IT WAS FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY… A LOOK BACK AT THE MUSIC OF THE SUMMER OF LOVE

The Summer of Love (San Francisco, 1967) (photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE ARCHIVES)

The Summer of Love (San Francisco, 1967) (photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE ARCHIVES)

It’s hard to believe that this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called “Summer of Love,” highlighted by a major explosion of influential rock acts, mind-expanding music and… oh, yeah!… there was that landmark Beatles album, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. 1967 was a watershed year for music; a year which saw the release of several important debut albums and a slew of downright great rock ‘n’ roll records.

Big Brother and the Holding Company (James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Janis Joplin, Dave Getz, Peter Albin) (publicity photo) Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan) (photo credit: HERB GREENE)

Big Brother and the Holding Company (James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Janis Joplin, Dave Getz, Peter Albin) (publicity photo) Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan) (photo credit: HERB GREENE)

The Doors’ first album came out early in the year, along with another important first step in the psychedelic movement, as SURREALISTIC PILLOW by the Jefferson Airplane, Grace Slick’s debut with the band. The Grateful Dead followed with their first album about a month later. At the same time, the Godfathers (and Godmother) of punk and alternative rock hit the ground running with the Velvet Underground’s opening salvo. Janis Joplin got some attention as the new singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, while a former US Army paratrooper, ex-pat who also played a little guitar released his first album, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, as front man of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Beatles came out with their magnum opus, SERGEANT PEPPER’S… on the first day of June; while they were recording what many consider the greatest album of all time, a band called the Pink Floyd were also working at Abbey Road Studios, just down the hall from the Fab Four, on their first album, Syd Barrett’s psychedelic masterpiece, THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN. Late in the year, Cream, Traffic, Buffalo Springfield and the Who gave us still more great music (in the forms of DISRAELI GEARS, MISTER FANTASY, BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD AGAIN and THE WHO SELL OUT, respectively). The Monkees, the Beatles, the Turtles, Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops and Lulu all hit the top of the singles charts with unforgettable tunes throughout the year. The year 1967 was, indeed, a watershed year for pop music and the year that rock and roll grew up, expanding musical limits and young minds the world over.

PINNACLE

THE BEATLES: SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND

SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND; The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (publicity photo)

SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND; The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (publicity photo)

Obviously, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND is the standard by which all music released in 1967 (and, in fact, in the fifty years since) is measured. The album was a big surprise when it came out… lots of folks actually thought the Beatles might be breaking up because they hadn’t released anything new since February, with the single “Strawberry Fields Forever” (and, their last album, REVOLVER, hit the streets nearly a year earlier, in early August, 1966). Ironically, the John Lennon-penned “Strawberry Fields… ,” the very first song the Lads worked on for the album, didn’t even make the final cut. SERGEANT PEPPER’S was a true product of the great working relationship between the Beatles and their producer, George Martin, who took the band’s brilliant pop songs and grandiose ideas, molded them into a cohesive orchestral whole and just made everything work… beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The record’s last track, “A Day In the Life,” was immediately recognized as one of the Beatles’ best and most important songs; Lennon’s dreamy vocals at the start are still as haunting as ever and Paul McCartney’s amazing bass playing stands out, as it does throughout the entire album. Over the past fifty years, the Fab Four’s eighth full-length is as well known for the amazing cover by artist Peter Blake as for the thirteen tracks found within the sleeve; the songs, the performances, the production and the visuals all gelled to make SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND the single most memorable moment in the annals of not only popular music, but popular culture as a whole. Rock and roll and pop music would never be the same; the rock medium, in particular, would move away from looking at an album as merely a collection of singles to a well thought-out, cohesive set of songs, sequenced to be enjoyed in its entirety. I was just thirteen years old when the record came out and, even after five decades, I still appreciate and still enjoy all the great music that came from that “Summer of Love.”

TOP OF THE POPS: FIVE ALBUMS THAT CHANGED THE LANDSCAPE OF POP MUSIC

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: SURREALISTIC PILLOW

SURREALISTIC PILLOW; Jefferson Airplane (Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin) (uncredited photo)

SURREALISTIC PILLOW; Jefferson Airplane (Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin) (uncredited photo)

First and foremost, Jefferson Airplane’s SURREALISTIC PILLOW, their first with former Great Society singer Grace Slick, proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that a woman could rock the house down with the seminal Society leftovers, “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” Grace quickly ascended to become one of, if not THE premier rock vocalists of her time. With Slick on board, the Airplane were quite successful, both commercially and critically, for several years, while “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” have become radio standards. Jefferson Airplane became one of the symbols of a new era in rock music with the psychedelic folk of SURREALISTIC PILLOW. I still enjoy listening to it.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO; The Velvet Underground (Nico, Andy Warhol, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale) (publicity photo)

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO; The Velvet Underground (Nico, Andy Warhol, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale) (publicity photo)

The Velvet Underground’s debut – “produced” by Andy Warhol and featuring (at Warhol’s behest) Teutonic femme fatale, Nico – didn’t really hit me until years later, but the record’s influence was very important to many of the groups that I got into in subsequent years. The original group – Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen (Mo) Tucker and Sterling Morrison – took quite a different approach to the commercial rock scene; their avant-garde sound, highlighted by great playing became the cornerstone that indie and alternative rock would build upon in the years since. As is often said, it may not have sold many copies, but everybody that heard it wanted to start a band; were the true alternative to pop music and started an underground rock movement that continues to reverberate throughout the music world.

THE DOORS: THE DOORS

THE DOORS; The Doors (Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Jim Morrison) (photo copyright: JOEL BRODSKY)

THE DOORS; The Doors (Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Jim Morrison) (photo copyright: JOEL BRODSKY)

Another band that dabbled in the darker side of the musical spectrum was the Doors, perhaps darker even than the Velvets. Of course, the quartet’s first album featured the classic rock fixture, “Light My Fire,” which propelled a tragic rock god, Jim Morrison, into a larger-than-life cult figure, but it was songs like the eleven-and-a-half minute epic, “The End,” that truly defined the band. Eight months later, the group’s second record, STRANGE DAYS, cemented Morrison’s shamanistic standing with “People Are Strange,” the evil intent of Moonlight Drive,” “Love Me Two Times” and another dark epic, “When the Music’s Over.” My favorite Doors album is actually MORRISON HOTEL from a couple of years later, but the groundwork was definitely laid on their classic first album.

THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: ARE YOU EXPERIENCED

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED; The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell) (publicity photo)

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED; The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell) (publicity photo)

Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding hit big with their debut record, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, though I didn’t get into Hendrix until a few years later. Jimi took the world by storm, becoming rock’s big guitar hero, virtually supplanting England’s rock gods, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, soaring to ever greater heights in a meteoric four year career. Tragically, Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, along with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones all passed on within a couple of years of each other (between July 1969 and July 1971), becoming the first “official” members of what would come to be known as popular music’s “27 Club.”

PINK FLOYD: THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN; Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters) (photo credit: ALAIN DISTER PHOTOSHOT)

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN; Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters) (photo credit: ALAIN DISTER PHOTOSHOT)

Finally, we have the first record from the Syd Barett-led Pink Floyd, THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, a group and an album that was the impetus for the Progressive Rock movement, which would spawn such acts as King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, among others down the road. Oddly enough, the Floyd were recording their debut down the hall at Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles were producing their masterpiece. SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND was inspired by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS album which, in turn, was inspired by the Beatles’ own RUBBER SOUL. How much did what John, Paul, George and Ringo were doing in that neighboring studio inspire Syd, Roger, Rick and Nick? That’s what made the music of the era so memorable… groups and artists could no longer afford to stand on their laurels, they were continually pushed by others to up their game, to progress and change. For fifty years (and counting), that has been the lasting legacy of SERGEANT PEPPER’S… .


RED JASPER: 777

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2016)

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Hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW – relatively speaking, anyway… before that January 2015 album, the band’s previous release was 1997’s ANAGRAMARY – comes the seventh and latest chapter of the progressively-inclined Red Jasper, called 777. Like its predecessor, the record is a gently rocking progressive affair… kinda like latter-day Genesis or early Gentle Giant, with just enough bite to keep the more hard rock-inclined among us happy (not to mention some Marillion-esque keyboard work and some very tasty guitar from time to time). 777 is sort of a sequel to the Clive Barker-inspired …SECRET SHOW, with the lyrics once again exploring the very personal religious imagery from that release; as vocalist David Clifford writes in his liner notes, “777 is described as the antithesis of 666.” The first track is called “7” and it has a definite Marillion feel, though without the harsh, powerful vocals of Derek Dick (better known as Fish) or even the smoother pop stylings of Steve Hogarth. Clifford hangs around the upper registers, sort of somewhere around Geddy Lee’s mid-period Rush stuff, while avoiding the nasally proclivities of that stalwart. “Nothing To Believe” features a galloping bass line from Jim Thornton and really cool multi-tracked and harmony riffing from guitarist Robin Harrison. The lyrics document the struggles of youth and, finally, rising above the chaos and dismay with the chorus, “That life has gone/But my life will carry on.” Bonus points to newish drummer Florin Werner for his indiscreet use of the cowbell throughout the tune. Shifting from a demented waltz to a punky, charging hard rock affair, the schizophrenic “She Waits” offers a little something for everybody, including a completely unhinged Harrison solo and more words-per-square-inch than most tunes. “Forth of Fife” could very easily be considered either an homage or a flat-out rip of the Genesis classic “Firth of Fifth.” It has so many like elements that it’s hard not to compare the two: Lloyd George’s amazing keyboard work, particularly the solo piano; a flute part that may or may not be another George keyboard creation (no mention of a flute appears anywhere in the album credits); more stellar fretwork from Harrison; a melody line that is quite reminiscent of the Genesis tune. Given all of these similarities, it wouldn’t be too difficult to consider “Forth of Fife” a musical parody of an iconic piece of progressive rock. Thankfully, the tune stands on its own, as the nods to the previous work manage to weave themselves into the songs original fabric, allowing the words and music to tell their own story, live in their own reality. The most forceful track thus far, “The Gathering” features all of the hallmarks of a great progressive number, falling somewhere between classic Yes and a more metallic Rush. The rhythm section, in particular, puts a little extra punch into their parts – Thornton’s bass moves from Chris Squire’s melodic picking style to something akin to Tony Levin’s fluid stick thumps, while Werner falls just south of the percussive overload created by Neal Peart. Even at eight-and-a-half minutes, the song never lagged and, in fact, seemed to end far sooner than I expected. Again, bonus points to the other three Jaspers, with amazing work turned in by Clifford, George and Harrison.

Red Jasper (Jon Thornton, Robin Harrison, David Clifford, Lloyd George, Florin Werner) (uncredited photo)

Red Jasper (Jon Thornton, Robin Harrison, David Clifford, Lloyd George, Florin Werner) (uncredited photo)

Reaching Out” begins with a lone, chiming guitar before developing into a really cool psuedo-’60s Folk-pop sort of affair. The addition of an “arena rock” keyboard solo (it reminds me of something Ken Hensley may have played during Uriah Heep’s heyday; David Byron called it the “Moog simplifier”), which could have rendered the song cheesy beyond repair, actually enhances the overall vibe. More late ’60s guitar highlights “Blessed With Gold,” a track that is equal parts “California Dreamin’,” Lordian (as in, Deep Purple’s Jon) keyboard bombast, Middle Eastern melodies and a certain “Arrh, matey” nautical theme. “Dragonfly” is a gauzy, pastoral number, with elegant fretwork from Harrison and keyboard washes from George. However, though Clifford’s ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS lyrics lend a child-like charm to the tune, it’s Werner’s percussive restraint and Thornton’s rather lilting bassline that really make the song work for me. It seems as though these Jaspers got most of their hard rocking tendencies out of their systems in the first half of 777, as “Paradise Folly” continues the Fairport Convention/English Folk sound prevalent on the second half. Another beautiful guitar solo from Harrison highlights the proceedings. “October and April” is listed as a bonus track. It’s a stripped-down cover of an obscure song by an even more obscure Finnish group called the Rasmus. Clifford duets with his daughter, Soheila, with brilliant accompaniment by Red Jasper’s original guitarist, Tony Heath, on a number that kinda reminds me of a Celtic version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” A nice, if rather light, end to an unassuming record that sort of sneaks up on you… before you realize what’s happening, your toes are a-tappin’ and you’re having a quietly good time with one of England’s best secret weapons of progressive music.


BILLY SHERWOOD: CITIZEN

(Frontiers Music; 2015)

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Billy Sherwood seems to be a guy who doesn’t rattle easily. A guy who can step in and handle enormous responsibilities without flinching. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he stepped in to some pretty big shoes, and helped a struggling Jon Anderson-fronted Yes continue their journey on both record and stage. Sherwood’s a big part of the sound on OPEN YOUR EYES and THE LADDER, both underrated. While releasing a series of solo albums and guesting on records all over the place, both proggy and not, Sherwood became a kind of go-to guy when a band needed not just a multi-instrumentalist, but an experienced engineer. Chris Squire, the legendary Yes bassist who succumbed to leukemia last year, initially picked Sherwood to replace him on bass for a huge 2015 Yes tour that Squire knew he couldn’t participate in. That’s no small thing and Sherwood, by all accounts, jumped in ready to go. But then, Squire left this mortal coil, and now, well, we have to assume Sherwood will continue with Yes, and might even be the point man for a brand new phase, one that none of us can anticipate yet. The guy is a fantastic, versatile musician, and he’s earned good karma a-plenty.

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Which brings us to CITIZEN, surprisingly Sherwood’s seventh or eighth solo album since 1999. It’s a solid platter, with appearances by Yes members both past and present, and the last song recorded by Chris Squire (he appears on the opening track, “The Citizen”). There’s a familiarity about the sound that you can’t deny, and it wouldn’t be fair to even think in terms of “Yes-lite” or something. These are muscular, strong compositions, and why not use musicians of the caliber of YES men such as Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman and Geoff Downes if you can? This is still a Sherwood album through and through, and he sings most of the lead vocals. Among standout tracks: “No Man’s Land,” a fizzy prog confection that alternates between memorably processed lead vocals, Yes-like harmonies, and a confidently anchored arrangement. “Age of the Atom” is a stirring piece that has a descending chord progression, a hooky chorus and some zippy keyboard playing… this one definitely sticks in the ear. By the way, this and “The Great Depression” may bring another progressive behemoth to mind – Genesis. Sherwood sounds a tad like Peter Gabriel at times, and it’s worth mentioning that Steve Hackett from that band is also featured on the record (on “Man and the Machine”). “Trail of Tears” is a tune Gabriel would love… it echoes his aesthetic about indigenous peoples and the subject matter definitely takes on the famed Native American death march of the 1800s. Some very airy, charming synth work is an interesting sonic counterpoint to the theme, and you can just enjoy this track musically without worrying about the history lesson. It’s really good, plain and simple. The aptly named “Escape Velocity” is suffused with Yes DNA… if you just heard this playing, especially during the chorus, you would guess it was likely the real YES, an unfamiliar track perhaps. This is really spirited stuff, and you will swear you can hear Squire on that chorus and bass (though it’s really Billy showing the world why he was Chris’ handpicked successor). Anyway, this is one of the album’s highlights. The ending really kicks ass. And so does the ending of the entire disc, “Written In the Centuries,” which finds current Yes lead singer Jon Davison outfront on vocals. Nice, tight harmonies, chiming guitars, mystical lyrics, tempo changes… why, YES, peeps, you’ll recognize this sound! But somehow it’s also… different. Fresh. It’s the Billy Sherwood approach to prog, and it’s plenty meaty!

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

The album has a story line, by the way, something about a lost soul being reincarnated into different historical periods. There’s a song about Galileo (featuring vocals from XTC’s Colin Moulding) and all sorts of references you’ll have fun trying to catch. But you don’t HAVE to know the theme or decipher the lyrics to appreciate this album. There’s a majesty about a lot of this stuff that shows the pedigree of the players. There are melodies, no song is all that long, and the sonics are nicely balanced between what all Yes fans might expect and fresher elements that Billy Sherwood, a thoughtful musician, took care to weave into the compositions. This CITIZEN is a reliable one indeed, and deserves to take its rightful place in the ever evolving community of Yes and related prog-dom. Nice job, Billy boy. I hope your pal Chris got to hear most of this before he said goodbye.


JOHN LODGE: 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO

(Esoteric Antenna; 2015)

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I’m rather late coming to this one, which is odd because I am a big Moody Blues fan. I think the Moodys are one of the most underrated (at least by official organizations) bands of all time, and in particular, I think Justin Hayward is an incredible singer/songwriter that deserves some kind of special creative inspiration award for the way he transformed the Moodys from an average ’60s pop band to an incredibly evocative, haunting poetic soft prog band. In fact, there is a new film out about the significance of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST in the annals of rock music. Okay, there were others involved in that process, but… it was mostly Justin. However, this review is supposed to be about John Lodge. His second solo disc is titled 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO, and it begs the question, as solo outings always do, what interesting things did John have to share with us that could not fit into the confines of the Moodys’ work? Well, maybe that’s not fair – a parent band generally has a signature sound that everyone contributes to; solo albums allow the “lesser” members to do something where they are in control. John Lodge is a vital part of the Moody Blues, and his collaborations with Justin Hayward have made for some of the best music of all time, up to and including their peerless 1975 BLUE JAYS outing. But vocally, he certainly takes a back seat to Justin’s emotive singing. That said, if you cue up the tune “Simply Magic,” you’ll not only get an acoustic charmer of a tune, you’ll get three Moody Blues – as Ray Thomas and Mike Pinder, both of whom left the band after their heyday, make guest appearances. It’s a breezy little tune. I didn’t respond much to “In My Mind” and “Get Me Out of Here,” both of which struck me as rather bland. Somewhat better is the violin and accordion-laden “Love Passed Me By,” a snappy little supper club tune that sounds like John Lodge making music far apart from his homies. He seems really engaged in this track. One thing, though… after years of making poetic, innovative music with his bros Justin Hayward and Graeme Edge, couldn’t Lodge come up with better lyrics than “Love passed me by/When you said goodbye/For another guy/Gone was the chance/Of our romance/When you said goodbye/Now as I lay in my cold and lonely room/It’s the day love passed me by.” C’mon, John, you were involved in tunes like “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Ride My Seesaw,” and “Question”… you’re gonna tell me that sophisticated comps like that didn’t raise the stakes for ya? Most is forgiven with the out and out rock & roll of “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” which is a ton of fun and might be as loose as Lodge has ever sounded in a recording studio. “Lose Your Love” is quite yucky, and Lodge doesn’t have an interesting enough voice or approach to pull off the bland lyrics and overly familiar subject matter here. The closing title track seems like an attempt to utilize some aspects of the Moodys’ sound in a solo context, and while it has a little bit of grandeur and definite forward motion, I couldn’t help wondering what the song might have risen to if Hayward had been the co-writer. Not much original here, honestly.

John Lodge (publicity photo courtesy: ROGERS AND COWAN)

John Lodge (publicity photo courtesy: ROGERS AND COWAN)

It’s gotta be tough, being in a legendary band and thinking you have more to say than what the band will allow. The creative impulse cannot be denied, but the fact is, countless solo albums from bands like the Moody Blues, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and others from the progressive era simply fell way short of expectations. Justin Hayward, as the primary force in the Moodys, always seemed so prolific that he had to get his solo stuff out there, and it retained a familiarity overall that kept fans pleased. While some of Lodge’s tunes rise to the level of melodic pleasantry, there is definitely a sense of something missing on 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO. You want it to be dramatic, like the title… searching, thoughtful, maybe even a little epic. At best, though, it is amiable, well-crafted and inoffensive. It’s a “question of imbalance,” a thwarted “search for the lost chord” that would stick with you somehow if these songs were richer in detail, even if most Moodys’ fans will at least be glad this second Lodge outing exists at all.


LINDA HOYLE: THE FETCH

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; English import, 2015)

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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)

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.


EPICA/MOONSPELL/STARKILL

(January 30, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

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I gotta admit, I wasn’t real sure what to expect out of Epica… I just knew that I really wanted to see legendary Portuguese Goth metallers, Moonspell, again. Serious doubts entered my mind about the whole night when it seemed as though this was going to be another one of those sparsely attended Saint Louis shows; with about 30 minutes to go before start time, the room was less than half full. However, to my utter surprise (and delight), each check over my shoulder saw the head count rise to the point that, by the time Starkill took the stage, the floor was packed. And, what a great evening of rock and roll was on hand for one and all, beginning with…

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Chicago progressive speed merchants, Starkill. The band’s prime mover, Parker Jameson, showed himself adept at both dirty and clean vocal styles, as well as impressive lead and solo guitar… he was even responsible for the prerecorded keyboard parts featured throughout the six-song set. The show highlighted Starkill’s most recent release, VIRUS OF THE MIND with three songs, including their opening salvo, “Be Dead or Die.” Odd title aside, the tune featured an intense orchestral intro from Jameson and a massive drum sound. Surprisingly, the strongest material has yet to be officially released, “Burn Your World” and “Cloudless,” from an upcoming third album (after two albums with Century Media, the band is self-releasing this one with fan funding from Indiegogo); maybe the strength of these new songs comes from the fact that guitarist Tony Keathley and bassist Shaun Andruchuk are now firmly ensconced in the fold (VIRUS OF THE MIND was pretty much finished when they were brought on board). Andruchuk is an absolute beast, prowling the stage and giving the guitars and vocals ample underpinning alongside the borderline maniacal drum-bashing of Spencer Weidner. As impressive as the rhythm section is, this group’s strength lies in the vocals (with Keathley supporting Jameson with clean counter-vocals and, in some instances, nice harmonies) and the twin lead work from the fleet-fingered guitarists, put to particularly good use on “Virus of the Mind.” What could have been a fairly unextraordinary set of Death Metal was continually lifted to unexpected heights by the clean vocals of both Parker and Tony, Spencer’s percussive expertise and the use of Parker’s keyboard and orchestral embellishments. These guys can only get better.

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell have always tended toward the dark, Gothic edges of metal. More recently, they have gone full-tilt into the Gothic sound and lyrical imagery of such bands as the Damned, True Sounds of Liberty (TSOL), Danzig (both the metal band and their punk Misfit leader) and the lugubrious funeral dirges of Type-O Negative. The band were ushered to the stage with the atmospheric, near-operatic (as in THE PHAMTOM OF… ) “La Baphomette,” the final track from their latest record, EXTINCT; as vocalist Fernando Ribeiro took to the boards, the recorded intro faded, replaced by the ponderous beats of Mike Gaspar’s drums and the massive sound of Pedro Paixao’s pipe organ for the haunting “Breathe (Until We Are No More),” the opening cut from the same album. Guitarist Ricardo Amorim and bassist Aires Pereira initially seemed to be completely buried in the mix with the nearly overwhelming volume of the pipe organ. However, the problem was soon rectified and, to paraphrase the dearly departed Lemmy, everything was louder than everything else, with Pereira’s bass adding to the rhythmic din laid down by Gaspar and Amorim’s tasty licks leading the way on Moonspell’s musical moonlight drive through the cemetery. The band seemed to kick into high gear with the title track from EXTINCT, particularly Ricardo, who delivered the first of many killer solos; they really hit their stride, however, on older tunes like the slow grind of “Awake” (from 1998’s IRRELIGIOUS album) and a pair of late set favorites from their 1995 debut, WOLFHEART (the eerie fist-pumper “Vampiria” and “Alma Mater,” which featured a very nice old-school rock solo from Amorim). Ribeiro hung around the lower registers, occasionally approximating the bone-rattling baritone of the sorely missed Peter Steele or, alternately, delivering the gutteral death-rattle of the genre – moving effortlessly between the two at the drop of a coffin lid… plus, his accent kinda reminded me of Bela Lugosi. As good as Starkill was, this was definitely the highlight of the evening for me; could the headliner hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Kicking their set off with a couple of tracks from their latest release (THE QUANTUM ENIGMA from 2014), from the get-go, it was obvious that the name of these Nederlanders’ game was speed and precision; guitarists Isaac Delahaye (the lone Belgian in the group) and Mark Jansen proved to be fleet-of-finger, while bassist Rob van der Loo and drummer Arien van Weesenbeek matched them with a wicked ferocity and keyboardist Coen Janssen added a touch of the symphonic. Of course, above all was the unbelievable mezzo-soprano voice of the lovely Simone Simons. “The Second Stone” and “The Essence of Silence” were formidable blasts of Wagnerian bombast, with mystical/metaphysical lyrics, alternating between Simons’ operatic vocals and Jansen’s harsh, throaty growl. Amidst a flurry of hair-whipping, it was obvious – much like Moonspell before them – that the band (and an appreciative audience) really started to have fun with the introduction of some fan-favorite older material, beginning with “Sensorium,” from the group’s debut release, THE PHANTOM AGONY. With “Martyr of the Free World,” Coen Janssen emerged from the shadows (and fog) engulfing stage-right’s back corner with a unique bowed keyboard, soloing and mugging for the crowd (and I still couldn’t get a decent shot of the third original member of the group, along with Simone and band founder, Mark Jansen); toward the end of the song, after basking in the much-deserved accolades of the packed room, Janssen returned to his omni-directional keyboard as Delahaye killed a lightning-quick solo.

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As you may well guess, any band with the type of near-virtuosity that each member possesses is going to solo and solo often. On “Cry For the Moon,” it was Weesenbeek’s turn, as the hard-pounding drummer delivered a powerful, tastefully short exhibit of his abilities. The song itself, another track from THE PHANTOM AGONY, built from a basic, martial rhythm to an anthemic slow-simmer to a full-blown operatic tour de force, with a Teutonic-sounding choir (via a sample or backing tape) adding a new dimension to the already forceful vocals of Simone Simons. Though Epica has been called a “Gothic Metal” band, it really isn’t until “Storm the Sorrow” that I caught anything (other than certain lyrical content) remotely Gothic in their music, with the heavy, near-industrial riffage and doom-laden piano flourishes; the fact that the upbeat vocal performance belies the nightmarish lyrics only adds to the Goth feel… a real highlight. The brutally dark vibe continued, with Mark delivering more of his intense, harsh vocals throughout the next few songs,” including “The Obsessive Devotion” and, from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Victims of Contengiency.” This darker sound also gave van der Loo a chance to shine with more complex bass lines, rather than sticking fairly close to the rhythmic patterns laid down by the drums and guitars; this complexity was best displayed on the title track to 2009’s DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE, the closing number of the main set, which also featured some very nice multi-textured keyboard work from Coen.

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unsated, the appreciative crowd refused to leave without hearing more; Epica was more than willing to oblige. With Janssen exhorting the rabid fans, he was soon joined by Weesenbeek, Delahaye and van der Loo, teasing the encore before Simons and Jansen returned for a stirring “Sancta Terra.” The band wasn’t messing around with a “one-and-done” trip back to the stage; they followed that tune with a great version of one of the stronger songs from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Unchain Utopia.” If that wasn’t enough, refusing to go gentle into that good night, the sextet finished with a thundering version of the bombastic, anthemic epic, “Consign To Oblivion.” Like last November’s Amaranthe show at Pop’s, Epica eschewed the use of any visible, onstage amplification or monitors; however, where the sound was, at best, spotty for that earlier show, here, it was near perfect. The lighting, also, was some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. So, earlier in this review, I asked the question, “Could Epica hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?” The answer, my friends, is an unequivocal, “Yes!” A great night of metal, from top to bottom.


WIZARDS OF WINTER

(December 18, 2015; EFFINGHAM PERFORMANCE CENTER, Effingham IL)

Wizards of Winter (sound and lights) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Wizards of Winter (sound and lights) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Let me say this upfront: I do not go in for these big Christmas spectacles. I have never seen the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I have never seen Mannheim Steamroller; I have never bemoaned the fact that I’ve never seen either act. The same could probably be said about the Wizards of Winter, as well, so I was perhaps a bit apprehensive when their publicist, Arielle, contacted me to review the show. All I can say is, “Thank you, Arielle!” I came away with an entirely new perspective regarding these types of shows. Not only was the show’s choreography amazing, the narration spot-on and the music both stirring and hard-rocking, highlighting both the Christian and secular aspects of Christmas, but every member of the band and their crew – right down to the bus driver – went out of their way to make me feel at ease and, yes, at home, amongst their little group. Additionally, the management and staff of the Effingham Performance Center made my first visit there as easy and pain-free as any venue I’ve ever worked. Thank you all for making this night’s assignment such a joy.

Wizards of Winter (Scott Kelly; Guy LeMonnier, Sharon Kelly, Mary McIntyre, Natalia Niarezka; Greg Smith, TW Durfy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Scott Kelly; Guy LeMonnier, Sharon Kelly, Mary McIntyre, Natalia Niarezka; Greg Smith, TW Durfy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The band asked me to try to get a few shots from behind the drum riser into the crowd. The idea sounded good to me; however, the smoke machines were working overtime, which caused problems seeing the front of the stage, much less past the lights into the crowd. It did offer a unique glimpse into the band, though. The show kicked off with the first track from the group’s new album, THE MAGIC OF WINTER. As an overture, the instrumental “Flight of the Snow Angels” had everything you would expect from a holiday show, including heavy metal keyboard bombast, massive soloing from guitarists Fred Gorhau and TW Durfy, flautist Sharon Kelly and violinist Natalia Niarezka and… snow? Yeah, snow. The illusion was pretty cool and set the feeling for the entire evening. The albums “title track,” “Winter Magic,” was next, followed by another instrumental, the relatively quiet piano-dominated “The Arctic Flyer” and the power ballad, “Special Feeling,” which featured some nice dual lead guitar and the introduction of former Trans-Siberian Orchestra vocalist Guy LeMonnier. Both of the numbers are from last year’s eponymous record (and, apparently, an earlier version called TALES BENEATH A NORTHERN STAR). With drummer Tommy Ference pounding away and Gorhau and Durfy trading solos and power chords, it was hard not to get into the spirit of the season or, at least, into the progressive rock monster on stage. Sharon Kelly (co-founder of the group, with her husband, Scott), keyboardist Mary McIntyre and Natalia Niarezka added, not only a touch of beauty but, some nice choreographed flourishes, as well. With “First Snow,” we were presented with the first of several TSO covers (along with a few others).

Wizards of Winter (Tony Gaynor; Guy LeMonnier, Mary McIntyre; Fred Gorhau) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Tony Gaynor; Guy LeMonnier, Mary McIntyre; Fred Gorhau) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The music could very easily have carried the entire show but, Tony Gaynor’s presence, delivering a loose narrative thread, utilizing the accepted Christian nativity, as well as adding bits of ancient Winter Solstice celebrations and the legend of Santa Claus, was impressive. You are definitely drawn to Gaynor when he’s onstage, hanging on his every word. The first half of the show ended with a retelling of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, highlighted by Scott’s keyboards (approximating a harpsichord and a pipe organ). The song, “Ebeneezer,” was sandwiched between a pair of covers, the pomp of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Nut Rocker” (itself, a cover of a 1962 Bumble and the Stingers recording of Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Toy Soldiers” from THE NUTCRACKER) and the TSO hit, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” (again, a cover of a cover, as TSO progenitor, Savatge first recorded the medley of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” for their 1995 album, DEAD WINTER DEAD). The latter, coupling a pair of the most well-known and beloved Christmas Carols of all time, was certainly stirring and elicited one of the loudest reactions from the audience.

Wizards of Winter (Tommy  Ference; TW Durfy; Sharon Kelly) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Tommy Ference; TW Durfy; Sharon Kelly) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

During the short intermission, someone called the bass player (who I’d been eying all night long as someone I should know) “Greg” and, as the light went on over my head, I turned into the fan-boy that I am, pointed to him and said, “You’re Greg Smith. You used to play with Alice.” Sharon said, “Yeah, and we borrowed him from Ted Nugent’s band for this tour. He gets around.” Suddenly, this whole thing had been elevated a notch in my estimation, as if the spectacle (and the warmth of the band and the crew themselves) hadn’t already made this a great night. As the second part of the show opened, more keyboard and guitar bombast was in the air, with the hard-driving “March of the Metal Soldiers.” It’s obvious that this is a band of consummate – if not virtuoso – musicians, as they exhibited on several instrumentals throughout the evening, including “Gales of December,” which highlighted Sharon’s flute and some killer dual shredding from Fred and TW. A definite highlight of the night came when Mary McIntyre donned a little red Missus Claus costume, heading into the crowd for a spirited “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Another instrumental, “Toys Will Be Toys,” saw the vocalists tossing mini beach balls into the audience, as well as featuring a nice Natalia Niarezka violin solo. Even though all of the vocalists continued to be featured, the metal maven, Vinny Jiovino, was fully in charge of the second set, with his keening vocals falling somewhere between Dee Snider and Mark Slaughter, including a great version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The anthemic “Spirit of Christmas” closed the show proper. “Requiem,” the fifth and final Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover, opened the encore before the rousing, everybody-in finale, “With One Voice.”

Wizards of Winter (Mary McIntyre; Natalia Niarezka; Vinny Jiovino) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Mary McIntyre; Natalia Niarezka; Vinny Jiovino) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I really cannot say enough about the friendly atmosphere the band fostered backstage and, when I mentioned seeing a young special needs fan in the audience, Vinny and the rest went out of their way to make sure she had a mini beach ball, autographed by the entire band (I’m sure I made a pain of myself in securing the autographs for the young lady). So… maybe next year, not only will I revisit the Wizards of Winter, but add the TSO and Mannheim Steamroller to my winter concert schedule also.


AMARANTHE/BUTCHER BABIES/LULLWATER

(November 17, 2015; POP’S, Sauget IL)

Amaranthe Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

From the outset, standing in line and listening to the various comments, it was obvious that the majority of the people at Pop’s on the evening of November 17th were there to see Butcher Babies; I even heard comments and questions like, “I have never heard of this Amaranthe band. Do you know anything about them?” I can kinda understand that… while both acts play metal, they take very different approaches: Amaranthe play a symphonic, well-orchestrated and choreographed style of progressive metal, while Butcher Babies blur the line where punk and metal meet. I am all for diversity and can and have enjoyed bills featuring several different musical styles. Unfortunately, I tend to be part of an ever-shrinking fan base that enjoys listening to a myriad of genres and styles in the course of an evening of live music. So, with that as a backdrop, here’s how this night shook out.

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Opening act Lullwater was a total surprise. The Athens, Georgia quartet play the type of hard rock that I grew up on, though steeped in the early 1990s sound of the Seattle scene; there are touches of Alice In Chains and Nirvana, as well liberal doses of Stone Temple Pilots (yeah, I know they weren’t from Seattle, but… ) and Soundgarden. As Southern boys, there’s plenty of good ol’ Lynyrd Skynyrd and Seven Mary Three style rock and roll. With their new album, REVIVAL, barely a month old, they were determined to make an impression. And, make an impression they certainly did! It didn’t take these guys (vocalist/ guitarist John Strickland, bassist Roy “Ray” Beatty, drummer Joe Wilson and lead guitarist Brett Strickland) long to win over an early crowd hyped to see Butcher Babies.

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Strickland’s imaginative guitar licks are certainly hard to ignore, particularly on the stinging “Oddline,” from the band’s 2013 self-titled debut, as well as its cousin, “Evenline,” from the new record; the pair’s biting style is further enhanced by Beatty’s bass, which is tuned to a higher register (a trick also used by the Who’s John Entwistle), adding to the buzzsaw tone. Roy’s style also lends itself well to the Southern rock “guitar army” feel on songs like “Broken Wings,” allowing Brett and John to soar on an extended harmony part. Wilson’s playing demands attention, though it is never overbearing or dominating… as has been said many times before, it ain’t always the notes you play, sometimes it’s the spaces between that make a performance special; make no mistake, though, when he hits those notes, it is with power and precision. John’s chameleon-like vocals draw from most of the bands listed above, though mostly, he tends to sound like a tasty three-meat stew of Layne Staley, Scott Weiland and Seven Mary Three’s Jason Ross. From front to back, Lullwater delivered the type of high energy, flat-out rock ‘n’ roll show that you very rarely get a chance to see anymore… I just wish they could have played a longer set.

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Honestly, though I’ve heard quite a bit – both pro (usually from avid fans) and con (usually from music journalists like myself) – about Butcher Babies, this was my first time to experience the live bludgeoning. The band are obviously fans of the Plasmatics and their enigmatic vocalist, Wendy O Williams; I mean, the group’s name is an homage to the Plasmatics’ very first single from way back in 1978. You can also plot the progression of Williams’ band from anarchic punk noisemongers to heavy metal behemoth through Carla Harvey’s near-gutteral screams and Heidi Shepherd’s more melodic, sultry wails. And, even though the ladies’ stage attire was rather tame on this night, most images and videos show they have a proclivity for, at least, a mildly titillating form of exhibitionism. Shepherd and Harvey are twin balls of kinetic energy, in motion virtually from the time they hit the stage for “Monsters Ball” until their final exit during “Magnolia Boulevard.” The three-piece band – guitarist Henry Flury, bassist Jason Klein and drummer Chrissy Warner – are a well-oiled, if predictable, industrial punk metal machine; their sound falls somewhere between the Plasmatics’ NEW HOPE FOR THE WRETCHED punk overload and COUP D’ETAT metal mayhem, with more than a touch of Nu-Metal around the edges.

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The group highlighted material from their latest release, TAKE IT LIKE A MAN, including their approximation of a power ballad, “Thrown Away.” As well received as tunes like “Monsters Ball,” “Jesus Needs More Babies For His War Machine” and “Gravemaker” were, when the ladies introduced “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” a cover of a fifty-year-old pop hit by Napoleon XIV, the crowd erupted. I will say that, even though I was a tad under-impressed, this group must be doing something right to have such a loyal following (a couple of guys – one sorta laid back and cool, the other more of the rabid “Hey… look at me! I know their bus driver! Wooo!” kind of guy – were in from Kansas City for the Tuesday night show). Considering the solid musicianship of Lullwater and the symphonic sheen of Amaranthe, it may have been a case of Butcher Babies being the wrong band at the wrong time; as such, I’m willing to hold further opinions until I can see them in their natural habitat, with more like-minded groups (and, yes, I realize that goes against everything that I said in my opening paragraph but, like everything else in life, there are exceptions to the rule).

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I was actually pleasantly surprised when it became apparent that a large number of the folks on the floor remained there for Amaranthe, although there was considerable turnover at the front of the stage. This, of course is where I get all curmudgeonly and tell you how much I dislike being around drunks; as I bid adieu to the laid back guy from KC, a couple of excitable drunks pushed in front of my spot and began documenting EVERY freaking moment of their time at the front of the stage with their phones… all with me trying to shoot pictures either over or through them. I usually let people around me know that I’m working and that I am only allowed to take pictures (I use an actual camera, for which I have obtained a photo pass, as well as permission from the band’s management to use) for the first three songs of any set and they’re usually cool and let me work, trying to avoid getting in my way or obstructing my view; these two were having none of that… I took close to 150 shots of Aramanthe, a hundred of them starring either at least one of the pair’s phones or the gentleman’s cap. If that weren’t bad enough, they compared notes on virtually every image or video they captured in an approximation of the English language that I can only refer to as trailer park rustic (my apologies if I’ve offended any of the millions of fine people who live in trailer parks but, I’m sure you know what I mean), loud enough to annoy more than just this humble cameraman. Okay… with that out of my system and, as I’m sure you didn’t come here just to hear me vent about my job, let’s talk about the real reason you’re here: Amaranthe.

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

At first, I couldn’t fathom what the heck was taking place on stage; there were no amplifiers, there were no monitors. It definitely made it easier for the band’s three-pronged vocal attack to maneuver around the stage but… it just looked SO weird! All six band members wore ear monitors, something that is generally only done by the singer; as mentioned above, I am usually at the front of the stage, which means that most of what I hear comes from the stage monitors. Without those monitors, those of us situated up front, between the speakers on either side of the Pop’s stage had kind of a muffled sound, especially on the vocals; I’m sure that to those a little farther back on the floor, the sound was as pristine as the stage looked. This was merely a minor annoyance and, other than louder-than-they-shoulda-been pre-recorded keyboards and having to strain to catch some of the lyrics (especially from Elize Ryd), did not hinder my enjoyment of this highly technical (not to mention high-tech) Swedish outfit. The group was obviously enjoying themselves, as well, mugging for the legions of I-phones and I-pads, posing for the occasional selfie with a fan; at one point, Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund (the “dirty” vocalist) took the phone away from a young man behind me and began videoing himself and the other members of the group before handing it back to the excited fan. These moments are the things that I’ll remember long after Jethro and Minnie have been forgotten.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

So, here’s where I’m gonna talk about the audience again, okay? Two of the new faces that joined me at the front of the stage before Amaranthe’s set included a young woman with a face that had me thinking that I should know her from somewhere and her daughter; as it turns out, while we had never actually met, we do frequent some of the same stores and shops in our respective home towns (we live in two small communities, eight miles apart). Anyway, I noticed that, not only was the daughter (eleven year old Danielle) thoroughly enjoying herself, she was singing along to ALL of the songs. Eventually, all three singers (the other clean singer – aside from Elize – is Smash Into Pieces vocalist Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye, who was filling in for co-founder Jake E Lundberg) noticed her, as well, and began coming over to take her hand or make eye contact. After a set that began with “Digital World” and included “Invincible,” “Massive Addictive,” “Afterlife” and “Electroheart,” the band – which also features musicians Olof Morck (guitarist and chief music-writer; Lundberg and Ryd handle most of the lyrics), Johann Andreassen (bassist and encore break MC) and Morten Lowe Sorensen (drums) – kicked into their theme-song, “Amaranthe.” After singing a verse and a chorus, Elize came over to Danielle and asked her if she knew the song; Danielle answered in the affirmative and sang the next verse into Ryd’s microphone. After a final song, “Call Out My Name,” the group left the stage.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

But, of course, Amaranthe weren’t finished yet. After a brief break, Andreassen was back to pump up the crowd (allowing the others to towel off – it was HOT in the venue and even hotter under the stage lights – and for Elize to affect a costume change). The rest of the band joined Johann, charging into “The Nexus,” the title track from their second album. The night ended, three songs later, with Englund asking Danielle, “If I were to say, ‘Drop Dead,’ what would you say?” Without hesitation, she replied, “Cynical” and the band tore into the very danceable, heavy pop of “Drop Dead Cynical.” Before leaving the stage, the three vocalists and Olof took time to greet, not only Danielle, but just about everybody in the first couple of rows. Amaranthe is a band that gets it; they understand that without fans like Danielle and her mother (and even the overbearing couple in front of me), they wouldn’t be able to do what they love to do. I enjoyed the set more than I thought I would; I just hope that before I see them again, they figure out that sound system.


WISHBONE ASH; WISHBONE ASH/MATT TAUL

(September 12, 2015; September 13, 2015; THE WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville IL)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check at the Wildey Theatre (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check at the Wildey Theatre (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

What can conceivably be better than seeing Wishbone Ash live? Why, seeing Wishbone Ash live two nights in a row, of course! Now, I loves me some Wishbone Ash but, this isn’t going to be a fan-boy rant about how great it was to see a band play the exact same show two nights in a row… because it wasn’t the same show two nights in a row. Night two at the beautiful Wildey Theatre was a recent addition to the group’s schedule and a bit of a departure from the regular ROAD WARRIORS TOUR; in the middle of the set, the band played their crowning achievement, ARGUS, from front to back… well, kinda (more on that later). This was my first Wildey experience and, I must admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The recently (2010) renovated Wildey began life in 1909 as a vaudeville theater and now serves as a live venue for music, comedy and stage plays, as well as a movie theater, showing classics from the not-too-distant past (we just missed PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE; MEAN GIRLS is upcoming). The seating capacity is somewhere around 300, give or take, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house; the sound is phenomenal. So… what am I trying to say? Well… I like this place. I really like this place! And, apparently, so do a lot of… uh… let’s call them “well established” acts, as the Wildey continues to show up on tour itineraries for Savoy Brown, Dave Mason, Gypsy and, yes, Wishbone Ash.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check (Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check (Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Both nights featured a VIP ticket option (something a lot of bands are doing in an effort to keep regular ticket prices more affordable), including a meet and greet session with the band, a “sound check” with original guitarist Andy Powell offering up anecdotes from the group’s forty-six year career and answering questions from the fans. The quartet also played snippets of rarely played favorites from that long career. Unfortunately, we didn’t get into the first night’s session in time to catch anything other than a few questions; the second night, however, featured a bit of “Lady Whisky,” from the first Wishbone Ash record, and a verse and chorus from “Ballad of the Beacon,” which comes from my all-time favorite album from the group, WISHBONE FOUR. Everybody – including Andy and his boys – seemed to have a great time in this informal setting.

Wishbone Ash, night 1 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell; Andy Powell with Bob Skeat) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 1 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell; Andy Powell with Bob Skeat) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The first evening’s set began with three tunes from the latest album, 2014’s BLUE HORIZON, including the jazzy island vibe of the title track. Unlike a lot of other “classic” artists, Wishbone Ash have continually been able to introduce new material to their live sets rather than simply relying on their past achievements; of course, the fact that they continue to place a premium on producing high quality music certainly doesn’t hurt. Most of the set, naturally, was made up of songs from the first several years of the band’s existence, including a favorite from 1979’s JUST TESTING, “Helpless,” several songs from ARGUS, “Jail Bait” from the PILGRIMAGE record and a fiery (pun definitely intended) “Phoenix” from WISHBONE ASH. This Wishbone Ash is the real deal, no pale imitator of the band’s earlier incarnations; they have been together for some ten years, more than twice as long as the original group (Andy Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner and Steve Upton). Even adding the service time of the second version of the group (with Laurie Wisefield taking over Ted Turner’s guitar spot), this band matches both together for longevity… they know how to put on a show. In an interview before the shows, Andy commented on the “youngster” of the band, drummer Joe Crabtree, as being half his age and “kicking him up the arse,” both on stage and in the studio. Andy’s guitar-slinging partner, Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen (who physically reminded me of the sorely missed Glen Buxton), more than upholds his end of the band’s innovative dual lead sound; he can also lay down a brilliantly bluesy solo when required. Aside from Andy, bass player Bob Skeat is the longest tenured member of the group, at eighteen years and counting. He and Crabtree are a formidable rhythm section, keeping the sound tight even as they add their own flairs to the most well-known numbers from the band’s illustrious past. I should note that a collective groan went up from the crowd when Andy broke a string and had to put aside his Flying V before launching into “Phoenix.” That guitar body has become synonymous with Andy Powell and Wishbone Ash and watching the man playing something other than that guitar was sorta strange,

Matt Taul (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Matt Taul (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Night two was a different beast. The first night was broken up into two sets of roughly fifty minutes each; this night featured an opening act and one ninety minute set from the headliners. Matt Taul, of the Stubblefield Band, offered a serviceable (if rather uninspired) acoustic set, augmented by hot-shot guitarist Phil Waits, who did exhibit a bit of fire with his lead work and solos. To be fair to Taul, I think that this acoustic outing may not have been the best option as an opener for a group like Wishbone Ash. His evocative, raspy rock growl was just so out of place with the folky playing (Waits’ stellar picking notwithstanding) on display throughout the set.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Ash opened night two with the same three BLUE HORIZON tunes before introducing the tour’s only North American performance of the entire ARGUS album. Predictably, the earlier question and answer session revolved around the evening’s special event; Andy related the band’s literary influences for the seven songs on their third album (a fascination with Tolkein and Arthurian legend, as well as Martin Turner’s study of the Bible). Even though these things were obvious when ARGUS was released in 1972, hearing the stories made me listen to things a little differently… shining a new light (THE light?) on the familiar songs. After a brilliant “Time Was,” Powell led the band into “Blowin’ Free.” He didn’t realize his mistake until Skeat whispered in his ear that he had forgotten the record’s second song, “Sometime World.” Joking about his earlier rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and his advanced age, Andy set things right, in a backward kind of way. With the program back on track, Andy reminded us ALL just how old we are, by mentioning that it was time to flip the record to side two for “The King Will Come.” Aside from the lyrical themes and reliance on traditional English folk music for inspiration, the album is known for the extended instrumental sections, particularly on “Warrior,” one of the hardest rocking tunes out of the seven. Watching Andy (with his trademark Flying V, though not the famed white one he used during the band’s early years) and Muddy lock into a harmonic groove or seeing one of the pair break away for a nearly note-perfect solo, with Bob and Joe laying down a solid bottom end, was definitely a highlight of the show.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Having thrilled the crowd with ARGUS, the band returned to the new BLUE HORIZON album, as well as dipping into one of their more overlooked releases with the title tune from 1977’s FRONT PAGE NEWS and ending with an even better version of “Phoenix” than they played the previous evening. They returned with a pair of rarely performed numbers for an encore, “Persephone” from THERE’S THE RUB, the band’s first with Laurie Wisefield, and “Blind Eye” from the venerable debut release. “Persephone” is perhaps one of the finest ballads of the “arena rock” era and was a request from the earlier VIP session; when Powell asked the gentleman why he requested that particular tune, he said that it was the most beautiful song he’d ever heard. Andy, visibly taken aback at the pronouncement, could only say, “Wow.” When the number was over, there were more than a few members of the audience seconding that response. “Blind Eye” exhibits the earliest progressive proclivities of the band, but is also an astonishingly effective example of Wishbone Ash’s contributions to the British Blues Movement, with great harmony leads from Manninen and Powell and solos from all four members of the group.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell with Muddy Manninen; Bob Skeat) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell with Muddy Manninen; Bob Skeat) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

I’d seen the band once before, in 1993, on a package tour with Uriah Heep and Nazareth (Blue Oyster Cult was a no-show) but, that version (featuring only Ted and Andy from the recently reunited original four) paled in comparison to the Wishbone Ash beast on display over these two nights in mid-September, 2015. And, while the heart pines for the chance to see the original four perform again, I don’t hear any complaints (nor do I have any) about the four guys who pulled out all the stops to give their fans the music they wanted to hear.


ON THE BLUE HORIZON: A CHAT WITH ANDY POWELL

WISHBONE ASH AT THE WILDEY THEATRE, SEPTEMBER 12/13

Wishbone Ash ROAD WARRIORS TOUR

Wishbone Ash ROAD WARRIORS TOUR

Wishbone Ash have released some of my favorite albums over a very long career, including WISHBONE FOUR, THERE’S THE RUB, LIVE DATES, NUMBER THE BRAVE and the latest, BLUE HORIZON. The band – founding member and guitarist Andy Powell, fellow guitarist Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen, longtime bassist Bob Skeat and the youngster of the band, drummer Joe Crabtree – are bringing their ROAD WARRIORS TOUR to the beautiful Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville IL on Saturday, September 12th, followed by a special show on Sunday, the 13th, featuring a performance of the seminal album, ARGUS, in its entirety.

Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)

Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)

Powell told the Mule what to expect both nights in a recent interview, “You know, it’s a forty-five, forty-six year career for Wishbone Ash. We’re going to dip into those decades, we’re going to do a very nice feature of the new album… we want to feature the BLUE HORIZON album, give the people a bit of that album.” He goes on to explain what fans of the band expect in a live setting: “We have people, when they come see the band, they expect to see guitar playing and there’ll be a ton of guitar playing, of course, especially featuring the twin lead guitar sound that we’re known for. The bottom line is the fact that it’s entertainment… and we want to give the biggest bang for the buck that we can in concert. We go out with all guns blazing, we use everything that’s available to us in terms of what we’ve created in the last 46 years.”

Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)

Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)

As far as the Sunday show, Andy said this about the ARGUS set: “They added the second show because that’s what’s going up. We will, in fact, take a spot in that set, we’ll play the entire album, the songs in order as they would have been heard on the album. I believe it is the only show on the tour that we’re doing that. It will just be a small variation on the first night… well, quite a substantial variation, in fact. We’ll be featuring that album. It’s something we’ve done before in concert, in Europe and we’re happy to be doing it in the United States in a theater situation. It’ll be great.” And playing at the Wildey? “Awesome theater! We have not played there for two or three years now and we’re really happy to be going back there.”

Wishbone Ash (Joe Crabtree, Andy Powell, Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen) (photo credit: TIM ASSMANN)

Wishbone Ash (Joe Crabtree, Andy Powell, Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen) (photo credit: TIM ASSMANN)

What about the band? With Crabtree coming on board in the middle of the last decade, this version of the band has been together longer than the original group of Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner and Steve Upton. Andy is rightfully proud of the group’s accomplishments. “This current entity has been together for about ten years. It’s so road tested, we’re such a sort of a unit now; it’s almost like a complete… another career, in a way. We put out some really solid albums in the last several years. It’s a band that just seems to be able to function in any context: We can go into a club, or into a theater, we can play festivals in the summer… wherever I take the band, whatever the setting, it seems to rise to the occasion and I’m so happy. I don’t think that was always the case at various points in the band’s history. I’m really happy to be doing it… it’s given me such a great peace of mind because at this point in my career – I’ve been with the band 46 years – it’s great to have the latter part of the career so solid, so strong.” He goes on to point out, “We’re not a tribute band, we’re a living, breathing band, a band that reinterprets the original songs, modernizes subtly here and there… and all of that stimulates me, kicks me up the rear end in terms of being a musician. Every night is a workout and the band – Joe Crabtree, our drummer, he’s half my age. We’re not lagging in any way because of the longevity of the band, in fact, it’s the opposite, we’re more stimulated than ever and creative. We’re not a band just resting on its laurels, although we could do. I know a lot of band’s do that.” Emphasizing the creativeness of the current band, Powell describes crowd reaction for songs from BLUE HORIZON, exclaiming, “Without blowing our horn, it’s pretty amazing! You can see their eyes are wide open, they’re very engaged… I mean, it’s very intricate material and what we do with two guitars, bass and drums is pretty ambitious, actually. You hear when we… you can just see it on people’s faces, they respond immediately.”

EYES WIDE OPEN (Andy Powell book cover)

EYES WIDE OPEN (Andy Powell book cover)

So… your an author. Tell us a bit about that. “Yeah, I just penned a biography. So many people encouraged me to do it because I’ve got loads of road stories and that’s just part of it; I’ve been in the business long enough now that I can look back across the decades… not just music in this band, but music in general. I felt I had something to say. I didn’t want to write anything until I had something to say.” And, where can we find a copy? “It’s available at Amazon. It’s called EYES WIDE OPEN: TRUE TALES OF A WISHBONE ASH WARRIOR, ANDY POWELL. It’s a wry look at the music business and my life in it.”

The Wildey Theatre (publicity photo)

The Wildey Theatre (publicity photo)

Andy left us with this message regarding the Wildey Theatre shows: “I think it’s going to be a great weekend. All the best to all our friends and fans.” For more information on Wishbone Ash at the Wildey Theatre or, to order tickets, visit wishboneash.com or wildeytheatre.com.