BILL NELSON: GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST

(COCTEAU DISCS/ESOTERIC RECORDINGS/CHERRY RED RECORDS/PORTRAIT RECORDS; reissue 2013, original release 1986)

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I fell in love with Bill Nelson, his songwriting, his voice and his guitar playing in 1977, with LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE, the fantastic live release from his then-current band, Be Bop Deluxe. In the early ’80s, I rediscovered Bill through a pair of commissioned works for the stage – DAS KABINETT (THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI) and LA BELLE ET LA BETE (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), both for the Yorkshire Actors Company – and 1982’s THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS (DIARY OF A THINKING HEART); the second commissioned piece was released as a bonus record with THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS… and stands in stark contrast to the album proper’s poppy New Romanticism. I eventually discovered Nelson’s Red Noise project during a trip to the used record bins at a local shop; I initially passed on those releases as virtually every review I read at the time called it – and I’m paraphrasing here – “A disappointing attempt at electronic dance music.” Anyway, after Red Noise, finding a new Bill Nelson record in the hinterlands of Illinois became an effort in futility; now, nearly thirty years after Red Noise, comes the expanded edition of one of the man’s most well-received records, GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST (called ON A BLUE WING in North America and Australia). The new edition features a remaster of the original ten-song UK version of the record, as well as a second disc featuring the two EPs culled from the same recording sessions: WILDEST DREAMS and LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT.

Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)

Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)

There seems to be a vague theme running through …HOLY GHOST… , a theme that reminds me of Sunday mornings in a small country town or village. “Suvasini” is a short, introductory ambient piece with a nice jazzy guitar running throughout; it leads into “Contemplation,” which features a snaky kind of guitar, some mid-’80s poppy keyboards and a slinky bass line (courtesy of Iain Denby). Bill’s voice has always been sort of an acquired taste; here, he straddles the stylistic line that falls somewhere between David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. The song itself is very poetic and lyrically dense (as in, a lot of words). The only part I find objectionable is a sax part that tends to ruin the feel of the whole track. “Theology” is closer to the esoteric near-rock of some of Be Bop Deluxe’s more experimental stuff. The number rather reminds me of solo John Foxx or, maybe, a type of Enoesque Ambient rock. Preston Heyman adds an industrial (as in, machinery) percussion thing that is very cool. There’s more of that industrial sound happening on “Wildest Dreams,” a happy kinda tune that also tosses marimba into the percussion mix. You know, I really like Nelson’s more experimental pop stuff but, I gotta say… I really miss his exceptional guitar playing on some of this material; 1980’s style keyboards just don’t do it for me, though there is a great violin solo from Peter Greeves. “Lost In Your Mystery” could have been an outtake from Bowie’s LET’S DANCE sessions. The music has a very Asiatic (in reference to the Continent, not the band) and pre-programmed (it all sounds synthesized) texture and feel; it’s a very laid back song with an equally laid back vocal from Bill.

In its original form, you could listen to those first five songs before being forced to flip the record over to hear the rest of the music. That’s the way I’ve chosen to review the first disc of this reissue, picking up here with the music on Side Two. “Rise Like a Fountain” comes across as an Adrian Belew/King Crimson kind of thing… if Crimson were an ambient band. Iain Denby chimes in with a great (fretless?) bass part, plus… there’s an actual guitar solo (short though it is). There’s an unfortunate BEVERLY HILLS COP/Harold Faltermeyer synth vibe (sorry, folks… great movie, horrible theme song) happening on “Age of Reason.” Nelson’s vocals are pretty good but, I’m not sure they actually save this thing, especially once the Clarence Clemons-like sax bleats (provided by William Gregory and Dick Morrisey) come in. Simply stated, the tune comes off as nothing more than dance music for left-footed mathletes. “The Hidden Flame” continues the dance floor goofiness, though some nifty processed piano and some funky lead guitar somewhat negate the damage. As always, Bill’s vocals are a highlight, as is the stinging guitar solo toward the end. “Because of You” is up next. Now, this is more like it: Great guitar, great lyrics (“Nailed to the cross of love/Because of you”), funky bass; this number could easily have worked as a Power Station song. The album ends with “Pansophia,” a very short (less than a minute) nylon-string guitar solo laced with minimal processed piano and ambient noises. So, in the harsh reflective light of nearly three decades, the first half of GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS fares much better than the second half, though there’s enough meat on the bones to enjoy this rather dated blast from the past, mostly because… well… Bill Nelson!

Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)

Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)

And, so, we’re on to the second disc of this collection as we ponder the question: What would a “Deluxe Edition” (or reissue of any kind, really) be without “bonus material?” That material usually manifests as a vault-clearing effort to delve into the artist’s psyche at the time of the recording of the feted release. Thankfully, the minutia that practice entails is eschewed for a more slim-lined package that includes the two EP releases associated with the 1986 album… a total of eleven tracks. Even though the sequencing here is kinda wonky, for the purposes of this review, our exploration will begin with the music from the first of these releases, LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT. Following the first cut from the later WILDEST DREAMS record, the seven tracks from …SPANGLED MOMENT – five of which were issued as part of the original English cassette version of the …HOLY GHOST,,, record – follow in sequence. It should be noted that this release is more of a “mini-album,” clocking in at a little less than a half hour. “Heart and Soul” is another synthesized, mid-tempo dance tune, featuring sax and clarinet solos from Ian Nelson. This is probably as stuck-in-your-head catchy as you’re likely to hear from Bill Nelson. Nelson’s minimalist approach to guitar-playing is once again the touch point for the title track, which is awash in various keyboard texturing, a slinky bass part from Denby and another Morrisey sax solo; the track is… okay… just not great. Though brighter in tone, “Feast of Lanterns” comes off feeling like an extension of the main album’s “Pansophia.” This longer investigation of that tune’s themes features some backward guitar alongside some well-placed harmonic guitar swells and ambient keyboard for a little added atmosphere. The result is quite a pretty piece of music.

Bill Nelson (publicity photo)

Bill Nelson (publicity photo)

Illusions of You” has a nice band vibe, very happy and bright. Bill’s guitar is more prominent here than elsewhere, which is a welcome sound; everything seems to come together on this track… except for Ian Nelson’s sax solo, which somehow seems terribly out of place here. With an almost somber kinda Peter Gabriel feel that belies a sprightly Denby bass line and Nelson’s vibrant vocal performance, “Word For Word” is a slow-build non-ballad. A neat Spanish guitar solo gives way to one of Bill’s trademark ambient electric guitar solos. “Finks and Stooges of the Spirit,” besides having one of the greatest titles ever, is quite possibly the best tune from this period of Nelson’s career. It’s an electronic rocker, with a dense instrumental bed menacing just below vocals that border on the dispassionate (think Gary Numan). Since I’ve been a little hard on him, I must compliment Ian Nelson’s woodwinds; they are an integral part of this wall-of-sound production. Bill’s reverb-drenched solo leads into a short duet with Ian’s clarinet, which really adds to the (intentionally) disjointed feel of the number. Like the closer to Side One of the original LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT release, “Nightbirds” closed out Side Two – and, indeed, the entire record – in similar fashion: It’s another short ambient soundscape, this time featuring Iain Denby on bass. For pure atmospheric effect, it certainly does a nice job, as it leaves the listener yearning for just a bit more.

Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)

Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)

Now, back to the top, with the “Wild Mix” of the WILDEST DREAMS’ title track. You know how I feel about remixes… don’t like ‘em. However, this one seems to have a little more of that industrial percussion that Preston Heyman brought to the original album version, as well as a more prominent bass line and… wait! Is that an extended violin solo from Peter Greeves? Okay… I may actually prefer this version to the one found on GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS. “Self Impersonation” (or, “Self Impersonisation,” as it was originally titled), which crops up after “Nightbirds,” is another ambient thing with some heavy percussion aspects (this time, by Bill himself, who plays everything on this cut) and just enough soloing and noodling throughout to remind us that Bill Nelson coulda been a big shot rock star guitarist. Up next is another version of “Wildest Dreams.” The single mix is basically the album track cut by a few seconds and featuring a more vibrant high-end (for airplay, doncha know?). It doesn’t sound too bad, removed, as it is, from the entirety of the album. “The Yo-Yo Dyne” is another keyboard and percussion piece, with a cool pipe organ thing happening. Once more, this is all Bill, all the time. The song has an odd, Reggae feel to it – not that Reggae is odd, just in this setting. A nice way to end the record, I suppose, but a tad too repetitive to be allowed to go on for five minutes. As mentioned above, this may not have been my favorite period in Bill Nelson’s career, but there is enough meat on the bone to intrigue.


WHEN PIGS FLY – SONGS YOU NEVER THOUGHT YOU’D HEAR

(A2X RECORDS/XEMU RECORDS/AORTA RECORDS; 2002) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT (UPDATE BELOW)

 

When Pigs Fly

“Hey… let’s make a record!” “Yeah! Awright! Let’s get some really cool songs to put on it! How about Peter Gabriel’s ‘Shock the Monkey?’ That song rocks!” “But… we can’t afford to stick a Peter Gabriel song on there with our budget. Unless… ” “Okay. I hear what you’re saying. Don Ho rocks!”

“Huh? Run that one past me again? Don Ho… ‘Shock the Monkey’… I don’t get the connection, dude,” you say. Well, Slappy, give a listen to this hipper-than-hip collection and get yourself a clue. WHEN PIGS FLY… takes a bunch of really cool tunes and a bunch of really strange performers, dumps ’em all into a blender and gets… well, some strangely cool covers! They ain’t all masterpieces and, truthfully, a lot of ’em aren’t even that big a stretch to imagine the couplings. A lot of people may be upset to find that, though the collection was done with a nod and a wink, these versions are – for the most part – dead serious artistic restylings.

Ani DiFranco (publicity photo)

Ani DiFranco (publicity photo)

On the first track, “Unforgettable,” the unlikely duo of Ani DiFranco and Jackie Chan (yup… THAT Jackie Chan) displays chops that will surprise more than a few folk. Now, seriously, we all knew that Ani is in possession of an ample set of pipes, but her vocals on this American standard are amazing! And… who knew that Jackie could croon? Well, apparently the vast majority of his homeland, as he is one of Hong Kong’s biggest musical stars. He will probably never be confused for Nat “King” Cole, but he can certainly hold his own. We’re only one tune into this eclectic array of singers and songs and the pigs have definitely left the runway!

Devo (uncredited photo)

Devo (uncredited photo)

Devo deconstructs Neil Young’s “Ohio” next. Here’s one of those tunes that really isn’t a huge stretch: The guys of Devo are Ohians (from Akron, of course) and, if memory serves, a couple of them may actually have been enrolled at Kent State in 1970. This version belches, whistles, and throbs, in typical Devo style. Though Mark, Jerry, and the others never step out of character, the tune’s original vehemence and anti-war sentiment still comes through. “Call Me,” by the Box Tops is… different. Blondie’s huge electro-dance hit is turned into… well… a Box Tops song, with funky Memphis horns and a patently dispassionate Alex Chilton vocal. What can be said about the Connells’ version of Cypress Hill’s “Insane In the Brain,” especially while I’m rolling on the floor in hysterics? First of all… Holy crap! I hate this song! However (and you knew that there was gonna be a “however,” didn’t you?), these North Carolinians make the song palatable, in a repugnant sort of way… i.e.: Like a train wreck or a gruesome accident, you just can’t turn away. I guess that’s what Cypress Hill’s all about, anyway. And the Connells capture that perfectly.

Don Ho (photo: BEN MARGOT-ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Don Ho (photo credit: BEN MARGOT-ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The centerpiece of this collection is Don Ho. As mentioned above, the Hawaiian of indeterminate age covers the improbable “Shock the Monkey.” You wanna laugh… I know you do. And that’s alright, but I’m betting that once you hear the track, you won’t be laughing anymore. The man who brought us “Tiny Bubbles” delivers a dead-on version of the classic Peter Gabriel tune. His voice is surprisingly strong, rich, and raspy, with just enough creepiness to sell the song. Maybe it’s time for a Rick Rubins career makeover for Mister Ho. I’m not suggesting that Rubins could recreate the success that he experienced with Johnny Cash or Donovan, but I would certainly like to hear what he could do with Ho. Though 75% of these tracks are homespun creations, the brainchild of executive producer Cevin Soling, the next track is more than a decade old. The criminally over-looked Roy Clark turns in an amazing vocal performance on a song made famous by the one and only “Satchmo,” Louis Armstrong. While no one can possibly hope to come close to Armstrong’s funky growl, Clark’s smooth-as-silk voice lends a sense of pathos to “What a Wonderful World.”

Oak Ridge Boys (publicity photo)

Oak Ridge Boys (publicity photo)

Billy Preston approaches Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film” like he approaches anything he does: He attacks it and makes it his own. The thumping bass and funky guitar and drums probably has the guys in Duran Duran saying, “See… that’s what we wanted it to sound like!” Preston’s pumping organ and throaty vocals add to the vibe, stamping the tune with the “Official Cool People’s Seal of Approval.” Cy Curnin delivers a creepy, David Bowie like vocal on the Fixx’s version of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” The song, originally performed by Nancy Sinatra, is about empowerment; this version turns it into a misogynistic song about control. One of my favorites from the collection. Another one of those pairings that really isn’t that far of a stretch is the Oak Ridge Boys covering Kansas’ mega-hit, “Carry On My Wayward Son.” The religious overtones of the tune plays well with the Boys’ gospel roots, and the harmonies are so tight that you can totally forgive lead singer Duane Allen for his shortcomings (minimal, though they are) in delivering a rocker like this.

T Rex gets the garage treatment with the Neanderthal Spongecake’s version of “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” The Spongecake is fronted by our erstwhile leader, Cevin Soling and their deliciously trashy version is the best since the Power Station covered the thing somewhere in the final quarter of the last century. I’ve done a little checking and, as far as I can tell, these guys had a full-length release in 1996 (or there-abouts) and have been quiet on the recording front until this solitary track. Hey, Cevin… we all love Spongecake, dude! How ’bout some more? And, now, we’re 11 tracks into a 12 track collection and we finally run into a duffer. Herman’s Hermits take a whack at Billy Idol, offering a rather tepid version of the former Gen-Xer’s “White Wedding.” Now, I have nothing against Peter Noone and, in fact, his vocals actually hold up fairly well. However, having said that, I’m not real sure who the other Hermits are, but I’m guessing that they’re a group of studio musicians… and it sounds like it. The music is as sterile and lifeless as anything that Toto (a group of professional studio musicians, in case you didn’t know) ever recorded.

Lesley Gore (publicity photo)

Lesley Gore (publicity photo)

If Don Ho didn’t shock you (no pun intended), then the final track will. Like most music lovers, I know that you’ve lain awake at night, wondering whatever happened to pop princess Lesley Gore. Well, sleep well tonight, my friends… she’s been laying low, waiting for just the right song for her comeback. And that song is… “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” That’s right… Lesley takes one of AC/DC’s most infamous tunes and, adding her own special touches, turns it into a rollicking pop ditty, complete with horns, handclaps, pumping organ, dirty piano, and a slutty “girl group” chorus. This is, without a doubt, the coolest AC/DC cover I’ve ever heard (yeah… I know there aren’t that many, but even if every album ever released featured an AC/DC cover, this would probably still be at the top of the heap)! If you wake up screaming and in a cold sweat remembering Celine Dion’s horrendous version of “You Shook Me All Night Long,” this one will cure the night terrors… at least until that evil Canuck opens her trap and yodels again!

UPDATE: WHEN PIGS FLY… is still available at all the usual download places, like iTunes and, if you’re looking for a physical copy, the original web-site, www.pigsflycd.com is still up and running. You can also listen to individual tracks there.


SONS OF HIPPIES: GRIFFONS AT THE GATES OF HEAVEN

(CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2013)

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Sons of Hippies are exactly what they sound like… sorta. First off, I’m fairly certain that one of ’em ain’t. I’ll go out on a limb and call it now: Katherine Kelly was never anyone’s son. Second, they borrow from the early psychedelia of the ’60s, the hard rock of the ’70s, the New Wave of the ’80s and everything that came before and after and in between. By my estimation, that’s around 60 years of rock and roll to draw from and, while the Sons’ songs can be said to sound like a certain band from a certain period in time, they have a sound that can best be described as… well, Sons of Hippies. I kinda like bands that sound familiar and, at the same time, completely new and original. So, for purposes of this review, I’m gonna give you as many musical reference points as I can to convince you that this trio is the real deal.

The album kicks off with “Forward,” a swirling piece of mid-tempo, mind-melting Hawkwind-ish spacey psychedelic goodness. “Mirrorball” features a peppy little guitar signature that continually threatens to explode into a ravaging solo. The only things that ever really explode are the multi-layered vocals on the chorus. That’s okay, though, because those vocals add a quirky vibe to what would otherwise be a rather pedestrian attempt at a Widowspeak type pop tune.

SONS OF HIPPIES (Katherine Kelly, Jonas Canales, David Daly) (publicity photo)

SONS OF HIPPIES (Katherine Kelly, Jonas Canales, David Daly) (publicity photo)

Dark Daisies” kinda sounds like a Sabbath tune for the very latest century – if Sabbath hadn’t already given us a number one album full of those things – with an ominously heavier-than-thou guitar riff and equally heavy (steady, never showy) drumming. As the song progresses, the heaviness morphs into an Ian Kilmister-era Hawkind sorta space groove. Now, that’s cool! Ms Kelly’s voice has a Susannah-Hoff-filtered-through-Siouxsie-Sioux quality through-out the album, a comparison that immediately jumps out on the next track. “Rose” is a trippy Bangles style power pop tune and the album’s second single, with a bloody, awesome video to accompany it (it’s sure a shame that MTV isn’t any longer because this one would play great there). GRIFFONS AT THE GATES OF HEAVEN doesn’t get much better than “Rose.” It may be the perfect Sons song.

Sounding a bit like classic Dick Dale surf tunage, “Spaceship Ride” adds solid vocals and a crunchy-sounding chorus leading into an echo-laden guitar solo, the first time that any musician really busts out of the quasi-laid back late ’60s vibe. “Man Or Moon” continues to kick-up (and mix up) the tempo with another solid drumming job from Jonas Canales and a nifty descending bass line from David Daly. Again, Katherine Kelly adds a nice solo and some cool Annabella Lwin like vocals. “Magnets” is another fine – if rather unimaginative – tune. The vocals are, as always, top notch but, overall, this may be the weak link in an otherwise highly enjoyable album.

SONS OF HIPPIES (uncredited photo)

SONS OF HIPPIES (uncredited photo)

Blood In the Water” wanders through all of the musical territory mentioned before, adding a sweet Monster Magnet heavy space feel to the proceedings. Canales and, especially, Daly have seemingly found the muscle that’s been missing from some of the other tracks. Of course, Kelly adds another great solo. “Whatever We Spend” has a neat New Wave-y sound with a very Siousxie-esque vocal performance from Katherine. Odd – dare I say – hippie lyrics add to the strange, circular vibe of the music. “Minute x Minute” brings the chunky, heavy leads of “Dark Daisies” back into play. Solid vocal and drum performances help propel the song toward its raucous end, 2:40 later.

A snaky, sinewy sitar lead features on “Animal Battle” before slamming headfirst into a wickedly arrogant guitar. The song plays out as another killer slice of Hawkwind/Monster Magnet space rock. The final track is “Cautionary Tale.” It is, I suppose, the album’s power ballad. It features another strong vocal performance, underpinned by great guitar work and solid backing from the rhythm section.

SONS OF HIPPIES (uncredited photo)

SONS OF HIPPIES (uncredited photo)

In the late ’90s, there was a band called Medicine. The more I consider it, I’m kinda reminded of them as much as anybody when I listen to Sons of Hippies. The one thing that I remember about that band was how awesome they were live. I’ve never seen the Sons play, but I have a feeling that the songs from GRIFFONS… would be absolutely killer in a live setting! I can’t wait to find out.


IAN ANDERSON

(14 July, 2013; PEABODY OPERA HOUSE, Saint Louis, MO)

THICK AS A BRICK 2 (band photo by MARTIN WEBB)

THICK AS A BRICK 2 band (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Three fifths of the (very likely) final incarnation of Jethro Tull descended upon the beautiful Peabody Opera House (formerly the Kiel Opera House, lo those many years ago) on this hot mid-July evening. Ian Anderson, whose latest solo outing is THICK AS A BRICK 2: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO GERALD BOSTOCK, is in full TAAB mode on the current US tour, performing the seminal Tull album in full, followed (after a short intermission) by a complete reading of the sequel. This is a move that a lot of “classic” acts have taken up quite recently and, while – more often than not – they don’t live up to the hype (or the album they’re trying to replicate), Ian and his five henchmen delivered everything that this enthusiastic crowd could have hoped for and more! For the record: It ain’t Tull, but it ain’t bad.

Ian Anderson and Ryan O'Donnell live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Ian Anderson and Ryan O’Donnell live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Ian’s band wandered onto the stage a few minutes late, dressed as a cleaning crew. They proceeded to sweep, dust and clean just about every surface on the stage before approaching their instruments and, looking over their shoulders to make sure the boss wasn’t watching, began to play “Thick As a Brick.” We’re not talking about that little edit that was released as a single in a few countries; we’re talking about the entire album-long song. They eventually got rid of the work smocks (or, maybe, they were “dirty Macs,” a la the “Thick As a Brick” single sleeve) as Mister Anderson appeared, stage left, strumming his acoustic and singing the opening lines of the nearly hour-long tune. Anderson’s vocal parts are now split with actor/singer/circus performer Ryan O’Donnell, giving Ian more time (and breath) to focus on his flute playing, which is as flawless as ever. O’Donnell’s voice is a softer, subtler version of Ian Anderson and is no less expressive. In theory, I suppose, Ryan is performing in the role of Gerald Bostock, the character created as part of the original THICK AS A BRICK album cover. This is a man who knows his way around a stage, a great performer and a lot of fun to watch.

Scott Hammond live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Scott Hammond live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

The rhythm section of drummer Scott Hammond and former Tull bassist David Goodier bring a nice jazz vibe to the proceedings, while still maintaining the heavy rock underpinning of the original work. Hammond’s not-overly-long solo was imaginative and as impressive as any I’ve seen in a while. The other Tull expatriate, keyboardist John O’Hara, is as eye-catchingly expressive and verbose as Ryan O’Donnell. His parts seem to be the glue that holds the entire performance together. Guitarist Florian Opahle is a scary kind of flashy, kinda like Ian’s longtime band mate, Martin Barre. He just stands there and rips these amazing leads and solos, acting like the least likely guitar-hero of all time. For some odd reason, Florian’s stage presence reminds me of a younger Gary Rossington. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. The ensemble is “completed” via the video inclusion of violinist Anna Phoebe – who is busy at home recording a new album and raising a young daughter – during an instrumental break that happens in what would be “Side One” of the original album. The end of “Side One” has a cool fade, just like it did on the album, and leads into a serio-comic public service announcement warning men of a certain age to have regular medical check-ups to keep the plumbing clean. Though the message was entirely serious, it was a fun diversion that offered a much needed break for the musicians onstage. It also helped us geezers in the crowd (and we were legion!) put a mental stamp on where we were within the intricacies of the THICK AS A BRICK album.

Ian Anderson and Florian Opahle live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Ian Anderson and Florian Opahle live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Having considered the plumbing, Ian and his lads were back to rocking with “Side Two.” Since we’re still talking about the same song, it would be easy to say that the rest of the first set was very much like the first part. That, however, isn’t exactly true. The intensity of Opahle’s and O’Hara’s solos picked up, as did the theatrical aspects of the stage presentation. The pure musicianship and artistry of this band is an amazing thing to witness. Bringing the first album to a close, Ian announced a 15-minute break. The rapt crowd was on their feet, still reeling from the stunning performance we’d just experienced and abuzz with anticipation for THICK AS A BRICK 2.

Ryan O'Donnell live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Ryan O’Donnell live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Well… most of us, anyway. To be quite honest, I was a little – uh – underwhelmed by TAAB2 upon first listen. My one hope was that this band would be able to bring it to life onstage… instill it with the sense of fun that was exhibited in the first half of the evening’s show. What can I say? They did! Even the spoken word pieces (which I think gave me the most problems on the album) were good, given the inherent theatricality of Anderson’s stage persona and voice. O’Donnell’s vocals were more forceful here, due – I would guess – from the fact that he was now portraying a grown-up and more confident Gerald Bostock. The musicians were again turned loose, imbuing the sometimes pastoral tunes with a more vivid sonic life than they have on disc. The main difference, I believe, between the two albums (outside the obvious) is that TAAB2 is “songs” whereas the original is a single “song.” While there are technically no stops between the numbers, there is a certain sense of separation. This even minute respite offered the audience a nice give and take with the band that we didn’t have with the first set.

Ian Anderson and Florian Opahle live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Ian Anderson and Florian Opahle live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Nearly two-and-a-half hours after the “cleaners” took the stage, good-nights, thank yous and introductions were said and made. My friend, Bill, asked me if I thought there’d be an encore. Just about the time I was saying, “I don’t think so,” John O’Hara came out and began playing the introduction to “Locomotive Breath.” He was soon joined onstage by Scott Hammond, followed by the rest of the band. The crowd erupted as Florian played one of the most revered riffs in rock history and as Ian led the band through one of the most beloved songs in the Jethro Tull canon. I dare say that even the people in the $95 seats left feeling that they’d gotten their money’s worth. I know I did! Bill commented on the way out that he knew Ian couldn’t get away without doing a Tull song. I reminded him that he’d just done an entire Tull album, front to back. “Well, you got me there!” he said as we exited the lobby and headed for home.


BLACKMORE’S NIGHT: DANCER AND THE MOON

(FRONTIER RECORDS; 2013)

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Ritchie Blackmore is a rocker. Starting in the early 1960s with Screaming Lord Sutch’s Savages and the Outlaws, Blackmore rocked. Through two stints in both Deep Purple and Rainbow, Blackmore rocked. He tried really hard not to rock with Blackmore’s Night but, as may have been mentioned somewhere else, Ritchie Blackmore is a rocker. Thus, the duo’s (that would be Blackmore and his wife, Candice Night… see the nifty wordplay involved there?) latest, DANCER AND THE MOON, rocks harder than any of their previous releases… in a very Renaissance Fayre sort of way.

The album starts with a kind of slow burn on Randy Newman’s classic, “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today,” before the percussion kicks in followed, in short order, by a classic Blackmore fill and a solo that, while understated for Ritchie, reminds the listener just who we’re talking about here. Candice’s beautiful, lilting voice adds a certain “classical” sound to the tune that makes this one of my favorite versions of the song. The next couple of songs, “Troika” and “The Last Leaf,” revert to form for what this group has become best known for: Old European Folk Music. The latter definitely sounds like something that you would expect to hear from a minstrel in the Courts of Camelot, while the former is very reminiscent of a Russian or Eastern European gypsy song.

Blackmore's Night (MICHAEL KEEL)

Blackmore’s Night (photo credit: MICHAEL KEEL)

A very atmospheric take on one of Uriah Heep’s best known songs, “Lady In Black.” is next, with Candice’s woodwinds adding a great touch and Blackmore doing what he does best… shredding. Yes, I said shredding! The only thing that could have possibly improved this version of the song would have been inviting Ken Hensley to add a little heft with that awesome Hammond B3 that he’s so well known for. “Lady In Black” is followed by a nifty little madrigal performed by Ritchie on acoustic guitar. “Minstrels In the Hall” is short and certainly sweet.

Temple of the King” is the last of the “covers” on DANCER AND THE MOON, a tribute to Ritchie’s friend and Rainbow vocalist/lyricist, the late Ronnie James Dio. I’m sure that Ronnie would have approved of this arrangement, replacing the bluesy hard rock vibe with a more medieval sound. Blackmore once more steps out of the wandering minstrel boots to offer a fiery electric lead and another great solo. The title track has a very Celtic sound that, once again, returns to the core concept of Blackmore’s Night. Coming, as it does, after “Temple of the King,” it’s easy to imagine “Dancer and the Moon” as something that Blackmore and Dio would have written for LONG LIVE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.

Blackmore's Night (publicity photo)

Blackmore’s Night (publicity photo)

Galliard” and the traditional tune, “The Ashgrove,” continue in the vein, with Night’s voice taking front and center and Blackmore chiming in with some understated acoustic instrumentation before adding what can only be described as an “elegant” solo on the next track, “Somewhere Over the Sea (The Moon Is Shining).” Completely eschewing the medieval and folky arrangements and instrumentation, the band reworks the previous song as “The Moon Is Shining (Somewhere Over the Sea).” With modern keyboard textures, the use of electronic drums, and some very haunting lead guitar work from Ritchie, I could see this one getting some airplay on some Classic Rock stations around the country. Think Joe Lynn Turner-era Rainbow on this one.

Saying that Candice Night is Ritchie Blackmore’s muse may be a little over the top, but how can you listen to something like “The Spinner’s Tale” and at least not think it? Ritchie is here just to offer atmosphere, as it’s really Candice’s vocals and penny-whistle that carries the tune. The final track of the album is another instrumental, another tribute. “Carry On… Jon” is a slow blues riff with great guitar and an organ solo (compliments of Bard David of Larchmont, also called David Baranowski) that’s very reminiscent of Blackmore’s Deep Purple cohort and best friend, Jon Lord. Ritchie mentions that he had the song ready to record and once the tape started rolling (so to speak), it took on a rather melancholy feel. Like “Temple of the King,” it is a fitting tribute to a colleague so closely associated with Blackmore’s career. DANCER AND THE MOON offers more of the guitar histrionics that we’ve come to love and expect from Ritchie Blackmore, the rocker, but it also offers a glimpse at a softer, more nostalgic side of the man in black and somehow manages to maintain the stated aesthetic of Blackmore’s Night: To present an updated version of Renaissance and medieval style folk music. The album succeeds on all counts!


DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS: IN EXTREMIS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2013)

Days Between Stations In Extrimis

IN EXTREMIS (a Latin phrase that means “at the point of death”) features some of the final recorded work of legendary Yes and Flash guitarist, Peter Banks. Given Banks’ resume, it isn’t in the least bit surprising to note that the music of the California-based duo of keyboardist Oscar Fuentes Bills and guitarist Sepand Samzadeh (performing under the odd moniker Days Between Stations, after the novel by Steve Erikson) is what could be classified as “neo-progressive.” There are eight tracks on the self-released IN EXTREMIS, with fully half of them clocking in at more than 10 minutes each. The title track, presented as a suite with six separate movements, is over 21 and a half minutes long. “In Extremis” features Peter Banks on lead and rhythm guitar, as well as “guitar textures.” He also features on the 12 minute “Eggshsell Man.”

Add to the mix uber-bass and stick man Tony Levin, drummer/vocalist Billy Sherwood, keyboard guru Rick Wakeman and XTC bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding and you’ve just turned an impressive progressive concept album into a formidable piece of progressive hero-worship. So, let’s look at this work track by track to learn why this is most certainly an album that you will want to add to your collection.

Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)

Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)

No Cause For Alarm (Overture),” led by Oscar Fuentes Bills’ militaristic piano and the very marshal-sounding drums of Billy Sherwood, leads into “In Utero,” which is more of a soundscape. It features some very ethereal keyboard and guitar washes by Bills and Sepand Samzadeh, as well as a cool, tinkling guitar effect and a nice Samzadeh solo. Chris Tedesco provides a long trumpet solo, adding to the Crimson-esque atmosphere of the piece.

Visionary” builds on the emotional feel of “In Utero” with more nice guitar work from Sepand. This is the first of the vocal tracks, with Sherwood’s voice reminding me of Trevor Horn’s work on DRAMA, his only album with Yes; they’re kinda hard to understand, but the power of this vocal stands more in the melody and feel. Sherwood’s drumming is rather subdued but features some very nice fills. Bills once again offers some great piano to the instrumental section. He is joined by Matt Bradford on dobro and, together, they offer one of the more emotionally charged pieces of the entire album. “Blackfoot” is a tasty piece of jazz-tinged progressive rock, especially the slower middle section. A nightmarish piano line repeats to start the song, then an equally nightmare-inducing guitar solo is added. There is a definite Mothers of Invention vibe to this song, with guitar parts that are very much Zappa influenced and drums that remind me of Chester Thompson or Ralph Humphrey and their work with the Mothers. “Blackfoot” ends with some quite nice Floydian guitar freak-outs, definitely reminiscent of the swirling, calamitous sounds of a cinematic death scene.

Colin Moulding appears on “The Man Who Died Two Times,” a song whose title sounds quite a bit like something that he would do within the confines of his band, XTC. The tune seems to be a song about revived hope – a very poppy, happy sounding song. Moulding’s voice adds just the right touch, as “The Man Who Died Two Times” is very much in the vein of mid-period XTC or early Genesis with Peter Gabriel.

Peter Banks (uncredited photo)

Peter Banks (photo credit: GLEN DICROCCO)

The Angel City String Quartet performs the short, quiet piece, “Waltz In E Minor,” which is dedicated to Peter Banks. A very fitting requiem for a major influence on the art form known as “progressive rock music.” “Eggshell Man” is a very folky sounding tune. The vocal melodies and phrasing remind one of Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding’s XTC bandmate, though they are provided by Billy Sherwood. They add just the right emotional air to the tune, as a man once drawn from the brink of death has been walking on metaphoric eggshells and realizes that he is once again at death’s door. As the song progresses, Ali Nouri solos on the tar (a Central Asian stringed instrument), Rick Wakeman offers a mini-moog solo and Peter Banks adds great atmospheric guitar “textures,” all of which give the song a very Middle Eastern sound. “Eggshell Man,” along with “The Man Who Died Two Times,” are my favorites on an album of great tracks.

Finally, “In Extremis,” is Days Between Stations’ magnum opus, the centerpiece to a highly enjoyable album. The first movement is called “Mass” and, as should be expected, is an atmospheric mass for the dead. “On the Ground,” the second movement, is very much “funeral music,” with lyrics evoking either a life wasted or a life well-lived and much missed by those who loved the deceased. This section features great guitar and keyboard work and interaction by the core duo of Samzadeh and Bills, alongside Banks. The third movement, called “A Requiem,” is exactly that, with very dark lyrics set against an almost claustrophobic musical backing. Along with the instrumental fourth and fifth movements (called “Writing On Water” and “Overland”), “A Requiem” borders on schizophrenia, perhaps hinting at the soul’s departure from the mortal coil as a battle rages between Heaven and Hell to determine its eternal resting place. “It Never Ends,” the final movement, revisits lyrical themes from the entire album, offering, at times, a gloomy overview of life, but also a pastoral, restful triumph that ultimately comes with the end of life. Overall, “In Extremis” is a song cycle that leads you through just about every emotion that you would feel knowing that your birth certificate does, indeed, come with an expiration date.

IN EXTREMIS is an album that has a little something for everybody. Whether your musical tastes tend to run to progressive or classic rock; classical music; Gothic lyrics and motifs; or just darn good music, this is the record for you!


THE PASSION: ALL MY YESTERDAYS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2013)

The Passion

The Passion are from Columbia, MO. Their music is from all over. They have a kind of Joy Division meets the Smiths meets Echo and the Bunnymen sound, with guitarist Chris Dohm evoking (invoking?) memories of Will Sergeant and Johnny Marr and their slashing, percussive style of playing. There’s even a little hint of very early David Evans (you may know him better as the Edge from U2). Singer Larry Krapf could (and maybe does!) front a Smiths tribute band (for some reason, these bands insist on calling themselves “tribute bands” instead of cover bands which, in fact, they are… they just cover songs by one band… but I digress) as he has a definite Steve Morrissey sound, only with less whining.

Carved In Sand” starts things off nicely, with a very Joy Division sounding tune. I suppose if you squint your eyes and hold your head just right while listening to ALL MY YESTERDAYS, you can hear a bit of Ian Curtis in Krapf’s voice, as well. Now, all of these comparisons may have you thinking, “You know, I already have all of the Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen albums I need and I can’t stand the Smiths because of Morrissey’s whiny voice and hissy fit lyrics, so why do I need this record by the Passion?” A valid point, I assume (except for the Morrissey thing,,, that’s just me), if this band didn’t have more to offer. Making comparisons is kinda what I have to do so you’ll have a musical reference to see if a particular band’s music falls somewhere in your listening wheelhouse. That doesn’t mean that the Passion are a carbon copy of any of the band’s mentioned. In fact, dip down a few songs, to track 7, and you’ll find a very goth sounding tune called “Everybody Wants,” with Melissa Robertson’s synth out front more than any other song here.

The Passion: Chris Dohm, Larry Krapf, Melissa Robertson, Shannon Morris and SeanErickson (publicity photo)

The Passion: Chris Dohm, Larry Krapf, Melissa Robertson, Shannon Morris and Sean Erickson (publicity photo)

Robertson’s playing is understated and her parts are well thought out and add just the right texture. Her voice is also well used, not all over the place but appearing when (and where) it’s needed. The rhythm section of Andy Gibbs on bass (he left shortly after this album was recorded, replaced by Shannon Morris) and Sean Erickson on drums are solid, with Erickson exhibiting a more adventurous side on several of the tracks. The title track (“All My Yesterdays,” in case you’ve forgotten) has a little bit of everything: great vocals from Krapf, gang vocals on the chorus, a driving rhythm propelling things forward at nearly breakneck speed, a punchy synthesizer part and a trashy garage-like solo from Dohm.

Overall, I can find very little negative to say about the Passion’s ALL MY YESTERDAYS. It definitely brings back memories of some really great late ’70s/early ’80s bands; it also breaks some new ground production-wise, giving Larry Krapf’s voice a more meaty sound than Morrissey ever dreamed of and a certain bright sheen on Chris Dohm’s guitar. If you’re still thinking, “So why do I need this record by the Passion?,” how about this: you can pick up a digital copy on the band’s Bandcamp page (that would be thepassionband.bandcamp.com) for a “name your own price” download fee. Listen to “Carved In Sand,” “I Won’t Be Another Story,” “Everybody Wants” and the title song and I can virtually guarantee that you’ll be hitting that download button!


RICK DERRINGER: RICK DERRINGER’S ROCK SPECTACULAR

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2009) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

Rick Derringer

Alternately called LIVE AT THE RITZ, NEW YORK – 1982, this album features Rick Derringer and his then-current band performing some of his best tracks and being joined by several guest artists to play a couple of their’s. The sound has been called “raw” and that works as well as anything to describe a nearly 30 year old show remastered from a video source. It has its faults but, that’s part of the charm.

Rick Derringer (uncredited photo)

Rick Derringer (uncredited photo)

Things kick off in fine fashion, with one of my favorite Derringer (the band) songs, “EZ Action” from IF I WEREN’T SO ROMANTIC, I’D SHOOT YOU. Rick and the boys in the band (Alan Merrill, sharing guitar licks with Derringer; Donnie Kisselbach on bass; Jimmy Wilcox on drums; Benjy King on keyboards) are obviously having fun. This thing ain’t called RICK DERRINGER’S ROCK SPECTACULAR for nothin’, though, as Karla DeVito (you know… the girl who wasn’t on BAT OUT OF HELL but appeared in all of the accompanying video material and toured with the Loaf for several years) joins the band for “Cool World,” from Karla’s album, IS THIS A COOL WORLD OR WHAT. The song is one of those B-52’s/Cyndi Lauper kinda new wave pop things that sounds a little quirky played by a solid-state rock ‘n’ roll band, but they pull it off. Nothing, however, can save “Just Like You,” a ballad from the same album. I guess every album or show has to have one cringe-worthy moment and this fits the bill perfectly!

Karla DeVito, Southside Johnny (video stills)

Karla DeVito, Southside Johnny (video stills)

Next up is Southside Johnny Lyon, who brought his harmonica but left his Asbury Jukes behind. Southside Johnny may be the only musician from Asbury Park, NJ who is worth even a second look. Check out the voice and harmonica on Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” (it’s called “Honey Rush” in the artwork) and the Eddie Boyd blues workout “Five Long Years” if you doubt the veracity of that comment. Probably the most well-known (one might say “infamous”) of all of Rick Derringer’s songs is “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” first recorded on the JOHNNY WINTER AND record in 1970. It has one of the coolest riffs in rock history and I’m not certain if Derringer can ever play live without at least referencing that riff (I’m fairly certain that his family Christian group won’t touch those lyrics with a 10… make that a 50 foot pole!). The version here is… serviceable. I don’t know what the deal is with those backing vocals, but they sound like they borrowed the guys from Spinal Tap to faux heavy them up.

Carmine Appice, Tim Bogert (video stills)

Carmine Appice, Tim Bogert (video stills)

For two glorious studio albums (and one live release), the band Derringer featured Vinny Appice (pronounced Ap-puh-see) on drums. So, of course, what would this show be without a little Appice? Carmine Appice (pronounced A-piece), Vinny’s big brother, brings his former Cactus and Beck, Bogert and Appice bass-playing partner, Tim Bogert, along to do “Have You Heard,” a riff-loaded track from Carmine’s then-new ROCKERS album. With Derringer (and, one would assume, Alan Merrill) supplanting Jeff Beck on the guitar parts, they rip into “Lady” from BBA’s one and only studio album. Probably one of the coolest thing about Carmine is the fact that he can utterly beat the crap out of his kit AND sing lead. Before “Lady” he mentions that instead of Jeff Beck, the song’s going to be played by “Derringer, Bogert and Appice,” a band that actually came to official fruition nearly 20 years later.

Ted Nugent (video still)

Ted Nugent (video still)

As is Carmine’s wont, he tends to take things into his own hands. So, rather than Rick announcing the next guest, Carmine does the honors. As Appice mentions, he had just finished a tour with Ted Nugent (in support of the NUGENT album, which featured Carmine on drums) and the Motor City Madman – alongside Derringer, Appice and Bogert – rips into an impressive, if a little ragged, version of “Cat Scratch Fever.” That group sticks around for a funny-car-fueled take on the Chuck Berry classic, “Oh, Carol,” with Ted on lead vocals.

Alan Merrill (uncredited photo)

Alan Merrill (uncredited photo)

It’s back to the Rick Derringer band for the yet-to-be-released “Party At the Hotel” from Rick’s upcoming album, GOOD DIRTY FUN. To be perfectly honest, the guest performers were fun and the interaction with Derringer was nice to hear but, the three songs with just Rick, Alan, Benjy, Jimmy and Donnie are just a notch or two above in energy, excitement and delivery. The big “let’s bring everybody back out” number to finish the set is – next to “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” – the other number for which Rick Derringer will forever be remembered: “Hang On Sloopy,” a song that a 17-year old Rick Zehringer took to the top of the charts with the McCoys in 1965. Even with the “everybody solo” feel, this is one time that everything (and everyone) was hitting on all cylinders. A good way to end the evening and this disc. Are there rough spots along the way? Certainly. Do they detract from the music and the vibe of the performance? Not really. Is RICK DERRINGER’S ROCK SPECTACULAR worth owning? Absolutely!


CAPTAIN BEYOND: LIVE IN TEXAS – OCTOBER 6, 1973

(PURPLE PYRAMID RECORDS/CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2013)

Captain Beyond LIVE IN TEXAS

Okay, since you asked, here’s my Captain Beyond story: When I was a youngster, I took the word “consumer” to (my father would say) stupid new heights as regards music. There was very little at this stage of my life that I would not buy, if given a chance. Well, I mean… country was obviously uncool! Disco had yet to rear its ugly, simplistic head… we were okay there! So… other than the obvious, what would cause me NOT to purchase an album? In the case of Captain Beyond, there were two reasons: first, I absolutely hated that name (although I thought that Captain Caveman was pretty cool, but that’s another story) and second, I thought that they had – quite possibly, the crappiest cover art I had yet beheld on an album. Be it known that I also consumed many a crappy album because I loved the cover art but, again, that’s another story. Anyway, I could not be swayed! I didn’t care that Rod Evans, the original voice of Deep Purple was in the band (personally, I was an Ian Gillan man). Didn’t make a bit of difference to me that a pair of refugees from Iron Butterfly filled the guitar and bass spots (wasn’t a huge Butterfly fan back then). And, even though I really liked the Edgar Winter Group, are you kiddin’ me? JOHNNY Winter? I think not!

Now, here we are 40 odd years (and you have absolutely no idea how odd!) later and I’m reviewing a (kinda) new release from the band with the unpurchasable moniker and album art. I say “(kinda) new” because this one has been around for a little while as a bootleg. Purple Pyramid (Cleopatra’s “old hippie music” label) has reissued the band’s first two albums, CAPTAIN BEYOND and SUFFICIENTLY BREATHLESS (the album for which this tour was in support) and has added a spruced up version of this live show to the pile. It definitely has a “bootleg” vibe to it, but I honestly think that’s because the master tapes are almost 40 years old. Despite the unwieldy (and totally generic) title, LIVE IN TEXAS is far from unlistenable; in fact, it sounds pretty good to me! There… I said it! Forget the name, forget the artwork; I totally missed the mark on Captain Beyond all those years ago. My only complaint this time is, “was the person responsible for coming up with album titles on vacation or what?” How about calling it DANCING MADLY ACROSS TEXAS or something equally pithy (heck, even a simple LIVE is better the long winded LIVE IN TEXAS – OCTOBER 6, 1973)? Ah… but, I digress (or is that regress?)! You wanna know about the tunage, right? Well…

Bobby Caldwell (uncredited photo)

Bobby Caldwell (uncredited photo)

From the first note of “Distant Sun,” the band (the aforementioned Rod Evans, drummer Bobby Caldwell, bass player Lee Dorman and guitarist Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt) is on, pounding their way through a solid, trippy (what else would you expect from a band called Captain Beyond?) set before ending with a nice version of the Hendrix gem, “Stone Free.” Along the way, there’s almost seven minutes of Rhino solo and another nearly 13 of Bobby Caldwell solo. It has been said that drum solos on a record are not only superfluous, but an egregious crime against humanity. I don’t agree. I happen to like a well done drum solo and Caldwell’s is among the best I’ve heard on record. Rod Evans’ voice is simply magnificent! Not in an Ian Gillan “Pictures of Home” kind of way. Or even a Rod Evans “Kentucky Woman” kind of way. The knock on Evans when he left Purple was that he couldn’t handle the new, harder style that the band was headed toward. This live performance, at least, shows that he was every bit as capable (if not as distinctive) as Gillan or Ian’s successors, David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes.

Rod Evans and Larry "Rhino" Reinhardt (uncredited photo)

Rod Evans and Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt (uncredited photo)

Evans retired from music after this tour and does not appear on the band’s 1977 album, DAWN EXPLOSION. He came out of retirement to hook up with a bogus Deep Purple in 1980. That lasted a few months before Ritchie Blackmore and the rest sued. Rod has gone underground and hasn’t performed or recorded since. A shame really, as he did have a great voice. Just listen to “Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)” or “Myopic Void” if you doubt that statement. Of course, both Lee Dorman and Larry Reinhardt have left this mortal coil behind, Rhino in January and Lee in December of 2012. They were, as witnessed here, musical forces to be reckoned with, as was Bobby Caldwell, who continues to play with his group, the Boulder County Conspiracy and has recently appeared on the new JD Blackfoot album, THE LEGEND OF TEXAS RED.

So now, the obvious question is, “If you knew then what you know now about the music of Captain Beyond, would you have consumed or would you have been hard-headed and (still) missed out on some great music simply because of a so-so name and bad cover art?” You know, I’d really like to think that, had I actually heard the music first, I’d have bought the records no matter what but… I was a knuckle-headed kid back then and I probably still would have passed. I’m a lot older and a little smarter now, which means I’ve got some catching up to do! LIVE IN TEXAS is a good place to start.


SPOCK’S BEARD: BRIEF NOCTURNES AND DREAMLESS SLEEP

(CENTURY MEDIA/EMI/INSIDE OUT; 2013)

Spocks Beard cover

We like us some Spock’s Beard ’round these here parts! We really do… and that fact makes it hard to say that, while much of BRIEF NOCTURNES AND DREAMLESS SLEEP is top-notch Beard, some of it just makes you say, “What was they a-thinkin’ here?” Now, to be sure, every album can’t be golden from first note to last but there are more than a couple of dubious musical choices made here. Things start off fine, with “Hiding Out,” a poppy little prog-rocker (or is that a proggy little pop-rocker? A rocky little prog-popper?) that bodes well for the proceedings. It’s got a heavy groove coating and a crunchy guitar/organ center, with a smooth vocal (by the limber-throated Ted Leonard) over the top, kinda like a latter day version of early era Kansas. The first misstep comes early on with “I Know Your Secret” and its intergalactic booty call vibe, featuring a melody and a synth line right out of the Era of Disco, one of the most dread, disease riddled times in recent music history. To make matters worse, the thing clocks in at almost eight minutes!

A Treasure Abandoned” sees the ship righted, as the progressive bombast throttles the unsightly keyboard noodles into submission. The smarmy, cloyingly offensive late-period Styx keyboard patterns try to sneak in through the backdoor in the closing seconds of the tune, but the muscular, bass-heavy bottom is having none of that and, wisely, orders up a big brick of nastiness just at last call. The band calls up the ghosts of 1980s progressive music for the poppy “Submerged,” which works on just about every level. The vocals on this one are particularly pleasing. “Afterthoughts” seems to wanna stir the turd into the punchbowl. There are plenty of really good ideas here, but there are just as many that don’t work. Of the ones that work, the most satisfying is a multi-layered vocal section, reminiscent of “Leave It” by Yes. More goofy keyboard noodlings totally destroy whatever impetus the song had built up. A sad disappointment to a song that offered so much merit.

Spock's Beard (Alex Soloa)

Spock’s Beard (photo credit: ALEX SOLOA)

That tune, oddly enough, segues into one of the better tunes of the album proper, “Something Very Strange.” The strident melody line propels the song forward, with a fat rhythmic underbelly. As most bands of this stripe are held up to a measuring stick that falls somewhere between King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Emerson Lake and Palmer, it’s very hard not to compare the bass work of Dave Meros to Crimson’s John Wetton and Yes’ Chris Squire. That, my friends, is heady company and Meros holds his own against those two titans admirably. “Waiting For Me” closes out the album, with another Yes-like jazzy solo-heavy 12 plus minutes of pure progressive bliss, with Alan Morse doing his best Steve Howe and drummer Jimmy Keegan plowing through in a swinging, muscular homage to Bill Bruford. This is the Spock’s Beard that I’ve come to expect… not aping or imitating their prog-rock predecessors, but adding to and building upon the rich history that has been lain before them.

There’s a second, bonus disc with four more songs, including a “Sanctified Remix” of “Something Very Strange.” The disc opens with another solid piece of progressive music called “The Man You’re Afraid You Are.” There’s an odd sort of spoken word section – the tone and timbre recall that Rush song with the odd sort of spoken word section, “Roll the Bones,” so I’m a little loathe to call it a “rap,” though, I suppose, taking the word in its strictest terms, that is exactly what it is – that seems as out of place as some of the annoying synthesizer farts. “Down a Burning Road” continues to redefine the genre, as it blurs the lines between heavy guitar rock, pop music and a solid progressive arrangement. “Wish I Were Here” isn’t quite the rebuttal to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” that the name implies. It’s loopy, fun and rather mystical sounding, with Alan Morse offering a less serious version of Frippertronics on the outro solo. The final track, “Postcards From Perdition,” is a solid instrumental, with plenty of bottom and an engaging drum pattern. As with “Hiding Out,” there’s a certain early period Kansas feel, with a great harmony guitar intro and some keyboard solos that border on ostentatious, but are reeled in before they actually become overbearing. A nice way to close out an album that, when taken as a whole, is much better than some of it’s parts. Hopefully, for their next album, the Beard boys will rein in the pretentious parts of Ryo Okumoto’s keyboard playing, as he is quite good when he stays away from that stuff.