IT WAS FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY… A LOOK BACK AT THE MUSIC OF THE SUMMER OF LOVE

The Summer of Love (San Francisco, 1967) (photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE ARCHIVES)

The Summer of Love (San Francisco, 1967) (photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE ARCHIVES)

It’s hard to believe that this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called “Summer of Love,” highlighted by a major explosion of influential rock acts, mind-expanding music and… oh, yeah!… there was that landmark Beatles album, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. 1967 was a watershed year for music; a year which saw the release of several important debut albums and a slew of downright great rock ‘n’ roll records.

Big Brother and the Holding Company (James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Janis Joplin, Dave Getz, Peter Albin) (publicity photo) Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan) (photo credit: HERB GREENE)

Big Brother and the Holding Company (James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Janis Joplin, Dave Getz, Peter Albin) (publicity photo) Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan) (photo credit: HERB GREENE)

The Doors’ first album came out early in the year, along with another important first step in the psychedelic movement, as SURREALISTIC PILLOW by the Jefferson Airplane, Grace Slick’s debut with the band. The Grateful Dead followed with their first album about a month later. At the same time, the Godfathers (and Godmother) of punk and alternative rock hit the ground running with the Velvet Underground’s opening salvo. Janis Joplin got some attention as the new singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, while a former US Army paratrooper, ex-pat who also played a little guitar released his first album, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, as front man of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Beatles came out with their magnum opus, SERGEANT PEPPER’S… on the first day of June; while they were recording what many consider the greatest album of all time, a band called the Pink Floyd were also working at Abbey Road Studios, just down the hall from the Fab Four, on their first album, Syd Barrett’s psychedelic masterpiece, THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN. Late in the year, Cream, Traffic, Buffalo Springfield and the Who gave us still more great music (in the forms of DISRAELI GEARS, MISTER FANTASY, BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD AGAIN and THE WHO SELL OUT, respectively). The Monkees, the Beatles, the Turtles, Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops and Lulu all hit the top of the singles charts with unforgettable tunes throughout the year. The year 1967 was, indeed, a watershed year for pop music and the year that rock and roll grew up, expanding musical limits and young minds the world over.

PINNACLE

THE BEATLES: SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND

SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND; The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (publicity photo)

SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND; The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (publicity photo)

Obviously, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND is the standard by which all music released in 1967 (and, in fact, in the fifty years since) is measured. The album was a big surprise when it came out… lots of folks actually thought the Beatles might be breaking up because they hadn’t released anything new since February, with the single “Strawberry Fields Forever” (and, their last album, REVOLVER, hit the streets nearly a year earlier, in early August, 1966). Ironically, the John Lennon-penned “Strawberry Fields… ,” the very first song the Lads worked on for the album, didn’t even make the final cut. SERGEANT PEPPER’S was a true product of the great working relationship between the Beatles and their producer, George Martin, who took the band’s brilliant pop songs and grandiose ideas, molded them into a cohesive orchestral whole and just made everything work… beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The record’s last track, “A Day In the Life,” was immediately recognized as one of the Beatles’ best and most important songs; Lennon’s dreamy vocals at the start are still as haunting as ever and Paul McCartney’s amazing bass playing stands out, as it does throughout the entire album. Over the past fifty years, the Fab Four’s eighth full-length is as well known for the amazing cover by artist Peter Blake as for the thirteen tracks found within the sleeve; the songs, the performances, the production and the visuals all gelled to make SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND the single most memorable moment in the annals of not only popular music, but popular culture as a whole. Rock and roll and pop music would never be the same; the rock medium, in particular, would move away from looking at an album as merely a collection of singles to a well thought-out, cohesive set of songs, sequenced to be enjoyed in its entirety. I was just thirteen years old when the record came out and, even after five decades, I still appreciate and still enjoy all the great music that came from that “Summer of Love.”

TOP OF THE POPS: FIVE ALBUMS THAT CHANGED THE LANDSCAPE OF POP MUSIC

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: SURREALISTIC PILLOW

SURREALISTIC PILLOW; Jefferson Airplane (Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin) (uncredited photo)

SURREALISTIC PILLOW; Jefferson Airplane (Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin) (uncredited photo)

First and foremost, Jefferson Airplane’s SURREALISTIC PILLOW, their first with former Great Society singer Grace Slick, proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that a woman could rock the house down with the seminal Society leftovers, “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” Grace quickly ascended to become one of, if not THE premier rock vocalists of her time. With Slick on board, the Airplane were quite successful, both commercially and critically, for several years, while “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” have become radio standards. Jefferson Airplane became one of the symbols of a new era in rock music with the psychedelic folk of SURREALISTIC PILLOW. I still enjoy listening to it.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO; The Velvet Underground (Nico, Andy Warhol, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale) (publicity photo)

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO; The Velvet Underground (Nico, Andy Warhol, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale) (publicity photo)

The Velvet Underground’s debut – “produced” by Andy Warhol and featuring (at Warhol’s behest) Teutonic femme fatale, Nico – didn’t really hit me until years later, but the record’s influence was very important to many of the groups that I got into in subsequent years. The original group – Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen (Mo) Tucker and Sterling Morrison – took quite a different approach to the commercial rock scene; their avant-garde sound, highlighted by great playing became the cornerstone that indie and alternative rock would build upon in the years since. As is often said, it may not have sold many copies, but everybody that heard it wanted to start a band; were the true alternative to pop music and started an underground rock movement that continues to reverberate throughout the music world.

THE DOORS: THE DOORS

THE DOORS; The Doors (Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Jim Morrison) (photo copyright: JOEL BRODSKY)

THE DOORS; The Doors (Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Jim Morrison) (photo copyright: JOEL BRODSKY)

Another band that dabbled in the darker side of the musical spectrum was the Doors, perhaps darker even than the Velvets. Of course, the quartet’s first album featured the classic rock fixture, “Light My Fire,” which propelled a tragic rock god, Jim Morrison, into a larger-than-life cult figure, but it was songs like the eleven-and-a-half minute epic, “The End,” that truly defined the band. Eight months later, the group’s second record, STRANGE DAYS, cemented Morrison’s shamanistic standing with “People Are Strange,” the evil intent of Moonlight Drive,” “Love Me Two Times” and another dark epic, “When the Music’s Over.” My favorite Doors album is actually MORRISON HOTEL from a couple of years later, but the groundwork was definitely laid on their classic first album.

THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: ARE YOU EXPERIENCED

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED; The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell) (publicity photo)

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED; The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell) (publicity photo)

Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding hit big with their debut record, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, though I didn’t get into Hendrix until a few years later. Jimi took the world by storm, becoming rock’s big guitar hero, virtually supplanting England’s rock gods, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, soaring to ever greater heights in a meteoric four year career. Tragically, Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, along with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones all passed on within a couple of years of each other (between July 1969 and July 1971), becoming the first “official” members of what would come to be known as popular music’s “27 Club.”

PINK FLOYD: THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN; Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters) (photo credit: ALAIN DISTER PHOTOSHOT)

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN; Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters) (photo credit: ALAIN DISTER PHOTOSHOT)

Finally, we have the first record from the Syd Barett-led Pink Floyd, THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, a group and an album that was the impetus for the Progressive Rock movement, which would spawn such acts as King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, among others down the road. Oddly enough, the Floyd were recording their debut down the hall at Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles were producing their masterpiece. SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND was inspired by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS album which, in turn, was inspired by the Beatles’ own RUBBER SOUL. How much did what John, Paul, George and Ringo were doing in that neighboring studio inspire Syd, Roger, Rick and Nick? That’s what made the music of the era so memorable… groups and artists could no longer afford to stand on their laurels, they were continually pushed by others to up their game, to progress and change. For fifty years (and counting), that has been the lasting legacy of SERGEANT PEPPER’S… .


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.


ZZ TOP: LIVE GREATEST HITS FROM AROUND THE WORLD

(SURETONE RECORDS; 2016)

album-cover

ZZ Top are like an old friend… you just want to hang out with them and have a good time. After four-and-a-half decades (and counting), they have the distinction of being the longest running rock band with ALL its original members still going strong. That in itself is great, much less that they are still rocking as hard as ever. Their new live album, with songs recorded at tour stops all over the world (thus, the name) sounds great and is as fresh and as fun as the Tops have ever been… even after all this time. “Got Me Under Pressure,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man, “La Grange,” and “Tube Snake Boogie” are all here and, so is guitar legend Jeff Beck, who joins the trio for “Rough Boy” and “Sixteen Tons” (yes… the Tennessee Ernie Ford song). Billy Gibbons and Beck have known each other for quite a long time and the former Yardbird has been a touring companion with the “Little Band From Texas” on more than one occasion.

ZZ Top (Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons) (uncredited photo)

ZZ Top (Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons) (uncredited photo)

Bassist Dusty Hill, the great stickman Frank Beard and Gibbons still rock with an unbridled wit and vigor and some of the coolest licks you’ll ever hear. Personally, I find Billy to be one of the finest axemen around, taking a backseat to no one. Frank Beard (the only member of ZZ Top without a beard!) is just fine, a powerful meat-and-potatoes type of drummer… steady as a rock. They, like any band that has been around as long, will have their ups and downs, but they still manage to record some new stuff on occasion (their last album, LA FUTURA, came out in 2012). Im so glad they are still around – just the three of them – still blasting out their own style of rockin’ Blues and still having a blast doing it. This new LIVE GREATEST HITS FROM AROUND THE WORLD record should serve as ample proof of that. Long live the ultimate party band, that little ol’ band from Texas, ZZ Top!


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.


THE MONKEES: GOOD TIMES!

(RHINO RECORDS; 2016)

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If you had told me last year that the Monkees were not only going to come out with a new album, but that it would be an extremely good one that added a new chapter to their legacy and would feature all four band members, well, I’d have said you were nuts. Davy Jones was deceased, Mike Nesmith had apparently gone into a new phase of ambivalence, and the other two, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, were keeping the group’s popularity high through frequent live shows, but hardly seemed capable of putting anything new together. How, then, did this mini-miracle occur – a fantastic new Monkees record coming out in 2016. If you wanna know who to give the lion’s share of the credit to, well, it’s Adam Schlesinger. Best known as the frontman for Fountains of Wayne and the composer of the titular hit song from the Tom Hanks-directed film THAT THING YOU DO, Schlesinger is a huge Monkees fan, the kind of person who found inspiration and delight in their music and wondered if they could recapture some of that old-time magic again. A kind of “That was THEN, this is NOW” redux. Schlesinger had talks with the three remaining Monkees and suggested putting the call out to today’s indie rockers and closeted Monkees fans for material in the Monkees’ vein. And everyone was excited by the fact that it was the Monkees’ fiftieth anniversary – wouldn’t it be kick-ass to celebrate with a brand-new album?

You bet! Songs began arriving by composers as cool as XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring the Summer”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”) and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the luminous gem “Me and Magdalena”). Schlesinger himself wrote “Our Own World,” produced the record and plays on ten of the album’s 13 songs. If that isn’t about as auteur-ish as you can get with such a project, well, I don’t know what is! The masterstroke here, and another place where credit should be given, is the honchos at Rhino Records, the Monkees’ label, a couple of guys who love the band and began scouring the vaults for old material that might be worthy for this project. They dug up a Neil Diamond-penned tune from 1967 that had a perfectly fine Davy Jones vocal on it (well done, lads!) and simply needed a bit of overdubbing and engineering work to make it a go, a Goffin/King gem called “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which finds Peter Tork pouring all his energy and enthusiasm into (he says THIS of the song in the liner notes: “What a joy to be singing a Carole King song! This dreamy, Dylan-esque song is a tapestry unto itself.”), and even a Harry Nilsson tune, the title track, which gives Dolenz a chance to “duet” with the songwriting legend. All this, man, and even some originals! An attempt was made to recapture the sound and feeling of the late ’60s – production slickness was avoided at all turns, something that sorely diminished the appeal of two previous attempts by the Monkees to release new material (POOL IT! From 1987 and JUSTUS from 1996). So what you get is an album that almost sounds like it could have been the next project the band really put their “heart and soul” into after their amazing late ’60s run, mixing snappy rockers like “She Makes Me Laugh” with multi-textured psych-rock as represented by “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” (a truly unlikely offering from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller that is one of the album’s high points) and seamless originals (Tork’s breezy “Little Girl” and Nesmith’s melancholy “I Know What I Know”). You just wouldn’t think the Monkees could’ve come up with something like this. It’s the nicest of surprises for long-time fans.

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

I have two quibbles with the album, one that could have been helped and one that maybe couldn’t. The latter is the fact that they could only find one Jones song to include. If they were gonna go that route of making sure Davy’s presence was felt, was there really NOTHING else in the vaults that could’ve been dusted off and messed with a bit? So pleasant is it to hear Jones sing again on “Love To Love” that you kind of LONG for the stronger balance that would’ve existed if he’d been on one more song. That balance issue brings me to my only real criticism, the fact that GOOD TIMES! opens with five songs in a row featuring Dolenz on lead vocals. Now, it’s funny for me to say this, because Micky Dolenz is my favorite Monkee, but I’m puzzled that the first half of the record is sequenced this way. Moving a Nesmith or Tork vocal to an earlier slot would’ve solved this problem – as it is, a kind of repetitiveness sets in that diminishes the listenability of “Our Own World” and “Gotta Give It Time.” That loses half a letter grade in my book, although others may not feel that way. But, from track 6 to track 13, you get pure, unadulterated Monkees bliss, and nary a misstep. “Me and Magdalena” is so beautiful, so haunting, that you can’t believe you are getting this gift of a tune from these guys. Schlesinger plays sweet, lovely piano and Nesmith turns in an intoxicating vocal just about matched by Dolenz as the secondary singer. “Whatever’s Right” sounds like a long-lost Monkees hit, even penned by their old writing mates Boyce and Hart, but no, this is a new tune. I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Davy Jones contribution. But it’s worth commenting again that “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” is just amazing. It’s the second best song here, with inspired performances, mulitple hooks and another wonderful vocal pairing by Nesmith and Dolenz. This song breathes, shimmers and kicks serious conceptual ass. Peter Tork is another sort of hero on this record… he was often a creative underdog in the past, but both his original, “Little Girl,” and the fetching Goffin/King entry are complete delights. And the ending is perfect, a songwriting collaboration by Dolenz and Schlesinger called “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” that could sum up the band’s feelings about their wacky pop culture odyssey. It rocks (a little), it’s got sass (a LOT), and it exudes spontaneity and minimalistic charm. “We are here, and we’re gonna have a good time/Like we did before/Supposedly,” Monkee Micky sings, filled with both the wry knowledge of the band’s storied and often controversial past, and his obvious glee at being here, 50 years later, not only still doing it but making one of the band’s best albums. GOOD TIMES! is just a nice surprise all around, not necessarily a masterpiece but way better than any fan could possibly have predicted. I’m a believer, that’s for sure. Nez, Peter, Micky and um, gosh, Mister Schlesinger? Thank you, and Happy 50th Anniversary!


NIGHT DEMON/VISIGOTH/DOOM AND DISCO/BANGARANG

(May 9, 2016; FUBAR, Saint Louis MO)

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I’m gonna let you guys in on what may be one of the worst kept secrets in the universe: I love heavy metal… all kinds of heavy metal. However, if I were staked to the ground in close proximity to a colony of fire ants and the only possible salvation was telling my captors what type of metal was my favorite, I would have to say the classic, hard rocking stuff… you know, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Demon. So, even though I thoroughly enjoyed recent shows by Nile and Coal Chamber (and am looking forward to the return of Dez’s other band, DevilDriver), I gotta say that this night was Nirvana (the mystical happy place, not the band) to this old-school rocker. By the way, this was my first foray to the Lounge, a smaller room with impressive, clear sound, located to the left of the venue’s entry. What a great decision it was to put this show here and the other, more punk oriented bill in the main room.

Bangarang (John Loness; Cory Crowell; Ruben Guerrios) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Bangarang (John Loness; Cory Crowell; Ruben Guerrios) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Local three-piece Bangarang is the modern approximation of early-to-mid ’70s Mountain-ous (you know, Leslie West… Felix Pappalardi… Corky Laing) hard rock, filtered through ’80s SoCal punk. The group’s eight song set featured the five tracks from their recently released EP, SNACK TIME, including a raging jungle beast called “Jumanji,” which featured a cool breakdown, with Cory Crowell pounding out a brutal tribal beat. Other highlights were the thudding behemoth that is “Monsoon Tune” and the atmospheric “Egan’s Rats,” which put me in mind of those psychedelic freaks, NIL8. Guitarist John Loness holds an odd place within the musical structure of the band, as he – more often than not – adds chittering effects and weird little strands of rhythm rather than any kind of boisterous, balls-out lead or solo (even though he proved himself more than capable of those types of guitar heroics); when he does step out, it is always tasty and very much holding to the vibe of the song and the suitably heavy groove laid down by his bandmates, drummer Crowell and the lucidor-masked bassist Rubin Guerrios, who manages to be crushingly heavy and uncompromisingly funky at the same time. Loness, who is also the trio’s lead singer (the others provide some well-placed backing), has the perfect voice for the style of rock played by Bangarang and, though the final three songs were works-in-progress, presented as instrumentals waiting for lyrics, he still shied away from filling the lyrical void with over-the-top guitar parts… it just wouldn’t have made sense within the arrangements and would have been a distraction to what the band is attempting with their music; in fact, the first of the three instrumentals, called “Bangarang,” was more of an extended drum solo with minimal accompaniment from Guerrios and Loness. The three numbers, voiceless though they were, seemed to fit in well with what has come before and definitely bodes well for the next phase of Bangarang’s evolution; I, for one, can’t wait.

Doom and Disco (Fu Thorax; Henry Savage; Fu Thorax) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doom and Disco (Fu Thorax; Henry Savage; Fu Thorax) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doom and Disco, the second Saint Louis band of the evening, rather like their name, is somewhat of a paradoxical venture. The group performed as a duo, with a third member wandering the floor, unprepared to play. The band play classic riff-heavy metal at ear-bleeding volume; you know… the good stuff. Despite a count-in on virtually every song, everything sounded like it started in the middle and was over at least fifteen seconds before it ended. (Before continuing, I should point out here that the names listed are somewhat in dispute, as my best investigative efforts could only uncover one name associated with Doom and Disco, a guitarist/vocalist named Shalom Friss, the same person who gave me the band info for this review… plus, his Facebook profile looks suspiciously like the dude onstage.) Guitarist Henry Savage featured a beefy, bassy sound, while his vocals somehow reminded me of the legendary Lemmy Kilmister; skin-pounder Fu Thorax was merciless in his approach, reminding me of that wild-eyed family member who always looks like he just farted in the dip bowl while holding an internal running commentary on the social relevance of DUMB AND DUMBER TO. Doom and Disco’s musical selections included such blistering fare as “666 Death,” “Spaghetti Western,” “Savage Journey” and set closer, “Vengeance and Oblivion.” As a duo, the sound was heavy, oppressive and surprisingly full; I can only imagine what we would have heard if that third player HAD been on stage (I’m assuming that he would have played bass, which would have given their sound an even heavier vibe). Bottom line: Doom and Disco… whoever you are and however many of you there are, I hope to have the chance to see you again soon.

Visigoth (Leeland Campana; Jake Rogers; Jamison Palmer) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Visigoth (Leeland Campana; Jake Rogers; Jamison Palmer) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

So… what does Salt Lake City’s Visigoth have in common with long standing bands like Iron Maiden, Raven, Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang, Witchfynde and Samson? Well, they may not hail from the United Kingdom, but they do hold the torch of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal high. The group has an epic sound, with lyrics retelling tales of legendary lore of castles and dragons and knights; vocally, Jake Rogers can wail like an earlier Briton, Rob Halford, while guitarists Leeland Campana and Jamison Palmer deliver majestic dual leads, ala classic Maiden or Judas Priest. In short, Visigoth is the best kind of throwback band… with a studious knowledge of (and respect for) those who have gone before, paving the way for a new generation of head-banging musicians, yet talented enough to add their own metallic twists to the mix. Much of their set draws upon the group’s latest release, THE REVENANT KING, including the epic, Arthurian title track; “Dungeon Master,” the new Gamer Nerds National Anthem; “Mammoth Rider,” a mystical retelling of Hannibal’s legendary march into Italy astride elephants; and “Necropolis,” a killer Manila Road cover. The rhythm section of Mikey T on drums and Matt Brotherton on bass were rock solid throughout, laying down a massive foundation, allowing the guitars and vocals to weave their magical spells and minstrel tales of adventure. For me, one of the ultimate highlights of the brilliantly well-paced set was another cover, as the band reached back into their NWOBHM ancestry to offer “The Spell,” from Demon’s 1982 album, THE UNEXPECTED GUEST… a song, a band and a record virtually unknown in these here United States. With a new release on the horizon, Visigoth can only continue their upward trajectory. If you have the chance, do not sleep on the opportunity to see these guys live. Oh, yeah… I gotta give bonus points to Jamison Palmer for his Tank tee. Plus, additional bonus points to me for not using the words “sacked” or “sacking” anywhere in this review.

Night Demon (Dusty Squires; Armand John Anthony; Jarvis Leatherby) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Night Demon (Dusty Squires; Armand John Anthony; Jarvis Leatherby) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As much as I liked the under card, I was absolutely stoked for the main event. The Ventura, California trio, Night Demon, plays that classic Deep Purple brand of heavy rock, with more than just a dose of sinister Misfits style punk. They opened their set with a blistering “Screams In the Night,” the lead track of the band’s debut full-length, CURSE OF THE DAMNED, with solid vocals from their sole original member, bassist Jarvis Leatherby; in fact, Leatherby’s vocals were on-point and – thankfully – upfront throughout the night. Along with his battery mate, drummer Dusty Squires, Jarvis also laid down a monstrously heavy bottom end… on a Flying V, no less. New(ish) guy Armand John Anthony more than held his own on guitar, with amazingly tight leads and smoking solos. The set was enhanced by oddly effective lighting, more so because they were supplied by the band’s merch guy from the front of the stage.

Night Demon (Jarvis Leatherby; Armand John Anthony; Dusty Squires) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Night Demon (Jarvis Leatherby; Armand John Anthony; Dusty Squires) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The guys tore through a solid song list that included tales of fast cars, ages-old evils, modern day madmen and religious rites, both sacred and profane: “Road Racin’,” “Ancient Evil,” “Killer” and the centerpiece of the band’s live performances and their raison d’etre, “Chalice.” With an intensity rivaling the original Blue Cheer or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Night Demon took their place among the great power trios of hard rock and heavy metal, updating the model to represent, not only current musical trends, but also the grimmer, grimier aspects of our modern world. If I had to compare Armand’s six-string assault to a predecessor, I hear definite influences from Gillan-era Bernie Torme, the late, lamented Paul Samson and the guys from Maiden, particularly Adrian Smith… classic metal riffs laced with a speed and fluidity that few possess, all amply displayed on “Full Speed Ahead,” among others; it’s hard to pinpoint any one style in Leatherby’s vocals… his is a strong, forceful rock and roll voice that seems to be manufactured for exactly this style of heavy music; Squires is a rock-solid Ian Paice type of drummer, a brilliant timekeeper with the occasional flash of reckless abandonment. As the show built to its climax, from “Killer” into “Road Racin’” and into the moody, sombre “Chalice,” the trio was joined onstage by Rocky, the looming, leering personification of Poe’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, who bade all to “Drink from the chalice.” This theatrical cameo brought wild cheers from the (unfortunately) modest crowd, much like the Iron’s lumbering Eddie or the Misfits’ Fiend/Crimson Ghost used to back in the day. Rocky’s departure from the stage conjured the ultimate evil, as the band charged into the final number, “Satan.” Jarvis asked for the stage lights to be lowered and, upon learning that they were actually controlled by a wall switch by the stage, Visigoth’s Leeland jumped to the rescue, turning the lights off and on, creating a type of rhythmic lightning effect… a rather silly but somehow appropriate ending to a fun evening of live music.

Night Demon (Armand John Anthony and Jarvis Leatherby with Rocky; Rocky offers the Chalice; Dusty Squires) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Night Demon (Armand John Anthony and Jarvis Leatherby with Rocky; Rocky offers the Chalice; Dusty Squires) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I was impressed by the professionalism of all of the bands (and their meager crews), as each went out of their way to ensure that I (and the entire room, really) had a great time. I had a brief interlude with Jarvis after the show and mentioned, rather offhandedly, that I wished the record companies would send out vinyl copies of their releases for review; he asked if I had a copy of CURSE OF THE DAMNED and, receiving my negative reply, walked over to the merch table and handed me a vinyl copy, saying, “Now you do, my friend.” I certainly wasn’t expecting that but, the gesture put me in mind of the way artists generally handled their business when I first got into this game more than twenty years ago. If I hadn’t been a fan before, I definitely was when I walked out of the venue with my brand new slab of orange vinyl!


RED JASPER: 777

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2016)

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Hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW – relatively speaking, anyway… before that January 2015 album, the band’s previous release was 1997’s ANAGRAMARY – comes the seventh and latest chapter of the progressively-inclined Red Jasper, called 777. Like its predecessor, the record is a gently rocking progressive affair… kinda like latter-day Genesis or early Gentle Giant, with just enough bite to keep the more hard rock-inclined among us happy (not to mention some Marillion-esque keyboard work and some very tasty guitar from time to time). 777 is sort of a sequel to the Clive Barker-inspired …SECRET SHOW, with the lyrics once again exploring the very personal religious imagery from that release; as vocalist David Clifford writes in his liner notes, “777 is described as the antithesis of 666.” The first track is called “7” and it has a definite Marillion feel, though without the harsh, powerful vocals of Derek Dick (better known as Fish) or even the smoother pop stylings of Steve Hogarth. Clifford hangs around the upper registers, sort of somewhere around Geddy Lee’s mid-period Rush stuff, while avoiding the nasally proclivities of that stalwart. “Nothing To Believe” features a galloping bass line from Jim Thornton and really cool multi-tracked and harmony riffing from guitarist Robin Harrison. The lyrics document the struggles of youth and, finally, rising above the chaos and dismay with the chorus, “That life has gone/But my life will carry on.” Bonus points to newish drummer Florin Werner for his indiscreet use of the cowbell throughout the tune. Shifting from a demented waltz to a punky, charging hard rock affair, the schizophrenic “She Waits” offers a little something for everybody, including a completely unhinged Harrison solo and more words-per-square-inch than most tunes. “Forth of Fife” could very easily be considered either an homage or a flat-out rip of the Genesis classic “Firth of Fifth.” It has so many like elements that it’s hard not to compare the two: Lloyd George’s amazing keyboard work, particularly the solo piano; a flute part that may or may not be another George keyboard creation (no mention of a flute appears anywhere in the album credits); more stellar fretwork from Harrison; a melody line that is quite reminiscent of the Genesis tune. Given all of these similarities, it wouldn’t be too difficult to consider “Forth of Fife” a musical parody of an iconic piece of progressive rock. Thankfully, the tune stands on its own, as the nods to the previous work manage to weave themselves into the songs original fabric, allowing the words and music to tell their own story, live in their own reality. The most forceful track thus far, “The Gathering” features all of the hallmarks of a great progressive number, falling somewhere between classic Yes and a more metallic Rush. The rhythm section, in particular, puts a little extra punch into their parts – Thornton’s bass moves from Chris Squire’s melodic picking style to something akin to Tony Levin’s fluid stick thumps, while Werner falls just south of the percussive overload created by Neal Peart. Even at eight-and-a-half minutes, the song never lagged and, in fact, seemed to end far sooner than I expected. Again, bonus points to the other three Jaspers, with amazing work turned in by Clifford, George and Harrison.

Red Jasper (Jon Thornton, Robin Harrison, David Clifford, Lloyd George, Florin Werner) (uncredited photo)

Red Jasper (Jon Thornton, Robin Harrison, David Clifford, Lloyd George, Florin Werner) (uncredited photo)

Reaching Out” begins with a lone, chiming guitar before developing into a really cool psuedo-’60s Folk-pop sort of affair. The addition of an “arena rock” keyboard solo (it reminds me of something Ken Hensley may have played during Uriah Heep’s heyday; David Byron called it the “Moog simplifier”), which could have rendered the song cheesy beyond repair, actually enhances the overall vibe. More late ’60s guitar highlights “Blessed With Gold,” a track that is equal parts “California Dreamin’,” Lordian (as in, Deep Purple’s Jon) keyboard bombast, Middle Eastern melodies and a certain “Arrh, matey” nautical theme. “Dragonfly” is a gauzy, pastoral number, with elegant fretwork from Harrison and keyboard washes from George. However, though Clifford’s ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS lyrics lend a child-like charm to the tune, it’s Werner’s percussive restraint and Thornton’s rather lilting bassline that really make the song work for me. It seems as though these Jaspers got most of their hard rocking tendencies out of their systems in the first half of 777, as “Paradise Folly” continues the Fairport Convention/English Folk sound prevalent on the second half. Another beautiful guitar solo from Harrison highlights the proceedings. “October and April” is listed as a bonus track. It’s a stripped-down cover of an obscure song by an even more obscure Finnish group called the Rasmus. Clifford duets with his daughter, Soheila, with brilliant accompaniment by Red Jasper’s original guitarist, Tony Heath, on a number that kinda reminds me of a Celtic version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” A nice, if rather light, end to an unassuming record that sort of sneaks up on you… before you realize what’s happening, your toes are a-tappin’ and you’re having a quietly good time with one of England’s best secret weapons of progressive music.


BILLY SHERWOOD: CITIZEN

(Frontiers Music; 2015)

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Billy Sherwood seems to be a guy who doesn’t rattle easily. A guy who can step in and handle enormous responsibilities without flinching. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he stepped in to some pretty big shoes, and helped a struggling Jon Anderson-fronted Yes continue their journey on both record and stage. Sherwood’s a big part of the sound on OPEN YOUR EYES and THE LADDER, both underrated. While releasing a series of solo albums and guesting on records all over the place, both proggy and not, Sherwood became a kind of go-to guy when a band needed not just a multi-instrumentalist, but an experienced engineer. Chris Squire, the legendary Yes bassist who succumbed to leukemia last year, initially picked Sherwood to replace him on bass for a huge 2015 Yes tour that Squire knew he couldn’t participate in. That’s no small thing and Sherwood, by all accounts, jumped in ready to go. But then, Squire left this mortal coil, and now, well, we have to assume Sherwood will continue with Yes, and might even be the point man for a brand new phase, one that none of us can anticipate yet. The guy is a fantastic, versatile musician, and he’s earned good karma a-plenty.

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Which brings us to CITIZEN, surprisingly Sherwood’s seventh or eighth solo album since 1999. It’s a solid platter, with appearances by Yes members both past and present, and the last song recorded by Chris Squire (he appears on the opening track, “The Citizen”). There’s a familiarity about the sound that you can’t deny, and it wouldn’t be fair to even think in terms of “Yes-lite” or something. These are muscular, strong compositions, and why not use musicians of the caliber of YES men such as Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman and Geoff Downes if you can? This is still a Sherwood album through and through, and he sings most of the lead vocals. Among standout tracks: “No Man’s Land,” a fizzy prog confection that alternates between memorably processed lead vocals, Yes-like harmonies, and a confidently anchored arrangement. “Age of the Atom” is a stirring piece that has a descending chord progression, a hooky chorus and some zippy keyboard playing… this one definitely sticks in the ear. By the way, this and “The Great Depression” may bring another progressive behemoth to mind – Genesis. Sherwood sounds a tad like Peter Gabriel at times, and it’s worth mentioning that Steve Hackett from that band is also featured on the record (on “Man and the Machine”). “Trail of Tears” is a tune Gabriel would love… it echoes his aesthetic about indigenous peoples and the subject matter definitely takes on the famed Native American death march of the 1800s. Some very airy, charming synth work is an interesting sonic counterpoint to the theme, and you can just enjoy this track musically without worrying about the history lesson. It’s really good, plain and simple. The aptly named “Escape Velocity” is suffused with Yes DNA… if you just heard this playing, especially during the chorus, you would guess it was likely the real YES, an unfamiliar track perhaps. This is really spirited stuff, and you will swear you can hear Squire on that chorus and bass (though it’s really Billy showing the world why he was Chris’ handpicked successor). Anyway, this is one of the album’s highlights. The ending really kicks ass. And so does the ending of the entire disc, “Written In the Centuries,” which finds current Yes lead singer Jon Davison outfront on vocals. Nice, tight harmonies, chiming guitars, mystical lyrics, tempo changes… why, YES, peeps, you’ll recognize this sound! But somehow it’s also… different. Fresh. It’s the Billy Sherwood approach to prog, and it’s plenty meaty!

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

The album has a story line, by the way, something about a lost soul being reincarnated into different historical periods. There’s a song about Galileo (featuring vocals from XTC’s Colin Moulding) and all sorts of references you’ll have fun trying to catch. But you don’t HAVE to know the theme or decipher the lyrics to appreciate this album. There’s a majesty about a lot of this stuff that shows the pedigree of the players. There are melodies, no song is all that long, and the sonics are nicely balanced between what all Yes fans might expect and fresher elements that Billy Sherwood, a thoughtful musician, took care to weave into the compositions. This CITIZEN is a reliable one indeed, and deserves to take its rightful place in the ever evolving community of Yes and related prog-dom. Nice job, Billy boy. I hope your pal Chris got to hear most of this before he said goodbye.


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.