(KACHINA RECORDS; 2001; 2004)A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS
CINEMATIK (Neal Smith, Peter Catucci, Robert Mitchell) (photo credit: TONY LOEW)
Famed Alice Cooper percussionist Neal Smith has lent his name to many projects since the demise of that storied outfit some four-and-a-half decades ago – from the sublime (Billion Dollar Babies, Bouchard Dunaway and Smith) to the ridiculous (the big noise, hair metal of Ded Ringer) to the ridiculously sublime (Plasmatics and his own 1975 solo album, PLATINUM GOD). I’m not exactly sure where this project falls; it’s kind of a “musician’s project,” with textures generally unexplored in any of Neal’s other work. There are hints of the old Cooper sound, particularly a descending riff that spirals through “Temple Mental,” a tune from Cinematik’s eponymous debut. Much of Neal’s work on the trio’s two albums involves African and tribal percussion instruments rather than the standard “rock guy” drum kit that most of us associate with the “platinum God.”
Though there are touches of the old Neal Smith sound, much of the music is very… uh… cinematic. Neal’s bandmates, bassist/vocalist Peter Catucci and guitarist/vocalist Robert Mitchell, create an almost orchestral feel, allowing the understated percussion to flow through the (mostly) instrumental material of CINEMATIK and ONE FULL MOON AWAY, rather than drive the tunes forward. Occasionally, subtlety and power mean the same thing. That is never more evident than on the beautiful instrumental, “Awake,” a song from the first album. With Peter’s minimal use of the didgeridoo and his quietly throbbing bass and Neal’s less-is-more approach (on what sounds like either a tom-tom or a small hand drum and a tambourine) on the evocative Native American percussion, Robert weaves an elegant, slightly jazz-flavored guitar over, under, and through the tune leaving you spellbound. Peter’s didgeridoo comes to the fore a little more forcefully on the rather loopy, jazzy hip-hop of “Reckon Eyes.” Other high points of the first disc are “Nude Ellie,” the somehow transcendent “African Clay,” and the doom-heavy “Even In Sleep.” Peter Hickey guests on keyboards on “Nude Ellie” and “African Clay,” the latter of which also features a vocal performance by Maximillian Catucci; Grace Loew adds cello to the tune “Grace Beach.” I know that somebody somewhere is going to call the music of CINEMATIK “New Age.” If they do (or even if it looks like they’re thinking it), smack ’em! They deserve it (plus… they won’t hit ya back cuz they’re all peaceful and at one with self and universe… or some mumbo-jumbo crap like that)!
ONE FULL MOON AWAY pretty much picks up right where CINEMATIK left off, but tends to rock a bit more (maybe due to an unsolicited “New Age” tag-line haunting the guys from the first album). “Incognito” borders on rock and roll more than just about anything else on either release, with a “JAMES BOND” kinda vibe and the trio expanding their sound to include – among other things – a sax (provided by Klyph Johnson). Robert adds a little bit of Frippertronics-style guitar sound washes through-out the disc, all to good effect. This album also features more vocal tracks and more harmony and backing vocals than the first. Plus – inadvertent or homage – there are tracks that virtually scream “Alice Cooper!” The hypnotic “Million To One” is very reminiscent of “Halo of Flies.” In a slightly less chaotic fashion, of course. With Robert and Peter splitting lead vocal duties, I’m never quite sure who’s singing what, but I must say that one of the guys has definitely picked up a stylish Joe Walsh kind of phrasing, put to good use on “Unfrozen,” among others. The Native American percussion is back on a track called “Amorak,” but the over-all sound of the track is very spooky… a kind of swirling eddy of darkness. “Euriffodes” (sound it out and you’ll get the little inside joke) is an excuse for Neal to play a standard (if smaller than usual) drum-kit and for Robert to… ROCK OUT! The track is, possibly, the guys showing everybody that Steve Howe and Yes aren’t the only people who can pull off a song like this. Other high spots include the trippy “Murder In the Moon” and the percussion heavy Middle-Eastern fusion of the final track, “Simplas Childernz.” Peter adds the violin, clay flute, and berimbau to his instrumental onslaught, while guest players help to flesh out the sound: Grace Loew returns on cello, Rob Fraboni adds shaker to the goofy “Wolfman’s Holiday,” and Klyph Johnson is all over the place with his already noted sax work, as well as the occasional bassoon.
NEAL SMITH (photo credit: JIM SIATRAS)
Listening to the albums back-to-back, I’d have to give the nod to CINEMATIK on atmosphere alone, though the more up-tempo ONE FULL MOON AWAY definitely is worth obtaining, as well. It has been a while since these albums were released (they are copyrighted 2001 and 2002), and the three members have all gone on to other projects (most notably, Neal’s return to the rock arena with Joe Bouchard and Dennis Dunaway and Peter’s work on the Garrison Project album). However, the music that these three men make together is truly amazing. I, for one, am hoping for a third release from Cinematik.
The Oxford Coma (only one “m”) is a Phoenix three-piece (I suppose we could call them a “power trio”) that has alternately been described as “psychedelic anxiety rock” or “the world’s heaviest jam band.” Call them what you will… I rather prefer “math genius metal.” A few seconds into “Canadian Question Mark,” the opening cut of the self-released PARIS IS MINE, it is obvious (to these ears, anyway) that this is something exceptional. The song, a sort of progressive hard rock instrumental affair (if there are vocals, they are minimal and buried deep in the mix), features a nice mid-tempo groove, with oddly appealing dissonant guitars and a humongous, thudding bass. Though the guitars sometimes sound as if the track is about to explode in a flurry of speed, the rhythm section remains solid. On “Ritaling,” James Williams offers a very punk rock kind of a bass line, while the vocals and guitars have a distinct mid-’90s Kansas City sound (think Season To Risk). There’s a heavier-than-the-rest section with a certain Tony Iommi-like heaviness in Billy Tegethoff’s guitar; the second half of the tune is sort of creepy, with great atmospheric work from Tegethoff. “Daisies” is trippy and psychedelic, with a chukka-chukka kind of rhythm guitar thing and near-Residents like vocal outbursts (Tegethoff and Williams are both credited as vocalists, but who sings what isn‘t listed). Once again, the bass and drums (the latter supplied by Patrick Williams) border on minimalist, leaving the almighty riff to do most of the heavy lifting. This isn’t metal, but it is suffocatingly heavy and there’s a great wah-infused solo at the end that is hard to ignore.
The Oxford Coma (Billy Tegethoff, Patrick Williams, James Williams) (publicity photo)
“The Pulls” is propelled by heavier-than-thou bass and some understated (though still powerful) drumming, allowing for some excellent guitar and haunting vocals to hover just above the surface, giving the tune a demon-spawn sound akin to the offspring of some 1970s hard rock band and Stone Temple Pilots, circa their first three records. The next track, “Ados Watts Jam,” is exactly what the name implies: A jam. Clocking in at a robust ten-and-a-half minutes, the KC/Season To Risk comparisons find their way back into the conversation, with bullhorn vocals crawling just above the mix. There are also a couple of jazzy, Sabbath-esque breaks leading into the final, improvisational section of the tune, all of which proved to be quite entertaining. Even if the song doesn’t exactly fall into the “jam band” category, it is a stretch on the group’s standard song structure. The final track is well-known to rockers and blues aficionados the world over: “When the Levee Breaks,” The Oxford Coma’s version manages to out-heavy the Led Zeppelin version, with Patrick’s nearly ham-fisted Bonham-esque skin pounding and a massive guitar sound. This version is as far from Zeppelin’s version as their version was from the 1929 original by Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife, Memphis Minnie Lawlers. You can listen to (and purchase) PARIS IS MINE, as well as earlier releases, at the group’s Bandcamp page. You will not be disappointed! And, if you are… you need to acquire better taste in music.
Good Lord, talk about a long break between albums! It was way back in 1971 when Linda Hoyle released her debut, PIECE OF ME. Previously, she’d been in a band called Affinity. Now, 45 years later, we get THE FETCH, which is a reasonably… well, fetching collection of emotive, adult tunes about life and love and yearning. There’s a drowsy, late-night feel to tunes like “Cut and Run” and “Confessional” that can make you drift off to sleep if you’re just kinda lying around listening. The bass is a bit jazzy and the guitars somewhere between proggy and ambient; all instruments serve Hoyle’s mature voice, which has a warmth and sincerity to it that can pull you in if you are relaxed enough. At the same time, it’s not really that GRABBY, and Hoyle serves up a sound and aesthetic here that seem to come from a time now forgotten. I guess that is actually the case, and things FORGOTTEN are part of the subject matter here. “I sat beside a suicide whose love I sadly lost/Led a milkman’s horse to water as we slipped across the frost/Spent my youth researching meaning that was cheap at twice the cost” Hoyle sings in “Confessional,” as a litany of various memories floats by lyrically. It’s the sound of a woman who knows she has seen a lot of years, and yet is still moved by things.
“It’s the World” is one of the stronger tunes here, offering both violin and keyboards in its pleasing, almost jaunty arrangement. A mood of not-quite resignation permeates, and there is alcohol flowing in this music, methinks, although just enough to get through a bout of overthinking. Some of the sentiments can be unnerving. In the angst-ridden “Fortuna,” Hoyle sings: “There’s a formula for fate/She’ll just check out with your last chance/You try to fuck with a lady luck/She’ll offer you sand with a mocking hand/Spin on your heel and she’ll spin the wheel… ” And it’s followed by a reference to “lips older than death… ” Yikes. The imagery is strong but not the kind of thing you ever see on recordings by younger gals. This is the work of someone who has been around and has a few warnings for y’all. Hopefully with a benevolent spirit, though. “Snowy Night” is gentle and pretty and, “West of the Moon” is rhythmic, lyrically pleasing and strongly played and sung… definitely one of the more distinctive tracks here.
Linda Hoyle (uncredited photo)
“Earth and Stars” employs vocal effects, spacey minimalism and a proggy feel to take Hoyle somewhere quite different from the other tracks. It’s worth mentioning that Roger Dean designed the cover of this album, and various trademarks of the prog era are hinted at here and there. Hoyle is no ordinary singer/songwriter who has been hiding for decades in the confines of whatever life she leads. Clearly she KNOWS music and loves it. This track and some of the others reveal as much. And in the closing “Acknowledgments,” which features a church organ in beguiling manner, Hoyle sings the names of performers throughout music history that she has loved or been influenced by, after each series of names concluding “Always be a part of me.” Hoyle likely won’t join the heady company of the legends she names, and her sound and style are too limiting (maybe too LATE?) to reach any kind of mass audience. But she is able to touch the spirit with her sentiments and her clear emotional delivery. THE FETCH is one woman’s personal update of a life she’s known, many years after the events happened. It’s nostalgic, wise, and melancholy, and unerringly human in an era where cheap gimmicks and flashy technology tend to draw the most attention.
(February 4, 2016; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)
Pre-show stage set up (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
When you walk into a venue and see the amount of equipment, instruments and cases strewn over the room that met me when I arrived early at the Old Rock House, you can expect a few different things, including (but not limited to): First, a Chicago-like pop-candy type of band; two, a swingin’ wedding band doing sad, tarted up versions of sad, tarted up 1980s radio/MTV hits; or, three, a wicked tight rock and soul nine-piece with gloriously funky overtones. Yeah, I know that there are plenty of sadists out there wishing for a horrible wedding band evening to befall yours truly (and there are still a few masochists out there that think Chicago has made really good music over the past 35 years or so) but, thankfully, rock, soul, funk and more funk held sway on a rainy Thursday night in Saint Louis. The night was filled with funky bass lines, solid horn playing, great vocal work outs and blazing guitar. Oh, and some of the best drum and percussion work you are ever likely to hear in today’s sterilized and homogenized musical landscape.
Ghost-Note (Nate Werth; Sylvester Onyejiaka; Robert Searight) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The groove-heavy Ghost-Note opened the proceedings in… uh… cramped style; I actually feared for a couple of the players (as well asthe expensive equipment of both bands) as they navigated their way onto the crowded stage, which included the headliners’ massive lighting rig. This loose construct is the side project of Snarky Puppy percussionists Nate Werth and Robert “Sput” Searight, who were joined onstage by woodwind specialist Sylvester Onyejiaka, bassist AJ Brown and Nick Werth, who handled – after some programming and electrical issues – an instrument called the xylosynth. The sound can best be described as “dumping Terry Bozzio, Latin percussionist Coke Escovedo, Stanley Clarke (or, maybe, Victor Wooten) and Miles Davis into a blender and pouring the results onto a stage to perform.”
Ghost-Note (Robert Searight; AJ Brown; Nate Werth) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
As may be expected, with two percussionists at the helm, the sound is dictated by Sput’s powerful drumming and Nate’s inventive use of just about every other type of percussion instrument, both acoustic and electronc; this is borne out from the opening of the first number, “Ja-Make-Ya Dance,” an impressive workout which also featured a nice flute part from Onyejiaka. Highlights of the set included “Conversations,” a brilliant discussion of the symbiotic relationship between Werth, Searight and the perpetual groove; “Shrill Tones,” which prominently featured the funky bass of AJ Brown, who I would rate among the best on his instrument in any genre from any era; and a cool reconstruction of Bjork’s “Hyperballad.” There really isn’t a standard “melody” to any of Ghost-Note’s music; even Sylevester’s saxes and flutes have more of a percussive feel than a straight melody line that you can pin down and say, “Ah… there’s a nice melody.” In fact, and this may be something that only musicians will understand but, the melody is in the groove and it’s in the beat… and there was plenty of both on display on this night. Oh, yeah… did I mention? Cowbell! Lotsa cowbell! Beautiful, beautiful cowbell…
With Ghost-Note’s instruments and equipment removed, the stage opened up into a vast expanse, allowing the nine members of Turkuaz to perform in relative comfort. No, it didn’t… yeah, there was more room, but that extra room was taken up by the equipment and the bodies of four extra people. As with Ghost-Note, the small dimensions of the stage seemed to spur the headliners toward new musical heights rather than stifle the individual players. Back in the day, an ensemble such as Turkuaz would have been called a “rock and soul revue,” the kinda band you’d find backing legends like James Brown or Ike Turner; with some wicked jazz and funk riffs tossed in, the cool factor is heightened exponentially… imagine if George Duke and Earth Wind and Fire had a bunch of white babies. Those babies have been laying down some of the funkiest, dirtiest grooves you’re likely to hear this side of Sly and the Family Stone or George Clinton for the past half-a-decade, including the recently released DIGITONIUM.
Turkuaz (Josh Schwartz, Greg Sanderson; Chris Brouwers; Taylor Shell, Craig Brodhead) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Speaking of the Family Stone, on of the many highlights of the evening was a cover of that group’s 1973 album track, “Babies Makin’ Babies,” which featured Sammi Garett sharing lead vocals with Dave Brandwein and some funky mid-’70s Stevie Wonder-like keyboards from Craig Brodhead. DIGITONIUM was well represented in the set with the loopy, horny (sax players Josh Schwartz and Greg Sanderson and trumpeter Chris Brouwers, who does double duty, adding keyboard flourishes, as well) “Percy Thrills the Moondog,” the “Atomic Dog” groove of “The Generator” and the New Wavish “King Computer.” The group is definitely well-equipped to adapt to any situation on the fly, dropping numbers from the set and adding another that would be a better fit for the Saint Louis crowd; during sound-check, Brandwein and drummer Michelangelo Carubba tried out a new arrangement for “The Generator,” which led to them flipping the tune with the bouncy, Princely “Chatte Lunatique.” As there were some questions from the band about whether the different arrangement was going to work, I was surprised when the changes were introduced and, I must say, dopping “The Generator” down a spot certainly paid off, as it worked far better coming out of “Chatte… ” and into “Smarter Than the Speaker” than the original order would have. The sound took on a heavier, more rocking sound when Brodhead picked up a guitar, dropping in some wicked solos along the way… not that Brandwein was a slouch himself. Having made a passing mention of the band’s drummer, I should mention the uncompromisingly funky work of both Carubba and his partner-in-rhythm, Taylor Shell; even on more rock-infused songs like “Electric Habitat” and aforementioned “King Computer,” the innate funkiness of the duo came shining through. Shell (along with vocalists Garrett and Shira Elias), solid throughout, really stepped up the game on the set closer, a mean cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Every One’s a Winner.” Other highlights included the charging funk of “Coast To Coast” and the slow, soulful groove of “Future 86.” There was so much happening on stage and the players were all so insanely talented, it was truly hard to focus on any one person for any length of time; add the highly entertaining (and mostly drunk) bodies gyrating on the dancefloor and there was more than enough to keep both my eyes and my ears busy throughout the night… there’s fun and then there’s Fun. This night was Fun, from start to finish.
Things can change just like THAT. One day the reality is THIS, the next it is something very different. That is certainly the case with BLACKSTAR, the newest album from the (unexpectedly) late David Bowie. The narrative should have been (and clearly WAS for the early reviewers) that Bowie was back doing experimental stuff, returning to his glory days of the late ’70s, at least in terms of creative daring, and adding to the thrill of his “comeback” on 2013’s THE NEXT DAY with an even more classic, incredible album. The pioneering artist is back! He’s challenging us again! He’s made another boldly original statement! The tone of some early reviews of this record is painful to ponder now, and in some cases, even embarrassing. David Bowie has died. It was a huge, huge shock. It was anything but common knowledge how sick he was except perhaps to his family and a few close friends, so all of us waking up the morning of December 11 to hear the news were devastated. Bowie? The beautiful conceptual architect behind Ziggy Stardust? The “Thin White Duke”? The “Berlin trilogy”? GONE? Impossible. He was bigger than life, this man, an artist so entrenched in the full history of classic rock from the end of the ’60s to right now that a world without him seems unthinkable. It’s a world greatly reduced somehow, with a music industry wobbling in a more unstable manner. We NEEDED David Bowie… he represented the consummate rock icon, the master of disguises, the ultimate creative auteur who could control his image and take his audience on a wild, unpredictable ride. Bowie was HUGELY influential, often thrillingly weird and original, and the master manipulator of image, fashion, and the entirety of the “rock star game,” whatever that means. He shouldn’t be gone. We should have been better prepared… why didn’t he tell us he was so sick? Except, why SHOULD he? The amazing thing about BLACKSTAR is that it is an incredibly rare example of someone making a powerful artistic statement almost certainly KNOWING they are dying, laying down sounds and sentiments that are not often presented in such a choreographed, “this may be FAREWELL, folks” manner. But Bowie infuses this album with so much mystery, so many unanswered questions, that you hunger for more as you listen. You wonder whether he was suffering as he recorded these tracks… it’s known that he loved to work FAST, but was there added urgency because of his ill health? How much did he know about when the end would come? Were tracks like the title track and “Lazarus” intended as messages to his fans, perhaps intended to be comforting in the coming “after period,” or were they just his latest songs? We don’t know. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time producer and collaborator, simply said “Bowie did what he wanted to do; he’s always done that” in a recent interview. We don’t know all the things we’d like to know, that’s for sure. Bowie took many secrets to the grave. And the outpouring of grief has been steady since he died, from musicians of all stripes, fans around the world. Not David Bowie. Not HIM! He CAN’T be gone! But… he can be, and he is.
David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)
So, listening to BLACKSTAR now, knowing it’s the last album David Bowie made as the purposeful, visionary artist he’s always been, is an utterly haunting, unforgettable experience. It is a phenomenal album, one that ranks extremely high in the Bowie canon. A friend asked me if I would think so highly of the album if Bowie hadn’t died. Yes… I had heard two of the songs before the news came, and I was riveted. I heard something new, eerie and boldly experimental in those two tracks (including the long title cut) and couldn’t WAIT to hear the rest. What Bowie’s death does to the listening experience is mostly about adding layers of sadness, forcing you to hear a “last testament” in these grooves, a place that Bowie knew he was going to that his fans could not follow, a place he himself had never been. The back cover of the CD jacket, the disc itself and the pages of the insert booklet are all black, with some shadowy photographs inside and the lyrics and credits almost unreadable as they, too, are black. But despite the darkness permeating this entire presentation, the music is vividly, powerfully full of life and wonder. It’s beautiful stuff from start to finish, reminiscent of the Berlin trilogy in many ways, but a new, jazzier kind of experimentalism that represented a new direction for Bowie. The 10-minute opener finds Bowie singing a perfect fifth harmony with himself that is mesmerizing, building a LOW era-vibe that keeps expanding outward, taking you on a journey to an unknown destination. There’s a solemn, minor-key mood that unexpectedly changes after a few minutes to a major key, almost upbeat section that features some of Bowie’s most plaintive vocals EVER, giving chills at the originality of the music. Ironically, though, Bowie sings this widely quoted lyric here: “Something happened on the day he died/His spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/I’m a blackstar/I’m a blackstar.” The word “blackstar” appears throughout this track, along with curious star negations such as “I’m not a popstar… I’m not a gangstar… I’m not a film star,” always followed by “I’m a blackstar.” It’s overwhelmingly unsettling to learn that the term “blackstar” is an oft-used term in medical literature to refer to a kind of cancerous tumor due to its appearance under close examination. This is something missed by the early reviewers of the album… they were looking for a more cosmic, outer-spacey sort of meaning, and perhaps Bowie wanted that interpretation to be valid as well. After all, one panel of the sleeve does indeed show a starfield, with a particularly bright star in the lower left corner. Whatever Bowie meant we can only guess at, but I’m betting that the significance of the “blackstar” concept was very much on his mind as his mortality came more and more to the front and center of his reality, and he had to wrestle with it in his own unique way. It makes this very daring track impossible to forget; it’s a soundscape worthy of immersion on every level. Mark Guiliana’s drums on this track are worth singling out… he’s called upon to do some unusual things, and he matches and holds down the weirdness Bowie himself is putting down on multiple other instruments. “’Tis a Pity She’s A Whore” continues the thrilling art rock with riveting saxophone from Donny McCaslin, one of the musical stars of this record. There are echoes of HEROES, LOW and SCARY MONSTERS in what we get here, but McCaslin plays with atmospheric bravado in a way that Bowie must have been thrilled by. The song rocks, rolls and soars madly, and Bowie sounds like he is having a blast in the studio. On the other hand, “Lazarus,” a song made into a morbid, unforgettable video, is going to be regarded by most of us as some sort of epitaph. With squonking horns again and some of Bowie’s most impassioned singing, we get lyrics like these: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now… You know I’ll be free/Just like that Bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me.” How can fans NOT react emotionally to stuff like this? It’s simply impossible to separate the reality of Bowie’s passing from the immediate reality of what this track does. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is a snarling, frenzied rocker that would’ve almost been easy to enjoy for its madness and musicality except that Bowie yells out at one point “Sue… Good bye!” and then you have to deal with truth again. “Girl Love Me” is a pretty weird song, with the repeated refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?” (a question a lot of us probably ask from time to time, although more about OTHER days, I imagine) and it has an impatient, aggravated sense of ennui that is uniquely Bowie and his vocals reflect it. But the two closing tracks really KILL emotionally… that would be “Dollar Days,” an elegaic ballad and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” In the former, over a plodding rhythm and that McCaslin sax again, Bowie seems to be heading out right before our ears and his voice trails off over these lyrics: “I’m falling down/Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” That penultimate passage is just too much to take in light of reality, and someone is gonna shed tears if they bother to strain their eyes to read the black lyrics on the black page. Finally, in “I Can’t… ” Bowie gives us one last classic, a melodic, beautifully sung gem with a haunting refrain (that title), airy synth, and a band that is in absolute perfect lockstep with him. It sounds like the end of his story, frankly, and I can’t hear it without getting chills. “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent/I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY.” That title is in a larger point size in the lyrics… maybe it isn’t as significant as I think. Or, maybe, Bowie was clearly saying to us, “Some things have to remain a mystery. Figure it out yourself. I can’t spell out all my secrets for you.” Whatever the case, he left an astounding final musical statement. BLACKSTAR is a sad, haunting classic, a soundtrack to the final journey of one of the greatest musical adventurers and multi-media artists of all time. We won’t see the likes of the former David Jones ever again, and it’s fitting he went out with one of his greatest recordings. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty LOW that one of our most important musical HEROES is now a true starman in the great beyond. Bowie titled a recent career anthology NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Sadly, that’s not true at all. EVERYTHING has changed with his departure.
David Bowie (uncredited photo)
BILL WINER review:
I bought David Bowie’s new album, BLACKSTAR, the day it came out, on his 69th birthday. It’s haunting, adventurous, sonically beautiful… everything you would expect from him and more. Very different from his previous album, THE NEXT DAY, which was his first in ten years. I played BLACKSTAR all weekend, then found out Monday morning, he had passed away after a long battle with cancer. To say I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement. BLACKSTAR is such a wonderful album… now, it has turned into his swansong and his epitaph. The title song and “Lazarus” are the longest tracks and are haunting in every respect. I must also add that his backing band are New York Jazz musicians, including Donny McCaslin, who plays some of the most haunting saxophone I have ever heard on a pop or rock record. Mark Guiliana is a wonderful percussionist and is all over the place with great fills and superb drumming, adding to the sonic depth of the album. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is one of the best rockers on the album; two of the middle songs “Sue(Or In a Season of Crime)” and “Girl Loves Me” are very strange; “Dollar Days” is a great piano ballad. The real kicker is the last number, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which is Bowie saying goodbye with a wonderful song and he sings his heart out on it. I’ve seen some of the video for “Lazarus,” which is one of the most haunting and bizarre music videos ever. He sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and his body starts floating away. BLACKSTAR is a must have album and as good as anything he has done. The fact that, now, it becomes his swansong makes it even more important. As Bowie’s longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, said, “His death was no different than his life… a work of art.”
Koa display their Hip-Hop street cred at the Music Record Shop; Koa and their Saint Louis Contingent after the show (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
This evening started much like most others when the show is scheduled at the Demo or Ready Room: A visit to Rise for a cup of coffee, followed by a visit to Music Record Shop, conveniently located between the two venues. Walking into the MRS, I noticed a few young people milling about, obviously excited that Koa were being interviewed at the back of the store. Once the guys finished with one journalist, they were accosted by a second… me. The labors of our mutual work is at the top left of this review. The band were nearly as excited to see the kids as vice versa, labeling them “the Saint Louis contingent.” The youngsters were enthusiastic enough that guitarist Conor Kelly announced that they would be his guests for the show; when he was told that the group’s guest list was full, he paid for the extra tickets out of his own pocket. A class act that paid off with an appreciative, zealous group of fans at the front of the stage (and, later, onstage, for the group photo above, right).
The Driftaways (Zaq Nunley; Dane Wells; Nick Christie) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Local artists, the Driftaways, opened the festivities, with their Midwestern mash-up of Ska, Reggae and Dub. I happened to be talking to Koa bassist Ryan Ladd during the Driftaways’ sound check and commented on Nick Christie’s ability to coax that authentic, low rumble sound of Dub out of his bass… I wondered what kind of effects pedal he was using. Ryan told me that it was all Christie; he was using Ryan’s rig and he didn’t have any pedals. I was suitably impressed. From the Two-Tone Ska of originals like “Sun Shining” to their spot-on cover of the Wailers’ “Burn Down Babylon,” the six-piece group (trombonist Sean Myers was absent) offered a set that was, not only widely varied but, totally fun and engaging from the start. Guitarist Dane Wells (who serves double-duty as the band’s vocalist, as well) lays down some seriously wicked reverb-drenched roots-rockin’ leads and solos, particularly on the slow burn of “Creepin’.” Zaq Nunley, Dane’s sax-blowing counterpart, added a nice balance with his own leads, as well a series of quite inventive solos. But, as awesome as the other guys (including drummer Kevin Krauss and Ryan Stewart on keyboards) were, the set belonged to Christie and his spongy bass; his Dub riddim offered a strand of continuity throughout the genre-bending set. His talents were most prominently featured on a pair of instrumentals, “Golden Dub” and the band’s theme song, “Driftaway.” If you have a chance to see the Driftaways, don’t waste it… they will definitely put a smile on your face!
Koa (Conor Kelly; Will Youngclaus; Alex Mathews) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
On record, Koa are a funky, jazzysmooth sorta jam band with a definite hippy cast to their lyrics; live, they rough up their sound into a hard rockin’ funk monster. Asgood as the studio Koa sounds, it’s obvious that they are built for the stage; in fact, as guitarist Conor Kelly told me before the show, “ …the jam element kind of embellishes on the live performance… keeping things fresh by playing things a little bit differently every night.” It’s hard to believe that these guys have only been a band for barely two years. Chase Bader’s voice has a certain husky rasp that can carry a show; add Kelly’s slide work and you have a show and a sound that many older, more experienced bands can only dream about. The jazz-tinged “False Calls,” featuring a smoking Alex Mathewssax solo, kicked the set off in fine fashion. “What Now,” the first track from the group’s new EP, THIS IS KOA, followed.The new material has a more hard-edged sound that translates quite well in a live setting. Which could explain the fact that all five tracks from the EP (offered as a free download from NoiseTrade, which is where I discovered Koa) were featured in the band’s ten song set.
Koa (Ryan Ladd; Ryan Ladd, Chase Bader, Will Youngclaus; Chase Bader) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
“Unexpect Ability,” had a cool, punky Jam (as in, Paul Weller’s late ’70s trio) vibe, with a chimingguitar part from Kelly and solid rhythm work from both Ryan Ladd on bass and Will Youngclaus on drums; special guest, keyboardist Ian Miller, added some nice piano to the affair. Miller continued to impress on the Southern Soul groove of “Cool It Down,” which also featured one of Bader’s more impassioned vocals of the evening. The syncopated, nearly Caribbean rhythms of “Corbett’s Place” again allowed Youngclaus and his partner in percussion, Ryan McClanahan, to strut their stuff; Mathews also added to the song’s flavor with a double sax solo (duet?). The diversity of THIS IS KOA was perhaps best exhibited on “Gemini,” a kind of Country hoedown with power chords aplenty and a killer slide solo from Conor, as well as a sax part from Alex that kinda reminded me of Boots Randolph’s classic “Yakety Sax.”After the shortest of breaks, the guys returned to the stage (well, to be honest, they never actually left the stage… they just kinda stood at the back before heading back to their instruments) for an encore of the atmospheric “Turtles,” here transformed into a swirling stew of genre-bending jamming and heady solos from just about everyone on stage – a great way to end what was an exceptionally fun night with two groups of highly accomplished musicians.
Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)
Growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, Illinois as I did, it was hard enough finding a store that stocked the popular music of the day, much less the fringe releases I preferred, by such artists as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Captain Beefheart or Fireballet. The special order became a way of life for me, allowing me to be the only kid on my block to own the latest releases by Fanny or Osibisa or the odder-than-usual concept album, FLASH FEARLESS VERSUS THE ZORG WOMEN PARTS FIVE AND SIX; actually, I may have been the only kid on my block that wanted those albums… but, you get my point. Anyway, with all of that, the band Stackridge somehow slipped under my radar. Naturally, I was familiar with the name. After all, I could and did read a lot of music publications as a young impressionable pup (still can and do, as an old impressionable hound); it just seemed that there was always something that interested me more.
Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)
So, I said all of that so I could say this: I eventually did manage to get my grubby fingers on a Stackridge album – EXTRAVAGANZA, I believe – and I was hooked. I was ecstatic when England’s Angel Air Records began their painstakingly comprehensive reissue campaign of the band’s back catalog, along with a live album and a couple of collections peppered in among them. When I decided to get back into the review game, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was an interview with the two-headed beast that led and continue to lead Stackridge: James Warren and Andy Davis. In early 2014, I contacted their manager, supplied him with a few questions via e-mail and awaited a reply. Fast forward approximately ten months and, I am finally in receipt of answers from Mister Warren. Fast forward another couple of months and, with no reply from Mister Davis, the decision was made to move ahead with a revamped format, using James’ answers. Now, nearly a full two years since my initial request, here – so to speak – is the finished product. There are several questions and answers that allude to the 45th anniversary of the band and the chances of them recording another album of new material, as well as an extensive mention of the Korgis (the other band fronted by Andy and James) that may sound redundant, but please keep in mind that questions were posed and answers were given in 2014. Following the interview, we’re gonna delve into some of the best from both Stackridge and the Korgis, so stick around.
THE MULE: The original band got together in 1969, making this your 45th anniversary. The current line-up still features both of the primary songwriters and vocalists of the various incarnations of the group. Aside from the occasional break-up or vacation from each other, to what do you attribute the longevity of Stackridge?
JAMES:I think the longevity is due to the fact that the repertoire is so stimulating and diverse. It’s great to be able to perform songs as varied as “Fish In a Glass,” “Anyone For Tennis,” “The Road To Venezuela” and “Something About the Beatles” all in the same set. I’ve never been in any other musical combination that offers anything as fun or challenging.
THE MULE:Aside from Andy Davis and yourself, who is involved in the current version of Stackridge? Are the musicians – comparatively speaking – young guns or do you all enjoy a certain advanced… uh… musical acuity. Can we get a feel of the players’ musical pedigree?
JAMES:So, we have Glenn Tommey on keyboards – we’ve known Glenn since 1978. He’s a multi-instrumentalist but, when we met him, he was a recording engineer who worked on the first Korgis album and even sang backing vocals on “If I Had You,” a top twenty hit for the band in the UK. Clare Lindley is on violin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. We only met her around seven years ago but ,she’s a veteran of the folk and classical circuit. She’s from Aberdeen, in Scotland. Eddie John is on drums and has been a very well-known and respected player on the Bristol scene since the 1980s. Clare and Eddie are in their 40s, Glenn, myself and Andy have all made it beyond 60!
THE MULE:The last album of new material, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE, was released in 2009, after a long lay-off from recording. That album featured two more original members, Michael “Mutter” Slater and Jim “Crun” Walter. How did the album come about? How was it to work with Crun and Mutter in the studio again?
JAMES:The album was produced by Chris Hughes, original drummer with Adam and the Ants and producer of Tears For Fears and we recorded it at his home studio just outside of Bath. We’d known Chris for many years and the idea was suggested at a birthday party we were all attending. Because both Crun and Mutter had full-time day jobs and Mutter had the additional problem of living about 40 miles away from Bath, at least 75% of the work was performed by Andy and I. Crun is a lovely bloke but wildly eccentric, so creating music with him is never easy-going – he continually suggested completely perverse and off-the-wall ideas that we had to try then, inevitably, discard – and Mutter hardly participated at all except to sing his songs. So, it was a very different situation to how we worked together in the 1970s.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)
THE MULE:Did the Angel Air reissue program rekindle a kind of warm fuzzy spot for you regarding the group? Did it tempt you to reform some version of the band and get out on the boards and into the studio again? Have the reissues raised the public awareness of Stackridge, bringing along new fans? Or, is it just geezers like me looking to upgrade from that scratchy old vinyl?
JAMES:I think we never wanted to rule out the thought of a reformation. A handful of new fans have appeared but, to be honest, it’s essentially the “old guard” re-living their youth!
THE MULE:Can we expect to see new Stackridge music soon… or ever? If so, who will be involved in the project? Are you and Andy game to play with the “old guys” again?
JAMES:Sadly, I have to report that September 2015 will see the farewell tour of Stackridge. We’ve now pretty much exhausted the back catalogue in a live performance situation and it no longer makes any economic sense to record new material. There just isn’t sufficient demand for Stackridge music in the modern world! So, come and see us for the last time in 2015!
THE MULE:The group’s sound has always been the epitome of British “outsider” music, taking in bits of free jazz, traditional folk, Northern Soul, Beatles pop, the Incredible String Band and Frank Zappa. How have your musical tastes and influences changed over the years? When you are on holiday or have down time, what can we generally find you listening to?
Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)
JAMES:My wife, Clare, and I have sixteen year old twins, so when I do the school run in the mornings, me and the kids always listen to CD compilations of the latest top 20 hits – so I’m right up-to-date with contemporary pop! And I like a lot of it. Clean Bandit are one of my current favourites. I hate the typical middle-age attitude of only being able to appreciate the music you grew up with – I’m not sentimental about past musical eras in that way. I still adore and listen to the Beatles; don’t listen to the Incredibles any more, but THE HANGMAN’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER will always be a work of genius for me. I listen to a lot more classical and jazz these days. I’m especially fascinated by 20th century composers like Stravinsky, Ravel and Satie. One of my treasured possessions is a 22-CD box set of STRAVINSKY CONDUCTING STRAVINSKY.
THE MULE:Your fans were and are, if not legion, very loyal. What is the profile of the standard Stack-fan? Do they now tend to bring along the kiddies (or grand-kids), to introduce them to the music of their youth?
JAMES:Don’t think there is a standard profile – they come in all shapes and sizes. It’s rare to see youngsters in the audience, although there are a few. I know when I was a teenager I wouldn’t be seen dead going to a concert of music my parents were into!
THE MULE:Forty-five years in, what keeps bringing you back to Stackridge? Is it the musical intricacies, the fans or some other intangible?
JAMES:I can’t improve on the answer I gave to your first question. The Stackridge repertoire is so wonderfully diverse and challenging so it’s like a musical holiday to go out and perform that stuff.
THE MULE:Certainly, over the years – particularly the first run – you have released some great albums (FRIENDLINESS, THE MAN WITH THE BOWLER HAT) and some very memorable tunes. Do you have any favorites, individual tracks or full albums? How about least favorites? Are there some albums or tracks that you thought were great at the outset but have since come to loathe?
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
JAMES:The first album (STACKRIDGE) is a problem for me. I can’t listen to most of it any more. My singing is so fragile and under-confident, especially the falsetto bits and, most of the lyrics are painfully adolescent in a ridiculously self-indulgent sense. But, it was 1971 and I was only 20 so that explains a lot. I think there are some lovely tunes on FRIENDLINESS; the title track, “There Is No Refuge,” “Father Frankenstein,” “Lummy Days.” …BOWLER HAT still holds up well except for “To the Sun and Moon” (because of my singing). I think “Venezuela,” “Galloping Gaucho,” “Humiliation” and “Fundamentally Yours” are great. And “God Speed the Plough” is an absolute classic. I like almost all the tracks on EXTRAVAGANZA and MISTER MICK. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND I still love. It’s more whacky and harks back to the original Stackridge mainly due to my extensive collaboration with John Miller, an incredibly eccentric keyboard player full of brilliant unconventional ideas. Wish I hadn’t lost touch with him.
THE MULE:I think that my favorites probably mirror those of most fans: “Dora the Female Explorer,” “Slark,” “Syracuse the Elephant.” The list could go on but, for brevity’s sake, what are your memories regarding the writing and recording processes of these fan favorites? Were they kinda instant favorites or do you remember them slowly taking on a life of their own to eventually become essential?
JAMES:“Dora… ,” “Slark” and “Syracuse… ” were “first generation” Stackridge compositions. Andy and Crun had the basic ideas then we would rehearse and rehearse to hammer out the arrangements. It was tremendous fun. The FRIENDLINESS songs I contributed were pretty much already mapped-out before I introduced them to the band but, then again, with …BOWLER HAT and beyond we would work hard as a unit to make a finished track from one person’s basic idea. I think the “favourites” sounded special from the outset.
THE MULE:You are one of the few bands, aside from the Beatles, to boast a production job by Sir George Martin. What was it like to work with him? How much – before, during and after THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT – has his work been an influence to you, personally, and the band, as a whole?
Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:It was fantastic working with George. I’m happy to report he was as gentlemanly and effortlessly competent as one expected him to be. The …BOWLER HAT experience was very brief (about three weeks) but very intense. It’s a wonderful production. Even now I love and am influenced by his very simple but strong arrangement style.
THE MULE:Through the years, Andy and you have both worked on projects outside of Stackridge, both during the band’s heyday and following the original break-up. Did you use those instances – your solo album, Andy’s work on John Lennon’s IMAGINE, the Korgis, – to refresh the batteries, so to speak, or as a chance to branch out into something completely different from Stackridge? Can we expect to see something coming from either of you soon, outside of the usual Stackridge lunacy and the Korgis reunion gigs?
JAMES:Can’t speak for Andy but, our various alternative projects are, for me, both a refreshment process and an opportunity to investigate something completely different. I think Andy has been working on an album, whereas I’ve just been trying to come up with “coverable” commercial material.
THE MULE:Speaking of the Korgis, the other band that you have both been with since the beginning, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, as well. The Korgis have been called “the pop side of Stackridge.” How do you view the Korgis, in comparison to the “mother” group?
JAMES:The Korgis is a way of expressing a more distilled, “radio-friendly” type of songwriting. I’m quite excited by the prospect of performing that material live. It’ll be the first time we’ve done it and, you never know, the project might “have legs” and lead on to an interesting new path.
THE MULE:Over the years, you’ve been able to slip out of one band and into the other rather seamlessly. How much of that ability to switch gears has to do with the dynamics of and differences in the musical styles?
Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:We used to love the Kinks, the Hollies, 10CC – and it’s just easier to come up with and produce that kind of thing when it’s just the two of you, rather than having to take account of the whims and preferences of a whole band. Hence the need for the Korgis project.
THE MULE:A Korgis tour has been announced, the first in a while. Is it hard to get into a “Korgis state of mind” after such a long time off? What can fans expect to see from the Korgis as they celebrate their 35th anniversary?
JAMES:We’re about to start rehearsals, in January 2015. Basically we’ll be making the show up as we rehearse. But we’ll be aiming to provide an evening of dynamic and scintillating pure poptasticness!
THE MULE:Are there plans beyond this tour for more Korgis? A new album or more touring? Will you simply return to Stackridge to continue that group’s string of successful tours and live releases?
JAMES:As I mentioned above, we’ll be putting Stackridge to bed after September 2015. We’ll just have to see if there’s a public appetite for the Korgis. If there is, then I’m sure we’ll be inspired to record new material. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Thank you, James, for taking the time to fill us in on Stackridge, the Korgis and your plans for the future.
PART THREE: STACKRIDGE, ESSENTIALLY
When exploring adventurous music, it may be prudent to start with a “greatest hits” or “best of… ” collection. Even though most of Stackridge’s proper albums are definitely worth adding to your own personal collection, you may want to heed the above maxim and check out…
PURPLE SPACESHIPS OVER YATTON – BEST OF…
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2006)
The 2006 Angel Air Records release features fifteen essentials from four of the band’s first five releases (not even “Spin ‘Round the Room,” the single from EXTRAVAGANZA made the cut) and heralded in the label’s brilliant reissue program of the band’s catalog. The collection was reissued in 2008 as ANYONE FOR TENNIS?, part of Angel Air’s Sound and Vision series, coupled with a DVD of the band’s April 1, 2007 show (25 songs, the audio of which has also been released as a double CD called THE FORBIDDEN CITY… got all of that?). The only flaw with this release is the exclusion of one of Stackridge’s best known and most loved tunes, “Slark.” But, we’ll be addressing that one later. The accompanying booklet for PURPLE SPACESHIPS… features a fine essay from author Michael Heatley (as do the subsequent reissue titles), archival photos and complete lyrics. The music itself is chock full of just-left-of-center fan favorites like “Dora, the Female Explorer,” “Do the Stanley,” “Fish In a Glass,” “Syracuse the Elephant” and a rerecorded version of the title track (originally a non-album B-side to the “Slark” single), all magnificently remastered under the watchful eyes (hearful ears?) of James Warren and Andy Davis. Having listened to this impressive sampler (in one of its various forms or another), you will undoubtedly want to check out the original albums to hear the tunes in their natural habitat, so to speak. Of course, that is best accomplished by re-starting at the beginning with…
(MCA RECORDS; 1971)
In 1971, everyone wanted to be the Beatles. James, Andy and the other members of Stackridge were no different. Well… maybe they were a little different; they also wanted to be Frank Zappa… and Bob Dylan… and King Crimson… and the Incredible String Band. The quintet of progressive folkies (or is that folky progressives?) are out of the gate with what must be declared “an instant classic,” with nine tracks of mesmerizing pop and rambunctious rock, including at least four that should be required listening.
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
The album kicks off with the elegant, ambitious “Grande Piano,” which features a great bass part from Warren (original bassist Jim “Crun” Walter, by the time the band began recording, had opted for a more reasonable career as a bricklayer before returning to the fold for FRIENDLINESS) and a memorable – dare I say, “grand?” – piano part from Davis. “Dora the Female Explorer” is the only song on the debut album credited to the entire band; with it’s bouncing, reeling music – highlighted by Michael Evans’ violin – and oddly engaging vocal melody, the tune has stood the test of time as well as any of the tracks from STACKRIDGE. “Dora… ” is followed by the instrumental “Essence of Porphyry,” an eight minute piece with several distinct movements, all of them quite operatic in their scope (despite the lack of lyrics). Evans’ violin is again a featured instrument, along with Michael “Mutter” Slater’s flute. The entire affair has an air of Zappa about it, the final section a prog rocker’s dream, evoking RED-era Crimson and Brian Eno’s Roxy Music. The centerpiece of the album (if not the career) is “Slark,” a fourteen plus minute “monster” that plays beautifully off the theme and melody of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and led once again by Davis’ piano, Mutter’s flute and Evans’ violin. The lyrics suggest a lonely “monster” looking for acceptance and love but, being rejected because he isn’t like everyone else. The other tunes on STACKRIDGE are all pleasant progressive folk numbers, with just enough oddball charm and sweet melodies to make the album, in its entirety, indispensable. Angel Air’s reissue apends a stomping, rousing traditional reel called “Let There Be Lids,” a B-side from an unreleased 1973 single, as well as the single version of “Slark,” to the original album.
(MCA RECORDS; 1972)
As essential as the band’s debut is, it is, perhaps, their second release that offers the absolute best of what Stackridge aspired to be: A traditional English folk band with progressive and slightly loopy leanings. The opening track, “Lummy Days,” is rollicking, rolling sort of instrumental reel featuring some impressively heavy drumming from Billy Bent, now calling himself “Billy Sparkle.” What surely would have been a dancehall fixture in the early-to-mid 1920s, “Anyone For Tennis” shows the boys’ affinity for the oblique. At nearly nine minutes, “Syracuse the Elephant” would appear to be the band’s attempt to recreate the mini-operatic feel of the first album’s “Slark.” The tune, however, is a majestic piece of childlike progressivity, the tale of a forlorn elephant, raised in captivity and wanting nothing more than to live out his days in the company of his trainer, eating his favorite herbs.
The second side of the original album features such oddball fare as “Amazingly Agnes,” about a mule lamenting the fact that she is, in fact, a mule. That one is followed by the ballad, “Doctor Frankenstein Is Behind Your Pillow,” an apparent leftover from the first record, and the Beatles-esque rocker, “Keep On Clucking,” which features a killer backwards guitar solo from Crun toward the end. The final track, “Teatime,” would not sound out of place on Jethro Tull’s MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY or SONGS FROM THE WOODS; it starts as a rather pastoral madrigal before erupting in frenzied progressive blues, with Evans’ flute front and center throughout. The Angel Air reissue features the bonus tracks “Everyman,” the B-side to the “Flora, the Female Explorer” single; the chaotic, occasionally dissonant “Slark” B-side, the previously alluded to “Purple Spaceship Over Yatton,” one of the single greatest progressive tracks ever put to tape; the single-only release, “Do the Stanley,” a non-dancecraze inducing stomper, and it’s accompanying B-side, the beautiful, lilting “C’est La Vie.”
THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT
(MCA RECORDS; 1974)
The third Stackridge album, the intended title of which was THE ROAD TO VENEZUELA (and was renamed PINAFORE DAYS – with a very different track listing – for consumption in North America), was something of a dream come true for the sextet, as legendary (even then!) Beatles producer George Martin came on board (with engineer Geoff Emerick in tow) to lead the lads to new heights. The group was particularly disappointed with the sound quality of the first two records; along with Martin and Emerick came Sir George’s (such is his current title) state-of-the-art Air Studios in London and the sparkling, vibrant production quality and the brilliant arrangements and orchestrations that was nearly as important as the music on those highly revered Beatles sides. The difference is immediately heard, with the opening track, the poppy romp “Fundamentally Yours,” with Martin adding some well-placed piano.
As with the Beatles’ albums, Martin’s handprints are all over the remaining nine tracks of …BOWLER HAT, as well, adding piano here and there, bringing in orchestration elsewhere and generally giving the lads the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience in musical arrangements and production. The essential cuts include “Pinafore Days,” with its somehow Victorian sounding waltz and lyrics that would not seem out of place in a Monty Python sketch; released as a single in advance of the album, “The Galloping Guacho” opened side two, with a swirling calliope of carnival music that would not have been out of place on a late-period Beatles offering; the sparkling pop of “Dangerous Bacon” features a galloping drum pattern, a great guitar solo and a guest spot from Roxy Music’s sax man, Andy Mackay; a shot of Andy Davis whimsy, “The Indifferent Hedgehog,” leads into the majestically orchestrated instrumental, “God Speed the Plough,” which again highlights the flute of Mutter and violin of Mike Evans to great effect. Unfortunately, Martin’s involvement with …BOWLER HAT did not result in increased sales. Equally regrettable is the fact that the recording session seems to have included only the ten tracks featured here, as both singles from the period (the second was “Dangerous Bacon”), as well as their respective B-sides (“Fundamentally Yours” and “The Last Plimsoll”), come from the album; as a result, this is the first Angel Air reissue to not feature bonus material.
(THE ROCKET RECORD COMPANY; 1974)
With a move to Elton John’s new vanity label and Tony Ashton (late of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and a brief stint in Family) in tow as producer, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater (Mike Evans appears briefly, performing the solo on “The Volunteer”) introduced a radically reconfigured group to the stalwart Stackridge fans. Not that there was an appreciable change in the music, although, without James Warren’s charming compositional skills, Davis and Slater tended to lean toward the more cabaret-esque side of the Stackridge spectrum; the pair also seems to have abdicated their newly-minted leadership to Rod Bowkett, the band’s new keyboardist, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the record’s ten tracks. The album opens with Bowkett’s 1920s dancehall-styled single, “Spin ‘Round the Room.” Considering the prevailing musical climate in the United Kingdom, I find it virtually incomprehensible that neither this nor the pair of …BOWLER HAT singles were radio or chart hits. It isn’t until the third track, “The Volunteer,” that we here a song from Davis, one of three co-songwriting credits on EXTRAVAGANZA. The song moves between a somber waltz and a rollicking sort of reel, one of the very few tunes that harken back to the original Stackridgian joie de vivre.
Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
“Highbury Incident (Rainy July Morning)” follows, a jaunty little piece of Beatles-like pop written by Davis, Bowkett and Mutter, highlighted by rather Crimsonesque work (consider Ian McDonald’s work on IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING) from new woodwinds player Keith Gemmell. Side two of the original vinyl took a decidedly jazzy swerve into – cover your ears… uh… eyes, children, as I type that word that should never be typed – fusion territory with, incomprehensibly, three cuts out of four being instrumentals. Former King Crimson (there’s that name again!) bassist Gordon Haskell walked in the front door, dropping off “No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm,” the most progressive tune here (go figure, huh?), on his way out the back door, leaving the bass duties to Paul Karas, formerly of Rare Bird. The three instrumentals are adventurous but, aside from “Pocket Billiards,” sound out of place here. “Rufus T Firefly,” the side’s opening track, is mentioned here because… well… Groucho Marx! Like …BOWLER HAT, Angel Air’s reissue of EXTRAVAGANZA features no bonus material. The album isn’t terrible; it just doesn’t come off as a proper Stackridge record.
(THE ROCKET RCORDING COMPANY; 1976)
The fifth Stackridge full-length comes with an oddly familiar history behind it: Their record company didn’t like the concept and demanded changes be made. The record started life as a concept album, following the life of a cranky old man, with Mutter adding odd bits of dialogue – written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde – to move the story along. Rocket Records sent them back to the drawing board, basically telling the boys to “lose all this talking stuff, cut these songs and, by the way, where’s the single?” The resultant product looked and sounded quite different than the original, as did the band as Andy and Mutter welcomed back Crun Walter on the bass, with Keith Gemmell the only holdover from the EXTRAVAGANZA band; the lineup was completed with drummer Peter Van Hooke and former Greensalde member Dave Lawson adding synthesizer textures. As much as Stackridge had known a bit of success on the singles chart, it must have been quite humorous to be told, “We don’t hear a single. We need a single.” Another trip to the studio and the band had a single, a sort of Caribbean (or, if you rather, psuedo-Reggae) take on the Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight,” which was released several months before the MISTER MICK album. Rocket Records were immediately rewarded with a release that seemed to disappear from existence virtually before it was released due to a surging apathy for anything that could not be considered punk.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
The reorganized and partially rerecorded version of the album featured a sound that owed more to 10CC, than it did to any of the original Stackridge’s influences or, indeed, to any of the previous four Stackridge records. Having missed the mark (chart-wise) with the band’s Beatles cover, Rocket decided to cut their losses and open their version of MISTER MICK with “Hold Me Tight.” This version really isn’t too bad but, with the more standard progressive pop featured throughout the remaining nine cuts, sounds very much out of place. Possibly, the most adventurous piece on the album is the B-side to “Hold Me Tight,” “Breakfast With Werner Von Braun,” a holdover from the original sessions, which could best be described as a Bedouin waltz. The incongruities rear their ugly heads rather quickly, as “The Steam Radio Song” features the accompanying narrative thread (written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde and delivered by Mutter) from the original recording; as sequenced by the record company, this bit of dialogue shows up about four tracks too soon. While the official version of MISTER MICK has its flaws, there are still enough nice moments to make it listenable, including the original album’s opening track, “Hey! Good Looking” and the Beatles-esque “Fish In a Glass,” also from the original, Stackridge version of the record. The Angel Air reissue pairs the Rocket Records release with the original, rejected twelve track version, which previously saw release as THE ORIGINAL MISTER MICK in 2000. Comparisons prove there are now stunning differences between the two but, with only seven overlapping tunes, the double disc release gives you five previously unheard (or, at least, very rarely heard) tracks.
PART FOUR: THE KORGIS, COLLECTIVELY
The Korgis, Andy’s and James’ other band, like Stackridge, got the “best of” treatment from Angel Air, first with 2005’s KOLLECTION, which, like a lot of Angel Air releases showed up a little later on in a Sound and Vision version as SOMETHING ABOUT THE KORGIS (a demo called “Make a Fuss About Us” was replaced with a new version of the Stackridge tune “Something About the Beatles”). The recent release of a much different package called …BY APPOINTMENT weeds out a few of the lesser tracks from KOLLECTION and adds a few cuts from an acoustic release called – naturally – UNPLUGGED. For essential music from the Korgis, I humbly suggest…
THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2015)
After the MISTER MICK debacle, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater laid Stackridge to rest. Shortly thereafter, Andy and James Warren made nice and formed the Korgis, with violinist Stuart Gordon and keyboard player Phil Harrison along for the ride. The eponymous first album was released within two years of the demise of the mother band and garnered Warren and Davis something that had alluded them throughout the seven year career of Stackridge: An actual charting single… a hit, in the form of “If I Had You.”
The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)
The gently rocking “If I Had You” opens …BY APPOINTMENT, sounding for all the world like a George Harrison outtake. The group’s biggest hit, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” follows; the languorous lead single from the second Korgis album, DUMB WAITERS, hit number five in the UK and was Top 20 in the States. The next single, the Beach Boys-lite of “If It’s Alright With You Baby,” barely nudged its way into the British charts, the last release from the group to see any such action. THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT – by my calculations, the tenth compilation package from the group – features a mix of single releases and album tracks, rerecorded for this release, though a few are culled from 2005’s UNPLUGGED record; Andy and James are joined by long-time collaborator, John Baker. Highlights include the oddly appealing “True Life Confessions,” which is a bizarre combination of Mariachi horns, English pop and Caribbean percussion… truly an embracing of the “world music” vibe; a taught, tense “Lines,” from UNPLUGGED; the anthemic “One Life,” with its brilliant lead and harmony vocals, charging percussion track and massive organ leading the way.
The second half of the collection features “Mount Everest Sings the Blues,” a blast of old time rock ‘n’ roll and boogie-woogie; a beautiful, lush remake of “Something About the Beatles,” from the late-90s Warren-led Stackridge reunion (SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND also featured original members Crun Walter on bass and Michael Evans on violin); a cool version of the Korgis’ first single, “Young ‘n’ Russian,” from UNPLUGGED; a weird, faux-jazz Andy Davis tune called “Art School Annexe.” While the final half of …BY APPOINTMENT is more easy listening than the first half, overall, this is a solid introduction to the Korgis and their music.
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD, FINALLY
With Stackridge calling it a career and Angel Air Records reissuing the original albums (with plenty of bonus material), now is definitely the time to jump on this band’s wagon. As mentioned above, a great starting place is the “best of” collection, PURPLE SPACESHIP OVER YATTON but, you really can’t go wrong with the group’s original run of albums (STACKRIDGE through to MISTER MICK). Other recorded highlights from the band’s reformative years include SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND (1999), THE FORBIDDEN CITY (2008’s double CD of the group’s April Fool’s Day show from the previous year) and their final album, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE (2009). Any or all (as well as any of the Korgis collections – UNPLUGGED and …BY APPOINTMENT being personal favorites – and various James Warren and Andy Davis solo projects) are worthy of your attention.
UPDATE: Stackridge took their final bow in their hometown of Bristol on December 19, 2015. A film of that last show will be edited and released on DVD sometime in 2016. Of course, we know that – like comic book characters – rock bands never truly die and, sometime when we least expect it, Stackridge will mount another comeback. I’ll be waiting.
(July 22, 2015; HOLLYWOOD CASINO AMPHITHATRE, Saint Louis MO)
Two long standing musical icons have joined forces for a blockbuster summer tour, with Elvis Costello and the Imposters opening for Steely Dan. The music from both acts was a lot of fun and, considering we were in the midst of a hot, humid Midwest summer, the weather was great.
Elvis Costello (photo credit: MARY MCCARTNEY)
Elvis supplied an hour’s worth of hits from his long, impressive catalog with “Pump It Up,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Alison,” “Veronica” and “Every Day I Write the Book,” ending the set with one my favorite Costello tunes, the Nick Lowe penned “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” His long time band, the Imposters, featuring two former Attractions – drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve – alongside bassist Davey Faragher, kept things in motion. Actually I wish we could have heard a little more from Elvis and his Imposters but, sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.
Steely Dan (Walter Becker, Donald Fagen) (photo credit: DANNY CLINCH)
Watching Steely Dan is like visiting an old friend. The duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have a deep history with infectious, wonderful grooves and, on this tour, feature a great eleven-piece band backing them. Fagen reminded me of Ray Charles, sitting at the piano, with his shades and moving his head around. His partner-in-crime, the usually microphone-shy Becker, actually did a lot of the talking and, of course, played some great guitar. The hero of the show was the other guitar man, Jon Herington, who ripped off great solo after great solo all night. The set opened with “Black Cow,” from my favorite Steely Dan album, AJA, with the group delivering hits like “Peg,” “My Old School,” “Reeling In the Years,” as well as fan favorites like the slinky, funky “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More.” The ladies providing vocal accompaniment and the brass section were terrific and drummer Keith Carlock had the versatility to keep the grooves loose and fluid throughout.
Apparently just about everyone I know had seen Jeff Beck in concert except me. Beck, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, has gone long stretches in his storied career without touring extensively, but in the past few years he has come to Saint Louis several times, and finally, I had the opportunity to catch him. And, while I hardly needed any additional proof that he is a hall of fame axeman (past listens to BLOW BY BLOW and WIRED, as well as countless sessions for others made that abundantly clear), nothing quite encapsulates what a major talent can do like seeing them under optimal circumstances in a live setting. And that’s what Beck’s appearance at the Fox Theatre drove home: This guy is just amazing. Some legendary guitarists can be showoffs onstage, and I personally tend to get really bored listening to some well known stringmen merely show how many notes they can whip outta their guitar fluidly and energetically. Making it musically soulful and stirring, that’s what separates the legends from the showoffs. And Beck is a legend, through and through. He plays beautiful, clean melodies and runs that can soothe and serenade or rock your socks off. It’s always about melody and atmosphere with Beck; his innate sense of variety and tonal discipline makes the music rich and powerful. Having a crack band and superb sound enhanced the experience all night at the Fox.
Jeff Beck with Nicolas Meier, Australia 2014 (publicity photo)
Beck performed some well-known covers such as Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (one of a handful of songs performed with riveting style and sass by his vocalist and harp player, Jimmy Hall), Hendrix’s “Little Wing” (performed widely by so many artists but near definitive here), Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” (funky as hell), and a totally bewitching “A Day In The Life,” the Beatles classic that you wouldn’t think could be so mesmerizing as a slow instrumental, but it sure as shit is, as envisioned by Master Beck. The grace and melodicism Beck infused the song with at this show made for spine-tingling sonic bliss. So were some of the other slower, almost ambient numbers like Nicholas Meier’s “Yemin,” Nitin Sawhney’s “Nadia” and Beck’s own “You Never Know” and “Corpus Christi”. To be able to hear every note squeezed out of a guitar the way Beck does it, and get the sense that each of those notes MATTERS and is part of a crafted piece of tonal expression on a personal level, is something you hear and respond to, emotionally. Technique alone is not enough. You gotta have the heart and soul to really touch the listener, and that’s what Beck does so beautifully.
Jeff Beck, circa 2014 (Jonathan Joseph, Rhonda Smith, Nicolas Meier, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)
His band, including peerless female bass player Rhonda Smith, drummer Jonathan Joseph, and Nicolas Meier on textural guitar that provided a perfect complement to Beck’s electric mastery, was astonishing. Beck was generous in giving them all sublime moments, but the audience always knew just who was in charge. Some of the notable rousing numbers included Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “A Lotus On Irish Streams” (a thrilling band workout), Beck’s “Big Block,” the Lonnie Mack tune “Lonnie On the Move” (good showcase for the amazing Jimmy Hall) and the blues classic “Rollin’ and Tumblin,” during which the band hit one hell of a musical peak, with some of Beck’s most furiously energetic lead runs. For the encore, we were treated to a gently evocative “Danny Boy,” and, in one of Beck’s few utterances of the night, a tribute to the just deceased B.B. King, with “The Thrill is Gone.” Throughout, the sound was excellent, the band were superb, and Beck, smiling and smoothly brilliant, seemed to be having a fantastic time. Just what you want to see from a guitar hero, along with tasteful choices and a perfect balance to the performance. It was great stuff, and I came away with a far better appreciation of just what Master Beck is capable of, making it all seem so effortless.
To say that I was stoked to see Chui Wan, a young psychedelic band from Beijing, China, is something akin to an understatement. All it took was hearing one song from their self-titled second album and, I was hooked. The fact that some old friends, Tone Rodent, were on the bill, alongside the belligerently unhinged octet, Bug Chaser, was merely icing on an already perfect cake. Though, as a touring band, Chui Wan were the de facto headliner, the decision was made to slot them between the two local acts (a choice precipitated by the fact that drummer Li Zichao was using Tone Rodent Adam Dick’s kit; plus, bassist Matty Coonfield was pulling double duty, playing in both Saint Louis bands); to maintain a certain “you were there” sense of continuity, this review will start with Tone Rodent and end with Bug Chaser.
Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
At some point in the last decade and a half, I reviewed a Tone Rodent show (give me a break if I can’t remember specifics, huh? I’m old!). Here’s what I do remember: I liked them. So, now, all these years (or months or days or hours… whatever) later, I can unequivocally tell you this: I still like them. At this point, Adam Watkins (vocals and guitar) and Matty Coonfield (bass) are the only original members from that band I saw way back when; the current version – with guitarist Jeff Robtoy, keyboard player Mark Early and drummer Adam Dick – were playing what may have been their final show, as Adam Dick is calling it a day and Coonfield is leaving to direct his energies toward Bug Chaser. The band lumbered, rather than tore, through a shambolic 35 minute set that, aside from some minor technical issues was, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyable. Watkins and Robtoy complimented and played against each other (as the situation dictated) quite well and Early’s ambient drone added a depth that isn’t usually found in the noisy, hard-edged psychedelia at which Tone Rodent excel. Dick proved himself to be much more than a timekeeper, with precise fills and unexpected flourishes. And, as I’ve said too many times to count, there’s just something in the water supply that lifts Saint Louis bass players to another level; the style of music being played is irrelevant… once I hear that deep-in-the-pocket groove of the bass, I can almost always tell that the player has Saint Louis roots. Matty is no exception and is as solid and as funky as any bassist to come out of the Lou in the past three decades. Six songs into the set, Watkins said, “We have two more. After sixteen years, we’re down to two songs… and we plan to fuck both of ’em up.” The next tune sounded great but, as the group started “Amen,” Jeff’s guitar cord shorted out but, after much chiding from his bandmates and a save from a Bug Chaser, the final song from the current line-up of Tone Rodent was over, the notes ringing in the ears of the Monday night denizens of Off Broadway.
Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Okay… so this is where a little learnin’ may come in handy. To understand the importance of a group like Chui Wan, I think we should first understand a bit about where they come from. Beijing’s history traces back more than three millennia – under different names – and boasts such cultural and historic sites as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. As the cultural and political center of the People’s Republic of China, it has also been the scene of political unrest, revolution and protest: The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the infamous Gang of Four and, perhaps, the most famous societal event in recent history, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Beijing is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 20 million citizens packed into an area a little over 6,300 square miles (that comes out to something like 3,400 people per square mile… to paraphrase Cheap Trick, “That’s tight!”). That’s the background – the culture and the history – that informs the music and lives of Chui Wan, alongside a diverse musical landscape that includes, individually, Classical and traditional Chinese music, avant garde pioneer John Cage (himself influenced by Eastern music and the philosophy of the I CHING) and, the one major influence that all four members cite: The Velvet Underground. Now, imagine these four young musicians venturing forth into a very different Western culture… a culture where, especially in the United States, celebrity and money are more important than history and tradition; a culture that claims superiority and looks down upon the cultural and societal mores of someone – anyone – who doesn’t share our culture and beliefs… even when we’re on their home turf. Let’s face it… we are arrogant and shallow. So, it’s with that backdrop of major culture shock (not to mention the language barrier… WE expect these young people to be conversant in our language because… “Hey, we’re Americans. What makes you so special that you can’t even learn our language?”) that Chui Wan made their third appearance in the USA (Visa problems caused them a delay of about ten days and seven shows). And what an appearance it was!
Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
As bassist Wu Qiong began an intro riff that would make Tony Levin proud, all of those cultural differences didn’t matter anymore; all that mattered was the music. Though their sound is seemingly tight and structured, there is also a sense of the adventurous, the experimental. I immediately heard an Adrian Belew-era King Crimson influence (though I was assured that reference would have been lost on the quartet) – or to be more accurate, Fripp’s other, more improvisational group of the same period, the League of Gentlemen – as well the free-wheeling feel of some of the early 1970s (mostly) instrumental offerings from Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; there were also moments that had me nodding my head, thinking, “Now I get the John Cage reference.” Though many of the band’s compositions border on free-form jazz, it’s Liu Xinyu’s effects-heavy guitar and Li Zichao’s progressive drumming that garners the group its psychedelic label; the sounds Liu coaxes out of his instrument can best be described as “otherworldly,” and isn’t that a prime definition of psychedelic music? Yan Yulong adds atmospheric soundscapes on, not only guitar, but keyboard and – briefly (and very effectively) – viola, as well. Yan, who also supplies the majority of what vocals there are, delivers them in a nearly inaudible drone that further feeds the psychedelic miasma; Wu Qiong has one vocal, a quiet and – dare I say – humble performance that seems a much more comfortable match for her demeanor than is her spirited, funky bass playing. Maybe the most amazing aspect of the inspired (and inspiring) performance is the fact that the four are – literally – wunderkinds… all are in their very early 20s (drummer Li is barely 20) and have been playing – individually and collectively – since an early age (the band’s debut album, WHITE NIGHT, was released in 2012). Even if most of the Monday night denizens were unfamiliar with Chui Wan when they took the stage, after their set, I heard nothing but terms of reverential awe regarding what will long be remembered as a triumphal Saint Louis debut.
Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
After a prolonged delay, the eight-headed beast known as Bug Chaser took the stage. If Tone Rodent’s set was shambolic, then Bug Chaser’s could only be labeled chaotic, with Matty Coonfield reveling in the unbridled insanity. There were actual songs played but, naming them would merely be an exercise in futility… all you really need to know is that the band and the crowd were having too much fun to worry about things like song titles. The group was occasionally augmented and exhorted by a gentleman who originally appeared to be a drunken, overzealous fan but, as the set proceeded, seemed to be more of a well-placed prop, dancing and prancing behind the group one minute and playing the role of cocktail waitress the next. The tunes (noises?) ranged from boisterous boogie to raging rock to furious funk (see what I did there?), all delivered with a reckless abandon reminiscent of George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars at their most debauched. The percussive unit of Kevin Insinna and Taylor Huff (for I believe it was they of whom I speak) laid down a solid groove, where the notes they didn’t play were as important as the ones they did; their rhythm section inmate, Coonfield, pumped out bass riffs dense enough to caulk a large-scale bathroom at the Mall of America. Zeng Zengerling and Jake Jones are potent forces of guitar showmanship, sharing frantic leads and trading querulous solos over the expansive bottom end, which also included keyboard and effects work from Jake Bremler and Jeff White. Standing over all is the strutting vocal peacock, Pat Grosch, who reminds me of a younger, more boisterous Weird Al Yankovic… but with better hair. For a full-on sonic assault, you’ve gotta see these guys live… until then, check out some tunes at Bandcamp.