THE YARDBIRDS: ROGER THE ENGINEER

(REPERTOIRE RECORDS/COLUMBIA RECORDS; reissue 2016, original release 1966)

Album cover

Throughout the early 1960s, popular music was a “singles” medium. Sure, full-length albums were part of the mix but, by and large, these collections consisted of up to one half recent single releases and massive doses of filler and cover tunes. However, by the spring and summer of 1966, album rock music was going full force, with classic records being released by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Jefferson Airplane, among others. One of the “others” was the first official studio album by a band called the Yardbirds, who had generated a string of hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic beginning in 1964. The album, released as YARDBIRDS in the United Kingdom and most of the world, was renamed OVER UNDER SIDEWAYS DOWN for North American release (as well as in France, Germany and Italy); the Australian mono release was dubbed ROGER THE ENGINEER.

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarty, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarty, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)

The record featured the vocal prowess of Keith Relf, Chris Dreja’s rhythm guitar, Paul Samwell-Smith on bass, Jim McCarty on drums and… oh, yeah… some guy by the name of Jeff Beck playing lead guitar. Jim McCarty’s original liner notes opines, “It has often been said that Jeff Beck is one of the leading guitarists in the country, and I am inclined to agree with him.” This is a terrific, classic 1960s rock album, with plenty of something for everyone: Fuzz guitar, Middle Eastern influences and straight-on boogie rock in the form of “Beck’s Boogie,” performed by a true master. It’s also one of the first albums to highlight a new sound, a sound that would become known as psychedelic rock.

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty) (uncredited photo)

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty) (uncredited photo)

This 2016 two disc remaster features both monaural and stereo mixes of the album and is chock full of bonus tracks. The mono disc (which was still the most common configuration for mass consumption fifty years ago) contains the more interesting bonus material, including the two singles (and accompanying B-sides) from Relf’s short-lived solo career. Also on board – and of more interest – are a pair of songs recorded after the departure of bassist Samwell-Smith: “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Psycho Daisies,” released in the UK as a single. The B-side, “Psycho Daisies,” features the final line-up before the implosion that ultimately led to the formation of a legendary monster of rock; the track has a rare lead vocal from Beck, as well as a lad named Jimmy Page playing bass. “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” is a guitar-lover’s wet dream, with Jeff and Jimmy sharing lead duties. Also playing on the session was a young bassist by the name of John Paul Jones. When Page inherited the Yardbirds name, he enlisted Jones as a member of what would become the New Yardbirds before morphing into another band you might have heard of… Led Zeppelin.

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf) (publicity photo)

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf) (publicity photo)

The Yardbirds may, of course, be best known for having Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton playing with them at one time or another during their brief run; they didn’t achieve the same elevated status as some of their counterparts, but they did have their share of great music and have proven to be quite influential over the last half-century. The band’s first proper album, affectionately called ROGER THE ENGINEER (after Chris Dreja’s cover art, depicting the man who engineered the sessions), is a great place to start delving into the genesis of not only psychedelic rock, but two of the most iconic guitar players ever, as well as the group the Who’s John Entwistle said would “go over like a lead balloon”; it is, truly, one of the great rock albums of any generation.


EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS

(UNIVERSAL MUSIC ENTERPRISES/STUDIOCANAL/APPLE CORPS/IMAGINE ENTERTAINEMNT/WHITE HORSE PICTURE (137 minutes; Unrated); 2016)
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Back in September, I was just back from the theater, having seen EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS. My immediate thoughts were that the film was truly an amazing ride and that director Ron Howard did a fabulous job with all of the archival film footage; cleaned and restored for the big screen, I was definitely taken back to the height of Beatlemania. After the end credits rolled, the audience was treated to a near-thirty minute segment of the Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium concert (almost the entire show), which was awesome… with a crisp new “remaster,” it was like being in the front row with that screaming, rabid New York crowd. Unfortunately, that piece of history didn’t make it to the DVD/Blu-Ray releases, as it was used as an “incentive” to get butts in theater seats. Oh, well… maybe someday! The film (and the bonus feature) made me realize, again, how much I miss both John and George; it really was a wonderful night of Rock ‘n’ Roll with, as Ringo said, “The biggest band in the land.”

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, RIngo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, circa 1964) (uncredited photo)

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, RIngo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, circa 1964) (uncredited photo)

So, by this time, who doesn’t know the story of the Beatles’ humble beginnings? Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last six decades, here’s the Cliff Notes version: Paul McCartney meets John Lennon, joins his band, bringing George Harrison along for the ride; then, here comes Ringo Starr, John and Paul start writing songs together, Brian Epstein becomes their manager, the lads meet George Martin, who works with them, molding their sound in the studio… yeah, yeah, yeah! As a lifelong fan of the Fab Four, I still came away amazed by this fabulous new documentary. Seeing and feeling just how wonderful the Beatles and their music were and continue to be today makes me realize just how much they still mean to me, forty years after they went their separate ways. The narrative of EIGHT DAYS A WEEK is presented through, not only vintage interviews of the Liverpudlians, but recent remembrances from Paul and Ringo, plus various other musicians, composers and celebrities. However, the real “star” is the concert footage and the mania surrounding the mop tops. It’s great reliving how the Beatles literally took control of popular culture in the 1960s; one of the things that I enjoyed seeing was how hard Ringo was playing back in the very early live days, displaying an almost punkish verve at times.

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, RIngo Starr, Washington DC 1964) (photo courtesy: APPLE CORPS)

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, RIngo Starr, Washington DC 1964) (photo courtesy: APPLE CORPS)

Personal fan-boy histrionics aside, what sets THIS Beatles documentary above others – first and foremost – is the unbelievable quality of the film itself: Not only the concert footage, but the manic press conferences and even the boys simply caught relaxing, is so clear and crisp that it really just staggers you. It was worth it to hear new concert footage with clean, crisp sound, highlighting how truly hard they rocked… especially Lennon tearing up now-classics like “Twist and Shout” and “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy.” Celebrated fans as disparate as Whoopi Goldberg, Elvis Costello and Sigourney Weaver relate just how hard they fell for the Beatles… Yes, everything from THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW to the Hollywood Bowl performance to their huge world tours and all of the madness that followed, but also because they were funny and talented, met the right people at the right time (manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin would become the two most important people in their professional lives) and had a ton of belief in themselves and in their art. The Fab Four were always ready and more than willing to push the envelope. After seeing this movie, it’s very easy to see how and why these celebrities and, indeed, the world fell in love with them and why that love is still going strong over fifty years later.

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (a 14 year old Sigourney Weaver at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964) (uncredited photo)

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (a 14 year old Sigourney Weaver at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964) (uncredited photo)

To be sure, the Beatles released an astonishing number of great, hit songs and huge, groundbreaking albums between 1962-1970… a mere eight years. It’s still hard to believe! EIGHT DAYS A WEEK tells their story quite well and, seeing it initially in the theater, on the big screen, was a huge benefit (in particular, the restored Shea Stadium footage, with all the madness and screaming, was stunning). The film is nothing short of phenomenal; Howard and his crew did a superb job of presenting another – often overlooked – part of the Beatles’ huge world wide success, aside from the string of hits and the intense madness that surrounded them everywhere they went. Quite frankly, watching them deal with the insanity going on around them all the time, it amazes me how they remained so grounded. That Shea Stadium show in August, 1965 before 56,000 people was a game changer, setting up a future for arena and stadium rock shows; that performance took Rock and Roll music to heights never before (and seldom after) imagined.

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr at Shea Stadium, 1965) (uncredited photo)

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr at Shea Stadium, 1965) (uncredited photo)

Historically, one of the real turning points for the band was when they rejected George Martin’s idea of wanting them to only do other people’s songs; they wanted to write their own music and, so… away they went. The Lennon/McCartney hit-making machine was rolling and wouldn’t stop until outside business affairs jammed the gears. Still, by the time they decided to quit touring in 1966 to focus their creative output into studio work, they were just starting to hit their peak, releasing a string of masterpieces starting with RUBBER SOUL and REVOLVER. Recent interviews with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and archival clips of George Harrison and John Lennon, commenting on and explaining things along the way, really adds to the story and to the enjoyment of this documentary. The film flows very well.

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Ringo Starr, Ron Howard, Paul McCartney) (photo courtesy: STUDIOCANAL)

EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Ringo Starr, Ron Howard, Paul McCartney) (photo courtesy: STUDIOCANAL)

I have been a Beatles fan since their first appearance on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, solidified by seeing A HARD DAY’S NIGHT in the theater and they are still as wonderful, their music still honest and positive and still touching new generations of listeners and fans… over fifty years later. As Sigourney Weaver said in the movie, “It was this sense of world music. We were all loving them, all over the world.” The joy of the Beatles’ music is, we can all have our favorite song and our favorite album; from 1962 to 1970, they made music for the ages and, indeed, this film is a must see for fans of all ages. A big “Thank you!” to Ron Howard for bringing us a new look at a very well-known story. He did a fantastic job with this movie, with a little help from some friends… John, Paul, George and Ringo.


PAUL MCCARTNEY

(August 13, 2016; BUSCH STADIUM, Saint Louis MO)

Paul McCartney (The Busch Stadium crowd enjoys the show) (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (The Busch Stadium crowd enjoys the show) (photo credit: JEFF KING)

It’s really worth a moment of reflection here: What’s it like to be Paul McCartney? None of us can really know. McCartney is almost unarguably the most successful and influential singer/songwriter/musician in the history of popular music. He’s reached a place no one else has gotten to, a rarified zone of rock royalty where interest and reverence for him is ongoing, on a global scale. Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen may be able to sell out stadiums at times, and the Rolling Stones can say they’ve been around as long still doing their classic rockin’ thing. But NO ONE has had the impact through multi generations, the acknowledged cultural influence, the extensive body of work and the ability to sell out shows around the world, like Sir Paul McCartney. On the pop culture landscape, it’s like there is Mount McCartney, soaring high towards the clouds to a peak you can’t even make out or even comprehend, and then way below, there are some other peaks that are also impressive but not as gigantic. Mount Dylan. The Jagger-Richards Range. Who International Park. Et cetera.

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

You get the idea. So beloved are the Beatles, and so deep and enduring is the nostalgia for all that they represented, all the good memories they provided for millions, that people around the world want to experience any taste of that magic again, and to believe that Beatlemania is not just a thing of the past. Sir Paul McCartney bears that burden (not discounting Ringo here, but he doesn’t tour as much and he simply wasn’t one of the prime architects of that Beatles songwriting thing that changed the world) on his 74-year-old shoulders, and he does so with class, good cheer and almost unbelievable energy. Mount McCartney indeed! And we fans are lucky enough to still climb those musical heights each time Paulie decides to perform. He’s doing it often these days, and it is never less than a spectacle. He might be technically a senior citizen, but man oh man, Mister McCartney still shows he’s got it, and that he loves doing it. Song after song after song.

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

At Busch Stadium, August 13… nearly 50 years since the Beatles played here at the stadium’s previous location (the year that REVOLVER, one of their very best albums came out!), McCartney treated a wildly enthusiastic crowd to a generous platter of classic songs and some obscurities, from throughout his career. He opened with “A Hard Day’s Night,” a timeless classic that he’d not done before live. Another from that beloved movie, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” soon followed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only long-time fan to experience a chill or two just from those two rockers. Dressed smartly in a purple jacket and dark jeans, McCartney sounded and looked younger than his age, and wasted no time chatting up the audience. Miraculously, considering that the acoustics for a sold-out stadium show are by no means always optimal, you could hear just about every word he uttered. And you WANTED to “listen to what the man said” because, hey, how often do you get to share time with him? At one point, McCartney took time to acknowledge all the many signs people were holding up in the stadium. There were the usual lovey-dovey kinda things, but a young girl held up a sign that said (I had high-powered binoculars to try to catch all this), I think, “Loved you as a bug, loved you as a wing and love you still today.” I saw her laugh delightedly when McCartney mentioned that sign. In fact, the ample projection screen repeatedly showed people laughing, dancing, and singing along to favorite tunes. It was a celebration, after all, McCartney being “one on one” (as it was billed) with thousands and thousands of delighted fans. And the set list was by no means predictable. Sure, you’d be reasonably safe to expect stuff like “Back In the USSR,” “Let It Be,” the inevitable “Hey Jude,” “Maybe I’m Amazed” (and yeah, he DID mostly hit those high notes despite a few subtle strains evident in his vocals here and there) and the great “Band on the Run,” one of his finest solo songs. But genuine surprises (unless you were an internet set list junkie) included “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “We Can Work It Out” (a personal favorite), a warm and tender “Here, There and Everywhere,” “And I Love Her” (gorgeous) and “Fool on the Hill.” At one point, McCartney gave a nice mini-talk on where songs come from, something he’s obviously been asked a zillion times. He explained that sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes a lyric idea, and sometimes an insistent chord progression that has “potential.” He began playing one such evocative progression on guitar a few times until it evolved, marvelously, into “You Won’t See Me,” another delightful surprise. And what else can be said about brilliant songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Blackbird,” two of the many, many touchstones in Macca’s career, never losing their beauty or impact?

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Of course, there were not just Beatle songs on the list. Solo numbers as diverse as “Let Me Roll It,” “Temporary Secretary” (I personally enjoyed this one though others apparently were not in my company), “1985,” a searing “Hi, Hi, Hi” (an early Wings classic) and a clutch of tunes from McCartney’s last disc NEW (“Save Us” and “Queenie Eye” among them) sounded just fine, although it was amusing to see McCartney gesture or feign mock disappointment when the reaction to less famous songs was not as thunderous as that for Beatle classics. McCartney knows full well that fans want to hear the tunes they grew up on, and he is incredibly generous (he has been for many years) in bulking up beloved tunes on set lists these days. Two potently touching and dramatic moments occurred in the middle of the show. “Here Today,” the song McCartney wrote as “a conversation I never got to have” with John Lennon, is a tune he almost always plays in concert, but it had an intense emotional resonance to it in this performance… delicate, tender, unbearably sad… and the legend almost looked like he was tearing up anew as he sang. The audience was spellbound. Another genuine surprise was “In Spite of All the Danger,” a song the boys conceived in their Quarrymen days, and which McCartney explained they cut in a primitive studio as a demo. This event is depicted at the end of the movie NOWHERE BOY, which I’d been lucky enough to see, so it had a major impact on me, and McCartney seemed delighted to tell the story. For a song that few at the stadium could have known, it was staggering that McCartney was able to get the crowd to sing the repeated “Whoa oh oh oh” chorus with almost perfect timing. Maybe I’m amazed by this, indeed! Also a sweet and tender “My Valentine,” which he dedicated to his wife Nancy, was subtly compelling in its intimacy, and featured visual aids by Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp on the adjoining screens, something that struck me as surreal but beautiful. But it was old Beatles classics that got the crowd really jazzed: “Lady Madonna,” “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” the George Harrison tribute “Something” (which McCartney began on ukulele as expected, but this time it quickly evolved into a full Beatle-y band arrangement, unlike the last time I saw him perform it), and a stirring “Love Me Do,” complete with the precise harmonica part that Lennon played all those years ago. No one can ever say that Paul McCartney is not a good team player, by the way… the band he’s with now, which consists of some of the most crackerjack players around (keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, bassist and guitarist Brian Ray, guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel, Junior), has been with him for 14 years plus, longer than the Beatles were together! And any encore that includes the perfection that is “Yesterday,” the White Album novelty “Birthday” and the gripping “Golden Slumbers” section of the dazzling ABBEY ROAD medley, well, it lets you know in no uncertain terms that you are one lucky fan to be at this concert. You’re getting rock history live, right here, right now.

Paul McCartney with Abe Laboriel, Junior (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney with Abe Laboriel, Junior (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney’s importance is not just his place in the musical scheme of things, it’s the fact that he is a living testament to the ongoing power of songwriting, performing and communicating with fans. He’s had to endure continual comparisons to his former partner Lennon, judgments about his work since the Beatles, and the always fascinating reappraisals of his recordings that new writers always feel motivated to offer. For example, the once-maligned RAM album is now considered a charming low-key classic by most, and Wings, who nearly always got short-changed in the 70s by snobby comparisons to the Beatles, now have their own special fan base, and McCartney knows that. More than anything, what McCartney knows is that music can transform, inspire, document, delight and be really, really personal for different people, different generations, over a long, long time. You just don’t get to go on the kind of journey Paul McCartney has been on, very often. Because of the volatility of the times he flourished in, and the unimaginable success, McCartney gets to see the impact of his life’s work over and over, and to keep writing, recording, and rocking. And somehow he still manages to do it with that same boyish glint in his eye that he had back on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. That is one staggering triumph of an artist and a human being, across six decades, and still going. How can you not regard Mount McCartney with absolute awe? And he’s still here today, his legend secured for all time.


JOHN LODGE: 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO

(Esoteric Antenna; 2015)

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I’m rather late coming to this one, which is odd because I am a big Moody Blues fan. I think the Moodys are one of the most underrated (at least by official organizations) bands of all time, and in particular, I think Justin Hayward is an incredible singer/songwriter that deserves some kind of special creative inspiration award for the way he transformed the Moodys from an average ’60s pop band to an incredibly evocative, haunting poetic soft prog band. In fact, there is a new film out about the significance of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST in the annals of rock music. Okay, there were others involved in that process, but… it was mostly Justin. However, this review is supposed to be about John Lodge. His second solo disc is titled 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO, and it begs the question, as solo outings always do, what interesting things did John have to share with us that could not fit into the confines of the Moodys’ work? Well, maybe that’s not fair – a parent band generally has a signature sound that everyone contributes to; solo albums allow the “lesser” members to do something where they are in control. John Lodge is a vital part of the Moody Blues, and his collaborations with Justin Hayward have made for some of the best music of all time, up to and including their peerless 1975 BLUE JAYS outing. But vocally, he certainly takes a back seat to Justin’s emotive singing. That said, if you cue up the tune “Simply Magic,” you’ll not only get an acoustic charmer of a tune, you’ll get three Moody Blues – as Ray Thomas and Mike Pinder, both of whom left the band after their heyday, make guest appearances. It’s a breezy little tune. I didn’t respond much to “In My Mind” and “Get Me Out of Here,” both of which struck me as rather bland. Somewhat better is the violin and accordion-laden “Love Passed Me By,” a snappy little supper club tune that sounds like John Lodge making music far apart from his homies. He seems really engaged in this track. One thing, though… after years of making poetic, innovative music with his bros Justin Hayward and Graeme Edge, couldn’t Lodge come up with better lyrics than “Love passed me by/When you said goodbye/For another guy/Gone was the chance/Of our romance/When you said goodbye/Now as I lay in my cold and lonely room/It’s the day love passed me by.” C’mon, John, you were involved in tunes like “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Ride My Seesaw,” and “Question”… you’re gonna tell me that sophisticated comps like that didn’t raise the stakes for ya? Most is forgiven with the out and out rock & roll of “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” which is a ton of fun and might be as loose as Lodge has ever sounded in a recording studio. “Lose Your Love” is quite yucky, and Lodge doesn’t have an interesting enough voice or approach to pull off the bland lyrics and overly familiar subject matter here. The closing title track seems like an attempt to utilize some aspects of the Moodys’ sound in a solo context, and while it has a little bit of grandeur and definite forward motion, I couldn’t help wondering what the song might have risen to if Hayward had been the co-writer. Not much original here, honestly.

John Lodge (publicity photo courtesy: ROGERS AND COWAN)

John Lodge (publicity photo courtesy: ROGERS AND COWAN)

It’s gotta be tough, being in a legendary band and thinking you have more to say than what the band will allow. The creative impulse cannot be denied, but the fact is, countless solo albums from bands like the Moody Blues, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and others from the progressive era simply fell way short of expectations. Justin Hayward, as the primary force in the Moodys, always seemed so prolific that he had to get his solo stuff out there, and it retained a familiarity overall that kept fans pleased. While some of Lodge’s tunes rise to the level of melodic pleasantry, there is definitely a sense of something missing on 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO. You want it to be dramatic, like the title… searching, thoughtful, maybe even a little epic. At best, though, it is amiable, well-crafted and inoffensive. It’s a “question of imbalance,” a thwarted “search for the lost chord” that would stick with you somehow if these songs were richer in detail, even if most Moodys’ fans will at least be glad this second Lodge outing exists at all.


LINDA HOYLE: THE FETCH

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; English import, 2015)

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Good Lord, talk about a long break between albums! It was way back in 1971 when Linda Hoyle released her debut, PIECE OF ME. Previously, she’d been in a band called Affinity. Now, 45 years later, we get THE FETCH, which is a reasonably… well, fetching collection of emotive, adult tunes about life and love and yearning. There’s a drowsy, late-night feel to tunes like “Cut and Run” and “Confessional” that can make you drift off to sleep if you’re just kinda lying around listening. The bass is a bit jazzy and the guitars somewhere between proggy and ambient; all instruments serve Hoyle’s mature voice, which has a warmth and sincerity to it that can pull you in if you are relaxed enough. At the same time, it’s not really that GRABBY, and Hoyle serves up a sound and aesthetic here that seem to come from a time now forgotten. I guess that is actually the case, and things FORGOTTEN are part of the subject matter here. “I sat beside a suicide whose love I sadly lost/Led a milkman’s horse to water as we slipped across the frost/Spent my youth researching meaning that was cheap at twice the cost” Hoyle sings in “Confessional,” as a litany of various memories floats by lyrically. It’s the sound of a woman who knows she has seen a lot of years, and yet is still moved by things.

“It’s the World” is one of the stronger tunes here, offering both violin and keyboards in its pleasing, almost jaunty arrangement. A mood of not-quite resignation permeates, and there is alcohol flowing in this music, methinks, although just enough to get through a bout of overthinking. Some of the sentiments can be unnerving. In the angst-ridden “Fortuna,” Hoyle sings: “There’s a formula for fate/She’ll just check out with your last chance/You try to fuck with a lady luck/She’ll offer you sand with a mocking hand/Spin on your heel and she’ll spin the wheel… ” And it’s followed by a reference to “lips older than death… ” Yikes. The imagery is strong but not the kind of thing you ever see on recordings by younger gals. This is the work of someone who has been around and has a few warnings for y’all. Hopefully with a benevolent spirit, though. “Snowy Night” is gentle and pretty and, “West of the Moon” is rhythmic, lyrically pleasing and strongly played and sung… definitely one of the more distinctive tracks here.

Linda Hoyle (uncredited photo)

Linda Hoyle (uncredited photo)

“Earth and Stars” employs vocal effects, spacey minimalism and a proggy feel to take Hoyle somewhere quite different from the other tracks. It’s worth mentioning that Roger Dean designed the cover of this album, and various trademarks of the prog era are hinted at here and there. Hoyle is no ordinary singer/songwriter who has been hiding for decades in the confines of whatever life she leads. Clearly she KNOWS music and loves it. This track and some of the others reveal as much. And in the closing “Acknowledgments,” which features a church organ in beguiling manner, Hoyle sings the names of performers throughout music history that she has loved or been influenced by, after each series of names concluding “Always be a part of me.” Hoyle likely won’t join the heady company of the legends she names, and her sound and style are too limiting (maybe too LATE?) to reach any kind of mass audience. But she is able to touch the spirit with her sentiments and her clear emotional delivery. THE FETCH is one woman’s personal update of a life she’s known, many years after the events happened. It’s nostalgic, wise, and melancholy, and unerringly human in an era where cheap gimmicks and flashy technology tend to draw the most attention.


THE HILLBENDERS: TOMMY – A BLUEGRASS OPRY

(Compass Records; 2015)

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Ambition is an awesome thing. In music, it often leads to groundbreaking work or concepts, and this here album from Springfield, Missouri bluegrass band the Hillbenders is a doozy in that regard. The notion of doing a bluegrass interpretation of the Who’s legendary TOMMY album seems preposterous at first… how could the sonic intricacies and intense storyline of Pete Townsend’s magnum opus be re-interpreted in such a different genre, one as down to earth as Ozarks-style bluegrass? The fact that it works so well says a great deal about the abilities (and pure ATTITUDE) of this band – guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves, banjo player Mark Cassidy and bass player Gary Rea. Pete Townsend himself gave a thumbs-up to the record and invited the band to a show on the Who’s recent tour, doing photos with them. So yeah, this crazy project is a success. But how does it SOUND? Well, the amazing thing is that the band largely sticks to the structure of the original songs. It’s just that in place of electric guitars, Roger Daltrey’s peerless vocals and Keith Moon’s powerhouse drumming, you get, well, acoustic instruments like banjo and dobro. There are no long, jammy bluegrass workouts of the type often seen in the genre… the Hillbenders adhere to the original song structures. That is striking on tracks like the magnificent “Overture,” the carefully rendered “Amazing Journey” (which really IS amazing in this sassy, grassy rendition) and the classic “Pinball Wizard,” a rousing performance in which the band makes sure their energy matches the original, and renders the concern about whether a banjo and mandolin could possibly match what Pete did on the original absolutely moot. “Tommy, Can You Hear Me” is delivered simply and soulfully, with perfectly pleasant harmonies. “Sally Simpson” becomes a truly curious hybrid, a song that, thematically, would likely never see its ilk on another bluegrass album. I mean, this is rock and roll in its energy and pure panache. What a revelation to hear the Who’s richly layered classic rock presented in such a different manner. It says something about the universality of music and themes that the Hillbenders could pull this off so thrillingly.

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad "Gravy Boat" Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)

Not everything brings the awe, though. Daltrey’s haunting “See Me, Feel Me” performance in its two appearances on the original is a work of vocal majesty that inevitably loses something in the simpler, more rustic approach taken here. Similarly, the drama and shifting elements of “Welcome” as a composition are diminished in this arrangement… maybe by this point, the sound is just getting too samey. And “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is missing an edge it badly needs. But gosh, songs like “Christmas” and especially, “Sensatiion,” are utterly inspired and perfectly performed by the Hillbenders, giving fresh life to compositions that most of us from the classic rock era know like the backs of our hands. There is something revolutionary about hearing a modest Ozark string band fearlessly take on a classic rock opera by legendary Brits, and do it with their own personalities and aesthetic intact, triumphantly. It’s a bold leap into rarified musical territory, and it proves once again that all things are possible if you’ve got courage, chops and, well, a pretty awesome source work. Here’s to the Hillbenders for TRULY “kicking out the jams” in every way.


THE BEATLES: 1+

(APPLE RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP; 2015)

Album

This newly remastered Beatles 1 set, featuring the Beatles’ 27 UK and US chart-topping songs, now comes with a second disc (the “+,” available as either Blu-Ray or DVD), with videos of all 27 number ones. The set is also available with a special third disc, which offers still more videos, including many alternate versions, not to mention a wonderful 124-page booklet with plenty of pictures and descriptions of all the tunes and info for all of the videos. It’s quite a package for fans and also serves as a great introduction to the magic of the Beatles.

The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (uncredited photo)

The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (uncredited photo)

The songs – from 1962’s “Love Me Do to 1970’s “The Long and Winding Road” – take you through the time when the Fab Four dominated the world’s musical landscape, making great music and pushing the envelope as they evolved. Though just about everyone on the face of the planet knows these tunes, the real bonus here is the second, rarities-filled disc of videos with great alternate versions of “Day Tripper,” “Rain” and “Hello, Goodbye.” Seeing the revolutionary film for “Strawberry Fields Forever” had unknowingly prepared us for the upcoming age of the music video; “Penny Lane” is also wonderful.

The earliest videos are from TV appearances or live shows: THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, the 1965 Shea Stadium concert and so forth. One of my personal favorites is from 1968, when the lads did “Hey Jude” on THE DAVID FROST SHOW and the audience came on stage to join in on the “na na na’s.” “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down” from the group’s last live public appearance, commonly referred to as “the rooftop concert,” is great, as is “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love,” with Paul, George and Ringo gathering together one final time to create new Beatles music from two John Lennon demos. As a lifelong fan, reliving (or, in some instances, experiencing for the first time) all of these amazing memories certainly gives me much pleasure, as the music of the Beatles continues – after all these years – to bring such joy and happiness to the world.


PAUL MCCARTNEY

(October 21, 2015; JOE LOUIS ARENA, Detroit MI)

Paul McCartney Out There US Tour

Well, this is something like my umpteenth time seeing Sir Paul in concert and he never disappoints. I wasn’t planning on making this trip but, after speaking with my cousin, who lives in the area and has never seen McCartney, I decided, “Why not?” Not only do I get to see a favorite perform again, I also get to hang out with someone I don’t get to see very often. The experience of a McCartney show just never gets old: Sir Paul, aged 73, still has the fire and enthusiasm of someone half his age (or, maybe, a third his age) plus, his great band – Paul “Wix” Wickens on keyboards, Brian Ray on guitar and bass, Rusty Anderson on guitar and the brilliant Abe Laboriel, Junior on drums – provide all the back up he needs. Paulie, himself, plays bass, electric and acoustic guitar, piano and ukelele.

Paul McCartney (photo credit MJ KIM/copyright MPL COMMUNICATIONS LIMITED)

Paul McCartney (photo credit MJ KIM/copyright MPL COMMUNICATIONS LIMITED)

Oh… and, did I mention he also plays a ton of Beatles, some Wings, some classic solo stuff, as well as some more recent material. In fact, this time around, the set list actually included several songs I’ve never heard him play live before: “FourFiveSeconds” (the song he and Kanye West wrote, produced and appeared on for Rihanna’s ANTI album); “Hope For the Future,” which he wrote and recorded for use in a video game called DESTINY; a raw version of the Beatles’ “One After 909”; one of the first songs he wrote with John (Lennon, just in case you needed reminding), “Another Girl,” from the HELP soundtrack. He also dusted off the solo rarity, “Temporary Secretary,” an odd electronic track from MCCARTNEY II. The use of a nice, big video screen behind him and his band was great to accompany a lot of songs… “Back In the USSR” and Lady Madonna” were definitely enhanced by the visual accompaniment.

Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

It’s not just the greatest catalog of popular songs that make a Paul McCartney concert special; it’s also his interaction with the audience, his abundant energy and, at times, it actually seems that he is having a better time than the crowd. Of course, he has been doing this for over fifty years now and he is a magical stage performer. Singing along with an arena full of people to “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Band On the Run” and… well, the list just goes on and on… is still great fun. The poignant moments of “Blackbird” and “Here Today,” his tribute to John, are still heartfelt. Actually, I loved his version of Harrison’s beautiful “Something,” which started slowly with Paul on ukelele before rocking away; it is a truly great tribute to George. The big crowd was great – rowdy when it needed to rock and quiet for the more solemn songs. At his age, its hard to tell how long he can keep up this pace but, until that time comes, an evening spent with Sir Paul McCartney is always memorable.


THE HILLBENDERS

(August 1, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

Enter Ye Here (photo credit DARREN TRACY)

What a weird and amazing weekend this was! Friday night saw me at Pop’s for the crushing metal frenzy of Coal Chamber, Fear Factory and others; Saturday was my introduction to a venue (Old Rock House) and a bluegrass band (the Hillbenders), both of which more than lived up to their hype. With former Mississippi Nights (a moment of silence, please) booker and manager Tim Weber at the helm of the House, I knew that the sound and the experience would be exceptional. Granted, there is a different feel, a different ambiance in the House compared to the grittier vibe of the Nights, but that could just be because of the wine-sipping crowd of aging hipsters (I may be aging but, I’ve never been accused of being a hipster). Once the music started, however, the place came alive… not as raucous as one of those nights on the Landing, but fun, nonetheless.

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The five-piece Hillbenders, hailing from Springfield MO, are not bluegrass traditionalists, though they do doff their collective caps in acknowledgment to the heroes and legends of the past; the band also has their feet firmly planted in their own rock and roll roots. By using “traditional” bluegrass instrumentation, vocal harmonies and arrangements, the Hillbenders (mandolin player Nolan Lawrence, banjo player Mark Cassidy, guitarist Jim Rea, his cousin, bassist Gary Rea, and dobro player Chad “Gravyboat” Graves… the only thing missing is a fiddle) are creating a niche genre that bluegrass, rock, even country purists can all enjoy, finding common ground in an otherwise contentious musical climate.

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Jim Rea) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Jim Rea) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Old Rock House show, advertised as “an evening with the Hillbenders,” promoting their new album – a reworking of the Who’s classic rock opera, TOMMY, subtitled “A BLUEGRASS OPRY” here – began with a nearly hour-long set of originals spiced with several well-chosen traditional and unconventional covers, effectively meaning that the band acted as their own opening act. With Lawrence taking the majority of the lead vocals (though Jim also took his fair share of leads), the group tore through the catchy “Radio” and the Swiftian (as in Taylor… forgive me for evoking such a name, oh vengeful gods of music) “Done Wrong Love Song,” as well as such other originals as the Gothic murder tune “Red Stains” and the dreamy “Spinning In Circles,” as everyone joined in on harmony. While each musician took leads or solos, it was the histrionics and majestic facial foliage of Graves and the brilliant banjo playing (and good looks) of Cassidy that became focal points, particularly with their fiery interaction on a wicked cover of the Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep.” Other notable covers included a faithful “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” the Flatt and Scruggs classic from 1951, and a hauntingly beautiful take on the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.” Though the dance floor remained – for the most part – incomprehensibly empty, there were a few couples tripping the light fantastic, one gentleman who was merely tripping (take that as you will) and one unafraid, totally adorable little girl (maybe four or five years old) who took to the floor, melting the hearts of everyone around her.

What a cutie! The Hillbenders' fans come in all shapes and sizes. (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

What a cutie! The Hillbenders’ fans come in all shapes and sizes. (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A ten minute break turned into close to a half hour wait before the band, rested and sporting fresh duds, took the stage for TOMMY. I had yet to hear the new record, so I wasn’t exactly sure how this one was gonna shake out. However, from the first notes of the opening “Overture,” I was completely sold on this concept. Not because of any kind of kitsch or PICKIN’ ON… approach to what is, arguably, Pete Townshend’s first great work but, rather, because the Hillbenders are very serious about this project, which serves not only as tribute or homage, but as a superb re-imagining, as well. Again, Nolan, as “narrator,” handled the majority of lead vocals, though – with a number of songs that were specifically written in the voices of several of the story’s characters – there were opportunities for all five ‘Benders to take a lead or two. While the group played the original TOMMY album in its entirety, the holes in Townshend’s plot demanded a bit of clarification; Jim Rea filled in those dark areas with spoken expositions, moving the story along nicely. Likewise, Rea’s acoustic guitar gave a note of authenticity, as much of the Who’s original featured layers of acoustic rhythm and lead guitar, with either John Entwistle’s bass or the occasional electric guitar solo offering depth and power to the music. Nolan’s nimble mandolin work managed to weave its way into and through the arrangements, playing parts that were originally written for guitar or piano, even punctuating certain parts with a percussive flair. As with the earlier set, most of the heavy lifting was done by Mark and Chad, with Gary carrying Entwistle’s beefy bass lines throughout on his upright (an estimable feat, to be sure).

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Like the original 1969 offering from the Who, the Hillbenders’ live version of TOMMY was ripe with highlights, including the trippy “Amazing Journey,” and forceful instrumental, Sparks,” one of the best one-two punches in rock and roll history. “Sparks,” in particular, allowed each of the musicians to flex their solo muscles. “Eyesight To the Blind,” by the second Blues legend to use the name Sonny By Williamson, fit in nicely and worked as a powerful introduction to the seductress/prostitute/dealer “Acid Queen” later in the narrative. John Entwistle’s two songwriting contributions introduced us to Tommy’s mischievous “Cousin Kevin” and, in “Fiddle About,” his wicked Uncle Ernie, both performed with a sort of sick glee. Of course, the one song that just about everybody knows – even those who don’t like rock music or the Who – is “Pinball Wizard,” with its refrain of “That deaf, dumb and blind boy/Sure plays a mean pinball.” The acoustic lead guitar and the two-note bass punctuations made it an adventurous commodity for a group like the ‘Benders but, like everything else, they made it their own and breathed new life into a classic.

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As the lead character moved into self-realization and became a messiah to the masses of disenfranchised youth, the music started to take on a brighter feel, beginning with the wistful, wishful “Tommy Can You Here Me,” with its haunting harmony vocals provided by all five Hillbenders. The narcissistically upbeat “Sensation” eventually led to the celebratory tune “I’m Free,” visiting the home of “Sally Simpson” as she sneaks out to get a glimpse of her idol. As Sally attempts to touch Tommy, she is brutally asked to leave the stage by a pushy police officer, hitting her cheek on a chair; naturally, as she received sixteen stitches to close the wound, her father made sure she understood that that’s what happens when you disobey your parents. Keith Moon’s “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” was as loopy and loony as the mad drummer himself, with Cassidy, Graves and Jim Rea, in particular, furiously bending strings to approximate the whirling, kaleidoscopic frenzy of the original. Tommy’s followers have wised up, shouting “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” with the sudden realization that his family and corporate handlers had used them for dupes, leading to their former messiah seeking their guidance.

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

There have been plenty of versions of TOMMY – most headed up, in some fashion, by the Who – but, this performance by the Hillbenders may be most honest, unaffected take I’ve heard since the original. The group doesn’t play it at every show on their current tour and if you are lucky enough to be in a town where they are playing it, you owe it to yourself to be there. Before the show, I joked that it would be cool if the Hillbenders would do an encore of Who tunes, like “Substitute,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “I’m a Boy.” We didn’t exactly get that but, we did get a suitably creepy version of “I Can See For Miles,” with Mark Cassidy taking the lead vocals. Mark’s monotone delivery and piercing stare struck just the right chord for the tune and was a great way to end one of the best nights of music that I’ve ever had the privilege to attend.


JEFF BECK

(May 19, 2015; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

Jeff Beck 2015

Apparently just about everyone I know had seen Jeff Beck in concert except me. Beck, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, has gone long stretches in his storied career without touring extensively, but in the past few years he has come to Saint Louis several times, and finally, I had the opportunity to catch him. And, while I hardly needed any additional proof that he is a hall of fame axeman (past listens to BLOW BY BLOW and WIRED, as well as countless sessions for others made that abundantly clear), nothing quite encapsulates what a major talent can do like seeing them under optimal circumstances in a live setting. And that’s what Beck’s appearance at the Fox Theatre drove home: This guy is just amazing. Some legendary guitarists can be showoffs onstage, and I personally tend to get really bored listening to some well known stringmen merely show how many notes they can whip outta their guitar fluidly and energetically. Making it musically soulful and stirring, that’s what separates the legends from the showoffs. And Beck is a legend, through and through. He plays beautiful, clean melodies and runs that can soothe and serenade or rock your socks off. It’s always about melody and atmosphere with Beck; his innate sense of variety and tonal discipline makes the music rich and powerful. Having a crack band and superb sound enhanced the experience all night at the Fox.

Jeff Beck with Nicolas Meier, Australia 2014 (publicity photo)

Jeff Beck with Nicolas Meier, Australia 2014 (publicity photo)

Beck performed some well-known covers such as Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (one of a handful of songs performed with riveting style and sass by his vocalist and harp player, Jimmy Hall), Hendrix’s “Little Wing” (performed widely by so many artists but near definitive here), Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” (funky as hell), and a totally bewitching “A Day In The Life,” the Beatles classic that you wouldn’t think could be so mesmerizing as a slow instrumental, but it sure as shit is, as envisioned by Master Beck. The grace and melodicism Beck infused the song with at this show made for spine-tingling sonic bliss. So were some of the other slower, almost ambient numbers like Nicholas Meier’s “Yemin,” Nitin Sawhney’s “Nadia” and Beck’s own “You Never Know” and “Corpus Christi”. To be able to hear every note squeezed out of a guitar the way Beck does it, and get the sense that each of those notes MATTERS and is part of a crafted piece of tonal expression on a personal level, is something you hear and respond to, emotionally. Technique alone is not enough. You gotta have the heart and soul to really touch the listener, and that’s what Beck does so beautifully.

Jeff Beck, circa 2014 (Jonathan Joseph, Rhonda Smith, Nicolas Meier, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)

Jeff Beck, circa 2014 (Jonathan Joseph, Rhonda Smith, Nicolas Meier, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)

His band, including peerless female bass player Rhonda Smith, drummer Jonathan Joseph, and Nicolas Meier on textural guitar that provided a perfect complement to Beck’s electric mastery, was astonishing. Beck was generous in giving them all sublime moments, but the audience always knew just who was in charge. Some of the notable rousing numbers included Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “A Lotus On Irish Streams” (a thrilling band workout), Beck’s “Big Block,” the Lonnie Mack tune “Lonnie On the Move” (good showcase for the amazing Jimmy Hall) and the blues classic “Rollin’ and Tumblin,” during which the band hit one hell of a musical peak, with some of Beck’s most furiously energetic lead runs. For the encore, we were treated to a gently evocative “Danny Boy,” and, in one of Beck’s few utterances of the night, a tribute to the just deceased B.B. King, with “The Thrill is Gone.” Throughout, the sound was excellent, the band were superb, and Beck, smiling and smoothly brilliant, seemed to be having a fantastic time. Just what you want to see from a guitar hero, along with tasteful choices and a perfect balance to the performance. It was great stuff, and I came away with a far better appreciation of just what Master Beck is capable of, making it all seem so effortless.