Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: Stephen Stills at the Jefferson Theater October 29, 2011

Well, first of all, since I was unable to garner any video from the Charlottesville show, I appreciate the Birchmere crowd putting theirs up. The tune shown, Johnny's Garden, was a highlight of the show at the Jefferson last Saturday night, among many.

I had seen Stephen Stills a number of times solo, but not at all since the final show for the short-lived Stills-Young Band in July 1976 in Greensboro. While Stills has always been a great performer, one of the better guitarists to actually SEE, in his younger incarnation he was not what I would have called called a pleasing performer. Like many of his contemporaries, he often spurned his most popular songs in concert to do what he damn well pleased.

One of the great things about seeing the aging rockers is that now they have learned to live with the fact that people want to hear certain songs and most of them try to deliver. The set list itself was the highlight of the show and covered tunes from Buffalo Springfield and CSNY to Manassas as Stills delivered with a set of selections that included:

Bluebird (opener)
Southern Cross
Helplessly Hoping (painful from a vocal standpoint!)
Johnny's Garden
4 + 20
So Begins The Task
Judy Blue Eyes ( brilliantly worked into from George Harrison's Within You Without You)
Rocky Mountain Way?? (drummer Joe Vitale played with Joe Walsh)
Girl From The North Country (yep, Dylan!)
A couple of newer songs including Blind Fiddler and Wounded Bird
Woodstock (great rockin' version of this classic)
The encore was:
Love The One You're With
For What It's Worth

Stills was still his old fun counter culture self as well, dedicating the protest anthem For What's It's Worth to the "99 percent-ers" and thanking everyone early on for coming to the show when they could have been watching another "exciting Republican debate."
Still's voice was a little rough, especially at first, but it actually seemed to get improve over the course of the show. He has a built-in joke during one of the taxing vocal parts of Judy Blue Eyes. When he hits the note well and gets the applause, he says "I'm as astonished as you are." Such self effacing humor was not a hallmark of the younger Stills and it was his pleasing and grateful personality that easily sailed the show through any rough spots Saturday night.
The guitar work was still great as always, but Stills was visibly wringing and shaking his hands after some of the solos. My guess a touch of arthritis and I speak from experience unfortunately. Of all the times I've seen Stephen Stills, this was by far the most enjoyable.What's not to like about a performer who seems to be having a great time and is highly appreciative of the fact that people are still enjoying his music and coming to his shows after all these years?

Monday, October 31, 2011

PTF at Durty Nelly's and a call for da blog!

More PTF On The Way Soon!
I'll have the over 40 minutes of video that I took at PTF's performance at Durty Nelly's on Sunday night October 30th edited and shrunk down to a 5 minute highlight film by the end of the week, but until then here's their version of the Allman Brothers "One Way Out". PTF is for Stephen Pollack, John Taylor, and Pete Fekas, 3 guys who I guess you could say are sort of relics of Charlottesville's brief "heavy metal era" and their vocal harmonies in this incarnation are some of the very best around town. On this night, they debuted their new drummer, Carl Moyer, formerly of Jimmy O's band, and on bass there is the omnipresent Steve Riggs. Let's be honest, I'm not really sure that you are allowed to call yourself a true local C-Ville band until you've had Steve play bass for you. Not everyone around C-Ville knows about these guys and they don't play too often, but they are a fun time and stick to the classics we all forgot most of the words too. More PTF on the way very soon!!

Your Voice Needed
Don't get me wrong. It's fun posting whatever in the heck I want and going to whatever shows I want and then posting that, but it's a lot more fun if it's a little more democratic, so please, by all means hit the subscribe button, leave comments and if there's a local band you want reviewed or anything else that you think would be cool! Just drop a comment here. Happy Halloween!!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Abbey Road Rocks Fridays at the Charlottesville Pavillion September 2, 2011

Last Friday, September 2nd, for the final Fridays After Five of the season and as part of UVA's "Paint The Town Orange" night to kick-off the football season, our area Beatles tribute band, Abbey Road, entertained the overflow crowd at the Downtown Pavilion in Charlottesville with two sets of awesome Fab Four tunes. 

This band is dear to my heart as two guys I grew up with, Barry Willard and Keith Winkler, are doing the Paul and John thing. Now when I say grew up with, I'm not kidding as I am talking about age 9, 10, probably before they even learned to play guitars. As a result, I already knew what HUGE Beatles fans these guys were and it's obvious they are having a blast nowadays! 

Also in the band are Paul Olko on guitar, doing a fantastic job covering and expanding on George's original leads, Billy Ballard on drums, providing a great backbeat ala Ringo, and the multi-talented Mike D'Antoni on just about everything!!

Abbey Road is different from most Beatles bands in that they revel in some of those more obscure early tunes the Beatles did in their Hamburg days, especially the Beatles' versions of classics like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Shout". The guys do them up in supreme Beatle style and that's what they did in their final set on Friday night, as you can see from the video (especially "Shout"). They shine on Beatles classics like "Ticket To Ride". The finale was killer and then they returned for a highly interactive version of "Hey Jude"! Great show and true family fun! Gotta love seeing those 10 year olds singing these 40+ year old tunes word-for-word!

Not only that, but most importantly, they once let me get on the stage with them to sing the chorus of "I Should Have Known Better". It takes a really great band to cover that up. If there is anything that I am worse at than videography, it is singing....although I know that's hard to believe in light of my camera work here. :)

The band's web site is http://abbeyroadbeatles.com. They perform both public and private events. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sunday Night Concerts: Bruce Hornsby & Bela Fleck Charlottesville nTelos Pavilion 8/7/2011


As a weekend worker (I'm a mobile DJ....OK, mostly a wedding DJ), one of my favorite things to do is spot a great Sunday night concert to attend. If that show happens to take place at our Ntelos Pavilion here in Charlottesville. a mere 15 minute drive with maybe 5 minutes to park, all it takes is a good artist and some decent weather and I've got the recipe for a cool Sunday evening.

Last Sunday night, August 7th, was one of those occasions where it all worked out. After lower temperatures from Saturday on did not break the stranglehold of the unbelievable humidity, a very late afternoon thunderstorm finally cooled the air enough to make it outdoor show friendly, I piled myself in the car and headed to downtown Charlottesville, grabbing a ticket and some liquid refreshment just in time to see Bela Fleck take the stage. 

Let's be honest, in my line of work, Bela's music is normally cocktail music. While I own several CDs of his music,specific songs often elude me, but I know enough to know good when I hear it. After the opening songs, Bela introduced his amazing bassist, Victor Wooten, who proceeded to create WOW moment number one with a 3 minute piece of funk played solo on his bass that sounded at times like an orchestra of basses. WOW moment number two followed immediately when Bela and his group launched into a long and improvisational version of one of Bela's biggest tunes, Big Country. Here's where the pacing of Bela's set fell apart just a little as the group settled into a groove, but that groove was actually a little more meditative than show friendly. Great stuff, though, and what the group lacked in showmanship was more than made up for by excellent musicianship. Once Bruce Hornsby showed up on stage with his accordion, they once again picked up the beat and finished their excellent set on the upswing.

Thanks to having so many interchangeable musicians (every member of both bands played in the finale), the break between Bela and Bruce was only 15 minutes.

Hornsby and the Noisemakers hit the stage around 8:50 and played until around 10:40, including the encore. This was my third time seeing Bruce, once being with Ricky Skaggs on their brief tour to support the CD they released together in 2007. Arrangements from that tour showed up in many of the Hornsby standards, including the version of Mandolin Rain shown above and a rollicking bluegrass tinged version of his biggest hit, The Way It Is.

Alternating between piano and accordion, Bruce performed all the hits and near misses, including a personal favorite called Big Stick from the Tin Cup soundtrack in the late 90s. The bluegrass flavor added by Fleck took virtually every tune to a new level with the exception of Rainbow's Cadillac, which is so perfect it needs no other level. Like Bela, Hornsby is more of a musician than a showman, but the pacing of his set kept the beat well within range. 

What sets a Hornsby show apart, though, is the same thing that sets a recording apart, it's the Keith Jarrett like piano fills that add classic jazz to the already potent mix of Rock, Bluegrass, and straight up Americana. Bruce is one of those musicians who delivers every single time and every time I've seen him the musicianship resonates well beyond the end of the show. 

For the finale, all the wonderful musicians from both bands hit the stage, eventually ending up interpolating Weather Report's Birdland into a jazzy rock finish that left everyone smiling! 

I suppose I should also point out that while none of these videos here are from the show I saw Sunday, the consistency of the performances on this tour is obvious. Catch this show this summer and your hard earned concert dollars can be considered well spent.

Monday, July 25, 2011

RUNT Revisited: The World Meets Todd Rundgren

I actually knew Todd Rundgren BEFORE I knew Todd Rundgren. Allow me to explain:

As I recounted to the amusement of many one night on Rundgren Radio (the weekly blog talk radio show for Todd fans), in my first year of college, I had a friend 3 doors down, who had a “kickin' 8-track system”, the latest and greatest thing available back in 1970.

John Joyner was from Memphis, his daddy was a lawyer, and he suffered no shortage of life's creature comforts, from the 8-track system to an endless supply of cigarettes to some pretty damn good weed for that day and time. As a lowly small town cop's son, it was rare to experience such delights and to say my musical tastes were limited is putting it mildly. I think I owned maybe 10 albums at the time with the hippest one being Iron Butterfly. Guys like Dean Martin and Herb Alpert filled the family collection and I had an personal affection for soundtracks such as Bullitt, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and Bonnie And Clyde. I did grow up in a college town, so I could claim to having seen a number of groups at the college basketball facility (my first concert was Marvin Gaye at age 14!). One of those that came in 1969 was The Association and I loved their sound and the shimmering harmonies that characterized it.

The Nazz
It was through the hours and hours spent in John's room that I developed my love for Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Traffic, Cream, and an entire universe of music that I was only marginally aware of up to that point. One group I really liked was The Nazz, who had an coolly synthetic combination of the guitar sound of The Who with the harmonics of The Association.

A couple of doors up was Bob Goldman, ANOTHER lawyer's son (starting to see where I fell in the social network of the day?), from Doylestown, PA., right outside of Philadelphia. One night in the fall of 1970, Bob invited me into his room saying “you have to hear this album”. As I sat down, the first notes of “Broke Down And Busted” floated from the speakers and I felt an immediate familiarity. In fact, I was pretty stunned and immediately identified with the sound, the emotions, and even the whiny voice of that singer, whoever he was. This was the sound that I had been hearing in my head as I listened to all that other music that I had been exposed to. It was like teenage angst pop served up with a rock sensibility and a healthy dose of theatricality.

By the third song, “We Gotta Get You A Woman”, I was asking to see the album cover. RUNT. The guy on the cover was the skinniest person I had ever seen. Dressed in clothes that looked they came straight from Carnaby Street including velvet pants, a strange belt with what looked like a kindergarten version of the alphabet printed on it On the back was a picture of what looked like Mickey Mouse, all decked out in a Wizard's hat and using thunderbolts and lightning to conjure up some kind of witches brew. The music became immediately and inextricably tied to the visual image in front of me. Bob told me his name was Todd Rundgren and he was from Philadelphia.

The Back Cover Of Runt
I had no awareness of the connection to the Who/Association sound group I had heard in John's room, for as much as I liked that music, THIS music affected me immediately with instant identification that I can only liken to the effect the Beatles sound must have had on those who heard it back in 1962.

Unfortunately I never heard the entire album that night. Bob was also spoiled rich brat and by the time the fifth track, “Once Burned”, came on he had made enough snide references to my heritage that we were at each other in the floor of the room. I spent most of the rest of the night chasing Bob around the dorm with whatever I could find to hit him with. True story..... swear to Todd!

By the late fall and early winter of 1970, “We Gotta Get You A Woman” was playing in regular rotation and my girlfriend at the time (who is now my wife) and I both turned up the car radio whenever that or Elton John's “Your Song” (our eventual first dance) came on. By mid-summer of 1971, I had the RUNT album as well as RUNT: THE BALLAD OF TODD RUNDGREN in my growing but still fairly small album collection. Today I find it simply incomprehensible that this genius who blazed so many trails and was actually somewhat correct when he characterized himself as for “people who missed The Beatles” is not in the Rock Hall Of Fame.

RUNT was actually never supposed to be. Todd Rundgren was scooting along in his post-Nazz production career for Albert Grossman when he got the urge to actually write and record some more music. Playing everything himself, Todd made some demos that his friend Moogy Klingman referred to as “terrible sounding”, but apparently they were good enough to get Todd an advance on a solo record.

Heading to LA for the recording, Rundgren reunited with former Nazz engineer James Lowe. Another engineer musician like Todd, Lowe had been a member of the Electric Prunes, one of the seminal Garage bands of the sixties who had a hit with “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night”. One of the interesting Nazz stories that Lowe had to tell in this 2003 interview was his lasting image of “Todd Rundgren at 17 writing full orchestra parts for “A Beautiful Song” in his hotel room the night before the session for Nazz, he had never done it before and completely blew the studio players minds! “

LA was also home to Hunt and Tony Sales, the bass and drum playing sons of TV personality Soupy Sales. Rundgren had jammed with them some in New York and knew a limited number of musicians in LA, so 17 year old Tony and 14 year old Hunt were recruited to lay down the back beat for the album.

In Paul Myers excellent book, A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, Lowe recounts the symbiotic relationship that he and Rundgren had due to both being musicians first, engineers second, describing Todd's already advanced methods of capturing the recording in a way that allowed the studio to be used as another instrument. As an example, Rundgren was one of the first to insist on discrete miking for each drum in the kit, thus allowing compression and limiters to change the sound at the board. He describes the further rounding and flattening of the sound when coming through a car radio, explaining not only the why Rundgren went for the bright and tiny sound that critics occasionally complained about in his solo work, but also how he managed to make hits like Grand Funk's “We're An American Band”, a sound that was huge compared to other songs on the radio in it's day.

Understanding Todd Rundgren as a producer is prime to understanding his importance to especially the seventies, the entire era of analog studio recording, and why he should be in the Rock Hall. As a matter of fact, if you know Jann Weiner, Rolling Stone founder and primary stick in the Rock N' Roll Hall's rear, go ahead and send him a copy of Myers book.

With Rundgren playing guitar or piano live along with the solid foundation of the Sales brothers, most of the basic tracks for RUNT were laid down at the rate of two per day. In the Myers book, Lowe tells how Rundgren would sit right at the board recording and layering the background vocals that would become one of his hallmarks for many years.
The song “We Gotta Get You A Woman” is initially recorded as a basic instrumental track of piano, bass, and drums. Lowe then watches in amazement as Rundgren added background vocals, hand claps, percussion and guitars to create an irresistible pop tour-de-force and certified Top 40 hit. To this date, I do not know a single person who claims to have ever heard Rundgren perform this classic live, yet listening to it today, it's a fresh and crisp as the day it was released with wonderfully inventive lyrics, a hook that just won't quit, and a classic lyrical twist to end it, “and when we're through with you. We'll get me one too...” followed by the briefest of flute notes ever. A perfect pop confection that had you reaching for the volume knob whenever it came on.

Broke Down And Busted” was, however, the first track to personally get me from this album. Todd still performs the song to this day and the dragging chords of the opening have become an essential part of the Todd Rundgren sound, much as the droning synthesized background sound of the TODD album defined and became part of Todd's more progressive work.

Believe In Me” was the first song to display Todd's ongoing relationship with the music of Laura Nyro. Over the gentle and pleading piano opening, the track builds as the plaintive vocal appeals to a lover when a relationship appears to be falling apart. Such lyrics were thematic in early Rundgren solo work, causing one critic to refer to him as a “minor songwriter with major woman problems”. I didn't care. I was 20 years old and I HAD major woman problems.... all the time. My hormones were definitely in line with the sound of RUNT and all of Todd's early work.

After “We Gotta Get You A Woman” is the first true rocker of the record. “Who's That Man”. Over a blistering seventies rock track, Rundgren decries a the rumor that his woman is with another man, launching into a playful lyrical condemnation that rhymes faster than a rapper on speed.

Once Burned” is almost a dirge and features Levon Helm and Rick Danko of The Band on drums and bass while Todd does his best Richard Manuel impersonation on vocals while the organ does Garth Hudson. Lyrically, more woman trouble, she had to kick him out twice,

With a verse driven by a frantic conga beat accentuated by Rundgren's lead guitar and a chorus tied to another screaming lead that sounds almost like Lowe's Electric Prunes, “Devil's Bite” is my personal favorite rocker on the record.

Flipping the RUNT album over to side 2, things get less poppy and more experimental musically. The first track, “I'm In The Clique” is...well....Zappa-esque! This style Rundgren would reprise often, especially on his classic album, A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR. The track featured a number of New York studio musicians and Moogy Klingman, who along with the Sales Brothers would eventually form the nucleus of the ill-fated first version of Utopia, the prog rock band that Rundgren formed in late 1973. The track itself is very prog rock with heavily processed vocals reflecting upon the hip New York music scene of the early 1970s.

The following track is Brian Wilson all the way. “There Are No Words” has.... well... no words. What it does have is about 20 Todd Rundgrens multi-tracked in a harmonious celebration of pure vocals.

In a better world, “Birthday Carol” would be a standard of some kind. Rundgren explained once that during the Nazz years and for the first couple of solo albums, he felt the need to end each album with with a production piece. “Birthday Carol” stands beside “A Beautiful Song” from NAZZ NAZZ in that regard, a rock song that takes off from a few guitar solos into the realm of the orchestral replete with strings, horns, the whole nine yards. But the lyrics are just wonderful:

I was born this very morning and my brother he was also born
In our first nine months we learned to speak and we have been listening since early morn
I love no one but brother and no one has loved me
I hate no one and no other has so far hated me.

The tune is a delightful way to end the album.

Nestled between “There Are No Words” and “Birthday Carol” was the medley aka “The Baby Let's Swing Medley”, named for it's kickoff song, a pretty much straight up homage to Laura Nyro's music, that then leads to an incredibly engaging and poppy couple of songs, “The Last Thing You Said” and “Don't Tie My Hands”. None of these songs would sound out of place on a Motown record, as one of the Sales brothers noted in the Myers book. The book also reveals that a fourth song was lost in a tape mishap. This medley is so instantly and additively tuneful that even upon first hearing, it almost seemed to me as if this guy was saying 'Hey, I can knock these out anytime I want to”, referring to the hook filled Top 40 play list of the day.
Of course, I could not understand why he didn't just make them all entire songs, they were so good. But Rundgren was more of my generation that had grown up on the Beatles, the Who, and Cream, than he was of the previous generation of musicians, like the Beatles, for whom Top 40 success was the benchmark. He was destined to be an ALBUM artist, a move which was not possible in pop music until the Beatles stopped touring and began to make serious music.

At any rate, the Medley clinched the deal for me at that time. This was also the era of “Paul Is Dead and it says so in A Day In The Life”, so I thought it even more cool a few years later when I discovered that another version of RUNT existed. This one did not have the Medley, but did have a full out version of “Baby Let's Swing” plus another tune called “Say No More”. Remember... no internet, so unless it appeared in Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, or any of the other journalistic sources of the day, you just heard about it when you heard about it. I heard it when my friend Mac Evans gave me a puzzled look when I told him how much I liked the Medley on RUNT! Mac was an aspiring songwriter who shared with me a love of the Kinks, Laura Nyro, and Todd Rundgren amongst many others. He later played his version for me with the full “Baby Let's Swing”. This was 1972. Apparently at least 3 versions of the album were released with the one reviewed here being by far the most heard as well as the only one available on CD.

Me and Todd 2011
RUNT stills stands to me as one of the more astounding debut records ever, with a breadth of variety of musical forms that, upon reflection, foretold the long and successful career that would follow for Rundgren, never a critic's darling, but always a favorite of his very loyal fan base. Todd has recently acknowledged that fan base with album shows based around A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR, the TODD album, and his 80s classic HEALING.

Here's hoping that after Todd completes a hopefully successful reincarnation of his acknowledged classic LP, SOMETHING/ ANYTHING, upon it's 40th anniversary in 2012, that he will dig further back and into this organically evolved pop classic and we will finally see that live version of “We Gotta Get You A Woman”.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies Revisited

Most people remember The Kinks as one of the original British invasion bands with their early hits, You Really Got Me, All Day And All Of The Night, Tired Of Waiting, and many more.

What most people do not remember is that The Kinks were banned from American stages from 1965-1969. Apparently appalled by the Kinks onstage behavior (Ray and Dave, the brothers Davies, thought nothing of letting sibling rivalry spill right out in front of all those screaming teenage girls, often going as far as actually coming to fisticuffs!), the American
Federation Of Musicians denied permits for live appearances to the group for 4 years, lifting the ban only when Ray Davies himself went to L.A. in 1969 and made the case for lifting the ban. The resulting tour in 1969 was apparently horrible as the effects of 4 years of not touring left a trail of disinterested audiences and questionable performances.

The ban also aided in creating what many Kinks fans might call the "golden era of the Kinks". Free from any American influence, the Kinks created a uniquely English oeuvre during this period with albums such as Face to Face, Something Else, and the album many consider the Kinks greatest, The Village Green Preservation Society.

A few more albums, Arthur-Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire, Lola versus Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, Part One, a dispute with their long-time record company, Warners/Reprise over the stateside release of Percy, a Kinks soundtrack to a film about a penis transplant, and the group found themselves newly signed to RCA Records. RCA, meanwhile, is wringing their hands with anticipation of more hits like "Lola", which had been an international smash!

The Davies brothers used the advance monies from their RCA contract to build Konk Studios, a facility that was still in operation until July 2010 when Ray put it up for sale. Konk came later, so it was Morgan Studios in Willesden, North London that the Kinks entered in August of 1971 to record their first album for RCA and the followup to Lola vs. Powerman.

RCA anticipated more hits in the form of singles, but Ray was determined to move past the concept of "singles" and wanted to focus on making an a more cohesive piece of work in the form of an album consistent in theme and musical presentation. Furthermore, while RCA may have expected an album of transatlantic rock, what the Kinks were about to deliver would be very different. Ray describes the process leading up to the recording as somewhat soul searching as he made the decision to make an "existential" record, a move he later called "the classic thing of not delivering what people think you're going to deliver."

On November 24, 1971, the album, Muswell Hillbillies, was released in the U.S. Transatlantic rock it definitely was not. Instead, the lyrics reflected growing up working class in the Muswell Hill suburb of North London, the destruction of the Old Victorian neighborhoods and displacement of families, and the general stress and insanity of technology and life in the 20th century. The reality of the lyrics was reflected even in the album art. The cover shot was taken at Archway Pub, a pub that several members of the Davies family visited every Thursday night. The gateway cover picture of the Kinks was taken against a corrugated fence built to hide a bombed out London neighborhood just like the one the Davies family had been moved out of. Many of the characters that populated the songs were actual people the family knew. Uncle Son, Rosie Rook, and Ray's grandmother from "Have A Cuppa Tea".

Of course, many of the Kinks songs reflected their working class ethos, especially considering that Waterloo Station from the song "Waterloo Sunset" is only four Underground stops away from East Finchley, where Muswell Hill was located.

As for the sound of Muswell Hillbillies, well, that was straight out of America, a winning combination of roots blues and even a little country topped off by one of the most American sounds, dixieland jazz, from the horn section that would come to be know as The Mike Cotton Sound. The cumulative effect was that of an English Cabaret transported somehow to the middle of Appalachia.

Wanting the album to sound antiquated, Davies recorded much of it on dated equipment, using 10 year old microphones at times. As a result, there is a denseness to the album that makes it sound like a bad recording at times with acoustic guitars and vocals. The vocals are buried just a bit at times, to great effect.

Davies makes his declaration of faith in the opening song 20th Century Man, which continues to this day to be a staple of his live shows.
"This is the age of insanity, a mechanical nightmare.... the wonderful of technology.. napalm, hydrogen bombs. biological warfare"
Over a blues based riffs accentuated by the occasional slide guitar, Ray professes his disdain for all things modern, his desire to be elsewhere other than the 20th century. In mid song a Byrds-like electric guitar breaks in as Davies recounts his feelings of being "controlled by civil servants and people dressed in gray" upon his family's uprooting and relocation to Muswell Hill.

The family's Victorian home was in a bombed out section of London thus the relocation, but Ray never understood why some homes were rebuilt, while in other cases, entire neighborhoods were leveled and moved to urban projects. To Davies, and to The Kinks, for that matter, such inequities were attributed to class differences. If you don't think The Kinks were one of the precursors to the Punk movement, give a close listen to Dead End Street.

Next is Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues, one of the funniest of all Kinks songs as the singer takes us through his process of total mental breakdown, crying out not only about the world around from the previous song, but also adding in the paranoia of a breakdown as the milkman becomes a spy and "the grocer keeps on following me", all to the happy beat of the dixieland jazz horns and John Gosling's music hall style piano. Another song that became a fixture in the live shows of the era, as demonstrated below.

Here the album takes a definite storyline feel, as the character of
Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues is now sent on a Holiday as seen in the opening video here. It is a typical English working class holiday "lying on the beach, my back burned rare,the salt gets in my blisters, the sand in my hair, the sea's an open sewer, but I really couldn't care" as the protagonist makes the best of a less than ideal situation.

Next it's on to the obsession with being thin that continues to this day with Skin and Bone, a song that Ray always introduced as "a story about a girl named Fat Flabby Annie". We follow Annie down the path to a fake dietitian's diet which reduces her to a waif as she succumbs to yoga and meditation and throws away the "good food' guide, meaning pizza, mashed potatoes, and alcohol amongst others. It's sort of a demented Richard Simmons workout song!

Alcohol would become a staple of the Kinks live shows for many years. The tune was ripe for loose interpretation. For example, in live performance, the lines,
"Here is a story about a sinner, He used to be a winner who enjoyed a life of prominence and position," became "Here's a sad and woeful story about a middle class executive, who enjoyed a life of prominence and position" with the last word drawn out nasally over a trumpet that sounds like it belongs in the bull ring. As the ever inebriated looking John Gosling sat behind a piano littered with beer cans, Ray warbled this tale of downfall and woe while balancing a beer can on his head. Interesting to note that when I last saw Ray back in 2008, he wasn't doing this song, but he was still balancing beer bottles on top of his head.

Primitive as this video from 1975 is, it clearly shows the mileage that Davies drug from this hilarious tune.

In Complicated Life, the singer's obsessions begin to physically drag him down and he strives to "uncomplicate my life" and the while acknowledging that he has to "stand and face it, life is soooo complicated" as side 1 of the album concludes. The music is a return to the blues foundation that started the side with 20th Century Man.

Side 2 begins with Here Come The People In Grey, meaning the faceless gray suited army of bean counters first mentioned in the opening song
. The song recounts the story of a working class family uprooted by the borough surveyor who uses "compulsory purchase to acquire my domain", leaving the family unprepared and apprehensive as they are moved forcefully and completely from their familial home. This song sounds very much like a remembrance of the Davies family experience that resulted in Ray and Dave growing up in the urban renewal project of Muswell Hill. Musically, this song is closer to previous Kinks styling than the rest of the album, driven by Dave's slightly fuzz tone guitar.

Nostalgic to the core. Have A Cuppa Tea is another one of the Kinks more endearing songs, as should be any song that begins with the lines "Granny's always raving ranting, and she's always puffing and panting".
The sound is pure Music Hall from the piano tinkling that drives it to the horn section accentuating the verses with sloppy delight!

Holloway Jail is pretty much a straight out blues based prison song about the singer's lady friend being taken to the London jail sometimes called Holloway Castle, where adult women and youth offenders found themselves after running afoul of British law. It is particularly funny listening to Ray try to rhyme jail and hell (which comes out as hail!).

In Oklahoma USA, the singer recounts that "all life we work but work is a bore, if life's for living, what's living for" while telling the story of a poor girl living in a house that is "near decay" while dreaming of a life that is far away and driven by the glorious vision presented by Hollywood. A gentle and elegant piano phrase begins and forms the musical core of this song, one of Ray's most beautiful compositions. Kinks fans were delighted when Ray resurrected the song sans piano for US tour in 2006 as shown below:

Uncle Son stands as a true memory of Ray's actual Uncle Son, a real person. Uncle Son has led the good life, done the right things, tolerated the dictum of liberals, conservatives, socialists. generals, and preachers yet still managed to live out his life in dignity as "just an ordinary man". Davies asserts that the likes of Uncle Son will not be forgotten "when the revolution comes". Over and over in his career, Ray has returned to the theme of ordinary people quietly leading lives of desperation.

The final song, Muswell Hillbillies, is a bonified Kinks classic with one of the greatest opening lines in history:

"Well, I said goodbye to Rosie Rooke this morning, I'm gonna miss her bloodshot alcoholic eyes"

The song is a countrified rock song that Ray would often use to introduce the band members in concert, ending with the line, "well, I guess you all know me, I'm Johnny Cash." Lyrically, the singer rails against the move to Muswell Hill, recounting that while photographs and souvenirs of the previous life may be all he has left, "they"(the people in Grey) will never change him or make him forget where he really comes from.

Even after these 39 years, listening to this album felt as comfortable as the old wood bar of the Archway Pub on the front cover and as refreshing as that first pint after a hard day's work! If you've never been to Muswell Hill, there's no time like the present. Even if you have, this great album is highly recommended for reconsideration. Listen...again!!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank......: Is "Fairytale Of New York" the greatest Christmas song ever?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Charles Dickens,
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Dickens is generally acknowledged to be one our greatest writers, one of the masters of the opening line such as the one above. So explain how it is that a drunken, drug addled and virtually toothless Irish songwriter manages to encapsulate the same thought above that opened A Tale Of Two Cities in just 9 words...........
"it was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank......"

Much like Gram Parsons, Shane MacGowan came to the planet with a blueprint. And like Gram, no matter how hard he tries to waste his own talent, great and meaningful songs come out of him. Is that God? Mother Nature? The Wiccan Queen of The Universe (if there is such a thing)? Who knows? Who cares?

Some things are just meant to be beheld and Fairytale Of New York is just such a thing. Its' majesty only seems to grow with the passing of the years! The reasons why I love this song for Christmas are very much like why I love the film Bad Santa so much. It is very much for the same reason that Fairytale Of New York moves me to near tears every time I hear it. In the utter hopelessness and despair of its lyrics in light of the singer's current situation, there is hope and joy for resurrection. The protagonist dances to the edge of moral bankruptcy and yet retains his dignity and humanity by acknowledging that love not only lives, but still conquers all.

Many of you folks in the UK and Ireland consider it the best Christmas song ever. That is hard to argue, especially in consideration of the fact that the BBC apparently did an hour long special about Fairytale Of New York. It is totally fascinating and here I have simply done you the service of assembling all 6 parts in order so that you don't have to search for them, beginning with the classic original video from 1987 and ending with a classic performance video with Kirsty MacColl from 1988. It is a story that draws you in if you are a music fan so take your time as each little chapter holds it's delights.

First, here's the original black and white classic video.
Now where is that Bad Santa DVD?

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6
Finally, this classic performance of a classic song from 1988.

RIP Kirsty MacColl.