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.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.