Album review by Eric Sandberg
Birds. I have an aversion to them. Not quite ophidiophobia — I enjoy the sounds they make — but something about beaks, talons, feathers, nests and eggs gives me the heebie jeebies. Worse than birds is people who act like birds. Whether they've been hypnotized at a magic show, they're Matthew Modine, Mark Fidrych, or they're just nuts — they scare me [there is no word for this particular fear...I tried looking it up].
I recently received an email with a link to a video featuring a man with wild white hair sitting in a giant bird's nest while musicians ply their trade wearing elaborate, realistic, bird heads. My pulse quickened but was soon flowing in time with the compelling beat. I couldn't get the tune "Manbird" out of my head until a couple of days later when a beautifully packaged double CD of the same name arrived in my mailbox including a fold out poster filled with photos, lyrics and track information. Yes, a double CD of new music to be released in the midst of a global pandemic that won't go away. Crazy, right? Actually, it's the opposite. It's just what we need right now. I currently have twenty-five different melodies constantly jostling for the pole position in my brain's music center.
The "Manbird" video was designed, created and shot by Julia VBH and Anton Barbeau at the farm during lockdown
Manbird is completely immersive and beautiful. It's not a sprawling collection of songs, it's a laser-focused chef-d'oeuvre of songwriting, concept, melody, arranging and performance that causes one to ponder how someone who has released over thirty albums over his career can still connect with such a vibrant muse.
The album is threaded with references to birds, beaks, nests and flying, inter-wreathed with images of traveling through airports, odd characters, childhood memories and dreams. It's not so much a concept album, but a very personal collection of songs employing this imagery to reflect a boy, and then a man, who is ever looking to get home.
"One funny thing, concept-album-wise, is that while all the birds and flight and airplane/airport images can be seen metaphorically, Manbird is also quite grounded in literalism." Barbeau tells me from his family farm in Northern California.
"The birds mentioned, and in some cases included, on the album are real. The blackbird singing at the top of "Coming Home" is the very one I hear when my 4:00 AM Berlin taxi comes to take me to the airport. The mockingbird is up high every morning on the power tower outside the window on the farm. So, yeah... I'm providing details from my real, daily life as well as dipping into childhood memories. I still have the "tight black jeans" from "Across The Drama Pond." They don't fit me anymore, but I still have 'em!"
"Across The Drama Pond" channels Scary Monsters era Bowie with its quirky arrangement, vocal mannerisms and lyrics that describe the adoption of different personas in order to jibe with the singers' various surroundings. The lovely and poppy "Memory Tone" describes how a sound can evoke memories and intense emotions while demonstrating Barbeau's skill as a singer. Like many brilliant musicians, Anton Barbeau does not possess a platinum selling voice — I'm tempted to describe it as Michael Stipe with a bad cold — but it suits his material and he wields it with deceptively great skill.
Considering the length of the album and the avian and aviation themes, I asked Barbeau if the album was the fevered product of an unexpected lengthy isolation.
'[Actually] the last touches to Manbird were applied towards the end of 2019, so it's definitely a pre-pandemic release. Manbird has been my primary focus since early 2018, I think. The Kenny vs Thrust album, released in January on Big Stir, took far less concentration to make. While Manbird is a double album of all new material, Kenny vs Thrust is a mix of old songs and 'that'll do' new songs, recorded in a burst of fun with my respective UK and US bands. Both albums turned out well, but Manbird was made with far more Intention."
Barbeau has been living in Germany for nearly ten years. He returned to California to renew his passport in March, just as the Coronavirus pandemic began to not 'just disappear.'
"I'm on a farm in California now. Given that Manbird is all about travel and searching for home, it's weirdly fitting that I've been grounded since March. This is the longest time I've spent in one place in years!"
The album mixes a variety of musical styles, from pop, rock. punk ["Featherweight] and psychedelia ["Underneath The Mushroom Tree]. The sheer quality and construction of every song will keep your fingers away from the skip button. The tense and epic "Coming Home" recalls Pink Floyd's The Wall, while "Birds Of North America" has a Donovan/Porpoise Song vibe.
I would love to write a treatise on every wonderful song on this album, discussing the vivid, resonant, lyrics, melodic figuration and lush, inventive, arrangements, but we try to keep things relatively brief here at Knock and Knowall. The music is layered with acoustic and electric guitar and a seemingly endless palette of retro and modern keyboard sounds, but it is the masterful urgency of Michael Urbano's drums that ensures it all works.
If you've been listening to Anton Barbeau for years and think he's fabulous, you are in for a treat because, with Manbird, he has upped his already considerable game exponentially.
If you've dallied with Barbeau's music in the past but have drifted away, it's time to "Come Home." Now.
If you're asking "Who the F*ck is Anton Barbeau!?" you need to find out and you need to start with Manbird. I personally guarantee that this album will improve your mental outlook well into Joe Biden's presidency.
Manbird takes flight [ugh! Sorry!] September 18. Details below.
Become an Anton Barbeau patron
Album review by Eric Sandberg
I really don't know how to break this to you but, to this day, there are people walking the Earth who still "don't get" Bob Dylan. "Eww, that nasally voice! The songs go on forever! I don't understand what he's on about!"
Yes, it's an illness that has so far eluded Science. Over the decades there have been many attempts at developing a serum to cure this affliction. Duane Eddy, Hugo Montenegro, Yes's Steve Howe [who named his son Dylan] and, most recently, Bryan Ferry have all tried to eradicate this scourge with only middling efficacy.
Yet, even as Dylan, himself, potentially strengthened the virus this year by releasing a twenty minute raspy word drone as a single, a crack team of Nashville scientists have been working in secret on what I predict will be the magic bullet for combating Dylan Aversion Syndrome [DAS].
I first met Emma Swift while perusing the merch table at a hip music show. Ms. Swift was pursuing this honest work while completing her PhD in Dylanology at The University of Melbourne. She was disarmingly nice and friendly, as i bought a t-shirt from her, for someone so stunningly beautiful. It was one of those Hollywood film moments when I later saw her take the stage with an English eccentric and sing with a voice so pure, ethereal and strong that it breathed new life into that bloke's most beloved songs.
I would meet Emma Swift several more times over the next couple of years, each time asking her "When is YOUR dissertation coming out? As it happens Dr. Swift has spent the better part of this ruinous year sequestered in Nashville, Tennessee working with a crack team of aural immunologists; Doctor's Sansone, Serrano, Estes and Radford [ably assisted by visiting Cambridge researcher Dr. Sticky], developing the most promising treatment for DAS in decades.
Blonde On The Tracks is a rehabilitation regimen in eight steps that is at once palliative and aggressive as it fully eradicates Dylan dismissiveness from curmudgeonly test subjects who were on their intellectual death beds. The musical arrangements and playing are a perfect modern analog to the sublime retro sound of Dylan's own current band and provide a suitable backdrop for Swift's arresting voice and spot on phrasings.
The song selection here is key. Swift has chosen songs for their strong melodies rather than their relative fame. In so doing, DAS sufferers find themselves asking "Dylan wrote that? Really? Hmmm." After roping the patient in with the gorgeous "Queen Jane Approximately" Dr. Swift revives a 60s tradition with a hot take on Dylan's current single "I Contain Multitudes." It's Bob's best song in decades and Swift's cover is now the definitive version in my opinion.
Doctor Swift is an outspoken leader in the movement to recognize musicologists that happen to be female as full-fledged members of the greater science and not just a sub-category. If you put her on a list, there better be men on that list, too.
Swift stays true to this worthy idea by including songs that are traditionally sung from a male point of view and pulls it off with authority on songs like "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" [my personal favorite], "The Man In Me," and "You're A Big Girl Now."
If you have a friend, loved one or family member who is stricken with Dylan Aversion Syndrome, take heart. Dr. Emma Swift and her team are here to help. One warning: This treatment is ineffective when delivered in streaming form. Any streaming versions you come across are the work of Russian bots and are to be avoided. Downloads from Bandcamp.com are marginally effective but for a complete DAS cleansing, it is best to order a CD and even better to opt for the vinyl treatment. Colored vinyl will also cure ingrown toenails.
Get your prescription below:
1.Queen Jane Approximately 04:36
2.I Contain Multitudes 05:07 video
3.One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) 06:19
4.Simple Twist of Fate 04:20
5.Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands 11:57
6.The Man In Me 03:26
7.Going Going Gone 03:30
8.You're A Big Girl Now 05:28
Follow Emma Swift on Patreon for only $5 a month!
Interview and overview by Eric Sandberg
Yes, Blue Öyster Cult are still a band. They've recently had a spate of new releases, including live albums, reissues of out of print post-heyday studio albums and a promised album of all new material in the pipeline.
Lead guitarist Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser and nominal lead singer/Master of Ceremonies Eric Bloom remain as founding, and arguably the two most recognizeable, members of Blue Öyster Cult. Roeser wrote and sang the band's two biggest hits "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" and "Burnin' For You" [lyrics for the latter were penned by frequent collaborator, Richard Meltzer] while Bloom's swagger and vocal power dominated the arenas the band frequently sold out during the 70s and 80s.
Current marketing blurbs refer to the pair as "the band's core duo," and as glad as I am that they are still at it, I do take exception to this. If ever a rock band was the sum of its five equal parts, that band was Blue Öyster Cult. Saturday Night Live fans who show up to BÖC gigs at county fairs, with their cowbells and drumsticks may not know the difference, but fans who cut their teeth on Tyranny and Mutation, Secret Treaties and On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, remember the breadth of talent that permeated the original lineup.
Blue Öyster Cult Clockwise from top left: Joe Bouchard, Albert Bouchard, Allen Lanier, Buck Dharma, Eric Bloom,
First among equals was the band's rhythm section of Joe Bouchard and his brother Albert who, utilizing lyrics written themselves or provided by a host of writers like Sandy Pearlman, John Shirley, Dave Roter, Punk Goddesses Helen Wheels and Patti Smith [Yes, that Patti Smith] and the aforementioned Richard Meltzer, composed great swaths of the music that appeared on the records.
Together or separately Albert and Joe are responsible for classics like "Hot Rails To Hell," "The Red and the Black," "Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll," "Career of Evil," "Astronomy," "Dominance and Submission," "7 Screaming Dizbusters," "Wings Wetted Down," "The Revenge of Vera Gemini," "Joan Crawford Has Risen From the Grave," "Fallen Angel" and many, many more.
When the latter day BÖC performed the platinum album Agents of Fortune for a TV broadcast a few years ago they invited Albert and Joe back to participate because they were responsible for so much of what was on the album. Joe, who wrote and sang "Morning Final" for Agents, demurred, though Albert came along and sang three songs including the album's closer "Debbie Denise." As Joe explains:
"I did not want to just sing my song and not play on any other songs in the set. I told them Richie Castellano could sing "Morning Final" and he sang it well. Had I known they were also going to take the Agents of Fortune show to LA, London or Ireland, I would have said 'Sure, I'll sing one song."
The enigmatic LP jacket for Blue Öyster Cult's platinum selling Agents of Fortune
Though Eric Bloom was the band's most accomplished singer, the members of BÖC often sang their own songs on the albums while their live sets tilted in favor of titles that featured Bloom's prodigious pipes and natural charisma. But thanks to the extensive songwriting talent within the band, along with the community lyrics folder, BÖC albums were deep affairs that commanded repeated full listens of both sides of the platter. Subsequent efforts by Roeser and Bloom are solid but lack the depth and mystique of the earlier albums.
Now for the good news — Joe and Albert Bouchard have signed a new management deal with Deko Entertainment for a potential host of new releases starting off with Joe's new solo album Strange Legends, to be followed in the Fall by Albert's new reimagining of the BÖC album Imaginos.
"It all started when I got an email from out of the blue from a guy out in California [Jeff Keller, Deko Entertainment] who is a big BÖC fan and he says 'I want to manage you and I want to manage your brother. I looked him up and found out he manages the Appice Brothers. Now, Carmine and Vinnie, they don't just do the Appice Brothers, they each have many projects of their own. Albert and I have a similar situation where we have the Bouchard Brothers, but we also have other bands and solo projects we're always working on.
He pitched us the idea of starting our own label. I thought, 'we're in the middle of a pandemic, we're [the country] in a terrible financial situation — what is this guy thinking? How is this going to happen?" Then he goes out and finds us a deal! Unbelievable! Deko has a relationship with A.D.A. which is part of Warner Brothers so our distribution is going to be part of the Warner Brothers machine worldwide."
Albert and Joe Bouchard
The debut release of the Bouchard's new imprint Rockheart Records will be a new studio album by Joe, Strange Legends. The album, like much of the previous releases from Joe and Albert, has that unmistakable air of Cult-ness about it.
Track one "The African Queen" immediately transports you back to BÖC's black and white period and keeps you there with tracks like "Forget About Love," "She's A Legend," "Hit and Run," "Once Upon A Time At the Border" and "Bottom For the Bottomless" which even sports a tasty Buck Dharma style guitar solo.
"With every solo album I put out, people say 'boy, that sounds a lot like Blue Oyster Cult!' I say, I didn't consciously try to sound that way, It's just what I do!
Following Strange Legends on Rockheart Records this fall will be Albert Bouchard's new approach to the loosely linked series of Sandy Pearlman lyrics, the "random access myth" collectively known as the Imaginos Legend. Albert originally began this project as a solo album after leaving Blue Öyster Cult only to volunteer the nearly completed album to his former band to meet the band's contract obligations with Columbia Records.
"It's a little bit of a different take on it this time" Joe explains. "Albert started it as an acoustic project but he's been building it up. He's dug up some additional lyrical material from Sandy Pearlman. His inspiration for the vibe he wants for it is Love's Forever Changes. I actually have played a couple of trumpet solos on it — I've been very into brass lately. Albert is actually envisioning a trilogy of albums for the Imaginos saga so this album coming up will be volume one.
Albert's also still got the early mixes of the original Imaginos album when it was still his solo project...I can't give away too much. I've probably given away too much already!"
There is a general feeling among fans of Blue Öyster Cult that having a big hit altered the band's musical trajectory. While it is a given that having a hit will result in pressure from the record label to have another hit, anyone who listened to both sides of Agents of Fortune had already noticed a significant shift in their sound and approach to songwriting.
"Because we had the live album out the previous year, it gave us more time to work on the material for Agents of Fortune. By this time we all had our own home studios for creating demos. We did a lot of preparation and we all came to the studio with finished songs. It worked out. It's a solid album with a lot of variety. We never really wanted to just stick with one thing, like AC-DC. That's what makes Blue Oyster the Cult."
Agents of Fortune also contained the first two writing contributions from keyboardist/guitarist Allen Lanier in "True Confessions" and "Tenderloin."
"Allen Lanier's songs were very strong. We didn't play them live because he wasn't a very powerful singer but, after he passed away, we played a reunion show — the whole first set was Alan's songs and the people loved it. It blew me away how well Alan's songs worked live when they were properly rehearsed. There's much we owe Allen. He was a big part of the personality of the band. I miss him a lot."
Blue Öyster Cult performing their legendary, showstopping 5 Guitars routine
I asked Bouchard how five talented songwriters were able to come to such a successful consensus about what songs to put on the albums, how they should be arranged and what songs to play live.
"I felt like I was the peacemaker. They probably don't think so, but I was usually the guy that came up with the compromise solution. When one guy had a hard opinion and another guy had the opposite opinion, I'd say 'Hey, wait a minute. There's a third way to think about this. It worked for a long time, I think. We came up with some good records that are still talked about and admired."
As for the live sets, they tended to favor heavy songs with imagery touching on biker gangs, air war and science fiction.
"Those kind of themes are strong when you want to play hard rock in big arenas."
Finally, I asked Joe Bouchard what else we can expect to see from Rockheart records in the coming years.
"We've got some great live material from our Bouchard Brothers Songs and Stories shows so we're looking at getting that out along with some new studio material." The Bouchard Brothers is just me, Albert and my partner Joan [Levy Hepburn] on the guitar. Albert and I concentrate on what we do best, which is the rhythm section and Joan provides the leads. We have a lot of fun with it. And do Albert and I have stories!" Sometimes Albert tells stories I haven't even heard yet."
The Bouchard Brothers featuring Joan Levy Hepburn
As for the possibility of reissuing some of the harder to find items from Joe and Albert's respective catalogs...
"That was discussed when we did our deal. Albert and I own it all so, when the timing is right, there will probably be a compilation of material from our respective catalogs."
Strange Legends is due to be released July 31 and is available at the links below.
Joe Bouchard on Spotify
Sunshine Walkers: The Best of Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry
Interview and overview by Eric Sandberg
Kimberley Rew is not a well known commodity in this vast world of ours. He's even less well known than...say...Robyn Hitchcock, who is also not particularly famous either...in the great scheme of things.
But, if I were to hum 'Doot-doot-doot da doot-doot da dotta-dotta, doot-doot-doot da doot-doot da dotta dotta...' to anyone, from my niece to my great aunt, they will all say "I know that song!"
Rew not only played guitar on that song, he wrote it, along with "Going Down To Liverpool," a hit for The Bangles and "Love Shine a Light," which was the last song to claim the Eurovision prize for England in 1997. Rew penned Celine Dion's hit song "That's Just the Woman In Me" along with a score of other lesser known rock and pop gems that are no less delightful.
Before any of that happened, Kimberley Rew was very well known to me and a few of my friends as the angular and frenetic lead guitarist for The Soft Boys, an out of time, neo-psychedelic Cambridge, UK collective led by the aforementioned Robyn Hitchcock in the late 70s.
Rew's guitar pyrotechnics are best showcased on the Soft Boys' debut LP A Can of Bees. His playing was reined in just a bit for the somewhat 'poppier' songs Hitchcock penned for their seminal follow up/swan song Underwater Moonlight, a discipline that would serve him well when he formed Katrina and the Waves and set out to conquer pop music.
The Soft Boys L to R: Kimberley Rew, Robyn Hitchcock (obviously), Matthew Seligman, Morris Windsor
Lee Cave-Berry is a figure lurking behind and astride the scenes during this entire period.
"We met, actually, ages and ages ago in 1977. The band my boyfriend and I were in had supported The Waves and we supported The Soft Boys on their first gig after Kimberley joined. It's, by the way, the only gig I've ever played where I was spat at," Cave-Berry tells me on the phone from their lock down sanctuary in Cambridge.
Rew adds, "The Waves were an early version of Katrina and the Waves, before I joined The Soft Boys." Tracks by the pre-Katrina Waves, along with a couple of early Rew penned songs recorded by The Soft Boys can be found on The Bible of Bop compilation. The previously unreleased, Rew composed song "Stomping All Over the World" [Included on Sunshine Walkers] is so catchy it deserves to be in its own sandwich commercial.
"Kimberley and I knew each other for a long time, but we were both going out with other people and were both concentrating on our own bands. We were in the friend box for along time, but then some things happened that took us out of the friend box about twenty years after we first met."
Lee Cave-Berry's contributions on Kimberley's early solo albums were modest at first — some backing vocals here and a bass part there — but things eventually developed into a full-fledged musical partnership sharing the billing on subsequent gigs and album releases.
This is all culminating in a new chapter for the pair as they have signed a deal with Ball In The Jack Records and are kicking things off with a summing up of the story so far. Sunshine Walkers: The Best of Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry is packed with twentyone tracks culled from Rew solo albums, Kim & Lee full collaborations and a couple of tracks from Lee Cave-Berry's outstanding solo album Spring Forward.
"We've never done any kind of promotion for any of our records really," says Cave-Berry. "We decided to do some promotion for our next record and the team at Ball In The Jack said we should put together this compilation first. We got suggestions from friends on what to include and chose others ourselves. We had a lot of fun doing it."
The album is a delight. Pure bop for wow people. It's full of rock, pop and a healthy dose of English whimsy as heard and seen in the video below for "Bloody Old England" which features a series of drawings by Rew who, by the way, also has a degree in Archeology from Cambridge University [bloody polymath!]. It is a welcome boon to fans that may have been asleep for the past two decades and missed the original albums which are becoming hard to find collector's items these days.
"The Dog Song" pokes some healthy fun at religion, while the bouncy, child friendly, ear worms "The End of the Rainbow" and "Purple Pajamas" will have you humming all day. There are some beautiful love ballads like "Happy Anniversary" and, especially, "The Safest Place," a song that will doubtless be used for a poignant scene in a movie one day. The lengthy set is punctuated with driving rockers like [literally] "English Road," "My Baby Does Her Hairdo Long," the whimsical "Backing Singer Blues" and a funky, wah-wah inflected Curtis Mayfield tribute "Flower Super Power," which includes a guitar solo that sends a wink Robin Trower's way.
If I have managed to make you at all curious about Kim & Lee's music, Sunshine Walkers is the perfect place to start your education.
Of course, I couldn't let Kimberley go without grilling him a little bit about The Soft Boys, particularly their surprising reunion in 2002, which included a new studio album, an EP and a lengthy world tour. I was curious whether he was all in or took some cajoling to participate.
"I was very OK with it. This was twenty years after the original split of The Soft Boys and I'm very glad I had all those experiences in those twenty years. It gave me some perspective, as they say in Spinal Tap. The timing was actually quite fortunate as Katrina and the Waves had just split up. Robyn, his [then] wife Michele, Lee, Alex [Cooper, Katrina and the Waves drummer] and his wife and I were all at the Three Kings in Clerkenwell in 1999 and Robyn sort of implied that perhaps it was time for a reunion.
Alex and I had just put a song up for the Eurovision song contest. The news came through that our song had been knocked out of competition, which was kind of a relief, actually. It meant that I wouldn't have entered into a reunion with divided loyalties as it were."
Lee Cave-Berry recalls, "I remember that tour fondly. I saw a lot of that tour. I remember Kimberley saying 'I can't believe I've found a girl that actually enjoys sound checks'!"
Kimberley Rew, if he had not found his voice as a remarkable and prolific songwriter, would doubtless have become a top flight session guitarist. Rew's rhythm chops are unrivaled. He keeps time like an organic steam hammer. He hits the strings harder than anybody I've ever heard play but is always in complete command. I asked him how he developed his aggressively competent style.
"I'm not a confident person — I'm not outgoing. I'm not a bandleader or a front man or a lead singer type. I guess that all gets transferred to the guitar. That's kind of my strong suit. There is a certain amount of will power I use to keep the song moving forward."
Since this lock down began, Kim and I have been performing live on Facebook Wednesday nights. We're able to play together because we live together, just guitar and bass. In our earlier Wednesday internet sessions the sound of my hand hitting the strings was the loudest thing in the room. It was drowning out the amplification and louder than our vocals. We had to get microphones."
The Soft Boys "Insanely Jealous" is a great example of the 6-string mischief of Kimberley Rew
Throughout our interview it is apparent how much in love the pair are, even after months spent together cooped up in their house to avoid contracting the Covid-19 virus which sadly took the life of Rew's former Soft Boys band mate Matthew Seligman at far too young an age.
Kimberley Rew is very humble about his abilities and his accomplishments and Lee Cave-Berry, no slouch herself in the talent department, is his biggest cheerleader. When Rew tells me "I don't improvise very much..." Cave-Berry immediately chimes in "He can improvise, he just chooses not to very often!" When I compliment Cave-Berry on the remarkable breadth of songs on her solo album she coyly states that she isn't currently writing much new material for a follow up because "It's a bit difficult when you have a songwriting icon the house. Everything ends up chucked in the bin!" Rew sheepishly interjects "Steady on, old girl!"
Rew and his former band Katrina and the Waves were recently honored by Eurovision when the global pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 contest in its normal format. A replacement television show was devised and renamed Eurovision: Europe Shine A Light, and featured all of this year's contestants performing Rew's prize winning song "Love Shine a Light."
Rew and Cave-Berry, despite the current state of the world, seem energized and ready to carry on. They have three more videos ready for release to help promote Sunshine Walkers and "Our bid for world domination, will continue with a couple more albums of new material, Rew says"
Sunshine Walkers: The Best of Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry is released worldwide on July 17, 2020 and will be available as a download and a CD. See links below.
01 The Dog Song
02 It Makes Me Happy
03 Bloody Old England
04 Backing Singer Blues
05 The End Of Our Rainbow
06 English Road
07 The Safest Place
08 All I Want Is You For Christmas
09 Yours Truly
10 Hey War Pig
11 Some Days You Eat The Bear
12 Purple Pyjamas
13 Stomping All Over The World
14 Happy Anniversary
15 Flat Cat
16 My Baby Does Her Hairdo Long
17 Flower Superpower
18 I Want You
19 Restless Ocean
20 She’s Still Got It
21 Simple Pleasures
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.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.