Daniel Lanois – in the Flesh, with Machines

lanois_sample2Daniel Lanois is the famous producer, engineer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist from Canada, whose work with U2, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and others are often award winning milestones for those artists. Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree come immediately to mind. What would be less familiar to many listeners are his solo albums, each a unique and beautiful work of art – some song-driven with vocals, and others instrumental.

lanois_acadieLanois had plenty of time as producer and engineer from 1976 through the 80’s before he released his first and arguably greatest record, Acadie (1989). Flavored with bayou blues, Cajun folk, and ambient, flowing soundscapes, Acadie also includes Daniel’s beautiful lead vocals, some in English, others in French. The opening pair of rock hymnals, “Still Water” and “The Maker” still make their way into his set lists. “The Maker” is a spiritual song that sets the tone for the rest of the album, beginning with some choice lyrics:

Oh, oh, deep water
Black and cold like the night
I stand with arms wide open
I’ve run a twisted line
I’m a stranger in the eyes of the Maker

lanois_jimMy favorite is the haunting, bewitching track “St Ann’s Gold” that’s just Daniel and his guitar with a bit of synth backing – a serene masterpiece. Guest collaborators include Brian Eno, the Neville brothers, and U2’s backing band. Musically the record is a combination of many influences, expressed with heavy guitar atmospherics, backed by Eno’s ambient keyboard soundscapes. It’s an instant classic that belongs in every music lover’s collection. Other releases by Lanois that I would highlight include the follow up For the Beauty of Wynona (1993) that’s much like Acadie, Belladonna (2005), an instrumental album featuring his astonishing steel pedal guitar, and Black Dub (2010) on which he partnered with Trixie Whitley for her soulful vocals.

lanois_sample1Lanois’ most recent release, Flesh and Machine, is another fascinating album that focuses on his instrumental, ambient side. It’s the closest he’s come to the work he did with Brian Eno in the early 80’s, but with a darker, brooding palette. Of this record, Daniel states, “I decided to be as inventive as I can be and try and take people on a journey, the way I remember records did when I was a kid — you know, you’d put on an album and trip out to it and feel like a different person after listening.” I took the opportunity to go on that trip, and see him perform live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, on November 17, 2014.

The shlanois_slideow was also itself on the dark and brooding side, as is the new work that made up most of the set list. Daniel spent much of the time hunched over a set of keys triggered gadgets that used samples of guitar, steel guitar, piano and voice to create the sound palette from which he dubbed and processed live on the stage. For several tracks, he came up front to play that steel pedal guitar, and for the encores took center stage to perform a few earlier tracks on guitar and vocals including “The Maker”.

lanois_brianA highlight of the show was Daniel’s long time drummer, Brian Blade, who I first saw on his 1993 tour playing a finely tuned kit with both his hands and sticks. Brian is a first rate musician who played superbly as usual, slipping in between the seams on quieter works, or driving the sonically aggressive parts with his jazz-influenced leads. Bassist Jim Wilson deftly alternated between electric bass and upright bass pedals to color the lanois_videolower end and harmonize with Daniel on the few vocal tracks. The visuals significantly added to the show as the lighting tech used a video toaster type of process to manipulate short films and images in union with the beat, and to great psychedelic effect. Catch this tour in your town should it make the journey, and witness this artist in the flesh, and with his machines.

lanois_band

 

Adrian Belew goes to the Chapel

belew_press_photoAdrian Belew is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist and one of the most prolific and talented artists of our time. He is a “musicians musician” in that those who play or who are into music as a pursuit inevitably know his work, whereas the more casual listener may not. It’s a shame, as Adrian’s solo albums number more than a dozen, and his work with other artists of our time is compelling.

To kick start his solo career, Adrian released a pair of incredibly creative, fun albums in the early 80’s – Lone Rhino (1982) and Twang Bar King (1983). These established Adrian’s love of both progressive and pop-rock forms, peppered with frequent use of distorted guitar patches to imitate animal sounds, industrial noisbelew_guitar1e such as trains and autos, to create frenetic leads, and color quieter pieces. His releases since, interspersed through the years with his other collaborations follow a varied path through many fascinating soundscapes. He is known for inventive technique on guitar and pliant, modern voice. It’s possible to forget he’s penned some of the best lyrics of our era – from “The Rail Song” to “Men in Helicopters” and “Inner Revolution,” which reflect on our times, our treatment of the planet, and just as often, very fun, positive and affirming prose.

belew_poster_serpentesdesignsAdrian’s work with other musicians, on their albums and concerts, include productive time with Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, and The Talking Heads, often guesting on the best of all works by that artist. Listen to his playing on career defining albums such as Graceland by Paul Simon, or Lodger by David Bowie, or Remain in Light by The Talking Heads for relevant examples of this charm. Besides his solo work, Adrian fronted his own happy pop band “The Bears” who were a blast to see live. But his primary work outside solo and bear efforts has been with King Crimson from 1980 to 2012, wherein his writing, vocals and duos with founder Robert Fripp on guitar are second to none. Adrian’s kind heart, sense of drama balanced with humor and concern for the environment pervade his work and that of his collaborators.

On November 10th I talked to Adrian about his current band “The Power Trio” who has played with him about 8 years now, and discuss their current tour.

belew_signageDoug: Adrian, to begin, when the Power Trio just started out in 2006 we saw you play at the Carriage house (a small theater in Saratoga, California.) I recall the sound was so loud, and the playing so aggressive that you cleared out first three rows within ten minutes – do you remember that night?

Adrian: (laughs) – I do remember that – those were people who subscribed to the concert series – who came to the shows no matter who was playing!

Doug: It remains true that these shows are definitely of the hard rocking variety – presenting very driven versions of your work. What’s led to that approach – no piano, no winds – a trio?

belew_julie_slickAdrian: I really wanted to work in a trio format – it allows each member more freedom, and more responsibility at the same time. And consequently in doing that, to do material that was not originally in that format, you have to fill the holes pretty well – I don’t think of it as “hard” as much as powerful and a bit exciting!

Doug: Agreed – Back then the power trio was Julie Slick (bass) plus her brother Eric on drums?

belew_tobias_ralphAdrian: Yes, he was our drummer for the first four years – now for the last four years we’ve had Tobias Ralph who has worked out absolutely perfectly for us. We really love Tobias. Considering this band has done so much touring inside the US and all over the world we’ve really come together – you feel like these guys must have been playing as a trio forever cause that’s how it feels.

Doug: What should we expect for the new shows?

Adrian: We’ve changed the format for this tour – it’s pretty new and I’ve never done it before – there’s new music coming out on FLUX – it’s a music app – its music that is never the same twice. The music changes at a fairly rapid rate then is interrupted by other things and keeps moving in different ways changing constantly.

So we’ve applied that idea to these live performances. We’ve dug through my catalog and pulled out songs from among 14 records, all from different eras, but we don’t play the whole song most of the time, we’ll play a portion of it and just when you least expect it that will be interrupted by a sound or something called a “snippet” and then it will move into the next song. So in the show we do something like 30 songs and I sing 25 songs (laughs) so it’s a romp through my whole career.

belew_power_trioDoug: How do you pick things for the set list like that – it must be hard to choose from so much work

Adrian: We have plans that over time we are going to build in mini sets – I look at them as blocks. Let’s say you might put 5 songs together and in between the songs there might be 4 or 5 things that cut the song off and then the next song starts immediately – maybe that’s 10 minutes long. What I want to do over time with the trio is build a lot of these blocks – we can shift them in and out of the show and get more and more material – Crimson, Bowie, Zappa, and tons of solo stuff – so much to choose from.

Doug: Set lists I’ve seen include a lot from your solo work and from King Crimson – ever thought of doing a show that’s just made up of songs from all the artists you’ve worked with?

Adrian: I could do that! What we do on this tour is we take a break for 15 minutes in the show. During that intermission, and before and after the show we play the other artists I’ve worked with– whether Crash Test Dummies or Paul Simon’s Graceland – it’s a good way to remind people of the whole picture.

belew_musicheadDoug: I noticed Mr. Music Head (1989) was left out of the set – is it just too different given the piano driven songs?

Adrian: I’m going to find a way in the future to tackle those – maybe just having a keyboard beside me. So much of that record was written around the piano and there’s a reason why. I had bought a house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and it came with a piano – first time in my life I had one. That whole record was based on me just sitting there every day just figuring out the piano. So you’ve got a lot of songs like “Bad Days” and “Motor Bungalow” that really are piano songs – really difficult to play on guitar – I’ve got to play them on another tour!

Doug: It’s a big favorite including songs like “Peaceable Kingdom,” “Bad Day”, “Motor Bungalow” and others.

Adrian: I had played the piano before but never owned one so I could sit down gather my thoughts and compose with it, so it was really a thrill. I remember when I wrote the song “Bad Days,” I sat there and played that song 4 days in a row all day long – I was just fascinated that I’d finally written a piano song!

Doug: “Big Blue Sun” (from Inner Revolution (1992)) has that same sunny feel and I noticed it in an early set list.

belew_vocalAdrian: We tried that out but pulled it from the set– it’s very difficult to sing. I’ve got to be careful I don’t put too many difficult songs in the list because I realize our tour has a lot of shows. I’m singing 25 songs a night – it’s about as far as I could take it!

Doug: Another one I noticed on the list – “Men in Helicopters” (from Young Lions (1990)) – a big favorite – that one must be special to you.

Editor: the lyrics to this track are heartfelt and impactful:

Wouldn’t it be great
To see the African plains
Before they lay them to waste
And only the bones remain?

 

Adrian: It really is one of my personal favorites – once again a difficult one to sing so what were doing is just the first two verses of it. So its kind of nice I can go that far without exhausting my voice every night – you feel like you’ve heard the song – you’re reminded of it and it’s enough you know – its fun in that way. I miss having songs like that in our set, so the new approach is a way to do that.

Doug: Another early favorite is “The Rail Song” (from Twang Bar King)

Adrian: I’ve got to work that one out in the future – it’s a different guitar tuning – hard to switch guitars just for that song – but I will work that one out because it’s another perennial favorite for myself, and my wife likes that one a lot.

Doug: I was wondering about FLUX – you are using it for new material – are you adapting your earlier songs for it as well?

belew_guitar2Adrian: If FLUX is accepted well enough and becomes a legitimate form, which I can continue – and I really hope that happens – I always thought there might be another version – like FLUX “classic.” That version would go back to the old catalog, to take it apart and put it back together in different ways. You would hear songs but they would sound different than they did originally. Here’s the thing about FLUX – you can do as many versions of the song as you want – you actually need to do that as it requires lots of content. I was thinking the other day how interesting it is that an artist does a song and that’s it – that’s the song –you can never hear it another way – that’s it’s only life. My idea is that in the future I’ll give all those songs a whole new dressing up – that might be a second version of FLUX.

Doug: And the FLUX platform includes visuals as well.

Adrian: There’s so much that can happen with the visual aspect to this. The original idea was only a musical one and I had that idea for several decades. But how to actually do it was eluding me, because there was no technical way to approach it. Once we decided that we could develop an app – that opened the door to the visuals – since you play it on your iPhone or iPad or Android and you don’t want to be looking at a blank screen. So that introduced a whole new set of variables into this that are very cool – we are loving it! I’m a visual artist – I think musically in visual terms as I write so now that we’ve got these interesting creative things going on, and they are as random as the music – it’s a confluence of events.

Doug: I’ve been collecting video content – lots on Youtube but also on media. You are in a lot of these shows – from Bowie 1978, and his Sound and Vision tour 1990 – to the Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, and The Bears and Crimson of course – but is there video from your solo career hidden in a vault somewhere?

belew_and_julieAdrian: No I don’t think so –most of the time if I worked in a video format we used any footage because it was costly. If you go out of your way to do something visual you want to use it. Nowadays of course its not expensive – everyone’s used to people filming and taking photos with iPhones.   Back in the day with MTV I did not do many videos because they were costly. The “Big Electric Cat” video won an award for the effect they used – the filmmakers loved the song and tried out this new technique and it worked – that was very early days. But MTV turned out to be so huge and corporate it seemed to me that people who didn’t have a $200k budget were not allowed in the door – it left me out in the cold. Even if I had that kind of money I don’t know if I would want to do that – I would rather spend it on creating new music or playing music for someone.

Doug: Looking at the Kickstarter campaign for FLUX I noticed you offered to come to a contributor’s home to tell stories and play live – that sounded like an awesome offer –and no one took you up on it!

Adrian: As we looked at campaigns and things to do we decided to try it – I would have done it if it sold. I like my fans and I like to engage with them – going out and meeting and talking with them. The campaign went well though – we didn’t know what kind of goal to set – FLUX has cost a lot – the point of doing Kickstarter was more getting people to know about it. There are a lot of people out there who know Kickstarter but don’t know me – so in a sense it was more for that – we will utilize the money we made to improve FLUX and make it better.

Doug: Will you be offering the FLUX platform to other artists?

belew_happyAdrian: Yeah that’s a possibility – its not something we’ve planned out – would love other people to take to it and enjoy it – it’s a great artistic platform. I don’t have a plan as to how that might happen but am hoping it does. I’ve always believed that the concept of FLUX – of things never repeating themselves – short random bursts – could be applied to other art forms – especially film – its already the way people make TV commercials somewhat – so my other hope is that this idea will spread into other areas. For me it requires a lot of content so its very time consuming – you can’t just take 10 songs and turn it into FLUX like you can a record. But for people who are prolific or have a lot of ideas or people who have an ADD approach to their creativity or people who have a large catalog – any of those types of situations – if you have a lot of information then FLUX is a wonderful way to present it.

Doug: Okay, last one is a King Crimson question – we saw the new incarnation of the band recently. The new group played a lot of older tracks besides the 2-3 songs you guys used to play since 1980. Back then was it Robert who did not want to go deep and play much off the 1970’s albums – or was that your position as well?

Adrian: I was a huge fan of all the early music but I was a champion of “new” so I was with Robert on that in the sense that it was a very different band with completely different vocabularies so it didn’t seem right to me to be going back and playing “In the Court of the Crimson King” or something like that. I think now that’s what he wants to be doing so he’s gone back to that period and it makes sense that I’m not a part of it because I wasn’t a part of it then. So when he told me about it I said, well if you’re not doing the music that I was a part of or wrote or co-wrote then I have no bone with any of it. If you’re doing more of the later music though then I think I should be there. In a sense he made the determination to go back to the beginning – I heard good things about it so am happy it all worked out.

Adrian’s tour winds it’s way through the U.S. this year. A few nights after this discussion, we caught up with the tour in San Francisco at the Chapel Theater, on November 12, 2014.

belew_indisciplineThe show was astounding – powerful and exciting as promised.  Adrian did in fact “romp” through his catalog, playing the style that will be served up by his FLUX platform. Songs would begin and end with transitions to and from other songs –or sometimes to a snippet of sound – be it random distortion, animal noises, or a bridge to the next track. As an example, Adrian led into the song “Elephant Talk” at the fourth verse “Debates, discussions, these are words with a D this time.” After that verse, one chorus and a solo, Adrian switched to the next track within the “block.” Most of the show consisted of these blocks – song snippets and interludes, though several tracks were played in their seemingly complete form, such as “Indiscipline” which allowed drummer Tobias Ralph a ripping solo prior to the first verse. It was a completely unique way to create a set list – covering a lot of history – and managing to give one the satisfaction of hearing so many favorites.

Of course, the playing itself was terrific. Adrian incorporated his trademark techniques, and his voice is undiminished. Julie stood out on several tracks, with rapid, dexterous moves and attitude. Tobias was just amazing – very often creating a fuller sound than the original tracks with dense fills on a musically tuned kit. And as promised, before and after the show, and during the intermission, we heard recordings from most of the artists who have collaborated with Adrian over the years – a welcome soundtrack as we anticipated the opportunity to catch this artist at work.

America at Home

america_2America is one of the few rock bands from the US that I’ve followed since first hearing them on the radio as a teenager. I first saw them perform at a bicentennial concert with the Beach Boys and Santana way back in 1976 and they’ve stuck with me ever since.

The band started in 1970 as a trio of multi-instrumentalists Dewey Bunnell, Dan Peek, and Gerry Beckley. Their core period of success ran until 1977 at which point Dan Peek left the band. Since then, Dewey and Gerry have carried on as a duo, recording and releasing records, but primarily touring the world averaging 100 shows a year. We saw them perform last night Tuesday November 6, 2014 at Yoshi’s in Oakland California with a crack backing band, some videos, stories to tell and lots of hits to play.

america_hattrickMy sister owned America’s third record, Hat Trick (1973), which meant that I played it incessantly then and since. The album includes some of their most adventurous, accomplished work, though it was disappointing to them commercially. The opening track “Muskrat Love” was actually penned by Willis Alan Ramsey – later ruined by a cloying Captain & Tennille rendition. America’s version is a fitting opener for the album – a charming lead in to a beautiful set of rich and varied compositions. The piano driven “Wind Wave” highlights Dewey’s forceful vocal power while “She’s Gonna Let You Down” is one of Gerry’s prettiest love songs. Dan penned two tracks – the first, “It’s Life” features a clever transition driven, uncharacteristically, by a bit of synthesizer leading to a rocking coda. The title track runs longer than 8 minutes, with several complete changes of key and cadence and backing vocals by three members of The Beach Boys. The hard rocking “Green Monkey” includes lead electric guitar played by Joe Walsh and one of their most hippie-era appropriate lyrics “Speak the wisdom of a Redwood tree – speak to me”. In short, Hat Trick is the band’s most progressive work – small wonder it disappointed on sales charts at the time given they were building a fan base looking for more radio-friendly hits.

america_1Now 40 years on, only one song from Hat Trick, “Green Monkey” made it into last night’s set list, though there were other deep cuts along with the hits, and covers. “Tin Man” started the show sounding fresh and vibrant. “Ventura Highway”, “Sister Golden Hair”, “Sandman”, “I Need You” and other popular songs were all crowd pleasers. A couple of covers found on their album Back Pages (2011) – “Til I Hear It From You” (Gin Blossoms) and “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell) sounded great – Gerry introducing that album as one where they covered songs they wished they had written. The show’s encore was Dewey’s “A Horse With No Name,” America’s first single and biggest hit. Occasionally Gerry had trouble with some of his singing – mostly phrasing, but Dewey didn’t miss a note and all in all vocals and musicianship were all top notch. At one point Dewey said, “We’re up here reliving our youth – something we’ve been doing for the past, oh, 20 years!” Sure a bit of nostalgia, but more importantly, a night of quality rock music in the American tradition.

Erasure Flaming Violet at the Fox

erasure_foxErasure is the synth-pop duo of Vince Clarke (keyboards) and Andy Bell (vocals.) Vince is the founder of three of the most famous all-synth bands of our times – Depeche Mode, Yazoo (Yaz in the states) and Erasure. In the 80’s these bands lured me away from the keyboard driven progressive rock artists I loved in the 70’s and extended my collection immensely. And, being a big fan of lead singers with personality, I found Andy to be a gem of Britain with his tremendous vocal range, charming tones, and energetic stage presence. The duo recently had the chance to showcase their new work “The Violet Flame” in concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California on November 1st 2014.

erasure_duoTo really appreciate this music you’ve got to experience it live in concert. Vince is known for his use of pre-MIDI analogue synthesizers and sequencers, and nothing beats the warm sound of these instruments cranked up to massive volumes. In concert he remains fairly stationary, twiddling knobs from behind his machinery looking very serious. The only exception to this I’ve seen was his inclusion in the synchronized runway dance during the “Abba-esque” segment for the Chorus tour. The real treat in concert is singer Andy Bell, who flirts with the audience, dressing in exotic risqué costumes, delivering his soaring vocals with pitch perfect precision. He has been on top of his game every time I’ve seen them, with the highlight being the Chorus tour, nicely documented in the video “The Tank, The Swan, and the Balloon Live,” and including their most elaborate staging outside the “Wild!” and “Cowboy” tours.

erasure_andy2With more than sixteen album releases, Erasure has worked within different sound pallets from synth-pop to trace to pure dance music. For me, their greatest works are I Say I Say I Say (1994) with the boisterous up-tempo single “Run to the Sun” and the self-titled Erasure (1995) with the densely textured track “Fingers and Thumbs.” Vince’s choice of sounds and complex multi-layered keyboard sequencing really hit a high water mark during this period. But the whole catalog is full of gems both musically and lyrically, such as an early track “Hideaway”, the heart breaking but ultimately triumphant ode to coming out:

The boy he was rejected
By the people that he cared for
It’s not what they expected
But he could not keep it secret anymore

erasure_bandOther standouts from the group’s catalog include “Drama” and “Blue Savannah” from Wild! (1989), and “I Love to Hate You” and “Breath of Life” from Chorus (1991). Their releases since the 90’s have all been solid, but their new album, The Violet Flame (2014) is far better than might be expected – all their trademark flourishes are included within a dance heavy mix fronted by Andy’s still pliant voice. So it was with great expectations that we attended the show Saturday night.

erasre_andyWhile not the best tour from this duo, the concert was great. The crowd was largely drawn from San Francisco, and they treat these artists as royalty, particularly Andy, considered an LGBT icon. The atmosphere was charged with excitement from the opening track, “Oh L’Amour” to the encores “Always” and “Sometimes”. The rest of the set list was well chosen, though without any deep cuts or more rarely played songs.  Instead, they highlighted the hits from the past, and four tracks off the latest album, including the dramatic “Sacred.”

erasure_vinceVince played his typical role – mostly standing calmly behind a small tabletop of electronics and laptop – while Andy led the procession all vamp and vigor, backed by their two long-time female vocalists. The staging was a bit sparse – just glossy black flooring and dance club lighting –no props or elaborate costumes for the players. Prior tours have been more elaborately staged, with a bit more going on visually, and that added to the overall experience. But the focus here was the music, with new interesting mixes Vince prepared, and Andy’s performance, which is nothing less than amazing.  Though it’s been 30 years since they started out, he is still a powerful and charismatic stage presence, with soaring vocal range and sassy dance moves still intact.

A very entertaining night from these masters of all things breathy and electronic!