Social Distancing Spins, Day 1

By Joel Francis

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a lot of things away, but one thing it has provided me in abundance is plenty of extra time at home. I decided to make the most of my social distancing by doing a deep dive through my album collection. As the turntable spun, I was inspired to write about what I heard.

My intent is to provide brief snippets about each day’s albums. I understand that many of these classic recordings deserve lengthy posts on their own, but since we will be covering a lot of ground here I will try to remain brisk and on point. Ready? Let’s get to it.

Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980) Sabbath’s first half-dozen albums are rightly canonical. Heaven and Hell isn’t as groundbreaking but every bit as enjoyable as those classic platters. Sadly, the Ronnie James Dio era of Sabbath is mostly remembered by headbangers these days. This is the only Sabbath album I own, but I look forward to someday adding Mob Rules to the collection.

Hot Water Music – Light It Up (2017) – Playing the most recent album from the veteran Florida rock band was intended to wet my whistle for their concert at the RecordBar, scheduled just a few days away. Alas, like everything else on the horizon it was moved forward on the calendar until a hopefully calmer time. With a name swiped from Charles Bukowski and a sound like gasoline arguing with barbed wire the show is guaranteed to be a winner whenever it is held.

The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever (2010) This was my least-favorite Hold Steady album when it was released and I confess I haven’t played it as much as the albums that preceded and followed it. I thought the departure of multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay left too much of a hole in their sound, though the band sounded great when I saw them on this tour. Playing it now, I don’t think I gave Heaven is Whenever is enough credit at the time. It’s not a masterpiece on the scale of Boys and Girls in America and not as fierce as Teeth Dreams but there are some freaking fine moments, including “Our Whole Lives,” buried at the end of side two.

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984) What can be said about this landmark that hasn’t been said before? To be fair, this album was a request from my five-year-old son who loves “Dancing in the Dark” thanks to E Street Radio. “Dancing” is the next-to-last track, meaning he exposed to 10 other great tunes while waiting for his favorite number. Hopefully a few more of them will stick, although I’m not sure I want him singing “I’m on Fire” quite yet.

The Yawpers – American Man (2015) This Denver-based trio fits in well on Bloodshot’s roster of alt-country acts. Songwriter Nate Cook’s early 21st-centry examination of the U.S. of A. plays like a road trip. On songs like “9 to 5,” “Kiss It” and “Walter” they sound like Uncle Tupelo being chased through the Overlook Hotel by Jack Torrance.

The Highwomen – self-titled (2019) I toured the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville a few years ago. I was fascinated by the museum until the timeline reached the late 1980s. After Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle came on the scene, mainstream country and I quickly parted ways. The four songwriters in Highwomen are trying to reclaim popular country music on their own terms. Many, many great artists have tried to bend Music City to their tastes only to retreat exhausted. The best of them found Music Row sucking up to their pioneering sound only after it became popular. My guess is that the Highwomen will follow this same route, but they are so good you can’t rule out they will be the ones to finally break the stale, chauvinistic stockade.

(I say this and then notice that I’ve namedropped two male country stars in this piece without mentioning any of the female members of the Highwomen. Sigh. Please forgive me, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris.)

Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (2019) The Ivy League-educated neo-soul songstress focuses on the small to show us the large on her second album. Each of the thirteen tracks focus on an important black artists – Nikki Giovanni, Eartha Kitt, Jean-Michel Basquiat – explore what it means to be black in America today. What sounds like an academic thesis is actually a good dance album, thanks to a soundscape that slides between jazz, soul, hip hop, Afro-beat and even touches of EDM.

Jeff Tweedy – Together at Last (2017) Thanks to the film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Jeff Tweedy’s bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco barely made it into the mainstream before the monoculture collapsed and the entertainment world splintered into a million micro-genres and sects. The eleven songs performed here are stripped of all wonky production and distilled to voice and guitar. They are still amazing.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon (1970) Joni Mitchell’s work in the 1970s is every bit as good as Neil Young’s and even better than Bob Dylan’s. This album finds Mitchell branching out by adding more instruments to the guitar-and-voice arrangements found on her first two albums. The jazz clarinet solo at the end of “For Free” gets me every time. Three of Mitchell’s biggest songs are tucked at the end of side two. “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” set up “The Circle Game,” a look at mortality than never fails to leave me feeling deeply blue.

Ian Hunter – You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979) Ringo’s All-Starr Band isn’t the place for deep cuts, so I knew when Ian Hunter was listed as the guitar player for the 2001 tour I held a ticket for, I knew I was going to hear “Cleveland Rocks.” The only problem was the show was in St. Louis, so it didn’t really work. That’s Hunter’s catalog in a nutshell for me. All the right ingredients are there on paper and I get excited about hearing the albums when I read the reviews, but they never fully click with me. His releases are so plentiful in the used bins and priced so cheaply I keep giving them a shot hoping the next one will be The One.

Bear Hands – Fake Tunes (2019) Another play anticipating a performance that was cancelled. They descending keyboard part on “Blue Lips” reminds me of a good appropriation of Vampire Weekend’s first album (that’s a compliment). The overall vibe sends me to the same place as Beck’s “Guero” and “The Information” albums.

Thom Yorke – Susperia (2018) I’m not sure we needed a remake of Susperia, the 1977 Italian horror classic, but I’m glad it gave us Thom Yorke’s moody score. Trading his laptop for a piano, the Radiohead frontman provides 80 minutes of spare, melancholy instrumentals. The few vocal tracks make you wish there were more.

Yorke performed in Kansas City, Mo., less than two months after Susperia’s release, but ignored his latest album until the final song of the night. His performance of Unmade alone at the keyboard was the perfect benediction for a skittery night of electronic music.

Jack White and the Bricks – Live on the Garden Bowl Lanes: 1999 (2013)

The Go – Whatcha Doin’ (1999) These albums both arrived courtesy of the Third Man Records Vault and were recorded around the same time. Jack White was always a man of a million projects. When Meg was unavailable for a White Stripes show he grabbed some buddies – including future Raconteur Brendan Benson and Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell – for a set including a couple songs that would become Stripes staples, a pair of Bob Dylan covers and a song by ? and the Mysterians (not 96 Tears). The sound is a little rough but the performance is solid.

The debut album from The Go, Whatcha Doin’ is hefty slab of garage rock guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Jack White plays guitar and co-writes a couple songs, but this isn’t his show. He left the band shortly after the album came out, but there was no animosity. In 2003, The Go opened several shows for the White Stripes in the United Kingdom.

Syl Johnson – We Do It Together (compilation) This is the sixth platter in the amazing Complete Mythology box set released by the Numero Group in 2010.The material starts in 1970 and ends in 1977, omitting the time Johnson spent with Hi Records. Never lacking in self-confidence, Johnson frequently claimed he was every bit as good as James Brown and Al Green. Although he doesn’t have their notoriety, Johnson’s albums could easily slip into a DJ set of those soul masters.

Review: Ozzy + Slash

(Above: Ozzy performs “Mr. Crowley” at the Sprint Center on Jan. 22, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Prince of Darkness looked more like a soaked kitten.

Ozzy Osbourne stood center stage dripping wet, covered in foam. Thanks to the fire hose he used to liberally douse both himself and fans in the front half of the floor, Ozzy looked like he’d just fallen into a bathtub. The foam would dissolve, but Ozzy would never dry out.

Ostensibly in town to promote a new album, Ozzy performed just one new song.  Most of the rest of the setlist could have been written months in advance by a causal fan. But while the songs didn’t hold any surprises, many of the performances were still vital.

Experiencing Ozzy perform “Crazy Train” is a classic rock ‘n’ roll moment up there with hearing the Stones do “Jumping Jack Flash” or seeing Pearl Jam perform “Alive.” Despite being more than 40 years old, “War Pigs” still packs a powerful punch.

Although some of his solo material hasn’t aged as well, the three-quarters full house still reveled in the night, pumping their fists during solos and singing along. During “The Road to Nowhere” and “Mama, I’m Coming Home” the room lit up with lighters.

“Mr. Crowley” was an early highlight. Keyboard player Adam Wakeman, son of Rick Wakeman, turned the room into a giant cathedral with his ominous organ. As he played, a sheet of sparks feel from the rafters behind Ozzy, creating a curtain of fireworks.

Although there was a large video screen behind the band for most of the set and plenty of pyrotechnics, Ozzy’s oversized persona was the best visual effect of the night. Waterworks aside, he was constantly in motion, urging the crowd to clap, hopping up and down like a frog or bowing to his audience. During “Fire in the Sky” he writhed his arms and body during the lengthy guitar solo as if performing some Satanic jujitsu.

The two-hour set lagged quite a bit toward the end. It would have been difficult to maintain the energy and momentum of the opening numbers, but back-to-back, cliché-ridden guitar and drum solos deflated the show. Everyone would have been better served had the band performed two 45-minute sets with an intermission.

Fortunately Ozzy still had plenty of goodies buried in his catalog. “Crazy Train” brought the crowd back to life, while “Mama” and “Paranoid” ensured most of them would show up next time for his inevitable return.

Slash: Axl Rose is notorious for making fans wait hours before appearing; Slash came onstage 10 minutes early. His one-hour set was basically a truncated version of the show he put on last fall at the Voodoo Lounge. It was heavy on Guns ‘N’ Roses, with most of the songs coming from “Appetite For Destruction.” The Velvet Revolver material held its own, but some of the newer songs lost the crowd, especially “By the Sword.”

For a band so reliant on its guitarist, the mix was atrocious. All the instruments were trapped in a mush under bellowing drums and vocals that sounded like they emanated from a tin-can telephone. Fans may have been better served sonically by asking their next-door neighbor to play “Appetite” at full volume, then retreating to their basement and listening to it from there. Although the sound got better at times, the closing solo during “Paradise City” was practically inaudible.

Ozzy setlist: Bark at the Moon; Let Me Hear You Scream; Mr. Crowley; I Don’t Know; Fairies Wear Boots; Suicide Solution; Road to Nowhere; War Pigs; Fire in the Sky; Shot in the Dark; guitar solo > Rat Salad > drum solo; Iron Man; I Don’t Want to Change the World; Crazy Train. Encore: Mama, I’m Coming Home; Paranoid.

Slash setlist: Ghost; Sucker Train Blues; Mr. Brownstone; Back From Cali; Civil War; Nothing to Say; By the Sword; Nightrain; Sweet Child O’ Mine; Slither; Paradise City.

Keep reading:

Review: Slash

Review: “I Am Ozzy”

Review: Megadeth

 

 

 

Review: Girl Talk

(Above: A fan video for one of Girl Talk’s sonic creations.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Just because Gregg Gillis doesn’t play a musical instrument, doesn’t mean he can’t make you dance. For 80 minutes on Friday night, Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, had a packed Crossroads getting down in a downpour.

That set time may not look very long, but it was both exhausting and generous. Girl Talk specializes in creating ultimate mash-ups of literally hundreds of songs from nearly every genre and artists ranging from Boston, ODB, Radiohead, Simon and Garfunkel, Ben Folds and UGK. The shorter list would be the one encompassing all the artists Gills didn’t play. Suffice it to say, if it was a pop or club hit in the last 40 years, it was fair game for inclusion.

Girl Talk’s performance is more than matching beats per minute, however. He is the master of extracting the peak moment of a given song, pairing it with the pinnacle from another disparate track and creating a new climax higher than either cut could achieve alone.

The high-energy set was paced to jump from one high point to another, but a couple moments stand out. During Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” he teased out the verses, delaying the explosive chorus. When it finally hit a shockwave went through the crowd, amping the atmosphere even higher. He repeated the same trick drawing out the intro of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” before the glorious guitar riff detonated across the venue.

There’s a reason why most DJs are hidden in a booth at the back of a club: there’s usually not much visually going on. Gillis, though, took a cue from the Flaming Lips, flanked by a cast of dancing fans onstage and two assistants who were constantly streaming rolls of toilet paper and confetti into the crowd. They got an assist from Mother Nature, who provided an impressive lightning show in the sky above as the rain continued to pour throughout the night.

Although there was a video screen and basic light show, the most animated element of the night by far was Gillis himself. Taking the stage in a hoodie, it wasn’t long until he was shirtless and sweating profusely. His legs were never still, hopping back and forth between laptops on nearly every beat. Combine that with bouts of jumping on (and off) the table, arm waving and exuberant shout-outs and Gillis gave himself a heck of a cardio workout. The result was a performance far more entertaining than the typical person-behing-laptop/turntable.

Most of the set centered on recent hits, but Gillis mixed in two old tracks for the finale. The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” was virtually unaltered, save a hip hop beat underneath. The same trick that worked at the skating rink was just as effective on a larger scale with adults. The evening ended with John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which crawled at a snail’s pace compared to the rest of the night’s fare. Of course by then the message had already been received.

Keep reading:

Flaming Lips deserve Super Bowl halftime show

Chris Cornell – “Scream”

Review: Lupe Fiasco

Review: “I Am Ozzy”

(Above: Ozzy Osbourne has done a lot of crazy stuff in his life. This might be the most surreal.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The trails and adventures of Ozzy Osbourne’s life have been repackaged and sold nearly as often as the metal god’s greatest hits.

Between an episode of “Behind the Music,” countless articles and three seasons of reality television on MTV, there’s little new ground for Ozzy’s new autobiography, “I Am Ozzy” to cover.

But just like “Crazy Train” and “No More Tears,” just because you’ve heard them before doesn’t mean you don’t want to hear them again. “I Am Ozzy” may hold few surprises, but it’s still a breezy and entertaining read.

Fans looking for insight into Ozzy’s musical process should look elsewhere. Animal activists are also advised to keep away. In the course of the book’s 391 pages, Ozzy not only (infamously) bites the head off of a dove and a bat, but decapitates his seven-foot stuffed bear and mows down his backyard flock of pet chickens during a drunken rampage.

That phrase, “during a drunken rampage,” is the preface to 99 percent of the book’s stories. It is amazing that Ozzy survived his rampages. Even more incredibly, the cumulative effect of so many successive episodes makes Ozzy’s unthinkable actions seem rational. After reading “I was drunk, so I figured ___” so many times, one starts to become numb to the consequences and may find himself frequently nodding in agreement.

The most entertaining and musically focused chapters detail Ozzy’s time in Black Sabbath. Before recording “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” the band holed up at Clearwell Castle in England. The time supposed to be used for rehearsal quickly devolved into a series of pranks designed to convince the others the castle was haunted. These stories show an innocent playfulness than reinforces the bond between band mates and makes them feel more human.

“I Am Ozzy” could also serve as an alternate screenplay for “This Is Spinal Tap.” Ozzy details his difficulties finding the perfect midget to hang onstage and how he placed blood capsules in a wig so it looks like he is suffering head trauma. He also recalls the difficulties of performing in a suit of armor – particularly when fans are flinging handfuls of raw meat onto the stage – and the night the pyrotechnic hand designed to lift him over the crowd malfunctioned.

Despite the hi-jinks, there is a serious side to the book. Ozzy somberly discusses the death of his guitarist and greatest foil, Randy Rhoades, a lawsuit filed by the family of a fan after he committed suicide and dealings with religious fanatics, both Satanists and Christians. Ozzy expresses his regrets, but doesn’t expound on the details (probably because he never had to deal with them).

For the past three decades, Ozzy’s long-suffering wife and manager Sharon has embraced the role of janitor. The Marge to Homer’s Ozzy, Sharon not only had to deal with the consequences of her husband’s addictions, but also had to repeatedly stand up to her father, Don Arden. As Ozzy and Sabbath’s former manager, he uses every dirty trick in the book to steal Ozzy back from his daughter. Sharon is frequently painted as an opportunist, but “I Am Ozzy” leaves little doubt that Sharon had to work very hard for her empire and may even deserve a smidgen of sympathy.

After spending two-thirds of his text on Sabbath and Rhodes, Ozzy breezes through the final 25 years of his life. Guitarists Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde (who played with Ozzy for 20 years) get only a passing mention. Ozzy slows down over the last 50 pages to discuss his resurrection on MTV, and health issues.

“I Am Ozzy” may not win any literary awards, but a special prize should be awarded to Chris Ayres for making the Ozz-man sound coherent and engaging. Although the conversational tone is loaded with profanity and British colloquialisms, they make the stories seem even more natural and personal.

If there’s one surprise in “I Am Ozzy” it is how much of Ozzy’s life feels like destiny. Despite the trappings of his fame and success, one gets the feeling Ozzy would have turned out pretty much same. Ozzy the Crazy Ex-Con or Ozzy the Slaughterhouse Worker (both were pre-fame occupations) just seem like lower-budget versions of Ozzy the Metal God.

After all, that’s who he is.

15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years (part three)

(Above: Savion Glover does his thing with plenty o’ swing.)

By Joel Francis

Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the final of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.

Eldar Djangirov

Eldar Djangirov is the continuation of the great line of pianists to emerge from Kansas City, Mo. that stretches back to Count Basie and Jay McShann. The three have more than an adopted hometown in common, though. Although none were born in Kansas City, all experienced significant musical growth while living there. Unlike Basie and McShann, though, Eldar’s formation started before puberty. He performed at a Russian jazz festival at age 5 and at age 12 became the youngest guest ever on Marian McPartlan’s Piano Jazz radio show. Though his latest album is straight-up smooth jazz, Eldar’s earlier work has a breadth that recalls everyone from Ahmad Jamal to Art Tatum. Albums to start with: Eldar, Live at the Blue Note

Christian McBride

Bass player Christian McBride was mentored and hailed by no less an authority than Ray Brown before starting off on his own. McBride works comfortably in the traditional vein on his early albums like “Fingerpainting,” the excellent tribute to Herbie Hancock performed in a bass/guitar/trumpet setting. He gets more funky and touches on fusion with his three-disc live set recorded at Tonic and studio albums “Sci-Fi” and “Vertical Vision.” In 2003, McBride collaborated with hip hop drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots and keyboardist Uri Caine for a spectacular collaboration known as the Philadelphia Experiment. McBride has also worked extensively with Sting and Pat Metheny. Albums to start with: Fingerpainting, The Philadelphia Experiment.

Joshua Redman

Expectations have been high for Joshua Redman since winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991. While Redman hasn’t fulfilled those unrealistic expectations by taking his instrument to the heights achieved by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, he has built a strong career on his own terms. Redman’s early quintets helped launch the careers of Christian McBride and Brad Mehldau and his work as musical director of the San Francisco Jazz Collective paired him with legends like Bobby Hutcherson and new artists like Miguel Zenon. Redman’s catalog is adventurous enough to include covers of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” with guitarist Pat Metheny and funky experiments that recall Eddie Harris. Albums to start with: Spirit of the Moment, Back East.

Savion Glover

Jazz tap may have died with the golden age of big-budget Hollywood musicals, but Savion Glover is trying his best to bring it back. He has appeared in televised concerts with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra, collaborated with poet Reg E. Gaines and saxophone player Matana Roberts for the John Coltrane-inspired improve “If Trane Was Here,” appeared in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” and was a cast member of “Sesame Street.” Glover hasn’t recorded any albums, but his live performances are a potent reminder that jazz isn’t the exclusive province of those with a horn or a voice.

Bad Plus

Combining rock and jazz is nothing new, but the piano/drums/bass trio Bad Plus have done it in an acoustic setting that resembles Medeski, Martin and Wood more than Weather Report. Their early albums were filled with original material that split the difference between Oscar Peterson and Ben Folds, tempered by occasional arrangements of Pixies and Black Sabbath classics. Unfortunately, recent releases have steered sharply away from new compositions and saturated the increasing covers with more irony. While the concept of their newest album – all covers with a female vocalist – makes one wary, their early material should not be overlooked. Albums to start with: Give, Suspicious Activity.

Keep Reading 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

Part One

Part Two

Five Legends Still Adding to Their Legacies