Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 20 Best Albums of 2009

Every media outlet under the sun (not to mention some in the dark, too) has issued a best-of-the-year list. While mine inevitably has some things in common with others, it simply represents my personal favorites. There may be other meritorious titles out there, but if they’re not listed here, it means either they were not the cream of this year’s crop to my ears, or I simply didn’t hear them. More likely the former though, since I listen to a heck of a lot of music. Anyway, you’re welcome to disagree.

As I began to consider this list, I was tempted to state right off the bat that 2009 was not a particularly impressive year as far as new rock releases were concerned – especially when compared to the bright sonic lights that breached the horizon in 2007 and 2008. Yet, as I got into assessing the albums, I began to think that maybe 2009 wasn’t so bad after all. One thing is for sure, Pink Floyd’s influence continues to abound in modern music – on both the dense, hard rock side and the mellow, spacey side of the sound spectrum.

= mostly mellow

= a mix of mellow and rockin’

= totally rockin’

NightjarMarty Willson-Piper – This might be my favorite record of the year. Simultaneously lush, yet uncluttered, this latest solo release from the Church guitarist is rich in multi-layered acoustic guitars, string accompaniments and evocative harmony vocals. There is real drama – both lyrically and musically – in the songs. It all adds up to exuberant and romantic music that manages to be both crisp and atmospheric. (See my previous, more detailed posting on this CD here.)

Untitled #23The Church – This Australian band, forever pegged to the 1980’s thanks to their biggest hit, 1988’s “Under the Milky Way,” has continued making great music ever since, albeit mostly under the commercial radar. This is the latest in their string of underappreciated releases – though this one did seem to earn a few more industry accolades than the previous few. Overall, Untitled #23 is quite different sounding from the other titles on this list. It’s not as immediately accessible as some here, but its subtle treasures and nuance reward those who invest repeated listening. I particularly like it for its mix of airy, contemplative atmospherics and edgy, churning portentousness – all done with lots of guitars! Highlights include “Deadman’s Hand,” “Space Saviour,” “Operetta” and the two poppy songs, “Pangaea” and “Sunken Sun.” (See here for my post on the band’s “So Love May Find Us” 2009 U.S. Tour.)

Hold TimeM. Ward – Another stellar release from Conor Oberst’s bud, Matt Ward, the rockin’ folkie from Portland, Ore. Ward has been making outstanding, multi-textured music for years, but it was his 2008 collaboration with Hollywood starlet-cum-singer Zooey Deschanel that put him in the public consciousness. On this 2009 release, his unique vocal style, alternatively falsetto and raspy baritone, are coupled with understated band support. Great lyrical turns of phrase, jaunty acoustic guitar and percussion – occasionally embellished by reverb-and-vibrato-drenched electric guitar, strings or keyboards – make this a thoroughly enjoyable listen and a fairly unique take on the musical style that has come to be referred to as “Americana.”

Wilco (the Album)Wilco – This is a mostly middle of the road effort by a band that a few years ago was really pushing the envelope in their evolution from “alt country” to something akin to America’s Radiohead. They may never top Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but the current Wilco lineup always delivers stellar performances and sharp songwriting, if not exactly boundary-pushing compositions. Nevertheless, the sinister pulse and climactic instrumental exploration of “Bull Black Nova” on this release earn it ranking right up there among the group’s best songs. On the whole, Wilco (the Album) seems to combine many of the characteristic elements of the band, going all the way back to their 1995 debut, A.M. While what emerges from the blender might make for a somewhat blander serving of Wilco, it is still haute cuisine compared to most bands today.

Glitter and Doom Live Tom Waits – Yes, the raspy “singing” is an acquired taste. But, like Dylan, even the potentially off-putting vocals are subsumed by the creative wit of Waits’ songs about the seedy underside of life. Love and genuine humanity are always percolating just beneath the surface. This collection of performances from Waits’ 2008 tours features a cross section of his rollicking, bluesy, sometimes vaudevillian, catalog. Expected Waits’ standards (“Lucinda,” “Get Behind the Mule,” “Metropolitan Glide,” “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” “Make It Rain” et al) are seamlessly integrated with less familiar fare. A second disc features excerpts of the troubadour’s famed between-song storytelling. While strong enough to stand on their own, Tom’s tales lose a little something when devoid of context. Nevertheless, this second disc is entertaining, if not likely to get repeated listenings. (I’m surprised a similar package has never been done with Springsteen, who is likewise renowned for his between-song banter.)

Around the Well Iron & Wine – Like Tom Waits’ remarkable 2006 collection of leftover songs, Orphans, this double album highlights the depth of compositional talent of Iron and Wine main man Sam Beam. It comprises demos and unreleased songs from Iron and Wine’s first sessions in 2002 through those for 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. Despite the variety of origins and sources, the songs hold together for a cohesive listening experience. The elegiac acoustic guitars, mandolins and banjos strummed and picked over Beam’s characteristically melancholic vocals are as emotive as ever. The demo-like informality and spare production fit the mood, creating what seems a fitting soundtrack to, say, the quieter moments of the Civil War. A good CD for Sunday listening, for sure.

Them Crooked Vultures – Want some real rockin’? This is it for 2009 in my book. While many of the titles on this list are on the mellower, folkie or artsy, space rock side of the spectrum, this one kicks out the jams – in a sophisticated way, of course. Despite the “super group” hype, this one actually lives up to expectations. (For more details, read my previous post on the TCV album here.)

There Is No EnemyBuilt to Spill – Not their best release in my opinion, but still a very good pop album, and certainly one of the best of 2009. If you like Soft Bulletin- and Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips, you’ll like this one. The boys from Boise offer up shimmering, mostly mid-tempo songs about the disenchantment, frustration and resignation of modern life. Nevertheless, with ample guitars creating sounds bordering on modern psychedelia, this record is far from a downer. Highlights include “Good Ol’ Boredom,” “Pat,” “Things Fall Apart” and, of course, the great single, “Hindsight” … “What about Canada?” indeed.

EmbryonicFlaming Lips – This is not Soft Bulletin- or Yoshimi-era Lips. It is rawer and, at times, more artistically aggressive than anything the band has done in years. Much of the slick pop production sheen of recent releases is stripped away to reveal a more abrasive, almost working-mix-like energy and sound (hence, the album’s title). This lengthy album has many highlights, ranging from the opener, “Convinced of the Hex,” through the Floyd-meets-Kraftwerk sound of “Evil,” to the pulsing, bass-driven rhythm of “See the Leaves” and “Worm Mountain.” There’s also the atmospheric, math-theory-spouting “Gemini Syringes,” the industrial staccato guitar of “Powerless” and the dance-club-friendly closer, “Watching the Planets.” And you can’t help but smile at the ludicrous animal mimicry on “I Can Be a Frog.” It’s good to hear the Lips regain some alternative edge before they found themselves walking that giant bubble ball into mainstream mediocrity.

Insurgentes Steven Wilson – Like his band, Porcupine Tree (see below), Steven Wilson’s first solo album channels Pink Floyd and Radiohead at all turns. Yet, overall, it’s much more than a mere knockoff. It has a remarkably subtle density in both its spacier, tranquility and its industrial aggression. The opening track, “Harmony Korine,” sets the dynamic tone for the rest of this well-developed set. Musicianship and recording is top notch throughout.

The Incident Porcupine Tree – The Pink Floyd and Radiohead influences remain front and center, but like singer/guitarist Steven Wilson’s solo album (Insurgentes), there is enough here that is uniquely Porcupine Tree to earn this CD kudos in its own right. Though undeniably prog-rock (something not usually to my liking), the alternately spacey and rockish musical bits and the Radiohead-meets-later-period-Beatles lyrics keep the slick production and sophisticated musicianship from taking over. Despite undeniable sonic resemblance to “Dogs” on Pink Floyd’s Animals album, the epic “Time Flies” is an impelling, multi-faceted highpoint, as is “I Drive the Hearse.” And “Drawing the Line” is prime single fodder; remarkable for a band that doesn’t seem too geared to that approach. In hindsight, this might be the album U2 was trying to make with No Line on the Horizon.

The EternalSonic Youth – Still sounding like the bastard offspring of Patti Smith and Richard Hell, foster-parented by The Pixies and P.J. Harvey, it’s no surprise that this CD’s sleeve art contains a tip of the hat to prototypical rocker and punk scenester Johnny Thunders. But, overall, The Eternal leans more toward pop songcraft, with odd little instrumental embellishments (e.g. “Antenna”), than the thrash style that endeared the band to Neil Young’s rusty metal sensibilities. That said, the threat of sonic mayhem always lurks just over the precipice. Highlights include the propulsive, punk pop of “Anti-Orgasm,” which post climax mutates into a pastoral mood piece, and “What We Know.” There’s Lou Reed overtones on “Poison Arrow” and Echo and the Bunnymen guitars on “Walkin’ Blue.” The musicians deftly balance the sublime with the sonic assault … just as a good rock and roll band should.

Outer South Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band – Somewhat reminiscent of the early Wilco records and, even more so, George Harrison’s solo work, the second release from the wunderkind Bright Eyes leader and his new band features catchy, tightly arranged folk and countrified rock songs. The opener, “Slowly (Oh So Slowly),” provides a jaunty takeoff point. But the album’s most noteworthy tracks, “To All the Lights in the Windows” and the overtly political “Roosevelt Room,” successfully tread similar ground as previous Bright Eyes’ highlights “Four Winds” and “At the Bottom of Everything” – or even the best of Joe Strummer’s last years, for that matter. Despite the quirky title, “Cabbage Town” is another up-tempo standout, while “Difference Is Time” is a potent mid-tempo rocker (with drummer Jason Boesel on lead vocal) and “Ten Women” ably holds up the softer side. Clever wordplay and slightly menacing melodies bolster the overall pop sound, which has more in common with the southern accents and sensibilities of Tom Petty than the bleak coal-country vision of Dylan, to whom the young and prolific Oberst has so often been compared.

21st Century BreakdownGreen Day – I’m not really much of a Green Day fan. For my fill of snotty punk attitude with a bit of melody, I’m more inclined to go to the original source, be it The Damned, The Skids, the Dead Kennedy’s or even The Replacements. That said, the former Bay Area punks (now thirty-something parents themselves) just seem to be getting better with each outing. Musically, the spirit of The Skids is all over this record, interspersed by occasional suggestions of Bauhaus (“Christian’s Inferno”), The Beatles (“Last Night on Earth”) and even Gogol Bordello (“Peacemaker”). Overall, this album is full of concept without being either pretentiously high-brow or stupidly sophomoric … as good a soundtrack as any for the Decline and Fall of the American Empire.

Welcome to Mali Amadou & Mariam – Despite a long and distinguished career in West Africa and Europe, this is the breakthrough album for this husband and wife duo. Never mind the fact that many of the songs are sung in Malian or French, the infectious rhythms, tasty guitar chops and catchy choruses transcend all language barriers. Best of all, this album works whether you just want it for background ambiance or if you want get up and dance. (See my previous posting on the duo’s appearance in Boston last June here.)

The Hazards of LoveThe Decemberists – Critics’ darlings since their indie label days early in the decade, this Portland, Ore.-based quintet didn’t really resonate with me on their first few albums. It wasn’t until this year’s release that I became a convert, sold by the sophisticated song cycle presented through simple vocal and acoustic interludes and full band workouts. The ephemeral male and female vocals float over opulent instrumentation. But this time around, the group’s characteristic, almost Edwardian, vibe is interlaced with Floydian bombast. (I didn’t know they had it in them!) Raconteurs-like heavy pop riffs are masterfully juxtaposed with keyboard and harpsichord-driven motifs that recall mid-’80s XTC and ’60s British folk. As a unified thematic piece, the album tells a rather complicated tale of a young woman, a shape-shifting animal, her lover and a lecherous snake. Suffice to say, it’s a story that takes repeated airings to fathom. Yet, even with less acute attention, Hazards is a rewarding listening experience. Various characters are voiced by notable guests, such as Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond), Jim James (My Mourning Jacket), Robyn Hitchcock and others.

My Old Familiar FriendBrendan Benson – This guy consistently writes more great hook-driven pop songs than anyone since Matthew Sweet. When not trading vocals and guitar licks with Jack White in The Raconteurs, Benson has a critically acclaimed solo career in his own right. Besides the aforementioned Sweet, the fedora-sporting Benson’s catchy compositions conjure the spirit of Dave Edmunds, Something Happens (an impressive Irish band that followed in U2’s footsteps for a few years in the late ’80s) and even Paul McCartney at times. If you like sunshiny pop and dramatic balladry, you can’t help but like this infectious album. Great overall musicianship and production. Pretty much every song is a pure pop winner.

The Fall Norah Jones – “The lite jazz chanteuse rocks out,” or something to that effect, is what the early critics said of the multi-Grammy winner’s 2009 release. Well, not exactly. I didn’t find The Fall quite crossing the bridge over to Rock Island. Yes, some of the tempos are a little more upbeat, and the electric guitar may be turned up a notch with a few added effects, but Norah’s warm, folk, pop, jazz vocals are still the star of the show. While Jones is familiarly sultry on several songs, she sounds almost Lucinda Williams-like on the hauntingly atmospheric “Light As a Feather,” and nearly funky on “Young Blood.” She shows some humor on “It’s Gonna Be” and “Man of the Hour”(about her dog!). She even channels Alison Krauss on the country-ish “Tell Her Mama” and “You’ve Ruined Me,” which along with the neo-psychedelic “Stuck” are highlights. Overall, a strong fourth outing from Ravi Shankar’s most famous daughter.

White Lies for Dark Times Ben Harper & Relentless 7 – Backed by the Texas trio Relentless 7, the noted slide guitar specialist gets extra funky on this outing. Alternately bluesy, hard rockin’ and soulful, Harper’s instrumental chops stand out, but there’s catchy lyrical phrasing bubbling through on many songs, too. The jamming is Hendrixian at points (“Lay There & Hate Me” and “Keep It Together”), Black Crowes-ish at others (“Boots Like These” and “The Word Suicide”). The opening track, “A Number with No Name,” kicks it off, and it all rocks on from there.

Live in LondonLeonard Cohen – The old Zen-master’s pension recovery tour reminded us all of his sensitive songwriting and performing brilliance. His heartfelt, literate approach to rock/folk/whatever you call it is simply unparalleled. At 73, Leonard Cohen is dignity incarnate. This live recording from his July 2008 concert at London’s 02 Arena covers the full span of his 40-plus year career, featuring all of the expected “hits.” His large backing band is absolutely stellar. Sting wishes his band sounded this good. I recommend the DVD version of this release, since it has the same song list as the CD but the added bonus of the visuals, which in this case add a lot to the overall effect.

Others that were seriously considered, but didn’t quite make the top 20 cut:

No Line on the HorizonU2 / Together Through LifeBob Dylan / Monsters of Folk / The FountainEcho & The Bunnymen / Battle for the Sun Placebo / American Central DustSon Volt / Imidiwan: CompanionsTinariwen /Songs from Lonely AvenueThe Brian Setzer Orchestra / HorehoundThe Dead Weather / Fork in the RoadNeil Young / Electric DirtLevon Helm / Through the Devil SoftlyHope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions / Outside LovePink Mountaintops

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Do Not Fly

What’s wrong with this picture?

A Nigerian national (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to be exact), who is not only a known Al Qaeda supporter but also happens to have visited Yemen (hotbed of anti-American sentiment) recently, is allowed – without detention, questioning or even suspicious looks – on an international flight bound for Detroit. Whereas me, a native born, generally law-abiding (yes, I occasionally exceed the speed limit ... OK, regularly) citizen traveling domestically on business, is repeatedly scrutinized and delayed before being allowed to board flights.

Apparently, something about my name and/or date of birth, height, weight or eye color matches with some suspected terrorist on the “Do Not Fly” list. (I guess the powers that be have been wary of Scottish terrorists ever since William Wallace painted his face blue. But I have yet to attempt to board an airplane looking like a deranged cast off from the Blue Man Group.)

OK, like Mr. Abdulmutallab, I have never actually been denied boarding access to a flight. But, unlike young Umar, I have routinely had to put up with additional harassment at the security gates at numerous airports across the country for the past six or seven years. My special status often makes it impossible for me to “enjoy” the efficiency of self-check in at the electronic kiosks, necessitating my waiting in longer lines for airline personnel to manually process my boarding passes.

Once, a few years ago, at Logan Airport, a State Trooper had to intervene to get authorization for my clearance. Even he recognized the absurdity of the situation when he had to spend nearly 45 minutes making calls to some shadowy governmental entity that finally decided it was safe to let me on the aircraft. (To this day, I still wonder what the voice on the other end of the Trooper’s phone could’ve possibly said that, having already been convinced of the threat I posed to national security, suddenly made it OK for me to board the flight. Probably something like: “Oh never mind, we f***ed up. He’s fine, let him go.”)

After finally making it past the TSA Inquisition, I inquired as to what I had to do to get off this #%@&! list so I wouldn’t continue to face this kind of hassle. I was instructed to go to the TSA website, where I could download all the necessary forms to complete. After printing out 40 some odd pages of paperwork to fill out, I came to the deflating passage toward the end of the document. It bluntly stated that completing the paperwork was no guarantee of removal from the list, even if there was not sufficient reason for being placed there in the first place. At that point I could only quote Charlie Brown: “ARGH!!"

This might all be palatable if, in addition to inconveniencing innocent citizens (like yours truly), this “security system” was also keeping terrorists off of planes. One might even be lead to believe that it has – until, of course, one reads the reports about Mr. Abdulmutallab and his exploits over Detroit.

To quote an Associated Press report of the incident:

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano hastened to assure people that flying is “very, very safe.”

She said the suspect in Friday’s attack “was stopped before any damage could be done. I think the important thing to recognize here is that once this incident occurred, everything happened that should have.”

So our national security system is dependent upon the intervention of private citizens to subdue terrorists in mid act?

More from the AP:

That brought a sharp rebuke from Rep. Peter King of New York, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. “It’s not reassuring when the secretary of Homeland Security says the system worked,” King said. “It failed in every respect.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, said, “It’s amazing to me that an individual like this who was sending out so many signals could end up getting on a plane going to the U.S.”

An apparent malfunction in a device designed to detonate the high explosive PETN may have been all that saved the 278 passengers and the crew aboard Northwest Flight 253. No undercover air marshal was on board and passengers and crew subdued the suspect when he tried to set off the explosion. He succeeded only in starting a fire on himself.

The misplaced vigilance of Homeland Security, the Counter Terrorism Department and the TSA doesn’t exactly make one feel safe in the friendly skies, does it?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

May the spirit of the season be with you ... Now make the Druids proud and dance around your tree!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The 10 Most Underrated Rock Albums

As we approach Christmas, I’m wrapping up the third compilation in my “Father Knows Best” series of CD box sets for my now 14-year-old daughter. This time around, I’m presenting her with my take on The 10 Most Underrated Rock Albums of All Time (previous installments in the series were The 10 Best Debut Albums of All Time and The 10 Best Live Albums of All Time). She has good taste in music – a connoisseur in the making, I’d like to think – and while she may not take every title I’ve bestowed upon her to heart, she seems to appreciate most of them and several have made it onto her playlists.

As with all of these sets, the Most Underrated one is very subjective and it required some tough choices to pare it down to only 10. In fact, the criteria for this one is a little more complicated than the previous two. For the most part, I picked works by well-known artists, so the designated titles qualify as significantly underrated within the catalog of that artist. However, there are several entries that I judged worthy of a place on the list for their shear unsung greatness within the entire rock canon, even though the artists are not household names and the designated discs may, in fact, be the most highly rated of those artists’ catalogs (case in point, The Go-Betweens entry).

So here’s my Top 10 Most Underrated Rock Albums of All Time:

• Led Zeppelin – Presence This is the band’s least musically diverse, but funkiest release. Its frenetic intensity is driven by the dense, multilayered guitars and propulsive groove of the rhythm section. It includes the almost-prog-rock epic “Achilles Last Stand,” which ranks with “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir” among the group’s crowning achievements. It also includes snatches of ’50s-esque pop in “Candy Store Rock,” a great slow blues along the lines of LZ III’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” in “Tea for One,” and another borrowed old blues tune in amped up form, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

• Neil Young – Greendale This 2003 concept album lays out a fully formed, somewhat twisted, folksy tale of a Pacific Coast family’s encounters with an unfortunate murder, the mass media and environmental activism in fittingly simplistic but resonant musical terms. “Sing a song for freedom. Sing a song for love. Sing a song for depressed angels, falling from above.” (I saw Neil perform this album live, complete with stage actors, three times during the Greendale tour.)

• The Who – Who By Numbers – Many say this should have been a Townshend solo album, which may be true, but the band kicks on all gears for most of the songs, including several of the post-Quadrophenia period’s best: “Slip Kid,” “How Many Friends” and “In a Hand or Face.” Then there’s the fanciful farce of “Squeeze Box” (which, like the equally frivolous “Happy Jack” a decade earlier, was a hit single) and Pete’s ukulele strumming and warbling on “Blue, Red and Gray.” One of the first albums I bought brand new upon its release in 1975.

• Bob Dylan – Shot of Love There are still some vestiges of the Born Again period remaining, but Dylan was coming out of the heavy-handed religiosity of Saved and produced some great songs on this 1981 release. It included rockers ranging from “Property of Jesus,” “Deadman,” “Trouble” and the title track to yet another tribute to an outlaw (Lenny Bruce, in this case) and one of Bob’s most poignant lyrics ever, the transcendent, hymn-like “Every Grain of Sand.”

• Pink Floyd – Animals George Orwell’s masterful novella, Animal Farm, put to Floyd’s trademark sound and a modern sociopolitical setting. It features some of the best interplay between Gilmour’s guitar and Wright’s keyboards ever captured on record. Alas, it was also the beginning of Waters’ unyielding megalomania.

• The Thrashing Doves – Bedrock Vice *– Long forgotten and forever time-stamped to the period (the mid ’80s) by the occasionally cheesy synth sound, this album is chock full of great pop songs with catchy guitar lines and upbeat lyrical romanticism sung in a not-off-putting trebly hiccup of a style.

• The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane This 1988 release is simply one of the best pop albums of all time. The masterful songsmithing outshines even the best of superlative popsters like Squeeze, ’80s era Steve Winwood and The Cure – alternately jaunty and melancholy with less slick production. The often winsome words, minor key melodies and viola embellishments conjure moods familiar to 19th-century romantic poets.

• The Saints – All Fools Day They started out as a Stones-inspired punk band in the late ’70s and ended as a grungy, hard rock band a few years ago. But, in the interim, Chris Bailey & Co. made a few albums of superb troubadour-like songcraft. This 1987 release captures some of their best. “Just like fire would,” indeed.

• The Church – Priest = Aura This intercontinental band’s last major label release (Arista, 1992) is dense with lush instrumentation, futuristic/sci-fi lyrics and cinematic feel. The group’s further adventures in opiated ethereality result in a sonic expedition from the cosmos to dank, steam-filled underworlds and back again into the shimmering ether. It kicks off with the churning epic “Aura,” but embarks on the occasional pop exploration (“Feel” and “Kings”) before concluding with the gloriously theatrical “Disillusionist,” the serene noir of “Old Flame” and the requisite sonic freakout of “Chaos.” Great album cover, too.

• Raindogs – Lost SoulsThe late, much-lamented Musician magazine pegged this debut from one of Boston’s best bands ever as “The Waterboys eating a Beggar’s Banquet out on Highway 61.” An apt summary. With the late Scottish fiddle wizard Johnny Cunningham and an alternatively melodic and biting two-guitar attack embellishing Mark Cutler’s impressive rootsy songwriting, this album delivers soulful rockin’ like the Stones at their peak. (Bonus points for the Tom Waits-inspired band name.)

In hindsight, I’m intrigued by the fact that three of the 10 bands on this list – The Saints, The Church and The Go-Betweens – are Australian. I suppose that makes sense when you think about it, since Aussie bands don’t get the media or popular attention (even when they deserve it) that American and English bands do, so they’re more likely to be under-appreciated.

ALSO RANS ... A nod to my close runners up: Julian CopeSaint Julian / Simple MindsSparkle in the Rain / David Lindley & El Rayo X * / Gillian Welch – Time (the Revelator) / Bob Marley & The WailersKaya / The Proclaimers This Is the Story * / Joe Strummer & The MescalerosStreetcore / Big CountryBuffalo Skinners / Roy HarperValentine / Johnny CunninghamFair Warning / Modest MouseThe Moon and Antarctica / The Lucy Show - Undone / The Refo:mation – Pharmakoi - Distance Crunching Honchos with Echo Units / Bill Nelson On a Blue Wing

* Also cited in the Best Debut Albums category

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Spirits of the Season

I drank a lot of Grolsch in college, but I don’t think ever enough to do this!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

They Stole the Show ...

In the wake of the recent HBO broadcast of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert that took place at Madison Square Garden this past October, I’ve been thinking about the many high-profile, multi-act concerts of all sorts that have occurred over the years. With healthy competition among the performers, a colorful amalgamation of disparate acts and, in some cases, finales featuring “all-star jams,” many of these concerts have earned a place in the annals of rock history.

I suppose the precursors to these assemblies of leading rock artists of the day were the infamous Murray the K and Dick Clark package tours of the early and mid ’60s, which put the likes of the Everly Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and others together, albeit for 30-minute sets in grueling whirlwind theater tours across North America. These were anything but conducive to spontaneity or inter-band jamming, but that didn’t matter since little music could be heard over the screaming teeny boppers.

It wasn’t until the advent of the first big rock festivals in the late ’60s – most notably, the Monterey Pop Festival during the Summer of Love (1967) and 1969’s many festivals (Isle of Wight, Bath, Woodstock, Altamont et al) – that the modern rock fest as we know it came into existence. These quickly spawned a succession of others – both one-offs and annual affairs – from the ’70s through to today. While these secondary events may not be held in the lofty historical esteem of those iconic original gatherings, many boasted impressive lineups of performers.

Then and now, these multi-act extravaganzas have the potential to be the setting for a singular, career-defining performance – one that, regardless of the high standards set by peers, asserts itself as paramount to the rest. In other words, one artist steals the show. Over the years, there have been a half dozen or so such instances, when one band literally ripped the rest to shreds. What follows is a brief look at a few of those occasions.

Hail to the Thief!

Now, since I haven’t personally attended any of these momentous concerts, the existence of audio and video recordings (either official or bootleg) not only have to suffice, but, in fact, dictate which events are considered here. So, qualifiers stated, let’s get to the concerts.

Monterey Pop, California (6/67) The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The obvious starting point, this concert marked the true arrival of Jimi Hendrix. Already a sensation in the U.K., Hendrix returned to stake his claim to rock stardom on home turf with an incendiary performance – in the process essentially beating The Who at their own game. Although some might argue that the highlight of Monterey was Otis Redding’s transcendent delivery of Southern soul to the flower children or The Who’s first major American performance, which featured the mini-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away,” foreshadowing more noteworthy things to come from Townshend’s pen a few years later. But this is where Hendrix first took guitar histrionics to another galaxy, iconically torching his guitar in an eros-tinged sacrifice while grinding his way through The Zombies’ “Wild Thing.” Yes, it was as much spectacle as musicianship, but it was out of this world and rock was utterly changed from that day onward. [Available on DVD and CD.]

Woodstock, Bethel, New York (8/69) – Santana. Many would argue that Hendrix, The Who or even Ten Years After or Joe Cocker commanded the field at that famous “Aquarian Exposition” in the Catskills. But Hendrix was tired, as was the audience by the time he performed. And, despite the power and timeliness of his interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Hendrix’s band was a transitional patchwork, soon to be replaced by the Band of Gypsys. Yes, The Who were astounding, especially as depicted in the famous film of the event, but the split screen imagery did much to magnify their impression, as did the film editors’ consolidation of their full set to just two songs in that familiar depiction of the event. The emergent Santana, on the other hand, performing during peak hours of the festival (not to mention the brown acid), knocked peoples’ socks off with the power of their Latin-tinged blues rock. Carlos and Co.’s scorching rendition of “Soul Sacrifice” was the launching pad to a long and accomplished career. Michael Shrieve’s emphatic drumming was as passionate and impressive as the staccato bursts from Santana’s six string. [Available on DVD and CD]

Amnesty International Tour Finale, Giants Stadium, New Jersey (6/86) – U2. This is where U2 unquestionably assumed the rock crown from the soon-to-be-departing biggest band in the world at the time, The Police. The young Irishmen kicked off their set with a hymn-like rendition of “M.L.K.” before launching into emotive and transcendent versions of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Bad.” They preceded through a reinterpretation of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” before peaking with a stunning mash-up of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” and Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.” They followed with a poignant performance of The Beatles’ “Help” and concluded with a mini-all-star jam on Little Steven’s topical tune of the time: “Sun City.” (Bono later joined The Police for a haunting duet with Sting on the blonde brigade’s eerie “Invisible Sun.”) [Officially, only brief excerpts are available on the Unforgettable Fire Reissue Box Set]

Admittedly, the preceding three selections (as well as much of this entire post) are highly subjective and ripe for vociferous debate (i.e., good “bargument” fodder), but the next two selections are, in my view, beyond debate. The cited performances are so superior to the others at those particular affairs that recognition of that fact is virtually universal.

Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert (a.k.a., BobFest), Madison Square Garden (10/92) – Neil Young. The great and varied line-up honoring Zimmy for his (then) three-decade-long career with Columbia Records was downright owned by the flailing, flannelled Godfather of Grunge. Even the likes of Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Tom Petty were dwarfed by Neil’s enthusiastic and heartfelt take on Dylan’s classic “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and his blistering rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” (done Hendrix style). He benignly capped his utter dominance of the crowded stage during the “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” finale, out-dueling Clapton with searing, feedback-tinged guitar lines. [Available on CD and partially available on poor-quality DVD]

The Concert for New York City: The 9/11 Concert, Madison Square Garden (10/01) – The Who. They were old and on reunion [number incalculable], but in their emotion-fueled four-song set, the ornery Englishmen absolutely kicked ass. Their between song banter made clear that they were humbled, honored and respectful of the occasion and the raw emotion on display in the arena. Then they transmuted all of the pent-up anger and hurt of the circumstances into an absolutely brutal assault on several of the most revered songs in the rock genre: from the defiance of their opener (“Who Are You”) to the trio of Who’s Next classics (“Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – the latter the most vicious it had been rendered since Keith Moon last beat the kit … maybe ever). Fellow performers – Bowie, Mick and Keith, Sir Paul and Elton among them – couldn’t come close to competing with The Who in full throttle on this night. [Available on DVD and CD]

Technical Knockouts

The following festivals also featured breakaway performances by certain artists, though perhaps not of the magnitude of the five previously mentioned examples.

Newport Folk Festival, Newport Casino, Rhode Island (7/65) – Bob Dylan. Zimmerman goes electric, delivers rock unto the folkies, shakes the universe … what more needs to be said? [Portions included in various Dylan documentary DVDs]

The Texas International Pop Festival, Dallas International Speedway (8/69) – Led Zeppelin. Lesser-known than most of the other festivals featured here, the Texas Pop Fest yielded no film or big budget record release. There was, however, an impressive lineup (Joplin, B.B. King, Freddie King, Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, Johnny Winter, Santana, Sly Stone, Ten Years After et al) and ample bootleg evidence of the anointment of the new heavyweight champs of rock: Led Zeppelin. The one-year-old band dominated the field with the power of their blues jams and tunes from their eponymous debut album. [Bootleg sound sources only]

Live Aid, Wembley Stadium and J.F.K. Stadium, 7/85 – U2. This was a career-defining moment for the up-and-coming Irish band. Their epic version of “Bad”– including Bono’s lengthy foray into the crowd while the band chimed on behind him – was the high point of a day full of highlights from virtually all of the top performers from two generations of rock music. [Available on DVD]

Live 8, five locations around the world (7/05) – Pink Floyd. OK, bonus points for sentiment (the hatchet burying among the estranged Waters and his ex bandmates – at least temporarily), but the group really did bring it to the masses, despite not having played as an intact unit for 25 years. [Partially available on DVD]

If you haven’t seen or heard these concerts on DVD or CD, check ’em out. If you have, check ’em out again and see if you agree. Have other examples not mentioned here? State your case!

I Was There, Too … Really!

The only big multi-act concert of this sort that I’ve personally attended was a largely forgotten gathering of the principal Southern Rock bands of the day known as “The Roundup” at Philly’s J.F.K. Stadium in the summer of 1981. Despite its unmemorable status (I do remember the torrential rain dampening the prior night’s tailgate party as much as the day-long concert itself), it does fit the topic at hand. The featured acts were 38 Special, Molly Hatchet, The Marshall Tucker Band, The Outlaws and The Allman Brothers Band. Despite my not being at all interested in the first two bands, and only mildly interested in Marshall Tucker and The Outlaws, I bought my tickets in order to see the Allmans. Much to my surprise, Marshall Tucker stole the show with their country, folk-tinged rock. The Outlaws were OK, and the Allmans were mostly disappointing. So, I guess, surprise is often one of the characteristics of these kinds of concerts, too.