paired with an encore 2001 “Unplugged” performance. Several months later, stand-alone editions of both shows were released in multiple formats.

As a time capsule, “Unplugged” stands somewhere between essential and curiosity. The 17-song set is dominated by “Out of Time.” More than half the album is present, along with one outtake. As such, the album does a great job fleshing out this under-recorded era. Because the band abandoned touring and focused on television appearances and music videos, “Unplugged” stands as one of R.E.M.’s longest sets of the early ‘90s.

That said, most of the arrangements stick pretty close to the album versions so there aren’t any big revelations present. The best songs include a jangly, sing-along version of “End of the World” and an energetic reading of “Radio Song” sans KRS-One that leans heavily on guest Peter Holsapple’s organ. A low-key, less urgent “Disturbance at the Heron House” is a rare revision of an electric number and makes me wish the band had tried a few more (“These Days” and “Driver 8” spring to mind).

Five bonus tracks that never made it to air follow the full broadcast performance. Driven by Bill Berry’s congas, “Get Up” takes on a new life. “Swan Swan H” and “World Leader Pretend” mirror their album counterparts. “Fretless” represents the one song that doesn’t work unplugged.  The studio version of this “Out of Time” outtake foreshadows the direction the band would take on “Automatic for the People.” Robbed of electricity, it lacks the sense of suspicion and dread that fuels the track.

R.E.M. did themselves a disservice by waiting so long to release this set. It undoubtedly would have sold better 20 years ago when the band was at its peak and fans were anxious for new material.  While die-hards and completists have owned this performance for years, the improved sound and bonus tracks make it a worthwhile addition to the catalog. Ultimately, “Unplugged 1991” is a nice complement to a band working at peak convergence of popularity and artistry.

Disclaimer: The Daily Record was sent a complementary review copy of “Unplugged 1991” from Soundstagedirect.com in exchange for promoting the site. Readers may purchase this album, or any other, with a 10 percent discount using code KWS10. Soundstagedirect.com is not the only online retailer carrying this title.

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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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(Above: R.E.M. opened their 2003 concert in Kansas City with the rarely performed “Star 69. Here the band does it at Glastonbury ’99. )

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“This next song,” Michael Stipe said, “is a request.”

The number wasn’t a surprise. Much like right now, the country was leading up to a big election year. It was startling the band would start playing requests just two songs in to the set. But what made “World Leader Pretend” seem so stunning was that I had requested it.

Oh, I’m sure I’m not the only person who logged on to R.E.M.’s Website, selected the upcoming concert at Starlight Theatre and plugged “World Leader Pretend” into one of the three request slots. In that moment, however, it felt like the band was playing for ME, way up near the top of the theater bowl.

That feeling was reinforced two songs later when Stipe announced another request. “Fall on Me” is my all-time favorite R.E.M. song, and occupied another of my limited request spots. Those two moments, coupled with that night being my first (and now only) time seeing R.E.M. in concert made the night an incredible experience that cemented my passion for the band.

Shortsightedness prevented me from seeing R.E.M. eight years earlier, when they sold out two nights at Sandstone Amphitheatre in 1995 with Sonic Youth. Despite promoting the critically derided (but personally beloved) “Monster” album, that was R.E.M.’s first tour since the gigantic success of “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts.”

Eight years later the band was in a very different place. Drummer and not-so-secret weapon Bill Berry had left and the remaining trio had released three increasingly experimental records with decreasing results. They had toured faithfully during that time, but always skipped Kansas City. In 2003 they were pumping a greatest hits collection and the generally lifeless “Around the Sun” was right around the corner. In that moment R.E.M. seemed like Johnny Unitas with the Chargers or Babe Ruth with the Braves. “Accelerate” and this year’s “Collapse Into Now” proved they were more like Bobby Hull with the Jets.

And now, nearly exactly eight years to the day1 after I saw them at Starlight, R.E.M. are done. Buck will probably continue to play sideman to Robyn Hitchcock and Scott McCaughey, Mills will make pleasant but unnecessary James Taylor-meets-Brian Wilson solo albums, and Stipe will direct films and make weird solo albums that sound nothing like R.E.M.

I’m happy that R.E.M. decided to call it a day instead of endlessly releasing uninspired product (I’m looking at you, Red Hot Chili Peppers). But I’m also sorry that I likely won’t hear the new sounds of three of my favorite musicians working together again.

R.E.M. have always been a part of my musical landscape. They were legends when I discovered music, and it makes me sad to think they now only exist in history. But I’ll always have the tape of “World Leader Pretend” and “Fall on Me” in my mind.2

1 Setlist.fm reminded me the concert was on Sept. 17, 2003.

2 If anyone has a real recording of this night, please let me know.

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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.

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Review: Old 97s (2008)

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(Above: Roy Orbison performs “(Oh) Pretty Woman” on “Austin City Limits” in 1983.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The musical landscape of television was of a different world when “Austin City Limits” debuted on Public Television 35 years ago. Brief performances on late night talk shows or segments on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” were the only options for fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite act.

Baloons and the capital building, trademarks of the Flaming Lips and Austin City Limits.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrates the show that put long-form performances on the air with the new exhibit “Great Music. No Limits. Celebrating 35 Years of Austin City Limits.”

“There were certainly music shows on television before, like Ed Sullivan, ‘Shindig’ or ‘Hullabaloo,’” said Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs for the Rock Hall. “But ‘Austin City Limits’ was the first show where the performers didn’t lip synch and were provided with a platform that extended beyond just a song or two.”

The exhibit includes photographs, setlists, documents and video footage of the show’s greatest moments.

“A big part of the exhibit are the photos from the show. We have 30 or more pictures of artists ranging from B.B. King, Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello to Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and the Dave Matthews Band,” Henke said. “We also have a lot of different documents, including lots of early stuff like the proposal for underwriting the pilot episode and several handwritten memos.”

The memos show the evolution of the show’s title from “River City Country” to “Austin Space” before finally settling on the current title.

The Hag on ACL.

“We also have three setlists from Wilco’s performance where you can see which songs were added and changed before they went on,” Henke said.

“MTV Unplugged,” “Sessions at West 54th Street” and “Soundstage” are but a few of the shows Austin City Limits has inspired during its run. In 2002, the show spun off into the three-day Austin City Limits Music Festival.

“The show started out with Willie Nelson on the first episode then expanded,” Henke said. “If you look at who’s appeared since then it’s been a nice mix of artists.”

Henke pointed out recent episodes with Ben Harper sitting in with Pearl Jam and Mos Def with K’Naan as examples of the show’s continued innovation.

“The producers don’t just book established artists. They’re looking at younger artists as well,” Henke said. “Our video reel has everyone from Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe to Damian Marley. It’s not just focused on one era or genre. I think this is not only what made the show so innovative, but has given it such longevity.”

For museum hours and ticket and general information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

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(Below: The Polyphonic Spree party on Austin City Limits in 2004.)

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(Above: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ are one of many artists to get some love in a recent Oxford American music writing anthology.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Oxford American “Southern Music Issue” is an annual treat, loaded with great writing that unearths wonderful stories on longtime favorites and introduces several new discoveries. Coupled with a CD – in recent years it’s come with two discs – the magazine effectively serves as the ultimate set of liner notes to a killer compilation.

Now in its 11th year, these editions are been rightfully prized; back issues frequently fetch more triple face value online. Fortunately, there is a more affordable way for new readers to access the previously published essays and features.

The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing compiles the best articles from the magazine’s first decade. The 420-page book reads like a mixtape, transitioning smoothly from all the usual suspects – blues, country, jazz, rock and bluegrass – and spiking the playlist with pieces on Southern metal, the Sex Pistols and the art of playing.

Several of the best features provide an intimate view of the artist or their environment. Tom Piazza’s account on hanging out backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry with snubbed bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is so awkward Ricky Gervais could turn it into a screenplay. Similarly, John Lewis’ weekend at Ike Turner’s house puts the much-savaged abuser in new light, particularly when the host shows up in his pajamas at the end of the day to thank Lewis for coming and hug him goodnight.

A history of jazzman Bob Dorough by Paul Reyes takes us from the obscure keyboard player’s origins touring with Sugar Ray Robinson, recording “Blue Xmas” with a dismissive Mile Davis and ultimately as the force behind Schoolhouse Rocks. The line from “Up a Lazy River” to “Conjunction Junction” was never so clear.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s description of a night at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint with R.L. Burnside and Cynthia Shearer’s search for understanding in Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas both paint a clear picture of the artists’ native perspectives. One can feel the plywood sweat at Junior’s Place and imagine Joplin longing for some niche in town where she felt comfortable and ultimately yearning to get the heck out.

Despite a mention of Wu Tang Clan producer RZA in the introduction, the book eschews hip hop and most new music. A dated piece on R.E.M. circa “Automatic for the People” is the only time when the mainstream and the modern intersect. But while the book doesn’t touch on modern artists, it will certainly send readers scrambling back to dusty old platters, either on vinyl, acetate or plastic, to unearth old favorites, possibly for the first time.

Easier to carry than a stack of magazines, less trouble to hunt down online, the Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing will be a pleasant voyage for adventurous fans of both good writing and good music.

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By Joel Francis

Big Star’s third album isn’t a happy affair. The record was delayed for four years by their label and issued in various configurations before finally being issued on CD as “Third/Sister Lovers,” nearly 15 years later. More than three decades later, it remains a fascinating mish mash of songs about death, abandonment, sexual paranoia and odd Velvet Underground and Jerry Lee Lewis covers.

Yet – perhaps metaphorically – out of this mess comes “Jesus Christ.” The fourth cut on the album, the song eschews the expected sarcasm and is a straightforward celebration of the Savior’s birth. In two short verses, songwriter and vocalist Alex Chilton paints an image of angles rejoicing that “Jesus Christ was born today.”

“Jesus Christ” is barely over two and a half minutes, but Chilton doesn’t even need that much to get his point across. The track starts with 20 seconds of nonsense before song kicks in, and closes with a saxophone solo from guest Carl Marsh that betrays the band’s Memphis roots. The performance has a deceptively spare arrangement, alternating between raw verses delivered with just Chilton’s guitar and voice and Jody Stephens’ drums. The touches of piano and percussion on the chorus, however, show that the boys have studied Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Although he’s barely audible in the mix, producer Jim Dickinson is presumably somewhere in the background, thumping away on bass.

Big Star may not have been big stars – a video for this song couldn’t even be found online – but they were very influential. Power pop acts like Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet and the New Pornographers owe a lot of their sound to Big Star. Paul Westerberg name-checked Big Star’s leader in the Replacements single “Alex Chilton.” Both Teenage Fanclub and Athens, Ga.-based acolytes R.E.M. have recorded memorable versions of “Jesus Christ.”

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