Billy F Gibbons Latest, ‘Hardware’ – A Straight Up Rocker From ZZ Top’s Front Man

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I’ve been bouncing all around musically this week. I’ve been deeply into the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary Edition for a couple of weeks now and that continued this week. I found myself going from that to Dylan’s Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol 10 for no other reason than I saw it was the anniversary of the original Self Portrait recently… I seemed to be stuck in a late 1969, early 1970 groove…maybe I should get a leather fringe jacket and some beads. To shake it up I bounced to the Black Crowes’ Warpaint. That southern rock got me thinking about ZZ Top and that’s when it hit me that Billy F. Gibbons (or just Billy Gibbons as I’ve always known him) had just put out a new solo record, Hardware. The next thing I knew I was cranking that and of course, his original band, ZZ Top. I went back and listened to ZZ’s La Futura. I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years since that album was released (in 2012). That was a great, Rick Rubin-produced comeback album. Rubin always seems to find a way to get a band to do what they do best. “I Gotsta Get Paid” is a true ZZ Top highlight. I need to do one of my “Lookback” posts about that one… 

My love of ZZ Top goes back as far as my love of rock n roll. As I’ve shared often on this site, my first LP purchase was the Stones’ Some Girls. After that, I was hooked, my life forever changed. I was a music collector. It was late ’78, maybe early ’79. There was so much rock and roll to choose from…I was so far behind. I wanted to collect all of this great music released in the 60s and 70s but like anybody I was drawn to what was then current. I remember I only owned maybe half a dozen records and my dad asking me, “Do you really need all of these albums?” Famously a smart ass, I asked my father in response, “You realize there’s different music on each album, right?” We didn’t talk much after that until I was 30 but I digress. I remember my burgeoning record collection consisted of: The Stones’ Some Girls, Van Halen, Supertramp’s Breakfast In America (which I eventually traded to my brother for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours), Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-1978, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (which was a must have album, if just as a badge of “coolness”), Led Zeppelin (I still have a soft spot for that debut) and believe it or not – the Blues Brothers, Briefcase Full of Blues. My friend’s “hot” sister, Stacy owned that record and since she was a few years older I figured it was cool. Actually that record is how I started to realize that most the bands and music I was into was based on the blues. So good on you Messrs. Belushi and Aykroyd. 

In 1979, ZZ Top had been away on hiatus. The last ZZ Top LP, at the time, had been Tejas in 1976. They had been gone for three years, a lifetime back then. My friend Brewster always said the hiatus was because bass player Dusty Hill had been taking off his cowboy boots and a revolver had tumbled out and shot him in the leg. Having seen the documentary ‘ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,’ I’m not sure that Brewster story is true, funny though it is… As an aside, I did see ZZ Top open up for the Stones in Houston a couple of years later. The show was in the Astrodome. This biker I ended up standing next to, on the floor in the crush in front of the stage, said to me after ZZ Top had played and the roadies were sweeping off the stage, “The roadies have to sweep up all the mud that came off those guys’ cowboy boots,” like they’d been rustling cattle or something. Again, I’m not sure that’s true either but I’m getting distracted again… So many ZZ Top stories. Having been dormant since 1976, I’m not sure that I was aware that all those great southern rock, boogie blues tunes were the same band, let alone knew it was ZZ Top. I’d heard tracks like “Tush,” and “La Grange” but I’m not sure I’d put it together those were all from the same band… I was truly a novice. Hey, I always thought Genesis’ “Misunderstanding” was Journey with Gregg Rollie on lead vocals. That wasn’t cleared up for me until college. 

So, in 1979 I started hearing this great new song on KY102, the local rock station, “I Thank You.” I dug the music but the lyrics sounded like they were slyly vulgar, which was a plus. Beyond thanking a woman for loving him… this line pops up, “You didn’t have to squeeze it but you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you.” That line had me thinking there was more to this story… there were just too many “but you did(s)” in the song. It was only later that I found out it was a cover tune written in part by Isaac Hayes. I dug the song and I was interested in this ZZ Top, but with only 6 or 7 albums to my name and a salary derived from mowing lawns, I had to be very careful about which LPs I purchased. I quickly determined the new LP was called Deguello, but I still hesitated. I had this 3 song rule… if I heard three tracks I dug, I bought the record. That was my ROI, three songs. Sigh. After hearing “Cheap Sunglasses” I was almost ready to jump in… Finally I heard “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” and that settled it, I had to have this album. I purchased it the next time I could convince my mom to drive me to the mall… Yes, I was still in junior high. Needless to say, that album started a life long connection between ZZ Top and myself. Gibbons had spent his 3 years away absorbing punk rock and psychedelic influences and it paid off. Although even I’ll admit that it was hit and miss after Eliminator all the way to La Futura. I still consider Antenna a great record. 

I had actually heard that ZZ Top was working on a new band LP. I had heard drummer Frank Beard and the aforementioned, Brewster slandered, bass player Dusty Hill were excited about going back into the studio. I was down for another ZZ Top LP after the great La Futura. So I was a bit surprise that guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons had decided to do another solo record. Maybe it was a COVID issue. I remember back in 2000, being in Denver at a Rush cover-band show in a bar up in the mountains. Geddy Lee had just put out his first and only solo record. A friend of mine said to me, “Who needs a Geddy Lee solo record?” Harsh, indeed. Musicians likely get tired of working with the same guys and need a break – especially in the case of someone like Gibbons whose band has been together 50+ years. Sometimes they have material that’s just too personal or they just wanna record different types of music. I never fault a guy for going solo. I will admit, Billy’s first solo LP, 2015’s Latin-tinged Perfectamundo was not my cup of tea. I loved his 2018 LP, The Big Bad BluesI saw that album described as “covers heavy” but there were a lot of Gibbons’ originals. His wife even wrote a tune, “Missin’ Yo Kissin’.” Say what you want about the Rock Chick, she’s never tried to muscle in on the publishing… 

For Hardware, Billy assembled much of the same crew from the last record. He produced the record with Mike Fiorentino and Matt Sorum of GnR and the Cult fame, who also plays drums. I know rhythm guitarist Austin Hawks is also on this record too. Alas, long time ZZ Top engineer Joe Hardy who played bass on Gibbons’ previous two solo records passed away. While Perfectamundo was a Latin, percussive record and The Big Bad Blues was steeped in, yes, the blues – both records could perhaps be seen as genre exercise – Hardware is a straight up rock record. Well, as straight up as Billy F Gibbons is capable of. Gibbons put out a single last year, “Hot Rod” that could have been a bonus track on Eliminator, but it is not on this album. Hardware is the most “ZZ Top” sounding solo record Gibbons has done. 

Hardware is what you would expect in a Billy Gibbons record: lots of guitar, big riffs, bluesy solos, and sly (and sometimes not so sly) humor. Parts of this record remind me of Deguello. The first single was “West Coast Junkie” and it gives me a California vibe that pervades this entire record. It’s a surf rock tune punctuated by Billy doing his “Reverend Billy F Gibbons” schtick. The final track, a spoken word thing not unlike “Heaven Hell Or Houston,” also conjures a California, hot desert wind. You can feel dust on your skin… The first four or five tracks have a seriousness that Billy usually doesn’t evince. It almost starts to feel humorless, but that’s just because it’s missing Gibbons’ trademark humor which comes in later. The opener, “Lucky Card” reminds me of “Just Got Paid,” all funky blues rock. It may be my favorite. “She’s on Fire” is one of those, race to the finish line, fast, balls to the wall rocker. “More More More” has some of Gibbons’ most gravely vocals to date. “Shuffle Step & Slide” is just as advertised, a blues shuffle turned up to 10. It’s got a big, big riff. 

“Vagabond Man” is an affecting bluesy ballad, the guitar solo practically weeps. Make no mistake though, “Vagabond Man” is more ballad than blues. It’s not “Fool For Your Stockings.” “I Was A Highway” is a classic rock song with a chugging riff. It’s almost a sing along. I love the line, “You’d think I was a highway, the way she hit the road.” Gibbons is a deceptively clever songwriter and could always turn a phrase. The only track that really fell flat for me was “Hey Baby, Que Paso” which I think is a cover. “Spanish Fly” is a big riff rocker with almost metallic sounding drums and it is slightly plodding. The music – especially the guitars aren’t as loud as the usual ZZ Top or Gibbons record. They’re down in the mix and the vocals are up a little higher which also surprised me. 

Overall I really do like this record. Much like I said about Cheap Trick’s latest album, this is a solid, straight up rock record. It may not be Tres Hombres but its a damn fine guitar riff record. I’ll be honest, I probably liked The Big Bad Blues a little better but I’m an admitted blues fetishist. Everyone should check this album out. In 2021 its just nice to hear some great, guitar rock. 

Cheers! 

Lookback: The “Peak” of Bob Seger, The Rodney Dangerfield of Rock – 1976 to 1981, From ‘Live Bullet’ to ‘Nine Tonight (Live)’

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I thought for certain by now, almost midway through 2021, we’d be awash in a flood of new music. While 2020 was an awful year it was actually a pretty damn good year for music. Even so, I know there were a lot of bands who had stuff recorded and ready to release last year who ended up delaying since they couldn’t tour. I know Cheap Trick’s latest LP, In Another World was recorded and ready to go last year but not released until this spring. I know I described that album as merely “solid,” but it has really grown on me. I would have guessed that all of those great musicians out there, unable to tour, would turn to writing and recording new stuff. I had expected with all that “pent-up supply” of music we’d see new albums from beloved bands every week. And in truth we have seen some good music this year from Dirty Honey and the Black Keys, to name but a few. If I’m being honest however, I’ve been a little disappointed with the small number of new albums that have dropped this year. While things are rapidly improving out there I’m guessing that booking a tour right now might be slightly premature, a word I studiously try to avoid. And without being able to tour – which is where the real money is anymore – I’m sure that bands are waiting until the latter half of 2021 to put out the new stuff. At least there’s been some amazing archival stuff this year from the Black Crowes, Neil Young and CSNY.

While I’ve been fairly immersed lately in Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 2, CSNY’s great Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary, and frankly a lot of blues, with the small amount of new music coming out I do what I’ve always done… I’ve wandered back through my music collection to stuff I haven’t heard in a while. You can only research new stuff for so long before you have to return to the music that turned you onto rock and roll in the first place. For some reason this week I found myself obsessively (the only way I know how to do anything) listening to a guy who I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, Bob Seger.  I’m from Kansas City, the center of the country in the glorious midwest. In the late 70s, we kind of knew who Springsteen was, especially after The River. We kind of dug Tom Petty after Damn the Torpedoes. But in the midwest, Bob Seger was King. Everybody loved Bob Seger. I’m surprised the guy’s face wasn’t on our currency back then. He could sell out two nights at Kemper Arena in under an hour. They say that your musical tastes are ingrained during your formative, high school years. There was no one bigger during that time of my life than Bob Seger. The first Seger album I ever owned was a gift from my Sainted Grandmother (on my mother’s side) who knew I’d gotten into music. She bought Stranger In Town for me because she felt Seger “had nice eyes.” I loved the tune “Still The Same.”

While Seger was huge back then, for some reason he seems to have fallen out of favor. Most people only seem to know him from his greatest hits. I’m not sure the guy really ever got the respect he deserved. He’s like the Rodney Dangerfield of rock n roll, “I can’t get no respect…” It took until 2004 for the guy to be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame despite being eligible for it years before that. He said Detroit radio and gads, Kid Rock helped spearhead his induction. Seger is from the midwest and most of the rock intelligentsia are on the East Coast which might explain why Seger’s name isn’t uttered with the same whispered reverence as Springsteen. I like what Dylan said about Springsteen/Seger on his Theme Time Radio Show, “Some say Bob Seger is a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen. I like to think of Springsteen as a rich man’s Seger.” Seger has a lot in common with CCR… meat and potatoes rock n roll. “Maybe not the coolest band but certainly the best,” as Springsteen said of them. Seger’s rock n roll was simple, straight-forward, barrel house rock, based on a Chuck Berry ethos. When he rocked he was amazing. When he did the acoustic ballad stuff, well, yes, he was still amazing. Who doesn’t know and can sing along with “Mainstreet,” or “Fire Down Below” with equal gusto.

When I was trying to frame this article on Seger, I began to ponder what his “peak” period would be. I don’t think there is a musician with worse luck than Seger. He always struggled with decent studio production. Once, when I was in college with nothing better to do, I went to the library to do some rock n roll spelunking. I was surprised to learn that Seger is the exact same age as Pete Townshend. Pete and the Who’s road to fame and fortune was clearly a lot shorter than Bob’s. I decided to focus on what I consider to be Seger’s commercial peak. The albums that came out between his two landmark live albums. Those are likely the albums everybody is familiar with, which is actually too bad. Because out of Seger’s first 7 or 8 albums I’d say over half are classics. Unfortunately you can’t buy or stream any of his early LPs save for 1969’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man and 1975’s Beautiful Loser. I have mused in these pages before about who is holding his early stuff hostage. Jack White, another Detroit native, has even offered to go in and remaster Seger’s early LPs but Seger turned him down. I blame his longtime manager, Punch. Although Punch just passed away, sadly… but maybe this means new management might get this essential rock n roll released.

That lack of availability of a lot of Seger’s early music is what led me to pare this post down to that albums that are considered his “commercial peak.” Ideally, I’d be telling you that around the time Seger did his all covers LP, Smokin’ O.P.s he started to hit his stride. I’ve already posted about Smokin’ O.P.s in the best albums featuring all cover tunes…His early stuff, if available is all worthy of being considered a part of his peak but alas it’s not out there. Back In ’72 (recorded in ’72, released ’73) is a  lost masterpiece and if you ever see a copy in a used vinyl shop, grab it up. You can’t find this thing. The original version of “Turn the Page,” So I Wrote You a Song,” and “Rosalie” later covered by Thin Lizzy are all on this album. He covers Van Morrison (“I’ve Been Workin'”), and the Allman Brothers (“Midnight Rider”) to stunning effect. Seger always had a uncanny ability to “smoke other people’s songs”… Seven, his creatively titled seventh album doesn’t have big hits but is my all time favorite Seger album. “Get Out of Denver” from that album is the best Chuck Berry inspired number that Chuck didn’t do himself. Seven is the LP that saw the debut of the Silver Bullet Band. And finally, Beautiful Loser is damn close to perfect. Since none of these records (save the last one) are readily available, I’m sticking to my premise and merely recommending Seger’s “commercial peak” LPs, from his first live LP Live Bullet (an LP that made our best Live LPs list), to his second live LP, Nine Tonight. These are the albums that every rock n roll fan should own.

Live Bullet, 1976

After my grandmother gave me Stranger In Town, which I realize isn’t the coolest origin story, this was the second Seger album I purchased which was quite a financial outlay in junior high. This landmark live LP was largely ignored when it first came out but finally began to sell and get airplay after Night Moves broke Seger. Recorded at Detroit’s historic Cobo Hall this is the sound of the world’s most overachieving bar band, the Silver Bullet Band, on perhaps their best night. Twelve of the fourteen tracks are from the LPs mentioned in the paragraph above. This plays like an early Seger greatest hits (that weren’t hits) album. They say Seger could play Cobo Hall in Detroit and drive to the nearest city, Chicago, Des Moines or Kansas City and couldn’t sell out a theater. “Beautiful Loser/Travelin’ Man,” “Turn the Page,” and “Katmandu” were all staples of Kansas City rock n roll radio. But if you ask me, the opening track, “Nutbush City,” an Ike & Tina Turner track should have been a hit…

Night Moves, 1976

I heard Seger say in a radio interview that the title track of this LP, the one that finally broke him nationally, was somewhat inspired by Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” It’s an epic track. I was a pre-teen when this track came out but I still got goosebumps and could relate to the line, “woke last night to the sound of thunder, how far off I sat and wondered… started humming a song from 1962…ain’t it funny how the night moves?” There isn’t a bad song on this album. OK, maybe “Sunburst” is a little weak. Other than that, this is all killer, no filler. While the LP is billed to the Silver Bullet Band, half the album was recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – a habit that Seger had begun when recording Back In ’72, recording select tracks with his backing band and select tracks at Muscle Shoals. Tracks many casual fans will recognize from his greatest hits albums are here: “Fire Down Below,” “Mainstreet,” and “Rock N Roll Never Forgets.” But the deeper tracks are some of his best, like “Come To Poppa” a line that never worked for me… “Sunspot Baby,” and the rocker “Mary Lou.” This is close to midwest rock n roll heaven as you’re gonna get folks.

Stranger In Town, 1978

This was the album where I got on the bandwagon. The track that drew me in, oddly, was “Still the Same.” It still makes me think of a fickle friend of mine from those days. “Hollywood Nights” has some of the most propulsive drumming I’ve ever heard, especially when driving down the highway at 90 miles per hour… ahem. If I ever have a heart attack, put this on the stereo, turn it up loud and throw me on the biggest speaker in the room. It should revive me. “Feel Like A Number” is a tune I relate to even more now… although being a faceless member of the crowd in a high school of 1800 students certainly made it relatable. “Brave Strangers” was relatable on a completely different level. Again, a lot of these tracks, like “Old Time Rock n Roll” and the treacle “We’ve Got Tonight” are on the greatest hits but its the deeper tracks that I dig. “Ain’t Got No Money” is just a great rocker. “Till It Shines” boasts a great guitar solo from none other than Glen Frey.

Against The Wind, 1980

I will always have a soft spot for this album, as this is the first tour I actually got to see Seger. That’s why I’ve probably always been fond of his second live LP, Nine Tonight. That show was the famous night my mother blew out her knee doing “jazzercise” in the living room. The neighbor called 911… cops and ambulance showed up. I had a bottle of Jack Daniels in my pants and my friends almost drove past my house… I love this album but I have to admit, this is where I began to see the cracks in the Seger veneer. It has the sound of an album that was crafted to sound like his previous two. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fabulous album that everyone should hear. “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” and “Horizontal Bop” were great tunes but they felt like we’d heard them before. I did particularly like “Her Strut.” The first single was “Fire Lake” which asked the musical question, “who wants to go to Fire Lake?” sung by back up singers Don Henley/Timothy B. Schmit/Glenn Frey. With the “bronze beauties, lying in the sun,” I think we all would go to “Fire Lake” given the opportunity. The real question in that song was… why was Uncle Joe “afraid to cut the cake.” I mean, I get why he ran off to “Fire Lake” but I’m getting off topic here. “Long Twin Silver Line” is a great song about a train and made our train songs playlist. My favorite track here is the acoustic ender, “Shinin’ Brightly.” It was the perfect bright note to end the album on.

All of those albums are must haves for fans of rock n roll. I do like this second live LP, Nine Tonight, but I’m not sure it’s essential. It covers the three studio LPs above and only shares “Let It Rock” with Live Bullet which is a testament to how many great tunes were on those 3 albums. His next studio album, 1982’s The Distance was another solid album but I loathed the first single, “Shame On the Moon.” I loved “Even Now” and “Roll Me Away” but the cracks I started to see became more visible for me on this album. I’m still not sure what “House Behind A House” was about. But “Makin’ Thunderbirds” kicked ass… I will admit, after The Distance I really couldn’t connect with much of Seger’s more sporadic output until I Knew You WhenMaybe that’s why Seger has fallen out of favor… too many late-period, weak LPs. Although that doesn’t seem to hurt most bands these days.

I urge anyone who hasn’t gotten deeper than Seger’s Greatest Hits to check out these albums in full. There is a host of great music in these deep tracks. “Like a guest who stayed too long, its finally time to leave,” indeed.

Cheers!

Review: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Deja Vu (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)’

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“If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do, Don’t you?” – CSNY, “Deja Vu”

I didn’t start listening to rock n roll until I was in junior high in the late 70s. By the time I was in high school I considered myself an “aficionado” on the subject of rock n roll. However, I knew so little about the rock music I professed to love that if you’d have asked me about Crosby, Stills, Nash and/or Young, I’d have probably confused them with Seals & Croft. Even though I was into Dylan – from his rock n roll stuff to his folky stuff and yes, even his Christian stuff – I knew very little about the folk rock or country rock that had emanated out of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Neil Young was probably my “gateway drug” in terms of discovering CSNY. And to give credit where credit is due, it was my college roommate Drew who turned me onto Neil Young. Through Neil’s Decade greatest hits LP, I ventured into CSNY and picked up their landmark 1970 album Deja Vu. I loved the Young tune “Helpless” but once I picked up Deja Vu, I was stunned at how great it was and how great Stills, Nash and Crosby were. That of course led me to the first Crosby, Stills, Nash self-titled LP, aka “The Couch Album,” so nicknamed because on the cover the members are sitting on a couch on the porch of a dilapidated shack. CSN (and later Y) really changed rock n roll music. I read somewhere that rock n roll previous to CSNY was basically “the blues played louder and faster.” And yes, in high school that was the rock I was listening too… louder and faster, indeed.

The story of how Crosby, Stills and Nash came together is the thing of myth now. As the story goes, they all had left or been fired from their previous bands. They all met for the first time at a party at Cass Elliott’s place (Cass of the Mamas and Papas). They harmonized at the party and realized they were onto something and formed a band. That mythical story isn’t completely accurate, they didn’t actually “meet” at the party. It is true Graham Nash had quit the Hollies in 1968 and had moved to Laurel Canyon. Stills had been a member of the Buffalo Springfield who had finally disbanded after their third LP, Last Time Around. But there’s no way that Stills didn’t already know David Crosby who had been fired from the Byrds. The story goes that he was fired for presenting the song “Triad” about a menage a trois to the band. Actually Crosby had been at odds with his Byrds bandmates for a while. He was fond of rambling on about JFK assassination conspiracy theories on stage. He argued with the band about doing covers vs stuff they’d written because he wanted the publishing money. And worst of all – at a festival (Monterey I think) – he sat in with the Byrds’ arch rivals, yes, the Buffalo Springfield. “Triad” was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ergo, Stephen Stills and Crosby had already known each other. Regardless of inaccuracies in the myth, they did apparently meet Nash and sing together at Mama Cass’s party. And they were right, the vocal harmonies of these three voices was simply spellbinding.

They quickly formed a band, signed with Atlantic Records and picked up the rhythm section of Dallas Taylor on drums and Greg Reeves on bass. Their debut album, creatively titled Crosby, Stills and Nash was a monster hit. On the heels of that smash success Ahmet Ertegun (founder of Atlantic) supposedly suggested they add Neil Young as member because he liked the interplay of Young and Stills’ guitars from their time together in the Springfield. I can’t imagine a savvy record guy like Ertegun thinking it was a good idea to mess with the chemistry of a band who just had a smash hit. What I’ve read over the years was they were going to add a keyboard player and approached Steve Winwood to join, but he quickly declined. I’ve also heard they approached the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian who was a friend of the band and he declined as well. Perhaps that was the point Ertegun suggested Young. Again, after the success of Crosby, Stills & Nash, it’s hard for me to believe they thought they needed a 4th member…and yet, enter Neil Young.

The problem of course is I’m not sure Young was ever that committed to CSNY. They played one of their first shows at Woodstock and Young refused to be part of the film of that performance. He sat off to the side. Neil had been in and out of the Buffalo Springfield and I think he brought that “band commitment phobia” with him to CSNY. The band recorded their first album as a quartet in 1970, Deja Vu. Sadly, Covid delayed the release of the 50 year anniversary edition until this year. Young contributed his iconic “Helpless”  to Deja Vu but his second contribution was a track “Country Girl,” which was a combination of three songs he’d written for Buffalo Springfield, “Whiskey Boot Hill,” “Down Down Down” and “Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)” that Young put together in the style of a “suite” like he did with “Broken Arrow” or “Expecting to Fly” in the Springfield. It’s easy to suspect that Young did, like so many artists with a solo and band career are accused, keep his best stuff for his solo records. Even Stills said, years later, “Neil only gave us like, three songs (“Helpless,” “Country Girl” and “Ohio”). Even in the bonus material on this new Deja Vu: 50th Edition, there’s scant Neil Young.

I knew this Deja Vu 50th Anniversary Edition box was coming but I hesitated to jump on the bandwagon. I was very focused early this year on Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 2 instead. You never know if a retrospective release of an album is going to be Wildflowers or something like what the Who did with The Who Sell Out, just repackaging stuff you’ve heard before. I needn’t have worried. When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young finally went into the studio as a quartet to record the follow up to Crosby, Stills And Nash they supposedly spent 800 hours recording this album. The relationships in the band had become somewhat volatile and they recorded this in much the same way that the Beatles recorded The Beatles (The “White Album”), treating the other band members as back-up musicians. Whoever wrote the song played the track and brought in Young or Stills for guitar and the whole band for the harmony vocals. Based on the treasures in this box set, they could have put out a double album. Many of the songs included in this box ended up on the members solo LPs that followed: Crosby, If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971); Stills, Stephen Stills (70); Nash, Songs For Beginners (1972); and Neil Young, After The Gold Rush (1970). It’s remarkable to me that Stills and Young put out solo LPs mere months after Deja Vu arrived. These four songwriters were truly at a peak in 70-71.

Disc 1 of the 50th Anniversary box is the original album. The sound is amazing. It sounds, especially on some of the demos, like these guys are sitting in the room with you, or on the porch strumming. The original LP has one of Neil’s best songs, as mentioned, “Helpless.” I love that he later played that song with the Band at The Last Waltz concert. Nash has two of his greatest tracks, “Teach Your Children,” and “Our House,” the latter written about he and his then main squeeze Joni Mitchell’s place. Crosby has his usual trippy almost jazzy stuff with the title track and one of my all time favorite expressions of paranoia, “Almost Cut My Hair.” I love the line, “it increases my paranoia, like looking in my rearview mirror and seeing a police car.” I think we’ve all been there. Don’t drink and drive people. Stills does the yeoman’s work again, like on Crosby, Stills and Nash, when Nash gave him the nickname “Captain Many Hands” as Stills played all the instruments. Stills takes Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and rocks it out with Young. This was the guitar fireworks Ertegun was looking for. “4+20” is one of my all time favorite Stills tracks. Crosby and Nash famously refused to put backing vocals on it, they thought it was perfect as is and I couldn’t agree more. As a  young, foolishly heart-broken college kid “4+20” could have been my theme song… If you do anything after this post, at least pick up Deja Vu. From the opening “Carry On,” to the ending “Everybody I Love You” this is folk-rock, hippy masterpiece.

Disc 2 here is all demos. I think when I saw there were 18 demos, I was concerned. Sometimes demos can sound rough or unfinished. Not here. These are mostly all completely finished tunes. Some are demos of the tracks on Deja Vu but other songs are tracks that didn’t make the album. Those songs that didn’t make it could have almost been listed as outtakes vs demos. At the heart of their songs, CSNY have either an acoustic guitar or a piano. Yes, they adorn it with more guitar and harmony vocals but the heartbeat is a simple acoustic song. That’s what these demos are, the heartbeat of the finished tracks, the bones upon which the finished songs were based. There are so many great tracks on disc 2. The sole Young contribution is here, “Birds” demo’d with just he and Graham Nash on harmony vocal. It’s a spectacular song and I love this demo. “How Have You Been” credited to CSN is a John Sebastian cover… it could have made the album. Crosby’s “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” delivered here with just he and Nash is stripped to its elemental beauty. “So Begins The Task/Hold On Tight” which appeared on Stills’ LP with Manassas, is quintessential Stills. While many of these demos ended up on the members solo albums (which I posted about before), in more definitive versions but these are all great versions of the songs. Listening to these demos you have to wonder if the law firm style name, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, was an indication that this was a consortium of musicians looking to launch their own solo brands vs a real band. I always imagine a commercial that goes, “Been busted with a dime bag, call the law firm of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young,” but I’m getting off track here. Over the course of 18 tracks you get the feel for the recording sessions for Deja Vu and it helps frame the entire album. A must-hear experience for fans.

The third disc is my evidence that this could have been a double album. It consists of “outtakes.” A demo is an early version of a song. An outtake is a fully completed song that didn’t make the album. Many outtakes end up being B-sides on singles. Or, they used to back in the days when singles were released on vinyl. The outtakes are dominated by Stills tracks. Stills seems to be the most dedicated member of CSNY to the band ethos. “Ivory Tower” and my favorite “30 Dollar Fine” would have made fine additions to a double LP version of Deja Vu. Crosby’s “Laughing,” here stripped down almost matches the version on If I Could Only Remember My Name. “The Lee Shore” which CSNY did live but I don’t think ever released in a studio version, sounds great here. I will say Nash’s “Horses In A Rainstorm” is a bit slight but it is a nice pop tune. Theres so much great material on Disc 3 it’s no wonder that these guys continued to come back to these songs for solo releases down the road. This disc of outtakes is really where the gold is found on this box, even for a casual fan. They wrote the songs that would last their whole careers in those 800 hours.

The final disc, disc 4, is probably the slightest of the four, at least at first glance. It’s “early versions” or “alternative versions” of almost every track on the original album, in the same order. The original album is clearly the definitive version, although I’ll admit, I found some interesting things on disc 4. The version of “Helpless” here has some harmonica, omitted from the original. I think this version was on Neil’s Archives Vol 1. The version of “Almost Cut My Hair” is a sloppy, 10-minute guitar jam. It’s like hearing CSNY drunk in a bar at midnight. I understand why they couldn’t use this version but man is it a great jam. I also really dug the version of “Know You Got To Run” that concludes this box.

I was simply overwhelmed by how great this box set commemorating the 50th anniversary of Deja Vu turned out to be. I highly recommend this album. I’ve been simply lost in this thing for the last two weeks. I wake up every morning with a song in my head. Since I got this box I wake up with “Carry On” or “Our House” or some other track here in  my head. These vocal harmonies and infectious melodies just bore into your ear and straight into your brain. Any artist who is looking to do a retrospective around a classic album should use this LP as a blue print. Of course, I understand most artists wouldn’t have 4 songwriters at their zenith contributing this much bonus material. But there in lies the majesty of CSNY.

Turn this one up loud and get your hippy groove on. And if you’re reading this and thinking about getting your hair cut… don’t do it man! Let your “freak flag fly.” Cheers!

Review: The Black Keys’ LP of Blues Covers, ‘Delta Kream’ – Goin’ Down South To The Mississippi Hill Country

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Despite the heavy influence of the blues on just about every band I was into through college – the Stones, Zeppelin, Clapton, Aerosmith, etc – it wasn’t until after college when I was sent into corporate exile in the lonely state of Arkansas that I actually saw my first blues band in an actual blues club. Don’t be confused, it wasn’t in Arkansas that I saw my first blues band. Every week I spent in Arkansas I was usually figuring out how to get out of Arkansas by the weekend. Early in my southern desolation a group of friends of mine were convening in Chicago for various, nefarious reasons. It was my sainted mother who said to me, in regards to actually flying to Chicago to join them which I was hesitating on, “Buy the ticket son, enjoy your life.” On the appointed weekend I drove from Ft. Smith to Tulsa, the closest functioning airport, and flew to Chicago. It was like getting a three day furlough.

By the time the wheels touched down in Chicago and I made it to my friend’s waiting car, someone had thrust a beer into my hand. I knew this was indeed going to be a great weekend. Before I knew it, I was down on Halsted standing in front of the legendary Kingston Mines. I seem to recall not being able to get in and so we went across the street to the B.L.U.E.S. bar… It was there that I saw Magic Slim and the Teardrops, my first blues band. After that performance, my musical universe made a lot more sense. I spent a lot of time after returning to KC hanging in blues clubs like the Grand Emporium, alas now defunct. One of my first dates with the Rock Chick I took her to B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ, an old school roadhouse. I can still remember watching her swaying to the blues music on her barstool with a half-eaten rib in her hand. I was…mesmerized. 

Despite my love of the blues I had no idea when I posted my rockers playing the blues playlist a few weeks ago what a huge part of 2021 the blues were going to be. That post grew out of another post I’d done about old school cassette mix tapes not any preternatural sense the blues were going to be a big part of spring. But before I knew it Mick Fleetwood released the soundtrack to his blues jam in honor of Peter Green. And now, the Black Keys have released an entire album of blues covers. A blues album from those guys totally make sense. Like the White Stripes they’ve always had that bluesy sound to go along with the garage rock swagger. It’s often that you hear a band do a cover song, but an entire cover album isn’t as common as you think…but that’s another post. 

I got into the Black Keys on their third LP, Rubber Factory. For some reason that LP just didn’t click with me. Months later though, the Rock Chick discovered it and it went into high rotation for her. After hearing it a few times I realized I’d missed something on my initial listens. She not only picked up Attack & Release she went all the way back to their debut LP, The Big Come Up. Since then I’ve had an odd relationship with the Keys. I seem to like every other LP they put out. Rubber Factory, yes. Magic Potion, no (although in their defense I’m not sure I gave that one a thorough enough listen), Attack & Release, yes. It wasn’t until this week, in anticipation of the new blues LP, Delta Kream that I picked up Brothers. They had quite a run there with Attack & Release, Brothers, and El Camino. They’ve branched out from their early garage-rock bluesy roots but they always return to them eventually and that’s the stuff I like the best. 

Delta Kream is not the first time the Black Keys have done a strictly blues thing. They did an EP in honor legendary Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough, Chulahoma. The Keys also covered Kimbrough’s “Do The Rump” on their debut. The influence is definitely ingrained in their music. They’ve stated that Delta Kream is an album to honor Hill Country Blues and the musicians who played it – Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Missippi Fred McDowell, to name but a few. Hill Country blues generally refers to a type/style of blues played in the northern part of Mississippi near the Tennessee border. It has a “strong emphasis on the rhythm and percussion and a heavy emphasis on groove.” I just love that description from Wikipedia…I had to quote it verbatim. Hill Country blues has also been described as “hypnotic boogie.” It’s like cool bluesy trance music. With Patrick Carney on drums, he’s tailor-made for Hill Country Blues. 

The Keys convened shortly after their tour for their last LP, the superb “Let’s Rock.” The chemistry between singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney is so strong that they entered the studio and recorded this album in 2 days… approximately 10 hours. There was apparently no plan or rehearsal, they just set up and eyeball to eyeball played the blues. They’re like me and my friend Drew, it can be 10 years since we last spoke but when we see each other it’s like it was just yesterday… I think we all have friends like that. To augment their rootsy two-piece sound they rounded out their sound on this LP by bringing in Eric Deaton who was R.L. Burnside’s bassist and Junior Kimbrough’s sideman Kenny Brown on exquisite slide guitar. You can’t get more authentic blues sound than bringing those guys in. To emphasize the percussion, so important in the Hill Country blues they also added Sam Bacco on percussion. Brown was a critical add as his and Auerbach’s guitar snake around each other like Clapton and Duane Allman did on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. 

Knowing my proclivity for the blues, it’s no secret that I love this LP. I listened to it all day yesterday and last night on the headphones after the Rock Chick was asleep. This is the kind of music that just seeps into your pores. I can feel dirt on my hands when I hear this stuff. The first track on the LP which was coincidentally the first single is “Crawling King Snake” which I first heard the Doors do on L.A. Woman. It’s a track they played early on but Morrison couldn’t convince the band to include it on their debut. It was previously made famous by none other than the legendary John Lee Hooker. I love what the Keys do here with it – they cleave pretty tightly to the Junior Kimbrough version of the song – it’s swampy. “Louise” a Mississippi Fred McDowell tune is next up and I’ll just quote the Rock Chick when she first heard it last night, “That’s a great tune.” Indeed. 

“Poor Boy A Long Way From Home” is another favorite… it’s been done by several artists but I really dig this version. It’ll put a hitch in your giddy-up as a friend of mine used to say. These guys make these tunes sound fresh and new and somehow ancient at the same time. I feel like I’m getting wisdom when I listen to old blues tunes. “Stay All Night” which I seem to remember asking the Rock Chick after seeing her eat ribs and groove to the blues, is a slow burner of a tune. When you think about the blues, this is the type of music  you think of. “Going Down South,” which helped me name this post is a bit of a twist as Auerbach sings in a high falsetto. It’s a nice change of pace. “Coal Black Mattie” a Ranie Burnette track is another stand out. It just jumps up and grabs you with a thick riff, insistent drumming and stabs of slide guitar. I like to imagine I’m in a roadhouse down at the crossroads, washing down the dirt from a hard day working with a cold, affordable beer when I hear this stuff. 

There are so many great tunes here – and most of these blues tunes are ones I hadn’t heard before, which was a surprise. “Sad, Lonely Nights,” and “Walk With Me” are tracks I’d never heard covered. I used to think there were maybe twelve blues tunes and artists just passed those around. Obviously, that was wrong. There are some who will probably criticize the Keys for being too reverent and clinging too closely to the original versions of these songs, although I think in most cases they make these tunes their own. I remember Clapton’s great blues LP From The Cradle being criticized for not taking enough creative license with the songs. I feel like that’s hollow criticism. If you’ve got the chops to get up and make me feel something, I’m good with that. In the case of the Black Keys they’re exposing me to blues music and artists I would have otherwise not known and that is the greatest support you can show other artists, especially bluesmen. I know I immediately turned to Junior Kimbrough’s catalog to check that cat out. I will likely continue spelunking into Hill Country blues having heard this LP. 

I highly recommend Delta Kream. This is a swampy, bluesy treat of an album. When the Black Keys are on their rootsy game they can literally compete with any band on the planet. It’s just so fantastic to hear this kind of blues music still being recorded in 2021. I’ve always feared it’s going to be like what Elwood Blues once said, “some day the music known as the blues will only be available in the classical music section of your local library.” With albums like this one, that day looks like it’s been pushed a little further down the road. Thank God. 

Cheers! 

Review: Mick Fleetwood & Friends, ‘Celebrate The Music of Peter Green And The Early Days of Fleetwood Mac’

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“If music be the food of love, play on.” – Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

These days if you mention Fleetwood Mac most people think of what is now referred to as their “classic” lineup (meaning their biggest selling roster): Mick Fleetwood (drums), John McVie (bass), Christine McVie (vocals, keyboards), Lindsey Buckingham (vocals, guitar) and Stevie Nicks (vocals, spooky outfits). I have to admit, even if you’d have asked me about Fleetwood Mac in the late 70s/early 80s when I started listening to music and buying albums I would have thought of the Fleetwood Mac – Rumours – Tusk version of the band. Recently I wrote about that lineup’s new, expanded live LP from 1980, ‘Live.’ I was unaware until much later of their extensive, bluesier history. Rock and roll had been around a lot longer than I realized in 1978 and had a deeper, richer history than I knew about when I was 13. Spelunking into rock n roll or a certain band’s history is part of the fun of being a fan for me and Fleetwood Mac’s rich history was no exception… but not everybody is wired as obsessively as I am.

Fleetwood Mac did indeed have a history that dated back to 1968, before Lindsey and Stevie. Hell, it even pre-dated Christine (Perfect) McVie. And that early Fleetwood Mac was steeped in the blues. To really tell the story of Fleetwood Mac and their early period one must step back to blues rock legend John Mayall. I’ve posted before about John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers first few albums. Mayall’s lineup for his first studio LP included not only John McVie on bass but Eric Clapton on guitar. This was circa the “Clapton Is God” era. Clapton met Jack Bruce who had also briefly played with Mayall – the Bluesbreaker were more of a consortium than a band it seems – and they grabbed a drummer from the Graham Bond Organization named Ginger Baker to form a new band. Without Mayall, there’d have been no Cream. What do you do when you lose a legend like Clapton on guitar? Apparently Mayall had a nose for great guitarists that rivaled Ozzy Osbourne’s… he quickly had a replacement for Clapton.

When Mayall brought his band into the studio to record his second studio LP, A Hard Road, his producer fearfully asked where Clapton was? Mayall reportedly said, “Don’t worry, we got someone better.” That guitarist he was talking about was the 20 year old Peter Green. You don’t hear much about Peter Green, a seemingly unsung hero in rock n roll, but he was one of the foremost guitarists in the second great British Blues explosion of the late 60s. What I have always admired about him is the tone he got out of his guitar. It’s like David Gilmour, instantly recognizable to me. Even Clapton praised his playing. But the highest praise for Peter Green came from blues legend B.B. King who said of him, “He had the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” High praise, indeed.

After A Hard Road, Green like Clapton decided to leave the Bluesbreakers and form his own band. Mick Fleetwood who had also been a member of the Bluesbreakers but had been fired quickly agreed to join. Green wanted John McVie to leave Mayall and join his band so he named it Fleetwood Mac – after the drummer and bassist – but McVie waited until they were recording their first, eponymous LP to join. That name, Fleetwood Mac, was prescient as those two guys are the only mainstays of the band. Green was always a generous band leader and didn’t want to be a guitar hero like Clapton so he insisted that a second guitarist, Jeremy Spencer – an Elmore James influenced slide guitarist – join the band. Their eponymous first LP is a great blues rock classic. I love that late 60s blues rock era. Back in those days all the rock bands, when they needed material, turned to the blues. I can’t name a band – Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, the Jeff Beck Group – who weren’t doing Willie Dixon covers. The Mac’s debut may not have received the attention in the U.S. that it did in the U.K., but it should have. Although, admittedly, I didn’t put any tracks from the debut on my Blues Rock playlist a few weeks ago… although I did include a few early Fleetwood Mac tunes.

Sadly, Peter Green only lasted for three albums with Fleetwood Mac, the band he founded. I’ve read that he started dabbling in LSD. I’ve always heard that someone dosed him at a party in Germany and it really affected his mental health. I don’t know if he was schizophrenic or if he was an acid casualty like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. Regardless his mental decline resulted in his departure from the band. And sadly, he sort of floated into obscurity in terms of the annals of rock n roll history. I know he made an uncredited cameo on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album on the Christine McVie track “Brown Eyes.” Green’s departure from Fleetwood Mac led to a revolving door of musicians who came and went, even after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined and then left the band… and then came back and then left…or were fired.

I started reading in 2019 that Mick Fleetwood was putting together a tribute concert for his former band leader, Peter Green. I really loved this idea, it was really a well-deserved thing. I read that Green was invited but didn’t show up. The concert took place in February of 2020 right before the dark curtain of COVID fell across the world, darkening stages and lives everywhere. The concert is structured like a blues jam. There was this bar I used to hang out in on Saturday afternoons in Kansas City named Harling’s. Every Saturday this woman, Big Mama Ray would lead a blues jam. She could have been forty or could have been seventy, you just couldn’t tell. She typically had a Marlboro 100 dangling from her lips, when she wasn’t singing, and it was hard to see her through the smoke. This tribute album for Peter Green reminds me a bit of those old Saturday blues jams – only with considerably more talented and famous musicians involved.

I know they also shot this as a movie/documentary but I haven’t seen that, I’m only speaking of the LP in this post. We do so love our live LPs here at B&V… I’ve scoured the internet and what I’ve been able to determine is that joining Mick Fleetwood (who is the Master of Ceremony and drummer here) in the “house band” at the London Palladium is: Rick Vito (guitar), one time blues wunderkind Jonny Lang (guitar), Andy Fairweather-Low (guitar), Ricky Peterson (keyboards), Dave Bronze (bass). Mick introduces drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo’s son, who has played with both Oasis and the Who a few tracks in but I don’t know if he plays the whole time. A blues jam is structured around a core “house” band with other musicians who get up and take over guitar, vocals, bass or drums. This live LP is a great tribute to Peter Green, early Fleetwood Mac and the blues in general.

It is staggering to think about how many people have been in Fleetwood Mac and many of them show up at this show. First and foremost, it was great to hear Christine McVie sing a couple of blues tracks. I especially like her rendition of “Stop Messing Around.” Rick Vito who along with Billy Burnette replaced Buckingham in the late 80s sings a couple of tunes and really tears it up on “Love That Burns.” Neil Finn of Crowded House fame, who I almost forgot was in Fleetwood Mac to replace Buckingham (again) appears and sings “Man of the World.” The most surprising ex-Mac member to show up is original guitarist/vocalist Jeremy Spencer. Mick introduces him by stating that they hadn’t been on the same stage together in 50 years. I only wish that Peter Green could have been there to join in. Spencer actually brings ex-Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman with him to the stage. Spencer does a great take on Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying.” The only ex-Mac member who didn’t show up was John McVie… well nor did Lindsey or Stevie.

Speaking of Bill Wyman, he’s only the tip of the iceberg here in terms of famous cameos. By my count we hear members of : The Stones, The Who, Metallica, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd and Oasis during the course of the bluesy evening. Wow, those appearances really signal what a special event this was. I was thrilled to hear John Mayall who Fleetwood introduces as “our mentor” perform “All Your Love.” It brings it full circle in a way. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top shows up early and plays on the early Mac chestnut “Doctor Brown.” That took me back. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler does a great take on “Rattlesnake Shake” a track Aerosmith used to do live which can be found on Pandora’s Box. More proof of Green’s influence… Kirk Hammett comes out to provide pyrotechnic solos on “The Green Manilishi” with Gibbons… a track so rocking it was covered by Judas Priest. Noel Gallagher does a few tracks and they’re all acoustic blues based which I really dug. Pete Townshend comes out and rocks out on “Station Man.” For me the emotional highlight of the evening is when Tyler/Gibbons start off with the rocking part of “Oh Well, Pt. 1” and then Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour (who probably emerges from the shadows) comes out and plays the long guitar suite “Oh Well, Pt. 2.” Gilmour also does a beautiful version of Green’s signature “Albatross.” He doesn’t sing but Gilmour’s guitar is always so recognizable.

The evening ends as many jams do, with everybody on stage joining in on the final track. In this case it’s a rollicking “Shake Your Money Maker.” Mick ends thing with the Shakespeare quote that gave one of Fleetwood Mac’s early LPs its name. And I can’t agree more, “if music be the food of love, play on.” This is a great little live album for any fan of early Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green or 60s British blues rock. A truly fitting tribute to a great guitarist we don’t hear enough about. Sadly merely months after this show, Peter Green passed away in his sleep. It’s never too early to recognize a genius for we never know what’s around the corner.

I realize not everybody is into the blues like I am, but I highly recommend everybody check this great live LP out. I’m hoping to actually see the video when it comes out, I think it’ll only add to the experience.

Cheers!

Review: Dirty Honey Rocking Out On Their Self-Titled Debut LP ‘Dirty Honey’

My friends, I’m pleased to say, rock n roll is definitely not dead. If you’ve got anybody in your life telling you it is, just say, “Dirty Honey, baby.”

There were two albums that I was really looking forward to for 2021. The first was from Greta Van Fleet, The Battle At the Garden Gate which, I’ll admit was a bit of a disappointment. Although, upon reflection I will admit that perhaps it was merely a case of their reach exceeding their grasp. The second new rock band I was looking forward to seeing an album from was Dirty Honey. Their new, self-titled album dropped just last Friday.

I discovered Dirty Honey in, of all places, an issue of ‘Classic Rock’ magazine last summer. The pandemic and its ensuing lockdown had me bored to tears. And, while I like to think I’m a highly motivated person, fear and boredom are the only things that really motivate me. Boredom drove me to the bookstore, with my mask on, to discover magazines I’d never heard of: ‘Classic Rock,’ ‘Uncut’ and a few others. I bought the ‘Classic Rock’ magazine because the reunited Black Crowes were on the front cover and I was dying to read something other than books on history. I was starting to feel like I was in college again. In ‘Classic Rock’ I saw nothing more than a blurb about Dirty Honey but it was enough to get me intrigued. I couldn’t help but remember all the bands I discovered in my 20s when I was reading ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine… back when they still wrote about rock n roll. Now all I see in that magazine is articles about this Billie Eilish. She seems fun…

Upon discovering Dirty Honey last summer I quickly snapped up their EP, also creatively named Dirty Honey – EPI connected with that EP immediately. The track “Rolling 7s” has remained in high rotation here in the B&V lab and in my head. I hear the lyric “When you need a little lovin’, All night long” in the back of my mind yes, all night long. Dirty Honey is a classic 4-piece rock band. They even have a cool, Stonesy type logo. The band was a riff heavy rock band with a mix of hard rock like GnR, possibly even some AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and I do hear shades of Aerosmith. I’m not suggesting anything derivative here, it’s just that’s the best way to give you a frame of reference. I knew Dirty Honey (Marc Labelle, vocals; John Notto, guitar; Justin Smolian, bass; Corey Cornerstone, drums) were working on their debut LP and thought we’d hear from them in 2020, but I’m sure release plans were affected by the ‘Rona.

I’ll start off by saying Dirty Honey absolutely rocks. This may be my summer go-to rock album this year. The record starts off with the first single, “California Dreaming'” reviewed earlier on B&V. It’s a great crunchy rock opener. Possibly my favorite song on this album is “The Wire.” I played it for the Rock Chick and she looked up and said, “This is really good…” Indeed. “The Wire” has Labelle’s most impassioned vocal and I love Notto’s riff and solo. “Tied Up” gave me a slight G’n’R vibe. I love the chorus, “I love the way you move, so tied up, I love the way you touch me.” I love the riff on “Take My Hand,” its punchy like Zeppelin’s “The Ocean.” “Gypsy” is another great, urgent rocker. It’s filled with all the wanderlust the title implies. “Gypsy” probably has Notto’s best solo. Again, I love the chorus, “I’m on the run, living like a gypsy.” The choruses these guys come up bore into your brain. 

This is just a fun rock n roll album. It kind of reminds me of those early, classic Aerosmith LPs, nine songs long, all rock. They do mix it up on the last track, the bluesy “Another Last Time.” It’s also a competitor for my favorite tune. They add some keyboards for texture on this track. How can you not love a song with the lyric, “used me up like a motel room”? It’s a classic, I know you’re bad for me, but I can’t resist another go-round… which if you knew me before the Rock Chick, you’d know that is a vibe I’m deeply familiar with. 

Dirty Honey gets a strong thumbs up from us here at B&V. Or rather than thumbs up, maybe a strong “devil horns” up. This is one to turn up really loud with a tumbler of a fine sour mash. I like to think of it as music to scare the neighbors with. Give Dirty Honey a listen and I guarantee they’ll get you up out of your chair! 

Cheers! 

Review: Greta Van Fleet, ‘The Battle At the Garden’s Gate’ – Sophomore Slumping Into Mid Tempo Mediocrity

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As long time readers know, I founded B&V to be a source of light in the rock and roll darkness. It’s always my intention to cast a little of that light onto good music you may or may not be aware of, especially stuff by artists that I worry are overlooked. With so much negativity out there and let’s be honest it’s so easy to be snarky, I have always attempted to remain positive. If there’s something I don’t like, I just tend to skip over it and not review it. As my sainted mother says, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” However, I’m on record as being a very early supporter of Greta Van Fleet, from the time of their first EP Black Smoke Risingthrough to their last LP Anthem Of The Peaceful Army and feel compelled to comment on their new album The Battle At the Garden’s Gate. And sadly, I don’t have much nice to say here.

Having seen these guys live in concert (one of the last bands I saw pre-COVID), I still have hope for Greta Van Fleet: the Brothers Kiszka, Josh (vocals), Jake (guitar), Sam (bass) and drummer Danny Wagner. Jake Kiszka is a very talented guitarist and Danny Wagner is a beast on drums. It should be celebrated that these guys picked up guitars and chose to play real rock n roll vs the highly synthesizer-forward stuff you mostly hear today. They’re rock n roll “throwbacks” and that is a highly underserved market these days. Along with Dirty Honey and Starcrawler I consider them amongst the vanguard of current rock bands. All of which makes this second, sophomore effort such a disappointment. I feel like Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, standing in front of the empty safe screaming, “Disappointed… disappointed.” Since they are classic rockers I guess we should have seen the classic sophomore slump coming…

I should have been more emotionally prepared for this album. Prior to the launch, GVF started posting pictures on their social media accounts. Usually they were dressed in white, standing on a beach somewhere… I think there might have been doves flying around. They looked like a bunch of survivors of a toga-party themed rave… standing on the beach in the dawn wondering if they can get an Uber. I do remember thinking, “this does not bode well.” Part of what I like about Greta Van Fleet, especially from their early EPs was how hard they rocked. Yes, they could ease up and do a mid tempo thing or even a ballad but it was mostly “balls to the wall” rock and roll. Menacing, swaggering, hard rock is what we all yearn for from these guys.

Alas, The Battle At The Garden’s Gate is all mid tempo stuff. This album is like a car stuck in second gear. The only track that really kicks up any energy is “My Way, Soon” a song that I do really like. Although, I have to admit the opening lyric, “I’ve seen many people, there are so many people, some are much younger people, and some are so old” is cringe worthy on a Sammy Hagar level. It was Sammy who wrote the all time stupidest lyric, “Only time will tell if we stand the test of time.” Circular logic anyone? That lyrical issue is a problem throughout the album. It’s like they have something big they want to say about war? the environment? cats and dogs living together in peace? but they never get the message across. At times it feels like the lyrics were cribbed from greeting cards on sale at the local vegan, health-food store… in 1972. With titles like “The Barbarians” and “Stardust Chords” you really do start to feel these guys are stuck in the early 70s from a philosophical or lyrical stand point. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always down for a good “Battle of Evermore,” who doesn’t like it when “the Queen of Light took her bow and then she turned to go, the Prince of Peace embraced the gloom and walked the night alone,” but c’mon guys, can’t you come up with something a little more relevant?

For this album, Great Van Fleet brought in big-time producer Greg Kurstin, who has worked with, among others, Adele. Let that sink in for a moment. It’s like Zeppelin bringing whoever produced Barbara Streisand to produce Houses of the Holy. The Adele connection might explain the treacly ballad “Light of My Love.” Naturally I’m blaming Kurstin for this mess. He’s slowed everything down. While I occasionally grab onto a descent riff from Jake, it quickly dissipates into nothing. “Built By Nations” starts off with a riff that sort of echos Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” although much mellower but it quickly loses its punch. This album feels, as my friend drummer Blake says, “way over-produced.” The tracks all range from four to six minutes but feel much longer. Each song seems to have a long pre-amble that doesn’t seem to build much tension. The album is slightly over an hour but sitting and listening to it all the way through, as I did countless times this week, it felt much longer. It’s a slog of a record to get through. And I never thought I’d say that about GVF.

Much will be made of Josh’s singing on this album. At this point I’m with my friend West Coast Rob and I hear more early shrieking Geddy Lee here than vintage Robert Plant. Yes, some of the singing is a tad overwrought, like the lyrics but again I blame Kurstin. I still like Josh’s singing and he’s especially strong when you see him live. They do have their moments. The guitar solo that ends “The Weight of Dreams,” which is perhaps their take on “Stairway to Heaven” is really something to behold. These guys need to get back to that raw, hard rocking sound of their earlier music. Kurstin has managed to smooth out all the rough edges, rendering a dangerous rock band something placid. Their early music was so much fun and everything here is so ponderous and overwrought it’s hard to connect with any of it. As the Heath Ledger said as the Joker, “Why so serious son?” Maybe dial down the self-importance a little bit?

The good news here is that the guys in GVF are still young. This is only the sophomore effort from these guys. It’s not a terrible record, it’s still rock n roll. It’s just not a very captivating album from a band whose prior output had almost always captivated me. I still think these guys will pull it together next time around but this one is a hard pass for all off us down at B&V. The Rock Chick even said, “these guys have lost it,”  which is withering criticism from her.

Spring has sprung here in the American midwest, and winter is fighting it’s last battle… we did have snow in April… but sunny good times are on the horizon. While GVF misfired I’m still hopeful there is good rock n roll in all of our futures in 2021. Stay safe and healthy wherever you are.

Cheers!

Review: Tom Petty, ‘Finding Wildflowers’ – For “Completists” Only

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What a fiasco this Wildflowers – All The Rest rollout turned out to be. The blame falls squarely on his estate, namely his daughter Adria and his 2nd wife Dana who will essentially be known as Greed Heads from now on. 

Long before Petty passed away he was saying in interviews that he wanted to revisit his 1994 masterpiece Wildflowers. He had recorded enough material for a double-album but legendary Warner Bros. music man Lenny Waronker told him he thought it was too long and should be pared down to a single disc. It’s always the record company guys who ruin things. Petty wanted to go back and release the album in that original double-LP format.   Sadly, Petty died before the project was completed. Then his daughter got a lawyer to challenge his 2nd wife’s control and ownership of the estate. We all waited while the lawsuit played out to hear what was in the vaults especially around Wildflowers. Naturally that took years. 

Finally last year we got Wildflowers – All The Rest. I was delighted and popped for the Deluxe Edition that was four CDs long. I thought that had everything I could possibly want included. Well, everything but “Lonesome Dave” an outtake that was released already on American Treasure. I only later found out there was a 5 CD Super Deluxe edition that was $100 more. I’m not sure I would have sprung for that but it would have been nice to know about. There were several songs that were omitted that I felt should have been on All The Rest, which was essentially disc 2 of the double-LP version of Wildflowers that Petty had spoken about. I was rather vocal about the studio version of “Girl On L.S.D.” being omitted from All The Rest. But the folks who run the estate – his daughter and his 2nd wife – chose to hold that song and several others back and put them on the fifth disc, entitled Finding Wildflowers. Charging an extra $100 for a disc of early versions of songs, listed as an “alternative versions” on the album, seems to run counter to Petty’s lifelong commitment to his fans. He was the artist, when the record company wanted to increase the price of Hard Promises from the prevailing $8.98 a dollar more to $9.89, who threatened to name the album “Eight-Ninety-Eight.” Petty never wanted to gouge his fans. 

There were a lot of fans who did lay out the cash for the somewhat exclusive Super Deluxe. Then the Petty camp announced that the fifth disc, Finding Wildflowers was going to be released stand alone, for $20 bucks. While I felt shafted because I hadn’t been made aware of the fifth disc version until after it was released, I’ve now come to the realization that I’d be really, really pissed if I paid an extra $100 only to see that “exclusive” fifth disc released for $20. As it turns out, it worked for the best for me. But if on-line music chat rooms are to be believed Petty’s estate has pissed off a lot of his die-hard fans. File this one under “How to fuck up an artist’s legacy.” 

But enough about that. Let’s move on to the actual music on Finding Wildflowers. I have to admit that this disc, besides a handful of songs left off of All The Rest, is really for completist only. Once, a friend of mine was at the house having a night cap and I showed him the then-new Robert Plant boxset Nine Lives which I’d recently picked up. Despite previously owning all of the albums contained, I’d purchased the box in order to get all those tasty bonus tracks. My friend looked up at me incredulously and said, “Man, you’re quite an audiophile.” Actually what he meant to say was that I was a completist. I have an obsessive need to own an artist’s output in totality. Audiophiles have to have the absolute best sounding music – and I probably suffer from that malady as well – but for purposes of this post, I am a completist. Naturally, I had to have Finding Wildflowers. I’m not sure most people need this.  

The album is not a reimagining of Wildflowers containing early (or “alternative”) versions of every song in the same running order. Finding Wildflowers omits several songs from the original LP including “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and “Time To Move On” to name a few. The early versions of songs that are on the album are close proximities to what ended up on the album. I didn’t hear too much that was revelatory. The band tightened the material up quite a bit on the released record. There’ll be a stray piano fill or a little sidebar jam on some of the tracks. It’s all fascinating if you’re into learning about an artist’s creative process, which I totally am but not everyone is. It shows you how they got from A to B.

In terms of stuff that I feel is exceptional, I’ve got to star with the outtake “You Saw Me Coming.” This is the absolute best thing on here. I’ve been listening to it since it was released as a teaser for the album. I heard somewhere that it was recorded long before the Wildflowers sessions… I think Stan Lynch is even on drums and he wasn’t on the Wildflowers album. The aforementioned “Girl On L.S.D.” is finally here in the studio version – although it sounds like it might be remixed slightly differently than the original B-side release. I know that it’s practically a novelty song, but I still love it. There is a studio version of “Drivin’ Down to Georgia” that I’d only heard live on the Live Anthology boxset. I dig the studio version but the Rock Chick felt it was too speeded up. There are acoustic driven version of “Cabin Down Below” and “You Wreck Me” that I really loved… but let’s face it the released version of “You Wreck Me” is not only definitive it’s one of the greatest songs Petty ever did. The acoustic “Cabin” is actually quite good and another track that everyone should check out. 

At the end of the day you’ve got 3 previously unreleased tracks: “You Saw Me Coming,” “Girl On LSD,” and “Drivin’ Down To Georgia” and two great alternative versions of previously released tracks: “Cabin Down Below (Acoustic Version)” and “You Wreck Me (Alternative Version)” that I feel are worth checking out here. Leave the rest to the completists. If this one disappoints you, you can always look forward to Petty’s upcoming Angel Dream, which is a reworking of the She’s The One soundtrack. It too will have a few unreleased songs, new album artwork and a different running order than the original…If you missed that soundtrack album – and many did – a lot of it grew out of the Wildflowers sessions and will be well worth looking into…

Cheers! 

Review: Cheap Trick, ‘In Another World’ – The Solid But Predictable New LP

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It’s strange these days when I read anything about Cheap Trick. They are forty-plus years into a career but invariably every article about them or review of their music now describes them as being “power pop” or “pop rock.” Usually the article goes on to compare them to Big Star. Apparently the term power pop is defined as ” a form of pop rock based on the early music of bands such as the Who, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Byrds.” It was apparently coined by Pete Townshend to describe the Who’s music in the mid 60s. My fandom of rock music runs about as long as Cheap Trick’s career. I started listening to rock music in roughly 1978, so I was a year behind their debut LP. I know a lot about rock n roll but I still can’t identify which music is considered “power pop.” I think it’s just rock n roll that is more melodic with perhaps an eye toward the charts? I think it’s funny that critics fall all over themselves to mention Big Star as a reference point… in the mid-70s I think only five people knew who Big Star were and four were in the band…I certainly didn’t learn anything about Big Star until the series ‘Quarry’ on Showtime…and that was embarrassingly recent.

I was turned onto Cheap Trick the same way most people were: their smokin’ live album At Budokan (which naturally made our list of greatest live LPs). I first heard that record on 8-track tape, gads. To think they weren’t going to release that album except as a small promotional thing in Japan. Like Tom Waits sings, they were indeed “Big In Japan.” To me, Cheap Trick – Rick Nielsen, guitar; Robin Zander, vocals; Tom Petersson, bass; Bun E. Carlos, drums) – were just a straightforward rock band. Based on At Budokan alone I would have said they played garage rock. Although – and this also gets mentioned in every review or article (because it’s true) – they were very Beatlesque. You could tell from the jump that these guys were heavily influenced by the Beatles. On their debut, eponymous album they reworked the Beatles’ “Taxman” as “Mr. Taxman, Mr. Thief.” They even went on to hire legendary Beatles’ producer George Martin to produce the album Dream Police. One could be forgiven for thinking the term “Beatlesque” was invented just to describe Cheap Trick… which is wrong, it was probably invented to describe E.L.O. (the Electric Light Orchestra, the band most shamelessly derivative of the Beatles). 

To me, Cheap Trick always had a bit of a split personality. And I’m not just talking about how they’d put Zander and Petersson (the good looking guys) on the album covers and stick Bun E. Carlos and Rick Nielsen (the goofy looking guys) on the back cover. A strategy I’ve always felt worked for our annual Christmas card… the Rock Chick on the front, me on the back…but I digress. I’ve always felt Cheap were also musically a bit of a split personality. On the one hand you had muscular, guitar riff driven songs. Rick Nielsen looked like the cartoon rendering of a runaway accountant with his big-billed ball caps and multi-necked guitar but he’s a great guitarist and songwriter. He wrote tough rocking riffs. On the other hand you had these, yes, Beatlesque, melodic tunes. Zander’s multi tracked vocals could pull off those sunny harmonies the Fab Four were so fond of and adept at. They drench those tunes in strings. Personally, I’ve always liked their more rock-oriented tunes… which comes as a surprise to exactly no one… 

Cheap Trick, for good or bad, are defined by their first four or five LPs. They had a pretty damn good run at the beginning: Cheap Trick (1977), In Color (believe it or not, 1977 also), my favorite of their albums Heaven Tonight (1978), the live At Budokan (1978) and finally the George Martin produced Dream Police (1979). Everything they’ve done since then gets compared to that stretch of music. After those albums, things went up and down for Cheap Trick. They kept touring and recording albums. Occasionally they’d have a hit like “She’s Tight,” “The Flame” or “Can’t Stop Falling Into Love” but they never seemed to have that consistent success that they’d experienced in their late 70s heyday. But, they kept “keeping on” as the saying goes. I know a lot of people who own some version of Cheap Trick’s greatest hits. 

It was 2006 when a friend turned me onto Cheap Trick’s then-latest record, Rockford. That album was a real return to form. It’s top-notch, start to finish. It marked the beginning of a strong, rebirth era for Cheap Trick. Since that time they’ve put out a series of strong albums. Sadly, 2009’s The Latest was the end of Bun E. Carlos’ tenure in the band. They hired Rick Nielsen’s son Daxx (yeah, who would hang that moniker on their son?) to play drums. He made his debut on 2016’s Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello. To me it felt like with Daxx behind the drum kit, the band rocked a little harder. They seemed to be leaning back to that lean and hungry early sound. This “renaissance” for Cheap Trick reached full flower on 2017’s We’re All Alright!, one of our earliest reviews here on B&V. Cheap Trick’s latter day albums were the kind of music that I started this blog to evangelize. We’re All Alright! stands amongst their best work, period. 

Although I must admit, We’re All Alright! recalibrated my expectations for Cheap Trick. Which leads me to their new record, In Another World, which I’ve been listening to constantly since it dropped last Friday. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good, solid Cheap Trick record. However, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed after We’re All Alright! which was a GREAT Cheap Trick record. Apparently In Another World was recorded over 2018 and 2019 for release in the dreaded 2020 but was delayed because of COVID. There are some great moments on this album. 

It opens with a rocker, “The Summer Looks Good On You,” which I’ll have to immediately add to my Summer/Sun playlist. While “Summer Looks Good On You” is a rocker, it’s got those Beatlesque flourishes as well. Its drenched in strings and vocal harmonies such that it wouldn’t be out of place on Abbey Road side 2. “Boys And Girls and Rock And Roll” and “The Party” are also tough punchy rock songs. I really like the guitar on the first of those tracks. “Light The Fire,” reviewed earlier on B&V, remains the pick of the litter here. Zander’s vocal is unhinged on that song. The guy sings like a man half his age. “Here’s Looking At You” is another great rock song. “Final Days” is an ominous, creepy rocker with big choruses and some well-placed harmonica. 

Cheap Trick do mix it up a bit as well. “Passing Through” has spooky backing vocal and a vaguely Moroccan feel. “So It Goes” is an interesting acoustic-guitar driven ballad that has a touch of a psychedelic vibe. I will admit the track didn’t grab me at first but grew on me with repeated listens. “Another World” is a strong power ballad with a great guitar solo. 

I will admit there are some clunkers here. The second track on the album, “Quit Waking Me Up,” (which for this insomniac was a title that held a lot of promise) with all of its horns leaves me utterly cold. It’s almost campy… I kept waiting for Anthony Newley to prance out on stage surrounded by go-go girls. On “Another World – Reprise” they employ one of the most annoying backing vocals I’ve ever heard. “I’ll See You Again” is a dirge like ballad that misses the mark for me. It sounds more like a Coke commercial from the late 60s than Beatlesque. They indulge their Beatles fetish most fully on their cover of John Lennon’s solo track “Gimme Some Truth.” I like Lennon’s original, but I thought it was questionable to add it here. I mean, I get it – in this age of misinformation and craziness, we’d all like some Truth. The tune name checks Tricky Dick Nixon… it just felt dated. And that is coming from someone who likes Beatles covers

When Cheap Trick is on, they’re very very good, like they are on “Light The Fire” or “Boys and Girls and Rock and Roll.” I found this album slightly uneven and a bit predictable but still worthy of a few spins. I’d urge everyone to check out the highlights I’ve mentioned above. In Another World is a solid effort and these guys should be applauded for rocking out this hard this far down the road. We need more music like this in the world. I think this is a sign 2021 is going to be really good year for rock and roll. 

Cheers! 

 

 

 

Surprise Single: Mick Jagger With Dave Grohl Deliver Lockdown Lament, “Easy Sleazy,” Pure Punk Energy And Humor

What a nice surprise yesterday, on a Tuesday no less…

I’m on record as hating Mondays. And Tuesday is always a bit of a “meh” day for me. Just another day punching the clock get to Friday when all the new music comes out. For most people, Friday kicks off the weekend but who am I kidding… my weekends tend to start on Thursday, “weekend-eve.”

I took a brief coffee break from “workin’ for the  man,” doing my usual corporate Tuesday stuff when I noticed on “the social media” that Mick Jagger had released a surprise song. I’ll admit my initial response was, “Wait a minute… I was hoping for a new Stones album in 2021…” After getting over that initial hissy fit, I read his statement about the song:

I wanted to share this song that I wrote about eventually coming out of lockdown, with some much needed optimism – thank you to Dave Grohl for jumping on drums, bass and guitar, it was a lot of fun working with you on this – hope you all enjoy Eazy Sleazy !

As I wondered why I wasn’t hearing a new Stones song I began to think back to Mick’s last surprise single, “Get A Grip”/”England Lost.” It seems when Mick has something topical to say, politically urgent if you will, he doesn’t wait to put a song through the Stones laborious creative process. Although I suppose “Sweet Neo-Con” is an exception. So was the Stones’ “Living In A Ghost Town.” I’ve seen some venerable rock stars releasing some songs about lockdown and the pandemic that I considered kind of… stupid (I’m talking to you Van Morrison and you Eric Clapton). But when I saw that part of Mick’s statement about “much needed optimism” I knew I had to check it out.

I don’t think I’ve heard Mick do anything this infused with humor since “Far Away Eyes.” His tongue is obviously firmly in his cheek as he makes fun of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists in the line “Bill Gates is in my blood stream.” He literally sums up the world’s collective lockdown experience with lines about gaining weight, drinking too much, cleaning the sink and pacing in the yard. Zoom even gets a mention. This is the kind of light hearted, rocking tune we need to kick off spring. Especially this particular spring which shows us all some signs of hope.

And speaking of “rocking,” this tune does. Mick plays rhythm guitar and vocals and he’s joined by that Fighter of Foo, Dave Grohl. Grohl plays drums – exceptionally I might add – and bass and lead guitar. I’ve never dug the Foo Fighters. I had their first LP but sold it at the used record store and never really got back on the bandwagon but I’ve always liked Dave Grohl. He seems like one of the nicest guys in rock n roll. And again, he’s a phenomenal drummer. He and Mick clearly work well together.

This song has a great punk energy I haven’t heard from Mick or the Stones since Some Girls. When punk came along it challenged the established rock authorities and well, the authorities in general, but the Stones managed to absorb that punk energy. When grunge came along it merely destroyed all that came before it. Established rock bands didn’t know how to react… It shows the full circle of rock n roll that Grunge Survivor Dave Grohl is playing with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones who managed to survive punk.

Topical songs don’t tend to have a long shelf life. But I have a feeling “Easy Sleazy” will stick with me for quite a while. Heaven knows memories of lockdown certainly will. As Mick says, “it’ll be a memory you’re trying to remember to forget.” I would urge anybody who needs a blast of punk energy and good laugh and a smile to check this tune out.

Cheers!