Social Distancing Spins – Days 35-37

By Joel Francis

The nice weather is giving me a different type of spring fever. I miss baseball and concerts and hanging out with friends. Thankfully, there is always music. Let’s dive back into the stacks.

Dave Douglas and High Risk – Dark Territory (2016) A few years ago, it felt like there was a trend, or maybe it was a micro-trend, of acoustic jazz musicians performing with electronic musicians. Pianist Brad Mehldau did it with drummer Mark Guiliana and trumpet player Dave Douglas collaborated with electronic artist Shigeto for two albums under the High Risk moniker. Both projects were mostly rewarding and enjoyable. I had the good fortune to see High Risk play at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in support of their first album. Watching Shigeto respond to Douglas’ playing, and then hearing how the rhythm section responded to their interplay was fascinating. I know there can be an easy temptation to assume electronic musicians pre-program beats and melodies and the acoustic musicians shape their music around that, but High Risk was a true live collaboration.  Dark Territory is the most recent High Risk album but I’m still holding onto hope that we might get another album from them at some point. I also hope more musicians explore this concept.

The Clash – Cut the Crap (1985)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 1 (2017)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 2/The Future Was Unwritten (2018) The final album from the seminal punk group The Clash is a mess, not even a hot mess. The conventional thinking is that solid songs were killed by poor (over)production. The good folks at Crooked Beat Records, a shop I used to visit regularly when I had relatives in Washington, D.C., tested this theory by rounding up several local bands to put their spin on the material written after guitarist Mick Jones was fired from the band and manager Bernie Rhodes assumed more control over the group’s music. It looks solid on paper and in truth it’s not bad on record, either. However, the thesis doesn’t hold up for a couple reasons. First, I don’t think all of the songs are as strong as they could be. Joe Strummer didn’t have Jones there to bounce ideas off and push him to improve the material. Secondly, the Clash are a hard band to cover. Sure, you can get the chords right and nail the lyrics, but the non-musical elements – the hunger, the spirit, the righteousness – can’t be taught or copied. You either have them or you don’t. A lot of big-name acts learned this the hard way on the disastrous Burning London tribute album back in 1999. 

Recutting the Crap is best when Cut the Crap is its worst; the lesser known, underdeveloped materials. The tribute runs into problems on “This Is England,” easily the best song on Cut the Crap, and the bonus album of songs that could have been Clash songs. Joe Strummer’s solo contributions to soundtracks and his collaborations with Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. Here, the original material is so strong that the covers, however well-intentioned, come off as pale covers.

Both Cut the Crap and Recutting the Crap are interesting endeavors, but each fall short of the goal line for different reasons.

Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992) The NYC noise rockers found the perfect balance between their early indie releases and having a major label budget (and promotion) on Dirty, their seventh album. “Sugar Kane” and “Wish Fulfillment” strike the balance between melody and discord. “Youth Against Fascism” and “Chapel Hill” have a strong political message as urgent and unruly as what Rage Against the Machine was doing at the time (albeit with a different musical approach). Then there are savage cuts like “Drunken Butterfly” and “Purr” that no doubt confounded the record label executives. The deluxe edition I own contains two extra LPs containing b-sides and rehearsal tracks. A cover of Alice Cooper’s “Is It My Body” sung by Kim Gordon picks up the same feminist string as the Dirty album track“Swimsuit Issue.” A sideways tribute to the New York Dolls on “Personality Crisis” is a hoot. The works-in-progress recordings fill out the story of Dirty, but they’re not interesting enough on their own to keep me turning back to them as often as the album.

Dirty is my favorite major-label era Sonic Youth album. It’s likely that even casual Sonic Youth fans will get Dirty frequently. Anyone nostalgic for the early ‘90s alt-rock scene should check it out as well.

John Coltrane – Ballads (1963) Entire books and doctoral theses have been written about John Coltrane’s genius. I’m not sure I have anything to add, except to say that hearing Coltrane perform with his classic quartet – and especially McCoy Tyner, who we talked about way back on Day 2, is always a deep pleasure. Listening to him hold back the sheets of sound for this slower material provides yet another layer of reward. Put this on after a stressful day for the perfect lull in the storm.

U2 – Pop (1997) U2’s PopMart tour marked the first time I saw the band in concert, so I’m a little biased toward this album. Pop also feels like the last moment that U2 stopped trying to be U2 and while I enjoy several of their albums after this, they also feel very safe and calculated. At the time it came out, recording for the album ran late, cutting into tour rehearsal time and resulting in a rush-released product. You can still hear the effects of this today because the album feels disjointed. I think listening to Pop on vinyl improves the experience because there are forced pauses in the music between sides. The first side contains the opening three hard dance songs. More gentle, acoustic numbers comprise most of the second side, segueing into the most experimental (and weakest) material on the third side (“Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion”). Pop ends with three atmospheric, contemplative tracks on the final side. Being able to concentrate on one style of song at a time gives the album an extended EP feel, which helps it. Regardless how you feel about Pop, the sound of U2 swinging for the fences and missing here is still vastly preferable to the weak bunts and sacrifice fly balls they’ve been serving up for the most part ever since.

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (2015) The seventh album from the Portland, Ore., indie rockers was also the first release that they sounded like themselves for a while. They went all-in on the proggy concept album “The Hazards of Love,” then responded with the very poppy and folky The King is Dead (which we discussed back on Day 18). Finally, the pendulum arrived back in the middle for this excellent release. Several moments, including “Cavalry Captain” and “Mistral,” recall the high points of their early albums. They break the fourth wall on opening number “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” which comes across as a more academic (and less fun) version of “The Wilco Song,” only with references to Axe shampoo. The centerpiece is “12/17/12,” a response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that leaves me with a lump in my throat every time. This is a good place to start if you are curious about the band. Longtime Decemberists fans will find much to love here as well.

The White Stripes – The White Stripes XX (2019) Arriving just in time for the 20th anniversary of the White Stripes’ debut album, this look back includes a record of studio outtakes from the album’s studio recording sessions, and a set from the duo’s tour opening for Pavement. (A DVD documents an additional show from that year.) The platter of outtakes reveal a couple items of curiosity. The is an early version of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” which wouldn’t appear until the band’s third album. The smoking version of “Little Red Book” is nearly worth the price of admission on its own. The most surprising thing about the live set is that it exists at all. If you listened to the first season of the Striped podcast, you may remember that the Stripes were essentially driving themselves to these shows and losing money in doing so. It’s amazing that Jack and Meg had the money and foresight to roll tape on these gigs at all. The other revelation is how fully formed their sound is, right off the bat. The recording is a little distant, but the essence of the band that ended up playing arenas around the world is very present on this tiny club stage. Ultimately, there’s nothing here that replaces the raw, honest goodness of the White Stripes’ first album (with the exception of that “Little Red Book.” Yowza!) but the material here is the perfect complement. A dig through the detritus for those who want it.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 5

By Joel Francis

In observance of St. Patrick’s Day, here are some of my finest albums with Irish ties.

The Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace with God (1988) The only thing wrong with this album is that the title song is too short. The extended 12-inch version on the Pogues box set solves this problem. Mentioning the highlights is like reading the track listing, but I’ll narrow it down to the absolute best. “Fairytale of New York” is my absolute favorite Christmas song and is just as powerful in August as it is in December. Hearing Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan trade stanzas in the final verse always crushes me. This song’s all-time status was cemented in my soul when Bill Murray slurred his way through it with David Johansen and Jenny Lewis in his Christmas special.

There may be no finer tribute to the hope and heartbreak of the 19th century immigrants who traveled to the United States to start a new life than “Thousands are Sailing.” And that’s just side one. We’d better move on or I’ll be here all day.

Stiff Little Fingers – Greatest Hits Live in London (2017) The glory days of this Belfast-born punk band were long over when this live set came out. Although most of the material here pulls from the groups mighty four-album run in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the fire on this inflammable material has dimmed. I really bought this album because it was marked down on a Black Friday sale and signed by the current musicians. As it’s the only SLF I currently own, it will be what I spin when I need to hear “Tin Soldiers” or “Suspect Device.” Oh, one more thing: “Alternative Ulster” makes a great alarm song on your phone. It’s hard not to want to kick the day’s butt after hearing that first thing.

Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak (1976) Yeah, this is the album with “The Boys are Back in Town,” the only song that classic rock radio deigns to circulate, but this is a solid slab of rock from start to finish. “Jailbreak” blows out the speakers like a lost AC/DC song. “Cowboy Song” starts off like a campfire ballad before Phil Lynott’s storytelling takes over and the guitars plug in. Can we talk about Lynott’s lyrics for a moment? “Emerald” reads like a preview to a great lost epic poem. The story in “Romeo and the Lonely Girl” is just as majestic as Mark Knopfler’s masterpiece “Romeo and Juliet.” All with those dual guitars that can sting like a scorpion out of nowhere. Thin Lizzy gets nowhere near the respect they deserve.

The Chieftains – 3 (1971)

Van Morrison and the Chieftains – Irish Heartbeat (1988) If you blindfolded me and played me any one of the Chieftains first half-dozen albums, I’m fairly confident I couldn’t tell them apart. The traditional Irish troupe expanded their sound when they started adding guest artists and gimmicks in the ‘90s. (The Chieftains play movie themes! The Chieftains go to Nashville!) There are many moments to savor on those albums, but I like the unvarnished simplicity of the jigs and reels on their initial run.

Ironically, it was the success of Irish Heartbeat that paved the way for these cross-genre exercises. I don’t begrudge the Chieftains for trying to reach a broader audience but to my ears they’ve never found a better partner than fellow Irishman Van Morrison. For proof, take a look at the group’s star-studded release Long Black Veil from 1995. Everyone from Sting to the Stones shows up, but Morrison steals the album with his own “Have I Told You Lately.” Irish Heartbeat brings out a playful side of Morrison rarely heard, particularly on “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and “Marie’s Wedding.” Hoist a pint and turn it up.

Dropkick Murphys – The Meanest of Times (2007) Irish by way of Boston, the Dropkick Murphys combine the traditional feel of the Chieftains with Thin Lizzy’s hard rock and Stiff Little Finger’s punk attitude. When I played this album in the morning my son announced that he didn’t like it and left the room. That evening he was captivated by the Murphys’ live performance online. I tried to tell him they were the same band from earlier, but he didn’t believe me. I guess some things need to be seen to be believed. (By the way, streaming this concert was a brilliant idea and really seems to be taking off while all of us are stuck at home. According to the counter in the corner, 128,000 people were watching live. That’s a far bigger crowd than they ever could have hoped to reach by playing a St. Patrick’s Day show in Beantown.)

Flogging Molly – Within a Mile of Home (2004) It’s hard to imagine a Dropkick Murphys fan not liking Flogging Molly as well. Molly are slightly less hardcore than the Murphys on record but both acts generate a considerable mosh pit in concert. I found Within a Mile of Home at a ridiculously cheap price on CD shortly after its release. Seeing Lucinda Williams was featured on one track, I picked it up. A couple years later, I found Whiskey on a Sunday, the follow-up EP/DVD under the same circumstances. Watching those live performances convinced me I absolutely had to see this band in concert. While Within a Mile from Home is the only Molly vinyl I own, I’ve seen them a handful of times in person and never been disappointed.

U2 – Boy (1980) If it is possible to think about this divisive Irish quartet without the hype, bombasity and preening it has accumulated over the years, then Boy is it. With the exception of opening track “I Will Follow,” the rest of the album has been excluded from setlists and compilations (although some songs have gradually crept back onstage). The menacing “An Cat Dubh” almost sounds like an anthemic early Cure outtake (with glockenspiel!) that slides into The Edge’s wonderful guitar textures of “Into the Heart.” (Along with Bono’s earnest vocals. U2 were never not-earnest.) There aren’t many hints of The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby here, yet all the essential elements of those albums are present. Sometimes spending time with the boy is more revelatory than hanging out with the man.

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: TV on the Radio

(Above: TV on the Radio perform “Could You,” a song from their newest album, on March 21, 2015, at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

TV on the Radio is no stranger to Kansas City. Nearly eight years ago to the day, the indie rock band delivered a transcendent performance at the Voodoo Lounge. They have returned twice since then, in support of their subsequent two releases.

Saturday night, the Brooklyn-based, indie rock band played at the Midland theater, their largest venue in town to date, in front of their biggest crowd.

The first five songs of the night all came from “Seeds,” the band’s latest album. They would return to it again twice more, and also perform a non-album single drawn from those sessions. A red strobe light enveloped the stage during opening number “Lazerray,” making the band look like a stop-motion video from the future.

Later, the red, green and yellow beams of light crossing the stage during the “Seeds”’ title track recalled the album’s cover. The chorus on that song sounds like a lost African proverb: “Rain comes down like it always does/This time I’ve got seeds on ground.” As singer Tunde Adebimpe repeated the uplifting message, the music slowly built in intensity, threatening to overwhelm the room.

Musically, TV on the Radio can be hard to pin down. At times they can sound like Peter Gabriel, as on set-closer “Staring at the Sun,” or Radiohead, or Joy Division. While there are some obvious touchstones — Bono would kill for the silky falsetto guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone used on “Million Miles” — TV’s sound is generally too mercurial for a game of spot-the-influence. They are clearly pointing the way forward more than they are looking back.

The stage was set simply, with no screens or effects aside from the light show. Though frontman Adebimpe was energetic, the core quartet and touring drummer and keyboard/horn player stayed in place. Arranger/producer/jack-of-all-trades Dave Sitek stood at stage left behind a table of gadgets and next to a bank of synthesizers. He rotated between guitar and the rest of his tricks like the man behind the curtain.

Although the show was skimpy on older numbers (and questionably skimpy in general at just 15 songs and 80 minutes), predictably they were the ones that drew the biggest response.

“Wolf Like Me” inspired a feral sing-along. For the encore, the band went back to its two earliest singles, “Young Liars” and “Staring at the Sun.” Neither could be described as inspiring, but it was moving to hear the room come together in one voice.

If we are fortunate, TV on the Radio will return again in a couple years, with a new batch of songs to perform. We will miss the older numbers they displace, but not too much. After 15 years and six albums, they remain a band on the rise, with no horizon in sight.

Setlist: Lazerray, Golden Age, Happy Idiot, Seeds, Could You, Wolf Like Me, Trouble, Million Miles, Blues from Down Here, Winter, Dancing Choose, Love Dog, DLZ. Encore: Young Liars, Staring at the Sun.

Keep reading:

Review: Metric

(Above: Metric get raw for “Monster Hospital” on August 12, 2012, at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

It took a few songs for Metric’s set to get off the ground Wednesday night at the Beaumont Club, but once the band finally took off they soard.

An abundance of new material and time getting the mix right contributed to the muted start, but the biggest issue was personnel. On their next tour, the four-piece Canadian indie pop band should consider bringing someone else to help with keyboards. Frontwoman Emily Haines is far too charismatic and has too great a stage presence to be wedged behind her synthesizers.

Although recent single “Youth Without Youth” got a warm response, the first big moment came during “Empty.” It is telling that this is also the first time Haines was feed from her station for a significant amount of time. Effortlessly prowling the front of the stage, Haines flipped her blonde locks from side to side with the beat and cooed a charged call and response from the crowd.

Once she had the crowd, Haines never let go. The icy synthesizers on “Clone” seemed to subconsciously draw the two-thirds full room closer to the stage. Radio hit “Help, I’m Alive” drew a predictably strong response and got most of the audience dancing and singing along.

For most of their 90-minute set, Metric shuffled a glorious deck of influences. At certain times strains of Brian Eno, New Order, Pet Shop Boys and U2 were plainly audible. During the encore the band showed another facet, dropping the synthesizers and playing straight-up rock and roll. “Monster Hospital” almost sounded like a punk song and the slyly political “Gold Guns Girls” featured Haines on electric guitar.

The setlist drew heavily from this year’s “Syntheitica” album. After reeling off five of its tracks in a row to open the show, Metric eventually performed all but three of the album’s cuts. Of the remaining songs Wednesday night, all but two came from 2009’s much-loved “Fantasies.”

Final song “Gimme Sympathy” turned the room from a discotheque to a campfire. With the rhythm section departed, Haines and guitarist James Shaw turned the fan favorite into a quiet acoustic number. On the chorus Haines posed the challenge music nerds have been debating for a generation: “Who’d you rather be/the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” The answer, of course, is that there is no wrong answer. By revving up the crowd with jackhammer dance beats and getting everyone to sing along a cappella, Haines proved that she can have it both ways as well.

Setlist: Artificial Nocturne, Youth Without Youth, Speed the Collapse, Dreams So Real, Lost Kitten, Empty, Help, I’m Alive; Synthetica, Clone, Breathing Underwater, Sick Muse, Dead Disco, Stadium Love. Encore: Monster Hospital, Gold Guns Girls, Gimme Sympathy.

Keep reading:

Review: Metric (2009)

Review: Metric at Lilith Fair

Review – Arctic Monkeys

Review: BoDeans

(Above: The re-tooled BoDeans cover the Boss at a recent stop on their American Made tour. This is the band’s first outing without founding member Sam Llanas.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The urgency in Kurt Neumann’s voice was so strong that he repeated the phrase twice before ending the show: “Buy ‘American Made’ and we’ll come back and play for you.” Translation: we need you to buy our new album to keep going.

Neumann has a lot pushing against him right now. His band, the BoDeans, had a handful of near-hits and big opportunities in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Neumann is determined to be something more than a nostalgia act.Sunday’s 90-minute concert at Knucklehead’s was a defiant statement. Neumann confidently mixed songs from “American Made” with the band’s classic. Most importantly proved he could carry the BoDeans without founding member, songwriting partner and stage foil Sam Llanas.

Llanas may have been missed on the setlist – there was no “Feed the Fire,” “Far Far Away” or “Runaway” – but the fans flooded to the dance floor for “Texas Ride Song” and kept it crowded for most of the night.

The setlist bounced between four decades of work, but the songs all carried the same earthy rock feel that defied time. The new group of players Neumann assembled in the wake of Llanas’ departure brought a freshness to the material and were playing with something to prove.

Percussion player Alex Marrerro enhanced Neumman’s lead vocals with his high harmonies. The interplay between Warren Hood’s violin and longtime member Michael Ramos’ accordion and organ often recalled the roots/zydeco sound of John Mellencamp’s heyday. During “The Ballad of Jenny Rae,” guitarist Jake Owen slipped in a tribute to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord.

Between songs, Neumann was chipper, explaining how a snowstorm in Montana inspired “Idaho” (the title state provided an easier rhyme) and plugging new single “All the World,” which is getting some airplay on CMT. The introductions to the Johnny Cash-inspired “Flyaway” and “Paradise” revealed similar themes of a positive mindset as the ultimate freedom.

Neumann was smart enough to know that the road to the future will be paved with his past, closing with four fan favorites that got everyone on their feet. He called it a night with “Closer to Free,” the song that served as the theme to “Party of Five” and landed the band in the Top 10. As the audience sang along, it’s hard to imagine the message didn’t resonant with the players onstage as well.

Set list: Stay On, Texas Ride Song, Good Work, Flyaway, The Ballad of Jenny Rae, Tied Down and Chained, Paradise, Idaho, All the World, Angels, American, Fade Away > Good Things. Encore: Still the Night, Closer to Free.

Keep reading:

Review: Farm Aid

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed

Review: Civil Twilight

(Above: Civil Twilight drop “Letters from the Sky.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Stories of impressionable children seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and deciding to pick up an instrument are legion. Just as copious are examples of songs plagiarizing the Fab Four. Friday’s concert at the Beaumont Club by the South African rock band Civil Twilight is proof that society is finally moving on.

While their parents may have leaned heavily British Invasion acts, the four musicians onstage culled a different, equally rich, catalog. Opening number “Highway of Fallen Kings” revealed the game plan. The piano chords recalled Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” while Steven McKellar’s vocals were indebted to Sting.More than a few songs were beholden to U2. Andrew McKellar, brother to the band’s singer, threw down a moody guitar homage to The Edge in “Ever Walk.” The other McKellar not only modeled his vocal style on Bono, but his lyrics as well. The song “On the Surface” could have been a “How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” outtake, right down to the verse: “To stir humanity, divisions of dignity/to see what will conspire/If I throw myself into its fire.”Of course there’s nothing wrong with copying U2, or any band. Coldplay has done it profitably for a decade, right down to hiring the band’s best collaborator, Brian Eno. Radiohead’s critically acclaimed album “The Bends” also owes a debt to Dublin’s finest musical export.

There were several high points in the 90-minute set. The extended reading of “Please Don’t Find Me” ventured into dub territory and “Holy Weather” had most of the room bouncing. After mimicking others’ sounds for most of the evening, Civil Twilight turned a set-ending cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” blend seamlessly with the rest of the repertoire.

For “Quiet in My Town,” Steven McKellar stood onstage alone spent a rare moment conversing with the crowd. After recalling the band’s previous show at the Record Bar, he decided the song would best be delivered from the floor and hopped into the audience for a stirring solo performance. His bandmates returned for the outro and finally cut loose, relieving all the tension that had been building.

A scan of the crowd, which ranged from junior high students to college graduates, revealed at least one chaperone. Although the Beaumont Club was a third full at best, the attraction is obvious: Civil Twilight write catchy songs that perfectly capture a mood. Their familiarity is their biggest selling point. Although the material may have been drawn from the previous generation, it can easily be assimilated and claimed by young listeners as their own.

Whether or not Friday’s concert leads anyone to discover Civil Twilight’s influences on their own is immaterial. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, just being there was enough.

Setlist: Highway of Fallen Kings, Wasted, Every Walk That I’ve Taken Has Been In Your Direction, Shape of a Sound, Trouble, On the Surface, Please Don’t Find Me, Move/Stay, River, Holy Weather, Fire Escape, Letters from the Sky, Quiet in My Town. Encore: It’s Over, Teardrop (Massive Attack cover).

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Review: Sufjan Stevens

Neil Young, Santana celebrate the guitar

(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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CSNY – “Ohio”

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

 

 

 

A Shooting Star finds home with the Young Dubliners

(Above: “Nobody’s getting any money for this one.” The Young Dubliners bring a little bit of Ireland to the CBS Early Show in 2007.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first thing Chas Waltz does when he returns to Kansas City is check in with friends and family then head straight over to Gates BBQ for a slab of ribs. Waltz has been living in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years, but hasn’t forgotten the great tastes of his hometown.

As the violin player in Shooting Star, Waltz was part of one of the first major rock bands emerge of Kansas City. From 1977 to 1987, Shooting Star rubbed elbows with ZZ Top, Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon, Jefferson Starship, Kansas and Journey.  They helped put the local music scene on the radar of the powerful coastal labels.

“Whenever people learned we were from Kansas City they always kind of perked up, especially people on the coasts,” Waltz said. “People knew our town from the legendary reggae group the Blue Riddim Band, who were big at the time, but we were the first rock band. It made people take notice.”

After the demise of Shooting Star in the late ‘80s, Waltz relocated to Los Angeles. His violin skills inadvertently put him at the heart of the burgeoning Irish rock scene. The success of U2 and the Pogues had brought a new generation of Irish songwriters to America.

“Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles I hooked up with a friend of mine who was a producer out there, but grew up in Springfield, Mo.,” Waltz said. “He introduced me to that world, and particularly to Dave King, who would later form the group Flogging Molly. I joined his band, which got me into the whole scene. Through that I met the Dubliners.”

Above: The Young Dubliners play tonight at Davy's Uptown Rambler's Club. Show starts at 8 and tickets are $12. Visit http://www.daveysuptown.com/ for more information.

The Dubliners were informal group centered around Dublin natives Keith Roberts and Paul O’Toole who started tweaking and recording their favorite songs from back home. When Roberts and O’Toole lost their fiddle player In the mid-‘90s, they asked Waltz to join their band, now known as the Young Dubliners.

“I didn’t know any of this music when I started out. I was a rock and roll guy,” Waltz said. “But through the festivals we’ve been booked to play, I’ve gotten to learn from a lot of the best fiddle players from Scotland and Ireland.”

Waltz was present for the band’s first full-length album, 1995’s “Reach,” but was gone by the time the second record materialized.

“I was in the band for three years, left to front another band and was back in 2001,” Waltz said. “The timing was right. The band I was in wasn’t working out. Our bass player was also from Kansas City, and he wanted to go back and start a family. That was Norm Dahlor, who now plays with the Elders.”

When Waltz returned, the Dubliners’ lineup finally stabilized. O’Toole had left around the same time as Waltz, but the current crop of players has stayed together, more or less, until today.

“Touring is hard work and not everyone is cut out for it,” Young Dubliners founder Keith Roberts said. “It took a while to find the right mix of people, but the band we have today is the best group I’ve worked with.”

The past 10 years have taken the quintet around the world several times, performing at both Irish and rock festivals and opening for Jethro Tull and Jonny Lang. In 2006, Roberts hastily assembled the band to record a quick follow-up to their biggest record to date, “Real World.” The resulting album, “With All Due Respect,” a baker’s dozen of their favorite Irish songs, has surpassed everything else in their catalog.

“We did that in 17 days,” Roberts said. “The beauty of that album is that we didn’t have much time to over (mess) with it. It was like in our bar band days.

“No matter where we play, we’ll sell as many copies of that album as the new one,” Roberts continued. “It’s timeless. We might do it again.”

It might be a while before that happens, though. The band is feeling the itch to write some more original songs to complement “Saints and Sinners,” the all-new album that followed “Respect.”

“I’m looking forward to getting some new material going,” Waltz said. “I’m writing all the time and I have a lot of stuff wanting to be finished. I can’t wait to hear what the guys will do with it.”

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Reggae, rock, hip-hop, pop: It’s all Michael Franti

(Above: Released last summer, “Say Hey (I Love You)” is the biggest hit in Michael Franti and Spearhead’s 16-year career.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Michael Franti’s first trip beyond the borders of the United States came when his family spent a year in Canada.

Seeing his homeland from the outside opened his eyes.

The musician has been around the world several times during his 20 years as a performer, but he has never stopped searching for new perspectives. Many of those experiences are funneled into the music he makes with the band Spearhead, which combines pop, rock, reggae, hip-hop and world influences.

“Playing music was really my first opportunity to travel,” Franti said. “Wherever I went, I would always go out and see stuff — museums, architecture, rivers, lakes, parks.”

As Franti became familiar with the larger offerings of major cities, he started seeking smaller experiences.

“The most unique experience you can have is just to have a conversation,” Franti said. “I’ve had heartfelt talks with people in parks in cities, and farmers in undeveloped countries who lay out plastic tarps to collect rainwater.”

Michael Franti is the opening act on John Mayer's Battle Studies Tour. The two will perform at the Sprint Center in Kansas City on March 22.

Standing six and a half feet tall and sporting long dreadlocks, Franti rarely blends in with a crowd. He can often be spotted with a guitar slung over his shoulder, walking barefoot.

“I’ve carried my guitar to places with the most harsh conditions. I’m talking about famine, hunger, poverty,” Franti said. “But those people don’t want to sing about how hard life is. They want to dance and clap and sing along.”

The adopted son of a teacher and university professor, Franti formed his first band while attending the University of San Francisco. He has been fronting Spearhead, his third outfit, for 16 years. Although Franti’s medium has shifted from hard-core punk to hip-hop to reggae and pop, his lyrics have always retained a fervent, though upbeat, political bent.

In 2006, Franti took his politics to a new level when he toured the Middle East with his guitar and a movie camera. His goal was to capture the emotions of war-torn people on film and in song. Franti returned with 200 hours of footage that was edited down to the 86-minute documentary “I Know I’m Not Alone.” The music from the trip appeared on the album “Yell Fire!”

“These experiences helped me realize a political song is only as good as its ability to make people dance and move,” Franti said. “I started writing songs of upliftment, inspiration. A lot of songs are about conviction for life and rising above.”

Franti and Spearhead’s most successful song by far is “Say Hey (I Love You).” Despite being released nearly a year ago, the song has taken on a surprising second life. It has popped up on the television show “Weeds,” appeared on the “Valentine’s Day” movie soundtrack and peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.

“Say Hey” had just started to crest last summer when Franti’s appendix ruptured, sending him to the hospital and the band’s concert dates by the wayside.

“We had been touring for a while, and things were starting to blow up,” Franti said. “Suddenly I have a near-death experience, and I’m in the hospital. It was a healthy reminder that life is precious, and you have to value every second. There are several songs on the new album about the preciousness of life and how grateful I am to be able to play music.”

Continuing the trend of his previous two albums, Franti made his new record, “The Sound of Sunshine,” in Jamaica with producers Sly and Robbie. The legendary duo has worked with everyone from reggae giants Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

“Working with Sly and Robbie is always a thrill. They are so quick to share their knowledge,” Franti said. “Every time I think a song needs a better beat, they’re the only ones I think of.”

As Spearhead worked in the studio in Jamaica, people on the street could hear the music they were making. The band could tell how well a track was working by how much it inspired the people outside.

“Jamaica is an island of contradictions,” Franti said. “It’s a tropical island, but a poor country. I could see what people were going through trying to find the light. That’s really what I was trying to write about on this album.”

One of the few places Franti hasn’t taken his music to is Haiti.

“We’ve been invited, but it hasn’t worked out,” Franti said. “We have played in East Timor, however, which is in a similar economic situation. I remember thinking when we played there, if this place ever had an earthquake, everything would crumble. There was no economic infrastructure.”

John Mayer, the headlining act on Franti’s current tour, once sang he was “waiting on the world to change.” Unlike Mayer, however, Franti says he has seen progress from his actions.

“When I first got started, I wrote a lot about the prisons in California and how much money was spent there instead of in schools,” Franti said. “Then someone asked me if I’d play in a prison, so we did that. Afterward, people would come up to me and tell me what they’ve done and how much music has helped them through that time and what they want to do to get out. I’m still getting letters from guys I played for.

“That’s why I travel with my guitar,” Franti said. “I don’t want to just sing about it, I want to be directly involved.”

An early visit to Kansas City

For all of his travels, Michael Franti will always remember Kansas City. In 1992, his political rap group the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy opened for U2.

Shortly after their concert at Arrowhead Stadium, Franti was hanging out with Bono and another band member when William S. Burroughs walked in. The Beat Generation legend was living in Lawrence at the time and was about to record an album with the Heroes.

“He came in carrying what looked like a bowling ball bag with him,” Franti said. “He drops it on the bed and it bounced like it was real heavy. Burroughs looks at us and goes, ‘I just thought you’d like to see my gun collection’ and pulls out a pistol with a barrel longer than my forearm.”

While Franti and Bono collected themselves, Franti’s bandmate Rono Tse picked up one of the weapons.

“Burroughs reaches over to him and says, ‘Give me a second here.’ He opens the chamber, dumps the bullets out and gives Rono the gun back,” Franti said. “Bono and I were talking about it later. We think he did it just for effect.”

Michael Franti timeline
1966 Michael Franti is born in Oakland, Calif., the son of an African-American father and an Irish-German-French mother. His mother puts him up for adoption because she is worried her family will not accept the baby. Franti is adopted by a couple with three biological children and one other adopted child.1986 As a student at the University of San Francisco, Franti forms his first band, the Beatnigs, an industrial, hard-core punk outfit.

1988 The Beatnigs release their only album. Their song “Television” becomes an underground success.

1990 Franti and his bandmate Rono Tse form the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The group is known for its jazz-based samples and heavy political lyrics.

1992 The Heroes release their only album, “Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury.” The band is invited to open for U2 on its tour, which stops at Arrowhead Stadium in October.

1994 Franti forms the band Spearhead, which releases its first album, “Home.”

1997 Spearhead leaves Capitol Records after releasing two albums. Franti starts his own label, Boo Boo Wax.

1999 Franti founds the annual Power to the Peaceful music festival in San Francisco.

2000 Franti rails against the death penalty on the concept album “Stay Human.”

2003 Spearhead responds to the post-9/11 landscape with the song “Bomb the World” and the album “Everyone Deserves Music.” Franti works with reggae musicians Sly and Robbie for the first time when he hires them to remix a track.

2006 Inspired by a trip to Israel, Baghdad, the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Franti produces the anti-war film “I Know I’m Not Alone.” The trip also influences Spearhead’s album “Yell Fire!” which is produced by Sly and Robbie. In June, the band headlines on the main stage on the final day of the Wakarusa Music Festival outside of Lawrence.

2007 Franti and Spearhead make their second appearance at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. The group made its Bonnaroo debut in 2003 and is scheduled to perform there this June.

2008 Spearhead releases its sixth studio album, “All Rebel Rockers.” Again produced by Sly and Robbie, it is the group’s best-selling and highest-charting record to date.

2009 “Say Hey (I Love You)” is released as a single in June. Weeks later, Franti is hospitalized after his appendix ruptures. The band is forced to cancel its headlining slot at Wanderlust and several other festivals.

2010 Michael Franti and Spearhead open for John Mayer on his Battle Studies tour.

Keep reading:

Review: Michael Franti at Wakarusa

Review: Sly and Robbie