Friday, December 19, 2008

Rush: Snakes & Arrows Live

Okay, katz and kittenz, you all know how much I love Rush, and the positive review I gave Snakes & Arrows when it came out last summer. I also saw the supporting tour, so to get to see it again on DVD was great brought back some fun memories. This three-disc set was recorded when the band was performing in Holland. The first two discs contain that show with some extras on disc one, while disc three contains songs performed in the U.S. at Atlanta’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. It’s been awhile since I saw the concert and I can’t remember if the songs played on the DVD are in the same order as I saw in Irvine, CA, but I do remember all the antics that happened on the big screen behind the band.

A Rush show just isn’t about the band playing music while the rest of us cheering; it is an interactive, emotional jam session where the band feeds off the energy of the crowd and the crowd feeds off the energy the band is pouring back out. The characters that appear on screen, played by the band and some times other celebrities, help act as a comic release while enabling the band to still tell the story during breaks in the music.

“Limelight” opens the DVD and what a smart song to start off with. Using some of the Bard’s words to craft a story about what it is like to be up on stage and how it relates to the everyday life we all lead. “Digital Man” is another song I don’t hear enough on the radio, so hearing it live is always a Scooby Snack in my opinion. Of course, “Freewill” is my mantra and the band playing this song in the beginning really got me revved up early.

One of my favorites songs off Snakes & Arrows is “The Main Monkey Business.” I remember seeing them play it and I’m stoked they kept it in the rotation for the European Tour. This is the same way I feel about “The Way the Wind Blows,” another good song from the album. Classic Rush hits “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of the Radio” are also here along with “A Passage to Bangkok,” and the concert closer, the instrumental “YYZ;” both songs will bring true fans to their feet for an amazing finish.

The last disc features songs added on the U.S. tour that weren’t played in Holland. They include “Ghost of a Chance,” “2112/ The Temples of Syrinx,” “The Trees” (another favorite of mine), and of course, one of the best Rush songs ever, “Red Barchetta.”

The extras include outtakes from the videos made for the big screen behind the band. In these outtakes it is funny to watch the band laugh at themselves as each tries to act out these characters they have created.

All in all this is a great pack to give to a Rush fan or anyone who enjoys watching live concerts on DVD. As for me, it brings that warm summer night in at Irvine Meadows (now called Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre although not by me) back to the front of my mind where myself, El Bicho, Fantasma el Rey, my buddies Nicky B., and his brothers along with my old buddies Angel Eyes and the Fogg, heard great tunes by an awesome band while puffing on California’s finest. Good times, good music, and good friends; this DVD will always keep these thoughts in my mind.

Down The Tracks: The Music That Influenced Led Zeppelin

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Down The Tracks: The Music That Influenced Led Zeppelin
is an awesome 93-minute look at what drove and inspired Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to make music of their own. American bluesmen, 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, and British skiffle were the base of the heavy-hitting rock icons and this DVD documentary explores these roots. Down The Tracks digs further and follows those roots to the beginnings of American blues and the effects of rock ‘n’ roll on British music. The DVD also makes its way back to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and the occult ramblings of an evil Brit whose name emerged again in the 1960s after being buried since the 1930s.

Down The Tracks starts with a quick introduction of how Page and Plant came together. Page was looking for a lead singer for a band he was looking to form; the two got together bringing with them a handful of records, which ranged from blues and rockabilly to local skiffle bands. When they sat down to listen and discuss, they discovered they had much in common, including the direction they hoped to take the new band. And that’s where the DVD pretty much leaves the journey of Led Zeppelin only mentioning that they went straight to large venues and on to bigger things. Not much history on the band, just how the following musicians, writers, and occult figures would affect their lives and drive them to deliver “blues on steroids” to arenas full of people.

The first hour of the DVD is about the blues. Many knowledgeable blues and rock historians lend their voice to tell the tale of how the blues rose from the Mississippi Delta jumped to Memphis then amped-up in Chicago. We get the stories of Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, and how they learned from and rivaled one another. Patton the loud growling-voiced showmen, who spun, flipped, rode, and played his guitar behind his back years before T-Bone Walker and way before a kid named Hendrix was born. Johnson was the mystery man who became so good so quick that folks began to believe he sold his soul to the devil. Son House, the living link between the two, who played with both, was the only one left alive by the 1940s to pass the torch to a new breed of bluesmen and be able to reap the rewards and witness the ‘60s blues revival; a revival spearheaded by young Brits.

Down The Tracks heads north to the automobile plants and the driving sound that McKinley Morganfield and Chester Burnett, better known as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf brought with them from the south and forged into electric thunder. That thunder would send shockwaves across the ocean and turn teenage guitar players into blues axe-men. Youngsters all over England would send away for these vinyl gems and spend hours trying to figure out the chords and beats. From here the world gets Zeppelin tunes like “How Many More Years,” “The Lemon Song,” “When The Levee Breaks,” and so many others.

Rock ‘n’ roll also hit the kingdom hard, especially the sound of Elvis (Presley), Scotty (Moore) and Bill (Black) from Sun Records. Not that Zeppelin played much rockabilly but it was from that hybrid sound that Page wanted to pick guitar chords and Plant wanted to wail (Think “Rock And Roll” and “Out On The Tiles”). 1950s rock ‘n’ roll was huge in England but with electric instruments hard to come by the poor Brits made due with acoustic guitars and tea-chest bass fiddles, launching a skiffle revival. Skiffle is pretty much jug-band music with jazz, folk, and country leanings; it’s rock ‘n’ roll without the power. When these kats discovered American blues in the early ‘60s, it all came together for them and their brand of rock ‘n’ roll was born and hit our shores; we called it the British Invasion when it was really American music returning in a slightly modified form.

Zeppelin added to the mix Plant’s awe of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings books and Page’s fascination with Aleister Crowley and his teachings of sexual magic and drug use, along with their combined interest in Celtic lore. These particular inspirations become apparent not only on album art but in longer tunes that are more smoked-filled and “enhanced” by other substances. These themes blended well with the influence of British folkies, like Davey Graham, who came out of the skiffle scene and explored other native folk sounds from around the world. It’s here with the different guitar tuning and instrumentation where Zeppelin starts to expanded their sound, showing that their creativity and influences rang far and wide, from which we get “Stairway To Heaven,” “The Battle Of Evermore,” and “Kashmir.” The links between Zeppelin and the British folk sound is made clear on this DVD.

And that is what makes this disc interesting, not only for the fact that we get to look at the roots of Zeppelin but that the DVD shows and interviews as many of these people and influences as possible. Down The Tracks is more than men talking while the camera zooms in on still photos. The DVD takes you to the places, fields and plantations where these blues men spent their formative southern years, and uses as much footage as they can of the artists mentioned. We get to see Muddy, The Wolf, Son House, Bob Brozman who recreates the sound of Charley Patton, Davey Graham, and many, many more. The DVD slows at times but the overall knowledge within it is worth the price not only for Zeppelin and blues fans but music lovers in general. Even if you only watch the first half on the blues, you’ll be moved to go out and find music by those men or go back through your own collection, as I have done, to further trace the roots of Led Zeppelin and refresh the knowledge passed to me by my father, a true blues fan.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Definitive Rod Stewart

Written by Tío Esqueleto

Rod Stewart has been making records in one form or another since 1968. His latest effort, The Definitive Rod Stewart plays like a field trip through American pop music over the last 40 years. From the late ‘60s British blues-pop invasion, to the pop ballads of the 1970s, as well as an inevitable turn at disco and ‘80s synth pop, before finally settling comfortably into adult contemporary in the ‘90s and recent years, it is all covered in this collection including 31 of “The Bod’s” biggest hits, as well as a bonus DVD of 14 music videos.

The tracks run chronologically, starting, fittingly, with “Maggie May,” with the first ten tracks or so covering Stewart’s work up through the mid 1970s. Classics such as “You Wear It Well,” “The Killing of Georgie (Part 1 and 2),” and “You’re In My Heart (The Final Acclaim),” as well as “Stay With Me” from his early work with The Faces, showcase Stewart’s undeniable, folk-inspired storytelling and songwriting abilities, as well as that trademark rasp that along with the hair, the pants and the schnoz helped solidify him as a ‘70s pop icon.

Next, Stewart took the next logical step and did what any and every pop star with a record on the horizon did in the late ‘70s: he went disco and he did it quite well. Same strong songwriting, same signature rasp, just a different sound to back it all up. “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” was a huge hit and paved the way for Stewart’s foray into 1980s pop. With the eerie and often forgotten “Passion” from 1980 and 1981’s synth-driven anthem “Young Turks” we are treated to the start of an era of Stewart’s career that is vastly underrated and equally unappreciated. Songs such as the latter two, as well as hits like “Baby Jane,” and mid ‘80s super hits, “Infatuation” and “Some Guys Have All The Luck,” are often tossed aside, or worse, laughed off as ‘80s/bad Stewart, which is simply not true. Hopefully, their inclusion in this collection will help to finally clear that up. Let me just say that this era, “Young Turks” in particular, was the sole reason I took this assignment.

The collection rounds out with Stewart settling comfortably into the adult contemporary realm, starting with 1988’s “Forever Young” and rounding it all out with a healthy dose of critically received cover tunes, thanks in part to a hugely successful appearance on MTV Unplugged in 1993. Included here is an assortment of Stewart’s various covers, including two cuts from the aforementioned special.

The Definitive Rod Stewart also comes with a DVD of music videos. While “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is probably the most memorable inclusion (I know it is the first video [promo] that I ever saw of his), what’s most notable, here, is the decision to go with some lesser-known hits (some of which aren’t even included on the CDs) for the video portion of this collection. They forwent obvious choices like “Maggie May” and “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright),” both of which can be easily spotted on VH-1 Classics, and instead opted for the likes of “The Killing of Georgie (Part 1 & 2),” “Hot Legs,” and “Ain’t Love a Bitch.” All in all, the 14 tracks included on the DVD represent a nice cross-section of the man’s work in music video.

Overall, The Definitive Rod Stewart serves as the perfect snippet of a career that has lasted for 40-plus years. It covers all the bases and goes just deep enough in what it has to offer, without the hefty price tag of an overwhelming, all-encompassing box set. It is an ideal collection for both die-hard and fair-weather Rod Stewart fans.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Legendary Performances: Merle Haggard

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Merle Haggard is a true country outlaw and with the Legendary Performances DVD we get fifteen classic tunes spanning 1968-83. In just under an hour we get a good look at what drove his popularity and made this former inmate a country music star. The Hag, as he’s known to many, has a straightforward style and simplicity to his music that everyday working folk can relate to. Hag sang about his first-hand experiences in life, love and troubling hard times. The outsider and outlaw posses a calm charm that helps convey his message through his voice and distinct sound, a sound that he would become known for and would be labeled the Bakersfield sound.

Merle Haggard was born in Bakersfield, California in 1937 and spent his early years in and out of detention centers, finally ending with a spell in San Quentin’s solitary confinement. While in prison he cherished visits by performers such as Johnny Cash and clung to his guitar and the music he loved. Bob Wills and Hank Williams were who he admired most and though young Merle’s music had nothing to with the rockin’ styling of other youths of the mid to late 1950s (though he had no problems with the young southern gents that birthed a hybrid sound of their own). Determined to change his life, Merle worked hard to gain his parole and never return, only looking back in song.

Mixing Wills’ western swing with Hank’s straight country, Merle began to write his life and thoughts in lyrics and began to sing at night around town while digging ditches during the day. By 1963 he was on a local record label and two years later his records appeared on the Capitol label. With The Strangers, a new recording and touring band that added more drive to Merle’s sound and along with label mate Buck Owens, they forged a new sound, one that would be named after the town whose streets they both had survived: Bakersfield. The rest as they say is history and plays out in Merle and The Strangers’ music.

The DVD gives a good look at Merle at the height of his fame. Beginning in ’68 with appearances on local music showcases such as Country Music Holiday, Country Carnival and The Porter Wagner Show, we have a Merle that looks a bit uncomfortable in front of the camera and corny sets. Leaving off in 1983 singing at the Country Music Association (CMA nowadays = Country My Ass) and a Johnny Cash Christmas special. The song selection is a perfect display of the themes that put Merle on the map, being the outsider, boozing over a lost love, and fierce pride in what he believes and who he is. Featuring hits like “Branded Man,” “Mama Tried,” “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Swinging Doors,” “I Started Loving You Again,” “The Fighting Side Of Me,” “Okie From Muskogee” and “Workin’ Man Blues.”

“Mama Tried” is the story of a hell raising “one and only rebel child from a family meek and mild” that “turns 21 in prison” even though Mama tried to steer him straight. “Branded Man” is easily the tale of what happened after the rebel child was granted parole and wants to set things right and get his life back on track. “A branded man out in the cold” is the perfect example an outsider’s looking in; further reflected upon in “Pride In What I Am.” “Pride” follows the life of a homeless man as he wanders the hobo jungles and streets of Chicago while looking back on life. More classic Merle and the outlook of the loner.

“Swinging Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Loving You Again” are Merle’s thinking, drinking, and dreaming songs. Sad tunes that reveal a softer side of the outlaw filled with pain in his heart over the girl who left or that he left behind. He gets close to forgetting her but his friend the bottle lets him down, lets her memory creep back in, and he starts loving her again. The missing side of the outlaw heart is the loving song about hard times, struggle, and the love for family that drives a man to do his best to provide for them, “If We Make It Through December.”

“Working Man Blues” stands on its own and is here worked out in a rocking jam complete with yakety sax and pumping piano, yet Merle manages to keep the pace jazzy and rather than rock ‘n’ roll. Ever since I was a teenage “pin monkey” working for peanuts at the local bowling alley, the song has had a place in my mind. The song took stronger hold and meaning as the years passed and I learned what it is to give up much for the good of family. You drink a little beer on the weekends, think about bumming around, but go back to doing what’s right and providing for your loved ones.

“Fighting Side” and “Okie” might just be Merle’s biggest hits that came at a time when the nation was colliding into each other and sides were being chosen across the nation. Merle hits hard with these tunes, which are really just extensions of his pride songs. He gives his point of view strong and solid but manages not to go over the edge, seeming to say “I get what you’re saying but don’t cotton to it. So you stay on that side and we’ll get along fine;” Seems simply enough, “I’ll stand my ground; you stand yours.” “Okie” on the other hand is a tune that I could just never take seriously seeing as how Merle never did too much either. It was kind of a joke and came about as the band passed said town one day while touring. Merle thought about the troubles on college campuses and wondered about life, hippies, and dope use in small-town Muskogee, Oklahoma and it all rolled from there.

Legendary Performances - Merle Haggard is truly that and in bonus features we get to see an older Merle, comfortable with the camera and joking with the crowd at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. We even get firsthand knowledge of the man’s life in an interview filmed with his life Leona in their big ol’ touring bus. Entertaining and well done, I find this disc easily added to the list of “best things to come across my desk this year.” So go get it, fan or not, it’s a good look at a living country legend and true outlaw.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Parliament Funkadelic - The Mothership Connection Live 1976

Written by Fumo Verde

How would you like to spend a Halloween night funkin’ out with one of the P-Funk originators? With this DVD you can. Parliament Funkadelic played a freaky October 31st show in Houston’s Summit Arena. Dressed in outfits ranging from super-shaggy Mexican sombreros to folks wearing diapers with freaky mask/glasses combos, this show is a pageant for the eyes as well as cornucopia for the ears. If you can dig the tunes of yesteryear that are the hooks in today’s rap and house jams, then The Mothership Connection is a DVD you will love.

Putting on a very unique theatrical performance which features music as the prime star, the Parliament Funkadelic connects to its audience through sound, light, stage antics, and pure energy. Be it songs like “Gamin’ On Ya!” with its hard brass choir or a the old standard “Swing Down Sweet Chariot” which has a thumping beat that drives the chorus of vocals, while lead vocalists prepare all for the landing of the Mothership. Sparks fly and colored smoke engulfs the stage as a small spacecraft arrives letting loose Dr. Funkenstein himself to sing about (who else?) “Dr. Funkenstein.”

The show itself opens with a telling of how the Funk came into creation with a large single eye sitting atop a pyramid acting as if it is the one telling the story. The stage is totally in the dark until the performers take the stage, and then the electrifying colors of the outfits worn by the band come to life as the extreme stage lighting rips through the darkness. Light, sound, and audience explode as one, while guitars zoom notes out like rocket launchers and cymbals crash like falling plates. This energy juices up the crowd for a fun-filled funktastic time.

For those who love the funk but don’t know if they could handle a whole show of Funkadelic rhythms and vibes, then this DVD gives you the chance see what the funk is all about. In the mid ’70s “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” was climbing up the R&B chart and mainstream America (white America) finally comprehended what the funk sound was and they were starting to like it. This show was one of those rare moments in music history where a band tore through the boundaries of music and race and opened up new worlds to all peoples. With its rocking funk sound and crazy cast of characters interplaying with each other and the audience, The Mothership Connection is a DVD not to be missed.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Nearly sixty years have gone by since the world lost Hank Williams Sr. yet his haunting voice and music continue to tug at our souls and pull us into the dark night of his own, expressed in his songs and the way he delivered them. Time Life has finally put out The Unreleased Recordings of Hank Williams. These recordings, drawn from remaining acetates cut in 1951 for his fifteen-minute radio show sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour on WSM Nashville, were to air while he was on the road touring and unable to make the 7:15am start time Monday through Friday. These 54 offerings of Hank’s heart show a different side of the man and allow us to see a bit further into his tragically short life.

His career was truly meteoric; he came on fast and burned out quick. A star of The Grand Ole Opry, the first “rock star” some say, he was on top of the country music world in 1951 and his future looked to be even brighter as he began to tackle the pop charts. By this time Hank had already had hit records with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Cold, Cold Heart” while bigger hits would follow in the remaining two years of his life. Those last two years would yield the tunes folks remember most, “Hey, Good Looking,” “Jambalaya (On The Bayou),” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to name a few but here we have Hank in 1951 just as his music’s popularity rises and his personnel life falls apart all by the age of twenty nine.

His wife Audrey would soon leave him due to his out-of-control, binge drinking brought on by his exhausting touring schedule which called for him to be back in Nashville every Saturday night to perform live on the Opry, which eventually kicked him out too. Hank’s longtime back pain would also become increasingly unbearable, forcing a long postponed operation. No doubt made worse by the back brace he had to wear while touring and traveling in an overcrowded automobile. Some of that pain shows on these recordings at times ever so slightly. But as with his studio recordings he left his music behind for us to enjoy as much as he did and to bring joy to our hearts and relieve our pain as he did through music and singing.

Hank Williams’ sound covers a lot of ground, pulling from hillbilly, western swing, bluegrass and gospel. His voice is the perfect vehicle to put it all together and carry it forth to the masses. His vocals are a bit constricted to squeeze out a few lines but for the better part of his recordings, especially on this set, his warm baritone stands out conveying the darkness and sorrow he hid well yet let show in his vocal delivery and songwriting. Guitar solos are minimal (although he does allow it to take off a time or two), the upright bass fiddle plunks and plucks steadily as fiddles sway, and the steel guitar fills in the sound of weeping sorrow all with Hank leading the way with his acoustic pickin’ and strummin’.

The three-disc set contains some real gems as we not only get to hear a few of Hank’s hits, but tunes he had been playing for years that touched his heart. He turns the page way back for “On Top Of Old Smokey” to the way his grandmother taught him, slow and plaintive, not up-tempo as was the recent version. His baritone shines here as the boys fall in behind him and stop you in your tracks. Many spirituals and gospel tunes (“The Pale Horse And His Rider,” “The Prodigal Son,” and “The Old Country Church”) make an appearance as to be expected as it’s the music that these men grew up with and knew their listeners did too. Hank, who was not very fond of cowboy tunes, even manages to turn Bob Nolan’s sagebrush saga, “Cool Water,” into a very spiritual-sounding number, making it all his own and providing a new take on an old favorite.

Hank treats his audience to many popular tunes such as “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.” A song or two of his studio work has traces of what will become rock ‘n’ roll. Listen to the lyrics again to “Hey, Good Looking;” you got hot rods, soda, and dancing dates. He’s only a few steps away from truly being the granddaddy of rockabilly. Check out “Cherokee Boogie,” “California Zephyr” and “a little masterpiece of nonsense,” as Hank introduces it, titled “Mind Your Own Business” with its added edgy verse about getting knocked around by the missus.

Hank and the boys are loose and playful on these live recordings while making only the slightest flubs, but that’s all good as it adds to the entire feel of the live show. As long as sponsors are mentioned, no one swears, and the station gets no complaints, everything is gravy. For all his sadness Hank manages to laugh and cut up even mentioning his baby boy “Bocephus” and the song he wrote for him “There’s Nothing Sweeter Than My Baby.” It’s also good to hear Hank’s speaking voice throughout the box set. It further drives home why people grew to love him so much. Again, despite his sadness, he has a warmth to his voice that carries over into his music and it is made clear in these recording aimed which were straight at the everyday working folks.

Hank Williams - The Unreleased Recordings continues the fine work done by the people at Time Life. Here, the song selection and order flow well and keep a good pace. The fact that it isn’t another best-of adds to the listening experience. While the 40-page booklet is filled with photos and informative liner notes by the very knowledgeable Colin Escott, it isn’t over done and reads well, providing enough info on Hank’s life to set the stage for the music. A good boxed set overall; it’s one of the best, if not the best, offers to come my way this year, and to think I nearly passed it up.