I Feel Fine 45 by The Beatles

October 29, 2009

“I Feel Fine” was The Beatles song that completely won me over. I had bought a number of their records but still wasn’t convinced until this release.

“I Feel Fine” has one of the great guitar intros in rock history. George Harrison fuzz or buzzing sound was unique in 1964. The harmonies were smooth as the song rocked along.

It would spend three seeks at number one in December of 1964. It’s flip side “She’s A Woman” would reach number four making it their second biggest double hit. (Come Together/Something)

It may be 35 years old but it still ranks among my top five Beatles songs.

Surfin’ Safari/409 45 by The Beach Boys

October 29, 2009

The Beach Boys first single for the Capital label was “Surfin’ Safari” with “409” on the flip side. They had released “Surfin” on the small X and Candix labels and it had cracked the top one hundred earning them a contact with a major record company.

It’s hard to believe that this single was released 47 years ago. Looking at The Beach Boys they are oh so young. Dennis and Carl are now gone and David Marks was still a member of the group.

“Surfin’ Safari” would be their break out hit reaching number 14 on the national charts and establish them as a surf group. Compared to the songs that would follow it is a simple song featuring Mike Love’s nasal vocals.

“409” would be a minor in its own right but the vocals would be more sophisticated as it was an early example of Brian Wilson’s techique of layering the vocals to create a choir like effect. In many ways this is the beginning of The Beach Boys classic sound.

Both of these songs are now a part of The Beach Boys history. They formed part of the foundation for one of the great American rock ‘n’ roll bands.

The Last Of The Rock Stars by Ronnie Spector

October 27, 2009

Ronnie Spector is a member of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having fronted one the great girl groups of the early sixties. She has recorded with The E Street Band, hung out with John Lennon, and also (probably most importantly) survived a marriage to Phil Spector.

I still have my original copy of Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica in my record collection.

Ronnie Spector, born Veronica Yvette Bennett, began singing with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley in the late 1950s and by 1961 they were performing under the name The Ronettes. They were a part of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and produced such memorable singles as “Be My Baby,” “Baby, I Love You,” “Do I Love You,” and “Walking In The Rain.” The group split in 1966 leaving behind a short but memorable legacy.

Counting her 1999 EP, The Last Of The Rock Stars is her eighth album release in the last 29 years. Her voice may not have the same quality as it did a half century ago but it is still a powerful instrument. And what she has lost in range, she has more than made up for in passion and emotion.

“Never Gonna Be Your Baby” is a powerful song of independence and defiance. It is Ronnie Spector with attitude. “Ode To L.A.” and “All I Want” evoke memories of her work with The Ronettes. Her use of a back-up group serves to enhance the experience.

She shares “There Is An End” with fellow survivor Patti Smith. Their vocal styles match well and it is gritty rock ‘n’ roll at its best. The duet with Keith Richards on “Work Out Fine” may be a stretch in places but it is still very interesting.

The album concludes with two very strong tracks. Frankie Lyman was a musical hero of the young Veronica Bennett and here she pays tribute with “Out In The Cold Again,” which he recorded in 1957. She gives a jazz-laced vocal with a mournful saxophone in support. Another treat is the holiday song “It’s Christmas Once Again.”

Ronnie Spector is still on the road, constantly touring. The Last Of The Rock Stars not only draws upon her legendary past but brings her into the present with a formidable set of material. It is an album that stands on its own as she completes fifty years as a singer of note.

Money and Cigarettes by Eric Clapton

October 27, 2009

Eric Clapton returned in February of 1983 with his second studio release of the eighties. Money and Cigarettes ranks somewhere in the middle of his vast catalogue as it is not as good as many of the releases which preceded it but is better than many that were to come.

To his credit he assembles a small but talented band to support him. Albert Lee is back but this time Ry Cooder also joins him as an additional guitarist. Donald “Duck” Dunn is the bassist and drummer Roger Hawkins rounds out this talented quartet.

I think that Clapton put it on cruise control for this album; it’s just too easy and too laid back. The brilliant guitar licks are still present but they mostly come in very short bursts. All in all, It would prove to be one of the least commercial releases of his career.

The most memorable song is “I’ve Got A Rock ‘N’ Roll Heart” which was a big hit single in the United States. It is a rocking celebration of the music he loves.

There are several other worthwhile tracks. “The Shape I’m In” features some fine guitar interplay between Clapton and Lee. “Ain’t Going Down” is a nice return to his Derek and The Dominoes days. And he revs up the sound on the old Johnny Otis tune “Crazy Country Hop” for a fun filled performance.

The best track, however, may be the ballad “Pretty Girl,” which includes one of the most unique guitar performances of his career.

Many times it is positive when someone refers to an artist producing a mature work but in this case he is a little too mature. I wish he could have cut loose a bit more. It is also mostly a rock album and I would have preferred some more blues.

In the final analysis Money and Cigarettes is pleasurable but not essential.

The Spirit Of Christmas by Ray Charles

October 25, 2009

Ray Charles was such a celebrity during the last decade or so of his life that sometimes it is forgotten just what a huge influence he exerted upon American music. From his first releases in the early 1950’s until his death in 2004 at the age of 73 he established a catalog of music that has rarely been equaled.

I find it almost amazing that he did not issue a Christmas album until 1985. The Spirit Of Christmas was originally issued on vinyl and has been reissued several times in CD form, but none match the clarity of this 2009 remastered version.

The album was a moderate seller upon its release but received a great deal of attention several years later when one of its tracks became well known as a part of the movie Christmas Vacation. As the Chevy Chase character Clark Griswold watches old movies of family Christmas’ it is “That Spirit Of Christmas” which plays in the background. It is one of the finest Christmas performances you can find as Charles’ subdued and relaxed vocal gets the words and spirit of the song just right. Here you receive the full five minute version.

There are a number of well known secular seasonal songs which receive his unique treatment. “Little Drummer Boy” uses a steel guitar and a horn section to support his bluesy lead vocal. “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” has a swinging jazzy feel which is far from what Gene Autry had in mind. He even manages to make the over recorded “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” not only listenable, but actually very good.

He goes in a different direction with some lesser known songs. “Christmas Time” and “Christmas In My Heart” both return him to his rhythm and blues vocal roots.

There is one bonus track. “Baby Its Cold Outside” is a duet with Betty Carter and was recorded by them in the early sixties. It was a traditional pop song written by Frank Loesser which won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1949. It may not be a reverent Christmas song, but it is a great one. Charles and Carter get the humorous vocal interplay just right and it provides a nice finale to the album.

The Spirit Of Christmas is a fine addition to any Christmas collection and always receives some holiday play in my home.

Double Down Live (DVD) by ZZ Top

October 25, 2009

ZZ Top has released a powerful two part concert DVD and it’s an interesting concept as they present two performances 28 years apart.

Singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard formed the band in 1969 when they were all twenty years old. It is one of the few long term groups to have retained all its original members since its inception. They have always remained true to their boogie rock and blues foundation and while there may not be a lot of surprises, what they do is done extremely well. They have established themselves as one of the best hard rock bands in the business during the last four decades.

Disc one was filmed in 1980 for the German television Rockpalast series. It captures the band at the height of their commercial appeal. They play nine of the ten tracks from their Deguello album plus take material from such classics as Tres Hombres and Fandango.

It’s nice to see a young ZZ Top in action. Gibbons and Hill, with beards in place, have their synchronized guitar moves down pat and Frank Beard’s drumming appears effortless. The bass is turned way up and provides a firm foundation for Gibbons guitar work. They are one of those trios that manage to provide a full sound despite the lack of any accompanying musicians.

They present their complete 22 song concert. They begin with almost ten minutes of rock/blues. The old Sam & Dave classic “I Thank You” rolls right into “Waitin’ For The Bus” which becomes “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” The concert concludes with such rock classics as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Tush” and “Tube Snake Boogie.” When they rock, they really rock. They have always had a sense of humor and the center of the performance includes “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Arrested For Driving While Blind,” and “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers.”

Disc two was filmed on their 2008 tour. They decided to chronicle their seventy stop tour using only a single camera which gives the affair a different and in many ways an intimate feel.

2008 finds Gibbons, Hill, and Beard in their late fifties yet they are still cranking out their brand of rock. It’s interesting to hear “Jesus Left Chicago,” “Heard It On The X,” and “Tush” 28 years later. This DVD has a more documentary feel and is a nice companion to the first concert.

Double Down Live: 1980 – 2008 is a worthwhile addition to the ZZ Top catalog. It clearly shows that while the beards may have grayed over the years, the music has remained eternal.

The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (DVD) by Rick Wakeman

October 22, 2009

Thirty six years after its initial release Rick Wakeman has returned with a live DVD version of his classic album The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Wakeman’s dream of performing this work live at Hampton Court Palace was realized on May 1 and 2, 2009 before a sold out audience of about 5000 for each show.

Rick Wakeman has been an on and off member of Yes since 1971 and was a part of such classic releases as Fragile and Close To The Edge. His latest tenure with Yes ran from 2002-2006. He began his career as a member of the group Strawbs and if I have one gripe with this release it would be the exclusion of their acoustic set which preceded his performance. It would have been nice to have seen his pre-Yes group in action.

Let me say that I played my vinyl copy of this album to death when it was originally released and I was not the only one, as it was a huge hit selling close to fifteen million copies worldwide. It was a unique album in its day. It was the first of several concept albums for Wakeman, but more importantly it also expanded upon the electric keyboard sound that Wakeman had helped to popularize as a member of Yes. Nearly four decades later it is easy to forget just how influential he was in the development of various keyboard instruments as a dominant sound in rock music.

He was wise enough to make this presentation a spectacle as well as a performance. The English Rock Ensemble, Orchestra Europa, and The English Chamber Choir are all on board for support which helps fill out and expand the sound and serves to enhance to music. Wakeman also wrote new opening and closing pieces, but the highlight is the inclusion of the song “Defender Of The Faith” which was cut from the original album for space reasons.

In the final analysis, however, it all comes down to the music which remains as good as ever. Wakeman is still a keyboard wizard and he moves smoothly through the movements. Whether you are familiar with the music or experiencing it for the first time it is a treat.

Its nice that a complete performance of this classic work has now been recorded and issued. It is a must for fans of Wakeman, Yes, keyboards, or better yet good music