Monday, November 21, 2011

Desert-Bred Riffology

The desert guitar poets of Tinariwen at The Paradise , 11/18/11.

It was desert a go-go at The Paradise Rock Club in Boston last Friday night as the core of the Tuareg musical collective known as Tinariwen graced the stage with their simple, compelling guitar riffs (acoustic and electric), nomadic rhythms and rich vocal harmonies.

Think Led Zep’s “When the Levee Breaks” coupled with CSN’s soaring harmonies, and James Jamerson’s boisterously funky bass playing. Spread on some sweetly sung, albeit indecipherable, lead vocals – occasionally French, but mostly some Tuareg tribal dialect – and weave it around North African drumming and slinky, quite Western-friendly guitar riffs and you’ll begin to have an idea of the sound these serious soul men brought to town.

What a vibe! It was an inspiring evening of music – and one of those occasions that really makes me appreciate being in Boston with the opportunity to see (and hear!) a rare performance such as this. Even after all these years, I never take these kinds of things for granted. And they’re all the better experienced in a familiar old favorite like the (legendary) Paradise, where you can easily get a clear view of the action from 15 away or less – and still be no more than twice that distance from the bar! Paradise, indeed.

Playing as a quintet for most of the evening, the desert-dwelling dudes were all decked out in turbans, with the exception of founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the frizzy-haired face of the band who, in an old blues bandleader-like star turn, let his compadres warm up the crowd for a bit before making his appearance.

Fortunately, he wasn’t even missed, so good was his stand-in, young bandleader-in-the-making Hassan Ag Touhami, a fine singer and riffmeister on both acoustic and electric guitars. He spelled Ibrahim for the first half-dozen or so songs and again for several songs early in the encore. The band brought the celebration to a joyous close with all six members on stage, at which point Hassan again relinquished center stage to the elder Ibrahim, and joined in on backing vocals and dancing duties. The aforementioned bass playing of Eyadou Ag Leche was also exceptional and noteworthy in the superbly simple but sophisticated sound.

If you have the least bit of interest in blues-like world music, I highly recommend you check out Tinariwen – at the very least on record and, by all means, if you have the opportunity, in concert, too.

• Some fine listening ... All the collective’s releases are worthwhile, but you'd do well to start with:
– their latest, 2011’s Tassili (more acoustic and definitely more Westernized than their previous releases),
– 2001’s The Radio Tisdas Sessions (produced by English guitarist and world music afficianado Justin Adams of Robert Plant’s Strange Sensation band), and
– 2009’s Imidiwan (more electric like North Africa meets Memphis blues).

• Learn more about Tinariwen’s background.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Church Symphony’s Sonic Explosion

Who says old guys can’t rock? This recently surfaced video clip offers compelling evidence to the contrary, even if said geezers have a 70-piece orchestra in tow.

The Church’s sheer hyperblastic force on this version of their adrenaline-propelled classic track, “Tantalized,” from 1986’s Heyday, overwhelms the George Ellis Orchestra. The classical musicians accompanied the Aussie rock band during a special one-off “Psychedelic Symphony” performance at the Sydney Opera House in April 2011.

In fact, the orchestra seems unnecessary for much of the song, though it does add some nice embellishments around the band’s satiated sound. (It should be noted, too, that the original LP track did have prominent horn parts, too, so it wasn’t all just guitar slinging then either.)

Absolutely brilliant rock excess, even with the orchestral flourishes.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

LZ IV Is 40!

Can you believe that Led Zeppelin’s landmark fourth LP was released 40 years ago today?

On Nov. 8, 1971, the band issued its fourth album in three years and, in so doing, let loose what is arguably the greatest single-disc rock record of all time. Few titles so merit the label “iconic,” particularly in terms of 1970s-era rock.

And this album does rock, but it does so much more, too. The famously untitled collection – commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV or ZoSo, for lack of a better way to articulate the unpronounceable symbols and runes depicted on the album’s inner sleeve and on the disc label itself (the actual outer cover was devoid of any words, no band name, album title, record company or anything) – is an absolute masterpiece. Not so much for its stunning musicianship (though that is considerably impressive), but primarily for the inspired songcraft and production, which remains a benchmark to this day. Even 40 years later, despite the obvious nostalgic associations, this record sounds astoundingly fresh. (If you haven’t heard it in a while, dig it out and listen to it again – on a good sound system, from start to finish — and you’ll agree.)

Name another album that in 42 minutes and a mere eight songs covers such varied sonic terrain with as much passion, bravado and craftsmanship. Think about those eight songs, not to mention the sum of those parts:

The dynamic sonic slabs and start-and-stop riff and rhythm of the opener, “Black Dog,” pretty much set the bar for the 1970s, though barely a foot over the threshold. The Little Richard-esque riffing of the classic “Rock and Roll” provides the back end of the formidable one-two punch of the opening before the band reverses direction with the trad English folk music and soaring, majestic vocal interplay of Robert Plant and Sandy Denny (guesting from Fairport Convention) on “The Battle of Evermore.”

Meanwhile, the catchy, psych-pop-riffrock of “Misty Mountain Hop” and the modern, worldly, impressionistic strains of the alt-tuned and double-baton driven “Four Sticks” that kick off Side Two may have been considered the “throwaway” tunes on the set back in the day, but both songs have aged remarkably well – with the former now maintaining a popular place in the band’s lofty canon.

Things get mellow again on one of the perennial favorites among the band’s acoustic forays: the Joni Mitchell-inspired, Laurel-Canyon-meets-Welsh-mountainside vibe of “Going to California.” The heady smoke fades from the fingerpicking for the final combustion of a radioactive take on Memphis Minnie’s classic, “When the Levee Breaks,” a powerful reminder of the bone-crushing blues the band specialized in, featuring the greatest (and most sampled!) drum sound ever recorded and some chilling blues harp floating atop the pulsing guitar and bass.

Oh, yeah, and there’s that “Stairway” song, too.

It’s hard to appreciate now, but the minimalism of this ad — at the tale end of the hippie era, with its heady, busy designs — was fairly unprecedented. The band was very effective at creating buzz by acting in ways that were seemingly anti-hype.

A Few Interesting Facts:
• The album has now sold 37 million copies worldwide.
• Robert Plant bought the 19th-century rustic oil painting featured on the front cover at an antique shop in Reading, England.
• The 20th-century urban housing block featured on the back of the front gatefold cover is Butterfield Court in Eves Hill, Dudley, England. (I recall hearing a while ago that it has since been demolished.)
• The inside gatefold cover features the Hermit of the Tarot card deck atop a mountain overlooking a walled town with a lone pilgrim in the lower left making his ascent.

* NOTE: The version of the gatefold front cover featured at the top of this post is a later version in which Atlantic Records reasserted their authority over the band (temporarily) and insisted that reference to the record company and the copyright be added.