On her first album in eight years, Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette gets introspective and a little too comfortable. Such Pretty Forks in the Road hits the turnpike out of the gate, but takes an unfortunate detour, succumbing to its own ponderous weight before getting back on track for the final songs.
Written for her children, “Ablaze” belongs on any Morissette best-of playlist and features one of the best lyrics on the album: “My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.” The piano-driven confessional “Reasons I Drink” could be a b-side from Fiona Apple’s stellar Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Drink” is followed by “Diagnosis,” a frank look at depression and mental illness. These songs are saved from being pablum for a group therapy session by a raw, honest delivery and arrangements that heighten Morissette’s emotions.
Unfortunately, Forks then takes a wrong turn. The songs start to blend (bland) together and the lyrics grow treacly. “Losing the Plot, a song about insomnia, did a good job of putting this listener to sleep. “Sandbox Love” suggests something new with a shimmering guitar intro, but collapses into the same middle-of-the-road quicksand.
Closing numbers “Nemesis” and “Pedestal” end the album on a strong note, but anyone pining for the raw anger of her ‘90s breakthrough oughta know those days are nowhere to be found.
Paul McCartney – Flaming Pie
Paul McCartney went all-in after the Beatles Anthology pushed the Fab Four back into the spotlight. For his first post-Anthology album, McCartney enlisted Anthology producer Jeff Lynne and called on old pals Ringo Starr and George Martin.
The resulting album, Flaming Pie, hits that sweet spot where the performances shine without seeming over-labored and the songwriting has a relaxed feel without feeling tossed-off. The first time McCartney was able to sustain this zone throughout an entire album he delivered Band on the Run. While Flaming Pie isn’t as good as that album, it isn’t far off and may be as close to that apex as we will ever see again.
High points include the Ringo-assisted “Beautiful Night,” the R&B number “Souvenir” and single “The Song We Were Singing,” where McCartney confronts his legacy with the great lyric “I go back so far/I’m in front of me.” The acoustic “Little Willow” is a heartfelt ballad, while album-closing “Great Day” could have appeared on Ram.
If you have some spare change, consider buying the deluxe version. The extra LP finds McCartney laying down early versions of these songs accompanied only by his own guitar (or piano). Ringing phones, overhead airplanes, barking dogs and passing trains only add to the intimacy.
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain
George Clinton’s genre melting experiment never soared as high as it does on Maggot Brain, the third album from Funkadelic. Guitarist Eddie Hazel’s 10-minute solo on the title track may be the finest sound coaxed from six strings by any rock axeman not named Jimi Hendrix. “Can You Get to That” exists in a world where Crosby, Stills and Nash recorded with Norman Whitfield-era Temptations. “Hit It and Quit It” reimagines jazz organist Jimmy Smith as a member of a Bay-area jam band. “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” combines the spirit of Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder with a jazz trio.
And that’s just side one.
Any trepidation of musical whiplash reading these descriptions would be well-founded, but somehow everything hangs together. Clinton’s vision of putting heavy metal, gospel, folk, funk and any other LSD-inspired musical visions into the blender and seeing what pours out resulted in a collection that is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts. Each performance supports the other possibly because the only points of reference for this sound are the other songs on the album.
Funkadelic released many other superb albums in the 1970s – to say nothing of brother band Parliament’s output – but they never danced so freely on the edge of threatening to fall into the abyss while simultaneously grabbing anything with an arm’s length to raise them into the stratosphere.
Many Beatle fans have put together the ultimate final Beatles album, drawing from tracks on the Fab Four’s early solo albums. I remember a quote from one of the newly liberated Beatles saying the break-up was actually better for fans because instead of one Beatles album, fans would get one solo album from each mop top. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but it’s with that idea I approached today’s spins. We’ll look at the solo albums each Beatle released in 1973. Why 1973? It started because I happen to own all the albums each member released this year, but took on greater significance as I got deeper in listening and researching. Let’s go through them in the order they were released.
Paul McCartney and Wings – Red Rose Speedway (April 30, 1973) The second album released by Wings, Red Rose Speedway was also Paul’s fourth release in the three years after the Beatles’ break-up. Although 1970’s McCartney and 1971’s Ram are rightly revered today, at the time they were seen as lightweight albums that didn’t live up the expectations of a public that had grown up on “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.” With Red Rose Speedway, Paul takes a few tentative steps in that direction.
The ballad “My Love” became Paul’s second No. 1 solo hit, after “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” The 11-minute medley that ends the album was certainly constructed with Abbey Road’s famous second-side mash-ups in mind. What does Paul give us with the remaining seven songs on the album? Nothing as substantial, unfortunately.
Opener “Big Barn Bed” is catchy, but feels like filler at the same time. “Single Pigeon” seems entirely constructed away the two words in the title play off each other. “When the Night” sounds like a rehearsal that should have been left on the cutting room floor. In fact, “Little Lamb Dragonfly” and the weird jam “Loup (First Indian on the Moon)” are the only other songs from Red Rose Speedway that I’d save in a fire. And Paul wanted this to be a double album at one point, too. Yeesh.
Of the albums released by the former Fabsters in 1973, Red Rose Speedway is easily the lightest of the bunch. Fortunately, Paul was far from done for the year. He’d release another album before Christmas and reunited with George Martin in the summer for the hit James Bond theme song “Live and Let Die.” Their song was far better than the film.
George Harrison – Living in the Material World (May 30, 1973) Despite the success of “Someday,” few fans would have picked George to be the most successful Beatle after the break-up, but in 1973 George was sitting on a mountain of good will from his concerts for Bangladesh (and resulting album) and just as many accolades for his triple-LP masterpiece All Things Must Pass. George’s follow up, Living in the Material World isn’t a major statement like his previous releases, but it does confirm that George’s songwriting skills ran deep.
The only single from the album, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” was a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and dealt with George’s struggle between stardom and spirituality. George’s existential grappling dominates the album, but it rarely feels heavy-handed or preachy. The may be because George varies the song structures and arrangements of songs dealing with these themes. For example, the title song and “Give Me Love” are very upbeat, while “Try Some, Buy Some” is slightly psychedelic. “The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)” and “The Day the World Gets Round” are slower contemplative numbers.
Between all this seriousness, George pokes fun at Paul’s lawsuit against his fellow Beatles with “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” (chorus: “Bring your lawyer and I’ll bring mine/Get together and we could have a bad time”). George would release another seven solo albums in his lifetime, but it wasn’t until the posthumous release of Brainwashed in 2002 that he again reached the same height achieved with Living in the Material World.
John Lennon – Mind Games (November 2, 1973) Ringo Starr – Ringo (November 2, 1973) Picture walking out of the record store in early November excitedly clutching the new John Lennon and Ringo Starr albums, only to discover hours later that Ringo’s album is the better of the two. Sure, Ringo gets by with the help of his friends, but he ropes in A-list guests here.
George chips in two songs and writes another – “Photograph” – with Ringo. John and Paul each write one song. In fact, Ringo has a co-write credit on three songs and wrote “Step Lightly” by himself. Musically, Marc Bolan from T-Rex, Harry Nilsson, Billy Preston and members of The Band all appear, as do the other Beatles (though, sadly not all on the same track). The cover depicts Ringo onstage, and indeed the album is paced like a live performance, complete with Ringo thanking all his guests and signing off at the end.
Ringo (the album) spawned two No. 1 hits in “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen.” The later is the only bum spot on the album. Johnny Burnette’s original 1960 hit was featured prominently in the film American Graffiti released earlier that summer, possibly inspiring Ringo to cover it. Regardless of the reason, post-adolescent men singing about teenage girls will never not be creepy. Despite this misstep, Ringo is a party, from start to finish. Ringo can usually be found at a cheap price in the used record bins. If you don’t have this album, there is absolutely no reason not to pick it up.
Meanwhile, John Lennon was struggling. The Nixon administration was playing political football with John’s work visa and his marriage to Yoko Ono was on the rocks. On top of that, John’s previous album, the uber-topical and political Some Time in New York City was a dud. Mind Games is a definite improvement, but it still sounds like a man who doesn’t know which way to go. The gorgeous, sweeping title song was a Top 20 hit, but not all of the remaining 10 songs work. “Tight A$” and “Meat City” sound like the same song and while both songs rock, neither go anywhere. The jokey political anthem “Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” is easily the best up-tempo song on the album. More than 40 years later, this song was used to great effect in the post-apocalyptic action film Children of Men (which is highly recommended).
Other stellar moments on Mind Games include the emotional ballad “Out of the Blue” (John’s best vocal performance on the album), the relationship-affirming “I Know (I Know)” (built around a guitar lick that sounds suspiciously like “I’ve Got a Feeling”) and the upbeat “Intuition,” which foreshadows the direction John would take on Double Fantasy. I also like the slow apology “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry),” which sounds like a sort of cousin to “Jealous Guy.”
Mind Games is a very different album than Ringo, but the inconsistencies on Mind Games puts Ringo in the pole position.
Paul McCartney and Wings – Band on the Run (December 5, 1973) Somewhere between the spring release of Red Rose Speedway and the autumn recording of Band on the Run, Paul managed to lose nearly half of his band. Now down to a trio, Paul, his wife Linda and Denny Laine departed to Lagos, Nigeria, to hang out with Fela Kuti, lose the in-progress studio tapes in a mugging and create a defining rock masterpiece.
If Red Rose Speedway often felt slight, nearly every song on Band on the Run drives with a purpose. The opening one-two punches of the title song and “Jet” remain classic rock radio staples today (as does “Let Me Roll It,” which closes the first side). Tucked between those hits on the first side is the jaunty “Mrs. Vandebilt” with its infectious “ho hey ho” chorus, and the delicate “Bluebird.”
The second side doesn’t have any singles, but the material remains strong. The slide guitar and string arrangement on “No Words” makes it feel like a George song. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” incorporates reprise of some of the earlier melodies with a jolly drinking song. If there’s a weak song on the album it might be “Helen Wheels,” but even this track is better than all but a couple songs on Red Rose Speedway. After four solo albums that confounded and disappointed fans’ expectations, Paul finally delivered the mainstream post-Beatles triumph everyone was waiting for with Band on the Run.
After releasing two albums in 1973, Paul didn’t have another release until 1975’s Venus and Mars. That same year George and John – mired in his lost weekend – both released albums, but Ringo didn’t. In fact, the stars never aligned for all four Beatles to release solo albums in the same calendar year again. No one knew it at the time, but 1973 ended up being the end of another sort of era for the Beatles.
What are your favorite songs from Red Rose Speedway, Living in the Material World, Ringo, Mind Games and Band on the Run? Which of these five albums from 1973 do you like best? Did I overlook or mischaracterize your favorite tune? Leave a comment and let me know.
Sonny Rollins – The Freedom Suite (1958) The Civil Rights movement and bebop came of age together in the 1940s and ‘50s. It makes just as much sense for the jazz artists of that time to make music about the blatant racial inequality happening in America at the time as did for Chuck D, KRS-One and Mos Def to do it in their times. The hard-hitting title song lasts nearly 20 minutes and takes up the entire first side. In it Rollins displays his talent for twisting, flipping and turning a theme inside-out, only without any of the humor he usually infuses into his playing. Rollins is dead serious here and his point is driven home by Max Roach’s sympathetic and dynamic drumming. The second side is devoted to softer material, including a stellar reading of The Music Man’s “’Till There Was You” (also covered by the Beatles). Rollins’ pacing in the production of this album is just as impeccable as in his playing. He knows when to clench a fist and when to extend a hand.
Raffi – Singable Songs for the Very Young (1976) This was a favorite album from my childhood and my son now enjoys it. I wrote extensively about Raffi and his then-unknown producer some time ago.
Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Enko on ti Tou: 1966-2016 (compilation) I don’t know anything about this band or this music except that I love it. Internet research tells me this is “one of the most important French Antillean band from the ‘60s and ‘70s.” This practically goes without saying. In all my acquaintances with other French Antillean bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe definitely rest on the top of that pile. The internet also tells me their music is “a unique mix of Biguine, funk, Latin, compass and early Zouk.” Don’t confuse Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe with a late Zouk band. They are strictly early Zouk. Look, here is all you need to know about this fantastic collection. Ready? You know how there aren’t many airplanes in the sky right now, because we can’t really leave our houses except to go to the grocery store? And you know how we all can’t wait for this to end and safely return to exploring our world? If you put this record on and close your eyes, you can take an easy vacation in your mind down to the Caribbean. No frequent flyer miles required.
Bob Dylan – Under the Red Sky (1990) Joni Mitchell – Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988) Paul McCartney – Egypt Station (2018) Most longtime artists who hang around long enough reach a crossroads at a certain point in their careers. Do they want to continue pushing to be on the vanguard, or will they regroup and continue to create from their strengths? Typically, the audience figures this out an album or two before the artist. A common attempt to hang on the precipice of the cutting edge a little longer is to rope in several high-profile guests.
This is the place Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell found themselves in the late ‘80s. Mitchell enlisted Tom Petty and Billy Idol to assist on “Dancin’ Clown,” with a result that is as head-scratching as it appears on paper. Other duets were more successful. Peter Gabriel steps into “My Secret Place” and makes it sound like a So b-side. Willie Nelson and Don Henley trade vocals with Mitchell on “Cool Water” and “Snakes and Ladders,” respectively. The best duet on the album, though, comes between Mitchell and saxophone legend Wayne Shorter on “A Bird that Whistles (Corrina, Corrina).”
The hype sticker on my copy of Under the Red Sky boasts special appearances by David Crosby, George Harrison, Bruce Hornsby, Elton John, Al Kooper, Slash, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Don Was and more, with each musician’s name in all caps. For all that star power it’s remarkable that only a few guests manage to differentiate themselves from standard studio pros. The other problem with Under the Red Sky is that some of the songs are embarrassing. It doesn’t matter which special guest plays the solo on “Wiggle Wiggle,” the ghost of Jimi Hendrix couldn’t save a tune with the lyrics “wiggle to the right, wiggle to the rear/wiggle ‘til you wiggle right out of here.” Dylan is still Dylan though, and he gives us the great “Born in Time” to counterbalance “Wiggle Wiggle.” But that’s the problem: the album is a wash.
Neither Chalk Mark or Red Sky are bad albums, per se. It’s that not only do the results fail to add major works to each artists’ considerable songbooks, they seem to be trying awfully hard to achieve this mediocrity. To be fair, half-baked Dylan and Mitchell are still better than the majority of songwriters, and there are some keepers hidden in both albums. But Chalk Mark and Red Sky are also the final contemporary-sounding albums each made before retreating to acoustic guitars and the style of music that made both of them icons and haven’t come close to anything close to modern again.
Paul McCartney has managed to avoid this trap for the most part. There was a time in the mid-to-late ‘90s after the Beatles Anthology came out that it looked like he was going down the heritage path, but he still believes he can land on top of the charts again. On McCartney’s most recent album, Egypt Station, he brought in producers Greg Kurstin, who has worked with Sia, Beck, Pink and Zayn Malik of One Direction, among others, and Ryan Tedder, who has worked with Beyonce, One Direction, Selena Gomez, Ed Sheeran and many more. Clearly McCartney was thinking about the zeitgeist when he selected these producers. And while the single “Fuh You” was obviously written for Top 40 appeal, it’s also not half as awkward as “Wiggle Wiggle” or “Dancin’ Clown.” Egypt Station won’t make anyone forget about Band on the Run, but it also feels a lot less forced that Under the Red Sky and Chalk Marks in a Rain Storm.
Obviously, Dylan and Mitchell went on to release some great albums after they embraced heritage status. I don’t know that McCartney has made an album as good as Love and Theft this century, but he also hasn’t resorted to a hits-with-strings live album or three consecutive standards album. (McCartney did one, 2012’s Kisses on the Bottom, and moved on.) That has to count for something.
Mavis Staples – Livin’ on a High Note (2016) Mavis Staples is a treasure. Her soulful voice never fails to put me at ease. For her 10th solo album, Staples is assisted by some of the top indie music songwriters today. Justin Vernon, Benjamin Booker, Valerie June, Aloe Blacc and Neko Case all contribute songs. Case’s work is rarely performed by other singers, so it is intriguing to hear Staples’ voice interpret Case’s unique phrasing. Vernon and M. Ward’s “Dedicated” is another standout track. I love the way Staples delivers the lyric “if it’s us against the world/Well I would bet on us” with so much hope and assurance. Livin’ on a High Note ends on a high note with “MLK Song,” a gospel folk song that incorporates one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches for the lyrics. Staples knew King well and marched with him several times in the 1960s. Again, her singing is full of hope and optimism, not sadness or loss. Livin’ on a High Note is a feel-good album for any time, but it seems especially needed right now.
Today’s entry puts us at 200 albums in the quarantined exploration of my record collection. Don’t worry, there is still more than enough to keep us busy until well after a COVID-19 vaccine is discovered and dispersed.
Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007) It took a while for Sky Blue Sky to grow on me. I admit I was pretty underwhelmed at first. I had seen Wilco several times in support of their previous album and was expecting something raw and bleeding based on those shows. What I got was considerably more mellow and gentle. Once I got past my expectations, I was able to appreciate what Wilco had crafted, rather than what I thought they should have done. Guess who had the better vision.
Many of Sky Blue Sky’s finest moments have become concert favorites. “Impossible Germany” is a great showcase for guitarist Nels Cline’s formidable talents, while “Shake It Off” provides an opportunity for the band to show off their tight-but-loose jam chops. My favorite song is “Hate It Here,” a deceptively cheery song about a person learning to live without a longtime partner. The Wilco catalog is stocked with great albums, but Sky Blue Sky makes a sleeper case for being one of the best of the bunch.
Scott H. Biram – The Bad Testament (2017) Scott H. Biram is like hearing a preacher who got caught doing something dirty and decided to go whole hog down the dark path. A one-man band, Biram sits at the crossroads of folk, blues and country with plenty of hellfire and brimstone to go around. On his sixth long-player, Biram moves between acoustic and electric guitars and mixes in snippets of televangelists between tracks. If you’ve ever succumbed mightily to temptation and prayed just as hard for salvation, you know where Biram is coming from. Buckle your hat and put this on.
George Harrison – Thirty-Three and 1/3 (1978) The fifth album from the Quiet Beatle after the split is a lukewarm affair. The first song, “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me,” opens with a popping bass funk riff that always makes me take a second look at the label and make sure this is actually a George Harrison album. Unfortunately, the second cut is limp, failing to build any momentum from “Woman.” This is the album’s biggest problem. There are some good songs, but they are sunk around listless tracks. The strongest run comes on the second side with the run of “True Love,” “Pure Smokey” and “Crackerbox Palace.” If you put these songs with the three good songs from the first side you’d have a solid EP. That’s six out of ten good songs, a fantastic batting average for baseball but far too low for a Beatle.
Phosphorescent – Muchacho (2013)
The Lone Bellow – Half Moon Light (2020) The Lone Bellow have always sounded more southern than their Brooklyn roots imply. For their fourth album the trio let more of the indie rock sound from their native borough creep into the mix. Likewise, Phosphorescent frontman and Huntsville, Ala. native has always had more than a little Williamsburg hipster in his brand of country music. Although Half Moon Light and Muchacho were recorded several years apart, they share a complementary vibe and kinship.
The best moments on Muchacho include the triumphant “A Charm/A Blade” and “The Quotidian Beasts,” which sounds like Calexico produced by Daniel Lanois. “Song for Zula” has been all over the place, but I like it best as the music over the credits for the very underappreciated indie romance film “The Spectacular Now.”
Half Moon Light is a similarly sturdy album. Among the stand-out tracks here are “Friends,” the horns and harmony assisted “I Can Feel You Dancing” and the tender “Dust Settles.” If you ever wondered what David Gray might sound like with a touch more country in his repertoire, these albums are for you.
The Flaming Lips – 7 Skies H3 (2011) A while back, the Flaming Lips, Oklahoma City’s finest psychedelic rock export, recorded a 24-hour song, slipped it on a thumb drive and stuck them a real human skull. 7 Skies H3 is a one-hour distillation of the best moments from that experiment. You know, in case you didn’t want to spend a day of your life listening to the full song or want a human skull. (Or maybe a second one. If you already own two, you are likely a voodoo priest. Would a third really matter at this point?)
As expected the results aren’t typical three-minute singles. All the tracks are either instrumental or feature heavily processed vocals. I wouldn’t play it for a backyard cook-out, but as a psychedelic exercise, it is quite good. My favorite moments include “Battling Voices from Beyond,” an aggressive track propelled by tympani and the closing ethereal two-for of the title track and “Can’t Let Go,” the closest thing to a traditional song on the album.
O.V. Wright – Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose (1977) O.V. Wright is the greatest soul singer you’ve never heard. Wright had some chart success in the mid-to-late 1960s, but a prison term for narcotics sidelined his career. When Wright got out he cut several albums for Hi Records, the home of Al Green and Anne Peebles. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose was Wright’s first record post-incarceration and it has the pent-up power of a man finally able to cut loose. Hi Rhythm, the studio house band, provides the perfect support throughout. The album is barely longer than half an hour, but it is consistently superb throughout. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose is definitely work seeking out.
Wu-Tang Clan – Iron Flag (2001) Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is Staten Island hip hop collective’s best album, but Iron Flag is my favorite. Released just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, every MC is on point here to protect their city. Running under an hour at 12 tracks and no skits, this is a focused, fierce Clan. Blaxploitation horns power “In the Hood” (which starts after a brief introduction) and the single “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” a track so strong it threatens to jump out of the speakers and start a fight. Method Man’s “Y’all Been Warned” pivots on a simple keyboard and guitar sample. Boasting has long been a staple of hip hop, but the braggadocio here takes on a deeper significance in the wake of 9/11. Or as Ghostface Killah puts it on “Rules:” “Together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” We should be so lucky as to have him in charge.
Booker T. and the MGs – McLemore Avenue (1970) The Fab Four cast a long shadow. Here the Stax Records house band – and hitmakers on their own – pay tribute to Abbey Road by naming their album after the street where Stax resides. The album is three long medleys and a stand-alone cover of “Something.” A 15-minute track comprising the final medley on Abbey Road kicks things off. It’s a bit odd to hear “The End” so early in the album but ultimately not a big deal. The second side encompasses roughly the rest of Abbey Road’s flip side, with the exception of the closing medley that opens McLemore Avenue. Got that? The musicianship is stellar. Booker T.’s organ does most of the heavy lifting with the melodies, but Steve Cropper’s guitar always comes in at the right moments to help out. The rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson is equally superb. If you like the Beatles and/or classic R&B, this is the album for you.
Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (1992) The Memphis power pop and cult band Big Star only made three albums during their initial run, losing band members after each release. Guitarist and singer Chris Bell was the first to exit. I Am the Cosmos collects the songs Bell made in the mid-‘70s after leaving Big Star, with many tracks featuring his old bandmates. The only song on this collection that came out during Bell’s lifetime is the title number, which never came near the charts but grew so large in the Big Star lore that the band started performing it when they regrouped in the 1990s. The music is raw and vulnerable and in addition to displaying the power pop chops of Big Star also points the way to introspective indie rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie. For proof, look no further than “Speed of Sound,” used masterfully in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Big Star’s Third is hailed as the group’s lost masterpiece, but in many ways I Am the Cosmos is just as important and more accessible.
Elton John – Honky Chateau (1972) As Elton John’s first No. 1 album, Honky Chateau helped tip the pianist toward stardom. Everyone knows “Rocket Man” but the rest of the songs may be even better. “Hercules” is folk pop in the vein of early Cat Stevens, while “Slave” veers toward country. The deceptively bouncy “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” hides a lyric so caustic and cynical that Elvis Costello would blush. Ballads “Mellow” and “Salvation” are the type of song that would become overblown productions in a few years. They are great here in standard rock band arrangements.
The true gem for me is the wonderful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which I first heard in Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous. Yeah, I know I’m not breaking any stereotypes about music nerds here. Want to come over and help me arrange my albums autobiographically? We can look for inside jokes in the liner notes.
(Above: Shawn Colvin, left, and Steve Earle emplore listeners to “Tell Moses.”)
By Joel Francis The Daily Record
With all the smiles, stories and strumming, Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin’s performance Wednesday night at the Kauffman Center seemed like very upscale busking.
The two artists stood on an all-black stage adorned with four monitors, one table, four guitars and two mandolins.
The concept was as straightforward as the setup. Over the course of 100 minutes, the pair performed ever song from their new collaboration, “Colvin and Earle” and scattered a couple of their own hits for good measure.
Despite nearly two dozen albums to their names, cover songs dominiated the setlist.
Earle introduced the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” by saying he learned how to play tennis racket to that song in front of a mirror. The spare arrangement brought Mick Jagger’s haunting lyrics to the forefront, particularly lines like “catch your dreams before they slip away.”
Other standout covers included Emmylou Harris’ “Raise the Dead” and the oft-recorded “Tobacco Road.” A laidback, almost effortless cover of “Wake Up Little Suzy” opened the night.
Before “Someday,” Earle told a long story, recapping his days as a Nashville songwriter trying to get a record deal, then fighting to get another when his debut single disappointed everyone. A friend took him to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on the “Born in the U.S.A.” tour, where Earle found inspiration to write his “Guitar Town” album. After success proved to be more of a struggle than failure, Earle fell into a spiral of drugs, only poking his head out of the darkness long enough to hear Harris recorded “Guitar Town” and Colvin cut “Someday.”
Despite a lack of drums (or band), the version of “Someday” that followed punched as hard as a metal band going full throttle.
Colvin bragged about all her depressing breakup songs, saying “I’ve known fans who won’t take their Prozac for a week before I come to town.” She backed up her words with her biggest hit, “Sonny Came Home,” and “Diamond in the Rough.” While most songs found Colvin and Earle playing off each other vocally, “Diamond” featured a long outro that saw the pair spar musically.
The auditorium was about two-thirds full, and needed little prompting to join in on Earle’s buoyant, mandolin-fueled “The Galway Girl.” The singing and clapping encouraged during “Tell Moses,” a new song, felt like an hootenanny.
After returning to the stage with a Beatles number, the pair closed the night with Earle’s biggest hit, “Copperhead Road.” Colvin got the chance to show off her guitar chops again on that one. With Earle playing mandolin, she had to provide all the song’s musical muscle.
Judging by the lines at the merchandise table afterward, it was more than enough to convince fans into throwing some more change in the hat on the way out.
Setlist: Wake Up Little Susie; Come What May; You Were On My Mind; Raise the Dead; Ruby Tuesday; Tobacco Road; That Don’t Worry Me Now; Someday; The Way That We Do; You’re Right (I’m Wrong); Burnin’ It Down; Sunny Came Home; The Galway Girl; Happy and Free; Tell Moses; You’re Still Gone. Encore: Baby’s In Black; Diamond in the Rough; Copperhead Road.
(Above: Peter Frampton takes an early summer voyage through “Black Hole Sun” at Starlight Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)
By Joel Francis The Kansas City Star
Peter Frampton and Cheap Trick have more in common than releasing two of the best-selling and critically acclaimed live albums of all time in the late 1970s. Thursday night at Starlight, the two children of the Beatles professed their love for the Fab Four.
Cheap Trick covered “Magical Mystery Tour” during its opening 80-minute set. Two hours later, Frampton ended his set (and the night) with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Both songs fit the performer’s personalities. Paul McCartney’s genius for concise pop songs and cheeky sense of humor have been celebrated and amplified by Cheap Trick since the mid-‘70s. Likewise, George Harrison’s introspection and guitar virtuosity have been among Frampton’s hallmarks since his precocious start in the late ‘60s.
A cloudburst early in Cheap Trick’s daylight set sent many fans scurrying for cover, but the quartet stayed put. The faithful that remained in the open air strummed air guitar under ponchos and bounced beneath umbrellas to “Hot Love” and “Voices.”
The quartet stretched out on a couple numbers, jamming on a lengthy “Need Your Love” and taking “Magical Mystery Tour” for a couple extra trips around the block well after the recorded fade-out. Eighties power ballad “The Flame” set up a killer home stretch that included “Dream Police” and “Surrender,” two of the band’s best-loved songs, and “I Want You To Want Me” and “Ain’t That A Shame,” the two biggest hits from “At Budokan.”
Likewise, Frampton didn’t skimp on numbers from his blockbuster “Frampton Comes Alive.” In fact, the opening coupling of “Something’s Happening” and “Doobie Wah” mirrored the first two songs on side one of the album.
Although Frampton is a fine songwriter – look no further than “Baby, I Love Your Way” – guitar solos are his meat and potatoes. His opening solo for the ballad “Lines on My Face” was almost smooth jazz. Later, Frampton traded solos with nearly everyone in the band during a 20-minute reading of “Do You Feel Like We Do.” His best solo came on “(I’ll Give You) Money.”
The band dropped out partway through, leaving Frampton along with his thoughts and his fretboard. The quiet, delicate playing gradually built back up, with each band member subtly, gradually rejoining. Before long, Frampton was trading licks with second guitarist Adam Lester, each trying to tastefully top the other. A lesser guitarist would have ended the song sliding across the stage on his knees with a flurry of notes. Frampton just stood and played, building layer on layer with his fingertips.
Beatles covers were the coup de grace, but a few other interesting covers wormed their way into the night. By now, Cheap trick has likely played “Ain’t It A Shame” more than Fats Domino. A surprising instrumental version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” found Frampton delivering the final chorus through his infamous talk box. Finally, if it was strange to hear Cheap Trick do “Magical Mystery Tour” sans piano, it was even more jarring to hear Frampton cover Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” without horns.
There were plenty of empty seats in the top third of the theater, but four decades after committing their defining concert performances to vinyl, the unlikely pairing of classic rock vets proved they still had plenty to say and many who were anxious to hear it.
Cheap Trick setlist: Hello There; Oh Candy; Big Eyes; Lookout; Hot Love; Voices; I Can’t Take It; Need Your Love; Magical Mystery Tour; She’s Tight; I Know What I Want; The Flame; I Want You To Want Me; Dream Police. Encore: Ain’t That A Shame; Surrender; Auf Wiedersehen; Goodnight.
Peter Frampton setlist: Something’s Happening; Doobie Wah; Show Me the Way; Lines on My Face; Lying; Signed, Sealed, Delivered; (I’ll Give You) Money; Baby, I Love Your Way; Black Hole Sun; Do You Feel Like We Do. Encore: While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
(Above: The run from “Don’t Pass Me By,” “Yellow Submarine” and “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” was one of the strongest parts of Ringo Starr’s long overdue return to Kansas City in October, 2014.)
By Joel Francis The Kansas City Star
The last time both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr both performed in Kansas City in the same year they were onstage together at Municipal Stadium.
The Fab Four’s drummer gave his first performance in the area since 1992 on Saturday night, only three months after McCartney’s concert at the Sprint Center.
Starlight Theater wasn’t quite full, but judging from the crowd’s reaction to “Yellow Submarine” and “With A Little Help from My Friends” many people had waited a long time for this moment.
Several members of Ringo’s All-Starr band were also making belated returns. Bass player Richard Page congratulated the Royals for their playoff success and noted that last time he played Kansas City his band Mr. Mister was opening for Tina Turner, and the Royals had just won the World Series. Guitarist Steve Lukather said he couldn’t remember the last time he was here.
Now in its 25th year and 13th iteration, the All-Starr Band works as a round-robin jukebox with each musician taking the spotlight, then introducing the next band member up. Guitarist Todd Rundgren was the biggest name on the bill aside from the headliner. While the other names may not have been as familiar, the songs they helped take to the top of the charts – “Rosanna,” “Evil Ways,” “Broken Wings” – definitely were.
The seven-piece band had the most opportunity to stretch out and show off on the Santana numbers – “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va” and especially “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” – lead by organist Gregg Rolie, a founding member of the Santana band. Lukather handled lead guitar duties for most of the night, but seem to save his best solos for those songs. Surprisingly, the band also jammed over a slowed-down Bo Diddley beat during Toto’s “Roseanna.” Rundgren’s “Bang on the Drum” incorporated a bit of “Low Rider” during Page’s bass solo.
The only unfamiliar song in the two-hour set was Page’s “You Are Mine.” Rundgren’s amazing guitar arrangement for the ballad showed why he has been an influential and in-demand producer for several decades.
As expected, the Beatles material and early Starr solo singles drew the biggest response. Starr opened and closed the set with a trio of songs and peppered another five in between. His contribution to “The Beatles” album (known as “The White Album”), “Don’t Pass Me By” was a fun surprise. Lukather, Rundgren and Page were clearly having a ball playing their hero’s songs. All three huddled together, sharing one mic on the choruses of “Boys” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.”
The night closed with the introduction of Billy Shears and “With a Little Help from My Friends.” As the song was winding down, the band jumped into John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” a fitting tribute to the man who has made peace and love his motto.
Setlist: Matchbox, It Don’t Come Easy, Wings, I Saw the Light, Evil Ways, Rosanna, Kyrie, Bang the Drum All Day, Boys, Don’t Pass Me By, Yellow Submarine, Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen, Honey Don’t, Anthem, You Are Mine, Africa, Oye Como Va, Love is the Answer, I Wanna Be Your Man, Broken Wings, Hold the Line, Photograph, Act Naturally, With a Little Help from My Friends > Give Peace a Chance.
(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.”
With 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.”
(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.
At 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.