Album review by Eric Sandberg
I recently reviewed a tribute album called Garden of Earthly Delights, a sprawling two-disc collection of XTC covers. All told, if you include the bonus digital selections, there are forty nine tracks by forty nine different artists, virtually none of whom had managed to come to my attention previously.
That this collection was uniformly excellent throughout is a tribute to Futureman Records and the project's coordinator Keith Klingensmith. More importantly it is an indication that there is a mind bogglingly large assortment of skilled musicians, artists and producers roaming this planet albeit with very small audiences.
As a music fanatic with a strong natural instinct to explore and support aspiring musicians, this put me in a quandary. I wanted to check out many of these artists' own music but, where to start? even as a latecomer to Spotify, the prospect was daunting.
To start, I chose the most memorable name from the album's roster, Coke Belda, who did a delightful, spritely version of Colin Moulding's "Standing In For Joe." Of course, I read the name as kōk , like that soft drink that tastes like battery acid, but it is, in fact pronounced like croquet without the 'r.' The first thing I learned about Coke Belda from his Facebook page is that he is from Pittsburgh (via Valencia, Spain), a city where I spent my deformative years and holds a special place in my heart.
Digression: As a teenager in Pittsburgh, music was the single most important thing in my life (at least until I got a girlfriend). As a budding record collector and guitar player, my two most frequented establishments were Jim's Records and Pittsburgh Guitars. These sanctuaries were operated by surrogate uncles (older brothers?) Jim Spitznagel and Carl Grefenstette respectively and were frequented by a host of characters — older guys who were part of the local music community.
I wasn't old enough to go to the clubs where they played, but I was a fan of The Flashcats (Carl's band), Eddie & The Otters (Jim's band), The Hank Band (fronted by the quixotic Hank Lawhead III) and The Hornets (which combined various members of the above named bands, anticipating Asia by several years).
The industrious Grefenstette formed his own record label Bogus Records with Lee Walker and set about recording and compiling tracks for a record called Made In Pittsburgh Vol. 1. For me, it was very exciting to know people who were on a record, even if they made it and put it out themselves. The album had a little of everything from the paisley rock of Eddie & The Otters and The Hank Band to the country rock leanings of Gravel (fronted by Bob Corbin and Dave Hanner who went on to gain international acclaim as songwriters) to the arena rock aspirations of Empire.
Bogus Records would issue two more volumes, with Vol. 3 highlighting Pittsburgh's burgeoning New Wave scene. All three albums sound really good and are a treasured part of Pittsburgh history, but are not likely to be confused with a Steely Dan record production-wise.
Of course, all these people had day jobs (in my capacity as a buyer for a Los Angeles based record and video chain in the early 90s I crossed paths with Hank Lawhead III who was a representative for a potential vendor), but put countless hours into their passion for music.
It wasn't as easy back then. Putting together a recording studio was an almost prohibitive expense. This brings us back to Coke Belda and so many artists like him here in 2020.
Just as I was investigating him, Belda announced the release of Coke Belda 4. I ordered a CD copy from Kool Kat Music and received it in the mail almost as quickly as if I had just bought the download. The album, recorded at Coke Belda Studios, which is likely a computer in his basement, sounds like it could have been recorded at Air Studios or Abbey Road. Belda wrote all the songs and performs nearly all the instruments and vocals himself in a melodic power pop tour de force.
Belda doesn't wear his influences on his sleeve, they're tattooed on his bicep, and he's not shy about it. The first track "Thank You, Paul" announces itself with Revolver style guitars and name checks a litany of relatively obscure McCartney songs. The Beatles influence can be heard throughout. "Believe" is a pop shuffle updating of the riff from "Blackbird," while Andy Partridge's own Beatles influence filters through on "Harlan, Kentucky," and John Lennon's ghost informs "6X8 Basement" and "Watching You." You'll also detect snatches of Squeeze and other new wavy styles in some of the arrangements.
Repeated listening, however, reveals Belda's own voice and sensibilities as a songwriter and performer. Listen to the album again and again (and believe me, you will be compelled to) and your admiration for Belda's talent will grow. Like all great pop music, it's infectious. This album has big time international appeal and deserves to be heard by a wide audience. And to think it was it was made in Pittsburgh by a guy with a day job.
Album Review by Eric Sandberg
Under normal circumstances, I would have made a beeline to Rhino Records in Claremont, CA on my lunch break Friday to snag a copy of Canadian treasure Ron Sexsmith's new album. Knowing this was not going to be an option, I pre-ordered a copy on Amazon, who understandably weren't able to get it to me on time.
But, as I set out to walk my dog Freddie Mercury this morning, I realized I could sneak in a first listen on Spotify. I turned my phone all the way up and slipped it into my pants pocket. The first thing I noticed was that Sexsmith's velvety, butterscotch pudding voice loses none of its warmth and charm as it shimmers out of the tiny speaker in my pocket. I've been struggling with my blood pressure the last couple of weeks but I don't think the extra medication my doctor prescribed has been as effective at bringing it down as has listening to Ron Sexsmith sing his new batch of songs.
Of course, the release of this album was planned long before current events, which adds extra, unintended, meaning to the album's title. The songs were inspired by Sexsmith and his family's move from the big city to the quiet village of Stratford. I visited Stratford once in my senior year in High School, but saw none of it. We were bussed up there from Pittsburgh overnight so we could sleep through a Shakespeare matinee and bussed back right after — the only positive result being a hook up with my first serious girlfriend.
The album's fourteen songs are all lovely, impeccably arranged and played, and serve as a wonderful oasis from maniacal "press briefings" and death tickers. The lead single "You Don't Want To Hear It" is as prescient as the album's title and is as perfect a slice of flawless pop music as you'll ever hear.
It's hard to imagine how Sexsmith found time to write and record this album as he seems to be constantly providing free entertainment on Twitter — whether its his elaborate, cornball punning, performing acoustic renditions of his favorite songs or being one of the leading (and imaginative) foreign Donald Trump bashers — his Twitter account is a must-follow.
Finding ways to be entertained in these trying times has become a priority of sorts these days and new releases by great and seasoned artists like Ron Sexsmith and Fiona Apple, who seems to be pulling all the media attention with her first album in eight years, are like a jutting branch to grab onto for a moment's respite as we flail down the rapids.
This is great time to pretend Ron Sexsmith's Hermitage is a well-adorned island in Animal Crossing. Go pay him a visit.
Album review by Eric Sandberg
Editor's note: Before I get started I would just like to allay any suspense and declare that this is the greatest tribute album to one band ever compiled.
Dozens of tribute albums are released every year. Current Yes bassist Billy Sherwood has turned the tribute album into a cottage industry for fun and profit, trotting out the usual cast of aging progsters he has on speed dial.
Mike Varney of Magna Carta Records and studio rat Bruce Kulick have also churned out countless tribute records featuring the same cast of classic rock characters as selling points. These tributes usually consist of backing tracks recorded by house musicians and later adorned with vocals or guitar or keyboard solos from name artists via the internet. The quality of these efforts range from average to misguided to shameful money grab.
Garden of Earthly Delights — An XTC Celebration is special for several reasons:
Firstly, proceeds benefit The Wild Honey Foundation, an organization that seamlessly intertwines great charitable work with great music, benefiting cutting edge Autism research and data sharing.
Secondly, this album has all the hallmarks of a Wild Honey Orchestra tribute show minus people running on and off stage, forgetting to plug in their guitars and your legs going numb in a chair for three hours [I listened to this album twice through today while curled up in a fetal position on my couch]. I confess to not being familiar with the majority of the musician's names associated with each track, though I know of Paul Meyers, The Anderson Council and Gentle Hen, whom I love like they're my nephews.
L to R: Colin Moulding, Terry Chambers, Dave Gregory, Andy Partridge of XTC
Some of the names I associate with the aforementioned Wild Honey Orchestra, and I suspect that at least a couple of the band names are merely clever conceits, masking collaborations among various combinations of members of that extended musician family. These can possibly be spotted by their lush, Brian Wilson influenced arrangements.
Thirdly, the album is, to quote Andy Partridge, "big and long and supercharged with song." It's available in a beautiful 2-CD package from Futureman Records, with artwork by Yamato Kawada, and includes a download with seventeen additional songs — or — just as a download including all forty nine uniformly excellent XTC cover versions, digital artwork and a complete track information guide.
Until now, I've never heard a tribute album that didn't have at least one misguidedly horrible take on a beloved song [anybody remember Encomium?]. Garden of Earthly Delights provides forty nine sides of joy and I don't have even one minor quibble with any of them. Many of these versions are downright thrilling.
Some highlights among the highlights include Coke Belda and El Inquieto Roque's urgent rock shuffle version of Colin Moulding's "Standing In for Joe," Tom Curless and the 46%'s "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love," and Chris Church's "Stupidly Happy", where Church comes up with many interesting variations on the song's repetitive guitar riff. You can fight me on this, but Andy and Colin sounded tired on those final two albums and these cover versions breathe new life into these three worthy songs.
Also notable are I Think Like Midnight's Acid Jazzy instrumental take on "Runaways," Randy Sly's "Books Are Burning," the aforementioned Gentle Hen's "No Thugs In Our House," Paul Meyer's "Rook" and...well, this is truly a rabbit hole I could go down because every track in this tribute is a delight.
The collection also includes songs only deep end [like me] XTC fans will appreciate as several songs from Andy Partridge's Fuzzy Warbles series and Blu-ray only songs from Steven Wilson's XTC remix project are also represented.
Sadly the digital booklet that comes with the download lists the individual production credits but does not include who was responsible for coordinating this amazing project because I would like to submit whoever it is for a Knighthood...or a Damehood, or both. Now, I'm going to curl up and listen to it again.
Daydreaming at Midnight: The Wild Honey Orchestra Presents a Celebration of The Lovin' Spoonful, Saturday, 2/29/20, The Alex Theater, Glendale, CA
Concert review by Eric Sandberg
Question: How many musicians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Possible answer: it depends on the arrangement.
Actual answer: most musicians can't afford to pay their electric bill.
If you love musicians — their enthusiasm, their quirky dress style, ridiculous hats, and their relentless confidence that there isn't anything they can't play — then you should have been at the Alex Theater in Glendale, CA Saturday night where a veritable host of working musicians paid tribute to the classic American rock band The Lovin' Spoonful.
More importantly, the show featured the first reunion of the surviving original members of the band since their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, although main songwriter John Sebastian said in an interview that the show isn't a true reunion as he, drummer/singer Joe Butler and bassist Steve Boone were merely participants of a larger celebration and that it can't be a true reunion without their late lead guitarist Zal "Zally" Yanovsky who passed away in 2002.
The evening began with a bang, literally, as concertgoers were startled by a loud sound that seemed to shake the building. Indeed, Paul Rock, director of the Wild Honey Foundation, began the evening in vamp mode, alluding to an accident in which someone was hurt and they were awaiting the arrival of paramedics.
Rock used the time to re-introduce his sixteen year old son Jake who suffers from non-verbal autism. Jake's appearance on stage illustrated the importance of the evening's true cause which is to benefit The Autism Think Tank/Autism Healthcare Collaborative, a group of physicians, therapists and parents of non-verbal autistic children who share research, treatment options and dietary breakthroughs online with the goal of reducing the often misunderstood pain and suffering of these children.
Rock discussed the progress Jake has made over the past five years after going on a specially developed nutrition plan. Seeing Jake stay on stage with his father throughout was touching and inspiring.
San Francisco musician/journalist Pat Thomas took the stage to begin a long night as emcee/play-by-play commentator, keeping us apprised of the endless musical lineup changes occurring between every two and a half minute song (forty numbers in all after the dust finally settled in the early hours of March).
The three Spoons began and ended the show together onstage by themselves, occasionally reappearing throughout the lengthy set for various numbers, with John Sebastian staying on stage for many of the guest shots. He seemed to be having a wonderful time, as were we.
There were moments when the sheer number of musicians coming and going from the stage threatened to become tedious and the varying degrees of rehearsal that went into each number and musician grouping was apparent. It's a fun evening for these musicians and clearly many petitioned musical director Rob Laufer to be involved, with Laufer apparently loath to say no to anyone.
An argument could be made that the pacing of the show and the ability of the musicians involved to play in at least similar time signatures consistently might be improved by paring the backing band down to a consistent six or eight musicians, but all the chaos proved to be part of the show's charm. Former Cars guitarist Elliott "underrated" Easton was more than fashionably late to the stage for a couple of his numbers, providing some unintentionally humorous moments.
You can refer to the official graphic posted above for a list of the featured guest stars that performed, but I will mention some of the performances that were highlights for me.
Marshall Crenshaw played a sparkling version of "Rain on the Roof," and did all the singers that came after him a tremendous favor by sternly requesting that the vocal mic be turned up, "way up." Susan Cowsill, looking like she just rode in on a TARDIS from 1969, gave an excellent reading of "You Didn't Have To Be So Nice." David "It's..." Goodstein showed equally impressive chops as a drummer and a singer on "Warm Baby."
Claudia Lennear leaned on a chair for support as she belted out the Mann/Spector/Weil classic "You Baby," accompanied by an admiring Sebastian. Mickey Dolenz brought every ounce of his showbiz charisma and seasoned vocal styling to "Daydream" while Peter Case and his Telecaster nearly brought down the house with two consecutive rave ups "Blues In the Bottle" and "4 Eyes."
Dave Alvin strayed from the format with a powerful electric blues workout affording John Sebastian the opportunity to showcase his nasty blues harmonica skills, but the best performance of the evening award must go to Frankie Lee Drennen and Cindi Wasserman of Dead Rock West and their powerful, sublime, and clearly well-rehearsed take on Sebastian's solo song "How Have You Been," a performance that elevated an already excellent tune and momentarily grounded a delightful albeit hectic night of music.
Many more excellent musicians contributed to this wonderful program but the true stars were the songs themselves, the vast majority of which were written, or co-written by John Sebastian and make a strong case that he should be recognized as a national treasure.
The evening, which began with a bang, ended with a whistle as Sebastian, Butler and Boone remained on the stage, with midnight looming. Sebastian told a funny story about Diana Ross and, leaving an open mic between them, to honor the departed Zally, the three reprised "Daydream" with Sebastian whistling the evening to a close.
Photo by Michael Berman
Sadly, there was no opportunity for patrons to bask in the afterglow of the show in the lobby as every minute after midnight was eating into the profits. Pat Thomas was forced to sternly admonish everyone to "Leave now!" But the sold out audience got what they paid for and, more importantly, the Autism Healthcare Collaborative received more funding for its great work.
So close I could smell the fancy red wine on his breath.
(Editor's note: As I was about to leave for this show, my youngest approached me telling me she needed a manatee costume for a church play the next morning. Desperate, I called up our foreign correspondent (he's from Perris) Cletus R. Dungleberry to see if he could cover the show for me. As it happens, Cletus is the Shits' mother's uncle's daughter's [out of wedlock] Pastor's son, so he knows the boys in Jackshit well, and hadn't got up with them since last week, so he was happy to go – Eric Sandberg)
Concert review by Cletus R. Dungleberry
Saturday afternoon, I was out splittin' logs when mama called me in for a phone call. My editor needed me to drop my axe and get on over to Jack Nicholson Canyon in Hollywood to report on a rock and roll show at a house. Now, that didn't seem too appealing to me. I hadn't been to Hollywood since the roads were dirt, and I was about to tell him my truck was broke, when he told me the band was Jackshit.
Now I've knowed those boys in Jackshit since we was knee high to a gopher, and I don't really like them much personally, but I lent Shorty Shit $20 last Thursday and he said he would come by the house and pay me back that night after his horse come in but he never showed. So I told my editor I would go, if only to knock that glistening cock off Shorty's head.
Well, my truck really was busted, but I knew Jackshit's drummer Pete Shit would be passin' right by my house on the way to the gig, and Pete is the only guy in Cochtotan who has a horse with a side carriage. I also could have asked Beau for a ride but I was afraid he would make me late for the show because he likes to stop and take a drink on the way. Pete don't drink nothin' but Lemon-lime Spindrift so I knew I was safer ridin' with him.
Pete woke me up when we got to the house, and it was a big house, with lot's a city folk standin' round eatin' fancy crackers with cheese and drinkin' Stella Artooey beer, so I hung out with the pretty dog in the foy-ee-ay [that's French].
This here's that pretty dog I was tellin' you about.
Anyways, I had heard a rumor that Jackshit had added a second guitarist because Beau was startin' to like his wine a bit too much and was gettin' to be unreliable, kinda like when Pink Floyd brung in Dave Gilmour when Syd Barrett was actin' goofy [I know my shit – I got this job for a reason].
Well, It's time for the show to start and Beau, Shorty and Pete are all still in the kitchen eatin' crackers and this new guy Hasty Shit [the oldest brother who recently got released from Chino] likes to get to bed on time so he goes and starts the show by hisself. He gets up there and starts singin' the Dylan Brothers' "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." He ain't bad, so the boys figure they better get up there. I was sittin' right up front, 'cause I was the press and all, and I heard Beau and Hasty have a few words. Hasty kept calling Beau "Val" and I was like, damn, because I knew that Val was the name of the guy in middle school who looked just like Beau and stoled his girlfriend.
Next thing I know, Hasty sets his guitar down and stomps off the stage leaving the Shit's to muddle through with Beau who was knocking back some fancy red wine like it was pickle juice. Well, they set to fallin' into their old routine, startin' things off with "Hi, How Are Ya?" from their second shitty album and went right into "Devil In Disguise (AKA: Christine's Tune)" what another group of brothers named Burrito covered first.
New member Hasty Shit starts the show. I suspect their mama might have been steppin' out.
Then they set to chattin' amongst themselves like there wasn't a room full of people settin' in front of them. Shorty said the place looked like Canigli Hall but I know for a fact he ain't never been there 'cause he don't practice. Finally they started playin' "Tiger By The Tail" which was first covered by the Buckaroo Brothers.
Then they just start jawin' again about their favorite subject which is the glistening cock on Shorty's chapeau [that's French]. I learned a lot of French from the Shits 'cause they grew up on a Indian reservation in Cochtotan, California. Pete Shit reminded everybody that it was the Croissant Tribe of Indians with that funny way of talkin' he has.
Well, they kept on like that – runnin' their mouths and playin' one great song after another. One thing I'll say about those boys, they can play. When Beau takes it easy on the red wine, no one can touch him on the guitar. The boy can flat out rip it and he had the folks gaspin' and droppin' the cheese off their crackers.
I truly believe Beau thinks he may have sharted here and Pete is pretty sure he did.
Now Shorty is right good on that bass, practice or no. He done played this really hard bass part on a song The Bowie Brothers covered called "Ashes To Ashes," and sang it great, too – even though he had a Ricola in his mouth [that's just talent, son]. Shorty never made eye contact with me once so I knowed he didn't have my $20. Pete? He's just back there by hisself with a blank look on his face, keepin' time like a Swiss watch.
Jackshit ran through their "five song trilogy' [Beau was always math-challenged] of darkness and gloom before bringing down the house with "Ugly and Slouchy" their famous medley of all the other songs they wrote that got covered by more famous folks like The Brothers Who, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sugarloaf, Jeff Beck, Chicago, The Creamy Triplets and many, many more. It went on so long, my titanium lower back started fussin' in the chair, but boy howdy, you ain't seen nothin' like it, and if you ever get the chance, you gotta go see Jackshit play.
During "Ashes to ashes" Pete really had to concentrate to keep the Shits on track.
Meanwhile, he don't think nobody can notice, but Hasty Shit keeps sneakin' up behind Beau with a bottle and fillin' up Beau's wine glass hopin' Beau might do somethin' to get hisself fired. Beau did get a little loopy. At one point he called Pete "Thomas" which was the name of their real brother who fell down a well. Pete ain't blood kin to Beau and Shorty. They said he got left on the porch in a basket which might be why he talks so funny.
Anyways, it was a great show, good crackers and a pretty dog, but Pete Shit took off with the pretty dog in his side carriage so I had to walk home to Perris. I wasn't gettin' in the car with Beau 'cause he either needs to quit drinkin' or quit drivin' and there's a FOR SALE sign on his windshield.
Photos by Michael Berman and Cletus R. Dungleberry.
Shorty tryin' not to get outsharted.
During the show, Beau came over and asked me to pass his regards to my mama.
Press On album cover art by Isaac Himmelman
Album Review by Eric Sandberg – Press On by Peter Himmelman
After two major label stints and many releases through various indie distributors on his own Frinny Records imprint, Press On is Peter Himmelman's third straight album made under the aegis of his own fans via Kickstarter. Over this period his supporters have been rewarded with early access to three of his finest albums to date, each one better than the last.
These releases are likely break-even affairs for Himmelman, if not losses considering how the most carefully planned project budgets can go awry. Himmelman's primary means of support is his company Big Muse, a consulting firm that assists corporations and businesses to grow by helping personnel remove mental barriers and unlock their creativity. Himmelman published his self-help process in book form Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas To Life in 2016.
So why does Peter Himmelman still regularly go through the tremendous bother to seek funding, assemble musicians, rent expensive studio time, pay a producer, engineer and a mastering technician, etc? To paraphrase one of his best songs 'the songs keep ticking out and the songs must keep him sane.'
Himmelman is a prolific songwriter who has released fourteen solo rock albums, five albums of music for hip children and ten collections of songs that didn't quite make the cut in the Himmevaults series. These songs ultimately serve as his best and only public outlet for all his rage, sadness, love and hope for humanity as it faces whatever is going on in the world when these songs come to him.
Himmelman is one America's greatest and most under-appreciated lyric songwriters. Why isn't he more famous? It's most likely because he has stayed steadfastly true to himself and never succumbed to the pressures of major label marketing. He didn't change his last name to Byron or Keats, and he recorded a concept album [the excellent Skin which Sony struggled to promote] just as he was poised to break through with major label support.
Peter Himmelman in studio recording Press On
Himmelman also has the tendency to come off as overly serious, if not pedantic. The first time I heard his music was in the buying office of Show Industries [parent company of the nearly forgotten LA-based record chain Music +]. I went over to the Sony buyer and asked "Who is this guy and what on Earth is he whining about?" But a few weeks later, at party to kick off a joint promotion with Sony, I got to see Himmelman perform live and I immediately understood. In person, Himmelman is as funny and engaging as his songs are serious and profound.
After performing a few songs, Himmelman felt isolated on stage with only his acoustic guitar. He tested the length of his cables and moved to the floor and continued to sing with such unbridled passion that the only barrier between him and his audience was the distance the spittle flew from his mouth as he tore through his repertoire.
It is Peter Himmelman live that has garnered him a small but fiercely loyal audience that is willing to pay in advance in anticipation of new music. Not enough to sustain him and his family, but enough to make it worthwhile to make an album such as Press On.
On social media, Himmelman is circumspect, offering positive philosophical platitudes aimed at promoting spiritual growth. On record, Peter Himmelman is a snarling groove monster, delivering his ever-insightful and poetic takes on the current state of the world.
"This is the sound of guns and silence
After a year of blood and violence
These are the men grey with ash
Rolling their barrels of useless cash
The clocks have frozen on a night so cold
The sun has dropped the jokes growing old
And wouldn’t you know the joke’s on us my friends
The dam has burst the bubble’s popped
We dove headfirst, we belly flopped
Inhaling whatever providence sends
This is how it ends
This is how it ends,"
Himmelman sings to an ironically hopeful ascending piano line draped over a pulsating rhythm which recalls Jackson Browne's "Doctor My Eyes." "This Is How It Ends" is followed by "The Wail of the Trumpets, The Clatter of the Hoof Beats" with a finger picked treble-y guitar riff so wicked that Himmelman lets it go on for two extra bars before singing,
"Plugged in full time, turned on high crime
Can’t take your eyes off your tiny little screen
Nothing’s worth a damn if it ain’t the color green
Lift off back down what’s your background
Safe inside your home while it storms and sleets
People walkin ‘round with crosses and sheets
Listen so close for the wail of trumpets and the clatter of the hoof beats"
The album's thirteen tracks each instantly grab you with their urgency and poignancy, all driven by a crisp acoustic guitar groove and adorned with just the right amount of drums, piano, organ and electric guitar. The album closer "This Is My Offering" brings it all back home with a pledge,
"This is my offering, it don’t dance or sing —it ain’t no diamond ring
You can’t buy it at the five and dime, it’s beyond logic, money or time
It’s not a place or thing —this is my offering
This is my sacred vow, it ain’t no horse or plow, it ain’t no milkin cow
It won’t protect you from the drivin rain, it won’t relieve your muscle pain
It’s in the past, it’s here right now —this is my sacred vow."
Press On is a groove, a thrill ride, a signal of hope in desperate times, and a promise to continue. More people need to hear it.
Concert Review by Eric Sandberg
There was a time not too long ago when it seemed like Robyn Hitchcock might be getting old. After his association with The Venus 3 [R.E.M. alumni Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin] came to its natural conclusion, Hitchcock's black and white polka dot Telecaster drifted to the back of his closet.
Hitchcock toured extensively with his acoustic guitar, recording only sporadically, his voice showing some raspy wear and tear on the higher notes. During this period Hitchcock moved to Nashville and had chance encounter in a festival audience with a wry, whip-smart singer/songwriter from Australia named Emma Swift. The two struck up a friendship, a romance, and a partnership.
Swift began appearing on stage with Hitchcock, providing lush and ethereal harmony vocals, taking Hitchcock acoustic classics like "Glass Hotel" and "Raining Twilight Coast" to new heights. They released two well received vinyl singles together and Hitchcock became inspired to push aside the golf clubs in the closet and fish out his electric guitar, playing shows on tour with pickup bands in various cities and a special show performing his first solo album Black Snake Diamond Röle with Yo La Tengo backing him up.
The Hitchconaissance continued, with Hitchcock penning the gorgeous "Sunday Never Comes" for Ethan Hawke to sing in the film Juliet Naked, and later releasing a single with an electric band version of the song along with the urgent "Take Off Your Bandages."
If that weren't enough, a fabled potential collaboration with XTC songsmith Andy Partridge manifested itself in the number one [in Great Britain] selling EP Planet England. All this and the indefatigable Hitchcock continues to tour, never letting his fans across North America, the UK and Europe go too long without a chance to see him entertain.
Robyn Hitchcock's December appearance at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles has become something of an annual event. In the past they have featured numerous guests on stage, most notably Heartbreaker, and session ace, Benmont Tench, Jon Brion and, of course, Emma Swift.
This year the show was nearly 100% Robyn Hitchcock on stage, by himself, with an acoustic guitar [he was joined midway through the second set by Emma Swift and Eric D. Johnson of the Fruit Bats on harmony vocals] but no one was the least bit disappointed as Hitchcock played two engaging sets, drawing heavily from his A&M period. "Balloon Man," "Madonna of the Wasps," "One Long Pair of Eyes," "So You Think You're In Love," as well as "Raining Twilight Coast," "Linctus House" and "Glass Hotel" from the beloved Twin Tone solo album Eye.
Hitchcock sounds utterly rejuvenated, his voice returned to full strength, easily navigating the highs and lows. With Hitchcock's unorthodox playing style, his fret hand often resembles a tarantula scampering up and down the neck of his guitar.
Hitchcock began the second set at the house piano, playing his first solo single "The Man Who Invented Himself," "Ted, Woody and Junior" [a song inspired by a feature in a thinly disguised men's fitness magazine], and a brand new "song in progress" which is among the most sophisticated, beautiful and un-cynical love songs this, now young, man has ever written.
As usual, Hitchcock delivered his highly entertaining, stream of consciousness, between-song banter, eliciting many laugh out loud moments. Hitchcock's digressions are ephemeral and hard to remember the next morning. I do recall several references to spores, squids and his cat, a one-eyed Scottish Fold named Tubby; along with the notion that poor old Great Britain appears to be in the process of shedding Scotland, Ireland and Wales and will soon be towed across the pond and moored off the coast of Delaware. Perhaps the funniest moment came during the encore as Hitchcock prepared to sing Bob Dylan's "Dear Landlord."
"Some people resist aging and some move right along with it. The composer of this next song is like wax that is melting faster than the candle. He's become unrecognizable."
Hitchcock began the encore at the piano, banging out an astounding arrangement of the early Pink Floyd classic "Astronomy Domine," From my vantage point, near the back of the house, Hitchcock's hands began to resemble lobster claws as they rose and fell onto the keys. Robyn returned to the guitar for one final number, John Lennon's "God" [I dare you to name another artist with that song in their repertoire].
In an era when most veteran artists, of great and small stature, milk their fans with pricey meet and greet sessions, Robyn Hitchcock continues to come out to greet a lengthy line of fans, Sharpie in hand, no charge.
Alice Howe & band: Live at Genghis Cohen, 10/18/2019
Concert Review by Michael Berman
Photos by Michael Berman
It's not always easy to go out on a Friday night in LA, at least if you have my life. You've worked all week and maybe been on a couple of planes, and you know there's going to be traffic. You want to go to a show at a Chinese restaurant on Fairfax and your first two thoughts are -- how long will it take? where will I park? But when you get to hear great singing with masterful accompaniment in an intimate setting -- the rewards are real.
I've been a fan of Alice Howe since I first heard her sing in New York last summer, and downloaded a copy of her 2019 album Visions. Produced by bass player & all-around musical mind Freebo, recorded in a small studio in Bakersfield, it's a striking debut that assures you of three things about Alice Howe: she's got a talent for writing songs, she has a great voice, and she knows how to find the right musicians to hang around with. Visions is a timeless collection of music that sounds like it could have been recorded in 1978 as easily as 2018, with clean clear up-front vocals and shimmering musical accompaniment. If you like Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Taj Mahal, and old Bob Dylan, you will really enjoy Visions.
Of course this presents a challenge. While there's surely music fan's Alice's age that like such music, her natural draw is my generation, and it seems like most such folks would rather fork out $300 to see The Eagles than go to a venue off the side of a Chinese restaurant and pay $10 to hear a singer who's probably younger than their children and who was never on FM radio. But that's a shame, because what Alice Howe has is gold, and what it's worth won't change.
I'm confident that Alice's natural stage presence, warm voice, and quite decent acoustic guitar playing make her well-worth seeing on the solo stage, but catching her with most of the band that accompanied on her recent record was ideal. Freebo is a solid and soulful eminence on the fretless, sliding effortlessly between notes and always hitting the right places. Buzzbee Morse knows just when to lay back and when to step in on the guitar, and when brought forward to solo on Muddy Water's Honey Bee, his facial contortions were nearly as entertaining as his crack blues guitar licks. And John "JT" Thomas on the keys did the perfect job complimenting Alice's voice and arrangements; his accordion performance on Gold was particularly moving.
But none of this would matter without the songs, and Alice brings the goods. She's got about a half-dozen first-class numbers in her repertoire -- Homeland Blues, Twilight, Still On My Mind, What We Got it Gold, You Just Never Know, some written solo and some in collaboration with Freebo -- that are gems any songwriter would be proud of. I'm excited to see what will come next as her writing seems to be getting stronger and more sophisticated with time. And her confidence in her singing also seems to be growing; as she seemed to dig deeper into them live than on her recordings, good though they are.
After she closed with a stunning rendition of Joni Mitchell's A Case of You which moved most of the small crowd nearly to tears, I was aware that I was in the presence of a music talent. But I also wondered -- where is the rest of the audience? Does Alice Howe have better songs or sing them better than Joni Mitchell? That would be too much to ask of anyone, but seeing her live, her energy bouncing between her outstanding band and her attentive audience, was a special, one-of-a-kind experience that you don't get listening to Spotify or classic rock radio, or from watching 60% of the Eagles going through the motions from 1200 feet away. I only wish more people were willing to get out there and hear Alice and the many other current musicians who are making great music in traditional styles or blazing new musical trails. There's gold out there and you don't even have to look that hard for it. Please get out there and support live music!
Dead Rock West: Live At McCabe's — Glitter & Gold Record Release Celebration
Concert review by Eric Sandberg
Photos by Eric Sandberg
If Dead Rock West were ever to saunter onto the stage of America's Got Talent, and stand before whatever four schlubs are the current sitting judges, they could sing any song from their repertoire and shortly find themselves covered in Golden Buzzer confetti.
Their music is as American as music gets, whether they're singing covers or their own first rate songs, the combined voices of Cindy Wasserman and Frankie Lee Drennen immediately evoke the Everly Brothers, without copying them. They clearly embrace the similarities, having just released their second collection of Everly's covers Glitter & Gold, which also features one new song written by Drennen and Exene Cervenka.
The Cars' Elliot Easton and The Blasters' Dave Alvin let loose on guitar and two tracks feature the late, great Ratdog bassist, and brother to Cindy, Rob Wasserman. Many of the tracks also feature The Section (String) Quartet.
As worthy counter-programming to the Emmys, Dead Rock West played an intimate show at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica Sunday night to celebrate the release of Glitter & Gold. They opened the first set as a duo, performing an impassioned rendition of the title track from their previous, John Doe produced, album of all original songs More Love.
Then, as is custom, Wasserman launched into a powerful accapella reading of the hymn-like "Tell the Angels" from their Peter Case produced album Bright Morning Stars, serving as a walk-on for Dead Rock West's band, consisting this evening of Geoff Pearlman on electric and acoustic guitar, David J. Carpenter on uke bass and upright bass, and the natty Phil Parlapiano on keys.
The first set heavily showcased songs from the brilliant More Love, including "Stereo," "Boundless, Fearless Love," "Nail Gun" and "Darkness Never Tells," featuring a fantastic San Francisco psychedelic extended tele solo from Pearlman.
...at this point I would like to digress from my admittedly dry account of the evening's festivities, because I have a purpose here, and that purpose is to get you to check out Dead Rock West. I do not possess the talent to describe how wonderful they are. Cindy and Frank knew, coming down the creaky wooden stairs, that the audience was going to be on the smaller side — the folding chairs were set with two spacious aisles, did not extend to the back wall and were not all filled.
Yet they thanked the diminutive, but exuberant crowd for being there on a Sunday night opposite the Emmys and performed as if they were in front of a sell-out crowd at the Hollywood Bowl. Cindy Wasserman is a sensational vocalist who can out warble more famous divas with one tonsil tied behind her uvula. Frankie Lee Drennen gives everything he has to each song. Like a method actor, he becomes the heartsick people in his lyrics, his face contorting as other spirits seem to inhabit his body.
The touch players who back them add delightful color to the performances but Dead Rock West is powered by Drennen's acoustic guitar and the arresting voices of the pair. I have no doubt that a set with just the two of them would be no less enthralling.
Towards the end of the show Dead Rock West played several brand new, yet to be recorded, songs that suggest their next album of original material could take them to yet another level.
This band deserves an audience. Calling all hip cats who need something to get excited about!
Former Genesis Guitarist talks about breaking in a new drummer, working with an orchestra & his early guest singers
Interview by Eric Sandberg
In early 1971, Steve Hackett's ad in Melody Maker seeking musicians "determined to strive beyond current stagnant musical forms" had paid off. Genesis, already with two major label albums to their credit, had just lost their guitarist and main writer Anthony Phillips to stage fright. The ad caught singer Peter Gabriel's attention.
Hackett was asked to join the band, along with their first "proper" drummer Phil Collins. Hackett and Collins were initially kindred spirits as they were the two commoners among a trio of posh friends who once all wore Charterhouse school uniforms. One can only imagine the many times Hackett and Collins shot furtive glances at each other whenever Genesis founders Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks experienced a "disagreement" in the rehearsal studio.
Hackett's unique playing style (he employed 'hammer-ons' nearly a decade before Eddie Van Halen) and compositional chops made an immediate impact on Genesis's sound — coupled with Collins's skilled drumming and vocal contributions that helped soften the impact of Gabriel's often harsh delivery.
Five years later, Gabriel left to start a solo career and Collins was promoted to front man. With each new album as a foursome, and with Collins emergence as a writer, Hackett became frustrated with his contributions being consistently voted down for inclusion on albums. Genesis's fortunes were on a steady rise but Hackett chose musical autonomy over a regular dole and bravely left the band.
For his first post Genesis solo album Please Don't Touch Hackett employed some heavy hitters as singers on an eclectic array of songs that touched upon folk, jazz-inflected pop and rock. Steve Walsh, from American prog rockers Kansas, folk icon Richie Havens and future jazz & R&B star Randy Crawford, whom Hackett saw perform in a Chicago nightclub, all appear and showcase Hackett's tremendous skill and versatility as a songwriter.
When it came time to tour, these fine singers would not be available, hampering his ability to promote the album. but he forged ahead, putting together a self-contained unit featuring singer Pete Hicks. Hackett worked very hard and eventually improved his own singing voice to the point that he felt comfortable singing his own songs.
Fast forward forty years and Steve Hackett is still at it, boasting a solo catalog which nearly eclipses the combined total output of his former band mates while retaining a remarkably high standard of creativity and performance.
Steve Hackett has just started the North American leg of his current world tour which, in addition to supporting his latest studio album At the Edge of Light, will include a healthy dose of Genesis and early solo classics, even rewriting history a bit by performing songs that were written with Genesis but didn't make it onto the albums — a thoroughly justified conceit as some of his former Genesis mates now concede in hindsight that the songs in question should have been included.
In October, Hackett will release a new live album and Blu ray of his band performing live with an orchestra at The Royal Festival Hall in London. I got to speak with Steve about all of this and also asked him if he had ever considered coming full circle and writing an album of songs for others to sing.
Eric: A rock band playing on stage with an orchestra is not a new idea. You can go back to The Moody Blues and Deep and Purple in the sixties...
Steve Hackett: Even The Shadows, in fact.
Eric: ...but, to this day, it is no less daring and risky.
SH: Helen Fitzgerald, with whom we just spent a holiday at her home in Crete, (read Steve's travel blog here: http://www.hackettsongs.com/blog/steve229.html), coordinated this with The Heart of England Philharmonic Orchestra. She also plays cello with them. I think I've got the only copy right now and it looks and sounds spectacular, if you like groups and orchestras.
They're impossible things together. It takes incredible precision. You can't possibly get that many musicians playing in time and in tune like that. According to Helen, when the musicians received the scores, some of them said, "I can't play this! It's impossible!" But they did.
Eric: Your music is already so rich and fully realized how did you approach integrating the orchestral enhancements without letting them become background noise?
SH: We actually worked from two separate score sheets. In Iceland I was working with a band called Todmobile. They sent me some scores they did of Yes music for Jon Anderson, which he sang with orchestra only, and the arrangements sounded absolutely superb. So they scored some Genesis stuff for me as original band stuff given over to orchestra.
When I worked with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra with Bradley and Steve Thachuk, they came up with orchestral parts which serve as embellishments to what the band is playing, along with some extra stuff as well. So you've got two schools of thought working side by side.
It's a huge risk on every level, including financially, but it went down really well in front of audiences. I've had a couple of sleepless nights worrying if I've over-extended myself here. How can this possibly work? But it did. It was a very big bunny rabbit to bring out of the hat.
Then I thought, "How are we going to top that on our next tour?' So we're going to do the whole of my favorite Genesis album Selling England by the Pound plus one extra deleted scene from it, a Gabriel/Hackett composition...we'll include that as a director's cut. I'll also be playing most of Spectral Mornings plus stuff from At the Edge of Light which charted in twelve different countries.
The show will be two halves...the first half is solo stuff and the second half we blow the doors wide open with the Genesis stuff. Give the people what they want!
"The Battle of Epping Forest...
it took Nad Sylvan three months
just to get the vocals right...there
are so many characters..."
Eric: You have a new drummer in Craig Blundell after working many years with Gary O'Toole. I saw Steven Wilson in Los Angeles a few years ago and he introduced Marco Minneman's replacement, Chad Wackerman, as playing his first show that night without the sheet music. I had never conceived of a drummer playing a rock and roll show with sheet music, complex as the music is. Is all your stuff charted up for newcomers?
SH: When you have to replace someone you would hope it won't be on short notice and they will have had ample time to absorb the material. I find that most guys at this level write it out and play along with the score, but at some point have to put that away and inhabit the music and live it the same way the rest of us are.
Photo of Craig Blundell and his Steve Hackett tour drum kit: BeatItTV
I think that some things are phenomenally difficult to get right. "The Battle of Epping Forest" which I played once forty-five years ago...it took Nad Sylvan three months just to be able to get the vocals right on just that one song because there are so many characters being represented in the lyrics. It's like he has to be a quick-change pantomime artist.
I think everyone has his or her own personal challenge with this. There are challenges for keyboard players, challenges for bass players suddenly having to play 12-string guitar as well to fill the Mike Rutherford tunes. We don't try to replicate things exactly.
With Genesis we might have had three 12-string guitars at once, all playing the same thing. Now, we'll trigger a harpsichord here, a Variax there...I don't know how much detail you want me to go into but the main thing is that you've got three guys chiming away with slightly different sounds and when you hear it, it's extraordinary and you may not even be sure what you're hearing. That's very much part of the sound Genesis had. Of course with technology I'm able to generate an extra octave to replicate the vari-speed guitars on something like "Cinema Show."
Eric: We have an amazing band based out of Southern California called the Fab Four who perform Beatles music to exacting musical and visual standards. Their "Paul McCartney" is a dead ringer, but he's right-handed and learned to play left-handed for the shows. They also play albums in their entirety. Technology allows them to Play Sgt Peppers with just the four of them, but they recently did Abbey Road and found they couldn't do it without having two extra musicians on stage to cover all the vocals, guitars, keyboards and percussion that were overdubbed onto that record.
SH: Three-part harmonies that have been tracked are a difficult thing to pull off on stage. Ian McDonald and I worked with John Wetton on an acoustic version of the Asia tune "Heat of the Moment." We did a three-part harmony with me taking the very top part. Hearing that back on the Tokyo Tapes album it sounds quite good.
I think that, if you are a tribute band, the idea is to do everything that was done, literally, and make it as authentic as possible. For me, having written a lot of it, I allow stuff to vary. We want to do authentic versions of things. A couple of the guitar solos might go on a little longer and we might change a flute part, but I don't see any point in having a guy up there that looks like Peter Gabriel circa 1973.
Eric: But you do have a guy that looks like he stepped off a TARDIS from 1973.
Photo of Nad Sylvan by Rick & Paulie 2018
SH: Yeah. There's an aspect of Jimmy (unintelligible) meets Robert Plant, Nad (Sylvan) is very tall, with that thick shock of blonde hair. He's a very theatrical and flamboyant presence. He wants to imbue the performance with his own sense of theatricality and he lives the songs in his own way, he inhabits them and does them very well.
"I get some people who think I sing
wonderfully and others think I sound
I'm not going to get away with wearing the same old bell bottoms I wore back then but, visually, we emulate the tremendous lighting that Genesis utilized with Vari-lights and half mirror balls that sprinkle light in all directions at once, especially enhancing those sparkly, chiming guitar moments. It casts a spell.
Eric: It's that time for my selfish fanboy question, now. Perhaps my all time favorite album of yours is Please Don't Touch, your first solo album after leaving Genesis. It is so eclectic. When I first heard "How Can I" on the radio, I thought it was Richie Havens singing an unknown John Lennon Song. Icarus Ascending is beautiful folk rock and don't get me started with the possibilities of being able to write a song like "Hoping Love Will Last" when you have the right person to sing it. So, have you ever thought about writing another album of new material written with other singers in mind?
SH: Sometimes I work with singers and sometimes I sing myself. I'm not precious about it. I think that whatever you do it's important to do it with a certain amount of conviction. I like singing, but I do work with other singers. I've started working on new material and I've been sharing the vocals out already with Amanda Lehman. I'm certainly enjoying that. And Nad did some singing on The Night Siren.
I'm very open to it. You can have kind of a vocal team but, if you do that — and I remember having a conversation with Tony Banks about this years ago — you are in danger of losing your identity as a solo performer. Or you could have a band. There's Mike & the Mechanics where you have Mike [Rutherford] and the Mechanics are the guys who sing, among other things.
I think the assessment on whether or not someone should sing is entirely subjective. I get some people who think I sing wonderfully and others think I sound deadly. At the end of the day, everyone's got their idea of who the perfect singer is. Some people think Tom Jones is a fantastic singer and other people can't stand him.
And that's the difference between playing vocal tunes and playing instrumentals. It's unlikely that someone will turn around and say 'I don't like that drummer,' or 'I don't like that keyboard player.' When you're a singer there is much more pressure on to be Elvis or to be Richie Havens.
I've worked with some incredible singers...Richie Havens...
Eric: Steve Walsh.
SH: Steve Walsh, yes! It's too bad Roy Orbison isn't around anymore. He really would be my first choice. The young Roy Orbison was unbeatable. Elvis thought that he was the greatest singer in the world, and Elvis wasn't wrong.
Eric: Circling back to my long-winded question. The point I was trying to make is, when you're writing songs for yourself to sing, you're limiting yourself, as it were, from writing another song with the dynamics of a "Hoping Love Will Last" which was sung so powerfully by Randy Crawford.
SH: That's right, yes.
Eric: As good a singer as you have become, I think you've acknowledged the limitations of your range by working with other singers to recreate and perform the Genesis material.
SH: I have also done this with my solo work. In the past we've done "Icarus Ascending" On some nights Nad has really been channeling Richie Havens. There was one night in particular where I thought if I turned around I'd see the original singer of the song. It was an incredible thing. He's got that chameleon-like ability.
But I take your point, and Randy Crawford was a real find, of course. When you get someone with that degree of ability it's like discovering Aretha Franklin. I know a lot of people might take issue with that but she was able to do a perfect impression of Aretha Franklin. She and I attended an Aretha gig together and Randy was sitting next to me and she was singing along with every note, so I know she was perfectly capable of doing that. So, in a way Aretha was kind of her mentor but she has a more gentle quality to her.
Eric: One of the high points of Please Don't Touch is when she lets loose on the bridge.
SH: Yeah, she really belts it. And when she belts it, you know she's got all that power and she could have had a career belting. But her thing became singing with that soft, soulful voice and it's some testament to her ability to not sing flat out. Most singers who have that power would choose to do that, but she comes from more of a jazz tradition.
When I saw her live in a Chicago nightclub she was singing with a jazz trio and she was doing embellishments at the end of all the phrases that were being applauded like they were solos. She's from an older tradition, perhaps. K&K
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.