LP Review: Neil Young’s Album From His Vault, ‘Hitchhiker’

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“You ready Briggs?” – Neil Young to producer David Briggs, August 11, 1976, Malibu

It would be easy to look at the track listing of ‘Hitchhiker’ and be confused. “Wait a minute, I’ve seen all of these tracks before…is this a greatest hits album?”…I can almost hear you say. And yes, eventually most of these tracks came out on other albums… But on a magical night, August 11th, 1976 Neil Young entered a studio in Malibu with producer David Briggs and cut all 10 of these tracks. He and Briggs had made a habit of going into the studio, on nights with a full moon and cutting music. According to Wikipedia, Neil wouldn’t have anything prepared, he’d just sit down with an acoustic guitar and harmonica and say, “Time to turn on the tap…” Purportedly, he’d only pause in recording the songs that night to take breaks for “weed, beer or coke.” If that’s how Neil turns on the “genius” tap, I think we need to get a friendly beer distributor to send a loaded beer truck over to Neil’s… maybe pick up a dealer or two on the way… I’m not condoning anything, just saying though…

Neil Young is one of those rare artists, like Dylan, Springsteen and yes, Prince who can go into a studio and cut a full album’s worth of material and then, strangely, shelve it. There are songs that appear on 1989’s ‘Freedom’ that were originally written and laid down in the mid-70s. I was always baffled when I heard bootlegs, as to why Neil wouldn’t have put out these songs/albums that he’d cut when he recorded them. What was he thinking? I’d ask myself. In the case of the all-night session for ‘Hitchhiker’ he submitted the results to his record company and they rejected the album as sounding too much like a demo. Re-record this stuff with a band they said… If we need any proof record company guys don’t get art, just listen to this album. This album would have been a great appendix to his “Ditch Trilogy” and would have been better than the ‘Stills/Young’ album he actually put out in 1976.

I’ve heard a lot of bootleg, demo type stuff. One needs only to turn to Bob Dylan’s box set ‘The Cutting Edge’ to hear an artist cutting demos and shaping songs. Typically you get a lot of studio chatter… ‘Hitchhiker”s songs sounds like a complete set of songs. There’s no start/stop moments here. These songs don’t feel like demos. These are fully realized songs. Give credit to the only other person in the studio that night, producer David Briggs, for catching the immediacy and brilliance of these songs as they were being formed. Briggs literally captured Neil’s lightning in a bottle or, well, on tape. For the most part, these songs were eventually released in the form they were originally recorded in August of 76… proof these tunes don’t sound like demos. What’s great about ‘Hitchhiker’ is this album, from deep in Neil’s vault, gives us the chance to finally hear all of these songs as a set. This is the way to listen to these songs, as a complete piece, versus a track or two on scattered albums. That’s what makes this essential Young listening, instead of something for completists.

“Pocahontas,” a song so epic even Johnny Cash covered it during the American Recording period with Rick Rubin, kicks off this album. I’ve always thought it had dreamy, trippy lyrics… perhaps Neil’s consumption the evening it was recorded explains that feeling. It was eventually released on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ It’s the same track found here, although Neil overdubbed some weird squeaky sound-effects onto it, for reasons unclear, on it’s eventual ‘Rust’ release. I love the version here, stripped to the bone. Also from ‘Rust’ is “Ride My Llama,” basically as it appears on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ One of the revelations here is the original version of “Powderfinger,” here, acoustic. “Powderfinger” is one of my favorite tracks, not only from ‘Rust,’ but ever. The epic electric guitar on the ‘Rust’ version seems to imitate the violence that occurs in the lyrics, like Hendrix playing “Machine Gun.” Who are these men on “the white boat comin’ up the river,” and why are they armed. Are they revenuers coming to seize the still? Why is our 22 year old hero firing shots from “daddy’s rife” which felt “reassuring” in our hero’s hand? Supposedly, Neil Young offered the tune to Lynyrd Skynyrd before their fateful plane crash. I can’t imagine it getting any better than Neil’s version… Neil has always had two sides to his music – the epic electric, usually with Crazy Horse and the quiet acoustic of say, ‘Harvest.’ This version of the song encapsulates that dichotomy perfectly.

“Captain Kennedy” was another great tune, released eventually on ‘Hawks And Doves,’ in much the same version as here. “Campaigner,” the excellent track here was released on Neil’s epic greatest hits record, ‘Decade.’ “Even Richard Nixon has got soul…” Does he? “Human Highway” was also cut that August night in Malibu but not released until ‘Comes a Time.’ “Country Waltz” was released in a different form on ‘American Stars ‘N Bars,’ which by this point in the song list you have to wonder… why wasn’t this released in 1976. The craziest thing to me was the version of the title track, “Hitchhiker” was released in a weird version on ‘Le Noise’ the 2010 album produced by Daniel Lanois. I’ve always felt like ‘Le Noise’ was a missed opportunity… I’ve often referred to it as “Le Crap.” The version here is so far superior… Again, I wonder how this song took so long to see the light of day…

The song that is a real revelation to me was “Give Me Strength.” It, and “Hawaii” are the only tracks I don’t believe have ever seen release on a Neil Young album. “Give Me Strength” is an amazing track and frankly, worth the price of admission here. “Hawaii” is an OK track, and I can see perhaps why it was left in the can. It’s an album track, nothing revelatory.

Again, the fact that most of these tracks, 8 of 10, came out in some form or other over the years may make this album seem superfluous. But trust me, it’s not. This form, all acoustic, cut together as a piece, is the way to hear this record and to hear these songs. This is essential for any Neil Young fan. Pick this one up asap.

Chris Cornell, who toward the last part of his life was recording acoustic-based songs, and then returning to Soundgarden for loud rock n’ roll said he kind of got how Neil could go from loud rock to acoustic. It was great to have the option… This album is some of the best of Neil’s acoustic, quieter, non-Crazy Horse side. “Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her…” I hope he’ll pry open the vault for more of this! It’s truly a treasure.

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Concert Review: U2 with Beck, Kansas City, Sept 12, 2017: A “Night of Epic Rock And Roll” – Bono, #U2TheJoshuaTree2017

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*Photo by your intrepid blogger…if you squint you can see U2 performing “Where The Streets Have No Name” on the right hand side of the stage – September 12, 2017

When I heard U2 was touring in celebration of ‘The Joshua Tree’ 30th Anniversary, I knew I had to see this show… I was even looking into plane tickets and hotels in New York. I considered heading to the Chicago show, but that was the same weekend of the Tom Petty show here in Kansas City, reviewed earlier on B&V (Concert Review: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Kansas City, 6/2/2107), and I am very glad I stayed in town to see Petty. I have a long history with ‘The Joshua Tree’ and the emotional resonance it stirred in me in 1987 remains to this day… Luckily, they announced a KC show, at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play. I told my friend, The Accountant, “There is a high likelihood I will weep several times during this performance…” Thus is the power of this music for me.

I can remember coming home on spring break, my senior year in college, or well, one of my senior years in college and finding out my brother had already purchased ‘The Joshua Tree’ on cassette tape. I had been on the U2 bandwagon, like most people, since the ‘War’ album. I purchased ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ the day it came out along with ‘Boy’… but I’d been busy with midterms and hadn’t had a chance to pick up ‘The Joshua Tree.’ I remember lying on the floor in my bedroom, with my brother’s cassette tape in my, yes, Sony Walkman cassette player… for you kids out there, think of it as an iPod that was infinitely less cool and considerably bulkier. I was blown away by the album. It had crystallized all the leaps forward and experiments they’d been working toward on ‘Unforgettable Fire.’ The musical universe had changed.

I graduated from college that following May and the Gods cursed me with a job outside of my hometown of Kansas City. I ended up working for a mega corporation and they put me, in all their cruelty, in Ft Smith, Arkansas…aka Ft Hell. The only good thing about Ft Hell was I met Arkansas Joel, a person who turned out to be a friend for life. The Corporation sent me, that December of 1987, down to Atlanta for training. It just so happened that while I was down there starting my training, Arkansas Joel was there finishing his classwork… he was six months ahead of me. He found me in the seedy apartment complex they housed the trainees in and slapped a flier down on the table in front of me. “Ken, U2 is playing here in Atlanta tonight… we’ve gotta go see this show.” Arkansas Joel was an even bigger U2 fan than I am… “We can scalp tickets…” At the time I didn’t have two nickels to rub together and I was concerned about the money… but in truth something else was holding me back. I had met a young lady from Louisiana with a Scarlett O’Hara accent and a mane of long, black hair… Her parents were both from Thailand… she was… alluring.

I smiled wistfully back at Arkansas Joel, slid the flier back across the table and said, “I can’t go… I’ve gotta see about a girl.” Joel was stunned I would give up the chance to see U2 on their biggest tour. Hell, I’m stunned that I said no. I ended up dating the girl for a year before we broke up… Joel, on the other hand, saw the concert of a lifetime. U2 came out in disguise and played a set of country songs to open up for the opening-act. It wasn’t until they played one of the country songs again, in the main set, that Joel realized he’d actually seen U2 twice in one night… Me, I’m left with a lot of regrets and stories about Shreveport. Sigh. The heart wants what the heart wants. If I learned anything, it’s don’t listen to your heart when you’re in your 20s… Every time I see Joel now he says, “Well, you could have seen U2 on ‘The Joshua Tree’ tour but….” Always choose the concert, not the romantic interest.

Now, here we are 30 years later and U2 has returned to celebrate the album I missed out on. I was further encouraged about the concert when last week U2 released their first single from the upcoming album ‘Songs of Experience,’ and it’s a great song. Then, it was announced that Beck would be the opening act. Beck hasn’t toured since he hurt his back 10 years ago. Then, Beck releases 2 new songs last week. The karmic stars were lining up in my favor.

Beck started out the night and I was delighted. He started out with “Devil’s Haircut” and then went right into “Go It Alone.” From there he shoots right into “Black Tambourine” also from the excellent ‘Guero’ album. I will admit, I thought the drums were a tad loud and drowned out the vocals but that was only on the first few performances. He continued with a couple more ‘Guero’ tracks, “Think I’m In Love,” (a favorite of mine and the Rock Chick’s, I might add) and “Que Ondo Guero.” His band looked huge, I still don’t know how many other players he had on stage with him. I was hoping he’d play something from his acoustic side and he didn’t disappoint with the ‘Sea Change’ track, “Lost Cause.” I was hoping for one or two more, perhaps a mini-acoustic set, but he went right back into the noisy side of his catalog with “Loser” which brought the crowd to it’s feet. I was also hoping to hear some of the new stuff… He did play “Wow” but that was the only track he played from the upcoming ‘Colors’ LP… Overall I liked Beck, but at the end of the show, in the middle of “Where It’s At” he does the band intro’s which consisted of each musician playing a snippet of a song. I heard a little Gary Newman, Talking Heads and a big drum solo… then he starts back into “Where It’s At.” Ok, I get it, your band is talented, but Beck could have played a couple more songs rather than do the “band medley” thing. He only played 50 minutes, which is long for an opener, but I was left wanting more. Overall I was glad I saw Beck but was somewhat disappointed in the performance… Maybe if he comes back as a headliner.

Then, to a recording of the Waterboy’s tune “The Whole Of The Moon,” Larry Mullen, Jr came all the way out to the satellite stage, followed by the Edge, Adam Clayton and finally Bono. The energy in the stadium was palpable. They tore into “Sunday Bloody Sunday” followed by “New Year’s Day.” It was an eviscerating rock attack. The Edge’s guitar was loud and he was rocking his ass off. Bono’s vocals needed to be turned up a bit, but he rectified that after the band had returned to the main stage. From the satellite stage they followed up the two ‘War’ songs with two from ‘The Unforgettable Fire.’ The whole 4-song opening set was almost a historical journey of how they got to ‘The Joshua Tree.’ “Pride (In The Name of Love)” was, as you’d expect, spectacular. But it was the preceding “Bad,” a song I’ve always loved but never heard them play live before, that blew my mind. Before I knew it, yes, I was fucking weeping. Luckily I pulled myself together for “Pride.”

After “Pride” was over the band walked the long bridge to the main stage. It was a physical metaphor for their career… when ‘The Joshua Tree’ came out they literally crossed a bridge to superstardom. As they walked toward the main stage to the keyboard intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name” I got goose bumps. It was one of the highlights of the night…and yes a tear drop or two fell for me during that moment. The Edge was amazing. Larry Mullen Jr’s bedrock drumming and Adam Clayton’s bass are such a great engine for U2… Bono was at his most sincere self. He said early on, “Lets let everything else slip away for tonight, let’s enjoy an epic evening of rock and roll…” It certainly was. Although my friend Jean-Genie who was up in the nose-bleed seats said the sound was bad and she groused about the video behind them. It was great from where I was sitting.

After “Where the Streets…” naturally they proceeded to play the entire album, in it’s original sequence. It’s always dicey when a band chooses to perform an entire record as a set. Springsteen did a pretty good job with ‘The River’ but it was such a sprawling mess of a masterpiece it worked. I’ve seen the Cult do both ‘Love’ and ‘Electric’ and both were sensational. But of course, the Cult are a hard rock band so most songs on their albums are of “a piece,” if you will. I did see Motley Crue do the ‘Dr Feelgood’ album and, alas, it was awful. The pacing of an album is rarely set up for concert pacing.

The crowd stayed with U2 for the first half of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ the half with the hits. I’ve seen bands excite a crowd and I’ve seen a crowd’s energy elevate a band. Toward the second half of the album, around the time of “In God’s Country” the crowd’s energy started to flag. I don’t know if people just don’t turn records over any more, or they just listen for the hits. U2 was certainly holding up their end, delivering rocking versions of these songs. I was  lapping up all the side 2 stuff, it’s the stuff they never play. “Trip Through Your Wires” is one of the Rock Chick’s all time favorite songs, as it is mine. I know people who are really in to side 2 of ‘The Joshua Tree’ as much as some people fetishize side 2 of the Stones’ ‘Tattoo You,’ it’s that great, people… but alas, Kansas City just stood there. “Exit,” the next to last song rocked with a ferocity I had almost forgotten. It was a true highlight. “Mothers of the Disappeared” found Bono back out on the satellite stage, on his knees in supplication to a video image of, literally, the Mothers of the Disappeared, holding candles. It was moving, striking imagery.

After ‘The Joshua Tree’ was over, the band left the stage. The post-album set, or I guess in this case, the encore was a six song blast of rock and roll. They led off with two ‘All You Can’t Leave Behind’ gems, “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation,” which I hadn’t heard since that tour. Bono continued to deliver positive messages without being preachy at all. He’s a gifted man. And I love his lurch-jump, weird dance move he makes. It’s like a nervous tic. The band did take one brief shot at Trump in a video, but other than that U2 stayed positive and apolitical – “left, right, young, old, everyone is welcome at a U2 show!” Bono exclaimed.

The next track was a screaming, rocking version of “Vertigo.” That tune never gets old. I did zero research on the set list and yet I knew we’d hear that one. I was thrilled they actually did the new song, “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” which I sang loudly to my wife. Live, “Best Thing” really rocks. It translates very well in concert. The way the Edge is playing guitar at these shows bodes very well for the new album.

The final two tracks were from ‘Achtung Baby.’ “Ultraviolet Light (Light My Way)” was a highlight in that it was a deep album cut and totally unexpected. It was performed to a video backdrop of many of the strong women from history from Maya Angelou to Malala to Patti Smith. The message, let’s make history, HERstory… As the father of a daughter, I was moved. Finally, as you would expect, they ended with a beautiful crowd singalong for “One.” It was the perfect ending.

And with that, U2 disappeared into the night… As Bono promised, it was an “epic night of rock and roll.” And at last, thirty years later, I finally exorcised the demons created by a very bad decision on a cold, December Atlanta night. Buy the ticket folks, take the ride!

 

LP Review: Queens of the Stone Age, ‘Villains,’ Pure Hard Rock Groove

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I should go on vacation more often… I leave town to visit the in-laws and a slew of new music gets released. I’m not sure if I’m willing to suffer through another one of those trips even if it does mean a lot of new music… I can only take so many for the team, folks. I know I’ve been posting quite a bit lately but with all this great new music, I’m lucky just to keep up. As my buddy Matthew said to me when I was in Denver, “I can tell this is your passion…” Indeed.

One album I was really looking forward to hearing was ‘Villains’ the new QotSA LP. I absolutely loved the first single, “The Way You Used To Do” reviewed previously on B&V (Queens Of The Stone Age Release New Single, “The Way You Used To Do,” And Save Rock n Roll). My friend Drummer Blake says Queens are too musician-y for mass consumption but I tend to disagree. Yes, these guys are such master craftsman it would take an actual musician to understand what they’re doing sometimes but their last few records have been catchy as hell.

I had an odd introduction to QotSA… I was driving in my car and for once I was tuned into the local alternative rock station, “The Buzz.” When I was growing up, if a new album came out by a big band, the DJ would scrap the programmed stuff and drop the needle on the new vinyl. You could hear a brand new record the day it came out just by turning on the radio. In these days of pre-programmed, corporate owned radio stations, you’re not gonna hear that happen much any more. Hence, I’ve given up on terrestrial radio… Anyway, this DJ, Afentra announces they’ve got the then new Queens’ LP, ‘…Like Clockwork’ and much to my surprise, she played the whole album. I had to pull the car over. What I heard that day blew my mind. ‘…Like Clockwork’ plays to me like a Pink Floyd record, you need to hear the whole thing together as a suite. Well, almost, I can listen to “If I Had a Tail” or “I Sat By the Ocean” or even “My God Is the Sun” and enjoy it, but listening to the whole thing is the best way to experience it.

‘…Like Clockwork’ had a murky, ominous feel to it. Josh Homme, the leader and only permanent member of Queens had just survived a knee surgery that went bad, where his heart actually stopped beating. Then he suffered from a horrible auto-immune infection afterward. ‘Clockwork’ sounds like an “airing of the grievances” kind of album, especially “Fair-weather Friends.” I was blown away. Although I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was a big fan of Homme’s work on Iggy Pop’s ‘Post Pop Depression,’ that came out shortly afterwards. That was an inspired pairing, QotSA and Iggy… Homme brought out Pop’s best music in years. (Review: Iggy Pop, “Post Pop Depression”)

Naturally, hearing ‘Clockwork’ sent me back in their catalog. I landed on ‘Songs For the Deaf.’ Holy crap, that thing is a hard rock masterpiece. The album practically shrieks out of the speakers at you. Although the guitars are hard and loud, they’re kind of droning. It’s hypnotic in a way. “No One Knows,” “Go With the Flow” and “First It Giveth” are amongst my favorite tunes. Comparing ‘Songs For the Deaf’ to ‘…Like Clockwork’ is virtually impossible… It’s hard to believe those two records came from the same band… What can’t these guys do? With all that as a backdrop, I was looking forward to the new album, but I  had literally no expectations.

I read recently, probably in Rolling Stone that Josh Homme doesn’t want to hear anybody say that rock is dead. He’s willing to punch record company guys in the face if they so much as hint that they think it. Homme is a pretty big guy… best we not test him on this. However, seeing him in the Eagles of Death Metal documentary, “Mon Amis” I think Josh is a pretty good, stand-up guy…he’s certainly a good friend to have… but still, I don’t want him to punch me but I do worry about rock these days. I must admit, when I heard he’d hired Mick Ronson, who has produced Bruno Mars to helm this project, it raised an eyebrow for me. Is this going to be QotSA’s ‘Emotional Rescue’ or “Miss You,” a foray into dance music? I tried to imagine QotSA doing a hard edged “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”… the horror, the horror. I needn’t have worried. Rock will always be safe as long as Josh Homme is around.

The first two tracks on this album “Feet Don’t Fail Me” and “The Way You Used To Do” are big rocking tunes that groove. Yes, you can even dance to them if you’re so inclined. Myself, I gave up dancing years ago… paramedics always seem to try and force wood between my teeth when I do… While I love both those tunes, I really like the song “Fortress.” “If ever your fortress caves, you’re always safe in mine” sounds like the encouraging words of a father to a son. It’s a mid-tempo thing with a great guitar riff. The drumming on this record is sensational… I don’t know if it’s Homme or Jon Theodore who is listed as the QotSA drummer these days. Troy Van Leeuwen is listed as guitarist, Dean Fertita is on keyboards, and Michael Schuman is on bass. I’ve always thought of Queens as more of a musical collective than a band…

“Head Like a Haunted House” almost sounds like a harder rocking B-52’s song. There’s a great variance in the styles on this short set of nine tunes. Gone are the ominous, dark tones that graced ‘…Like Clockwork.’ QotSA are ready to party on this record. I don’t know how many times I’ve reviewed albums on this site and said, “well, this album is great, but you can’t really play it at a party…” This album, you can definitely play at a party… Well, I could, but most my friends are music nuts like I am. “Un-Reborn Again” is another stylistic turn and almost sounds like glam rock… the cadence of the lyrics are almost Bowie-esque. Well, I say that until he actually quotes the Georgia Satellites in the middle of the song. It’s that kind of “fuck all,” freewheeling album. This is fun music.

“Hideaway” is another standout track near the end of the record. It sounds like a modern spin on the Animals or the Zombies. It has that 60s guitar/keyboard vibe to it. It’s another great tune with a groove. I imagine a bunch of people on tequila dancing the Swim to this track. Yet even with all the groove I get from this record it most definitely still rocks. The guitar sounds go from fuzzy to beautiful leads all in the same tune.

“The Evil Has Landed,” which was the second single released prior to the LP, is probably the hardest rocking thing here. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Songs For the Deaf.’ I love the riff on this thing. Homme’s lead guitar on this track is probably the most impressive on the album. “Close… come close…” he repeats… No thank you, Josh.

The album ends on the soaring “Villains of Circumstance.” It’s a great way to end the record… I can’t tell if it’s a love song to his wife or to his kids. (One might theorize that the titular ‘Villains’ Homme references might be his children…) It’s a wonderful tune and leaves me feeling 180 degrees different from how I felt after ‘…Like Clockwork.’ It’s impressive that a rock band/artist can put out such a wonderful variance of moods, tones and songs yet still keep that hard rock/guitar heavy sound.

This one gets my highest recommendation. It’s hard, it rocks, it grooves, it does a lot of different things. Turn this one up loud, invite over some friends, pour some tequila, mute the football on the TV and have a ball!

Cheers!

 

U2: “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” The Strong New Single From ‘Songs Of Experience’

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U2 has dropped their first single from the upcoming ‘Songs Of Experience’ this week. U2 are notorious for taking their time in the studio so this was a little bit of a surprise. Since they usually wait up to five years between albums, this new song is somewhat unexpected. I’d heard they’d recently gone back into the studio, inspired by the world’s current political situation, to flesh out some new ideas. They’re currently in the middle of a tour celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ that I am proud to say I’ll be attending at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. So naturally, I wasn’t expecting anything new right now. Coincidentally, Beck just dropped a couple of songs this week and he’s the opening act (Beck: Two New Songs, “Dear Life,” “Up All Night,” And Finally, New LP ‘Colors’ Slated For Oct ). I’m hoping to hear how all of this new music translates to the stage. It’s just a great time to be alive. Well, at least musically it is…

First singles can be a tricky business for any band. U2 of late seem to have trouble picking first singles. If we look backwards perhaps we can discern how good ‘Songs of Experience’ will be. For their first single from the last album, ‘Songs of Innocence’ U2 chose the up-beat “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” While I’d like to give them credit for citing what appears to be an influence, I’m more of a Stooges guy than a Ramones guy. And like the Ramones, I felt “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” was ok. It wasn’t awful but it certainly didn’t rank up there with some of the anthemic lead singles like say, “Pride (In The Name of Love)” or “Beautiful Day.” Maybe I was lukewarm on this tune because they had just released the extraordinary song “Ordinary Love” from a Nelson Mandela bio-pic and it is one of their best songs, ever. It’s hard to compete with “Ordinary Love.” They also had just released a song for the Bono’s RED project, “Invisible” and I liked it better than “Joey Ramone.” Listening to it again, it’s not a bad tune, but the expectations they’d set with those other two songs, released just prior to ‘Songs of Innocence” had set the bar pretty high. I thought ‘Innocence’ was pretty “meh” as a record…It wasn’t horrible but I’d hoped for more. The release strategy of putting it on everyone’s Apple device was… ill-advised.

For the album prior to that, ‘No Line On the Horizon’ they chose to release the ridiculous “Get On Your Boots” as the lead-off single. ‘No Line’ was another in what I like to call U2’s “experimental” phases. They brought in legendary producer Eno whose goal it seems is to make U2 sound inscrutable. That album was more of a mess than ‘Innocence’ ever dreamed of being. “Boots” was one of three weird songs right in the middle of the album that attempted to be “ironic.” U2 isn’t great at being ironic despite that whole Zoo Station period where they actually pulled it off. Why they didn’t choose the much superior “Magnificent” for the first single remains a mystery to everybody except U2 and maybe Eno… that sneaky fucker.

Finally, if we go back to “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” (the answer, “with love,” per Bono), you get a big, anthemic, kick ass rock tune as your first single with “Vertigo.” I’m guessing that’s a track they’re still playing live… at least I hope so or Tuesday will be a little disappointing for the Rock Chick. There was a time when I thought she was going to get “Vertigo” tattooed across her shoulder blades. She played the shit out of that album… “Crumbs From Your Table” was another tune she was fond of, but I digress… “Uno, Dos, Tres, Catorce…” what an opening. That whole album U2 finally revived the sound of the Edge’s guitar. He rocks all over that thing. “Vertigo” was the first salvo from a classic record.

Which all leads me to “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” the current lead off single from ‘Songs of Experience.’ My friend, Arkansas Joel, who is a bigger U2 fan than even I am, accuses me of being soft on U2 when it comes to criticism, but he’s still angry at them for ‘Pop.’ Move on Joel, anyone can make a mistake and ‘Pop’ was better than we give it credit for. Anyway, I really like this song. It’s just a rocky, straight-ahead love song. Like Randy Newman’s recent song, “She Chose Me,” I wish I’d written this song for the Rock Chick because, well, she is the best thing about me… and I’m luckily “the kind of trouble that (she) enjoys.” It feels like forever since I’ve heard this spidery guitar sound from Edge.  The track opens with Bono’s voice and a great guitar riff under him. It’s a great start. Bono’s singing is passionate and longing, which is the perfect tone for this track. Larry Mullen, Jr never gets the credit he deserves as a drummer. Adam Clayton plays an insistent bass line… I love everything about this song. It’s tight, rocking and sincere, all the things that made me love U2 in the first place.

What this portends for the new album is anybody’s guess. If the rest of the album is up to the quality of “Best Thing” then this is going to be a really special album from U2. At this point all we have is this song and I recommend buying it immediately and playing it extremely loud to someone you love… “when you look so good and baby you don’t even know…” man, I love that feeling.

Beck: Two New Songs, “Dear Life,” “Up All Night,” And Finally, New LP ‘Colors’ Slated For Oct

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Well at last, Beck has finally announced a new LP, ‘Colors’ for October release. In addition, I was thrilled to see he’s released two new songs, “Dear Life,” and “Up All Night” in advance of the new album. I don’t know why it seems so long since Beck has released an album. It was only three years ago, in 2014, when Beck put out the superb ‘Morning Phase,’ an acoustic strummer of an album that was a companion piece to 2002’s melancholy ‘Sea Change.’ But before that, it was all the way back in 2008 when Beck last put out an album, the overlooked, Danger Mouse-produced ‘Modern Guilt.’ When an artist only puts out a couple of albums over the span of almost a decade, it just seems like a long time has passed.

Of course, Beck released the fun single, “Wow” over a year ago, reviewed on B&V previously (Beck’s New Single, “Wow”…”Giddy Up, Giddy Up”). I guess when I heard “Wow” I figured an album was imminent and the wait seemed longer than it really was. If I’m splitting hairs here, Beck released the song “Dreams” months before “Wow” came out, so it really has been a long time. Both of those tunes will appear on the upcoming ‘Colors’ LP so it could be argued this is the slowest album roll-out since the Pretenders ‘Learning to Crawl,’ but back then several members of the band died during that time period.

I’ve always loved Beck. I’ve always thought of him as the unholy marriage of Bob Dylan and the Beastie Boys. He has an acoustic, almost acoustic-blues, side that he marries in his best work with noisy samples and changes of tempo Metallica would envy. He seamlessly synthesizes the old with the new. I’ve been on his bandwagon since the seminal 90s slacker anthem “Loser” was released. And while his last album, ‘Morning Phase’ was more hushed and acoustic, I’m thrilled to see Beck get back to his fun, noisy side.

These two new tracks are much in keeping with the previously released singles, “Wow” and “Dreams” that were released, as mentioned, over a year ago. These are full on band songs with varied instruments and sounds. A piano line that could have been cribbed form ‘The White Album’ starts off the great “Dear Life.” I heard something familiar in this song, and I thought it was a slight melancholy that Beck brings to his singing sometimes, but I was wrong. This track is, dare I say it, “Beatle-esque.” It’s got a great little guitar riff and a powerful beat. I defy you not to tap your foot along as this tune chugs along. I don’t know if it’s the fact I just sat through a ClassicAlbumSunday featuring ‘Sgt Pepper’ that’s clouding my hearing on this, but “Dear Life” sounds heavily influenced by that trip-y musical era. I love the stuttered vocals on the bridge. It’s the perfect opening track for an album that sounds like it’ll be as musically varied as anything Beck has done since ‘Guero’ at least and possibly since ‘Odelay.’ This is real headphones music…

“Up All Night,” the second track he’s put out since announcing the album is a pure pop confection of a song. I can’t stop moving around when I listen to this song, and I don’t dance. It’s got a great beat. I have to admit this could have been a real contestant for “song of the summer” had he not waited to release this song until September. It’s pure up-beat groove. “I just want to stay up all night with you…” Who hasn’t felt that way. This song is as hooky as hell. It’s a melody that stays with you. It’s much of a piece with the previously released “Dreams.” There is something familiar about this track as well, so I don’t know if Beck has released it previously as a single or perhaps as part of a soundtrack… The Rock Chick suspects the latter. It’s just such a seminal melody, perhaps both of us are wrong.

I think this is going to be a great return to form album for Beck. I’ve liked every tune that I’ve heard from ‘Colors’ so far. Play it loud and groove like summer never ends folks!

Cheers!

 

RIP Walter Becker, Steely Dan Founding Member/Guitarist/Bassist

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*Steely Dan, Donald Fagen (L), Walter Becker, (R)

“I cried when I wrote this song, sue me if I play too long, this brother is free, I’ll be what I want to be…” – “Deacon Blues,” Steely Dan

I almost never take a vacation. It’s one of the many things that drives my wife crazy. My work life is such that whenever I leave for some time-off, I return typically to face some kind of dystopian nightmare of problems and an enormous pile of punishing work. My corporate overlords have seen to it that it’s just not worth it to leave. Somehow my wife, the Rock Chick, convinced me to do back-to-back trips to end the summer this year… she can be… persuasive. The first jaunt was our Jack Kerouac trip to Denver to see Depeche Mode, which turned out great. The second of our two trips was to head out West again to visit my in-laws. Not quite a Depeche Mode trip… family, what are you gonna do? So it was with great surprise and grief that, whilst out on our travels/travails I learned that Walter Becker, founding member of one of my all time favorite bands, Steely Dan, had passed away. Damn it! To quote my friend Bob, Steely Dan “enriched my life.” This one hit me hard.

Steely Dan, despite never having a ton of hits, were ubiquitous when I was growing up in the 70s. They were always on FM rock radio. Their 1977 album ‘Aja’ is etched into my memory. “Deacon Blues” may be my unofficial theme song… it certainly was in junior high. ‘Aja’ was my first Steely Dan LP purchase and I slowly worked my way backward. Kansas City’s local rock radio station, KY/102 (God, how I miss that station), used to play “The Daily Dan,” which featured two (or maybe it was three) Steely songs in a row. Only Led Zeppelin (“Get the Led Out”) received such regal treatment on that radio station.

I can still remember in junior high school, riding home on the bus and listening to the stoner kids in the back of the bus, arguing about Steely Dan. The jocks all sat up front and the flannel-shirted, long-feathered-hair kids sat in the back. Naturally I gravitated backwards toward the misfits. They would argue the most bizarre rock and roll shit. I remember two of them coming to blows, literally punches thrown, after one kid suggested that had he lived, Jimi Hendrix would have turned to jazz. These were serious rock and roll fans. The Steely Dan argument would rage on over my entire junior high era. It goes back to the eternal question, were they rock? They were too jazzy or jazz-influenced, the naysayers would yell. They’d suggest they only had one decent riff, “Reelin’ In The Years.” The defenders would point to the flawless production and sound… smoke something then put them on, they’re like Pink Floyd, headphones music, they’d say. The talent of the musicians clearly meant they were rock. And besides, “Bodhisattva” was a great riff too… and back forth it would go.

What always draws me in is the lyrics. Becker and Fagen were always so amazingly literate and witty. I mean, you have to be pretty bookish to name your band after a dildo from William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. The lyrics were always cryptic at first but after a number of listens you began to realize perhaps there was more to the story. “Kid Charlemagne” was about a drug dealer. (I still like to yell, “Is there gas in the car? Yes there’s gas in the car,” which may explain why nobody asks me to drive anywhere). “Home At Last” was the story of Odysseus floating past the Sirens as much as it was about being stuck in a bad relationship. The humor and the intelligence of the writing was razor sharp. “Chain Lightning” was the story of two Nazi SS Officers going back to a spot where Hitler spoke… I could go on and on. Where Becker/Fagen found that brilliant, creative lyricism is awe-inspiring. I always thought, incorrectly, that Becker wrote all the lyrics and Fagen wrote the music. I’m not sure how I came under that misconception, they were a great writing team. Another bonus for Steely Dan in the eyes of B&V was the large number of booze references in their songs… from scotch whisky to black cows these guys knew their booze.

Becker, besides being a great songwriter and producer actually began in Steely Dan playing bass guitar. He and Fagen had moved to Los Angeles, after failing to get anything going with their songs in New York. Eventually their long time producer, Gary Katz, convinced them to form a band to help them sell their songs. Denny Dias and Skunk Baxter handled the guitars. Fagen, who suffered from stage fright, relegated himself to playing piano and they brought in David Palmer as an additional lead singer. It took years for me to figure out “Dirty Work,” sung by Palmer, was actually a Steely Dan song. Eventually they realized people liked the songs Fagen sang better so Palmer eased out of the band before their second album, “Countdown To Ecstasy.” By 1975 and the release of ‘Katy Lied,’ Becker had moved to guitar and Fagen was the only founding member left. Although to be fair, Denny Dias stuck around on rhythm guitar until they called it quits in 1981. By then Steely Dan had quit touring and had become, like the Beatles before them, a studio band. Becker and Fagen would augment the band in the studio with a ton of session musicians. They were the first band who I heard given the moniker of “studio perfectionists.” That certainly comes across when I listen to the vinyl versions of those records now. The sound is striking.

When you look at the Steely Dan discography, it’s pretty “choice” to quote those back-of-the-bus stoners of yore. ‘Pretzel Logic,’ ‘The Royal Scam,’ ‘Aja,’ and ‘Gaucho’ were all albums any band would kill for. The albums were all brilliant, cohesive works of art. Each LP a rich tapestry of catchy music with lyrics about the oddest assortments of creepy losers you’re ever going to find. One might call their songs “noir.” Unfortunately, they spent so much time recording ‘Gaucho’ that tensions began to rise. Becker was sued after his then-girlfriend OD’d in his apartment. He was hit by a car and broke his leg. They did so many retakes of the songs on ‘Gaucho’ I think Becker and Fagen just ground each other down. And so, in 1981, they broke up.

Becker moved to Hawaii where he continued to struggle with his budding heroin addiction. One of my favorite stories about Becker and Fagen, as friends, was one I read about that separation. Becker and Fagen had been friends and bandmates since they met at Bard College. Professionally estranged and geographically separated, Becker in Hawaii and Fagen in New York, Fagen continued to reach out to Becker. I read that Fagen would go out to jazz clubs to listen to the old jazz guys who were still alive and playing. Some of the jazz guys would recognize him, some wouldn’t… Steely’s music was always heavily influenced by jazz and both Becker and Fagen loved jazz. Anyway, whether recognized or not, Fagen would always wander up between sets and get an autograph from whomever he was watching. When he got home, he’d stick the napkin in an envelope and mail it off to Becker, who he knew was battling addiction. No note, no commentary, just a cocktail napkin with some semi-famous sax player’s name scrawled on it. I don’t know why but I’ve always found that touching.

Eventually, after a full decade had passed, Becker who had kicked heroin reunited with Fagen at one of those ‘New York Rock And Soul Revue’ things Fagen and Micheal McDonald put together. They ended up each producing the other’s next solo album. Finally, after twenty years they officially reunited to record ‘Two Against Nature,’ which actually won the Grammy for best album. I love, love the song “Jack of Speed” from that record. The magic was still there. They followed that album up rather quickly with ‘Everything Must Go’ in 2003, which I enjoyed, although not like ‘Two Against Nature.’ I had hoped, all these years later, that perhaps there would be another Steely Dan album. Group’s like Steely Dan putting out late period records is the reason I started this blog in the first place… Alas, now there will be no more new Steely Dan.

This is another in a series of huge losses in the world of rock n’ roll. Donald Fagen put out a very touching note about his friend and musical partner over the weekend. He says he’s going to keep Becker and his music alive for as long as he’s able. I hope he does… the world is better off when those songs are being played somewhere… and yes, “Bodhisattva” does rock…

Take care of yourselves out there…

Concert Review: Depeche Mode, Denver, August 25th, 2017: Mind Blown!

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*photo taken by your intrepid blogger with his crappy phone, while standing behind the tallest man whose ever attended a concert, who was naturally sitting right in front of me

One of the first books I read, that wasn’t assigned to me by a high school or college teacher was Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. I don’t know if it was reading that book that led me to an absolute love of driving long distances or that it came to me naturally. I’m lucky in my marriage to the Rock Chick in many ways, but one of the things I love the most is that she too loves the open road. I was also very lucky that when she entered my life, she turned me on to many great bands that were outside my typical blues-rock-guitar construct. Depeche Mode is a great example of one those wonderful bands that the Rock Chick turned me on to. Depeche isn’t just a great band, the more I listen to them, the more I realize they’re also an important band…

When I read that they were touring, which they only seem to do every four years or so, in support of their fabulous new album ‘Spirit’ (reviewed previously, LP Review: Depeche Mode’s ‘Spirit’ – Simply Put, An Immediate Classic ), I felt it was a big enough deal that I was ready to travel to see them if they skipped Kansas City. As it turned out, I was lucky enough they were hitting Denver, Colorado which is easily within driving range. When I approached the Rock Chick about the idea of driving out to see them, she embraced the idea whole-heartedly. So much so, that I didn’t even get to do any of the driving. I sat in the passenger seat and DJ’d. Well, on the way out there I DJ’d… on the way home Monday I was sleeping off what the medical profession calls a “hangover.”

As I mentioned earlier, since 1993’s ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion,’ Depeche have been on basically the same repeatable cycle. They record/release an album, tour and then take a year or two off for solo projects. They’re like the US election cycle in that each successive album comes out every four years. With gaps like that between albums, when they do tour, it’s kind of a big deal. I am so delighted I got a chance to see lead singer Dave Gahan, guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Martin Gore and keyboardist Andy Fletcher perform live. (Depeche also have a couple of additional musicians who tour with them, I don’t know if you’d call them “sidemen” as they also play in the studio with them… Christian Eigner plays drums and Peter Gordeno plays additional keyboards and bass guitar…) I actually can’t believe it’s taken me this long in my rock and roll career to see these guys. Of course they were always classified as “synth rock” or “alternative” and it took me a while to discover their deep catalog.

This was a great concert. Any more, when I see a more mature act, who’ve been around for twenty or thirty years, I sometimes just see a greatest hits show. There’s nothing wrong with that but when a band of the stature of Depeche has put out a masterful album like ‘Spirit’ I go into the show hoping to hear quite a bit of the new album – you know, like it was in the old days when bands wanted you to hear the new stuff…. I’m starting to sound like my dad here…. I’m afraid I’m going to start yelling at kids to get off my lawn, but I digress. I needn’t worry about Depeche Mode. To my delight, they played almost half the songs from ‘Spirit.’

When the lights went down, and the enormous video screen behind the band lit up, a wild, colorful display, the band took the stage to a recording of The Beatles’ “Revolution.” When the recording stopped the band launched into one of the great new tracks from ‘Spirit,’ “Going Backwards” which was just a great opening. The band started the song and suddenly I saw a lone silhouette behind the band, in front of the video screen on a hidden walkway… Dave Gahan was in the room, people! What a great entrance! “Going Backwards” was followed by another new ‘Spirit’ song, “So Much Love.” I was so happy that they led off with two new songs. I realized any worry that they’d gloss over the new stuff quickly dissipated.

After that opening duo of songs, they played a great version of “Barrel of a Gun” and then went right into “A Pain That I’m Used To.” ‘Spirit’ can certainly be read as a commentary on the current political conditions in the world. And while Depeche has never been explicitly political, like say, Roger Waters, one could interpret the song selection, like “Corrupt,” or “Everything Counts” as an inspired selection that by itself comments on the current zeitgeist in the world, and especially America. There were so many great moments. “Where’s the Revolution,” the first single from ‘Spirit’ was especially rousing. “Never Let Me Down Again” and “Wrong” were both inspired performances.

The stage, other than the giant video screen behind the band, was fairly spartan. There were two synthesizer stands where Andy Fletcher and Peter Gordeno both stood (Fletcher to the right, Gordeno to the left as you face the stage). There was a third synth stand that they’d pull out when Martin Gore switched from guitar to keyboards. It looked like what I would imagine Kraftwerk’s stage would have looked like in the 70s. Gordeno would occasionally come down and play bass guitar for a song or two, the guy is like a great utility infielder. In the middle of the stage was Christian Eigner’s drum kit… Eigner may be the unsung hero of the show – his drumming was loud and powerful. It really was a great engine that drove the songs into harder, more rocking arrangements. He’s a strong drummer, something every band should have.

Martin Gore was to the left side of the stage and as I mentioned, he alternated between guitar and keyboards. I had a fucking behemoth standing in front of me, so it was hard for me to see how Gore was playing guitar. The guy makes playing look so effortless, yet puts out so much great guitar sound, a bit like the Edge. I don’t think he uses a pic, and I couldn’t see if he was using a bunch of effects pedals. It looks like he’s plucking the strings with just his thumb and forefinger but that can’t be right, can it? He plays a beautiful selection of guitars, including a gorgeous Gretsch White Falcon. I still don’t know how he gets that sound. He took lead vocals on several songs. “Question of Lust” was actually just him singing to the piano accompaniment of Gordeno. It was a lovely song and Gore seemed almost fragile in his delivery. I was worried it would be like when Keith Richards sings with the Stones and everyone would head to the bathroom. Not so when Gore sings, the fan base, and the Pepsi Center was full, was totally embracing of Gore. Everyone loved his lead vocal. From “Question of Lust” they brought the band back and Gore sang “Home” which may be my favorite track with his lead vocals. He’s a talented man.

There are not many people who I would personally describe as a Rock Star. Dave Gahan is on that short list. I’ve always loved his voice, and believe me, his voice was great and strong during the show. Seeing him live, with his charisma on full display was something else. The guy was all over the stage, waving his arms, getting the crowd to clap their hands. He was reaching into the crowd and shaking hands, pointing to people in the stands. He revved the crowd up like few front men know how to do any more. He could belt out the rockier stuff and still capture the nuance of some of the mellower tunes. There was a ramp out into the crowd, to the right side of the stage, where my seat was, and he kept walking down there and the crowd would go nuts. He made the giant arena feel like an intimate club. And talk about “moves like Jagger…” The guy danced, clapped and shook his ass jokingly at the crowd. The Rock Chick looked at me at one point and said, “The Brits really know how to do the front man thing better, in ways American bands just don’t get…” True that, honey. My only complaint is that other than the occasional “thank you” Gahan really didn’t say anything to the crowd. Neither did Gore for that matter… not that musicians have to speak during a show, but I’d have liked a “good evening Denver…” but that’s probably just me.

The crowd was at a fevered pitch as the band left the stage after the main set. Depeche’s music is often described as “dark,” and I’d agree with that (as would likely some of the tattoo’d, goth, provocatively dressed ladies in attendance at the show) but they delivered the music with such a strong sense of joy, it’s hard not to hear the hope and the defiance in this music too. For the encore, Gore came out and did another voice with piano only version of “Somebody” and despite it being a mellow tune the crowd went nuts. Gahan returned and sang “Walking In My Shoes” which was one of my favorite performances. The next song was the only cover of the night. The band did Bowie’s “Heroes” which was the song Dave Gahan sang at an open mic night that landed him in Depeche Mode in the first place. I just love that story. You can draw a pretty straight line from Bowie and his influence to Depeche Mode, just like you can draw a line from Depeche to say, Arcade Fire. It was such a nice tribute, I hope some version of that song gets released.

They finished with an almost industrial, hard rock version of “I Feel You” that was so strong it almost sounded like they were channeling Nine Inch Nails. They wrapped the evening with “Personal Jesus,” which was perfect. And with that, a wonderful two hour and fifteen minute show had come to a close. I’d been on my feet dancing behind a giant for over two hours but I felt great.

The principal members of Depeche have been through so much in their history: Martin had issues with alcoholism and seizures; Fletcher had to drop out of a tour for a depression he described as “mental instability”; Gahan of course, overcame heroin addiction so bad he actually died for a few minutes like Nikki Sixx… To see them now delivering such a forceful, joyful evening of rock and roll is a real treasure. If you’re lucky enough to be in a city that they’re playing, buy the ticket. I must admit I’m still baffled they chose to play Salt Lake City, not that there’s anything wrong with SLC, and not play Kansas City, but hey, I love the road too…

Cheers!