Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Schultz' Earful: Schultz By Southwest 2011 (Part 1)

By: David Schultz

Over the course of 4 days and nights, I managed to catch 54 different artists over a total of 61 different sets. For music fans, South By Southwest is the equivalent of Disneyland. There’s a lot of standing in lines, there’s lots of ups and down, you are exhausted at the end of the day and your feet hurt but you don’t care.

Lord Huron (Red 7 Patio) The California band had the poor luck to draw a noon set on Wednesday, playing one of the first sets of SXSW. While they were playing their first few songs, their audience remained lined up down 7th Street awaiting admission to the venue. What little there was to see was quite enjoyable.

Cloud Nothings (Red 7) Rock and roll has travelled many miles on the fuel provided by the angst of the young. Echoing the shambling glory of The Replacements, Cloud Nothings revel in raw, unfiltered guitar riffs and the high, nasally pleadings of its leader Dylan Baldi. With his Elvis Costello jitters, the 19-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio was one of the more anticipated performers at SXSW. However, Red 7 may not have helped his week. Upon entering the club, they marked the underage singer with an oversize X on each hand and admonished him not to wash them off. Holding his branded hands up to the crowd, he let everyone know: “Being 19 sucks.” As long as he doesn’t orchestrate a one hour special on MTVU to announce he’s moving to Brooklyn, Baldi could emerge as one of Cleveland’s favorite sons.

JEFF The Brotherhood (Beauty Bar Patio) Getting their start in an early version of Be Your Own Pet, Jake and Jamin Orrall now work The White Stripes guitar and drums formula to perfection. Playing at a frenetic pace, the Orralls blew away a packed patio at the eMusic party, tearing through a tightly wrought set of guitar-heavy garage rock that was one of the best I saw at SXSW 2011. Caught up in the excitement, Jake Orrall tossed all the comp CDs into the crowd (after realizing that winging them one at a time could be a bit dangerous) before wandering into the masses without a stutter to his guitar riff and dropping to his knees in a Hendrix-inspired reverie. All the excitement, energy and freshness you look for in a band was on display here.

Ty Segall (Beauty Bar Patio) By the time Segall took the stage, the Beauty Bar had stopped letting people into the eMusic day party. A small group of intrepid kids made their way to the parking lot on the other side of the building and found a section of the chain link fence that offered them a nice view of the stage. This seems to be the same strategy used on Saturday night although a much larger throng pushed down back fence and started a riot during a Death From Above 1979 set. The Segall-loving kids were enjoying his set about as much as human beings can enjoy music. I hope to enjoy anything in life as much as these kids were digging Segall. In a cool move, the guitarist acknowledged the scene, angling to play in their direction and dedicating a song to them.

Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers (Sony Lounge) The California based singer-songwriter got an early evening slot on a Sony showcase headlined by her husband’s band The Mother Hips. Tim Bluhm doubled as one of the Gramblers and they offered up a nice country-tinged set for a crowd that may have been equally excited to see the room littered with comfortable couches.

Surprise Me Mr. Davis (Sony Lounge, Cheers) This jamband scene supergroup consisting of the three members of The Slip, Marco Benevento and Nathan Moore came into existence when they were all snowed in by a Boston blizzard. One of the few bands in Austin that has significant time invested in other projects, they proudly declared they were the only act in Texas not seeking a record deal . . . but they’d listen should anyone happen to have one with them. Sit-ins are rare at SXSW but over a four day stretch, the likes of John Popper, Jo Jo Herman (Widespead Panic) and Jen Hartswick (Trey Anastasio) all found their way on the SMMD stage. One of their final sets – a late night gig at the Cheers rooftop stage – became less of a showcase and more of a party.

Suuns (Red 7) Monstrously loud and extraordinarily compelling. That is, when they weren’t working in the medium of feedback or shrieking guitars. On record, Suuns melodic tendencies come to the forefront. However, on stage, they are all about creating sonic walls of droning guitars. Given the volume, they might have been better served by the patio stage and not deafening the indoor crowd.

Tennis (Club DeVille) When Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore sat around their living room creating the songs that would result in Cape Dory, their Fat Possum debut, they must have sounded quite cute and lovable. On the stage in Austin, they sounded exactly like every other indie band, playing indistinguishable light rock with little flair. This may actually qualify them with The xx award for creating the biggest disparity between album and live performance.

Yuck (Club DeVille, Mohawk) Do you sit awake at night wondering whether the Silversun Pickups have become too mainstream? If so, Yuck is the band for you.

TuneYards (The Parish, Mohawk, Elysium) About a year ago, Merrill Garbus performed an awkward set at the Bowery Ballroom, exhibiting an uncomfortable stage fright that prompted the audience to shout encouragement as she went about piecing together her looping tracks. The woman who appeared on stage at The Parish for the NPR showcase bore little resemblance to that nerve racked performer. With confidence, Garbus pounded out drum beats, looped her yodeling melodies and tribal beats while incorporating guitars and horns. Garbus completed her coming out party with a set at the Chimera showcase, getting Sean Lennon’s seal of approval before adapting Yoko Ono’s “We’re All Water” into the modern vernacular.

Shabazz Palaces (Klub Krucial) This was a forgettable rap act that was playing on the indoors stage before White Denim packed the patio. In fact, I had to look up who they were on the Gorilla vs. Bear site because I forgot who they were.

New Mastersounds (Rusty Spurs) At the close of their set, one of the few jambands to play SXSW announced that this had been their first appearance in Austin in four years. They then announced that they would return in another four years and play another half hour.

The Strokes (Auditorium Shores) The stories that you heard about the immense crowds aren’t myths told by agoraphobic journalists. Many of the free shows attracted hordes of people that swarmed some venues like the bugs in Starship Troopers. In shutting the gates about a half hour before The Strokes took the stage, the site’s organizers nearly sparked a riot with fans charging the gates they couldn’t climb and singing “The Star Spangled Banner” to protest being shut out of a public property. With a staggering number of people packing the park like it was a basement club, The Strokes treated their Auditorium Shores set like a normal SXSW showcase, albeit a slightly extended one. Playing for just over an hour, seamlessly mixing tracks from Angles, their sly and droll return album, with those from their decade old Is This It, the seminal aughties band may have missed an opportunity to offer up their definitive return show. Nonetheless, The Strokes provided a fine pre-Kanye spectacle to counterbalance the hundreds of small showcases.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (Swan Dive, Barbarella Patio) Other than describing when Isbell & his band, the 400 Unit, took the stage, the former Drive-By Trucker’s two sets were like night and day. Previewing material from the upcoming Here We Rest, Isbell’s nighttime set at Swan Dive had a harder edge to it, featuring guitar-driven Southern rock that detoured into Houses Of The Holy territory. The next day, in the sun of the Barbarella Patio, Isbell touched on the new album’s more acoustic numbers while including “Decoration Day” and “The Outfit” from his Truckers days.

Middle Brother (Barbarella Patio) For all intents and purposes, Middle Brother is a supergroup comprised of John McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit. Closing one of the many Brooklyn Vegan fetes that anchored the festivities along Red River Street, their late afternoon set seemed to be a pleasurably enjoyable lark. McCauley leapt from the stage to play guitar amidst the crowd, Vasquez threw himself into the fray with a an energetic crowd dive and Johnny Corndawg and the other members of Deer Tick and Dawes periodically returned to the stage, ultimately finishing with a boozy version of “Bring It On Home To Me.” Where most sets at SXSW have a purposeful undercurrent, Middle Brother’s was a nice little change of pace.

Old 97s (Barbarella Patio) Prior to the Old 97s taking the stage, I casually mentioned that I had never seen them before. About 20 people in the surrounding area all turned to look at me as if I had just proclaimed a desire to see Men Without Hats. A Texas venue seemed to be the appropriate place to see one of the State’s great alt-country godfathers. I no longer have to be at the receiving end of the barbs and stares that apparently greet pronouncements to having never seen Rhett Miller.

Men Without Hats (Club DeVille) Ivan Doroschuk, one of the founding members of Men Without Hats, recently resurrected this odd kernel of 80s nostalgia. Serving as the antithesis of hip (and by wearing a hat, the antithesis of the band itself), Doroschuk’s MWH set could be summed up quite easily: Eighties version of “Jumping Jack Flash,” crap, crap, crap, crap, crap, “The Safety Dance,” crap, crap, beg for encore, crap (instead of playing “The Safety Dance” again). Giddy fun, the Club DeVille crowd, filled primarily with people that fondly recall the midgets and maypole video from MTV, brought the entertainment value to the set. When the opening strains of “The Safety Dance” wafted from the stage, the crowd went utterly ballistic. It was madness, it was chaos . . . it was really a little weird.

Sgt. Dunbar & The Hobo Banned (Mellow Johnny’s) Using the Low Anthem motif of traditional instruments and a saw, the Albany-centered, Americana folk rock band battled the off-the-beaten-path locale of Lance Armstrong’s bike shop and a tent that seemed on the verge of giving in to the curiously strong winds. It would be more fun to see them play before a bigger and more appreciative crowd.

The Calm Blue Sea (Skinnys Lounge) Much like Explosions In The Sky and Cymbals Eat Guitars, the Austin based combo offer up walls of sound replete with surging crescendos and ebbing waves of majestic guitar scree.

Ume (Skinnys Lounge) In 2006, on my first trip to Austin, the first band I saw on the Tuesday night before the inaugural Earvolution SXSW showcase was Ume at Emos Lounge. Stunned by Lauren Larson, the lovely guitarist on stage who trashed and danced like a manic pixie possessed by the ghost of Eddie Van Halen - at a bare minimum, we can all agree that at least his credibility and self-respect died ten years ago can’t we? - it wasn’t a tremendous surprise when they were one of the unsigned bands selected by Rolling Stone to contend for their Choose The Cover contest. Other than the fact that Larson has taken a page from the Grace Potter school of glamour, not much has changed with Ume over the past five years. Larson remains a potent firebrand of guitar pyrotechnics, worthy of attention, but they seem to be waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with them before moving on.

Yoko Ono (Elysium) More performance artist than rock star, there may not be a more enigmatic figure in the history of rock and roll. Many profess an understanding of the woman that John Lennon found relentlessly intriguing but to this day hardly anyone outside her family and friends truly grasp the complexities of her persona. One of SXSW’s featured speakers, the 77-year-old Ono and her new Plastic Ono Band headlined her son Sean’s showcase for his Chimera Music label. In resurrecting the Plastic Ono Band with her son, who with full grown facial hair looks remarkably like his father, Wilco’s Nels Cline, members of Deerhoof and others, Ono has found the perfect group of musicians to support her decidedly unique take on musical theater. When not channeling the fragile emotional state of a little girl, Ono bounced and danced about the stage, the band transforming her primal grunts (thankfully, not screams) into a Plant/Page give and take.

The Bravery (Stubbs) At the end of the evening on Saturday night, I walked into Stubbs to catch The Bravery solely to pad my numbers. I remember the pulled pork sandwich more than I remember the two songs that I caught.

(Part 2 coming soon)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Supertouch Lost My Way 7" Reaper Records

by: Rinjo Njori

A lot has changed for Supertouch in the last twenty years. Part of the last great wave of New York Hardcore (aka NYHC), they paved a path with a more progressive sound. Gaining a lot of fans from the tough guy scene (Warzone, Agnostic Front), the straight edge kids (Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits), and the more progressive elements in New York Hardcore (Early Quicksand, Beyond).

With hardcore in decline and the kids, now adults, looking for a new sound the band faded into the background in the early 90s. Though they managed to survive to see their debut album, The Earth is Flat, released on Revelation Records in 1990. Re-emerging in late 1995 they toured and rode the wave of post hardcore that blossomed and gained national attention in the early to mid 90s. They disbanded a second time in 1996 with an album under their belt. For a third time Jon Biviano and Mark Ryan resurrect Supertouch and for added measure have released four new songs. Lost My Way includes two new songs and reworked versions of other songs from various Mark Ryan projects over the last 15 years.

The band pretty much picks up where they left off in the mid-90s. The post break up ruminating of "Just These Days" has been floating around for some time on the internet and was billed to the Mark Ryan Project through several online blogs. The original version fit the mid 90s sound of Quicksand and the more hardcore Deftones material. The current version his a little more muscle in the tempo and Ryan's vocals are more confident then the younger Ryan. The song is co-credited to Ravi Dhar, who also provides additional guitar for this release. The added guitar not only makes the case for Supertouch as a five piece, it gives Biviano a chance to flesh out his guitar parts. The instrumental bridge really is outstanding in the last half of the song. "Get On, Get On" might sound the least like Supertouch of the three songs, but is still a great song. The chorus sounds a little too much like the Von Bondies "Cmon, Cmon", but Mary Ryan's lyrics raise the bar and it's doubtful Jason Stollmeister would take issue.

"Now That You're Far From Home" updates Supertouch's sound and doesn't reflect a decade plus of inactivity. "Lost My Way" sounds like a lost song from the underappreciated Handsome. Ryan's vocals aren't helped with an equal footing in the mix of guitar and rhythm section. Dean Baltulonis not only handles bass duties now for the band but he also produced, engineered, and mixed the record. Not sure how three songs came out great but the title track got short changed.

While Supertouch clearly still wrestles with its inner demons lyrically, it's great to see them back together and making new music. Many bands have come and gone with a similar sound in the last fifteen years, but Supertouch show that they still have it in them to reach down deep inside to share something powerful. The rest of 2011 lets Supertouch connect the dots with the larger world which has gotten smaller since their days as "that progressive New York Hardcore band."

The Rinjo Cloudcast: Radiohead, Dum Dum Girls

By: Rinjo Njori
The tunes never stop playing... Check out some new covers from the Dum Dum Girls and The Dirtbombs. Also, Radiohead not making a lot of sense, much less a song. Last but not least, we remember Mike Starr of Alice In Chains.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tracks from '83 Sessions with Michael Jackson & Freddie Mercury Surface

It was reported that three tracks that are collaborations between deceased heavyweights Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury of Queen will soon see the light of day.

"We are now working on some never before released songs that Freddie made with Michael in the early-Eighties," said Queen's Roger Taylor.  "I'm not allowed to say too much about it, but they sound incredible."

One of the songs is a demo for the Jackson 5's 'State of Shock' that was eventually recorded and released in 1984 by the Jackson 5 on their Victory album, with Mick Jagger replacing Freddie Mercury as co-vocalist.   
. This is expected to be one of many Jackson posthumous releases.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Top Ten Guitar Solos by Jimmy Page

[Jimmy Page is] a genius.  He's a great player, a songwriter, a producer.  Put it this way, he might not be the greatest executor of whatever, but when you hear a Page solo, he speaks.  I've always said Clapton was my main influence, but Page was actually more the way I am, in a reckless-abandon kind of way."
-Eddie Van Halen, Guitar World, February 1990

1.  Stairway to Heaven (1971)– Though the song was overplayed by both FM radio and countless teenagers in music stores and bedrooms across the world, the fact remains that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is arguably the greatest guitar solo ever recorded in the history of both classic rock and hard rock in general.  To record the solo, Page eschewed the guitar for which he is best known- his ’59 Gibson Les Paul- in favor of an old Fender Telecaster used frequently during the recording of the original Led Zeppelin album in 1969.   The solo, played over the three chord Am-C/G-Fmaj7 progression, has its basis firmly in A pentatonic minor despite the track’s overall folksy vibe and the borrowing of an ‘F’ note for use over the last chord of the progression.  Devoid of any guitar pyrotechnics until a series of quickly-executed bends that start at the 6:15 mark, Page creates an unpretentious masterpiece born of a mixture of blues and rock phrasing that is imminently hummable and memorable.  By the end of the famous pull-off lick at 6:42, the listener knows that they’ve been taken on a slow-building but wild flight by a pilot who clearly knows his way around the available airspace.

Tour manager Richard Cole, with Richard Trubo, told the story of the cutting of this epic solo in his 2002 book Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored.  Though dismissed an exaggerated ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll’ book by the band, definitive Led Zeppelin biographer Keith Shadwick used Cole’s account of the session in his 2005 work Led Zeppelin: The Story of a Band and Their Music 1968-1980.  Engineer Richard Digby-Smith stated that Page “just leaned up against the speakers with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and rattled out that solo.”  Cole recalled Page working alone during that particular session and said that Page “recorded three different guitar solos, none of them similar, and finally chose the one he thought was best after agonising over them in the studio late one night.”  Page himself once stated that he did indeed record three separate solos for the track, but slyly assured the interviewer that he picked the best one.

2.  Achilles’ Last Stand (1976)– The ten minute, twenty-five second tour-de-force that opens the all-electric album Presence provides a perfect example of  what Eddie Van Halen may have meant when he said that Page ‘speaks’ when he solos.  Most importantly here, Page first creates the perfect background by which he can drop-in and color the track with his lead lines.  Instead of blowing over the song’s main E-pedal bass rhythm atop of which Plant’s vocals are placed, Page introduces a new rhythm at 3:42 over which to execute his solo.  Alternating between a more airy, climbing bass line- rather than a pedal- and chunks of chords powered home by Bonham’s monstrous drums, Page crafts a lyrical yet intense solo reflecting the passion brought by the rest of the band to the track.  The opening bends immediately resonate within the chest cavity of any Jimmy Page adherent who ‘gets it.’  There’s really no other way to describe it.

Page told Steve Rosen in the July 1977 edition of Guitar Player that he felt the solo was on the level of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’  In the January 1991 issue of Guitar World, Page echoed these sentiments by saying, “I thought to myself: ‘My god, that solo says a hell of a lot to me.  What was going on there?’"

The entire Presence album took only 18 days to record and mix.  Unfortunately, Led Zeppelin’s 1977 tour in support of the album would be the band’s eleventh and final visit to United States.  The band broke its own attendance record at the Pontiac Silverdome by playing before over 76,000 fans and sold out Madison Square Garden for a six-night stand.   Tragically, the tour was officially abandoned after the unexpected death of Robert Plant’s five year-old son Karac due to a respiratory infection that did not respond to emergency treatment.

3.  Whole Lotta Love (1969) –  Though only eighteen seconds in length,  it’s the coolness factor of this powerful solo that propels it to Number 3 on this list.   In between the crunch of double E chords, Page tears up the neck in several positions using the E blues scale.  Some of it downright screams through the speakers, but Page never overdoes it.  A new rock cliché for soloing subsequently took hold, mostly used by less capable hands.

Two interesting notes on the song itself: legendary bluesman/songwriter Willie Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement based on his song ‘You Need Love’ that was first recorded by Muddy Waters.   The band settled with Dixon out of court.     Also, the track was said to be a favorite of those driving tanks during the Vietnam War.   You can hear Muddy Waters performing ‘You Need Love’ here:

You can read the rest of the list here:

Friday, March 11, 2011

Steve Earle Lends His Support to Wisconsin Public Workers

The talented musician/singer/songwriter/actor/activist (and now author) Steve Earle has put his support behind the embattled public sector unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere with a digital single released on iTunes.  The single, 'Harlan Man,' was originally recorded in 1999 on Earle's bluegrass effort with the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain.  The digital B-side is the title track to that album.  Both songs were penned about card-carrying union members working in coal mines. 

"Unions are a fundamental component of Democracy throughout the free world," stated Earle in the press release announcing the digital single.   "All eyes are on Wisconsin."

Proceeds from the single will benefit the America Votes Labor Union Fund.  America Votes is active in 11 states, including current union battlegrounds Wisconsin and Ohio, where government efforts are underway to eliminate or restrict the collective bargaining ability of public sector unions.  

Steve Earle has received 14 Grammy nominations and been awarded three for three consecutive albums released in 2007 and 2009.  His new album, I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, is produced by T Bone Burnett and slated for a release date of April 26, 2011.  Earle's debut novel of the same name is scheduled for publication by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 12, 2011.  


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ten Quotes By, Or About, Jimmy Page

As a guitar player for 24 years this August , I have a wealth of guitar-related magazines and books dating back to 1987.  Here's some insight and musings from the Father of Riff Rock, James Patrick Page of Led Zeppelin, along with his cohorts and observers, all with proper attribution for those who want to seek out additional material:

1.  "I really don't like showing people how I play things; it's a little embarrassing because it always looks so simple to me."
-Jimmy Page, as told to Brad Tolinski, Greg DiBenedetto & Andy Aledort in the December 1993 edition of Guitar World.

2.  [W]hen we did the third album, the label was like, 'Well, there's no 'Whole Lotta Love' on there.  And when Houses of the Holy came out, they were like, 'There's no 'Stairway to Heaven' on there.'  Our attitude was, 'Well, of course not, because we were moving on and on.'  We arrived at songs like 'Kashmir' because we kept moving forward and didn't try to recreate the past.  The approach to each album was radically different every time."
-Jimmy Page, as told to Make Blake in Guitar World, May 2005       
3.  "I can't speak for others, but for me drugs were an integral part of the whole thing, right from the beginning, right to the end.  And part of the condition of drug taking is that you start thinking you're invincible.  I'll tell you something that is absolutely crazy.  I remember one night climbing out of a nine-story window in New York and sitting on one of those air conditioning units, looking over the city.  I was just out on my own and I thought that it might be an interesting thing to do.  It was totally reckless behavior.  I mean, it's great that I'm still here to have a laugh about it, but it was totally irresponsible.  I could have died and left a lot of people I loved.  I've seen so many casualties."
-Jimmy Page, as told to Brad Tolinski in Guitar World, July 2003

You can read the rest of the quotes here:

New Matt Nathanson Single Available for Free Download

San Francisco-based singer/songwriter Matt Nathanson of 'Come On Get Higher' fame has made his new single, 'Faster,' available for free download on his website.  His new album, Modern Love, is scheduled for a June 2011 for release.

To promote the new record Nathanson is hitting the road including some dates with Sugarland and Donavan
Frankenreiter. You can get a full list of dates and the free download on his website.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Rival Schools: Pedals

By: Rinjo Njori

Rival Schools' half decade hiatus helped anyone who had reservations about the band grow fond of them in their absence. Walking Concert, Walter Schreifels next prject, was, at best, a lackluster effort. His solo album had some bright moments but most of the songs were just new arrangements of stuff most people had been hearing for years.
Pedals doesn’t seem to be a review of Rival Schools influences like United By Fate. Instead Schreifels gets to write some softer and sonically similar songs that get a little muscle from the rest of the band. Sammy Siegler and Cache Tolman provide a solid foundation for Schrefels and Love to kick it up a notch ("Eyes Wide Open"), stretch it out ("Wring It Out") or keep the sound off balance ("The Ghost is Out There"). "Chose Your Own Adventure," "Shot After Shot" and "69 Guns" incorporate some electronic elements that give the band nice groove and seem to be begging to be remixed by some hot shot remix producer. One of the side benefits of Schreifels last two big projects (solo stuff and Walking Concert) is the confidence in his singing and finding a way to get past the need to scream or shout the lyrics. This is not to say that his vocal chords don't get a work out but they have clearly matured. "The Ghost is Out There" closes out the promise of "Shot After Shot" and succeeds with a low rumbling riff that doesn't need the volume turned up to "11" for the payoff; instead Rival Schools takes it down a notch on the chorus. The solo in the last half the song bends the ear in a good way and makes you wonder what a producer like Josh Homme could do with Schreifels and Love pushing their guitar talents.
"Racing the Red Lights" and "A Parts By B Actors" don't go horribly wrong but don't exude the confidence of the rest of the set. The former relying on shimmering guitars, soft vocals, and false starts. The latter using feedback to build up to a mid tempo song with interludes that seem inserted into the song.

Pedals clearly gives Rival Schools a sound. Twenty plus years of music hasn't killed any part of the bands creativity. They could have easily banged out an album when they reformed three years ago, but instead found their groove. Hopefully they don't wait another decade for a follow up. Schreifels has said this is his rock band to play this kind of music. Sam Siegler, Ian Love, and Cache Tollman clearly didn’t just pull it together and appear to have just as much invested in Rival Schools. Now it's time for them to deliver on their promise.

The Rinjo Cloudcast

By: Rinjo Njori
Check out some cool tracks 1000 Mexicans, The Stipjes, Satan's Cheerleaders and a few other bands that you actually heard of.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Schultz' Earful: John Mellencamp; Trey Anastasio

By: David Schultz

In a decade where synthetic music and Gordon Gekko individualism held sway over America, John Mellencamp defined himself by embodying the populist spirit of the Midwest and giving voice to America’s struggling family farmers. The following decades were not as kind as Indiana’s favorite son entered into a spiral in which he churned out engaging, though uninspiring, radio-friendly rock tidbits, fading of the core of rock relevancy to the point where his albums stopped registering on a national scale. In hindsight, that Mellencamp’s career path would ultimately intersect with T-Bone Burnett seems like a foregone conclusion. Like he has for other veteran rockers, Burnett stripped away everything that wasn’t working for Mellencamp and guided him towards his strongest work in years. On No Better Than This, his second go-around with the producer with the Midas touch, Mellencamp’s raspy vocals take precedence over everything else with the result turning into his most compelling work in decades.

For his latest tour, Mellencamp has been retreating from this arena rock persona and catalog, choosing to explore a simpler, less bombastic method of delivery. For his recent visit to New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, the first two-thirds of the show were heavily influenced by his renewed interest in roots-rock. Right from the opening number, a rockabilly arrangement of “The Authority Song,” his reimagining of “I Fought The Law,” Mellencamp showed every indication of staying true to his current vision. However, his desire to move on to a different, less pandering, level of musicianship doesn’t seem to be a vision his audience has completely embraced. When offering stellar versions of recent material like “Save Some Time To Dream” and “Easter Eve” or rarities like “Jackie Brown” (no relation to the Tarantino movie), the crowd seemed restless. Stripped down renditions of “Small Town” and “Jack And Diane,” now a country folk ambling tune, brought the crowd lustily to their feet, voices eager to sing along in recognition.

An extended violin solo from Miriam Sturm ushered in the classic Mellencamp portion of the show. With an electric guitar in hand, he concluded his show as if he were on the stadium stage of Farm Aid. “Rain On The Scarecrow” and “Paper In Fire” sounded just right but the songs that bridged the gap to the rousing sing-alongs of “Pink Houses” and “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A” like “What If I Came Knocking” felt pedestrian. Given the earnestness of the earlier part of the show, the final hour lacked the same creative spark, coming across as a concession to those who would fell gypped without receiving a couple fist pumping anthems. At the very least, the Farrelly Brothers decision to use Mellencamp lyrics as a punchline becomes a little bit funnier.

When Mellencamp discusses his past, he speaks as if he has the reputation of once living the life of a Charlie Sheen quality hellraiser, a twinkle in his eye serving as an implication that he may not be completely housebroken. Granted Mellencamp’s prime occurred before TMZ publicized every celebrity’s minor indiscretions, but his headstrong individualism falls far short of the degenerate behavior we’ve become accustomed to from our rakish rock stars. Quite the opposite, throughout his entire career, Mellencamp has shown an admirable penchant for staying true to his ideals and doing the right thing: he fought to record under his own name when his label thrust the “John Cougar” name upon him and he picked up the gauntlet thrown down at Live Aid by Bob Dylan and curated Farm Aid for the next two decades. Far from being an unrepentant whelp, Mellencamp may be the closest thing rock and roll has to role model.

HAVING LEGIONS OF FANS that pore over annotated set lists on a daily basis and pay close attention to every note that emanates from the stage marks a level of success to which very few musicians can lay claim. The flipside to such devotion seems to be that fans expect every concert to be a life-changing event or revelatory experience. If you took a sampling from the less-journalistic minded sites that cover the jamband scene, you would be under the impression that some bands are reinventing music and creating inspired works of unparalleled genius every single night they step foot on a stage. Sadly, not every show knocks the Earth off its axis. Sometimes, a show is just a really fun night with a lot of great music.

Trey Anastasio is one such rock star that sits aloft in that rarefied air. It seems that the expectations placed on any of his shows, whether with his solo band or with Phish, far exceed what he can be expected to deliver. This past week at New York City’s Terminal 5, Anastasio failed to redefine the boundaries of live performance or shatter anyone’s preconceived notions of music as an art form. Rather, Anastasio and his band simply delivered an eminently enjoyable and satisfying evening that consisted of a healthy sampling of material from his Phish catalog, a handful of eclectic, sometimes non-sequitur like covers, a couple heady jams and even a show tune.

Anastasio opened the night with a lengthy solo set devoted primarily to acoustic renderings from the Phish songbook. In keeping the arrangements concise, Anastasio fit a plethora of songs into the set, including “Down With Disease,” a jaunty version of “Bouncing Around The Room,” a measured take of “Cavern” that built to its intricately rhyming chorus and a quick run through “Camel Walk” dedicated to Jon Fishman in Morocco. The acoustic set equated to a seventy-five minute sing along with Trey, the audience joining in loud and strong on nearly every number. For the close of the set, the full band emerged for the acoustic debut of “Heavy Things,” an Anastasio composition “Peggy” and a brisk romp through OutKast’s “Hey Ya.”

For the second set, Anastasio never quite found a focal point, moving briskly from one song to the next. One exception was an expansive version of “Gotta Jibboo,” which diverged into territory known and loved by Trey fans worldwide. Moreso than on past tours, Jennifer Hartswick took lead vocals, her powerful voice and astounding range always a marvel. On trumpet, she, Natalie Cressman and Russ Remington formed a potent horn section, at times providing a formidable foil for Anastasio’s guitar. During an encore take on Dire Straits’ “Sultans Of Swing,” Anastasio pulled his hands away from his guitar making it clear that it was the horn section tearing through Knopfler’s signature riffs. Making things extra-funky, Ray Paczkowski kept his keyboards set predominantly in Stevie Wonder crunch-mode, its tone very reminiscent of the opening riffs of “Superstition.”

For the most part, Anastasio seemed unconcerned with delivering a transcendent performance and focused more on simply having fun at Terminal 5, a mission that became clear long before he got around to a cover of Jay-Z’s “Empire State Of Mind.” Anyone seeking existential bliss might have walked away disappointed. If so, perhaps they're looking for fulfillment in the wrong places.

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!