Madonna on Ice

Madonna_MaterialOn October 19, 2015 the ice lay mainly beneath the stage, as Madonna brought her multi-media extravaganza to the San Jose arena, normally the home of our local ice hockey team. The tour is in support of the recent leak/release of the album Rebel Heart. That record is one of Madonna’s best since 1998’s Ray of Light, with over two-dozen songs that cross genres, from dance tracks to ballads, delivered with some of strongest most resonant vocals on record. Sample “Unapologetic Bitch,” a supremely catchy dis on a former lover, or “Ghosttown,” one of her best love songs of recent years. The title track possibly offers a glimpse into Madonna herself:

So I took the road less travelled by
And I barely made it out alive
Through the darkness somehow I survived
Tough love – I knew it from the start
Deep down in my rebel heart

This followed by “Beautiful Scars” seem to cap a record that represents this artist with work that invites the listener to take her as a whole person, scars or not.

Madonna_SpanishThe show’s set list predictably favored the new release with nine selections, along with twelve songs spanning as many prior releases. On one end of the spectrum, new track “Devil’s Pray” reflected on the evils of drug addition, while “Body Shop” was a sexy play on words, set against a backdrop of the titular auto repair set. For those looking to hear some of the 80’s work, “Burning Up,” “True Blue” – a sing-along with our host on ukulele, and encore “Holiday” served up some fulfilling dance-pop. The best was “La Isla Bonita,” accompanied with flamingo guitar, everyone adorned in traditional Spanish attire. Other early tracks were made part of medleys, and changed radically from their original versions, which reduces their impact a bit, while still touching on special memories. Best surprise of the night for us was the inclusion of the ballad “Frozen” from Ray of Light, one of those tracks that displays Madonna’s vocal range and the depth and impact of her lyrics.

Madonna_Fisheye

The staging on this tour was, as usual, expansive and bold. The stage extended from one end of the arena to the other via cross-shaped catwalk. Set pieces included the grand entrance via descending cage surrounded by exotic warriors, the aforementioned auto shop set, and a huge table set resembling that of the last supper. These shows are akin to Las Vegas productions, much like veteran diva Cher, complete with hi-def video, large band, dancers, and lots of props and production value. One nit, the video screen configuration and content, as well as the dance troupe and choreography was impressive, but not on par with prior tours such as the shows supporting 2008’s Hard Candy.

 

Madonna_supper

Should we expect someone of Madonna’s fame, in the middle of this kind of massively produced multi-media event to express deep thoughts or very personal sentiments? If so, that’s something missing in this show between the lights, videos, dancers, and stagecraft. Other artists like Pink have walked this tightrope, allowing for what seem like personal moments, time to express something honest from the heart. For others it seems like years of massive press coverage, paparazzi, and prying eyes build a wall of protection, and a veneer of attitude and quips triumphs. It would be reasonable to assume Madonna could be affected in this way and at times during the two-hour spectacle it seemed Madonna_Danceso. Nonetheless, at one point she gave a shout out to a few fans that had followed the tour from city to city, and there was a simple moment of grace and vulnerability when she danced alone and at length, traversing the long catwalk to the hit “Music.” And, during one interlude, after a fan near the stage expressed his adoration, her retort was one of humility, something akin to “Oh you want me, you don’t know what you’re asking for!” Other than those moments, what’s missing from these shows are more opportunities for Madonna to go off script, chances to hear her reflect on the origins of a song, or more broadly her life and depth of experience surviving a career that’s spanned more than thirty years. Without it, the show is a display of attitude, of titillation with less intimacy, but probably what we should expect to be fair, given the scale of the presentation, and this star’s massive popularity.

Recently during an interview with radio personality Howard Stern, we did get to spend time with the person, more than the persona, and it made for riveting listening. At one point, after Howard asked how long she could keep this up, Madonna said that she intends to forge ahead, that eventually she wants to do some unadorned acoustic gigs, at smaller clubs, to be closer to audiences. It’s clear she wants to connect, and fans will be the better for it, as we certainly admire M’s drive, her strength, flaunting social conventions, and pushing boundaries. We will be back for that show, but in the meantime, as to any quibbles, Madonna says it best:

I think you’re confusing me with somebody else
I won’t apologize for being myself

Madonna_holiday

Martin Barre’s Real Steel

Barre_BTS_CoverMartin Barre is the legendary guitarist who graced every Jethro Tull album after the very first, beginning in 1969. He’s been building an increasingly successful solo career for years now, and has a new album this month, appropriately titled Back To Steel. The album is a return to form for Barre, a finely honed collection of guitar-driven blues-rock. Two Tull tracks, “Skating Away” and “Slow Marching Band” are re-imagined – the former highlighting Martin’s intricate melodies on the mandolin backed by his lyrical fat guitar chords. Even better, Martin leads his band through powerful new original tracks, which highlight his unique style of blues and hard-edged rock chops. It’s available in the shop on his official website.

After a few recent dates in the U.K. Barre continues this year’s tour with several gigs in France and Germany, followed by a series of nights on the east coast of the U.S., beginning with a voyage on Cruise To The Edge in November. Check here for dates and tickets.

Barre_Mandolin

I had a rare chance to talk to Martin this month about his excellent new album and tour:

Martin, how has your band and approach changed on the new album Back To Steel?

I’ve had my own band for 4 years now, and it’s changed here and there, and developed into the current four-piece band. Occasionally we have backup singers join us. When we go out as a four piece it’s sounding really powerful. I like the space and the dynamics. The new album is pretty well summing up what I’ve been trying to do for four years, writing my own music – a little blues, prog and rock music – its really a statement of where I’m at in the moment and a pointer to where I want to be in the next few years.

The set list for the last tour included covers of Bobby Parker, Beatles, Robert Johnson, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf songs along with Jethro Tull classics. How will the set list differ in your upcoming shows?

The set list is changing as the new album is just coming out. We’ve been playing the new tracks here in the U.K. and they are going down well. It’s a good feeling, because audiences haven’t heard the new album and are coming in cold, and we’re getting a great reaction. I still like doing some Bobby Parker stuff and some Robert Johnson and I enjoy playing them. We have more music to play then we have time to do – if the venue says we have an hour and a half, we are disappointed, as we want to do at least two hours. I struggle with decisions as what not to play rather than the other way around.

Barre_FocusedHow do you pick the Tull tunes for this show? Do you still feel that songs like “Aqualung” or “Locomotive Breath” are musts?

We have probably ten Tull tracks, a good selection, that we like to do. When we played in Scotland last weekend, it was the first time with my band. We started playing “To Cry You A Song” and there was a gasp in the audience, not of horror but of anticipation – it was really nice, as they had no idea what was coming. It’s really good fun to play the Tull stuff.

I do have my favorites but I pick things I think will work well with the band and our sound, our current program. I probably have Tull songs I like better, but wouldn’t work with the band. There are some really great songs that are less well known. That’s why I play “Slow Marching Band” for instance on the new album. Back in the day with Tull, I wrote out the playlist for the concerts. But later with Ian’s new vocal range my input diminished. I like arranging set lists with production ideas – everything to do with the band. Now I’m able to do that and have lots of ideas – I’ve got a big catalog to draw from. I’m less interested in a verbatim version of any song – I like to project something new – a different arrangement. On “Sweet Dream” for instance I changed the riff to the downbeat. I like doing that, making it more biased to a guitar quartet.

Where did you find your excellent vocalist Dan Crisp? He sounds just right for this music, with a nice vibrato and strong mid range register.

He’s a little treasure, our Dan. He’s the son of a friend of mine. We became friends, based on our mutual like of music. We did some shows as a three piece in the south of England and it was really good fun. It developed from there. He was so close to home but at first I didn’t see it. I finally suggested bringing him on and it was the start of a really great period in the band. He’s developed into a very strong front man – really come into his own.

Barre_GuitarOn Back To Steel, there are no keyboards or wind instruments – will these be added for the tour?

We are trying out different things. The original band had six members, including flutes, saxophones, and whistles. It was an intense amount of music put out by the band – really at the end of it I didn’t have enough room, and I really like space in the music – times when there is nothing going on – maybe just one instrument. So I’m taking it down to the basic bones. I tried it live and on the first night it felt ridiculously empty, but by the end second gig it was great – it was exactly what I wanted.

I quite like the idea of adding back the Hammond organ at some point. I want it to be flexible and exciting for the band.

What is your take on the Steven Wilson re-masters of the Jethro Tull albums?

This might shock you, but I haven’t heard anything from these releases. These albums are a reference for me. If I were looking to add “Back Door Angels” to my set list for instance I would probably just listen to that song a couple of times as a reference musically. For most of my life I was with involved in Jethro Tull and I respect it and I owe a lot to it, but its not music that I am playing recreationally. If I were going to see new music on my time off, I’d see Snarky Puppy!

Barre_CTTE

Any update on the tour and your upcoming date with Cruise to the Edge?

I’m really looking forward to Cruise To The Edge – that’s going to be quite fun. We have a series of dates planned on the east coast of the U.S. after the cruise. The plan is to do central and west coast dates in the states next year if all goes to plan.

Catch Martin Barre at one of these upcoming shows – given the mix of new songs, and Tull classics, delivered by his crack new band, they promise to be excellent!

On a personal note:

I’ve had a life long passion for all things Jethro Tull. This superb band, led by Anderson/Barre, released 20ish studio albums over 30 years after forming in the late 1960’s, beginning with This Was in 1969 and ending with J-Tull Dot Com in 1999. These along with a number of collections, live albums, and a Christmas album from 2003 represent one of the great catalogs in rock music history.

One of the first two proper rock albums I ever owned was Tull’s breakthrough record Aqualung. Not only did the album sport amazing vocals, acoustic guitars and flute from Anderson, but also Barre’s searing hard rock riffs dominated most songs. The opening chords alone are instantly recognizable, establishing the album as one of the top classic rock album for the ages.

Barre_ActionMy interest in Tull reached a fever pitch in 1973 when they released the album A Passion Play, followed by 1974’s Warchild. The musicianship on these records is off the hook. Anderson’s vocals were never better – something he recently called “chamber rock” style – and Barre laid down some of the most complex lead guitar work on record. The tour for A Passion Play was one of Tull’s most theatrical. The show began with an extended “Lifebeats” prelude – a long series of electronic beats like the quickening pulse of a heart, along with films depicting a ballerina rising then later plunging through a mirror. The interlude, “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” was presented with a surrealistic film featuring animal costumes, and a type of maypole dance. Both Anderson and Barre punctuated the intricate music by leaping about the stage demonstrating showmanship and aplomb. During our interview Martin confided that he probably only played the ever-changing piece all the way through without mistake once over the long tour that followed.

In interviews, there has been some distancing from this album, noting the critics were critical, and the band probably went too far. Barre told me there was quite a bit of humor, with many references to the type of silly comedy made popular by Monty Python. But for fans of this artistic piece, the composition is one of their most serious and enduring works, questioning nothing less than the nature of death and the afterlife, of heaven and hell. “Geared toward the exceptional rather than the average” as Gerald would say.

Even though Tull has been retired by Anderson, it’s a pleasure now to be able to go hear Martin playing a combination of his own material and that of his former band, and we are all the better for it.

Back To Steel: A rocking new album from Martin Barre featuring 12 original songs and 2 Tull classic tracks re-worked in Martin’s unique style.

The musicians:

Martin Barre – Guitars
Dan Crisp – Vocals
George Lindsay – Drums
Alan Thomson – Bass
Alex Hart and Elani Andrea – Backing Vocals
Plus guests.

Track List:

Back to Steel
It’s Getting Better
I’m A Bad Man
Skating Away
Chasing Shadows
Hammer
You And I
Moment Of Madness
Calafel
Eleanor Rigby
Peace And Quiet
Sea Of Vanity
Smokestack
Without Me
Slow Marching Band

Gilmour Returns to the Royal Albert Hall

Gilmour_AdDavid Gilmour, famed guitar player and vocalist of Pink Floyd fame staged a short tour supporting his new solo album Rattle That Lock visiting several venues in Europe and the U.K. this fall. We caught one of several dates booked at the Royal Albert Hall on 2nd October 2015. It was a lovely evening featuring a nearly equal number of selections from Gilmour’s solo and Floyd output.

Gilmour_AcousticGilmour recently announced the demise of Pink Floyd as the release of his new solo album drew near. The final record under the Floyd banner, The Endless River, out just last year, brought together jams and song ideas that originated during development of the last proper album, 1993’s The Division Bell. The overwhelming impression I got from interviews and press around this project was that it was exhausting, and it made sense that Gilmour later announced the end of the band. Despite this epitaph, it was expected that he would include songs from the Floyd, and there were quite a number of these in the set list, including “Astronomy Domine,” “Fat Old Sun,” “Money,” “Us and Them,” “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” “Wish You Were Here” and closers “Run Like Hell,” and “Comfortably Numb” from their early catalog. In addition, “Sorrow” from A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and “High Hopes” and “Coming Back to Life” from The Division Bell, rounded out the later Floyd material.

During the encore, “Time” and “Breathe (reprise)” from Dark Side Of The Moon called to mind dear departed Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright and the lyrics he delivered so perfectly during Gilmour’s prior tour, supporting On An Island. Somehow it seems so long ago:

Every year is getting shorter; never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.

Gilmour_Time

The recent recording Rattle That Lock is packed with music rooted in blues-rock, with a mix of genres sprinkled in, as it was with Gilmour’s last solo outing, On An Island. Despite a rather listless title track, there is much to admire in this work, from jazz-club riffs to haunting slow-hand blues. The best of the new songs came off nicely live. The first three tracks opened the show, followed later by four additional songs “A Boat Lies Waiting,” “In Any Tongue,” “The Girl in the Yellow Dress,” and “Today.” All things considered, a nicely drawn set list of solo and Floyd gems.

As to staging, the psychedelic lighting, stage level and follow spots, and the huge round screen, were again spectacular. A few classic Floyd videos were presented onscreen, and new films for tracks “Rattle That Lock,” and “The Girl In The Yellow Dress” the latter directed by David Madden, were fantastic. For that one, Gilmour suggested we all imagine ourselves at a French café; a fitting image for this jazzy piece and it’s animated imagery. The Royal Albert Hall was long ago the venue for a summer evening concert from Pink Floyd in 1969. During that show, a powerful smoke bomb ended the concert, resulting in a lifetime ban from the hall. Lifted only eight months later, it was a short-term bit of notoriety for the Floyd. The lighting, films, lasers and vapors were present again for Gilmour this time, sans explosions. It was a feast for the eyes and for the proggy-blues fan in all of us.

Gilmour_BandGilmour delivered his typical searing guitar solos expertly and his voice was in good form, with plenty of gravel when needed, but still able to deliver smooth soft tones. His band, mostly returning from the last tour, was professional and tight. Musicians included returning band members, guitarist Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music fame, Jon Carin on keys, guitars, and vocals, Guy Pratt on bass and vocals, and Steve DiStanislao on drums. Joining this time was Kevin McAlea on keys, and Joao De Macedo Mello who supplied expressive winds (Theo Travis played same on the European leg.) Bryan Chambers and Louise Clare Marshall covered backing vocals.

It’s hard to pin down, but something seemed a bit off in the show this time. It feels wrong to blame it on Gilmour’s stage presence, being that he has always been a bit stoic live, rooted in position about his pedals and microphone, eyes often closed. So possibly it was the ordering of the set list, the large number of down-tempo songs, the lack of guest performers, or the mood of the musicians on this particular night, but the whole lacked energy. Having David Crosby and Graham Nash present to sing harmonies on two of Gilmour’s best two solo tracks “On An Island” and “The Blue” was special and poignant on the last tour, and they were present on September 23rd, but not for our show. The last tour also saw visits from Robert Wyatt and David Bowie but no one other than Crosby/Nash appeared this time. And obviously, the absence of Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright was felt. Maybe what we witnessed was actually a bit of serenity from a man who has broken a few of his own chains, free of past encumbrances, owing nothing to anyone, and living in the moment.

Gilmour_Run

In retrospect, any chance to see this legendary musician is an event, given his continuing stature as one of rock’s greatest guitarists. The tour continues next year where we will catch one of three nights at the Hollywood Bowl – recommended to any fan, particularly as these solo shows are few and far between. Get yourself a ticket and go before the time is gone, and the song over.

Steven Wilson – A Special Night at The Royal Albert Hall

Wilson_RAH_ExteriorSteven Wilson staged two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall on the 28th and 29th of September, 2015. This is the second time I’ve seen him on this tour – the first being earlier this year in San Francisco. That fantastic show, in support of his latest Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015), was very similar to the first night of his two night stop at the RAH. Nearly all of the new work was performed, a concept album that fictionalizes the tragic true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a young woman found dead in her London apartment, undiscovered and not missed by anyone for over two years. The subject matter anchored an evening of dramatic, inspirational and at times emotionally overwhelming musical theater.

Wilson_RAH1

We caught the second night at the hall. Given many in the audience had been to the first show, Wilson prepared a new set list that included just a few from Hand. Cannot Erase., instead focusing on earlier solo tracks and many Porcupine Tree songs. After a strong opener “No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun” from 2009’s Insurgentes, Wilson intoned, tongue firmly in cheek, “Tonight is a very different show – for those of you who were not here last night, you don’t know what you missed. It was awesome. Tonight we are going to be doing stuff that we don’t know how to play very well.” The band then played a masterful version of “Shesmovedon,” a Porcupine Tree song from 2000’s Lightbulb Sun. Next, he noted that audience members who were present on the prior night would not mind if he brought out the first guest, Ninet Tayeb, to sing the devastating, beautiful lead vocal on “Routine,” from HCE, a show stopping moment that was greeted with rapturous applause. Her vocal was flawless and highly emotive, illuminating the accompanying stop motion animated video of the song’s lonely, heartbroken protagonist. Next up were two more Porcupine Tree songs, “Open Car” the spectacular riff-driven track from 2005’s Deadwing, and “Don’t Hate Me” from 1999’s Stupid Dream by which time it was clear we were being treated to a very unique concert.

Wilson_RAH_NTayeb

Now mid way through the show, Wilson mentioned there had been rumors that he would be bringing out some “so-called” veteran players, but that instead, “these two shows are very much a celebration of my generation of musicians.” At this, he introduced the next guest, his sometime live and studio guitarist Guthrie Govan, who took on leads for the next three songs “Home Invasion,” “Regret #9,” and “Drive Home” the only track on this evening from his fantastic album The Raven Who Refused To Sing. This song included a projection of director Jess Cope’s haunting artistic video clip featuring it’s sorrowful lead character cleverly rendered by newspaper clippings, illustrating it’s message:

Release all your guilt and breathe
Give up your pain
Hold up your head again
Drive home

Wilson_RAH2

Before launching in, Wilson brought out winds player Theo Travis, who he joked, had to be secreted-away from David Gilmour. Theo played beautifully on this, and the following four tracks that ended the main set. In a surprise move, these were all from earlier Wilson solo albums. Three of these songs “Sectarian,” “No Part of Me,” and “Raider II” were from 2011’s Grace for Drowning with the forth being the title track from 2009’s Insurgentes. Two encores followed, all Porcupine Tree songs. After the first, “Dark Matter,” Wilson came back onstage with Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison for “Lazarus” and “The Sound of Muzak.” Harrison delivered his brand of deft percussion rich with fine work on symbols and, as would be expected, the crowd went wild. The guests and song selections were aimed perfectly at pleasing these dedicated fans, so many which were present for both nights, for very different shows.

Wilson 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 projected on a stunning high definition screen. As with earlier shows in the tour, the lighting techniques were clever and colorful. Sound was crisp and clear, reproduced by the top-notch audio system, which sounded amazing in the acoustic-friendly Royal Albert Hall. Even with all the finery, the primary focus remained on the band members and guest musicians demonstrating their virtuosic skills throughout. From the touring band 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 and vocal harmonies from Nick Beggs on basses, paired with skilled drummer Craig Blundell. Though he claimed to be a bit worn from the two long performances, Steven delivered his poetic lyrics throughout in fine voice, alternating skillfully between guitar, bass, keys and samples. He displayed his wit and thoughtfulness between tracks as lead raconteur. These elements combined to make up a masterful core set, and a special night for his fans. Wilson remains at the top of the list of artists I’ve seen over these now forty years with his accomplished, expressive body of work and ability to so expressively present it all live in concert. It was all well worth the trip across the “pond!”

 

(photo of Ninet Tayeb used by kind permission of Camila Jurado Photography 2015)

Mew at The Fillmore

Mew_1Danish alternative rock band Mew, hailing from Copenhagen retuned to San Francisco last week at the Fillmore Auditorium. It was their first time staging a headlining tour in the Americas in 6 years, supporting their new release +- (plus-minus). The venue was packed with an equal share of loyal fans and many newcomers, drawn to the band on the strength of the recent album. They opened the show with powerful new track “Witness” followed by “Satellites” the lead single from +-, a bit of breezy pop featuring shimmering keys, arpeggios on electric guitars, driving backbeat and soaring, ethereal lead vocals by Jonas Bjerre, the clear focal point of this acclaimed band. Sometimes when a group leads off with their top single it demonstrates a confidence in their set list, and this was the case with Mew, as they ran through six new songs, and ten from their prior releases, delivering an assured, magnificent concert.

Mew_3

Mew actually dates back to 1994, with six albums now in their catalog. The band for this tour includes Jonas Bjerre (vocals, keyboards), John Wohlert (bass, backing vocals), Silas Utke Graae Jorgensen (drums) and touring musicians Mads Wegner (guitars, replacing recently departed member Bo Madsen) and Nick Watts (keyboards). The band play relatively loud, rarely using dynamics to bring the sound down to highlight Bjerre’s amazing voice, in the way that for instance The National has done on their last tour. Also, for this tour, the band put some effort into some unique lighting and original video clips created by Bjerre. Unfortunately on this night at the Fillmore, these were not used, replaced instead by relatively simple back lighting. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles, as the band was energetic, and in top form, driving their blend of proggy indie rock to stadium level dynamics, best exemplified by rocker “My Complications” from +-. A highlight in the setlist for this patron was the second single from that same album, “Water Slides” which has one of the catchiest choruses in recent memory:

For such a long time I didn’t know if I’d find you
Say stop, made up, lying on the bathroom floor
(ah ah ah ah ah ah ah)

Mew_2This one put me in mind of dreamy 80’s artists Cocteau Twins, and some of their more accessible songs from Heaven Or Las Vegas. In fact, during a recent interview with vocalist Bjerre, he states that his parents listened to a lot of Eurythmics, Kate Bush, and other pop from the ‘80’s but that alterative-rock artists like Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and others stoked the flame and brought them together back in 1994. In addition to these bands, he says “all those ‘80s pop influences, and the sense of storytelling those bands had, kind of sneaked slowly into our sound.” It’s hard to classify Mew, not that it’s necessary, as fans modern rock of any type should check out their fantastic new album and if you can, their current tour.

Mew_Dodos
The Dodo’s

By the way, The Dodos opened for Mew, delivering a blistering set that featured drummer Logan Kroeber’s unique style of playing. This talented percussionist uses almost no symbols, but plenty of precise, rolling toms, and lots of rim shots. Metric Long accompanies with lead vocals and guitar, favoring a frenetic finger picking style, and rapid-fire leads that are fitting to his name! Will definitely be checking out a headlining show from these creative indie rockers.

Mew_Fillmore_Poster