Review: The White Stripes ‘Greatest Hits’ – A Lovingly Curated Romp Through Their Career

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I sometimes wonder if I’d have ever discovered any new music after the turn of the millennium if I hadn’t met the Rock Chick. I could see myself today, twenty years down the road, still thinking Pearl Jam was the last great band to emerge. While she reconnected me with bands I was already into like AC/DC, Green Day and Motley Crue, she also brought me out of my rock and roll exile and turned me onto new bands as well. For a very brief time we had the illegal download site Limewire at our disposal. Limewire was like the early Napster, basic file sharing. It was the Rock Chick who downloaded Limewire… at first my response was, “You kids and your fancy apps,” but once I started finding rare, hard to find b-sides it was like giving an addict the keys to the pharmacy. I stopped and deleted Limewire after I heard R.E.M.’s Mike Mills say that Napster/Limewire was tantamount to going down the local record shop and shoplifting their latest CD. Michael Stipe said he didn’t care, but I still didn’t feel good about it. In my defense, I only used Limewire in the same way I use Spotify today – to discover new music and then immediately purchase the stuff I liked. Still, it wasn’t cool. And I realize the difference between Spotify and Limewire… I pay for Spotify.

It was late 2001 or maybe even early 2002 when I saw this strange band, it was just a duo actually, the White Stripes on the MTV video awards show, if my memory serves me (and it rarely does these days). They were the final live performance on the show and I recall a bunch of balloons fell on them or a bunch of people rushed the stage. I noticed there was a woman on drums. I was intrigued. I checked out what I’d heard were the hits – “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With A Girl.” At the time the rock intelligentsia were hailing a new era of “garage rock” (that never really materialized). After doing some discovery over on Limewire, I realized that maybe these White Stripes were what they were talking about. They not only rocked but they could go acoustic like they do on “We’re Going To Be Friends” a track that immediately resonated with me. I quickly went out and purchased what I soon found out was their third LP, White Blood Cells. I was immediately taken with these guys. It’s quite an album.

Jack White was the singer/guitarist/keyboardist and songwriter. He is one of the most gifted guitar players not only of his generation but perhaps ever. I kept extolling his amazing guitar skills to my a friend of mine. It wasn’t until he saw Jack solo that he started comparing him to Hendrix. I was like, dude, I’ve been talking about this guy for 15 years. The drummer, Meg White, who Jack was introducing as his sister at the time was actually his ex-wife. Jack said he came up with the “sister” thing to avoid any Fleetwood Mac type drama. Much has been made of Meg White’s cavewoman style of drumming but I think she’s fabulous. She hits those skins like she’s mad at ’em. Her very basic drumming is, in my opinion, what allowed Jack White to soar on guitar. They call what Social Distortion does, combining country influences with punk rock, “cow punk.” With the White Stripes there was real strong blues influence/vibe to go with the punk or garage rock ethos they had. At the time I was describing them as blues punk or punk blues, whichever you’re comfortable with. As longtime readers know, I love the blues so it was natural I’d love the White Stripes.

In early 2003 the Stripes dropped their fourth album Elephant. While White Blood Cells broke them to a wider audience, it was Elephant‘s first single, “Seven Nation Army” that really made them stars. It’s an epic rock track and it was literally everywhere. I bought that album the day it came out. That tour was to be my first time to see the White Stripes. On June 28th of 2003 they played this smallish hall over in Kansas City, Kansas… Memorial Hall. Oh my god they were absolutely fantastic that night. They had a big body guard in a three-piece suit escort them onto the stage. They opened with “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground” and from there they were off. Jack White hopped around the stage like a bunny on meth. He’d come to the front of the stage and sing and them bounce back to the drum kit where he and Meg would jam. I swear Meg was hitting the drums so hard she was levitating off her seat. Three or four tracks in they played a Dolly Parton track, “Jolene.” I turned the Rock Chick and said, “pinch me, am I dreaming?” At one point Jack pulled out a battered, old, grey wide body guitar and played the fiercest blues licks I’d ever heard. The track was “Death Letter,” a song I discovered the next day when I went out and bought their second – and in my opinion their best – album De Stijl. After that amazing show it’s a wonder I didn’t hang a poster of them on my wall like I was  junior high kid. 

Every two years they’d put out a new album and I would snap it up the day it came out. Both Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump were triumphs that saw them stretching out their trademark blues punk sound. I got to see them a second time on the Get Behind Me Satan tour, this time at the slightly larger venue, Starlight Theater. Jack was dressed as a matador. I was in the fifth row and its one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. They played over thirty songs that night. Seeing Meg White up close left me smitten… I’ve always been susceptible to rock and roll crushes. She didn’t sing at this show like she did the first time I saw them but she made her presence known. They had a very charismatic stage presence. 

Sadly, after Icky Thump the White Stripes didn’t tour extensively. They played a handful of shows at weird locations. I want to say they filmed it for a documentary I remember seeing late at night. It was said that Meg didn’t want to tour. She’d grown tired of the road. At the time she’d done a little modeling and had gotten married. I think the rock and roll life and being Jack’s sidekick had lost its allure. After releasing a great little gem of a live album Under Great Northern Lights the White Stripes called it quits. Meg has become reclusive. I have often said in these pages and it bears repeating – come back Meg, please. The world needs the White Stripes. I love what Jack does with the Raconteurs and solo but you’ll never find a band as purely bad ass as the White Stripes. 

I can’t believe it’s been 13 years since the White Stripes last studio album. I feel like the Stripes were big but as they never played the big arenas or stadiums I wonder how big they really were. I own every album they put out but how many people do? I fear that if you’re a little older you may have missed out on this supernova of a band. Jack White has put together what I can only describe as a lovingly curated collection of their “best of” on the newly released The White Stripes Greatest Hits. I don’t usually write about “greatest hits” packages but there are a lot of iconic ones out there. I think this album will be on that list of super greatest hits albums out there. If you aren’t a White Stripes fanatic like me, this Greatest Hits package is the perfect introduction to their catalog. I love that Jack spread the 26 tracks on this album evenly over their six studio records. Their debut The White Stripes which is a really raw and primal album – it’s so garage rocky that you can almost smell oil and gasoline when you play it – is represented with as many songs as Elephant or Icky Thump. This is truly a great retrospective look at their catalog. There are two tracks that weren’t on albums, “Jolene” and “Let’s Shake Hands.” 

I love that the set opens with “Let’s Shake Hands,” which in non pandemic times was what you did when you met someone. It’s like Jack saying, “nice to meet you.” The second track establishes these guys as Detroit rockers with “The Big Three Killed My Baby” from their debut. What a great start! The epic rocking big hits are all here like “Seven Nation Army” (that ends the album), “Icky Thump” and “Blue Orchid.” There are quieter acoustic moments like “We’re Going to Be Friends” and their trade mark bluesy romps like “Ball And A Biscuit,” “Death Letter” and “I Fought Piranhas.” It’s safe to say that everything the White Stripe do well is represented on this greatest hits package. Listening to it just brings it home. 

Again, if you missed these guys in the early 2000s or you never paused to pick up their albums this is the perfect way to start listening to the White Stripes. I literally own every single song on this package and you should to. This album would be a perfect primer for a college level Rock And Roll 101 class. Turn this one up loud. 

Cheers! 

Single: Black Crowes, ‘Back Door Santa’ – Finally, A Xmas Song I Can Get Behind

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I’m probably like most people out there, 2020 has been a slow, painful slog. Despite the grim year, I looked up and suddenly it was the dreaded (for me) Holiday Season. How is it almost Christmas? It seems like just yesterday I was barricading myself in my house for the 4th of July. I guess we all thankfully got a collective Xmas gift this year in the form of a couple of viable vaccines. I was watching the local news last night and they did a story on a group of a dozen rescue dogs. They’d all been found in the house of a hoarder down in Tulsa and transferred to Kansas City because the Tulsa animal shelters are full. Not to get off track here, but if you’ve got charitable dollars to give, don’t forget your local animal shelters or the Humane Society. Anyway, these poor dogs who had been owned by this hoarder had never been outside. They’d never seen the sky or the sun. One can only imagine what the hoarder’s house smelled like. They showed the dogs being led by leash off the back of a truck and into the KC shelter. The dogs were looking up in fear at the sky they’d never seen. They were agitated and disoriented and perhaps a little agoraphobic. I couldn’t help but think I’ll look pretty similar to those dogs when I’m led out of this attic I’ve been hiding in for most of 2020. I can almost see myself being led by the arm by the Rock Chick – to keep me steady – while I stagger down the front porch steps, staring nervously at the sky…”What is that large burning orb hovering above the tree line?” “Well sir, it’s called the sun.” 

I’ve documented on these pages my, uh, “lack of enthusiasm” for the Christmas season (Confessions of an Ex-Grinch: My Christmas Epiphany). Anymore, and especially this year, it feels like a season I’ll have to endure rather than enjoy. I don’t know what turned me into such a ghoul about Christmas. I really like to give gifts. I like to make people happy, which may be a surprise to, well, people. My parents and my grandparents (God rest their souls) always put on a great Xmas. When we were little kids we’d wake up and come bursting down to the living room and it was nothing short of gleeful. And yet, here I am. As I got older it became more and more awkward for me to actually accept a gift. I never feel like I can express gratitude properly. It’s an odd thing to be hung up on. The Rock Chick says she knows when I don’t really appreciate a gift, but can she? I’m not sure I can even tell. Naturally, me marrying the Rock Chick was like the Grinch marrying Mrs. Claus. Every Christmas is a production Cecil B. DeMille would envy, which I’ve grown to enjoy. Admittedly, the strong egg nog helps… I guess I was just out there on my own, playing like a “Desperado” like the Eagles song for too long…”you’ve been out ridin’ fences for so long now.” 

One of the most irritating things about the Holiday season for me is the damn music. This year in Kansas City there was a radio station that started playing Christmas music the day after Halloween. When I heard that on my radio I kinda wished I was Elvis and I could shoot the radio with a pearl handle revolver and get away with it. Mariah Carey must count the days until the Christmas season so she can cash in. The song I hate the most – and it doesn’t matter who is singing it – is “The Little Drummer Boy.” If I have to hear that damn song again I’m going to “pa rum pum pum” lose my fucking mind. It’s like that song was designed to make me go insane. Bob Seger, who I love, does a particularly noxious version of that song. 

It was with great surprise, as I was perusing Spotify and Apple for new music, that I discovered under the “new releases” category a song by the Black Crowes, “Back Door Santa.” While it was a Christmas song, it was still a Black Crowes song so I was intrigued. I’ve always loved the Crowes. I read an extended cover article in ‘Classic Rock’ magazine recently about their last break up and how the Robinson brothers (Chris/vocals, Rich/guitar) were slowly trying to reunite, as brothers first and band members second. They were going to tour this year for the 30th anniversary of their classic debut, Shake Your Money Maker but then, well 2020 and Covid happened. I know they were able to squeeze a couple of acoustic shows in at the end of last year. I hope those guys, on a human level, can sort out that relationship. Sibling relationships can be complicated (The Mark of Cain: When Brothers Form Bands) especially when you work together. 

Its hard to believe it’s been thirty years since their debut came out. In 1990, I had literally just escaped my exile in Arkansas when Shake Your Money Maker came out. “Jealous Again” got radio play and it was just the kind of Stonesy, Faces-like rock and roll I had loved my whole life. When I heard their Otis Redding cover, “Hard to Handle” I was hooked, I bought the album and have stayed on the bandwagon ever since. “Twice As Hard” remains a staple here at the house. It didn’t hurt that their sophomore album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion defied the expectations of a “sophomore slump” and was actually even better than their debut. I can remember being drunk in downtown Dallas where I kept mistaking the lyrics of the first single, “Remedy,” and singing loudly, “Baby baby why you dry your hair?” instead of “dye your hair.” No one was amused. Well, no one but me. Southern Harmony was the first tour I was able to see them live and yes, they can bring it. 

Knowing its been 11 years since their last album, the oft overlooked gem Before The Frost…Until The Freeze (new tracks recorded live at Levon Helm’s barn), I was really excited when I thought the Crowes had recorded a new song, even if it is a Christmas song. Well, it turns out “Back Door Santa” was recorded back in 2005 and released as a free download. Apparently it was included on a couple of movie soundtracks. The song was written by soul artist Clarence Carter back in 1968. It has been recorded by various artists over the years including Bon Jovi and of all people, Brad Delp from Boston. I’m going to have to look for that Delp version, that sounds intriguing. 

“Back Door Santa” is pure, old time, Stax records, soul – complete with a horn section. What struck me about the Crowes version is how gleefully they perform this song. Chris Robinson on vocals sounds particularly joyful in his singing. With lyrics like “(Lookie here) I ain’t like old Saint Nick
He don’t come but once a year (oh, ho, ho, ho)” I have to agree with what it says on Wikipedia, that the song has “little to do with Christmas as a holiday.” Perhaps that’s why the song appeals to me. It’s a salacious, shameless come on. I love that he sings “OH, ho ho” instead of “ho ho ho.” I just think it’s hysterical. And while I can’t say with any certainty that “Back Door Santa” makes good on its promise of “I make all the little girls happy while the boys are out to play,” I can say they made this little Grinch very, very happy. 

If you like soul, if you like the Black Crowes, hell if you’re weird and like Christmas music, I think you’re going to like this track from the Black Crowes. While I was hopeful that this was a sign they were recording new stuff, at least they’re reviving the brand and that may just be the first step. I’m hopeful in 2021 Santa brings me a new Black Crowes album… or at least a show I can potentially attend if things get better. It’ll be hard to leave the attic… 

Happy Holidays to all of you out there but especially you folks who aren’t as into Christmas, like me. I hear the Holidays can be a time where depression increases. I can only imagine that this year it’ll be even worse with people isolated… Reach out to your loved ones, friends and family, make sure everybody is ok and let em know you care. It’s a dark ride… take of each other out there. 

Cheers! And remember… “I come runnin’ with my presents, every time you call me dear.” 

 

 

 

Review: Chris Cornell Posthumous Release, ‘No One Sings Like You Anymore, Vol. 1’ – A Nice Surprise From An Old Friend

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‘Tis the season, as the saying goes… not for the holidays but for hearing from old friends. I staggered out to the mail box recently to find a Christmas card from a friend I hadn’t heard from in a long time. It came as quite a surprise. It’s not that there had been a rift between my old friend and I or anything melodramatic had happened…like I’m typically prone to. It’s just day to day life has a way of getting in the way of relationships. You mean to call or email or reach out but then another work crisis arises and you put it off. In the old days I knew a few people who would send out those “family newsletters” in their Xmas cards. Let’s call those what they are, brag rags. “This year our family traveled to Mexico and Colorado… little Johnny won a spelling bee.” Please, you went to Cabo and went skiing and the trophy was probably a participation prize. I guess that sort of braggadocio is reserved for Facebook these days… I wouldn’t know I’ve never been on Facebook. 

I had a similar feeling of surprise when I found out yesterday Chris Cornell’s widow Vicky had posthumously released an entire album of cover songs that Chris had put together and sequenced prior to his death. What a holiday gift! As longtime readers know I was a huge fan of Chris Cornell and was quite shaken by his passing (I Awoke To The Devastating News: Chris Cornell Has Passed Away, RIP). In my defense, I had seen Soundgarden in concert merely a few nights prior to Cornell’s death (Concert Review: Soundgarden, Kansas City May 14, 2017). The surprise new album is called No One Sings Like You Anymore, Vol 1 and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate title. That voice…

As I sat up late last night listening to this album repeatedly into the wee hours with a tumbler of good bourbon, I tried to reach back through the misty memories in my mind to the first time I heard Cornell’s voice. I remember seeing a video of Soundgarden circa Louder Than Love. I think it was on that MTV Sunday night (?) show ‘120 Minutes.’ I have a vague memory of muttering to myself, these guys are the grunge Black Sabbath. They had that heavy, sludgy sound and the operatic vocals of a man I knew simply as, the handsome guy with really long black hair. Having fled Arkansas and moved back to Kansas City in 1990 I may or may not have been aware of a couple of Soundgarden tracks from Badmotorfinger that got some airplay in KC, “Rusty Cage” and the glorious track “Outshined.” 

If I’m being honest, I probably first became aware of Cornell when I heard the Temple of the Dog album. I was particularly enamored with “Hunger Strike” but I think that track drew me more to Eddie Vedder who duetted with Cornell on the song. When I heard “Say Hello To Heaven” was probably the moment I jumped on the Chris Cornell bandwagon. That is a great song, perfectly sung. A few months later, Soundgarden released their landmark album Superunknown. “Spoonman” and the psychedelic tinged “Black Hole Sun” were favorites but it wasn’t until I heard “Fell On Black Days” that I bought the album. My god, I love that song. It’s one of my all time favorites. “Whatsoever I feared has come to life, whatsoever I fought off became my life.” That line pretty summed up my existence in 1991. 

From there I followed Cornell through the end of Soundgarden (and through their reunions) to Audioslave and even into his solo career. I’ll admit to being disappointed by his debut solo record, Euphoria Mourning. There were a couple of tracks on that album that I still listen to today but overall it left me cold. I loved all three Audioslave LPs and am proud to say I saw them live. Cornell paced the stage like a panther. It was at Lollapalooza and I left after Audioslave played, they were why I was there. In retrospect I should have stuck around for the headliners… Jane’s Addiction. I get tunnel vision sometimes. Never leave a gig early. 

Cornell’s solo career was a bit of a mixed bag. I loved his final proper solo record, Higher Truth and reviewed it on B&V, Review: Chris Cornell’s “Higher Truth” – Finally He Comes Through. To me, it was his solo breakthrough. But lets admit, his solo stuff was highly eclectic. He did a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that was excoriated by the critics (and probably fans too) but I really liked it. I included it on my Cornell playlist I put together in the wake of his tragic loss, B&V iPod Playlist: Chris Cornell. I will say, that same eclectic approach can be heard in the songs that Cornell selected for this wonderful new album, No One Sings Like You Anymore. And in fact, that eclecticism is what makes this so great. 

I’ll admit again, this album was a complete surprise to me. Even though, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, they’d released a single a number of weeks ago, “Patience,” a GnR cover with no explanation and I bought it. I thought it was a one-off and didn’t dig into why it had been released. I actually forgot I purchased it. In my defense, there has been a shit ton of music that has come out this year. When I found No One Sings had been released yesterday, it was like that day I staggered to the mailbox and found that Christmas card from my long absent friend. I put this album on with that same delighted surprise I’d felt standing at the mailbox. It is indeed nice to hear from our old friend Chris. 

Cover songs are an interesting thing in popular music. It’s like two-for-one night down at the bar. A song you already know, that possibly was a hit for someone else, sung by an artist you like… what’s not to love? If you pair the right cover song with the right artist you might just have a sure-thing hit. Aretha Franklin owns Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Jimi Hendrix owns “Hey Joe.” I can’t even tell you who did the original on that one. Doing an entire album of covers is an even more rare animal. We shared our favorite “cover albums” on B&V a while ago, B&V’s Favorite Cover Albums: Singing Other People’s Songs. I reread that post and I stand behind every record on that list. Covers can be done very reverently, no messing with the formula or the artist can completely reinterpret the song in a new way. I think Cornell does a little of both on this new album. 

I love that he chose such a diverse group of artists to cover. The album opens with a cover of a track that Janis Joplin made famous, “Get It While You Can.” Cornell totally reinterprets the track. I had to go back and listen to the Joplin track to make sure it was the same song. The track sets the tone for the musical journey ahead. Wisely, Cornell’s vocals are the star here. Later on the album he does a couple different obscure soul tracks, “Stay With Me Baby” originally done by Lorraine Ellison and “You Don’t Know Nothing About Love” by Carl Hall. I love both those tracks. They were such a pleasant surprise. I was amazed at how soulful a delivery Cornell has on “Stay With Me Baby.” He feels that soulful heartache baby. There’s even an organ on that song.

“Patience,” one of my favorite GnR ballads is very well served here in Cornell’s hands. I saw that his cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a Prince track that I had purchased from a “best of” package earlier is on here as well. I love his version of the song – he really lays out the vocal – but I’m starting to wonder how many times I’m going to have to buy that song, heh heh. I was surprised and utterly delighted to see Cornell cover Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire.” The space-age version Cornell does is a great update. He also, and again this was a surprise choice, covers Nilsson’s drinking buddy John Lennon’s song “Watching the Wheels” from Lennon’s final record Double Fantasy. Its a nice laid back acoustic strummer here and just wonderful. My favorite track on the album is a song called “Sad Sad City” originally done by a band I’d never heard of, Ghostland Observatory. “Sad Sad City” could have easily been nestled onto Higher Truth and I’d have thought it was a Cornell original. I love the insistent, driving drum, the acoustic riff and the great backing vocals. Cornell sings that one like he owns it. I also love his total reinterpretation of ELO’s “Showdown.” Nothing will touch the original on that one (even though I find ELO terribly derivative of the Beatles, they had their moments) but Cornell’s version keeps my interest. It doesn’t create quite the tension of ELO’s original but its a cool cover. 

The album is entitled Vol 1 which to me implies there is more in the vault that he did. I know that Cornell and Soundgarden were working on a new album. I hear that, much like Petty, there is a dispute between the band and Vicky Cornell about the future of those tracks. So I guess we wait for the lawyers to sort that one out. Regardless this is a nice addition to the Cornell canon and highly recommend this for his fans. I do really hope there is more out there. This man’s vocals were so special, I have to hope we hear more in the coming years. 

It’s the holidays folks and for some of us that’s a darker time… With people staying at home this year and keeping distance it may be a dark time for a whole lot more of us this year. Reach out, stay in touch with your loved ones. Take care of each other out there folks. Be safe. 

Cheers! 

 

Review: Mike Campbell’s New Band The Dirty Knobs, ‘Wreckless Abandon”

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While I could – on a very personal level – argue that 1994-1995 were my worst years, I believe I’m safe in saying that on a more universal level 2020 has been the worst year of all our lives. With all the general suck-iness and downright awful shit that has happened in 2020 I have to admit… and I don’t say this about many years… it’s been a great year for rock and roll. I looked back at some of my old “best of” lists for past years and more than once I fell into quoting Don Henley, “it was a pretty good year for fashion, a lousy year for rock and roll.” I certainly can’t say that about 2020. Unable to tour, many bands from AC/DC to Springsteen & the E Street Band put together new albums. If there wasn’t new music, many artists from Neil Young to the Stones put out great stuff from the archives. I’ve been so awash in new music (or vault stuff) that I’ve found myself writing twice a week this fall… which is probably better for me than the folks who actually read B&V… 😉

Lately, one vault release I find myself returning to most often is Tom Petty’s box set for his landmark album Wildflowers, entitled All The Rest, Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited. It’s an easy box to get caught up in. While Wildflowers was a Petty “solo” album, just like all his other “solo” stuff, Petty’s “co-pilot” and main collaborator was guitarist Mike Campbell. Campbell can play pretty much any stringed instrument he chooses to pick up. I remember the first time I got to see Petty and the Heartbreakers in concert. It was June 26th of 1985 on the Southern Accents tour and man was I blown away. In retrospect the Confederate flag as a back drop was an awful mistake… I’m not sure we all understood the bad symbolic importance of that particularly odious flag. Also, Petty had those awful lamb chop sideburns. I heard his wife at the time offered to donate money at Live-Aid if he’d shave those off. I’m with her on that, I promised my sainted grandmother I’d never grow facial hair, but I digress. That hot June night in 1985 I was mesmerized by not only Petty but the tall, skinny guy with the curly hair standing to his right, Mike Campbell. When Campbell played the guitar solo on “Don’t Come Around Here No More” I almost swooned and I’m a pretty rugged guy or at least I like to think so.

That concert was the first time Campbell’s greatness really crystalized for me. I recognized him from, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, watching videos on MTV. I had most of Petty’s back catalog at the time and saw that Campbell co-wrote a lot of the best songs but I’m not sure I realized what a force of nature he was until actually seeing him “light the sky on fire” as my friend Stormin’ says. I quickly realized that night, all those great riffs (like on “You Got Lucky” a synth laden track where the guitar is the star) were courtesy of Mike Campbell. People talk about the great collaborators in rock and roll: Paul McCartney and John Lennon or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards but people ought to speak more about Petty and Campbell. I don’t think you could find two people with more synergy than those two guys. I’m not sure Petty realized what a truly valuable collaborator Campbell was until Mike co wrote “Boys of Summer” with Don Henley. It was a bigger hit than anything off of Southern Accents and at that point I think Petty decided to expand Campbell’s creative input. I’m just guessing on that. Rolling Stone magazine has Campbell at number 79 on their list of 100 best guitarists and frankly I think that’s low. Way low.

I wondered what would happen to Mike Campbell after the tragic death of Tom Petty (RIP Tom Petty, 1950 – 2017, A Devastating Loss: The Composer of the Soundtrack to My Life Is Gone). Mike is truly one of the most talented, important guys in rock and roll and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s an “unsung” hero, he should be getting more attention than he does. It was with some surprise that I heard that Campbell joined Fleetwood Mac after they’d cut ties with Lindsey Buckingham (Bummer News: Fleetwood Mac Tells Lindsey Buckingham To Go His Own Way). Campbell’s long association with Stevie Nicks probably made that a no brainer. I was excited to hear Campbell talk about playing some of that old Peter Green stuff from the Mac. Alas, it doesn’t look like this latest configuration of Fleetwood Mac will be doing any recording. Instead, Campbell has released a new album with a band he’s had as a side project for quite a while, the Dirty Knobs. I love the name. This isn’t Campbell’s first band on the side… The Rock Chick discovered and played me the great LP by the Blue Stingrays. It’s a surf rock gem, Friday Night Music Exploration With the Rock Chick: Blue Stones, Blue Stingrays, although Campbell and the rest of the Heartbreakers chose to remain anonymous on that album.

In the run up to the release of the Dirty Knobs’ new album, Wreckless Abandon, Campbell had said that this was a heavier, more raw-boned album than the Heartbreakers stuff. While that is mostly true, so alike were Campbell and Petty in their style and approach that it’s hard not to listen to this and hear an echo of the Heartbreakers. Well, the Heartbreakers without the keyboards, this is a guitar record. It would be easy to think of this as a recording of stuff that Campbell would turn over to Petty as a demo tape, not that there is any sort of an unfinished aspect to any of this great music. Even the Rock Chick said, upon playing this album, “Wow, he really sounds like Petty.” The Dirty Knobs, besides Campbell on vocals/guitar are guitarist Jason Sinay, drummer Matt Laug, and bassist Lance Morrison. One of them sings with Campbell on “Loaded Gun,” but I’m not sure who.

The album begins with the first single and title track, “Wreckless Abandon.” The track starts with a sitar and then the band kicks in with a great rocking groove. I will admit up-front that Campbell’s voice is a little thin and perhaps even reedy in a few places. I still like the vocals on this record. I know a lot of people get nervous when the guitar player steps up to the microphone. A lot of people head for the beer line when Keith Richards gets to the mic, but his tracks are always my favorites on Stones’ albums. I know that only I feel that way… well, me and my old roommate Drew. “Wreckless Abandon” is the kind of great rock and roll you just don’t hear anymore, sadly.

The band quickly goes country-rock for the duet with Chris Stapleton on “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” It’s a down home bunch of fun. It’s right back to the rock and roll for “Sugar.” “Sugar” is probably the heaviest song on this album. It reminds me a touch of “Honey Bee” by Petty. I love the lascivious chorus, “She’s got the sugar, oh yes she does…” As I tell the Rock Chick, I didn’t marry you because you could cook… ahem. “Southern Boy” is another great rocker. I’m considering adding it to our playlist about trains (Playlist: The B&V 50 Favorite Songs About Trains – “that lonesome whistle blows…”). “I Still Love You” is another heavy rocking track with some big riffs. I’ll say it again for emphasis, this is a guitar album!

Perhaps my favorite song on the record is, perhaps not surprisingly, the ballad “Irish Girl.” I love the acoustic guitar and harmonica. I had a girlfriend in college who told me one time that I was always drawn to ballads because I was a basically sad person but you can’t always trust your girlfriends. Certainly not that woman… Another personal favorite is a song that runs through my head every day at work – “Fuck That Guy.” Sure it’s funny and Campbell mostly speaks the lyrics vs singing them, but it’s just such an appropriate song for these days when civility has died. The world weary manner that Campbell says the title…”yeah fuck that guy” is priceless. “Don’t Knock The Boogie” is another spoken word track and is a bluesy tribute to John Lee Hooker. It’s really just an excuse to let Campbell riff and I’m ok with that. “Ana Lee” is another sweet, acoustic ballad. “Loaded” is another heavy rocker. This album is just loaded with guitar, as you would expect from Campbell.

If you’re like me and you’re missing Tom Petty, Wreckless Abandon may just scratch that itch. But more broadly than that, if you like guitar, riff-rock this is your album. There’s a lot of rock and roll but there’s also some blues, ballads and a little bit of country rock. It’s basically all the things Mike Campbell does well which turns out to be everything. Enjoy this one with the volume turned up to 11.

Cheers, and as always be safe out there folks. It’s a dark ride, take care of each other this holiday season, which for me is a season to be endured.

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! 

 

 

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…” 

 

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!