Friday, December 21, 2007

Wolfmother: Please Experience Wolfmother Live

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Coming from a land down under to rock the night away is Wolfmother, and if you can’t catch them live, then their new DVD is the thing for you. Please Experience Wolfmother Live is over an hour of the band keeping the classic rock sound alive and moving forward to reach a new crop of fans and hopefully turn them on to their influences. From the start you can hear that these boys were raised on rock with such big names as Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin.

After an intro by Jackass’ Johnny Knoxville, Wolfmother hits the stage and doesn’t stop their sonic attack until the last song. From the get-go, Chris Ross (bass/organ), Myles Heskett (drums), and be-afroed Andrew Stockdale (vocals/guitars) hit hard. You can hear all their influences right away, different band styles are prominent on a certain song but it all fades to black as you lose yourself in the tunes from their debut album. Yet far from mere imitation, Wolfmother sounds as if they could have stood next to those giants and made their mark.

From fast and hard-rocking gems like “Dimension,” “Apple Tree,” their big hit “Women,” and my favorite the funk-infused “Love Train” to the slower and darker tunes “White Unicorn” and “Witchcraft” their entire repertoire is loud, heavy, and thunderous. Keeping all classic rock bases covered the sprawling, psychedelic, chord-bending “Mind’s Eye” takes you on a “Chambers Brothers meets Pink Floyd” trip where you can close your eyes and imagine stars streaming past and the gates of doom up ahead as it all comes to a crashing reverberating close, ending with Stockdale playing from his back on the floor.

If the title of the DVD doesn’t bring Hendrix to mind and give you an idea of what’s in store, then the closing number “Joker & The Thief” should do it. The speed of the song makes it seem as if the band’s sound is spinning and winding up like a musical tornado with Stockdale cutting loose on his Jack White-esque vocal bleats while the drums pound to a stop behind him and the organ keys are mashed conjuring images of Ray Manzarek.

The DVD bonuses are just as awesome as far as the Wolfmother experience is concerned, containing three more live performances from the band from 2006, one from an awards show in Sydney, Australia, and two from the Brixton Academy in London, UK. The Brixton show is edited to look like a ‘60s/ early ‘70s rock film with its slip-screen mirror effect. The DVD also includes five music videos, “Joker & The Thief,” “White Unicorn,” “Love Train,” “Mind’s Eye” and “Women,” most of which consist of more live footage from the Mother playing around the world. “Mind's Eye” was filmed live from some desert location known as the Devil’s Punch Bowl and “Joker” features the Jackass crew on tour with the band and wreking havoc as usual where ever they might be.

There is a five-minute segment titled “Meet The Mother” where we get a chance to hear what the boys in the band have to say and how they describe their sound, which is interesting as they elaborate a bit on how a “rockin’ beat with a good, fun vibe” merges with a “sexual, psychedelic, sonic tsunami.”

All in all, Wolfmother is a good band and a good time will be had by all who watch this disc and you can bet your ass that next time these young gents are in town Fantasma, El Bicho, and my pal Fumo Verde will be there losing our mind's eye to the rocking good time that is the Wolfmother experience.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Barry Manilow: The First Television Specials

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

The first question I asked myself when approaching Barry Manilow - The First Television Specials was "What artist could pull this off today?" In the pre-MTV days of the first special from 1977, Barry was in his mid-30s with a string of what today would be called Adult Contemporary hits. This wasn't a huge gamble for ABC at the time because of the ratings success of variety shows in the late ‘70s. But like my previous reviews of comedic anthologies (Love American Style), crime anthologies (The Untouchables) and the historical mini-series (Roots: The Next Generation), the musical special is a dead art on today's network television. Is it because of over-exposure of the artists on the web and DVD? Or are we lacking the mainstream artists to pull off a full hour of just musical performances? I believe it's a little of both. Barry Manilow was an experienced, mature artist that could entertain for a full hour, but do the performances still hold up today?

The First Barry Manilow Special aired in 1977 on ABC to a whopping 37 million viewers. The special opens with "It's A Miracle" in front of a live crowd. It's a great high-energy song that was also a known hit. There's a well thought out flow to the performances. We go from the energetic opening to a subdued set piece for "This One's For You" which we find is dedicated to his Grandfather. This is followed by "Jump Shout Boogie" in an American Bandstand-type setting including a dance routine with Penny Marshall. The halfway point is celebrated by his popular live song, "Very Special Medley" that combines his extraordinary run of commercial jingles from KFC to Band-Aid ("I'm stuck on Band-Aid") to Dr. Pepper to McDonald's ("You deserve a break today").

But it's the final set piece that defines what set Barry Manilow apart from other artists of his day. There's a set of three songs - "New York City Rhythm," "Sandra," and "Early Morning Strangers" - that all have a common New York setting. The special uses a simple set that looks like a cheap, local play. That simplicity forces you to listen to the lyrics of the songs. In "Sandra," Barry tells a simple yet powerful story of a stay-at-home mom that wonders about what her life might have been.

But if I hadn't done it as soon as I did
Oh there might have been time to be me
For myself, for myself
There's so many things that she wishes
She don't even know what she's missin'
And that's how she knows that she missed

Those simple words are what make this special so engrossing. Barry doesn't have the best voice, his piano playing isn't amazing, and his personality is corny at best. But he can capture an emotion and tell a story that moves you in a short period of time. By the time Sandra "accidentally" cuts herself on a glass at the end of the song you feel like you know this character in a mere four minutes. It's the same talent that Billy Joel and Elton John have used to make multi-decade careers. The First Special finishes with another high-energy song, "I Write The Songs," performed in front of a live crowd.

The success of the First Special led to The Second Barry Manilow Special in 1978. Here, he's started to improve the formula that worked so well earlier. But you also start to see what will eventually become the downfall of his specials. Barry opens with the up-tempo, "Daybreak." For some reason he feels the need to throw in the corny combination of kids and senior citizens singing the song with him. We are treated to an interesting version of "Copacabana (At The Copa)" in its pre-hit days. Here it isn't a disco hit, it's portrayed with a 1940s theme without any dancing that morphs into a Vegas-style show. The most brilliant move is having Ray Charles take on "One Of These Days" by himself and "It's A Miracle" as a duet. Ray brings an incredible amount of soul to these songs that makes me wish Ray had done a whole album of Manilow covers. The Second Special finishes again with a live crowd and the energetic, sing-a-long songs of "Can't Smile Without You" and "Looks Like We Made It."

The Third Barry Manilow Special from 1979 received the most praise and awards but also marked the beginning of the end for Barry's run of specials on ABC. After a painfully bad sketch playing up Barry's bad driving, we start with the energy of "Ready To Take A Chance Again," a real crowd pleaser. Then we're transported to a more intimate setting for the powerfully evocative "Weekend In New England." The lyrics of that song, "I feel a change comin'" are prescient. The Third Special contains a weird Broadway musical version of "I Write The Songs," John Denver singing his own song "What's On Your Mind" and an entertaining but out of place duet between John and Barry doing "Everly Brothers Medley." The problem for Barry is that between the specials, "Copacabana (At The Copa)" has become a huge disco hit. The performance here is completely different from the earlier performance, the disco elements are really played to the hilt. Luckily, The Third Special is saved by ending with a nice tender moment, "Even Now."

The remaining specials, One Voice (1980) and Barry Manilow: Big Fun On Swing Street (1988) abandon the formula that worked so well between 1977 and 1979. In One Voice, there's the feeling that Barry is just trying too hard to disco-up his songs like "Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed." These specials are more "produced." It's not just Barry and a piano. That's where he works best. There's a moment in One Voice with Barry and Dionne Warwick at a piano playing her hit "Deja Vu" that reminds you why his earlier work was so entertaining. The combination of two father-related songs, "Ships" and "Sunday Father," are beautifully done and emotionally powerful.

By the time Barry reached 1988, he had moved beyond his disco experimentation with two Big Band releases 2:00 A.M. Paradise Cafe and Swing Street. This special has the feel of a loosely connected musical, but the songs don't carry the same emotional impact of Barry at a piano singing "Even Now" or "Sandra." The special is well produced and predicts his later Songbook albums and Vegas shows. His future A&E specials would take their clues more from this special than his earlier ABC work.

I can't imagine anyone short of a Celine Dion or Carrie Underwood carrying a special like this today. But they can't tell a simple story that connects on an emotional level the way Barry Manilow figured out in the late 1970s. This Rhino release is a great find. It's like holding hands again with a longtime love. It's a simple gesture that contains the deepest emotion. Like Barry says, "Maybe the old songs will bring back the old days."

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Electric Six: I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being The Master

Written by Puno Estupendo

I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being The Master, the latest from Detroit's own Electric Six, keeps the vibe of the band's previous three albums alive and almost sidestepping instead of kicking. Never a band to be taken too seriously, amidst all of the silly lyrics they still manage to throw down some pretty solid rock n' roll.

On the opening track “Showtime,” the spirit of the band is right in your ear under 30 seconds but is more of a setup for the rest of the album. If you're already familiar with their music then you'll know what I'm saying when I tell you that you'll immediately know who it is the minute you hear it. The production is more of the same and the guitars and drums are just like previous efforts. Taking good guitar riffs and mixing it up with drumming and keyboards that aren’t afraid to go all disco or to the ‘80s on you, Dick Valentine's unmistakable tongue-in-cheek lyrics and vocal style will have even a jaded listener probably tapping their foot and possibly hating themselves for doing so.

The songs are silly and it’s too bad Dr. Demento isn’t around anymore to champion these guys. The best are when Valentine starts serious and then makes a switch. In “Randy’s Hot Tonight” he offers sage advice. “Dance like nobody’s watching you, Randy/ And love like you’ve never been hurt,” but later in the song, Randy explains, “If you live in Japan, your’re Japanese./ If you live in Canada, you’re gonna freeze.”

Even though sometimes it sounds like they think they're funnier than they actually are, or that maybe they have a joke going that nobody else seems to be in on, tracks like there are solid enough rockers like “Rip It” to keep you in a good enough frame of mind to kind of laugh when the ridiculousness of the song “Lenny Kravitz” comes on.

This is a very well done (middle of the road) album. Not a whole lot of growth from the band overall, but I Shall Exterminate... still sounds more true to itself than mall punk or MTV's swill, and I think that alone should warrant a listening party. While they don’t have a breakout hit like “Danger! High Voltage” or “Gay Bar,” they seem to be having a good time playing these songs and I have a feeling you can have a good time hearing them.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Johnny Cash: Christmas Special 1976 & 1977

Written Fantasma el Rey

Johnny Cash and his troupe delivered two excellent Christmas specials in 1976 and 1977, during a high point of his career, still very active and touring heavily just a few years after his television show was canceled. Johnny showcased his talent and charisma, smiling and singing with old friends and family bringing into American homes a true spirit of Christmas. And now for the first time in thirty years these holiday gems are available for all to enjoy.

The 1976 special was filmed in Tennessee at Johnny’s home in Bon Aqua and his place in Hendersonville just outside Nashville, giving a country-style “home for the holidays” feel to the show. Johnny opens by singing “Wandering” while he explores some land around his farm after which he cruises over to pick up his guest Tony Orlando and the fun begins. From Johnny, June, and Tony we get to hear Tony’s “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” and are then treated to Johnny on his own, reflecting about “Christmas As I Knew It.” The song tells of his boyhood in Dyess, Arkansas, although the tune was actually written by June and Jan Howard. The tale of youth is a captivating one as always.

To switch it up a bit, Roy Clark joins Johnny and the two country boys sing pop tunes that they heard on the radio while growing up in the south, showing the world that good music is what they loved most no matter what it was labeled. Singing their versions of “Far Away Places,” “Juke Box Saturday Night,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” and that classic “The Christmas Song,” all while Johnny strums a guitar and Roy picks his banjo. To end the first half of the special Tony joins the boys for a tribute to Stephen Foster “a man from the north who wrote such great things about the south.” Foster’s tunes “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks At Home” and Oh! Susanna” are represented well by their wonderful voices.

In the second half of the 1976 special we move to Johnny and June’s large living room for a “guitar pullin’” where everyone gathers around and is given a turn doing what they do best, whether it be singing, playing an instrument, or both. The fine voices of June, Barbara Mandrell, and Johnny’s younger brother Tommy are heard on “Follow Me,” “It’s A Beautiful Morning With You” (Barbara) and “That Christmas Feeling” respectively. Instrumentals are put into the spotlight by Barbara, who treats us to her steel-guitar skills with “Steel Guitar Rag,” and Merle Travis, displaying his guitar mastery on “Cannonball Rag.” The Carter Family, sisters Anita, Helen, and June, along with Jan Howard chime in with their sweet harmonies on “In The Pines.”

To close the first special Johnny brings out Billy Graham who does a recitation of the birth of Jesus but puts a twist to it by using an excerpt from Bret Harte’s The Luck Of Roaring Camp. Well done by Graham who pulls everyone back and speaks of the true meaning and celebration of Christmas being family, friends, and the life of baby Jesus.

A year later, 1977, Johnny and crew were back with different guests and a slightly different special, this time filmed at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House. This year Johnny is joined by some friends that had been there at the start of his career, back when they where young men just staring out in the music world: Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Also appearing this year would be The Statler Brothers and the return of Roy Clark and The Carter Family.

The set opens with Johnny singing “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” and moves right on to Johnny and June performing one of my favorites John Sebastian’s “Darlin’ Companion.” From there Johnny tells the story of his lonely holiday in Germany while in the Air Force and how he came to own and learn to play his first guitar. With help from The Statler Brothers, (all of them, including Johnny are dressed in military fatigues) “This Ole House” and “Blue Christmas” are given a fine vocal group treatment.

The first of three tributes that night are sung by Johnny and Roy Clark, paying their respect in song to the Christmas hits of singing cowboy Mr. Gene Autry. People sometimes forget that Autry launched some of the songs we love so much during the holidays, songs that everyone all over the world enjoys. They are “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty The Snow Man,” and “Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer” on which The Statlers and The Carter Family join in.

Tribute two is in honor of the Sun Records label and the man, Sam Phillips, who gave Johnny and three of his guests their break in music by letting them play and sing what they felt in their hearts to be good music, paving the way for the rise of rock’n’roll and rockabilly. Our host kicks it off with one of his first hits and another of my favorites “Big River.” The king of rockabilly steps up next with his self-penned hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” which leads into the soft voice of Roy Orbison singing his signature tune “Pretty Women.” Although that was recorded for Monument Records, Orbison made his first singles on the Sun label. Last and never least is The Killer himself Jerry Lee Lewis rattling the Opry with “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On” then transitioning smoothly into “White Christmas.”

From there Johnny takes center stage to acknowledge two others on the Sun label who enjoyed success, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty. Johnny also bows his head to the recently fallen King, Elvis Presley, who had passed away just two short months prior to the filming of the special and setting up the last tribute of the night. In honor of Elvis and his love for gospel music the four Sun gods, three of whom where present at the historic Million Dollar Quartet session, perform “This Train Is Bound For Glory.” Fitting not only for Elvis’ gospel upbringing but also for the fact that one of big E’s early Sun singles was the blues cover “Mystery Train.”

To close the show this year, Johnny brings out all the performers to sing together on “Silent Night,” “O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” a tune that he had been closing his regular shows with for years. During the singing of “Bethlehem” and “The Herald Angels Sing,” scenes of Johnny, June, and their young son John Carter in the Holy Land are shown. Johnny does some narration here as well and ends the special with goodwill and best wishes to all from the land of Jerusalem.

All in all, the two Johnny Cash Christmas Specials 1976 and 1977 are worth the watch and make good additions to any Cash fan’s collection. As always with Cash you get a feeling that he’s talking straight to you and inviting you into his house to keep warm and celebrate Christmas with his family as if you were a member too. That’s part of what made Johnny Cash the larger than life legend that he is, his heart and willingness to give you the shirt off his back when you needed it. Not to forget his amazing voice and awesome ability to convey a song right to your heart and make you see what he sees and feel as he feels. A talented rebel and county outlaw with a heart and a winning smile. How can you not admire that?