Posts Tagged ‘Rolling Stone’

Buried Treasure: “Live” Full House

13 August 2010

[Today: Shooting off sparks…]

Long before they hit MTV with ‘Centerfold’, J. Geils Band was a fierce blues/rock outfit that lit up stages across the country as one of the hottest live acts of the early 70s. As an opener, it wasn’t uncommon for J. Geils Band to blow the headliners off their own stage. Their shows were a wild combination of R&B, blues/rock and good old-fashioned rock-n-roll, featuring manic, crowd-pleasing solos, a spastic lead singer, and the kind of showmanship that many bands of the day were too stoned to pull off. They played to their crowds, and it won them fans wherever they went.

A glowing 1973 concert review in Rolling Stone claimed that “…every J. Geils concert is typified by two things: a full house and a massive exchange of energy between the band and audience.” Recorded in April, 1972 at the Cinderella Ballroom in Detroit, “Live” Full House captures much of that energy: frontman Peter Wolf often lapses into a blues version of speaking in tongues, harpist Magic Dick solos orgasmically on about every other song, keyboardist Seth Justman plays with the kind of fervor that had critics describing him as a demented nephew of Jerry Lee Lewis, and guitarist and band namesake J. Geils provides the horsepower.

In his memoir via music, Songbook, British author Nick Hornby described the thrill of hearing “Live” Full House on his first visit to the states, as a teenager in the ’70s. “To me back then, this, not Tamla Motown, was The Sound of Young America – loud, baffling, exotic, cool, wild. It comes from the same place as Kramer in Seinfeld, and ‘Surfin’ Bird’, and ‘Papa Oo-Mow-Mow’, and James Brown being wrapped in a cape and led off stage before bounding back to the microphone, and Muhammad Ali’s boasts, and the insane celebrations when a contestant won a lawnmower on The Price Is Right.”

That wild, crazy, uber-confident and totally unselfconscious attitude is what makes this such a liberating listen. By their very nature, live albums can’t recreate the visual appeal of a band doing their thing without a net, live on stage. But every so often a live album is good enough that you catch a piece of that massive transfer of energy between band and audience. Drop the needle on “Live” Full House, and grab a live wire…

Listen: First I Look At The Purse

Listen: Serves You Right To Suffer

Buried Treasure: The Mona Lisa’s Sister

22 April 2010

[Today: The forgotten contender…]

In its August 27th, 1987 issue, Rolling Stone magazine counted down the 100 best albums of the previous 20 years. In a musical upset for the ages, Graham Parker had not one, but two albums on that list – #45 (Squeezing Out Sparks) and #54 (Howlin’ Wind) – both ranked ahead of usual suspects such as Electric Ladyland, Ramones, Rust Never Sleeps and Led Zeppelin II. That showing speaks volumes about the kind of musical contender Parker was once considered. His early albums channeled the fury of punk rock through a folk sensibility, and were as literate and biting as the best early Bob Dylan albums.

But he made some bad career decisions (firing his excellent backing band The Rumour and making an intentionally lousy album to get sacked by his first label, to name a couple), switched record labels the way Larry King switches wives (Mercury to RCA to Elektra to Atlantic back to RCA and so on…), and generally sabotaged any chance he had of reaching the kind of audience his music deserved. Tellingly, when Rolling Stone issued another Top 100 list a decade later, none of his albums were on it. Quite the snub for an aritst who was once considered a cinch to have a career on par with Elvis Costello.

But against all odds, Parker released the best album of his career in 1988, the year after the original RS list. The Mona Lisa’s Sister should have put him right back on the fast track – this is an excellent batch of songs that are slightly softer around the edges than his earlier, angrier work. He brought back some of the key pieces of The Rumour, including guitarist Brinsley Schwarz, who co-produced this with him. It’s impossible to pinpoint why some albums fail and others succeed, but Parker put his best foot forward here to no avail. Songs like the ‘Get Started, Start A Fire’ and ‘Under The Mask Of Happiness’ were probably too intellectual for the mass market, but they still burn brightly and intensely. Rolling Stone even agrees – when it released its list of the 100 best albums of the 80s, The Mona Lisa’s Sister checked in at #97…

Listen: Get Started, Start A Fire

Listen: Under The Mask Of Happiness

Listen: I Don’t Know

Magic Moment: James Brown On The T.A.M.I. Show

8 March 2010

The T.A.M.I. Show was a pioneering concert film that was recorded at the Santa Monica Civic Center on October 28th and 29th, 1964 and released to theaters later that year. The movie featured a variety of top performers of the day, including The Supremes, Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys. James Brown’s performance has been oohed and ahhed for decades, but with no video to back up the delirium, his brilliance has been little more than a rumor – until now. On March 23rd, the complete T.A.M.I. Show will finally get its release on DVD.

After previewing the video, I now understand what all the fuss was about – Brown is at a performance peak here that matches the grace and power of Muhammad Ali prowling the ring or Willie Mays patrolling centerfield. His dancing is off the charts, as he presages Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and moves around the stage in a constant blur of motion. This performance shows why he was nicknamed Mr. Dynamite – when he’s forced to stand behind the microphone he looks like he’s about to burst out of his skin.

In a profile of Brown that he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine, Rick Rubin describes seeing video of Brown’s T.A.M.I. Show performance:

I remember going to Minneapolis to visit Prince years ago, sitting in an office waiting for him — and there was an endless loop of James Brown’s performance in the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I. Show running on a screen. That may be the single greatest rock & roll performance ever captured on film. You have the Rolling Stones on the same stage, all of the important rock acts of the day, doing their best — and James Brown comes out and destroys them. It’s unbelievable how much he outclasses everyone else in the film.

This clip features Brown and his Famous Flames ripping through ‘Out Of Sight’ and ‘Night Train’ – two of the four numbers they performed for The T.A.M.I. Show. Pity the Rolling Stones – they had to follow this…

Masterpiece: I’m A Lonesome Fugitive

25 February 2010

[Today: The wit and wisdom of Merle Haggard…]

Prison sentences, hard labor and truck driving are the stuff of fiction for most country singers, but Merle Haggard has lived a life that is genuinely reflected in his music. His family relocated to Bakersfield, CA to escape the Oklahoma dust bowls of the Great Depression, and his father died when he was just 9 years old. He soon embarked on a life of petty crime, menial jobs and riding the rails, and by the time he was in his early-30’s, he’d done several stints in reformatories and prisons. In fact, he was in the audience for three of Johnny Cash’s performances at San Quentin, and those shows helped convince him to turn his life around and get serious about music.

His music reflected the so-called Bakersfield Sound, a rough-edged version of country music that featured Fender Telecaster in addition to pedal steel or more traditional country guitars. Developed by Buck Owens, the Bakersfield Sound eventually became a strain of the Outlaw movement in country music, and Haggard became its leading face. “I don’t know if you could call my music cowboy music,” he told Rolling Stone in 1968. “I don’t sing about horses. I call it country music, or American music. It’s one of the only musics that began with our nation.”

Whatever you choose to call the music, Haggard does it right. He has scored a remarkable 38 #1 hits in a career that landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1977 and earned him a spot in the Country Music Hall Of Fame. His first #1 was the title track to his 1967 album, I’m A Lonesome Fugitive. This was Haggard’s fourth album, and it finds him rounding his sound into shape. Here his band The Strangers are augmented by legendary session guitarists James Burton and Glen Campbell, and while it’s far from the over-polished product that Nashville was creating at the same time, it’s a tight set of 12 songs that reflect the wit and wisdom of the down and out.

Haggard the songwriter swings between tragedy and comedy, touching on bad love, lean bank accounts and long prison sentences. But Haggard the singer never plays for sympathy, and seems to find humor in places where others find tears. With a rich, careworn voice and a name that even a screenwriter couldn’t come up with, Merle Haggard made music for the back roads and stout souls of America – music that was much bigger than Bakersfield.

Listen: I’m A Lonesome Fugitive

Listen: Life In Prison

Listen: Someone Told My Story


6 January 2010

As The P and I were turning the page on the New Year, word came trickling in from several friends that Soundgarden had reunited. This news ought to make me giddy as a schoolgirl – I’m grungy enough that I still wear a thrashed, ancient pair of Doc Martens to work every day, and as I’ve previously documented in this space, Soundgarden was one of my favorite bands of the 90’s. Their unexpected breakup in 1997 was a shocker that still kind of bugs me.

But a funny thing happened when I heard this particular bit of news – far from getting me excited, it left me feeling bitter and unsatisfied. I don’t begrudge them the opportunity to reunite and make a few bucks, but 13 years of this band’s lifecycle has washed away, and my bitterness has to do with all the music they didn’t make during that time. For those who haven’t seen them, I wish you a supremely enjoyable show, and hope Soundgarden delivers the Greatest Hits Revue of your dreams. But I saw them in concert three times, back in the days when they were on fire, and I have no intention of pushing my luck and possibly tarnishing good memories.

In its original 1997 article on the band’s breakup, Rolling Stone quoted an unnamed source (probably band manager Susan Silver) as saying that “the only thing keeping [lead singer] Chris [Cornell] from superstardom was that he was in a heavy-metal band. If he could somehow step out of it, he’s groomed for the mainstream.” It seems clear from that statement, as well as other clues, that Cornell wanted to move into the musical mainstream and become a superstar. Sadly, he and his handlers didn’t realize that the mainstream was moving towards Soundgarden, and 13 years later, Cornell is much less well known (and probably less well-regarded artistically) than he was during his grunge days. The surprising multi-platinum success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam led not only to the death of Kurt Cobain, but provided outsized commercial expectations that brought on the premature demise of Soundgarden and left the late-90’s field open to nu-metal suckdogs like Papa Roach and Nickelback.

In August of 2008, The Onion ran a hilarious article headlined “SOUNDGARDEN INADVERTENTLY REUNITES AT AREA CINNABON” that fooled a few of my friends into thinking the group was actually getting back together. But at that point, the members of the group had been sending off signals for more than a decade that they had no intention of doing any such thing.

Explaining why he was opposed to the idea of a reunion, Cornell told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005 that “It’s almost like we sealed the lid and said, this is Soundgarden and this is its lifespan, and put it out there. And it looks really great to me. I think getting back together would take the lid off that and then could possibly change what… to me seems like the perfect lifespan of the band. I can’t think of any reason to mess with that.”

Me neither…

Listen: Jesus Christ Pose

Masterpiece: Elephant

17 December 2009

[Today: Jack & Meg White have a ball & biscuit…]

It’s easy to look at the music industry and see an obstacle course of challenges facing any artist in search of an audience. Pirated MP3s rob musicians of royalties. Labels are built to hit home runs, not nurture artists. My feet hurt. And so on. But one listen to an album like Elephant (or Exile On Main St, for that matter) is an ear-opening reminder that the music business isn’t about new-age marketing so much as it’s about riffs and hooks. The gigantic, throbbing guitar line that opens ‘Seven Nation Army’ (and this album) is a clarion call of world domination. You got riffs like that, you can lock your marketing people in the closet and throw away the key. And Jack White has bushels of riffs like that.

At the dawn of the 21st century, albums like this just weren’t supposed to get made anymore. Released in 2003, Elephant is a throwback in both form and function – an album of vintage styles recorded on early-60’s equipment. The distortion, fuzz and blues that form the backbone of this album are exactly what made it sound so fresh in a digital world. After the crunching, Led Zeppelican riffs of ‘Seven Nation Army’ we’re treated to dirty blues, psychedelic rock, tender balladry, and even a torch song from Meg. Retro in all the best ways, The White Stripes don’t simply mimic and pick over the musical past – they infuse it with their own particular brilliance, while playing with the energy of a punk band.

Jack White is one of the best guitarists of the modern era – a high-voltage bluesbreaker who lets loose a frenzy of hot licks every time he picks up the instrument. In one sentence of its original review of this record, Rolling Stone compared White to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Marc Bolan and Buzzcocks. Throw in the serious stomp implied by its title, and you’ve got a landmark album that sounds more timeless with each passing year.

Listen: Seven Nation Army

Listen: Ball & Biscuit

Listen: I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself

Masterpiece: The Basement Tapes

25 September 2009

[Today: A ticket back in time…]

Bob Dylan & The Band | The Basement Tapes

On July 29th, 1966, Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle on the country roads outside Woodstock, NY. Accounts of the accident vary, and it’s unclear if he sustained life-threatening injuries, as has been widely reported. But Dylan was laid up for many months recuperating, and during this time he started playing old folk and country songs with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel – first in the Red Room of his house in Woodstock, and then in the basement of Big Pink, The Band’s house in West Saugerties, NY.

In late March of 1967, they began recording the music they were making together. The sound of these songs – loose and ragged, yet immensely soulful – reflected both the songs they’d been covering since Dylan’s accident and their rustic, upstate New York surroundings. As Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine, “That’s really the way to do a recording – in a peaceful, relaxed setting – in somebody’s basement. With the windows open… and a dog lying on the floor.”

It seems clear that Dylan didn’t initially intend for these songs to see general release, and therein lies the brilliance of what would become The Basement Tapes. By playing for themselves, Dylan and The Band cut loose with music that stood outside of its time, and sounded both ancient and timeless. Filled with non-sequitars, bawdy humor, and pseudo-Biblical references, this was the most non-commercial music imaginable in the psychedelia-crazed year of 1967. Songs like ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ and ‘Tears Of Rage’ sound like they were brought down from the mountaintop by Moses. ‘Reuben Remus’ and ‘Tiny Montgomery’ are but two of the songs here that play out like unmistakable but indecipherable jokes.

The lyrics on The Basement Tapes are put forth in the plainest possible language, but retain a mysterious, oblique quality that grows with each listen. ‘Ain’t No More Cane’ isn’t just a song about a sugarcane shortage, it’s a lament for the dying South. ‘Bessie Smith’ is told through the voice of a lover of the late, great Blues singer, but could be the dying words of a wise man. ‘Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread’ is a stream-of-conscious tone poem, while ‘Clothes Line Saga’ and ‘Katie’s Gone’ are short stories without beginning or end.

These songs were endlessly covered (by the likes of Peter, Paul & Mary, Fairport Convention and The Byrds) and widely bootlegged, but didn’t see commercially release as The Basement Tapes until 1975. The inside gatefold artwork shows the group down in the basement, posed in front of a reel-to-reel player with the likes of a midget, a clown, a ballerina, a fire-eater, a nun, and an eskimo. In the foreground, a lone crutch leans against a box of reel-to-reel tapes. It’s doubtful that this music can heal the lame, but it can take you to a place where myth, madness, mirth and music are swirled together into a great cosmic mystery.

Listen: This Wheel’s On Fire

Listen: Bessie Smith

Listen: Going To Acapulco

Doubleshot Tuesday: Bridge Of Sighs/Kapt. Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds

21 July 2009

[Today: Two disciples of Jimi…]

Robin Trower | Bridge Of Sighs
Randy California | Kapt. Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds

Jimi Hendrix was a ridiculously talented guitarist who died far too young. His influence on the next generation of guitarists was incalculable, but not in the typical meaning of the phrase – literally, it’s almost impossible to find Jimi’s influence on the surface of any but a scant few albums, and those were released way back in the 70’s. His approach to the electric guitar, and his use of effects pedals and feedback have inspired numerous famous guitarists, but in terms of the sound those guitars are making, Jimi’s influence has been negligible at best. The best analogy for this is Michael Jordan, because while MJ was the greatest basketball player in the world, it would be folly for other players to try be the next Jordan. Ballers can admire the components of his game, and try to emulate his approach to it, but anyone with commensurate talent would be less interested in copying a legend than becoming one (anyone besides Kobe Bryant, that is).

The two guitarists who really followed in the footsteps of Jimi’s sound provide an interesting contrast in the different ways his style was absorbed and regurgitated. Ex-Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower sounds more like Hendrix than any other guitarist I’ve heard, but he pulls up just short of actually ripping off Jimi’s licks. Trower seems to have a technical understanding of how Jimi made his guitar sound just so, and takes that knowledge to his own places. His 1974 album Bridge Of Sighs is a must-have for any Hendrix fan – the homage is obvious, but the music is excellent. Of the comparisons between him and Jimi, Trower told Rolling Stone magazine in 1975 that “If you’re going to compare what I do to anybody, then you have to admit it. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be doing what I am now.”

Meanwhile, Spirit guitarist Randy California served what can only be described as an apprenticeship at Jimi’s knee. As a 15-year old, he played with a pre-fame Hendrix in Jimmy James & The Blue Flames – five shows a night, six nights a week during a three-month residency at New York City’s Cafe Wha? in 1966. It was Hendrix who dubbed him Randy California, to differentiate him from another Randy in the band. California’s work with Spirit shows some of Jimi’s influence (particularly Spirit Of ’76), but his 1972 solo album Kapt. Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds has Jimi written all over it. Album opener ‘Downer’ is a skittering guitar freak-out, while ‘Devil’ has the laid back vocals and swirling, backwards-masked guitar figures of an Axis: Bold As Love outtake. Even the album’s awesomely sludgy covers of The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘Rain’ are a nod to Jimi. California, who passed away in 1997, said of his mentor, “Even though I was at a very young age when I worked with him, I could tell he was a very loving, caring and open person.”

Listen: The Fool And Me [Robin Trower]

Listen: Day Tripper [Randy California]

Listen: Day Of The Eagle [Robin Trower]

Listen: Devil [Randy California]

Buried Treasure: LiveR Than You’ll Ever Be

7 February 2009

[Today: The Stones unwittingly create the first great live bootleg…]

The Rolling Stones | LiveR Than You'll Ever Be

A month before their date with the devil (and Hell’s Angels) at Altamont Speedway, The Rolling Stones were in the midst of a 14-city tour with new guitarist Mick Taylor – one that included several dates on the west coast. On November 9, 1969 they played two shows at the Oakland Coliseum, the second of which would be recorded by an audience member for posterity. Because of technical difficulties, including a blown amplifier, that second show didn’t finish until 5am, but it would prove to be one of the most famous concerts in the history of rock.

The sound quality of this recording is good enough that nobody at the time believed it could possibly have been captured by an audience member. Theories abounded as to the source – the most popular being that the bootlegger tapped into either the soundboard or the PA system. But according to Clinton Heylin’s indispensable book Bootleg: The Secret History Of The Other Recording Industry, the taper behind the recording was an audience member named ‘Dub’. He told Heylin “What I used was a Sennheiser 805 ‘shotgun’ microphone… I had it anodised black so it wouldn’t reflect light and couldn’t be seen in the dark.”

LiveR Than You’ll Ever Be was rush-released before Christmas 1969, and proved to be so popular that it was eventually released in more than 20 different bootleg versions. Fittingly, the album was pressed at one of the many plants used by The Stones’ label, London Records. The finished product was even delivered to the bootleggers in London Records boxes! Reviewers of the day contended that it was superior to the officially released live album from the tour, the overdubbed Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. In his January, 1970 review of LiveR, Rolling Stone magazine’s Greil Marcus gushed “It is the most musically exciting album I have heard all year, fully the equal, in its own way, of Let It Bleed, and in some ways better. All qualifications aside, it is the ultimate Rolling Stones album.”

Highlights include a ferocious version of ‘Midnight Rambler’ that lays bare the psychotic violence at the heart of the song, a tough-as-nails take on Robert Johnson’s ‘Love In Vain’, and a more muscular re-working of pop hit ‘I’m Free’. Officially released on CD in 1990, LiveR Than You’ll Ever Be retains its primal energy, and remains one of the best documents of the self-proclaimed ‘World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band’.

Listen: Midnight Rambler

Listen: I’m Free

Masterpiece: Siamese Dream

27 December 2008

[Today: Billy Corgan is killing me softly with his song…]

Smashing Pumpkins | Siamese Dream

“Smashing Pumpkins were meant to be an ambitious project, and I want our recordings to be perfect,” group mastermind Billy Corgan told Guitar Player magazine in 1992. With their sophomore effort, the Pumpkins came close to realizing Corgan’s grand ambitions. Siamese Dream rolls seamlessly back and forth between intense, buzzing guitar solos and peaceful, light melodies – often within a single song. It’s the kind of album that stereo salesmen use to win over potential clients.

This music sounds like the work of a group that’s totally on the same page, but in truth the band members were barely speaking during these sessions, and legend has it that Corgan played everything but Jimmy Chamberlain’s drum kit. Some songs on Siamese Dream contain upwards of 100 guitar tracks, and Corgan and co-producer Butch Vig (who also produced Nirvana’s Nevermind) carefully layered raw solos, sizzling feedback, and the occasional splash of strings and mellotron. As Rolling Stone noted in its original review, “…even the most chaotic pileups of distortion are painstakingly orchestrated.”

Smashing Pumpkins were considered part of the grunge movement, but mainly because they had a key track on the genre-defining Singles soundtrack, and Billy Corgan’s vocals are dripping with angst. The lyrics here reflect some of his personal issues at the time, and most of the songs center around phrases (“The killer in me is the killer in you” or “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”) that sound like fortune cookies for profoundly anxious people. Corgan and company perfectly combined the technical flatulence of Prog with the fire and brimstone of Metal and the confessional self-probing of a Singer/Songwriter, and the result was one of the very best albums of the 90’s.

This group has a history of punishing live audiences with ear-splitting decibel-levels, but Siamese Dream is an album that reveals its inner dimensions – and is best enjoyed – when played as loud as possible.

Listen: Cherub Rock

Listen: Today