Social Distancing Spins, Day 2

By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

Review: Slash

(Above: Slash + Myles Kennedy and co. perform “Civil War,” arguably Guns N Roses’ finest moment.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Slash will always be known as the top-hatted guitarist for Guns N’ Roses, but he’s built quite a body of work in the 15 years since leaving that band. Thursday night at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge, Slash drew on all phases of his career – Snakepit, Velvet Revolver, his new solo album and, of course, Guns N’ Roses – during his two hour performance.

The early numbers were a quick survey of Slash’s career. “Ghost,” a number from his new self-titled effort opened the proceedings with a slinky, sleazy guitar riff. It was followed by the rough stomp of “Mean Bone” from Slash’s Snakepit days, the “Appetite for Destruction” classic “Nightrain” and Velvet Revolver’s “Sucker Train Blues.”

After a strong opening, the set got even better. “Back to Cali,” another new track, opened with vocalist Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge and Slash standing shoulder-to-shoulder during a heated call and response that brought to mind Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Both “Cali” and “Do It for the Kids” rocked harder than anything Slash’s former band came up with for “Chinese Democracy.” “Civil War” and “Rocket Queen,” two of the brightest moments from Slash’s Guns glory days, came next.

Guitarist Zakk Wylde once said playing with Ozzy Osbourne was like being in a glorified cover band, because the performances encompassed material from different eras and songwriters. The same could also be said by Slash’s four new band mates, but they didn’t seem to mind helping Slash recreate his finest moments any more than Wylde did with Ozzy.

Kennedy easily conjured the ghost of Axl Rose, replicating his vocal tics right down to the radio commentary at the end of “Civil War.” He had no problem nailing the high parts on “Rocket Queen,” either. Together, Kennedy and bass player Todd Kerns – who delighted romping around the stage and lip synching to all the Guns N’ Roses songs – came close to capturing the spirit of Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland’s tone.

Although the singer is generally regarded as the front man, this was purely Slash’s show. Kennedy dutifully moved himself and the mic stand back by the drums during each solo so Slash could have center stage. Although primarily stationed at stage left, the crowd followed Slash’s movements across the stage like plants chasing sunlight. Kennedy’s one moment in the spotlight came late in the set when Slash relinquished lead guitar duties during a cover of Alter Bridge’s “Rise Today.”

If the first half of the concert was a showcase for great songs Slash helped write, the second half was dedicated to showing off his guitar skills. Slash is the king of the oily riff that goes down smooth and leaves you feeling dirty. Those skills, however, tend to perish without the structure of a song.

Exhibit A was a tedious five-minute blues jam that culminated in the theme from “The Godfather,” another several-minute exercise. After noodling around for nearly 20 minutes – the blues jam was preceded by the instrumental “Watch This” – Slash ended his solos in the best way possible by dropping into the signature riff to “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

Kennedy held the mic stand over the re-ignited crowd and let them lead the chorus, a trick he would perform again a few minutes later during “Paradise City.” The closing song, it encapsulated all the best elements of the night: energetic crowd participation, big riffs, great songwriting and killer solos. The night ended with some of Slash’s best solos as the ensemble stretched out over the melody.

For $30 fans could take home a recording of the concert. A line was already forming at the table in the back as the band took their final bows. The CDs are a nice souvenir for dedicated fans, but it’s hard to imagine any casual “best of Slash” playlist deviating too much from what he delivered onstage.

Setlist: Ghost; Mean Bone; Nightrain; Sucker Train Blues; Back from Cali; Do It For the Kids; Civil War; Rocket Queen; Fall to Pieces; Just Like Anything; Nothing to Say; Starlight; Watch This; blues jam > Theme from “The Godfather” > Sweet Child O’ Mine; Rise Today (Alter Bridge cover); Slither. Encore: By the Sword; Communication Breakdown (Led Zeppelin cover); Paradise City.

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Strange Crew: Tommy James and the mob

(Above: Tommy James and the Shondells do the hanky panky, or at least pretend to.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Even as it was unfolding, Tommy James knew he had a heck of a story to tell. The intimidating visitors, angry phone calls, mysterious disappearances. Little of it was directed at him, but James knew that could change in an instant if his hits dried up.

James knew the stories were too good to keep, but he realized he needed to stay quiet and let time pass before he shared them. Nearly 40 years later, when James could finally paint the picture, he grasped he wasn’t even the star of his own tale.

“As I was writing, I realized this story is more about Morris Levy than it is about me,” James said. “I could have called it ‘Crimson and Clover’ and talked about the music, but realized if I wasn’t telling the Roulette story I would be shortchanging everybody.”That’s OK, it’s as it should be. People called Morris the godfather of the record business and he was appropriately named.”

In his new memoir “Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells,” James recalls his tumultuous, dangerous relationship with Levy, a mafia associate who ran Roulette Records as a mob front.

“I recorded ‘Hanky Panky’ in 1962, but it didn’t become a hit until 1966, when out of nowhere it went to No. 1 in Pittsburgh,” James said. “After that I grabbed the first bar band I could find and took them to New York to sign with a label. We visited everyone, Atlantic, Columbia, and got a yes from them all. The only one we didn’t visit was Roulette. One by one, the labels started to call us back. They all turned us down. They had been told we were Roulette property and to back off.”

Morris had the business sense to know a sure thing, and the goons to make sure he got what he wanted. And at that moment he wanted James. Although he was intimidated by Morris, the two men eventually became good friends.

“Morris was more fun than any 10 guys, but doing business with him was a disaster,” James said. “On the other hand, people called Morris the godfather of the record business for good reason. I frequently found myself walking on eggshells around him.”

Levy withheld all royalties, and kept James in the dark about his finances. In fact, since the label was under Federal surveillance, Levy kept three sets of books. When songwriter Bo Gentry realized he wasn’t getting paid for the songs he co-wrote for James, including “Mony Mony,” he started giving his a-list songs to other performers. A call from Levy corrected the situation. When James’ account gave Levy an invoice for the estimated $30 million to $40 million James was owed in back royalties, Levy threatened to send him to the bottom of the river.”

“I was very afraid several times,” James said. “The Morris’ associates were flat-out psychopaths who devoted their lives to the dark side of everything.”

Afraid for his live, James started carrying a gun and staying away from the Roulette offices, fearing retribution from Levy’s partners or, worse yet, becoming a casualty in the mob wars. Yet at the same time, he never refused a weekend invitation to get away with Levy on his upstate New York farm.

“Every time I go to say something nasty about Morris or Roulette, I know there probably wouldn’t have been a Tommy James without them. I always keep that in the back of my mind.

“Morris was an important chapter in my life, no doubt about it,” James continued. “I learned a great deal from him and Roulette about nuts and bolts of the business. If I had been on a corporate label, I would have been handed to a producer and lost in the numbers. I ended up on Roulette with 23 gold singles and 9 gold and platinum albums.”

James left Roulette in 1974 and used what Levy taught him to set up his own label in the late ‘80s, about the same time the government finally caught up with Levy.

“They finally nabbed him on something that seemed pretty minor at the time,” James said. “He got involved in a scheme to rip off a Philadelphia record promoter named John LaMonte. When LaMonte realized what was going on, he refused to pay. When Levy threatened to beat him to a pulp, he went to the feds.”

Sentenced to 10 years for racketeering and extortion, Levy died from colon cancer before serving a day. In 2005, the last of the Roulette Regulars, as Levy’s partners were known, died, clearing the way for the book.

“I’ve been amazed by the response to the book,” James said. “There’s going to be a movie and a Broadway show. There will probably be a couple actors playing me because of all the time involved, but one of the actors we’ve looked at is Val Kilmer, who is a friend of mine.”

Once again, Levy has already beaten James to the punch. The “Sopranos” character Hersh Rabkin, played by Jerry Adler, was based on Levy. Although he has been dead for 20 years, Levy is still an inseparable part of James’ life.

“I miss Morris, strangely enough,” James said. “I have all these mixed feelings about him, and I guess part of me always will.”

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