Thursday, April 9, 2020

A Look Back at John Prine’s Common Sense

In our faulty collective memories, we would like to think that John Prine was a commercial success from the moment his first album was released. Over the decades, practically every song on that album has entered the realm of familiarity to so many music fans that it would be hard to imagine that it never reached Billboard’s Top 100 albums. But it didn’t. Not even close. (Though that may change this week.) Neither did his second. Or third. If we had become familiar with Prine’s early songs it was through the voices of other performers like Bob Gibson (country), Swamp Dogg (r & b) and Bonnie Raitt (rock). Prine’s songs made the transformation across genres because they were rooted in humanity in a way that was unique to Prine.

It wasn’t until Prine’s 4th album, Common Sense, that the public took notice, reaching #66 on the Billboard charts. But what did the public know? Critics slammed the album as being overproduced and lacking in humor. It didn’t pass the folk purity test. The criticisms sounded an awful lot like the ones that greeted Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. And lacking in humor? You don’t even have to open the album for a dose of that – an hysterically funny depiction on the cover of what can happen when you don’t pay attention.

Those false criticisms have lasted through modern times, often by critics that are just recycling those old reviews. If you want to read a truly awful piece of music criticism, try the one by Jim Smith for Sometimes old prejudices die hard.

Prine’s Common Sense shared a title with one of America’s great literary works by Thomas Paine. If there is one thing that should be apparent by now, it is that Prine never left literary references to chance. Written in 1974, released in 1975, it must have been an exceptionally dreary period for Prine, a songwriting empath more locked into the human condition than a “patriotic” one. Richard Nixon, who had won the presidency in 1968 under the guise of ending the Vietnam War and then prolonged it, doing just enough troop withdrawals to ride to another victory in 1972, had resigned under the scrutiny of election malfeasance. The U.S. was out of the war, but the war raged on until 1975. For Prine, a vet, “peace with honor,” a Nixon concept, fell well short of the mark. It had cost far too many unnecessary lives, both U.S. and Vietnamese. For Prine, peace WAS honor. It’s on Common Sense that Prine unveils the follow up to "Sam Stone", “He Was In Heaven Before He Died.”

There's a rainbow of babies
Draped over the graveyard
Where all the dead sailors
Wait for their brides

On one of the album’s two radio hits, Prine sings

Don’t you know her when you see her
She grew up in your back yard
Come back to us Barbara Lewis
Hare Krishna

In the late 60s Barbara Lewis, an r&b singer and songwriter from neighboring Michigan, had disappeared from public view. Lewis had had several Top 40 songs in the early 60s but was nowhere to be found by the mid 70s. Prine wrote a tale of her imagined fate, and a chorus that strung her name together with a chant to a Hindu god and a French name meaning “with high regard.”

Selling bibles at the airport
Buying Quaaludes on the phone
Hey, you talk about a paper route
She’s shut in without a home

It was one of the quirkier song titles in rock history, which was probably why it received radio play and became a fan favorite. But it wasn’t a humorous tale. By the time he released Common Sense, Prine had seen his share of great talent thrown into the scrap heap of industry castoffs. In fact, he was in danger of becoming one himself.

On the other radio hit, “Saddle in the Rain,” Prine sings

I dreamed they locked God up
Down in my basement
And he waited there for me
To have this accident
So he could drink my wine
And eat me like a sacrament

Dreary? Yes. But a far more formidable album than critics were giving it credit for. It had to be in an era where radio play was often determined by industry “hit men” who greased the wheels with cash and cocaine. It was on talent alone, that Prine had survived the “three strikes, your out” rule.

Arif Mardin produced Prine’s first 3 albums. Common Sense was Prine’s first venture without Mardin, opting for Steve Cropper, a veteran of Booker T & the MG’s and the Memphis r & b community. Prine was clearly looking for something different and had stated so in subsequent interviews. It should have come as no surprise that it didn’t fall within the confines of the folk music genre. I guess for folk purists, horns were just a little too much. But for Prine, who was clearly channeling r&b this time out, it was the right thing to do. As for Jim Smith’s contention that “the cloying production overpowers the lyrics and relegates them to an almost cursory notion” – it’s absolute poppycock. That’s what happens when you view “Illegal Smile” as a celebration of recreation rather than a celebration of relief. Score one for the record buying public this time around.

Common Sense rode the steady airplay of “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis” and “Saddle In The Rain” into the charts and, for many, introduced Prine’s songs in his own voice. As for big production, some of Prine’s best and most loved works have been big production numbers. “Lake Marie,” anyone? And fame, no matter how slow in developing, has allowed Prine to tour with bigger bands offering fans an opportunity to hear many of those early tunes in revamped format, both through concert appearances and a plethora of live albums.

Common Sense, though not intended to be, was as much prescient, as it was formidable. Who wouldn’t appreciate these lines during our time of self-isolation

Can I find a little something with a nicer view
I’m hating to plead but I’m I’m begging to borrow
Just to be close to you
(That Close To You)

And during a period when weddings and funerals, with a limit of 10 attendees, can both bring about depression, Prine predicts the circumstances of his own passing with “Wedding Day In Funeralville.” And if there’s no humor built into the lyrics (“what will I wear tonight”) then you’re not paying attention.

Common Sense closes with the only cover on the album, written by another great American wordsmith, Chuck Berry, “You Never Can Tell.” And only a folk purist could be offended by that.


Saturday, May 4, 2019

This Train of Lovin’ - Calls and Responses: A Symposium on Teaching, Writing and Community (Reflections on my first ever academic conference)

(by Bill Glahn)

Where I'm going I don't know
But you tell me I must go
When we're leaving I don't know
But you tell me now
(Station Man, Danny Kirwin)

Trains. They’re an often-used metaphor in song for a reason. They symbolize movement. But what kind of movement – forward, backward, tangents? I’ve always approached the metaphorical train with a great degree of trepidation. Is the destination toward a removing of shackles (Harriet Tubman) or death camps?

I’ve written about Danny Kirwin several times over the years, a primary songwriter, singer and guitarist for Fleetwood Mac who took the reigns following the departure of Peter Green and prior to the mass-popularity of the Buckingham-Nicks era. I was singing in a teenage band when Kiln House, the first post-Green album, was released. We were primarily a rock & roll band, with an attachment to the Blues. We played the music of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, but mostly channeled the songs of The Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter, and Alice Cooper. There was something about those Danny Kirwin songs that spoke to me, a sensitivity that we weren’t capturing. Our band included two very talented guitar players who both took lessons from Paul Plumeri, who would later be a member of Duke Williams & The Extremes (one of the few northern acts on Capricorn Records) and an inductee into the Trenton Blues Hall of Fame. As we shifted more towards electric blues more akin to Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, I introduced Kiln House to the band. I found an ally in John, our more creative guitar player. Not so much in Sergio, who was all about guitar solos and getting laid. “Station Man” and “Jewell Eyed Judy” made it into the set list. A couple others made it into rehearsal. It didn’t matter. John was the child of a broken home and part of that was that he lived with his father in the summer months in Atlantic City. I was spiraling deeper into drug addiction. And that was the end of Overneath. But “Station Man” has remained one of those lynchpin songs that have kept the wheels from falling off up to this day.

I suppose my attitude toward academia started early in high school. I was something of a whiz at standardized tests – tests designed by and for the folks that can afford a secondary education – a class that didn’t include me. I simply took the tests because they were required and somehow aced them. I was always good at math. Comprehension was something that I had a good handle on. I could comprehend that these tests were designed to split up classes of folks into their “place” in society. Throughout high school my curriculum was chosen for me. I always got placed in academic courses with the “smart” kids, most of whom I had NOTHING in common with, economically or socially. I was a misfit.

It didn’t help any that one of the first lessons I learned in high school came in an English class when we were assigned to do a paper on one of 5 song lyrics assigned by the teacher. Part of the assignment was to deconstruct metaphors. I chose “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.”

I worked hard on that one. But I didn’t meet the teacher’s expectations. I wasn’t “hip” enough to know that the presumed metaphor alluded to shooting heroin, not suicide. I got an “F” on the paper. It was the first time I ever felt compelled to argue with a teacher. I took the position that what the listener hears is often as important as what the writer was writing about. And, anyway, aren’t suicide and heroin addiction closely related? The grade stood. Inflexibility in an academic course was my lesson for the day. As well as the detachment of academics. I made a call with that essay. I was met with a big “Fuck You.” Fortunately, I had a more experienced and encouraging English teacher my junior year, an elder with no predisposition to hipness. It didn’t change my opinion of academic courses any. But it helped to soften it a bit.

I see it's coming
And bringing something
This train of lovin'
I see it's comin'

Fast forward to the mid/late ‘90s. I was several years into publishing a magazine called Live! Music Review. It was primarily a magazine that featured reviews of bootleg music. We had an editorial policy designed after another publication that I greatly admired since the ‘80s, Rock ‘n’ Rap Confidential. We covered different topics, some that overlapped what RRC was doing, some different. I realized from the first issue that in order to make it worthwhile, I needed people on board who knew how to write and could approach our topics with something deeper than “good recording, good performance, the RIAA are bastards.” Somehow, I managed to attract a group of experienced music writers looking for a chance to address topics that were usually KO’d by their editors. Somewhere in the first two years of the magazine, my path crossed with Dave Marsh. Although never a member of the L!MR writing staff, Dave provided some much needed guidance and mentoring, as well as an article or two along the way. I think it was sometime around 1998 that Danny Alexander, an associate editor at RRC started a sort of idea-exchange/writer’s group called Strat. It focused on the intersection of music, culture, and politics. Race and class played a big part in our discussions. By necessity, it had a limited number of members. About a month or two after it started I got an invite from Marsh. I think his comment (paraphrased) was “I think your addition to the group will be mutually beneficial.” I trusted Marsh. He was a great writer and thinker sans an academic background. Without knowing who was in the group, I jumped in lock, stock and barrel.

It was a group that included some of the most forward-thinking individuals that I knew of, and then some. Academics, teachers, socially aware musicians, veterans of the Poor People’s March, political activists, writers, and even a “Republican” music industry attorney. I was overwhelmed and more than a little intimidated. One of those academics was Professor Craig Werner from the Humanities Dept. (Afro-American Studies) at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Through a continuing correspondence over the next 20-something years, I found Craig to be a patient and understanding teacher, one who was just as adept at listening as lecturing. This was a new experience for me. I received a new reading list that included such authors, previously unknown to me, as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou. Plus Craig spoke and wrote about music in a deeply understanding and passionate way. I’ve had a growing desire to witness Craig in a classroom setting. Finances and increasing job pressures kept that from happening. Having retired last year, I had a newly acquired availability of time, and come hell or high water, I was going to make that happen. Then Craig announced his retirement.

I would never get to see Professor Werner in the classroom, but another member of the UWM staff and a member of Strat from the beginning, Alexander Shashko, organized a two day Symposium called “Calls and Responses: A Symposium on Teaching, Writing and Community.” Largely made up of panels that featured veterans of Craig’s Afro-American Studies, I was surprised that some of the participants came from backgrounds much like mine. I was amazed at the places they had gone with their knowledge. I wasn’t surprised at all that Craig had found it necessary to protect his students, on occasion, against the hierarchy of academia and the type of sexism and bigotry that infests such places. And I wasn’t surprised at how frustrated some had become in post-graduate studies. Or that Craig’s department was considered an oasis of community building in a desert of class conformity. I heard the term “lean into your ignorance” for the first time.

This had been a practice of Strat from the beginning. I just never had a term to describe it. That Craig, a lifelong member of academia, would lean forward to listen to and examine the words of a low-wage warehouse worker (which is how I spent the first and last 10 years of my working career) was something I had never expected when I first entered Strat. It was something I had to learn to do in return. It’s the most fundamental principle in community building. I was astonished that such a symposium could take place in any institution of advanced learning.

This essay is not an exoneration of academia. It is meant more as an exposĂ© on the possibilities of academia – something the institutions of advanced learning seem reluctant to incorporate. I asked Craig why he chose to retire at this point in his life. He said he needed more time for writing and was tired of the ever-increasing demands on his time for meetings and increasing administrative loads. I’ve heard this complaint from college teachers over the years, and it’s getting worse. I heard it repeated in the panels. There has to be more to college and post-graduate studies than the paper chase and getting published in academic journals. It’s not all that different on the shop floor level. Anytime we heard the word “meeting,” whether we were included or not, it always translated to more bullshit ahead. I’m proud to have had Craig Werner as a friend and mentor for over 20 years. I feel I got the best parts of advanced learning without any of the crap. Or the student debt. And Danny Kirwin’s song still plays in my head after all these years.

Danny Kirwin? Kirwin spent the last 30+ years of his life as a homeless alcoholic in London hospices, visited sporadically by his former band mates, but detached from the world. He had lucid moments, more towards his final days. Kirwin felt the world more deeply than most and cracked under the pressure. In an article by Jim Farber, Fleetwood Mac’s Forgotten Hero, Mick Fleetwood stated, "I cared for Danny a lot and I care for his legacy. Danny was a quantum leap ahead of us creatively. He was a hugely important part of the band." Kirwin was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 as a member of Fleetwood Mac. Often described, by group members as the most sensitive and talented songwriter in Fleetwood Mac, I still carry “Station Man” around in my heart to this day. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia page on Kirwin. Explore the footnotes.

Community is important. Choosing the right community can lead to salvation. Expanding those communities is essential. Those are lessons I learned at my first academic conference. Who woulda thunk I would find one within the walls of an historically wrong way train?

Midnight train
Now is leaving
Engine screaming
ah, ah
ah, ah
ah, ah
ah, ah

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Good for The Body, It's Good For The Soul

Mott The Hoople’s Magnificent Return
(Bill Glahn)

Hope I die before I get old” (Pete Townshend, The Who)

No, you're never too old to rock 'n' roll
If you're too young to die” (Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull)

Once you're gone
You can never come back” (Neil Young)

Behind these shades, the visions fade, as I learn a thing or two
Oh but if I had my time again you all know just what I'd do” (Ian Hunter, Mott The Hoople)

It’s hard to believe that anyone ever took the first of those song lyrics as anything other than youthful hyperbole or overstatement. Sadly, some did. Even more sadly, some never got the choice. For the rest of us aging music fans that have been more fortunate, sometimes despite our worst flirtations with self-destruction, it’s that last lyric that retains the most meaning.  But there’s more to this story than that.

Mott The Hoople has embarked on their first tour of the United States in 45 years. Officially dubbed “Mott The Hoople ’74,” the line-up consists of the 3 living members of the band that infiltrated Broadway (The Uris Theatre) on their final U.S. tour, making no concessions in the process. That riotous affair is well documented on their Live album, with an even better documentation coming later on the 30th Anniversary edition of that record. This time around, the band would be supplemented with Ian Hunter’s Rant Band, a superbly talented group that has been backing Hunter for well over a decade. But what can be expected of a band that is fronted by an octogenarian (I’m not going to split hairs here), a septuagenarian, and another soon-to-be septuagenarian?

Ian Hunter is 4 years younger than Elvis would have been. He’s older than Bob Dylan. He’s had major hits as a solo artist, including the massively popular “Cleveland Rocks.” Simply put, he’s the spiritual link between rock ‘n’ roll and rock music. And he’s made some of the best music of his career in the last decade with little fanfare.

Ariel Bender (Luther Grosvenor) cut his teeth in Spooky Tooth before joining Mott The Hoople. He closed out his career as a “rock star” a few years later in the under-appreciated Widowmaker. High profile sightings since then have been scarce. Occasionally he pops up on some albums by British Blues artists such as Peter Green.

Morgan Fisher has had a more illustrious post-MTH career, even as the least recognizable name of the three. He’s been a member of Queen’s touring band. He’s produced records by the Dead Kennedys, Jayne County, and Cherry Vanilla. He’s worked with artists as diverse as Robert Wyatt, Yoko Ono, and Jah Wobble to name but a few. He was the last of the three to leave the band, soldiering on with the truncated moniker Mott. But you’re more likely to find his name in the credits than on the marquee.

I caught the current tour on its 2nd night – a packed house at Minneapolis’ fabled club, 1st Ave. The opening act was The Suburbs, a hometown act that has received some acclaim nationally and hero status in Minneapolis. They didn’t fail to disappoint, delivering a short, though high-energy set. The Minneapolis music scene has always been one noted for looking more forward than backward. The Suburbs would be a hard act to follow. They’ve been around a long time, but on this card they would still be the young dudes.

Then intermission, that time when smokers gather outside before re-entering for the headliners. Except few were willing to give up their spots in the front rows, no matter how serious the addiction. I would have to view Mott from the back near the soundboard – not the greatest visual advantage, but at least the sound would be the best in the room.

Mott The Hoople began their 2019 show the same way they started the 1974 shows, with a short rendering of “American Pie.” When Hunter gets to the line “the day the music died,” he asks “Or did it?” And the band tears into “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The subtleties of the lyric are often overlooked. This song is no nostalgia trip. It isn’t “it was the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll” - rather Hunter sings in the present tense.  And he’s always sang in that way whether it be 1974 or 2019. Morgan Fisher pounds the keyboards Jerry Lee Lewis style. Ariel Bender, like a mischievous leprechaun, moves towards center stage for some youthful shenanigans and some heavily amplified guitar. If Hunter’s songwriting provides the spiritual link, Bender and Fisher are the perfect vehicle to provide the aural one. Onward.

What followed for the next 35-40 minutes was a trip into the deep tracks. Some REALLY deep. For those who have followed Mott The Hoople with a high degree of attention from the beginning, it was a rare treat to hear these songs in a live situation. But for a lot of the crowd who had been weaned on classic rock radio, songs like “Alice,” “Rest In Peace,” and the complex tenderness of “I Wish I Was Your Mother” didn’t resonate so well. And just when they seemed to gather the crowd back in with a scorching version of “Sweet Jane,” Mott proceeded to play “Rose,” the non-LP b-side to “Honaloochie Boogie.” Blank stares. No matter. Ariel Bender was in the building.

“Mott The Hoople 1974! …1974!! …1974!!!” he shouted as he crossed the stage, which was being cleared by the members of the support team. Hunter, for the only time in the show, grabbed his famed Thomas Maltese Cross guitar (most likely a replica, the first sold years ago). Only the rhythm section of The Rant Band remained with the featured front three. Could the old geezers do it – blow this crowd away like they did 45 years ago? In spades. “Walkin’ With A Mountain” rocked the building so hard that it could have blown the roof off. If only the roof hadn’t been replaced a few years ago. This is the band everyone came to see. From then on, there was no turning back. And like the invasion of the “sanctity of Broadway,” no concessions were made. No key changes for aging singers. In fact, Hunter’s voice seemed to grow in strength with every note. Ariel Bender worked the stage hard and the amplifiers harder. When The Rant Band came back to the stage, nothing changed. By the end of “All The Way From Memphis,” Morgan Fisher was blowing on his fingers. Hunter’s scathing rebuke of predatory Capitalism, “Marionette” was never more appropriate than in times like these. And for the rest of the show, MTH ’74 had the crowd. They left the stage almost void of sweat and big on smiles, returning for a 2-song encore of their most famous song (“All The Young Dudes”) and the late-period single, “Saturday Gigs.” What a show!

.But as I said at the beginning of this ramble of a review… There’s more to this story. Sure – it put some spring back into these old legs, as I’m sure it did for many. But there was something more than feeling invigorated. The final line of “I Wish I Was Your Mother”… And then who knows / I might have felt a family for a while. Morgan Fisher is shooting home movies of this tour just as he did in 1974. In one of the better uses of social media, you can keep up on Fisher’s Facebook page. It should become immediately apparent that this tour is just as much about family connections as it is about finding new vitality in old bodies.

In between the Suburbs’ set and Mott The Hoople’s, I stepped outside to feed the nicotine dragon and ran into the manager of one of Minneapolis’ trending young bands, The Carnegies. Barely legal to be in a club serving adult beverages, Jacob Harmsen was clutching a couple of records (vinyl!) that predated his birth by a good 2+ decades. He was eager to get back inside to try to work his way to the front of the stage to see his musical heroes close up. And maybe, just maybe, get his records autographed at the end of the show. I recognized that youngster. It was me many, many years ago. And I’m willing to bet he made it. No matter what form it may take, rock 'n' roll is in good hands these days. It's good for the body, it's good for the soul. And the future looks just a little more optimistic today than it did yesterday.

Bonus views:

Friday, January 4, 2019

Black Dog in the Land of the Ice & Snow

[Most of my energy these days is focused on Travels With Sally, more of a cultural review than a travelogue. I’m finding that, in some cases, those travels include stories that don’t quite fit the narrative of the book-in-progress, but are nonetheless worth writing about. This is one such story. (Bill Glahn)]

I made a mix CD of “Sally” songs and “Dog” songs for Sally a few years back. Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” “Sally G” by Paul McCartney. 3 versions of “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” (Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, Robert Palmer). Humble Pie’s “Big Black Dog.” Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” And of course, among others, Patti Page’s “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.” She seems to like them all - at least she doesn’t leave the room when they’re playing. Most of all, she likes the ones with her name in them. For those, Sally moves closer to the speakers. Sally is very self-aware.

On a trip through the heartland this past Fall, things were cut a little short due to foul weather and mechanical problems with Rocinante Jr’s power plant – a 2001 Ford F-150 extended cab pickup. For the uninitiated, Rocinante Jr. is a tiny cabin on wheels – home away from home when we are traveling the country. After a few weeks of home-stay, Sally was itching to hit the road again by late October. So was I. This would be a short trip, though, a 2-day quickie up to Minneapolis to see Zeppo film a live promotional film.

“Do you want to see Zeppo play ‘Black Dog?’” Sally raised no objections. With our chariot still on the blink, this time it would be in the more comfortable (and dependable) confines of the Chevy and a hotel. Onward to the land of the ice & snow.

I’ve known Zeppo guitarist and lead vocalist John Eller for almost half my life. We met sometime at the end of the ‘80s at a record convention in St. Paul (The old Kelly Inn show). But the first time I really took notice of his singing talents was at the annual Philadelphia Record Convention – a huge affair held every Thanksgiving weekend at the Valley Forge Convention Center. As was the tradition, when a lot of record dealers and music fans from around the globe met up, there were always some late night eats, drinks, and catching up to do. On this particular night we ended up at a dining facility that also served as a karaoke bar. A few vendors, seasoned veterans of defunct bands who found better economic rewards in selling music rather than playing it, signed up to sing. This would be a much better than average night of karaoke singing. With some encouragement, Eller scanned the play list and picked out an Aerosmith song. Then proceeded to slay everyone in the joint. Not even the host singer wanted to follow THAT act.

Eller, who had already had regional success in the Minneapolis area with Paradox, a glam metal outfit that included some originals mixed with covers in their live act, would release his first CD of original tunes the following year with his band, The DTs.

Eller’s musical path has taken a lot of tangents since then (Eller-Lynch, Retrofit, The Shiny Lights, Shabby Road Orchestra, countless studio sessions). But the origins of Zeppo lie in a basement jam session in 2016 – the kind of thing musicians who have love and respect for each other do for fun. It was there that Eller, drummer Noah Levy (Brian Setzer Orchestra), guitarist Terrance J. Fisher (Run Westy Run), and bass-player-about-town Paul Boblett (Fathom Lane, Faith Boblett, and King James Version) discovered that they all had a mutual love of Led Zeppelin. With prior commitments, the idea of forming a Zeppelin cover band would be put on hold for a couple of years. When Brian Setzer decided to pursue a 40th anniversary Stray Cats reunion tour and album, that freed up the globe-trotting schedule of Levy. Done deal. Almost. The band would add Zach Sershon,  a classically trained keyboard player and the organ player for The Minnesota Timberwolves, to add the final touches on those epic Zeppelin tunes like “No Quarter” and “Kashmir.”

But this would be no Branson-style stage show. Zeppo’s motto would be “no wigs, no bullshit.” The band’s approach would be to explore and expand (in some cases) on the nuances and subtleties of those well-known Zeppelin grooves. And to rely solely on their musical and vocal talents to get the job done.

Sally and I made the trip overnight, checking into the hotel on the afternoon of the show. It was the longest I’d driven in one stretch in years. Of course, we took a few stops to pee and stretch our legs, extending a 7-hour drive into 9 hours. Sally endured without ill effects, but my legs were cramping up. We took a nap before heading out. Sally did her job as a service dog, supported me as I struggled to maintain balance and walked me around the parking lot a few times to get my “legs” back. Sally’s job was done for the day, but I wasn’t sure if the staff at A440 Studios would allow her in the building without her service cape. Sally, a veteran of music venues, can usually go into places in “off-duty" gear where she is known. This time I dressed her up and we headed out.

I’ve been in some nontraditional studios in the past – but A440 Studios was something new to me. Located in an industrial park, A440 Studios not only included the latest in recording technology, but also a concert stage (including a dry-ice machine), an elaborate lighting system, filming gear, enough space in front of the stage to accommodate over 100 guests. AND a knowledgeable staff sufficient to coordinate all of it. Off to the side was a Bohemian-style “lounge” area that included a couch and comfortable chairs.
(L-R: Sally Bill Glahn, John Eller)

Sally and I greeted John outside in the parking lot, caught up a little on things, took a few photos, and proceeded into the building. Studio manager Steve Kahn would not only welcome us, but ask permission to pet Sally (usually a no-no for service dogs on duty). OK! Steve Kahn is a dog person. Permission granted. This was a welcome sign and a signal to Sally that she could proceed in a more relaxed atmosphere. Sally did her thing as the crowd began to trickle in - working the room like the ambassador of good will that she is. I met up with some friends that I hadn’t seen in far too long, sought out Facebook friends that I have never met in person, and made some new friends in the process.

Then Zeppo took the stage. “Misty Mountain Hop.” The joint was rockin’!

But how would Zeppo measure up compared to the live Zeppelin experience? As editor of the defunct Live! Music Review magazine, I wrote the Z-files monthly bootleg column for 7 years. I’m overly familiar with the excitement and the pitfalls of that legendary band in concert. The phrase “tight but loose,” has often been applied to Zeppelin by fans. But all too often (especially in the middle years), that would translate to “far too loose, self-indulgent, sloppy and boring.” Any semblance of “tight” would come late in the band’s touring history – the 1980 final tour where the set list was trimmed from 4 hours to 2, and onward to the Page/Plant tours where a similar approach was used.

With two excellent guitarists on stage, Zeppo would follow a template laid out on the Zeppelin studio albums – tight arrangements, exemplary guitar interplay, not a bad vocal performance in sight (Plant was notorious for experiencing throat problems on any given night), and a rhythm section that kicks ass. Sershon was a much welcome addition, resorting to some variations on the keyboard parts without overextending them. But don’t get the idea that Zeppo performed carbon copy performances of Zeppelin records. To ears tuned into those records for decades, the differences come in subtle places and add, rather than detract, from the performances. That’s what musicians of this caliber do.

Sally’s highlight? It was hearing her name mentioned in the intro to “Black Dog.”

A needed night of sleep for Sally and myself followed, before a morning breakfast (NOT at the crack of dawn) at the Bandbox CafĂ© with John & friends, including John’s canine companion, Shilo. Then off to the old Eller homestead, occupied currently by pal Dave Biljan. Sleepy-eyed Dave had a no-miss work commitment the night before and missed out on all the fun. We kept him from his own much-needed sleep for a few hours, but he was a trooper. Oh the joys of being retired.

See Zeppo's promotional clip here: Zeppo live

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2018 In Music: Short Reviews (part 3)

Various Artists: The Beginning of the End – The Existential Psychodrama in Country Music (1956-72)
There is no period in country music that resonates today as much as it did in 1956-1972. But you’d have to dig beyond just the hits - into the b-sides and deep album cuts to get to the real meat. These were the “glory days” of day-to-day living in the United States. There were great advances toward a legitimate middle class, with movement toward racial equality, unionism, and anti-war sentiment. But in reality, the ruling class never really took their boots off the necks off the working class. The "war on poverty" would be the least successful of the progressive movement.

The myth went that even the unskilled and uneducated had access to great paying union jobs, a stable family environment, an education, and the latest greatest Chevy V-8 in the driveway. There was rock ‘n’ roll on the radio. Happy days were here again.  Peace & love would triumph over war, hot and cold. But despite the historical summary, this never applied to the poor. And the ruling class has been working ever since to roll back the clock - to the 19th Century.

On Record Day this year, the folks at The Omni Recording Corporation (Iron Mountain Analogue Research Facility) released a 16-track version of this title on vinyl. That it would be an Australian outfit to release such a collection should surprise no one. While major American entertainment companies focus on perpetuating the myth (i.e. Garth Brooks TV concert specials), it often seems that for a deeper understanding of classic American music, one must often look overseas. Tracking down master tapes of such recordings, years of research, and a 21st Century re-mastering comes from a labor of love, not a love of money.

With only 500 copies of the vinyl pressed, there was a need to hear more – thus a much welcome expanded version (30 tracks) on CD. The extra 14 tracks add to, not detract from, the original concept.

So how were the working (lower) class faring in those years? Well, it seems they weren’t faring too well, subjected to the same worldly fears, financial woes, and personal angst that we experience today. The song from which this album takes its name, Jimmy Griggs’ “The Beginning of the End,” captures that in it’s opening line. “People say they believe in love/ But the hate goes on.” And what rings more true today than David Price’s “National Everybody Hate Me Week,” especially in the battle grounds of social media? Mell Tillis’ “Survival of the Fittest?” It’s an early exploration into environmental concerns. And a questioning of faith.

Opening and closing with two different versions of “Searching” The Beginning of the End shows exactly how much thought went into this project. As long as we search (and act) victory for the ruling class is not a guarantee.
Rating: A (best compilation of 2018)

Frank Turner: Be More Kind
Just as I was about to give up on Frank Turner, he’s emerged from his rabbit hole with an album jam packed with sharp political criticism – absent from more recent releases. Not that Turner has become a revolutionary British street fighting man or anything like one. But there is something alluring about the simplicity of “Be More Kind,” especially when mixed among songs like the biting “Make America Great Again.” Or the historical significance of “1933” where he sings “Be suspicious of simple answers.” It seems a lot of songwriters channeled aspects of The Kinks’ Preservation this year. 2018 was, indeed, a scary year on the planet. “Be More Kind” is the simple answer, but as Turner establishes throughout this album, it’s only part of the mix. Comeback album of the year.
Rating: A-

TumbleTown: Never Too Late
This prog-opera might have you running to your record collection for the safety of Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, or any other schlock ‘70s musical of your choosing. Occasionally there is some Brian May influenced guitar. But weighted with this much pomposity, the overall results have the unwanted effect of high anxiety. Lyrically, TumbleTown struggle with the same second language problems as their Dutch compatriots, Golden Earring. But where “Vanilla Queen” rocked mightily, Never Too Late just slogs along.
Rating: D

Reef: Revelation
In the mid-90s Reef landed high in the UK charts with “Place Your Hands,” a rhythmically fresh feel-good tune that challenged the then waning sound of Grunge. MTV picked up the video in the States – a promising start for a career that went nowhere. Two more albums followed with little success. Now, after eighteen years of silence, Reef return with an album that starts off with a track that will leave listeners thunderstruck. With gravel-voiced Gary Stringer doing his best Bon Scott imitation, the band plows through the title track like a rock ‘n’ roll bulldozer, hell-bent on destroying any illusions that this is going to be a return to form. Unfortunately, they spend the rest of the album trying to convince the audience that they were only kidding. Reef are not the next AC/DC. They are not even the next Rose Tattoo or Rhino Bucket. What follows is a meandering of styles that roughly mirror their past – some catchy tunes with evangelical overtones. But there are far more duds than you would expect from a band that had almost two decades to think about it. With a quarter of the tunes being covers, things reach a low point with ”Darlin’ Be Home Soon,” patterned after the Joe Cocker version, but with none of Cocker’s finesse.
Rating: C (a full notch up from what it deserves, but that title track is a doozy)

[All reviews by Bill Glahn]

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

2018 In Music: Short Reviews (part 2)

JCM (Jon Hiseman, Clem Clempson, & Mark Clarke): Heroes
Reuniting 3 alumni of British hard rock/progressive band, Colosseum, JCM stick to what they know best, but in a power trio format. The members have ventured far and wide since those days. Clem Clemson is most recognized in the States as a member of the ultra heavy Humble Pie from the Smokin’ period onward. Before bassist Mark Clarke formed a second edition of Colosseum with Jon Hiseman, he did stints with Tempest (a jazz rock outfit that also included Hiseman), Mountain, and Rainbow. He received his highest degree of radio exposure as a member of Billy Squire’s band in their glory years. Drummer Hiseman continues to be best known for his work in Colosseum and the United Jazz & Rock Ensemble. Although the latter band received significant exposure (14 album releases) in Europe, that never translated to much of an American audience.

JCM continues to create the kind of music their core audience expects- a hard mix of rock, jazz, and blues. Clarke handles the vocals more than adequately, often influenced by the blues renderings of Jack Bruce (Cream’s strongest vocalist). JCM is a collective of musician’s musicians, and Heroes does nothing to change that perception. For American listeners, the closest comparable is West, Bruce & Laing with jazz overtones. It’s great music derivative of the early ‘70s, but it might leave modern audiences wondering “where’s the funk?”
(Rating: B)

Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen On Broadway soundtrack
A soundtrack sorely in need of the visuals. Although the Netflix movie (I’ve finally seen it) was worthy of all the accolades, as a 2 1/2 hour soundtrack album, this simply doesn’t work. Folks do not listen to music the way they watch film and I’m no exception. Once you’ve heard (and seen) the stories, you’ll find yourself programming past the extended storytelling the next time around. And like with any exceptional movie, you’ll dial it up on Netflix a number of times when you’re ready to plant your ass in a seat for another look. A single disc version, please.
(Rating: C+)

Daddy: Let’s Do This
The latest offering from the rocking side of Nashville, Let's Do This doesn’t so much tone down the social narrative as it does move it between the lines. The ongoing side project of Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack, Daddy rocks more on this outing – closer to Rolling Stones guitar interplay than the more roots renderings of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry (a Daddy staple) – Kimbrough reestablishes throughout why he is one of the most sought after session musicians in Nashville. Womack reestablishes why he one of the regions finest songwriters. And fans finally get a finished version of “When Disney Takes Jerusalem,” a song that has been occupying space as a demo on Womack’s website for a couple of decades. Womack, who received his second diagnosis of cancer in as many years, seems anxious to finish of some lingering projects. This is a fantastic one, with hopes for many more.
Rating: A-

DeWolff: Thrust
This Dutch retro metal (‘80s edition) has received numerous accolades around the blogosphere. It just goes to show that living in the past is nowhere to live - especially if it's a flawed version of the past. At best (“Tombstone Child”) this is entertaining. But mostly a higher rating is just wishful thinking. Judas Priest got it right the first time around. This doesn’t.
Rating: D

Walter Wolfman Washington: My Future Is My Past
Washington carves his way through this collection of New Orleans soul like a spoon through hot butter. There is a kinship between My Future Is My Past and late-‘60s Isaac Hayes (Hot Buttered Soul) that frequents this record. Maybe the finest blend of deep southern soul and blues to emerge this year, My Future Is My Past, doesn’t exactly dwell on the past – rather it builds on it. The duet with Irma Thomas, “Even Now,” is pure salivation.
Rating: A

Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert: The Ledges
A more front porch-sounding record than anything by Gillian Welch if you can imagine that. That’s a plus for fans of Welch who enjoy her vocal duets with David Rawlings in concert. This is truly a duet album. -  no more so than on “I Wanna See Something New.” Take advantage.
Rating: A-

[All reviews by Bill Glahn]


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

2018 In Music: Short Reviews (part 1)

Pseudo Mind Hive: From Elsewhere
If your passion is for guitar/organ driven hard rock circa early-70s, this may be for you. A retro outfit from Melbourne, Australia PMH capture that sound with a fair degree of success. But lacking the extraordinary skills of Deep Purple or the drama of Uriah Heep’s Demons & Wizards album, they ultimately fall short. Still, if you’ve grown tired of the familiarity of “Highway Star” and “Easy Livin’” this may provide some welcome relief. But only for about 40 minutes and then you’ll be missin’ those old faves. Rating: C

Holly Golightly: Do The Get Along
After a three-year hiatus, Holly Golightly returns with a full band, a batch of new originals and 3 well-chosen cover tunes. British by birth, Golightly (actual name), is best known for lo-fi recordings with an Americana flair. While Do The Get Along receives a more produced approach than much of her previous work, it never strays far from the main dialogue. It’s the R&B tunes that produce the most pleasurable moments. “Do The Get Along” and “I’m Your Loss” take listener to the smokiest of night clubs. Ruth Brown’s "I Don’t Know" keeps you there. Rating: B+

Dave Davies: Decade
A collection of Davies’ unreleased tracks from the ‘70s, Decade is a welcome addition for any Kinks aficionado. The strength of the song writing should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with The Kinks catalog. With brother Ray doing the lion’s share of the writing for the band, Dave Davies contributed such tunes as “Death of a Clown,” “Strangers,” and “Living On A Thin Line” – among The Kinks’ best tunes. That level of songwriting, for the most part, did not transfer to Dave’s solo albums, a mishmash of hit and miss. The big surprise here is that there is no such inconsistency. The even bigger surprise is that, despite the albums rather long recording span, it sounds like – not a collection of Kinks’ rejected songs – but, rather (Faces fans take note) a long lost Ronnie Lane album. Rating: A-

Tony Joe White: Bad Mouthin’
The old swamper travels upriver to hill country on this, the final studio album before his passing. It’s a humdinger and not quite what you might expect from someone with as long and illustrious of a career. Still treading new waters. Rating: A-

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats: Wasteland
A doom & gloom concept piece from the land of Brexit, Wasteland plays on the retro sound of Black Sabbath, but with a soundscape so compressed that it doesn’t sound any better on a full blown rack system than it does on a smart phone. A sonic disaster that is impossible to translate. Head back to 2011 for the band’s breakthrough album, Blood Lust instead. Or forget about them altogether unless, of course, you’re a guitar obsessive. Rating: D

Brandi Carlile: By The Way, I Forgive You
The absolute best album from the first half of 2018, enough words have been written about this album already. But if it somehow slipped by your ears, you need to check backwards. Your welcome.
Grade: A

Kevin Gordon: Tilt & Shine
The best known unknown to occupy a spot in the wide-ranging Americana genre, it simply befuddles me that Gordon didn’t move into widespread fame after his stunning 2012 album, Gloryland. Songwriting and storytelling are his forte, and there is nothing here that will disappoint. Nashville is his base but you’d have to move further south for his oeuvre. Southern Gothic is his domain. Think of a more progressive Harper Lee set to music.
Grade: A-

[all reviews by Bill Glahn]