Live At Iowa State University (DVD) by John Mayall

March 31, 2009

John Mayall is often more remembered for who has passed through his group than he is for his music. Such artists as Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, and a host of others are ex-Bluesbreakers. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers: Live At Iowa State University was recorded in 1987. His band at the time consisted of dual guitarists Walter Trout and Coco Montoya with Bobby Hayes on bass and Paul Hines behind the drums. He was in his mid-fifties at the time this concert was recorded and appeared healthy. His voice is in fine shape. He even seems to be having fun on stage.

The music contained on this DVD is excellent. I wish I could say the same for the packaging. The songs are listed out of order both on the DVD package and on the DVD menu itself. Some of the songs are not complete and are joined in progress. There is little flow between many of the tracks, which takes away from an actual concert experience. The extras promise a backstage interview with John Mayall which consists of one question that was not answered. I am going to take their word that the concert was actually recorded at Iowa State University. The music is superb. John Mayall plays the blues and nothing but the blues. The band is tight and the sound is full. He always sounds better when he carries two guitarists in his band. He and Walter Trout trade creative leads. Trout is an excellent player who can get almost a weeping sound from his instrument. Mayall also rotates to keyboards and harmonica with equal aplomb.

“Parchment Farm” is an old Mose Allison tune that features frenetic harmonica playing by Mayall. Very few people can use the harmonica as a lead instrument but he pulls it off, complete with some improvisation that always returns to the songs original structure. “Birthday Blues” is a song that focus’ upon Mayall’s blusy vocal. He accompanies himself on keyboards and this is as close to a one man show as he will come during this concert.

The Little Walter instrumental tune, “It Ain’t Right,” is a complete group effort. It is a two guitar attack by Trout and Montoya along side some more harmonica by Mayall. It is an virtual assault on the senses. The different guitar styles of Trout and Moore are obvious on their respective solos. Trout is more of a classic and technical blues guitarist while Montoya is a rock/blues fusion player. It is a good union and neither of the musicians intrude upon the others territory.Trout plays lead guitar almost as much as Mayall. “Little Girl,” “Steppin’ Out” and “One Life To Live” all showcase his skills. He is just one of those creative guitarists who can almost make the instrument talk. His tone is also crystal clear.

“Room To Move” can be considered to be funky blues if there is such a thing. It is a virtual extravaganza of Mayall’s harmonica playing and a must listen for any blues lover.

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers: Live At Iowa State University proves that John Mayall was still on top of his game in 1987. Ignore the package and just listen to the music.

No End In Sight: The Very Best Of Foreigner

March 31, 2009

The name Foreigner has become synonymous with the musical landscape. They have been producing slick rock creations for over three decades. Songs such as “Feels Like The Very First Time,” “Double Vision,” “Hot Blooded,” “Urgent,” “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” “Juke Box Hero” and “Cold As Ice” are instantly recognizable and have entered the American musical consciousness. The only question is does the world need another Foreigner greatest hits album?No End In Sight: The Very Best Of Foreigner breaks no new ground but covers the old very well. This two disc, 32 song package contains virtually all the Foreigner hits and most of their other well known tracks from their extensive catalogue. If you do not own one of their previous hits packages this CD is a must. For Foreigner fans who do, there is a decision to be made.

The sound is superb. The songs have been digitally re-mastered. The Rhino label, which issued this CD, constantly produces superior packages and this is no exception. Mick Jones is taking Foreigner out on the road again, unfortunately without Lou Gramm, and the obvious intent of this release is to create or re-create interest. Also kudos to Foreigner and producer Cheryl Pawelski for putting the songs in chronological order and allowing the listener to follow the history of the band one step at a time. Disc One contains the meat of the Foreigner catalogue. In addition to the songs mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, songs such as “Long, Long Way From Home,” “Dirty White Boy,” “Break It Up” and “Blue Morning, Blue Day” are included. I admire the inclusion of “Starrider” as I have always considered it to be an under appreciated song. My only complaints would be the inclusions of “Headknocker” and “Women” All multi-disc sets have one disc that is played more than the other(s) and this will be the one. It is a good disc to put in the old car player as you drive down the road.

Disc two delves a little deeper into the Foreigner catalogue for its compliment of sixteen songs. “I Want To Know What Love Is” and “Say You Will” are classic songs and well known. Some of the other tracks are taken from some of Foreigner’s later album releases and move a little away from their successful sound. I like the inclusion of the live versions of “Starrider” and the medley of “Juke Box Hero/Whole Lotta Love.” Both are well done and unique. The only new studio song on the album is “Too Late” and it is average at best. No doubt it was included to present new lead singer Kelly Hansen to the world. No End In Sight: The Very Best Of Foreigner is a superb collection and it is nice to revisit these old songs once again. It would make a fine and listenable addition to any music collection. Again, since most of the material has been available previously this set may only be for new or die hard Foreigner fans.

Dukey Treats by George Duke

March 31, 2009

George Duke earned his chops playing with such artists as Cannonball Adderly, Billy Cobham, George Clinton, Jean-Luc Ponty, Miles Davis, and even Frank Zappa. Duke has moved from jazz to funk and back again several times since the early 1980s. The just released Dukey Treats find him primarily in funk mode. He wrote all the tunes contained on the album, employs such vocalists as Rachelle Ferrell, Teena Marie, Jonathan Butler, and Howard Hewett. Sheila E. makes a number of appearances on percussion. Duke is now about 30 albums and 40 years into his career. He has started his own label, so can basically make the music he desires. Thus Dukey Treats may have a modern sound but he brings his keyboards to some old time funk.

While Duke can be playful at times, there are several serious and socially conscious songs. “Everyday Hero” is a song of appreciation for policemen, firefighters, teachers and the like who are always there but often go unnoticed. Duke calls this song, “Like Sly Stone on steroids.” This is funk at its best as the song simply takes off, driven by his keyboards and Sheila E. showing off on percussion.

“Sudan (It’s A Crying Shame)” contain some of George Duke’s best lyrics in years. The song focus’ upon the human problems in Darfur. Jonathan Butler and Teena Marie legitimize the song with sincere vocals. “Are You Ready” follows “Sudan” and is a nice counterpoint. He mentions that the song honors the positive message and music of Earth, Wind & Fire. He takes a turn as lead vocalist and sings about the need for change. Duke keeps the light and even comedic spirit of funk alive on some other tracks. Somewhere George Clinton is smiling. “A Fonk Tail,” which is spelled correctly, is a science fiction comic book type tale set to a funky groove. “Creepin’” is a re-working of a song that first appeared on Duke’s 2002 album, Face The Music. It is a song about cheating that is fair to both sexes. The title song, “Dukey Treats,” is a loose fitting, meandering funky groove complete with blazing horns.

“I Tried To Tell You,” “Listen Baby,” and “Right On Time” are ballad type songs that are interspersed throughout the album. They are nice counterpoints to the up-tempo funk numbers and allow the listener to catch his or her breath. The album closes with the seven plus minute instrumental “Images Of Us.” Here Duke returns to his jazz roots as he turns his keyboard virtuosity loose on a creative journey of sound. Dukey Treats is a solid outing by George Duke and proves that funk is still alive and well and worth listening too.

Jubilation by The Band

March 30, 2009

Jubilation, released in 1998, was The Bands’ final studio album. The album was recorded at their old stomping grounds of Woodstock, New York. It was an album that was pieced together as all the members of the group would only appear on one track together. Despite this, Jubilation would be an excellent album and a fitting conclusion to their recording career.

The members would write eight of the eleven songs contained on the album, with most tracks being compilations. Yet, they would be personal and show a depth that had not been present since their early album releases.

“Book Faded Brown,” which leads off the album reaches the ears like an old acquaintance. It is a nostalgic song about family and friends and includes a sensitive vocal by Rick Danko. Garth Hudson underpins the sound with some of his excellent accordion playing. “High Cotton” is a wonderful return to their Music From Big Pink Americana days. “If I Should Fail” features another fine Rick Danko vocal. This story song is about persevering against the odds.

“Last Train To Memphis,” with Eric Clapton on guitar, presents Levon Helm at his grittiest and bravest. He was undergoing treatment for throat cancer but managed to get through the performances on this album. “White Cadillac” pays tribute to their old mentor, Ronnie Hawkins. “Kentucky Downpour” finds them abandoning their serious side and just having some fun. “French Girls” closes out the album. This sensitive instrumental by Garth Hudson would become the final Band song.

Rick Danko would die in his sleep on December 10, 1999. His death would end The Band’s career. Jubilation would close the circle on the groups thirty year existance. It would be a fitting title to describe the career of one of rock ‘n’ rolls greatest bands.

High On The Hog by The Band

March 30, 2009

High On The Hog was the second LP released by the post Robbie Robertson incarnation of The Band. While there are some pleasant moments, it would prove to be the weakest of their three late career albums.

The Band members would only write two original songs for this release and so would again cover other artist’s material to create the bulk of this album. Unfortunately, their choice of material would not be as wise as on their previous release, Jericho.

Robbie Robertson’s solo work would range from average to very good but would not be as critically acclaimed or commercially successful as his early work with them. Likewise Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko would emerge as an excellent cover band but would suffer from the lack of Robertson’s writing expertise. I have come to believe that Robertson was a better songwriter in a group setting, but he and The Band would never re-unite and rock music would be all the poorer for it.

There were some very nice highlights to High On The Hog. “Back To Memphis” is a nice bluesy song and features a virtual wall of sound by Garth Hudson. The J.J. Cale song, “Crazy Mama,” was another song taken in a blues direction but has a nice rocking sound to it as well. Cale’s writing style was a good match for The Band at this point in their career. “I Must Love You Too Much,” written by Bob Dylan, is ramped up into a full rock ‘n’ roll version. Rick Danko provides a gorgeous vocal on “Where I Should Always Be.”

There were also some not so good moments contained on this release. There is an abysmal version of “Forever Young” which was a tribute to Jerry Garcia. It is just off kilter and ultimately one of the more depressing renditions of this often recorded song. “She Knows,” with a vocal by the deceased Richard Manuel, is not really a Band song. It was Hudson, Danko, and Manuel in a more informal setting and it would have better served Manuel’s memory to have left it off the album. The old Bruce Channel song, “Stand Up,” was an odd choice and the two Band originals, “The High Price of Love” and “Ramble Jungle” are average.

High On The Hog may be the weakest album in their catalogue. It would not end their career but certainly did not enhance it either. They would remain an excellent concert band selling out mid-level venues across the country.

Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival by The Moody Blues

March 28, 2009

The Moody Blues formed in 1964 as a gritty blues/rock band. They found quick success with the hit single, “Go Now.” By 1967, lead vocalist Denny Laine and bassist Carl Warwick had left the group and were replaced by Justin Hayward and John Lodge. The rest, as they say, is history.

The new Moody Blues released the album, Days Of Future Passed, in November of 1967. It was a breakthrough release both critically and commercially. The Moody Blues may not have invented classical rock, but they were close and would become its leading practitioners for the nest forty years. Days Of Future Past fused the classical instruments of The London Festival Orchestra with a rock ‘n’ roll sound. This concept album, tracing the life of a day from dawn to dusk, produced the eternal songs, “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights In White Satin.” 1970 found The Hayward and Lodge Moody Blues five albums into their career and huge worldwide stars. All this brought the group to the Isle Of Wight Festival and performing in front of 600,000 people. Their fourteen song performance has finally been released in 2008 as Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival.

The Moody Blues in concert were a far different animal than the Moody Blues in the studio. In the studio they would overdub their instruments and vocals plus add strings and a variety of other sounds. In concert they were more of a straight rock band, although they would try to replicate their studio sound as much as possible. The Isle Of Wight Festival was also outside, and the sound captured with the recording equipment of 1970 is a little washed out.

In retrospect, this is an interesting set for fans of the Moody Blues. They were touring in support of their latest release, A Question Of Balance, plus their catalogue of songs and hits was not extensive in 1970. This meant that a number of songs that have long disappeared from the Moody Blues concert act are included here. Songs such as “Gypsy,” “Are You Sitting Comfortably,” “Never Comes The Day” and particularly Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” are all interesting to hear live and all are performed well.

“Tuesday Afternoon” is very representative of the Moody Blues performing their better known songs. The vocal is accurate and a little gritty but is somewhat lost in the mix as the drums and bass are turned up to compensate for the loss of their fuller studio sound. “Question” is slowed down a bit, which was a wise decision. “Nights In White Satin” is stripped down a little but is satisfying. “Ride My See Saw” emerges as more of a straight rock song.

Live At The Isle Of Wight is probably an accurate picture of the Moody Blues in concert early in their career. I saw the Moody Blues in concert about a decade later when keyboard wizard Patrick Moraz was with the band, and the sound was a lot fuller because of his technical virtuosity.

All in all, Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival should appeal to any fan of the Moody Blues and aficionados of this era of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Jefferson’s Tree Of Liberty by The Jefferson Starship

March 28, 2009

Life is good as founding member Paul Kantner remains in control of The Jefferson Starship. Long time cohort David Freiberg is still around as is guitarist Mark Aguilar. Cathy Richardson is now the lead female vocalist. She starred in the off Broadway production about Janis Joplin’s life. Richardson’s voice is powerful and pure but is closer to a Grace Slick sound than Joplin’s, which should come as no surprise. Even Marty Balin joins the Starship for a couple of tunes.

Jefferson’s Tree Of Liberty finds the Starship traveling in a new and unique musical direction. Succinctly put, this is a folk album. Songs such as “Pastures Of Plenty” by Woody Guthrie, “Chimes Of Freedom” by Bob Dylan, and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by Phil Ochs are all presented in classic vocal form. Kantner and The Jefferson Starship can’t quite escape their rock ‘n’ roll roots as the instrumental background veers from the classic folk formula. Think the Weavers in rock mode.

The first track sets the tone for most of the album. The old Weavers tune, “Wasn’t That A Time,” features the voices of Kantner, Freiberg, and Richardson. Richardson provides a wonderful balance on most of the harmonies contained on the album. This old historical folk song is enhanced by the violin of San Francisco music scene veteran David LaFlamme.

Jefferson’s Tree Of Liberty is a virtual journey through folk history. The traditional “Follow The Drinking Gourd” is a metaphorical song of the underground railroad and features more harmonies by Kantner, Freiberg, and Richardson. The Phil Ochs protest song, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” is just Cathy Richardson’s voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar.

It is interesting to hear a female sing this traditional male song. “Chimes Of Freedom” is the first Dylan song that the Jefferson Starship or The Jefferson Airplane ever recorded. “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” is the Weavers poignant love song. “Royal Canal” is the old Ian & Tyson tune about prison. Kantner strips the song to its basics and duets with Diana Mangano. “Come with the dust and gone with the wind’ is a line from Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures Of Plenty” which is presented in a version loyal to the original.

There are some other pleasant surprises contained on Jefferson’s Tree Of Liberty. David Freiberg shines on the old Dino Valenti/Quicksilver song, “Cowboy On The Run.” This gentle song of protest is resurrected with a modern sound. It’s nice to have Marty Balin back. He brings his clear voice to the pure pop song, “Maybe For You.” Richard Farina wrote “The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood” shortly before his death. Here Darby Gould sings the song a capella.

Jefferson’s Tree Of Liberty is not only an excellent album, it was also unexpected. Maybe that is the best part of Paul Kantner and The Jefferson Starship’s latest release. The twists and the turns take the listener on a wonderful journey through a history of American folk music. It is a journey well worth taking.

The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery

March 28, 2009

Wes Montgomery (1925-1968) was one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century. He took the swing sound of Charlie Christian and the gypsy jazz styling of Django Reinhardt and combined them into a unique American jazz sound. His early work would influence the two generations of jazz guitarists that would follow him.

Wes Montgomery went through a number of incarnations during his career. He is best remembered today for his hugely popular jazz/pop albums recorded for the A&M label in the mid to late 1960’s. This group of late career releases found Montgomery adjusting his sound for the masses and adding a more orchestral background. The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery, from early in his career, finds him exploring the classic jazz idiom within a small group setting. He is joined by Tommy Flanagan (piano), Percy Heath (bass) and Albert Heath (drums).

This was the album that set him apart from other guitarists. He had a unique approach to phasing and legend has it that his thumbs were double jointed and could actually bend back and touch his wrist. This enabled Montgomery to develop a technical virtuosity that allowed the notes to be distinct. He was also able to maintain a fairly melodic sound, which was different from many of the other jazz practitioners of his day. This CD release of The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery was re-mastered from the original tapes. The original cover art and liner notes are intact. Also included is a substantive biography of Montgomery’s career. It all combines into a 60’s looking package with a modern sound.

“Four On Six” and “Polka Dots To Moonbeams” were breakthrough songs as they would popularize the use of octaves on the guitar. His flow from chords to octaves was unique as was his blending of instruments. “D-Natural Blues” would show Montgomery’s ability to match his sound to the piano and trade leads. His rendition of “Gone With The Wind” is guitar playing at its best. It is always interesting to compare his version to Dave Brubeck’s classic piano interpretation.

The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery was a seminal album in the creation of the guitar sound. He was able to modernize jazz through the use of his guitar. Jazz guitarists who have followed him have polished and added nuances to the sound but none have had the same lasting creative impact.

Jericho by The Band

March 28, 2009

The Last Waltz, released in 1978, was supposed to be a chronicle of The Bands final concert. Robbie Robertson wanted then to be only a studio group. This did not work out and by 1979 the group had dissolved. Robbie Robertson went on to other projects and would never play or associate with his former bandmates again.

Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel would resurrect The Band in 1983. Interestingly, they would be a touring only group for a decade. Richard Manuel would commit suicide in 1986 but Helm, Hudson, and Danko would persevere. Jim Weider would replace Robertson on lead guitar plus Randy Ciarlante on drums and Richard Bell on keyboards would be brought aboard after Manuel’s death.

They would finally release another studio album in 1993. Without a principle songwriter, they would record a number of cover songs for their first new release in 15 years. Jericho may not have been of the caliber of their early releases, but it was in many ways a very satisfying album.The Band chose their material well. Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” is a superlative rendition. The Band proved that their 1993 incarnation could rock. Springsteen considered this track a definitive version of his song. Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” was the first Dylan song they had recorded since 1971. Hudson’s harmonica contributions propel this song in a very melodic direction. The Band veered from their usual sound with two straight blues tunes. “Stuff You Gotta Watch” by Muddy Waters and “The Same Thing” by Willie Dixon, with a fine vocal by Levon Helm, are nice counterpoints to the rest of the album.

Danko, Helm, and Weider did step forward and write several songs. “The Caves Of Jericho” is a song about a mining accident and the non caring attitude of the corporate world. Levon Helm provides a sincere lead vocal that makes this socially conscious song work. “Move To Japan” returns The Band to their rockabilly roots when they recorded as The Hawks.Two songs that revolve around Richard Manuel form the emotional center of Jericho. “Too Soon Gone” is a moving tribute to Manuel’s memory. “Country Boy” was the last song that would feature a Richard Manuel lead vocal. He recorded this song just before his death and it is a sad farewell to one of the unique voices in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Jericho would be a fine comeback album for The Band and give them new life. Look for a vinyl copy so you can truly appreciate the Peter Max cover.

The Last Waltz by The Band

March 28, 2009

The Last Waltz was originally released as an epic three record set in 1978. Five of the six sides were taken from what would be The Band’s farewell concert recorded at Bill Grahams Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving night of 1976. The final side was studio tracks.Robbie Robertson was tired of touring and convinced the other members of to become a studio only group, similar to the late career Beatles. They gathered together a cornucopia of their friends to assist them in their final concert. Martin Scorsese filmed it for release as a theatrical documentary film.

Robertson’s plan did not work out as planned for The Band. The album Islands was released in 1977. It was a hastily thrown together affair and fulfilled their obligation to the Capital Label. The Last Waltz was then released a year later. Robertson would never record or play with them again. Robertson may have planned The Band’s demise but the other members were not as enthused as several years later they would reform without Robertson and continue the group’s career.The Last Waltz, the album and the film, are two of the best chronicles of a rock concert ever recorded. While they vary in content, both are recommended as essential viewing and listening. The only downside to the album is that they are so good, it was tragic that they disbanded at the height of their powers.

Old mentor Ronnie Hawkins makes an appearance on “Who Do You Love.” The Band falls into their role as a back-up group and they roar through a primitive rendition of this old classic. Neil Young is on board with a performance of “Helpless.” I have always been a tad disappointed with Young’s performance as it lacks much of the fire of his solo concerts. I have come to the conclusion that he is better dominating a stage than sharing it. Neil Diamond was an odd choice and he provides an average and out of place “Dry Your Eyes.” Paul Butterfield gives scintillating backing on “Mystery Train.” Van Morrison is a good match for The Band and he shines on “Tura Lura Lural” and “Caravan.” Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Bobby Charles and Eric Clapton all keep the revolving door of guest appearances spinning. The highlight of the concert at the time was a set by Bob Dylan. The Band and Dylan quickly fall into a groove that can only be accomplished after years of playing together. The Band would always bring out the best in Dylan and this was no exception. “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” “I Don’t Believe You,” “Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released” have never sounded better.

The album version of The Last Waltz just does not contain enough of The Band themselves. The movie restores a number of the missing performances that were recorded at the concert. What is included finds them in top form. “Up On Cripple Creek” is the definitive version of this song. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” takes on new life and makes one forget about the Joan Baez hit version. “The Shape I’m In” and “Ophelia” show the rocking and soft sides of the group. The Last Waltz is a wonderful document of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame band and of the rock genre in general. The Band would continue but never reach these heights again.