Review: Keith Richards + The X-Pensive Winos, ‘Live At the Hollywood Palladium’ Box Set

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I’m lucky enough in these troubled times to be gainfully employed. I appreciate how fortunate I am every day. I am also fortunate enough to be in a position to actually take a few extra days off during this Thanksgiving holiday here in the States. I realize a lot of folks are struggling out there and my heart goes out to all of them. What to do with this extra time off during a global pandemic? For me the answer is always, “listen to rock and roll.”

However, even in the best of times I can get bored and restless and this week has been no exception. I actually left my home and the Boo Radley (‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ if you don’t know the reference) existence I’d been living and made the bold decision to go up to the local coffee joint. I’m strictly local folks, just say “no” to corporate coffee. This particular coffee joint is near a college campus. As I was standing there waiting for my fancy coffee drink amongst the unwashed Bohemian hipsters I couldn’t help but notice, between the man-buns and piercings, my barista’s sweatshirt which read, “My Spirit Animal Is Coffee.”

I’m not sure what a “spirit animal” is? According to urbandictionary.com a spirit animal is “A person or character that represents your inner personality.” If I had to guess the Rock Chick’s spirit animal, I’d put my money on a regal but fierce lion or tiger. I could probably pick a really cool bird of prey… an eagle or a hawk as her spirit animal. Don’t cross the Rock Chick. If I had to pick my own spirit animal, well that’d be easy… it’s Keith Richards. Well, maybe without the heroin.

When I first got into the Stones, I was probably like most new fans and I fell under the charismatic spell of Mick Jagger. I’d dance around my bedroom listening to Some Girls pretending to be the lead singer. I still love Mick Jagger but the more I learned about the Stones and their history I must say, my loyalty shifted a bit to his partner in crime, Keef. I’ve described Richards as the “gypsy pirate outlaw,” Review: Keith Richards, Crosseyed Heart – The Triumphant Return of Rock’s Gypsy Pirate Outlaw. Back in my old bachelor pad, I had a picture I’d clipped out of ‘Rolling Stone Magazine’ of Keith that I taped to my bedroom mirror. I wasn’t trying to look like Keith, but it was nice knowing he was looking over me. I still have that pic in a box somewhere…

The second to last thing in the world that Keith Richards wanted was to have a solo career outside of his beloved Stones. The only thing he wanted less than his own solo career was for Mick Jagger to have a solo career. Richards was dismayed when in 1985 Mick stepped out of his role as front man for the Stones and put out his first solo record, She’s The Boss. The album was, uh, a disaster. I did like the first, reggae-tinged track “Just Another Night.” The critics savaged it and the public ignored it. Richards was not shy about his disdain. He felt Jagger was trying to compete with the then leading pop acts of the day like Madonna, Michael Jackson or Prince. Keith felt the Stones transcended those acts. The Stones were, in a word, above all that. It cheapened the Stones to make such a bad solo record that was so obviously craving pop success. 

Keith was eager to put Mick’s solo wanderings behind them and move forward with the Stones. They hadn’t toured after their last album, the underrated Undercover and Keith was itching to get the Stones back on stage. But during the recording of 1986’s Dirty Work, Mick was less than “present.” Purportedly at one session Mick showed up to lay down his vocals and didn’t even take his coat off. “Take your coat off and stay awhile, Mick.” That lack of involvement showed in the writing credits for the album. Ronnie Wood was credited with more co-writer credits than at any time in his career. The Stones were at a low point… even Charlie Watts who had survived all the carnage of the sixties and seventies had finally succumbed to a heroin habit in the 80s. One-time member, pianist and sometimes road manager Ian Stewart passed away and that hit them all hard as well. When Mick declined to tour in order to finish his second solo album, 1987’s Primitive Cool Keith was… not amused. 

Primitive Cool was even worse than She’s the Boss. I still cringe when I hear “Let’s Work.” Although Jeff Beck put down some nice guitar work on “Throwaway.” At that point, still livid, seemingly against his own will, Keith decided to do a solo record. Mick had mostly used session musicians for his records and Keith felt he needed an actual “band” if he was going to do anything solo. He’s always said Charlie Watts’ drumming was the engine to the Stones and he felt if the solo thing was going to work he needed a new, kick ass engine. He chose to work with drummer Steve Jordan who also helped cowrite the record and co-produce. Jordan brought in bassist/percussionist Charlie Drayton. Ivan Neville was brought in on keyboards and Sarah Dash on backing vocals. Keith brought in an old Stones sideman Bobby Keys to play sax… All he needed was a lead guitarist. 

Richards approached L.A. session legend Waddy Wachtel to play lead. I remember Keith saying at the time, “Waddy has been playing with too many chicks, he needed to come play with the lads” or something along those lines. With Keith all men are dudes and all women are chicks…it’s why he’s my spirit animal. Waddy has played with the Everly Brothers, Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne and Stevie Nicks to name a few. He was a superb choice. Waddy and Keith’s guitars gel together the same way as Keith and Ronnie. 

Armed with such a great backing band Keith recorded and released 1988’s Talk Is Cheap. It’s hard not to see the title and many of the lyrics and songs on this record as being pointed directly at Jagger. “Take It So Hard” and “Struggle,” with the lyrics, “it’s a struggle between love and hate” are hard to interpret any other way. Talk Is Cheap was an absolute triumph (Keith Richards: ‘Talk Is Cheap (Deluxe Version),’ The 30th Anniversary Edition With Bonus Tracks). I can still remember dancing around my friend Doug’s kitchen with his buddy from Chicago, Kurt. We all  had martinis in our hands and Kurt kept yelling, “this is fucking rock n’ roll man!” I have to hand it to the guy, he didn’t spill a drop. 

With a critically lauded hit on his hands, nothing else to do as the Stones had gone dormant, and a kick ass band Keith decided to take them on a short run through North America. Towards the end of the tour, Keith and the band he’d dubbed the X-Pensive Winos – after being unable to find them during a rehearsal only to find them all hidden behind the drum riser passing around a bottle of Dom Perignon – recorded a show at the Hollywood Palladium. A week or so ago Keith released a “limited edition” box set. At $150 I can’t recommend everybody go out and buy the box even though it has a bunch of cool “stuff” in it – recreations of set lists, backstage passes etc – we focus on the music here. With the three new bonus tracks included, this album certainly deserves a listen and this was an opportunity to look back at this great live album.

First and foremost, Keith certainly sounds like he’s having a great time. What a great band this is. Yes, they are sloppy like the Stones but Jordan and Drayton keep everything anchored. Richards’ and Wachtel’s guitars meld seamlessly in some major riffage. They play almost every cut from Talk Is Cheap. “Struggle,” “Take It So Hard” and “I Could Have Stood You Up” all appear in muscular versions here. This was great rock and roll and so it translated very well to the stage. They also play a handful of Stones tunes. Sarah Dash, who does a nice vocal on “Rockawhile,” also does the lead on the Stones’ “Time Is On My Side.” The band finds a nice solid groove on “Too Rude” a reggae cover that Keith insisted the Stones record for Dirty Work. It sounds more convincing here. “Happy” and “Connection,” one of Stones’ first tunes with Keith’s vocals are both here. 

On the bonus material, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” a track the Beatles wrote and gave to the Stones and then later recorded with Ringo on lead vocals turns into a rollicking band sing-along, everybody joins in. “Little T&A” is a sloppy glory here. The final bonus track is “You Don’t Move Me” which is Keith’s most direct message to Mick on Talk Is Cheap. Ending the show with this track – if indeed that was the final track – at that time and place had to be an ominous portent for those of us who were hoping the Stones would get back together. 

Luckily, within a year Mick and Keith would get the band back together. Both have continued to sporadically record solo albums and managed to keep the peace. This was a great live recording of a Keith and the Winos doing a glorious job of venting Keith’s frustration. True pain in this case, truly created great art. 

Be safe and smart over the Thanksgiving holiday… I’m getting tired of hiding in the attic. Cheers! 

 

 

Playlist: Rock Songs About Dancing – For All The Wallflowers Like Me Who Can’t Dance

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“Just like you I’m wonderin’ what I’m doing here, just like you I’m wonderin’ what’s going on, wallflower, wallflower won’t you dance with me…”

 I saw an article on-line the other day about common phobias. I was always under the impression that public speaking was the most commonly cited fear. I know the Rock Chick and my daughter would rather be scalded with boiling oil than stand in front of a crowd of people and say something. I do that all the time at work, well, I used to before becoming Boo Radley and hiding in my attic for a year. I’ve given speeches at work, wedding toasts and to date one eulogy in front of 100s of people. Public speaking wasn’t even on the list. Actually, the number one thing people fear is heights. I can understand that. I get a twinge of vertigo when I’m up high. They say that vertigo is really a fear you’ll jump rather than a fear you’ll fall which I find wonderfully dark. The only thing I would describe myself as “phobic” about wasn’t even on the list… it’s dancing.

Webster’s defines “wallflower” as “a person who from shyness or unpopularity remains on the sidelines of a social activity (such as a dance).” That pretty much describes me. I’ll even admit the “unpopularity” part of it hits closer to home than I’d care to admit. Dancing, in public anyway, was never much of an issue for me until I reached the seventh grade. When I was growing up, 7th grade through 9th grade was split off as junior high school. When we all reached junior high at the ripe old age of thirteen, they paraded us all into the cafeteria, which had been cleared of all the dining tables, and announced it was “the 7th Grade Dance.” They’d brought in a few girls from the 9th grade to “get the party started” as they say. These Amazonian women – and make no mistake there was a huge difference between 13 and 15, these weren’t girls in our eyes, they were young women – started knifing into the crowd like dobermans chasing a shoplifter searching for 7th grade boys to drag onto the dance floor. Sure, they were enticing but we ran like we’d just escaped a chain gang. I’d never seen boys scatter like that. I hid in the game room most of the day playing foosball. The last time I peeked into he dance hall, the majority of my class was just walking in a circle clapping rhythmically. It was traumatizing.

It was during those Junior High years that I discovered rock and roll. Sadly those years were the disco era. The Bee Gees and Donna Summer ruled the world. As a rock and roller and an unsure pubescent boy I wanted to avoid anything that was uncool or worse feminine. Disco was decidedly uncool. There were guys walking around with “Death Before Disco” t-shirts on and back then, they meant it. I remember seeing on the news some DJ up in Chicago did a “Disco Destruction” night at Comiskey Park in 1979. Seventy-thousand people showed up to blow up disco records. It turned into a riot and the White Sox had to forfeit the game. I was firmly with the rioters on that whole disco issue. I don’t know if that experience along with the horror of the 7th grade dance sealed my fate as a non-dancer or not. You can never be sure about these things. If you were as anti-disco as I was, it stands to reason that I’d be anti-dancing. I didn’t dance because I knew I couldn’t look cool doing it, not because I was a Baptist or anything weird.

Somewhere during those early junior high years – and I’m not proud of this – my friends and I discovered the joys of drinking beer. After one rather raucous night of beer drinking, which my parents caught me doing, I awoke hungover to discover my grandparents had arrived. No one had mentioned it but we had a family wedding to go to. I wanted to go out with my friends and run around the Ranchmart area and well, drink more beer and try to impress girls. I didn’t wanna hang out with my family. Once we got to the reception, my grandfather slipped me a glass of champagne. “One glass won’t hurt, you deserve this after your beer drinking adventure.” A short time later my grandmother dropped by and gave me another glass. “One glass won’t hurt.” To my surprise my mother came by and gave me a glass as well…”One glass won’t get you drunk,” At that point, I was smashed. I went up to the bar to get a coke and the cowboy dickweed bartender asked, “don’t you want some rum in that?” He later told the hostess that I’d been ordering drinks from him all night and he didn’t know they were for me. I had indeed ordered a number of rum and cokes, but hey, he started it.

The next thing I knew, I was on the dance floor, “cutting a rug.” I remember a lot of the extended family laughing. At one point I was up on stage with the band. They were playing some sunny pop tune and I was shouting the words to “Roll Out the Barrel.” The band did not dig me. I could see my father at the other end of the dance floor, red-faced glaring at me. I jumped back into the dance crowd and grabbed some guy’s stogie. I promptly burned a woman on the ass. I awoke the next day in my own vomit with my mother crashing into my room to announce I’d “disgraced my father and her in front of the entire family.” I had to go live at my grandparents for a week to avoid being flayed. I took shit about that for years, especially my “dancing.” Ironically, two years later, at the first family wedding I was allowed to attend again, I watched this young girl who was maybe 13 sucking down champagne. She hit the dance floor just like I had. She was spinning around in circles. I knew it was a matter of time… When she vomited, oh yes, it was explosive. She cleared the dance floor which was something I hadn’t been able to do and I’d literally scarred a woman’s ass with a cigar. The next day her parents were laughing about it. There’s a reason I call my dad “the Hard Guy.”

Being viscerally opposed to all forms of dancing really hurt me socially. I was single until I was 36 and not being able to dance was not an asset when trying to meet women. Every time I tried to dance it looked like I was running in place trying to gnaw my lower lip off. Either that or I’d only move my upper body, with my legs rooted to the ground like trunks of sequoia trees. I always moved with the grace of someone who had blown a hamstring. I half expected medical staff from the club I was dancing in to rush out, secure my neck and spine area, tie me to a board and drive me out of the bar on the back of a lawns keeping cart. I’d wave heroically to the crowd… The Rock Chick refuses to dance with me and I sense there was a time when she really did enjoy dancing.

All of that said, there are a lot of great rock tunes about dancing or dancers. Most of those tunes were not written with dancing in mind. Sure, there are a few you could probably dance to if you were, well, not me. I do think everything Motley Crue wrote and performed was likely intended to be played in strip clubs for exotic dancers. And yes, I get that many of these are merely thinly veiled euphemisms for sex. For the most part these tracks about dancing are upbeat, harder rocking tunes. I discovered a playlist I used to run to of about fifteen like-minded tracks about dancing. I blew that up here and extended it to sixty tracks that I believe actually hang together pretty well. As always with my playlists, it’s best to hit shuffle when you’re playing them. I have some recognizable tracks but as always I’m trying to expose folks to the deeper, album cuts that I’ve always liked in the hopes that I expose you to something new. As always you can find this playlist on Spotify under the title: BourbonAndVinyl.net Rock Songs About Dancing. If you have any suggested additions, please add them in the comments section.

  1. Aerosmith, “Same Old Song And Dance” – This may not exactly be about dancing but it was always the first track on my running dance playlist.
  2. Dire Straits, “Twisting By The Pool” – I’m reminded of a girl I met in junior high whose parents had a pool.
  3. John Lennon, “Do You Wanna Dance?” – From the covers LP Rock N Roll (B&V’s Favorite Cover Albums: Singing Other People’s Songs).
  4. Don Henley, “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” – Great little rock tune.
  5. The Rolling Stones, “Harlem Shuffle” – I love this track although I know many people do not. “Let your momma show you how,” indeed.
  6. Lenny Kravitz, “Dancin’ Til Dawn” – Somehow I don’t think Sexy Lenny is singing about dancing.
  7. Joan Jett, “I Love Rock And Roll” – Every girl in my high school would go nuts when this song came on. “Put another dime in the jukebox baby and dance with me.”
  8. The Traveling Wilbury’s, “Wilbury Twist” – Well now I’m just getting silly here.
  9. Van Halen, “Dance The Night Away” – I’m still not over the loss of Eddie Van Halen (Guitar Legend Eddie Van Halen Gone Too Soon at 65, RIP Eddie, #EVH).
  10. Motley Crue, “Dancing On Glass” – For the strippers out there.
  11. Sam Cooke, “Twistin’ The Night Away” – Rod does a really great version of this song, but you can’t beat the original.
  12. Mick Jagger, “Dancing In the Starlight” – From the great Goddess In the Doorway. 
  13. Tom Petty, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” – “She had a good lookin’ mama who never was around.”
  14. The Donnas, “Better Off Dancing” – I love this girl band.
  15. Bob Seger, “Mainstreet” – Bob goes out and stalks a stripper in a melancholy manner.
  16. The Cult, “Dance The Night” – From the amazing Hidden City (Review: The Cult, ‘Hidden City’, A Late Career Gem). Looking forward to new music from these guys in 2021.
  17. The Rolling Stones, “Dancing With Mr. D” – Who doesn’t like a little dance with the Devil every now and again (Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set).
  18. Neil Young, “When You Dance You Can Really Love” – Great, great Neil Young track.
  19. The Eagles, “Hollywood Waltz” – “So give her this dance, she can’t be forsaken…” Beautiful stuff.
  20. T. Rex, “Cosmic Dancer” – I’ve only recently started getting into Marc Bolan and T. Rex and I like what I’ve heard.
  21. Van Halen, “Dancing In The Street” – Nobody does this song better than VH.
  22. Bob Dylan, “Wallflower” – One for me…
  23. David Bowie, “John, I’m Only Dancing” – “It turns me on…”
  24. The Cars, “Shake It Up” – I actually am worried that I have “two left feet.”
  25. John Mellencamp, “Dance Naked” – Ok, now I’m interested.
  26. Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Shake Your Money Maker” – Good ol’ blues to shake your ass to.
  27. Fleetwood Mac, “Tango In The Night” – Again, probably not talking about dancing here… Epic guitar solo from Lindsey Buckingham.
  28. David Byrne, “I Dance Like This” – I loved American Utopia (LP Review: David Byrne, ‘American Utopia,’ A Surprise Gem).
  29. Patti Smith, “Dancing Barefoot” – Also done quite nicely by U2.
  30. Paul McCartney, “Dance Tonight” – One of my all time favorites by one of my all time favorite acts.
  31. Warren Zevon, “Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School” – From his great, first comeback album.
  32. The Faces, “You Can Make Me Dance, Sing, or…” – Rod, Ronnie Wood and the rest of the gang. They had more great singles that should have been on albums than anybody else out there.
  33. Robert Plant, “Angel Dance” – A roots-y cover of a Los Lobos tune.
  34. Paul McCartney, “Ballroom Dancing” – From the great Tug Of War. 
  35. Motley Crue, “Come On And Dance” – More stripper soundtrack stuff from the LA bad boys.
  36. The Rolling Stones, “Shake Your Hips” – If I shook my hips I’d need a hip replacement.
  37. Thin Lizzy, “Dancing In the Moonlight” – Borderline disco but catchy as hell.
  38. Led Zeppelin, “Dancing Days” – Funky Zeppelin?
  39. The Rolling Stones, “Dance Little Sister” – Great, great riffage from Keith.
  40. Van Morrison, “Moondance” – Again, probably not the type of dancing I’m thinking of…
  41. Robert Plant, “Dancing In Heaven” – Great late period Plant.
  42. Bruce Springsteen, “Dancing In The Dark” – The song that made him a superstar.
  43. The Beatles, “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You” – I never was…
  44. Pearl Jam, “Dance Of the Clairvoyants” – From their latest album, Review: Pearl Jam’s First LP In 7 Years, ‘Gigaton’ – My Conflicted Thoughts.
  45. Steve Miller Band, “Dance, Dance, Dance” – The title says it all in this down home, front porch-y tune.
  46. David Bowie, “Let’s Dance” – Probably the most danceable of all the songs here. I love the line, “put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” Great Stevie Ray Vaughn guitar work.
  47. Billy Idol, “Dancing With Myself” – Early big hit. Originally done with Generation X.
  48. Otis Redding, “Shake” – Fabulous soul music.
  49. Pete Townshend, “Face Dances Pt. 2” – I’m too much of a fanatic for Pete’s solo work… I had to include this weird song.
  50. Bob Dylan, “Shake Mama Shake” – I love his raspy voice. I know it’s a lot like olives, an acquired taste.
  51. The J. Geils Band, “Southside Shuffle” – Funky, dirty, kinda bluesy.
  52. John Mellencamp, “A Little Night Dancin'” – From when he was still John Cougar. A great deep track.
  53. Joe Walsh, “Spanish Dancer” – I love Joe’s guitar work on this late period deep track.
  54. INXS, “Dancing On the Jetty” – Great early track from these guys.
  55. Lou Reed, “I Love You Suzanne” – “You broke my heart and you made me cry, when you said I couldn’t dance.” But, I can’t.
  56. The Ramones, “Let’s Dance” – Short, fast and hard.
  57. Rod Stewart, “She Won’t Dance With Me” – Containing the poetic line, “I’ve got a hard-on honey and it hurts like hell.” Ahem. Good Chuck Berry riff.
  58. The Beatles, “Twist And Shout” – Iconic.
  59. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Fat Dance” – A bonus track from Californication that I read Anthony Kiedis describes as “fuuuunky.”
  60. Elton John, “Your Sister Can’t Twist, But She Can Rock N Roll” – Elton plays so fast we must suspect amphetamine usage.

There you have it folks A little something to wile away the hours over your upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. In the words of Neil Diamond, “some of you may have the guts to stand, but how many of you have the guts to dance?”

Review: AC/DC’s Spectacular Return, ‘Power Up’

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This post is dedicated to the memory of Malcolm Young

I am stuck in a state of stupefied, delighted wonderment these days and have been since last Friday when AC/DC returned – against all odds – to deliver what might be the B&V album of the year, Power Up. I must confess I thought these guys were done. I don’t do this often, but I certainly owe lead guitarist Angus Young and the rest of this band an apology. It was during their last tour for Rock Or Bust that I included AC/DC in my BourbonAndVinyl List of Bands Who Sadly, Should Call It Quits. Mea culpa, mea culpa, I am sorry. Never bet against one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

I could be forgiven for thinking this rock and roll juggernaut had finally been halted. Prior to recording Rock Or Bust we had all heard the sad news that rhythm guitarist Malcom Young had succumbed to the effects of dementia. I had a grandmother who went down that way and it was simply awful. Stevie Young, nephew to Malcolm and Angus, was stepping in to replace Malcolm on Rock Or Bust. Stevie had played with AC/DC back when Malcolm had gone to rehab to quit drinking. He realized it was interfering with his playing, and with the band and the fans were too important to him. Malcolm was that kind of man!

Everything seemed to be moving forward and then original drummer Phil Rudd ran into some, um, legal issues. On the ensuing tour for Rock Or Bust he had to be replaced by drummer Chris Slade who had played with AC/DC during a hiatus Rudd had taken in the late 80s/early 90s. Slade had last played with AC/DC on the Razor’s Edge LP. And then, with only about 10 dates left on the tour Brian Johnson developed a severe hearing issue that made it impossible for him to perform live. If he tried to sing live again, he risked losing his hearing completely. He had to retire in the middle of the tour. Friend of the band Axl Rose stepped in and helped Angus and the boys finish the tour, good on Axl. Shortly after that, longtime bassist Cliff Williams announced he was hanging it up. Apparently he used to party on the road with Brian and without him, the road wasn’t going to be as fun. I get it… you’re on the road you need a drinking buddy. Finally, in 2017 Malcolm Young sadly passed away (RIP Malcolm Young, Rhythm Guitarist Extraordinaire of AC/DC).

Toward the end of last year I heard rumblings that Angus and Stevie Young were spotted up in Vancouver. Soon there were rumors that bassist Cliff Williams may have changed his mind and returned. News spread they were working on a new album dedicated to Malcolm. If that doesn’t fill your eyes with a tear you’re not human. Brian Johnson apparently underwent some sort of miracle cure for his hearing and has returned to the fold. The Rock and Roll Gods were clearly smiling on AC/DC. Even more miraculous is that Phil Rudd somehow evaded prosecution. The entire band, save for Malcolm, had returned. And man, have they returned!!

I’ve been a big fan of AC/DC’s since Back In Black (LP Lookback: AC/DC’s Masterpiece, ‘Back In Black’ Turned 40 Yrs Old June 25, 2020) which I purchased shortly after it was released in 1980. While the Rock Chick only digs the Brian Johnson era AC/DC, I’m also a huge fan of Bon Scott’s time with the band (LP Look Back: The Overlooked Gem, AC/DC’s “Powerage”). I don’t think they’ve ever put out a bad album with the possible exception of Fly On The Wall. And I’ll admit Flick The Switch was a bit of a letdown after For Those About To Rock but everything else in this catalog is top shelf. I would even recommend Blow Up  Your Video, an overlooked gem in their catalog.

Since meeting the Rock Chick in 2000 when she turned me back onto AC/DC they’ve put out some great music. Stiff Upper Lip (2000) is a phenomenal late period AC/DC album that everyone should own. Black Ice (2008) was another great record but it felt a bit long to me. It was fifteen tracks and seemed to go on a bit longer than it should have. When they followed up with Rock Or Bust it felt slightly short to me. That album was only eleven songs and only thirty-five minutes long which left me wanting more. Weighing in at 12 tracks Power Up feels, to quote Goldilocks, “just right.” Angus went back through the tapes and found old songs he and Malcolm had written but never recorded or released on a record so every track says “Written by Angus and Malcolm Young,” the way God intended AC/DC songs to be written. The album, as mentioned, is dedicated to Malcolm and one has to believe the group came together to honor their fallen comrade. They certainly brought their best.

The first single, “Shot In The Dark,” is one of the great, classic AC/DC songs, reviewed on B&V earlier, AC/DC Returns With “Shot In The Dark” From The Upcoming LP ‘Power Up’. The opening track “Realize” signals that the band means business on this album. It’s lean, mean and it rocks. I read that “Realize” is a track Angus and Malcolm had tried to get on previous albums but never did. “Demon Fire” is another great potential single, that signals the return of Brian Johnson’s lascivious lead vocals. “Wild Reputation” is a bloozy treat. “Kick You When You’re Down” is a favorite of the Rock Chick’s. When we first listened to the album she looked at me and said, “Damn this is a great album.” “Through the Mists of Time” is an almost wistful rocker that one might think was inspired by memories of Malcolm. There isn’t a bad track on this record. If I have any complaints it’s that I’d like to hear them do a slow, bluesy number…but nobody does that anymore. And, let’s face it, I’m probably the only one asking for that.

Through out this record Stevie Young’s bedrock rhythm guitar picks up where Malcom’s left off. It allows Angus Young’s classic lead guitar to soar above it. When Angus comes in for a solo he has this magical way of creating tension and then releasing it with a clean, beautifully played solo. He’s really one of the greatest guitarists that we’ve got left. Phil Rudd is the only drummer who should play with AC/DC. Having Cliff back on bass helps them keep that solid engine of a rhythm section in place. I can’t say enough about Brian Johnson. The guy still smokes I think. And yet his vocals, after whatever miracle hearing cure he went through, are spot on. He’s gravelly, bluesy and always sounds horny. I just love his singing here. It’s so great to have him back in the fold. The band brings a certain amount of menace to this lean rock set that sets it apart from many of their albums.

It’s hard not to think of this as the swan song for this seminal, iconic band. I hope not, I’ve counted them out before they were done before. This is a must have for rock fans everywhere. It may not cure COVID but it sure feels like it could. At the very least we should acknowledge how great it is to have rock and roll like this released into the world. When AC/DC release an album, it’s a big fucking deal. And when they deliver the goods like they have on this album, it’s an even bigger deal.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say this may be the B&V album of the year… it certainly will be on our “best of 2020” list. Turn this one up loud and for once this year, celebrate the joy, the power and the majesty of rock and roll.

Cheers!

Review: Lou Reed ‘New York: Deluxe Edition’

“It’s hard to give a shit these days…” – Lou Reed, “Romeo & Juliette”

By the time I got to college, I thought I was a rock and roll expert. I suppose all of us in our late teens/early 20s think we know everything. What’s that old saying, “When I was young I thought I knew all the answers…as I got older I realized I didn’t even understand the questions.” Of course I still have a few friends who think they know it all, but maybe that’s unique to me. As a college kid I’d never even heard the music of the Velvet Underground let alone Lou Reed. I’m not sure I’d even heard of the Velvets. I thought Lou Reed was a “one-hit wonder” with only “Walk On The Wild Side” to his credit. It was the only song of his they ever played on Kansas City radio. I went to college in Manhattan… unfortunately it was the one in Kansas, not the island in New York. In fact, at that point in my life I’d never even been to New York City. To me it was like a dirty Emerald City in a magical world of Oz (B&V Playlist: Songs For New York City). Somewhere over the rainbow, indeed. It was big, violent, scary and ruled by guys like Kojak, those guys in ‘The Warriors’ and the mob. It was druggy and decadent. At least that’s what I’d gleaned from television cop shows and the movies.

If there is an artist who embodied that New York underbelly it was Lou Reed. And yet in college my slate was blank on Lou. It wasn’t until 1984 that I got into Lou Reed. I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I got into Lou Reed through MTV. After an evening of drinking and being ignored by women, I returned back to my place and planted myself in front of the television, watching videos and eating a convenience store sandwich (the famous Chuckwagon). As the sun burst over the Kansas’ plains, the video for “I Love You Suzanne” came on. Something about that track just clicked for me. I loved the lyric, “you do what you gotta do, you do everything you can.” The next time my roommate Drew and I went to the record store I decided to take a chance on this Lou Reed guy and I bought his then current LP New Sensations. It was one of the most upbeat, warm LPs in Reed’s catalog. The title track, about the joys of riding a motorcycle is one of my all time favorites and I have never been on a motorcycle…well I’ve been on a mo-ped but I don’t think that counts…you don’t want your friends to see you on a mo-ped. “Down At the Arcade” was another big favorite. The whole disc is just amazing…well, I’m not crazy about “My Red Joystick,” but that’s just me.

I was on the bandwagon. I soon discovered Lou had been the principle songwriter and lead singer/guitarist for the ground breaking Velvet Underground. It’s been said the VU didn’t sell many albums or have many fans but each of them seemingly went out and formed a band. Such was their influence. It took years before I screwed up enough courage to buy all of the Velvet’s albums. I was afraid it would all be abrasive noise. I don’t know where I got that idea. I had the same fear about punk and now the Clash are one of my all time favorites. In 1967, during the “Summer of Love” when everyone was dressed in Day-Glo orange and singing about love, Lou was writing songs about heroin (B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin) and bondage. Instead of buying the VU’s debut, I actually wimped out and merely purchased Lou Reed’s then greatest hits disc, Walk On The Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. And truth be told I never connected with it the way I had with New Sensations. I guess I wasn’t ready for Lou yet.

I wish I’d started exploring Reed’s back catalog more thoroughly in college. He’d put out some great albums in the 70s. Transformer produced by Bowie was the most famous of the lot. The bleak Berlin is an album that took me a while to warm to, but is one I truly love now (B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums). But there were other gems I wish I’d discovered earlier. Coney Island Baby is a great record. I had an ex email me about it just a few years ago. She was geeking out about how great it is… I envied her that first time listen. Street Hassle was all beautiful parking lot poetry and has a cameo by Springsteen. I also dig The Bells. After getting sober Reed released the masterpiece The Blue Mask (that I recommended to that same ex) and followed it up with the strong Legendary Hearts. I wish I’d discovered all of this earlier because it would have given me stronger roots into the genius of Lou Reed. All I had was New Sensations and a greatest hits record which somebody absconded with.

I tell you all this because, I eventually turned my back on Lou. I bought the follow up to New Sensations the day it came out. I don’t know if you can describe Mistrial as Lou Reed’s worst album – for me that will always be Metal Machine Music, which is all feedback – but it’s probably a close second. I actually sold Mistrial down at the used record store in short order. It was around that time that Lou did a tv commercial for, of all things, Honda scooters. He even allowed them to use “Walk On the Wild Side” for the commercial. That may not seem like a big deal now – but back in the late 80s, rock stars who sold their songs for commercials were considered heretics. John Mellencamp was particularly outspoken about the  evils of songs being used in commercials. He later sold “Our Country” to Chevy for a truck commercial. Be careful what you criticize… you may just become it.

Because I hadn’t done the work to go back through Reed’s prior albums I didn’t have that great of a connection to the man I now think of as the King of New York. My dalliance with Lou was over almost before it started. I thought of New Sensations a one-off…a great record by an artist I just wasn’t that into. I graduated from college and spent a summer in Boston. One weekend I went to New York – my first trip there ever – and I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t think Lou even entered my mind. Any more he’s kind of synonymous with that city in my head. By 1989, I had been sent into exile in Arkansas by the corporation I was serving at the time. Arkansas is even farther away from New York spiritually than Kansas is.

There I was, miserable and lonely in Arkansas. I’d been sent to Ft. Smith but even the faceless corporate drones I worked for realized that was a mistake. They’d moved me up to Fayetteville which was better but not much. Then, one late night, after too much beer and too much time spent staggering up and down Dixon Street being ignored by women (I see a trend) I went home and yes, turned on MTV. This black and white grainy video came on…I’m not sure I was paying attention to who it was. It started with a strumming electric guitar riff… my ears perked up. And then I heard that unmistakable voice… “Pedro lives out of the Wilshire Hotel, he looks out a window without glass.” I felt that old magnetic pull. I knew I was headed back to “The Dirty Boulevard.”

I decided to take another chance on this Lou Reed guy. I hedged my bets and bought New York on cassette something I rarely did. The liner notes said – and I apologize my current copy is in a box in storage – advised us to listen to the album in its entirety, in one sitting, “like you would a novel or a movie.” He said the songs had been recorded as they were written, like chapters of a book… at least that’s how I remember it. The first track, “Romeo and Juliette” grabbed me immediately. I knew that Lou was back. New York is simply put, a masterpiece. He covers a range of topical subjects that mostly still resonate today: poverty, predatory landlords, child abuse, AIDs (which was relatively new ground back then), the ecology and politics.

My friends and I still quote this album the way most men do movies. Instead of quoting ‘Caddy Shack’ I find myself saying, “It’s hard to give a shit these days” instead. There’s a road in Kansas City, Southwest Boulevard, where there used to be a few strip joints and massage parlors. I still call it, the “Dirty Boulevard.” I also occasionally say, when in a bad situation (usually the holidays), “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs.” Such a visceral image. The entire album is cinematic in its scope. “Busload of Faith” is a big rocker – and a favorite of my friend Stormin – that Seger eventually covered believe it or not. “Strawman” is another huge rocker. Reed keeps it to his favorite configuration here – two guitars, bass and drums. The backing band lacks guitarist Robert Quine but still makes this music come alive – bassist Fernando Saunders, drummer Fred Maher and guitarist Mike Rathke. The mellow tracks are great and hard hitting as well – “Halloween Parade” (about AIDs), “Endless Cycle” (about child abuse), and “Last Great American Whale” (about the ecology). That final track has a line I’ve quoted directly to my sainted mother… “You can’t always trust your mother.” There is a light hearted moment, “The Beginning of a Great Adventure” where Reed muses about being a father. “It might be fun to have a kid that I could kick around, a little me that I could fill up with my thoughts.”

A few of the tracks are so topical as to be somewhat frozen in time. “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” is very late-80s “current event-y.” Lou was very deeply affected by Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ and responded with “Dime Store Mystery” an almost religious mediation on “the duality of nature, godly nature, human nature.” Great art inspired a great artist. All of that topicality aside – most of these songs are so universal as to be poignant and relevant even now, thirty plus years later. He even name drops Trump in “Sick of You.”

Last weekend they released a ‘Deluxe Edition’ of this landmark album. If you’ve never heard or owned New York I urge all rockers out there to buy this album. In terms of bonus material, I can’t lie, there’s nothing here. There’s a few “single version” of a few tracks. There’s some “Work Tape” versions of tracks here but nothing that will change you’re perception of this brilliant album. The “secret sauce” for me on this ‘Deluxe Editon’ is – like it was for recent releases from U2 (Review: U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind (20th Anniversary Edition)’) or the Rolling Stones (Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set) is the disc of live versions of the songs from New York. While the live tracks are all taken from different performances and concerts, because of the continuity of the material, they hang together well. I love how Lou speaks to the meaning of a lot of the songs prior to playing them live. I love all his on-stage patter. “There Is No Time” is particularly rocking live. Many of the tracks expand quite a it when played in front of an audience. Lou was nothing if not a rock and roller at heart. He and his band playing brilliant music, enthusiastically is always a treat. Lou even says, everything played on stage is live, “not sampled by someone whose been dead for years.” Ah, Lou, thank god you never changed. Lou continued the brilliance after New York when he reunited with the Velvet’s John Cale to record the tribute to Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella. Another album from this period worth a listen.

While this isn’t the treasure trove of unreleased tracks I might have hoped for – although I doubt anything was left over here – it’s a great ‘Deluxe Edition.’ There is one unreleased track but it’s an instrumental… mostly noise. The original album and the live stuff more than make up for the superfluous bonus material. This is an album that should be celebrated like ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘The Last Tycoon.’ Politically charged, poignant, and rocking. What more could we ask for?

If you love Lou, check out the movie ‘Blue In The Face’ where Lou has a few cameos and discusses being raised on Long Island. He says, “I remember being born in Brooklyn and thinking it was terrible. But then my family moved to Long Island which was infinitely worse.”

Things are getting crazy out there again with this COVID stuff… be safe and stay strong out there! Cheers!

Review: U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind (20th Anniversary Edition)’

I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since U2’s (Singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr and bassist Adam Clayton) monumental LP All That You Can’t Leave Behind came out. At the time, people tend to forget that U2 had been knocked back on their heels a bit. It was a comeback of sorts for them. I think I’ve always been fond of this record because on a personal level, I had a comeback of my own in those days. 

I like to think I was an early adopter on U2. I purchased War (on vinyl) when it came out when I was in college. I taped a copy of The Unforgettable Fire which at first had disappointed me – it was a bit of a stylistic left turn from the straight-up rock of War and I was small minded. I guess I wasn’t ready for “Produced by Brian Eno” when I was 20. I can still remember listening to my brother’s cassette of The Joshua Tree on my Sony Walkman, laying on the floor of my bedroom in the dark, illuminated only by the light streaming in my door from the hallway. Oddly, I thought it was a stronger album than The Unforgettable Fire, but felt it lacked the kind of anthem that the previous LP had, like “Pride (In The Name of Love).” The more I listened to it back then, the more I realized I was wrong. I think every track on side one of the album was released as a single. The Joshua Tree changed everything for U2, it was simply put, a masterpiece. I can still remember looking at their earnest, serious gazes staring at me from the album cover. I think after that album came out they were so big they were probably on postal stamps in some of the smaller countries around the world. Deservedly so. 

For the follow-up, while touring in the U.S. they filmed a documentary. They intended to record a live album along with the doc but ended up recording new music. Rattle And Hum was, to my ears a brilliant “hybrid” album – part live, part studio (The B&V List of Essential “Hybrid” LPs – Part Live/Part Studio Albums). The critics however, were a bit more savage in regard to their indecision, live vs studio. There were great songs on that record and they shouldn’t take any shit for it from anyone. It was, to me, the sound of a band finding their roots. They’d formed around Larry’s parents kitchen table when Bono had never sung before and the Edge was learning guitar. They were a blank page. Rattle And Hum seemed to chronicle the band absorbing America and rock and roll all at once. Stung by the criticism of R+H, they did what I now view as a very U2 thing… they retreated for 3 years and completely changed their sound. They released yet another masterpiece, Achtung Baby. They’d included electronica, dance and alternative rock elements to their music. Grunge wasn’t gonna kill U2 they just adapted and got stronger. 

The ‘Zoo TV’ tour was my first time seeing U2 in concert. I had a chance to see them in late ’87 in Atlanta on the tour for The Joshua Tree but declined. Arkansas Joel tried to talk me into going down and scalping tickets at the Forum. But, like ‘Good Will Hunting,’ I said no… “I had to see about a girl.” I dated her for a year but like most of my relationships back then it didn’t work out. On the upside, my relationship with Arkansas Joel has lasted 35 years. And to be clear, he never let me forget that bad decision, what are friends for? While in the middle of touring Europe on the ‘Zoo TV’ tour, they decided to keep that tour momentum up and duck into a studio. At first they were just going to record an EP but it ended up turning into a full fledged album, Zooropa. I loved that record but it felt like an EP. It didn’t seem to match the usual epic scope of a Joshua Tree or an Achtung Baby. I don’t know why but everyone seemed to feel that way. Zoopropa while great, just confused people. Because of that the expectations for their next album were huge. We all wanted a big, bad ass, new U2 album. We didn’t want it, we needed it. And, it fit their up/down pattern – Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum to Achtung Baby/Zooropa. 

When it took four years, until 1997, to get the follow-up expectations were driven through the roof. When Pop finally dropped, it was a huge disappointment. Even though it took that long to finish, the band had set some aggressive deadlines and its completion was rushed. The first single “Discotheque” didn’t give us a lot of hope. I have to admit, all these years later, stripped of those mammoth expectations Pop is a much better record than anybody gave it credit for being. The ensuing tour, called Pop-Mart, saw U2 playing to stadiums that were not full. I’d seen the ‘Zoo TV’ tour in Arrowhead Stadium where the Chiefs play and it was packed to the rafters. There were empty seats in the upper deck on Pop-Mart. Starting with Achtung Baby, rather than continue their earnest, serious approach, U2 began to immerse themselves in irony. It worked at first but on Pop no one got the joke. U2 had been in the south of France partying with Michael Hutchence of INXS and supermodels and, as Bono said at the time, they “wanted to capture the party but they only captured the hangover.” 

Once again, U2 retreated. While they were recording All That You Can’t Leave Behind, their good friend Michael Hutchence died under strange circumstances in Australia. They had already largely stripped their songs of the irony they’d tried on, but his death affected this album deeply. As U2 typically does, when their back is against the wall, they emerged with one of their greatest albums… 

As the 90s waned, the wheels were starting to come off my gypsy lifestyle. I changed jobs in ’96 but my career had basically sputtered to a halt. I didn’t have much money to show for the effort. I started dating a woman in 1997 who was simply wonderful… but unfortunately wasn’t the right person for me. We were locked in this death knell of being together, breaking up and then reuniting… rinse, repeat. Towards the end we were bringing out the worst in each other. Finally, I made the difficult choice to end the affair for good. I had to work on myself. I finally got out of that relationship, which caused a lot of pain, and started a more inward focus. Within a few months I had a better job with more pay. And a few months later… I met the Rock Chick. When I first met her, on our first date, we both enthused about this new U2 song, their first new single, “Beautiful Day.” It was a return to the earlier, rocking sound. There were rumors that they’d almost rejected it because it was “too U2 sounding.” Luckily those guys have a sensible man like Larry Mullens, Jr in the band who put his foot down and insisted on releasing the song. 

The Rock Chick and I broke up after a few months. She had a daughter and I was still rather untethered to adulthood. I was pretty gutted but then All That You Can’t Leave Behind came out and as usual U2 helped me get through it. I ran into her one night in one of my favorite watering holes…we had both been looking forward to the new U2 and I had wondered what she thought about it. Naturally, after a few awkward exchanges we started talking about how much we both loved the new record… “Wild Honey,” a rare sunny moment on the album, a driving acoustic number, was a favorite of both of us… One thing led to another and the Rock Chick and I were back together. A new job, a well-propertied woman… things had finally changed for me. We played this U2 album incessantly and it remains a personal favorite to this day. 

The first single was spectacular and remains one of their biggest hits. “Beautiful Day” was a great way to announce their return. Bono had joked about ATYCLB that U2 was “reapplying for the job as best band in the world.” “Beautiful Day” was a great resume builder in that regard. “Elevation” was another great rock song that proved the Edge hadn’t forgotten how to play guitar. “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” was written for Hutchence and is another favorite. “Walk On” was another hit single. The lack of irony, the straightforward way they sang about grief and loss would prove to be universal after the tragic events of 9/11. It was almost as if U2 had felt something sad coming… I saw this tour with the Rock Chick, we were living together by then on November 27th 2001 in Kansas City and it was one of the best shows of theirs I’ve seen. 

Now the band is looking back with a box set “20th Anniversary Edition” of the album. The original album is remastered and expanded with a great track that wasn’t on the original LP in the U.S., “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” which has always been one of my favorite U2 deep tracks (U2’s Ten Greatest Non Album Tracks & 5 Best Covers, In Honor of Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary). It was originally released on the soundtrack to a film Bono and the Edge were involved in when recording ATYCLB, entitled ‘The Million Dollar Hotel.’ If you haven’t heard it, you definitely should. Spacey and sexy it’s one of their greatest tracks. Salmon Rushdie wrote the lyrics. 

The box also contains a disc of bonus tracks. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not purchased this box set – I already have everything that was on the bonus disc. I joined their fan club somewhere along the way and when I did they sent me a “fan club exclusive” double CD, U2 Medium, Rare and Remastered” that contained six of the tracks contained here. I already owned the original LP, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” and six of these tracks. There are some great tracks on the bonus disc. “Levitate” starts things off… it’s a bit of a woozy number but kicks in towards the end. There’s an early version of “Summer Rain” later released on a compilation. “Big Girls Are Best” is an upbeat danceable number. “Stateless” was one of the few tracks I hadn’t heard and it’s a meandering ballad. I love the acoustic version of “Stuck In A Moment” here. “Flower Child” is a great, hippy acoustic love song. “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” is a Johnny Cash cover…reimagined as an almost reggae song. Its rather curious. 

There is also a complete concert from the 2001 tour from Boston. Again, I bought the DVD when it came out 19 years ago so… while this is a superb concert, I already own it in one form or another. It did remind me of what a force they were on that tour. They had a giant, heart-shaped catwalk that surrounded most of the floor. Towards the end of the show they projected the names of all the souls lost on 9/11 and it was one of the most moving concert experiences of my life. Hearing this concert again I’m reminded how remarkably aggressive and spectacular the Edge’s guitar playing is. U2 continues to grasp for relevancy or current popularity… if the Edge would play guitar like this where they sound like, well, U2… they wouldn’t have to worry anymore. I love the acoustic version of “Stay Faraway” on the live disc. If you don’t already own it, this concert is reason enough to buy this box set. 

While this is a beautifully packaged (from what I’ve seen) commemoration of a masterpiece album, it wasn’t worth it for me as I own almost every component of the box set. Well, I don’t own the remix disc but that’s always crap anyway, no matter who the artist. However, if you haven’t heard this concert, it’s worth the price of admission here – much like the Stones’ recent box for Goats Head Soup (Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set). If you don’t own the bonus tracks, the ones I mentioned above are all tracks you’ll want in your U2 collection. 

Be safe out there… these are turbulent times. I’d love to see all of us pull together as a country and a planet like we did in the wake of 9/11. We are always stronger together, when we’re united… Hang in there, people.. we’re merely “stuck in a moment,” but we will get out of it. 

 

Review: Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ – Contemplating Mortality On E Street

Many fans of Bruce Springsteen got on the bandwagon in the ’80s when Born In The U.S.A. came out. Most of his diehard fans had already been on the bandwagon since Born To Run came out a decade earlier. I didn’t get into Springsteen until The River came out when I was in high school. Along with Pink Floyd’s The Wall it was one of my first double-album purchases. I steadily started buying every Springsteen record that came out prior to The River. However, it wasn’t until I was a junior in high school before I purchased Born To Run, after someone played that album at a “Senior Skip Day” party I had crashed to meet a girl… The meeting with the girl sadly didn’t pan out but I went out the next day and bought the album. It’s the circle of life. When God closes a pretty window he opens a rock n roll door. 

When I was a freshman in college, I came home for winter break to discover Springsteen had released his follow-up to The River, the rather bleak Nebraska. I don’t think an album has ever shocked me the way Nebraska shocked me. I expected to hear the full E Street Band burst out of the speakers like they did on “The Ties That Bind” and instead it was the muted, acoustic track “Nebraska.” I was floored. “What, pray tell, is this?” I remember thinking. I kept hoping the band would kick in… Nebraska was Springsteen’s first “solo” album where he eschewed the accompaniment of his mates in the E Street Band. At the time I thought it was a one-off project. The darker material in those songs fit that style of playing so he kept the stark demos. It actually set the template for the rest of Bruce’s career. He’d do band albums and then go off on his own to do a solo project. After Nebraska he did Born In the U.S.A. and then back to solo on Tunnel Of Love albeit with cameos from the E Street Band. 

After the tour for Tunnel Of Love, Springsteen shocked the world and disbanded the E Street Band, much to my and Clarence Clemons’ dismay. They are a legendary backing band: Roy Bittan, piano; Clarence Clemons sax; Gary Tallent, bass; Steve Van Zandt and later Nils Lofgren, guitar; Patti Scialfa, backing vocals; Danny Federici, organ; and Max Weinberg, drums. That was in roughly 1990 and for the next decade, other than brief reunions, Springsteen did his own thing. He recorded two LPs and released them on the same day, Human Touch and Lucky Town. He did the stark Ghost of Tom Joad. He finally got the E Street Band back together in 1999. I didn’t know it at the time, but he said that he wasn’t sure he could rock and roll any more. He didn’t know if he could still write songs for the band. 

All of that changed on 9/11. It was then that Springsteen reunited the mighty E Street Band in the studio to record one of his strongest set of songs. The Rising was simply brilliant. It remains to me the definitive 9/11 artistic statement. There was none of that ham-fisted, dumb-ass Toby Keith stuff. It was thoughtful and it rocked. That was one of the best tours of Springsteen’s that I’d ever seen. The E Street Band is the most sympathetic backing band for his vision. It’s like Dylan and the Band. They compliment each other so well. However, since 2002 Springsteen has bounced back and forth between solo projects and E Street Band albums. 

While the E Street Band was credited as playing on 2014’s High Hopes most of those songs had been written and recorded in the decade prior. I was shocked to see that the last actual E Street Band project was eleven years ago(!) in 2009 – the underrated Working On A Dream which was a set of hopeful songs at the dawn of the Obama administration. It followed Magic from 2007 which was a dire assessment of the Bush (W) administration. Springsteen has been busy in the interim. He wrote his widely acclaimed autobiography and then staged a one-man Broadway play based upon it (Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way). Just last year he did the sepia-toned, lush Western Stars that we loved down here at B&V, LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?

I loved all of that stuff but I couldn’t help but think, when will he record with the E Street Band again. I only recently discovered Springsteen has been suffering from a bit of writer’s block. He hadn’t really written any new rock songs since around 2010. It’s probably not a coincidence that toward the end of that decade – as is pointed out to Bruce in his excellent ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine interview – that was about the time saxophonist Clarence Clemons and organist Danny Federici both passed away. About a year ago, another friend of Bruce’s passed away, George Theiss. George was in one of Bruce’s early bands, The Castiles. I think they had a couple of singles but never amounted to much more. When Bruce realize he was the last member of the Castiles left, inspiration struck for the first time in a long time and he wrote an album’s worth of new material. 

I will admit up front, I was blown away by Letter To You, Bruce and the E Street Band’s new album. First and foremost, this is the most “E Street” sounding album Bruce has done in decades. There are glockenspiels, harmonicas, piano introductions to the tracks and sax solos (only now from Jake Clemons nephew of the late Clarence Clemons). There’s nothing like hearing Bruce play with the mighty E Street Band. Prior to recording he met with Roy Bittan who asked him not to demo the songs, he didn’t want Bruce to get locked into any arrangements. They did those live in the studio. Thematically, I thought this might end up being a political commentary on the current failed administration but as Bruce says in ‘Rolling Stone,’ that’d be the most “boring album ever.” Instead, on Letter To You Bruce confronts his own mortality and by doing so, helps us all confront our own. This album isn’t dark like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind or cheerful like McCartney’s Dance Tonight which both covered the same terrain.  

The album starts off quietly and somewhat surprisingly, with a ballad, “One Minute You’re Here” that might be one of Bruce’s most beautiful ballads ever. Coincidentally he ends with another strong track, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” that may be about Clarence. It’s a wonderful track that finds Bruce singing, “For death is not the end.” The title track, which I covered on an earlier post New Single: Springsteen’s “Letter To You,” The 1st Track From New LP & A Look At His 1st Singles ’80-’20, is one of his best songs ever. “Ghosts,” the second single is a soaring rock track with a great sax solo and certainly a favorite. “Last Man Standing” is a great rocking homage to the Castiles. In the middle of the LP is the very E Street “Power of Prayer,” a really nice love song. It’s followed up with “House of A Thousand Guitars” which I’ll admit is the only track on this album that left me slightly cold. I just expected, well, more guitar. Speaking of guitar, there are two big rockers here – “Rainmaker” and the rollin’ thunder of “Burining Train.” The latter has the best guitar work on the album. 

In the process of recording this album – which was done live in the studio by the whole band, a method of recording these guys haven’t done since the 70s – Springsteen dug out three old tracks that he’d written but never released. I don’t know if they were short on material or Bruce felt revisiting these old tracks fit in the theme of looking back as you reach the end of the road. Regardless, I’m delighted to say that the three tracks penned in the 70s are absolute highlights on this album. They rank amongst my favorite Springsteen tracks of all time. “Janey Needs A Shooter” which inspired Warren Zevon (with Bruce’s permission) to write “Jeanne Needs a Shooter,” is an epic rock song. I heard this while I was driving thru the main drag of a little neighborhood near me with the windows down and I almost crashed the car I was rocking so hard. “If I Was A Priest” is an awesome song that would have fit on The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle. Its Bruce at his most hilarious and his most Catholic. It reminds me a little of “The Ballad of Jesse James” a great deep track you should hear. “If I Were a Priest” imagines Jesus as a western cowboy hero… It’s hard to explain. “Song For An Orphan” rounds out the trio and is another epic, great track. I’d buy this album just for these three songs. 

I don’t know what the future holds for Bruce and the E Street Band. I hope this isn’t their last album together. In the liner notes on the record, the way Bruce thanks everybody it sounds like a farewell. Who knows if the inspiration will hit him again? The communion of this band coming together to play and their sense of brotherhood and loyalty is just such a pure and wonderful thing I hope it continues. They probably won’t be able to play live until 2022 but I certainly can’t wait to hear this stuff brought to life. This is yet another important album by one of our most important artists, Bruce Springsteen. This, without a doubt, will be on the B&V “best of” list this year. Everyone should hear this, especially with all the craziness in the world today. 

Be safe out there. Be good to each other. Music is salve, but it can’t cure everything. It can be a long dark ride… we have to decide what kind of people we want to be “cause there’s too many outlaws tryin’ to work the same line…”