(October 13, 2017; THE FAMILY ARENA, Saint Charles MO)
When this show was announced, I was excited at the prospect of seeing two of my favorite performers – the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders fame – doing some of my favorite songs in solo sets, a la the HAPPY TOGETHER packages of the past. After speaking to Lindsay about the show, I was even more excited, as I learned that this was a full-on production that features both vocalists onstage together, sharing songs, stories and memories. I previously likened the concept to the early live work of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; meanwhile, in a recent interview with the Mule’s Kevin Renick, Dolenz said, “It’s a little bit like a Rat Pack thing.” And, I suppose – if you suspend all disbelief and squint your eyes just right – a case could also be made for the Bonos (circa THE SONNY AND CHER COMEDY HOUR). However you look at it, the “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You” aspect of a show starring Mark Lindsay and Micky Dolenz is a dream come true for any child of the 1960s.
THE FAB FOUR (Ron McNeil as John Lennon) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Opening the show was the Fab Four, hailed as “the Ultimate Tribute,” performing to perfection a set of Beatles tunes that the lads never performed live. Decked out in the Beatles’ SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND attire, the Four looked and sounded like the originals as they played and quipped their way through a packed 40-minute set. Led by founder Ron McNeil as John Lennon, the group – quite naturally – focused on material from the groundbreaking 1967 album, including (of course) the title track, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” (the non-album single from the same recording sessions, as well as its equally brilliant B-side, “Penny Lane”) and the heady, atmospheric “A Day In the Life.” All of George Martin”s studio trickery and embellishments, by the way, were performed live by the quartet, via the keyboard work of McNeil and Doug Couture’s George Harrison… no mean trick, that. The group also visited REVOLVER for “Got To Get You Into My Life,” and the brilliantly dreary “Eleanor Rigby,” one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes. Nestled in the middle of all of this amazing music was “Yellow Submarine,” along with another of my personal favorites (but then, aren’t they all?), “Day Tripper.” What a great way to kick off the night!
Micky Dolenz and Mark Lindsay (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
After a short intermission, the Fab Four were back onstage… this time in Raiders costumes. McNeil introduced the headlining duo, Mark Lindsay first, then Micky Dolenz, as the band launched into “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” a song recorded by both the Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Mark told Micky, “I recorded it first,” to which Micky replied “I had the hit.” The hits came fast and furious from there, with the duo performing their own songs, as well as each other’s. The Raiders tune “Steppin’ Out” gave way to the Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville,” a tune that had the revved-up crowd up and dancing. The Raiders’ first “woulda, coulda, shoulda” non-hit, “Louie, Louie” (the Kingsmen recorded the song around the same time they did and rode their version to the top of the charts) followed hot on the heels of that one.
Micky Dolenz (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
While the sound was generally solid, it was not without problems; some of the between-song banter (mostly Lindsay’s) was lost to the cavernous rafters of the Family Arena; as the sound tech worked out the kinks, their were sudden over-modulations of bass or guitar. But, those minor issues aside, the group of musicians onstage (including Micky’s sister, Coco on vocals and his “personal” guitarist, Wayne Avers) sounded phenomenal. Coco’s vocals, in particular, caught my attention, as she added that one extra layer that pushed the proceedings from a solid recreation of the songs we all know and love to a “Holy crap! This sounds just like the record.” level. From a rocker’s standpoint, the backing band had a harder edge. And, that’s not a bad thing… these songs are fifty years old and the relative youth of the Fab Four has infused both the songs and the singers with a new vitality. Tunes like “Hungry,” “Good Thing” and Mike Nesmith’s “Mary Mary” crackled and ignited under the pure weight of the Rock ‘n’ Roll offered up by the players, pushing Micky and Mark to ever greater heights.
Mark Lindsay (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
As we knew they must, the reflections soon turned to this dynamic duo’s time on the small screen, with Lindsay ribbing Micky about “hanging out behind a circus tent with Cheetah and Tarzan,” in reference to Dolenz’ childhood role as CIRCUS BOY in 1956. After a little back and forth, the band launched into the theme song from WHERE THE ACTION IS, the Dick Clark vehicle that propelled Lindsay and the Raiders to superstardom, followed by the theme to THE MONKEES, which ended with a sort of modified “Monkees walk” by the pair. An outrageously bizarre video from WHERE THE ACTION IS featured Dolenz and fellow Monkee, Davy Jones, disrupting and dismantling a performance by Paul Revere and the Raiders. Laughing, Micky said, “I really don’t remember that… at all!” Of course, I think we all knew that someone would eventually broach the subject of opening acts. There was mention made of the Rolling Stones in regards to Paul Revere and the Raiders before Lindsay asked Micky about a certain short-lived opening act on the Monkees’ first major tour. “Yeah,” quipped Dolenz, “this is what Jimi Hendrix sounded like opening for the Monkees… ” as the group pushed into the opening of “Purple Haze.” Two lines into the vocals, Micky began screaming, “We want the Monkees! Where’s Davy? Where are the Monkees?” As the saying goes, “mistakes were made, people were blamed.” Somewhere along the way, Mark noticed that there was something off about the Fab Four’s Raiders’ outfits and produced a feather-adorned tri-corner Colonial hat for the only “Raider” not wearing one, Ron McNeil as Paul Revere; with his back to the band, Lindsay continued his spiel, as Micky quietly replaced Doug Couture’s (not absolutely positive, but relatively sure of the name) hat with a green wool cap, a la Mike Nesmith. A small thing, to be sure, but it definitely registered with the gleeful crowd.
Doug Couture and Wayne Avers (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
How can you qualify the sheer quantity of great music that came out of the mid-to-late ‘60s, many by the two legendary figures onstage tonight? I mean, “Kicks,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Him Or Me – What’s It Gonna Be,” “I’m a Believer.” Toss in the lesser-known (though no less impressive) “She,” “Randy Scouse Git” and the psychedelic Blues work-out of “For Pete’s Sake” and you have not only an incredible set list for this show, but along with the Fab Four’s set, you have the soundtrack to the lives of many a baby boomer. Highlight upon highlight drove the performers and the audience to give a little bit more as the evening progressed. Things bordered on transcendent for me when Lindsay and Dolenz discussed their heritage, leading into the spine-shivering intro to “Indian Reservation.” I say again that both vocalists were in top form throughout the show, but it just seemed to me that Mark kicked things up a notch for what was Paul Revere and the Raiders’ biggest hit… a protest, an anthem, a song for the ages.
Micky Dolenz (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
After a final, brilliant turn by Micky Dolenz on “I’m a Believer,” it was over. Well, not really… I mean, you know how these things work, right? After a very short break, the band returned, with McNeil introducing Mark and Micky back to the stage for the encore, which included one of the Monkees’ most beloved tunes, “Daydream Believer.” The night ended with a rousing “Twist and Shout,” an early hit for the Beatles, with Dolenz delivering the first couple of lines before turning vocal duties over to “John.” As the lights came up, the buzz in the air wasn’t from the amplifiers; it came from the excited, appreciative crowd. And, why not? They had just witnessed two of the greatest performers and purest voices of the Rock era put on the show of their lives.
KEVIN RENICK is one check closer to completing his bucket list.
Micky Dolenz (photo credit: KAY TUOHY)
Micky Dolenz was always my favorite Monkee. They all had their charm, of course, but Micky seemed to me to be the most knowing, the most IN on the joke and the most determined to have as much fun with it as possible. The initial “joke,” of course, was that this quartet of Beatlemania-aping youngsters – three Americans and one Brit – would produce a madcap TV show in the mid-’60s that would hopefully yield a non-stop string of radio hits penned by the likes of Carole King, Neil Diamond, Boyce and Hart and many others. Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider definitely seemed to view the whole thing through the lens of satire, and hired hand music producer Don Kirshner felt it was his job to feed the music through the hit machine he was in charge of, and to NOT let the boys get too cocky or assertive. Let’s have FUN, kooky visuals but slick, well-constructed pop tunes for the ears… that seemed to be the mandate. And Micky was the singer on a majority of the band’s hits… “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and many more. He wasn’t the “cute one,” that distinction went to Davy Jones. And Mike Nesmith was the group’s quirky intellectual, the one who had a discernibly broader agenda and undeniable charisma. Peter Tork was arguably the group’s most polished musician. But Micky Dolenz embodied the spirit of the Monkees thing better than anyone – he delivered his lines with the most sass, he had nonstop energy (throughout the many reunions as well), and, frankly, he had the best voice, one which has probably been underrated through the years. Micky can SING. And his natural ability to be a professional showman, an audience pleaser, has probably been the most anchoring element of this group in its different incarnations. It’s impossible to imagine the later Monkees successes – the ’86 comeback on MTV, the later trio tours, the wildly successful 50th reunion album and tour – without Micky’s boundless energy. You really HAVE to thank him for the band’s durability all these years later; he’s a gamer, plain and simple. And by the way, that “joke” I mentioned above? Well, the real joke – and triumph – was that the Monkees were damn good. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame be damned – these guys showed a staying power that no one could have predicted, thanks to fabulously catchy songs, the early determination to prove they could actually PLAY their instruments (and even write songs!), and a gift for both re-invention AND nostalgia stoking, which meant that every time they “came back” from seeming oblivion, a huge audience was waiting. One that included the rabid older fans and ever curious NEW fans. Hey hey, they’re the Monkees! But they didn’t monkey around when it came to delivering what fans wanted, time after time.
The Monkees (Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones) (screen shot)
“I realized a long time ago that if you give the audience what they want, which is those hits they like, you can just about do anything else you want,” said Dolenz during a long-awaited phone interview recently. “And in my case, every time I do a show, I liken it to someone throwing me a birthday party. The audience is so excited to hear those songs. It feeds you! It feeds the fire.”
Dolenz was responding to my question about how an artist mostly associated with an “oldies” type act, can keep singing the same songs over and over, and still be engaged. How do you keep the experience fresh for yourself?
“I can only speak for myself. I can’t speak for Mike or Peter or David,” he said. “After the Monkees, I sort of bailed out on that part of the business for a while. I moved to England, and for about 15 years I was directing and producing television shows. I did no Monkee business. And when I came back in 1986 for that reunion, it all felt very new to me again! I never really made a major attempt after the Monkees to have a solo career. Not as an artist or writer. I don’t write that much, you know… I had done a couple of little things here and there, but I was never really a writer or anything.”
So for Dolenz, performing those eternally popular songs was not a problem. “Pleasant Valley Sunday?”
“Oh, that is definitely one of my favorites. I always favored Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s stuff.”
The concert favorite “Goin’ Down?” “Yeah, that’s a great one.” More on “Goin’ Down” in a moment, but the point is that Dolenz was perfectly happy fulfilling audience expectations.
“I wasn’t trying to do all new material,” he said. “I’m not one of those performers who says ‘I’m not gonna do any of my old hits.’ But again, I can only speak for myself.”
I mention that nostalgia is actually a good thing in music, it provides added resonance for listeners who grew up with a certain kind of music. People WANT to relive great moments from their youth, and what’s wrong with that?
“Sure. And another reason I have no problem with it is, I have done other things in my life. I’ve done musical theater (his credits include AIDA, PIPPIN and a London stage production of HAIRSPRAY in 2010). I’ve gotten great reviews, and I’ve played great characters. So if I go out and do a Monkees concert or a Mickey Dolenz concert, it’s not the only arrow in my quiver. It’s not the only thing I’ve done. But it’s certainly the thing I’m most remembered for.”
Micky Dolenz and Joyce DeWitt in a 2014 production of COMEDY IS HARD! (uncredited photo)
Any baby boomer can recite favorite moments from the first phase of Monkee mania: that inescapable theme song from the TV show, the irresistibly catchy early hits like “ …Steppin’ Stone,” “I’m a Believer,” “She” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” the frenzied energy of the show, a pioneering experiment in the concept of music video. Some people may even remember the unlikely, limited tour that featured Jimi Hendrix as an opening act, something I did NOT have a chance to ask Dolenz about. I was more interested in talking about their music, and though I didn’t get to bring up all my favorite songs, I DID ask about “Goin’ Down,” easily one of Dolenz’s finest hours as a vocalist. Over a jazz-laced romping arrangement that expanded the group’s sonic palette rather significantly, Dolenz sings a rapidfire, tempo-challenging lyric that would be far beyond the ability of most vocalists. The case for Dolenz as one of the finest pop singers of the era was made right then and there, and that was way back in 1967. I tell him how extraordinary the track is.
“The story is, there was a song that Mose Allison, a jazz singer, had done – it was called ‘Parchman Farm,’” Dolenz begins. “It was an old bluesy/jazzy kind of thing. I don’t even know if he wrote it (Kevin’s note: he didn’t). It was only three chords. And I always wanted to do it. Peter had done it in the Village when he was coming up, he liked it also. So Mike and I and Peter and Davy laid down a track… it had no melody, just basically this three-chord progression. And when we finished, it was so hot, but then Mike said, and rightly so, ‘I love Mose Allison, and I love that song… but why would the Monkees cover Mose Allison? It’s just a three chord progression! Let’s have someone write some WORDS for our track.’ So we gave it to Diane Hildebrand. And she came back with the song… and the first time that I routined it with her, we played the track. And I had the lyrics in front of me. So I sang it, (Dolenz sings a few lines of the song to me first at the familiar rapid tempo, then at the sluggish tempo he employed when first rehearsing it.) And Diane goes ‘No, No, it should be TWICE that fast!’ (he laughs) And I said ‘What?’ So I rehearsed it, obviously, and then laid the vocal down. Yeah, it’s a big one.”
I tell Micky my poignant story about “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” which in a nutshell, is simply that my good friend and musical colleague, Rick Haegg, whom I had a lot of music plans with, died before we could get ourselves on video significantly. The performance of us doing the Monkees song live at Lindberg’s, in Springfield, MO, is destined to be the only YouTube clip of us out there. Micky used my mom’s expression “Oh, wow” in response to this story. But what I had LONG wanted to ask Dolenz about was, of course, Neil Young. Dolenz did a gentle cover of Young’s “Sugar Mountain” on his 1991 collection of pop lullabyes, MICKY DOLENZ PUTS YOU TO SLEEP. But more significant is the fact that it’s still not widely known among casual fans that Neil played on three or four Monkees songs, including “You and I” and the gorgeous “As We Go Along,” from the legendary HEAD soundtrack.
Micky Dolenz, soundchecking on the Monkees’ 2014 tour (uncredited photo)
“Oh, God,” Dolenz exclaims at the mention of that song. “Absolutely one of my favorites.” The shimmering acoustic guitars of the track and another stellar Carole King lyric (in collaboration with Toni Stern) propel Dolenz to what might be his most romantic vocal ever. “Give up your secrets/Let down your hair/And sit with me here by the firelight… Why think about/Who’s gonna win out?/We’ll make up our story as we go along.” Those are beautifully evocative lines that, when combined with the exquisite tune and a sweeping performance by Dolenz, can induce genuine chills. And yes, Neil Young plays guitar on it. But just HOW did ol’ Neil get involved?
“Well, he was just around, like everybody was at that time,” Dolenz replied. “I think he had a close relationship with Carole King, and so that’s why he might have been on that one. But everybody was around. Stephen Stills, Buddy Miles, Carole. It was a pretty small community. Everybody sort of hung around at everybody else’s house. Neil was around all the time. It could’ve been the producer, Jack (Nicholson, a co-producer of the soundtrack). Or Ry Cooder, he was the other guitar player on that. It’s also well known that not only us, but everyone was using the Wrecking Crew. Have you seen that documentary?”
Dolenz was referring to an acclaimed 2008 documentary about the legendary group of studio musicians who played on countless major recordings in the ‘60s. I felt guilty that I hadn’t seen it and told him I’d make an effort to do so.
“You should watch it. Yeah, the Wrecking Crew… it was Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell. Glen Campbell. Lots of others. They played on everybody’s stuff. A lot of the Beach Boys stuff. In fact, the story goes that there isn’t one Beach Boy on ‘Good Vibrations’ except for the singing, of course. They played on a lot of early Byrds recordings… the Association… Mamas and Papas. In those days, that’s what you did. Lots of stuff. I’m so glad they are finally getting recognition.”
I asked about Glen Campbell, since he’d died quite recently. What did Micky most remember about him?
“Oh, I have lots of memories. We became really good friends. He was in the Wrecking Crew. We kind of just hit it off. We both had families at the same time… in fact, our families hung out. We had barbecues together. One day Glen said, ‘Do you remember your first recording session? Before the Monkees?’ I vaguely remembered it. I was singing around LA at the time. I didn’t know much about recording at all. There were four or five musicians there at the session. I was maybe 19 or 20. So we did the recording, and then the Monkees thing happened. And Glen Campbell said ‘Well, I was your guitar player.’ It was the Wrecking Crew! The song was called ‘Don’t Do It.’ Glen played on it. And Joe Osborn on bass. We did another one called ‘Huff Puff.’ Yeah, Glen was just a great guy.”
Dolenz had also been friends with another legendary songwriter, Harry Nilsson. For the 50th Anniversary of the Monkees, a remarkable set of circumstances came together to spark a new Monkees record, GOOD TIMES, in 2016. It’s a fantastic and surprising recording, which got some help from the discovery of some half-finished Monkees tunes in the vaults, one of which featured Nilsson.
The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith) (publicity photo)
“It all came together pretty quickly when we were discussing what we were gonna do for the 50th anniversary,” Dolenz explained. “We had some unfinished tracks from the ‘60s, songs written by Carole King, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. And there were vocals on some, like ‘Good Times,’ the one that Harry wrote. That was obviously gonna be for me to sing on eventually. Harry had put down a pretty hot vocal as a guide vocal. And I thought, Wow, I could do a duet with my old friend Harry Nilsson! So we ended up calling the album GOOD TIMES, that was my idea. And that was the title track.”
Then all sorts of famous songwriters came out of nowhere to be part of this project, right? You discovered that the Monkees had fans in high places!
“What happened was that the record label and producers reached out on their rolodex, and all of a sudden we get songs submitted by Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge (from XTC). Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller. Ben Gibbard. It just exploded and took off. I am very grateful and flattered and proud of the album. We got great reviews, too. Even ROLLING STONE gave us a good review, and they were never so into the Monkees before!”
I mention how unprecedented it is for a band to have a top 20 album 50 years after the fact. Compilations or hits collections might make the charts later in an artist’s career, but for that to happen with a NEW album? Truly remarkable!
“Yeah, it occurred to me,” Dolenz began with a laugh. “The equivalent in 1966, back when the Beatles, Stones and the Monkees were around, would have been for an act from 1916 to now have a top 20 album. It would have been something by Al Jolson or Enrico Caruso!” We both laughed loudly.
Micky Dolenz, 2014 Monkees tour (uncredited photo)
But there was something truly remarkable in the strength of the songs on GOOD TIMES. Mike Nesmith sings “Me and Magdalena” with a delicacy that truly elevates the gorgeous melody to a transcendent level (Dolenz provides harmonies). Peter Tork is at his very strongest on “Little Girl” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” And no one could have anticipated the luscious psychedelia and beautiful joint vocal performance of Nesmith and Dolenz on the Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller co-write, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster.” Such musical surprises led ULTIMATE CLASSIC ROCK to declare that “the fact that there is a new Monkees album in 2016 is miraculous enough, but that said album, GOOD TIMES!, is nothing short of a masterpiece is astounding.” Fans like yours truly were genuinely amazed.
“It’s obviously very gratifying,” said Dolenz. “It took the three of us… well, actually the four of us, because even Davy has a song on there (“Love To Love”). But everything just came together… It had a lot to do with the producer, Adam Schlesinger, who really was enthusiastic. We just kind of caught lightning in a bottle.”
Is there any chance of another Monkees record happening in the future? After all, Micky said that even the notoriously reluctant Mike Nesmith loved making this record.
“Well, nothing is in the works right now. We are still riding the crest of the wave off GOOD TIMES. It did pretty well. In my solo show, I even do three songs off that album. The general consensus was that we didn’t want to try to follow that up right away with GOOD TIMES 2. But down the road, you never know.”
Speaking of “the road,” Dolenz performed no less than 60-plus concerts last year, which took him and Peter Tork to four countries. And this summer, he’s been doing the 50 SUMMERS OF LOVE tour with Mark Lindsey (from Paul Revere and the Raiders) and the Beatles tribute band, the Fab Four. Solo, duo or the odd theatre gig, Dolenz seems to never rest. How does he keep up the stamina for so many shows?
“To answer your question, I DON’T,” he laughs. “I get beat up pretty hard. There’s a saying we have, ‘You don’t get paid to sing, you get paid to travel.’ The singing is FREE. I don’t travel very well, it’s hard on me. Probably the hardest thing about doing this.”
Micky Dolenz performing at the Davy Jones Memorial show, 2012 (photo credit: CINDY ORD/GETTY IMAGES)
Nonetheless, Dolenz is having a good time doing the 50 SUMMERS OF LOVE tour, and I asked him what it’s like performing with his old chum, Lindsey, whose parent band was big around the same time as the Monkees. This show features them performing together.
“Yeah, this is not like a typical compilation show, where one act comes out and does 20 minutes, then the next act comes out,” he said. “The unique thing is that we do the whole show together. We’re both on stage the whole time. He sings on some of my songs and I sing on some of his. We talk in between and do some schtick. We open with ‘ …Steppin’ Stone,’ and we talk about it. He recorded the song, and he’ll say, ‘You know, I did it first.’ But I’ll say ‘Yeah, but I had the hit!’ It’s quite interesting. The set list is based on the SONGS, not who is singing them. It’s a little bit like a Rat Pack thing.”
Dolenz talks about how both he and Lindsey were on the ‘60s TV show WHERE THE ACTION IS, which I tell him I remembered watching. We also talk about enthusiasm for the Monkees’ music in England, Australia and Japan. And the participation of his sister Coco in the latest touring Monkees show (vocals and percussion), and how his daughter, Georgia, just graduated from the Groundlings improve comedy school, and how she and her pop run a furniture business together, called Dolenz and Daughters Fine Furniture. It seems there are constant surprises in Micky Dolenz’s career, and nary a dull moment. It’s plenty of work, and not much “monkeying around.” He knows he’s a beloved pop legend, though, and is grateful for his unlikely and diverse career. I had a zillion more questions I would have liked to ask him, and felt like I had barely scratched the surface in our short chat. But he’s a super busy guy, and was nice enough to give me some time despite an illness in his family. I try to express a level of admiration that would cover how I grew up with him, found myself astonished by the many Monkees reunions through the years and by that amazing new album, and how he’d been on my bucket list of desired interviews. I couldn’t say it all. Micky Dolenz! Wow! But even though I am hardly the first to tell him I’m a devoted Monkees fan and that he is truly one of the most underrated singers ever, I am happy to say it to him personally, anyway.
Micky Dolenz in his Dolenz and Daughters workshop, 2014 (uncredited photo)
“Thank you very much,” is his modest reply. And then I went along, with a HEAD full of impressions…
Ain’t gonna lie… Asia’s self-titled debut album was one of my favorite – if not my absolute favorite – and most listened-to releases of 1982. Why? This type of supergroup progressive pomposity was well out of favor by the time of its release. Well, first and, perhaps, foremost was the fact that I would buy anything… make that ANYTHING that featured John Wetton on bass and vocals; the former Mogul Thrash, Family, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, UK and Wishbone Ash player was and remains one of my all-time favorite singers and bass players. Mister Wetton did not disappoint with this record! Next, Carl Palmer (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster and Emerson, Lake and Powell… er… Emerson, Lake and Palmer) was much more than a drummer… he was a percussionist who could pound out a beat like John Bonham or lay down a swinging Jazz groove, a la Bill Ward or any number of his early influences like Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich, plus… BRAIN SALAD SURGERY and “Karn Evil 9.” Need I say more? The final pieces to the puzzle were 40 percent of the band that recorded my favorite Yes album, 1980’s DRAMA: Steve Howe, an innovative and virtuoso level guitarist and Geoff Downes, keyboard genius and former Buggle. I was in Prog Nerd Heaven even though I had been listening to tons of Punk Rock back then, including the Damned, XTC and the Jam (though those bands had taken their music down a more inventive, progressive path by that time). So, anyway… I was hooked from that very first power chord to “Heat of the Moment.” These guys were the real deal and I was more than ready to snatch up their next offering, ALPHA, released the following year. Yeah… it suffered from what many call “the (dreaded) sophomore slump” and the discouraging reception to the album led to the exit (temporary, though it was) of Wetton. John was back in time to record the next set, ASTRA, though Steve Howe had headed out the back door as the bassist was reentering through the front; Wetton’s return and Howe’s replacement, Mandy Meyer, couldn’t salvage the sinking ship and Asia became a distant memory as everyone moved on to other projects. The original four (Downes, Howe, Palmer, Wetton) reformed in 2006, releasing three albums of new material before Howe left once again in early 2013 (citing the wear and tear of juggling touring and recording schedules with both Asia and Yes). Which brings us to this album, featuring current guitarist Sam Coulson on what was his first tour with the band; released, unfortunately, six weeks after John Wetton lost his years-long fight with cancer, the quartet is in fine form – even if the set list is a bit spotty, which may have to do with the involvement of the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra during the second half more than anything else.
ASIA (Carl Palmer, John Wetton, Geoff Downes) (publicity still)
The album is broken up into two distinct parts: Asia performing as a standard four-piece rock band (Disc 1 of the 2 CD set) and accompanied by the orchestra on a somewhat more sedate set (Disc 2). The first set gets off to a rousing start with “Sole Survivor,” a track from the debut album. The core members of the group – Wetton, Palmer and Downes – are in fine fettle here. John’s voice is strong; Geoff’s keyboard work enters into (Jon) Lordian realms, heavy and intense; Carl’s drumming borders on hyperactive, with thunderous fills and a slightly quicker tempo than I remember from the original. Sam Coulson’s guitar parts offer a bit more heft than did Howe’s original which, alongside Palmer’s jackhammer delivery, gives a certain urgency to this updated arrangement. “Time Again” is a propulsive proto-metal behemoth, somehow reminiscent of Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” The guitar is more in line with the original and the backing vocals are on point, as well. It’s another great version of one of the prime cuts from the first record. Truth be told, when I first heard the lead track to 2012’s XXX album, “Face On the Bridge,” I did not like it. At all! It sounded like a sappy, sentimental “time has passed me by” ballad from a band whose time had, indeed, come and gone. Brother, was I wrong! How could I have missed on this one so badly? Here, the song bristles with a vigor that belies that inevitable passing of time. Compared to the original, though the song was barely a year old (release wise), in this setting, Wetton’s voice sounds even stronger, Downes delivers some inspired live flourishes and Coulson’s guitar adds a little somethin’-somethin’ that even the legendary Steve Howe couldn’t bring to the original. “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want),” from the group’s second record, is very much a product of its time. ALPHA saw the band move further into the realm of schmaltzy MTV/Journey balladry, leading to divisions within and an eventual split. This particular song isn’t really too bad, just not what Asia’s fans were expecting after that monster debut; now, thirty years later, the tune seems to take on a new relevance, especially with Wetton fighting various major illnesses. I’m sure the other three men on stage felt the emotional power that their singer put behind these lyrics during this tour.
ASIA (Carl Palmer) (publicity still)
“Holy War,” a song from the OMEGA record, is a heavy prog ballad propelled forward, primarily, by Carl Palmer’s ferocious percussion and Geoff Downes’ keyboard artistry. Wetton seems to be loosening up by this point as his vocals become a bit more aggressive with a raspy sort of growl that fits perfectly within the context of the tune. An overblown symphonic intro from Geoff leads into the overblown progressive balladry of “An Extraordinary Life.” The lyrics are this number’s saving grace. John delivers his words with conviction, though – in the hands of lesser singers – such fare could well have been expressed in an overly dramatic, overwrought fashion. Finally… going all the way back to THEN AND NOW, the 1990 compilation of new and old, comes a power ballad that actually works! “Days Like These” is a great example of how well the Palmer/Wetton rhythm section complimented each other. This version also features a simple organ part from Downes and a spot on solo from Sam Coulson. It’s very nice to hear this one in a live setting. With “Open Your Eyes,” a weird vocoder intro turns into a very nice mid-tempo rocker featuring Wetton’s newly-positive and uplifting lyrics. Carl is particularly… uh… restrained here, showing us that, yes, he can be a true team player. There are more vocoder shenanigans during the middle break, which is a very operatic, chorusy thing that simmers just below John’s improvised vocals. Sam’s guitar fits quite comfortably within the confines of the song, shining especially bright on some very tasty solos and, his interplay with Downes’ organ to end the number is just awesome.
ASIA (Sam Coulson) (publicity still)
As the album’s name implies, Asia is joined for the second set by the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra. The first song with the orchestra, “Only Time Will Tell,” one of the many favorites from the group’s stunning debut, still sounds as fresh and vibrant as it did the first time I heard it, with Sam Coulson echoing that amazing Steve Howe riff, while adding a bit of his own flair to the tune. At this point, I’m not certain how the addition of the orchestra is going to work, as everything in this arrangement sounds exactly like Downes’ original keyboard embellishments. Even with the inevitable intermission between the band set and the introduction of the orchestra factored in, it seems strange to bookend the progressive power of “Only Time Will Tell” with a pair of the group’s more sedate numbers, “Open Your Eyes” and ALPHA’s “Don’t Cry.” With a slightly quicker tempo and Downes pretty much sticking to piano on the latter, the orchestra definitely adds to the overall sound of the piece. I’ve already praised John Wetton’s vocal performance but, really haven’t mentioned his bass work; as always, it is superb (in my estimation, Wetton was one of the best ever) and especially so on this song. Palmer again proves to be a master craftsman, playing deep in the pocket and offering a tasteful fill only when required. Next up is “Heroine.” Uh… okay… not a fan of this one. At all. Wetton’s voice is okay, Downes’ piano and the orchestra sound fine but, “Heroine” is just… BAD! It’s a sappy ballad that simply cannot escape its own sappiness.
ASIA (John Wetton) (publicity still)
I’m not too sure what this says about Asia’s recorded output but, with five songs from their stellar debut and another four from the artistically disappointing follow-up, ALPHA, it certainly seems that, as of 2013, the group was content to bask in the glory of those two records. “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” the fourth tune from that sophomore release, starts slow and features the epic build inherent in all early ‘80s power ballads, though with a bit of an edge due to Carl driving the band and orchestra with an accelerated tempo that is not unappealing for an all but forgotten thirty year old single from a mostly forgettable album. The final two numbers come from the formidable ASIA album. “Wildest Dreams” somehow seems more relevant today than it did 35 years ago. I’m not even sure how they even managed to pull this off (unless the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra also brought along a hefty chorus) but, the massive background vocals sound… if not over the top, at least completely out of place. Regardless, this is the quartet hitting on all cylinders, with an aggressive arrangement that highlights a cool duel between Sam and Geoff. The first song on the first side of that first record, “Heat of the Moment” may sound somewhat dated lyrically (featuring one of the most well-known couplets in Prog Rock history, “And now you find yourself in ‘82/The disco hotspots hold no charm for you”), but the power of the music and the conviction in Wetton’s voice still make it a crowd-pleasing sing-along… even in Bulgaria. The sheer firepower that the combined talents of John Wetton, Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer and then-newcomer Sam Coulson bring to bear on this version delivers a fantastic finish to a rather uneven show that may very well have suffered due to the limitations of playing with an orchestra.
I fully understand that this is a very different band than the one that recorded that 1982 debut offering… they are far more thoughtful and introspective, particularly after the health scares faced by their frontman throughout the latter part of their history and, well… let’s face it, apart from Coulson, they aren’t exactly young men. Even when considering the phenomenal accomplishments of Palmer, Wetton and Downes before and after ASIA, it must have been a hard pill to swallow realizing that the group was at their creative peak on their first album; it couldn’t have been easy trying to equal or outshine a record that could quite easily be released under the title ASIA’S GREATEST HITS with no additional material needed to bolster the original nine-track sequencing. However, having said that, shortcomings aside, this album does work as a fitting memorial to John Wetton, one of the true legends of Progressive Rock. I should point out here that I was privy only to the music tracks that make up just a part of the SYMFONIA package, which also contains a DVD (or Blu-Ray) of the concert; there is also a double vinyl set available, without the additional video media.
Captain Sensible in repose (with fLUSH issue 11), 2002 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
They shoulda been finished by 1980. In the DIY world of late ‘70s punk rock, which saw bands implode (or explode) sometimes within days or weeks of forming, the Damned were releasing their fourth album in 1980, what I consider to be their magnum opus, THE BLACK ALBUM. Of course, by 1980, the band had already split after the departure of guitarist and primary songwriter, Brian James following the release of their second full-length, MUSIC FOR PLEASURE; thankfully, the call of the stage (and a nice payday) brought the remaining band – vocalist Dave Vanian, drummer Rat Scabies and bassist-turned-guitarist Captain Sensible – back together, this time with drinking buddy Lemmy filling in on bass. By the time the sessions for THE BLACK ALBUM began, the group was already on to their fourth bassist, Paul Gray having supplanted former Saints bass player, Algy Ward. Over the years, twenty-five full-time or touring musicians have been a part of the legendary aggregation, with Vanian being the only constant; however, the band coalesced into a solid line-up with bassist Stu West joining Sensible, Vanian, keyboardist Monty Oxymoron and drummer Pinch in 2004.
And, so, forty years after releasing the first UK punk record, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED, the band are back with a major tour underway and a new album in the offing. With a stop scheduled at the Delmar Hall in Saint Louis on April 21, I reached out to the responsible parties to check in with the band before the commencement of the North American leg of their tour. It was agreed that e-mailing some questions to Captain Sensible would be the best approach. This, then, is the result of that communication; other than a minor tweak here and there, Captain’s answers are left intact, exactly as he wrote them. No animals were harmed in the exchange. Well, maybe a couple, but… they deserved it!
DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED
THE MULE: You’re celebrating the fortieth anniversary of your debut album, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED and forty years of a general wreaking of havoc with an extensive world tour. How has the tour been going and what can we expect when you hit the shores of North America for a two-month long jaunt?
CAPTAIN: The band gets on great; probably why it’s the longest lasting lineup in Damned history. But, the important thing is they play the material, particularly from the classic period, with real gusto. Stu and Pinch are a phenomenal rhythm section which allows Monty (an improv genius) and myself freedom to be playful with the songs… it’s never quite the same twice. Which is good, because love music shouldn’t be too predictable. I like an element of danger… I’ve always seen my role in the band to add a touch of chaos.
THE MULE: Of late, a lot of groups have been celebrating these types of anniversaries by playing the entire record live. Can we expect to hear those twelve songs played front to back or do you have other surprises in store?
CAPTAIN: We’ll be playing a special career spanning 40th anniversary set – with the Damned you’re getting three bands for the price of one – we were the first UK punk band, had a hand in creating the Goth scene and veer towards garage psych whenever the inclination takes us. The setlist can change mid gig, depending on the audience… and well timed heckling is encouraged. It’s all about the live experience – to hell with choreography and set routines – we like to live a little dangerous and just go with whatever happens.
From the punk material, I have to say my favourite is “Neat Neat Neat,” with its fabulous Eddie Cochran-esque riff. Perfect for a quick jam and eminently danceable. On the other hand, “Eloise” is simply epic… a theatrical, mad, desperate declaration of love for a “lady of the night,” These things happen… quite often, probably.
The Damned and friends, circa 1977 (Chrissie Hynde, Tommy Ramone, Rat Scabies, Captain Sensible, Dee Dee Ramone, Brian James, Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone) (photo courtesy: CAPTAIN SENSIBLE)
THE MULE: The album was among a number of firsts for the band: You were the first punk band from the UK to release a single with “New Rose,” DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED was the first UK punk album and you were the first English punk group to tour the US. What do you remember from those first few months of the band and the explosion of punk that followed? There must be a great sense of pride in what you, Dave, Brian and Rat accomplished in such a short amount of time.
THE CAPTAIN: Brian put the original ad in a music mag looking for like minded musicians. He wanted a gang that played with aggression. You can hear the results on the first two albums… but, when he jumped ship in ‘78, it left the rest of us with a huge problem. None of us had any history of songwriting. Also, with me now on guitar, we needed a bassist.
We used to hang around in the pubs in Portobello Road, where Lemmy was a permanent feature – propping up some fruit machine or other. Apart from speed metal, that was his passion. He’d let us sleep on his floor if we missed the last bus home, and was a good chum.
We were broke and had been offered some money for a London Damned show if we could get some kind of lineup back together.
As ex-guitarist of the Johnny Moped band, I fancied a go at 6 strings again, so we called up our old mate Lemmy to play bass and knocked together a setlist of Damned and Motorhead favourites during a short boozy rehearsal. The reaction of the audience on the night of the performance was splendid so we arranged another show… and then another…. and then, someone suggested writing some new tunes.
Lemmy had a tour coming up, however, so we found ourselves having the difficult task of finding a bassist with equally uncompromising attitude and sound… and then someone mentioned this bloke they’d heard of that plays his bass with metal picks. His name was Algy, he demonstrated his thunderous technique and was immediately offered the job. Finally, the Damned was ready to record its psychedelic punk rock record… MGE (MACHINE GUN ETIQUETTE – Editor).
The Damned, circa 1976 (Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian) (photo credit: JOHN INGHAM)
THE MULE: I’m reading Steve Jones’ book, LONELY BOY. He kind of gives short shrift to the Pistols’ ANARCHY TOUR that the Damned were a part of. Do you have any memories – fond or otherwise – of that tour and the other bands on the bill?
CAPTAIN: Damned, Clash, Pistols and Johnny Thunders’ band got on great – more than could be said for the four managers who all wanted preeminence for their bunch. MacClaren put the package together cos his lot couldn’t sell tickets outside London… a situation which changed when Steve Jones swore on a teatime TV show. At that point, with Rotten and company on all the front pages the next day, the Damned were no longer required to fill venues so we were given the heave-ho.
I bump into Steve every now ‘n’ then, and put it to him recently that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to curse and swear on a TV programme – I could’ve quite easily done that myself. More than capable! His reply? “But you didn’t, Captain… WE did”
You have to laugh…
The Damned play the Galaxy in Saint Louis, 2002 (Captain Sensible; Dave Vanian) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
THE MULE: The Damned has certainly had their share of ups and downs, with members coming and going, breaking up and reforming, legal issues regarding the use of the name, signing with and leaving record companies. For you, what are the high points and low points in the band’s career?
CAPTAIN: High point was the reception of the first album. It caused a bit of a sensation and suddenly, we were on front pages… the record is manic and riff heavy – Nick Lowe did a great job of capturing the uncompromising nature of our 35 minute live set. This is the material the more recently arrived members of the band love to play and they totally nail it.
We had no idea the record would be popular… let alone talked about 40 years on.
We were just making the music we wanted to hear cos there was precious little around at the time that had any get up and go. Glam rock had packed the sequins and gone – all we had left was country, disco and prog.
But mainly, I was trying to change my own world cos for me, as a teenager with little education to boast of, I had a life of drudge ahead of me at best. Or a vagabond of some sort… I was already known to the law and things could have gone from bad to worse. I was dossing in a Brighton squat, surrounded by junkies and ne’er do wells – then punk rockshowed up and saved me. Every band needs a chaos factor… and I became the Damned’s random unpredictable nutcase. My dream job.
During rehearsals, I was sleeping on Brian’s floor; we spent our days traipsing around clubs attempting to blag support gigs – which paid peanuts so we were generally starving. When Stiff Records offered us a record deal, the promise of a visit to a Wimpy Bar was the clincher.
As for low points… Maybe the rows and punch ups? But all bands have them, I think… even the Mamas and the Papas.
THE MULE: A couple of fairly well known musicians produced the first two Damned albums. What are your thoughts on those first two records and the producers, the Nicks: Lowe and Mason?
CAPTAIN: Nick managed to capture the live sound of the band… it’s not “posh,” that’s for sure. If you play the record loud and close your eyes, you could be in London’s sleazy basement Roxy Club watching the band. It is pure punk – unlike some of our contemporaries, who polished and perfected their sound in an un-punk like manner, I thought.
Nick Mason stood in for Syd Barrett… our original choice. But we were getting Floyd’s studio for free, so couldn’t tell him to eff off.
The Damned’s Abbey Road moment (Stu West,Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian, Pinch, Monty Oxymoron) (photo courtesy: CAPTAIN SENSIBLE)
THE MULE: One of my all-time favorite albums and my favorite Damned album has always been THE BLACK ALBUM. What are your memories of writing and recording that record? How do you think it holds up 37 years later?
CAPTAIN: Somehow, the Damned had a role in kick-starting the punk AND Goth scenes – and moving into the ‘80s, I’d noticed Dave Vanian’s songwriting was moving into darker territory – which culminated in the appropriately titled …BLACK ALBUM. We were fascinated by the possibilities a little experimentation in the studio would give… It was a very creative time of Dave and myself having all night brainstorming sessions. The other guys would listen the next day, open-mouthed at the wild departure from the two minute thrashes we’d been famous for. These are the most fun songs to perform… but demand a lot of concentration.
THE MULE: It’s been nearly ten years since the last album of new material, SO, WHO’S PARANOID. I understand that you’re working on a new record. Can you tell us about the PledgeMusic page and when we’ll see the finished product? Do you have something unexpected up your collective sleeves? With the new record coming, your fans have to wonder: Where do the Damned go from here?
The Damned, 2016 (Captain Sensible, Pinch, Dave Vanian, Stu West, Monty Oxymoron) (uncredited photo)
CAPTAIN: The Buzzcocks guys told us about this PledgeMusic thing, which I’d no idea about – but when told it allowed us to make the album we wanted to make… without a record label bloke peering over your shoulder, I was there. So, we can pretty much do what we like – which in the ‘80s would’ve meant getting comprehensively sloshed and wrecking the studio and getting thrown out of a few along the way for those sort of capers. Probably not this time though, being considerably older… and marginally wiser.
Pinch, Stu and Monty are such great players though… they’re going to get a chance to flex their muscles musically. This is a band that can break out of a song structure and really jam it up.
Each album we’ve made sounds different from the last one – and this one will continue that trend. It’s fun to experiment, to be creative… take a few risks. The only shame is not releasing before the world tour, but to have boshed out a half finished album would be wrong. I have SERGEANT PEPPER… and PET SOUNDS in my record collection, played ‘em to death over the years and, unlikely as it sounds, always aspire to achieve those standards.
An album to celebrate forty glorious years of the Damned seemed a good idea. We don’t make many… it’s quality over quantity. We’ll go off on a tangent, as per usual, as we don’t care to repeat ourselves. It’s been a musical journey in the Damned. I love the experimenting in the studio… all night brainstorming sessions fueled by copious amounts of quality ale. That’s the way to do it – it’s gonna be fun!
There will be some surprises, but plenty of energy and melodic content, too. Oh, and some darkness, too.
The Pledge campaign was an instant success. Thanks, everyone! We are currently trawling through the best material we have and putting it through the Damned machine. Who knows how much longer this band can go on, so we are really going at it with a Big (Brother) eye on the quality. Rest assured, it will be as different as any album the band has ever made. Move on or croak!!! We want people to discover this record and be aurally challenged. Dave, in particular, has some really wacky ideas that he wants to put on here and we are all pretty excited that he is vibed up about it. We may have to tour with a full orchestra and dance troupe to realize it properly! Hahahahaaaaa.
THE MULE: You had a successful solo run in the early ’80s and you continue to release music outside of the band. Is there any news on that front? If so, what and when can we expect something?
CAPTAIN: I did an album with Paul Gray… A POSTCARD FROM BRITAIN, it’s called. It’s a concept piece which reflects our views on our home country… not all of them glowing!
THE MULE: Looking back on a forty-plus year career, where do you think the Damned places in the pantheon of rock music?
CAPTAIN: I really don’t care about any of that… it’s all been fantastic fun. And, a wonderful musical adventure. The Damned are outsiders – we don’t have celeb friends or go to swanky parties. We are the same as we’ve always been… just a bunch of…
The Damned play the Royal Albert Hall, May 20, 2016 (Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian) (Photo credit: DOD MORRISON PHOTOGRAPHY)
THE MULE: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Look forward to seeing you in Saint Louis on April 21.
CAPTAIN: Cheers!!! I have to be real careful these days not to overdo it, as hangovers are gruesome when you get to this age. The getting carted about all over the place is tough on the system too – I always say I do the gigs for free… but I wanna get paid for all the traveling.
Having said that, there is a theory that you stay the same mental age as when you first join your band… to a certain extent I’ve not had the responsibilities and worries that normal people have, I’ve shifted a few records… but been bankrupt and everything in between, as well. To be honest the pursuit of money and fame means nothing to me… who needs a flashy car anyway – I’m happy to get around by train.
I’m a perennial juvenile delinquent… my hero is still Dennis the Menace. There’s more than a bit of him in my act.
Back in September, I was just back from the theater, having seen EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS. My immediate thoughts were that the film was truly an amazing ride and that director Ron Howard did a fabulous job with all of the archival film footage; cleaned and restored for the big screen, I was definitely taken back to the height of Beatlemania. After the end credits rolled, the audience was treated to a near-thirty minute segment of the Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium concert (almost the entire show), which was awesome… with a crisp new “remaster,” it was like being in the front row with that screaming, rabid New York crowd. Unfortunately, that piece of history didn’t make it to the DVD/Blu-Ray releases, as it was used as an “incentive” to get butts in theater seats. Oh, well… maybe someday! The film (and the bonus feature) made me realize, again, how much I miss both John and George; it really was a wonderful night of Rock ‘n’ Roll with, as Ringo said, “The biggest band in the land.”
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, RIngo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, circa 1964) (uncredited photo)
So, by this time, who doesn’t know the story of the Beatles’ humble beginnings? Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last six decades, here’s the Cliff Notes version: Paul McCartney meets John Lennon, joins his band, bringing George Harrison along for the ride; then, here comes Ringo Starr, John and Paul start writing songs together, Brian Epstein becomes their manager, the lads meet George Martin, who works with them, molding their sound in the studio… yeah, yeah, yeah! As a lifelong fan of the Fab Four, I still came away amazed by this fabulous new documentary. Seeing and feeling just how wonderful the Beatles and their music were and continue to be today makes me realize just how much they still mean to me, forty years after they went their separate ways. The narrative of EIGHT DAYS A WEEK is presented through, not only vintage interviews of the Liverpudlians, but recent remembrances from Paul and Ringo, plus various other musicians, composers and celebrities. However, the real “star” is the concert footage and the mania surrounding the mop tops. It’s great reliving how the Beatles literally took control of popular culture in the 1960s; one of the things that I enjoyed seeing was how hard Ringo was playing back in the very early live days, displaying an almost punkish verve at times.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, RIngo Starr, Washington DC 1964) (photo courtesy: APPLE CORPS)
Personal fan-boy histrionics aside, what sets THIS Beatles documentary above others – first and foremost – is the unbelievable quality of the film itself: Not only the concert footage, but the manic press conferences and even the boys simply caught relaxing, is so clear and crisp that it really just staggers you. It was worth it to hear new concert footage with clean, crisp sound, highlighting how truly hard they rocked… especially Lennon tearing up now-classics like “Twist and Shout” and “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy.” Celebrated fans as disparate as Whoopi Goldberg, Elvis Costello and Sigourney Weaver relate just how hard they fell for the Beatles… Yes, everything from THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW to the Hollywood Bowl performance to their huge world tours and all of the madness that followed, but also because they were funny and talented, met the right people at the right time (manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin would become the two most important people in their professional lives) and had a ton of belief in themselves and in their art. The Fab Four were always ready and more than willing to push the envelope. After seeing this movie, it’s very easy to see how and why these celebrities and, indeed, the world fell in love with them and why that love is still going strong over fifty years later.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (a 14 year old Sigourney Weaver at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964) (uncredited photo)
To be sure, the Beatles released an astonishing number of great, hit songs and huge, groundbreaking albums between 1962-1970… a mere eight years. It’s still hard to believe! EIGHT DAYS A WEEK tells their story quite well and, seeing it initially in the theater, on the big screen, was a huge benefit (in particular, the restored Shea Stadium footage, with all the madness and screaming, was stunning). The film is nothing short of phenomenal; Howard and his crew did a superb job of presenting another – often overlooked – part of the Beatles’ huge world wide success, aside from the string of hits and the intense madness that surrounded them everywhere they went. Quite frankly, watching them deal with the insanity going on around them all the time, it amazes me how they remained so grounded. That Shea Stadium show in August, 1965 before 56,000 people was a game changer, setting up a future for arena and stadium rock shows; that performance took Rock and Roll music to heights never before (and seldom after) imagined.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr at Shea Stadium, 1965) (uncredited photo)
Historically, one of the real turning points for the band was when they rejected George Martin’s idea of wanting them to only do other people’s songs; they wanted to write their own music and, so… away they went. The Lennon/McCartney hit-making machine was rolling and wouldn’t stop until outside business affairs jammed the gears. Still, by the time they decided to quit touring in 1966 to focus their creative output into studio work, they were just starting to hit their peak, releasing a string of masterpieces starting with RUBBER SOUL and REVOLVER. Recent interviews with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and archival clips of George Harrison and John Lennon, commenting on and explaining things along the way, really adds to the story and to the enjoyment of this documentary. The film flows very well.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Ringo Starr, Ron Howard, Paul McCartney) (photo courtesy: STUDIOCANAL)
I have been a Beatles fan since their first appearance on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, solidified by seeing A HARD DAY’S NIGHT in the theater and they are still as wonderful, their music still honest and positive and still touching new generations of listeners and fans… over fifty years later. As Sigourney Weaver said in the movie, “It was this sense of world music. We were all loving them, all over the world.” The joy of the Beatles’ music is, we can all have our favorite song and our favorite album; from 1962 to 1970, they made music for the ages and, indeed, this film is a must see for fans of all ages. A big “Thank you!” to Ron Howard for bringing us a new look at a very well-known story. He did a fantastic job with this movie, with a little help from some friends… John, Paul, George and Ringo.
ZZ Top are like an old friend… you just want to hang out with them and have a good time. After four-and-a-half decades (and counting), they have the distinction of being the longest running rock band with ALL its original members still going strong. That in itself is great, much less that they are still rocking as hard as ever. Their new live album, with songs recorded at tour stops all over the world (thus, the name) sounds great and is as fresh and as fun as the Tops have ever been… even after all this time. “Got Me Under Pressure,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man, “La Grange,” and “Tube Snake Boogie” are all here and, so is guitar legend Jeff Beck, who joins the trio for “Rough Boy” and “Sixteen Tons” (yes… the Tennessee Ernie Ford song). Billy Gibbons and Beck have known each other for quite a long time and the former Yardbird has been a touring companion with the “Little Band From Texas” on more than one occasion.
ZZ Top (Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons) (uncredited photo)
Bassist Dusty Hill, the great stickman Frank Beard and Gibbons still rock with an unbridled wit and vigor and some of the coolest licks you’ll ever hear. Personally, I find Billy to be one of the finest axemen around, taking a backseat to no one. Frank Beard (the only member of ZZ Top without a beard!) is just fine, a powerful meat-and-potatoes type of drummer… steady as a rock. They, like any band that has been around as long, will have their ups and downs, but they still manage to record some new stuff on occasion (their last album, LA FUTURA, came out in 2012). I‘m so glad they are still around – just the three of them – still blasting out their own style ofrockin’ Blues and still having a blast doing it. This new LIVE GREATEST HITS FROM AROUND THE WORLD record should serve as ample proof of that. Long live the ultimate party band, that little ol’ band from Texas, ZZTop!
Paul McCartney (The Busch Stadium crowd enjoys the show) (photo credit: JEFF KING)
It’s really worth a moment of reflection here: What’s it like to be Paul McCartney? None of us can really know. McCartney is almost unarguably the most successful and influential singer/songwriter/musician in the history of popular music. He’s reached a place no one else has gotten to, a rarified zone of rock royalty where interest and reverence for him is ongoing, on a global scale. Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen may be able to sell out stadiums at times, and the Rolling Stones can say they’ve been around as long still doing their classic rockin’ thing. But NO ONE has had the impact through multi generations, the acknowledged cultural influence, the extensive body of work and the ability to sell out shows around the world, like Sir Paul McCartney. On the pop culture landscape, it’s like there is Mount McCartney, soaring high towards the clouds to a peak you can’t even make out or even comprehend, and then way below, there are some other peaks that are also impressive but not as gigantic. Mount Dylan. The Jagger-Richards Range. Who International Park. Et cetera.
Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)
You get the idea. So beloved are the Beatles, and so deep and enduring is the nostalgia for all that they represented, all the good memories they provided for millions, that people around the world want to experience any taste of that magic again, and to believe that Beatlemania is not just a thing of the past. Sir Paul McCartney bears that burden (not discounting Ringo here, but he doesn’t tour as much and he simply wasn’t one of the prime architects of that Beatles songwriting thing that changed the world) on his 74-year-old shoulders, and he does so with class, good cheer and almost unbelievable energy. Mount McCartney indeed! And we fans are lucky enough to still climb those musical heights each time Paulie decides to perform. He’s doing it often these days, and it is never less than a spectacle. He might be technically a senior citizen, but man oh man, Mister McCartney still shows he’s got it, and that he loves doing it. Song after song after song.
Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)
At Busch Stadium, August 13… nearly 50 years since the Beatles played here at the stadium’s previous location (the year that REVOLVER, one of their very best albums came out!), McCartney treated a wildly enthusiastic crowd to a generous platter of classic songs and some obscurities, from throughout his career. He opened with “A Hard Day’s Night,” a timeless classic that he’d not done before live. Another from that beloved movie, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” soon followed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only long-time fan to experience a chill or two just from those two rockers. Dressed smartly in a purple jacket and dark jeans, McCartney sounded and looked younger than his age, and wasted no time chatting up the audience. Miraculously, considering that the acoustics for a sold-out stadium show are by no means always optimal, you could hear just about every word he uttered. And you WANTED to “listen to what the man said” because, hey, how often do you get to share time with him? At one point, McCartney took time to acknowledge all the many signs people were holding up in the stadium. There were the usual lovey-dovey kinda things, but a young girl held up a sign that said (I had high-powered binoculars to try to catch all this), I think, “Loved you as a bug, loved you as a wing and love you still today.” I saw her laugh delightedly when McCartney mentioned that sign. In fact, the ample projection screen repeatedly showed people laughing, dancing, and singing along to favorite tunes. It was a celebration, after all, McCartney being “one on one” (as it was billed) with thousands and thousands of delighted fans. And the set list was by no means predictable. Sure, you’d be reasonably safe to expect stuff like “Back In the USSR,” “Let It Be,” the inevitable “Hey Jude,” “Maybe I’m Amazed” (and yeah, he DID mostly hit those high notes despite a few subtle strains evident in his vocals here and there) and the great “Band on the Run,” one of his finest solo songs. But genuine surprises (unless you were an internet set list junkie) included “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “We Can Work It Out” (a personal favorite), a warm and tender “Here, There and Everywhere,” “And I Love Her” (gorgeous) and “Fool on the Hill.” At one point, McCartney gave a nice mini-talk on where songs come from, something he’s obviously been asked a zillion times. He explained that sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes a lyric idea, and sometimes an insistent chord progression that has “potential.” He began playing one such evocative progression on guitar a few times until it evolved, marvelously, into “You Won’t See Me,” another delightful surprise. And what else can be said about brilliant songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Blackbird,” two of the many, many touchstones in Macca’s career, never losing their beauty or impact?
Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)
Of course, there were not just Beatle songs on the list. Solo numbers as diverse as “Let Me Roll It,” “Temporary Secretary” (I personally enjoyed this one though others apparently were not in my company), “1985,” a searing “Hi, Hi, Hi” (an early Wings classic) and a clutch of tunes from McCartney’s last disc NEW (“Save Us” and “Queenie Eye” among them) sounded just fine, although it was amusing to see McCartney gesture or feign mock disappointment when the reaction to less famous songs was not as thunderous as that for Beatle classics. McCartney knows full well that fans want to hear the tunes they grew up on, and he is incredibly generous (he has been for many years) in bulking up beloved tunes on set lists these days. Two potently touching and dramatic moments occurred in the middle of the show. “Here Today,” the song McCartney wrote as “a conversation I never got to have” with John Lennon, is a tune he almost always plays in concert, but it had an intense emotional resonance to it in this performance… delicate, tender, unbearably sad… and the legend almost looked like he was tearing up anew as he sang. The audience was spellbound. Another genuine surprise was “In Spite of All the Danger,” a song the boys conceived in their Quarrymen days, and which McCartney explained they cut in a primitive studio as a demo. This event is depicted at the end of the movie NOWHERE BOY, which I’d been lucky enough to see, so it had a major impact on me, and McCartney seemed delighted to tell the story. For a song that few at the stadium could have known, it was staggering that McCartney was able to get the crowd to sing the repeated “Whoa oh oh oh” chorus with almost perfect timing. Maybe I’m amazed by this, indeed! Also a sweet and tender “My Valentine,” which he dedicated to his wife Nancy, was subtly compelling in its intimacy, and featured visual aids by Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp on the adjoining screens, something that struck me as surreal but beautiful. But it was old Beatles classics that got the crowd really jazzed: “Lady Madonna,” “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” the George Harrison tribute “Something” (which McCartney began on ukulele as expected, but this time it quickly evolved into a full Beatle-y band arrangement, unlike the last time I saw him perform it), and a stirring “Love Me Do,” complete with the precise harmonica part that Lennon played all those years ago.No one can ever say that Paul McCartney is not a good team player, by the way… the band he’s with now, which consists of some of the most crackerjack players around (keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, bassist and guitarist Brian Ray, guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel, Junior), has been with him for 14 years plus, longer than the Beatles were together!And any encore that includes the perfection that is “Yesterday,” the White Album novelty “Birthday” and the gripping “Golden Slumbers” section of the dazzling ABBEY ROAD medley, well, it lets you know in no uncertain terms that you are one lucky fan to be at this concert. You’re getting rock history live, right here, right now.
Paul McCartney with Abe Laboriel, Junior (photo credit: JEFF KING)
Paul McCartney’s importance is not just his place in the musical scheme of things, it’s the fact that he is a living testament to the ongoing power of songwriting, performing and communicating with fans. He’s had to endure continual comparisons to his former partner Lennon, judgments about his work since the Beatles, and the always fascinating reappraisals of his recordings that new writers always feel motivated to offer. For example, the once-maligned RAM album is now considered a charming low-key classic by most, and Wings, who nearly always got short-changed in the 70s by snobby comparisons to the Beatles, now have their own special fan base, and McCartney knows that. More than anything, what McCartney knows is that music can transform, inspire, document, delight and be really, really personal for different people, different generations, over a long, long time. You just don’t get to go on the kind of journey Paul McCartney has been on, very often. Because of the volatility of the times he flourished in, and the unimaginable success, McCartney gets to see the impact of his life’s work over and over, and to keep writing, recording, and rocking. And somehow he still manages to do it with that same boyish glint in his eye that he had back on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. That is one staggering triumph of an artist and a human being, across six decades, and still going. How can you not regard Mount McCartney with absolute awe? And he’s still here today, his legend secured for all time.
I’m gonna let you guys in on what may be one of the worst kept secrets in the universe: I love heavy metal… all kinds of heavy metal. However, if I were staked to the ground in close proximity to a colony of fire ants and the only possible salvation was telling my captors what type of metal was my favorite, I would have to say the classic, hard rocking stuff… you know, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Demon. So, even though I thoroughly enjoyed recent shows by Nile and Coal Chamber (and am looking forward to the return of Dez’s other band, DevilDriver), I gotta say that this night was Nirvana (the mystical happy place, not the band) to this old-school rocker. By the way, this was my first foray to the Lounge, a smaller room with impressive, clear sound, located to the left of the venue’s entry. What a great decision it was to put this show here and the other, more punk oriented bill in the main room.
Local three-piece Bangarang is the modern approximation of early-to-mid ’70s Mountain-ous (you know, Leslie West… Felix Pappalardi… Corky Laing) hard rock, filtered through ’80s SoCal punk. The group’s eight song set featured the five tracks from their recently released EP, SNACK TIME, including a raging jungle beast called “Jumanji,” which featured a cool breakdown, with Cory Crowell pounding out a brutal tribal beat. Other highlights were the thudding behemoth that is “Monsoon Tune” and the atmospheric “Egan’s Rats,” which put me in mind of those psychedelic freaks, NIL8. Guitarist John Loness holds an odd place within the musical structure of the band, as he – more often than not – adds chittering effects and weird little strands of rhythm rather than any kind of boisterous, balls-out lead or solo (even though he proved himself more than capable of those types of guitar heroics); when he does step out, it is always tasty and very much holding to the vibe of the song and the suitably heavy groove laid down by his bandmates, drummer Crowell and the lucidor-masked bassist Rubin Guerrios, who manages to be crushingly heavy and uncompromisingly funky at the same time. Loness, who is also the trio’s lead singer (the others provide some well-placed backing), has the perfect voice for the style of rock played by Bangarang and, though the final three songs were works-in-progress, presented as instrumentals waiting for lyrics, he still shied away from filling the lyrical void with over-the-top guitar parts… it just wouldn’t have made sense within the arrangements and would have been a distraction to what the band is attempting with their music; in fact, the first of the three instrumentals, called “Bangarang,” was more of an extended drum solo with minimal accompaniment from Guerrios and Loness. The three numbers, voiceless though they were, seemed to fit in well with what has come before and definitely bodes well for the next phase of Bangarang’s evolution; I, for one, can’t wait.
Doom and Disco (Fu Thorax; Henry Savage; Fu Thorax) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Doom and Disco, the second Saint Louis band of the evening, rather like their name, is somewhat of a paradoxical venture. The group performed as a duo, with a third member wandering the floor, unprepared to play. The band play classic riff-heavy metal at ear-bleeding volume; you know… the good stuff. Despite a count-in on virtually every song, everything sounded like it started in the middle and was over at least fifteen seconds before it ended. (Before continuing, I should point out here that the names listed are somewhat in dispute, as my best investigative efforts could only uncover one name associated with Doom and Disco, a guitarist/vocalist named Shalom Friss, the same person who gave me the band info for this review… plus, his Facebook profile looks suspiciously like the dude onstage.) Guitarist Henry Savage featured a beefy, bassy sound, while his vocals somehow reminded me of the legendary Lemmy Kilmister; skin-pounder Fu Thorax was merciless in his approach, reminding me of that wild-eyed family member who always looks like he just farted in the dip bowl while holding an internal running commentary on the social relevance of DUMB AND DUMBER TO. Doom and Disco’s musical selections included such blistering fare as “666 Death,” “Spaghetti Western,” “Savage Journey” and set closer, “Vengeance and Oblivion.” As a duo, the sound was heavy, oppressive and surprisingly full; I can only imagine what we would have heard if that third player HAD been on stage (I’m assuming that he would have played bass, which would have given their sound an even heavier vibe). Bottom line: Doom and Disco… whoever you are and however many of you there are, I hope to have the chance to see you again soon.
So… what does Salt Lake City’s Visigoth have in common with long standing bands like Iron Maiden, Raven, Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang, Witchfynde and Samson? Well, they may not hail from the United Kingdom, but they do hold the torch of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal high. The group has an epic sound, with lyrics retelling tales of legendary lore of castles and dragons and knights; vocally, Jake Rogers can wail like an earlier Briton, Rob Halford, while guitaristsLeeland Campana and Jamison Palmer deliver majestic dual leads, ala classic Maiden or Judas Priest. In short, Visigoth is the best kind of throwback band… with a studious knowledge of (and respect for) those who have gone before, paving the way for a new generation of head-banging musicians, yet talented enough to add their own metallic twists to the mix. Much of their set draws upon the group’s latest release, THE REVENANT KING, including the epic, Arthurian title track; “Dungeon Master,” the new Gamer Nerds National Anthem; “Mammoth Rider,” a mystical retelling of Hannibal’s legendary march into Italy astride elephants; and “Necropolis,” a killer Manila Road cover. The rhythm section of Mikey T on drums and Matt Brotherton on bass were rock solid throughout, laying down a massive foundation, allowing the guitars and vocals to weave their magical spells and minstrel tales of adventure. For me, one of the ultimate highlights of the brilliantly well-paced set was another cover, as the band reached back into their NWOBHM ancestry to offer “The Spell,” from Demon’s 1982 album, THE UNEXPECTED GUEST… a song, a band and a record virtually unknown in these here United States. With a new release on the horizon, Visigoth can only continue their upward trajectory. If you have the chance, do not sleep on the opportunity to see these guys live. Oh, yeah… I gotta give bonus points to Jamison Palmer for his Tank tee. Plus, additional bonus points to me for not using the words “sacked” or “sacking” anywhere in this review.
Night Demon (Dusty Squires; Armand John Anthony; Jarvis Leatherby) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
As much as I liked the under card, I was absolutely stoked for the main event. The Ventura, California trio, Night Demon, plays that classic Deep Purple brand of heavy rock, with more than just a dose of sinister Misfits style punk. They opened their setwith a blistering “Screams In the Night,” the lead track of the band’s debut full-length, CURSE OF THE DAMNED, with solid vocals from their sole original member, bassist Jarvis Leatherby; in fact, Leatherby’s vocals were on-point and – thankfully – upfront throughout the night. Along with his battery mate, drummer Dusty Squires, Jarvis also laid down a monstrously heavy bottom end… on a Flying V, no less. New(ish) guy Armand John Anthony more than held his own on guitar, with amazingly tight leads and smoking solos. The set was enhanced by oddly effective lighting, more so because they were supplied by the band’s merch guy from the front of the stage.
Night Demon (Jarvis Leatherby; Armand John Anthony; Dusty Squires) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The guys tore through a solid song list that included tales of fast cars, ages-old evils, modern day madmen and religious rites, both sacred and profane: “Road Racin’,” “Ancient Evil,” “Killer” and the centerpiece of the band’s live performances and their raison d’etre, “Chalice.” With an intensity rivaling the original Blue Cheer or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Night Demon took their place among the great power trios of hard rock and heavy metal, updating the model to represent, not only current musical trends, but also the grimmer, grimier aspects of our modern world. If I had to compare Armand’s six-string assault to a predecessor, I hear definite influences from Gillan-era Bernie Torme, the late, lamented Paul Samson and the guys from Maiden, particularly Adrian Smith… classic metal riffs laced with a speed and fluidity that few possess, all amply displayed on “Full Speed Ahead,” among others; it’s hard to pinpoint any one style in Leatherby’s vocals… his is a strong, forceful rock and roll voice that seems to be manufactured for exactly this style of heavy music; Squires is a rock-solid Ian Paice type of drummer, a brilliant timekeeper with the occasional flash of reckless abandonment. As the show built to its climax, from “Killer” into “Road Racin’” and into the moody, sombre “Chalice,” the trio was joined onstage by Rocky, the looming, leering personification of Poe’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, who bade all to “Drink from the chalice.” This theatrical cameo brought wild cheers from the (unfortunately) modest crowd, much like the Iron’s lumbering Eddie or the Misfits’ Fiend/Crimson Ghost used to back in the day. Rocky’s departure from the stage conjured the ultimate evil, as the band charged into the final number, “Satan.” Jarvis asked for the stage lights to be lowered and, upon learning that they were actually controlled by a wall switch by the stage, Visigoth’s Leeland jumped to the rescue, turning the lights off and on, creating a type of rhythmic lightning effect… a rather silly but somehow appropriate ending to a fun evening of live music.
Night Demon (Armand John Anthony and Jarvis Leatherby with Rocky; Rocky offers the Chalice; Dusty Squires) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
I was impressed by the professionalism of all of the bands (and their meager crews), as each went out of their way to ensure that I (and the entire room, really) had a great time. I had a brief interlude with Jarvis after the show and mentioned, rather offhandedly, that I wished the record companies would send out vinyl copies of their releases for review; he asked if I had a copy of CURSE OF THE DAMNED and, receiving my negative reply, walked over to the merch table and handed me a vinyl copy, saying, “Now you do, my friend.” I certainly wasn’t expecting that but, the gesture put me in mind of the way artists generally handled their business when I first got into this game more than twenty years ago. If I hadn’t been a fan before, I definitely was when I walked out of the venue with my brand new slab of orange vinyl!
Hello, fellow rockers… Dustin Gabel here to bring you my first concert review since my college days. A little background on my start: After graduating from Belleville Township High School East, I moved on to college at Belleville Area College (now known as Southwestern Illinois College or, SWIC) and secured a spot for a new section in the college paper, STUDENT OUTLOOK, doing concert reviews. That landed me next to some of the period’s most influential bands, like Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, Rob Zombie, Queensryche… once in awhile getting lucky enough to be given backstage passes. After college, I decided to go into the military which kept me occupied for 12 years, but I wanted to keep my foot in the door for doing concert reviews, live concert photography, and interviews; so, after a long wait, and some sorely missed opportunities to get back into the music scene… I am back! I do see that a lot has changed in the way public relations and publicity for bands is handled, but being in the photo pit for concerts still has that flavor I missed… being inches away from your favorite singers and band members, taking pictures. So without further ado, I bring you… THE DEMANUFACTURE TOUR starring Fear Factory, Soilwork, Spades and Blades and System Slave! Enjoy!
System Slave (Cody Golden, Chuck Guzman; Mike Messex, Stephen Harris) (photo credits: DUSTIN GABEL)
Opening the show was System Slave from Sullivan, Missouri. Barely on the music scene for a year since their start in January 2015, the five members came together to share a common goal: Writing music and, someday, taking their music to the world stage. To start building their fanbase, three songs were released on reverbnation.com while they worked on their album. Shortly after the release of the three songs, titled “Loaded,” “Last In Line” and “Lights In Seattle,” the track “Loaded” went on to win the best rock song in the Academia Awards. This will definately be a band that’s going to excel with it’s edgy, powerful, melodic style and with their first full length album due out later in 2016. When asked about what genre their music should be placed in, the answer was “REAL,” which is definately the truth! For being a relatively new band, I saw no signs of that at all. The members work really well together, with several different musical styles falling into place, delivering a live show that could easily be compared to bands that have been on the scene for much longer. System Slave definitely has that fluidity that you just don’t see in new bands who haven’t even recorded their first album!
Spades and Blades (Jason Todd; Tommy Jean Stiles) (photo credits: DUSTIN GABEL)
Next up was California act Spades And Blades. Formed in 2006, the founding members have actually been on the music scene since 2001, as a hardcore punk band named the Havoc; but, it was decided that they wanted to form something different, a heavier project with a new life. They definitely delivered that with style, with their mashup of metal, hardcore, and hard rock leading to a more melodic metalcore sound in 2013, with the release of their EP, PROUD TO BE LOUD. After completing a successful tour in 2015, the band played several local shows in Southern California to support the release of the album THE END IS NEAR in February, 2016. After ten years as a band, the music industry is finally taking notice of Spades and Blades and their progressive metalcore style as a force to be reckoned with. My first thought after they started their set, without knowing much of the band history prior to 2006, I saw a lot of Henry Rollins influence in the singer, and now, knowing more about their hardcore roots, it all fits in. Either way, if you are able to catch them out on tour, Spades and Blades is a band you won’t regret showing up early or staying late for!
The third band to take the stage was Soilwork from Sweden. Having arrived early, for a scheduled 3:00 PM interview with Bjorn “Speed” Strid, the group’s frontman, I was pumped up for the show and the chance to learn more about their music, methods of inspiration for their songs, influences, and Bjorn’s personal side. Unfortunately, due to a tour bus incident, Soilwork and Fear Factory were running a few hours late. Having formed in 1995, under the name Inferior Breed, they changed their name in 1996 to Soilwork, which means working from the ground up… which is what they have done despite the lineup changing several times, with Bjorn being the longest standing (and only original) member. As the singer stated, Soilwork is sounding better than ever and I can’t agree more! After their set, I was able to pull Bjorn aside for a few minutes to talk about the tour to support the new release, THE RIDE MAJESTIC. He stated they will be back in the area in the fall; hopefully, there are no incidents to make them run late again and I can deliver a solid, information-filled interview for you all to enjoy!
Fear Factory (Burton C Bell; Dino Cazares) (photo credits: DUSTIN GABEL)
Finally, the long awaited part of the show for many. Despite the tour bus mishap (a broken engine belt), putting them late for arrival at the venue but keeping in contact with the tour manager via text message, vocalist Burton C Bell had a direct quote for the anxious, waiting fans… “Sorry it’s gonna be a throw and go, but we’ll give ’em one hell of a show”. Having seen Fear Factory several times in the past with Sepultura, that promise was lived up to… just like I expected from Fear Factory! They never disappoint. While the stage hands were setting up their equipment, we were graced with the PURPLE RAIN soundtrack being played – as requested by the band – to honor the late musician, Prince. To hear every single person in Pop’s singing “Purple Rain” was a very emotional, respectful tribute as he has had a phenomonal impact on many musicians in across all genres. The music slowly faded out, lights dimmed, and here, finally, was the much awaited moment with Fear Factory taking the stage to support the twentieth anniversary of the release of DEMANUFACTURE, opening with the title track, tearing straight into “Self Bias Resistor,” followed by “Zero Signal,” “Replica,” “New Breed,” “Dog Day Sunrise,” “Body Hammer,” “H-K (Hunter-Killer),” “Pisschrist” and “A Therapy For Pain.” As the house lights came back on, fearing that was all of their set, the crowd started chanting for more. It paid off, as the house lights went back down and Fear Factory returned to belt out four more tracks, “Shock, “Soul Hacker,” “Regenerate,” finally ending the night with “Edgecrucher.” Burton stated he would deliver one hell of a show and that promise was lived up to with kickass double-bass, insane riffs, heavy bass lines, and lyrical slaughter as only Fear Factory can deliver!
(February 17, 2016; THE BALLROOM AT THE SHELDON CONCERT HALL, Saint Louis MO)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.