TURKUAZ/GHOST-NOTE

(February 4, 2016; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

Pre-show stage set up (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Pre-show stage set up (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

When you walk into a venue and see the amount of equipment, instruments and cases strewn over the room that met me when I arrived early at the Old Rock House, you can expect a few different things, including (but not limited to): First, a Chicago-like pop-candy type of band; two, a swingin’ wedding band doing sad, tarted up versions of sad, tarted up 1980s radio/MTV hits; or, three, a wicked tight rock and soul nine-piece with gloriously funky overtones. Yeah, I know that there are plenty of sadists out there wishing for a horrible wedding band evening to befall yours truly (and there are still a few masochists out there that think Chicago has made really good music over the past 35 years or so) but, thankfully, rock, soul, funk and more funk held sway on a rainy Thursday night in Saint Louis. The night was filled with funky bass lines, solid horn playing, great vocal work outs and blazing guitar. Oh, and some of the best drum and percussion work you are ever likely to hear in today’s sterilized and homogenized musical landscape.

Ghost-Note (Nate Werth; Sylvester Onyejiaka; Robert Searight) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ghost-Note (Nate Werth; Sylvester Onyejiaka; Robert Searight) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The groove-heavy Ghost-Note opened the proceedings in… uh… cramped style; I actually feared for a couple of the players (as well as the expensive equipment of both bands) as they navigated their way onto the crowded stage, which included the headliners’ massive lighting rig. This loose construct is the side project of Snarky Puppy percussionists Nate Werth and Robert “Sput” Searight, who were joined onstage by woodwind specialist Sylvester Onyejiaka, bassist AJ Brown and Nick Werth, who handled – after some programming and electrical issues – an instrument called the xylosynth. The sound can best be described as “dumping Terry Bozzio, Latin percussionist Coke Escovedo, Stanley Clarke (or, maybe, Victor Wooten) and Miles Davis into a blender and pouring the results onto a stage to perform.”

Ghost-Note (Robert Searight; AJ Brown; Nate Werth) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ghost-Note (Robert Searight; AJ Brown; Nate Werth) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As may be expected, with two percussionists at the helm, the sound is dictated by Sput’s powerful drumming and Nate’s inventive use of just about every other type of percussion instrument, both acoustic and electronc; this is borne out from the opening of the first number, “Ja-Make-Ya Dance,” an impressive workout which also featured a nice flute part from Onyejiaka. Highlights of the set included “Conversations,” a brilliant discussion of the symbiotic relationship between Werth, Searight and the perpetual groove; “Shrill Tones,” which prominently featured the funky bass of AJ Brown, who I would rate among the best on his instrument in any genre from any era; and a cool reconstruction of Bjork’s “Hyperballad.” There really isn’t a standard “melody” to any of Ghost-Note’s music; even Sylevester’s saxes and flutes have more of a percussive feel than a straight melody line that you can pin down and say, “Ah… there’s a nice melody.” In fact, and this may be something that only musicians will understand but, the melody is in the groove and it’s in the beat… and there was plenty of both on display on this night. Oh, yeah… did I mention? Cowbell! Lotsa cowbell! Beautiful, beautiful cowbell…

Turkuaz (Dave Brandwein; Sammi Garrett; Craig Brodhead) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Turkuaz (Dave Brandwein; Sammi Garrett; Craig Brodhead) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With Ghost-Note’s instruments and equipment removed, the stage opened up into a vast expanse, allowing the nine members of Turkuaz to perform in relative comfort. No, it didn’t… yeah, there was more room, but that extra room was taken up by the equipment and the bodies of four extra people. As with Ghost-Note, the small dimensions of the stage seemed to spur the headliners toward new musical heights rather than stifle the individual players. Back in the day, an ensemble such as Turkuaz would have been called a “rock and soul revue,” the kinda band you’d find backing legends like James Brown or Ike Turner; with some wicked jazz and funk riffs tossed in, the cool factor is heightened exponentially… imagine if George Duke and Earth Wind and Fire had a bunch of white babies. Those babies have been laying down some of the funkiest, dirtiest grooves you’re likely to hear this side of Sly and the Family Stone or George Clinton for the past half-a-decade, including the recently released DIGITONIUM.

Turkuaz (Josh Schwartz, Greg Sanderson; Chris Brouwers; Taylor Shell, Craig Brodhead) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Turkuaz (Josh Schwartz, Greg Sanderson; Chris Brouwers; Taylor Shell, Craig Brodhead) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Speaking of the Family Stone, on of the many highlights of the evening was a cover of that group’s 1973 album track, “Babies Makin’ Babies,” which featured Sammi Garett sharing lead vocals with Dave Brandwein and some funky mid-’70s Stevie Wonder-like keyboards from Craig Brodhead. DIGITONIUM was well represented in the set with the loopy, horny (sax players Josh Schwartz and Greg Sanderson and trumpeter Chris Brouwers, who does double duty, adding keyboard flourishes, as well) “Percy Thrills the Moondog,” the “Atomic Dog” groove of “The Generator” and the New Wavish “King Computer.” The group is definitely well-equipped to adapt to any situation on the fly, dropping numbers from the set and adding another that would be a better fit for the Saint Louis crowd; during sound-check, Brandwein and drummer Michelangelo Carubba tried out a new arrangement for “The Generator,” which led to them flipping the tune with the bouncy, Princely “Chatte Lunatique.” As there were some questions from the band about whether the different arrangement was going to work, I was surprised when the changes were introduced and, I must say, dopping “The Generator” down a spot certainly paid off, as it worked far better coming out of “Chatte… ” and into “Smarter Than the Speaker” than the original order would have. The sound took on a heavier, more rocking sound when Brodhead picked up a guitar, dropping in some wicked solos along the way… not that Brandwein was a slouch himself. Having made a passing mention of the band’s drummer, I should mention the uncompromisingly funky work of both Carubba and his partner-in-rhythm, Taylor Shell; even on more rock-infused songs like “Electric Habitat” and aforementioned “King Computer,” the innate funkiness of the duo came shining through. Shell (along with vocalists Garrett and Shira Elias), solid throughout, really stepped up the game on the set closer, a mean cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Every One’s a Winner.” Other highlights included the charging funk of “Coast To Coast” and the slow, soulful groove of “Future 86.” There was so much happening on stage and the players were all so insanely talented, it was truly hard to focus on any one person for any length of time; add the highly entertaining (and mostly drunk) bodies gyrating on the dancefloor and there was more than enough to keep both my eyes and my ears busy throughout the night… there’s fun and then there’s Fun. This night was Fun, from start to finish.


LOVE: REEL-TO-REAL

(HIGH MOON RECORDS/RSO RECORDS; reissue 2015, original release 1974)

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Love’s seventh official album, REEL-TO-REAL, was seven years removed from the classic psychedelia of the brilliant FOREVER CHANGES and, seemingly, light years away musically. Arthur Lee had steered the Love boat (sorry… couldn’t resist the bad pun) solo since the original group disintegrated due to in-fighting and drug abuse after FOREVER CHANGES and, while each subsequent album featured a song or two that evoked the first three records, Lee had a tendency to ramble without Love’s other songwriter and vocalist, Bryan MacLean, taking at least some of the creative load off. After four years (and four albums) with Elektra and two records for Blue Thumb in 1969 and 1970, Arthur put the Love name to bed and recorded the hard-rocking solo record, VINDICATOR. In 1973, Lee put together a new Love and recorded an album called BLACK BEAUTY; unfortunately, the label, Buffalo Records, went belly-up before the record could be released (a remastered version of BLACK BEAUTY finally saw release through Half Moon Records in 2013). Invigorated by the sound of the new Love, Arthur Lee began work on what would become REEL-TO-REAL, released on RSO Records in 1974. Now, following the success of BLACK BEAUTY, High Moon has released a deluxe reissue of that 1974 record, complete with 12 bonus tracks of outtakes, demos and alternate versions. “But,” you ask, “was it worth it?” The short answer is, “Yes. Yes, it was.”

Love (Melvan Whittington, Robert Rozelle, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

Love (Melvan Whittington, Robert Rozelle, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

The album kicks off with “Time Is Like a River,” a signal call that this Love is gonna be a funkier proposition than the band’s late ’60s heyday. The song is highlighted by a soulful Arthur Lee vocal with Motown-style female backing vocals. The number also features a galloping drum track from Joey Blocker and great, funky horns; for those jonesing for a touch of the old guard, the psychedelic dual leads and solos – provided by the tandem of Melvan Whittington and John Sterling – more than fit the bill. “Stop the Music” is kind of an old Rhythm and Blues stroll, with some cool slide work from Sterling, a nice, hard rocking solo and a honkin’ bit of harp from Lee. The surprising use of tuba adds a slight New Orleans Jazz flavor, while Arthur does his best Otis Redding. Love channels Stevie and Earth Wind and Fire on “Who Are You?,” with Philip Bailey-like falsetto vocals and a lot of Wonder-ous clavinet effects from Bobby Lyle. “Good Old Fashion Dream” is a great Southern Soul rocker. Almost as a contrast, Lee’s vocals are raspy and urgent, with Sherwood Akuna’s spongy bass line holding the groove together throughout. The acoustic Blues of “Which Witch Is Which” features a few elements of electric rock and roll, most noticeably an awesome backward guitar by guest Harvey Mandel. “With a Little Energy” is a total James Brown funk workout, with the rhythm section of Blocker and Robert Rozelle propelling the tune forward. Arthur’s vocals have a distinct Sly Stone vibe here.

Love (Arthur Lee) (photo credit: MICHAEL PUTLAND)

Love (Arthur Lee) (photo credit: MICHAEL PUTLAND)

What was originally the first cut on Side Two of the 1974 record, “Singing Cowboy” is probably the closest in feel to the original Love’s sound. Sterling’s slide and Blocker’s heavy drums once again shine. The next track had more of an organic beginning, with Akuna, Blocker and Whittington messing with the rhythm in the studio and Lee joining in with some lyrics; “Man, let’s record that,” said Lee. Producer Skip Taylor rolled tape and “Be Thankful For What You Got” was born. Though it isn’t my favorite song on the record, it does feature a funky, rather Caribbean groove; unfortunately, the bass and some faux orchestra parts push it into a proto-Disco sound. “You Said You Would” was one of the more controversial songs as it was being recorded. The chorus of “You said you would/You said you would/Now you’re gone” features gunshot before the last line; everybody but Arthur thought that using the sound effect throughout the tune was… well, overkill, but he wouldn’t budge and that’s how the number was released. The song itself is a return to the poppy psychedelic sound of early Love, with snarky lyrics from Lee, giving it a John Lennon or Harry Nilsson vibe. Hendrixian in scope, if not in execution, “Busted Feet” is a throbbing, pulsating hard rocker. Arthur’s vocals sound urgent and strained to his limits. It’s a cool, welcome departure from the general feel of the album. A ragged acoustic Blues, “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” closes the album proper, reminding me somehow of early, folky Dylan. A nice song and a great way to end a record.

Love (Robert Rozelle, Melvan Whittington, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

Love (Robert Rozelle, Melvan Whittington, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

This nicely packaged reissue clocks in at a hefty 72 minutes plus. The original album was an economical 33 minutes, which means there are nearly forty minutes of extras here… it ain’t all essential but… well, there ya go. The outtakes are pretty cool to hear and the rehearsal stuff is fun… I just kinda think that including a live show from that era woulda been a better choice. Having said that, the first outtake, “Do It Yourself,” is interesting on a couple of different fronts: The shuffling rhythm, funky horns and country-fried psychedelic guitar gives the song the feel of a hard rock version of Earth Wind and Fire; the aforementioned guitar parts are quite reminiscent of the band’s then-label mate, Eric Clapton, a sound and tone and style that, apparently, Arthur Lee loathed. “I Gotta Remember” is a straight on rocker, with Lee’s lyrics and vocals putting one in mind of Jimi. It has a sort of circular arrangement and could have been the hit that RSO label president Bill Oakes was looking for from Love; instead, the song remained unreleased at the time. More Hendrix-like lyrics inform “Someday,” a nifty little Sly and the Family Stone work out with minimal, rather simple instrumentation that focuses more on the basic groove than anything else. “You Gotta Feel It” is a Fats Domino New Orleans stroll with nice guitar and a solid Lee vocal over a rolling, popping bass line. I like the basic premise of the number but, at 3:38, it goes on about two minutes too long.

Love (John Sterling, Sherwood Akuna,  Joe Blocker, Arthur Lee, Herman McCormick, Melvan Whittington) (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

Love (John Sterling, Sherwood Akuna, Joe Blocker, Arthur Lee, Herman McCormick, Melvan Whittington) (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

The alternate versions of “With a Little Energy” and an electric “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” as well as the single mix of “You Said You Would,” are just okay. The alternate “Busted Feet” is nearly two minutes longer than the version released in 1974, with extended breaks, more vocal histrionics and a wicked, heavy guitar solo. “Stop the Music” uses Arthur’s slightly off-key guitar line as the lead and removes the horns, tuba and harmonica. Lee does a bit of vocal scatting in place of the harmonica. The extended length comes from some pretty funny studio banter. Perhaps the alternate take that differs most from the original album version is “Singing Cowboy.” This version features a faster tempo, as well as a more urgent and upfront slide guitar; there’s also an unhinged wah-infused solo toward the end. The studio rehearsals (more of a warm-up or, in some cases, just goofing around while Lee decided what he wanted to do during a particular session) are nice additions. “Graveyard Hop” is a weird snippet of “Jailhouse Rock,” with reworked lyrics. The piece sounds really ragged and cool. Maybe the most intriguing bonus cut is the band rehearsing the FOREVER CHANGES outtake, “Wonder People (I Do Wonder).” Even though it kind of sounds like an unfinished San Francisco hippie ballad, it does show that Arthur was a bit more receptive to returning to those songs… at least, in the confines of a recording studio. The song actually features a solid guitar solo, even if Lee’s vocals weren’t much more than incoherent scatting. Overall, the re-release of this woefully ignored album is well worth the price of admission and, spotty though it is, holds up really well.


KOA/THE DRIFTAWAYS

(December 19, 2015; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

Koa display their Hip-Hop street cred at the Music Record Shop; Koa and their Saint Louis Contingent after the show (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Koa display their Hip-Hop street cred at the Music Record Shop; Koa and their Saint Louis Contingent after the show (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

This evening started much like most others when the show is scheduled at the Demo or Ready Room: A visit to Rise for a cup of coffee, followed by a visit to Music Record Shop, conveniently located between the two venues. Walking into the MRS, I noticed a few young people milling about, obviously excited that Koa were being interviewed at the back of the store. Once the guys finished with one journalist, they were accosted by a second… me. The labors of our mutual work is at the top left of this review. The band were nearly as excited to see the kids as vice versa, labeling them “the Saint Louis contingent.” The youngsters were enthusiastic enough that guitarist Conor Kelly announced that they would be his guests for the show; when he was told that the group’s guest list was full, he paid for the extra tickets out of his own pocket. A class act that paid off with an appreciative, zealous group of fans at the front of the stage (and, later, onstage, for the group photo above, right).

The Driftaways (Zaq Nunley; Dane Wells; Nick Christie) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Driftaways (Zaq Nunley; Dane Wells; Nick Christie) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Local artists, the Driftaways, opened the festivities, with their Midwestern mash-up of Ska, Reggae and Dub. I happened to be talking to Koa bassist Ryan Ladd during the Driftaways’ sound check and commented on Nick Christie’s ability to coax that authentic, low rumble sound of Dub out of his bass… I wondered what kind of effects pedal he was using. Ryan told me that it was all Christie; he was using Ryan’s rig and he didn’t have any pedals. I was suitably impressed. From the Two-Tone Ska of originals like “Sun Shining” to their spot-on cover of the Wailers’ “Burn Down Babylon,” the six-piece group (trombonist Sean Myers was absent) offered a set that was, not only widely varied but, totally fun and engaging from the start. Guitarist Dane Wells (who serves double-duty as the band’s vocalist, as well) lays down some seriously wicked reverb-drenched roots-rockin’ leads and solos, particularly on the slow burn of “Creepin’.” Zaq Nunley, Dane’s sax-blowing counterpart, added a nice balance with his own leads, as well a series of quite inventive solos. But, as awesome as the other guys (including drummer Kevin Krauss and Ryan Stewart on keyboards) were, the set belonged to Christie and his spongy bass; his Dub riddim offered a strand of continuity throughout the genre-bending set. His talents were most prominently featured on a pair of instrumentals, “Golden Dub” and the band’s theme song, “Driftaway.” If you have a chance to see the Driftaways, don’t waste it… they will definitely put a smile on your face!

Koa (Conor Kelly; Will Youngclaus; Alex Mathews) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Koa (Conor Kelly; Will Youngclaus; Alex Mathews) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

On record, Koa are a funky, jazzy smooth sorta jam band with a definite hippy cast to their lyrics; live, they rough up their sound into a hard rockin’ funk monster. As good as the studio Koa sounds, it’s obvious that they are built for the stage; in fact, as guitarist Conor Kelly told me before the show, “ …the jam element kind of embellishes on the live performance… keeping things fresh by playing things a little bit differently every night.” It’s hard to believe that these guys have only been a band for barely two years. Chase Bader’s voice has a certain husky rasp that can carry a show; add Kelly’s slide work and you have a show and a sound that many older, more experienced bands can only dream about. The jazz-tinged “False Calls,” featuring a smoking Alex Mathews sax solo, kicked the set off in fine fashion. “What Now,” the first track from the group’s new EP, THIS IS KOA, followed. The new material has a more hard-edged sound that translates quite well in a live setting. Which could explain the fact that all five tracks from the EP (offered as a free download from NoiseTrade, which is where I discovered Koa) were featured in the band’s ten song set.

Koa (Ryan Ladd; Ryan Ladd, Chase Bader, Will Youngclaus; Chase Bader) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Koa (Ryan Ladd; Ryan Ladd, Chase Bader, Will Youngclaus; Chase Bader) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unexpect Ability,” had a cool, punky Jam (as in, Paul Weller’s late ’70s trio) vibe, with a chiming guitar part from Kelly and solid rhythm work from both Ryan Ladd on bass and Will Youngclaus on drums; special guest, keyboardist Ian Miller, added some nice piano to the affair. Miller continued to impress on the Southern Soul groove of “Cool It Down,” which also featured one of Bader’s more impassioned vocals of the evening. The syncopated, nearly Caribbean rhythms of “Corbett’s Place” again allowed Youngclaus and his partner in percussion, Ryan McClanahan, to strut their stuff; Mathews also added to the song’s flavor with a double sax solo (duet?). The diversity of THIS IS KOA was perhaps best exhibited on “Gemini,” a kind of Country hoedown with power chords aplenty and a killer slide solo from Conor, as well as a sax part from Alex that kinda reminded me of Boots Randolph’s classic “Yakety Sax.” After the shortest of breaks, the guys returned to the stage (well, to be honest, they never actually left the stage… they just kinda stood at the back before heading back to their instruments) for an encore of the atmospheric “Turtles,” here transformed into a swirling stew of genre-bending jamming and heady solos from just about everyone on stage – a great way to end what was an exceptionally fun night with two groups of highly accomplished musicians.


CHUI WAN/BUG CHASER/TONE RODENT

(May 11, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

To say that I was stoked to see Chui Wan, a young psychedelic band from Beijing, China, is something akin to an understatement. All it took was hearing one song from their self-titled second album and, I was hooked. The fact that some old friends, Tone Rodent, were on the bill, alongside the belligerently unhinged octet, Bug Chaser, was merely icing on an already perfect cake. Though, as a touring band, Chui Wan were the de facto headliner, the decision was made to slot them between the two local acts (a choice precipitated by the fact that drummer Li Zichao was using Tone Rodent Adam Dick’s kit; plus, bassist Matty Coonfield was pulling double duty, playing in both Saint Louis bands); to maintain a certain “you were there” sense of continuity, this review will start with Tone Rodent and end with Bug Chaser.

Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

At some point in the last decade and a half, I reviewed a Tone Rodent show (give me a break if I can’t remember specifics, huh? I’m old!). Here’s what I do remember: I liked them. So, now, all these years (or months or days or hours… whatever) later, I can unequivocally tell you this: I still like them. At this point, Adam Watkins (vocals and guitar) and Matty Coonfield (bass) are the only original members from that band I saw way back when; the current version – with guitarist Jeff Robtoy, keyboard player Mark Early and drummer Adam Dick – were playing what may have been their final show, as Adam Dick is calling it a day and Coonfield is leaving to direct his energies toward Bug Chaser. The band lumbered, rather than tore, through a shambolic 35 minute set that, aside from some minor technical issues was, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyable. Watkins and Robtoy complimented and played against each other (as the situation dictated) quite well and Early’s ambient drone added a depth that isn’t usually found in the noisy, hard-edged psychedelia at which Tone Rodent excel. Dick proved himself to be much more than a timekeeper, with precise fills and unexpected flourishes. And, as I’ve said too many times to count, there’s just something in the water supply that lifts Saint Louis bass players to another level; the style of music being played is irrelevant… once I hear that deep-in-the-pocket groove of the bass, I can almost always tell that the player has Saint Louis roots. Matty is no exception and is as solid and as funky as any bassist to come out of the Lou in the past three decades. Six songs into the set, Watkins said, “We have two more. After sixteen years, we’re down to two songs… and we plan to fuck both of ‘em up.” The next tune sounded great but, as the group started “Amen,” Jeff’s guitar cord shorted out but, after much chiding from his bandmates and a save from a Bug Chaser, the final song from the current line-up of Tone Rodent was over, the notes ringing in the ears of the Monday night denizens of Off Broadway.

Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Okay… so this is where a little learnin’ may come in handy. To understand the importance of a group like Chui Wan, I think we should first understand a bit about where they come from. Beijing’s history traces back more than three millennia – under different names – and boasts such cultural and historic sites as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. As the cultural and political center of the People’s Republic of China, it has also been the scene of political unrest, revolution and protest: The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the infamous Gang of Four and, perhaps, the most famous societal event in recent history, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Beijing is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 20 million citizens packed into an area a little over 6,300 square miles (that comes out to something like 3,400 people per square mile… to paraphrase Cheap Trick, “That’s tight!”). That’s the background – the culture and the history – that informs the music and lives of Chui Wan, alongside a diverse musical landscape that includes, individually, Classical and traditional Chinese music, avant garde pioneer John Cage (himself influenced by Eastern music and the philosophy of the I CHING) and, the one major influence that all four members cite: The Velvet Underground. Now, imagine these four young musicians venturing forth into a very different Western culture… a culture where, especially in the United States, celebrity and money are more important than history and tradition; a culture that claims superiority and looks down upon the cultural and societal mores of someone – anyone – who doesn’t share our culture and beliefs… even when we’re on their home turf. Let’s face it… we are arrogant and shallow. So, it’s with that backdrop of major culture shock (not to mention the language barrier… WE expect these young people to be conversant in our language because… “Hey, we’re Americans. What makes you so special that you can’t even learn our language?”) that Chui Wan made their third appearance in the USA (Visa problems caused them a delay of about ten days and seven shows). And what an appearance it was!

Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As bassist Wu Qiong began an intro riff that would make Tony Levin proud, all of those cultural differences didn’t matter anymore; all that mattered was the music. Though their sound is seemingly tight and structured, there is also a sense of the adventurous, the experimental. I immediately heard an Adrian Belew-era King Crimson influence (though I was assured that reference would have been lost on the quartet) – or to be more accurate, Fripp’s other, more improvisational group of the same period, the League of Gentlemen – as well the free-wheeling feel of some of the early 1970s (mostly) instrumental offerings from Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; there were also moments that had me nodding my head, thinking, “Now I get the John Cage reference.” Though many of the band’s compositions border on free-form jazz, it’s Liu Xinyu’s effects-heavy guitar and Li Zichao’s progressive drumming that garners the group its psychedelic label; the sounds Liu coaxes out of his instrument can best be described as “otherworldly,” and isn’t that a prime definition of psychedelic music? Yan Yulong adds atmospheric soundscapes on, not only guitar, but keyboard and – briefly (and very effectively) – viola, as well. Yan, who also supplies the majority of what vocals there are, delivers them in a nearly inaudible drone that further feeds the psychedelic miasma; Wu Qiong has one vocal, a quiet and – dare I say – humble performance that seems a much more comfortable match for her demeanor than is her spirited, funky bass playing. Maybe the most amazing aspect of the inspired (and inspiring) performance is the fact that the four are – literally – wunderkinds… all are in their very early 20s (drummer Li is barely 20) and have been playing – individually and collectively – since an early age (the band’s debut album, WHITE NIGHT, was released in 2012). Even if most of the Monday night denizens were unfamiliar with Chui Wan when they took the stage, after their set, I heard nothing but terms of reverential awe regarding what will long be remembered as a triumphal Saint Louis debut.

Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

After a prolonged delay, the eight-headed beast known as Bug Chaser took the stage. If Tone Rodent’s set was shambolic, then Bug Chaser’s could only be labeled chaotic, with Matty Coonfield reveling in the unbridled insanity. There were actual songs played but, naming them would merely be an exercise in futility… all you really need to know is that the band and the crowd were having too much fun to worry about things like song titles. The group was occasionally augmented and exhorted by a gentleman who originally appeared to be a drunken, overzealous fan but, as the set proceeded, seemed to be more of a well-placed prop, dancing and prancing behind the group one minute and playing the role of cocktail waitress the next. The tunes (noises?) ranged from boisterous boogie to raging rock to furious funk (see what I did there?), all delivered with a reckless abandon reminiscent of George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars at their most debauched. The percussive unit of Kevin Insinna and Taylor Huff (for I believe it was they of whom I speak) laid down a solid groove, where the notes they didn’t play were as important as the ones they did; their rhythm section inmate, Coonfield, pumped out bass riffs dense enough to caulk a large-scale bathroom at the Mall of America. Zeng Zengerling and Jake Jones are potent forces of guitar showmanship, sharing frantic leads and trading querulous solos over the expansive bottom end, which also included keyboard and effects work from Jake Bremler and Jeff White. Standing over all is the strutting vocal peacock, Pat Grosch, who reminds me of a younger, more boisterous Weird Al Yankovic… but with better hair. For a full-on sonic assault, you’ve gotta see these guys live… until then, check out some tunes at Bandcamp.


SLEATER-KINNEY/THEESATISFACTION

(April 24, 2015; THE PAGEANT, Saint Louis MO)

Sleater-Kinney

So… what exactly happened on this beautiful, cool April evening in Saint Louis, within the jam-packed confines of the Pageant? Well, five outrageously talented musicians (six, actually, counting an auxiliary player, augmenting the furious noise of the headliners) – women – commanded the respect and attention of every single person in attendance. It was almost like a mini LILITH FAIR, but without the “we’re going to prove that we can rock as well as the boys, but in a more genteel girly-girl fashion, with lilacs in our hair and pansies on the stocks of our acoustic guitars.” These ladies had, all, proven that point years ago; no, they were here to rock. You gotta live in a cave, or – well, under a rock, if you haven’t figured out that women can rock every bit as hard as men (harder, in some respects)… always have; always will. After hearing more than one knucklehead make the comment that “they play pretty good for girls,” I just had to get that out of my system; I absolutely cannot believe that the subject is even up for debate anymore.

THEESatisfaction (Stasia Irons, Catherine Harris-White) (photo credit: KING TEXAS)

THEESatisfaction (Stasia Irons, Catherine Harris-White) (photo credit: KING TEXAS)

My butt was inside the venue thanks to the ladies of THEESatisfaction, who took pity on a lowly scribe and put him on their guest list. Choosing a Hip-Hop act to open for them may seem an odd choice for Sleater-Kinney and their punk roar – putting aside the fact that the two groups both call Sub Pop home – but, Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons (whose stage names are Cat and Stas) are kindred spirits with the trio… riot grrrls to the core. The duo’s music could best be described as Hawkwind-ian space-hippy synthesizers over some seriously funky beats; Cat and Stas both have great voices, with Stas handling the raps and, when they harmonize, you are magically transported back to Motown’s 1960s heyday. There’s also a bit of Supremes-style choreography going on (and, at one time, there was even a hint of some old O’Jays moves, showing love for the Philly soul movement, too). The tunes themselves were uplifting and empowering without being preachy: “Recognition,” from the recently released EARTHEE album; “Queens,” from its predecessor, AWE NATURALE; and the wickedly on-point “Bisexual,” from 2009’s SNOW MOTION release. Stas sent the latter out to “boys who like boys, girls who like girls, girls who like boys and boys who like girls.” The 45-minute set was well-received… I even saw a couple of older guys bobbing their heads and singing along to the newer songs. THEESatisfaction actually flew in from Nashville just a couple of hours before the show (their plane was late, forcing a scheduled in-store appearance at Vintage Vinyl to be delayed and cut short), leaving them little time to rest before taking the stage; as amazing as this performance was, I can only imagine the type of set they could have pulled off had they been well-rested.

Sleater-Kinney (Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein) (uncredited photo)

Sleater-Kinney (Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein) (uncredited photo)

After a thirty minute break, the reunited Sleater-Kinney took the stage in rather unassuming fashion, waving and smiling to the house. The demure entrance quickly turned into an explosion of noise and power, as Janet Weiss began pummeling her drum kit and the trio ripped into “Price Tag,” the opening salvo from the group’s new NO CITIES TO LOVE album. Corin Tucker’s harsh, sometimes grating vocal style plays well in this live setting and her rhythm guitar, tuned down to give the music a beefed up bottom-end, allows the extraordinary Carrie Brownstein to explore an almost experimental sound as lead guitarist. There are very few guitarists you can identify by tone and style alone; Brain May and Gary Richrath immediately come to mind. Now, after hearing Carrie play live, I would add her work to that short list. The jam-packed nineteen song main set, delivered at a fast and furious pace, left the group (which also included auxiliary player Katie Harkin) – and the crowd – very little time to catch their breath, as they ripped through new favorites and classic tunes, alike: “Bury Our Friends,” “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” “Light Rail Coyote,” “Surface Envy,” “Oh,” “No Cities To Love” and “Ironclad,” among them; the five (!) song encore was kicked off with the syncopated groove of “Gimme Love,” one of the strongest tracks from the new record and the evening ended with THE WOODS’ “Modern Girl,” a jangly, power pop sort of thing… an odd but effective choice to end the show.

Sleater-Kinney (Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss) (uncredited photo)

Sleater-Kinney (Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss) (uncredited photo)

Before this night, I really wasn’t all that familiar with S-K’s music – as close I came had been Janet’s band, Quasi – but, the energy and overwhelming power of this trio has made me a fan. Tucker’s lead vocals (with the occasional Brownstein lead to keep things interesting) border on the sublime; Brownstein’s guitar heroics and on-stage histrionics add a touch of chaos to the magnificent din; and… what can I conceivably say about Weiss’ drumming? Watching her play, she seems to be more of a finesse percussionist but, her sound is as big (maybe bigger) as her idol, John Bonham (I believe he played in the Band of Joy and was part of Jimmy Page’s New Yardbirds). Even with that massive sound, she gives many of the band’s tunes an undeniable groove that’s reminiscent of Tony Thompson’s work with Chic and Power Station. Anyone who had any fears about Sleater-Kinney suffering from their ten year layoff can rest assured that they haven’t lost a beat; in fact, the time off (though each continued playing in other projects) seems to have reinvigorated the band, spurring them to new heights. I, for one, can’t wait to hear what’s next.


HERE COME THE MUMMIES/SUPERFUN YEAH YEAH ROCKETSHIP

(April 10, 2015; THE PAGEANT, Saint Louis MO)

Here Come the Mummies (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Not exactly knowing what to expect from a band called Here Come the Mummies, I packed up the ol’ sarcophagus and lumbered across the mighty Mississippi (our very own version of the Nile) to see what the archaeologists had dug up down in Nashville (that is in Egypt, isn’t it?). I found myself rather surprised that the Mummies’ acolytes were a more… mature crowd than I had anticipated for a group with such a moniker. That didn’t mean that they were any less vociferous than the youngsters… I mean, there was rump-bumpin’ aplenty and the audience participation was unparallelled in the annals of the ancients. But… I proceed myself; let’s back things up to the beginning (of the show… not Genesis; just wanna be clear on that), shall we?

Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship (Correy Goodman; Christopher Eilers) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship (Correy Goodman; Christopher Eilers) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The comedic duo of Corey Goodman and Christopher Eilers – better known as Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship – took the stage, flanked by cardboard cut-outs of Fabio and a herd of hot dogs (a fourth wiener, Franklin, is missing and – though there have been no ransom demands – presumed to be held hostage) and, thus, a totally improbable evening of rock, pop, disco, ska and, yes, the funk of five thousand years was upon us. Between their familial in-joke bantering, local boys Corey and Christopher delivered some truly danceable and utterly outlandish doses of rock and roll, including “Throwin’ Up,” “Randy Savage,” and a stunningly obtuse cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Eilers delivered sheets of metallic riffing as Goodman’s apoplectic shenanigans and not-so-sly wink-and-a-nod lyrics virtually bulldozed the crowd into joining the frenzied frolic of the Rocketship’s forty minute flight… as if they weren’t already hyped in the extreme for what was yet to come. Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship proudly wave their influential flags high: Comic books (“Magneato,” “I Like Marvel, You Like DC”), professional wrestling (“Randy Savage,” “The Undertaker Joins the Avengers”), cheesy ’80s teen movies (“Totally Awesome,” “Throwin’ Up”). Yeah, they may an acquired taste but, like your Mom used to say when she wanted you to eat your Brussels sprouts, “How do you know you don’t like ‘em if you don’t try ‘em?” You can take Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship out for a test drive at their Bandcamp page, but… you gotta be quick, as their furious dance moves and hard-rocking tune-age may soon be swept up in an undercover vice raid!

Here Come the Mummies (Java) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (Java) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

After a surprisingly short intermission, the houselights dimmed and a martial drum coda permeated the electric crowd. This being my introduction to live Mummies (yes… I realize the dichotomy of that phrase), I assumed it was a recorded intro before the band took the stage; shortly, however, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, as the group entered from the back of the venue like the percussion section of a marching band. The crowd erupted as the eight rotting players took to the boards, stage right, before ripping into one of the coolest intro tunes ever, “Carnal Carnival,” a funky New Orleans celebration of lust and death. Percussionist and head instigator Java, playing the demented ringmaster, stalked the stage, leering like a serial killer on a bloody bender. All I could think was, “This is even better than I thought it would be! Play that funky music, dead boy!” For the next 90 minutes, Here Come the Mummies had the Saint Louis faithful roiling and stewing in their own libidinous juices, with crowd favorites like the Mexican banda vibe of “Ra Ra Ra,” the hard rocking funk of “Single Double Triple,” the lonely-loin lament of “Everything But,” the barely disguised double entendre groove of “Booty” and “Attack of the Wiener Man,” and, of course, the Mummies’ mission statement and national anthem, “Freak Flag.”

Here Come the Mummies (Mummy Cass) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (Mummy Cass) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The music of Here Come the Mummies, like that of His Purple Majesty, is littered with sexual innuendo and sweaty crotch-thrusting that borders on the misogynistic. If I had to describe them in one sentence, I would say, “Imagine George Clinton and James Brown had a bunch of 5,000 year old funky dead babies.” While the music is awesome, it takes a back seat to the stage show, with its manic pace and Motown-on-crack choreography coupled with a brilliant use of lighting and smoke effects. Guitarist and primary vocalist, Mummy Cass, gets the funk out with Princely rhythm work and, while he may not be the reincarnation of Eddie Hazel, he definitely embodies the equally late and great Gary Shider. In other words, the ol’ carcass can PLAY! The horn section (BB Queen on trumpet, The Flu handling the baritone sax and Mummy Rah blowing tenor sax and shaking that trunk-fulla-junk that Mama Mummy gave him) is loose and funky at times, tight as a military corner at others; the soloing is soulful, highlighting the individual player’s creativity and obvious (if unstated) musical pedigree. And… did we mention the dance moves? Most mummies I know can’t move like that!

Here Come the Mummies (BB Queen, The Flu, Spaz, Mummy Rah) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (BB Queen, The Flu, Spaz, Mummy Rah) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The rhythm section displayed some pretty nice moves themselves. We already introduced you to vocalist, percussionist and maker-of-mischief, Java; when he’s not out front, inciting the crowd, or leading his fellow Mummies in another syncopated dance routine, he handles a variety of percussion instruments that aren’t part of a standard drum kit, including – naturally – the cowbell; at one point, he strapped a mallet and cowbell to his waist, showing his… uh… musical acumen via a series of pelvic thrusts. Eddie Mummy is the powerhouse that keeps time, never missing a back-beat or a vocal part; Eddie’s drumming is the epitome of jazzy precision and funky hard rock fills. The Pole, whose deep-in-the-pocket groove is in monstrous lockstep with Eddie, stalks the stage, letting his sonorous Bootsy-like bass “trombipulation” do his talking for him. Keyboard player Spaz fills every conceivable sonic void with everything from a classic piano or organ sound to varying blips and bloops and synthesizer noodles; he earns bonus points for not looking like a Jonathan Cain-type idjit when he joins the others at the front of the stage with keytar in hand.

Here Come the Mummies (The Pole) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (The Pole) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Obviously, this is a group who, while having honed their craft to a razor’s edge, don’t take anything too seriously. Except the funk and grind and, of course, delivering a butt-shakin’ good time every time they take the stage. As I mentioned in the intro, this is my first Here Come the Mummies experience… it will not be my last!

Here Come the Mummies (Eddie Mummy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (Eddie Mummy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)


JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS: GUILTY OF INNOCENCE

(SELF RELEASED DIGITAL SINGLE; 2015)

Cover image

Mad genius Joe Deninzon fiddles while Stratospheerius burns.” That could be the ad copy tagline for this new single from one of the most eclectic groups around today. Stratospheerius plays a wicked Zappa-like fusion of rock and funk, peppered with a jazzy metallic seasoning. If you think that’s as beautifully chaotic as it sounds, you would be correct. “Guilty of Innocence” is the second of four single releases coming this year, leading up to full-length album in 2016.

Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius (Lucianna Padmore, Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Jamie Bishop) (publicity photo)

Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius (Lucianna Padmore, Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Jamie Bishop) (publicity photo)

According to Joe, the track was “inspired by my 2012 stint in jury duty and deals with crime and punishment. I was presiding on a rape trial and the guy who I thought was guilty got off practically scot-free.” The rhythm section of bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore lays down a powerful, funky groove as Deninzon’s spastic violin leads and Aurelien Budynek’s muscular metal riffs drive the tune. If you’re a fan of the previously mentioned Frank Zappa or Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, but are unfamiliar with Stratospheerius, “Guilty of Innocence” is a great jumping on place; it’s available at CD Baby, Amazon and all of the other “usual places” and, of course, at the group’s Bandcamp page (along with the previous single, “Behind the Curtain.”)


NICO AND VINZ: BLACK STAR ELEPHANT

(WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS/5 STAR ENTERTAINMENT; 2014)

Nico and Vinz cover

Norwegian pop duo Nico and Vinz (Kahouly Nicolay Sereba and Vincent Dery, formerly known as Envy) blend danceable new wave vibes (there is more than a cursory nod to the Police and their rock-Reggae-ska hybrid), a retro New Jack soul cool and an urban hip-hop swagger with their Ghanian and Ivorian musical heritage. The vibrant aural stew of BLACK STAR ELEPHANT is joyful, inspirational and something that is utterly… Nico and Vinz.

After a brief “(Intro),” the album’s lead single, “Am I Wrong” (which went Top 5 on BILLBOARD’s Hot 100 Singles chart), gives the album legs right from the get-go. While the guitar riff and melody line are straight out of the Police hit “Message In a Bottle,” the tune has more of an American urban pop sound, featuring the duo’s faultless vocals, an unobtrusive but effective horn chart and an infusion of African percussion. “Last Time” has a little more of an uptown, Bronx sound in the vocals, lyrics and overall groove. It makes this old heart happy when you can actually hear a sense of jubilation in a voice and, here, you can almost see the brilliant smiles on the faces of the background singers (Nico and Vinz, themselves, along with Elisabeth Carew). Though it has yet to be released as a single, this one has Top 40 radio supremacy written all over it. “(Leave Us)” is a short, spoken word outro to “Last Time,” with an ominous male voice (African, I’m guessing, by the dialect) that intones a warning, “You have to go.” I’m thinking that many of these short interludes come from a movie (maybe THE GOOD LIE, as the soundtrack features a track from Nico and Vinz and the albums were delivered to me in the same package). The next song, “Know What I’m Not,” sorta reminds me of Peter Gabriel’s “Senegalese period,” at least instrumentally. The song has an infectious melody; the vocals have a slight resemblance to Police-era Sting, with just a dash of doo-wop style scatting. “Miracles,” another beautifully upbeat lyrical piece, begins with a bit of down-home pickin’ (which remains the main musical touch point throughout the track) before adding some minor key piano chords and a combination of acoustic and electronic percussion to sweeten the already brilliant musical pot.

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

A bit of neo-Zydeco goofiness, “(New In Town),” leads straight into “My Melody,” an atmospheric number with lyrics delivered in the Mumuye language of Nigeria and Cameroon (as identified elsewhere). There’s a nice Reggae-sounding break before the English verses, which features a heartfelt rap about dreams and reality that could come off as just another “woe-is-me” rhyme, but there’s a definite sense of hope shining through. “(Powerful)” is a philosophical interlude that leads into “Another Day,” a sing-songy rap about overcoming (or, at least, surviving) the struggles of life: “Another day goes by/And I thank God that I’m alive.” “People” is more Police-like Euro-Reggae about… living; the song is just flat-out inspirational (“People will always be people to me/We do wrong, we do right”). It features a cool backward guitar (or is that… an accordion?). Speaking of cool guitar, “Runnin’” has one that sounds oddly Frippian in tone. The descending bass line and piano really add a nice touch and what can I say about those vocals? They are continually upbeat, joyous and infectious. “Imagine” is a slow groove with a Bob Marley kinda vocal. The backing vocals are highlighted by some awesome throat singing; this is one instance where the rap sorta ruins the overall vibe of the song. The album’s second single, “In Your Arms,” seems like an obvious bid for a Top 40 hit (probably at the behest of the record label), with a definite Bruno Mars thing happening. Despite that, I actually think the tune isn’t all that bad.

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Homeless” is a jaunty little folk thing, with harmonica(skillfully provided by Ntirelang Berman), acoustic guitar and a more uplifting message than the name implies. There’s some great harmonizing (with other voices and with nature) on “(Lakota),” the rain-soaked intro to the funky “Thought I Knew.” An excellent arrangement and orchestration inform the number, with understated guitars, nice percussion and a cool bridge with piano, cello and violins. A cosmic sounding “(Arrival)” urges, “My son, use the knowledge and sing your song.” And, sing he does, accompanied by piano, fretless bass and a guitar that would not seem out of place on a King Crimson record, on a tune called “When the Day Comes.” It’s another joyous exclamation, punctuated by more great African percussion and amazing background vocals. “(Kokadinye)” is a beautiful lullaby with suitably subtle guitar. The interlude leads into the spiraling, thumping groove of “Imaa Imaa,” with its nods to such groups as Osibisa and the Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign… even a touch of El Chicano and mid-’60s psychedelic pop. The song is a terrific album closer.

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

The production on the record is split between William Wiik Larsen (who also goes by the moniker Will IDAP) and Thomas Eriksen, with the interludes produced and performed by Raymond and Kouame Sereba (Nico’s brothers?). Eriksen and Larsen also provide most of the instrumentation and programming on the tracks they are credited as producers, with some help from various musicians and backing singers along the way. This is such a great album and Nico and Vinz appear to be as likeable and uplifting as their music; I have to hope that this much deserved success doesn’t go to their heads and adversely effect their music. That would certainly be a shame.


TRIGGER HIPPY: TRIGGER HIPPY

(ROUNDER RECORDS/CONCORD RECORDS; 2014)

Trigger Hippy cover

So, what’s a fella to do when his band is prone to rather lengthy bouts of inactivity based on the whims and hubris of the brothers that front the band? Well, if you’re the Black Crowe’s drummer, Steve Gorman, you form a band of your own, enlisting the group of musicians with which you would most want to collaborate. That’s exactly what Steve did in 2009, when he founded Trigger Hippy with fellow Crowe member, guitarist Audley Freed, Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring and Nashville session bassist Nick Govrik. Herring and Freed eventually departed (as did Freed’s replacement, Will Kimbrough), due to outside commitments, and the group solidified around Gorman, Grovnik, ace session guitarist Tom Bukovac and the duel lead vocal powers of Jackie Greene (who also provides guitar and keyboards) and Joan Osborne… a veritable super group of seasoned, in-demand players. The sound on their debut record is solid Southern Rock ‘n’ Soul (think Lynyrd Skynyrd – or the post-crash offshoot, Rossington Collins Band – spiced with a touch of Wet Willie and Little Feat and a whole lot of Stax Records funky rhythm and blues), a true band effort, as Gorman relates: “Sure, you can see this as a ‘player’s band,’ but it really is a BAND, in the true sense of that word.”

Trigger Hippy (Tom Bukovac, Steve Gorman, Nicj Govrik, Joan Osborne, Jackie Greene) (photo credit: JACOB BLICKENSTAFF

Trigger Hippy (Tom Bukovac, Steve Gorman, Nicj Govrik, Joan Osborne, Jackie Greene) (photo credit: JACOB BLICKENSTAFF

The album kicks off with the celebratory, anthemic “Rise Up Singing,” a gospel-tinged song driven by a vibrant organ and hand claps. Aside from the previously mentioned influences, you can also hear touches of Delaney and Bonnie and even – believe it or not – a little Three Dog Night and latter day Fleetwood Mac. “Turpentine” is a Black Crowes type rocker with a deep, pumping bass, powerful drumming, smooth harmony vocals and Skynyrd-esque double lead guitars, with an unforgettably cool harmonic riff. The slow, plaintive “Heartache On the Line” marks the end of a deep love and a long relationship, with Jackie’s organ infusing just the right touch of melancholy to the song. That melancholy is matched by the vocal performances by Greene and Joan Osborne; especially effective are the lyrics in the chorus: “You and me, babe/We got history/It ain’t everything we asked for/But it’s everything we need/You and me, babe/We got nothin’ but time/Well, the kids are grown/And the money’s all gone/It’s heartache on the line.” Steve’s drumming, as usual, is spot on and Bukovac’s solo perfectly relates the feeling of dissolution. “Cave Hill Cemetary” features a solo Joan’s rather ragged sounding vocal over a funky guitar/organ groove. The pumping rhythm, supplied by Gorman, Nick Govric and Greene, and the blistering leads and solo from Tom catapults this one into the rarified air occupied by Al Jackson Junior, Lewie Steinberg (and, later, Donald Dunn), Booker T Jones and Steve Cropper (uh… Booker T and the MGs, if you didn’t know). “Tennessee Mud” is a swampy, muscular number that sonically evokes such acts as Mountain, Mother’s Finest and a bit of Ram Jam’s version of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter’s Blues stomp, “Black Betty.” The second, primarily instrumental, half of the track absolutely screams “jam band” but, in a totally cool, acceptable way. There’s a great give-and-take from Joan and Jackie on the ballad “Pretty Mess,” that pays off beautifully with the harmony vocals on the chorus. Bukovac’s semi-acoustic guitar adds to the depth of the number with its ringing tone.

Trigger Hippy (Jackie Greene, Joan Osborne, Steve Gorman, Nick Govrick, Tom Bukovac) (photo credit: JACOB BLICKENSTAFF)

Trigger Hippy (Jackie Greene, Joan Osborne, Steve Gorman, Nick Govrick, Tom Bukovac) (photo credit: JACOB BLICKENSTAFF)

“Pocahontas” is one of the funkier tunes here, with a slithering, snaky guitar coda, kinda like Gary Rossington and Stevie Ray Vaughan fronting Sly’s Family Stone. Greene’s clavinet brings a Stevie Wonder-esque funk to the proceedings, while another solo vocal performance from Osborne proves why she is one of the preeminent ladies of this type of soulful rock ‘n’ roll. While I was rather expecting a cover of the Blackfoot tune, “Dry County” has the quintet firing on all cylinders as they build off of the David Bowie/John Lennon groove of “Fame.” As the song progresses, the guitars toughen up as the deep bottom end from Steve and Nick seems to gain new momentum into the instrumental section; with guest Ian Fitchuk providing keyboard support, we are treated to a harmonica solo from Jackie Greene, while his and Joan’s singing are lifted to new heights, teasing each other with lines like: “I know you got it/But you can’t spare it/What I gotta do to get you to share it/It’s like living in a dry county/Trying to get a little bit of your love.” The spry playing and almost joyful singing on “Nothing New” belies the hurt in the lyrics. There’s a lot happening here that could easily go unnoticed if left in the hands of another producer (Bukovac co-produced with input from the rest of Trigger Hippy): The track starts with a guitar signature that’s right out of the Derek Saint Holmes playbook as a prudent use of the cowbell marks time before the vocals come in; a great boogie woogie piano cuts through at times, augmenting the continually stellar guitar work. Another slinky groove propels “Ain’t Persuaded Yet,” as Osborne’s character pleads her case to a jealous lover: “’Oh, I never would step out on you/Now what you heard, it just ain’t true/Baby, don’t something you’ll regret.’/He said, ‘Your words are sweet/But I ain’t persuaded yet.’” As wicked sounding guitars and organ weave in and out of the mix, a buoyant, rock steady bass holds the groove, allowing Gorman to get a little adventurous with the percussion. Sounding like the flip side to the last cut, “Adelaide” is a sad, rootsy lament, with Greene’s high lonesome voice; the emotions seem genuine and are definitely effective. The almost dirge-like music comes together with a rolling drum beat, steady, solid bass, and grief-stricken harmonica, organ and banjo (though not credited, I would imagine that the banjo is courtesy of Tom Bukovac).

Trigger Hippy (Tom Bukovac, Steve Gorman, Nick Govrik, Joan Osborne, Jackie Greene) (photo credit: JACOB BLICKENSTAFF)

Trigger Hippy (Tom Bukovac, Steve Gorman, Nick Govrik, Joan Osborne, Jackie Greene) (photo credit: JACOB BLICKENSTAFF)

I’ve always been a fan of the Black Crowes but, honestly, if Trigger Hippy can continue producing the type of music presented on their debut, I won’t be too sad if the Robinson brothers permanently retire the group. The vocal interplay between Joan Osborne and Jackie Greene is exceptional, the rhythm section is tight and I can certainly see why Bukovac won the MUSIC ROW Session Guitarist of the Year award for five consecutive years; the man is absolutely brilliant… a true player’s player. The songwriting by the band, collectively and singularly (and, occasionally augmented by former guitarist Audley Freed), is superb. If I were to do a Top 10 of 2014, TRIGGER HIPPY would undoubtedly be near the top of the list.


GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE

(Kris Needs; 352 pages; OMNIBUS PRESS; 2014)

George Clinton book cover

This comprehensive history of George Clinton’s life and career is the ultimate peak inside the ups, downs and around the corners of shady dealings, larger than life mayhem and the unconquerable spirit of the Funk. Written by P-Fan turned P-Friend, Kris Needs, the book covers George’s early life in 1940s North Carolina through the 1997 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with an epilogue that briefly updates things through January 2014. Along the way, we get a glimpse of the driven musical genius of Doctor Funkenstein and the raft of musicians (and, occasionally, their families) who have been a part – no matter how ancillary – of the Parliament-Funkadelic circus. Needs began covering the band(s) for his own Zigzag magazine, reviewing the albums alongside the rock and punk music then holding sway in the United Kingdom (particularly London), eventually interviewing everyone from Clinton himself to Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey and William “Bootsy” Collins to legendary guitarists Eddie Hazel and Garry Shider and future Talking Heads keyboard player Bernie Worrell. While it is abundantly clear that Needs is as huge a fan as you’re ever going to come across, he basically lets the hours and hours of interviews with the various involved parties drive the narrative. In other words, he doesn’t sugarcoat much of anything, making GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE a definitive read on the subject.

The Parliaments, 1966 ("Sugar" Ray Harris, Calvin Simon, Clarence "Fuzzy" Haskins, Grady Thomas, George Clinton) (publicity photo)

The Parliaments, 1966 (“Sugar” Ray Harris, Calvin Simon, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Grady Thomas, George Clinton) (publicity photo)

A young George relocated to Newark, New Jersey with his family, where he met the proto-girl-group, the Shirelles; He likewise became enamored with the acapella street corner performers and a new musical style called doo-wop. It was also in Newark that he began frequenting the cultural epicenter of the black community, the neighborhood barber shop, where he would hone the skills that have served to make him one of the most successful businessmen of his time and, of course, a musical icon. Hanging out at the barber shop, George learned to cut and style hair and run a business. He also began singing and harmonizing with other like-minded shop patrons; from there, George and his friends formed the nucleus of the P-Funk empire, the Parliaments. Needs goes into great detail as he examines the intricacies of 1950s black culture, the phenomena of doo-wop and the histories of several acts that had a great influence on the development of the young boy who would become, not just “George Clinton,” but GEORGE CLINTON. The author also introduces and details the lives of each individual member of the Parliaments, following their trajectories toward becoming part of, first, Funkadelic and, then, Parliament.

Guitar wunderkind Eddie Hazel, circa 1977 (MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)

Guitar wunderkind Eddie Hazel, circa 1977 (MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)

The group, through the barber shop, found Billy Nelson, incendiary guitarist Eddie Hazel and others, all recruited to the cause. That cause, at first, was to become rich and famous and to get as many girls as possible; eventually, with George managing affairs, the cause became “make George rich and famous so he can get as many girls as possible” but… none of the others seemed to care at that point. The book follows the original group through a growing period, a bitter disappointment and an eventual “meteoric” rise to the top of the R and B and rock heaps. Along the way, the group adds and subtracts members as some become disillusioned with George’s business dealings. Again, Needs examines the lives of the numerous vocalists and musicians who passed through the group, giving each their moment to shine (a good number of them posthumously).

Funkadelic, circa mid-1970s (publicity photo)

Funkadelic, circa mid-1970s (publicity photo)

Surroundings, historical and musical events are detailed, as well, giving the reader perspective on George and the group’s actions at any given time. The move to Detroit, discovery of a psychedelic counter-culture (which was partially responsible for the group’s eschewing the matching jackets for a… uh… funkier mode of attire or – in George’s case, lack thereof) and eventual descent into drug addiction is handled matter-of-factly, as is George’s rather disreputable dealings with record labels (in an attempt to amass a stable of performers akin to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records) and the conniving double-talk that allowed him to keep all royalties and most tour profits from his fellow band members, co-writers and co-producers of the P-Funk stable. I was well aware of Clinton’s great musical acumen, but had never really considered that he could be a dictatorial genius, a la Frank Zappa (whom he admired), Don Van Vliet or Miles Davis; I always pictured him more of a free spirit, Sun Ra type of leader. One thing is certain: He knew what he wanted and knew exactly was needed to draw it out of the talented people with which he surrounded himself.

The Parliament-Funkadelic machine, late 1970s (publicity photo)

The Parliament-Funkadelic machine, late 1970s (publicity photo)

As the ’70s became the ’80s, both Parliament and Funkadelic were huge successes, as were individual members: Bootsy had become a “solo” star with his Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein were dance floor monsters (so to speak) and several other former or current members of the crew were releasing albums to critical (if not public) acclaim. George had been playing major label spin the bottle for some time: Funkadelic and Bootsy were both on Warner Brothers, Parliament ended up on PolyGram after Casablanca chief, Neil Bogart, sold the label. He went one step too far when he tried to convince Capitol Records to sign him as a solo artist. From that debacle came a raft of legal problems, some of which George is still working to extricate himself from. All of these dealings and subsequent fall-out are handled like everything else in the book: Straight-forward, with very little sugarcoating.

George Clinton exits the Mothership, circa 1978 (uncredited photo)

George Clinton exits the Mothership, circa 1978 (uncredited photo)

As the story moves forward, into the hip hop era (late ’70s and after), George’s light begins to shine a little bit brighter once more, as rappers begin to sample the music of P-Funk. George Clinton, who had fallen from grace as an entrepreneur was still a well-respected producer and artist. It’s hard not to like a guy like George and, after more than five decades in the business, root for his success. It’s hard not to feel a touch of remorse for those musicians and friends that George left by the wayside on his march toward becoming the dominant force in Funk Music. Some of them have been left bitter by their experiences with Clinton and some, quite simply, not here anymore. Kris Needs makes sure that each and every person who ever entered the Mothership’s galactic sphere are remembered and, where he could, he offers updates on them all.

George Clinton, circa 2012 (photo credit: WILLIAM THOREN)

George Clinton, circa 2012 (photo credit: WILLIAM THOREN)

As much as GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE is a biography, it also stands as a cautionary tale of how not to succeed in the music business. It has some bumps and editorial rough spots, but the book is thoroughly enjoyable. As an added bonus, there are 24 pages of black and white and color photos (some rare) of every stage of George’s life and the group’s career. The book is available at Amazon (in hardcover and Kindle versions), Barnes and Noble (in paperback and Nook versions) and the publisher’s web-site, www.omnibuspress.com.