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Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Cash’

By Joel Francis

Stay strong and stay safe, my friends.

Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) The final Johnny Cash album released in Johnny Cash’s lifetime is appropriately fixated on mortality. Then again, Cash has been singing about death since he shot a man in Reno to watch him die. The album works more often than it doesn’t. The title song is one of my favorite Cash compositions, funneling the Book of Revelations through a strummy Martin guitar. Similarly, Cash turns Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” into a gospel song. He adds a layer of guilt and gravitas to Sting’s “I Hung My Head” that is absent from the original recording. Best of all, Cash infuses a lifetime of pain and addiction into “Hurt,” completely claiming the song from Nine Inch Nails. Most of the rest ranges from fine to worse. “Tear-Stained Letter” is too jaunty and “Desperado” and “Danny Boy” are unnecessary. Cash isn’t adding anything to those well-worn tunes. Even worse, are covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (with Fiona Apple) and “In My Life.” Surprisingly, Cash seems lost on these songs, unsure of what to do with them. The high points more than make up for the milquetoast material – there is usually a little filler on Cash albums, but the result is the least consistent of the American releases to that point.

David Lee Roth – Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986) Diamond Dave is looking to settle scores with his solo debut. He brought in hotshot guitarist Steve Vai and bass player Billy Sheehan to generate one of the highest notes-per-second rock albums in an era that celebrated six-string excess. For better or worse, Roth can’t help being anything other than himself so even this grudge match was delivered with a broad wink and jazz hands. The key word in the album’s title is SMILE. All the songs push the fun factor to 11, but surprisingly nothing feels forced. Of course it’s all junk food, but like getting the extra butter on movie theater popcorn, sometimes you just can’t help it.

Four Tops – Second Album (1965) More often than not, especially in the 1960s, Motown albums were collections of hit singles padded with other recordings. The result was often uneven, but the album tracks on Second Album are pretty great in their own regard. No one can argue with the three Top 10 hits on the first side: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song” and “Something About You.” The second side doesn’t contain any hit singles but doesn’t suffer from it. “Darling, I Hum Our Song” has a great Levi Stubbs vocal performance (really, he’s great on everything here) in a Jackie Wilson-styled song from the period when Berry Gordy was writing hits for Wilson. “Since You’ve Been Gone” first appeared as the b-side of “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” The energy from Four Tops and the Funk Brothers on this track make me think it could have been a hit on its own. Back on the first side, “IS There Anything I Can Do” is one of the few songs on the album not to come from the pen of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracles Ronald White and Pete Moore, it’s not hard to imagine the Miracles performing this song. Surprisingly, as far as I know they never did. Come for the hits on Second Album but stay for the album tracks that illustrate just how special the Four Tops were.

The Damned – The Best of the Damned (compilation) It seems there are almost as many best-of collections for the Damned as there has been lineups. I picked this up at a garage sale because it has many of my favorite songs from their first three albums, back when they were more punk than goth. At some point I might expand my Damned album collection to include those early releases in their entirety, but until then this is a great overview of a tough band.

The Stooges – Fun House (1970) The hype sticker on my album proclaims “Iggy and the boys find their troglodyte groove.” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The music on Fun House connects on a primal level, like howling at the moon. In a strange way, it connects with me in the same way as Howlin Wolf or John Lee Hooker – straight in the gut, without any pretense. Like it is hitting the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, shelter, etc.) In other words, the exact opposite of a pompous album review that references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The song “TV Eye” came from a phrase that Stooges rhythm section Scott and Ron Asheton’s sister used about men leering at her. It forces me to exceed the speed limit every time it comes on in the car. “Down in the Sleep” came to Iggy Pop in the middle of the night. He got out of bed trying to play the power chord he heard in his head, waking his wife in the process. Unlike Ziggy, Iggy didn’t play guitar. Perhaps he never found that chord.

After the opening assault, Fun House changes up a bit but remains just as gripping. Steven Mackay’s saxophone squonks across the second side like the group has just discovered fire for the first time.

This album needs to be played regularly to make sure you are still alive.

The Shins – Wincing the Night Away (2007) The third album from the Albuquerque indie rock quartet was their first release after Natalie Portman proclaimed them life-changing in the film Garden State. There was a lot riding on this release, but frontman and songwriter James Mercer wasn’t afraid to stretch the band’s sound. He sprinkles synthesizers and funk basslines among the familiar chiming guitars and la-la-la melodies. As a result, Wincing the Night Away isn’t as strong as the two Shins albums before it, but it is still very enjoyable.

Willie Nelson – Teatro (1998) Willie Nelson seems game to try just about anything. Reggae album? Sure. Duet with Kid Rock? Why not? Still, the decision to record in an old movie theater with producer Daniel Lanois was a solid nod. Nelson revisits several of his lesser-known songs from the 1960s with harmonica player Mickey Raphael and the marvelous Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. Many of the arrangements are Spanish or Mexican in spirit and give a vibe like we are lost in a marathon of Ennio Morricone films south of the border. Nelson, the other musicians and the songs thrive in this atmosphere, making this a distinctly unique album in Nelson’s vast catalog and also one of his best.

Peter Gabriel – Us (1992) It took Peter Gabriel six years to release a follow-up to his massively successful album So. That’s almost light speed, considering he’s only given us one other album of original material since then. But what an album Us is. Gabriel throws everything from bagpipes to a Russian folk group in the should-have-been-single “Come Talk to Me.” Other songs are just as overstuffed and immaculately excellent. The horn-driven “Kiss the Frog” ranks as one of the greatest extended sexual metaphors of all time. “Blood of Eden” and “Secret World” are passionately romantic. The only dud is “Steam,” aka Son of “Sledgehammer.” There is a lot to unravel in Us, but Gabriel gave his fans plenty of time to process all of it.

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Day 31

By Joel Francis

Baby Huey – The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend (1971) Sadly, Baby Huey was no longer living by the time The Living Legend came out. The soul singer died from a heart attack four months before album’s release.  With no chance of a sequel, The Baby Huey Story makes the most of its shot. “Listen To Me” starts the album with a horn chart so strong it should be in every pep band’s repertoire. An extended reading of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Going to Come” turns the civil rights anthem into a psychedelic soul adventure. On the flip side, Huey tackles “California Dreamin’” and three songs by benefactor and producer Curtis Mayfield. “Hard Times,” another civil rights song, popped up a dozen years ago on a collaborative album between John Legend and the Roots. In fact, hip hop musicians have mined this album pretty hard for beats and samples since the early ‘80s. There’s a good chance you’ve already heard a lot of Baby Huey’s Story, just in five- or 10-second looped intervals. Soul fans and hip hop heads will find a lot to enjoy in Huey’s abbreviated catalog.

The Cure – Standing on a Beach: The Single (compilation) Greatest hits collections were the meat and potatoes of my music library during my time as a student. In those days of early internet, anthologies were the best place to start for bands and artists with daunting catalogs. I mention this because I learned through the hits collections Standing on the Beach and Galore that the Cure were a very different band on their singles than they were on album. Singles Cure were bright, poppy and quirky. Album Cure was moody, dark and confrontational. I am a Singles Cure fan. Standing on a Beach starts with the band’s early lo-fi post-punk work and leaves off at the doorstep of their must successful commercial period. The transformation is subtle on Standing on a Beach. There aren’t any huge leaps in sound and the progression feels very natural. It’s also more fun than any proper Cure album would allow.

David Bowie – Heathen (2002) At the time of its release, Heathen was hailed as a comeback for Bowie. In retrospect this seems odd, because the final three albums Bowie released as a touring musician, before disappearing for a decade, are very much of a piece. They are Bowie reflecting on his past work, cherry-picking the best bits and reprising them in a contemporary context. Of these three albums – 1999’s Hours, Heathen and 2003’s Reality – I like Heathen best. It feels the most fully realized. There’s not a bum track to be found, but “Slow Burn” and “Everyone Says Hi” stand out as favorites. The reference to the Yankees in “Slip Away” will always make me think of that horrible/wonderful period after 9/11 when we were all New Yorkers, even if the only thing you’d done in New York at the time was go to the Bronx for a ball game like me.

Johnny Cash – Now Here’s Johnny Cash (compilation)

Johnny Cash – Original Sun Sound (compilation) Both of these albums are early 1960s attempts by the Sun Records label to cash in on Johnny’s stardom (See what I did there?) after he moved on with Columbia Records. Interestingly, neither of them contain many hits. Now Here has “Cry Cry Cry” and “Hey Porter” while Original has “Big River.” That’s it. The rest of the 21 tracks across the two albums are deep cuts. And they go pretty deep. “Belshazzar” outfits an Old Testament tale the Tennessee Two sound. Cash liked “Country Boy” so much he cut it again 30-some odd years later on Unchained.  Even the Lead Belly chestnut “Goodnight Irene” gets a spin. The producers on Now Here positioned “Oh, Lonesome Me” next to “So Doggone Lonesome.” “Port of Lonely Hearts” appears earlier in the collection, further driving the point home.  Fans wanting the hits should look elsewhere, but anyone wanting a deeper look at his early period will be pleased. Even better, both of these albums can be found pretty easily for under five bucks.

Stardeath and White Dwarves – Wastoid (2014) Stardeath may have won some new fans through nepotism – lead singer Dennis Coyne is the nephew of Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips – but they kept the converted by producing entertaining slabs of psychedelic, experimental rock. Wastoid is the Oklahoma City quartet’s second album. They are significantly heavier than the Lips, but share that band’s morbid playful side. If you ever wanted the Flaming Lips to make a stoner rock album, this is for you. I enjoy Wastoid more than their debut, simply because it sounds more effortless and assured. Stardeath released an EP in 2015 and have been strangely quite since then. I hope we get some new stuff at some point.

Neko Case, k.d. lang, Laura Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs (2016) The appetite for supergroups goes back to Sun’s Million Dollar Quartet. But for every Traveling Wilburys or CSNY, it seems you get about three Nodding Hillbillies or the Firms. Maybe that’s why Case/Lang/Veirs works so well. I don’t remember hearing much of anything about this project before its release. There was no time to build anticipation and expectation, it was just … there.

The greater reason why Case/Lang/Veirs works is because all three women are incredible songwriters with voices of gold that perfectly complement each other. While this album doesn’t match the high points each artist has achieved on her own it should be cherished by fans of all three.

The Gotobeds – Poor People are Revolting (2014) Sometimes you end up with an album purely because of the convergence of mood, price and genre. The Pittsburgh-based punk quartet are fine purveyors of their craft, but don’t know why I have three of their albums. I’d definitely go see them the next time they come through town, but my fandom isn’t as deep as my record shelf suggests. Poor People are Revolting is the Gotobeds’ first full-length album. If you like the sound of Pavement, the Fall and Sonic Youth noisily colliding with populist politics, this is the place for you.

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By Joel Francis

Our trawl through my world of vinyl continues.

Various Artists – Stroke It Noel: Big Star’s Third in Concert (2017) To butcher the cliché, probably not everyone who bought a Big Star album back in the ‘70s started a band, but it’s a fair bet that at least one person from most of your favorite bands did (unless you are super into, say, Norwegian death metal, in which case, thank you for branching out and reading this blog).

It’s been ten years to the month since Big Star’s frontman Alex Chilton died on the eve of his celebration at South by Southwest. The impromptu tribute that emerged from that tragedy morphed into a series of concerts around the world celebrating Big Star’s troubling third album. It’s wonderful to hear members of Wilco, R.E.M., Yo La Tengo, the Posies, Semisonic, the dbs and more pass the mic and hike through these songs. But the live reproductions are so faithful they miss the fragile, alluring qualities that made the original studio versions that almost seemed to disintegrate before coalescing into beauty – if they made it that far. So yeah, I dig this, but hearing R.E.M.’s Mike Mills bounce joyfully through “Jesus Christ” or Django Haskins struggle with “Holocaust” doesn’t make me a bigger Big Star fan. It just makes me glad that the people I’m into have such immaculate taste.

Robert Fripp – Exposure (1979) I have a great deal of respect for King Crimson, Robert Fripp’s groundbreaking progressive rock ensemble, but to my heathen ears their music is like listening to calculus. I can get behind Exposure, though. You can almost hear Fripp smirking as he takes the listener from wordless, off-kilter a capella harmonies to an endlessly ringing phone and then a boogie woogie pastiche – all in about a minute. It’s almost like Fripp is daring us to meet us where he is, then abruptly changing course and challenging us to follow him over there. This is also an apt description of his entire career. Listening to Exposure is like playing tag. You never stay in one place and may find yourself out of breath at times with the quarry just out of reach, but it’s always fun to play. Special mention must be made of the definitive version of “Here Comes the Flood” with Peter Gabriel on vocals.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear – Skeleton Crew (2015) This mother-son duo was poised to be the next big thing to break out of the Kansas City music scene when this debut album came out. They appeared on one of the last episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman, the Today show, Later with Jools Holland and played Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival. Things have been quiet since then – only one EP in 2018 – but these laid-back, folk blues romps are still a fun spin.

Kendrick Lamar – Damn. (2017) Damn. was my favorite album the year it came out and it remains a compelling listen today. The fact that I can say this despite a concert that nearly left me in tears is a testament to its strength. When the Damn. tour announced a date at the Sprint Center, I quickly jumped on tickets. Not wanting to take out a second mortgage, my friends and I got seats in the upper level, extreme stage right. The sound was fine for the opening acts, but when Lamar took the stage it was like the sound blew out in the speakers directed at our section. You know it sounds you’re just inside the doors, waiting to get in and the show starts without you? All bass with just a hint of vocals? That’s how it sounded inside the arena. Some ushers kindly moved us to another section where the sound was slightly better, but the spell had been broken and the show was a bust. All this and I still can’t wait to hear what Lamar does next.

Rush – Power Windows (1985) I know everyone loves the hard, sci-fi prog of Rush’s late-‘70s peak, but I am strongly partial to their synth-heavy early ‘80s material. This mostly boils down to the fact that during high school I played the band’s 1989 live album A Show of Hands so often I thought the laser would bore right through the CD. So you can have your “Cygnus X-1” and “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and I’ll stick with “Marathon” and “Manhattan Project,” thank you very much.

Husker Du – Everything Falls Apart (1982) Playing this record (included in the Numero Group’s essential early-days collection Savage Young Du) is like flying down the interstate on a Japanese motorcycle without a helmet. Insects slap your face and the wind stings your eyes as gravity forces you closer to the ground. Danger is imminent, but you twist your wrist and accelerate even more. Stopping is not an option. Oh, and there’s an entire side of bonus tracks.

Johnny Cash – Mean as Hell! (1966) Mean as Hell! is the single platter version of Johnny Cash’s double-record concept album Sings the Ballads of the True West. I think I got this at a garage sale, because who can resist an album with this title (with mandatory exclamation point) where a gaunt, drugged out Cash is dressed like a cowboy, holding a gun? The music isn’t as exceptional as the cover. The spoken-word bits are a little too somber. Cash sounds like a Southern preacher crossed with a National Geographic narrator on the title track and the studio version of “25 Minutes to Go” is nowhere near as fun as the live version at Folsom Prison. Despite these shortcomings, I’ll still put on my spurs for the ballads: “I Ride an Old Paint,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and album closer “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”

Frank Black – Teenager of the Year (1994) No one liked this album when it came out. It didn’t sound like the Pixies, wasn’t as radio-ready as the Breeders and there was a lot of lingering animosity over how Frank Black ended the beloved Pixies. I didn’t know any of this at the time, however, because I was too busy listening to A Show of Hands. Coming to this album several years later, all I heard were nearly two dozen bright blasts of Black’s songwriting at its most accessible. Nurse a grudge all you want. I’ll be right over hear blasting “Freedom Rock” loud enough to drown out your whining.

Brian Eno – Reflection (2016) I don’t know enough about ambient music to tell you the difference between this album and Lux or the longer-form pieces on the Music for Installations collection. I can tell you that when it gets to the point in the day when I need some Eno, Reflection (and Lux) always comforts me. I also don’t think I have to get up to turn the record over as often with Lux, so there’s one difference.

Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle (1973) This is one of my absolute favorite Springsteen albums because it’s the sound of him fumbling through different sounds trying to figure out what he wants to be. It all clicked into place with Born to Run, his next album. The guitars at the beginning of “Sandy” sound like the Allman Brothers Band before the accordion whisks in foreshadowing the opening section of Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Where else can you hear Springsteen rocking with a clavinet over a Doobie Brothers guitar line but on “The E Street Shuffle”?

The picture of the band is especially priceless. Half the guys have their shirts unbuttoned all the way, only a couple are wearing shoes and Springsteen is rocking a tank top and blue jeans. They look like a group that would get uncomfortably close and overly friendly with a stranger, ask to bum a cigarette and then inquire if he or she liked to par-tay.

Wild and Innocent is also the only time multi-instrumentals David Sancious appeared as Springsteen’s main musical foil. Sancious left to form his own band shortly after this album came out and went on to work with Stanley Clarke, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Eric Clapton and many others.

Lee Hazlewood – The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes and Backsides (compilation) If you’ve heard “These Boots,” then you’ve heard a Lee Hazlewood production. This collection doesn’t contain any of Hazlewood’s work with the Chairman of the Board’s daughter – which is good enough to warrant its own anthology – but it does contain duets with Ann-Margret and Suzi Jane Hokom and solo cuts that sound like cowboy songs in Cinemascope. Drag Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to the wild west and your getting close.

R.L. Burnside – Too Bad Jim (1994)

T-Model Ford – The Ladies Man (2010) I saw T-Model Ford one time, right around the time The Ladies Man came out, a couple years before his death. The venue, Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club, or just Davey’s, was about as close as you could get to a juke joint in Kansas City. Split across two storefronts, the bar was on the left side, where you’d traditionally enter. The area with music was on the right side of the wall. If a performer moved too far stage right he or she was liable to bump into a door leading out to the street. That would be bad. Despite these shortcomings, the sight lines were decent, the drinks were cheap and the sound was usually OK. I mention all this because Davey’s, a century-old Kansas City institution, was gutted by a fire just a couple days ago. Everyone reminiscing online about the great times they had at the venue made me reach for this album.

R.L. Burnside’s blues were cut from the same primitive cloth as Ford’s. I don’t know if Burnside ever played at Davey’s but I’m sure he would have been welcomed and would have liked it. The good news is that the Markowitz family, who have run Davey’s since the 1950s, plan to rebuilt the space.

Loose Fur – self-titled (2003) Recorded before Wilco’s career-defining Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but released afterward, Loose Fur is the sound of Jeff Tweedy shaking off the weight of Wilco and getting acquainted with two new collaborators. Opening track “Laminated Cat” is one of my favorite Tweedy compositions. It’s more than seven minutes here, but Wilco frequently tear it down onstage like a Sonic Youth number and stretch it even longer. Jim O’Rourke’s “Elegant Transaction” provides a more relaxed counterpoint and while the album doesn’t get that relaxed again until the closing number, “Chinese Apple,” the opening pair frame the album as a balancing act between tension, experimental noise and release.

Benny Carter – Further Definitions (1961) Impulse Records are frequently viewed as the playhouse for avant-garde jazz workouts by saxophonists John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef and Sonny Rollins. Further Definitions is proof that Impulse wasn’t so one-dimensional (at least in the early years). Pre-war legends Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins push each other to new heights in the confines of this small group anchored by Coltrane’s rhythm section. The result is an album that jazz fans can appreciate for its sophistication and intricacy but your mom can hum along with. A win for everyone.

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(Above: Reggae pioneers the Skatalites pay tribute to Dave Brubeck, and prove that it is possible to skank to jazz.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The original run of the Skatalites lasted barely over a year. That brief window has proved to be more than enough time to build a legacy strong to survive nearly half a century later.

The music the seven-piece island band played for two hours at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club on Thursday night transformed the sound of Jamaican music, but has deep tentacles into many forms of American music, including jazz, doo wop, R&B, gospel and even country.

The band never tried to hide its influences. “Music is My Occupation” reappropriated the horn line from “Ring of Fire.” Next, on their version of the James Bond theme, the famous surf guitar was transferred to a punchy horn line. The arrangement inspired more dancing than danger. Think of it as the soundtrack to the scene after the big fight, when 007 waltzes away with the girl.

Three horns lined the front of the stage, proclaiming the band’s strength. Founding member Lester Sterling played an old saxophone that looked like it had been rescued from a shipwreck but never failed to summon a melody pure and true. The big rhythm section included keyboards and guitar. They players may have been hidden behind the brass, but never played second fiddle.

The band had no problem moving the tricky 5/4 time of Dave Brubeck’s signature “Take Five” to a ska beat. Originally recorded with Val Bennett as “The Russians are Coming,” the piece featured Sterling’s longest solo of the night and proved he could hang with the players in the Blue Room any night.

When Sterling wanted to show off ska’s versatility, he launched the band into a cover of “I Should Have Known Better.” The Beatles were contemporaries when the Skatalties first laid down their version. A cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” – courtesy of drummer Trevor Thompson – and the spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” were the night’s only vocal moments.

The two-hour set was generous to a fault. While the room was packed for the first hour, there was plenty of elbow room when “The Guns of Navarone,” the band’s biggest song, finally emerged near the end. Most of the instrumentals employed a similar arrangement, allowing some sameness to eventually creep. The performances were always energetic, however, and kept a steady flow of dancing near the stage.

Purists can quibble over the lack of original members onstage and they’d have a point. Sterling is the only founding member, and almost half the band wasn’t born when the Skatalites were at their peak in Studio One. Blame Father Time for the attrition then ask if the music should be forced to pass along with its musicians.

Sterling put it another way between numbers: “When you’re good, you’re good.”

They’re good.

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(Michael Buble and Chris Isaak pay tribute to Kansas City by performing Lieber and Stoller’s classic song during a 2007 tour stop in Chicago.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Chris Isaak has made a career working of the blueprint established by Elvis Presley. The debt is apparent in Isaak’s music, hairstyle and demeanor, a cool, effortless charm to the humor and charisma that plays equally well in both music and acting. So it’s only natural, then, that Isaak pay homage to Sun Records, the label that launched Presley.

Friday’s 90-minute show before a packed Uptown Theater paid homage to Sun and underlined its connection to Isaak’s own 26-year- old catalog. “Don’t Leave Me On My Own” sounded like a cross between “Wooden Heart” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”; “Let Me Down Easy” could have been a lost Presley single. During “American Boy” Isaak raised his arms and shook his hips with a vigor that would have landed him in trouble on the Ed Sullivan Show.

After driving through some of his favorite originals -– including a stretched-out “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing” and reliably hypnotic “Wicked Games” -– Isaak devoted the second half of the night to Sun. The arrangements stayed faithful to the original recordings, but the crowd’s energetic response showed there is still a hunger for this material.

It takes courage to cover songs as beloved and well-known as “Ring of Fire” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Isaak pulled it off, in part because those songs are right in his wheelhouse anyway, but also because of his obvious respect for, and love of, the material. The upbeat numbers also gave guitarist Hershel Yatovitz plenty of space to unleash several of his rowdiest solos.

Isaak performed most of the main set wearing a sparkly, sequined ensemble that looked like a Nudie suit designed by Lady Gaga. He poked fun of the outfit several times during the night and emerged for the encore in an even more outrageous mirror ball suit.

The tone was warm and casual. Both Isaak and Yatovitz ventured into the crowd. After winding through the main level during “Don’t Leave Me On My Own,” (with frequent stops for pictures) Isaak delivered “Love Me Tender” from the front of the balcony. Later, Isaak introduced pianist Scott Plunkett as the type of musician children could look up to. After the applause died, Parker promptly produced a large bottle from his piano and took a long swig.

Fans still shuffling to their seats three songs into the set probably regretted their truancy. Although Isaak performed a generous two-dozen songs, most of the songs delivered could have fit comfortably on the A-side of a 45. Isaak ended the night with a gorgeous solo acoustic version of “Forever Blue.” The ending seemed premature, but at the same time it didn’t feel like he’d left anything out.

Setlist: Beautiful Homes, Dancin’, Somebody’s Crying, Don’t Leave Me On My Own, Love Me Tender, I Want Your Love, San Francisco Days, Wicked Games, Speak of the Devil, Let Me Down Easy, Go Walking Down There > American Boy, Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing, My Happiness > Ring of Fire, Dixie Fried, How’s the World Treating You?, Live It Up, Miss Pearl, Great Balls of Fire. Encore: Blue Hotel, Big Wide Wonderful World, Can’t Help Falling In Love, (Oh) Pretty Woman, Forever Blue.

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(Above: Roger Daltrey and his outstanding band, which included guitarist Simon Townshend, rip through “Tommy” at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Roger Daltrey didn’t write a note of “Tommy,” but he found himself as a singer telling the story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a messiah at high-profile at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight. More than 40 years later, Daltrey is still finding ways to express himself through the character.

The Who singer brought a five piece band, including guitarist Simon Townshend, brother of Who mastermind Pete Townshend, to the Midland on Friday for a trip through “Tommy” and other favorites.The band stuck pretty close to the recorded version of “Tommy,” give or take a few guitar solos and a nice gospel piano intro to “Come to This House.” “Pinball Wizard” finally got the crowd on the floor to their feet, where they stayed for the rest of the night. After “Tommy” ended, Daltrey paused for a few minutes to introduce the band before plowing into more material.

For the second half, Daltrey wanted to sing some harmonies, so he enlisted the rest of the band to help out on “I Can See For Miles,” “The Kids Are Alright” and a side trip through Americana with “Gimme A Stone” and a Johnny Cash medley.

Although Daltrey’s voice isn’t as strong today, in many ways he’s a better vocalist. Improved phrasing and delicate attention to nuance make Daltrey more expressive than ever. This isn’t to say he doesn’t sing with authority. “Eyesight to the Blind” featured a tough blues growl, while “Smash the Mirror” and “Young Man Blues” were as forceful as the original Who recordings.

In an evening filled with highlights, the best moment was a potent reading of “Young Man Blues,” which featured Daltrey’s signature microphone twirling and incorporated the Who rarity “Water.” The immortal “Baba O’Riley” concluded a generous set that ran well over two hours.

Setlist: Tommy – Overture; It’s a Boy; 1921; Amazing Journey; Sparks; Eyesight to the Blind; Christmas; Cousin Kevin; Acid Queen; Do You Think It’s Alright?; Fiddle About; Pinball Wizard; There’s a Doctor; Go to the Mirror; Tommy Can You Hear Me?; Smash the Mirror; Sensation; Miracle Cure; Sally Simpson; I’m Free; Welcome; Tommy’s Holiday Camp; We’re Not Gonna Take It. Band introductions. I Can See For Miles; The Kids Are Alright; Behind Blue Eyes; Days of Light; Gimme A Stone; Going Mobile; Johnny Cash Medley; Who Are You; Young Man Blues (including Water); Baba O’Riley.

Additional thoughts:

The Star didn’t give me many words for this review, so here are some other thoughts that didn’t make the cut.

  • The set was cut short by a couple songs. Most shows ended with “Without Your Love” and “Blue Red and Grey.” It was clear after “Baba O’Riley” that the spirit was willing, but the throat was weak. Still, it’s hard to complain about an evening packed with more than two hours of classic material.
  • Filling standing room with folding chairs near the stage is usually the kiss of death for a performance  – most fans would rather sit than stand. But the crowd in the pricey seats on the floor stood and cheered for most of the night, a refreshing change of pace.
  • The first time I set foot inside the Midland Theater was when the touring version of the Broadway version of “Tommy” swung through town in the early ’90s. I was in high school at the time. Nearly 20 years later it was nice to come full circle.

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(Above: Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness says he’s performed “Story of My Life” so many times it belongs to the fans more than him – but it never gets old to hear.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Bathed in a white spotlight, Social Distortion front man Mike Ness generated a wall of distorted chords with his Les Paul guitar before belting out the lonesome words to “Making Believe,” a song first recorded more than 50 years ago. Ness was joined by the rest of the band on the second verse, adding a punch Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris probably never imagined when they recorded their hit versions of the song. Before the chorus came around again the classic country number had been converted to a punk anthem.

For many of the songs in Social D’s 90-minute set Tuesday night the Beaumont Club the reverse was also true. It isn’t hard to imagine songs like “Bad Luck,” “Bakersfield,” and especially “Prison Bound” as traditional country fare cast in only a slightly different light.

Social Distortion’s presentation recalls Black Flag – full of furious energy and tattoos – but its content – songs of the downtrodden and desolate searching for redemption – could have come from the Acuff-Rose catalog.

The Orange County quartet have been smearing the line between country and punk for more than 30 years now, long before the alt-country era of Uncle Tupelo or even cowpunk contemporaries Jason and the Scorchers.

The sidemen sometimes change, but Ness and company roll into town regularly enough that the singer/ lead guitarist knew where State Line divides the town and that he was firmly planted on the Missouri side. The current lineup includes drummer David Hidalgo Jr., son of the Los Lobos singer and guitarist.

Although the band released its first album in seven years in January, most of the night was dedicated to fan favorites and fevered sing-alongs. “Bad Luck,” “Sick Boys” and “Ball and Chain” drew especially hearty responses. On the rare occasion when the fans didn’t know the words, as on the new song “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown,” they participated by crowd surfing and jumping around.

Hard-driving instrumental “Road Zombie” took off like a brick dropped on the accelerator. The band barreled through half of their main setlist in about 30 minutes, before Ness paused to talk and slow things down.

Near the end of the first set, Ness introduced the fiddle player from  Chuck Regan’s band, who opened, and invited him to sit in with the band. Second guitarist Jonny Wickersham strapped on an acoustic guitar and an accordion player joined the ensemble for a pair of stripped-down songs. The resulting performances of “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” and “Reach for the Sky” proved even unamplified Social D was still electric.

Ness is clearly proud of his band’s legacy. Before one number he stopped to chat with a young girl who named Social Distortion her favorite band. She wasn’t the only pre-adolescent fan in the crowd. As Ness said before “Story of My Life,” these songs have been around so long they’re not really about him anymore. They belong to everyone who grew up with the band or is just discovering his music. Shows like this will ensure that circle remains unbroken.

Setlist: Road Zombie > So Far Away; King of Fools; Bad Luck; Mommy’s Little Monster; Sick Boys; Machine Gun Blues; Ball and Chain; Down on the World Again; Bakersfield; Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown; Down Here (With the Rest of Us); Reach for the Sky; Making Believe (Jimmy Work cover). Encore: Prison Bound; Story of My Life; Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover).

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 (Above: Charlie Louvin sings of the “Great Atomic Power” at a February, 2009, performance in Raleigh, N.C.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

My first exposure to the Louvin Brothers was on one of those “worst album covers of all time” Web sites. Standing in front of what appears to be a backyard BBQ gone horribly wrong, two Bing Crosby wannabes in matching white suits raise their arms in welcome. Above them, the title proclaims “Satan is Real.” Behind them, the most ridiculously fake, wooden Mephistopheles looms like failed a junior high shop class project.

A few years later, while visiting home during college, I decided this cover would be a perfect piece of art in my dorm room and went to the Music Exchange in search of a copy. I asked the man behind the counter (it wasn’t Ron Rook) if they had any albums by the “Lovin’ Brothers.”

“Do you mean the Loooovin Brothers,” he asked, making a point of drawing out the long “o” and informing the store of my ignorance.

“Um, yeah, whatever,” I stammered. They were out.

Sometime after that, I happened upon a CD of “Satan Is Real” at the Kansas City Public Library. After mocking its cover for so long, I had to hear what the actual music sounded like. Pretty freaking good, it turned out.

Charlie and Ira Louvin’s music wasn’t the kind I wanted to listen to that often, but when the mood hit it landed deep and only the Louvins would do. As if by magic, their names started appearing in the album credits of my favorite musicians – the Byrds and Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Buddy Miller, Uncle Tupelo. Far from a novelty act or wacky cover, the brothers’ influence was everywhere.

A couple years ago, a friend lent me his copy of the Louvin Brothers Bear Family box set. At eight discs it was way more than I’d ever need, but he swore it was the best stuff ever recorded. I respected his deep and diverse tasted and promised to dive in. I’ll now confess that I only just scratched the surface. A little country gospel still goes a long way for me.

This same friend also told me about the time he saw Charlie played the Grand Emporium. Only a few people bothered to show up for the full set peppered with stories and a fond remembrance of Ira, who died in a car crash near Jefferson City, Mo. in 1965. Afterward, Charlie hung out, reveling in conversation with his fans.

I made a mental note to see Charlie the next time he came through town. His next appearance was opening for Lucinda Williams. It was a dream ticket, but I had other obligations that night. Then were appearances booked at Knuckleheads and Davey’s Uptown. Just before the show, however, the performance would be cancelled. Then, miraculously, another date would be booked several months out.

Each time a show was cancelled I feared that I’d missed my chance. Wednesday my worries were confirmed: Charlie Louvin died from complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 83.

My in-person opportunity may have vanished, but I have hours of his music to relish. As I think of Charlie reuniting with Ira at long last, a song by Gram Parsons, one of the brothers’ greatest disciples – in style, if not message – springs to mind: “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.”

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(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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(Above: Metallica perform with Ray Davies at the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert in New York City.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every great song usually inspires about a dozen covers. Most of these are pedestrian and instantly forgotten. The few that transcend the original can be troublesome for the original artist. Should they mimic the new, more popular version or maintain the original vision? Bob Dylan has turned his nightly performances of “All Along the Watchtower” into a sort-of tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Trent Reznor, however, continues to perform “Hurt” as he originally intended, ignoring Johnny Cash’s transcendent interpretation.

Ray Davies wrote “You Really Got Me” in 1964 on an upright piano. The initial sketches suggest a loping bluesy number somewhere between Gerry Mulligan and Big Bill Broonzy, two of Davies’ biggest inspirations at the time.

Davies’ brother Dave had different ideas. Latching onto the riff, and drawing on “Wild Thing” and “Tequilla,” he drove the song through his distorted guitar. The song was born anew, and when Ray Davies heard the new arrangement he knew that’s how his number was supposed to be played.

Unfortunately, the Kinks had already taken the first arrangement into the studio. It was that version that Pye, their label, intended to release as the band’s third single. The Kinks and producer Shel Talmy successfully lobbied for another session to re-record the number with the newfound grit and rawness. The result was the band’s first No. 1 hit in their native England, thereby launching their career.

The Kinks’ next single was essentially a re-write of “You Really Got Me.” Despite the similar success of “All Day and All of the Night,” Ray Davies abandoned that style of writing for the most part for more lilting fare like “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Sunny Afternoon.”

Davies and the Kinks may have moved on, but the rest of the world was just catching up. “You Really Got Me” inspired the signature grimy riff of “Satisfaction,” the feel of “Wild Thing,” and all of “I Can’t Explain.” Heavily distorted guitars became a staple in the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene and, a decade later, the backbone of punk.

In the heart of punk movement, Los Angeles party band Van Halen decided to release their version of “You Really Got Me” as their debut single. Although the song only rose to No. 36 on the U.S. charts, it was tremendously popular, becoming a concert staple throughout the band’s career (and numerous line-ups).

For the most part, Van Halen’s 1978 arrangement of “You Really Got Me” stayed true to the Kinks version. The biggest difference was Eddie Van Halen’s fretboard pyrotechnics. This transformed the song from a proto-punk jam into a guitar hero workout. Matching Van Halen’s instrumental energy was frontman David Lee Roth, whose grunting and moaning punctuated an already-strong come-on.

In 1980, “You Really Got Me” was one of the last cuts on the Kinks live album “One From the Road.” The song had already been released in live format before, on 1968’s “Live At Kelvin Hall,” but this was the band’s first recorded response to Van Halen.

Sadly, the Kinks responded by turning into a Van Halen cover band. An excellent guitarist in his own right, Dave Davies fell flat trying to imitate Eddie Van Halen (as many, many other axeslingers would also discover). Ray Davies’ pinched London voice could not match Roth’s West Coast bravado. Instead of playing to their strengths, the Kinks played to Van Halen’s strong points, thereby undermining themselves and relinquishing ownership of the original “You Really Got Me.”

I mention all this, because this month Ray Davies has elected to release another version of “You Really Got Me” on his new all-star duets album “See My Friends.” Since the Kinks have been on hiatus since 1996, Davies chose Metallica to back him on this track. Although they are working with the original songwriter, the grunts and asides spewing from Metallica singer James Hetfield make clear that his band is covering Van Halen, not the Kinks. Displaying a leaden stomp that makes Black Sabbath seem nimble, Metallica drain the life from the song as Davies stands helplessly by.

The Kinks original 1964 recording of “You Really Got Me” is a brilliant track. Van Halen’s cover some 14 years later also remains exhilarating (particularly when it is coupled with “Eruption,” the Eddie Van Halen instrumental that preceeds it on the album). Sadly, we have lost one version in the wake of the other.

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