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
EP review by Eric Sandberg
A collaboration between two of England's preeminent weirdos has been mooted for years. An abortive attempt some years ago appeared to have fizzled, leaving the two not exactly on speaking terms.
That I found this four-song EP on my porch today can almost fully be put on Twitter. Andy Partridge's relatively brief time on the social media platform (initially disguised as a fan of his own former band, XTC) enabled some unprecedented access for Partridge devotees — and detractors (who are really just disappointed fans who want more music).
If asked a direct question on Twitter, Partridge would provide a direct, unvarnished answer. The inevitable question was posed: 'What happened with you and Robyn Hitchcock?'
Photo by Kevin Nixon/Louder Sound
The answer is as plausible as it is mundane: 'We started, but the guy is always on tour!' It wasn't long until Robyn Hitchcock was drawn into the Twitter thread and the two reconnected. Hitchcock, who lives in Nashville, remains perpetually on tour but, in the midst of a spate of UK dates, he found his way to Partridge's shed in Swindon to put the finishing touches on these four tracks.
With the alternative being nothing, we'll take it, won't we? Yes...yes we will.
What do the songs sound like? They sound like a collaboration between Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Partridge albeit with Hitchcock handling most of the lead vocals. "Turn Me On Deadman" is pure Hitchcock as arranged by Mr. Partridge. "Flight Attendants. Please Prepare for Love" sounds like a Vulcan mind-meld between the pair, while "Got My..." is pure Partridge with Hitchcock inserting himself.
The all too brief tram ride closes with "Planet England." Partridge writes and Hitchcock sings,
"Kind old lady in the tower
Pressing up a withered flower
What's she got to live for? Power!
Here on Planet England
There are far worse places
and I've seen a few"
It's all very English...and jangly...and beautiful. And I want more.
Planet England is available on 10" vinyl, CD and as a download.
The Rails — Live in Nichol's Canyon — 8/31/19
Concert review by Eric Sandberg
Photos by Mike Berman
Before record labels, Soundscan, Sam Goodies — long before there were
recordings of any kind, musicians survived through a system known as patronage. Wealthy patrons of the arts, including the courts of kings, queens and emperors, commissioned composers to create works and arrange and conduct performances. Musicians made their livelihoods by performing for patrons and their invited guests in their homes.
Haydn embraced the patronage of a prince while his contemporary, Mozart, famously despised his musically ignorant benefactors, burned his bridges and essentially became music's first freelancer.
Chances are, even Mozart would have loved Peter Hastings, Hollywood producer, writer, voice actor, musician and music lover. With the music industry in a shambles, and composers and performers receiving checks for pennies from billion dollar streaming companies, the idea of patronage is making a modest comeback. Noted New Orleans jazz pianist Tom McDermott recently documented his house concert tour on social media after booking a number of inquiries from eager patrons before setting out in his marginally reliable car.
Hastings often turns his spacious, post-modern home, nestled in winding Nichols Canyon above Hollywood into a music venue, not too dis-similar to McCabe's guitar shop in Santa Monica, with various vintage stringed instruments lining the walls of his spacious front room.
After parking on an adjacent street, a polite young man with an English accent picked up our party of three in a black SUV and drove us up the steep driveway to Hastings's house where our fit, middle-aged, host greeted our arrival in rose pink slacks, a gray collarless pullover and flip flops. Any similarity to a music venue ended there as Hastings operates on the honor system, assuming that, if you knew to come, you must have paid the $20 in advance or were prepared to drop $20 in an urn whether or not he was around to witness it.
From this point forward we were at a swanky Hollywood cocktail party with Hastings's de-facto co-host, the inimitable Nancy Covey, greeting and chatting up each new arrival. As the ranks of beautiful people, who all seemed to know each other, swelled I began to feel as if I had crashed the party. There was an aircraft carrier-sized kitchen island full of hors d'oeuvres, a wine table, Stella Artois on ice and a bucket of La Croix flavored water, all out of Hastings's pocket as all the proceeds from the event were going to the performers.
By 8:30 PM an announcement was made and the attendees filed into the front room to their seats, already mostly claimed by the presence of an article of clothing or a half-filled wine glass, and Peter Hastings introduced The Rails in a humorous, self-deprecating manner.
The Rails are a wife-husband duo from England who have released four albums [their first was under a different name] and a handful of EPs. Kami Thompson and James Walbourne have just released their latest Cancel the Sun [Psychonaut Sounds/Thirty Tigers]. Produced by Stephen Street [The Smiths, Morrissey, Blur, Cranberries, Sparks].
Cancel the Sun is a departure from the duo's acoustic folk roots and is teeming with infectious power chords and biting, sardonic, lyrics while leaving their luscious vocal harmonies intact. It is a remarkable album where each song embeds a subtle hint to their influences, from The Everly Brothers to the Beatles and maybe a dash of a little known beret-wearing English guitarist and his former partner.
In Peter Hastings's front room, The Rails performed seven of the album's ten songs in stripped-down, acoustic fashion which only enhanced the beauty of the songs and their astute observations of our rapidly decaying society.
"Save the planet, Kill yourself, It's the least that you could do..."
"Praise your dictator, Love the revelator, All the news that's fit to sing, Doesn't mean a single thing..."
These lyrics and many more are delivered sweetly by voices that compliment each other like they are in love.
The set was rounded out with a couple of traditional songs, two from their previous LP Other People and four selections from The Rails's debut LP Fair Warning including the highlight "Panic Attack Blues." Walbourne had been hinting at his devastating acoustic guitar skills all evening, but this track's opening salvo of prestidigitation left no doubt why Walbourne is currently the latest in the line of worthy successors to James Honeyman-Scott in The Pretenders.
After thirteen beautiful and charming performances, the duo with "nowhere to hide" as Thompson put it, brought their patron for the evening Peter Hastings to the stage [and, by stage, I mean a couple rumpled carpets that the duo miraculously avoided tripping over all night] to perform the evening's final number "I Wish, I Wish" on upright bass. To his credit, Hastings looked like he had been playing the song with them on tour since April.
After the show, Thompson and Walbourne graciously made themselves available to the large group of appreciative attendees and were probably still doing so long after our party had tiptoed down the steep curving driveway to
L-R: Nancy Covey, James Walbourne, Kami Thompson
The Rails return to the UK in October for a nine date tour.
Call Me When It All Goes Wrong
Something Is Slipping My Mind
Ball and Chain
Other People (Dedicated to Boris Johnson)
Panic Attack Blues
Cancel The Sun
Encore: I Wish, I Wish
(with Peter Hastings on upright bass)
The Road Less Traveled: The Fab Four Perform Abbey Road Live — Pacific Amphitheater, Costa Mesa, CA 8/3/2019
Concert review by Eric Sandberg Photos by Mike Berman
"Whew!" Ardy Sarraf must have been thinking moments after crooning "...someday I'm gonna make her mine" last night in Costa Mesa. A lot of the more casual Beatles fans were already flooding the exits when Sarraf and guest guitarist Doug Couture sauntered back on stage to remind everybody that the "The End" isn't quite the end of Abbey Road.
In fact, "Her Majesty" was followed by a relaxed and relief-driven encore of "Hey Jude" forcing many of the early 'Beatlexiteers' to freeze in their spots like latecomers to a baseball park during the National Anthem.
This capped off a sublime evening of Beatles music from Sarraf as Paul McCartney, Joe Bologna emulating Ringo Starr, Liverpudlian Gavin Pring as George Harrison, and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne native Adam Hastings taking the role of John Lennon. The fabulous foursome opened the show with a set of road-worn songs from the Beatles's earlier catalog:
"She Loves You"
"All My Loving"
"Hard Day's Night"
"Eight Days A Week"
"Can't Buy Me Love"
"I Saw Her Standing There"
"Twist And Shout."
Over the past twenty-two years the Fab Four, clad in period-correct Shea Stadium outfits, have played these songs live countless more times than the real Beatles ever did, and it shows. Sarraf and Hastings also provided an updated version of Beatles style banter:
"The people in the cheap seats, clap your hands. The people in the front, rattle your IPhones!"
"We'd like you to stand up for this one............take your time."
After the first set concluded, the momentousness of what the Fab Four were about to attempt started to take them a little bit out of their comfort zone, leading to a couple of Spinal Tap moments. As Bologna riffed on a drum pattern that made me want to shout, 'It's! Time! For Southernnnnn Girls!' Sarraf set about to give away a t-shirt while Hastings and Pring changed into their "professional period" duds backstage.
This went on for quite some time as Doug Couture banged in the dark on a silent keyboard and shook his head. Ultimately, Sarraf and Bologna were forced to perform the Beatles Anthology version of "Got To Get You Into My life" with just the rhythm section. It worked for me. As the crew continued to tackle the technical problems Sarraf and Hastings combined to ask the audience to cheer for the t-shirt winner at least four times. I was afraid someone was going to toss Sarraf a top hat and cane.
Adam Hastings then entertained the crowd dressed in Lennon's iconic 1971 white pants suit before sitting down at the piano to perform "Imagine."
The full band shortly reconvened, aided and abetted by Eric Clapton tribute guitarist Couture on additional guitar [taking several of the leads] and The Fab Four's founder, and original John Lennon, Ron McNeil on keyboards and guitar. The need to augment the band for the task of performing Abbey Road live on stage is the first indicator of the many challenges involved with pulling off such a venture.
Previously, they have been able to perform Sgt. Pepper's in it's entirety with just the four of them — why is this straight rock album a bigger challenge? Mainly because The Beatles took full advantage of EMI Studio's new 8-track console to record Abbey Road, allowing them far more largess to overdub additional guitar, keyboard and percussion elements onto the recording.
They got off to a great start with "Come Together" with McNeil, barely recognizable as himself in the shadows, nailing the electric piano groove. Gavin Pring announced that they were about to play "the best track on the album...along with track seven" and a lovely version of "Something" ensued.
Let's just get this over with right here. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is a gawd-awful song and the live performance of it did nothing to change my mind about this. I would have forgiven them for substituting "Mr. Moonlight" in its place.
Moving on, Ardy Sarraf had to sing "Oh Darling" early in a sequence of songs that required him to do a lot of singing. He did a tremendous job. On the technical side, he made clever use of a tight echo effect to shore up the lines that were double tracked by Paul in the studio. Well done, Mr. Sarraf!
Joe Bologna got his moment to step out front for "Octopus's Garden" while Sarraf handled the drums. Bologna, who uncannily apes Ringo's posture and movements on the drum stool, can be forgiven for not imitating Ringo's awkward front man style as, technically, it wouldn't be invented for another couple of decades anyway.
Up next is a song that is begging to be performed live more often, John Lennon's angst-ridden ode to Yoko Ono "I Want You." It was a powerful albeit imperfect performance — Couture's guitar was slightly out of tune which took some of the shimmer off the song's urgent arpeggio and Sarraf, a naturally right-handed player, struggled with the loping solo bass runs that undulate between the staccato guitar bursts. Sarraf shook his head after not quite hitting the mark on any of his three chances.
With side one out of the way, the six musicians braced themselves for the roller coaster ride that is side two of Abbey Road. "Here Comes the Sun" is a deceptively complex number that requires a lot of precision, something you only notice when said precision isn't quite achieved.
"Because" is where things really start to get challenging. They had to hit those breathtaking harmonies while keeping part of their minds on their instrumental cues. I get the impression they spent more time rehearsing this number than any other as their performance was flawless — easily the highlight of the evening.
"You Never Give Me Your Money" serves as the gateway into the frenetic medley of half-tunes brilliantly shoe-horned together by The Beatles and George Martin, like some music publisher's clearinghouse, and the Fabs navigated this minefield adeptly, building momentum toward the three-way guitar solo in "The End." It would have been perfect, too, if Adam Hasting's volume pedal wasn't pushed down, effectively silencing his first turn. But that's rock and roll. If everything was perfect, it all would have been less memorable in my opinion.
Overall, the evening was a triumph for the Fab Four and their team, but I'm pretty sure they're glad it's over.
Album reviews by Eric Sandberg
Having rewritten "Sweet Jane" three times over his last two albums notwithstanding, Peter Perrett is an effortlessly charming and engaging songwriter. In 1978 Perrett scored a hit with "Another Girl, Another Planet" as a member of The Only Ones. The band folded in 1980 after releasing three albums.
Perrett briefly resurfaced fifteen years later as The One — but drugs, and the ensuing poor behavior often caused by their use, cut this comeback short. In 2017, buoyed by his son, guitarist/arranger/producer Jamie, Peter Perrett surprised everyone who cares with the release of How the West Was Won, a strong collection of all new songs.
Now, just two years later, the rejuvenated Perrett has graced us with another album of first rate new songs. Humanworld finds Perrett in full command of his [previously thought lost] melodicism and poetic lyricism. Jamie Perrett provides all of his dad's songs with the musical grandeur they deserve and even contributes one of his own which fits in seamlessly thanks to the similarity of their voices.
Humanworld is simply a great album by a great songwriter. It's one of those rare albums that is instantly likeable but is not going to wear out its welcome any time soon.
Remember when Michael Jordan tried to play professional baseball? It's kind of like that when Richard Hawley tries to rock. OK, that is admittedly unfair and shameful hyperbole — Richard Hawley can rock — at least far better than MJ can hit a curveball. It's just not what he does best.
Richard Hawley is the Michael Jordan of slow tempo, reverb-drenched, aching romantic balladry. He has the soul of Roy Orbison at his saddest, the pathos of Nick Cave at his most wistful and the lonesomeness of Hank Williams at his — oh never mind — as a balladeer, Hawley is a law unto himself — impossible to describe adequately with words.
After an EP and five full-length albums of gorgeous melodies and sublime arrangements Hawley threw his devoted fans a wicked curveball in the form of Standing at the Sky's Edge , a distortion-soaked, psychedelic romp. He got a lot of stick for it, too. As one reviewer put it, "WHY!?" At the time, I didn't mind the diversion. He deserved the opportunity to try something different, and he is one mean guitar player.
Hawley returned to his previous form three years later with an achingly beautiful album Hollow Meadows the first track of which "I Still Want You" sounds vaguely like an apology to his fans.
After composing the scores for a couple of films and a TV show Hawley is back with a new album and he's taking things further again. On Further, Hawley mixes uptempo rockers with his more familiar lighter touch and the results are...well...mixed. It's a fine album from start to finish, and an enjoyable listen, but the juxtaposition of his fair to middling rock songs with his ever perfect balladry makes me wish it was all ballads, all the time. The proof is in the pudding, so I will leave you here to listen to the rockin' lead track from Further to compare to a lush track from Hawley's previous album album Hollow Meadows and let you decide. Let me know which you prefer.
"Off My Mind" The lead track from Further
Album review by Eric Sandberg
The Ocean Blue are on a roll. With the release of their seventh full-length album Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves on June 21, the band has cut the gap between albums to a paltry six years. Their previous record, 2013's Ultramarine was widely hailed as their finest to date, but that standing may be in jeopardy.
The new album continues to explore the unique musical niche the band created for themselves with their debut self-titled Sire/Reprise album in 1989. Indeed, the semi-title track "Kings and Queens" kicks things off with all the band's hallmarks: a shimmering guitar arpeggio buoyed by a Wurlitzer counter melody and a lyrical reference to the ocean delivered in front man David Schelzel's soothing, laconic voice, which I might describe as Nick Heyward after the Ambien has kicked in if I had less self-control as a writer.
At first blush, this album seems no different — another in a series — familiar and reassuring. One really doesn't want this beloved band to change much lest something precious and dear be lost. After listening to the album repeatedly, however, I did begin to notice something. Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves is The Ocean Blue's most confident sounding album since their debut, and their most sonically pleasing.
Jim Ladd take note: this is a headphone album. A great deal of care, inspiration and attention to detail went into the arrangements of these songs. There is a varied and pleasing pallet of guitar tones employed by chief songwriter Schelzel and ace utility player Oed Ronne — each perfectly suited to the song. Ronne also delivers some of his best work on the keyboard front, mixing modern sounds with retro synth flourishes that recall Ultravox and Gary Numan, and are spooned out in doses measured to serve each song.
Ronne, Schelzel, Mittan and Anderson
Holding it all down is the tight, economical drumming of Peter Anderson, who especially shines on the spritely "Paraguay My Love" [a song that could be mistaken for The Decemberists sped up to 45 from 33 1/3] and the urgent, pulsating bass lines of founding member Bobby Mittan. The Ocean Blue are fortunate to have kept Mittan in the fold all these years as he is the key to maintaining the band's sound. Just compare any post Pete de Freitas Echo & the Bunnymen album to their earlier work and you'll understand what I mean.
Standout tracks include: "Therein Lies the Problem In My Life" a mouthful of a lyric but one that has been stuck in my head since its release on a Korda Records sampler last year. The bouncy, acoustic driven "Give It a Little Time" is a simple ditty that threatens to become a symphony during the bridge. "Love Doesn't Make It Easy On Us," featuring guest vocalists Charlotte Crabtree and Allison Labonne, is lush, brooding and charming all at once. The beautiful "All the Way Blue" has a title that immediately conjures Nick Drake and musically sends you drifting, not unlike Drake's best songs.
If you're already a fan of The Ocean Blue, there is nothing here that disappoints. If you're not that familiar with them, Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves is a perfect place to begin — and then go fast forward in reverse.
The Ocean Blue have dates scheduled, hopping back and forth across the continent [and even dipping down to Peru for a couple of gigs] scheduled into December in support of Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves. You can check if they're coming to a venue near you here: http://www.theoceanblue.com/shows
Order the album and other merchandise here: https://www.theoceanblue.com/shop
To read a review of an The Ocean Blue concert from last year click here.
Album review by Eric Sandberg
Mike Scott used to make music so big that the first three albums by his band The Waterboys are collectively referred to as "The Big Music." The fiery young Irishman wrote passionate, powerful songs about important things and delivered them, with key band mates multi-instrumentalist Karl Wallinger and saxophonist Anthony Thistlethwaite, in a manner that is required listening.
Wallinger, a gifted songwriter himself, departed to form World Party, after which The Waterboys broke through with "The Whole of the Moon" from their third album This Is the Sea. After this success Scott decamped from London back to Ireland with a huge batch of new songs that veered away from rock toward folk. The addition of fiddle/mandolin player Steve Wickham enhanced the charm of these songs and Fisherman's Blues is regarded by many as the band's high watermark.
After a fine follow up, Room To Roam, their final album of new material for Chrysalis Records, Scott signed a deal with Geffen, moved to New York City, put together a whole new Waterboys and made some not so big music. After the relative failure of Dream Harder Scott made two low key albums under his own name before resurrecting the Waterboys moniker permanently, ably restoring the name's reputation with two strong albums A Rock In the Weary Land and Universal Hall which boast appearances from both Thistlethwaite and Wickham.
Scott continues to deliver a steady stream of Waterboys product including unreleased material from the Fisherman's Blues sessions, live albums and several albums of new songs backed mostly by session musicians. Lately, perhaps aware of his own mortality, Scott has ramped up the band's activity releasing three new albums in five years including the double album Out of All This Blue in 2017.
Though this must be heaven for a Waterboys "Mike can do no wrong" acolyte, it has been a bit of a strain on the discerning completest that is this writer. On Fisherman's Blues Scott wrote a song called "And a Bang On the Ear" an ode to to girlfriends past which, though lovely, established Scott as a bit of a rake. In the late era of The Waterboys many of Scott's songs fall into two categories:
1) name-dropping famous people and,
2) past girlfriends
Late, iconic musicians pervade Scott's dreams. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis have all appeared to him and gotten a song out of it. Out of All this Blue is a twenty-three song litany of women he has loved and left, or have wised up and left him. This, coupled with Scott's new fascination with already tired hip-hop beats, renders the entire affair a bit ponderous.
Only two years later, Scott and The Waterboys have released yet another album with ten all-new songs Where the Action Is. Oy vey! But wait...from the opening power chords of the driving title track, this album sounds like it might be fun. Tasty organ fills — check, wickedly distorted fiddle from Steve Wickham — check, some really decent songs that aren't all about girlfriends — check.
Track two "London Mick" is the inevitable name-dropping song but, this time, The Clash's Mick Jones isn't appearing in a dream — apparently they saw This Is Spinal Tap in a theater together. Track three is the title track from the previous album Out of All this Blue which has some very nice Matthew Fisher style organ from Paul Brown.
Tracks four and five present a pair of songs that are among the best Scott has written in years. "Right Side of Heartbreak (Wrong Side of Love)" is inescapably catchy while "In My Time on Earth" finds Scott looking back on his passionate youth and recapturing quite a bit of it.
"Ladbroke Grove Symphony" continues his reminiscing but "Take Me There I Will Follow You" is drenched in faux hip-hop with a programmed drum loop, rap backing vocals and [ulp!] scratchin'. "And There's Love" is another old girlfriend song which comes off as sincere but is again steeped in a hip hop vibe that just doesn't suit the song. "Then She Made the Lasses O" is also marred by loops and beats but is ultimately rescued by Steve Wickham's georgeous fiddle.
The album closes with "Piper At the Gates of Dawn" a compelling recitation of a passage from The Wind In the Willows by Kenneth Grahame over a beautiful piano melody reminiscent of mid period Rick Wright and Wickham's ethereal electrified fiddle.
Taken all in, Where the Action Is represents a tentative return to form and further verification of the old adage less is more.
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Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.