Heart Warms The Masonic

Heart at the Masonic
Heart at the Masonic Auditorium

Heart is an American hard rock/folk band that was founded in 1974, uniting musicians that had previously been a part of various groups in the U.S. and Canada. After one more personnel change – a new drummer, the Heart lineup gelled and released their accomplished debut album Dreamboat Annie, distributed in the states in 1976. From that point until the end of the decade, the Heart lineup included sisters Ann Wilson (lead vocals, flute, violin) and Nancy Wilson (vocals, guitars, mandolin), both of whom wrote the music and also played keyboards, along with Roger Fisher (lead guitars), Howard Leese (keyboards), Steve Fossen (bass) and Michael Derosier (drums). Despite a troubled second album, which was properly released as Magazine (1978) after a change of labels, the band produced excellent follow-ups Little Queen (1977) and Dog and Butterfly (1978). This is the core period for Heart’s music, brimming with confidence, Zeppelin-esque riffs, real Moog synth, and tight backbeat. The group experienced success in the early 1980’s then revivals later that decade, again in the 1990’s and through to today.

Heart_Ann
Ann Wilson
Heart_Nancy
Nancy Wilson

Heart has been performing in the San Francisco bay area almost every summer season at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga. This year, they made a rare appearance in the city at the newly remodeled Masonic Auditorium on September 17, 2015. The venue, known for excellent acoustics, now has the floor arranged in three tiers as general admission standing room only, which allowed the crowd in this instance to rock out to the band’s hits from their long career. Tracks included fan favorites like the opener “Kick It Out”, along with “Straight On”, “Crazy On You”, “Even It Up” and set closer “Barracuda”. The band has always been fond of playing covers, and this night was no exception, as Nancy introduced a beautiful rendition of Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”, and a rocking version of “The Witch” by The Sonics. The sister’s share a well-known love of Led Zeppelin; the entire encore was made of of Zep tunes “Immigrant Song” (yes, chills!), “No Quarter” and “Misty Mountain Hop”.

Heart_Band2

This was an excellent night for rock ‘n roll, which saw Ann in near perfect voice, so key to this band hitting its stride in concert. Nancy lent rich lead vocals on a couple of her tracks, accented by great stage moves timed to clever riffs on acoustic and electric guitars. New keyboard player Chris Joyner and bass from Dan Rothchild along with Ben Smith, their drummer since 2003 filled out their sound. Of particular note, lead guitarist Craig Bartock, with the band since 2004, nailed crisp lead riffs and solos that harken back to the original studio recordings. All in all a great night – highly recommended.

Heart on Film

Heart_KWSU_VideoI’ve been researching all the available films of bands from the 1970’s and artists of the New Wave ‘80’s. In the case of Heart, there are several clips from their core period, culled from performances on Midnight Special, Saturday Night Live, and others, but as yet I’ve not located a feature length film of the band performing live on stage during the 70’s. However, there is one brilliant 55-minute film of the band playing live in front of an enthusiastic studio audience at KWSU (Washington State University, Pullman) just after the completion of their first album. The film, titled The Second Ending, shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, was originally broadcast on April 9, 1976 on a local PBS station. It features the band playing nearly every track from their debut, Dreamboat Annie, along with two from their as-yet unreleased second, Magazine. The set opens with an energetic instrumental, which features Ann playing a rocking lead on flute that must have given Ian Anderson pause. Credits roll over audio of the band performing a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover” taped at an earlier live Heart_StrangeEuphoria_BoxSet_Coverdate. The show was produced and directed by the late Michael J. Cotsones. Though circulated among collectors and online video sites, it was finally released on DVD in 2012 as part of Heart’s Strange Euphoria box set. The show perfectly captures this band in their prime, just as they began their ascent to classic rock stardom. Also, highly recommended!

Heart_Drums
Ben Smith
Heart_Guitars
Dan Rothchild and Craig Bartock,

 

Heart_keys
Chris Joyner

Kansas Return to Form

KansasArticleAll2015

The band Kansas turned 40 last year, and to commemorate the event, they reunited to film a new documentary “Miracles Out of Nowhere” – about the only time they had all been in the same their first personnel change, when Steve Walsh split following the Audio-Visions album and tour. The group had enjoyed a solid unchanging lineup from their inception in 1973 until 1981, but since that time there has been a dozen incarnations with original members coming and going. The latest change came just after the documentary was filmed last year, when Steve Walsh, the powerful original vocalist, composer, organ and keys player retired, leaving the ongoing band with two just original members, Phil Ehart (drums) and Richard Williams (guitars). Steve was an amazing vocalist, keys player and force within Kansas, but it became clear more recently that his once soaring voice had diminished to an extent, and since his original vocal leads were so challenging, the live shows suffered a bit in the final year. Nonetheless, his departure was timed just right, coming after a long 40-year career. Whether or not he returns to the studio or stage, his legacy of fine compositions and performances will stand forever as important contributions to classic rock music.

Phil Ehart

Kansas is now touring again, populated with the two original members Ehart and Williams and new members that have joined over many years. Original member Dave Hope (bass) left in 1983 and Billy Greer has played bass with the band since then. Robby Steinhardt (violin, vocals) retired almost 10 years ago in 2006 and David Ragsdale has been their violin player since that time, with Greer covering Steinhart’s vocal parts. Principal composer Kerry Livgren (guitars, keys) was in and out of the band until his final KansasArticleWilliams2015departure in 2000, and since then both Williams and Ragsdale cover his guitar parts. After Walsh’s retirement last year, the remaining players hired Ronnie Platt primarily to cover his vocal parts, along with some keys, and David Manion to supply primary keyboard parts and add some background vocals. If all that seems like a lot to take in, a complete timeline is available online! The good news is, as seen last Saturday night September 12, 2015 in Valencia California, Kansas is definitely back and ready to roll.

While often being considered a progressive or classical rock band, Kansas was inspired by American R&B, soul and Motown, rather than the bands of the British invasion. Ehart said, “When we got together we did not bust into some Yes song, we were playing the Four Tops, Otis Redding, The Temptations.” The Livgren/Walsh writing team made ample use of shifting meters, keys, and sometimes jagged progressive song structures to build their compositions. As they developed their own sound, the combination of Kerry’s writing and playing plus Steve’s soulful, powerhouse voice and Robbie’s violin along with his vocal leads and harmonies made the combination that sparked the emergence of Kansas. The band built a fan base by touring incessantly playing nearly 250 shows in a year to support the first three albums, Kansas (1974), Song For America (1975), and Masque (1975), none of which spawned any hits. Kansas then followed these up with two sextuple-platinum albums, Leftoverture (1976) and Point of Know Return (1977). A double-live album taken from these tours, called Two For The Show followed, capturing the band at their absolute peak. Studio albums Monolith (1979) and Audio-Visions (1980) came after this, ending the unbroken string of releases from the original lineup.

KansasArticle2015

I first saw Kansas play live at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium near the end of the Leftoverture tour, on January 14th, 1977. The show was spectacular in every way – the band was on fire, playing faithful renditions of all their most complex compositions with almost impossible precision. All the lighting and staging added to the experience – as an example, in one memorable moment ending their set, near the coda of “Cheyenne Anthem” Steinhardt sang the final verse lit only by a tight spotlight:

Soon these days shall pass away, for our freedom we must pay
All our words and deeds are carried on the wind,
In the ground our bodies lay, here we’ll stay…

At that point, the instrumental coda crashed in and the lights came up to reveal an empty stage. This was a clever moment of unforgettable staging, as Steinhardt had whisked his way off the stage in just a few seconds of darkness to complete the effect. Another recollection from this time is just how impactful Kansas lyrics were, and how their emotive live presentation brought out the meaning and import of their verse. Songs like “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, “The Wall” and others made an enriching impact on the attentive listeners soul.

Steve Walsh
Steve Walsh

By the next tour, to support Point of Know Return, Kansas were playing at arenas and we saw their incredible virtuosic performance on New Year’s Eve 1977 at the Long Beach arena. On that night Steve Walsh delivered an unbelievably athletic performance – exuding the physicality of a crazed gymnast, while simultaneously singing his magnificent lead vocals at full tilt. On this occasion they pulled another stunt to end the set, departing the stage one by one, while seemingly still playing the coda of “Sparks of the Tempest.”

In a surprising and nostalgic touch, Kansas ended last Saturday’s set with that same song, walking away from their instruments to take a bow during the pre-recorded coda, echoing that bit of staging from back in 1977. What came before was a near perfect set list, which included something from all of their core releases other than Song For America. They featured many deep tracks and fan favorites to go alongside the hits. Examples included “Icarus, Borne On Wings Of Steel” from Masque, “What’s On My Mind” from Leftoverture, “Closet Chronicles” from Point Of Know Return, and a personal favorite “Reason To Be” from Monolith.

KansasArticlePlatt2015From the first notes of the opener, the title track from Point of Know Return, it was clear that this lineup is back in top form. In particular, Ronnie Platt, who took the unenviable position of hitting Steve Walsh’s rich high notes, nailed both the attitude and control needed to pull off the job. With that role filled, the well-rehearsed band sounded fantastic, able to recreate their complex, challenging pieces with precision and aplomb. We went in a bit skeptical, but came away impressed, ready to recommend the band again to new and original fans, and anyone curious to know what real classic rock is like in concert. Kansas is, once again, a band.

Looking for Natalie Merchant

NatalieMerchant_PortraitNatalie Merchant, the American singer/songwriter originally known for her work with the band 10,000 Maniacs, has enjoyed a long and successful solo career. In the coming months, she is releasing a new album of original compositions, Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings, which will harken back to her first solo release, Tigerlily (1995). That first solo album, along with her second release, Ophelia (1998) feature her warm, resonant vocals and lovely poetry set to mostly down-tempo, dreamy electric and acoustic instrumentation. After her third release in this style Motherland (2001), she expanded her pallet with two compelling explorations into historical music and literature, introducing listeners to a series of oft forgotten artists of the past. These were The House Carpenter’s Daughter (2003) and Leave Your Sleep (2010).

NatalieMerchant_HouseThe House Carpenter’s Daughter found Natalie playing musical anthropologist, taking listeners on a journey through a collection of primarily American folk music from traditional to contemporary ballads, hymns, and protest songs. Before the studio album was even recorded, I was able to catch her on a tour that showcased these songs and it is still the best performance I’ve seen from this artist. She was visibly happy, telling stories about each piece, and connecting the audience to their shared history, via a well-chosen set of rescued folk classics. During one of the songs from that evening, an old children’s ditty from the Deep South, “Soldier, Soldier” she skipped rope, as the song was originally intended to accompany that diversion.

NatalieMerchant_LoseCoverSimilarly, her next album Leave Your Sleep presented a collection of poetry for children put to music. The tracks were a result of six years conversations with her daughter about poems, stories and songs she found to, as she says, “delight and teach her.” What she discovered is a wonderful selection of prose from British and American poets clearly inspiring her to pen and record a very remarkable set of songs to match. She spent over five years researching and writing the “poem-songs,” finally whittling what ended up being 50 songs down to 26 for the release. The 2 CD package came with a picture book based on the album, for which Natalie collaborated with award-winning children’s book illustrator Barbara McClintock. The introductory prose by Mother Goose says it all:

Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street

I was able to catch the supporting tour for this unique recording at the Fox Theater in Oakland.  The show was filled with a series of sweet, poignant revelations from this artist as she shared family anecdotes and her love of poetry with the enthusiastic audience.  She projected a few slides for each song, showing a photo of the poet and accompanying artwork along with a story, a bit of the author’s history and why she chose it.

On record, I found it took several spins to begin to appreciate the diverse all-acoustic set, played in varying traditional styles, at mostly slow tempos. But as performed in concert the music and imaginative arrangements came to life.  The first set was all from Leave Your Sleep, after which Natalie returned for a collection of standards from her back catalog, including several tracks from her days with 10,000 Maniacs going back to their seminal release In My Tribe. In short it was a beautiful performance.

NatalieMerchant_CoverLast year Natalie released her sixth studio record simply titled Natalie Merchant, her first album of all original material since Motherland. I completely missed this one, only learning about it while preparing this article. It’s a shame, as the album continues where she left off in 2001, enriched by scores of musicians including strings and woodwinds players, and supported by a tour with some dates including a full symphony orchestra.

In her liner notes to The House Carpenter’s Daughter, Natalie Merchant, opining on the great tradition of folk music writes, “…a song that is universally loved and understood will endure the test of time and become folk music because it has made itself useful to so many of us.” To her fans, this applies to her music, meaningful poetry, and compelling live performances. Looking back over her career, seven albums in 20 years might not be prolific, but each is a quality work of art. We are now eagerly awaiting the next showing.

NatalieMerchant_paradise-is-there

Emerson, Lake and Palmer Make Brain Salad Surgery

ELP_BSS_Cover_72dpiAnd did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?

…croons Greg Lake, in powerful melodious voice, to begin the first track of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s most progressive, conceptual album, 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery. The opening track, a beloved and patriotic English anthem, sets the stage for what is to come; a series of intricate compositions and virtuosic performances from Lake (vocals, bass, guitars), Keith Emerson (keyboards, computer voice), and Carl Palmer (drums & percussion synthesizers). The album represented a high water mark for the band, both in the studio and for their stunning live performances, which culminated in America when the group played to over 200,000 fans at “California Jam Festival” in 1974. Nearly forty-five minutes of this show was captured on film, later released on DVD as part of the Beyond the Beginning collection. In addition, fans were treated to a triple album capturing the band at their peak.

ELP_EmersonSolo_72dpiI never was able to catch ELP in concert, and have always been more of a Rick Wakeman fanatic rather than a Keith Emerson fan. Keith’s keyboard attack always seemed a bit too violent and prolonged for my ears, whereas I felt that Rick focused more on melody and song craft. Nonetheless, I never thought the critics were fair to this band. After hailing them as the “next super group” they were savaged by accusations of being pretentious and bombastic. Instead I felt that the hints of these qualities made sense as part of the package, and that it was more talent, confidence and showmanship that the critics unfairly assailed. I did get the chance to see Carl astound us all when playing with Asia, and always loved Greg’s rich baritone on anything graced with his tones. And, as the years passed, I’ve warmed to the ELP sound, finally catching them live on their Black Moon tour. It’s clear no matter one’s musical palette, that these are three of the most talented musicians of our time. Brain Salad Surgery is to this listener their undeniable masterpiece.

CONCEPT & MUSIC

ELP_ComputerMalfunction_72dpiThe centerpiece of Brain Salad Surgery is “Karn Evil 9”, a suite presented over 30 minutes in three parts, or “impressions.” The themes in the “Karn Evil 9” suite, a “carnival of words and music” came in parts, moving from a disaffected generation witnessing the evils of the world, culminating in mankind facing a war-ravaged world taken over by computers. King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield and Lake collaborated on the lyrics during intense writing sessions, weaving together the disparate movements. In the early sixties Sinfield had worked on a mainframe computer that he claimed could actually play the song “Daisy, Daisy” a tune which listeners may also recall from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, itself a study of the man-machine battle. On a recent CD reissue, Lake explains, “Some of the lyrics would be surreal, then the next day we would feel that something needed to be said, for instance like the way the media make money from photographing people suffering. The whole concept of computers dominating peoples lives, and the one line Load your program, I am yourself – they were rather prophetic words… I really do question sometimes how much good it’s doing us, all this bloody technology! That’s what Brain Salad Surgery was to some extent about.” Taken as a suite, the themes of the composition leave the listener to interpret the whole, a hallmark of the best conceptual rock in the 1970’s.

To round out the album, four initial tracks display the band’s prowess in every possible manner. Already known for interpreting classical and contemporary works by other composers, the band began the record with “Jerusalem,” by Sir Hubert Parry, with words from the poem by William Blake, and follow-up “Toccata,” a complex instrumental piece based on the 4th movement of Alberto Ginastera’s “1st Piano Concerto.” This cut includes a credit to Carl Palmer for his synthesized percussion movement; a startling aggressive workout on his new electronic kit. Lake’s ballad “Still… You Turn Me On” is the primary “radio-friendly” track on the album, a serene and catchy love song. The comedic music hall number “Benny The Bouncer” gives Lake a chance to work out raspy vocals in a Cockney accent, with boogie-woogie piano by Emerson and Palmer keeping pace on small kit. The centerpiece, “Karn Evil 9,” began on side one of the original LP and continued by filling all of side 2.

ELP_PalmerBells_72dpi

For the album cover, the band went with an evocative painting by artist H.R. Giger, whose work later in the decade would be used in the Alien movies. Emerson had been introduced to Giger while on tour in Switzerland. The band went to his studio to peruse his work, and he produced the cover henceforth. The painting, featuring industrial machinery housing an embedded human skull, presents a portal through which an image based on a portrait of Giger’s wife’s is partly visible. Opening the album’s gatefold cover revealed the complete picture. This inventive design perfectly suited the album and it’s themes. Famously, the record company forced the band to tone down the painting’s sexual content, replacing an image of a penis with a slightly vague shaft of light.

Reflecting on the album, band members look back fondly. “I think what people really found appealing about the band was more it’s fantasy side,” says Lake, “and that side of ELP was more predominant on the earlier albums.” “We were doing things to push the boundaries of experimentation and recording forward,” adds Palmer.

LIVE PERFORMANCE

ELP_WelcomeBack_CD_Cover_72dpiBrain Salad Surgery came during the time when there were major innovations in technology and recording process. The band deployed these on their prior album Tarkus, but found the songs difficult to recreate in their live shows. For the new album, they ensured all tracks could be played live by the band before going into the studio. The resulting concerts benefited tremendously from this foresight, as the band was able to deliver precise yet energetic renditions of each track with flights of improvisation as well.

ELP_EmersonSpin_72dpiThe tour started in America in late 1973, and represented the most complex stage, sound and lighting system of that time, including quadraphonic sound, and for some of the dates, a “flying piano” setup that allowed Emerson to appear to be playing a grand piano while spinning head over heels in 360 degree loops. Not to be outdone, Palmer’s massive drum riser weighed almost 1.5 tons, including a revolving platform, church bell and gongs. The 1974 three LP set, Welcome Back My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends – Ladies and Gentlemen was produced from the band’s February 1974 shows in Anaheim, California, and is one of the best selling triple-album sets of all time.

 

ELP_DVD_Cover_72dpiThe DVD Beyond The Beginning (2005) contains a documentary of ELP, but more importantly includes the best available concert film of the band at this pivotal time. The 44-minute picture was taken at their last stop on the American tour, headlining at California Jam, playing for over 200,000 people. The professional color film is a top quality production for its time, featuring lengthy close-ups of fingers, sticks and picks, capturing the virtuosity of each band member.

The set list begins with Palmer and his synthesized drums playing the solo in “Toccata” after which we are treated to two of Lake’s ballads, “Still… You Turn Me On” and “Lucky Man.” Emerson’s astounding “Piano Improvisations” follow and they are caught in detail, along with the first segment of “Take A Pebble”. The real treat follows, an almost note-perfect live rendition of the 1st and 3rd impressions of the “Karn Evil 9” suite which includes a lengthy Palmer drum solo, highlighting his rotating drum riser, followed by Lake’s powerful vocals, Emerson’s polyphonic Moog leads, and the simulated destruction of the villainous computer. The film concludes with “Great Gates of Kiev” during which Emerson deploys the spinning piano stagecraft, before the coda and fireworks.

ELP_LakeClose_72dpiThough on the balance this film is priceless, there remain a few quibbles. Most importantly, this DVD hosts an incomplete edit of the concert, as originally edited before being broadcast on ABC television. Opening songs “Hoedown” and “Jerusalem” are cut as is “Tarkus” which followed “Toccata” in the set list, and “Karn Evil 9″ 1st impression part 1, and all of the 2nd impression. Additionally there are a few instances where songs are truncated, such as “Toccata” and “Take A Pebble.” As to the camerawork, the only inadequate scenes are distant shots meant to capture the full band across the large stage, as these are grainy and unfocused. Otherwise, the edits are well timed and camera angles are expertly planned, yielding brilliant shots of each musician in action. As to the performance, Emerson and Lake visibly and rather annoyingly chew gum throughout the evening, but otherwise these artists play with precision, enthusiasm, and aplomb. Lake for one claimed in a recent interview that those shows were never be surpassed for their emotional intensity and capacity to impact the audience, and this reviewer agrees. For those who missed it, this film remains the best way to capture this most impressive moment in in ELP’s history.