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Progressive Jazz Rock - 2. page

KOA/THE DRIFTAWAYS

(December 19, 2015; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

Koa display their Hip-Hop street cred at the Music Record Shop; Koa and their Saint Louis Contingent after the show (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Koa display their Hip-Hop street cred at the Music Record Shop; Koa and their Saint Louis Contingent after the show (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

This evening started much like most others when the show is scheduled at the Demo or Ready Room: A visit to Rise for a cup of coffee, followed by a visit to Music Record Shop, conveniently located between the two venues. Walking into the MRS, I noticed a few young people milling about, obviously excited that Koa were being interviewed at the back of the store. Once the guys finished with one journalist, they were accosted by a second… me. The labors of our mutual work is at the top left of this review. The band were nearly as excited to see the kids as vice versa, labeling them “the Saint Louis contingent.” The youngsters were enthusiastic enough that guitarist Conor Kelly announced that they would be his guests for the show; when he was told that the group’s guest list was full, he paid for the extra tickets out of his own pocket. A class act that paid off with an appreciative, zealous group of fans at the front of the stage (and, later, onstage, for the group photo above, right).

The Driftaways (Zaq Nunley; Dane Wells; Nick Christie) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Driftaways (Zaq Nunley; Dane Wells; Nick Christie) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Local artists, the Driftaways, opened the festivities, with their Midwestern mash-up of Ska, Reggae and Dub. I happened to be talking to Koa bassist Ryan Ladd during the Driftaways’ sound check and commented on Nick Christie’s ability to coax that authentic, low rumble sound of Dub out of his bass… I wondered what kind of effects pedal he was using. Ryan told me that it was all Christie; he was using Ryan’s rig and he didn’t have any pedals. I was suitably impressed. From the Two-Tone Ska of originals like “Sun Shining” to their spot-on cover of the Wailers’ “Burn Down Babylon,” the six-piece group (trombonist Sean Myers was absent) offered a set that was, not only widely varied but, totally fun and engaging from the start. Guitarist Dane Wells (who serves double-duty as the band’s vocalist, as well) lays down some seriously wicked reverb-drenched roots-rockin’ leads and solos, particularly on the slow burn of “Creepin’.” Zaq Nunley, Dane’s sax-blowing counterpart, added a nice balance with his own leads, as well a series of quite inventive solos. But, as awesome as the other guys (including drummer Kevin Krauss and Ryan Stewart on keyboards) were, the set belonged to Christie and his spongy bass; his Dub riddim offered a strand of continuity throughout the genre-bending set. His talents were most prominently featured on a pair of instrumentals, “Golden Dub” and the band’s theme song, “Driftaway.” If you have a chance to see the Driftaways, don’t waste it… they will definitely put a smile on your face!

Koa (Conor Kelly; Will Youngclaus; Alex Mathews) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Koa (Conor Kelly; Will Youngclaus; Alex Mathews) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

On record, Koa are a funky, jazzy smooth sorta jam band with a definite hippy cast to their lyrics; live, they rough up their sound into a hard rockin’ funk monster. As good as the studio Koa sounds, it’s obvious that they are built for the stage; in fact, as guitarist Conor Kelly told me before the show, “ …the jam element kind of embellishes on the live performance… keeping things fresh by playing things a little bit differently every night.” It’s hard to believe that these guys have only been a band for barely two years. Chase Bader’s voice has a certain husky rasp that can carry a show; add Kelly’s slide work and you have a show and a sound that many older, more experienced bands can only dream about. The jazz-tinged “False Calls,” featuring a smoking Alex Mathews sax solo, kicked the set off in fine fashion. “What Now,” the first track from the group’s new EP, THIS IS KOA, followed. The new material has a more hard-edged sound that translates quite well in a live setting. Which could explain the fact that all five tracks from the EP (offered as a free download from NoiseTrade, which is where I discovered Koa) were featured in the band’s ten song set.

Koa (Ryan Ladd; Ryan Ladd, Chase Bader, Will Youngclaus; Chase Bader) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Koa (Ryan Ladd; Ryan Ladd, Chase Bader, Will Youngclaus; Chase Bader) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unexpect Ability,” had a cool, punky Jam (as in, Paul Weller’s late ’70s trio) vibe, with a chiming guitar part from Kelly and solid rhythm work from both Ryan Ladd on bass and Will Youngclaus on drums; special guest, keyboardist Ian Miller, added some nice piano to the affair. Miller continued to impress on the Southern Soul groove of “Cool It Down,” which also featured one of Bader’s more impassioned vocals of the evening. The syncopated, nearly Caribbean rhythms of “Corbett’s Place” again allowed Youngclaus and his partner in percussion, Ryan McClanahan, to strut their stuff; Mathews also added to the song’s flavor with a double sax solo (duet?). The diversity of THIS IS KOA was perhaps best exhibited on “Gemini,” a kind of Country hoedown with power chords aplenty and a killer slide solo from Conor, as well as a sax part from Alex that kinda reminded me of Boots Randolph’s classic “Yakety Sax.” After the shortest of breaks, the guys returned to the stage (well, to be honest, they never actually left the stage… they just kinda stood at the back before heading back to their instruments) for an encore of the atmospheric “Turtles,” here transformed into a swirling stew of genre-bending jamming and heady solos from just about everyone on stage – a great way to end what was an exceptionally fun night with two groups of highly accomplished musicians.

THE END OF A BEER… STACKRIDGE TAKE THEIR FINAL BOW: THE JAMES WARREN INTERVIEW

(UPDATE BELOW)

PART ONE: THE PROCESS, HISTORICALLY

Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Jim "Crun" Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)
Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)

Growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, Illinois as I did, it was hard enough finding a store that stocked the popular music of the day, much less the fringe releases I preferred, by such artists as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Captain Beefheart or Fireballet. The special order became a way of life for me, allowing me to be the only kid on my block to own the latest releases by Fanny or Osibisa or the odder-than-usual concept album, FLASH FEARLESS VERSUS THE ZORG WOMEN PARTS FIVE AND SIX; actually, I may have been the only kid on my block that wanted those albums… but, you get my point. Anyway, with all of that, the band Stackridge somehow slipped under my radar. Naturally, I was familiar with the name. After all, I could and did read a lot of music publications as a young impressionable pup (still can and do, as an old impressionable hound); it just seemed that there was always something that interested me more.

Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)
Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)

So, I said all of that so I could say this: I eventually did manage to get my grubby fingers on a Stackridge album – EXTRAVAGANZA, I believe – and I was hooked. I was ecstatic when England’s Angel Air Records began their painstakingly comprehensive reissue campaign of the band’s back catalog, along with a live album and a couple of collections peppered in among them. When I decided to get back into the review game, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was an interview with the two-headed beast that led and continue to lead Stackridge: James Warren and Andy Davis. In early 2014, I contacted their manager, supplied him with a few questions via e-mail and awaited a reply. Fast forward approximately ten months and, I am finally in receipt of answers from Mister Warren. Fast forward another couple of months and, with no reply from Mister Davis, the decision was made to move ahead with a revamped format, using James’ answers. Now, nearly a full two years since my initial request, here – so to speak – is the finished product. There are several questions and answers that allude to the 45th anniversary of the band and the chances of them recording another album of new material, as well as an extensive mention of the Korgis (the other band fronted by Andy and James) that may sound redundant, but please keep in mind that questions were posed and answers were given in 2014. Following the interview, we’re gonna delve into some of the best from both Stackridge and the Korgis, so stick around.

PART TWO: JAMES WARREN, MOSTLY

Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: The original band got together in 1969, making this your 45th anniversary. The current line-up still features both of the primary songwriters and vocalists of the various incarnations of the group. Aside from the occasional break-up or vacation from each other, to what do you attribute the longevity of Stackridge?

JAMES: I think the longevity is due to the fact that the repertoire is so stimulating and diverse. It’s great to be able to perform songs as varied as “Fish In a Glass,” “Anyone For Tennis,” “The Road To Venezuela” and “Something About the Beatles” all in the same set. I’ve never been in any other musical combination that offers anything as fun or challenging.

THE MULE: Aside from Andy Davis and yourself, who is involved in the current version of Stackridge? Are the musicians – comparatively speaking – young guns or do you all enjoy a certain advanced… uh… musical acuity. Can we get a feel of the players’ musical pedigree?

Stackridge, 2008 (Glenn Tommey) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, 2008 (Glenn Tommey) (uncredited photo)

JAMES: So, we have Glenn Tommey on keyboards – we’ve known Glenn since 1978. He’s a multi-instrumentalist but, when we met him, he was a recording engineer who worked on the first Korgis album and even sang backing vocals on “If I Had You,” a top twenty hit for the band in the UK. Clare Lindley is on violin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. We only met her around seven years ago but ,she’s a veteran of the folk and classical circuit. She’s from Aberdeen, in Scotland. Eddie John is on drums and has been a very well-known and respected player on the Bristol scene since the 1980s. Clare and Eddie are in their 40s, Glenn, myself and Andy have all made it beyond 60!

THE MULE: The last album of new material, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE, was released in 2009, after a long lay-off from recording. That album featured two more original members, Michael “Mutter” Slater and Jim “Crun” Walter. How did the album come about? How was it to work with Crun and Mutter in the studio again?

JAMES: The album was produced by Chris Hughes, original drummer with Adam and the Ants and producer of Tears For Fears and we recorded it at his home studio just outside of Bath. We’d known Chris for many years and the idea was suggested at a birthday party we were all attending. Because both Crun and Mutter had full-time day jobs and Mutter had the additional problem of living about 40 miles away from Bath, at least 75% of the work was performed by Andy and I. Crun is a lovely bloke but wildly eccentric, so creating music with him is never easy-going – he continually suggested completely perverse and off-the-wall ideas that we had to try then, inevitably, discard – and Mutter hardly participated at all except to sing his songs. So, it was a very different situation to how we worked together in the 1970s.

Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Jim "Crun" Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: Did the Angel Air reissue program rekindle a kind of warm fuzzy spot for you regarding the group? Did it tempt you to reform some version of the band and get out on the boards and into the studio again? Have the reissues raised the public awareness of Stackridge, bringing along new fans? Or, is it just geezers like me looking to upgrade from that scratchy old vinyl?

JAMES: I think we never wanted to rule out the thought of a reformation. A handful of new fans have appeared but, to be honest, it’s essentially the “old guard” re-living their youth!

THE MULE: Can we expect to see new Stackridge music soon… or ever? If so, who will be involved in the project? Are you and Andy game to play with the “old guys” again?

JAMES: Sadly, I have to report that September 2015 will see the farewell tour of Stackridge. We’ve now pretty much exhausted the back catalogue in a live performance situation and it no longer makes any economic sense to record new material. There just isn’t sufficient demand for Stackridge music in the modern world! So, come and see us for the last time in 2015!

THE MULE: The group’s sound has always been the epitome of British “outsider” music, taking in bits of free jazz, traditional folk, Northern Soul, Beatles pop, the Incredible String Band and Frank Zappa. How have your musical tastes and influences changed over the years? When you are on holiday or have down time, what can we generally find you listening to?

Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)
Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)

JAMES: My wife, Clare, and I have sixteen year old twins, so when I do the school run in the mornings, me and the kids always listen to CD compilations of the latest top 20 hits – so I’m right up-to-date with contemporary pop! And I like a lot of it. Clean Bandit are one of my current favourites. I hate the typical middle-age attitude of only being able to appreciate the music you grew up with – I’m not sentimental about past musical eras in that way. I still adore and listen to the Beatles; don’t listen to the Incredibles any more, but THE HANGMAN’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER will always be a work of genius for me. I listen to a lot more classical and jazz these days. I’m especially fascinated by 20th century composers like Stravinsky, Ravel and Satie. One of my treasured possessions is a 22-CD box set of STRAVINSKY CONDUCTING STRAVINSKY.

THE MULE: Your fans were and are, if not legion, very loyal. What is the profile of the standard Stack-fan? Do they now tend to bring along the kiddies (or grand-kids), to introduce them to the music of their youth?

JAMES: Don’t think there is a standard profile – they come in all shapes and sizes. It’s rare to see youngsters in the audience, although there are a few. I know when I was a teenager I wouldn’t be seen dead going to a concert of music my parents were into!

THE MULE: Forty-five years in, what keeps bringing you back to Stackridge? Is it the musical intricacies, the fans or some other intangible?

JAMES: I can’t improve on the answer I gave to your first question. The Stackridge repertoire is so wonderfully diverse and challenging so it’s like a musical holiday to go out and perform that stuff.

THE MULE: Certainly, over the years – particularly the first run – you have released some great albums (FRIENDLINESS, THE MAN WITH THE BOWLER HAT) and some very memorable tunes. Do you have any favorites, individual tracks or full albums? How about least favorites? Are there some albums or tracks that you thought were great at the outset but have since come to loathe?

Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)

JAMES: The first album (STACKRIDGE) is a problem for me. I can’t listen to most of it any more. My singing is so fragile and under-confident, especially the falsetto bits and, most of the lyrics are painfully adolescent in a ridiculously self-indulgent sense. But, it was 1971 and I was only 20 so that explains a lot. I think there are some lovely tunes on FRIENDLINESS; the title track, “There Is No Refuge,” “Father Frankenstein,” “Lummy Days.” …BOWLER HAT still holds up well except for “To the Sun and Moon” (because of my singing). I think “Venezuela,” “Galloping Gaucho,” “Humiliation” and “Fundamentally Yours” are great. And “God Speed the Plough” is an absolute classic. I like almost all the tracks on EXTRAVAGANZA and MISTER MICK. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND I still love. It’s more whacky and harks back to the original Stackridge mainly due to my extensive collaboration with John Miller, an incredibly eccentric keyboard player full of brilliant unconventional ideas. Wish I hadn’t lost touch with him.

THE MULE: I think that my favorites probably mirror those of most fans: “Dora the Female Explorer,” “Slark,” “Syracuse the Elephant.” The list could go on but, for brevity’s sake, what are your memories regarding the writing and recording processes of these fan favorites? Were they kinda instant favorites or do you remember them slowly taking on a life of their own to eventually become essential?

JAMES: “Dora… ,” “Slark” and “Syracuse… ” were “first generation” Stackridge compositions. Andy and Crun had the basic ideas then we would rehearse and rehearse to hammer out the arrangements. It was tremendous fun. The FRIENDLINESS songs I contributed were pretty much already mapped-out before I introduced them to the band but, then again, with …BOWLER HAT and beyond we would work hard as a unit to make a finished track from one person’s basic idea. I think the “favourites” sounded special from the outset.

THE MULE: You are one of the few bands, aside from the Beatles, to boast a production job by Sir George Martin. What was it like to work with him? How much – before, during and after THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT – has his work been an influence to you, personally, and the band, as a whole?

Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

JAMES: It was fantastic working with George. I’m happy to report he was as gentlemanly and effortlessly competent as one expected him to be. The …BOWLER HAT experience was very brief (about three weeks) but very intense. It’s a wonderful production. Even now I love and am influenced by his very simple but strong arrangement style.

THE MULE: Through the years, Andy and you have both worked on projects outside of Stackridge, both during the band’s heyday and following the original break-up. Did you use those instances – your solo album, Andy’s work on John Lennon’s IMAGINE, the Korgis, – to refresh the batteries, so to speak, or as a chance to branch out into something completely different from Stackridge? Can we expect to see something coming from either of you soon, outside of the usual Stackridge lunacy and the Korgis reunion gigs?

JAMES: Can’t speak for Andy but, our various alternative projects are, for me, both a refreshment process and an opportunity to investigate something completely different. I think Andy has been working on an album, whereas I’ve just been trying to come up with “coverable” commercial material.

THE MULE: Speaking of the Korgis, the other band that you have both been with since the beginning, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, as well. The Korgis have been called “the pop side of Stackridge.” How do you view the Korgis, in comparison to the “mother” group?

JAMES: The Korgis is a way of expressing a more distilled, “radio-friendly” type of songwriting. I’m quite excited by the prospect of performing that material live. It’ll be the first time we’ve done it and, you never know, the project might “have legs” and lead on to an interesting new path.

THE MULE: Over the years, you’ve been able to slip out of one band and into the other rather seamlessly. How much of that ability to switch gears has to do with the dynamics of and differences in the musical styles?

Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)

JAMES: We used to love the Kinks, the Hollies, 10CC – and it’s just easier to come up with and produce that kind of thing when it’s just the two of you, rather than having to take account of the whims and preferences of a whole band. Hence the need for the Korgis project.

THE MULE: A Korgis tour has been announced, the first in a while. Is it hard to get into a “Korgis state of mind” after such a long time off? What can fans expect to see from the Korgis as they celebrate their 35th anniversary?

JAMES: We’re about to start rehearsals, in January 2015. Basically we’ll be making the show up as we rehearse. But we’ll be aiming to provide an evening of dynamic and scintillating pure poptasticness!

THE MULE: Are there plans beyond this tour for more Korgis? A new album or more touring? Will you simply return to Stackridge to continue that group’s string of successful tours and live releases?

JAMES: As I mentioned above, we’ll be putting Stackridge to bed after September 2015. We’ll just have to see if there’s a public appetite for the Korgis. If there is, then I’m sure we’ll be inspired to record new material. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Thank you, James, for taking the time to fill us in on Stackridge, the Korgis and your plans for the future.

PART THREE: STACKRIDGE, ESSENTIALLY

When exploring adventurous music, it may be prudent to start with a “greatest hits” or “best of… ” collection. Even though most of Stackridge’s proper albums are definitely worth adding to your own personal collection, you may want to heed the above maxim and check out…

PURPLE SPACESHIPS OVER YATTON – BEST OF…

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(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2006)

The 2006 Angel Air Records release features fifteen essentials from four of the band’s first five releases (not even “Spin ‘Round the Room,” the single from EXTRAVAGANZA made the cut) and heralded in the label’s brilliant reissue program of the band’s catalog. The collection was reissued in 2008 as ANYONE FOR TENNIS?, part of Angel Air’s Sound and Vision series, coupled with a DVD of the band’s April 1, 2007 show (25 songs, the audio of which has also been released as a double CD called THE FORBIDDEN CITY… got all of that?). The only flaw with this release is the exclusion of one of Stackridge’s best known and most loved tunes, “Slark.” But, we’ll be addressing that one later. The accompanying booklet for PURPLE SPACESHIPS… features a fine essay from author Michael Heatley (as do the subsequent reissue titles), archival photos and complete lyrics. The music itself is chock full of just-left-of-center fan favorites like “Dora, the Female Explorer,” “Do the Stanley,” “Fish In a Glass,” “Syracuse the Elephant” and a rerecorded version of the title track (originally a non-album B-side to the “Slark” single), all magnificently remastered under the watchful eyes (hearful ears?) of James Warren and Andy Davis. Having listened to this impressive sampler (in one of its various forms or another), you will undoubtedly want to check out the original albums to hear the tunes in their natural habitat, so to speak. Of course, that is best accomplished by re-starting at the beginning with…

STACKRIDGE

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(MCA RECORDS; 1971)

In 1971, everyone wanted to be the Beatles. James, Andy and the other members of Stackridge were no different. Well… maybe they were a little different; they also wanted to be Frank Zappa… and Bob Dylan… and King Crimson… and the Incredible String Band. The quintet of progressive folkies (or is that folky progressives?) are out of the gate with what must be declared “an instant classic,” with nine tracks of mesmerizing pop and rambunctious rock, including at least four that should be required listening.

Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)

The album kicks off with the elegant, ambitious “Grande Piano,” which features a great bass part from Warren (original bassist Jim “Crun” Walter, by the time the band began recording, had opted for a more reasonable career as a bricklayer before returning to the fold for FRIENDLINESS) and a memorable – dare I say, “grand?” – piano part from Davis. “Dora the Female Explorer” is the only song on the debut album credited to the entire band; with it’s bouncing, reeling music – highlighted by Michael Evans’ violin – and oddly engaging vocal melody, the tune has stood the test of time as well as any of the tracks from STACKRIDGE. “Dora… ” is followed by the instrumental “Essence of Porphyry,” an eight minute piece with several distinct movements, all of them quite operatic in their scope (despite the lack of lyrics). Evans’ violin is again a featured instrument, along with Michael “Mutter” Slater’s flute. The entire affair has an air of Zappa about it, the final section a prog rocker’s dream, evoking RED-era Crimson and Brian Eno’s Roxy Music. The centerpiece of the album (if not the career) is “Slark,” a fourteen plus minute “monster” that plays beautifully off the theme and melody of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and led once again by Davis’ piano, Mutter’s flute and Evans’ violin. The lyrics suggest a lonely “monster” looking for acceptance and love but, being rejected because he isn’t like everyone else. The other tunes on STACKRIDGE are all pleasant progressive folk numbers, with just enough oddball charm and sweet melodies to make the album, in its entirety, indispensable. Angel Air’s reissue apends a stomping, rousing traditional reel called “Let There Be Lids,” a B-side from an unreleased 1973 single, as well as the single version of “Slark,” to the original album.

FRIENDLINESS

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(MCA RECORDS; 1972)

As essential as the band’s debut is, it is, perhaps, their second release that offers the absolute best of what Stackridge aspired to be: A traditional English folk band with progressive and slightly loopy leanings. The opening track, “Lummy Days,” is rollicking, rolling sort of instrumental reel featuring some impressively heavy drumming from Billy Bent, now calling himself “Billy Sparkle.” What surely would have been a dancehall fixture in the early-to-mid 1920s, “Anyone For Tennis” shows the boys’ affinity for the oblique. At nearly nine minutes, “Syracuse the Elephant” would appear to be the band’s attempt to recreate the mini-operatic feel of the first album’s “Slark.” The tune, however, is a majestic piece of childlike progressivity, the tale of a forlorn elephant, raised in captivity and wanting nothing more than to live out his days in the company of his trainer, eating his favorite herbs.

The second side of the original album features such oddball fare as “Amazingly Agnes,” about a mule lamenting the fact that she is, in fact, a mule. That one is followed by the ballad, “Doctor Frankenstein Is Behind Your Pillow,” an apparent leftover from the first record, and the Beatles-esque rocker, “Keep On Clucking,” which features a killer backwards guitar solo from Crun toward the end. The final track, “Teatime,” would not sound out of place on Jethro Tull’s MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY or SONGS FROM THE WOODS; it starts as a rather pastoral madrigal before erupting in frenzied progressive blues, with Evans’ flute front and center throughout. The Angel Air reissue features the bonus tracks “Everyman,” the B-side to the “Flora, the Female Explorer” single; the chaotic, occasionally dissonant “Slark” B-side, the previously alluded to “Purple Spaceship Over Yatton,” one of the single greatest progressive tracks ever put to tape; the single-only release, “Do the Stanley,” a non-dancecraze inducing stomper, and it’s accompanying B-side, the beautiful, lilting “C’est La Vie.”

THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT

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(MCA RECORDS; 1974)

The third Stackridge album, the intended title of which was THE ROAD TO VENEZUELA (and was renamed PINAFORE DAYS – with a very different track listing – for consumption in North America), was something of a dream come true for the sextet, as legendary (even then!) Beatles producer George Martin came on board (with engineer Geoff Emerick in tow) to lead the lads to new heights. The group was particularly disappointed with the sound quality of the first two records; along with Martin and Emerick came Sir George’s (such is his current title) state-of-the-art Air Studios in London and the sparkling, vibrant production quality and the brilliant arrangements and orchestrations that was nearly as important as the music on those highly revered Beatles sides. The difference is immediately heard, with the opening track, the poppy romp “Fundamentally Yours,” with Martin adding some well-placed piano.

As with the Beatles’ albums, Martin’s handprints are all over the remaining nine tracks of …BOWLER HAT, as well, adding piano here and there, bringing in orchestration elsewhere and generally giving the lads the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience in musical arrangements and production. The essential cuts include “Pinafore Days,” with its somehow Victorian sounding waltz and lyrics that would not seem out of place in a Monty Python sketch; released as a single in advance of the album, “The Galloping Guacho” opened side two, with a swirling calliope of carnival music that would not have been out of place on a late-period Beatles offering; the sparkling pop of “Dangerous Bacon” features a galloping drum pattern, a great guitar solo and a guest spot from Roxy Music’s sax man, Andy Mackay; a shot of Andy Davis whimsy, “The Indifferent Hedgehog,” leads into the majestically orchestrated instrumental, “God Speed the Plough,” which again highlights the flute of Mutter and violin of Mike Evans to great effect. Unfortunately, Martin’s involvement with …BOWLER HAT did not result in increased sales. Equally regrettable is the fact that the recording session seems to have included only the ten tracks featured here, as both singles from the period (the second was “Dangerous Bacon”), as well as their respective B-sides (“Fundamentally Yours” and “The Last Plimsoll”), come from the album; as a result, this is the first Angel Air reissue to not feature bonus material.

EXTRAVAGANZA

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(THE ROCKET RECORD COMPANY; 1974)

With a move to Elton John’s new vanity label and Tony Ashton (late of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and a brief stint in Family) in tow as producer, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater (Mike Evans appears briefly, performing the solo on “The Volunteer”) introduced a radically reconfigured group to the stalwart Stackridge fans. Not that there was an appreciable change in the music, although, without James Warren’s charming compositional skills, Davis and Slater tended to lean toward the more cabaret-esque side of the Stackridge spectrum; the pair also seems to have abdicated their newly-minted leadership to Rod Bowkett, the band’s new keyboardist, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the record’s ten tracks. The album opens with Bowkett’s 1920s dancehall-styled single, “Spin ‘Round the Room.” Considering the prevailing musical climate in the United Kingdom, I find it virtually incomprehensible that neither this nor the pair of …BOWLER HAT singles were radio or chart hits. It isn’t until the third track, “The Volunteer,” that we here a song from Davis, one of three co-songwriting credits on EXTRAVAGANZA. The song moves between a somber waltz and a rollicking sort of reel, one of the very few tunes that harken back to the original Stackridgian joie de vivre.

Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

Highbury Incident (Rainy July Morning)” follows, a jaunty little piece of Beatles-like pop written by Davis, Bowkett and Mutter, highlighted by rather Crimsonesque work (consider Ian McDonald’s work on IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING) from new woodwinds player Keith Gemmell. Side two of the original vinyl took a decidedly jazzy swerve into – cover your ears… uh… eyes, children, as I type that word that should never be typed – fusion territory with, incomprehensibly, three cuts out of four being instrumentals. Former King Crimson (there’s that name again!) bassist Gordon Haskell walked in the front door, dropping off “No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm,” the most progressive tune here (go figure, huh?), on his way out the back door, leaving the bass duties to Paul Karas, formerly of Rare Bird. The three instrumentals are adventurous but, aside from “Pocket Billiards,” sound out of place here. “Rufus T Firefly,” the side’s opening track, is mentioned here because… well… Groucho Marx! Like …BOWLER HAT, Angel Air’s reissue of EXTRAVAGANZA features no bonus material. The album isn’t terrible; it just doesn’t come off as a proper Stackridge record.

MISTER MICK

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(THE ROCKET RCORDING COMPANY; 1976)

The fifth Stackridge full-length comes with an oddly familiar history behind it: Their record company didn’t like the concept and demanded changes be made. The record started life as a concept album, following the life of a cranky old man, with Mutter adding odd bits of dialogue – written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde – to move the story along. Rocket Records sent them back to the drawing board, basically telling the boys to “lose all this talking stuff, cut these songs and, by the way, where’s the single?” The resultant product looked and sounded quite different than the original, as did the band as Andy and Mutter welcomed back Crun Walter on the bass, with Keith Gemmell the only holdover from the EXTRAVAGANZA band; the lineup was completed with drummer Peter Van Hooke and former Greensalde member Dave Lawson adding synthesizer textures. As much as Stackridge had known a bit of success on the singles chart, it must have been quite humorous to be told, “We don’t hear a single. We need a single.” Another trip to the studio and the band had a single, a sort of Caribbean (or, if you rather, psuedo-Reggae) take on the Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight,” which was released several months before the MISTER MICK album. Rocket Records were immediately rewarded with a release that seemed to disappear from existence virtually before it was released due to a surging apathy for anything that could not be considered punk.

Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

The reorganized and partially rerecorded version of the album featured a sound that owed more to 10CC, than it did to any of the original Stackridge’s influences or, indeed, to any of the previous four Stackridge records. Having missed the mark (chart-wise) with the band’s Beatles cover, Rocket decided to cut their losses and open their version of MISTER MICK with “Hold Me Tight.” This version really isn’t too bad but, with the more standard progressive pop featured throughout the remaining nine cuts, sounds very much out of place. Possibly, the most adventurous piece on the album is the B-side to “Hold Me Tight,” “Breakfast With Werner Von Braun,” a holdover from the original sessions, which could best be described as a Bedouin waltz. The incongruities rear their ugly heads rather quickly, as “The Steam Radio Song” features the accompanying narrative thread (written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde and delivered by Mutter) from the original recording; as sequenced by the record company, this bit of dialogue shows up about four tracks too soon. While the official version of MISTER MICK has its flaws, there are still enough nice moments to make it listenable, including the original album’s opening track, “Hey! Good Looking” and the Beatles-esque “Fish In a Glass,” also from the original, Stackridge version of the record. The Angel Air reissue pairs the Rocket Records release with the original, rejected twelve track version, which previously saw release as THE ORIGINAL MISTER MICK in 2000. Comparisons prove there are now stunning differences between the two but, with only seven overlapping tunes, the double disc release gives you five previously unheard (or, at least, very rarely heard) tracks.

PART FOUR: THE KORGIS, COLLECTIVELY

The Korgis, Andy’s and James’ other band, like Stackridge, got the “best of” treatment from Angel Air, first with 2005’s KOLLECTION, which, like a lot of Angel Air releases showed up a little later on in a Sound and Vision version as SOMETHING ABOUT THE KORGIS (a demo called “Make a Fuss About Us” was replaced with a new version of the Stackridge tune “Something About the Beatles”). The recent release of a much different package called …BY APPOINTMENT weeds out a few of the lesser tracks from KOLLECTION and adds a few cuts from an acoustic release called – naturally – UNPLUGGED. For essential music from the Korgis, I humbly suggest…

THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT

The Korgis cover

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2015)

After the MISTER MICK debacle, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater laid Stackridge to rest. Shortly thereafter, Andy and James Warren made nice and formed the Korgis, with violinist Stuart Gordon and keyboard player Phil Harrison along for the ride. The eponymous first album was released within two years of the demise of the mother band and garnered Warren and Davis something that had alluded them throughout the seven year career of Stackridge: An actual charting single… a hit, in the form of “If I Had You.”

The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)
The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)

The gently rocking “If I Had You” opens …BY APPOINTMENT, sounding for all the world like a George Harrison outtake. The group’s biggest hit, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” follows; the languorous lead single from the second Korgis album, DUMB WAITERS, hit number five in the UK and was Top 20 in the States. The next single, the Beach Boys-lite of “If It’s Alright With You Baby,” barely nudged its way into the British charts, the last release from the group to see any such action. THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT – by my calculations, the tenth compilation package from the group – features a mix of single releases and album tracks, rerecorded for this release, though a few are culled from 2005’s UNPLUGGED record; Andy and James are joined by long-time collaborator, John Baker. Highlights include the oddly appealing “True Life Confessions,” which is a bizarre combination of Mariachi horns, English pop and Caribbean percussion… truly an embracing of the “world music” vibe; a taught, tense “Lines,” from UNPLUGGED; the anthemic “One Life,” with its brilliant lead and harmony vocals, charging percussion track and massive organ leading the way.

The second half of the collection features “Mount Everest Sings the Blues,” a blast of old time rock ‘n’ roll and boogie-woogie; a beautiful, lush remake of “Something About the Beatles,” from the late-90s Warren-led Stackridge reunion (SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND also featured original members Crun Walter on bass and Michael Evans on violin); a cool version of the Korgis’ first single, “Young ‘n’ Russian,” from UNPLUGGED; a weird, faux-jazz Andy Davis tune called “Art School Annexe.” While the final half of …BY APPOINTMENT is more easy listening than the first half, overall, this is a solid introduction to the Korgis and their music.

PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD, FINALLY

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With Stackridge calling it a career and Angel Air Records reissuing the original albums (with plenty of bonus material), now is definitely the time to jump on this band’s wagon. As mentioned above, a great starting place is the “best of” collection, PURPLE SPACESHIP OVER YATTON but, you really can’t go wrong with the group’s original run of albums (STACKRIDGE through to MISTER MICK). Other recorded highlights from the band’s reformative years include SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND (1999), THE FORBIDDEN CITY (2008’s double CD of the group’s April Fool’s Day show from the previous year) and their final album, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE (2009). Any or all (as well as any of the Korgis collections – UNPLUGGED and …BY APPOINTMENT being personal favorites – and various James Warren and Andy Davis solo projects) are worthy of your attention.

UPDATE: Stackridge took their final bow in their hometown of Bristol on December 19, 2015. A film of that last show will be edited and released on DVD sometime in 2016. Of course, we know that – like comic book characters – rock bands never truly die and, sometime when we least expect it, Stackridge will mount another comeback. I’ll be waiting.

STEELY DAN/ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE IMPOSTERS

(July 22, 2015; HOLLYWOOD CASINO AMPHITHATRE, Saint Louis MO)

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Two long standing musical icons have joined forces for a blockbuster summer tour, with Elvis Costello and the Imposters opening for Steely Dan. The music from both acts was a lot of fun and, considering we were in the midst of a hot, humid Midwest summer, the weather was great.

Elvis Costello (photo credit: MARY MCCARTNEY)
Elvis Costello (photo credit: MARY MCCARTNEY)

Elvis supplied an hour’s worth of hits from his long, impressive catalog with “Pump It Up,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Alison,” “Veronica” and “Every Day I Write the Book,” ending the set with one my favorite Costello tunes, the Nick Lowe penned “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” His long time band, the Imposters, featuring two former Attractions – drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve – alongside bassist Davey Faragher, kept things in motion. Actually I wish we could have heard a little more from Elvis and his Imposters but, sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.

Steely Dan (Walter Becker, Donald Fagen) (photo credit: DANNY CLINCH)
Steely Dan (Walter Becker, Donald Fagen) (photo credit: DANNY CLINCH)

Watching Steely Dan is like visiting an old friend. The duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have a deep history with infectious, wonderful grooves and, on this tour, feature a great eleven-piece band backing them. Fagen reminded me of Ray Charles, sitting at the piano, with his shades and moving his head around. His partner-in-crime, the usually microphone-shy Becker, actually did a lot of the talking and, of course, played some great guitar. The hero of the show was the other guitar man, Jon Herington, who ripped off great solo after great solo all night. The set opened with “Black Cow,” from my favorite Steely Dan album, AJA, with the group delivering hits like “Peg,” “My Old School,” “Reeling In the Years,” as well as fan favorites like the slinky, funky “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More.” The ladies providing vocal accompaniment and the brass section were terrific and drummer Keith Carlock had the versatility to keep the grooves loose and fluid throughout.

JEFF BECK

(May 19, 2015; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

Jeff Beck 2015

Apparently just about everyone I know had seen Jeff Beck in concert except me. Beck, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, has gone long stretches in his storied career without touring extensively, but in the past few years he has come to Saint Louis several times, and finally, I had the opportunity to catch him. And, while I hardly needed any additional proof that he is a hall of fame axeman (past listens to BLOW BY BLOW and WIRED, as well as countless sessions for others made that abundantly clear), nothing quite encapsulates what a major talent can do like seeing them under optimal circumstances in a live setting. And that’s what Beck’s appearance at the Fox Theatre drove home: This guy is just amazing. Some legendary guitarists can be showoffs onstage, and I personally tend to get really bored listening to some well known stringmen merely show how many notes they can whip outta their guitar fluidly and energetically. Making it musically soulful and stirring, that’s what separates the legends from the showoffs. And Beck is a legend, through and through. He plays beautiful, clean melodies and runs that can soothe and serenade or rock your socks off. It’s always about melody and atmosphere with Beck; his innate sense of variety and tonal discipline makes the music rich and powerful. Having a crack band and superb sound enhanced the experience all night at the Fox.

Jeff Beck with Nicolas Meier, Australia 2014 (publicity photo)
Jeff Beck with Nicolas Meier, Australia 2014 (publicity photo)

Beck performed some well-known covers such as Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (one of a handful of songs performed with riveting style and sass by his vocalist and harp player, Jimmy Hall), Hendrix’s “Little Wing” (performed widely by so many artists but near definitive here), Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” (funky as hell), and a totally bewitching “A Day In The Life,” the Beatles classic that you wouldn’t think could be so mesmerizing as a slow instrumental, but it sure as shit is, as envisioned by Master Beck. The grace and melodicism Beck infused the song with at this show made for spine-tingling sonic bliss. So were some of the other slower, almost ambient numbers like Nicholas Meier’s “Yemin,” Nitin Sawhney’s “Nadia” and Beck’s own “You Never Know” and “Corpus Christi”. To be able to hear every note squeezed out of a guitar the way Beck does it, and get the sense that each of those notes MATTERS and is part of a crafted piece of tonal expression on a personal level, is something you hear and respond to, emotionally. Technique alone is not enough. You gotta have the heart and soul to really touch the listener, and that’s what Beck does so beautifully.

Jeff Beck, circa 2014 (Jonathan Joseph, Rhonda Smith, Nicolas Meier, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)
Jeff Beck, circa 2014 (Jonathan Joseph, Rhonda Smith, Nicolas Meier, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)

His band, including peerless female bass player Rhonda Smith, drummer Jonathan Joseph, and Nicolas Meier on textural guitar that provided a perfect complement to Beck’s electric mastery, was astonishing. Beck was generous in giving them all sublime moments, but the audience always knew just who was in charge. Some of the notable rousing numbers included Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “A Lotus On Irish Streams” (a thrilling band workout), Beck’s “Big Block,” the Lonnie Mack tune “Lonnie On the Move” (good showcase for the amazing Jimmy Hall) and the blues classic “Rollin’ and Tumblin,” during which the band hit one hell of a musical peak, with some of Beck’s most furiously energetic lead runs. For the encore, we were treated to a gently evocative “Danny Boy,” and, in one of Beck’s few utterances of the night, a tribute to the just deceased B.B. King, with “The Thrill is Gone.” Throughout, the sound was excellent, the band were superb, and Beck, smiling and smoothly brilliant, seemed to be having a fantastic time. Just what you want to see from a guitar hero, along with tasteful choices and a perfect balance to the performance. It was great stuff, and I came away with a far better appreciation of just what Master Beck is capable of, making it all seem so effortless.

CHUI WAN/BUG CHASER/TONE RODENT

(May 11, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

To say that I was stoked to see Chui Wan, a young psychedelic band from Beijing, China, is something akin to an understatement. All it took was hearing one song from their self-titled second album and, I was hooked. The fact that some old friends, Tone Rodent, were on the bill, alongside the belligerently unhinged octet, Bug Chaser, was merely icing on an already perfect cake. Though, as a touring band, Chui Wan were the de facto headliner, the decision was made to slot them between the two local acts (a choice precipitated by the fact that drummer Li Zichao was using Tone Rodent Adam Dick’s kit; plus, bassist Matty Coonfield was pulling double duty, playing in both Saint Louis bands); to maintain a certain “you were there” sense of continuity, this review will start with Tone Rodent and end with Bug Chaser.

Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

At some point in the last decade and a half, I reviewed a Tone Rodent show (give me a break if I can’t remember specifics, huh? I’m old!). Here’s what I do remember: I liked them. So, now, all these years (or months or days or hours… whatever) later, I can unequivocally tell you this: I still like them. At this point, Adam Watkins (vocals and guitar) and Matty Coonfield (bass) are the only original members from that band I saw way back when; the current version – with guitarist Jeff Robtoy, keyboard player Mark Early and drummer Adam Dick – were playing what may have been their final show, as Adam Dick is calling it a day and Coonfield is leaving to direct his energies toward Bug Chaser. The band lumbered, rather than tore, through a shambolic 35 minute set that, aside from some minor technical issues was, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyable. Watkins and Robtoy complimented and played against each other (as the situation dictated) quite well and Early’s ambient drone added a depth that isn’t usually found in the noisy, hard-edged psychedelia at which Tone Rodent excel. Dick proved himself to be much more than a timekeeper, with precise fills and unexpected flourishes. And, as I’ve said too many times to count, there’s just something in the water supply that lifts Saint Louis bass players to another level; the style of music being played is irrelevant… once I hear that deep-in-the-pocket groove of the bass, I can almost always tell that the player has Saint Louis roots. Matty is no exception and is as solid and as funky as any bassist to come out of the Lou in the past three decades. Six songs into the set, Watkins said, “We have two more. After sixteen years, we’re down to two songs… and we plan to fuck both of ’em up.” The next tune sounded great but, as the group started “Amen,” Jeff’s guitar cord shorted out but, after much chiding from his bandmates and a save from a Bug Chaser, the final song from the current line-up of Tone Rodent was over, the notes ringing in the ears of the Monday night denizens of Off Broadway.

Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Okay… so this is where a little learnin’ may come in handy. To understand the importance of a group like Chui Wan, I think we should first understand a bit about where they come from. Beijing’s history traces back more than three millennia – under different names – and boasts such cultural and historic sites as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. As the cultural and political center of the People’s Republic of China, it has also been the scene of political unrest, revolution and protest: The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the infamous Gang of Four and, perhaps, the most famous societal event in recent history, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Beijing is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 20 million citizens packed into an area a little over 6,300 square miles (that comes out to something like 3,400 people per square mile… to paraphrase Cheap Trick, “That’s tight!”). That’s the background – the culture and the history – that informs the music and lives of Chui Wan, alongside a diverse musical landscape that includes, individually, Classical and traditional Chinese music, avant garde pioneer John Cage (himself influenced by Eastern music and the philosophy of the I CHING) and, the one major influence that all four members cite: The Velvet Underground. Now, imagine these four young musicians venturing forth into a very different Western culture… a culture where, especially in the United States, celebrity and money are more important than history and tradition; a culture that claims superiority and looks down upon the cultural and societal mores of someone – anyone – who doesn’t share our culture and beliefs… even when we’re on their home turf. Let’s face it… we are arrogant and shallow. So, it’s with that backdrop of major culture shock (not to mention the language barrier… WE expect these young people to be conversant in our language because… “Hey, we’re Americans. What makes you so special that you can’t even learn our language?”) that Chui Wan made their third appearance in the USA (Visa problems caused them a delay of about ten days and seven shows). And what an appearance it was!

Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As bassist Wu Qiong began an intro riff that would make Tony Levin proud, all of those cultural differences didn’t matter anymore; all that mattered was the music. Though their sound is seemingly tight and structured, there is also a sense of the adventurous, the experimental. I immediately heard an Adrian Belew-era King Crimson influence (though I was assured that reference would have been lost on the quartet) – or to be more accurate, Fripp’s other, more improvisational group of the same period, the League of Gentlemen – as well the free-wheeling feel of some of the early 1970s (mostly) instrumental offerings from Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; there were also moments that had me nodding my head, thinking, “Now I get the John Cage reference.” Though many of the band’s compositions border on free-form jazz, it’s Liu Xinyu’s effects-heavy guitar and Li Zichao’s progressive drumming that garners the group its psychedelic label; the sounds Liu coaxes out of his instrument can best be described as “otherworldly,” and isn’t that a prime definition of psychedelic music? Yan Yulong adds atmospheric soundscapes on, not only guitar, but keyboard and – briefly (and very effectively) – viola, as well. Yan, who also supplies the majority of what vocals there are, delivers them in a nearly inaudible drone that further feeds the psychedelic miasma; Wu Qiong has one vocal, a quiet and – dare I say – humble performance that seems a much more comfortable match for her demeanor than is her spirited, funky bass playing. Maybe the most amazing aspect of the inspired (and inspiring) performance is the fact that the four are – literally – wunderkinds… all are in their very early 20s (drummer Li is barely 20) and have been playing – individually and collectively – since an early age (the band’s debut album, WHITE NIGHT, was released in 2012). Even if most of the Monday night denizens were unfamiliar with Chui Wan when they took the stage, after their set, I heard nothing but terms of reverential awe regarding what will long be remembered as a triumphal Saint Louis debut.

Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

After a prolonged delay, the eight-headed beast known as Bug Chaser took the stage. If Tone Rodent’s set was shambolic, then Bug Chaser’s could only be labeled chaotic, with Matty Coonfield reveling in the unbridled insanity. There were actual songs played but, naming them would merely be an exercise in futility… all you really need to know is that the band and the crowd were having too much fun to worry about things like song titles. The group was occasionally augmented and exhorted by a gentleman who originally appeared to be a drunken, overzealous fan but, as the set proceeded, seemed to be more of a well-placed prop, dancing and prancing behind the group one minute and playing the role of cocktail waitress the next. The tunes (noises?) ranged from boisterous boogie to raging rock to furious funk (see what I did there?), all delivered with a reckless abandon reminiscent of George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars at their most debauched. The percussive unit of Kevin Insinna and Taylor Huff (for I believe it was they of whom I speak) laid down a solid groove, where the notes they didn’t play were as important as the ones they did; their rhythm section inmate, Coonfield, pumped out bass riffs dense enough to caulk a large-scale bathroom at the Mall of America. Zeng Zengerling and Jake Jones are potent forces of guitar showmanship, sharing frantic leads and trading querulous solos over the expansive bottom end, which also included keyboard and effects work from Jake Bremler and Jeff White. Standing over all is the strutting vocal peacock, Pat Grosch, who reminds me of a younger, more boisterous Weird Al Yankovic… but with better hair. For a full-on sonic assault, you’ve gotta see these guys live… until then, check out some tunes at Bandcamp.

JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS: GUILTY OF INNOCENCE

(SELF RELEASED DIGITAL SINGLE; 2015)

Cover image

Mad genius Joe Deninzon fiddles while Stratospheerius burns.” That could be the ad copy tagline for this new single from one of the most eclectic groups around today. Stratospheerius plays a wicked Zappa-like fusion of rock and funk, peppered with a jazzy metallic seasoning. If you think that’s as beautifully chaotic as it sounds, you would be correct. “Guilty of Innocence” is the second of four single releases coming this year, leading up to full-length album in 2016.

Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius (Lucianna Padmore, Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Jamie Bishop) (publicity photo)
Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius (Lucianna Padmore, Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Jamie Bishop) (publicity photo)

According to Joe, the track was “inspired by my 2012 stint in jury duty and deals with crime and punishment. I was presiding on a rape trial and the guy who I thought was guilty got off practically scot-free.” The rhythm section of bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore lays down a powerful, funky groove as Deninzon’s spastic violin leads and Aurelien Budynek’s muscular metal riffs drive the tune. If you’re a fan of the previously mentioned Frank Zappa or Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, but are unfamiliar with Stratospheerius, “Guilty of Innocence” is a great jumping on place; it’s available at CD Baby, Amazon and all of the other “usual places” and, of course, at the group’s Bandcamp page (along with the previous single, “Behind the Curtain.”)

RENAISSANCE: SYMPHONY OF LIGHT

(RED RIVER ENTERTAINMENT/SYMPHONIC ROCK RECORDINGS; 2014)

Renaissance cover

Quick, name the most prominent female-fronted progressive bands of the ’70s. Not so easy, is it? That’s ’cause there just weren’t that many, which makes Renaissance an extremely important band in the history of prog. So let us now salute the band’s five-octave-ranged vocalist Annie Haslam, for however she did what she did. Namely, to make exceptional ’70s classics like TURN OF THE CARDS, ASHES ARE BURNING and NOVELLA, to keep it going fairly consistently through subsequent decades, and to take care of her classically trained pipes so that Renaissance could remain a going concern into the modern age. The public at large, of course, probably didn’t realize the band was still around past the ’90s, and truthfully, there is something a bit anachronistic about this band in the new millennium. But that said, the level of musicianship in Renaissance has always been incredibly high, and Ms Haslam has a stellar voice, soaring, commanding, sometimes ethereal, and always displaying warmth and something more than a little regal. Her songwriting partner, and the other rather indispensable long-time member of the band, was Michael Dunford, whose guitar work had elegance and shimmering musicality; Dunford drew from folk, classical and rock in somewhat equal measures. Sadly, he passed away during the making of this album, which took the band by surprise and could have spelled the end. But… Haslam and company carried on to pay tribute to Dunford’s talents, which are plentiful here.

Renaissance, 2012 (photo credit: RICHARD BARNES)
Renaissance, 2012 (photo credit: RICHARD BARNES)

Although I’d be lying if I said this album approached the classic sound of their amazing ’70s run, it’s still lovely and listenable. I particularly liked the cinematic dramatics of “The Mystic and the Muse,” with its rapid changes and the vibrant keyboard work of Rave Tesar, and some of the shorter, more evocative tunes like “Waterfall,” which casts a nice Pagan-like tranquil spell, and the gender-balanced, accordion-flavored pop truffle “Air of Drama,” which is nicely crafted. “Porcelain” is also a highlight, very musical and airy, with one of Haslam’s more relaxed vocals, and some nice chord progressions. The background vocals are charming. And let’s give it up for Haslam’s ability to still hit those amazing high notes without much trouble. Being operatically trained has its advantages, for sure. By the time I got to the last track, “Renaissance Man,” I felt rather melancholy, though. It felt like this music belonged in the past, and I almost wanted to be back there.

Renaissance (Michael Dunford and Annie Haslam) (uncredited photo)
Renaissance (Michael Dunford and Annie Haslam) (uncredited photo)

That’s the thing with bands you remember from their prime. You were younger, so were they, and the whole dang music business was a different animal back then. What is the significance of a band like Renaissance in this day and age? Any band, of course, has a right to keep doing the things that distinguished them in the first place. But Renaissance don’t sound like the NOW, and their classically infused brand of prog just sounds a little out of place. I couldn’t help thinking about an amazing date I had around 1977 or so, taking this girl to see Renaissance in concert and watching her awestruck face as this unique band served it up in their prime. And I got chills listening to stuff like “Midas Man” back then. I like Renaissance, and Annie Haslam is a true pioneer among female vocalists, capable of stunning emotional heights and stirring forays into your subconscious. But I seldom truly LOST myself in this new music; I couldn’t escape the underlying theme of time going by. There are moods when you WANT that sort of thing, however, even if it makes you sad. The loss of Michael Dunford hangs over this project, as does the loss of youth itself. Ms Haslam, however, always sounds wise and knowing and devoted to the graceful acceptance of what must inevitably be. It’s not always easy to do that as a listener, though, and SYMPHONY OF LIGHT put me in mind of a trip to the art museum, struck by the vivid colors and brief sensations and indescribable nostalgia for something I never truly experienced. And leaving, all I could think of was the march of time and the yearning for something different. Such things are buried in this music despite the peppy, pleasing production. How to grow old gracefully, even rock groups gotta deal with that.

UNCONSCIOUS COLLECTIVE: PLEISTOCENE MOON

(TOFU CARNAGE; 2014)

12 Jacket (Gatefold - Two Pocket) [GD30OB2-N]

The avant metal/doom jazz experimental trio Unconscious Collective is back with their second full-length, the impossibly retro-progressive PLEISTOCENE MOON, putting the best parts of Sun Ra, the Mothers, Mile Davis, Crawling Chaos and Captain Beefheart in a bag, shaking them up and dumping them out onto two slabs of 12 inch vinyl (wax, actually, but… you know what I’m talking about) that are uniquely their own. This is some seriously brain-damaged stuff! I like it… I like it a lot!

Unconscious Collective (Aaron Gonzalez, Gregg Prickett, Stefan Gonzalez) photo credit: GINGER BERRY)
Unconscious Collective (Aaron Gonzalez, Gregg Prickett, Stefan Gonzalez) photo credit: GINGER BERRY)

The first three minutes of the title track is every camper’s nightmare, with various animal and… uh… other noises (I’m thinking RACE WITH THE DEVIL… look it up). It leads into an even creepier Gothic fever dream, featuring ominous bass and drum parts (courtesy of Aaron Gonzalez and Stefan Gonzalez, respectively), a scratchy, atmospheric guitar (provided by Gregg Prickett) and other deeply disturbing noises and effects. Simply stated, “Pleistocene Moon” is the soundtrack to the scariest horror movie never made. “Tribe Apini” is fueled by a deep, sonorous bass, some jazzy drumwork and some avant guitar noodling with subtle flamenco undertones. Frank Zappa woulda been proud! There’s a jazzy vibe to “Requiem For Biodiversity.” The first section is a plaintive, emotive tenor sax thing by Mike Forbes. Aaron chimes in with a great bass line and a cool bowed acoustic bass (like a cello, no?) part. The track is very much in the free-form jazz vein that eventually turns into manic Motorhead Sherwood skronks. Prickett’s feedback and echo drenched guitar during the first 150 seconds of “Kotsoteka” comes off like soundtrack music for a spaghetti western starring face-eating demons. From that point, it’s a fairly straight forward rocker with a light jazz glaze.

Is the Spine the Dividing Line?” has an odd, but appealing jazz time signature, with requisite great work from the rhythm section and minimally intrusive guitar and horn noodling to carry the melody, which is quite reminiscent of Flesh Eaters’ magnificent “Satan’s Stomp.” The final few minutes turn rather ominous, reiterating the haunted foreboding of the first half of the record. A squalling stun guitar and solid bass/sax interplay informs “Methane Rising,” the shortest track on the album. The tune is a wicked, violent improv of noise and an unlikely groove that slowly falls apart in a deconstructive heap with Aaron plucking single notes to the fade. “The Transformation of Matter” is an almost normal sounding jazz tune with plenty of soloing and adventurous swerves and bumps along the way. The final track, “Greedy Tongue” is a percussion piece – not a drum solo – with Stefan incorporating a coil spring and other, more standard percussive instruments and running them through a blender for an other-worldly sound. Guitar and bass scratch and claw just below the surface as the disembodied voices from the first tune reappear, adding to the luncay. With the track clocking in at over eight minutes, you may think that it will get really stale fairly quickly; far from it, Stefan engages from the get-go and keeps it interesting ’til the end. The same can be said for the whole record, as five of the tracks come in at ten minutes or more. If you miss the adventurous improvisational aspects of yesterday’s musical innovators, PLEISTOCENE MOON should put that shiver back in your spine.The album is available in a downlaodable form or as a two record set from tofucarnage.com.

AMON DUUL II: DUULIRIUM

(PURPLE PYRAMID RECORDS/CLEOPATRA RECORDS; reissue 2014, original digital release 2010)

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Approximately a decade-and-a-half after their last true record (new material, rather than collected works or decades-old live tapes), and even longer since the involvement of a majority of the original driving forces within the group, Amon Duul II returned in 2010 with BEE AS SUCH, a self-released downloadable album harkening back to the beginning… experimental and trippy sound pastiches with transcendently hippie-chic lyricism. The original plans for the album included a physical release shortly after the digital files were posted; that scenario never materialized… until now, as the Purple Pyramid arm of Cleopatra Records has finally released the retitled DUULIRIUM on vinyl and CD. Rather like the debut of their forebears (the communal-minded Amon Duul), BEE AS SUCH seemed to be recorded as one long jam session and then edited and cut down into four separate and highly distinct tunes. I mention that because the individual tracks tend to start and end either in the middle of a note or a piece of lyric; even if it appears that the splices fit together seamlessly (as with the first two cuts), when you try to edit the two songs together, it just doesn’t work.

Amon Duul II, circa 2009 (Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, Jan Kahlert, Chris Karrer, John Weinzierl, Gerard Carbonell, Lothar Meid) (uncredited photo)
Amon Duul II, circa 2009 (Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, Jan Kahlert, Chris Karrer, John Weinzierl, Gerard Carbonell, Lothar Meid) (uncredited photo)

The disjointedness starts at point zero of the first track, “On the Highway” (originally called “Mambo La Libertad”), as the track seems to pick up right in the middle of a lyric. The song itself is all weird, hippie redux, but is not unappealing in the least. The vocals, which I assume are by Chris Karrer and Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, comes across as a rather sloppy (though, again, not unappealing) duet between Don Van Vliet and Edith Bunker (the character, not Jean Stapleton, who actually had a great voice). As off-kilter as this assessment makes it sound, “Mambo La Libertad” gets the record off to a great start. The track ends mid-drumbeat, with the second cut picking up somewhere later in the same beat; “Du Kommst Ins Heim” is total mind-warping Krautrock of the highest order. Continuing to mine a plethora of vocal styles, the (again, an assumption on my part) male part comes across as David Byrne, circa early Talking Heads. The same vocals that sounded like Edith are here, too, but much more… in tune, while spastic yodeling, operatic yowls and squalling cat mewls mingle with the odd violin scrape. We actually dig this one muchly as it totally epitomizes the word “trippy.”

Standing In the Shadow” finds Nina Hagen and Mac Rebennack vamping their way through a wicked, groove-based improvisation, fronting a Germanic Funkadelic with Lothar Meid (in the role of Bootsy) funkin’ things up on the bass guitar, while John Weinzierl adds some insane Bernie Worrell style synthesizer effects. At less than eight-and-a-half minutes, “Stil Standing” (the cut’s original title) is the shortest track on DUULIRIUM/BEE AS SUCH. In contrast, the final piece clocks in at nearly thirty minutes; listed on DUULIRIUM as two separate entities, “Back To the Rules” and “Walking To the Park,” the songs were presented under the title “Psychedelic Suite” on the original digital files of BEE AS SUCH. A mindnumbing crawl of a slow tune, “Back To the Rules” occupies the first ten-and-a-half minutes of this musical beast. Standing as a stark example of gaunt minimalism, the oddly languid pace manifests itself as a definite plus rather than a minus; the musicians almost break free at the 8:45 mark only to be reined back in by the burdensome art-damage of the whole thing. The final minutes of the piece does pick up the pace, though not much, as bassist Meid and percussionists Danny Fichelscher and Jan Kahlert drive the tune toward a real psychedelic work-out leading into a bizarre little interlude before heading full-bore into “Walking To the Park” at around the 18:30 mark. Suddenly, a leisurely stroll (a virtual Thorazine shuffle) becomes a frenzied run, perhaps as the couple in the narrative realizes that the park may not be the safest place to be. There are some great guitar runs during this section of the track, really the first time either Weinzierl or Karrer have exploited the instrument to its fullest extent on the entire record. Likewise, Knaup-Krotenschwanz delivers the album’s best performance here, falling somewhere between early Toyah Willcox, mid-period Kate Bush and latter day Marianne Faithfull. Twenty-six minutes may seem a tad like overkill but, if you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded with what is an epic masterpiece of the genre that has come to be known as “Krautrock.”

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.