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THE BEATLES: GET BACK

(DISNEY PICTURES/APPLE CORPS LTD/WINGNUT FILMS (468 minutes; Rated PG-13); 2021)

You can’t really argue that GET BACK, the new three-part documentary directed by Peter Jackson about a pivotal month in the life of the Beatles during their last year together, isn’t THE cultural media event of Fall 2021. It’s been talked about for months, Paul McCartney himself did an NPR interview in which he discussed it, and it aroused the emotions of Beatle fans everywhere when the pandemic caused the project to morph from an intended theatrical film to a much longer documentary to be streamed exclusively on Disney+, the company’s streaming service, for three nights over the Thanksgiving holiday. Speculation in advance was intense, as one contingent of fans feared it would “whitewash” the long-discussed tensions of the Fab Four in their final days (which the previous LET IT BE documentary certainly left one with knowledge of), and another contingent waited for validation of long held beliefs: that Yoko broke up the Beatles, that Paul was a dictatorial tyrant in those last days, that George Harrison had simply had enough and stormed out in anger, and that the lads were simply incapable of working together creatively anymore after the many pressures of being the most successful and influential rock band in history.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (John Lennon, Peter Jackson) (publicity still)

Well, then. New Zealand’s legendary director Jackson, never having been shy about tackling enormous, “impossible” projects (remember that LORD OF THE RINGS thing?) has a mega documentary for YOU! And guess what? You can put everything you thought you knew about the Beatles’ final days aside, and marvel at the intimate scope and cumulative effect of this roughly eight-hour saga and the many revelations it contains. First, some clarity: This is not really a film about the “final days” of the Fabs. What we have here is a cinema diary of just over three weeks from January 1969, when the band was working on a planned project that became LET IT BE, intended to be a film, album and concert that would capture their intention to “get back” to a more youthful, spontaneous atmosphere that’d harken back to… well, when they were more youthful and spontaneous. A look at the ACTUAL last days of the Beatles would focus on the ABBEY ROAD recording, the massive tensions created by Allen Klein being hired to manage their financial affairs (a pivotal decision supported by all but McCartney, who fought it tooth and nail and had to sue the other three to put an end to Klein’s shady practices), and John Lennon’s increasing desire to be with Yoko and do his own thing instead of being wrapped up in the monstrous machine that was THE BEATLES. You see all the seeds of this stuff in Jackson’s doc: Klein is introduced in the latter half of it, Yoko is seen at John’s side throughout most of the footage, and songs that later appeared on ABBEY ROAD are indeed rehearsed and talked about in many segments. But no, this is NOT an investigation of what broke up the Beatles. Jackson was given access to 60+ hours of unseen video and roughly 150 hours of unheard audio, and from this massive trove, he culled together a day-by-day record of what John, Paul, George and Ringo were doing during those fabled days first at Twickenham Studio (where they were under pressure to get stuff done before the movie THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN was to take over the place, starring Ringo and Peter Sellers), and later at #3 Saville Row, home to the Beatles’ own Apple Records label. The band had a reasonably interesting project in mind; you can’t fault their intentions, and all seemed eager to dive in and work after a fairly long break following the White Album. But things did NOT go smoothly, and we see quite clearly that they were in over their heads, unable to figure out WHERE to stage a live performance, WHICH songs to record and HOW to carry on efficiently without a “daddy figure” (as McCartney refers to Brian Epstein, who’d previously sheltered the boys to some extent from the worst tensions brought on by fame and industry pressures). Jackson had an absolutely daunting task here: All this footage has been buried in a vault for half a century, and the Beatles clearly had NO taste for delving into a pile o’ stuff that would, rumor had it, show them in their worst moments, unable to cooperate with each other long enough to simply record a new album and go on about the business of being the world’s biggest band.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison) (publicity still)

Except, that is not what happened. The story was WAY more complex than that, and not nearly so bleak. This amazing documentary allows us to travel back in time and be “flies on the wall” at the daily recording sessions, where the four lads discuss various songs and impulses, jam spontaneously, and gradually shape the compositions that would eventually become the songs most of us know like the back of our hands by now. Repeated segments showing the evolution of songs such as “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Two of Us” are fascinating, and from a songwriting point of view, the insight into the process is invaluable. You may get sick of some of the repetition, but I’m pretty sure most committed Beatles fans won’t mind at all. To see how “Get Back” evolved from being a “protest song” about immigrants to a more aesthetically vague pop/rock tune that the boys agreed should be the next single, is captivating. And “Two of Us” has layers of resonance about the close relationship between Paul and John, both in the actual lyrics of the song (“You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches/Out ahead… “) and in the discussions we are privy to about the arrangement, in terms of whether it should be a simple acoustic song or something more sonically dense, with many scenes showing the two most famous songwriters working closely together to try to get it right. They ALL want to do that, and these things take TIME. Plain and simple. We see them getting impatient, making fun of themselves, and trying various things over and over. It could and does get tedious at times. The infamous exchange between Paul and George where the latter mutters that he’ll “play anything you want, or I won’t play at all if it will please you… ” that was a focal point in LET IT BE, occurs here with much greater context, that primarily being that Paul was trying to be the taskmaster and keep the group focused, not only on specific arrangements but on getting things DONE in a timely manner. With the full backdrop of the proceedings on display here, it’s pretty reasonable, and George’s impatience is understandable, not because McCartney was a jerk, but because “it’s all too much” at times. Plain and simple.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon) (publicity still)

George, of course, does walk out for a while; every essay about this documentary has talked about that. In 1969, Harrison was truly coming into his own as a songwriter, and there are two pivotal scenes that deal with this. A remarkable private conversation between Paul and John is captured on audio. John declares, “It’s like George said, he didn’t get enough satisfaction anymore because of the compromise he had to make to be together… it’s a festering wound that we’ve allowed to… and yesterday we allowed it to go even deeper, and we didn’t give him any bandages.” Paul is listening, clearly, and responds: “Yeah, we treat him a bit like that. See, because he knows what we’re on about. But I do think that he’s right. That’s why I think we’ve got the problem now, the four of us. You go one way, George one way, and me another… “

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon) (photo credit LINDA MCCARTNEY/APPLE CORPS LTD)

The revelatory conversation continues with John openly stating he’s intimidated at times by Paul’s insistence on certain arrangements, and how he’s sometimes given up speaking out in favor of his own thing. He admits that “sometimes you’re right” to Paul, but that other times he has disagreed with the final results. In the context of all we know about the Beatles, this is just groundbreaking, to have this inside look at a tension-packed time. Meanwhile, we’re all aware of what was coming next for George Harrison. He was writing tons of new songs, including numbers like “All Things Must Pass,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and a little tune called “Something.” A much talked-about scene shows George struggling with the line to follow “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like… ” Lennon comically suggests singing anything at all until a good fit is found. “Attracts me like a cauliflower,” he suggests, and a different scene shows George singing “attracts me like a pomegranate.” This is all pretty amusing, but when you step back for a moment and realize you’re seeing one of the greatest songs ever written in its infancy, a song that was obviously one of the highlights of the Beatles’ soon-to-be final studio album, ABBEY ROAD, you can’t help but be totally caught up in George’s place in music history right here. There’s a separate conversation between John and George where the latter tells John he’s written about “20 new songs” and that it would take ten more Beatle albums to get them all out there at the current rate of “two George songs per album.” George suggests he may just have to do a solo album, something which at first surprises John, and then seems to turn a light bulb on in his head. We all know what actually happened, and it’s simply another revelatory moment. So is seeing George being the pragmatic one through most of this documentary. While the others are brainstorming ludicrous ideas like doing a performance at an ancient historical site in Libya, or taking a selected group of fans on a large ship across the ocean to be the audience for whatever they’re gonna do, George wryly declares “We can’t even get Fender to send us a free amp.” This documentary will almost certainly increase your respect for George Harrison and his importance to the Beatles…

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Billy Preston, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Yoko Ono) (photo courtesy: THE BEATLES)

Does the film show Paul McCartney as a raging egomaniac? No, because they ALL clearly were. Remember, they were already the most famous group in the world with endless expectations heaped upon them everywhere. We get to see various members reading their own press at the time, richly entertaining, including George reading a bit about him and John coming to physical blows, an event that did NOT actually happen. Paul is definitely shown paying the most attention to specific song arrangements, and the reality of trying to meet their deadlines, but he is about collaboration all the way. It’s amazing to see him and John working together closely; you really WANT them to figure everything out and keep making remarkable music. Songs that never became official Beatle songs are given bits of time, such as McCartney’s “Teddy Boy” and “Another Day” and Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” and “Child of Nature,” which would in a couple of years morph into “Jealous Guy.” And wow, is there some fun seeing early versions of ABBEY ROAD tracks like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (showing Beatles road manager Mal Evans banging a device gleefully), “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and “Polythene Pam” enter the picture. Everything is a question mark in this film: WHAT songs will they record? WHAT songs will they play for whatever live concert they are going to do? How can they possibly deliver when they feel they only have maybe half a dozen songs with fully developed arrangements?

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison) (photo courtesy DISNEY PICTURES)

But what is NOT yet truly a question: Are the Beatles going to break up? NO, that is not yet obvious. There are no “fights” in the conventional sense here; the lads are having a good time, they clown around, they crack jokes. It’s surprising in particular to see how good-humored Lennon is most of the time. He’s happy to have Yoko around (SHE, by the way, is almost continually a gentle presence, never intrusive, and even defended by Paul in a couple of scenes (“they just wanna be together, you know… “). With remarkable foresight, Paul declares in one scene, “Wouldn’t it be funny if in 50 years people say, ‘Oh, Yoko broke up the Beatles because she sat on an amplifier?'” So there’s plenty of myth smashing in GET BACK. When this footage was being shot by original LET IT BE director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (looking more youthful than you’d think and probably a bit in over his head), there were still several possible futures for the Beatles. That is crucial, because this film is NOT a breakup film. It’s about ambition, mega fame, the ups and downs of collaboration, artistic egos stretched to the limit, and problem solving on a grand scale. Watch the happy look on John Lennon’s face when keyboardist Billy Preston enters the scene and shows effortlessly that he can spruce up the arrangements on some of these new songs. “You’re IN the band!” Lennon tells him. Watch a fetching Linda Eastman and her energetic young daughter Heather, respectively, holding hands with Paul and taking photos (Linda and Paul were two months away from their fabled wedding at the time of this footage) and dancing around the studio gleefully, exuberant as a young girl could be. And watch, for the first time, the legendary “rooftop concert” in its entirety, the Beatles’ final live appearance, which of course was filmed on top of Savile Row, to the delight of some on the street below and the consternation of many others, including the British bobbies, who amusingly try to shut things down because of complaints. People on the street are interviewed and shown in effective cross cuts as the Beatles play, reflecting a reasonable cross section of opinions. This is music history, folks. But it’s told in a fresh, fascinating manner that changes what we thought we knew about the Beatles. And Peter Jackson wisely avoids any present-day interviews… he stated his desire to avoid that sort of thing. Nope, this is time capsule stuff, our unique opportunity to experience what the Beatles were going through in January of 1969.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison) (photo courtesy: APPLE CORPS LIMITED)

It’s amazing, honestly. What was to follow was the group throwing up their hands in despair at their inability to complete the planned album (in a still controversial move, the whole thing was handed over to Phil Spector, resulting in an album that almost no one would be completely happy with), a stunning decision to record a brand-new studio album that would give George Martin one more chance to fully produce the band, George Harrison a chance to show he’d finally equalled the others in songwriting prowess, and give McCartney a chance to spearhead perhaps the greatest medley ever featured on a rock album; a furious legal battle over Allen Klein and the failure of the other three Beatles to stop McCartney from releasing his debut solo album BEFORE the release of LET IT BE (the accompanying press at the time appeared to show McCartney “officially” announcing the end of the Beatles, even though that isn’t quite accurate), a disbelieving fan kingdom unwilling to believe it was “the end,” and of course, lots and lots of nasty comments and bad feelings. But that was what would FOLLOW the events in GET BACK. It is NOT what we see on screen, which is in fact an energetic, lively, mostly upbeat look at an intense collaborative period by four of the most famous musicians in history and their handlers, all trying to respond to the immense pressure of gargantuan fame. GET BACK really is a treat, if sometimes a patience-testing experience, that will be richly rewarding for dedicated Beatles fans. You won’t forget it if you watch it with focus and attention. There are scenes that are simply stunning in what they tell us, all these years later. And it’s invaluable as a detailed look at the creative process itself. Sure, it’s a pain to have to find a way to get Disney+ in order to watch this thing. But do it. Really. There has never been a documentary as insightful and surprising, in musical terms, as THE BEATLES: GET BACK. We owe Peter Jackson a debt of gratitude for pulling this off, and let’s be happy for Paul, Ringo and the wives of John and George, for seeing a critical record set straight at last.

UPDATE: Since this review was written, a DVD of the film was scheduled for release in February 2022. Apparently, a few copies managed to make it into the hands of some lucky fans, though once Amazon’s stock was depleted, the Disney Company pulled the package from its schedule and in April announced that the title has been delayed indefinitely due to “authoring challenges.” It now appears that the DVD and Blu-Ray editions will be released, at least in the UK, on July 26. The three-part docuseries is still streaming at Disney+.

HEADHUNTING FOR FUN AND PROFIT: THE KENTUCKY HEADHUNTERS LIVE PREVIEW

They’re a little bit Donny and a little bit Marie… and a little bit James Brown and a little bit McKinley Morganfield… maybe even a little bit Woody Guthrie. The music of the Kentucky Headhunters is permeated with an amalgam of everything that is American music. The boys from the heart of Kentucky are a lean and not-too-mean Rock and Roll machine, hitting on all four cylinders. Like the rest of the world, Greg Martin, Fred Young, Richard Young and Doug Phelps found themselves with jobs that they couldn’t go to and, in a couple of cases, they were put low by the virus that held us all prisoners for nearly 30 months. Guitarist Martin said that the band was just “crawling out of the wreckage” in 2021, reconvening in February to record what became the album THAT’S A FACT JACK! and somehow managing to play about forty-five dates through the end of the year. Now, the Headhunters are back on the road and coming to the Effingham (Illinois) Performance Center, just a few hours up the road from Greg’s adopted home of Glasgow, Kentucky. With opening act Confederate Railroad in tow, he has guaranteed a good time for all. When asked what can be expected on April 2 in Effingham, Martin said, “It’s gonna be like somebody opened the corn crib and let a bunch of hogs in. It’s gonna be a frenzy of Rock and Roll, Country and Blues. Naw, man… we’re gonna have a great time. We always love playing that part of the state; it’s always a blast. We got a lot of fans. Yeah. I think you’re gonna see some guys just happy to be out playin’ music again.”

THE KENTUCKY HEADHUNTERS (Greg Martin) (photo credit: CHRISTIE GOODWIN)

As excited as the guitarist was to get back to playing live, he was just as excited to tell us about his other career and, naturally, our conversation eventually ambled into a discussion about Greg’s LOWDOWN HOEDOWN program on WDNS radio out of Bowling Green. The three hour Blues-intensive show airs Monday nights beginning at 7:00 Central time and streams at wdnsfm.com. Brother Greg is a true musicologist and traditionally delves into the roots and the seedy underbelly of the beast we call Rock and Roll… don’t expect any type of genre segregation with this show as the man was raised on AM radio when it didn’t matter what kind of music was being played as long as it was good. You can expect the same type of show from the Headhunters. What a great way to spend a Saturday night! For ticket information, head over to the Performance Center’s site, the-epc.org.

MARTIN BARRE: LEFT OF CENTER

Martin Lancelot Barre is one of the unsung heroes of Rock and Roll. As Tony Iommi’s replacement in Jethro Tull, he created and played some of the most recognizable riffs in the history of the electric guitar. I mean, who hasn’t marveled at the power of his opening salvo to “Aqualung” or the monstrous crunch of his work on “Locomotive Breath?” And, who can forget the epic, bone-crushing CREST OF A KNAVE, which won the first Grammy awarded for Heavy Metal Album? Standing stage left with Jethro Tull for more than 43 years, Mister Barre was Ian Anderson’s “left-hand man” and so much more. As Anderson was moving more toward a solo career in the early ‘90s, Martin branched out as well, finally having the chance to display his songwriting prowess on such albums as A SUMMER BAND (1993), STAGE LEFT (2003), and BACK TO STEEL (2014), alongside several live albums.

MARTIN BARRE (publicity photo)

Now, Martin Barre is bringing the music of Jethro Tull – AQUALUNG in particular – to the magnificent, intimate Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville for two nights, January 21 and 22. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Tull’s most well-known, most successful album (AQUALUNG, if you weren’t paying attention; actually, the record was released in 1971 but, you know… lockdowns and pandemics and such) and, since no one else was taking advantage of such an event, Martin and his band decided that they would. And, they aren’t coming alone… original Tull drummer Clive Bunker is appearing on (at least) the Midwest leg of the tour; keyboardist Dee Palmer, who was an integral part (as David Palmer) of the Tull machine for many years as an arranger, conductor and writer before having an actual “player” credit on SONGS FROM THE WOODS, has opted out of this tour due to health concerns amid the ongoing COVID scare. Martin declares that he and his group (vocalist Dan Crisp, bassist Alan Thomson and drummer Darby Todd) are more than up for the challenges presented by Ms Palmer’s absence. Clive, Dee and the Martin Barre Band can be heard (and seen) in all their glory on the latest release, a DVD called LIVE AT THE WILDEY, recorded during their 2019 tour. As far as other surprises this time around, Martin promised this writer – over a cup of tea and a telephone call – “Oh, there’s definitely surprises. Well, let me think… one, two, three, four… certainly four pieces of music that we’ve never played before. We swap it around… I mean, I always love throwing in something that’s really left of center. I really enjoy people being in shock.” It sounds like a great night of Rock and Roll,with plenty of Tull and an ample sampling of tunes from the Martin Barre Band, to boot!

THE WHO/THE HILLBENDERS

(May 23, 2019; HOLLYWOOD CASINO AMPHITHEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

The more you see your rock heroes pass away or visibly age, the more nervous you get that an advertised performance might be the last chance you’ll get to see them. Hence, when I was “on the fence” initially about catching the Who’s May 23rd performance at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, a friend’s willingness to facilitate everything made all the difference. And I’m glad, because this was one hell of a concert. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey could have stopped years ago… it’s likely that their most towering musical achievements are behind them. But man, those two have still got it. And I love being reminded of past rock glories. Nothing wrong with nostalgia at all… that’s why we keep going back to enjoy the legends proving yet again why they deserve to be in that category.

THE WHO (Pete Townshend) (photo credit: LS)

I’ll say upfront that TOMMY was a significant album in my life. Musically it is brilliant; conceptually, it was at the very least bold and adventurous. The “Overture,” which the band opened with, is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. Truly. With the full orchestra in tow (The Who have planned this tour to include local orchestras joining them along the way) and a rather dazzling lighting backdrop, the audience was immediately treated to sheer spectacle. A suite of TOMMY tunes, including the expected “Pinball Wizard,” fab as always, and the timeless brilliance of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” roused the crowd plenty, but affected yours truly on a very emotional level. I won’t pretend that this wasn’t nostalgia of the deepest kind for me. I could tell you all the personal associations this music holds for me and how it transcends what rock tends to be on every single level, but then this would cease to be a review and instead turn into my diary. I’ll be disciplined here and just say… I loved it. And the orchestra added grandeur and layers of sonic dressing to Pete’s extraordinary compositions.

THE WHO (Roger Daltrey) (photo credit: LS)

I would have likely been okay if the band wanted to do the entire album, but they didn’t. Instead, “Who Are You” was next, a catchy but overly familiar song from their catalog. It’s one of those insidious tunes that you can’t escape with this band. Nothing wrong with it, and Roger Daltrey sings the crap out of it (Rog was in good voice tonight, by the way). But to assess where it stands in the scheme of things, try making a song out of your own name, to be cute. Or, try NOT to think of the theme song for a really, really successful TV crime show. Can’t do it, can you? Well who the hell are YOU? “Eminence Front” is a reasonably catchy later-period Who tune, which the crowd enjoyed. Familiarity tends to breed affection, especially with one of the greatest classic rock bands of all time. “Imagine a Man,” from the 1975 album THE WHO BY NUMBERS was pleasant and melodic and Pete seemed to be having a great time performing it. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that Pete and Roger both seemed to be in great spirits. Both addressed the audience repeatedly, commenting on the “nice people” of Saint Louis, our great rivers, and of course, the exciting status of a certain hockey team. More on that shortly. But a nice surprise for me personally was the song “Join Together.” It’s a quirky mid-period Who tune that I liked so much as a youngster, I bought the single. I would never have imagined they would perform that one; it was NOT a huge hit. But by god, here it was, complete with Jew’s harp and pure weirdness. Happy music fan! Two classic older tunes, “Substitute” and “The Seeker” came next, with Daltrey complimenting Townshend’s writing and stating how a certain lyric was one of the best lines Pete ever wrote, that being “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” The crowd listened attentively whenever Daltrey or Townshend addressed them, and this was truly a fun part of the show. Again, their upbeat moods were palpable. These guys know how much they need each other, and every time Daltrey sidled up to Pete and put his arms around him, you had to get a deep thrill. The “bloody Who” have been at it since the early ‘60s, my friends. You have to respect their longevity! A pair of classics from WHO’S NEXT were served up: “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the latter performed in an intimate acoustic style that made for one of the evening’s most tasteful choices. It’s a legendary song with heaps of gravitas, I just would have preferred a bit more intensity on the utterly classic closing line ”Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss,” which has been quoted so much in the years since its inception. You could hardly hear Daltrey sing the lines in this arrangement. But no matter; it was still a delight. Pete addressed the audience after that by apologizing, sort of, for ENDLESS WIRE and allowing that they were only going to do one song from that record, which was actually a guitar-pickin’ pleasure (“Tea and Theatre”). Pete then introduced a suite of songs from QUADROPHENIA, which likely represented the grandest musical section of the show overall. The legendary guitarist is justifiably proud of his second double-album rock opera in a five-year span, and what struck me about this section is how under my skin these songs were, in some special little corner, even though I could name the titles on TOMMY much more easily. But musically, this batch of songs: “The Real Me,” “I Am the Sea,” “The Punk and the Godfather,” “5:15” and the genuinely transcendent instrumental “The Rock,” exemplify the art form of rock and roll ascending to heights it rarely goes to, with riffs and cool harmonies and quirky little passages that only an inspired musician can conjure. History has already recorded Pete Townshend as having a kind of ambition and understanding of rock melodrama and emotional release in a truly pioneering manner. This was simply incredible stuff. Rock as ART. Who conceived of such a thing? “Love Reign Over Me,” of course, is indispensable Who, with Daltrey demonstrating that he is taking care of himself… he doesn’t screech excessively… he delivers only the drama and peak moments he knows he NEEDS to these days. His partner has suffered hearing problems and a voice that has “gone away to some strange place,” or however it was he put it. But there is something profound about such an influential group still aiming for the sonic heights, and when they GET there, it is shiver inducing. Such was the case with the closing “Baba O’Riley.” I can’t say enough about this one. Criminy. It’s a rock classic, yes. But the indescribable highlight of the show was having Rog and Pete kick ass backed by an electrifying orchestra on one of their grandest musical offerings, during which leggy violinist Katie Jacoby strolled out in a Saint Louis Blues jersey, attacking her instrument flawlessly on the climax of the song. The crowd went justifiably wild. It seems improbable that the Blues’ first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, an aging rock band’s bid for one last dramatic chapter (they announced that they have a new album ready for fall, though they didn’t play anything from it), and the expansive power of a full orchestra would combine to such powerful effect here at what most of us came to know as Riverport, with floodwaters wreaking havoc nearby. But man, this was a moment! When you see and hear this sort of spectacle happening and creating another memory so potently, you appreciate it. It was so powerful that I didn’t sense ANY grumbling about the lack of an actual encore. You hit the giddy, transcendent heights and then you say farewell. The Who did so, acknowledging each and every sterling band member like Pete’s brother Simon Townshend and that Zak Starkey fellow, who has been manning the drums for them for years. And heck, how can you NOT appreciate the epic nature of a local violinist having a huge moment onstage? Everyone felt it, trust me.

THE HILLBENDERS meet PETE TOWNSHEND, 2015 (Gary Rea, Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence, Pete Townshend, Chad Graves, producer Louis Jay Meyers, Jim Rea) (uncredited photo)

Springfield’s Hillbenders opened the show with an 8 or 9-song run through a biting mix of rock-flavored bluegrass. This quintet achieved notoriety for recording a bluegrass version of TOMMY that was way more resplendent than anyone expected. Townshend was more than a little impressed; he posed for photos with the band in Nashville a while back, and praised them to the hilt onstage here. It may have seemed odd to those not familiar with these matters that an acoustic bunch from down yonder in southern Missouri would be opening for rock legends, but I thought it was rather profound. Music should be surprising, unpredictable, and adventurous. It should continually shoot up the “sparks” of life. Everyone onstage did that tonight, and it was truly a thrill.

VANILLA FUDGE

(March 22, 2019; WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville, IL)

I knew only a couple of things about Vanilla Fudge before I stepped into the Wildey Theatre to see them on March 22: One, that they had been around a long, long time, and two, that they took an old Supremes song called “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and did a spectacular, lengthy remaking of it that became a giant hit and established a kind of freeform, jammy trademark that still powers their style today. VF bear many of the trappings of a classic prog rock band: Long instrumental passages, tight vocal harmonies and multi-textured keyboard work (courtesy of Mark Stein) that occasionally sounds like a relic from another era. Which it sort of is. But what prog rockers do you know that start their show with… a MONKEES song? That almost made me fall over, their wildly unique take on “I’m A Believer,” which had a bigger impact on me than you might expect since I’d just seen the Dolenz and Nesmith show in Saint Charles not even a week prior. Wow! It was almost unrecognizable, but there it was… the beloved Neil Diamond-penned number. That was followed by something else unrecognizable but jammy, which they introduced as “a tribute to our old friends, the Doors.” And this one was… “Break On Through (To the Other Side,” which featured their own three-part harmonies, slowed down but repeated over and over on just the phrase “Break on through.” Okay, so now it was clear that we’d be treated to epic cover songs, done in a manner seldom heard before. These guys, original members Stein, guitarist Vince Martell, drummer extraordinaire Carmine Appice and “the new guy,” bassist Pete Bremy, who replaced Tim Bogert in 2010, have a curious aesthetic that is nostalgic but fresh, proggy but curiously low-key, sonically far out but couched in a downright neighborly stage demeanor. They told the story of dedicating Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” to Martin Luther King right after he was assassinated; it was sung by Appice here with tenderness and power, and laced by terrific organ work by Stein. Soon after they did a casual original both retro and vitally relevant, “Let’s Pray For Peace.” That was from their classic SPIRIT OF ‘67 album, and Stein talked about how the band had the chance to play it in Belgium not long after the terrorist incident there. Good as all this was, the show’s real highlights were yet to come.

VANILLA FUDGE (Mark Stein, Vince Martell, Carmine Appice, Pete Bremy) (photo credit: JIM FORD)

This song took up an entire side of our fourth album,” the band cheerfully announced, before launching into “Break Song,” an incredible extravaganza that was sometimes loud, sometimes soft but always musically engrossing, especially when it featured a borrowed chunk from Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning” and then segued into “Season of the Witch,” which clearly took the audience to a whole new level of psychedelic nirvana. The vibe was like Kansas meets Yes at times, but actually, it was the kind of thing Vanilla Fudge excels at, these long, intricate, rapidly varying passages. It was clear to me that they were underrated… possibly because cover bands don’t often rise to the level of bands that do this sort of thing on their own material. But it was grand, and it was mesmerizing. So was the unbelievable drum solo Appice performed on “Shotgun,” a song they did on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, they told us. Drum solos can be tedious and overly cliched, but in all honesty, this was one of the best drum solos I’ve ever heard. Appice performed with muscular mastery, keeping it intense and focused, and doing a section with only one stick which you could see he was passing from one hand to the other. The sound was especially bracing and adrenaline-pumping for this showcase. And he justifiably earned a partial standing ovation. Next, Stein told the story of how long ago, in ‘68, a band opened for them featuring the “guy who had just left the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page.” At this time, Vanilla Fudge were at their peak, with three albums in the Top 40. These young whippersnappers, Led Zeppelin, may have opened for them this one occasion, but soon eclipsed them… and every other band by becoming the biggest thing in the rock world. Such is fate! The Fudge did a tribute album called OUT THROUGH THE IN DOOR, and they quoted from it with a fun combo of “Dazed and Confused” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” No, they aren’t the Zep, but this was still a nice, fun surprise. Everyone was waiting for the big hit, of course, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” They talked about the initial inspiration for it, which was an offhand exposure to the song outside a club in the ‘60s, and then invited the audience to sing along on the chorus. Who’s gonna refuse that offer? It’s their signature song, and they know it. A vibrant encore of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” then it was all over. I didn’t really expect to be so impressed by these guys. I’d heard a few of their songs before and sort of had an idea what I’d hear… lots of organ and guitar, long instrumentals. I had no idea. They are masterful musicians, nice guys, and unique in being able to survive performing long, often weird versions of other people’s classics. Not to mention having clearly one of the best drummers in the world in their lineup, and singing sterling three-part harmony. This was quite a fantastic show, to summarize. I’ve now been educated in the tasty stylings of “the Fudge,” and I won’t forget it.

THE MIKE NESMITH AND MICKY DOLENZ SHOW

(March 16, 2019; THE FAMILY ARENA, Saint Charles, MO)

Nostalgia is a powerful, mysterious phenomenon. It’s the reason we jump at the chance to see musicians we grew up with, and why we get all emotional when we revisit places that were significant to us at one time in our lives, places that likely have changed significantly. To know that something CONTINUES, even if it’s not the same, gets to something primal in our natures. I’ve seen the Monkees about five times, always reveling in this journey back into my childhood, when songs like “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Tapioca Tundra” were soundtracks for good times. I never cared what some critics said, ie: They were a “manufactured TV show band,” blah blah blah. The music stood up for me, and I adore it to this day. PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES LIMITED remains a favorite album of the ‘60s. But the significance of Peter Tork’s recent death shouldn’t be underestimated. Although the Monkees were still very much a going concern after Davy Jones passed, doing a new tour every couple of years, it seemed, with every bit of their madcap humor and chemistry still intact, something perceptibly shifted. Now they were TWO. And Mike Nesmith had pretty much been the lone holdout for the reunion tours, doing only a couple of shows here and there, and agreeing to join a “full” tour only after Jones died, perhaps for his own nostalgic reasons. A band based largely on nostalgia, with a very distinct and popular chemistry, will often survive after the loss of one member. But TWO key members, one of whom was among the two most versatile musicians in the outfit? Are you still a “going concern” after that?

THE MIKE NESMITH AND MICKY DOLENZ SHOW (photo credit: SHERRI HANSEN)

My answer is: Not really. Although I loved seeing Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith together at the Family Arena (and let’s be clear, this tour was booked BEFORE Peter Tork died), it didn’t really feel like the Monkees to me. Something was different. It was “the Mike and Micky Show,” exactly how it was billed. And yes, the classic songs were served up, just as fans expected. But the energy was different, the VIBE was different. There is a music brand, “The Monkees,” that will carry on and still sell records. But I just don’t think there is a “Monkees group” anymore. Not without Peter Tork. And that makes me sad.

THE MIKE NESMITH AND MICKY DOLENZ SHOW (Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz) (photo credit: NOEL VASQUEZ/GETTY IMAGES)

The show itself, though, was pleasantly entertaining. I have one odd, substantial complaint, though. The sound was NOT loud enough. I rarely feel this way at shows; usually it’s the opposite.. But I really, REALLY wanted the music to be louder. On a scale of 1 to 10 (or “11” if you’re Spinal Tap), the sound was at about “5” for most of the show, occasionally making it up to “6.” And that puzzled me. It reduced the energy level substantially. That said, it was a delight to see Micky in his dapper black suit and hat, and Mike in his jeans and black shirt come strolling out to the stage, all smiles. They opened with “Good Clean Fun” and “Last Train to Clarksville,” the latter a song so infectious and familiar that anyone growing up in that era has to get an instant charge from it. Whatever cynical comments made about the Monkees in some quarters, no one can deny they didn’t utilize top-notch songwriters: Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Harry Nilsson and more. They may have started as a music-making MACHINE, but it was a machine that worked splendidly. “Sunny Girlfriend” and a peppy “Mary, Mary” were next, the latter song benefitting from the added background vocals of Micky’s sister Coco (a regular in the band on most recent tours) and the lovely Circe Link, who has her own project going with Christian Nesmith (Mike’s son and a member of this entourage). All of us in the audience were, of course, waiting for an acknowledgment of Tork’s passing, and that came when the band performed Tork’s fantastic song “For Pete’s Sake,” which Micky mentioned was the closing song for season 2 of the original TV show. Footage of Tork was shown on the giant screen, and Micky referred to him as “our pal” I think, I couldn’t quite hear. A Nesmith-sung tune from PISCES… made me smile: “The Door Into Summer,” which Nes sang with relish. In fact, it’s worth mentioning what an upbeat mood Nes seemed to be throughout the show, cracking jokes, making odd little gestures and stage antics, even making fun of himself for needing his i-Pad to remember all the old lyrics. He muffed the timing of things a few times, which I found sort of endearing, but the audience may not have noticed it. After a rather low-energy “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You” and “You Just May Be the One,” the show finally reached a couple of genuine highlights for me. Micky talked about 2016’s superb GOOD TIMES album, truly a miracle in retrospect, with its mix of newly discovered songs from the vaults and tunes penned by fresh new writers like Ben Gibbard, Andy Partridge and the combo of Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller. That unlikely pair wrote “Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” which Dolenz and Nesmith sank their musical teeth into, the band rising to a slightly higher sonic level along with them. It was just fabulous. And then, the shivers for me when a Nes-less Dolenz sang “As We Go Along,” one of my very favorite Monkees songs, which I don’t think I ever heard them do before. The original recording, from HEAD, famously featured Ry Cooder and yes, Neil Young. Dolenz got a hearty round of applause when he mentioned the HEAD movie, and he wryly quipped, “Oh, you BOTH saw it? Can you tell me what it was about?” HEAD’s reputation has grown in leaps and bounds over the years; it now stands as a crazily entertaining, psychedelic relic of a time that will never come again. Nes returned to the stage for another song from that film, “Circle Sky.” He shushed the audience a couple of times before commencing, for comical effect, as that song is his original, proudly perhaps the most snarling rocker in the Monkees’ repertoire. Then they went right into “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” one of the greatest pop songs of the ‘60s, which could have been two degrees louder for my taste. But still, it’s just a great tune, hard to screw up. Micky announced a break but told everyone to stay in their seats for a special video. That turned out to be a truly poignant, solo in-studio performance by Peter Tork on the song “Till Then.” Tork was delightful and completely vibrant and charismatic in the video; it was honestly a tear-jerker, and the audience was visibly affected.

THE MONKEES (Peter Tork) (video still)

Set two began with a few “unplugged” acoustic tunes including “Papa Gene’s Blues” and Dolenz’s own “Randy Scouse Git,” which he prefaced with a funny tale of how he wrote the song based on something he observed in London. But when the Monkees were planning it for their next recording at the time, Dolenz was told to change the title because it meant something “dirty” in England. So the release over there listed it as “Alternate Title.” Chuckle! “Tapioca Tundra” was next, and despite this being my all-time favorite Monkees song and a theme to my own childhood, this was a slow, acoustic and completely different version of it. I would have loved to hear it as the rocker it is. That said, however, it was a delight to see the careful and attentive way Nesmith sang his own song, which clearly had some meaning for him. So did his First National Band classic “Joanne,” which was a sweet surprise. He remarked that though he didn’t write it for the Monkees, he was proud to be able to do it on this occasion. Nesmith is a bit of an eccentric. The way he phrases things in interviews, and most of what he said at this concert was curiously offbeat. At times he seemed to barely make it back to the mic in time, after stepping offstage to do whatever he was doing. And at one point he seemed surprised to find himself alone onstage, but that could have been an act. In musical terms, “Me and Magdalena,” another song from GOOD TIMES, may have been the highlight. This splendid Ben Gibbard-penned gem, found Dolenz and Nes in perfect harmony, literally, with the band’s keyboard player adding a sweet sparkle. It’s sort of amazing to hear a modern Monkees classic… an indication of more that the band could have accomplished with just a couple of different turns of fate’s wheel. But here it was, a NEW song in their canon that stands proud and tall. “Take a Giant Step” followed and was also better than expected. I had been wondering to myself if they would tackle “Goin’ Down,” Micky’s most incredible vocal performance from their entire oeuvre. And by golly, here it was. But they slowed it down, and not unsurprisingly, shortened it quite a bit. Micky used the moment to introduce the members of their backup band, which included seven other musicians! After a rousing “Sweet Young Thing,” it was a climactic run of classics to end the show: “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” (a stone classic, that), “Daydream Believer” (an audience sing-along favorite, although not everyone was doing so, quite obviously), “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round,” the late-era Nesmith classic “Listen To the Band,” and of course, “I’m a Believer,” which would start a riot if NOT performed at any Monkees-related show. Then it was all over, with me trying to figure out if my sadness or gratitude was greater.

THE MIKE NESMITH AND MICKY DOLENZ SHOW (Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith) (uncredited photo)

Dolenz and Nesmith have another round of dates on this tour in June. And it is certainly possible they will play again together down the road. But they both have plenty of other things happening in their careers. And I would really be surprised if they didn’t openly admit that something has irrevocably changed. These are not young guys anymore, and Nes has had health problems recently. The march of time continues, and the fact is, we can’t really see “The Monkees” in concert anymore. Half the band is now in rock heaven. What we can and MIGHT see is an “approximation” of an experience that once thrilled, once brought us back to a more innocent and hopeful time. That’s largely what this particular show was. I enjoyed it and thought there were some delightful moments. But let’s just admit that it wasn’t truly the Monkees. It was a group of nine people serving up a sound that was one version of what you would hope to see at such a show. You can’t go home again. And the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

UPCOMING: 20TH ANNUAL TRIBUTE TO STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN

(24 November, 2018; THE PAGEANT, Saint Louis MO)

It’s hard to believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan has been gone for nearly thirty years. Vaughan, who reached legendary status in the 1980s for his fluid, fiery guitar playing with his own band, Double Trouble, and on David Bowie’s LET’S DANCE album, was killed in a helicopter crash near Aspen, Colorado in 1990. The man who was at the forefront of a serious Electric Blues revival in the United States was a little over a month shy of his thirty-sixth birthday. His importance and his influence are still felt in the music played by artists across the country and, in fact, the world.

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN (photo credit: EBET ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES)

That influence is particularly abundant in Saint Louis, as guitarists like Steve Pecaro and Tony Campanella seemingly work overtime to keep the music alive in a city that is known for the Blues. In fact, Pecaro and his band have hosted an annual STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN TRIBUTE show for two decades; the 20th anniversary show, sponsored by Pecaro’s Guitar Shop and radio station KSHE-95, will be happening on Saturday, November 24 at the Pageant. I know that a lot of so-called “tribute” bands are currently cleaning up in a market that seems perpetually stagnant. However, this show is not what most of us have come to think of as a “Tribute” show. Not even close! This is a celebration of the life and music of one of the greatest rockin’ Blues players of all time. With Pecaro, Campanella’s band and another Saint Louis mainstay, Mike Zito, are also scheduled to appear, along with special guests. If the below video is any indication, the Pageant will be packed and rockin’ all night long. Tickets remain for the all ages event, available in advance at the usual outlets for twenty bucks or $22.50 on day-of-show at the venue’s box office, with 21 and up balcony seats available for $25. The doors open at 7:00 PM, with Mike Zito taking the stage around 8:00.

CLUTCH/SEVENDUST/TYLER BRYANT AND THE SHAKEDOWN

(18 October, 2018; POP’S NIGHTCLUB, Sauget IL)

Needless to say, as soon as I heard that they were coming back to Pop’s, I was pumped to have the chance to see Sevendust again! Then, I found out that Clutch was going to headline. What!?! Clutch AND Sevendust on the same night? Hell, yes! I was definitely gonna be in that pit!

TYLER BRYANT AND THE SHAKEDOWN (Tyler Bryant) (photo credit: DUSTIN GABEL)

Opening the show was Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown from Nashville, Tennessee. Since their start in 2009, Bryant and the band have released several singles and EPs, including 2015’s THE WAYSIDE, as well as their first full length album, WILD CHILDREN, in 2013, and the recently released self-titled follow-up. Onstage, they definitely perform very well, feeding off the energy of the crowd; their influences, likewise, play a vital part in the Shakedown’s sound: Kinda like a mix of Blues riffs combined with a good, solid rock base that I strongly believe places them in a musical genre all their own! Their unique blend of musical styles and strong onstage presence has led to the band touring with and opening for such acts as Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, AC/DC, BB King and Jeff Beck and has garnered them an opening slot on several dates of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ NOT IN THIS LIFETIME tour, which wraps up on December 8 in Honolulu. If you do get the chance to see them live, you definitely shouldn’t miss it!

SEVENDUST (Lajon Witherspoon, Morgan Rose) (photo credit: DUSTIN GABEL)

The second act of the night, much anticipated by myself and all of their fans, was Sevendust from Atlanta. The band is a personal favorite and much of the crowd was cheering for them to come onstage. The group formed in 1994 and are currently promoting their 12th album, ALL I SEE IS WAR, which was released in May. They still deliver that unique Nu-Metal sound as only they can and always have from the first time I saw them live, promoting their very first album. The tradition continues with the latest release, highlighted by the hardcore vocals of Lajon Witherspoon, Morgan Rose’s blistering drum fills, and insane guitar riffs from Clint Lowery and John Connolly. The sound, the intensity and the level of professionalism definitely leaves you wanting more! The vibe you get seeing them perform live is just surreal! After a rocky start and multiple name changes, Sevendust has seen much success, with three consecutive RIAA gold certified albums, a Grammy nomination and millions of albums sold world-wide. Their fan base is huge and fiercely loyal. If you get the chance to attend one of their shows, you will soon see the love and respect people have for Sevendust, with the members of the band giving it all right back to their audience like I have never seen with any other live act! Much respect to the members of Sevendust for keeping excellent rock alive!

CLUTCH (Neil Fallon) (photo credit: DUSTIN GABEL)

Closing out the night was Clutch, touring in support of their just-released album, BOOK OF BAD DECISIONS. Since forming in 1991, Clutch have released 12 studio albums, as well as several rarities and live albums. As always, these guys have never failed to deliver a superb show. Even with a set weighted primarily with songs from the new record (11 of the 15 found on …BAD DECISIONS), the energy you feel by the second song is just unreal because the vocalist, Neil Fallon, is so pumped up, so quick to belt out that new material, interact with fans and dip into a back catalog filled with fan favorites. Fallon’s infectious energy keeps both old school Clutch fans and newer fans of the latest releases rocking hard. With 27 years on the front-lines of the metal scene, Clutch easily achieves their goal of rocking the venue down to the foundation!

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)

NEIL YOUNG/JOHN HAMMOND

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

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

NEIL YOUNG (photo credit: THRASHER)

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

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

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

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

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

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