GREAT LIVE ALBUMS (20)

Live recordings have been a part of the music industry since day one of the crude technology of the earliest devices. In fact, since there were really no studios available for recording purposes, all of those early “records” were “live recordings” in the strictest sense. However, the live album, as we now know it, is a completely different animal. That animal came into its own in the rock era and exploded with the release of ALIVE, a 1975 album by KISS, (a career making release with an overabundance of what has come to be known as “studio sweetening”), and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE in 1976 (also hurtling “the face” and former Humble Pie guitarist to superstardom). With the unprecedented success of Peter Frampton’s fifth solo release, everybody and their brothers were releasing these documents of their latest tours (sometimes used as stop gaps between studio albums; sometimes used as a means to gain an artist’s release from a record label contract, commonly referred to as the “contractual obligation” record).

A lot of people don’t like live albums. I’m not one of those. Some of my favorite records were recorded on the road. Here’s a list of 20 live albums that I think are the best. These records are all official releases, not bootlegs… that’s a whole other list (and one you may see somewhere down the line, as well). I had a hard time keeping this list to 20 (it started out as a “Top10”) and, I’m sure that your list would look very different from this one. But, that’s what makes these things so much fun, right? So, starting with number 20, here’s the first in a series of reviews presenting 20 live albums that you should check out:

(20) WINGS: WINGS OVER AMERICA

(CAPITOL RECORDS; 1976)

wings over america

To say that the original release of WINGS OVER AMERICA was a behemoth may be overstating things… but, just barely! It was a beautiful thing to look at and – in a time before gargantuan box sets were an industry norm – the three record set (enclosed in a true masterpiece of design by Hipgnosis) was one of the biggest (and, at nearly two hours, one of the longest) releases ever.

WINGS OVER AMERICA inner gatefold painting by JEFF CUMMINS

WINGS OVER AMERICA inner gatefold painting by JEFF CUMMINS

The band (drummer Joe English, guitarists/bassists Jimmy McCulloch and Denny Laine, keyboardist Linda McCartney and her husband… I think his name might have been Lester, but I’m not sure… wonder whatever happened to him?) comes out of the box rocking hard with a medley of “Venus and Mars,” “Rock Show” and “Jet.” Despite the many comments regarding Linda’s musical and vocal abilities, she was – in my humble estimation – just as integral a part of the group as Laine, McCulloch or English… heck, I even like the songs she sang lead on! Anyway, with the aid of a four man horn section, Wings proved from the get-go that they were there to play. Following a great take on “Jet” is another track from BAND ON THE RUN, the bluesy “Let Me Roll It.” Then it’s back to the VENUS AND MARS material with “Spirit of Ancient Egypt” and McCulloch’s “Medicine Jar,” a pair of tunes that had me reevaluating the merits of said album. Side two opens with a stunningly effective version of McCartney’s solo song, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” featuring some awesome, tasty guitar from McCulloch. Another slow blues – and another tune from VENUS AND MARS – follows. “Call Me Back Again” features more solid guitar work and a nice horn chart. When Paul announced this jaunt (as part of the Wings Over the World tour and his first live dates in the States since 1966), the burning question was, “Will he play any of those old songs?” The rabid fans got their answer very early in the set, as a pair of lesser (by comparison) Beatles tunes – “Lady Madonna” and the dreamy “Long and Winding Road” – were given the Wings treatment. The hyper-kinetic theme to 1973’s James Bond flick, LIVE AND LET DIE closes out the second side of the set, with McCartney pulling every cliché from every musical genre he could access at the time he wrote the song.

Wings: Linda and Paul McCartney (photo credit: BOB ELLIS)

Wings: Linda and Paul McCartney (photo credit: BOB ELLIS)

The second album (side three, by the way things were figured way back then) starts off slow, melody wise, with one of the gentler tunes from BAND ON THE RUN, the French dancehall vibe of “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me),” coupled here with a nice, lilting cover of Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” itself an adaptation of a late nineteenth century poem about a suicide. Vocalist Denny Laine changes the last line of the first chorus to “I wish I could be… John Denver.” The acoustic set continues with another song from BAND… , “Bluebird” before dipping into Paul’s back catalog once more, with a trio of classics: the country-tinged “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” a rather funky “Blackbird,” and what may just be the perfect ballad, “Yesterday.” A record flip (yes, kiddies, to get from side three to side four, you actually had to physically turn the thing over!) and it’s back to the electric stuff and another dose of VENUS AND MARS music, with the ragtimey “You Gave Me the Answer,” which is followed by McCartney’s paean to a few of Marvel Comics’ oddest villains in “Magneto and Titanium Man.” Denny is back on lead vocals reprising his hit with the Moody Blues, “Go Now.” It’s a nice, bluesy number enhanced by the horn section. It’s rather unfortunate that the best song on the RED ROSE SPEEDWAY album was “My Love.” It’s even more unfortunate that McCartney deemed the slow schmaltz worthy enough to perform live. Side four closes out with the rollicking “Listen To What the Man Said,” highlighted by Thadeus Richard’s clarinet.

Wings: Jimmy McCulloch and Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

Wings: Jimmy McCulloch and Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

Side five introduces the new album, WINGS AT THE SPEED OF SOUND, starting with the goofy pop of “Let ’em In,” one of two big hits from the record. Laine’s sinuous “Time To Hide” kicks up the rock ‘n’ roll again before the other big hit, “Silly Love Songs,” gets an early airing. I know that a lot of people cite this song, in particular, as proof that McCartney’s post-Beatles work was schmaltzy pop crap, but I’ve always liked it. So sue me, ’cause I think this version is pretty darn fun! Rocker Paul returns on “Beware My Love,” one of his more muscular forays into the realm of hard rock. Throughout WINGS OVER AMERICA, Paul, Jimmy and Denny had been switching back and forth between guitar and bass (and, occasionally, piano) but, the imaginative bass work (and the tone) on this side is all Paul and, for that reason alone, is the highlight of the set. Paul continues on bass on the final side with “Letting Go” another VENUS AND MARS rocker. “Letting Go” is followed by what is probably McCartney’s most well-known post-Beatles tune, “Band On the Run.” The bass (McCartney again) is quite prominent and the guitars, drums and Linda’s synthesizer cut through at times, but the song sounds thin somehow. It’s still a great rocker. The encores, “Hi, Hi, Hi” and “Soily,” sound better. The guitar interaction between McCulloch and Laine is possibly the strongest of the entire album, with McCulloch on slide and Laine playing a double neck. Paul McCartney wanted to prove that this wasn’t just his Wings, but a cohesive unit of five very talented musicians. I’d have to say that they definitely proved his point with the Wings Over the World tour and the WINGS OVER AMERICA album, which is why it’s one of the 20 best live albums ever.

The most recent release of WINGS OVER AMERICA came in 2013, with standard two CD and three LP versions, a Best Buy version with an extra CD of eight songs recorded at San Francisco’s famed Cow Palace and a sprawling box set featuring all three CDs, as well as a DVD of a television special called WINGS OVER THE WORLD and four books.


DESERT WIZARDS: RAVENS

(BLACK WIDOW RECORDS; Italian import; 2013)

DESERT-WIZARDS-Ravens-CD

I am not enamored with this band’s name. I find it rather odd, kinda like Justin Bieber. Fortunately, unlike the Bieb, the music of Desert Wizards is highly listenable and, ultimately, RAVENS is one of the more enjoyable genre records of the recent past. The Italian quartet (Marco Mambelli, Anna Fabbri, Marco Goti and Silvio Dalla Valle) excel at a style of early 1970s hard rock that is best exemplified by Alice Cooper (when they were a band). Primary singer Mambelli’s vocals are heavily accented, something that may put some off but, may I remind you of a guy named Klaus Meine? For a short period of time in the early ’90s, his band, Scorpions, was one of – if not THE – biggest hard rock bands on the planet. Don’t miss out on some really good music for something that is a minor barrier to overcome.

Freedom Ride” kicks things off in fine style, with riff-heavy psychedelic guitars and a beefy organ sound. The bridge builds from Mambelli’s bass before Fabbri’s churchy organ and Valle’s charging drums lead into the two wildly careening guitarists (Goti and Mambelli) who are seemingly soloing against each other. As the drums slow to a martial beat, the organ and guitars seem to swirl as Mambelli’s spoken word, Jim Morrison trance-like vocal trails to the end of the nearly eight minute track. The next tune, “Babylonia,” starts with a nice guitar part, with single notes. The pace picks up at about the 2:10 mark before exploding into a great solo a half minute later. The male/female vocals seem to break into dark angel/Holy angel parts. It’s kinda hard to tell for sure, though, as some of the lyrics don’t really translate well to English: “Between rivers, there’s a Holy river/Beyond grey and purple sky/Babylonia is so much dizzy/For your heart and for your mind.” Thankfully, the lyrical oddities don’t really detract from the song. There is what sounds like humming voices throughout “Back To Blue,” which seem to be very much at odds with the music. This creates a jarringly discordant dichotomy that is, no doubt, purposeful, as it is not entirely displeasing. The track is a slow burn until almost three minutes in, when everything comes into synch with a muscular guitar solo. A little over two minutes later, the whole thing tries to fall in upon itself. As for the vocals, they a quite dreamy and buried deep in the mix; in this instance, the tune probably would have worked better as an instrumental. “Blackbird” sounds like a continuation of the previous number, though maybe more fully realized. The piano at the beginning reminds me of Alice Cooper’s “Ballad of Dwight Fry” and this is certainly a better attempt at a ballad than “Back To Blue,” though the lyrics are very dark. In fact, the “Ballad of Dwight Fry” comparison continues in the lyrics: “I hear someone screaming/Confusion in my mind.” Fabbri takes the lead on organ during the instrumental before another cool guitar solo. This is probably the most progressive sounding tune on the album.

Desert Wizards (photo credit: PINO PINTABONA)

Desert Wizards (photo credit: PINO PINTABONA)

Dick Allen Blues” is the track where everything gels into a perfect miasma of rock ‘n’ roll bliss. The psychedelia-laced hard rock’s heavy organ is very much in the vein of early (Mach I, in fact) Deep Purple. There’s a strong Native American vibe on “Electric Sunshine,” both melodically and lyrically (minimal though they are): “Feed your head/Look at the sunrise/Feed your eyes.” The song also has a hint of Uriah Heep’s Ken Hensley with the slightly hypnotic organ, chord progressions and vocals. “Burn Into the Sky” features more forceful vocals, though they’re still muddied in the mix, which has me wondering if this is a compensation for the accent. The chunky riffing turns into a Sabbath-like bass heavy dirge somewhere around 2:50 – a very cool, atmospheric sound. There are also some very impressive wah-wah drenched solos before the song kicks back in at about 5:10. With a Gothic/Damned feel, “Vampire’s Queen” displays what may be the best lyrics on the record during the chorus: “Oh wake up, Lady Vampira/I need your poison as you need my blood/Take me down to the river of madness/Drag me to Hell, give me your bite.” The break comes along at about the three-and-a-half minute mark and, with a grand touch of menace, is head and shoulders above anything else on the album. Quite possibly the most fully realized song here. The Gothic theme continues with “Bad Dreams.” The piece starts with a fever-dream guitar signature, a lot like Alice’s “Halo of Flies.” A buzzing guitar, soloing throughout, adds to the swirling dementia. A cacophony of noise houses Vincent Price’s recitation of Poe’s “The Raven” before a more pastoral bridge that breaks down into a driving, frenzied terminus.

The CD version of the album features a bonus track, a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Childhood’s End” from the ONE OF MY TURNS tribute record. It’s a fairly faithful version that, while enjoyable, seems rather out of place here. Desert Wizards is a good band that could elevate their game – as Scorpions did – by hiring someone to help with English lyrics. You can pick up the CD version of RAVENS (as well as the band’s self-titled debut) from Amazon or from the Italian record company at www.blackwidow.it, but.. it ain’t gonna be cheap!


LAKE STREET DIVE: BAD SELF PORTRAITS

(SIGNATURE SOUNDS; 2014)

lakestreetdive2013

The four-piece Lake Street Dive would be as comfortable on-stage at a big Country show as they would be at a small Jazz club; they would fit in equally well with old-school Soul or Rock ‘n’ Roll and would even find (or gain) ardent fans on a Warped Tour stage. On their latest release, BAD SELF PORTRAITS, the immediate point of distinction – as with everything that has come before – is the voice of Rachel Price. While Price is the obvious focal point, the musicians behind her are responsible for putting words in her mouth: drummer Mike Calabrese; guitarist, trumpeter and founding member Mike “McDuck” Olson; bassist and primary songwriter (at least on this album) Bridget Kearney. The diverse sound of Lake Street Dive can most easily be traced by the geographical history of the four members: Olson hails from Minneapolis (home of Prince and Husker Du); Calabrese calls Philadelphia home (Philly Soul, anyone?); Kearney is from Iowa (as was/is Big Band leader Glenn Miller and metal extremists Slipknot); Price comes from just outside Nashville (the one in Tennessee… you know… “Music City”). This huddled mass melted into the New England Conservatory pot in Boston.

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Rachel Price, Mike Olson) (publicity photo)

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Rachel Price, Mike Olson) (publicity photo)

BAD SELF PORTRAITS kicks of with the title track, a very cool Motown vibe and vocals that have a throwback appeal – think Norah Jones channeling Ronnie Specter… kinda thick and sultry. “Stop Your Crying” is very much in the same vein: girl group pop for the next century with backing vocals that are best described as… uh-hum!… “Supreme.” The next tune, “Better Than,” has a distinct Buckingham-Nicks/Fleetwood Mac groove, with a syncopated percussion pattern, a medley line and backing vocals that are quite Stevie-esque (Nicks not Wonder, in case you didn’t get the previous reference), and a very churchy sounding organ. Bridget Kearney (who wrote this one, the equally infectious title track and three more of the 11 songs here) also adds a very nice acoustic bass line. “Rabid Animal” is a wicked girl group/Carole King-Brill Building tune with a punchy rhythm and a tack piano driving toward its abrupt end.

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Rachel Price, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson) (photo credit: JARROD MCCABE)

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Rachel Price, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson) (photo credit: JARROD MCCABE)

You Go Down Smooth” is a kind of dirty blues, featuring a standard George Thorogood guitar riff. There’s a great horn chart that gives the number a grand, Big Band feel, which is accentuated by some jazzy, charging drums and excellent backing vocals on the chorus. The funky soul of “Use Me Up” features a snappy percussion pattern but, it’s the slapping bass line, with just enough resonance, bounce and spring in the strings to give it a nifty ’30s Jazz vibe. “Bobby Tanqueray” is a cool mix of modern alternative rock guitar parts, loopy, out-of-left-field bizarro stage production lyrics and an odd sci-fi/fantasy siren (the mythological chicks, not the noisey, wailing warning devices) sound (is it a synthesizer thingy… is it a theremin… is it a human voice?) that really kicks this one up a notch on my “like-o-meter.” Believe it or not, “Just Ask,” reminds me of something from Paice Ashton Lord (a Deep Purple off-shoot), with a heavy organ sound, a beefy guitar sound and a funky groove.

Lake Street Dive (Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese, Mike Olson, Rachel Price) (publicity photo)

Lake Street Dive (Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese, Mike Olson, Rachel Price) (publicity photo)

Seventeen” is probably the rockin’est track, with a driving, crisp Southern Rock guitar sound and almost tribal drumming from Calabrese. The male/female duet vocals adds another dimension, reminiscent of the sound Dale Krantz and Barry Harwood brought to their duets with the Rossington-Collins Band. The chorus and the rhythm of the track are of the variety that gets stuck in your head, on perpetual rewind. A loose, random feel permeates the percussion heavy “What About Me,” giving it a funky, rollicking late ’60s feel. The church choir chorus and New Orleans-style guitar and drums adds to the almost sloppy party atmosphere, kinda like a Big Easy funeral procession during Mardi Gras. The final track, “Rental Love,” clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, is as close as this record gets to a ballad. The instrumentation is – once again – crisp and imaginative but, Price’s vocal performance raises the track to another level… something more than a standard Rock/Pop/whatever ballad.

BAD SELF PORTRAITS is short by today’s standards, a few seconds shy of 40 minutes. You get so lost, however, in the little nuances (lyrically, vocally and instrumentally) of the album that you don’t realize the brevity… you just know you want to hear more. I’m well aware that we’re barely a quarter of the way through the year, but I’m gonna be hard pressed to find many more deserving releases for a spot in my “Best of 2014” list.


IT’S (STILL) A MAN”S WORLD: THE EVELYN MCDONNELL INTERVIEW

Part 1: RANDOM MUSINGS

Rock and roll was, is and probably always will be a man’s game. True, there have been a few ladies who were able to transcend that mystical barrier… at least, from a fan’s perspective. But, ask them about the business end or ask them about how they are generally treated in the media. There, the stories are much different. Marketing strategies usually accentuate the sexual aspects of a woman who rocks over how well she plays her instrument, sings or writes music. And, the music press, of course, goes along for the ride with photo shoots that dwell on the physical appearance – the female form – of their latest cover girl. If an instrument (usually a guitar, for – no doubt – its phallic properties) is on display in the photo, it’s used as a sexual device. So, how do we change this thinking? That’s the underlying question posed in the work of Evelyn McDonnell, a journalist, an educator, and… a woman. She has been exploring the subject for close to 30 years, while schooling a few people along the way about some of the trend-setting, door-opening heroines who made it just a little cooler for a lady to rock. One such group of teenage girls wanted to rock and, while suffering unimaginable degradation (everyone from their manager to their record label to the music press held these five young ladies in the lowest regard, treating them as – at the very worst – a group of over-sexed nymphomaniacs or – at the very least – a novelty act), managed to not only open the door, but kick the door down with their platform boots.

The Runaways, 1976, debut album gatefold (Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

The Runaways, 1976, debut album gatefold (Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

That group of young girls was the Runaways, who have recently been the subject of a major (though tragically skewed) biographical movie, based on the memoirs of lead singer Cherie Currie. Ms McDonnell’s latest book (QUEENS OF NOISE: THE REAL STORY OF THE RUNAWAYS, published by DeCapo Books) takes a more balanced look at the Runaways, from the first meeting between drummer Sandy West and guitarist Joan Jett through the ugly splits with, first, bassist Jackie Fox, then, Currie. It really is sad to say that many of the stories and legends about West, Fox, Currie, Jett, lead guitarist Lita Ford and those who came before and after are true. Their manager/guru, Kim Fowley, treated them like product… a means to an end. The end, of course, for Fowley was huge amounts of money. The fact that he didn’t get filthy rich off of his “gimmick” was, in my opinion, a case of his own hubris, putting too much stock in his creation and then turning the reins over to men even more unscrupulous than he. His (and his minions) handling of the young ladies who were Runaways (including, during the band’s infancy, future Bangles bassist Michael Steele) left mental and physical wounds that may never heal. Sandy West died, still trying to recapture what made the Runaways a great band; Jackie Fox has just, very recently, started opening up about her time in the band. McDonnell’s no-holds-barred account is a must read for all lovers of rock ‘n’ roll music, but also serves as a cautionary tale for anyone – male or female – looking to be the next big thing.

Part 2: THE INTERVIEW

Queens of Noise cover

THE MULE: Evelyn, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about your latest book, QUEENS OF NOISE: THE REAL STORY OF THE RUNAWAYS. Before we jump into that, could you give us a brief overview of your careers, as a journalist and as an assistant professor of journalism?
EVELYN: I’ve been a writer or editor for daily newspapers, magazines, trade publications, alternative weeklies, and websites for almost 30 years. I’ve primarily done cultural journalism, specializing in music and women’s issues. I’ve won several awards, including an Annenberg fellowship, which led me to get my Master’s at USC. After that, I began teaching at LMU, where I have been ever since.

 

Evelyn McDonnell (uncredited photo)

Evelyn McDonnell (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: QUEENS OF NOISE started as a treatise on drummer Sandy West, right?
EVELYN: Yes.
THE MULE: How did you become interested in Sandy and what prompted the change to writing a book about the entire band?
EVELYN: You answer this in the next question, really. First, I always have a thing for drummers, probably because I wanted a drum set when I was a little girl, and unlike Sandy, I did not make my parents give me one. Second, I, too, was deeply moved by Sandy’s responses in EDGEPLAY. My advisor at USC, Tim Page, had also seen the movie and had the same response. In talking about the Runaways and EDGEPLAY, we both agreed that for the thesis, I should focus on Sandy. We wanted to know more about her story. To this day I remain entranced by her.

 

Sandy West doing what she loved... playing live (uncredited photo)

Sandy West doing what she loved… playing live (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I was brought to tears watching Sandy’s segments in EDGEPLAY. The sense of desperation and of a deeply lost soul struggling for just one more chance. Did you have the chance to interview her and spend time with her before her death? Had her outlook and mental state changed by that time?
EVELYN: Sadly, I never met Sandy. I really hadn’t thought about writing any of this until I was suddenly moving to LA, and she passed several years beforehand. I think we would have been good friends. Even now I have a crush on her.

 

The Runaways, circa 1975 (Micki Steele, Sandy West, Joan Jett) (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

The Runaways, circa 1975 (Micki Steele, Sandy West, Joan Jett) (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

THE MULE: When I was listening to QUEENS OF NOISE in 1977, it seemed – from the outside – that Cherie Currie was rather like the whipping post for, not only Kim Fowley, but also Joan Jett and Lita Ford. Before Cherie joined the band, it seemed as though songwriter Kari Krome took the brunt of the abuse. Reading your book, it seems that maybe a lot of the anger and vitriol aimed at her, at least from her band mates, may have been a reaction against Kim’s take-no-prisoners pattern of verbal abuse toward anyone associated with the Runaways. Am I misreading this or did you get the same feeling as you interviewed these women?
EVELYN: Actually I think you were very perceptive; you must have followed the band closely! I think Kim picked his victims, first Micki, then Kari, then Cherie. Sadly, I’m afraid that some of the members of the band fell for his power dynamics and sometimes even played along. But I also think that Cherie was very difficult. I don’t think Kim was wrong in accusing her of having a huge ego. She and Joan got along. It was mostly Lita Cherie fought with, and Kim.

 

The Runaways, circa 1977 (Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Lita Ford, Sandy West) (photo credit: CLAUDE VAN HEY/LONDON FEATURES)

The Runaways, circa 1977 (Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Lita Ford, Sandy West) (photo credit: CLAUDE VAN HEY/LONDON FEATURES)

THE MULE: I enjoyed Cherie’s biography, NEON ANGEL, and was entertained by the movie, THE RUNAWAYS, but these gave a very skewed perspective on the story of one of the most influential bands to come out of the LA rock scene. Your book allows every member of that group to have their input into what has become a very muddled history. I was particularly interested in Jackie Fox’s perspective. I’d always read that she was somewhat a whiner when she was a part of the band and, after she left, that she absolutely refused to discuss the band or her part in it with anybody. So, I guess to get this thing moving, was that mostly a mythology concocted by the band and their management or is it that Jackie has softened on her stance? Is there a sense that had THE RUNAWAYS happened now, instead of four years ago, she would have somehow been involved in that and given her okay for the producers to use her name in the movie?
EVELYN: Thanks for understanding what I was trying to accomplish with this book. Jackie was the most accommodating member of the band, though she took some convincing. She is quite willing to talk about her experiences, and in fact has in the past written blogs about them. She did change her mind about cooperating with the movie, but too late. However, I think she was very different from the other girls: book-smart, an overachiever, feminine, neurotic. She really didn’t fit in, and she was simply too smart – and not interested in partying enough – to enjoy a lot of what went on. There are members of the Runaways – okay, mostly Joan – who really do not trust her, or like her. They have their reasons; I want to be very careful not to take sides in these fights. But I was very happy to be able to present Jackie’s point of view. I hope we haven’t heard the last of her!

THE MULE: The band’s albums were right in my musical wheelhouse, so to speak. In fact, both Joan and Lita are less than two weeks younger than me. Of course, when that first album came out, I was drawn to the picture of Cherie on the cover, but when I got home and put the record on the turntable (boys and girls, I’ll give you a chance to Google those words… okay, so we’re back), it was quite obvious that this was something pretty special. It was – to say the least – very strange for a bunch of teenage girls to be playing rock and roll like this. Even though I never looked at it as anything other than talented musicians playing music that I liked, there was a stigma placed on the Runaways. Now, nearly 40 years later, there are women who owe their careers to these ladies. Even so, do you still get the impression that – particularly among knuckleheaded journalists like me – women who rock are still looked down upon as almost a novelty act? I’m continually hearing things like, “She plays pretty good for a girl.” How do we get past that kind of gender bias?
EVELYN: Okay, you made me LOL. But think about it: Where are the girl bands today? Beyonce plays with one, bless her. And there are a bunch bubbling up from underground, inspired by Pussy Riot and THE PUNK SINGER and, yes, the Runaways: Pottymouth, Cherry Glazerr, Girlpool, Girl in a Coma, etc. But they are still marginalized and treated as “cute,” by and large. The Girls Rock Camps of the world are training a new musical army. YouTube and the Internet allow artists to circumvent the old gatekeepers. But new media outlets like PITCHFORK largely replicate the boys club of the old media. We still need more female, and feminist, media voices.

 

The Runaways, 1976 (Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West, Cherie Currie) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

The Runaways, 1976 (Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West, Cherie Currie) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

THE MULE: That bias was rampant from a journalistic standpoint. I remember the first thing I ever read about the Runaways was in CRAWDADDY (probably the only time I actually bought an issue). The sometime irreverent magazine seemed to go even farther in turning these teenage girls into something that was closer to strippers and nymphomaniacs than serious musicians. I recall, in particular, the writer spending a fair amount of column space discussing Cherie’s problems with a silver jumpsuit; the article went into great detail (with quotes) letting the male rock listening majority know that since Cherie didn’t wear underwear, she was suffering from a rash that required her to place a piece of paper between her skin and the crotch of her jumpsuit. I’m not sure that anyone – before or since – was ever subjected to that kind of “journalism,” yet the underlying sense that rock ‘n’ roll is still very much a “boys game” persists. Do you think that the day will ever come that such thinking is completely left behind?
EVELYN: Wow, I never saw that CRAWDADDY piece. My first book, ROCK SHE WROTE, co-edited with Ann Powers, was all about storming the boys club of criticism; it came out almost 20 years ago. But even though I had studied the terrain well, I was not prepared for just how chauvinist some of the coverage of the Runaways was. The Wilson sisters talk about this in their memoir, too, how loutishly the media treated Heart. Meanwhile, the publishing industry just paid some guy 7 figures (!!!!!!) to write a hagiography — er, biography — of Jann Wenner. Makes me want to puke.

 

The Runaways, 1978 (Vicki Blue, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford) (photo credit: BARRY LEVINE)

The Runaways, 1978 (Vicki Blue, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford) (photo credit: BARRY LEVINE)

THE MULE: Though Lita and Cherie seem to be on board with a Runaways reunion, Joan has said publicly that doesn’t see what a reunion would accomplish. Do you feel that we will ever see anything close to an official reunion?
EVELYN: I doubt it. The water under that bridge just won’t calm down.

THE MULE: What’s next for you? As an old rock ‘n’ roller from the ’70s, I would be interested in a book about another “all girl” band, Fanny. Would you be interested in exploring something like that?
EVELYN: I’m not sure yet. I have one project along those lines I’m considering. But a part of me wants to, er, run away from all things rock ‘n’ roll related. It’s a ghetto, especially for a woman. Maybe it’s time to move on.

THE MULE: Thanks for your time, Evelyn, and for giving the Runaways story the respect it deserves.
EVELYN: Thank you for your careful reading and thoughtful questions.


BIG HEAD TODD AND THE MONSTERS

(March 8, 2014; THE PAGEANT, Saint Louis, MO)

Big Head Todd and the Monsters (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Big Head Todd and the Monsters (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Big Head Todd and the Monsters recorded some of the most memorable music of the “alternative rock era.” A lot – “Bittersweet,” “Circle,” “Resignation Superman” – are still personal favorites from that time. And, yet, somehow, this March night in Saint Louis, is the first time I’ve seen them play live. What can I say, except… “Wow!” This is one of the tightest bands it has ever been my pleasure to see play live. And, their fans? Some would call them “rabid,” but that really isn’t right… sounds too animalistic. However, the word “loyal” does come to mind… and, not in a puppy dog kind of way. Speaking to a couple of young ladies before the show, I discovered that one had been following the guys around the country, through some truly horrible weather, like that ancient tribe known as the “Dead-Heads.” The other – even though she, like myself, was attending her first BHTM show – talked about how excited she was because this is the music that got her through some very hard times.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Big Head Todd and the Monsters (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The night was billed as “An Evening With Big Head Todd and the Monsters,” which meant – obviously – no opening act. But, the quartet (Todd Park Mohr, Rob Squires, Brian Nevin and Jeremy Lawton) did bring along a couple of friends to join in on the fun: Guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks (son of legendary Chicago Bluesman, Lonnie Brooks) and vocalist (and former full-time member of the band) Hazel Miller. It was apparent that all six came to play! Todd and the Monsters kicked things off with one of their biggest hits, “Bittersweet,” following that with another, “Resignation Superman.” You just know that you’re in for a special night when the band starts with two of their biggest achievements, chart-wise. A couple of early songs, “Vincent of Jersey” and “The Leaving Song” (the first two tracks from the group’s second album, 1990’s MIDNIGHT RADIO) brought us to the first new tune, the beautifully rendered “Josephina,” which reminds me of some of Phil Lynott’s best Thin Lizzy balladry. Ronnie Baker Brooks joined the band for a fun version of “Twine Time,” a 1964 hit for Saint Louis natives, Alvin Cash and the Crawlers. At the time, I had no idea who the guy playing the mean blues guitar was, but I knew that he had a familiar style. After speaking to him during the break and learning his heritage, that style and sound made perfect sense: His father, Lonnie, was a leading light in bringing the Chicago style of the Blues to prominence in the ’70s. Mohr and Brooks are certainly a formidable guitar tandem. Hazel Miller joined in the fun a few songs later, delivering a mesmerizing “ICU In Everything.” The sextet ended the set with a funky, roiling “Beautiful World” and a great version of “It’s Alright.”

Big Head Todd and the Monsters (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Big Head Todd and the Monsters (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The second set kicked off with another pair of hits, “Broken Hearted Savior” and “Circle,” before moving into “Please Don’t Tell Her” – a song that prominently features the organ-work of Jeremy Lawton – and its BEAUTIFUL WORLD album-mate, “Caroline.” The next several songs were from the group’s latest, BLACK BEEHIVE: “Everything About You,” “I Get Smooth,” which is sort of a Fats Domino-type stroll with a nice upright bass line from Rob Squires, and the funky slide workout of “Seven State Lines.” “Dirty Juice,” another – harder edged – slide extravaganza breaks up the new music set before the title track ballad, “Black Beehive.” A honkin’, funky take of “Yes We Can” kicked things back up a notch before a solemn “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which was ingeniously coupled with the Staple Singers’ fantastic 1971 hit, “Respect Yourself.” A Brooks song, “Love Me Baby,” from his album, THE TORCH, led into the set closer, the muscular “We Won’t Go Back,” another BLACK BEEHIVE track. The encore featured a rocking cover of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” sandwiched between another pair of new songs, the hauntingly beautiful, acoustic “Travelin’ Light” and the heavy, chugging funk of “Hey Delilah.”

Big Head Todd and the Monsters (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Big Head Todd and the Monsters (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this evening. What I got were great performances – guitarists Brooks and Mohr and drummer Brian Nevin in particular; a healthy dose of the BLACK BEEHIVE album, as well as classic BHTM tracks and some well-chosen (if occasionally odd) covers. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, this was my first BHTM live experience. It will not be my last!


THOSE DARLINS/DIAHREA PLANET/SPEEDBOATS

(22 February, 2014; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis, MO)

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

When reviewing a band live, sometimes things work out, sometimes there are a couple of bumps in the road, sometimes things completely fall apart. This review kinda falls into the “bumps in the road” category. Nothing serious, just a matter of… timing. Planning to meet up with some friends, I was at the venue early. It was then that I found out that not only was the door time an hour later than expected, but there was one more band on the bill than anticipated. All of this meant that – besides a 9:10 starting time – I had time to kill… a lot of time to kill! But… you don’t really care about that, do you? You just wanna know about the show. So…

Speedboats (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Speedboats (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

The “extra” band was Speedboats, a newish hometown group whose sound is borderline pop punk, leaning heavier toward a cool California skater punk/stoner rock vibe. The five-piece has a great sense of self-deprecating humor and energy to burn. There was also a huge case of the nerves on display, as singer Greg Crittenden had some problems with his control. Now, how, you may ask, do I know it was “nerves” and not something else? Well… I watched the boys’ sound-check and he didn’t crack at all. There’s actually so much to like about these guys and this is such a minor complaint that, truthfully, besides the guys on stage, I may have been the only other one to notice. The guitar duo of Sean Gartner (stage right) and Karl Stefanski (stage left… where else?) elevated the music to something way past standard pop punk, particularly on a song so new that it didn’t even have an official name yet. The working title is “Roller SK8 or Die,” which as far as I can tell (what lyrics there were weren’t totally clear to these ears), had absolutely nothing to do with rollerskating or death. Speedboats got the crowd into things early on and set up the evening nicely. I seriously expect great things from these guys in the not too distant future.

Diarrhea Planet (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Diarrhea Planet (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Up next was Diarrhea Planet, a band hand-picked by fellow Nashvillains (?) and headliners, Those Darlins. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I got absolutely blew me away. Imagine… oh, let’s say, Dead Kennedys… with… let’s go with Eddie Van Halen and then multiply him by four. That’s right: old school California punk with four guitar players continually soloing, shredding and finger-tapping like mad scientists. Founding member Jordan Smith handles most of the vocals, but the other guitarists (Emmett Miller, Brent Toler and Evan Bird) all have their moments. With the rhythm section (drummer Casey Weissbuch and bassist Mike Boyle) holding everything together – in the very loosest sense – the four front line guys were allowed to entertain the fans (and, occasionally, each other) with some of the hottest playing I’ve ever seen, including two of the guys finger-tapping in harmony. Absolutely amazing! This band managed to do something that I haven’t seen for quite some time: They had the crowd moshing, bouncing and bringing back that old school punk pit vibe. At one point, they brought the “least punk person” to the stage to prove that “anyone can be a punk.” They gave Ty the mic and 35 seconds to rant, vent and be punk. He started out with a truly epic scream, but was soon lost in the swirling guitar overload. What a fun show! However – and, please, don’t hold this against me guys – Diarrhea Planet may just be the fourth worst band name ever – right behind Panic! At the Disco, Vampire Weekend and Justin Bieber. Since I have absolutely no idea where the name came from, I’m gonna go with this: It’s a geo-political statement aimed at the leaders of the world. Thankfully, the band elevates the music to a level that transcends the horrible noises of the Disco Vampire Bieber. There latest release is called I’M RICH BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS and is available at all of the usual places. Don’t let the name scare you!

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

In Nashville, Those Darlins (as well as Diarrhea Planet) are godlike. In fact, they had a large contingent of their hometown fans front and center at the intimate Off Broadway stage. There were also quite a few folk from upstate Illinois: Chicago and, if I heard right, a suburb called Berwyn. People absolutely love the Darlins… with good reason. The quartet took the stage and the crowd by storm, with the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that has people making five hour drives to see them onstage. Jessi Zazu (who handles most of the vocals) and Nikki Kvarnes continued the guitar showcase, with their own brand of sweet leads and tasty solos. Things seemed to kick into a higher gear with the set’s third song, “Red Light Love,” which – even if you had no idea who Those Darlins are – is a tune that you’re gonna recognize, as it was featured in several commercials for Kia Motors over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, this is where the whole time thing came in to bite me on the posterior: About the time that the band was finishing “Red Light Love,” I received a call telling me that I was needed at home. I love the Darlins, but – and I’m sure they’ll agree – family comes first. I am really sorry that I didn’t have the chance to hear the entire set from Those Darlins. If the rest of the set was as hot as the first three or four songs, I certainly missed a great one!

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Before I go, I’ve gotta say something about the venue. Off Broadway is currently one of the best sounding rooms in Saint Louis. The vibe is awesome and laid back, as are the people who work there. Even though Off Broadway is smaller, the closest comparison I can come up with is the late, lamented Mississippi Nights. If you have the chance, get out to Off Broadway for some live music. Check out their schedule here: www.offbroadwaystl.com.


REACTA: REFRACTION

(ALARIC RECORDS; 2014)

Reacta cover

Reacta is a… let’s call ’em an alternative prog rock band, shall we… hailing from a small town in Mexico called Aguascalientes. They started a couple of years back as an instrumental project, but have taken their intense fusion of sounds (rock, jazz, ambient, pop) to a whole other level since adding American lyricist and singer, William Merritt Hendricks to the fold. To say that this band’s musical style and influences are hard to pin down is a huge understatement. I guess that, to some people, saying that REFRACTION is simply good music just won’t cut it. They wanna know who Reacta sounds like. Well, good luck with that one, chum. Each of the ten songs, while offering a coherent whole, has so many things happening that just when you think, “I’m hearing a bit of the Edge’s guitar style here,” the entire vibe changes and you’re thinking, “The vocal phrasing kinda reminds me of Adam Levine.”

The opening track, “Lost,” is a gently rocking ballad with a smooth Maroon 5 vibe and a guitar part that is vaguely reminiscent of Big Country’s Stuart Adamson. “Back Home” continues the alternative pop feel, featuring swirling guitar textures and powerful drumming. The one comparison I’m getting is, again, a mish-mash of current and classic artists: Bruno Mars (with better lyrics) fronting early U2 or NONSUCH-era XTC. The track segues into “Puzzles,” which offers a more muscular sound, while maintaining the Bill Nelson/Robert Fripp sonic washes. The rhythm guitar is a staccato chatter throughout, which gives the tune a kind of heavy jam band feel. The Adam Levine reference comes in again while, musically, I’m hearing an Incubus influence.

Reacta (uncredited photo)

Reacta (uncredited photo)

With “Stay Here,” the U2 connection returns, at least lyrically and melodically. The guitars and keyboards interact well here, more as tonal effects as opposed to specific notes. This device is prominently displayed over the course of the album’s 54 minutes. The drumming is, again, very powerful and dynamic. The centerpiece of the entire disc is the 12 minute long “Complication.” An electric piano leads into a strident, anthemic first section. A powerful, heavy middle bridge leads into a funkier groove before transitioning into a kind of prog rock rave-up. There are at least four stylistic markers before (at about the 8:40 mark) the song morphs into a loopy, pastoral ambient soundscape. The track is rather schizophrenic, but the several disparate pieces actually make for an enjoyably cohesive whole, making it one of my favorite tracks from REFRACTION. “Skyscraper” is another slab of Maroon 5 style alternative soul funkiness, with power chords aplenty dominating the choruses.

City of Lights” has that light and easy groove of the perfect summer windows-down, radio-up car tune. If the powers that be at Alaric Records are listening, save this one as an end of May single release! Until then, this album version will have to keep us warm through these colder-than-usual winter months. “Sound of Drums,” the first single, is another feel good anthem, though I’m not too certain as to the meaning. Apparently, it’s… an odd ode to the perfect drummer? The lyrics and melody line are easy and memorable, making a perfect sing-a-long song. The track also features an exceptional guitar solo in a sea of great solos. A dirty display of pure hard rock power kicks off “Last Train” before the artsier (almost jazzy) musical leanings are introduced. The vocals, like the music, are more forceful. If I had to compare the track with anything… maybe a more melodic, less grating Limp Bizkit fused with the more jam band like tendencies of Incubus. Uh… so there’s no mistaking what I’m saying here, this is more a stylistic comparison: This tune is more accomplished than anything LB ever produced. The final track, “Storyline,” offers a strange casio-cum-calliope rhythm and a sleepy, laconic vocal. A very nice way to end a thoroughly enjoyable debut.

Reacta (publicity photo)

Reacta (publicity photo)

Id like to say that Reacta needs to find that niche sound that will hold them in good stead with a certain stylistically like-minded group of fans. However, I think the fact that they can’t be so easily pigeonholed will enable them to cross genre lines and become an across the board success. There aren’t too many of those around these days. I just wish that somewhere (a web-site, an album cover, something) they would give us more info on who is in the band and who does what!


PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS

(CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2013)

psych-out christmas cover

I can’t listen to Christmas songs anymore. Not the cutesy ones like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “The Christmas Song” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”; not the Carols heard in church like “Noel” or “Away In a Manger.” I just can’t do it! I ain’t no Scrooge… I’ve done my share of caroling and was even a member of my church choir (okay, so I was asked to leave because I started singing the Hoyt Axton song when we did “Joy To the World”), but it just is not happening for me anymore. Why? It mostly stems from the absolute mindless inundation of the “holiday spirit” from, basically, the end of September through New Year’s Day. As an example, I was shopping for Halloween candy (something I usually put off ’til the last minute, but in an odd act of responsibility, I was about three weeks early) in a large box store (the Mart with all the Wals… you know the one) and, walking past one of those goofy inspirational music kiosks, I heard – I kid you not! – “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Seriously? Christmas songs the first week of October? You can understand, then, my trepidation regarding this new holiday offering.

Iggy Pop (photo credit: JEAN-PAUL GOUDE)

Iggy Pop (photo credit: JEAN-PAUL GOUDE)

But… guess what? I like it! I really like it! It isn’t as dark and menacing as, say, CLAWS (the twisted 1980 macabre masterpiece by Morgan Fisher’s Hybrid Kids) or anything produced by that stable of demented kiddies over at Disney, but it does have an underlying sense of… let’s call it familial claustrophobia, shall we? The songs are fairly standard Christmas fare, but tweaked just enough to give the listener a rather ominous vibe. The set starts off with a piece of warm and fuzzy lunacy, the opening track from Len Maxwell’s 1964 bizarro A MERRY MONSTER CHRISTMAS album. From there, we’re treated to some of today’s best psychedelic and space rock bands (with a few surprises tossed into the mix) waxing musical over the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ or the birth of Sol (for the pagans among us) or over that jolly elf favored by capitalists the world over, Santa (that last one, I suppose, works for everyone else, too). Anyway, I suppose that’s my lummoxed way of saying that you don’t have to celebrate the Christ Mass to enjoy this record… just grab your favorite – uh – whatever and give her/him/it a big ol’ smooch under the mistlethumb and dance like you’re in the mud at Woodstock!

Quintron and Miss Pussycat (uncredited photo)

Quintron and Miss Pussycat (uncredited photo)

Elephant Stone’s version of the Beatles’ “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” is as trippily poppy as you would expect from such a high-end pairing. We are off to a great start here! “It’s Christmas Day” by the Cosmonauts is an odd jangle-pop thingy, kinda like an utterly drunken Tom Petty fronting the Byrds… so, it’s got that goin’ for it. The first “traditional” Christmas hymn follows. However, “Silent Night,” as performed by synth-puppet show duo, Quintron and Miss Pussycat, is anything but traditional. The beloved tune (in instrumental form) is hardly recognizable and is more psychotic (in a bossa nova sort of way) than psychedelic. I’m not too sure that this one belongs on a compilation like PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS, but I’m glad it is… I would have hated to miss hearing it! Hailing from Sweden (where we swiped a lot of their Solstice “rituals” and turned ’em into our Christmas “traditions”) is Dark Horses, weighing in with “Jul Song,” an original that totally oozes psychedelia, from the guitars to the vocals to the (if not indecipherable) vaguely incomprehensible lyrics. It could be that the meaning was lost in translation, but it really doesn’t matter; the beauty of the piece as a whole makes it a favorite.

Sleepy Sun (Photo credit: CHLOE AFTEL)

Sleepy Sun (Photo credit: CHLOE AFTEL)

Sleepy Sun’s take on “What Child Is This,” with its creeping bass line and minimal, plodding instrumentation and “sold-my-soul-to-Satan” type vocals from Bret Constantino, introduces a new kind of not-unwanted menace to the proceedings and, when the guitar duo of Evan Reiss and Matt Holliman kick in, they drive the tune to new psychedelic heights. A cover of Suicide’s “No More Christmas Blues” from the Vacant Lots is over almost before you know it. It offers a bouncy little synth riff and an airily (or is that “eerily?”) tripped out vocal. It’s a fun track (but then, aren’t all Suicide tunes?) but pales in comparison to the surrounding offerings from Sleepy Sun and Sons of Hippies. It’s somewhat fitting that, regardless of the apparent thematic disconnect (although, as is pointed out in the press release, Christmas is indeed “the season of loving”), these Hippies should cover a song by a group of Zombies. Hippies front-woman Katherine Kelly sums up the song best: “’Time of the Season’ was fun to cover. We replaced the organ parts on the original Zombies version with layers of distorted guitar leads and gave the drums an eerie, echoed intro. The PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS compilation is unique and spooky and we wanted to be part of that vibe.” Sons of Hippies aren’t currently one of my favorite bands for nothing and this spectacularly atmospheric cover is just more evidentiary proof of that statement (double negatives aside).

Eli Cook (photo credit: REED RADCLIFFE)

Eli Cook (photo credit: REED RADCLIFFE)

With “Santa Claus,” the Fuzztones offer the first dose of overtly “traditional garage psychedelia,” with the obligatory farfisa organ, the dirty guitar sound (you know what I mean, like it’s being played through a blown amp) and a vocal that sounds like it was recorded with 1960s studio equipment. In short, all of these aspects make “Santa Claus” another favorite. Eli Cook”s “Christmas Tears” has a great bluesy stroll vibe, with Cook doing an awesome approximation of Hendrix channeling the great bluesmen of the past, both vocally and on guitar. The song also features a piano part that would have made Johnnie Johnson (the REAL “King of Rock and Roll”) proud. The Movements’ take on “Little Drummer Boy” is all swirling guitars and synths and a disjointed, ethereal vocal from David Henricksson. The one thing the song doesn’t have is… drums! Which just makes the thing all the more spooky and enjoyable. Quintron and Miss Pussycat are back (the only act to appear twice) with a more traditional vibe (or, at least, a more recognizable one) on “Jingle Bell Rock,” which clocks in at just under a minute-and-a-half. Candy Store take on Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” with their version of “Frosty the Snowman,” from a 1969 album called TURNED ON CHRISTMAS. The similarities between this anonymous studio concoction and Ronnie and the other girls is amazing, but then that’s what these “knock-off” acts were supposed to do – sound as much like the originals as possible so the record label (in this case, Decca) wouldn’t have to pay licensing fees to someone else. Anyway, it’s still a fun song.

Psychic Ills (publicity photo)

Psychic Ills (publicity photo)

Psychic Ills’ “Run Rudolph Run,” while remaining relatively true to Chuck Berry’s 1959 classic (even the vocal phrasing sounds like Chuck), muddies and sludges things up with enough over-modulated surf guitar to make Dick Dale blush. Tres Warren, the Ills’ guitarist and vocalist says of this recording: “I always liked ‘Run Rudolph Run’ because it was a song that I’d actually want to listen to regardless of what time of year it is, and Chuck Berry is as mythical as Santa Claus in my mind.” Somewhere, Don Ho is frolicking in his grave, listening to the echo-laden Hawaiian Christmas offering from Dead Meadow, “Mele Kalikimaka.” The band’s laconic approach is perfectly attuned to the odd vibe of this collection. The only thing missing is a ukelele! Another bizarre track from 1969 follows. It’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” (though it’s listed as “Jingle Bells” on this record and on the original, MERRY CHRISTMAS PSYCHEDELIC SOUND) by Korean instrumental gods, He 5. It’s really rather indescribable, which – I guess – is the entire point of PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS. After doing some checking, I did find this band’s version of “Jingle Bells” (the whole of their above named album is available on YouTube) and it is AWESOME! At a smidge under twelve-and-a-half minutes long, the traditional song morphs into “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” including a lengthy drum solo before shifting again to the Stones’ “Paint It Black” and then back to “Jingle Bells.” Probably the strangest, creepiest track on this entire compilation is the last, a fairly literal take on “White Christmas” by everyone’s favorite (latter day) Stooge, Iggy Pop. Mister Osterberg’s nearly gutteral baritone and morose, funereal reading of the Irving Berlin classic is sure to keep the kiddies up, fearing ghosties and hobgoblins will be coming down the chimney instead of the dude with the bag of toys. Ah, yeah… I guess Christmas music ain’t so bad after all.


BLACK OAK ARKANSAS: BACK THAR ‘N’ OVER YONDER

(ATCO RECORDS/ATLANTIC RECORDS/WARNER MUSIC GROUP; 2013)

2013_Back_Thar_n_Over_Yonder

Those wild men from the hills of Arkansas are back. Well… sorta! Half of the original Black Oak Arkansas have reunited (with a few old friends and more current members) to record five new tracks for BACK THAR ‘N’ OVER YONDER. The album also features 10 unreleased tracks, produced by the legendary Tom Dowd and recorded during the band’s hey-day of 1972-1974. That means that the most successful and well-known incarnation of the group (with Harvey Jett playing guitar and Tommy Aldridge on drums) is featured prominently in the final two-thirds of the disc. Of course, what would BOA be without the vocal stylings of Jim “Dandy” Mangrum? I gotta tell ya, boys and girls, the man can still deliver that distinctive gutteral growl, nearly 45 years after the band’s debut album!

Black Oak Arkansas (uncredited photo)

Black Oak Arkansas on stage in 2013 (uncredited photo)

The new tracks are rather reminiscent of the group’s three MCA albums (the awesome X-RATED and better-than-average 10 YEAR OVERNIGHT SUCCESS and BALLS OF FIRE), eschewing the raunchier sounds for a more balanced, more streamlined sound. Think “Strong Enough To Be Gentle” (the band’s last single to chart, in 1975) or “Fistful of Love” (a duet with Ruby Starr, featuring members of BOA, as well as Starr’s Grey Ghost, including the dominating – some would say “over-bearing” – keyboards of Marius Penczner). If all you know of Black Oak Arkansas is HIGH ON THE HOG and RAUNCH ‘N’ ROLL LIVE, this newer, gentler version may take some getting used to, but the band’s MCA output ranks among my all-time favorite albums and are well worth checking out. But… you’re not here to read about the distant past (except for the unreleased early ’70s material featured on this new release). So… back to those new songs, huh?

Black Oak Arkansas, 2013 (George Hughen, Johnnie Bolin, Jim "Dandy" Mangrum, Rickie Lee Reynolds, Hal McCormack) (uncredited photo)

Black Oak Arkansas, 2013 (George Hughen, Johnnie Bolin, Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, Rickie Lee Reynolds, Hal McCormack) (uncredited photo)

Plugged In and Wired” is reminiscent of and references one of the band’s best tunes, “When Electricity Came To Arkansas.” Track two, “Sweet Delta Water,” is one of those swampy ballads that Mangrum and co-founding guitarist Rickie Lee Reynolds do so well. “15 Million Light Years Away” is in the same vein, but kicks up the tempo a bit. The band (original members Mangrum, Reynolds, and bassist Pat Daugherty alongside longstanding guitarist Jimmy Henderson and current members, former Grey Ghost bassist George Hughen, drummer Johnnie Bolin, and guitarists Buddy Church and Hal McCormack) mashes the raucous and melodic styles together to fine effect on “I Ain’t Poor.” The “reunion” closes (a deluxe downloadable version of the album features one more new tune, the rather disposable instrumental, “G Wiz”) with a nice cover of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” It should be noted that original guitarist Stanley “Goober” Knight was planning to be a part of the reunion, but died before the recording sessions began.

Black Oak Arkansas, circa 1976 (Stanley Knight, Pat Duagherty, Tommy Aldridge, Jim "Dandt Mangrum, Rickie Lee Reynolds, Jimmy Henderson) (publicity photo)

Black Oak Arkansas, circa 1976 (Stanley Knight, Pat Duagherty, Tommy Aldridge, Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, Rickie Lee Reynolds, Jimmy Henderson) (publicity photo)

As cool as the new material is, it’s the archival stuff that will most excite die-hard BOA fans. Here’s how these lost tracks found their way out of the void: Upon the death of producer Tom Dowd in October of 2002, his daughter came across what amounted to a holy grail of unreleased material. These 10 tracks (13 on the deluxe edition) were part of that stash. So, in no particular order (other than chronologically), let’s look at what coulda been. For me, studio recordings of three of the group’s most-loved live tunes make BACK THAR… a must have. “Gigolo” is the first and is every bit as loud and snotty as the well-known RAUNCH ‘N’ ROLL version. Later on, we have “Hot Rod” and, like “Gigolo,” it sounds as good as the live version. The final piece of this triumvirate is “Up, Up, Up,” which somehow has gained a couple of “Up”s since 1972. Again, the studio version rivals the live version, even to the point of featuring a three minute plus Tommy Aldridge drum solo. I know it’s been done before, but an in-studio solo by the guy at the back of the stage is a pretty ballsy move! The fact that it’s interesting and listenable is certainly a testament to the talents of both Aldridge and Dowd.

Black Oak Arkansas, 1976 (Pat Daugherty, Rickie Lee Reynolds, Jimmy Henderson, Jim "Danady" Mangrum, Stanley Knight, Tommy Aldridge) (publicity photo)

Black Oak Arkansas, 1976 (Pat Daugherty, Rickie Lee Reynolds, Jimmy Henderson, Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, Stanley Knight, Tommy Aldridge) (publicity photo)

Jim Dandy and the boys were never afraid of a challenge and prove it by covering one of the Glimmer Twins most well-known songs, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It ain’t Devo, but it is an enjoyable romp through a classic (as it was, even in 1972). The last of the five 1972 recordings is a song called “Evil Lady,” a tune that has a bizarre bubble gum kinda vibe. When the harpsichord starts a-pumpin’ at the beginning (provided by Harvey Jett?), all I can think of is “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. It ain’t bad, though… just a little weird coming from the Black Oak guys, especially Mangrum.

Black Oak Arkansas with Ruby Starr, 1976 (screen capture from THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL)

Black Oak Arkansas with Ruby Starr, 1976 (screen capture from THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL)

Well, the band must not have found the sound too weird for them, because one of the two holdovers from 1973, “Dance To the Music” has the same type of groove going, with some really cool backing vocals and a nifty slide guitar featuring throughout. This is a song that Reynolds really wanted to use back then and was excited to be able to add it here. I fully understand his excitement; the song isn’t standard BOA fare (at least, it wasn’t for that era), but it shows a promise of things to come, as well as highlighting the fact that the guys were not the lunkheads that most members of the press made them out to be. As much of a genius as Tom Dowd was, I can’t believe that he didn’t push for the inclusion of this song on HIGH ON THE HOG or STREET PARTY. It had “hit single” written all over it. The song that did become the band’s biggest hit, the LaVern Baker cover, “Jim Dandy,” has been re-mastered to isolate the vocals of Mangrum and Ruby Starr at the beginning. It’s a cool concept, but the vocals sound compressed and Ruby’s voice is way down in the mix. The full band kicks in after a minute or so and the vocals seem to even out. Had Atco Records followed this one up with “Dance To the Music,” the band’s career may have taken an entirely different trajectory.

Black Oak Arkansas and Ruby Starr, 1976 (Tommy Aldridge, Pat Daugherty, Jim "Dandy" Mangrum, Marius Penczner, Ruby Starr, Jimmy Henderson, Stanley Knight) (publicity photo)

Black Oak Arkansas and Ruby Starr, 1976 (Tommy Aldridge, Pat Daugherty, Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, Marius Penczner, Ruby Starr, Jimmy Henderson, Stanley Knight) (publicity photo)

The three remaining tunes are from 1974 sessions for, I would assume, the STREET PARTY album. “The Snake” has a swampy, creepy-crawly Jim Stafford thing happening. This is classic Jim Dandy, all snide innuendo and tongue-in-cheek wordplay. “Legal ID” is a tune that could well be the precursor to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name,” though it’s subject matter has been written about by more artists than you can shake an angry parental fist at, including Uriah Heep, Jim Croce, Sam Cooke, Aerosmith, Angel and the Police, to name a few. “Summer Swing” is a gentle little number that really does evoke the images that the title implies. Over all, there are far more hits than misses on BACK THAR ‘N’ OVER YONDER, and not just for all of us nostalgic old farts with fond memories of DON KIRSHNER’S ROCK CONCERT, THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and AMERICAN BANDSTAND. The music presented here – both old and new – is every bit as good as much of what the latest batch of rockers has to offer. I’d go for the standard version, though, as the four “bonus” tracks really don’t add anything necessary to the album (although the eight minutes of insanely politically incorrect studio banter-cum-embryonic song “Arby’s (I Want a Woman With) Big Titties” did have me giggling like a 12 year old).


DUST: HARD ATTACK/DUST

(LEGACY/KAMA SUTRA/BUDDAH/SONY; 2013)

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Oh, how I loved Dust the first time I heard the awesomely epic (or was it “epicly awesome?”) “From a Dry Camel” on the radio in the early ’70s! Unfortunately, I only had two choices when it came to actual record purchases (I’ve always loved the serenity of a small rural community, but I sometimes had to give up certain things – like a vast sea of vinyl for my music fix): the local Radio Shack (which didn’t do too bad supplying some of the more obtuse music that I craved) and a Woolworth’s in a town 20 miles away (I was occasionally surprised by some of the things found in the bins there). So, it was somewhere around 1978 when I actually found and bought myself a copy of the band’s self-titled debut album and their second offering, HARD ATTACK (for 99 cents each, in a cut-out bin!). Ah, the memories that those pristine slabs of sound brought me! Now, through the graces of the fine folk at Legacy, those memories are rushing back, with the reissue of both albums on one CD.

Oddly, HARD ATTACK features first here, followed by DUST. I guess it makes a certain amount of sense as, in my opinion, the first album was the stronger set. It rocked a little harder, while HARD ATTACK was a more refined collection, with better production values, softer song structures and melodies that bordered on Rundgrenesque pop. Now, don’t misunderstand me here. Both albums are good, but DUST is just a cut above.

HARD ATTACK (original album cover with FRANK FRAZETTA artwork)

HARD ATTACK (original album cover with FRANK FRAZETTA artwork)

The “Pull Away”/”So Many Times” doublet opens HARD ATTACK and the difference between this album and the first is immediately obvious: this is a band who, through becoming more familiar with the studio process and more adept at the art of the song, are stretching limits beyond the sludgy confines of the psychedelically meandering “From a Dry Camel.” Marc Bell (who, if you didn’t know, would grow up to become Marky Ramone a few years later) propels the song(s) forward at near breakneck speed while vocalist/guitarist Richie Wise (who was well on the way to becoming the Richie Wise half of the famed Kenney Kerner/Richie Wise production team who helmed the first two KISS records) found a nice Nazzy pop groove to play over Marc and the thundering bass of Kenny Aaronson (who has played with just about everyone, though the time he spent in the band Derringer may be my favorite), stepping out of that pocket to offer a couple of sonic-speed solos. “Walk In the Soft Rain” is more of the same style of melodic pop played at rocket-like velocity and, actually, is a better tune than the first pair. “Thusly Spoken” is the band’s attempt at a hippie ballad with spiritual imagery that falls well short of the mark. The melody and the playing are fine, but the lyrical content make it rather laughable by today’s standards (well, by any standards actually, though it must have sounded awesome to the drug-addled brains of high school and college aged kids back in 1972).

Dust (Richie Wise, Kenny Aaronson, Marc Bell) (publicity photo)

Dust (Richie Wise, Kenny Aaronson, Marc Bell) (publicity photo)

Things are back on track with the riff-heavy “Learning To Die,” the only song from the sophomore release not to feature a Kenny Kerner/Richie Wise songwriting credit (Kerner shared credits with Kenny Aaronson). This one song probably had as much influence on up-and-coming metal bands of the mid-to-late ’70s (I think of Judas Priest, in particular) as anything by Black Sabbath or Budgie. “All In All” continues the pummeling, though the lyrical content isn’t as dark. “I Been Thinkin’” is the second attempt at a ballad on HARD ATTACK, this time with considerably better success. Aaronson’s pedal steel and dobro work coupled with the laid-back vibe of the (unfortunately) short piece gives it a nice country feel that should feel out of place, but doesn’t. Wise’s everyman vocal delivery adds the cohesive thread that ties the tune to the more aggressive sound that Dust was best known for. Richie has stated that the only reason he ended up singing was because the other guys couldn’t sing at all. Now, nearly 45 years after DUST was released, I can’t imagine another voice on these tunes. The instrumental, “Ivory,” follows and – in a glimpse of things to come – features a very Ramones-like drum intro. The tune allows each musician to shine. Aaronson underpins everything with a solid, heavy bass sound while Wise punctuaties the proceedings with a beefy rhythm track and some wicked soloing; “Ivory,” however, belongs to Bell. If it wasn’t, this should have been the song that the band used to showcase Marc’s abilities in a live setting. I mean, it’s almost a drum solo as it is.

How Many Horses” mixes early rock ‘n’ roll piano (courtesy of guest Fred Singer), some folky guitar playing and singing and Aaronson’s dobro and slide guitar to create another rather country sounding tune. It’s kinda like the country-tinged stuff that the Stones were doing about the same time (with considerably less polish and sounding all the better for it). The crushing, heavy vibe returns on the next track, “Suicide.” The song is, basically, a rough draft suicide note to a former lover, in which the author lays forth several options for his self-inflicted demise. After hanging and poison are discarded, he tries, “Electrocution I thought would make me a star/I stood in the rain with my electric guitar.” You may be disturbed by the subject matter, but you gotta admit that the lyrics are pretty awesome. Kenny Aaronson offers up a nice little bass solo about half way through. “Suicide,” for me, is the high mark on HARD ATTACK. “Entrance” closes out the second album (and the first half of this collection), a 26 second classical guitar solo that I wouldn’t have minded seeing expanded and further explored as a full-blown Dust tune. Ah, what could have been!

DUST (original album cover)

DUST (original album cover)

DUST, the band’s 1971 debut, kicks off with “Stone Woman,” a fine, rocking tune to start a career with. Kenny Aaronson immediately makes it known that he is a musical force to be reckoned with, supplying not only bass but slide guitar to the proceedings. “Chasin’ Ladies” is one of the few times on either album that Richie Wise truly shines. I want everyone to understand that while Richie was a fine singer and a more than competent guitar player, he was never a flashy frontman, allowing Aaronson and Marc Bell to take the accolades. So, the chugging guitar leads, crisp solo and multi-tracked vocal performance really highlight the (intentionally) downplayed talents of the reluctant Wise. Richie chose instead to focus on his songwriting abilities and to hone his production skills, both of which would serve him rather nicely in the years following the HARD ATTACK album. “Goin’ Easy” offers a standard blues riff, with more flawless bass, slide and dobro work from Aaronson. The song leads right into the charging “Love Me Hard,” with Marc and Kenny pushing each other into near punk rock speeds, even during the slower, acoustic guitar break. That thrashy melodic middle section leads into a manic instrumental breakdown, with cymbals crashing, drums and bass thundering and a guitar solo that can only be described as “belligerent.”

Marky Ramone (Marc Bell) with the Misfits on the 2001 VAN'S WARPED TOUR (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Marky Ramone (Marc Bell) with the Misfits on the 2001 VAN’S WARPED TOUR (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A gong signals the start of the classic “From a Dry Camel.” The track is highlighted by the sonorous bass of Kenny Aaronson and the unique guitar tone used by Richie throughout much of the track’s nearly ten minutes. Bell’s drumming is, for the most part, understated and subdued, as befits the near-dirge like tempo of the song. There is no denying his powerhouse approach, however, especially on the long instrumental passages. If you’re looking for a comparison, I’d have to say that the song “Black Sabbath” (do I really need to tell you who performs that one?) was probably a starting point for the sound of “From a Dry Camel.” The subject matter, lyrically, may be worlds apart, but the musical vibe is as close as you can get. “Often Shadows Felt,” with its languorous pedal steel, lilting bass lines and shimmering guitar, is the sole ballad from DUST. It definitely shows a maturity in songwriting from the Kerner/Wise tandem (who wrote all of this first album except the final track), which would become more evident on later projects. The final track is a Kenny Aaronson-penned instrumental called “Loose Goose.” It’s highlighted by an instantly recognizable bass riff and could very well have been the template for “Flying Turkey Trot” from REO Speedwagon. As “Loose Goose” charges to its end, it is evident that DUST remains one of the true masterpieces of American hard rock and, coupled as it is with HARD ATTACK, is well worth adding to any collection.