Supertramp in Paris, Again

Supertramp_DVDAnyone within range of an FM radio in the 1970’s has heard a lot from the band Supertramp. The group was led by a marriage of the uniquely talented principal members, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. Their breakup in 1983, which ended with Rick taking over the band, and Roger taking the highway, is one of the saddest in rock history. Last year they released the stunning video Live in Paris ’79 – one of the best-filmed concerts from any rock band of the era, coming to the market 34 years after the event.

Supertramp’s radio-friendly sound was a mix of progressive and pop – incorporating elements of rock, blues, jazz, and lots of honky-tonk piano, they balanced light and dark compositions to an exquisite blend. Joined by the accomplished John Helliwell on winds, Dougie Thomson on bass and steady drummer Bob Seibenberg, their core work from Crime of the Century (1974) to Famous Last Words (1982) brought the band increasing success.

Supertramp_RickV
Rick Davies

Rick and Roger added different skills to the group – Rick a tougher edge – more cynical lyrics backed by a mean honky-tonk piano or roadhouse blues as tight as Elton John. Roger more frequently displayed a gentle, spiritual personality, imploring listeners to open their minds and hearts. His vocals and accompaniment on 12 string acoustic and electric guitars as well as keyboards are stellar. The two composers, when they collaborated, when trading off ideas, alternating vocals – at times even speaking to each other within a song, created a sum that was bigger than the parts, even when they seemed to be coming from different walks of life. Witness lyrics from the bluesy ballad “Just a Normal Day,” from their under-appreciated masterpiece Crisis? What Crisis? (1975):

Rick: Well, I just feel, that every minute’s wasted,
My life is unreal….

Roger: …I don’t know what to say;
It just seems a normal day

Roger Hodgson
Roger Hodgson

By the time of their best selling release Breakfast in America (1979) they were mega stars, finally getting a #1 record in the states (#3 in the UK.) Many of the songs from that album are pure pop, and became radio staples, including the title track, “The Logical Song,” “Goodbye Stranger,” and “Take the Long Way Home.” The album also contained several deeper cuts including Roger’s “Child of Vision” – the fabulous workout for dual keys, Roger on Wurlitzer electric keyboard (a signature part of the album’s sound) and Rick on grand piano. Among other tracks, Rick wrote one of his prettiest ballads, “Casual Conversations” sporting the lyrics:

There’s no communication left between us
But is it me or you who’s to blame?

Supertramp_band
The band…

Though the details are debated, it’s clear that Rick and Roger’s union was fracturing before and during this period. Nonetheless, they mounted a huge international tour to support Breakfast in America – breaking attendance records at the time – and they released their first live album Paris (1980) taken from the shows at the Pavilion de Paris, 1979.

Split Screen!
Split Screen!

Thirty four years after the show, a film of the third night in Paris has been released on video – a digitally restored, brightly lit, 16mm 4 camera shot film with crisp audio that captures nearly the complete set. Here it’s possible to see split screen shots of Rick at the piano with Roger at guitar or keys along with close up shots of all the band members in their prime. The DVD should be a revelation for any fan that missed these tours, and a fond reminder for anyone lucky enough to have attended. Highlights include the opener “School” as the audience cheer to the first sound of Rick’s harmonica. The companion piece “Bloody Well Right” establishes their rocking credentials, while “Even in the Quietest Moments” calms the spirit. The centerpiece for this viewer is the one-two punch of Rick’s brilliant vocal and piano work on “Another Man’s Woman” which then leads into Roger’s “Child of Vision.” In the latter, the two play their dual keyboards in harmonic perfection.

Together
Together

After one more album, the aptly titled …Famous Last Words… in 1982 and the tour that followed, Roger and Rick split. Since that time, Rick has written and recorded a handful of albums with the band, but it’s impossible not to despair at Roger’s absence. Roger has done a bit of solo work, and recently at long last began playing songs he wrote for the group in concert. Any live show with either of these artists is a treat but the newly minted concert video is now the best way to see what Supertramp was about when they were still together.

Queen Over the Rainbow

queen_1977I first saw Queen perform live on the 1977 News of the World tour stop in Los Angeles, California. It was absolutely magnificent. Long before the band even took the stage, the crowd was madly clapping and stomping out the opening beat to their mega hit “We Will Rock You.”  And once the lights went out, what an entrance – as close to rock royalty as any band I’d seen – all pomp and pageantry mixed with true grit!  After all, Queen were playing arena sized shows in the states, having conquered the airways completely with A Night at the Opera (1975), A Day At The Races (1976) and News of the World (1977) between them sporting the operatic anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody” the gospel “Somebody to Love” and the double-single “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.”  The show was spectacular both in staging and sound. A moment I will never forget was Freddie Mercury’s echo enhanced vocal solo during a break in the cannon segment of “Prophet’s Song” – I’ve seldom seen another singer accomplish the highs and lows of that moment, with such a large audience held in awe.

queen1Because of this tremendous experience, I’ve always held that we saw the perfect Queen tour at just the right time, before they became a bit more commercial, and arena’s led to stadiums, and Freddie cut his hair. I gravitated to the less metal, more pop-rock oriented records from their mid period, after the first three albums got the band started. Unfortunately, though there have been bootleg films, I’ve never been able to find restored and official footage of these mid-70’s appearances nor any of the tours before then. There are scores of concert films from Queen that are fantastic – but those were from the 1980’s and later, once my interest had waned a bit.

queen6Now 40 years on, this crisp, clear film emerges: Queen Live at the Rainbow ’74. It includes footage from two 1974 tour stops at London’s Rainbow Theater – a few tracks from the March 1974 Queen II concert along with a complete performance later that year after Sheer Heart Attack was released.  These nights were captured for posterity and the footage is finally seeing an official release with restored and sparkling hi definition visuals and near perfect audio quality.  The effort has returned hue and deep blacks to the picture, and there is clever use of cross fades, and dual angles that enhance rather than detract from the proceedings.

queen3bqueen4queen5The band members including Freddie Mercury (keys, vocals), Brian May (guitars), Roger Taylor (drums) and John Deacon (bass) are at the peak of their powers – already developed as the skilled players we came to know – and also rocking with a bit of a harder, more glam-infused edge than in their later years. Freddie and the group confidently strut and pose on stage as though already playing to the arenas they would soon inhabit. The November appearance begins with “Procession” and a dramatic version of “Now I’m Here” – used effectively as the opener again this year when Queen plus Adam Lambert toured the states.  Freddie greets the audience with “The nasty queenies are back!” and the band tear into the progressive rocker “Ogre Battle.” The set list includes many tracks from these first three albums, highlighted by the openers plus the majestic “White Queen,” a bit of “Killer Queen,” and a metal tinged “Keep Yourself Alive.”

queen_coverThe video is a remarkable document of the band right at the point when they emerged from smaller venues, prepared to take the super star mantle both on record and in concert.  The tighter, edgier material brings a more focused lens to each band member’s technicality and skill. Now I find this a close tie with the arena sized concert I first witnessed and highly recommend the DVD as being the best way to approximate the experience so many years later.

Genesis – Sum of the Parts (Minus Two)

hackett_2The teaser for the new documentary “Genesis – Together and Apart” (in the states called “Sum of the Parts”) begins with a quote from Phil Collins: “We’re out entertaining people and if they’re entertained we’ve done our job properly” – later adding “We just got more and more popular – I won’t take the credit and I won’t take the blame.” This perfectly sums up the dichotomy that is Genesis – the older work in the 1970’s from Trespass (1970) to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) with Peter Gabriel up front, along with the three subsequent albums created after Phil Collins took over vocals, found the band playing an eclectic blend of classical, rock, and English folk – a complex, determined form of “progressive rock.” The latter half of the band’s career in the 1980’s and after brought them massive success as a skillful pop rock band.  The two incarnations have been at odds in the media for decades.

During the early years the group was subject to criticism from mainstream press as being too obtuse, too arty to be real “rock-n-roll.” But then the latter, more popular incarnation that embraced pop over prog was accused of having sold out – of cashing in. When you listen to the band members interviewed in the documentary, you still pick up on the impact of this contest between complex artistic music and the more simple pop form. In reality given a bit of distance and historical perspective, both phases of the bands career have incredible merit, and the debate is needless.

hackett_1Unfortunately, in editing the new documentary some the early Genesis story was cut a bit short, both in terms of coverage of their ‘70’s work and also more seriously with the exclusion of the long solo careers of founding guitarist Anthony Phillips and his replacement Steve Hackett. In addition, editorial as to the time when Steve joined and then later left Genesis, and two of the Genesis albums containing much of his best work with the band receive short shift. Steve complained of this in print, stating: “It’s certainly a biased account of Genesis history, and totally ignores my solo work.” The truth of this is immediately evident to any knowledgeable viewer.

Here’s my attempt to fill the missing segments related to Steve Hackett, and do so in the style of the film. Will save Anthony Phillips, who is also left out of the R-Kive box set, for a later date.  Here, I will cast my thoughts in roles of voiceover, pop music critic, Radio DJ, comedian, gardener and music journalist to provide the missing material, in documentary style (no relationship to actual or real persons is intended or implied):

Steve Hackett Joins the Band:

Editorial: The segment covering the difficult transition after Anthony Phillips left the group includes the impact of that change, along with Phil’s recruitment and history, but leaves Steve’s a bit light. To make this more inclusive we should insert the following in the timeline, circa 1971:

Voiceover: After Anthony Phillips departed Genesis, the search was on for a new guitar player. Steve Hackett had placed an ad in Melody Maker seeking a band “determined to strive beyond existing stagnant forms.” Indeed, Steve brought a definitive edge to the Genesis sound – he could in one turn play quiet 12 string guitars in harmony with Mike Rutherford, then cut to his electric guitar for searing riffs and power-chords. Never monopolizing the limelight, he seemed comfortable taking shorter leads and coloring the bands overall sound with intricate, detailed playing.

hackett_3Music Journalist: Steve’s tapping technique, an influence on so many guitar players including Eddie Van Halen deserves due credit as a key part of the early Genesis sound, as heard on tracks like “Return of the Giant Hogweed” or the tapping and sweep picking heard on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.” Steve hit fewer notes but invested them with feeling, precision and import.

Gardener: The plaintive sustained tones making up the melody in the center of “Firth of Fifth” is one of the most beautiful and compelling musical passages in their early work. The middle solo, even when played by touring guitarist Daryl Struermer, remained a highlight of their shows for years.

Editorial: After Steve’s intro, and some quality coverage of Nursery Crime (1971) and Foxtrot (1972) the masterpiece Selling England By the Pound (1973) is then given limited time in the documentary. The aforementioned tracks that feature Steve are stunning, while Tony’s playing on “Cinema Show” – Phil driving the long instrumental with his trademark skipping beat – is magical, becoming a major crowd pleaser in live shows with dual drummers after Gabriel’s departure. We would insert the following into the timeline, circa 1973:

Radio DJ: To be honest, Selling England By The Pound marks the point at which the band really sound fantastic in the studio and represents the best summary of that era’s very English, pastoral, classically tinged progressive rock.

Pop Music Critic: I don’t know what “progressive rock means” – unifauns? Twenty three minute, six second songs… really?

Editorial: While The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) receives just airtime, itself marking the time Peter Gabriel left the group, this would also have been the right moment to introduce the solo career of Steve Hackett:

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Voyage of the Acolyte
Released: October 1975
Chart Position: #26 in the UK (silver); #191 in the US

Voiceover: Steve recorded his first solo album just weeks after the last date on the Lamb Lies Down tour and at the same time the remaining members of Genesis were working on their first post-Gabriel recording. The album sounds quite a bit like Genesis, even sporting some material that the band had auditioned but rejected.

Music Journalist: The standout tracks are the rocking opener “Ace of Wands” and the closer – the beautiful, haunting “Shadow of the Hierophant” which ends in a doom-laden coda that would have perfectly fit Genesis. Though Mike and Phil both play on the record, Mike states in his autobiography that he felt a bit badly about the timing, since the real focus of the four remaining band members was to get the next Genesis album right.

Gardener: As it turned out, the next album A Trick of the Tail (1976) ended up doing quite well, and Steve seems as confident and vested in that work as anything.  Steve’s album also did a decent business… but it was also the first step towards leaving the band.

Editorial: The documentary skips this important moment on the band’s history (together or apart), and instead moves on to a decent segment on Trick of the Tail. However, the next, equally important release Wind & Wuthering (1976) is nearly left out:

Music Journalist: The Wind & Wuthering album and it’s companion EP Spot The Pigeon are outstanding, showcasing every member of the four piece band, and containing some of Steve’s best work – the opening siren call of “Eleventh Earl of Mar” with it’s quiet centerpiece – the gorgeous classical guitar featured on “Blood on the Rooftops” and the three part album closer that follows – still featured in Hackett’s concerts today.

Pop Music Critic: Steve left the band at the end of mixing for Seconds Out – the double-live album culled from their 1976-77 concerts, as it was clear his role was waning and they were moving in a more pop friendly direction.

Comedian: I’m into Genesis and I’m not going to apologize! Not too sure about “Squonk” though!

Editorial: In the film, Steve is shown (finally) in group interview explaining that he felt unable to get enough of his material included on the band’s records – ‘nuff said. I’ve always picked up that the rest of the band felt his method of departure was more awkward and acrimonious than has been shared – the “saw him on the street” story Phil tells just seems a bit light.

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Please Don’t Touch
Released: May 1978
Chart Position: #38 in the UK; #103 in the US

Voiceover: Steve’s first record after leaving Genesis is a bit of an experiment, with Hackett trying out several different styles including rock, prog, and jazz. Guest vocalist Steve Walsh (Kansas) lends his powerful pipes to two tracks, while Richie Havens and Randy Crawford lend softer, lovely tones to three others.

Gardener: The title track is a standout, apparently offered by Steve for inclusion on the Wind & Wuthering album, but rejected – it’s a tour de force highlighting his assertive playing, and ability to switch rapidly between keys and meters.

Music Journalist: The delicate instrumental played with just Steve on acoustic guitar and his brother John Hackett on flute, named for his then wife Kim Poor, is exquisite, and points the way to a later acoustic work Bay of Kings.

Radio DJ: Ultimately this second album is an amalgam of styles, unique in Hackett’s repertoire – the artist in search of a new sound.

Editorial: The first Genesis release without Steve, came the same year, appropriately titled And Then There Were Three (1978.) This was also an album where the remaining band members search for a new sound, trying to land somewhere between opener “Down and Out” and closing hit “Follow You, Follow Me.”

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Spectral Mornings
Released: May 1979
Chart Position: #22 in the UK; #138 in the US

Voiceover: Steve’s next album came as he built up a band to tour his solo work. His new group, including Peter Hicks (vocals), Nick Magnus (keys), Dik Cadbury (bass), John Shearer (drums) and brother John (flute/keys) joined to record this album, and undertook a tour to perform it and material from his first two solo efforts.

Music Journalist: This album and its follow up Defector is where Steve finds his footing as a solo artist. Vocal tracks including “Every Day” and “The Virgin and the Gypsy,” lend respectable lyrics to both progressive and popular structures. Instrumentals like “Clocks” and “Spectral Mornings” are fine displays of both his pastoral and ominous tendencies as composer.

Gardener: This is the album where Hackett truly finds his own voice – the band sound tight as a unit, Hicks delivers smooth vocals backed by Hackett and Cadbury, and the album is a cohesive collection of songs that have an identity apart from Genesis.

Editorial: A clear, high quality DVD of one of these early shows was released last year.

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Defector
Released: June 1980
Chart Position: #9 in the UK; #144 in the US

Voiceover: Defector found Steve continuing in the style of Spectral Mornings – the two can be taken as a pair representing his quintessential work.

Music Journalist: Standout track “Jacuzzi” is bright and airy, showcasing Steve’s versatility and John’s fantastic, intricate flute. The mid section veers into more minor tones and highlights Steve’s tapping technique. The whole band plays splendidly on this handsome instrumental.

Pop Music Critic: I really loved the song “The Show” when my parents used to play it for me.

Voiceover: Steve’s work continued with his last two releases for Charisma – Cured (1981) and Highly Strung (1983). He continues his solo career today, alternating between classical, jazz and progressive rock releases. Fans of early Genesis warmed to Steve’s solo work, which continued in more of a progressive rock tradition, albeit a bit updated, fresher sounding in the keys section, and even including a bit of pop structure for good measure.

Hackett Today

hackett_4_bandHackett is also the one ex-Genesis solo artist who consistently continues to perform work he originally recorded with Genesis. He’s released two albums titled “Genesis Revisited” and is currently on a two-year tour for the second, exclusively playing songs from their 1971-1976 output. Given the sold out show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in October 2013, it’s clear there is still strong interest in the classic era Genesis work.

While we can hope for a expanded documentary that truly shows all band members “together and apart”, here’s hoping this helps to round out the story. Another great way to hear the band members tell the tale of Genesis is to invest in the box sets, which include the remastered albums, and almost all available footage and videos of the group over the years. Each disc contains a documentary of the album, using direct quotes from each member of this seminal band, whether pop or prog.

King Crimson Experiment with The Elements

KC_SignageThe progressive rock juggernaut King Crimson brought their seven-man supersonic distortion machine to The Warfield theater in San Francisco on October 3rd and 4th for two highly anticipated concerts, dubbed “The Elements.” These were epic events for anyone seeking a potent, diverse mix of prog, metal, jazz, and classical rock – at times structured, at times improvisational – but all bundled into a challenging mix delivered by this band of expert musicians.

The current Crimson lineup is a ensemble consisting of Robert Fripp (guitar, keys), Jakko Jakszyk (guitars/vocals), Tony Levin (bass), Mel Collins saxophones/flutes), and up front, three drummers Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin. Many of the cast have tenure in the band, others like Harrison, Rieflin, and Jakszyk are new or recently added. Only Jakszyk with Collins and other members of early versions of Crimson paid respect to their initial albums during their tenure in the group 21st Century Schizoid Band – touring around the turn of the millennia. Most of the early work has not seen the bright lights of a concert hall in decades. The set list for these “Elements” shows was spectacular.

KC_AlbumsTo the astonishment and delight of long time fans, Fripp agreed to include older tracks in the set list, beyond the three most commonly played during concerts from 1981 through 2008 (“Larks 1&2”, and “Red”). In contrast, no tracks from the 1980’s version of the band were played. Instead, depending on the night’s set list, the band played three or four pieces that came after 1990, and one or two from the Jakszyk/Fripp/Collins project A Scarcity of Miracles (2011). The night belonged to the early music, which included:

  • 21st Century Schizoid Man – In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
  • Pictures of a City – In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)
  • Sailor’s Tale, The Letters – Islands (1971)
  • Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, Part One & Two, The Talking Drum – Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)
  • Red, One More Red Nightmare, Starless – Red (1974)

These choices were inspired and balanced – instrumentals and vocals well represented. On top of that, the band was able to reproduce and reinterpret these pieces with ferocity and precision. In particular, the two cuts from Islands were awesome to behold live. “The Letters” tells the story of a woman who comes to learn of her husband’s affair via post from his lover.  Upon receipt the woman reacts:

As if a leper’s face
That tainted letter graced
The wife with choke-stone throat
Ran to the day with tear-blind eyes

KC_Oct4_BowAt the moment Jakszyk sings the last of that line, sax, guitar, drums, and all came crashing in to make a cacophony that sounds like anger, despair, and pain all wrapped into a sonic boom. Once the next verse arrives the quiet renaissance refrain begins again. Played live, these dynamics from the original record were massively amplified. The moment sums up how one could describe so much of Crimson’s work. Fripp’s compositions alternate suddenly between dark and light. A typical track will contain segments of distorted, dissonant but rhythmic sound creating almost unbearable tension and finally resolve to a peaceful passage made up of quiet beautiful tones. The black notes vs. the white – the sun and moon, the Larks’ tongue and the Aspic – all part of this yin and yang. Both were on full display for these two shows.

Only the bows for photos!
Only the bows for photos!

The band looked energized and pleased to be delivering this material. Collins played aggressively and magnificently on winds – at times with him on the sax the band actually swings! Levin demonstrated his unparalleled capabilities on upright and electric basses and Chapman stick. Jakszyk sang beautifully on key, with controlled vibrato, and clear delivery – only “One More Red Nightmare” showing a bit of strain. The front line of three drummers worked miracles with the dense material, and before the final encore we were treated to a three-man drum solo where the skills of each were highlighted. Robert, playing in the light finally, says in an interview video, “I’m in a different place in my life” and it shows in his playing and demeanor. In fact, almost the entire concert was played under plain white lights – only during the final track of the main set, Starless, did the lights slowly change to red, echoing the emotions brought from the intense “one note” guitar solo that builds to that masterful track’s resolve.

KC_ticketBoth shows were challenging, rewarding, and exceptionally well presented – an impressive achievement for this groundbreaking 45-year-old musical collective. Take a quiet moment to hope for more than this first 22-date tour from these artists.

Elton John Plays the Hits

EJ_3Elton John is one of those British exports that we in the states took very closely to heart. His phenomenal success here echoed globally – but there was always something that seemed so American about him. Lyrics and themes from Bernie Taupin– songs about Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood, Philadelphia, along with frequent inclusion of honky-tonk piano and 50’s pop rock sensibility spoke to us. He had seven consecutive number one albums in the US. The sprawling Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) is his rich and varied masterpiece while Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) is the most musically adventurous and so becameEJ_GYBR_Cover a long lasting personal favorite. I grew up during his formative decade and been a dedicated fan of his melodic, emotive work. In fact one major reason I gave up playing the piano was due to having made the effort to learn “Funeral for a Friend” on piano, with sheet music – taking six weeks to master it – then finding out it was originally written and recorded in a day!

EJ_CF_CoverDue to the large number of progressive rock concerts I attended in those days, I never did get around to seeing Elton John perform live, despite his reputation for staging outrageous, exciting rock concerts. But last night, on October 2, 2014, we did see Elton John at our local arena in San Jose, in a tour a local ad claimed would include “All His Hits.” There was truth in that advertising.

EJ_1Elton’s stellar band entered to the tolling church bell that begins “Funeral for a Friend” and went on to play the rest of what was side one of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album – continuing on during the show to play “Grey Seal”, “All the Young Girls Love Alice,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and the title track when we were asked to sing along during the chorus. The rest of the set list was similarly filled out with hits from his back catalog, along with only a couple of new tracks – a very pretty “Oceans Away” and also “Home Again” from The Diving Board (2013). The show ended with “Circle of Life” which Elton introduced after exclaiming how his children have so enriched his life. Only complaint on the set list from this fan was the focus on only “hits” and possibly therefore lack of any tracks from Captain Fantastic. Otherwise a nice blend of mostly older selections played with precision and energy.

EJ_4Elton sings in a lower register these days, but has adapted the songs by half notes, keys, octaves to suit his range. His falsetto is completely gone, making vocal delivery more forced and gravelly, yet able to be tuneful and melodic. Elton still likes to rock these songs out – even “Your Song” concludes with the band swelling it’s backing sound to full volume. Surprising in a way he does not back them down more frequently, and sing in a more quiet way for some of the ballads. He kept stories short last night – mentioning Bernie, his kids, and his appreciation to fans who have kept him in the business for so long, adding that he loves performing now more than ever before.

EJ_2Elton played all the songs last night from behind his beautiful Yamaha grand piano. His skills on the instrument are well known, and were highlighted during several interludes and codas when he executed runs that only the most dexterous trained hands could accomplish. This is a man who can play one chord, stand up, and smile as everyone shouts “Bennie!” After each song, Elton rises from his bench to enjoy the audience reaction, and stoke more, shaking his fists in the air and making the “ohhh” face! It’s hard not to miss the younger, bawdy performer with the huge glasses, feather boas and costumes, but then we’ve all grown up a bit too. At this stage, the performances are still stellar, and befitting his position as one of the most successful pop stars of our time.