In Person At Carnegie Hall by The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem

May 31, 2009

My decision to review this album was based on the historic nature of the era rather than the music. Let me say, though, that I was pleasantly surprised by In Person At Carnegie Hall by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. It was not only a nice picture of the times, but it was extremely entertaining and held my attention for about two hours. Not many albums can make such a statement.

A vinyl version of this album has been in my collection for decades. I must have picked it up at a garage or tag sale and probably played it once before filing it away. This 2009 two-disc CD release is nothing like the original issue, however. The two sets that made up their St. Patrick’s Day concert of 1963 are presented in their entirety. That’s two hours of music versus less than forty minutes on the original. The dialogue between songs is also presented intact, which gives the proceeding a more authentic and intimate feel.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were stars in their native Ireland. They were a traditional folk group specializing in Irish songs of love, work, drink, and rebellion. Their songs of rebellion had a little bite behind them despite the upbeat nature of their presentation. They were also very Catholic and their jokes and conversation about this fact sound interesting in the context the future political troubles of their country. They also make fun of President John Kennedy about nine months before his assassination, which underscores the simplicity of the time.

The first set’s highlights include the purity of their vocal harmonies on the traditional “Haulin’ The Bowline,” the musical comedy of “Mr. Moses Re – Tooral – I Ay,” and the humorous but pithy political statement of “Johnson’s Motor Car.” As well, the dialogue between many of these tracks is some of the best ever recorded live.

The second set is led off by the brilliant “Children’s Medley,” a mini musical for friends gathered around the fireplace. And songs such as “Jolly Prince Charlie,” “The Whistling Gypsy,” “The Jolly Tinker,” and “The Parting Glass” still hit the spot over four decades later.

In Person At Carnegie Hall finally gives The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem their due as this classic concert is restored to its entirety. The booklet with liner notes includes an excellent history of the group and of this performance. A special note by Liam Clancy, who is the only surviving member of the group, is poignant.

While the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem would never gain immense popularity in the United States, they would sell out concert halls and be a highly influential folk group to many of the emerging artists in the 1960’s, including Bob Dylan, who once stated that Liam Clancy was the best ballad singer in folk music. The original release ultimately reached Number Sixty on the Billboard charts and they went on to accept an invitation to play at the White House before President Kennedy.

I would recommend In Person At Carnegie Hall as a definite buy. Not only is it a glimpse into a musical era long gone, but it offers an entertaining way to wile away a couple of hours.

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane by Elvis Costello

May 31, 2009

A lot of water has flowed under the musical bridge for Elvis Costello in the last thirty plus years. He has transitioned from angry young punk/new wave rocker to soul to country. His extensive soundtrack work since the early nineties has also attracted a new generation of fans. His interpretation of the old Charles Aznavour song, “She,” from the movie Notting Hill as well as his Academy Award nominated “Scarlet Tide” from the film Cold Mountain showed his softer side

His latest release, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, finds him in excellent form. It is also a thinking person’s album. As his talent as a lyricist has evolved, there is now a denseness to his lyrics that leave the stories he tells open to interpretation. As such, they bear repeated listening as the meanings are sometimes elusive and open to change.

If you hope to find a rock ‘n’ roll Costello here you will be disappointed. A lot of the music falls squarely into the country category. Many of the tracks feature a dobro, mandolin, and fiddle to support Costello’s acoustic guitar playing. The constant absence of drums pushes the sound in a bluegrass direction on many of the tracks.

There are two wonderful ballads contained on this album. “I Felt The Chill” is a country ballad at its best. A mournful fiddle supports the sad story of love’s failings. “I Dreamed Of My Old Lover” deals with the eternal topic of love’s secrets.

On the other side of the coin, “She Handed Me A Mirror” is just some old-time, foot-stomping music yet the lyrics are complex and create two listening experiences at the same time. “Sulphur To Sugarcane” is an interesting fusion of country and blues.

The songs that I have returned to a number of times are “How Deep Is The Red?” and “Red Cotton.” Both songs have some bite to them. I’m not sure if the first is an anti-war song or an anti-love song, but it certainly is fascinating. The second is a song of judgment and ultimately damnation that is hidden in a story of the slave trade.

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is not background music because it requires and in many ways demands your full attention. It presents Elvis Costello at his best and that is very good indeed.

Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs by Otis Taylor

May 31, 2009

A lot of people play the blues but Otis Taylor lives the blues. Just past sixty, he is carrying on the legacy and artistry of traditional American blues. He has a laid back vocal style which belies his gritty, realistic, and sometime brutal songs of life.

Taylor has had two careers. He began as a bluegrass banjo picker before switching to the guitar and the blues in the late sixties. He played in a number of bands and as a solo artist until 1978 when he left the music scene and became among other things, an antique dealer. He re-emerged as a blues artist of note in 1995 and his output has been prolific as he has now released his tenth studio album in fourteen years.

Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs contains soothing music and mostly painful lyrics. It is an odd but effective combination and ads up to some of the best blues music being produced today.

Taylor has a wonderful way of creating textures that give his material depth. “Looking For Some Heat” is one of his love songs that does not end well. His vocal is understated and acoustic guitar playing stellar. He then weaves a piano and cornet throughout the song which makes the sound unique.

Several years ago he formed a musical relationship with guitarist Gary Moore who appears on three of the thirteen tracks. “Sunday Mornin’” features a lead vocal by bass player Cassie Taylor. Otis lays down the rhythm while Moore provides a counterpoint with his electric, acoustic guitar. He plays with restraint and provides about as perfect a performance as you will ever hear. “Lost My Guitar” is a lament about the death of a child in a car accident. Gary Moore pulls out his electric guitar and twists the strings to create a sound that compliments the lyrics. “If You Hope” is a fusion of styles as Moore and Taylor blend together and integrate jazz, rock, and blues structures.

Otis Taylor returns to his roots with “I’m Not Mysterious.” The song is about the friendship of two eight years olds of different races and the tensions that it creates. There is some strong guitar playing by Taylor as he demonstrates just how good he can be when he wants too. It makes me wish he would step forward and show off a bit more.

Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs is an excellent blues album. Its music is both subtle and challenging. Otis Taylor has produced what is essentially an album of very different love songs and I recommend it as a definite buy.

On The Threshold Of A Dream by The Moody Blues

May 31, 2009

On The Threshold Of A Dream is an album where the sum is better than the parts. There were no breakout songs or hit singles such as “Nights In White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon” from Days Of Future Passed, or “Ride My See Saw” from In Search Of The Lost Chord. Instead the music all hangs together and the songs need to be experienced as a whole rather than individually. Released in April of 1969, it would be the Moody Blues largest selling album to date and would reach number one in England.

It was another concept album from The Moody Blues. After exploring the themes of a day in the life of a person, and the journey of spiritual enlightenment, they now turned to dreams. While still maintaining their classical-rock fusion roots, they would move a little closer to what can be considered to be progressive rock. The lyrics were a little more obscure and open to interpretation than in the past, but the lush instrumentals maintained their other worldly quality. Of all their releases this one may have painted the best visual pictures.

Graeme Edge leads off the album in typical Moody Blues fashion. “In The Beginning” introduces the theme as he employs spoken lyrics again. It immediately establishes the mood of what will follow.

John Lodge continued his tradition of providing upbeat material. His “Send Me No Wine” and “To Share Our Love” can both be considered love songs hidden in rock structures, and Mike Pinder provides the lead vocal for the second tune which was rare for a Lodge composition. His songs would usually stand out as they tended to rock more than the material by the other members of the group.

Justin Hayward contributed two songs. “Lovely To See You” and “Never Comes The Day” are both melodic and feature his comfortable vocals. They tend to lull the listener and draw him or her into the sound.

Mike Pinder would create the most complex and interesting music. His two part “Have You Heard” and “The Voyage” form three quarters of a suite that close the album. “The Voyage” features his mellotron as the focal point, while a cello and flute dart in and out. “So Deep Within You” is a song of longing for love and features one of Ray Thomas’ stellar flute solos.

The track that may capture the ambiance of the album best is “Are You Sitting Comfortably?” which was written by Ray Thomas and Justin Hayward. It uses the imagery of King Arthur and Camelot. Thomas’ flute creates a dreamy sound as it floats above Hayward’s guitar work.

On The Threshold Of A Dream is another Moody Blues album that stands the test of time well. The music has majesty and creates a sense of wonder and not many albums can make that claim. It should be a part of everyone’s collection.

In Search Of The Lost Chord by The Moody Blues

May 31, 2009

The Moody Blues became stars because of their creative fusion of a classical and rock sound on their 1967 release, Days Of Future Past. They solidified that star status in 1968 with the release of In Search Of The Lost Chord. It was, for the most part, another concept album as it traced a spiritual journey which included a search for the lost chord.

In Search Of The Lost Chord may not have had the lushness or sonic quality of its predecessor, but it more than made up for it in creativeness. Gone was the orchestral backing and in its place the five members of the group would play over thirty different instruments. A sitar and tablas played by Justin Hayward, a cello by John Lodge, timpani by Graeme Edge, saxophone and different types of flutes by Ray Thomas, and harpsichord plus an autoharp by Mike Pinder all contributed to the unique sound of the album. The central component continued to be Pinder’s mellotron, which could mimic dozens of instrumental sounds. The Moody Blues were proving that their music went beyond just listening enjoyment as it also created an experience to be shared.

I have always felt that Graeme Edge’s 48-second song, “Departure,” was the perfect introduction to the album. The spoken lyrics announce the beginning of a spiritual and musical journey. John Lodge’s classic rocker, “Ride My See Saw,” follows and is one of the better straight rock ‘n’ roll songs in the group’s illustrious history. John Lodge would also contribute “House Of Four Doors.” This two-part composition would contain a complex interplay of instruments all centered around the mellotron. The sophisticated textures and layers would trace musical styles through history.

The sound created by The Moody Blues would often be associated with a drug trip. In fact, the six-minute, forty-second track, “Legend Of The Mind,” written and sung by Ray Thomas, was a tribute to Timothy Leary. Its relatively lengthy two-minute flute solo helped to establish this experience. The song has long been a concert staple for the group. The Hayward-Thomas creation, “Visions Of Paradise” would continue in the drug-trip vein.

Justin Hayward contributed two beautiful compositions. The music of “Voices In The Sky” just soars behind his lead vocal. “The Actor” is a haunting ballad built around his delicate acoustic guitar playing.

“Om” by Mike Pinder brings the album to its final destination. It has mid-eastern roots and places the cello and mellotron at the center of its sound. It is a meditative piece that brings the album to a fulfilling end.

In Search Of The Lost Chord is both thoughtful and fascinating and remains a timeless celebration of rock music at its creative best.

Days Of Future Passed by The Moody Blues

May 31, 2009

“Go Now” was a big hit in England and The United States but the Moody Blues were unable to follow up on that success. Original members Denny Laine and Carl Warwick both decided to leave the group. Instead of disbanding, Mike Pinder, Ray Thomas, and Graeme Edge began looking for replacements. Enter Justin Hayward and John Lodge who would begin a four decade plus association with the group and would help take The Moody Blues in a creative direction, unimagined at the time of their recruitment.

Days Of Future Passed was released November 10, 1967 and sounded like nothing produced at the time. Left behind were their blues roots and in their place was a unique fusion of rock and classical elements, which would become the sound associated with the group for the next forty years and would establish them as one of the most popular rock groups in the world.

The concept of the album was simple as it chronicled the day in the life of a person. Peter Knight and The London Festival Orchestra are credited with most of the symphonic parts but just how much they contributed and in what form they actually existed has remained somewhat of a mystery over the years. Many of the orchestral parts were played by Mike Pinder on the mellotron upon which he was able to create the sounds of many different instruments.

The album contains two of the more memorable songs to emerge from the late sixties. “The Afternoon: Forever Afternoon (Tuesday)” which is more commonly called “Tuesday Afternoon” and “The Night: Nights In White Satin” were both successful singles in a shortened form. In their original versions they were over eight and seven minutes a piece and were orchestrated suites in nature and structure. Both were written and sung by Justin Hayward.

“Tuesday Afternoon” featured the mellotron creating a lush background. Ray Thomas’ flute work was some of the best of his career. “Nights In White Satin” is a haunting, cosmic track of lost love that still receives considerable airplay and remains the group’s best known song.

John Lodge would make his writing and singing debut with his “Lunch Break: Peak Hour.” It was the hardest rocking track contained on the original release and is representative of his many contributions that were to come.

There were several other highlights. “Evening: The Sunset/Twilight Time,” written by Pinder and Thomas respectively, is an introspective and atmospheric song about the sun setting. “The Morning: Another Morning” was a bouncy tune written by Thomas and features one of the better lead vocals of his career.

Days Of Future Passed seems to get better with age. It has a beauty and elegance that few albums have been able to match. It remains a memorable and timeless landmark in rock history.

Go Now: The Moody Blues #1 by The Moody Blues

May 30, 2009

One of my favorite songs of the British Invasion era was “Go Now” by The Moody Blues. After buying the single, I remember looking for quite awhile before finding a copy of their first album. The album was originally released in England under the title, The Magnificent Moodies but was restructured for release in The United States under the name Go Now – The Moody Blues #1.

The Moody Blues began as a typical rhythm & blues band playing mostly cover songs. All the group members had had experience in various bands. Ray Thomas and Mike Pinder were members of El Riot & The Rebels who opened for The Beatles on a number of occasions. Denny Laine was the lead guitarist and vocalist for The Diplomats. Graeme Edge was drumming for The Avengers. Bassist Carl Warwick was playing with The Rainbows. By 1964 they had all joined together to form The Moody Blues.

Laine and piano player Pinder were writing songs together and four of their original compositions would appear on their first album but it was their cover of the obscure R & B song “Go Now” that would propel them to their initial success. The song would hit number one in England and reach the top ten in The United States. It was an exceptional vocal performance by Laine who would continue to perform the song live as a member of Paul McCartney’s Wings later in his career. A Laine-Pinder original, “From The Bottom Of My Heart,” was almost as good. It had a nice blues feel but ultimately failed as a follow-up single.

The best of the rest would be a fine Thomas lead vocal on the Gershwin song. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and some creative piano playing by Pinder on “It’s Easy Child.” The rest of the release was typical fare of the times as they filled out the album with cover songs and a few originals similar to the early releases by The Rolling Stones. There was nothing offensive but neither does it rise much above the ordinary.

Go Now – The Moody Blues #1was a promising debut by the group. It showed an ability to fuse rock and blues and hinted at a successful career. Their career would be far more successful than they could have imagined but not in the way they might have guessed at the time.

Symphony: Live In Vienna (DVD) by Sarah Brightman

May 30, 2009

I may be an old rock ‘n’ roller, but let me say that very few people on this earth can sing as well as Sarah Brightman. Her high soprano voice has a purity to it that is mesmerizing. When you combine that voice with her ability to entertain, you have one of the more unique and brilliant performers working today.

She has been one of the few classical artists to have crossover appeal. Performing pop songs and starring in plays broadened her fan base and made her a major musical figure in many parts of the world. She has now collected over 150 gold and platinum sales awards in 34 different countries.

2009 finds her releasing Symphony: Live In Vienna. It is a DVD/CD presentation of her 2008 PBS special that was recorded in January of that year and initially broadcast in March. Recorded at Stephansdom Cathedral, which was built in 1147, it is a perfect setting for a performance by Brightman.

She is accompanied by a rock band and a full orchestra, which provide an energetic and lush background for her passionate vocals. She also sings a number of duets with such artists as Italian tenor Alessandro Safina, Argentinean Fernando Lima, and Chris Thompson of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.

While I’m happy that the music has been released in both CD and DVD form in the same package, Sarah Brightman is one of the few artists I prefer to watch rather than just listen to. The performance is such an important part of her art that she makes a much deeper and emotional impact visually.

“Pie Jesu” leads off the concert and establishes the mood and tone for what will follow. Surrounded by the light of hundreds of candles and the grandeur of the cathedral’s gothic architecture, she simply sings against the background of the orchestra dominated by the strings.

“Fleurs Du Mal” is one of those over the top productions that works. Rock guitars and drums meld with a full orchestra and a choir joins in on the chorus. Her voice floats about it all on in a memorable performance.

“Sarai Qui,” with Safina, is the best of the duets. They both have the experience not to overpower each other. They relate easily and her experience on the stage serves her well.

“Running” is a tremendously unique type of performance. Think of a classic soprano fronting a rock band. While the orchestra ultimately pushes it in a gentler direction, it remains a creative fusion of classical and rock music.

Symphony: Live In Vienna is a visual and audio delight. Pour yourself a glass of wine, sit back, and prepare yourself to be transported to a different world.

The Complete Reprise Sessions by Gram Parsons

May 30, 2009

Several weeks ago I completed a thirteen part retrospective of the major album releases in The Byrds catalogue. While Gram Parsons was with the group for only a short period of time, his contributions would help pave the way in the development of the fusion of rock and country music. At the time I made a mental note to visit some of his solo material in the near future and so here we are.

Gram Parsons left behind quite a legacy, having died at the young age of 26. He was a member of The International Submarine Band, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and performed as a solo artist. He traveled and partied with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and was a drug addict, which would ultimately cost him his life. Through it all he created wonderful music that fit his gentle vocals.

The Complete Reprise Sessions gathers together the two studio albums that Parsons recorded for the Reprise label, each of which comes with a number of bonus tracks. A third disc is included which provides 18 rare and alternate versions of many of his songs. GP and Grievous Angel are a wonderful look into the mid and music of Gram Parsons shortly before his death in 1976.

Country star Emmylou Harris was a part of Parsons musical entourage at the time and she was the creative force behind this release plus also serves as its co-producer. The two albums come in separate packages with the original art work intact. The accompanying booklet contains many rare pictures plus a nice biography of Parsons and the music contained within. It is the clarity of the music that really stands out however. The tracks have been re-mastered so that every nuance of the music and vocals come together as they were originally intended.
GP comes very close to being a classic modern day country album. “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” features a classic duet between Harris and Parsons. Their voices on “A Song For You” run counterpoint to each other. While they were close in age, the hard living was catching up with him. Her voice is fresh and new while his is forlorn and straining which ends up creating a memorable listening experience. “Big Mouth Blues” is an up-tempo tribute to his southern roots.

Grievous Angel was the most consistent work released by him and serves as his musical epitaph. He seems to have been in a better place emotionally and physically as his vocals are purer than on GP and the songs are universally strong, well chosen, and fit together well. The most memorable track is “In My Hour Of Darkness” which serves as a eulogy for three dead friends and as the last track on the original release would be like a coffin lid closing on his own career and life.

The third disc of alternate versions is interesting but pales next to the original albums. The best of the tracks are the three songs by Boudleaux Bryant and his wife Felice. “Sleepless Nights,” “Brand New Heartache,” and especially “Love Hurts” all stand on their own very nicely.

If you want to explore the legacy of Gram Parsons The Complete Reprise Sessions is a good place to start. There is a lot of good music contained in this nice little box set which is also a poignant reminder of the fragility of life.

A Stranger Here by Jack Elliott

May 30, 2009

Folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is rolling into town with a new album titled A Stranger Here. Now 77 years old, he has lived with Woody Guthrie, mentored a young Bob Dylan, and performed with Phil Ochs. His career stretches back to the late 1950s and his legacy as an influential folk artist and interpreter of traditional songs is secure.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a travelin’ man who collects forgotten and unique songs. He has usually stayed within the country and folk traditions, but here he travels in a different direction. He resurrects ten classic blues songs from the depression era in The United States and breathes new life into them.

“Rising High Water Blues” sets the tone of the album. Elliott’s voice may have lost a little power and tone over the years, but he is still more than competent and easily slips into a classic blues style. His acoustic guitar runs counterpoint to an almost honky tonk piano. While it may sound a little bit more modern than Blind Lemon Jefferson’s original, it does quickly establish the fact that he can give a powerful interpretation of the songs that were relevant around the time of his birth.

“Death Don’t Have No Mercy” was a haunting blues creation by Rev. Gary Davis. This song of death visiting the members of a family captures the pain of the depression era well. “Death don’t have no mercy in this land / Come to your house but won’t stay long / Look in your bed and your mother gone.” Elliott may not have the religious background of Davis, but he is still able to maintain its ominous feel.

“Soul Of A Man,” originally sung in a dark and painful manner by Blind Willie Johnson, is stripped down to almost acoustic guitar and drums which gives the tune a unique feel. It is a demonstration that he can still leave his imprint upon a classic song.

“The New Stranger Blues” has been interpreted by many artists over the years, including a wonderful version by Taj Mahal. It serves as almost a retrospective of his career. “I’m a stranger / Just blowed into your town.” He has traveled thousands and thousands of miles and performed in many forgotten towns during the course of his life.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott remains an American storyteller extraordinaire. The songs contained on A Stranger Here average over seventy years old, but given the current state of the American economy, they still resonate today. The album is a welcome addition to his catalogue and legacy. Leave a light in the window because Ramblin’ Jack Elliot is about to blow into town.