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Jazz

SHE GIVES ME FEVER

A LOVE-NOTE TO PEGGY LEE, ONE OF THE GREATEST SINGER/SONGWRITERS OF THE RECORDING ERA (by STEVE WAGNER)

A tip of the top hat and genuflection to Miss Peggy Lee, today celebrating the centennial of her birth. Peggy has long been one of my very favorite singers, from the day a friend turned me onto her album SUGAR ‘N’ SPICE in 1984. In the years since, I have delved deeply into her catalog, which is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Peggy was a towering figure in 20th century popular music. A singer for the ages, she was also one of the most accomplished lyricists in music history, and mostly at a time when very few women were songwriters, much less singer/songwriters. She was an innovator throughout her six-decade career, and, like most great artists, was restless, experimental, uncompromising, and a perfectionist. It is said she ran her sessions with no patience for lip, or amateurs. One simply did not question Miss Lee’s taste, or decisions, if one wanted to stay on her record.

PEGGY LEE, 1946 (photo credit: RAY WHITTEN PHOTOGRAPHY/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)

As someone who really values great vocals, I find Peggy’s oeuvre to be an indispensable primer on what makes a great singer a great singer. Frankly, most current singers leave me cold – I’m distracted and irritated by the faux emotion, self-indulgent delivery, calculated moans, endless vocal gymnastics at the expense of melody, and puzzling lack of awareness of what THE SONG is asking for. Peggy never exhibited such rookie behavior; she accomplished what every song called for with the exact opposite approach – rich tone, perfect pitch, intuitive timing, impeccable phrasing, and thoughtful understatement. She was a master of the “less-is-more” style, which I find much more moving than the egoic wailings we are frequently inundated with now. Peggy’s voice flourished across so many styles and genres – pop, jazz, cabaret, torch, blues, and comedy/novelty – while always remaining utterly singular and instantly recognizable.

PEGGY LEE on THE FRANK SINATRA SHOW, 1957 (photo credit: WALT DISNEY TELEVISION/GETTY IMAGES)

It would be impossible to summarize her long career here, suffice to say it is very telling that it closely mirrored that of Frank Sinatra’s throughout the decades. They both had their introductions as singers fronting the top big bands of the swing era – Frank with Tommy Dorsey and Peg with Benny Goodman – with both quickly becoming breakout stars on their own. Both dominated the charts as solo artists in the 1940s. Peg scored over twenty Top 40 songs in that decade, with her “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” the number one song of 1948, and Capitol Records’ top-selling single for sixteen years, until the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. Both branched into acting in the mid-50s with Oscar-nominated performances (Frank for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Peg for PETE KELLY’S BLUES), and both also pioneered the concept album during this period (Frank with IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, and Peg with BLACK COFFEE). Both managed to survive the explosion of rock and roll, maintaining a consistent chart presence throughout the ‘60s – indeed, they were really the only two singers from the big band years to remain commercially viable through that decade, even recording songs that are now considered amongst their best work. And both were ultimately defined by seminal songs late in their games – Frank for the testimonial “My Way” and Peg for the existential “Is That All There Is?” – which finally garnered her a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1969, at the height of the classic rock era.

PEGGY LEE on stage (photo credit GEORGE RINHART/CORBIS HISTORICAL/GETTY IMAGES)

As a songwriter, Peggy is up there with the greats. She collaborated with many giants of the form – Harold Arlen, Mel Tormé, Victor Young, Cy Coleman, Sonny Burke, and Duke Ellington. Her songs graced numerous films, among others THE JAZZ SINGER (1952); TOM THUMB (1958); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966); WALK, DON’T RUN (1966); THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968); and, of course, Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955), for which Peg composed the songs, and sang and voiced the parts of the female characters, not to mention two very devious Siamese cats. So many of her songs are timeless standards: “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Mañana,” “He’s a Tramp,” and “I Love Being Here with You,” just to name a few. And while her career-defining hit “Fever” was originally penned by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, Peggy added two original verses (“Romeo loved Juliet… ” and “Captain Smith and Pocahontas… ”) for her definitive version, and also came up with the idea to transpose the key up a half-step for each verse, which perfectly communicated the “rising temperature” motif. When the dust settled, her songs had been recorded by the cream of 20th century crooners and canaries: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Mose Allison, Della Reese, Jack Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Annie Ross, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Mark Murphy, Dionne Warwick, Michael Feinstein, kd lang, and Madonna.

PEGGY LEE with PAUL MCCARTNEY, 1976 (photo credit: JAMES FORTUNE)

If you’ll indulge me a few anecdotes I feel speak to Peg’s unique impact: She gave Quincy Jones a commercial biz leg-up in the early ‘60s, hiring the jazz wunderkind to arrange and produce for her. She gave her longtime lover Robert Preston singing lessons in preparation for his role as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN. She was a favorite of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, charting one of their gems, “I’m a Woman” in 1962, which stands with Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a proto-feminist anthem. Jerry and Mike claim that a few years later she threatened to have their legs broken if they didn’t give her “Is That All There Is?” (which also became the first hit to feature Randy Newman, who was arranger). She was the inspiration for “Miss Piggy” on THE MUPPET SHOW and essentially the genesis of the Jessica Rabbit character in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, her immortal “Why Don’t You Do Right” the song Jessica breathlessly sings to a mouth-agape Bob Hoskins. In addition to cutting nearly every substantial tune from the Great American Songbook, she recorded songs by rock/pop innovators Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Harrison, John Sebastian, Buffy Saint Marie, and Ray Davies. Paul McCartney, a huge fan, specially wrote the song “Let’s Love” for her in 1973, one of her last singles. kd lang, one of today’s most acclaimed singers, considers Peggy to be a primary influence. Peggy’s nightclub performances are the stuff of legend – extended residencies at Basin Street East in New York in the early ‘60s attracted a veritable who’s who of show business glitterati nightly. The Beatles were said to have wanted to attend when they first came over to do the Sullivan Show, but knew that Beatlemania would overwhelm the club and respected her too much to disturb. And finally, Peggy sang at Louis Armstrong’s funeral. Mic drop.

PEGGY LEE at the first Grammy Awards, 1959 (photo credit: WILLIAM CLAXTON/courtesy: DENMONT PHOTO MANAGEMENT

If you have the time (and who doesn’t, these days?) I implore you to explore this incredible artist. Recommended albums: BLACK COFFEE (1956); DREAM STREET (1957); BEAUTY AND THE BEAT (1959); BASIN STREET EAST (1961); and MINK JAZZ (1963). Below, please find several songs and videos that I hope bring Peggy’s brilliance into deeper perspective.

Enjoy, and HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, PEGGY!

First, here is an amazing film of Peggy at Basin Street, performing “See See Rider” with a presence that is, in a word, riveting. Tell me she doesn’t have the most expressive face this side of Elvis.

Peggy’s celebrated score for Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP in 1955 remains among her best known and most beloved work. It’s easy to hear why. Both the lyrics and vocal delivery are laced with lighthearted humor and cleverness. The two most famous songs from the movie – “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” – easily rank with the very best in the entire Disney animated film canon.

“He’s a Tramp”

“The Siamese Cat Song”

A wonderful example of Peggy’s singular approach to the blues, “I’m Looking Out the Window” is a simple sad chord progression in no hurry whatsoever to reach its destination, and only becomes a blues number because of the way Peggy interprets it. She takes what would be a straightforward melody and bends it into a poignant lament on waiting for a love that never arrives. Note that her take on this tune uses the same structural trick as her version of “Fever,” bouncing the key up a step with every other verse. This would normally produce a sense of hopefulness, or at least growing excitement. Peggy tempers this expectation by phrasing the lines more and more languidly as the song progresses.

One of the great, and still mostly overlooked, tunes from the standards era, this longing ballad (written by THE WIZARD OF OZ composer Harold Arlen in 1941) was recorded by nearly everyone, but never became a sizable hit for anyone. Among those who cut “When the Sun Comes Out” were the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Nancy Wilson. Notably, it was one of Barbra Streisand’s earliest recordings, the B-Side of her first single, 1962’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” (later re-recorded for THE SECOND BARBRA STREISAND ALBUM in 1963). But to my ears, Peggy’s version is the best of them all. She never strays from the melancholy feeling the lyrics demand, never falls prey to affecting a “big finish” beyond allowing her voice to become more emotional as the narrative builds. The arrangement rightly follows suit. This is a song that is meant to evoke, not entertain, and Peggy’s version does just that, perfectly.

A great example of how to subtly turn a jazz number into relatable pop, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin” is a co-composition by Peggy and Duke Ellington featured in the classic Jimmy Stewart courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER in 1959. Peggy’s lyric masterfully matches the jazzy intervals while winking at the listener throughout. She’s out to “catch me a trout,” alright, and her vocal supplies all the needed innuendo even if one can’t discern the barely concealed true intent in the lyric.

Paul McCartney loved Peggy, and composed this soft nugget for her in 1973, where it became one of her last singles and the title of the album on which it was featured. “Let’s Love” is unmistakably a McCartney melody, but Paul clearly strove to create a song that would allow for and accent Peggy’s personal style. This is one that every Beatle fan should know and serves as both love letter and testament to Peggy’s bedrock influence on the pop artists and songwriters—at least the respectful ones—who followed in her footsteps.

Peggy should absolutely be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not just as an influencer, but as a singer who deftly made the transition from easy listening into the more hard-edged styles of the rock era. This recording alone should be enough to deem her worthy. Written by the great songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, “I’m a Woman” ranks with their best, and Peggy simply hits it out of the park.

Peggy’s two most famous songs show the wide range of her talent as a vocalist, bringing precisely the right emotion to the needs of each. “Fever” is the quintessential torch song, and Peggy sings it with a brusque beguile that is always on the verge of boiling over while maintaining a shrewd detachment. This wise woman schools us on sex as she works us into a lather. Conversely, “Is That All There Is?” is the ultimate world-weary take on life and loss and the eternal question of “to be, or not to be.” I remember being stunned, at the age of nine, by the directness of this song, as I realized what Peggy was really singing about. This is one of the most unique songs to dominate the 20th century pop charts, and Peggy sings it like someone who has lived it. Because she had.

“Fever”

“Is That All There Is?”

JON HASSELL: VERNAL EQUINOX

(NDEYA RECORDS; 2020 reissue)

Some artists stubbornly resist pigeonholing. I could put any number of Jon Hassell records on (and I have a fair number) at a social gathering, and I’d bet that at least one listener would come up and say, “What the heck is THIS?” It’s strange music, that’s all. And being helpful by saying “it occupies a space between ambient, Miles Davis-type jazz and world music” may or may not prepare the uninitiated. Hassell himself would eventually start branding his recordings as “Fourth World,” to signify a kind of foreign, multi-ethnic sound that, while centered around his very distinct trumpet style, would also take you somewhere new. A sort of “traditional” sound from a country that doesn’t truly exist.

JON HASSELL (David Rosenboom, Jon Hassell in 1977) (uncredited photo)

His first official album was VERNAL EQUINOX, which initially came out in 1977. It has now been remastered and reissued on Hassell’s own label. It’s kind of a disorienting little beast of a record, but it was original enough to catch the ears of Brian Eno, who wrote liner notes for this edition. Eno, of course, would go on to collaborate with Hassell on POSSIBLE MUSICS in 1980, and to produce a few records for the artist after that. For whatever it might illustrate, the noted music website Pitchfork included VERNAL EQUINOX as one of their “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” (it was listed at #47). And the evocative, often spacious quality of Hassell’s compositions does indeed fit comfortably into an ambient (albeit the edgy reaches of the genre) mode.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Most of the six pieces here are exotic, a bit misty-sounding and in thrall to the otherworldly timbre of Hassell’s trumpet. The instrument is sometimes processed to sound either partially muted, or vaporous, wafting through the air of whatever planet it’s coming from. “Viva Shona” features birdsong and sparse background instrumentation, the trumpet placed front and center. “Hex” lets Hassell carry on a very distinctive conversation, his tones developing in such a lively manner that you listen close to catch the amazing process as it evolves. What sounds like rainstick and bass adorns the background. Most listeners will be especially riveted by the two centerpiece tracks “Blues Nile” and the title track. The former piece gives us a slightly distorted, granular-sounding drone over which Hassell delivers sonic bursts that sound for all the world like a warning or “call to attention” for the citizens of an alien culture. Could be a pending invasion from that tribe over the hill! The clear separation between the trumpet and the sharp-edged drone is dramatic and compelling. Around the climax of the piece, Hassell lets loose a series of notes going up and down the scale of his chosen key, and you’ll likely stop whatever you’re doing to listen closely. As for the nearly 22-minute “Vernal Equinox,” it’s thoroughly engrossing, setting up a sparse but hypnotic landscape of background drone, hand drumming and a casually meandering trumpet, as though Hassell were patiently walking a lush rainforest trail, stopping to observe here and there but recording his observations in music with great passion at appropriate intervals. It’s a marvel, this track. I can only imagine the reactions of listeners encountering it for the first time. Things finish off with the short closer “Caracas Night,” with nocturnal nature sounds and some Miles-style blowing to bid you adieu in a slightly more traditional manner. It’s not a long album, this outing, but it will definitely make you feel like you’ve been somewhere.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Hassell’s later outings with Eno would bring him more acclaim (POWER SPOT is one of those distinct offerings), and there is more textural richness on the dramatically titled THE SURGEON OF THE NIGHT SKY RESTORES DEAD THINGS BY THE POWER OF SOUND and DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA, to name just a couple of gems. But it started here, with …EQUINOX. He’s a genuinely visionary player who took a much featured instrument and did things with it no one had ever done before. That takes a special kind of musicality and love of exploration that should certainly be celebrated.

4U: A SYMPHONIC CELEBRATION OF PRINCE

(October 14, 2018; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

Celebrity deaths are not new and I tend to ponder such passings for only a short time before moving on. Exceptions, of course, do happen. The first that really – make that REALLY – affected me was the plane crash that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s entourage. Groucho Marx, a couple of months earlier, was big but… the deaths and the devastation to the entire Skynyrd band shook me. Others – Glen Buxton, Rick Nelson, Johnnie Johnson, Johnny Cash, David Bowie – all had profound affects on me, as did the untimely deaths of three musicians I had considered friends: God Lives Underwater vocalist David Reilly, and drummers Dustin Hengst and John “Beatz” Holohan of Damone and Bayside, respectively. With all of these (and a few others), my personal feeling of loss was palpable. All of them pale, however, to the majestic hole left by the departure of Prince Rogers Nelson in April, 2016. He always seemed to be so relatable. Not just to me or his legions of fans, but to those outside of his music’s scope, as well. Heck, even my Dad sat through and liked PURPLE RAIN. So, this was an evening that I knew I must be a part of. I was not disappointed!

4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (JAMES OLMSTEAD) (photo courtesy: JEN GRAY/ReviesSTL)

The show was delivered in two parts, as the project’s curator, the Roots’ Questlove, announced (via a recorded introduction). The first would highlight “deep cuts,” while the second half would feature the hits. The deep cuts came mostly from the movie UNDER THE CHERRY MOON. While the material – “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” “I Wonder U,” “New Position,” among them – are fairly unknown to me, as I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, but having been arranged and orchestrated by Clare Fischer, they, seemingly, were no-brainers for this show. In a brilliant move, Quest had approached Fischer’s son, Brent, as he had worked with his father on several Prince projects. The first half also featured fairly different takes on songs like “Controversy” and the 1999 album cuts “Automatic” and “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” Complete surprises were the unreleased compositions “It Ain’t Over ‘til the Fat Lady Sings” and “All My Dreams,” leftovers from the UNDER THE CHERRY MOON sessions. More than twenty minutes into the show, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first song that I really recognized straight off. I certainly don’t mean to slight the talented band accompanying the orchestra; however, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first time that one of the group stepped forward for any type of sustained exposure as electric violinist Ginny Luke delivered a brilliant solo. For the first time, “1999” got some folks on their feet, shaking off the staid, almost sterile orchestra feel of the evening. Miss Luke, likewise, was on her feet, delivering the first minimal vocals of the evening, as well as a bit of booty shakin’ of her own. Bassist CJ Alexander, drummer Skeeter, electronic percussionist Titus Johnson and a still unidentified guitarist, steadfast all night long, seemed energized by the crowd, pushing into new heights of rocking funkiness. If this first half dealt us a somewhat laid-back take on the Prince legacy until the end, that ending certainly did bode well for part two.

4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (CJ ALEXANDER) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (THE UNKNOWN GUITARIST) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Totally eschewing that “stay in your seat, this is an orchestra” stuff, as “Let’s Go Crazy” kicked off part two and the front of the stage was crashed by a slew of hearty revellers. A Prince-worthy solo by Luke ended the number. “When Doves Cry” turned into a massive sing-along, with the Fabulous Fox crowd raising their voices as one. It was, for me, the first truly moving moment of the evening, though certain ly not the last. As Ginny Luke became more involved with the crowd, I mentally noted that she had turned into quite the show-stopper. “Little Red Corvette” sounded like it was made to be played in this orchestrated fashion. Mister Alexander delivered an absolutely amazing bass solo and the guitarist (does ANYBODY know this guy’s name?) definitely proved his funky mettle. The inherent funkiness of His Royal Purpleness continued on a cool version of “Kiss.” Though an odd choice (in my opinion) of “Starfish and Coffee” kinda slowed things down at just the right time before spilling into a majestic “Take Me With U.” A snippet of “Irresistible Bitch” followed before morphing into “Raspberry Beret.” The symphony took over for an incredible interlude that led into… the Revolution doing “Purple Rain?” Yes, at this point, the live band sat out and let the legendary moment from PURPLE RAIN speak for itself. Though we had being seeing images and visual cues of Prince all night, his voice literally (and, yes, I have used that word properly) sent a chill down my spine, put a lump in my throat and brought a tear to my eye. In fact, there were several audience members wiping away the tears during this one. The orchestra continued to accompany as Prince’s solo hit. It is, without any doubt in my head, one of the greatest, most soulful guitar workouts in the history of rock, funk, soul or any other genre of music. As the live band joined in, the already overwhelming emotions merely intensified. It was a brilliant finish to an absolutely stunning show! But, wait… after most of the musicians had quit the stage, the video screens came alive again, with the Man himself delivering those familiar words: “I ain’t done yet. Chalk one up for the Kid!” As Prince and the Revolution launched into “Baby I’m a Star” before the band and orchestra joined in amidst an insane light show. While the tune and the presentation was cool, it almost seemed anti-climactic after the stirring “Purple Rain.” My thanks go to Questlove and the Prince Trust for bringing this vision to life and for the band, conductor James Olmstead and the local musicians of the orchestra for an unforgettable evening celebrating the one, the only Prince.

4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (PRINCE) (uncredited photo)

CINEMATIK: CINEMATIK; ONE FULL MOON AWAY

(KACHINA RECORDS; 2001; 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

CINEMATIK (Neal Smith, Peter Catucci, Robert Mitchell) (photo credit: TONY LOEW)

Famed Alice Cooper percussionist Neal Smith has lent his name to many projects since the demise of that storied outfit some four-and-a-half decades ago – from the sublime (Billion Dollar Babies, Bouchard Dunaway and Smith) to the ridiculous (the big noise, hair metal of Ded Ringer) to the ridiculously sublime (Plasmatics and his own 1975 solo album, PLATINUM GOD). I’m not exactly sure where this project falls; it’s kind of a “musician’s project,” with textures generally unexplored in any of Neal’s other work. There are hints of the old Cooper sound, particularly a descending riff that spirals through “Temple Mental,” a tune from Cinematik’s eponymous debut. Much of Neal’s work on the trio’s two albums involves African and tribal percussion instruments rather than the standard “rock guy” drum kit that most of us associate with the “platinum God.”

Though there are touches of the old Neal Smith sound, much of the music is very… uh… cinematic. Neal’s bandmates, bassist/vocalist Peter Catucci and guitarist/vocalist Robert Mitchell, create an almost orchestral feel, allowing the understated percussion to flow through the (mostly) instrumental material of CINEMATIK and ONE FULL MOON AWAY, rather than drive the tunes forward. Occasionally, subtlety and power mean the same thing. That is never more evident than on the beautiful instrumental, “Awake,” a song from the first album. With Peter’s minimal use of the didgeridoo and his quietly throbbing bass and Neal’s less-is-more approach (on what sounds like either a tom-tom or a small hand drum and a tambourine) on the evocative Native American percussion, Robert weaves an elegant, slightly jazz-flavored guitar over, under, and through the tune leaving you spellbound. Peter’s didgeridoo comes to the fore a little more forcefully on the rather loopy, jazzy hip-hop of “Reckon Eyes.” Other high points of the first disc are “Nude Ellie,” the somehow transcendent “African Clay,” and the doom-heavy “Even In Sleep.” Peter Hickey guests on keyboards on “Nude Ellie” and “African Clay,” the latter of which also features a vocal performance by Maximillian Catucci; Grace Loew adds cello to the tune “Grace Beach.” I know that somebody somewhere is going to call the music of CINEMATIK “New Age.” If they do (or even if it looks like they’re thinking it), smack ’em! They deserve it (plus… they won’t hit ya back cuz they’re all peaceful and at one with self and universe… or some mumbo-jumbo crap like that)!

ONE FULL MOON AWAY pretty much picks up right where CINEMATIK left off, but tends to rock a bit more (maybe due to an unsolicited “New Age” tag-line haunting the guys from the first album). “Incognito” borders on rock and roll more than just about anything else on either release, with a “JAMES BOND” kinda vibe and the trio expanding their sound to include – among other things – a sax (provided by Klyph Johnson). Robert adds a little bit of Frippertronics-style guitar sound washes through-out the disc, all to good effect. This album also features more vocal tracks and more harmony and backing vocals than the first. Plus – inadvertent or homage – there are tracks that virtually scream “Alice Cooper!” The hypnotic “Million To One” is very reminiscent of “Halo of Flies.” In a slightly less chaotic fashion, of course. With Robert and Peter splitting lead vocal duties, I’m never quite sure who’s singing what, but I must say that one of the guys has definitely picked up a stylish Joe Walsh kind of phrasing, put to good use on “Unfrozen,” among others. The Native American percussion is back on a track called “Amorak,” but the over-all sound of the track is very spooky… a kind of swirling eddy of darkness. “Euriffodes” (sound it out and you’ll get the little inside joke) is an excuse for Neal to play a standard (if smaller than usual) drum-kit and for Robert to… ROCK OUT! The track is, possibly, the guys showing everybody that Steve Howe and Yes aren’t the only people who can pull off a song like this. Other high spots include the trippy “Murder In the Moon” and the percussion heavy Middle-Eastern fusion of the final track, “Simplas Childernz.” Peter adds the violin, clay flute, and berimbau to his instrumental onslaught, while guest players help to flesh out the sound: Grace Loew returns on cello, Rob Fraboni adds shaker to the goofy “Wolfman’s Holiday,” and Klyph Johnson is all over the place with his already noted sax work, as well as the occasional bassoon.

NEAL SMITH (photo credit: JIM SIATRAS)

Listening to the albums back-to-back, I’d have to give the nod to CINEMATIK on atmosphere alone, though the more up-tempo ONE FULL MOON AWAY definitely is worth obtaining, as well. It has been a while since these albums were released (they are copyrighted 2001 and 2002), and the three members have all gone on to other projects (most notably, Neal’s return to the rock arena with Joe Bouchard and Dennis Dunaway and Peter’s work on the Garrison Project album). However, the music that these three men make together is truly amazing. I, for one, am hoping for a third release from Cinematik.

JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS: GUILTY OF INNOCENCE

(MELODIC REVOLUTION RECORDS; 2017)

The music of Stratospheerius is a frenzied, brilliant amalgam of the Blues, Progressive Rock, Funk, improvisational Jazz, Classical and orchestral music, along with just about any other genre or sub-genre you can come up with. I’m not sure, but… there may also be a bit of the kitchen sink in there somewhere. Led by virtuoso violinist Joe Deninzon, a man sometimes referred to as “the Jimi Hendrix of the electric violin,” the quartet comes closest in spirit – if not in actual sonic delivery – to the early music (through, say, 1976’s ZOOT ALLURES) of Frank Zappa and his various groups. The resultant sound is a chaotic rush of genuine (and genius) eclecticism. There is certainly more than a little of something for everyone on the band’s fifth release, GUILTY OF INNOCENCE.

JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS (Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Lucianna Padmore, Jamie Bishop) (uncredited photo)

The record kicks off with “Behind the Curtain.” With lyrics like “Welcome to the circus/It’s your biggest nightmare/Wear the scarlet letter/Scrutinized forever” and “Put your mask on/And tuck your shirt in/Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the song acts as a sort of catch-all warning against the behind-the-scenes machinations that fuel the music industry or intolerance or political correctness or… You get the point. With a heavy, pound-yer-face-in riff-a-rama approach, bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore lay down an exceptionally tight groove allowing Deninzon and guitarist Aurelien Budynek to go crazy with wicked dueling solos. As an opening salvo or as a stand alone piece of music, this one is a near-perfect shot across the bow of accepted norms. “Take Your Medicine” is a nasty little piece of work about “glass houses” and “casting the first stone.” It’s a bass heavy blast of funkiness with Joe’s violin filling in nicely for a full horn section. Guitar, violin and vocals add a rather hard rock urgency to the proceedings, with another dose of wild soloing, a feature that lends a certain Zappa-esque quality to this record. According to Mister Deninzon, the title track (“Guilty of Innocence,” for those with a short memory span) 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.” Padmore and Bishop lay down a modest Ska-influenced groove, while spastic violin leads and muscular metal riffs drive the tune. The violins and bass take on an almost operatic quality during the break and, just because I enjoy mentioning musical touch-points to give the reader a better idea of what to expect, the song’s chorus has a very Who-like feel, melodically speaking. Piling on to that musical heritage, let me say that if you’re a fan of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones or the previously mentioned Frank Zappa, you’re gonna love this one. “Face” is a sombre little ditty, sort of a slow burn piece with scathing lyrics about people (lovers, partners, friends, perfect strangers) who are more than willing to openly attack you just for the pure enjoyment: “These scars ain’t healing/It’s too late to make amends/I dodge the bullet/Your tongue flies across the room/Build up the callous/’Til I grow numb to the doom and gloom.” A very Hendrix-ian solo by Deninzon adds a certain psychedelic (or maybe it’s “psychotic”) mania to the number. The introduction to the frantic retelling of the Muse hit “Hysteria” features glass-shattering soprano Melanie Mitrano before a warbling high-register vocal from Joe takes over; the latter fits the surrounding chaos of the tune perfectly. There’s a certain “Flight of the Bumble Bee” quality to the always on-point violin work, highlighted by a massive solo, all backed impeccably by the metal leanings of Stratospheerius.

Affluenza” is another funky number with “ripped from the headlines” lyrics about people who believe themselves superior to “the little people” and, therefore, above the law because of that superior wealth and high standards of living. The song has a kind of Living Colour rock vibe happening, with lyrical barbs aplenty over sharp jabs of guitar and violin. Guest performer Rave Tesar adds an oddly appealing set of synthesizer “bloops,” giving the whole thing a cool late ‘70s funk sound. A hard(ish) rocking, progressive sort of pop-metal thing with Queen-like aspirations, “Parallel Reality” is choke full of breathy vocals, an absolutely killer rhythm (and a melody line to match) and, of course, the usual high-minded violin/guitar interplay that makes this band and this album essential listening. “Game of Chicken” starts out sounding like it coulda been an OVER-NITE SENSATION outtake, but then turns into sort of a Kansas prog-pop kinda thing. The playing and soloing remain top-notch and raise the piece out of what could have been a severe abyss of doldrums. The wholly (holy?) improvisational “Dream Diary Cadenza” is a muscular, solo violin freakout rife with flashes of Hendrixisms, Van Halenisms, Beckisms, Zappaisms and any other guitar genius ism that you could ever bring to mind. A brilliant workout from a master technician of his chosen craft. “Soul Food” is a nearly thirteen minute extravaganza with a veritable orchestra of guest artists: Melanie Mitrano, Rave Tesar, guitarists Alex Skolnick (!) and Randy McStine, violinist Eddie Venegas, violist (?) Earl Maneein and cellists Patrice Jackson and Leo Grinhaus. The piece is epic in every musical sense of the word and is, truly, a fitting end to a superb album. You owe it to yourself to obtain GUILTY OF INNOCENCE; you can do so by visiting CD Baby, Amazon or any of the other “usual places” and, naturally, at the group’s Bandcamp page.

DOING MY BEST TO BE BRUCE: THE BRUCE KULICK INTERVIEW

BRUCE KULICK (publicity photo)

Bruce Kulick plays guitar. He has played with everyone from Michael Bolton to Billy Squier to Meat Loaf and, of course, a couple of little bands called Kiss and Grand Funk Railroad, Bruce has shared the stage with some of the best known artists in the world and jammed with some fairly unique bands… just because he likes to challenge himself. He spent twelve years touring and recording as a member of Kiss and just completed seventeen years as a member of Grand Funk Railroad, alongside original members bassist Mel Schacher and drummer Don Brewer and two other “new guys,” singer Max Carl and keyboard player Tim Cashion. Most recently, he has recorded two singles with his wife, Lisa (the original “If I Could Show You” and the classic holiday song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and is looking forward to further exploring that creative avenue in the still-new year.

In an interview recorded on January 10, in anticipation of an upcoming Grand Funk show in – virtually my own backyard – Effingham, Illinois (at the beautiful Effingham Performance Center), Bruce discussed playing with Kiss members Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Eric Singer over the previous weekend, at the launch party for THE GENE SIMMONS VAULT EXPERIENCE; a few memorable road experiences with his brother, Bob, and Meat Loaf; the music industry and taxes; and, of course, that l’il old American Band, Grand Funk Railroad. We had penciled in a 15 to 20 minute time slot for this talk; after a few generalities about logistics and such, I realized we had been going at it for 45 minutes. Thanks for the time, Bruce.

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD (Mel Schacher, Bruce Kulick, Max Carl, Don Brewer, Tim Cashion) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: So, obviously, you’ve been a member of Grand Funk for eighteen, nineteen years…

BRUCE: Technically, we just finished seventeen and we’re starting our eighteenth year.

THE MULE: Okay. How did you get the gig?

BRUCE: Well, I was contacted by Don Brewer back in ‘99. It was the middle of the year, I believe. He reached out to me via e-mail and at first I thought it was maybe somebody pranking me, even though I had met him in the past, but I didn’t know him well. He reached out and… I was in New York, actually, helping my parents move to California, but said I’d get in touch next week when I came back. Then, we finally… I thought it would be best to have an actual phone conversation and we chatted about what was actually happening, which was the fact that Mel and Don were going to move forward and they already had a terrific singer, Max Carl, and they were looking for a guitar player and would I be willing to come up to Michigan to do some rehearsal to see what it all kinda felt like, if it would work.

So, I did and, it went rather well. I was pretty nervous because it’s another iconic band that suddenly need a guitarist. But, I really did like Mel and Don and I thought Max was a terrific singer. And, then, from that point, the next time I got together, they had the keyboard player who we’ve had, as well. for all these years, Tim Cashion. And that was Grand Funk Railroad. By the end of ‘99, after us getting together, to rehearse enough, we started to perform. I think we only did one gig in ‘99. Technically, 2000 was our first real year of playing. It’s amazing, it’s been seventeen years, now going into the eighteenth and the same guys. We’re really all getting along very well and we love playing this music. There are some new songs, but generally it’s a lot of the hits from Grand Funk.

THE MULE: I was gonna ask if you’d known Don and Mel before, but you kinda answered in that, so…

BRUCE: Well, I would want to qualify it just by saying that, Mel I never met before meeting him in Michigan. But, Don Brewer… we had a very interesting kind of crossing paths by… I was working with Michael Bolton and we did a tour that opened up for Bob Seger. For many, many tours, Don Brewer’s been the drummer for Bob Seger and, this was 1983. Don had a big beard, I remember. I remembered meeting him and we were on tour, I think, almost three weeks with the guys, so we all got to k now each other a little bit and hang out. And, actually from that tour, Don Brewer wound up meeting his… the woman that he’s married to, because she was actually someone that we were friends with, Michael Bolton and I.

It was really interesting that… There’s even a little modern connection to that, in the fact that, this past year, we opened, one of the few dates that Seger did before he had that injury, you know, with his back, which he, I believe, is having surgery for and he’ll be back out on the road. But, Grand Funk opened for Bob Seger in Indianapolis. It was very exciting because I know some of the people in that band, as well, for years and, of course, Don’s wife, Sunny came and knows those guys from all the tours. (Laughs) I remember saying to Sunny backstage, in front of Don, “This is really weird!,” because here we are, on Bob Seger’s stage. and this is how we all kinda met each other, in a sense, and here we are all together so many years later and there’s 24,000 people out there. And, of course, the gig was huge success for us and that’s all great. So, that’s one of the wonderful things in the music industry, is that, kinda how you meet someone way in the past and you don’t realize how that… You know, if I met Don in ‘83, it wasn’t ‘til ‘99 that I had the opportunity to actually play a guitar with him. That’s a long time and, then here we are, it’s 2018 and I’m still playing guitar with the guy. It’s really kinda cool, you know? And, in a sense, it’s similar to me jamming with Ace and Gene over the weekend. Which was very surreal, too. But, I love that about the music industry. That’s why it’s always great to keep your connections. You never know.

THE MULE: I remember reading that Grand Funk was kind of an influence when you were just getting into the business. So, what is the favorite part about being in this band?

BRUCE: Well, I always saw Grand Funk, when I was young, as kind of like the American version of the British rock trio, like a Cream but, they were just a little more… hence, the “Funk” word. They were a little more funky. It wasn’t as… They definitely weren’t trying to emulate anything British, they were more R and B, in a way. Hence, hits like “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Locomotion” and stuff like that. But, I did love the rhythm section. Don and Mel… Oh, my God! I mean, Mel was like… he had the original name “God of Thunder,” which was kinda ironic, of course, from my Kiss years with that song. And, Don being just a powerhouse on the drums. The well respected drummer who had the flamboyant drum solo back in the ‘70s.

So, for me, they were really unique because they were American and they weren’t trying to copy anything British but, there they were with all that energy. I think that’s how they were able to sell out Shea Stadium, you know, when they did that gig and broke records at certain times of their big years. So, I was pretty… I remember my first call after Don and I had the chat was to speak to the manager that Kiss was using for some of the years I was in the band, Larry Mazer. I said, “Grand Funk, Don Brewer just called me about being in the band. What do you think?” “Oh, that’s awesome. You gotta do it. That’s great.” I mean, I already knew it was great but, I did want to bounce it off of a business guy. I was always, you know, aware of the band, a fan of the band and quite flattered to asked to be… to have the opportunity to be in the band. It was really quite flattering for me.

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD (Mal Schacher, Max Carl, Don Brewer, Bruce Kulick, Tim Cashion) (publicity phot)

THE MULE: Next year… ‘69. The band’s gonna celebrate fifty years. Are there any plans afoot for a major tour?

BRUCE: That’s a good question. It’s kinda funny that I hadn’t thought of that yet. Obviously, Don and Mel being the original guys and everything, I’m sure they’re very aware of that but, whether or not they have something planned or are trying to coordinate something with the record company or agent, I’m not sure. But, it could make for an interesting story or a great marketing… that’s for sure.

THE MULE: You played with a lot of… I’m gonna call ‘em “over-the-top” personalities throughout your career.

BRUCE: (Laughs) Okay. The music industry lends itself to that.

THE MULE: Are there any that stick out in your mind as, “I can’t believe this.” or, you know, maybe crazy tour stories or anything that you’d care to share?

BRUCE AND BOB KULICK (publicity photo)

BRUCE: Well, I mean, one of the first… I would have to say the first REALLY major artist that I toured with, even though I had some touring experience with some people that had some hits prior to the band I’m going to mention – or the name of the artist I’m going to mention – was Meat Loaf. And, Bob and I, my brother and I played guitar for Meat Loaf. That was for the original BAT OUT OF HELL tour. So, the album was already done. Todd Rundgren and those two guys did the record, Jim Steinman’s songs brilliantly put together with Todd Rundgren. I mean, this thing was quite an ambitious record. It was unique. It wasn’t a real band, it was Meat Loaf and Steinman writing the songs and, yet, you have nine people on stage. Okay. With Meat Loaf, you know, he had to have been over three-hundred pounds and he’s in a tuxedo. You get the picture. And you’re performing on stage with a full rock band of eight other people behind you… two keyboard players, two guitarists, background singers, drums, bass and, you know, it was kind of like a crazy rock opera gone mad and he was very physical. But, I have to say, there were many moments with the Meat Loaf tour where his actions, which were over-the-top theatrical musical art, in a sense, were pretty… In some ways, they certainly were disturbing and in other ways, I realized they’re brilliant. You know what I mean? So, I gotta say Meat Loaf really has always stood out as being someone that was quite… quite special as a performer. I mean, when I joined Kiss it was like “How do I keep up with Gene and Paul onstage?” These guys are incredible showmen on stage. Then I realized I can’t play and even try to move like these guys. I can’t do both and I think the important thing was to play the guitar. But, they were quite outrageous and it was quite exciting, of course, to have these two iconic players be some of the best showmen in rock. So, yeah, I’ve gotta admit, I’ve been blessed with some interesting gigs.

And, even on a band that wasn’t that famous, the Good Rats. Some people know of them, but not everybody. You got the lead singer, Peppi Marcello, he’s performing in shorts and basically looking like someone that would hang out at the ballpark and, you know, he’s holding a baseball bat. He’s running around the stage with that, singing very well songs that he mostly wrote all himself. So, I’ve always kind of… I would say performed with some flamboyant, in very unique ways, each of those artists having their own style of that.

THE MULE: Yeah. Uh… you did mention that you played with Gene and Ace and, Eric was a part of that, as well. Gene once told me that, once a member of the Kiss family, always a member of the Kiss family. That was kind of borne out in you and Eric playing with those two. If Paul and Gene were to make that call, would Bruce answer?

THE GENE SIMMONS VAULT EXPERIENCE LAUNCH PARTY, 2018 (Gene Simmons, Bruce Kulick, Eric Singer, Ace Frehley) (photo credit: ALEX KLUFT/ULTIMATE CLASSIC ROCK)

BRUCE: Well, obviously, what happened over the weekend when Gene presented his VAULT, it was the first of many of his opportunities in the fans’ hands that paid for it. That was really organic, how all that happened because, it was very well received, obviously. I know my social media is blowing up from me posting stuff about it. I know that fans love that kind of stuff, so now, it kinda poses that question. In the future, you know… ‘cause everyone’s always wondering when there’ll be the final big hurrah, of which I have no idea of when and if that’s going to happen. But, if it does, I finally… Things feel much more aware that they’re aware that the fans love it! Okay? I was aware that Ace was going to be there that day. I found out earlier in the day, actually. Eric actually told me and I already had a plan with Gene to show up later in the afternoon but, you know, not to be a part of anything other than to say “Hi,” you know. My wife’s never been to Capitol Records, which I’ve only been probably once or maybe twice and that’s such an iconic studio in LA. So, you know, support Gene, show up, say “Hi,” meet the fans. I knew it wasn’t going to be 1,000 people, it was only gonna be a hundred people but, knowing Ace went, I went, “oh, that’s kind of cool. I wonder what’s going on.” I remember texting my friend who bought the VAULT, who got there free, “What’s going on there?” He goes, “Ace and Gene are jamming and telling stories for the past 45 minutes,” or something. I was like, “Wow! That’s unbelievable!”

Then, of course, by the time I got there around six and took some photos with Gene and we talked about the VAULT and all and I said “Hi” to Ace, which was great he was still hanging around. Then Gene asked… Then Eric showed up, because he was rehearsing with Paul, I believe, that day, for this Japan tour. Then, the next thing I know, Gene goes, “Stick around. If you’d like to, you’re here, you should come on up.” (Laughs) It was like that. I was like, “Come up and do WHAT?” You know what I’m saying? I didn’t even know if there was more than one guitar in the building, okay? So, when I use the word “ORGANIC,” I mean it… with all capitals. Because I did not go there expecting to ever hold a guitar, did not go there expecting to be on a stage, of course, to sit up on stage to discuss the album and to greet the fans and talk about why he put it out and stuff like that. So, at that portion of the day, which happened later in the day… I believe Gene’s afternoon was supposed to be all meet and greet with people that bought it. But, with Ace showing up, it became… they took an hour break and wound up on stage chatting with each other and playing. In fact, I was just this morning, watching one of the things that I missed because I came later. But, that whole element of us all coming together was just really organic but, what I love about it the most, even though I… it, of course, it was a big thrill for me, was that I’m very aware that… Gene even got ahold of me the next morning, thanked me for coming down and everything. What my brother and I did on the cruise, everybody loved. I think it’s really evident to the Kiss guys that what you started with, “Once a member of the Kiss family, always a member of the family,” especially if you’re available and functioning in a healthy attitude. Obviously, anger, animosity and lawsuits means you don’t get invited to a party, right? That’s not the way the world works.

So, look, what will happen, I have no idea but, I do know that what happened on Saturday night was something that was very clearly in the right direction of showing the fans that in this case, certainly, that Gene gets along with Ace better than anyone may have thought for feared that he didn’t because there’s been times when they all say things about each other and I’ve always been on great terms with Gene but, I haven’t had many opportunities to be on stage with him. So, Eric and I have done things ourselves but, not with an Ace Frehley, except for UNPLUGGED and that’s why my reaction onstage was pretty funny. I said, “Wow, this is like UNPLUGGED, except 2018.” Of course, we were missing Paul but, still, just the elements of Eric, myself and Ace and Gene was just… I realized that it was like… completely not prepared, not planned, nothing. Maybe that made it more charming, made it more unique. I’m certain, though, it presents a new sense within Gene and Ace that fans want to see this. So, I can only hope that it could happen in the future.

THE MULE: Yeah. That would be awesome, actually, to see you take one more bow with ‘em.

BRUCE: Exactly.

THE MULE: Speaking of which, I just gotta say… no questions or anything but, REVENGE has gotta be my all time favorite Kiss album.

KISS, circa 1992 (Eric Singer, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Bruce Kulick) (REVENGE publicity photo)

BRUCE: Well, thanks. I know, I get asked that question sometimes, “What’s your favorite one?” and, believe me, there’s many I love, all the ones that I was involved with, there’s huge highlights on each album but, I usually just gravitate to REVENGE and, a lot of time when I’m doing my meet and greets, I’m meeting fans, I may sign more ASYLUM or more CRAZY NIGHTS than REVENGE but, either way, I’m very proud of that album, for sure.

THE MULE: Speaking of which, I did meet you quite a while back. You were playing with Union and you signed a Blackjack album for me.

BRUCE: There ya go. I mentioned Michael Bolton before.

THE MULE: Yeah, yeah. It’s all cyclical, I guess. I wanna get into a couple more Grand Funk things but, I also gotta know, what other projects are you working currently on, like on your time off from Grand Funk between tours?

BRUCE: That’s a great question. I generally keep myself busy with whatever seems to come up, so, I know I was really very, very pleased that I was able to actually do a few sessions in December. You know, people reach out to me and say “Could we hire you to play guitar on my project?” Or my song. Or my band. Everything’s a little unique and I never say yes or get any further until I listen to see if they have some talent, what they’re about and what they’re hoping for me to play on. So, those things come out – and they came up often enough in 2017 – that I enjoy. I especially like it when there’s a real challenge to some of the stuff, not exactly what you’d think…

There’s one particularly interesting artist from Sweden who’s part of a band and they do theaters and sell out all the time in that part of the world. But, they’re doing “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” as a four man group and, one of the main singers, Robert Haglund, does his own smooth lounge rock, classic rock kind of thing and I just did a song for him. He actually covered a Peter Criss solo album track. I played guitars on it. But, he did it very unique. I loved… I like the Peter song. I wasn’t really familiar with it ‘til he shared it with me but, then, once I heard how he did it and made it his own, I was like, “This rocks!” You know, because it’s a good blend of Smooth Jazz and a rock song. You know what I’m sayin’?

THE MULE: Yeah, yeah. Kinda like, I guess, that character that Bill Murray played… the lounge lizard kinda guy that Bill Murray played on SNL.

BRUCE AND LISA LANE KULICK (uncredited photo)

BRUCE: Yeah. This is interesting, this guy. But, while things come up like that all the time, I still want to explore more things with my wife, Lisa. We put out a song last April. We actually have footage, a duet video and the two of us… I’ve had, I mean, I’m already looking at taxes for 2017. It’s the time of the year when it’s not too crazy and I get a chance to put things together and I realized that I had a really incredibly busy 2017. I’m very proud of it. And, I know that’s part of the reason I didn’t get to everything I wanted to but, we were able to put out a single and, of course, over the Christmas holiday because we kind of promised each other. We were actually hoping to put out a Christmas EP. Last year, the beginning of the year, we talked about it but, I was too busy with traveling and things like the cruise, the Kiss Kruise, and stuff like that prevented it. Grand Funk had more dates than the usual year, which was very exciting for us. So, I want to explore some more stuff with my wife, Lisa, on a few levels, musically and everything. The Christmas song we did got a great reaction on Facebook, of course.

What else? You know, I put out an interesting product this past 2017, where I did a mini-guitar of one of the guitars that were known from my Kiss years and then actually ordered a very small number of faux guitar from the guitar company and sold them myself. They sold out really quickly and I want to do more things like that in the future, all on a very limited basis. I’m not trying to become a mass-merchandise man, okay? Because I’d like to manage it… I’ve had a few people in the industry tell me, “I guess when you say limited, it really is limited.” I know a certain artist that I collect and I go, “Oh, it says limited. How many that I really make that was limited?” It’ll start out at 500, then it turns into fifteen hundred and you get number fourteen hundred. What happened here? Anyway, there’s a lot of that I wanna look at. But, there’s always stuff going on.

The band that I hired at my wedding, which is another band that’s very, very like Rat Pack but, they do… They’re called Nutty and they do also, like, Jazz versions of classic rock songs by mashing up things. Early last year, late ‘16, we put out… They did “Detroit Rock City” and I sat in with them at a local supper club place here in California and that thing just blew up on the internet. It was great. In fact, I’m going to go see them play tomorrow night and I know I wanna get together with them and try to do a little more experiments, jam with them a few more times over the course of 2018, in some clever way. I haven’t figured them out yet. I probably want to really have a good discussion with them. I really love, you know, just doing other things.

I’m sometimes too busy to do ROCK AND ROLL FANTASY CAMP, which I’ve been a counselor for… God, I’ve been working with David Fishof, who is the promoter of that, and I’ve been doing that since 2005 or ‘06 so, it’s been a long time. Sometimes, since I can’t always do the camps, I’ll wind up… But, I’ll get called up to do one the corporate gigs that David did before. The whole thing, which ALWAYS goes really well. What a thrill! One was this huge accounting company, who obviously have a very successful team that they’re willing to do a big convention and then have us entertain them one day and be a part of their team-building. I got jam with Nancy Wilson from Heart and I was the guitarist. We did “Barracuda” and “Crazy On You” and “Magic Man” and, man, what a thrill that was, along with some other very talented people that you would know their names, like Ian Paice and Tony Franklin, Teddy Andreadis.

So, you know what I mean. It just seems like I go from a Grand Funk gig to, I could jump into a session that week or that month. I’m off to do a corporate gig when I can and, then I’m thinking of merchandise to market that I feel the fans would really love, because if I was a fan of me, I’d love it. (Laughs) You know,,, I always put myself in that position, “What would I think if I was into me.” Because, I’ll always try to get, with anything with my name attached to it, I want really, really high quality stuff. I look forward to 2018 being really exciting and branching out and continuing with this kind of success that the last year proved to me. Very excited about it.

THE MULE: You know, the weird thing, I guess, about… thinking about this current incarnation of Grand Funk, it has been together longer than the original band and that’s including the time with Craig.

BRUCE: Right. That is pretty interesting, for sure. And, you know, it’s kinda like one of those statistics like where Eric Singer has been, of course, the drummer longer than Peter Criss ever was, i you accumulate all of the years. And, he’s probably the third in line with Gene and Paul. Fun facts.

THE MULE: Yeah, that is just wild.

BRUCE KULICK (photo credit: NANCY DAGATA)

BRUCE: The one point I want to make about Grand Funk. The one thing I always regretted is that they actually did kind of stop at times. You know what I mean? They weren’t always moving forward in one form or another, there were periods where they just completely stopped. Which makes our seventeen year milestone, I guess, pretty easy. You know what I mean?

THE MULE: Yeah. Yeah, kinda but, it’s still something to celebrate and look back on. What got me… Grand Funk, loved them since the beginning and, SURVIVAL may be my all-time favorite Grand Funk album but, after BORN TO DIE, they split. They were having arguments and everything during that album and Frank Zappa, of all people, called them up and said, “Hey, would you get back together and make an album with me?” So, that kinda says something about the power of that band.

BRUCE: I know. Look, I’ll run into some of the guys from Van Halen… I remember running into Michael Anthony and Eddie’s brother, Alex, at the Admiral’s Club in Dallas, for American Airlines. You know, I’ve met them through the years, mostly from my Kiss years. “Hey, what are ya doin’?” and I’d see they were on tour and, “Oh, I’m just coming back from a Grand Funk gig,” and, “Oh, my God! Grand Funk! My favorite band! Oh, my God!” I mean, it’s stuff like that that blows my mind, of course. And, look, I’m one of the very fortunate musicians to be able to say that if I meet a stranger and they didn’t recognize me or know anything and say, “Oh, you play guitar?” and, if that came up, “Well, who’ve you played with?” And, I can say, “Grand Funk and I used to play with Kiss. You know, I always get a huge reaction from one of those bands. It’s funny that the Grand Funk one… I actually can say that it’s almost 50/50. Obviously, more people know Kiss but, if they know of those bands and they know music, it’s real interesting how many people react to Grand Funk but won’t react to Kiss or know… Of course, if they used to be a Kiss fan, they probably don’t have to ask me who I’ve played with if they’re a Kiss fan.

THE MULE: With this long history with Grand Funk, I know that Don and Mel are both incredibly creative people and so are you and the other guys in the band, Tim and Max. Will there ever be an album of new material with this current line-up?

BRUCE: You know, it’s interesting. Obviously, kind of longer ago, closer to when we were first getting together, we did put some new things in the set that we still do, because Max is a great songwriter and, of course, Don can write, all of us can write but, we also know that the gigs that we do, it’s… The majority of the reason why we’re booked is the name and the hits that the band had. What was kind of funny was, probably fifteen years ago, even a few years into me playing with them, the record industry was still in flux but, there was still a very healthy record business and, of course, fast forward to now and how everything’s going to streaming and people… Many, many iconic bands don’t bother putting out new records, you know, and that’s why that equation keeps getting challenged as to, even if Don and Mel had the desire to, would they feel, in a business sense, that it was something viable, that they want to do. I mean, I can speak for myself, not them but, my last record was put out in 2010 and I’ve been really hesitant about moving forward with a brand new record, with new material. It’s easy… I can put out a single with my wife. Can I put out a single for myself? That would be a lot easier than a full record.

So, your question is even bigger than just “Can Grand Funk do a new record and put it out?,” it’s just what’s going on in the music industry. I think it’s where Don and Mel before might have been, “Well, we do a few new things in the set and we just wanna be this touring band” and, it’s not about trying to put out a new product or whatever their kind of desires are about where they see the Grand Funk brand going. But, it’s kinda funny, at the time, in the years when it was probably a lot easier, they really didn’t choose that route and, now, I think it’s even more, kinda like, most people do the PledgeMusic to sell their music, if they have the desire to do that. I don’t know. I gotta read this article I saw. Something about “Music Industry Is In Trouble” by Paul McCartney. I wanna read what that’s about because it;s gonna be really interesting. Beause I think Paul McCartney has put out some really good full records in the past fifteen years and I doubt if any of them are gold and… Could you have a more famous person? I doubt if Ringo sells very, very, very well. I mean, he’s the most iconic drummer in the music business and a Beatle.

But, I don’t know what to tell you when it comes to, “Will you put something out?” I get posed the same question about me, too. It’s always really, kind of a frustrating thing to an artist to kind of wrap their heads around it. Wow… we’ll see what happens. Touring, thank God, is healthy because people like to see live music and, when I’m onstage, I am thrilled to be performing. The travel part, I don’t love. You know, I love to go to different places and meet the people. But, it’s always, “Thank God people still have the desire to see live music!” Of course, with their cell phone in their hand (Laughs), recording every moment of it!

THE MULE: So, what can… the people and their cell phones expect in Effingham on the 27th? What kind of show are you going to give ‘em?

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD (Bruce Kulick, Mel Schacher, Don Brewer, Max Carl, Tim Cashion) (publicity photo)

BRUCE: Well, it’s going to be interesting, because actually, in 2017, we started to tinker around with the set and bring out a couple of things we hadn’t played in a while. We did a New Year’s date, which went very well, in Minneapolis at a casino up there but, it’s kind of exciting now that I never know… Are we including the new ones, are we only doing one, do we do both? We only did one at that show but, I don’t know. And, maybe Don has some ideas about some others, too, that we might be looking at. I think, in that way, I’m giving you kind of a little… What I’m saying is that Grand Funk always puts on a very entertaining show with many hits that everybody knows. It’s really interesting how we’ve created some sets and, even though we adjust the set from time to time, that there’s not really a… It really builds excitement throughout the evening and, no matter what condition people are from the first song, we know they;re going crazy by the encore and, generally, more likely going crazy much, much sooner, like in the middle of the show. It’s gonna be a lot of really, in a way I can call it good time rock ‘n’ roll.

And, the vocals that these guys pull off are incredible. Max is the perfect lead singer and, then you’ve got Don and, Tim sings like a bird. So, the three of those guys, it’s incredible what the vocals are. I’m always so blessed to listen to that. Then, there I am playing with that rhythm section of Mel and Don, who are top-notch and admired by many of the musicians that cane after them. I’m doing my best to be Bruce, who wants to put a little bit of whatever the Grand Funk sound was attached to who I am, which is, I’m brought up on good ol’ classic rock guitar, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and all of that… and, Jimmy Page. I just rock out. I do rock a little harder, I would say, than what Mark Farner did but, always with a lot of respect for Mark’s riffs and how Mark helped craft those songs. It’s quite a show. I mean, people really, really, really enjoy it. I can’t believe how many of my Kiss fans that, high in mind, maybe knew the name but, they didn’t realize… “That’s a Grand Funk song? I didn’t know that!” I always get that reaction from the people that I know were at the show, they either write me or email me after the show or something.

So, the band’s terrific, something I’ve been very proud of all these years. So, if you’re anywhere near there and, I know that’s a good venue because I know a lot of bands, I’ve heard from the guys that have performed there. I’m really hoping for the people to get the opportunity to come see us because, it’s memorable.

THE MULE: It is a great room. Really, I mean… it’s awesome!

BRUCE: It’s a little far from everything (Laughs) but, we’ll make due.

THE MULE: The staff there, they are so accommodating. It’s just amazing. You’re gonna love it.

For more information about the Effingham show, check out the Grand Funk tour page and, for all things Bruce Kulick, go here or here.

FRANK ZAPPA: QUAUDIOPHILIAC

(BARKING PUMPKIN RECORDS/ZAPPA FAMILY TRUST/DTS ENTERTAINMENT; Audio DVD, 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

To say that Frank Zappa was ahead of the musical curve – WAY ahead of the curve! – is, quite possibly, the understatement of this very young millennium. Recently, FZ’s eldest male offspring (the one titled “Dweezil”) discovered an old tape box, dated March 1, 1970, bearing his name (that would be “Dweezil.” We just went through this – in an earlier parenthetical aside – at the beginning of this impossibly rambling and circumlocutious sentence). The box contained a very early, unimaginably expansive recording of what would eventually become “Chunga’s Revenge,” recorded in an unto then unheard of separation/mix called “quadraphonic”; this recording, in fact, preceded the whole quadraphonic rage (“rage” may not be the best way to describe it, though… the process never really caught on with anyone other than audio geeks of the highest form) by several years and today’s hip new sound, Digital 5.1 Surround Sound by nearly three-and-a-half decades! That recording (in the guise of “Chunga Basement”) is now released in all of its four-channel glory, alongside nine other such experiments recorded by FZ and his various groups (Zappa, the Mothers, and… Dweezil, the proposed name of the new group with which Frank recorded this version of “Chunga… “). Dweezil (the son, not the band), after inquiring as to the existence of other like-minded recordings, has sequenced the ten tracks culled from the vaults of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, not chronologically, but with an eye (an ear?) toward maximum listenability. So, how’d the kid do? Let’s examine, shall we?

Frank and Dweezil Zappa (uncredited photo)

QUAUDIOPHILIAC begins with two of Zappa’s orchestral pieces, the first (“Naval Aviation In Art?”) comes from the much-contested LATHER (an historic four-album set that was whittled up and edited into five separate albums – STUDIO TAN, SLEEP DIRT, the two-record set LIVE IN NEW YORK, and ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES, the latter being the place that this tune eventually saw release); the second is a re-worked, unreleased “Lumpy Gravy” from the same session that spawned the former. The two tracks combined clock in at a robust 2:39. The third track comes from the same source, but features – for the first time here – a signature FZ guitar solo. The previously unreleased “Rollo” is everything that made you fall in love with Zappa’s music (except without the pee-pee and fart jokes): Intriguing time-changes, adventurous arrangements, squiggly guitar leads. This, friends and neighbors, is truly the stuff of which FZ’s legend was made!

Aynsley Dunbar, Frank Zappa (uncredited photo)

A previously unheard version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” retitled “Drooling Midrange Accountants On Easter Hay” by Dweezil, is next. The new name comes from an FZ quote in which he discusses the record business in – as you can tell – his usual glowing terms; this spot-on diatribe is now edited over an alternate arrangement of the tune. The next two songs – SHEIK YERBOUTI’s “Wild Love” and SHUT UP ‘N’ PLAY YER GUITAR SOME MORE’s “Ship Ahoy” – feature several musicians who cut their teeth in Zappa’s late ’70s bands: bassists Roy Estrada and Patrick O’Hearn, guitarist Adrian Belew, vocalist Napolean Murphey Brock, and uber-percussionist Terry Bozzio. Though the songs are familiar, the four-channel mixes bring out the hidden intricacies inherent in all of FZ’s music. The much bally-hooed (just how much? Well, check out the first paragraph of this here critically-motivated piece) “Dweezil” tape rears its magnificent head next. Apparently, Dweezil would have been a kind of Mothers super-group in a standard four-piece rock setting: FZ on guitar (and, presumably, vocals), Ian Underwood on keyboards, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and Max Bennett on bass. As far as I know, Zappa’s reasons for retiring Dweezil after this single recording session has never been revealed. Obviously, Frank decided to reconvene the Mothers in a newer, harder-edged version and to maintain his steadily growing solo career, as well. “Chunga’s Basement,” now, is merely a glimpse of what could have been.

Frank Zappa (photo credit: FRANK LEONHARDT/ASSOCIATED PRESS IMAGES)

The next two tracks are the oldest of these recordings, aside form the Dweezil tape. An unreleased live recording from 1974, “Venusian Time Bandits,” features three more impressive Mothers: George Duke, Chester Thompson, and Tom Fowler. While FZ usually went large – as on the WAKA/JAWAKA title track which follows – it is in the stripped down arrangements for four-piece combos that his own virtuosity is featured in its best light; there is no doubt as to the genius he displayed as a composer, a conductor, an arranger, a band leader. The thing that these smaller groups shows is that Zappa was an unselfish (though demanding) player. He was more than willing to stand aside and allow his bandmates to shine, but was able to play rings around just about anybody you could name when he chose. “Waka/Jawaka” is a prime example of FZ standing aside, allowing his compositional and arranging skills to dictate how the other musicians move the music along. “Basement Music #2,” a piece culled from the soundtrack to the BABY SNAKES movie, finishes the set off in fine fashion. Chil’uns, if the newly discovered mixes don’t sell you on this one, then the unreleased stuff is surely enough to convince each of you to become a QUAUDIOPHILIAC! Dude, this just reminds me how much I miss FZ… hopefully there’s more to come.

THE QUEBE SISTERS/TOMMY HALLORAN

(February 17, 2016; THE BALLROOM AT THE SHELDON CONCERT HALL, Saint Louis MO)

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I have long heard great things about the Sheldon Concert Hall but, though I have visited the venue in a sales capacity when I worked at WDLJ radio, I have never been to a show there. Needless to say, I was stoked for this one… not only would I have the pleasure of witnessing the amazing fiddling acumen of the three Quebe Sisters but, I would finally see a show at what has often been referred to as the “most acoustically perfect” room in the Midwest. Initially, I was brought low once I realized that the show was scheduled for another room at the Sheldon complex, the Ballroom located on the fourth floor. To call the Ballroom intimate is a bit of an understatement (the room is slightly larger than Off Broadway); the top floor location, high ceilings and general layout of the room concerned me: Would the acoustics be an issue here? Once the music started, however, all fears were laid aside, as the sound was phenomenal throughout the night.

Tommy Halloran (Abbie Steiling; Abbie Steiling, Tommy Halloran; Tommy Halloran) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Tommy Halloran (Abbie Steiling; Abbie Steiling, Tommy Halloran; Tommy Halloran) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Local Jazz and Blues artiste Tommy Halloran left his combo – the exquisitely titled Guerrilla Swing – at home but, he wasn’t alone… he brought violin player Abbie Steiling along to keep him company. The duo worked their way through a set of mostly original material, primarily from Halloran and the Guerrilla’s 2014 offering, UNDER THE CATALPA TREES, stopping along the way for offerings from Irving Berlin (the opening number, “My Walking Stick,” originally performed by Ethel Merman in 1938; other memorable versions were by Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong with the Mills Brothers) and Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter (“Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” performed by Armstrong and Billie Holiday in the 1947 movie NEW ORLEANS). Tommy is a dabbler; he dabbles in a variety of styles, everything from Hot Jazz to Texas Swing to a form of jazzy Blues that is inherently Saint Louis in nature. Halloran has a supple, pleasant voice with just a hint of rasp on the uptempo tunes, like the… uh… highly-caffeinated “Caffeine.” His facial expressions, general demeanor and vocal phrasing bring to mind both Tom Waits and the incomparable Leon Redbone; his physical appearance and style of dress brings the term “disheveled gentleman chic” to mind. The more “love song” ballady numbers, like “Under the Catalpa Trees” and “Gardenias For Rita” highlighted Ms Steiling’s subtle, almost fragile violin work, as well as Tommy’s playful rhythm guitar; but, don’t think the pair incapable of kicking up a bit of the proverbial dust, if the tune called for it, as on “My Favorite Sin.” Even though this was my first exposure to Tommy Halloran, his is a familiar name in Saint Louis music circles. I can now understand the reverence with which many speak his name… I was left wanting more and would certainly relish the chance to hear a full-band dissertation from Guerrilla Swing in the future.

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As impressed as I was by Halloran and Steiling, this night definitely belonged to Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe (which, according to their website, rhymes with “maybe”). The sisters have all been fiddle champions, both in their home-state of Texas and on a national level. Accompanied by Daniel Parr on upright bass and Simon Stipp on guitar, the ladies proved themselves proficient in everything from the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Swing of Ray Benson to the Big Band sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman to the pure Country of Hank Williams, Connie Smith and Jeannie Seely and the myriad of connective styles between. The highlights came fast and furious, as the group kicked things of with an anthem of the Mexican Revolution of 1912, the instrumental workout, “Jesse Polka.” From there, it was on to a beautiful version of Hank Senior’s classic honky-tonk tear jerker, “Cold Cold Heart,” with amazing harmony vocals from the trio, huddled around a single microphone, like the radio and Opry stars of yore. The hillbilly boogie of Moon Mullican’s “Every Which A-Way” led into “Twin Guitar Special,” a classic fiddle hoedown from the Quebe’s biggest influence, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Bridging the gap between Western Swing and the “tear-in-my-beer” Country and Western tunes so prominent in the 1960s was a number written by Cindy Walker and recorded by Wills, “Going Away Party.” The high harmony vocals and the plaintive strains of the fiddles lend an air of authenticity that three twenty-somethings like Hulda, Grace and Sophia simply should not possess. “If I Talk To Him” is full-on Country misery, as Sophia takes the lead on the Connie Smith sob-fest; the harmonies, as always, are beautiful but, it’s also nice to hear each sister take a lead.

The Quebe Sisters (Daniel Parr; Grace, Sophia, Hulda Quebe; Simon Stipp) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Quebe Sisters (Daniel Parr; Grace, Sophia, Hulda Quebe; Simon Stipp) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a couple of true Country tunes, a version of Roy Rogers’ “Along the Navajo Trail” (which was later recorded by – among others – Wills and the Playboys; the Quebes recorded a version with Benson and his group, Asleep At the Wheel last year for an album called STILL THE KING: CELEBRATING THE MUSIC OF BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS) and “Once a Day,” written by Bill Anderson and originally recorded by Connie Smith, things started to get a bit adventurous with trips down avenues rarely traveled by a group such as the Quebe Sisters. These excursions included “How High the Moon,” a Jazz number first recorded by Big Band legend Benny Goodman and a later, more popular version by the duo of Les Paul and Mary Ford; “Be My Life’s Companion,” a vocal hit for both crooners the Mills Brothers and Rosemary Clooney; the Rhythm and Blues barn-burner (and early template for the music we call Rock and Roll), “Teardrops From My Eyes,” a song that propelled Ruth Brown to the top of the R and B charts; and set-closer “It’s a Sin To Tell a Lie,” a Country Blues ballad made popular by Fats Waller and recorded by the Ink Spots, among many others. As each of the trio, as well as Stipp and Parr, performed near-mind-numbing solos and the Quebes displayed further talents with dual and triple harmony fiddle leads, I, nevertheless, found myself engulfed in the sound of the transcendent female voices, blending in perfect harmony. Both Jeannie Seely’s “Leaving and Saying Goodbye.” a hit for Faron Young, and one of Willie Nelson’s most examples beautiful compositions, “Summer of Roses,” sent chills down my spine.

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Daniel Parr, Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Daniel Parr, Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Aside from the already-alluded to “It’s a Sin To Tell a lie,” the final portion of the set was given over to classic Folk numbers, beginning with Woody Guthrie’s “Sally Goodin,” which turned into a fiery fiddle breakdown, again highlighting the individual and collective talents of the Quebe Sisters. Perhaps the most stirring moments of the show came with a medley of early nineteenth century Folk tunes, one quite English in origin, the other unmistakably American. Starting with the haunting “The Wayfaring Stranger,” the group’s strong vocals and the weariness evoked by the moans of the fiddles had the entire room transfixed; “Speed the Plow” was, likewise, very emotionally charged and moving. I’ve tried to give words to the soaring voices and exemplary playing of the Quebe Sisters; I’ve attempted to describe the genre-bending musical choices played on this night. I’m not exactly sure how best to describe what happened on the fourth floor of the Sheldon Concert Hall on the evening of February 17, 2016, other than to say that this was the music of America (call it “Americana,” if you must), played by what may very well be the best and the brightest we have to offer.

BETH BOMBARA/LOOT ROCK GANG/RIVER KITTENS

(June 27, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Window Time With Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Window Time With Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Words truly cannot express how much I like seeing a show at Off Broadway. Since I started reviewing live music again, I have found myself at this venue more often than not and I am totally enamored of the look, the sound, the staff and the overall vibe of the club. Of course, the fact that they are currently booking some of the most interesting shows in town doesn’t hurt; so I was more than willing to make another visit for Beth Bombara’s record release show.

River Kittens (Mattie Schell, Martha Mehring, Allie Vogler) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
River Kittens (Mattie Schell, Martha Mehring, Allie Vogler) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

River Kittens are an old-school Country Western vocal group; think the Carter Family… Mother Maybelle with Helen, Anita and June huddled around a single microphone. Or, maybe, a more accurate approximation would be Dolly, Emmylou and Linda, a la their TRIO album… only bawdier. The ladies mixed some well chosen covers (Wayne Raney and Lonnie Glosson’s 1949 classic ode to the “love bug,” “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” and Aretha’s slinky, funky “Baby I Love You” from 1967) in with solid originals like set opener “Trouble,” “On My Way” and set closer “Praise Be.” The bulk of the leads were taken by Martha Mehring, though multi-instrumentalist Allie Vogler and mandolin player Mattie Schell added the occasional lead part to the group’s magnificent harmonies. There-in lies the strength of these Kittens: Three strong voices blending together beautifully.

River Kittens (Mattie Schell; Martha Mehring; Allie Vogler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
River Kittens (Mattie Schell; Martha Mehring; Allie Vogler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

If it wasn’t obvious before, it became quite evident that Mehring was the “Mama” Kitten with her intro to “Dressing On the Side.” She mentioned that she wasn’t in a very good mood because she’d had a bad day at her other job, as a waitress, and then went through a litany of weird demands and rude comments she’d heard and little (or nothing) in the way of tips from the customers at the little cafe where she works. At the end of her hilarious tirade, she seemed contrite, finishing with, “So, if you were one of those customers… you look familiar, sir. Fuck you and please come again!” An old pal, Tim Gebauer, told me that River Kittens were the real deal; now, I’m here to tell you that he was spot on with his assessment… River Kittens are definitely the real deal! If you have a chance to see them, don’t pass it up; you will be thoroughly entertained.

The Loot Rock Gang (Stephen Inman; Kevin O'Conner; Little Rachel) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Loot Rock Gang (Stephen Inman; Kevin O’Conner; Little Rachel) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Loot Rock Gang followed with their rootsy Hot Jazz vibe – spiced with liberal doses of true Saint Louis Blues. The melting pot of musical styles was the perfect compliment to both River Kittens’ opening shot and Beth Bombara’s celebratory closing set. The playful vocals of the husband and wife team of Mat Wilson and Little Rachel set the feel of the music; Mat’s acoustic resonator guitar, Stephen Inman’s upright bass and the baritone of guest sax blower Kevin O’Conner (on loan from the Seven Shot Screamers, where he mans the drum throne) filled in some of the bright spots. Starting with the band’s mission statement, “Loot Rock Boogie,” Rachel was an always-smiling dervish of kinetic energy; she wore me out just watching her. She has one of those voices that leaves me thinking that she should be performing in an Old West saloon, which easily compliments Wilson’s smooth-as-silk delivery.

The Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Gang’s set was heavy on material from the recent THAT’S WHY I’VE GOT TO SING release – and… can you blame them? From front to back, it’s full of great originals from Mat, including the fun, countrified boogie of “My Gal Friday,” the joyous title cut (which saw Mat really cut loose on guitar) and the twin anthems to their hometown, “Bank Despair” (“a song about a certain river around here”) and “Love For My City.” Sprinkled amongst the originals were such gems as Blind Blake (real name: Alphonso Higgs) and His Royal Calypsos’ 1952 song, “The Goombay Rock” and the 1920s novelty hit “Kansas City Kitty,” performed with the same aplomb as Wilson’s tunes. As a nearly-last-minute replacement, O’Conner should definitely receive a mention for his spot-on performance, offering up great renditions of Kellie Everett’s wailing, bleating bari parts. As with River Kittens, a great time was had by all.

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara is the Saint Louis music scene’s tiny secret weapon; she has a folk singer’s head and a rocker’s heart… her lyrics are definitely as heartfelt as any songwriter’s and I would pit her guitar work and vocal prowess (imagine Joan Baez, Brandy Johnson and Linda Ronstadt meeting up at the back of Aretha Franklin’s throat for a good ol’ fashioned hoedown) against just about any roots rock or Americana performer out there. Congregating for a release party for her new, self-titled album (which featured prominently in the evening’s set list… nine of the ten songs made up the bulk of the fifteen tune set list), the eager Off Broadway crowd humbled Beth with their enthusiastic welcome and accepting reaction to the new material. She is – rightfully – proud of the new record and the songs she and husband Kit Hamon have written. She told the Mule in a recent interview, “This album was definitely the first time I really sat down, focused and said, ‘Okay, I’m really gonna do this and I’m gonna do it in a certain amount of time’ and, really, just try to give myself deadlines, which I’d never done before… Some people might think that’s kind of counter-intuitive for creativity but, I think it can be a really good thing.” And, to these ears that enforced schedule worked; this new work ethic forced Beth, Kit and her band to up their already considerable game. “Yeah. I feel like it did… well, for one, it made me kind of take writing a little more seriously than I had before, taking myself more seriously as a writer.”

Beth Bombara with Kit Hamon (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Beth Bombara with Kit Hamon (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

You can call what Beth does “singer/songwriter,” Americana, Rock and Roll or any other term you can think of but, it was apparent, from the opening strains of “Found Your Way,” that she is the consummate musician and performer, a great storyteller and an amazing guitar player. Hers is a style and tone that demands your attention as much as the songs and the vocals. “I’ve played a lot of different guitars and a lot of different amps over the years but, I would attribute a lot of the tone to Kit. He’s actually built all of my guitar amps… he’s done a lot to build a couple different ones for different uses, whatever kind of song we’re trying to record. I’d say that a lot of that his fault.” As for the guitar in question, the one used most often for this show, Beth says, “That guitar, I’ve probably have had for a year, a year and a half. I’ve been playing it out at gigs a lot… even solo gigs and it seems to work pretty well, using that most of the time and then bringing out the acoustic guitar to balance it out a little bit. That seems to work good for the sound.” The solos range from pretty, melodic interludes to squalling, Neil Youngian blasts of feedback and sustain, each as memorable as the last for the passion and pure joy Bomabara displays, at times taken with the energy of the moment, others with the beauty of the melody and the lyric.

Beth Bombara (Karl Eggers; Corey Woodruff; JJ Hamon) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Beth Bombara (Karl Eggers; Corey Woodruff; JJ Hamon) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Beth’s bright, powerful vocals and her incredible backing band come to the fore on songs like the slow Blues burn of “Right My Wrongs,” one of four tunes performed this night taken from 2013’s RAISE YOUR FLAG EP. Kit’s upright bass work adds a supple bounce to whatever tune they’re playing; whether playing the banjo or offering rhythm guitar support, Karl Eggers gives the music an additional layer that’s so subtle, you may not notice but, I guarantee that you would notice if it wasn’t there; Corey Woodruff’s drumming and percussion are impressively rock-steady, proving that a drummer doesn’t have to be particularly flashy to make a musical impression; Kit’s brother, JJ, is the group’s equivalent of a baseball team’s super utility player – a guy you can plug in anywhere and he can get the job done – playing mandolin, lap steel, some guitar (on “In My Head,” from the new record) and the occasional trombone.

Beth Bombara (Kit Hamon) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Beth Bombara (Kit Hamon) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

One of the many highlights of the evening was “Long Dark Hallelujah,” performed by Beth and Kit alone; Hamon’s backing vocals add just the right plaintive tone to the song, a Woody Guthrie-like lyric that wonders aloud how far this country can fall and if we can find our way back to the promises it holds for its citizens and its immigrants. Lyrically, “Promised Land” has an “us-against-the-world” vibe and could well be the sequel to “Long Dark Hallelujah.” JJ’s trombone features on a few tunes, the best example being “In the Water.” A cover of the quirky Cake tune (but then, aren’t they all?), “Jesus Wrote a Blank Check,” slips comfortably into the set list. The set proper ended with Beth, solo, on “Greet the Day,” a number that she says, “almost didn’t make it on the album with lyrics. We recorded an instrumental version just in case I didn’t have time to finish writing lyrics. And so, it really came down to the last day we were recording vocals in the studio and I was trying to finish lyrics for this song and, I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to get done!’ They said, ‘Well, you have one hour to do it.” The story hearkens back to tales of Brian Wilson being told he needed one more song for the next Beach Boys album and Brian disappearing for fifteen minutes and returning with another pop masterpiece.

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The evening ended with Beth and her band, joined by the Loot Rock Gang and River Kittens, in a circle on the floor, delivering the grand finale… no lights, no microphones. An absolutely stirring moment… even if I was too far away to make out what they were playing. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that this was a special night of music from three very different artists, each keeping the Saint Louis music scene and its rich history alive for new generations of dreamers and performers.

BANDITOS: BANDITOS

(BLOODSHOT RECORDS; 2015)

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The debut album from Banditos, a sextet of like-minded musicians, all with disparate musical backgrounds, is everything that you would expect from a Nashville band – by way of Birmingham Alabama – and… nothing like anything you would ever expect to hear from a Nashville band. The group is somewhat of a throwback, with three distinct lead singers (founding members Corey Parsons and Stephen Pierce, as well as church-trained vixen Mary Beth Richardson) delivering on styles ranging from Rock and Roll, Gospel and Country to Soul, Rhythm and Blues and Jazz. Regardless of the musical style, the group’s hard-charging approach makes everything seem effortless and, ultimately, uniquely its own.

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Corey Parsons; Mary Beth Richardson; Stephen Pierce; Danny Vines) (photo credit: ALBERT KUHNE)
Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Corey Parsons; Mary Beth Richardson; Stephen Pierce; Danny Vines) (photo credit: ALBERT KUHNE)

The record starts off with “The Breeze,” which has a sloppy New York Dolls/Lords of the New Church kinda sound with a Stiv Bator (or Johnny Thunders) vocal wail (from Pierce?). Cool, persistent keyboards (piano from Micah Hulscher; Farfisa from Mitch Jones) and beautifully ragtag guitar and banjo feature throughout. “Waitin’” is a disjointed Tennessee stomp with Mary Beth’s Dolly-Parton-on-helium vocals (mull that one over for a tad, folks). Pierce adds a more traditional banjo this time and Randy Wade’s shuffling drumbeat definitely gives the tune a distinct hillbilly vibe. A snotty, jazzy piece of Americana, “Golden Grease” is a slow-cooking number with a dirty guitar sound that somehow reminds me of Aerosmith. A nasty (and uncredited) harmonica part seems all but wasted, only coming to the fore for the final 30 seconds of the tune. “No Good” is a wicked Memphis Soul barn-burner with Richardson proving her mettle as one of the great Blues belters of the Rock era, purring like a kitten one minute, growling like a lioness the next. Parsons and Jeffrey Salter offer two very different guitar solos toward the end of the cut and Stephen’s displaced-sounding banjo lends a touch of the surreal to the proceedings. Corey and Mary Beth share leads and harmonies on “Ain’t It Hard,” a haunting almost-waltz with an oddly appealing melody line. Closing out the first half of the album, “Still Sober (After All These Beers)” is kind of a hybrid dose of jangly, late ’50s/early ’60s rock and roll and a Saturday night hillbilly stomp.

A Country-Jazz type of thing, “Long Gone, Anyway” is new-era Texas Swing siphoned through classic Hot Jazz. Richardson’s vocals have a certain period charm, as do Hulscher’s ragtime piano and Danny Vines’ upright bass. Mary Beth provides the solos…on kazoo. “Old Ways” is a bluesy type of torch song, a la Tracy Nelson or Maggie Bell. The players, though tasty throughout, ascribe to the “less is more” theory of musicality here, allowing Richardson’s commanding voice to shine. So, how do I describe the next cut, “Can’t Get Away?” There’s a Link Wray-like ultra-reverb on the guitar and the song itself sounds like a dirty tin-pan-alley-meets-David-Bowie kinda weird Carl Perkins Rockabilly thing… ponder that description for a while, huh? “Blue Mosey #2” is a Country stroll, with awesome interplay between Pierce’s banjo, Salter’s twangy guitar and Dan Fernandez’s pedal steel. As the title implies, the song is a heart-broken lament, Parson’s smooth vocal drawl somehow reminding me of the great Rick Nelson. There’s more critical name-checking with “Cry Baby Cry,” a great slice of rock and roll, with a cool little shuffle-break from Stephen, Randy and Danny (once more on the upright). Imagine Bill Haley with Johnnie Johnson on piano, LaVern Baker vamping on background vocals and… I don’t know… maybe Marty McFly on guitar. “Preachin’ To the Choir” is a perfect example of saving the best for last. It’s a spooky bit of Americana, highlighted by suitably strained (nearly strangled) vocals and atmospheric guitar and pedal steel. There’s also an eerie, plodding banjo that adds to the creepiness. Most of these songs have been in Bandito’s live repertoire for a few years… after jelling as a band during that time, I am stoked to see what they can come up with for their sophomore release.