Monday, December 28, 2009

HOLIDAY TRAVELS

"Now the first of December was covered with snow
So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Though the Berkshires seem dreamlike on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go..."


Traveling that same road, on our way to spend Christmas with my lovely wife's sister and her family in Connecticut, I thought of this lyric and was damn glad that the "frosting" was merely window decoration at the side of the highway and not on it. Thankfully, life did not imitate the art of James Taylor.

JT must have had Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" in mind while composing "Sweet Baby James"

Miles to go before I sleep

Though it did involve covering many miles, the drive was beautiful with sunny skies and wonderfully clear roads. The scenery in New York State never fails to dazzle the eye. Christmas in the US of A was perfect, as my son had a terrific time with his cousins.

Back home now, looking forward to my buddy's New Year bash, followed by a two night gig at Pier 21 here in Ottawa.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Two legends having fun with a great tune that isn't sappy or profound.

I hope that the "Annual Gift Guy" finds you all well and makes your fondest wishes a reality this year.

Let the festive drinking begin!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

THE BYRDS



MR TAMBOURINE MAN

Purists will go to great lengths to protect an art form from becoming diluted or tainted by the introduction of elements that would dare to give it wider commercial appeal.

Populists are generally responsible for pissing them off.

Amusing from a contemporary viewpoint, as most genres of music have been blended many times over, but in the early sixties if you were a fan of folk, rock or pop was a lower form of entertainment. In short, it was viewed as bubblegum for mindless kids to waste their time with.

Collegiate types of that era would be the first to lecture you on the merits of what the performer had to say with special emphasis placed on the fact that many (though not all) who pursued this style of music sang about social injustice, politics and the madness of waging war against fellow human beings. In truth, the folk tradition stretches back further than even the most tenacious music researcher would likely care to investigate. Etymology aside, the revival of the form in the fifties would bring many new converts into the fold and a host of performers that played acoustic instruments and had a message tucked in their back pockets. Many simply gave recorded life to songs that had been passed down through generations.





One young singer-songwriter who came to prominence in the early sixties had captured the minds and hearts of his audience with compelling work that moved peers and listeners alike to appoint him as spokesperson for the "protest movement" that swept college campuses and all corners where words were the most powerful weapons with which to denounce the most reprehensible actions of the establishment. Bob Dylan was practically deified by the folkies.

No one counted on the fact that this guy was not interested in labels or becoming the crown prince of topical song writing. When he released the excellent Bringing It All Back Home LP in '65, his core audience was completely shaken by what they heard. Electric guitars, drums and nary a word that addressed the socio-political upheaval of the times. One tune from this set was co-opted by a newly formed rock group, whose members had themselves been steeped in acoustic folk music. The arrival of the Beatles in the US changed the game plan and for Jim McGuinn, seeing George Harrison playing that electric, 12-string Rickenbacker in the film "A Hard Day's Night" was his epiphany.

The worlds of Dylan and The Beatles collided in the sound of The Byrds and "folk rock" became a buzzword in the summer of 1965.

At that precise moment, a frustrated, idealistic and somewhat drunken folk music purist emptied the contents of his beer on a friend who tried to get him to listen to this groovy new group.



Editing Dylan's verses down to two from the original four, adding floating, ethereal harmonies, bright electric 12 string and employing McGuinn's brilliant arrangement ensured that the Byrds version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" would find a spot at the top of the charts. Within seconds of the start of that chiming, iconic riff, you know what you're listening to. Heralding the promise of all that would follow it, they instantly became one of the most stirring groups in the universe.

Why?



Combining literate subject matter, three part harmony and two guitar/bass /drums backing was truly a step forward, with many established acts sitting up and taking notice. All of these ingredients had previously shown up on records by the Searchers ("Needles and Pins" was a precursor to Gene Clark's "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better"), the Beatles, the Animals and Dylan himself, though no one had successfully integrated them until the Byrds came along. Without a doubt, that sound has been bounced off the walls of countless studios by scores of subsequent artists in the decades that followed.

Absolutely stunning vocals were the cornerstone of this record. Gene Clark, David Crosby and McGuinn brought an embarrassment of riches to the table in this department. All had done the folk circuit either on their own or with other small groups. Chris Hillman was the Eddie Van Halen of the mandolin, schooled in country and bluegrass and switched to bass primarily to fill the gap. Michael Clarke looked like Brian Jones, though he was a quick study when it came to picking up the requisite skills to handle the back beat. Together they became a force, though this incarnation of the band fared better in the studio than they did on stage.

That is when they were finally given the green light to do their own instrumental work.

McGuinn was the only Byrd allowed to play on "Mr. Tambourine Man" (the lead single) as the others were sidelined in favor of session players. Hiring members of Phil Spector's famed "Wrecking Crew", Terry Melcher had Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Larry Knetchel, Bill Pittman and Jerry Cole handle the other instruments. The same lineup recorded "I Knew I'd Want You" as well. Crosby and Clark sang on both tracks with McGuinn, though.

They tracked their own parts on all other songs on the disc. Four Dylan tunes appear on Mr. Tambourine Man (the LP) which they interpret quite well. Three more covers made the album, with the remaining space filled by Gene Clark's compositions, several of which were co-written with McGuinn. The one original that stood head and shoulders above the others was the magnificent "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better", with excellent harmonized lines that echo the verses and the indelible stamp of the Rickenbacker 360. Over twenty years later, Tom Petty would re-record this gem for his first solo project and it retained a contemporary freshness that made it seem like a brand new song.

He didn't alter the arrangement at all.



Clark's early efforts have been nailed by some critics as being derivative of British Invasion stylings, though frankly, most of the output of that era followed a blueprint that was designed and engineered for radio playlists. He wrote to hit the benchmarks laid out for that format and did it well, being by far the most accomplished wordsmith of the five at that point.

For me, whether McGuinn pronounced it correctly or not, the best adaptation out of the pack was their take on Pete Seeger's "Bells of Rhymney" which depicts a Welsh coal mining disaster. I can relate to this as I grew up in an industrial area with a number of coal mines. When you heard the pit whistle (kind of close to an air raid siren in tone) it meant something went woefully wrong deep beneath the surface. McGuinn's solo still gives me shivers each time I hear it. This is what I would play to anyone to demonstrate how subtlety is a much more powerful way to evoke emotion in the listener, rather than beating them over the head with histrionics and a "now you're supposed to feel something" vibe. This is the biggest blunder that makers of contemporary film and music continually repeat: They don't think that the masses possess enough intelligence to discern what is being depicted by their art without flash cards.

"Cry here" "Applaud here" "Big laugh now"

Enough of my ranting, please judge for yourself.



Overall, this is one of the strongest debut sets of that era, inspiring their peers right out of their skulls. Reportedly, Dylan felt a bit let down that the Byrds take on "All I Really Want To Do" was beaten in the charts by Sonny and Cher's version. (With everyone clamoring to record his music, his bank account wasn't suffering). McGuinn was an ideal and sympathetic translator of Bob's work, though Dylan started working with other musicians around the same period and his compositions were augmented with electric accompaniment from that point on.



Let's leave the last words to McGuinn, caught here in performance last May.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS



DAMN THE TORPEDOES

In "The Hero With a Thousand Faces", Joseph Campbell described apotheosis as the expansion of consciousness that the hero experiences after defeating his foe.

Aptly named, the Heartbreakers' third album was forged under a cloud of trying circumstances, though Petty's tenacity saw him emerge victorious from a legal battle to free himself from a lopsided deal. He recovered ownership of his publishing, secured a decent royalty rate and gained complete artistic control over all future projects. On record, his reputation as a solid song writer was established, with several singles from the album scoring as massive hits.

Slightly altering Campbell's take on things, it's fair to say that the band's profile underwent an expansion into mass consciousness and they officially became rock stars. Thirty years on from official release, "Refugee", "Don't Do Me Like That", "Even the Losers" and "Here Comes My Girl" retain a deserved presence on classic rock playlists.

Damn the Torpedoes could be viewed as Petty's mantra in light of the many battles he has waged to keep the insidious aspects of the record business at bay, while remaining dedicated to honing his craft.

Poised to crack the commercial coconut after releasing two respectable discs, they teamed with producer Jimmy Iovine who helped to clearly define the sonic personalities of the five musicians. Listen for the payoff in the form of a startling exercise in dynamics called "Refugee"



Playing up the strengths of each member, Stan Lynch's drums are way up front in the mix, with a gradual build of ominous sounding guitars grinding out Mike Campbell's now famous F#m, A, E progression. Benmont Tench's swirling Hammond fills are the cherry on top of a very satisfying sundae. Everything is bridled during the verses, allowing for the dramatic punch of everyone hitting the chorus hard and loud.

Quintessential early Heartbreakers.

Deploying several important weapons in their arsenal, not the least of which is the pure skill and precision that Campbell brings to everything that he touches, the first side continues to impress with "Here Comes My Girl". The spoken verses are a masterstroke, building tension that almost threatens to snap before Petty brings the sugar (but not too much) of the chorus. This is the second and last tune co-written with Campbell on the disc, though I really think that he should have been involved in a few more selections as his input was always beneficial to the final product. This is not to say that the rest is disposable.

Far from it.

Petty proudly flies the flag of rock and roll throughout a killer album side. Though there is a fair amount of polish in production, the execution is equally flawless, as the musicianship was nothing short of superb. Designed to leap from the speaker grills, grab you by the ear and make you take notice, this is one big "fuck off" of an album. Doubtlessly, he had drafted and re-written this many times to match the concert that blasted away inside his head.

Could there be a more sympathetic and skilled group of team players than these guys?

Mike Campbell is the most underrated guitarist on the planet. Benmont Tench is a virtual encyclopedia when it comes to music history and a virtuoso in his own right. No less.

Those who dismiss Tom Petty and his cohorts are also writing off several genres of fantastic music in doing so. His songs are not facile, it is just that he works very hard to make it look easy. Don't be fooled, as thousands of hours went into producing his stellar discography. Arguably, his output has only grown stronger with the passage of time.



Dylanesque inflection,(with the twist being that he's blessed with greater range as a vocalist) ringing, 12 string Byrdsian jangle, airtight harmonies and concise arrangements all contribute to something that is ultimately quite timeless. Petty wore his influences on his sleeve (and still does), though his brilliance lies in the fact that he has been able to synthesize the best elements of what came before with his own slant.

This is a very good record.

All nine tracks hit the mark and for those that were concerned about the health of the industry in the late 70s, Petty was seen as a savior of sorts. In performance, they delivered as well or better than they did in the studio because they gave a shit about quality. The impact of Damn the Torpedoes was huge, though it was kept from hitting number one by Roger Waters Oedipal opus, The Wall. My first encounter with this marvelous platter came by flipping through the record collection of my buddy's older sister. It wasn't until Long After Dark in '82 when I really caught up with him, but he has done very little to change my mind about his talent and commitment to excellence after all these years.

"Louisiana Rain" closes out the set on a somewhat down tempo note. One of his finest early songs, it dates from the ill-fated, but productive sessions that were undertaken as his previous band, Mudcrutch was breathing its last. This wistful, country tinged confection hinted at the change in direction that would lead him on to very interesting paths and collaborations as the eighties unfolded. Damn the Torpedoes created lifelong fans out of listeners and his peers.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

JL

Another sad anniversary is marked today, which needs no explanation. It is hard to believe that twenty-nine years have passed since a very senseless act triggered a shockwave of grief and outrage that stretched around the globe.

It seemed surreal hearing the radio report that morning as I was getting ready for school. Lennon’s voice was as familiar to me as that of a family member. I remember playing the "Starting Over" single, which I had bought just a couple of weeks prior (and still have) before heading out in the cold to catch the bus.

At twelve, the generational impact wasn’t a factor in my reaction, though I do recall staring at the gatefold picture of Sgt. Pepper later that evening and thinking how strange it was that the smiling, bespectacled guy in that photo was gone.

In a kinder universe, the Beatles Anthology project would have ended with an absolutely mind blowing Unplugged set.

Imagine that.

Friday, December 04, 2009

CREAM



GOODBYE

Parting gifts come in varied forms, garnering different reactions from their recipients. When the bearers of said farewell offering do it right, everyone should leave with a drop of telltale moisture etched around the eyes. No doubt that this was the case when Cream capped a career that was notorious for its brilliance as well as its brevity.

Privately, the intense dislike that Bruce and Baker had for each other kept the aggregation on the cusp of implosion during their entire run. Curiously, the end really came when Clapton received a copy of The Band's Music From Big Pink LP and thus spent the rest of his career trying to emulate it, feeling that he and his mates had veered wildly away from their original vision.

Virtuosos all, merely saying that these guys could really play is simply a mild restatement of the obvious.

They were absolute fucking monsters on their respective instruments, standing about ten feet taller than their contemporaries as a live act.

Showing more than a touch of musical split personality disorder, Goodbye was a truncated version of Wheels of Fire with the studio cuts sounding decidedly un-Cream like. The live tunes were taken from a particularly inspired night at the LA Forum in the fall of '68.

Jack Bruce is a force, as he conducts a masterclass in symphonic four string art through every second of "I'm So Glad". It is a performance worthy of Orpheus, producing a cascade of notes through an electronic lyre, leaving the Macedonian hills ringing and the guard dog of Hades sitting pretty, offering his right paw, tail wagging happily.

The evil Furies weep and the Sirens' voices are tamed as all three solo like madmen in tandem.



No less impressive are their renditions of "Politician" and "Sitting On Top of the World". Anyone that was fortunate enough to have seen them in their excessive prime was treated to the spectacle of two massive towers of Marshall amps sitting on either side of Ginger's impressive drum kit. Playing with sheer abandon, there was little that came close to the electric thrill that emanated from every stage that they walked upon. Clapton's magic combo of white Gibson SG through the stack was a unique voice (sonically almost a cross between violin and guitar) and Baker tuned his drums to the point where they transcended percussion.

Having divested themselves of the US touring commitment, the next step was to produce a monumental spectacular that would rival "Wheels of Fire" in scope. Lacking the heart to carry on with such an undertaking, they managed to tape foundation work on a mere three selections at Wally Heider's facility in LA before calling a halt to the sessions.

Trooping back to the UK with tape boxes marked “Eric’s Tune”, “Jack’s Tune” and “Ginger’s Tune”, Cream prepared to give their Farewell Concert in November of 1968. The last original music that they would ever wax could scarcely be more different than the wild, improvisational flights captured in their live sets. These songs sound as if they had been laid down by a completely different band.

In truth, they hinted at what their sound may have morphed into had they not been ripped apart by their extreme personal differences. Their hardcore following had already painted them into a corner from which they would not be allowed out of. Tiring of playing to type, the operation came to an authoritative stop.

So they hastily completed their respective compositions at London's IBC Studios, with Felix Pappalardi on hand tp produce.

Fellow Band enthusiast and pal George Harrison had originally supplied the majority of "Eric's Tune" to Clapton.

Harrison: " I wrote most of the words and Eric had the bridge and the first couple of chord changes. I was writing the words down and, when we came to the middle bit, I wrote 'bridge'. Sitting opposite to me, he looked and said, 'What's that- badge'? So he called it 'Badge' because it made him laugh."

George plays rhythm up to the pregnant pause and then Eric does the best GH imitation ever, complete with Leslie toned arpeggios and a laid back solo. Funky bass lines and piano are provided by Bruce, culminating in one of the most accessible, melodic things that they ever did. Ringo Starr added the lines about "our kid" (younger sibling) marrying Mabel and the swans in the park.

Bruce's whimsical "Doing That Scrapyard Thing" had most of the lyric supplied by Pete Brown over the telephone, around midnight in the midst of the recording. This is a remarkably bizarre tune, though I say this in the kindest sense as it is stacked with fantastic changes, prominent piano breaks and falsetto vocals. Jack claims that it was autobiographical, though with so much going on it seems tough to pin down any specific meaning. Ginger's "What A Bringdown" was anything but, as it represents his finest offering to the Cream discography. Barreling through changes in time signature and sporting surreal words, it brings the LP to a close with edgy uncertainty.

That was it.

Goodbye?

Well, it would be 25 years before all three would find themselves playing together again in a one-off gig for their rock hall of fame induction. Following this, twelve more years would pass before they reformed once more in 2005 for a series of concerts that will likely stand as their last shows.