Japan’s Swan Song

japanDVDJapan represent one of the most original and compelling acts to emerge from the New Romantic and New Wave movements in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. As evidence of their pedigree check out followup solo work by the superb multi-instrumentalist, composer, and vocalist David Sylvian, work by bassist Mick Karn (deceased 2011), David’s brother – organic drummer Steve Jansen, or keyboard player Richard Barbieri who has been part of Porcupine Tree since 1993 among other projects. Their last release as Japan, Tin Drum stands as one of the best albums of the period in it’s fusion of electronic and acoustic compositions into a complex, danceable mix.

This collection is a rare and important document of a band who, while being danceable, could also command a listener’s attention. The video clips sport excellent sound and picture quality, and represent a nice cross section of their later work. But the prize of this set is the live footage previously released on VHS and laserdisc called Oil On Canvas. What a wonderful stroke of luck it was that the band was captured live on their Tin Drum tour at London’s Hammersmith Odeon November 1982, before disbanding after a final stop in Tokyo that December, to follow their various pursuits. The only gripe I have about this live document is the excessive use of photos and graphics which are rendered over the top of the live footage too often blocking the performance itself. The footage has always been a bit dark and grainy, but is well preserved here given those limitations.

JAPAN-japan-bandIncreasing the rarity of the Oil on Canvas footage is the fact that if you want to see any document of David Sylvian live after this, all I have found is a similarly rare video on laserdisc David Sylvian and Robert Fripp on tour circa 1993. This lack of footage is a shame given the number of very special tours and performances David’s undertaken before and after that show. If you’ve not followed David’s work, and are more inclined to progressive rock, ambient, and alternative forms, do check him out.  I would start with anything prior 2001 such as Dead Bees On A Cake (1999) as his most recent work is more difficult listening.

In order to start at the beginning, this set of Japan’s videos and live performances comes highly recommended to any fan of interesting electronic, ambient or progressive rock music.

Sir Paul McCartney Closes Candlestick Park

P1010782I still have a copy of the Beatles record, Rubber Soul that came out when I was six years old in 1966, and which I played repeatedly, sneaking into my sister’s room to use the record player. At that early age I became a complete Anglophile. Ten years later, I was spinning anything out of Britain from the progressive rock acts of the time, including Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, Camel, Gentle Giant, Pink Floyd, and more. But it all started with the Beatles as it did for so many musicians and fans born during our time. Many reference the Beatles and producer George Martin’s work on the famous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from 1967 as setting the stage for the progressive rock music that followed.

paul_ticketBut, Rubber Soul is still my favorite Beatles record.  The tour to support it would be their last, as they performed their final show in San Francisco, at Candlestick Park, on August 29, 1966. The follow up album Revolver had just come out that same month, though no tracks were performed on the tour. Instead they did eleven songs, three from Rubber Soul, and headed home to the studios to work on Sgt. Peppers. Fourty eight years later, last week on August 14, 2014, Paul McCartney returned to play the last show that will be staged at the now aged Candlestick Park, a venue that will be demolished after the event. It’s fitting closure to that now decrepit site, as it hosts one of the most important musicians of our times, and beloved son of Britain, who is in part responsible for the deep love of music so many of us have experienced. 

P1010756The show was absolutely fabulous! Paul and band played an eclectic set during a three hour extravaganza, including my favorite track “I’ve Just Seen a Face” that opens the Capital Records release version of Rubber Soul. Although not much was changed in Paul’s set list to commemorate the Beatles last show, he did mention the event, and added “Long Tall Sally” to the set list, which has only been played a few times since that final night, nailing it’s grinding vocal.  So for the most part, we witnessed a typical night on the mighty “Out There” tour. Paul’s voice held up very well through the set list, and his bass, guitar and piano work are undiminished by time. A favorite moment for me was his guitar riff and vocals on “Let Me Roll It” – a smoky Wings rocker and tour staple.  Throughout the set, The band accompanied him with precision, and captured original sounds and more modern interpretations where needed.  Drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. is particularly exuberant during the show, and keys player Paul “Wix” Wickens plays beautifully and covers a great many sounds including winds instruments from his kit. Guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray fill out the band that have now been playing together since 2002 – something that shows in their delivery.

P1010803Stage craft for this tour is tasteful – powerful lighting rigs, and multiple screens which lit up with photos, short films and graphic imagery.  These were particularly effective during “Back in the U.S.S.R.” as they displayed images from the former Soviet Union. One bit that didn’t work for me was a large riser that carried Paul half way up the stage height while he was playing “Blackbird” as it seemed to detract more than add to this delicate gem of a song.  Most exciting were the pyrotechnics during the Wings “Live and Let Die” as fireworks and lasers shot from the large stage during the instrumental segments.

P1010797The first time I saw Paul McCartney play was in Los Angeles during the 1977 Wings tour. As an aside, there is a wonderful new DVD that captures that tour on it’s Seattle stop. At that time the awesome Venus and Mars record had just released. Most of that record and other Wings material was performed back then, with only a few Beatles tracks.  Paul included some Wings favorites this time out including “Band on the Run,” “Listen to What the Man Said,” and “Hi, Hi, Hi” among others.  But at this point Paul plays more Beatles tracks, including early hits like “Eight Days a Week,” “All My Loving,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Paperback Writer,” “Day Tripper,” “We Can Work It Out,” a very beautiful version of “Eleanor Rigby” and a particularly sweet rendition of “And I Love Her.”  Mid period Beatles tracks included “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Lovely Rita” from Sgt. Peppers, along with “Lady Madonna,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Hey Jude,” Let It Be,” and the coda from Abbey Road. At one point Paul pulled out a ukulele and a short anecdote about George to start a sweet rendition of “Something.” At that point, as on “Let It Be” quite a number of iPhones raised as candlelights reflected our emotions.

P1010808Several new Paul McCartney solo tracks were played including the fun ditty “Queenie Eye” from New, and the touching standard “My Valentine.” But the night belonged to the Beatles songs, which rightly receive fan adulation and the respect deserved for this member of one of the greatest bands ever assembled and all his work that has followed. It’s a long set list and a wonderful experience – on this night a fitting send off to the old Candlestick Park as Paul winds through his second year on this worldwide tour. 

Journey into Rick’s Box Set

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Rick Wakeman

On a rainy day in 1974 when I was just 14 years old, one of my crowd’s older friends came down to our hangout with two records that would come to shape my musical tastes forever.  One was Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, and the second was Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.  We sat transfixed by these exhilarating albums and in particular Rick’s “Journey” sounded fantastic, mystical, as a perfect blend of rock and classical music.  This album started my own long journey as a collector of progressive rock music, focused first on the many practitioners who were mixing classical and rock forms to build large and dramatic soundscapes.  It helped that early on in my own musical education I was exposed to Mozart, Bach, Stravinsky, and so many of the classical masters.  To me, Rick’s music fit right into that pantheon.

rickjourneyJourney to the Center of the Earth was, then, for me the perfect record with which to start my collection.  It combined the best of so many things we had all been discovering – a conceptual framework such as The Who’s Tommy, use of real symphony orchestra, and lots of that (then) “new” futuristic Moog synthesizer sound.  Add narration dramatically delivered by actor David Hemmings, he of the film Camelot (1967) and so many others, and we have one of the most beloved prog rock epics of the era.

In 1998 EMI Classics commissioned Rick to create Return to the Center of the Earth.  At our house, this became my son’s first purchase-upon-release CD as by the young age of 6 he had already been introduced to Rick’s Journey and Arthur.  He was also very familiar with the narrator, Patrick Stewart, due to his role as the captain on the series Star Trek Next Generation. This album became a favorite in our home, with the spectacular instrumental “Dance of a Thousand Lights” as musical highlight.  

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 4.22.55 PMMany readers will already be familiar with the fact that the original Journey album was taken from a live performance, and that a studio recording had not been attempted until 2012 after original sheet music and notations from the 1973 performances once thought lost, were found.  It’s this new recording that is included in Rick’s new limited edition boxed set for Journey and Return.  This album has been available since last year, and is now the subject of a new box set.

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 4.25.25 PMThe set is a very nice collection of these two albums, Journey to the Center of the Earth (Studio, 2012) and Return to the Center of the Earth (1998).  It arrives with a numbered certificate, a print from Roger Dean signed by both Rick and Roger, a lengthy booklet with writings by Rick, liner notes, all lyrics including narration, and several new and old photographs to chart this history.  While I would have added more photos, the booklet itself is a nice read, and includes many gems from Rick – a few of these being:

  • Rick dreamed of creating something like this after attending a performance of Peter and the Wolf to witness “the wonders of putting a story to music”
  • Rick played on the live orchestral version of the Who’s Tommy at the Rainbow Theater in 1972, and Lou Reisner who produced that show, signed on the do Journey
  • David Bowie’s advice to “listen to my own musical thoughts and dreams” was influential while navigating the path to Journey, itself an uphill battle
  • In 2009 a battered and water damaged conductor’s case was sent to Rick from Australia with a score from the original Journey performances.
  • Only 2 live performances of Return were staged – both in Canada (so you can’t always blame Canada!)

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 4.23.55 PMThe boxed set includes a CD each for the albums Journey (Studio, 2012) and Return, which sit in one album sized binder with the booklet.  Then, each recording is treated to a two album pressing, each pair in their own binder, without extra accompaniment.  I’m not as much a fan of albums which span multiple disks, but these sound fantastic in this vinyl format – something we’ve gone back to over the last several years for our favorite recordings.

All in all a very nice presentation and wonderful set piece to any fan’s collection of Rick’s many works.  To be complete, be sure to retain a copy of your original Journey recording from 1974, along with a good DVD pressing of that concert captured live in Australia (1975) – This is also available as part of the Rick Wakeman live box set from Gonzo.  It’s a miracle that we have it for posterity given the number of important key progressive rock tours that were not filmed. 

The Power and the Glory Rise Again

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Gentle Giant was one of the most adventurous and rewarding British bands to ply the progressive rock trade in the 1970’s. Their career represented a perfect arc from the beginning to the end of the decade, starting with their debut Gentle Giant, and ending with the more strident rock attack of Civilian. In between, Giant crafted nine studio and one double live release that remain important studies in composition rife with counterpoint, multi-instrumentalism, and eclecticism.

In 1974, at the mid point of their short career, the brilliant The Power and the Glory, was released. The compositions were tighter, a bit more straight-forward than their work to that point, and the album sported an excellent concept with intelligible lyrics detailing a story of power and corruption. Gentle Giant’s albums prior to this release represent some of the most esoteric, and uncompromising progressive rock ever put to vinyl. By this point, while still not being quite commercial, their work seemed even more assured, and less encumbered by more obscure sounds on their previous outings. It’s follow up Free Hand would become their most popular studio album and commercial success, but the writing, performance and recording technique that led to that accomplishment starts with this album.

P1010695While there have been several re-releases of Gentle Giant albums over the years to produce better CD sound, and to reproduce their artistic packaging, most have not resulted in state of the art sound. This time Steve Wilson took the helm, as he has with so many other bands of this era, and produced the now definitive version of this classic. There hasn’t been a lot of discernible tinkering with the stereo version that occupies disk one, just an overall improved mix, deeper bass response, and clarity in the midrange. Disc two’s DVD features a 5.1 surround sound mix which is a revelation. Like Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, reviewed last issue, the surround mix allows for previously indiscernible sonic detail to come forth.

P1010704Extra tracks include “The Power and the Glory” single, not found on the original album, and on disc one an alternative instrumental version of “Aspirations.” The original version of “Aspirations” is one of keyboard, vibraphone player and raconteur Kerry Minnear’s most beautiful vocals. This instrumental version gives the listener a chance to try to sing as he did (probably in your car on the way to work) though it’s a mighty challenge to hit those choir boy tones!  On disc two, instead of only “Aspirations,” the entire album is presented a second time without vocals which allows the listener to catch even more of the complex musical interplay, particularly between guitarist Gary Green and Kerry Minnear’s many keys. Try tackling singer Derek Shulman’s exhausting vocals on Cogs in Cogs as a reminder of his range and power. This may be drummer John Weather’s best moment on record, and the gutsiest power-chords from guitarist Gary Green. The bonus studio track and a flat stereo mix are also included.

P1010701Making this release truly special, the 5.1 DVD presentation includes lyrics and videos prepared by bassist / multi-instrumentalist Ray Shulman which illustrate the story and content of each track. This presentation is unlike anything I’ve seen from another band. The content is graphical, using illustrations of playing cards, people, places, and things along with some fairly psychedelic imagery at times to represent the contrapuntal instrumental interplay. Lyrics appear or scroll through the picture in creative ways that add to your appreciation of the compositions. If you are inclined to pay attention while listening and watching you will be rewarded with these clever visuals that make the collection worth every penny.

On a related note, the tour that follows this album was captured on video in Germany and California on the wonderful Giant on the Box DVD release. It would have been fun to find the filmed material here as well but if you purchase that DVD as a companion piece you will own a complete set of the most rare Gentle Giant material available. Seeing this band play live is critical to gaining a complete appreciation of their work.

While some may wonder why this level of release didn’t begin with Three Friends, Octopus, or In A Glass House, there is something about the more friendly rock-and-prog The Power and the Glory which makes it a great place to start, beyond who owns the rights to the material. All in all, highly recommended.