AMARANTHE/BUTCHER BABIES/LULLWATER

(November 17, 2015; POP’S, Sauget IL)

Amaranthe Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

From the outset, standing in line and listening to the various comments, it was obvious that the majority of the people at Pop’s on the evening of November 17th were there to see Butcher Babies; I even heard comments and questions like, “I have never heard of this Amaranthe band. Do you know anything about them?” I can kinda understand that… while both acts play metal, they take very different approaches: Amaranthe play a symphonic, well-orchestrated and choreographed style of progressive metal, while Butcher Babies blur the line where punk and metal meet. I am all for diversity and can and have enjoyed bills featuring several different musical styles. Unfortunately, I tend to be part of an ever-shrinking fan base that enjoys listening to a myriad of genres and styles in the course of an evening of live music. So, with that as a backdrop, here’s how this night shook out.

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Opening act Lullwater was a total surprise. The Athens, Georgia quartet play the type of hard rock that I grew up on, though steeped in the early 1990s sound of the Seattle scene; there are touches of Alice In Chains and Nirvana, as well liberal doses of Stone Temple Pilots (yeah, I know they weren’t from Seattle, but… ) and Soundgarden. As Southern boys, there’s plenty of good ol’ Lynyrd Skynyrd and Seven Mary Three style rock and roll. With their new album, REVIVAL, barely a month old, they were determined to make an impression. And, make an impression they certainly did! It didn’t take these guys (vocalist/ guitarist John Strickland, bassist Roy “Ray” Beatty, drummer Joe Wilson and lead guitarist Brett Strickland) long to win over an early crowd hyped to see Butcher Babies.

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Strickland’s imaginative guitar licks are certainly hard to ignore, particularly on the stinging “Oddline,” from the band’s 2013 self-titled debut, as well as its cousin, “Evenline,” from the new record; the pair’s biting style is further enhanced by Beatty’s bass, which is tuned to a higher register (a trick also used by the Who’s John Entwistle), adding to the buzzsaw tone. Roy’s style also lends itself well to the Southern rock “guitar army” feel on songs like “Broken Wings,” allowing Brett and John to soar on an extended harmony part. Wilson’s playing demands attention, though it is never overbearing or dominating… as has been said many times before, it ain’t always the notes you play, sometimes it’s the spaces between that make a performance special; make no mistake, though, when he hits those notes, it is with power and precision. John’s chameleon-like vocals draw from most of the bands listed above, though mostly, he tends to sound like a tasty three-meat stew of Layne Staley, Scott Weiland and Seven Mary Three’s Jason Ross. From front to back, Lullwater delivered the type of high energy, flat-out rock ‘n’ roll show that you very rarely get a chance to see anymore… I just wish they could have played a longer set.

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Honestly, though I’ve heard quite a bit – both pro (usually from avid fans) and con (usually from music journalists like myself) – about Butcher Babies, this was my first time to experience the live bludgeoning. The band are obviously fans of the Plasmatics and their enigmatic vocalist, Wendy O Williams; I mean, the group’s name is an homage to the Plasmatics’ very first single from way back in 1978. You can also plot the progression of Williams’ band from anarchic punk noisemongers to heavy metal behemoth through Carla Harvey’s near-gutteral screams and Heidi Shepherd’s more melodic, sultry wails. And, even though the ladies’ stage attire was rather tame on this night, most images and videos show they have a proclivity for, at least, a mildly titillating form of exhibitionism. Shepherd and Harvey are twin balls of kinetic energy, in motion virtually from the time they hit the stage for “Monsters Ball” until their final exit during “Magnolia Boulevard.” The three-piece band – guitarist Henry Flury, bassist Jason Klein and drummer Chrissy Warner – are a well-oiled, if predictable, industrial punk metal machine; their sound falls somewhere between the Plasmatics’ NEW HOPE FOR THE WRETCHED punk overload and COUP D’ETAT metal mayhem, with more than a touch of Nu-Metal around the edges.

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The group highlighted material from their latest release, TAKE IT LIKE A MAN, including their approximation of a power ballad, “Thrown Away.” As well received as tunes like “Monsters Ball,” “Jesus Needs More Babies For His War Machine” and “Gravemaker” were, when the ladies introduced “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” a cover of a fifty-year-old pop hit by Napoleon XIV, the crowd erupted. I will say that, even though I was a tad under-impressed, this group must be doing something right to have such a loyal following (a couple of guys – one sorta laid back and cool, the other more of the rabid “Hey… look at me! I know their bus driver! Wooo!” kind of guy – were in from Kansas City for the Tuesday night show). Considering the solid musicianship of Lullwater and the symphonic sheen of Amaranthe, it may have been a case of Butcher Babies being the wrong band at the wrong time; as such, I’m willing to hold further opinions until I can see them in their natural habitat, with more like-minded groups (and, yes, I realize that goes against everything that I said in my opening paragraph but, like everything else in life, there are exceptions to the rule).

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I was actually pleasantly surprised when it became apparent that a large number of the folks on the floor remained there for Amaranthe, although there was considerable turnover at the front of the stage. This, of course is where I get all curmudgeonly and tell you how much I dislike being around drunks; as I bid adieu to the laid back guy from KC, a couple of excitable drunks pushed in front of my spot and began documenting EVERY freaking moment of their time at the front of the stage with their phones… all with me trying to shoot pictures either over or through them. I usually let people around me know that I’m working and that I am only allowed to take pictures (I use an actual camera, for which I have obtained a photo pass, as well as permission from the band’s management to use) for the first three songs of any set and they’re usually cool and let me work, trying to avoid getting in my way or obstructing my view; these two were having none of that… I took close to 150 shots of Aramanthe, a hundred of them starring either at least one of the pair’s phones or the gentleman’s cap. If that weren’t bad enough, they compared notes on virtually every image or video they captured in an approximation of the English language that I can only refer to as trailer park rustic (my apologies if I’ve offended any of the millions of fine people who live in trailer parks but, I’m sure you know what I mean), loud enough to annoy more than just this humble cameraman. Okay… with that out of my system and, as I’m sure you didn’t come here just to hear me vent about my job, let’s talk about the real reason you’re here: Amaranthe.

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

At first, I couldn’t fathom what the heck was taking place on stage; there were no amplifiers, there were no monitors. It definitely made it easier for the band’s three-pronged vocal attack to maneuver around the stage but… it just looked SO weird! All six band members wore ear monitors, something that is generally only done by the singer; as mentioned above, I am usually at the front of the stage, which means that most of what I hear comes from the stage monitors. Without those monitors, those of us situated up front, between the speakers on either side of the Pop’s stage had kind of a muffled sound, especially on the vocals; I’m sure that to those a little farther back on the floor, the sound was as pristine as the stage looked. This was merely a minor annoyance and, other than louder-than-they-shoulda-been pre-recorded keyboards and having to strain to catch some of the lyrics (especially from Elize Ryd), did not hinder my enjoyment of this highly technical (not to mention high-tech) Swedish outfit. The group was obviously enjoying themselves, as well, mugging for the legions of I-phones and I-pads, posing for the occasional selfie with a fan; at one point, Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund (the “dirty” vocalist) took the phone away from a young man behind me and began videoing himself and the other members of the group before handing it back to the excited fan. These moments are the things that I’ll remember long after Jethro and Minnie have been forgotten.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

So, here’s where I’m gonna talk about the audience again, okay? Two of the new faces that joined me at the front of the stage before Amaranthe’s set included a young woman with a face that had me thinking that I should know her from somewhere and her daughter; as it turns out, while we had never actually met, we do frequent some of the same stores and shops in our respective home towns (we live in two small communities, eight miles apart). Anyway, I noticed that, not only was the daughter (eleven year old Danielle) thoroughly enjoying herself, she was singing along to ALL of the songs. Eventually, all three singers (the other clean singer – aside from Elize – is Smash Into Pieces vocalist Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye, who was filling in for co-founder Jake E Lundberg) noticed her, as well, and began coming over to take her hand or make eye contact. After a set that began with “Digital World” and included “Invincible,” “Massive Addictive,” “Afterlife” and “Electroheart,” the band – which also features musicians Olof Morck (guitarist and chief music-writer; Lundberg and Ryd handle most of the lyrics), Johann Andreassen (bassist and encore break MC) and Morten Lowe Sorensen (drums) – kicked into their theme-song, “Amaranthe.” After singing a verse and a chorus, Elize came over to Danielle and asked her if she knew the song; Danielle answered in the affirmative and sang the next verse into Ryd’s microphone. After a final song, “Call Out My Name,” the group left the stage.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

But, of course, Amaranthe weren’t finished yet. After a brief break, Andreassen was back to pump up the crowd (allowing the others to towel off – it was HOT in the venue and even hotter under the stage lights – and for Elize to affect a costume change). The rest of the band joined Johann, charging into “The Nexus,” the title track from their second album. The night ended, three songs later, with Englund asking Danielle, “If I were to say, ‘Drop Dead,’ what would you say?” Without hesitation, she replied, “Cynical” and the band tore into the very danceable, heavy pop of “Drop Dead Cynical.” Before leaving the stage, the three vocalists and Olof took time to greet, not only Danielle, but just about everybody in the first couple of rows. Amaranthe is a band that gets it; they understand that without fans like Danielle and her mother (and even the overbearing couple in front of me), they wouldn’t be able to do what they love to do. I enjoyed the set more than I thought I would; I just hope that before I see them again, they figure out that sound system.


DEVIL CITY ANGELS: DEVIL CITY ANGELS

(CENTURY MEDIA RECORDS; 2015)

Devil City Angels

Devil City Angels is band with a past. Quite a few pasts, actually. Guitarist Tracii Guns was the guiding light and creative force behind LA Guns (as well as the “Guns” in Guns ‘n’ Roses, though he left and was replaced by some guy named Slash before that group released their first record); Rikki Rockett has seen the highs and lows of Poison’s thirty year career from his drum riser; bassist Eric Brittingham (who left the band shortly after the album’s completion and has been replaced by Rudy Sarzo, who also has a long resume in the hard rock arena) is a wandering soul, founding the bands Cinderella and Naked Beggars, as well as playing in various superstar groups over his thirty-plus year career. Eric was asked along for this ride by his Cheap Thrill bandmate and Angels vocalist, Brandon Gibbs. Okay… now that you’re caught up, let’s look at the band’s new album.

Devil City Angels, 2014  (Eric Brittingham, Rikki Rockett, Brandon Gibbs, Tracii Guns) (photo credit: FABIAN MARTORELL)

Devil City Angels, 2014 (Eric Brittingham, Rikki Rockett, Brandon Gibbs, Tracii Guns) (photo credit: FABIAN MARTORELL)

Remember that album that the Crue did with John Corabi on vocals? You know the one I’m talkin’ about… the REALLY good one. DEVIL CITY ANGELS starts off with that type of heavy duty rock and great vocals. “Numb,” the opening cut, will leave you anything but with its hard rockin’ kick in the teeth. The first single, “All My People,” has an undeniable groove and serves as well as anything as DCA’s mission statement: “We’re here, you’re here, these are my people.” With “Boneyard,” it’s obvious that this band is not living in the past. The track – along with several others – has a slight modern Country sound that isn’t unappealing, with enough firepower from these veterans to keep even the most diehard rocker happy; Guns’ guitars, in particular, stand out, with a jangly sorta solo that works really well. By the way, this “Boneyard” ain’t exactly the one you’re likely to conjure up in your mind. Featuring another solid solo from Guns, “I’m Living,” is a bluesy pop thing with a nice vocal groove.

No Angels” is kind of an updated, harder rocking version of the Monkees and… I’m totally okay with that. There’s a sort of Country power ballad thing happening on “Goodbye Forever.” I don’t want you guys to think that I’m trashing this band (or Country music, for that matter) when I make that comparison. I’m not. I’m just giving you as close a reference point as I can so you can make what I hope is an informed decision about this record. Having said that, the Country references are back for “Ride With Me,” which, musically, reminds me of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” Brandon’s lyrics are definitely steeped in modern Country but, Rikki’s powerhouse drumming and Tracii’s screaming solos give the whole thing a hard rock sheen.

Devil City Angels, 2015 (Rudy Sarzo, Brandon Gibbs, Tracii Guns, Rikki Rockett) (publicity photo)

Devil City Angels, 2015 (Rudy Sarzo, Brandon Gibbs, Tracii Guns, Rikki Rockett) (photo credit: RON LYON)

All I Need” is a bizarre sunshine daydream of a bubblegum pop ballad, highlighted by Brittingham’s fun bass line, yet another great guitar part from Guns and some trippy production effects. Could “Back To The Drive” be a sequel to Suzi Quatro’s “Devil Gate Drive?” Probably not but, it is definitely a throwback to that early ’70s Glam sound; it does share certain musical attributes with the Quatro classic. There’s a bouncy bass part, some wicked guitar, gang vocals and even the chorus seems to recall the chorus of the earlier song. “Bad Decisions” closes the album and seems to be the one song that best embodies the collective pasts of Devil City Angels better than any other. There’s a certain joyful reckless abandon here that encompassed the entire early “hair metal” era that saw the rise of bands like Ratt, Motley Crue and, yes, Poison and Cinderella. Personally, I’m glad that the band didn’t feel a need to revisit past accomplishments but, instead, forged a new path, utilizing a plethora of musical styles to give us a thoroughly modern rock and roll sound.


GREAT LIVE ALBUMS (16)

Live recordings have been a part of the music industry since day one of the crude technology of the earliest devices. In fact, since there were really no studios available for recording purposes, all of those early “records” were “live recordings” in the strictest sense. However, the live album, as we now know it, is a completely different animal. That animal came into its own in the rock era and exploded with the release of ALIVE, a 1975 album by KISS, (a career making release with an overabundance of what has come to be known as “studio sweetening”), and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE in 1976 (also hurtling “the face” and former Humble Pie guitarist to superstardom). With the unprecedented success of Peter Frampton’s fifth solo release, everybody and their brothers were releasing these documents of their latest tours (sometimes used as stop gaps between studio albums; sometimes used as a means to gain an artist’s release from a record label contract, commonly referred to as the “contractual obligation” record).

A lot of people don’t like live albums. I’m not one of those. Some of my favorite records were recorded on the road. Here’s a list of 20 live albums that I think are the best. These records are all official releases, not bootlegs… that’s a whole other list (and one you may see somewhere down the line, as well). I had a hard time keeping this list to 20 (it started out as a “Top10”) and, I’m sure that your list would look very different from this one. But, that’s what makes these things so much fun, right? So, starting with number 20, here’s the next in a series of reviews presenting 20 live albums that you should check out:

(16) SUZI QUATRO: LIVE AND KICKIN’

(RAK RECORDS; Australian import; 1977)

Suzi Quatro cover

Suzi Quatro shoulda been huge… well, she was huge… she was huge in Australia and Japan (still is, as a matter of fact) but, she shoulda been huge on her home turf, the good ol’ US of… . Especially after making a few appearances on HAPPY DAYS, performing a couple of her most well-known tunes (“Cat Size” and “Devil Gate Drive”). Anyway, this release, recorded during Suzi’s AGGRO-PHOBIA tour of Japan and released on Mickie Most’s Australian record label, is probably the best of both worlds – Suzi in front of her most rabid fans, performing the songs that turned her into a household name across great swaths of three continents (she also had more success in Europe than at home). The album isn’t perfect: Suzi was promoting AGGRO-PHOBIA, her fourth record, which was a real departure from the previous YOUR MAMMA WON’T LIKE ME, so the live set relies heavily on tunes from that album; there are also some minor problems with the sound, as the production seems a bit thin at points. But… at the end of the day, this is Suzi live and, for that reason, LIVE AND KICKIN’ makes it in at number 16 on my list of great live albums.

Suzi Quatro with Len Tuckey, circa 1975 (video still)

Suzi Quatro with Len Tuckey, circa 1975 (video still)

The set opens with “The Wild One,” a glam classic from QUATRO, Suzi’s second release. The tune features Dave Neal’s trademark heavy backbeat, some funky guitar from Len Tuckey, a thumping bass line from Suzi and a cool tack piano from Mike Deacon, which lends it the then-typical ’50s rock and roll groove that Quatro had become known for. Tuckey delivers the first of many impressive, solid solos; Suzi’s vocals are tough and confident and, if anyone ever questioned the fact (production here and on her studio releases – for some reason – buries the bass tracks, leading to conjecture in certain quarters), her bass is not merely a prop… she can really play! Dallas Frazier’s country-fried “The Honky Tonk Downstairs,” the first of three AGGRO-PHOBIA songs in a row, chugs along nicely, coming off heavier than the studio version’s rockabilly Gospel revival tent-meeting vibe, with a nice Deacon electric piano solo. Like most tunes of this variety, Suzi’s voice has kind of a hiccup that adds to the overall charm. “Heartbreak Hotel” is Elvis Presley on steroids. It features a great arrangement, with a slow bridge on the chorus that works really well and a Tuckey solo that Scotty Moore would be proud of. With a more syncopated, heavier rock sound, “Half As Much As Me” highlights the fact that Suzi and Len are, indeed, a formidable writing team; it’s quite possibly the strongest track from AGGRO-PHOBIA.

Suzi Quatro (video still)

Suzi Quatro (video still)

Opening up side two, “Cat Size,” is Tuckey and Quatro attempting a sultry ballad but, in this live setting, it just never catches fire. It’s back to AGGRO-PHOBIA with Steve Harley’s “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me),” a sort of throbbing slow grind, not-quite-a-ballad number that works better than the last song. Suzi and her boys were always better when they were rocking, though the touch of honky tonk from Mike’s piano is a nice touch. “American Lady” with its patriotic, “I miss America” sentimentality comes across far better than most tunes of the type. The song is another one of those slow-burn tracks from the latest studio album that nearly bursts into a blazing inferno before the band expertly reins it back in. Deacon once again shines with some powerful organ work and the rhythm section of Suzi and Dave lock into a strong groove that propels the song forward. With “Glycerine Queen,” it’s back to the stomping rock ‘n’ roll; though never released a single (it did appear as the B-side to the North America only single “All Shook Up”), it remains one of Quatro’s most beloved numbers. She adds a touch of Gene Vincent swagger that kicks the whole thing up a rung or two on the cool ladder.

Suzi Quatro surrounded by her boys, Dave Neal, Len Tuckey and Mike Deacon (publicity photo)

Suzi Quatro surrounded by her boys, Dave Neal, Len Tuckey and Mike Deacon (publicity photo)

Dipping back into the group’s glam roots, side three kicks off with “What’s It Like To Be Loved,” one of the rockingest songs on AGGRO-PHOBIA. Live, the tune is stretched past the fourteen-minute mark, with Deacon exhibiting his mastery of several keyboard instruments, Tuckey feeling the blues on an emotive solo and Neal delivering a powerful solo that morphs into a funky, jazzy duet with Quatro’s meaty bass before the entire band comes together for an ELP-type flourish into the final chorus. Dave’s “boom boom,” as Suzi calls it, is front and center on the anthemic, old school rock and roll of “Can the Can,” the first big hit – well, it was big everywhere but here at home – of Suzi’s solo career. The simplistic riffing and nonsense lyrics in no way diminishes the power that these four people could generate on stage. Though the original album had a fade at the end of the song, it actually moves right into another stomper…

Suzi Quatro (uncredited photo)

Suzi Quatro (uncredited photo)

…the song Suzi Quatro may be most remembered for, “Devil Gate Drive,” which is the first track on side four. With a slight nod to boogie-woogie, Deacon’s ragtime piano drives the rhythm. Though Suzi never seemed to have the vocal power to compensate for the heavier, louder live setting, she does command your attention with her breathless delivery and the call-and-response with the audience displays her true showmanship. Speaking of vocals, there’s a certain ragged charm to the guys’ doo-wop inspired backing vocals. “Roxy Roller” is one of the few tunes from the AGGRO-PHOBIA period (it was released as a single and, though it was not on the original album, it is a bonus cut on the 2012 7T’s Records reissue) that maintained the ’50s-cum-glam vibe that Suzi was best known for, making it one of the few from that era to stand the test of time. It’s classic Quatro, with a massive bass sound propelling the song forward. The final of seven (eight if you count the single-only “Roxy Roller”) AGGRO-PHOBIA tunes, “Tear Me Apart” is a winner that highlights Suzi’s voice, as well as her ability to hold a crowd in the palm of her hand during another round of audience participation. A rousing, spirited encore of “Keep A-Knockin’” proves that Suzi Quatro is, indeed, a throwback to a simpler time, when rock ‘n’ roll was new and exciting. It’s a great way to close out this live offering from the undisputed Queen of Glam.

The only way this album (which is supposedly the entire performance) could have been improved would have been to include something from my favorite Suzi Quatro record, YOUR MAMMA WON’T LIKE ME (the title cut or “I Bit Off More Than I Can Chew” or “Strip Me” immediately come to mind). LIVE AND KICKIN’ has never been released in the United States and the most recent release comes from the British reissue imprint, 7T’s Records, which faithfully recreates the original album, without the album flip that separated “Can the Can” and “Devil Gate Drive,” delivering a true “live” experience. I haven’t heard this version but, I hope that some of those sonic deficiencies I mentioned earlier have been corrected.


SWEET: LEVEL HEADED TOUR REHEARSALS 1977

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2014)

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A couple of albums after my all-time favorite Sweet record (GIVE US A WINK), the band was digging in with a new record label in the UK (they went from RCA to Polydor; they maintained their long-term relationship with Capitol in the States). The band’s sound had already started to shift to a more middle-of-the-road (MOR), more “mature” approach on the previous release, OFF THE RECORD, but LEVEL HEADED would be the album that gave them their first hit single of this new era, “Love Is Like Oxygen.” Before the LEVEL HEADED record had even been released, the band started making plans for their first tour in over a year; they retooled the stage show, jettisoning all of their better known pre-1973 tunes in favor of more music from the OFF THE RECORD and LEVEL HEADED albums (performing all of the songs from the latter… a very bold move back then); they worked up new arrangements for many of the more familiar tunes for a more cohesive live experience (for the first time, the band would be working with sidemen to bring the newer, more keyboard heavy cuts to life on stage: Gary Moberly on keyboards and Nico Ramsden as second guitarist). Under normal circumstances, after more than a year away from the stage, a group needs a certain amount of rehearsal time to get up to speed; working on the total overhaul they envisioned for the LEVEL HEADED tour, the band convened at Shepperton Studios somewhere near the end of September, 1977 to prepare for the tour, which kicked off in February, 1978, a couple of weeks after the album’s release. The release of LEVEL HEADED TOUR REHEARSALS 1977 – which has made rounds on the bootleg circuit for many years – offers a glimpse of the new sound and, warts and all, the progression from bold idea to masterful fruition.

Sweet (Brian Connolly, Steve Priest, Mick Tucker, Andy Scott) (uncredited photo)

Sweet (Brian Connolly, Steve Priest, Mick Tucker, Andy Scott) (uncredited photo)

This set begins with a pair of GIVE US A WINK tunes. First up is theirfinal great, balls-to-the-wall single, “Action.” In this new arrangement, the keyboards take an even more prominent role than they had on the studio version and the second guitarist adds his own spin, quite apart from what Andy Scott’s signature sound offered; this new take isn’t really all that bad, just different. Of course, the vocals seem a bit thin in comparison to the multi-layered studio sound, which is to be expected with only the four unadorned voices of the band on display in a live setting. “Yesterday’s Rain” is one of my absolute favorite tracks from …WINK. Brian Connolly’s voice sounds particularly ragged here, but still strong. Scott’s fierce soloing and the harmony work he does with Ramsden are, indeed, awesome to behold (in a totally aural fashion). I would have loved to have seen the boys perform this one live! “California Nights” is a softer, more melodic tune from LEVEL HEADED, with a nice Steve Priest lead vocal. It’s a definite sign of things to come as the band moved in a more mature, hard rock vein. A cool, single-only track from the LEVEL HEADED period, “Stairway To the Stars,” rocks a little harder and features those high, piercing backing vocals for which the group is so well known. “Dream On,” an understated keyboard ballad, works as a nice interlude or transitional piece. Andy Scott’s voice highlights another ballad, “Lady Starlight,” a signal that the guys are definitely looking to soften their image on the new tour.

Sweet onstage, 1978 (Andy Scott, Nico Ramsden, Steve Priest, Brian Connolly, Mick Tucker) (uncredited photo)

Sweet onstage, 1978 (Andy Scott, Nico Ramsden, Steve Priest, Brian Connolly, Mick Tucker) (uncredited photo)

Lady of the Lake” is as unlike the Sweet‘s brash style as possible, a gentle renaissance-like piece. Listening to “Fountain,” a mid-tempo rocker that may best represent the group’s output at this time, puts me in mind of the 1973 Wishbone Ash classic, WISHBONE FOUR. The song features classic Ash-style harmony guitars and is highlighted by a cool slide solo and a memorable bass line from Steve Priest. “You’re Not Wrong For Loving Me,” a rare B-side from 1971, sounds ragged and not in synch at all; the guitars and voices seem to be doing different tunes. But, then, working out those types of kinks is what rehearsals are for, right? “Fox On the Run” gets an upgrade (not the original arrangement was bad) with a more keyboard heavy, radically different version of the stomping rocker. Oftentimes, a new arrangement can revive a tired classic or reinvigorate a band; you get both here. “Air On ‘A’ Tape Loop” is one of those wonky synthesizer/keyboard kinda experimental number that’s intended to show a group’s growth as musicians. Uh… okay.

Sweet, 1978 (Brian Connolly, Steve Priest, Andy Scott, Mick Tucker) (uncredited photo)

Sweet, 1978 (Brian Connolly, Steve Priest, Andy Scott, Mick Tucker) (uncredited photo)

Another early B-side, “Done Me Wrong Alright,” once more recalls the more melodic sounds of Wishbone Ash. Connolly belts the tune out like the Brian of old but, the overall feel on this number points to the four core members of the group reaching a bit too far to make a point and in trying to make full use of their new hired guns. That’s borne out by an extended organ solo. The solo isn’t bad, but with Andy Scott shreddingon guitar before and after, I would have preferred a shorter solo from Andy or maybe another harmony piece with Ramsden, keeping the organ as a rhythm instrument. A kind of stripped down version of the then-current hit single, “Love Is Like Oxygen,” works far better than the distinct disco groove of the studio version. Brian’s voice sounds more natural on this type of tune at this point in his career, which may have been a considering factor in the Sweet exploring this subtler sound. “Set Me Free” is a true Sweet raver. The band was playing loose and easy and having fun; you can actually hear the guys laughing at one point, when Brian goes flat. As much as the group wanted to switch gears musically, eight years into their career, this style is their comfort zone and it shows throughout this song. “Sweet FA” is another mid-career barn-burner; the chorale part with the piano works really well and the organ pushes the sound closer to the hard rock land occupied by Uriah Heep and Deep Purple, which ain’t a bad thing. “Windy City” is the one where everybody lets rip. Connolly’s voice sounds like his throat has ripped open and Mick Tucker, Priest and Scott (as well as sidemen Ramsden and Moberly) attack the tune as if it’s their last gasp chance to rock.

Sweet (Brian Connolly) (uncredited photo)

Sweet (Brian Connolly) (uncredited photo)

LEVEL HEADED was the final album to feature Brian Connolly and the ensuing tour was the last time that this version – the most popular version – of the Sweet performed together. There are clues that the move to a more middle-of-the-road sound may have been precipitated by Connolly’s health problems. If that’s the case, it is a testament to the other three band members that they took the high road (so to speak) by taking the collective foot off the gas to accommodate their friend’s needs. This rehearsal session indicates that all four men were working overtime to make the new tunes work and, whatever the reasons behind the change in style, it is well worth the price of admission for fans of the Sweet, regardless of which era they favored.


GREAT LIVE ALBUMS (19)

Live recordings have been a part of the music industry since day one of the crude technology of the earliest devices. In fact, since there were really no studios available for recording purposes, all of those early “records” were “live recordings” in the strictest sense. However, the live album, as we now know it, is a completely different animal. That animal came into its own in the rock era and exploded with the release of ALIVE, a 1975 album by KISS, (a career making release with an overabundance of what has come to be known as “studio sweetening”), and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE in 1976 (also hurtling “the face” and former Humble Pie guitarist to superstardom). With the unprecedented success of Peter Frampton’s fifth solo release, everybody and their brothers were releasing these documents of their latest tours (sometimes used as stop gaps between studio albums; sometimes used as a means to gain an artist’s release from a record label contract, commonly referred to as the “contractual obligation” record).

A lot of people don’t like live albums. I’m not one of those. Some of my favorite records were recorded on the road. Here’s a list of 20 live albums that I think are the best. These records are all official releases, not bootlegs… that’s a whole other list (and one you may see somewhere down the line, as well). I had a hard time keeping this list to 20 (it started out as a “Top10”) and, I’m sure that your list would look very different from this one. But, that’s what makes these things so much fun, right? So, here’s number 19, the next in a series of reviews presenting 20 live albums that you should check out:

(19THE SENSATIONAL ALEX HARVEY BAND: LIVE

(ATLANTIC RECORDS; 1975)

the_sensational_alex_harvey_band-live

To say that Alex Harvey was a haunted, damaged soul may be an understatement. It has been well documented that he never really recovered from his brother Les’ onstage electrocution while a member of Stone the Crows. Alex blamed himself because he introduced his younger brother to Maggie Bell, which led to the two forming that band. Alex hid his pain with alcohol and by becoming the jokester, leading his new band, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, as it winded its way to success via their high-powered, glam-tinged Vaudevillian stage show. I came to the show late, as far as SAHB (as they were called, because… well, their full name does not exactly roll trippingly off the tongue) was concerned… three albums into their joint career (Alex had been performing in various bands since the late ’50s; the other guys – of which, more later – were a band called Tear Gas, who released two albums before hooking up with Harvey). The very first time I heard (and saw) the group was on some late night concert thingy some time in 1974. I was, to say the least, blown away! I remember going on the hunt for anything by the band and, living in Podunk USA, the best I could do was special order a copy of the then-new album, THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM. And that brings us to the fabulous LIVE album, recorded on May 24, the last night of the group’s 1975 English tour. LIVE was, unfortunately, a single record (around 45 minutes in length; about half of the actual show), at a time when double live albums were de rigueur. But, oh, what a record it was!

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (Chris Glen, Hugh McKenna, Zal Cleminson, Alex Harvey, Ted McKenna) (uncredited photo)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (Chris Glen, Ted McKenna, Zal Cleminson, Alex Harvey, Hugh McKenna) (uncredited photo)

The record starts with a brief “Fanfare (Justly, Skillfully, Magnanimously)” followed by a creepy, Glaswegian voice welcoming the audience, “Good evening, boys and girls. It’s a gas to be here… I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to my band. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.” Way better, in my mind, than, “You wanted the best, you got the best!” A pumping keyboard (organ, synthesizer or… ?) and shaker from Hugh McKenna introduces the lascivious “Faith Healer,” before Ted McKenna (Hugh’s cousin), Chris Glen and Zal Cleminson join in, on drums, bass and guitar, respectively. This is as good a place as any to mention that Cleminson is an exceptionally gifted and expressive guitar player with a style and tone that – like Queen’s Brian May and REO Speedwagon’s Gary Richrath – is immediately recognizable; the mime face paint and modified jester’s outfit alongside his rubbery facial expressions only add to the effect. When Alex growls the first line of the song, “Let me put my hands on you,” it is evident that his motives are far from noble. While the focal point of the stage show may rest more on the antics of Zal and Chris, it is quite obvious that this is, in fact, Alex’s band. Hugh introduces the next tune, as well, with a pretty, soft electric piano. As Harvey steps to the mic, he introduces “Tomahawk Kid” as a song “inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson.” The TREASURE ISLAND and KIDNAPPED pirate references abound as the percolating rhythm leads to a great harmony duet between synthesizer and guitar; I’m not really sure that I’ve ever heard anything like it, but I do know that I like it! Zal doesn’t do a whole lot of soloing (which, of course, one would expect from a lead guitarist… especially live), but his lead, rhythm and fill work are masterpieces nonetheless. With the band adding “Yo-ho-ho” backing vocals on the chorus, the song catches fire and draws you into the story. The first side ends with the “Vambo” section of “The Hot City Symphony,” complete with Alex reading from “The Book of Vambo,” delivering a litany of heroic deeds that Vambo Marble-Eye, a being who is “like a cross between Santa Claus and Spider-Man,” is responsible for. There is a manic middle section, which features Alex spray-painting “Vambo Rools!!” on a brick wall to the back of the stage (if you’re unfamiliar with SAHB’s live show, you’ll have to trust me on that) and, yes… that is a frenzied guitar solo from Cleminson. It is a masterful performance, a touch above the studio version from THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM, but Alex and his boys saved the best for side two.

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (uncredited photo)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (uncredited photo)

The band was promoting a new album, TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME and, while a few tunes from that release were played on the 1975 tours, only one made the LIVE record: “Give My Compliments To the Chef.” It’s an ominous tune with a heavy bass riff and a moody piano leading to the first line, delivered in a sad and resigned fashion: “Mother, dear, did you hear/How they are teaching me to do the goosestep?” The song is a wicked, veiled reference to a certain menu item… SOYLENT GREEN, anybody? The tune starts slow but, by the second half, Alex has worked his band into a lather, driving them hard to the finish. If you listen closely, you can hear him panting during the applause after. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were always known for their use of the well-chosen cover tune. The point is proven on a wild, waltz-like take of the Tom Jones hit, “Delilah.” The version used on LIVE was so powerful that it was released as a single itself and became the group’s biggest chart success. Again, Hugh’s keyboards seem to lead the band, though the others, especially Zal, do have their moments. The slow middle section features (again, you’ll have to take my word… no… wait… just check the video evidence!) Cleminson and Glen prancing across the stage in an approximation of a waltz, leaving Alex to his own devices amid a pile of mannequins. His vocals are weird and menacing, made more so by the backing vocals by the others. The album finale is another cover, the Leiber-Stoller chestnut, “Framed.” Harvey’s intro, while sticking fairly close to the original, is classic: “I’m walking down the street, minding my own affair/When two policemen grab me and I’m unaware/They said, is your name Alexander/ And I said, well, why sure/They said, well, you’re the cat that we been lookin’ for/But I was… FRA-MUH-DUH!/I never done nothin’!” SAHB’s version has a hard rock/glam feel, with some great boogie piano running through it and… guess what?… another awesome solo from Cleminson. The second “monologue” from Alex is a garbled mess… mostly because he’s wearing a pair of panty hose over his head. As the band kicks it back into high gear, Mister Harvey begins to plead his case to the audience. He asks them if they believe him, if they are on his side. “Do you believe me? No? You don’t believe me? The concert is canceled!” He pits the audience against the band, blaming them for all of his woes and emerges victorious, slamming into one of the more bombastic finishes ever recorded. I would certainly like to hear the complete, uncut concert but, I find it hard to believe that they could ever improve upon the sequencing and pacing of this one record; it’s that good! And, that’s why it sits at number 19 on my list of great live albums.