Review: Pearl Jam Release ‘MTV Unplugged’ (Finally!)

*Image taken from the internet, may be subject to copyright

I like to pride myself on rarely being surprised when music gets released. I like to think I’m “in the know,” as they say. With my borderline OCD I usually know when music is coming out – new or from the vault, typically I’ve read somewhere that the new stuff is coming. Over the years I’ve gone from reading magazines to following bands on social media to searching the web to find out which bands are planning to put out albums. Too many times in my youth an album would come out, local radio would fail to play it and I didn’t realize it was out until much later. I used to hate it when that happened. Perhaps I have a problem…

While 2020 has been an awful year for everyone, at least in music it’s actually been a great year. Sure, I didn’t get that new Stones’ LP I’ve been waiting for, but acts from Ozzy to Dylan have put out new, quality albums. Bands, unable to play live, have been emptying their vaults… so many box sets, so little time/money. While I’ve been blissfully listening to Springsteen’s new album, Letter To You, and battling with Amazon to get my Tom Petty Wildflowers: All The Rest delivered (Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited), a deluge of music has come out. I just discovered an album I was anticipating coming out, Lou Reed’s deluxe edition of his brilliant 1989 album New York had already come out. What’s a poor blogger to do when the music is coming this fast and furious? My only answer is to sip some bourbon and enjoy it immensely. 

While I was out trying to get a handle on everything that’s come out, I realized that Pearl Jam has finally(!) released an LP version of their 1992 MTV Unplugged performance. I had no idea that was even in the works, and as I said, I’m rarely surprised. For you long time readers, you know two things, (a) I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan (Review: Pearl Jam’s First LP In 7 Years, ‘Gigaton’ – My Conflicted Thoughts), and (b) I love the old MTV “Unplugged” series (B&V’s Favorite MTV “Unplugged” LPs). While there were literally over 100 ‘MTV Unplugged’ shows recorded and broadcast, only around 30 were actually released as albums. 

The whole “unplugged” concept, I’d always understood, was inspired by (of all people) Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performing “Wanted (Dead Or Alive)” acoustic at an MTV awards show. It wasn’t until Paul McCartney appeared on the show in 1991 that anybody noticed it or attached any import to it. McCartney released an album from the performance – and I think he was the first to do so – but originally only in a limited 500,000 copy release. I actually had a copy of that CD in my hands in a record store in Warrensburg, Missouri and I didn’t buy it, I didn’t have the cash back then. What could have been… It was Clapton’s Unplugged that made the whole enterprise a commercial juggernaut. I think that album sold 10 million copies in the states. For me, ‘MTV Unplugged’ in many cases became “appointment television.” From Rod Stewart (who reunited with fellow Faces member Ronnie Wood) to Alice In Chains to Robert Plant reunited with Jimmy Page there were some great, great performances. Some artists stick pretty close to the original blue print of their songs but some like to deconstruct or take liberties with the music. I have a version of Lenny Kravitz doing “Are You Gonna Go My Way” from his Unplugged as an acoustic blues stomper that still blows me away. 

My introduction to Pearl Jam was somewhat circuitous. When the whole grunge thing started to take over, I remained wary and skeptical (which may be the words on my tombstone). I’d seen a similar thing happen in music when punk surged in the late 70s and I wasn’t sure if this was going to resurrect music or destroy all that came before it. It ended up being the latter… but I digress. I was a big fan of a lot of the music that had come out in the 80s including “hair bands” and so I was dismayed that bands like the Cult or Motley Crue were being pushed aside for this new music. Even venerable acts like Springsteen struggled with grunge and its effect. In the 70s when the punks challenged the established order, the older rock bands absorbed the energy and survived (How The Biggest Bands In the World Reacted Musically to Punk Rock in the 70s). With grunge, the established rock bands seemingly crumbled and indulged in massive self-doubt. I was always slow to accept change and remained somewhat aloof from Pearl Jam and the other new grunge bands. I will say, I had already adopted their clothing style… I’d been wearing flannel shirts and blue jeans since high school. So I had the grunge threads, anyway. 

In the early 90s, Kansas City got an “alternative rock” radio station. I think it was called 96.5 The Buzz. I had a cheap radio walkman that I would use when I went to the gym. I would bounce from the hard rock to the classic rock and finally when bored bounce down to the alternative station at 96.5. I was working out so I wasn’t terribly focused but I started to hear songs I really liked down there on the Buzz. I had no idea who the bands were I just liked the tunes. I’m usually hyper inquisitive when I hear music I like but I guess I had too much going on to figure out who these new bands were. I really liked Alice In Chain’s “Man In A Box.” That was the first grunge track I actually loved. Then I started hearing these other tracks, “Black,” “Alive,” and a track named “Jeremy.” I couldn’t help but think, not knowing these were all from the same band, “these grunge bands all sound alike.” I didn’t know who Pearl Jam was until I saw the “Jeremy” video on MTV. 

I started dating a woman in early 1992 who had an out-of-town boyfriend who I thought had she’d broken up with. We started hanging out… those records are now sealed until twenty-five years after I’m dead. She brought over Pearl Jam’s landmark debut CD, Ten and just left it over at my place. I can remember listening to that brilliant disc for the first time and a light bulb went off in my head. All of these brilliant songs I’d been hearing were on Ten. Grunge bands don’t sound alike, I’d been listening to the same band. When the affair ended, she left the Pearl Jam CD at my place… it was a sad day when she showed up and demanded I return it. I had hoped it was a parting gift, but oh, well. 

In March of 1992 Pearl Jam entered the MTV studios and recorded their version of ‘Unplugged.’ I don’t remember when they finally broadcast the show, but I was simply mesmerized. Other than the “Jeremy” video I hadn’t really seen these guys. I had heard they were amazing in concert and Vedder was often unhinged, more like a shaman than a front man, physically willing the crowd to elevate. Despite the fact that the suits at MTV edited the order of the songs, the show blew my mind. Vedder seemed like he was barely containing himself, like he was about to physically explode. At one point he stood on his stool and wrote “Pro Life” in black magic marker on his arm. I couldn’t help but think, this is the birth of a legend. He was that charismatic. I was also thinking, I hope that wasn’t a permanent Sharpie, that stuff never comes off. Even acoustic, these guys had an intensity that told me they were an important band. 

While some bands lose that intensity when they go “unplugged” or acoustic, not so for Pearl Jam. Stripped of the loud, squalling guitars their songs emerged seemingly stronger. The melodies really came out, much like when Nirvana did their Unplugged In New York City. Vedder’s vocals were deep and resonant. I have to give props to the drummer at the time, Dave Krusen, his insistent beat keeps pushing this music. Jeff Ament’s driving bass cements the great rhythm section. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitars, though muted, deliver on each track. McCready’s solo’s in particular are great here. The sheer energy emanating from this band is palpable over the speakers and simply infectious. I find myself up and moving around the room when I turn this album up. 

While the performance was, to me, legendary, they never released it as an album. Maybe because it was only seven songs (actually, eight) they kept it in the can but I still think this would have been a great EP. The first album was so popular so fast they probably didn’t want to look like they were cashing in. Grunge bands were all very earnest back then… no big cash, no rock star act, no groupies… they might have wanted to rethink that last part but hey, no judgement. When they did an anniversary release of their debut album Ten Redux, it included the DVD of the ‘Unplugged’ performance but they didn’t release an LP or CD version of the show. I remember telling the Rock Chick, “I wish they’d put out the ‘Unplugged’ show on vinyl.” Apparently a year ago, November 2019, they did put out a vinyl version of the MTV Unplugged for Record Store Day, in a limited release. Record Store Day is always a mirage for me with great releases I can never get my hands on. RSD is just like driving down a two-lane country road in summer…you see what looks like water on the road up ahead but it’s just an optical illusion. Anyway, as I just discovered last week by sheer accident, PJ put out the show on a broader basis just last Friday. In a fit of excited amazement I bought the MP3 version but now, finding this on vinyl is my new “white whale.” 

Listening to this concert all these years hence, it’s still an awesome performance. They open with the muted, “Oceans” which Vedder describes as “a love song for his surf board.” After, they launch into “State of Love And Trust” from the ‘Singles’ movie soundtrack and it rocks, even acoustic. “Alive” seems all the more moving in this setting. “Black,” always my favorite track, soars here. At the end of “Black,” Vedder sings “we belong together” repeatedly, you feel it man. They round it out with “Even Flow,” “Jeremy” and “Porch” all of which deliver in this acoustic setting. This was a band becoming superstars right before our very eyes and ears. They did record an acoustic version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In the Free World” at the performance but alas, its’ not on this release. It remains locked in the Pearl Jam vault. 

With 2020 being, for me, the worst year of my life, Pearl Jam releasing this album after 28 years is the perfect tonic I need. I urge everyone to check this delightful surprise of an album out. It is really something to behold, a full on aural acoustic assault all these years later… 

Stay Safe out there… Cheers! 

 

Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited

Editor’s Note: Never have I struggled so hard to acquire music. I ordered the 4 CD version of All The Rest only to later discover there was a 5 CD version. It was an extra $100 so I probably would have stuck with the 4 CD version but more on that later. This box set came out on October 16th but mine wasn’t scheduled to ship until 10/20. It was delivered to the wrong house and never recovered. The second, replacement set arrived scratched. Finally, on the third try I finally got my copy… only last Friday. Hence it took me a while to live with this music long enough to write about it. I know this all sounds like “First World Problems,” but it was frustrating, I’ve got nothing else to do. Thank you for your patience. 

I remember hearing an interview of Tom Petty some years back and he was discussing his and the Heartbreakers’ career. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said that the Heartbreakers had always been so consistently good nobody noticed when they were really great. I would argue with Tom, were I still able, that the Heartbreakers were more than consistently good, I think they were consistently great. There really aren’t any bad Tom Petty records. Some might argue that Southern Accents was a bit of a mess, but I like all the different directions producer Dave Stewart (the Eurythmics) took the band. I’d also suggest that when they were great, they were exceptional and everybody took notice. I would say over a great career that Petty recorded three stone cold masterpieces: Damn The Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever and finally, Wildflowers. Don’t get me wrong, there were other really great LPs, like Hard Promises, or Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, just to name a few. If you’re uncomfortable with the moniker “masterpiece” then perhaps you’d agree with me that those three albums mentioned above are perhaps his most beloved albums.

Wildflowers was Petty’s second “solo” album, his first being Full Moon Fever in 1989. While Petty has albums he described as solo albums, Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards) of the Heartbreakers were both involved in his solo efforts. Back in 84/85 Petty was recording what he wanted to be his “great southern album,” Southern Accents, and he punched a wall. Sadly, he hit a stud and broke his hand. Never punch an inanimate object, folks, there’s no upside. There was some question of whether he’d play guitar again. While he was convalescing, Mike Campbell wrote and recorded “Boys of Summer” with Don Henley. Henley’s album Building the Perfect Beast did a lot better than Southern Accents and I think Petty began to realize how valuable a collaborator Campbell was. The Heartbreakers then ended up backing up Bob Dylan on a tour – which I think came out of a chance meeting at a Farm Aid – and during that tour they managed to record the Stonesy, Exile On Main Street style LP, Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough. Petty always said that backing Dylan on that tour – which I saw at Sandstone Amphitheater…where Dylan dedicated a track to all the men serving sentences at Leavenworth prison up the road – taught him how to be a member of a band and not “the leader.”

During this whole Southern Accents… backing Dylan… Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough period Petty started to really come into conflict with Heartbreakers’ drummer Stan Lynch. Stan was always pushing the band and had rather narrow ideas of how they should sound. Weary of the struggle, Petty huddled up with producer Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell and recorded Full Moon Fever with a more relaxed, laid back approach. The atmosphere was looser without Lynch and Petty responded with a great album. Howie Epstein came in to sing harmony vocals on a song, he was also pissed about the solo album thing, and complained that he didn’t like the new material. The song he was going to sing on was “Free Fallin’.” Sorry Howie, not buying it. Lynch was the only Heartbreaker who didn’t play on Full Moon Fever and I don’t think he and Petty’s relationship ever recovered. Petty enlisted Jeff Lynne again to produce the follow-up, Into the Great Wide Open, which was a full Heartbreakers album but it wasn’t as successful and at that point the writing was probably on the wall.

As a follow-up to Great Wide Open Petty announced he was going to do another solo album, this time produced by uber producer Rick Rubin. He said he wanted to do a solo album to “escape the confines” or limitations of a 5-piece band. Of course, it ended up being basically a 5-piece band recording it… so you reach your own conclusion. In the middle of recording the album that would become Wildflowers Rubin produced two new tracks for Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits compilation, “Something In the Air,” and “Last Dance With Mary Jane.” Those two tracks were to be Lynch’s final songs with the band. Campbell and Tench both play extensively on Wildflowers but like Full Moon Fever, bassist Howie Epstein was relegated to harmony vocals. I know Ringo Starr and Beach Boy Carl Wilson both made cameos as well, but it was really Petty/Campbell/Tench. Since Lynch wasn’t involved they brought in drummer Steve Ferrone who ended up staying with Petty for the rest of his career. Obviously they picked the right guy.

While recording Wildflowers Petty’s first marriage was starting to come unraveled. I was going through something similar with a girlfriend in 1994/95 and maybe that’s why I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this album (Tom Petty: New Vault Song, “There Goes Angela” From The Upcoming ‘Wildflowers’ Box). That relationship was almost bookended by Wildflowers and the box set Playback. The original LP is probably my favorite Petty LP – although admittedly it’s hard to pick a favorite. It’s a timeless classic. It’s genuine, sincere music recorded with real instruments – acoustic guitars, electric guitars and real drums – not synths and drum machines and that instrumentation brings heft to this music. The lyrics have always grabbed me. They’re like onions, there’s just depth upon depth in these songs. My all time favorite lyric, and one that I apply to my life daily is from “Crawling Back To You.” It’s brilliant – “Most things I worry about, never happen anyway.” I love the mellow acoustic stuff like the title track, “To Find A Friend,” and “Don’t Fade On Me.” But this isn’t a wholly mellow album. The rockers are epic. “Cabin Down Below” and “Honey Bee,” a monster blues stomper are amongst my favorite. “You Wreck Me” is both mine and the Rock Chick’s favorite. This is simply the quintessential Petty album.

As far back as I can remember, perhaps even when it came out, I heard Petty say his original intention for Wildflowers was for it to be a double-album. Don’t get me wrong – I love all this unearthed vault material for what would have filled out that second disc – but this may be a perfect case for the old adage that every double-LP has a classic single disc hiding within. I think it would have been a great double-LP but its a perfect single disc. Before he died I heard Petty say he was working on packaging up the material for that Wildflowers double album but alas, he passed tragically early (RIP Tom Petty, 1950 – 2017, A Devastating Loss: The Composer of the Soundtrack to My Life Is Gone). Unfortunately his estate wasn’t buttoned up as tight as it should have been and his daughter Adria sued his second wife Dana. It took seemingly forever but at last the legal tussles that prevented this fabulous music from being heard has been settled.

All The Rest is a loving look back at this landmark album. Disc 1 is the original album. Disc 2 is the All The Rest piece meant to be that second, unreleased disc. There is a lot to love across these 10 tracks. I will say, a handful of these tracks were released (in different versions) on the follow up LP, Songs And Music From the Motion Picture She’s The One. “Hung Up And Overdue,” “California,” and “Climb That Hill” will all be somewhat familiar to you completist like me out there. The first track, “Something Could Happen” is a lovely, wistful ballad that would have been perfect on the original album. It’s that good. I love the original version of “Leave Virginia Alone,” one of the few tracks that Petty gave to another artist to record before he did, in this case Rod Stewart. Petty’s version is superior because of the wonderful Mike Campbell guitar work, especially at the end of the track. “Henry Green” is a beautiful character story and a wonderful tune. It sounds like something Dylan would have written. Henry apparently “kept a redneck from kicking my ass.” “Confusion Wheel” is dark, driving, acoustic number. “Somewhere Under Heaven” is a mid tempo, lilting love story. It’s all great stuff.

I have but one beef with the All The Rest box. I didn’t realize there was a Super Deluxe version of this box that was also available. It has a fifth disc entitled Finding Wildflowers. It looks like a bunch of demos. However, they kept the studio versions of “Girl On LSD” a beloved, long sought after B-side and “Drivin’ Down to Georgia,” a barrel-house rocker, previously only released in live versions to the damn fifth disc. Pulling those two tracks and a third, “You Saw Me Coming,” that I’ve never heard, off the All The Rest second disc  and putting on the fifth disc of the Super Deluxe version that’s $150 vs $50 seems like a money grab by Adria Petty. I don’t think you can tell the entire story of the double-album without those tracks. Sure, “Girl On LSD” is a novelty song akin to Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue” or “One Piece At A Time” but I defy you to find anybody who doesn’t love that track. Maybe Petty’s instructions were to leave “LSD” off the second disc…however, I’m mystified if he wanted “Drivin’ Down To Georgia” left off. A small knit, but it still bugged me. Like I said, I’m nothing if not a completist.

The third disc in the box is labeled Home Recordings. You can read that as “demos” but quite a few of these are fully realized. “There Goes Angela (Dream Away)” is still my favorite. I can’t believe he didn’t finish that one. “A Feeling Of Peace” is another highlight here. All of these songs on Home Recordings are the proverbial “glance inside the creative process” of Tom Petty. He’s such an important artist, all of this stuff will fascinate. I like how this box takes you from the demo/home recording phase, to the studio and then on to live versions, fully realized. 

And speaking of live versions, the last (fourth) disc is all live versions of the tracks on Wildflowers. I was surprised that only a handful of the tracks overlap (albeit different live versions) with the 5-disc Live Anthology that Petty & the Heartbreakers put out a few years ago. For most people these are live versions that you haven’t heard before and any live Petty is good Petty. They do put a live version of “Girl On LSD” on here and even Petty laughs while performing it. It’s a nice moment. These live songs may all come from different concerts and sources but because they’re Wildflowers tracks the live disc holds together very well. I can listen to any live version of “It’s Good To Be King” out there. It’s like a jazz song, they do it different each time.

Overall this is a wonderful, loving look back to one of Tom Petty’s most popular, beloved and successful works. Its an important album for all fans of rock and roll. Beautifully produced by Rick Rubin and beautifully performed by Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Ben Tench and company. This is definitely something any fan of Petty or of Wildflowers will have to check out.

Cheers!

Movie Review: ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia On Broadway’

In junior high when I started listening to rock and roll music, the Talking Heads were not in high rotation. At least they weren’t in Kansas City. This is the heartland where Foghat, Styx and Journey ruled the day. I’m sure the radio moguls in town considered the Talking Heads music to be… well, “subversive.” That said, I’ve often stated that music evokes very powerful memories in me and vice versa. I woke up every morning to my clock radio which was tuned to the local station KY/102. I would leave it on while I drug myself zombie-like out of bed and into the shower. Music would be playing in the background while I got dressed and feathered my hair (oh yes, it was glorious). Because of the evocative effect of music on my memory, I can still remember the first time I heard the Heads’ version of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River.” I was sitting on the edge of my bed, pulling my socks on… if I close my eyes I can see the old garish green shag carpeting and striped wall paper (my room was decorated in a manner that makes me suspect my mother was mad at me). Those drums, that voice. It was like nothing I’d ever heard. It made me realize that maybe the world was a little bigger than we’d all realized… there was something that cool out there, somewhere. There was such a lack of Talking Heads on the radio, I was convinced “Take Me To the River” was from their debut album until I was in college. Their debut, Talking Heads: 77 got no love from Kansas City radio. “Take Me To The River” was from their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, which still sort of surprises me. 

It’s still astounding to me that music as important as the Talking Heads first two albums were all but ignored in my home town. Perhaps that’s why lead singer/guitarist/songwriter David Byrne wrote a song like “Heaven” where he sang, “The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song, they play it once again, they play it all night long.” That sounds an awful lot like the place I grew up. It wasn’t until college that the Talking Heads pierced my consciousness again. MTV had taken over the world and when Speaking In Tongues came out the Heads were all over it with the video for “Burning Down the House.” In one scene Byrne stands in front of a video tape of a crowd. I dug the song but I remember a roommate of mine saying, “They had to use a videotape because the Talking Heads can’t draw a crowd.” There’s one in every group of friends… I will say the Talking Heads were made for MTV. Their videos are iconic. 

All that said, I didn’t buy my first Talking Heads LP until the live album, Stop Making Sense came out. A friend of mine who I’ll call Rambert had that album and played it once when I was at his place. That album and the movie it came from were in my mind as iconic as their music videos. The film version, directed by the late, brilliant Jonathan Demme, was truly ground breaking. The show starts with just David Byrne, dressed in his big suit, singing over a boom box and slowly builds as they add instruments for each song… they roll out the drummer, next track here comes the bass player. By the end, there’s nine people on stage. I just watched it again in the early stages of lock down… the Rock Chick had never seen it. 

When Little Creatures came out, I was ripe for a Talking Heads takeover. I heard “Road To Nowhere” and it immediately resonated for me. After hearing “And She Was” that was it, I was hooked. It took me a long time but I finally purchased every single Talking Heads LP. They rank amongst my all-time favorite bands. The band broke up rather acrimoniously a long time ago and I don’t think that rupture will ever be repaired. David Byrne is more of an “artiste” really. I can’t imagine he wants to go backwards. This is the guy who at the height of their popularity pulled Brian Eno in to produce the Talking Heads. When you’re at that stage of your career where you collaborate with Eno (Bowie, U2, Roxy Music)  you’ve reached the next level in artistry. 

Byrne’s solo career has been much less visible than his work with the Talking Heads. Much like Robert Plant (who also won’t reunite with his band) Byrne follows his muse where it takes him. His first solo LP, a collaboration with Eno, was My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. Likely not an album a lot of you have heard. His first “proper” solo album was the Latin-flavored Rei Momo that I just love. Check out the track “Dirty Old Town.” I will say that I am familiar with a number of the albums Byrne released as a solo artist but I’m like most people, I haven’t followed them as religiously as I should have. A few years ago, he put out a great LP, that we loved here at B&V, LP Review: David Byrne, ‘American Utopia,’ A Surprise Gem. It had come as a surprise to me because I wasn’t paying attention. 

Afterwards, much like Springsteen, he took his show to Broadway. When did musical theater get to be so cool? I’ve never been a fan of musical theater. Early in my marriage the Rock Chick took me to see ‘Phantom of the Opera’ where I promptly fell asleep which is still a point of contention in my marriage. I won an award at the corporation where I work and they flew me to New York. My flight was delayed and by the time I got to the hospitality suite they only had tickets to ‘The Drowsy Chaperone,’ all the ‘Spamalot’ tickets had been snapped up. It was enjoyable but its hard for me to get my head around a scene where there’s action happening and suddenly everyone breaks into song… “the Jets are gonna winnnnnn.” Recently over Christmas, I saw ‘The Book of Mormon’ and I may be turning around on the whole musical theater thing but I digress. 

Springsteen and now Byrne are putting some rock and roll into the “Great White Way.” After a wildly successful run on Broadway, Byrne invited director Spike Lee into film the performance. Spike does a really great job with this. It’s clear that ‘American Utopia’ is the spiritual descendent of the Talking Heads’ ‘Stop Making Sense.’ The stage is bare, very spartan. Byrne, and the rest of his backing band, are all in identical grey suits. At least the suit fits him this time. Lee does a great job of capturing close-up shots juxtaposed with wider shots to capture the movement and energy on the stage. There is no drum kit, there is no keyboard set up. The instruments are all carried by Byrne’s on-stage band so everyone is mobile, all the time. There are a few overhead shots, straight down on the stage that I felt were very effective. Despite the monochromatic stage and outfits, I found this movie very enticing to the eye. There was something very striking visually to the look and all the choreography and Spike Lee captured it perfectly. It was also certainly fun to see Broadway fans on their feet, rocking out in a venerable old theater. 

The songs Byrne selected to play are a mix of Talking Heads songs and solo tracks. It’s not the entire American Utopia album although there are a generous number of tracks from that record. Byrne pulls tracks from all over his catalog and yet, they cohere into a story. There’s a socially conscious message Byrne is conveying through this selection of songs and it comes across without being preachy. I was actually truly blown away by this show. He has brief spoken word intervals between a number of the songs where he covers a range of subjects: Dadaism, fascism, racism, television and the human brain, just to name a few. If I was going to suggest an overarching theme, it’s simply, connection. We are all connected. We all need to come together to make this world a better place. When Byrne, “a white man of a certain age” and his band perform a Janelle Monae cover, “Hell You Talmabout” it hits with the force of a blow. 

Other highlights for me were “Lazy,” because, well, I am. “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” has always been a favorite of both mine and the Rock Chick. The speech leading up to “I Should Watch TV” is just fabulous as is the performance. The Talking Heads’ chestnut “Blind” was also a personal favorite. Byrne is charismatic and at turns serious and funny. He can be self-effacing which I would not have expected. There is so much to love in this film and on this sound track. I haven’t bought the album of the cast-performance yet but I’m planning on it. This is a great performance but what makes its exceptional in to me, was it was also a very thought-provoking performance. 

When the show is over, Byrne, after exchanging a few awkward hugs with his bandmates, gets on his bicycle and rides off into the New York city night time, headed for home like the true citizen of the world he is… I urge everyone to check this movie out. If you can’t see it, give the live-LP from the soundtrack a spin. It’s time well spent. 

Be careful out there… be safe. Stay connected. Open your minds and you’ll find that “every day is a miracle.” 

 

 

New Single: Greta Van Fleet Return With “My Way, Soon”

I’d like to think there are at least some positives that have come out of being quarantined and semi-locked down the last nine months. I guess I am working out more… I think I’ve been reading more. I’m almost done with super-producer Ted Templeman’s autobiography. I’ve actually started reading magazines again, ‘Uncut’ and ‘Classic Rock Magazine’ were new discoveries for me… I need to get out more, if only we could. And while rock bands are all on hiatus from performing live in front of crowds, we’re starting to see the fruits of being off the road blooming as many acts are releasing music. Older bands with nothing new to share are going into the vaults and releasing archival material – U2, Lou Reed, Elton John and Neil Young all have box sets coming. Many acts have actual new albums coming out – Springsteen, the Smashing Pumpkins and (thank heaven) AC/DC all have new stuff on the way. October and November are going to be great rock n roll months – and when was the last time we said that? Today I’ve been staring out the window like the guy in the song “Please Mr. Postman.” I’m not waiting for a letter from a lover but for my Tom Petty Wildflowers & All The Rest box set. I was thrilled and surprised last week to discover that Zeppelinesque, Michigan rockers Greta Van Fleet have a new single out, “My Way, Soon,” heralding a new album that will be “coming soon.” 

The fun part of writing about music is, naturally, listening to music as “research.” Well, at least that’s what I’m calling it when the Rock Chick asks why I haven’t mowed the lawn…”I’m doing very important research, my dear.” I know it looks like I”m just laying on the couch with headphones on because, well, that’s actually what I’m doing. As I prepped to write about this new GVF single, I went back and listened to their EPs – Black Smoke Rising  (Greta Van Fleet: Kids Channeling Zeppelin On ‘Black Smoke Rising’ EP) and From The Fires (Review: Greta Van Fleet, ‘From The Fires’ LP, er, Double EP). I loved those EPs… I still remember the moment the Rock Chick famously burst into my office and said, “I don’t know who this Greta Van Fleet chick is, but she sounds like Zeppelin.” 

I put on their first “proper” album, Anthem Of A Peaceful Army and was somewhat surprised how much I dug it. I went back and looked at my review and it was sort of lukewarm, Review: Greta Van Fleet, ‘Anthem of the Peaceful Army’. As I listened to the LP over the last few days, I remembered my responses to it but I quickly remembered that the album did grow on me. Admittedly, it had been a while since I’d listened to the whole thing but damn if it’s not a great album. I love the ecological theme of the whole thing. It’s very groovy hippy stuff which is surprisingly up my alley. I pondered the disconnect between what I was hearing and what I’d written. First, I’ll admit, I think Anthem was what we call a “grower,” it didn’t wow on first listen but opened itself up after repeated listening. But I think the main problem was I fell victim to the evilest influence of all – expectations. 

I think all of us bring certain expectations into most the situations we face. We expect certain events to go certain ways. Whether it’s a first date or a work of art – a movie or a play – we think we know how it’s going to go. Or we try to predict how it’s going to go. Nowhere do I see the insidious expectations interfere more than with music. My dear friend, Arkansas Joel was the biggest U2 fan when I met him. This was during the Joshua Tree era so it wasn’t hard to be on that bandwagon. Since then, every time they’d be ready to put out a new album his expectations were so heavy that whatever they did, he’d be disappointed. He didn’t like How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.  He wanted that thrill of hearing “Where the Streets Have No Name” for the first time… I get it we all want that. The Rock Chick suffers from this same malady. If the music doesn’t hit her lower brain stem on that first listen, she deems the record a failure. I’ve played U2’s last LP for her and she kept saying, “Hey, that’s a good song, I don’t remember that?” As was said in ‘The Big Chill,’ “sometimes you just have to let art… flow over you.” 

When I went to play “My  Way, Soon” I tried to release myself from any expectations. GVF have been flogged for being “derivative” of Led Zeppelin and I suspected they’d be evolving their sound some this time around. I hadn’t heard anything from them since I saw them live (Concert Review: Greta Van Fleet, Kansas City’s Starlight Theater, Sept 21, 2019). They did release a great single on a soundtrack, “Always There” that I really dug (Friday New Music DJ’ing & Greta Van Fleet’s New Single, “Always There”), but I’m not sure it got much attention. It’s definitely worth checking out. 

“My Way, Soon” is a great rock and roll track. It’s got everything you’d expect from these guys, crunchy guitars from Jake Kiszka anchored by the solid rhythm section of Danny Wagner (drums) and Sam Kiszka (bass). I especially like Sam’s bass line. I would describe it almost as a shuffle. It’s got a “Misty Mountain Hop” vibe – I know, I know, I’m too quick to go to the Zeppelin comparison. I’m a huge fan of vocalist Josh Kiszka. He was amazing live as was the whole band. What’s not to love here – great, crunchy riff, rollicking rhythm section and wailing vocals. It’s got a great guitar solo as well. I love the whole “I’ve packed my bags, I’ve got my freedom,” out on the road ethos of the track. We need to be encouraging and supporting kick ass rock and roll like GVF or Dirty Honey or Starcrawler. I can’t wait for this album. 

I think this bodes very well for the new album. I can’t wait to crank this track up later this afternoon when work is done and I’m watching for the postman…”stop, wait a minute…”

 

 

 

AC/DC Returns With “Shot In The Dark” From The Upcoming LP ‘Power Up’

They say that timing is everything…

On November 22, 1963 the American President John F. Kennedy was famously assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The youthful President seemed to embody a bright and energetic future for the American nation and people were hopeful in a scary world. The entire nation mourned his death like a family member had passed. We were once a united nation… Even my Sainted Mother can tell you where she was the day John Kennedy died. So could Lou Reed, apparently…the only thing Lou and Mom have in common. Nobody in America knew at the time but there were four lads in Liverpool who were about to change the world. By February 1964 when the Beatles arrived in America they had exploded onto the American consciousness like nothing else before or since. A grieving nation looking for something happy and hopeful grabbed onto the Beatles like a man about to fall off a ledge reaching for a railing. I’m not saying JFK’s assassination made the Beatles as popular as they were, but  you gotta wonder if it helped?

I was sitting on my back patio this Tuesday when the surprising news that rock and roll guitar legend Eddie Van Halen had passed away reached me (Guitar Legend Eddie Van Halen Gone Too Soon at 65, RIP Eddie, #EVH ). I guess I should have seen that coming, he’d been battling cancer for five years. I just hadn’t heard that news about his cancer returning. I foolishly thought he’d beaten it. Prior to that news, I knew that AC/DC had a new single coming out and I was excitedly waiting for that to happen. They released it at noon on Wednesday. The new track, “Shot In the Dark” (it’s original, not to be confused with an old Ozzy tune of the same name) is from the upcoming AC/DC album Power Up. It’s no surprise, but I love this new AC/DC song. I’m guessing I would have loved it anyway, but like the Beatles coming after JFK, I do wonder if the Eddie news affected me? I can say, that after Tuesday, I was in the mood for some good-time, up beat, old school, fucking rock and roll!! Who else but AC/DC to deliver the goods!?!

I’m on record as a huge AC/DC fan. They were the first band I took my wife to see in concert when we’d just started dating (AC/DC’s Stiff Upper Lip Concert – I Discover I’m Dating The Rock Chick). I will admit that while the Rock Chick and I share a love of AC/DC she’s firmly in the (leader singer) Brian Johnson camp while I straddle both worlds. I love Brian but I will always be on the original singer Bon Scott’s bandwagon. As an aside, the Rock Chick does a fabulous impersonation of Bon Scott on stage, but I’m getting off track here. It was indeed the Rock Chick who reconnected me with AC/DC after I’d lost track of them during the period after For Those About To Rock. The mid to late 80s were not the prime of AC/DC in my opinion. But starting with the great “comeback” album Razor’s Edge AC/DC returned to form. Frankly, everything they’ve done since has been fabulous.

I do owe this band an apology. After 2008’s Black Ice, AC/DC ran into some issues. Sadly, rhythm guitarist and founding brother Malcolm Young succumbed to dementia and eventually passed away (RIP Malcolm Young, Rhythm Guitarist Extraordinaire of AC/DC). Shortly after that, founding drummer Phil Rudd – who had left AC/DC after 1983’s Flick Of the Switch and returned on 1995’s Ballbreaker – ran afoul of the Australian legal system. He participated in the recording of Rock Or Bust but wasn’t able to tour. Rock Or Bust was the first AC/DC album recorded without Malcolm… Angus Young (lead guitarist) was able to replace Malcolm for that album and tour with their nephew Stevie Young on rhythm so he kept it “in the family.” During that tour it, Brian Johnson was diagnosed with a severe hearing disorder and was told if he played one more show, he’d be deaf for the rest of his life. Believe it or not, old friend of the band Axl Rose took over the lead vocals for AC/DC so they could finish the tour. It was at that point – Malcolm had passed, Brian was going deaf, Phil Rudd was likely going to prison – that in a post on bands who should call it “quits,” I named AC/DC as one of those bands (BourbonAndVinyl List of Bands Who Sadly, Should Call It Quits). In my defense, even bassist Cliff Williams had indicated he was going to quit since his road partying buddy Brian was gone. I was clearly not alone in thinking AC/DC were over.

Late last year, which seems like another lifetime pre-COVID, I started to hear rumors that Angus Young and nephew Stevie Young were up in Vancouver recording… Further, I heard that bassist Cliff Williams, despite threats to quit, was also with them. Soon I heard stories in the press that not only Brian Johnson had been spotted in Vancouver but Phil Rudd was with him too. “We’re getting the band back together,” flashed through my mind. I had wondered if Axl might pop in to sing until I heard that Brian had undergone an “experimental procedure” to cure the hearing problem. You know it’s never going well in any medical situation when they start talking about experimental medicine, but I guess in this instance, it worked. On the “Rock And Roll Albums to Purchase Soon” list I carry around in the back of my brain – I don’t dare write it down in fear that the Rock Chick will realize how much I’m spending on music – I added AC/DC to the top of the list. Then I guess I just filed it away…

About a week ago on “the social media” I started seeing these cryptic posts from AC/DC. It was just a neon lightning bolt (stylized to look like the bolt they use between the AC and the DC on their logo). The light was off and the it popped and hissed into life, fully lit up in red. I knew, as most people did, the time had come. The new AC/DC was almost here. AC/DC actually put up a billboard outside the school that Angus Young attended (sort of) as a child with the words “Power Up” on it so we almost immediately knew what the album’s title would be. Now we just had to wait for the tunes…

First singles from this band tend to be some of the greatest songs in rock and roll history. Even if you just look at them since the comeback, their lead singles have been great, great songs:

  • Razors Edge, “Thunderstruck” – An iconic Angus Young riff and a great track.
  • Ballbreaker, “Hard As A Rock” – After sort of ignoring AC/DC for 10 years, I loved this track so much I actually went to see them on this tour. I’ll never forget Brian carrying Angus around on his back while the latter solo’d.
  • Stiff Upper Lip, “Stiff Upper Lip” – This album is where I fully got back on the AC/DC train. Great track that always takes me back to a great concert. I’ve gotta thank the Rock Chick for buying this album on one of our first dates… she played it and I thought, “Hey, wait a minute, this is awesome.”
  • Black Ice, “Rock N Roll Train” – One of the greatest AC/DC late-career anthems. If this song doesn’t bring you to your feet with devil horns extended on both hands, well then you’re not a rock and roll fan. And you might wanna check yourself for a pulse.
  • Rock Or Bust, “Play Ball” – I love this track despite the fact they let Major League Baseball use it on commercials. It’s just solid rock and roll.

I couldn’t wait to hear “Shot In the Dark.” There is nothing greater than dropping the needle, or in this case pushing “play” on the Spotify app and hearing that great riff-age come blasting out of the speakers. Angus teases out a signature little guitar when suddenly the band kicks in with full force. Even the Rock Chick looked up at me and said, “Oh man, that’s really good.” Phil Rudd is the only drummer that should ever play in this band… he’s right in the pocket and his drums, as always help drive “Shot In the Dark.” He’s not the fanciest drummer, but there’s so much rock n’ roll swagger in his drumming. And let me just say, it’s great to hear Brian Johnson back on the microphone. It’s a big chunky riff and Angus’ guitar solo is quick and incisive. “A shot in the dark, beats a walk in the park,” indeed.

AC/DC long ago found out that they do one thing but they do it to perfection. Hard ass rock and roll. I think this will probably be their swan song but I am very optimistic that in this dark world, AC/DC’s Power Up will be that rock and roll rescue we all need.

Turn this one up loud!! Cheers!

Guitar Legend Eddie Van Halen Gone Too Soon at 65, RIP Eddie, #EVH

*Photo taken by your heartbroken blogger of the inside album sleeve from ‘Fair Warning’

I am simply gutted by the news that I heard today. Eddie Van Halen, guitar legend and band leader has died after a long battle with throat cancer at the tender age of 65. I was just sitting down to read a chapter in Ted Templeman’s autobiography about Van Halen recording Diver Down when I saw on Twitter we’d lost Eddie. Eyes full of tears I couldn’t possibly read that story at this moment so I put the book down. I love Van Halen and I always have. Van Halen was the ultimate party, good-time band and Eddie Van Halen was like a God to many of us… a Guitar God. For those of us who came of age in the late ’70s/early 80s, Eddie Van Halen is our Jimi Hendrix. My heart goes out to his whole family and all of his fans out there. I was literally thinking this weekend, I wish Eddie would put out some music.

My love of Van Halen – the band and the guitar player – dates as far back as my love of rock and roll. His playing is a part of the rock n roll DNA for me. I think their debut, Van Halen, was like the second or third album I ever purchased (Album Lookback: Van Halen – The Smirking Menace of Their Debut at 40). It was the first time I bought a band’s debut album when it was actually debuting. I’ve been on the bandwagon ever since. Everybody loved David Lee Roth’s class clown act but the real reason we liked that album was the guitar. We’d never heard sounds like that before. I think every guy in my junior high school owned that first Van Halen record… and anybody who didn’t, well you didn’t want to know them anyhow. I listened to that album continuously. I was drawn in by “You Really Got Me” but let’s be honest, it was “Runnin’ With the Devil” that caused me to finally buy the album. The song that made the Eddie Van Halen legend was track 2, simply and appropriately titled “Eruption.” It is perhaps the greatest guitar solo ever recorded. The sound was otherworldly. Nobody played that fast. We had all heard the rumors that when Eddie played he didn’t face the crowd, he was hiding his technique (which turned out to be true, he didn’t want anybody to see his revolutionary method of “finger-tapping” up the neck of the guitar which literally changed how the instrument was played). The power and menace of his playing is palpable. Van Halen is the perfect guitar record.

I have so many memories… I didn’t buy their second album (until later) but I had Woman And Children First on cassette. I’d blast that album in the car. I never realized Eddie was playing keyboards on “And the Cradle Will Rock…” until years later. I’m not sure any of us knew that Eddie played keyboards until “Jump” came out. Van Halen was the perfect blend of Eddie’s guitar (and keyboard) sound and Roth’s sense of humor… “His folks aren’t overjoyed” has always been a favorite lyric. Oddly enough, when my girlfriend and I would go to the drive-in with beer and pizza, I’d always take a boom box and Woman And Children First was the cassette I always played. Fond memories of that…”In a Simple Rhyme” is an under appreciated gem. Years later, the Rock Chick and I would love cranking up “Everybody Wants Some” and just reveling in the “awesomeness.”

Fair Warning was for me, simply a masterpiece. Eddie’s guitar playing was perhaps at it’s most muscular and menacing. The tour in support of that album was the first time I saw Van Halen in concert. I think after that the only tour I missed was the one for OU812 because I was in exile in Arkansas. I can still close my eyes and see the band playing “Mean Street.” We had great seats off to the side of the stage. Roth was standing an elevated platform on the opposite side of the stage. He went into the rap at the end… “Now a gun is real easy, in this desperate part of town…” and when he gets to the end and says “Lord, Strike that poor boy DOWN,” Roth fell to the floor like he’d been hit. Suddenly a spotlight flashes on and Eddie Van Halen is standing on the platform on my side of the stage. His playing was incendiary. That guitar solo is etched in my mind like it was last night. What he did to that guitar that night may be illegal.

Diver Down is an album I have always associated with summer. It came out the year I went to college and it was the soundtrack to my post-high school summer. It was rightly on my ultimate summer LPs list (Memorial Day Kicks Off Summer: Go-To Summer LPs (Beach Boys Need Not Apply)). 1984 is the album they’re probably most remembered for and it was an absolute classic. “Jump” their foray into keyboards was a wildly popular track but I always preferred the other keyboard track “I’ll Wait.” Only Eddie Van Halen could conquer both guitar and keyboards. That was the first tour that I saw Van Halen twice, once in Wichita and once in Kansas City. While they’d reached new levels of popularity, alas tensions with in the band – that began when Roth objected to Eddie marrying actress Valerie Bertintelli – erupted into open conflict and Roth and VH split.

Van Halen continued on with Sammy Hagar on lead vocals – commonly referred to as Van Hagar. I still dug them, In Defense of Van Hagar, No Really… Complete With a B&V Van Hagar Playlist. I think they were fundamentally a different band, obviously, but still a great guitar sound. Eventually relations with Hagar soured as well and eventually Van Halen went silent. Now it appears the mighty guitar of Eddie Van Halen has been silenced forever. I saw them in 2012 on the reunion tour with Roth… Roth had mostly lost it but Eddie’s guitar was still razor sharp and worth the price of admission.

There will be debates about where he ranks in the pantheon of guitar greats. He’s top 2 or 3 to me. I never saw Hendrix but I did see Van Halen so I’m biased. Eddie absolutely changed the way lead guitar was played. Every rock and roll guitarist who came after him was influenced by Eddie Van Halen. There would have been no Randy Rhoads without him. Every guitar player in the 80s should be sending royalty checks to Eddie. Make no mistake the world has lost one of the greatest guitarists to ever play the instrument. Van Halen and Eddie’s guitar were and will always be a big part of my love of rock and roll. He brought great joy, excitement and beautiful noise into my life. So many beautiful notes… from “Spanish Fly” to “Cathedral” to the intro for “Little Guitars.” I am deeply saddened tonight, as I’m sure most rock fans are. The Rock n’ Roll flag will be at half mast here at B&V for quite a while… A part of my youth has died… As my friend Doug texted me, “Bummer… this feels really close.” I think we all feel that way.

It’s a dark ride folks, enjoy it while it lasts. RIP Eddie Van Halen, the greatest.

Review: Prince, ‘Sign O’ The Times – Deluxe Edition’ – An Embarrassment of Riches

At the faceless corporation where I work, I used to know this guy who, like me, was a big music fan. That’s pretty rare where I work. Potentially there are more people there that are into music but nobody really discusses it much. The guy I’m thinking about used to actually ask interviewees what music they listened to when he was hiring. I really believe how they answered that question impacted whether he hired the person or not. We were talking about music one day and I said, “What do you think about Prince?” He answered, “I really only like his “Hendrix-y” stuff.” I don’t know why every black man who plays guitar eventually gets compared to Hendrix – well, I know why but its too sad to articulate – I think Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page have more in common with Hendrix than anybody from Vernon Reid to Gary Clark, Jr, but I digress. This was probably in the late ’90s/early 00’s so I’m not sure why Prince even came up… by that time I had largely lost track of him. But I think my work colleague’s response is the way a lot of fans of Prince’s ’80s music would respond. We all dug his stuff that was more rock oriented than his later focus on dance music or soul. 

I’m on record as a huge Prince fan. I was deeply saddened at his loss (Another Giant Gone, RIP Prince). I’ve recounted several times how I discovered Prince during what I call “the dark semester” when I was at KU my freshman year when some guys turned me onto 1999 (Box Set Review: Prince, ‘1999 (Super Deluxe)’ – A Tour De Force, Must Have ). For once I was ahead of the maddening crowd. It wasn’t really until the video for “Little Red Corvette” came out that everybody started getting on Prince’s band wagon. To follow up 1999 Prince, realizing the value of “video,” put out the full length movie and LP to support it, his masterpiece, Purple Rain (Review: Prince’s ‘Purple Rain – Deluxe Collector’s Edition’ – Is It Worth It?). I don’t even think Prince was prepared for how big that record became. It spawned two number one singles and booted Springsteen’s Born In the USA out of the number one spot on the album charts. Suddenly everybody dug Prince. “Oh, I’ve been listening to Prince for yeeeears,” I’d tell people. 

That kind of fame affects an artist or a band. Many artists will retreat from the sound that made them that famous and successful as a natural reaction probably out of fear of needing to outdo that success (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame). Prince and his great backing band, The Revolution (Wendy Melvoin on guitar, Lisa Coleman on keyboards, Brown Mark on bass, Matt “Dr” Fink on keyboards and Bobby Z. on drums) retreated to Minneapolis to record Around The World In A Day. There was no press and there were no singles released to promote the album. It just appeared one day in the record stores. And on that day, yes, I purchased the album excited there was more Prince in the world. I remember the brightly colored, psychedelic-tinged cover art gave me pause but it did not prepare me at all for what inside. Prince had largely abandoned his trademark sound and gone… psychedelic? Odd sounds and weird melodies permeated that album. I remember thinking, “what is this shit?” I liked “Raspberry Beret” but that was about it. I did everything I could to connect with that record, but eventually sold it at the Used Record store.

Needless to say, I was shook. When an artist disappointed me back in those days it was hard to get me back on the bandwagon. So when Prince followed up Around The World In A Day with Parade, another soundtrack, I had largely moved on. I heard “Kiss” on the radio and thought it was catchy but by then like a lot of people (I suppose) I thought Prince had lost his mind. I saw the movie, ‘Under the Cherry Moon,’ or more appropriately, I saw the first thirty minutes of the movie before walking out and it didn’t do a lot to restore my confidence in Prince. The fame and success had clearly gone to his head. 

By the time March of 1987 rolled around I was on the verge of graduating from college and there was just a lot going on for me. I’m not even sure I was aware Prince had released his second double-studio album, Sign O’ The Times. By fall of that year, I’d been exiled to Arkansas and lost touch with all music. I can vaguely remember seeing the video of “You’ve Got the Look” a duet with Sheena Easton but I wasn’t drawn back to Prince. I also remember hearing “I Can Never Take the Place Of Your Man” and thinking, hey, maybe Prince still has something left in the tank. I loved the guitar solo at the end. It wasn’t until 1990 when I was taking the Grand Tour across Europe and ended up in Berlin at the Roger Waters’ performance of The Wall (I Attended: Roger Waters & Special Guests, ‘The Wall’ at the Berlin Wall, July 21, 1990) when I heard the track “Sign O’ The Times” over the PA system before the show started. I was absolutely mesmerized. Granted, it was a hell of a sound system, but Prince giving us his grim state of the union address over minimal but hypnotic guitar was when I thought, perhaps I needed to give this album another look. Naturally, I didn’t investigate it for thirty years. 

At the end of the tour in support of Parade tensions were running high between Prince and the Revolution. I have never satisfactorily discovered why… Prince was dating guitarist Wendy Melvoin’s sister Susannah and they had broken up. Maybe it’s that simple. I’ve read where some theorize that the Revolution was getting too much credit for Prince’s success, they were the only thing keeping him from the bad impulses that created Around The World. I’ve heard the opposite, that Prince and his grand genius were being held back by the limitations of the Revolution. I don’t think that’s true, the Revolution was Prince’s most sympathetic backing group but then I never dug the New Power Generation. Prince had brought in other players for Parade, notably Sheila E. on percussion, Miko Johnson an additional guitarist and a horn section. Maybe that destabilized things. 

Prior to their dismissal, Prince had been working with the Revolution on a new album tentatively titled Dream Factory. I say working with them but as usual, Prince was playing all the instruments in the studio. At the same time he was working on a weird concept album where he speeded up his vocals to sound like a woman, Camille. “Camille” was his female alter ego. I don’t know why anybody thought that was a good idea. He sounds more like he’s on helium to me. Prince always wrote great songs for women (The Bangles, Bonnie Raitt, Vanity 6, Sheena Easton, the list goes on) maybe he thought he’d go ahead and sing the songs himself…as a chick. He scrapped both of those projects, fired the Revolution and recorded a triple album called Crystal Ball. Much of what was recorded for Dream Factory  and some of what was recorded for Camille (“If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Housequake”) ended up on Crystal Ball. His record company rejected the idea of a triple-album and so Prince edited it down to a double album and voila, Sign O’ The Times was born. 

Last Friday Prince dropped a “Super Deluxe” edition of Sign O’ The Times and I’ve been in the B&V lab voraciously absorbing this thing. The Rock Chick walked by the lab yesterday and said…”You’ve been listening to Prince non-stop for like a week now?” Indeed I have…I may not be a “Sexy M.F.” but I am a funky one. This is an embarrassment of riches. First and foremost, the original album Sign O’ Times is a tour de force and certainly Prince’s magnum opus. To my ears its his last masterpiece. He’s all over the place like the Beatles’ White Album. There’s rock, soul, funk and under currents of jazz on this album. As I listen it feels like I’m at the greatest after hours party ever. To see someone work on that level and take so many chances is breathtaking. The title track, “You’ve Got the Look,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend” were the most well known hits but there is so much more here. “Strange Relationship” is now amongst my Top 5 favorite Prince tracks. “Baby I just can’t stand to see you happy, Yeah, I hate to see you sad,” may sum up every bad relationship I’ve ever had. “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is another brilliant, brilliant track. “Slow Love” is a classic soul ballad. He could literally do it all.  How I didn’t include this on my list of essential double-albums is a mystery, The BourbonAndVinyl Essential Old School Double Vinyl Albums

The bonus material, like the 1999 Super Deluxe is copious. There’s so much here to absorb. The first disc of extras is the remixes and edited singles, really nothing to hear there. It felt a little like filler, although I did like “Shockadelica.” Following that there are three discs with 45 tracks. There’s some amazing stuff that Prince left in the vault. It all starts with an earlier 1979 version of “I Can Never Take the Place of Your Man” which serves to show how much that tune developed up to 1987. To underscore Prince’s jazz leanings at the time, Miles Davis shows up on “Can I Play With U?” There are so many great, funky tracks here – “Witness For the Prosecution” (in 2 different versions), and “Blanche” are highlights. There’s a great pop-rock track with that trademark Prince guitar on “Cosmic Day” which has that “Camille” voice… I wish he’d sang it in his normal voice but it’s still a great track. “Walking In Glory” touches on gospel. There is just so much and it’s all such high quality music. 

To round out the “Super Deluxe” set is a live concert from the tour supporting the LP, recorded in Utrecht. Prince only toured Europe for Sign O’ The Times largely because Parade had actually been a bigger hit there than in the U.S. Sheila E. had graduated from percussionist to drummer and I really dig this concert. Prince could certainly deliver. After running through some of the material from the LP, they go through the hits. This is the only live version of “Purple Rain” I think I have and it’s a killer. He manages to deliver the falsetto in “Kiss” in an impressive fashion as well. It’s a strong and aggressive performance even without the Revolution. If all of his shows were this good, I’ll take all the live Prince I can get. 

The ultimate question I always ask for a box set is, “Is it worth it?” For any fans of ’80s Prince or this album in particular, it’s a must have. I will admit, freely and up front, the price tag on this package is a little staggering. There are a lot of box sets coming in 2020 – U2, Lou Reed, and Neil Young all have big packages coming. Because of that I went with the download vs the CD version of this box. The price on the vinyl was so high it gave me a nose bleed. I understand in these hard times that this would be a hard pill to swallow but I urge all fans to at least go out and stream this stuff it’s a must hear. There is literally something for everyone in this box. 

Cheers! Stay funky people but be safe doing so.