WILLIAM SHATNER: THE BLUES

(CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2020)

William Shatner has been an icon of pop culture pretty much since the concept itself emerged: He needs no summary at all for his influential role as Captain Kirk on the original STAR TREK series, after which he went on to TJ HOOKER, BOSTON LEGAL and an increasingly eccentric series of recordings (the first of which, 1968’s THE TRANSFORMED MAN, is now legendary). Shatner has been satirized, imitated, mythologized and, by certain former colleagues, dismissed as arrogant and self-centered. He’s bigger than life, this guy, and everything he does, just about, commands attention. Not long ago he recorded a Christmas album that sold pretty well, and that must have planted the seed to start exploring other genres. Thus, we now get THE BLUES, an unlikely and potentially controversial collection of Blues standards and Blues-flavored rockers that find Shatner absolutely being himself, for better or worse, in a style of music that would seem to be light years from his comfort zone. How does a privileged white Canadian icon insert himself into a mostly black, angst-laced genre that is all about authenticity and down to earth emotions? Well, he hires a bunch of legendary players to back him, for one. Thus we get guys like Steve Cropper, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, James Burton, Sonny Landreth, Ritchie Blackmore and others to power the legend through classics like “Smokestack Lightning,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and the Muddy Waters classic “Mannish Boy,” among many others. Let’s start with that last song, which really does work, astoundingly. The groove is a timeless blues template, but Shatner has no trouble at all delivering lyrics like “Now I’m a man, way past 21/Want you to believe me, baby/I have lots of fun.” The recontextualization of such a famous tune is kind of a hoot, and when Shatner sings “I’m a natural born lover’s man/I’m a hoochie coochie man” late in the song, he lets out an energetic “Woo!” that lets you know he’s having fun. Someone will put this on at a party somewhere, and people will be laughing and wanting to know who it is. Same with “I Put a Spell On You,” a timeless chestnut that was already a bit demented in the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original, so having Shatner here trying to play it just slightly unhinged works fine. The musicians throughout are playing with fierce, bottom-anchored chops as on “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Crossroads,” which in a recent interview Shatner said he was fascinated by regarding the apocryphal Robert Johnson story about a minimally talented guy selling his soul to the devil to perform at a much higher level. You wanna be the one to write an entertaining essay comparing Robert Johnson to William Shatner, go right ahead. But Shatner digs in here, and although many will scratch their heads, this stuff isn’t boring. You gotta wonder, though, with the sterling musicianship on “Smokestack Lightning,” isn’t it a disservice to have a hokey, jokey vocal that draws your attention away from the groove? That “Chicago” song, “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and a few others are a bit hard to take; Shatner bellows, screeches and over-dramatizes the words (non-singing, technically) in a manner that can truly annoy. “You hear me moanin’ and groanin’/It hurts… ” go the lyrics, and yeah, that’ll sum it up for many. Shatner’s shtick is more palatable when he’s doing his patented “talk singing,” as on “Sunshine of Your Love,” a highlight here. Shatner’s sense of fun and self-awareness is almost palpable in this performance; he’s winking at the listener, and well aware of the unlikeliness of what he’s doing. “The Thrill Is Gone” is also “Shatnerized” effectively (that word should be in the dictionary by now), as ol’ Bill keeps a sort of subtle mockery in the mix when he tells an unknown woman “Oh yeah, oh yeah/I’m free, I’m free from your spell now… ” with unique vocal tics adding to the impact.

WILLIAM SHATNER, August 2019 (photo credit: GABE ZINSBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Fans of George Takei will find irony in Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together,” which features Canned Heat. If this one doesn’t make you smile, face it, you aren’t destined to be a fan of Shatner’s music. The pauses, the enunciation… pure Bill! If hearing him say “Let’s make life worthwhile” and repeat that title over and over can’t tickle your funny bone, hey, no biggie. Shatner surely won’t care. But if you’re the big picture sort, you may even find poignancy in “Secrets and Sins,” the relatively drowsy closing track here, and the most personal song. I was always moving forward/Was always saying ‘yes’/A thousand little triumphs… ” Shatner chuckles audibly after a few more lines, then says “You may not like this answer/I do everything the same.” Yes and no, actually. Shatner does approach every project in life with the same sense of confidence in his own worthiness, and the same sense of pure fun. But he finds many different ways to BE William Shatner, and to serve up surprises both big and small. Sure, he can be insufferable, and you have every right to think he’s somehow desecrating the real spirit of the Blues on this album. But you gotta admit, he’s got panache… and he enjoys the hell out of his life, now in his late 80s. Personally, I think that makes this album some kind of wacky landmark. Shatner’s still moving ahead at Warp 7.


JUST AFTER ZERO: ALCHEMEDIC

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

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

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

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

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

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

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

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

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH JOHN LIMING OF “JUST AFTER ZERO”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

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

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

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


WEEKS ISLAND: DROSTE

(SELF-RELEASED DIGITAL EP; 2020)

All musical genres evolve and change, no matter what they started as. When Brian Eno coined the term “ambient” for the dreamy, drifty sound he became enamored with in the mid-’70s, it would have been impossible for him to imagine the different directions this stuff would go in over the next nearly half a century. APOLLO, the absolute ambient classic Eno created with his brother Roger and producing partner Daniel Lanois in 1983, found Lanois doing a strange thing: Introducing the pedal steel into otherwise spacey, Eno-esque soundscapes. It was an attempt to comment on astronauts reported fondness for traditional country music. Although viewed as sacrilege by ambient purists, somehow this new and unfamiliar blend worked.

Jonny Campos of Weeks Island (an ambient side project for the guitarist in Cajun band the Lost City Ramblers) was listening. He has just released DROSTE, a 5-track EP that features pedal steel and atmospheric background drone that removes almost every trace of anything you’d call “country.” This is meandering, often haunting ambience that makes a statement without wearing out its welcome. “Raccoon Island” could be the soundtrack for a couple lost in a swamp somewhere, evoking a non-panicky sort of displaced feeling, very much of the background-ish aesthetic that good ambient music excels at. “Fleur Pond” is more sparse but still gently cinematic, with Campos playing his chosen notes with definite deliberation. “Bayou La Chute” doesn’t vary too much, but the bending of a single string upward or downward adds drama and an evocation of being pretty far away from any familiar scenic touchstones. Curiously, this stuff is more purely ambient than Lanois’ diversions on the previously mentioned APOLLO. “Cybrien Bay” adds a repeating low-register tone for something a shade more intense and it contrasts nicely with Campos’ by now characteristic fluid pedal-steel flourishes. And the piece never makes it to the 3-minute mark, The opening “Point Fortuna” is nearly twice as long and represents Campos’ intention here the most memorably.

WEEKS ISLAND (Jonny Campos) (photo credit: WILL HAGAN)

With any sort of weird ambient music, it’s a given that it’s an “acquired taste.” But this is actually a nice little surprise… short, purposeful and totally authentic in its aims to create a southern-tinged atmospheric mini-set that has ambient textures but with pedal steel and the processing of it at the forefront. Let’s keep an eye and an ear on Jonny Campos; he’s demonstrated that he has a feel for this stuff, and meatier works may be in the offing down the road.


EPHEMERA: SEASONS

(EPHEMERA MUSIC; 2020) (UPDATE BELOW)

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

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

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

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

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

SEASONS is available digitally on iTunes, Tidal and Spotify.

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

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


TIRILL: SAID THE SUN TO THE MOON

(FAIRY MUSIC; Norwegian import, 2019)

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

TIRILL (publicity photo)

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


UPCOMING: THE VANDOLIERS

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

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


DANIELSON: SNAP OUTTAVIT

(JOYFUL NOISE RECORDINGS; 2018)


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

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

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

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


NEIL YOUNG/JOHN HAMMOND

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

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

NEIL YOUNG (photo credit: THRASHER)

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

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

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

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

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

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


ADRIAN AARDVARK: DYING OPTIMISTICALLY

(EPIFO MUSIC; 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.