Movie: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – The Story of Freddy Mercury and Queen

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*Image from a drawing I bought at an art fair that hangs in my office, artist’s name illegible

I think it was Lou Reed, on a song from his landmark late-80s album New York, who sang about the “duality of nature, human nature, godly nature splits the soul.” I’m not sure I knew what he was talking about when I was listening to that song in my car on cassette, driving around Northwest Arkansas. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to piece that together a little better. For example, on a superficial level, I can tell you that autumn is my favorite time year (“autumn’s sweet, we call it fall” as the Chili Peppers sang). At the same time I can tell you that I hate this time of year. The faceless corporation I work for does most of it’s business in December so autumn and early winter are always insanely busy. My travel goes up, my time to listen to rock and roll goes down. The only thing that throws the balance of autumn to the positive is football and well, it is bourbon season.

Being so busy this time of year has prevented me from my favorite past time – holing up in the B&V labs and scribbling about the music that shaped my life. I’m long overdue for a post, but enough about me. I got home from one of my interminable business trips this Friday, dropped my suitcases in an exhausted heap and learned that the Rock Chick had bought us tickets to see the new bio-pic about Freddy Mercury and Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.” This was quite a delightful surprise. She was not keen to go see this movie. Earlier in the week, there had been an intense negotiation around which flicks we would be seeing in the near term. In exchange for her going to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ I fear I may have committed to go to ‘A Star Is Born.’ Say what you want about Lady Gaga, (and while I think she’s talented, I’m not a fan…not my style), Kris Kristofferson and Streisand own that movie for me… Little known fact, Streisand originally asked Elvis to play the part of the druggy, burned-out rock star… He (or more likely, the Colonel) turned her down. They speculate that taking the role could have saved his life. He’d have had to sober up and get in shape. At least Baabs tried. What might have been…?

Last night, I finally got to do something other than work and we went to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ The movie stars Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, Joseph Mazzello as John Deacon (or Deacon John as we knew him back in the day), and finally Gwilym Lee as Brian May. Gwilym? This kid’s parents must have been hippies or had a strange sense of humor. Not enough can be said about the performance of Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Freddy’s long time friend and briefly, his wife. I will be the first to admit, this movie is flawed. The timeline as to which songs or which albums were released was way off. Probably only an OCD rock fan with a blog would notice but I kept muttering about it to the Rock Chick. I think Freddy was probably a tortured soul and struggled with his own “duality of nature” if you will, and I think Rami Malek captures that well. However, I think there was a lot of joy in Freddy’s life and I don’t think they captured enough of that. Freddy always looked like he was having a great time to me. All of that aside, as a rock fan, I really liked this movie. But then, I really love Queen.

Queen were already international rock stars when my own rock and roll awakening took place in 7th or 8th grade. My parents weren’t musical, they never played the radio, but somehow there were just certain songs or groups that seemed to pierce my consciousness. I can distinctly remember going to the pool in the summer, which was literally my only exposure to pop music when I was a kid (except those rare times I went into my brother’s room, he was far more advanced musically than I was), and being aware of hearing “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac and “Killer Queen” by, of course, Queen. I was literally aware of Queen before I was aware of rock and roll.

My first vinyl Queen purchase was 1977’s News Of The World. It was one of the first rock albums I’d purchased. You couldn’t get away from the lead singles “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions.” The “Champions” part was Freddy’s snarky reply to the punks, and probably the best reply by a “classic” rock band other than “Who Are  You?” Who would have dreamed a band fronted by a gay man would pen a song that would be played in every arena and stadium at every macho sporting event for the rest of recorded time. I simply loved that album. It had a little bit of everything. People forget that Queen started as a hard rock band with prog rock influences. While they rocked, they could certainly roll too. Freddy, very early on, cited Robert Plant as a singing idol. Metallica has covered some of their early stuff… News Of the World had plenty of hard rock (“It’s Late” is my perennial favorite), but it also had piano ballads (“My Melancholy Blues”), disco (“Get Down Make Love”) and epic arena rock (“Spread Your Wings”).

After News, I was on the bandwagon. Queen was on top of the world at that time. 1978’s Jazz which was described in Rolling Stone magazine as “fascist,” and had nothing to do with the musical genre it’s named after. It was all rock and roll. That was followed by their oft overlooked live album, Live Killers that always seemed to be playing at keg parties I went to. It was always that album and Rush’s 2112 that somebody put on. Queen finally reached their second career zenith (the first being, of course, their masterpiece, A Night At the Opera) with 1980’s The Game. The lead single was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and it still knocks me out. I was too young to realize that Freddy was doing Elvis.

The Game always conjures a bit of a bittersweet reaction in me. Queen came to Kansas City on that tour. My friend Matthew and his hot girlfriend Debbie tried to talk me into going to the show. By then, I was a “Death Before Disco” guy and didn’t like “Another One Bites the Dust.” I hate to admit it, but I think there was more to it than that. For The Game Freddy had cut his hair short, grown a mustache and was dressed like a butch biker. All the time we’d been listening to Queen, we’d all say, “he’s not gay, he’s just English, they’re more flamboyant,” with all apologies to every Englishmen out there. I fear I was part of the backlash against Queen and I didn’t go the show. I wish I’d seen these guys, I blew it. My friend Matthew sadly passed out as they came on stage and only regained consciousness when they were saying goodnight. I think we’ve all had nights like that…mine was Neil Young and Crazy Horse… what happened?

It was then that Queen began to “lose” America. Their next album, Hot Space was their worst… I shudder when I think about the lead single, “Body Language.” Not even the presence of David Bowie and “Under Pressure” could save that record. There was more to it – I don’t know if it was gay backlash. I know at the time of The Game I was an adolescent kid who didn’t know much about the world. I was still forming. An in your face gay Freddy was more than we could handle. I’m ashamed of that now. Now I’d say it doesn’t matter who you’re fucking, what matters is the music… Despite all that, we all still made sure we were home when Queen were on Saturday Night Live. I can still remember being thrilled to see them perform “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Under Pressure.” That was back when SNL was “appointment” television. You’d make sure to get home to see the skits, and more importantly for me, the bands.

While it wasn’t until much later that I picked up 1984’s The Works, I certainly got back on the bandwagon for their album, A Kind of Magic, which was basically the soundtrack to one of my all time favorite movies, ‘Highlander.’ I can remember Matthew saying at the time, “Brian May needs to take control of this band,” which probably shows our lack of understanding as to how Queen operated. Queen went on to have a very strong late career. The highlight of which, and the climactic moment in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ was their performance at Live Aid. I remember watching them on TV and being blown away. Forget all the reunions – Zeppelin, CSNY, Mick and Tina Turner, Black Sabbath – Queen stole the show. The final scene in the movie, which is a spot-on recreation of Queen’s Live Aid set (slightly edited) put tears in my eyes. When I got home from the theater I had to pull up the YouTube video and marveled at how kick ass Queen was that day. Mercury was warned by doctors he could lose his voice if he sang that day, and he still went on. The fans at Wembley went certifiably nuts… As I watched the YouTube footage, again, tears welled for a friend lost too early, Freddy Mercury.

Fans of rock and roll, fans of Queen, fans of the human experience, the “duality of nature, human nature…”, all of you should go and see this movie. It’s not a perfect biography but it was a fun and enjoyable movie. The thing that you’ll enjoy the most is the power and majesty of the rock and roll Queen and Freddy made. It’s certainly better than that mess Oliver Stone made about the Doors. After you’ve seen it, run home and drop Sheer Heart Attack on the turntable, pour something dark and murky and marvel… Long Live the Queen!

 

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Review: Greta Van Fleet, ‘Anthem of the Peaceful Army’

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A good friend of mine from high school and I have reconnected after all these years. We’ve begun a great email correspondence which in the old days would have made us “pen pals.” Naturally since this is BourbonAndVinyl, the topic generally centers around rock and roll music. My friend, I’ll call him, “Rob,” (name changed to protect the guilty), asked me one time, “what makes a band/song/album rock and roll?” It’s truly the eternal question when it comes to music. At the heart of that question, and what drives it in my opinion, is the issue of authenticity. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when it come to rock, I know it when I hear it. I can’t really explain it but it’s how I can tell Queen is rock and roll but the Struts, well, they’re just not. When I was in high school confessing to liking any pop band who was masquerading as a rock band was a high crime and misdemeanor, punishable by receiving the “nerd” label.

Which leads us to the case of Greta Van Fleet. I’ve been on the bandwagon since their first EP, Black Smoke Rising (Greta Van Fleet: Kids Channeling Zeppelin On ‘Black Smoke Rising’ EP). Even though their second EP, or what they called a “double-EP,” (whatever that is), From the Fires contained all the songs from Black Smoke Rising, I was still on the bandwagon (Review: Greta Van Fleet, ‘From The Fires’ LP, er, Double EP). Greta Van Fleet have finally released what they’re referring to as their debut album, with the very hippy title, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army. I must say, reactions and reviews have been quite mixed. There has been tremendous backlash for these kids, mostly because they sound like Zeppelin. I don’t remember the Rival Sons taking the same kind of heat. Allmusic.com went so far as to describe them as “nothing more than cosplay of the highest order.” Ouch… that’s gonna leave a mark. Can’t we just be happy that some young kids are playing rock and roll, you know, with guitars and real instruments? I prefer bands influenced by Led Zeppelin than bands influenced by say, Drake.

Accusations of being derivative are nothing new in music. Just for shits and grins I pulled up Rolling Stone magazine’s original review of Led Zeppelin’s first album, Led Zeppelin. I’m sure if you asked Jann Wenner now he’d say Led Zeppelin was a masterpiece, a true definition of the form of blues rock. But back in 1969, Mr. John Mendelsohn, Rolling Stones’ reviewer hated it. He starts off by basically saying everything that came after Cream and John Mayall follow the same formula of building a band around an “excellent guitarist.” We forget how influential Cream were… In essence, he opens by implying Led Zeppelin is derivative of Cream or Mayall. He says, “Jimmy Page…is also a limited producer and writer of weak, unimaginative songs.” He describes Led Zeppelin as a “twin” of the Jeff Beck Group (Artist Lookback: The (Original) Jeff Beck Group – Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart & Ronnie Wood). He calls Plant’s singing, “strained and unconvincing shouting.” Most of the review reads as Mendelsohn claiming these are just a weaker version of the Jeff Beck Group who did all of this already, merely “three months earlier.” I wonder if, looking back, he’d wanna take any of this back?

I guess it’s inevitable that Greta Van Fleet’s (the brothers Kiszka, Josh on vocals, Jacob on guitar, Sam on bass and Daniel Wagner on drums) first album would suffer the same fate. And look, I get it. This is heavily Zeppelin influenced music. In what I’m assuming is a bit of cheekiness, they even quote “The Immigrant Song” in the opener “Age of Man,” when Josh sings “the land of ice and snow.” My hope is that these very young kids, take this sound they’ve got and develop it the same way Zeppelin did. Zeppelin, who were supposedly derivative of the Jeff Beck Group and any other British blues rock band at the time, slowly developed into something much more. They made the sound their own and then turned it on it’s ear. If this is the starting point for Greta Van Fleet, hopefully they can do the same. One can hope their success will some kids together in a garage with a guitars and some drums.

All of that said, I confess I wanted to love this album but I can merely say I like it. I am still recommending people buy it but I can’t totally embrace it. Like the EPs that followed it, I can hear the echo of a Zeppelin song in each thing they play. Unfortunately, a majority of these songs all sound like “Over The Hills And Far Away.” Mix it up guys. The album starts off with a pair of tracks that are in that midtempo area, “Age of Man” and “The Cold Wind.” They’re built around an acoustic/electric guitar mix. I must say I was delighted to hear Jacob mix in some acoustic on this record. The record doesn’t really catch fire for me until the third track and first single, “When the Curtain Falls” (Greta Van Fleet: New Single, “When The Curtain Falls”. “You’re the One” drifts into “Hey Hey My My” territory with strummed acoustic and an insistent drum beat from Wagner. These are all fine songs, but with the energy of their first EPs, I guess I expected heavier music. “The New Day” continues the “Over The Hills” thing…

“Lover, Leaver” is one track that jumps out at me. It’s a crunchy rocker. “Watching Over” has a nice sitar sounding guitar thing happening and Josh’s vocals are an unhinged banshee wail. I do feel at certain times Josh could bring it down a notch on vocals. You’re not gonna be able to sing like that for 40 years dude. The reprise of “Lover, Leaver,” “Lover, Leaver, Taker, Believer” has some tasty slide guitar. Those song titles had me thinking these guys had headed into Judas Priest territory (“Dreamer Deceiver” anyone?).

The album does hold together, not only musically but lyrically. This feels like a loosely thematic record. The whole thing has more of a Plant vibe vs a Page vibe. On the big message song, “Anthem,” (which brings to mind “You’re Time Is Gonna Come,” I know, I know, I can’t help but cite the Zep song that these guys conjure on their music), a chorus of back up singers sing the rather curious lyric, “the world is what the world is made of.” I’m not sure where they’re going with that, it brings to mind some of Sammy Hagar’s weaker moments, but hey, they’re still developing their craft.

This is a very, very solid debut album. I think we rock fans have a lot to be delighted with in this record. And, correspondingly, I think we have a lot to be hopeful for in Greta Van Fleet. Are they the real deal? Are they rock and roll? Are they, as I mentioned before, authentic? I’ll let you be the judge. I can’t really explain it, but I know it when I hear it…

Artist Lookback: The (Original) Jeff Beck Group – Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart & Ronnie Wood

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Image of the Jeff Beck Group (Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood, Mickey Waller & Rod Stewart) taken from the internet and likely copyrighted. Credited to Past Daily

I saw the other day that Rod Stewart’s new album, Blood Red Roses hit number one in the UK. Congrats Rod… While I found his new album mostly un-listenable, I’m still a huge Rod fan. I’ve been on Stewart’s bandwagon since his early Mercury Records days and Truth be told, even before that. I’m still holding out for a Faces reunion and two of them are gone. For years I hoped Rod would start writing original music again and no one was happier than I was when he finally did so on his 2013 album, Time. He followed that up with 2015’s Another Country (Review: Rod Stewart “Another Country” – We Should All Be This Happy) before releasing this new disc last month. Alas, each album has been a case of diminishing returns. I will say it’s all still better than those awful American Songbook albums. Those records should have been entitled, Songs for Soccer Moms. His new record follows a disturbing trend for Rod… he seems to just turn over his stuff to whoever the producer is and lets them do what they want with the music in an attempt to sound modern. Strip away the gloss and there might be something decent there.

Rod’s other big problem is his choice of collaborators. He’s writing songs again, but he’s chosen to write them with a keyboardist, Kevin Savigar. I have nothing against Mr. Savigar, but Rod always writes better stuff when he’s collaborating with someone on guitar. Whether he’s going folky with an acoustic or bluesy with an electric, the guitar just seems to bring out the best in Rod, like a shot of adrenaline. He wrote most of his best stuff with Ronnie Wood during those aforementioned Faces and Mercury days. Even in the 80s he had guitarists like Jim Cregan or Gary Grainger to write songs with. Of course, Rod’s other great guitar partner was the man who broke Stewart’s career wide open, none other than Mr. Jeff Beck. Before The Jeff Beck Group Stewart was a traveling troubadour, bouncing from band to band in groups like Steampacket.

I posted once about John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the trio of great guitarists that came out of that band, Artist Lookback – John Mayall’s Blues Breakers: The Guitar Hero Trilogy 1966-1967. To find a band, outside of the Allman Brothers Band, with that much guitar star power, one has only to look to the Yardbirds. The Yardbirds started with Eric Clapton on guitar, only he was such a “blues purist,” he split the band when they moved to what he deemed a more “pop” sound. Clapton went on to soar to greater heights, first with John Mayall, then Cream, and as a solo artist. The Yardbirds ended their run with none other than Jimmy Page on lead guitar. Obviously, Page went on to “King of the World” status in Led Zeppelin. When the Yardbirds broke up, Page even ended up with the legal rights to the name. Zeppelin was almost called the New Yardbirds. In between Clapton and Page, the bridge between if you will, was a guy who never reached the commercial heights of the other Yardbirds’ guitar gods, Jeff Beck. The guy can flat out play. Sadly, as he said at the Yardbirds’ Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction, “They fired me, I don’t even know why I’m here?”

I’ve never understood why Beck wasn’t more commercially successful. His guitar prowess was such that Jimi Hendrix was a fan. High praise, indeed. In the 70s, having finally given up on vocalists, he recorded two instrumental, jazz fusion-y albums, Blow By Blow and Wired that both eventually went platinum. Both albums had George Martin in the producer’s chair. Stevie Wonder wrote “Superstition” for inclusion on Blow By Blow. I know that Beck can be… let’s call it “mercurial.” His temper and foul moods may be what kept him out of the limelight. He and Rod were trying to collaborate on an album four or five years ago but they couldn’t come to terms, which is a shame. Jeff Beck not only sort of discovered Rod, he resurrected his flagging career in the 80s when the two cut “People Get Ready.” The popularity of that track shook Stewart out of his pop slumber. When they were trying to collaborate Beck complained that Rod only wanted to sing the blues, and I’m thinking, “fuck yes!” Jeff didn’t want to play the blues, but oh, what an album that might have been. So last year, of course, Beck guested on Van Morrison’s Roll With The Punches album which was basically a blues record (LP Review: Van Morrison, ‘Roll With The Punches,’ A Laid-Back Blues Party). I guess Jeff can still play the blues but only when wants to.

Having been terminated by the Yardbirds, in early 1967 Jeff Beck formed the original Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart on vocals, future Faces and Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood on rhythm guitar and a revolving door of bassists and drummers. Eventually Ronnie Wood would move to bass and Rod would recruit his buddy from Steampacket Mickey Waller to play drums. That was as close as they’d come to a stable line up. Waller was eventually replaced by Tony Newman. I think even drummer Aynsley Dunbar was in this band at one point because lets face it, Aynsley was in every 60s band and several 70s bands. Beck had signed on with manager Mickie Most who was only focused on Jeff Beck as a solo artist. As the guitarist once remarked, “I understand why Rod left, he was being treated like the hired help.” Alas, that’s how Most and Beck himself treated the rest of the band. Wood was fired and rehired several times. In the end keyboardist Nicky Hopkins passed on the chance to join Zeppelin and joined The Jeff Beck Group as a full time member.

With all that turmoil and mismanagement the group did suffer. Jeff famously decided not to play Woodstock, something he has always said he regretted. I can’t imagine what an appearance at the iconic festival would have done for these guys. They toured constantly which led to their other great problem – they didn’t take any time off from the road to actually write original material. In the liner notes of their second and final album, Beck-ola Beck even cops to it, when he says “It’s hard to come up with anything truly original.” While the band wasn’t meant to last, they were hugely influential. Jimmy Page was watching what Beck did, pairing a strong guitarist who would bring the lads into the concerts with a charismatic lead singer who would bring the ladies in. He quietly recruited Robert Plant to recreate the model, to much greater success. The original Jeff Beck Group was the real blueprint for many of the 4-piece heavy blues/blues rock bands to follow. They left behind, in their brief time together, two great albums that every rock fan should own…

Truth (1968)

This is one of the truly seminal albums of the blues rock movement. It’s influence can be felt to this day in bands like Greta Van Fleet. The album opens with an old Yardbirds’ track, “Shapes of Things” and Beck’s guitar playing makes this version the definitive one. There are two towering blues covers on this record, “Ain’t Superstitious,” the old Howlin Wolf track, (and its as epic as the format ever got) and Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me.” Jimmy Page, in a bit of cheek, had Zeppelin on their first album cover “You Shook Me,” which reportedly made Beck weep when he first heard it. Competition is good for the soul. Of the originals on this album, “Blues Deluxe” is probably my favorite. It lives up to the title and is the best blues song Rod ever sang. “Rock My Plimsoul” was a reworking of a B.B. King song but is another great bluesy rave up. It sounds like Beck is torturing his guitar here and I mean that in a good way. Mixed with Rod’s vocals, and Woody/Waller’s solid bottom, this album is perfect. So racked for material were these guys, they covered “Old Man River” with Keith Moon (unnamed) on timpani. This was basically the band’s live set, recorded in the studio. I wish somebody had recorded these guys live in concert…but I digress. When I re-purchased this album on CD, I found the great bonus track, the bluesy, “I’ve Been Drinking Again,” which obviously, we love here at B&V loved.

Beck-Ola (1969)

The wheels were already starting to come off. The constant touring, illness and band infighting was taking it’s toll. If they’d just slowed down a bit from the road and taken more time to write original stuff. This album gets overlooked and criticized for that very reason, not enough new stuff, but it’s still a great blues rock album. There are two (and probably 1 too many) Elvis covers here, the opener “All Shook Up,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” While that shows the lack of newly written stuff, they’re still kick ass songs. Beck correctly described Rod as being on “vocals extraordinaire.” Keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, now a full time member, brought the beautiful, piano driven “Girl From Mill Valley.” “Spanish Boots” another original, is a rocker. Rod sings over Hopkins insistent piano line, while Beck’s guitar dive bombs through. The solo is mind blowing. “Plynth (Water Down the Drain) which Ronnie and Rod would steal later for their first record with the Faces, is as heavy as anything these guys recorded. It’s almost heavy metal. Stewart’s vocal verges on unhinged. The time changes Beck goes through thrill me even now. “Hangman’s Blues” is heavy blues goodness. The album times in at just over thirty minutes and I was puzzled when I bought this album (again) on CD, to find some great bonus stuff that could have been easily added to side two. The two bonus tracks, “Sweet Little Angel,” a great B.B. King cover and “Throw Down A Line” by Hank Marvin were both purportedly recorded during a jam. If this is the sound of a band jamming, they should have jammed more. While not as towering as Truth, this is still a must have.

Sadly, after ditching Woodstock, Beck, who was as fond as Rod was of fast cars, was injured when he wrecked his sports car. While Jeff was recovering, Rod recorded his folk-rock debut, The Rod Stewart Album (or in the UK, An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down) with Ronnie Wood on guitar and Mickey Waller on drums. It wasn’t long before Rod had joined Ronnie in the Faces. Beck formed a second version of the Jeff Beck Group but for me at least, he never recaptured the magic of this original line-up. Pour something strong and give these two records a listen.

 

 

 

LP Review: Tom Petty, ‘An American Treasure’ – A Different Path Through a Brilliant Career

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“And may my love travel with you, everywhere” – Tom Petty, “Have Love, Will Travel”

As chance would have it, the day my copy of Tom Petty’s new box set, An American Treasure arrived at the house, September 28th (I’d pre-ordered it), I had to jump in the car to head out to points west to take my wife and daughter to see my KC Chiefs play the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. It was tough duty to hold that box set in my hands and leave it behind… Family comes first. After a great, long weekend in Denver, the Rock Chick slid behind the wheel as we headed back home… I realized it was October 2nd, the one year anniversary of Tom’s sad passing… I commemorated the date in a way I’d hope would make Tom smile, out on the open road, cruising down the highway at top speed, blasting the Tom Petty playlist the Rock Chick put together a year ago to honor the man. That quickly led me to my playlist of my favorite deep tracks, Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks, now posted on Spotify.

While my driving, binge-listening to Petty was a nice memorial, I found a much more fitting tribute when I returned home to An American Treasure. This is a superb box set. It was lovingly curated by Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and Petty’s wife Dana and daughter Adria. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of Ryan Ulyate, whose remastering of these tracks is nothing short of genius. Petty and the Heartbreakers released their first box set, Playback in 1995 and one might wonder, “another box?” Playback was a six disc box. The first three discs were a wonderful career retrospective of greatest hits and “best of” kind of tracks. The last three discs were b-sides and unreleased tracks. It’s an exceptional listen.

An American Treasure is simply put, a different journey through this artist’s or this band’s career. It reminds me somewhat of Bruce Springsteen’s epic box set Tracks, that Bruce described as a different road than what his journey had taken him on. If you’re more of a greatest hits type fan, this box will take you into some deeper cuts from Petty and flesh out the man’s artistry. Campbell, Tench and company actively tried to stay away from the greatest hits or anything that was previously released on Playback here. You won’t find “Free Fallin'” on this box. The familiar tracks are either live or released in an alternative version, which (while cliche) is a window into Petty and the Heartbreakers’ creative process. The goal on An American Treasure was to bring you inside the studio with the Heartbreakers to get a glimpse of their genius. I was surprised what a cohesive listen this was from start to finish. To me, what this box highlights, is Petty’s amazing and oft overlooked ability as a lyricist. He remained through out his career an “Everyman” who could tell stories and paint pictures with just a modicum of words and whole lot of emotion. What he’s able to convey with such an economy of words is amazing and perhaps something I should learn from. When you do listen to this set all the way through (at four hours it’s a commitment) you start to realize the cinematic scope of Petty’s writing. His songs, for me, evoke images in my head. I can see what’s happening in the song.

If you will indulge me in a metaphoric detour, I would compare An American Treasure to my old days, driving up to college. Between my hometown and my college, there is a 4-lane, interstate highway, part of which is a toll road. It was the fastest way to get there… hit the on ramp, pay the toll, speed to college. But there were many of us, mostly to avoid the 75-cent toll, who would skip the interstate and take back roads… It was slower on the two-lane black top roads but the ride was much more interesting. You had to slow down at every little village and hamlet on the way, but you saw a lot more of the country side. There was even a bar or two one might stop at, if you were so inclined. If I was at one of those places now, I’d be highly motivated to put this box set on the stereo… “a round for everyone, I’m here for a little while” to quote Petty himself… An American Treasure is that slower journey down that road less traveled.

There really is something on this box for everyone, no matter what kind of fan of Petty’s you are. If you’re only into the greatest hits, there are deep/album cuts here that will deepen your understanding of Petty’s work. From “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from the first album to “Crawling Back To You” from Wildflowers, there are a bunch of tracks that you won’t find on a Greatest Hits compilation but are of such a high quality one must wonder, “why wasn’t this a single?”

Stepping in a little deeper, there are a lot of unreleased live versions of songs here. While Petty released a big multi-disc live set, Live Anthology the live versions of tracks you find here are revelatory. You get to hear the band develop as a live act. Especially of interest to me was a live version of “Breakdown” that was recorded live for a special radio broadcast at Capitol Studios, in front of a very small audience. That version of “Breakdown” was the only version of that song played on my local radio station, KY/102. This is the first official release of the song and it’s about time! When I bought their first eponymously titled album, I was disappointed when I realized the version of “Breakdown” was a studio version. It’s nice to finally hear this released in a clean copy. There are great live versions of tracks, including ones by Mudcrutch that are worth exploring. The Heartbreakers, Campbell on guitar, Tench on keyboards and either Ron Blair or Howie Epstein on bass, Stan Lynch or Steve Ferrone on drums, and utility infielder Scott Thurston on, well, almost everything, were one of the tightest bands around.

For those of you who own all the albums, many of the familiar tracks are here in “alternate” versions. “Here Comes My Girl” is the same track as originally released, but rather than fade out you get to hear the band jam a bit at the end. “Fooled Again” from the second album was sped up when it was originally released, and I like this slightly slower version. There’s something new to discover in these different versions. Special kudos to Ulyate for his work on bringing out features and sounds on these alternate versions that you might have missed on the first go around. Many of the alternate versions were earlier versions or have different arrangements or lyrics. There are enough differences in the alternate versions that kept me highly interested. The redone version of “Rebels” with a different drum track (without that 80s echo) is perhaps definitive here.

Finally, for me, the intense collector, there are a host of previously unreleased tracks. It’s an American treasure trove. I’d heard a few of these before, in different versions, “Surrender” (here a first take) and “Keeping Me Alive” (a Long After Dark leftover). There’s a great, funky little, Leon Russell-like track from Mudcrutch, “Lost In Your Eyes,” that makes me wonder, why’d they hide this amazing song so long. Of course, the first single, “Keep A Little Soul,” also an out take from Long After Dark, remains one of my favorites Tom Petty: New Single From The Upcoming Box-set, “Keep A Little Soul”. “Walkin’ From the Fire” is an excellent track from the Southern Accents that should have been on the album. There are just so many great tracks – “Gainesville,” Chuck Berry-style rave up “Lonesome Dave” or the jam “Two Men Talking” – everyone needs to hear these songs.

An American Treasure, which is a term we all use to describe Tom Petty, is an aptly named, wonderful tribute to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ career. This is a must hear for all fans. Lock the door, turn off your phone and spend the evening with an old friend, Tom Petty, and may his “love travel with you, always.”

Cheers!

 

LP Review: Billy F Gibbons, ‘The Big Bad Blues’ – Blooze Rock As Greasy As A Bacon Sandwich On Wonder Bread!

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The blues have always been my Alpha and Omega… the beginning and the end. Even in the early days of my record collecting, when I didn’t know what the blues were, they were always in the background, driving my vinyl purchases. I started off, as I’ve often said, with the Stones LP Some Girls. Soon I was working my way backwards into their catalog and I realized early on I liked some of the slower tunes, with big guitar solos. I was finding my way to the roots of rock and roll… the blues. There’s a guy online whose link my brother sent me, who thinks that rock has died because it got too far away from the blues… who knows? Anyway, everything that came after that first Stones album, unwittingly, had it’s basis in the blues. I branched out to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. Pretty soon I picked up an album by that “Little Ol’ Band from Texas,” power-trio ZZ Top, Deguello. “Fool For Your Stockings” remains a favorite of mine. The guitar on that album is amazing. It’s Billy Gibbons, a man whose playing, none other than Jimi Hendrix said he admired.

From Deguello I plunged into the ZZ Top back catalog. There are so many great albums, but my favorites were Fandango! and of course, Tres Hombres. Those are essential listening for any fan of blues or rock or blues rock. I even liked Rio Grand Mud. As the 70s transitioned into the 80s, a lot of bands struggled to make the turn. I was surprised that ZZ Top was able to do so. El Loco was a solid transition album that brought that old blooze rock into the 80s with big anthems like “Party On the Patio,” and “Pearl Necklace.” But it was their smash-hit, aided by a series of videos on MTV, 1983’s Eliminator that broke ZZ Top into a world wide phenomenon. Every frat house and dive bar was blaring “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” I remember being on a dance floor at a wedding and there was a guy on crutches using one to air guitar to the latter song. Ah, youth.

I had that album on cassette, I’m embarrassed to say… In my college town, Manhattan, Kansas, the radio was so bad you had to have cassettes in the car to avoid Michael Jackson and Madonna. They were tough years. After Eliminator, I sort of got off the ZZ bandwagon. The synthesizers and gimmicky effects that Gibbons had used to make Eliminator sound cool in ’83 went a little overboard on ’85’s Afterburner. So much accursed drum machine I couldn’t even listen to it. I completely lost track of them after 1994’s Antenna, which actually had two of my favorite ZZ Top tracks, “Breakaway” and “Pincushion.” It wasn’t until the Rick Rubin produced comeback album, La Futura that I found my way back to ZZ Top. It got them back to that basic, bloozey sound they’d gotten away from. It’s great listening and I would say essential to any ZZ Top fan. It’s the type of album this blog was founded on…

Since then it seems Billy Gibbons has decided to leave behind the confines of the power-trio format and has gone solo. His first album Perfectamundo was steeped in Cuban and Latin rhythms and frankly, left me a little cold. It seemed like the patented Billy Gibbons’ sense of humor had gotten the best of him. I had heard he had another album coming out but I really hadn’t paid attention. I thought, based on the title it was a blues covers album, but I quickly realized that was wrong. I was not prepared for the smile that broke across my face the first time I heard The Big Bad Blues. I haven’t had this much fun listening to Billy Gibbons play guitar since side two of Fandango!

Billy is joined on The Big Bad Blues by Matt Sorum, of GnR and the Cult fame, on drums; Joe Hardy on bass; Austin Hanks on rhythm guitar; and most importantly James Harman on harmonica. I have to say this is as loose as I’ve heard Gibbons in years. This is the sound of a group of men in a small room, having a blast with their instruments. On first listen, I had flashbacks of walking into the old Grand Emporium, past the Amazing Grace BBQ stand, under the big picture of Belushi as Joliet Jake, to find the dance floor full and the joint hoppin’. This record has the feel of a great roadhouse on a Saturday night. This is bloozey music, as greasy as a bacon sandwich with too much mayo on wonder bread. I need a napkin to listen.

While this is not a blues cover album, there are 7 originals, Gibbons does do some old blues standards. Two of the tracks are associated with Muddy Waters. Gibbons crushes “Standing Around Crying.” It’s my favorite blues tune here. He also does “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” which, when compared to the version Rod Stewart just released on Blood Red Roses, it can illustrate to you what real blues is vs overproduced schlock. Gibbons also does two Bo Diddley tracks here – which is perfect. I’ve always thought that Bo Diddley was one of those great artists who bridged blues and early rock and roll, which is kind of what this album is about. “Bring It to Jermone” is the first Bo track and it’s got that Bo Diddley-beat and is probably the best of the two. “Crackin’ Up” is one of those odd tunes, it almost sounds reggae, and while not my favorite, it’s been covered by the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney so it has street cred. It ends the album here.

The originals here are all classic Gibbons. The opening track, “Missin’ Your Kissin'” sets the tone. It was written by Gilly Stillwater, Gibbons’ main squeeze. Actually she’s his wife, but I just feel like Billy  is the type of guy who would describe his wife as his main squeeze… it’s kind of a Telly Savalas thing. Anyway, from the first chord and Billy’s raspy “Hey” you know you’re in for a good bluesy rock time. Gibbons rapsy, growling vocals coupled with his hay-in-a-windstorm beard gives one the impression that Howlin Wolf and a hay bail had a child… Gibbons’ playing is loose and fierce on this record. What I like is that he has a foil in James Harman on harmonica. Often the first solo break in a track they throw it to Harman on harmonica and Gibbons follows on guitar. I love the way they play off each other. That dynamic fuels many of the tunes. I was really blown away by the harmonica on “Bring It To Jermone,” Harman is an amazing blues harp player.

“Second Line” is a great rock tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on Deguello. “That’s What She Said,” also with a great harmonica solo, also evokes the sound of old ZZ Top for me. “My Baby She Rocks” is a great, rockin’ Gibbons original. All of this music makes me want to order a Bulleit Rye and take my shoes off. “Mo’ Slower Blues” lives up to it’s title, but has an almost funky beat. “Hollywood 151” features some wonderful, intricate guitar work. Gibbons has rediscovered his blues roots, but in doing so, he’s also rediscovered that old ZZ Top sound as well. It’s all tied together.

This is simply, one of the best albums of the year. B&V highly recommends this good time of an album. This is rock n roll and blues that’ll put hair on your chest! Turn this one up loud and strap in for some chooglin’ music!

 

LP Review: Slash (Feat. Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators), ‘Living The Dream’ – Hard Rock Delight!

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Despite being one of the coolest people on the planet, it’s hard to not feel a little sorry for Slash sometimes. The man has dealt with some pretty intense LSD in his career… Lead Singer Disease (The BourbonAndVinyl Worst Cases of LSD – Lead Singer Disease). The man had to put up with the paranoid, megalomania of Axl Rose who single handed-ly squeezed Slash, Duff, Izzy and everybody else out of Guns N Roses. Then in Velvet Revolver Slash had the unreliable, drug addled Scott Weiland to contend with, may he rest in peace. That’s a lot to take on in a career. Slash is one in a long line of great guitarists who can’t sing a lick and therefore have to rely on someone else to bring the vocals. Jeff Beck had his Rod Stewart. Jimmy Page had his Robert Plant. Angus Young had Bon Scott, who he lost and then Brian Johnson who he may also have lost. Poor Angus may end up working with Axl, inheriting Slash’s problem. Guys like Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan are lucky enough to be able to sing as well as play guitar… That must be freeing.

I was very happy to see Slash get back together with Axl and Duff (although I wish they’d cut Izzy in on the reunion, money kills all cool things) and take GnR back out on the road in 2016 (Concert Review: Guns n Roses, Kansas City, 29Jun16: The Power & The Glory). While that was really cool, I think we all were kind of hoping for some new Guns N Roses music. Slash has hinted that they may be working on some new stuff, but so far all they’ve put out was an expanded version of Appetite For Destruction. Of course if they do record, they’ll miss Izzy’s songwriting chops, but I’m getting off topic here… In the interim we have some good news for hard rock fans, Slash has reunited with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, Todd Kerns on bass guitar, Brent Fitz on drums and now officially in the band (previously just a touring member), Frank Sidoris on rhythm guitar, for a new album, Living the Dream.

When GnR broke up, I sort of lost track of Slash. I totally missed out on the whole Slash’s Snakepit thing. They put out two LPs that I must admit I have never heard. No one has ever reached out and told me to find them, so I’m guessing I didn’t miss much, but with Slash in the band there had to be something good to hear there. I did jump on the Velvet Revolver bandwagon – Slash, Duff, Todd Sorum on drums, Scott Weiland – and I dug those guys. I think Contraband was my favorite of those two records, you can’t argue with tunes like “Sucker Train Blues” or “Slither.” I even heard a few covers those guys did, Pink Floyd’s “Money” and Aerosmith’s “No More No More,” that I liked. But alas, the wheels came off that band too. Weiland quickly decamped to reform Stone Temple Pilots before his untimely demise.

At that point, Slash decided to go solo. He released his first truly solo album in 2010, creatively titled, Slash. I’m sure the eponymous title was a declaration of independence and solo-hood. He went the Santana route and had a host of different singers he collaborated with. As you could probably guess, with that many different singers, it was a bit of a hodge-podge. I still loved that record. Ian Astbury seemed to bring out the best in Slash on the killer track, “Ghost.” There were also great tracks with Chris Cornell and Wolfmother’s Andrew Stockdale. Hell I even dug the song with Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. Old timers like Ozzy, Lemmy and Iggy all showed up and rocked. I was amazed at the diversity of sound Slash could make with his different collaborators. Of course there were misfires – the songs with Kid Rock and Adam Levine (Maroon 5) – I could have done without. The only singer who stuck around for more than one track was former Alter Bridge front man, Myles Kennedy who did two tracks. It was Myles who actually went on tour with Slash in support of that album. It seemed, at last, Slash had found a lead singer who sang without the drama.

Somehow I missed 2012’s Apocalyptic Love, Slash and Myles’ first full album collaboration. It was my friend Stormin’ in Denver who called in 2014 and said, in his usual brief way, “Slash, World On Fire, get it now.” Of course I complied. When Stormin’ calls with rock and roll, B&V takes notice. World On Fire was an epic hard rock album. Coming in at 17 songs and over an hour and fifteen minutes, it was a lot to take in. Slash played both the rhythm and the lead guitars. Myles hammered every song home at the top of his voice. I liked that record a lot, if you dig hard rock how could you not, but I found it a bit monochromatic. It was just full out rock, all the time. “30 Years To Life” had a touch of bluesy slide guitar, but other than that these guys just stuck to the hard rock script. There wasn’t much variance. Turn it up to 11, rinse, repeat.

Flash forward to 2018 and Slash, Myles and the Conspirators are back on Living the Dream with one key, critical difference. Frank Sidoris, who played rhythm guitar on tour, has officially joined the band and was involved in the recording of this album. While I was impressed with Slash’s ability to play lead and be a Keith Richards-like Riff Meister at the same time, I think Sidoris’ presence on this album has freed Slash up a bit in terms of his playing lead. The more of the rhythm stuff Slash turned over to Sidoris, the more solo’ing he was able to focus on. And the solo’ing on this album is epic. I have to wonder if not only having a rhythm guitarist on board helped, but having been on tour with GnR reconnected Slash with that melodic solo’ing from days of yore. Slash’s lead playing on this album is as out front as anything I’ve heard him play since Velvet Revolver. The solo from “Lost Inside the Girl,” a mid-tempo, ballad thing is as searing as anything on World On Fire.

This is a really strong hard rock album. I like that it’s only 12 songs, I think trimming World On Fire in a similar way would have helped that album. I also like that there’s a variance of sounds on this record. There are a few mid-tempo songs and ballads, so it’s not pedal-to-the-metal from start to finish. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I like to catch my breath every 4 or 5 songs. Mix it up a bit, why not? I’ve never been the biggest Myles Kennedy fan, although my friend Drummer Blake says I’m wrong on that, but I have to say Myles impresses me on this album. His vocals, like the music on this record, is more varied and nuanced. The entire band seems more relaxed, less frenetic than on World On Fire. The band just sounds looser, while still rocking out.

I liked the crunchy rocking first single, “Driving Rain,” which I reviewed previously, Slash: New Single, “Driving Rain” With Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators. It’s a strong track. My favorite is probably “My Antidote.” Fitz’s drumming is great on that tune. It’s atmospheric and dare I say, textured. “The Call of the Wild,” the track that opens the album is a great kickoff track. “Serve You Right” has a great, dirty riff… it jumps out at me. While Myles will never have that dirty, banshee wail of Axl, he does the song justice. “Mind Your Manners” is one of those great, play fast and meet me at the finish line tunes. There is a lot of tasty hard rock to enjoy here. “Sugar Cane” keeps things rocking as well…

“Lost Inside the Girl,” and “The One You Loved Is Gone” are the quieter moments on the album, ie, ballads. Slash’s guitar work on these tracks calls to mind that melodic work he did on Velvet Revolver’s “Fall to Pieces.” “The Great Pretender” starts off with a great little lead riff from Slash. These tracks give the album more texture than their previous work and I think it makes for a more interesting listen.

While I’m still hopeful we’ll still get some new Guns N Roses in my lifetime, Slash’s new set certainly satisfies that hard rock itch I’ve been feeling. It’s got me rocking this week… I’ve been bouncing from Living The Dream to Sabbath’s Vol 4 to Motley Crue’s Shout At the Devil and back again, all week. Hard rock is just good for the soul… it occurs to me, listening to all this hard rock, I may just be living the dream…

It’s been a dark and ugly week… rock and out and have some fun. Inject as much heavy metal into your life as you can. Cheers!

 

 

Concert Review: Billy Idol, Kansas City’s Uptown Theater, Sept 21, 2018

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*Photo taken by your intrepid blogger from the balcony of the Uptown Theater

Happy Fall, Rock and Roll Fans everywhere! It’s officially fall now and I can’t help but quote the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “autumn’s sweet, we call it fall.” It’s my favorite time of year. The leaves turn, out comes the bourbon and football has begun. This weekend in Kansas City was already an action-packed one. Kansas City’s premier entertainment district, the Plaza, is having it’s annual Art Fair. People will be drinking wine on the streets, eating with their hands and admiring paintings and sculptures. It’s a big deal in KC. Add to that my NFL team, the Kansas City Chiefs, have their home opener on Sunday. That’s already a lot to have going on…Tailgating is about to get serious.

I was musing on all of this weekend fun while I was in Chicago this week on Wednesday. I was having a nightcap in some Irish dive on Dearborn, lecturing people on the music of Van Morrison… Can you believe there are people who have never heard his music? “Tupelo Honey” people, listen to that song, post haste. Anyway, I was in this Irish pub when I got the text from the Rock Chick…”Did you know Billy Idol was coming this Friday?” I hadn’t even heard about it. It was frenzied trip out to Stub Hub that night. The Rock Chick had never seen him, which is criminal. If only I’d known her in the eighties.

A work friend messaged me yesterday and said, “Are you going to Billy?” Proudly I said, “Yes!” It was only then that I realized she meant Billy Joel, who played last night at Kaufman Stadium, where the Royals play. I love Billy Joel, and have seen him three or four times. My favorite story about him, back in the old days, was when he came in concert, typically the night before, he’d pop into the Crown Center piano bar and take requests and play for a couple of hours. That’s pretty fuckin’ cool. While I love Billy Joel, last night, for me, was all about Billy Idol. While most concert goers were at Kaufman Stadium, the rock and roll faithful were crowded into the intimate setting of the Uptown Theater down on Broadway, ready to be transported back to 1983.

In the eighties, after the break up of his punk rock band, Generation X, Billy Idol went solo. He really broke through to the mainstream on MTV. We were all a little put off by the spiky punky hair. Who is this skinny kid with the snarl? Punk rock, that’s an English thing? That was the problem with the videos on MTV, sometimes we let the visuals get in the way of the music. Once I was able to set aside the images and just listen to the music, I realized, this guy Billy Idol really rocks. It’s no surprise in his later years he shifted from punk to heavy metal. He was always turning the guitar up to 11…

It’s frankly been a while since I’ve seen an in-your-face, rock and roll show. I loved the concerts I’ve seen this year: Depeche Mode, Robert Plant, Little Steven, but there’s just something about the squeal of guitar and the hedonistic lyrics of heavy metal/hard rock that I really needed to hear. Thankfully Billy has reunited with his guitarist from the 80s, Steve Stevens. I can’t say enough about how mind blowing Stevens is on guitar. It was so refreshing to see a guy so masterful, play the guitar. I love Billy, but I came away from last night with a new respect for Steve. The only time I’d seen Idol, Stevens wasn’t with him. Those two belong together.

The lights came down and Idol and his band, Stevens on lead guitar, Thor-like Stephen McGrath on bass, Erik Eldenius on drums (who is just a beast), Paul Trudeau on keyboards and Billy Morrison on guitar, stormed the stage and lit into “Shock To the System” a track I’d frankly, forgotten about. What a perfect opener. It was hard, muscular rock and roll that you just don’t hear anymore. God I miss the 80s, if only for that sound. After the opening track, they went straight to the hits, Generation X’s “Dancing With Myself” got the crowd going. That led to a funky, spot-on “Flesh For Fantasy.” I could almost feel my mullet growing back.

A couple of songs later, Idol strapped on a guitar, as did Trudeau and the band launched into the epic Doors cover, “L.A. Woman.” I had been hoping to hear “Cradle of Love” from Charmed Life, but “L.A. Woman” was so rocking, I didn’t miss that omission from the set list. Idol announced that the band had “finally figured out how to play this next song,” and Stevens put on this beautiful, all-white, acoustic guitar and they played “Catch My Fall” another great track from Rebel Yell. That led to the Rock Chick’s favorite part of the evening, “Eyes Without A Face.” Idol was in great voice last night and that song, especially the line, “steal a car and go to Las Vegas” were delivered with edgy intensity. We were all on our feet, even up in the balcony where I was.

After that, Stevens stayed on stage by himself and played an extended acoustic guitar solo that was mesmerizing. He even dropped snippets of Zeppelin’s “Over The Hills And Far Away” and yes, “Stairway To Heaven” into his solo. I could have sat there all night and just watched Stevens play but the band returned for a couple of tunes I didn’t recognize, but still enjoyed, “Rat Race” and “Whiskey and Pills.” Stevens then did a brief electric guitar solo and they launched into my favorite Idol deep track, “Blue Highway,” from Rebel Yell. What a kick ass road-rocker that is! The main set ended right after that with an epic “Rebel Yell.” The crowd sang along, “more, more, more.” Idol, as he’d been all night, was marching around the stage like a prize fighter, but he was especially animated during that song. He had his shirt open and I gotta say, Billy’s in great shape.

The encore was really the money shot… “White Wedding,” was perfect. Erik Edenius, or as the Rock Chick was referring to him last night, “the beast on drums,” then played a short but powerful drum solo. I couldn’t figure out what else Idol might play when the band launched into “Mony Mony.” What a great jam that I had again, almost forgotten about. Although the Rock Chick claims she called the song before they started it…

We filed out onto the street where we met the Rock Chick’s friend who had kindly bought my wife a Steve Stevens t-shirt. So the Rock Chick came home with two concert t-shirts, one with Idol on it, and one with Stevens, which is perfect. We were too wired to go home so we stopped in a local pub, near the Plaza, for a night cap where we met some cool 49er fans. I went to bed at 2 am, fully satisfied by a 1980s trip to rock and roll heaven. What a great start to what promises to be a great weekend.

If you’re out there and Idol is coming to your town, do yourself a favor. Get yourself some hard rock, good times therapy. Buy the ticket, see the show.

Cheers and… Go Chiefs!