THE WHO/THE HILLBENDERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


NEAL SMITH: KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE

(KACHINA RECORDS; 2014)

GreenfireEmpire-Front

As I’ve undoubtedly mentioned elsewhere, anyone who has read any of the various publications that I’ve been involved with over the past twenty years, knows that I am a huge Alice Cooper fan; anyone who has known me personally for the past 42 years (give or take), knows that I have a particularly soft spot for the band, especially drummer Neal Smith. I own a copy of virtually every recorded project that Neal has been a part of. Most recently, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer (class of 2011) has recorded the KILLSMITH trilogy, including the slutty KILLSMITH: SEXUAL SAVIOR (2008), the slightly more approachable KILLSMITH TWO (2011) and the final installment, the brand-spankingly new, progressive-leaning (in a totally non-political, musical sense) rock opera, KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE. The album shows an amazing growth in the writing and arrangement skills of the solo Neal Smith entity, with keyboards, ballads and even a Christmas-themed tune to close the proceedings. Neal has expanded his own instrumental involvement on these albums, too, adding guitar and keyboards to his standard repertoire of percussion instruments and vocals.

Neal Smith's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, flanked by Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway, 2011 (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, flanked by Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway, 2011 (uncredited photo)

Blessings and Curses” introduces the character of Diablos, the Emerald King, a South American drug lord from lowly beginnings who discovers an ancient drug known as GreenFire, as deadly as it is addictive. The song itself is full-on Alice Cooper, Billion Dollar Babies (the band), PLATINUM GOD down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll. Neal’s gravel-throated voice has aged quite well over the course of his solo career and, of course, he is THE man as far as rock drummers go. The guitars (Doug Wahlberg on lead and Smith on rhythm) definitely have that old Buxton/Bruce fire that made those original seven Alice Cooper records so great. Neal steps out of the spotlight for “Good Morning Blue Soul Land,” casting Hubert Martin, of the What Up Funk Band, in the lead as a ’30s crooner. The track is a very cool and unexpected divergence from the hard rock that the boys from Alice Cooper are best known for; think “Crazy Little Child” (from MUSCLE OF LOVE) without all the crime and death. It has it all: A bluesy tack piano (courtesy of Pete “Keys” Hickey), some doo-wop style vocal backing and a snaky Joe Meo sax part that comes in for the last minute or so. “Screaming Bloody Murder” features a chiming, piercing Wahlberg lead, a direct contrast to the heavy, pounding drums and dark subject matter, with a chorus of “Screaming bloody murder/It was a murder, murder Christmas/Screaming bloody murder/For Christmas.” The song ends with Neal intoning those famous words of ol’ Saint Nick himself (well, kinda): “Merry Christmas to all and to all, a deadly night.” Listen for a wonderfully sloppy solo (Wahlberg again) as it slices and dices its way through the bridge.

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

With “The KillSmith Overture,” Neal shows his guitar-slinging chops with a reverb-drenched intro that also features some very cool flamenco guitar from Mister Hickey, who also adds some very progressive sounding synthesizer parts. Neal provides the castanets and Lady Elizabeth Dellinger (of the upstart soul/jazz conglomerate Snooty Garland) offers a dream-like vocal intonation, somewhere between humming and scatting. There are points where the cut almost has the feel of a field recording, with wind, thunder and rain intermingling with the music. This is definitely one of the more effective pieces on the album. The showers that end “The KillSmith Overture” bring new life on “Palacio de Esmeraldas,” with birds, frogs and crickets all chirping away. Despite the exotic name, the song is far less Latin sounding than the previous track; there’s a distinct Blue Oyster Cult vibe, with tales of a lost South American treasure, voodoo spells and zombie slaves. Neal’s vocal growl is back out front, with his heavy, chunky rhythm guitar and rock-steady drumming driving the tune. And, lest we forget, there’s another great solo from Wahlberg. “Greenfire Born of Poison” is total ’90s hair metal bombast, with absolutely brilliant soloing from Doug and Kevin Franklin (on loan, like Hubert Martin, from the What Up Funk Band)… think of a heavier version of Damn Yankees. The tune features a typical Alice Cooper meltdown at the end, as everything collapses in on itself.

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

Gigantic, Leslie West worthy power chords open “I Want Money” before Smith’s massive drum sound comes in; Lady Elizabeth is back on vocals, dueting with a slightly subdued Neal. Pete Hickey’s synth is featured more prominently here, with a weirdly effective solo dropped in mid-song. This tune is where we learn the Emerald King’s true motives behind the decisions he’s made in his life: “I Want Money.” On “Pandemonium,” the frantic drums, frenzied feedback-heavy guitars (this time, with leads by Rick Tedesco), and heavily processed vocals really do have the sound of the number’s title; sound effects and a crazed, backward Tedesco solo add to the vibe. Even though we haven’t called his name yet, the bass work of Peter Catucci (who has become Neal’s rhythm section partner of choice, as Dennis Dunaway has increasingly busied himself with other projects) is the rock that anchors the groove here and throughout the record; the bass/drum interplay – especially here – actually rivals that of Dunaway/Smith… no small feat.

Neal Smith with Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, 2011 (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith with Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, 2011 (uncredited photo)

A beautiful acoustic guitar from Tedesco opens “I Remember Blue Soul Land,” with a much more subdued Smith vocal (showing that his voice is much more than the growl we are most familiar with… the guy can actually SING!) and Hickey’s piano adding to the overall balladic sense of the song. As the drums, bass and electric guitars are introduced, the track takes on more of a metal power ballad feel; the number really takes a stratospheric leap with the introduction of a choir (compliments of a synthesizer, perhaps?), led by Catucci’s solo voice as a counter to Neal’s lead and a Wahlberg guitar solo that’s definitely worthy of the great Dick Wagner/Steve Hunter tandem from Alice’s early solo career. “Death To the King” is a kind of slow blues with Lady Elizabeth again sharing vocal duties with Smith; while Neal sings, “Hail to the king,” Lady E counters with “Death to the king.” This is the song where Diablos gets his just desserts, as a vengeful “subject,” KillSmith, takes revenge for the death of his wife, Noelle. Aside from a great Joe Meo sax line weaving in and out of the mix, this is a classic type of early ’90s HEADBANGERS’ BALL tune, with power chords, sound effects and keyboards aplenty. All in all, a catchy little number. I went to great extremes to tell you the name of the wife from the last cut because it directly relates to the final piece of the album, the Christmas song, “Noelle No Wonder.” It would appear that Neal really was paying attention to those first two or three solo outings from Alice, as he softens the feel with an orchestra (synthesizers again), a very nice piano lead by Pete Hickey and not a lot else… except, of course, those drums! I think that Neal’s decision to feature Peter Catucci as the lone vocalist was brilliant, as Peter delivers one of the greatest performances you’re likely to hear on a Christmas song this year. Billion Dollar Babies could have rode this one to the top of the charts about 35 years ago, though I’m not sure that Michael Bruce could have done it justice, vocally.

KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE is available at nealsmithrocks.com, in CD and digital versions. Neal has also written a story of the exploits of KillSmith, available in a limited edition 30 page book that also includes the CD version of the album; he personally autographs each copy of either version of the CD purchased from his site.