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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Young’

By Joel Francis

David Gilmour – About Face (1984) Simply put, About Face is not only David Gilmour’s finest solo album, but superior to Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell as well. “Murder” is Gilmour’s response to the assassination of John Lennon. It starts as quiet acoustic number before exploding in anger against Steve Winwood’s expansive organ playing. I have no idea what “Cruise” is about, but it’s an extremely catchy acoustic number. I’ll admit to be taken aback the first time I heard R&B horns on “Blue Light,” something Pink Floyd never explored, but they have grown on me. Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics for two numbers here. These compositions fit will with what Townshend was doing on his White City album, which I discussed way back on Day 4. Check out the live album Brixton Academy in 1985 featuring both Townshend and Gilmour for another stellar example of their synergy during this time. “You Know I’m Right” is about Roger Waters, with a title (and lyrics) shutting the door on any reconciliation. Gilmour and the Floyd (sans Waters) would be back in a couple years, but About Face makes a strong case that this was the (albeit less commercial) path Gilmour should have considered instead.

The Nels Cline 4 – Currents, Constellations (2018) Playing this album is a good way to find out who your true friends are. While some will hear obnoxious jazz guitar noodling (with two guitarists, no less), others will hear sublime fretboard interplay. If you do happen upon someone who also appreciates this music, buy this person a drink or ask them to marry you, depending on his or her gender and your preference.

Ed Ackerson – Capricorn One (2019) I must confess I had never heard of Ed Ackerson before buying a ticket to his memorial concert last February. Circumstances aligned in my favor: a free evening, a solid lineup, a reasonable ticket price and an opportunity to finally see a show at the famed First Avenue. For a while I felt like an interloper, but after exiting with an armload of vinyl and all the $1 CDs I could get, I now count myself converted.

Capricorn One was Ackerson’s last album before succumbing to pancreatic cancer last October. It’s a Syd Barrett-influenced slab of soaring guitars as wonderfully atmospheric as its sci fi-inspired title implies. Ackerson wrote all the songs, played all the instruments and produced all the tracks. His final musical vision is a great ride.

The Black Belles – self-titled (2011) The self-titled debut by this garage rock quartet is unfortunately their only release. Produced by Jack White for his Third Man Records, it’s hard to tell where the producer stops and the band ends, but if you like White’s raw aesthetic that’s not a bad thing. According to the band the writing and recording came together pretty quickly. They did several high-profile shows during their brief time together, including backing Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report and playing on his “Charlene” single. They also performed at the Devil’s Night Halloween concert in 2012. My favorite songs here include the appropriately titled “Honky Tonk Horror,” the moody “Not Tonight” and the very Jack White “In a Cage” but the entire album is good enough to make me wish there was at least another volume. Main songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Olivia Jean has subsequently released two solo albums with White and Third Man.

Buffalo Springfield – Again (1967) Neil Young jumps to the fore on Buffalo Springfield’s second album, and it’s easy to see why. His three compositions – album opener “Mr. Soul,” “Expecting to Fly” and closing cut “Broken Arrow” – are all classics in his expansive songbook. But the other songs here are no slouches either. Stephen Still’s banjo-driven “Bluebird” is a lovely song. Later, the harmony vocals on his song “Rock and Roll Woman” foreshadow the coming of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Richie Furay chips in a couple solid compositions as well. The unique horn arrangement on “Good Time Boy” definitely makes it stand out on the album. Buffalo Springfield collapsed under their own weight the following year. Again ranks as the group’s finest release during their short tenure.

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By Joel Francis

I hope everyone is staying inside and remaining healthy while we traipse through my album collection.

Chico Hamilton – The Further Adventures of El Chico (1966) Chico Hamilton was a drummer who played with Count Basie, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan and Lena Horne. For this album he is joined by Clark Terry (another Basie alumnus) and Ron Carter. The set mixes jazz standards (“Stella by Starlight,” “Who Can I Turn To?”) with blues, a few originals and covers of then-contemporary pop songs. It works well for the most part, but the jumps to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” and the Mamas and Papas’ “Monday, Monday” are jarring and remind of the exact moment the album was recorded. The pop covers aren’t bad on their own – although they cling pretty faithfully to the original charts – but they work against the rest of the material.

Van Morrison – Three Chords and the Truth (2019) A friend summed it up perfectly: Van Morrison’s output for the past three decades is always good, rarely great. I couldn’t tell you that Three Chords and the Truth is any better than the two albums he released the year before this, or even the two albums he released the year before that. I could tell you that all but one of the tracks are new Morrison compositions. I can also tell you that guitarist Jay Berliner, who played on Astral Weeks, is back in the band. His distinctive guitar lines color the album effectively. With four full sides of music there is a lot for Morrison fans to digest. I don’t think this will win any new fans, but if you like anything he’s released since his classic run in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you’ll like this, too.

Ella Fitzgerald – The Duke Ellington Songbook (1957) I’m generally not a fan of lyrics being added to instrumental songs. This album is a delightful exception. Ella Fitzgerald scats and floats across Duke Ellington’s enduring melodies like a spring breeze kissing laundry on a clothes line. Of course having Ellington’s orchestra on hand doesn’t hurt, either. Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson also pop up. You already know most of these numbers, now hear them anew with Ella and the Duke as your tour guides.

I got this double-album set at an estate sale. The previous owner wrote down the date, location and price of album on the inside of one of the sleeves. I love these little touches that show how these songs were here long before we came along and will exist long after us as well.

Warren Zevon – self-titled (1976) The album that introduced Warren Zevon to the masses (or at least his devoted cult) plays like a greatest-hits album. Linda Ronstadt covered no less than four of the 11 tracks performed here. Jackson Browne produced the album and plays on most cuts. Members of Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and the Beach Boys also pop up in the musician credits. You may think you don’t know Zevon, but I bet you’ll recognize at least a couple songs here. And if you like that laid-back, 1970s L.A. singer/songwriter vibe, you’ll love everything here. A true classic.

Various Artists – American Epic: The Soundtrack (compilation) The majority of the 15 songs in this collection were recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Fans of early folk and roots music will be familiar with most of these songs. What they likely haven’t heard is the clarity of these performances. The compilers cleaned up all the hiss and noise that usually comes with primitive recordings like these. The songs here by blues, country and folk pioneers aren’t just a nice collection of Depression-era musicianship. They are an essential part of who America is as a nation today. To learn why, you’ll need to watch the American Epic documentary. Enjoy.

Neil Young – Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live (2018) Tonight’s the Night was the first of Neil Young’s so-called ditch trilogy, his non-commercial response to watching “Heart of Gold” hit No. 1. The studio version was held by the label for two years before finally seeing release. This live album comes from the same period (1973) but is less bleak than its studio counterparts. The songs are Young’s responses to the death of two close associates from drug overdoses. Their spirits hang heavy over the night, but the intensity is dissipated by Young’s stage banter about topless women, burlesque dancer Candy Barr, Perry Como and label honcho David Geffen. The band also goes into a short rendition of “Roll Out the Barrel.” The heavy emotion in the songs never flinches, but onstage Young allows the audience to take breaks. These moments of release are what makes Roxy a compelling bookend to the studio edition.

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By Joel Francis

Let the hit parade continue.

Sonic Youth – Washing Machine (1995) On the surface, Washing Machine appears to be just another release by avant rockers Sonic Youth. Released nine albums into their three-decade career, the band doesn’t have much to prove by this point but they certainly aren’t coasting through this set. All three of the band’s songwriters are in peak form. The album opens and closes Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo taking lead vocals on their respective compositions. Moore’s closing cut, “The Diamond See” is a fascinating 20-minute track that shows the quartet stretching out, yet never repeating themselves. It’s the longest they let a mood percolate on a studio album. (An even longer 25- minute version was released on The Destroyed Room rarities collection.) Overall, Washing Machine points to the more mature direction Sonic Youth would take in the early ‘00s.

One Day As a Lion – self-titled (2008) Well, this is it. The 20 minutes on this EP comprise most substantial release by Zack de la Rocha since the end of Rage Against the Machine at the end of the millennium. It boggles the mind how someone so politically aggressive during the Clinton administration could be so quiet during the Dubya and current administrations. If anything, you’d think de la Rocha would be out stumping for Bernie Sanders.

Brief as it is, the music here meets all expectations. It’s loud, combative and better than either of Rage axeman Tom Morello’s acoustic Nightwatchman full-lengths.

Andrew Hill – Point of Departure (1964) I discovered Andrew Hill about six months before he died. Even though I didn’t have a lot of history with his art, I was still deeply saddened by his loss. Selfishly, I had hoped that I would be able to see him perform at some point. I was also disappointed that such a monumental talent hadn’t achieved the renown and accolades Hill deserved.

It can be easy for pianists to get lost in the background when playing in larger groups, especially with reed-player Eric Dolphy in the mix. Hill’ steady hand is ever-present across this album, guiding every song and creating the spaces for Dolphy and saxman Joe Henderson’s solos (and delivering plenty of his own as well). “Dedication,” the final piece, is as beautiful a piece of music as you will ever hear.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Get Happy!! (1980) Elvis Costello has released so many great albums across so many styles it is hard to pin down a favorite. That said, of the four classics in his initial “angry young man” phase, this might be my pick as the best. Costello skitters across all forms of soul music in these 20 songs, moving quickly from Motown to Northern and blue-eyed soul. Ballads and Southern soul are also given their due. What reads like a dull, academic genre exercise on paper is a hoot to hear because of the Attractions manic energy – particularly Steve Nieve’s hopping organ – and Costello’s lyrics, that slash like a switchblade in an alley fight. You don’t realize how quickly they cut until they’ve moved on to the next victim. Best to keep dancing and sort it all out later.

Robbie Robertson – Storyville (1991) Anyone disappointed that Robbie Robertson’s debut album bore few traces of his time with The Band will find more to like with this sophomore effort. Although the performances are far more restrained and the production more polished than anything with his old group, it’s not hard to imagine Rick Danko singing on “Night Parade” (although he does contribute backing vocals on the gorgeous ballad “Hold Back the Dawn”). Taken on its own terms, this is still a very satisfying album. Neil Young stops by to help with “Soap Box Preacher” and the Neville Brothers appear on “Shake This Town,” recorded with Rebirth Brass Band, and “What About Now.” The spirit of New Orleans, where Storyville was made, also appears on “Go Back to Your Woods.” In a way, Storyville makes a nice companion piece to the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, released the year before with Daniel Lanois, the man behind the boards for Robertson’s debut.

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – The Golden Era Series, Vol. 1 (compilation) It blows my mind that these recordings are approaching their centennial. These are among Armstrong’s first sessions as a bandleader. His solos here went a long way establish jazz as an improvisational genre. Satchmo doesn’t sing on every cut, but when he does it is always memorable. The dozen cuts here are so celebrated and influential it is impossible to have a favorite, but I’ll share some of the titles to whet the appetites of the uninitiated: “Heebie Jeebies,” “Struttin’ with some Barbeque,” “Gut Bucket Blues,” “Hotter than That.” Just reading those titles, how can you not want to dive in?

The songs here appeared roughly the same time as George Gershwin’s compositions and significantly predate Aaron Copeland’s most celebrated pieces. This is the sound of America growing up and forcing its way on the world’s artistic stage well before it became impossible to ignore as a superpower.

Ben Folds – Supersunnyspeedgraphic, the LP (compilation) The first three sides of this two-record collection encompass highlights from the digital-only mini-albums Folds released in the early 2000s. It’s fun to hear Folds give the Cure and the Darkness his own demented spin. His potty-mouthed cover of Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is funny the first few times, but gradually wears out its welcome. In his memoir A Dream About Lightning Bugs, Folds recounts a stint opening for John Mayer where he would perform this song several times in a row relishing the jeers. I can relate to how that audience must have felt. Original songs including “Adelaide,” “Songs of Love” and “Still” more than make up for Folds’ West Coast rap mishap. The fourth side of this set is a real treat, too. We get a half-dozen cuts from the Over the Hedge soundtrack, including a great cover of The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” and an alternate version of “Rockin’ the Suburbs” with an epic William Shatner rant based on real events.

The Supremes – At their Best (compilation) Conventional wisdom holds that the Supremes were over once Diana Ross left. True, Ross had much greater success as a solo artist than the Supremes did without her, but they were still a potent force. The group had six Top 40 hits in the post-Ross era and several more hits on the R&B charts. Many of those tracks are included on this 10-track collection, which spans 1970 to 1976. “Stoned Love” and “Up the Ladder to the Roof” are as good as anything the Supremes released in their prime years. “I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” and “You’re My Driving Wheel” update the group’s sound with elements of funk and disco. The Supremes were always a better singles act than album artists and this anthology is a fitting encapsulation and the final chapter.

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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.

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(Above: Neil Young preaches and sings his only No. 1 hit at Farm Aid 26 in Kansas City, Kan.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record 

Several years ago and less than a quarter mile from the gigantic Farm Aid stage at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., Willie Nelson welcomed Bob Dylan onto the stage. It wasn’t that big of a surprise – the pair was playing minor league ballparks together for the first time that summer – but it was incredible to watch the two titans collaborate.

Despite Farm Aid’s star power, Saturday’s nearly 11-hour musical marathon/fundraiser didn’t feature any similar big-name collaborations but that’s about the biggest disappointment that could be leveled at the day.

The first of 16 artists went onstage at 1 p.m., but it wasn’t until Hearts of Darkness, Kansas City’s Afro-beat ensemble, came out a half hour later that the stadium started feeling less like a dress rehearsal and more like a concert.

The first half of the day was heavy on folkies and country music legends. Ray Price, 85, looked frail, but his deep baritone voice is immortal. His delivery on songs like “For the Good Times” and “City Lights” still pack the same emotional punch as it did when they were recorded nearly 40 years ago. Billy Joe Shaver proved to be spry at 71 as he hooted and scooted his way through “Wacko from Waco,” “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Honky-Tonk Heroes.” It would have been great to witness either Shaver or Price duet with Nelson – Price and Nelson have recorded a handful of albums together – but with mid-afternoon sets, the two were likely well-settled in their hotel rooms by the time Nelson ended the day several hours later.

Robert Francis and British actress Rebecca Pigeon (the only female performer on the bill) each delivered 30-minute sets of fine folk music, but the only performance that stood out was Francis’ cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”

The final acts before the headliners could have filed under nepotism, but provided some of the daytime’s strongest moments. With a singing voice eerily similar to his dad’s, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real married Texas blues with the Allman Brothers Band’s Southern boogie. Backed by former Wallflowers pianist Rami Jaffee, Jakob Dylan delivered several of his old band’s biggest hits, including “Sixth Avenue Heartache,” “Sleepwalker” and “One Headlight.” At times, the pairing of Dylan and Jaffee recalled Tom Petty’s more delicate work with Heartbreakers ivoryman Benmont Tench.

The unfortunate dud in this stretch came unexpectedly from Jamey Johnson, who despite getting an assist from Lukas Nelson and a solid six-piece band filled his time with too many mid-tempo numbers that failed to ignite both onstage and in the crowd.

Taking the stage shortly before 7 p.m., Mraz faced the biggest crowd of the day so far and drew more applause than any of the preceding acts.  Mraz got an assist delivering his bouncy acoustic folk/pop from longtime friend Toca Rivera on percussion and backing vocals. Their jazzy version of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (a.k.a. Mr. Roger’s theme song) drew a big reaction.

Several of his songs fit well with the day’s themes. Mraz said he wrote “Frank D. Fixer” for Farm Aid about the first farmer he knew, his grandpa. The second verse, ending with the line “what happened to the family farm?” was especially poignant.

Primed by Mraz, Dave Matthews fans were more than ready for their hero. Matthews – with help from guitarist Tim Reynolds – didn’t disappoint. His 45-minute set was packed with sing-alongs “Crush,” “Where Are You Going?” and the set-closing “Dancing Nancies.”

The crowd was ready for more singing when John Mellencamp emerged with his five-piece band, but Mellencamp played on his own terms. Detours through “Walk Tall,” “Death Letter Blues” and “If I Die Sudden” confused an assembly clamoring for the hits, but they were ultimately rewarded with a spectacular performance of “Check It Out” along with Farm Aid anthem “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town” and “Pink Houses.” A quiet reading of “Jackie Brown” performed only by Mellencamp and violinist Miriam Sturm was another highlight.

Neil Young needed only a harmonica and acoustic guitar to take the title of the day’s best set. He only played six songs, but the first three were a murder’s row of favorites: “Comes A Time,” “Sugar Mountain” and “Long May You Run.” Attention spans may have wandered during Young’s sermons against corporate farms and a pair of songs from last year’s excellent “Le Noise,” but he easily won the audience back with the opening chords of “Heart of Gold.” This was the fourth time I’ve seen Young but my first with him in coffeehouse mold. Experiencing  these songs in such an intimate way was powerful and emotional, leaving me with goosebumps and a lump in my throat.

After Young’s transcendental set anything would be anti-climatic, and Willie Nelson drew the short straw for ending the day. While neither Mellencamp nor Young emerged beyond their appointed times, Nelson worked the stage all day, opening the concert, accepting checks and thanking people. Understandably fatigued, Nelson’s set was light on his biggest songs – “Whiskey River,” “Still is Still Moving” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” were the only chestnuts delivered.

He turned the mic over to his son for a blistering version of “Texas Flood” and the family tribute “Fathers and Mothers.” Blessed with a second wind, Willie Nelson serenaded the host city with “Kansas City.” Several backing musicians from the previous bands came back out to help with a trio of gospel numbers that wove through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light” before ending bizarrely on “Roll Me Up,” a brand new Nelson song with the refrain “roll me up and smoke me when I die.” The subject was incongruous, but the music stayed in the same jubilant spirit.

Nelson’s herb of choice may not be a crop farmers can plant, but it was fitting end to a day focused on agriculture.

Keep reading:

Review: John Mellencamp

Review: Jamey Johnson

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

 

Review: “Neil Young – Long May You Run: The Illustrated History”

 

 

 

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By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Nick Urata remembers his first gig in Kansas City – the band’s bus crashed right in front of where they were going to play, the Hurricane.

Urata and his fellow members in Devotchka had more lush surroundings on Saturday night. Although the balcony of the Midland was closed and the floor was about half full, Urata’s soaring voice filled the cavernous space. Urata clearly appreciated his surroundings, thanking the crowd for letting him play in such a “classy joint.”

Devotchka – the name is Russian slang for “girl” – may be based in Denver, but their music covers the map, pulling in elements of mariachi, gypsy and French music and indie rock. The quartet’s theatric sound is built on layers and textures, much of it cribbed in the same Eastern European rhythms and energy used by Gogol Bordello, although Devotchka’s music is significantly less aggressive.

The musicians’ versatility meant the sound could change dramatically from song to song. Concert opener “The Alley” drew in the crowd with its propulsive rhythms, courtesy of drummer Shawn King and percussion from touring member Mauro Refosco, a veteran of David Byrne’s band and Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace project. Later, Refosco moved to keyboards and King played trumpet to give “We’re Leaving” a South-of-the-border feel.

Tom Hagerman alternated primarily between accordion and violin while Jeanie Schroder held down the bottom end on upright bass and a Sousaphone adorned with red Christmas lights. Hagerman’s accordion and Schroder’s Sousaphone tag-teamed nicely on the appropriately named “Basso Profundo.”

Of all of the high-caliber musicianship onstage, however, Urata’s singing was easily the most impressive instrument. His powerful tenor always hovered over everything else onstage, always complementing the arrangements underneath. His articulate enunciation effortlessly unspooled the short-story-like quality of the group’s lyrics.

Urata’s falsetto danced delicately with Hagerman’s violin on “Undone” and  he displayed near operatic range on “We’re Leaving.” During the encore Urata pulled a page from vocal legend Freddy Mercury’s playbook and engaged the audience in an operatic call and response. Just like Queen at Wembly, Urata pulled it off flawlessly.

Urata’s talents extended well beyond his esophagus, however. During “Poland,” Schroder bellowed a rare Sousaphone solo which Urata countered by playing the Theramin. During “Ranchero” he delivered a guitar solo that played off King’s drums like Tom chasing Jerry.

Several screens behind the band displayed abstract images, sometimes superimposed with close-ups of a soloist, adding another layer texture to the presentation. Devotchka got a real-life assist during “Vengo! Vengo!” when two women came out and performed a fabric dance high above the stage. The dancers returned during “Contrabanda,” performing a shadow dance behind two of the screens.

The duo performed in front of those same screens a few songs later, twirling umbrellas as a kaleidoscope of colors washed over them during “100 Other Lovers.” A subtle light show also enhanced the atmosphere.

All the props, lighting and extra space helped, but the band proved they didn’t need a big room to work their magic. For the encore, Urata and Hagerman emerged alone to deliver a stripped-down, straightforward version of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” The performance was just as magical and transfixing as the best moments from the main set. The rest of the ensemble returned for two more songs, stretching out and flexing some hard rock muscle on “Ranchero” and leading a sing-along through the waltzy ballad “You Love Me.”

Setlist: The Alley;Head Honcho; Queen of the Surface Streets; Poland >The Clockwise Witness; The Man from San Sebastian; We’re Leaving; Vengo! Vengo!; Exhaustible; All the Sand in all the Sea; How It Ends; Basso Profundo; Undone; Contrabanda; I Cried Like a Silly Boy; 100 Other Lovers; Mexican. Encore: Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Neil Young cover); Ranchero; You Love Me.

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(Above: Pete Yorn and his band are still living “Life on a Chain” at the Voodoo Lounge on Feb. 20, 2011.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Pete Yorn and Ben Kweller delivered a two-hour clinic on rock songwriting in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge on Sunday’s night.

Kweller’s 45-minute opening set revealed his debt to the singer/songwriter movement of the early ‘70s. Alternating between acoustic guitar and piano, Kweller delivered several fan favorites, including “I’m On My Way,” “Thirteen” and “Penny on the Train Track.” Stripped bare, his songs could have slipped comfortably on the AM radio dial next to Carol King, James Taylor and Bob Dylan.

Highlights included the country folk of “Fight,” the luscious piano ballad “In Other Words” and a big moment on “The Rules” when Kweller stomped on a surprise pedal and turned his acoustic guitar into a snarling, distorted electric beast.

Although the low-key set initially underwhelmed the bar patrons, Kweller eventually won them over with his combination of good-natured banter and strong songwriting. By the final note the room was his.

If Kweller’s showcase was a bare-bones, how-to session, Yorn’s full-blown, full-band set delivered lessons on layering and arrangements.

After opening with three songs from last year’s self-titled album (his fifth overall), Yorn reached back to his debut, 2001’s “musicforthemorningafter.” “Life on a Chain” got the crowd fully engaged while “Just Another” showcased Yorn’s sensitive side.

Written almost entirely with major chords, Yorn’s songs are like a self-affirmation clinic with guitars. With a full workweek looming, Yorn sprayed sunshine on the unsuspecting crowd with a barrage of optimistic lyrics such as “seeing is believing” (“Murray”), “convince yourself that everything is alright” (“For Nancy”) and “life’s been great to me” (“Future Life”). A wistful look back at childhood (“Velcro Shoes”) was especially sepia toned, but none of it seemed particularly over the top.

The only exception to this was a solo acoustic reading of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Before playing the song Yorn told the crowd it was the first song he ever played before an audience, at age 15. He added that the lyrics didn’t fully sink in until he performed the song a few weeks ago at Carnegie Hall. This newfound understanding clearly weighed heavily on Yorn. The mournful, down-tempo arrangement was delivered with a sense of doom.

With or without his band, Yorn stayed primarily on acoustic rhythm guitar, so it was up to second guitarist Mark Noseworthy to provide different textures. The band’s not-so-secret weapon, Noseworthy played a mean slide solo during a cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “I Feel Good Again” and a delicate countermelody on “On Your Side” that helped the song swell like a poignant lump in the throat.

The brief 70-minute setlist was split nearly evenly between songs from Yorn’s first and newest releases, but Yorn seemed just about as tired of playing the old songs as the crowd was of signing them. Which means when he inevitably rolls through town again soon, everyone will enjoy one more cheerful romp.

Pete Yorn setlist: Precious Stone; Badman; Rock Crowd; Life on a Chain; Just Another; Velcro Shoes; I Feel Good Again; Rockin’ in the Free World; Burrito; Strange Condition; Future Life; On Your Side; Closet; For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is). Encore: For Us; Murray.

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

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Above: Neil Young, his wife Pegi and the late Ben Keith perform “Long May You Run.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Pity the Kindle reader or Web surfer. The computer screen is still years away from capturing the depth and richness in the pages of “Long May You Rung,” Daniel Durchholz and Gary Graff’s new illustrated history of Neil Young.

Much of the book’s information will be familiar to longtime fans. What makes “Long May You Run” a treasure, however, is its presentation. Read about Young’s high school days at Kelvin Technical School in Winnipeg, and a photo of the school and two yearbook photos are right there alongside the text. Concert photos, tour programs and magazine covers all accompany entries on the myriad of Young’s tours. These and other similar visual clues that populate the book help put the events in context.

Also handy are the sidebars that detail Young’s sidemen, producers and female collaborators, his film career, favorite guitar, Motown stint, the Bridge School and nearly everything else that wouldn’t fit comfortably in the chronological narrative. The text is also punctuated with dozens of quotes from usual suspects Crosby, Stills and Nash and Eddie Vedder to Ben Folds and Toby Keith.

Authors Durchholz and Graff are clearly in their element. The St. Louis-based Durchholz boasts music bylines from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Washington Post and Rolling Stone. Graff has written for Billboard, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and New York Times and is the editor of “The Ties that Bind: Bruce Springsteen: A to E to Z” and the MusicHound Essential Album guides.

Their story opens with a photo of a two-year-old Young nestled by a full-page shot of his first band, the Squires. It closes with essays on his Linc/Volt hybrid car and the first volume of the Neil Young Archives. In between we see Young grow his hair long, cut it short, grow a beard, and dabble with folk, classic rock, electronica, country and grunge. Never comfortable with one look or style of music, the only constant in the narrative arc is Young himself.

Four appendices chronicle Young’s discography, providing the recording details, cover art and track listing for all of his albums, compilations and box sets. Further resources include the catalog number and a- and b-sides for all of his singles, his guest appearances on others’ albums and the tribute albums released in Young’s honor.

“Long May You Run” stops short of being a Young reference guide, but that was never the goal. It is a wonderful coffee table companion that is puts a trove of information, visual and otherwise at the reader’s fingertips. While there’s nothing in “Long May You Run” that can’t be found on a comprehensive Web site, it is a lot more fun to flip through and soak up.

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(Above: Rare footage from Devo’s first-ever concert in 1973.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

On May 2, 1970, Bob Lewis thought he had it all figured out. In just a few weeks he would graduate from Kent State University. He would come back in the fall and start on his graduate degree in anthropology.

The National Guard arrived on campus the next day and everything changed. There had been rumblings of unrest before. The previous year there had been a skirmish over the administration allowing the Oakland police department to recruit on campus. When the students tried to protest at the disciplinary hearing of the student organizers they were locked in a building and surrounded by the police.

But that incident didn’t compare to what happened on May 4, 1970. The details of the day are well-known: four unarmed students were killed by National Guard troops trying to disperse an anti-war rally. In less than 24 hours an entire generation entered a new paradigm.

“Devo wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Kent,” said Lewis, one of the band’s founding members. “If it hadn’t been for May 4, I would have gotten my doctorate in anthropology and taught or gone out on digs. Jerry (Casale, Devo’s bass player) probably would have wound up as a graphic artist or art professor.”

Instead, Casale and Lewis decided to channel their outrage at the system by holding a mirror to it. Informed by professors who had become friends, visiting faculty and articles such as “Readers vs. Breeders and “Polymer Love,” the duo started creating their own agenda.

Kent State students run for cover as the National Guard open fire on May 4, 1970.

“Devo, at least partly, was a joke at first. It was a lens we turned on society,” Lewis said. “The plan wasn’t necessarily to be in a band in the beginning. There was always a multimedia, subversive element.”

In 1972, after working odd jobs in Kent, Ohio, the duo migrated to California to write for the underground newspaper the “Los Angeles Staff.” In exchange for writing legitimate articles, Lewis and Casale were allowed to insert pieces of Devo propaganda. The paper quickly folded and the two were back in Kent that fall.

“Jerry and I worked on Devo for two years before Mark (Mothersbaugh, Devo keyboardist) got involved,” Lewis said. “At the time he was in a group called Flossy Bobbit, playing Hammond B3 organ, mellotron, Moog (synthesizer) and Farfisa organ all at the same time. The first thing we told him when he joined was that everything had to be simple and stupid.”

Mothersbaugh not only brought a higher level of musicianship to the group, but several thousand dollars worth of equipment, including a PA. Like Casale and Lewis, Mothersbaugh was a Kent State alum and was also present at the protest on May 4.

“Mark was two or three years younger than us, so I didn’t really know him,” Lewis said. “I certainly recognized him from school. I think he and Jerry may have had an art class together.”

Mothersbaugh was recruited to perform at the university Creative Arts Festival in the spring of 1973. The trio of Mothersbaugh, Casale and Lewis – who played lead guitar – were joined by a drummer from town, Casale’s brother Bob on rhythm guitar and singer Fred Weber. Billed as Sextet Devo, the band promised “polyrhythmic tone exercises in de-evolution.”

In the book “We Are Devo,” authors Jade Dellinger and David Giffels described first show, also captured on amateur video. Bob Casale performed in scrubs, Jerry Casale wore a butcher’s coat, Bob Lewis was hidden under a monkey mask and Mothersbaugh sported a doctor’s robe and ape mask. The set opened with Mothersbaugh playing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and featured what the band called a “headache solo.” Unsurprisingly, it took the group a while to find the next gig and a stable lineup.

“At one point it was Jerry and three Mothersbaugh brothers. Jerry didn’t like that because he’d always be outvoted,” Lewis recalled. “Jerry finally tormented Jim Mothersbaugh into quitting as drummer, but it took another year before we found Alan (Meyers) to play for us.”

An early band flier.

When the group began to get more serious, Lewis knew the musicianship would have to improve. When Bob Mothersbaugh started playing lead guitar, Lewis transitioned from guitarist to manager.

“I became more of a manager than a player because we decided someone had to do it,” Lewis said. “I liked that other (managerial) stuff better anyway.”

The five-piece lineup of the Casale and Mothersbaugh brothers and Meyers toured Ohio with their confrontational stage show. In 1976 they were the subject of the short film “The Truth About De-Evolution.” The combination of touring and the film set the table for the band to cut their first single. “Mongoloid”/”Jocko Homo” was released in 1976 on the band’s Booji Boy label.

“We sold 17,000 copies of that single ourselves,” Lewis said proudly. “I was trying to get us in record stores in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and England, which meant I either had to get up really early or stay up really late to talk to these guys and convince them to stock us. Of course now you could just send an e-mail, but back then it was an adventure.”

The first sign of the band’s cult following appeared before a show at Max’s Kansas City when a flat-black oldsmobile 98 zoomed up the street bearing the face of Booji Boy, the group mascot. After the release of another independent single and an appearance on a Stiff Records EP, Devo caught the attention of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. David Bowie suggested a production deal through Warner Brothers that he would produce, and the band went to Germany to record.  Bowie was unavailable, so his friend Brian Eno produced the first album.

“The band was in England recording while I was in the States trying to arrange for them to do some concerts in Europe on the way back home,” Lewis said. “Meanwhile, (Virgin Records president Richard) Branson takes them out on his boat on the Thames (River), gets them high and convinces them to sign with Virgin. Had I been able to, I would have told them they shouldn’t do that. Warner Bros. promptly sued them.”

Many recordings from Lewis' tenure have been released on the two "Hardcore Devo" collections.

Although Virgin and Warner Bros. amicably agreed to split distribution rights, it would not be the Devo’s final lawsuit. Lewis’ relationship with the band, and particularly Jerry Casale, had soured ever since Lewis told Casale that Devo would never be popular with him as the front man. It had to be Mark Mothersbaugh.

“From that point on I was on my way out,” Lewis said. “When Elliott Roberts, who managed Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, announced to Warner Bros. that he wanted to be manager, I knew I was gone, because then I was replaceable.”

Lewis received no credit or mention on Devo’s debut album “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” The album came out in 1978 and Lewis promptly sued for theft of intellectual property. With the band now located to Los Angeles, Lewis was up against a high-powered, label-financed law firm. Help came in the unlikely form of a cassette tape from a former high school newspaper reporter.

“Word had gotten around that I was suing the band and this person called me up who had interviewed us after one of our first performances at the Akron Arts Festival,” Lewis said. “This tape contained an interview of the band where he asked who came up with the Devo concept and Mark said ‘This guy right here, Bob Lewis.’

“When I played that tape at the deposition their lawyers looked like they had been gut-shot,” Lewis continued with a smile. “Shortly thereafter we reached an equitable settlement.”

Just as Lewis discovered he liked managing better than performing, he learned he enjoyed legal work. After managing a few bands to near-success, Lewis became a paralegal.

“I have the best job in the world.  Essentially, I’ve been practicing law without a license for the last 30 years,” Lewis said. “The catch is I always have to work with a lawyer.”

The band today. Devo plays tonight as part of the Buzz Under the Stars concert at the City Market with Ben Folds and Silversun Pickups. Tickets are $34.

Lewis left Ohio for Lawrence, Kan. in 1998 where his wife was working on her doctorate. Shortly thereafter the couple moved to Kansas City, Mo. Today, Lewis works as a paralegal for the Community of Christ Church in Independence, Mo. and lives in a house filled with antiques and art and a story behind each piece.

Last month Devo released “Something For Everybody,” their ninth album and first in 20 years. In the downtime, Mark Mothersbaugh has become a highly sought film composer. Mothersbaugh wrote the music for several of Wes Anderson’s movies, including “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” His brother Bob wrote the music for the “Rugrats” cartoon series. Jerry Casale, who directed most of Devo’s music videos, has also directed videos for Rush, Foo Fighters, Soundgarden and Silverchair. Myers left Devo in 1987; the drum stool is currently held by Josh Freese.

More than a generation after their lawsuit, Lewis said he is on good terms with the band. If he attends tonight’s show, however, it will be as a fan with a ticket purchased at the box office.

“It all depends on the weather,” Lewis said. “I e-mailed the guys the other day to let them know what they were facing here. I told them with as hot as it’s been it may not be a good idea for a bunch of 60-year-old guys jumping around in rubber suits. I’m sure they’ll be OK.”

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