CORROSION OF CONFORMITY: NO CROSS NO CROWN

(NUCLEAR BLAST RECORDS; 2018)

NO CROSS NO CROWN is the first album from the “classic” lineup of CoC in nearly twenty years. AMERICA’S VOLUME DEALER was the last album we got from this lineup… way back in 2000! Pepper Keenan is back on vocals and it sounds… RIGHT. They come in with a psychedelic opener in “Novus Deus” and it moves along until… a sharp left into “The Luddite,” and then… there they are. Like they never missed a beat. Classic Corrosion sound; Pepper has some age in his voice now, but the fire is still there. Lyrically he’s better than ever. “The Luddite” ends and “Cast the First Stone” comes in and sounds like …VOLUME DEALER-era Corrosion. It’s everything you want: Aggression, groove, melody, and phenomenal guitar work. The drop in the middle moving into the solo is a great way to jar you awake and make you pay attention… super interesting! Pepper lets a demon scream out a few times on this track and it is AWESOME. In a time where the state of modern rock is… well, the way it is, it’s great to see an album come out sounding this way. A short instrumental titled “No Cross” leads into my favorite track on the album, “Wolf Named Crow.” This song is CoC in a nutshell. Groove heavy, Sabbath inspired riffing with Pepper laying down grimy vocals to tie it all together. The middle section goes into an almost jam band style movement before it comes back around into the main riff of the drums dropping out and guitars shining, and Pepper screaming “BEWARE THE WOLF NAMED CROW.” There’s not a skippable track on the album so far!

Little Man” is the weakest track on the album. I enjoyed it but, it just didn’t feel up to the same standard as the rest of the record. It’s the first skippable one. “Matre’s Diem” is a GORGEOUS instrumental. It’s a fingerpicking acoustic track that is just beautiful and conveys a ton of emotion. It fades out with a trippy effect right into one of the strongest grooves of the album, as “Forgive Me” is killer. Pepper’s best vocal work on the whole album, from melodic vocals to screams. Great riffs, solos everywhere, jam section: It checks all the boxes and has an AMAZING breakdown in the middle. The number is an instant playlist selection for me.

CORROSION OF CONFORMITY (Pepper Keenan, Mike Dean, Woody Weatherman, Reed Mullin) (photo credit: DEAN KARR)

In my opinion, songs like “Nothing Left To Say” is where CoC make their best music. It’s got a “13 Angels” vibe. The slow, clean vocals into the harsh riff and gruff vocals make the song insanely easy to listen to. And to get lost in. Very close to my favorite on the album. Next up is a dark instrumental, with “Sacred Isolation,” which moves right into “Old Disaster” which, to me sounds… okay. It’s got a decent groove, but again, like “Little Man,” just feels a little weak. It does have an incredibly good solo section, so that does redeem it a bit. “ELM” comes next and this is my favorite riff on the album. Super solid work on this song on every front. When Pepper hits into the “Eternity is long gone” line in the bridge, it’s simply badass. Short, but awesome; you can’t deny the groove.

CORROSION OF CONFORMITY (Reed Mullin, Woody Weatherman, Pepper Keenan, Mike Dean) (photo credit: DEAN KARR)

No Cross No Crown” is doom-y, with creepy vocal lines from Pepper to start it and a choir to back him up. There’s just a simple guitar accompaniment that changes about halfway through and has a reprieve, but gets darker from there. Wicked! It has almost an Opeth/Type-O Negative vibe. “A Quest To Believe (A Call To the Void)” sounds like it fell off the back end of the DELIVERANCE album. It kicks ass. The trippy guitar effects on the solo are amazing and Pepper’s vocals over top of the simple drumming and funky bass line just… again, check every box you’d want from Corrosion of Conformity. The tune is by far up to the high standards they have set over the years. A cover of Queen’s “Son And Daughter” closes the album out. And, just like the original, it’s dripping with a heavy Sabbath influence. It features the best drumming on the album. The thump from the drums keeps the track moving, and the riffage is stellar. Hell of a way to close an album out. Pepper’s vocals are filtered on this song, so it sounds even closer to classic Sabbath.

CORROSION OF CONFORMITY (Pepper Keenan, Reed Mullin, Mike Dean, Woody Weatherman) (photo credit: DEAN KARR)

What a spectacular album! To my ears, there were only two songs that weren’t a mandatory listen for any CoC fan. Or any fan of badass, groovy, southern fried metal. Pepper cements his status as a rock god. Although his voice is aging, his songwriting skills are better and it sort of evens out in its own way and you can tell that bringing back the classic lineup makes a difference. Check it out. The instrumentals are awesome and the other tracks are a killer delve into what the old dogs can bring to modern rock and metal. Never count them out – they may surprise you.


THE WHO/THE HILLBENDERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BROADSIDE: KING OF NOTHING

(VICTORY RECORDS 7” single; 2019)

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

BROADSIDE (Ollie Baxxter) (uncredited photo)

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

BROADSIDE (Ollie Baxxter) (uncredited photo)

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


PHILIP H ANSELMO AND THE ILLEGALS: CHOOSING MENTAL ILLNESS AS A VIRTUE

(HOUSECORE RECORDS; 2018)

Our Mister Anselmo has been a busy guy over the past couple of years: 2016 saw the return of Superjoint Ritual, redubbed as Superjoint, with CAUGHT UP IN THE GEARS OF APPLICATION; last year, Phil released SONGS OF DARKNESS AND DESPAIR, an EP recorded under the name “Bill and Phil” and featuring horror icon Bill Moseley; now, he’s back with the second album of crushing little ditties from the Illegals, CHOOSING MENTAL ILLNESS AS A VIRTUE. At the very least, he’s gotta get some type of reward for longest record titles by three different acts.

PILIP H ANSELMO AND THE ILLEGALS (Stephen Taylor, Mike DeLeon, Walter Howard, Phil Anselmo, Jose Gonzalez) (photo credit: JODY DORIGNAC)

This latest offering starts with a black hole of extreme metal that legitimately rocked my actual socks off. That opening salvo, “Little Fucking Heroes,” is a FAR step in a different direction, even for the Illegals. Extreme doesn’t even begin to cover it, there’s a lot of anger and rage here. I haven’t heard this type of rage from Phil Anselmo for a long time, and I have listened to him my entire life. Be ready, because it’s intense: Screeching vocals, insane drumming and guitar, and a not too-veiled message from Anselmo, with lyrics like “ANYONE/With a pair of eyes/Should be able to logically see it/For what it really is/Riding the coattails of infamy/(You) little fucking heroes.” That’s a 10/10 for the first track! The second track, “Utopian,” kind of lost me. It sounds like a bad black metal cover band for the first two minutes, and then it sounds like Phil again. The Illegals are making bold choices on this album, but some just don’t work. The high-scream vocals that Anselmo throws at you at the beginning (and periodically throughout the song) sound just plain bad. No real message to this one, just an attempt at something different that, honestly isn’t worth listening to. I respect the choice, just don’t like the outcome; give it a shot, may work for you, just didn’t for me. “Choosing Mental Illness As a Virtue” is one I have a soft spot for… I love it. It was the lead song off of the album, and I think it encompasses the Illegals’ wheelhouse. It does everything right: Brutal riffing that makes you feel like you are falling into the depths of hell, Phil Anselmo slowing down and making you feel like he is squaring up directly at you, and chaotic time signatures and vocals. Absolute chaos… but in a good way. Everything the Illegals should be is encapsulated in this one song. They are REALLY beginning to come into their own as a band and starting to separate themselves from all of Anselmo’s numerous side projects. “The Ignorant Point” has some filthy riffing in it, but nothing that makes it stand out on the album. Nothing new. Not bad, just not anything you haven’t heard up to this point on the album.

PILIP H ANSELMO AND THE ILLEGALS (Phil Anselmo) (photo credit: DANIN DRAHOS)

The Individual” is the best song on the album at this point. Absolutely crushing instrumental and the best vocals from Anselmo on this record. If you want vintage Anselmo, you won’t find him here. This is an all new dude, with a new message and a new style, but… somehow the same old Phil we all love. It’s an absolutely killer performance on this song, and kudos to him for being able to throw down vocals this heavy at his age. This song itself is killer, the last 60 seconds are absolute insanity! From here, the album begins to run together a bit. It’s hard to decipher where you are in it. Everything is just much of the same thing; I would have liked to hear a little bit more branching out rather than just the same style over and over again, closer to what they did in the first few tracks. “Finger Me,” with all jokes aside, features Anselmo throwing out a gravely “Walk through Fire” that is totally bad-ass. But, still no different from the last two or three songs. The riff at two minutes is filthy! Unfortunately, there has to be a turd in every punchbowl and, “Invalid Colubrine Frauds” is the one here. The tune is totally skippable. “Mixed Lunatic Results” puts a close on CHOOSING MENTAL ILLNESS… and, I honestly don’t know how you write things like this on guitar. These guitar tracks (by Mike DeLeon on lead, Stephen “Schteve” Taylor and Anselmo himself) are ridiculous… absolutely bonkers! I am a guitar player and I just don’t understand this level of intricacy. Stops, changes in the riffs and key changes, funky time signatures and palm mutes… it’s amazing! Phil delivers vocally, as well, making the closer everything you want in your extreme metal. And then all of a sudden, it changes. It plays you out of the hellhole you just stepped into. All in all, this record isn’t bad at all and worth a listen; I think Phil made some poor choices on some of the vocals, but I understand taking risks.


VANILLA FUDGE

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

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

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

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


THE MIKE NESMITH AND MICKY DOLENZ SHOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MONKEES (Peter Tork) (video still)

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

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

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


VOK: IN THE DARK

(NETTWERK MUSIC GROUP; 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


MARK MORTON: ANESTHETIC

(WPP RECORDS/SPINEFARM RECORDS; 2019)

Mark Morton (Lamb of God’s guitarist) has released his first solo album. Titled ANESTHETIC, it is far from something to make you fall asleep. This album truly has something for everyone. It has dark, grooving, fast paced metal, soft rock, vocal focused ballads and just about everything in between.

The record starts with “Cross Off,” an absolutely thumping track from Morton and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park, Stone Temple Pilots). The groove heavy track begins with a scream from Bennington reminiscent of HYBRID THEORY (Linkin Park’s first album) as the late singer delivers searing metal vocals throughout, leading into a breakdown that’s impossible not to move to. From “Cross Off,” the album storms into “Sworn Apart,” with Papa Roach vocalist Jacoby Shaddix delivering a solid performance. Once again, Morton offers a filthy groove. “Axis” features Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) and Slash’s favorite singer, Myles Kennedy. Lanegan sounds like he has been gargling gravel for five years. The track slows things down and forces you to listen. And, so, away we go again with “The Never,” featuring Testament’s Chuck Billy. The tune takes off like a rocket launch 2 inches from your head. More filthy grooves and barking vocals littered throughout this track force you to bang that head. The album slows down a bit from here, with tracks featuring Kennedy (“Save Defiance”) and Mark Morales from Sons of Texas (“Blur”). Both are solid efforts, with Morton and bassist Mike Inez delivering solid performances.

MARK MORTON (photo credit: TRAVIS SHINN)

The record moves on to “Back From the Dead,” a track with Buckcherry’s Josh Todd. A solid, hard punk/metal thing, this is the best vocal performance Todd has given in years. Another highlight is the hard left turn of “Reveal,” featuring Naeemah Z Maddox. This track really shows Morton’s ability with a guitar. He slows it down and delivers a soulful and sweet guitar solo that works seamlessly with Maddox’s vocals. The album moves on to a hard rock track featuring Morton on vocals. He does a really solid job putting the vocals down in “Imaginary Days.” Very surprising, indeed. And, on to the finish… My favorite track of the year so far is “The Truth Is Dead,” featuring Randy Blythe (Lamb Of God) and Alyssa White-Gluz (The Agonist, Arch Enemy). You can already guess what happens here. White-Gluz opens the track with a beautiful singing intro which breaks into Blythe hitting his signature growl. Lows, highs, everything you could want from Blythe. Alyssa comes in at the perfect time to deliver the chorus, with Blythe throwing some clean vocals behind her. They both show off their growls through the breakdown. The album finishes STRONG. You can definitely tell Morton put a lot of time into this and chose carefully who he wanted performing each track. It’s obvious this is a labor of love and respect for the music. ANESTHETIC is highly recommended, as I think the album is killer… absolutely worth a listen.


ACE FREHLEY: SPACEMAN

(eONE MUSIC/ENTERTAINMENT ONE; 2018)

Even though Ace Frehley wasn’t my favorite member of Kiss, I was certainly appreciative of his guitar pyrotechnics (figuratively, if not literally) and, once I heard his first lead vocal on the LOVE GUN track “Shock Me,” his stock shot up dramatically in my estimation; the band now had three very distinct voices (Ace’s other-worldly, Marvin the Martian on helium atonal delivery alongside Gene Simmons’ deep-throated growl and Peter Criss’ gravelly purr) to offset Paul Stanley’s rock star style and front-man proclivities. Frehley’s ups and downs (and ins and outs) with Kiss and his battles with more than a couple of personal demons have been well documented; I won’t waste your time rehashing Ace’s checkered past… I’m just glad to have new music from the man.

ACE FREHLEY (uncredited photo)

SPACEMAN kicks off with the anthemic grind of “Without You I’m Nothing,” a track – surprisingly – co-written by former bandmate Gene Simmons, who also adds some chunky bass to the proceedings. Ace’s vocals, which have taken on a certain world-weary quality, are in top form and a slow-build solo is a much-needed cherry on top; not that the song is bad, it just never seems to catch fire, much less spark, aside from that solo. “Rockin’ With the Boys” is a hook-laden rocker that, oddly, hearkens back to “Beth” with its “No need to worry/I’ll be home soon/’Cause I’m rockin’ with the boys” chorus. The song is quite easily one of the best things Ace has recorded as a solo artist. Proving himself to be “King of the Power Chord Riffing World,” the hooks just keep coming with “Your Wish Is My Command,” Ace continues to turn up the cool factor with each successive tune. Even though Alex Salzman is onboard as bassist, the cut is another Simmons co-write, featuring just about everything that we’ve ever loved about Kiss. “Bronx Boy” has a little harder edge than the previous tracks, but then, the New York borough that spawned Frehley and Kiss tends to be a little harder edged than a good chunk of the United States. Another anthem, “Pursuit of Rock and Roll,” closes the first half of the album, as Ace name-checks some of the biggest names in the history of good ol’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, while visiting upon many of the cliches that the music is founded upon: Power chords, riffs you could caulk your house with, wicked solo after wicked solo, gang vocals and, I’m pretty sure that there’s a chunk of apple pie in there somewhere. Oh, and Anton Fig. Ace’s long time friend (Fig played drums on Frehley’s first solo record way back when) is in there, too. While Scot Coogan and Matt Starr are fine time-keepers, they aren’t always willing to show any flashes of aggressive playing, tending to keep things simple which allows the guy who’s name is on the album cover to show off his prodigious guitar chops; Anton has played with Ace long enough to feel comfortable playing with a more aggressive style.

ACE FREHLEY (photo credit: JAYME THORNTON)

Even though it’s a cover (originally recorded by Billy Satellite, later a hit for Eddie Money), “I Wanna Go Back” fits in well with what could be described as a “developing pattern,” with its lyrics-as-catharsis recalling both the happier times and a life sometimes ill-spent. The song, short on lyrical content (though it does get the point across nicely), is a mid-tempo rock ballad that fades just as Frehley takes flight on another guitar solo. Picking up the mantle envisioned with the album’s title, Ace is off to the final frontier with “Mission To Mars.” It’s another song that somehow feels unfinished; again, the tune’s not bad, just… incomplete. Another fine solo saves the number from mediocrity. “Off My Back,” likewise suffers from an early fade. The number itself feels more fully formed than the previous two cuts, with an aggressively biting vocal and another finest-kind solo. The album’s final track, “Quantum Flux,” is an instrumental track with ebbs and flows that has me thinking that I sure wouldn’t mind hearing an entire record of instrumentals from Mister Frehley; hey, don’t laugh… it has been done before. With a really cool acoustic riff playing underneath, Space Ace delivers some of his tastiest runs on this piece. Even though there are other stellar moments on SPACEMAN, it seems that Frehley saved the best for last. I will admit that many of the problems I mentioned above are merely minor annoyances; something a bit more troubling is the mix on the vinyl version of the record (the version I used for this review). The music seems compressed and muddy, which could have clouded my perception of the players’ (particularly drummers Starr and Coogan) performances. With vinyl making a strong comeback, it’s a shame that many of the mixing techniques that were perfected in the ‘70s and ‘80s are now, seemingly, forgotten. Still, while this album probably won’t get as many plays as DESTROYER or HOTTER THAN HELL, it won’t necessarily be collecting dust on my shelf, either.


UPCOMING: 20TH ANNUAL TRIBUTE TO STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN

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

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

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

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