Steven Wilson at The Warfield

Wilson_portrait_72dpiSteven Wilson brought his latest tour to the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on June 14, 2015. This is the second time I’ve seen him at that venue – the first being with his band Porcupine Tree on their last tour. Each solo outing from Steven and his band has been an increasingly intense, powerful experience. On this night, while retaining all the darker, melancholic aspects of prior visits, the whole seemed a bit brighter, owing to the more modern, accessible nature of this latest album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015). This new work is a concept album that fictionalizes the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a young woman found dead in her London apartment, undiscovered and not missed by anyone for over 2 years. The subject matter anchored an evening of dramatic, inspirational and at times emotionally overwhelming musical theater.

For those of you in Europe and the U.K., this tour is coming your way from 12-July through 9-February 2016. On the strength of the San Francisco show, we will be attending again at the Royal Albert Hall on 29-September. It’s a spectacular, stunning night of music and theater, not to be missed. Spoiler alert: read on only if you are fine knowing details of the show before attending!

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Steven and his concert production team are adept at staging his work live, setting the mood with long dissonant ambient sounds, muted lighting and surrealistic imagery. This night began with an introductory film focusing on the cold exterior of a non-descript apartment building, Wilson_apartment_72dpisetting the tone for the themes of urban loneliness and isolation from Hand. Cannot Erase. The band took the stage to perform all the songs on the new album save one, with just a few added tracks: “Index” from Grace For Drowning (2011), “Lazarus” from Porcupine Tree’s, Deadwing (2005), and “Harmony Korine” from Steven’s first solo album Insurgentes (2009). These songs resonated with the themes of his new record, as the liner notes confirm. That his new work would be featured, and form the core of the set, was expected and welcome.

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Gritty, surrealistic films from directors Lasse Holie, Jess Cope, and Yousef Nassar accompanied the music and were a highlight of the show. The film for “Regret #9” was a standout, with its animated tale of mundane moments in the protagonist’s daily life. Lighting techniques were clever and colorful. Sound was crisp and clear, reproduced by the top-notch audio system in surround sound. Yet, the primary focus remained the band members demonstrating their skills throughout. There were complex rhythms and solos from lead guitar player Dave Kilminster, electronic textures and brisk synth leads from keyboard player Adam Holzman, and a deep, thunderous bottom end from Nick Beggs on basses, and skilled drummer Craig Blundell. Despite a jibe that he is the “weak link” in the otherwise excellent display of musicianship, Steven delivered his poetic lyrics throughout in fine voice, alternating skillfully between guitar, bass, keys and samples, including evocative spoken word loops from Ninet Tayeb. He displayed his wit and thoughtfulness between tracks as lead raconteur. These elements combined to make up a masterful core set.

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Prior to the first of two encores, a silver translucent curtain was dropped across the front of the stage. Additional projections were shown and for a time, the band played behind this curtain, their frames casting shadows falling in front and behind, creating a mysterious visual effect. The first encores “The Watchmaker” from The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013) and “Sleep Together” from Porcupine Tree’s Fear of A Blank Planet), were followed by a final encore, the beautiful title track from The Raven That Refused to Sing, ending the show in a stunning display of craft, verve and virtuosity.

Most of Steven’s solo work veers toward unrelentingly dark and sad subjects and matching tonality. After the song “Perfect Life,” Steven summed it up best: “This music is superficially miserable, but actually I’ve always found that kind of music very uplifting and being very beautiful going right back to my teenage years … it makes you feel good. I’m not quite sure how that works as I’m not a psychologist but I’ve always found that to be the case. There’s something about shared human experience that when you hear something really sad, melancholic, depressing, angry, then implicitly I think you understand that we are not alone in the world, that there is someone else that feels the same way we do – and let’s focus on that.” Made me reflect on how true that’s been of my own tastes in music and the profound impact it’s had on my life.

Wilson_bow_72dpiFor the uninitiated, when it comes to assessing your interest, note that while Stephen is very often associated with progressive rock and it’s 1970’s era practitioners, his sound is very much of today, and his influences are diverse. Follow Steven’s ongoing re-mastering work as engineer-for-hire, and the names of early inspirations will be apparent. At one point in the show Steven acknowledged his audience was more than “middle aged men in Pink Floyd t-shirts” (even though they’re great!) and that his influences go beyond 70’s conceptual rock. Before launching into “Harmony Korine,” he name-checked some of these artists from the 80’s and 90’s. “The music of my teenage years was the music of the 80’s and I still love this music … there is a lot of [it] in my DNA and I’m not talking about just the mainstream bands, I’m talking about Kate Bush, Talking Heads, and also a bunch of other bands that were only there if you sought them out. Artists like Sonic Youth, XTC, Cocteau Twins and … a musical genre called shoegazing music which came at the end of the late 80’s, into the start of the 90’s – bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Chapterhouse… it’s a specific sound that I absolutely loved and still love to this day and it’s in my music somewhere.”

Indeed, there are many influences that have been fused and evolved into something utterly unique by this multi-talented musician. I can’t think of another artist I’ve seen over these now forty years with a more accomplished, expressive body of work and ability to present it with the highest standards in concert. Treat yourself to a heavy dose by catching the band on this tour.

Alan Parsons at Club Nokia

Parsons_Alan_72dpiAlan Parsons and his supremely talented band played the Nokia Club in Los Angeles, performing in town for the first time in 6 years on June 11, 2015. The group was at the absolute top of their game, driving through a set list that included many of their hits recorded over the years as The Alan Parsons Project, and in particular highlighting one of their most popular albums, The Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980). It’s going to be difficult to express just how amazing this concert was without leaving a bit of the journalist aside and instead sharing these thoughts as a devoted fan of Alan Parsons and all of his work over the years. So here goes, starting with some background.

Alan Parsons is the well-known audio engineer, record producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who began his career as a music engineer with the likes of The Beatles (Abbey Road) and Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon) and went on to engineer and/or produce award winning artists Ambrosia, Al Stewart, Steven Wilson and others too numerous to detail herein. Alan and collaborator Eric Woolfson began a career as The Alan Parsons Project (APP) with their definitive progressive rock release Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Edgar Allen Poe) (1976), followed closely by I Robot (1977). These records are diverse, eclectic masterworks of the genre, and they belong in every quality music collection. Many of us selected our stereo equipment back in the day by spinning one of these albums to test out record players, amps and speakers such was the amazing production and sonic quality of the recordings. As APP went on, they released one great record after another: Pyramid (1978), Eve (1979), The Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980), Eye In The Sky (1982) and on, in all ten albums, each demonstrating the strength of the Parsons/Woolfson songwriting team, and showcasing their musical talents and those of their many collaborators. These included orchestral arranger Andrew Powell, long time guitarist Ian Bairnson, drums from Stuart Elliott, bass and vocals from David Paton, and numerous vocalists including the late, great Chris Rainbow, Colin Blunstone, and Eric himself. The project ended in 1990 after Alan and Eric made a brief foray into musical theater with Freudiana. Eric continued with musical theater until his untimely passing in 2009, and Alan went on present their music live, while releasing and touring four solo records in the 90’s and 00’s.

Parsons_band_72dpiThe Alan Parsons Project maintained a focus on bringing beautiful melodies and vocal harmonies to their compositions. Along with some rockers, Eric and Alan wrote and recorded many achingly beautiful and sentimental pop tunes and with Andrew’s orchestral arrangements, the songs were rendered with lush and dramatic colors. This was definitely prog-pop and contemporary music of its time, for fans with a heart, which left some harder prog-rock zealots behind, while rewarding those who followed. I’ve found that everyone from several generations near mine know the name Alan Parsons, and can identify, for instance “Eye In The Sky,” but many have less an idea just how many hits they would recognize. One reason for this is that Alan and Eric never toured to support this work, save for a show in 1990 just before they split. The first time I was able to see the band was touring to support Alan’s excellent second solo record On Air (1996) when a new band was assembled with lead vocalist P.J. Olsson.

For this latest concert, Alan Parsons and his musicians were all in a great spirit, reproducing the sound of the APP records with pinpoint accuracy but also with some improvisation, and room to demonstrate virtuosity. The band are: Alastair Greene (guitar), Dan Tracey (guitar), Guy Erez (bass), Danny Thompson (drums), Tom Brooks (keyboards), Todd Cooper (lead vocals, saxophone, cowbell J), and long time vocalist P.J. Olsson. The band showcased the following numbers from throughout the years:

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“I Robot” / title track
“Damned If I Do” / Eve
“Don’t Answer Me” / Ammonia Avenue
“Breakdown” / I Robot, “The Raven” / Tales of Mystery and Imagination
“Time” / The Turn Of A Friendly Card
“I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” / I Robot
“Days Are Numbers (The Traveller)” / Vulture Culture
“The Turn Of A Friendly Card” (suite) / title track
“Psychobabble” / Eye In The Sky
“Do You Live At All” / new track – single w/Fragile
“Limelight” / Stereotomy
“(The System Of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” / Tales of Mystery and Imagination
“Old And Wise” / Eye In The Sky
“Prime Time” / Ammonia Avenue
“Sirius,” “Eye In The Sky” / title track

Encores:
“Don’t Let It Show” / I Robot
“Games People Play” / The Turn Of A Friendly Card

Parsons_Todd_72dpiThis set included something from almost every APP album from 1977-1987, along with Alan’s new single “Do You Live At All.” Vocals took center stage as six of the eight performers sang multi-part harmonies atop crisp instrumentals throughout. Alan, Alastair, and Dan took lead vocal on one or more tracks while P.J. and Todd tackled more of the songs. On this night, P.J. in particular stunned the audience with fantastic, heartwarming lead vocals on “Time,” “Old and Wise,” “Don’t Let It Show” and others, each performed with poise and emotion. Additional lead vocalist Todd Cooper nailed several key tracks including a highlight of the evening “Psychobabble,” which shone light on Guy’s bass plus Danny’s powerful backbeat, and another classic, “Limelight,” peppering others with lilting sax solos, and even some cowbell! Dan sang on the funky hit “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” displaying attitude and chops during the memorable guitar bridge. The centerpiece of this tour is the multi-part suite “The Turn Of A Friendly Card” which gave the band additional time to stretch out, including more layered keys from Alan and classical piano from talented player Tom Brooks.
Parsons_guitar_72dpiAlan presided over all of this as master of ceremonies – singing, playing keyboards, acoustic guitar and addressing the enthusiastic audience. Club Nokia was a great venue for the show – intimate while being sizable enough for the large band to resonate. It is part of an entertainment complex in downtown Los Angeles that includes a much larger arena – as Alan dryly noted between songs, “the place is called Microsoft something – we’ll play there one day, when we get big.” During another break Alan noted that all the APP albums were available in the lobby in vinyl format, known to younger fans as “those big black CDs!” and made a pitch for quality music formats, such as his new single available in WAV format, as those MP3’s “just make the music sound awful.” On this night the music sounded fantastic and the performance was stunning, befitting this man of many talents, Alan Parsons, and his marvelous band.

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*apologies to Danny Thompson, the band’s excellent drummer -no closeup captured!

David Pack At Home in Napa

Pack_NapaCrossroadsDavid Pack is the composer, producer and multi-talented musician who led the progressive rock band Ambrosia with his superb songwriting, vocals and guitar. The group recorded five albums and staged numerous tours over the years. Since that time, David released several quality solo albums, which reflect his love of melodic inventive pop, with R&B and jazz sensibilities, and rich vocal harmonies. Concurrently, David’s had a successful second career as a Grammy winning record producer, including among others Phil Collins, Kenny Loggins, Aretha Franklin, Wynonna, and has been a Music Director of global stage events including both of President Clinton’s Inaugurals and events for Barbara Streisand, Elton John, and Billy Joel. Of all these events, one of his most cherished projects was to honor his friend, mentor, and godfather of his oldest daughter, Leonard Bernstein by doing a contemporary pop version of West Side Story with 27 of the world’s biggest stars doing his arrangements and production to raise money for Grammy in the Schools and Bernstein’s BETA education fund. Of additional note to prog fans is David’s long association with Alan Parsons including his appearances on several of Alan’s albums, and the Walk Down Abbey Road U.S. and Japan tours, among other collaborations.

Most recently David wrote and recorded with a large number of musicians including Ray Manzarek (The Doors) Todd Rundgren, Alan Parsons, and many other luminaries, to create David Pack’s Napa Crossroads (2014). Last month at Napa’s BottleRock festival David assembled a band to present at least one of his new tracks, along with hits from Ambrosia and those of three additional contemporary lead singers, famous for their work in Kansas, Chicago, and Survivor. We were there for the show with friends and family, and had a fun afternoon rocking out to these classics. I had the opportunity to talk to David about Napa Crossroads, and his BottleRock tour date.

Pack2_72dpiThe Napa Crossroads album represents a return to form as it includes some prog-based sounds alongside an eclectic mix of folk, jazz and rock influences. The song “Silverado Free” is a highlight with keyboard and spoken word from The Doors alum Ray Manzarek. “Progressive music has always been a part of my life,” says Pack. “It lives in me. I’m steeped in classic music. Thinking of Ray and how artistically incredible he was – I wanted to challenge him so I wrote the song in 6/4. He lived on Silverado Trail, so I worked that into the song. It turns out to be his last great recording – It’s my favorite track and meaningful to me.”

Pack3_72dpiWhile David is preparing to present the new album live, he’s also been arranging concerts that showcase his hits alongside those of his contemporaries, and this is what we saw at BottleRock. Explains Pack, “Napa Crossroads Live is a brand I’m building, so we can bring in legendary stars for a collaborative effort, just like the CD. It’s another way of telling my brothers from my generation: ‘here is a way for us to come together and play.’ Its reflective of how much I love Napa Valley and want to be an ambassador to it – bringing the upscale wine enthusiast together with a different demographic.”

David performed two mega-hits originally recorded with Ambrosia, “You’re The Only Woman” and “Biggest Part of Me” along with “Every Time I Look At You,” one of the new songs recorded with Silver Oak Cellars CEO David Duncan who joined David on stage. The band was in great form, and each of four main vocalists played a few of their most popular songs. Of particular note, David’s voice is undiminished by time, and he remains one of our greatest vocal talents (and quite a skilled guitarist it must be said!) In anticipation of the show, David shared the plan. “The preference of the BottleRock promoters, and the assumption is, the fans are going to want to hear our hits. So its under our banner of Napa Crossroads Live, but you are going to see Bill Champlin of Chicago and Sons of Champlin doing his hits [“Hard Habit to Break”], John Elefante doing Kansas hits [“Point of Know Return, “Dust In The Wind” and “Carry On My Wayward Son”], and Jim Peterik performing several songs from his playbook [“Hold On Loosely” and  “Eye of the Tiger].” We are backed by a superstar band, which includes Kenny Arnoff (drums), Alex Al (bass), Tom Brooks (keys) and Dave Coyle (guitar). I’m the host – the invitee – so I asked all these guys to play, and we’ll present our popular songs – we’ve done this show before, sometimes with other artists, and it’s been a blast.”

Pack1_72dpiThe concert was indeed special as each of the vocalists presented at their best and celebrated in style. There wasn’t time to dig deeper into back catalogs for more rare tracks, but when time permits in the future we expect David will include more of his progressive and rocking material. “I am tired of promoters calling me asking if I would perform in some kind of ‘Yacht Rock’ band – I would rather put my hand on a burner than to see myself on YouTube under the that banner” says Pack.

David’s next project will be to capture the Napa Crossroads material live: “What we’re working on now is a PBS special for Soundstage – it’s in the making. We’ll do a concert in Napa Valley then hopefully tour it. It’s an artistic endeavor – the art of fine winemaking, and the music that follows.”

Here’s hoping for that video and tour. In the meantime, for those unable to catch David live, but appreciate adventurous music, try out some of his past and present work. Highly recommended from two different eras: Ambrosia’s Somewhere I Never Travelled (1976) and David Pack’s Napa Crossroads (2013).

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Robert Plant Bottles Rock

Plant1_72DPIRobert Plant totally rocked the BottleRock festival in Napa California on May 30, 2015. We brought a dozen friends along for our birthday weekend, and went in with mixed expectations – knowing he would do some of his own material and of course some Led Zeppelin classics and generally just hoping to see this rock n’ roll legend perform at his best.

Plant_BR_72DPIFrom the start we were actually a bit shocked at how incredible the show was. Robert opened with “The Wanton Song” an old Zeppelin classic, performed pretty much as originally recorded. What followed was a mix of his solo work, covers, and Zeppelin songs, including “Black Dog”, “The Lemon Song”, “What Is and What Should Never Be” and others. During Robert’s rendition of “Going To California” a 20 something woman behind me started to cry and I realized what an impact Zeppelin’s music and Robert’s vocal prowess have meant to generations.

Plant_lullaby_coverBut much of what we appreciated was actually Robert’s new work. He and band messed with the structure of those old Zep tunes, interspersing them with similarly dark and dramatic songs from his new album lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, an aptly named record that explores America’s roots music. They performed “Turn It Up”, “Rainbow” and “Little Maggie” (check out Little Maggie here) from that new album and proceeded to flavor covers and old songs alike with the same type of instrumentation and song structure; a mix of delta blues, Appalachian folk and other forms which often meandered about and around verse and chorus via virtuosic instrumentals. To further underline his inspirations, Robert covered Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, Muddy Waters and other American blues masters. Robert spoke glowingly about these artists and his quest to explore their music, adding to the sense of historical occasion. It all made for a thoroughly enjoyable brew of rock-‘n-roots that wove a path between atmospheric dark and light tones.

Plant3_72DPIThe musicianship was first rate (his excellent band is dubbed “The Sensational Space Shifters”) and Robert’s voice was warm and pliant, as he has most definitely worked out how to preserve his given instrument – hitting some of the high notes required to replicate bits of his early 20’s Zep work while still having the mid range, growl and soft tones for his new work and covers. I listened trying to imagine him doing more Zeppelin reunion shows and couldn’t see it – as much as old fans might fawn, at this stage of life it would seem a shame to see Robert locked into a Zeppelin hits tour, during which he would be expected to sound as much like the old records as possible. We will spin our 2007 Celebration DVD instead – my guess is it’s not going to happen again. Instead Robert was able to bend and weave through selected tunes in a confident, skilled voice, changing key and pitch to suit. With so many classic rock vocalists unable to perform later in life in any compelling way, it was an absolute joy to hear Robert sounding so good and looking truly happy – that made the show everything we hoped it could be and more.

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