ADULT CINEMA: TEASER TRAILER

(ILLICIT RECORDINGS; 2016/vinyl reissue, 2018)

North London-born Mike Weston is Adult Cinema. It is Weston’s purpose – some would call it his destiny, considering his familial legacy and musical heritage – to tear down and rebuild classic Progressive Rock in his own thoroughly modern image. TEASER TRAILER is the debut record from Adult Cinema, recently re-released (to coincide with the release of album number two, THIS IS YOUR LIFE) on glorious vinyl. Mike handles virtually everything on the self-produced recording. This approach means that most everything sounds exactly as the artist heard it in his head while writing the album. Also, I’ve gotta tell you that, though the vinyl version is the latest, the track order reviewed here is actually the original CD version. And, so, after getting those pieces of technical info out of the way, let’s look at the music itself, shall we?

Feel Your Eyes” gets things off to a very nice start, with a general approximation of early Steely Dan, some Doobie Brothers vibes, a Brian Eno era kind of Roxy Music psuedo-prog and just a sniff of early Gilmour period Floyd. The song features some great guitar, bass and a Hammond organ owned (but not played here) by a certain Mister Winwood. Adding to the atmosphere is some quite nice piano and Weston’s laconic, somewhat breathy vocal performance. Much of this album was originally released on a self-titled promotional/demo record before TEASER TRAILER was unleashed upon the world-at-large. Such is the case with the next song (as well as the opening track). Here, “Flowers” is presented in what I must assume is either a re-recorded or remixed version parenthetically called “Fallout Version.” I like this tune so much that whatever Mike wants to call it is fine with me. The number starts out as a very nice acoustic thing for the first couple of minutes before heading deeply into a Floydian psychedelia, complete with very Syd-like vocals. The track continues to mutate with a great hard rock ending, putting one in mind of early Uriah Heep or Hawkwind. “Asleep At the Wheel” is very trippy, with another solid dose of spacey Hawkwind noises, not a tribute to Ray Benson. The tune features a great bassline, while the piano and organ are very prominent throughout. Guest performer Paul Nelson’s guitar has a rather metronomic quality to it, adding to the late ‘60s psychedelic vibe. “Dreamt the Other Night (Prog Version)” would not sound out of place on DARK SIDE OF THE MOON or WISH YOU WERE HERE. Acoustic based, the song features understated guitar, powerful bass and a nice, simple drum pattern. Short and sweet, “Dreamt… ” really pulls you in. The album’s first half ends with a dramatic, sorta Styxian shanty, “We Sailed Across the Ocean.” The multi-layered vocals reinforces the Styx reference. There’s a thumping, swirling break before the tune begins ramping up with a slightly heavier organ sound and a dive-bombing bass pattern. This heavier turn is very Deep Purplish, save for a far lighter guitar sound (which is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way). The twist and turns in styles, if not genres, make the track a personal favorite.

ADULT CINEMA (Mike Weston) (photo credit: KENT MATTHEWS)

Got To Prove Myself Today” features a far more powerful vocal approach than the previous cuts on the album, matching the heavy feel of the song. Nelson returns, with an intricate guitar weaving its way through the organ and above the massive bass and drums that underpin everything. It all gives way to an acoustic guitar and piano coda that drives home the tune’s intent. In sort of an English Folk meets Country way, “My Tangled Mind” is filled with a nice acoustic guitar lead, some solid bass, pretty vocals and some darned fine whistling. The beauty and simplicity does the memory of the Beatles and, in fact, the entire British Invasion sound quite proud. “Rowboat” is featured in two versions on the original 2016 CD of TEASER TRAILER. The first (and the one featured on the vinyl reissue) is the original. Trippy, watery machinations of Paul Nelson’s guitar and a lugubrious bass runs throughout the mostly instrumental tune. The vocals are purposely buried in the mix but, checking the lyric sheet, it would appear that the story revolves around a troubled individual who, apparently, has killed and disposed of someone in a watery grave. The second version, offered as a “bonus track” on the CD, is called the “Southend Version.” It’s definitely a heavier take, featuring some serious Hammond organ. The vocals and the number’s true meaning comes into finer focus on this longer version (more than two minutes are added to the original’s 3:47 running time). With the guitars, bass and drums pushed to the front, the studio trickery is gone until the end of the song. If I had to choose one version to listen to on repeat, it would most assuredly be the latter. “Witches” is a rollicking kind of Dancehall Jazz, with some nice period drums from Andy Russell, Nelson moving over to upright bass, a player piano and a traditional Jazz trio featuring Weston’s Dad, Tony, on clarinet. The piano coda from “Witches” wanders back in on “La La La La La,” a rolling kind of tune delivering the tune’s sole lyric, “La” over and over again. The birds chirp, the guitar dips in and out of the mix, cementing a rather pleasant end to what is a better than average album. Head on over to Mike Weston’s website to get a free download of TEASER TRAILER and, while you’re there, pick up a copy of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, too.


THE WHO/THE HILLBENDERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BROADSIDE: KING OF NOTHING

(VICTORY RECORDS 7” single; 2019)

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve listened to any Pop Punk music (at least, on purpose) and, granted, Broadside’s new single may be more Pop than Punk but… it’s a’ight. In a totally non-threatening, Radio Disney kinda way. Well… mostly.

BROADSIDE (Ollie Baxxter) (uncredited photo)

The edgier Punk tone of the A-side, “King of Nothing,” while weighted with the softer sounds that are all the trend with today’s Pop music, nonetheless does feature a cool guitar signature alongside some frenetic drumming. Now, to a rocker like me, that sentence would generally set off all kinds of alarms, with the robot from LOST IN SPACE flailing its arms and wailing, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!” and send me into an apoplectic frenzy searching for the off button (or, at the very least, the mute button ‘til I could figure out how to get the noises out of my head). And, of course, the tune could have been as disastrous as that, but the drums and guitar are definitely nice touches and Ollie Baxxter’s vocals and lyrics – the chorus warns, “Don’t pray for me/Don’t wait for me/I’m such a mess/I’ve lost all control” – have an urgency that sets “King of Nothing” apart from most of the current Pop radio fare. There are some nice – dare I say, fun – qualities, as well, making the song a rather nice introduction for the Radio Disney kids to the rough and tumble world of real music. And, it still has enough cool for the old school Pop Punk crowd to get behind.

BROADSIDE (Ollie Baxxter) (uncredited photo)

The opening twenty or so seconds of “Empty” had me flashing back to what is undoubtedly the worst Van Halen song ever written, Jump.” Don’t worry though, as the ship was quickly righted, as the keyboards aren’t as cloyingly saccharine and the lyrics are far better than that offered up by ol’ Diamond Dave; the drums are rock-steady and the guitars peek out from behind the clouds every once in awhile. While “Empty” is a couple of ticks below “King of Nothing,” it’s still a nice little diversion and quite listenable, falling more into the Aforementioned Radio Disney category than its brethren from the other side of the record. As songwriter/vocalist Ollie Baxxter relates, “I wanted to write a dance-y song making fun of how unfortunate it is to be in love, sometimes.” And so he has. Victory Records has announced that Broadside is working on a new full-length, scheduled for release next year; I’m not sure if this 7” single is intended as a preview of the album or if it’s just a stop-gap to hype the fans up for the group’s upcoming tour, opening for Set It Off. Either way, it’s certainly worth picking up at your local record shop.


VANILLA FUDGE

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

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

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

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


THE MIKE NESMITH AND MICKY DOLENZ SHOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MONKEES (Peter Tork) (video still)

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

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

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


VOK: IN THE DARK

(NETTWERK MUSIC GROUP; 2019)

There was a time about 15 or 16 years ago when everything coming out of Iceland or Scandinavia would excite the hell out of me. Bands were being written about like crazy by lovestruck American scribes including yours truly, and in those post-Bjork days groups like Sigur Ros, GusGus, the divine Mum, Ampop, Trabant, Mugison and many others had me at “Halló, þetta er okkur!” I craved hearing DIFFERENT sounds, DIFFERENT voices, anything that wasn’t predictable American formulaic stuff. And I falsely concluded that anything coming outta the Arctic Circle or thereabouts was gonna be thrill-tronica.

VOK (Einar Hrafin, Andri Mar, Margret Ran) (publicity photo)

Not quite, it turned out. Just ‘cause you have weirdness in your country with midnight suns or a month or two of darkness or the like, doesn’t mean you’re driven to make potently original music. Bland pop can come from anywhere. However, it wouldn’t be fair to call Iceland’s Vok bland. Take the fact they’re from Iceland, with the exceedingly high expectations I’m guilty of, out of the picture and you have an accomplished band with a good strong singer (Margrét Rán), a vibrant enough arsenal of peppy keyboard sounds and tons of production finesse, and you got yourself a more than listenable pop/rock platter. IN THE DARK won’t annoy you or your friends, not at all. But neither is it likely to make you scramble to the web to look up everything you can find about the band. They’re from Rekjavik. They started in 2013. Besides the serious-of-intent Ms Ran, the group sports saxophonist Andri Mar and the multi-instrumentalist Einar Hrafn. This is their second major release, and it’s a decent listen. I looked for details that stood out, and on the title track, onesuch is the tart way Ran sings the refrain “I better toughen up!” That last word comes out at a higher pitch than the previous words, and it gets you. So does this interesting, clearly sung verse: “A creature in the making/Is taking a shape/It’s a form that I’ve seen before/It feels so familiar/But still so rare/Wanna see it but it shakes me to the core.” That’s pretty evocative, and when you consider she’s likely singing about love, you know you got someone with some real artistry here. Guitars are muted, there’s a slow build going on that is refreshing… but it does feel like the sound itself is rather familiar. That impression is reinforced with tracks like “Night and Day” (marked by clean, cool ‘80s-retro keys) and the mid-tempo “Scarcity,” which sounds like, well, “Night and Day.” The first clutch of songs really have a sameness about them which, if you like female fronted synth-pop, you’ll probably enjoy. By the time you get to “Spend the Love,” a bit of ennui may be setting in, although I was grateful the chorus was “spend the love” instead of “spend the night.” Anything for a difference.

VOK (Einar Hrafin, Margret Ran, Andri Mar) (photo credit: SIGGA ELLA)

Fortunately, there are three stellar tracks on tap. “Round Two” begins with a bit of ominous keyboard, almost alien, then a lovelorn sonic dreamscape unfolds, with Ran’s voice mixed to maximize an edge of heart-piercing vulnerability. “Would you step away with me/And give me everything I wanted,” she sings, with just a hint of Bjorkian eccentricity. Her lyrics here actually remind me of Taylor Swift, but the murky “otherness” of the production kills that impression pretty quickly. The underlying shadows in this song make it a winner; so does Ran’s vocal. “No Direction” is the other mixtape-worthy number, starting with wordless singing and a handclap-emulating rhythmic element before one of the standout verses emerges: “The highway’s leading me the wrong direction/The silhouettes are dragging me down the road/The question is, where am I going?/Better find out than not knowing.” At least that’s what I think I heard, and it sounds an awful lot like my own life. So yeah, this is a nice, showy number. Some film director may get ahold of this one for a deeper than you expect romantic melodrama down the road. “I can wait another day for love” is the chorus line that’ll lodge in your memory, possibly. The surprise but short instrumental “Rooftop Views” is a bit of welcome respite, then we get another standout: “Fantasia.” This is probably the best song on the album, actually. It’s cool, classy melancholy all the way, with Ran’s voice in your face and bigger than life, yet intimate in that chilly Icelandic manner. There’s a minor-key beauty here, coupled with a true sense of purpose at painting a mood of romantic anguish. And this verse is killer: “It coulda been love from the start/We could have been home/Words are a game to you/The only thing you can control/I felt so lonely falling/We had put on a bad show/Too proud to let you know/Too proud to let it go.” Although one more step into production busy-ness could have deflated this one, they kinda get it just right… it’s angsty and musically captivating in about the right blend. If someone is gonna shed tears during Vok’s new release, it’ll be to this song.

VOK (Margret Ran, Einar Hrafin, Andri Mar) (publicity photo)

So it’s like this: IN THE DARK is a perfectly competent, listenable album with a way better than average chanteuse in charge of things. But in a country known for original sounds, it doesn’t break much ground. Ran was asked by an interviewer where their name “Vok” came from. Her response was, “It’s one of those words used to describe something, and it has no equivalent in English.” Most of the sounds on this record have PLENTY of equivalents in the English-speaking world. That doesn’t make it bad, not at all. Just not truly intoxicating except for a song or two.


TOR LUNDVALL: A STRANGENESS IN MOTION: EARLY POP RECORDINGS 1989-1999

(DAIS RECORDS; 2019)

Sometimes an artist can be quite prolific without most folks knowing who they are. That seems to be the case with Tor Lundvall, an East Hampton based electronica auteur whose largely ambient works tend to be limited editions. He was on a label called Strange Fortune from 2004-2006, where I first heard his evocative works LAST LIGHT and EMPTY CITY, the latter a perfectly satisfying dark-ish ambient platter that worked fine as immersive mood music. Lundvall has categorized his own music as “ghost ambient,” which, while not an official sub-genre in most texts I have read, sums it up tidily. Before the Strange Fortune years, he released a series of seasons-themed platters (something not unsurprisingly common in ambient circles) such as THE MIST and UNDER THE SHADOWS OF TREES. Lundvall is an introspective observer of nature, it seems, and woodlands, fields and changing weather informs his sound rather pervasively. Works for me, as I am a total ambient freak.

TOR LUNDVALL in Washington DC, 1990 (uncredited photo)

Now, however, in one of several retrospective collections he has put out (a couple being very limited-edition box sets), he’s gone back to his youthful coffers to gather up the material that comprises A STRANGENESS IN MOTION: EARLY POP RECORDINGS 1989-1999. This does not qualify as ambient, although the evocative and tonally rich keyboards Lundvall plays could certainly serve it up, and HAVE on later recordings. But we get vocals throughout, and unless you’re Elizabeth Fraser or that guy who sang on a track on Eno/Budd’s classic THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR, or any number of nameless ethereal female vocalists who’ve spruced up more heavenly music-style outings than I could name, you don’t get invited to the “Ambient Party.” What Lundvall was doing in yonder years was essentially synth pop, music with two or three well-known IDM type beats, simple but atmospheric keyboard sounds generally mixed upfront, and soft but clear vocals.

TOR LUNDVALL in the studio, 1994 (uncredited photo)

Original One” comes right out of the speakers with a four-on-the-floor dancey beat and a rather distracting male vocal occasionally barking something unintelligible. No lyrics, but… no “ambience” in the classic manor, either. But it’s kinda fun. “Procession Day” is better, centered around a lovely descending minor fourth interval and an airy Lundvall vocal: “From my window, leaves are turning/From my window, I watch the changing world,” he sings, and there are plenty of casual observations like that throughout the remaining tracks. This is genuinely pleasant, however, and may remind you of classic Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. “The Clearing” features dual vocal tracks, one virtually whispered, the other a gentle, higher-register vocal that, when occurring in tandem with the other, creates a hypnotic effect. There are three or four different keyboard elements in the mix, so Lundvall was clearly already a master of light electronica, and he has too much serious intent to let any of this approach the shallow side of the electronica pool. That said, much of this music sounds like standard ‘80s synth-pop, something that many of us were listening to in colleges and clubs at the time. “The Melting Hour” has a rather driving rhythm that recalls early Echo and the Bunnymen (Lundvall’s sweet lead vocal sounds like a lyric he sings, “haunted by dreams”), and “Watched” is rather hypnotic in its purposeful airy pop sound, even if you get the sense that this kind of music was and still is being made by any competent electronica musician with the right computer setup.

As the album progresses, though, you realize you are hearing an artist that loves getting lost in the music. “Hidden” has a 1-2-2-1 keyboard phrase that repeats over and over, effectively, while Lundvall’s shy, boy-ish vocal seems to hover between the background and the foreground. There’s a kind of hazy allure to this track that leaves a lasting impression. “The Night Watch” is even better, a cumulatively mesmerizing song offering more of those evocative lyrics: “I see a tree sitting on the field/The twisted limbs, its leaves conceal/The small dark birds fly against the sky/Along the black streets, the shadows try… ” I let this one play three times. “Lessons That Kill” offers bright, pinging electronics that call the French duo Air to mind, and convey a sense of underlying drama that would have made for a fine instrumental. There is a cool shift in the main melody just after the two-minute mark. Lundvall does sing again, though, and the vocals don’t really command attention, even though they are pleasant enough. The closing “August Rain” features cool, fizzy keyboards in the foreground and a dreamlike, half-whispered vocal firmly in the background. The effect is like lucid dreaming… are you fully awake in reality or not? And how important is it to you to even KNOW what the lyrics are saying? These final few tracks raise that question.

TOR LUNDVALL, 2016 (publicity photo)

Ironically, even though this isn’t a Tor Lundvall ambient release, it would sound pretty good in the background at a social event. I can’t imagine this soft, pop-tronica style really bothering anyone. Lundvall has focus and clarity in his music; you could tell he was thinking things over, and trying to direct his sonic assembly to do his artistic bidding. His later work may be more entrancing to those of us into the ambient immersion thing, but A STRANGENESS IN MOTION… , while not particularly “strange” by my reckoning, does showcase an artist making strides towards a promising musical destiny.


BE BOP DELUXE: POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE… INTRODUCING BE BOP DELUXE

(EMI RECORDS/CAPITOL RECORDS; 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

So, it’s somewhere around the middle part of 1977 and I’m in the “I’ll buy virtually anything that ain’t disco or Country and Western music” mode that typified my life for several regrettable years (with wisdom and age, I’ve repented/recovered from that dark period, except for the disco… that’ll always suck!). While deciding on which 8 to 10 albums to buy on this particular day, I came across a two record set (one full-length album, one 12″ EP) with a striking black and white cover – a still from the classic silent German flick, METROPOLIS. The price was right, so I was soon the proud owner of LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE by something called Be Bop Deluxe. I’d seen a couple of studio albums by the group, of course, but I just could not get behind that name (or the inexplicably hideous cover art or… perhaps it was a deep-seeded fear of Jazz music, another of my quirky phobias of that bygone era)! But, great googley-moogley, chil’uns! When I dropped the needle on side one, track one (“Life In the Air Age”), my brain nearly exploded! This was great stuff… incredible stuff. “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape.” “Fair Exchange.” “Piece of Mine.” “Maid In Heaven.” These were absolutely magnificent slabs of sonic beauty, propelled by the lush, orchestral guitar style of Bill Nelson, the mad genius behind the quartet’s sound.

It was a VERY long time before I came into contact with another Be Bop Deluxe record (though I did purchase a couple of great imports by the then-solo Bill Nelson) – in fact, the band only managed one more album, DRASTIC PLASTIC, before packing it in. Now, a band of which Nelson says, “I don’t think about Be Bop Deluxe as often as fans of the band might presume,” is given its due with this 18-track “Best of… ” package alongside re-issues of the original five studio albums and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (all with bonus tracks, naturally). Does it sound dated? Not as much as you’d think! In fact, I could think of a few current artists who would be regarded as the next big thing if they had recorded this stuff in the past couple of years.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1974 (Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, Ian Parkin, Bill Nelson, Robert Bryan) (photo credit: MICK ROCK)

This 18 track collection starts with the title song of the very first Be Bop Deluxe album. “Axe Victim” is rather a lost gem, full of the lyrical wryness and imagery that became a main-stay of not only this band, but of all of Bill Nelson’s subsequent projects (solo or with the group Red Noise). Of course, the benchmarks of Be Bop Deluxe were always Nelson’s guitar work and the solid interplay between the four men (on AXE VICTIM, Nelson was joined by guitarist/organist Ian Parkin, drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, and bassist/vocalist Robert Bryan). The second track, also from that debut, “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape,” is fueled by Nelson’s ingenious arrangement (and a smoking guitar solo). The tune would later be retooled for the second version of the band, turning it into an almost orchestral live masterpiece.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia) (uncredited photo)

The band’s second album, 1975’s FUTURAMA, introduces drummer Simon Andrew David Fox and bassist Charlie Tumahai, with Nelson exerting his dominance on all fronts: all lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards are performed by him; all songwriting and arrangements are by him. FUTURAMA is the most well-represented release on POSTCARDS… , with four tracks (“Stage Whispers,” “Sister Seagull,” “Jean Cocteau,” and the wickedly cool “Maid In Heaven”). The wisdom of adding Tumahai and Fox is evident from the first notes of the charging train wreck that is “Stage Whispers.” The funky calypso break merely adds to the insanity, and – if I haven’t mentioned it yet, Bill Nelson can play that guitar thing! “Maid In Heaven” follows. Like “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape” and the song that follows, “Sister Seagull,” this tune became a live staple, taking on a new feel with the addition of Simon “Andy” Clark on keys. Speaking of “Sister Seagull,” again the guitars and the arrangement sets Nelson and Be Bop Deluxe apart from most acts of that time (or, for that matter, most acts that have followed in the 30 years since its release). The final track from FUTURAMA is a jazzy homage to “Jean Cocteau.” The song is a major departure for the group, but the trio show that they are more than capable of pulling off such a change of pace.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Charlie Tumahia, Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (photo credit: JOHN THORNTON)

By the time of the band’s third record, SUNBURST FINISH, Clark was well ensconced on keyboards. His impact is immediately felt on another live staple (and quite possibly the one song that you may have heard on the radio at some point), “Fair Exchange.” The interplay between guitarist and keyboardist on this track is a good example of the direction that the band was headed. Plus, it’s just a darn good song! “Ships In the Night” builds on the slightly Caribbean feel that was first explored during the break in “Stage Whispers.” The keyboards are, by turns, grandiose and whimsical… not an easy feat in the same song! “Blazing Apostles” re-introduces us to Bill Nelson, guitar hero. During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Nelson goes from metal crunch to jazzy runs to strident funk to fleet-fingered progressive solos.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia, Simon Fox) (publicity photo)

The group’s second release of 1976 (and fourth, over-all), MODERN MUSIC, finds the revitalized quartet performing as a more cohesive unit, though it is still quite obvious that Nelson is pulling all of the strings. “Kiss of Light” could have (should have) been a big hit back then; it would probably be a big hit if it were to be released today, with its rather staccato vocal delivery, especially on the chorus. The title track is as laid-back as Be Bop Deluxe ever got, with a lilting, slightly bluesy sound. “Twilight Capers” continues the orchestral approach that was adopted on the previous record, with guitars and keyboards ebbing and swelling throughout, leading to a short Jazz-inflected guitar solo at the outro. This is the band and the musical vision that Nelson took on the road, with the tour that eventually produced the amazing LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (uncredited photo)

And this is where the continuity of this release comes into question: The single tune from the live album, “Life In the Air Age,” the title track, if you will, does not follow “Twilight Capers.” Three songs from the group’s final release, DRASTIC PLASTIC, is wedged between the MODERN MUSIC and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE tracks. The tunes – “Electrical Language,” “Possession,” and “Islands of the Dead” – are fine songs, but it is very obvious that Nelson was tiring of Be Bop Deluxe and guitar-driven rock music. “Electrical Language” is powered more by the vocal performances than by guitar (or keyboards), while “Islands of the Dead” is a rather thoughtful, mostly acoustic piece. “Possession,” of the three, is the closest to what fans had come to expect from Be Bop Deluxe’s grand wizard of the nicely turned phrase (of both word and fretboard).

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Andrew Clark) (photo ourtesy: GAB ARCHIVES/REDFERNS)

“Life In the Air Age,” a track from SUNBURST FINISH, bears witness to just how great this group was as a live unit. The song itself is a progressive pop masterpiece and the band certainly prove their mettle in bringing it to life on stage. As good as they were in the studio, the fact that they were able to improve on those studio versions is a testament to the combined talents of the four musicians, and the arranging acumen of Bill Nelson, in particular. The final two tracks of the package brings it full circle (another continuity issue), with both the A and B sides of the first Be Bop Deluxe single, the independently produced and released “Teenage Archangel” and an early version of “Jets At Dawn,” a tune re-recorded for AXE VICTIM. The A side is, actually, a fairly standard sounding teenage-angst pop song. The B side, however, clocks in at nearly seven minutes and features some of the most exquisite guitar on this package. I just wish that the single tracks would have been sequenced as the lead tracks on this package, even though they were tack-on, bonus cuts for this version of POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE. Ah, well… you can’t have everything, but you can have a fairly comprehensive Be Bop Deluxe primer to hold you over until the proposed box set that Bill Nelson is reportedly working on.

BE BOP DELUXE (Bill Nelson, on stage November 1976) (uncredited photo)

UPDATE: Bill Nelson’s eight-disc box set, THE PRACTICE OF EVERY DAY LIFE: CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF RECORDINGS was finally released in 2011, featuring 34 choice cuts from the Be Bop Deluxe era. Aside form various compilations and reissues, Nelson continues to set a furious pace, releasing no less than four albums of new music this year alone. The last,DYNAMOS AND TREMOLOS is half synth-pop, half guitar rock, all instrumental.


4U: A SYMPHONIC CELEBRATION OF PRINCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


NEIL YOUNG/JOHN HAMMOND

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

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

NEIL YOUNG (photo credit: THRASHER)

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

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

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

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

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

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