funkadelic, paul mccartney, alanis morissette album covers

Random record reviews: Alanis Morissette, Paul McCartney, Funkadelic

By Joel Francis

Alanis Morissette – Such Pretty Forks in the Road

On her first album in eight years, Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette gets introspective and a little too comfortable. Such Pretty Forks in the Road hits the turnpike out of the gate, but takes an unfortunate detour, succumbing to its own ponderous weight before getting back on track for the final songs.

Written for her children, “Ablaze” belongs on any Morissette best-of playlist and features one of the best lyrics on the album: “My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.” The piano-driven confessional “Reasons I Drink” could be a b-side from Fiona Apple’s stellar Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Drink” is followed by “Diagnosis,” a frank look at depression and mental illness. These songs are saved from being pablum for a group therapy session by a raw, honest delivery and arrangements that heighten Morissette’s emotions.

Unfortunately, Forks then takes a wrong turn. The songs start to blend (bland) together and the lyrics grow treacly. “Losing the Plot, a song about insomnia, did a good job of putting this listener to sleep. “Sandbox Love” suggests something new with a shimmering guitar intro, but collapses into the same middle-of-the-road quicksand.

Closing numbers “Nemesis” and “Pedestal” end the album on a strong note, but anyone pining for the raw anger of her ‘90s breakthrough oughta know those days are nowhere to be found.

Paul McCartney – Flaming Pie

Paul McCartney went all-in after the Beatles Anthology pushed the Fab Four back into the spotlight. For his first post-Anthology album, McCartney enlisted Anthology producer Jeff Lynne and called on old pals Ringo Starr and George Martin.

The resulting album, Flaming Pie, hits that sweet spot where the performances shine without seeming over-labored and the songwriting has a relaxed feel without feeling tossed-off. The first time McCartney was able to sustain this zone throughout an entire album he delivered Band on the Run. While Flaming Pie isn’t as good as that album, it isn’t far off and may be as close to that apex as we will ever see again.

High points include the Ringo-assisted “Beautiful Night,” the R&B number “Souvenir” and single “The Song We Were Singing,” where McCartney confronts his legacy with the great lyric “I go back so far/I’m in front of me.” The acoustic “Little Willow” is a heartfelt ballad, while album-closing “Great Day” could have appeared on Ram.

If you have some spare change, consider buying the deluxe version. The extra LP finds McCartney laying down early versions of these songs accompanied only by his own guitar (or piano). Ringing phones, overhead airplanes, barking dogs and passing trains only add to the intimacy.

Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

George Clinton’s genre melting experiment never soared as high as it does on Maggot Brain, the third album from Funkadelic. Guitarist Eddie Hazel’s 10-minute solo on the title track may be the finest sound coaxed from six strings by any rock axeman not named Jimi Hendrix. “Can You Get to That” exists in a world where Crosby, Stills and Nash recorded with Norman Whitfield-era Temptations. “Hit It and Quit It” reimagines jazz organist Jimmy Smith as a member of a Bay-area jam band. “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” combines the spirit of Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder with a jazz trio.

funkadelic maggot brain album cover

And that’s just side one.

Any trepidation of musical whiplash reading these descriptions would be well-founded, but somehow everything hangs together. Clinton’s vision of putting heavy metal, gospel, folk, funk and any other LSD-inspired musical visions into the blender and seeing what pours out resulted in a collection that is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts. Each performance supports the other possibly because the only points of reference for this sound are the other songs on the album.

Funkadelic released many other superb albums in the 1970s – to say nothing of brother band Parliament’s output – but they never danced so freely on the edge of threatening to fall into the abyss while simultaneously grabbing anything with an arm’s length to raise them into the stratosphere.

Keep reading:

Social Distancing Spins – Day 53, featuring Eddie Hazel, Miles Davis, Alex Chilton, Tom Petty, The Roots and Insurgence DC

Social Distancing Spins – Day 61, the solo Beatles releases of 1973

Review: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars

Social Distancing Spins – Day 61 (Fab Four edition)

By Joel Francis

Many Beatle fans have put together the ultimate final Beatles album, drawing from tracks on the Fab Four’s early solo albums. I remember a quote from one of the newly liberated Beatles saying the break-up was actually better for fans because instead of one Beatles album, fans would get one solo album from each mop top. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but it’s with that idea I approached today’s spins. We’ll look at the solo albums each Beatle released in 1973. Why 1973? It started because I happen to own all the albums each member released this year, but took on greater significance as I got deeper in listening and researching. Let’s go through them in the order they were released.

Paul McCartney and Wings – Red Rose Speedway (April 30, 1973) The second album released by Wings, Red Rose Speedway was also Paul’s fourth release in the three years after the Beatles’ break-up. Although 1970’s McCartney and 1971’s Ram are rightly revered today, at the time they were seen as lightweight albums that didn’t live up the expectations of a public that had grown up on “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.” With Red Rose Speedway, Paul takes a few tentative steps in that direction.

The ballad “My Love” became Paul’s second No. 1 solo hit, after “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” The 11-minute medley that ends the album was certainly constructed with Abbey Road’s famous second-side mash-ups in mind. What does Paul give us with the remaining seven songs on the album? Nothing as substantial, unfortunately.

Opener “Big Barn Bed” is catchy, but feels like filler at the same time. “Single Pigeon” seems entirely constructed away the two words in the title play off each other. “When the Night” sounds like a rehearsal that should have been left on the cutting room floor. In fact, “Little Lamb Dragonfly” and the weird jam “Loup (First Indian on the Moon)” are the only other songs from Red Rose Speedway that I’d save in a fire. And Paul wanted this to be a double album at one point, too. Yeesh.

Of the albums released by the former Fabsters in 1973, Red Rose Speedway is easily the lightest of the bunch. Fortunately, Paul was far from done for the year. He’d release another album before Christmas and reunited with George Martin in the summer for the hit James Bond theme song “Live and Let Die.” Their song was far better than the film.

George Harrison – Living in the Material World (May 30, 1973) Despite the success of “Someday,” few fans would have picked George to be the most successful Beatle after the break-up, but in 1973 George was sitting on a mountain of good will from his concerts for Bangladesh (and resulting album) and just as many accolades for his triple-LP masterpiece All Things Must Pass. George’s follow up, Living in the Material World isn’t a major statement like his previous releases, but it does confirm that George’s songwriting skills ran deep.

The only single from the album, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” was a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and dealt with George’s struggle between stardom and spirituality. George’s existential grappling dominates the album, but it rarely feels heavy-handed or preachy. The may be because George varies the song structures and arrangements of songs dealing with these themes. For example, the title song and “Give Me Love” are very upbeat, while “Try Some, Buy Some” is slightly psychedelic. “The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)” and “The Day the World Gets Round” are slower contemplative numbers.

Between all this seriousness, George pokes fun at Paul’s lawsuit against his fellow Beatles with “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” (chorus: “Bring your lawyer and I’ll bring mine/Get together and we could have a bad time”). George would release another seven solo albums in his lifetime, but it wasn’t until the posthumous release of Brainwashed in 2002 that he again reached the same height achieved with Living in the Material World.

John Lennon – Mind Games (November 2, 1973)
Ringo Starr – Ringo (November 2, 1973)
Picture walking out of the record store in early November excitedly clutching the new John Lennon and Ringo Starr albums, only to discover hours later that Ringo’s album is the better of the two. Sure, Ringo gets by with the help of his friends, but he ropes in A-list guests here.

George chips in two songs and writes another – “Photograph” – with Ringo. John and Paul each write one song. In fact, Ringo has a co-write credit on three songs and wrote “Step Lightly” by himself. Musically, Marc Bolan from T-Rex, Harry Nilsson, Billy Preston and members of The Band all appear, as do the other Beatles (though, sadly not all on the same track). The cover depicts Ringo onstage, and indeed the album is paced like a live performance, complete with Ringo thanking all his guests and signing off at the end.

Ringo (the album) spawned two No. 1 hits in “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen.” The later is the only bum spot on the album. Johnny Burnette’s original 1960 hit was featured prominently in the film American Graffiti released earlier that summer, possibly inspiring Ringo to cover it. Regardless of the reason, post-adolescent men singing about teenage girls will never not be creepy. Despite this misstep, Ringo is a party, from start to finish. Ringo can usually be found at a cheap price in the used record bins. If you don’t have this album, there is absolutely no reason not to pick it up.

Meanwhile, John Lennon was struggling. The Nixon administration was playing political football with John’s work visa and his marriage to Yoko Ono was on the rocks. On top of that, John’s previous album, the uber-topical and political Some Time in New York City was a dud. Mind Games is a definite improvement, but it still sounds like a man who doesn’t know which way to go. The gorgeous, sweeping title song was a Top 20 hit, but not all of the remaining 10 songs work. “Tight A$” and “Meat City” sound like the same song and while both songs rock, neither go anywhere. The jokey political anthem “Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” is easily the best up-tempo song on the album. More than 40 years later, this song was used to great effect in the post-apocalyptic action film Children of Men (which is highly recommended).

Other stellar moments on Mind Games include the emotional ballad “Out of the Blue” (John’s best vocal performance on the album), the relationship-affirming “I Know (I Know)” (built around a guitar lick that sounds suspiciously like “I’ve Got a Feeling”) and the upbeat “Intuition,” which foreshadows the direction John would take on Double Fantasy. I also like the slow apology “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry),” which sounds like a sort of cousin to “Jealous Guy.”

Mind Games is a very different album than Ringo, but the inconsistencies on Mind Games puts Ringo in the pole position.

Paul McCartney and Wings – Band on the Run (December 5, 1973) Somewhere between the spring release of Red Rose Speedway and the autumn recording of Band on the Run, Paul managed to lose nearly half of his band. Now down to a trio, Paul, his wife Linda and Denny Laine departed to Lagos, Nigeria, to hang out with Fela Kuti, lose the in-progress studio tapes in a mugging and create a defining rock masterpiece.

If Red Rose Speedway often felt slight, nearly every song on Band on the Run drives with a purpose. The opening one-two punches of the title song and “Jet” remain classic rock radio staples today (as does “Let Me Roll It,” which closes the first side). Tucked between those hits on the first side is the jaunty “Mrs. Vandebilt” with its infectious “ho hey ho” chorus, and the delicate “Bluebird.”

The second side doesn’t have any singles, but the material remains strong. The slide guitar and string arrangement on “No Words” makes it feel like a George song. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” incorporates reprise of some of the earlier melodies with a jolly drinking song. If there’s a weak song on the album it might be “Helen Wheels,” but even this track is better than all but a couple songs on Red Rose Speedway. After four solo albums that confounded and disappointed fans’ expectations, Paul finally delivered the mainstream post-Beatles triumph everyone was waiting for with Band on the Run.

Post script

After releasing two albums in 1973, Paul didn’t have another release until 1975’s Venus and Mars. That same year George and John – mired in his lost weekend – both released albums, but Ringo didn’t. In fact, the stars never aligned for all four Beatles to release solo albums in the same calendar year again. No one knew it at the time, but 1973 ended up being the end of another sort of era for the Beatles.

What are your favorite songs from Red Rose Speedway, Living in the Material World, Ringo, Mind Games and Band on the Run? Which of these five albums from 1973 do you like best? Did I overlook or mischaracterize your favorite tune? Leave a comment and let me know.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 34

Day 34

By Joel Francis

Based on the announcements made today it looks like we’ll be doing this for at least another month. I hope everyone out there is safe and healthy.

Ringo Starr – Beaucoups of Blues (1970) The Fab Four drummer had a busy year in 1970. He not only released two solo albums, but was an integral part of Let It Be, the final Beatles album. Beaucoups of Blues was the last Ringo-related release of the year. Frankly, this is a criminally underappreciated album. The premise is simple: Ringo travelled to Nashville and cut a bunch of country tunes with the best session players in the city. The results are even better than expected. As demonstrated on songs like “Honey Don’t” and “Act Naturally,” Ringo has a great voice for country songs. The instrumental support is superb. Finally, the album barely breaks the half-hour mark, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you like the Beatles, country music or top-shelf musicianship, don’t hesitate to grab Beaucoups of Blues next time you see it.

Mikal Cronin – MCII (2013) If you are a big fan of the prolife garage rocker Ty Segall, you may recognize Mikal Cronin as the bass player from Segall’s band. For his second solo album, Cronin brings a lot of the dirt and scuzz from Segall’s projects, but sweetens it up with lots of acoustic rhythm guitar and some keyboards and strings. The result is nearly 40 minutes of wonderful power pop that changes tempo and textures just enough to remain invigorating throughout. After kicking out the cobwebs with rockers like “Shout It Out” and “See My Way,” Cronin ends the album on a graceful, contemplative note with the slow, string-laden “Piano Mantra.”

MCII was my favorite album that year and it remains an absolute delight. Put this on, turn it up and let ‘er rip.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Ella and Louis (compilation) The First Lady of Song and Satchmo only appeared in the studio together a handful of times, likely because they knew the universe would not be able to handle this abundance of joy. The two-record set I own combines 1956’s Ella and Louis with 1957’s Ella and Louis Again. There has never been a time I’ve played this music that I haven’t felt better afterward. Dwell on that for a moment. Think about how much has changed in the world over the past 63 years, when these songs were released. And these two have been able to deliver unbridled bliss that entire time. If you don’t own this, there has never been a better time to buy it. We are all stuck at home, starving for human interaction. Think of it as therapy and have it delivered. If you own this, I hope I have inspired you to play it now. The world needs more gaiety, in all times, but especially now.

Rolling Stones – Goat’s Head Soup (1973) The Stones’ 13th U.S. long-player ended their incredible hot streak that started way back with 1966’s Aftermath. I’m fairly confident that the Stones were the best rock band on the planet during that run. You could argue the Beatles, but they broke up in 1970. In 1966, the Who were still figuring everything out on A Quick One (a fine album). The Kinks kept pace for most of that time, but peaked with 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies. Look, the point is that the Stones were very, very good for about seven years. And then Goat’s Head Soup came out.

Goat’s Head Soup isn’t a bad album, necessarily, it’s just not as good as the half-dozen albums that came before. “Dancing with Mr. D” starts the record on a tepid note and it takes the last two songs on the side to rescue the album. “Angie” was a No. 1 hit and the horn-driven “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” is solid, but neither are as vital as “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar,” the songs that clearly inspired these. The second side is better just because it doesn’t try as hard. “Silver Train” is a ragged romp powered by Mick Taylor’s slide guitar that recall’s the better moments on Exile on Main Street. “Winter” is a beautiful downtempo number to which anyone who has experienced a season that just won’t let go – meteorological or otherwise – can relate. The performance is so good it almost makes up for the malaise plaguing the weaker numbers. There is enough good stuff on Goat’s Head Soup to make it a worthwhile addition, but temper your expectations.

Bruce Springsteen – Human Touch (1992) This was the first Bruce Springsteen album I owned. I know, I picked a really bad time to become a fan. I remember watching Springsteen on Saturday Night Live around the time of this release, when I was just starting to discover him (away from the omnipresent hits, at least). Everything I read said the stage was where Springsteen really came alive. I was underwhelmed. The new arrangement of “57 Channels” was too noisy for my tastes at the time and I didn’t know what to make of the other songs performed because they were on Lucky Town, the other album the Boss released on the same day. I didn’t know what to make of the guy. The live setting didn’t resonate so I kept going back to Human Touch, looking for something that I may have missed.

Here we are nearly 30 (!!!) years later, and I’m still not sure how much gold there is in hills of Human Touch. The album opens with the title track, easily the album’s best song and sonically similar to the Tunnel of Love material. From there it flatlines and coasts. The songs I liked best back in the day remain my favorites today: “With Every Wish,” “Roll of the Dice,” “Real World,” the title track, “Man’s Job,” “The Long Goodbye” – mostly clustered in the middle for some reason. It is only because of Devils and Dust and, especially, Western Stars that I am finally able to appreciate “Pony Boy.”

Thanks to the Tracks box set fans are able to sift through a dozen or so outtakes and piece together their own version of Human Touch. I think the album would have been better with “Sad Eyes,” “Trouble River,” “Red Headed Woman” and “All the Way Home” replacing “Soul Driver,” “Gloria’s Eyes,” “All or Nothin’ at All” and “Real Man.” More importantly, I think we’ve already given this record more time than it deserves. Let’s just move on.

Los Lobos – The Neighborhood (1990) A good friend of mine once commented that Los Lobos were like the second coming of The Band, a group of supremely talented multi-instrumentalists who could sound like themselves while still maintaining the spirit of any genre. For their fifth album, the East Los Angeles quintet enlisted an actual member of The Band to help them along their journey through New Orleans soul (“Jenny’s Got a Pony”), the bluesy swagger of “I Walk Alone” and the heavenly skip of “Angel Dance.” Helm sings on the ballad “Little John of God” where his vocals are understated but the perfect accent. The only element this album doesn’t touch is traditional Mexican music, but that was the focus of their entire previous album, La Pistola y el Corazon, so it’s understandable the wolves bypass it here. There’s not a bad track among the 13 songs here. The Neighborhood remains a high-water mark in the band’s formidable catalog.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 1

By Joel Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Ringo Starr

(Above: The run from “Don’t Pass Me By,” “Yellow Submarine” and “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” was one of the strongest parts of Ringo Starr’s long overdue return to Kansas City in October, 2014.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The last time both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr both performed in Kansas City in the same year they were onstage together at Municipal Stadium.

The Fab Four’s drummer gave his first performance in the area since 1992 on Saturday night, only three months after McCartney’s concert at the Sprint Center.

Starlight Theater wasn’t quite full, but judging from the crowd’s reaction to “Yellow Submarine” and “With A Little Help from My Friends” many people had waited a long time for this moment.

Several members of Ringo’s All-Starr band were also making belated returns. Bass player Richard Page congratulated the Royals for their playoff success and noted that last time he played Kansas City his band Mr. Mister was opening for Tina Turner, and the Royals had just won the World Series. Guitarist Steve Lukather said he couldn’t remember the last time he was here.

ringoNow in its 25th year and 13th iteration, the All-Starr Band works as a round-robin jukebox with each musician taking the spotlight, then introducing the next band member up. Guitarist Todd Rundgren was the biggest name on the bill aside from the headliner. While the other names may not have been as familiar, the songs they helped take to the top of the charts – “Rosanna,” “Evil Ways,” “Broken Wings” – definitely were.

The seven-piece band had the most opportunity to stretch out and show off on the Santana numbers – “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va” and especially “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” – lead by organist Gregg Rolie, a founding member of the Santana band. Lukather handled lead guitar duties for most of the night, but seem to save his best solos for those songs. Surprisingly, the band also jammed over a slowed-down Bo Diddley beat during Toto’s “Roseanna.” Rundgren’s “Bang on the Drum” incorporated a bit of “Low Rider” during Page’s bass solo.

The only unfamiliar song in the two-hour set was Page’s “You Are Mine.” Rundgren’s amazing guitar arrangement for the ballad showed why he has been an influential and in-demand producer for several decades.

As expected, the Beatles material and early Starr solo singles drew the biggest response. Starr opened and closed the set with a trio of songs and peppered another five in between. His contribution to “The Beatles” album (known as “The White Album”), “Don’t Pass Me By” was a fun surprise. Lukather, Rundgren and Page were clearly having a ball playing their hero’s songs. All three huddled together, sharing one mic on the choruses of “Boys” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.”

The night closed with the introduction of Billy Shears and “With a Little Help from My Friends.” As the song was winding down, the band jumped into John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” a fitting tribute to the man who has made peace and love his motto.

Setlist: Matchbox, It Don’t Come Easy, Wings, I Saw the Light, Evil Ways, Rosanna, Kyrie, Bang the Drum All Day, Boys, Don’t Pass Me By, Yellow Submarine, Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen, Honey Don’t, Anthem, You Are Mine, Africa, Oye Como Va, Love is the Answer, I Wanna Be Your Man, Broken Wings, Hold the Line, Photograph, Act Naturally, With a Little Help from My Friends > Give Peace a Chance.

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Review: “December 8, 1980”

(Above: “(Just Like) Starting Over” announced John Lennon’s return to music in the fall of 1980. After his death, it occupied the No. 1 spot for five weeks.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Rock and roll is littered with artists who left too soon. None are mourned as deeply and fervently, though, as John Lennon. The former Beatle was gunned down outside his New York City home 30 years ago today.

Keith Elliot Greenberg’s new book, “December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died” marks the occasion. Much of the information contained in this brief volume has been presented before.  Even casual fans will be familiar with many of the details in Greenberg’s truncated telling of Lennon’s biography. While the Beatle’s story is well-known, Greenberg makes it worth visiting again.

“December 8, 1980” reads like a true crime television special, which makes sense given the author’s background as a producer for “America’s Most Wanted,” “48 Hours” and “MSNBC Investigates.” The unfolding day is interrupted by the histories of both Lennon and his assassin, Mark David Chapman.

Greenberg not only places the reader in both men’s minds heading to the fateful moment, but paints a vivid picture of Lennon’s home in the Dakota building and the state of New York City as a whole. First-hand stories from Lennon’s neighbors, autograph hounds who haunted the Dakota’s entry, musicians, fans and police officers. The details these auxiliary players provide peel back the years and familiarity and make the story seem fresh.

Although they were only tangentially related to the saga, Greenberg recounts the activities of Lennon’s fellow Beatles on that day, and their reactions to his death. One can feel the throngs pressing against Ringo as he visits Yoko Ono at the Dakota, and feel the energy of Bruce Springsteen’s unofficial tribute concerts in Philadelphia.

“December 8, 1980” concludes well after the titular date, covering Champan’s trial, the Beatles anthology reunion project, and the attempt on George Harrison’s life in 1999.

Beatles fans truly interested in the events of Dec. 8 and its main participants are advised to seek out any of the available solid Lennon biographies – Philip Norman’s “John Lennon: The Life” has received rave reviews – and Jack Jones’ 1992 Chapman biography “Let Me Take You Down.” Although it is essentially a distillation of those texts, Beatle fans looking for a light trot through that devastating day should be satisfied with Greenberg’s work.

 

Keep reading:

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (includes stories of Lennon’s concerts at Madison Square Garden and the Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh)

McCartney in Career Resurgence

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

 

 

 

 

The attics of my mind

(Above: Stefani Germanotta goes gaga for John Lennon.)

A few random thoughts for this mid-week blog entry.

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Lilith Fair

I’m looking forward to catching my first-ever Lilith Fair tomorrow night, but must admit I have several reservations. It’s never a good sign when Sarah McLachlan, the tour headliner and organizer, admits that ticket sales have been “soft.” Several dates were cancelled, and a quick glance at the temporarily unavailable TicketMaster instant seat locator showed that many of the remaining dates had vast sections of available seats. I don’t know how to fix the sour ticket industry (eliminating “convenience” fees and lowering prices spring to mind, but I’m sure it’s much more complicated), but I think Lilith hasn’t done itself any favors. Many of these problems could be fixed by paying more attention to the Lilith Fair Website.

Fans should be able to see where each artists performs without having to click on every date. Clicking an artist’s name brings up a highlighted list of her cities, but without dates. This is needlessly complex. Furthermore, the schedules for each city are missing. Eleven artists will play at Sandstone Amphitheater tomorrow night. Performances will start in the mid-afternoon. Approximate schedules should be posted weeks before each stop so fans will be able to make plans and adjust to be in place for their favorite performer. Each of these issues have easy solutions. Judging by the Website, it appears as if everyone threw in the towel long ago. These shows may be a loss, but fans still need to be cared for.

Lady Gaga and John Lennon

My little brother cracks me up. With very little coaching from me, he has become a huge Beatles fan. His Facebook posting the other day reminded me of something I would have written as his age. He was outraged that the “freak” Lady Gaga had covered “Imagine,” “the magnificent song by John Lennon.”

I can’t recall any Beatles covers drawing my ire, but for a brief period I grew very upset when rap producers (I’m looking at you, Diddy) were too reliant on the source material. “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Feel So Good” seemed like glorified karaoke to me. The kicker came when Jimmy Page and Tom Morello, two guitarists (read: “musicians”) I greatly respected helped Diddy rework Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for “Come With Me.”

I have mellowed over time. Now when I hear Gaga’s cover of “Imagine” I’m glad she has good taste and that someone is keeping Lennon’s music alive, however the performance rates.

Going Deep

In another lifetime, in another era I would have been a great producer at Rhino Records. I love scouring the catalogs of artists, unearthing gems from dismissed albums or periods. Much of this ends up in multi-volume anthologies, but these treasures also work as nice garnishing in a playlist.

The other day I was working with a friend who took great delight in all the solo Pete Townshend material I had sprinkled into a Who playlist (there were Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle solo offerings as well). He thought it was hilarious that I would venture beyond “You Better You Bet,” the band’s final classic single. I think he’s missing out. “Slit Skirts” and “Give Blood” may not be the second coming of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Substitute,” but they’re easily as good as anything that came after “Who By Numbers.”

This leads me to Ringo Starr. Obsessive that I am, I created anthologies for all the fallow periods in the solo Beatle catalogs – except Ringo. The Fab drummer’s 70th birthday last week caused me to reconsider this stance. So I dutifully investigated all of his albums. The critics weren’t wrong – there’s more bad than good. That said, there’s always at least one keeper on each album, and if I hadn’t been so dedicated I would have completely missed out on Ringo’s first two fantastic albums.

Ringo’s third solo album, 1973’s “Ringo” soaks up all the love but “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” are just as good, albeit for very different reasons. Both albums came out in 1970, and both clock in around 35 minutes. Both the brevity and timing work in Ringo’s favor. 1970 was both the best and worst year to be a Beatles fan. Sure the band broke up, but on the other hand fans got “Let It Be,” “McCartney,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Plastic Ono Band” and the aforementioned Ringo platters.

Although they hit shelves only six months apart, “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” couldn’t be more different. Both albums are genre exercises, but the big-band swing of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” is both geographically and generationally separated from the country twang of “Loser’s Lounge.” Yet Ringo’s enthusiasm and personality shines through both project, making them an infectious and irresistible listen.

Neither album will replace “Abbey Road” or “A Hard Day’s Night,” but they easily trump “Red Rose Speedway,” “Extra Texture” or “Some Time in New York City.” Better yet, they can be found easily and cheaply on vinyl. Do yourself a favor and grab ‘em next time you haunt the bins.

Bettye LaVette – “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook”

(Above: Bettye LaVette owns The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. This performance helped inspire LaVette’s latest album, and is included as a bonus track.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

From Rod Stewart to Barry Manilow, albums based on the 1960s and ‘70s pop song book are a dime a dozen and usually worth even less. So while the concept behind Bettye LaVette’s latest album may not be novel, the delivery certainly is. LaVette has audaciously selected a baker’s dozen of the era’s biggest songs and steals every single performance.

Throughout “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” LaVette not only erases Paul McCartney and Elton John’s fingerprints from “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” respectively. She scrubs off four decades of radio saturation, turning in performances that arrive sounding completely fresh.

LaVette accomplishes this feat by ignoring the original melody and phrasing and focusing entirely on the lyrics. She crawls inside the words, mining new depth and emotion and lets that frame the arrangement. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” aches with loneliness. LaVette sneaks a reference to HIV/AIDS in “Salt of the Earth,” the Rolling Stones free-love era tribute to the working class. In “Don’t Let the Sun,” LaVette pleads with a desperation that feels like her life is hanging in the balance between light and dark. Robert Plant liked her treatment of “All Of My Love” so much he gave her the opening slot on his summer tour.

While every song fulfills the title by hailing from the United Kingdom, LaVette slyly hedges her bets with two numbers that are also associated with one of her primary influences, Nina Simone. LaVette mirrors Simone’s epic treatment and sparse arrangement of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” Earlier, LaVette reminds listeners that while the Animals may have had the bigger hit with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” it was originally a Simone single. LaVette happily returns the gift.

Five years into her comeback, LaVette sings like something to prove. At 64 she is a contemporary of most of the performers she covers on “Interpretations.” But while most of them are content to coast by on these very songs, LaVette still sings with a hunger fueled by the decades she unjustly lost in obscurity. The force and authority in her voice make LaVette one of the most vital and compelling artists today.

Keep reading:

Review: Bettye LaVette and Buddy Guy at Roots n Blues BBQ Fest (2008)

Review Roundup – Rakim, Dodos, Naomi Shelton, Blakroc and Daptone Gold

Review – Booker T.

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

(Above: The original 1974 promotional film for “Ding Dong, Ding Dong.”)

By Joel Francis

It seems hard to believe in wake of the deification of St. John and the myth building of Sir Paul, but George Harrison was far and away the most successful of the solo Beatles after the implosion of the group.

The “Silent Beatle” racked up three No. 1 hits, a blockbuster triple-album, lured the reclusive Bob Dylan to appear at his all-star charity concert alongside Eric Clapton and fellow Beatle Ringo Starr, scored big with the subsequent Concert for Bangladesh soundtrack album.

Harrison rang in 1975 with “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” the second single from his third solo album and the opening cut on its second side. A gentle kiss-off to his former band and bright look ahead, Harrison’s laid-back, hopeful approach – “ring out the old, ring in the new; ring out the false, ring in the true” – supported his optimistic spirituality.

The catchy number is pretty simple, essentially four choruses and a bridge bolstered by a short, two-stanza verse. The arrangement hangs on Harrison’s slide guitar riff and is punctuated by a horn section. The galloping drums recall Phil Spector’s production on the previous two Harrison albums.

The presence of keyboard player Gary Wright, bassist Klaus Voorman and Starr suggest the basic track may have been laid down during 1973’s “Living in the Material World” sessions. The three musicians aren’t credited anywhere else on the “Dark Horse” album. Guitarists Ronnie Woods, Mick Jones, in pre-Foreigner guise, and Albert Lee also appear in Harrison’s Wall of Sound.

While the song’s roots stretch back, the vocals are unmistakably new. Harrison developed laryngitis while recording the album, and because of a pending U.S. tour – the first-ever American tour by a Beatle since the group’s final show in 1966 – he could not wait for his throat to heal. The resulting vocals were raspy and strained and Harrison’s voice was completely shot when the tour kicked off.

“Ding Dong, Ding Dong” was Harrison’s lowest-charting single to date, but it still cracked the Top 40. For some reason, Harrison didn’t perform it during the North American tour. The trek was one of the first major arena tours, and performers will still figuring out how to translate the nuances of their songwriting to large sports domes. Critics savaged Harrison’s hoarse voice and bombastic band arrangements and silenced Harrison’s ambition as a live act.

The failure of Harrison’s 1974 U.S. Tour ended his reign as Top Beatle. The following year McCartney launched a massively successful tour immortalized on the “Wings Over America” LP and Lennon grabbed headlines with his Lost Weekend escapades.

Harrison returned to his familiar post, turning out reliable, if largely unchallenging, albums and guesting on songs with friends. Once again, he was the most celebrated second fiddle in pop music. “Ring out the old, ring in the new” indeed.

Bruce Springsteen rocks the Hall (part one)

(Above: Bruce Springsteen isn’t even close to being the biggest legend onstage in this historic performance of “I Saw Her Standing There” from 1987.)

By Joel Francis

“Rock Hall Live,” an exquisite nine DVD box set of performances and speeches from the past 25 years of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies is a treasure trove for all music fans, but it should especially attractive to Bruce Springsteen fans. Springsteen appears on all but two of the discs in more than a dozen performances and nearly as many speeches. As the unofficial MC of the collection, Springsteen makes more appearances than anyone else.

The Daily Record previously reviewed “Rock Hall Live.” On Monday and Friday of this week it will examine every Springsteen performance on the collection. Although these performances are scattered throughout the box set, we will look at them in chronological order. On Wednesday, The Daily Record will review Springsteen’s concert at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. (NOTE: Tuesday’s concert was cancelled because of the death of Springsteen’s cousin and road manager. On Wednesday The Daily Record will discuss Stevie Wonder’s 1968 hit “For Once in My Life.”)

1987 – “(Oh) Pretty Woman” (with Roy Orbison)

The footage from these early inductions – 1987 heralded the Hall’s second class of members – is shaky and the audio is questionable at best. Surrounded by Bo Diddley, Smokey Robinson, B.B. King, Carl Perkins and scores of other music legends, and awestruck Springsteen pays tribute to the man he immortalized in the lyrics to “Thunder Road.” Springsteen is so excited he forgets the song in a couple places, but his joy at being able to celebrate with Roy Orbison is infectious. Two years later, Orbison was gone and Springsteen paid him another tribute by performing “Crying” at that year’s ceremony.

1988 – “I Saw Her Standing There” (with Mick Jagger and the Rock Hall Jam Band)

It takes the cameraman a few moments to find the vocalist amongst the throng of performers onstage, but the camera finally lands on Billy Joel, belting out the first verse from the peanut gallery. Mick Jagger takes the second verse with an assist from George Harrison. Somewhere onstage, Ringo Starr is one of several happy drummers, making the occasion the closest thing to a Beatles reunion to happen until the Anthology project. (Paul McCartney was feuding with Harrison and Starr at the time and opted not to attend.) After a guitar solo from Jeff Beck, Springsteen finally gets the mic for the third verse. Despite forgetting a few of the words, he exuberantly finishes the number with Jagger.

1988 – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (with Mick Jagger and the Rock Hall Jam Band)

In his 2004 speech inducting Jackson Browne to the Rock Hall, Springsteen says he wishes he’d written “Satisfaction.” Sixteen years earlier, Springsteen realized part of his dream by performing the number with half of its authors. Surrounded by John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Harrison, Beach Boy Mike Love, Jeff Lynne, Tina Turner, Ben E. King and keytar-rocking band leader Paul Schaffer, Springsteen trades lines with Jagger on the chorus. Sporting a gray suit and bolo tie and backed by E Street drummer Max Weinberg somewhere in the swarm, Springsteen is little more than a vocal prop in this chaotic number.

1993 – “Green River,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (all with John Fogerty and Robbie Robertson)

Springsteen plays rhythm guitar and adds backing vocals to this trio of Creedence Clearwater Revival classics. Still upset at his former CCR band mates, John Fogerty refuses to perform with Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. The tension between the three is evident during the acceptance speech, but it completely dissolves once Fogerty straps on his guitar and steps behind the mic. The songs don’t really need three guitarists, but Springsteen is elated to be performing with yet another idol and happy to let Robbie Robertson and Fogerty do all the heavy lifting. There is also rehearsal footage of Springsteen, Fogerty, Robertson and bass player Don Was playing around with different arrangements. Robertson is clearly in charge of the ensemble and again Springsteen seems content to observe. Springsteen does jump into action, however, to work out the harmony vocal line with Fogerty and to successfully lobby for the inclusion of “Green River.”

1994 – “Come Together” (with Axl Rose)

This is a bad idea on paper and it’s even worse onstage. Springsteen looks stiff, sharply strumming a black Stratocaster that matches his tuxedo. A few paces away, Axl Rose more relaxed wearing jeans and flannel as he bobs and weaves like a snake hearing some inaudible flute. This isn’t a duet so much as two performers doing the same song in a shared space. Rose’s voice is fine in its own context, but it’s rarely complementary. His performance here is so grating it makes one long for Aerosmith’s version (shudder). Springsteen seems relieved when the song finally ends.

Keep reading:

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

Review: Boss is Bigger than Big 12 Tourney (2008)

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

New DVD Set Celebrates Rock Hall Performances

More Bruce Springsteen in The Daily Record