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13 Jun

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Stones recapture their mojo, dignity on blistering “Blue and Lonesome.”

5 Dec

For those of us who love the Rolling Stones the last few decades have been a tough slog.  Their increasingly rare studio output has varied between occasionally catchy professionalism and boring, borderline embarrassing filler while their neverending stadium tours have veered near self-parody.  In the process, a once daring and controversial band of rogues has settled for playing a mostly safe Rolling Stones revue for high rollers in corporate suites with set-lists that rarely change and offer little promise of surprise.

Once dangerous, perhaps even revolutionary, the Stones have become a commodity–lifestyle rock best suited for beer commercials (or any other commercial willing to pay their hefty licensing fees). Every now and again they actually, you know, ….TRY and catch at least a spark of the old magic, but for the most part they’ve been coasting on competence and professionalism.

Set against that backdrop, Blue and Lonesome is enough to bring a true Stones fan to tears–in a good way.   By now you’ve probably heard the story.  Walled off in Mark Knopfler’s studio, trying and failing to get somewhere recording new original material, the Stones tried to loosen up by playing some of their favorite blues covers and it worked–so well  that they ended up cutting an album’s worth and doing so quickly, over three days, playing live around open mics without overdubs.  The result is glorious.

This is not one of those overly studied, well-mannered blues tributes that artists like Eric Clapton (who guests here on a handful of tracks) occasionally drop for the adult radio crowd.  It’s not smoothed over elevator music.  It won’t play in a dentist’s office–and if it does, I might watch the good doctor around the anesthetics.  It’s loose, a bit raw and not especially mannered.  It also doesn’t lean lazily on tried and true classics.  Of the album’s dozen tracks, only Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” popularized by Otis Rush and Led Zeppelin comes close to being a household name outside of houses occupied by blues purists.

Instead what we get is four core Stones, augmented by bassist Daryl Jones and keyboardists Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford cutting loose in powerful ways.  Whether by accident or design, the material brings out the best in everybody involved.

It’s an especially great showcase for Ronnie Wood.  Still seen as “the new guy” even though he’s logged more than four decades in the band, he’s somewhat unfairly known more for his personality and partying than his actual playing.  His stint in devil-may-care slop-rockers The Face (not to mention various rehab facilities) may contribute to that perception.  However, he cut his teeth in the same blues scene that launched the rest of the Stones as well as Clapton, Jeff Beck and just about every other member of heavy rock royalty.  While it may not be common knowledge, he’s an ace player and “Blue and Lonesome” gives him his best showcase as Stone.  He rises to the occasion spectacularly, going full on Hubert Sumlin on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit A Crime” and affecting a powerful slow burn in the background of the title track, originally a Little Walter favorite.

But the true star here is Mick Jagger.  For years now, he’s been portrayed as everythign that’s wrong the Stones; ripped by everybody from critics to his partner in crime Keith Richards for his affectations, awkward pop star moves and general tendencies to prance and preen more than sing and front a band.  Here,  he’s fully committed and in full command of his vocals which move from frisky to fierce and back again.  Best of all is his oft-underrated harmonica work.  With Richards and Charlie Watts content to lay back and provide a sturdy rhythmic foundation for the songs, Jagger gets to hog much of the instrumental spotlight and he’s more than up to the task, coloring every track with searing harp work and unrestrained vocals, never more so than on Magic Sam’s “All Your Love,” Jimmy Reed’s “Little Rain,” and Little Walter’s “I Got To Go.”

Seriously though, the whole record’s a kick–all killer no filler– and doesn’t lose an ounce of steam from beginning to end.  Other standouts include another Little Walter number, “Hate To See You Go” which sounds like it could have been cut at an early Fat Possum session in Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint and the smoldering swamp stomp of Otis Hicks’ “Hoodoo Blues” 

Time will tell if this is just a one-off blast of glory, or , if like Bob Dylan’s early 90’s return to the folk and country blues he covered as a young man, this gives the Stones a late-career push into fertile new music.  However it works out, this much is true.

By not trying to sound like the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band the Rolling Stones make a compelling case for the crown. By mining the past for inspiration they become a band that once again might have a future worth caring about.  GRADE A

Stevie Nicks and The Pretenders at Van Andel Arena 11-23-16

24 Nov

WHAT HAPPENED:  Aging but still vibrant female rock icons Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde brought their bands to a nearly sold-out Van Andel Arena Tuesday Night as part of Nicks’ 24 Karat Gold tour.

STILL BRASSY: Hynde led her most recent version of The Pretenders through a tight, raucous hour-long set.  Augmented by original bandmate Martin Chambers as well as tough, younger members on guitar, bass and pedal steel  the band ripped through a set that was heavy on classics but made space for a handful of tracks from the band’s new, Dan Auerbach-produced “Alone.”  The new material held it’s own and the band was remarkably powerful with Hynde looking far younger than 65 and Chambers thumping his toms with the joy of a 20-something.  A mid-set romp through 1979’s still stunning “Mystery Achievement” was a high point but classics like “Back on the Chain Gang,” “My City Was Gone” and the classic cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing” all stood out as did Hynde’s relaxed banter between songs.  The Pretenders may be a legacy act, but this show along with a solid new record suggests there’s still plenty of life.

THE GOLD DUST WOMAN: Although the arena was mostly full for the Pretenders’ set, there was no doubt most of the crowd was there to hear Nicks and her 90-minute set didn’t disappoint the faithful.  Although she promised a set filled with rarities many culled from her 2014 compilation of previously unreleased material that gives the 24 Karat Gold tour its name, it was still hit-heavy with nuggets from her solo career (“Stand  Back,” “Edge of Seventeen,” a lovely, show-closing “Leather  and Lace.”) as well as Fleetwood Mac standards (“Gypsy,” “Gold Dust  Woman,””Rhiannon”).  One of the show’s more charming aspects was the  lengthy, storytelling segments.  Nicks came off as sincere and appreciative when sharing tales of her songs’ births with the audience who were able to glean a little bit about the inner workings of the artistic life.  Rarities were there as well, including the first Buckingham/Nicks single which she claims is the oldest song she’s  ever performed.  Also interesting was “Starsign”an excellent Nicks/TomPetty composition with a Motown feel that appears on the 24 Karat Cold compilation.  

As much as the music, it was Stevie’s presence that carried the evening.  She comes off as your eccentric aunt at a family gathering–the cool one who never settled down but travelled the world having adventures and now splits time at the family gathering telling impossibly great stories and encouraging you to follow your dreams, even if your parents want you to do something more practical. It amounted to one of the more unique artist/audience bonds you’ll see–truly sincere with two-way adoration.

Unfortunately, Nicks’ voice can’t quite match her repertoire or generous nature.  Although her  pipes proved powerful in the mid-range, she struggled to hit the high notes, particularly in the encore opener “Rhiannon.” Her crack eight-piece band, led by long time co-conspirator and L.A. session legend Waddy Wachtel smoothed over most of the rough spots while replacing  some of the more synthetic elements of her 80s solo output with solid and shaded layers of So-Cal rock.

HIGHLIGHT: Hynde joined Nicks on stage to sing much of Tom Petty’s part on 1981’s “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” the song that Nicks claims saved her solo career.  Seeing two of rock’s most iconic and strongest female leads sharing the stage was as powerful as it was enjoyable.

LOWLIGHT: For whatever reason, Van Andel’s usually reliable  sound system did not put out the clearest of mixes with vocals often slightly buried or unnaturally shrill.

THE VERDICT: Although the bulk of the fans were attending to get their dose of Nicks doing Nicks there were plenty of joyful moments for casual fans  as well.  In a time where non-white males are remembering what it is to feel like a minority again, the sheer female power of the night was inspiring–a fact that both Nicks and Hynde alluded  to indirectly in their remarks to the audience.  Yet, there were enough strong musical moments to carry the  show as well.  Overall, the bulk of the fans in attendance seemed to leave feeling they got their money’s worth and a little more and not without  good reason.  PRETENDERS A-, NICKS B

Paul McCartney at Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids. 8/15/2016

16 Aug

Mr. Kite

LOWDOWN: Drawing on Beatles, Wings and solo classics interspersed with lesser-known album tracks from throughout his career, Paul McCartney and his crack four-piece backing band played a 38 song,  2:45 minute set at Van Andel Arena Monday night.

THE SHOW:McCartney led the band on stage at 8:20. Dressed in a simple blue blazer over a white shirt and jeans, he was about as low-key as major rock stars get.  Starting off with perhaps the most famous chord in music history, he launched into “Hard Day’s Night” and the show was off and running with fans singing along to every word.  In keeping with Sir Paul’s attire, the stage was about as unadorned as you’ll find as well.  A video tower on either side of the stage provided close ups of the band while a video wall behind the stage alternated between colors, McCartney/Beatle footage and landscapes. The only real departures were the psychedelic carnival lighting that accompanied “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and the explosions and laser show that provided visual highlights during “Live and Let Die.”

In the first third of  the show, McCartney mixed classics with lesser-known tracks from his solo career.  Although the solo stuff paled in comparison, the band seemed energized by playing them and if that’s what it takes to keep things fresh, it was more than worth a few dead spots.  Starting on his iconic Hofner bass, Paul switched to electric and acoustic guitar and two pianos, a grand on a riser above stage right and a psychedelic-painted upright that he played from the front of the stage. This lent a bit of variety.

Mid-show the full band came up front for a short acoustic set and then left Paul alone atop a mechanical riser 10 feet above the crowd for heartfelt readings of “Blackbird” and “Here Today” a tender 1982 tribute  to John Lennon.

In that moment and in many of the montages on the video board, Lennon was a constant but understated present as was fellow ghost in the room George Harrison.  One of the show’s most poignant moments was McCartney breaking out Harrison’s Fab Four classic “Something,” playing the first verse solo on a ukelele George gave him.

The show’s last hour was all killer, no filler, culminating with “Let it Be”, “Live and Let Die” and “Hey Jude. with its obligatory audience sing along on the “Na Na Na NaNa Na Na” coda.  After a short break, the band returned for a six-song encore that featured “Yesterday” and ‘Birthday” sandwiching “Hi Hi Hi,” an energetic but decidedly lesser Wings track, before ending with the closing Abbey Road suite “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry that Weight” and “The End.”

THE BAND: Unlike almost any of his contemporaries, Paul works without an army of orchestration, backup singers and extra instrumentalists.  It’s just the core band that’s now been with him longer than the Beatles or Wings: Rusty Anderson on guitars and high harmonies, Brian Ray, switching between guitar and bass depending on what Paul is doing and powerhouse drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.  The key player is multi-instrumentalist Wix Wickens who does a bit of everything: Keyboards to simulate orchestration, accordion and harmonica when subtler shadings are required.  It may not be the most spontaneous outfit ever to hit a stage but it’s tight, professional and always suits the songs and, like their leader, they give the impression that they’re loving every minute of what they’re doing..

HIGHLIGHTS: When you’ve got the guy who wrote and sang the greatest songs anybody ever wrote or sang, highlights are plenty, but a semi-acoustic set of lesser-known classics really stood out.  Starting with “We Can Work It Out” the band gathered in a semi-circle at  the front of the stage in full on Hootenanny mode including Laboriel on a stand-up drum kit.  From there, McCartney introduced a fun version of “In Spite of All The Danger” a simple country western tune that was the first song the Quarrymen (Beatles v 1.0) recorded.  This led to a lovely reading of RUBBER SOUL’S “You Won’t See Me”  and gorgeous takes on “Love Me Do” (featuring a mournful harmonica from Wickens) and “And I Love Her.”  It was quiet, nuanced and Van Andel Arena’s top notch sound system captured every pick scrape, stick click and subtle shading in absolute clarity.

Equally fun were Macca’s frequent breaks to tell stories about how songs come about or recount memories from recording sessions.  At one point he even brought fans on stage  and even let a member of his AARP fan base touch his hindquarters.  None of this felt particulary unscripted and it probably plays out the same way more or less every night, but the man radiates so much charm and good will that it was irrepressible nonetheless.

THE VERDICT: A McCartney show almost defies criticism.  The songs and the collective history behind them are such that it’s going to make it almost impossible not to be charmed.  If you’re not feeling the goosebumps when singing along to “Hey Jude” or “Let it Be,” there’s really something wrong with you.  That said, if we’re being honest, these days McCartney’s  voice is somewhere between“not really what it used to be” and “flat out shot”. Also, while the show never lagged and it’s hard to complain about getting nearly three hours of music, there was a bit too much lesser material–does anybody really need to hear “Temporary Secretary” again?  Still, it was hard not to ignore the fact that Paul and co. gave the fans far more music and far more of themselves than they need to get by.  He could easily tour behind an army of backup singers to hide the imperfections.  He could easily sleepwalk through 90 minutes of rote renditions of the hits rarely engaging the crowd beyond standard cliches as the Rolling Stones have done for most of the last 20 years.  Instead, he’s out there carrying the show all night, engaging in banter and generally acting like a guy who’s doing this for no other reason than he genuinely enjoys entertaining people.  In many ways, it’s that generosity of spirit as much as the music that drew the world to the Beatles in the first place.

Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ legendary producer once said that when they auditioned for him, he didn’t really  like their music, but he agreed to work with them because they had a special ability to make everybody in the room feel better about being alive.  That’s still true today.  There probably hasn’t been a human in the history of history with more power to physically transmit pure  JOY on the level that Paul McCartney has done for the past half century. That he’s still doing it in doses far larger than necessary is some kind of miracle and more than enough to make up for any slight musical flaws.  The man remains a global treasure.  GRADE A-.

LUCERO: At Bell’s Eccentric Cafe 4/7/16

11 Apr

Lucero_use

WHAT HAPPENED:  Lucero, a no frills band of Memphis road warriors turned in a rewarding two-hour set at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe Wednesday night, pleasing a packed house of fans.

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?:  Fronted by singer/guitarist Ben Nicholls, Lucero defy easy description.  Their sound is a ragged-but-right mix of rock, country and soul that’s equal parts Muscle Shoals and CBGB.  It’s a sound that’s unique to the mid-south and shared by other bands from the region, most notably Alabama’s Drive By Truckers.  Too country for the indie rock crowd and a little too indie rock for the “No Depression” set, Lucero’s carved out its niche through near constant touring and several consistent albums over the past 15 years.

THE SHOW:  The band doesn’t provide much in the way of a stage show–lighting is minimal and for its part, the band mostly just shuts up and plays, with bassist John Stubblefield’s occasional raising his axe above his head while playing about as theatrical as the band gets.  For his part, Nichols is a genial frontman, engaging in honest, non-scripted interactions with the audience and often introducing songs with stories about their origins.

Things started quietly, with Nichols playing acoustic and the band focusing on quieter numbers for most of the first hour, which included Lucero tunes old and new as well a handful of songs from Nichols’ 2009 solo outing, even reaching back to a track  Nichols contributed to his brother’s 2012 film “Mud” (starring Matthew McConaughey).  Although this part of the set was well received by the crowd, Nichols seemed almost apologetic, knowing the audience was likely in the mood for some of the band’s rowdier material.  After a short break mid-set, Nichols strapped on the electric guitar and the pace picked up mixing driving rockers and more textured mid-tempo rockers which showed the band’s range.  Particularly effective was Rick Steff whose work on keys and accordian provided many of the night’s instrumental highlights. A rousing “I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonght” from 2006’s “Rebels, Rogues and Sworn Brothers” was a high point, spurring much of the crowd into a mixture of pogo-ing and fist pumping.

THE SCENE: For a band with little public profile, Lucero has a loyal following and I was surprised by how many hard-core fans sung along with every tune.  The room was packed and it was obvious the band appreciated the fans’ loyalty and passion.  Bell’s, with a capacity of under 300, was a perfect spot for the band. Kudos to the sound crew that opted for clarity over volume, allowing fans to appreciate the various layers and textures in Lucero’s music.

OPENER: Tulsa based singer/songwriter John Moreland won over more than a few admirers with an excellent solo acoustic set focusing mostly on the the dark side of relationships. A large man, Moreland cuts an imposing figure on stage but his songs reveal a surprising vulnerability and sensitivity to human nature.

THE VERDICT: Lucero isn’t the sort of band that’s going to throw you many curve balls or surprises.  They know who they are–a meat and potatoes, workmanlike band and they deliver a tight, professional set befitting of a band of aging road warriors.  While that might not make for a transcendent night of music it does provide more than its share of small pleasures.  GRADE B.

 

 

 

 

FROM THE VAULT: Review of David Bowie “Glass Spider Tour”

11 Jan

 

It wasn’t your average rock and roll show.  Then again, David Bowie isn’t your average rock star.

Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour stopped off at the Pontiac Silverdome on Sept. 12, treating the surprisingly small crowd of 32,000 to one of the most extravagant shows in the history of popular music.

The tour, which reportedly costs around $1 million a week to stage, features a six-story tall mechanical spider, two giant video screens, a host of dancers and a world of theatrics.  The spider, which completely encapsulates the stage, emits several dazzling combinations of lights and also serves as home to numerous platforms from which dancers and musicians do their thing.

The Pontiac show started as longtime Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar walked alone to center stage and kicked into a blistering guitar solo.  Soon, as if drawn by Alomar’s song, the other members of the band entered, sliding down webs from the top of the spider in a spellbinding visual display.  The band then started a chant which eventually summoned Bowie, who made his entrance by dropping to the stage in a chair which appeared out of the spider’s mouth.

Then Bowie launched his show.  The first part of the 2 1/2 hour set featured newer songs such as “Day in, Day Out” and “China Girl” mixed with more chants, poetry and a lot of well-choreographed dancing.  The total visual impact was in many ways reminiscent of the musical “Cats.”

Don’t, however, get the impression that Bowie’s act was all style and no musical substance.  His band balanced theatrics with some very strong playing.

Peter Frampton, who played guitar on Bowie’s most recent album “Never Let Me Down” has stayed in the fold for the ensuing tour, adding stinging solos throughout the show. At one point, he joined Alomar for a devastating duet on “The Jean Genie” which provided the show’s instrumental highlight.

Yet there remained little doubt that the start of the show was Bowie himself.  At every moment he was in complete control of the band, the stage show and the crowd and he seemed to love it.  He managed to deliver a brilliant performance without relying too heavily on his more familiar material.  This is a good reason why, at age 40, he remains unparalleled as a live performer.

Bowie showed the audience his full vocal repertoire, ranging from the high notes in a smooth, popsy “Never Let me Down” to soulful, inspired takes on classics like “Let’s Dance,” “Young Americans” and “Heroes” which nearly brought the Silverdome roof to the ground.

After leaving the stage, Bowie returned for a five song encore which kicked off with him crooning “Time” from atop the spider’s head.  This was probably the most enjoyable part of the show as Bowie then slid to the stage and donned a guitar before running through a cover of Iggy and the Stooges “I Want to Be Your Dog” (which he introduced by saying “I can’t resist doing this one–it’s a Detroit song. Next, he lent his touches to the Velvet Underground’s “White Light, White Heat”.  A few minutes later he concluded the show with crowd pleasers “Blue Jean” and “Modern Love.”

One major disappointment on this night was the fact that scheduled opening act Little Richard was unable to perform due to an illness.  However, the Bo-Deans, an up-and-coming band from Wisconsin filled in admirably, winning some new fans during a nifty 40-minute set.

It’s not certain what’s next for Bowie.  After the tour, there are plans for a new album as well as rumors that he will pursue some sort of venture (possibly a motion picture) with close friend Mick Jagger.  Whatever it is, it’s bound to be interesting. (Originally published in The Bucs’ Blade, Oct. 8, 1987).

 

Reflections on Bowie

11 Jan

I don’t remember when I first heard David Bowie, but I know when I first started LISTENING to him.  It was in the summer before my senior year of high school.  I was on a mission to track down every record on Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest list and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars” was one of the first I absorbed.  Until then, I’d known, more or less, the “hits”.  But from the day I first bought my Ziggy cassette at the local “Believe in Music” I was more or less hooked.

Shortly thereafter, I caught the “Glass Spider” tour. Although it blew me away at the time, today, it comes off as misguided and almost laughably overdone, although the music still holds up, the production itself suggests nothing more than the work of a guy who thought way too highly of “Cats.”  Still, as a cultural experience for an impressionable 17-year-old, it was tough to beat.  He covered the Velvet Underground that night–a new experience for my rather provincial teenage ears and one that sent me scrambling to hear more.  (In retrospect, my review of that show was the first fully realized piece I wrote in high school).

Bowie had that effect on me and millions of others.  Even though I didn’t especially care for his late-period work and sort of drifted from him over the years, he was a critical guidepost. He absorbed more trends than he set, but he was like a gateway drug that ushered me backward to the Velvets and Brecht, parallel to Iggy, the Dolls and Eno and forward into electronic, ambient and other styles.  The guy had songs.  And taste.  Or, to steal one of his lines, Sound and Vision.  From what I’ve heard of his final album (“Blackstar” released last Friday, on his 69th birthday), he stayed that way until the very end.  My life has been more interesting and I’m probably a good bit smarter and more tasteful for having been exposed to him.  That’s about all you can ask of an artist and Bowie was, without a doubt one of the greatest.