LP Review: Van Morrison, ‘Roll With The Punches,’ A Laid-Back Blues Party

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In the 60s and even into the 70’s, record companies pushed artists constantly for new material, or as the record companies called it, new “product.” Early on, I think the Beatles put out three albums in one year. Apparently the record companies weren’t familiar with the concept of burn out, but when has any faceless corporation cared about burn out. By the 70s the pace had slowed a little bit… artists were only expected to put out an album a year. I can remember the Faces even saying, “thank you and we’ll see you next year” or something to that effect in the liner notes to one album. But that was the formula, put out an album, tour and do it again next year. Wash, rinse, repeat. When Springsteen took three years  between ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’ due to legal issues it was a big deal. That kind of gap between records, which is fairly standard now, was considered career suicide. The term saturation apparently hadn’t been discovered yet.

Nowadays artists can take up to five years between albums and nobody bats an eye. U2 usually  takes about five years between records… Although I’ve noticed Springsteen, a notorious perfectionist, is only taking about two to three years between records lately…making up for lost time, no doubt. Metallica took eight years between ‘Death Magnetic’ and ‘Hardwired.’ I was surprised earlier this year when Cheap Trick, of all people, bucked that trend and returned only a year after 2016’s ‘Bang, Crazy, Zoom…Hello’ with this year’s exceptional ‘We’re All Alright.’ If I was surprised that Cheap Trick put out albums in consecutive years in the 2010s, imagine my downright shock that Van Morrison, only one year after his fabulous 2016 album, ‘Keep Me Singing’ (reviewed on B&V: LP Review: Van Morrison, “Keep Me Singing” Rock’s Curmudgeon’s Understated, Rootsy Return) has returned with this year’s ‘Roll With the Punches.’ This is starting to feel like the 70s and I mean that in a good way, not the 70s disco-leisure suit bad way… At least this time around it’s the artists who are choosing to put the music out so quickly and not the dictates of some faceless record company.

When I started to dig into my research on ‘Roll With The Punches’ I quickly discovered this was predominantly a cover album of old blues and soul tunes by Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke and Doc Pomus to name a few. That might explain why he was able to release this album so quickly after ‘Keep Me Singing,’ not a lot of that pesky songwriting to do. Ten of the records 15 tracks are cover songs. Of the ten covers songs, Van has sung “Bring It On Home” before, released on his epic live LP, ‘It’s Too Late To Stop Now’ and he covered “Lonely Avenue” on ‘Too Long In Exile.’ Of the five original tracks, two are songs he’s done in some form before: “Ordinary People” was included on the superb archival release ‘Philospher’s Stone’ and a slightly different version of “Fame” came out on the great record, ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture.’ Van doing songs where he complains about being famous are wearing a little thin, like Ozzy always doing the obligatory “I’m Still Crazy” tune on every album. We get it, you hate being famous. I will say, all of the five originals fit seamlessly with the old blues tunes. The title track could have been a Muddy Waters tune, it sounds timeless. The only original I would say is an exception to the sound is the beautiful transcendent song, “Transformation.” It’s a classic, soaring Van song, it just seems a tad out of place amongst all this other blues and soul music.

When most people think of Van, they think of his 70’s “golden” era when he released masterpiece after masterpiece. ‘Astral Weeks’ is singularly brilliant. There’s never been anything before or since that comes close to that record. He followed that up with ‘Moondance’ and ‘His Band And The Street Choir.’ Van could do no wrong in those days. He was a wild-eyed Celtic soul man. He seemed like an Irish mystic who had wandered out of the mist with transcendent truth and “Moonshine Whiskey” on his lips. He’s gone through many phases and released a ton of music since those heady days… but much like Dylan, many people want to compare his current work to that wonderful purple patch in the 70s. I loved that part of Van’s career, but I was also a fan of his earlier, pre-solo work, with Them. While Them was basically just Van surrounded by an ever changing cast of other musicians, they were a gritty blues and soul band. It was then that Van penned his garage band classic, “Gloria,” covered by so many other artists: Patti Smith and perhaps definitively by Jimi Hendrix, just to name two. Them’s version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” was the first version of that tune I ever heard and it remains my favorite version. So when I heard that Van was doing a blues album, I couldn’t help but think maybe we’d hear some of that fire and brimstone blues of his earliest Them days, much like what the Stones did on ‘Blue And Lonesome.’ And while this isn’t quite the Van of his 20’s when he was in Them, (and who of us are like we were in our 20s) this is pretty kick ass blues.

One thing I can say about ‘Roll With the Punches’ is that Van sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. He’s clearly completely engaged. Part of that might be that he invited a bunch of friends into the studio with him. It’s like Van decided to throw a laid-back blues party. He brought in Georgie Fame (keyboards/vocals) who has been his band’s musical director for a while.  He also brought in Paul Jones, the original lead singer in Manfred Mann and harmonica player extraordinaire. He also brings in Chris Farlowe to duet on the “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue” medley, which is an inspired choice – Farlowe’s first hit in the sixties was “Stormy Monday.” Pianist Jason Rebello also contributes to a few of the tunes. Most importantly, Van Morrison brought in Jeff Beck to play guitar. A few years ago, Rod Stewart tried to lure Beck back into the studio to do a blues album but Jeff quit early on in the process… he said he didn’t want to play the kind of music Rod wanted to play. And here he is playing his ass off on this blues album. I guess when Van The Man calls, you gotta answer. Beck’s guitar fuels a lot of these tunes. His guitar solo in “Bring It On Home To Me” may be the high point of the record. I love that before the solo, Van says, “alright Jeff…” “Bring It On Home” is probably the greatest moment on this album. Sam Cooke inspired so many singers from Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin to Rod Stewart and Van himself.

I really like this album, but in the interest of full-disclosure, I love the blues. And I love Van’s vocals. He sings with a passion on these songs that really resonates. The title track, “Roll With the Punches” and “Too Much Trouble” are my favorite of the original, Van-penned tracks. Those are just good ol’ blues tunes. If I have a complaint about the early part of the record, it’s that Van lets his buddies sing a verse or two (too many) on several of the early tracks. I like Chris Farlowe duetting with Van on “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue” but I’m not as crazy about Georgie Fame singing entire parts of “Goin’ To Chicago.” I mean, I wanna hear Van sing. when he comes in on “Goin’ To Chicago” it’s just apparent he’s such a better singer than Fame is. Oh well, this music all has a loose, laid-back vibe, why not toss the lead vocals around the room.

“How Far From God” by Sister Rosetta Thorpe (with great boogie-woogie piano and rumbling vocal from Van) and “Benediction” by Mose Allison remind us that blues ain’t that far from gospel. I really like those tunes. Van’s own “Ordinary People” is bluesier and grittier in this incarnation with Jeff Beck’s slippery guitar, although I’ll admit I wish they’d turned off Georgie’s microphone on the harmony vocal. Towards the end of the album, the blues start to really take off. “Automobile Blues” is a great car/road blues tune and might have been the blueprint for Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat.” It rumbles along. “Mean Old World” is an old T Bone Walker song that I think Clapton might have done in Derek And The Dominos. Van does it right on this album with a piano, bass, brushed drums and Paul Jones’ wonderful harmonica solo. It’s another highlight here. The last track, “Ride On Josephine” might just be the best track on here, other than “Bring It On Home To Me,” its another rolling blues tune. Beck’s guitar is again, exceptional as is Van’s vocal on “Josephine.”

This is a very strong return after last year’s exceptional ‘Keep Me Singing.’ It appears Van is on another late career roll, similar to when he released ‘Down The Road,’ ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture,’ and ‘Magic Time.’ This album gets a strong recommendation to purchase immediately. Pour some good Irish Jameson in a tumbler and ride the blues train, baby.

Cheers!

 

 

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Greta Van Fleet: Kids Channeling Zeppelin On ‘Black Smoke Rising’ EP

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“Good artists borrow, great artists steal…” – Picasso

I was lounging upstairs in the BourbonAndVinyl lounge a couple of weeks ago, doing “something next to nothing, but different than the time before” as Prince would say. As often happens, the Rock Chick came charging into the sanctity of the B&V lab and said, “I don’t know who this Greta Van Fleet chick is, but she sounds like Robert Plant…” Intrigued by anybody who could sound like The Golden God, Robert Plant, I immediately had the Rock Chick summon up this Greta Van Fleet chick on her Spotify app… these kids and their apps, what are you gonna do? Suddenly I heard some dude scream “Ooooooooooooh, Mama” over a crunchy guitar that sounded like it was lifted from the “Immigrant Song.” Stop the press…

This was no chick. This was a band… Don’t be fooled by the weird name…like Lynyrd Skynyrd, these four young lads chose a person’s name as the band name. It turns out this band is three Kiszka brothers, Josh (vocals), Jake (lead guitar), Sam (bass guitar) and a drummer, Danny Wagner. It appears they’ve released a 4-song EP, entitled ‘Black Smoke Rising.’ I quickly pulled up the album art and it looks like a poster from the Goonies movie… Hmmm, this is trending badly. But then I listened to the EP again, and damn if they didn’t sound great. They sound, well, like Zeppelin.

I pulled them up on YouTube and these kids look like baristas from your neighborhood cool coffee joint, run amuck with instruments. And while the name, album art and well, their appearance put me off a bit, when I closed my eyes and listen to these guys play, especially Jake on lead guitar, I have to admit, I like what I’m hearing. Of all the artists they could emulate, or nay, rip off, these guys went straight to the top. In this day and age when I thought playing real rock and roll was dead, these kids may have proved me wrong. If they’d stayed true to their generation they’d be doing hip hop or some mopey Morrisey thing. Thankfully, they’re playing rock and roll with loud, Zeppelin abandon. These guys are good.

It’s easy to listen to these tracks and play the “which Zeppelin song is this” game. The first track is a blast of blues rock named, “Highway Tune” that reminds me of, well, “The Immigrant Song.” This kid, Jake Kiszka on lead guitar has got some chops. I love the riff on the song. And if, like Picasso suggested, great artists steal, you might as well steal from the greatest. “Highway Tune” is the Rock Chick’s favorite track of the four. I might agree with her, but there’s a lot to like here.

“Safari Song” starts off with a Plant scream that makes me and the Rock Chick laugh every time it comes on. God bless this kid, he’s got the swaggering vocals down. He drops down an octave here and gives it the Plant bluesy growl… think “Bring It On Home.” He goes from the lower octave up to a scream without breaking a sweat. I also get a slight “Black Dog” feel from the tune but that just might be me. I do love the guitar solo in the middle…it’s a weird meandering thing, but I dug it.

I know I’m doing the name a Zeppelin song thing here, but it’s hard not to. “Flower Power” is a mash up between “Hey Hey What Can I Do” and “Thank You” complete with the little organ figure at the end of the song. It think even John Paul Jones would envy the Hammond B-3 at the end of this tune.

The title track wraps up the EP and it also contends for my favorite track. “Black Smoke Rising” has a thick riff that Josh just rides over with his vocal. It’s even got a spacey breakdown in the middle ala “Whole Lotta Love.” It is not hard to imagine Jake, the guitarist, wearing black pants with a big dragon on the side and pulling out a bow and dragging it across his guitar strings.

Again, I would have expected hip hop from kids this age. I would have expected electronic dance music. But these kids defied my expectations and are playing blues rock! And while their songwriting may be a tad, shall we say, derivative, I’m ok with that. They’re young and have plenty of time to develop the songwriting. I just hope they keep rocking out like this. They’ve found a great sound, now they just need to make it their own. I think anybody playing blues rock and rock n’roll should be celebrated!

As your intrepid blogger, I try to keep my eye on true rock and roll when I hear it… Keep your eye on this band and especially their lead guitarist. I so worry that the flame of rock and roll that has nourished my soul my whole life is dying down to it’s basic embers. When I hear a young band tear it up like this, I see a spark from that fire…and a glimmer of my hope returns.

Rock on kids! Cheers!

LP Review: Gregg Allman, ‘Southern Blood’: A “Brother’s” Beautiful Farewell

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“I’ve got so much left to give, but I’m running out of time, my friend” – Gregg Allman, “My Only True Friend”

I saw on-line the other day that it was the anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s tragic death in September of 1970. Maybe it’s me, but it seems like in the old days rock stars more often than not met early, tragic deaths. Sometimes it was too much booze or drugs. Sometimes it was something darker and more tragic like Kurt Cobain taking his own life. All these young artists, taken too soon… It’s that whole morbid “27-Club” thing. Gregg and the Allman Brothers weren’t immune to tragic loss, early on, as both guitarist extraordinaire Duane Allman and bassist Barry Oakley were taken in their prime, both victims of motor cycle crashes, Duane after the Allman’s third album, ‘Live At the Fillmore East,’ and Oakley after ‘Eat A Peach.’

These days I’m seeing a recurring phenomenon that rock stars are thankfully living to ripe, old ages while continuing to be vibrant creative artists. However, as we all know, the road comes to and end. There’s only so much sand in the hour glass. Since I started this blog, we’ve seen the loss of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and now Gregg Allman all marked by the release of an album they were working on at the end. The first time I remember hearing anything like these releases was Warren Zevon’s extraordinary album, ‘The Wind,’ recorded while he was battling lung cancer. Bowie’s final album, ‘Black Star’ was the boldly experimental exclamation point on a boldy experimental career. Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ was a continuation of many of the themes he’d been exploring throughout his career, only…well, darker. These guys saw the end coming and used it for their art. (Both these LPs have been reviewed here on B&V.) And now, we have Gregg Allman’s last LP, the soulful ‘Southern Blood,’ which is nothing short of a beautiful farewell.

Don’t think for an instant this is a downer album about death. Yes, there are recurring themes: the road, time running out, and yes, mortality. But this is a vibrant, strong album with different moods. There is a presence on this record that hovers over Gregg, that of his long-departed brother Duane. The album was recorded with the talented producer Don Was at the helm, at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL where Duane was a session guitarist and where Gregg & Duane’s band Hour Glass recorded their first album. The chills-up-the-spine inducing first single, “My Only Friend, (reviewed on B&V Gregg Allman: “My Only True Friend,” The First Song From The Upcoming ‘Southern Blood’) was written by Gregg with Scott Sharrad as a conversation between Gregg and Duane. Gregg chose the song “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” a Johnny Jenkins cover, because Duane once played with him (who didn’t Duane play with?). Equally important, Gregg turned to his old, old friend Jackson Browne’s catalog to cover “Song For Adam,” a track Jackson wrote about his friend Adam Saylor who had died young, like Duane did… Gregg gets so emotional you can hear him break down toward the end of the song. It seems that as he neared the end, Gregg looked backward toward the beginning, toward Duane.

The Allman Brothers Band were so huge, especially in the 70s, they sort of overshadowed Gregg’s solo career. When you release one of the greatest live albums ever, ‘Live At Fillmore East’ and get credited with “creating southern rock” like the Allman Brothers did, you’re kind of a big deal. The Allmans were always considered a jam band, but I always considered them more of a blues band with a jazz sensibility. The virtuoso guitar playing over Gregg’s bedrock hammond B-3 was more powerful than most jam bands. However, starting with 1973’s ‘Laid Back’ Gregg began an up-and-down but quite often strong solo career. I have always loved his soulful 1977 record, ‘Playing Up A Storm’ as well. ‘Southern Blood’ certainly reminds me of ‘Laid Back’ in terms of the sound of the record. Gregg’s solo albums, especially the early ones, had a little more of the R of R&B than the Allman Brothers albums did.

Gregg’s voice, in spite of the illness, is very strong and expressive on this record. He was simply one of the most distinct, bluesy singers ever. I will say, the one thing about this record that surprised me a bit was there are few tracks that have a bit of a country feeling. For the most part, any time the Allman Brothers sounded a bit country, like “Ramblin’ Man,” it was typically the result of something Dickey Betts had written. Maybe that slight country vibe was Gregg reaching out to his old, estranged band mate. I heard they reconciled before Gregg’s death…I hope that’s true.

Originally this album was going to be a record of all original compositions, since Gregg’s previous album, the T Bone Burnett produced ‘Low Country Blues’ was mostly all blues covers. ‘Low Country’ is an exceptional record and a real return to form… Gregg’s plans to write new material for ‘Southern Blood’ were dashed by his health issues, but he and his manager and guitarist/musical director Scott Sharrard made some exceptional choices in cover material.

The album opens with one of Gregg’s best tracks ever, the haunting, previously reviewed “My Only Friend.” Written by Sharrard and Gregg, Sharrard conceived the song as a conversation between Duane Allman and Gregg. He said it was almost eerie how Gregg responded to the verses he supplied him… It’s the high point here. Hell, it’s a high point of Gregg’s career. All of the songs from this album, again mostly covers specifically chosen, tell the holistic story of Gregg’s life. The man didn’t just sing the blues, folks, he lived them – whiskey, women, drugs, lawyers, legal issues, and in the darkest chapter of his life, Cher… These songs tell that story. Well, not the Cher part.

From the cover songs, there’s so much to love here. Allman dusts off the old Dylan chestnut, “Going, Going, Gone” which Dylan did on ‘Planet Waves’ with the Band. Gregg’s version here may just be definitive. Apparently when his manager suggested it, Gregg said, “wow, that’s kind of dark, man.” Indeed it is. Of the more surprising selections, they do the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” one of the tracks I mention as having a real country flavor. I’m not a huge country music fan, although I always liked the Dead’s foray’s into country-rock on say, ‘Working Man’s Blues.’ Gregg’s vocal is impassioned on the track and it just works. The song, “Out of Left Field” is a beautiful thank you to a lover. I’m hoping Gregg had someone at the end… everybody needs someone at the end… for me, it’ll be the Rock Chick.

I love that they also chose to do some blues songs here. Muddy Waters’ “Love The Life I Live” is a great, joyful blues number. Hearing Gregg Allman sing Muddy Waters, well, he was just born to sing Muddy songs… Or Willie Dixon songs, either way you look at it. The Jenkins’ cover, “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” the nod to Duane, is another great blues tune here. “Blind Rats…” has a real New Orleans, swampy vibe to it. It’s a nice slow crawler of a record with some laid back horns. I also love the fact that he covers Lowell George of Little Feat’s “Willin'” on this record, another great road song… “And if you give me weed, whites, and wine, Show me a sign, I’ll be willin’ to be movin’.” Great stuff! And a really funny song. There are moments in “Willin'” where the band tails off and it’s just Gregg’s voice…outstanding! “Love Like Kerosene” is anther track written by Scott Sharrard and it’s a nice bluesy, scorcher. “Kerosene” may be the most upbeat song on this record. Great guitar/horns interplay with a nice boogie-woogie piano solo.

When Duane and Gregg’s band Hour Glass broke up and Duane went back to Muscle Shoals to do session work, the record company threatened to sue them. To avoid that, Gregg agreed to remain in Los Angeles, and to cut a solo record. It was a low point for Gregg as he was far from home and his brother was back east. A young songwriter, a kid named, uh, Jackson Browne, who’d written tracks for the first Hour Glass album, was looking for a roommate. Believe it or not, Gregg Allman and Jackson Browne were roommates. While it may have been a low point for Gregg, it produced one of the longest lasting rock and roll friendships ever. On his first solo album, Gregg did Jackson’s oft-covered track, “These Days,” and I believe Gregg’s version is definitive.

For ‘Southern Blood,’ Gregg not only turned back to those early days by recording Jackson’s haunting “Song For Adam,” he has Jackson singing harmony vocal on the track. It’s, again, an inspired choice. Clearly as he breaks down while singing toward the end of the song, you know Gregg was thinking of Duane, who had died too soon. The fact that Jackson Browne showed up this way, with a beautiful harmony vocal for his old friend, is one of those special moments in life that must be celebrated. Good on ya, Jackson. ‘Southern Blood’ started with “My Only Friends,” which gave me chills… and it ended with “Song For Adam” with Jackson on harmonies… more chills. Those two voices, from those two old friends, intertwining… not a bad way to go out.

There are two bonus live tracks on the record… they’re nice to have but not essential. I’d say the two bonus tracks are more for the completist… FYI.

I can’t say enough good things about ‘Southern Blood.’ It’s essential listening for Allman Brothers fans, Gregg Allman fans, and well, fans of rock and roll music everywhere. This ranks amongst Allman’s best work (solo or with the Allman Bros Band) and it’s a damn shame we didn’t get a few more years and few more records from the man. Turn this one up loud…

There’s only so much time, only so much road left for any of us, folks… use it well.

 

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.

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.