JON ANDERSON: 1000 HANDS, CHAPTER ONE

(BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

Jon Anderson has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in the world; as lead vocalist for prog rock titans Yes for the bulk of their storied career, his pipes became the vocal signature on dozens of vibrant rock classics such as “And You and I,” “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” Why Anderson is not still with Yes can best be left to another discussion, but the man still has a commanding, healthy sounding voice; he hardly seems to have aged at all despite his nearly 75 years of age. 1000 HANDS, Anderson’s latest opus, has been gestating for a number of years and earned its title at least partly from the exaggerated number of individuals who contributed to it. That includes former Yes associates like Steve Howe, Alan White and the late Chris Squire. So it stands to reason this dense new album will be of interest to Yes fans, but it’s also just a solid musical offering that anyone into lush, upbeat pop with classical leanings should be able to appreciate. It’s filled with spritely melodies, Anderson’s lyrical optimism and plenty of engaging instrumental interplay.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: DEBORAH ANDERSON)

The album is bookended by two versions of a simple mostly acoustic song called “Now” in a brief into, then “Now and Again” as the fuller light rock song that ends the record (Howe guests on guitar here). “Ramalama” is a fun little piece that Anderson has said emerged from vocal exercises he was in the habit of doing. While one Anderson sings a repetitive “Dit di da,” another sings some lyrics about light, togetherness, finding your center and other standard Anderson concerns. The piece may remind some of Yes’ album 90210, especially the Rabin-penned “Leave It,” which I thought was extraordinary, myself. I’m hearing a banjo on this number, I believe, and that is kinda cool. By the time this song ends, it has thoroughly grabbed you and demonstrated Anderson’s absolute love of sheer sound, a real trademark of this iconic composer. “First Born Leaders” is an unlikely marriage of calypso and gospel stylings, featuring Larry Coryell guesting on guitar, a small choir and Anderson opening with a burst of smooth a cappella. “Everybody wants what they cannot have/Everybody needs what they cannot see/Everybody wants what they haven’t got at all,” goes the repeated chorus, and that’s pretty dang down to Earth for ol’ cosmic Jon. This is a melodic, upbeat tune that should please most music fans.

JON ANDERSON, 2016 (photo credit: JOE KLEON)

“Activate” features classical guitar and flute (by none other than Ian Anderson) and is one of the two tracks Chris Squire guests on, but at nearly 9 minutes is slightly too new agey for my taste. Anderson can’t stop his searchingly humanistic lyrics from simply pouring out in this song, and truthfully, they resonate quite well for the most part: “In accordance with the facts of life, we resolve to show the truth,” goes one lyric; “Don’t get in the way of the light that shines” is another. But I especially love this directive: “All you gotta do is mesmerize my heart and soul,” something I wish more artists would keep in mind. And the very poignant verse “And the only way we have of contacting you for sure/Is the melody of music and the harmony of love.” Although Anderson has voiced such sentiments countless times, I love the context here and it really moved me as a fellow musician. I only wish the song itself had contained more of the delicate beauty Anderson has been known to effortlessly conjure at times.

JON ANDERSON with ANDERSON PONTY BAND (photo credit: ROBIN KAUFFMAN)

“Makes Me Happy” and “I Found Myself” are sugary pop truffles, the former a ukulele-featuring melodic rush that could get the kiddies dancing; it has uncommon musical efficiency and a genuine spark of joy. The unlikely guests here include Rick Derringer, the Tower of Power Horns and, golly, the “human beatbox,” Michael Winslow. Clearly Anderson kept the sonic palette wide open for this outing. The latter is a romantic love song that features acoustic guitars, violin and (I think) a double-tracked vocal by Jon, before a woman’s voice responds in pure affirmation of his loving expression. If you’re into birds, you’ll notice the prominent call of an Eastern Phoebe throughout, so either Anderson had his windows open when he recorded this, or he made it a point to include sounds of nature in the mix. Again, it’s worth noting the simplicity and directness of tunes like this; no cosmic couplets needed to be transported somewhere special.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: TAMI FREED)

The next three songs represent a sort of climactic and Yes-influenced sequence, with “Twice in a Lifetime” featuring instrumentation that evokes “Turn of the Century” a bit, and “WDMCF” (“Where does music come from?”) featuring lovely harmonies, a piano showcase by Chick Corea, and the kind of celebration of MUSIC that Jon Anderson has made a career out of (see “Awaken” and “Sound Chaser” among others). If you’re a fan of Yes, go straight to this track and turn it up loud; it’s the best song here. There is something riveting about hearing Anderson sing “Music, music/Music… come up, music come up” that hits the bulls-eye of Anderson’s many thematic targets. He’s the right guy to ask “Where does music come from?” and although he might take 20 minutes or more to answer such a question in conversation, here he does it in a sublime five and a half minutes. Stellar, man. “1000 Hands (Come Up)” is the second song in a row to repeatedly use the phrase “come up,” and here we get some overtly jazz stylings (Billy Cobham joins the ensemble), some fancy keys (Corea again) and a sharp bit of violin by Jean-Luc Ponty. Not to mention Squire again making a welcome appearance. Anderson sounds more casual and circumspect on this 8-minute-plus track, and it feels like slightly new territory for him. The whole intricate arrangement comes over like the work of a composer/sonic architect who has been around for a long time and is still searching for sparkling new sounds.

Which Anderson HAS been, and clearly IS. When he sings “Come up with me” on that previous song, it’s not just an invitation to listen, it’s a plea to move your entire vibration to a higher level in life. That’s sound advice, no pun intended, for this era in particular. Anderson may sometimes be cloying, and the overall success of his solo work (and even some Yes recordings) depends on how organically his aesthetic and lyrical explorations nestle into those intricate proggy sound beds his band is known for. When everything gels, the results are transcendent (stuff like “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise,” and at least a couple of tracks here). When it doesn’t, or if you ain’t in the mood, the love-peace-togetherness vibe can get a bit tiresome. But it’s immensely reassuring to have a good Jon Anderson album out there right now, and to hear him sounding happy and caring about humanity as only he can. High vibration, go on… indeed. This enduring musical soul is more than worth listening to on these matters, and would that EVERY legendary musician could still sound so focused and healthy at his age.


JUST AFTER ZERO: ALCHEMEDIC

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

Any time a new artist releases a full CD, they should be applauded. It takes a whole lot of courage and chutzpah to put a disc out these days and to feel you have something worthwhile to add to the cultural dialogue. For the listener, your general response will be based on two things: “What is different about this entity?” And maybe, “Do the songs grab me?” What we’ve got here is a Saint Louis act called Just After Zero, the musical brand name for one John Liming, who has a flair for observing the nonsensical, consumerist realms of existence, impressive musical chops, and a preoccupation with the sometimes-cinematic and sometimes just taxing side of life. There is cynicism and humor running through these ten songs, and above all, a keen diarist’s sense of the absurd. Fortunately, Liming has the raw beginnings of a pretty original style here, with a healthy dose of David Byrne-ish quirkiness (although Liming’s lyrics are more personal and his delivery less detached) and a touch of Nick Cave’s brooding but vulnerable side. The inherent drama of his vocal delivery works fine when the arrangements match it, which fortunately they do on at least half the compositions on his debut, ALCHEMEDIC. And you get the sense you’ve just met a highly original new songwriter.

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

Liming wisely begins the disc with his strongest track, “Coming Down,” an ultra-cool little chunk of sonics with edgy acoustic guitar, bass, and an insistently simple drumbeat that you’ll tap your foot to. He’s in masterful control here; the guitar playing is terrific, with an economic and surprising electric solo a couple moments in and possibly the best vocal on the record. There’s a vague sense of threat that the narrator is sharing, with the line “I should get out of this town” repeated enough to qualify as a hook. Musically, this is just a solid song all the way. “Backlot” starts with a similarly bracing riff, although it is shorter, and keeps the attention on Liming’s voice. This may be an acquired taste for some… but he doesn’t really sound exactly like anyone else, which I’d say is good. There is a slight tinge of implied paranoia but also a strong sense of survival determination that makes the journey he takes you on less jittery than it might have been otherwise. My favorite of his odd little tunes is “Electric Cicadas,” which is Liming adding memorable flourishes to the template he’s created for himself. There’s undeniable punk-ish energy happening here. “These electric cicadas got me down,” he sings repeatedly, with a brittle, wiry electric guitar solo popping up at just the right moment. And I like the “Oh, no, no, no” exclamation, the best use of that kinda thing since Paul Simon in “Paranoia Blues.” Good stuff, with kinetic energy!

“Building Code Under Fire” will remind you of a Talking Heads title, “Love Goes to a Building on Fire,” and it takes on messed-up societal processes, a thing Liming seems to think about a great deal. The drama is supplied entirely by Liming’s vocals and a solid acoustic guitar track. Then it’s time for an atypical highlight, “Harvest Song (C’est la Vie),” which is airplay worthy. Serious existential contemplation is taking place here, as Liming sings “I met the devil in a truck stop, he was waiting for a ride/He snapped his fingers to the radio that was playing from inside.” A little bit later, we get “I met the devil in a truck stop and he reeked of kerosene/He said, you better pay attention when you see the things I see.” This is a well-constructed tune that features the most singable chorus on ALCHEMEDIC, and it’s fun to ponder what might have prompted this composition. Another voice and acoustic guitar thing, the song proves Liming cares about the songwriting process… he has good ideas to spare, certainly one of the requirements for an adventurous new artist. “Only Monika” is a somewhat dour little tune that may have a girl’s name in the title but clearly it’s NOT “only Monika” causing the blues here. Then we get another surprise – “Tex Mex,” which is a rather zippy little instrumental that shows Liming can really play guitar, quite energetically, in fact. This is a nice trick for a newcomer to have up their sleeve. And “Irene’s Call” begins with part of a computerized voice talking about credit eligibility, which the subsequent song then proceeds to make a mockery of. Liming’s close attention to the irritations of modern life should provide him material for plenty of future songs, no doubt. He does sarcasm pretty well.

JUST AFTER ZERO (Adam Long, John Liming) (uncredited photo)

At times, a few of these songs aren’t too far past demo stage; Liming benefits from the ones that feature drums, which were played by Ralph Noyes. Liming handles guitar, bass on some songs and of course, vocals. There is a theatrical bent to many tracks, and when Liming gets the balance just right, as on “Coming Down,” “Electric Cicadas,” “Backlot” and “Harvest Song,” you really feel you’re being courted by a bracing new talent. The man has something to say, an eccentric style and presence and a pretty good flair for arrangements. I think we’re going to hear more from him for sure, and the riffs and refrains from some of these tunes are already firmly lodged in my brain. That seems like a pretty good sign to me.

ALCHEMEDIC can be ordered from Bandcamp at: https://justafterzero.bandcamp.com/album/alchemedic. Physical CDs can be ordered for $10 from JustAfterZero@gmail.com.

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH JOHN LIMING OF “JUST AFTER ZERO”

Q1: What is the significance of branding yourself as “Just After Zero” rather than your own name?

John: Truthfully, I was tired of people mispronouncing my last name. The original plan was to go by “One”, a three-way reference between the track from Metallica’s …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL album, which was the first guitar song I learned in high school, my status as a one-man act, and coming up with the name around 1:00 AM the morning before my first open mic. But I worried about it getting mixed up with “Won” and “1”, so I switched over to the more memorable and easily communicated “Just After Zero.”

Q2: Every artist ends up getting asked about their stylistic touchstones or influences. So, what are yours? They don’t just have to be musical artists. But what would you say are the things that led you to making your kind of music?

John: Funnily enough, my biggest influence is from film, not music. I’ve always been a big fan of low budget horror movies, particularly the shot-on-video variety that popped up after the renaissance of cheap VHS camcorders and digital editing software. It’s fascinating seeing filmmakers not much better off than myself just throw themselves at a production and make something on a shoestring budget with precious little technical skill, driven only by a desire to make the movies that scared them as teenagers. The movies end up sweaty, generally ugly, and always fascinating in their interpretation of universal fears. They taught me to not shy away from imperfection, or at least not to trade technical competency for impulse. This inspiration also serves as fodder for a few songs on ALCHEMEDIC, specifically “I Write Horrorshows,” “Backlot,” and “Building Code Under Fire!,” all very literally about the different aspects of cheap production values. Musically, a huge influence of mine is Primus’ Les Claypool. His ability to turn mundane people and places into macabre jokes and character studies is uncanny and guides a lot of my songwriting efforts. Also, “Puddin’ Taine” makes for a fantastic vocal exercise before a performance along with “Life During Wartime” from Talking Heads’ STOP MAKING SENSE album. That’s my hot tip to any musician readers out there.

Q3: “Electric Cicadas” is one of my favorite songs of yours. It’s got a hypnotic weirdness to it. What inspired this song? How would you summarize it for the casual listener?

John: Glad you like the song! I once had to fill out a ReCAPTCHA to log into a website (one of those tests where you type in a couple of words to prove you’re not a robot) and my words were “electric” and “cicadas.” I started thinking about how ungodly irritating a robotic cicada swarm would be (a combination of obnoxious clicking and bits of hot metal banging into windows at all hours, aluminum legs landing unprompted on your arms with no malice but no real purpose, nobody’s really quite sure why anybody invented something so loud and invasive but surely somebody had a good reason for it), and the words sounded fun to say together. So the song just wrote itself as an acoustic guitar song I could play on the open mic circuit. Then when I got the chance to do a full treatment of the song, I took the formerly human acoustic guitar parts and stripped all the warmth out of them with aggressive gates and filtering to get the feeling of chaotic sterility across.

Q4: Is it fair to say you are more of an introvert than an extrovert overall? What kind of release does music provide for you? It seems on the evidence that you are pretty driven… is there tension for you between ordinary survival type stuff and the energy and focus it takes to make music?

John: I’m an introvert normally, but Just After Zero provides me the chance to be an extrovert for a few hours at a time. In fact, this entire musician gig just started as a New Year’s resolution to play guitar at an open mic to convince myself to get out of my apartment a little and meet some new people. And as it happens, the Saint Louis open mic scene is bustling enough to support an independent musical career almost all on its own.

Music, to me, is the chance to tell a good joke or spark a conversation. When I learn something new (You ever notice how Building Code Under Fire is on every Universal movie newspaper? Wonder what’s up with that.) or come up with a weird hypothetical (You think there’s somebody out there that’s so down in the dumps that a call from a telemarketer is actually a formative event in their life?), the first thing I want to do is tell the nearest person about it. Music is a chance to share that insight and maybe, if I’m lucky, make somebody smile or think about that next spam call a little differently. There’s value in that. Making music is effectively a survival type activity at this point. I get twitchy and hyperactive if I go too long without it, so in that sense it jives really well with the more mundane psychological requirements like sunlight and spicy food.

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

Q5: Let’s imagine that this guy, we’ll call him Buford T Injustice, a fictional record industry dude, agrees to a meeting with you after hearing the awesome song “Coming Down.” He seems like he wants you to be honest, but you’re not sure. What would you say to him about your goals and aspirations for your music? How much compromising would you be open to, to sell records? If he pairs you up with some known producer, how much freedom would you give the producer? If Buford starts pissing you off, could you tell him you don’t like this direction, or would you quietly take all his suggestions under advisement?

John: I would approach Buford and ask him directly what he saw in “Coming Down” and what, specifically, he wants to see in my future work. I would expect some compromises to be asked of me and I would evaluate them fairly against what Buford would give me in exchange. I wouldn’t necessarily think of it as a chance to just sell records, though. I would try to think of it as Buford getting me in touch with people who want to hear my music, an extremely valuable resource for the increasingly dense musical landscape we’re living in. I would accept the chance to work with a producer on the condition I still get to play guitar and write my own songs. One of the unique aspects of a one-man band is that you don’t get a lot of creative input or pushback, so that could be a really good chance to take Just After Zero somewhere interesting.

Buford’s pissing me off would be a shame but I’ve worked for irritable bosses before. I would try to keep impartial and determine how much of the friction is actually impacting Just After Zero’s music. Some personal disagreements and irritation are a small price to pay for a publishing deal. If the music begins to suffer or my existing fans start disagreeing with the direction, it would be time to consider hitting the road.


EPHEMERA: SEASONS

(EPHEMERA MUSIC; 2020) (UPDATE BELOW)

The last time I had the chance to review a new album by Ephemera was late 2004, just after they released their brilliant fifth CD, MONOLOVE. I’d already grown so fond of this sublime Norwegian female pop trio by then, that I wondered if they were simply too good to be true. Who makes music this sparkly so seemingly effortlessly? The gorgeous, impossibly gentle voices employing flawless harmonies; economical and universal lyrics that summed up dilemmas about life and love in simple but relatable terms; inventive arrangements that seemed to always have one extra “earworm” than you’d expect, and a genius producer in Yngve Saetre. Ephemera had already won the equivalent of the Norwegian Grammy (called the “Spellemannprisen” award) for Best Pop Group twice for previous albums, and enjoyed at least one international hit with “Girls Keep Secrets in the Strangest Ways.” MONOLOVE was seemingly a gift for “deep listeners,” as it was a sonic treasure for those who liked more complex textures in their crystalline female pop, and it was a creative peak of sorts for the band. So, were they too good to be true? Or were good things just not meant to last? One couldn’t help but worry when the trio vanished after 2005 into the Norwegian cultural wilderness. Though the group’s songs are in English, there simply weren’t any articles in either language for a while, that made clear what happened. As year after year passed, the dedicated fan would have had to dig deep to discern Ephemera’s plans, and there were no clues on solo albums such as Christine Sandtorv’s FIRST LAST DANCE or Ingerlise Storksen’s ALL THE GOOD THINGS. You were free to speculate, but you probably were just gonna have to WAIT. The simple explanation, however, was that the three women all got married, had children at varying intervals and chose to live a calmer life for a while. They needed a break after five straight years of being a busy Nordic pop sensation; some reassessment was in order. But fans had to be delighted when an unexpected pair of new singles, “Magic” and “Hope” (words aptly associated with this trio), turned up in the latter half of 2019. Yes, they still had the gift! And now at last we are treated to their sixth album (seventh if you count the compilation SCORE), simply titled SEASONS. The girls love one-word titles! It appears right in the middle of a daunting, world-wide pandemic. And it is, simply, a soothing little gem. Whew! We’ve still got one of the finest girl groups in the world out there, serving up wisdom and life stories. Det er en lettelse!

EPHEMERA (Jannicke Larsen Berglund, Ingerlise Storksen, Christine Sandtorv) (photo credit: CECILIE BANNOW)

All the truly great artists have a sound, a style that contains their own flavors and seasoning. Ephemera are purveyors of lilting pop music which alternates between little stories that feature a melancholy undercurrent (sometimes overt, in fact) and upbeat, rapturous odes to love, self-realization, and getting lost in life’s beauty and wonder. They have a gift for making the listener rapturous, too… a few listens to any of their best songs and you start feeling like the world is a bit more awesome than you told yourself yesterday. There is unquestionably a vibe of empathy and inclusiveness in Ephemera songs – they are NOT detached or cynical. They are with YOU all the way, whether you’re mourning a loss or celebrating new love. They make you feel cared about, a somewhat rare trait for most pop ensembles. And with songs like “When the Best Ones Are Gone” and “Heartbeat,” both written by the luminous Christine Sandtorv (although that first tune is sung by Jannicke Larsen Berglund in a mode of absolute goddess-like wisdom and understanding), you can hear the most effective element in music holding you tight: Universality. Few things are more powerful than a great song at making you feel or at least ponder the ups and downs of life. “When the Best Ones Are Gone” is simply one of the most achingly beautiful songs Ephemera have ever recorded, with a gorgeous piano arrangement and a patient introduction of their patented harmony that pays off stunningly. “Everything falls apart/Everything breaks up/Somehow you must start/To pick up the pieces/And your broken heart,” sings Berglund, and then the trio together. If those simple words don’t get absolutely stuck in your head after a couple of listens to the haunting arrangement here, well, you may wanna have your ears checked. The concluding bridge is vintage Ephemera, with the word “undertow” standing out. It could have been an alternate title for this whole record. And “Heartbeat” has a similar timely impact, with Christine’s acoustic guitar and a more elemental but evocative keyboard part setting the scene: In her most sincere, winsome voice, Sandtorv sings “Do you have a heartbeat/Hidden hopes and dreams/As long as you have a heartbeat/You can get back on your feet.” Simply reading such lyrics won’t convey the power of hearing them sung sweetly amidst airily perfect instrumentation. And hearing such things in the midst of a dire time for humanity is overwhelmingly emotional. Many of us are sick right now, or angst-ridden. But the doctor is IN, with the name “Ephemera” on the office door. The doctor will see you now, and the prescription is some beautiful songcraft…

And there is so much more. Ingerlise Storksen is truly one of the most distinctive vocalists in all of Scandinavia; I shouldn’t try to analyze what she does because it is so transcendent when she’s at her best. And she IS here, on “Stranger,” a leisurely sung, dramatically paced slice of perfection with surprisingly minimal lyrics. The theme here is sadness over the sometimes inexplicable distance between people – in this case, the titular but unknown subject. A repeated sequence of four glistening high tones is soon accompanied by a lush string arrangement, on its way to setting up a chorus you won’t forget. The world holds its breath, and then there is a dramatic shift in Ingerlise’s delivery as she sings: “Birds are flying away/I can no longer count the days/I run but time keeps lead/I pray to see you again.” This passage is not merely a peak moment on SEASONS, but one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard on a record. In a single moment of emotive ecstasy, aiming for musical heaven and getting there, Ingerlise will surely have some listeners fighting back tears. The economy of the whole track is simply a marvel, and the sheer vulnerability this trio manages to capture in songs such as this is unprecedented. Then there is Berglund’s songwriting contribution, one of my absolute favorites, called “The More You Give.” Not generally as prolific as her two partners, Berglund has been responsible for some past Ephemera gems such as “One Minute” and “City Lights.” Her tune here is a potent combination of dreamy and weary, with at least three memorable earworms (or “hooks”). As the band’s keyboard player, she often lays down distinctive synth parts that are sometimes merely textural, sometimes the most memorable adornment in a song. They’re always beautiful, and they are truly an Ephemera trademark, especially the repeating swirl of coolly descending tones we’re treated to here. “You always want to be the best you can be/And you always want to see all that there is to see/Just remember to let them deep into your heart/All of those who were there for you right from the start,” she sings; a simple enough sentiment given emotional heft by the sterling arrangement, and the way Berglund’s more laconic delivery contrasts with Sandtorv’s sweeter voice on a couple of lines. Simply great stuff. It seems to UP the sophistication factor for Ephemera, as does Ingerlise’s “Too Good To Be,” a disarmingly sincere missive to someone about, probably, a commitment issue. It’s slow and patient, and true to Ephemera form, vulnerable and beautiful. A gradually ascending piano progression at the end is accompanied by that trademark eerie synth ascending right alongside it, and then the familiar vocal blend – did I mention that this group serves up melodies that always burrow deeper into your psyche the more you listen? And that few acts anywhere manage the splendiferous arrangements that these three women and their uncannily sympathetic producer achieve, song after song? Golly, and I haven’t even touched on the big singles yet: “Magic,” which revels in the band’s full three-part harmony and a can’t-be-beat Sandtorv melody that really DOES bring the magic, and “Hopeful,” a rocking Storksen tune that is probably the most upbeat, conventionally “fun” tune on the album. But the thing is, Ephemera just aren’t conventional. Not by a long shot. Yes, they write catchy tunes that you can tap your foot to, and yes, they experience all the same deep, conflicting emotions YOU do. But these three women happen to be uncommonly gifted as songwriters and arrangers. They’ve been at this for 25 years now (they formed in 1994 and their first CD, GLUE, came out in 1996), they have an enduring, resonant friendship, and by now, they really understand that not only is music a superlative way of delivering portraits of the deepest of human experiences, but they have a quirkily brilliant, musically distinctive and uncommonly delicate way of doing so. There are other girl groups out there, for sure, but Ephemera, like their tunes, offer something both “Hopeful” and something rich in the kind of recorded “Magic” that has earned them fans around the world. SEASONS is a short album (37 minutes) – it’s not as meaty as MONOLOVE, not quite as winkingly industry-friendly, perhaps, as AIR, their acclaimed 2003 effort. But SEASONS comes into a world where the music industry is kind of a mess, royalties are diminished, artists are working with much more restrictive circumstances, and the world itself is in grave peril – the current pandemic being just one sign that civilization has to learn and grow, or it may just burn out. When the stakes are high, Ephemera music sounds better than almost anything – it’s comforting, wise, communal, gently lulling, and always with an ear to your heart. Save yourself an expensive psychiatric bill – just listen to these Norwegian muses instead, and try to remember what a beautiful, exhilarating challenge life can still be…

EPHEMERA (Christine Sandtorv, Jannicke Larsen Berglund, Ingerlise Storksen) (photo credit: CECILIE BANNOW)

SEASONS is available digitally on iTunes, Tidal and Spotify.

EPHEMERA (Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen Berglund) (photo credit: DYVEKE S NILSSEN)

(UPDATE) It’s a mixed blessing that the first new Ephemera album in 15 years would arrive in the midst of a global pandemic. That limits promotional activities and public appearances severely. On the other hand, when they can release a video for perhaps the album’s most beautiful song, one that should be seen by everyone, the healing effect and “we’re all in this together” vibe are profoundly moving. Here is the new video for “When the Best Ones Are Gone.”


TIRILL: SAID THE SUN TO THE MOON

(FAIRY MUSIC; Norwegian import, 2019)

In a world turned increasingly ugly and amoral, sometimes all you can do is listen to your heart, and hang onto beauty wherever you can find it. That might be on the faces of loved ones, in the changing of the seasons, or in watching waves rolling into some wild shore. Norwegian singer/songwriter Tirill Mohn clearly thinks about such things, and her new album, SAID THE SUN TO THE MOON, is an elegantly simple, melancholy and yet hopeful reminder that all we see and feel is worth pausing to appreciate. The strong impression this lovely recording leaves overall is that of a weary traveler stopping for tea at the home of a trusted friend, having a sweet and empathetic conversation while unburdening his sorrows, and then continuing his journey, now just slightly more centered. Or maybe that’s just the way I felt, wishing I was that traveler, and appreciating what Tirill has to say here.

TIRILL (publicity photo)

Let’s start by mentioning the cover, the sort of thing more typically seen on ambient albums. I will never tire of seeing a CD become a beautiful object itself, in this case, one featuring a minimalist, darkish grey shoreline under a mostly cloudy sky, with photos in the booklet of leaves, seascapes and in one case, a fog-enshrouded dock, adorning the individual pages along with the lyrics in a script font. It’s all quite lovely and beckoning. “This album is dedicated to the shift of the seasons, to the beauty of nature in all its phases and changes, and to the human heart that wanders along with it, moon after moon, lifetime after lifetime,” the notes on the inside sleeve tell us. I was already shivering after I read this; I’ve never thought more about that “human heart” than I’ve done in the past couple of years. But then the music starts, as delicate as soft rain on a wooden boat dock or living room window. Tirill’s voice is gentle, soothing, with casual wisdom underscoring the words (some she wrote, some written by others). Soon you’re responding to Uno Alexander Vesje’s evocative harp playing, Sigrun Eng’s cello, Bjarne Magnus Jensen’s violin, other almost medieval-sounding instrumentation and Tirill herself singing like a woodland goddess, playing guitar sweetly for all who will listen. Season-centric songs such as “Autumn” and “Winter” are short and evocative; nothing lasts too long on this album. But there is a lovely, inspired cover of Nick Drake’s “Clothes of Sand”; it’s worth mentioning that Tirill is a devoted fan of Drake and took part in a tribute concert to him a few years ago. This is one of the best Drake covers I’ve heard, truly. The whole album is dedicated to Rudolf Steiner, who wrote about and developed a spiritual philosophy of the “relationship between nature and the human spirit,” with many of his poems here being translated by Owen Barfield for Tirill’s ethereal musings, principally those titled after individual seasons. There is a poem “associated” with the exquisite chamber-folk piece “To the Realms of the Spirit,” but it’s presented here as a string-laden instrumental, a haunting one. “Spring” is a bright and beautiful song fragment, with that harp really luring you in, but then the song is over in just a minute and 15. Much too short, like the actual season of Spring itself. Two of the best tracks are “Shapes of a Dream,” a rumination on mother and son that Tirill penned which has an aching sadness suffused throughout (is it about an unwanted separation? A tribute to the loving memory of one who departed?) and the title track, featuring lyrics by Kathleen Jessie Raine. That one is about change, how it is both inevitable and something to face with understanding and clarity. The quiet, folksy sound of this piece could induce tears, and Tirill’s musicians play with the most evocative, understated grace for such a timeless theme. “Iridescent Horizon” begins sounding like an eerie ambient sonic, but is actually one of two spoken word pieces here, and it’s worth following along with the words if you have the patience for this kind of thing. It’s subtitled “To a Beloved,” and in fact, many of these pieces have a subtitle clearly chosen for what the song’s added meaning might be (the Drake cover says “To a Past Love”, the memorable “Under the Small Fire of Winter Stars” is subtitled “To a Friend”). In that one, a whispering goddess, half-dream meditation, which comes and goes on a nocturnal ambient breeze, Tirill implores her listener “And if it happens that you cannot go on or turn back/And you find yourself where you will be at the end, tell yourself in that final flowing of cold through your limbs, that you love what you are.” I could use such gentle persuasions and all the other impossibly empathetic sentiments Tirill gifts us with on this fragile song cycle, as I continue winding my own way across the sometimes mean, merciless landscapes of modern times.


UPCOMING: THE VANDOLIERS

(12 July, 2019; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

Two of my favorite things converge on Friday, July 12: Bloodshot Records and Old Rock House. The former is represented by the self-proclaimed “Converse cowboys,” the Dallas-Fort Worth band, the VANDOLIERS; the latter is one of my favorite places in the Lou to experience live music. The band is opening for PARKER MCCOLLUM, an artist of some repute in his own right, and touring in support of their third album and Bloodshot debut, FOREVER. As if you’re gonna need another reason to head out to the super-cool Old Rock House for this show, here’s a brief description from the band’s bio: “It’s twang and tattoos, grit and guitars, honky-tonk and horns, Tejano and Telecasters.” What more could you ask for on a Friday night?


DANIELSON: SNAP OUTTAVIT

(JOYFUL NOISE RECORDINGS; 2018)


Love ’em or hate ’em, Danielson, as they have been called for a while (used to be Danielson Famile), have given the pop world one of the most aggressively original and impossible to ignore musical styles ever conceived. That’s not easy to do, and it has something to do with Daniel Smith’s remarkable falsetto voice (he doesn’t use it ALL the time, but it’s there in abundance on the early albums), the crazily off-kilter arrangements and the blend of sweet sonics (the female members of the troop have light, soothing voices which contrast effectively with Smith’s style) with lyrical wildness. It’s no longer a big deal to talk of Smith’s sincere brand of Christianity; there is literally nothing about that which should influence your response to the music anymore. Smith is after bigger game anyway; he has the instincts of an impassioned art rocker, and the razor-sharp focus of your favorite classic rock singer/songwriter. I have been a fan of Smith’s creation since his family’s masterpiece of a second album, TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPING BLOCK. I delighted in hearing the extreme reactions of friends here and there upon encountering this highly original sound. While often challenging and a bit abrasive, I could handle anything Master Smith and company could throw at me. Therefore, it’s a bit odd to report that SNAP OUTTAVIT, a recent five-song Danielson EP, is… accessible. Sorta commercial. Easygoing. There isn’t a single track that would make anyone I know gripe, “Take that off, please!” It’s still original, of course.

The title track features, well, the title, chanted over and over by Smith while his wife Elin and sisters Rachel and Megan sing a contrasting ethereal chorus. It’s kind of strange but definitely not unlistenable. And that weird “chorus,” if you can call it that, stops here and there for a fairly normal verse or two, that sounds like, well, a singer/songwriter with something to say. Whatever that might be. “Dry Goods Dry Power” was released previously on a limited-issue vinyl EP; it’s a catchy, “normal” sounding rocker with a propulsive two-chord structure overall. Sure, there’s an eccentric middle section that has some of Smith’s patented falsetto, but not that much. It certainly is not weird compared to, say “Good News For the Pus Pickers” or “Cutest Li’l Dragon.” By the time you reach “Pendulum Mania” on this disc, you’re sort of WANTING the weirdness, if you’re a dedicated Danielson fan… and this tune mostly delivers. The girls keep singing “Swinging back and forth/Swinging back and forth now,” while Smith goes on about some convoluted topic that moves in a nice non-linear fashion, thematically. This is an imaginative song, and I have no idea what it’s about, but it’s Danielson. I like it!

DANIELSON (David Smith, Elin Smith, Rachel Galloway, Andrew Smith, Daniel Smith, Megan Slaboda) (publicity photo)

Then we get to “On Purpose,” the first song to break the five-minute mark. Here, Smith does a thing he does so well and that I used to dream about doing in a studio myself: chanting a commonly used phrase over and over, in this case, “What do you know?” It’s eminently listenable, beginning with subtle marimba and a surging background sound before that repeat phrase kicks in. Yeah! Best song here, methinks. The structural ambition of Smith’s songs is really a thing to behold, and this’un shows it quite nicely. But again, it’s not abrasive. It won’t drive anyone from the room. In fact, I can imagine some favorable “Hey, what are you playing right now?” type responses. “Who Hears Twell Van Dunder” is the kind of bizarro Danielson title that every album features examples of: What you get here is spoken voices saying things like “So happy to see you” and “Been thinking of you” and tingly marimba notes, before a childlike melody kicks in. I’m betting the children’s voices belong to Danielson offspring, and that everyone had a good time recording this gently ruminative little number. This is family music, all right. But not the family you know down the street. It’s the very talented, very original Danielson family, Mister. They play music. They sing combinations of things you’ve never heard before. They are passionate, driven and in love with life. And even if this modest little disc doesn’t truly blaze new trails, it’s a nice little reminder that one of the most original acts in pop is still out there, doing their thing. It’ll do fine until and if, Smith feels like launching another wacky full-length into the sonic universe. If you’ve never given Danielson a chance before, well, this might be a good time to “snap outtavit.”


CINEMATIK: CINEMATIK; ONE FULL MOON AWAY

(KACHINA RECORDS; 2001; 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

CINEMATIK (Neal Smith, Peter Catucci, Robert Mitchell) (photo credit: TONY LOEW)

Famed Alice Cooper percussionist Neal Smith has lent his name to many projects since the demise of that storied outfit some four-and-a-half decades ago – from the sublime (Billion Dollar Babies, Bouchard Dunaway and Smith) to the ridiculous (the big noise, hair metal of Ded Ringer) to the ridiculously sublime (Plasmatics and his own 1975 solo album, PLATINUM GOD). I’m not exactly sure where this project falls; it’s kind of a “musician’s project,” with textures generally unexplored in any of Neal’s other work. There are hints of the old Cooper sound, particularly a descending riff that spirals through “Temple Mental,” a tune from Cinematik’s eponymous debut. Much of Neal’s work on the trio’s two albums involves African and tribal percussion instruments rather than the standard “rock guy” drum kit that most of us associate with the “platinum God.”

Though there are touches of the old Neal Smith sound, much of the music is very… uh… cinematic. Neal’s bandmates, bassist/vocalist Peter Catucci and guitarist/vocalist Robert Mitchell, create an almost orchestral feel, allowing the understated percussion to flow through the (mostly) instrumental material of CINEMATIK and ONE FULL MOON AWAY, rather than drive the tunes forward. Occasionally, subtlety and power mean the same thing. That is never more evident than on the beautiful instrumental, “Awake,” a song from the first album. With Peter’s minimal use of the didgeridoo and his quietly throbbing bass and Neal’s less-is-more approach (on what sounds like either a tom-tom or a small hand drum and a tambourine) on the evocative Native American percussion, Robert weaves an elegant, slightly jazz-flavored guitar over, under, and through the tune leaving you spellbound. Peter’s didgeridoo comes to the fore a little more forcefully on the rather loopy, jazzy hip-hop of “Reckon Eyes.” Other high points of the first disc are “Nude Ellie,” the somehow transcendent “African Clay,” and the doom-heavy “Even In Sleep.” Peter Hickey guests on keyboards on “Nude Ellie” and “African Clay,” the latter of which also features a vocal performance by Maximillian Catucci; Grace Loew adds cello to the tune “Grace Beach.” I know that somebody somewhere is going to call the music of CINEMATIK “New Age.” If they do (or even if it looks like they’re thinking it), smack ’em! They deserve it (plus… they won’t hit ya back cuz they’re all peaceful and at one with self and universe… or some mumbo-jumbo crap like that)!

ONE FULL MOON AWAY pretty much picks up right where CINEMATIK left off, but tends to rock a bit more (maybe due to an unsolicited “New Age” tag-line haunting the guys from the first album). “Incognito” borders on rock and roll more than just about anything else on either release, with a “JAMES BOND” kinda vibe and the trio expanding their sound to include – among other things – a sax (provided by Klyph Johnson). Robert adds a little bit of Frippertronics-style guitar sound washes through-out the disc, all to good effect. This album also features more vocal tracks and more harmony and backing vocals than the first. Plus – inadvertent or homage – there are tracks that virtually scream “Alice Cooper!” The hypnotic “Million To One” is very reminiscent of “Halo of Flies.” In a slightly less chaotic fashion, of course. With Robert and Peter splitting lead vocal duties, I’m never quite sure who’s singing what, but I must say that one of the guys has definitely picked up a stylish Joe Walsh kind of phrasing, put to good use on “Unfrozen,” among others. The Native American percussion is back on a track called “Amorak,” but the over-all sound of the track is very spooky… a kind of swirling eddy of darkness. “Euriffodes” (sound it out and you’ll get the little inside joke) is an excuse for Neal to play a standard (if smaller than usual) drum-kit and for Robert to… ROCK OUT! The track is, possibly, the guys showing everybody that Steve Howe and Yes aren’t the only people who can pull off a song like this. Other high spots include the trippy “Murder In the Moon” and the percussion heavy Middle-Eastern fusion of the final track, “Simplas Childernz.” Peter adds the violin, clay flute, and berimbau to his instrumental onslaught, while guest players help to flesh out the sound: Grace Loew returns on cello, Rob Fraboni adds shaker to the goofy “Wolfman’s Holiday,” and Klyph Johnson is all over the place with his already noted sax work, as well as the occasional bassoon.

NEAL SMITH (photo credit: JIM SIATRAS)

Listening to the albums back-to-back, I’d have to give the nod to CINEMATIK on atmosphere alone, though the more up-tempo ONE FULL MOON AWAY definitely is worth obtaining, as well. It has been a while since these albums were released (they are copyrighted 2001 and 2002), and the three members have all gone on to other projects (most notably, Neal’s return to the rock arena with Joe Bouchard and Dennis Dunaway and Peter’s work on the Garrison Project album). However, the music that these three men make together is truly amazing. I, for one, am hoping for a third release from Cinematik.


3.2: THE RULES HAVE CHANGED

(FRONTIER RECORDS; 2018)

In 1988, Geffen Records released an album of pop music with haughty (some would say pretentious) rock overtones by a band called 3. That band featured two-thirds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (the sixty-six percent that wasn’t Greg Lake) and multi-instrumentalist journeyman, Robert Berry. The partnership was an attempt to play the more melodic style of progressive rock which had given Palmer and Berry (with Asia and GTR, respectively) some successes in the previous few years. Maybe the impetus grew from Keith Emerson’s desire for a wider audience than he ever experienced in the Nice or ELP; a growing need to be accepted. Whatever brought the three together, the resulting record, … To THE POWER OF THREE, was well received. With the band doing well on the road, Keith began to feel stifled by the record company’s insistence that they strike while the iron was hot, virtually demanding that they return to the studio to begin work on album number two; Keith’s answer was simple: He quit. Fast forward to 2015. Robert found himself in conversations with Italy’s Frontier Records regarding a new project from 3; After consulting with Emerson (but, apparently, not Carl Palmer) regarding the possibility of resurrecting the band, the two began writing and demoing new material, scheduled studio time, signed contracts with Frontier and… as quickly as it began, it was over: Keith Emerson had committed suicide. Reeling from the loss, Berry set aside the project; after a time of grieving and reflecting, Robert decided to once again resurrect the project – utilizing songs and snippets of ideas that he and Emerson had shared – as a final farewell to his friend and band-mate. Working as a one man band, he began work on what would become THE RULES HAVE CHANGED under the name 3.2. Does it work? For the most part, I think so. The record is split fifty-fifty with new Berry compositions and pieces that he and Keith had been working on before the latter’s death. Still, Emerson’s larger-than-life character and overwhelming musical sensibility are felt throughout what Robert has accomplished here.

3.2 (Robert Berry) (publicity photo)

“One By One” starts with a magnificent, cinematic piano piece before a grandiose, symphonic blast of power propels the song into the first verse, where Mister Berry’s pop leanings are on display front-and-center. Here, the number takes on the feel and scope of an Asia-like progressive ballad; the instrumental passages convey a blend of piano-driven Jazz and Classical phrasing, which informed much of Emerson’s career. Time changes and sudden shifts in style over the tune’s seven-plus minutes, while off-putting at first blush eventually come into focus as the ultimate tribute and a heartfelt homage to Keith Emerson. On “Powerful Man,” the original intent of the group is brought into sharper focus, with what could be considered a more radio friendly sound within a simpler – by comparison – more compact and focused five minute rock song, led by Robert’s Emerson-inspired keyboard work. This certainly would not sound out of place nestled between the poppier works of GTR, Asia or even Trevor Rabin-era Yes. With the title track, the pomposity almost crushes the feel of what the artist was trying to convey, lyrically. The song is a double-edged sword, as the words could be taken as a betrayal by a lover or, more deeply, it may also be construed as an open letter in which Robert attempts to heal the wounds torn open by Emerson’s suicide. Perhaps “The Rules Have Changed” would have been better with a more stripped-down approach but, then, Keith Emerson was never known for his subtlety. Referencing many of Emerson’s most well-known riffs, “Our Bond” is, finally, Robert Berry’s soul stripped bare over the loss of a dear friend. Likewise, the music is stripped of any pretensions of grandiosity. This, the third of four numbers written solely by Berry, brought a shiver to my spine, particularly the perfect, lone piano that closes out the piece. It is, by far, my favorite track thus far.

“What You’re Dreaming Now” has the unmistakable mark of Keith Emerson and the glory days of ELP (as well as a bit of ELPowell ‘80s bombast) all over it; Berry’s vocal phrasing even shares a certain quality, if not timbre, with Greg Lake while his drumming exhibits the power of Cozy Powell along with the finesse of Carl Palmer. It may not be the strongest composition on the album, but for sheer progressive physicality, it’s hard to beat. The playful, almost joyful sound of WORKS-era Emerson, Lake and Palmer (I’m thinking something like “Tiger In a Spotlight” from …VOLUME TWO) are in full effect on “Somebody’s Watching,” with a pumping bass and a guitar set to “power chord stun.” The keyboards sound as if they could have been recorded by Emerson at any time over his illustrious career; as Keith has a co-writing and co-arrangement credit on the tune, one does wonder if Robert used a snippet of a demo that Keith had provided and built the track around that unfinished framework. “This Letter” starts off as beautiful ballad, with a nice acoustic guitar lead and hints and echoes of piano playing around and beneath a ragged vocal; an synth-derived orchestra plays in as the pace begins to quicken at about the halfway mark. All well and good but, the piece begins to morph into a sort of gypsy parody of itself shortly after the introduction of a ragtime piano and we are soon witness to the number devolving into something so far afield from where it began that the joy – for me, anyway – is sucked right out of it. It’s as if Berry has taken two very different songs and jammed them together in an attempt to… what? The first half borders on exceptional while the second half borders on theatrical overkill. Things are definitely back on track with the final track, “Your Mark On The World,” with power chords aplenty and the return of the Emerson penchant for verbose noodling on every keyboard he could get his hands on. As much as I dislike the second half of “This Letter” for that same verboseness, it works in the context of this more upbeat number. Oddly enough, the thing seemed to end way before it was actually over – at 5:20, Robert just… stops! It really felt like it could have and should have gone on for another two minutes, at least. Oh, well… such are the vagaries of Rock and Roll and, if it took me almost an entire record to find something to complain about, I’d say that Robert Berry has done Keith Emerson proud. Well done, Mister Berry!

3.2 (Robert Berry, Keith Emerson) (uncredited photo)


NEIL YOUNG/JOHN HAMMOND

(June 28, 2018; FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

A chance to see Neil Young solo is rare indeed, and Saint Louis fans have not had that opportunity for many years. As a lifelong fan, there was no way I would pass up such an opportunity. I’ve seen Neil with Crazy Horse, with CSNY, with the International Harvesters, with the Stray Gators and more, but the solo acoustic concerts have certainly been among the most memorable. When I flew to San Francisco in 1978 to see Neil at the tiny Boarding House nightclub, that may well have been the most stunning concert I’ve ever seen. So, to say I was stoked for this rare Saint Louis solo show would be an understatement. John Hammond, a grizzled old blues rocker, opened the show despite not being billed. Favoring a bottleneck guitar and looking as craggy as an old oak tree, Hammond was amiable and interesting, but there was some restlessness getting through his set. And it was at least 45 minutes after he finished before Neil finally came out. Dressed all in black, a la Johnny Cash, Neil looked around, waved to the crowd, and finally took his seat. He opened with the nostalgic and totally appropriate Buffalo Springfield-era classic “On the Way Home.” This song speaks volumes to die-hard Rusties, and Neil delivered it with focus and clarity. In fact, it was quickly apparent he was in great voice tonight. At his age, it’s a wonder he can still reach most of those high notes. “Homefires” was next, the first of many surprises. That song was intended for the unreleased HARVEST follow-up, HOMEGROWN, and I couldn’t help but think it was kind of a comment on Neil’s changed love life in the last two years. “I’m free to give my love/But you’re not the one I’m thinking of/So for me, the wheels keep turning/Got to keep those homefires burning.” His ex-wife Pegi might have been the one Young was NOT thinking of. He is certainly thinking about new gal Darryl Hannah, and plenty.

NEIL YOUNG (photo credit: THRASHER)

“Love is a Rose” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ came next, and the latter was a special treat for me. I could not remember hearing that one at a Neil show before, and it was charming. Neil told little anecdotes about many things during the show. He pointed to several guitars and with a couple of them said, “I got that one from Steve Stills. He’s a great guy.” In fact, it soon became apparent that Neil was in an especially chatty mood. This is not typical for him at all. “I feel like I’m talking too much up here,” he remarked at one point. “Like I’m doin’ a job interview or something.” “You’re HIRED!” someone bellowed from the audience, and it was a memorable moment. Young fiddled with his harmonicas, telling his assistant he needed a “C harp.” But when he started the song, he quickly stopped and said, “No, I need a B flat harp!” That song was “Mellow My Mind,” one of three he performed from TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT. He told the story of how he and his band had all drunk alot of tequila and gotten into a certain mood, so they could pay tribute to Bruce Berry and others who had died around that time. Neil played great, ringing piano on that song and “Speakin’ Out,” another tune I had never heard him do. The audience went nuts when he talked about a time in his career when he changed the type of songs he was writing, and how the Kent State massacre drove him to write about a new ill wind blowing in. He then performed “Ohio” on solo electric guitar, a truly compelling and unexpected moment, one the sold-out throng reveled in. His only hint about the times we’re living in came when he talked about school shootings and all the “anger” out there, leading to the fiery song “Angry World.” Some of us thought he might bring up our current president, but that did not happen. It was clear that Neil was NOT speaking from a script; spontaneity was the rule of the night.

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

For me, after Neil talked about where two of his pianos came from (one had fire damage and he was still able to play it), I was thrilled to hear “There’s a World,” possibly one of his most underrated songs. It’s a dreamlike ode to looking both inward and outward, and Neil played it with great delicacy. That was one of about five songs he played from his most popular album, HARVEST. “Are You Ready For the Country,” a note perfect “Out On the Weekend” and “Heart of Gold” were others. “Love In Mind,” a tender ode from the “ditch-trilogy” live album TIME FADES AWAY, also got an airing… wonderfully evocative. But for hardcore Neil-ites and “Rusties,” the one-two punch of “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” from the not often heralded LENOISE album, were the emotional peak of the show. Both these songs touch on violence, things being out of control, and environmental apocalypse, with love being seen as the one necessity for all of us, the ultimate way to peace. The guitar Neil played on that latter song allows for a certain rich, atmospheric resonance in the simple strumming of a powerful chord. The edgy sound, which potently rang through the entire theatre, accented Neil’s existential lyrics perfectly. “A polar bear was drifting on an ice floe/Sun beating down from the sky/Politicians gathered for a summit/And came away with nothing to decide… Who’ll be the one to lead this world/Who’ll be the beacon in the night?” Most in the audience sat in hushed awe.

Unfortunately, that did NOT include a chowderheaded idiot across the aisle from me, who simply could not shut up. He drew a few complaints with that, but when he stood directly in front of the people behind him and blocked their view, that’s when it got serious. The addle-brained druggie (I was sure he had to be; no one could be that rude just naturally, could they?) earned two visits from ushers, but even that didn’t do it. When he continued to jabber, the guy behind him had enough and probably called him a name. The two men stood up, and I was about to witness a fight, I thought. Right here during Neil’s apt song “Love and War”! The good guy’s girlfriend intervened to stop the violence, instead opting to go for security. They did, and the troublemaker was unceremoniously removed by Security. Maybe it’s just me, but if I paid $100 for a Neil Young ticket (or even more), I would not get so fucked up that I would lose all sense of decorum and risk getting escorted out of the show prematurely. Takes all kinds, I guess.

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

Neil appeared to not be phased by shouted requests or various fan comments. “What d’ya mean?” he said wryly, when someone shouted “Old Man!” And he remarked “It doesn’t even register” after another comment. It was striking to see this iconic, charismatic legend stalking the stage, walking this way and that way, looking as if he was making it up on the fly. “I would do something if I could remember what I was just thinking,” I believe he said near the end. The show barely grazed the 90-minute mark. He closed with “Needle and the Damage Done” and “Heart of Gold,” and was coaxed out for a single encore, “Tumbleweed,” which he played on ukelele. The tender song was clearly directed at Darryl Hannah, a sweet ode to her positive influence on him (it appears on the soundtrack to their new movie, PARADOX). Always leave ’em wanting more, it is said. Mister Young did just that; the fans were yelling until the lights went on. Altogether an eccentric, often dramatic and mostly moving performance by a performer who is seldom less than mesmerizing. I counted in my head, and with all the configurations I’ve seen him in, I think this was Neil show number 25 for me. Many moments from this one will stay with me. That’s how it tends to be with Neil Young shows.


ADRIAN AARDVARK: DYING OPTIMISTICALLY

(EPIFO MUSIC; 2018)

Upon first seeing the name, Adrian Aardvark seemed to me a devouring angel, an agent of the bleakest of Black Metals. Nah… just kidding. In fact, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album but, I gotta say, it isn’t at all like anything else I’ve heard before… not even close! I mean, it looks and smells like a rock and roll record, spliced with a fair amount of Americana and not a little bit of angst. Even so, my initial thoughts were leaning toward “Ah! Someone’s rich father has bought studio time for his son and his friends to record an album. Kinda like the Shags, woefully untalented but determined to become a band.” After a couple of songs, however, I began to warm up to, even appreciate, what this motley crew were attempting to convey. Oddly enough, while researching the band for this piece, I was amazed to discover that DYING OPTIMISTICALLY is the group’s seventh release since 2008 (and the first since BONES POSITIVE, an EP released in 2014)! I cannot honestly conceive of how I could have missed anything for the last ten years called Adrian Aardvark, though I am now old enough that such things do escape me upon occasion. Anyway, on to the review…

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee) (photo credit: JERRY CADIEUX)

The first thing that you notice on “Just Us” is alluded to in rather veiled terms up above: Everything (wait… make that EVERYTHING) seems woefully out of tune, with the singer, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, sounding alarmingly like a drunken karaoke enthusiast. Somewhere around the two minute mark, things almost come together, as a fuzzy bass (or, is it a cello?), insistent drumming and the scraping of a violin keep the thing from totally going over the cliff. Bonus points for – unlike the short prelude/introduction/tune-up that starts the song off – everything ending together. “If Only” definitely sounds like a drunken lament to a litany of “what if’s” in a relationship gone very wrong. Stott-Rigsbee lists his transgressions before admitting, “Yes, I am ashamed of my insecurities/Yes, I am ashamed of my stupid feelings.” Here, the music kinda sounds more in tune and of one mind, occupying a certain feedback/drone frequency that is not unappealing. In fact, the discordant buzz of the whole mess is really starting to grow on me. The cello takes a more prominent spot on “Peace In a Loving Way,” with Shannon Stott-Rigsbee droning away masterfully. The lyrics seem as though they are wedged into a melody that is simply too small to adequately contain them; try, for instance, to fit the first verse into any standard rock format without breaking your tongue: “Through updates, versions and brand new postages/The letters inside remain the same as they travel to/You through signals unseen, speaking words/Floating like waves whisper your way.” It ain’t easy. Even so, at less than two-and-a-half minutes, it feels like you’re in and out almost before you realize that the sound – and, in fact, the entire record – is actually becoming, not only palatable but, begrudgingly enjoyable, as well. The bizarrely-titled “Young Pharaohs and Horses” comes with an equally bizarre video… as it should! Drummer Daz Bard adds a bit of trombone to the proceedings, with Shannon chiming in with a scratchy (whinnying?) violin part; the weird, out-of-place gang vocals, like just about everything else on this album, are no doubt added to merely muddle the lyrical issue. Four songs in and Christopher is starting to come across as more of a true musical genius, as opposed to the offspring of a wealthy Daddy Warbucks type bankrolling his kid’s musical aspirations. “I Don’t Wanna Love No More” is a step back for me. It isn’t necessarily that the sentiments aren’t spot-on in a society of individuals struggling to find their place but, the acapella (aside from three drum rolls somewhere in the middle) delivery – impassioned as it is – just doesn’t do it for me. “Little Girl,” however, is a completely different beast. Despite some rather questionable lyrics: “I am a little girl in a big big world/My dress so clean and my hair is curled” and “Don’t you want to ride with me/Don’t you want to sleep with me” (allusions to Christopher Stott-Rigsbee’s… uh… fluid sexual identity, I know, but… still… ), this is the most fully realized, hardest rocking and most in-tune song so far. A throbbing bass line (Catherine Harrison-Wurster… on the upright, no less) and a frantic vocal performance from Christopher highlight the number.

Creaky Wooden Floor” opens the second half – continuing the strong showing from “Little Girl” – with more weird metaphorical (metaphysical?) lyrics about beets and elephants. The song is pretty nifty, in a New Country kind of way and is delivered, like the previous four tracks, in a short, punk rock fashion. On “Get Gotten,” a chunky guitar riff rides along for a spell before being joined by a very nice violin part; the unmelodic, unnerving howls of Stott-Rigsbee deliver quite an impressive effect. Somewhere about two minutes in, the whole thing shifts gears amidst a beautifully shambolic break before completely collapsing in upon itself at the end. I may have just crowned a new favorite track! There is an insistent hint of didgeridoo (a masterfully understated performance by Christopher) throughout “Horny Wildebeast,” which seems perfectly natural given the song’s title. After a rather rambunctious start, the final four minutes or so seem to settle into a nice mid-tempo with – dare I say? – quietly elegant violin and cello dancing over the top. “Oo Ra Ra” and “The Sun” form a sort of intermingled couplet, with melody, choruses and chanting kinda running through the two-as-one pieces (or, piece, as the case may be). The former is a surprisingly melodic bit of falderol with lyrics somehow befitting the proceedings, such as “Put down the knife, we don’t have to fight/We can make love till morning’s light.” The number eventually devolves into the type of musical chants that the “natives” in all of those old Johnny Weissmuller movies are so fond of. “The Sun” blasts forth from that, a forceful, blistering piece of noise of the type I find so appealing. The lyrics here tend to lean toward a rather cogent warning from everybody’s favorite ball of light: “Feel my heat/Feel the cancer/You can’t be given life/Without being given death.” Oh, Sun, you’re such a kidder! A cool, unexpected blast of the Blues, filtered through various other styles of what has generally become known as “Americana” may, at a mere five-and-a-quarter minutes, prove “Misery Shaker” to be Adrian Aardvark’s magnum opus. Time changes and style shifts glide together seamlessly, held together by the superior percussive efforts of Daz Bird.

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee) (uncredited photo)

As mentioned at the outset, I was totally unprepared for the musical onslaught of Adrian Aardvark and was, initially, taken aback by the complete atonality of the first track but… I must say that I have been richly rewarded by sticking with the program, seeing it through to its brilliant climax. Heck, I may just have to revisit the group’s Bandcamp page and listen to their other releases… after I’ve rested up a bit from this DYING OPTIMISTICALLY experience.